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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Into the Pit
Dill peeled off his shirt, he stood at the edge of the ring in his leather breeches and bare feet. He inhaled deeply, the smell of sweat, blood, sand, smoke mixed with spilled ale. Intoxicating. The usually laughs, catcalls and insults of “Who let a child into the pit?” and “Your mama’s calling boy,” rained down from the stands. He paid no heed as he oiled up his chest and arms. He shot a furtive glance over his shoulder to the party. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, Valindra sipped from a tankard the length of his leg. He turned back to size up his opponent, “Bruiser.” And then Dill did something he hadn’t done in days, he smiled.

In theory, they are not for mere butchery but a display of courage, skill, and strength for the gods. Though of course, the fighting pits also bring in a large amount of coin from spectators, and those who gamble on the fights. As a result, the games are quite popular with both the rich and poor, and many fighters willingly participate in the games because it is their chance to achieve wealth and glory. Dill isn’t here for any of those reasons.

The combatants wear no armor in the fighting pits as it is blood the crowds have come to see. Usually, fighting pits feature combatant against combatant, man against beasts, or beast against beasts. But there are also pits in which slave children are forced to fight beasts, and "follies" in which children, cripples or old people are placed with fake weapons against wild animals for the mockery of spectators. There are even pits in which slave children are covered in different foods so that patrons may bet on which child a given beast will devour first. Dill had no stomach for any of that.

This is the bullshit world he lived in now. The Undead, plague, monsters, and decades of winter to come. Now you throw man’s inhumanity to man on top of it? No wonder Dill lost all hope.

He wandered and fought for survival at first, enough to win a little coin to afford a meal or warm shelter at night. His emotions became as calloused as his hands and knuckles.

But a peculiar thing happened along the way, he felt a kind of release and satisfaction at inflicting pain on another. In a world where he became desensitized to everything around him, the physical contact of fighting woke him up and made him feel truly alive.

Dill charged across the pit at “Bruiser,” how off-putting his wide grin must have been that fleeting moment before impact.

Losing all hope was freedom.
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Valindra has never been in a human settlement as large as Lacuwic before, and she finds it disconcerting to say the least. The stone buildings, the narrow alleys, and cobbled streets all press in upon her, threatening to suffocate her with their embrace. After only scant days here, she longs for the open hill country, the marshland, and the valleys that lie beyond the town’s walls. And yet, as confining as she finds it here, the city also holds fascination for the elf, and she has taken to exploring its thoroughfares and markets with sharp curiosity.

She thus finds herself this chill wintry morning strolling casually through the main market commons of Lacuwic, drinking in its sights and smells. The Knights Keep looms over the gate to the inner city. The stony face of Aedelstan I, streaked with pigeon shit, frowns over the throngs of merchants, artisans and shoppers crowding the square. She breaths the winter air, redolent with the heady aroma of fresh baked bread, spices, roasted mutton, and ox dung, and finds it not unpleasant.

Even here, even in this human-made place of artifice so far from the forests and meadows, she can feel the eternal presence of the Great Oak moving through her. She feels him in the wrens and sparrows nesting in the theeked roofs that ring the square. She feels him in the brittle winter sunlight falling from the cloud-scudded sky overhead. She feels him in the stones and timbers that comprise the bones of this places. Though far from the forest, Valindra knows that all things in existence are shoots and branches of his Lordship the Eternal Oak. And this knowledge lifts her spirits.

Valindra takes her time browsing among the peddler’s wagons and vendor’s stalls. At one she pays a copper for a sack of dried apricots; at another she buys a skosh of barleycorn for Helgi who watches her from his perch atop a nearby roof. From a cheerful herbalist, she buys comfrey root, lady’s mantle, and yarrow, all useful to make a healing poultice. She spends considerable time browsing through a jumbled hodgepodge of trinkets and jewelry heaped upon the counter of a crafty gnomish trader – the only one of his kind in sight – only to move one with slight disappointment.

As she shops, Valindra feels the eyes of the townsfolk upon her. While not entirely unknown, elves are not a common sight here. Some look upon her with fascination, some with admiration, as the tales of Winter’s Bane and their accomplishments have already spread throughout the community. And she detects more than a few lustful glances from among the passersby as well.

