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The Heart of Snow: A Reign of Winter Journal


Campaign Journals


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WTB Less Lame title. :P

Anyway, as advertised, this will be a chronicle of our Reign of Winter campaign, which I am co-GMing with the GM of our mostly defunct Runelords campaign. Since nobody felt like GMing(I would have taken full duties if it had been anything but RoW, but I've have my char planned for this since this AP came out), we agreed that two of us would split the job so we could each play as well, which isn't optimal but we think we can make it work. At least this time we have another player so no one has to run multiple characters.

I'll be posting a journal from my character's perspective for sure. Our new player has expressed interest in keeping a journal as well, and may be posting them(or having me post them for him).

The Characters
++Terry(Gunslinger) - A man of middle age or so who was working for a criminal organization until things went south and his boss decided to punish him. His wife and daughter were both brutally murdered, but he was spared. If you can call being trapped in the body of your dead daughter spared. Now, this hardened veteran finds himself in the body of a 12 year old girl, hounded by a dwarf he just can't get rid of.

Surprisingly, the player is only one at the table who hasn't seen The Saga of Tanya the Evil. This is the person who may be posting additional journals.

++Burin(Wizard heading toward Dragon Disciple) - The dwarf Terry just can't get away from. Literally. They're bound together via some timey-wimey stuff. With a voice like Disney's Goofy, a penchant for front-lining(he casts the level 1 fighter spell "Axe" a lot) and some textbook demonic possession and dragon blood, this will certainly be exactly the kind of character we expected out of this player. Has extremely white hair and pale blue eyes(<maniacal cackling>) due to his connection to an ancient white dragon(seriously, he's accidentally handed us so very many campaign ties to his story it's not even funny) his ancestor tried to slay.

Said player is also the player of Lenn and Geo from our last campaign. If you came here from that journal, then you likely know all you need to about Burin.

++Gregor(Winding Path Renegade/Shield Champion Brawler) - The last surviving disciple(or is he? <maniacal cackling>) of a martial arts school on the border of Irrisen, he's out seeking challenges so he can become stronger. Looking for "The Man Who Would Not Die", the one who killed his master and fellow pupils and stole the relic they were guarding. He wears a bladed shield as a hat and a green monk's robe. May or may not be crazy, as he occasionally talks to "The God of Martial Arts", who may or may not be there.

Player is my co-GM and the GM of the Runelords campaign.

++Lyriana(Void Touched Blood Arcanist blaster) - Nineteen year old young woman who grew up in the lap of luxury, but always yearned for adventure and to be allowed to get a magic license. Her life changed forever when, while defending herself from an attack, she manifested a spontaneous magic gift and became the first sorceress born on Earth in perhaps a thousand years. Then she discovered that her mother was from another world and her father was secretly the powerful wizard she'd grown up admiring. She decides the randomness of sorcery isn't what she wants and trains to control her blood. Brought to Golarion when she's old enough so she could go on the adventure she craved.

Lyriana is my character for this campaign.

House Rules and Scenario customization
-The party starts with what is basically a transmutation-replicator. It can make them any magic item from UE, any item from the Technology Guide and certain other custom items from the Runelords campaign. It runs off of gold and can turn any item of value into gold at a rate equivalent to that one could get from a shopkeeper, though some items may be more or less valuable due to unique traits or curses.

-Each party member has a unique trait customized to them(these are moderately to very powerful). Effectively works like this, though generally more complex:
+Terry may act in all surprise rounds and gets an initiative bonus
+Burin may enlarge a number of times per day(as Enlarge Person). Uses Con instead of Cha for the purposes of qualifying for Eldritch Heritage
+Gregor gets to use Dimension Door as a supernatural ability, though with some limitations.
+Lyriana has a cell phone with a wiki-like app on it. Functions like a portable library that requires multiple minutes to search depending on topic.

-Golarion has some interesting changes on account of the results of previous campaigns. Also, the beginner box is a semi-stable time loop that has happened repeatedly. Also also, the current date on Earth does not match canon.

Spoiler:
This means time travel will be a thing.

-Our Bag of Handwaving rule is in effect. Everyone has a single magic bag that functions as a way to not have to worry about keeping track of weight beyond worn equipment unless you go overboard enough that the GM has to tell you that you're being ridiculous. Also, any attempts to weaponize said bag destroys your bag and you're stuck carrying all your stuff.

Chagrin
And, of course I would spend all this time writing this and realize that I failed to copy over the folder with the chapters thus far onto my USB stick(in my defense, I was also trying to finish a report at work at the same time :P). I will begin the actual postings tomorrow morning. Oops.


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This should be interesting.

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

Well, I guess we know that Kyle and Aurora defeat Karzoug and head back to Earth now...


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Orrrrr ... they were the only escapees from a near-TPK and said "I know, let's go where there's almost no magic!"


Lyriana's gonna get nasty when she picks up battering blast and starts smashing everything to giblets. :)


Misroi wrote:
Well, I guess we know that Kyle and Aurora defeat Karzoug and head back to Earth now...

This occurs in a dimension where they do. Still have some sessions lacking rolls, so no guarantees that said dimension is American Wizard Prime or a parallel.


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Poldaran wrote:
Still have some sessions lacking rolls, so no guarantees that said dimension is American Wizard Prime or a parallel.

That said, it probably is the Prime universe. Odds are extremely good they're gonna make it. The characters are broken as hell at this point.

And on to the posting. I forgot my USB stick at home(because of course I did), but that made me decide to just upload it to my Google Drive. It takes me about 15-20 minutes to format and post each chapter, but I'm not going to be formatting Lyriana's backstory or "The Sandpoint Incident", a report by the Rangers on the events of the Beginner's Box in which Terry and Burin meet each other.

I'll just link them.
Lyriana O'Halloran - Contains epilogue spoilers to Runelords if the party survives Big K.
The Sandpoint Incident


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The Calm Before the Storm

Spoiler:
Daddy once told me that the universe had a sense of humor and loves to make us look silly. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that less than a day after writing that “It’s not like you find the beginnings of an adventure just lying in the middle of the road, right?” we found someone collapsed in the middle of the road.

But I was. I was incredibly surprised. Especially when we realized she was a young girl, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old. She was covered in Lichtenburg figures, a sure sign she had been struck by lightning. In her hands she was tightly clutching the broken remains of a gun, either a musket or a rudimentary rifle if I had to guess. It looked like the thing had exploded when the lightning struck her. She had a number of shrapnel wounds that agreed with that assessment.

We were only a few miles from Heldren, so we decided to move her there. I knew our office would have at least moderate first aid supplies, even if the village healer wasn’t any help. But there was something I could do now. I drew out a magic wand I had been given for taking this mission and used it on her, bolstering her natural healing to supernatural levels.

While I was tending to her, the wagon master called out that he had found someone else in the bushes just down the road. This time it was a dwarf. I don’t know much about dwarves, but he looked fairly young. He had been clawed up as well as having some lighter Lichtenburg figures. “A dragon?” I asked Iyago, one of the Voidstrife Cartel agents traveling with me.

“It seems likely. Palatine! Keep an eye on the skies. We may have a dragon nearby.” The other agent, a silent man who wielded a big crossbow, grunted his understanding.

We carefully loaded him into the wagon next to the girl, where I touched him with the wand as well. They both looked like they would make it, thankfully, but their wounds would still need some tending. I was also thinking that I should mend their clothing when we made it to town, since I had a spell for that. I could also repair the damage to the axe the dwarf had been tightly clutching, though the girl’s gun was missing too many pieces for me to be able to deal with.

The Voidstrife factor in the village, Giovanni, came out to meet us. When we told him, he sent immediately for the village healer, a dwarven barber by the name of Argus Goldtooth. I almost sent him away as soon as he pulled out the jar of leeches, but Giovanni got him under control and put him to removing the shrapnel, then we relied on my magic wand to deal with the wounds left by the surgery and put the two of them in rooms usually used by members of passing caravans during stopovers.

Iyago and Palatine ditched me while I was working on that and rode ahead to meet up with the caravan. Jerks. Well, Iyago just threw out any progress he’d made flirting with me the whole way over. A pity. He’s kinda cute.

I spent some time chatting with Giovanni, since it would have been foolish to run off after the a@%+~$#s who had left me behind. Whatever had attacked the caravans was still out there. A lone woman would be a target.

“Could it be local bandits?” I asked him, trying to find information about the caravan attacks.

“Unlikely. We pay the local bandits to leave the caravans alone. It’s cheaper than dealing with them, and they warn us if anything else dangerous enters the area. Thus far, they haven’t seen what’s attacking us.”

“We pay them off?”

“Your father’s idea. It’s in our standard procedures. ‘When possible, turn liabilities into assets.’ They get paid without risk, we get low cost sentries. We still hire guards, of course, but it’s nice to have redundancies.”

“Wow, that’s not bad. Any other possibilities?”

“Well, it could always be Qadirans. That’s what the locals suspect. Then again, they suspect Qadirans for everything. We’ve had a bit of a cold snap over the last few days and the first thing anyone came up with was, ‘Must be Qadirans.’”

I laughed. “You’re joking.”

“I swear it. Silly yokels. Still, the cold is a bit of an issue. Some crop damage has occurred. And it’s driving people crazy. One loony even says he spotted a giant white weasel in the woods.”

“Maybe that’s what’s attacking the caravans.”

“Well, it’s possible, though I doubt that would give our guards much trouble. The villagers who don’t think it’s Qadirans attacking us suggest it could be the beast they call ‘The Wise King of the Forest’.”

“The what?”

“Wise King of the Forest. No idea what it is. Apparently it’s big enough to kill sheep and cows, though. The mayor put a bounty on it if you’re interested.”

That could be fun. “I think I’ll take a look around the village, stretch my legs for a bit. Let me know if our guests wake up.”

“Try not to spook the villagers too much. You’ll be only the second noblewoman this village has seen in years.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Lady Argentea Malassene traveled past on her way from Oppara to Zimar to meet her betrothed a couple weeks ago. They talked about it for days and she didn’t even stop here. They’ll probably be talking about you for years.”

“I’ll try to give them something interesting to talk about, then,” I replied impishly.

Not that there was anything worth doing in the tiny village. I ended up playing some kind of ball game with a few kids. Then I amazed them with some simple magic. Afterward, one of the kid’s mothers had me over for dinner. It was a pretty simple stew of potatoes, carrots and turnips, but they shared it warmly.

I learned that the villagers loved the presence of the Voidstrife office, apparently. We had dug the village a new well and the trade our office brought had really helped out everyone. And Giovanni’s kindness had done a lot to ingratiate us.

After dinner, I returned to our building and rested in the room Giovanni had set up for me. It was a fairly simple room, but much better than some of the inns I’d stopped in. No bar wenches, though. Worst part of villages is the lack of decent wenches. Occasionally some good looking farm boys, though.

I woke up and went to check on the patients. They were both okay thus far, though neither had stirred. Nothing to do, I pulled out the prototype 3D Printer/Enchanter Daddy had given me. Apparently it was a more advanced version of one he was creating with Microsoft. He told me it was more or less a replicator from Star Trek, though I’ve never watched that show. It wasn’t very efficient, but it would do if my eventual adventuring party couldn’t find a proper crafter to make things for us.

Within the device was a micro-quantum computer housing a VI called Cortana as well as a micro-transmitter array that would work like a cell phone tower and allow me to contact anyone with a cell phone within range of a similar device – basically my parents, if they were on the planet, or Uncle Chadwick. I began booting it up, in case Giovanni wanted to use the device’s transmutation abilities while I was here and pulled out my phone to check for messages.

Nothing. Well, it was worth checking. I pulled up a chair, grabbed one of my books and sat in a sort of vigil over the girl. I had nothing better to do, after all. Stupid jerks. I’d kick both of them in the shin for leaving me behind.

Eventually, the girl awoke. “Who are you? Where am I?!” She seemed in a near panic.

“Relax,” I said soothingly. “You’re somewhere safe. This is the Voidstrife office in the village of Heldren in southern Taldor. We found you lying in the road. You looked like you’d been struck by lightning.”

“Where’s my stuff?”

“Your instrument case is over by the wall there. Unfortunately, your gun didn’t survive the lightning strike. Your clothes didn’t do too well either, but the damage wasn’t so bad I couldn’t mend it with some simple magic.”

“My gun is broken?”

“I left the pieces you were clutching by your bag. We didn’t find nearly enough to reconstruct. Sorry.”

She brushed her brunette hair out of her eyes and regarded me for a few moments with her hazel eyes. “Oh, okay. Thanks then. I’ll need to find a way to replace it.”

An idea hit. Not necessarily a good one. But I was still mad about being left behind. “Actually, I might be able to help you with that. What would you say to a trade?”

“What kind of trade?”

“I have a gun I could give you. In exchange, if you’re feeling up to it, I could use your support on my mission.” What? Adventurers start pretty young in Golarion. Kids start trying to apply to the Adventurer’s Guild in Magnimar as early as age ten. No, they’re not allowed to go on missions that young. But most nations consider people full adults as early as fifteen. So yeah. I was hiring a thirteen year old.

I never said it was a good plan. In fact, I’m pretty sure I said the opposite. Pay attention.

“What kind of mission?” she asked, either suspicious or curious. I couldn’t tell.

“I’m looking into some attacks on caravans. I had some helpers, but they ditched me and went ahead while I was tending to your wounds. So join me as I go check on the caravan. If it makes it through unmolested, you go on your way and keep the gun. If it gets attacked, help me track down whoever did so and bring them down, then you go on your way with the gun and the reward we’re offering for dealing with whoever is attacking us.”

“Let me see the gun.”

“Of course.” I pulled it out and handed it over. It was a work of art as much as a firearm, to be honest. There are wizards who use guns to project their spells and Daddy thought I might be interested in going that route. But learning to do that takes away time spent studying the magic itself. So I hadn’t bothered. I could shoot it. Mama made sure of that. But as a magic focus it was useless to me.

The girl’s eyes actually bulged as she inspected the rifle, running her fingers across its darkwood stock and mithral barrel. “I’ll need ammunition,” she said after several moments.

“Oh, right. One moment.” I reached into my magic bag and tossed her a bandolier. “That has thirty regular rounds and ten cold iron ones. The cold iron is marked with a blue base.”

“When do we leave?”

“Some time after the sun comes up. The caravan isn’t due until late tomorrow morning. If you need supplies, you can use that, um, magic box over there to turn valuables into gold and gold into supplies. The, uh, spirit who controls the box can tell you how to work it. And your clothes are over on that table. Shall I send someone with some food?”

“Yes. I’m starving.”

“Alright, will do. Right after I go check on the other person we found.”

“Other person?”

“Yeah, we found a dwarf in the bushes a hundred or so yards from you. He’d been clawed to heck.”

“Oh.”

I left her to her privacy and walked into the hallway, where the dwarf was standing. He had managed to locate his clothing and get dressed. His white hair and beard were a mess. “Oh! Mister Dwarf! You’re awake!”

“Where’s the little girl?! Is she safe?” His pale blue eyes gave me a pleading look.

So he was her guardian? “She’s in that room over there.”

“Let me check on her.”

“I think she’s changing. Best not to barge in. Give her a few minutes and then knock first.”

“Oh. Okay. But she’s alright?” He had the weirdest voice. Not at all what I’ve come to expect dealing with dwarves. It was high pitched and not gruff at all.

“She seems okay. She’s even agreed to help me out with looking into why caravans are disappearing. Would you be interested in helping as well?”

“Of course! I need to make sure the little girl is safe!”

“Cool. If you need supplies, there’s a magic box in that room where the girl is that can convert valuables to gold and gold to supplies, other than food. Just talk to the spirit that controls the box.”

He went over and knocked on the door. “Little girl, I’m coming in.”

“Boris?!” she called out, startled.

He opened the door and went inside. “I’m glad to see that you’re okay!”

“And of course you are too. Where’s the stupid one? I mean, the other stupid one. Not you.”

“I don’t rightly know. If they’re not here, they’re probably dead. It’s okay. People die. But we’re going to find your family.”

“Look. I’m not actually looking for my family. They’re dead. Mobsters killed them.” Mobsters?! “I’m looking for their killer so I can put a bullet in his head.”

“Oh, I see. I understand. Well, we have work to do in the morning. Let me get a look at this box.”

I heard some rustling. “Wait, that’s not your normal axe.”

“I think the sword we found turned into an axe. I’m gonna break it down into gold using this box and use that to buy supplies from the box.”

“Hey, uh, Boris. I mean, Burin. Look, we found that axe together. We should split the gold from it.”

“That does seem fair. We should also split the other loot we found. Where is it?”

There was a strangling noise, like he’d caught her off guard. “Um, I lost that.”

“Now why would you lie to me? We have to trust each other. I think I’ll just keep what this axe is worth and you keep what you’ve gathered in your case there. That seems fair.”

I was suddenly very aware that I’d been standing there eavesdropping. Time to creep away and talk to Giovanni about getting those two some food. Also, I made a mental note to set Cortana to ‘Adventure Party’ mode. She’d keep track of everything we fed to the box and split the value into accounts held by each member of the party. Daddy had put it in to make the math and bookkeeping easier, but if one of our party members was a bit greedy, it would help keep her honest. Wouldn’t help with gold pieces we found, but my parents tell me that the bulk of wealth we’d find would likely be magic items no one needed.

The next day we set out at around ten in the morning. The trip was uneventful, at least, until we found the caravan and realized we were too late to save it. Someone had attacked it, with signs of several dozen individuals moving and brief but fierce fighting. Strangely, there were only two corpses. Three if you counted the dead horse.

We discovered several arrows with black feathers on them. “Those are from a desert grouse,” Burin said.

A desert bird? “You’re sure?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m fairly certain.”

“Crap. It is Qadirans.”

“I don’t know much about them.”

“Qadira is a nation to the south of here. They’ve been rivals and enemies of Taldor for centuries. About twenty five years ago, a Qadiran army marched into Taldor and besieged Zimar. The short version is that a lone mercenary lieutenant managed to rally the Taldan forces trying to break the siege after things went bad, leading them to victory and driving out the Qadirans. Officially, it wasn’t a real war. It was the action of a single noble who put together his own army.

“In truth, everyone knows it was the work of the nation as a whole. But someone took the fall and the tenuous peace was maintained. Still, everyone’s on the lookout for Qadiran infiltrators.”

“An interesting story,” the girl, Terry, said. “But a lone mercenary rallying the army and driving the Qadirans back? Seems far-fetched.”

“It’s a matter of record. The bards still sing songs about it. Also, that mercenary is my mother, so I tend to believe her.”

During the awkward silence that ensued, we heard a rustling in the bushes near the road. “Come out, friend,” Burin called out. “We don’t want to hurt you, but we will if we have to.”

“You promise you won’t hurt me, milord?”

“You have my word, so long as you don’t do anything suspicious.”

A man in heavily worn and patched clothing came out of the bushes. “Thank you, milord. I promise I won’t do nothing. You can trust old Willem.”

Wait. Did he just say “Willem”? I pulled out my phone and opened the ‘Adventurer Wiki’ app Daddy had installed for me. “Huh. There’s an eighty-seven point six percent chance that he has information relevant to our quest.”

“What?” Terry asked. “How can you know that?”

“My parents were adventurers and helped found the guild. They’ve been keeping statistics. I quote, ‘If, during the course of your adventure, you run across a random person named Willem, pay attention. He has an eighty-seven point six percent chance of having useful, or possibly vital, information for you, even if he doesn’t know it.’”

Burin didn’t question it. “So, Mister Willem, do you know anything? Did you see the attack on the caravan?”

“No, milord. I only arrived sometime after the attack. I saw someone pulling himself out from under the dead horse. He ran off into the woods.” If Willem had said it, then it must mean we should follow that man. He would have further information, at least.

“Was he Qadiran?” I asked.

“No, milady. He was wearing some kind of green clothes.”

“If he saw the attack, he might be able to tell us more. Thank you, Willem. Anything else you know? And why were you hiding in the bushes?”

“I’m sorry, milady. I came across the caravan and thought that someone should pick up some of the valuables that were lying around. Then I heard you coming and figured it was either the people who did this or the law, and it looked bad, so I hid. You aren’t going to arrest me for looting, are you?”

“As long as you weren’t involved in the attack, I think we can let it slide. In fact, if you take the goods you find to Giovanni in Heldren, he’ll pay you a generous finder’s fee and you won’t be a looter, but a freelance salvager working for us.” It was a win-win for everyone. We’d recover goods we might not otherwise, Willem would make a decent amount of coin from his work and Giovanni would be able to learn what had happened here before I had a chance to return and tell him. Also, if not all of the goods made it to Giovanni, well, I really wasn’t all that concerned. It was people that concerned me, not material goods.

“Thank you, milady! I will!”

“While we’re at it,” I said to the other two. “If you want to grab a few valuables as well, go ahead. We’ll consider it part of your pay for helping me.” Oddly, most of the caravan’s valuables – spices were the big part, but they were also carrying other trade goods – were still there. What was missing was all the people, as well as food and traveling supplies.

I picked up some of the strewn about valuables as well – mostly silks. After all, I would need supplies to help people. Might as well grab a bit of loot when the opportunity arose. I mean, technically our people owned it, so it wasn’t really stealing. Not that I care what people think.

We followed the tracks from the horse into the woods and quickly realized that whoever had left them had been wandering in circles, likely hiding their tracks. “We should try to recruit this person,” Terry suggested. “If he survived the attack, his aid could be valuable.”

“Assuming we can find him,” I said, indicating the tracks.

“We already have one liar in the party,” Burin said. “What’s one more?”

And then he and Terry fought for a bit. Awkward. I wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. Really anywhere.

Eventually they stopped fighting and we picked a likely direction and headed off where we figured the survivor had headed. We didn’t see any signs of his passing, but I had a good feeling. At the very least, we were leaving the scene of the argument. Best to just put that behind us.

It didn’t take us long to find the man we were looking for. Despite his efforts to hide his tracks, he was making no effort to be stealthy. No, in fact, he seemed to be fighting an invisible opponent rather loudly. And, sure he was wearing green martial arts robes, which is helpful in hiding the forest. But not that color of green. That color was loud. Not tacky, mind you, but loud nonetheless.

Also, he was wearing a bladed hat. I think it might have been copper and steel. Either way, it was really weird. Even weirder than hunting down the people who had assaulted a caravan backed up by a dwarf and a thirteen year old with a gun.

“He definitely wasn’t involved in the attack on the caravan,” Terry whispered.

“How do you know?” Burin asked.

“His uniform. The people of his school wouldn’t attack a caravan.”

“Oh, good. Hey, do you need help?” Burin called out.

The brown haired man suddenly stopped and looked off as though he was watching something invisible flee. He then turned to us. “Is no worries, comrade. What you witness is ‘God of Martial Arts’.” Aww, I wanna see the god of martial arts. I bet he looks great shirtless. And no, I have no idea why the man sounded Russian.

“Tell me,” Terry said. “What is one of Sergei’s students doing so far out here?”

“You know Sergei?” the man looked startled.

“My father knew him. He told me that your master is a great man.”

“Was,” the man corrected. “Sergei and rest of order dead at hands of man who could not be killed. Maybe six months ago this was. Since then, I wander. When God of Martial arts shows up, I follow.”

“Why?” I asked.

“When God of Martial Arts tells you follow, you follow God.” I couldn’t exactly argue with that logic.

“Please, in the name of the mutual respect between your master and my father, I would like to ask for your help,” Terry pleaded, doing that doe-eyed thing that girls that age are inherent masters of.

“What is this you need help with?”

“We seek those who attacked the caravan.”

“I seek challenges to become stronger. Perhaps this is exact right thing I need. Yes, I will help you. You may call me Gregor.” We introduced ourselves and asked him if he had seen anything during the caravan attack. “Was riding along with caravan. Then horse falls over. Wake up, everyone gone. Pull myself out from under horse. God of Martial Arts comes.”

Not wanting to get into that whole thing again, I interjected. “I’ve been told that there are a number of places nearby where a force large enough to threaten a caravan could hide. The closest place is an old monastery, assuming the map I got was correct.”

On the path there, we were ambushed by a group of Qadirans. The fight was quick and dirty, but I was impressed by Terry’s gun skills. She was good. Perhaps too good. This was a girl who had seen years of battle. There was no fear and no hesitation, just a cold, business-like response to a threat. Maybe she had been a child soldier or something in the employ of that mob she had mentioned?

Aside from that, the only really important thing to note was that they were carrying the same kind of arrows as those we’d at the caravan site. That confirmed it. Qadirans were, in fact, behind it. I had lost a bet, which would eat up my portion of the bounty we’d collect on the Qadiran troublemakers – a thought that reminded me that we had to take left ears as proof. Eww.

Oh well, it was basically double or nothing if the Qadirans weren’t behind the snows. There was no way, right? They worship a sun god. Cold weather would be outside their MO, right? Right?

Anyway, moving on. We made our way to the monastery. I’d call it pretty run down, if I’m being nice. But I went to a high school filled with mean rich kids. So I’m gonna call it decrepit. Or maybe antiquated. It’s just a building. Why should I worry about its feelings? And if the god who the monastery wanted to get b!$*~y about my words, maybe he or she should admonish their followers to be better at keeping their holdings in good repair instead.

Burin and Gregor approached the front gates, which had fallen off. I think they were trying to be stealthy. Trying, but not succeeding. They may have missed breaking one or two twigs on their way over, but I wouldn’t believe you if you told me that without video evidence. It was that bad.

Yet, somehow, no one inside heard them. They managed to return with valuable intel. Apparently people were in the courtyard playing some kind of game – cards or dice, maybe. We just needed to draw them out without causing them to run for assistance.

We set up an ambush outside the gate, with Burin and Gregor on either side and Terry hiding just out of sight. I stood right where they’d see me, then I launched a small bolt of lightning through the front door.

A few moments later, maybe fifteen or twenty seconds total, I saw faces peering out through the gates. I winked, blew a kiss and then spun around and slapped my own ass. “Come get it, boys!”

They charged, right into the waiting trap. Burin and Gregor stepped out and stopped them short, Terry put a bullet right between one’s eyes, and then I made a little magic, stepping forward and unleashing a cone of flame upon the mass of men.

It took only a few seconds for us to take five lives. I felt a bit bad, but thinking about the horrors my mother had told me she’d seen inflicted by the Qadiran forces during the war made me feel a bit better. Sure none of these men were old enough to have been there, but they were attacking caravans and had likely killed dozens of people. So, yeah, I don’t think I’d lose much sleep over frying these a$~#!#$s.

We searched the courtyard and headed into what turned out to be a small storeroom in a separate building. Then we found an alternate route into the building through a ruined wall, rather than heading in the main doors.

Inside, we found a statue of Abadar. Why the hell was there a monastery of the god of civilization this far from anything remotely resembling civilization? Secret Cthulhu cult, maybe?

Nah.

We found what appeared to be a dungeon and armory. Inside, we found a few desiccated skeletons and some random leftover weapons, mostly crossbow bolts. Then we headed deeper down the hallway. Gregor had apparently figured out how to sneak in the time it had taken us to get here from the courtyard, because he crept ahead of us and peered in a door.

He came back to us. “Is zombies.”

We could handle zombies. We formulated a plan and stormed the room, though Terry was trying to convince us we didn’t need to deal with them. Gregor and Burin each charged one of the zombies flanking a doorway to another room. I stepped into the middle and unleashed another gout of flame.

The middle was a bad place to be. There was a giant plant in the next room. Some of its vines snaked through the doorway and grabbed at my leg. I felt its slimy touch on my thigh, but managed to pull away before it could grab me. I was a little worried where this was going.

I may have let out an undignified squeal, because Terry rushed in and took a shot at the plant. She hit dead center, then the bullet ricocheted and struck the plant again. Her shot left the plant a shredded mass. But the sound was pretty loud and I could hear it echoing in the halls. Little chance anyone else inside would be oblivious to our presence now.

Once the danger was past – in addition to Terry’s shot, Gregor had managed to explode on of the zombies with a punch! – we had time to look through the room, and I finally got a good look at those zombies. Palatine and Iyago. With a sigh, I took their dog tags to turn in to Giovanni. At least Palatine’s family would get his life insurance. I don’t know if Iyago had enrolled in the plan, or if he had anyone who would need it.

Those weren’t the only bodies we found. Vines had snaked through dozens of corpses. I pulled out my phone and accessed the wiki. It confirmed we were dealing with a Yellow Musk Creeper, a malevolent plant that could infect the brains of the living or newly deceased and turn them into zombies.

We’d found the missing people from the caravans. I grabbed the dog tags off of anyone who had them and stored them in my magic bag. Hopefully not too many of these people had left behind families that depended on them.

Terry began pouring oil on the corpses. I understood what she was doing. No sense leaving the bodies to rise up and hound us later. And this portion of the building was entirely stone, so little chance of the fire spreading.

Also, it’s not like I could say anything about fire when I had been flinging fire around like it was going out of style.

We crept further forward, coming to a set of partially open doors. Gregor peered in and spotted a group of enemies waiting to ambush us. He then dove past the doors and pulled the far one shut while Burin grabbed the nearer one.

They knew we were coming, so we’d rush them and hope for the best. No real plan. That worked for me.

Our vanguard kicked in their doors and charge and I ran in after them, bursting out another cone of flame from my hands. I needed another spell to play with. But it worked, so I used it.

Our enemies responded by charging me. I took several good hits and had to fall back. Terry rushed over and poured a healing potion into my mouth – I think she had to tippy toe – and I felt great. “You’re absolutely the best!” I beamed at her.

Burin took a couple hits, so I pulled out my healing wand and tapped him in the back with it. Then I took an arrow to the shoulder – I would be mending a lot of clothes before bed – and tapped myself with the wand. My wounds slowly began healing.

The obvious leader of the Qadirans in the room, a half-elven woman who wielded the bow that had been filling us with arrows, hit Gregor with a spell that caused his body to lock up. Burin rushed to his side. Not wanting to leave her in reach of our paralyzed companion, I cast another spell, this time slamming her with a spontaneous deluge that sent her flying towards the wall.

“Die!” she yelled at me, firing a desperate shot. The arrow hit, and it hurt, but it looked like she had expected more. Maybe she’d had a dud magic arrow or something?

Gregor managed to break free and charged her, penning her in the corner alongside Burin. Then the two of them – with some firing support from Terry and the use of my blood power chilling her with the cold of the void – proceeded to beat her to death. I felt almost bad for her, until I remembered the arrow wound. Then I kicked her corpse.

In one of the woman’s pockets, we found her orders. And it was worse than I’d feared. They were capturing the caravans, planning to turn the people into zombies with the plant. Then they’d use them to attack the entourage of a member of the Taldan royal family who would be passing through in a few weeks. We’d saved lives. Lots of lives.

So, why didn’t my companions look happy?

We had barred the doors to the chapel and set up camp, complete with a roaring fire courtesy of a magical bead Gregor was carrying. He was sitting in a corner, brooding over his perceived failure in the fight. As though he was the one who had done their best impression of a pincushion during the fight.

I’d even gotten hit with a small fireball. My clothing – made from a hyper-advanced fabrics light years ahead of those currently used in firefighting – had protected me. But it’s the thought that matters.

And he was the one pouting like a child!

Terry was talking to him. I couldn’t hear much, but it sounded like she was trying to convince him to travel with her after we’d made it back to the village. So much for any hope of taking this little group on a real adventure.

I was almost as upset as when my half-brother and I had parted ways. Well, maybe, not so much upset, but disappointed. Very disappointed. I’d really felt like we had some kind of dynamic going. Oh well. I’ll find my adventuring group one day.

Meanwhile, Burin made himself busy tearing apart the chapel. Apparently the pews were made of darkwood, which he fed into the replicator box. I’d been told that dwarves were generally industrious and pragmatic, but it was almost amusing to see it in action. I may have even giggled, despite how I was feeling.

The next day, we checked out the remaining rooms of the monastery. For the most part, it was run down and unused. Nothing interesting or even dangerous. The only thing that happened of interest was in the musty library.

The library had a wall that had fallen in. Water had pooled in the sunken areas of the floor and there was fungus growing all around. It had grown all over the books and in several areas of the floor. I was pretty sure there was nothing of interest to be found and was getting ready to leave when I heard Terry gasp and drop a book.

I went over to her. She seemed okay, just shaken. She looked at me like she was going to say something, then just stormed out.

On the floor was a book bound in some strange yellow leather. I recognized the emblem. “Have you seen the yellow sign?” I asked jokingly. When no one responded, I added, “I wonder what a book with Hastur’s symbol is doing in the library of an Abadar monastery.” Suddenly my Cthulhu cult joke earlier didn’t seem like a joke.

Well, it didn’t matter. We were leaving anyway. Still, I grabbed the book. It could be interesting reading. It also had a magic scroll tucked in the cover. Maybe that’s why the fungus hadn’t gotten into it?

We decided to stop by and deal with the Wise King of the Forest on our way back, since I was worried about people possibly getting attacked by it and there was enough of a bounty to convince the others to help. It was an interesting experience, to say the least.

But I have a question. Just who names a giant hamster ‘Wise King of the Forest’?

It did have magic, though. A rune on its belly glowed and it turned into an even larger hamster. Large enough that it managed to stuff Burin into its cheek. Which is kinda hilarious now that I think about it, but was actually a bit scary at the time.

After killing it, we skinned it – it was getting colder out and that fur was extremely warm looking. Not that I needed it. I wasn’t even cold yet, despite the snow flurries falling. In summer.

Terry hung back, brooding, the whole way back to the village. She then went straight to bed, not even waiting for dinner or for us to turn in the Wise King’s giant teeth for the reward money.

First Gregor’s, then her mood, had really soured the whole thing for me. Then I decided to boot up Cortana and check my messages, and it just got worse. I’d received a message from my parents.

I tapped a button on my phone and an image of Daddy appeared. “Hey, pumpkin. Hope you’re doing well. Sorry I don’t have time to come check up on you like we’d planned, but something big is happening back home. If you’re not sitting down, you should.

“Earth has been invaded by aliens.”

What the hell? That couldn’t be right. I scrolled back and played it again to be sure. And that’s what he’d said.

“I can’t talk long, but here’s the short version. Two days ago, they showed up and attacked unprovoked. We retaliated by sending up the mark three Night Witches. Our stealth systems caught them by surprise and we’ve managed to cripple their mother ship. But now we’re facing craft several miles across that we’ve dubbed ‘Threshers’. They’re harvesting people. We don’t know what for.

“Juiz has run the numbers and I concur with her results. We have about a sixty two point three repeating chance of driving them off or destroying them based on what we’ve seen of their technology, but it’s not going to be easy or pretty. One way or another, we have no more than six months before it’s over. And we’re probably going to lose billions of people before it’s done.

“Please stay safe. We’ll check on you if we can, but I can’t promise anything. If you need anything, contact your uncle Chadwick. I sent him a message as well. He’ll take care of you. Good bye, baby. We love you and hope we can see you again soon.”

That settled it. I was now officially depressed. My home was in danger, billions were likely to die, and I was stuck here with a party of emos who likely wouldn’t be my party much longer.

I tapped my phone and heard it ringing. A few moments later, Uncle Chadwick’s face appeared on the screen. “Lyriana?” he asked.

“Sorry to call you so late,” I said. “I just got Daddy’s message. I- I was thinking of maybe putting this whole adventure idea on hold for a bit. Would it be okay if I came to Absalom? Maybe you have something there I can do to keep me busy until I find out whether Earth has made it?”

“I’m sure we can think of something. Maybe I can send you to Xin-Shalast through the portal and you can help the Spared catalogue the city. They’ve been bugging me to send them a translator. You up to it?”

I was a rather cunning linguist. Also, I knew English, Taldan, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Draconic, so I was also pretty good with languages too. “Sure, that could be fun for a couple months. I’ll head down as soon as the blizzard passes.”

“Blizzard? I thought you were looking into the missing caravans in southern Taldor? It’s summer there.”

“I am still in Heldren. The locals think Qadirans are behind the strange weather.”

“Alright. Be safe. Call me if you need anything.”

After hanging up, I tried to get some sleep, but couldn’t. My brain was too fixated on worries about home to sleep. I ended up staring out at the snow falling in the moonlight for a while, then grabbed that book we’d found and read it for a couple hours before passing out in the chair.

Link attached in case you want to see it with original formatting and lacking forum censors.

Also, if anyone managed to catch that this whole thing was a reskinned

Spoiler:
Hollow's Last Hope
, then I'm impressed, since I only really used the dungeon setting itself. :P

Up next is the mandatory dream sequence, then the first actual entry from Reign of Winter itself.


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Interlude: Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?

Spoiler:
I found myself within a mansion of some kind. There was something off about the lighting, though I couldn’t place my finger on it. Seeing nothing interesting in my immediate area, I looked down at my clothing. I was wearing a strange yellow number with a plunging neckline that I knew Mama would freak out if she saw me in. A four pointed citrine star pendant partially enveloped by black steel tentacles rested upon my bosom, suspended by a silver chain.

I looked up into a nearby mirror. My hair – still lavender from the implants – was pulled up into an elaborate style I didn’t know the name of. On my face was a white mask with a purple galaxy continuously swirling on the front. It was a lot like the cyber tattoo on my lower back in how it moved, though it was a different image.

Discordant music was playing, though I couldn’t see the source. People were laughing, the sound forming a cacophony. I approached the closest pair of people and got their attention. They turned to me, dead eyes behind their incredibly ornate masquerade masks.

“Have you seen the Yellow Sign?” one asked me, his voice monotonous.

“Yes, have you?”

“I- what?” I responded. They turned away from me and resumed their laughter. Nothing I did would get their attention.

I wandered off and found an orgy in progress. I’d had a number of dreams that started like that. In fact, it was at that moment I realized it was a dream. Normally, I’d have joined in the festivities since it was just a dream, but I was curious what was going on. So I approached a pair of masked men and a woman wearing a mask only over the top half of her face. Describing what they were doing would take more space here than I want to waste. Besides, I would not likely forget that image.

“Have you seen the Yellow Sign?” one of the men asked me, his emotionless voice unstrained by his current efforts. I didn’t respond and he turned back to what he was doing.

Not finding what I was looking for, I wandered away from the orgy – not a statement I thought I’d ever make – and found myself in a hallway with three doors. I picked a door at random and went in, and found myself on a snowy hillside in a driving blizzard. It was actually cold enough that I felt it, at least a little.

I turned to try to open the door, but it was gone. So I wandered aimlessly for a bit before coming across a figure I recognized. Burin was wielding his axe and fighting some kind of foe, something I could not see. Whatever it was had claws, though. That much I could tell from the wounds I saw him take.

The weirdest part was that his voice sounded different. It was deep – booming, even – as he roared at his unseen foe. His blows were striking true, or at least they seemed that way based on the way his axe moved – as though it had struck something. But he was showing signs of fatigue. I couldn’t tell if he was winning or losing.

I tried unleashing a spell to help him, but no magic came. Instead, I felt something unseen wrap around my stomach and yank. I lurched backward through a door that hadn’t been there before. Once more, I was out in the hallway, with no sign of anyone or anything near me.

I tried another door. Once more, I stepped into another world. This time, I was in what looked like a monastery. There were corpses strewn about and blood everywhere. I moved quickly through the halls, stepping gingerly over bodies and through shattered doorways, eventually coming to a main hall, where I found Gregor, cradling the broken form of an older man.

“Gregor, is too late. You must run!” the old man managed to whisper.

“I must not leave you! I must help defend artifact!”

“Artifact is taken. All are dead but you. Escape. Become stronger. Only if you are strong enough can you defeat man who will not die.”

“Yes, Gregor,” a voice said beside me. “Run away! But know that you will never be able to defeat me!” I looked at the man, who looked back at me despite having no face. “And what do we have here? An interloper, here within this man’s dream? Interesting. I was created to torment him, but perhaps I could enjoy living within your mind as well!”

I could feel his massive will pressing down upon me. I did not know what to do, but I would fight. I gathered my own will around me like a shield and began to press back. Even then, I was not strong enough. I could fight, but it was only a matter of time before he would wear me down and destroy my shield.

Suddenly, a strange light glowed about me and the stone upon my breast ignited into a golden flame. Then I was back in the hallway, completely alone.

Or so I thought. “Excuse me. Have you seen my yellow sign?” a voice asked.

I looked around and eventually spotted a strange looking gnome. “I’m, um, sorry? I don’t know anything about your sign.”

“Unfortunate. It was the sign that told people not to touch my experiments. Agniray drew the best picture of Stanley on it, he was all ‘Rawr!’” He mimicked a menacing motion like a pouncing tiger.

“I... see.”

“Have you checked in these rooms? I’m certain my sign must be here somewhere.” I’d heard stories that gnomes were a bit strange, but I’d never encountered one like this. If this was a dream, could he be a product of my own mind?

“I didn’t see it in either of these two,” I said, indicating the doors I checked. “But there’s still one left.”

He opened the door. “Let’s go!” At this point, what could I do? I was too curious not to follow. So I went into the final room.

Everything was pitch black, so dark that even I couldn’t see anything within despite my mutant eyes. The only light seemed to be a quarter mile away. The gnome grabbed my hand and led me forward. At least, I hoped it was the gnome.

The light turned out to be some kind of source-less spotlight shining down upon a familiar figure. Terry was upon her knees, sobbing. “Please! Tell me, there must be a way! How can I save you?”

I tried to tell her that I was here to help, but in the light bleeding from the spotlight, I could see the gnome shake his head. “He won’t be able to hear or see you. It’s the nature of the dream.”

He? “I’m sorry, mister gnome, but that’s a girl.”

He turned back to Terry and regarded her for a moment. His head tilted as he tried to be sure. “I’ll take your word for it,” he finally said. “Sometimes humans all look the same to me.”

Terry continued sobbing. “Please! Don’t leave! What witch? And how will that save you? NO! Come back!”

The gnome pulled out a scythe and cut a door in the dream, then led me back out. “My sign wasn’t there either,” he said, disappointed.

“Why would you think your sign was in this weird dreamscape?”

He shrugged. “I listened, heard a bunch of people talking about a yellow sign and thought they would know where my sign was. I guess I was wrong.”

“Why not just make another one?”

Realization dawned on his face, as if he hadn’t even considered it. “I could even have Agniray draw another picture of Stanley!”

I couldn’t help but giggle at his child-like enthusiasm. “Glad I could help.”

His face became serious and he searched through his bag before pulling out a cloth-wrapped bundle. He handed it to me. “A storm is coming. Take this. You’ll need it more than I do. Take care of it. I faced grave dangers to get it.”

After I took the bundle from his hand, I heard a loud sound and awoke back in the chair where I had passed out. There was no longer a book in my hand. It had fallen to the floor by my feet, causing the sound that had woken me.

Instead, for some reason, I was holding a large bottle of IKEA lingonberry syrup.

Interestingly, while confirming my spelling, I discovered that lingonberries are going to be the next big "superfruit". :P


No Escape from the Call

Spoiler:
After moving to my bed, I slept with no more strange dreams. In fact, it was surprisingly good sleep, despite everything I had on my mind. I even slept in a bit later than I had intended and awoke feeling great. I went to the window and looked out. The snow had stopped, but there was a good layer of powder on the ground.

In fact, it was high enough that Burin had managed to build a snowman as big as him. Nearby, Gregor was training. No surprise there.

I used the replicator to heat up some water and made some tea. Sure, the device couldn’t make food or water by converting other materials, but it could process them into other forms. Basic cooking was one of the more useful functions.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. It can make one beverage from scratch: Hot Earl Grey tea. Not good tea, mind you, but close enough to recognize. Daddy had spent weeks on that function alone. Not sure why. Something about Star Trek, I think.

I sipped my tea – cream and sugared, of course – and returned to the window. While I had been away, Gregor had destroyed Burin’s snowman, and now the dwarf was hurling head-sized snowballs at the fighter, who was kicking them out of the air. He looked like he was laughing, so I don’t think they were fighting for real.

I got dressed and headed downstairs. Giovanni had ordered breakfast prepared. I had a stack of pancakes with lingonberry syrup – why waste it? – and some salty ham. Gregor and Burin were eating the same, but also had some sausage and beans. Terry was eating chocolate cake. I have no idea where she got chocolate cake, but she had some, as well as a big steaming mug of black coffee.

While we were eating, Ionnia Teppen, the head of the village council, stopped by. “Pardon me for intruding, but we were hoping that the Voidstrife cartel could assist us,” she said to Giovanni.

“Listening to needs and providing solutions is part of our mission statement,” he responded. Mission statement? Daddy really shouldn’t be porting so much corporate culture from Earth to Golarion.

“Early this morning, a man was found collapsed on the outskirts of the village. He’s not one of ours. We think he’s one of the mercenaries who came through here weeks ago along with Lady Argentea.”

“We’re happy to offer our healing services,” Giovanni said.

“Argus has already tended to him,” she said. That poor man. Though I guess at least the leeches would be happy. “But he’s asking for assistance. He says that the Lady has been kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped?!” I said involuntarily. “Did he say anything else?”

She shook her head. “No. He’s awake, if you’d like to talk to him.” Burin and I headed right over, with Terry following us, despite apparent reluctance. It was just two doors down, since the village wasn’t very large.

We found the mercenary, who we were told was named Yuln Oerstag, lying in a bed, obvious signs of frostbite on many of his extremities. His breathing was labored. I pulled out my healing wand and gently tapped him with it. After a few moments his breathing eased a bit, but it did little for his frostbite.

He told us that the Lady’s procession had been attacked by a group of bandits, which had initially been no trouble. It was only when the winter-touched fey appeared that suddenly they found themselves outmatched.

He told us that the Lady had been dragged off, but was still alive when he was forced to flee. He cursed himself for his running away. I tried to assure him that he had made the right choice, but he shook his head. “My ancestors will look down upon me for fleeing. I will spend my entire life making up for my cowardice.”

“We’ll save her,” Burin assured the man. “Just tell us where to look.”

The mercenary gave us directions, then Terry asked him if he knew of any weaknesses in the fey. I guess that’s one way to do it. I was just going to try looking it up on the Adventurer Wiki. “Cold iron is the bane of all fey. And if you have it, use fire. The beasts fear the flame.”

Well, duh. ‘Winter-touched’ kinda gave the fire thing away. But fire I could do.

We told the mercenary to rest, then returned to our breakfast. Yeah, I knew it was urgent, but I needed time to convince Gregor to go with us. So I did my best to play up what a great challenge fey would be. How they had downed a mercenary company.

Terry responded by telling him she knew where a dragon was that they could fight. That hurt. I thought she was planning to come help, but instead she was not only leaving, but planning to try to take another member of the party with her! And he was looking convinced!

I may have overreacted a little.

“You know what?” I said, standing and punching the table. “Fine. Whatever. You go find your dragon. You need bigger challenges to get stronger or whatever. So be it. But what you’re missing is that real strength comes from standing up and protecting those who need you! So enjoy your fight with a giant talking lizard! Meanwhile, I’m not going to stand around while those bandits do god knows what to that poor woman. I’m not going to pretend it isn’t my problem.

“And you!” I shouted at Terry. “So concerned with your own issues. I know you want to avenge your family. I heard you talking to Burin. But this woman out there, while there’s little chance she’s someone’s mother since it sounds like she was meeting her betrothed, she’s certainly someone’s daughter! Can you imagine if something horrible had happened to you? If it had been you who had been kidnapped?

“I’d bet if that were the situation, your parents would have desperately wished that someone, anyone, would step in and save you! But fine. Go off and do your own thing. Abandon someone who needs your help! I no longer find myself caring what you do!” I spun and faced Burin. “And you!”

“Yes?” he asked.

I took a breath. “You I have no issue with. I’m going to go save this woman, and I could use your help.”

“Of course.”

“Thanks,” I said. I strode over to the door. “As for the other two, do whatever the hell you want,” I said coldly over my shoulder, only turning my head slightly so my voice would carry just enough to be heard. Then I slammed the door behind me.

I knew immediately that I had probably gone too far, but I was too angry to care. I gathered my things and headed outside, to find Burin and Gregor waiting. Terry was sitting on the patio, showing no sign that she was going to come along.

“I guess this is goodbye,” I said. “Talk to Giovanni. He might know of people you can travel with on whatever road you decide to take.”

“Yeah, thanks,” she said.

“I’ll be sure to come find you in Oppara, little girl!” Burin called back to her as we were leaving. Once he turned his back, I could see her cringe from fifty yards away.

We managed to find the site of the attack relatively quickly. It was not a pretty sight. First of all, someone had been frozen solid, looking like a statue aside from the thicker sheathe of ice around is lower parts. He was missing an arm, which I think might have been removed after he was frozen, since it too was encased in a mass of ice.

There were also two carriages. One was little more than a pile of debris, but the second looked intact, though the horses that had pulled each were little more than masses of frozen meat at this point. Someone had jammed a spear through the handle of the intact carriage, as if trying to lock something inside.

“Hello!” Burin called out to the carriage. “Is someone in there?” We heard shuffling within. “We’re gonna open the door. Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!”

I took up position just behind the horse, keeping a good firing line in case it was a trap. Burin pulled out the spear and Gregor pulled the door open. Which turned out to be a mistake. There were zombies in there. They had been the guards of the caravan, if their clothing was any indication.

Burin stabbed one with the spear and Gregor added a punch to its face. I didn’t have a good line to try lighting them on fire. Also, there might be survivors – unlikely – or maybe some clue to what had happened – a bit more likely – within the carriage, so I didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I launched a small bolt of lightning over Burin’s shoulder.

I was a little too close, I think, because the dwarf’s hair started standing on end. But at least I hadn’t hit him. Then Terry appeared out of nowhere, roughly five feet in the air, right between me and Burin. She landed face first on the frozen horse’s ass.

She looked around, saw the threat, and immediately drew her gun from the case that had fallen next to her. She then took a shot between Burin’s legs, hitting a zombie in the face. That was two down, then we heard another break through the carriage wall. Gregor ran around the side and beat down the zombie that was working its way around to us.

The fight over, Burin beamed at Terry. “Little girl! You’re back!”

She hopped to her feet and pointed her gun right at my face. “You have one chance to tell me what you’ve done to me, witch!”

Wait. Me?! “I didn’t…”

“Don’t lie to me!” she screeched.

Burin grabbed at her gun, but missed. “She didn’t do anything! She was just shooting lightning at the zombies!”

“LIGHTNING?! IS THAT WHY MY HAIR WAS STANDING UP?!”

Gregor walked over. “I am not thinking she is your enemy. She is looking just as confused as you, yes?”

“TELL ME WHAT YOU’VE DONE!” She was literally shaking with rage.

“But I haven’t…”

Sudden Burin grew larger. He snatched the gun from her hand. “Put that down, ya wee brat,” he said, his voice deep and booming. “That ain’t yer enemy.”

Gun no longer pointed at me, I took a deep breath and took in the scene. If looks could kill, Terry’s look would have exploded Burin into a million pieces. This wasn’t going to work. Something was going on, and we had to figure it out before we continued on. But we couldn’t do anything so long as we were at each other’s throats.

I held out my hand. “Burin, may I please have that?” He nodded and I took the gun from him. I returned it to Terry. “We aren’t going to get anywhere if we can’t calm down and trust each other, just a little, at least. So let’s figure this out.”

