Snow allowed herself to sink into the soft cushion, seeking a comfortable position as she watched the artisan laying out his tools of trade upon the table beside her. The half-orc pulled his chair closer to her and flashing a smile of pearly lower tusks, asked, “Now, what can I do for you today?”
Snow held her right arm out palm facing down as with her left hand she pointed to her outer forearm. “I want a capital letter ‘P’ right here. Some sort of decorative script, fancy yet …. sinister at the same time.” Splaying the fingers of her left hand outward from the place she had designated, she continued. “And I want the ‘P’ surrounded in fiery flames with this sword impaling it in the middle.” She pointed to the likeness of Jageren adorning her inner left forearm, a memento of her last visit to Urdon Manish’s eccentric villa. “I leave the details to you, friend.”
The half-orc nodded, stroking his chin as he pondered a moment before picking up his first instrument. “Now just lean back and relax. Of course you know what kind of pain to expect.”
Snow sat back, closing her eyes and internally reciting the prayers that would send her into her meditative zone. As the half-orc worked, the pain in her arm turned to one of incinerating fire and Snow’s meditation was rudely interrupted by visions of Phaetos rising from a black coffin in an unknown crypt, a vision similar to dreams she had been having since being ‘reborn.’ The fiend climbed from his coffin and turned towards her, laughing in his condescending way as he stared straight into her soul, drinking forth her spirit. She fought the urge to shudder and suddenly felt Minne land on her right shoulder which shattered the vision and sent the pain smoldering in dull wisps throughout her arm. The intense burning immediately diminished as she relished in the thought of the exquisitely pleasurable pain she would endure when, upon finally vanquishing Phaetos, she would use Jageren to flay the skin from her arm and rid herself of the demon’s tainted tattoo.
As the artist cleaned the blood from his instruments, Snow studied his work, shaking her head in admiration. It was better than she could have imagined. “You are unrivaled in your craft, my friend. I swear by Lolth’s eight legs that I can smell the brimstone rising from those flames.”
The half-orc grinned, exposing more of his sharp tusks. “I am happy that you are pleased. It has been a pleasure and I hope that I may assist you with any future needs the next time you pass through.”
Snow returned his smile, her mind already planning her next tattoo. She was intrigued with Grugar’s ritual of tattooing enemies on one’s skin. It would require some thought as to the placement of a tattoo of the yellow-haired man. The one responsible for her family’s death deserved a place of honor for ultimate avengement.
She stood and nodded to the half-orc. “Until next time.”
You Never Leave Pack
Snow watched disinterestedly as the squalid halfling narrowly escaped Grugar’s lunging grab, scampering off into the dark crowds of the tavern like a rat seeking the protected shelter of the sewer. Quaffing one of her many ales, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, stared down at the blank, innocent looking page the grimy runt had set before her. Shrugging her shoulders in indifference, her left hand reached instinctively for another tankard while the index and middle fingers of her right hand casually flipped the paper over. She expected to find a summons from Merris, or some other equally distasteful missive, but was instead taken by surprise when she felt a stabbing pain in the center of her chest. Only dimly aware of Jageren’s angry buzz in the background, she looked on in horror as the page burst into flames, Phaetos’s fiery message, an invitation to visit him in the Necropolis, burning on the table, a blazing memento of her past sins against her Queen. Minne crowed in anger as he flew into the air, disappearing from sight. Snow nearly choked on the sulfuric ale that now coated her throat like a scalding lava, an ale that tasted as if it had been fermented in brimstone. Her once tainted blood no longer claimed the demonic oath, yet despite that fact, she felt her insides ignite as she read the dark necromancer’s incinerating words. Within the dancing flames she saw a strange vision that she could not comprehend; it showed the interior of an odd crypt with Baffin, Ophelia, and Nameless standing motionless before a coffin while Snow herself held position a few paces behind them, standing beside what appeared to be an amputated leg. As Snow looked at the scene trying to ascertain its meaning, she felt increasingly agonizing jolts of pain flow through her veins, her very soul a chamber of terror, until Grugar suddenly reached over to pour his ale over the fire, dousing both the blaze and the vision. Gasping for breath, she stared in confusion at the sputtering remains of the flames, her mind trying to grab at the smoldering fragments of the image she had witnessed until finally the last singeing detail of the vision fled her thoughts, leaving behind only a portentous dread.
Having suddenly lost her thirst, she shoved her ale away in an unprecedented gesture, her olfactory senses still overwhelmed with residual wafts of sulfur that induced tides of nausea. Her heart still pounding, she tried in vain to recall anything of the vision she had glimpsed in the flames, but only queasiness confronted her; she could remember only that whatever she had seen had caused her intense pain to both body and spirit.
Standing on the prow of the boat headed to Barrabis, Snow looked distractedly out over the churning waters, her fingers playing with the ring on her finger as she concentrated on discerning the health status of Nameless. With each passing day he had become more difficult to monitor, she now could barely detect even a whisper of his condition or whereabouts, though she knew he remained in distress. Each day since leaving Ptolus, she had used the ring to transfer some of her vitality to him, each day hoping that she would find his state improved, each day glad to know that at least he still lived.
Part of her knew that the gnoll was more than capable of taking care of himself but another part of her felt tremendous guilt at leaving without undertaking a thorough search for Nameless and Baffin. Still shaken by Phaetos’s message and Cloud’s ominous warning, she stood confused, wondering at her decision to leave them behind; she knew better than to leave her pack. She had a momentary thought that perhaps it had been Nameless and Baffin who had left her and Ophelia, but she promptly dismissed the notion. Regardless of who had left who, in shifter culture it was a grave offense to leave pack behind, a harsh lesson she had been introduced to many years earlier.
It was the autumn of Snow and Branch’s fourteenth year, Cloud’s sixteenth. The coming winter would mark the arrival of their sixth year at the Monastery of the Raven Queen. One cool, crisp evening, as the rest of the Monastery soundly slept, Cloud and Snow, with Rowan following at their heels, snuck out of their rooms to carefully climb to the rooftop of the dormitory, leaving Branch, who was fearful of heights, snoring fast asleep in his bed. Plagued by nightmares and visions of their pack’s massacre and the impending feelings of survivor guilt, the two young shifters often spent their nights atop the roof when the weather allowed.
As they lay on their backs looking up at the two moons and the myriad array of stars dotting the night sky, Cloud turned to Snow and in a quiet voice no more than a whisper, confessed, “My nightmares of the massacre… I have not been telling you everything, Snow. Lately, my dreams of that night have all been the same. Snow is falling and the air is filled with the echoing screams of our pack and the howling cries of pups being slaughtered. I stand paralyzed at the edge of the forest watching the butchering while The Raven Queen stands untouched in the very center of the fighting. There are spatters of blood flying in all directions but none defile her, she remains pristine. Even the falling snowflakes dare not touch her divine body but divert their course to land outside her sphere. She waves her hands at the bloodshed surrounding her, and then she looks directly at me, her arm outstretched, her finger pointing at me, her stare burning into me as she says accusingly, ‘You could have saved them, but you did not. Instead you ran away, leaving your pack to die. You never leave pack!’ We are shifters, Snow, we should never have abandoned our pack.” Cloud’s voice choked as he turned away to bury his face in his hands.
Snow sat up, leaning over to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder as she attempted to comfort him. “But you saved us, Cloud. You saved Branch and me. You told Branch to hide in the woods which spared him from seeing first hand any of the killing of our families and pack, and if you had not grabbed me when you did, that yellow haired man would surely have killed me. You were only ten summers old, Cloud, what more could you have done? You had no choice. They would have killed us all if we had not run away. Our pack was already dead, we did not abandon them.” Though she tried to console him, she keenly felt the same guilt. She relived the scene night after night in her dreams, watching immobilized as the yellow haired man viciously cut down her sire, dam, and brothers. She glanced over at Rowan who had a look of concern on his face as he sat beside Cloud and she experienced pangs of regret at her inability to save him. She tried to push from her mind the vision of Rowan impaled on the yellow haired man’s sword as she said, “It is only a dream, Cloud. We serve The Raven Queen now. You, Branch and I are going to train to become avengers and then we can adventure together in search of the vile humans that killed our pack. We will spill their blood and offer their worthless souls to Our Lady of Winter.”
Cloud sat up wiping his eyes on his sleeve as he said, “The Raven Queen does not think I am capable of serving her. I can feel her displeasure and I know she grows weary of my inattentiveness and incomplete devotion. I do not belong here anymore, Snow. Brother Asa tells me that I am mistaken, he thinks I am just going through a phase, possibly bored with the isolation of the Monastery. He does not understand the pain that I feel inside and every day that passes, it becomes harder to bear. I feel The Raven Queen’s constant disapproval, it oppresses me. I think that I might leave the Monastery and travel around the world to find where my true calling lies. This, here, is not the life for me.”
Snow’s eyes opened wide in excitement at the prospect of adventure. “Branch and I will come with you!”
Under the brightness of the full moons, Snow could clearly see Cloud’s determined expression as he replied, “No, Snowflake. If I leave, it will be alone. You and Branch belong here, the Brothers are your pack now. You will finish your training and serve The Raven Queen. The two of you have always been more devoted than I. Branch will most likely follow in Asa’s footsteps and become a healer and you, Snow, will become a famous avenger dealing retribution to those who deserve it.” He smiled at the thought.
Snow cried out in alarm, “Cloud, we are pack! Did you not just say that you feel guilty for leaving our birth pack behind, yet you would now choose to leave Branch and I, the only Sharpfang pack you have left?”
Cloud looked at her worried expression, remorse growing in his heart as he forced a feeble smile. “You are right, Snowflake. Shifters never leave pack behind.” He rose, holding out his hand to help her up and quickly changing the subject, said, “Now, let us go see if we can steal a drink of Brother Samuel’s Humalassa Pentu!”
A week later, in the early morning just before dawn, Snow was awakened by Rowan’s vigorous shaking. She sat up, blinking the sleep from her eyes as Rowan jumped up and down pointing urgently at the door. Snow hurriedly threw on some clothes wondering what had Rowan in such a tizzy. She started to pull on her boots but Rowan shook his head emphatically, grabbing her hand and insistently pulling her towards the door. She ran out of the dormitory, the cold ground stealing the warmth from her bare feet as she sleepily trotted behind Rowan in the direction of the main gates. In the dim light, she could make out figures near the gates ahead, figures she recognized as Asa, Reiner and a few other Brothers who were standing near the supply wagon which had been readied to head back to town. Her heart caught in her throat as she saw Cloud sitting in the wagon next to the driver. It took her only an instant to realize that he was leaving, and she began sprinting towards the gates yelling, “CLOUD! STORMCLOUD!”
Hearing her shout, Cloud turned his head then immediately looked away, unable to face her. Brother Asa and Reiner, who had also turned at her shout, now stood with expressions of consternation as they pondered what should be done. Snow darted straight for the wagon but as she dashed past, Reiner reached out, grabbing her from behind, holding onto her tightly as she kicked and screamed at the wagon, “Cloud, wait! You are pack, Stormcloud! You cannot leave us!”
Minne was flying in circles around them, squawking. Rowan, having finally caught up, tried to stand beside her to take her hand but she seemed unaware of him, her kicking legs keeping him from getting near. Reiner tried to calm her, speaking softly in her ear, “Shhh, Snow. It will be all right. This is for the best. Shhhh.”
“NOOOOO!” she howled, trying to break his confining grasp.
Asa stood with a saddened look, then walked forward to the wagon to speak some final parting words to Cloud, who sat with his head turned, still refusing to look at Snow and wishing he could shut out her sorrowful yells.
Branch, who had been jolted awake in his bed moments earlier by an unexpected sensation of anguish from his twin, came running out to the gates, stopping between Snow and the supply wagon, confusion and worry filling his face. “Snow? Cloud?”
“Branch! He is leaving us! Cloud is leaving!”
Rowan ran over to stand beside Branch as Minne flew to his shoulder cawing. Snow’s thrashing and shouting scared Branch, who looked at Snow then at Cloud then at Brother Asa then at Reiner then back to Snow, as he tried to comprehend what was happening.
Sensing his confusion, Snow impatiently screamed at him, “BRANCH! Do you not understand? Cloud is leaving us! He is leaving his pack! You never leave pack!” She struggled in Reiner’s arms but he was far too strong for the slim fourteen-year-old girl. Realizing that Branch would be of no help, she turned her attention back to Cloud, shouting out, “We are shifters, remember? REMEMBER? We never leave pack behind so why are you leaving us? CLOUD! PLEASE STAY!”
Snow dissolved into tears which momentarily halted her squirming, though Reiner kept a firm hold, not daring to readjust his grasp. He tried again, rather awkwardly, to whisper consoling words to soothe her but they had no effect. Branch stood quietly for a moment looking worriedly at Snow before he walked to the wagon where Brother Asa put an arm around his shoulder. Snow cried quietly as Branch said his goodbyes to Cloud. Rowan followed Branch to the wagon, waving goodbye to Cloud even though he was fully aware that Cloud could not see him.
Brother Asa, his eyes brimming with tears, stepped back, gently pulling Branch with him. After giving a quick glance back to gauge Snow’s condition, Brother Asa reluctantly nodded at the driver. As the wagon began making its way out of the gates, Snow calmly called out in one last attempt to stop him, “Stormcloud, please do not leave. Cloud?”
Cloud kept his head averted to avoid looking at Snow. As Brother Wilhelm began to close the gates behind the wagon, Snow renewed her screaming as she wrestled Reiner’s grip. “CLOUD! COME BACK! STORMCLOUD! YOU NEVER LEAVE PACK!” The last thing she saw through her tears as the gates swung shut was Cloud, head bowed low in the wagon. What she did not see was Cloud’s tear stained face turning back to look upon the closed gates as the wagon made its way down the mountain.
Though the gates were now closed, Reiner refused to release Snow, who was whimpering yet still fighting desperately against his hold. In her rage and anguish, she unconsciously began to shift, fur sprouting on her body, her nails lengthening into pointed claws, her canine teeth growing longer and sharper, her normally yellow-green irises expanding and turning into a dark gold as her face took on a more wolfish cast. Growling deep in her throat, she raked her claw across Reiner’s arm, causing him to momentarily loosen his grip in surprise which allowed her to break his restraint. Leaving Reiner cursing behind her, she howled as she leaped for the gates and began to climb, her nails digging into the soft wood as she escaped her captor’s reach. Reiner raced forward unable to catch her but Asa, pointing his hand at Snow, quickly recited a prayer of Healing Word that halted her ascent. She was nearly at the top when the spell overtook her, causing her to pause a moment before she began a slow slide back down the gate, leaving long scratches to mark her descent. She slumped forlornly on the ground, confused but calm, her breath coming in heavy rasps as she shifted back to her normal form. A worried Rowan ran over to sit beside her, hugging her arm.
Branch rushed over to protectively kneel beside his sister, and though he had not shifted, his lip curled in warning as he growled threateningly at Reiner and Asa as they tried to approach. Reiner halted a few feet away as he tore off his shirt and began hastily bandaging his bloody arm, leaving Asa to calm Branch.
Asa walked slowly towards the gate, arms at his sides with palms facing out in a peaceful gesture. “Snow will be all right, Branch. I know that this is not easy for you two and we will talk later, but first we must take Snow back to the dormitory, she needs to rest.” Asa’s soothing tone and gentle expression persuaded Branch to cease his growling. Without looking back, Asa gave a short wave of his hand to beckon Reiner forward and though Reiner and Branch continued to exchange wary stares, the young shifter allowed the Weapons Master to carefully pick up Snow.
Reiner, flanked by Branch on his left side, Rowan on his right, and Brother Asa in front, carried Snow back to her room where he laid her gently on her pallet. Brother Asa sent a reluctant Branch to his room with the promise that he could visit Snow in the afternoon after she had been given time to rest. Rowan sat on the pallet next to Snow patting her shoulder, though the gesture did little to comfort her.
Asa and Reiner stayed with her for a few minutes. Asa sat next to Rowan and imparted words of comfort while Reiner stood near the door looking on, unsure of what action, if any, to take. When they departed, Snow heard a click from outside the door and she realized that they had locked her in but she was too depressed and too exhausted to care. With her shifter ears, she could hear their hushed conversation just outside her door.
Reiner’s concerned voice softly asked, “Is it really necessary to lock her in?”
There was sadness in Brother Asa’s voice as he replied, “I regret that Cloud did not make it farther away before Snow and Branch discovered his departure. I fear that Snow will attempt to follow him and that she will persuade Branch to go as well. It is difficult enough to watch one child leave, I cannot bear to lose them all so soon.” His voice caught but he quickly recovered as he said anxiously, “Come, Reiner, let me take a look at that arm.”
Their voices grew distant as they retreated down the hallway, but Snow heard Reiner’s abrupt reply. “No, it is nothing, merely a scratch.”
As she lay on her pallet, the calmness of Asa’s prayer soon began to wear off leaving her sad, confused, and angry. She began to wonder if perhaps it had just been a bad dream when suddenly she heard Branch’s loud whisper from outside her door. “Snow!”
Too dejected to even stand, she turned her head to the door sobbing, “He was our pack, Branchy. Stormcloud was our pack and he left us.”
She heard Branch say, “I picked these for you, Snowflake.” She saw something being pushed underneath the door and recognized it as a handful of white and yellow daisies. Weeping, she turned onto her side facing the wall, hugging Rowan closely. The last thing she heard before she cried herself to sleep was Branch’s plaintive whisper. “Do not worry, Snow. I will never leave you.”
And he had not. In the end, it was she who had left him.
Snow awakened from another nightmare drenched in a cold sweat, panting as she recalled that she was onboard a ship headed for Barrabis. The only other inhabitant of the sordid women’s sleeping quarters was Ophelia, wrapped tightly from head to toe in her cloak, a painstaking process that had taken the obsessive eladrin nearly half an hour the previous evening but that ensured no part of her would come in direct contact with the filthy hammock. Snow reached for a flask of ale, downing the contents in a single gulp as she recited prayers of meditation to steady her breathing and calm her racing heart.
“Another nightmare, Snow?” quipped Minne from his perch on the end of the hammock. She extended her arm and he hopped onto her wrist. “It was that necromancer again, yes?”
Phaetos had taken a leading role in her nightmares since the night of his fiery message. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “I dreamt that he had captured Baffin and Nameless. He held them prisoner in the Necropolis, torturing them throughout the night then killing them just before the sun rose, only to bring them back from the dead each sunset to begin the agonizing cycle anew.”
She touched the ring on her finger, sensing only a weak vibe from Nameless as she passed along some of her health, relieved that at least he still lived. Despite her strong desire to help Ophelia avenge the death of her family, a need that Snow understood intimately, the dream caused her to once again doubt her decision to leave Ptolus without the rest of her pack. She grabbed another flask, chugging it down as she tried to convince herself that leaving Nameless and Baffin behind had been the right thing to do. Nameless could take care of himself, it was possible he was already tracking them. Snow did not believe Merris’s account of Baffin and figured that the chubby half-elf was still in hiding, most likely choking down meatpies and pastries in the basement of Tavoh’s Bakery. She told herself that she should not worry about her dream; the bard and gnoll would be able to catch up with the rest of the pack at a later time and as long as they stayed away from the Necropolis, they would be safe from Phaetos, after all, the blood oath had been fulfilled, had it not?
Minne, still sitting on Snow’s wrist, eyed her curiously as he squawked, not in his usual voice but in a young desperate fourteen-year-old female voice from the past, “You never leave pack!”
As Snow watched, his feathers began to transform from a shiny black into a glowing bright red-orange as, like a phoenix, flames suddenly engulfed him. His red eye turned to undead black as he stared intently at her through the flame. Opening his beak wide, he began to laugh, an appalling sound she remembered all too well, for it was the laugh of a once dead necromancer now alive again due to an unholy pact she had signed with her blood. In Phaetos’s demonic voice, Minne jeered, “Ah, my dear Snow, did you not learn that YOU NEVER LEAVE PACK BEHIND?” His diabolical crows of laughter filled her soul with dread as Jageren’s high pitched scream pierced her eardrums.
Startled, Snow jerked awake to find that she had fallen asleep sitting up, her fingers still covering the ring, Jageren silent at her side. Minne was sleeping contentedly on her shoulder, his head nestled into his wing. She was sweating profusely and reached for another flask but to her horror, all were empty. Taking a few moments to compose herself, she set out in search of a keg, hoping she could find a full one lest her nightmare continue.
(Jen’s disclaimer: Apologies for the length…)
Alone in the Monastery temple, Brother Asa felt shivers surge through his body, his blood running cold as he re-read the message that had just moments earlier been delivered into his hands. In the wake of the shivers, a cascade of clamminess poured over him and with difficulty he took a few labored breaths, suddenly regretting the haste with which he had dismissed the messenger. He was fortunate that the messenger had found him in the temple already seated upon a bench else he felt his legs might have given out. Closing his eyes, he pressed his back against the hard wood, his trembling hand still clutching the parchment containing the familiar cramped script he knew so well, then with another deep breath he carefully set the note beside him and kneeled, bowing his head upon his clasped hands. The silence in the temple was scarcely disturbed by the soft murmurs of his prayers and meditations to The Raven Queen and nearly an hour passed before he stood once again, straightening his robes as with regained composure he walked out of the temple towards the training grounds.
Brother Reiner was, as usual, hard at work administering punishing criticisms to a novice trainee whose battle stance the Weapons Master had just breached. As Reiner angrily bellowed reprimands and caustic reminders of the young man’s shortcomings, he caught sight of Brother Asa approaching and knew by the pale look on the cleric’s face that unpleasant tidings were forthcoming. “Go practice with Reginald!” the Weapons Master barked, glaring wrathfully at the intimidated novice who stood petrified, not knowing which direction to run. Without giving the boy time to move, Reiner lifted his sword menacingly and continued his barrage of orders, hollering impatiently, “GO! NOW! WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” The quivering trainee stumbled away, wide eyed in terror half expecting to be sliced in two, as Reiner, scowling, sheathed his sword and began removing his leather breastplate. Wiping sweat from his brow, his demeanor instantly transitioned to one of respect as he said, “Brother Asa,” and gave a curt nod as the head monk drew closer.
With a steady hand the cleric held forth the paper, watching Reiner who was busily wiping his sweaty palms on his breeches, partly in an attempt to briefly delay whatever inevitable bad news hovered before him. With an audible sigh, the Weapons Master reached for the extended letter as Asa said simply, “It is from Branch who is in the city of Trolone. He no longer perceives his twin in our world. He senses that Snow has gone to meet Our Lady. I have prayed to Our Queen, including a supplication of guidance for Snow’s soul, and I am awaiting some sign of confirmation.”
Reiner continued looking at Asa as he accepted the note then quickly bowed his head, scanning the letter’s dark contents. After a moment he raised his head, shrugging his shoulders indifferently as he handed the parchment back to Asa. Betraying no hint of emotion in his expression, he sounded unsurprised at the news as he said in a matter of fact voice, “Stubborn shifter. Although she had an innate talent for distance and timing, she consistently ruined the advantage with her impulsive desire to rush forward and secure initiative rather than waiting patiently for the prime opportunity. I used to warn her that one day she would pay the ultimate price for her recklessness but she regularly ignored me. Well, there is no doubt that she served faithfully. She has rightfully earned her place with the other devoted at Our Lady of Winter’s feasting table. I only hope for The Raven Queen’s sake that there is an adequate supply of ale on hand.” Without another word, Reiner retrieved his breastplate from the ground and nonchalantly walked off towards the armory.
Asa watched him depart, pondering the Weapon Master’s unsympathetic reaction to the death of one of his most gifted students of the blade, yet he realized that Reiner was right. Snow had been a loyal servant of The Raven Queen and she would be rewarded as such in the afterlife. Death was part of the natural cycle and though Asa knew he should not mourn, for Snow was with The Raven Queen now, the three young shifters were like the children he never had and he could not help but feel sorrow at the loss of one.
Later that evening, after the moon had chased the sun from the sky and coaxed the Monastery into a quiet state of sleep, Reiner sat despondently on a pallet in the darkness of Snow’s old room, his head bowed low as he prayed in silence. In his lap lay the wooden sword he had carved for her when Snow had been but an insistent child demanding to be taught mastery of the longsword. He ran his fingers over the smooth blade while his other hand gripped tightly a small, poorly shaped wooden raven hanging from a leather thong around his neck. At the end of his prayer he kissed the raven, letting it fall back onto his chest as he lifted his head and whispered a solemn plea to the shadows. “What have you done, you stubborn shifter? Please, oh Raven Queen, please let Asa and Branch be wrong.”
Snow bolted through the doors of the Onyx Spider Tavern like a rabbit diving down a burrow to escape a hungry wolf. Her heart pounding in her chest, lungs gasping for breath, she halted inside the entrance waiting for her vision to adjust as the doors creaked shut behind her. Although she had just come indoors from the brightly sunlit street outside, her low light vision quickly became accustomed to the darkened space as her eyes frantically searched the bustling room, finally coming to rest upon a male shifter lounging at a table in a shadowed corner deep in conversation with a dubious looking human dressed all in black. Snow bounded that direction, tripping over chairs and bumping into other patrons, oblivious of the rude shouts and general disturbance that followed in her path. As she stumbled past one table, she knocked the elbow of an old man, causing a playing card to slip from his sleeve and fall face up in plain sight on the table before him. His gaming companions froze for an instant in surprise before jumping up to scourge the cheating oldster with irate curses and threats, thus drawing attention away from Snow. The shifter in the corner looked over at the ensuing commotion, a smile of recognition spreading across his face as he saw Snow clumsily staggering towards him.
“Cloud! Cloud!” Snow panted as she skidded to a halt in front of his table, stumbling into the back of the chair in which Cloud’s companion sat, causing a surging wave of ale to leap out of his tankard and onto his lap. Unmindful of her misstep, Snow hastily pushed past the man as if he were invisible, and stopped in front of Cloud. The human bolted up, incensed and fuming, ale dripping from his breeches. Pulling out a short dagger from beneath his cloak, he glared in disgust at the inconsiderate intruder who had conveniently presented her back to him, creating an easy target.
“Cousin Snow, please, join us.” Cloud remained sitting and calmly extended his hand in a wave as he shot a warning glare in the man’s direction. The human scowled in disapproval but slowly returned his blade to its hiding place underneath the folds of his cloak as he suddenly took notice of the longsword hanging at Snow’s side. He moved to stand beside Snow and pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, began a melodramatic show of wiping ale off his cloak and pants, a performance for Snow’s benefit to which she unfortunately paid no attention. “It has been far too long, Cousin,” Cloud continued. With his foot he slid an empty chair towards Snow, motioning for her to sit.
She flopped into the seat, still slightly out of breath, and paying no mind to Cloud’s companion standing beside her, she blurted deliriously, “Cloud! Minne speaks in Common now!” Cloud’s smile faded and he sighed, starting to rub the back of his neck as he gave her a skeptical look, but upon seeing her alarmed expression, he turned his gaze upward to the man beside him and gave a slight head nod towards the tavern entrance.
