As we got nearer to our final destination, where we would meet the Heralds of Summer, we entered a wealthy district full of luxurious mansions and people wearing lavish clothes. I couldn't help but forget about the tyranny of the witches for a while and admire the magnificence of the place. The sensation didn't last long, as I soon realized that all the eyes seemed to be on us. The word “stilyagi” was repeated in whispers, sometimes accompanied with chuckles, sometimes said in disappointment. Knowing that they weren't taking us seriously should have comforted me, but it only increased my sensation of not belonging. My sister and Nadya seemed just as uncomfortable as me: Nadya didn't like drawing so much attention and Cat hated being looked at every time we walked into a new town like we were some kind of oddity. Argentea, in the other hand, walked around like she owned the place, not paying attention to stares or whispers. Only Indi seemed to actually enjoy all the attention. One might think that he felt flattered.
I felt relieved when we finally reached the bath house. After some quick interrogation to prove that we weren't spies for the Winter Witches, we were led towards a set of stairs going down to a tunnel network that seemed to connect many nearby houses. In the center was a small underground shrine of Habbakkuk, where we met Solveig Ayrdahl, leader of both the shrine and the cell of the Heralds of Summer in Whitethrone. Aside from her, all the other people in the shrine didn't look like combatants but rather refugees or assistants. I realized how much trust she was putting into us by receiving us there, unprotected.
After introducing ourselves we told her the story about how and why we came to Whitethrone. She wasn't especially concerned about the absence of Baba Yaga, considering it a good opportunity for a change in Irrisen, but she was alarmed when we mentioned Elvanna’s plans of freezing our continent. As a follower of Habbakkuk, one of the main gods of nature, she couldn't allow that to happen, even if it didn't affect her or the Heralds directly. She was eager to help us with our mission, though I had the sensation from the beginning, that her intentions weren't completely selfless.
-As you probably know- she explained to us-, Queen Elvanna managed to seize control of Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut and shackle it in the Square Market so everybody can attest her victory over her mother.
-Honestly, I don't know, but some powerful magic must be involved. Right now, the commander of the Winter Guard, the witch Nazhena Vasiliovna,- Nadya’s eyes flashed in hate and anticipation when she heard that name- has restricted the access to the Square Market and set her people to watch over it. There’s no way to get to the hut right now without facing an army.
-Maybe it’s time for the oppressed people of Whitethrone to rise up and fight for themselves- Said Nadya-. It’s the right moment. Elvanna’s troops are distracted. And weakened.
I could understand why. More often than not, dragons cared little about collateral damage, and their breath weapons could cause a huge devastation to a small contingent.
-You intend us to kill a dragon?- Asked Argentea, shocked- That is far beyond our capabilities.
Younger dragons didn't manifest their innate magic yet, so that allowed me to guess Logrivich’s age and the real danger he posed.
-Not that I know.- Solveig was a bit confused by my question.
It seemed to me that Solveig was actually more concerned about this last part of her request than anything else, but I said nothing. I just wondered why she was hiding that this woman was important. I couldn't help but have the sensation that Solveig was using us for her own goals, but I guess that was what collaborating meant. We would most likely not be helping her if we didn't need her to reach the Dancing Hut.
Solveig gave us some healing potions and a couple of gnomish fireworks that, once activated, would rise into the sky releasing an explosion of light. She instructed us to use them after we were done with the dragon to give a signal to the Iron Guard to begin their attack. After that, the priestess led us to our rooms so we could have some rest for the night. The next day we would have to get up early to begin the preparations before getting into the dragon’s tower. Though I really wanted to bathe and relax for a while in the thermal baths, everybody agreed that the risk of bringing unwanted attention among the Jadwigas was too big, so I retired to my room, a bit annoyed, and in the end I decided to visit Argentea in hers. It had been some days since we had spent some time together and I was starting to miss her.
After a full night of rest, I woke up with Nina pecking my ear. That meant that it was time to get my spells ready for the day. Despite having called Logrivich an overgrown lizard,I was still concerned about our ability to fight a cunning flying enemy. If he didn't choose to confront us directly, only Indi was able to fly by shifting into a flying animal, so we might not be even able to approach him. Our spells and Nadya’s arrows had a limited range, and Argentea and Cat weren't that good with their bows. I knew of the existence of magic items that could grant us magic flight, but I was unsure if we would be able to find them in Whitethrone (especially with the Square Market turned into a forest) or even be able to afford them. But Nina (or most probably, Eternity) was as thoughtful as ever. In a playful and somewhat mysterious voice, she told me that I was ready to learn the secrets of magic flight and revealed me the incantations to make my body light as a feather. That wouldn't be of much help to the rest of the group, but it was a beginning.
As I joined the rest of the group and Solveig to have breakfast, I told them my concerns about magic flight. Though she didn't like magic a lot, Argentea hated the idea of being useless during a fight even more, so she agreed on looking for a way to fly. Everyone else liked the idea, and Cat even believed that flying seemed like fun.
Solveig recommended we talk to Mortin again, as he had a lot of connections plus a big collection of magic items of his own.
With most of the planning done, the time came for me to share Baba Yaga’s mark with the rest of the group members. It was a hard choice, because I knew that the one who didn't bear the mark would be left behind. As in the Pale Tower, we were afraid that anyone unprotected could fall victim to some powerful Jadwiga’s magic. Being the one with the flight and the magic, Indi couldn't be left behind, nor could Nadya and her deadly bow. That left me to choose between Cat and Argentea, but the decision wasn't hard: with her shield and armor, Argentea was much more likely to survive a direct confrontation with Logrivich, while I feared that the dragon could tear my sister to pieces without Argentea there to watch her back. Was I overestimating Argentea? Was I underestimating Cat? I didn't care if I was, with my dreams still too recent in my mind, I didn't want the death of my sister on my conscience.
Cat wasn't glad, but she did her best to understand. After telling me a hundred times to be extremely cautious and Argentea a hundred more to take care of me, she finally agreed to be left out. I had the sensation that I was the most useless to fight a dragon: like elves, sleep magic doesn't work on them, and I wasn't good neither on attack magic nor on defensive spells. Healing spells were fine, but Indi could take charge of them. But I had no choice. It was me who bore the damned Baba Yaga’s mark, and I couldn't pass it to anyone else. At least I had learned some new helpful spells that might be useful for the group.
Plans done, mark placed, now only getting supplies for our incursion left, but as we headed out of the shrine of the heralds, I got a new idea.
-I think I am going to attend my… date with Greta.- I said shyly.
I wanted to hug Nadya. I muttered a silent “thank you" to her.
-I am only picking on her a little bit- Indi excused himself-. You know me.
In the end, everybody reluctantly agreed on me meeting up with Greta, though Cat and Argentea insisted on accompanying me and waiting outside, just in case I got into trouble. Meanwhile, Indi and Nadya would meet back with Mortin and go shopping for the gear and supplies we needed.
The Howlings didn't seem more welcoming than the last day, but at least Greta lived close to the district limits. Her house looked much alike most human houses, with no special features. Greta opened the door in her human shape and greeted me cheerfully. Her face revealed disappointment when she noticed that I wasn't alone, though.
-Why did you bring your slaves?- She protested- Don't you trust me?
I followed her, intrigued and scared at the same time. She led me to a small but comfortable living room and offered me a seat.
-Honestly, I didn't expect you to come- she said, sitting in front of me, staring at me with her cold blue eyes-. I had the feeling that I had intimidated you somehow.
I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out of it. Greta’s bluntness disarmed me.
-Nothing?- She finally said. I must be the worst at extracting information- Then allow me to ask first. Want a snack? A cup of hot tea? Anything?
Greta stood up and poured two cups of tea. Which meant that she already had some tea prepared. For some reason, the idea of a winter wolf drinking tea alone seemed even stranger to me than two winter wolves sharing a cup of tea.
-So where do you come from?- Greta asked, taking a seat again.
I hinted a nervous smile.
-I am sort of an oddity, I guess.
Greta smiled at me. This time she looked more sincere, less predatory.
-You will get used to it and soon you won't understand how you could live without it until now. Sure your true form is useful for hunting and fighting but, hey, nothing that a great-axe cannot fix and for everything else… thumbs. You gotta love thumbs.
I imagined my life without hands.
-I can understand why you like the Howlings so much. Baba Yaga…
I had some ideas. There was a rather common spell that could be used to take the shape of any humanoid creature. It didn't allow me to imitate specific people, so I had never considered it very useful, but maybe I could get a scroll for that spell from Mortin. Then I just needed to figure out how to imbue it on an item for Greta. It would require some research but I was pretty sure that I could do it.
-Really- I nodded after thinking for a while-. I can do it.
Greta looked at me suspiciously.
-What’s the trick? Those things are expensive.
Suddenly I realized that I had just agreed on crafting a magic item for Greta. I had gotten so carried away in my chain of thought that I had accidentally implied that I was going to do it. Truth be told, I was too excited about trying.
-No tricks. But it might take me a while. Maybe a couple of weeks, or even more. We won't be staying here for so long.
That caught me off-guard.
-You don't even know what we are doing here!
I realized that Greta was trying to show gratitude though she wasn't used to it.
-It might be dangerous.- I told her.
That answer made me smile.
-Then I will ask the others and, if they are fine with it, you can come with us.
She gave me an intrigued look.
-You ask your humans for advice?
To that point, I no longer cared a lot about impersonating a believable winter wolf. If Greta was about to join us, I needed to know that she wouldn't have a problem with our group dynamics. Fortunately, she didn't seem like the judgemental type.
Be it because she had lost interest in me, be it because she was too excited about getting a permanent human form, she didn't attempt to flirt with me again during our meeting, which I felt relieving. After emptying the teapot, I told her that I would come back with an answer before we had to leave Whitethrone, and I left. My sister and Argentea were patiently waiting outside.
-Why did you delay so much?- Asked Argentea- We were starting to think that she had eaten you?
-I told you not to worry! See? She is fine!- Regardless of her words, I sensed relief in my sister’s voice- How did it go?
-Fine… I guess. She wants to come with us.
Judging by their faces, my explanation didn't help to make the process seem like fun.
-Let’s go to Mortin’s- I added, trying to get away from their non-amused looks-. If we are lucky we might find the others there.
The others were out, doing some shopping on their own, but that allowed me some time to share my ideas with the wizard and spend some time learning new spells, while Cat and Argentea also went out for some shopping. We agreed on meeting at mid afternoon to make last minute preparations and assault the clock tower. One part of me believed that I was being too optimistic about being able to defeat a dragon, and that we might be wasting the last hours of our lives shopping and studying, but I forced those thoughts away. We had a tough task ahead, and I couldn't allow negative thoughts to bring me down now.
We had already reached our destination when we spotted a hooded man in the distance. He was slim and not very tall (or maybe he looked shorter because he was slightly hunched), which gave him an elven-like build. Though we could only see his back, we saw a ray of sunlight reflected on his face as he turned around, like he was wearing a crystal mask or something similar. Nadya’s eyes opened wide out of fear, though the man didn't show any signs of noticing our presence.
-That has to be a Mirror Man. I have never seen one in person.
The hooded man started walking towards our position.
-Later- replied Nadya-. Now, as I said with the crows: don't let it become aware of you.
The Mirror Man didn't appear threatening at first sight and didn't seem to be coming for us, just walking in our direction, but we had learned to trust Nadya’s advice and to mistrust anything with “mirror" in the name. We walked back to a safe distance and waited for the hunched man to leave the place before approaching again.
-They are the spies of the Winter Witches in Whitethrone- Nadya explained before anyone asked-. They are said to be able to speak to the witches through magic and I am sure that they can also see through them. They are all over the city and have a reputation of being able to see everything.
Without the cart to hide our belongings we had to carry everything ourselves, which made the last part of our infiltration more risky. Even if we weren't far from Mortin’s house, now we had to be more wary than ever.
That caused me to boggle exaggeratedly when a a panicking man ran into us. He barely noticed us and wouldn't have even ceased to run if my sister hadn't asked him to calm down and tell us what was going on. That was when he finally paid attention, looking at us with a pleading stare. He panted twice before being able to speak.
-My master is...in a rage!- He finally managed to say in a suffocated voice.
We understood what he meant before we had a chance to ask, as a massive white wolf ran into us in the same fashion as the man before him. He ignored us, trying to reach the fugitive slave.
-What’s the matter with your slave?- I asked, hoping that my impersonation of a winter wolf was enough to catch his attention and that doing so didn't end with him trying to rip my throat out. He turned around to face me, visibly bothered by my intrusion, but as he looked me in the eye his attitude changed. When he spoke, he did it as one would address someone of a higher rank or social position. It had to be my eyes.
The winter wolf grunted in disgust.
-Why should I bother?
The winter wolf grunted again.
-I will let it be for this time. Humans are really stupid, aren't they?- Then he addressed the slave- Let’s go back home.
The slave obeyed, still terrified, and both left together. I wasn't sure if the wolf would change his mind, but I hoped that I had at least given him something to think about.
-We should have beaten the crap out of him! That piece of garbage! He will change his mind! He will hurt him again! He’d be better dead!
She wasn't angry at me (I doubt that Cat had that capacity). She hadn’t lifted a finger against him, because she knew the consequences it could have had. Her rage was addressed towards the whole system that allowed the winter wolves to treat people like that.
-We could have bought him and then released him.- Said Argentea, who wasn't having a better time than Cat. She was just better at concealing her emotions.
I looked at Indi. He had always been the pragmatic one, the one who was able to take the most ruthless decisions. And lately, I had found him agreeing with me more often than not. What did that mean? I was sure that I had taken the best decision… for the group. But, had I condemned an innocent man in the process? That wasn't something that I really wanted to think about at the time.
-You are the first two elves that I have ever seen in Irrisen- Mortin said with genuine interest in a perfect, accentless Common-. Kagonesti, am I right?
It was obvious that Mortin wasn't native from Irrisen, though we didn't inquire more at that point, as our host was more interested in determining what kind of false identities would suit us better. His first suggestion was that we impersonate a group of slaves. The papers, he said, would be easy to forge and we wouldn't attract much attention. This was received by a choir of complaints from Cat and Argentea, who “no way" would be passing as slaves again. The second option was better accepted: there was a group of young eccentric Jadwiga nobles who delighted in rebelling against their elders by dressing, talking and behaving in the most bizarre ways. Those nobles, called the stilyagi, were considered childish and immature but inoffensive among the other Jadwiga, and their oddities were tolerated in most cases. As only Nadya believed the slave option to be safer, Mortin agreed on forging some papers that identified us as stilyagi, though it would take him some time. As he got into it, he asked us about our stories and instructed us on how to reunite with the Heralds of Summer in the local thermal baths. I didn't pay a lot of attention, as I was fascinated by the huge collection of books that Mortin had, and just reading all the titles made my imagination get carried away. As the conversation derived into selling and buying supplies my mind just wandered away.
I was brought back to reality later, when I caught a random comment in the conversation.
-I have been monitoring the Winter Witches for a few years now- Mortin was saying-. I hope I can come up with some satisfying results to share with the High Sorcery in a near future.
As I spoke, I searched my backpack under Mortin’s confused stare. I didn't even give him time to reply before I found Rokhar’s spellbook and I waved it in front of his face.
-I… I have this book, I got it from a necromancer and I have been trying to study it, but it doesn't make any sense at all. It is full of diagrams, and graphics and I can't even decipher the language it is written in. I thought that Nina could make use of it but the book isn't magic itself, it just explains how to make the magic work but… it doesn't work.
-My… “patron"... I call it Eternity. It is Past, Present and Future. It exists in all moments at once. It teaches me. I learn. That’s all I know. I hoped that the High Sorcery could help me with that.
Mortin and I talked about magic and witchcraft for a long time while he worked on forging papers for us. His calligraphy was elegant and fluid, quite unlike my messy handwriting, which made me a little jealous. I wondered how much better my life could have been had I been able to study from a young age, instead of having to learn everything on my own or from a semi-illiterate sister and a mysterious owl-like messenger. Both did their best, but I didn't feel like it was enough.
In the end, I let Mortin keep Rokhar’s spellbook, as I had no direct use for it, and in exchange he agreed on scribing some scrolls that I could teach to Nina. After we got our papers, we agreed to meet him the next day in the evening to get the scrolls and some pieces of gear that the others had asked him to get.
-Do you really want to join the High Sorcery?- Asked Argentea as we left.
Meanwhile, Cat kept staring at us with a grumpy expression. But before she could jump into the conversation or Argentea could find a reason to call Indi “Evil Druid", we noticed the two hooded figures standing in our way. It was the first time that we got a clear view of the Mirror Men, and they were much more intimidating from a closer distance. They wore round mirrors covering their faces, making their facial features indistinguishable. The rest of their body was fully covered in a long hooded cloak, but as one of them lifted a hand in our direction we noticed its sickly pale skin and necrotic flesh.
We stared at them in terror, as they stayed there, immobile, one of them with its hand extended towards us in a silent demand.
-I believe that they are asking for our papers.- Guessed Nadya after a few seconds.
I looked behind me to the Mirror Men, who remained motionless as we left, and then at the rest of the group.
-Did you hear that?- I asked, shocked.
Everyone nodded, looking at least as disturbed as me. I frowned.
-When we are done, I will come back and dance in the middle of the street.
Maybe I would but, for now, obeying the rules, no matter how ridiculous they seemed, and keeping a low profile would be a good idea if we wanted to remain relatively safe.
As we arrived at Ringeirr’s house, we told him about all we had been through lately, and he explained to us what was going on in Whitethrone, confirming what the Black Knight had already told us: Queen Elvanna had seized power from her mother Baba Yaga, taking over Whitethrone and defeating her three Riders. She had replaced Baba Yaga’s Iron Guard with her own people, the Winter Guard, and declared martial law in the city. Entering Whitethrone was still possible, but people usually had to wait for hours or even days outside the walls and be thoroughly searched for anything suspicious before being allowed to enter. Nobody knew what had become of the Witch Queen herself, but her Dancing Hut was shackled and exposed in the middle of the city so everybody knew of Elvanna’s victory over her mother. About Nazhena, Ringeirr knew nothing more than we already knew: she had been called by the Queen herself to perform an important task in Whitethrone.
It seemed that the key to finding Baba Yaga and foiling Elvanna’s plans relied on seizing control of the Dancing Hut, but getting to it wouldn't be easy. Nadya’s uncle seemed to have a clear idea about what we had to do, though.
-You will need not only to get into the city, but to get the papers that authorize you to move through it. I know the perfect man to help you. Trustworthy, yet somewhat eccentric. Mortin is the name. He lives on the border of the Howlings, which should be the best district to enter into the city unnoticed. It’s mostly inhabited by Winter Wolves, which have always been on the side of Baba Yaga and don't give a damn about Elvanna’s new policies.
Ringeirr gave me a long stare before continuing his speech.
-Your cloak. It is a rimepelt, right?
-Most winter wolves should believe that you are one of them if you are wearing it. I think it’s something about the scent, I don't know, but it should help survive the Howlings.
Summarizing: Ringeirr’s plan was hiding all our weapons and armor inside a big load of fish (Argentea complained because she believed that she would smell like fish forever after it), take it to the entrance of the Howlings, convince the Winter Wolves to let us in pretending that I was one of them and the rest of the group were my slaves (my sister and I complained because our people had suffered from slavery and it was a sensitive topic for us), and head up to meet an eccentric man called Mortin and ask him for forged identities. Even if we didn't like it unanimously, we agreed that it was a good plan. Until we asked why Mortin would trust us, and that brought into the conversation what he had in mind for Nadya.
-I will go with you- said Ringeirr-. I know Mortin and how to move around the city. You have already done enough helping them get here, Nadya, now it’s my turn. Go back with your children. Take care of them. You have a family, I have nothing to lose.
Nadya’s eyes flashed in anger while she stared at her uncle in disbelief.
-You cannot be serious! Do you think that I can really let this be? After what Nazhena has done to my family?
Ringeirr answered Nadya, holding her stare.
-It’s my family too. Allow me to do this for you. I will take your revenge. Go back with your sons. Enjoy life while you can.
Nadya was about to start crying in rage.
-I can't! I can't go back home knowing that she is still alive and I am doing nothing. I can guide them into Whitethrone as well as I have guided them all the way here. Please, don't take this from me.- Her words sounded more like a threat than like a plea, but her words were also charged with concealed doubt. Ringeirr’s offer was more tempting than she’d dare admit.
Now that I think of it, I am not sure if I was being objective or (most likely) I was just being selfish. The traveling group was the closest that I had ever had to a family, and I didn't want to replace Nadya with a perfect stranger. Anyway, my words had the desired effect: after some arguing, Ringeirr reluctantly agreed with me. He wouldn't mind giving up on his personal fight if it was to keep his niece safe, but after what he had started in the Fishcamps, and all his connections in Whitethrone, he was involved in too many things to leave them behind. He instructed us on how to get to Mortin’s house, to tell him that we were going on his behalf and ask him to help us to get in contact with some insurgent group called the “Heralds of Summer” that would most likely be eager to help us. Though he was reluctant to give out too much information, just in case we were caught, it was clear that he had quite a close bond with these “Heralds of Summer". Even Nadya seemed surprised to learn all that her old uncle was involved with.
We didn't want to lose any time, so we parted as soon as the fish shipment was ready, with instructions to deliver it before meeting Mortin. We still had some daylight left and we wanted to make use of it to get into Mortin’s house. With all our armor and weapons concealed inside a fish cart, we got to the crack in the walls that led into the Howlings by mid afternoon. As we approached, a tall figure came out of a rudimentary watch house built next to the entrance. She looked like a human, but there was something in her icy blue eyes and her physical presence that gave her a feral bearing. She stood in front of the crack with her arms crossed and a challenging stare, allowing us to approach. As tall as Indi and with a great axe on her back, she didn't have reasons to fear a group of unarmed fishmongers.
-Want in?- She approached me with an overconfident smile, sniffing the air around me while completely ignoring the others - First you will have to deal with me, Greta. I don't think I have seen you before.
Being examined like a piece of meat made me very nervous. I needed to get rid of Greta as soon as possible.
-We… I have some business to take care of in the city.
For the very first time Greta gave signs of noticing the presence of the rest of the group.
-You can make good money out of these two- she pointed towards Argentea and Indi-. They have a strong build, good for working. I am not sure about the small one, though. She’s fierce. I can tell she’d attempt to gouge out my eyes with her bare hands if you allowed her. I am not sure anyone would value that in a slave.
Greta didn't seem less amused than I was. She looked at me with curiosity.
-You are a weird one, you know? Showing appreciation for your slaves could be taken for a sign of weakness, so if you want some advice, don't go saying that aloud while in the Howlings.
She smiled at me, and it was somehow a friendly and predatory gesture at the same time.
-I’ll take it into consideration- I said, feeling more and more tense-. Can we go in?
“Please, stop it and let us in" I thought. I couldn't help but feeling that she was playing with me.
-Alright, Kileanna. I'm sure you understand that I need to examine the contents of this cart before I can allow you to pass- She explained that carefully, like one would have done with a child. When she noticed the fear in my eyes, she gave me an open smile and, approaching me more than felt appropriate, she spoke to me in a private voice-. Or maybe I can just take your word that this is only fish, let you pass, and you could thank me somehow later.
Greta finally let us pass, after giving us some directions on how to locate her the day after. As we left her behind, I was able to breathe again.
-You are aware that she is a winter wolf, right?- Asked Argentea.
I was terrible at judging when someone was flirting or just wanted something from me. I believe that Greta was a bit of both.
-You aren't considering meeting with her privately, are you?- Asked Cat, concerned.
Indi had been silent the whole time, so I didn't know what to expect from him when he spoke.
-I agree with her. She seems rather nice. She probably wants to have a good time or alternatively get some profit. She doesn't seem like another Sertane to me, so go with it, I say.
I would be more grateful to Indi if he didn't bring back the memory of Volan Sertane. I still felt embarrassed for messing up so badly by agreeing to a private interrogation from him.
While we spoke, we walked through the Howlings, following Ringeirr’s directions by heart. There were some people on the streets, but we didn't seem to catch much attention. Most of the locals were easily distinguishable as winter wolves: tall, with a wide frame, fair skin, white hair and blue eyes, all were cut from the same cloth. Many wore fancy clothes and jewelry, the kind of ornaments that their natural shape wouldn't allow them to wear. The few humans that we encountered were easy to tell apart from them: with much less impressive features and almost unanimously worse groomed, some wore slave collars or were even carried on leashes.
Though we were all starting to feel sick and powerless about the situation, it was Cat who was having the hardest time holding back and not starting a fight that would do no good to anyone. We couldn't end slavery by just beating a couple of slavers, and that would surely get us in serious trouble. Cat knew it, and limited her hostility to a bunch of killer stares. Argentea constantly mumbled about bringing the Knights and freeing the land. Every new thing we learned about Irrisen seemed to be another proof of how corrupt the region was and of how much they needed the Knights of Solamnia.
Meanwhile Nadya, to which the situation in the Howlings was new but not unknown, was the one who kept her on her shoulders and remained watchful, being the only one who noticed that there was someone following us from over the rooftops.
-Don't look up or back- she commanded-. There are two of them at least. I believe that they are waiting for us to get to a narrow alley to strike an ambush.
That didn't seem like something that a winter wolf would do. They would just take what they wanted out of sheer force.
-What are they?- I asked while we kept walking, as if everything was fine.
Nadya pretended to arrange the fish while she looked back. At the same time she picked up something from the cart, using her cloak to conceal it. Then we continued our march.
-Goblins.- She informed us.
We had no more time for talking or discussing strategies, as something exploded right at our feet with a sound of crashing glass, a blast of fire, and a smell of sulfur, right as Indi finished speaking. We weren't caught off-guard, though, and the explosion didn't hurt anyone seriously: only Nadya and Cat, who were closer to the cart, got a few superficial burns.
-Leave the fish cart, longshanks!- Yelled the goblin leader- Run! Get out of here.
Grindtooth tried to defend himself, but he wasn't a good melee fighter and he was outnumbered. His fellow goblins weren't of much help either with their terrible aim. They constantly missed their shots while, despite the disadvantage of her position, Nadya managed to hurt the leg of one of them and knock him to the ground. Summoning his nature powers, Indi called a ray of lightning that came down from the clear sky and hit another goblin.
Things weren't running smoothly for Grindtooth, but he didn't give up in his intent to claim the cart as his until a well placed hit on the scruff from Cat knocked him down. Again, Grindtooth’s cronies started calling out his name desperately, but when they got no answer, they just ran away and vanished into the streets, leaving their leader behind.
-Will they come back for us?- Asked Argentea.
Argentea listened to Cat as if all was new to her and made little sense. It is hard to get into the mindset of a survivor when you have never had to be one.
-Should we leave this one here?- I asked, pointing at Grindtooth, who still laid unconscious next to us- Winter wolves might devour him or something worse.
Again, Cat gave it no importance. She believed that his friends would come back for him as soon as we were gone, but I still feared that if he was found by someone else it could cause us some trouble. In the end, I used my healing powers to get him back into consciousness and we allowed him to get away, trusting that a bandit wouldn't call out any authorities for help. We were already about to reach our first destination where we were going to get rid of the cart. Until now, we had managed to keep a low profile and I didn't want that to change because someone found out an unconscious goblin and decided to investigate.
Finally, after more than a week of travel, we had Whitethrone in front of us. We didn't have any more trouble during the rest of the trip, aside from a bunch of merrows who tried to charge us for crossing “their" bridge (one or two dogs would be fine) and those Indi intimidated into letting us pass by displaying his magic.
Whitethrone was the biggest city I had ever seen. Set on the border of a frozen lake and with a fairytale palace dominating the view, it looked like a dreamlike setting. But instead of heading directly towards the city, which Nadya described as “suicidal", she insisted on visiting one of the many nearby shantytowns, where her uncle was supposed to live. Those places were called “Fishcamps" by the locals, and were small, dirty and poor settlements where most of the fishing industry of the city was located. Though people lived humbly in the Fishcamps, they enjoyed more freedom that any of the citizens in the capital could even dream of, which made it an attractive place for people who, like Ringeirr, earned their lives through illegal business.
Many years ago, Nadya explained, the winter witches had taken both Ringeirr’s wife and daughter. After many years of failed attempts of rescuing them, or at least knowing what had happened to them, Ringeirr had become an expert in getting in and out of the city unnoticed. That allowed him to earn his life as a smuggler, and would also help us get into the city without being registered or interrogated.
Nadya had never been to Whitethrone or to her uncle’s house before, and therefore she didn't know where he lived, so we resolved to ask the locals about him. What seemed like an easy task proved not to be so simple, as most people looked at us from a distance and avoided getting close. The few ones that deigned to speak to us were elusive and wary, adopting a defensive attitude as soon as we asked about a man named Ringeirr Malenkov. They never had heard of him, they said. No one with that name had ever lived there, they insisted.
-People who ask too many questions or speak too much won't live long here.- One of the people we spoke to warned us. His words sounded more like advice than a threat.
The man we were talking to was unarmed and wore no armor but thick clothes to protect him from cold. We were a group of five, fully armed, plus some fierce-looking dogs. He was just a fisherman. I could see how his fear of us temporarily overcame the fear of whatever was preventing him from talking.
