Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

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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A Kingdom for My Horse

If Vsevolod thought the way would get easier once his party reached the bottom of the chasm, he is disappointed. The Deeprun roars through its base, tumbling stones and great blocks of ice in its foamy torrents. The ground around it is littered with jagged fragments, treacherous stones, and deep drifts of snow. The moaning wind sounds like the cyclopean wails of long-vacant Koloran. His scouts pick out a careful path through the difficult terrain; Vsevolod watches the skies for leathery wings.

A scout stumbles, the rocks clattering away from his hooves. His ankle twists, and there’s a sharp snap, like a dry twig. He bellows in agony.

Vsevolod pulls up beside him, looks down.

“My lord!” the scout cries. “My leg—I think it broke. Spare me a blessing.”

“Don’t be a woman,” Vsevolod spits. “You have three left. If that’s not enough, feed the crows.”

Husjurgen approaches Vsevolod as he continues on, leaving the moaning scout to lie by the river.

“That was harsh, my lord, don’t you think?”

“Our road will grow harder still, Husjurgen, before we reach our destination. And from there, many times harder still. If he’s going to mewl and cry over a twisted ankle now, what do you imagine the Crone’s servants will do to him? The Deathless Frost is not overgenerous with his boons; I cannot waste them on the weak and girlish.”

Husjurgen nods silently.

“You disapprove.”

“I am but a hunter, my lord,” Husjurgen replies. “I bow to your wisdom.”

Vsevolod snorts, and they continue mutely. The Deeprun roars and snarls. The scouts communicate in short, clipped phrases. The rocks clatter and chatter beneath their hooves.

A shadow covers the sun, cast down from the heights. With a cry, Vsevolod snatches the maul from his back. The shadow resolves, and a giant eagle settles onto the ground in front of him.

“Fucking hells!” Husjurgen roars. “Nordgren, I hope you wing your way into the Abyss.” The eagle cocks its head and clacks its beak, and then the feathers melt away to chestnut fur, a wild mane, and a wide and toothy grin. Vsevolod is unimpressed.

“Report, kodlak,” he barks.

Nordgren bows, and his hooves slip for just a moment on the pebbles. “Ill news from the Hoofwood, my lord.” He is suddenly serious.

“It’s those whore-son Rashalka, isn’t it?” Vsevolod demands.

“Worse, my lord: the hut has been spotted. It’s returned.” Vsevolod considers this.

“Impossible,” he says finally, “the bones told me that she would not return here for some time.”

“Nonetheless, my lord, the hut is here. I saw it with my own eyes. I watched for several hours, but no one emerged.”

“That is… ill timed,” Vsevolod says quietly. “Tell Jorgunheimer to take his boys south. Watch the hut. If anyone comes out, grind them to paste.”

Nordgren nods. “Very good, my lord. I’ll relay the message.” His form turns liquid, and the golden eagle again perches where moments before the centaur stood. It launches itself into the air and wings back through the chasm. Vsevolod and Husjurgen watch him depart.

“If it is the Crone,” Husjurgen finally says, “do you really think Jorgunheimer can stop her?”

Vsevolod shakes his head slowly. “I only need her delayed.”

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A Cold Day In Hell

It’s a lonely mountaintop—made moreso by the screaming winds that strip the rock bare—but it commands an excellent view of the countryside. The lone figure who stands at the outcropping is wiry and hoary, and clothed only in the long scraggles of his beard; he appears unaffected by the cold.

“Well, that didn’t work,” rumbles a voice like distant thunder.

“I know,” the old man says.

“I mean, you’ve had worse plans before, but that one just did not work at all.”

“I know,” the old man says.

“Fell apart on you faster than a witch’s—”

“I know.

“So what’re you going to do now, O Deathless Terror of the Frozen Steppes?”

“If I could find your throat, my next step would be to throttle it.” Lightning dances across the peaks: if a storm could laugh, it would look much the same.

“That rabble are still my best chance,” the old man continues.

“You’re certain?”

He nods. “They have the hag’s stink all over them. And…”

After a pause: “And what?”

The old man shakes his head, to clear it. “Smoke and snakes and winds foul and fair. I don’t know.” He steps away from the precipice, turns his back to the countryside. Lightning dances across the mountain peaks again.

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Catching Up

Deep within the servants’ quarters of the royal palace is a dimly lit hallway that is traveled only rarely. In an alcove in the hallway is a door that no one sees. In the darkness, in the dead of night, the door creaks open.

A tall and beautiful woman, ageless and severe as the sun-bedazzled snow, emerges; she looks furtively down the hallway to either side, then draws a delicate, bone key from the folds of her robe and locks the door. Quietly she slips down the hallway, making her way up through the servants’ quarters past the sleeping and the restless. Eventually she emerges into a brightly lit chamber covered with soft, thick rugs and vibrant tapestries.