The man looked annoyed but brooking no argument complied with Cloud’s unspoken request. “Well, if you will please excuse me, I have business to attend to.” He directed his words at Snow, but in her currently distracted state she remained heedless of his existence and failed to acknowledge his departure. He frowned, shifting his attention to Cloud. “We shall carry on our conversation at a later time, Cloud Sharpfang.” He looked at his half-empty tankard on the table at Snow’s elbow and gritting his teeth, dabbed at his cloak once more. With a slight bow to Cloud, he backed up a step and turned to stride away like a man scorned, his cloak billowing in his wake.
Cloud kept his eye trained on the man until the black cloak had disappeared through the tavern doors like smoke up a chimney. He turned his attention back to the table to find Snow greedily gulping down what was left of the man’s ale. He shook his head in exasperation, pulling her tankard hand back down to the table and holding it there. “Now, what are you saying?”
Much like his cousin, Cloud enjoyed ale a bit more than was probably warranted, though he had undergone a considerable change over the past few years. At one time a junkie, he was now clean (though not sober), having been a most unwilling participant of an involuntary detox during his stay as a guest in a rat infested jail cell of the City Watch. Of all the crimes in which he had partaken during his years in Ptolus, the one he had been locked away for, surprisingly enough, was one he had not even committed. Despite no longer being a drug addict, he remained far from fitting the mold of a model citizen and continued to carry on business with the seedier denizens of Ptolus, engaging in activities whose descriptions were better left untouched in general conversation. Though he would never admit it, even to one of his own blood, Snow believed in the fanciful notion that he worked as a double agent for competing thieves guilds in Ptolus. Cloud neither confirmed nor denied his cousin’s imaginative suspicions, leaving her to wonder exactly where his loyalties lay.
After the soothing draught of ale had calmed her nerves, Snow detected a faint familiar smell hanging in the air recently vacated by Cloud’s companion. She could not quite place the odor and wondered if perhaps it was merely her imagination. Momentarily forgetting her urgency, she vaguely recalled that there had been someone sitting with Cloud. “Who was that?” Snow asked, sniffing the air in confusion as she turned to search the tavern, only now becoming aware of the fact that Cloud had made no introductions.
Cloud reached over and took her chin in his hand turning her head away from the door and directing it back to the table, making sure he had eye contact before releasing her. He sat back with arms crossed over his chest, and quickly changing the subject said, “Dare I remind you that we were to meet for ale and darts at our usual accustomed hour…” he paused, raising his hand to rest his chin between thumb and forefinger, his fingers drumming on his stubbled cheek, eyes raised to the ceiling as he performed mental calculations before finally looking back at Snow, his drumming fingers now extended in her direction as he raised his eyebrows questioningly and continued, “… five moons ago.”
This renewed Snow’s hysteria and forgetting the man in black and his unnamable odor, she exclaimed, “Cloud, you do not understand. Minne talks! In Common! He used to just make regular raven sounds, you know, CAW CAW.” Snow imitated the raven’s call rather loudly, attracting the attention of some of the patrons at nearby tables who began eyeing her strangely but Snow continued, not noticing. “But now he actually talks!” She felt her raven tattoo prickling and Minne appeared on Cloud’s head, silently watching Snow with his blood red eye before he settled down to preen himself.
Cloud could not make sense of her chaotic outburst. “Calm down, girl. You are worse than Grandsire Pinecone. At least the forest animals that he claimed talked to him actually existed, whereas you talk to thin air.” Noticing that Snow’s gaze was focused on his head, he shifted his eyes upward and humorlessly threatened, “If that raven shits on my head, I will make a bird roast out of him.”
“How rude!” Minne crowed as he hopped onto Snow’s shoulder. “Especially considering he does not believe I exist.”
Watching Snow pet the empty air above her shoulder, Cloud said, “Now, Cousin, let us return to Minne in a moment. First, tell me, where have you been all this time? Word on the street is that you and the gnoll left Ptolus to take care of some unfinished business, dangerous business.” He affected a hurt expression that was especially dramatic as he said, “Usually you send word to me when you leave but this time, nothing. Asa, Reiner, and Branch each sent separate messages to Ptolus trying to find out what happened to you. They all think you are dead.”
Snow lowered her voice, leaning closer to him as she gave him a grim faced look and said, “I did die, Cloud. I am not me anymore, I am a clone.”
“Excuse me?” He stared at her incredulously, wondering how many taverns she had visited prior to the Onyx Spider and, more importantly, how many ales she had consumed.
“The gnoll and I were cloned by a white necromancer. In a container. I was re-grown from a chunk of my own original flesh. Nameless says we were grown like plants.”
Cloud looked closely at her face for any sign of prank or trickery and detecting none, shook his head resignedly. He leaned forward and with his index finger, tapped her gently on the forehead. “You, my friend, are a few drops short of a pint. Or perhaps it would be more fitting to say that you have had a few pints too many.” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. He had feared for the day when her drinking would become a serious problem and it appeared that day had come to pass. “Snow, I do believe you have been drinking with Ollum, god of the keg, himself.”
She grabbed onto his forearm like a rabid dog, unintentionally squeezing until Cloud thought the blood had ceased to flow. “No, listen to me, Stormcloud! I am no more drunk than usual.” Snow’s voice was rushed as if she was expecting at any moment that time itself would be yanked from beneath her feet. “Five moons ago, Nameless and I suffered a truly horrific, blood spattering death, or so I have been told. It happened while we were attempting to open the crypt of an evil necromancer entombed in the Dark Reliquary. Just prior to that, pieces of our flesh were excised from our original bodies in preparation for cloning, though at the time we were unaware of the true intent. We have spent these last five months encased in containers re-growing. I only awakened, if you can even call it that, yesterday. I remember nothing of the crypt or of releasing Phaetos. The last memory I possessed upon waking was that of Nameless as he was about to use his claw to cut out my flesh.” Snow looked down at her arm, tracing with her finger where the scar should have been. “Or rather, my original self’s flesh.” She looked up, her voice sounding distant and forlorn as she continued. “I am not even me, Cloud. My original self is either with The Raven Queen or more likely wandering lost in the Nine Hells. I have been hiding alone in my room since yesterday trying to understand what has happened. A short time ago, Minne asked me how I was feeling. In Common, no less! He has never spoken in anything but caws and squawks before. I thought that I just needed ale to clear my head, but I have stopped at every tavern I have passed on my way here and still he speaks. Cloud, the other voices in my head are gone. GONE! All of them. It is only Minne that I hear now. I cannot tell my pack, they know nothing about Minne or Rowan and they already think I am a lunatic.”
Cloud clamped his hands on her shoulders to quiet her raving, having paid little attention to anything she had said after the mention of Phaetos. “Slow down, slow down. Whose crypt did you say you were you opening?”
“Phaetos, the evil necromancer.”
Cloud looked around quickly to see if anyone had overheard, and sighed in relief when it appeared most of the tavern was preoccupied with the escalating situation at the card cheater’s table. Hoots and jeers sounded from the thick throng surrounding the gambler’s table. Cloud raised his arm high catching the attention of a nearby serving girl. “Barmaid! Another ale for my friend.” Then, upon seeing how shaken Snow was, he added, “On second thought, make it two ales… for each of us.” He looked back to Snow and lowered his voice. “Now, calm down and tell me exactly what you remember.”
Five ales later, Snow had relayed the entire grisly Phaetos story from beginning to end. Cloud sat back in his seat scratching his neck slowly as he watched her staring intently into the bottom of her now dry tankard as if with enough concentration she could will more ale to appear. After a few minutes, he finally said, “You should keep this information to yourself. Others will think you are truly insane.” His eyes narrowed as he murmured to himself, “Though I begin to wonder if you might be just that.” He pointed a finger at her. “In fact, I think you need a vacation from city life. It has been a long time since you visited the Monastery. You should take a trip back to the Cherubar Mountains, the fresh air would do you good.”
“He thinks you are in danger,” squawked Minne from his perch on Snow’s empty tankard. “He is worried about something related to Phaetos and he fears for your safety in Ptolus.”
Avoiding direct confrontation concerning this information, Snow instead looked at her cousin with a skeptical eye causing Cloud to immediately switch tactics. He pushed his full ale towards her as in his most convincing voice he proposed, “Everyone at the Monastery would be overjoyed and relieved to see you. What better environment to rediscover yourself than in the peace and solitude of the mountains of our childhood?”
Three ales later, Cloud succeeded in persuading her to return to the Monastery for a visit. As she stood to leave, he scanned the room for any unfriendly eyes that might be watching, then, remaining seated, he grabbed her hand between both of his as if in a handshake. Squeezing tightly he warned earnestly, “Be careful, Snowflake. And tell Brother Asa that I send my greetings.” She nodded slowly and was starting to walk away when his voice stayed her. “Snow, one more thing.” He waited until she had turned back to face him before he said quite seriously, “Stay away from Brother Samuel’s still.”
She smiled at him then, the same mischievous grin he remembered so well from their youth. “Farewell, Cloud. May the ravens avoid flying directly over your path.”
“Yes, well, send my love to The Raven Queen,” he mocked, wondering if indeed the original Snow had done so already.
He leaned back and set his booted feet upon the table. Watching her departing back, he muttered to himself, “Ah, Snowflake, what devilry of a snake pit have you stumbled into now?” Draining his mug in an all too familiar way, he yelled at the barmaid, “Ai! Another ale over here!”
Snow entered into the quiet compound of the Monastery with the sun’s first rays following closely at her heels, the only sound that of the rhythmic crunching of the thin layer of hardened snow beneath her horse’s hooves. Though a chill, silent wind whipped icily, she felt a warmth engulf her at the sight of the Monastery grounds, a sensation that felt at once both calming and unsettling. With Minne atop her shoulder, she slowly dismounted and stood next to her horse, patting its neck as she sentimentally surveyed the place she had once called home. Everything looked exactly as she remembered it on the day she had left for Ptolus as a formal agent of The Raven Queen after completion of her initiation rites, and though she had not been away for more than a handful of years, her experiences in that short period felt as if they had filled a lifetime. At her side, Jageren hummed an old familiar tone he had not sung since the day they had left the Monastery, a tone that lulled her doubts and worries about returning.
She felt a mild force emanating from the main temple, a gentle pull that urged her forward, but she hesitated to step closer for fear of disrupting the quiet, dreamlike atmosphere. A light dusting of snow during the night had cloaked the ground with a pristine white, sullied only by a single set of bootprints marking the trail Brother Wilhelm had taken on his way to open the main gates for her arrival.
From the corner of her eye she saw movement and heard shouts and she turned to catch a glimpse of four shifter children running some distance away from her in the direction of the woods. A girl, perhaps nine summers old, and a little boy a few summers younger were giving chase to two young boys who were hooting and jumping as they fled their pursuers. The girl was clumsily waving a wooden sword, quickly reducing the gap between hunter and hunted as she looked over her shoulder at the small boy behind her, urging, “Hurry, Rowan!” From Snow’s shoulder, Minne cawed, taking flight from his perch to soar after the children, leaving Snow to watch as the group faded away into the forest, ghosts of another time. She gazed into the forest for many minutes waiting for the young shifters to reappear but only Minne came flying out of the trees, settling back on her shoulder without a word.
A surly shout brought her out of her reverie. “Snow!”
She turned back to find Weapons Master Reiner rapidly striding towards her, a predator fiercely closing in on its prey. Her mind flashed back to childhood, freezing her in place as she stood confused, desperately trying to remember what disobedient act she had recently committed that would have stoked his ire. In her illogical assessment of the situation, she thought briefly of fleeing into the woods to follow the phantom children but she realized that the Weapons Master was almost upon her and that she could never outrun him at this distance. She cringed in anticipation, expecting to be dragged away by the ear, and wondered what punishment he would inflict upon her this time. She was taken by surprise as he approached, when, instead of grabbing her ear, he drew her into a firm yet gentle hug that lifted her feet off the ground.
Setting her down but not releasing his hold, Reiner said, “Snow! It is so good to see you! From your message we were expecting you a few days hence. With winter making an early appearance this year, mountain travel has become more difficult, but you have made excellent time.”
His embrace was warm and secure, his voice soft and welcoming, far from the gruff reception she had been expecting. Most of her memories of Brother Reiner consisted of hoarse yells, resounding tirades, and harsh punishments.
He released her, stepping back with a grin while in a jesting tone he chided, “You have been away for far too long!” He glanced at the scabbard at her side, smiling in appreciation. “I see Jageren has been taking fine care of you.”
Snow sighed in relief, smiling back at him, though his happy and welcoming attitude puzzled her. In her youth, she had been the prime instigator of his fury, always on the receiving end of his heated temper and though all the trainees had been subjected to his anger, she had been the main object of his wrath more often than not. She could recall the rare times when she had seen a genuine smile crack his face and never once had it been directed at her. Where in the past his blue-green eyes had shown her only anger and impatience, they now contained a happy sparkle.
Aside from his hair, which had been shoulder length last she had seen it and was now more closely cropped, Reiner looked much the same, even down to the perpetual three days growth of facial hair that persisted regardless of how often he shaved.
“Weapons Master Reiner! I feared for a moment that you were going to reprimand me for some misdeed, perhaps administer yet another rumbling lecture about the sins of sneaking into the armory in the dark of night.”
He laughed amusingly, a cheerful sound she had never before heard issue from his mouth. Remembering the constant years of his infuriated shouts and thundering temperament, she was surprised to find how quickly his relaxed disposition had put her at ease.
Shaking his head but smiling brightly, Reiner said, “You certainly kept me on my toes, a mischievous pup taxing my patience most days. There has definitely been less havoc and more peace around here these past few years.” He leaned closer to whisper, “Though I must say, it has been too quiet.” He stepped back to clear his throat, pausing for a moment as if unsure how to phrase his next question. Scratching his ear nervously, he finally asked, somewhat uncomfortably, “Is Rowan with you?”
Snow shook her head in bewilderment, wondering why he would inquire about Rowan when he had spent years lambasting her for talking to an imaginary brother and his raven. Not knowing the right response, she answered honestly, “Rowan left some time ago. But Minne is still with me.”
Reiner’s appearance suggested that he had dressed in a hurry. He was missing a cloak and his untucked tunic was partially open revealing his chest on which she could see a small, crudely carved wooden raven suspended from a leather thong around his neck. Snow’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “You still have that old piece of junk? I must have been about 10 summers old when I made that for you as a peace offering.” She looked down at her hand. “And I think I still sport the scar from where the dagger slipped when I was carving it.”
Reiner suddenly became self conscious about wearing the raven, his fingers fumbling to close the buttons of his tunic. “Yes, well, it has brought me luck over the years.” He put his arm around her shoulders as he motioned towards the temple. “Go. Brother Asa is anxiously awaiting your arrival. He worried that something had happened to you and he will not rest until he sees that you are in one piece.”
“Oh, if they only knew how many pieces I ended up in,” she thought to herself, recalling with a shiver the accounts of the events that had transpired in Phaetos’s crypt.
Reiner, mistaking her shiver for that of the cold weather, adjusted her cloak about her shoulders and in a relieved voice confided, “Asa was not the only one who was worried.” Embarrassed by this confession and show of caring, he quickly dropped his arms and hastily continued, “You have missed Branch by a half-moon. He stayed for as long as he was able awaiting your arrival but winter bears down on us quickly and he was forced to finally set off for Trolone before your namesake shut down the mountain pass.” He looked at her oddly, his smile fading for a moment before he grinned again. “Well, I mustn’t keep you. I will see you at supper tonight, I am curious to hear of your adventures. And tomorrow, after you have rested from your journey, come find me on the training grounds and let us see what you have learned to do with that sword of yours!” He lost his smile a second time, looking down to the ground then back up as if hesitating to say his next words. He started to say one thing but suddenly changed his mind at the last second as he shook his head slightly, settling instead on, “Welcome home, my friend.” He squeezed her shoulder, smiled, and turned to walk away.
Snow was caught off guard. Friend? When had Reiner decided she was a friend? She watched him trot off towards the armory as she pondered this newfound respect he had displayed. Shocked, she said to Minne, “That is not the Weapons Master Reiner that I remember.”
Minne stared at her with his red eye, responding, “He is happy and relieved to see you, yet at the same time you make him nervous for some reason.”
Snow eyed him sitting on her shoulder then continued watching Reiner in the distance. “Well, he is most likely finding it difficult to keep himself from boxing my ears. He does not know how to be civil since most of his time is devoted to yelling at the trainees.” As if on cue, she saw the Weapons Master waving his arms exasperatedly in the air as she heard his familiar shout carried back to her on the wind, berating some poor novice for having left the armory doors open. Snow smiled, then turned her attention to the temple.
Brother Asa was exuberant to find Snow in good health and the two talked without a break from early morning until the sun drew long in the late afternoon sky. With an hour left before supper, Asa went to take care of some things while Snow went to visit Brother Samuel who, excited as a bee hovering over a spring flower, showed off his new still and freely dispensed samples of his recent brews, including the latest cask of his renowned ale, “Humalassa Pentu”, which had been the Monastery favorite for well over fifteen winters. Though he kept the ingredients of this special spirit a closely held secret, it was a well known fact that Snow, who had spent much of her youth in trouble for siphoning from his still, had been the true inspiration behind the brew’s creation and Samuel had even named the ale after her. “Humalassa Pentu”, in his elven clan’s dialect, directly translated to “drunk puppy” in Common.
Her reunion that night with the Monastery Brothers was a happy celebration. Weary after her journey and long evening, she was sitting on the pallet in her old room when she noticed her old wooden longsword propped carefully against the wall. She smiled, remembering how as a child, she had used to carry the wooden Jageren everywhere. She laid the steel Jageren on the pallet beside her and listened to his contented hum as she closed her eyes.
She was exhausted but sleep would not come as she replayed in her mind her conversation with Brother Asa which had turned into a full fledged recount of her adventures since leaving the Monastery, followed by a full confession of her blood oath with Phaetos and subsequent death and rebirth.
“Brother Asa, I feel lost as if I do not know who I am anymore. Minne has told me that Rowan’s absence is part of my punishment for releasing Phaetos. I have failed in my service to The Raven Queen and I wonder if I am not somehow cheating my fated death by being alive again. My soul feels different somehow, unclean.”
Asa had tried to console her. “But you are here, Snow. The Raven Queen brought you back.”
“No, my pack brought me back; Ophelia and Baffin and Ophelia’s necromancer friend.”
“Ah, but the Raven Queen allowed them to do so. She could have kept you in her domain but she allowed you to return. She has favored you with a second chance to serve her and prove your devotion, and she has given Minne a voice to guide you. You should introduce Minne to your pack, Snow.”
He had seemed sincere but Snow had felt as if he were patronizing a child. “You think I am insane,” she had accused him, but looking into his eyes she had detected no deception.
Minne had spoken then. “He is being honest with you, Snow. He does not think you are crazy, he thinks you have been blessed.”
For the first month, Snow spent most of her days from sunrise to sundown and beyond in the temple of The Raven Queen deep in meditation and prayer. In the months afterward, she split her time between the temple and the training grounds where she continued her sword training with Reiner. On some days, she even assisted him in training the initiates.
She spent quite a bit of time talking with Reiner in the evenings after supper, detailing her adventures while he shared with her stories of his past. She found it difficult at first to adjust to this never-before-seen gentle side of Reiner who now treated her with respect as an equal, but she soon acclimated to his shift in personality; as Weapons Master he was one man, off the training field he was another.
She often sought the council of Brother Asa, sharing her dark thoughts, her reasons for becoming an avenger, her guilt over Phaetos, and the endless confusion of her rebirth. Between these heavy thoughts, her confusing friendship with Reiner, and Minne’s new found voice, Snow found that her quest for self discovery was far more difficult than she had imagined. She might have stayed at the Monastery had it not been for Phaetos and the longing for her pack, what was left of it anyway. In the late blooms of spring, she decided it was time that she return to her pack in Ptolus.
As Snow packed up the last of her things, she took one last look at her old room and wooden Jageren before she warned Minne, “Leaving here is going to be difficult enough, please keep quiet as I say goodbye to the Brothers and please do not enlighten me should there be any unspoken feelings beneath their words.” From his perch on the hilt of the wooden sword, Minne’s red eye stared at her. Her heart feeling heavy, she continued, “I apologize that it is taking me so long to adapt to the idea of you having a voice. You have been a faithful friend for most of my life, but I am used to your bird talk and I find it strange to hear you speak Common especially with the absence of the other voices in my head. I need a bit more time.”
“Do not worry, Snow. I will be quiet.” Minne answered, fluttering to her shoulder and playfully pecking her ear.
The Brothers all came out to the gates to wish her farewell and safe travels. Brother Asa hugged her tightly and exacted a promise from her to send more frequent messages to alleviate their worries. Brother Samuel gave her a flask of his special Humalassa Pentu and giving her a wink, told her not to drink it all within the first mile down the mountain.
Reiner was waiting for her outside the gates and as she walked her horse out, he gave her a subdued look. “I suppose it is of no use to make one last attempt to talk you out of leaving.”
Snow looked at him but could not answer. They had already been through this conversation multiple times over the past week.
Resigned, Reiner began unbuttoning the top of his tunic as he said, “Stubborn shifter. Very well, at least take this.” Attached to a strip of leather and resting next to the childish raven amulet Snow had made for him, lay an intricately carved wooden raven dyed black with red eyes. Reiner removed it and reached forward to delicately hang it around Snow’s neck. One hand touching his own wooden raven, the other touching hers, he said, “May the ravens watch over you and keep you safe.”
Minne cawed approvingly but stopped short at a glare from Snow.
Snow ran her fingers over the exquisite raven amulet then looked up at a loss for words. “Thank you, Reiner.” Despite her weighted heart, she smiled.
She climbed atop her horse. “May the ravens fly with you,” she told him, afraid to say anything more.
“And with you, my friend.” Not taking his eyes from her, he said, “Minne, keep a close watch on her.”
Minne cawed an affirmative response then took flight to the sky leaving Snow alone with Reiner.
Snow could not read Reiner’s expression and desperately fought the temptation to call Minne back for assistance in interpreting his emotions. Not wishing to risk more words, she turned her horse and headed down the path that would lead her out of the Cherubar Mountains and back to Ptolus and her pack. She could not comprehend if she was leaving home or on her way to return home. She looked back only once to see Reiner still standing unmoving. She brought her fingers up to touch the raven on her chest, reciting a prayer to The Raven Queen to quell the pangs of uncertainty that she was feeling. After a few moments she felt her resolve return.
She felt a warmth under her raven tattoo as Minne soared over her, diving down to land on the horse’s head, his red eye surveying her. “Am I allowed to talk yet?” he queried.
“Yes, Minne. But please say nothing about the Monastery, especially nothing concerning Reiner or Asa.”
“Well,” Minne squawked, “you look like you could use some spirits to lift your spirits, so I am going to tell you now what you would have discovered for yourself later.”
“Minne, please,” Snow snapped at him, afraid of what information the bird would share.
“Brother Samuel loaded your horse’s pack saddles with many flasks of his Humalassa Pentu. And he slipped the secret recipe into your pack.”
She perked up at this, a slow smile spreading across her face as she suddenly burst into childish giggles on her way down the mountain.
Snow, sword in the eye drunk, slumped at the bar of the Dirty Gryphon surrounded by an assortment of empty mugs which the bartender promptly replaced with full ones as he happily swept the nearby waiting coins into his palm. Picking up an ale in each hand, Snow raised her arms high and in the usual custom, turned teetering to the empty stool beside her, piping, “Drink up, Moog!” After staring sullenly a moment at the vacant seat where Moog should have been, she quietly added, “The ravens have led you to a place where you no longer require ale to erase the memories. May you partake of eternal peaceful walks beside your wife and son.”
Still facing Moog’s empty place, she lowered her arms, drinking each mug in turn. “Farewell, Moog. Farewell, Vennman.” She mourned neither the death of Moog nor the possible death of Vennman for she knew they were in the hands of the Raven Queen, yet they had been her pack and their absence left her heart feeling barren. As she wondered who would be the next of her friends to depart, her eyes came to rest on the two lonely yet full and frothy mugs, ordered out of habit, sitting before Moog’s stool and she hastily grabbed one in each hand, greedily gulping them down.
With Moog gone she needed to begin recruitment of a new drinking companion, having discovered that it was much more enjoyable to drink alongside company than to drink alone, not to mention it was far easier to stumble to bed when able to lean against an equally inebriated comrade. She turned thoughts to her remaining packmates. Nameless was immediately disqualified on the grounds that the gnoll drank only milk. Baffin? Pshaw! Ophelia could barely keep down a glass of wine; a child had higher alcohol tolerance than the eladrin. Child. Krystin. Snow perked up at the potential possibility. She herself had been younger than Krystin the first time she had pilfered a drink from Brother Samuel’s still.
As she cast her blurry eyes around the Gryphon searching for the girl, she heard Baffin’s singing voice dancing closer to her vicinity. She swiveled to the right, hoping to engage a fellow bar patron in conversation in order to avoid acknowledging the bard but she turned too quickly, almost falling from her seat. At that unfortunate moment, the very large, rather odiferous man sitting on the stool to her right lifted his mug for a drink just as she fell forward and her shifter nose with its enhanced smell came into direct contact with his rancid armpit. Through a throat filled with bile, she choked forth an apology, though the man had seemed not to notice. Gasping for fresh air, Snow turned abruptly to the bar stool on her left only to be confronted face to face with a singing Baffin, fragments of meat pies sticking to his face, hair, and beard, in even more abundance than was usual. He was grinning like an idiot as he sang and though Snow was not paying attention to the words, she was aware that the entire tavern was yelling and clapping in admiration and excitement.
Snow scowled at the bard wondering what mischief he might be up to when he suddenly surprised her by leaning in to steal a kiss. Shocked and appalled Snow quickly jumped back, then regaining her composure she growled, punching him in the eye. She could hear Karthax dimly yelling in her mind and she reached for the sword at her side as she snarled in anger, “Baffin, you pig! From now on you will be strumming your instrument with your other hand!”
Her heart skipped a beat when her grip came up empty. She stared down at her side in horror as she realized Karthax was missing, scabbard and all. From her pack, Jageren was humming in smug contentment. “KARTHAX!” She cried out but the only response was a fading cry that ended in silence. “The hairy one…..”
Nameless! She could feel Karthax’s surprise and anger, could hear him yelling, sounding as if he were many leagues down a bottomless well and though she strained her mind, she could not decipher his words. Karthax had been correct in his suspicions of the gnoll. Snow recalled her brief conversation with Nameless in the basement of ghoul town when he had asked to see her new sword. The memory fluttered in her head.
“Does the sword talk to you?” Nameless had asked.
“I have many voices in my head,” she had truthfully answered.
“I do not doubt that, Shifter. Answer my question, does the sword talk to you?”
Karthax had been an imposing voice in her mind. “Under no circumstances must you tell the gnoll! He shall attempt to steal me away.”
Snow had hesitated, torn between loyalties. Finally she had whispered, “I am sorry, Nameless,” as she turned her back to him.
Snow had experienced extreme pangs of guilt over shutting Nameless out, not ever truly believing that the gnoll had any designs on Karthax… until now. Karthax, paranoid though he was, had been right; Nameless had stolen her precious sword.