-The Fishcamp Guards arrested him for disturbing the peace.- He said in whispers, though there wasn't anyone close.
The panic in the face of the fisherman told me that my sister had nailed it.
-I would never say something like that.- Babbled the man, visibly nervous.
There was no reason to keep harassing the terrified man, so we left for the piers. As we approached, we heard fighting sounds. Someone was crying out in pain, while other voices spat curse words and insults in Skald. At this point we all had gotten used to the language, but some of the words that the attackers were using were unknown to me. I guess that it was better for me not to know.
My sister ran in the direction of the tumult without waiting for anyone else. Nadya followed, asking her to be careful, and I went after them, just in case my sister got into trouble as usual. Argentea followed us, leaving Indi in charge of the dogs and our belongings just because he had the slowest reaction time.
Soon we had a clear view of what was happening. Four humans were beating up another, who was laying on the floor defenceless. They didn't even look especially big or strong to me, they just relied on sheer numbers to seem threatening. The people at the piers pretended to be working, but they were all watching the beating with horrified faces.
Cat jumped into the fray like her life depended on it, unsheathing her kukris. She had faced (but not usually defeated) bigger and scarier men on her own. She always said that she wasn't afraid of a broken tooth for a good reason, but this time the thugs were armed with hooks and carried daggers on their belts. She risked more than a broken tooth.
-Stop it, stop it now!- She commanded, with all the respect that someone as short and slim as she can command. In the excitement of the moment she spoke in Common, so they most likely didn't understand.
Cat spat at their feet. At that moment, Argentea had already reached her and was ready to enter the fight. I invoked my powers, making one of them fall asleep. That was enough to get their attention.
-This is none of your business- said the same thug that had spoken before-. We are just collecting taxes.
His explanation was answered by a well placed bash from Argentea’s shield that broke his nose. My sister followed with a low hit with the grip of her blade. Maybe we didn't want to kill them, but my sister didn't seem to be against keeping him from having kids. An arrow hit the last of them on the foot.
-Where’s Ringeirr Malenkov?- cried out Nadya, assuming that these were the people we were looking for. It wasn't a farfetched guess, in my opinion. How many gangs could coexist in small settlement without killing each other?
Nadya’s question remained unanswered, as the thugs responded to our attack by defending themselves to the best of their abilities. The man they had been beating on seized his opportunity to get up and limp away while Argentea and Cat did their best to bring the gangmen down without using lethal force and Nadya aimed for the limbs. They didn't provide us with the same courtesy, but they were far from representing a serious threat. They were obviously not accustomed to fighting people who didn't back away after the first hit or beg for their lives.
After two of them were knocked down without much difficulty, I put the remaining one to sleep. Just in time for the first one to wake up with a kukri on his throat and an arrow aimed at his head.
-Where is Ringeirr Malenkov?- Repeated Nadya.
We guessed that Marcian must be some leader of sorts, so we didn't ask. Nadya was too worried about her uncle to pose any unnecessary questions. Ringeirr’s safety was more important than the reasons why the Fishcamps Guards had taken him.
-Where is the guardhouse?- Nadya demanded to know.
The thug seemed surprised by the question, as if the answer was common knowledge. Like we weren't evidently foreigners.
-The biggest house in the village. You can see it from here.
There was no possible confusion: only a couple of streets away, the “guardhouse" was, inarguably, the only big house in sight.
The second thug woke up too, only to find his face against the ground and Argentea’s boot pressing against his back so he couldn't stand up.
-We are going to let you go- she spoke to both-. Do yourselves a favor and stay out of our way.
Having said that, we headed towards the “guardhouse" without losing a moment. Not far from there, Indi waited patiently with the dogs, probably cursing us for leaving him behind again.
Ogres are the perfect example of big, scary creatures with small brains, so they were the perfect targets for my magic. One of them fell asleep before he could even get close to us, while the other one met Nadya’s arrows. Marcian aimed his crossbow towards us but Cat and Argentea were all over him before he had a chance to shoot. He dropped the crossbow and unsheathed his rapier, visibly nervous, and commanded the ogre (who was already about to charge towards Nadya) to protect him. The ogre made a ravaging blow with his hook against my sister, who cried out in a mixture of pain and rage. She was bleeding, but she didn't step back, instead answering with two well-placed slashes behind the knees (he was too tall to aim for the throat) that almost brought him to the ground. Ogres were savage and vicious, and my sister wouldn't hold her hand to avoid killing one, especially if her survival depended on it.
Making use of the distraction that the ogre provided, Marcian attacked my sister, attempting to catch her off-guard and slide his rapier between her ribs. Before I had time to warn her, though, she crouched and dodged the hit. Argentea defended her the best she could, attacking the ogre with her sword and pushing him back, putting all her strength in a shield bash.
Free from Marcian’s leadership, the last ogre could have surrendered, but he chose to fight until the end and attacked Argentea one last time before Nadya’s arrows knocked him down.
-Uncle!- Nadya cried out in joy when she saw him. She feared that the thugs would kill him if they found out that someone was coming to his rescue, so finding him alive was the best news she could get. She knelt down to cut the ropes keeping him tied up.
Ringeirr gave Nadya a concerned stare but he refrained from saying anything to her.
-They must be keeping my stuff somewhere around here, if you can help me find it.- He said instead.
After having to leave Waldsby, I wouldn't dare doubt the power of an angry mob. We finally released Marcian and his henchmen, making sure that many people saw us as we did (which wasn't hard, we hadn't been subtle and a lot of people were already gathering around the “guardhouse"), and that Ringeirr was at our side, looking the best he could. Finding his belongings wasn't hard: everything was being kept in a closed chest in Marcian’s room, alongside some valuables that we “collected for the cause".
Having done that, we picked up Indi (who was actually among the watchers, regretting missing all the action) and allowed Ringeirr to guide us to his house. There were so many things that we needed to talk about.
We had to decide Zzababa’s fate before we left Ellsprin, but we postponed it until the last moment. It was a difficult choice. Indi, pragmatic as always, believed that killing her would solve everything. She hadn't been able to prove that she had allies elsewhere, and that was enough for Indi to believe she was alone. But, as Nadya said, if we were wrong in our assumptions, other fey could come to avenge her death. I really wanted to allow her to leave, but if she came back and killed anyone else, it would be on our conscience, so I was hesitant. Argentea and Cat didn't have a clear idea either. They were worried about not being there to protect the people if the fey stuck back.
-Let her leave- a sixth voice intervened in the conversation, catching us all by surprise. It was Garen-. Please. I will take care of the situation if she comes back.
We all remained silent for a moment. Having Garen pleading for the life of someone who had helped kill the only father he had known was unexpected. Finally, Argentea broke the silence.
-You are big for your age, but you are still too young and inexperienced. How do you intend to fight the fey?
Garen held his stare with determination.
-I don't. The fey fighting and killing humans, and then humans fighting and killing the fey, and then the other way around again until we are all dead. It takes someone to break the cycle and forgive. To the fey, you are the same monsters that you think they are, but you can prove them wrong. And if she comes back, or more like her do, I will convince them to leave.
Garen looked to the ground, embarrassed.
-They did. I just didn't think of the consequences that my words could have. But I won't allow that to happen again.
I looked at Nadya.
-The choice is yours.- I said. She was the one leaving her family there.
Nadya looked at Garen, then to each one of us, like she was trying to read our minds.
-You know the fey better than we do- she said to the faun-. Just take care of Orm and Mjoli. They are going to be like your younger brothers now- then she turned to face Zzababa, who had regained consciousness during the night-. And you: I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself. We are being more forgiving that you would ever be with us. But if you don't stay away from my family, there won't be a place in all Krynn where you can hide from me.
Zzababa’s eyes flashed in anger, but I could see a hint of fear in them too. From what I know of Nadya, I don't think she was kidding.
As we took our prisoner outside, the wounds she still had started healing in contact with the snow,and soon she was fully recovered. We released her, unsure of what would happen next. Would she attempt to fight us, knowing that she couldn't win? Would she flee? In the end, her self-preservation instinct ruled and, after staring us in disbelief, she ran away as fast as she could.
-I might never see them again- she repeated on many occasions during our journey-. But if I can leave a better world to them, it will be worth it.
Cat had a natural talent to make difficult things seem easy, but Nadya had the dream where she had to choose between her war and her family still fresh in her memory. After we left Ellsprin, she was unusually silent for many hours, until Indi started to cheer her up, reminding her how close we were to Nazhena, and how soon she would be able to avenge her daughter’s death. I don't know how good it was for her to let revenge become her driving goal, but at least it kept her going for now. By the end of the day, she seemed to be in a good mood again.
It was around midday when Nadya reached for her bow and aimed at a bird that was flying above us. The animal, a hawk or a falcon, fell down between the trees.
-Watch out!- Nadya said, pointing towards the skies. Another bird was circling around our position, and as we noticed it, it emitted a high-pitched shriek. It was far above our heads, but my sister and Nadya were able to hunt it down before it flew away. This time the lifeless body landed near our position, and we could see that it had a ring around one of its feet. As Nadya had suspected, these weren't wild animals.
We hadn't gotten far when another couple of birds appeared, followed by the biggest wolf I had ever seen. It was white as snow, big as a bear and had a predatory and intelligent look in its uneven colored eyes. As Argentea and Cat jumped down from the sleds to block its way, the wolf stopped right in its tracks and sniffed the air.
-A winter wolf.- Said Nadya, struggling to keep the dogs under control. They were terrified and would probably attempt to flee (with the sleds and our belongings) if given a chance.
My eyes met the wolf’s as I animated my hair and he charged towards me. I tried to use my power to put him to sleep, but his will was stronger than it seemed.
-Get the witch!- Commanded the wolf in a voice that sounded like a howl- She is the dangerous one!
A volley of arrows flew towards me, though only a couple of them hit me, penetrating my protective spell. I had been lucky, but I wouldn't survive much more if I kept being targeted. Fortunately, by shooting me, the archers had given away their positions.
-There are four of them!- Shouted Argentea, as she blocked the winter wolf’s charge- Where do you think you are going?
Unable to reach me, the winter wolf jumped on Argentea, knocking her to the ground and trying to rip her throat out with his jaws. Cat jumped to the rescue, paying the wolf in the same coin with a couple of slashes aimed right to his throat. Meanwhile, Indi used his magic to take care of the archers, who remained half hidden between the trees. As I prepared to cast a spell, two falcons fell upon me, but they weren't much more than a distraction. Though my thick clothes were of no use against blades and arrows they did a good job protecting my skin from Nina’s talons, and the falcon’s weren't sharper than hers. Only one of them was able to make a small scratch on my cheek, but even that wasn't as painful as having my eyes pecked by crows. My biggest concern was still the archers aiming at me.
Behind us, Nadya was still having a hard time keeping the dogs under control. I feared that they could end up turning aggressive out of fear.
-How is it going?- asked Nadya, unable to pay much attention to the battle. The situation was pretty chaotic- Do you need help?
Protection magic has never been my speciality, so I had to rely on the closest thing to a protective spell that I had ready to cast to save myself. I sent my hair to reach for the winter wolf while I spoke words of magic. A single touch was enough for me to start siphoning his vital energy. Another arrow flew towards me, but the archer was paying more attention to Indi and he missed the shot. The next one was better aimed, but the stolen vital force that was still running through my blood mended my wound as soon as it was inflicted, leaving just a superficial scratch.
Aside from acting as a distraction, the falcons weren't much more than a nuisance, too small to cause real damage. On the other hand, the archers really put me in danger. I could tell that they would have aimed for Indi if they had been given the choice, but their leader didn't stop commanding to “kill the witch" in an low menacing growl. Which, given that I was unable to do much more than defend myself, probably wasn't the wisest decision, but that didn't comfort me. I’d rather stop being a target. As the wolf, frustrated for being unable to reach me, exhaled an icy breath, that caught me and Argentea, I started to have real fear for our lives. We might not survive another attack like that. He had to fall as soon as possible.
Indi was doing an excellent job, having defeated two of the falconers, but the remaining ones wouldn't surrender. They were too terrified of their leader, who wouldn't give up on his attacks despite his wounds. The wolf didn't notice, or didn't care, how badly injured he was. Even when my sister delivered the final wound, slashing his throat clean open, he seemed strangely confident and calm, like he never saw it coming. I bet that he never ever considered the possibility of being defeated by a bunch of worthless “humans”, most of which weren't even witches.
The falconers were quick to surrender as their leader fell. They threw away their weapons and begged for their lives, but we were wary after our former experience with the people of Irrisen. They could track us when they recovered. They could inform Nazhena about us.
-We won't, I swear- insisted one of them-. We were just following orders from Norgrimm.
Both falconers answered quickly pointing towards the dead winter wolf.
-We will go back home with our families. You will never see us again.
We hadn't agreed on that part. That was all Nadya’s idea.
We finally let them leave. Argentea was especially happy about it. She tended to be quite reserved in public, but this time she expressed her concerns about what we had been doing since we got to Irrisen.
-I am getting tired of all this killing. We are not fighting a war, just killing lawful citizens of a corrupted government. The problem is with the ones who give orders, not with the ones who follow them.
Nadya spoke in a low voice, like there could be someone listening.
-There are people trying to do that. But they have to keep a low profile. My uncle, Ringeirr, is one of them.
Nadya had already talked to us about her uncle as the person who would help us enter Whitethrone without being noticed.
-This isn't a battle that some poorly armed townsfolk can win- insisted Argentea-. As soon as the Knights of Solamnia learn about the power of the Winter Witches and how desperate the situation of the Irriseni people is, they will immediately declare war against this corrupted land and free it from tyranny.
That was my kagonesti blood speaking. After being enslaved by our civilized cousins, who came to our lands with false promises of prosperity, kagonesti elves tended to be wary of foreigners.
-They aren't warriors- said Argentea-. They are hunters, fishermen, artisans. They would only rise up to be slaughtered.
What she didn't say, and we didn’t know at that time, was how scarce the contingent of knights in Southern Ergoth was. I don't think she was even aware of it.
-They know nothing about the witches either- warned Nadya-. Any help will we welcome, though. What we don't want is to change one tyrant for another. We have already had too many tyrants here.
Cat approached her, with her own skinning knife in her hand. Argentea was a bit shocked about skinning an intelligent creature, but Indi immediately pointed out how the Knights of Solamnia used to craft armors out of the scales of dragons, who were among the most intelligent creatures known (I didn't understand how intelligence could make a creature more or less worthy, but I said nothing). Argentea finally capitulated, though she still wasn't pleased with the idea.
-Why so much interest in its pelt, anyway?- she asked Nadya. That was a good question.
That seemed like a good reason, though I was more interested in studying the magical properties of the pelt, if it had any.
Skinning the wolf didn't take much time, and it rewarded us with an immaculate white pelt that could be easily worn as a cloak. A quick examination with magical senses revealed that it held some kind of magic, though it wasn't until we set up camp in the evening that Indi and I studied it more closely, while Nadya worked on cleaning it and make it more functional to be worn. The magic it held wasn't as impressive as we had thought, as it only allowed its user to take the shape of a winter wolf once before it lost its magic. It was still warm and comfortable, and it granted some magical protection against cold, so it wouldn't be useless at all. Cat already had the cloak that we had taken from Rokhar the necromancer before we got to Irrisen, Indi had magic to protect himself from the cold weather and Nadya (having grown up in Irrisen) knew well how to fight cold without magic. As for Argentea, quoting her almost literally, there was no way she would be wearing “that". Myself, I found the rimepelt to be pretty fancy, so I didn't complain when everybody agreed on me keeping it. It was warm and fluffy, though much more heavy than it seemed at first sight. I didn't suspect that it would make my visit to Whitethrone more interesting.
I definitely enjoyed family life. We shared a warm meal (though Argentea insisted on having hers in the barn to watch over Zzababa), chatted for a while about less than transcendental topics to forget about recent events for a while, and now we were just enjoying some moments of relaxation. Nadya and Maret were getting up to date after so many years without seeing each other, though I believe that Nadya was overwhelming Maret with advice about how to take care of Orm and Mjoli while she was away. Cat was playing with the kids, which seemed to be the thing that she enjoyed the most. When I left to a private room to spend some time teaching new spells to Nina, Indi followed me.
-It’s going to be as boring as it was last time- I said- but you can watch if you wish.
His intentions were clear. I have always liked Indi’s frankness and honesty. I gave him a playful smile.
-So… Sylgja isn't here, Nadya is busy, and I am like... what? The third redhead on your list?
I just shrugged and kissed him again. He was quick to respond me and soon we found ourselves wrestling in the nude. I think that “wrestling” is a good way to phrase it, because Indi brought my wilder side out, and he seemed to have a wild side of his own. He found my animated hair extremely interesting and didn't care that I used it in creative ways. But despite the good moments we shared, and that Indi’s carefree attitude invited me to get carried away, my mind didn't seem to be able to go to the same place as my body. Instead of just relaxing and having a good time, I kept thinking of Argentea. Would she get upset? (Why should she?) What was she doing at that time? I missed being with her. I liked Indi, a lot, but it didn't feel quite the same.
It had been a long, tiring day, so we both felt exhausted when we were done. Indi laid on the bed with a calm smile on his lips, and caressed my skin while saying something to me, I cannot even remember what. I didn't feel like engaging in chatter. I dressed, claiming that I was getting cold (which was actually true, but that had never stopped me) and I left as soon as it seemed polite. I don't think that Indi ever thought that there was something going on, as the only complaint that I got as I left came from Nina.
“I can't open doors.” She protested “Being stuck here with you two was no fun.”
I blushed. I had completely forgotten about her.
-I am sorry.
Indi watched us leave with a smile on his face. I bet that seeing me arguing with an owl must seem quite strange.
-Where are you going?- Asked my sister as I headed outside of the house.
That was the only thing that she said. Not even a month ago, Cat would have been afraid to let me out alone in a potentially dangerous place. It seemed like she was finally started to believe that I was able to take care of myself. Or maybe (most likely) she just believed that Argentea would protect me if I was endangered.
I found Argentea sitting next to the unconscious fey, with an eye on her and an eye on the door. She reached for her weapons as I came in but she relaxed when she saw it was me.
-Is everything alright?- She asked.
I approached her from behind and kissed her neck.
-I missed you.- I answered.
She turned back to face me.
-I have only been here for a couple of hours. That isn't enough time to miss me.
I sat on her knees and embraced her, carefully trying to avoid the spikes on her shoulder pads. I kissed her lips.
-I am on watch- Argentea complained without much conviction-. This isn't appropriate.
I never understood why calling some things by their name was considered impolite among humans. Euphemisms were confusing.
-Why are you telling me this?- She didn't seem happy.
-I just cannot believe that you still have any energy remaining. Indi must not be a very good lover.- I swear she had a wicked smile on her lips when she said that.
Her face reflected confusion and embarrassment. Argentea always seemed so self confident and sure of herself that I loved when she looked confused. I found it quite funny.
-What is that supposed to mean?- She asked.
I laughed hard and kissed her deeply. I felt exhausted, but still, I needed to be with her. My hands reached for the belts of her armor. Argentea opened her mouth like she was about to complain, took a last look at the unconscious fey and let herself go.
-I can't believe that you still have energy.- She repeated as she responded to me, slipping her hands under my coat.
I didn't, but I still knew how to please her and in the end my body responded much better than I had expected. Argentea made me feel things that I hadn't felt before, and not all of them were purely physical. I had to thank Indi for making me realize.
After a while, we were lying on the ground, snuggling together to fight cold, with my head resting on Argentea’s chest. I could hear her heart beating.
-Did you dream of me the other night?- She asked me. The question caught me off guard.
I sensed in her voice that she feared my answer.
-Judging from Nadya’s dream, and from mine, the dreams seemed to present alternative futures, maybe choices.
Argentea’s heart started beating faster.
-There was more- Argentea’s voice faded into a whisper-. I saw him.
She said it like it was the most terrible fate that she could imagine.
-Why is that bad?- I asked with a smile. I didn't want to appear as uncomfortable and nervous as the topic made me.
I looked at her in disbelief.
-Do you want to quit?
-She has to leave her children behind. What if I am not able to do it? What if I cannot get back in shape? What if I don't want to fight anymore?
She looked sad.
-We don't always have a choice.
Argentea’s eyes flashed in anger. I had accidentally hit a soft spot.
-What is happening here is more important than an arranged marriage. People are being abused here. We are about to be invaded. This is my responsibility as a knight.
I couldn't believe how afraid to change Argentea was. To elves, humans seemed ever changing, but she was quite the opposite. I wondered if I was anything more to her than a way to evade the responsibilities that she didn't want to inherit. I feared that one day she would make her choice and forget about me, but also that I might be keeping her from being happy with someone who could give to her all the things that I never could. After all, what was I more than a wildling of uncertain origins with no wealth, no family and no home? The fact that we would be parting ways soon, when she met her fiance and I found the source of my dreams, should make all my concerns irrelevant, but thinking about it didn't comfort me at all.
Back to the cabin, Maret was so glad to have her son back that she didn't pay attention to us for a while. Nadya had never seen Garen before and she was evidently surprised, though she tried to pretend she wasn't, while attempting to convince her equally surprised sons of the normality of the situation.
When things calmed down a bit, Maret explained her story to us.
-I was so young then. It was shortly after you married my brother, Nadya. I met a satyr, who was… charming, like all the satyrs are. I made the mistake of thinking that I was more than another conquest to him, and he disappeared from my life as quick as entered it. After Garen was born I was afraid that he would come back to take him away from me, but it never happened. We had to move to the outskirts of the village, because people wouldn't understand. They would mock and insult Garen, because they are afraid of the fey and a young and innocent faun like Garen was the easiest prey they found.
This was personal to her. It felt too much like our own story.
-Not all of them are- Maret gave Cat a sad smile-. Borvald loved me and Garen for who we are.
I felt like I was hearing myself talking. And the words, from someone else’s mouth, made much less sense.
-So you ran away- I stated-. I have been there too. My people don't like me a lot either. I believed that my sister’s life would be much better without me.
Cat grunted in disapproval.
-Why?- Garen gave me an analytical stare- You look normal. Is it the ears? Your sister has them too. I think they are pretty.
That explanation might be too cynical to give to a kid.
-Do you hate your people?- he asked. That was a good question. The short answer was “yes".
While Indi and Argentea took care of the corpse, the rest of us proceeded to interrogate Zzababa, who had a less than collaborative attitude. The first thing she did after we healed her wounds was insult and threaten us. If we killed her, more would come to avenge her, she said. Garen had become weak by spending too much time among humans, but other fey would do what he couldn't: show humans their place. When we asked her concrete questions, like how many her allies were or where they lived, we only got abstract answers like “many" or “everywhere". At first we took it as her being defensive, but when she failed to provide information even when it was for her own good, we started to suspect that she was lying.
-If you don't tell us about your allies- I said with a soft threatening voice- we will begin suspecting that they don't exist. And if they don't exist, we shouldn't be afraid of ending your life.
I smiled. Her fear was so pleasant. I had promised not to use fear as a tool, but it was for the best.
-Do that, and the town will be ravaged- she said without much conviction, like she was sticking to her previous words in an attempt to save her life-. No one will survive.
Nothing made sense. They hated humans and were powerful enough to destroy an entire village, and yet nobody knew about them. Their only known action was trying to force a kid to harm his beloved ones. It didn't seem like a large scale organization.
-If you really want to live- I continued- you should be trying to convince us that you are inoffensive enough to let you go. Telling us where Garen’s father is, or if he had something to do with this would also help.
That seemed like a more realistic threat than the fey ravaging the village. If Garen’s father was really interested in him, he might endanger Maret and Nadya’s kids too.
-I don't even know who he is- the faerie shrugged-. We were just going to help the boy find him. Do you think that all fey know each other? So typical of humans- she gave us another spiteful stare-. Don't think that I will ever bend my knee to humans like you.
She had called us “humans" so many times that Cat had already stopped correcting her.
WARNING! Long one ahead!
The day after the fight against the undead priests I started feeling feverish and weak in the evening. Even though my wound had been healed with magic, the skin looked swollen and red.
Nina hooted insistently as I prepared myself to use it. “Give it to me. You will be able to heal yourself tomorrow.”
I was surprised I could understand what she was saying. Maybe my fever was higher than I thought.
-You can speak?
She hooted again. “I always could, but you wouldn't listen.”
That made sense.
-So, I feed you the scroll so tomorrow I can cast the spell by myself?
I had done that before, but I was feeling so tired and uncomfortable that I hadn't thought about it in this case. The disease didn't seem contagious, so I guessed I could wait until the next day.
-You burned the scroll to ashes, then mixed it with herbs, and you fed it to Nina, that’s it?
-I still don't understand how your magic works.- complained Indi.
Nina hooted aloud to reinforce my sister’s words.
-But there is a lot I could learn from them- I explained-. I barely understand what I do.
After communing with Nina to regain my daily spells and making peace with her in the process, I used my new knowledge to get rid of the disease that had me going from shivering to sweating the whole night. I still felt weak, but I was ready for another day in our journey. It wasn't a long one, as we got to Ellsprin by midday. Nadya gradually became more silent as we approached our destination, knowing that the time to say goodbye to her children drew near.
-That has to be Maret’s house.- said Nadya, pointing to a wooden cabin on the outskirts of the village, separated from it by a small grove.
As we got closer, we noticed a man lying face down in the middle of the road. The snow around him was stained red. It was snowing quite hard, so the blood had to be recent.
-Be careful!- cried out Argentea as she ran, taking cover behind her shield, towards the apparently dead man. I ran after her. If he was still alive I could heal him. But when I was about to crouch by him, something came out from nowhere, running as fast as lightning. The creature was as tall as a human child, with a slender build and the pale blue skin of the winter fey. His nimble moves caught Argentea off guard, allowing him to approach me and strike with his long, clawed fingers. They were colder than ice.
-He’s dead, human, as you should all be. You will learn respect!
He stared at me with absolute hatred.
-Not today!- Argentea reacted before I did, hitting the fey with her shield and tossing him away from me and towards the others.
As we engaged in battle, a second creature joined the fray, appearing from between the trees. I had never seen anything similar in my entire life: it was even smaller than its companion and it resembled a miniaturized pine tree with some vaguely human features. It had two root-legs, two branch-arms and a well defined wooden head with a long branch-nose. It joined its friend to flank Cat, who barely dodged its sharp branches.
Indi wisely reasoned that something that looked so much likedry wood should be especially prone to catching fire. He invoked a couple of scorching rays that hit just on their target, leaving it visibly charred and mauled, and revealing that it seemed to be made out of flesh despite of its wooden look.
Meanwhile, the other creature went on with his hate-speech against humans, spitting insults at Indi for daring to attack his partner.
Argentea would have gladly finished the work against the pine tree creature, but the ground was slippery and her target out of reach, so she attacked the spiteful faerie, dropping her shield and grabbing her sword with both hands to deliver an especially powerful blow. The blade, crafted in cold iron, cut through the fey’s flesh and bone without meeting resistance, causing massive damage to the creature’s slender body. It laid face up on the snow, with his chest almost split in half. Even Argentea seemed surprised by the effectiveness of her own blow.
Now, all our attention focused on the pine tree creature who, seeing his companion’s fate, took the wisest decision: it fled towards some nearby trees and disappeared. While the others followed it, only to discover that it seemed to have vanished into thin air, I knelt by the man lying on the road. The faerie hadn't lied: he was already dead, and so was the faerie. There was nothing I could do for them.
In the cabin, the wooden door opened and a woman’s head (most likely Maret) peeped out from inside.
-Are they gone?
Nadya and Indi grabbed Orm and Mjoli on their hips and we ran into the cabin leaving the dogs and the sleds outside. I saw recognition on both Nadya’s and the woman’s eyes as they saw each other.
-Nadya! What are you doing here with the kids? Is everything fine in Waldsby?
Maret looked embarrassed.
-He ran away, and now he is back with those fey. But I refuse to believe that this is all his doing- she was about to start crying-. He loved Borvald like he was his real father.
She began sobbing I felt really bad for her. I ran away so many times as a kid, and I had never taken into consideration my sister’s feelings. I believed that she’d be better without me. I barely knew Maret but I hugged her.
-We will bring Garen back safely. If he is with those fey he cannot be far from here.
Nadya stayed with her sister-in-law to comfort her while the rest of us went fey-hunting. Following their tracks to a nearby barn was easy: they hadn't been subtle. There were at least two sets of child-like footprints accompanied by the strange root-feet of the smallest one, and the tracks of a bigger two-legged, hoofed creature that made me immediately think of Mierul.
We were expecting trouble as we opened the barn’s door, so we were prepared. Cat opened the door while Argentea charged first as we entered. After magically animating my hair, I followed her.
-Murderers!- The female faerie charged towards us followed by the tree-man, while the half-goat stayed where he was.
The female, like her male counterpart before, moved really quick. She tried to use her speed to approach Indi before we could react but Argentea and Cat were in the way. She scratched my sister’s leg while Indi cast another fire spell on the diminutive tree-man, who recoiled in pain. As he desperately charged towards Indi, Cat intercepted him and slashed his throat. Despite his bark-like skin, he bled like a person. It was horrible to see. I noticed the fear in the eyes of the goat-legged man, like it was the first time he had seen something like that, and I wondered when I had gotten so used to seeing people die.
