Reign of Winter: Monkey Monk and the Funky Bunch

Raiders of the Groan
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Validar approaches the group with a sheaf of handwritten notes and sketches. The first sketch he brings forth is a simple, unadorned floorplan. A second, geographical sketch seems to locate the multi-room, ramshackle tavern or inn at the northeastern corner of the crossroads — in the field where the group initially encountered the Lantern King. He goes on to describe a pleasant inn for travelers that would be erected at the designated spot (see artist’s concept above).

“This would serve as our wealth-building center in this realm,” he says. “Initially, we provide a way station for those petitioning the Jack of Bones for vengeance, or whatever. I imagine, as well, there are plenty of other travelers passing through the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom looking for a comfortable place to stay for a night or two.

“Of course, to start out, we might have to take on a few of our . . . ‘regular jobs’ . . . to pull together enough gold to actually build the place. If we’re diligent about it, though, that shouldn’t take more than a few months.”

“The best part is that once we have a going concern with the Inn, we can expand the business, as it were. We use our various talents and abilities to identify guests in possession of gold — or other interesting items — but no real way to protect themselves from us. We can liberate them of their belongings and send them on their way. I see no reason why there would have to be many killings. Just the fools who resist.

“In this way, we can eventually accumulate quite a pile. With time, we can hire a staff of seductive serving wenches and experienced, reliable toughs to collect the extra loot for us!

And that brings me to Stage Two of my plan.”

Validar unfolds a map of the surrounding area of the Realm. (It is not clear where he could have acquired such a thing.) He points to a few areas he has circled with a broad-tipped pencil. “Once we have the inn up and running we can leave it in the hands of the staff from time to time.” He indicates the circled features on the map. “These are reputed to be the locations of underground labyrinths filled with easy pickings. Orcs, bugbears, trolls, and a few liches maybe. All holding onto hoards of gold, gems and magic items. We go in, kill them, and take their stuff.” He beams at the cleverness of his plan. “We’ll be rich as kings. The Inn will be a going business to fall back on while we work out some of the details — or plan our raids on the dungeons. What could be simpler?

“So. What do you think? Are you guys in, or what?”

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The Cancer Ward

It is unusually quiet in the Ward tonight. Today. Whenever it is. Makar finds it difficult to keep track. He knows that Trofim can see a window from his bed, though.

“Trofim,” Makar calls. “Trofim! What time of day is it?”

He has to call several more times before Trofim’s wheezy, windy voice responds: “purple.” A moment later: “grey.”

“‘Grey’ is not a time, Trofim! What time is it?” He shouts several more times, but Trofim does not respond. Makar’s neck itches, and he very much wishes to scratch it; he tugs and worries at the straps that hold him onto his musty, dirty cot but they will not budge. He suspects that the orderlies tighten them whenever he sleeps.

“Calm yourself, Makar. You’re only wasting your energy.” Dmitri, from the next row over. Trofim’s wits are addled by hunger and poor health, this is true—and Makar even suspects his own mind at times—but Dmitri is deeply disturbed. The frontovik’s demeaner is always so calm, but the things he speaks of… only madness can explain them. Headless horsemen in the courtyard, elves and sprites among the tombstones, the monastery’s ghost returning in the night. Balderdash!

“Tell us again about the nighttime visitors, Dmitri!” shouts another resident. Gleb, maybe. Laughter follows—and if some of it borders on hysterics, what of it?

Dmitri is silent for a time, but then responds, “You would not laugh if you could see their red eyes, or their papery skin.”

“But we do, every time they come to visit us! Isn’t that right?” More laughter.

“They make us forget!” Dmitri shouts, an uncharacteristic moment of passion from him; it only draws more derision. Makar has usually joined in by now, but tonight—or today—he finds himself unable to mock the poor soldier.

“Yes, of course. Just like they make us forget the ghosts and goblins that stalk our courtyard!” Laugh laugh laugh. Dmitri has gone silent, fuming in the darkness.

Makar wants to tell him that they need their laughter, however thin and petty. All of them do. They starve, they are restrained, and it is always dark. There is no joy here. Nothing to keep them going but their vicious laughs. He wants badly to scratch at his neck. An orderly must have drawn blood there.

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The Thing About Family

Viveka doesn’t recall having put up any beetroot, but there it is in the pantry. She snatches it from the shelf and turns back to the old woman. “It appears that we do. Good fortune for you.”

The woman cracks a twisted, sardonic grin, exposing half-rotted teeth and a pitted tongue. “Thought you might.”

“Is there anything else we’ll need?”

“If you’ve got a bit of smetana, that would be lovely.”

“I don’t think I’m familiar with that, grandmother.”

“It’s a kind of preserved cream. Fermented. Sour.”

Viveka shakes her head. “Cream is hard to come by here.”

