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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 8:00 PM to 2:00 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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2000 Gold Pieces
2000 Gold Pieces

“How much did you lose?”
Elasha looked amused, almost motherly.
Hesper smiled at her companions around the table. This moment was worth every shiny coin. Oswin, cheeks a little flushed, was gently wrapping his dice in a silk cloth, as if they were tiny living things. Jig sipped warm ale from her mug and absent-mindedly tapped her coin pouch. Dr Z caught Hesper’s eye and shrugged one shoulder as if to say, “You win some, you lose some.” And Grünthok … where was he again? Perhaps still in the storage room lifting 600 pound caskets “to harden muscle.” These were the moments that made life full: the thrill she felt in her ribs as Oswin rolled his 3rd seven in a row, the whoop that roared around the table, the satisfaction emanating from Jig as she quietly swept coin after coin in to her pouch, making it impossible to estimate how much she had actually won. And efficient Elasha, calculating odds in her head, deftly lining up her gold, tallying the wins and losses. Hesper was certain Elasha did not really have to ask her how much she had lost.
What is gold to a druid? Hesper sewed all of her own clothes from animal skins, walked in the boots of a dead dwarf, and wore no adornments. She spent all her money on scrolls and a few Druiddream mushrooms. Her childhood home on the plains had been built with found stones and branches, and furnished with a few bartered items. As pretty as the gold pieces looked glinting in the firelight, they would not be missed, and tonight Hesper’s heart felt as light as her moneypurse.

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The Dressing Room
Oswin settles into the hot, scented waters of the bath wondering where the servant was with the brazier and warming wine. He could also do with some of those sweetmeats now that he thought of it. He sits up from the water’s heat in order to bellow for his refreshments, but when his mouth opens, all that comes out is the loud, persistent, ringing bass of a horn. Before he can puzzle out this mystery, the marble bathing room, the steam from the oiled, steaming water, fade away only to be replaced by thick stone walls, dark wooden shelves full of scrolls and illuminated texts, a low fire, and the musky smell of adventurers who haven’t properly cleaned themselves in several days. One thing that persists is that bellowing, echoing horn. As the Eye of Woden shakes his head to fully wake up, he grimaces, the scent of the heated oils of his bath still in his nostril. “What is that damnable wildling playing at up there?” he mutters as the other members of the Bloody Bastards stir awake from their own dreams. The answer comes immediately from the tower above as Grünthok bellows, “Bugbears!”

Blankets are flung wide as the party members scramble for the gear they’ll need for what is coming. Hesper, the nature priestess, already in her leather simply reaches out for her backpack and slips it on, heading for the stairs up the tower, her hair in even more disarray than usual. Zalano also apparently slept in his leather brigandine and bracers, since all he needs to do is grab his crossbow and cleaver as he heads quickly and quietly up to the loudly cursing barbarian above. In the now nearly empty scriptorium, Oswin the Far Seer stumbles to his feet, feeling for his large pile of plate armor, feeling very clumsy and slow compared to the lithe Elasha in the corner who has already put on her padded shirt and begun buckling her masterwork plate cuirass, her eyes actually glinting with anticipation in the low firelight as a sly smile plays at the corner of her mouth.

The next few minutes is full of the grunts of Oswin as he pulls on his greaves and then his sabatons, almost losing his balance in the process. The cleric pauses, unsure if what he hears over his labored breath is the noise of a battle with a bugbear horde or just his imagination. After the pause, looks to see if Elasha’s elven hearing could confirm his fears, but before he can start his question, he sees her look shrug at a small pile of armor she hadn’t donned yet before charging up the stairs bow and axe in hand.

Oswin looks at his retreating comrade, back at the pile of his own armor on the floor, and back at the stairs, straining to assess the progress of the fight. After a few moments, he shrugs and pulls a low stool to where he was sleeping and sits down to tighten up the buckles on his boots. If they ever made it back to Henrika’s Landing, the cleric realizes he will need to get them replaced as he looks at the cracking leather.

As each piece of armor is put into place, it is accompanied by an undulation of sound that increases and dissipates as the battle moves around the compound. He pauses briefly as he pulls on his greaves, imagining the stinking bonfire in the middle of the courtyard where he’d so recently been burning Abbas Dei texts. If things went well, perhaps bugbears would add to that stink.