She smiles at this, enjoying their gazing. It has been many long months since she has taken a lover, certainly not since well before she fled her forest home. As an elf, she has no aversion to pleasures of the flesh; her kind in fact take great delight in such things and have even elevated their practice to a high art form. Like most members of her clan, Valindra has had many sexual partners, both male and female, as is the way of her people. Sampling the charms of many different lovers is no different than sampling the juices of many different berries in the forest. But all that has befallen her, as well as the direness of their situation, has dampened her enthusiasm for carnal pursuits of late.

And besides, few of these humans move her like that anyway. Such crude creatures for the most part, their lust seems almost childish to the elf. She was briefly tempted by the priest of Frey to whose temple she had tithed her gambling winnings the previous evening. The man was handsome enough, albeit in a simple sort of way. But Valindra had found his vainglorious boasting about the size of his member and the goatish unsubtlety of his advances quite tiresome. She smirks at the memory. Did he think her but an alehouse drossell to be seduced by such inartistic flummery? Perhaps it is the shortness of human lives that heightens the urgency of their desire.

Yet as simple as these humans seem to her, she must admit that she has developed a decided fondness for them that continues to grow the longer she lives among them. At first she had feelings of almost maternal protectiveness for them, but these feelings have given way to something closer to admiration. Even in the face of gravest horror, they endure.

She thinks of the humans in Winter’s Bane. Diogenes, newcomer to the group, is incredibly brave she thinks. The way he heedlessly charged the Ragged Lady with his two handed sword had impressed Valindra greatly.

And of course, the elf has the utmost respect for Blair. In the time that they have known each other, the human warrior priestess has shown nothing but skill and courage in battle and compassion for the weak. Valindra is proud to call her a comrade.

Valindra grows weary of her shopping and she wonders where the others could be. She looks forward to speaking with them again beside the fire tonight and learning more of them. Perhaps Blair will tell another story of Gwydion, or Solera will share some folk tales from her icy homeland in the north.

Though she doubts she could ever feel truly at home in a human town such as this, she is happy to be among the companions she has chosen.
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Southward Bound
A barely visible figure stood at the edge of the treeline. Solera’s stark white skin and hair camouflaged her in the blowing snow. If it weren’t for her brilliant blue eyes that practically glowed compared to the white surrounding them, she would be virtually invisible in the storm.

Solera stood staring back in the direction of what used to be her home with tears freezing on her cheeks almost immediately as they left her eyes. She barely had time to collect her belongings before the ice cave started to collapse under the force of the frost giants pounding fists. She fled with barely more than the clothes on her back and her weapons.

They had been warned by a neighboring village that the frost giants were heading their way, but it was not enough time for them to prepare. They had made the caves their homes as the frost giants became more aggressive and the frequency of the attacks increased. They knew giants could not fit through the cave entrance. However, they did not anticipate that the giants had come up a scheme to trap them in the caves by collapsing all the entrances with their powerful blows. Luckily, there was one hidden egress that the hulking ice creatures did not find and the snow elves were able to make their escape. That is, those that survived the cave collapses. Unfortunately, the survivors did not include Solera’s family. Solera had to watch her parents as they were crushed by falling boulders of ice. There was nothing she could do to save them. She wanted to run to their mangled bodies but knew she had to flee or she would join them.

She could only stop for a minute, she knew she had to keep moving. With her heart breaking from the loss of everything she knew and loved, she headed south.

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Tale of Winter's Bane
The villagers of Cymer Lloc settled in around the fire, ready for the tale.

Blair stepped forward, looked into the flames, started in a quiet voice. The villagers leaned in to listen. She began with the approach to the village of Ir de Crannog, the party debating whether they would find anyone living.