Cassisoche, regent of Whitethrone, fails to notice her arrival. Instead she hunches over the charts and listings on her desk.

“Daughter,” the tall woman says softly, and Cassisoche starts.

“Mother!” she exclaims, “my queen. You’ve returned.” She hurries awkwardly to her feet, and then offers Elvanna a curtsy.

Elvanna moves to a couch and lays down. “You haven’t called me ‘my queen’ since the last time I caught you stealing biscuits from the kitchen. Out with it.”

Cassisoche coughs uncomfortably. “The news of late is… unpleasant, but not dire. It seems, uh… it seems the Iron Guard is revolting.”

Elvanna smirks. “Are they now?”

“Yes. Much of Ironside is barricaded and the goblin warrens have been cleared. Temporarily, I should add. There’s been fighting in the streets in both the Troll Quarter and Two Hills.”

“And this is not dire?” Elvanna asks.

Cassisoche waves a hand dismissively. “They’re all but spent. We captured Liev Dragorich this afternoon, and with him their rebellious hearts. It will all be over by supper tomorrow.”

Elvanna arches an eyebrow. “And did you not assure me that the Iron Guard would not rise? Is that not why you installed your pet dragon in that otherwise serviceable clocktower?”

“Ah, hmm.” Cassisoche fidgets. “That’s where things get interesting. Logrovich… umm… well, Logrovich is dead.”

“Dead? How?”

“There are foreigners in the city.”

Elvanna snorts. “There are always foreigners in the city. And when there aren’t, there are stilyagi who are just as bad.”

“Yes, mother, but I mean very specific foreigners.” Elvanna narrows her eyes at her daughter, who quickly continues. “Not so long ago there were reports of foreigners in a small village called Waldsby. It’s under the purview of the Pale Tower. Or was, before…” Her voice trails off.

Elvanna raises herself on one elbow, and her expression becomes stern. “Before what, daughter?”

“Before they… raided the tower and murdered Radosek Pavril.”

“And then they came here, killed Logrovich, and incited a rebellion.”

“Yes, in so many words.”

“A rebellion that is doomed to fail.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“That… we don’t know yet, mother.”

“You’re hiding something from me.”

Cassisoche wrings her hangs in silence before finally melting under her mother’s glare. “There are reports—unconfirmed reports, mind you—that they may have… entered the forest…”

“The forest?” Cassisoche nods mutely. “The forest?” Elvanna repeats; Cassisoche nods again. “The forest?” she roars.

“It’s unconfirm—”

“They’re after the hut, you soft-bellied, jelly-brained ninny!” Elvanna leaps to her feet, and then doubles over in a coughing fit. Cassisoche rushes to her side.

“Calm yourself, mother,” she coos. “You look done in. The hut is guarded, if they can even make it past the strange creatures that stalk the woods. They’ll never make it out alive, and Vasiliovna will see to that.” Elvanna glares at her daughter between coughs.

“Come, mother,” Cassisoche continues, “let’s get you to bed. You’re exhausted.”

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Two Riders Were Approaching, Part Three

It has been so long since Black Midnight had to run. He had forgotten the fire that infests your thighs from long minutes standing in the stirrups. He had forgotten the stiffness that infects your back and shoulders. Mostly, though, he had forgotten the red heat that creeps up your neck and cheeks from the shame of it.

For the first time in centuries, Black Midnight is running. He has grown soft on the token resistance of fat villagers and weeping mothers. He’s spent more time with charts and census tablets than at the pell, and now he is paying the price.

Some things, at least, he has not forgotten: a troll rises up before him, and his right arm lashes out; he has barely registered the troll’s existence and it’s already clutching the red gash that leaks its entrails from its stomach.

How had it gone so wrong? Not two days ago he stood on a windy hilltop with his brother and sister, and their task seemed nearly finished for another hundred years. Now they are both dead, and Black Midnight is running.

There are soldiers among the trees, with crossbows. He lets their bolts clatter off the impossible angles of his armor, and he cuts a line through them as he rides past: a thick streak of red paint that begins at the forehead of the first—a clean-shaven, wide-eyed boy with freckles—and continues through the hawk-nosed veteran’s throat; cleaves the stocky soldier’s ill-fitting scale; and onward before exiting the sergeant’s chest with a flourish.

Elvanna has betrayed her mother, that much he knows. He knows that strange energies pulse through the land’s shimmering ley lines, and one of those pulses leads into the Hoarwood. He knows that his brother and sister are dead, that his mistress cannot respond to his calls, and that the assembled might of the nation of Irrisen is arrayed against him. He does not know why, and that troubles him most of all.

He snatches a sprite from the sky with his free hand, squeezes until he feels twigs breaking beneath his fingers, and hurls the remains against a tree.

