Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

Dramatis Personae
The Inhabitants of the Spurhorn Fortress . . . and Others

Pharamol: Human leader of the military forces within Spurhorn. He is male. Seems to have a moderately low (but not entirely negative) opinion of our abilities.

Zusk: Human Templar (Male). The Templars seemed unimpressed or distrustul of us in general; but I cannot recall any specific details about this guy.

Hurjan: Insectoid Templar (Unspecified gender . . . Sorry, Thorin). Thoroughly unimpressed with our capabilities. I did not attempt to Sense his Motives (thinking a cold read of an alien being might not be very fruitful), but he may have ulterior motives for his disdain of us (for all we know).

Sumira: Human Hospitaller (Female . . . and there you go, Justice). She appears to be sympathetic toward us. Possibly because we made no effort to destroy her sortie when we flew into the fortress. Ostensibly, we report to her while we try to help the inhabitants of Spurhorn.

Jarelm: Human Wormspeaker (Female). Also seems sympathietic toward our party — and has been willing to share information with Thorin. She is a wise, aged woman and may be an inter-planar reflection of the Crone herself. Addendum: Jarelm could also step in as a love interest for amorous Asimar, Thorin.

Interested Parties

Penitence: Human male “Apok”. Possibly a “reformed” former member of the Free People’s alliance. Routinely wears a mask making him appear to be the victim of a disfiguring disesase (or other corruption). He is a skilled warrior. Possibly Wyrmwood’s analog for a paladin.

The Opposition

Malesinder: Female . . . possibly. [Confirmed.] The leader (or General) of the armies besieging Spurhorn. Nothing else known about “her” thus far. This world’s analog for Saladin, possibly. [Update: Passionate, but controlled.]


General Notes: Spelling of names and terminology may be off. Also, I seem to recall a second Hospitaller, but do not have a name or description in my notes. Of course, I may have missed other things as well — there was a lot going on during the council meeting . . . feel free to augment these impressions with your comments.

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The War Room

Cassisoche, regent of Whitethrone, is finding it difficult to listen to her generals’ reports. As they drone on about troop movements and supply logistics, her mind wanders to her mother’s sunken eyes, the slight shake that’s developed in her hands. The way that, after so many decades, Elvanna is finally beginning to look old. Not the hunched and withered age of the peasants, mind you, but… spent; used up; tired.

Cassisoche shakes her head to clear it. “Repeat that last, please, general.”

“Yes, your grace,” General Gregorich replies. “I was saying that we’ve made some impressive gains throughout the Inner Sea region, although the giants of the Storval Plateau are giving us some trouble. Nonetheless, we expect to have it secured before the thaw.”

Cassisoche arches an eyebrow. “The thaw, general?”

Gregorich coughs uncomfortably. “Yes, quite right, your grace. My mistake. I meant those months when there would traditionally have been a thaw.” The regent nods.

“And what of Taldor?”

Gregorich hesitates, and Kisevich reponds instead. “If I may, your grace… are you well?”

“Yes, fine,” Cassisoche snaps. “Taldor.”

“As I… as I reported earlier, your grace, Taldor remains out of reach of our portals. Once Qadira falls, we’ll cross the border and resume our invasion there.”

“Those foreigners of yours,” the Jadwiga Ilmater interjects, “the ones who made off with the Crone’s hut—” she and Cassisoche exchange unfriendly gazes “—they seem to have…collapsed the ley line somehow when they closed the portal. We can’t reopen it at this time.”

“Noted,” Cassisoche says, as he begins to ease herself out of her uncomfortable chair. “Thank you for the updates. Captain, kindly show the generals out.”

Minutes later the regent eases herself into an overstuffed and far more comfortable chair, beside a tall window that looks out over the city.

“It’s gorgeous at night,” Elvanna remarks, sipping at her tea. She looks out through the window, at the winking night fires of Whitethrone. Cassisoche makes a noncommittal noise.

