Food for the journey
After meeting Seer Velda in the Emhaintar inn, Second Skirmish formulates a plan to reach the conjunction of the Firen and Sirannon rivers, the likely location of the Winter Seed. Brief discussions precede their departure, during which Velda tells Tomas he currently lives in Tharbad, but cannot be reached through the Brotherhood of the March. He offers the address of his quarters there should Tomas ever be compelled to find him. He also informs Tomas that the Brotherhood was originally commissioned by the then-king of Tharbad, but has since split to become a business.
They scatter to enact their part in the scheme:
• Altraam heads for the kitchens to find and steal food for the journey. Deciding not to chance a walk through the lit corridors, he ventures outside, entering via the front door and quickly finding his way to the kitchen. It is dark, quiet. The kitchen opens to a scullery, thence to a well-stocked larder with sacks and boxes and jointed carcasses ready for use. He takes ham, butter, dense bread, other rich foods. Noise nearby alerts him to company; a servant girl enters the store just as he is about to start work. He captures and binds her, offering quiet assurances she will not be hurt, then looks to the task of accessing the garbage chute. A rusty padlock is quickly dealt with, and he begins sending food outwards. Sound in the kitchens outside alerts him to further company; deft questioning of his captive reveals it is probably another servant come to light the fire, and will not interrupt his task. He sends as much down as he thinks they can carry, then heads for the rendezvous, an approximate value of the stolen goods tucked away in memory.
• Tomas heads outside to secure the goods Altraam sends his way. The gap beneath the palisade is too tight for his large frame, and he is forced to shovel away some of the dirt they replaced after entering. He finds the garbage chute outlet, hears a noise nearby but dismisses it as an animal rooting about in the rotting pile. Right on time, Altraam delivers the goods, and Tomas busies himself bundling up supplies into manageable loads.
• Cian and Erfiren are forced to venture deeper into the village in search of clothes. Young Dira accompanies them as they sneak from shadow to shadow, avoiding the guards who shuffle and shiver along the parapet. The store is quickly reached, and plundered for enough leather pants for an entire mardi gras, along with three decent backpacks. Dira is troubled by the sight of his father’s store being plundered, but is assured he will be repaid in time. Cian leaves a few token coins on the counter. They sneak out and head for the gap in the fence, but are blocked by guards as they approach. Stealth is an option, but offers less opportunity for violence than a charging takedown. The latter approach is taken with Dira running interference and two guards are flattened before they have a chance to make a sound. They are plundered for their equipment and left tied in the snow with the parting words, “Soon you will fear the name ‘Walker’!”, spoken with a suspiciously Daen accent and only two levels of skill in Westron. Another guard is heard soon after, calling for “Gam! Gam?”
• Yeld’s task is to raid the guardhouse for weapons. He returns with four daggers, three longswords, two shields and a bow with twenty arrows.
Equipped, clothed and provisioned, Second Skirmish farewell Dira and head for the ferry.
On reaching it, Tomas finally identifies the nagging concern he had on leaving the village: the oars and poles to propel the pontoon ferry are kept inside the gates. The risk of returning is assessed and dismissed; Tomas makes a quick decision and begins tearing up some of its boards to use as oars. The risk increases suddenly when soldiers appear at the gates and head towards them. Erfiren pulls loose one of the iron stanchions and hacks at the ice; soon the ferry is freed and they drift out into the sixty-metre wide channel.
Two riders flank the barge as it heads downstream. Upon reaching the far side a few miles downstream, Second Skirmish anchor the barge using the stanchions and climb onto the ice. They pause, look back at the riders just as one of them pulls away his scarf.
It is Walker.
“You fools,” he calls. “I had no quarrel with you. I was happy being a small lord in a small town. But now…now you have drawn the Eye to yourselves, to your home. He has given me power, power I did not want, but that I must wield in his name. And wield it I shall. Against you!”
Second Skirmish mock him roundly from the apparent safety of the far side of the river. But Walker gestures, calls out something in a voice too faint to hear, in a language they cannot recognise. The ice beneath Altraam’s feet suddenly crackles, turns black….
…and Second Skirmish choose to retreat south, away from their long-time foe. They climb the steep hill flanking the river’s edge, and take cover in the dense trees lining the long ridge.
“Do you have them? Do you see them.”