She pushed her way through the crowd and ran into the street still calling to Karthax, determined to find Nameless and regain possession of her sword. Karthax’s fury flooded her mind and she felt herself falling to the ground, her very breath knocked out as she was tackled from behind by Baffin. She could hear muted draconic curses in her mind and what sounded like urgent warnings, but Karthax was beyond the boundary where she could hear him clearly. She stood, able to finally pick herself up from the ground, cold sweat running down her face as she glared at the eladrin and half-elf, refusing to listen to the false words that streamed from their lips.
She began to speak but her words remained unvoiced, catching instead in her throat and once again she lost all breath. As if the sun had unexpectedly fallen from the sky at midday, Snow felt a part of her psychic bond with Karthax abruptly severed. Her mind went totally and completely silent. She could yet feel some small spark of his presence, though it was dulled and his voice no longer sounded in her mind. Even her inner voices had no presence. She was confused, dazed, unsure of what was happening. “Karthax!” She called out to him and became panicked when he did not answer. “KARTHAX!” Still no response. She whirled in confusion not knowing where to look or what action to take. Time seemed to stop, everything slowed around her. She was aware of Baffin and Ophelia standing next to her but they seemed very far away, as if on a different plane. She could not remember a time when her mind had been this quiet and she became upset at the echoing silence.
She could not make sense of her surroundings, her thoughts scattered like leaves in the wind, blown from the tree limbs to float through the breeze. Later on she would recall only mere bits of the next moments as she passed through them in a fog. Her perception clouded by confusion, she was only dimly aware of what was happening around her. She recalled Baffin and Ophelia speaking to her while Nameless, holding Karthax above his head, threatened to destroy her sword unless she fought, a demand she answered by striking him with radiant vengeance. She reeled at the confusion, her mind aching for Karthax as she called out to him again almost crying in frustration when he still did not answer. “KARTHAX! Where are you?” She felt streaks of fright and pain wash over her, desperately wishing for a sip of ale to clear her head and aid in untangling this puzzling mess now clouding her mind. She was unaware of the irony of the thought, that her head had not been this clear in nearly twenty years, not since the voices had begun their visits.
She saw brief flashes of Minne sitting atop Nameless’s shoulder, his glowing red eye staring at her. “Traitor,” she called out to him in her mind but there was nothing there, not even an echo, only silence. Her mind was a puzzle in which pieces were missing and though she searched the far corners she could not put ideas together to form any coherent thoughts.
The fog in her mind somewhat cleared, Snow found herself inside a small room in the presence of Malachai, her companions, and an old man who she did not recognize. She did not remember how she came to be there, panic swelling within her as she tried to push Baffin away from the door in an attempt to escape but moving the chubby bard proved more difficult than dislodging an elephant.
As she listened to the stranger speak of a way in which he could help both her and Karthax, a flood of fright washed over her. “It will not hurt Karthax, will it?” She feared for her sword, wanting to talk to Karthax yet the old man refused her request. He informed her that he had been in communication with Karthax, who had told him of the jealousy between the two swords and that Karthax had agreed to let his soul move on and release the curse upon her if she would agree to let Jageren take on the dragonborn’s strength.
She turned away to commune with Jageren, the first time in many days that the two had shared a quiet moment. As she asked his forgiveness, he crooned softly, signaling that he would accept this gift from his rival.
The old man placed Karthax on a small table and began to perform the necessary ritual. Snow felt the last tinges of Karthax depart, a breeze whooshing by in her mind as if the wind had blown through her hair and she felt a gentle kiss on her forehead. She saw a momentary vision in her mind of the proud dragonborn standing tall before her holding his sword, their sword, then he bowed low to her, straightened and turned to walk away into the mists of memory. Snow knelt down beside the sword speaking in draconic the same prayer that Karthax had given his fallen comrades in the orphanage, “Ah, my faithful companion, may you wander the realm of the Lady of Winter in peace.” She followed with her own prayers to the Raven Queen to guide his soul. She watched Minne take off from Nameless’s shoulder to fly into thin air. Snow smiled. Karthax had his guide.
The moment Karthax left, her inner voices returned in a jumble trying to catch up on a week’s worth of clamor. All silence now removed, the voices were like hammers on the anvil of her mind, her head ringing with each word spoken. Jageren hummed in his usual manner, as of yet she felt no difference from his newly added strength.
“How are you feeling?” Baffin asked her.
Dazed, confused, empty, lonely, she did not know how to answer.
Snow glanced at the guards who stood outside the shimmering dome as they looked on in horror at their mistress trapped inside and surrounded by the frenzied Ptolus adventurers. None could leave or enter the bubble as long as the magic held, but upon hearing Torrent’s warning shout, Snow knew the time was short.
Minne squawked from behind and Snow turned just in time to see Ophelia scowling down at a spot of blood on her robes, the distraction causing the sorceress’s bolt to land wide of its mark, nearly hitting Nameless in the head. Pointing Jageren directly at Ophelia, Snow felt her raven tattoo seeping warmth throughout her arm and she succumbed to its will as a flash of divine guidance sped towards the eladrin. An infused Ophelia, more determined this time, again shot forth her chaos bolt knocking Leska square in the chest with critical force, dissipating the last of the powerful shielding magic.
Snow smiled, giving Jageren an approving wink. Her weapon once again felt balanced in her hand, heart, and mind, as it had before Karthax, though now the bond between shifter and sword was significantly stronger. Jageren glowed, howling with glee as Snow lunged forward, her arm fully extended allowing the blade to sink deep into Leska’s flesh, flesh no longer protected by a heavy blanket of charms and magic. Leska’s thin fingers, which had been gripping Baffin’s throat, loosened as she began to slump back, her eyelids fluttering as a geyser of blood gushed forth from her wounds. Snow gritted her teeth in a grin, basking in the knowledge that Leska would soon seek entrance at the gates of the Raven Queen. Growling, she put her boot on Leska’s chest as she pulled Jageren free. “That was for Vennman and Moog, you bitch.”
Baffin, rubbing the area where Leska’s fingers still marked his throat, leaned over to check Leska’s mortality status when suddenly her hand shot forth to momentarily touch Baffin’s chest before she finally slipped into the realm of the Winter Queen. Snow looked curiously at Baffin but the half-elf seemed unchanged by the touch. Snow lowered Jageren to the ground and leaned on his hilt, closing her eyes in meditation, praying for the passage of souls, not just those lost today, but all those lost since Leska had come into power and, she opened her eyes to glance over at Krystin who was clinging to Nameless, …and all those who might be lost in the future if Leska should prove correct about the Eater of Souls. Despite her fear of the girl and her own knowledge that she would have had no hesitation in killing Krystin had she turned against them, Snow was glad the little one was unhurt.
Torrent appeared a moment later with her axe raised menacingly in the air, giving Snow just enough time to leap out of the way before Leska’s severed head sent a shower of blood spattering in all directions. She had an “Ophelia moment” as she looked down to ensure that the bitch’s blood had not begrimed her cloak, though it was difficult to tell from the peppered stains whose blood was whose. “Farewell, Leska.”
Snow opened her eyes to find that they were walking on a road, Ptolus looming before them like a mirage in the desert. She looked around but Krystin was nowhere to be seen. Only a moment earlier, the girl had been saying her goodbyes to them at Gate Pass but now fortunately it appeared the youngster had finally mastered the art of transportation through time and space. Snow gazed at Nameless’s fur, neat and tidy braids running down his back, as she muttered under her breath, “Farewell, Krystin.”
She studied her companions closely as they neared the city. Of the five (six if she counted Rowan) who had started on this journey, only three remained, though the group now numbered four, having picked up a new packmate along the way. There was one final farewell yet needed to complete this chapter of her adventures. The words would be either “Farewell, Phaetos” or “Farewell, World.” Snow looked sideways at Nameless, the only other participant still sworn to the unholy pact. She brushed the idea from her mind, making room for higher priority thoughts: Which tavern to visit first, The Ghostly Minstrel or The Onyx Spider? Her mouth watered at the prospects.
Jageren vs. Karthax
Snow was enthralled by Karthax, though she still maintained her bond with Jageren, much to the dragonborn’s dismay. She was fascinated with the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation in her mind, an event that had rarely happened with her scattered inner voices. She and Karthax spoke for long hours, sometimes in Common, sometimes in Draconic, sometimes a mix of the two. It had been years since Karthax had heard his native language and it pleased him to hear Snow speak it.
The honeymoon came to an inevitable end after only a few short days that measured more like years and indeed, the two began bickering like an old married couple. Snow felt as if Karthax had been crowding her head for a lifetime and she became aggravated at the constant invasion of her thoughts, finding it nearly impossible to meditate, to be alone with her own reflections, or even at the very least, to tune him out. He lectured constantly, often long rambling dissertations which grated on Snow’s nerves, and she grew weary of his never ending, ofttimes patronizing, advice regarding her decisions and actions. Karthax became infuriated when she ignored him or flat out refused to acknowledge his recommendations. He especially resented the fact that she had not renounced her old oath blade, and he acted the part of a jealous lover whenever she reached for Jageren or spoke to him. It incensed him that she used Jageren to cast her radiant vengeance when she should have been using the dragonborn sword in melee attacks instead. Karthax’s hold over Snow was deeply rooted and though it irritated him that he was not strong enough to sever her bond with Jageren, the connection he had with her instilled in him a respectful fondness for the shifter that brought them closer despite his hatred of her oath blade. At times, Snow desperately wished to rid herself of the dragonborn sword but found the thought of parting from Karthax to be unbearable, even though she longed for Jageren. The mutual dependence kept the two trapped in an endless circle of companionship and squabbling.
Karthax had been imprisoned alone in the insensate zombie’s head for such a long time that now, having an intelligent and literally captive audience, he was unable to contain himself as he recounted endless tales of his life and his adventures in foreign lands. Though Karthax’s stories were for the most part interesting, Snow soon realized that he never shut up. His incessant chatter exhausted her in a way that her inner voices never had. One day when Karthax was being particularly annoying, she unintentionally broadcast a rhetorical thought. “I wonder if he is somehow related to Vennman?”
Instead of being irritated at this interruption in a particularly intriguing part of his discourse on the preliminary battle tactics of the dragonborn military of Zavk from the year 504 (not to be confused with the equally fascinating, but completely unrelated, battle tactics of the dragonborn military of Zask from the year 506), Karthax immediately perked up, his voice sparkling with curiosity. “Of whom do you speak?”
Snow sighed heavily and shook her head, mentally slapping herself for thinking of Vennman. “Never mind. Just finish your speech.”
“No, I demand to know who this ‘Venmann’ is!” Snow tried to suppress a giggle. Although his voice boomed with an intimidating echo, she could conjure in her mind only the image of a large, noble dragonborn, hands on hips, stomping his foot like an impatient child on the verge of a tantrum.
“He was a friend who used to talk perpetually, even in his sleep. You remind me of him.”
“I think I should like to meet this Vennman,” Karthax replied thoughtfully, pausing a moment to consider this, which gave Snow a most welcome moment of silence.
Initially grateful for the reprieve of inner voices that had vanished when she first touched Karthax, Snow now desperately missed them in their glaring absence. Karthax once again picked up his lecture of Zavk at the exact point he had left off, prompting a wearied Snow to ask, “Could you please release the other voices? It does grow tiresome at times, having to listen to only you.” From her pack, she could feel Jageren’s normally rhythmic hum now broken into a series of rumbling shakes against her back and she realized he was laughing.
Karthax answered in Draconic, a sharp, intensely furious growl. He always slipped into Draconic when he was angry. “Woman, you will be the death of me!”
“Ah, but it is already too late for that,” she mocked, mimicking his own response upon their first introduction during which she had asserted she would wield only Jageren. The palpitations against her back doubled. Jageren was enjoying this.
She could feel Karthax’s burgeoning anger galloping white hot in her mind, as he shouted in a paroxysm of rage, “I cannot stand to listen to those other voices, especially that one who constantly warns about marmots dancing on the winter daisies! Why should anyone care what the rodents do?”
“You would not understand and it would be a waste of my words to explain it to you,” she told him calmly, as if she were dismissing a child who was incapable of grasping a complex concept.
Karthax, sensing Jageren’s amusement and suddenly realizing that he was being baited into an argument, brought his swelling anger into check, and composing himself, serenely announced, “The voices speak nonsense. Let us discuss a different matter: that other sword keeps humming, could you please tell the inferior one to quiet himself. Why is it that you do not sell that hunk of metal, though I question whether he would fetch enough to make it worth the hassle involved. I believe you would be better off simply to leave him behind as I have suggested countless times in these past few days.”
Jageren’s fanciful hum transformed into a shrill whine steeped in anger and jealousy as Snow tried silently to calm him. She keenly felt his emotions as if they were her own but she could not bring herself to hate Karthax as Jageren did. She was the rope caught in a never ending struggle of tug-of-war, her feelings torn between her oath bond with Jageren and her telepathic bond with Karthax. After a few moments, peace was reinstated, temporarily at least.
Hours later, in Hempsted Keep’s Temple of Pelor, Ophelia, Baffin, and Snow were inspecting a sarcophagus with an inscription of a sword adorning the top. “Place the inferior sword on top of the stone,” Karthax whispered hypnotically. As if controlled by puppet strings, Snow reached for Jageren, placing him none too carefully atop the inscription as his enraged drone echoed throughout the temple while Karthax’s coarse laughter echoed throughout her mind. As if unseen hands were at work, the lid slowly began to slide off, revealing a jeweled scabbard inside, the most beautiful scabbard Snow had ever seen. She could hear the awe and excitement in Karthax’s voice as he anxiously instructed her, “Pick up the scabbard!”
Snow hesitated a moment before picking up the screeching Jageren instead and replacing him in her pack as she took a step backward leaving the scabbard where it lay. “I think not,” she told Karthax.
Karthax became irate, commanding in Draconic, “What are you doing, shifter? I told you to pick up the scabbard!”
She watched indifferently as Baffin moved closer to peer into the sarcophagus. Karthax’s fury filled Snow’s mind, setting all her thoughts on fire. “Do not let the chubby one take that scabbard! It is rightfully ours!”
Turning her back to Baffin and Ophelia, she continued arguing with Karthax, unaware that she had slipped from a telepathic conversation into speaking out loud. “I refuse to take a scabbard that came from a temple of Pelor. Jageren’s old scabbard is fine for now. Stop being so petulant.”
“Shifter, you do this on purpose to vex me.”
“Perhaps.” She smiled, knowing that she was depriving him of something he wanted. Jageren hummed in support.
Karthax continued the dispute. “The bard will take our scabbard! And once he has the scabbard, he will next try to take me. I have seen the way the chubby one looks at me, drooling as if I were a meat pie. He is jealous of us, shifter. He would make me his own.”
“These are my friends, Karthax, they are not after you. You see betrayal around every corner even where none exists.”
She turned back to find that Baffin and Ophelia were looking at her curiously. “Can we see your sword, Snow?”
“See, shifter! I told you! He wants me for his own,” Karthax barked.
“The sword is mine!” Snow bared her teeth at the half-elf and the eladrin, holding Karthax in front of her in a defensive pose as she took a few steps backward. Was she imagining that covetous look in Baffin’s eyes or could Karthax be right, were they indeed after her sword? She could feel Jageren humming a warning in her mind but Karthax silenced him with a snarl. For a moment Snow thought Jageren would resist but he quickly backed down and she felt him retreating as Karthax took over her mind once again. She continued to stare at Baffin and Ophelia with narrowed eyes, suspicious of her so-called companions.
“We must be careful, shifter. They will wait until our guard is down and then they will pounce. Let us find a place to rest away from them. I will keep watch while you sleep.” He led her into the balcony area of the temple where he sang dragonborn lullabies until she fell asleep, Jageren forgotten in her pack.
Karthax the Vigilant
As the zombie moved away, Snow gripped the hilt of the sword and looked at the crack in the zombie’s skull where the weapon had rested moments earlier. Frenzied voices whirled in her brain like a tornado, gathering in momentum and volume but just as the crescendo reached the point at which she thought her head would explode, the clamor abruptly ceased. It was as if a portcullis had slammed down denying the inner voices access to her mind. The voices were mysteriously silent. All, that is, except for one.
“My deepest thanks for freeing me from that zombie.” It was an unfamiliar voice, one that was deep, somewhat bronzed. Snow thought to herself that it was much like how she imagined a dragon’s voice would sound. A guttural chuckle echoed in her mind followed by the same heavy voice answering, “No, not quite a dragon… a dragonborn.”
As she tried to make sense of the confusion caused by the sudden replacement of her familiar inner voices with this new one, it again spoke in her mind. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Karthax the Vigilant. I have been interned in that zombie’s putrid head for longer than I care to remember. I died at his hands but the gods took pity on me and I was able to transfer my essence into my sword at the final moment before my death.” This odd preamble was followed by a hazy image of a tall Dragonborn wearing shining plate armor, pearly white teeth peeking from beneath his thin smile. His hand was wrapped around the hilt of a longsword which Snow recognized as the same sword she now held. The image quickly vanished as Karthax urgently warned, “You must not let anyone know that I can speak to you. They will think you are crazy.”
“They already think I am crazy,” Snow sent the thought to him. “Speaking of that, what happened to my other voices?”
“Yes, the other voices. Why, I sent them away. They bothered me, I could not hear myself think.” His tone carried a hint of annoyance and he spoke as if he had banned them as easily as one would dispatch a bothersome insect.
Snow began to harbor the disquieting feeling that she was a prisoner locked in her own head but she nodded appreciatively as she spoke to Karthax in her mind. “I must reach my sword but the zombie stands between me and the wall.”
This clearly upset the telepathic Karthax for he thundered in draconic, “You need no other sword, shifter! From now on you shall wield only Karthax the Vigilant!”
Displeased with this answer, Snow growled at this new menace as she tried to drop the cursed sword but found to her chagrin that she was unable to release it. She could hear Jageren’s keening buzz from his current location anchored in the wall yet she was still too far away to reach him. She transmitted her scorching thoughts to Karthax punctuated with a low, intimidating snarl. “Jageren is my only sword, I shall wield no other.”
A dark laugh permeated her mind, spreading outward to the far corners like spilt milk. “Ah, my young shifter friend, but it is already too late for that.”
She frantically tried to tear her hand from the sword’s hilt but at that moment the zombie turned towards her giving Snow no other choice but to thrust the dragonborn’s sword into the zombie’s midsection, causing it to falter backwards a step. With this slight reprieve, Snow stole a glance at the wall where her captive sword glowed with vengeant radiance. The thought was strong in her mind; she would never willingly part from Jageren.
“And neither will you ever willingly part from me,” came the silver-tongued voice in her head. He proceeded to relate his tale of woe in the Haunted Orphanage and the ill fated decisions that had led him and his fellow adventurers down the path to their bitter end. Despite her panic and anger, Snow found Karthax’s voice mesmerizing; it drew her closer, wrapping itself around her like a warm blanket inviting her to relax. Soon she lost all sense of time and being, swept into a calm inner core that gently tweaked something in her mind and then spit her back out to cold reality. She was aware of a change in her thoughts but she was unable to focus on what had just taken place and soon lost interest in the pursuit.
Some minutes later, she looked down at the dead zombie. One of her companions had killed it while she had been distracted with Karthax. With the dragonborn whispering like a gentle wind in her head, Snow moved as if under a spell, taking great care to wipe the zombie innards from the shining blade, her eyes wide in admiration of this newfound weapon. The sword was a thing of true beauty; Snow could find no words to describe it and in truth, it was not the exterior of the sword that enthralled her, but rather the glamour of its strength and fortitude. It molded itself to her hand as if it had always been a natural extension of her arm, much in the same way Jageren had. The dark red stains on the hilt that hinted at bloodshed in previous combats did nothing to diminish its allure.
Jageren was still howling from the wall, furious at having been denied participation in a zombie fight. Minne stood atop Jageren’s hilt crowing angrily in an attempt to seize Snow’s attention from the dragonborn’s sword. Ignoring the raven, she sheathed Karthax in Jageren’s scabbard, patting the new sword at her side, all thoughts of her precious oath blade nothing more than distant foggy memories. She frowned at Minne and almost as an afterthought, walked over to the wall where Jageren continued his keening tirade. She pulled him free of his walled prison but rather than performing her usual meticulous after-combat cleaning ritual, she instead stuffed him negligently into her pack, silencing his complaints. She listened to Karthax’s words of approval while Minne screeched, diving at her head and fluttering his wings in terror as if he had been captured by a grell. Though Snow acknowledged Minne’s behavior was a bit odd, in her current state she failed to recognize that anything serious was amiss and her attention remained intently focused on Karthax’s bewitching voice.
As the party made their way down into the basement, Karthax warned Snow she was following in the same fateful footsteps as those of he and his companions. When they came across five sets of skeletons, Karthax’s voice became sad as he mourned in draconic, “Ah, my faithful companions, may you wander the realm of the Lady of Winter in peace.”
The ghost in the basement proved to be a worthy foe. Though she wielded Karthax, his attacks against the ghost had little effect. Baffin, speaking in an old woman’s voice, began to attack Nameless as the others watched in horror. Moments later, Baffin was released from his trance and it became Nameless who in turn began to attack his friends.
“Attack Granny’s bones!” Snow heard Karthax yell at her and in her mind flashed a brief vision of the basement showing a glowing pile of abandoned aged bones in the corner near the base of the stairs. From deep within, she could feel Jageren’s call and, fighting Karthax’s hold over her, she pulled her oath blade from her pack holding both swords before her, Karthax in her dominant left hand and Jageren in her right, as her mind twirled in an attempt to reconcile this confused loyalty.
“Use me to attack the bones!” Karthax cried to her. His vivid memories of his final moments as a dragonborn flooded her mind. She saw fleeting images of his party attacking each other until at last none were left alive. None, except for the glowing longsword whose hilt dripped thick, dark blood, its blade embedded in a zombie’s skull. Snow felt Karthax’s grief emanating inside her head and for a brief minute he was overcome with emotion that allowed Minne a chance to snatch Snow’s attention.
The raven stood on the tip of Jageren’s blade crowing to her while Jageren buzzed loudly from the end of her outstretched arm. Snow felt her oath blade pulling towards the pile of bones and she tried to swim toward the surface of her mind where she knew fresh air was waiting but she could not quite reach. Though her left shoulder burned under her raven tattoo, a flow of radiant energy channeled through her right arm into Jageren and burst forth to smite Granny’s bones. Snow’s holy bond with Jageren caused her to question what was happening; why was she using Karthax when she had Jageren?
The party’s renewed attacks on Granny’s bones eventually rewarded them with victory, though Snow remained confused over Jageren despite Karthax’s lilting draconic words that he administered in an effort to soothe and charm her back under his control.
“You fight well, friend, we will make a fine team, you and I. However, you must never tell anyone about me, not even your companions, especially the chubby one and he who wears the ridiculous hat. They carry swords and will want me for their own, but none are as deserving as you, my little shifter. You wield the longsword with such exquisite and deadly precision, together we can accomplish many wonderful things. But we must be careful, for the others will be jealous of us and they will try to take me from you and destroy us.”
In the coming days, Snow fell further under Karthax’s glamour. She kept a close eye on her friends, though none made any overtures to betray her or the sword and she wondered if Karthax was merely suffering from extreme paranoia. Minne continued to shadow her though he remained quiet most of the time, recognizing that his warnings were falling on deaf ears. Snow still spoke to him but only when she knew Karthax was not paying attention. There were times when Karthax’s grasp over her dwindled for brief periods during which she became aware that something within her mind was awry yet she could not pinpoint exactly what.
Over the course of numerous combats, she discovered that Karthax was a mighty warrior, and though he did not share the radiant bond that she and Jageren did, the two enjoyed a telepathy that kept her other jabbering voices at bay. She welcomed the single enchanting draconic voice that sang her to sleep with dragonborn lullabies, the same voice that also divulged vast stores of knowledge about military and weaponry. The longer she wielded Karthax, the less she thought of Jageren. There were times when Jageren’s angry hum would not be quieted, infiltrating her mind from his newly relegated home stuffed inside her pack. She would scold him for the raucous, “You are just angry because I have a new sword now,” while Karthax’s ringing laughter filled her head. Jageren was starved for souls which made the town of zombies especially difficult for him to endure. Only when fighting at range would Snow extract him from her pack, in one hand Karthax, a strictly melee fighter, in the other hand Jageren, who had been delegated the sole directive of channeling the Raven Queen’s radiant vengeance. Jageren fought out of his hatred for the undead, though he no longer thrived on it as he once had. He did not understand what had caused his bondmate to favor the other sword and shun him so.
“I’ll go first,” Snow whispered to Baffin, Nameless and Malachai as the four stood at the third floor window looking out at the gruesome zombies milling like lost sheep in the streets below. The companions had decided that sneaking along the rooftops would be the safest route through the city of undead. With Minne sitting on her shoulder, Snow carefully inched her way out the window and began quietly crawling up a pipe leading to the roof. The stench of decaying zombie tissue curled the hairs of her nostrils and she desperately fought to suppress a sneeze.
“Careful, shifter. There are too many of them. Should you make the slightest noise, even that of a raindrop falling on a flower petal, you and your friends will die.” Karthax’s voice harbored grave concern but Snow knew that his worry lay rooted in his fear of being doomed yet again to spend countless years confined in another mindless zombie. If they all died here, Karthax would suffer that fate a second time, waiting in limbo until another bravely insane adventurer happened through the zombie infested town, a highly unlikely prospect.
Snow had just started climbing the pipe when suddenly Jageren, desperate for the taste of zombie flesh that he had so far been denied, began an enraged drone that startled Snow causing her to lose her balance. Caught off guard, she fumbled for the pipe but lost her grip, falling backward to land on the ground with a noisy thud whereupon she immediately caught the attention of three slathering zombies. The last image she saw before the wretched creatures clambered over her was the surprised expressions on the faces of Baffin and Malachai looking down at her from above.
Jageren: Part III
Time slowed to a crawl while Snow watched horrified and helpless as the zombie knocked Jageren from her hands sending her beloved sword sailing across the room to lodge in the opposite wall with a loud thud. Snow lost all sense of time, her vision blurred upon the unwilling separation from her oath blade and as she watched the fighting taking place around her she momentarily forgot where she was or how she had come to be there. In a flash it all came back to her: the farmer at the inn, his missing children, the old orphanage, and the zombie inside.
Losing interest in the shifter, the zombie turned its attention to the bard allowing Snow to focus on her longsword wedged in the wall. She was only a few strides away from Jageren yet it seemed like miles as she started to cross the room. The zombie now stood with its back to her and as Snow started to scoot behind it she noticed the longsword, glowing with a shining silver hue, embedded in the top of the thing’s head. As her outstretched arm reached for Jageren who had begun to hum in dazed confusion, Snow suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to instead grab the sword from the zombie’s decomposing head. Her hand moved away from Jageren to hover over the zombie’s scalp as Minne appeared on the hilt of the zombie’s sword, his warning squawks causing Snow to momentarily hesitate. The allure of the zombie sword was strong but Jageren’s angry hum snapped her out of the unwelcome trance and she retracted her hand as she looked at her sword sticking out from the wall. Rowan appeared next to Jageren, a frown covering his face as he shook his head in dismay. Rowan! Time, which had seemed slow until now, suddenly sped forward with a jolt. Snow felt Jageren calling to her, she saw Rowan standing next to the sword, his small hand pointing to Jageren as a single tear slid down his cheek. The enchantment of the zombie sword took over her mind and before she could even think about what she was doing, she turned away from Jageren and ignoring Minne’s protestations, laid her hand atop the hilt of the zombie sword. An electric shock jarred her entire being.