The old woman waves her hand dismissively. “No matter, it’s not a necessity. It’ll be fine without it. You’ll want to add your bones to the stock pot now. We’ve got to boil them awhile.” Viveka does as she’s bid: adding a pinch here and a dash there, slicing the onions just so, carefully shredding the cabbage. Sometimes she hums or sings snatches of dimly remembered songs, sometimes she plies the old woman with questions.

“Ceseer told me you’ll be leaving soon, grandmother.”

The old woman nods. “I am. I’ve received a message from my son, and I’m off to see him.”

“Oh, that sounds exciting,” Viveka titters. “Has it been long?”

“Some time, yes.”

“Are you excited?”

“I’d say more curious.”

Viveka tilts her head. “Curious?”

“Hmph. Well, last I’d heard the peasants had poisoned him, stabbed and shot him, and then drowned him in an icy cold river.” She grins again.

“That’s horrible!”

She shrugs. “No doubt he’d earned it.”

“Are you going to nurse him back to health, then? He must be in quite a state after all that.”

The old woman smiles again, and it is a winter smile: bitter cold. “I suspect I’m to finish the peasants’ job.” Viveka, uncertain how to respond, returns her attention to the pot. For a time, the only sound in the room is the burbling water on the stove. It rapidly grows uncomfortable.

“What… what is your son’s name, grandmother?” She hopes to steer the conversation to more pleasant shores.

“Grigory.”

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Obeisance

As he emerges from the portal there is, as always, the cold; the unnatural stillness of the air; and the featureless black of a dead sky. With a resolute jaw he hikes his sack over his shoulder, and sets out. There is no path marked, not even the telltale discoloring of many feet passing, but he is not concerned with losing his way. All of his kind know the path, without question or error. How could they not?

The walk takes as long as it takes. The Mercane know this increment intimately, and even use it as a measure of time amongst themselves: a hapilgrim. At the end there is an anvil, a well-worn hammer, and the Pit. There is also another figure, tall and blue and bedecked in fine silk robes. Niallpeneton—and Zilvazaarat is surprised to find himself relieved. He usually prefers to make the pilgrimage alone, only him and his thoughts in the somber silence. But he was held captive too long, and too many friends have passed beyond his knowledge in that time, for him to not feel some small comfort at a familiar face.

Neither of them speaks. No one ever does here. There is no law forbidding it, there would be no sanctions levied for breaking the taboo. But there isn’t a Mercane alive who wouldn’t resort to trading grain and livestock before uttering a word here—excepting, of course, the Obeisance.

Niallpeneton holds a wand in his hand. It is beautiful: dark wood with hair-thin lines of grain carving whirls and eddies across its surface; studded with tiny precious stones that shimmer even in the dead air of this place. Zilvazaarat bows to him, then sets his sack on the ground. He retrieves from it an axe, forged from a single block of steel and with a hilt wrapped in soft, blue leather. Tiny blue sparks play across its edge. Niallpeneton graciously waves Zilvazaarat forward.

Zilvazaarat places the axe upon the anvil and takes up the hammer. Its weight is as familiar to him as the weight of his own arm. He cannot count the number of times he has raised it, the times he has stood in this place, as he does now. And, as always, the words come to him as he raises it. The words that no Mercane need ever be taught. The only words, in the final reckoning, that ever matter.

“I commit these energies to the Slain Goddess, that with them She may find her candle back through the darkness into the Light of the Living. So that once more all the many worlds may quake at her footfalls, and at the coming of we, her faithful and her devoted.”

He brings the hammer down, and the axe shatters.

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The Hour Of Memories

The baroque abomination of resinous filigree and squamous tendrils of flowering vine that serves as Yrax’s clock strikes. It interjects two tinny, wavering notes into the still air. Zadkiel always called this the Hour of Memory; but then, he would. Yrax, for his part, finds memory to be much like his clock: it goes sour and runs down the longer you hang on to it. He really should commit that thing to the garbage hole.

The mug held between his hands—really more of a large soup bowl—barely steams now. Viveka will pout at him over it; it was one of the few occasions he’s allowed her to add a bit of honey to it, and yet he’s let it go cold. Ripples appear across the surface of the tea, cascading side to side, interfering and confusing one another; the base of the mug clatters against the table. With effort Yrax steadies his hands, and the rattling ceases. Out in the distant hallway, the heavy footsteps of his fossilized guards retreat.

The Hour of Memories.

They are unwelcome guests, and like many of their ilk stay long past their use. Once, when Yrax was younger and the betrayal fresher, his memories spurred him from conquest to conquest, relentlessly goading him to create anew the kingdom from which he had been cast out. As each banner fell, each crown vanished forever into the frozen wastes, he would rend his garments and scream into the demoniac winds, Do you see now? Do you see what I am? Do you see all that I could be?