“The path I’m on—that we’re all on, daughter—may take me far afield for many years. I hope, though, that I will always have time to return to Whitethrone.”

“However long it takes, mother, I’ll make sure it’s here when you get back.”

“Just like my hut?” Elvanna narrows her eyes, and Cassisoche lowers hers.

“I can apologize as often as you’d like for that, mother. I trusted Vasiliovna to keep it safe, and I see now that trust was foolish. Still, I don’t imagine there’s much they can do with it. They’re not children of the Crone. I don’t think they could even control it.”

Elvanna doesn’t respond, but merely sips her tea and stares out the window.

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A Snowball's Chance

“You keep your god damned mouth shut.”

The old man arches an eyebrow. “You sound testy, old friend.”

“Not another word, I’m warning you.”

“Whatever is the matter?”

“Quiet. Shut it.”

A thin, wry smiles curls the old man’s lips. “Oh, hey, didn’t you have that centau—”

“Quiet!” Lightning lances down from orange-red clouds, and thunder shakes the ground.

“How’s that going? I haven’t heard any news…” A bolt of lightning splits a rock mere feet away from the old man, showering him with sharp pebbles. He can practically feel the electricity dissipating across the ground.

“Just… shut up.” Pleading. For the briefest of moments, Koshchay feels pity. He wants to relent. But that’s not his way.

“Has he ‘shown me how it’s done’ yet? When he presented you the hag’s head, was it the traditional silver platter or did he spice it up with some seasonal garnishes?”

Only the sullen rumble of distant thunder answers.

“Thought so,” Koshchay smirks. “I expect a bit more humility, then, the next time you see fit to harangue me.”

He waits, but there is no answer at all.

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The Man In the Ruby

In the rare moments he has to himself, Highurk likes to look at his rubies. Some, his favorites, he has studied so long and with such intensity that he can picture every facet and flaw in his mind. Sometimes he does just that when the work gets to be too much for him. At the moment, he’s studying his very favorite ruby.

His favorite ruby is larger than the others, and its color is a deep, bloody red. Its cut is unparalleled, a delicate spider’s web of faces and lines that make it almost spheroid. There is one tiny flaw, which you would only notice after years of study: one facet is slightly concave, and it catches the light just a little differently from the others. Sometimes Highurk pretends it’s the pupil in a great spider’s eye. It is a very pretty ruby, but none of that is why it’s his very favorite.

“Highurk, what are you doing?” The tinny voice of his master intrudes.

“I am looking at my rubies, master. Do you need something?”

“No.” Master’s voice, usually flat and emotionless, has the tiniest twang of bemusement. “It’s just unlike you to fixate for so long.”

The reason the ruby is Highurk’s very favorite is because, even after all of these decades of study, it’s the only one that he can never fully picture in his mind: the only one that will ever wrinkle the laws of light and shadow that illuminate the others. It’s the only one…

“I’m watching the man in the ruby,” Highurk replies.

“I see.”

Highurk hadn’t noticed the man at first, all those many years ago when the wazir first drew its cloth aside with a magician’s flourish. The gem had sparkled, and it was as big as a spider’s egg. Highurk had nearly been moved to tears. But then the wazir, who named himself Yingash, implored Highurk to look closer, to note that shadow there that plays across the gem’s interior like a thing alive. Yingash had spun then a harrowing tale of how he had trapped the strange creature in the gem, but Highurk hadn’t listened. He had already known he would buy it.

“I wonder sometimes what he’s thinking,” Highurk says to his master, who seems oddly conversational now.

“The man in the ruby?”

“Yes. When he looks out, does he see only shadows? Does he know he is trapped in there?” And then, quietly, “does he want out?”

“Not if he’s wise,” the master huffs. “Freedom is a burden, Highurk. Full of cloying responsibilities and puzzles with no answers. No one tells you what to do, but then they scream when you don’t do it. It’s exhausting.”

