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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Of Endings and Beginnings

The smoke from Hartmut’s funeral pyre spirals upward into the somber, slate colored sky. Valindra kneels before the flames, arms outstretched and lifted to the heavens, quietly intoning her sacred orisons to the Great Oak. In one hand she clutches a cluster of oak leaves, in the other a sprig of mistletoe. The heat of the fire has softened the frozen earth beneath her knees, turning it slushy, but she heeds it not, so intent is she upon her prayers.

It is the autumnal equinox one of her deity’s two most holy days, and she has fasted and meditated in preparation for the previous day. This morning, she rose early, bathed naked in the icy creek, blessed her flesh with the smoke of burning sage, and anointed herself with oil of rosemary, all in preparation for this sacred event. As a druid of the Great Oak, she celebrates this as a day of transformations and endings, and it thus feels appropriate to include the funeral of her fallen comrade as part of its ritual observance. In years past, she observed the equinox with feasting and dancing after the noontide ceremonies had ended, but not today. Today she has merged the equinoctial ceremony with Hartmut’s funeral, a great honor for someone she has known but a scant few weeks, but an honor owed him nevertheless. There will not likely be dancing tonight.

Eyes half lidded, her face lit by the fire’s glow, she begins her funerary chant as the rising flames consume the dwarf’s corpse:

Tumba seere a' lle, Hartmut Ironhelm
Tumba seere en' i' nurien estram a' lle
Tumba seere en' i' lienwold ‘n vilya a' lle
Tumba seere en' i' quiet Arda a' lle
Tumba seere en' i' shen giliath a' lle
Gatrea atar, creosa ho n'alaquel e'a lle rhatre

[Deep Peace to You, Hartmut Ironhelm
Deep peace of the running stream to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Great Father, welcome him back into your heart]

Valindra regrets that she knows very little about Hartmut’s Gods, if he even worshipped any at all, so her elvish prayers must suffice. Her comrades stand in a rough semicircle around the pyre, listening, heads bowed, each in turn thinking their own silent farewell to the dwarf.

That he fell by her hand makes the occasion all the more painful, and she will carry its sorrow with her forever like a stone. She knows it is not unheard of for comrades to die in this way; in the heat and clamor of battle, blows often go astray, and catastrophic mistakes do happen. Yet this knowledge does not lessen the anguish.

Later that evening, after having spent the afternoon constructing a cairn of stones atop Hartmut’s grave, she finds herself walking alone through the dusky gloaming. Heading nowhere particular, her feet take her along the frozen creek bank some distance from camp. In her hand, she holds the coin, so sacred to Hartmut, which bears the graven image of Dolora. Pausing, she looks down upon it, and she knows what she must do to honor the noble dwarf who fell by her hand. Someday, she thinks, she will find Dolora, give her this token, and speak Hartmut’s final words to her. A small gesture perhaps, but the only thing she can do.

Walking back to camp, dusk having turned to night, she suddenly senses a presence in the frost-rimed vegetation along the water’s edge ahead of her. Yes. There up ahead, at the edge of her vison, sits a beautiful creature. A large northern Lynx, its coat silvery grey and highlighted with dark spots. The animal turns its tufted ears towards the elf and fixes her with its stare. The two unlikely strangers, elf and lynx, sit for long moments quietly regarding each other. Then, unexpectedly, like a ghost gliding over the icy ground the cat silently approaches the priestess on its large pad-like paws. Purring deeply, it rubs its entire length back and forth across her buckskinned legs.

Valindra gasps. Deeply moved by the sudden and utterly unexpected appearance of this creature, she can only assume that it comes as a sign from the Leaf Lord himself. The equinox is a day of endings, after all, but it is also a day of beginnings. As with all things in opposition, you cannot have one without the other. Every and each is contained within its opposite. So teaches the Leaf Lord. Perhaps the friendship of this beautiful animal represents just such a potential new beginning found amid this day of endings.

She squats and gazes into the creature’s green eyes, breathing in its smell, its feline muskiness mingled with flavor of the winter landscape. She asks it its name, not in human or elf words, but in a more primal fashion. “Sasha” is the reply. A good name the elf thinks.

And for a moment the weight on her heart eases a tiny bit. “Well met, my friend,” she whispers to the nuzzling beast. “Well met.”