Baba Yaga must have known, he realizes. That’s the reason for the strange objects she gave him when last they spoke. “I have to see… an old acquaintance,” she’d told him with, he felt, uncharacteristic gravity. “I have several stops to make along the way. Take these with you and keep them safe for my return.”

A blast of icy breath washes across his back, but his charger has already stoved the winter wolf’s head in with a well-placed hoof. Another wolf circles, though. He veers toward it, baiting it. As predictably as the sun rises, it leaps; he catches it on the point of his blade and gently guides its corpse to thump into the snow behind his horse.

Oh, grandmother, he thinks, your incessant wordplay will end you someday. Not ‘for when I return,’ but ‘for my return.’ A difference of no consequence for anyone who hadn’t spent uncountable centuries getting to know the old witch, but he feels foolish that he missed it before. She knew she wouldn’t return from her trip. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to. And she knew that her loyal riders would have to follow her.

Did she know that Bright Morning and Red Sun would fall? Surely she trusted Black Midnight most of the three, but did she know she was relying solely on him? Did she know that he might fail?

His horse stumbles in the snow as he for the first time ponders that possibility: he might fail. Baba Yaga would remain trapped in whatever prison—undoubtedly devised by that spoiled brat Elvanna. And all her works in this world and a hundred others would be undone. Midnight knew he could not allow such a thing to be.

A sudden burst of icy knives tears at his skin, sneaking between the black plates of his armor. The witches are coming, he knows. His horse vaults a cowering gaggle of boy soldiers and lands amongst more trolls. He wheels about, laying waste to his left and right. The encounter costs him only seconds, but he is increasingly aware that his supply of those is short.

Up ahead of him in the woods, there’s a strange and unnatural light. The sick pulsing of the ley line around him leads directly toward it. He is close. Whatever it is he approaches, he is close. A fog springs up from the ground around him, and he knows the witches have arrived.

The first face emerges from the fog: craggy and wind-weathered, with an unnatural light in her eyes. He slashes across the eyes and they go out, leaving her shrieking in pain behind him. The horse twists and lurches beneath him as oily black tentacles emerge from the ground; the steed stumbles but does not fall.

There! Flying through the fog, perceptible as the vaguest of disturbances in the mist. He veers toward it, deflects a claw that lashes suddenly toward him, and snaps his wrist around: the witch crashes awkwardly to the ground, split through her midsection. The soldiers are closing around him now, but he pays them little heed. He carves his way through them with the barest of attention, watching as the mists coalesce around him.

He finds himself in a small clearing, swept clear by the howling winds that rush into a blue-black rent in the air. It’s a portal. And all of Irrisen’s winter pours through it.

The press of soldiers begins to impede—but not stall—his progress. It’s the echoing cackles that worry him, though. Another old crone emerges, and for the briefest of moments their eyes lock; he feels his joints begin to stiffen with age, and a weight on his chest. He stabs three times and she melts away. Another troll looms before him and is as quickly dispatched. There are fifteen feet of untenanted ground between him and the portal. He charges.

Like the others, she emerges as if from the mist: a smooth face of cold, impossible beauty wrapped in a swirl of cloth and arcane symbols. The air around her is thick: as he draws close it seems as if space itself collapses into an ice-black lance. He watches it form, as if it took centuries; sees her direct it toward him; sees it begin its thrust through the thick air. All of this he watches as if he had all the time in the world, although it occurs in the space between two hoofbeats. He cannot avoid the lance, and he knows it. So he does the only thing left to him to do: he rides into it, drawing as much momentum as he can manage. His horse, ever of one mind with him, leaps into the impact.

Long ago, in another life and with a different name, Black Midnight faced a storm giant in single combat. The giant wielded a massive hammer, inscribed with the history of a thousand generations in a dead language. Black Midnight was young then, and brash; he paid insufficient attention to his guard, and the giant caught him full in the chest. The blow sent him over the fortress wall to crash into the mountain face outside. The lance, when it strikes him, reminds him of that ancient battle.

His ears ring, his head begins to float, and the feeling leaves his legs. His joints, already stiff and aching, begin to seize. His eyes unfocus, and suddenly he cannot remember who he’s fighting or why.

Clarity returns when he feels his horse’s hoofs strike bare earth. His head is still fuzzy, his purpose unclear, but he knows one thing: this icy bitch has killed him, and he will make sure she follows him into the Abyss.

He releases the rein and wraps his left palm around the pommel of his sword. The momentum of his horse’s leap is reaching its nadir; it is coiled like a snake, and soon it will leap forward to strike. The witch’s eyes go wide.

As the charger springs into another leap, Black Midnight focuses all of his will, his blood, his years, into the tip of his blade. It whistles as it slices the air, and he never even feels it impact the witch’s neck. He only sees her body slump to the ground, and her wide eyes tumbling back into the mist, as his horse lunges past.

