Traveling with a train of merchants and peasants, you meet on the road to St. Rufinus. As you leave Heorot, a prosperous fishing village overlooked by the hillfort of aging Eorle Aedelric, it begins to rain, a sheeting, wind driven mist that thickens into a gusty, relentless downpour, the kind of autumn storm that most of you only know of from songs and stories told around winter fires. The road becomes nearly impassable, with carts and horses sinking into the mud and one man drowning beneath an overturned wagon, but you push on, and somehow manage to make progress. As we begin, you are within a day of your destination: the harbor town of St. Rufinus, which has recently prospered as a trading hub for goods from the mainland, particularly timber and furs. Hopefully a warm inn awaits you at the end of today, along with a hot meal and some good ale. And, perhaps, an opportunity for adventure.

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Last Trip
Hesper had no choice. Her stomach churned with every surge of the boat, bringing bitter bile into her throat. A dose of fermented ginger would prevent her from heaving her stomach contents into the black water. The ginger could hinder her reflexes in battle, but she was no use to the party like this. She fumbled in her medicine pouch, pinched off a tiny slippery fragment.
The instant it touched her tongue she realized her mistake. An earthy dark odor filled her mouth, her nostrils, her brain. Damn! She spat what she could into the river, scrubbed tongue with her sleeve.
Never take a mushroom when you are in danger, every druid knows that. It will turn your mind into fertile soil which feeds your fear and horror.
She felt it before she saw it. The underground tunnel through which the river snaked was shrinking, constricting. There's not enough air. She wanted to shout: It's swallowing us! Could the others not see that this was not a stone tunnel, but the inside of a beast? Ribbons of fluid from the ceiling fluttered into the boat. She opened her mouth to scream as the fluid began to digest the skin from the side of Grunthok’s face. The rest of the party discussed which turn to take ahead, unaware. Now she clutched the rigging as the boat began to gain speed, the water bursting into color. Oswin glanced at her and opened his mouth. Was he speaking? She understood now that the water was reflecting the rainbows of color from Oswin’s teeth, which grew and grew. What was he saying? The boat entered a cavern, thousands of arms reaching down from the ceiling, gnarled hands groping her. They were her father’s hands, in the last stages of senility when he clutched at her breasts, mistaking her for her lost mother, thrusting his aroused body at her. She was unable to move, unable to defend herself.
Now there was a room, so beautiful, so beautiful. Let's go in there. Music flowed from the chamber, outside her and inside her at the same time. A bald child in the boat took his thumb out of his mouth and raised his arms, creating a stone wall, separating the boat from the room. I need to be in there.I'll go through the wall. I know I can.But now a terrible face was growing from the wall, her throat slit, so much black blood flooding the boat, Aletha’s voice wailing Why did you murder me? Why did you murder me? Jig glanced at Hesper, a troubled expression on her face, and flung a fistful of spiders at Aletha’s mouth. They multiplied, covering her face, muffling her cries.
How did they get in here? A two-headed beast rears back, she can feel the mist like acid, like pebbles filling the air. Grunthok and Elasha speak as one, their last word in unison: Fight!
Hesper raises her spear. The mist covers her skin, becomes her skin. A crust forms inside her mouth, her throat, her heart. At last, her mind is still.

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The Game of Kings
The wind howls, whipping the fire around wildly, but the heavy stone pieces don’t budge on the thin marble board. As Oswin counts the pieces he has left compared to Elasha, he almost wishes the wind was stronger so they’d have an excuse to start the game again when the pieces tumble to the snow. He gets his wish soon enough as the very next move, the elf casually grabs her chalcedony bishop and glides it smoothly across the gleaming board, now slick with melting snow to take the cleric’s knight. With a grin, her tattoos glowing in the flickering light, she says, “Checkmate.”

As the elf resets the pieces, Oswin can’t help but wonder if he sees a look of boredom in her eyes. Back in the court, before his exile, he remembered learning the game from the other functionaries. They had a simple wooden board with crudely carved pieces, now worn and nicked with age. The cleric only bothered learning because he knew the Count loved to play with his sons and visiting nobles. However, their board only bore a passing resemblance to this wooden one. It was made of fine onyx and ivory with pieces made from silver and gold with jewel encrusted crowns for the king and queen, and best of all, a beautifully begemmed mitre and crozier on the bishops. When he could sneak into the library with that chessboard, he would marvel at the weight on those pieces in his hands and the brilliant sparkle of the precious stones in the lamplight. Oswin just knew that he would’ve been an excellent player if he could play with such a set. How could anyone expect him to learn with the crude board that the cook trotted out every night?

Roused by Elasha Winterflower’s repeated question, Farseer is on the verge of telling her that he doesn’t want to play again, but then he sees the snow blowing across the rich onyx and chalcedony board and reaches out to feel the heft of the bishop. While his finger playing over the piece doesn’t snag on any faceted gems, it does feel the intricate carving of the figure, proving what a valuable item it is. The elf’s brow begins to knit as she asks for a third time of Oswin wants to play again. With a smile, the cleric realigns the chess pieces and says, “losing has never felt so luxurious” as he pulls out his coin purse to find the gold for the wager.
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Ode to the Golden Crusaders

sung by Sigfried the Sweet-Lipped

They journeyed from Armorica, through storms and wind severe,
With justice in their steely eyes, with strength they persevered.
They set their gaze on the wilderness and the evil it concealed,
And crossed the sea so wild and rough with a courage that was so real.

They killed the goblin Gargamel, the paladin’s sword sang true.
The Foe Hammer’s axe did cleave the air, his enemies he deftly slew.
They vanquished the menace of Unferth’s thanes, a monstrous gelatinous thing,
No matter the threat, no matter the fear, their courage they always did bring.

