Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

Pale Tower Room

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What awaits us here?

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Lost In a Book

Hestrig’s back is starting to ache. She’s not sure how long she’s been bent over this table, but she knows it’s been awhile. The stack of books to her left steadily grows.

There’s a commotion out in the hall—most likely Jir and Lask quarreling again. She pays it no mind. The names of dragons tend to blend and blur after awhile, but she thinks she’s finally found a promising lead.

More noise outside. That irritating bard is shouting. Hestrig ignores it.

She’s reading about Auburphex, whose gaze she knows well: his icy visage oversees the courtyard. It’s been some days since she came across The Lay of the Ice Dragon, the first real clue in a search that’s taken her over a year of intense study. And here it is, all laid out. In as dry a book as can be found, Murritch’s Northern Lineages, Appendix B: Intelligent Creatures.

Auburphex was born to Derphex and Ignelora. Auburphex had three known spawn: Igdred, Ilmach, and Castinex. As a sidenote, Auburphex is known to have briefly entertained an Irriseni woman.

Named Vera Orlov.

Baba Orlov, who died a spinster and would never name the father of her bastard child…

There’s a sudden crash, and the door flies inward…

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A Cabin In the Woods, redux

It’s been awhile since big, gruff Teb has come by. It’s been awhile since anyone has come by. So she sits and waits, dangling her legs off the front porch; her shiny shoes just brush the top of the snow.

She thinks that she played in the snow, once. But it’s hard to remember. If she concentrates, there’s laughing and shouting and running. There are others. Does she know them? She must, but she can’t recall their names.

There’s a tiny, stooped, old man too. She thinks she should remember his name, but she doesn’t. He said something funny to her once. It made her laugh. Oh, how she laughed! It was the funniest joke in the world. She thinks she might have told it to someone else. And then there was running and shouting and…

She watches the snow. It’s easier that way. The tiny little flakes dance and swirl in the steady wind that blows from somewhere behind her.

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Bitter Almonds

Mig pounds his fists into the dough he’s struggling to keep warm: one-two, one-two, one-two. He hisses between his teeth at each strike, eyes wide and nostrils flared, as if he imagines the soft dough to be someone’s soft features instead. The stove behind him belches out a blast of dry, hot air; he pounds on unheeding.

“Gods damned nana’s recipe,” he snarls. One-two, one-two. “Fed it to kings of old, she did, and Jadwiga.” One-two, one-two. He peels the dough off the hardwood table, flips it, slams it back down.

“But that’s not good enough for our Captain Orlov, is it?” he bellows to no one in particular. “Oh no, not at all.” One-two, one-two: the pounding resumes.

Lamb should be tender!,” he mocks in falsetto, “otherwise it’s just mutton.

One-two, one-two.

“What do you know of mutton, bitch?” One-two.

A tiny head, blue-skinned with long and pointy ears, peeks into the doorway. “You need help, Mig?”

“No, Lask,” Mig growls, “I do not need help. I need diners with palates that aren’t tuned to hard tack, that’s what I need.” Lask stares blankly at the short, gnarled chef. “Never mind,” Mig adds, “just tell Skarl I need some fresh water.”

Lask’s head nods and then disappears from the doorway. The stove belches another arid blast. Mig gives the dough a quick three-count—left, left, right—and then turns. He reaches bare-handed into the stove’s gullet and retrieves a single pastry: flat and cakey, in the shape of a dragon. For the first time, Mig smiles—a broad, toothy, unpleasant grin. He sets the cookie down carefully on a sheet of waxed paper. Defty and eagerly, he begins to decorate: a thin, even coat of white frosting, a touch of bluish rime around the dragon’s lips, delicate back veins spidering across the wings. A licorice dot for an eye.

“It’s no matter, Captain Orlov,” he says, his voice barely a hiss. “Ol’ Mig don’t hold no grudges. Here, dearie, enjoy this nice cookie I made for you. Sort of a peace offering, if you will.”

Mig takes one last, longing sniff of the cookie—ginger and cardamom, ash and bitter almonds—and then seals the paper with a thick, red blob.

He begins to laugh.

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Sam's Son at the Axe
My apologies to Mr. Thayer

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mammoth Lords nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one tusk charger left to play.
And then when Cooney died under hoof: and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Sam’s Son could get but a whack at that -
We’d put up even coin, now, with Sam’s Son at the axe.