Session: Game Session #2 - Sunday, Oct 07 2018 from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM
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Trapped by Beasts
Trapped in a crude enclosure made of wooden stakes, I have plenty of time, more time than I need, to survey my new companions. They are a disheveled, ragtag band, but they seem amenable enough; everyone seems to possess a level enough head, in fact, except the fat little merchant—oh, what was his name? I don’t even remember. And as he is dragged away—to what is surely his doom—by a few of these barbaric bugbears I notice a look of consternation cross the features of the others but none of them leap to act; a blessing, for if we had protested we all would have been cut down. “Now, how will I extricate myself from these gruesome conditions?” I ponder to myself. In the middle of my own thoughts I hardly notice the abrupt silence where there had once been a pitiful wail from the direction of the cooking pit, but I do pause to mirror the grimaces of my cellmates. I can spare but a moment’s thought for the poor merchant, though; somehow I must devise a way out of this cage.

The travelers I am trapped with here seem competent enough; as the bugbears converse one of my cellmates reveals a knowledge of the harsh goblin tongue, and tells us that the bugbears are planning to commence a great journey in the morning, which will leave their numbers severely diminished in the camp. After conversing amongst ourselves, we decide to wait until the following day to make good our escape. We are given poor rations as night comes on—they are hardly acceptable and none of us decide to eat them—and finally, all the bugbears retire to their tents to sleep before the journey.

As murky sunlight spills over the land the bugbears roll unceremoniously from their beds—loudly complaining all the way—to finally assemble into a miscreant band to begin their journey. There is much rude conversation (though I can not understand their crude goblin language, I can tell the talk is churlish) and infantile nudging of elbows as they come together, and a snarled conversation between the apparent leader of this group and the old scarred bugbear that was charged with watching the prisoners while the others glutted themselves (from my companion who understands the goblin tongue I gather that this oldster wishes to accompany them on the journey, but he is being rebuffed). After a long, drawn-out shouting match the scarred bugbear huffs grudgingly and the other bugbears set off and soon disappear into the misty morning. Along with the scarred one they leave behind also the leader’s paramour, a garishly-garbed female bugbear, who disappears into the grandest dwelling (if such a shack can be described as “grand”). The scarred oldster grunts again and disappears into his tent, clearly determined to guard us vigilantly. It is a few moments after he has vanished that I and my companions begin to effect our escape.

The lock on the door to our enclosure is picked and I stealthily make my way out with my new companions in tow. After first shooing away the goblin slaves of the bugbears that had been reposing in a nearby tent, I send out a raucous but sonorous cry to summon the remaining bugbears from their hovels. They blunder out of their tents and into the deadly ministrations of my party; the scarred one is quickly dispatched. The garish female falls not long after. My party has won the day!

After searching all of the tents and distributing the supplies within to those most in need of it, I travel with my new companions across the ice, and on to greater glory! I can see that I will be singing many songs of my adventures with these five travelers.
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The world seemed so much smaller just a few weeks ago. I was born in the winter, but only really know summer. My people say that winter is not so bad for us, but for those less of the land, it is devastating, and it is from other’s devastation that our suffering comes.

I miss the familiar aromas rising up from surrounding burrows, and I miss the comfort of friendly faces that reach the same height as my own. My neck aches constantly from craning my neck to get at least a marginally accurate look at people, and I worry that I never truly have a realistic perspective of what others observe.

Perhaps it is the anguish of missing home, but I find myself reluctantly wanting to have an accurate perspective of my current companions. Fate has thrust us together, and knowing them seems a matter of the basic act of living, but also some measure of comfort. As we rest warm, fed, and relatively safe in Caer Adara, I let my mind linger on them. It’s difficult to know anything of substance of Rolf just yet. He certainly is an interesting-looking fellow. Harmut appears stalwart, and I sense he is trustworthy. Sheltered very much inside himself, I wonder if he was always so, or just since being separated from the figure on his coin. I feel pity for Dill. I wonder if every thought in his mind is tainted with the bitter, bitter anger that colors his every movement, his every word, or if he has moments of peace, when he remembers something good, or enjoys a flicker of hope. I wonder how long before I too am completely consumed by anger. With Valindra, I think I have the most in common, both in thought and deed. It seems that I can feel her in a way, and few words are necessary for communication, unlike with the others—similar to relations at home. I sense that I can trust that our values align, and it is a comfort to be with someone who is somewhat familiar, even if she is so painfully tall. Blair is majestic. She is as tall as a tree, and she uses magic like a warlock. I have never seen anything like her, and if my pride allowed me, I would ask to sit upon her great shoulders.