Oswin is searching under the jigsaw of blankets on the floor for his eye-painted shield when the pounding on the outer door begins. Finding it, he pulls his arm through the enarmes, and then reaches up and gives his helmet one last push down not his head still heavy with sleep, The pounding on the door near him continues as do the combat sounds from above. Thinking of his options, the cleric decides that if they party hasn’t handled the danger yet, then surely they need Oden’s aid and he takes the steps two at a time, hoping not to hear the sound of splintering wood from behind him.

Never fear, Bloody Bastards, at long last Oden is sending his Eye to your aid, armored and ready for action!
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A New Friend
Though frightfully cold, the weather is calm this winter morn. Eager for the new day, Elasha Winterflower has risen early and left the relative warmth of the tent to train. Standing now in a clearing, one hundred yards from their camp midst the trees, she drinks deep of the morning air, scented with pine and new snow. She stretches her long lithe limbs and prepares for her exercise. To the east, the sun has begun to climb over the horizon, pale-rose colored in the winter morning. To the south looms the great mountain, a somber tooth of granite piercing the sky. Within its stony bowels lies the doomed dwarven fortress of Balurt, an ancient demonic evil lurking at its heart.

It has been some time since she has fought with the two-handed sword; she must familiarize herself with her new weapon and reacquaint herself with the methods of its use. She draws her new found weapon, Life Drinker, from its sheath, the blue-black steel of its massive curved blade gleaming in the dawn light. Her booted feet stand poised in the icy powder, the hood of her bearskin cloak pulled back. Aside from stray snowflakes falling gently on her her raven tresses and her breath steaming in the frosty air, all seems still. Assuming the basic guard position taught to her so long ago by master Drannor Ravenwing, she holds for long moments in the cold. Arms raised, hilt held beside her head, point aimed and dipping forward at the face of her imaginary opponent. This the first position, “The Wolf.” The most basic.

She feels the power of the sword hum in her grip, ancient enscorclements woven deeply into the very steel of its blade by eldritch powers now long forgotten. Its edge eternally held to unnatural sharpness by the magicks worked within it. She can feel its hunger, its eagerness to cleave flesh and take life. She knows it will not likely wait long. It is a mighty weapon. An honor to wield it.

She recalls briefly the moment of its acquisition, wrested from the dead grasp of its former master, the bugbear chieftain, Enkaidu the Flayer. He was a formidable foe, but not formidable enough. He had come at her in a frenzy, wielding the blade with murderous intensity. He almost scored two killing blows, but she had dodged, her muscles magicked with supernatural speed. Still, he had cut her twice, two superficial wounds, before she had hewed him through the neck with her ax. He had died at her feet, gurgling frothy red blood in the snow. But yes, Life Drinker has tasted her blood. Perhaps, she thinks, this will strengthen its bond to her.

Feeling not the morning cold, she lowers the weapon to the next position, “The Badger,” its hilt now held slightly in front and to the left of her hip, its rune-etched blade still pointing at opponent's throat. Life Drinker seems to anticipate her will , shifting effortlessly in her hands to facilitate the transition between positions. She makes a single small step with her foot in passage, yet her boot makes no sound in the snow.

She moves effortlessly to the next position, “The Fox.” The elf now holds Life Drinker's blade point down at an angle, between the legs and forward. This stance, sometimes known as the "Forest Door," provides an excellent guard while remaining deceptively open and allowing for quick counter strikes. The sword feels feather-light in her delicate, long fingered hands despite its great size. With lightning speed, she then raises the blade above her head, shifting it to an elevated position above her shoulder, the “Owl” stance. This allows for a devastating overhead strike or a transition into “The Wolf” if need be. She holds the stance for a a long moment, the ruby in the sword's pommel flashing once in the rising sun. Lastly, she assumes the “Long Tail” stance, the sword held at the hip, blade slanting downward and behind, but its curved edge still facing the opponent. This permits a long, rising cut at a foe's midsection.