“Rowan! We are not allowed to go in there without Weapons Master Reiner,” Snow whispered loudly. Her little brother with his raven, Minne, atop his shoulder left the warning unheeded as he continued to walk through the armory door. Upon their arrival to the monastery six weeks earlier, a growling Brother Reiner had threatened that without his supervision the armory was off limits to the three young shifters. Cloud and Branch had not seemed to mind the restriction, having found other venues for play on the monastery grounds, however Snow, finding herself captivated by the rack of longswords within, was unable to keep her distance from the forbidden building, though she dared not venture inside without permission.
Brother Reiner usually kept the doors secured though today he must have been in a hurry for he had rushed off to the practice field leaving one door slightly ajar. Her fear of the Weapons Master caused her to hesitate a moment at the entrance to give a cursory look around for anyone who might be watching but the glint of metal from within caught her eye beckoning her to follow Rowan and she reluctantly ducked inside.
Snow stopped directly in front of the rack of longswords. Though she enjoyed looking at the many different weapons the armory housed, it was the longswords that held a special fascination, for it had been a longsword the yellow haired man had used to destroy her family. She stood before the rack of swords transfixed, revenge burning in her heart. She hated the yellow haired man. She hated his sword. She imagined the day when she would wield such a weapon to strike him down in the same fashion she had watched him cut down her sire and dam and brothers. Brother Reiner had not understood why she had asked him to teach her the techniques of the longsword and he had merely chuckled saying she was too young yet. One day, though, she would be old enough and she would hunt down and kill the yellow haired man.
She gazed hypnotically at the display of swords, their blades so bright, shiny, and sharp, their hilts decorated with a multitude of fancy designs. She was dimly aware of Rowan tugging on her sleeve and though she tried to shrug him off he continued prodding, insisting that she follow. Her reverie interrupted, she rather grudgingly complied and let herself be guided to a darkened corner behind a rack of hammers.
Rowan’s left hand held Snow’s while with his right he pointed to a rusted longsword laying by itself on the ground. Snow looked disapprovingly at the ugly thing covered in dust, grime and cobwebs. A large hairy black spider hustled across the blade causing Snow to crinkle her nose in disgust.
She shook her head at Rowan. “Yuck! Why are you showing me this ugly sword? Let’s go back to the other swords, this old one is not worth looking at.” She turned to walk away but Rowan insistently grabbed her hand and once again pointed excitedly to the sword, his eyes imploring her to examine it. Minne, who had been sitting quietly atop Rowan’s shoulder, cawed and cocked his head to one side regarding her with a glowing red eye.
Snow sighed and knelt down by the rusted hunk of metal, reaching her hand towards the hilt. Upon contact, a vision rushed through her mind too quickly for her to comprehend while at the same moment a jolt of energy knocked her backwards onto the ground, chasing the wind out of her lungs. Minne cawed again, fluttering down from Rowan’s shoulder to perch on the sword’s hilt. Snow could not be sure, but she felt that she had just had a vision of the yellow haired man, a vision of that day in the future when she would avenge her family and kill him with a longsword, with this sword, her sword. Snow sat up and never taking her eyes from the sword, began to crawl on her hands and knees back to crouch in front of it again. Minne, still perched on the hilt, cawed coaxing her forward. Snow felt the magnetism of the sword pulling her closer as she tentatively reached out her left hand preparing for another jolt but as she touched the handle nothing happened. She felt the metal, ice cold beneath her hand as she looked back at a smiling Rowan. She returned her attention to the sword, using her sleeve to brush some of the dust off the handle.
The hilt had been carved with a somewhat simplistic design of interconnected swirls, drab in comparison to the other longswords in the armory. Minne crowed, flying back to his perch on Rowan’s shoulder yet still surveying Snow with his red eye. Snow tried to lift the sword but she was too small to do much else other than lift the hilt. She found it too awkward to lift the tip off the ground so she carefully lowered the sword back to the floor. As she walked over to stand once again in front of the rack of longswords admiring the glorious blades, she came to the sudden realization that these were inferior weapons compared to the rusty sword in the corner. It did not occur to her that moments earlier she had not wanted to give the sword a second glance.
Snow went back to the old weapon and sat down cradling the handle in her lap. There was something familiar about the swirled runes that tugged at her memory yet the idea would not surface. The word “Jageren” popped into her mind and although she was not sure how she knew it, she recognized that this was the sword’s name. Jageren. It meant Destroyer. Rowan sat down next to her as she began to clean the cobwebs off the blade with her sleeve. “You are my sword now, Jageren,” she crooned. “I will never wield another.”
Snow stared down in confusion at her left hand looking at the splendidly crafted longsword she had just extricated from the zombie’s head, ignoring Jageren as he hummed angrily from the wall. An unfamiliar voice sounded in her head. “Ah, at last. I have been waiting for such a very long time.”
Goodbye, Baffin — Farewell, Vennman
“You really should apologize to the bard.”
Snow was aware of her teeth grinding in irritation at the yappy, pestering voice bouncing around inside her head, the same omnipotent voice that only one week earlier had warned her of Baffin’s untrustworthiness. Some recent change of heart must have occurred, for the voice now harbored a newfound, albeit misplaced, respect for Baffin, though Snow declined to share this new enthusiasm. As she sat across the table from the infinitely ravenous bard, watching as he shoved hunks of salted pork down his maw to the accompaniment of noisy lip smacking, Snow was convinced that not only did tub-o-bard have swine lounging somewhere in the branches of his family tree but also that he had likely been raised by gnolls.
She sighed, formulating a silent question. “If I apologize to Baffin will you promise to go away and never bother me again?”
This thought was met with childish peals of laughter that resonated through Snow’s head as the voice responded, “You should be grateful that it’s only me right now. The others are still asleep.”
Snow had to admit that she had indeed been quite relieved to wake the previous morning after a long and restful sleep to find that this child’s singsong lilt had remained the only voice to plague her mind. She began to wonder if the excellent dwarven ale on board had been responsible.
To her unspoken thought, the voice answered, “No, you silly shifter! The dwarven ale is not the reason, it was the special ale!”
Snow gritted her teeth, frustrated that she had found no avenue of escape from these inner voices, irritated that her personal thoughts were on constant broadcast for commentary from others. It had been five minutes since her last sip of ale and deciding that she was overdue for a drink, she started to rise from the table but paused when she saw Baffin heaving himself up. She decided that now was as good a time as any to show throat, secretly hoping the inner voice would leave once she had apologized. Pulling Baffin to one side while avoiding his suspicious gaze, she cast aside her pride. “Look, Baffin, I want to apologize for calling you a thief and for trying to take the flask of green potion from your pack. Let us put those episodes behind us and be friends again. Nameless is right when he says our squabbling is hurting the pack.”
Baffin’s face twisted in surprise, the normally verbose bard seemed momentarily at a loss for words. “Why how gracious of you, Snow. Apology accepted. Why don’t we share a toast?” Smiling, he held his ale mug high, Snow raising hers in kind. They emptied their mugs and for the briefest moment Snow felt a wave of relief wash over her as she realized the pack was whole again, that there would be no more in-fighting for a while – that was until the following moment when Baffin leaned forward presenting his cheek to Snow. “How about a kiss to seal our truce?”
Snow looked at him aghast, wondering if he was perhaps drunk or had taken a swig of Moog’s green stuff. She curled her lip, exposing bared teeth as she snarled, a low guttural growl, which Baffin, continuing to beam his idiotic grin, happily ignored. Snow wondered how angry Nameless would be if she were to knock Baffin out cold and send him on a trip to meat pie dreamland.
“You better not,” the childish voice in her head warned.
Angry that the voice remained even after her apology, not to mention she was appalled at Baffin’s behavior, Snow scowled and between clenched teeth snapped, “Goodbye, Baffin.” She did an abrupt about-face, stalking off to find a full keg as she shook her head in revulsion. Only the thoughts of the ale that would soon warm her throat kept her from turning back to hurl the ale mug at the bard’s head, that and the fact that she would then have to waste valuable drinking time to find another mug.
Snow had grown up swimming in the glacial lakes of the Cherubar Mountains so traversing the frigid sea water had not proven to be a difficult task, however as she crawled onto the shores of Barabis and looked back, she saw that some of her pack mates did not share her ability. Ophelia, as usual, was floundering and flapping about like a headless chicken.
“She swims about as well as she drinks,” commented an older male voice. Snow was disappointed to recognize another of her internal companions, but she did have to agree, the eladrin was certainly not descended from water fey.
As the others made their way to shore, Snow stood helplessly watching the remains of the Good Ship Flea sink in the frothy waters while she mourned the loss of the many unopened kegs of exquisite dwarven ale.
Her grieving was suddenly interrupted. “Where’s Vennman?”
Snow could not tell which of her pack had asked the question but she froze as Moog, hanging his head low, answered, “He didn’t make it. He jumped onto the last skiff to perform Thunder Weave. I waited but I never saw him come up from the water.”
Stunned silence immobilized everyone until Baffin, refusing to accept this conclusion, began parading up and down the shore scouring for some sign of Vennman’s survival. After the disheartening discovery of Vennman’s staff, Baffin continued the search while the rest of the pack headed to the town’s inn leading the ship’s survivors, which to Snow’s chagrin included Malachi Longshadow (though she chuckled satisfactorily upon learning that the majority of his preposterous hats had been lost at sea.)
After everyone had been settled at the inn, Moog and Snow returned to the beach to re-join Baffin in the search for their missing wizard. Snow found that her head was strangely quiet. The absence of voices both thrilled and disturbed her, her mind maintaining an eerie silence throughout the night as they patrolled the shores.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, Snow was convinced that Vennman had not survived. She experienced no sadness at the likelihood of his death for she knew he would soon join The Raven Queen, however she felt a deep emptiness that one of their pack was gone. She would dearly miss the loquacious wizard. Snow bent her head, reciting a prayer to The Raven Queen to aid Vennman on his journey into the afterlife. The welcome silence in Snow’s mind of the past few hours came to an end and she jumped, startled to hear Vennman’s voice in her head remarking, “You know, I am a Pelorite.” From anyone else the chiding words would have dripped with annoyance but from Vennman they merely constituted a matter of fact remark. It was a gentle reminder, almost as if he had forgotten that he had mentioned his Pelorite status at least a hundred times before.
Snow sent forth a thought in her mind. “Look, Vennman, I’m sorry. I know you think you are on your way to see Pelor, but my Lady of Winter awaits you.” Snow paused expectantly, waiting for Vennman to reply but her mind remained silent and after a few moments she sighed in concession and spoke aloud, “Oh for the love of Lolth. Fine. You win.” Abandoning protocol, Snow turned to face the sunrise and without moving her head, surreptitiously scanned from side to side searching for anyone within earshot. Baffin was pacing the shore alone about one hundred paces away while Moog stood sleeping on his feet. Snow muttered, “Forgive me, my Queen, but as a last farewell to an honored pack member I must oblige.” After a quick glance up at the sun, Snow bent her head to her chest and began mumbling into her cloak, “May the light of Pelor shine on you and show you kindness…”
When Snow finished the prayer, she lifted her flask in salute to the sun’s awakening rays now rising above the horizon and drank until the flask was empty. “Farewell, Vennman.”
As she lowered her flask, welcoming the beautiful sunrise over the sea, an all too familiar voice resounded in her mind, “CROTCH!”
Snow smiled and after a moment turned to run after Moog and Baffin.
Old Nuisances Revisited
Snow stood on the deck of the ship they were about to contract as she contemplated Leska’s bribe and summons. She had almost refused to accept the astral diamond but in the final moment had reasoned that the least Leska could do was to pay for travel expenses. Snow planned to return the remainder of her share of the inducement to Leska once they reached Gates Pass. She rested her hand on Jageren’s hilt, his metered humming instilling a calming effect on Snow’s worn nerves.
A few minutes earlier, she had surrendered all hope of trying to pay attention to Captain Shallowgut, the bantering chatter of voices in her head drowning out the captain’s lofty description of the ship. She now peered sullenly over the edge of the railing into the deep blue water below, wondering if drowning would guarantee her an eternity of silence.
The mesmerizing voice of the ugly vampire from last night’s vision echoed throughout her brain, “You have not yet apologized to Baffin. Do so or join us in undeath!”
A high pitched, impish voice danced in her eardrums, “You promised to give me the case!”
From deep within a lich’s throat came the curdling, fiendish scream, “The balrog will eat your heart!”
And underneath it all, Venmann’s voice lectured, “Have I ever told you about the nuns who beat small children?”
One disturbingly familiar voice elbowed its way to the front of her consciousness as it cheerily intoned, “Halloo! Salutations, my friends! It is so nice to see you all again!”
Snow whirled about at these words, gagging in disgust at the nightmarish apparition standing before her of none other than the one, the only, the vexatious: Malachai Longshadow. As he tipped his preposterous hat and bowed in greeting, Snow sighed, wondering which inevitable turn of fate had been the one to finally drive her sanity over the edge. Whatever recent event had been responsible, it had left her cracked mind open to membership to undesirable manifestations waiting to join the ranks of her delusions. It was distressing enough that Rowan had left her but was she now to be plagued by visions of Malachai?
“Hello, Malachai,” Baffin said.
“I want that hat,” Snow heard Nameless grumble under his breath.
At first, Snow was confused that both Baffin and Nameless could see her vision and then she felt the sting of an arrow of despair lodge in her chest as the poison of despondency coursed through her veins at her realization that Malachai was not an incarnation of her imagination. After pondering this truth for a moment, she remained undecided as to whether this was a fortunate thing or not and appeased her anxiety by telling herself that at least if he were real, there was a very good chance he would leave. Snow clung to this thin hope, unable to believe her ill fortune at encountering Malachai, convinced that the Raven Queen was subtly punishing her for the Phaetos affair. She looked at the beaming Malachai who was sporting a new (though equally ridiculous) hat with an even larger feather than his last hat and she chuckled at the thought that the large feather indicated that he was most likely compensating for lack of size elsewhere.
She turned her gaze to Captain Shallowgut, consoling herself that if she was to be stuck on a ship with Malachai, a dwarven ship was best as it likely would be floating with a full hold of dwarven ale.
Snow’s hunch about the dwarven ale proved to be correct: it was some of the best ale she had partaken of in quite a while. She soon forgot all about Malachai and her other worries as she and Moog joined a quest with the dwarven crew to sample every cask of ale on board.
As they were busy in one of the holds playing the drinking game, “I Can Stand Up,” Nameless appeared with Ophelia slung over his shoulder, both of them reeking of vomit and alcohol. Snow was confused, the gnoll did not drink, it was then that she saw the stains of overindulgence on his fur and realized that Ophelia was responsible. She turned to Moog muttering, “Amateur.” Moog nodded affirmatively.
Nameless set the drunk sorceress down in front of Baffin, though she immediately leaned to one side and would have toppled backwards had Nameless not reached out to stop her descent. She was obviously excited about something and was trying to speak but her slurred speech baffled everyone.
A puzzled Snow stared at Ophelia, expectantly awaiting the conclusion.
“Pri.. Pris.. PRINCESS!” Ophelia finally blurted and with a smile on her face, she immediately passed out, crumpling to the floor in a heap.
Disappointed at being left hanging, Snow looked to Nameless for a clue but he provided none as he picked up the slack form of Ophelia and placed her in a hammock. Snow turned questioningly to Moog who shrugged in silence and took another slug of ale. In a serious tone, Snow whispered to him, “We really must teach the eladrin how to drink.” He nodded and lifted his cup in a toast.
Snow turned back to the cask and began refilling her cup. The ale was superb, hands down the best ale she had tasted since Alba Torvek’s Ptolus stash. As Nameless finished stowing Ophelia in the hammock, Snow heard Baffin ask him if he wanted to take a tour of the ship. Snow translated that to mean, “explore Hold 4 which is off limits.” She thought that sounded like a fine idea and downing her ale, she refilled one more time determined to accompany them with a full cup but when she turned back the bard and gnoll were already gone. So be it, she thought as she sat back down. There was still a half full cask waiting to be emptied. “Drink up, Moog!”
Snow sat at the bar staring forlornly at the bottom of what had moments earlier been a full mug of ale while Moog, face down on the bar where he had passed out, engaged in his usual cacophonous slumber. When everyone else had retired for the evening, the two companions had entertained themselves with their usual drinking games until the wise barkeep had ended the fun by locking up all the alcohol before heading off to bed. Moog had then decided to pour some green elixir into his ale which knocked him out fairly quickly leaving Snow alone with her thoughts, or so she wished. The voices were yet again encroaching on the recesses of her mind, making it difficult to focus on anything.
“The marmots are dancing on the winter daisies, Snow.”
Snow stared wistfully at the cupboard behind the bar, the one which housed the ale cask, lamenting the fact that she had no lock picking skills. Irritated, she responded aloud, “I don’t give a wererat’s ass if the marmots are stomping on the winter daisies, just go away and leave me alone!”
A voice different from the first quipped, “Can I have the case now?” Snow jerked upright before recognizing the voice as one of the intruders inhabiting her head and not actually that of the imp, though he was a nuisance and she sometimes found it difficult to distinguish between his chatter and that of her internal voices. Snow had been pondering the situation with the imp and now understood why he always asked to touch the case; he wanted to make sure that whatever item occupied the secret compartment remained safe inside. She would think further about that development in the morning after she made amends with Baffin. Nameless had made it very clear that he would no longer tolerate the feuding between her and Baffin which was becoming harmful to the pack.
Wishing her mug were full, Snow sat contemplating her apology to Baffin and trying to ignore the yammering voices when suddenly Jageren began to hum at her side. Feeling eyes upon her back, she slowly turned on her bar stool to look behind her. Sitting at a table in the corner were five men and one woman, all human, watching her closely. She wondered how long they had been sitting there and became uneasy at the fact that she had not heard their entrance. They wore exotic garments the style of which she had never seen before and there was something oddly familiar about the group that gave Snow the feeling she knew these folk, though she was sure she had never seen them before. The female, obviously a woman of sophistication, wore a black gown with an elegant necklace and pendant. She held a whip in one hand and to either side of her was a man dressed in a white soldier’s uniform though Snow did not recognize the military insignia. Both men were fawning over the female as if she were their only reason for living. The other three men were attired in strange raiment, what appeared to be a type of expensive non-military uniform, no doubt they were nobles of some sort. Two of the males were strikingly handsome, while the third, though dressed exquisitely, was rather unattractive compared to his fellows.
The group sat in silence, all of them staring ominously at Snow except for the two military slaves who were busy lavishing over their mistress with rapt attention. Snow felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise as she realized that this was a table of undead. The internal voices were awash in frenzy as Jageren began humming loudly in warning.
Without averting her sight, Snow reached over to shake her sleeping companion. “Moog! Moog, wake up!” Moog made no movement and continued to snore heavily. Snow then remembered that the goliath had spiked his ale with green happy juice which would keep him dead to the world until morning. Slowly, she unsheathed Jageren, keeping the sword pointed at the floor despite his complaints.
The female at the table cracked her whip on the ground, the tip coming within an inch of where Snow sat transfixed, then gave a sinful laugh as she cruelly yanked the hair of one of her slaves tipping his head back and leaning towards his exposed neck. The man moaned in pleasure as his blood trickled onto the collar of his uniform, creating a stunning contrast of red against white. Snow became acutely aware that she was among a group of vampires.
Amidst this dramatic scene, one of the good-looking males pointed at Snow and began talking in Common. “Let me tell you about the time I was transporting two bodies, their names were John and Charles, when the police started giving pursuit. Oh, did I mention that John and Charles were dead? Well, there’s a reason I drive an Audi…” Snow stared at him curiously as he rambled, wondering if Vennman had a brother.
The other good-looking male scrutinzed Snow as she began reciting inaudible prayers under her breath. Ignoring his friend’s chatter, the man said in a voice that was at once both soft and dominating, “Praying to your false god? You should leave the Raven Queen and follow Longinus, the true leader. Join the Lancea Sanctum, for we have been chosen to help fulfill God’s plan.” His eyes bored into her mind and as he beckoned to her, Snow saw that his fingers contained pointed nails which looked to be as sharp as Nameless’s claws. Despite the male’s charismatic good looks, Snow refused to be enlightened by one of the undead. He reminded her too much of Baffin with his smooth talk; she had never heard of a god called Longinus, and Lancea Sanctum sounded like the name of a thieves’ guild, perhaps he would be better off trying to convert Baffin to his cause than a follower of the Raven Queen.
Jageren crooned impatiently and Snow felt a flash of warmth from the tattoo on her arm as Minne cawed a greeting, appearing on the table in front of the group, one red eye surveying Snow the other eye entranced by the vampires. The unattractive gentleman, who up until this point had remained silent in the background, seemed fascinated by the raven’s sudden manifestation and he looked at Minne with curiosity as he spoke in a deep, enchanting voice that, had it been more guttural, might almost have been mistaken for that of Nameless. "In the words of my old friend Poe, ‘In there stepped a stately raven, of the saintly days of yore.’ " His sinister eyes left the bird to rest darkly on Snow. “But where has your young friend gone I wonder, the one who left you?”
A lightheaded feeling washed over Snow at hearing what could only be a reference to Rowan. Trickles of sweat scampered down her face, a cold clamminess building against her skin. She narrowed her eyes, glaring at the vampire, suspicious of how he had known that Rowan had deserted her and how he had even known about Rowan at all.
As if reading her mind, he proudly answered, “Oh, I know a great many things. For instance, I know that you made a deal with a certain imp who is quite displeased with your recent behavior. I also know that you made a pact with an undead necromancer and that is why your little shifter friend left you. And I know that your feathered companion here also is destined to…. fly away to darker skies.” With these last words, he held out his arm and with a caw, Minne jumped onto his outstretched wrist. Snow felt a stab of panic as she tried to cry out a warning and found to her horror that she had no voice, followed by the far worse discovery that she was paralyzed.
The ugly gent smiled at Minne as he stroked the bird’s feathers, then lifted his spellbinding gaze to lock eyes with Snow. “Are you familiar with Edgar Allen Poe? No, of course you are not. That is unfortunate because he was such a brilliant writer. Let me share some of ‘The Raven’ with you. I think you will find it rather…. enlightening.” Minne cawed once then was silent as the homely one began to speak in his mesmerizing voice:
“Nothing further then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered;
Till I scarcely more than muttered, ‘Other friends have flown before;
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said, ‘Nevermore.’ "
In a flash quicker than the eye, the unsightly vampire drew back his arm and before Minne had even time to flutter his wings, the hand of that same arm grabbed the bird. The undead man stuffed Minne’s head into his mouth, tearing into the raven with his teeth, slurping wildly as black feathers scattered across the table. Blood ran down his grotesque chin as he smiled at Snow revealing sharpened canines which crunched the hollow bones of her friend. Reminded of Nameless eating a meal, Snow, unable to move, could only look on in horror as the others laughed at the carnivorous display.
The ugly one licked the blood from his lips saying, "Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’ " A malevolent laugh reminiscent of Phaetos escaped his throat. He pointed a finger at the remains of the bird on the table and Snow watched as the black feathers flew together into the form of her friend once again. Minne squawked in anger, shook himself, and jumped to Snow’s shoulder. She found that she was no longer paralyzed and she could hear vague chatter in the background from her internal voices and Vennman’s “brother.” She glared at the ugly one as he began speaking again. "Forgive me, I will issue an apology and in turn you will issue one to heal your pack.
‘If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.’ "
Snow stared at him oddly trying to make sense of the words that sounded similar to the gibberish rhymes that Baffin often belched forth (sometimes literally so.) In all honesty, Snow did enjoy Baffin’s poems, limericks and songs, she only disliked it when he tried to recite them through a mouth full of meat pies. She thought a moment but it brought her no closer to understanding the words of the undead male.
“Indeed, they are words of a bard very much like your own. Shakespeare. Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the ugly vampire replied to her querying look as if this simple statement was the answer to life’s deepest mystery.
Snow looked at him through a haze of confusion, still unable to comprehend any meaning from this monologue. Was he implying that she was dreaming? What did he mean by “shake spear?” She pointed Jageren towards the window in such a way that the group of undead had a clear view of the shining blade as she said, “In case you have not noticed, it is midwinter not midsummer.” She held Jageren up and said, “This is a longsword not a spear and I will not shake it, though I am inclined to spear it through your body and watch you shake. And for your information, the bard is a better thief than poet.” She did not believe this last sentence, but her anger was growing towards this egotistical vampire. Jageren hummed loudly drowning out the internal warnings of dancing marmots and the jabber of Vennman’s vampiric brother as Snow pointed the sword directly at the ugly one. “Furthermore, I am not dreaming. Who are you and what do you want?”
The vampire replied, "From Richard III: ‘I cannot make you what amends I would, Therefore accept such kindness as I can.’ "
Snow’s confusion and anger mounted as she barked, “Well, Richard, I cannot say that I am pleased to meet you. I do not understand why you spout these words. Explain yourself!”
The ugly vampire tipped back his head and exploded in peals of mirthful laughter. “Ah, you mortals. So uneducated. My name is not Richard. I regret that I must be blunt in order to make you understand.” His demeanor instantly shifted to threatening as he lowered his head and leaned forward, his gaze once again locked with Snow’s. For the briefest moment, the shifter caught a glimpse of Nameless behind the dark eyes that quickly disappeared. The other vampires had stopped their own activities, undead eyes now riveted on the scene unfolding before them. Even the Vennman vampire was quiet. The silence overwhelmed Snow causing the ugly one’s next words to thunder through her skull immediately silencing her internal voices with his dominating threat. “APOLOGIZE TO THE BARD!”
Snow’s raven tattoo blazed with fire, burning her shoulder, the pain almost causing her to drop Jageren to the ground, though her grip held fast. She staggered backwards knocking her barstool to the floor, the bar counter pressing into her back preventing any further movement. Minne squawked, fluttering from Snow’s shoulder to land on Moog’s head. Snow collapsed back against the bar trying to regain her composure, concentrating on her breathing as she began a recitation of meditative prayers. The burning sensation of her tattoo slowly abated, though her arm throbbed with pain and her dry mouth screamed for an ale.
Reverting back to a more normal tone, the ugly one added, “Oh, and give the imp his case.”
The others were quiet for a moment more, then sensing that the theatrics were over, went back to what they had been doing as if there had been no interruption. The handsome Vennman vampire, talking to no one in particular, picked up right where he had left off, “…so we dumped their bodies, John and Charles that is, into the Hudson river….”
He was interrupted by the attractive hound of Longinus. “We looted the bodies first, of course.” He winked at Snow who growled in disgust. Yes, Baffin would make a fine convert.
The female had started satiating her appetite on her other slave leaving the first slumped back in his seat, drained but not dead.