To my relief, she didn’t immediately point the gun at me. Which was good, because I was on a hair trigger ready to light her on fire if I had to. I didn’t want to, but I would. “Okay,” she said. “It’s possible you had nothing to do with this. Everything’s been strange ever since I saw those two gods fighting after running from that dragon.”

A chill went down my spine. “Two gods fighting? A dragon? Where was this?”

“I don’t remember. I was just passing through when I saw the reward poster for killing a monster. You’ll have to ask Burin.”

I looked at the dwarf. “It was a cave, near Sandpoint,” he said. “I thought the dragon had killed me.”

“I thought you were dead too,” Terry admitted.

Sandpoint?! “Was there some kind of mention of black fangs?”

“That was on the poster,” Terry said, her eyes narrowing. “Why?”

“Daddy made me promise that if I was ever in Sandpoint and heard about a monster with black fangs attacking livestock, I was to leave town immediately. I’ve never seen him so deadly serious.” Well, not until I got that message about the invasion.

“Why?” Terry asked again, this time sounding less angry.

“There’s something about that village. He told me that because of the actions of some adventurers maybe thirty or forty years ago, there’s some kind of reoccurring time loop. Possibly because they managed to start a fight between Desna and Lamashtu in the middle of the village, destroying it. The dragon whose arrival set events in motion reappears and adventurers are found to face him. They go off, then after the fight, something happens and everyone in Sandpoint completely forgets those adventurers even existed.”

“What, really?”

I nodded. “My father’s been studying it for almost twenty years.” I pulled out my phone and opened the Ranger database loaded within. “See? These are pictures of the adventurer group from the first loop recorded after his drones were put in place.”

Terry’s eyes grew wide. “I know that dwarf!”

Burin, who had since returned to normal size, took a look. “Well, that’s Mister Cragsplinter! And I bet that’s Mister Aizen and Mister Heimish. He didn’t mention a girl, though.”

Terry snorted. “He probably forgot about her.” She sounded amused and bitter at the same time.

I took a look further. “The log says that their names were Cragsplinter, Heimish, Aizen and Cara,” I confirmed.

“How many of these groups were there?” Terry asked me.

“It says that over a half dozen have been recorded, but there might have been more.”

“And we’re the first ones to make it out?”

“The first that we know about, yes.”

“So what does that mean?”

“I wish I knew. If I had to guess, I’d think maybe you two might be stuck together, though I didn’t study temporal mechanics or anything. Uncle Chadwick might know, or at least will have idea on who to talk to. I’ll call him next time we’re somewhere safe enough to boot up Cortana. I promise you, I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”

She sighed and took a swig from the flask Gregor offered her. “Alright, fine. Let’s go save this woman.”

Half an hour down the road, we came across a chest half buried in the snow. Burin walked over to it, managed to hit a tripwire and set off one of those swinging log traps you see in movies. “Oof!” he grunted as he went flying. I went over and tapped him with the healing wand and helped him to his feet.

He walked back over, more carefully this time, and opened the chest. “Empty,” Gregor observed, looking over his shoulder. “Is chest perhaps valuable?”

I shrugged. “It doesn’t look like it. But maybe it has a false bottom?” I had a secret ‘safe’ in my room that looked like a stick of deodorant. No comment on what’s in there. The false bottom I put into my dresser holds a couple bottles of wine I snuck from the cellar, though.

“Yank it out and we can check?” Terry suggested.

The chest had no false bottom. It WAS the false bottom. In the snow beneath the chest, we found a stockpile of gear that had been stolen from the fallen mercenaries. It was a major haul. Nothing fancy, but moderately valuable.

Continuing on, we found ourselves in a clearing with a mound of snow in the center. With his magic boots, Burin led the way. And once more, he found himself in danger as a serpentine creature, a tatzlwyrm. My parents had encountered one once, early in their adventure. It had tried to drag Lenn, the party’s massive warrior, into a tree.

This one tried to drag Burin beneath the snow. ‘Tried’ being the operative word. Exploding into action, we killed it in less than ten seconds. Terry skinned it, telling me she was going to have Cortana turn it into a nice set of gloves. The girl looked like she was getting cold, even with her jacket and the Wise King’s fur pulled around her.

We continued into the woods. I was working on spell forms in my head when I was snapped back to reality by a cry of “Crows!” I looked over at Burin and saw him pointing up. In the branches of the trees were a number of tiny fetishes made from the corpses of crows.

Gregor walked over to Burin and looked up. “Crows,” he agreed.

Then I got hit in the shoulder with a tiny arrow. “What the hell?!” I said, scanning the trees. I spotted the source, a laughing pixie sitting on a branch and holding a tiny bow. I was annoyed. “BURN!” I yelled, running beneath the fairy and unleashing a gout of flame.

I heard the sound of a gunshot and other sounds of scuffling, then the tiny fairy fled, along with several others. I pulled the arrow from my shoulder and hit myself with my wand, then mended the damage to my jacket.

I turned to the others just in time to watch Gregor retrieving his hat. Had he thrown it? Aww, that was probably pretty neat and I’d missed it. I turned to ask Terry about it, but her state was enough to make me forget. She was starting to shiver.

So we found a cave to rest. Gregor heated the chamber with the magical bead he was carrying and I booted up Cortana while we ate. After we were done, I called up Uncle Chadwick.

“At least it’s not the middle of the night,” he observed. “Have you begun your trip?”

“Not yet,” I said. “A local noblewoman got kidnapped and we’re hunting down the bandits so we can rescue her. But that’s not why I called. Do you have Daddy’s notes on the Sandpoint anomaly?”

“Yes, why?” He sounded intrigued.

“I’ve located survivors of the latest incident!” I said with a grin.

“Really?! That’s never happened before.”

I nodded. “Two of them. Are there any notes about what might happen to survivors?”

“Let me ask Johnny.” Johnny 5 was the AI that daddy had made for him. He spoke with Johnny for a moment and returned his focus to me. “There were some theories. Physicists from some place called Cambridge suggested that anyone who made it out might find themselves at least partially unstuck in time, or even might find themselves tethered together via something called ‘temporal resonance’.”

“Tethered?” That sounded promising.

“They’ll be unable to go more than a few miles from the other members,” he replied. “It sounds like they’ll teleport together if that happens. Kyle’s notes suggest that there’ll be a rather large static electricity discharge if that happens.”

“That would cause hair to stand up, right?”

“Yes, I believe so.” HA! Eat that, you crazy, gun wielding child!

“Is there a way to break the bond?” Terry asked over my shoulder.

“Short of deific intervention? I can think of two known spells that would almost certainly do the job. One’s only available to extremely powerful clerics and is basically deific intervention in spell form. The other is a wizard spell.”

“Can you cast it?” I asked.

“No. Your father could do it,” he replied. “Of course, but there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to reach him for maybe half a year.”

“Yeah,” I said softly. I didn’t want to think about that.

“And you can’t cast it?” Terry asked me.

I shook my head. “Not a chance. Uncle Chadwick’s far more powerful than me. Unless I can find a quest like the one my parents went on, it’s unlikely.”

She gave me a look. “How would that help you?”

“The constant danger forced her father to grow as a wizard,” Uncle Chadwick said. “He left here about as strong as she is now. Along the way, he got caught up in trying to stop the return of an ancient and powerful wizard. A couple months later, he was more powerful than me, by leaps and bounds. It’s a dangerous shortcut, but I can’t argue with the results.” He paused. “Your aunt is calling me. You should bring your new friends when you come. I can’t cast the spell, but we might find someone who can. And, of course, we could always try to capture a genie and get a wish out of one of them.”

“Thanks, Uncle Chadwick.”

“Any time.”

We sat in silence for a minute or so. “That’s why I’m here,” I said. “I’m trying to find a major adventure so I can get stronger. I love magic and want to get better at it.”

“I see,” she said.

I pulled a bottle of wine – extremely expensive wine – from my bag. “Want some?” I asked the girl.

“Sure.” We sat in silence and sipped the wine for a bit, then I went to bed, neither of us having said a further word.

The next morning, we pressed onward, Terry admiring her new gloves. Cortana does great work. Eventually, we came upon a set of tracks in the snow. There were two sets, some older than the others. We considered them for a while, and decided that maybe the bandits had gone back for that stash in the snow, so now was a great time to move on their hideout while they were away.

Following the older tracks, we came to a frozen river. On the close bank was a snowman holding a sign that read, “Intruders, turn back!” Burin regarded it for a moment, then began walking backwards toward it.

I stifled a giggle and considered an idea. Recalling the antics of the previous morning, I turned to the warrior. “Hey, Gregor! Training!” I said cheerfully, pointing at the snowman.

He regarded me, then turned to someone who wasn’t there, “I know, right?” He sighed and walked over to the snowman, reaching it about the same time Burin did. So they were both there when the snowman exploded in a burst of thunder.

Ice elementals burst from the river, laughing. “Hey, are you the ones who put up the sign?” Burin asked, sounding strange as he talked with his ears ringing. “We did what you said and turned our backs! Now what?”

The elementals laughed uproariously and charged. They tried to drag Burin and Gregor onto the thin ice. And in so doing, they clustered together, becoming a perfect target.

Dammit, how does that stupid poem go? Something about fire and ice. Anyway, they died in a burst of flame. Because you never bring an ice elemental to a fire wizard fight.

“Hey, there’s a moose coming!” Terry called out.

We turned to see a massive bull moose coming our way. “Hello,” the moose said in a strange Canadian-like accent. The fact that it was talking didn’t seem all that important in light of the weird accent. “Please don’t shoot me.”

Burin and the moose began having a surreal conversation. Bored, I began speaking my cantrip to detect magic. There was certainly some coming from the moose. In fact, as I channeled, it narrowed in until I could tell it wasn’t coming from the moose itself, but from on the moose’s back.

Then I took another tiny arrow to the shoulder – the other shoulder this time. Brutal cold flashed through my body. Even I felt it, it was so bad. The fighting was pretty brutal, but also comical.

Burin’s axe shrunk in his hands. I tried to make a dirty joke about how cold out it was, but my teeth were chattering too much. Instead, I focused my will and managed to cast a spell. A tiny fairy – an atomie this time – stabbed me with its tiny rapier. So I lit it on fire.

Once the moose was down, Gregor tossed his hat into a tree and Terry was firing at another tree, so I suspected that the enemies who had shot arrows at us were up there, even if I couldn’t see them. I could hear them, though, as they shouted at one another in a language I didn’t recognize.

“Yeah, well, I can yell in a language you don’t know too!” I hollered in Mandarin.

“They’re gone,” Terry said.

I pulled out two more arrows and healed myself, then attended to the others’ wounds. While doing so, I watched as Burin was shaking his axe, trying to get it to grow again. I tried to muffle a laugh, but it came out as a snort instead.

After harvesting some moose meat and packing it for later processing, we tackled the problem of the river. Some applications of alchemical ice hardened a pathway across, and we made it safely, aside from one slip that wounded my pride a bit.

We continued down a snow covered trail until we came to the world’s most inept ambush. The bandits were talking much louder than they should have been. Even I heard them, and I was busy considering practical applications of the fourth theorem of magecraft. Or remembering the moonlight reflecting on that tavern wench’s backside as that bard railed her up against the table in that one inn’s kitchen. I’d snuck down for a snack and instead got a glorious feast for the eyes. Too bad he was a halfling. The short ones don’t really do it for me.

Anyway, Burin called out to them. I was starting to understand why Daddy’s teeth clenched any time he talked about trying to be sneaky with Lenn around. “Are you the Taldor folks?” We were in Taldor. Of course they were the Taldor folks. Everyone here but us and the occasional Qadiran was ‘Taldor folks’.

“Um, yes! We’re the Taldor folks. Just lay down your weapons and we can talk about Taldor things,” one of the bandits called back.

Gregor looked at me. I just shrugged. “No, I think we’ll keep our weapons,” Burin called back. “Now get up and come out into the open where we can chat.”

They sprung up. Why did they spring up? That was stupid. Especially when Terry was getting annoyed. She shot one right in the gut. “YOU SHOT ME!” he said.

“Apparently not well enough,” Terry responded, just barely loud enough for me to hear. She reloaded and fired again and battle was joined.

And then it got sillier. A pair of bandits came running down the road, shouting, “The boss says they’re coming! Get in position! OH S+@~!” This last being shouted as Terry took aim.

She shot him right in the crotch.

They tried to run, but we brought them down with some ranged attacks. I even managed to get two runners at once with a single casting of force missiles. We then gathered them up and I tied them up with some ionic tape. A quick zap and the tape bonded on a molecular level. They weren’t going anywhere.

Terry told me to heal the one she’d shot in the groin, who we’d bound up separately. I did so, stopping the bleeding. He woke up, looking shocked. Then I noticed what Terry was holding and promptly took on the same look.

She was holding the man’s severed penis. Also a lit torch. She held up the torch, held up the severed appendage, and threatened to make the two one if he didn’t tell us what we wanted to know. It was much like a squirrel trying to intimidate a bull. Only the bull was tied up and the squirrel was holding the bull’s dick.

That metaphor went somewhere weird. Look, all I’m saying is that it didn’t work. So Burin came in and tried to be reasonable. A sort of ‘bad cop/good cop’ thing. That didn’t work either. The bandit just stared blankly at him.

“Let me try,” I said. Maybe we could use our connections to influence them. “Look, friend. You have a good thing going with your deal with the Voidstrife Cartel. There’s no reason to jeopardize it. Just help us return the woman and I promise that things will work out best for everyone.” He gave me a strange look, the one shared by the others. Which was when I realized that I had just said that entire thing in Japanese.

Terry was getting tired of this farce. She walked over to the pile of other bandits. “Tell us what we want to know or I will light your friends on fire!” she shrieked. At least, I think that’s what she said. She slurred her words in her fit of pique. The bandit just stared, terrified. “I’LL DO IT!”

Killing the bandits was fine, but I wasn’t okay with just lighting them on fire. Well, not while they were tied up. We were the informal branch of the law, not torturers. But how could I talk Terry out of it? Then it hit.

“Wait! Did you loot them first?”

She looked at me for a moment, then sighed. “Oh, right. Let’s do that.” She tossed the torch aside.

Gregor indicated the contents of her other hand. “Why are you still holding this thing? You do not know where it has been!”

She looked at the severed penis. “Oops. I forgot I still had that.” She tossed it at the now blubbering man – it struck him in the face with a wet thud – and got to work looting while Gregor kept lecturing her about how you shouldn’t just pick up things like that. I think she was ignoring him.

Burin cut the man loose. “As soon as we’re gone, help your friends and get out of here.”

“Your deal with the Voidstrife Cartel is done,” I said. “Leave the area. If your people are seen around here again, you’ll be decided to be more of a hassle than you’re worth and the adventurer’s guild will get a new quest. Understand?” He nodded. “Good man. And, uh, good luck with that,” I said, indicating the severed penis by my foot.

We headed in the direction the additional bandits had come from. Not too far away, we found what looked like an old lodge. It was in decent shape. Whoever had built it had known their job. But it did look like someone hadn’t been taking proper care of the place for a while.

Burin tried to suggest that we find the front door and announce ourselves, in case the owners weren’t the bandits. I was tempted to look in the adventurer wiki to see if there was an article on the likelihood of that, but just shook my head. “Of course the bandits are going to be here. And if not, I’ll pay for damages.”

We climbed over some railings onto the back patio and went in through the door. Inside, we found a table set with several steaming bowls of stew. Not seeing anyone nearby, Terry picked up one of the bowls and began eating.

We heard sounds from a nearby room. “Come on out,” Burin called towards the door.

“Not gonna happen,” a woman’s voice called back.

“Come on, let’s sit at the table and talk. I’m tired of fighting. We hurt a lot of people today.”

“I shot a guy’s dick off!” Terry said gleefully, her mouth still full of stew. I was starting to suspect that the girl might be a sociopath.

There was no response from the other room. Burin shook his head. “Okay, stay in there if you want.” He then wandered off upstairs. Terry and Gregor made no move to follow, so I went after him. I got there just in time to hear Burin call down, “Hey guys, we’ve got some skeletons up here!”

The skeletons attacked him, and I did what I could to help. I managed to draw one of the skeletons off of the dwarf long enough for Gregor and Terry to arrive. I had to squeeze in a corner to let Gregor get to the skeleton, which he took down quickly.

I heard chanting in the room, a voice I didn’t recognize. Gregor took out his foe and rushed into the room. Terry went in after him, then I followed.

Burin was down. I arrived just in time to watch Terry throw her bowl of soup at a figure in the doorway of a closet. With the dwarf down, we found ourselves in a desperate fight. I rushed to his side, taking a hit from negative energy as I moved through the room. I brought down the remaining skeleton with a gout of flame and stabilized Burin while Terry and Gregor fought the foe in the closet.

My allies cried out in pain, but the wall of the closet protected me from whatever it was that the enemy had done – the same negative energy that had hit me earlier? In the end, we pulled out the win, but it was close. Everyone was feeling the pain of the fight. But we had the wand and we’d be okay.

On the man’s corpse, we found a holy symbol of Norgorber, god of thievery and assassination. Not surprising, considering we were dealing with bandits. We’d feed the holy symbol to the box. Molecular deconstruction cleanses all.

It was the second time we’d had a rough fight with a cleric. We had to find a way to deal with them without getting the crap kicked out of us. I was thinking “more fire” would do the job.

Downstairs, we located a trap door hidden under a rug. We headed down into the cellar, where we found Lady Argentea. She had been battered, but she was alive. She tried to get away from us, pressing herself into a corner.

We managed to calm her down – Terry gave her a jewelry box she had found at the site of the attack(!) – and I healed her wounds. She then told us about the attack. Based on her description, it sounded like the leader of the fey was an ice mephit. She also told us that she’d overheard the name of the leader of the enemy, which was Teb Knotten.

That’s a really weird name for a mephit.

We decided to rest in the lodge for the night, then head back in the morning. No sense in subjecting our noble ward to the rigors of travel, especially knowing that there were more enemies about. Safer to remain somewhere moderately defensible, since we weren’t sure we could make it back to that cave before nightfall. That would give us time to finish going through the house and give me some time to look through the spell book we’d found on the dead cleric, which I assumed he’d stolen.

I just hoped the place didn’t have bedbugs.

You don't want to know why it was a moose and not an elk. Trust me.


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Rider in the Storm

Spoiler:
We still had a bit more searching through the lodge, to make sure it was secure, of course. Not because we wanted to see if there was anything valuable lying around. Though we wouldn’t say no to finding useful treasure.

In the first room we checked, we found a footlocker. Terry immediately got to work trying to pick the lock. Almost two minutes later, Burin piped up. “Did the keys not work?”

“Keys?” Terry said, making a noise of chagrinned realization.

“The ones we found on the guy.”

“Oh, right. I was just practicing my skills.” She was lying, of course. Trying to save face. She’d simply forgotten.

“That’s okay. I’m here to help.”

The box looted, we then moved on, finding a sick room with several bandits inside. They had some kind of flu-like bug. I tried to explain germ theory to my companions, but only Terry seemed interested in listening. The others opened a window so it wouldn’t be so stuffy in the room. I think because I’d mentioned that the closed off room was likely a hotbed of viruses.

The bandits were completely delirious and posed no threat to us. Burin spent some time spoon feeding them soup and keeping cool damp cloths on their heads to help their fevers.

While Burin was doing that, we secured the building, setting traps and barricading entrances. We also found a winter pixie in a cage. It had been tortured and was unconscious. We felt bad for it, but we still didn’t trust it, so we wrapped it in ionic tape, leaving only its head exposed.

Terry and Lady Argentea slept in one of the bedrooms. For some reason, the girl seemed protective of the woman even though she’d never wanted to come rescue her in the first place. Meanwhile, I camped out on the bearskin rug by the fire. Not sure where Gregor and Burin slept. I think Burin slept in a chair in the sickroom, if I’m being honest.

We took horses from the stable and rode back to Heldren with no problems. Yeah, we’d left the bandits, but they were looking better and would probably be fine. Also, there was the possibility that the woman who had been there the previous day would return to help them. Thankful for her safe return, the noblewoman gave us a sack of gold.

After Ionnia Teppen came and begged us to find the source of the unnatural winter, we woke up and interrogated the fairy. Terry went a little insane with it, pulling out a cold iron nail and trying to push it through the bound fairy’s foot. Only Burin’s quick actions prevented it from being more than a scratch. I was relieved. She goes from zero to torture a little quick for my tastes.

“I was just trying to scare it,” Terry said defensively.

“You don’t need to lie," Burin said. "It doesn’t get anyone anywhere. That goes for you too, little fairy. What’s your name?”

“Vrixx tell you nothing! She will do worse to Vrixx than you could imagine, much less do!”

“She?” Terry pulled on the thread.

“Will tell you nothing!”

He was obviously more afraid of this mysterious woman than us. “What about Teb Knotten? What can you tell us about him?”

“Bigger than you! He will crunch your bones!” He seemed confident that leading us to Teb would result in our deaths, so he didn’t have any problem telling us about him.

“And how do we find this Teb person?” Terry asked, rolling the nail between her fingers.

“Cross the ravine, seek the camp.”

We left the fairy, wrapped up in its cage, and discussed it. “I’m keeping him, by the way,” Terry said.

“Fine, whatever,” I said. I didn’t like the idea of giving her a chance to keep him to torture later, but I’d have to deal with that later when it actually came up.

I looked out the window and saw Gregor training again. Not at all surprising. He did seem to have adopted some new kind of stance I hadn’t seen before. Maybe the god of martial arts had taught him a way to deal with clerics. That would be nice.

The other two went outside and I did a soft boot of Cortana. While we had been riding here, Gregor had suggested that he might be considering leaving the group to go find a convent of nuns for training. I doubted he meant the kind of training I would have meant if I’d said that. No, I figure he meant to go fight the nuns to become stronger, because again, we hadn’t had the best luck against clerics. I needed a reason for him to stick with us, and that meant I needed a nice challenge to dangle in front of him.

“Cortana, given the parameters that a creature is bigger than me and a fairy has told me that the creature would ‘crunch my bones’, what are the most likely possibilities for said creature’s identity? Also, its name is Teb Knotten, if there’s any information on monstrous naming conventions in either the wiki or the Ranger database.”

“Indexing files. Search will take roughly two minutes.”

“Take your time,” I replied.

I looked out the window and watched Terry and Gregor talking. I heard Burin call out to them from by the doorway, though I couldn’t be certain what he said. After a few moments, Gregor walked over to the tree and punched it, causing a mass of snow to fall and completely cover Terry. It was only about waist high where Gregor stood.
Cortana gave me her data. It was perfect.

I stepped out the door. “Hey, guys! Cortana says that there’s a forty three point six percent chance that Teb Knotten is some kind of troll!” Not the internet kind. The real life under bridge kind.

Burin had to fish Terry out of the snow, then we set out, heading back to the lodge – there was a bridge over the ravine there. We could probably travel a mile or two either way and find another crossing, but we knew there was one there.

On the way, we found something strange on the side of the road. Unable to tell what it was, Burin hopped down and carefully prodded it. It was the corpse of a half orc woman frozen nearly solid in the snow. She was carrying gear that tied her to the bandits.

Had she been meaning to ambush us – or other travelers – and got caught in the storm? Well, she wouldn’t trouble anyone now.

Nor would the sick bandits back at the lodge. Something had broken in and torn out their throats. Gregor thought the tracks looked like wolves. So, with wolves about, we surveyed the bridge, realized we couldn’t take the horses across and set the horses free, telling them to run back to Heldren. They’d be fine.

Probably.

And at least if Daddy ever hears about that and tries to say anything, I can point out he sent his horse off with some people sick with ghoul fever and got her eaten.

The bridge itself was pretty rickety, covered in ice and blowing in the wind. So Burin just marched right across. Terry, Gregor and I were trying to figure out the best way over and next thing we know, Burin’s calling to us from the other side.

I want some of those boots. Especially since I fell off the bridge while trying to cross.

Don’t get me wrong, I had rope tied around me and the others were able to catch me and get me to the other side. But it was embarrassing. I’m more graceful than that, dammit!

It was an additional insult to injury when no one else had any trouble. Gregor even ran straight across, doing that nonsensical bird run thing where you throw your arms behind you as you run. And even worse? HE RAN ON ONE OF THE ROPES.

I’m so turning him into a toad at some point. Or lighting him on fire. Jerk.

We continued forward, eventually coming to a point where we could hear the sound of fighting ahead. So we crept forward until we spotted an ice mephit and two wolves fighting some skeletons. We slinked forward, closer still, until we could hear the mephit speaking.

“Stupid skeletons! Don’t attack my wolves!” She kicked one of the fallen enemies.

Then Vrixx cried out. “Izoze! Look out! They’re coming for you!”

The mephit flew back a ways and the wolves turned to engage us. Gregor did a flying leap, landing on one wolf’s skull with a sickening crunch. Burin trudged forward and engaged the other. Terry threw one of those primitive fuse grenades, which rolled through the snow and landed near the mephit’s feet.

The mephit didn’t seem to notice the grenade.

Gregor leapt forward and hit the grenade with a flask of alchemist’s fire – we had gotten a few from the lodge’s armory – shortening the grenade’s fuse and bringing the mephit’s attention to it. It didn’t matter, she didn’t have time to do anything before Terry fired, setting off the grenade with a loud bang.

Then Gregor whipped around and delivered a swift roundhouse kick to the other wolf, bringing it down and getting it to let go of Burin’s leg. Thankfully, Burin was wearing more than a lightly armored kilt now. But it had still scuffed up his magic boots. Stupid wolf. Those are nice boots, even if he went a little heavy on the fur.

Continuing forward, we came upon a clearing filled with massive boulders made entirely of translucent ice. In the center of the clearing was a massive hill of snow with what looked like a shack of some kind atop it, nestled in some trees. Perhaps this had been a watch post that had gotten buried in snow and ice?

We thought we saw a little girl in the maze of ice, but she ran off. Burin chased after and we followed. Suddenly, we heard words from within a block of ice. “I’m sorry! Don’t hurt me! I never meant to call you names!” Within the ice, we saw the image of a little girl cowering in fear.

“Who are you?” Burin asked.

“My name’s Thora,” the girl replied, then was gone. We pressed forward. Another image appeared in a block of ice. “Please don’t keep me here. It’s so cold. I miss my mother.”

“Why are they holding you?” Burin asked.

“I said mean things about the lady. Please, I just want to go home!” Once more, she disappeared.

Gregor, probably tired of the illusions or memories or whatever, tried climbing the wall of snow. He was nailing pitons into the soft powder. No, I don’t know why. He managed to make it a couple feet up and the snow collapsed, causing him to fall a couple feet back to the ground.

Burin pulled out a shovel and started trying to dig his way through the snow. After I’d learned the truth, Daddy had once joked that “If a dwarf thinks digging a hole is a viable solution, that’s the solution he will choose almost every time.” I was suddenly no longer sure he was joking. I looked at the ‘maze’, where I could see a fairly easy path. Terry and I exchanged a glance and left the boys to their silliness.

They rejoined us in time for another apparition in the ice. “I don’t want your stupid doll! I want to go home! Take me back!”

“Doll? What doll?” Terry seemed apprehensive. The image faded and Terry checked to make sure her gun was loaded.

We pressed forward and saw what turned out to be the final image. The girl was looking right at us. “I have to get away! And you should, too, before they see you. Run!”

“Before who sees us?”

“The bad lady!” She disappeared and the image was filled with haunting, traumatic images of the poor child’s past. The faces of countless frozen dead appeared as well, and my companions bolted in three directions in fright.

“Wait! Where are you going?!” I called out. “It’s just a memory, or maybe an illusion! It can’t hurt you!”

They didn’t seem to hear. Terry had an excuse, she was firing wildly at anything that moved in the maze as she ran. Mostly she just shot her own reflection. Meanwhile, Gregor climbed a tree.

A few moments later, Burin called out. “I think I found a path up this hill!”

Gregor jumped down. “The hut looks like something out of an old tale I once heard. We must be wary, for this is the realm of witches.”

We followed Burin up the path and came to the shack. The trees below it made it look like it had chicken feet. There was something nagging at the back of my mind, like that should be important, but I couldn’t place it.

I didn’t have time to think about it, because by the time I’d reached that point, Terry had walked into the hut and Gregor was following her. And I could see the creepy doll. I readied myself to cast. I just knew that something was going to happen, that doll was going to get up and things were going to get awful.

The doll did as I expected, hopping up and stabbing Terry with a small knife, then jumping down from its chair. Just into range of my spell. I didn’t even think. Just boom, a gout of flame, and the doll was a smoldering lump upon the snow.

Gregor gave Terry a look. “Why do you always go alone?” She muttered something I didn’t hear. “What did you say?” His tone sounded annoyed.

“Uh…” was all Terry could say in response. She looked at the doll and changed the subject. “Let’s see if it’s carrying anything valuable.”

“Wait! Don’t touch that!” Burin said.

“Why must you all act like my baby sitters?!” the girl pouted, but made no more move to touch the doll.

Burin examined the doll, searching for magic. He confirmed that one of its eyes – a beautiful sapphire – was filled with powerful mystical energy. He smashed it with his axe, and released that which was held within.

The spirit of the little girl, Thora, appeared before us. She smiled. “Thank you,” she said, before disappearing. We now realized what had happened. Someone had taken that girl and used her soul to power the doll. And those images before had been her memories.

Terry pulled a beautiful blue ribbon from the doll and tied it into her own hair, then somberly buried the doll. The whole experience seemed to be hitting her pretty hard.

As we left the clearing, we triggered a trap and were hit with a burst of cold so powerful even I felt it. That replaced my melancholy mood with an annoyed one. It seemed to have the same effect on the others.

Also, now we were cold. Well, they were. I was still fine, aside from being annoyed. So we started searching out a place to camp. It took over an hour, but eventually we found a decent place. It wasn’t nearly as good as that cave we’d found, but it would be fine.

At camp, Burin went to bed pretty much immediately while Terry and I played chess by firelight. I was surprised that the game existed here as well. “Can you tell me anything about your family?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t trade with anyone. I hit the parental jackpot. I do wish they didn’t have to work as much as they do, but they still always found plenty of time to spend with me and my younger siblings.” I don’t think I’ve mentioned them in my writings. They’re small and boring. And I don’t really want to think of my brother and sister right now, since I’m trying desperately not to think about the danger they might be in right now.

They were with our parents. They would be fine. They had to be. There was no other possibility.

I must have shown my worry on my face, because Terry changed the subject. “How did you start learning magic?” I told her an abridged version of the story where I had learned about my gift. “That’s pretty crazy.”

“I know, right?! One day I’m living a relatively normal life, then suddenly everything shifted. It was amazing!”

We played for a bit more and the topic changed to religion. “Do you believe in an afterlife?”

I shrugged. “It exists. My father died and went there.”

“Really?! So if someone dies, it’s possible to bring them back?” Wait. How did she not know this? Had I actually found an atheist on a world where the works of gods were constantly evident, where wizards could summon beings from the afterlife and converse with them?

“Absolutely. Though the amount of magical power necessary depends on how they died, whether you have their body handy and how long they’ve been gone. Ultimately, all we need is money to buy components and a powerful enough cleric to do the casting.”

“How much money?”

“Worst case scenario? Twenty five thousand gold worth of components plus the cost of buying the casting, if I recall correctly. Oh, and it won’t work if the person died of old age. Only if something else killed them.”

“So there’s a way,” I heard her whisper. I pretended not to hear. She could tell me when she was ready.

“And that’s game,” I said. She had put up a much better fight than I had expected, but I’d been playing against my parents for years. Daddy NEVER holds back at chess. For some reason, he’s really competitive about it. The only thing I’ve ever seen him take more seriously is the whole shoes on the carpet thing. “And with that, it’s probably time I turn in for the night. Wake me when it’s time for my watch.”

Terry invited Gregor, who had watched our game intently, to take my place at the chessboard. I didn’t hear much, falling asleep quickly.

I dreamt that I was flying through space, skipping and dancing across asteroids despite the fact that I know real asteroid fields aren’t like you see in movies. I waltzed along the rings of Saturn and swam through a nebula comprised entirely of argon. All the while, beautiful music followed me wherever I went.

I was pretty upset about being woken up, if I’m being honest.

I woke Terry once the sun had come up enough to strike camp. She jumped when I woke her and immediately cast a suspicious look at Burin. “Wait, where’s Vrixx?” I looked over. The cage lay empty, its door hanging open.

“I et him,” Burin said jokingly in a fake gruff accent, then licked his lips. Or tried. Doing that voice must have hurt his throat, because he coughed. I laughed at his joke.

Terry wasn’t laughing. “Don’t play with me! Where’s Vrixx?!” Had she really gotten attached to him? Or did she really just want to torture the poor thing?

“Calm down, little girl,” Burin said, back to his usual voice. “He got out. There was a second fairy, so it may have been a jailbreak. They blasted me good then ran away.”

“And you didn’t wake anyone?”

“They were gone. Didn’t seem right to bother anyone’s sleep since there was nothing we could do about it.” Terry gave him a look that could have withered crops, then grabbed her stuff and joined Gregor.

“Are you injured?” I asked, reaching for my wand.

“No, I’m fine. It was just a bunch of colored light. Stunned me a bit, is all.”

“Ah.” I knew what spell he was talking about. “Don’t worry, she’ll get over it. Probably.” And, to be honest, I was kinda relieved that we didn’t have to worry about that fairy anymore – or about what my companions would do to the poor thing.

Later that morning, we came across some blood in the snow. We tracked the blood to a nearby cave and ended up fighting a giant weasel. That crazy hunter in town had been right. We took it down quickly, but not before it managed to chomp down on Burin and hang on. At least it didn’t have cheek pouches to stuff him into.

After healing up – and skinning the weasel, because apparently we’re fur traders as well as adventurers – we pressed forward. It was becoming clear that we were heading in the right direction as the temperature dropped and snow began falling more steadily. Before we knew it, we were in a full blown blizzard.

We tied ourselves together so we wouldn’t get lost in the snow, giving about seven or eight feet of rope between each person. Terry kept me between her and Burin. She insisted. Must have been one hell of a freaky dream, or she was still mad about Vrixx.

We could tell we’d entered some kind of clearing by the way the sheer cliff wall and thick vegetation parted. We plodded forward – I REALLY wanted a pair of boots like Burin’s while we trudged through that thick snow – until we ran into an igloo. AN IGLOO.

Gregor bent down and moved inside to scout. He came back a moment later. “No good. There was pit under rug in there.” We continued forward, finding another igloo. This one seemed safe enough. Perhaps a good place to ride out the blizzard.

A pair of fairies came out of nowhere, running right into us. I reacted immediately, hitting them with some flame. My companions stabilized the one that had survived and we taped it up. Then we tossed it into the cage, which Burin had set on the ground.

Then someone threw a thunderstone. There was a loud crack and suddenly everything went silent. I touched my ear, there was a little blood coming out of it.

I managed to cast a spell, despite not being able to hear myself chant. I touched Burin’s shoulder, causing him to grow larger and bursting the rope tied around him. Then I pulled out a flask of alchemical fire. I couldn’t see more than five or so feet in front of me. There was no way I could safely use my fire magic even if I could manage to get the chant right. But maybe I could toss a flask.

I could see Gregor and Burin fighting something and I think Terry tossed a grenade, so I flung my flask. I could see the flash of flame and the silhouette of something big, so I grabbed another and threw again.

Gregor cut himself free from the rope, then ran between Terry and me. Then he disappeared, as if he’d teleported.

I took another hit from one of those stupid little fairy arrows. I was starting to get annoyed. If it hadn’t been for my inability to see in the snow, I would have torched every fairy in the area. Or at least all of the ones holding bows. Probably not the one we’d left taped up by the igloo.

Unless his friends shot me again. Then all bets were off.

I felt the shockwave of an explosion and saw the flash as the grenade Terry had thrown went off. A moment later, a large figure loped through the snow towards us. I was relieved when it was just Burin, returning to check on us. He said something, but I still couldn’t hear. Everything was ringing, which was an improvement, if not much of one.

I did try reading his lips, though. I think he was offering to tie Terry up, and Terry’s expression confirmed that whatever he’d said had been pretty badly worded, at the very least.

After Gregor had skinned – to no one’s surprise – our foe, which turned out to be a troll – Teb Knotten, maybe? – we followed the troll’s tracks to a cave. Well, first, we followed them to an igloo, which was empty. Then Gregor found evidence that the troll had leapt over the igloo on its way to us and retraced its steps. By climbing over the igloo instead of walking around it, if you’ll believe it.

Inside the cave, we found a chest filled with coins of several metals. It was a massive haul of treasure. There was also a bunch of food in crates along one wall. It was enough to feed a small army, which might have been the plan.

The food had been preserved by the chill temperatures of the cave. There was no way it would survive warming. So, since there was no sense in letting it go to waste, we used the magic box to process it from raw foodstuffs into more portable and storable items, like jerky and even a few goo tubes. The latter required a small investment of gold for the box to make the vacuum-sealed tubes.

I also had Cortana make me a pair of boots like Burin’s, though mine were more fashionable, with a half-inch heel and white weasel-fur trim. Perfect for either a girl traveling the dangerous wilderness or a girl who simply didn’t like the idea of slipping on an icy walkway while attending an opera in January.

Once we were done, we made our way out into the clearing, heading towards the source of the storm. As we got closer, we began seeing a strange light in the distance. Eventually, we reached a point where the storm seemed to stop around us, as if we were at its eye.

Before us, in the center of a ring of frozen stalagmites, was a giant portal. We couldn’t see much on the other side, but it was apparent that this was the source of the midsummer snows.

A small figure came crashing through the portal. It bounced on the snow twice, then rolled the rest of the way, coming to a rest at our feet. It took only a moment to identify the tiny corpse, even with the massive gashes across its abdomen and back.

It was Vrixx.

Terry’s eyes bulged in her head and she readied her gun to take on whatever came through. I prepared to cast a spell, and I saw Gregor ready his shield and Burin draw his axe.

A monstrous figure in coal black on the back of a terrible steed rode through the portal. He regarded us for a moment. “You’re not hers. Thank the stars.” Then his horse vanished and he collapsed to his knees in the snow. His armor disappeared, revealing him to be nothing more than a wounded old man.

I could see that he was injured, so I drew my wand and rushed to his side. He stopped me with a wave of his hand.

“Thank you, but there is nothing that can be done for me now. But please, listen to my words. There is little time, and much I must share.”

“Who are you?” Terry asked skeptically.

“Once, I was called Illarion Matveius. Now I am known as Black Midnight. I am Baba Yaga’s Black Rider, harbinger of the Witch Queen’s return.” Baba Yaga?! THE Baba Yaga? From Russian Folklore? I had heard the fairy tales, but I had held little interest in them. They were just stories. There was real magic in the world, and that was what I’d been interested in.

“Who did this to you, friend? And why?” Burin asked.

““The servants of Queen Elvanna, ruler of Irrisen and betrayer of her own mother. “Something has happened to Baba Yaga. Every hundred years, she returns to Irrisen to place a new daughter on the throne. But Queen Elvanna has other plans, it seems. Baba Yaga has not appeared as planned, and Elvanna intends to slay everyone loyal to her mother. She hunted down those of us who would herald Baba Yaga’s return and slew my associates. I am the last of the Three Riders and a threat to Elvanna’s plans.”

The name Elvanna sounded familiar to me. And Irrisen I had heard of. The Voidstrife Cartel had begun doing some minor trade up there a few months prior. I’d even considered it as a place to seek out adventure. There are always monsters lurking in the cold.

“Wait,” Gregor said. “Strange old man comes through portal, and we’re all just going to believe his crazy story?”

I considered quoting the Adventurer Wiki to him. A random encounter with a supernatural being who tasks a party with something is like the third most common beginning for a proper adventure, right after meeting a strange person in a tavern and having your hometown invaded or destroyed by the minions of some nefarious power. Instead, I just shrugged. “Yeah, pretty much.”

Gregor sighed. “Fine. What are this Elvanna’s plans?”

“She wishes to take Baba Yaga’s place, and claim all of Golarion as her personal kingdom. Irrisen is a land of endless winter, created by Baba Yaga’s magic. Elvanna seeks to cover the entire world in ice and snow, using portals like this one.”

“There are more?” I asked, receiving a nod. “Can we stop them?”

“Seek the Pale Tower on the other side, if you wish to stop this one. Doing so will save this kingdom, but there are many others and the whole world of Golarion will still be doomed.”

I couldn’t accept that. This was about more than an adventure now. This was about saving lives and preventing the whole world from falling into the tyranny of winter. “What do you want to do?” I asked the others. “I want to help, but I can’t do it alone. But this can’t be my choice. If this world falls, I don’t have to live here when it’s over, but you do. So what do we do?”

“We can’t let people get hurt by this,” Burin said, as I knew he would.

“At very least, we should seek Pale Tower. Saving world may be too big a challenge for us, but we can save kingdom.” Gregor said. “Though, truth be told, saving world could be exact challenge I need.”

“I don’t like the cold,” Terry said. I think that was a statement of agreement. “If we decided to stop this queen, how would we go about it?”

“You must find Baba Yaga. Only Baba Yaga can defeat Elvanna. Only the Queen of Witches can undo what her daughter has done. You must use her Dancing Hut to follow her. The hut is a powerful artifact that can cross great distances, even travel between worlds. If you can control the hut, it can take you to Baba Yaga.”

“And where is this hut?” Terry had gone into professional mode, that look of a killer in her eyes.

“Elvanna stole the hut and put it on display in Irrisen’s capital, Whitethrone, as a symbol of her power. You must go through the portal to Irrisen and find the Dancing Hut.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Are you sure we can do nothing for you?”

“No. I am finished. Take these. Place them inside the cauldron within Baba Yaga’s hut to begin to trace her footsteps and ultimately find out how Elvanna betrayed her.” He drew out a lock of white hair and a plague doctor’s mask. “But they have lost their power. That, at least, I can do something about. Good luck, heroes. The world rests on your shoulders.” He drew out a knife and slit his own throat, spilling his blood upon the artifacts. They drank in his power and I could see a momentary glow within them.

I also felt power surging within me. It was strange, but I felt like my mind could make connections it could not before. I finally figured out a magical puzzle I had been struggling with – a new way to harness my powers.

We gathered the objects he’d given us and buried both his and Vrixx’s corpses – Burin dug the hole in almost no time at all. Then we stepped forward through the portal and into the blinding snows beyond.


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Poldaran wrote:

WTB Less Lame title. :P

Anyway, as advertised, this will be a chronicle of our Reign of Winter campaign, which I am co-GMing with the GM of our mostly defunct Runelords campaign. {. . .}

NNNOOOOOOOO! I was just getting to a point of having passed travails in my life where I could start considering reading people's campaign journals and PbPs again, and that campaign went defunct!!? Must . . . finish . . . .

Anyway, this one is short so far, so I read it, and cool so far.


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UnArcaneElection wrote:
NNNOOOOOOOO! I was just getting to a point of having passed travails in my life where I could start considering reading people's campaign journals and PbPs again, and that campaign went defunct!!? Must . . . finish . . . .

Don't worry. We're still working on finishing it. Just shorter, more narrative(less dicey) sessions.

Latest session is typed up for this one. Just waiting on other players' review to make sure I didn't miss something and a grammar pass. Maybe up by tomorrow.


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The Land of Winter

Spoiler:
Once my eyes adjusted to being on the other side, I scanned the area around me. We were in a glade filled with deep snows. I was incredibly glad I was wearing those boots. Terry was the only one having any real trouble in the snow, since two of us had magic boots and Gregor had crafted some rudimentary snowshoes.

“Do you hear that?” Burin asked us suddenly.

I focused and listened. “It sounds like shouting. The voices sound panicked.”

“Yes, perhaps a battle,” Gregor agreed.

“Should we –“ I began to say to Burin, but he was already on his way.

“Go,” Gregor said to me. “Only a few feet til the tree line and girl should be fine in smaller snows. I’ll come right behind you once I’ve gotten her there.”

I nodded and followed Burin. We moved quickly and soon came to another break in the trees. It might have been a road, though I couldn’t tell with all the snow. Also, it was hard to focus on what the clearing was, what with the giant mantis trying to eat a woman, while a horrified man was desperately fighting to save her.

Burin moved quickly to help, but I could do something from where I was. I began to focus, gathering some of the energy from the reservoir of arcane power I maintained within my own blood.

An arcanist is different from most wizards and sorcerers because we focus on what Daddy calls the three As: Amplification, Alteration and Adaptability. Our adaptability means we can change our daily preparations in ways sorcerers cannot, but we also don’t marry any individual daily casting to a specific spell like wizards.

Alteration refers to our ability to play with the rules of magic. Arcanists train to know which rules can be bent and which can be broken, and more importantly, just how to do so using the arcane power we stored within every day.

And then there’s amplification. All arcanists learn to use the power we store within to increase the strength of our spells. But some of us play around with it, and learn that we can amplify things other than our spells, if we can just figure out how.

That was the puzzle I’d solved just before coming through the portal. I’d figured out how to amplify something. I quickly pulled forth a small amount of the magic within and focused it in an area just in front of me. Then I reached my hand into the floating, invisible ball of magic and snapped my fingers.

A coherent beam of sound shot out from my hand, slamming into the mantis. It cut through its exoskeleton, drawing ichor. Then Burin was upon it, slamming his axe into the creature’s side.

The man managed to pull the woman from the mantis’ claws. It wheeled around and struck at Burin, grabbing him. He’s got a perfect record for being grabbed by giant creatures at this point. At least this one didn’t have cheek pouches to stuff him into.

Gregor arrived just in time for the end of the fight. Terry also tried to help, but her shot was only a grazing blow. But in the end, the mantis was no match for us. Burin extricated himself from the claws, then once he was sure the woman was okay – I’d healed her with my wand – he hacked one of the claws off.

“Do you think we can eat this?” the dwarf asked, holding up his prize.

Gregor clapped him on the shoulder. “Friend, this I do not know. What I do know is that we are going to try anyway.”

Terry stumbled over to us. She looked dizzy. “Oh, yay. Now we’re eating bugs. That sounds just great.” Then she threw up.

I wasn’t a doctor, but it looked like she had teleportation sickness. It’s rare, but some people can’t handle the sudden shift in barometric pressure, elevation and possibly even subtle shifts in the magnetic fields of differing locations. At least I think that’s what I remember from the lecture on teleportation.

The short of it was that she’d probably be fine with teleporting less than a few miles, while anything over a hundred would likely cause problems. Which meant we were quite a ways from Heldren, though I already knew that thanks to having studied Golarion’s geography before coming here. Teleporting from Taldor to Irrisen is something akin to going from Turkey to the UK in distance. I think. I saw maps once for a bit. I can name the countries. I even know the major exports of a few of them.

Like you’d do any better if you had to memorize two worlds’ worth of nations.

The woman who we’d rescued thanked us. She had an accent similar to Gregor’s and spoke a language I didn’t entirely recognize. But I could make out words here and there – thank God I got Mama’s language genes, even if I didn’t get the full mutation – and Gregor did understand her.

She switched to speaking Taldan for our benefit. “Apologies. I am Nadya Petska. There is little time to talk right now. A storm is coming. Please, as thanks for saving me, join us at our camp and take shelter against the cold. You, especially, look like you could use some shelter,” she said to me.

I laughed. “Actually, I’m used to the cold, so it doesn’t bother me. Also, I have magic boots.”

“I see. Nonetheless, let us move quickly to shelter.”

I helped Terry through the snow as we made our way to Nadya’s camp, safely within a copse of trees. There were five dogsleds – all pulled by what looked like Siberian huskies! – and several guards, though I hesitate to call them such. Based on the clothing and gear, they were likely simply a band of local hunters who were out hunting game for their village.

No wonder they were out of their depths with the giant mantis. Honestly, it probably wasn’t even a native, but instead a Taldan transplant that had wandered through the portal into the northlands. Maybe that’s why there had been a moose in Taldor? Had the fairies brought it with them?

As we sat down at the fire, I suddenly realized that I felt exhausted. Had I caught whatever was making Burin cough so much? Ugh. And Terry threw up again as we’d traveled, which was making me a bit queasy.

If I felt a little out of it, Terry was obviously far worse off. She seemed a bit delirious. “Tell me about Baba Yaga,” she said to Nadya.

“What? Why do you speak the name of the queen of witches?”

“Because on the other side of the portal, there was this rider guy in black and he was all, ‘Baba Yaga this’ and ‘Baba Yaga that’ and I think now we have to go find her.”

“You’ve spoken with Baba Yaga’s Black Rider?”

“Oh yeah. Apparently her daughter Elvanna has been naughty and needs a spanking. I think. Excuse me a moment.” Then she threw up in the snow. Well, it was mostly dry heaving. But you get the idea.

I remembered something and pulled Gregor aside. “Hey, do you still have that potion you bought in town?” He and the others had picked up a potion of disease curing while in Heldren. They’d bought it since we’d encountered the illness in the lodge.

“Yes. You are thinking girl needs it?”

The way I felt, I could probably use it, but Terry needed it more. “Yes, please get her to drink it, if you would, Gregor.”

“I know exact right way to do this.”

Gregor poured the potion into his hip flask, which he’d given quite a few drinks to the kid from. He then approached her and offered her a drink, telling her it would settle her stomach. She took a full swig of the contents. I could see an immediate and marked improvement, though she still looked a little green around the gills.

“So, what brings you out here, Nadya?” I asked, just trying to make conversation.

“My daughter is… missing. I’m doing what I can to get her back.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. We’re traveling a lot. We could keep an eye out for her. Tell me, what’s her name?”

“I’d appreciate that. Her name is Thora.”

My blood ran cold. I didn’t know what to say. My mind ran at full speed, desperately trying to find something to say that would make things less awkward. But I couldn’t find anything.

I was saved by the arrival of a visitor to the camp. I recognized immediately what she was. She was a forlarren, the offspring of a nymph and a fiend. And worse, she was winter-touched. Now, look, I don’t want to judge someone by accidents of their birth. Tieflings are oppressed all over Golarion by the prejudices of people, even in Absalom after Daddy had spent all that time trying to improve their situation.

But what people need to understand is that fiends are true embodiments of evil, and the odds that one of their direct offspring would be evil as well are extremely high. And winter fey seemed to fall into the evil end of the pool as well.

That said, her stated reason for joining us – getting out of the storm – could be the truth. It was entirely possible that she had no ulterior motives. But it didn’t hurt to keep on our toes. I warned Gregor about my suspicions. He promised to be ready at the first sign of trouble.

My paranoia was raised further fairly quickly, as it didn’t take long for her to take an interest in us. That might have been Burin’s fault. He was trying to be friendly. Too friendly. It honestly looked like it was creeping the poor girl out.

The forlarren, who had introduced herself as Mierul, spoke to us. “So, tell me about yourselves. You don’t appear to be from around here.”

“These are my relatives,” Nadya said quickly.

“I want you to be my mommy!” Terry said, still delirious. Apparently magic potions don’t cure teleportation sickness. Or maybe she was just tired.