-Don't stand there like an idiot!- Cried the female faerie as she maneuvered to avoid being flanked by Argentea and my sister- They killed Faernip! Now they’ve killed Tindletwig! They will kill us all if they can!
The one who spoke was the man with the goat legs. He seemed genuinely desperate. I decided to trust him and attempt to end the fight in the most harmless way possible: invoking my sleep magic. The blueish female faerie fell asleep immediately and Cat rushed to tie her up before she woke up again.
The goat-legged creature that claimed to be Garen approached cautiously.
-Please, don't harm Zzababa- he pleaded-. This was all my fault.
The “kid” (who was taller than any of us thanks to his hooved legs, and more hairy than most humans) nodded, still visibly scared. He looked to his fallen companions one last time before following us out of the barn. That was when he saw his foster father’s corpse lying on the snow. He wasn't too close, but I could see on Garen’s face that he recognized him immediately. He turned pale.
-They told me that they would take me to my real father… They wanted me to prove that I was one of them… I didn't know what they were planning, I swear.
I saw guilt, fear and grief in Garen’s eyes. I knew those feelings well. He would run away again if he could, just for the fear of being judged. I had been there.
-You confronted them, refused to take part- I said-. You have nothing to regret.
For some reason, this reminded me of my dream about me killing Cat, and I felt a cold shiver running down my spine. I was so afraid of hurting my own family. Not only Cat, but all the new people that I had met and felt like my own family now.
We traveled all day without rest to regain the time we had lost when we visited the sacred forest. There was less than a hour of daylight left when we decided to look for a good place to set up camp. It was already getting dark when we found the abandoned village. Back in its time, it must have been much smaller than Waldsby, with no more than a few small houses surrounding a bigger structure that could have been a court or a temple. Now, just a few snow-covered stones remained where the houses had been and only the bigger building was still standing.
-This place must be centuries old.- Said Argentea, examining one of the weathered stones.
We were in the middle of a frozen plain and it hadn't started snowing yet so we had perfect visibility. It was unlikely that anyone could walk around unnoticed. Still, one could never be too cautious. Nadya grabbed her bow and stayed alert while the rest of us walked into the remaining building.
As we entered we noticed that the place couldn't be anything other than a temple: there was an altar next to the opposite wall from the door with an infinity symbol carved on it, and a white marble statue that was missing the upper side of her body. Two people were standing in front of the altar, a human man and woman dressed in white priestly robes with blue ornaments. They looked at us as we entered.
-Kids! What where you doing outside?- The white robed woman spoke in a voice that was full of grief- Come in so we can protect you!
The Blue Lady, Goddess of life and healing, was among the most prominent gods of Light now that her consort Paladine was gone. She was said to hate undead more than anything else in the world. Keeping ghosts among her ranks seemed unlikely.
-Come here, children- repeated the woman-. We have to pray to save our souls from Baba Yaga.
If there was a god that my sister knew by all his names, that was Chemosh, the Ravenous Crow, the Judge of Souls. My sister and I had never fallen into the corruption that Sylvyana, his Chosen One, had bestowed onto our people. Still, my sister held a personal grudge against him since we had visited Crystyne. Any attempt of questioning her about it only led to several minutes of swearing and cursing.
-Not him again!- Cat grunted as she rushed towards the priests. As she stepped in the middle of the chamber, a choir of screams filled the room: around a dozen children crying in agony. It was heartbreaking. I’d have done anything to make it stop.
Cat defended herself the best she could from the combined attack of the two condemned priests, as Argentea joined the fray and Indi released a blast of fire from his hands. The woman screamed in frustration as the fire charred her undead flesh. She looked at Indi with rage in her eyes, but before she could act against him, Cat finished her off with a double slash of her kukris.
I invoked my healing magic and channeled it into my hair, using it as a weapon against the remaining dead priest. As the life energy infused into him by my spell spread through his body, his flesh began scorching. Some people say that undead cannot feel pain, but those people surely haven't heard one of them screaming in agony after being damaged by a healing spell. They hate it so much that you’d better finish them off with that spell or at least have a good way to defend yourself after it, because you are going to become a target. I learned the lesson that day.
-Witch…- mustered the dead priest in reverential fear.
He charged towards me forgetting about everything else and, before I could react, slashed my belly with his rotting claw-like fingers.
Cat and Argentea were quick to fall upon him and tear the last remains of undeath from his body, but the children were still crying. After checking out that my wound wasn't serious Cat suggested we get out of that haunted place.
-Never ever sleep indoors when traveling- she complained-. Creepy killer dolls, crazy dead priests… I’d rather risk being eaten by wolves.
We all had to agree.
-So what exactly happened?- Asked Argentea- Are the souls of all those children still trapped there?
I cannot tell if I really meant it. I was still too horrified by the children’s screams.
-They were desperate. Can you assure me that you wouldn't have done the same in their situation?
He thought before answering.
-Probably not. But I cannot judge them either. I’d just want to know what kind of person that Baba Yaga is to invoke such fear among people.
We went back to Nadya and we told her what we had seen. We also asked her about what she knew about Baba Yaga. What kind of person was she?
-I don't know what she did during the war- she explained-. All that I know is that she gathered an army of trolls, giants and other monsters to unify all the lands into what is now known as Irrisen.
-What happens to the old queen?- I asked.
-Baba Yaga takes her. Nobody knows where. Some say that she is rewarded. Some say that she suffers a terrible fate. Maybe it depends on whether she has been a fair ruler or not. I just don't know.
It wasn't until we set camp that Cat and I told the others about what we had found inside the hollow tree. Nobody had a clue what a kagonesti elf might be doing in Irrisen or how they could have gotten there but, at least, Indi was able to identify the painting of the blue bird as we described it.
-That must be Habbakuk, the God of Beasts. I heard that he is popular among wilder elves.
I felt a bit embarrassed for recognising one of the most popular gods of my people by the human name. I had spent too much time among humans and not enough among elves, but I didn't feel like changing that. The only thing that I regretted was that my sister also had to live like that because of me. Even though she never complained, I knew she missed living among elves. We had tried so many times, and it never ended well.
That night I dreamed. It wasn't one of my usual nightmares, but a lucid dream where I was a mere witness with no control over my actions, while two overlapping scenes unfolded before my eyes.
The second scene replaced Argentea with my sister. We weren't kissing but I was still so close to her that I could feel her heavy breath on my face. She was scared. No, not just scared, but panicking. And yet she didn't move, she didn't try to escape as I took her life with my bare hands. The grief I felt was replaced by a sensation of relief and fulfillment as all my worries now seemed distant and irrelevant and I was overwhelmed by a sudden surge of power that warmed me from inside. It felt sort of similar to the moment when I got Baba Yaga’s mark.
I reached climax with Argentea at the same time that I felt Cat’s life slip away and both scenes began fading, burning in a fire as blue as the ocean. I saw a firebird with scintillating blue feathers rising up to the sky and I opened my eyes. I woke up with my sister’s heavy breath on my face, and I couldn't help but let a muffled cry escape from my mouth. That woke Cat up, who stared at me with panic in her eyes. It took her a couple of seconds to settle down.
-I had a nightmare.- she said.
I snuggled against her again, and we went back to sleep. Next to us, Argentea had a peaceful smile on her lips. She never looked so calm while awake. Could it be that were all having those dreams?
-I was in a warm place with the children. Thora was also with us. But there was another version of the dream where I was here on my own, fighting the Winter Witches.
Like mine, Nadya’s dream seemed to imply alternative paths. I told them how I had killed my sister in my dream.
-That’s ridiculous! I know you would never do that!- Cat laughed, but her eyes reflected the same fear that I had seen in them the previous night.
Cat’s eyes flashed in anger. Questioning our blood ties was one thing she'd never stand.
-Stop all the nonsense! You are my sister.
Sometimes I wished that she wasn't so loyal. Taking care of me had taken a big toll on her: she had no close friends, no place to call home. She shared my fate and became a stranger among our kind. She deserved much better.
-Maybe we should move. It’s getting late.- said Argentea, trying to disarm the volatile situation as best as she could. She wasn't that good at playing the mediator, but it worked, as neither Cat nor I were interested in an argument.
We were already on our way, not far from the exit of the woods, discussing which road to take.
-While you were troll-hunting, Sylgja…- Indi started to say.
-I am not sure I want to know how that sentence ends.- Interrupted Argentea. I giggled.
-I shouldn't have healed you. You were much nicer before.- Joked Indi.
I was glad to have Argentea (almost) back to normal. She still looked more silent and absent-minded than usual, but at least she had regained her attitude.
-Go on, though I am afraid I will end up regretting it.
-Sylgja told me about a sacred forest to the South, not far from here. According to her, it’s one of the very few fertile lands in all Irrisen. It’s full of vegetation and life. Sylgja believed the forest and its inhabitants to be consecrated by some God.
-I would love to see that!- I said.
-Wouldn't that make our trip longer?- Asked Argentea.
-Not that much- answered Indi-. An extra day or so. But I think it would be worth it.
-Already tired of the snow?- I chuckled.
-Not yet. I am just curious.
-Maybe we could gather up some extra supplies- suggested Cat-. We’re starting to be short on them.
-It looks like a good place to hunt for food.- Nadya agreed.
Indi didn't seem so sure.
-Uhhh… Nope. As someone who grew up in a temple, I would advise against going into a sacred place and slaughtering the ones under its protection.
-I hadn't thought of it that way.- Said Cat.
-Gods won't be offended if we pick some berries, right?- I asked- If that place is such a fertile land there must be other edible things aside from animals.
-I guess so.
-Maybe we can get some sap!
Argentea looked at me like I was talking about eating shoes.
-The sap of some trees is delicious, sweeter than honey! Well, I guess- I hadn't eaten honey in my entire life-. You just have to make a small hole in the bark, and collect the sap in a bottle…- Argentea’s stare didn't change- I swear it’s delicious!
Cat didn't back me up, as she had never developed a special taste for sweets, and everybody else seemed to find the sole idea of “bleeding a tree" disgusting, so I was stuck being that weird girl who is capable of eating the strangest things.
A night of rest and many hours of traveling (plus a few jokes about me being full of spiders because I had eaten them and found them delicious) later, we got to the sacred forest. It was much smaller yet full of much more life than we had expected. It was mostly composed of evergreens, which created a thick coat that acted as a protection against the wind and the snow. The ground was still covered in snow, but there were some patches of green grass growing shyly here and there. Even before we entered, we could see some bushes that were growing berries. In the frozen wasteland that Irrisen was, this place seemed like paradise.
We left Nadya behind to take care of the kids and the sleds and ventured into the sacred forest. We passed by a white hare, which stared at us fearlessly. It might have never seen a human or an elf before. Birds tweeted, perched on the branches of the trees, undisturbed by our presence. It would have been too easy to hunt there, but we had to respect the sanctity of that place, so we just collected berries, some firewood made out of a fallen tree and some roots that looked like turnip and hopefully would taste like turnip. I also managed to collect a full bottle of sweet sap, though I was never able to convince anyone to try it.
As we went deeper into the woods, we found the biggest tree that I had ever seen. It was thrice as tall as its surroundings, and at least five times wider. There was a big crack on one side, like it had been hit by lightning and we could see that it was hollow inside, yet it was still growing big and healthy like its core was intact.
-How weird!- I said- Let’s go to look at that!
As we had been told this was a sacred place, I expected the great tree to be some kind of sanctuary or place of worship where we could make some offerings. I ran towards it, followed by my sister, who shared my own curiosity. But as we approached, the biggest elk that we had ever seen appeared from behind the bushes, interposing his body between us and the hollow tree. He emitted a low menacing sound while lowering his head. We backed away a couple of steps, and the animal stayed in his place, still ready to startle us. Then we attempted to circle around him but he always maneuvered to keep his massive body in the middle to prevent us from reaching the great tree. Cat tried to calm the elk down and demonstrate that we meant no harm to him, but she only got him to emit a louder and more persistent menacing sound.
-This is not working- she whispered to me-. Let’s get back.
I obeyed. She was the expert.
-We should circle round the tree to approach it without being noticed.- I suggested as we got far enough from the watchful eyes of the animal.
-I am not completely sure.
-Come on! If we approach from the other side he won't notice us!
She was the expert. I should have paid attention, but I was just too curious, and Cat was easily convinced. It all went fine at first but, when we were only a few steps far from the entrance to the hollow tree, we ran into the giant elk charging towards us. He was too close, getting inside the tree before he rammed us was next to impossible.
I pointed towards him.
-Sleep.- I hissed.
The elk stumbled and stopped right in his tracks, falling asleep but still standing on his four legs.
-Let’s go!- I said. My sister started to run away, but she followed me when she realized that I was heading towards the open crack in the tree.
-What are we going to do when he wakes up?- She asked.
-We’ll decide later- I shrugged-. We haven't gotten so far to give up now.
The room inside the tree was much smaller than it seemed from the outside, and it was mostly empty, except for a stump that could make the function of a table or a chair. If it was a temple or a sanctuary, it was a very humble one.
-It looks like someone’s home.- Cat guessed.
To human standards, there was no way this could qualify as a home, but to kagonesti elves, who only in the harshest weather conditions built rudimentary refuges or tents, this was not just a home, but a pretty decent one.
There were no light sources, which was no impediment for my sister and I to see that the walls were fully covered in paintings and carvings. I couldn't decipher the meaning of the carved runes, but I recognized the stylized and schematic figures drawn in the wood with vibrant colors. My people, the kagonesti elves, refused to acknowledge the written language and used paintings as the only way of graphic communication. But what could a kagonesti elf be doing in Irrisen? Most locals (Nadya included) hadn't seen an elf before and mistook my sister and I for fey-blooded or strange-looking humans.
The paintings must be recent, as the colors hadn't started to fade yet. They represented mostly animals, all looking in the same direction, and some plants. The biggest one, which was faintly illuminated by the little light that came through the crack, was a big blue bird.
-This one represents a God, doesn't it?- Asked Cat.
-I think so.
I was pretty sure of that. It was one of the main deities among the kagonesti, but I couldn't remember which. That demonstrated how much of an education I had received from my kind and how much my sister and I cared about the Gods.
The rest of the paintings seemed to tell a story that I was excited to start deciphering, but that would have to wait. When we heard the elk emitting a loud call outside, we prepared to fight. He was too big to fit through the crack, but we were unsure of what kind of attention he could attract with his call.
At first we chose to stay inside the tree, at least that would keep the elk away. Then we heard the howling sounds mixed with Argentea’s battle cries and Indi’s invocations and we realized that we weren't the ones who were in trouble. We had to get out and help them… which could have been easy if it wasn't for the angry elk waiting for us.
As we got out, the animal charged again. My sister and I ran among the trees trying to evade him, but he was way faster than us.
-Can't you make him sleep again?- Cat asked.
-It will only work once!
The elk was on top of us. My sister rolled on the floor to avoid being rammed.
-Run!- she commanded me- Help the others!
I didn't like leaving my sister behind but I trusted her. She wasn't suicidal or given to heroic sacrifice. She knew well when to take a risk.
I ran. I could hear the sound of the battle clearly, so Argentea and Indi couldn't be far. When I got to them, Argentea was fighting a couple of worgs. Compared to them, the wolves that had attacked Orm a couple of days ago seemed like pups, but Argentea was doing a good job holding them back. She attacked with the side of her shield and the sword in its sheathe to avoid harming the animals, while Indi used his magic to make the vegetation grow and entangle the attackers. Of course the worgs didn't respond with the same kindness: their fangs had already caused some serious damage to Argentea, who had bleeding wounds on her hip and her legs.
I approached enough to get the worgs into the range of my magic and I made the one who was still unharmed fall asleep.
-Where’s Cat?- Asked Indi- We’ve got to get out of here!
-Here!- Answered my sister in the distance- I’m coming!
-I am almost done with this one.- grunted Argentea, delivering another shield bash to the head of the worg that was still standing, but the creature was tougher than it seemed and it wasn't knocked down. A sigh of frustration came from Argentea’s throat.
We had no time to lose: we had to get out before the other worg woke up if we didn't want to end up having to kill them. I used my magic again and put the last worg to sleep. Then I called out for my sister.
-I’m going, I’m going!- She repeated, but I could tell that she was having a hard time getting rid of the elk.
-Get back to the sleds, we are leaving.- Commanded Argentea, heading towards Cat. She wasn't leaving my sister to fate.
Argentea gave me a harsh look. She was probably expecting me to complain and refuse to leave without Cat. Nothing like that: I knew that if I stayed I would be nothing but a nuisance. But there was one last thing I could do. I laid my hand on Argentea and cast my best healing spell, wishing that it helped. Then I followed Indi to the sleds.
Nadya was waiting for us and calming the dogs, which were visibly nervous.
-Is it all fine? Were those howls winter wolves?
-Worgs- Indi answered. That seemed to relieve Nadya- We are leaving as soon as we can.
Nadya didn't even have to tell the kids to get on the sleds, they were already prepared to leave. Orm looked especially scared. What had happened a couple of nights ago was still fresh on his mind.
Only a few seconds passed before Cat appeared, panting between the trees. Her white cloak was damp and muddy. Nadya readied her bow, just in case she had to cover her retreat.
-Where’s Argentea?- Asked Nadya as she helped my sister to get on the sled.
-Behind me- Cat was out of breath-. Wait.
Of course, we were not leaving without her. We waited. And then waited some more. We could hear battle sounds nearby. I don't think that more than a few seconds passed before Argentea limped out of the woods, but they seemed like an eternity. The elk was close to her feet, but he ceased pursuing her as soon as she left the last tree behind. He remained there, standing, looking at us with an indecipherable stare.
Argentea got on the sled.
-Are you both alright?- I asked, as we got into motion. The dogs were happy to leave.
-That was exciting!- Said Cat, still breathless.
-My shield has developed mountains and valleys of its own. I might have a broken arm too.
Broken or not (we never knew) Indi’s magic and mine were enough to heal it, as well as the many bruises that both Argentea and Cat had.
-Thanks for your help.- my sister said, addressing Argentea with a big smile.
Argentea answered with her best Solamnic uptight scowl. She even seemed offended, but I was already starting to know her. She was only hiding that she felt flattered.
-It’s my duty.- She answered.
Cat’s smile became even wider. She said nothing, but I knew what that smile meant. With that gesture, Argentea had earned my sister’s unconditional trust, something that didn't happen easily.
The cave wasn't far from Sylgja’s home, so it didn't take us much time to reach it. At first the troll was nowhere to be seen, but as we got deeper into the cave, we were greeted by an axe wielding, moss covered, screaming maniac. Argentea (who was leading the way, with her unsheathed sword illuminating the cave thanks to my light spell) raised her shield in a defensive position to meet the attacker. As the enemy got closer to the light source we realized that something strange was going on: this was the weirdest troll we had ever seen.
The “troll" wasn't much bigger than us, and most of his features remained hidden by a thick layer of a green-ish mold that covered most of his body and a big part of his face. The few exposed parts under the mold looked unmistakingly human.
-This doesn't look like a troll to me!- Argentea said, blocking an axe blow with her shield.
I had a rough idea of what we could be dealing with.
-Aim for the mold, not for its host!
-Got it!- Cat answered while she sneaked past Argentea and the “troll”, so fast that the enemy didn't see her coming. She aimed close to the host’s head where the mold grew thickest, trying to cut off a big slice of it. To our surprise, the mold dodged the attack and Cat almost cut off one of the host’s ears- It moved! I swear it moved!- she cried out, apologetically.
-I didn't know it could do that!- parasitic fungi that were able to mind control people were common in tales, but I had never met one in person.
As far as I knew, the mold was intelligent, but it had too much of an alien mind for me to be able to influence it, so I focused on using my powers of fate manipulation. I touched Nadya to share a bit of my power with her before she attacked, and I saw the two possible futures unfolding in front of my eyes: in both, the arrow hit the mold. Fate manipulation is neither infallible nor always useful. As the two possibilities consolidated into a single reality, the arrow hit the mold, making part of it explode into a dusty substance.
I laughed, not because I found the situation funny, but to keep Nadya under the effect of my magic. Meanwhile, the controlled human kept making incoherent sounds while staring blindly at us and waving his axe like an automaton. Argentea was doing a great job, as usual, keeping him at bay while attempting to cut the mold off him with her blade. She delivered a well aimed hit on the mold near the chest of the host, which also exploded, covering her in a cloud of dust. She coughed, attempted to say something, and coughed some more.
Another arrow flew towards the parasite but, once again, it moved at the last moment, causing Nadya to hit the man under the mold. At the same time, the mold had started regenerating, spreading all over the host’s body again. Cat’s furious slashing seemed to be effective, but it also spread more dust (or more accurately, spores) into the air. And, if that wasn't enough, the parasite launched a sphere-shaped pod towards me, bursting into innumerable spores. I tried not to inhale them, but I accidentally took a deep breath after a long cackle. I immediately felt a numbing sensation, like I was in the middle of a dream, but I forced myself to stay focused.
-Don't breathe it!- I said. My own voice seemed distant, unreal.
I expected Argentea or even Cat to make a witty remark about how my advice was late, but I got no answer and I started worrying: I had only inhaled the spores once, but they had been doing it with each hit.
The mold kept regenerating, but we damaged it faster than it could heal itself. The host seemed to be determined to make it difficult for us, but we had faced much better fighters than him. His mind controlled attacks were predictable and unimaginative. In the end, Argentea delivered the final blow with her sword. There weren't any obvious signs of the mold being dead, but it had stopped regenerating and the host suddenly stopped fighting and looked at us in absolute confusion.
-Finngarth?- asked Nadya.
The man stared at Nadya for several seconds, having a hard time responding to such a simple question. He finally nodded.
-Your wife sent us to help you.- I explained. There was no reason to tell him that she thought him dead.
I am not sure if he was understanding what I was saying, but he smiled when I mentioned his wife.
-It will take him a few days to recover- I said-. How are you all feeling?- myself, I still felt a bit numb.
-Like I spent a whole night in a tavern, minus the good parts.- answered Cat. Whatever that meant.
-I feel so tired. I cannot think clearly.- Argentea’s speech was slower and much more erratic than usual. It was strange: I was used to being the one with the “ehs" and “uhms".
We helped Finngarth, removing the remains of the mold that were still attached to his body and healing the wounds that we had accidentally inflicted him with. After that, we returned to the cabin with Sylgja, Indi and the kids. The spores that we had inhaled must have some mind-numbing toxin that allowed the mold to control people more easily, and I expected Indi to be able to do something to help us recover faster.
As we returned, Sylgja came out of the cabin to greet us, followed by Indi and the kids. They looked like a happy family: even the children, with their hair as red as Nadya’s, could have been Sylgja’s sons. I took care to not share my thoughts, though, as I didn't think that Nadya would have liked hearing them. Anyway, as soon as Sylgja saw Finnegarth, she forgot about everything else and ran towards him to meet him in a tight embrace. He returned the gesture, seemingly comforted by her touch. For a while they didn't seem to have eyes for anyone else in the world. Even when we explained what happened, Sylgja was too happy about having her husband back to pay much attention to anything else. When I told her that it would take quite a few days for Finngarth to recover, she didn't seem especially concerned.
-I will take good care of him until he is back in shape.- she answered with a smile.
-I can help him, if you wish.- suggested Indi with a softer voice than I had ever heard from him.
-Save your magic for your friends, dear- she answered-. They have a long trip ahead, they will need it more than us. You can always heal him tomorrow, or the day after.
-Wait, what?- Nadya seemed to be really pissed off- Indi is coming with us too!
-You cannot decide for him. He told me he’d stay here.
Nadya gave Indi an ice cold stare.
-You told her what?
-I can't just leave her here all by herself, and she doesn't want to come with us.
-Now her husband is back- Nadya was about to lose her temper-. Her husband.
-There’s enough room here for three.- said Sylgja in an absolutely innocent tone.
-Indi. She. Is. Married.
-I am not jealous- Indi protested-. And I haven't heard Finngarth complaining.
No, he hadn't complained. Nor had Argentea, for that matter. Normally she wouldn't have wasted such a good opportunity to pick on Indi, and still she remained silent. She must be feeling much worse than she looked. Indi’s behaviour wasn't normal either. Under his careless facade, Indi had a bigger sense of responsibility than it seemed, and he was a loyal friend. I couldn't believe he was so willing to abandon us to live with a woman that he just met… unless there was mind-affecting magic involved. Though Sylgja seemed to mean no harm to us, I could picture her charming Indi in her fear of being left alone again. A charm spell was something rather inoffensive that messed with emotions at a very basic level, but it could get someone who disliked you to be nice or make someone that already felt attracted to you absolutely enamored.
-Sylgja, we need him- I said. I didn't want to throw a direct accusation at her. She didn't seem like a bad person to me and I hoped that she was reasonable-. We are on a very dangerous trip and we need Indi if we intend to survive.
I could see that Indi was flattered. This time I spoke to him, using my best soft, charming voice.
-You can come back when we are done, but we are together in this. We need you.
I could also be kinda manipulative from time to time, though I really felt what I said. Indi looked at Sylgja. He seemed dubious about what to do.
-It’s fine- said Nadya in a harsh tone-. If you are going to let us down, better do it before we reach Whitethrone.
Indi looked like he'd been slapped in the face. Sylgja looked at him with sad eyes.
-So, are you leaving?
-I guess I have to.- answered Indi, with the same conviction of someone who has to get out of bed early.
-Come back to visit us when you are done.
Indi promised he would, and we left. We still had many hours of daylight ahead and we wanted to make good use of them. As we left, I explained to the rest of the group how I believed Indi to be under a charm spell, which seemed to calm down Nadya just a bit.
Even after the spell faded, just a few minutes later, Indi wasn't upset with Sylgja. Like me, he believed Sylgja wasn't really human, but some kind of fey or other forest creature, and he didn't want to judge her by human standards.
-I still don't understand why you considered staying with her.- nagged Nadya.
Indi smiled at her.
-You know, I have always had a thing for redheads.
Nadya didn't answer. After that, she didn't bring up the topic again.
The next morning, Indi used his magic to cleanse the food and make it edible again. To be honest, everything looked better than ever. Some of our supplies weren't as fresh as they should have been before the fey spoiled them, and Indi made them look (and taste) like they were back to their glory days.
After a scarce but fulfilling meal, we were ready for another day of travel, which was again uneventful, aside from the usual inconveniences of the weather. In the evening, after camping, we even managed to hunt down a doe, which would provide food for at least a couple of days. Mjoli had been the one to spot her behind the bushes, and he felt really proud of himself. Nadya had called him “a real hunter" which had made Orm a bit jealous. In the end, Nadya allowed Orm to be the one to collect the wood for the campfire the next day and he felt proud of being entitled with such an important task… a task that I had performed all the previous days and that wasn't exciting in the slightest.
The next evening, while we were setting up the campsite, Orm left to collect some firewood. We were on the border of a forest, so it shouldn't be difficult to find some dry wood for the campfire.
-Don't go too far, and come back before it gets too dark- instructed Nadya-. It’s going to start snowing.
When we were done setting up camp, Orm still hadn't returned and it had started snowing like Nadya predicted.
-He cannot have gone too far.- said Cat, and then she cried out Orm’s name twice. There was no answer.
It was easier said than done: the snow had already covered most of Orm’s footprints, making it hard to follow his tracks. Argentea and Nadya stayed at the campsite with Mjoli, while I left with Indi and my sister to search for Orm. Nadya might be the our best tracker alongside Cat, but she was just too nervous to be of use, and we didn't want her around either, in case something terrible had happened to the boy.
We were searching for Orm until it started to get dark. I had to cast a light spell so Indi could see, though the heavy snowfall didn't allow us to see a lot anyway. We wandered around the woods for a long time calling the boy's name, but he was nowhere to be found.
-He has already been away for too long.- pointed out Indi after a while.
We were tired of searching and we were starting to slow down. Indi had always been the pragmatic one, so I feared that he might be about to suggest giving up on our search and getting back before we got lost too. But instead of that, he told us to move faster.
-I don't wanna be the one to explain to Nadya why she only has one kid left, so we’d better hurry up before it’s too late.
Finally, Cat found some footprints in the snow. Orm couldn't be far. We called out his name, and this time we got an answer: a single high pitched cry that allowed us to have a rough idea of his location. I sent Nina to scout ahead while we ran as quick as we could, following the direction of the voice.
We reached a clearing where Orm was standing on top of a fallen trunk, which wasn't high enough to keep him out of reach of the jaws of the hungry wolves that hounded him. Like most wolves, these three animals were naturally afraid of humans, and they hadn't gathered up the courage to strike, so they were still circling around the terrified boy and snapping bites at him.
As we approached the clearing, the wolves turned to face us, ready to pick a fight to protect their meal. I immediately put one of them to sleep, while Cat and Indi took care of the other two and sent them running after the first blows: the wolves had no interest in fighting enemies who were stronger than them. Despite them being gone, Orm remained immobile and even paler than usual, until Cat took him in her arms. Then he pressed himself against her chest and mumbled:
-I got lost. I didn't want to go so far.
Indi tapped the boy on the head, making his hat fall over his eyes.