A story is so much better when you feel the anticipation, the uncertainty. The villagers traveled with the party across the frozen lake on the cold creaking wooden walkway. They scaled the wall, encountered the lizard folk, fought bravely and defeated them.
As the story and the night went on, the villagers pulled their cloaks tighter. Whether the fire was dying or the priestess was causing the room to become colder for dramatic effect they could not tell.
Their mouths fell open as they learned of the wooden barrier conjured by Valindra. They cheered at the tales of Solara and Ainorei taking down lizards. Chuckles rose from their throats to imagine Dill scrambling onto the thatched roof to scout the hiding creatures – then whoops to hear of him smiting them down as they emerged into the frozen village square.

No one wanted the night or the saga to end, swept up as they were in the raw and brutal tale.But the rhythm of the poem began to slow, and Blair lifted her gaze from the embers to look into the faces of the people of Cymer Lloc.

The last phrase stayed in their minds and has oft been repeated by the locals when telling visitors of the lizard invasion to the North:

Formed by tribes and villages far
O’er the frozen Llychau Mawr, to
Ir deCrannog warriors came, then
Vanquished evil. Winter’s Bane.
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A Brief Respite
And so it is. Winter's Bane has saved a second village from the tide of evil and woe that has descended upon the settlements of Northern Wealas. First, it was I’r De Crannog, rescued from the predations of lizardfolk driven in from the cold to attack the hamlet. And nows this. But this is so much worse.

Running her eyes among the snow-swept and abandoned huts of Caer Mared Valindra takes it all in, the great mound of partially burned bodies, the shallow grave barely scraped out from the snow, the corpses of children still clutching the poppets given to them as gifts by the so-called “Ragged Lady” who visited this hamlet just days before The news of the “Ragged Lady” traveling up the Severn Valley bringing pestilence and death to the settlements strung out along its length has filled her with dread and urgency. This last detail sickens her the most, the fact that the Ragged Lady has used children as the vehicle to spread whatever eldritch plague she has conjured. Valindra's anger smolders in her chest like coals.

What sort of plague is this that kills the living so swiftly yet causes its victims to rise from the grave? The elf shudders at the thought of it. Like most living folk, Valindra has an inherent loathing and fear of the undead, but as a servant of the Great Oak she feels an especial abhorrence for them. The violation of nature’s laws that they embody, the twisted mockery of life that is neither life nor death, stands as an affront to everything she has sworn to revere and protect. Until now, she has had scant experience with these twisted things, but she fears this will soon change. So be it. She is only too happy to return more of these grave-risen wretches to the dim hell that spawned them.

The situation appearing to be in hand, Valindra begins to relax. She unstrings her yew bow and carefully stores the flaxen bowstring in her pouch to keep it dry. Squatting on her haunches, she unstoppers a leathern bottle of water and quenches her thirst. Though not terribly hungry, the elf nibbles a bit of brown bread baked in the simple hearths of Caer Adara; she will need her strength for the parlous journey ahead. They all will.

Delicately brushing away the crumbs from her fingertips, she smiles, finding the bread surprisingly good. Over the last two years, she has developed a growing acceptance of human food, but this has deliciously surprised her. The baker in Caer Adara has skill, she thinks, a small pleasure that briefly distracts her from her brooding. This small goodness reminds her that light can always be found in even the deepest darkness. She is grateful to the unknown hand that baked this bread and reminded her of this.

Under her breath, she softly whispers a simple elfin prayer for him and for them all:

Or 'waith bain nura Anor
A panlû elin cuinar
Ú-pedithon 'i-aur gwann'
Egor nai îl 'namarië'.

[Above all shadows rides the Sun
And stars always dwell.
I will not say 'The day is done'
Or to the stars 'farewell'.] *

The winter gloaming has begun to deepen, and the wind gusts suddenly from the ice-locked Bay of Shields to the south. Valindra draws her mantle of wolf pelts more closely about her shoulders. They have a long, hard march ahead of them, and will need to push on without rest through the frozen hill country to the north. They must reach I’r Gogledd Crannog, some four or five leagues northward, before the Ragged Lady has a chance to work anymore of her foetid necromancy there.

It will be cold; they will be tired; bugbears very well may still roam the hills; but the anger she feels burning within will sustain her through what may come. Valindra rises and turns to join the rest of the party. Let the hunt begin.

* (JRR Tolkien)
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