Vflynn’s Second Skirmish teammates have been gone three days now. With everyone on half-watch, Palanto has been unwilling to release anyone to look for them. With no witnesses on the gate or dock remembering anyone seeing them leave, you’re not even sure where you’d start.
It was natural to look for them in the spirit world, that other place where you can hear the whispers of familiar souls. Your early attempts were fruitless, the incessant chatter of Cathorna’s many familiar friends the only things you could hear. You listened beyond, to the forest of the valley, heard the surly growl of the temple daen, the pinprick pain of orcs loose in the valley, but of your friends you heard nothing.
Until Amrik came to you on river guard one night, eyes wide and skin pale. “We must find them!” he whispered nervously. “We must know where they go!” He brought you back to his chaotic workshop, closed the door with a furtive glance outside.
He lit candles, brewed tea, offered you a draught. Sharp and bitter, it made the quiet sounds of the room seem distant and muffled, and brought the sounds of the spirit world into sharp focus.
And this time you heard something. Far away, you heard the familiar, wandering chatter of one you know better than most, one who constantly wanders into your world. Your eyes snap open, you point, and say, “Erfiren.”
Amrik pulls out a map. You look, he speaks, you listen, both to him and to the aimless wandering of Erfiren’s thoughts. Between you, you feel your way to an answer, in the form of a chalk circle on Amrik’s carefully inked map.
“So far!” says Amrik worriedly. It is further than you’ve been in years, since you first came to Cathorna. It’s beyond the cold plains of the Colgar daen, perhaps beyond the Sirannon river. It is unfamiliar land, and not to be entered lightly.
But Amrik looks pleadingly at you. “They are far away! They are without things they need! None can find them but you!” He sees your hesitation and his expression shifts indecipherably. He looks up at an armoire against the wall, then quickly stands and goes to it.
You hear the click of two keys, then he glances back furtively. You hear muttered words, feel the prickling of some power, then the armoire swings open. He reaches in, quickly takes something out and slams it shut.
“These,” he says quickly, pressing two things into your hands. “Take these.”
One is a bottle. “Drink this. A little each time you look. You will see the other side more clearly.”
The other is a ring. Something like vertigo touches you when you examine it.
“Wear this when the enemy are close,” he says. “It will help to hide you. But tell nobody! Show nobody! And bring it to me when you return. This thing…it is dangerous. Eyes watch it, I can feel them.”
“Can you go? Can you go alone? Now?”
Snow is heavy on the ground when you set out. You skip across it, keeping to cover, relying on dead reckoning to find your way north.
Into the wild
Vflynn’s journey north takes her across empty plains. Choosing caution at first, she heads for the familiar cover of Thror’s Hills, keeping to low ground, travelling when visibility is poor. She sees riders, lines of black spots marching across the clean white cloth of the plains. They are many; more even than when the Colgar patrolled in force. She takes a chance and runs for the safety of the Derrin Downs…
…but luck is not with her. A cluster of riders turns onto her trail she crosses the Gap.
They follow, closing in on mounts that do not move like horses. She takes cover in a snow cave, leaves a gap to watch, sees them coming straight for her. They are orcs, mounted on enormous wolves – the wargs created by the Black Foe to give his minions speed. Realising they are following her prints across the fresh snow, she is forced to put on the ring given to her by Amrik.
The wind changes suddenly. It swings around to the north, blowing snow from the crests of the deep, still drifts. Her footprints vanish. The wolves become indistinct, blurry; the orcs suddenly seem gaunt, hung with rags that flap in the wind. The leader raises a staff, points it straight at her, then looks behind him and pulls his mount into a sharp turn. They ride away, the snow obscuring them from sight in moments. Vflynn waits, then removes the ring and resumes her trek northward until tiredness forces her to seek refuge in the high branches of a wintry tree.
She awakes suddenly from a sleep haunted by the clattering of the dry branches. Night has passed, snow has fallen, and enemies have found her. A circle of six skeletons surrounds the tree, all staring up at her, loosely grasping rusty maces and shields adorned with faded symbols of Arnor. Unwilling to risk an uneven fight, she runs along a branch and leaps to the ground, fleeing north at speed. The skeletons settle into pursuit, the clattering of their bones louder than her breathing.