The fey ignored her. “What brings you here?”

“They’re just visiting,” Nadya insisted.

It wasn’t working. “Please, dear cousin, it’s okay, we can tell her the truth. We’re fur traders. We thought we’d come up here and do some hunting. Some exotic furs could bring in massive profits from the noble houses of Magnimar. That we had a relative up here whose hospitality we could take advantage of was simply a bonus.”

Gregor, understanding what I was doing, pulled out the remaining weasel fur. “Is very good quality. We are hoping to get much for it.”

“Also, we’re here to kill witches,” Burin said.

The entire camp went completely silent. No one spoke. None of the dogs made a sound. The wind stopped howling. The fire stopped crackling. Actually, I think I may have just gone completely deaf out of shock for a moment there.

“Please ignore dwarf,” Gregor said. “He is, as they say, touched in head.”

“Also, he has been drinking. Because he’s a dwarf. It’s a thing they do.” Yeah, I know. I was bad for saying it. But sometimes, stereotypes are true. Dwarves liking beer is one of those.

“I…see…” the fey said, her voice suspicious.

“Friend,” Gregor said to Burin as he kept trying to talk. “I’ve been meaning to show you game I have been working on. Please, join me over here.” It kinda looked like they were playing Jenga, but with bigger blocks.

Nadya quickly tried to change the subject. “Tell me, traveler, have you any tales to share?”

“I can spin a yarn, or perhaps we might do better with a song. I noticed an instrument case. Would the player like to join me?”

“That belongs to my sister,” I said, indicating Terry, who had fallen asleep leaning on Nadya’s shoulder. “But I think it best that we let her rest.”

“A solo performance it is.”

That wouldn’t do. As I understand, you can do a lot of thinking while playing. I needed to distract her further. “Do you know anything with a high tempo?”

She looked at me quizzically and played a bar. “Will that do?”

“It’s fine.” I was exhausted, but I danced along with the music. It wasn’t great, but passable. I worked the crowd as best I could, even doing my best to flirtatiously catch the fey’s attention.

When it was done, the fey thanked me for joining in and made her way to the edge of camp to retire. She dropped a small bag as she left. Gregor quickly grabbed it and we stealthily looked through it. He handed me a potion to investigate. I detected an aura of magic in it, and identified it as a potion used to hide one’s alignment. A useful thing for an evil creature, that.

There were also several books, though only one really stood out to me. “The Science of Reanimation by Chemical Means,” I read the title out loud. “By Herbert West.” It was an exotic book. For some reason, even when we replaced everything else in the bag and laid it back in the snow, I kept that book. I was curious about it, perhaps almost even compelled to read it.

As exhausted as I was, I even spent an hour reading it before bed. It told the story of a researcher on a far-away world who had discovered the means to bring someone back to life via injection of a potion of some kind, but it had unfortunate consequences every time. It was a pretty interesting read.

I don’t think I was asleep for long before I woke to the feeling of someone touching me. Terry had cuddled up next to me, which was cute, but she was also grabbing one of my breasts – and not in an innocent way – which was not.

“Hey,” I said, pushing her away. “Go back to your own bedroll.” She mumbled something. I think I heard the name Penelope. I shook her harder. “Terry. Go back to your own bedroll.”

Her eyes opened, she looked at me, then threw up on me. I walked her back to her own bedroll and used my magic to clean myself off. Daddy was right. That really was the most useful spell. I still wanted a bath, though.

Once again clean, even if I didn’t feel like I was, I went back to bed.

I woke up in what looked like a basement, but also like some kind of operating room. Or maybe it was a morgue? Those are often in basements and have these kinds of tables. Cadaver tables, I think they’re called.

Had I died? Was I a zombie? I thought for a few moments. No, there was no craving for brains. I looked down at my body. No stitches or other signs of wounds. But I was wearing a cheerleader’s outfit. A really skimpy one.

Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the weirdness of where I’d woken up, I would have been excited about the whole situation. I looked damn good. Not an ounce more body fat than necessary, but just enough to give me an ass worth grabbing.

The front of my top read “M U”, though I couldn’t tell what university it meant. The colors were dark green, white and black. Deciding that I’d spent enough time checking myself out, I looked for a door and made my way upstairs and out into what appeared to be commons of a university. It was late afternoon, going into early evening. The sun was beginning to set, casting long shadows across the campus.

And there was no one around.

I saw a light in a building across the clearing and made my way over. “Miskatonic University,” I said, reading the writing on the glass door aloud. “Arkham, Massachusetts.” When had I come back to Earth? Was the invasion over? What had happened with the whole Baba Yaga thing?

I wasn’t going to get answers staring at a door, so I went inside and made my way upstairs, seeking the room with the light on. I walked through a hall, my footsteps echoing off the generic white tile floors and off-white painted walls.

At last, I came to a door with light coming out through the bottom. The plaque on the door read “Faculty Lounge”. I knocked and then opened it. I was not quite prepared for what I saw.

My godmother was sitting there, having a glass of tea. Sitting at the table across from her was the gnome I’d seen in that strange dream. He was eating what looked like an IHOP kid’s breakfast. The one where they make a smiley face with the pancakes.

“Auntie ‘Mantha? Mister Gnome? What are you doing here?”

My godmother laughed. “I believe we should be the ones asking you that. You’re in the Dreamlands, child. I live here, and Gribbletoo here wanted to come over for tea. Which he hasn’t drunk.” She gave him a pointed look.

Gribbletoo? Hadn’t I heard that name before? I was having trouble remembering where, though.

“I’m eating my pancakes!” the gnome protested. “I’ll drink the tea after.”

“It’s gonna get cold.” My godmother was taking this tea thing way too seriously.

“Your wife’s brother drinks his with ice and way too much sugar and cream.” Wait. Did he mean Daddy?

“He also drinks his milk with strawberry syrup. What’s your point?” Yeah, they were talking about Daddy.

I decided that they would probably circle around this conversation all day. “Speaking of Daddy, have you heard from him? Do you have any idea how things are on Earth?”

My godmother sighed. “It’s pretty bad. But the weird part is that the aliens that are attacking are way out of their normal territory. Something must have prodded them in that direction. Or someone.”

“You sound like you have suspicions.”

“Yeah. Your father REALLY pissed off Lamashtu. I can’t find any proof, of course, since even she’s not stupid enough to risk getting caught attacking Earth and violating the treaty. But I’d bet it was her anyway.”

So we had a goddess against us. I was beginning to feel even worse. “Is there anything you can do?”

“Not without violating the treaty myself.”

The way she said it suggested something to me. “But you’re trying to think of something anyway.”

“Lyriana! I’m shocked at you! What a horrible yet completely accurate thing to accuse me of!” She was laughing pretty hard. I couldn’t help but laugh along. “So, what does bring you here, my dear?”

“She’s visiting the dreams of her adventuring party,” Gribbletoo said, his mouth still half full.

My godmother laughed again. “Ah, that old gem. Been reading tomes of eldritch knowledge, finding a way in through horrific psychic trauma they’ve experienced?”

Was that what I was doing? “I, uh, guess?”

“It’s not on purpose?! Oh, man, that’s hilarious! Well, the Dreamlands aren’t a safe place to just wander about. Be careful, and watch out for the guy with the mirrors on his shoes.”

“Is he dangerous?”

“Dangerous? No, not really. Nodens is just a pervert. He’ll try to get a look at your panties.”

“Well, good luck with that,” I said impishly. “I don’t think I’m wearing any.”

My godmother spit out tea as she began laughing again. “Yeah, you’ll be just fine.”

If she believed I’d be okay, I wasn’t worried. “Well, I guess I should get to finding the doors I need, if that’s what I’m here for.”

“Good luck!” Gribbletoo pulled on her sleeve. “What?”

“It’s dangerous to go alone,” the gnome said.

“True enough.” She walked over to a locker and opened it. She reached in and pulled something out and handed it to me. “Here, take this.”

I looked at the adorable little ball of fur in her hands. “A kitten?” I asked, taking it from her.

She shrugged. “Cats are some of the most powerful creatures in the Dreamlands. She can keep you safe.”

The kitten yawned and stretched in my hands. “Does she have a name?”

“No,” the cat replied, her voice adorable. “But you can give me one, if you’d like?”

I looked her over. She was a beautiful black kitten covered in white flecks. She almost looked like a starscape in adorable cat form. “Nebula,” I said. She would be my adorable little space kitty.

The kitten hopped up onto my shoulder and nuzzled my cheek. “I like it!” she said enthusiastically in her adorable voice.

My godmother clapped me on the other shoulder. “I can’t wait until your parents find out I got you a pet. Kyle’s going to freak out about the carpets. It’s gonna be great!”

Oh wow. She was right. I was going to have to get my own apartment if I came back with a cat. On the other hand, I couldn’t abandon Nebby, my adorable widdle kitty puff. And she was going to protect me in the Dreamlands, apparently. Somehow.

I’m not even sure my bunny slippers would fear her.

I bid farewell to my benefactors – making sure to remember to thank Gribbletoo for the syrup from before – and began wandering through the campus. Eventually, I found a door to a lecture hall that was unlocked and let myself in.

There was a young girl standing in a crowd of people. She was preternaturally still as the crowds flowed about her. I looked harder, and it was Terry, though there were some differences. Her expression was strikingly different. The Terry I knew had a grim look, as if she were someone who had seen far more than her young age. This Terry looked completely innocent.

She was also hanging from strings, like a marionette. And wearing a yellow coat. Did it have something to do with that book she’d touched? She’d acted like it freaked her out, even just touching it. Which was weird. It was nothing but a silly story.

There was another figure standing unmoving, off on the sidewalk. He was staring at Terry, his face frozen in a terrified scream. Looking at him, I could see a resemblance. Perhaps this was Terry’s father? Was this a memory of her past in some way? A recollection of her parents’ agony at her being forced to be a soldier for the mob?

I tried interacting with both of them, but they were stuck completely, as if they’d frozen into reality itself. Nebby and I decided we wouldn’t find much else here, so we moved on.

The next interesting event occurred when we entered a commons courtyard between some buildings. We found ourselves upon a hill that looked familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. Down the hill below us was a dwarf. From his white hair, I immediately knew it was Burin we were seeing.

I tried to call out to him, but he didn’t hear me. Instead, I watched as his shadow began to lengthen in the rapidly setting sun, only to continue growing even after the sun set. Soon, pulled away from the ground it was projected on, becoming a massive form, towering over the dwarf.

“I WILL BE FREE!” roared the shadow.

“I can’t allow that!” Burin shouted back, swinging his axe at the gigantic, horned shade.

“YOU CANNOT CONTAIN ME!”

“Then I’ll find a way to destroy you, once and for all!” The two battled on and on, as if it were a dance both knew the steps to well.

“Nebby, is there a way I can help?” I asked. “I haven’t been able to intervene in other dreams, but I have to do something!”

The kitten regarded me. “This is a dream,” she said. “A conscious mind has some power here, if you can wield it. Shape the dream-stuff to your will.”

Okay. Shape the dream stuff. But how? And into what? What would work against a shadow? Light maybe? Could I create a light from nothing? I focused, but nothing happened.

Perhaps it wasn’t creation I needed, but change. Could I strengthen some lights? But what lights? There wasn’t even a moon out. All that left was stars.

I looked up. It wasn’t right. The stars weren’t right. They should be more recognizable. It frustrated me. I wished they’d change.

And just like that, they did. They were just like the stars at home, complete with all the recognizable constellations. “What did you do?!” the cat hissed in shock.

“Now the stars are right,” I said with a grin. And then the stars began falling from the sky. One by one, tumbling down.

Blazing light filled the night as meteors struck around us, in random areas. There was no shockwave of impact, no heat of entry. Just blinding luminescence. The shade recoiled in pain from the light, and Burin gained the upper hand. He would have no trouble beating his foe this time.

“That’s one way to do it,” Nebula said, giving me a curious look. “Let’s continue on. It feels like there’s one more dreamer waiting for you.”

I found myself once more within the halls of the school. I wandered around for a bit longer, eventually coming to the gymnasium. I made my way inside and found myself within the walls of Gregor’s monastery once again.

There were bodies strewn all about. I heard the sound of seven sharp thunderclaps, but there was no lightning. I followed the sound and found Gregor squaring off with the faceless figure, who I could see a bit more now. His clothing looked almost familiar, like one of those Russian Orthodox priest robe thingies.

Gregor charged and was immediately rebuked. “You think you can beat me? Your master tried and failed to kill me. What makes you think a simple student will do better?”

“God of Martial Arts, give me strength!” the fighter prayed, then charged once more. He was immediately thrown back against a wall.

The faceless figure turned to me. “You return? A foolish choice.” He closed the distance instantly. I felt his hand around my throat as he lifted me into the air with one hand. “I will kill you tonight and every night for eternity!”

Nebula didn’t like that one bit. The kitten grew instantly into a full grown cat and let out an angry hiss, then leapt from my shoulder straight at the figure’s head. She clawed his faceless head twice, drawing rivulets of blood.

In his surprise, the figure let me go. I stumbled backward as I caught my breath. Nebula put herself between me and our enemy. “A cat?!” the figure roared. “You think a cat can stop me?!”

I had to laugh. “I have it on good authority that cats are among the most powerful of creatures within the Dreamlands.”

“What a delightfully marvelous thing to say,” Nebula commented. Her form shifted once more. She was no longer a simple cat, but instead a full sized catfolk. She looked like something out of an anime. Even the clothes she now wore looked like a school uniform.

“Sorcery!” the figure roared. It began casting a spell, though I couldn’t quite tell what it was.

Nebula was quicker. She pounced upon him and knocked him to the ground. Then she tore out his throat with her massive, finger-like claws. Nebby turned and gave me a Cheshire grin, then returned to her kitten form and bounded up into my arms.

“Is he dead?” I asked.

“Nightmares can be dispelled, but they always return,” she purred as I lovingly scratched under her chin.

“So what now?” I asked.

“There’s still time left to dream. What would you like to dream about?”

“Do you think either of Miskatonic’s swim teams might be here late doing some practice in some nice, tight speed suits?”

The kitten lightly patted my nose with her paw. Then she nuzzled me with her face. “I don’t think so, but I think I heard about a party tonight at a fraternity.”

I could work with that! “Woo! TOGA TOGA TOGA!” I chanted.

Nebula sighed and leaped on my shoulder. “That way!” she said, pointing. I must admit, it wasn’t a bad party until someone threw up in the fish tank.

I woke up and prepared my spells for the day, then grabbed some breakfast. Reheated grilled mantis is not a good idea, FYI. I was glad I had all those tubes of food goo.

The forlarren bard bid her farewells. Burin saw her off. “You take care now, whatever your name was!” he shouted with a wave.

“Should I ask about her?” Terry asked, taking a sip from her massive mug of coffee. “Or has Burin simply decided he wants to sleep with a goat now?”

Gregor looked up from his breakfast. “Once, at monastery, there was man who kept sneaking off, night after night. Rest of students certain he had girl he was visiting, but he would not tell us about her. One night, several of us follow, to see this girl, learn why he wouldn’t talk of her. We followed him to farm. Having heard many stories of farmer’s daughters, we were prepared to cheer him on, but surprised with what we find.”

“Was she hideous?” Terry asked.

“This is what I’m saying. Was no girl. Found him in goat pens, with pants around ankles.”

“Was he doing some kind of training?” Burin asked, having only just returned to us.

Gregor gave him a serious look. “Yes. Had pioneered new style of combat. Involved much grappling.” Terry choked on her coffee. I did my best not to laugh.

“Oh. Did you ever learn that style?” I don’t think Burin had caught on.

“No, was not for me. Prefer combat with pants on.”

“That makes sense. Wouldn’t want to trip.” The dwarf grabbed a piece of mantis and completely missed coffee shooting out of Terry’s nose.

“So, what’s up with that lady who left?” Terry asked a few minutes later.

Oh boy. We spent ten minutes explaining to her everything about the night’s conversation with the fey. She didn’t look too happy when she learned about Burin’s antics. In fact she pulled out her gun and began stroking it lovingly.

“Wait,” she said suddenly. “Where are my bullets?”

Gregor produced a small bag of ammunition. “You were not in state to be armed last night. I took for safekeeping. You may have back if you promise not to shoot dwarf.”

“Fine,” she pouted. “I wish I had died back at the dragon.”

“Now that’s not a good thing to say,” Burin admonished. “I, for one, am glad you didn’t die. If you had died, you’d be dead, like Nadya’s daughter Thora.”

“Yes. Exactly!” Terry shouted. “I wouldn’t have to put up with you because I’d be dead. JUST LIKE NADYA’S DAUGHTER.”

I heard the sound of logs dropping into the snow. I turned and saw Nadya standing there, mouth agape. My brain went into shock. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. From the looks of it, Gregor was going through a similar crisis. And I don’t think Burin had even noticed Nadya’s arrival.

Terry broke the silence, though it was apparent she hadn’t done much better at forming a thought than Gregor or I had. “Hi!” she said awkwardly. “I’m Terry!”

It was at that moment that Nadya noticed the ribbons in Terry’s hair. “How?” she asked softly.

“Well, you see,” Burin began, “some witch plucked her soul from her body and used it to make a doll.”

Well, at least, I think that’s what he was saying. He got as far as ‘soul’ before Gregor hit him. “Now is not time for that,” he whispered.

“But wouldn’t she want to know that we released her girl from the agony of being trapped in a doll?” Again, I think that’s what he meant to say. Gregor hit him again at the word ‘released’ and Nadya ran off. “Okay, I guess not.”

I tried to go after her, but one of the hunters stopped me. “Give her time. It is for the best that she knows. I think she’s even relieved to know that her daughter is free from that woman. But she will need time.”

“Right,” was all I could reply.

I returned to the others and found Gregor showing off his latest acquisition from the replicator. “And what could we possibly need something like that for?” Terry asked.

“Is tiny net. Is for catching tiny fairies.” I couldn’t fault his logic. And the silliness of the conversation made me feel a bit better.

After we struck camp, we got on the dog sleds. To pass the time, I spoke with one of the hunters. He didn’t speak much Common, so I was forced to try learning his language. I was making progress more quickly than I would have thought, since his language had clear similarities to Russian. It was sort of like trying to understand Italian when you already know Spanish, or at least, how that kind of thing has been described to me.

A few hours after leaving, the sleds came to a halt. “Hide under the blankets!” Nadya commanded us. The urgency in her voice brokered no questions. We had to move quickly. But we weren’t quick enough.

Soon, we were getting swarmed by ravens. The ravens were idiots for engaging us. Quickly, they became flash fried idiots, en masse. “What was that about?” I asked.

“The ravens must have realized that you were outsiders,” Nadya said. She gave a pointed look at my clothing.

“Yeah, I guess I do stick out a bit.”

“Gregor, too,” Burin added.

“That’s enough from you,” Terry said. She removed the ribbon from her hair. “We’re sorry about what happened to your daughter. If it makes you feel better, part of our plan involves killing the witch who did that to her. I know it’s a small consolation at best. But I’ve lost loved ones and I know that the death of the one who hurt them will make me feel a lot better.”

Nadya took the ribbon. “Good,” she said. “Make sure that Nazhena Vasilliovna can hurt no one else.”

“She’ll die screaming,” I heard Terry whisper.

We reached the village about an hour later. As we approached, a villager ran out to greet us. “Hello, outsiders,” he said.

“Hello, insider,” Burin replied.

The man gave Burin a strange look, the turned to Gregor. “At last you’ve returned. Please, collect your friends from the inn and get them out of town.”

“I am having never been here before. I cannot be returning.”

“Apologies, my lord. I did not get a good look at the man who came before. All I saw was that he was wearing the same clothing as you.”

“The same clothing?” Gregor asked.

“Another survivor?” Terry asked. “I thought you said that everyone else was dead.”

“I buried every single other student,” Gregor replied.

“Then could it be an imposter?”

“Is entirely possible.”

“Let’s go to the inn and find out, then.”

The peasant nodded. “Thank you my lords. Old Willem must return to his work now.” Wait. Did he just say Willem? Before I could ask, he ran off. Well, that meant that whatever waited in the inn would be an interesting encounter. Neat.

As we made our way over to the inn, I was struck by just how much like Heldren this village, Waldsby, looked. It wasn’t identical, but damn if it wasn’t close. There was something strange going on here. But I didn’t have time to look into it. I had work to do. Probably.

We entered the inn and found a sallow faced weasel of a man sitting at a table, with the innkeeper nowhere to be seen. The man drained his mug and gave Gregor a long, appraising look. “Well, well, what ‘ave we ‘ere? So one of the old man’s students survived after all. Well, it’s not me place to judge. Though I’m sure that Vasily will be very interested to learn this news.”

“Vasily?! That rat is here?” Gregor shouted.

“Who’s Vasily?” Terry whispered to Gregor.

“He used to be Sergei’s student, like me. But he was exiled. I am not knowing why, however. Tell me where I can find that rat,” he demanded of the man at the table. “I will ask him myself what he knows of Sergei’s death.”

“No need to go getting all worked up,” the man said, pouring himself more wine from his bottle. “He’s not in at the moment. He’s off hunting down that black rider or whatever it’s called. He should be back in a few days. So sit down and make yourself comfortable. You’re buying the next round.”

Terry clapped, her face giving a sarcastic smirk. “Well, isn’t that just wonderful? Always so quick to croak out information, but never knowing the important things. Like a good little frog. Or is it Toad, Vinnie?” Instantly her gun was pointed right at the man’s face. “So, just what is Typhon Lee’s little toad doing so far from his pond?”

“Wait. Terry? Is that you?” He chortled at some joke I wasn’t in on. “Typhon told me what he’d done to you, but seeing it with my own eyes is just amazing.”

“I will shoot you somewhere painful but not fatal if you don’t answer my question very quickly, Toad.”

I heard a woman laughing from over at the bar. “My, my, Vinnie, but you do make friends so very quickly.” She quickly whipped out a vial of something and mixed it with another vial, then threw the concoction at us. It hit me and then exploded in a ball of flame. Thankfully, my clothes helped shield me from the damage.

“I’ve got the Toad!” Terry shouted. Gregor understood and leapt over the bar, delivering a heavy blow to the woman. She stepped back and produced another vial, drinking the contents of this one and vanishing. Gregor stepped forward and struck the air. I heard it connect and the woman went down.

The door to the inn burst open and several soldiers ran in. Burin hit them with a spray of color and I simultaneously hit them with a gout of flame. Two went down instantly, and the third ran away.

Meanwhile, Terry loaded her gun with a vial of poison – I think she’d picked it up from the bandits – and fired, loosing a cloud of poison into the Toad’s face. Startled, he inhaled a huge breath of the substance and immediately passed out.

“Do you have any more of that tape?” Terry asked.

“Plenty,” I replied. We quickly tied up the unconscious man, and then the invisible woman Gregor had thrown on the table. That was easier than it sounds. You just have to find the hands and have someone hold them out for you.

I was surprised when she reappeared. She had a badge that identified her as a member of the Aspis Consortium. If they were involved, things were likely to get very complicated up here.

A few minutes later, the man woke up with a groan. Terry hit him. “Time to start talking, Toad,” she said. “Tell me why you’re here. You’d never come this way without Typhon’s say so.”

“He was doing really bad when you put that bullet through his heart. A real piece of work, that bullet. He couldn’t heal up with normal magic, so he’s been asleep since then.”

“I’m not hearing why you’re here.”

“The witches had a way to save him. In exchange, we’re helping that queen out with her little coup.”

“And where is Typhon now?” She had a knife in hand, pressed against the flesh of his abdomen.

“I don’t know! I swear! Please! Don’t kill me!”

“I’m not seeing any reason to keep you alive,” she said, raising her dagger for a blow.

Gregor intervened, catching her arm. “No. Is not the way. Killing man who is tied is not right.”

“Do you have a better idea? Do you think this village has a jail that can hold them?” Her eyes were wild.

“The portal,” I suggested.

“What?”

“We’ll hire a few of those hunters to bring them through the portal to Giovanni. He can ensure that they won’t go anywhere for a long time.”

“Fine,” she said. “Knock him out and add some more tape. I don’t want him escaping on the way.”

I heard the sound of a crossbow being cocked. I turned to see the innkeeper taking aim at us. “If that’s all of your business, it’s time for you to leave, outsiders. You’re not welcome here.”

We met with Nadya and told her of our plan. She gathered a couple hunters who agreed to carry those two back to Heldren for us. We paid them and then returned with Nadya to her place.

“It’s not much,” she said. “But you’re welcome to stay with me for a few days.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Is there somewhere I could have some privacy for a few hours? I’m going to need to alter my clothing.”

“Of course, you can use this room over here.”

“Gregor, want me to have the box recolor your robes while I’m at it?”

He shook his head. “I will put these away and simply get some clothing that will fit in.”

I nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll let you know when I’m done.” I closed the door behind me and booted up Cortana.

“Online, awaiting commands,” the VI said.

“Access Ranger infiltration files. I need information about local clothing in Irrisen.”

“Authorization required to access Ranger database.” I gave her my access code. “Code accepted. Loading infiltration database.”

I went through the files, which included detailed notes and sketches of clothing throughout Irrisen. It took me a while, but eventually I settled on a style. I’d go with something similar to what I was wearing, but trimmed with fur and recolored into pale blues and other icy colors. Finally, I could change the star patterns into ice and snow themes. Maybe some snowflakes.

My clothing would still have a partial outsider flavor to them, but that was intentional. I was dressing like a Stilyagi, which sounded like one of those fashion cultures that spring up, like Gothic Lolita or Yanki cultures in Japan. At least, that was the impression I got from the notes.

I stripped down to my underwear and had Cortana get to work making the alterations. While she worked, I just laid my head down. I was feeling pretty ill. I think I may have caught that illness from the cabin. Or from Burin.

“Cortana, do you have patterns for any flu medications?”

“I am capable of synthesizing nearly two hundred medications. Specify medication required.”

“I need a non-drowsy syrup with a decongestant, an expectorant and a cough suppressant. I also require it to have some form of fever reducer and pain reliever.”

“I can synthesize three medications that have what you require. Would you like to narrow search parameters?”

“Any of those have something other than acetaminophen?”

“One match. Shall I begin synthesizing?”

“Finish the clothes first. Then make the meds.”

“Understood.”

I pulled out my phone. “Cortana, can you establish a signal with Uncle Chadwick?”

“No signal found.”

I was afraid of that. Either we were too far away or local magic was overpowering the signal. “I’m going to record an outgoing message. Try sending it once daily until you receive confirmation.”

“Understood.”

I recorded a message informing him about everything that had happened thus far – our work for Baba Yaga, Queen Elvanna’s plan to cover the world in ice, all of it. I then let him know that if we failed, it would be up to the Rangers to clean up our mess. I hoped that we wouldn’t need them, but it was better to plan ahead.

I returned to find the party speaking with Nadya about Nazhena and her tower. It wouldn’t be easy to assault it, but there was a good chance that we could get in. Then we’d face an entire garrison. Or less, if we were stealthy and lucky. But it would probably be best for the town if we took everything out.

“Tell me, is it normal for witches to take children, or was this a special case?” Burin asked. It was a good question, but perhaps not the time or person to ask.

“Witches are known to take children often,” Nadya said. “I had feared the worst when Nazhena took Thora, but I had hoped that tributes of food and supplies would get her to overlook Thora’s insults.” She indicated Terry. “You should be particularly careful, lest they turn you into one of their dolls as well.”

“I’m going to burn every one of those stupid things,” the girl replied. “If witches are so dangerous, can we trust Baba Yaga? Do you know anything about her, Nadya?”

“Only rumor and legend, and even then not much.”

After the encounter with the rider, I had spent a little time looking through my phone’s wiki and had found a wealth of information on Baba Yaga, at least, as much information as one could find from old fairy tales. The truth was, she was not a good person.

“The stories from Earth about her tell of a woman who sets impossible tasks with brutal penalties for failure, but if you succeed, she always comes through with the promised reward,” I said. “I think she’ll probably honor the word of one of her agents. At least one as prominent as the Black Rider.”

“Well, then that’s something we can hope for,” Terry said. “Not that we have any choice unless one of you can think of a better way to stop the endless winter?”

“Nothing I can think of,” I said. Not without a few years and a truly massive supply of cows at our disposal, anyway.

“Then I’m gonna see what the box has to help me blend in and go to bed.”

“I left Cortana set up with a listing of clothing styles in Irriseni fashion,” I told her. That should help a bit, though Burin would still stick out, since he wasn’t planning on changing anything.

I went to bed and dreamed of a world filled with werewolves and other monsters. I was a hunter of some kind, and with Nebby at my side, I carved my way through hundreds of the foes wielding a rather brutal looking weapon in one hand and a shotgun in the other. It was oddly relaxing, especially knowing it was a dream and I couldn’t actually be hurt.

We woke up the next morning to find that Gregor was missing. Terry checked outside and located his tracks, but once again they were scattered and meandering. As we followed the tracks, we began seeing signs of splintered trees and other battle damage to the surroundings. Eventually, we located the fighter, unconscious and leaning against a broken tree.

His new white and light grey robes allowed him to blend in rather well to his surroundings. We might have missed him if he hadn’t been next to the tree. We tried to shake him awake, and I hit him with the wand a couple times to heal his injuries, but he didn’t awaken.

Terry grabbed out his flask and poured it on his face. He began to stir. Strangely, the liquid froze almost instantly. That didn’t make sense. Alcohol froze at a lower temperature than it was currently.

I picked up the flask and took a sniff. It was nothing more than cranberry juice. Yet I’d seen Terry get a bit drunk off of it. Mind over matter or something. Not surprising, since she was a child with a likely limited experience with alcohol.

“What happened? Did these trees say something about your mother or something?” Terry asked the now awake man.

Gregor wiped the cranberry from his face. “What? No, that’s stupid. This was God of Martial Arts.”

“Right. Your imaginary friend.”

“How is the God of Martial Arts?” Burin asked.

“God of Martial Arts doing good. Better than me. Woke up this morning for training with God. God is thinking I become overconfident, and hits me into trees to teach lesson.”

Burin nodded his understanding. “And did you learn what he wanted you to learn?”

Gregor returned the nod. “Flaw in my training was lack of discipline. I believe that I can overcome this, with aid of God of Martial Arts.”

“Good for you,” Terry said. “Can we go back where it’s warm now?”

“Wait, listen,” Gregor said, holding up his hand.

I did as he said. “Dogs?”

“Many, many dogs. Coming towards village. We should hurry.”

We made our way back to the village just in time to see several soldiers banging on Nadya’s door. “Hello!” Burin called out. Somehow I wasn’t surprised.

“Outsiders!” one of the guards hissed. Two remained at Nadya’s door, the other four made their way towards us. “Lay down your weapons and come peacefully!”

Burin laid down his axe. “Okay, we don’t want trouble. We’ll cooperate. I should warn you that I’m a wizard, though, so I can’t exactly completely disarm.”

“That’s fine. Just come here slowly, outsiders.”

Burin took a step towards him. I was beginning to think that the dwarf had no sense of self-preservation. “What’s wrong with outsiders anyway? We’re just here to kill witches!”

Everything and everyone froze. Something in me snapped. I couldn’t take it anymore. “For f!~#’s sake, Burin! You can’t go telling everyone we meet that we’re here to kill witches!”

“Why not? It’s the truth!”

“I don’t know, maybe because the witches are in f@$%ing charge at every level of government here?! Might as well just hold up a sign saying, ‘Look at me! I’m here to assassinate your queen!’”

He gave me a funny look. “Wait, are we the bad guys?”

I was going to develop a twitch. “Of course not! We’re trying to save the world from evil witches who want to cover the planet in ice! They’re the bad guys! They just happen to be in charge around here! WHICH IS WHY WE CAN’T JUST GO AROUND ADVERTISING OUR INTENT TO STOP THEM USING ANY MEANS NECESSARY!”

He tilted his head and I saw realization dawn. The soldiers looked annoyed. “Come with us.”

Burin charged the nearest and unleashed a spell, freezing the man completely solid. “No,” he said. Finally, now he understood.

Gregor rushed over and engaged another. “They’re taking Nadya!” he called back to us.

I nodded my understanding and charged past the nearest guards, close enough to hit the ones leading Nadya away with bolts of force. Terry shot one of the ones I ran past so he couldn’t chase after me. Burin moved and engaged the remaining nearby one.

I managed to get one down, but the other one brought Nadya to the inn. “We have to follow,” I said, looking at the fallen soldiers around me.

“Agreed,” Gregor said. “She is in mess because of us.”

As we approached the inn, a voice called out to us. “Stay where you are. We have hostages.”

“We’re not looking for trouble!” Burin called out.

“Then you’ll answer some questions!”

“Sure.” God. I hoped Burin’s earlier epiphany had stuck.

“What do you know about the Black Rider?”

“He’s dead.” Good so far.

“Oh, that’s convenient. You saw his corpse?”

“We saw him die.” Okay. Good. The best lies are filled with truth.

“That’s what we needed. I think we’re done here.”

“I think we’re the new Black Rider.” What. Wait. Were we? I had felt a surge of power when he’d died. Could that have been us taking in a fraction of his power?

Either way, Burin probably shouldn’t have said that. “Make a move and we’ll kill the hostages.”

Terry laughed sardonically. “We met these people less than two days ago. Like we care what you do to them.” It was a good bluff. At least, I hoped it was a bluff. I can never tell whether she means it when she says such blatantly callous things like that.

Gregor took that as the signal and charged right in through the inn’s double doors. I saw him hit the man shouting from the window. Burin went in after and I followed the dwarf.

Inside, several soldiers were standing around Nadya and the innkeeper. Burin blasted a couple with a blinding spray of color, bringing one down immediately and getting the other’s undivided attention.

Another soldier grabbed Nadya and held his blade out at us. “Stay back!” he ordered.

“I’m already close enough,” I said as I unleashed a volley of force bolts right at him. Force bolts are some of the best magical effects to use in a number of situations, since there’s no aiming. You know your target and the bolts know it too. They just hit the target invariably. No idea why you can’t make other spells do that. The soldier collapsed to the floor, his face bruised by the trio of blows.

The soldier’s captain, sensing that he was losing – badly – tried to defend himself as he pulled out a small object. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t stop Burin from touching him with some magic, Gregor from punching him or Terry from shooting him through the door, the latter of which being what finally brought him down. I finished off the other guards with a carefully aimed burst of flame.

Burin examined the object the captain had been holding. He immediately stuffed it into his pants. I gave him a look. “Magic mirror. Someone would have been able to look through it at us.” And now that person would see nothing but dwarf testicles. I almost felt bad for them.

I’d heard of magic that could do that. “We should be careful. Witches around here might be able to spy on us through any mirror if they are giving their minions specific mirrors for communication.”

“Thank you for your help,” Nadya said.

“Why should we thank them?!” the innkeeper protested. “They’re going to bring the Pale Tower’s wrath down upon us all!”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because when we’re done,” Terry said, “there won’t be anyone left alive in the Pale Tower to blame you.”

“You plan to kill them all? How?” The man actually sounded hopeful.

“I am believing that we will use similar methods as to what we have done here,” Gregor said, sweeping his arm over the fallen soldiers.

Nadya took charge. “We’ll need to hurry. I’ll go make arrangements for someone to watch over my boys and will meet you over at my home. We need to get to the tower before they can retaliate. I can lead you there, and I think Hatch can help you get inside?”

“Hatch?” I asked.

“A fairy who takes care of my home.”

“Don’t all fairies work for the witches?” Burin asked.

“He used to,” Nadya admitted. “But he ran away because he couldn’t take their harsh treatment anymore.”

There was something bothering me. I decided to speak up. “Nadya, why did you let that soldier lead you to the inn? We brought down the other one. You could have easily gotten away and run to us.”

“They used my daughter’s imprisonment to threaten me. I couldn’t let them know that I knew she was already dead, or they might have threatened my sons.”

“Fair enough. Let’s loot the soldiers and get a move on.”

Convincing Hatch to come wasn’t easy. The thought of going back to the tower obviously terrified the poor creature, who wasn’t a fairy, by the way. He was a knee high fey creature known as a domovoi, a hairy little critter who looked like an old man that was made almost entirely of beard.

Terry had to convince him to help us by giving him a piece of cake. I couldn’t remember where she had gotten cake from. Had it been all the way back at Giovanni’s place in Heldren? Doesn’t really matter, because it ended up working. Eventually the creature agreed to come with us, even if he said he wouldn’t go inside the tower itself.

We rode out on the dogsleds immediately, Nadya driving one carrying Burin and Hatch, while I rode on one driven by Terry and Gregor. The trip was uneventful until we stopped to make camp – Nadya assured us we’d reach the tower around midmorning – when a crow the size of a wolf appeared out of nowhere before us.

“Hello!” the crow said to us.

“Hello!” Burin said back. He was the closest to the creature, which seemed fixated on him anyway.

“What are you doing here?”

“We’re going to the tower,” Burin offered.

“I’d be happy to show you the way to the tower!” the crow cawed.

They continued for some time with their conversation, the crow inching ever forward, until I realized what it was that bugged me. “WITCHCROW!” I shouted, unleashing two beams of flame at the bird. One missed, which saddened me. I wanted my first use of this new spell to be a complete success. The bird survived the single blast, but it was clearly heavily injured.

Gregor didn’t ask for explanation. He just leapt forward and stomped the bird’s head into the ground with a sickening crunch. We ate crow for dinner. It wasn’t very tasty.

Strangely, no one asked me why I had reacted like that. I guess the word ‘witchcrow’ had been enough explanation. They didn’t need to know that it was trying to steal something magical from us or that it was a type of creature that enjoyed spreading chaos and anguish to its victims. They just trusted that whatever a witchcrow was, it needed killing, apparently.

We broke down the mirror using the box that night – based on where the crow was looking, that might have been its target – and slept in shifts.

True to Nadya’s word, by mid-morning we spotted the tower rising up in the distance. It was a massive structure made of ice and swarms of ravens swirled around the outside. This was going to be fun. I’ve always wanted to storm a tower.

Though I guess I’d always assumed there’d be a beautiful, bikini clad maiden waiting for me at the top.

Anyone care to guess which character has a 5 Charisma? :P


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Gonna take a wild guess that Burin the dwarf dumped his Charisma all the way to the floor. ;)


The Mad Comrade wrote:
Gonna take a wild guess that Burin the dwarf dumped his Charisma all the way to the floor. ;)

Oh yeah. It's pretty bad. :P


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Now I've stayed up WAY too late reading this . . . .


The Guards Must Be Crazy

Spoiler:
As we prepared to head inside, I suggested to Nadya that she remain behind, hidden behind the tree line. If we messed this up, I didn’t want her or the town to get punished.

She quashed that idea. “No. I must go. I must see that Nazhena and her ilk are punished for their crimes. I must see this with my own eyes.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “But stay back with me. Let the men take the front line.” I don’t care what century it is. Male or female, the spellcaster goes in the middle of the party where they don’t have little things like bodily harm interrupting them while they’re channeling the power to shape reality to their whims.

And Nadya had trouble fighting a giant bug. There was no way in hell I was letting her go to the front lines where she’d be a target for the kinds of things that usually tried to eat Burin. “Okay,” she said. “If you’re sure that’s best.”

“Of course. You’ll be there to keep things off of me while I’m casting if they get past the boys.”

Burin was talking to Hatch about the tower. “How are the guards going to get us?” he asked the fey.

“They’re on top of the tower,” the little beard-man replied.

“But how will they get us from the top of the tower?” Had Golarion not learned about gravity yet, or was it just Burin?

“Because they’re on the wall.”

“Wait. You just said they were on the tower.”

“The wall is part of the tower!” the exasperated domovoi said before patting Burin’s cheek as though that settled it. Burin looked unconvinced, but he returned the pat by poking the fey in the belly, causing it to let out a sound somewhere between a surprised squeal and a giggle.

Terry decided to try to learn more about the guards themselves. “What can you tell us about the guards?” she asked.

“They’re guards,” Hatch said.

“Right, but what do they look like?”

“Guards,” the fey replied.

“Okay, but are they bigger or smaller than Gregor?” She was starting to get annoyed. Well, more annoyed. She was always annoyed.

“Yes.”

“But do they have –“ she stopped as I interrupted her. I couldn’t take it any longer. As entertaining as this conversation might have been otherwise, I was still pretty sick and having none of it.

“Hatch,” I said. “Are the guards humans?”

The fey considered for a moment. “Yes.”

Her question answered, Terry continued on another track. “How do we get about inside?”

“I’d imagine by using your feet. Don’t yours work?” I don’t think the fey was messing with her. He seemed completely serious.

She sighed. “No. That’s not what I mean. Are there stairs? Or do we use another method?”

“Oh! There are teleporters. Use those.”

“Is there a specific way to use them?”

“You need passwords.”

“Do you know the passwords?”

“Many of them, but not all.”

“What are the passwords?”

He rambled for over a minute, despite efforts to get him to stop. When he finally finished, Terry looked like she was ready to strangle him. I restrained her. “Burin’s already on the move. We can just have Hatch tell us each particular password when we reach a teleporter.”

She stayed her hand and we followed Burin and Gregor’s lead through the open fields around the tower. From where we were, we couldn’t see any guards, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, watching us as we approached. Still, we were too far away to fear attack unless one of them had somehow gotten ahold of some Earth or Numerian tech. I think.

From within the field sprung up a pair of pumpkin-headed plant creatures that I think were the same as monsters I’d seen listed in the Adventurer Wiki as ‘Jack o’ Lanterns’. They’re terrible things that sometimes spawn on the site of the death of a terrible evil witch or fey and propagate their kind by devouring the freshly slain corpses of the innocent, which they then vomit into the ground as fertilizer for their seeds.

I’ve always liked toasted pumpkin seeds, but I was putting my foot down if someone suggested we eat one of these things.

One charged the boys on the front line, while the other came in from the right and struck at Nadya. The one in the front breathed fire at us. Once more, my clothes protected me, but Nadya took a full hit. Then we managed to bring one down, and it exploded, once more hitting poor Nadya.

Almost simultaneously, the second exploded with a horrifying laugh. This one only exploded on Gregor and Burin, so they’d be fine. Burin would probably just be glad it didn’t try to eat him. But I was worried about Nadya, since I hadn’t seen what she could take yet.

Luckily, she was okay. I healed up the wounded – we were going through wand charges at a ridiculous rate – and we continued on towards the tower.

As we approached, a voice called down to us from the wall around the tower. “Oi! Who goes there?!” Okay, real talk. Why was his accent British? Everyone else around here, including Gregor and Nadya, had Russian sounding accents. Except that guy from the inn, the Toad or whatever. Had this guy come here with him?

Also, I realized at that moment that we hadn’t come up with a plan beyond ‘go to tower, kill witch, stop ritual’, much to my horror. We were stuck winging it, with Burin in the party. BURIN, who was quite possibly the king of ruining on-the-fly plans.

Terry came up with something. “We’re here to pledge our allegiance to the queen!”

“Oi! Bill, have you heard anything about guests?”

Another guard appeared on the wall. “I can’t rightly say I ‘ave, Steve. Care to produce your invitations, wee stroppet?”

“What’s a stroppet?” Terry whispered.

“I have no idea,” I whispered back. “Maybe he combined ‘strumpet’ with ‘poppet’?”

“Look. We don’t have any invitations. But you don’t want to turn away someone as important as the people who killed the Black Rider, do you?”

“Oi!” Steve – or was it Bill? – said. “Now that would be an ‘ell of a thing. ‘ave any proof?”

Terry pulled out the lock of hair and the plague doctor’s mask we’d gotten from the rider. “This is my proof! We took these off of his corpse!”

“Oi!” Bill said. “What are those supposed to be? Some hair and mask? I must say that I’m not impressed. How about you, Steve?”

“Me granddad had two of those mask things. Used to wear ‘em on his knees for special nights with me grandmum, gods rest her soul. Unless you have another one and care to loan me use of the tart there next to you, I can’t say I’m impressed either.”

“Well, you heard Steve. So move along with you,” Bill said as he threw a snowball, smacking Terry right in the face.

I was dressed in the style of someone from the capital, maybe I could manage something. “If you knew who I was, you wouldn’t speak about me in such a manner! I demand that you open this gate immediately, prostrate yourself before me and beg for leniency! Or, so help me, there will be hell to pay when I return to Whitethrone and tell my mother of your insolence!” I may have screeched a bit. I hoped it would work. I knew enough of how rich kids tend to respond to problems that I think it was a believable performance.

“Listen to the little bird chirp, Bill. Listen, love. The rules are clear. No invitation, no entry. If your high and mighty mum doesn’t like it, she can take it up with Lady Nazhena.

I walked back over to Nadya. “Perhaps we should have brought the dogsleds and pretended to be making a delivery?” I whispered.

“Too late now,” she replied. “What is girl doing?”

I turned and, to my horror, spotted Terry wedging a grenade into the icicles that served as the tower’s gate. “Oi! What are you doing, dove?” one of the guards called down.

“Knocking politely!” Terry called out as she lit the grenade and dove away.

The grenade exploded. I saw one of the guards slip and fall on his ass. Shards of ice landed in the snow before us. “Oi! What was that?!”

Four guards appeared in the gateway, shields in hand but not looking alarmed. “Oi! Bill, you alright up there?”

“I’m fine!” Bill said. “They don’t have invitations, though.”

“No invitations? Move along before we make you pay for the gate,” the leader of the guards on the ground said to us. They still weren’t taking us seriously?! Even after Terry had blown up the door?

Gregor also seemed annoyed. He charged at the nearest guard, but slipped on the ice and whiffed his attack. This drew another round of laughter from the guards. What the hell would it take for them to take us seriously? I was getting really angry about that. They WOULD take us seriously, or they would DIE.

I may have been in a bad mood from being sick.

I walked over and cast a spell, unleashing a full gout of flame right into the mass of guards. The two in front died instantly and the two behind them looked to be on death’s door.

“HOLY S*+%!” one of the barely standing guards said.

“ALARM!” I heard one of the guards on the wall shout. They disappeared from the parapet, shouting out their distress as they ran.

Terry shot one of the remaining, and Burin cut down the other. That was more like it. I kicked one of the corpses. That’d teach them to not take us – me, really – seriously.

“Shall we go inside?” Gregor said.

“Think you can hit something this time?” Terry asked sarcastically.

Yeah, that wasn’t what we needed at the moment. We needed to save it for our enemies. “Less talky, more looty,” I said to the girl, pointing at the coin pouch on one of the guard’s belts. Eloquent, I know.

She looked like she was going to say something, but then thought better of it and began rummaging through their stuff. Meanwhile, Burin, Gregor and Nadya made their way in. I stayed with Terry to help loot.

A few moments later, I heard the sounds of combat in the courtyard. “This is thing you do when you see troll? Charge and attack it?!” Nadya shouted, exasperation in her voice.

Terry turned to me. “We can’t leave them alone for a second, can we?”

“Nope,” I said, giggling in spite of myself.

We made our way into the courtyard. The first thing I saw was a massive ice sculpture depicting a dragon. I think it was a white dragon, but it was translucent ice, so it’s not like I could be certain. Definitely a dragon though.

The second thing I saw was Gregor and Burin engaging with an ice troll. I unleashed two beams of fire immediately, striking the troll dead on. Nadya tried firing her bow, but was just shy of hitting. It looked like she was being overly careful about hitting Burin or Gregor.

Terry had no qualms about risking hitting anyone, and hit the troll dead on. A few more hits from the party and the troll went down. Its regeneration was still suppressed by my fire magic, so it stayed down.

“I am thinking I may need help,” Gregor said. Blood was spurting from a bleeding wound on his shoulder, right by his neck. I grabbed the wand and healed him before the blood loss became an issue.

While we checked a side room off the courtyard – it turned out to be an empty kennel – Terry walked around the courtyard and picked flowers. She then sat down with Hatch and ate some more cake.

Burin and Gregor turned their attention to the inner gate, another curtain of icicles. After a moment, once they were sure there wasn’t a hidden mechanism, they began bashing their way through the door. They narrowly avoided getting hit by falling icicles while doing so, but in the end, we had our way inside.

The room was steamy and much warmer than outside. In the center was a cauldron that seemed to be softly bubbling. Some of the water was flowing up into the ceiling. I suspected that we were looking at a magical heating and perhaps running water system for the tower.

Burin dipped a cup in the cauldron and took a sniff. “Smells okay,” he said, then took a drink. “It’s warm, but not too warm.”

That sounded perfect. I could use a drink. I pulled out a jar of loose tea from my bag, then dumped it in. Apparently that pissed off the water elemental within, as it rose from the cauldron and glared at me. I think.

Burin began speaking to it in Aquan, the language of the Plane of Water. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, but I could get the gist of the conversation. The elemental was angry and Burin was being Burin, so we were about to have a fight on our hands. I stepped back, getting myself out of the elemental’s easy reach.

“What’s going on?” Gregor asked me. I started to answer, but suddenly he shouted, “WHY DO YOU ALWAYS GO OFF BY YOURSELF?!”

I followed his gaze and spotted Terry standing on the side of the room with Hatch on her shoulder. She and the domovoi were completely encased in ice. Then they disappeared.

The elemental attacked. I quickly cast a spell and enlarged Burin. “Does anyone remember what the password was for the first teleporter?” I asked. Nobody answered. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

We fought the elemental for maybe half a minute before I heard the pop of air that signified a teleportation. With the elemental pretty much down, I looked over and saw Terry and Hatch on the opposite side of the room from where they had left.

“GOAT!” the girl screamed. She sobbed and tried to speak, but it came out as incoherent blubbering.

And then Nadya warned us that someone was looking into the room from the opposite side of the cauldron. I hit Burin with the wand to begin healing his wounds and the giant dwarf plodded over to the door.

“Hello,” he called out. “We think we killed your elemental in here. Sorry, but he was kinda a real jerk.”

From my right, I spotted several guards coming from another room. Gregor spotted them as well and charged. The nearest guard went down in a single punch, his body going flying from the force of the blow.

Once more, I heard the telltale *thwip* of an incoming teleportation, this time from behind the guards Gregor was fighting. Then I heard a familiar voice as the forlarren Mierul began singing. I could tell she was using bardic magic to inspire her allies.

We couldn’t have that. I was the magical one here. I stepped to the side and got a clear line of sight on her, then unleashed a double beam of scorching fire. Both struck her and she collapsed. From behind me, I heard the telltale sound of alchemist’s fire.

“I’ll help the girl,” Nadya said. She rushed off to assist Terry. I’d have to hope that they could handle it, because one of the guards stabbed me.

It wasn’t a clean blow or even very deep, but it hurt. I retaliated with another cone of flame, scorching several guards. One of the injured guards, reeling from his injuries, drew a health potion. “We have to help Mierul!” he shouted.

“You can’t die, Mierul! We all love you!” another guard wailed, grabbing the potion from his comrade and disappearing from my sight behind the crowd of guards.

“Help her up!” the guard in front of me shouted. “Then help us hold the line so she can escape!”

What the hell? Had I ended up in Japan? Was she an idol singer and were they her fanboys? Idiots. They should all be running. I would have let them escape. There was no grudge there. I would have been just as happy to sneak past them and take out the one really in charge, the one responsible for the plot. No need to hurt anyone.