Highurk makes a noise in his throat.

“I think that’s enough daydreaming for now,” the master says. “Come, I have a job for you.”

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Family Gathering

Hestrig Orlova’s palms are bleeding, as are the soles of her feet: the jagged ice and rock have long since shredded her boots. The cold numbs them, and for that she’s grateful—and trying hard to not consider the consequences of that.

At long last, however, she reaches a broad ledge, swept clean of snow by the constant, demon wind. Across a ledge, a gaping black hole cuts into the mountain. The calcified husks of hearty mountain vines drape it thinly. She forces herself onto the ledge and collapses, panting. After resting a few moments, she sits up and unslings her pack; only to discover that it too has been rent by the rocks, most of its contents spilled. All that remains are some rags, a bit of rope, and the book. The very important book. No torches: she must face the darkness unaided.

She takes a couple of deep breaths, then pushes herself back to her feet. Her numb fingers struggle to form an arcane symbol in the air, and she hisses words out through lips cracked and bleeding. At first, she thinks it failed, but soon she feels a trickle of power leave her, and then hears a familiar buzzing in her ear. She nods in satisfaction.

Achingly, she makes her way across the ledge. The grey light of Iobaria seems to penetrate it only a few feet, and beyond that is inky blackness. She places one hand along the wall and slowly, haltingly, begins her way blindly into the tunnel. The wind is instantly cut off, replaced with strangely still and heavy air. The only sounds are her shuffling feet and the wind she left behind on the ledge.

It’s not long before a voice, deep and sonorous, burbles up from the depths of the cave. It speaks unfamiliar syllables, but soon enough the buzz in her ear translates for her: “I smell you, human.”

Hestrig freezes. Her knees feel weak, and she fears she might collapse there in the dark.

“Go away,” the voice continues. “There is only one of you, and you are too small for a snack.”

“Sjo—” Hestrig breathes, then tries again: “Sjov—Sjohvor…?” There’s a snort in reply.

“Sjohvor,” Hestrig continues, regaining some small portion of her courage. “Great Sjohvor…”

“We’ve established that you know my name, human.” There’s a pause, as if the voice is considering. “I suppose it only polite that you tell me yours, then.”

“Hestrig. Orlova. Of Irrisen.” The voice harumphs.

“Witch-kin, then,” it pronounces icily.

“No, Great Sjohvor.” Hestrig inches a step closer, hesitantly. Then tries another. “I share none of the crone’s blood. My lineage is…”

“Is what, witch-friend? I am not overburdened with patience.”

Hestrig swallows. “I am descended of the wyrm Auburphex.”

Silence.

“Your grandson. Your kin.”

Silence.

Hestrig takes in a deep breath to speak again.

“Great grandson,” the voice finally rumbles. There’s a snorting and snuffling, and a fetid wind blows from deep within the cavern. “Yesss,” the dragon hisses, “you do have a bit of his smell about you.” Hestrig exhales.

“How is old Auburphex these days?”

“He… he is dead, my lord.”

Silence. Then: “I see. What then brings you here, mongrel whelp of my dead kin?” There’s an edge to the question that Hestrig does not like.

“I was…” She pauses, takes a deep breath, and then the words come pouring out: “I was born and raised among witches, my lord, and for a time was taken as one of their number. Strange cantrips always followed me, when I was… when I was angry. Or scared. But I always knew different. I always felt different, and everyone knew it. I know now a little bit of what I am, just a tiny bit. And I…” Her voice falters.

“And…?”

Hestrig straightens up, and for a moment forgets her aching body and the biting cold. “And I want to know more. I want to know my family. I want to know who I am.”