I hope we all live long enough to understand each other better. I suppose this is backward thinking actually; perhaps we will live longer if we understand each other better…
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Slow Cooked
Dill waited for the slouching bugbear to doze off. As soon as his fat head and double chin slowly nodded to his chest, Dill screamed, “You fat sonofabitch!” The bugbear’s head snapped back up, eyes popping open. He made a deep short grunt, scratched his ass and bared his rotten teeth at Dill. Dill smirked and waited to do it again.

“The others mock you behind your back. When you’re asleep they wipe their balls across your fat face.” Dill was getting worked up, his voice becoming a shrill. “One time you tried to suckle the big one’s balls, they nearly woke you, giggling like some softheaded fairies.”
“He can’t understand you,” quipped Blair, irritated with the shouting. “I don’t care, he gets the idea,” Dill shot back, keeping his eyes fixed on their captor. “Your mama must have been the prettiest pig in the pen!” Dill then continued his lambasting by making pig snorting noises.

“All you’re going to do is piss him off,” rankled Hartmut. “Exactly,” Dill said sharply. “And then what?” Hartmut asked shaking his head. “I’m gonna get his fat hairy goblin ass to come over here, open that gate and then I’m gonna pummel him,” Dill snapped. “You’re going to get us all killed,” Hartmut said flatly. “Not all of us,” Dill muttered to himself.

That’s when they came for Garrick. Oh sure, they stood there, perusing which was going to make for a better meal. Deciding, they pulled him from the cage clawing and screaming, while the rest of the woebegone remained, dumbed and huddled in horror, thankful it wasn’t them.

The smell of Garrick’s flesh cooking on the spit wafted toward camp. It was intoxicating for those that had only eaten the pitiful slop the goblins served. But at the same time nauseating.

The fat bugbear sat in his chair focusing on the cage and when his eyes met Dill’s, he did his best impression of a smile, which came off more of a sneer, even better. Dill looked away quickly. Staring at the frozen ground, humiliated, his knotted fists uncurled, hanging limp by his sides.

The uncomfortable silence is finally broken when Blair turns to the other prisoners:
"Who has a plan?"
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Blair is younger than she appears, and perhaps less confident. Not that she lacks faith, but remember her god is by nature a holy Trickster. She has seen clerics of other gods draw down thunder from the sky, or transform air into steely blades. Followers of Gwydion are much more likely to see their foe trip on a tree root and stumble backwards into a stony pit. Enemies find themselves temporarily blinded, confused, or 3 feet shorter than normal, swinging an elk bone instead of a war hammer. OK so it gets the job done, but Blair often wonders if Gwydion's divine motivation is just the pursuit of a good belly laugh.

Now she is in a cage with six strangers. Rolf is a pretty thing, grooming his coppery skin and assuring the group he is about to mastermind their escape. Dill mutters and pounds the frozen earth with his fists. Hartnut seems half here and half transported to wherever the shiny coin he fingers came from. Valindra quietly takes in each movement of the bugbears, like a raven waiting for the wolves to abandon a carcass so she may perfectly time her descent. Tiny Ainorei paces the enclosure; Blair longs to pick the seeds and burrs out of the gnome's tangled hair. Garrick appears hopeless, it is clear he's never before been in a situation he could not buy himself out of.

Then it happens like it always does: Blair becomes aware of a glimpse of Gwydion's plan: she will be bonded to some of her fellow hostages, they will win their release and travel the realms together. She sees only a partial view, like a starry sky seen from within the forest, but it inspires a prayer:

Gwydion, Master of Illusion and change
Great god of trickery and magic strange

Hear my plea from within these bars
Muddle the minds of our bugbear guards - -

She is interrupted by the commotion of Garrick being hauled, thrashing and wailing from the cage.

It's like that with Gwydion - just as his warrior priestess invokes his name, the situation worsens. If there's a plan, they must be pretty deep into that forest, because the stars have all but disappeared.

Blair has lost the urge to pray, and instead craves her reliable longsword. There's a time for mysticism and a time for action. You might be wondering if the new spark she feels is, somehow, Gwydion's answer. She turns to the other prisoners:

"Who has a plan?"
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