But Flynn preceded Sam’s Son, as did also Jimny Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Sam’s Son getting to the axe.

But Flynn chopped off a single tusk, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore a chunk of hide off with no maul,
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occured,
There was the massive mammoth, his power but a third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Sam’s Son, mighty Sam’s Son, was advancing to the axe.

There was ease in Sam’s Son’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Sam’s Son’s bearing and a smile on Sam’s Son’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his helm,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt the pride of the realm.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing mammoth to charge set his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Sam’s Son’s eye, a sneer curled Sam’s Son’s lip.

And now the frothing mammoth came hurtling through the air,
And Sam’s Son stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy axeman the beast unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Sam’s Son. “Strike one,” the Shaman said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the Shaman!” shouted someone at the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Sams Son raised his hand.

With a smile of Kellid charity great Sam’s Son’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the Shaman, and once more the mammoth flew;
But Sam’s Son still ignored it, and the Shaman said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Sam’s Son and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Sam’ Son’s rage would not let the mammoth pass again.

The sneer is gone from Sam’s Son’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his axe upon the slate.
And now the mammoth screws up his charge, and now he lets it go.
And now the air is shattered by the force of Sam’s Son’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The minstrels are playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy for these Mammoth Lords – mighty Sam’s Son has struck out.

“Phin”

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A Chance Meeting
Seeds of a cold vengeance

Eventually, I realized the Envoy may once have known my father; but I can never know that with certainty, as I never learned her name. She rid herself of me as quickly as could be managed; and I do not believe I can seek her out to ask the question.

I met her some time after departing my mother’s tribe. The Varki had let me know I was no longer welcome among them now that I was grown. I had grown lean in those six months after parting . . . but I still lived. I found myself in the high wilderness just below the Crown, trailing a strayed caribou between ice-white trees that somehow clung to life in that place.

I peered through blowing powder at the deer. Standing in a clearing, it dug at the snow looking for frozen lichen under a pale Winter blanket. I drew my arrow and sighted the dirty-white fur of the animal’s breast. I steadied myself against the silver-barked trunk of a naked birch. . .

A white wisp of movement descended from the ridge at my left; and the last I saw of the deer was a blur of dappled flank as I released my arrow into empty air.

She was nearby me then, speaking in a language I did not understand. It sounded like a glissando of slippery vowels.

— You lost me three weeks of meat, Princess. Speak in Common, or Skald, if you know it.

She was the first person I had met who stood taller than me. (Perhaps her height was exaggerated by her ability to stand on snow crust without falling through.) Her skin was white and immobile, like milk frozen in the likeness of a face.

— You do not know your own tongue? Are you a black elf from the underworld? She spoke in uninflected Common.

— No, my mother is human. A Varki. Her skin is also brown. She gave me her color in her womb.

She nodded, almost imperceptibly, then spoke a single incomprehensible word.

— What?

— Half-breed. She spoke again in Common and did not seem to intend the term as a compliment.

She turned away and drifted over the snow.

I stumbled after her, shouting crude epithets upon her forefathers, until she turned back toward me.

— You lost me several meals, at least, I cried. Not to mention what else I may have made from that deer’s hide and bones. My hood fell back as I struggled.

She turned on me calmly, and stood, unmoving. Her expression did not soften or change, but her eyes ranged over my face, then she clearly came to some internal decision.

— Learn a few words of the First Tongue from me. And I will take you where you can eat . . . and perhaps you can learn other needful things as well. . .

So. We strode through the snow — or at least I did. She continued to glide over the frigid crust without leaving any sign of passage. Along the way she would point at things and name them in her glissant tongue. We walked for a day and into the night; by the time we reached her destination, not every word she taught me slipped immediately from my mind.

Around midnight, we came upon a hole in the snow.

The Envoy dropped into the dark gap, and, half reclined, slid away without sound. Was I supposed to follow? I was tired and beginning to feel the cold of night penetrate my bones, but I decided to bide. Perhaps she was raiding a hidden Elven larder?

In a few moments she reappeared — with a companion even taller than she. Her facial expression was unchanged, yet I sensed she was more frustrated with me than before.

— Why did you not follow me? Are you awaiting permission? She cast her eyes to the side. This is Valerendin.

An almost imperceptible, sideways motion of her head.

— This is his outpost.

The taller Elf nodded toward me — though his expression was impassive, he seemed not as unfriendly as the Envoy.