A great wind rises up from the depths of the cave, full of foul stenches and strange sounds. Suddenly, a great head looms out of the darkness: its white scales are yellowed with age and stained green in spots from moss. Lichen grow between the bony plates. The great, curling horns—like a ram’s—are cracked and appear brittle. The teeth, though: the teeth are sharp and gleam like ice in the darkness. And the eyes…

Black spiderwebs creep in at the edges of Hestrig’s vision, and the massive head before her blurs and wavers. Her gut clenches, and a tiny, inarticulate sound burbles up from her throat. She is afraid, a bone-deep terror she has never before experienced. She falls back on her heel, and every inch of her wants to collapse and cover her head; but she resists. She straightens her back again, clenches her fists, and stares back into dull blue eyes, rimmed in frost but swimming with the wisdom of ages. As soon as it came, the fear passes.

Sjohvor considers her for a moment, and then nods. “Very well, Hestrig Orlova of Irrisen, blood of my blood. Come with me into my lair, and learn what you are.”

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Wasting Time

“Hey, Ratty. Whatcha up to?”

Ratibor, for the first time in days, turns his gaze from the door. He finds a raven perched upon the balcony railing, eyeing him quizzically.

“Watching a door.”

“Right, right,” the raven says. “How’s that working out for you?”

Ratibor shrugs. “It’s what I do. Haven’t seen you in awhile, Moc.”

Moc bobs his head, as if nodding. “Yeah, right, I know. The siblings and I were… tied up for awhile. Interrogating a ghost.” He cackles.

Ratibor raises an eyebrow. “As you say: how did that work out for you?”

“Miserable.” Moc flutters over to land on a small table near the door. “She went crazy before she gave up the goods. After a few decades, we couldn’t get anything out of her but screams.” He shudders. “Horrible, soul-rending screams.”

“And you are… taking a break?”

“Hah! Taking a break. Right, right. No, we got what we needed. My siblings are taking some much needed rest. It’s been grueling.”

“How did you manage that?”

“What, rest? We just sort of… we have these nests, you know? Mine’s this nice, wrought iron kind of—”

“The interrogation. You said she only screamed.”

“Oh right, right.” Moc bounces from one foot to the other. “It’s pretty clever, if I do say so myself. My plan, I mean, but I can still call it clever. Normally you wouldn’t, you know, that’s gauche, but under the circum—”

“Moc!”

“Right, right. So these people showed up, right?” Moc pauses, cocks his head. “Is that odd?”

“What?”

“That people showed up. I mean… when was the last time we had visitors?” Ratibor shrugs. “Anyway,” Moc continues, “these people show up and I get this idea. This brilliant idea, right? Stop looking at me that way. Anyway. So I tell them there are these trials, right?”

Moc pauses again. "Wait, let me back up. Okay, so the ghost went crazy, right? But she’s not just a ghost, no. She’s a powerful witch ghost. One of the Crone’s brood. So when she goes mad, everything gets all… warpy. She changed the hut somehow. Split up my siblings and I with these rooms we couldn’t pass. We might’ve been able to do something sooner, but we couldn’t get to each other.

“Anyway. So, these visitors, right? I convince them that these rooms—the ones the witch made—are trials of strength and whatnot. And they need to get through them to get—hah hah—they need to get through them to get out of the hut! Hah! I mean, there’s that secret door, yeah, but it’s just a door. They probably could’ve found it if they looked. But they don’t know that, see? They think they have to complete these trials. So they go through and they manage to reunite me and my siblings—no, wait, don’t interrupt, I’m getting to the best part.

“So, once they’ve got us all back together, yeah? We convince them that there’s one more trial. That the ghost is a trial. We can’t talk to her, see? She hates us so much. But she doesn’t hate them. So we tell them they need to go talk to the ghost and get some info out of her.” Moc begins bouncing between feet again. “Which is the info the Crone told us to get from her! Hah! We got them to do our job for us! How great is that, eh? That’s brilliant, right?”

Ratibor chuckles. “I think I met these… visitors.”

“Oh yeah? They came this way, huh? You chop ’em all up?”

Ratibor’s brow furrows. “I… no. They confused me, and then overwhelmed me.”