-Don't worry, kid. Just don't tell your mother about the wolves, or she won't let you go out on your own until you’re married. We’ll just tell her that you got lost, alright?
The kid nodded, feeling much more calm now that he knew that we wouldn't be telling his mother. Kids and their strange priorities.
Orm was the first one to fall asleep, as emotionally and physically fatigued as he was, and we soon joined him. It had been a long day and we would have to get up early if we wanted to get across the woods in a single day’s journey. Wolves were possibly the least dangerous creatures that we might find inhabiting the woods, and we didn't want to stay in them longer than necessary.
The journey ended up being much easier than we expected, as there was enough distance between the trees to allow the sleds to pass without impediment and the weather was calm, if colder than usual. It wasn't noon yet when we got to the middle of the forest, and it was about an hour later when we spotted a wooden cabin right in front of us. A thin line of smoke rose from the chimney, and as we approached we could smell what seemed to be a delicious stew. I hadn't eaten anything since dawn, so I couldn't help but start feeling hungry.
-This is so strange- said Nadya-. Why would anyone live here in the middle of nowhere?
Maybe they just wanted to stay away from the tyranny of the Winter Witches, I thought. But Cat was faster than me in her answer:
-I don't get a lot of visitors, much less a group of skilled warriors, so this is a big event for me!- Sylgja’s enthusiasm seemed to come in increments. She laid one hand on Indi’s shoulder and another on his staff- Look at all those big weapons! How good are you with them?
The woman’s expression brightened up again. I couldn't tell if she was a master manipulator or just a very emotional person. Maybe she was a bit of both.
-There is a troll living in a cave uphill. I didn't know about it until about a week ago… when I went out to look for my husband… He went hunting near the cave… and that troll killed and devoured him!
Her last words seemed to imply: “because I am not leaving them alone with this woman".
-Indi will stay here with me.
Indi laughed. He seemed to find the situation funny and I could tell that he found Sylgja’s attentions (and Nadya’s jealousy) flattering.
-The lady has spoken. She has decided for me.
That caught Indi off guard.
-What? No, I can't, I have... responsibilities.
Argentea grunted: she didn't have a good answer for that. Indi dedicated her a triumphant smile.
-Let’s go.- commanded Nadya, who still seemed kinda upset.
So we followed her, heading uphill towards the troll’s cave. But as we exited Sylgja’s cabin, Cat noticed something strange in the snow.
-Look at the footprints- she said-: there are many of them heading towards the house but none leaving it.
That was strange. There were many magical creatures of the forest, like hags and fey, who were able to walk without leaving footprints or any other trace. Sylgja was a rather strange woman, but could she be something other than human? For as long as I could remember, I had been able to do something very similar to that, and I was just an elf (a strange one, but an elf anyway), so there was a chance that it was nothing important, but still, it made me even more curious about that mysterious red haired woman.
It was the second day of our journey. According to Nadya, if everything went fine, we still had a full week ahead before we reached our destination in Winterthrone, and we still had to make a stop in the nearby village of Ellsprin, where Nadya's sister-in-law lived. Winterthrone would be too dangerous for the two sons of a peasant, especially when we took into account what we intended to do: steal Baba Yaga's dancing hut as her Black Rider had told us to do. Right now, the Witch Queen was our best chance to close the Winter Portals: if the actual queen of Irrisen, Elvanna, had risen against her, and was also responsible for the creation of the Portals as we thought, finding Baba Yaga seemed like the most sensible thing to do. In addition, if the source of my mysterious magic really had something to do with Baba Yaga, maybe she would be able to shed some light on who I really was and where I came from.
The weather did nothing to make our journey easier, but aside from that, it was an uneventful and easy trip so far. Orm and Mjoli's addition to the group did wonders to cheer everyone up. They recovered from the shock as fast as only children can, and they were handling the situation with integrity. After all they heard from their neighbors, they had good reasons to believe their sister was being held at Winterthrone by Nazhena and that their mother was coming to the rescue, which made them really excited about the journey. At their age, they still believed that there wasn't anything their mother couldn't do.
Despite the chilly winds that slowed our pace, the sky was sunny and clear, so when we saw a black cloud forming on the horizon we immediately realized that something strange was going on. It was about noon when we first noticed it, and it continued growing in size and approaching as the hours went by.
-That must be the biggest flock of birds I have ever seen- Nadya said after observing the cloud for a while.
I just saw a big strange cloud. If they said they were crows, I would have to believe them. My previous encounters with crows hadn't been very pleasant, so I'd rather have the cloud be anything but crows.
-We have to hunt them down- said Nadya later, as the cloud got closer-. If we kill them all they won't be able to inform Nazhena.
Though I didn't like the idea of getting into trouble with crows again, I understood why Nadya wanted to keep some information from Nazhena, like the fact that we were traveling with children now, which made us vulnerable, so I agreed with her plan of hunting down the birds. Based on the size of the flock, there must be hundreds of them, but we trusted Indi’s magical powers to blast most of the crows off before they got to us. Nadya, Cat, and Argentea should be able to shoot down the remaining ones and, if everything else failed and they got really close, my spiders have proven to be effective against them. Meanwhile, the twins, Nina, and the owl would remain hidden in the sleds under thick blankets. Getting Nadya’s companion to stay there and not move was already quite a chore but finally she calmed down when one of the twins (I still wasn't able to tell one from the other) held her in his arms.
The hunt itself didn't go as well as we expected. First, Indi’s best damaging spells couldn't reach the flock until it was pretty close and, even then, they weren't wide enough to catch most of the birds in a single spell. That meant that we had to rely on arrows to attract them to our position and then we had to be really quick finishing them off before they got to us. Seeing them covering the sun as they fell upon us was enough to make me wonder how sensible had it been to attract their attention.
Everybody did as expected: Indi was able to get rid of about half of the birds all on his own, and many others fell from the arrows, but they were approaching too quickly and there were too many. I vomited a spider swarm to shield us, but they only reached the crows that were flying closer to the ground. Once again, I was surrounded by birds who were pecking, scratching and flapping at me.
-Why do they hate me so much?- I cried out in pain.
I ran away from them (and from the spiders) the best I could, considering that the blood and the pain were clouding my vision again. Indi cast another spell. He and Nadya had remained close to the sleds, which kept them from being engulfed by the cloud of crows.
-Where are they? I can't see!- I heard my sister crying out. They had to be controlled by magic somehow, or trained to go directly for the eyes. Such viciousness wasn't normal.
Just like last time, when their numbers had been drastically cut down the remaining birds attempted to flee. My sister and I were blinded, so we couldn't be of much help, but Indi and Nadya did a superb job finishing off the surviving birds. We didn't even have to worry about the ravenous spiders: Indi had blasted them alongside the crows.
This time, healing my wounds was easier: among the scrolls we got in the Pale Tower, there were a couple of them containing specific spells to restore eyesight. After Indi used one of those on me, I had enough skill to treat Cat's wounds without using magic. Our magical resources were still too limited to waste them unnecessarily. At least the kids were fine, our wounds were easily treatable, and we were able to continue our journey without having suffered any losses.
We set up camp at late evening, and though our hunting patrol (also known as Indi, Nadya and Cat) didn't manage to bring anything for dinner, we still had enough supplies for a few more days… which could have changed the following night.
At the end of another tiring day and unsuccessful hunt for food, we set up camp and, after a fulfilling meal, we retired to our tent to sleep. I didn't mind having just one tent, despite the lack of privacy and the occasional foot-on-face, but I was very embarrassed about having my nightmares in front of so many people, and afraid of not letting them sleep.
Indi took the first watch as he usually did, so he could get a full night of sleep before getting up at dawn to commune with his Goddess. My sister was already asleep, breathing heavily on the top of my head, which I found comforting.
I was starting to feel the numbness that preceded the loss of consciousness when Indi cried out “intruders” and Nina started hooting. Cat, despite having been deeply asleep just a few seconds before, was the first one to get out of the tent, ready to fight: her ability to get in and out of sleep effortlessly never ceased to amaze me. Nadya got out right after her, while Argentea spent a couple of extra seconds wrapping the straps of her shield around her arm and taking her sword. I got out to see what was happening but I knew this battle wasn't for me: magic has its own rules, and if I don't get roughly eight hours of uninterrupted rest I am absolutely unable to concentrate to memorize my daily spells. Even if casting a single spell or channeling energy to my hair doesn't seem like a big effort, it is the mental equivalent of lifting a heavy weight and it renders me exhausted. Unless the enemies were especially tough and the group really needed my help, I didn't want to delay our journey just because of a couple of spells.
I made the right choice. The “enemies” weren't bigger than Nina, and were more interested in the supplies on the sleds than in picking a fight. They had oversized bat ears, tiny red eyes, a mouth twisted in a permanent grin full of sharp teeth and that blueish skin that all the winter-touched fey from Irrisen seemed to have. As the arrows started to fly and Cat and Indi charged towards them, they just fled back to the woods. They were small, stealthy, and only my sister and I had a good night vision, so we didn't even bother to chase them up.
-They were probably just hungry- Argentea guessed-. Is anything missing?
Cat and Indi approached the sleds and lifted the blanket that was covering the supplies.
-Maggots!- Cat cursed.
As I approached I noticed the foul smell. The meat was rotting and full of maggots. The cheese, the bread and the very few vegetables that we had were covered in blueish mold, and we didn't even dare to check what had happened to the liquids.
-This is disgusting- said Argentea, making the most obvious remark of the day. She looked at me-. Can you use your magic to fix it?
-I can fix it, thank you for asking- he smiled-. Or at least I will be able to tomorrow.
I slept reasonably well that night, though the nightmares were there as usual. I woke up so late that Nina was already sleeping and I had to wake her up so I could get my daily spells. I finally got the proper spell to mend Argentea's torn dress, so I did it as soon as I could and hurried up to join the rest of the group to give Argentea a pleasant surprise. But when I got to them, Cat and Argentea seemed very concerned and I momentarily forgot about the dress.
-Nadya left with the first lights- my sister explained to me-. She told me that her daughter was calling for her.
Honestly, I believed that Argentea's guess was correct, but wasn't I following a call that I didn't even know where it came from? How couldn't I give Nadya the benefit of the doubt? But still her behavior worried me and I feared that she could do something that we all regretted in that state.
We wore our heavier clothes to go out to the woods to find her, but as we were ready to leave Cat saw a figure approaching the tower. It was Nadya! And she brought company: on her forearm perched a female snowy owl, younger than Nina. As the gates of the tower opened, Nadya rushed towards up, happily greeting us.
-I found her! She was calling me!
We all stared at her in confusion.
-It's Thora. The gods sent her back to me.
Cat was petrified. Argentea looked away like this wasn't going with her. I didn't know what to say.
-Is that possible?- Argentea asked me. I had apparently become the expert in strange things and snowy owls.
I didn't really believe that the animal was Thora: she had been missing for just a few weeks, and we had released her soul from the doll only a couple of days ago, while the owl was almost an adult. Of course, with the gods all could make sense, but it was still hard to believe that they would trap the soul of a young girl just to please her mother. Though I could picture this owl being a guardian animal of sorts, sent by gods or by Thora herself to protect her. But seeing Nadya smiling again, I couldn't gather the courage to tell her what I really thought: that her daughter was gone, possibly forever.
-I am not an expert in godly matters, so I cannot say. Maybe.- I finally answered without much conviction.
She really needed to believe. Maybe in the future she would be at peace with the loss of her daughter and she'd be more reasonable, but until that time came we'd have to cope with her calling her new companion by her dead daughter's name, as creepy as it might seem.
After packing everything up, which took us most of the morning, we left the Pale Tower to get back to Waldsby, though we didn't expect to stay there for long. Nadya was adamant about guiding us to Winterthrone: she still had pending issues with Nazhena, and she didn't feel safe in Waldsby either, after all that had happened. She had some family living near Winterthrone and she wanted to take Orm and Mjoli with them so they didn't end suffering the same fate as Thora.
As we got back to the village, we noticed that something wasn't right. The air smelled of smoke and even from a certain distance we could see that the burned building had burned again and was reduced to ashes. We met Kashka, Nadya's neighbor, on our way to Nadya's home. As we saluted her, she looked at us in panic, made a sign against the evil eye and limped away towards her home. Otherwise, the streets were almost empty.
As we approached Nadya's home, we saw Indi waving at us from the window.
-Welcome back! Get in, quick!
Orm and Mjoli ran to their mother crying out loud and almost tripping her to the ground. At first they both asked for Thora in unison, as they were convinced that their mother had been away to bring Thora back. They were very disappointed about their sister not being back, as Nadya (fortunately) didn't explain to them her theory about her new friend owl. "They are too young to understand" she would tell us later. But after I gave them the cookies that I had picked up at the Pale Tower they cheered up a bit and started telling their mother what they had been doing in her absence.
-Indi wouldn't let us play outdoors so we built a fortress under the table!- said one of the kids.
A pirate ship? That had to be Indi's doing. He came from a coastal town and his mother, as he had told us, was well known for dealing with noblemen and pirates alike.
-It is, indeed!- Indi laughed out loud- And you are slacking! Get back on board, swabs, I have to speak with your mother.
As the kids left, Indi's face turned serious.
-What's going on?- Nadya demanded to know.
-I'm keeping an eye on you, Evil Druid.
Indi chuckled and headed towards the kitchen, where the children were being especially noisy.
-Maybe I'd like that.- he said with big toothy grin as he left.
While Cat was taking care of the dogs and Nadya was telling a kid-friendly version of what had happened in the Pale Tower to Indi and the children, I suddenly recalled that I was still keeping the dress that I had mended for Argentea. With all the deal with Nadya I had completely forgotten about it. I was surprised by Argentea's gratitude when I gave the dress back to her. The spell that I had used was really simple and cost me no effort, but she reacted like I had put a lot of time and effort into it. I felt a bit overwhelmed: I didn't deserve so much gratitude!
I helped her take off her armor, and we talked for a while. I had already begun to joke about her having to take me as her squire.
-I am still a squire myself.- she answered. But it wasn't like the Knights of Solamnia would take among their ranks someone who didn't descend from a Solamnic family and didn't have a single drop of human blood running through her veins... not to speak about the magic. The Knights of Solamnia seemed to abhor and despise non-godly magic.
I don't even know how it happened this time. One moment we were having a pretty normal talk, the next we were putting our clothes on and wondering how we had ended up like that again. I had always had strong impulses, but I seemed to have an inability to control them when she was close. She just let herself go. It was all my scent's fault, she said.
When we got out of the room Nadya was waiting for us. She gave us a killer stare.
-What were you two doing?
Argentea went pale. I blushed.
-You heard us?- I asked, evidently embarrassed.
Argentea went from white to red. The kids were in the kitchen with Cat and Indi and they were all screaming so loud that I was surprised that they could hear anything but themselves.
-What's up with the kids?- I asked in confusion.
I truly didn't understand where the big deal was. To me the course of action in that case was pretty clear: tell the kids to get out, and later explain to them what had happened. But humans seemed to like making big dramas out of small things.
-So you don't mind doing perverted things in front of children?
I wanted to answer something, but words kept evading me and Nadya was leaving. She headed up to the kitchen, to return a few seconds later in my sister's company. They sat in a corner and spent quite a long time arguing in whispers while looking at me every once in a while. Argentea and I felt too embarrassed to talk about what had happened, so I focused on identifying and studying the scrolls that we had looted from the Pale Tower while Argentea stared out from the window, seemingly lost in her thoughts.
After some time, Nadya approached me, speaking to me in a conciliatory tone.
-I am sorry- she said-, I might have overreacted before. I understand that you come from a different culture, but you have to respect that I want to wait to explain certain things to my sons until I consider that they are prepared.
I thought that Nadya hid too many things from her sons to keep them safe, like Thora's death, and I believed that it would be more painful for them when they learned the truth. But I respected her choices and I would never dare to act against them.
-I am sorry- I added-. I never meant to cause trouble. We just got carried away, and there wasn't any problem the last time.
Having said that, she headed towards Argentea.
-Ah, Nadya- she greeted with a serious tone-. Come here, take a look.
I went to the other window to see what was going on. Argentea was right: there were too many people on the streets, and they seemed to be gathering in a crowd.
-We are in trouble.- I stated as a matter of fact. My sister and I had been "politely invited" to leave an elven settlement after something bad happened so many times that I was already pretty used to it. Blaming the strange red haired girl was a popular policy among kagonesti elves.
Nadya trusted her neighbors. They were her friends, her hunting companions, the people who had helped her after her husband died. But they were also the people who did nothing when Nazhena took Thora from her, I thought. I couldn't help but think about the guards who have chosen to die before having to face the wrath of the Duchess. Fear and desperation lead people to take unexpected courses of action.
While we talked, the crowd began approaching Nadya's home. I couldn't say that Nadya wasn't concerned, but she was convinced of being able to solve everything by talking to her neighbors.
I immediately recognized the woman from the inn in the middle of the mob, speaking out louder than anyone, accusing us of dooming the town. There were also claims among the crowd saying that the duchess would forgive them if they presented her our bodies when she came back, all of that combined with different words of hate and fear.
-Stop! Don't come closer!- she spoke in Skald but I followed her speech without much difficulty- We have to stop acting out of fear! You want to take these foreigners to Nazhena to placate her because you are afraid of her fury, but if you let them go I swear that you won't have to fear her anymore.
I could feel Nadya's metaphorical blindfold being removed in this moment. She felt betrayed and abandoned by her neighbors, who wouldn't even care about what had happened to her because it hadn't happened to them. To their eyes, we were the monsters, coming from foreign lands to endanger their existence, and Nazhena was just a fair ruler who only punished those who did something to call upon her wrath. I really wanted to tell them about Thora's real fate, but they would most likely not believe me, and Nadya would kill me for telling it in front of her kids. She was still standing there, immobile, staring at her own people in disbelief. And they kept approaching.
-Stop!- Nadya cried out again, taking her bow from her quiver and aiming it at the mob- We will solve everything! The Winter Witches aren't as almighty as they try to make us think! They can be defeated! Radosek is the proof!
A single stone flew towards us, I didn't even see who threw it, but even before it hit the walls of Nadya's home, a swift arrow flew towards the crowd. I saw a man falling to the ground with an arrow deeply rooted in his throat. He coughed some blood and then fell still. That was when I was finally able to react and run towards Nadya.
-Orm, Mjoli, are you alright?- cried out Nadya, while she kept aiming at the crowd- Stand back! Stand back!- They seemed doubtful about whether to run away or attack in a mob.
If they only responded to the fear they had for witches, I could give them a witch to fear. I invoked my powers, causing one of the people in the crowd chosen at random to fall asleep, and then I continued speaking with my most threatening tone:
-Stay out of our way and you will live.
I might hate people who ruled out of the fear of their people, but if the only way to avoid fighting (and possibly killing) those people was using that fear against them, it was fine by me. And I have to admit that getting them to obey and rush back to their homes was surprisingly fulfilling. I could understand how someone could get used to it. To be honest, there were many of them that only left reluctantly after they saw that the crowd was disbanding, but yet we had got to keep them, and ourselves, safe.
The rest of the group had already gotten into the house except for Nadya, who stood paralyzed by my side, staring at the man she had killed. I grabbed her by an arm and pulled her towards the door.
She followed me, pale as a ghost.
-I saw something flying towards the children. I didn't think, I...
I couldn't say that my sister wouldn't have done the same for me.
-But he was my neighbor, he used to...
That was a sensible thing to do. It was already late afternoon, which didn't leave us many daylight hours ahead, but everything seemed better than staying in a hostile town. Nadya was still in shock after what had just happened, and the twins were unusually silent, not being able to fully understand what was going on. Later, when we were already on the road, Indi would tell them that their mother had killed their neighbor because he was an evil man who wanted to hurt us. After the kids had gone to sleep, I asked him if he thought that making them believe that the man had been evil was a good thing.
-Would you rather have them wondering if their mother is the evil one?- he answered. He had a point.
We spent the last hours of the day on the road to Whitethrone. With two children traveling with us and the limited supplies that we could gather up before we had to leave, it wasn't going to be an easy trip.
I couldn't sleep. After executing the prisoners and putting Valstoi's head on a pike, we had been searching the tower for anything that could help us in the hard times to come. Then we took a bath in the hall, though Argentea refused to take a bath with the rest of us and insisted it on doing it after we were done, because apparently human nobles shouldn't bathe with other people. Later we had some dinner and went to bed. I was doing fine, finally enjoying some rest and not thinking about tyrant witches and dead people at all. Until I had the brilliant idea of sleeping alone. Cat and Nadya chose to sleep in the main hall and the barracks respectively, which were the two warmest places in the whole tower. But I wanted to see the starry sky and insisted on staying in the aerie. What was I trying to prove? That I was already a big girl who could sleep alone? Well, I apparently wasn't. Everytime I closed my eyes I was overwhelmed by all that had happened during the day, and I knew that if I managed to fall asleep it would be worse, as I'd be haunted by nightmares again.
In the darkness, the ice crystals from the mobile cast ominous shadows on the walls, and I remained laying on my bed (which used to be Jairess' bed), staring at them, hypnotized while lost in my own thoughts. I wasn't afraid of any darkness that wasn't my own, but that one terrified me. In the end, I had to admit that I was still incapable of sleeping alone. That made me feel so frustrated: I didn't want to be a burden on my sister for the rest of my life.
-Wait a minute!- a female voice said from inside the room.
After a few seconds, Argentea opened the door. She wore a long nightgown that seemed both elegant and comfortable, yet not particularly fitting. Whether she had recovered it from the doppelganger or borrowed it from Nazhena, it reinforced the impression that she owned the place.
-Can I come in?- I asked shyly.
-I cannot sleep.
Argentea gave me a big smile.
-Oh, I see- I swear that she was about to burst into laughter-. Come in.
Judging from her expression, she thought I was making up an excuse to be with her.
-It's true. I can't sleep alone.- That I wanted to be with her was also true.
I had never told anyone what my nightmares were about, not even my sister. I had always been her little girl and I didn't want that to change. The possibility of talking about it with someone else felt relieving, though I was also afraid. I didn't want to appear like a monster.
-I... seduce men... in my dreams. I... hurt them... and then I... kill them.
Argentea seemed surprised, but she soon recovered.
-Have you ever wanted to do it for real?- she asked. She seemed concerned, but also curious.
I didn't think that she fully understood what happened in my mind, but something told me that it was better like that. I returned the smile and threw myself onto the bed. I cried out in surprise.
-Help me! -I laughed- It's swallowing me!- she lent me a hand and I sat on the bed- What is this thing made of? It's fluffier than Nina!
-Why aren't other people? That's what anyone should do.
She was being absolutely serious, but I found her attitude funny. I couldn't help but start laughing.
-That was just a spell! I am not made of spiders, you know, I just summon them!
I had to admit she was right. I found the spiders to be rather cute, but having them crawling from my throat wasn't something I especially enjoyed.
-Not all magic, just mine.- as far as I knew, wizards summoned their spiders outside of their bodies.
I smiled and kissed her again. This time Argentea didn't push me aside. She seemed to be a bit uncomfortable at first, but she relaxed and let herself go as soon as my tongue touched hers. I animated my hair to embrace and caress her.
-That is actually a bit creepy.
I let my hair turn back to normal.
-You are no fun at all.- I complained with pretend annoyance while pushing my body against hers. We kissed again: a long, wet kiss. I couldn't believe that we had laid together the two previous days and I still felt the need to be with her one more time.
I blushed so hard that my face hurt.
-I like this.- was my only answer as we undressed each other.
Despite her complaints, she kept exploring my body with her hands, so I didn't feel like I should stop either. I started kissing her body. She was delicious.
-Did you do this with your maidens?- I asked out of curiosity.
I didn't like what I was hearing. If felt hypocritical: she said that we weren't doing anything wrong but then we had to conceal it like we were.
-What's the difference between being with a man or a woman? Isn't it all the same?- I asked.
Kagonesti elves didn't make such distinctions, so Argentea's point of view really puzzled me. But I didn't want to keep upsetting her, so I just let it be.
-You humans are complicated- I mustered before getting lost again in her body.
Argentea got carried away with the same passion as usual. Whether what we were doing was right or wrong, she didn't seem to care a lot. For the first time, we believed we had absolute privacy , so we took our time to explore each other. When we were done, we were both exhausted. I breathed deep and laid my head on her chest. She was far more comfortable than the bed that wanted to engulf me. She sniffed my hair and sighed.
-Are you wearing one of Nazhena's fragrances?- she asked.
I felt a bit embarrassed.
-I bathed. I'd rather not tell how much time I had spent without taking a proper bath.
I was about to answer when I realized something else that we hadn't noticed before. My own naked figure was staring at me with a tired look on her face and her messy red hair turned into an even bigger mess after laying with Argentea from the big mirror on the wall. The sole idea of Nazhena spying on us while we had sex made me want to be swallowed by the bed and disappear, but I didn't want to show embarrassment so I just sat on the bed and waved at my own reflection like it was someone else.
-Hello there! You have a comfortable bed, you know.
Argentea widely opened her eyes in realisation and covered herself with the bed sheets.
-Are you enjoying the view?- I went on.
-You are insane!
-Who knows? Just in case.
We would never know if she was, as she didn't magically appear then and we never got to question her about it later, but the sole idea of having been spied on through the mirror ended our fun for that day. We stayed awake for a while, just in case something happened.
-Can I stay for the night?- I asked shyly when I was starting to feel sleepy.
I laid my head on her chest again.
-My Bright Morning.- I chuckled.
I expected her to tell me I was creepy again, but that didn't happen. We were both already half asleep.
The first thing we did after recovering from the battle was to go back to the room where we had fought Radosek. Nadya followed us in silence, looking unusually tired and depressed. It had been after the last guard fell that she seemed to be hit by the sudden realization that Nazhena wasn't going to manifest out of nowhere to let her have her revenge. Both Cat and I tried to talk with her, but she just nodded without giving signs of really listening.
-Leave her alone- said Argentea-. Give her some time.
It was kind of funny that Argentea, who was as impulsive as most humans are, was the one who had to remind us to be patient. Cat had always been open to me about her concerns, and I was the kind of person who tended to overthink everything until I made a bigger issue out of a small problem, so giving me too much time usually made it worse. But maybe Argentea was right and Nadya needed some time, and she wasn't our only concern anyway.
As we got back to the ritual chamber we found Nina perched on a bookshelf, staring at the floating orb in the middle of the room. Looking within, glowing shapes formed and shifted before our eyes. Occasionally sparks appeared, creating arches from one point to the next, wrapping the surface in a faint light. I got as close as I could to the sphere to study it. The vibrant forms inside the globe seemed to represent patches of land floating on a vast sea, and I recognized one of the biggest lands as Ansalon, our continent. The mass extending to the south of the Icewall should be Irrisen, which was much bigger than I had imagined. I had no idea what the other places were, as Krynn was a largely unexplored world. The arches of light all seemed to have their origin somewhere in Irrisen and were linked to different places in and around Ansalon: the Blood Sea, the woods of Silvanesti... and, of course, Southern Ergoth. It was this last one that looked sightly different: it originated in a different location and despite being the faintest of all the pulsing arches its flow was constant instead of an intermitent pulse. I called Nadya.
-Does this represent Irrisen?- I asked, pointing to the land below Ansalon.
-It seems so. This is a very accurate map. This- she pointed to the origin of the constant arch- is where we are, and this must be Whitethrone, the capital.- she added, pointing towards the origin of all the other light arches.
I was shocked. I didn't expect anyone to be listening to me.
-Maybe. Possibly. I think this sphere works as some sort of... channeling device?
-I can try. I need to figure out how it works.
I spent a long time studying the sphere. At first, the rest of the group stayed close, watching expectantly but, as the time went by and nothing happened , they lost interest and decided to do more productive things, like more thoroughly searching the rooms where we had already been and telling Mierul that she was free to leave. They wouldn't dare examining any room where we hadn't been yet without me, as I was the only one who could sense magical sigils and traps.
After some indetermined time, I finished studying the magical device. The sun had already set and the glow of the orb was now much more evident. When we met again in the ritual room and around the globe I shared my new discoveries with the rest of the group.
-This is far too complex for me to fully understand, but I think I can make it stop channeling energy to the portal on Ergoth. That should close it. But I can only do so from here, which means that we would be trapped on this side of the portal. Argentea...
I knew that arguing with Argentea was pointless, and I didn't really want her to leave, so I said no more.
Performing the delicate manipulation of raw magical energy needed to close the portal required a lot of concentration, but once I knew the proper procedure to do so it wasn't that difficult. There was a brief flash of light coming out from the sphere and then it just stopped glowing and the whole room went dark.
-It worked.- I said, and then I cast a light spell to illuminate the room so Nadya and Argentea could see. Argentea asked me twice if I was really sure the portal was gone before she was finally satisfied and then we proceeded to explore the few rooms we hadn't examined yet. We didn't find anything of interest in Radosek's room aside from some well concealed paintings under his bed depicting a variety of landscapes, though strangely none of them were wintry or snowy, instead depicting motifs like waterfalls, beaches and golden fields of wheat. They seemed weird choices for a Winter Witch that made me wonder if Radosek had ever dreamt about escaping the frozen wasteland that was his home.