— You can call me Val. How are you known?

— Eran. Some called me Streakhair.

I flipped back my hood’s cloak. Even in the dark, pale streaks were visible in my ebon hair. Val and the Envoy exchanged a glance that I found significant, but meaningless.

My stomach rumbled audibly.

— Time for us to eat, it seems. Follow me. Val swung into his hole and vanished. The Envoy gestured toward the opening.

— Please follow, Valerendin. I will come later.

I did as she suggested. I grasped the upper edge of the opening and swung into darkness. I found myself sliding along a narrow passage of polished ice for several meters, until I was able to stand in a narrow pit pocked with handholds upon the inner wall. A light burned above my head. I climbed toward it.

I clambered into a large circular room apparently hewn from living rock. Val dipped a ladle into a steaming pot and filled a rough-looking bowl. The bowl contained a lumpy paste that smelled like baking bread. Val gestured toward a small pile of flat spoons.

— Eat. Then we can discuss your schooling.

More must have passed between Val and the Envoy than the few seconds they were together seemed to allow.

— You must have better things to do than hold the hand of a half-breed, I used the derogatory Elven word the Envoy had used when we first met.

Val frowned.

— You learned that word from the Envoy, I assume. She is a traditionalist . . . and will never accept you. Even so, do not let her limitations define you. Her approval means nothing.

— Why am I here if she sees no place for me among Elves?

— There is kindness yet, hidden within all that ice.

I suddenly realized the Envoy had not followed me into Val’s sanctum; and looked behind me toward the opening of the pit in the hewn-rock floor.

Valerendin glanced toward the pit.

— The Envoy has business elsewhere . . . with the Witches. It is best we let her go her way and merely hope for a safe return.

But I have never encountered the Envoy again to this day — and I never learned if her mission to the Witches was a success or a failure. Following events, and the state of the world, however, suggests the latter.

In the days and weeks that followed, Val filled my head with Elven vocabulary and phrases. He also taught me how to fight with blades. One night he produced a narrow sword in a plain sheath. It was clearly one the light blades favored by his people.

— This may serve you better than that crude thing.

He gestured toward the short sword I had carried away from my tribe, but rarely used except in our sword practice. The Varki used the tool for flaying blubber from sea mammals; but I had seldom unsheathed it — preferring to feather my prey with arrows and to skin it with my dagger. I thanked Val for the light, flexible blade. It was clearly a much better fit for the style of swordplay he taught, rather than the butchery tool I had been using.

As I lay my old cutlass aside, a flutter of pinions came to our ears.

An immense owl arose on broad wings from the pit and alighted at the edge of the firelight. The irises of its large eyes closed to points. Val coaxed he bird forward and took a roll of vellum from around its leg. I caught a glimpse of tiny, precise Elven characters. Val read the note silently, glanced for a moment into empty space then tossed the scrap of tanned sheepskin into the fire. It burned pungently, before the steady updraft carried the odor away through the chimney above.

Val said nothing and soon rolled into his bed and turned away from me, possibly he slept.

The following morning, I awoke and the fire was low, the outpost empty. I waited a bit before emerging into the ice and snow. Trackless drifts lay before me, betraying no sign of Valerendin’s departure.

I waited for Val for several days before cleaning up after myself, taking a few supplies and leaving him well-provided should he return. But I did not think he would.

Had both Sentry and Envoy fallen? I feared that was the case. I was grateful for their momentary comfort, no matter how cold it had been. If I could, I hoped one day to thank them — with a colder vengeance.

I trudged through snow, toward the South.

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Mierul's Story

Following is the story Mierul told you over breakfast:


SOMEWHERE, I cannot tell you exactly where, but certainly in vast Irrisen, there lived a peasant with his wife and they had twins — a son and daughter. One day the wife died and the husband mourned over her very sincerely for a long time. One year passed, and two years, and even longer. But there is no order in a house without a woman, and a day came when the man thought, “If I marry again possibly it would turn out all right.” And so he did, and had children by his second wife.

The stepmother was envious of the stepson and daughter and began to use them hardly. She scolded them without any reason, sent them away from home as often as she wished, and gave them scarcely enough to eat. Finally she wanted to get rid of them altogether. Do you know what it means to allow a wicked thought to enter one’s heart?

The wicked thought grows all the time like a poisonous plant and slowly kills the good thoughts. A wicked feeling was growing in the stepmother’s heart, and she determined to send the children to the witch, thinking sure enough that they would never return.