Then one dark night in Henrica’s Wic, evil showed its repulsive face.
A child enslaved to a salacious man, a charlatan and a disgrace,
He forced her to steal to fill the purse of his false and barbaric god,
But woe to him that on this night the Crusaders were not abroad.

It was the priest alone who fought the brute, in a battle cruel and long,
And though his wounds did ache and bleed, his faith and arm stayed strong.
Their shields did clash, their hammers did sing, but the heathen he could not stand,
And Siggurd’s mace did bring him down and he cowered in the sand.

Kill him he could but mercy he showed, for his heart was good and bright.
He bound his wounds, forgave his sins, and showed him God’s true light.
The child he sat upon his knee, put his hand on her dirty head
And baptized her into God’s true grace, the one who for us bled.

When the hordes did sack good Henrica’s Wic and the battle was desperate and thick,
They stood their ground while the weak did flee, their swords were true and quick.

The song goes on to chronicle the events after the fall of Henrika’s Landing, crediting the Golden Hope with just about everything. After Henrika’s Landing fell, many people fled to Unferth’s Keep but nearly all of them were turned away, so many fled as refugees back to Wulfgar’s Keep while the Golden Hope covered their retreat. They returned with Adaon and fought alongside his men, but the keep fell. The Golden Hope stayed with Adaon and continued to fight behind fortifications that would not have been built had Father Siggurd not inspired the rangers and paladins to work to their fullest potential. The bugbear attacks continued unabated, and the Golden Hope was instrumental in winning every one. A verse is dedicated to each member of the party, with an anecdote about his heroism. There is no mention of Elytha. Then the defenses were overwhelmed when a horrific demon appeared and spawned bugbears from her belly, but once again the Golden Hope was instrumental in rallying the troops and setting up a new defense in the wilderness between Unferth’s Keep and Wulfgar’s Keep. The song ends with a these lines:

And now they have gone to seek the beast that crawled from the pit beneath Bald Peak.
They will slay her and save us and all our kin, and the world will be bright and peaceful again.
Session: Game Session #21 - Saturday, Jun 13 2015 from 7:00 PM to 1:00 AM
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Friendly Fire
The smell of Jeckle's charred flesh hangs heavy in the winter air. His corpse, still smoldering, lies in the slushy snow but thirty feet from Elasha, its blackened hands still raised up before it to ward of the fiery blast that the elf has unleashed but moments before. She stands there in silence, gazing upon the scene.

The night is cold, but Elasha, naked except for a scanty breech-cloth beneath her bearskin cloak and boots, does not feel the chill. Though her tattooed arms have risen in goose-flesh, she is more chilled by the gazes of her companions who look upon her with varying degrees of stunned surprise. Her face, however, remains impassive, porcelain white and frozen as the landscape.

She does not feel guilty for what she has done, and in fact, she would do it again. The party had been worn down by the fighting just hours before, when that undead horror had come out of the woods at night to beset them in their camp. Elasha feels fairly certain that the thing was a Nosritrel, what the humans would call a vampyre. She has never encountered one before, but she has heard the legends whispered in hushed tones and read the accounts in dusty scrolls. Though it appeared clad in child's form, she knew it for the monstrous evil it was. And when she had looked into its eyes, those black, endless eyes, and felt their pull upon her, she had known that all possible force must be brought to bear upon that fell thing to destroy immediately it before it could wreak havoc upon them.

Poor Jeckle had not been able to resist its pull, as the rest of them had, and wandered into the path of the fire magic she unleashed upon it. Unlucky for him. She can still hear his screams in her ears and see the look of terror in his eyes before they poached like eggs in his burning face as flesh melted from bone. Regrettable to be sure, but an unavoidable loss given the circumstances.

She feels the others watching her, though they say nothing. What do they feel for her? Reprobation or understanding? She is curious, but chooses not to discuss the matter right now. Right now, more important matters press upon them. The Nosritrel is not destroyed, merely forced to surrender corporeality for the moment. It still lurks in the woods somewhere and may yet return another night. They still have many leagues journey through the wild to Wulfric's Keep, and she fears they will see it again.

The snow begins to fall. Elasha draws her cloak tightly about herself, covering her near-nakedness from the night. Oswin has begun to murmur some words of funerary prayer over Jeckle's charred remains. The elf listens for a moment and returns to the tent where sleep awaits.
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"Hesper, look at that cloud."
This is Hesper's earliest memory. She is three, standing in the garden with a stone in her hand.
She looks up at her mother, then the sky, trying to see what is special about this particular cloud.
"Pretty, mama."
Her mother looks down with eyes so far away that little Hesper somehow senses Cleia's longing for wings, for flight. Her druid mother spends many hours soaring on the wind as a hawk.

In the next memory she is five. Her father is explaining the LeaveBehind ceremony.
"When your mother transforms into a bird for the last time she will no longer recognize or remember us . That is why it is called LeaveBehind. A Druid must know what she is gaining but also what she is losing. She will become a bird. Just a bird."

A sudden pop from the bonfire brings Hesper to the present, another sort of LeaveBehind ceremony. They have built the fire as a memorial to Dunrick, slain in that horrid underground darkness by faceless stone demons. How she wishes her father was here to explain it all to her. A nudge from Elasha and she realizes her friends are looking at her expectantly. In Hesper's hand is not a stone but a clump of DruidDream mushrooms. She offers them around and looks back at the hissing flames. The glowing ashes dip and swirl like fiery moths.
She slips a mushroom under her tongue and closes her eyes.
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