Nazhena's chamber was way bigger than Radosek's and much more opulent, with an oversized bed, an oversized matching closet and other equally unnecessarily big pieces of furniture. In the middle of the room, there was a human sized statue made of ice carved in the likeness of an elegant woman and an owl.
-Nazhena.- Nadya said with a grim voice.
Nor the statue nor anything else in the room emanated magic, so I told the others that it was safe to get in. Aside from some exotic fragances and expensive clothes made for a woman taller than Argentea we didn't find anything particularly interesting there except for a door leading to a nearby chamber with another statue watching over it, identical to the one in the previous room. A quick examination using my magical senses revealed that this statue had some sort of magical trap placed on it and I didn't know how to remove it without triggering. The first person who dared to enter the room would be affected by the statue's magic, which I believed to be some kind of curse. Before Cat and Argentea offered to trigger the curse themselves (which I heartily believe that they would have done), I came up with an idea.
-We have the perfect test subject- I said eerily. Everybody looked at me expectantly-. Help me bring Radosek here.
Argentea wasn't really sure that it was a good idea, but Cat fully trusted me and Nadya shared my opinion. In my defense, I still hadn't learned how cruel the Winter Witches could be, and I expected Radosek to turn purple, have all his hair fall off, or even some kind of embarrasing organic malfunction. I wasn't prepared for what actually happened when we tossed the beaten and unconscious body of Radosek Pavril inside the room. The statue started speaking without moving its lips, in a cold female voice:
-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.
As she spoke, Radosek's skin and flesh started withering until he died with a mute sigh. Maybe someone who wasn't already wounded could have survived the curse, but it was a death sentence for someone as badly injured as he was. We were shocked.
-Did you know this was going to happen?- asked Argentea, evidently upset.
She believed me, but what I never said is that I didn't feel guilty for what I had done. It had felt... fulfilling, strangely pleasing. The only thing that actually bothered me was the fact that I had failed to foresee the consequences of my plan. At least, the magical trap on the statue was gone and we were able to enter the room freely. It turned out to be some sort of vault where Nazhena kept most of her valuables: barring the cauldron that Radosek had used against us and some other things we found on the ritual chamber, most magic items were stored in that chamber, from scrolls that I could use to learn new spells to potions and all kind of other magical stuff. I had never seen so many magic items kept together in the same place before. We would find out later that one of the scrolls held a spell that allowed to spy through mirrors, which made it clear to us that all the mirror paranoia was justified. But before I could examine and catalog everything in the vault, deciding what to do with the surviving guards was a priority.
-If we leave, Nazhena will brand us all traitors.- explained one of them.
According to Nadya's face, she could.
-Then what?- I asked out of sheer frustration- Do you want to die?
That perfectly sumarized the situation in Irrisen: people were afraid to die, but they were even more terrified of living. They believed the Winter Witches to be omnipotent and they wouldn't dare to do anything against them. That day I swore to myself never to become that kind of witch. People might be afraid of me (they had always been) but I would never use that fear as a tool.
In the end, we let each one of the prisoners choose: be released, be executed while conscious or be executed while sleeping. Only two of them were willing to take the chance of running away: all the others chose to die peacefully while sleeping. As Argentea would point out later, they didn't choose to live or die as warriors because they weren't warriors but villagers that had been giving a weapon and a chance to feed their families. After having been in a lot of battles, I can say this was one of the hardest decisions I had to make. Knowing that with all my magic power, all that I could do was to provide a peaceful death by putting them to sleep made me feel useless. What is all the magic in the world worth if you cannot even save a single life with it?
Executing the prisoners was hard, and left us feeling a mixture of hatred and frustration towards Nazhena, as we felt that our hand had been forced by the absolute fear that her followers had felt towards her. Nadya looked absolutely defeated, while Argentea was furious about the situation in Irrisen and talking about bringing down the wrath of the Knights of Solamnia in a crusade against the country. Cat kept claiming that we were going to get Nazhena and everything would be alright again, with her usual slightly delusional positivity, but I am not sure that she actually believed it. And what about myself? I was fuming. I thought we'd need to make an statement, to prove to ourselves and Nazhena that we weren't afraid, that we would be going after her.
I grabbed one of the spears of the dead guards.
-Come with me, Cat.- I commanded. She wasn't used to see me demonstrating such self confidence, and she seemed surprised.
We got to the ritual chamber, where Valstoi still laid dead, and I asked my sister for help in severing his head from his body. She still didn't understand what I intended to do, but she helped me anyway. When we were done cutting the head off, I impaled it on the spear and took it into the dining room, placing it right in front of one of the biggest mirrors. Though the rest of the group were shocked, I don't think that they really understood the depth of my actions. Valstoi wasn't just a goat, but the sole link to the source of Radosek's magic power, and if I was right seeing his head on a pike would make her really angry.
We were back again in front of the main teleporting platform, but this time we had the key that should allow us to make it work. We were aware that Radosek, or whoever else was on the other side, could be waiting for us, if all that had been said about the spying through mirrors was true. Like the other platforms, this one was too small to hold us all, and neither Cat or Argentea were willing to allow me to take the lead: I was the weakest and least experienced member of the group, as well as the least likely to survive a surprise attack. Nadya shouldn't go in the first group either, even if she wanted to, as all her archery skills depended on her being able to stay out of reach. Therefore, Argentea and Cat where the ones to take the lead. Neither of them had bothered to memorize the key verses, but I told them before they got up on the platform.
Cat repeated the words in a voice that reminded me of the lullabies she sang to me as a child. She wasn't the best singer, but her voice never lacked emotion.
For the first time I had a clear view of the process from the outside: the ice climbing up their legs until they were completely encased in ice and then it was like the block was swallowed up by the platform and they were gone. It was somewhat scary, but Nadya and I rushed onto the teleporter right after our friends disappeared. All the other times that I had used the platforms everything had seemed to happen in the blink of an eye, but this time I had the sensation that everything was going on slow motion. Argentea and Cat could be in grave danger on the other side and the teleporter just wouldn't speed up!
-Ah, there you are! I have something for you... Valstoi!
Valstoi, which seemed to be the goat's name, lowered his head and charged towards me. It was then when I realized that his horns had an unnatural blueish glow and a thin layer of frost coating them. Nina also knew how to hold my spells and deliver them with a touch, though I didn't like exposing her to danger like that: she was a messenger from beyond, not a combat bird. Obviously, Radosek didn't have such concerns regarding Valstoi. I had already been startled by a dragonlike creature, pecked by crows, persecuted by skeletons and shot by a bartender. I didn't want to add "rammed by a goat" to my list of unusual ways of almost dying. Fortunately, I still had some spells left, specifically another use of the one that I had used on Jairess. I opened my mouth and coughed out another spider swarm, who crawled viciously towards Valstoi. The goat stopped right in his place, trying to ram and bite the critters crawling all over him.
The ice elementals were only a minor threat. They were pretty clumsy combatants and both Argentea and Cat dodged their hits easily. They would have put me into serious trouble had I been their target, as I was even clumsier than they were. The real deal with them, though, was that they kept harassing Cat, not allowing her to take her bow and help Nadya taking care of Radosek, who was the real menace. Not that Nadya wasn't doing a good work all by herself: all her arrows were aimed at vital spots and only his magic and keeping himself in constant motion saved Radosek from Nadya's killer shots.
-Where is Nazhena? Tell me!- she kept crying out loudly as she aimed at him. To this point, she seemed on the edge of a complete emotional breakdown.
At first Radosek ignored Nadya, waving his wand to summon an ice spear up from under my feet that made me fall prone and almost impaled me. I stood up and pointed at him:
-Time to take a nap, big boy.- I hissed.
And nothing happened. All mental magic is based on a clash between the raw power of the spellcaster and the will of their opponent, and in this case Radosek seemed to be among the stubborn ones. He gave me an ice cold stare and spoke magic words. I recognized it as a blindness spell, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. My sight faltered for a second, but my body was able to resist the tension and I overcame the spell with nothing more than a quickly receding headache.
Being the center of attention wasn't my favorite thing, definitely, but it was a good thing that Radosek was focusing so much on me. He had chosen to ignore Nadya, despite she had already scored a couple of hits on him, and I bet that they had made it past the heavy clothes he was wearing. Cat and Argentea were also being ignored and, as they had already defeated the weak elementals, Cat had taken up her bow to join Nadya and Argentea was charging towards Valstoi, dropping her shield and wielding her sword with both hands. When Radosek noticed it (with her taste for crying out loud everytime she charged, Argentea wasn't subtle) he used his wand to summon another ice spear to trip her, but that didn't stop her. She seemed genuinely disappointed when Valstoi fell from her very first blow.
-Valstoi, no!- Radosek cried out with a mixture of grief and rage in his voice. If Radosek's magic was like mine, as it seemed to be, Valstoi wasn't a goat at all, but his only link to whatever power beyond taught him magic. Losing him meant losing access to most of his magic knowledge. I looked around, searching for Nina, as I feared that Radosek would want to pay us back in kind, but I was happy to realize that she was nowhere to be seen. Nina certainly knew how to stay out of sight during fights.
For a moment, I believed that Radosek was going, in his rage, to start blasting Argentea with spells for what she had done, but Nadya caught his attention with another killer shot aimed right at his heart. She missed by no more than two fingers and still caused him to recoil in pain. He had been ignoring her for too long... and I was just too close to her, focusing on keeping the spiders under control and send them away through the window. That made me the perfect collateral victim: if I was knocked down, the spiders would run rampant and start attacking us. He called upon his winter powers and summoned a blizzard of snowballs towards Nadya and me. As fun as a snowball fight might seem, they were unnaturally cold and hit really hard. We tried to take cover, but we were still hit by many snowballs.. This wasn't enough to discourage Nadya, though, as she was so focused on her prey that she barely seemed to feel pain. I did my best to stand strong too and, after I got definitely rid of the swarm, I gave the evil eye to Radosek, cursing him to make his moves clumsier. He had been avoiding way too many shots.
The fight was starting to turn to our favor, with Valstoi and the elementals dead, and Radosek badly wounded. Nadya and Cat were doing excellent work with their bows, and Nazhena's apprentice didn't seem to know any tricks to protect himself against them. Realizing that he was at a clear disadvantage, he wouldn't stay there and face a sure death. He floated towards the window.
A flurry of arrows flew towards him, but it wasn't enough to bring him down. He flew out to the window and down to the courtyard below as quickly as he could and took cover behind the dragon statue, to avoid being shot. The distance to the ground below was enough to kill anybody foolish enough to try to follow him, but we had still some resources left. Nadya was the first one to drink one of the potions that we had found in Hestrig's room.
-Quick!- she said as she jumped out the window- ¡We cannot let him escape!
-Go- commanded Argentea-. I will use the platforms. We'll meet in the courtyard.
It took me a couple of seconds to realize what she was talking about, but Nadya noticed it immediately: the statue had uncurled its tail and it was slowly turning its head to face Nadya. Backing off could mean that we lost our best opportunity to defeat Radosek, so she took the bravest (but probably not wisest) course of action: she stood there, firing everything she had at Radosek. The Winter Witch attempted to retreat again but he was in an open field and, before he could reach cover, he fell victim to Nadya's arrows. His last words were addressed to the ice dragon:
I was hoping that whatever magic that made the statue move would be gone with Radosek, but it didn't happen. The creature fell upon Nadya, striking at her with its frozen claws. A real dragon would have used claws and fangs and tail and wings to attack, but this was nothing like a real dragon, and it didnt seem to know more than a single simple fighting technique: use right claw as a hammer, use left claw as a hammer, repeat. But, as unimaginative as this strategy might be, it put Nadya in serious trouble, she stepped back while firing desperately at the statue but soon found herself being cornered by the statue. Cat ran to the rescue, kukris in hand, dodging miraculously a slam from the dragon's right claw and being promptly ignored after that. The mindless creature focused solely on the last command it had been given, and that was getting Nadya. My sister tore off big chunks of ice from the statue's hind quarters, but it didn't give any signs of even noticing it.
I wanted to help, but damaging magic was Indi's thing, not mine. He would have been able to melt down the dragon with a single spell, but I was useless. I had ran out of useful spells, so the only thing that came to my mind was channeling raw magic energy through my body and into my hair. I had been practising this new ability, but it had never stuck me as specially useful. My messy hair started coiling like snakes and growing until it was more than twice its usual length. I had a rough idea about how to use it as a weapon, though I couldn't assure its effectiveness. I couldn't put it to test, though, as three men had come down from the watchpost after ringing the bell and they were aiming crossbows towards Nadya, who was already hurt from some serious hits she had taken from the living statue. I could put one of them to sleep but that wouldn't last long. I needed something else, something like the spears of ice that the man laying close to me had summoned against us moments ago using a wand. A wand that was still clutched in his hand, and that one of my hair-snakes grabbed effortlessly. I summoned a spear of ice rising from the ground as I had seen Radosek doing, managing not only to trip one of them but to knock him down and catch the attention of the other two. Whether I had saved Nadya's life or just endangered mine was yet to be seen, because the dragon statue had grabbed her in its forelimbs and she seemed unable to break free from its grip.
Just in case the situation wasn't desperate enough, the doors of the tower opened and Argentea came out through them in a hurry. I could hear the sound of a crowd approaching from the other side. Instead of joining the fight, she stood by the double doors, trying desperately to close them quickly.
-We need to block them, quick!- she cried out, not even noticing the massive creature that we were fighting.
I wanted to help Argentea. I wanted to save Nadya. I wanted to knock downt the guards. But what to do first? The two remaining guards had reloaded their crossbows and where aiming at me, so that helped me to make my choice: I wouldn't be of any help if I was dead. I waved the wand again towards them while I ran towards the door and another frozen spear emerged. I expected them to at least attempt to get out of the way to avoid being hit, but one of them froze in place, like he didn't know if he should go left or right, and ended up being impaled. Believe me, it wasn't a pretty sight. His friend tried to shoot me, but the shot went so far above my head that he would have missed me even if I was twice as tall as Blond.
Against all odds, Nadya had managed to free herself from the dragon's hold, but she was still cornered. She desperately fired another arrow, right into the statue's head, making half of it crumble and fall off, with nothing more than aesthetic results. Cat had already cut off most of the right wing, as well as carved a hole in its hind quarters. The body was also full of cracks, but that didn't stop the creature from performing its task. Before Nadya could attempt another shot, the ice dragon was grabbing her again.
The situation in the entrance of the tower wasn't much better. They were pulling at the doors from the other side, and Argentea was unable to keep the doors shut any longer.
-I need help here!- she cried out again.
Judging for the noise coming from the other side there were quite a few in there. Cat and Nadya were busy fighting the statue, so I'd have to forget for now about the last guard standing and try toto help Argentea holding the doors. If my maths were correct, a lot of guards should be far more dangerous than a single inexperienced one. I dropped the wand and I extended my animated locks towards the doors. I lacked physical strength but my hair was powered by magic, not by muscle. A cry of surprise escaped from Argentea's mouth.
Despite our combined strength we couldn't keep the doors closed. There were more and more people pulling from the other side, attacking us with spears through the small slit that they had managed to open. I was able to elongate my hair enough to remain at a safe distance, but Argentea's only protections were her armor and the partial cover that the doors offered. I looked behind me, hoping that Nadya and my sister were doing better than us but that wasn't the case. The ice dragon was crushing Nadya in what was left of its jaws while Cat kept tearing off chunks of ice desperately. Nadya had ceased moving (for all I knew she could be already dead) and the living statue was turning to face Cat. If you have ever heard the expression "fight like a cornered cat" you might get a pretty accurate idea of what my sister did next. And suddenly, when I was just thinking that we wouldn't be able to make it, the dragon crumbled down to pieces. It had been so severely damaged during the fight that it was full of cracks and just one more hit was enough to make the statue break into pieces. The remaining guard, who was still aiming at me, never saw my sister coming. He was knocked down without ever knowing who had slit his throat. Cat was the most compassionate person I knew, but when she went into her hunter mentality, she could also be pretty ruthless. And, definitely, she was never compassionate if my life was somehow endangered.
-Are you alright?- she cried out to me, running towards my position.
I nodded. I was relatively unharmed this time around.
-Go help Nadya!- commanded Argentea. At first I thought she was talking to Cat and I didn't move, but then she added:- Cat, stay with me, I am letting them out.
That made sense: I was the one with magic powers and a healing wand. And still I felt illogically jelous. I would have given up on all my magic to have the physical prowess that both Argentea and Cat had and to be able to fight by their side. But magic was what I had and magic was what was needed of me, so i obeyed, even though I suspected that it could be already too late for Nadya. I knelt by her and cast my most powerful healing spell, not wanting to lose any time by checking if she still breathed. If she was already dead there was nothing I could do. Raising the dead was something that was far beyond my limited comprehension of magic.
Against all odds, we were winning. The guards wouldn't surrender but fanatically throw themselves at us almost seeking a sure death, which ensured almost no survivors on their side. I used my magic to stabilize everyone who wasn't already dead, and it was then I realized that Radosek still lived. We took him along with the others to the dormitories. We had yet to decide what to do with him but one thing was sure: in his current state he wouldn't wake up in many, many hours.
After searching the whole level we found no more opposition, just another private chamber and two more teleporting platforms: one was a simple block of ice at the end of a short corridor while the other was beautifully carved, with a red carpet leading to it and at the end of a luxurious mirrored hall. It wasn't difficult to tell which one should lead to Nazhena's private sanctum and which one to the aerie on the top of the tower. Even without Mierul's information it wouldn't have been a hard guess.
But before we got into more trouble, we searched the last room we had found. According to the size and style of the clothes in the closet, it probably belonged to the captain we had just fought, who seemed to have quite expensive tastes, as she kept a chest full of jewelry and assorted finery under her bed. But the biggest treasure were a handful of tiny bottles that resonated with magic: the ability to fall slowly for a limited time granted by three of them would be of great use in the immediate future.
After we were done with searching Hestrig's room we went on to examine the teleporters. I was pretty sure about knowing the right verse to activate the main teleporter but, as Mierul had warned us, it refused to work, so we tried our luck with the one that should lead to the aerie. Once again, Argentea and I stood on the platform and I recited the verses:
-Take wing, soar and fly, let me see the winter sky.
Again, the ice creeped over our legs and soon we were completely encased in ice but, as it had happened the last time, it only lasted a moment before our prison exploded in a million shards and we were greeted by chilly winds, the croaking of crows, and the unpleasant smell of their droppings. There was a triangle shaped structure that acted as a perch for the birds, but most of them were flying free around the tower. Their keeper, Jairess Sonn, was standing by the balcony, but she turned to face us as we appeared. She was dressed in completely ordinary furs and leather, but her blue skin made her really stand out as something quite different than a simple human. Also, her blond hair seemed to float around her rather than obey the dictates of the wind.
-Protect me from the intruders!- she cried out.
The crows understood and obeyed, gathering in a cloud of black wings around their mistress. I had already been swarmed by crows once and it wasn't an experience that I wanted to repeat. Fortunately, I had the perfect spell to deal with the situation.
-Stay away.- I said to Argentea.
As I finished reciting the arcane words for my spell, I felt the sensation of being choking. I coughed, trying to clear my throat of whatever was obstructing it, and more than a hundred spiders of about half the size of my fist crawled out of my mouth and down my body, heading towards Jairess Sonn and her crow army. One could think that the crows should be safe as long as they didn't touch the ground, but spiders can be also pretty good jumpers, and they gladly preyed on any bird that made the mistake of flying too close to them.
When Nadya and Cat got onto the aerie they witnessed a chaotic situation: crows pecking at spiders, spiders biting crows and the blue skinned tamer in the middle of everything, twisting around like crazy in an attempt of getting rid of the spiders crawling all over her body. Meanwhile, Argentea and I stayed away: the spiders were as loyal as most spiders are, and my control over them was very limited.
Jairess commanded her crows to attack me, trying desperately to set herself free, and it worked, but not as she expected: I concentrated to make the spiders follow and distract the crows so they couldn't attack me. It didn't work out, as the crows moved way faster, and I found myself swarmed by crows again. At least Jairess was free now, so my friends could go to get her. And they didn't waste their time: unprotected by her shield of crows, Jairess wasn't a big threat. Cat and Argentea quickly flanked her, but it was Nadya who was about to finish her off when the tamer surrendered.
-Call out the birds!- I demanded.
Jairess was a priestess, a follower of Kisla the Wild (called Chislev among humans), the goddess of Wilderness. She carried in her the blood of the spirits of the wind, and she had always felt affinity with birds. Nazhena had hired her to raise and feed the crows, and she couldn't care less for politics or wars. The duchess had always been fair to her and she considered her a good ruler, to the point that she dismissed Nadya when she told her about what had happened to her daughter.
-She must have commited a grave offence to deserve that punishment.- she said.
But when we told her about the Winter Portal and Nazhena's plans to turn Ergoth into a frozen wasteland again, she became suddenly concerned. Her first reaction was believing that everything we were telling her was a lie but when we asked her to travel Northwest and see for herself she realized that we were telling the truth she was horrified. As a follower of Kisla and a keeper of balance, Jairess found Nazhena's aspirations heretical.
After the priestess had agreed to give us the key to the main teleporter, we told her to lock herself in her room for her own safety and leave when everything was over, as we had done with Mierul. She refused to stay any longer, though, as she had her own means to leave without being noticed and didn't want to be close if we failed and Radosek realized her betrayal. She gathered up all her scarce belongings that she was keeping in her room, all but a beautiful mobile made out of ice crystals shaped to resemble tiny birds, which was hanging from the ceiling. It reflected the falling sun, creating spots of light all over the room.
-Aren't you taking this?- I asked, fearing that she was forgetting about it. It seemed like something with sentimental value.
After packaging up, Jairess drank a flight potion and floated away. The crows were also gone, at least for now, making the aerie suddenly calm and silent. From the top of the tower, we had an amazing view of the sunset in the frozen plains. I could even see Waldsby in the distance with the small wooden houses and the white gusts of smoke coming out from the chimneys. One of the smoke columns caught my attention being bigger than the others: someone must be cooking something delicious for dinner.
We gathered up Argentea's belongings, though she insisted on discarding some cosmetics that had been obviously used by the doppelganger. She wanted to throw away the torn dress too, but I convinced her not to do so. I knew a few tricks that could make the dress look fine again. The clothes I was wearing were at least twenty years old and, barring a couple of patches that they already had when I got them, they looked like they were brand new. I have never understood people who believe that using magic for fighting is fine, but using it for casual things isn't. That 's how wizards think: you shouldn't practice casual magic in front of people because they are afraid of magic. Maybe they wouldn't be so afraid if people witnessed more helpful casual magic (like clothes mending) and less people being burned alive by a harmful spell, right?
But we've had enough venting for now. We'll get back to my ideological differences with wizards later. Now, let's get back to the Pale Tower. We had just decreased the number of Argenteas by one and gotten back to the dining hall, ready to keep searching the place. As we opened the next door, the first thing I noticed was a delicious scent of freshly baked goods, but before my mouth had time to start salivating, a short ashen-skinned figure wearing an apron startled us. From what I could extract from his swift speech in Skald, he didn't want intruders in his kitchen and wanted to kick us out. I didn't get the feeling that he minded a whole lot that we were also intruders in the tower. He just wanted us out from "his" kitchen. Before we could apologize and get out the gnomish creature (a spriggan, as Nadya would tell us later) used the innate magic of his kind to cast a spell to scare us away. It worked, at least on Cat and Nadya, who backed away in fear, but it caused the opposite reaction on Argentea, who stepped towards him in determination. I pointed at the spriggan and made a quick gesture to impose a curse on him, while resorting to my usual manic laughter to keep his resolution undermined (here is a tiny secret about my most basic curses: they only work because people think they do, it's all in the head).
-Witch!- the spriggan cried out, with a mixture of fear and reverence in his voice, and then he tapped himself on the chest while crying out loud:- Grow! Grow! Grow!
In front of our eyes, he started to grow in size like a well fermented dough, until he was many heads taller than Argentea. I kept cackling, half because I needed to hold my curse on him, half because I found the whole situation pretty amusing: I had never seen an enlargement effect being casted like that.
-Two can play at that game!- I said. I knew the perfect spell for the situation. After I said the words and made the proper gestures I added three last words to the spell:-Grow, grow, grow!
I thought it was pretty funny, but Argentea looked at me like she was questioning my sanity again and Nina hooted in dismay: that wasn't how the spell was intended to be! My magic worked fine, anyway, and Argentea grew up almost to double of her size.
-What...?- Argentea was confused and disoriented with her new size and missed a couple of hits against the spriggan. Meanwhile, Nadya and Cat joined the fray, already recovered from the magical fear. My sister sneaked into the battle from between Argentea's legs while some arrows flew above her head into the fray. Nadya's aim never ceased to impress me. Cat was a pretty good archer too, but she would most likely shoot Argentea instead of the enemy if she ever tried to do what Nadya was doing.
The spriggan was a tougher fighter that one would expect for a cook to be. He attacked Cat and Argentea with formidable strength while he threatened with feeding us to the troll.
-The troll is dead, and so are you- said Nadya in an absolutely cold voice that gave me the creeps, while she fired another arrow. It would be hard to tell if it was her who delivered the final blow to the spriggan, as the fight was as messy as most fights are, but those were definitely the last words the cook heard before he fell to the ground, shrinking back to his normal size.
I had been called weird and witch so many times that I had lost count, but that was the first time I took it as a compliment: all the witches Nadya had known were cold, heartless tyrants.
-Kileanna, look, cookies!- cried out Cat. She knew how much I liked anything sweet. The last time we had sneaked into a kitchen I had been sick for two days because of a cake that was too big and tasty for my own good. And now, there I was, in front of a tray full of some of the most delicious looking cookies I had ever seen, and I didn't really mind the fact that I had a dead spriggan laying besides me. One of the cookies looked especially good: it had been shaped as a dragon's head and covered in frosting to make it look like a white dragon with a candied cherry as its eye. If that wasn't enough, it was about the size of my open hand... So bad that a quick magic examination revealed that the cookie was not only magical but cursed. I never got to know why would someone put a curse on a cookie, but I had to deem it unsafe for eating and crush it. The rest of them were absolutely non magic and delicious, though, so I packaged them up to share them with Hatch and Nadya's kids when we got back to Waldsby.
The rest of the group wasn't nearly as excited as I was about the cookies, so we moved on to our next destination in the Pale Tower, getting through the oversized double doors to a mirrored hall with two large doors on each side and another one in front of us. Behind the door to our left there was a big chamber, where a hideous tangle of vines vaguely shaped to resemble a young kid stood chained to a wall. The creature, clearly insane, hungry, or insanely hungry stared at us for a second and then attempted to attack us in a mindless rage. The chains stopped him right in the middle of the charge but it kept pulling and, even if the chains seemed resilient enough to hold it, the ice of the wall didn't. As we thought that fighting a plant-baby-monster wouldn't do any good, we just closed the door to the room again, but we could hear it shrieking and pulling at its chains for a while before it seemed to calm down.
-Who are you and what are you doing here?- she asked disdainfully in Skald.
She was tall, even by human standards and despite wearing no armor she had the bearing of a warrior. At first I thought she was unarmed but, as she approached, I noticed she was carrying the biggest sword I had ever seen on her back.
-We are...- what? Innocent visitors wandering around holding bloodstained weapons? Terribly accented guards that she hadn't met before for unknown reasons? I didn't know how to end my phrase.
The woman in the library unsheathed her sword and moved one step closer.
-Bad luck. She's gone.
The woman hinted a crooked smile and spoke in a perfect yet heavily accented Common.
-That isn't of any concern to a bunch of northern weaklings who are most likely going to die here.
Both Argentea and Nadya seemed about to jump at her throat. I could picture them asking "who are you calling a weakling?" and "who are you calling a northerner?" respectively.
-We don't need to prove anything to you- I said-. There's no reason to start a pointless fight here. If you stay out of this, we won't come after you.
The tall woman raised an eyebrow.
-Do I look scared? Should I be? The Abyss will freeze over the day I back away from the poorly concealed threats of a northerner.
Of course, we have gotten right into our enemy's lair because we were such cowards!
-Fight.- said Nadya dryly, while aiming her bow at her. All the patience she could muster had evaporated since we had been told that Nazhena was gone. She still didn't want to believe it and needed to see it with her own eyes as soon as possible.
The tall woman was ready for a fight. Cat was the first to strike, going right for the throat as usual, but our enemy parried the first attack with a bare arm, taking only a superficial wound. An invisible field blocked the second attack, and I recognised it as a magic armor spell, the same that I usually casted on myself everyday. Could she be some sort of spellcaster? It seemed so, as she stepped back, recited some arcane words and started growing up. That seemed to be the theme of the day, though there was no "grow, grow, grow" involved in this case. She prepared to deliver a powerful blow with her oversized sword, but she had lost way too much time casting the spell, and both Argentea and Nadya took advantage of it. Meanwhile, my task was business as usual: cursing and cackling.
The fight didn't last long, with only Argentea being hurt on our side as she approached the enlarged woman. The hit could have been devastating, but she managed to deflect most of it with her sword and get a shallow cut on her right arm. After that, our opponent didn't have another chance to fight back before she was knocked down unconscious. We disarmed her, tied her up and used Indi's healing wand (that he had gracefully lent to us) to get her back to consciousness. She might have useful information.
