Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

The End Of a Long Road

Morgan has made a point to study Shegug’s face every day for at least a week now, but the uneasiness never leaves her. She and the mop-haired priest have been through hell together: over a dozen campaigns, including the evacuation of Worldgate; not to mention their childhood years in the slums. She has seen every facet of her old friend’s personality, every expression of his face. The creature that sits before her in its resinous throne, pale blue light seeping between its fingers from the polished and glassy orbs on which its arms rest, slack-jawed and with just the faintest and simplest of grins as its unseeing eyes gaze ever at the plate of frosted glass with its endlessly rolling landscape… She does not recognize this creature.

“You seem uneasy, Templar.”

Morgan shifts her gaze to the left without turning her head: Blind Thomas, the wormspeaker.

“Merely eager to have this over with, Thomas,” Morgan replies.

Thomas makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Soon. Tomorrow morning, if the winds are fair.” Morgan lapses back into silence; after a time, Thomas continues, “You worry for your friend.”

“Just tired,” Morgan grunts.

“No shame in it, child.”

Morgan fixes Thomas with a cold gaze. “It is a great honor to be chosen as an orb pilot.”

Thomas laughs, a short and bitter bark. “Yes, indeed. Glory be to the light and all who serve it. But it is a terrible burden too. Few pilots complete the ordeal unscathed. Many retire from service after. They become recluses, or drunks, or worse. Some…” Thomas glances sidelong at Morgan, “… some simply fall lifeless from the throne.”

“Your words smack of heresy, wormspeaker. See to your writhing tongue.”

Thomas holds up his hands, as if in defense. “Fear not, Templar, there’s no sliver of darkness in my heart.”

“Then speak plainly as to your purpose.” Morgan’s hand hovers near the hilt of her sword.

Thomas frowns. “There are dark days before us, Morgan Moonchild. We shall soon be, as the garrison men like to say, ‘in the shit.’ I need your head firmly planted on your shoulders when we crest the mountains tomorrow.”

Morgan turns away, looking again at Shegug.

“Whatever fate befalls your friend,” Thomas continues, “it is one he chose, willingly and ecstatically. Tomorrow is not the day for tears. Tomorrow is for blood. Tears may come another day.”

Morgan remains silent, though the muscles of her jaw twitch. Thomas observes her for a time, then slowly turns and shuffles away.

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Johnny's Gone For a Soldier

Brecken pokes halfheartedly at the scrub. It’s hard to focus his eyes on penetrating the inky, moonless dark. Torchlights bob like fairy lights out over the fields, and muted shouts pervade the village behind him. His mind turns over many questions.

“Psst!” A sharp hiss. Brecken’s eyes snap up, toward the left. Two tiny points of light peer out through the brown fronds. “Hey, Breck!”

“Lords-a-light, Jozie!” Brecken snarls. “What did you do?”

“Reckon you know,” Jozen whispers. His face begins to resolve in the darkness, mouth set in a hard line.

“Yeah,” Brecken says quietly. “Yeah, I know.” He looks around, makes sure no one else is near; then he kneels to bring his face closer to his friend’s. “Why, Jozie? What was you thinking?”

“I couldn’t take it, Breck. Knowin’ he’d be laughing at me ’till we all dead. And she—” his voice cracks, just a little. “It’s the pity, Breck. I can’t stand the way she looks at me now. Like I’m some dumb kid who should’ve known better.”

“She weren’t worth this, Jozie. You can’t hide long, and they’re gonna hang you for what you done.”

Jozen shakes his head. “Naw, got it figured. I can be in Juniper by sun-up. From there take one of the merchant vans up through the Star.”

Brecken’s eyes narrow. “The Star? Why you wanna go there?”

“I’m enlisting, Breck. I’m going up north to fight.”

“Pentecost’s shriveled old balls, why would you do that? The war will be at our doorstep soon enough, no need to go runnin’ for it.”

“Or stay here and what? Swing from the courthouse? Make reparation?”

“Higgen’s a vile toad of a man, but he’s reasonable. Maybe you could—”

“Even if he were amenable, I’d be a greybeard afore I paid him back for those horses.” For the briefest of moments, a wicked grin flits across Jozen’s features. “They ain’t even good for meat now, after what I done to ’em.”

“Jozen… the war…” Brecken flounders for words. “Think this through!”

“I done thinkin’, Breck. Just paused to say good-bye. You always been good to me. Since we was whelps, you been good to me.”

“Jozie… I…”

“You take care, Brecken. I don’t think I’ll see you again.” Jozen rises, turns toward the north.

“What do I tell your ma?”

“Tell her…” He ponders a moment. “Tell her I’m lost. Lost in the wild. Another lonely ghost wailin’ in the wastes.”

“Jozen…”

And Brecken realizes he’s talking to empty air.