Moc snorts. “No shit.”

Ratibor frowns. “I watch the door. They did not come through the door. They took advantage of this and tied me up. They were… persuasive.”

“Ah, shit, yeah. I know what you mean, Ratty. We ended up giving them our amulets too. I don’t think the grandma will mind, though. I don’t think they were anything too special.”

Ratibor shrugs. “I know little of amulets.”

“Yeah, I know, right? Well, anyway, it’s been good chatting. I’m off to grab some of that rest m’self. Just wanted to see how everyone’s doing. I’ve been cooped up there so long. See ya, big guy!”

Moc launches himself into the air, and Ratibor turns silently back to the door.

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Patchwork

There’s an uncomfortable silence in the room, but for the weak mewling of dying animals and the abrasive sucking noises that Kennan makes as he works. Poryphanes distracts himself by stretching his injured wing until the pain makes him wince, retracting it, and then trying again.

“Been an interesting few days,” Wendall observes, breaking the silence. “Interesting, hey? Interlopers. Big battle.” He lets out a wheezy, rattling giggle. Mauryporry snorts; Kennan continues to stitch.

“Big battle,” Wendall continues, “yup. Everyone was there. Ungrist and his panthers. One o’ them hags. And… mum.” He licks his lips. Mauryporry ascends the creaky ladder, his withered third arm scratching at a boil on his rump. “Even heard the Ratter skitt’ring about.”

Suddenly Wendall’s large, mismatched eyes loom in Poryphanes’ face. “Don’t recall seeing you there, though, da.” He tilts his head, quizzically, his lips set in a hard line. “Didn’t see you.”

Poryphanes frowns. “I was busy.”

“That so?”

“I don’t like your tone, boy. You’d do well to remem—ow! God dammit, Kennan, pay attention.” Kennan mutters under his breath and continues sewing up the wound, pausing occasionally to stuff odorous packages of burlap and mud beneath the torn flesh.

Poryphanes fixes his youngest with a stern gaze. “I’ll not have you question me. I have my reasons, and that’s all you need to know, you ungrateful whelpling.”

There’s a pause—too long—before Wendall responds, “yes, father.”

“Are you almost done, Kennan?”

Kennan smiles up at him, all teeth: “Oh yes, father, we’re nearly through.”

“Good,” Poryphanes snaps. “There are fresh intruders we must deal with. They nearly ended me!”

Kennan backs away, almost bowing. He sweeps his arm in a grand gesture, motioning his father off the surgical table. Still smiling all those teeth. Poryphanes slides off to the floor, takes a tentative step… and suddenly his legs buckle beneath him. He clutches for purchase at the table and realizes he can’t feel his legs at all.

“Kennan, you idiot, what have you done? I can’t feel…” Kennan smiles broader than ever.

“Nearly through, yes… nearly through…” he mutters.

There’s a soft whisper of rope, and then Poryphanes feels Mauryporry’s arms wrap around him.

“Always liked mum better,” Mauryporry hisses in his ear. Poryphanes can feel himself being lifted into the air. “So much better than you…”

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Tunnel Rats

There’s blood in Vsevolod’s eyes and a stinging gash along his flank, but it’s the syncopated flashes of lightning and spellfire that are starting to damage his calm. Ghastly death masks loom out of the infernal darkness, only to wink out; mad cackling and hoarse shrieking add a beat. All around, the increasingly panicked shouts of his soldiers:

“What in the frozen hells it that thing?!”
“On your right, on your right!”
“My leg! Oh gods, it’s got my leg.”

Vsevolod still has assets, though. Husjurgen and his rangers are still on the hoof, slashing wildly with swords, axes, and sputtering torches. Grimmr and the twins have barricaded themselves in a side passage, and their icy blue magics flash back and forth. Wulf bellows, unable to join the fray just yet. And, of course, the Deathless Frost is still with him, always.