For the next half hour, she glides through these basic positions with easy grace, working in subtle variations on them and other, more advanced, stances remembered from her training long ago. She improvises, finding her rhythm, the blade a part of her. Perfectly balanced on the balls of her feet, she and the sword dance together, a dance of lethal grace and beauty in the cold dawn light. Gradually, she increases her tempo until Life Drinker flies in a blur, weaving a globe of singing steel about her, whistling as it cuts the icy winter air. It too seems to revel in the moment. In the distance, an elk watches her through the trees.

At last she returns to resting position, her breathing coming hard but even. She regards Life Drinker with a faint smile, admiring its cruel and elegant beauty, the coldness of its razored curved, the splendid savagery of the serrations on its back edge. She whirls it about her body thrice more before returning it to its sheath. Its grip vibrates slightly as if reluctant to return. Never fear, my friend, she thinks. You shan't remain there long. Sleep for now, but dream. Dream of the delicious chaos we shall create together. Satisfied, her limbs unlimbered and loose from exercise, she wipes sweat from her porcelain brow and returns to camp to prepare her daily spells.
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Hesper and the boots
I almost walked right past him.
The dwarf with the boots.
I’d seen so many dead since we entered the fortress. Stones, bones, and death. Then I saw those boots. I can’t explain why they struck me, but they were the first soft thing I’d seen since we got here. Worn. Lived in. I looked closer. I knew they’d fit, so I slipped them off his feet. Everyone paused to give me a chance to put them on, and I noticed with a start the hole in his sock. You could see where it had been darned a few times, but his big toe kept finding its way through. Just like my old Da. A tear flashed into my eye as I wondered: did he darn his own socks, by the fire with his brethren, or did he have a lover who knew he always tore his sock in the same place, who patiently mended the hole again and again?
A scroll slipped out of his boot. Now everyone was interested. Look, there’s another one at his waist. I could tell by their reactions that the scrolls had great value.
Thank you. I whispered it inside my head to the nameless dwarf. Thank you for your protection. And although we could not save you, the evil that tore through your fortress and murdered your loved ones will die at our hands.
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A Winter Respite
Elasha spreads her blanket in the deserted monastery's common room and, for the first time in days, allows herself to relax. Snow falls without the ancient structure's stone walls, while a north wind rattles its eaves and timbers. Chunks of seal meat sizzle on spits over the fire, their aroma rich and mouth watering. Her fellows, the rest of the Bloody Bastards, unpack their gear about the fire, their faces begrimed with sweat from the past four days' fighting and travails.

Having settled in, the companions, quiet for the most part, begin to pass a bottle of strong dwarven whiskey among themselves, speaking in low tones for the most part. Elasha accepts the bottle when passed and takes a pull, letting the peaty warmth of it roll on her tongue and spread its heat through her belly. Seated cross legged on her bedroll, she yawns and stretches. She feels the ensorcelment in her limbs recede as the strength enchantment cast earlier this day fades. Her muscles uncoiling like springs as the magic ebbs from the them. She is tired. Deeply tired. The exploration of the dwarven ruins, the two day return through the snow, the harrowing bugbear ambush, have all taken their toll on her, and she now wants nothing more than to relax and enjoy the quiet fellowship of camp for a night with her comrades.

She looks upon their faces, ruddied by the firelight. Jig, the diminutive human, called a “halfling” in these parts, so unassuming in appearance yet so lethal with her twin blades. Hesper, the nature priestess, capable of working incredible transformations of herself into the shape of bird and beast. Grunthök, the strapping northman, strong as an ox, yet deadly quick. Quicker than his great size would suggest. She has come to feel an unexpected kinship with this barbarian. This human. Many battles has she fought with him by her side, and she has come to respect, even trust, his artistry with steel and the stoutness of his heart. Though he is but one of the short-lived races, she would choose him over many others to stand beside her in the red haze of the moment. She often wonders what he thinks of her as a warrior. Though proud of her prowess, she knows her success at arms to be founded as much on spell-craft as martial skill.