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Out Amongst the People

If Pharamol had expected gratitude from the villagers, he is disappointed. They already refuse to meet his eyes, even as the Spurhorn soldiers are still throwing corpses on the burn piles, righting overturned carts, and consoling the bereaved. Mere minutes ago the minions of the Unholy were clawing through doors, snarling and spitting. Pharamol expects no medals for his service—not this far removed from the Citadel—but he wouldn’t mind the occasional “thank you.”

“Don’t expect too much of them, captain,” croaks a voice from a nearby stoop. Pharamol turns—and recoils. The old woman is possessed of a hideousness so total and unearthly as to be fascinating. Her skin slides unnaturally across the bones of her face as her jaw works, and warts and pimples that seem always on the verge of bursting festoon her crooked nose. She is feeding worms to a large bird by hand. Pharamol wonders, unfairly, if she’s digested them for it first.

“You have to see it through their eyes,” she continues. “To you and your brave boys, you’ve ridden in on white horses and freed them from the ravaging hordes. This is a big deal for you, something you’ve trained for, imagined for so many months. To them? It’s just Tuesday. Another day when they get shat on by all the high-and-lofties fighting wars they don’t care about or understand. Another day their gardens get trampled and their huts burned and their children taken. Doesn’t much matter if it’s men in white armor or demons in rags, the end’s the same.”

“That’s a bleak view.”

“It’s a bleak world.” Their eyes meet, and Pharamol finds he cannot look away. Her eyes are white-blue, like chips of jagged ice; the pupils are cloudy and indistinct; one of them seems to look slightly to his left. She studies him, her face impassive; he can only stand and try to keep as many of his secrets from his eyes as he may.

After a time, she speaks again: “Don’t let it get you down. You’ve done good here today.”

“I… thank you, my lady.”

She looses a cackle. It is meant, he thinks, as humor; and yet it tears at him like the bitter mountain winds deep in the Unholy’s realm. His bones shiver.

“I am no one’s lady,” she wheezes, “none but my own, my sweet boy.” Her face widens into a crooked and gnarled grin. “Surely, though, you deserve some reward for your efforts here.”

“I don’t… it is for the people, my la—your gra—old wom…” Her eyes narrow.

“Grandmother,” he finishes, although he does not know why. She nods approvingly.

“I am but a poor, old crone. I have no riches for you, no shiny medals. But, in gratefulness for your courage, I will give you the two things that are dearest to me: my dear boys, Chubak and Udoga.” She motions with her chin to the bird, and its head lifts. Then a second head. Two birds! But no… as the creatures waddles around to face Pharamol, he sees it: one bird, but two heads, each of its own mind. The smile cracks her face again. “They’re twins.”

Silently, Pharamol reaches out a gloved hand. The birds squawk, then launch themselves clumsily in the air, coming to rest on the outstretched glove.

“They like you,” the crone observes.

“Thank you,” Pharamol mumbles.

“Oh no, my sweet boy, thank you!”

Pharamol stumbles back toward his men, as if dazed, and the cackling of the crone behind him speeds his steps.

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The Caterpiller

The corridor is long, unnaturally so it seems; the cuffs chafe his wrists, even though he hasn’t fought against them. The hard, heavy thumping of two pairs of booted feet dog his own shuffling steps. He’s lost all sense of how far they’ve descended.

Up ahead, he sees a portal of light: the red flickering of torches against a background of… something else. For the first time, he imagines his steps turning, ducking under the grasp of one guard, catching his knee with a sharp kick, and running, running… But there’s nowhere to run. It’s taken a long time, but he knows that now. He could elude every guard, every templar, and disappear into the wilderness; and he still would not have escaped. You can’t escape the things that you carry with you.

The portal is an archway now, shaped from the living flesh of Wormwood and inscribed with holy sigils in a long-dead language. The room beyond is circular and domed. Torches line the wall, casting a ruddy ring around the perimeter. The upper reaches are illuminated only in the shifting blue radiance cast from the deep pool in the room’s center: The Pit. Talmund Harden, up to this moment unresistant, needs to be shoved into the room.

A priest, tall and gaunt with straggles of grey beard, turns as they enter. His face his hard, unreadable, and deeply grooved: like old scraps of wood in the garden pools at the Greenery. His eyes are deep and thoughtful, though.

“Talmund Harden, son of Lothan and Iolanth,” the priest intones, “do you come willingly to The Pit?”

“I do,” Talmund pushes up through his raw throat.

“Do you come here of sound mind and free will, and knowing the path you have chosen to take?”

“I do.”

The priest nods, and then motions the guards away. Talmund can hear their footsteps recede down the long hallway. The priest’s eyes are on Talmund until the sounds fade away entirely. Finally, the weathered wood of his features softens.

“You understand the choice you are making.” Half observation, half question.

“I d—yes. I will become apok.”

“You understand that this is not the easy road. That the punishments a judge would have doled out to you, although harsh, would have been kinder than the life you will face if you survive The Pit. And that, if you do not survive it, your death will be one of unimaginable pain and torment.”