Well, no one except the jerk that stabbed me. But he was already down.

Mierul escaped out a side door into the courtyard, and we were stuck fighting guards. Though, again, I really didn’t have anything against her. So no real reason to pursue. We’d have finished our work here long before she could go get help and return.

Gregor continued delivering blow after blow, sending guards flying with each hit like something out of one of Daddy’s silly martial arts movies. The ones where all the stunts were done with wires. The bodies had begun piling up in a far corner.

In the end, we were victorious, though Burin was in need of some serious healing. Gregor needed a little, as did Nadya and I. Terry was almost entirely unscathed, aside from a single bleeding pinprick just above her right eye.

“Why do you always go alone?” Gregor asked her.

“It wasn’t intentional,” the girl complained. “I was just inspecting the teleporter when I asked Hatch what the pass phrase was. He told me, then next thing I knew, I was covered in ice. Then I was suddenly in a room with a big table, where the goat lady was standing, singing. A couple fairies were juggling along. Then she had a fire sword. I panicked, threw a grenade and told Hatch to say the phrase to get us down.”

“How did you get this?” I asked as I magically cleaned the blood from her wound.

“Before I teleported back, one of the fairies managed to stab into the ice with one of those needle swords of theirs. I think it went through just enough to get me.”

“Well, at least you’re all right, little girl,” Burin said. “Shall we check those side rooms and then head up ourselves?”

“How did things go with the elemental?” Terry asked the dwarf.

“He refused to florgle my schlrrp.”

“What?”

“Oh, sorry. I accidently spoke Aquan there. He refused to accept my apology.”

We went up in waves, two by two. As I arrived, I saw Burin wandering off, with Gregor right behind him. I quickly followed. He opened the door before him and greeted the person inside. I rounded the corner and realized he was talking to a spriggan in what appeared to be a kitchen set up in an icy outcropping from the tower.

“Who are you?” the gnome-like creature asked.

“My name’s Burin, and we’re here to kill witches. Oh, wait. Um…”

The spriggan drew a halberd from the cookpot he was standing in front of – I made a note not to eat the soup – and then grew as large as Burin usually does. Nadya and Terry came up behind us just in time for the spriggan to hit Gregor with a spell that sent him fleeing through the dining hall.

We attacked the spriggan for a moment before it decided it was time to flee. It did so by casting another spell, this time causing the floor below it to crack and open. He disappeared before us and we could feel the room we were in begin to shudder and quake.

“Everyone run!” Burin shouted.

We made haste back into the dining hall, escaping just in time to watch the entire kitchen break off and fall away from the tower. From inside a nearby room, a woman emerged, greatsword in hand. “What’s with all the noise?”

“We’re not here to kill witches!” Burin declared emphatically. He then turned and gave me a thumbs-up. I would have face palmed right there, but it was still possible the woman was just as dumb as the dwarf.

“Two of our members are afflicted with a magical ailment,” Terry said. “We have come seeking the help of the witches to cure it.”

The woman regarded us for a moment. “You must be the intruders Bill and Steve ran through here to warn everyone about.”

Nadya threw her axe at the woman, missing. I still think she was trying too hard to avoid hitting allies. I mean, I did the same thing, but I was shooting coherent beams of flame, not throwing puny axes. So I’m totally not a hypocrite here.

Gregor rejoined us. “What is going on?”

“We’re fighting, apparently,” I said.

“What’s your name?” Burin asked the woman.

“Before we kill you,” Terry added. Psy-cho!

“Hestrig Orlov,” the woman replied as she slashed at Burin with her sword.

“Well, I’m Burin Frostfist,” the dwarf replied, returning the blow.

What the hell was this dialogue? We were trying to kill each other, but it was like they were old friends going out for tea. Had we become inured to the dangers of battle?

With so many versus one, it wasn’t long before Hestrig fell. And that’s when things got weird. Weirder. Or was it ‘More weird’? I dunno, whatever. Inky black tendrils seeped from the corpse of the woman’s body, mostly from her eyes and mouth. So describe that how you will.

Burin saw the roiling mass and immediately cried out in dread. He turned to run away, but he wasn’t fast enough. The shadows slammed into him, cramming their way in through the same orifices that they’d come out of. He screamed in agony and collapsed.

We helped him up, but Terry kept her distance. She looked ready to raise her gun and shoot at a moment’s notice. “Are you alright?” Gregor asked him.

“I think I’ll be okay,” the dwarf replied.

“What was that?” Terry asked.

“Does it have something to do with that monster you were fighting in your dreams?” I asked.

“You can see my dreams?” the dwarf asked, surprised.

“Not on purpose,” I said. “And not always. Only sometimes. I’m not sure what causes it.”

“I see. Well, yes, that was the demon that’s trapped inside me. You see, many years ago, thousands of years, I think, there was a dwarf named Burin who fought a white dragon. He and his adventuring party battled the creature on a mountaintop. It was so cold that Burin had to use magic to freeze his axe to his hand so he wouldn’t drop it, which is why the family name is now ‘Frostfist’.

“When they slew the dragon, they learned to their horror that he was being possessed by a powerful demon. And somehow, the magic the wizard used on him split the demon into several pieces. The largest of these sought refuge from annihilation within Burin, whose eyes became bright blue and hair became white.

“Every generation in my family, a child is born with white hair and blue eyes. Their parents name them Burin, and they are fated to contain the shard of the demon that curses the family. For if it ever escaped, the results could be catastrophic.”

“Wait,” Terry said. “They’re all named Burin? What if the child is a girl?” Way to cut straight to the heart of the matter there, kiddo.

“Then she’s named Burin.”

“Those poor little girls,” Terry said with a sorrowful look. “Hey, can it ever escape you?”

“Our family inscribes Burins with wards to contain the demon, so it can’t exactly escape. But it can sometimes get free enough to speak if I lose the nightly battle.” He considered it for a moment. “Though I think I just picked up another of its pieces, so it could be stronger now. I think I need to work to become stronger so I can better contain him.”

Gregor clapped him on the shoulder jovially. “Why contain him when you can defeat him?”

“I’m open to suggestions on how to do it.”

“Is this witchcraft?” Terry asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve heard of spells to bind demons into people, but it’s complex and powerful magic. No idea if a witch had done it. My guess would be that the dragon invited the demon in so it could increase its power.”

“And it ended up being controlled instead,” she finished my thought.

“Sounds like it.”

“And now this thing’s in Burin. Who I can’t get away from. Great.” I couldn’t fault her for her concern. It was a bit worrisome. But the dwarf could handle it. I think.

In the room Hestrig had come from, we found a library. On the table, there were a number of books about the white dragon represented in the ice sculpture down below. Apparently it was called Auburphex, and Nazhena’s mother had killed it after it had opposed them for some reason.

From Hestrig’s notes, the dragon may have been her ancestor. It was a pity that we had been unable to have a conversation. She might have been an interesting ally. Instead, she was just another foe ground beneath our heels.

The witches were our enemies, but there had to be a lot of people who were just doing their jobs. I hated that we were going to have to kill those along with the people doing evil. But they were in the way of our cause, and we were trying to save the entire world, so it would have to be. Hopefully we’d be able to spare some of those enemies who were nothing but cogs in the machine of evil.

I think about that a lot.

On the other side of the library was a hallway. Burin headed down and began knocking on a locked door. He said something I didn’t quite hear. No idea what he said, so I’m going to say that he said, “Housekeeping!”

“W-Who’s there?” a familiar voice I couldn’t quite place called back.

I got an idea. “Tell her that you’re Hatch’s replacement,” I whispered.

“Tell her that my ass is complacent?” Burin shouted back. I was three feet from him. Shouting was unnecessary. This time I did facepalm.

“I- are you the intruders I heard about? Because if you’re not with the witches, maybe you can help me?”

“We’re not here to kill witches,” Burin said. “In fact, we’re here to help them. Right, Miss Lyriana?” He gave me another thumbs-up.

“What.” He had to be messing with me. Surely no one could be this stupid and still able to cast spells. But he looked completely sincere.

“I’m opening the door. Please don’t hurt me.” The door unlocked with a click and we saw a familiar face standing before us.

“Wait, how are you here?” Terry asked Lady Argentea.

“I was brought here by the fey when they attacked my caravan.”

“But we were sent by Yuln to rescue you. We found you in the lodge with the bandits.”

“That’s impossible. I’ve been here ever since then. The other must be an imposter.”

“Well, let us finish here and we’ll take you to safety,” Terry said, taking the woman’s hand.

“Ow!” the woman said, pulling back her hand.

“Oh, sorry. I have long nails.” Was she still suspicious? Had she tried something?

“Okay. Well, I’ll wait here for you. Don’t take too long.”

We passed by some more ice sculptures depicting some mephits and looted some rooms on our way. We then found ourselves in a room filled with plants. Based on what was growing, it looked more like a reagent room than a food production farm.

Burin walked over to one particularly strange looking plant and pulled it out. The mandragora let out a piercing shriek. We proceeded to beat it to death violently. I think everyone else was getting as tired and grumpy as I felt, even though I was the only sick one.

Terry peeled the mandragora, having learned bad habits from Gregor.

We then took a teleporter up to the aerie. “You must be the outsiders my birds told me about,” the sylph – an aasimar-like being with elemental or djinni ancestry – woman waiting up there said to us.

“Do we really have to fight?” Burin asked.

“Yes.”

He sighed. “You can run away if you want. We won’t stop you.”

She cast a fly spell – immediately stoking my jealousy. Gregor charged forward and grabbed on to her. Terry shot her. Burin grabbed on to Gregor so she couldn’t fly off with him. And then we beat her into unconsciousness.

“There are birds coming!” Nadya shouted, pointing out a hold in the wall.

“Grab her and let’s get out of here!” I said. Terry was already at the teleporter, ready to leave.
We managed to teleport away just before the birds reached us. Burin set the unconscious sylph down. “What now?”

“Finish her off and take her stuff?” Terry asked.

I could see Burin frown at that suggestion. “Let’s tape her up and take only what might be useful,” I suggested as a compromise. They both nodded, though Terry did try to steal the woman’s valuable necklace. Burin stopped her.

On the woman was a magic key that opened the last teleporter. We used it to head up to the top of the tower, which Hatch identified as Nazhena’s personal chambers, where we hoped to join in epic combat with the witch who ruled this section of the land.

We appeared within a room with a domed ceiling perhaps thirty feet above us. Floating in the center of the room was the image of a globe. I recognized the landmasses – most people don’t know this, but the Rangers have a hidden satellite in orbit keeping an eye on the world in general, so I’ve seen images of the continents – but I wasn’t entirely sure what the lines crisscrossing the globe were. Perhaps ley lines?

The rest of the room was a bit of a mess, with alchemical components strewn all about. Standing on the other side of the table was the figure of the tower’s witch, with a quintet of ice elementals between us.

“Nazhena’s a bit more, um, mannish, than I was expecting,” I said to Nadya.

“That filth is Radosek, Nazhena’s apprentice,” she replied, spitting as she said his name.

“Bill and Steve told me that you are the new Black Riders, and that the old one is dead. That means all I need to do is kill you and thus secure Nazhena’s position – and thus my own. I can do this. You will die by my hands!”

He unleashed a flurry of magical snowballs – SNOWBALLS – in our direction. I retaliated with more beams of flame, while Terry shot him twice. His defensive magic was better than his choice in attack spells, because he didn’t immediately die from our volley.

Gregor, Burin and Nadya tore through the elementals in quick order, and began making their way towards Radosek. As they moved, I noticed a goat standing next to him. It appeared to be eating a bench. I don’t know why.

“The goat’s his familiar! Take it out and you’ll cut him off from preparing new spells!” I called out as Radosek took to the air.

Flight was a mistake. No longer was there anything blocking our clear shots at him. Terry and I blasted him again – mostly Terry, I was running on fumes as far as spells– and he collapsed to the ground with a massive thud.

The goat took several seconds to realize it was dead. It just stood there, looking stupid, then suddenly collapsed with a strangled cry. I almost felt bad for it. Almost.

Nadya cut Radosek’s throat and Gregor skinned the goat and harvested its meat. I’m not even sure why that surprised me anymore. But we’d have goat for dinner, and I like goat. Well, in a curry, which I don’t think we had the spices for. Still, it would be okay.

“I’m going to look over these books and diagrams while you guys check the side rooms,” I told the others. They agreed and set out.

They didn’t go that far, and I could hear what they were saying. From the sound of it, the first room they looked into was a bedroom. There was a statue of Nazhena within. Curious, I took a peek. She was very pretty, but there was something about her that prevented her from being attractive.

They had to burst down a door of ice to get into the second chamber. As Burin entered, I heard a booming voice from within. “The uninvited shall wither and die like the frost-covered bloom. You should never have ventured here, and you’d do well to leave before my return.”

“Trouble?” I called over to the others.

“I think I got cursed,” Burin said.

Well, crap. “Nothing fatal?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, keep it down, then. I’m trying to study here.” Over the course of a couple hours, I learned several interesting things. First, those were maps of ley lines. Second, there was a ley line that ran between Heldren and Waldsby, likely the reason for the portal between the two areas.

And most importantly, I learned that the portal here was only the first. A few others had been opened, and many more were planned. If we didn’t stop her, Elvanna would cover the world in snow and ice. It confirmed what we’d learned from the Black Rider, and I was sure that he was right about needing Baba Yaga to stop it.

But I could end this one portal. It would buy some time, maybe. At the very least, it would probably save Heldren. That was enough for me.

Burin and I discussed the ritual required to end the spell. We both gave it a shot, but were unsuccessful at maintaining the concentration required. But there was more than one way to end a spell.

I pulled out a vial of djezet, a rust colored liquid metal found only in abundance in the crashed ship in Numeria. It has numerous applications in spellcasting, though I only know a couple. “Everyone should get moving downstairs, and away from the building,” I said. “Take everything you can carry and help Lady Argentea and the sylph to get out. Prep will take five minutes, but then I don’t know how long it will take before the explosion.”

“Explosion?!” Terry said.

“I’m going to create a magical feedback loop. With the amount of power flowing through this ritual circle, there could be a hell of a backlash. I need you to be waiting for me with the dogsleds so we can flee quickly.

“I will stay with you,” Gregor said. “There may be ambush as we retreat.”

“Fair enough. Burin, get the girls to safety.”

The dwarf nodded. “We’ll be waiting with the dogsleds just outside.”

Five minutes later, I was ready. “Do you see them?” I asked Gregor, who was standing at a window.

“The sleds are on their way here.”

“Good,” I said. “Here goes nothing.” I drew the new lines and immediately heard a hum. “To the teleporter.” We stood there as Gregor activated the key. “Any time now.”

“Is not working.”

“What?”

“I use key, and we go nowhere.” Was the feedback loop interfering with the teleporter’s ongoing magic?

“S*#$! We can’t be up here when this goes off. We’ll die!”

“Can you stop it?”

“Maybe if I had an hour, which I don’t.”

He walked over to the window. “Then we go other way.” He kicked the wall with all his might, just below the window. Ice exploded outward, leaving a gaping hole in the wall.

I looked down. “Are you insane? That’s a hundred foot fall!”

He handed me the end of a rope. “Tie around waist. Will lower you most of way. Then you cut rope and I climb down after.” He began securing the rope to a heavy desk.

“That’s still almost fifty feet!”

“Snow is deep around tower. Will cushion fall.”

“This is still insane,” I said, tying the rope around myself.

“Are you having better plan?”

“No. What about the God of Martial Arts? What does he think of your plan?”

He looked off to the side for a moment. “He say plan is crazy. Yet, is still only plan we have.” He walked over to the hole in the wall. “BURIN! We are coming down this way! Do not be in way of fall! Trying to land in deep snow!”

As he began lowering me, I watched Burin below. The dwarf had grown in size, as had the shovel in his hand. And he was busy digging. “What are you doing?!” I called down.

“Making the snow deeper!” he shouted back. I could see it now. He was piling the snow he dug below me, hoping to cushion my fall even more. Score one for crazy dwarven stereotypes!

Realizing my boots would prevent me from falling through the snow, I was careful to go for a landing on my back, so I could sink in and displace as much snow as possible. It still hurt a lot, but I survived. A moment later, Burin was there, helping me to my feet.

Terry began shooting at the wall. “What are you doing?!” I asked.

“Making handholds for Gregor!” she called back.

Gregor fast roped down, using a similar technique to something they’d taught us when I was training with the Mystic Knights back home, then used the handholds to climb a few feet further, before pushing off and landing in the snow.

We hopped on the dogsleds and hauled ass as fast as we could. Even this far away, I could hear the reverberating, pulsating hum. Not just hear it, but feel it! It would only be a matter of moments.

Just as we reached the tree line, the Pale Tower exploded. The explosion was large enough that the entire roof shot up over ten feet into the air. It then fell back into place, but the force of the impact caused cracks to spread through the tower.

They were small at first, but they spread and multiplied until the tower could take it no more, collapsing under its own weight and sending snow flying. The portal was down. Taldor was safe. For now, at least. But there were a lot of portals on that diagram.

We really needed to find Baba Yaga and stop this before Elvanna could finish her plan.


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Dotting. In-character journals are my favorites. :)


Setting out for Whitethrone

Spoiler:
We made camp and rested about halfway back to Waldsby, and finally went over the equipment we’d acquired from our trip. It was mostly standard stuff, but it was fairly valuable. The most valuable item was a ring that we couldn’t identify. Heck, even Cortana couldn’t identify it as she broke it down, which meant that it wasn’t in the database Daddy had given her, despite how thorough that was. Still, it was worth a massive amount of gold.

We split the filthy lucre five ways, cutting in Nadya for a share. It was more money than she’d ever seen, by a large margin. It was so much that we had to give her the magic bag from the treasure hoard just to carry what was left over after she spent much of it on new gear. She even bought boots like the ones Burin and I were wearing since they offered protection from the cold as well as the ability to walk on ice and snow. She then sold her magical snowshoes to Gregor at the same price the box was willing to give her.

She looked rather good with the darkwood longbow slung across her back, the exquisite pair of cold iron kukris sheathed on her belt and the magical chain shirt hidden between her undershirt and outer coat. Now if I could just get her to ditch that silly ushanka so she could flaunt her pretty hair, she’d make a great wing-woman for hitting up the tavern.

For dinner, we had a simple goat and turnip stew. It wasn’t too bad, once I added a bunch of salt and pepper, though it was a bit chewy. It might have been my imagination, but I kinda thought Terry looked like she was eating it spitefully. I even think I heard her mutter something about, “that stupid goat lady” as she went in for a bite.

After dinner, I took my turn with Cortana, coming up with what to spend my money on. In the end, I made some gloves that would help me activate magical devices and a pair of earrings that would enhance my attractiveness to help me convince people to help us. Cortana then made a suggestion based on my funds remaining, which I accepted, since it was from Daddy’s adventuring guide. And that’s why I no longer had to eat, drink or fear mind control and possession by evil creatures.

Of course, I was still going to eat and drink when there was something worth eating or drinking. But it would be nice not to have to worry about it when the only options were boring. I just wished I’d had it before dinner.

Back in Waldsby, Nadya volunteered to lead us to Whitethrone. “What about your boys? Will they be safe while you’re gone?” Burin asked.

“No,” Nadya said. “I want to take them with us. Even if I stay, they won’t be safe here if Nazhena realizes I helped you. I want to take them to Ellsprin, a village on the way, and leave them with an acquaintance of mine.”

“We can certainly take you with us,” I said. “But wouldn’t it be better if you stayed in Ellsprin with the boys?”

She shook her head. “My late husband’s uncle, Ringeirr, lives in a village just outside Whitethrone. If I go with you, I can introduce you. He’s a fisherman, but I’d bet he’d know someone who could get you into the city safely.”

I couldn’t see any reason to argue. “Anyone have any objections?”

“I’m not comfortable putting children in danger,” Burin said.

“You are traveling with little girl barely two years older than my sons,” she pointed out.

“Girl can fight,” Gregor said. “Let us see if the boys can do the same.” The warrior got the boys, Orm and Mjoli, from the other room and led them outside. He began showing them methods of fighting, amazing them as he left dents in the trees when he struck them.

It was adorable watching the twins emulate Gregor. Nadya had been worried at first, but her fears calmed when the “training” turned into a snowball fight.

The boys came in, complaining about the cold. Nadya ended up having Cortana make two more pairs of the magic boots, one for each of her sons. She still had more than enough money to live comfortably for years left over.

Terry returned sometime later, having gone out looking for information in town. She returned and told us about what she’d learned, and she’d learned a lot. “Vinnie was working with three others,” she said. “The elven alchemist, we’ve already met. But he was also with Vasily and some dwarven woman with claws. They were the ones who killed the Red Rider, at least, according to the Toad’s boasting.”

“Red Rider? I thought it was just the Black Rider.” Gregor said.

“There are three,” Nadya said. “Black, Red and White, they come every hundred years to herald Baba Yaga’s return.”

“Then perhaps White Rider could be our ally?” Gregor suggested.

“It’s worth a shot,” I agreed. “But I have no idea where to look for him.” No one else had any idea, so we agreed to keep our eyes open and hope we saw signs we could follow. An ally would be quite useful. As it was, we were floundering in the dark with only the slimmest of leads. Find a house and hope it could take us to the next step? Madness.

We ended up trapped by a blizzard. I thought I was going to go stir crazy by the third day. Evidently, Gregor felt the same way. “Burin, come with me,” he said.

“Where are we going?” the dwarf asked.

“To the bar. I am needing a drink.”

“Oh. Okay. I could use some beer.” Dwarves.

“I should go with them,” Nadya said to me. “Can you keep an eye on the boys?”

They were asleep already. “Sure. I’ll just stay here and read.” I still had that book I’d grabbed in the tower, and it seemed like it would be an interesting read. After she left, I realized that I should have asked if she was leaving me money to order a pizza.

They returned less than an hour later, bottles of alcohol in hand. “Emil refused to let foreigners drink at the tavern. I managed to convince him to sell us some alcohol to bring home,” Nadya said, answering my unspoken question.

“Good call,” I replied.

After some drinking, Gregor and Burin stepped outside for a bit, needing some fresh air. Nadya was looking a bit melancholic. She might just have been that kind of drunk. “You once said that you were from another world, yes?”

“I did,” I replied.

“Is it as horrible as this?”

“There are some bad parts,” I said. “But in truth, it’s probably better there on average than it is here.”

“And your childhood? Was it good?”

I nodded. “I grew up in luxury. I never really knew adversity, not in the sense that many experience. Not to say I wasn’t challenged, nor that I never encountered hardship, but it was not a daily fact of life.” I sighed. “Though, considering the invasion, it’s possible things back home are just as bad or even worse than here.”

“Then you were brought here to escape this invasion?”

“No. I came here to become stronger. Magic talent grows quickly in the face of adversity. I figured I’d find people in need, help them and become stronger in the process. Maybe kill a few monsters along the way. Simple adventurer stuff. Then I got word of what was happening back home. I wish I could go back, but the truth is that there’s likely little I can do to make a difference there. Here, well, maybe I can do some good.”

She laughed. “You are the strangest people I’ve ever met. You walk around dressed like a blyad, yet you seem to care about people.” I looked it up, and the word she used approximately means “whore”. “And the girl, she seems so angry, but there is sadness in her eyes when she thinks no one is looking.”

“I suspect she may have been a child soldier,” I confessed.

“That would make some sense, but I am thinking there may be more to it.”

“It’s possible.”

“The dwarf is… well, he is an odd one. But again, not unkind, though I worry about his tale of the demon. And the other, he has strange ideas, but there was gentleness in his treatment of the children. He seems to fret about the girl when she goes into danger.”

“His order, which was pretty much the only family he knew as far as I understand it, was wiped out almost to a man. I’ve seen his dreams a few times and it definitely haunts him. I’d be surprised if he isn’t afraid of losing another companion.” I laughed softly. “As my father tells it, my mom was like that, back before I was born. She was a mercenary and lost so many companions that she was terrified something would happen to those she traveled with.” And now, it was possible she’d lose many more friends in the fighting.

Gregor stormed in and sat by the fire. He took a big drink. “It is easier to train children than to train that guy,” he said, speaking to someone we couldn’t see. “What? You couldn’t teach him either? As if he couldn’t even see you? Oy, that pizda.” You don’t want to know what that one means.

Burin came in moments later. “I still don’t understand. Why would I want to dodge when I can just take the hit? If I take it, it becomes mine!” Yeah, he was probably drunk.

It took one more day before the blizzard subsided, and we finally set out. We ended up with one dog sled between us to carry gear, since we didn’t have enough trained sled drivers to carry the full party. It also meant we didn’t need to carry nearly as much extra food, so at least there was that.

We encountered a swarm of ravens on the first day. She didn’t say anything, but I could just imagine Terry thinking that we should have killed the sylph when we had a chance. After the stupid ravens clawed at my eyes, I was inclined to agree.

I spent the rest of the day on the dogsled while my eyes healed. The damage wasn’t too bad, but exposing my eyes to the cold air caused them to sting and water, which made it hard for me to see. So I just wrapped my head in cloth and accepted my temporary blindness.

The next day, my eyes were a bit better, but I kept a thin cloth on them since they were still sensitive to the light reflecting from the snow and the cold air. The day was mostly uneventful, except for Terry waking us up that night with gunfire. Apparently gremlins had tried to sneak into the tent, but Terry spotted them and reacted immediately, scaring them off.

The next evening, while I was helping Nadya set up the tent and Burin was digging a latrine, Terry and Gregor got into a knife throwing contest. The twins watched with intense glee as the two competed to see who would be best. Gregor won, though not by much. Where he really shined was the depth of penetration with the knife into the tree. It took a Herculean effort to yank it out, much to the children’s amusement.

The next day, we encountered an ambush. A number of men on snowshoes were hiding in some brush, but one had failed to hide the metal on his helmet, which reflected light that several of my companions spotted.

The soldiers sent their trained attack falcons to attack Gregor, who dodged them easily as the first foe fell. I unleashed a ray of fire, which caused them all to start focusing on shooting me. Jerks.

Meanwhile, a giant wolf came out of nowhere. Not just any wolf, though. It was a winter wolf, a magical beast of great power that lives within Irrisen. They joined Baba Yaga’s army and were rewarded greatly. They even have the ability to assume humanoid form in certain places – one of Baba Yaga’s gifts.

This one was just a giant wolf, though. An ice breathing wolf. Its breath was even cold enough that I felt pain from it, which was surprising. Gregor, Burin and Nadya surrounded the wolf and began trying to bring it down, which meant that the stupid archers were free to focus on me. So Terry and I kept attacking them.

Before the wolf fell, it called out to the guards. “Flee! Return to Nazhena and tell her of our failure!” Then it was brought down. One guard managed to make it a little ways away, but Gregor teleported over to him – I have got to figure out how he does that – and finished him off.

“We should skin the beast,” Nadya suggested, not noticing that Gregor had already begun doing so.

I pointed to Gregor. “That’s kinda what we do. Any particular reason why with this one, though?”

“It had two eyes of different color. If a winter wolf such as this is skinned, magic remains in the pelt. It allows its wearer to become a winter wolf, at least for a few hours. If entering Whitethrone is your aim, then an item such as this would be invaluable, as the winter wolves come and go freely from there.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “At the very least, it’s an option.”

“You should consider having girl use it,” she told me. “Whitethrone is not safe place for children. A young winter wolf, however, should have little to fear from witches.”

“So I’d have paws?” Terry complained. “I wouldn’t be able to fire my gun if we needed it.”

“The wolves may assume human form while in certain places. Whitethrone is one such place.”

“Then why not tell everyone I’m a winter wolf and be done with it?”

“You would not look right. They have white hair and pale blue eyes. In your wolf-turned-human form, you would have those as well.”

White hair and blue eyes? “How about Burin?” I asked. “I mean, he’s a dwarf, but he fits everything else.”

“Would not work,” Gregor pointed out. “Beast such as this uses more than eyes to see others. Dwarf would not fit in with wrong scent.”

We could work with that. “Take some of the wolf’s fat. Cortana should be able to analyze it and create a chemical spray Burin could use to smell like one of them.”

“I hope I won’t smell bad,” Burin said.

“It’ll probably be subtle enough that you’ll barely notice it,” I told him. Of course, I had no idea if I was right or not. But it sounded like a thing that could be true.

“Beasts have stronger noses than us,” Gregor agreed.

“If it works on him,” Terry said to me. “Would it work on you? You can change your hair color, after all.”

“She’d need to change her eye color too, wouldn’t she?” Burin pointed out.

“Back home, we have a technology that lets us disguise our eye color by putting colored lenses in our eyes. But we’d need some kind of magic box capable of crafting such a lens for that to be an option,” I said slyly.

“But don’t you have a magic box that can make things from your world?” Burin asked.

I didn’t have the heart to call him Captain Obvious. Or the desire to spend all day explaining what I meant by that. So I let it slide. But I was looking forward to trying this. We might actually be able to pull this off. Assuming I could get Burin to understand how infiltration works.

Maybe if I started now, he’d almost have it down by the time we reached the city. Maybe. I hoped.

Yes, I know those are Russian curse words and they're not speaking Russian, despite the fact that Lyriana actually does speak it. We've been using them in session for flavor.


The Wood Wife’s Request

Spoiler:
That evening, once we had set up camp, Terry pulled me aside. “I’ve been thinking about something.” She looked pretty serious.

“Alright,” I replied. “What’s on your mind?”

“Healing,” she said. “You’ve got the wand, and that’s okay. But what if you were hurt and couldn’t use it?”

“Burin can use it just as easily as I can. And if you’d like, I can teach you how to do it, though it will take some effort.”

“Maybe. But that’s the other thing. It doesn’t work very quickly.”

“You do weeks’ worth of healing in under a minute,” I protested.

“But it’s not as fast as a potion.”

The girl had a point. “Well, no. You’re right about that. It’s definitely slower than that. But it’s not like we can have Cortana make us more potions or some healing scrolls.”

“So, there’s nothing we can do? Burin was half-dead after that fight in the tower. If one of us gets that hurt again, shouldn’t we be able to do something for them?”

“Well, there might be something,” I said. “It’s experimental, so I’m not sure if he gave Cortana the ability to make it, but Daddy was working on recreating some tech that would allow the use of nanites to nearly instantly heal wounds.” It hadn’t gone through a full course of FDA approval or whatever, but he sounded like he was mostly sure it was ready for use.

“What’s a nanite? Is that some kind of magic?”

“Not exactly. It’s, technology. We’ve learned to make machines so small that a pile of them would look like grains of sand or maybe even a liquid to the naked eye.” She still looked confused. “Think of a machine like a magical construct, but not magic. It can move on its own using some form of energy, usually electrical.” I really wished I’d taken an engineering course or paid more attention in science at that point.

“And they could heal wounds? How?”

“The same way a human might fix a house. They’re small enough to be able to directly address the damage on a cellular level.” Or was it at a molecular level?

“Cellular level?” Crap. I’d witnessed the girl’s skill at tending wounds and had assumed she’d known things that we consider basic biology at home. It took me half an hour to give her a basic biology lecture. “I see,” she said, when I was done. “So we could maybe use these nanite things to heal wounds more quickly?”

Cortana had finished booting up the box. “Let’s find out,” I suggested. “Cortana, do you have any medical nanite devices in your database?”

“Category located. Specify usage.”

“Wound healing.”

“Subcategory located. Nanite hypoguns. There are nine objects in this subcategory. Displaying.” Interesting. They all used the same nanites. The only difference was in how powerful the gun itself was, which allowed it to impart more energy and more complex instructions to said nanites. They also had secondary effects, which correlated to known magic spells, but had to use more nanites to get said effects.

We discussed the idea with Gregor and Burin. “That is not a bad idea. Having another healing option cannot be bad thing,” Gregor said.

“Yes,” Burin agreed. “Especially if they can be used for quick heals.”

Based on our available funds, we pooled our resources and had Cortana craft us a level two gun, which was color coded as black. It was noted to not heal as much as the wand on a per gold piece basis, but it would be much better when we needed it quickly. And it could be used in secondary mode to heal the type of damage often done by basic poison and certain magic, which would be handy. We also had Cortana make two canisters of nanites, good for twenty uses of the device in total.

I showed Terry how to use it – the interface is incredibly simple if you’re used to basic tech from back home – and had Cortana bookmark the device, since I figured we might want one of the more powerful ones later if we managed to get the funds for it.

As we sat around the campfire – the others enjoying their dinner – Terry asked me about home and my parents – pretty much the same things that Nadya had already asked me about, so I won’t repeat them. But she did ask one different question. “So, of your parents, who wears the pants in the relationship?”

“They both wear pants,” I said. Which was true, most of the time. Unless it was cosplay season. But I had just spent over half an hour giving a primer on cellular biology. There was no way I was spending all night explaining cosplay to these people.

“No, I mean, who’s in charge?”

“Neither, I think. I’ve never seen them argue. Either they’ve already discussed everything or are in complete agreement on everything.” Or they had used magic to create a permanent telepathic bond and discussed everything where I couldn’t hear it. I really had no way of knowing. At least, not without asking, and that might be rude. “How about your parents? What were they like? How did they meet?”

“My father was a wandering knight. My mother was the second daughter of a lord. He was working for her father when her betrothed died in an accident. Not knowing what to do, my grandfather agreed to let her help my father in a mission he was on. As I understand it, nothing of real interest happened before they accidentally burned down the city they were in.”

“They burned down a city? How was this accomplished?” Gregor asked.

“They, uh, never told me the details. All I know is that after that they had to go on the run. How about you, Burin? What’s your family like?” I could spot a dodge when I saw one, but decided not to press the questions.

“Well, being ‘The Burin’ means growing up constantly training. I was proficient with the axe well before I realized I had a talent for magic. So that was added to my training.”

“Any family?” I asked.

“I have six brothers and twelve sisters.” Damn. Then again, as long as dwarves live, there could be a fair number of years between each.

“How is ‘The Burin’ chosen?” Terry asked.

“Well, if you imagine every family like a tree,” Burin began, “each Burin is like a fruit on the tree. No one chooses a Burin. We’re just born.”

Terry turned to Gregor next. “So Sergei adopted you, right?”

“Yes,” the warrior said. “All I know was monastery from early age. Only journey outside once, when I was fourteen. Is rite of passage, spend three, maybe four months, outside monastery to experience what world has to offer.”

“Like sex?” Nadya asked out of nowhere. I suddenly noticed that the kids were already in bed. Well, the kids other than Terry.

“Among other things,” Gregor admitted.

“And when you come back, is that when you get your god of fighting?” Terry asked sarcastically.

“No,” Gregor said. “God of Martial Arts show up later.”

It seemed like a subject he didn’t feel like talking about, so I spoke up. “Did anything happen on your expedition?”

“This and that. It was not so much interesting, I am thinking.”

Terry turned to Nadya. “We are probably the most unqualified people this could have happened to, if you hadn’t noticed.”

I laughed. “You’ve obviously never read the Adventurer’s Guild newsletter.”

“How is it going with the work on separating me and Burin, by the way?”

It would be hard to explain to someone who had never studied magic. “I’m getting stronger, but well, I’ll need to be able to cast at least an eighth, or possibly a ninth level spell to do anything about it. And right now I’m at a strong level two.”

“What’s the difference between the levels?” I had dreaded that question. I’d had to learn how to graph quadratics before I’d learned to understand just how much more powerful each spell level was than the last.

Luckily. Burin had a simpler way to look at it. He pulled out a ceramic cup and a bucket. “This cup is a second level spell. If magic is water, you need enough water to fill this cup to cast the spell. This bucket is a third level spell, so even though it’ll hold dozens of cups, you need that much water inside before you can cast it.”

“And a fourth level spell?” Nadya asked.

“The barrel on the dogsled that holds the meat for the dogs,” Burin suggested.

Terry’s face blanched at the understanding. “And a ninth level spell?”

“Whitethrone is on a large lake,” I said, remembering our maps. “Would that match your metaphor?” I thought it would, but I couldn’t be completely sure.

“Yes,” Burin answered. “A large lake would just about be perfect.”

Terry blanched. “And you think you have a chance of using that kind of magic?”

I shrugged. “I certainly hope so. It runs in the family.”

“My family wasn’t big on magic. My father preferred to complete his missions without giving wizards a chance to even know he’d been there. You don’t have to worry about magic if no one knows to use it against you.”

Burin cocked his head a bit. “That sounds more like an assassin than a knight to me.” Then he laughed. “But then again, I have a demon inside me. So who am I to judge?”

Terry gave me another look. “Speaking of Burin’s demon, I’ve been meaning to ask you about something you said.”

“Go ahead,” I told her.

“You mentioned that you could see his dream. Was it only his head you’ve been in, or have you been in mine?”

Ah, that. “I was never in his head. Not exactly. Sometimes I just find myself in the Dreamlands, a realm that is a reflection of the dreams of thinking beings. While there, sometimes I see other peoples’ dreams. I’m not even sure it was the whole dream. Just partial reflections. But to answer the question you meant, rather than the one you asked? Yes, I’ve seen parts of some of your dreams.”

“And what did you see, exactly?” She sounded upset.

“I saw you in a yellow coat, hanging from puppet strings just above a city street. There was a man staring at you, horror on his face. Both of you were frozen, but a crowd of people was moving around you as if you weren’t even there.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s what I recall.”

“And what causes it? Are you doing it on purpose?”

I considered it. “I don’t think so. It might have something to do with that book you found on our first adventure, though.” She shuddered and decided not to press it further.

I had an annoying dream that night. It seemed like it was going to be a sex dream, but then everyone was lacking the necessary equipment. And then I was in church. The priest was giving out ice cream instead of bread and wine. And the ice cream was bubble gum flavored. Eww.

I woke up frustrated. Next village we went to, I was looking for a tavern wench or a tall, muscular farmhand. Both, preferably. It was either that or seduce Nadya, but Terry and Nadya’s kids were always there. And I got the feeling she wasn’t interested in women.

And no, my companions weren’t an option. Neither the child, the demon-infested dwarf nor the crazy man really did it for me. Especially not the child. But even legality aside, none of them interested me.

I was probably stuck with them for a while, anyway. What if they developed feelings for me? It was just better not to risk it. I didn’t feel anything for them, not like that, so why risk some kind of annoying one-sided thing when I couldn’t put some distance between us if things got weird?

Tavern wenches don’t follow you into the dragon’s lair.

That afternoon, we ran across a cabin in some woods. It was a quaint sight, with a well-kept exterior and soft puffs of smoke wafting from a cute little chimney. It was a sight straight from a holiday postcard.

Burin walked up and knocked on the door. “Hello!” he called out.

“Finngarth?” a woman’s voice called from within, her voice quavering.

“Sorry, no, I’m Burin,” the dwarf said. “We were just passing by and hoped we could ask if you’d heard any news from the direction we’re heading.”

“Just a moment,” the woman’s voice said. The door creaked open, revealing an incredibly beautiful redhead in a green cloak. She looked at us for a moment. “Are you adventurers? Please, I beg you. I need your help! My husband has been taken by a troll!” Damn! She was married. So much for getting my hopes up there.

“Where is this troll?” Gregor asked.

She pointed to a trail. “There’s a cave about a half mile from here, just off this trail. I saw the troll go into the cave. Please! If you can save my Finngarth, I’ll give you a magic treasure. And you can stay here tonight, out of the cold.”

“We’ll take care of this troll,” Burin said.

“So we’re just going to go?” Terry said. “Yeah, of course we are. Alright. Nadya, a troll’s cave is no place for your sons. You three should stay here with…”

“Sylgja,” the woman supplied.

“Right. Stay with Sylgja. But keep your hand on your knives. If she tries anything, do what you need to protect the boys. Kill her if she forces it.”

Right. Crazy child. “Let’s get going. We have a troll to kill and a man to save,” I said.

The cave was easy enough to find, but it was quite dark within. Burin and I didn’t need a light source to see inside, but Gregor and Terry lacked our ability to see in the darkness. So Terry put Hatch to work carrying a torch.

We didn’t have to go very far before we spotted a large shadow in front of us. Gregor charged in, ahead of the party. “Guys!” he called back. “This doesn’t look as big as troll!” The enemy met his charge. “This is not troll! Is man, covered in parasitic mold!”

Crap. We’d need to be careful not to hit the infected person, likely Finngarth. But at least he was alive. I hoped we could keep him that way. For my part, I used force bolts to try to hit the mold with little risk of harming Finngarth or the others. It looked like the mold was trying to dodge the attacks, though many of them did hit.

Burin called for Hatch to bring him the torch while Gregor disarmed the infected man and tossed the axe behind him. Terry kept shooting at the mold – I’m not sure that was the best idea, but let’s be honest, I had no real better plan. Which became obvious moments later.

“Lyriana, do you have any ideas on how to hit the mold without hurting the man?” Terry asked.

Crap. “Umm, we could hit him with the wand so he heals any wounds we accidentally inflict on him?” I know there are a number of spells that use powerful bursts of UV light to kill molds without hurting people too much, but I didn’t have any of them. We also lacked any kind of plant killing chemicals. So “poke him with a stick” it was.

I drew the wand and tried to get past the melee and get behind the man – hoping I’d find a spot without mold – but that wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. They were fighting in a chokepoint and I simply lacked the ability to get past.

But then Gregor punched the mold so hard that it passed out. Not the man. THE MOLD PASSED OUT.

I knew that to be the case because Finngarth – a massive, muscular bear of a man – suddenly snapped back to his senses. “Please hurry. I don’t think it’s dead! Get it off me!”

With Finngarth no longer resisting, I managed to get past him. Finding a mold free-spot to tap was a more difficult prospect, though. Burin continued working at burning away the mold while Gregor kept punching it.

He punched it so hard that dead, toxic mold went flying everywhere. I barely managed not to breathe any in. But it was dead at last, and Finngarth was alive. I poked him with the wand to mend his wounds.

“He is reeling from spores,” Gregor pointed out. “Is like damage from poison.”

“Terry, the nanites should be able to help with that if you turn the gun to its secondary setting.”

“On it!” she said excitedly as she came over. I think she was looking forward to playing with her new toy. She turned the dial, gently pressed the gun to his arm and pulled the trigger.

Burin torched away the last of the mold from the man and began burning any spots of it he could find in the cave. There were several animal corpses where he was working – likely the mold’s previous victims.

The effects of the nanites were impressively fast, faster even than I expected. These were going to revolutionize medicine back home. Finngarth looked just as surprised as I was. “Thank you, strangers. Please, tell me, have you met my Sylgja? Is she okay?”

“She’s at your home with a friend of ours,” Burin told him. “Come on, let’s get you back to her.”

The reunion was heartwarming. As the two embraced, I heard Terry ask Nadya if the woman had shown any signs of witchcraft. Nadya shook her head. Terry was obviously more than a little suspicious at the moment, as she scrutinized the woman’s answer for any sign of coercion or enchantment.

“Oh, what kind of story does she have?” I heard Burin say. I looked over to see the dwarf standing near Gregor and Mjoli. The boy had obviously tried to tell the fighter something in secret, but Burin had overheard and did Burin things. The child looked mortified.

I know that feeling, kiddo.

A smiling Sylgja looked over at the dwarf. “What was that?”

“Oh, I was wondering what kind of story you had. The boy says you have some kind of tale.”

“I knew it!” Terry said. “You’re another of those goat women!” What the heck was she going on about? Did she really think Sylgja was a forlarren? That was easily obvious to not be the case. “Pull up your skirt and prove you’re not, if you have nothing to hide!”

The woman looked terrified, but Finngarth consoled her. “It is okay, my love. These are not simple peasants, and they seem to be good people. They will understand.” She nodded, and he continued. “My Sylgja is a huldra, or a wood wife, if you’ve heard that name.”

I had, in fact, heard of huldras. They’re fey creatures and are mostly harmless, as long as you don’t try to suggest they work for trolls, their hated enemies. They generally just want companionship. Treat them with respect and they’re generally likely to be better companions than most humans.

They’re still fey, though, with the weird morality that comes with it. They don’t see any issue in using their magic to charm someone to make them want to stay with them. You’re not unhappy being there, but it can lead you to give up on your own goals. But for a person whose goals were only to live a peaceful life hunting, fishing or as a woodcutter? Not necessarily a big deal. And Finngarth seemed like one of those.

“Well,” Burin said, “since we’re coming clean here, I have something to admit as well. I’m a dwarf.” We laughed and I put my hand on Terry’s shoulder, to try to assure her that it was fine. “So, I have a question,” Burin continued. “Are there any wood husbands?”

Sylgja looked relieved. “I don’t think so, but it’s possible?”

“All good husbands have wood,” I said. Nadya snorted as she tried to hold back a laugh.

“I guess that’s true. You have to make sure you have enough firewood stored to keep the fires going through the winter,” Burin said innocently.

“Oh yeah. Good wood definitely keeps the fires going. Especially during the cold nights.” Nadya was making that sound you make when you can’t breathe because you’re laughing so hard.

Terry, ever the shining example of subtlety, spoke up. “My parents used to go at it all through the night.” She sounded almost nostalgic. I mean, I understand that her parents were dead. And I’m pretty blasé about my parents sex lives, but I don’t think fondly back to the time I walked in on them or anything.

Though that could be because I never did. I suspect they had Juiz warn them long before I made it to their room. And I guess I do find the way they look at each other adorable. Alright, weird little girl, you win this round.

A bit later, Terry pulled me aside. “So she’s really not dangerous?”

“No more dangerous than a random human, anyway. She might be a little weird to us, as a fey, but I wouldn’t worry about her.”

“Weird like the goat lady you let into camp?”

“Hey. That was Nadya’s idea.”

I’m not sure how she discovered it, but Sylgja realized that Burin had been cursed. She offered to use a magic scroll she had to cure him, which we graciously accepted. She also presented us with Finngarth’s magical bear trap as a reward for saving him. We told them that it was unnecessary, but in the end accepted the reward to avoid being rude.

The cabin wasn’t large. In fact, it was small enough that there wasn’t really enough room for everyone. Terry kept trying to say that it would work if Gregor and Nadya just shared a bed – there’s no shipper like a twelve year old girl – but Gregor declined. He instead offered to sleep outside, saying it was good for training.

We set out the next morning for yet another day of boring travel. The high point of the day was when we came across a pocket of summer within the winter cold. It looked like some druids had tried to fight off the eternal winter, even if only in this one little clearing.

We made camp there and Gregor used the warmth to try training the hawk he’d taken from one of those guards days before. I’d completely forgotten he had that, to be honest.

Still, it was nice to have a night with no clouds in the sky. I’ve always found something soothing about the starry sky. I even had a skylight put in my room directly over my bed. I started sleeping much better after that. Not that I’d slept poorly before, of course. Just that it got even better with the stars above.

The next day, we came across the ruins of a village. They looked ancient. Hundreds of years old, at least. So, of course, Burin called out a “Hello!” as we approached. Unsurprisingly, no one answered.

But we did find two men within the ruins of the monastery. They were wearing the robes of clerics of Desna, but there was something off about them. It was as though they were using a really out of date style of robe. “We weren’t aware that more children were coming. Please, run along and play with your little friends. I’m sure your parents will return soon,” one of the men said.

“We’re not children.”

“Now isn’t the time for games,” he said. “We have so many children to watch over. Please, run along and leave us to our work.”

“Yes,” Gregor said, amused. “Run along and play, Burin.”

Burin began trying to detect magic in the area. After about twenty seconds, he hissed. “Lyriana, are you seeing this?”

I searched for magical auras and quickly pierced the illusion as well. “They’re undead!” I gasped. Not just any undead, but huecuvas, the risen forms of clerics who had renounced their faith and blasphemed their gods shortly before death.

The fight, much like most of our fights, was quick and brutal. Also, we missed a lot. Not sure why. I just couldn’t aim straight. And neither could the others, it seemed. No one had any explanations. There was no magical reason. It was just something that happened.

Inside the remains of the monastery, Nadya spotted a loose flagstone. Gregor heaved it up and held it while Burin carefully tried detecting curses in the treasure hidden within. After the curse spotting was done – and we were in the clear – Burin began pulling out objects one at a time and identifying them.

“Hey, Burin,” Gregor said, his voice straining. “Stone is really heavy. Please hurry.”

“Oh! Right.” He pulled out the rest and Gregor put back the stone. Then we identified the items. Nothing worth really noting, other than a single scroll that would allow us to consecrate an area – more on that in a minute – but plenty of value. The clerics had obviously hidden all the monastery’s valuables in preparation for something.

The nature of that something was revealed in a search of the monastery’s living quarters. On one side, we found the rotted, tattered remains of a half-dozen small toys. Terry picked up a small, rusted figure of a toy knight and carefully put it in her belt pouch.

On the other side of the building, I found a scrap of paper. Most of it had rotted away, but this piece had been preserved by some spilled oil. It read, “We have to do something soon. Baba Yaga’s army is coming. There’s no way we can save them all.” Well, I’m extrapolating here. Only about half of those words were complete and un-smudged. I had to fill in the blanks.

When I told the others what I’d found – and translated it to Common for them – Terry spoke up. “Baba Yaga sounds more awful the more we hear about her. Are we sure we want to be working with her? Are we really on the right side?”

“We’re on the side that prevents the world from being covered in ice and snow,” I said. “Sure, if we had another option, I’d be happy to leave her to rot. But right now, it’s what we have to do to save the world.” No one had any real counterargument to that, so we headed back outside.

We made it twenty feet before the courtyard erupted in a ghostly scene. We watched as children were snatched up by ice trolls and giants, screaming in terror the whole way. I even saw a cleric grabbed. He screamed that he had done as they had promised, renouncing Desna and worshipping Baba Yaga as was agreed. The trolls and giants didn’t seem to care as they tore him limb from limb.

The feeling of despair that washed over me was overbearing. “I hear something coming!” Burin said. I scanned around quickly and spotted some ice elementals. “Strange. Those don’t look like goats.” Goats? What the hell was up with goats and our party?

Then, even in the rising winds, I heard it, the sound of a goat. I looked, and behind the ice elementals appeared the ghostly form of a goat-headed man. An icy mist appeared on the ground where his hooves clattered on the cobblestones.

It let out a roar, causing Terry to whimper. “What is that?!” Gregor called out as he charged the elementals.

“It’s a witchrime!” I called back. “It’s an incorporeal undead! You need to use magic or magic weapons to hit it! Holy water will work too, and you might be able to pour a healing potion on it if you have nothing better to use, though I wouldn’t recommend it!”

The witchrime strafed the party, launching a bolt of witch-frost at Terry. She cried out in pain and I could see an icy mist begin coalescing around her. “I WISH I HAD DIED AT THE DRAGON!” Terry shrieked before diving behind Nadya, who had rushed to put herself between Terry, the boys and the monster. The girl clung to the woman’s boots.

“Where did it come from?” Burin called out.

“They’re formed when the soul of a witch merges with the spirit of its familiar!” I called back as I unleashed a couple rays of flame at the foe.

“So we’re going to have to worry about one of these things every time we kill a witch?!” Burin had managed to rub magic weapon oil on Gregor’s fist while talking.

