The Outer Realms are in crisis. After nearly four decades of summer, winter has descended, bringing desperation and chaos with it. In the north, a growing horde of bugbears gathers beneath the great wall at Wulfric's Keep, while the town of St. Rufinus, once a center of faith and commerce, is rumored to be infested with undead after a mysterious plague killed most of the residents. Further south, small bands of bugbears and hill giants have managed to cross the thickening sea ice to prey on coastal villages and travelers on the Shepherds' Road.

You are one of such travelers. The convoy of oxcart sleds with which you were traveling was beset by a bugbear raiding party, and you were captured. After taunting and beating you, the bugbears bound you, piled you into the back of a sled with your fellow prisoners and lashed a tarp over you, which helped ward off the wind and cold but locked you in darkness for the length of the journey.

After a cramped and arduous journey of several days, the bugbears finally removed the tarp, dragged you into the sunlight and locked you in a crude circular cage made of narrow tree trunks driven into the frozen ground.You appear to be on the edge of a frozen bay, with mountains behind you and the frozen water stretching out toward what looks like a hazy shoreline far to the west.

Your situation is grim, and you know that if you are to escape, you must do so soon. You have no shelter, so you huddle together for warmth, but you still grow weaker with each passing night. Once per day, a small goblin brings you an iron pot of stewed, musky-tasting meat and a clay jug of half-frozen water, but it is so meager that you feel your body beginning to waste beneath your ragged clothing.

Will you be able to escape? Or will you meet whatever fate awaits you as prisoners and slaves?

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As the sun slowly sets in the west, Valindra, smiling, surveys the carnage they have wrought atop Bald Mountain. Bugbear corpses, charred or feathered with arrows, lay scattered across the ice-rimed stone. The elf still savors the looks upon the enemy faces as Winters Bane ambushed them in the midst of their horrid demonic rite, looks of surprise and anger that yielded quickly to shock, confusion and finally despair.

The Leaf Lord teaches that as a sacred protector of the forest, she must be willing to unflinchingly deal death to those that threaten its safety or would harm its innocent denizens. Yet one should not find joy in such killing, satisfaction perhaps, but not joy. But as she views the dead mounded before, smells the aroma of charred flesh still hanging in the air, see the granite boulders still wet with their blood, her heart soars like a falcon in a blue sky of deepest summer. She realizes that she loves killing bugbears and would gladly hunt them until not a single one polluted the forest with its breath.

Behind her, the setting sun, glimpsed through a rent in the iron gray clouds, hangs like a drop of blood above the horizon. Night is coming fast. Tomorrow, at dawn, she will pray to the Leaf Lord for his guidance and forgiveness. But tonight she will hold these feelings close to her heart.

The air grows more chill as night approaches and she draws her bearskin cloak tightly about her shoulders. Ah, she thinks, some nettle tea would certainly hit the spot!
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What makes a victory? Ninety percent survival? Seventy-five percent? Fifty? Or is it victory if even one survives to tell the tale of complete obliteration of the enemy? Is success measured by performance on the battlefield—feats never before observed? I heard once that there should never have to be a sacrifice, and it made sense when I heard it, but now, I am so confused as to what is right or good. Less than thirty percent of the men, women, and children who walked onto this field survived. Most who survived are wounded—some maimed for life. Certainly all are forever changed. One cannot watch cherished kin die brutally five feet away, and remain unharmed in the heart and mind. It is hard for me to count this as victory. I should find solace in the knowledge that we slowed bugbear advancement, but…I can’t.

The grave is being dug, and the field is being cleared of bodies. Some are quietly weeping as they stroke the cheek of a father, a son, a daughter, a mother, a friend. Others are wailing over the brutalized bodies of their love ones, and being drug from the field themselves. I want to help in the recovery of the bodies, but I am not strong enough to move them. I could move the women and children with my mind, but it seems too disrespectful not to lay my actual hands on their bodies, so I kneel just off the field, resenting my stature, weeping in despair for the killed and in self-loathing for my inability to be of use.

How many victories can a soul bear?
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post from July 20
Metal. There can't be enough swords to account for the air smelling of metal. I stand there stupidly wondering about the unique odors attached to different types of swords, when I realize I'm actually not standing at all. I am on my hands and knees, all four sunken into the red slush of mud, snow, and blood. It's not metal. It's blood I smell. It fills my nostrils. It has seeped into my clothes, my pores, my mind. I retch over and over, and finally my stomach yields what little it held as I shake and cry. The contents of my stomach barely disturb the gruesome muck rising between my fingers.

I become aware of sound and realize that I am sobbing, but that sound fades as I turn my head in the direction of the screams coming from all around me. The veterans I've been fighting alongside are almost all dead or dying around me. Blood flows from wounds made by hateful arrows, protruding from chests, backs, heads, and throats. I hear gasping and gurgling sounds and know there is nothing to be done for these men and women. I shift my gaze to the left and see Rara, still struggling to fight, despite what appear to be mortal wounds of her own. This propels me out of my stupor, and I make a move as if toward her, but she waves me onward. I fix my gaze on the coward at the end of the field holding the orb and gesturing. I hope he suffers the way my fallen brothers and sisters have, once those of us still standing reach him. I hope it's my blast that takes him, and may it burn slowly.
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War Priestess (Posted on Behalf of Blair)
Blair raises her long arms toward the steel-gray winter clouds. She is an impressive figure, tall and hooded.

The ancient war chant begins low, gradually growing louder and louder. Through the din of battle, the voice of the war priestess strangely may be heard across the snowcovered plains below.

Though the words are indistinct from a distance, they become a pulse of dread in the chests of the enemies of Winter’s Bane. The warriors find themselves thinking of their mothers: Why did I ever leave home, where now my blood will never return, but only congeal on this frozen field of battle?

By contrast, the warm pulse of a blessing renews courage in the hearts of the allies: Surely today is our day to win. Our ancestors smile upon us this day.

Though the chant contains to magic to sharpen swords or quicken muscles, somehow the change in attitude, along with the sudden return of the champions of Winter’s Bane to the conflict, turn the momentum. One by one the enemy falls. At last Blair lowers her arms and hood, and descends to the battlefield to tend the wounded and the dead.
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The Festival of the Star
Rara sat, wrapped in furs, nuzzled against Solera trying to fend off the bitter cold. Her wounds still ached, even after the healing magics. She had not felt this secure in a long while and as she nodded off, her thoughts drifted back to one of the last times she had been enfolded in her mother's arms and poignantly learned of the existence of "surface dwellers."

Not far from Wellingrock, centered at the bottom of a bowl-like cavern, the lake was a sight to behold. Its expanse stretched well past the limits of svirfneblin darkvision, though luminous growths dotted the edges. Her clan, like many others across the Underdark, assembled to mark the Festival of the Star, similar to a midwinter celebration. This gathering was held in honor of the svirfneblin deity Callarduran Smoothhands, the Master of Stone. As they congregated on the banks of the underground lake, Rara held onto her mother's calloused hand, careful to avoid getting poked by "Tenderizer," the war-pick slung across her mother's back. Speckling the ceiling were thousands of tiny, faintly glowing patches of phosphorescent lichen. Mother Frola cast a spell, and the lichen immediately above glowed brighter than before. Rara gasped, leaving her jaw hanging as she stared in wonder. The resulting glow reflected off the surface of the water taking on the appearance of stars in an open night sky. Schools of petite, radiant fish occasionally darted near the surface resembling meteors streaking through the night. The primary function of the celebration was to honor Callarduran, whose symbol is of a star, but it also serves as a reminder to the deep gnomes of their origins on the surface world and that they are not alone.
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