Against her will, Snow was forced to return her sight to the ugly vampire’s face. He sat smiling pleasantly, though his eyes blazed with warning, causing Snow to nod, implying that an apology to Baffin would be forthcoming from her lips first thing in the morning.
Minne cawed, still standing on Moog’s head. Snow turned to look at him and when a moment later she turned back, the table in the corner was empty, of the undead there was no sign. Jageren’s humming had stopped instantly and he remained calm and quiet. She closed her eyes tightly for a moment and reopened them but saw no indication that anyone had been in the room besides herself and Moog. Had the vampires been real or had they been merely visions signaling her accelerated descent into insanity? It certainly had not been a dream but she rarely saw visions other than Minne, Rowan and on occasion members of her old pack. These undead manifestations had shaken her and she wondered if the imp was playing mind games or if perhaps Krystin had somehow been responsible.
Snow looked at Minne. “Were there really vampires in here a moment ago?”
Minne cawed and cocked his head to one side in question then flew off, vanishing without answering.
“Beware the vampire marmots, Snow!” The voices had started in again.
For a moment Snow thought about giving up ale completely but then quickly disregarded that preposterous idea as a foreign thought planted by the intruding voices. She needed a drink and she needed one now. She looked at Moog snoring face down on the bar next to her and picked up his mug of toxic green ale, no longer caring what the happy juice might do her already warped mind, but she was shocked to discover that his mug was empty. She quickly grabbed her own ale mug and peered inside. Empty. A sinking feeling washed over her. She was quite sure that Moog had still had half an ale remaining when he had passed out. She recalled having been tempted to finish his drink but she had been wary of the effects of the green liquid and had abstained. Was her memory compromised? Had Moog finished his ale before passing out or had she consumed the rest of his happy drink by mistake? Was she indeed asleep? Was she in one of the Nine Hells being tormented by undead? Had her reality finally shattered?
From somewhere deep inside her head she heard the ugly vampire’s voice. “You really should read Poe sometime. I think you two would get along quite well. He once said, ‘I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank.’ I think you can relate.”
With that, Snow blacked out.
The Marmots Are Dancing on the Winter Daisies
Snow stood with arms crossed in front of her, fixing Baffin with an undecided stare as the supercilious bard exploded, issuing forth a censure of rage which left the shifter wondering as to what had lit tubby’s fuse this time. The bard persisted in adamantly denying ever having attempted to steal from her or the party, and as Snow listened, Baffin’s blustering voice slowly began to settle into a background tempo allowing the internal voices to commence a discussion inside her head. Some of the voices were familiar while others she failed to recognize, however they all eventually drowned out the half-elf’s enraged barking.
“The chubby one, he’s after your gold, Snow. He’s a thief!” A chorus of whispers inundated her auditory senses. She shrugged indifferently, not concerned with gold or wealth except where ale was involved. She tried to suppress the voices by seizing control of her thoughts in the hopes that by removing their fodder they would be silenced. She recalled the numerous times that Baffin had helped the pack, not only with his skills of healing but also with his generosity when others had needed it most. Although these were points in Baffin’s favor, her attempt to overpower the voices in her head ended in failure as the vocal symphony quickly overwhelmed her, diverting her thoughts.
“No, Snow, do not be fooled so easily. His goodwill is false,” persuaded a deep, bass voice, luring Snow closer, drawing a blanket around her mind.
“He is tricky, that bard is,” an enchanting feminine voice intoned, mesmerizing Snow as she tried to follow it through the muddled fog of her awareness.
“Baffin is a cunning criminal!” piped a child’s high-pitched chirp.
“With your own eyes you saw him steal from Moog. And you caught his hand in your pack. The half-elf oozes greed like a gelatinous cube, absorbing any gold in his path,” crooned the voice of an elderly grandmother.
Below the voices, Snow could hear herself arguing with the bard, the murmurs growing louder and more insistent as she tried to concentrate on the quarrel at hand. Her attention focused on the bulging veins in Baffin’s neck and temples as he continued to rant, quite close to an apoplectic fit.
She could not figure out why Baffin was so outraged. By some miracle, he had finally found something he did not like the taste of —-his own medicine; perhaps it would sober him up for a while. Was he worried that she might find something in his pack that he had pilfered from others in the party? Was his attitude merely an effort to convince himself that he had not intentionally been trying to steal? He had scolded her for not asking for the flask of green liquid before just trying to steal it, yet he was just as guilty of trying to take without asking. Snow had at least admitted her crime unlike Baffin who denied any impropriety. She would keep her distance from him and have Jageren at the ready if she ever found his sausage fingers in her pack or on her person.
She paused in thought, beginning to question herself and wondering if maybe she should give Baffin the benefit of the doubt, after all, it was possible he could be telling the truth. At that moment a voice broke into her consciousness, a young man barely into adulthood chiming, “He will not stop at your gold, Snow. He will go after your ale next,” causing Snow’s ears to perk in alarm.
Snow was puzzled as to why the voices were plaguing her, puzzled as to how they had succeeded in breaking through the inebriated cloud in her mind that normally kept them subdued. They had not been this clamorous and forceful in quite some time and the current level of blood alcohol in Snow’s system should have been enough to keep the mob at bay, yet for some reason they seemed immune. She suddenly felt a wave of claustrophobia wash over the exceedingly crowded space of her mind. The voices began talking over one another, each eager to impart its vital words of wisdom.
“The marmots are dancing on the winter daisies.”
“The case you carry is filled with miniature purple horses.”
“Krystin is a kobold in disguise.”
“The eye of the platypus watches you.”
The first voice, booming and gruff, spoke again in a warning tone. “Snow… stay away from the bard.”
Finally having had enough of the argument and the crowd in her mind, Snow shouted, in part an attempt to be heard over the voices and the other part an attempt to be heard over Baffin’s shouting. “Keep your grubby paws away from me and my rucksack!” She would rather die serving the Raven Queen than let Baffin lay his healing hands on her.
“Fine! I will!” Baffin shouted back.
Vennman, Ophelia, and Moog had kept a respectful distance during the heated exchange of words, but finally, with some caution, they approached the arguing pair. As the eladrin and goliath hung back a step, Vennman ventured forth extending his right arm to the avenger and his left arm to the bard, a small key dangling from the fingers of each hand. “Why don’t you two go to a room to, ah, settle your differences?” He smiled, proffering the keys to Snow and Baffin who both glared at him in silent disgust as if he was a cockroach crawling across a dinner table. Pretending not to notice their hostile looks, Vennman continued smiling and motioned with a nod of his head, “Room L, top of the stairs.”
Baffin snorted in offense at Vennman’s insinuation of any hanky panky happening between him and Snow, and grabbed both keys before stomping off cursing vehemently under his breath. Snow scowled at Vennman who scurried back to the bar but not before reminding her, “Now don’t forget, it’s Room L.”
Snow began grinding her teeth in rage, wondering what in nine hells Vennman had been thinking. She would not be caught dead screwing around with Baffin. The voices echoed her thoughts. “The only game of ‘Hide the Salami’ that tub-o-bard knows how to play is shoving an actual salami down his gullet,” one voice declared as another joined in with, “He is too busy stuffing his face to have time to stuff anything else,” and yet a third, “He’s off to choke the gnome.”
Snow shook her head trying to clear the voices, tired of their constant yammering. She was full of anger and knew of only two ways to cure it, though at the moment there were no nearby souls deserving of an audience with the Raven Queen, so Snow opted for cure number two, heading to the bar where Vennman was busy regaling the barkeep with stories of his childhood.
“Hey! A pitcher of ale over here, please.” Snow called over to the barkeep who looked bored to tears from the wizard’s autobiographical monologue.
He rushed over with a relieved look on his face. “Anything you’d like,” he said thankfully as he placed a full pitcher in front of her.
Snow slid a few silver pieces across the bar. “And I want a shot of your strongest stuff.” The barkeep nodded and pulled a bottle from underneath the counter, pouring an amber liquid into a small cup.
Vennman, despite having lost his audience, continued chatting away as if the barkeep had never left. “So there I was, a young Pelorite at an all-boys school…”
Both Snow and the barkeep glanced over at Vennman then looked at each other. Snow slid a gold piece across the bar instructing the barkeep, “Pour a shot for yourself as well and then leave me the bottle.” He nodded at her gratefully as he set a second small cup on top of the bar along with the almost full bottle.
Snow drained the cup and poured another. The voices were talking in her ear, though with each drink they dulled further into a background drone. Her raven tattoo tingled and suddenly Minne appeared on the bar in front of her, head cocked, ruby red eye staring at her reproachfully. Snow slugged back her drink. “Come on, you know as well as I that Baffin is packed with more shit than a maze full of minotaurs, so don’t give me that look,” she told the raven aloud as he hopped down onto the seat next to her. The barkeep gave her an odd look believing her comment had been directed his way. “Sorry, never mind,” she apologized to him, “I was talking to my friend here.” Snow gestured at Minne standing on the stool next to her. The barkeep looked confusedly at the empty barstool, nodded at the crazed shifter, and hurriedly walked back to Vennman who was obviously the lesser of two evils as he continued his life documentary without pause.
Snow took another drink and thought about her childhood days at the monastery when she and Cloud would sneak alcohol from Brother Samuel’s still. Her twin, Branch, had always been too chicken to try the forbidden drink, but he, Rowan, and Minne often would stand as lookouts while she and Cloud partook of the water of life. She recalled the first time she had sampled the demon punch as a pup. It was lightening on the tongue, a flavor so exotic and mysterious it was like nothing she had ever tasted. The euphoric experience thrilled her, especially when she realized that the voices in her head had ceased, leaving her brain unusually silent. Though the voices were absent, her intoxicated state did not affect Rowan and Minne who both retained their presence.
“Rowan has deserted you,” a mocking voice interrupted.
“The marmots are dancing on the winter daisies.”
“The marsh elves harbor many secrets.”
“Princess Rubble Dog can see the future.”
Even with the voices belting in her head, she could still hear Vennman rambling, “…and so it was my first boyhood crush…” Snow was sure this part of Vennman’s memoir would end badly if a female was involved, no matter that the female in question was probably only 8 years old.
Minne cawed as Snow finished off her pitcher.
“The mirrors of darkness reflect your thoughts,” Shade’s voice whispered in her ear.
Snow sighed, raising her empty pitcher, “Barkeep! Another ale! And one for my friend!”
Snow stood with Moog and Vennman outside the locked front door of the abandoned house as Nameless, Ophelia, and Baffin quietly crept to the rear of the property to examine the status of the back entrance, though Snow mused that with the tub-o-bard in tow, the prowling could hardly be considered a covert operation. Fortunately, no one in the streets seemed to be paying any attention to the shifter, human, and goliath loitering on the front steps of the aged, desolate building.
Leaning with her back against the wall, arms folded in front of her, Snow stared absently at the back of Vennman’s head while he watched the road. She nodded to herself at the truth of Baffin’s discovery of the wizard’s finely shaped noggin as she continued to process the conversation from a few evenings earlier in which Vennman had disclosed that he had once been married. She hoped that she had been successful in masking her shock during his surprising revelation; the idea of Vennman in matrimonial bliss seemed as inconceivable a notion as that of Moog having been married to a dwarf. She could not help but wonder whether Vennman’s wife had been as unstable as the other women in his long list of escapades and, with Samantha coming to mind, Snow hoped he had not always been a lunatic magnet.
She tilted her head back to rest against the wall, looking up at the sky for a moment before closing her tired eyes, her mind absorbed in the task of chasing a wisp of a thought that had been eluding her and tickling her brain since daybreak. Her dreams from the previous night had been strange but not frightening, nonetheless they had left her with an uneasy, foreboding feeling. Upon waking, she had tried unsuccessfully to grasp at the nebulous visions as they had danced just beyond her reach before slowly diffusing in all directions leaving only vague impressions and fleeting images in their wake. She remembered almost nothing except that of a hazy glimpse at the face of her nemesis, Phaetos. Although she was disturbed by the prospect of facing the undead fiend again, and as such had been keeping her distance from Krystin ever since the girl had sent Nameless on a transient journey back to the miasmal pit of the future Ptolus, Snow was certain Phaetos was not the source of her current unrest. She sensed something important needed to be gleaned from her dreams and she was agitated that she could recall nothing, especially as she had listened to Baffin relating his dream of a strange figure carrying a lantern, a dream that somehow felt familiar to her though she could not say why.
She reached inside her cloak to touch the flask of green liquid snuggled comfortably next to her ale flask, reminding herself that she needed to exchange the almost empty ale flask for a full one from her pack. Noting the green flask was safe, she chuckled at the abhorred reaction on Baffin’s face upon discovering the reason for her failed attempt at rummaging through his pack. She found it amusing that he instinctively stole from people yet became appalled when the tables were turned (though to be fair, the only tables he was interested in were those filled with food.) He had called her “Kettle” which made her ponder, wouldn’t that then make him the Pot…. belly? She giggled out loud at the joke causing both Vennman and Moog to turn and look at her curiously. “Sorry,” she apologized, biting her lip to keep from laughing.
She would wait until a later time when she was alone to sample the alluring green contents of the flask. She was hoping the psychedelic substance would open her mind to Rowan once again. She wondered if the liquid would provide a similar experience to that of the mushrooms, that as a child she and Cloud had found in Brother Asa’s medicinal cupboard. Cloud had been swept off his feet with his mind happily flying, reacting in much the same way as Moog, while for Snow, the fungi had merely amplified the number and volume of the usual voices in her head making existence unbearable and haunting her with hallucinations of her dead pack, their bloody hands reaching out to grab at her as their skin oozed maggots. She and Cloud had been chased by a huge dire bear that had shouted at them in Common, which at the time Snow had found odd since she did not think dire bears spoke Common. As it turned out, the dire bear had happened to be Weapons Master Reiner, a most unfortunate insight.
Snow sighed at the old memory, feeling a reminiscent twinge of pain in her backside as she remembered the reprimand they had incurred that day. She reflected that no form of punishment could dissuade Cloud, who had continued to filch the special mushrooms every now and then and had taken every opportunity to sample other promising substances. Snow, on the other hand, had preferred to content herself with sneaking ale from Brother Samuel’s still, for she had discovered that the alcohol calmed the voices in her head, quieting them to mere whispers that she easily learned to ignore.
On that thought she emptied her flask of ale and was reaching down to her pack to resupply when Moog, his mounting impatience having finally reached its limit, suddenly spoke. “They’ve been back there a long time, what do you say we go check on them?”
Snow nodded in agreement, “Sure. Let’s go.” The three had been in the back for quite some time and she hoped they had not encountered any trouble.
As she and Moog walked to the rear of the house, leaving Vennman on guard in front, last night’s dream rushed back to Snow’s consciousness, striking her like a lightening bolt.
It was evening, a full moon shining down. She was riding a small ferry through the canals of Suthegeard, alone except for a quiet hooded figure steering the raft. The ferryman had his back to her, and although she could not discern his identity, he seemed familiar. They drifted along the water, surrounded by complete silence. The city seemed deserted, devoid of life, until she saw upon the shore a tall figure that she knew to be a man. He was cloaked in black with a glowing orb in one hand, possibly a lantern. A hat had been pulled low over the his face, and though Snow could not see his eyes, she knew he was staring at her. He silently pointed at a building, what looked to be a small house. He pointed not with any sense of urgency or portent of doom yet Snow felt those emotions from inside her soul. She knew something about the house was significant. The ferryman continued to guide the raft down the canal yet the dark figure on shore seemed to be always just in front of them pointing at the same building. The landscape changed behind him in the same way that background props on a stage were adjusted behind the actors. As she watched, a black raven landed on the man’s outstretched arm. A red eye studied her. Minne! She opened her mouth to call out but no sound issued forth. She was unable to speak. Snow looked down into the water examining her reflection in the light of the full moon. Upon returning her gaze to the lantern bearer, she saw that he was no longer pointing to the old house. He was now extending a handful of yellow winter daisies in her direction. Her heart jumped then plummeted as she watched the figure release the daisies, now withered. They fell, turning into ash before landing on the ground in a blackened heap. Snow had not noticed any movement from the man on shore, yet he was now pointing at the ferryman. The raven flew to the lantern bearer’s head and grabbed the brim of the hat in its claws drawing it back to reveal the figure’s face. The face of Rowan. As Snow watched, Rowan’s features began to disintegrate, morphing into a skull which disappeared to be replaced by a dancing brilliant light as Minne pulled the hat back over the man’s face. The canal began boiling furiously, transforming into a sulfurous river of lava and brimstone. The ferryman turned toward her throwing back his hood to reveal the face of Phaetos. Snow bared her teeth in a snarl.
“Ah, my dear Snow! I cannot express to you the unbridled joy I am feeling as I look forward to the day of my release. I do hope your lovely face is the first thing my eyes shall behold upon the opening of my crypt.” The silent atmosphere was shattered with the diabolical laughter of the undead necromancer. As quickly as it had started, the laughing ended. The night was once again quiet as death, the canal again flowing with dark water. The ferryman was gone.
Snow inhaled sharply and looked towards the shore at the figure bearing the lantern and pointing to the abandoned dwelling. The raft floated down the canal like a riderless horse heading back home, leaving the stranger on shore to watch her depart, still pointing, darkness issuing from his shadowed face.
Snow felt a sharp sense of dread as the dream came back to her and though the feeling quickly faded, she knew it was crucial to find the old house. She would relay the dream to her friends, leaving out the part about Rowan and Phaetos, of course.
Shades of Death
“RUN!” Snow detected heavy urgency in his voice as Nameless sounded in her ear, the warning echoed inside her head, ricocheting off memories. Though she could not see Nameless from her position at the edge of the enemy’s camp, she could hear his jeering insults, cognizant that he was attempting to occupy the guards in an effort to redirect focus onto himself, allowing Baffin and her an avenue of escape. Snow felt an instinctive call to heed the directive of her packmate yet instead of running, her feet rooted themselves into the ground, entwined by memories that refused to release her. She had been a pup the last time she had heard that word spoken with such imperativeness, when her sire, while distracting human hunters, had barked at her to run; even then her feet, as now, had refused to cooperate. Nameless roared, his hunter’s howl rending the night air, followed immediately by the panicked death shriek of an eviscerated man, evoking within Snow’s mind a vision of an old Sharpfang packmate, Shade, his blood staining the snow as he lay dying, his body pin-cushioned with longswords and surrounded by no less than five mutilated human corpses. Shade had fought to the end in a valiant effort to divert attention away from Cloud and Branch on the night of the massacre. Shade and Snow’s sire, brave hunters both, had defended the pack and now carried on the eternal hunt in the Lady of Winter’s realm.
“RUN!” Nameless sounded again, his voice reflecting insistence this time, jerking Snow out of her daze as she realized the word had transformed from a warning into a demand. She hesitated, unhappy to leave the fight but acknowledging that the case she carried which housed Ragesian battle plans had to be safeguarded at all costs. The party was too close to the Lyceum, too close to completing their task, for her to risk delivering the box back into the hands of the Ragesians, not to mention the risk of punishment she would incur for breaking the contract with that bothersome imp, who would no doubt haunt her for eternity and beyond if she forfeited possession of the case. Aware that it was too late for regrets, Snow cursed her recklessness at embarking upon this reconnaissance operation, then recalled that her ulterior motive in volunteering for the mission was to gain a momentary respite from Krystin and the disturbing compassionate feelings that the little girl elicited. Although Snow trusted her packmates with her life (most of them, anyway) she had not been comfortable entrusting the case to any of those staying behind at base camp; Moog was far from his usual self, Venmann was a step away from capture with his face plastered on wanted posters throughout the land, Ophelia still necessitated caution, and, this close to the Lyceum, Snow suspected Torrent might sneak off on her own with the case, though on a positive note, the cleric would probably take Krystin with her.
Torn between the thrill of a fight and pressing responsibilities, Snow reluctantly accorded that the case was the top priority. She knew Nameless could handle himself, his bloodthirsty taunting of the soldiers fading into the distance as she sprinted off in the direction Baffin had taken. She hoped the tub-o-bard had crossed enough ground before he might again drop to the earth hungering for the taste of dirt pies. Snow had initially wondered why Baffin signed on as the third man for the job when he could have happily busied himself back in camp eating meat pies and crushed rolls, but she had quickly concluded that his greedy appetite for wealth was almost as gluttonous as his stomach’s never ending demand for sustenance. She surmised that Baffin, inhaling the fragrant aroma of treasure as the wagon had first passed on the road, had wanted first hand to see (and to take) the hidden trove for himself. Only minutes earlier, she had seen the lust glinting in Baffin’s wide open eyes, the drool dripping down his chin, as Nameless had displayed the solid gold bar silently filched from the wagon. Snow was not concerned with material wealth (as long as she had enough to buy ale) but she did hope that Nameless had stolen enough gold to keep Baffin’s chubby paws occupied and out of her pack. He was well on his way to becoming the one-handed bard of which the future legends boasted. During their attempt to sneak out of the enemy camp, it was most likely visions of dancing gold bars that had caused Baffin to stumble, sending his well-cushioned body thumping to the ground with a dull thud, alerting the guards as he lay licking dust.
Snow ran at top speed until she was convinced pursuit had ended, then slowed her pace to begin the arduous process of covering her tracks. Careful not to lead the enemy to her packmates, she continued heading in a direction away from the party’s base camp, soon encountering a winded, red-faced Baffin. Taking a momentary rest, Snow tossed back two flasks of ale noticing, as she looked towards the sky, a lone black raven, wings spread in flight. For a moment, her heart surged and she called aloud thinking the raven might be the friend of Rowan. “Minne!” Flying overhead, the raven looked at her, not with the blood red eyes of Minne but rather eyes of black coal, as it cawed at her, continuing on its path in the direction she and Baffin had recently fled.
“What?” Baffin looked confused at her outburst.
Snow racked her brain for a suitable word that rhymed with ‘Minna’, an idea eventually presenting itself, Minna…taur, as she said aloud, “Minotaur shit! That was close! I think they are no longer chasing us, we should head back to camp and wait for Nameless.” She continued to watch the raven in the distance, now merely a speck in the sky as she pondered that they were all just specks in the grand pattern the Raven Queen weaved.
After returning to camp and briefing the rest of the party on the evening’s adventurous exploits, two enemy scouts from the camp they had just plundered (Baffin preferred the word “visited”), confronted the bard, though a successful ambush by the party had left one dead, the other naked and prone, shivering in the snow. Baffin had been questioning the surviving Ragesian-masquerading-as-Dassen-soldier, he and Moog playing good inquisitor, bad inquisitor.
“What friend are you talking about?” asked Baffin, a paragon of innocence.
“Come on, you know who I’m talking about. Your friend, the big furry dog. We killed him.” The man gloated through chattering teeth, sounding quite proud of this achievement until Moog, displaying a surprising amount of restraint, less than forcefully brought the handle of his hammer down on the bastard’s jaw, replacing the smirk with a toothless grimace of pain.
Snow listened, a sinking feeling twisting through the maze of her inner being as she thought about the raven she had seen earlier. Nameless, dead? She murmured a prayer to the Raven Queen to aid his journey, if indeed he had undertaken that journey; she was not inclined to believe this Ragesian scum. Nameless was a tough adversary, a force to be reckoned with, and were it true, no doubt many Ragesians would have met their end before he went down; it would have been a noble death, a hunter’s sacrifice for his pack.
She thought again of Shade’s sacrifice, the reflection interrupted by a slight tickle from the raven tattoo on her arm. The sensation vanished at the exact moment that Minne appeared on her left shoulder. “Minne! I’m so glad to see you! Is Rowan here?” Snow kept her voice low despite her excitement, turning her back to her friends as her eyes searched the forest. Minne cawed once and cocked his head to one side causing Snow to frown at the inference that Rowan was absent.
Snow could hear the man behind her coughing up blood as he described Nameless’s imprisonment, prompted by Baffin’s diplomacy tactics and Moog’s interrogation techniques. “The mage had to bring him back from the dead and now they are torturing him,” he spluttered.
Snow looked behind her at the man who quavered as Moog held the tip of the hammer’s handle between thumb and forefinger, the blade suspended an inch above the man’s face, slowly swinging back and forth, a pendulum of death. Minne flapped his wings and Snow extended her arm as she turned back to face the forest. Minne hopped to her wrist and she looked into his red eye as she whispered, “Is it true what this man says? Nameless walked on the other side?”
Minne cawed twice, affirmatively.
“And the Raven Queen allowed the mage to bring him back?”
Minne again cawed twice and Snow turned to watch him flutter over to peck at the exposed genitalia of the shivering scout pleading for his life.
“I’ll let you go,” Baffin said, laying the man’s neatly folded clothes on the ground beside him. Minne cawed an objection and jumped to the man’s head nibbling at his eyes, though only Snow was aware of it. She glanced over at Moog, watching an ever so slight grin spread across his face as he raised his axe high above his head. It made Snow happy to see Moog smiling again and she tried to suppress a snicker as Baffin’s protest was cut short by the swishing sound of Moog’s axe cutting through the air as it came hurtling down, sending Minne flapping away in a squawking huff, the severed head rolling across the clearing to stop at Ophelia’s feet. Minne gave a loud crow of approval while Baffin’s initial cry of protest ended in an exasperated sigh as Moog danced over to retrieve his prize, the latest medium on which to perfect his art of the letter “M”.
Snow looked on impassively as Minne hopped over to the other dead scout and began pecking at his eyeballs. Questions flitted through her head. Was Nameless still alive? Was the mage powerful enough to bring Nameless back again if the inflicted torture killed him? Would the Raven Queen even let Nameless return a second time as one of the living?
Her thoughts were interrupted by a gruff, long ago familiar voice from somewhere in the dark forest behind her. “Snow.”
She whirled around, drawing Jageren in the same motion, extending her sword before her to face this new unknown threat. She stared in shock to see a tall, thin male shifter standing a few feet away, a distant expression in his eyes.
“Shade?” Snow shook her head in confusion. She had not seen Shade since the night of the massacre, possibly it was her recent thoughts of him that had precipitated his appearance. In some ways Nameless reminded her of Shade, quiet and stealthy, a master hunter driven by his pack instincts. Her sire’s best friend since childhood, Shade had been the quiet sort yet a favorite of all the children and although he had been one of the best hunters, the main title bestowed upon him was that of pack pup-sitter. Snow had many fond memories of Shade and the wooden toys he used to carve. “What are you doing here, Shade?” Snow asked as she lowered her sword.
Her question went unnoticed as his deep brown eyes fixed an intent look upon her, “The gnoll lives, Snow.” With that said, he turned slowly, heading back into the forest, his shimmering form growing fainter with each step.
“Shade! Wait!” The spirit image of Snow’s mind ignored her call and continued walking away from her. She knew talking was futile, he would answer no questions. “Shade! Please tell Rowan that I am sorry. Tell him that I miss him. And tell the rest of the pack that I will join you all when I am finished with my Lady’s work.”
Shade halted, looking back over his shoulder to give her a perceptible nod before he resumed walking. Snow watched him depart until he disappeared in a ray of moonlight then she turned back to the party. Moog was like a child deep in concentration, oblivious of the blood dripping from his hands as he put his finishing touches on the Ragesian’s detached head. The others were busy making preparations to leave, excepting Torrent and Krystin who were watching her closely causing Snow to start when she realized they were staring at her. Torrent’s expression was a mixture of suspicion and confusion; Krystin merely smiled, and before Snow could stop, she found herself smiling back, a most disconcerting response that vexed her greatly.