The monster continued strafing, making a circle around and trying to get a better shot at Terry. He hit me with a bolt of witch-frost, which was incredibly cold. Worse, the rime forming around me made me feel more susceptible to the cold of the wind. “No. They only form when you expose the bodies of a recently deceased witch and her familiar to a massive burst of magical ener- S**&.”

“WHAT?!” Terry shrieked.

“It’s Radosek! We must have done this when we dispelled the ritual!” That would explain why it was focused on Terry. She’d been the one to land the killing blow on the witch. How could we have been so stupid? We really had to be more careful in the future.

“The children!” Gregor shouted. Sure enough, Terry might not be the only target. The witchrime’s path would take it straight to where the boys were cowering in the doorway of the monastery. The fighter teleported, putting himself between the enemy and the children. The monster reeled and let out a horrific cry as Gregor punched it with his enchanted fist.

Burin managed to enchant one of Nadya’s weapons before she ran off to join Gregor. I unleashed force bolts at the enemy, since only bolts of force would be able to strike true on a ghost.

The wraith hit Gregor with a touch of witch-frost, then dashed through Nadya. Both felt the chill of the frost, but both managed to strike the foe as it moved. Meanwhile, I felt the cold of metal on my calf as Terry injected me with healing nanites. They didn’t clear the rime, but damn if they didn’t feel good.

I attempted to unleash another volley of force bolts, but the ice made it hard to concentrate. The monster answered my attempt by blasting me with more ice. Gregor and Nadya gave chase, trying to keep up, though definitely slowed by the entangling rime.

“Whip it out for me, little girl!” I heard Burin say. I spared a glance to see Terry holding up her gun for him. Good. I had been a bit worried about what he meant there.

Terry used the enchanted weapon to shoot, but missed with both shots. But between her healing and shooting, she had the enemy’s attention. It let out a horrible shriek and charged through Nadya – who had once more gotten between Terry and the foe – straight for Terry. Yes, through. It’s a ghost, remember?

Gregor and Nadya used its desperate charge as an opening and swung. Their blows connected and the witchrime lost coherence and dissipated. Its face had been mere inches from Terry’s when it vanished.

The girl couldn’t even scream. Not at first. The sound caught in her throat. It took several moments before she let out a sound between a terrified shriek and a sob. Gregor and Nadya helped her up, then she hurried inside.

“Is there anything we can do for the souls of the dead?” Burin asked once the witch-frost had worn off of us.

“Well, maybe,” I said. “That scroll we found should put the souls to rest. But it’s divine magic, so it’s not like I can just cast it like normal.”

He nodded. “Right. It will be difficult. But can we try anyway?”

“Sure. I’ve studied on how to use scrolls and devices I’m not familiar with, so there’s a good chance we can make this work.”

The first part of casting a spell not normally available to you from a scroll is to clear your mind and fill it with thoughts like someone who can cast those spells. To cast like the cleric, you must think like the cleric. Or at least, you must feel like the cleric. You don’t need specific thoughts. But faith is a feeling that washes over you. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, but you must believe. Surrender to your faith.

Then, once the light of faith washes over you, you have to speak the words of the spell. Complete the spell and let the power stored within the scroll flow free.

With some help from my allies, I managed to pull it off and the courtyard was bathed in holy energy. I’m not sure if I felt happier that I’d done it or from holy aura flowing through us. A far cry from the despair inspired by the ghosts, I felt hope.

We could totally do this. We could save the world.

That night, Terry asked me for my help with Cortana. The encounter with the witchrime had spurred her to action. She wanted to spend the money she’d accumulated. She had felt powerless being unable to attack it until Burin had enchanted her weapon and wanted to be able to hurt things like it.

More than that, she wanted fire. She wasn’t knowledgeable about magic, but she understood fire. Fire was simple and made sense. And if we could make her gun shoot fire, that’s what she wanted. First, I showed her how we could enchant it to shoot magical fire, especially focusing on the Firedrake enchantment, which would let it shoot gouts of flame similar to that one spell I often cast.

She wanted that, but couldn’t afford it yet. For now, though, we could make her gun shoot flaming bullets with an eye towards that later when she had more money. Which left money for alchemical incendiary bullets and some defensive increases.

She went to bed holding her gun. More than ever, she looked like the child she was, holding on to a very strange security blanket. Poor kid.

I wasn’t sure what kind of reward she’d get from Baba Yaga for her aid, but I was sure we’d find a way to make it worth her while even if the witch didn’t. The truth is that everyone here deserved something good. Maybe I could find something when we reached the city.

And on that thought, I made still further alterations to my clothing. I had to make sure it was perfect by the time we tried to infiltrate Whitethrone.


No Therapists in an Adventuring Party

Spoiler:
That night, I had some strange dreams, similar to the story in the book I’d just finished. I was on this weird farm where all the crops were massive but inedible. Well, for most people. I could eat them just fine. I also was the only person at the end of the dream who hadn’t gone mad. It was a little weird.

I woke up early and decided to check with Cortana about the status of the message I had her trying to send every day. “Cortana, message status,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that query,” she replied. I repeated myself. “One moment. Loading expanded language subroutines. Error. Relevant language file not found.”

I spoke again, listening carefully to the words I was saying. “Huh,” I said. “That’s odd. I seem to be speaking a language I don’t recognize.” I focused, forcing myself to speak Taldan. “Cortana, do your systems know anything about the language I was speaking?”

“Linguistic heuristics assess probability of language being real at ninety six point thirty two percent based on syntax, but language is not located in any known database. Relevant information might be found in Ranger central database.”

“After you manage to send out that message, please make your next priority contacting the Ranger database.”

“Understood.”

As we packed up our stuff, Burin came over and asked me about Radosek becoming the witchrime. I told him what I knew, which wasn’t much. But it seemed to satisfy his curiosity. “So, from now on, we should give witches a proper burial?”

I shrugged. “If we can, probably wouldn’t hurt. But at least, we should be careful about what we do with their bodies. I’d imagine we could also get away with basic cremation as well.”

He nodded. “Sounds good to me. Well, time to get back on the road, I guess.”

“Yup.”

“Nadya says we should reach Ellsprin in a day or two.”

I nodded. “At least we’ll get the kids somewhere safe. Most of them, anyway.”

The trip was uneventful, which was a shame, since I had nothing to distract me from the itching from my new tattoo. I’d drawn it on my own left arm using a one-time use tattoo gun filled with magic inks – the kind I have to use to write my spells in my spell book – as a special focus for my casting. It was an old Varisian art I’d been reading about.

I’d done a decent enough job drawing the rune for “Evocation”, but it was no spectacular piece of art. Not like the cyber tattoo on the small of my back. It moves! They’re all the rage ever since the tech was discovered five years back. I made a fake ID and got it when I was sixteen.

It’s an innocent looking angel who morphs into a flirty, half-naked demon-girl, in case you really need to know.

We arrived at Ellsprin in the mid-afternoon. As usual we showed up just in time to find something bad going on. At least, that’s what we assumed when we spotted the blood-soaked corpse ten feet from the door of a house on the village outskirts.

Burin rushed over to check on the body, as fast as his little dwarf legs would take him. We fanned out defensively and looked for signs of whoever had done it. Convinced the man was dead, Burin knocked on the door. "Hello! Is everyone okay in there?”

“Are they gone?” a voice replied from within.

“Is who gone?” the dwarf responded, just as something dropped from the roof and attacked.

Gregor and Terry reacted immediately, charging and shooting respectively. As Gregor hit the enemy – a quickling, a type of fey creature known for their speed – Terry’s bullet struck true with a burst of flame. “I LOVE THIS GUN!” the girl cheered, looking at me. I gave her a smile and unleashed a blast of force bolts, bringing down the foe.

As the quickling went down, we heard something shouting in Sylvan from one of the bushes. I moved to put myself between Nadya’s boys and the sound, but I was pretty sure whatever had yelled had run away. I also cast a spell to give myself something akin to a shield that would protect me from damage. Daddy calls the effect “Temporary Hit Points”, but I think that’s because of that strange experience he had during the battle with Karzoug. It’s really just a defensive shield.

“It’s okay, they’re gone now,” Burin called to the house.

The door cracked open, revealing a woman in her early-mid thirties. “You’re sure?”

Burin picked up the dead quickling by the ankle. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s dead. Oh, wait, he twitched.” Then he smacked the body against the side of the house as hard as he could. “Yeah, he’s dead now.”

The quickling’s skull had cracked open and was oozing out brains, so it was a safe bet. Also, I don’t think there rest of my party has the social graces God gave a single normal person between them. Not by half.

As evidence of this, while Burin was talking to the woman about the attack on her family, Terry was busy trying to steal her dead husband’s pocket watch off of his corpse. At least Gregor stopped her.

The woman, whose name was Maret, told us that the fey were acting out of some misguided sense of friendship with her son. Which only prompted more questions. “Why would fey be helping your son?” Terry asked.

“Perhaps he’s a witch?” I suggested.

She shook her head. “My son, my eldest son, Garen, is a faun. He’s not a bad boy. He’s just been hanging out with a bad crowd.”

“A faun?” Terry asked me.

“The child of a human and a satyr.”

“OH!” the girl shouted in realization. “You f%!$ed a goat!” she exclaimed at the woman. “F!!% these goat people,” I heard her mumble as she walked over to keep an eye on the bushes.

Yep. Social graces. My group has none.

At least I had the courtesy to be quiet enough that Maret couldn’t hear me when I said, “I’m pretty sure that’s how you get more goat people,” to Terry.

“Wait,” Burin said. “He doesn’t look like a satyr.” He indicated the body.

“No, he’s not Garen’s father. I married Borvald some years after Garen was born. Please, you have to help my Garen. I’m afraid that the other fey will hurt him.”

“How many are there?” Gregor asked.

“At least one more like this one. And there was another, but I didn’t get a good look at him, so he may be something different.”

“We can follow their tracks in the snow,” the fighter said. “They are likely not far.”

“You and the boys stay with Maret,” Burin suggested to Nadya. “You can keep them safe while we’re gone, if something manages to break into the house.”

“We’ll be fine,” Nadya replied. “Please bring Maret’s boy home safely.”

We followed the tracks to an abandoned barn. From within, we heard the high pitched shouting of a female quickling. “How much abuse will you take before standing up for yourself?! Why won’t you stand up to those inferior humans?! And now my husband Faernip has been captured or probably killed! FOR YOU! We did all of this for your sake!”

“Hello!” Burin called out. “We’re probably the ones who killed your husband!”

There was an incoherent shout of rage as the fey charged out and was met by Gregor. The fighter hit her twice, once with each fist. She reeled from the blows. “What are you people?!” she demanded.

“‘How much abuse will you take before standing up for yourself?’” Burin asked ironically as he brought his axe down and slew the quickling.

Another fey – a tiny creature known as a twigjack – leapt from the bushes and charged at me, spear in hand. Thankfully, my magical shield protected me long enough for Burin and Gregor to rush over. “There’s someone else in the barn,” Terry called out. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

The twigjack, which is a cat-sized creature that looks like a man made of twigs, fell quickly under the assault by the boys. Burin even picked it up and slammed it against a rock to make sure it was dead.

I’m not sure which is more annoying, ingénue Burin or crazy bloodlust Burin.

“It’s all good over here!” Terry called to us. “This guy’s half-goat, half-pussy!”

Oh, for the love of god. I walked over and saw a terrified faun. He was so terrified he’d messed himself, and was now rocking back and forth with his head between his legs. I could hear him whimpering. I looked at Gregor. “Get his mom. She might be the only one who can calm him.” I approached carefully. “Hello Garen,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “It’s okay now. We’re not here to hurt you. Your mom’s coming. She’s very worried about you.”

He looked hopeful. “Mom’s okay?”

“Yes,” I said. “She’s just fine. Now let me cast a spell and get you cleaned up. We don’t want her to see you like this.” He nodded and I cast my cantrip, cleaning the mess from his white fur.

And then Burin spoke and undid all progress I had made towards calming the boy. “Yeah, you don’t have to worry. We’re not here to kill you. We were just here to kill your friends.” The faun wailed, returning to his cowering position. I glared at the dwarf.

Hatch peeked out from the pocket in Terry’s guitar case he’d staked out as his new home. Upon seeing the faun, he walked over. “Yeah, if you were their target, you’d have died painfully already. They’re really good at killing goats…” and then he spent over a minute describing – in explicit detail – all the times we had killed goats or goat-men. I was so flabbergasted by the matter-of-fact nature of his statements I couldn’t even react, though I tried. Desperately I tried to get the domovoi to just shut up.

Once Hatch finished, Terry spoke again. “Oh, and your step-dad’s dead. Thought you should know.” The faun whimpered more. What the hell is wrong with these people?! I gave Terry a withering look. “What? You think I made the situation worse, but blunt honesty is usually best.”

“NOT. WHEN. THEY’RE. ALREADY. PANICKING.” I spoke slowly and clearly in hopes that someone, anyone, would learn something from this.

Gregor and Maret arrived before anyone else could make it even worse. Upon seeing her son, Maret rushed over to him. “What did you do to my poor Garen?” she accused us.

I looked at each of the others in turn. “They hurt him with words,” I apologized.

I helped Maret escort Garen to her home and put him in a bed. We then met the others in the common room, where Nadya’s boys were playing with Maret’s children. “How did all of this happen?” Nadya asked.

“When I was a teen,” Maret started, “I had a tryst with a satyr who had come to our village, leaving me pregnant. Upon learning of my condition, he left me. Not long after, I gave birth to Garen. The townsfolk were not kind, so I moved to the outskirts of the village. This home was a gift from my parents that I suspect was only given to get my child out from under their roof.”

“That’s awful,” Nadya said.

Maret nodded. “When he was old enough, Garen realized that he was the reason the villagers shunned us, and ran away. Not long after, I met Borvald. We were married and had other children. I only saw Garen on rare occasions, when he would come by to make sure I knew he was okay. I tried to convince him to stay, but he said he would not put me through that again.”

“Mjoli! Stop hitting your brother!” Nadya suddenly shouted. “Excuse me a moment.”

“Of course.” A few moments later, when Nadya returned, Maret continued. “Last time he visited, he told me he’d made some new friends. I told him they were welcome to visit, but he said they didn’t like humans much.”

“They came to visit anyway,” Terry noted.

“Yes,” Maret replied, bowing her head.

“Your son’s an idiot.”

That was it. The last straw. I stood up. “Maret, does this town have a tavern?”

“Yes, just off the village square. But I was going to make supper. You’re all welcome to stay.”

“I’m not hungry. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”

“Should someone not go with you?” Nadya asked.

“I’ll be fine. You all should eat.” I didn’t want to leave poor Maret alone with Terry and Burin. Thus far, Gregor hadn’t said anything horrible, but neither had he made any effort to bring them under control. I knew Nadya wouldn’t let them go too far, and I was sure Gregor would back her up if she had too. At least I hoped.

I stepped outside and saw Burin digging a grave for Borvald. At least he was being useful. Still, I didn’t want to talk to him, so I told him I’d be back and headed off without waiting for a reply.

In town, I quickly found the bar. People treated me well enough, less like an outsider than the people of Waldsby had. Perhaps the changes to my outfit had been successful.

The serving wench – a flaxen-haired girl perhaps a year or so younger than me – was fairly attractive. I was suddenly aware of just how long it’d been since I’d last shared my bed with anyone. I was determined to see what that girl’s cute dress looked like on the floor.

It took me less than a half-hour to seduce her. A lavish tip, a lot of charm, an “accidental” touch here or there and just the right amount of innuendo, and she had offered to show me the tavern’s “finest stock”, which could only be found in the cellar. A fine display of my skills, I must confess. I slammed down my glass of mead – they didn’t have any wine – and followed her.

We made it to the cellar door before her father caught us. “Ulla, what do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.

“This woman wanted to buy several kegs of mead from us for a party,” she lied. Well, tried to lie. She had dozens of tells.

“Go back inside, Ulla.”

“But father –“ she protested.

“BACK. INSIDE.”

The girl ran off. The man looked like he was about to thrash me, but I was sure I could take him. Whether I could win without killing him was the real problem. I hadn’t exactly prepared non-lethal spells today. “There is no need to blame your daughter,” I said. “I’m sure we can work this out.”

“There is nothing to work out. You will leave, stilyagi. You aren’t welcome in my tavern. If I see you again, woman or no, I will throttle you.”

Well, at least I’d avoided a fight. I pulled out a gold coin and tossed it at his feet. “For the mead. Use the extra to visit a surgeon and see if he can remove the metal pole you’ve got shoved up your ass.” I spun on my heel and strode off.

So much for that. I hadn’t even had a chance to drink a second glass of mead. But at least my disguise had worked, so it wasn’t a complete loss. There was nothing left to do, so I returned to Maret’s home.

Burin greeted me as I returned. “You weren’t gone long,” he said.

“I just had a glass of mead. I didn’t want to have to try finding my way back here through unfamiliar territory while drunk.”

“Good thinking.”

“Almost done with that hole?” I asked.

“It’s slow going, but not much longer now.”

“Okay. Well, I think they’re probably going to have dinner ready soon. Don’t take too long.”

We buried the body – we didn’t really know what to say, so we did a generic prayer to the gods – and then took up Maret on her offer to stay the night. In the morning, we headed into the village to meet Nadya’s cousin Quorin Sans and his wife Tina. She asked him to take care of the boys for a while, which he agreed to once she produced a sack of gold coins to cover their needs while she was gone.

Before we left, Terry gave the boys each a knight – apparently she had picked up more than one – from the broken toys she’d found back at the monastery. She had spent some time restoring them. The rust was gone and they had a new paint job.

Orm thought she was hitting on Mjoli, which seemed to irritate her. She is twelve, after all, so any insinuation that she has feelings for anyone is almost definitely going to lead to a tsundere reaction.

A couple days later, in the early afternoon, we reached a bridge a mile or so from our destination. There were a number of skulls adorning it, so we were wary. A trio of merrows – twelve foot tall, freshwater-dwelling cousins of ogres – standing at the far end of the bridge certainly added to the wariness.

“Halt!” one of the giants called out. “Present your papers!”

“We don’t have any papers,” Burin said.

“No papers?” one of the giants asked. “Then you’re going to have to pay the toll!”

“How much is the toll?”

“You pay in meat!” the third said. I noticed he was looking at Terry.

I sighed. From the beginning, it seemed like they were lying. But that clinched it. Official collectors would have demanded coin first, only asking for goods if the person they were trying to collect from claimed to have none.

After the constant grind of dealing with my own band of weirdos and sociopaths, I didn’t have it in me to deal with this. I mean, we could likely bluff our way through – I was still wearing my stilyagi clothes, after all – or maybe even bully our way. But Burin hadn’t been briefed on the plan, so he would just mess it up. Assuming Terry didn’t realize that they wanted to eat her and start shooting at them anyway.

Screw it. If a fight was inevitable, then might as well start strong. I cast a spell and unleashed a pair of fire rays at the closest merrow.

To their credit, my companions reacted immediately. We had two of the giants down in less than ten seconds. Gregor managed to explode one with a single punch. The third jumped into the river below to escape. I tried hitting it with my beam spell – I had used my arcanist skills to alter it from fire to lightning – but missed. In my defense, it was hard to see.

Terry had no such trouble. She fired into the water several times as the shadow of the merrow moved up the river. After the third or fourth shot, the merrow’s form floated up to the surface and was carried back by the current.

I have to admit, that was impressive. Back during the time I was studying with the Mystic Knights, we learned that without specialized rounds, bullets lose kinetic energy rapidly when firing into water. To the point that diving eight to ten feet is usually more than enough to render the shooter unable to hurt you. And she’d managed to take out a merrow who had to be around that depth. Even with a magic weapon, that was a significant feat.

And after all that, I still don’t think she realized that they had wanted to eat her.

As we watched the body floating by, we spotted another body under the bridge. So we looted it. And Gregor skinned the two giants still on the bridge. And Burin quickly buried the body we’d found as well as all the skulls he’d pulled off the spikes on the bridge.

As we set out again, I realized it was likely to be only a few hours til nightfall when we reached the fishing village where Nadya’s uncle-in-law lived. I could tell that this trip was beginning to take its toll on my nerves. I wasn’t afraid, just irritated.

Hopefully this village wouldn’t be nearly as annoying as the last.


So, the Co-GM and I got bored one night some weeks back and ended up ordering some Hero-Forge custom figs for the party. Now that they've come in and I don't have to worry that one of the other players might see it, I can show you a screenshot of what we created. No labels, but I'm sure you can figure out who is who.

Another entry going up in a little, now that the last person has had a chance to read over it.


The Guards Must Be Crazy 2: Fishcamp Boogaloo

Spoiler:
Daddy has this eye twitch thing that happens every time he’s talking about his old adventuring days and either Lenn or Paulie come up. He also shudders any time he talks about Geo, but that’s not important. None of my companions are disturbing. But all of my companions are, in some fashion, difficult to deal with. Quirky, if you want to be nice.

I think I’m beginning to develop the same eye twitch.

“I punched one of those things so hard that its intestines flew directly out of its back,” Gregor said, emphasizing the word “intestines”.

“Yeah, it was right in front of you,” Terry argued. “No skill, only brute force.”

“This is not true. Is not just matter of hitting hard. Must hit just right, in just right place. Is much skill involved.”

“Oh, whatever. I shot an enemy concealed in the murky waters as it moved. It was thirty, maybe more, feet away.”

“And then it floated away. One less skin for us!”

“I still shot it at a much greater range than you punched yours.”

“Yes, but you shoot, what, four, five times? How many times you hit?” Gregor looked smug about that one.

“We’re getting nowhere with this. Nadya, who do you think was cooler in that last fight?”

The poor woman looked like a deer caught in headlights. She gave me a look that screamed “Help me!”

I sighed. “Now, now, girls, you’re both very pretty. There’s no need to fight about it.” My voice might have been dripping with sarcasm.

I thought I saw Terry stick her tongue out at Gregor, but they dropped it. Nadya moved to change the subject. “We are almost to city, but I do not think we should go straight to city,” she said.

“Oh? Why not?” Burin asked.

“Entering city is dangerous if we have no official business, but my husband’s uncle Ringeirr can get us in. He lives in the fish camps just outside the city.”

“Didn’t you say he was a fisherman?” Terry asked.

“That was… not entire truth.” I wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but I kinda hoped she’d tell us he owned a brothel, considering the way the terminology with fishing was sometimes used euphemistically to mean things from the sex trade. The fish camps could very well be the brothel district. “He is, in truth, a smuggler.” Damn. “His wife and son were taking by the witches many years ago, when my husband was merely a boy. In his attempts to get close enough to save them, he learned many tricks for entering the city. This is why I’m certain he can get us in.”

“Seems reasonable,” Terry said.

I shrugged. “Having a local to give us tips couldn’t hurt.”

No one voiced disagreement, so we followed the road to the camps. The village, for lack of a better term, was half built on platforms over the water. Someone had erected a wooden palisade around the land side and there were four guards at the entrance, two on the ground chatting and another two up on towers on either side of the gate.

The two on the ground paid us no attention, even when Burin walked up and greeted them. So Terry just walked past them. “Why must you always go alone?” I heard Gregor say next to me.

The two guards on the ground continued to ignore us, seemingly not wanting to turn into the cold wind that was coming from off to our left. But the ones on the towers reacted. “Oi! What makes you think you can just walk past them like that?”

“Yeah, poppet. You may be small, but you still have to wait for inspection like everyone.” They pulled out triangles – yes, the instrument – and began striking them and screaming “ALARM!”

One of the guards on the ground rolled his eyes and turned to the men on the tower. “Steve, Bill, what did we tell you about doing that for every little thing?”

“But they’re trying to sneak in!” one of the others protested.

“Actually,” the other said. “Now that I think about it, you lot look familiar.”

Dammit. And then Burin walked up. “Oh! I remember you!” Yeah, I was starting to twitch. “Sorry about what happened back at the tower, Bill and Steve. It was nothing personal.”

“Alright, since these two are going off again, we need you to submit for inspection,” one of the unnamed guards said.

“Oh. Should I drop my weapon?” Burin asked, holding up his axe.

“That would make our jobs easier!” one of the guards up top – Bill? – said. He sounded like he was planning to hurt us.

“Okay,” Burin said, dropping his axe. Well, okay. I had been spending days trying to explain to him on how to avoid causing us more trouble with the guards once we reached the city. But the dwarf was far too trusting of authority. There was a difference between not making trouble and slavishly following the orders of authority. Sadly, I don’t think being cagey is in his wheelhouse.

Terry wasn’t having any of it. She pulled out her gun and tried to fire at Bill and Steve. For once, I tended to agree. This was obviously heading towards a fight, so we might as well get going with it. Still, the timing might not have been great. But ultimately, acting first was probably fine.

Unfortunately, “tried” was the operative word here. Instead of firing, her gun jammed and she and Burin suddenly traded places.

“WHAT THE ‘ELL?!” Steve shouted. “She tried to shoot us! Can we ring the alarm now, CHAD?” his voice was absolutely dripping with outrage and sarcasm. He began ringing his triangle again, joined once more by Bill.

“You know,” Nadya said to me, “this would be hilarious if we weren’t about to die.”

“Oh, we’re not about to die. Terry and Burin are.”

“How are you so sure?”

“A few guards won’t kill us.”

“Then why are Terry and Burin going to die?”

“Because I’m going to kill them myself.”

Gregor charged, killing the final unnamed guard. “RAUL!” Bill and Steve shouted in horror before they retreated to sound the alarm. Burin charged in, shovel in hand, and whiffed heroically.

“I see that your plan to go alone worked well as usual,” Gregor said smugly to Terry.

“IT’S NOT MY FAULT! It’s that stupid time thing!” she replied, clearing the jam in her gun.

Burin dropped his shovel and picked up his axe while Nadya moved in to fight the remaining guard – Chad, apparently. Gregor spun around and kicked the man, splattering his blood all over poor Nadya.

I tried to move to clean her up, but four more guards arrived. “Well, sod me. Bill and Steve were actually telling the truth!” one of them exclaimed. “Drop your weapons and we’ll kill you.”

“Shouldn’t it be, ‘Drop your weapons and we won’t kill you’?” another asked him.

“Hey, when you make sergeant, you can decide on what you say. But until then, shut the hell up and go take their weapons so we can kill them!”

“Sir, yes, sir!” the three underlings shouted before charging.

Burin was at our fore, so he took the brunt of the charge. Ogre-hooks in hand, two of the guards tripped him while the third and the captain brought attacks to bear on the prone dwarf. There was… a lot of blood. But he was still alive, because he stood and took a couple more nasty gashes.

Gregor punched another, sending him flying. His corpse fell limp at the base of the wall. The docks then began to buckle under the weight of the fighting crowd, collapsing beneath two of the remaining guards.

I hit the guard captain – only guard on the dock – with a burst of sound and Terry finished him with a well-placed rifle shot. And then, as if the dock collapse wasn’t enough, the wind kicked up. Don’t misunderstand. It wasn’t a light breeze. It wasn’t a decent wind. It was a full force gale. And it wasn’t coming alone.

A ruined dinghy swept through the air and struck Gregor, Burin and the two guards who had just managed to drag themselves up to their feet after the dock collapse. My allies were barely hit by a glancing blow, but the guards took the boat full force and were sent flying over fifteen feet!

And then, as quickly as it had kicked up, the wind dropped back to a heavy breeze.

It was like the universe was messing with us. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it for myself. Even as I write this, I’m questioning whether it happened. But I swear, it did. On my life, a boat flew through the air and hit the guards we were fighting and knocked down Gregor, Burin and Nadya.

One of the guards groaned and Terry – she looked freaked out – shot him. The second guard was hidden behind the wreckage of the boat, which probably saved his life. Burin and Gregor got to him first, but not before a disoriented Nadya slashed the dwarf across the arm. She was rather apologetic when she realized what she’d done.

At their advice, the guard surrendered. Gregor tied him up and slung him over his shoulder. Then we made our way into the village, in search of an inn where we could find information about Nadya’s uncle.

The inn – and I swear to God this is true – was named “The Spotted Goat”. The sign even had an image of a goat on it.

So, of course, psycho-loli attacked the sign, hurling a dagger straight into the goat’s eye. The noise drew the innkeeper’s attention. “Hey! What are you doing to my sign?!”

“It’s evil,” Terry said.

“Hello, we’re looking for a room and some information on my uncle Ringeirr,” Nadya said.

The innkeeper slammed the door. “No! Go away. I’m not getting involved.” Involved in what?

I knocked lightly. Perhaps a little sweet, innocent maiden act would convince him. “Please sir, it has been a long road. We’re cold and tired. We have coin and will happily pay for the damage to your sign. You won’t even have to worry about feeding us. We have our own food. Please, I beg you, it’s so cold. My poor sister’s fingers are turning blue.”

The door creaked open. “Okay, but you’re paying double.”

Terry handed him five gold coins, about ten times what the sign was probably worth. “Sorry for attacking your sign. But you should really consider changing the mascot. Those a!%@##*s are evil.”

“Alright, come on in…” then he noticed the guard Gregor was carrying and slammed the door again. “You idiots! You’ll bring Marcian’s wrath down on me! Leave, now!” So much for my attempt at diplomacy. Foiled by the works of my allies once more.

“Who? Do we need to kill this guy in order to get a room?” Terry asked.

“Go away!”

“Please, at least tell us where we can find Ringeirr,” Nadya said.

“I’ll tell you nothing! Now leave!”

“At least take the guard,” Burin said. “It’d be a real shame if he died from the cold on your doorstep.” There was no indication from his tone of voice that he was saying that to intimidate the man. He actually meant it.

“Yes,” Gregor said. “Is very cold. He will not last long, tied like this. If you do not take him in, it would be more merciful for us to end him right here.”

“You’d make a mess of the poor innkeeper’s doorstep,” I noted.

“Okay! I’ll take the guard!” the innkeeper said, opening his door. “Now leave!”

“Just tell us where Ringeirr is and we’ll be on our way,” Nadya said.

“Marcian arrested him for making trouble. He’s likely in the guardhouse. Now go!”

As he was shutting the door, I heard the guard whisper, “Thank you! You saved my life! Those people are crazy!” He sounded like he was about to cry.

We went over to the guardhouse. It was easy to spot because it was being guarded by a pair of dozing ogres. “Hello!” Burin called to them as we approached.

“Go away,” the ogre on the left said.

“No,” Burin said.

“Are we going to have a problem?”

“Please sir,” Nadya said. “We’ve just come to town to visit my uncle, but we’ve heard that he’s gone and gotten himself in trouble. Please, let us speak to him and we’ll see if we can get this sorted out.” It was a nice attempt at diplomacy, but doomed to fail.

“No talking. Just leave.” And then we began fighting. It was, like all of our fights, quick and brutal. Terry shot the ogre who had been speaking. As he fell, he said, “Avenge me, Borger!”

Then Gregor punched the second ogre, “I’m coming, Whunk!” and he hit the ground, dead. In the meantime, Burin had taken a couple hits from massive great clubs. He was incredibly bloodied. Terry hit him with the nanites and I tapped him with the wand to finish the healing.

Gregor opened the door and headed inside. There were doors on either side of the hallway within, and stairs going up. Gregor went up the stairs, making it halfway up before a number of guards poured from the rooms, blocking his retreat while some came for us.

Terry took the opportunity to snark. “Why must you always go alone?!” she shouted at Gregor. She looked far too amused at her own words. Burin cleaved one guard in half as he came through the door. No kill like overkill, as they say. Once Burin, Terry and Nadya had made a path, I rushed inside and hit several of the guards with a burst of flame, using the walls to avoid risk of hitting Gregor. Then Gregor finished the other guard off and led the way upstairs.

We followed. Terry immediately found a locked chest and got to work trying to open it. The door across the hall was stuck, so Gregor was working on trying to get it open. Suddenly, without warning, he spun around and threw his hat, narrowly missing me by inches.

We heard a pair of clanks as Gregor’s hat flew between Terry and the chest, intercepting a pair of darts from the hidden trap mechanism she had triggered while working.

“What was that?” Nadya asked. “How did you know?!”

“I heard sound of spring release,” the fighter replied with a shrug.

Burin identified the contents of the chest while Gregor continued working on the door. “This is a wand of Spider Climb,” I heard him say to Terry. “It’s a spell that lets you walk on walls. I’ll hang onto it for now, if that’s okay.”

“Go for it,” I called back to him. Gregor shoved open the door and I walked in. There was a man who looked like he’d been brutalized tied up within. “Nadya! I think you need to get in here!” I called as I drew my healing wand.

“Ringeirr!” she gasped as she saw the man. He began to stir as I healed him.

“Nadya? Is that you?” he asked.

“Yes, we’re here to help you.”

I suddenly realized that I smelled smoke, but before I could say anything, we heard a voice calling from the bottom of the stairs. “For killing my guards, you can burn to death up there!” Then I heard the front door slam.

Terry was trying to open the window so she could shoot at the fleeing figure. Meanwhile, Gregor and Burin tore a hole in the opposite wall. “Is not far to jump, but docks below look old. May not take our weight,” Gregor said.

Terry suddenly had an idea. “Okay, so why don’t we use that wand to just walk down the side of the building?”

“The wand of Spider Climb?” I asked.

“Yes, that one.”

“The one Burin has?” I confirmed.

“YES,” she said, as if I was stupid.

“Well, I’m not sure Burin’s gonna be able to reach you from down there,” I said, indicating the dwarf who had already jumped down.

Terry cried out in annoyance. Gregor analyzed it. “It held, but splintered. If we can just land in different spots, should be fine. If you’re scared, I can catch you.” They spent almost a minute working it all out. They were deep in conversation, so I didn’t want to butt in with the obvious solution.

Gregor took a flying leap, landing nearly twenty feet away. Then Nadya jumped, and Ringeirr. Terry then jumped and was caught by Gregor. Finally it was my turn. I looked down, giving them an annoyed look.

“I can catch you, if you want!” Gregor called up.

“No, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” I said. Then I lowered myself from the hole in the wall and dropped about three feet.

“Oh,” I heard Nadya say in realization. I ended up getting some splinters from it, but the sheepish looks I got from a couple of them made the whole thing worth it.

“We should head for the tavern,” Ringeirr suggested. “I’m not sure if my house will be safe.”

“Which tavern?” Terry asked.

“The Spotted Goat.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Burin said. “Your house would be better.”

“Why not?”

I sighed. “We may have terrorized the innkeeper.”

He gave me a surprised look. “I won’t even ask.”

“Yeah, you’re better off not knowing.”

We went to Ringeirr’s home, and it was fairly cramped. But there was enough room, if only barely. And there was a second room which offered some privacy for changing. Not that I cared, but I was sure it would matter to Nadya and Terry.

After Nadya filled him in on what had happened to Thora, we told Ringeirr of our journey. I won’t add in much about that, other than a few highlights. Terry did most of the talking, and at one point she offended Gregor by calling the God of Martial Arts his “imaginary friend”. Burin came to his defense.

In retaliation, Gregor stood behind her making a “blah, blah” gesture as she continued talking. And at one point, while she was talking about the goats, Burin made a bleating noise, much to her annoyance.

In return, Ringeirr confirmed what Nadya had told us, but added in a major detail she didn’t know. Apparently he’d hooked up with a resistance group that called itself “The Heralds of Summer’s Return”. It was a group of Milani – a minor goddess who aids those seeking to throw off the chains of tyranny – worshippers. He had been working to help people flee the city as well as smuggling in needed supplies.

He also told us that entering the city would be even more dangerous than Nadya knew. Elvanna had disbanded the city’s Iron Guard, which was loyal to the nation – and necessarily, at least somewhat loyal to Baba Yaga – and replaced it with a new Winter Guard, filled only with forces loyal to her. Worse still, there was a major crackdown on traffic coming into the city.

But there were holes we could exploit. The hardest part would be getting proper identification. “I’ve forged ID before,” I said. “All I need is a couple legit sets of papers and I can easily make us what we need.” Hell, I fooled the US National Identification Database long enough to get a tattoo. So some simple papers would be a breeze. Especially with Cortana’s help.

“Getting those papers may be tricky. And we may not need them. I know a forger in the city who is already familiar with what we’ll need. And he lives in a district I think we can get into. I suggest we claim that you are a group of stilyagi, rich kids who adopt the cultural norms of other nations and rove in bands causing minor mischief, or their foreign hangers on. As such you would be free to carry weapons. Alternatively, you could pretend to be slaves, but the restrictions on carrying weapons would be much greater.”

“We were thinking about disguising ourselves as Winter Wolves in human form,” I said.

“Not a good idea. The wolves in the city would easily tell from your scent that you aren’t their kin.”

I grinned. “We have that part covered. The only issue is Gregor’s hair, which we can’t make convincingly white. Unless you’d care to shave it off?” I asked the fighter.

“No, I think that will not be necessary.” Gregor actually looked offended at the suggestion.

“Then I guess he can pretend to be our slave or something. Maybe a mercenary working for us?”

“That would work well enough,” Ringeirr agreed. “I will need one, maybe two days to prepare, then we should head in during the midday. But there is one thing we should discuss now.” He put his hands on Nadya’s shoulders. “Dear child, you have far too much to lose. I will arrange for friends to help you get home. Please, go be with your children.”

“But I wish to help,” she protested.

Terry, of all people, spoke up. “Nadya, I know what it’s like to lose both of your parents. Please, don’t do that to your children. Go, take care of them. I promise that we will find a way to let you know when we’ve killed Nazhena and avenged Thora.” With the emotion in her voice as she made her impassioned plea, I found myself hating the sociopath a little less. It was a good note to end the day, and a great note to end an entry. With that, I’m off to go work with Cortana on a few things before we go.

You never know what might come in handy when you’re sneaking into a city. Especially when you're traveling with these weirdos.

Someone bought a Harrow deck, so Dreamlands Interlude next time.


Interlude: A Harrowing Dream

Spoiler:
I laid my head down on a bedroll on the floor of a wooden shack. I then woke up in a boat on an ocean of violet liquid. There was a blue whale swimming through the clouds above me, singing its song. Off in the distance, I could hear the sounds of another whale answering. Lightning crackled through the clouds in his wake.

A flock of nightgaunts flew overhead, making no sound. It was strange, because I’d heard that they didn’t like flying over water. Then again, what water is purple? Maybe they had no problem with this? Still, they made no attempt to fly towards me, so I paid them little mind.

Also, there was a cat on my chest. “Hello, Nebula,” I said.

The cat responded by purring and nuzzling my face. “There are other visitors nearby.”

“Oh? Should we go see what they’re up to?”

“Be careful. With nightgaunts about, Nodens could be nearby.”

I shrugged. “So I’ll give him another wedgie.” Godmother had laughed for ten straight minutes when she found out I’d tricked him by telling him his shoelaces were untied and given him a power wedgie. Or whatever it’s called.

Look, I don’t mind my butt occasionally getting fondled, but not by a creepy old dude with seashells in his ridiculous beard.

The boat had no oars, so I just willed it to move in the direction Nebbie indicated. I had become quite accustomed to the dreamlands, so it didn’t really seem all that odd to me. The rules here are as simple or as complex as you make them.

We came to a tiny island with a stone cottage on it. The area around it appeared to be a farm, but it suddenly ended at the borders of the island, with no transitional beach. So I set my boat ashore on a stand of wheat.

The door to the cottage was ajar and no one answered my call, so I let myself in. The place was ransacked and there were bloodstains everywhere.

Outside, I heard a voice. “Tell me, why are we here?” a young woman asked apprehensively. Wait, was that Terry?

“Because this is the best place to read your future, child,” I heard my godmother say.

From my shoulder, Nebula whispered, “Remember, she won’t see things the way you do.” It wasn’t Nebbie’s voice, but my godmother’s, which issued from the cat. And she wasn’t wrong. Everyone sees the realm of dreams at least slightly differently. It reflects your own mind back to you as much as it has a static form. “While you see a ransacked cottage, to her, it may appear completely different. Perhaps slightly so, or maybe entirely different. So too with you and I. She will not recognize you and any attempt to tell her otherwise may result in psychic trauma.”

“Who is this?” Terry asked as she saw me within.

“My acolyte, a trainee in the mystic arts. I sent her ahead to tidy up the place for our arrival.”

“She’s done a wonderful job. It’s almost as it was before everyone died.” She looked melancholy, but almost happy in a way.

“Come, let us take a seat and I shall read your future using the Harrow. My acolyte shall watch, to better learn of divination.” Suddenly there was a table before us. Godmother traced her fingers on the tabletop, forming a grid of glowing blue lines with nine cells within. She then pulled a deck of cards from her sleeve.

Rather than shuffling it, she flung the cards into the air. They then landed in random order in a stack on the table. “Okay, that was pretty cool,” I whispered to Nebula. Godmother winked at me.

We took our seats. “First, you must ask a question,” she told the girl.

She didn’t even hesitate. “Will I be able to bring Typhon Lee to justice for what he did to my family?” I had heard that name before. When she was talking to that weird guy, Vincent, I think.

“Let us see. First, let us discover your role in relation to your question.” She held out the cards in a fan. “Draw one and lay it face up upon the table.” Terry did so.
It read, “The Beating.” The image upon it was of a figure being dragged into the ground by hands bursting from the earth. It was incredibly ominous looking.

“What does it mean?” Terry asked.

“You will find yourself assailed upon all sides. This attack, fierce and unrelenting, will lead to your undoing, either in flesh or in spirit. Already I can see the cracks beginning to appear within you.” Was she really doing that poorly? Had I not noticed?

“There must be a way to stop it.”

“Let us see. Return the card to the deck and I shall shuffle again.” Once more she did so by flinging the cards into the air and letting them fall into place in the order they desired. She then dealt out nine cards facedown, one in each of the glowing cells. “Let us first see the past.”

She flipped one column. On top was a card labeled, “The Inquisitor”, below that was “The Forge”, and on the bottom was, “The Dance”.

“Interesting! A complete match and two partial alignments! Your past is clear to the cards. Let us start with the strongest match, The Forge, in the section of your past which is hardest to fathom.” It showed a blacksmith in what appeared to be Hell, striking at an anvil with a hammer. “This card represents an event in your past, a trial by fire which you needed many diverse sources of strength to overcome lest you be burnt to cinders. Can you think of such an event?”

“Yes. I believe I know the one.”

“Good. You need not speak of it. Only keep it fresh within your mind as we continue. Next, we will speak of the Inquisitor, who represents a positive aspect of your past.” The card portrayed precisely what it described, a figure in religious garb holding a holy text with chains snaking through the air around him. “The inquisitor represents immutable reality, which cannot be swayed nor denied. To attempt to go against such is to court disaster. Do you know of such a reality?”

Terry bowed her head. “I had a code. Rules I followed when working. As long as I followed them, everything worked out wonderfully. I broke the code only once. It was my last job, and I got sloppy. My family paid the price for my mistake.” Holy crap! Not only was Terry’s family dead, but she blamed herself for it? That was huge!

“I see. Let us then look at the negative end of your past, indicated by The Dance.” This card depicted a woman in flowing garments, whirling about with ribbons twirling around her. “This card tells of the rich and delicate framework of the cosmos, the hypnotic pattern that flows through all things. However, this card is aligned improperly, telling that the pattern while, beautiful, is not necessarily to the benefit of all. In this case, specifically you.”

“I wish I had died at the dragon.” Was all Terry responded.

“Let us see, now, what your present holds.”

The second column was flipped, revealing “The Idiot”, “The Empty Throne” and “The Cyclone”. Godmother pondered them for a bit. “Well, what do they mean?” Terry asked impatiently.

“The Empty Throne,” she began, “is indicative of a sense of loss and the lessons learned from those who have gone. But it is in a weak position, so it has little bearing on your present.” She then indicated the card at the top, depicting a man in a bad disguise trying to walk among goblins. “The idiot normally represents foolishness, but it is misaligned, so it says that you currently hide your true gifts by feigning idiocy.”

“There is some of that, yes,” the girl admitted. That little turd. She was holding back something!

Next was the card with the drawing of a flaming tornado. “The Cyclone tells of a disaster that tears through all it touches. But it is no natural force, but one created by intelligent beings. It is often arson, war, or some other plot.”

“That stupid witch is trying to freeze the world,” Terry said.

“Perhaps that is precisely what it speaks of,” Godmother said. “Let us now turn our eyes to the future, and perhaps the truth of your role and the answer to your question.” She flipped the right column, revealing “The Survivor”, “The Locksmith” and “The Rakshasa”.

“What do these tell of my future?”

“Let us start with the positive aspect of your future,” Godmother said, indicating the card depicting a man seated on a chair, surrounded by the souls of fallen comrades. “The Survivor represents something or someone once thought lost forever that may be found once more.”

“Emily,” Terry whispered in awe, almost no louder than a breath.

“You need not speak more of her. Keep her within your thoughts as we read further.” She indicated the card depicting a man picking a lock. “The Locksmith presents you with the key to unlock your destiny. Often, this key is a strange, ancient or magical object, which will give you a way to access a new place, a clue or even a treasure. But be warned. The Locksmith gives you the key, but he does not tell you how to use it. That is up to you to discern. But discern it you must, as this is the strongest card of your future here.”

“That’s horribly vague.”

“The future usually is. Now, to the negative potential of your future and your question.” She pointed at the final card, depicting a crocodile in a suit sitting on the back of a prostrated slave. “The Rakshasa indicates enslavement. While this could be a literal, physical enslavement, it is most often indicative of enslavement to an idea.”

“I am unsure what that means, though I can see many potential options.”

“Keep it in mind during the days to come. There will come a moment when the meaning will be revealed.”

“Was that it? I still don’t know the answer to my question.”

“Do you not?”

“Um…no?”

“You know the past that led you here, the present which engulfs you, the paths your future may take and that a key will present itself that will give you the chance to choose which path your future will take. Which of those you take is up to you, including the path you travel along the way.”

“Okay, well, thanks, I guess.”

She handed Terry a lollipop. “Good girls get candy after their fate checkup. Now run along.” Then Terry disappeared. She turned to me. “No questions. Now you hurry along as well. I’ll meet you at the next island.” She disappeared, fading slowly and leaving only her smile behind for several moments before she was gone.

I stepped outside and the wheat was gone, replaced by snaking, thorny weeds. My boat was also gone, replaced by a silver hexagon about five feet in diameter that floated just above the ground, but lowered itself as I approached.

And no more were we at sea level, but on a plateau perhaps seventy feet above the surrounding flatlands. The whales within the skies were gone, but flocks of eyeballs darted through the clouds. Down on the grass below, a swooping shantak snatched up an aurochs, with the poor creature letting out a screech of terror.

I stepped on the platform. “Which way, Nebbie?”

She pawed at the air. “That way!”

“Hang on!” I shouted with glee. “We’re gonna go fast!” We shot off through the sky at breakneck speed. The wind whipped at my hair and the scenery sped past us.

I had been to the Dreamlands many times, but it was rare that I got to fly, and never before had I been able to go this fast. I had to be near to breaking the sound barrier. It was a wonder my hat hadn’t flown off, but that’s dream logic for you. I’m not actually wearing a hat in the dream. It’s simply a manifestation of my sense of self, or something like that. So something so trifling as wind couldn’t do a thing to it.

I arrived at familiar looking monastery a few minutes later. It seemed it was Gregor’s turn. I intentionally jerked the platform to a sudden stop about ten feet from the door and – to poor Nebula’s annoyance – went tumbling off in a beautiful shoulder roll. My cat simply flew above me, giving me a disapproving look.

Cats can do both simultaneously in the Dreamlands.

Inside the Monastery, the table was set as before, the same glowing grid, though now the lines were green. Gregor and my godmother were seated already. “Just in time,” Godmother called to me. Come, stand beside me and watch. As I did so, I felt the reassuring weight of my cat resting on my shoulder once more. “Now, tell me, warrior, what is your question?”

“Will I become strong enough to face the Man Who Would Not Die?”

She fanned out the cards. “Draw the card that will signify your role in the destiny of this question.” He drew one labeled “The Wanderer”. Fitting, since he was exactly that when we found him. “Not all who wander are lost,” Godmother said. “So too with you. As with the Wanderer, you find hidden value in that which others might discard.”

“That was how Sergei taught us. We develop our own styles by finding the value in each technique and cobbling them together to make something that is our own.”

“Very interesting.” She shuffled the deck and laid out the array. “Let us begin with the past.”

She flipped the left row. Before us were the cards for “The Empty Throne”, “The Fiend” and “The Paladin”.

“The Empty Throne is the strongest connection. You feel the loss of your brothers most keenly. But, so too, you feel their presence in the myriad of things they have taught you. And The Fiend compliments this, for it tells of the calamity in which you lost them.”

“This much is true, yes. Continue, fortune teller.”

“The Paladin, in this place, is troubling. It tells of standing strong in the face of adversity, of doing what is right, no matter the cost. But in this position, the cards tell us that this course was foolhardy. This is why your comrades died. And it is why you nearly died as well.”

“I am still unsure why I was spared.”

“Perhaps, one day, the cards will reveal that to you. Let us move on to the present.” She flipped the middle cards, revealing “The Carnival”, “The Teamster” and “The Forge”. “Ah, the cards have spoken strongly.” She indicated the card in the center, depicting an orc with some smaller creature on its back, whip in hand. “The Teamster tells me that there is an external force driving you forward. It is a force that will push you to continue, even when you feel you have no more strength.”

“What of the others?”

“The Carnival warns that you should be wary of unrealistic ambitions.”

“So it is not to be? I cannot defeat the Man?”

Godmother smiled. “Not necessarily. That was located in the positive position for your present. And it is tempered by The Forge, which suggests that what you must overcome will require many sources of strength. Rely not on your skills alone. Find other sources of strength.”

“I shall continue to train. And I will find more ways to become stronger.”

“Good. Now let us look to the future.” She flipped the final column, revealing “The Avalanche”, “The Snakebite” and “The Rabbit Prince”. “The future is, as futures often are, murky. But there is still some things we can divine here.”

“Please, tell me what you can,” the fighter said.

“The strongest connection is The Avalanche, which tells of a terrible disaster that comes. But, due to its position, the disaster may still be averted, though potentially at great cost.”

“Sergei taught that nothing of value is gained for free.”

“A wise man. Next, let us consider The Snakebite.” She indicated the center card, which depicted an assassin holding a poisoned blade. “This is the uncertainty of your future. This represents the death of ideas and the turning of friends against each other.”

“My companions… are not the easiest to work with. So we must work on this to ensure our way forward?” It was a reasonable concern, even without the cards.

“It is possible. Now let us consider the final card, the potential darkness that lies before you.” She indicated the card depicting a finely dressed rabbit holding a broken sword. “The Rabbit Prince is the personification of battle, but consider the broken sword.”

“What does it mean?”

“Any warrior, no matter how brave or skilled, may fall. If you do not resolve the uncertainty, that is the future that may await you.”

“That is the way of battle. You do what you can to be stronger. I will be strong enough.”

“We shall see.” Then he was gone and she turned to me. “See you up the mountain,” she said before disappearing.

I stepped outside, and saw that the monastery walls looked cracked and damaged, possibly from the attack. As I approached the hexagonal platform, it flew up and attached itself to my back, becoming great silver wings and a jetpack.