Talmund nods mutely.

“You understand that this path does not absolve you, not in the eyes of the Light and not in the minds of the people. You will never be trusted, never be thanked, you will receive no helping hands nor smiles. The road will be hard, and long, and there is little comfort along it.”

Talmund does not respond.

“Knowing all of this, Talmund Harden, is it still your choice to enter The Pit?”

He raises his eyes to the priest’s. “There was never any absolution,” he says quietly. “Not for me. There is no undoing what I have done. Villages can’t be repopulated, families restored. Any such hope is naive. There is only one choice left to me, father, only one I can stomach: to become a dagger, and drive myself as far into the black heart of the Unholy as I have driven myself into my people.”

The priest’s lip curls into the faintest of smiles, but there’s pity in his eyes. “Very well. Talmund Harden, hold in your heart and your mind the sins you have committed against the Light, and step into The Pit.” He stands aside, and motions Talmund toward it.

Talmund finds it easier to walk now. Gone is the shuffling, the hesitating. The rippling, variegated surface of the glowing Pit draws him forward. It laps at the edges of its well, as if reaching for him. He finds himself standing at its edge, and he looks into its depths. At first there are only shades of blue and black, but then… he sees faces there. Bloated faces twisted in agony, poxy and boil-ridden. He sees the disease-bent arms of children, still clutching rough blankets. And he sees the eyes: wide and terrified and angry and betrayed. They stare at him. He flinches, but only for a moment. He’s earned their anger, and he will hide from it no more. He steps forward.

He had expected stairs, or a ledge of some kind. He had envisioned a slow descent into The Pit. However, his foot meets nothing but viscous liquid and he plunges into its depths, the light going out as if by a switch. The water engulfs him, and he cannot tell which way is up; he couldn’t swim to the surface if he tried. His lungs give out, his mouth opens, and the thick waters flow into him. He cannot breathe. Then he cannot feel his hands or feet. Then, as the blackness takes him, he hears the faint whispering of an ancient and joyous voice.

----*

Father Reinart has overseen this ceremony four times, more than any other living priest. Each time is different. As the ripples in the pool fade, though, he figures that he knows how this one ends. Few people choose the path of the apok, and their reasons vary. Some believe they’ve found a loophole, an easy way to avoid just punishment; some want to torture themselves without really understanding what they ask; some are simply lost. A few—a very few—really understand what the apok is. This Talmund seemed like he could have been one of those. No matter now; Reinart only hopes that he has some peace down there amongst the old bones and deep secrets.

A splash interrupts his thoughts, and he raises his eyes to The Pit. As he watches, a hand emerges from the surface. It’s shaking and gnarled, and the skin is cracked as if by fire. It stretches its fingers once, twice, three times. Then it reaches and slowly finds the edge of the well. Another hand follows. Together, they pull against the viscous waters and drag a figure up from the depths: hairless, cracked, still smoking. And the face… the twisted visage of a demon, covered in boils and pustules, with sharp teeth and wicked brows. Behind it, though—behind the mask—are eyes that bristle with purpose.

Father Reinart and the creature regard each other for perhaps minutes before he works up the nerve to ask it. “What is your name, apok?”

“My name…” the creature breathes, “… is Penitence.”

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Sumira's Reaction

Sumira considers Nex’s proposal for a solid minute in silence.

Finally she nods and says, “I like it. It requires a certain brashness that Pharamol sometimes lacks.”

“There are risks, of course,” chimes in Calissus, the symbiote Hospitaller. “If it triggers a full retaliation, we’re not prepared for that; not until the orb arrives. And if they do somehow mount a counterattack during the blizzard, our crossbows and siege weapons will be useless and our cavalry grounded.”

Sumira rocks her head from side to side and utters a drawn-out, “yessss, but…”

Calissus chuckles. “Never mind, I know that look.”

Sumira leans forward. “Okay, how about this? The blizzard will throw their camps into disarray, but likely only for a few hours. It might be best to use that up front to soften them, limit their ability to respond to your first salvo. Alternatively, it might make good cover for your rest period in between assaults, which would also soften them up further for your second assault.”

Calissus hums. “At the very least, it will impede their search for the Saint in the surrounding foothills. The patrols will be more vulnerable to the weather and may need to be drawn back to help put the camps back in order.”

“Yes! That alone could be huge.”

“But is it worth the risk? If they attack us in force, Spurhorn will fall.”

“I think the chances of that are relatively slim. They’ll have their camps to attend to until well after tempers have cooled, and—as the small lord pointed out—they won’t have a strong assessment of how much we still have in reserve. They’ll be inclined toward caution. We’ve fought Malesinder before: she can be hot-headed, but she won’t lose control like that.”

“Hmm. True.” Calissus ponders a few moments further. “Okay, I’m convinced.”

Sumira smiles broadly. “Well then, strange foreigners, I believe we have a plan. When do you intend to do this?”

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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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