But those fires have long since gone to coal. He’s no conqueror now, he’s a governor. An administrator. And when he thinks back to the Long Night, the night of broken words and broken wings: he feels only the cold rush of the howling winds, and the hard unyielding ice rising to meet him.

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The Circus Is In Town

Yrax massages his temples, keeping his eyes tightly shut.

“What is he bellowing about now?” he asks quietly.

“I haven’t the faintest, my lord,” his seneschal replies. Ceseer, head bowed, remains silent.

“Let him in,” Yrax finally says, waving one hand toward the door. Wordlessly the seneschal crosses the room and opens it. Iantor bounds in before the door is even fully open, sending the seneschal sprawling. He’s chanting one word over and over; which, after a moment, Yrax identifies as circus.

“Yes, Iantor, yes. Circus. I understand. Now could you please—” His words fall on deaf ears, as his unruly child continues to bound excitedly about the room.

“Iantor, calm yourself!” Yrax shouts. Iantor’s chant is cut off with a gulp, and he falls noisily to his haunches. “Now, please,” Yrax continues, “tell me what this is about.”

Iantor grins. “There’s gunna be a circus tomorrah!”

“A… circus?”

“Uh huh! In the fairgrounds.”

“Where in all the frozen hells…” He looks toward his seneschal again. “Where would a circus have come from?” The seneschal shrugs mutely.

“Perhaps the locals have arranged it?” Ceseer offers up. Yrax grunts in reply.

“Kin I go, dah? Kin I go to the circus tomorrah?”

Yrax sighs. “Yes, fine.” To the seneschal: “Go with him, keep him out of trouble.”

The seneschal frowns. “As you say, my lord.”

Iantor bounds to his feet again and prances around the room, and then out the door, chanting “circus circus circus!” the entire time.

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We've Lost Contact With Charlie Company

“I don’t understand it.”

“They’re dead, captain.”

“Yes, I understand that part, thank you,” His voice goes higher, gets a bit shrill. Yavrok knew his new captain was green, but he didn’t realize he was this green: he’d never seen a corpse before.

“What I would like to know,” the captain continues testily, “is why they are dead.”

“Well…” Yavrok chews thoughtfully on a strip of jerky as he contemplates the scene. He is, he is forced to admit, as shocked as the captain. They were sent through the portal to reinforce the River Kingdoms garrison. By all accounts it was a quiet area, with little resistance. The men, women, and genderless things stationed there had been there awhile, growing restless, and needed to be relieved. But when they emerged from the portal into the command camp, Yavrok had nearly been overcome by the odor of death. It hadn’t taken long to confirm that no one in the camp remained alive.

“The one there appears to have encountered an excess of fire,” Yavrok finally offers up. “This one…” He nudges it with his toe, “probably has to do with the fact that his torso’s here and his legs are over there.”

“I understand that!” the captain hisses. “The entire command camp is dead, Yavrok. Say something useful or shut up.” He looks pale. His eyes are wide and his brow wrinkled, but he looks like he’s having trouble focusing. He won’t last a month in the field.

There’s a sound like the cracking of ice floes, and then silence: the omnipresent wind howling from the portal has ceased suddenly. Yavrok, the captain, and the other men turn to face it. They have barely a moment to register the shock before it collapses inward, crackling and crunching.

And then there is nothing. Just air, and a bemused cadre of soldiers. And the unseasonal snow steaming on the warming ground.

“Shit,” Yavrok says.

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Warm Hearth, Cold Guest: Part Two

The withered crone grips the mug in both hands, raises it to her thin and bark-like lips, and takes a sip. A sound that might be a pleased sigh follows. Yrax furrows his considerable brow; she didn’t check to see if it was poisoned, didn’t even ask. He notes then her ice chip eyes on him again, and he realizes: she doesn’t need to, she would know. The thought chills him.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, grandmother?” Yrax asks lightly.

The crone snorts in response. “Cut the skeltershit, Yrax. I was waylaid by your idiot abomination. And there’s only one reason I ever trudge these miserable wastes.”

“The Engine.”

“Mm,” the old woman replies. “Have to make sure my little clockworks is still clockworking.” She titters wheezily at her own joke.

“And I’m to believe Iantor just… what, caught you with your britches down? As you say, venerable lady: cut the skeltershit.”

The crone’s ice chip eyes seem suddenly to shine with cold fire, and her voice snaps like a whip: “You’ll watch your tone with me, boy.” Yrax recoils, fights to keep his gaze on the witch’s eyes. There is, he is surprised to discover, a bit of a lump in his throat. The frigid blue eyes hold him, and its feels like rays of fire sweep across him. He wants to shrink a little.