I shot into the sky, going even faster than before as I headed towards the nearby mountain. My passing disrupted the dance of flying figures of light and shadow, drawing their ire. Not that it mattered, they couldn’t catch me. So I laughed and clutched Nebula tighter.

I frolicked through numerous species of evergreen trees. Some of them were other colors, so I’m not sure that “evergreen” is quite the right way to describe them, though. I dove towards a river and snatched a leaping salmon from the sky for Nebula.

The mountain air was bracing and smelled amazing – it reminded me of going to Colorado to hike with my parents – as I spotted a stone cottage in a village of the same. The only thing setting it apart was the plume of fluffy white smoke coming from the chimney.

I landed before the cottage, much more smoothly than I had at the previous location. Nebula voiced her gratefulness at that and happily took the fish I offered to her. She was devouring it happily as we went inside.

I had to duck my head to avoid hitting it on the doorway of the dwarven cottage. Godmother and Burin were seated already. Once more, the table – this time a large slab of stone – was prepared. There was a cup of some kind of fruit juice waiting for me at the seat I was offered. Both the others had a clay mug as well.

“What is the question whose answer you seek today?” Godmother asked the dwarf.

“Will I be able to contain the demon within? Will I be a good Burin?”

She held out the fan of cards. “First, your role. Choose.” Burin drew a card and revealed it. It depicted a knight in golden armor. “The Paladin!” Godmother said with a whistle. “You do not back down under any circumstances. You stay the course and do what you think is right, no matter the cost.”

She had just described Burin nearly perfectly. If she had added that he was completely moronic in doing so sometimes, it would have been closer. Burin simply nodded. “The cards seem accurate thus far. Please continue."

She shuffled the deck and laid out the array. “Let’s begin with the past.” She raised an eyebrow. “Let us start with the negative aspect of your past.” She indicated a card depicting a laughing giant. “The Joke tells of a terror that must be overcome by trickery or artifice, not by physical means. But in the negative, the joke is at your expense.”

Burin nodded. “That is the burden of being a Burin. It is a cruel joke fate plays on one person each generation. That our future be sacrificed to contain this demon.” And in all that time, had they not considered finding a way to destroy the demon once and for all?

“The position of The Uprising tells me that you didn’t mind your role so much. And The Desert suggests that you at least did not have to carry the burden alone.”

Burin nodded once more. “The duty of the Burin is the duty of the entire clan. Everyone is there to support you. I didn’t mind having to do it, but I did worry that my presence was a burden on those around me. So I set out on a journey to become strong enough that they need not help me so much with my own burden.”

“I see. That leads us to the present.” She flipped the middle column. She then indicated the top center card. “The Foreign Trader indicates that you have made a bargain of some kind, one that will conclude true, should you fulfill your part.”

“We have become the Black Rider, agreeing to save Baba Yaga in exchange for some later favor.”

“And what do you hope to gain from this favor?”

“I can’t rightly say,” he replied. Dammit, Burin! I was kinda curious about that. “As long as we can save everyone, and the little girl makes it out of this safe, I’m not sure there’s anything the witch can give me that I’d really want.”

“I see. The other two cards talk about the flux of fate. The Juggler tells of those who hold the fates of many in their hands and must be deft lest it all come crashing down, while The Dance tells me by its position that fate’s pattern may be beautiful, but in some way relating to you, is not to the benefit of everyone.”

“Then what of the future?”

She smiled and flipped the final column. “Oh my, an auspicious event!” I looked and saw what she was talking about almost immediately. Burin’s card from earlier, The Paladin, sat directly in the positive position of his future.

“What does that mean?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“It means that Burin, you will find happiness in continuing to do what you know to be right. That continuing down your path will improve your world.”

Burin chortled. “I didn’t need the cards to tell me that. A Burin must be a Burin, or all goes ill,” he said jovially. Knowing him, that was a family saying handed down through the generations.

“But the other cards tell of potential pitfalls in the future. The uncertainty lies within The Courtesan.” The card depicted a masked woman. “The danger to the future lies within the social niceties that must be followed, or perhaps in a woman of power who shapes events. How she is treated will decide your fate.”

“So, Baba Yaga maybe? Perhaps I must be careful not to offend her if we meet her?” Oh please God, please let that lesson stick.

“Perhaps. And there is The Idiot, who represents grave foolishness and greed. It also warns not to be so trusting and good-hearted that you cannot see evil before you.”

“I think I understand. And thank you. You’ve put much of my worry at ease.”

“Of course. Go forth, good dwarf, and stay the path.” I couldn’t believe she had just told Burin to be Burin. I wanted to get mad and yell at her, but she winked and disappeared.

“There is one more place, higher up,” Nebula told me.

The outside of the cottage looked no different. There was no doomed home in Burin’s past. He still had a place to return to, unlike the other two. The silver hexagon had shifted, though, becoming a pair of six sided forms. One hovered about eight feet above the other.

I stepped onto the lower one and instantly they activated. Glowing light enveloped my body and I shot straight into the sky. I was going even faster than before. Much faster. Fractional-light faster.

It took only moments before I was in space. I shot past the moon and continued onward until I reached what appeared to be a space station of some kind, which drew me into some kind of bay.

Several very attractive alien women of various species wearing space suits so tight that I could see everything – EVERYTHING – were waiting for me. “Greetings, Commander,” one of the women told me. “The Lieutenant apologizes for his tardiness. He will be here momentarily to greet you properly and escort you to the Admiral’s quarters.”

A near instant later, the door opened and a bare-chested man in pants made of the same material as the women’s uniforms stood before me. He walked over and saluted by pounding his fist to his chest. He looked human, mostly, aside from his pink skin and the antennae coming from his forehead. He was about a foot taller than me and built like a Viking. His white hair and beard were even done in a Viking style.

I barely managed to keep my jaw off the floor and my drool in my mouth.

“I apologize for my tardiness,” he said, bowing his head.

“I, uh, wha, um,” I said, suppressing an urge to pounce on him.

“It’s quite alright, Lieutenant,” Nebula said. “My mistress forgives you.”

“Thank you. Perhaps I could make it up to her some time? Privately?” His hand stroked my cheek and my brain shut off for a moment. I couldn’t even stammer a response.

“I believe she would like that,” Nebula replied. Thank God I had brought a wing-cat with me. And thank God I had given her that salmon. I needed to get her a whole truck full of them later. “For now, though, I believe that the Admiral is waiting for us.”

“Of course. This way.” Nebula had to bat my face to snap me out of staring at the man’s toned backside, then I followed him down the halls. The floors were made of solid gold and the path was lit with citrine lights, though most of the light came from the star we orbited, filtering in through the enchanted glass.

It only took a couple minutes to reach a door labeled “Admiral.” “I must take my leave here,” the Lieutenant said. “None of us are permitted to see the Admiral, but you are expected.”

As he turned to leave, my brain reasserted itself. “Wait!” I said. He turned and I literally flung myself into his arms. “Will I see you again?” I asked.

“That is up to you, Commander,” he said. “We live but to serve you.” His hand was under my coat, his finger tracing a line down my back. It was a dream and I was in danger of literally melting in his arms. He then pulled back. “But you mustn’t keep the Admiral waiting. Perhaps later” He immediately saluted and turned and took his leave.

I actually whimpered once he was out of sight.

The door opened behind me, so I turned and entered. Inside was a room with walls covered with glowing arcane diagrams and drawings of constellations. The walls themselves appeared to be made of some dark, glass-like material. In the center of the room sat a lone table and a pair of chairs, the only furniture in the room. Seated on the far side of the table was my godmother, holding a deck of cards.

“My turn?” I guessed.

“Yes, dear. I figured there would be no better than this place I created for you.”

“For me?”

“Yes. Everyone here exists to serve you, so you may enjoy yourself whenever you wish. Call it an early birthday present.”

Neat. “Alright, I guess we should get this reading over with.”

“You don’t sound enthusiastic.”

I shrugged. “I’m an Earthling. I’m not so sure how much fate even applies to us, considering that we’ve been invested with absolute free will.”

She laughed. “You do have infinite possibilities, but even so, you are more likely to choose some than others even then. This may not represent an absolute fate, but it will give you hints. Besides, it may not be able to tell you what you’ll do, but it can certainly suggest what others might do.”

“Fair enough. Let’s get it over with so I can go find Lieutenant Tight-Pants before I wake up.”

I took my seat. She shuffled the cards and held them out before me. “Speak your question and draw a card.”

“Okay. Will we be able to defeat Queen Elvanna and save the world?” I took a card and showed it to her.

“The Mountain Man,” she stated. “It signifies survival as paramount against a force outside one’s control. Regardless of what comes, if you survive, not all is lost.” She put the card back in the deck and shuffled it, then laid out the array. “First, the past.”

“Okay, so what do ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Waxworks’ and ‘The Hidden Truth’ mean for my past?” I asked.

“You feigned ignorance – though through no design of your own, your memories were hidden from you – to disguise your gifts. Your power was hidden there, within your untapped potential, but was imprisoned within the chains of ignorance that we bound you with, in order that you could have a normal life. And most strongly, when the secret was revealed, it hurt you dearly, at least for a time. Do not attempt to deny this, for I saw how much it hurt you when people talked about you. And your fear that you weren’t the child of your father hurt you more than you can even admit.”

“It all worked out in the end, though.”

“It did. Now on to the present.” She flipped the middle column. “The Courtesan tells of the social niceties that you attempt to enforce, in an attempt to keep things from taking an unexpected turn. The Sickness is the corruption of the soul. You fear it in your allies, from the girl’s brutal tendencies, to the dwarf’s inner demon, to the monster within the fighter’s dreams.”

She wasn’t wrong. “What if we get a wish from Baba Yaga, but they use it to hurt others. At least, others that don’t deserve it?”

“But more than the corruption, you fear that those around you make your situation impossible, and perhaps it is, as evidenced by The Demon’s Lantern.”

“If we fail, a lot of people are going to die.”

“Perhaps. Let us look at the future.” She flipped the final column. “Your future is indeed uncertain. The cards are weakly connected at best. ‘The Inquisitor’ tells me that reality is immutable and that this is a good thing. ‘The Midwife’ says that there will be good, no matter how bad the situation, if you can but find it.”

“That is hopelessly vague.”

“It gets even more so. The final card, ‘The Twin’, at its face, means that indecision or divided loyalties will lie at the darkest path of your future. But that’s just at its face. The presence of The Twin means that entire reading may have a hidden, or even a reversed meaning.”

What the hell? “So this whole thing was a waste of time? What was the point?!” I took a breath, attempting to calm down. “You can see the many possible futures. Using that, what can you glean? What happens if we fail?”

“If you fail, the world is blanketed in ice. If your father succeeds back on Earth, this situation will last two years before he can put his attention to fixing Golarion. At which point, he will gather an army and defeat Elvanna and return the world to normal.”

“And if he fails?” I didn’t want to consider it, but I had to know.

“The Rangers will likely take nearly fifty years to right the situation. They will slay Elvanna and summer will return, but Irrisen’s new mistress will inherit a land nearly three times the size. In the end, things more or less return to normal.”

“So if we just gave up, nothing would really change? So what’s the point of us doing all of this?!” I was getting angry, my frustration finally reaching a boiling point.

“In the long term, yes. But if you fail, hundreds of thousands will die who did not need to. Is that not a worthy goal?”

Ugh. “Yeah, I guess it is. It’s just, I’m struggling to find the motivation to keep working with these people.”

Godmother got up and gave me a hug. All the frustration I felt began escaping as tears. “Lyriana, may I offer you some advice and counsel, as your godmother?”

“Sure.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“To save people.”

“No, I mean, why did you want to become an adventurer in the first place?”

Oh. That. “Because adventuring sounded like a lot of fun,” I admitted.

“Are you having fun?”

“I’m… No. Not really.”

“And why not? Does the danger not excite you enough? Do the challenges not thrill you?”

“No, it’s not that. It’s just… they seem to want me to lead them. Terry has outright stated it. But despite everything, I’m not my parents. I don’t know how to lead. I don’t know how they do it.”

Godmother kissed me on the forehead. “Then don’t. If you’re not having fun, why bother?”

“But if I don’t lead, who will?”

“Does anyone really have to?”

“Won’t we fail if no one leads?”

Godmother shrugged. “I don’t know. But I do know that if you keep trying, you’re likely looking at this frustration you feel causing the team to fall apart entirely. Better a chaotic mob that’s still working towards a common goal than a semi-disciplined group that’s ready to kill each other, no?”

“So, what? Just do whatever it is I’m going to do and let the others do the same, then hope things work out? Won’t that be incredibly challenging?”

Godmother grinned. “Absolutely. But it’ll keep you on your toes, and it sounds like a lot more fun than what you’ve been doing.”

She wasn’t wrong. “Okay. I’ll give it a shot. We’ve already got a plan for entering the city, but after that, I stop worrying about what everyone else is going to do.”

“That’s my girl.”

“Now point me in the direction of the good Lieutenant.”

“Oh, yeah, about that. Sorry, but we took too long.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. But before she could answer, I was awakened by the sound of Terry screaming about a goat.


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The dreaded goat of frustration, the elusive fourth goat in the set. ;)


The Mad Comrade wrote:
The dreaded goat of frustration, the elusive fourth goat in the set. ;)

I fear to ask what the first three goats are. :P

Also, I wish I had recorded the look on Terry's player's face when we pulled out the random table to roll the name of the inn at the fishcamps and it came out as "The Spotted Goat". It was priceless.


Scroll down to ivory goats, with a normal set featuring goats of traveling, travail and terror. The goat of frustration now ... ;)


The Mad Comrade wrote:
Scroll down to ivory goats, with a normal set featuring goats of traveling, travail and terror. The goat of frustration now ... ;)

I'm gonna have to work that into someone's loot table now. Even if just a lone Traveling goat for my own amusement.


Poldaran wrote:
The Mad Comrade wrote:
Scroll down to ivory goats, with a normal set featuring goats of traveling, travail and terror. The goat of frustration now ... ;)
I'm gonna have to work that into someone's loot table now. Even if just a lone Traveling goat for my own amusement.

I've a soft spot for the goats and lions.


Howlings For You

Spoiler:
After throwing something – I don’t know what – at Terry, I went back to sleep. There were no dreams, much to my annoyance. So I was grumpy when I woke up and it was time to get ready to infiltrate the ceiling.

I didn’t talk much to anyone as I got ready, donning a set of furred winter clothes more appropriate for a winter wolf than my normal attire. Of course, they were still cut to accentuate my features, but they were certainly more conservative than what I usually wear. After that, I put in my contact lenses, turning my eyes an icy blue.

“I know, right?” I heard Gregor saying. “The woman was very strange, and I never saw anyone shuffle a deck like that. Was very weird dream.”

“Shuffled how?” Terry asked.

“She threw it in the air and it all just gathered into a neat pile.”

“And then she told your fortune?”

“Yes, though I only remember it vaguely. We have had same dream?”

She turned to the dwarf. “How about you? Did you have that dream too?”

Burin smiled. “I don’t rightly know. I slept really well, like someone helped subdue the demon. Then I was in my old house, drinking something. And there might have been cards, but I don’t know for sure.”

“And you?” she asked me almost accusingly.

I shrugged. “I didn’t have my fortune told, if that’s what you want to know,” I non-answered. It wasn’t exactly a lie. My fortune was vague and useless. But I guess Godmother’s advice was a bit more helpful.

“So we all had same dream?” Gregor asked.

“Oh, you’re gonna be Burin too?” Burin asked. I almost laughed out loud. Of course that was his takeaway. Terry gave him a strange look and everyone dropped the matter.

Shortly before we set out, Ringeirr’s friends arrived to escort Nadya back to Ellsprin and it was time to say our goodbyes. Hatch crawled out from Terry’s guitar case. “I’m gonna miss you,” she told the domovoi.

“I’m going to miss… cake,” he replied.

She produced the last piece of cake – at least I hoped it was the last – and gave it to him. It was so old and stale that it had become crunchy. He tore into it gratefully, not even noticing how old it was. Once he was finished, he waddled over to Nadya.

“I’m going to miss that little guy,” I heard Gregor say quietly.

Nadya hugged Burin. “Be careful, and try not to get everyone killed,” she told the dwarf.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m not the leader.” She gave him a look, but decided not to argue.

She then hugged Terry. “You crazy little child. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“I hope you find more cake!” Hatch added.

“Take care of your boys,” Terry said, ignoring the fey.

Then it was my turn. “Don’t try to control them,” Nadya said, her hand on my shoulder. “Instead, aim them.”

I gave her a look that told her I was completely done. “Oh, don’t worry about that. I don’t care what they do.”

Finally, it was Gregor’s turn. She gave him a quick kiss. “For luck. Take care of yourself and the others.”

“You should go, protect your children,” he told her. Wow, did his people have a vow of celibacy or something?

Ringeirr walked her out and returned a few minutes later. “Are we ready? Do we have any other questions?”

“Will it really be okay to wear armor and carry weapons?” Terry asked.

“Your gun will stick out, but if the disguises hold, Burin’s axe won’t be an issue. I’d also prefer to hide Gregor’s hat, but the blade is covered enough by fur that I think it’ll be fine. And since none of you is wearing more than light armor, you should be fine on that point. None will hassle you over a chain shirt, especially if you appear to be winter wolves.”

“Speaking of the disguise,” Burin said to me. “Are you sure that this stuff will hide our scent? Should we not pee on ourselves to further mask our normal scent?”

I sighed. “No, you’ll be fine. As long as you got a thin layer on roughly a third of your body, the scent should overpower your natural odor.” I was very glad we each had our own tin of the stuff.

“If you’re sure. I just worry, is all.”

We headed out, with Gregor pulling and Ringeirr pushing the cart of fish we had agreed to help Ringeirr deliver. Terry kept asking when she should activate the pelt’s magic. Burin also kept asking me if I was sure he didn’t need to pee on himself. It was not unlike traveling with children on a long car trip.

Once we finally reached the point close enough for Terry to transform, she giddily activated the pelt and became a wolf puppy. Then she immediately peed on Burin’s shoe.

The dwarf breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks. I feel better now.” Terry barked and wagged her tail happily.

“Are you thinking this transformation has any long term mental effects?” Gregor asked me.

“Probably not.” Maybe. I think.

He picked up a stick and threw it. Terry chased it immediately, but then stopped after a few feet, turned to Gregor and glared at him. She then ran ahead of me as we approached the gate and sniffed at the boots of the white haired man standing guard.

“Apologies for my sister,” I told him. “It has been a long road. You know how the young are.”

“No need to worry,” he said to me. “It’s good to see more of our kind coming to town. There are far too many stupid trolls running around, acting as if they run the place.”

“They learn to shut up pretty quickly if you have your slave douse one of them in oil and hold a torch like he means it.”

The wolf in human form laughed. “I like you. Tell me, have you all gotten your papers yet?”

“No, I…” My attention was suddenly caught by the sight of a woman. She was leaning against the guardhouse, maybe twenty feet off. She was eating some kind of steaming bread roll filled with meat. But that’s not why I noticed her.

She was maybe six foot five. She had not an ounce of unnecessary fat on her, but still had enough that her form-fit chain shirt emphasized an ample bosom – perhaps a D cup – and still showed her heaving biceps. I was pretty sure her back end was just as shapely, but I couldn’t see it due to the angle and the furred cape she wore.

Every bit of her skin was covered by clothing or armor, save her face and part of her neck, but if the rest of her body was as smooth and soft as the skin of her face suggested, I wanted to touch every single inch of her.

Next to her was a massive, ornately engraved axe, clearly meant to be swung with both hands. I could just imagine her heaving it, her muscles rippling and my mind went blank for a second. Between her height, her hard yet stunning and voluptuous features and her massive apparent strength, she had managed to hit every single one of my tastes. For both men and women.

I absolutely had to talk to her. “Excuse me a moment,” I said to the winter wolf I was talking to. I didn’t even wait for a reply. I just immediately walked over to her.

I heard the man laugh. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll just talk with your siblings and see about getting you some temporary papers while you talk to my partner.”

I approached her and she gave me a look that told me she was intrigued by my approach. She took a bite of her meat bun, juices dripping from the corner of her mouth. I could smell several spices as I approached.

It was only when I reached her that I realized that I hadn’t thought of what to say. “Hi,” I fumbled.

“My, what brings a beautiful young wolf such as you to speak with me?” she asked.

OHMYGODSHESAIDIWASBEAUTIFUL. Breathe, Lyriana. “I, um, uh…” Okay, I’m usually much better at this than that. But being near her, I couldn’t find the words. What was wrong with me? It’s not like I was a novice at this. “Is there a place here where I could get some tea? Or wine? Yes, ohmygodIneedwine. With you? Maybe somewhere I could buy us some wine? Please say something. I’m trying to stop talking but I can’t.”

She laughed. “I’d love to take you somewhere for some wine,” she said. “If I can talk Agilur into letting me bail a bit early, we could go now, if you want.”

Before I could answer, I felt Terry pulling at my pant leg. “What?” I asked. I swear to God, if she messed this up for me, I was going to drown her in the bathtub, adorable puppy or no.

“It’s almost time to go,” she whined.

“I’m going with my friend here for a drink. You stay with your brother and do what he says.”

“BURIN?!” she said in shock. “Please don’t do that to me.”

“He may have been born a runt, but he’s our elder brother and you will show him respect.”

“But he’s BURIN!”

The dwarf in question walked over and picked up the puppy by the scruff of her neck. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “Go have fun.”

I owed the dwarf, big time. “I’ll meet you later at that shrine Ringeirr said he’d show us,” I whispered to him.

“Ready?” the wolf woman asked me.

“Yes, please,” I said.

She shouted over to the other winter wolf, who was coming out of the guardhouse with some papers. “Agilur! I’m going to go get a drink with my friend here. Can you hold the place while I’m gone?”

“Go on, Greta! Have fun. It’s not like you do anything around here anyway!” She bared her teeth menacingly at him. “Fine! Fine! You win! You do more than I do. Just go!” We started to turn. “Wait!” he shouted. He bounded over and handed me a piece of paper. “This is your temporary entrance document. It’ll be good until midday tomorrow. You need to apply for proper documentation before then.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Greta picked up her massive axe with one hand and hefted it onto her left shoulder. I followed her closely. Had it not been for the axe, I would have glomped onto her. But, in interest of not unbalancing her, I carefully slipped my arm into a loop around her elbow and held it tentatively.

We walked about a block, getting stares from all around – we made a very attractive couple – before she said anything. “We could go get some spiced wine not too far from here if we take a right. Or, if you’d prefer, we could take a left and go to my house, where I’d be happy to brew some tea for you.”

Her house! I wanted to scream it loudly. But I managed to keep my cool, if only barely. “Tea sounds lovely,” I said.

Her home – a townhome in a fairly nice looking neighborhood – wasn’t large by my standards, but it was a fair bit larger than Ringeirr’s place. Heck, it was at least as large as Nadya’s place, if not larger. The inside was well kept a neatly, if sparsely, decorated with carvings and other artwork.

As I took in the sight of her home, I heard her set down her axe and lock the door behind us. Then I suddenly found myself forced against the wall, hungry lips pressed against mine. I returned the passionate kiss and threw my arms around her neck.

I felt her hand underneath my clothing as her soft lips nibbled at my neck. I began panting as I pressed myself into her. “Should I make tea now, or perhaps we could save the tea for later?” she whispered softly into my ear, her breath tickling a little.

“Later,” I moaned as her deft fingers stroked my bare skin. I’ll leave it to imagination precisely what bare skin she was stimulating.

She scooped me up and flung me over her shoulder. “Upstairs it is!” she declared before carrying me off to her bedroom.

Several hours later, I lay with my head on her soft bosom, all energy spent, but feeling better than I had in months. Her strong hand grabbed my bare backside, pulling me against her. “If you’re trying to start again, I’m afraid I’m going to need at least ten more minutes before I’m ready again,” I told her.

She kissed the top of my head. “No, I think I too lack the energy to do much more than this.”

“You won’t get in trouble for leaving your post early, will you,” I asked.

“Well, that depends,” she replied.

“On what?” I asked, kissing the soft skin before me.

“On what exactly you really are, and why you’re sneaking into the city disguised as one of my people?”

A chill ran down my spine. “I-I can explain.”

“No need. It’s pretty simple to understand. You needed into the city for something and decided impersonating one of us was the best way.” She said it in a matter-of-fact manner, no anger in her voice. “In truth, whatever method you’ve used to mask your scent is excellent. You’ll easily fool anyone who doesn’t spend hours with you like this.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not, though I am curious as to what precisely you are. I’ve never smelled a scent like yours.”

“I’m an Aasimar,” I admitted.

“Are all Aasimar as beautiful as you?” she asked. I felt myself blush. She laughed. “No, surely no race could be as enchanting as a whole.”

“If you really want to know, I’ll tell you why we’re here,” I said. I felt like I could trust her. I hoped that I wasn’t wrong.

“I won’t force you, though I must admit that I am curious.”

“How do you feel about Baba Yaga?”

She gave me an intrigued look. “I’ve never met her, of course, nor do I know anyone who has. But she has always done right by the pack, as I understand it. At least, much better than Elvanna and her damn Winter Guard.” She spat off the side of the bed. “Stupid trolls think they run everything.”

I took a breath. “Okay, so here goes. Elvanna may have done something to Baba Yaga. She’s hunted down her mother’s riders. One is dead for sure, I don’t know about the other one and then there’s the third one, which is us. My companions and myself, I mean. We’re trying to get to Baba Yaga’s hut so we can use it to follow her path and rescue her, thus restoring order and preventing Elvanna from completing a ritual that will cloak the world in ice and snow.” Whew. I said it in one breath.

“WHAT?!” Greta said, sitting up suddenly and causing me to nearly fall out of the bed.

Oh God. Had I made her mad? “Okay, how much trouble am I in?”

She looked at me and blinked. “You? Oh, right. Sorry. I’m not mad at you. It’s that stupid queen of ours. How can she be such an idiot?”

That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, to be sure. “Well, I guess it is a bit dumb to go against Baba Yaga,” I replied.

“No, well, yes. But that’s not what I mean. If she can go against her mother, then more power to her. But I’m talking about that idiotic idea to cover the entire world in snow and ice.” She stood up and poured herself some water. “We depend on trade from the southern nations. By covering them in ice, there are hundreds of different goods we enjoy that we’ll no longer be able to get. Does that idiot think spices and pepper will grow in the snow?”

She was pissed. And I was surprised. Her beauty and strength were apparent, but I had underestimated her mind. “I hadn’t even considered that,” I said. “And I should have, since my family owns one of the largest trading organizations in the Inner Sea.”

She pulled me up to her. “Trade is the lifeblood of a society. Without it, Irrisen would quickly fall into poverty and squalor. Elvanna wishes to become eternal queen of the world, but the world she would create will offer little to its citizens.” She laughed. “I mean, if she just wanted to expand our borders and control all of the Northlands, that would still leave much of the world to trade with. Or if she simply planned to march an army down and conquer the other lands to make them vassal states who paid annual tribute, that I could understand. But this is idiocy.”

My mind tried to consider the implications. She wasn’t wrong. There were a lot of things I’d seen people using that had to be imports. “You’ve thought about this a lot. You really like pepper, I take it?”

She gave me a wolfish grin. “And the fat coin purses greedy merchants will hand gate guards to let them sneak in goods without having to pay the city’s steep taxes. Come, I’ve worked up an appetite somehow. Let’s go downstairs and I’ll warm up some fish stew while you tell me all about how you’re going to save the world.”

I filled her in as she cooked us something to eat. She was a bit annoyed at my revelation of how Terry had disguised herself, but she got over it as we continued to talk. Overall, she seemed impressed by our goal, if not by my description of our execution of said goal thus far.

She was especially fascinated by my description of home and amazed when I set up Cortana and had the box transcribe a number of books for her. I figured she would enjoy the writings of Adam Smith, so I had a faux-leather bound omnibus of his works printed as well as a few other texts, including a book of photographs from Earth.

She knew of the Heralds of Summer’s Return – apparently they were an excellent source of bribes to a few of the winter wolves who were willing to look the other way for the right price – and promised to help me find someone who could take me to the Shrine of Milani the next day. In hindsight, I’d promised to meet the others there, but I had no idea where it was, so that was a relief.

After hours of discussion about all sorts of things, we went to bed. About two hours later, we went to sleep.


Greta's awesome.

re: Greta:
There are a number of on-theme loot items during the AP that really work well for her. Your arcanist will need to figure out ... a few things for her in a little while.


The Mad Comrade wrote:
Greta's awesome. ** spoiler omitted **

Unfortunately, I am not sure having her join as a member of the party will work. I had considered picking up leadership if the dice gods willed that it worked out, though.

But Terry's player doesn't seem to like her. I think he still hasn't entirely given up trying to ship Lyr and Gregor(well, everyone and Gregor, tbh). :P


Oh, and any resemblance between my depiction of Greta and Holo the Wise Wolf was absolutely accidental.


T: We Buy a Slave

Spoiler:
I don’t hate magic. It’s just never been my go-to solution to things. Sure. I’ve worked with and worked against people who knew what they were doing. The witch girl Lyriana, and even the Dwarf, being the most recent. But I’ve also met those who get cocky. And then sloppy. And they don’t tend to last very long after a bullet between the eyes. Magic or no magic.

So when Lyriana’s plan to get us through the gates and into White Throne involved me turning into a wolf, naturally I was a bit skeptical. Not that I didn’t like her, mind you. She seems like a good kid. I just…don’t trust anybody anymore. She explained to me that the wolf pelt Gregor had managed to skin would let me shift into a wolf for roughly a full day. Along with her changing her clothes and hair color and the Dwarf’s natural frosty complexion would along us to pass off as winter wolves. Gregor and Ringeirr were stuck with the short sticks, pretending to be our slaves as we passed on through. There were a lot of holes in the plan. A lot of what-ifs. But Lyriana didn’t seem to be in the most negotiable mood (hadn’t been seen the whole debacle with the goat-kid) so I held my tongue and turned into a wolf puppy.

No f+!*s were given during those first few minutes.

Not my proudest moment. As we made way towards Throne, I ran back and forth. Peed on the Dwarf’s foot (that I am proud of that, though he chalked it up to me trying to make him smell like a wolf), and just basically enjoyed being a g+%%#!n dog. Honestly the little time I had not being her was a breath of fresh air.

Everything was going fine. The wolf guard gave Lyriana, the Dwarf, and I temporary papers that would get us through the day, at least until we met up with Ringeirr’s associate. Smooth sailing. Gregor and I even played some fetch (again, I’m not proud.) But then Lyriana caught what I assumed was a female winter wolf’s eye and I just knew something bad was coming. Not unlike back when I used to travel with Persephone; she’d find something that’d pique her interest, drag me into it, and we’d finish the day either running from something, killing something, or running from something after killing that something’s dad or something. My (very reluctant) courting of Persephone Megalos was a VERY stressful time for me. Sigh…

So I wandered over and tugged at Lyriana’s pant leg. “What?” she snapped.

“It’s almost time to go,” I told her. I mean, all this was literally HER plan.

She glanced over at the busty winter wolf and said, “I’m going with my friend here for a drink. You stay with your brother and do what he says.”

“BURIN?!” I groaned, all puppy optimism imploding on the spot. I couldn’t help but plead, “Please don’t do that to me.”

“He may have been born a runt, but he’s our elder brother and you will show him respect.” I don’t know who she was keeping up the charade for; me or the wolf b!#%@. Honestly!

“But he’s BURIN!”

The devil in question suddenly grabbed me by the neck and held me up. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “Go have fun.”

And like that, Lyriana followed the wolf woman through the gate.

“Get off!” I roared at the Dwarf. My fur rippled and I turned back into a little girl. Bonus a pair of frosty blue eyes and white hair. He released his grip and I plopped back onto the ground. “Never do that again,” I said, massaging the back of my neck.

The Dwarf grinned his toothy grin. Early on I’d thought him to be one of Typhon’s trackers. He was just too…too nice not to be suspicious! I’m a firm believer that every person is made up of good and evil. Which force is more dominant depends on the person. So finding out that the Dwarf was actually a dopey prison for some demon had actually put me mildly at ease. I’ve always been more comfortable dealing with horrible people. You know what to expect. Poor demon just wants to escape a body it was forcibly trapped into. I can get behind that.

The Dwarf and I, along with Gregor and Ringeirr pulling a cart of fish (which contained my gun), made it through the gates into White Throne with little fan fair. Ever since the Farm I had tended to stay on the fringes of big cities. Close enough to hear things but far enough to bolt at the first sign of recognition. This city was decently populated, with a variety of people roaming the streets.

“Where to, Ringeirr?” I asked the smuggler.

“Mortin’s farther through the city,” the man grunted, shouldering the weight of the cart with Gregor. “And masters don’t usually speak to their slaves so casually.”

“Noted, you dirty slave,” I said. As a man looking to avenge his family, I could respect Ringeirr. Yet I would have preferred for Nadia to have stayed with us. She had really come into her own. Sure, she usually tended to slip up around the weirder beasties, but we all have our off days. Alternatively I would have liked witch girl to have stayed with the group and followed HER OWN PLAN to completion.

“Hope she catches fleas,” I grumbled. We ducked out of the main street and into an alleyway. Under the buildings’ shadows my trigger finger began to twitch. The blinds were pulled up across all visible windows but I knew for a fact we were being watched. Call me paranoid but I’d rather not my have head chopped off in witch country because of some misplaced optimism-

“Hello!” Burin suddenly called.
From the shadows a creature, goblin I think, approached. I instinctively took a step back towards the cart, ready to dive and set the bastard on fire at the slightest sign of weaponry. He held out his hand and said…

Noise. Gibberish. Yeah, no, I honestly couldn’t understand the guy. I looked back over at Gregor and Ringeirr. They looked wary of the goblin, but not confused. The Dwarf up front was nodding as the goblin spoke. And then he spouted the same gibberish back. He held up three fingers and pointed over his shoulder at us. The goblin nodded in what I assumed was agreement.

Was the Dwarf really going to sell us out? The bastard! I reached into my jacket pocket as he approached, ready to tear open his throat with one of my concealed knives. Now I wasn’t sure what would happen if he died. Would I die too? This whole thing with the dragon hurt my head. But there was no way in hell I was going to let this goblin lay so much as a finger on Emily’s body.

The Dwarf smiled as he reached over…and grabbed three fish from the cart. He tossed them over to the goblin. He caught them, grunted and disappeared into a diverging alleyway. “What the hell was that?!” I exclaimed at the men.

“He wanted fish,” the Dwarf said. “So I gave him three.” He turned to Ringeirr. “Sorry.”

Ringeirr waved a hand. “I really don’t care.” He glanced up at the surrounding windows. “We should get going.”

“Agreed, you dirty slave,” I said. I let out a small sigh and gripped my gun hand to my chest until my trigger finger calmed down. Now was not the time to be trigger happy. Sure, we had the nanites in case any of us got seriously injured. Yet without Lyriana we were vulnerable. She’d become a magical safety net. And because of that…maybe I’d gotten cocky. And then sloppy…

“Mirror man,” Ringeirr whispered fiercely. “Act natural.”

Oh, if only he knew what “natural” entailed for this team. We pushed through a larger crowd. I shifted into my puppy form to help maneuver ahead. I spotted what I assumed was a mirror man. A humanoid figure wearing a reflective mask. We approached it and time seemed to slow down. I gazed up at it and it tilted its head down, reflecting my adorable puppy eyes back at me…Emily’s eyes…

Daddy…why isn’t mommy moving?

And then the moment was over and the mirror man went on its way. I shook my tiny head. “Get a grip,” I hissed at myself. Don’t ask how I did it with dog lips. Magic. We rounded a corner and I just barely avoided being trampled by a skinny, raggedy man. He crashed into the Dwarf and fell to the ground.

That’s when the giant wolf approached. It was roughly Gregor’s size, with fur of snow and eyes of unyielding ice. It bared its fangs. “That is my slave,” he growled, also with magical dog lips. “You just had to run, Jorhan. I’ll try not to enjoy punishing you.”

I looked from the wolf to the raggedy man. The latter was sobbing and holding his arms over his face. The little good they’d do him once the wolf’s teeth tore through. Just mind your own business, just move on, just-

The wolf pounced and I suddenly found myself between the slave and his master. A master with magic wolf lips and extra-large, extra-pointy, extra uncomfortably-close-to-my-face teeth.

“Uh, no,” I squeaked. “No punishing. Please.”

The wolf glared down at me. If I hadn’t already pissed on the Dwarf’s boot earlier I would have done so right then and there. “He is my slave to do with as I wish,” the wolf declared.

“But…but what if he wasn’t your slave anymore?” I heard myself say.

His ears perked up. “How do you mean?”

“My, uh, brother and I have quite a bit of gold on hand,” I told him. “How’s one-hundred-fifty pieces for this runaway slave?” I know I was overshooting the price. But you try thinking straight while bargaining with the Big Bad Wolf and also being roughly the size of a teddy bear!

The change in temperament was instantaneous. The transformation into a man equally so. In human form he was considerably less intimidating. “Really?” he said, regarding the still weeping slave, who’d scrambled over and was clinging onto Gregor’s leg. “For him?”

I tried my best not to roll my eyes. “Do you want the gold or not?” I then added, “Sir.”

“You have spunk, child,” the winter wolf chuckled. I shifted back into my human form and produced the gold from my guitar case. It smelled of stale cake and fur balls. I hadn’t had time clean it out with everything going on. I counted the gold carefully and carried it over to the wolf. He gave me the man’s papers. Looking as if he’d gotten away with murder instead of having been deterred from it, he practically skipped off into the crowd.

“Some things never change,” I grumbled, shaking my head. “Want friends? Just have money.” I walked over to the slave as Gregor hunkered down and draped one of his skinned-fur coats around the man’s shoulders. He was sobbing in the same tongue the goblin had been using. I blew a strand of hair out of my face impatiently.

“What do you want to do with him?” Ringeirr asked me.

“Honestly haven’t thought any of this through,” I admitted. And then I added, “You dirty slave.”

He scowled and gestured for the slave’s papers. I handed them to him. “The Heralds of Summer are always willing to take strays in. But…” He knelt down and spoke to the man. The man calmed down a bit, nodding and shaking his head whenever I assumed Ringeirr asked him a question. Eventually, with Gregor’s help, the man got to his feet. Ringeirr handed him his papers, along with a slip of parchment. The man bowed to all of us in turn and left in the opposite direction his ex-master had gone.

I raised an eyebrow at Ringeirr.

“If all goes according to plan, there might be many freed slaves and a hefty reward in your future,” he told me as he returned to his position behind the cart.

“You did good,” Gregor said to me, patting me on the shoulder.

“I did stupid,” I grunted. “Come on, these papers have until sundown. Gotta get permanent ones.” As we walked, I wondered how Lyriana was planning to get papers of her own. She was a pretty girl. Not my-er, the old me’s type. But sex, like money, made people stupid. Easier to manipulate.

“Terry,” I heard Gregor say. And then, “Burin, no, come back!”

But it was too late. The Dwarf was strolling over to two winter wolf guards. They were bigger than the one we’d just encountered, looked irritable, and reeked of booze. Oh, yeah. Add that one to the list, after sex and money. “Wha you wan’?” one of them asked the Dwarf. “Get lost!”

The Dwarf looked them over. And then reached out and touched each by the crook of the arm. They shrugged his hands off. “Hell?” one guard exclaimed.

“I’m trying to heal you,” the Dwarf explained.

The other guard blinked stupidly down at him. “Eh? You want a fight, runt?”

“We don’t have time for this!” Ringeirr hissed behind me. As much as I’d have liked to see the Dwarf be thrashed by Dog Breath One and Dog Breath Two, now was not the time or place for shenanigans. But before I could respond, Gregor walked past me and over to the winter wolves.

“Here,” he said, offering them his flask. “This should help a bit.”

They exchanged looks before one swiped the flask out of his hand. He took a sip, and then spat the contents across the ground and Gregor’s and the Dwarf’s feet. “What the hell is this supposed to be?” he exclaimed, throwing the flask back at Gregor. “Some kind of joke? Get lost, all of you, before we tear your f$~$ing arms off.”

Luckily the Dwarf and Gregor didn’t push it. We gave the two drunk winter wolves ample space as went on our way. We dropped off the fish at an orphanage (I made sure to stuff my gun back into my guitar case) and ventured through the city. We eventually rounded the corner of the street Ringeirr’s associate, Mortin, was supposed to be living on. “There!” Ringeirr said, pointed at a nearby house. I immediately noticed that the front door was seriously beefed up. I’ve broken into bank vaults and royal treasuries that were of lesser quality.

We just made it to the front door, when I spotted commotion up ahead. Two winter wolves were in a seriously heated argument with two trolls. I could feel the tension from all the way down the street. Sensing the same tension, Gregor slammed his fist against the door. No answer. He hit it again but this time with the same amount of force I’d seen him use to make craters in solid stone. Still no answer.

“Crap.” I knelt down and moved to try to unlock the door- “What the hell is this alien b+@%&%&%?” I exclaimed. There were locks within locks within gears within locks. I glanced over at the wolves and trolls. Whatever debate they were having was drawing to a close.

“Mortin!” Ringeirr called, coming over and pounding on the door. “It’s Ringeirr! Let us in!” Still no answer. The Dwarf was keeping an eye on the quartet. They were parting ways.

Gregor turned to me and said, “Take many steps back.”

Now I’d fought enough times with this monk to know when to listen. I got WAY back. After a few solid hits, he managed to send the door rocketing back off its hinges with the last punch. We hurried inside the house just as the trolls started to make their way towards us.
Inside, sitting in a chair as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred, was a bald, middle aged man with thick glassed and a thicker goatee. He blinked. He looked from us to the door. “You broke my door.”

“You didn’t let us in when we knocked,” Ringeirr said. “Long time no see, Mortin.”

“Wait, who are you?”

“It’s me, Ringeirr, you idiot.”

“Oh. Well if I let in just anyone who knocks on my door, don’t you think it’d be a tad easier for the witches and their dogs to find me?” Mortin asked him.

“We’ll fix the door,” I said before Ringeirr could retort. I glanced back at the Dwarf and Gregor. “Guys, fix the door.” The looked at one another and then, like two toddlers trying admirably to pass the square cube through a circle slot, they went at trying to fix Mortin’s door. Kind of adorable. With my adrenaline dying down, I yawned. “We need papers,” I told Mortin.

“Oh,” he said. “Well, that will take a few hours-”

“That’s fine,” I said, yawning again. I went over to the nearest couch. Mortin’s place wasn’t very big. A living room that connected into a kitchen and a study. I spotted a writing desk in the corner of the latter. Atop it was a very large stack of paper next to a feather pen propped across a bottle of ink. “Catch him up to speed, you dirty slave,” I told Ringeirr. I laid my head back and like that I was asleep.

I don’t sleep well. I sleep awful. If it isn’t flashbacks to the Farm, it’s that stupid yellow sign I keep flashing back to ever since picking up a cursed book. Or somebody trying to divine my fate using cards. There’s always something going on. But this time was different. This time it was like I was drifting through a blank nothingness. Occasionally I’d hear the sound of whistling wind, or maybe it was howling wolves, but nothing mattered. If this is the kind of sleep winter wolves got nightly, then they’re spoiled bastards.

I woke up some time later and immediately felt different. The fur coat no longer pulsed with magical energy and when I pulled out a knife and checked myself, I saw that Emily’s hair and eyes were back to their usual, pretty browns. I tried to call up any magic, try to turn into a puppy one last time, but nada.

“Good things don’t last, man,” I sighed. “You don’t deserve them to.”

I looked over towards the door. By some miracle, Gregor and the Dwarf had actually managed to fix it. They and Ringeirr were in the kitchen, while Mortin was working on the papers in his study. Seeing as it was late and I’d already slept, I offered to take first watch. Gregor and Ringeirr slept in the kitchen while the Dwarf crashed on the couch. I pulled out my gun and went to work cleaning it, ignoring his snores as best I could.

It was around this time that I actually started to miss Hatch’s company. He’d been simple little soul. When he was hungry he wanted to be fed. Like a baby. Like Toby. Toby had come as a real surprise to Persephone and I. We’d managed to keep a nomadic lifestyle after Emily’d been born. But two kids was too much. Reason why I bought the farm. Toby was a calm kid though. Liked mushed bananas, rarely cried, and didn’t mind Emily dressing him up as her personal doll.

My son was only two when Typhon set him on fire.

“I will kill you,” I hissed, tears spilling across the gun. The Dwarf snorted in his sleep. I quickly brushed the tears out of my eyes. Crying wasn’t going to help anyone. I needed the witch girl to get strong enough so as to break the link between me and the Dwarf. And then after all this political crap with the witch Baba Yaga was sorted out, it was time to go back to Typhon Lee hunting.

“That is a very interesting gun.” I looked up. It was Mortin. He was looking from me to the gun, stroking his beard as he did so.

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “A friend helped me make it.”

He reached out a hand. “Mind if I take a look?”

Sure, Ringeirr vouched for the guy, but a mercenary never willingly relieves themselves of their weapon. “I’m actually in the middle of cleaning it right now,” I told him.

Mortin shrugged. “Very well.” He went over to the door and checked the locks. “Your friends did a fine job.”

“Yeah,” I said, pretending to return my attention to the gun. “They can be smart when they want to be-”

I honestly would have been shocked if Mortin hadn’t tried something. So when the man made a grab for me, I was ready for it. I twirled the gun and slammed the butt right in his face, knocking him to his knees. I jumped to my feet. The Dwarf muttered in his sleep, oblivious.

Mortin held his face in his hands as a readied my gun. Yet when he looked up it wasn’t Mortin who stared back at me, but the Lady Argentia. Before I could react to that, the front door swung open, and three guards stormed into the living room. The bastard/b#@!# had unlocked the door! Surrounded on all sides, I did only logical thing. “EVERYBODY WAKE THE F!+& UP!”

Gregor and Ringeirr ran into the room, looking groggy and not at all ready to take on four guards. “What’s going on?” Ringeirr cried, looking from me to the kneeling person on the floor.

“Lady Argentia?” Gregor gasped. But by then I’d already put a bullet in the shapeshifter’s head. One guard swung at me with his sword, but I ducked just in time to only get a few hairs trimmed off the top. The other guards went after Gregor and Ringeirr. The Dwarf sat up, yawning but still very much unaware of the danger.

I don’t know whether it was out of sleepiness or being tired from putting the door back up, but Gregor took a few more hits than were usual for him. And it became painfully obvious within seconds that Ringeirr was a smuggler not a fighter. Yet between Gregor and me the guards fell one by one.

Only for three more guards to come storming in. The Dwarf tried to be of some use, but they were more focused on Gregor, slicing at him with ogre hooks. The kid was good, but soon Mortin’s floor became stained with his blood. Yet I made sure that the guards spilled their equal share.

After Gregor finished pounding the last guard into the floor, he wobbled back and fell to one knee. I quickly rummaged to through my guitar case and pulled out the nanite gun. A rushed over and stuck it on his arm. “Thank you,” he gasped.

“No problem,” I said. “We need to get-”

Gregor shook violently, his whole body trembling. He gasped and clawed at his chest. As Ringeirr, the Dwarf, and I watched, his veins began to light up an ugly silver color. It looked like he’d been wrapped in a pulsing spider-web. He opened his mouth, maybe to ask for help, or to scream, only to throw up blood and bile across the floor. He tipped forward. I managed to catch him by shoulder just as I heard more voices from outside.

Yup. It was going to be that kind of night.

I hoped Lyriana was having just as much fun.


The first alternate point of view entry. Terry's notes on the first session while Lyriana was off on her own. All entries from here on out with a "T:" at the beginning will denote other entries from Terry. If you see a "G:" or "B:", those will correspond with appropriate characters.


Spice and Wolf

Spoiler:
I woke up feeling great. I was that amazing kind of sore that comes after a truly enjoyable night and I didn’t have any hangover to go with it. Which was nice.

I woke my lover with a kiss. “Hey there,” she said with a smile.

“Hey there yourself,” I replied. “Sun’s already up. Give me time to get ready and I’ll buy you breakfast? We can go anywhere you want to go.”

“I know a place that caters to stilyagi not too far from here,” she said. “It serves some excellent foreign food. They have a traditional Minkaian breakfast that I’ve been told is pretty good, though they don’t usually serve many winter wolves, since it’s outside most of my people’s price range for a meal.”

“Well, I’m sure I have more than enough to cover even the priciest breakfast,” I told her.

“We’ll need to get you your full papers before we go,” Greta said. “It’s outside of The Howlings.” I must have made a face, because she added, “Don’t worry, it won’t take long. As long as you have more of that stuff to mask your scent, I should have little trouble getting us to the front of the line using a few favors.”

That sounded fair enough. I checked with Cortana and confirmed that she still had been unable to contact anyone, then prepared my spells for the day. Afterwards, I got dressed, put in some fresh contact lenses, applied some more scent mask and we were on our way.

The application process for papers could have put any bureaucrat’s office back home to shame. Thankfully, the clerk really did owe Greta a favor, so we were out in less than an hour, my official papers in hand.

There was one odd thing, though. “So, I’m your wife, huh?” I asked the wolf-woman next to me as soon as we had a bit of privacy.

“It was either that or spend a hundred gold pieces to bribe the clerk to falsify some other reason for your entry to the city.” She grabbed my ass with her free hand. “Besides, if I have my way, it won’t be a lie forever.”

My cheeks flushed and my heart skipped a beat. She had just declared her intention to pursue me seriously! I mean, I liked her – a hell of a lot, even – but I hadn’t even considered the possibility that this could be more than a fling. My brain didn’t quite know how to react to that. And the weirdest part was that there was a part of me that didn’t want to dismiss the idea outright.

We’d met less than a day ago. She’d declared her intent to make me her bride. And part of me wanted to go with it. I mean, holy crap! What was up with me?!

I needed more time to think. “Weren’t we going to find breakfast?” I managed to ask without stammering.

“Ah, yes. Breakfast! I’m starving!” Thank God she was hungry enough that my deflection had worked.

The street that led from the Howlings to the city proper was blocked by a crowd of winter wolves and their slaves. They were angry and directing their unrest at a person flanked by a pair of trolls who stood at the checkpoint.

“I don’t care how upset you are!” a woman’s voice called out. “You will disperse and return to your homes, or I will be forced to call in the full might of the Winter Guard!”

“We’ve always been loyal citizens, and now you’re refusing us entrance to the rest of the city because of some event none of us had anything to do with?” someone called from the crowd. Several others agreed with him.

“What’s going on?” I asked a winter wolf near the back of the crowd.

“There was an attack on a concert last night. Someone killed the singer and hung her corpse from a tree. At least what was left after they split her head in two.”

“Oh dear!” I said. “That’s horrible! But what does that have to do with us?”

“The concert was also an execution for dissidents. The people who attacked the stage set the prisoners free, and one of the prisoners was one of ours. So now we’re all suspect.”

I couldn’t say I disagreed with the actions of whoever had attacked the stage, in that case. But people here were at a boiling point. If someone didn’t act quickly, there could be a full scale riot, which would probably result in retaliation by the authorities.