“I will be glad to hand this case off to the Lyceum and get that damn imp off my back.” Snow said as way of an explanation for her strange behavior of talking to an empty forest. Krystin continued to smile but Torrent narrowed her eyes in skepticism, Snow noting that the cleric remained unconvinced by her story. Torrent already mistrusted the party, believing they would fulfill the prophecy of the Five Traitors, this would add further fuel to the fire but Snow refused to disclose her precarious emotional state. She shouldered past the two, feeling Torrent’s eyes boring holes in her back as she walked towards the rest of the party. “Come on, let’s go get Nameless.”
Snow looked down and fixed an uncomfortably sympathetic gaze on Krystin, who had seized hold of her leg and was now weeping a storm of tears, presumably distraught at the death of her father. The little girl’s display of grief touched Snow with fingers of unease; she was accustomed to sending souls to the foyer of the Raven Queen, not to consoling the survivors. She knew the old man was better off having finally yielded to his induction into the ancestral halls of death, no longer doomed to wander the amorphous path between life and death, ensnared by the gossamer bonds of mortality and suffering. But how could she explain that to one so young? What could she say to ease the sadness of a child who had no one left? She remembered her own childhood pain at watching her pack sent forth to the Queen of Winter’s realm and as she searched her mind trying to recall the words of solace Brother Asa had imparted long ago in his attempt to comfort three young shifters, her thoughts were interrupted by a whimper.
“Please, Snow, take me with you!” sobbed Krystin, clutching Snow’s leg as if it were the only thing grounding her to this world, that upon the moment of separation she would be suddenly whisked into the void. The child’s plea reverberated through Snow’s head, each echo inflicting a torturous stab at the same painful wound in her memories which had been recently exacerbated by her latest nightmare of the massacre. Snow stood in silent reminiscence while Krystin continued her mournful pleading.
“Please, Snow, take me with you! I want to play Hunter and Hunted with you and Branch and the others. Let me hide with you, pleeeeease!” Snow hated it when Rowan whined like a puppy, and to make matters worse, he had affixed himself to her leg, holding on with a bear hug which rendered walking a nearly impossible task, especially in the snow.
Normally, Snow enjoyed her little brother’s company yet this was one of those times when she wanted to play with the other children without him tagging along. The threat of being left behind had triggered Rowan’s customary litany of protest and though she usually grew weary of his yapping, eventually succumbing to his demands, today she was determined to sustain her volition. She stood in the forest looking ahead at a small snow-covered clearing as she shook her leg in an attempt to dislodge Rowan, success evading her as he tightened his grip. She had been trying to ignore him, a most difficult task, and she knew, without even looking down, that he was beaming up at her, all his teeth exposed in a wide smile. She could feel that all to familiar grin nipping at her will power as she fought to resist. “No, Rowan. When spring comes you will be old enough to play but right now you’re still too young.” Unable to escape his grab, Snow remained restrained as she scanned the forest clearing, her eyes landing on a large, seemingly hollow log across the way, which she immediately rejected as too obvious a hiding spot. She peered down at the barnacle attached to her leg, ignoring his smile as with a hint of impatience in her voice she said, “Please let go, Rowan. I need to find a place to hide and I can’t do that with you latched onto my leg like grick tentacles. Why not go play with Cliff while Dam gets supper ready?” She returned her attention to the forest.
Rowan resignedly released his death grip, sighing loudly as he stood up, paying no heed to the snow stuck to his pants. “Cliff is just a baby, he isn’t any fun,” he pouted, running after her as she darted forward to test her concealment underneath a pile of branches.
She climbed out from under the pile after quickly surmising that not only would the dead foliage not provide adequate cover but also she might freeze to death in the snow while waiting for the Hunters to find her. Not wanting to offer encouragement by giving Rowan her full attention, Snow kept her back to him as she said, “I used to think you weren’t any fun, Rowan, and look at what friends we’ve become.” Focusing on the edge of the clearing, she noticed two medium sized boulders with a small gap between and ran over to inspect, Rowan right on her heels.
“If we’re friends, then why won’t you let me play with you, Snow?” Every time she tried to turn away from him, he danced back in front of her, cutting off her escape.
Snow took the only exit available by crawling into the gap and began examining a snow-free depression in the earth between the boulders which once she laid in it, would provide perfect concealment from outside eyes. Excited by her find, she called out to Rowan, “I told you already, you are too young. I’ll play with you later.”
As her head emerged from the gap, Rowan smiled at her, reaching into his pocket to pull out his trump card, a handful of crumpled yellow winter daisies. He could sense her will starting to crumble as he held the limp flowers out to her. “Here, I picked these just for you. I know they’re your favorite!” His mouth was already watering with the taste of victory. Where his big sister was involved, Rowan could usually get his way by counting on persistence, and when that failed, there were always daisies. Snow had a weakness for yellow daisies and fortunately, he had discovered a patch two days earlier, just before the heavy snows had begun.
Snow stopped halfway out of the gap, staring at the daisies thrust in front of her face, her resolve faltering momentarily before she was able to recover and feign disinterest. “Go find Ash. I’m sure he would play with you.” She finished climbing out and stood, shaking loose snow off her legs.
Not yet ready to concede defeat, he ran around in front of her and grinning wildly held out the daisies with both hands. Snow paused for a moment to look at him, then silently shook her head from side to side before returning to the task of brushing snow off her clothes. Rowan let his arms drop to his sides, the daisies hanging limp in his hand as he screwed up his face in disgust. “Ash is just a pup.”
Snow stopped mid-brush, lifting her eyebrows and dropping her chin to give him an adult’s disapproving look as she childishly scolded, “Rowan, you are not even one full moon older than cousin Ash!” He frowned at her as she continued. “Then go ask Grandsire Pinecone to tell you a story.” She ran around the clearing making multiple sets of jumbled boot prints in the snow, ensuring none would lead directly to her hiding spot.
Rowan stuffed the daisies back in his pocket and kicked the snow in exasperation. “Grandsire Pinecone is crazy! He talks to imaginary forest animals. I want to play with yoooou.” His whining began anew as he realized his petitioning was not meeting with the usual positive results.
“Shhh! I am the ‘Hunted’ and you are making too much noise,” Snow admonished as she crawled back into the gap. “Go on back to the den!”
Rowan lowered his voice to a loud whisper as he leaned forward, crouching at the entrance to the gap. “Please let me hide with you. I promise to be quiet!”
She gave him a doubtful look. “You said that last time and the Hunters found our hiding place in less time than it takes rabbits to make babies.”
He hung his head in disappointment, genuinely regretful. “Sorry, Snow.”
She had not intended to hurt his feelings and a pang of guilt struck her. Something tugged at her instincts causing her to pause in thought and she almost relented but then reminded herself of her promise to remain resolute. “I’d let you hide with me, but there’s only room for one in here, we both won’t fit.” This was not completely true, but it would have been a tight fit and Rowan was a fidgeter which would make for an uncomfortable time. For a moment, she felt some unknown terror prowling the edges of her mind but it quickly faded into the murky depths of her child’s gray matter, nevertheless, she paused a second time to reconsider. Perhaps she should let Rowan hide with her. It would certainly make things more interesting. Most of the time she hid so well the Hunters could rarely find her (they were just silly boys, after all) unless Rowan was with her to give away their hiding spot with his incessant chatter. But once again, she told herself this was one time that she would refuse to be coerced by her younger brother, despite her guilt filled heart. “Why don’t you go back to the village? After supper we can play knucklebones or something, okay? We’ll get Branch to play with us too.” Snow felt a deepening mood of remorse at sending him away.
His face lit up with a smile, green eyes sparkling. “Really?”
Snow had never understood his fascination with such a boring game of chance but knucklebones was his favorite so she would indulge him. “Yes. But for now you have to go back to the den.”
“Sure, Snow! I’ll go back and help Dam with supper while I wait for you.” He jumped up and began to walk backwards, trying to wipe clear his boot prints.
Snow was shocked at the unexpected ease with which she had placated Rowan, her guilt melting away as she watched him leave. “Hurry, and don’t let any of the others know where I am!”
“Okay!” He bounded off in the direction of the village, stopping at the forest’s edge to look back and wave at her, heedlessly yelling in his loudest voice to make sure she could hear him, “Bye, Snow! See you at supper! And I promise not to tell anyone that you’re hiding in the gap between the two big boulders!” He turned and ran towards the den.
“Ugh!” Snow’s palm slapped her forehead and she groaned in exasperation at just how oblivious Rowan could sometimes be. She had just enough time to find a new hiding place, suddenly remembering an old badger hole on the other side of the forest that was probably big enough for both her and Rowan. For a moment, she thought about calling to Rowan, letting him hide with her, but she realized he was probably already halfway back to the village. She would let him hide with her next time…
But there would be no next time. Snow mused about her biggest regret in life. If she had not sent him away, if she had only let Rowan hide with her that afternoon, he might still be alive. She shivered as winds of guilt whipped at her with their scourging tendrils.
It had taken many years of prayer and meditation as a disciple of the Raven Queen before Snow had finally accepted the destiny of her old Sharpfang pack, nevertheless, a child’s vengeance still burned in her heart, a fire that would not be quenched until the murderers had been repaid in kind. Although she had eventually found peace with the idea that her pack had achieved tranquility, there remained one whose death she could not reconcile. As an adult, she understood what she could not fully comprehend as a child, that any attempt to save Rowan from the yellow haired man would have resulted in her own death as well. Her little brother’s only reprieve had been in her hands, and though she knew the Raven Queen was the spinner of fate, a child’s sorrow and guilt had led Snow to shoulder the blame for Rowan’s death and carry with her into adulthood the regret of having sent him back to the village. The trauma of the massacre had left her mind cracked and broken, a state from which she would never fully recover.
Snow returned from her thoughts to look down at the little girl clinging to her leg and she gasped to see Rowan there instead, staring up at her with wide, imploring eyes as he begged, “Pleeeeeeease, Snow! Take me with you or I’ll DIE!” Snow felt her world begin to tremble and weaken, and she shut her eyes tightly, willing the vision to leave as she tried to shut out the small voice, now tapering to an entreating whisper. Snow opened her eyes to venture a look down. Rowan was gone. Once again, it was Krystin attached to her leg pleading, “Pleeeeeeease, Snow! Take me with you or everyone will DIE!”
Snow felt a sudden, gripping fear for the child, though she was uncertain if the apprehension was for Krystin or for the doom that possibly lay on the path ahead. Fear was an unfamiliar emotion for this agent of the Raven Queen. Perhaps it was merely guilt assuming another of its aspects in the hopes of pushing Snow over sanity’s edge to tumble into the dark abyss beyond if she should choose to abandon the girl in Dassen.
Even before the demise of the girl’s father, Snow had felt that they should take the child to the Lyceum to prevent the total disaster that could occur should Krystin fall into the hands of Leska, who might have the means to shape her into a powerful weapon. Vennman was fascinated by the girl’s magical abilities and Torrent was adamantly opposed to leaving the child behind, but they were at odds with the rest of the party.
For obvious and quite valid reasons, Moog did not like the girl. Snow glanced over at Moog, who was busy drinking himself into oblivion in his self-destructive search for peace, a search with which Snow was well acquainted. She considered dragging her child-laden leg over to the bar to join him in his quest but her attention was caught by the sounds of an irate Baffin, his usually sonorous voice degraded to a growl as he argued that their duty was complete. They had escorted the girl and her father through the fire forest and he now wanted to leave the girl in Dassen before she caused them any more trouble. Nameless tolerated Krystin merely to follow the wishes of the rest of the pack, and like Baffin, he was angry at the girl for what she had done to Moog. On some level, Snow agreed with them, but she was caught between feelings of anger for the child’s apparent lack of control over her powers and reluctance at leaving the girl behind.
With these conflicted feelings in mind, Snow contemplated their new companion, Ophelia Moonblood. Upon first meeting, Snow’s intuition had encouraged her to respect and even to like the sorceress but in light of her current slipping state of reality and Nameless’s initial uncertainty of one so like a “dagger ear”, Snow was wary of her own assessments. She trusted the gnoll, his suspicious judgment of Ophelia determining that for the time being, Snow would remain cautious as well. She was curious to what extent the eladrin understood the dangerous depths of Krystin’s magical powers and how Ophelia felt about taking the girl along on their journey to the Lyceum.
Snow’s thoughts returned to Krystin as she wondered why she harbored any compassion for the girl. It was a common occurrence for children to lose their parents, she should not be concerned about the welfare of one small child, especially since this little one was not part of her pack. Perhaps she was simply projecting her guilt for Rowan onto the girl. She realized that taking Krystin along would provide neither redemption for her conduct with Rowan nor ease her conscience, yet a sense of guilt pervaded her soul at the thought of leaving the child in Dassen.
In an attempt to gain control over her rationality, Snow reminded herself that no matter what Krystin’s outside appearance, she was a dangerous creature that required delicate handling. The thought that the old man’s tyrannical rule no longer overshadowed the girl yanked at Snow’s brain causing her to wonder if Hayden had somehow been keeping Krystin in check with his domineering influence and, if so, what would now happen in his absence. Snow looked down at the frightened child, and despite her misgivings, became aware of an unwelcome feeling of affection for the girl, the kind one felt when handling a puppy or kitten. Acknowledging this feeling rattled Snow to the core, providing further evidence of her emotional decline.
She scanned the tavern but neither Rowan nor his raven friend, Minne was there to provide any guidance. Snow again looked at Krystin and sighed, hoping she was not making another detrimental mistake, wondering if she would live to regret taking the girl with them.
Massacre of the Mind
Moog looked like a man condemned, a man who had lost all purpose, a man who had been dragged through hell and as such no longer cared what the fates held. In the only expression of sympathy she could conjure, however feeble, Snow gingerly extended one of her last ale flasks towards the goliath. “Drink up, Moog.” Her voice was small as she looked up into the forlorn, empty eyes that had not so very long ago sparkled at the intoxicating thrill of spilling Ragesian blood. She realized her gesture was insufficient but she was also woefully aware that no words existed which could soothe his anger, his pain, his emptiness. Silently, Moog accepted the proffered flask and downed the contents in a single gulp, thrusting the empty container back at her. She would have gladly given him her last remaining flask of ale had she thought it would grant him even a single moment free of despair, however, she knew that it could not. The winds of time would gust through many seasons before alcohol would be a strong enough stallion to carry away the beast of memory, and even then, the beast was destined always to return.
Snow sat guard in the small clearing which was encircled by flaming trees, the others sleeping as far away from Crystin as was possible with the exception of Moog who sat with his back to the group, staring out into the fires of the forest, perhaps seeking memories of his lost family among the incinerating glow of the dancing flames. She looked at the back of Moog’s head, searching her soul for any words of comfort, finally throwing up her hands in defeat. There was nothing that could be said to a man who had just been ripped through time, torn from his family. Ten years he had lived with the dwarves, marrying, having children, creating a new life. Snow had not even known ten years with her birth pack before they had been taken from her. Initially, Moog had most likely grieved the loss of his Ptolus pack before finding happiness with the dwarves. Now, through no fault of his own, he had been forced to abandon his family and was mourning yet again, though no doubt this time a much stronger sense of loss prevailed. Although Moog had returned to his friends, Snow realized that after ten years she and the others were probably more akin to strangers than to the Ptolus pack he had once known. The party had recovered Baffin but now they had lost Moog.
Looking for a distraction, she wondered what ten years drinking dwarven stout had done for Moog’s alcohol tolerance. His blood had presumably become accustomed to stout and given his mass, she guessed he could now undoubtedly drink her under the table. She would have to challenge him to a drinking contest at the first sign he was past his initial suffering. A horrific thought occurred to her then, bringing with it a wave of nausea. What if Moog had spent ten years in Diamondheart’s kingdom drinking goblin slobber stout? Her sympathy for him doubled and despite the oppressive heat, Snow felt goose bumps forming on her skin, small shivers coursing through her body. She would rather visit the ninth hell than have to drink that crap for ten days let alone ten years. She consoled herself with the thought that possibly Moog had lived in another dwarven domain, or perhaps there was hope that Diamondheart’s stout would see an improvement over the next fifty years preceding Moog’s arrival, if indeed, that was where he had gone.
Absent were the chattering songs of crickets and birds, the only sound was the incessant crackle of the screaming fires. Snow scanned the surrounding forest for any signs of threat, her hands, which had long ago claimed independence from her eyes in matters of her sword, required no supervision in avoiding cuts as they instinctively polished Jageren’s sharp blade with a strip of oiled cloth. The heat emanating from the metal blade scorched her fingertips, though Snow, distracted as she was, seemed not to notice. Moog’s anguish intensified her own pain and emptiness. She had spent the last few hours peering vainly among the burning branches for any sign of Rowan or Minne, but all she had seen were the contorted death visages of her Sharpfang pack shimmering in the radiant heat of the flames.
Orienting her gaze first on the despondent Moog, who continued his silent mourning, she looked next to her slumbering companions. The tormented Vennman cried out in his sleep as the many women of his past paraded through his dreams torturing him with memories, the crazed exes toying with his male ego. Nameless was a dark ball of fur with twitching ears, the reflective glow of the too close flames gave his thick coat a bluish cast while every now and again, his claw darted forward to swipe at an invisible menace. Baffin whined in protest as his sleep-eating was terminated by the swallowing of his final imaginary meat pie. In his sleep, he patted down his pockets and sighed with relief, most likely touching upon a moldy roll. They were all dealing with their own personal demons.
She glanced over at the sleeping form of Crystin, so lamb-like curled up next to her father, such guilty innocence. Most of the party were doubtless regretting the decision to take the girl and her father along, Snow included, yet she knew what would have happened had they not. The demons of the inquisition would have had their way with Crystin, and showing no mercy, would have forced her to watch the slow torturous death of her father. Snow trembled remembering the brutal scene of her own sire’s death and instinctively she reached for her last flask of ale but checked herself, hand on the stopper. There would be no more ale after this and they still had, at minimum, another day and a half through the forest. She bit her lip in strained indecision and finally guided her hand to one of the flasks she had filled with water from the springs. She took a drink, picking strands of gnoll fur from her tongue as she cursed Nameless for not waiting until their flasks were filled before jumping into the spring.
She wondered at the possibility they might actually have died at the hands of Phaetos, their souls now existing in hell, punishment for making a pact with the undead. Sweat poured off her in the stifling heat, she was a crab dropped into a boiling pot of water. Her clothes felt as if they had melted into her skin and as she watched embers falling from the branches of the trees, she had a difficult time imagining that the blazes of hell could be any more intense. She would certainly be in hell once the last of her ale was gone and she shuddered to think of an eternity without ale.
Hours later, when Torrent came to take her turn at watch, Snow contemplated staying awake, however, she was exhausted and looking into the fire forest only reminded her of the flaming ruins of the mountain village she had left. What did it matter if Crystin transported them from one hell into another? Snow chuckled sarcastically at the thought that maybe the girl could transport her to the past, to a time before her pack’s massacre. Yielding to indiscretion, she drank down the last of her ale, bitterly tossing the flask aside as she carefully arranged her pouches of gold beneath her clothing, determined to sleep atop her money in an effort to protect it from the Chub-bard’s sausage fingers. She found a place close to the rest of her pack and sank to the ground in the suffocating heat, hand closed over Jageren’s hilt, waiting for sleep to overtake her and when it did, it brought dreams and memories no happier than those of Vennman.
A sampling of cheerful bird songs awakened Snow and she opened her eyes to find herself on her back in a clearing, staring at streaks of blue sky peeking through a forest canopy of green. A vision of burning trees momentarily flashed through her mind addling her already scattered thoughts and she tried to grasp at the meaning, but it fled from her in haste. She turned her head from side to side seeing none of her allies, though a few paces away was the back of a leather clad figure. Snow silently reached for her sword, unable to suppress a cry when she realized Jageren was not at her side. She quickly propped herself up on her elbows and looked frantically around for her weapon as the figure, having heard her yelp, approached her in an unthreatening way carrying a tin cup. “Ah, you’re awake at last!”
As he neared her, she saw the features of a young shifter in his mid-twenties, a longsword resting in a scabbard at his side. Recognition was fashionably late and when it finally did arrive, Snow was still not entirely convinced. “Branch? What are you doing here?” She had no idea where “here” was, but she would never have expected to see her twin brother.
“Well, I see the fever did quite a number on you if you mistake Branch’s ugly mug for mine.” The shifter laughed, crouching down beside her to offer her the cup, and it was then she noticed his mischievous green eyes, the corners crinkled from grinning. Snow’s heart skipped a beat and she stared in bewilderment. Her voice choked, “Rowan? Is it really you?”
“Of course it’s me, you silly mooncalf! Who else were you expecting? Unless, of course, you plan to insult me a second time by calling me Branch, or even Cloud.” He laughed again, this time with a deep growl that sounded not at all like the high pitched squeals Snow remembered from the Rowan of her youth. But that Rowan had seen only six summers, she reminded herself.
She felt as faint and confused as she had in Phaetos’s demesne. Her thoughts swirled making it impossible to keep anything straight. The atmosphere felt real, not dream-like, but how else could she explain the grown-up Rowan sitting before her? As Snow scanned her surroundings she had a vague recollection of a burning forest and sweltering heat, though it was a far off memory that seemed a lifetime ago. After a few moments of failed attempts to find her bearings, she bluffed a tone of certainty. “You died in the pack massacre. Where is Minne?”
His smile transformed into a confused frown. He gave her an anxious look, a twin to the look Branch used to give her when she had talked to the imaginary Rowan. He touched her forehead feeling for the heat of fever, explaining, “I did not die in the massacre, Snow. We were playing Hunter and Hunted with the other children when the massacre happened. You and I were hiding in the badger hole, remember?” He paused for affirmation but was awarded with only a blank stare so he continued. “You, Branch, Cloud, and I were the only survivors of the attack. Don’t worry, your memory will return shortly. You’ve had a wicked fever for the last two days but it finally broke this morning. Don’t you remember taking that nasty jab in the side from the goblin spear, which, I’ll have you know, was poisoned? You fell quickly into a fever but not before you beheaded the nasty little creature with Jageren. As for Minne, he’s right here.” Rowan held out his right arm palm up, showing her the tattoo on his inner forearm, a black raven with a red eye.
At the mention of Jageren, Snow sat up abruptly and winced with pain as she looked down at the stain of blood seeping through the bandage covering her right side. “Jageren! Where is he?”
“Calm down, Snow. Jageren is right over there.” Rowan patted her shoulder gently and after setting the tin cup on the ground, walked to a nearby tree to retrieve the sword propped there. Using two hands, he carefully laid Jageren next to her, crouching down again to offer her the cup. “Have a drink, it will make you feel better.”
Snow reached for her sword, relaxing somewhat as her hand made contact with the hilt. Again, she looked around, sensing that things were not quite right but unable to pinpoint the source of her disturbance. She looked into the twinkling eyes of Rowan as she took the cup and although she was not the least bit suspicious, out of habit she sniffed the contents. “What is this?” she queried, not immediately recognizing the smell.
“Water,” Rowan replied, gazing at her strangely.
“Water?!” Snow grimaced, her face puckering as if he had just fed her a poisoned lemon. “What are you trying to do to me? Where is the ale?”
Rowan, scrutinizing her serious expression, burst into laughter, falling backwards from his crouched position to writhe on the ground. Snow, failing to see the humor, stared at him, puzzled by his behavior. When he regained his composure, he sat up hugging his knees. “Ha! I see the fever did not rob you of your sense of humor. The day I see you take a sip of alcohol will be the day you stop serving the Raven Queen.”
Snow was perplexed until the horror revealed itself. What did he mean she did not drink ale? Suddenly, in a rare moment of sober clarity, a thunderclap of memory smacked her hard upside the head. She called out in panicked fear, “Where are my friends? Nameless, Vennman, Moog, Baffin?”
Rowan stopped laughing, his carefree face now clouded with concern. “They are in Ptolus, Snow. That is where you and I were headed when we got ambushed by those goblins. Don’t you remember we were heading back to Ptolus after our visit to see Brothers Asa, Reiner, and the others at the monastery?”
Her left hand still grasped Jageren’s hilt, refusing to let go. “I saw you die, Rowan. Right there with Dam and Sire and Cliff. You were not in the badger hole. I would not let you hide with me, remember? Remember? I sent you back to the den. I was alone in the badger hole.” Her voice was frenzied, frightened, as she tried to convince Rowan. Or was it herself she was trying to convince? Her hands began shaking.
“Come, lie down. You need to rest.” Rowan gently guided her back to a lying position, reaching into his tunic to retrieve something. “Here, perhaps this will help you feel better. I picked it earlier when you were asleep.” Rowan pressed a yellow flower into her right hand, a daisy, her favorite, as he said, “Remember when we were pups, I used to try to bribe you with daisies to let me play with you and Branch?” His smile returned. He put a cold, wet cloth on her forehead and patting her cheek, motioned to a nearby log. “Rest now, I’ll be right over here.”
She closed her hand tightly over the daisy, feeling the smooth petals in her hand as memories began flooding her mind. Her side hurt horribly as she shut her eyes in concentration. The last thing she remembered was the fire forest, Torrent relieving her of watch. Had there even been a fire forest or had it merely been delirium from the fever? Her body no longer felt the sizzling heat of the fires, it was now her mind that was simmering in a pot of chaos. It had to be a dream, yet she was not confident that she was truly lucid. Logic and reason did not exist in dreams. In the dreamscape, one went along with the outrageous, never realizing when things did not make sense. Linear thought that belonged to the waking world gave way in dreams to the spiraling twists and turns of irrational cognition and the dreamer was never the wiser until waking. She thought of Crystin, wondering if it was possible to have been transported in time, yet this could be no future or past that she knew. She had seen Rowan die, he had not been with her in the badger hole, she was sure of it… or was she? Her muddled mind felt like someone had opened the top of her head and stirred her memories with a spoon. She traveled into a deep meditative state, unhappily reliving the day of the massacre.
I’m tired of drawing dumb old pictures in the dirt. I’ve been hiding down this smelly badger hole forever and they still haven’t found me. Why do I always have to be the prey when we play “Hunter and Hunted”? Is it because I’m the only girl who wants to play with all the silly boys or because I’m the youngest in the play pack? I’m only the youngest by a wolf’s growl. How can I help it if Branch was born a minute before me? But still they all treat me like a pup. Stupid cousin Cloud. Just because he’s seen two winters more than me he thinks he knows everything. And Branch follows him around like an unweaned puppy. I can’t wait for next winter when Rowan will finally be old enough to play with us. Then I can switch to playing a Hunter and Rowan will be stuck as the Hunted until pups Cliff and cousin Ash are old enough to play.
It’s too quiet in here, maybe if I start humming a shifter lullaby that will help them find me. This is boring! Did they forget they were supposed to be looking for me? The sun will go down soon and it’ll be time for supper. I’m getting hungry, I wish they would hurry up. I should have let Rowan come along and hide with me, then at least I would have had someone to keep me company. I bet they gave up again. I hide so well they can’t ever find me. And they call themselves “Hunters.” Stupid boys.
