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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Fright
I remember so clearly what I was thinking before it happened. My feet felt sure and nimble as I fearlessly descended the tricky waterfall. I was pondering that Gwydion would approve of these winding underground caves and caverns. The thrill of adventure. What unknown challenge lay around the next bend? My muscles felt strong from days of marching. My eyes were beginning to adjust to the ever changing flicker of the torch in this dark place. I heard a shout and looked down the tunnel to see a cloaker rising, bat-like from the water, droplets clinging to it’s wings and falling back to the river. I took my ready stance, a spell on my lips, then my ears split open, my skull fractured, and through the gaping hole shot a terrifying shriek. It filled my mind, rattling like dice in a cup. Fear, fear, fear. How do you escape terror when it’s within your own head? The need to run overpowered me. Helpless, without any logic, I ascended the same waterfall we had just painstakingly picked our way down. My feet flung the stones behind me. My cloak tore on the jagged spikes of rock. My clothing dragged through the water. Get away! Get away! Dripping sweat in spite of the bone chilling river. Then as suddenly as it began, the cleft in my head sealed up, my fear erased. I turned back down the waterfall to my comrades- soaked to the skin, disheveled.

Hours later we are camped in a cavern. My cloak may never dry. Am I shivering from the cold, or is it a memory of the terror? I worry this feeling will be with me long after my cloak has once again regained it’s warmth. Has this memory carved a path in my mind, like the underground river through the rock, that will allow fear to visit me again? I look around at my comrades and hope for their sake it is not so.
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Blood Lust



Solera’s stomach turned, but it was not from the putrid odor wafting down from the shambling mound’s cave. She was sick from the horrific memories that going after the drow stirred in her.

When Solera’s tribe was hiding in the caves from the giants, it was the drow that told the gargantuan beasts where all the cave entrances were so the could collapse them. She blamed the drow as much as the giants for her parent’s death and that of her tribe. She recalled the crushed bodies of her family under the rubble. The screams of children still echoed in her ears.

Going after the drow was not just revenge, it was about Solera’s seething hatred for the race. Solera was not one to lust for blood, but the thought of annihilating the dark-skinned fiends gave her a drive to kill she had not known she possessed.

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Head Trauma
Dill was the first down the waterfall, Valindra had shown him how to use a boulder as an anchor point while still being able to retrieve your rope. They carefully made their way down the wet slippery pitch when suddenly Diogenes lost his footing and grip, falling into the cascade below. Dill watched him being swept away in the flume of water, shaking his head, “If that ain’t fucking typical.” Diogenes gained some purchase at the bend in the river before it channeled into the gloom of this underworld.

Dill had been in a more-than-usual foul mood since leaving Caer Gwynned. It started that first night in camp. Dill laid in the tiny tent pressed between Blair and Diogenes, clutching the crown Anwin had made to his chest, listening to Valindra and Solera bicker like an old married couple by the campfire. Their sudden silence was all he needed. He quietly crept out from under the back of the tent while the other two, now alarmed, fussed over how long it would take to don their armor. From his side of the tent he could barely make out four menacing figures standing still in the snow, braced against the wind, bows drawn. The closest one fired an arrow, nearly scalping Dill. “Surrender and give us yer gold,” came the garbled voice from behind a mouth half full of blackened grotty teeth. Dill thought quickly, he raised his empty hands, “Sure thing buddy,” as he walked a normal pace toward the bandit. “Look, we don’t want any trouble...” he continued as he covered the distance between them. It took to solid punches to kill the bastard, the first to the stomach, driving his large intestine with such force, that his abdominal aorta ruptured. He doubled over while Dill pummeled his head. His ear cartilage and skin burst around the sides of Dill’s fist, his brain twisting inside it’s casing of bone. He was dead before he hit the icy ground.

A terrifying moan cut short Dill’s reverie at the base of the waterfall. It was more like an ear splitting high pitched squeal. In his periphery, he could see Blair and Solera running like hell, but he couldn’t look away from the nightmare descending towards Diogenes. An abomination of what first appeared to be a black cloak unfurled itself to an eight foot wingspan. Ivory talons at the ends of it wings, a mouth foul of razor sharp teeth and finally, the best part, a long thorned whip-like tail. It was Diogenes turn to run for his life. A string of expletives left Dill’s mouth culminating in the monster engaging in an anatomically impossible activity.
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Underground


They are cold. They are wet. They are exhausted. Sitting cross-legged on the damp stone of the cavern floor in the lambent glow of a single candle, Valindra takes stock of their situation. They have travelled all night without sleep, following the course of an underground stream for miles, wading its icy waters before finding this relatively dry place to rest. Along the way, they have fought and they have killed.

She clasps a small wooden bowl of nettle and rosehip tea in her delicate fingers, sipping slowly, trying to warm herself even the tiniest bit, shivering in her sodden buckskins. Her face, like her companions’, is drawn and pale. Huddled together, they silently nibble their hard tack and sip their tea in the meager pool of candlelight. Beyond the light, the stygian darkness looms with almost conscious menace. Who knows what terrors the night may bring.

And yet, somehow, her mood is buoyant. Despite its perils, this subterranean realm awes Valindra with its ineffable beauty. The dripping stalactites, the pillared limestone cathedrals, the lilting music of the underground streams, the sheets of flowstone folded like fine linen curtains, the glimpses of mineral deposits winking fulgently in the deep silent earth. These all fascinate her and break her heart with wonder. As a creature of the forest, she has had but scant experience with the world beneath the earth’s surface, but the alien splendor of it all, the chthonic majesty, has piqued her elven curiosity and moved her deeply. Even in the face of death and peril she cannot help but ache at this newfound aspect of the Leaf Lord’s being.

She silently mouths a prayer of gratitude over the steaming lip of her bowl:

Thank you, Oh Father
For this amazing day,
For the true dream of the Earth,
For everything that is Natural,
That is Infinite,
That is Yes*


Valindra quietly finishes her tea and begins to restring her longbow. She has first watch alone tonight, and it will not do to have a dampened bowstring while the others depend upon her.

(*E.E. Cummings sort of)
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Eddies touch upon the whi...
Eddies touch upon the whitened plain
Sweeping the ashen wastes
of those who once reached for the sun
Tomorrow more miles remain
I will rise and face them
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