Greta whispered in my ear, “If things go bad, can you handle the witch? She can likely fly and I don’t know that I’ll be able to do anything to her.” I nodded. “Good.” Greta slammed the butt of her axe into the ground. The sharp crack silenced the crowd. “Friends! I understand your discontent. I, too, chafe at this mistrust shown to we who have been ever-loyal! But this is not the way. Return to your homes, let the White Witches conduct their investigation. In a few days, when it is found that we had nothing to do with the events that have transpired, they will realize that they have made an error and surely they will repent and return us to our proper place as respected allies and subjects.”

There were grumblings, but the crowd heeded her words and began to disperse. Once the last person was gone, the witch made a motion with her hand. Off in the distance behind her, I saw one of Irrisen’s fabled mirror men – constructs used by the witches to patrol and spy on their people – step from the shadows a block back. A dozen human guards stepped from the alleyway behind it. It then bowed and marched its troops off away from the Howlings.

“A pretty speech,” the witch said to Greta. “We thank you for your service.”

Greta nodded. “Of course. In light of our assistance, perhaps you could see fit to allow me and my wife to enter the city, now that this unpleasantness is behind us? I promise we just want to get some breakfast and will return immediately after.”

“No exceptions. You will have to wait until the perpetrators have been caught before we lift the ban.”

“Yes, leave now, stupid wolf,” one of the trolls said.

“Or we’ll crunch your bones!” the other troll agreed. “You stupid wolves can’t harm us trolls and you know it.”

Greta turned as if to leave, giving me a look. It was show time. I quickly cast my spell, unleashing a beam of flame that shot directly into the gaping mouth of the witch and continued on out the new hole in the back of her skull. Well, there were two beams, but one missed, so let’s just forget that one.

Greta spoke the draconic word for “Acid”, causing the head of her axe to become slick with seeping liquid. Then she charged and cleaved one troll’s arm off. Just clean off. The troll looked smug at first, then shocked when the limb didn’t grow back.

Meanwhile, I hit the other troll with cleansing flame. Both beams hit and the troll collapsed. Not to be outdone, Greta dodged her foe’s attack and whipped her axe forward in a fluid, dual-sweeping motion, dispatching the other troll.

“We need to get out of here,” she said. “But first…” She drew a whistle and blew it. I couldn’t hear the sound but a few moments later another winter wolf appeared.

The new arrival shifted into human form and I immediately recognized the gate guard from the previous day. “Greta, what have you done?” he asked.

“There is no time to fully explain,” she said. “The trolls finally mouthed off to me one too many times.”

He laughed. “It looks like you have everything in hand. So what am I here for?”

“I need someone to dispose of the bodies.”

He eyed the witch’s corpse and licked his lips. “It’ll be my pleasure.”

Greta gave him a commanding look. “Agilur, listen to me. No lunch until after you’ve burned the trolls, understand?”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine. But you owe me.”

“I gave you lunch. How is it that I’m the one who owes you?”

“This is a two man job. I’m going to end up having to share.”

“Oh, poor baby.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at me.

That disturbing conversation over, we continued onward. Once we were out of sight, I cleaned the gore off of Greta with magic. No sense advertising what we’d been up to, since we really didn’t want the attention.

When we reached the neighborhood where the restaurant was located, it was bustling. The people seemed more nervous, but otherwise, it wasn’t all that different from Magnimar. It even had a forty-something year old Sczarni man – he had made the effort to hide his identity, but I had spent enough time in Magnimar to recognize Sczarni tattoos no matter how much makeup he wore – standing next to a makeshift table offering to read fortunes using the Harrow.

As we passed, the Sczarni called out to us. “Ah, there’s the Mountain Man!” he said to me in Taldan. I didn’t even want to know how he knew that. After the way my previous reading had gone, I wanted nothing to do with it. I tried to ignore him, which seemed to be working up until he decided to speak again, this time in the local language. “What? Do the newlyweds not want their fortune told?”

Just how official was that document anyway? Was I actually married to someone I’d just met? Because if so, Momma was gonna kill me unless Daddy could stop laughing long enough to talk her out of it. And more than that… how on Earth did he know about our status anyway?

Greta giggled girlishly at being called newlyweds. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”

It would make her happy, so I could pretend to enjoy it for her. “Okay, but I recently had a reading. I’m not sure if I should have another so soon. But maybe he can do one for you?” I smiled as I spoke and gave her hand a squeeze. She nodded and we headed over. “Just for her, if you please,” I told the man, handing him a few coins.

He took the coins in his only hand – the other arm looked like it had been cut off just below the shoulder – and stuffed them into a belt pouch. He shuffled the deck and looked at Greta with his milky eyes. “Tell old, blind Martje your question,” he said to my lover.

She actually looked embarrassed, blushing as she spoke. I squeezed her hand again in encouragement. “I, well, it’s just… What will happen with us? Will she and I work out as a couple?”

“Ah, matters of love!” the man said with an approving nod. “As you know, matters of love depend not just on the will of fate, but on the efforts of those involved. So The Path will be our best bet at determining your future.” He laid out ten cards in an inverted triangle before us. “Have you ever had a reading before?”

“No,” Greta said. “What do I do?”

“First, flip the lone card before you. That card describes your role in relation to the question. In this case, it will reveal something of the nature of your role in your relationship.” She was trembling as she flipped the card.

“I don’t know this language, but that looks like a Rakshasa,” she said. “What does it mean?”

“Indeed! Well deciphered.” He bowed with a flourish. “The Rakshasa is the card of dominance and control.” Wait, did that mean she was going to be the dominant one in our relationship? “But it mostly signifies slavery to an idea. You will do what you will do because your love for this woman simply will not allow you to do anything else.”

Did she really feel that strongly about me? My heart was pounding in my chest. It took everything I had to keep my breath coming at an even, regular pace. Greta smiled at me, then turned back to the man. “The cards do seem to know much. What do I do next?”

“Now, you choose between the two cards in the next row and flip the one you have chosen. This card represents your past, specifically your relationships in the past.”

Greta chose the card to the right. “So, what does this tornado say about my past?”

“The Cyclone represents a disaster made by intelligent beings that destroys all that it touches.”

Greta laughed heartily. “That certainly describes my love life up until yesterday! Does it say more?”

The Sczarni shrugged. “What else is said is only spoken in the heart of the one getting the reading. Reflect a moment if you wish, then choose one of the two cards on the next row that touch the one you’ve flipped. This card will relate to your present.”

Greta did so, revealing the card in the center. “I can’t tell what this one is from the art,” she admitted.

“That is ‘The Big Sky’. It depicts the freeing of slaves and represents momentous change.”

Greta slipped her arm around me and pulled me close. “Meeting you feels like it was a big moment in my life,” she said, looking into my eyes.

Oh god, was she trying to make me blush? Because it was working. I don’t think I’ve ever blushed that hard before. And from what I saw in her pale blue eyes, she absolutely meant it. Which only made me blush harder. My brain couldn’t think of what to say, so I panicked and kissed her.

“Now, now, children,” the man said to us. “There’s still the future to consider and one more card to choose.”

Greta reached out and selected a card. “Some kind of man surrounded by ghosts?”

“The ghosts are his fallen comrades,” the Sczarni said. “The man is ‘The Survivor’, and he represents a person who has been through an ordeal of some kind. But he also represents finding something thought lost. There may be some difficulty in your future, but no matter how dark it seems, hope will never be gone so long as you hold on to it. There will always be a chance to find it once more.”

Greta was grinning from ear-to-ear as she handed the man a gold coin. “Thank you! This means so much to me.” She turned back to me, her face filled with joy. “Shall we go get that breakfast now?”

Oh, right, we’d been out here to go eat. It was as if the world was conspiring to prevent us from completing that simple task. But food sounded good. I didn’t need it, but it would give me something to think about other than our relationship. I’d never been with anyone for very long, so the thought of being together forever terrified me a little. At the same time, though, it sounded like a whole new kind of adventure.

I could get a handle on this, as long as she didn’t bring up kids.

The “traditional” Minkaian breakfast they offered was less traditional and instead had been chosen for its exotic nature. On offer was a multi-course meal that started with dumplings, moved to a tofu-like bean curd soup in a hearty fish broth, then involved a curried fish and rice main dish and finished with some kind of pastry dessert.

The dumplings were fairly good, with a definite taste of fish sauce to the filling, which was mostly composed of meat and some kind of starchy root I didn’t recognize. The soup was similarly delicious, though it was no miso soup, which I think would have gone better with everything else.

Then came the curry, whose type was chosen when we ordered. I opted for the spiciest variant and asked them to kick up the spice further. It couldn’t be as bad as those spicy food challenges I’d done back home – you haven’t lived until you’ve played a “Strip” version of a ghost pepper wings challenge with a bunch of military pilot trainees – and the burning mouth would give me something to think about other than my relationship and our quest to save the world.

I lost that challenge, in case you’re wondering. But it was close.

They set our dishes in front of us – Greta had chosen the mildest curry, the wimp – and I took a bite. It was fairly hot, but I’d definitely had hotter. “So,” Greta said to me. “I’m curious. How do you feel about children?”

A piece of sauced fish went down the wrong pipe, sending me into a coughing fit, causing a table of stilyagi nearby to laugh at me. The proprietor was at my side with a glass of water immediately. I waved him off. “Just swallowed wrong,” I said as I managed to get my coughing under control. “But if you have it, can I get wine?” I needed a drink.

He didn’t have wine, but he brought me a little pitcher of sake. I skipped the little cup and drained the pitcher in a single draught. “Better?” Greta asked me as alcoholic warmth spread through my body.

“Much,” I said.

“So, about my question…”

“I’ve never really considered it,” I admitted. I was a little surprised she had. She might look like she’s in her late twenties or early thirties, but she was likely little older than I was. Winter wolves have a lifespan in the low fifties, and age accordingly.

She smiled warmly and reached across the table to take my hand. “I can see that the subject is making you uncomfortable. We have time yet. Let’s hold off on that question until the current crisis is dealt with.” Oh, thank God. “So, mind if I try a taste of your dish?” she asked.

“It’s very hot,” I warned. “But you can if you want.” She ended up needing not only water, but a cold glass of goat’s milk to bring the burn down to a manageable level, even after a small bite. I made a point of finishing my entire plate.

Yeah, we’ll see who the dominant one is. Stupid cards.

On our way out, I wasn’t paying attention and bumped into a man just outside, accidentally knocking him down. I helped him up, and noticed his eyes lingering for a moment on my bag and widening in surprise as they darted between my bag and my face. He appeared to be Chelish, from his features.

“You’re not from around here,” he said softly, so only I could possibly make out what he said. He laughed boisterously. “Sorry friend! I haven’t been in the city long and I keep getting turned around and bumping into people. I’m new to this land of ice and snow, with the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. That was a Ranger identification phrase! They were all based on lyrics from songs from back home, because Daddy was the one who came up with them all. And, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the counter-sign!

I knew it was a song that discussed a location, based on the sign he used. So I took a stab in the dark, reciting the lyrics to the first such song that came to mind that I knew Daddy liked. “Well, watch where you’re going. Surely you’ve seen many cities before, paradises where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. It should not be any different to maneuver the streets and watch where you’re going.”

I caught his eyes narrowing in recognition of my attempted counter-sign. “Of course. Again, my apologies. I won’t let it happen again.”

After he left, Greta took my hand. “You shouldn’t have been so lenient on him. Merchants should remember to show more respect to those who watch over the city.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll remember it for next time.”

Patrols in the city were up and the guards were on high alert. We managed to get past several checkpoints, but it was clear that guard presence was escalating. There were mirror men everywhere. We got stopped several times, but our story that we were going through the city to collect on a debt owed to a local merchant was believable enough that we weren’t hassled further.

Still, when we spotted a checkpoint where a winter wolf was being hassled by trolls, we ducked into an alleyway to bypass them. Better to avoid the worst checkpoints, after all.

The alleyway was deserted, as alleys often are. And the windows facing the alley were all shuttered. So no one would see us if anything happened. But Greta wasn’t too worried about it. Few things in the city aside from trolls would be stupid enough to attack a fully armed winter wolf.

So imagine her surprise when someone stepped out from the shadows and commanded us to “Halt!” And imagine my surprise when it was the man I’d bumped into on the street about twenty minutes prior. “Hand over the girl and you will be allowed to leave here unharmed,” he commanded Greta.

As he spoke, she’d put herself between me and the potential threat, tightening her grip on her axe. “Not going to happen,” she said.

“Then you leave us no choice.” He drew out a small rod and flicked his wrist. It telescoped outward and a hidden blade flicked out. The whole thing looked like a scythe. “We walk in the dark places no others will enter.”

Another figure appeared from a side alley, holding a cocked crossbow. “We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass.”

Yet another dropped down from a walkway above, closing off our path of retreat. I recognized several spell tattoos on her, so she was likely either a sorceress or a mage. The sword-cane in her hand suggested it was the latter. “We engage in battle, we do not retreat.”

Greta’s muscles tensed. “I’ll cut a path,” she whispered. “Flee as soon as you have the opportunity. I’ll try to be right behind you. But if we get separated, find another winter wolf and tell them of this attack.”

“Wait!” I said, stopping her prepared charge. “This isn’t what it looks like. There’s been a misunderstanding. Please let me handle it.”

She nodded. “If you’re sure.” Still, she was ready to react at a moment’s notice.

“Rangers!” I commanded. “In the name of the One, stand down!”

The spellcaster, closest of the three to me, cocked her head. “We’re here to rescue you. You asked for assistance.”

Had I? I thought about the lyrics I had used for a moment and realization dawned. “The next part of the song goes, ‘Oh won’t you please take me home?’” I said as I smacked my face with my hand. “Of course that’s what he’d use that one for.”

“So you weren’t in trouble?”

“We’re all in trouble,” I said. “But I’m not in any particular trouble at the moment, no.”

They began putting away their weapons and Greta relaxed her stance. “Come, this place isn’t safe to talk,” the man from earlier said. “We have a safe house nearby. You can tell us about your mission there.”

We followed them two blocks down and ducked into a mean townhome. The place was sparsely appointed, having only the base necessities, but it was clean. “Ranger, report,” the spell caster commanded me.

“Um, about that… I’m not exactly a Ranger,” I said.

“Then how did you know one of our countersigns?” the man who had been holding the crossbow asked.

“It’s not hard if you’ve grown up listening to all the music they’re based on,” I said with a shrug.

The three exchanged a look. Sudden realization dawned on all three faces at once. “You’re the one we were told to look for!” one of the men said.

“You’re looking for me?” I replied.

“Your uncle told every Ranger group to keep an eye out, as you’d gone missing. But he’d said that you were in Taldor, last he’d heard. How did you end up here?”

“There was a portal,” I explained. “And there’s a lot I need to make sure the Rangers are aware of, in case we fail to stop it.” I spent over half an hour explaining what was going on. The Rangers listened intently, interrupting only to clarify points here and there. “And that’s pretty much it,” I said. “Is there any way you can help us?”

“Unfortunately, we’re tracking a dangerous individual and cannot turn from our mission. But we will make contact and let the others know. I’m sure they’ll organize a response. But it will take time.”

“Fair enough.” At least I didn’t have to worry if Cortana would be able to make contact.

“There might be one thing we can do,” the man I’d bumped into earlier said. He pulled something from his bag and approached Greta. “You plan to follow and help her, yes?”

“No harm will come to her while I still stand,” Greta replied immediately. And there I went blushing again. I really needed to get that under control.

“You won’t be able to wield that axe outside of the city,” he said. “Not without this.” He handed her a pendant of some kind.

“What is it?” Greta asked.

“It’s a magic item that will allow you to maintain a human form anywhere.”

She looked dubious. “And you just happened to have something like that with you? How does something like that even exist?”

“Her father created these after a unicorn that once helped us asked it of him. We have a number of these stockpiled, so we grabbed a couple in case we needed to bribe a winter wolf while we were here. We knew that some of your number would do nearly anything to get something like that.”

“And you’re sure it would work for me?” She had mentioned that one of her greatest desires was the ability to assume her human form outside of the city and travel to experience everything the world had to offer.

“Fairly sure, yes. It may have been designed for a unicorn, but I know for sure they’ve been used by other magical creatures. Off the top of my head, I know there’s a blink dog in Andoran who uses one.”

“Then I thank you,” Greta said. “And I am glad that I wasn’t required to cleave your skull in two.”

“You and me both,” the man replied with a laugh.

“About your mission,” I said. “Anything we can do to help? If he’s so dangerous, maybe we can help you finish your job and then you could help us?”

“Unfortunately, it’s not that kind of mission. The individual is dangerous, yes, but we’re not to engage. Your father simply wants to be kept apprised of what he does, in case it becomes necessary to intervene.”

“Assuming we can find him,” the other man added wryly. I must have made a face, because he continued. “It’s almost as if he’s letting us follow him. His trail is just obvious enough for us to track when he moves to a new area, but as soon as he begins doing whatever it is he’s doing, we lose sight of him right up until he’s ready to move on.”

“Sounds frustrating.”

“Incredibly so. Still, it is what has been asked of us, so we obey.”

“Fair enough.” It was already late afternoon and we still had some way to go. “We should probably get going. I’d like to reach the hidden shrine of Milani before sunset if possible, and we still need to find a contact who knows where it is.”

“I know where it is,” the crossbow man said. “I can take you there, if you’d like.”

“Really?”

“Yes. We can even take the walkways above the streets and dodge most of the patrols. Should be able to get there in about an hour.”

“That would be perfect,” I said. “Let’s do that.” We said our farewell to the other two and made quick time, arriving at the bathhouse that hid the secret shrine with some time left before sunset.

The others were surprised that I’d brought Greta with me, and I was surprised by the changes they’d made to their appearances. Burin and Terry had dyed their hair and Gregor was back in his green robe! So much for inconspicuous. And that’s before you considered the occasional shiny veins of nanites that occasionally showed beneath his skin. No idea why he’d reacted like that to his first dose of them.

I was considerably less surprised to learn that my companions were the ones who had caused the commotion at the concert. I was pretty glad I’d missed that one.


Another Terry segment coming up next, though I'm not sure how long it'll be before it's been finished(since I'm not the one writing it). Working on the write up for the clock tower as well, will possibly be uploading both at the same time like with these two.

Let's just say that there'll be something fairly interesting in the clock tower for some of you. Which is good, since the two encounters I thought would be epic turned out... well, something else.


T: Piñata, Piñata

Spoiler:
Back in the day, I would have left them there to die. The situation was beyond bad. Gregor was sick, Ringeirr’s intel had gotten us into this mess in the first place, Lyriana was MIA, and the Dwarf was the Dwarf. But it was because of the latter and that stupid dragon that I was in this mess to begin with, so I had no choice but to nut up. Metaphorically speaking, sadly.

“Gregor, man, you’re kind of heavy,” I grunted. After a moment he managed to pull himself back up. I kept to his side, but the kid didn’t look too good. Actually he looked one twitch away from a heart attack. The silver in his veins was dying down, but the fact that they were that color at all was alarming. “Watch him,” I told the Dwarf. He nodded and I maneuvered through the guard corpses and over to my guitar case. I stuffed the nanite gun back inside. More voices could be heard outside.

“We need to leave now,” Ringeirr said.

“No s$$&, you dirty slave,” I snapped, strapping the case back on and picking up my gun. I then turned to Gregor. “Think you can walk, Gregor?” The kid nodded weakly. We hurried outside. Dawn was still a few hours away. I saw light off in the distance. That was also the source of the voices I’d heard earlier. Sounded like a crowd.

Now you’d assume the smart decision to be to stay as far away from the crowd as possible. But we were four strangers, out in the dark, just leaving a house that the authorities would soon find full of corpses. “Pull up your hood and keep your head down, Gregor,” I told him. “Everybody just act,” I looked specifically at the Dwarf, “rationally.”

With that we headed toward the sound of people. Because of Gregor’s condition the going was slow, but we eventually rounded a corner and into what appeared to be a large park. Families were situated around the center, with guards positioned around the edges, and a large stage opposite the entrance we’d come in from. It looked to be some kind of concert. I did a quick headcount of the guards. They were positioned at every other exit. Looks like were trapped here until the concert ended. I gestured for the guys to the edge of the park. We found a place to sit, which Gregor more than gladly did.

“How you holding up?” I asked him.

Maybe out of fear of throwing up, he gave me a thumbs up instead of answering.

“Hey, don’t we know her?” the Dwarf said. I followed his line of sight to a poster hanging on a nearby wall. My eye began to twitch. It was the goat lady. The goat lady with the flaming sword. The goat lady with the flaming sword that’d nearly cleaved through Emily’s skull. I glanced over my shoulder, towards the stage. I didn’t catch sight of her, but it was only a matter of time.

“Ah, it is as fate says,” a gravelly voice said.

We all turned. A greyed old man was sitting at a table that I was pretty sure hadn’t been there a second ago. He was shuffling a deck of cards in one hand. He kind of had to, seeing as the other one was missing just before the elbow.

“Fortune?” he said, eyes glossy and staring in opposite directions.

“Leave him,” Ringeirr snapped, looking around anxiously. “Seen plenty of beggars like him. All frauds.”

I glanced at all the guarded exits. “Not like we’re going anywhere. Might as well.”

The old man grinned. It made my skin crawl. He pointed at me, Gregor, and the Dwarf. How he did so seeing as he was blind was beyond me. Magic? “Ask a question each,” he said. “Preferably about a goal or task you wish to accomplish.”

“Where’s Lyriana?” the Dwarf asked. I facepalmed. The stranger chuckled and tossed a card towards Burin.

“The Queen Mother,” the blind man said (despite the fact that he was F$&#ING BLIND!) and then added, “She is knowledge personified. The formian knows all but does not reveal anything to anyone who does not show her proper worship. She is fond of the powerless and the underclasses, for they serve her when the more powerful refuse. She represents the need to become part of a society, or to bow before those who know more than you

“Well that’s ominous,” I muttered, scratching my chin. I thought it over. I couldn’t do anything on the Typhon front while having to deal with witchy politics and being one-quarter Black Rider. So I asked, “Will we be able to overthrow Elvanna.”

He threw me my card. “Ah,” he said. “The Teamster.”

“Yes, the Teamster,” I said in the same ominous drawl. If Persephone had been there she would have slapped me upside the head. She always had a soft spot for old people who weren’t her father. Now that guy was a tool. And not the big kind.

“The Teamster is a driving external force that keeps the subject going, no matter what,” the blind man said. “This force can be physical or mental, as a person who exhorts others to continue on when they have no more strength to give. The force can be for good or ill but cannot be ignored. The half-orc depicted is leading a life of constant toil, but for their own betterment.”

His words filled me with goosebumps. Yet, before I could ask for clarification, Gregor shuffled forward. He thumped his chest a few times, trying to get some small coughs out, before asking, “Will I overcome this strange sickness?”

For that he got a card. This one the old man called the Juggler. “This card represents fate, the gods, or those who play with the lives and destinies of others. If this titanic Juggler can keep up his rhythm, he will achieve his goals.”

“I will keep up my rhythm!” Gregor declared, stumbling a bit. Poor kid was losing it.

“Okay then, guys-” I began but before I could go any further, the blind man snatched the three cards back and reinserted them into the deck. He then began shuffling the deck. Cutting it in half, shuffling each half, and then mixing them together. Rinse, repeat. All with one hand. He then spewed seven cards out onto the table. They aligned themselves into a sort of H. “The past,” he said, referring to the first vertical line of cards. “Present.” He pointed at the card in the center. “The future.” He pointed to the last three cards. One by one he began to flip them over, starting with those representing past.

“Empty throne, inverted,” he said, “has a sense of loss that is palpable. The ghost signifies that those who are gone will always be with us. They taught us important lessons, if only we choose to listen. This card can bring information from a far-off or ancient source. If misaligned, the ghosts of the past are restless, and might require effort to set at peace.

“The Joke, also inverted: shows a terror that must be overcome—but not by physical means. This monster can only be defeated by trickery or artifice. This card can represent the value of humor in finding the way past a difficult person or task. When misaligned, it often signals that the joke will be on you.” Honestly when isn’t the joke on me?

“The Paladin. The Paladin (lawful good, Strength) symbolizes standing strong in the face of adversity. The Paladin does not back down under any circumstances. This card usually indicates the need to stay the course or do what one knows is right, even if it takes a heavy toll.”

He moved on to the center. “The teamster. Same as before. But the fact that it shows up here, as well as in your own personal hand, is significant, boy.”

“He really must be blind,” the Dwarf whispered to me. “Can’t tell that you’re a girl.”

I bit my tongue and let the old man continue. The next card was the Wanderer. “They are a collector. This centaur appreciates that which others regard as junk or trash. The Wanderer appears to those clever enough to find the true worth in something others ignore or treat as worthless.”

The last two were for the future. The first was, “The Cyclone: a force that tears through whatever it meets. This disaster does not come in the course of natural order but is one that comes from the plots of intelligent beings. The Cyclone signifies war, arson, or other plans that destroy everything they touch.” That honestly kind of summed up our group to a T.

The last was the Twin. At that the old man began to cackle. “This signals duality of purpose or identity. This doppelganger can also mean indecision, as a person or group wavers between very different options. It can also mean 23 divided loyalties abound. The card makes a harrower wary, as it can also mean the entire spread has a hidden or reversed meaning.”

I pointed at all the cards. “So all of this may or may not be utter crap?”

The geezer shrugged. “Possibly.”

“If I’d paid you for this, I’d be robbing my money back,” I told him dryly.

“Another?” the blind man asked. “This pattern may shed light on what you need to accomplish your goals.” I really didn’t want to. I was getting tired of this fortune telling stuff. But the Dwarf nodded his go ahead. The stranger swiped back the cards, did his shuffling trick, and shot out four cards onto the table.

One by one he began flipping. “The Owl: the eternal wisdom of the natural order. It is the harsh realism that causes a pack of wolves to cull the weak in the herd. It is tragic for the culled deer, but through such actions the herd grows stronger. The needle The Owl holds binds life together, but just as easily can pick that life apart.”

The Mountain Man: signifies an encounter with a physical power outside of one’s control. The giant could personify an authority, an army, an earthquake, or even a desperately needed rainstorm in a parched land. Acceding to the force might be wise, but surviving it is paramount.”

“The Carnival: the card of illusions and false dreams. This card can heighten the power of the arcane, but depending on such whimsical forces can be risky. For others, this card depicts imprudent plans or unrealistic ambitions”

“The Courtesan: the card of political intrigue. Her mask embodies the social niceties that must be followed. If it slips, negotiations can take an unexpected turn. The card can also indicate a woman of power who shapes events. How she is treated decides the outcome of the situation.”

Now even I can read the magic signs when they’re laid out literally in front of me. Without Lyriana we weren’t going to get s*#@ done. Sure, I’d been leaning on the kid, hoping for her to break this curse between me and the Dwarf, but she hadn’t looked so happy lately. What if she decided to flip us all off and go back to that alien planet she insisted she was from? Then who’d be screwed? One Terrance Emilio Guiser.

Oh, and probably the whole world too, I guess.

The old man retrieved his cards. I was about to walk away from the table when he said, “One more. For the goal you wish to accomplish after?”

Call me a sucker for a good con.

I turned around and waved for him to get it over with. Ringeirr snorted in disgust. My wave became a middle finger in his general direction. That made Gregor chuckle dryly, but then go a little green.

The man shot out the cards, this time into a T facing towards me. The first card was the Tyrant and just the name made my mouth go dry for some reason. “This card indicates a ruler who is a blight upon those ruled. The dragon might indicate a monarch, overseer, or head of a household. Whoever this person is, he does harm to those over whom he holds sway, whether he realizes it or not.” Dragon! Dragon! Dragon! If it isn’t f#*@ing goats, its motherf+*~ing dragons!

“The Foreign Trader is the card of spies and peddlers alike. Any who trade in information are subject to this card’s influence. A bargain made under this card’s auspice always concludes true, but the ramifications of the pact might be shocking for those who do not understand its implications.”

“The Theater: the card of true prophecy. The puppets act out a scene, just as the prophet acts out a scene in which she has no part. The prophet is the audience and the prophecy is the show. She has no influence on what she sees, and its importance is often not recognized until too late.”

The final three cards were in row. The old man flipped over the card to my right. “The Inquisitor accepts nothing save the truth. He represents immutable reality, that which cannot be fooled or swayed in any way. To attempt to go against this unchangeable object, person, or idea is to court disaster.”

Next was the opposite card to the left, “The Dance is a rich and delicate framework that, like the universe itself, requires everyone within it to abide by its rules, lest the entire construct collapse. It advises staying in perfect step, knowing your place in the greater good. Those who step out of the pattern do so at their peril. Misaligned, that pattern might be hypnotic, but not to the good of all.”

And finally the last card in between the Inquisitor and the Dance, “The Liar is love at its most treacherous. This is not the love that moves mountains, this is the love that rips the heart in two and causes lovers to leap to their deaths. This lamia can mean obsession, unrequited passion, or doomed love.”

My mouth was completely dry. Six cards. All basically saying, “Well, Terry, looks like you’re mighty f&&@ed, partner.”

With that the man retrieved all the cards. I thought that was the end of the charade, but he shot four more cards at the table. The Beating, the Paladin, the Wanderer, and the Mountain Man. The first overshot the table and landed at my feet. The Dwarf grabbed the other three and handed them back to the man, “Good trick,” he said.

I reached down retrieved my card. Yet when I looked back up, the blind man was gone.

“What?” I cried looking between the guys. Gregor was staring at the floor, clutching at his stomach, very much struggling to keep the rhythm in his stomach. Ringeirr was scanning the crowd, not paying attention. I turned to the Dwarf. “Where’d he go?!”

The Dwarf shrugged. “Away.”

I sighed, looked the card over, and pocketed it. It was only then that I realized there was music in the air. The blind man’s fortune telling had seemingly drowned out everything else. I glanced over to the stage. It was that (GOAT B#+$+!!!!) satyr lady from before at the Tower. Her singing was okay, though I had no clue what the lyrics actually were. The crowd was swaying to her song, most wearing dopey expressions.

“Any clue what she’s saying?” I asked the Dwarf.

He nodded. “Stuff about obeying the witches and the ramifications befalling those who don’t.”

“Ah,” I said. “Propaganda.”

Goat lady’s song seemed to be drawing to an end. Tugging Gregor by the sleeve, Ringeirr led us towards one of the exits. As soon as the show was over, we’d dash over and meet up with Lyriana-

That’s when a pair of guards began leading five hooded figures up on stage, all of varying sizes. One by one they were forced to their knees. After the last note of the song, goat lady gestured to them and called out, “I present to you all a real treat! Traitors! Those who dare go against our Queen, who think they can topple the rightful order!” She flicked a hand and one of the guards tore the bag off the first traitor in line. It was an old man. Weak and frail and face covered in bruises. The second guard unsheathed his sword and brought it up as the old man sobbed quietly. “NOW SEE HOW TRAITORS ARE REWARDED!”

“Terry,” Ringeirr said, but I shook my head. This wasn’t our fight.

And because of that, the old man’s head went rolling.

The next person in line had their hood ripped off. It was a girl. Teenage by the looks of her. She immediately started screaming for the crowed to help her, for her parents, for anybody in the world.

Again I shook my head.

And because of that she died.

The third hood was ripped off.

A little girl, little more than a toddler.

I don’t remember grabbing my gun, or pulling the trigger. Only the boom it made and the look of surprise on the goat b!+$# when a bullet tore open her shoulder. “F%~!!” I roared as the audience screamed and began bolting towards the exits. The guards monitoring said exits began rushing us, as the goat lady pointed in our direction with a bloody hand. I mean, wow. People sure are quick to accuse little girls holding magic rifles of attempted murder now a days.

“Guys!” I called, but they were already on the move. Despite his illness, Gregor did that teleportation-thing he tends to do, and popped up behind goat lady, two guards, and what looked like a very ugly priest. The flame sword ignited in the goat lady’s hand. She swung it at Gregor.

The kid sidestepped the sword as if it was no big thing and drove his fist across her face until the back of her head smashed into the stage. Goat lady went to sleep. Gregor gazed down at her, an epic retort on the tip of his tongue. Instead he just vomited all over her pretty face.

You chose a good one, Sergei Bolslav, I thought. A guard rushed me from behind. I set his head ablaze using my gun’s magic bullets. The Dwarf was still rushing the stage, yet he turned back to help Ringeirr, who was struggling with two guards. He grabbed one by the collar and turned him into a human Popsicle.

The guards, either out of fear of the monk or because of the smell of vomit, hesitated to attack Gregor. The priest did no such thing. He pulled out a knife and slashed Gregor across the shoulder. Then, I s*&! you not, leapt forward and tried to bite him. This time Gregor managed to drunkenly dodge. I supplied him cover, taking out the guards on stage and then the priest. While I was doing that, the Dwarf and Ringeirr finished off the last guard in the park. With that, we were left alone with corpses, traitors, and an unconscious goat fairy.

“Dirty slave,” I called over to Ringeirr, “check on the hostages.” He glowered at me but did as he was told. Gun in hand, eye twitching, I started to walk over to the unconscious goat lady-

Only for my path to be blocked by the Dwarf. He stood over her. The most somber expression on his face. You gotta be kidding me, I thought. But instead of showing any signs of affection or mercy, the Dwarf brought up his axe.

“That girl died on your orders,” he said, voice dark and shaking with fury. Burin Frostfist hesitated only a second longer before bringing his axe down across her face, spitting it into two pulpy halves.

“Woah,” I said. Nothing else I really could say.

“Hey, look who I found!” I turned. Ringeirr was holding a very grumpy and battered looking Morton by the scruff of his neck. The other hostages were quickly making their way out of the park, seeking any form of sanctuary. Gregor walked over to Morton. They minced words, and then Gregor punched Mort across the brow, knocking him out. I raised an eyebrow but didn’t ask questions. Instead I went over to the goat lady’s corpse, allowing myself a smile.

After I was done with her, said corpse hung from a nearby tree. A sign reading, “COURTESY OF THE NEW BLACK RIDERS” hung around her bloody neck. I may have smacked her around with the butt of my gun a few times just to let off some steam. But after that me and the guys (Gregor and Ringeirr hauling an unconscious Morton) left the park and made way to a safe house underground. It was an odd sewer bunker. Not exactly homey, but out of the public eye. Which was good. A lot of people had seen me shoot the fairy. I didn’t doubt we’d be on the local radar.

After a few good slaps, Morton came to. “Wha?”

I waved by the far wall. “Hey, Morty.”

He blinked, “Who are you?” He turned to Ringeirr, and then scowled at Gregor. “You punched me.”

Gregor shrugged. “I don’t trust you.”

“Why?”

“Because the last you tried to kill us.”

“…What?”

“Never mind that,” I snapped. “Okay, if you’re the real dead, then we’ve got a job for you. We need papers. Now.” He blinked, started to refuse. But I pulled out my gun and cocked back the hammer. “It’s been a long night. I will pump you full of bullets that will burn you from the inside out.”

He licked his lips. “Do…Do you have a pen and paper?”

Ringeirr found the necessary supplies in the bunker. Morton informed us of our new identities. Gregor and I would both be Stilyagi while the Dwarf would be a merchant. After that, it was time for a makeover. The Dwarf literally dunked his beard in ink and gave me a thumb’s up. I humored him and gave him a thumb back. Gregor went back to his green robes. He looked better but still tired. The silver in his arms was dying down, but still present. While he and the Dwarf took a nap and Ringeirr babysat Morton, I sat by myself, looking into a mirror.

It’s been three years since the Farm. Three years trapped inside my daughter’s body. Beyond the odd cut or bruise, I’ve tried not to alter it at all. I have no right. It will always be her body. Terry Guiser is a ghost. And after I kill Typhon and his stupid dragon, I’ll gladly see my way out and into hell. But, if there’s one saving grace, it’s that whenever I look in the mirror, I can see my Emily smile. Even if I’m one big fake, that smile and the hope that maybe, just maybe I can bring her back keeps me going.

A tear fell across the mirror. I shook my head and wiped the tears away. “Sentimental idiot,” I sighed. “Too much heart, not enough steel, Guiser. That’s what Pop always said.” I reached over and grabbed the blonde hair dye Ringeirr had fond. I’d played the bard before, scamming wandering heroes and smugglers out of their gold and leaving them for dead, but this would be my first time going blonde. I sighed, said, “I’m sorry, Em,” and went to work, cutting and dying my daughter’s hair.

Morton gave each of us our papers in the morning. He refused to leave the safety of the bunker. That was fine by me. He’d done his job. Let the crazy loon fester in his nest of craziness. It was early, so the streets weren’t crowded as we made our way through the city. No one gave us any side looks (except for those wondering what the hell was wrong with the Dwarf’s beard) and I hadn’t really expected them to. After the debacle of the night prior, everyone would be expecting the “terrorists” to be in hiding. Not wandering the streets, dressed like clowns.

“You look pretty,” Gregor said to me.

“And you don’t look half-dead,” I told him.

He flexed his wrists his fists lit up metallic silver. “Keep the rhythm,” he said.

I laughed at that. But that laugh was cut short when we turned a corner and spotted two mirror men standing towards the end of the road. We approached and one held out its hand while the other held its sword to the side. One by one we turned over our papers. I stared up at the mirror man with the sword, pretending to admire my reflection. Honestly my hair hadn’t come out nearly as good as I’d hoped. I’m a mercenary, not a hairstylist!

I barely dodged the sword strike. The mirror man with our papers tossed them to the side and pointed an accusing finger. “You had one job, Morton,” I hissed. And I don’t know if it was me or the weapon reacting to my frustration and anger, but as I pulled out my gun a surge of energy rippled through it. I shot at the mirror man holding the sword, who was swinging at the Dwarf.

BOOM.

The street was instantly decorated with pieces of mirror man. While Gregor struck the other one down, I stared at my gun. “Damn. I’m a machine of death.”

We didn’t waste time. Retrieving our probably useless papers, we booked it to where Lyriana had told the Dwarf we’d meet up. It was type of bath house. An honest –to-God bath would be nice. Yet made way past them and down to a series of hidden rooms and passageways beneath. One by one we entered what looked an office. Standing by her desk, overseeing what looked like a map of the city, stood a woman. Her eyes flickered upwards and then widened in disbelief at our current state. “So…I assume you all are the ones who bloodied up the park?”

“That’s us,” the Dwarf said happily. “I’m Burin.”

“Hello, Burin. I am Solveig. Leader of the resistance.”

He frowned. “Who are you resisting?”

She looked at him as if it were obvious. “The witches and their winter guard obviously.”

“Oh,” he said. “That’s good then because we kill witches.”

I scanned the map. A miniature doodle of a tower was circled in blood red, with the outer edge depicting what looked like a forest. Yet there were arrows traveling from it and moving inward. “What’s all this?” I asked.

Solveig hesitated, as if it were a bad idea to divulge top secret information to a random monk with glowing hands, ink-stained dwarf, and dead-eyed twelve-year old. But finally she said, looking as if she were desperate. “Things are bad in the city. I actually could use your help. It will probably be dangerous. You’ll be lucky to survive. If you do, the witches will torture you to insanity.” She looked at each of us one by one. “Are you willing to take the risk?”

"That depends." I looked at her, took a deep breath, and asked the one and only question that truly matters: “Have you ever been, are now, or plan on ever being a goat?”


Getting the Band Back Together

Spoiler:
There were two things that really concerned me immediately. First, Gregor’s weird reaction to the nanites. Cortana had Daddy’s notes, but he only speculated that something like this might potentially happen. He called it “Nanite Symbiosis”, and suggested that might would affect about one in five hundred thousand people injected with nanites. If he was right, there was little real danger. The nanites had simply become part of Gregor’s body.

The second was Terry’s hair. Whatever she’d used to bleach her hair had done serious damage. Her hair was beyond brittle and she had nothing but split ends. Thankfully, Cortana had an actual solution for that. I had the VI create a bottle of restorative shampoo and conditioner. Since we were in – well, under – a bath house, she could deal with it before bed.

Burin also had an issue with his hair, but his issue was a bit different. He’d used basic ink – squid ink, maybe? – to dye his hair and beard. And it was apparently not sweat proof. The poor dwarf’s hair and beard dripped black gunk. He wanted to keep the look as part of his disguise, but he needed something better. And again, Cortana had a solution. He could easily clean the ink out of his hair with magic then dye it with a proper hair dye.

After the others had dealt with their problems – even Gregor was looking like he had the nanites under control – we met to discuss the next step in our plan. Also, so I could formally introduce everyone to Greta. “Okay,” I said. “So… funny story. I apparently ran off and got married. Sort of. I think. I’m still not sure how official the whole thing is.”

“All that matters is how it feels in our hearts,” Greta said. I think she was just teasing me. Probably.

Terry seemed wary of the woman, but they seemed to come to an understanding to be cordial, if not necessarily friendly. Burin and Gregor said little, but genuinely seemed fine with her. And she seemed to like them well enough. So that hurdle had been comfortably passed.

Terry took time to tell me of the troubles they went through and was giving me a look like I had known how bad things would be for them and had left on purpose to avoid all trouble. I countered by telling her that we’d had to fight a White Witch and a couple trolls. In the end, we agreed to disagree and get to work.

The woman in charge of the Heralds of Summer’s Return had suggested to them that if we killed a dragon by the name of Logrivich that served Elvanna, we could use that as a symbol that the White Witches could be stood up to. That would apparently cause the remnants of the Iron Guard to revolt, which would distract the Winter Guard and pull enough of them away from the Market Square where the hut was located to let us get in.

The dragon was located at the top of a clock tower and had a group of trolls serving him. Burin suggested we have Cortana make us a ton of gunpowder and we just bring down the whole clock tower on his head. Terry was arguing for fighting the dragon directly, and was once more trying to get Gregor on her side.

Honestly, I was fine with either, as long as we were sure we could bring down the tower without hurting any innocents. My only quibble with the plan was that gunpowder wasn’t a terribly good option. Not when Cortana could make something much lighter and more efficient. After all, plastic explosives had worked for Daddy, so no reason I couldn’t use them here and there.

Solveig didn’t have time to talk with us that night, so we told one of her acolytes we’d meet with her in the morning and retired to our rooms – the place was designed to house escaped slaves until they could be smuggled out of the city – to get some rest.

I was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of Burin crying out. I got up, leaving Greta in bed, and went to see what was going on. In the hallway, I bumped into Terry, who was standing outside his door with a pillow, looking like she was debating whether it was worth the risk that something bad might happen to her if she smothered him. Upon seeing me, she tried to hide the pillow. “Can we talk for a moment?” she asked.

“Sure. But let me check on Burin first.”

The poor dwarf was shaking in his sleep, tossing and turning in agony. I woke him and saw what was bothering him. He had numerous patches of white scales on the exposed parts of his skin. Not only that, but his breath was coming out in a cold mist. “What’s going on?” Terry asked from the doorway.

“Part of the curse of the Burin,” the dwarf replied. “I’ll be fine. Thanks for checking on me.”

“Cortana can give you something for the pain and swelling,” I told him.

“I may ask her about that, thanks.”

Back in the hallway, Terry gave me a dubious look. “What’s really wrong with him?”

“From the looks of it, he seems to have some dragon blood in his ancestry. It’s the same kind of thing you see in some sorcerers. At least, that’s what I learned from studying. Never seen it before, though. So, what did you want to talk to me about?”

“While you were gone, I came to a realization. What with everything that happened, and that strange one armed guy with the Harrow cards and everything… well, I’ve put too much pressure on you. No one needs to be the leader. But despite that, even if I have no right to demand that you lead us, we still need you with us. We can just all do our things and it’ll work out. As long as we’re all here.” She seemed sincere. “Well, maybe not Burin. Think we could trade him for a puppy?”

I laughed and tousled her hair, then went back to bed.

The next morning, I finally got to meet Solveig. After I introduced myself, she pulled me aside. “Please, if I may ask a question?”

“Sure.”

“Did I do something wrong?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I just cannot figure why little girl would ask if I was a goat in disguise.”

I tried desperately, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t contain the laughter. It took me nearly a minute to get under control again. “Sorry, she’s had some bad experiences with goats recently, and is a little wary at this point.”

“I… see. Thank you. I was worried I had caused offense.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re not a forlarren, so it’ll be fine.” I still couldn’t believe that Burin of all people had executed the unconscious Mierul. Not all that surprised that Terry had strung her corpse from a tree, though.

I joined the others and we began discussing the topic at hand. “So, have you given thought to my suggestion?” Solveig asked us.

“Yes,” Burin said. “We’re pretty sure we can sneak in and plant explosives to bring down the clock tower easily.”

“That… wasn’t what I had in mind,” she objected.

“Safer than fighting a dragon.” He seemed nervous about doing that. “So we have to blow up the tower.”

“The tower currently houses a number of children who have been kidnapped.”

“Guys,” Burin said seriously. “We can’t blow up the tower.”

“But you’ll kill the dragon?”

“Absolutely!” Terry said, surprisingly excited.

Gregor flexed his fist, causing a silver liquid – actually nanites – to form over his hand. “Yes, a dragon sounds like fun.”

I shrugged. “If that’s what it’ll take to get us to the hut, then we pretty much have to. Glad we can save some kids along the way.”

“It’s… not just kids,” Solveig said.

“Oh?”

“They’ve also kidnapped a woman, an opera singer. Her name is Bella Belvorica.”

“Why would they kidnap this woman?” Gregor asked.

“I don’t think they plan to eat her, not like the kids.” It was an obvious dodge, but I didn’t feel like prying.

“They’re eating the kids?!” Terry gasped.

“Yes.” I blanched at her confirmation. I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the whole thing with the witch’s corpse the previous day. But it still bothered me.

“How do we let you know when we’ve done it?” Terry asked.

“Take this,” Solveig replied, handing Burin some fireworks. “Shoot one into the sky when it’s dead.”

“It will take several hours for the Iron Guard to really get moving,” Greta said. “If you think you can handle the dragon, I’ll go get in touch with a few friends of mine who were with the Guard and see if I can get them prepared so we can get that down to an hour or so.”

Suddenly, Burin set off one of the fireworks. The screeching sound and pop hurt my ears. “Sorry!” he shouted. “I was trying see how it worked!”

“Sounds good,” I said, I said to my lover once the ringing in my ears had dulled. “On the way, do you think you could ask the Rangers to arrange a distraction for us? Just something to thin out the Winter Guard on this side of the city so we can get to the clock tower without attracting notice.”

“I’ll stop by there first. Be safe.” She kissed me goodbye. “I’ll come back here afterwards.”

“See you soon.”

We came up with a plan to deal with the dragon’s wings so it couldn’t escape, then put Cortana to work prepping what we needed. We then headed to the roof of the bathhouse to watch for signs that it was time to move.

It didn’t take long for a plume of smoke to appear on the far side of the city. It wasn’t an elegant solution, but given the time we had, it would do. I just hoped it wouldn’t do too much damage. It was the citizenry who would suffer if it did.

In the courtyard of the tower was a pair of statues of White Witches, the former queen Betyrina and her daughter Zivia. They were famous for their work on constructs and clockworks, so it was likely they were the ones who had built the tower.

Terry walked over and tried striking one of the statues with the butt of her gun. It bounced off harmlessly. “It looked at me funny,” she said in answer to our questioning looks.

Had she seen something I’d missed? I had been mentally working out a new magical formula while we were walking, so it was possible I hadn’t been paying attention. Well, better safe than sorry. I unleashed a volley of force bolts at the statue. They hit and were absorbed.

That wasn’t a good sign.

“Terry! Get away from there!” I hissed as I realized what they were. They were caryatid columns, magical constructs armed with real weapons. They’re like a golem’s cheaper, more expendable cousin. And I had nothing prepared that could hurt them.

Gregor jumped into action and destroyed the first statue before it could even move. He looked like he was unsure as to whether it was even animated. Meanwhile, Burin sauntered over to the other. It animated and attacked him. He retaliated, but his axe did little against the solid stone. Gregor finished it off before it could do much, though.

We made our way inside, carefully shutting the door behind us. Safely inside, the thick walls and the sound of the clock tower would mask any noise we made. Which meant Terry was safe to use her gun again.

She almost had an immediate chance when the door to the left opened. “Don’t move!” she shouted, pointing her gun at the man who walked out, carrying some kind of strange cage. In the cage was a pair of large, still beating hearts, suspended by chains in the center of fields of glowing spikes. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected they were troll hearts. I also suspected the spikes were there to keep the living hearts from regenerating entire trolls.

“A child with a gun?” the man asked, his voice was mild mannered and quite respectful. “Truly, this is a strange land.”

“No sudden movements!” she said.

“Of course. But I cannot tarry forever. I have work to continue.” The man was around Gregor’s height and appeared to be at least part Varisian, perhaps also part Chelish. I couldn’t see his hair due to the hood of his cloak, so I was basing my guess on the features of his face.

I also noticed something that really stuck out. Something that took me far longer to notice than it should have. “Are those tentacles coming out of your arm?” I asked.

“My, yes. As to how they came to be there, well that is an interesting story. One I do not have the time for…”

“Are you Geo?!” I asked.

“Do you know this guy?” Terry asked.

“Not personally. But my father told me about him.”

He set down the cage and approached me. He walked around me and examined me as he spoke. “Lenntu never told me he had a… no, that’s not it. Your features aren’t right for him. But you have the right height…” He reached out with a tentacle, stroking my jaw. Terry flinched at seeing that, but it didn’t really bother me. “Yes, and you have the right bone structure. The color of your skin, the size of your pores, the spacing of your eyes… Yes, yes! Your parents are Kyle and Aurora!”

I nodded. “Yes, excellent deduction.”

“Your eyes and hair. The color of them is fake. His work?”

“Tech from home,” I confirmed.

“There’s something more in your eyes. Like a dark, vast void.” Suddenly he twitched. His expression changed, as did even his eyes. There was something in them that hadn’t been there before, a dark fascination. “And you travel in such interesting company!” His voice had changed. He had become Jack, the alternate personality my parents had told me about.

Daddy had given him that name, after Jack the Ripper. If Daddy was to be believed, Jack once screwed a succubus to death. Which might tell you all you need to know about how insanely dangerous he could be.

“The dwarf holds something within, something dark that is trying to claw its way out, held in place only by wards…I don’t see them. Oh my, you had them carved on your organs! Oh, this fiend must be terrible! I would love to get a look at him. Alas, it would take too long to undo the wards and take a peek.”

Burin looked horrified. His hands gripped tight on the handle of his axe. I shook my head, telling him not to try anything. If Jack attacked us, we’d all die. No sense trying to provoke him.

Jack looked at Gregor. “Your veins keep flashing, just beneath the skin, with a silver-grey sheen. Just what is that, I wonder. Hrm…is that an injection mark? Yes! And the faint scent of – oh, what was the word he used?! – antiseptic! That’s it! This was HIS handiwork?” He asked the last while looking at me.

“An abnormal reaction to a medical device,” I said.

“Yes, yes! Oh my, each of you more fascinating than the last!” he chuckled, a terrible and sinister sound.