“Dear children,” she said to the orphans, “go to my grandmother who lives in the forest in a hut on hen’s feet. You will do everything she wants you to, and she will give you sweet things to eat and you will be happy.”

The orphans started out. But instead of going to the witch, the sister, a bright little girl, took her brother by the hand and ran to their own old, old grandmother and told her all about their going to the forest.

“Oh, my poor darlings!” said the good old grandmother, pitying the children, “my heart aches for you, but it is not in my power to help you. You have to go not to a loving grandmother, but to a wicked witch. Now listen to me, my darlings,” she continued; “I will give you a hint: Be kind and good to everyone; do not speak ill words to any one; do not despise helping the weakest, and always hope that for you, too, there will be the needed help.”

The good old grandmother gave the children some delicious fresh milk to drink and to each a big slice of ham. She also gave them some cookies—there are cookies everywhere—and when the children departed she stood looking after them a long, long time.

The obedient children arrived at the forest and, oh, wonder! there stood a hut, and what a curious one! It stood on tiny hen’s feet, and at the top was a rooster’s head. With their shrill, childish voices they called out loud:

“Izboushka, Izboushka! turn thy back to the forest and thy front to us!”

The hut did as they commanded. The two orphans looked inside and saw the witch resting there, her head near the threshold, one foot in one corner, the other foot in another corner, and her knees quite close to the ridge pole.

“Fou, Fou, Fou!” exclaimed the witch; “I feel the Irriseni spirit.”

The children were afraid, and stood close, very close together, but in spite of their fear they said very politely:

“Ho, grandmother, our stepmother sent us to thee to serve thee.”

“All right; I am not opposed to keeping you, children. If you satisfy all my wishes I shall reward you; if not, I shall eat you up.”

Without any delay the witch ordered the girl to spin the thread, and the boy, her brother, to carry water in a sieve to fill a big tub. The poor orphan girl wept at her spinning-wheel and wiped away her bitter tears. At once all around her appeared small mice squeaking and saying:

“Sweet girl, do not cry. Give us cookies and we will help thee.”

The little girl willingly did so.

“Now,”gratefully squeaked the mice, “go and find the black cat. He is very hungry; give him a slice of ham and he will help thee.”

The girl speedily went in search of the cat and saw her brother in great distress about the tub, so many times he had filled the sieve, yet the tub was still dry. The little birds passed, flying near by, and chirped to the children:

“Kind-hearted little children, give us some crumbs and we will advise you.”

The orphans gave the birds some crumbs and the grateful birds chirped again:

“Some clay and water, children dear!”

Then away they flew through the air.

The children understood the hint, spat in the sieve, plastered it up with clay and rilled the tub in a very short time. Then they both returned to the hut and on the threshold met the black cat. They generously gave him some of the good ham which their good grandmother had given them, petted him and asked:

“Dear Kitty-cat, black and pretty, tell us what to do in order to get away from thy mistress, the witch?”

“Well,” very seriously answered the cat, "I will give you a towel and a comb and then you must run away. When you hear the witch running after you, drop the towel behind your back and a large river will appear in place of the towel.

If you hear her once more, throw down the comb and in place of the comb there will appear a dark wood. This wood will protect you from the wicked witch, my mistress."

Baba Yaga came home just then.

“Is it not wonderful?” she thought; “everything is exactly right.”

“Well,” she said to the children, “today you were brave and smart; let us see to-morrow. Your work will be more difficult and I hope I shall eat you up.”

The poor orphans went to bed, not to a warm bed prepared by loving hands, but on the straw in a cold corner. Nearly scared to death from fear, they lay there, afraid to talk, afraid even to breathe. The next morning the witch ordered all the linen to be woven and a large supply of firewood to be brought from the forest.

The children took the towel and comb and ran away as fast as their feet could possibly carry them. The dogs were after them, but they threw them the cookies that were left; the gates did not open themselves, but the children smoothed them with oil; the birch tree near the path almost scratched their eyes out, but the gentle girl fastened a pretty ribbon to it. So they went farther and farther and ran out of the dark forest into the wide, sunny fields.

The cat sat down by the loom and tore the thread to pieces, doing it with delight. Baba Yaga returned.

“Where are the children?” she shouted, and began to beat the cat. “Why hast thou let them go, thou treacherous cat? Why hast thou not scratched their faces?”