She reclines on one elbow, surreptitiously regarding the northman across the fire and, as is her wont, ponders the marked differences in their fighting styles. To be sure, his is the more “honest” and straight forward of the two. Eschewing the protection of armor as he wades into battle, cleaving helms and hewing flesh before him, Grunthök needs not magic but only his iron sinews and vast cyclopean rage to carry the day. Hers is, perhaps to some points of view, less authentic, less genuine , less pure than the barbarian's. Yet such is the way of the mage, is it not? To call upon arcane forces beyond the ken of the everyday, to bind those forces to ones will, and to use them to alter the very fabric of reality, is in itself, well, a kind of cheating. And therein lies its appeal after all. The surprised look on an enemy's face when this willow-thin elfin lass splinters shield with unnaturally summoned strength; the sudden, dawning realization that his death has come upon him; his confusion, his disappointment, in the face of the utter impossibility of it all. These moments she savors like wine. Perhaps this is what originally drew her to spell casting those many years ago when she first began her training. Her battle-craft is that of the warrior-mage, less pure perhaps than Grunthök's, but no less lethal. It matters not how the fight is won as long as one wins it.

She suddenly realizes that Grunthök and the rest of the Bloody Bastards are the closest thing she has had to a clan since she came to live among humankind some eighty years past. The thought surprises her. Certainly not one to indulge in sentimentality, she considers this idea for a moment. Being of the transient races, her comrades are bound to their brief lives by the most ephemeral, the most fugacious, of tethers, and as such, cannot truly embody kinship bonds of clan as she once knew them. Their time on this earth will be but the briefest of moments compared to the long centuries unfurling before her. Sometimes she pities them for this. Sometimes she envies them. But how can one forge true ties of kinship with such as these? Their lives wink in and out in seconds, like meteors flashing in the winter sparkle of a northern night. And yet, she realizes, they are her friends. If only for this moment. She relies on them, and they on her, and though it be but a passing thing, it is something she has not known in many years.

She meets Grunthök's gaze across the fire, raises the whiskey bottle, and says aloud, “L'narr en gothrim glinuva nuin I'anor” (May the bones of our foes gleam under the sun), before taking a long deep drought and passing it to him.

The seal is ready on the fire. Slightly charred on the outside, yet richly red and marbled with fat within. With a smile, she takes a chunk proffered her, reveling in its deep iron-like flavor. The juice runs down her chin. Outside, the snow falls in intermittent flurries, and the wind moans among the hills. Inside the stone walls of the monastery, the fire is warm, the whiskey strong, and the meat delicious.
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Dwarven Baker's Diary
Day 47, The Year of the Mason

Bormir told me that the miners in the quarry below discovered a crack that pulses with some strange energy. Bormir said that one of the miners disappeared into the crack, buy Drys said she heard that he burst into flames when he stepped close to it. Elder Thrain t and the clerics will know what this is I am certain.

Day 48, The Year of the Mason

Last night was oddly quiet and still. I did not sleep at all, but turned in bed anxiously. I must not be the only one who slept poorly, for there is a strange pall that has fallen over the keep today. No laughter, little talking.

Day 49, The Year of the Mason

Terrible day. One of the warriors, Gimil Ironheart, went mad at the dinner feast and threw himself into the firepit. He was raving about a bull that rose from the pit. There was also an incident in the training caves. Four warriors were killed while training. Bormir said three warriors suddenly turned on the others. Drys said it was only one warrior who killed three others before he died. I think he may still be alive because I heard two warriors talking at dinner about a mad warrior who is chained in a cell below.

Day 50, The Year of the Mason

A terrifying night last night. Screams from below, and other noises that are impossible to describe. Many dwarves are fleeing, but Balurt is my liege lord so I will stay. The masons are walling off the lower levels.

Day 51, Year of the Mason

A quiet day, but somber. Elder Thrain and King Balurt both seem anxious. Talked tensely at the table until long after dinner feast. Walls are finished.

Day 52, Year of the Mason

Strange, terrifying noises from below even through the stout stone walls that the masons built. They work constantly to reinforce them. I wonder how those who fled are faring. It is deep winter, and travel must be difficult and dangerous.

Day 53, Year of the Mason

Another quiet day. Drys said that one of the miners who escaped from below was describing a horrible creature with bulls’ horns and enormous wings. Moradin deliver us.