He then turned and approached Terry. She aimed the gun at his face. “If you even think about touching me with one of those things, I will blow your head clear off!”

He stopped and stared at her, then began laughing. “You, I like! I accept your challenge. No touching. Let us see what I can see from your eyes, then.” He peered into her eyes for a moment. “Oh my! And no one else has seen it?!” His laughter became uproarious. It sent a chill down my spine.

I understand now why Daddy sometimes still has nightmares about him. I mean, he seemed nice enough, but there was something sinister about him.

“For the entertainment you’ve given me, let me give you something as well,” he told Terry. He reached into his bag and drew out four vials of blue liquid and tossed them to her. “Be careful that you don’t poison yourself now. Well, I have much work to do, so no time to examine you all more thoroughly. A god’s mind won’t separate itself, after all,” he said, picking up his cage.

“You wouldn’t be interested in helping us slay a dragon, Mister Geo, would you?” Burin asked.

“What? You mean that little guy up there?” Jack pointed towards the ceiling. “No, not very interesting. Not very interesting at all! But you all have fun!” His face shifted again. “Give my regards to your parents,” Geo said to me as opened the door to the outside.

His skin – and his clothing, somehow – shifted colors like a chameleon as he stepped out into the lightly falling snow.

We decided to check out the room that Geo had come from. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. The room – which looked like a barracks – was covered in blood. But the trolls’ remaining organs were piled neatly, organized in some fashion I didn’t care to try to decipher. Their bones were similarly piled, though it appeared those were organized by size.

The trolls’ skins were hanging from the ceiling. There wasn’t a single drop of blood on either, and they had both been removed so neatly that they looked like artificial troll costumes. Not just blood, but nothing clung to them aside from hair in the proper areas. All fat was gone, they were literally nothing more than skin.

So, of course, Gregor indicated that he was going to take them. But first, there was another door. It led to a room with a table and a couple of trolls inside who were eating, blissfully unaware of the carnage that was mere feet away from them.

Terry shot them both before they could react. Her aim was true and both trolls not only died, but exploded from the perfectly aimed bullets. When she was done, the room was as bloody as the room behind us. I think one of them had just long enough to spot the hung skins behind us before hot lead tore that thought from his mind.

We searched for anything useful while Gregor pulled down the skins. The usual stuff was there, but there was something very interesting in the bottom of one footlocker.

You see, someone had put together an entire book of raunchy art involving the White Witch nobility of Irrisen. And it was AMAZING. I’ve seen a lot of porn in my life, but I’ve never seen lewd drawings of this quality before.

I used my phone to scan the book while the others finished looting. I was putting this on the internet when I got home. And maybe we could print a bunch of copies of the book as a gift for the Heralds of Summer’s Return to spread around to tweak the noses of the White Witches.

Across the entry foyer from the door we’d entered was another door. We opened that and spotted a troll sharpening his battle axe. A troll hound – hideous creatures, those – was at his feet, gnawing at a bone whose origin I REALLY didn’t want to investigate.

“Are you friend or foe?” Burin asked. By God, that dwarf was an innocent. The troll’s dog was gnawing on what was probably a human femur, yet he still asks if the troll might be friendly.

The troll banged on the wall next to him. “Bonepick! Get out here! We’re under attack!”

Terry took aim and fired three rounds in an extremely tight grouping at lightning speed. Much faster than I thought was possible with a bolt-action rifle. I’d have to talk to Cortana to see if it’d be possible to alter the gun for use with a multi-round clip or whatever, because I was sure that there was a limit to how fast she could fire like that.

Still, all three bullets hit within about a second of each other. The effect was another spectacular explosion out of the troll’s back, carrying singed chunks of the troll’s heart with the bullets. “I AM A MACHINE OF DEATH!” Terry roared as the troll’s corpse fell to the ground.

Burin and Gregor intercepted the hound. Gregor stomped on its head and the hound died with a disgusting crunch, spraying blood and brains everywhere. He and Burin were particularly covered. Gregor looked at his kill and flexed.

“That was pretty okay,” Terry commented. “But mine was better.”

The door on the wall the troll had pounded flew open and a white-furred bugbear stormed out. “What are you yelling about now, Rorgurt?” he shouted.

It only took him about three seconds to realize how screwed he was. But it was two seconds too long. Before he could react, he was riddled with bullets, took a gaping axe wound and his skull was caved in by flurrying fists.

I’m not entirely sure who landed the killing blow, but I know it wasn’t me. I didn’t even bother wasting a spell on him. It would have been ridiculous overkill and I needed to save up for the dragon.

From his vantage point, Burin spotted something and wandered into the side room. “Hey there,” I heard him say. “Don’t worry, we’re not here to eat you or anything.”

Oh God. He’d found the kids. And he was inadvertently terrifying them.

I glanced at Terry and she was too busy doing a victory dance of some kind to notice, so I moved quickly to intervene. Gregor, still covered in blood and gore, also moved in. The sight of him didn’t help. One of the kids threw a bag of marbles at him, screaming for him to leave them alone.

I walked in, and the children panicked more. “WOLF!” they screamed, nine voices in unison. Oh, right.

“I’m not a wolf,” I said. “I’m just pretending to be one so I can sneak through the town without being bothered. We’re here to rescue you.”

“I don’t believe you. You look like a wolf in people form,” one of the children, the oldest looking boy, said.

I heard the crunch of someone biting into something, and turned to see Terry in the doorway, eating an apple. I gave her a look. “What? I killed a bunch of trolls, so I get an apple.” It’s hard to argue with that logic.

The children eyed the new arrival warily. They also looked like they were focusing intently on the fruit. They looked half-starved. “Burin,” I said softly.

“I was thinking the same thing,” he whispered back, nodding as he began searching through his pack for some food.

“You don’t have to worry about them,” Terry said, approaching the cages with a key in hand. She must have grabbed it off of one of the enemies we’d just killed. “They’re mostly okay. Now stand back and we’ll get you out of there. We’ll get you something to eat and then, after we’ve killed the dragon, we’ll find someone who can help you find either your parents or someone else who can take care of you.”

“You’re going to kill the dragon?!” one of the boys said. “How?”

“I’m a machine of death,” Terry said, patting the rifle slung over her shoulder.

The kids oohed and aahed over Terry as she let them out. It was adorable. Then Burin brought out some food. It was mostly meat and root vegetables from that stash in the cave by the portal that Cortana had turned into flavored food paste, but it would fill their bellies and was tastier than it looked. We did have to show them how to open and eat them, though.

Once the kids had calmed down – and our male companions were clean thanks to a bit of magic – Burin spoke up. “Excuse me, kids, but we’re also looking for an opera singer. Have you heard any singing while you’ve been here?”

“You must mean the princess,” one of the children said.

“The princess?” I asked.

“She’s beautiful,” another kid – Matthew, the eldest and apparent leader of the children – said. “She sings like an angel. When she’s not crying, that is.”

There was another door off the main room. While we were talking and Gregor was skinning, Terry opened it. She was immediately ambushed by a female troll. She reacted quickly and fired a shot as the troll swung her axe.

She missed, but the shot startled the troll enough that she also missed. Gregor and Burin rushed over while I put myself in the doorway between danger and the children. But it was only the one troll and once more our people made quick work of it.

“You really can kill the dragon!” one of the kids said, amazed at our terrible efficiency.

“You bet we can,” I said, giving her a grin and snapping my fingers, causing electricity to spark between them. The kids cheered. “We’re going to need to leave you here while we work.”

“We can block the door while you’re gone,” one of the boys said.

“You are very small,” Gregor said. “Will never be able to pile up enough to properly block door. Use this.” He produced several small, magical nails. Behind me, I heard Burin smash a mirror, though I paid it little mind. We knew that it was dangerous to leave the witches a way to spy on us unnecessarily.

“What are they?” Matthew asked, taking the nails.

“Magic,” the fighter said. “Push at an angle through door and into floor once we are gone. Only person who placed nail can remove easily. Will hold door against all but strongest attacks. If you have to open door, use different nail to re-close.”

“Just use one for now,” I said. “And only open the door for one of us or for the princess. If we send her down to you, she’ll sing to let you know it’s her.”

We went up the stairs and took the door to our right. Inside was what appeared to be a kitchen. A witch’s kitchen. Which is probably why the stove came to life and bit Burin. I identified it as a haunted stove and warned the others.

Terry wasn’t amused. “A moving stove? That’s stupid.”

“It’s got a ghost in it.”

“Ooh, ghost stove,” she said, rolling her eyes and taking a shot. “At least it bit Burin,” I heard her grumble. Gregor struck the stove with a mighty blow and I altered my fire ray spell to hit the stove with rays of freezing cold.

After several hits, it stopped moving and Burin tore himself away. “I fear that I’m starting to get used to this,” the dwarf said to me.

“We’ll have to look into a magic item to help prevent it,” I told him.

As I looked around, Terry and Gregor were arguing over who had done more damage to the stove. “You only dented it!” Terry said. “I put a hole through it.”

“Is tiny hole and very big dent!” Gregor protested.

I found a bunch of spices in the kitchen, which I took as a gift for Greta. When I’d finished gathering all the jars, I realized that the two had moved on to another topic of conversation. “You can have cauldron. Burin says is magic.”

“You just want me to carry it,” Terry argued. “You have a magic bag. Just put it in there.”

Gregor began pulling out skin after skin from his bag. It continued for a comical amount of time. When he was done, there was a pile of furs and skins as tall as Terry. “And where, do you think, I have room for such a thing?”

“It’s not very valuable to us,” Burin told me. “Can you set up the box so I can break it down so we can move on?”

“Yeah, it’ll take a few minutes.”

“I think we have at least that long before they finish arguing.”

After the cauldron was broken down for its magical value, we headed across the hallway and found ourselves in what can only be described as a “creepy grandma’s sitting room”. There were six dolls on shelves around the room. I know this because Terry counted them out loud and kept pointing her gun at them, certain that she’d see them move.

There were three doors in the room. Terry opened the one across the room first, carefully watching for troll ambush. Inside, she found a room with a bathing tub. Inside floated a wooden duck, which she tried to stealthily put in her case. I pretended not to notice.

The second door we tried was locked, so Burin knocked. “Hello!”

“Hello, dearie,” an elderly woman said from within.

“We’re here to kill the dragon. Are you a friend or foe?”

“I’m simply an old woman,” she said.

“We need to know if it’s safe to leave you here.”

They went on like this for over a minute before I decided to intervene. “Excuse me, ma’am, but do you eat children?”

“No, dear. I just cook them.”

“Oh,” Burin said. “Sorry, but we’re going to have to kill you.”

“You can try, dearie,” the woman said. The door swung open and she unleashed a spell. Supernatural fear washed over me.

Logically, I knew it was nothing but a magical effect. I knew that there was nothing that could harm me from it. But logic had nothing to do with it. I had to flee. I couldn’t stop myself, no matter how I tried.

As I hauled ass down the stairs, I heard a scream, even downstairs and even over the sound of the clock tower’s inner gears. But I kept running. I couldn’t stop. Not for almost half a minute of dead sprinting. I was back out in the outer courtyard before I managed to stop.

I made my way back up as quickly as I could. The first thing I saw was Terry. She was shaking, terrified, but there was a bunch of debris all around her. “What happened?” I asked her.

“…bit… me,” she said through heavy breathing, indicating the debris. “But… machine… of death.”

“Are you okay?”

“Tired. So very tired.”

“The nanites can probably fix that,” I pointed out.

“Right.”

I went to check on Gregor and Burin. The old witch was dead. “What happened?” I asked.

“Gregor just strolled over and hit her over the head,” Burin said. “It knocked her out in one blow!” She wasn’t the only thing that had gone down in one blow. It looked like Burin had smashed another mirror.

Gregor shrugged. “Maybe she is witch, but still is very old woman.” It sounded like the fight was pretty anti-climactic. If I was going to miss something, glad it was that. Though I’m sure it would have been funny to watch.

We used a key found on the old woman and opened the final door. Inside was a child, half-starved and shivering in fear. “Hey there,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’re here to help you.”

“Granny Nan will hurt you if she sees you here!” the child whispered.

“Old woman?” Gregor asked. “Is dead. Went down like ton of bricks.”

“What about her pet ghost?”

“Machine of death,” Terry said.

“What?” the girl asked.

“Terry means that she destroyed the ghost,” I clarified.

“So we’re really safe? I can go home?”

“Yes,” I said. “We still need to kill the dragon, but Matthew and the others are waiting downstairs. I’ll take you to them in a moment. Just give us a moment to rifle through the books here.” I handed her another food tube, one of the originals I’d brought from home. “Have a small snack while you wait. It’s pumpkin pie flavored.”

I grabbed another strange book – titled “The Mountains of Madness” – while Burin was looking at a book filled with illustrations of shadowy images. Suddenly he gasped. “What is it?” Terry asked.

“That’s my demon!” he said. Suddenly he grabbed his sides and screamed in pain. “It’s trying to come out! Oh gods!”

The dwarf’s shadow opened its eyes, glowing red orbs. It swelled and became three dimensional, standing in the center of the room. “I will be FREE!” it roared, unleashing a burst of magical energy that washed over Terry and Gregor. I saw the terror on Gregor’s face – reminiscent of my own previous magical fear – as he cowered in the corner.

Burin swung at it with his axe. “Your evil won’t taint this world!” Despite the defiance in his voice, he whiffed his strike.

Shaking, Terry steadied herself and fired. The bullet wasn’t terribly effective. “It’s a shadow demon!” I said. “Use cold iron!” I then unleashed force bolts against the incorporeal form.

Burin struck it with an icy touch. Normally cold wouldn’t have done anything, but I could see glowing wards on his skin as the demon cried out in pain. “This is merely a fraction of my power!” it roared as it retaliated against the dwarf with its claws and fangs.

Terry fired again, scoring direct hits. I hit it with more force bolts. Burin struck again and the demon attacked him. Then Terry and I fired again, finishing it off as it charged at Terry. “Machine of death!” Terry shouted again.

“Sorry about that,” Burin said. “I don’t know how he did that.”

“Residual magic in the book?” I suggested.

“Perhaps. Thanks for helping me fight it.”

“No problem for the machine of death,” Terry said. She looked like she was about to give Gregor crap for his contribution, but he looked incredibly frustrated, so she wisely kept her mouth shut. Instead, she turned back to Burin. “Your demon’s kind of a dick.”

“No, he’s more of a shadow.” Damn literal-minded dwarves.

I escorted the even more traumatized child downstairs and left her with the others, then we all headed further upstairs, into the beginning of the tower’s gear works. The sound of the moving gears was fairly annoying at this point.

We had two options to proceed: A door or a ladder. So we opened the door first, using a key from the old witch. It opened with a bit of a squeak, like someone really needed to come oil the hinges.

“W-Who’s there?” a voice asked from within.

We peered in and saw a woman in fine but dirty and worn clothing looking back at us. Her eyes were red from crying. “Bella?” Terry asked.

“Y-Yes. Who are you?”

“Solveig sent us to rescue you.”

She broke down and began crying in relief as she hugged Terry. “I was so scared Logrivich was going to eat me!”

“All he’s going to eat now is a bullet,” Terry assured her before mouthing “Machine of Death” at me.

“Thank you,” the woman said. “All of you.”

“On the first floor you’ll find a barred door,” Burin said. Not sure if he’d meant to rhyme. “There are children behind it. They’ll open it if you sing to them. Just stay with them and we’ll come down to get you when we’re done up here.”

“I will.”

“Good. Oh, one more thing, before you go.”

“Yes?”

“Are you particularly fond of this mirror?” He was indicating a mirror on the wall.

“Not really,” she said, confused.

“Good,” the dwarf replied before smashing the mirror with his axe. Once the bewildered woman was gone, he cleared his throat. “I guess it’s time for us to go kill a dragon. Unless you want to just evacuate the kids and blow the place up?”

“He’d probably just fly off,” I said. “Besides, we’re already here.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll go first.”

Burin went first and I followed right behind. “Have you come to sing to me, little dwarf?” the dragon asked as soon as Burin topped the ladder.

“I’ve come to cleave you in twain!” Burin roared, using his deeper combat voice. He almost sounded like he was trying to hide his fear. As he charged the dragon, I saw his blue eyes begin to glow and the color faded from his hair.

I reached the top of the ladder and was not impressed by what I saw. The dragon, which was standing on a platform of ice just outside of a hole in the tower, was no bigger than a horse. Well, unless you count its wings, which had been flared out in an intimidating gesture. I weaved my spell, carefully adjusting it so that it would surround Burin but not touch him.

The massive explosion of flame, nearly forty feet in diameter, engulfed the dragon. It roared in pain at me. Burin’s eyebrows were lightly singed, but he remained otherwise untouched.

Terry climbed up and fired. “Insufferable child!” the dragon growled. “You dare injure me?”

Finally, Gregor reached the top. In his hands was our secret weapon: a giant weighted net made of steel wire. He tossed it and it flew open in the air, entangling the dragon’s wings. “Take that, ya big lizard!” Burin roared in triumph.

The dragon unleashed a cone of frost, filling the room in impenetrable fog. It didn’t even hurt me, so I responded with another fireball. I just had to hope that Burin was in the same place he was before I stopped being able to see him.

He was. The fire cleared away the fog. Terry unleashed a volley of shots, making the entangled dragon take a step back. “This cannot be!” the dragon roared in disbelief.

“Heh,” Gregor said, running forward and leaping off of Burin’s shoulder into the air. He landed on the dragon with a powerful kick between the wyrm’s shoulder blades, then flipped backwards onto the ground next to the dwarf. “The ice is cracking!” he told our comrade.

“I see it!” Burin shouted, growing large. He gave the dragon a terrible grin before stomping the ice. “Enjoy your fall!”

The ice shattered and the dragon plummeted. It tried to raise its wings, but the net only entangled it more with the struggle. I rushed forward, making it to the edge just in time to see the dragon bounce off the side of the tower and land on a spire of ice below, impaling it through the chest. It twitched once, then was dead.

“Machines of death!” Terry yelled in triumph at the sight of the dead dragon.

“That is going to ruin the skin,” Gregor said with a sigh. He drank down a potion we’d found earlier and walked right down the side of the building to skin our foe.

Burin set off the remaining rocket – on purpose, this time – sending an explosion of color into the air with a loud report. By the time we finished looting the dragon’s hoard, collected Bella and the children and made it out of the building, we could already hear the sounds of fighting through the city.

The Iron Guard’s revolution had begun. We would need to hurry and get the kids to Solveig, hopefully find Greta and make our way to the witch’s hut before anyone realized what our true goal was.


The Guards Must Be Crazy 3: Everyone’s a Little Bit Crazy

Spoiler:
As we made our way back to the shrine, Gregor was busy trying to decide what to do with the dragon’s skin. “Boots? Maybe. Or a new coat? Would look quite good. Gloves are another option. What do you think?” he asked all of us.

“A belt, maybe?” Burin suggested.

“Some armor?” Terry offered.

“Dragonskin stiletto pumps and a matching clutch so that b$%~% Becky who keeps flaunting the mink coat that her daddy bought her goes green with envy?” I suggested.

“I…do not understand almost anything you just said,” Gregor replied to me.

“Help me out here, Bella,” I said to the singer standing next to me carrying a sleepy child.

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure what pumps or a clutch are, but I believe that I understand the sentiment. Yes. If those would cause envy, then I believe this Becky deserves seeing you in them, from what you have said.”

I beamed at the confused fighter. “See?” I said, triumphant in my vindication.

Gregor frowned. “I do not know this Becky, but I will consider it.” I somehow managed to not giggle imagining the fighter in a pair of stiletto pumps.

Greta was waiting for us when we returned to the shrine. “The Iron Guard is focusing its efforts on capturing a weapons depot on the far side of the city. We should have little trouble getting to the market square, though I did hear that there might be a token guard force left behind.”

“That’s no problem for the machine of death,” Terry said.

Greta gave me a questioning look. “Don’t ask,” I whispered.

“So you really killed Logrivich?” she asked us instead.

“He was almost as big as the last dragon we fought,” Burin commented.

“You fought another dragon?” Greta asked me.

I shook my head. “Just him and the girl. It killed them. Or didn’t. We’re not entirely certain what exactly happened.”

“You have the weirdest friends, dear,” she replied. “So, shall we go recover that hut you need?”

“Sure,” I said. I turned to Bella. “The Milani acolytes can take you to Solveig and will make sure that the kids are taken care of.”

“Thank you for your help, all of you,” the singer told us. “May I give you something to thank you?” she asked.

“No reward is necessary,” Burin told her.

“That just makes it even more so,” Bella replied. “Please, if I may?” She cleared her throat and began to sing. I recognized it as a piece from an old Chelish opera that had recently become popular again amongst the nobility in Magnimar. It tells the tale of a young hero and a beautiful maiden and is among the very few operas from the era that has a happy ending.

Or at least, that’s what my parents told me. I don't speak that language.

When she was done, we thanked her for her beautiful song and headed out. Part of me hoped that one day someone would pen an opera about our exploits. Another part of me hoped that if they did, they glossed over a lot of things.

Things like the pair that was waiting for us at the watch post that had been set up next to the only entry way to the dome of thick trees and vines that was our destination. You see, the hut has this sort of security system. Wherever it sets up, it grows thick foliage around it to prevent the unwanted from approaching. This was normally supposed to happen in a forested area, where it wouldn’t look too out of place. But right now it was in the middle of the city’s market square.

So it looked really out of place. The two idiots on the makeshift watch-towers, however, were wearing the garb of the Winter Guard, so they fit.

Not so sure about the digeridoos they were holding, though. Or why they were holding them. “Oi!” one shouted to the other. “Don’t those folks coming our way look familiar?”

“Why I think you’re right, Steve!” Bill replied. “Shall we blow the digeridoos of alarm?”

“We might want to, before that wee murderous nipper over there pulls out her gun and shoots at us again. But why digeridoos, Bill?”

“I don’t know, Steve. I woulda just had us yell ‘Alarm!’ You would think that would save time, but they said to blow the digeridoos to wake the trolls, so digeridoos it is.”

“Oh for the love of…” I heard Terry say as she pulled out her gun. The two men began playing their digeridoos and the three trolls at the base of the towers began to stir. Terry’s shot struck the guard on the left – Steve – in the collarbone. He had pulled out his bow and was about to fire when her bullet struck. His arrow missed, but Bill managed to hit Terry in the shin. The two men then dropped prone, safe in the protection of the towers’ waist high walls.

“She shot me!” Steve shouted in indignation.

“Stay with me, buddy!” Bill shouted to his friend.

“I’ll be fine!” Steve shouted back, just before the fireball I’d launched into the air exploded directly above him. He had nowhere to go. There was no chance he survived it.

“STEVE! NO!” shouted Bill. “He was just two days from retirement!” He jumped up and began fleeing, somehow running over the dome of vines. “Don’t worry Steve! I’ll come back for you, I promise!” He loosed some kind of small bird, which Terry immediately shot.

Only the burning of the tower that held Steve’s corpse answered Bill’s promise.

Meanwhile, first Gregor, then Burin and finally Greta charged the trolls on the ground. I think Greta hesitated so she could watch me cast my spell, to be honest. I hope it’s the amazingness of my casting ability and not my carnage she was appreciating.

Greta’s and Gregor’s foes fell quickly, though Gregor’s was still twitching. “Go on, try to get up,” he taunted the regenerating troll. “See what happens.”

Meanwhile, Burin got bitten. The troll even latched on to the dwarf’s arm. “Get off me!” the poor dwarf shouted.

I was running low on spells and wanted to save magic in case I needed it inside the dome, so it wasn’t like I could help. I launched a small bolt of lightning using a cantrip. It didn’t do much, but it would help a little.

Terry considered Burin’s situation, knowing she could help him. Then she turned and shot Gregor’s downed foe. Three shots. Into a foe that wasn’t dangerous. While Burin was trying to extricate his arm from the mouth of a still moving troll.

I could see that Terry’s problems with Burin hadn’t diminished. We’d probably need to work on that sometime in the near future.

“Hey! I was still playing with that,” Gregor joked.

“Babe, can you help Burin?” I asked Greta.

“On it,” Greta said, hitting the troll with her acidic axe. The troll recoiled, then was struck by Gregor and fell.

“Thanks,” Burin told them.

Inside the dome was a strange, almost otherworldly sight. First of all, there was light, and a fair amount of it. In fact, it looked like twilight inside. The only difference is that the “sky” was a canopy of green and was light by thousands – maybe millions! – of bioluminescent worms, looking almost like a field of stars.

“The stars aren’t right,” I found myself mumbling absentmindedly.

“I found the bird!” Terry crowed excitedly. Curious, I walked over to where she was. At her feet was the broken remains of a silver raven, a magical item used to carry messages. Basically a magical carrier pigeon. Based on the bullet damage, that was likely the one that Bill had released earlier.

“Very nice,” I said. “It’s broken, but Cortana can repair it if you’re willing to pay for the repairs.”

“Any way to tell if it was carrying a message?”

“I think these can only be used to carry written messages, not spoken ones. So it doesn’t appear to be, though it did get scratched up as it fell through the canopy, so the message could have gotten snagged and torn off in the fall. And, of course, the arrival of the bird itself could be the message. That’s how I would have done it if I feared the message being intercepted.”

“That makes sense. Well, it’s mine now.”

On the other side of the clearing – for lack of a better word – was a swirling vortex of shadows. As soon as she noticed it, Terry turned and walked off down a side path. “Why do you always go off alone!” Gregor complained, following her.

Burin, meanwhile, moved to explore the vortex. Greta gave me a questioning look. “What do we do?” she asked.

“We try to take up a position such that we can keep an eye on both sets of people?”

Her brow furrowed. “Is this normal for you?”

“I don’t think you can use the word normal for anything we do.” I turned and called over to the dwarf. “Burin! What do you see?”

“Around the edges of the vortex, I think I see the hut. But we’re going to need to find a way to dispel the vortex to get to it.”

“Any thoughts on what the vortex is and how we destroy it?”

“It’s a portal of some kind into another plane that’s sucking reality into it. It has been created by a ritual of some kind, that much I’m sure of, but I can’t say what the ritual is. I also can’t be sure, but I think it’ll grow faster until it absorbs this entire area. As for stopping it, well, it appears to be powered by some external source or sources. If we shut those down, it should dissipate.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “We should get moving. Terry and Gregor appear to be going around a corner and out of sight.”

“Right,” he called back. “I’ll be right behind you.”

We caught up with the others just in time to spot Gregor – with Terry clinging to his back – entering a house that was suspended in a tree, roughly twenty feet in the air. “What’s going on up there?” I asked.

“There are people trapped inside,” Gregor called back. “You three wait below, we will lower them to you.”

Anyone with eyes could see that the house was not in a good position. If they made a single mistake, the entire thing could come tumbling down. Gregor and Terry were probably tough enough to survive such a fall barring severe bad luck, but I couldn’t say the same for whoever else was in there.

A minute or so later, Gregor lowered down the first occupant, a boy of about seven. Another minute later, he lowered a girl who looked a year or two older. “Let’s get you two out from under the house while my friend helps whoever is left,” I suggested. They took my hands and we walked about ten feet away.

It took almost five minutes before Gregor and Terry began lowering, the last occupant, a Varisian man in his thirties. The reason for the delay was quite evident from the splint tied to his leg and the improvised litter he was being lowered on. After he was down, Greta and Burin got him over to us and out from under the teetering house. The kids cried in relief as they hugged him.

Gregor climbed down, Terry on his back once more. The girl hurried over to us and examined the man’s leg. “I’ve splinted it,” she told me. “Do you think the wand will be able to mend the break?”

I shook my head. “I think it only works on soft tissue. I’m not sure it can mend bone. No reason we can’t try anyway, though.”

“Don’t worry about me,” the man said. “I’ll be fine.”

“It will help with your cuts and scrapes,” Terry insisted. “Let us help you.”

“Of course,” the man, who introduced himself as Karend Angetti, conceded. I tapped him with the wand and his wounds began mending immediately.

Terry rummaged in her bag. “Also, take this,” she said, handing him a small satchel. “It was all I could find of value in your home. It’s not much, but it does look to be valuable enough to help get you on your feet.”

The man looked into the satchel and pulled out a silver fork. “Thank you. It will definitely help. And for you, please take this.” He handed her a small amulet. “This belonged to my wife. It has magic to help protect you. You’ve saved her children, so I think she’d want you to have it.”

“Thank you, but surely you can use it more,” Terry said.

“No. Please, I insist.”

“We can’t…” her shoulders slumped at the pleading look in his eyes. “Okay. You win. Thank you.” The children helped the man walk and we made sure he got to the outside. Once they were out of sight, Terry looked at all of us. “What? Do you have something to say?” she accused me.

“Nothing at all,” I said, flashing her a beatific smile.

“Good. Let’s keep looking.”

Continuing on, we found a large platform of stone jutting from the ground like some kind of stage. Around it circled six massive boulders. The others seemed impressed, but I’d seen something like that before. Granted, what I’d seen had been prototype hover-cars and not rocks, but the idea was the same.

What was more interesting was the battered creature lying broken upon the floor. He was a fey, specifically a Dawn Piper, an immortal being of primordial creative force that comes from the First World, land of the Fey and counterpart to the prime material plane.

His burning hair smoldered and appeared on the verge of snuffing out and in his hand he clutched a broken flute. “You and your friends can try to stop us, but you will fail!” he said with a cough as we approached. “But we will claim this reality and take the Crone’s hovel with us!”

He died before we could question him. What friends did he mean? And who had done that to him? Could it be an ally? Was the White Rider here?

I didn’t have much time to ponder such questions. Only moments after the Dawn Piper died, the floating stones crashed to the ground. The shockwave nearly through me from my feet. “What was that?” Terry asked.

“This was part of the ritual powering the vortex that’s blocking the path to the hut,” Burin said. “Based on the power I saw in it, there are at least two but no more than three remaining.”

“You’re sure?” I asked.

“I am certain.” Good. I’d been too focused on the Dawn Piper to think to inspect the magic. Glad at least one of us had the presence of mind to check. So all I could see was magical grease on the side of the rocky ledge, as if it was meant to stop anything from climbing up there. Maybe that’s where the Dawn Piper had been standing when it encountered its killers?

“So we stop the other rituals and get to the hut?” Terry asked.

“I believe so, yes.” The dwarf nodded as he spoke.

“Let’s see if there’s anything else here to give us information and keep moving.”

Terry inspected the body to see if his wounds would tell us anything about what he fought. “He has several shallow lacerations to the back, as well as a massive wound to the chest,” she commented. “Two…no, maybe three attackers. Yes, at least that many. And we need to watch out for some kind of large animal. Something bit him.”

“Only matter of time before it has Burin in its mouth,” Gregor quipped.

Burin sighed. “Yeah, probably.” We all laughed.

Gregor found tracks leading off. “Terry is right. Four sets of footprints leading away. Strange, though. No animal tracks.”

“Some animals leave no tracks,” Greta commented. She was right. Winter wolves, for instance, could travel through snow without leaving a trace of their passing. There was no reason something else couldn’t do the same here.

Terry held up the broken form of another twigjack – the same kind of thing we’d fought at Maret’s place – and waved it at Gregor. “Hey, did you want to skin it?” she asked the fighter.

He held up the pathetic thing. “Is nothing but twigs and a few leaves. You want me to skin THIS?” He sounded indignant.

“It was just a thought.”

Not long after, we encountered another house, this one on the ground. As we approached, the door flew open and a winter wolf in human form stood before us. “Greta!” the woman said, her voice sounding relieved. “Thank the gods that you’ve come! I thought I was going to die!”

“Bragda?!” Greta asked. “What are you doing here?”

“My unit… we chased some fugitives into the forest. Then these things attacked us. I’m the only one alive. I need you to escort me from this place immediately.”

“I’m sorry, but we’re on our own mission.”

“You can’t just leave me here! You haven’t seen what’s here, Greta! The monsters here are dangerous. We have to get out of here! We have to go now!”

Instantly, Greta crossed the distance between them. Her face was inches from the other wolf’s. I was a little jealous, to be honest. And a bit turned on. Dammit, that stupid card might have been right. “You will stop sniveling like some runt whelp, Bragda.” She hadn’t raised her voice, but her tone had all the fire of a drill sergeant. “We have a mission we must complete and your life is of no importance to that vital goal.” She stepped back and turned away, then looked back over her shoulder at the desperate wolf. “But I will not completely ignore one of the pack, so I will allow you to join US in our goal, if you feel the need for company so much. And once we’re done, you can walk out with us together.”

Defeated, Bragda’s shoulders slumped. “Okay. I’ll go with you.”

Terry called Bragda over to ask her about some corpses she had found inside the shack. I wasn’t really paying attention, since Greta had walked over to me. “Enjoy that?” she asked before nibbling on my ear.

My brain took a second to reboot after that. “I promise that as soon as we get a chance, I’ll show you just how much I enjoyed it,” I whispered back.

It’s not surprising that I managed to completely miss the creatures up in the trees. At least, I missed them until they let out shrill screeches and I whipped my head around to find them. My first thought was that Terry was going to have a fit when she saw them.

They looked a lot like perytons, magical beasts with the body and antlers of a stag, the head and fangs of a wolf, and the wings and talons of a hawk. Except, only… instead of wolves, they had goat heads. The slavering fangs were still there, but they were definitely goats.

By the time they had appeared, the wolf-women were on the outer edge of the party and became the creatures’ targets. They struck each one with their horns. Luckily, both wolves were wearing armor. Well, were. Bragda immediately shifted into her wolf form and her gear disappeared magically.

Terry ran out of the shack, wild-eyed, and fired upon the first goat-thing she saw. Meanwhile, I had blasted the other with beams of flame. Both were smoking when they flew at the wolves again.

Greta and Bragda were both ready. Greta cleaved one foe in half with her axe and Bragda tore the other out of the air with her powerful fangs.

I tapped Greta with my healing wand then went over to heal Bragda. Terry approached the hulking wolf. “Anyone who kills goat monsters is okay in my book,” she told Bragda.

“Is that so, child?” the wolf asked after calming.

“Of course. Just, goats, man. There’s something wrong with them. They’re everywhere and they’re all trying to kill us.”

“Yes. There are many dangers in this place. And I’ve seen more of these creatures.”

Terry shuddered. “I was thinking. If you’re going to stay in that form, maybe we could work together to keep both of us safe?”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Maybe, if I rode on your back, I could keep an eye out above us while you keep an eye out above us?”

Bragda considered it. “Yes, that idea shows promise. You will make an excellent Winter Guard. Climb on, child.”

Once Terry had climbed onto Bragda’s back, we moved onward, deeper into the forest, and came across another home. This one had a campfire out in front that was still burning. So naturally Burin walked up and knocked. “Hello!” he called.

“We have guests!” a woman’s voice called back from within.

“Are you friend or foe?” Burin asked. As if a foe would just come out and say it.

“That depends on you, dear,” the woman replied.

“Hey!” Terry called out. “Are you now, or have you ever been, a goat or goat-like creature?”

The door opened and a beautiful red-haired woman stood there. “What?” Her face was twisted in confusion.

“It’s a thing with her,” I answered.

“Ah,” she said, looking Burin directly in the eyes. There was something about her, but I couldn’t quite put my foot on it.

“What are you trying to do?” the dwarf asked.

“Would you like some wine?” she replied, offering him a bottle.

“Sure. Then you’ll tell me what you’re doing?”

“Yes, come inside.”

Burin drained the bottle and followed her inside. None of us made any move to follow. I was too busy trying to figure out what it was about the woman that was setting the hair on the back of my neck standing up.

About a minute later, I heard Burin talking. “What is your end goal here? I know you want to control me. You tried and failed. But for some reason I don’t seem worried about it. Is that because of the wine? Is it ensorcelled?”

That was the catalyst I’d needed. It finally hit. “Crap. That woman was a baccae.”

“A what?” Gregor asked.

“A fey creature. They can use their gaze to charm humanoids and whatnot. As an Aasimar, I should be immune, and the wolves should be safe, at least in wolf form. But you and Terry will need to wait outside.”

“You can’t take Bragda,” Terry objected. “She’s so soft…”

“I will remain with them, in constant vigilance should more of those creatures approach,” Bragda said.

“It’s just you and me rescuing the dwarf,” I told Greta. “I’ll move in first with a fireball. Then you move in and keep them off of me.”

“I’ll watch your backside,” Greta agreed, her grin showing her teeth as she shifted into her wolf form. She was a large, powerful beast, perhaps a bit bigger than Bragda. And her fur was even whiter, as if she had done a better job at taking care of herself.

The fight inside wasn’t that impressive. I moved in and hit the baccae – there were three in total – before they could even react, carefully shaping my fireball to avoid hitting Burin or the group of drunk merchants I found within. The men didn’t react at all.

Greta came in, squeezing through the door, and got between me and the enemy. The baccae, meanwhile, became bestial in form and tried to attack. Burin tried to stop them, talking as if he was
trying to break up a fight between friends. Greta unleashed a blast of icy breath, hitting the foes and Burin alike. Two of them went down.

“You have to stop!” Burin shouted, charging Greta and bull-rushing her into the doorway. The final enraged baccae charged and was cut down by sharp fangs. “We didn’t have to fight,” Burin complained. “I just wanted to know what they were trying to do.”

“They were trying to stop us from saving everyone,” I replied. “We couldn’t leave you behind, so we had to get them before they could ensorcell someone else.”

“But I never found out their goal,” the dwarf complained.

“Sorry, buddy, but we do have work to do. No telling how long before that ritual goes off.”

“I guess that’s true. Let’s continue on then.”

“And then there was a goat, and he was just eating a table,” Terry was saying as we stepped out. “He looked harmless, but I knew it was a trick, so we killed him right away. Oh! There you are. Everything okay inside?”

“Yeah, the fey are dead. There are a few drunk guys inside, but they’re harmless.”

“No goats, right?”

I laughed. “No goats.”

“Good.” She absentmindedly scratched behind Bragda’s ear. I think I saw the great wolf’s leg twitch.

At the end of the path we had been following, we found a massive dead tree. Snow swirled all about it, blown by a wind that seemed localized to that particular area. In the branches of the great tree stood another of those fey creatures, the dawn pipers.

The fey regarded us for a moment. “Already two have fallen, but I will be the one to finish you if you do not turn back from this foolish errand. Go now. This forest and the Dancing Hut are ours, and I will not yield.”

As she spoke, Burin walked forward, axe in hand. Immediately, I began to see his plan. If we destroyed the altar that the dawn piper was using to power the vortex, then we didn’t have to kill her. We’d dispel the effect and be able to leave with our prize with no bloodshed. It was an entirely Burin thing to do.

“You refuse to yield? This, we shall see,” Gregor said before teleporting up into the tree and swung at her. His fist struck, but the shifting of his weight on the branches caused his blow to merely glance her as the fey flew into the air.

From the sky, the dawn piper could easily see Burin, axe in hand. She hit him with a powerful supernatural cacophony from her pipes, trying to stop him from harming the tree. Meanwhile, she was in the perfect position, clear of any obscuring branches, for Terry and Bragda to strike her with gunshots and icy breath, respectively.

The damage was too much and the piper fell from the sky. From within the tree, we heard something scream out in Sylvan, then a twigjack suddenly burst forth from the tree, showering Burin and Greta – who had moved to help the dwarf chop it down – in a hail of splinters.

Gregor leapt from his perch and came down on the twigjack – hard – driving it into the ground with his fist as he made a perfect three-point landing. “Okay, even I have to admit that was pretty cool. You win this one,” Terry said.

From within the forest dome, we heard a loud sound. It was almost like the sound of something exploding underwater. “She said that the other two were already dead. The vortex may have just collapsed,” I pointed out. “We should hurry. I don’t think we’re the only ones working here.” We could hit Burin and Greta with some healing as we moved.

Gregor and Burin took point. As we approached the clearing where we came in, just as they rounded a corner, I heard Gregor speak. “You! What are YOU doing here?!”

“I- I don’t feel so good about this,” I heard Burin say. His voice sounded like he had a sudden stomachache.

Another voice answered Gregor. “I heard that you survived Sergei’s death,” a man said. “Good. I hope that you put up a better fight than Dimitri.” Oh crap. That had to be that other disciple, the one who got kicked out. Vasily, I think his name was.

“Is that the guy who killed Sergei?” I heard Terry ask. I was getting a little frustrated at not being able to see anything all the way at the back of the party with Greta.

“No. That is Vasily, the rat.” Well, my guess had been correct.

“The one who wasn’t good enough and left?”

“Exactly.”

Vasily growled in anger. “Do not touch this one. Gregor will fall by my hands alone!”

“And who are you?” Terry asked someone else.

“I am the true vessel of Amgorath, and I will pull his essence from your twitching corpse!” I don’t think she was talking to Terry. In fact, I’m almost certain she meant Burin, since I think I remember seeing that name in the picture book before the demon tried to escape.

They charged and I heard sounds of fighting. It took me less than ten seconds to push past the brush and catch up, but in that time, things looked dire. Burin was locked in combat with a dwarven tiefling covered in white dragon scales – explain that one – whose face was contorted in a bestial rage. She had blood and spittle dripping from her fanged maw and Burin had a matching wound on his forearm. She had eschewed all weapons in favor of fang, claw and even attacks with her demonic horns.

Meanwhile, Gregor had taken a massive slash from Vasily’s nine-ringed sword. He looked staggered, and the wound was spurting blood. A few seconds and he would collapse if no one helped him. So I acted immediately and rushed over to him, pulling out a metal vial of healing potion from my belt pouch as I did so. I poured the contents into his mouth, and his wounds began to close.

Gregor struck Vasily, who crumpled under the blows. “Heh,” the monk laughed as he fell. “You needed someone. You could not beat me alone.”

Someone suddenly appeared from the shadows behind Gregor, swinging a wicked looking pair of kukris. It took me a second to recognize him as Vincent, the man from the tavern back in Waldsby. Gregor spun and knocked him unconscious in a single punch, managing to dodge both strikes. “He will wake up in a few moments,” Gregor warned me. “Do not let him get up.”

Another figure appeared from nowhere, hitting Terry and Bragda with a small explosive. I recognized her as the elven woman who had been with Vincent. Somehow the two had escaped from the villagers we had carrying them to the portal. “Kill whoever else you want, Segrit, but leave the one in the green robe alive. I must have him.” Her voice dripped with madness and lust.

Terry and I both hit her. She collapsed, her corpse still smoking from the fire of our attacks. Meanwhile, Burin and the tiefling – Segrit, I assumed – were locked in deadly combat. Gregor rushed over to help, but was dropped instantly by one of her claws. He was still alive, but he was out of the fight.

“I’ve got this!” Terry shouted, trying to pull out her healing gun. But Segrit was faster. She unleashed a flurry of attacks on Burin. The dwarf took both claw swipes and crumpled. But before she could deliver the final blow, the dwarf shimmered, and he and Terry swapped places.

Instead of Burin’s throat, the tiefling’s fangs tore into Terry’s stomach, crunching right through her chain shirt. Still, the metal prevented the attack from being lethal and Terry only fainted from the injury.
Bragda, seeing the exit from the forest not too far away, made her move. Still, the tiefling was between her and escape, so she tried to trip her. But it was for naught and Bragda instantly ripped her throat out. I unleashed the last of my powerful spells, hitting Segrit with a fireball as Greta rushed in to help.
Inky blackness poured out of Burin and flowed into the tiefling, who was laughing maniacally.

She turned, preparing to do to Greta what she had done to several others. Then I had a sudden flash of insight. I knew how to stop the demon’s escape. I could counter-spell the effect. I couldn’t do much else, so I did it, hoping it would help.

There was a dull explosion and we were all struck with the backlash as the demon’s link severed, preventing further transfer of his essence. I was stunned, unable to move. “Flee, you fool!” a sinister booming voice commanded.

“I can finish them!” Segrit roared.

“You will die if you remain! Others approach! Go!” The tiefling hissed, but did as she was commanded and fled.

I heard footsteps, then a voice. “Oi! What’s this?!” Oh god, not him. Not now. As my eyes began to focus, I saw that guard, Bill. He was picking Vasily up. “Steve, I’m taking the queen’s champion to get help. You coming?”

“I found something interesting!” a ghostly voice said. I turned my head just in time to see the ghostly form of Steve enter the elf-woman’s corpse. It stood up. “Oi! I’ll help you with that!” the animated corpse said, rushing over to help Bill.

“What about them?”

“Leave ‘em. We have to get the champion help. We’ll raise an alarm when we find someone.”

The last thing I heard from them was, “Oi, Steve, izzat you?

“It is indeed, Bill.”

“Steve… You have boobs.”

“That I do, Bill, that I do.”

I finally managed to shake off whatever it was that was holding me back. Greta appeared to be doing the same. I did a quick scan of the battlefield, then motioned with my head towards Vincent. “He’s starting to wake up.”

Greta hefted her axe. “No he’s not,” she said, as she marched over to him.

Meanwhile, I hurried over to Terry and pulled the nanite gun from her belt then injected her. “I should have died at the dragon,” she groaned.

“Complain later,” I told her, poking her with my healing wand and giving her back the gun. “Gregor needs your help now. There’s no telling when more enemies might arrive.”

“Right,” she said. She stared at Bragda’s corpse for a moment. “It’s too bad. She was so very fluffy.”

Vincent woke up just long enough to scream as Greta’s axe plunged into his face. I didn’t have time to look, nor any real inclination. I trusted she would get it done and I had my own work to do.
I healed all of Burin’s wounds, but he would not awaken. He was in some kind of coma. “What is wrong?” Gregor asked.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “He’s alive, but I can’t get him to wake up. Can you carry him? It’s not safe here and we need to make it to the hut before someone else comes.”

Gregor hefted Burin over his shoulder with a grunt. “Dwarf is heavier than he looks.” I don’t know about that. He looked pretty heavy to me, though I think the correct term is stout.

After quickly looting Vincent – I took his belt, though it needed some reconfiguring to be more stylish – we headed past the site of the vortex into a clearing that contained our goal: Baba Yaga’s hut.

The hut itself was surrounded by a fence of white bones that looked akin to one of those white-picket fences you see in old advertisements. Impaled on the fence was a pair of corpses, one adorned in red, the other in white. It seemed that no one would be helping us after all.

Inside the fence, the two story tall hut stood on a pair of enormous chicken legs that restlessly scratched at the ground. On one of the legs was a manacle of iron staked into the ground. There was a palpable magic field emanating for it that I could feel even without using divination magic to detect it.

Blocking the path into the clearing was an ice golem, and surrounding the clearing was a sheer wall of ice. The ice was polished to a mirror finish. From within the mirrored ice, we could see four images of a woman in a beautiful blue and violet robe adorned with white feathers and ice. Her white hair, pale skin and blue painted lips confirmed that she was one of the white witches. In fact, I recognized her from the smutty art book. We were looking at Nazhena Vasilliovna, mistress of the Pale Tower.

The four images stepped from the ice and spoke in unison. “I suppose I should thank you for ridding me of this fey incursion,” she said coldly, “but we both know what you’ve cost me already.”

“I’m too old for this illusion s@~$,” Terry complained. “You think she’s bitter because we killed the goat guy?”

“Is very likely,” Gregor answered.

Nazhena didn’t bother addressing their taunt, ordering her golem to attack. Greta intercepted its charge while Terry, Gregor and I focused on the images. I managed to dispel one using my very last spell, Gregor dropped Burin and took out another, then Terry hit the remaining two.

The real Nazhena crumpled to the floor, having taken a bullet right between the eyes. “MACHINE OF DEATH!” Terry crowed.

Greta took out the golem and it exploded in a shower of ice shards. “You okay?” I asked her.

“I’ll be fine. Just a few cuts.”

“Let me tend to those anyway,” I said, pulling out the healing wand. We’d almost used up another one. Gregor picked up Burin while Terry stripped Nazhena of pretty much everything – she had no what of knowing what was magical. Then they both headed inside. “I guess it’s up to us to break the shackle?” I asked Greta.

“It would appear so. Come, let us get it done.”

As soon as Greta entered the gate, the hut attacked her. It clawed at her, then lifted her into the air, intent on eating her. I was terrified that it would kill her. Still, I managed to focus that panic into constructive action. “SET HER DOWN!” I commanded the hut. The hut slowly moved her towards its mouth. “STOP THAT.” It looked at me and we stared at each other. This went on for almost a minute before the hut blinked and backed down, setting Greta softly on the ground.

I rushed to her side. “I do not think the house likes me,” she laughed, coughing up a little blood. I healed her as quickly as I could, even making her drink my last quick heal potion. “I am okay,” she said. “There is no need to fuss over me.”

“Hush. Let me fuss a little,” I said.

Greta laughed. “As you wish, dear.” After I was satisfied that she was okay, she motioned to her axe. “I don’t think I’ll be able to use it to break the chain,” she said. “It seems that the house broke it.”

Sure enough, the axe had a major crack. “That’s okay. Let’s get inside and make Gregor and Terry come deal with it.”

Unfortunately, there was another problem. Greta couldn’t enter the house. There was some kind of ward on the door. I could enter easily, but she couldn’t. And unfortunately, I didn’t have any magic left to deal with the problem. I did have some djezet, but I didn’t think blowing up the house was a good idea.

“It’s fine,” Greta said. “It’s just like the cards said. We’ll part ways for now, but I’ll surely see you once more.”

I hugged her. “I’ll come back to find you as soon as I can,” I told her.

“I know. Now hurry inside.”

I shook my head. “No, I’ll watch from here to make sure you make it to the exit. I can see most of the way from here. If anything comes, the hut should protect me.” I remembered something. “Oh, before you go, I got this for you.” I gave her the spices from the clock tower.

“A wonderful gift. Thank you.” She kissed me, passionately. “Now, I should hurry before any more soldiers arrive. Be careful, my love.” She shifted into wolf form and began bounding off.

Had she just said what I thought she had? My breath caught in my throat. “I love you, too,” I whispered, suddenly realizing that somehow, despite knowing her for only a couple days, I did.


For the record, the fight with Vasily and the others was the most epic fight of the campaign thus far. A game terms explanation of the fight:

Spoiler:
Vasily charged in and immediately crit Gregor, leaving him at 0 HP with a bleed effect going.

Then Segrit proceeded to crit EVERY SINGLE ROUND. Twice in one case. Burin DIED, but Segrit was on death's door. The players wanted her to get away, but even though Gregor and Burin were down - Gregor fell to a misstep in trying to move in and provoking, at which point she CRIT HIM and nearly killed him too - Terry was up next and would have easily ended her, since she had nothing left to help her. So I offered a trade: Burin's life for Segrit's, leaving Burin in a coma - a sidequest to revive him rather than a hunt for a scroll of Raise Dead. The players agreed, on the condition Vasily escape too.

So Terry took the hits that would have killed Burin and we used Plot Twist cards to force Segrit to flee as well as having Bill and Steve show up to pull out the others.

Vincent was left to die because he had rolled 3 too many natural 1s across both encounters.

For the record, he only ever rolled 4 d20s.

Segrit has been leveled up and will make a return sometime in the future, with Vasily, Bill and Possession!Steve in tow. No spoilers on when, though.

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