Second Skirmish cross the ridge southwards, in time to see seven figures heading towards them. They watch from concealment, watch seven skeletons running hard into the tree line. The leader is robed and helmeted, the others bear only swords and maces. They allow them to pass, watch them cross the ridge and turn east, along the river. Soon after, Vflynn appears, sharing a little news of her journey to find them. They tell her what they have learned of the winter curse, and together they set off southwest towards Witchmount.
Riders constantly cross the plains, heading north, heading south. Snow caves offer concealment and protection; an orc stops nearby late one night, pausing long enough to leave a patch of yellow snow before riding on. The hills east of Witchmount are reached in two hard, cold days. A camp is made in the eaves of their rocky flanks, the party hidden by Vflynn’s protective umbra.
Fires are visible atop Witchmount that night. Six of them, each higher than a house, burns bright enough to illuminate figures moving about nearby. The sound of metal being worked echoes across the plain. Come morning, wooden constructions are visible: six tall gallows, empty nooses swinging slowly. Six pairs of eyes regard them briefly, but nobody speaks as they break camp and head west.
Home or onward?
Some speak of returning to Cathorna, to gather equipment for whatever might face them at the confluence. Erfiren disagrees, insisting it is best to press on, at least to see what is there. The latter case wins out with Yeld’s support, and Second Skirmish follow Erfiren to the Kelp Wolf’s forest to pick up the river. Altraam proposes initially tracking towards Cathorna to throw off any pursuers.
After a nervous but uneventful dash through the forest, they discover the Sirannon is not frozen over. A thirty-metre channel remains between the jagged bulwarks, a constant march of icebergs grinding and rolling against them. There is brief talk of returning to another crossing point familiar to Erfiren, but the fifteen kilometre march is deemed too risky. Erfiren argues fervently against plan to build a raft; instead he shows through observation and simple calculation that the larger slower-moving ‘bergs can be used to frogger across. The plan is nervously adopted, and Second Skirmish prepares to cross. Cian produces two daggers to use as anchors on landing; Yeld and Erfiren cross first, making it with some difficult. Tomas returns the daggers while Erfiren gathers firewood against the risk of an immersion. Altraam and Tomas follow, using their cloaks to aid their landing. Disaster almost strikes when Vflynn stumbles, but in a spectacular display of acrobatics, Cian leaps the gap, gathering Vflynn on the way across and flinging her to safety before nailing his own landing on dry ground and scooping Vflynn from an ungainly landing in freezing mud.
“Well now, you don’t see a show like that every day.”
The speaker is watching from the shore. Fiftyish, he is small and leathery and affixed with a permanent half-smile. He stands at the edge of a copse of trees in the crook of the two rivers, watching as they gather their wits and their belongings.
Tomas greets the stranger, and introductions follow. He tells them his name is Duff, he has been there some years, and subsists on the plentiful fish in the river. On being asked about recent visitors, he says “A tall feller in a cloak came by couple of months ago. Stopped by the river and looked, then just left.” He invites them back to his little cabin and offers tea. They prepare fish in butter for him, which he accepts gratefully.
In amongst the pleasantries and tales, he points at Tomas with his fork. “You’re that Tomas feller, aren’t ye?” He says the Enotarians stopped at his little camp some time ago, laughing about ‘meeting Tomas’ children.’
At the river’s edge, the water is clear where Cian and Erfiren saw the icicles deep below. Icebergs seem to skirt the patch. A pig stands frozen at the water’s edge. Its hindquarters are chill to touch. Its snout is translucent ice. Despite this, Vflynn can still feel its mind. After eyeing the pig for some time, Vflynn asks the question on everyone’s lips: “Can we rub him?”
There are no takers. Instead a pig litter is constructed by Erfiren and the pig is gently lifted away from the water’s edge.
Meanwhile, Yeld throws a branch into the water. Everyone watches. It floats, begins to gently spin, then a vortex gradually forms and the stick is pulled soundlessly into the depths. Altraam experiments further, catching some live fish to test the waters. His catches are sucked down, other objects are pulled in, but ice simply swirls around it and continues downstream.
A decision is made. Altraam plunges into the freezing water. It swirls, pulling him in, pulling him down, and in less than a minute he is gone. Vflynn says she can still feel his mind far below; at this Yeld runs in after him, Vflynn close behind. Cian takes the time to fashion a decent spear from a pole and a dagger, then mounts frozen piggie and leaps into the water. Erfiren pauses long enough on the bank to ask Duff to tell Cathorna where they have gone before leaping in.