The cat answered: “Well, it was because I have served thee so many years and thou hast never given me a bite, while the dear children gave me some good ham.”

The witch scolded the dogs, the gates, and the birch tree near the path.

“Well,” barked the dogs, “thou certainly art our mistress, but thou hast never done us a favor, and the orphans were kind to us.”

The gates replied:

“We were always ready to obey thee, but thou didst neglect us, and the dear children smoothed us with oil.”

“The children ran away as fast as their feet could possibly carry them.”

The birch tree lisped with its leaves, “Thou hast never put a simple thread over my branches and the little darlings adorned them with a pretty ribbon.”

Baba Yaga understood that there was no help and started to follow the children herself. In her great hurry she forgot to look for the towel and the comb, but jumped astride a broom and was off. The children heard her coming and threw the towel behind them. At once a river, wide and blue, appeared and watered the field. Baba Yaga hopped along the shore until she finally found a shallow place and crossed it.

Again the children heard her hurry after them and so they threw down the comb. This time a forest appeared, a dark and dusky forest in which the roots were interwoven, the branches matted together, and the tree-tops touching each other. The witch tried very hard to pass through, but in vain, and so, very, very angry, she returned home.

The orphans rushed to their father, told him all about their great distress, and thus concluded their pitiful story:

“Ah, father dear, why dost thou love us less than our brothers and sisters?”

The father was touched and became angry. He sent the wicked stepmother away and lived a new life with his good children. From that time he watched over their happiness and never neglected them any more.

How do I know this story is true? Why, one was there who told me about it.

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What Better Place To Court Irrisians?

Hestrig stands in the courtyard, her heavy cloak fluttering around her in the constant, swirling wind. Bordegga moans from the kennels; Hestrig ignores her.

Instead, she regards the massive sculpture in front of her: easily twenty feet tall and chiseled from a single block of ice, it depicts a dragon rearing on its hind legs, mouth open to breath icy death at its foes. Hestrig has seen it a thousand times, but today she regards it as if new. Features she’d learned to ignore over the years stand out now in sharp detail. She’s uncertain how long she’s stood there before a light, silky voice intrudes on her reverie.

“That is the fierce dragon Auburphex,” the voice informs her. Hestrig turns her head just slightly to catch the eye of the lithe, blue-skinned sylph. “When this land was still wild, the Jadwiga Yelizaveta fought the beast, took its lands, and raised our fair tower. They say the battle took a week, and the dragon died for days.”

“I know who he is,” Hestrig responds curtly.

“It,” Jairess corrects.

“Excuse me?”

“We refer to dumb and wild beasts as ‘it.’ We reserve ‘he’ for people.”

There is a beat of silence.

“What news?” Hestrig asks flatly.

Jairess shrugs. “The rider escapes us. My ravens have tracked him as far as the Hoarwood, but there they lose him. And a whole regiment of troops.”

Hestrig’s brow furrows. “They’ve started the invasion already?”

“No,” Jairess laughs, "those were for Black Midnight.

“That’s… troubling. What will Jadwiga Nazhena do?”

“I don’t know.” Jairess pouts. “Radosek is in such a mood. I don’t even know if he’s told her yet.”

“Hasn’t told you? Must be losing your charms.” Hestrig turns on her heel and starts for the tower entrance, not waiting for a response.

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Four Bells and All's Well

“Teb Knotten!”

The troll lurches from his cot, nearly smacking his head into the natural shelf overhanging it. “What?” he roars, squinting his slowly adjusting eyes. A wild, growling creature hunches low in the cave’s entrance, misty moonlight trickling in behind it. The bit of smoke and shadow that hovers in the air above it begins to resolve.

“Hommelstaub,” Teb says, more sedately.

“We have a guest,” Hommelstaub says, and nods to the wolf; it deposits a mass of blood and feathers on the cave floor. The mass emits a shuddering, pained hoot.

“Well well,” Teb clucks, swinging his legs over the side of his cot. He leans forward to inspect the bundle. “What have we here?” It hoots again, tremulously. Teb rises, broad feet slapping the bare floor. He settles down again next to the pygmy-owl.

He looks to Hommelstaub. “Where’d you find him?”

The atomie flutters down to rest between the wolf’s ears. “Squald spotted him. Spying.”