Awakened by screams and chaos. Something has broken through. Moradin help us…
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Dream weed
Asphodel gets talking with a little dream weed…
Oh yes, I see the arched eyebrows and the quick eyeball flicker when I tell people my name. Who names her daughter after possibly the most famous druid of yore? Asphodel , druid extraordinaire, who drove One-Eared Kafald back into the North by summoning one hundred white wolves into battle. Well listen bitches, she was my grandmother, OK? A better question would be: who names her daughter Asphodel then raises her in a rinky-dink little hemlock grove away from civilization, pulling up weeds in the garden, making cute little braided wreaths, and grinding home-grown herbs in a mortar instead of actually letting her live? That would be my mother. OK, I admit, I freaked her out a few times as a child. Like the time I summoned my rabbit buddies to eviscerate that pesky red squirrel who had dug up my leek garden. Come on! I was only 7, it took me half a day to replant those leeks, and even then they curled up on the edges…that little beast deserved to have his ribs picked over. Or the time I transformed into a raccoon and spent weeks living in the wild with a pretty hilariously fun raccoon family.
But even my mother could see lately it was time to break out into the world, Winter is coming, can’t be expecting to live off roots when pretty soon we’ll be digging them out from under 4 armlengths of snow. Last year only 2 thistle roses bloomed on the canopy over our cottage, and most of the corn never came up at all. So I say bring it! I’m ready to learn some kickass spells and show them all there’s a new Asphodel in town. Hey give me another puff of that dream weed.
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Epic × 2!
Tavern Thoughts
The weather has turned cold outside, but beneath the roof of the Sodden Ox, the atmosphere is warm and cheery. The inn's common room bustles with patrons come in from the gloaming to forget the day's travails with food, drink, and fellowship. From her seat beside the fire, Elasha silently regards them, her blues eyes drowsy and half-lidded, a faint smile playing about her lips.

She leans back in her chair and rests her feet upon the scarred table. Freshly bathed and relaxing, she has temporarily set aside her armor and travel cloak in favor of a sleeveless bodice of green linen, snug fitting buckskin leggings, and thigh-high boots of supple doeskin. Her hair, still damp from her lavender scented bath, spills loose and unstyled over her porcelain shoulders. Before her sits a leather jack, foaming with a draught of Bedda's strong brown ale. She feels content. The day's killing done, she reflects upon recent events.

The mission against the orcs had been a resounding success, and she feels that she acquitted herself well. A creature of sensual pleasures, Elasha finds the red chaos of battle no less carnal, no less intimate, than any other physical or fleshy delight. She takes a long sip of ale, savoring its nutty earthiness, and relives the fight.

She had lost herself in the melee. Her limbs infused with arcane power, her reflexes enchanted to an unnaturally heightened state, she had wielded her ax with devastating ferocity. Ah the ecstasy of it, to be drunk with ones own fear and adrenaline, with the lust of the killing. She licks the beery foam from her lips and remembers. Hard and fast had the first orc come at her, piggish eyes narrowed with yellow hate. She ducked effortlessly beneath its swing, letting her ax bite into its kneecap. The brute howled in pain for just a moment, just a moment before her second strike clove its skull in two, showering her with gore. The next had come in too high allowing her to hook its groin with the beard of her ax. The orc's expression had shifted from rage to surprise, as if it could not quite comprehend the horrific wound thus inflicted. The dance then began in ernest. Moving with the feline grace of a forest panther, she dodged and deflected blows meant to rend and tear. Her ax sang a song of death among her enemies as it sliced through sinew and bone like so much ripened cheese.

Beside her fought Niamh, her longsword wreaking similar havoc among the poor wretches assembled before them. Though the ground grew slick with blood and spilt entrails, Elasha never lost balance. The orcs had kept coming, their hatred perhaps overcoming their fear. But the elf just laughed and hurled insults into every face that died before her, her ax raining down a whistling storm of blows upon them. Despite the orgasmic madness of the fray, she still managed to flash Niamh, similarly engaged to her right, an occasional grin. Too soon it ended. Standing midst the bloody wreckage of shattered bodies, her countenance bespattered, her hair matted, her breath coming in ragged gasps, she had felt only sorrow, sorrow that there were none left to kill.