What? Was I asleep? I don’t remember falling asleep but that far away shouting and screaming must have woken me up. Wait, is that barking and howling? I poke my head out of the hole, maybe they gave up looking for me. The sky is glowing like dawn near the village. Have I been sleeping all night? No, the sky above me here is dark so it can’t be dawn yet but what else would make the sky glow? Is that fire? I have never seen one so big. Can fire lick the sky like that? Where’s it coming from?
I run through the woods heading back to the den but stop when I get to the edge of the village. The whole village is on fire. There are people running everywhere, shifters and… humans? What are humans doing here? Shifters are in beast form, growling, barking, howling, and I hear shouting and yelling from the humans. I can smell smoke and anger but I smell fear and death the most. Fear and death are what rabbits and deer are supposed to smell like, not shifters! What’s happening? There’s another strange smell in the air but I don’t know what it is.
I walk closer. There’s Dam! She’s running in my direction holding Cliff closely to her breast and pulling Rowan along by his hand. There’s a human male running after them with something shiny in his hand. I can see it glinting in the moonlight. Is that a longsword? What’s going on? Why is the human chasing them with a sword? I start running to her yelling, “Dam? Dam, over here!” She’s shouting at me, “Run, Snow!” It looks like she’s crying. I can smell her fear. She turns away from me and runs to the left. I stop where I am. I don’t understand why she’s running away from me. And why is the male chasing her?
“Snow!” Rowan calls out for me as he breaks away from Dam’s hold and starts running to me. Dam stops for a moment watching Rowan and then yells something at the man and continues running away from me. The man ignores Rowan and keeps chasing Dam. He catches up and pokes his longsword at Dam. She drops Cliff and falls down. The snow is turning red where she fell. Cliff is crying but Dam doesn’t move. I’m confused. The red snow is spreading. Is that blood? “Mamma!” I cry out. She still doesn’t move. Maybe Dam can’t hear me. “MAMMA!” I howl louder. The male looks over at me as he sticks the sword into Dam again. Rowan is still running to me but he’s stumbling and sinking in the snow. I reach out my arms. I need to go help him but my feet won’t move. The man is still standing over Dam but he takes something from his belt and throws it. It hits Rowan in the shoulder. “SNOW!” Rowan screams and falls face down in the snow. I howl, “ROWAN!!!” I can’t move. It feels like the earth is holding my feet, they’re heavy, too heavy to lift. Rowan squirms in the snow trying to get up.
The human male walks up and jerks Rowan to his feet squeezing his hurt arm. Rowan screams. The man is tall and he has yellow hair on his head and face. I can smell his strange smell on the wind. He smells different than other humans I’ve met before. The other humans smelled a lot like shifter but this man smells different. I don’t like the smell. The man smiles. He looks evil. Rowan is crying. The man motions to me with his longsword. “Come here, little shifter. I will not hurt you. No need to fear me. Your friend is hurt, come help him.” I have to go help Rowan but I’m too scared to move. “Snow!” Rowan is crying my name. The man gets mad. He shakes Rowan and tells him to shut up. He yells at me to come over there or he’ll kill Rowan. The man picks Rowan up with one hand and holds him out and his other hand puts the tip of the longsword against Rowan’s back. “Snooow. Heee-ll-p mmeee, Sss-noww.” Rowan sobs making it hard for him to talk. I have to go over there, otherwise the man will kill him. I can hear Cliff crying still. I’ll go help him after I help Rowan. I try to lift my foot but I can’t. I look down. I’m not stuck in the snow, so then why won’t my feet move? “I can’t move! Please!” I yell to the man. “No matter,” he says and then he plunges the sword through Rowan’s back. “Snoooooooow!” I see the tip come out Rowan’s chest and he stops moving and slumps. Rowan? I’m shaking. I can’t talk. Blood is pouring down Rowan’s front. The man sets the sword tip on the ground and steps on Rowan’s back as he pulls his longsword free. Rowan doesn’t move. The snow around him turns bright red, just like it did where Dam is lying. My mind is confused.
The man laughs at me and walks back to stand over Cliff who’s swaddled in his bear fur. That’s the same bear fur that Dam used for Boulder then Silt then Branch and me then Rowan. I want to run to Cliff but my feet will not move, just like they wouldn’t move to help Rowan. Cliff is squealing. The yellow haired man raises his longsword with both hands and brings it down hard on Cliff. Cliff stops crying. “CLIFF!” I choke out a howl. Why is he hurting Dam and Rowan and Cliff? The man looks at me and laughs. It’s a loud laugh and the only thing I can hear. I know there’s still barking and howling and yelling going on but the only thing I can hear is his evil laugh. The male lifts his sword and flings Cliff’s body at me. It lands too far away from me. I am so scared but I can’t move. I can only look at Rowan and Cliff and Dam. The male walks towards me still laughing. He points his sword at me. “You are next, little shifter.” I can hear his boots crunching in the snow but I can’t run. I see someone furry running up behind the man. It’s Sire! He’s shifted into wolf form. I see blood on his fur. Is he hurt? He growls and jumps on the man’s back knocking him down. But now two more of the humans are coming. One has an axe and the other has a longsword like the yellow haired male’s. “Papa! Behind you!” Sire looks up at me and barks, “Run, Snow! Quickly!” Why won’t my feet move? I have to help him! Sire is biting and tearing at the yellow haired male on the ground but the others are there now. I howl out to him. “I’m coming Papa! I’m coming to help you!” Sire howls at me, “No, Snow! RUN! NOW!” He doesn’t know that I can’t move. But now someone is running at me from the side. I can’t turn my head away from Sire but I see someone out of the corner of my eye. I’m so scared. What if it’s another human? The shape is next to me now and grabs my arm. It’s Cloud! “Come on, Snow. We have to get out of here! NOW!” I resist his pull, telling him, “But I have to help Sire!” Cloud smacks my face hard. “It’s too late, he’s dead! They’re all dead! Move!” I see Sire fall to the ground. The other two males are cutting at him with their sword and axe. The moon shines on the dark snow. It’s blood red. Sire stops moving. White powder is falling around us everywhere now. Soon it will cover the bodies. I want to howl but I have no voice. My heart feels heavy like a rock sinking in a pond. Everyone is dead? I don’t understand. What about my other brothers, Boulder and Silt? What about Alpha Oak and the pack Elders? They can’t be dead! I feel like I am underwater. It’s hard to breathe. My mind is fuzzy. I have trouble thinking. Cloud pulls me and my feet finally move. Cloud says, “Branch is waiting for us. We have to hurry!” Branch is alive! I feel a small warmth in my chest. The rest of me feels like heavy mud at the bottom of the pond. I turn a last time to look at Rowan’s crumpled body. The yellow haired male is getting up. He’s bleeding. He points at me and Cloud. I hear him say something but I can’t understand what he says. The other two men start coming after us, their weapons are dripping blood. I tug on Cloud’s shirt. He sees them too and we start running faster into the woods.
Someone grabs me from behind as I run by a tree. It’s one of the humans and he’s going to hurt me! I try to yell but a furry hand clamps over my mouth. “Shhh!” I hear someone say. This doesn’t smell human, this smells like shifter. It’s Elder Wind! And Branch is with him! “Shhh! Quiet, Snow,” Elder Wind whispers in my ear. Cloud tries to catch his breath as we huddle behind the tree. I hug Branch. The snow is falling harder now. Elder Wind sneaks a glance around the tree and says our tracks are being covered by the snow. We wait until we hear the men’s voices far away and when we can’t see their torches anymore we start running deeper into the forest.
We finally slow down to a walk. Branch is crying. I want to cry but no tears come. My heart cries instead. Elder Wind is hurt, I can see blood seeping through his shirt but he says he’s fine. We walk for a long time. It’s dark and I’m scared and hungry and tired. It’s a full moon tonight and some of the light shines down on us through the trees. I’m not warm even though the snow is so cold it burns. I can’t feel my toes anymore. Maybe they broke off like icicles and I didn’t notice. The snow is blowing hard and makes us colder. I don’t know what’s happening. I can’t think anymore. In my mind I hear Rowan calling out my name and my heart breaks but still no tears will come. I imagine the yellow haired man and his longsword. I’ve never hated anyone before but I now hate the yellow haired man. I want to kill him.
I want to stop and lie down but Elder Wind says we don’t have time. Cloud helps me to walk but Branch starts falling behind. Elder Wind picks Branch up and carries him. This slows Elder Wind down making it easier for Cloud and me to keep up. Sometimes Elder Wind stumbles in the snow. We’ve been walking forever. I tell Cloud I want to sit for a while and I’ll catch up with them but he says no, that I have to keep walking. Elder Wind puts Branch down. Branch seems stronger than before and he’s able to walk better now. Elder Wind picks me up and starts walking again. I can hear his heavy breathing and I smell his scent. It smells like sadness and pain. I rest my head on his shoulder and close my eyes.
I open them a moment later and lift my head to look over Elder Wind’s shoulder. I see dark shapes following us in the forest. Is it the humans? I’m too tired to be afraid. I don’t care if I die, then I’ll be with Dam and Sire and my brothers. The shapes move closer and I see they’re shifters. It’s our pack! They’re alive! But they look funny, I can see the through them in the moonlight. Their faces look sad. I squirm in Elder Wind’s arms and try to call out to them but I have no voice. I see Rowan chasing after us. Rowan is alive! He’s holding something out to me as he runs but I can’t tell what it is. Our oldest brother, Boulder, walks up behind Rowan and picks him up in his arms so that we’re at the same height now. They are so close I can almost touch them! Now I can see that Rowan is holding out a yellow daisy for me. I twist in Elder Wind’s arms as I reach out to take the daisy. I try to touch Rowan but Boulder stops walking and my hand touches air. The rest of the pack stops too. They watch me as I move farther away. It’s quiet, no one is talking. The only sound is the heavy breathing of Elder Wind, Branch, and Cloud. I tap Elder Wind’s shoulder to get his attention but he keeps walking. I look for Sire and Dam and Silt. I see them! Dam is holding Cliff and Silt is standing next to Sire. I finally find my voice. “Mamma! Papa!” They are alive! But why don’t they say anything? Why does everyone look so sad? I look at Rowan in Boulder’s arms. Rowan is waving to me. We’re getting further and further away. I cry out to Elder Wind to stop, but he doesn’t hear me and keeps walking. I clamp the flower in my fist so I won’t lose it as I struggle in Elder Wind’s arms. “Put me down! Rowan! Dam! Sire!” I can’t get loose from Elder Wind’s grip. I hear Elder Wind calling me now, “Snow! Wake up, Snow!” I blink my eyes and look at Elder Wind. He tells me, “It is all right, Snow.” I lift my head and look over his shoulder again. Our pack is gone. It’s just the dark forest. I cry out to Elder Wind, “Stop! Our pack! They’re behind us!” Elder Wind shakes his head and tells me softly, “You were only dreaming, Snow. Our pack is gone.” He strokes my hair. But he’s wrong! I know he’s wrong. I hold out my fist. “But Elder Wind, look at what Rowan gave me just now!” I open my hand to show him the flower. I stare at my empty palm. There is no daisy there.
“Snow! Wake up, Snow!” Someone was shaking her and she felt her right side throbbing painfully as a powdered white landscape greeted her when she opened her eyes. Snow sat up and realized she had been lying on her money pouches, the gold pieces digging into her right side. Seeing Baffin before her, she frantically looked around counting her pack members. Except for the continued painful absence of Rowan and Minne, the rest of her pack was accounted for. She glared at Baffin, immediately shrugging his hand off her shoulder as she made a mental note to count her gold at the next opportunity.
Looking at the snow around her, she wondered if she had dreamed the fire forest. She regarded Moog and by his downcast appearance knew that it had not been a dream. But what of her encounter with the adult Rowan, had that been dream or reality? She looked down at her right hand, still balled in a fist from when she had taken the daisy from the grown-up Rowan, then she sneaked a glance at Crystin who was occupied talking to Vennman. Fighting an inner dread, she slowly opened her right hand and stared, trying to decipher the lines of her empty palm. There was no daisy there. The dreams were back. She desperately needed alcohol.
Snow closed her eyes in meditation and tiptoed through the ruins of her psyche surveying the damage, wondering if she had enough time to rebuild the fortress around her mind before she became just another lost soul wandering the wasteland. From the crumbled rubble, she picked up fragments of the wreckage and began to refortify the foundation.
The Unholy Pact
Snow shook her head in disbelief at what she was hearing. Was it really Nameless asking if this nonliving creature could return the party to their own time? Could thirty years have graced the gnoll with the charisma necessary to assume the role of party diplomat in Baffin’s absence? She blamed her ears for playing tricks under stress, after all, it was taking both hands and her full concentration to keep the humming Jageren sheathed and in check. Snow thought she heard Phaetos negotiating release from his crypt and she broke out in a cold sweat as she listened to the dialogue, every muscle straining to keep Jageren contained as she fought against the angry quivers of his unsatisfied appetite which had been tantalized by the recent consumption of ghoul flesh. Perhaps sensing her distress, Vennman called out to her, “How are you doing over there, Snow?” She merely nodded in reply, wary of diverting her focus away from Jageren. She felt a frenzied need to destroy Phaetos, an eager craving that consumed her will and grew stronger with each passing moment. With measured difficulty she suppressed the urge to charge the undead fiend, keeping sight of the fact that in his current state he was far too powerful a foe.
She attempted various meditative exercises which succeeded in alleviating her rage and it became easier to keep Jageren under control while she listened to the bargaining already in progress. The ever silent Rowan appeared next to her and tried to hold her hand, but although Snow desperately wanted to take her little brother in her arms, she could only force a smile down at him, too afraid of what might happen should she remove her hands from Jageren’s hilt. Voicing his displeasure with the situation, the raven, Minne, squawked and hopped nervously about between Rowan’s head and shoulders.
Snow trained her attention back to the conversation in time to hear the conditions of the agreement that would send them back to their own time: Within two seasons they must return to Ptolus, release Phaetos from his crypt in the Necropolis, and allow him unobstructed access to the city. Her concentration faltered momentarily as she tried to fathom the enormity of the situation and in that instant she nearly succumbed to Jageren’s will. The details of the contract chilled her soul causing her heart to race and her mind to scream. This was absurd! She was a devoted servant of the Raven Queen, there was no way in nine hells she would betray her goddess and consent to aid this vicious devil.
The party outlined their available options, all of which were unappealing, and in the end they decided that accepting Phaetos’s deal would provide them with the best chance not only to defeat Leska and save the empire, avoiding infamy as the Five Traitors of Ptolus, but also to reunite with the missing, hopefully two-handed, Baffin. Snow was overwhelmed. Her head throbbed in torment and underneath the raven tattoo, her skin blazed like fire. She felt trapped and lost at choosing between treason against her goddess or treason against Ptolus and the Resistance. Her senses were fogged and though Nameless and Vennman stood adjacent to her, their voices seemed far away as they tried to convince her that this was the best course of action.
She was tempted by Moog’s suggestion to visit the future Leska, consumed by the thought that if they could find an alternate way back in time they might avoid striking this bargain, however, she felt it was risky to stay any longer. They had no measure of the time that was passing back at the fire forest for each moment they spent here and she worried that the longer they remained in the future, the more problems they would likely face going back, assuming that they could even find another way back. It was also vitally important that they locate their misplaced bard while he still had two hands. In a brief respite from the current grim circumstances, Snow recalled meeting Balius, the dwarf with a dragonborn arm, and a smile flashed across her face as she pictured Baffin sporting a hand not of his own kind; perhaps a pig hoof would be fitting.
The bard’s image disappeared as Nameless, his voice almost a whisper, anxiously murmured, “I just want to go home.” Snow regarded him curiously, catching in his eyes something she had never seen there before. Uncertain if what dwelled there was panic, anguish or something else, she sniffed the air but his scent gave away none of his emotions; he smelled like the same Nameless of thirty years earlier. She assumed he was distraught at suddenly being thirty-three and the oldest of his kind. He wanted to go home and she could not blame him. Home. Her head reeled. Where was home? When was home? Her childhood den? The monastery in the Cherubar Mountains? Ptolus? The palace of the Raven Queen? She was drowning in confused thoughts. She took a sip from her flask and fantasized about drowning in a cask of ale.
She knew that if she agreed to the pact she would qualify for entry into the special hell reserved for those who betrayed their goddess, but if she refused, they might possibly lose their chance to defeat Leska and the world as they had known it would be over. She was condemned either way; at least if she accepted the deal, her pack would have a chance at securing an alternate future than the prophecy of doom which they now faced. Her inner conflict raged as she shifted her gaze from Phaetos to her companions then down to Rowan, and slowly, she closed her eyes.
Goddess, I beg your holy forgiveness for what I am about to do. Please scrutinize my soul and find that the anguish there is caused by the fear that I have failed you in this test of my devotion but understand that I have not forsaken you. In previous times there would have been no choice to make; sealing such a pledge would have required no consideration. I once believed that in order to serve you I had to walk alone, to trust no one. I believed a pack was a weakness that would dilute my devotion to you, but I have come to realize that my pack has given me a strength and resolve I have not felt previous and during our time together I have become closer not only to them but also to you, my Queen. I truly believe, given the circumstances, that I may better serve you by returning with my pack to our own time in the past. I know you had plans for me when you spared me from the same fate as my birth pack and my unquestioning loyalty to you all these years can never be denied. I only hope my past service has pleased you such that you recognize my commitment to you is absolute and that I have not acted against you. I am forever bound by my sacred vows to you which are stronger than any promise to an undead creature and should it become necessary, I will be ready to sever my oath to the devil and personally escort the fiend to your domain. I am fully culpable and I am prepared to suffer the consequences of my actions. I accept what punishment you deem appropriate for my entering into this blood oath and should it be your will to strike me down before I have had the chance to prove my steadfast loyalty, I implore you, please allow my companions to return to their own time so they may fight to prevent this unwelcome future from occurring. Please forgive me if my judgment has been clouded by my torment. I recognize that my actions cry betrayal, but please trust that I remain, now and forever, your faithful servant. May the winds aid swift flight to your soul-bearing ravens.
Snow opened her eyes to find her friends looking at her expectantly, awaiting her response. Her tortured heart and soul were heavy with dread and she felt Jageren crooning at her side as she conceded. “I agree to the blood oath.” Upon hearing these words, Minne began flying erratically around the room, screeching hysterically in protest as if he were being eaten alive by a dire bat.
Wide eyed with fear and shock, Rowan vigorously shook his head back and forth. Snow took a step forward, confused by her own decision to compromise her dedication. Rowan leaned back, desperately tugging on her hand as he tried unsuccessfully to restrain her; instead, he felt himself being pulled along, his heels finding no purchase on the hard stone floor. Snow looked at him, wanting to explain that which she could not explain even to herself, but at the sight of the tears streaming down his face all she could manage was a whispered, “I am sorry, Rowan,” her heart breaking, as for the second time in her life she turned her back on him, the same unknown force that had prevented her from going to his aid during their pack’s massacre now propelling her forward towards Phaetos and his devil’s pact. Rowan refused to let go and clung to her wrist as Phaetos, unaware the squawking Minne was pecking at his eyes, took the knife and cut Snow’s hand, a trickle of blood appearing on her palm. The instant she sealed the pact, Rowan’s hand slid from hers and she looked down to find him gone. Minne cawed once more, red eyes glaring with reproach, and flew off vanishing in a puff of nothingness. Snow felt her head spinning and she clutched feebly at the remaining strand of sanity which threatened to slip from her grasp.
Phaetos began roaring with laughter, an insidious, chilling sound that echoed throughout the chamber and blanketed the party with an aura of foreboding. His voice was sickeningly gleeful as he announced, “Time to begin the test!” He could barely contain his excitement, as with a flourish of his hand, the surrounding Hell Knight statues rose to undead life. Snow almost went berserk. Her mindset shifted. No longer concerned about the blood oath, she was determined to kill Phaetos, even if it meant preceding him to the Raven Queen’s audience. She released her tenuous hold over Jageren and he burst forth from the scabbard, droning loudly with a thirst for the undead, but at that moment the wily necromancer vanished from sight, retreating to a safe vantage from which to be entertained by the spectacle of battle.
After the first onslaught of the Hell Knights during which she narrowly missed being knocked unconscious, Snow became convinced that her holy powers had been revoked, resulting in her multiple failed attacks. “I am your dedicated servant and I shall serve you with my dying breath, esteemed goddess,” she whispered, unafraid of the thoughts of death that fluttered through her mind like a leaf carried on the wind, her soul eager to escape its earthly prison and begin the journey home to the Raven Queen. Jageren’s loud hum gave Snow pause in her reflections; if her powers had indeed been stripped, Jageren should have been silent yet his drone remained constant. She took a step back from the Hell Knight confronting her, and wielding Jageren as her holy implement, pointed the sword directly at her opponent as she cleared her mind in an attempt to test her divine powers. Jageren flashed momentarily as a surge of radiant energy shot forth to strike the Hell Knight, causing him to teeter precariously atop his steed yet he did not fall. Snow exhaled with relief, muscles relaxing, tenseness replaced by the thrill of the fight as she realized that the Raven Queen had not forsaken her after all. Punishment would come in due time, but this encounter Snow would survive. She retreated into her meditative “zone” and became one with Jageren, guiding her radiant vengeance to score hit after hit against her enemies. The Knights’ attacks against Snow began to weaken, their lances often striking wide as she dodged out of the way and what few thrusts did aim true Jageren was able to parry. Occasionally, during the battle, she could feel the blood drop tattoo on her right shoulder pulsing and an infusion of strength filled her being, revitalizing her as she fought.
As the last Knight was vanquished, Phaetos reappeared clapping his hands in mock admiration, a gruesome, diabolical smile fouling his already polluted countenance. “Well done, Traitors of Ptolus! Well done indeed! And now I shall send you back to your own time.” His patronizing voice aired conceit, and in a tone befitting admonishment of small children he said, “Just remember that you have made a blood oath to release me and leave me unhindered in Ptolus.” He turned his head slightly to aim an impaling stare directly at Snow, his unblinking, undead eyes boring into hers. Moments passed in adversarial silence as they surveyed one another. “I am looking at you,” Phaetos taunted rhetorically.
Snow glared ice daggers at Phaetos as she sneered in a condescending rejoinder, her heart seething with contempt. Not trusting herself to speak aloud, lest she say something which might provoke Phaetos into administering an additional “test,” she internally swore an oath of vengeance against him: “The ravens will feast on the worms of your rotting corpse while, in a most unlady like gesture, I shall squat like a she-bitch and piss on your putrid bones.”
She could feel Jageren purring in her hand. Moog, in an effort to calm her, leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t worry. There is a loophole somewhere and we’ll find it.” Everything went black.
Snow awakened and found herself and the others back at the edge of the fire forest, Baffin and both of his hands sleeping contentedly a stone’s throw away. She reached for one of her many flasks and lifted it to her lips, unnaturally optimistic that the nightmare was over, but as the liquid reached her throat her hopes dissolved and her stomach performed a nauseating somersault. Thirty years in the future, she had cheerfully dumped Marbin Diamondheart’s wretched near-beer from her flasks and had replaced it with the delicious dwarven stout of Alba Torvak, last dwarf of Ptolus. Now tasting that stout ale in place of Diamondheart’s ichor, her fears were confirmed that the dream was indeed truth; she was bound by Phaetos’s blood oath. With this realization, Snow panicked, and in an instant of negligence, jumped up calling out to Rowan. Fortunately, it appeared the others did not notice her yell; they were likewise occupied reconnecting with reality, a reality she only experienced from afar, a reality she had disconnected from years earlier when she had constructed the fortress around her mind and retreated inside its walls seeking refuge from a questionable existence. Fear took possession of her heart and in her mind she screamed out for Rowan and Minne but her cries were answered with echoing silence as if a stone had been dropped into an abyss, never to reach the bottom. Her heart skipped as she wondered if Rowan would ever return to her. After a long slug of ale that emptied the flask, she took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, spending a few moments in meditation, reminding herself that sanity was only a facade; she lived to serve the Raven Queen, her emotional stability was irrelevant. She ran her hand across Jageren’s familiar hilt but it could not completely quell the loneliness in her heart at this most recent trick of fate, a trick that stoked her anger because her hand had played a part in it. The fire forest would feel like a snow storm compared to the boiling blood now coursing through her veins. “Phaetos, I will not rest until you have been delivered to beyond the Nine Hells,” she promised under her breath as she tossed down another flagon of ale.
It was only after she had quaffed the third flask of ale that Snow became aware of the dangerous situation into which she had unwittingly put herself. She peered abjectly into the empty flask and sighed heavily as she tried to shake out any remaining droplets. There were none. It was certainly not the first time she had gulped down three flasks of lifeblood without noticing but she cringed knowing it would be quite some time before there would be a chance to refill. “Creeping Mother of Lolth!” she cursed to herself as she anticipated the strict rationing that would be required for her remaining flasks. Gone was the small consolation she had felt about entering the fire forest with something other than Diamondheart’s kobold piss. She saw the shimmering walls of her fortress crumbling; she had nowhere to run.
Jageren: Part II
Snow crouched down next to the kitchen midden behind the monastery refectory. This was a prime place to hide from Cloud and Branch when they played Hunter and Hunted, for the odors of the heap masked her scent and made their search for her more difficult. She gripped her wooden longsword tightly in one hand as she ran her finger along the blunted tip. To call it a longsword was a misnomer. Brother Reiner had fashioned it in proportion to her child’s stature so although in her hands it was a longsword in reality it more closely resembled a short sword. Cloud had suggested she not burden herself with it when she was the “Hunted” and that she need only carry the sword when she was the “Hunter” but Snow never went anywhere without her wooden longsword and so she had chosen to ignore his advice. She called the sword “Jageren,” named after its steel counterpart that would one day become her true sword but which in the meantime resided in the armory. At night she slept with the wooden Jageren by her side and would have taken it to mealtimes as well had Brother Asa not insisted on keeping the refectory a weapons free zone. As she crinkled her nose at the stench of the midden heap, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder and whirled around expecting to find Branch grinning at his clever discovery of her hiding place but instead she saw Rowan with his tousled light brown hair and smiling green eyes, his raven, Minne, sitting atop his shoulder with its head cocked to one side, red eye regarding her.
“Rowan! Minne!” she cried out excitedly as her eyes lit up and a smile broke across her face. She immediately closed her mouth and grabbed Rowan’s hand, pulling him down next to her as she nervously surveyed their surroundings. Fortunately, her outburst went unnoticed as there was no one else about.
She had been reprimanded by Brother Asa on multiple occasions for talking to what he termed “her imaginary friend.” She had tried to explain to him that her little brother was not imaginary but Brother Asa always dismissed her childish notions with a worried look and concerned shake of his head. Snow did not understand why she alone could perceive and interact with Rowan and Minne who were aware of others even though others were not aware of them. She thought at the very least Branch would be able to see their brother but her poor twin merely wore a troubled expression when she talked to Rowan in his presence. Cloud laughed and made fun of her, calling her as crazy as old Grandsire Pinecone who had insisted the ghosts of forest animals spoke to him. At first Snow had been frustrated that everyone thought her mad, nevertheless she knew for certain Rowan was real, after all she could see him, touch him, smell him. The only difference from the Rowan she had known before their pack’s massacre, aside from his raven companion, was that he did not talk or utter any sound, though they managed to communicate quite well with each other regardless. Not wanting to distress anyone further, Snow had learned to acknowledge Rowan only when no one else was around. Rowan was patient and did not seem to mind.