“I can’t see!”
“Pin that thing down!”
“Why can’t I see?!”
“Nymph! It’s a fucking nymph.”

Nonetheless, it’s clear to Vsevolod that he can’t depend on the fortunes of battle. If they stay here, their corpses will rot in these halls forever. A new plan is needed.

“That’s no fucking nymph!”
“Watch the ceiling!”

There’s a string of explosions, and for the first time in days there’s too much light. Vsevolod blinks, shakes his head. His eyes stop swimming just in time to see a twisted, grinning face—misshapen by fell deeds and witchcraft—vanish back into the smoke and darkness.

“Husjurgen!” Vsevolod bellows over the battle noise.

“Aye, my lord!” comes the immediate response.

“I make for the Pit. Find a defensible position until I return!” The light of Husjurgen’s torch illuminates the incredulous look on his face. Vsevolod pays it no mind.

“Ungstan!”

“Present, liege!”

“Pick your three best and ride with me!” Vsevolod wheels around, bringing his maul down on a creature he can barely see, much less identify; it squishes satisfactorily. “Wulf!”

The answering bellow shakes the hallway.

“To me, Wulf! Josten, reduce him.” Vsevolod faces the pitch black hallway before him, plants all four hooves. His hammer rests easily in his palms. He feels more than sees Ungstan and his men arrive at his flank. Behind him, Josten begins to pray.

“For Kostchtchie!” he shouts, lifting his hammer above his head. “For the true heirs of Dvezda!” His men shout with him. “For rivers of witch blood!” The tunnel rumbles with their voices. “To the Pit!”

As one, they charge forward into the darkness.

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Lost In a Hut

Hours of tapping on walls and pushing on knobs of wood have dulled the joy of Hestrig’s discovery. It is with a slouch and heavy sigh that she tucks An Examination of the Drakeplague: New Origins and Theories under her arm and starts once more for the front room, with its burbling cauldron and shelves of unsettling bric-a-brac.

She sets herself on a small ledge by one of the windows and looks out. As before, it shows her blackness: a terrible, living inkiness that permits no light but somehow still teems with motion and malevolence. It is, as far as she’s able to determine, the only way out of these rooms now. Whatever waits for her out there in the chaotic dark, she only hopes she’s a match for it. She stows the book in her rucksack and stands. With one hand on the knob of the hut’s front door, she draws a deep breath, closes her eyes, and steels her nerves to turn it.

“Don’t advise that.”

“Elvanna’s frigid tit!” Hestrig roars, wheeling around. “Must you sneak like that?”

Zorka shrugs. “S’my house.”

“I know, I know,” Hestrig replies, holding one hand to her chest. “And I’m sorry for my reaction. I just… crones and bones, madam.”

“Zorka,” the crooked old creature replies, turning her attention to her sweeping. “Just Zorka.”

“Zorka, right.” Hestrig lets out a long, shuddering breath. “I seem to have got myself trapped in here.” Zorka nods, whistling tunelessly to herself.

“There doesn’t seem to be a way out,” Hestrig continues. “I’ve looked everywhere.” Zorka produces a feather duster from the folds of her peasant smock and begins attacking the shelves.

“I would very much like to leave,” Hestrig tries one last time.

“Good luck doing that from here,” Zorka offers, as she continues her dusting.

“I can’t leave?”

“Not from here. That door goes to Irrisen, and we’re not in Irrisen.”

“Right, you said. We’re in Iobaria.” Zorka nods absently and continues dusting. Hestrig adds: “So where is the door to Iobaria?”

“In the Iobaria cauldron room.”

“In the…? This isn’t the cauldron room?”

Zorka sighs, sets down her duster, and fixes Hestrig with her beady, black eyes. “This is the Irrisen cauldron room, which exits into Irrisen. But we’re not in Irrisen, so you can’t. If you want to leave the hut and not be food, you have to go to the Iobaria cauldron room.”

“And where is that?”