Emerging from her revery in the smoky common room, she calls out to a serving wench for a bowl of mutton stew. The stew is good, not delicious but hearty, liberally spiced with onion and garlic, chunks of meat and potato swimming in a thick brown juice. She eats slowly and regards her companions, who also seem bent on enjoying tonight's pleasant respite from the seemingly relentless pace of their adventuring lives.

Niamh, a recent addition to their adventuring company, intrigues the elf. Though her kind has never gotten on well with the races of stone, Elasha is not one to place much stock in ancient feuds and enmities. Since recently joining their company, this dwarven battle maiden has proven herself an excellent fighter, brave and stout in battle. Several times this day had elf and dwarf coordinated attacks with great effect to send their foes to whatever shit-stained hole orcs call an afterlife. More than once had Niamh's shield or sword turned a blow aimed at the elf. Apparently this dwarf is a princess of some sort, or at least was, before having to flee a violent rebellion in her home kingdom beneath distant Aerfendal Mountain. The elf smiles to herself around a last bite of stew. Yes, Elasha is glad to have her among the Bloody Bastards. Jig, also new to their ranks, has proven to be no less of a delight. Thus far, none among them can doubt the halfling's resourcefulness and courage.

Pushing her empty bowl from her, Elasha calls for another jack of ale and savors the end of a pleasant day. A companion to share her bedroll would make for an even more pleasant conclusion, but she doubts she will find a likely candidate among the field hands and goat hereders assembled here tonight. Tomorrow they return to explore the rest of the subterranean ruins north of the village. Tonight, she plans to drink much more of Bedda's fine ale and enjoy whatever else the evening offers.
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Niamh tells her story to fellow travelers
My mother named me, handed me over to the midwife, and returned to the battlefield. I hardly saw her throughout my uneventful childhood: the Queen’s duty, as she saw it, was to procure more weapons to power more wars to further build her vast armory. You may think that she fought to protect our homeland, Aerfendal Mountain, rich with gold ore, but my Aunt Zlata, her sister, taught me otherwise. Mother returned from battle with mementos of war: the ancient swords and shields passed down for generations in other realms, now to be hung in her war room. Queen Gwenn thought gold was useless, frivolous. This did not prevent her from demanding that it be mined, day and night, by the slaves of Aerfendal, and stored in vast vaults within the mountain.

My four golden sisters, much older than myself, were also warriors. Leira, my favorite , a storyteller and swordswoman, told me bloody tales of combat which frightened but thrilled me. Her favorite sword, which she told me had been won from a king, was sheathed on her back at all times. My other sisters were already mothers when I was born, with several daughters of their own.

Aunt Zlata raised me, taught me metalwork, told me stories of my family: the accidental death of my father in a rockslide, the obsessive warring of my mother. She took me to the foundry, manned by pale slaves with red tattoos, many of whom spent their entire lives inside the sunless mountain tunnels and caves. Zlata never took me to the training yard with my sisters’ daughters to learn weaponry, but I did not mind. I preferred to create gold anklets and goblets, gifts for my sisters, or to embellish the Aerfendal seal upon the weapons they brought back from their many wars.

You have never asked me about my red hair. How I wondered as child where it came from, and why its wiry mass differed so much from the yellow silk of my sisters. I created many fantasies: perhaps my mother sprinkled copper on her meat while I grew in her womb, or maybe I was born just as the scarlet sunrise stretched its fingers over the cliffs of Aerfendal. Now that I have traveled outside of the kingdom, I see other red-haired dwarves, but throughout my childhood I stood alone.

You also seem to assume that I no longer have any family. I should tell you the story of why I left home, how I came to be a traveler.

On the day of Leira’s wedding, the throne room was filled with guests and family, wearing gold bangles and chains…all but my ancient mother, the queen, who stood unadorned on the dais, performing the ceremony. As she raised her hands to place them on the heads of the bride and groom, the room became silent. Then: a movement next to me at the edge of the dais, a buzzing in my ear, and an arrow puncturing my mother’s neck. In barely an instant, my sister Leira unsheathed her sword from her back, and in one swift movement lunged at the intruder, cleaving her sternum in two. I looked from the blood pouring out of my mother to the tattooed slave girl at my feet, not comprehending. My chest filled with panic as more pale slaves, with crimson tattoos on their throats and around their eyes, filled the room, hacking and thrusting their weapons. I couldn’t see my sisters, my cousins, or my Aunt Zlata.