Indeed, she might have, but she wasn't willing to share. The most useful piece of information that came out from her mouth was her name: "Captain" Hestrig Orlov. Every other question received contemptuous, or directly threatening answers. She was mocking us. We had already lost our patience, and when I told her that she'd rather speak, for her own good, she anwswered in a daring voice:
-No!- we all said in unison, all but Nadya. Her silence worried me.
Thora immediately came to my mind. She was probably right. After realizing we wouldn't get any information out of her, we came to the conclusion that the best we could do was leaving her there, gagged and tied up, but it was Hestrig who convinced us that it wasn't a good idea:
-How much time do you think will pass before someone will find me here and release me, and how long before I come back after you?- I swear she was looking at the mirror as she spoke- If you want to fight me again, release me now, I am ready for more!
Even if Hestrig seemed hot-headed she didn't seem like an idiot. Why demanding another fight right now, wounded, alone and at clear disadvantage, when she could come back later, fully healed and maybe even with some backup? I couldn't understand then, but now I believe that she was scared. With all her pretended self confidence and cockiness, she was utterly afraid of Nazhena, and she'd rather face a sure death by our hands than whatever punishment the witch kept for people who failed to perform their assigned duties. Whatever the reason was, we came to the realisation that we had to kill her. Argentea was willing to free her and allow her to make a last stand against us, but Cat and I couldn't disagree more.
-Freeing her doesn't make it any less of an execution- I argued-. In her current state she doesn't have the slightest chance against us. It won't be a honorable combat but a parody. At best, she will manage to hurt one of us before she gets killed, and we would be wasting what little magic our healing wand still has left, only to trick ourselves into believing that we are giving her a chance.
My speech was passionate, but completely useless, as Cat and Nadya were already more inclined towards a quick and painless death and Argentea kept thinking that Captain Orlov deserved to die like a warrior. Much to her disgust, the majority had spoken, and Hestrig Orlov died with an arrow shot through her eye socket. Maybe Argentea was right and she deserved better than that, but we had to think about our own safety first.
We walked by a mirrored wall to a side door to take Mierul to her chamber. There seemed to be mirrors everywhere, in every room, which gave us the sensation of being under constant watch. We feared that our conversation with Mierul could have been heard through the mirrors, but what else could we have done to prevent it? We hadn't found a single room where we were safe from our reflections' watchful eyes.
Next to Mierul's room there was another closed door. Cat opened it carefully, but the person who was inside the room had heard us and stood up quickly. Having been noticed, my sister opened the door wide enough for us all to see inside. The room was small yet luxurious, with a rather comfortable looking bed with some beautiful dresses scattered over it, a big wooden closet with intricate carvings, and a matching boudoir with... guess what? Yes! A big oval mirror. But the most striking feature of the room wasn't the interior decoration, but the person that we met inside. She was wearing a green dress that complimented her olive skin and her green eyes, with carefully combed curls of auburn hair falling over her shoulders. She stepped towards us with a mixture of resolution and elegance, while we stood paralyzed for a few seconds, as we couldn't believe what we were seeing: the woman that we had in front of us looked exactly like Argentea!
-Who are you?- asked the woman in the green dress. She stared at (our) Argentea with a worried look in her eyes.
Despite not carrying, apparently, any weapons, this new Argentea didn't seem intimidated by us. She stepped back, though, when the fully armed Argentea approached her, sword in hand.
-Stop pretending to be me, imposter!
"Out of this mess I got myself into" I thought.
-I mean, maybe both of you believe to be the real one. Maybe Nazhena played with her mind to make her believe it.
I really wanted to think that the woman who had been traveling with us was the real one, but both looked so alike that it was confusing. And what about the intimate moments we had shared? She had behaved like a completely different person then. That an engaged solamnic noblewoman like her showed even the slightest interest in an accursed pariah like me seemed far from believable. What if we had been traveling with an imposter, maybe even a spy? After seeing her risking her life for us, I couldn't believe that she was a traitor, at least not willingly. But, what if she didn't know? Even if the new Argentea was the imposter, we didn't have any proof that she was lying rather than having been deceived through magic. All about this situation was so confusing and difficult to handle.
-Do you recall how you got here?- I asked to the woman in the green dress.
-This was my favorite dress- Argentea knelt by the corpse of the alien creature, pondering the damage done by her sword and the spilled blood to her clothes-. What is this... thing?
My sister was right. Even asuming that the doppelganger had been reading our minds to improve its impersonation, its imitation of Argentea had been way too accurate. Not to forget that it had already been wearing Argentea's face before we got into the room. That implied previous knowledge of her. Maybe she had just been scryed with magic during her captivity at the lodge, but it worried me that everything could have been planned out in advance and they could have been watching her for a long time. I felt that it wasn't a good time to bother her with new concerns, as she already had many, so I didn't translate my fears into words. Making her suspicious of her own family and allies would do no good.
-Are all this fancy clothes and cosmetics yours?- asked Cat, messing around with the items scattered around the place and making me push aside my grim thoughts. She was really good at it- They look rather impractical. Can you even breathe with this thing on?
Cat sat on the bed, holding a dress with a very tight corset. We were used to see Argentea in her battle gear, and it was difficult to us to picture her wearing something like that, even if her copycat had allowed us to see how she'd look.
-These clothes aren't meant to be comfortable. They are noble garments.
Cat raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
-One would think that more money meant more comfortable clothes.
Argentea gave me a skeptical look. Despite all that she had just said, I must note that I have never seen her as comfortable in a noble garment as I have seen her in her battle attire. But, after all, it was she who said that noble garments weren't meant to be comfortable.
As we opened the doors we were greeted by an unexpected wave of heat. We got to a circular chamber dominated by a steaming pool right in the center, surrounded by six pillars of ice. Cloudy versions of ourselves walked towards us from foggy mirrors on the walls as we entered the room. I wasn't still used to my own reflection (it was disturbing) but, aside from that, the chamber seemed empty. We approached cautiously to the center and I kneeled by the pool. The water was steaming hot, perfect for a bath. I got rid of my uncomfortable guard costume (which was pretty useless in such close quarters) to make it seem like I was about to get into the pool.
-Forget about Nazhena, I am staying here.- I joked. Fluffyball Nina opened an eye and hooted lazily in agreement.
There were many sets of doors that led out of the main hall, plus a couple of square ice platforms, one at each side of the room. A magical detection spell revealed that they were magical in nature, so I proceeded to examine them more thoroughly while Cat approached stealthily the doors to check what was behind them. Meanwhile, Nadya and Argentea kept an eye out for us so we weren't surprised by unexpected attackers. The floor, despite being made out of polished ice, wasn't slippery at all, and it muffled sound allowing my sister to move around like a ghost. When she was done she informed us that two doors lead to latrines, another two lead to sets of stairs, and the last ones lead to chambers full of people. Though she only had been able to get a glimpse of the two last rooms, she was pretty sure that they were some kind of dormitories or barracks for the guards. Meanwhile, I had identified the platforms as some sort of teleporters that could be only be activated by some sort of specific event. If that was the use of an item, a password, or anything else, I had no clue, nor I did know where they led to. But I remembered the song that Hatch had taught us, insisting so much on us learning it by heart. The first time I had heard the verses I had thought them to be a sort of riddle but maybe they were just a password. I was excited to check out if my guess about the teleporters was right, so I voted to try our luck with them before walking up the stairs. Nadya agreed: if they were aware of our presence in the tower, they would expect us to use the stairs, not the teleporters. Argentea didn't think that a magic device could be a trustworthy traveling option but she had to agree with Nadya's reasons, so she reluctantly accepted that taking the teleporter could be the best option... if we could manage to make it work, that's it.
The teleporters weren't that big, allowing for only two of us to stay on the platform at the same time. Unexpectedly, everyone volunteered to be the one to accompany me on my first try, but we decided that Argentea would be the most appropriate one to go with me if we met problems on the other side, as she was an expert at keeping attackers at bay. I could tell she was rather scared when she stepped onto the platform: she didn't like or trust magic, but still she did her best to keep her usual look of determination.
I recited, more than singing. I had a soft voice, and people tended to find my kagonesti accent rather melodic, but aside from that I didn't have the slightest bit of musical talent. Anyway, the teleporter must be as tone deaf as I was, because the reciting worked fine. Suddenly, I felt a coat of ice climbing up my legs, covering my whole body. Argentea lifted her shield in an instinctive attempt of protecting herself but, before we were able to do anything, we were completely covered in ice. Was it a trap? Had I said the wrong password? Soon the layer of frost shattered, releasing us again. It had all happened so fast, lasting not more than a few seconds, and then we realized that we were somewhere else and Cat and Nadya weren't with us.
A melody ceased sounding as we materialized in a luxurious dining room. Two diminutive winged creatures stopped dancing among the chandeliers and stared at us in surprise. Mierul, the traveling bard we had met two days ago, was there holding a lyre, seeming as surprised as her fellow fey were. Clearly, we had interrupted something.
Mierul started singing and playing again, a hauntingly beautiful magical song meant to fill the hearts of her allies with resolution. The two smallest faeries muttered arcane words and disappeared from sight with a simple gesture, just like the faeries in the forests of Linsel did. But this time I was prepared. I had been learning more secrets from Eternity and I was looking forward to put them into practice: I took a pinch of sand from my belt pocket and blown it towards the position where I believed the fey to be. With a couple of gestures and a word of power, the sand transformed into a massive cloud that filled most of the room, coating everything in glitter: the chandeliers, the dishes, the furniture and, of course, the invisible fey.
There was a huge dining table in the middle of the room that acted as a barrier between Mierul and us, so Argentea had to go all the way round the table to get to her. Cat would have thrown herself under or over the table, but I just couldn't picture Argentea doing that. One of the smallest faeries aimed his bow at Argentea, but the sting of the tiny arrows didn't even pierce her armor. The other one just brushed her eyes violently, trying to remove the sparkling glitter that hindered her vision. At that moment, Cat and Nadya materialized in the room with an explosion of shards of ice, ready to fight. They didn't know what was going on, but we looked like we were in trouble and that was enough for them. Cat rolled under the table trying to get to Mierul, while Nadya took aim at the flying faeries that were beyond our reach. Without the weather on their side and with a skilled archer (with cold iron arrows) on ours they weren't so tough. Mierul was the only one left standing in the blink of an eye, and only because she was harder to reach. I put her to sleep to prevent her from running away, and when she woke up she had the edge of Argentea's new sword resting on her neck.
-Please, don't kill me- she pleaded with the hesitant voice of someone who wasn't used to plead-. I surrender.
We had actually no reasons to kill her. She had caused no direct harm to us and, taking into account that we had broken into the room fully armed and prepared for a fight, it wasn't unusual nor unreasonable that she had attempted to defend herself. We told her to lock herself in her room and stay there until we were done with Nazhena. Then, she would be free to leave.
-You won't find Nazhena here- said the bard when she heard the duchess' name-. She has been called to Whitethrone by the Queen herself.
-What do you mean that she isn't here?- Nadya's voice trembled. For a moment I feared that she was either about to start crying or to fire an arrow into Mierul's guts, but she just gave her a cold stare. I couldn't imagine what was going on in her head in that moment.
I noticed a slight disagreement in Mierul's voice, and it wasn't hard guessing the reason. Radosek had hired a troll as a guard who had slain and devoured the dogs. His guards had let us in with next to no checking. We had got to the second floor without any opposition. It didn't seem like Nazhena's apprentice was doing anything near competent work here.
We interrogated Mierul about what could be Nazhena doing in Whitethrone (the capital of Irrisen, as Nadya told us) and what could Queen Elvanna might want from her, but she didn't seem to know anything. She was just an artist, a wandering bard, as she constantly reminded us. She knew nothing about a winter portal either, and she looked genuinely surprised when we asked. She proved to be more useful when it came to questions about Radosek and the Pale tower, as she was more than willing to share with us which was the teleporter that led to his bedroom and to the ritual chamber where he and Nazhena usually performed their magic. She still didn't seem to believe that we weren't going to kill her afterwards and thus she tried to be as helpful as she could so we would spare her life.
-He doesn't allow anyone to use that teleporter without his consent, though- Mierul warned us-. He keeps it locked with a key, but he might have given a copy to someone.
Mierul shrugged again.
-Her name is Jairess Sonn and she is some sort of priestess, I believe. She doesn't look fully human, though.
We posed a couple more questions to Mierul, like what she meant with Jairess not being fully human (something about her having blue skin despite not being winter-touched, she said), but she wasn't of much more help, so we escorted her to her room and she locked herself in.
Nadya was very disappointed after our chat with Mierul. The rest of us were at the Pale Tower because of the Winter Portal, so Nazhena's absence could be a good thing after all, as we weren't prepared to win a fight against a powerful winter witch. But Nadya has joined us only because she wanted to avenge her daughter and take Nazhena down. To her, this was a hard hit. I felt really sorry for her, but now we had to focus on closing the portal and trying to stay alive.
The next day I woke up before the break of dawn with Nina pulling my hair. Everybody else was still sleeping, but I had to commune with Nina to prepare my daily spells. Each morning I spent about an hour meditating in her company to replenish my magic, so I usually was the first one to wake up but the last one to join the group... though Indi usually shared my situation, as his goddess demanded him to commune with her at sunrise. This morning was unusually early, though, and Indi was still sleeping. Lucky him.
When I joined up with the group they were already having breakfast. We had some leftovers from the previous day, Nadya kissed her kids goodbye, and we departed with the first lights of the day. Orm and Mjoli were happy: something they had heard made them believe we were going to bring Thora back, and they missed her. They were also glad to be left with their new friend Indi, who was much funnier than that old boring Kashka, who was always complaining about her aching hips.
With the first lights of the dawn, I chose my three riders for the day: the redhead Nadya was My Red Sun, the sneaky and stealthy Cat was My Black Midnight and Argentea, our knight in bright armor, could only be My Bright Morning. Then, we tied the dogs to the sled and got back on the road.
Nadya knew all the best paths to get to the Pale Tower without being noticed and despite walking through the woods made our trip longer and more exhausting we were rewarded with an uneventful trip, as patrols rarely ventured beyond the roads. We got to our destination by midday, and I was almost blinded by the light the tower reflected. It was, as I had thought, completely sculpted out of ice and surrounded by a wall of pointy icicles about three times our height. The tower itself resembled a giant icicle. One of the first things we noticed as our eyes got used to the reflecting light was that there was a massive flock of black birds (most likely crows) flying around the top of the building.
There was no visible entrance, but there was a trail of footprints and sled tracks in the snow that led directly to the wall, so it wasn't hard to guess that there must be a door. We decided to approach the tower from the main road and try to get anyone who watched the entrance to allow us to pass. We still had part of the gear that we had taken from the guards we had fought at the inn, so we could pass as a returning patrol to anyone who looked at us from a certain distance. Cat's impersonation wasn't very good, as she was really short for a human and her features were clearly elven, so she stayed behind, cloaked, hooded, and covered by the rest of us. Being almost a head taller than my sister, I didn't have the same problem and despite not having an imposing frame as Argentea or, to a minor degree, Nadya had, I had something even better: magic. Since I was a child I had known how to trick people's minds into make them perceive me as an entirely different person. I didn't know where that ability came from, as nobody had taught it to me, but it had proven useful in the past to get free meals. This would be the first time that I put it in a truly serious use and I really wished that it worked. Nadya had been teaching me some words and phrases in Skald and I hoped to be able to speak them correctly and convincingly to reinforce my impersonation. In the end, Skald was kinda similar to Common, as all human languages had a common origin in Ergot, the first human tongue. What really made Skald difficult to understand (and to speak) was the accent: despite having been practicing for the last hours, the heavy consonant sounds still got stuck in my throat.
We approached the wall, with Nadya and me in the lead, and Cat in the back. I was wearing the face of one of Sertane's men, so the guards on the wall could at least see a familiar face. The rest of the group covered their faces with their hoods the best they could. I was relieved to hear that the guard that adressed us spoke in short phrases and cried them out loud and clear: "Who goes there?", "Where do you come from?" So I was able to understand everything with little effort. Nadya and I did all the speaking, though there wasn't too much to do. I repeated my prepared speech and we were allowed to get in without further questioning. Part of the wall lifted like a regular portcullis, through instead of metal bars it was made out of polished icicles. We crossed the gate, and I felt grateful that the guards remained in their places instead of approaching us, as I didn't think our costumes were good enough to hold up to a closer examination.
We got into an open courtyard, dominated by an imposing ice scultpture of a dragon spreading its wings. To its sides, there were seven wooden shacks, and some dogsleds parked near them. As soon as we got out of the sight of the guards at the entrance we peeped inside one of the shacks.
-Dogs- whispered Cat, the first one to look-. But they are dead.
Argentea backed away, deciding she didn't need to see that, and headed towards another shack. She opened the door, took a look inside, closed the door and looked at us with a face that made her look like she smelled rotting fish.
-Nothing to see. Just more dead dogs.
I would get an answer to my questions soon, as the next shack we checked was occupied by something quite different from a dog. A large hunched figure approached us as we opened the door. It had a thick blue skin, tiny red eyes and unusually long arms ended in hooked claws. We had fought a troll before, but this one seemed bigger and stronger.
We thought we could avoid a fight by pretending to be guards, but that didn't help. Bordegga, as the troll called herself, had grown tired of being paid in useless metal and gave us an ultimatum: bring me food or become food. Anything as good as the dogs from our sleds would suffice. Even though she effectively mistook us for guards, she didn't show any respect to us, acting in a belligerent way and constantly threatening us. Who was the genius who thought that hiring this troll as a guard was a good idea?
We might have avoided the fight, but after seeing the fate of the dogs in the kennels we weren't willing to sacrifice the ones that came with us. Most humans treated animals under their care like they were slaves or belongings, but Nadya was kind to "her" dogs. Cat and I thought that sacrificing the life of someone under our protection was beyond consideration. Argentea, who couldn't care less about the dogs, thought that Bordegga was dangerous, unpredictable, and would turn against us when she had an opportunity, and there was no point in negotiating with such a creature. She was possibly right, as the first thing Bordegga did after we told her that she couldn't eat the dogs was saying that we would make a better meal and attacking us right away.
Argentea was the target of the first blows, as we were ready for a fight and she had taken a strategic position up in front of us to protect us from being hit. She parried the first attack from the troll's axe, dodged her claw and made her taste the steel of her shield when she attempted to bite her. She had learned from our last time fighting a troll that they liked to bite, and this one seemed to find us especially tasty. Cat got out from behind the wall of the shack, ready to do her thing, but I told her to wait. Trolls had a thick skin and regenerative blood, which could make them formidable adversaries when fighting them with conventional weapons, but they also had a reputation for being rather stupid and weak willed. The trick that I had used against Volan and her men should work with Bordegga too: a couple of words, a simple gesture, and she was put to sleep. Cat was quick to slit her throat with no hesitation, as we knew that it wouldn't kill her but keep her unconscious for a while. According to the legends, even severed heads would grow back or reattach themselves.
-We must kill her- said Nadya, putting an arrow right into Bordegga's eye with surprising accuracy to prevent her from regaining consciousness-. If we don't, she will come after us as soon as she awakens.
She was right. Given some effort and time, even I might be able to knock down the door.
-We gotta be quick- insisted Nadya-. With all this noise, we must have already alerted the guards.
Cat improvised a torch as fast as she could wrapping some cloth around a broken broomstick she found inside the shack. I produced some fire with my magic, just a tiny spark that was only useful to ignite easily flammable things: fire magic wasn't really my speciality. Argentea didn't wait for confirmation, as she knew what she had to do.
-Now!- she cried out as she beheaded the troll, holding her sword with both hands. It wasn't a clear cut: the head was still attached to the body by some sinew and bone, which was quickly regenerating.
Cat didn't hesitate. She pressed the improvised torch against the partially severed head and, with a crispy sound of charred flesh, the troll stopped moving. The wounds were no longer bleeding or regenerating.
-Should we set her on fire to be sure she's dead?- asked my sister, looking at me for an answer, but it was Nadya who spoke:
It was difficult to recognize the sweet and caring mother in the cold and determined hunter that Nadya had become since our departure. Cat and Argentea shared her determination, but while the first's motivation was protecting me and the latter's was duty, Nadya was solely motivated by revenge. And, what would happen when, after having had her revenge, she realized that her daughter was still gone? I was worried for her. Anyway, we did what she said and hurried up. The guards should already be coming... Save they weren't, and they never did. They must have heard the fight. Maybe they'd rather avoid the troll. Maybe they were already used to Bordegga causing trouble and they chose to ignore her. Or maybe they were just incompetent. We never knew. We just found ourselves in front of the icy doors of the Pale Tower with no more opposition. And the doors weren't even locked. We were coming for Nazhena.
Fortunately, we hadn't killed anybody in the skirmish at the inn. Unfortunately, we had messed up badly and we didn't know what to do with the prisoners. Aftet stabilizing their wounds with magic, while Cat tied them up, I examinated my own injury. It was superficial, but the bolt had been aimed to my chest. I had been lucky. It was a shot that could have easily killed me.
-What are we doing with this people?- asked Argentea, while searching them and removing anything they could use as a weapon.- If we set them free they will alert Nazhena and come back to get us.
That, supposing Nazhena hadn't seen everything using the mirror behind the bar, I thought.
Argentea got distracted for a second testing Sertane's sword, which was crafted out of a particular material, similar to the one Nadya used on the tips of some of her arrows. Cold iron was pretty popular in Irrisen, as it was specially effective against fey creatures. Argentea had found a new weapon.
-Kill them- said Indi in a serious tone. Argentea turned towards him, still wielding Sertane's blade. Indi was freaked out for a second-. We have already messed up. What's to lose?
It was already dark outside and there were no people in the streets, so taking them to the burned building shouldn't be difficult, and it seemed safer than waiting for the innkeepers to gather up the courage and allies to come back to get us. Carrying five adult armored men was the main problem, but we solved it by making the only one who was conscious carry one of his peers while we carried the other three. Argentea and Indi could easily lift one of them and carry him over their shoulders, while Cat and I were able to move the last one together. Cat surely could have done it by herself but I wanted to help despite not being that strong.
Once we were safe in the only place in the town where nobody would look, we healed our prisoners up to interrogate them. Argentea expected to get some useful information about the Pale Tower. I wanted to hear from them that we could release them without them coming back to get us. Indi just thought it was a complete loss of time. I hate to have to admit he was right. They were too loyal or too scared to reveal anything sensitive or to even think of betraying Nazhena. And, to them, something like not trying their best against us once we released them seemed like a big betrayal to Nazhena. They'd rather die against us than face the punishments she would bestow on them and their families. And the most terrible thing was that they felt that everything was right as it was: a ruler must ensure the loyalty of her people by any means, and the temptation of power combined with the fear of punishment is one of the best ways to do so.
When we were sure that we wouldn't be getting anything out of them without resourcing to questionable means (something inside of me wanted to test how much pain they could take before they broke, but that wasn't fine) we got back to the point of deciding what to do with them. Indi believed firmly that anything but killing them was a bad idea. They would bring us too much trouble. But, even if we aggreed, we didn't want to take that decission. In the end, I suggested that keeping them as prisoners in the burned house until we got back from the Pale Tower and freeing them after that, when we were ready to leave Waldsby, would solve most of our problems. I am pretty sure that you can see the many drawbacks of taking that course of action. We were no fools. We were aware of them. But that was the only idea we had that didn't involve killing them, so we did it anyway.
After that, we got back to Nadya's home and told her what had happened. She wasn't angry or even specially surprised. I can only guess that she expected us to mess up.
-We will depart tomorrow with the first lights- was the only thing she said-. We have to hurry up before she is fully prepared.
Even if she wasn't, Nazhena seemed like too much for us. But what we could do? Wait until she decided to come at us with all her minions and considerable power? Our best chance was striking first.
-Do you intend to come with us, Nadya?- asked Cat.
A tiny man with a big beard was sitting on the table, looking at us hesitantly while chewing on one of the traits Cat and I had cooked. He looked almost like a dwarf, but he was about the size of a kender or a goblin.
-Hatch?- I asked.
The tiny man raised an eyebrow like he was saying: "can you both stop asking obvious things?". I didn't know what domovyie (the plural for domovoi) were, but Nadya told us later. Akin to the fey, domovyie were widely known in Irrisen as mischievous home spirits who were as likely to help doing the housework as to create a real mess, depending on their whimse. This one was apparently in a helpful mood. Even if he had been a bit reluctant to show himself, Hatch wanted to share his knowledge about the Pale Tower with us, so we had a chance to survive. After Nadya's initial shock, we all listened carefully. He had a lot of information and some of it was even helpful. In addition to the color of the curtains, the location of Nazhena's footlocker, and a song that Hatch made us learn by heart because he insisted that it was important (I believed him), we also learned some useful information about the capacities of Nazhena and her apprentice Radosek Pavril (the Goat Man, as Hatch called him). Even though Hatch's explanations were anything but good, I got one thing clear: Nazhena was way beyond our capacities and she wasn't alone. But still, we'd have to find a way to defeat her and close the Winter Portal. Maybe taking the fight to her own lair, her tower protected by Baba Yaga's magic (if we were to believe Hatch's words), wasn't the wisest course of action, but it was still the best option we had.
-Someone should stay here.- I announced after pondering Hatch's words carefully.
Not that the town was that safe, with its crossbow-wielding innkeeper, but it was definitely safer. In the end, everybody agreed to do it my way, though not everybody was happy about it. Nadya still insisted on coming along and I thought she had the right to avenge her daughter and find some peace. Argentea had also pending issues with Nazhena, who had been resonsible for her kidnapping and the death of her traveling companions. Indi, on his behalf, had befriended Orm and Mjolin and could also help Rolf the priest to learn more about Blonde. He was the perfect candidate to stay out. Now that I come to think about it, I might have suggested Indi for less objective reasons, as I don't feel that I was ready yet to fly on my own without Cat. But whatever the reason was, my arguments stuck and Indi was left behind to take care of Nadya's kids, Blonde and the prisoner. Now that I think about it, maybe leaving him in charge of the prisoners wasn't the best idea either.
But before we went to sleep I wanted to have a talk with Argentea. I had been thinking all day about what had happened the last night. Cat would have said I was overthinking things. I was still worried that she could end up regretting what had happened, or thinking that I had provoked her somehow into it. Indi was much simpler, so honest and open-minded. It was easy to know what was going on in his head. But Argentea seemed confusing to me. It was like she was two different people: the real Argentea and the one she presented to the world.
I knocked on her door, resolved to talk it out, but when the moment came I was unable to get the words sorted in my head, and Argentea didn't seem specially comfortable with the conversation. So, instead of talking about the last night, we ended repeating the last night. At least I could be rather sure now that she didn't regret it.
I don't know if it's exactly science fiction but I got addicted to Jules Verne's books by the age of 7 and I read all he had written but a couple of books they didn't have in the public library within 3 months.
About fantasy, it had to be The Neverending Story by the age of 8, maybe 9. Fujur was the first dragon that I fell in love with, and after him there came a lot more!
I already saw it on DA. Amazing work!
And about Sylessae's webcomic, it's still starting, but you can take a look to the first page here
Nadya instructed us before we got to the inn. We should be cautious and try not to bring uncalled attention to ourselves. Though most people didn't have any love for Nazhena, they wouldn't lift a finger against her guards if we got attacked by them. She was the established power in the region and nobody would dare to defy her. We should be able to find some people there who were able to speak in Common. Though it was kinda infrequent in the rest of Irrisen, there were quite a few people with Northern ancestry in Waldsby who had been taught Common as a rarely used second language. Asking too many questions to the wrong people could end with them alerting the authorities about trouble-seeking foreigners, so we had to be cautious. Nadya also informed us that we would find many people who were able to speak our language among Nazhena's followers. It was said that she had commanded them to learn it a few years ago. Argentea believed it proved the existance of an invasion plan on our lands. Why else bother teaching a foreign language to the troops?
After Nadya told us to "avoid trouble by any means" for the hundredth time, we left for the inn. We were surprised to find it emptier than we had expected. There were a few people scattered around the place, having their meals quietly; five fully armed men standing at the bar; and the two innkeepers, who had to be a married couple, for the look of them. Behind the bar, the biggest mirror I had ever seen reflected back the whole room. I hadn't seen my own face so clearly before, and for a moment I was distracted by my own reflection: a mess of red hair with mismatched eyes giving me a disapproving stare.
-This place is dead.- groaned my sister, staring suspiciously at the armed men. As always, she kept the focus on what really mattered everytime I got lost in irrelevant thoughts- Let's get out of here.
Too late. We had already become the center of attention: the newcomers, the foreigners. The people at the tables spied on us out of the corner of their eyes while faking an unusual interest in their meals. The armed men and the innkeepers just stared at us with a complete lack of subtlety.
-Well-come travelers!- said the male innkeeper in a loud, heavy accented Common, with a huge forced smile on his lips. I found him creepy, and the fact that he used the Common language to adress us worried me. He knew too much.- Take a seat! It's dinner time!