Snow crept forward on hands and knees and peered around the side of the heap. The grounds were empty except for the practice yard in the distance where she could just make out the trainees engaged in mock combat. She called over her shoulder, “Come on, Rowan. Let’s go visit Jageren.” Minne cawed once and flew off in the direction of the armory, Snow following with Rowan close at her heels. She had been admonished time and again about playing in the armory. Each time she was caught, which ended up being quite often, she suffered not only the wrath and tongue-lashing of Weapons Master Reiner, whose temper Snow was sure could rival that of the Raven Queen herself, but also discipline at Brother Asa’s discretion which usually meant going to bed without evening meal, performing extra temple duties, or relinquishing her beloved wooden weapon for a day. Not even the fear of these punishments could stop her from answering the call of Jageren. She was overdue for a scolding. It had been three whole days since her last rendezvous with trouble when Brother Samuel had caught her and Cloud sneaking ale from his still. She sheathed her wooden sword and checking first that no one was watching, climbed the old tree near the back of the armory. She carefully wriggled out across a limb overhanging the rooftop and let herself down near one of the gables. She quietly swung a loose board aside allowing her to crawl through to a small ledge inside the armory from which she could easily clamber down to the floor, Rowan and Minne right behind her.
Snow stopped momentarily to gaze with a mixture of hate and wonder at a rack of longswords, sharp blades shining brightly, their hilts adorned with intricate designs. She quickly moved on to a darkened corner behind an empty weapons rack and her face began to glow as she beheld the rusted longsword propped against the wall. Jageren. Minne cawed twice, and fluttered from Rowan’s shoulder to sit atop Jageren’s hilt. The hilt was decorated with a simple design of interconnected swirls and compared to the other fancier, more elegant swords found in the racks it was no wonder this one had been abandoned and left to rust in the corner. It had been Rowan who had first led Snow to Jageren many moons earlier and since that day the sword had exerted its pull on the young shifter, appealing to her soul in a way that she could not ignore. She had quickly become addicted to the infusion of emotions that surged through her when she was near Jageren, a sweet blend of excitement, pain, anger, fear, yearning, vengeance and admiration. Although no one ever used the sword, she had been forbidden to take Jageren outside the armory for fear she would injure herself or someone else. Occasionally, under Brother Reiner’s strict supervision he allowed her to handle the sword and counseled her in her attempts to remove the rust. He had promised her that when she grew older and began training, the sword would be hers. For Snow, that day would not come soon enough so until then she had to content herself with sneaking into the armory to fawn over Jageren.
She stood in front of Jageren, wielding her wooden replica as she and Rowan acted out a story she had conceived that morning in temple when she was supposed to have been deep in prayer. In her tale, she, Rowan, Cloud and Branch comprised a band of brave adventurers sent forth on a mission by the Raven Queen to seek out and destroy a nest of undead who had taken over a village at the bottom of the mountain. Just as she and Rowan were about to enact the final battle with Orcus, Snow heard voices approaching from outside. It was Brother Reiner and the trainees returning from the practice field to put away their weapons. Snow jumped up and slid her wooden sword into its makeshift scabbard, quickly waving goodbye to Rowan, Minne, and Jageren as she ran past the weapons racks and scrambled back up to the ledge to flee. Minne began to squawk and she turned to see Rowan jumping up and down excitedly and pointing at her wooden sword laying discarded on the floor. With a sense of horror, she looked down at the empty scabbard at her side realizing the sword must have fallen out during her climb. She was unhappily aware that there was no time to retrieve it for the armory doors were already opening. Her only hope was that no one would walk near that corner until she could devise a rescue plan for later. She climbed out to the roof and down the tree pausing for a few minutes at the bottom to catch her breath and give thanks to the Raven Queen for allowing her to escape the close call.
She decided to head back to her hiding place behind the refectory but as she rounded the corner of the armory she crashed into Weapons Master Reiner, hitting her cheek on the hilt of the dagger he kept hidden under his tunic. She stumbled back awkwardly and his hand darted out grabbing her arm to steady her. She expected his grip to tighten and she squeezed her eyes shut contemplating the trouble that lay ahead but he quickly released his grasp and without a word stood looking down at her, one hand at his side the other behind his back.
“We are playing Hunter and Hunted,” Snow offered as way of an explanation, convinced by his calm initial reaction that her break-in had not been discovered. Fearful of his gaze, she would have preferred to face the Raven Queen. Brother Reiner always wore a look that threatened to see right through her and caused her to want to confess to misdeeds she had not even done. “Cloud and Branch are the Hunters and I am the Hunted. I was trying to be sneaky hiding over here.” She forced a nervous smile up at him. Bluffing was not one of her strong points but then again, she was not being completely untruthful.
Brother Reiner maintained his intimidating silence as he brought his hand from behind his back holding forth her wooden sword. Her smile faded immediately and she sighed in resignation, dropping her head to stare shamefully at the ground. She rubbed her sore cheek where it had met the dagger hilt. Knowing she could not talk her way out of the situation, she began pondering what punishment Brother Asa would inflict upon her this time. She held her breath and waited anxiously for Brother Reiner’s silence to be replaced with the usual litany of curses and yelling that erupted when he caught her in the armory. In the distance she could hear the ringing bells that signaled evening meal, a meal she no doubt was going to bed without once Brother Asa found out about this. After a full minute of unbroken silence that dragged on with no outburst forthcoming, Snow lifted her head slightly and saw Brother Reiner still towering over her, his usual serious expression somewhat softened. Without a word, he held out the sword’s handle to her. Confused, Snow looked at the handle, risked a look up at Brother Reiner, then looked back to the handle. She kept her eyes on the handle as she gingerly reached up to accept the sword, expecting at any moment that he would explode in a torrent of scolding words. She tugged on the handle but he did not release his grip. She forced herself to look up at him again and when she met his gaze he released the sword. “Go.” Brother Reiner instructed her, keeping his eyes locked on hers as he tilted his head in the direction of the refectory. It was a single word spoken in a normal tone, holding no threat. Without a second’s hesitation, Snow bounded off giving him no time to reconsider his decision. Brother Reiner watched her go, both of them knowing that it was only a matter of time before she would sneak out to visit Jageren again.
Snow was having difficulty falling asleep in the dwarven stronghold. Despite Marben Diamondheart’s hospitality, if one could call it that, without Jageren by her side she felt vulnerable and on edge. She was outraged at being forced to leave her sword behind but they were pressed for time and she had not wanted to jeopardize their mission by being argumentative, especially since the dwarves vastly outnumbered their small party. As she had reluctantly surrendered Jageren to the dwarves, Rowan and Minne had appeared next to her and she had given a surreptitious glance from Rowan to Jageren. Rowan had nodded, understanding her unspoken request. He would watch over Jageren until the sword was returned to her. It reminded her of the monastery when she was young and they had kept Jageren locked away. As a child, when sleep eluded her at night she had sneaked into the armory to lie next to the sword. In the last few hours she had thought about trying to leave to break into the store room to reclaim Jageren, but she knew that action would cause difficulties for her pack and waste precious time they could ill afford.
Sitting on the floor in the dark with her back against the wall, she scowled as she took a sip of ale from the tankard she had pilfered at dinner. She was annoyed with the dwarves, and to add insult to injury this tongue numbing stuff they called stout was nearly undrinkable. Dwarves were renowned for their stout ales but this acrid concoction threatened to ruin that long standing reputation. The thought of having to enter the fire forest with nothing better than this dwarf sewage in her flasks fueled her irritation with everything and everyone. From two rooms away, Moog’s deafening snores bristled her nerves and she seriously considered pouring the so called stout down his throat while he slept but she did not think it would be very becoming to have an “M” carved into her forehead with whatever resourceful implement he could find upon waking. More importantly, it would be a waste of the only ale she had even if it did taste like kobold piss, so she poured it down her own throat instead and tried not to choke. From the adjoining room she could hear the sound of Baffin’s teeth clicking and his lips smacking. No doubt the tub-o-bard was dreaming about an extravagant feast where he was busy stuffing his face with meat pies. It irritated her that they had found sleep so easily. Vennman was nervously murmuring in his sleep as if he were on the losing end of a disagreement with someone and every once in a while she could hear him say Samantha’s name. Although Vennman had found sleep, his dreams were not pleasant ones. Snow chuckled wickedly in the dark then felt a pang of guilt at her cruel thoughts. She was having withdrawals from Jageren but that was no reason to take her anger out on her packmates. She needed to save that anger and focus it on her prey. Her eyes scanned the corner of the room. She could not see Nameless but she knew he was there standing guard in the dark. She might not have Jageren at her side but at least she was surrounded by her pack.
She reached up to touch her tattooed raven and began a silent invocation to the Raven Queen which provided an immediate calming influence. She knew Rowan would take care of her sword for now and that Jageren would forgive her over time if she fed him enough souls. The unspoken recitation of her prayers transformed her helpless anger into the burning need to kill something and release its soul to the Raven Queen. Soon enough, she thought to herself. The next creature that threatened to cross her path would pay for the violation with its soul. In the darkness, she smiled as she made the promise to her goddess and then took another drink.
The Raven of Ink
Snow regarded the tattoo artist intently as he put the finishing touches on her raven. The half-orc was highly skilled at his craft and Snow felt no discomfort as he worked, only a slight tingling sensation in her left arm. She was glad the pack had agreed on the right shoulder for their Tattoo of the Shared Heart for she had wanted to reserve her sword arm explicitly for the revered namesake of her goddess.
She had been but a young pup when first she had glimpsed a raven tattoo. Only hours after finding sanctuary at the Raven Queen’s mountain monastery, the trauma of the escape from her pack’s massacre preventing sleep from finding her, she had carefully climbed out of bed so as not to disturb Cloud or Branch and had crept away in search of Elder Wind who had been severely wounded in the human’s attack. At that early morning hour before dawn the hallways had been deserted and the stones cool on her bare feet as she had followed the rasping echoed sounds of Elder Wind’s coughing until it led her to a large wooden door. She had peeked through the keyhole to find Elder Wind lying in a bed with Cleric Asa bent over him muttering something that sounded like a prayer. When Cleric Asa moved back to sit in a wooden chair next to the bed, Snow had caught sight of the jet black raven with a blood red eye inked onto Elder Wind’s chest. The rest of Elder Wind’s torso had been lightly coated in fur and she had seen he was bleeding from countless deep wounds, but oddly the skin underneath the raven had been smooth and unharmed. At first glance she had thought Cleric Asa responsible for the raven on Elder Wind’s chest but as she had held her breath listening to the two men talk she had soon discovered that Elder Wind had had the raven for most of his life. She had stood at the keyhole transfixed, not intending to spy yet unable to tear herself away even though she could not comprehend the meaning of much of the conversation. Snow had silently watched as Cleric Asa dabbed at Elder Wind’s wounds with a damp cloth and as he had wiped the raven’s eye she had noticed its color transform from red to black. Momentarily confused at how a raven tattoo could change the color of its eye at will, Elder Wind had suddenly coughed and the raven’s eye had converted back to red, tears of the same color running down its face. Snow had gasped at the sudden realization that the raven’s red eye was not ink, but blood and that its natural color was indeed black. She had immediately clapped her hand over her mouth but no one seemed to have heard her. Cleric Asa and Elder Wind had begun to argue and as Elder Wind had attempted to sit up he had twisted slightly to face the door and the raven’s penetrating blood-red orb had looked directly at Snow, its sentient stare piercing her soul. She had felt no fear or threat from the icy glare but nevertheless had been unable to stifle a yelp of surprise and had fallen backwards. At the grating sound of a chair scraping across the floor, Snow had jumped up and sprinted down the hall already around the corner before Cleric Asa even opened the door. She had run straight to the dormitory and had made a flying leap back into the bed and under the covers snuggling up against Branch and had immediately fallen into a deep slumber, her dreams pleasantly inundated with red-eyed ravens.
In all the years since, Snow had told no one, not even Branch, of her foray that fated evening, neither of the conversation she had overheard nor what she had witnessed. She suspected that Brother Asa knew of her transgression but he never mentioned it. Elder Wind had gone to meet the Raven Queen that same night and the young pup Snow had decided that one day she too would brandish a red-eyed raven of ink.
The half-orc artist had been delighted at her request for a raven tattoo and he was swift to prove his talent. His dextrous hands completed the procedure quickly and he now took a few steps back to behold this latest expression of his handiwork. He nodded at his artistry as he handed Snow a small silver mirror. “How does it look?” he asked, anxiously anticipating her answer.
Snow held the mirror to her arm and smiled at the image of the raven gazing back at her. “Excellent craftsmanship, friend. He looks just as I imagined he would.”
Pleased with her approval, his face lit up in a wide toothy grin. “Onto the next one then, yes?” She watched him pick up a sharp looking instrument, different from the one he had used for the raven, as he rolled up her right sleeve exposing her shoulder. “This one is different than the last. This might hurt a bit,” he warned, his face contorted in a sympathetic grimace.
“Carry on.” Snow replied. She was used to pain and the raven had not been all that unpleasant of an experience.
He nodded and bent his head closer to her shoulder. The moment the instrument met her skin an indescribable surge of agony flared through her entire body. She blacked out momentarily trying to recall the half-orc’s admonition. ‘This might hurt a bit’? Was that what the fool had said? Was he insane? She was burning from the inside out. With what little of her faculties remained, she began silently berating herself for not requesting a pitcher or three of ale beforehand. The quivers of pain were incapacitating yet with a final thought, Snow forced her mind to travel deep inside to her Happy Place. This was only physical pain, after all, and she was well equipped to handle that. She had spent endless hours of her life in meditation to the Raven Queen and knew the secrets to block out the physical world for periods of time.
She closed her eyes and slowly began relaxing her muscles one by one, clearing her mind of all thought but her Happy Place. An image of a pitcher began dancing at the corners of her mind followed by a tall mug spilling over with ale. Despite the feeling in her right shoulder, she cracked a smile and the pain began to recede. She imagined herself back in Ptolus at the Ghostly Minstrel with the rest of her pack, just returned from an invigorating fight with the undead and now engaged in a drinking contest with Moog while Baffin, pockets full of meat pies, played his lute and sang tales of their adventures. Vennman was excitedly chatting about his latest alchemical experiment and with her shifter ears she could make out savage slavering, gorging sounds coming from the back room. She smiled at the glass of milk on the table at the empty seat beside her and then turned her gaze to the full pitcher of ale in front of her and grinned with delight. Yes, this scene made a fine Happy Place to escape reality. Just then she felt a sharp spike of pain in her right shoulder. She lifted her sleeve and noticed the appearance of bright red specks in the outline of a drop of blood. “Think happy thoughts,” she inwardly warned. She poured Moog and herself another pint. “Drink up, Moog!” She lifted her glass in salute and poured the contents down her throat. The pain in her arm subsided somewhat.
She felt someone watching her and looked up to find her little brother, Rowan, outside the window, his red-eyed raven perched atop his shoulder both of them observing her. Rowan had been with the Raven Queen for so long now it seemed forever. Snow lifted her left sleeve and admired the raven ensconced on her shoulder. She looked back to Rowan’s raven. Other than size, it was identical to her one of ink. Identical to Elder Wind’s coal black avian with an eye of blood. The half-orc had done an excellent job of reproducing the bird. She turned her shoulder toward the window so that Rowan could see her new acquisition. Rowan remained impassive but his raven cocked its head to one side and cawed in approval.
Snow felt another acute stab of pain wash through her right shoulder but it was immediately tempered by a soothing, peaceful feeling emanating from her left shoulder. She lifted her left sleeve again to look at the raven. Although the raven resided on her left shoulder, he seemed to pulse with each stab she felt in her right shoulder canceling the pain. She once again lifted her right sleeve to check the progress of the blood drop tattoo. It was nearing completion. When she looked up, Rowan and his raven were gone and she was appalled to find Moog drinking down the last of the ale. It was time for her to leave this Happy Place and return to reality and the important matters at hand, such as would she have time to fill her flasks with ale before leaving the city.
Jageren: Part I
Snow walked away with Jageren tightly in her grasp, glancing back for a moment, which awarded her a glimpse of the old man lovingly inspecting his Flaming longsword. She did not blame this champion of the Raven Queen for his belligerent attitude towards her and her friends. Snow fully understood the intense bond between a swordsman and his weapon and she sympathized with the old man’s fury as she imagined how enraged she herself would have been to be presumed dead only to return and find another hand wielding Jageren. She was glad that the flaming longsword had been reunited with its rightful owner who, indeed, was not dead, though from the looks of him Snow guessed not many moons would pass before he would be guest of honor at the Raven Queen’s table. Under her breath she whispered a prayer of thanks and safe passage to the old man.
She headed back to her anxiously awaiting friends, swiveling her wrist as she rotated Jageren, traversing through various lunge and stab movements then taking the sword in both hands to test hack and slash motions. She was grateful to the grizzled warrior for his generosity to a fellow servant of the Raven Queen. Although apprehensive at first to be handing Jageren over to a stranger, Raven Queen worshipper or not, the sword had signaled no complaint as Snow had somewhat grudgingly passed it to the newcomer. She had been humoring the old man when she agreed with his assessment that Jageren seemed unbalanced. What could the graybeard, combat veteran though he was, possibly know about Jageren? To Snow, the sword had always felt precise, its weight and energy perfectly balanced. Granted, during the time that Jageren had been her Oath Weapon she had rarely wielded any other longsword and on those few occasions the unfamiliar weapon had always felt awkward and cumbersome in her grasp. When she had first adopted Jageren she had been but a pup barely able to even lift the longsword, yet since the day she had grown old enough to properly hold it, the sword had felt as if it were a natural extension of her own left arm.
Snow once again tested the familiar heft of Jageren, noting no disturbance in the familiar feel. The newly inserted nondescript gem now sat perfectly in the pommel as if it had been part of the sword’s initial design. The old-timer had told her that the gem would strengthen her bond with the Raven Queen allowing her to be a more powerful conduit of the Raven Queen’s will, especially against the undead. She was looking forward to testing that theory at the next earliest convenience.
20 years earlier…
“Snow! Snow!” Brother Asa did not actually expect an answer to his futile calling yet miracles were not unheard of. He spoke aloud in his irritation, “Where is that child?” He had already checked the armory where Snow could usually be found shirking her afternoon acolyte duties to practice her maneuvers with the longsword, however today the room had been as empty as a bear’s cave in the spring and there was no trace of the young shifter anywhere. He looked over at the girl’s favorite object, a rusty longsword propped in the corner, and pondered where she had developed a fascination for such a weapon. Asa had been hoping in a few more years that Brother Reiner, the weapons master, could train Snow in the use of the mace or the hammer, brute weapons requiring little finesse which would be a better match for her clumsy nature. Brother Asa sighed and shook his head in resignation as he walked out of the armory. Unlike her more graceful littermate, Branch, and her adroit cousin, Cloud, Snow had an unbalanced aura that manifested itself physically. The poor uncoordinated child often tripped over her own feet with her inelegant movements. Brother Asa rather hoped a heavy weapon would ground her yet the youngster preferred to wield a smaller wooden longsword, stumbling around as if in a drunken stupor as she tried rather unsuccessfully to engage Cloud or the older students in a duel.
A few months earlier, Snow had found the old rusted longsword discarded in some dark corner of the armory and had begged to train with it. Brother Asa had finally acquiesced to her pleas, allowing Brother Reiner to take her out to the training field with the expectation that she would quickly discover the folly of her ill-fated attraction to the weapon. Brother Asa had watched from a hidden vantage point as Snow took the proffered sword handle from Reiner. He could not contain a smile of satisfaction as the tip of the sword immediately dove to the ground and he instantly felt a twinge of guilt at his reaction as he watched Snow vainly trying to lift it. Brother Reiner had smugly stood in front of her with his arms folded making no move to assist the girl, so convinced of her weakness that he became immobilized with shock when, with a child-like roar, Snow lifted the sword and Brother Reiner came within less than an inch of losing his manhood. Reiner had grabbed the handle from Snow and angrily ordered the youngster back to the temple before falling to his knees mumbling a prayer to the Raven Queen that although Brother Asa could not hear, he certainly could imagine.
Leaving the armory, Brother Asa shook his head at the recollection and crossed the practice yard, empty at this hour of the day. Both Asa and Reiner had chastised Snow to no end for her obsession with the longsword, trying to focus her energy into a bright future with the mace or hammer but to no avail. Stubborn as a bear in sight of a hive of honeycomb, Snow could not be talked or cajoled away from the longsword even despite the rude jeers of the older avenger trainees. Brother Reiner, after his close call and afraid that with her determination and lack of control she would end up hurting someone, had fashioned Snow a smaller version of a longsword made out of wood yet even with the custom proportioned weapon she retained her two left feet as she danced around attempting parries and thrusts. She spent every free moment practicing and studying the longsword including countless hours paying close attention to the footwork and body movements of the young male avengers-in-training as they sparred with one another in the practice yard. Today, though, Brother Asa could not find Snow in any of her usual haunts. “Snow! Where are you?”
From her hiding place in the stables, Snow watched Brother Asa walk across the practice yard until he turned the corner heading back to the temple. Safe for a few moments more, she lifted her wooden longsword pointing it at the brown cow in front of her. “The Raven Queen hungers for your soul!” The cow just blinked and continued to chew its cud as the young shifter danced with threatening gestures back and forth before it. The cow knew the routine far too well having already lost its soul to the Raven Queen many times that week.
Snow’s letter to Cloud
Stormcloud. Funny how that name should come to me just now. It has been a hawk’s lifespan since we used the nicknames of our youth: Stormcloud, Snowflake, Branchlet. Those were the names of happier days.
I wish to extend my gratitude for the information you supplied concerning my imprisoned comrades. They are once again walking free and I thank you for your help. You and I have had little contact in the last two years and one day I will explain my disappearance. I shall have you know that neither I nor my comrades (most of them, anyway) harbor any ill will toward you, though we all remain cautious as I am sure you likewise are. I apologize for my part in the sewer fiasco and I hope we may one day laugh at the incident over a mug of ale… or two or three.
I have had barely a moment’s rest since last we met. Much has been happening and I am sure the same can be said around Ptolus. I am wary of this letter falling into unsafe hands so I cannot divulge our location at this time but I will tell you we have participated in many a perilous exploit. We have just now returned from combating a host of dwarven undead. Ah, how I love a good fight with the undead! I could feel Jageren humming even before I removed him from the scabbard. How that sword loves to send his victims on their way to the nine hells and beyond. This time, however, I came strikingly close to meeting the Raven Queen herself. As her follower I do not fear death but neither am I ready just yet to meet her face to face. And so I remain alive to serve her another day. My fellow adventurers and I are taking a brief respite to recover from this undead encounter and I am stealing the moment to write to you.
I have found my new companions to be quite adventurous and even though I am slow to trust, the five of us have quickly become a pack of sorts. Vennman, whom I am sure you remember from the sewer, although a bit confrontational at times with those he does not trust, is rather friendly once you get to know him. Unlike many wizards whose minds seem ofttimes otherwise occupied, his thoughts are usually in the present. He is a very clever fellow, preferring honesty over bluff most of the time and, as you witnessed, is deadly with his spells. The chubby half-elf, Baffin, is an excellent bard and quite the diplomat having allowed our party to avoid many would-be unfortunate situations that would have otherwise ended badly (for our opponents, of course). None can play the lute as well as he and his voice is delightful and uplifting, that is when he is not singing through a mouthful of pastries. He is a worthy healer and has kept us on our feet through many a battle. The furry gnoll, Nameless, reminds me of Shade. Do you remember Shade, the great hunter from our pack, as he stalked like a silent wind through the trees? In the same way that I learned street skills from you when I first arrived in Ptolus, I am hoping to learn some tricks of stealth from Nameless. His claws are vicious weapons and he eats his meat raw like we used to before the clerics taught us their preferred method of eating cooked meat. The goliath Moog is staunchly loyal, if not stubborn, and is a fearsome warden. I pity those on the receiving end of his hammer who wind up as bloody pulps (and those are the lucky ones.) He is a lover of sweets and used to be a vegetarian, which I find strange for one who towers over most folk, though he recently has come around to eating meat and drinking ale. I see in Moog the potential for a fine drinking companion.
Ah, Stormcloud, how I miss our drinking sessions at the Onyx Spider and the tavern games we played at the Inn of the Snoring Sow. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I believe those days are behind us. Forgive my sentimental state, I fear this fifth glass of ale has put me in a maudlin mood or perhaps it is the winter season. I grow weary of the falling snow outside. I know you find amusement in the idea that one who is a namesake of the horrid stuff and who has completely devoted herself to the goddess of winter should so abhor the season. The snow brings back memories of the night we fled our den. The pack massacre remains fresh in my mind as if it happened just yesterday and it haunts my nightly dreams. You saved us that night, Branch and I owe our lives to you and Elder Wind. I know that night haunts you as well and is partly to blame for your flight from the monastery to Ptolus. Cleric Asa always said you had such potential as an avenger. He said you were a natural and many a night I used to hear him pray for your return to the Raven Queen’s path. Regardless of your chosen path I hope you have found some peace. I myself find tranquility when I am sending souls to the Raven Queen. She lends focus to both my rage and thirst for revenge. One day I will hunt down those responsible for our pack extermination. Theirs will not be a quick death. If it were within my power, I would kill them and then raise them from the dead to destroy them yet again with my radiant powers. Ha! How quickly my pathetic state transforms into one of vengeance.
Alas, my ale glass is empty. That is enough to put me back into a mournful mood but I must prepare for our next task and so I will conclude this letter. I do not know when or if I will return to Ptolus (and truthfully, it may yet be a while, if ever, that I shall be able to send this letter your way.) I hope you are surviving in Ptolus. You, Branch and I are the last of the Sharpfang pack, we must stick together at least in spirit.
I beg of you one last favor of your assistance in a small matter of which I will gladly compensate you for your trouble. There is a denizen of Ptolus, a half-elf by the name of Malachi Longshadow. He calls himself “The Finest Navigator in the World.” I am of the opinion that this self-bestowed title is a gross exaggeration, but that is a tale best told with an ale in each hand and many ales already down the hatch. Said navigator wears a rather fanciful hat upon his head. One would have to be blind not to see the large extravagant feather protruding from one side. My gnoll friend desires this headpiece and I sincerely believe the current owner’s head and ego would benefit from the hat’s removal. Would you be so kind as to procure it without Master Longshadow knowing who ordered the requisition? If you could do this and hold onto the hat until the next time we meet, I would be most grateful. I leave the method of obtainment to your discretion, but I ask that you please exercise restraint and not harm the fellow beyond what is necessary. We have unfinished business with the annoying nit and we may require his skills in the future. I will happily pay you when I receive the hat.
Be well, Stormcloud.
May the ravens avoid flying directly over your path.