Zorka pauses, glances around the room. She spins around twice, as if trying to spot something just out of her field of vision. She looks up toward the ceiling, and then back at Hestrig. “About half a cornfield straight up, and two planes over.”

Hestrig’s mouth opens to offer thanks, and then snaps shut. She finally manages: “Two… I’m sorry, what?”

“Two planes. One of them is small, though, so be careful you don’t miss it.”

“… small…”

“I’d tell you which but they like to take turns, so it’s hard to tell at any given moment.”

Hestrig sinks to the floor, and a nervous laugh begins creeping up her throat, spilling out over her teeth.

“What’s funny?” Zorka asks. “Did I miss joke?”

“No joke,” Hestrig replies, stifling her laughter. “I’m just trying to decide if I’ve gone mad, or if I’m the only sane one left.”

Zorka fixes Hestrig with another gaze, but this time a compassionate one. “Come,” she says, “I will show you.” She extends one bony, clawed hand to the sorceress. Hestrig rises, and Zorka escorts her to the fireplace. She raises her other hand and places it against a round stone in the mantle, blackened and worn with age.

“Hold your breath and count ten,” Zorka says.

And suddenly the world turns inside out.

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Lost In a Book... Again

The library has grown quiet again, and for that Hestrig is grateful: as she slumps in a chair overstuffed with straw, her feet dangling over the arm like a schoolgirl’s, and a thick, dusty tome sprawled open across her lap. She had been worried for a little bit, with the intruding voices from the next room.

They had quieted after a time. Hestrig wasn’t sure how long. Sometimes it felt like she had been in this library mere hours, sometimes weeks. There was so much to read! She found it hard to keep on task. Still, she has settled in now with Vancaskerkin’s A History of the Steppes, and there are no longer voices to distract her.

They had been tantalizingly familiar, though, those voices from the next room. She was sure she had heard them before, but couldn’t place them. Irrisen soldiers, most like. Maybe some of the boys from the 33rd Battery, with whom she’d cut her teeth. Or maybe it’s just that everyone sounds familiar when filtered through thick oak and witch locks.

Hestrig is beginning to get into the flow of this book. She finds that every author has a unique cadence, and books are much easier to read when she can tap into it. Having found Basil Vancaskerkin’s, she’s devouring his account of the drakelords.

“Whatcha reading?”

Hestrig shouts in surprise, the book tumbling to the floor with a loud thump. She’s scrabbling for her sword before finally taking in the speaker: a small, squat crone of a woman with a large beak and broad, avian feet. She’s dressed in peasant garb and regarding Hestrig with curious, black eyes.

“Who… who are you?” Hestrig stammers, one hand hovering over the sword’s hilt.

The small bird woman snorts. “Rude,” she mutters, “in my house and demanding answers of me…”

“Your house?” Hestrig straightens. “Mistress, forgive me. Are you… are… are you Ba… Baba…”

The small woman laughs. “No, of course not, silly tall woman! Grandmother is much fiercer of aspect, with piercing eyes and a face all craggy.” She leans in toward Hestrig, adopting the fiercest face her beak can muster. “I am Zorka, and this is my house.”

“But surely this is…?”

“Yes, yes, her house too,” Zorka waves a dismissive hand. “But also my house.”

“I must apologize, then, Madam Zorka. I fear I’m intruding.”

Zorka shrugs and begins to tidy the stacks of books. “Just don’t make a mess.”

“Perhaps I should go?” Hestrig suggests half-heartedly.

“Too late.”

“Too… what?” Hestrig’s hand again drifts toward the hilt of her sword.

“Hear that sound?” Zorka nods her head toward the library’s entrance, through which a sound can suddenly be heard: a kind of metallic grinding and groaning.

“Yes…?”

“Not in Irrisen anymore.”

Hestrig gapes at the entrance. “But then where—” She turns, only to discover that Zorka has vanished as unobtrusively as she arrived.

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