But then I saw him. So pale his skin resembled ash, with large rough growths like lichen on his arms and neck, tattoos like daggers seared in both cheeks, and… a mass of wiry red hair. I could no longer breathe. All at once I was losing both my future and my past. For there could be no question, right? This horror of a dwarf, the only redheaded person other than myself on Aerfendal, must be my father. I had to run, I had to leave.

Somehow I made my way out of the throne room, carrying the bow of my mother’s assassin. Nearly blind with confusion and fear, I ran for two days and nights. I will never go back, never know the whole story of my parentage, never know if my sisters survived the slave rebellion. I spent the past year learning how to shoot an arrow, gather berries, skin a rabbit. You will occasionally see me tinker with a scrap of gold, forming it into a ring or a trinket, but I am not the same princess Niamh who listened to stories of far-off battles told by my golden sister Leira. I am a traveler, self-trained fighter, a warrior.
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Paying the Price
Oswin Wodenson left the provisioners, walking quickly with his head down through the crowded street. He paid no attention to the ugly looks he received from those he bumped. Instead, all he saw was the wet, red, gummy maw of Aerlene and her lusty cackle as she offered him a discount for his purchase. Had she been staring at my groin as she laughed? He face flushed once again as he remembered his mumbled excuse about holy abstinence as he backed out of the shop under her lustful eye.

The cleric could well imagine what the elf and the barbarian would think of his refusal of the carnal invitation. He wasn’t sure how they had time for adventuring between all the sexual encounters they had had. He couldn’t help but think maybe the party should have called themselves The Fucking Bastards instead. While the thought didn’t quite bring a smile to his face, at least it seemed to return his color to his usual pale.

The Farseer found a stone column out of the path of the crowds, found the side facing the afternoon sun and took a deep breath. He turned from the people in order to absently scratch at the baggy crotch of his leather trousers behind the privacy of his cloak. Thank Woden that the gummy shopkeep didn’t know enough to question my story about my time of the month. By the Eye, how can I not have a better cover story than that by now? A frown furrowed his brow as self-conscious embarrassment colored his cheeks again. Anyway, the idea of sleeping with that toothless hag after being with Sarafina,? Ridiculous! Even if it was over a year ago . . . raven’s blood, that long? . . . surely I will never be that desperate. It’s just as well that Sarafina would be the last. The cheeks stayed crimson, but the frown was replaced by a sad, wistful look only slightly masked by his squint.

Oswin sighed deeply as he remembered Sarafina’s violet eyes and white gold hair. Her teeth—white and perfect—stood in stark contrast to Aerlena’s gob. So she was 15. My mother was pregnant by then. She was the one who walked into my bed chamber Who was I to say no to the Count’s daughter? *How* do I say no to her? The cleric remembered well her birthday feast and the way her eyes sparkled when he told her future. He couldn’t quite remember whether he was surprised when she entered with the candle and little else. Didn’t I know how the Count would react? Did I ignore the little voice or was I too sure of my place there as the court cleric?

He shuddered despite the warmth of the afternoon sun as he continued to look blankly off into the distance. He shuffled his feet as he unconsciously tugged at his baggy pants. Instead of seeing the cobblestone street, he saw the look on the face of the house guard as they stormed into his room. Still groggy from the birthday wine, he barely noticed Sarafina being led from the room, but there was no ignoring the the shouting of the Count from the hallway. Slowly coming back to the late afternoon and the streets of Henrika’s Landing, Oswin shook his head and cleared his suddenly phlegmy throat. Where was Woden’s Eye that morning? Blinded by drink? A vision would’ve been useful that night, although I’d give anything to not remember what happened the rest of that day. Ahhh, Sarafina. Not the birthday present I planned on leaving you, but your father left me little choice. The cleric pulled his pants up and cinched his belt tighter as he shook his head to clear it and went looking for the rest of the Bloody Bastards, making a mental note to avoid the provisioners for the rest of their stay.
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