The woman rushed to clean a table (that was already perfectly clean) and offer a seat to each one of us with the same fake smile on her lips.
-Let's get out of here.- mustered Cat again.
But, as I said, it was already too late. We couldn't do anything but playing the game.
-You will be served in a couple of minutes.- said the woman. She had a crystalline voice, with next to no accent and not a single trace of kindness in it.
As she left, the man who seemed to be in charge of the armed men approached our table. He was a tall and gruff man with a thick beard, who carried a spiked shield on his back that made me think of Argentea's. He introduce d himself (in perfect Common) as Volan Sertane, captain of the guard at the Pale Tower. A pair of villagers finished their meals in a hurry and then rushed out of the place. My sister had a "we are screwed" look on her face. Indi seemed more excited than nervous. As for Argentea, she remained as inscrutable as ever, but she didn't lift her hand from the grip of her blade. I looked at the mirror again, searching for a hint of someone else spying on us from it. Of course, it didn't reveal anything to me but my own face... again.
The captain didn't ask us any questions that hadn't been posed to us before: Where did we come from? What were we doing here? No matter how good could our lies be, all of them were easily dismantled by the fact that we didn't know a single word in Skald, the local language. But, unlike my friends, who had already assumed that we wouldn't get out of the inn without a fight, I still believed we could talk our way out of there. I engaged the captain in conversation, trying not to reveal too much, just enough to make him satisfied, but he never seemed to be so. I tried to be as charming as I could: soft voice, innocent smile, big eyed stare... It usually worked well in getting me out of trouble, though my mirror self looked a bit stupid doing it and, gods know why, people tended to think I was flirting each time I did it. And it seemed to be happening again, as the captain asked me to accompany him to a separate room for some private interrogation. Cat and the others freaked out when I agreed, but I had it all under control... or so I thought. He agreed to it being just the two of us, after my friends complained. It would be a good opportunity to extract some useful information out of him, away from the watchful mirror. Something shook inside of me in excitement: he was my prey.
But as we got to a private room, nothing went as expected. Now that he had separated me from my group, the captain became even more commanding, more inquisitive, more aggressive. He wasn't a skilled interrogator, just a brute legitimized by authority. As soon as he locked the door with a key, I started fearing that I hadn't made the right choice. Then he pushed me into taking a potion that would harm me if I attempted to lie. It wasn't so bad, there were still many ways to say the truth. But he was relentless, and anything I said brought him closer to the truth. In the end, I realized I had to get out of there if I didn't want to end up revealing that we knew about the Winter Portal or, alternatively, completely screwed up.
I knew what I had to do but I hadn't done it before. It was all or nothing. I warped his time perceptions to make him experience the tiredness of days of sleeplessness. That was enough to switch off most untrained minds for a few seconds. It worked, but I knew it wouldn't last long. Unlike a real Sleep spell, this was a very rough manipulation that was quick to overcome. As soon as the captain fell asleep, I knelt by him and grabbed the keys, trying not to wake him up. Then I ran to the door and unlocked it. I heard him standing up again, but I didn't look back. I just opened the door and ran across the corridor, crying for help.
The captain ran after me, crying out words in Skald. I only recognized the word for "witch", as it sounded very much like its equivalent in common and I had heard it many times coming from the lips of Nadya and her peers.
I was greeted from the main hall by a crossbow bolt right to my chest. I felt no pain in the rush of the moment. One of the innkeepers, the male, stared at me from behind the bar with homicidal joy and a crossbow in his hands. His wife stood behind a table, giving us a cold stare. Everyone else but the Pale Tower guards had left the place.
-You won't destroy our way of life, invaders.- the woman cried out loud in her perfect Common. It sounded pretty exaggerated, but it wasn't the right time to start an argument. She pulled out a scroll and casted a spell to make us cower in fear, though we were able to resist it and stay focused. The man had shot me, but she was some sort of spellcaster, which made her potentially more dangerous. I lifted a finger towards her.
-Go to sleep.- I hissed, and I invoked my magic again. The woman collapsed on the table.
I waited for a second bolt on my chest, but my words had the desired effect on him. He obeyed.
Meanwhile, Volan Sertane was already reaching my position. The other guards were blocking my way, so I couldn't escape. I would have been in real trouble if Cat and Argentea hadn't already engaged them in melee. My sister focused on quickly defeating one of them, allowing Argentea to break the defensive line and charge towards the captain. Using the same strategy she had used with the troll, she used the momentum to push Volan back with her shield, allowing me to retreat. The guards weren't a big threat, but the captain was a tough one. Watching Argentea fighting him made me realize how similar their combat styles were. Indi joined the fray with his quarterstaff, while I stayed at a prudent distance. I couldn't put the captain back to sleep (that only worked once), but the same trick worked with one of his men, the last one as Cat and Indi had already taken the other ones out. Without any help on his side, Volan Sertane was quickly outnumbered and defeated.
Later, when we searched him, we found him in possession of a magic mirror, which we identified as a tool to communicate with someone else (duchess Nazhena, we guessed). The theory of being spied on from mirrors was gaining credibility.
As we got to Waldsby, the first thing I noticed was an awkward sensation of having been there before. The faces were new, the buildings were new, the environment was new, but everything felt strangely... familiar.
Many villagers had come to greet the hunting party: in that cold, infertile land, their lives depended on a successful hunt. Their initial excitement, though, turned quickly to waryness and mistrust when they saw us, the strange-looking foreigners. I was already used to that kind of first impression (I was a wild elf among humans and a bad omen among kagonesti elves), but it caused a big shock to Argentea and Indi, who had always been "normal". Indi was the one to cause the strongest reaction among villagers: adults stared at him with their eyes wide open while children pointed their fingers at him in amusement.
-Let's get to my house- said Nadya to Indi in a low voice-. I will lend you some clothes. You might not be cold but you are getting too much attention.
Nadya did her best to calm down things and convince her folks that we weren't trouble but, even after she spoke, they still looked at us with that mixture of fear and hostility that was so familiar to me.
We had to cross the whole town to get to Nadya's home, a cabin on the opposite side of the village.
-It's like we were back in Linsel.- my sister said as we got to the main square.
I looked around and I realized what she was talking about, the reason behind the feeling of having already been there. Each street, each building had exactly the same layout than the ones in Linsel. Even minor details like the number of windows or the placement of the doors seemed identical. The coincidences were too many to be accidental but, being under the curious eyes of so many villagers, it wasn't the right time to discuss and investigate the peculiarities of the town.
From Nadya's home, in the outskirts of the town, we had a clear sight of the tower that dominated the view. It was majestic, and it seemed to have been sculpted completely out of ice.
-That is the Pale Tower, Nazhena's home- explained Nadya, with a hint of rage in her voice-. All the food we brought was meant to be a payment for Thora's freedom- she sighed-. Now there's no point in it. Please, don't tell the kids anything about their sister, okay?- she added, almost as a plead, before opening the door and entering the cabin. It was a small home, but it was kept incredibly neat and tidy, considering there were two children living there. Of course, there wasn't a single mirror in sight. Aside from being an expensive good, Nadya firmly believed that witches were able to use them to spy on people.
The two young human boys stormed from the other side of the house to greet their mother, followed by an old woman. Nadya presented the kids (who were identical twins) as Orm and Mjoli, and then the old woman as a neighbor who cared for her children while she was away. Her name was Kashka and she didn't speak a single word in Common tongue but, to our surprise, the young boys did. After Kashka was gone, Nadya explained to us that her husband had descended from foreigners, and that his biggest dream had been to take his family out of Irrisen and the control of the Winter Witches. That explained why Nadya and her children spoke a fairly good Common.
The two kids were quick to bombard us with questions. Where did we come from? What were we doing there? Why were our ears so long? They were relentless, but we were glad to answer all their questions, and we were more sincere to them than we had been to anyone else since we had got there. Cat and Indi seemed to be like magnets to them: my sister had always had a natural understanding of children and Indi was a big kid. I liked them too, but they didn't seem to find me especially funny or interesting, so I enjoyed being ignored for once in my life. Argentea just stayed away from them: one could think she was afraid. And Blond... well, he was just standing still in the middle of the room like a piece of furniture, in his typical fashion.
After a few minutes Nadya excused herself, she had to take care of the food shipment and divide it amoung the villagers. She entrusted us with taking care of her sons while she was away: they were in good hands, but before she left, Nadya also showed Indi a closet full of clothes and told him to take all that he needed. After all, her husband wouldn't be needing them anymore. Indi felt a bit uncomfortable wearing clothes that belonged to Nadya's dead husband, but he thought that it would have been impolite to refuse. And, truth to be told, they fitted him so perfectly that it would have been a shame to just leave them there.
Nadya wasn't away for a long time: she returned soon with her share of the hunt. The kids were so distracted playing "pull my sister's ears" that they didn't even stop to greet their mother. Meanwhile, Indi and I had been discussing what to do with Blond, and we had come to the decision of seeking advice. Nadya told us how to locate the local temple, whose only priest, Rolf Halzberg, had no love for the Witches. He was a follower of the faith of The Tree of Wisdom, Zivilyn, and might be able to help us to discover what was wrong with Blond. While Indi and I went out to take Blond to the temple, Cat and Argentea stayed with Nadya, watching the kids and talking about the threats we might find on our way to the Pale Tower and inside.
The "temple" itself wasn't in fact more than a small chapel built next to a burned house. The villagers seemed to avoid both buildings, but while the chapel just looked like it was being ignored, people who passed by the burned house made signs against the evil eye. Later, Rolf the priest would tell us why the house was supposedly haunted: not long ago the duchess Nazhena had sentenced its owner to be hung and burn his house down with the rest of inhabitants (a woman and a baby) inside, just because she had heard rumors of treason. It was because of that kind of incidents that Rolf gave us a cold geeeting at first, and when we told him that Blond was allegedly the son of Nazhena he looked like he was about to ask us politely to get out of his chapel. But Rolf was a kind and helpful man at heart and, despite his fear of Nazhena, he really wanted to help us.
Rolf was skeptical about Blond being literally Nazhena's son. She had never been married and, even though there were rumors about her having a love affair with her apprentice (a man without a pint of noble blood in his veins called Radosek Pavril) she had never been known to be pregnant. Of course, there were many ways she could have hidden it and kept a secret son, but Rolf believed that it was unlikely that Blond was Nazhena's son in a literal way. He, however, considered it to be more than possible that he was under the influence of one of her spells or that he had been somehow created by her magic. He was no expert in witch magic, though, so the only aid he could offer was studying him for a few days and try to get something out of him. It wasn't so different from what we had already done, but we had been too busy to pay too much attention to him, and he clearly needed help. Rolf, even if we had just met him, was the best we had. After discussing with him for a while about faith, gods and belief, he seemed trustworthy to me and he also despised the Witches (who kept Chemosh as the main god of the queendom and marginalized other religions). That was a plus.
After negotiating to leave Blond in the chapel for a couple of days (thay would last forever) we got back to Nadya's cabin. Argentea and Nadya were talking in front of the window that offered the clearest view of the Pale Tower, while Cat was sitting by the fire with Orm and Mjoli, who were telling her something she seemed to find really funny. She cheerfully greeted us.
-Orm and Mjoli have such a lively imagination!- she said- They were telling me about their imaginary friend who once tickled Nazhena's feet!
I asked them many questions about Hatch. Even if he wasn't real, he seemed like an interesting character anyway. According to the kids, Hatch had escaped Nazhena's tower because she was no fun, and he had been hiding for some time in the house until the kids found him. He cleaned the house when their mother was away, and he also entertained the kids with jokes and pranks. He had been a bit sad since Thora was away, but tasty food and treats always cheered him up. When they ended speaking about Hatch, I still wasn't sure about whether he was real or not. An imaginary friend who acted like a mother when their real mother was away and who was also able to prank the big baddie by harmless means like tickling her feet seemed like the perfect story for a kid to make up. But what if Hatch was real and he had really been to the Pale Tower? He could provide priceless information!
So I devoted myself to the task of earning Hatch's trust. I spoke to the walls, presenting myself and my friends, like there was someone listening. I told stories to the air about our adventures that Orm and Mjoli also enjoyed listening to. And I recruited the aid of my sister to cook some delicious treats for the invisible friend. Nadya looked at us like we had lost our minds. The kids were as excited as I was about getting Hatch to reveal himself. Even when Cat offered them some of the treats we had cooked, they politely refused, arguing that "those are Hatch's sweets. He'll share them if he wants to".
As I didn't want to be too insistent with Hatch, we chose to leave him alone for a while and pay a visit to the inn. People tended to gather at inns in the evening and we might be able to gather some useful information from them. It might be a dangerous place, though, as Nadya told us: many guards from the Pale Tower frequented the place, so we risked calling out Nazhena's attention.
-It's worth trying- shrugged Cat-. Haven't the crows already alerted her? What's the worst thing that could happen?
The rest of the night was uneventful. I slept next to my sister, as usual, though some nightmares haunted my dreams again. I was mostly accustomed to them, so it was a regular night for me. The next morning we woke up with the riding sun, and after Indi and I refreshed our spells, we got back onto the trail. The weather was slightly better than the previous day, and Waldsby wasn't far away.
We had almost reached our destination when Nadya pointed towards a black spot in the sky. I had already spotted the flock of birds a while ago, but I didn't pay much attention to them. Nadya became terrified, though, when she realized they were approaching.
-You gotta hide, quick! Don't let them see you!
Even if we didn't understand why Nadya was so worried, we tried to do what she said, but it was too late. The flock of birds descended upon us. Nadya pulled out her bow and my sister followed her lead. They were both competent archers, and each shot killed a bird,which would have been great if there weren't dozens of them. I prepared myself to cast a spell, but before I could do anything I found myself swarmed by the crows. They were pecking at my face, trying to reach my eyes. It was the most painful thing I had ever experienced.
-Get away from them!- Indi's voice sounded distant and muffled by all the flapping and croaking, but he was only a few steps away from me. I stumbled away the best I could, and before the whole mass of birds had time to follow, I heard Indi invoking the power of his goddess to burn them all. I was recoiling in pain,with my hands covering my eyes, so I didn't see what happened. I heard more croaking, more flapping, and Indi screaming "get off of me!" Apparently, the surviving birds wanted to avenge their charred cousins. I guess that Cat and Nadya brought most of the remaining birds down wirh their bows, because the next thing I heard was Nadya saying that they were fleeing and exhorting Cat to kill them before they got away.
Truth or superstition, I didn't know, but definitely, those weren't normal birds.
-Normal crows aren't that vicious.- I whined, rubbing my eyes with my hands. It hurt so much.
Fortunately, Nadya's peers had managed to take cover too, so they were all safe. The wounds on my face weren't serious either, just a few scratches, but my eyes were still burning in pain.
-Let me see that.- said my sister grabbing my wrist gently to get my hand out of my face. The daylight did nothing but increase the burning sensation, so I closed my eyes instinctively.- Maggots!- she cursed in elven tongue, and then she repeated again:- Maggots!- despite its complexity, the kagonesti dialect was kinda lacking and unimaginative when it came to curse words.
I attempted to keep my eyes open, but I only saw black shades dancing over a red-white background. Indi's healing magic alleviated the pain but didn't improve my vision: basic spells provided only a quick and rough mending, which wasn't of help when it came to healing wounds that needed delicate manipulation. This was the case: I risked going blind for many days if my eyes weren't correctly treated. Fortunately, I had a rough idea of what we had to do. Unfortunately, no one else did, so I had to trust my sister to be my hands and my eyes, while I guided her carefully, telling her step by step what she should do. And here comes a piece of advice: never trust a hunter to do the work of a healer. In all her willingness, my sister was about to gouge out one of my eyes.
-It's not that I like my uneven eyes a lot, but I'd rather keep both of them if possible!- I joked, in an attempt of lightening up the situation.
I don't know what Nadya did aside from washing my eyes in cold water, but I don't think she really knew what she was doing. She just improvised. Anyway, whatever she did, she did well. Because while Nadya could be a hunter, but she was also a mother, and mothers usually come with impressive healing powers (at least mothers who don't abandon their children to be raised by others, but we'll get into that later in the story).
After a while, my eyes were still tearing up, my vision was a bit blurry and the daylight still burned my eyes, but at least I had recovered my eyesight and we were free to continue our trip. Waldsby was already near and, after having alerted Nazhena's spies, we shouldn't delay.
We were all tired, and our shoes weren't all that appropriate to walk through the deep snow. Nadya and her people wore large pads on their feet that allowed them not to sink into the snow to their knees. We didn't, which made our advance much slower and doubly as tiring. In the end, we had to seek cover by a slope and set camp there, as both the storm and the night were right upon us. We were able to light a fire to warm us up and cook a meal. Nadya and her people set up some tents around the campfire. They were really efficient: if we had to do it all by ourselves, the tents would probably had ended up being blown away by the fierce winds.
We were done setting the camp up when we saw a figure approaching. The storm was already near and it was getting dark, so we didn't get to see her exotic features until she was only a few steps away from us. She was tall and completely hairless, with sharp pointy horns and hooves as feet. Her pale blue skin and the way her inappropriately light clothes danced in the wind gave her an ethereal and alien beauty. She waved her hand at us and kept approaching, causing obvious discomfort among Nadya and her peers.
-Be careful. Most winter fey are allied with Elvanna.- whispered Nadya.
The faerie spoke in the local language, using a soft and friendly voice.
-Of course.- answered Nadya in the common tongue, in an attempt to take the conversation into a language we could understand. She did her best to appear calm- Take a seat by the fire and share our meal. You'll be safe from the storm here.
The faerie thanked Nadya in Common, a bit amazed by the unusual choice of language, but she asked no questions. She presented herself as Mierul, a wandering bard, and took a seat as far from the fire as she could. Winter fey seemed to have a particular dislike for fire.
Mierul didn't notice or didn't care for the discomfort that her pressence caused. She was quick to engage in any conversation, showing special interest in us. My sister and I were elves, an unknown race in Irrisen; Argentea wore the sigils of a foreign knightly order; and Indi's clothes didn't even have sleeves. Only Blond and Nina had looks that could have them mix in with the locals.
Mierul was very curious about where we came from and what we were doing there, and she asked a lot of questions. Nadya did her best to spin a story to cover for us, but her explanations were far from convincing: who would believe that we came from a town not far from there? Apparently, Mierul did, or at least she was subtle enough to pretend she did. She soon became tired of asking so many questions and getting so many uninteresting answers, so she shifted back to engaging everybody in small talk and telling stories.
Mierul was actually pretty likeable when she wasn't inquiring about everything, and I learned some new, interesting things about the region thanks to her stories. One of the most surprising revelations was that humans in Irrisen had next to no rights, unless they were witches or Jadwigas; while winter fey, giants, trolls and other monsters seemed to be accepted and valued members in Irriseni society. It was so different from the human-centric world where I came from, where common races as elves and dwarves were considered strange for human standards, and more exotic or monstrous races were regarded as dangerous creatures that were best avoided or killed. Not that I had ever considered befriending a troll anyway.
It was already late evening when the blizzard reduced its intensity to a heavy snowfall , but Mierul insisted on leaving and nobody asked her to stay. A winter fey shouldn't have issues with traveling in the cold or in the dark. Indi wasn't sure that letting her go was a good idea. Nadya thought she was most likely a spy for Elvanna or Nazhena, but we couldn't act against her out of mere suspicion. What would we become if we started killing people just for working for our alleged enemy?
After Mierul was gone, we were finally free to get into our tents and get some sleep. Some people stayed longer, but I felt really tired. Argentea, my sister and I shared a tent with Nadya, while Indi and Blond slept with the other men. Humans,unlike elves, tended to give so much more relevance to gender division.
As Nadya had volunteered for the first Watch and Cat was more interested in learning some survival tricks from her than in sleeping. That meant that Argentea and I were left alone.
-You, help me taking off this armor.- she said as I entered the tent. She spoke to me like I was her squire and I found it amusing.
I had completely forgotten about the armor.
I helped her remove her armor and it was then that I noticed all the cuts, hits and wounds she had got the past few days. Her wounds had been healed by magic, but her clothes and her skin were still stained with dried blood.
-Gods!- I cried. I hadn't realized how painful it must be for her to be the one who most often got the enemy's attention.
Argentea looked confused at first and it took her a while to realize the reason of my shock.
-This is nothing.- she finally said.
Argentea seemed to find the whole situation funny, but I was genuinely worried for her.
-Lay down. I am going to clean away all that blood and see what I can do with those bruises.
Against all odds, she obeyed. My improvised healing tools consisted on some pieces of cloth (most of them from Argentea's own torn clothes) and a bottle of some kind of strong alcoholic drink that we had found at the Lodge. It would have to suffice. I couldn't do much more than cleaning away the dry blood and relaxing some stiffened muscles on her back, but it seemed to please Argentea. She was surprised to see that i actually knew what I was doing.
-Maybe I am not very good at fighting and my magic shouldn't exist, but I am a pretty good healer.
Since I was a child I had been fascinated by those small points in the body that, when pressured the right way, were able to ease the pain... or cause great amounts of it. Being able to put my knowledge into practice in a beneficial way made me feel useful.
-My handmaids were also pretty good at this.- said Argentea with a hint of sadness in her voice.
She gave me a honest smile, but she had the same compassionate look in her eyes that I used to give to Cat when I realized that something was beyond her understanding.
-It's more complicated than that.
She turned around to face me. Despite all the bruises, she was beautiful. I had to hold myself back not to take my hands back to her body. That would be such a terrible idea. As far as I knew, humans weren't as open as kagonesti elves were about same sex relationships; and among all humans, Argentea was one of the traditonal kind. Besides, she was almost engaged.
-Do you want me to return the favor?- she asked.
"You are trying to make it difficult for me, right?" I wanted to answer. I was convinced that her proposition was much more innocent than I would like it to be.
-I am fine.- I answered.- I didn't get hit as often or as hard as you were.- I laughed nervously.- I'd be dead if I had been.
She leaned her hand on my shoulder. She had a firm touch. I looked her in the eyes, trying to read her mind. I wanted her touch to be some kind of signal, but I knew it was probably just my desire blinding my thoughts. If I acted upon my instincts, I would freak her out for sure. Then she'd never be the same again with me. I didn't use to have many friends before, aside from Cat and Nina. Now that I had found new ones, I didn't want to lose one of them like that. But still, I allowed my fingers to run gently across her back, while I stayed aware of any signs of discomfort on her behalf. Instead she sighed softly, and her she held me tighter for a moment before slipping her hand down my arm.
I only wanted to give up and get carried away by passion, but I forced myself to be cautious. A part of me refused to believe that Lady Argentea Malassene, scion of a Solamnic noble house, could be receptive to my attentions. After some time caressing her body, trying to get a clear sign that I wasn't going to experience a painful rejection, I managed to gather up enough courage to make a hesitating attempt at slipping my hand under her belly.
-Finally.- she muttered, pushing her body against mine. Her reaction was so different from anything that I had imagined that I lay paralyzed for a second before letting myself go. It was almost funny how I had been so close to upsetting her because of my fear of upsetting her.
Argentea was as passionate and energetic as she was on the battlefield and I, free of my insecurities, released the wild animal inside of me. Last time with Indi I had held it back, fearing to hurt him like I did in my dreams. But this time was different, maybe because Argentea was a woman and the people that I hurt in dreams weren't. Whatever the reason was, I just let myself go and got completely carried away by passion, until I was so exhausted that I could barely lift a finger. Then I laid my head on Argentea's chest.
-It's been so long since the last time...- murmured Argentea with a dreamy voice.
To me, she made no sense.
-So what's the difference?- I asked. She looked at me in absolute confusion.- Between being with me and being with a man?- I clarified.
It didn't feel like the same at all, but she seemed adamant about it, so I didn't push the discussion forward. I felt too comfortable using her as a pillow to start an argument at that moment.
-You are almost as hairy as Indi.- I said, trying to change the topic. Poor choice: Argentea looked somewhat embarrassed. Elves were hairless everywhere but on the head, so I was amused by humans' hairy bodies. Who would have thought that human females aren't as proud of their body hair as their male counterparts seem to be?
More or less about that time, I heard the voice of my sister calling from outside of the tent.
-Can I get in?-she asked.- Are you already done?
Argentea looked all around her like she was looking for somewhere to hide. Then she swiftly arranged her hair and attempted to give the most solemn look she could.
-You weren't half as subtle as you think you were, you know?- she said with a smile. Argentea blushed.- Don't worry, I don't think anyone else has heard you two. And I have kept Nadya distracted. But you might want to get dressed before she comes in. I'll wait outside.- she added, noticing Argentea's embarrasment. And while she was leaving, she adressed to me in elven.- Seriously, another human? One day you have to explain to me what you see in them.
Lazy lazy lazy me reposting the story from an old post!
We found ourselves teleported into a frozen plain. The strong wind had stopped, but the temperature was even lower than before. Even in the times when Southern Ergoth was ruled by the White Dragon Overlord I had never experienced such an intense cold. The sky was blue, but in the distance we saw yet another blizzard coming. We'd better find a safe place before it got to us.
-Look!- said Cat pointing to the north.-There's a town down there!
I was glad that he had found his way to us. Blond used to have serious problems remembering even simple things, like when it was time to eat, or when he had to go to sleep. I was afraid that he couldn't get to Linsel by his own. At the same time, I was still curious about him. But, how had he managed to follow us? Had Nazhena branded him somehow? Did he have Baba Yaga's blood running through his veins? He still held so many secrets.
-This is so strange.- complained Argentea.- I don't trust him. The troll recognized him. He commanded him to attack us.
So that was what happened. Being deaf in that moment, I had ovbiously missed many details.
-But he didn't.- I answered.
She had a point. I couldn't actually say that I really trusted him. But he had saved my life.
-We'd better find cover before the blizzard gets here, don't you think?- reminded us Cat.- We'll discuss about Blond later.
So we got back to the trail, walking as fast as the snow allowed us, trying to get to the town as soon as possible.
We hadn't walked for long when Indi swore that he heard screaming and barking being carried to us in the wind. The visibility wasn't bad, but there were some heavy snowdrifts on the path that kept us from seeing the giant insect until we were almost right next to it.
-Stay away! Stay away!- cried a female voice as we approached. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that she wasn't addressing us. There were four people trying to keep the insect (a giant mantis) at bay while attacking it from a safe distance in a desperate attempt to make it release what it held on its mandibles. The mantis had killed one of the dogs pulling the sleds, and the others were barking like crazy and snapping bites at the mantis. The prey it held so tenaciously onto wasn't a dog, though: I was horrified to see that it was a human male.
The woman, who wore clothes so heavy that her features were difficult to make out, seemed to be in command of a similarly heavy clothed group. They did their best to defend themselves against the mantis, although their weapons were so basic that they made my slingshot look fancy. At least their leader had a handcrafted longbow, and she was doing a fairly good work catching the insect's attention and staying in constant movement so it never reached her. It would be easy for her and het companions to run away and leave the insect alone with her prey, but they refused to leave one of their own behind. I admired them for it.
I wanted to save the man if it was still possible, but I was almost out of spells, and my mind tricks were useless against such simpleminded creatures. So, before my sister ran into the battlefield, I leaned my hand on her shoulder and wished her good luck. It was more than mere formulism, Eternity had taught me how to make subtle changes to people's fate. It usually translated to what people used to call good luck. After doing it, I cackled violently. Indi and Argentea were starting to get used to it (even though it got on their nerves), but the townsfolk we wanted to help seemed completely terrified.
Argentea and Cat rushed into the battle, eager to save the man. He had stopped moving, so we didn't know if it was already too late. Still, we had to try. The battle was quick, we had faced much worse things than a giant mantis, and it was an easy task. When the fight was over, I knelt by the fallen man, to find out that he still held on to a thread of life. Indi used his wand to bring him back into consciousness and to heal the other townsfolk who had got injured during the fight. The woman who seemed to be the leader of the group approached us and, surprisingly, addressed me, saying a single word in a language I didn't understand.
-What? -I asked in common. Since we had two humans with us I rarely spoke in Elven. I felt comfortable with the simplicity and expressiveness of the common tongue.
-Thanks. -She repeated in a heavily accented Common. You are foreigners, aren't you?
The woman smiled. She had a sincere and open smile. A long red braid showed under her fur hat. Unlike my hair, which was red as blood, hers was red as autumn leaves. I felt an immediate and unexplainable connection with her.
-My name is Nadya Petska.-she said.- My companions cannot speak your language, but they are also grateful.
"That's why they look so much at me?" I thought. I didn’t enjoy so much attention.
-Did you say Petska?- I asked.
She looked at me with her eyes wide open and shining with hope.
-Why? Have you heard it before?
I didn’t know how to do it. I wasn’t specially good with words. But if she was somehow related to Thora, she deserved to know everything.
-Are you Thora’s mother?- I asked without hesitation. Her eyes grew even bigger. She was almost in tears. I repeated to myself that she needed to know, she deserved to know so she could stop worrying.
As we walked, Nadya asked us many questions about who we were and where we came from. She had found the Winter Portal and, though she didn’t know what it was, she didn’t have a hard time believing that we had got there by crossing it. She explained to us that we were now in Irrisen, the frozen land beyond the Icewall. I asked her about the mix of fear and curiosity that her people seemed to have for me.