Just as suddenly, she breaks into a gnarl-toothed grin, and laughs. “Always so serious, you are. As it happens…” She bends over with a tired huff and begins rifling through a bundle of leather of furs that has until this point been indistinguishable from the folds of her tattered and layered dress. “… I do have a gift for you.”

“A gift?”

“Well, sort of. Where is… I know I… aha!” She straightens, pulling free a large roll of snow-white fur. “I need you to hang on to something for me.” She unfurls it and lays it on the ground between them: the hide of some strange beast, bigger than a man and with a great, shaggy head. Its claws, still attached to the hide’s outstretched paws, are obsidian black.

“Am I to—”

“Just hang on to it. It’ll look lovely in front of your hearth there.”

“Just… hang on to it.”

“Yes, boy. Keep it safe. I’ll be back for it.”

“It is… some sort of device? Or charm?”

“It’s a rug.”

Yrax’s brow furrows again. “I don’t understand.”

“Didn’t ask you to.” She settles back in her chair and takes another long sip of tea. She smiles at him again, and again he feels like shrinking. “Just be a good lad and do as you’re told.”

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Warm Hearth, Cold Guest

Yrax, Lord of the Howling Storm, is in a foul mood. As he hastens toward the courtyard, he shoots a withering glance at his seneschal. “I blame you for teaching him to speak.” The seneschal keeps his head lowered, hurrying to match Yrax’s long strides. The howling from the courtyard continues unabated.

When Yrax finally steps out into the near-blinding sun, he immediately spots the large and ungainly silhouette of Iantor clutching one of the old ice pillars and bellowing into the sky.

“I’m here, Iantor!” he shouts, hoping his own formidable voice can be heard over that of his mutant child. “What’s all this racket?” Iantor, hearing Yrax, ceases his noise and breaks into a toothy, idiot grin.

“I cappered summat!” Iantor declares.

“You… what?” Yrax asks.

“I cappered it. Like yuh said. I didden kill it, I cappered it. Wif chains.” The seneschal gives Yrax a lost look. Yrax sighs.

“Good, Iantor. Good. We can use captives sometimes. Show me.”

Iantor reaches one thick, tree-like leg down from the column and nudges the cluster of guards below him. The guards in front part, revealing amidst them a figure draped in heavy furs, bound with thick resin chains. Yrax starts forward to address the captive. As he does so it raises its cloaked head, and two eyes like chips of ice peer out from under the hood.

Yrax stops in his tracks. “Oh you stupid boy,” he breathes.

“I cappered it!” Iantor proclaims again. “Wif chains!”

“Yes, Iantor, you did. Next we must teach you that sometimes even chains won’t help you.” He motions toward the guards. “Unbind our guest.” Confused, they look up to Iantor.

“But… but dah… I cappered it!” Iantor stammers. “You said to capper things instead uh kill ’em, and I cappered it.”

“Unbind our guest now.” He speaks quietly, but there is something in his voice—could it be just the faintest tinge of fear?—that compels the guards to comply, and Iantor to keep his silence. As the guards struggle with their keys, however, the chains fall suddenly and noisily to the ground. A broad, snaggle-toothed grin emerges from the depths of the hood.

“Little Yrax,” a voice croaks, “been awhile.”

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Seems Like It Ought To Talk

“Will you stop that ridiculous cooing, Pharamol?”

The commander observes, without turning from the cage, “Seems like it ought to talk, doesn’t it?”

Amerenth shrugs. “Not every weird bird—birds?—talks. Sometimes they’re just birds.”

“Still…” Pharamol twists his head this way and that, as if he can somehow catch the bird in a different light.

“Just go to bed,” the symbiote grumbles.

“Fine. Stupid thing would probably just ask for a cracker anyway, and all I’ve got is hardtack.” Amerenth can hear him setting aside weapons, tugging off his boots, and lowering himself into his cot. There’s a thin woosh as he extinguishes the lantern, and then silence.

For a few moments. “You okay, Amerenth?” She grunts. “You seem testy tonight is all.”

“Haven’t slept well,” Amerenth mutters.

“Right. Well, I won’t keep you up then.” She can hear Pharamol settle onto his side. Moments later, there’s a thin, wheezy snore.

Amerenth curls her legs up to her chest and waits. It doesn’t take long.

A harsh voice pierces the night, barely audible above Pharamol’s breathing: “Light and dark are just two faces on the same bogeyman, you know.”

Another voice, lower and raspier: “Doesn’t matter who you pray to, all you serve is death.”

“No one wins this war. No one wants to.”

“We live in a land where everything we want or need falls from the sky. What else is there to do but fight?”

“Endlessly and endlessly, as the peasants are driven into dust and the temples grow fat with gold…”

“We have always been at war with Eastasia.” The two voices cackle, low and menacing.

“A boot stamping, brother Udoga.”

“On a human face, brother Chubak.”

“Forever,” they intone as one.

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