And suddenly he’s surrounded by impossible cold and unimaginable wind, a darkness so profound it gives even him pause. There is no ground, and no sky. He tumbles…

When the charger’s hooves again touch the ground, its legs buckle beneath it. As Black Midnight falls, he sees a four strange faces above him.

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The Watcher In the Woods

Nazhena drags a pale, thin finger across the mirror’s surface and it ripples like water. The marble reflected in it shifts, becomes blue ice; the hallway becomes a small, circular room outfitted in furs and silks. A tall man hunches over a wooden desk, scribbling notes.

“Radosek!” Nazhena barks, and smiles to herself as the starts and nearly sends his chair clattering across the floor. He stands awkwardly, smooths down his woolen robes, and flashes his broadest smile.

“My lady Nazhena,” he coos, “how lovely to see you.”

Nazhena hides her smile behind a dour stoniness. “What news of the Black Rider?” Radosek winces visibly.

“We… we still search, my lady.”

“I will be called before her eminence Cassisoche shortly to explain why he still lives. This failure reflects poorly on both of us.”

“I know, I know. But it is only a matter of time. I have news from one of the nearby villages that there are strangers afoot. It is said they came from the Hoarwood, where last we saw Black Midnight.”

Nazhena narrows her eyes. “Good. Bring them to the tower for questioning.”

Radosek offers an oily smile. “Jairess’ ravens—” Nazhena hisses. “Pardon me, my pet. That sylph’s ravens tell me that they are already heading this way. We shall have them soon.”

“See that you do. Tell me what news you can pull from them, even if you must read it in their entrails. The moment you hear anything.”

Radosek bows deeply. “Yes, of course, my lo—my liege.”

Nazhena wipes her hand across the mirror’s face. The image wavers, ripples, and then fades once more to the marble hallway. Nazhena’s hand lingers against its cold surface.

“Be careful, Radosek,” she murmurs. “I fear these foreigners bode ill for us.”

There’s a sharp clack clack clack as a mailed guard enters the hallway and snaps into a salute.

“Her eminence, the Jadwiga Cassisoche of the House of Elvanna, Seneschal of the Royal Palace and Regent of Whitethrone, now invites into her presence Nazhena Vasiliiovna of the Jadwiga Elvanna, Governess of the Hoarwood and Mistress of the Pale Tower.”

Nazhena tilts up her chin and steps up to the guardsman. “I am she.”

The guard nods curtly. “Follow me, your excellency.” Nazhena follows him through tall, steel doors into the queen’s audience chamber. The hall is long and impossible high, with stalagmites as pillars and tall, narrow windows that let in pale light. A blue carpet, well worn with use, leads down the center to a raised dais, upon which rests a throne carved of blue-white marble.

The throne is empty, but the ornate wooden chair a step down from it is occupied by a short, squat woman of indeterminate age.

The guardsman stops, his heels clicking into place.

“I present Nazhena Vasiliovna of the Jadwi—”

Enough,” roars the woman in the chair. “I know who she is, captain: I called her. You may go.” The captain, momentarily flustered, nods and retreats from the hall. “Come forward, Nazhena,” the women continues. Nazhena complies.

“Your eminence, I am honored to be in your presence,” Nazhena begins. “I bring news from the Hoarwoo—”

“You bring nothing,” Cassisoche states. “I know what you know. Black Midnight is still abroad, and your search continues. It’s only a matter of time, and you’re optimistic that your dedicated men and women will bring him to heel quickly.” Nazhena’s mouth clacks shut.

“Close enough?” Cassisoche continues. “That’s not why you’re here, Vasiliovna. Come forward.” Nazhena begins up the aisle.

“Our illustrious Queen Elvanna has won herself a trophy,” the regent explains. “She has seen fit to display it in the Market Square. However, it has proven… difficult. It has some protective magics, it seems, and it’s cloaking itself in forest. Our men cut it down and haul the wood away daily, but each day there’s just a little more. It’s becoming unmanageable.” As Nazhena reaches the dais, Cassisoche motions her to a kneeling cushion.

“There are rumors also of strange creatures that hide amongst the trees. Fey, most like, but of a kind unfamiliar to us. They speak strangely and act stranger, and they are not our friends.”

“I am no expert in fey, your eminence.”

“I know this, Nazhena, nor are you called to be. However, we believe they have designs on the queen’s prize. Take the best defenders you can find, make your way into these woods, and keep guard over the hut.”

“The… hut?”

“Yes, you stupid child, the hut.”

“Which… which hut precisely, your eminence?”

“The only one that matters, cow. The hut. Her hut.” Cassisoche sees the shock in Nazhena’s face and smiles. “Chicken legs and all.”

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