-You are a witch, aren’t you?- Answered Nadya.
Nadya already seemed to have recovered from the bad news, but her voice broke again when she said Nazhena’s name. She breathed deeply before she continued her explanation.
-Even non-Jadwiga witches are treated with respect, and enjoy advantages that most people don’t have. And they don’t usually go around worrying about the lives of worthless peasants. That’s what makes my companions so confused about you.
That explained everything, including why Nadya had addressed me like I was in charge, even when my contribution to the battle had been more than humble.
-But I guess things are different in the North.- Continued Nadya- My husband used to tell me stories about how life in the North was. Some of his family came from there. He would have been very pleased to meet you.
I didn’t have the courage to question Nadya about her husband, but my sister did and Nadya didn’t take any offense at it. She told us that her husband had died on a hunting expedition some time ago. Since then, she had to care for her three children all on her own. Only thanks to the help from some kind neighbors had she been able to keep going out in hunting expeditions, which was her only way to provide her children with all that they needed. Definitely, Nadya was a woman who had lost a lot, but still she told us her story without complaining a single time. When Argentea called her a strong woman, she just answered: “life is harsh here” and didn’t give it more relevance.
I have been in similar (yet not so serious) situations many times.
I don't have a homebrewed world, but we took a stablished setting and have been playing in it for so many years and so many adventures, all intertwined, that it's like it was homebrewed in many aspects.
I have had many disruptive players, some of them trying to mess with stablished characters or events just for the fun of it, or acting so off from the expectations for a member of their society/race/social conditions that seems far from believable. I have had a member of a pacifist race going full murder hobo on innocents!
What I usually do, once the disruptive character/player is out of the game, is trying to find the most plausible explanation for his behaviour to make sense and, if the character isn't already dead or out of the game, find a good way to get them out in a believable way and, if possible, solving all the harm it might have caused to the setting canon (i.e. the murder hobo of the pacifist race would have been publicly rejected by his whole race to show other players that this ISN'T the canon for this race and they don't support it).
Honestly, it's always a solution. I can see how you can be so discouraged after what happened, this kind of stuff can easily demoralize a person who has put as much effort as you have put into your world. But don't let the disruptive players get their way. Your world is worth much more than that.
Walking against the wind, finding the source of the unseasonable winter was easy. We met no more opposition before we arrived in a wide clearing, containing many concentric lines of icicles emerging from the ground like stalagmites. In the middle, just a frost plain from where the blizzard came. Indi and I were able to identify an extremely powerful magic coming from the middle of the clearing, but the winds worked as an impenetrable barrier that kept us from approaching. After studying the formation for a while, we came to a couple of conclusions: first, it was some kind of portal leading to another place, and second, we didn't have the slightest idea about how to close it.
We were getting to the conclusion that our best chance was to travel with Argentea to Castle Eastwatch and ask the Knights of Solamnia for help, when a mounted figure appeared, galloping out of the portal towards us, surrounded by a dark, cold mist. It rode a black warhorse and wore a full plate armor of the same color. The heavy winds that guarded the portal swirled around it like they didn't dare to touch it. As the figure approached and we prepared for combat, the horse vanished in a gust of black smoke, as well as the terrible aura that surrounded its knight, leaving only an old human male in a battered armor who, with no horse to ride, collapsed to the ground not far from us. I ran towards him. He was conscious, but he didn't look like he would last long without healing. He was pale from bloodloss, and his lips had turned purple because of the cold. He sat in the snow, unable to stand up.
-I don't have any healing magic left.- I said to Indi.- You'll have to use your wand.
The old man coughed a humorless laughter.
-Elvanna is the Queen of Irrisen, daughter of the Witch Queen, Baba Yaga. Nazhena is only another one of her followers.
For a few seconds, the Black Rider seemed lost in his thoughts.
-That's how it always was and that's how it always will be. Some of her daughters don't want to give up the throne, but that doesn't make a difference. Usually. This time, though, Elvanna has captured Baba Yaga's Dancing Hut and slain all her Riders but me. Now she is creating Winter Portals all over Krynn to conquer all the known lands.
No matter what the Black Rider had said, I thought of the mark as a burden, not as a reward. I was going to be bound to an ancient and cunning being of great power. That couldn't be good. But someone had to do it, and I was the most adequate for it: Indi had his family and his life in Kalaman, Argentea a bright future in the Knighthood and a suitor waiting for her, and my sister could live a normal life among the kagonesti without me. But what did I have, aside from a hopeless dream of finding a place to call home? This was a much better fate that the one that awaited for me.
-What do we have exactly to do?- I asked to the old man. He gave me an intense gaze, and he produced two items: a plague doctor mask and a lock of white hair.
Something inside of me cried for pain, blood and suffering, but I was quick. Again, taking a life was disturbingly easy. A dagger through the throat, a gurgling sound, and he was dead.
It happened so quickly that the rest of the group didn't even notice anything. They were confused about what had happened until I spoke:
-Now we can go through the portal.- My own serenity surprised me. I had just killed a man.- I can share the mark with three people. Three riders.- I chuckled.- It will protect us from the storm as well as from... other things. I am still unsure of how it works. It binds us together in a way.
I approached Cat and I drew an invisible circle.on her forehead with my finger: the midday sun. She wasn't scared at all. She'd entrust me with her life without thinking about it twice.
-Cat, My Red Sun.- I said.
Indi approached hesitantly.
-I guess I'm next. I must be crazy.
I repeated the process with him, drawing an invisible line on his forehead, with a half circle under it.
-Indi, My Black Midnight.
-He is a good person.
Indi didn't attempt to discuss Argentea's words. He had probably faced that kind of arguments many times before and knew that arguing was pointless.
-He has helped us.
Then we wouldn't have to leave Blond behind. I'd be sad not to have Argentea coming with us, she had been a real friend, but I didn't want to put any pressure on her.
-Alright then. Give me the mark. I cannot turn my back to my responsibilities.
After providing Blond with some food and a winter blanket, we crossed the portal. The wind and snow magically stayed away from us.
Not so far from there, there was probably a very concerned man, worried because his future fianceé never arrived. At least, that was what I thought at that time.
Indi couldn't wait to question me about what had happened during the fight. I didn't fully understand why, but he was very concerned about the healing spell I had casted on Argentea. But he'd have to wait to tell me whatever he wanted to say, as I still couldn't hear anything. I was starting to worry that I was never going to recover my hearing, though I suspected it was only temporary. Meanwhile, Indi engaged my sister in an argument that made my sister mad enough to allow me to realize it was all about me. Argentea tried to play the mediator, while I felt completely displaced for not being able to understand what was going on. I realized how Indi must have felt when we were three elves in the group and we spoke Elven in front of him.
After a while, the ringing turned into a buzzing and I started hearing again, though all sounds were muffled like I was underwater. Cat and Indi had already stopped arguing and everybody was more concerned with keeping the perimeter safe and packing up some pieces of art and jewelry that we found inside a chest. Who would have guessed that trolls could have a taste for that kind of thing?
-Indi what did I do during the fight to upset you? Was it because I healed Argentea?
And then they engaged again in an argument that I had a hard time to follow.
For some clarification: in the end, all magic comes from the gods, but divine spellcasters like Indi get theirs by directly worshipping a god, who rewards their faith by granting them magic. Arcane spellcasters, like wizards, are different: they learn how to manipulate the magic energies in the world, and need no approval from the gods to make their magic work. Though I revere (but do not worship) Eternity, it only reveals to me the secrets needed to make my magic work. After that, the magic is free for me to use. That makes me closer to wizards than to priests, druids and shamans. Yet there are divine rules barring the Gods of Magic from granting the knowledge of healing magic to wizards. But I'm no wizard either, and Eternity follows its own rules.
-Cat, he is right,- I intervened as soon as I could speak without rising my voice- I am not a shaman. My magic is different from Indi's, or Talda'syn's.
Indi worshipped a goddess. Talda'syn worshipped the more abstract concept of wisdom, and through it, the many gods that represented it. I just got whispered knowledge from a mysterious entity who had never asked for anything in return, worship or else.
-Don't be ridiculous, of course you are!- protested Cat with her usual "big sisters know better" voice.
It was irrational, but I felt hurt by Indi's words. I knew what he meant, but I had always felt my magic as a part of myself, as I had shown innate magic powers since I was a child, and I felt like he was saying that I shouldn't exist. Like Talda'syn. Like other kagonesti elves. I didn't want to have to stand those accusations again. Not from a friend. Not from Indi.
-I don't understand my own magic, but I know it isn't bad.- that was all that occurred to me to say. I knew Indi meant no offense. Just my old fears popping out.
As we continued the march, we felt how the temperature quickly dropped and the heavy snowfall turned into a blizzard. We had to walk against the direction of the wind, which made each step exhausting. Only Indi seemed to be comfortable with the terrible weather, with his exposed forearms and light summer clothes. His goddess protected him.
-We must be close to the source.- he said.
The visibility was so poor that we didn't even bother to send Cat or Nina ahead this time. Argentea and my sister led the way, while Nina stayed perched on my arm, turned into a fluffy ball of feathers.
We weren't caught unaware when the air elemental attacked. We were already expecting an ambush. What really surprised us was that an air elemental wasn't exactly the toughest of enemies. Yes, it could fly, but it had to get close to attack, giving us the chance to strike it. There had to be someone else near. The snowball that hit me (or was it a stone?) confirmed our suspicions. It was unnaturally cold. I looked around, but I couldn't see where it came from. Only when the air elemental was banished, a tiny figure with blue skin and shimmering dragonfly wings flew in front of us. He didn't seem hindered by the wind and snow. He remained close enough time to be noticed and then disappeared again on the storm before we could react.
-Don't' let him escape!- commanded Argentea.
To our surprise, Blond became suddenly motivated. Was it by fear, excitement, loyalty, or something entirely different, we couldn't tell. His face remained as inscrutable as ever while he strided on the snow as fast as he could. So did we, but not fast enough to keep the faerie to reach a small campsite not far from the ambush place. There were four igloos built among the trees. The faerie who had attacked us was waiting near one of them, and as he saw us, he threw something in our direction. There was a sound like thunder, so loud that I felt like my ears were bleeding. Then I heard nothing but a constant ringing.
-It's a trap!- I warned, but I couldn't hear my own cry. Indi turned towards me and said something with a big, confident smile on his face. He knew. Instead of entering, he conjured a cone of flames out of his fingertips and into the igloo. I couldn't see what happened from my position, but the smell of burned flesh together with Indi's triumphant smile was enough to me to figure out. Later we'd found out that he had charred to dearh three faeries that were hiding inside, and that the floor of the igloo was made of thin ice so it collapsed as anyone got inside.
The faerie wirh the dragonfly wings got out, emerging from a hole on the top of the igloo. He had survived the attack, though visibly burned. He was trying to get out again and only I was in position to avoid it. It was all or nothing. I felt clumsy pronouncing the words to make my magic work, as I couldn't hear myself, but the spell came out as it should. As it had happened before, the faerie fell asleep and was knocked into the floor, where Cat and Argentea were ready to take care of him. Our greatest concern was finishing all threats as soon as we could. If the explosion of the thunderstone hadn't alerted everyone in the proximity, my loud voice had surely done it.
We checked the other igloos, but they were all empty, so we headed towards a nearby trail, just in time to see a massive shape heading towards us. It was an ugly hunched figure with curved fangs, ape-like arms ended in claws and with a greenish blue skin covered in moss. Cat and I had once been into a tavern called The Troll's Head. The owner told everyone who asked about the disgusting stuffed head held on the wall as a trophy how the troll had been killed many times, but kept coming back to life again and again until they burned it to death. The creature we had in front of us looked pretty similar to the trophy (with the exception that this one had a body).
-Troll!- I cried- Indi, burn him!
The troll stopped for a second, letting us approach. He seemed surprised to see Blond. He pointed at him and then at us with his spear and said something. Blond seemed confused, and stood there, looking hipnotized at his own empty hands.
My sister looked like the animal on her name, jumping so she could reach the troll's throat. She was the shortest of us, as she was less than 1,50m tall, but she was twice as fierce as any other person I had known. Meanwhile, Argentea hit the troll with both her sword and her spiked shield. Her attacks didn't cut as deep as my sister's nor they were as accurate, but she did a good work standing in the way of the troll so he couldn't reach Indi, who had clearly caught the troll's attention with his fire spell. As I had heard on stories, the wounds of the troll had stopped healing by their own as soon as Indi burned him.
Not being able to attack Indi, the troll took the not-so-unwise decision of getting rid of his main obstacle first. He dropped his spear and attacked Argentea with his claws. She blocked the first claw without effort, almost dodged the second, and didn't saw the bite coming. The creature's curved fangs pierced armor and flesh altogether. I couldn't hear Argentea's scream, but I saw her face distorted in a mask of pain. She wouldn't be able to stand another attack like that.
-Argentea!- I cried. I was still laughing to keep my curse on the troll, which probably made it a pretty awkward moment.- Step back! I will heal you!- Indi pointed at the wand hanging from his belt and said something.- Don't worry, I don't need it!
Argentea looked at me, then at the troll, there was no way she could step back to me without risking a deadly attack from him. But still, there wasn't defeat on her eyes. To my surprise, she charged towards the monster with her shield. The troll was twice as heavy than she was, armor and all, but yet she put all her weight on the charge and pushed him back many steps. She made a gesture for me to approach, which I was already doing. I could feel Indi's deep blue eyes staring at me in expectation. For a moment, I feared that my healing magic wouldn't work, it was so difficult to cast a spell without hearing what was saying. But again, magic responded to my voice and I felt the warmth of the healing energy flowing through my hands. Argentea's wounds closed, right in time to take another atack from the troll. He was too close to me. I don't believe I would have survived an attack like the one that almost knlcked down Argentea. But, fortunately, my sister was still there. While the troll was distracted filing his claws on Argentea, my sister delivered the final blow, stabbing him in the eye. How she was able to perform such a deed with a creature that doubled her on height escapes me, but it was an instant kill and the troll fell to the ground, presumably making some sound that would have made my description prettier, had I been able to hear it.
As we couldn't know if the troll would be able to resume his natural regeneration after a while and come back to life, we set the corpse on fire, just to be sure. While securing the perimeter, we found the troll's lair not far from our position. It was a warm yet foul-smelling cave, and we moved there to rest for a while and heal our wounds. It had been a tough fight.
Oooh! Who do we have here! My favorite talking lizard! Thanks for dropping by! I hope you enjoy! I tried to be more narrative in this one. Being a player instead of a GM allows to focus in some new things. I wasn't also very satisfied with using terms as AC and BAB in the story so I tried to go into something more immersive.
Sit here by the campfire and warm up yourself!
When Indi and Cat got back from their (unsuccessful) hunt for food, they found us cooking one of Argentea's old shoes in the cauldron.
-Hey, -laughed Cat- we aren't so desperate yet that we are eating our own shoes! We still have some dry food!
Indi and Cat looked at us in disbelief. To be honest, I cannot remember either how we got from talking about serious things to discussing emergency food. Neither I can understand how she accepted to cook and eat a shoe. My best guess is that she felt shocked about me and my sister having to survive on barely edible things and she wanted to have a bite (pun intended) to see how it felt like. But that's only my assumption. Knowing Argentea, maybe she just couldn't refuse a challenge.
-So what is exactly the bet?- asked Indi.
My whole experience with betting was seeing my sister playing cards in a tavern. As far as I knew, it consisted of everybody placing their bets, then playing their cards, then Cat getting in a fight because she couldn't pay what she owed. Some months later, my sister's betting system would save our lives and souls.
We ate our dry rations while the shoe boiled slowly. When we were ready for departing it was still mostly raw, but Argentea insisted on giving it a try. She made a funny face before making a big effort to tear a chunk of leather from the shoe.
-It has to cook some more. Then it should be edible, though a bit chewy.
-Let me give it a bite too.- I laughed.
I never got any better at it.
We felt optimistic and motivated after having a night's rest, and we had almost forgotten the difficulties we had been through the previous day, but the woods were unforgiving and wouldn't allow us to forget where we were. As we were about to leave the clearing where we had spent the night, a big arcane explosion happened. Someone had set a well concealed magic trap at the exit of the clearing. As Cat and Argentea were the ones that led the way, only they were caught in the explosion. Without a shield to take cover behind, and caught completely off-guard, my sister took the worst part of the impact. After what we had been through the previous day, it didn't feel like too much, but it made us remember that we weren't on a leisure trip. We had to be aware.
We hadn't been walking for more than 10 minutes when Cat found footprints in the snow.
-An animal. A big one.- she pointed at some red sprinkles on the snow.- It is wounded, so we must be cautious. Wounded animals are twice as dangerous.
The kagonesti elves revere life, and killing anything without a good reason is often unthinkable to them. Surviving is, of course, the best possible reason to kill. After killing their prey, anything that can be used is taken, be it for food, clothes or even tokens and fetishes, as the contrary is considered disrespectful for the prey. This is so important that, when some kagonesti were corrupted by the Ghoul Queen of the Silvanesti, some tales were heard of them wearing the skin and bones of the elves they hunted and devoured. Being raised as outcasts, my sister and I didn't have such strong beliefs, but we still thought that no life should be wasted.
We got off the trail and into the woods to track the beast. I couldn't see anything, but Cat insisted that she saw footprints and drops of blood. I had lived in the woods most of my life, but I wouldn't have lasted a single day without my sister. After no more than a couple of minutes, Cat stood still and pointed towards some bushes. The animal laid exhausted, licking the blood on its paw. Though it was partially covered by the bushes, it was clear that it was a weasel, maybe an ermine, of about the size of my sister and with fur as white as snow. It noticed us as we approached. It stood up and charged towards Argentea (who was definitely the shiniest and noisiest among us) with a shriek of pain. Argentea was prepared, and made the beast bite her shield. I gave the weasel an intense stare and started laughing. Cat was already used to it, Indi had already seen it before and guessed it was another of the peculiarities of my magic, but Argentea was puzzled.
-Focus! Don't lose your nerves now!
The weasel shrieked and tried to bite one more time, but once again it met Argentea's shield. Indi joined the fight with his quarterstaff, trying to hit the beast on its head. It wasn't a very good blow, but my magic was hindering the animal, making its movements clumsier, and it wasn't able to dodge properly. Despite being badly injured, the weasel kept fighting, out of desperation, until my sister delivered the final blow. As the beast fell to the ground, she slashed its throat, ending its life.
-If it doesn't bleed, it will be inedible.- she explained. Then she proceeded to skin the animal and cut it into pieces.
I could see that she found my petition strange, but she asked no questions. I had always shown my disgust for any kind of amulets or jewelry crafted by kagonesti elves and refused to wear them. But the difference was the meaning: I didn't want to wear something to constantly remind me of the people who had ostracized me. But if I was going to leave soon, I wanted something to remind me of this adventure and the new friends I had made. They were the only friends I had ever had aside from my sister and Nina. I worked on it for a couple of nights, cleaning the fangs with my knife and mounting them on a leather string. The final result was rough, but I felt satisfied with it. I have been wearing that necklace since then, and many times I have wondered if I should give it to Argentea in exchange for hers, but it isn't definitely the kind of jewelry that a noble lady should wear.
-It's alright. Not everybody is made to be a warrior.- she said- I have seen experienced knights losing their minds in battle.
Cat explained that the laughter thing was some kind of magic that she didn't understand. I was OK. Everything would have been fine if my sister stopped there, but she had to add that she wasn't sure either that I was prepared yet. I didn't attempt to argue, or to tell them I'd demonstrate that I was prepared. I knew I wasn't. But I'd try my best.
After coming to an aggreement to find a better place to sleep, we packed up our things and prepared to leave. But we had yet to decide what to do with the creepy doll. It might be dangerous, but if it really was a receptacle for Thora's spirit, we couldn't leave her like that. Argentea wanted to destroy the doll: if it held a trapped soul, that should release it. Cat voted for leaving it where it was. Indi and I agreed on taking it with us, for different reasons: I wanted to help Thora, he just didn't want to lose the disturbing doll from sight.
I have to admit that I was a bit afraid of touching the doll but I still lifted her like I would have done with a real child.
-You are going to come with us. I have to put you in my backpack, but don't worry, I will leave your head out so you can see.- We hadn't been so kind to Izoze when we packed her up.
I had never had a doll as a child, so I didn't know what was the proper protocol to deal with one, but talking to her seemed appropriate.
-I don't want to offend her by ignoring her, just in case that she is really alive.
No more questions were asked and although nobody felt comfortable with me talking to the doll from time to time, I didn't get any more complaints. Finally, we decided to set our camp in the boulder maze. We were too exhausted to keep walking for long, and it was already too dark for the humans to see anything. I knew that human's night vision was pretty lame, but I had never expected them to be completely blind in darkness.
After many attempts, we were able to light a fire, though it needed to be constantly attended. Cat let Argentea use her blanket, as she rarely slept on it. To my embarrassment, I have to admit that I had never gotten used to sleep alone. Snuggling together was something my sister and I had to do to survive the harsh conditions, but it also reinforced the close bond we had. When I woke up in the middle of the night, shivering in fear, she would gently tap my head and hold me until I calmed down. Recently the nightmares had been getting much worse, and I was scared of the idea of spending the night alone.
I put the doll by my side and used my backpack as a pillow. We fell asleep soon, as we were exhausted. Against all odds, I was having a pleasant, dreamless sleep. Suddenly, I heard a single knocking sound. It sounded really close to me and it woke me up. The firsr thing Iis saw was Indi, holding his his staff against me. A muffled cry escaped from my mouth. Cat stood up as fast as lightning. How she was able to differentiate between when I was endangered from when I was having a bad dream, I cannot tell. Argentea woke up to and reached for her sword and shield.
I was confused. Who was he talking about? Cat? That was ridiculous! Then I saw the doll by my side, carrying a tiny wooden dagger. It was hard to believe that she could harm anybody with it. But she stood up (again?) and charged towards me. I rolled on the floor to dodge the hit, but I wasn't fast enough and she stabbed me in a leg. The knife was colder than ice and hurt a lot. Cat engaged the doll in melee, while Argentea rushed to battle, charging the doll with her shield and almost overrunning me in the process. Everything went so fast that I didn't even have time to stand up before the doll was turned into splinters. The mirror on her right eye was broken, but the blue gemstone was still whole. It radiated a necromantic aura. If Thora's soul was actually trapped (and I wholeheartedly believed that it was), the gemstone had to be her prison.
-We have to destroy it. She deserves to be free.
Everybody aggreed on that. I didn't think of Thora as the twisted creature that had attempted to kill me in my sleep, but as the scared girl I had met befofe. After a couple of pitiful attempts of breaking the stone from my side, Argentea effortlessly smashed it.
-What a shame.- said Cat without much conviction- It looked valuable.- Although you might think she was greedy, she couldn't care less for money. She just knew that food and clothes don't always come for free, and she wanted us (especially me) to live a good life.
We didn't discuss the doll incident further, as we juat wanted to get back to sleep. It was almost the time for my watch, so I sent Indi to sleep. My watch was uneventful, and I spent most of the time watching the fire consuming the remains of the doil. When the time came, I awakened my sister and then crawled under Indi's blanket.
I woke up alone, My sister and Blond were still asleep, and Argentea was crouched over by the fire, heating some snow in a small cauldron we had brought long, so we could cook some breakfast. Indi was nowhere to be seen.
-I guess he became tired of you trying to rip into his chest.- said Argentea, answering the question I had in my mind.- He said he had to commune with his goddess to regain his spells. I told him not to go far.
I blushed violently, feeling embarrased. I vaguely remembered ripping a heart with my own claws in my dreams last night. I suddenly felt afraid of having hurt Indi for real.
-What goddess does he follow, by the way?- asked Argentea, unaware of my worries.
Argentea looked at me like she still had questions, but she said nothing more. I called Nina down and we moved to one side of the camp. I didn't need to be alone to get my spells, I just needed enough space to be able to concentrate enough to hear the whispered knowledge that Eternity shared with me through Nina. When I was done, I felt much better. Meditation always helped me to forget about my bad dreams. Indi and Cat weren't around, and Argentea informed me that they had gone out to find some food. Blond was staring blankly at the boiling cauldron.
-I am not sure they will be able to find anything edible.- worried Argentea. Her stomach growled fiercely. We had barely had any dinner last night.
Not that I didn't make it easy for her. I had lost the account of how many times, as a child, I had tried to run away from her so she could have a normal life. But she always found me, cold, scared and regretting what I had done.
-If your people keep insisting on being idiots and you need a place, to live, you two can come with me, if you want.
"Then, I don't really care what happens next" I thought.
-Then I might take you up on your offer.- I answered with a big smile.
We continued our march, trying to find a good place to rest. Nowhere in the woods seemed to be safe enough. Even the most quiet and calm place that we found ended up being inhabited by two walking pine trees, who didn't seem to like us a lot. Once again, we had to fight our way out and, though they weren't a big threat (just a bit sticky), and the fighting only contributed to our tiredness. We weren't happy either to discover that the weasel hunter had filled parts of the trail with bear traps that we had to disarm. So, when the next thing we saw was a tiny hut in the middle of a wide clearing, we weren't so gullible to believe that it would be the perfect place to spend the night. We were so tired, though, that we saw it as a blessing anyway. If you have ever wondered why people in fairytales get into the creepy isolated house in the woods, the answer is that the house always seems like a better option. Of course, it never is.
The cottage was surrounded by a strange maze of giant ice boulders. It was the perfect place for an ambush or a trap, so we advanced cautiously. Then I heard the muffled sounds of a child crying and I spotted a young human girl crying. I approached her, and she didn't notice me until I was close to her. She gave me a panicked look.
-Wait! I don't want to hurt you! Who are you?
She disappeared, and I continued moving forward, calling her name. Behind me, my sister and the others called mine, telling me to stop being foolish and wait for them.
Finally I found Thora again hiding behind one of the boulders. She looked at me with teary eyes.
-Please, don't keep me here. It's so cold. I miss my mother.
She didn't answer, she just stared at me with her big blue eyes, with a mix of confusion, fear and hope in them. She allowed me to get much closer this time, but as I offered my hand to her, she fled again. I realized she wasn't leaving any footprints in the snow. If she was some kind of ghost we might be late to save her, but what if she was some kind of psychic projection? She might be still trapped somewhere. I kept chasing her until I reached her again. I offered her my empty hand, but she looked at me like I was holding something.
-I don't want your stupid doll!- she cried to me, still in tears.- I want to go home! Take me back!
This time she didn't even allow me to approach. She ran away from me as soon as I took the first step towards her. We were close the end of the ice boulder field and approaching the house. I thought she might be leading me to the house. Was she still being held there? Was it a trap? I found Thora standing in front of me, with a confused look in her eyes.
-Who are you?- finally, she didn't mkstake me for whoever had hurt her.
She was still terrified, but not of me.
-I can't stay. I have to get away. And you should too, before they see you.
This time she didn't run away from me. I got so close that I could have touched her. She wasn't translucent as I had thought ghosts would be, but the falling snow went through her body like she wasn't there.
-Run!- she exhorted me. And then she disappeared in front of me, leaving behind a burst of emotions. I can only describe what I felt as days, maybe weeks, of fear, desperation, cold, hunger and pain, concentrated on a single moment. It was overwhelming. When the rest of the group got to me I was shivering in fear.
It was like having two older sisters instead of one.
-I think she's being held in the cottage. But she might not be alive.
Disregarding Indi's waryness, we entered the cottage. My sister and I wanted to do it, and Argentea remained neutral, having arguments in both directions. Blonde remained as silent as ever. It was easy to forget that he was still with us. If we didn't address him, he'd just follow us, quiet as a ghost.
The place was smaller than it seemed. There was no fireplace and the windows were broken, allowing the cold, wind and snow to get inside. Still, sleeping inside seemed a much better option than camping outdoors. Or it would seem if it wasn't for the doll. She was sitting on a rocking chair (the only furniture in the room), facing the door, like she would be expecting us. She had been crafted in wood with awesome skill and care, from the beautiful silken dress to the extremely realistic golden braids. But while her face should have been one of a pretty girl, it was carved to look wrinkled and old. Still, she had a disturbing resemblance with Thora. The most unsettling feature, though, was her eyes. The left one was crafted out of a blue gemstone, and it stared blankly at us. The right one was a mirror of the size of a coin , showing us our own shocked faces.
-What a creepy doll.- said Cat, approaching her.- Who would make a doll look old and ugly like this?- she extended her hand towards her.
Indi and I examined the doll and determine that it held some kind of magic, but we couldn't extract much more information aside from that.
-The soul of the little girl we met outside is trapped inside this doll.- I said, with my creepiest storytelling voice.- She can have no rest, bound to watch over this hut forever.
I stopped and we started working towards making the hut a bit more comfortable. It proved to be a lost cause. Any attempts of covering the windows with blankets only resulted in less blankets to cover ourselves and a constant flapping sound. We couldn't light a fire indoors. The howling of the wind drove us insane. In addition, each time we got distracted we started hearing wailing sounds and we found out that many of our things had moved from the site where we had placed them.
-Enough! I am sleeping outdoors!- My sister's patience was finally worn off.
Dalindra and Valinor, two characters of Dalindra.