Teb rubs his knotted chin. “It’s alright, little one,” he coos. “It’s okay. I’m sorry you were treated roughly.” The owl hoots again, feebly. “Easy, little one. Easy. I’m Teb. What’s your name?” He listens as the owl replies.

“Abel,” Teb says. “That’s a good name, Abel. You must be far from home. What brings you so far into the woods?” He listens intently. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I thought so.” He rises. “Thank you, Abel.” Hommelstaub arches an eyebrow at the display.

“I need you to do a favor for me, Abel. Can you do that? Can you do a favor for ol’ Teb?” A smile cracks Teb’s ruinous face. “Yes, I thought you could. Could you kindly tell your mistress to leave us the fuck alone? Could you do that, Abel? Leave us the fuck alone. We’ll get to her soon enough, we will.”

Abel lets out an alarmed hoot.

“No,” Teb says, after further consideration. "No, I’ve changed my mind. Teb stomps: once, hard. He looks to Hommelstaub: “Get Fawfein, tell him to round up some boys. I grow weary of that bird-brained bitch. Tell them to meet me at the circle for further instructions.”

Hommelstaub nods, then prods the wolf with the butt of his sickle; it takes his meaning, turns out into the snow. Teb follows, pausing only to wipe the sole of his gnarly foot on a nearby stone.

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Amidst the Storm

“This is boring.”

Teb Knotten raises his head from his bunk to inspect the tiny fairy sitting on his shelf. “What did you expect, Hommelstaub?”

“Well, I mean… it’s an invasion, right? Can’t we… I don’t know, maybe invade something?”

“We’re holding the beachhead.”

“Beachhead,” Hommelstaub snorts. “We’re sitting around with our dicks in our hands, waiting for orders.”

“You’re welcome to take on Oppara single-handed, if you like. I’d recommend using your sword, though; your dick isn’t likely to make an impression when you swing it around.” Teb scratches at his prodigious nose.

“Not right now,” the fairy sulks, “it’s damn near rotted off from lack of use.”

Teb rolls his eyes; then shifts to his side, turning his back to the fairy.

“I should get a piece of that Vosi,” Hommelstaub mutters, more to himself than his companion. “I bet she’d be fun…”

“I thought sprites and atomies didn’t get along?” Teb asks over his shoulder.

“I want to take her behind the hut, not home to mother. Any port in a storm, you know?” Teb sniffs. “Oh, c’mon,” Hobbelstaub continues, “even you have to appreciate that thing she does with her hips just before she takes off.”

Teb snorts. “You all just look like food to me.”

“That’s cold, man. After all we’ve been through together? Cold.”

“I’m not the one with a sliver of ice in his heart,” Teb retorts sleepily.

Hommelstaub crosses his arms and hunkers down on the shelf. When he raises his eyes again, he finds the troll staring at him.

“It’s true, then,” Teb says, “they really do?” Hommelstaub eyes him sullenly. “What’s it like?” Silence. “Does it hurt?”

“I don’t like to talk about it,” the fairy mumbles into crossed arms. Teb hmms pensively.

“Are you two quite done stroking yourselves?” comes a scratchy, shrill voice from the cave’s entrance. Teb and Hommelstaub both turn at the sound. They stare mutely at the small, blue figure that wings her way in.

“Rokhar is dead,” Izoze says.

Teb raise himself to one elbow. “How?”

“Sentinels.”

Teb’s brow furrows. “You said they were all killed.”

Izoze shrugs. “Must’ve missed a few.”

“Trouble?” Hommelstaub asks.

“Tough to say,” Izoze responds. “Rokhar wasn’t the sharpest icicle ever to hang from an eave. I’m half surprised he didn’t fall into the ravine. The rangers had help, though. Locals, I think. But a strange lot.”

“How many?”

“Three rangers. Couldn’t get a good look at the others, but it wasn’t more than a handful. The Sentinels seem content to stay in their lodge, and the others went back to that little shit hole.”

Teb sighs. “Well, I suppose it’s less cleanup for me in the long run.”

“What about the prisoner?” Hommelstaub interjects.

“Rescued, I believe. They took her back to the village.”

Hommelstaub looks to Teb Knotten, who remains silent.

“Teb,” the fairy finally ventures, “Nazhena will be—”

“You let me worry about Nazhena,” Teb interrupts testily. “That blue-blood bitch was just a sideshow, anyway.”

Teb swings his legs off the cot. “Go gather everyone,” he says, “it’s time to talk strategy.”

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