As Tomas and Erfiren are pulled down, they hear Duff call out “…careful…ogre down there…few weeks ago…probably dead by…”
Ice-rimed stones break everyone’s fall at the bottom. They find themselves in a broad cave, the walls equal parts ice and stone. Light filters in weakly from above; the river is visible through a broad oval portal, the water held back my some mystical force. The sound of it flowing above is a deep, soft rumble. Fish, stones, stained timber and numerous bones litter the floor, along with a rusty Cathorna short sword and a few coins. And they are not alone: three night goats emerge from the shadows and butt at them gently. Each has scars across its back. Torches are lit and exploration begins. Not, however, before Cian discovers he is tongue-on-a-pole stuck to the frozen pig he decided to ride down into the depths. A solution is arrived at, about which Second Skirmish agree never to speak again…
A barrier of wooden slats set into the ice is the first obstacle. It is poorly-constructed and is easily removed, but offers a clear indication that intelligent minds are at work…
Into the ice caverns
Night goats roam the space beyond, climbing the walls, nibbling at fronds of cave weed. Broad patches of faintly luminescent lichen supplement the party’s meagre torchlight, arocca mushrooms bud on rock surfaces, while thick green-grey moss grows across both ice and stone. Another barrier prevents progress; it is quickly dealt with, but an arrow from the darkness beyond Cian’s hide (1 body 3 stun). They hear the sound of running footsteps as they breach the barrier, and find no foe. Beyond is a trench carved in the ice, a four-metre wide barrier filled with jagged stalagmites, fragments of metal, an enormous leathery HORROR WORM and several humanoid skeletons, all of which are slowly transmuting into translucent ice. Realising the trench must be crossed, Tomas roughens the ice to provide better purchase at the edge, testing the principle with a few practice jumps before omitting to the leap. As he works, another arrow cracks out of the darkness, and they realise the goblin has crossed the trench. Violent action ensues, Vflynn hurling a dagger and striking the foe squarely. Tomas leaps the gap and charges; the goblin dives from his path, but is neatly cut in two by a downslashing longsword. Plundering its corpse yields a poor-quality bow, six equally worthless arrows and some ragged clothes, seemingly made of human skin.
As they press on, they are approached by an emaciated dog. The usual instincts are repressed and Tomas approaches it, offering food. It accepts it and meekly submits to human contact.
The next meeting is less friendly. Four more goblins, as gaunt as the first, appear beyond another trench. Altraam harks back to his memory of the encounter with the goblin shaman in the depths of Silver Hill and begins chanting; confused, the goblins engage in a heated discussion as Second Skirmish approaches. It serves them ill; a volley of arrows and knives scythes them down, the one survivor run to ground as it attempts to flee up crude ice stairs at the end of the passage. Investigation of these stairs reveals they end a few metres up. It looks like they were carved upwards through solid ice.
Evidence of farming is seen. Swathes of the different mosses have been cut from the walls. Rolls of them are stacked neatly in places, along with fans of arocca. The plant life is present in different thicknesses, suggesting the farming practices have been ongoing for some time.
They are greeted at the entrance to a large cave by another dog, as friendly as the first. Another occupant is less enamoured by their arrival; a haggard wild-haired woman approaches, holding a half-frozen human femur as a club. They watch, try to communicate, until a noise behind alerts Vflynn to another presence. They turn, in time to see another wild woman, this one armed with a slender longsword seemingly made of transparent ice. The fight is brief; one woman is killed by arrows, the other grabbed by Cian and knocked out by a brutal cross from Tomas.
Searching the space reveals the women’s crude homes: simple nests made of dried vines, rags, bones and other detritus. A third woman is curled in one; she shrinks from them in fear, trying to protect something she is holding. They get close enough to discover it is a tiny puppy, obviously frozen to death. The wild woman shrinks back from Altraam , but accepts food proffered by Vflynn nervously, reciprocating with a dog skull full of a fine yellow powder familiar from the mines in Thror’s Hills. Searching the other nests yields what looks horribly like a human scrotum, filled with large black shiny seeds. Memory serves again, and they are recognised as the seeds of the corpse vine encountered in Thror’s Hills. It is left behind, and the dog skull is hidden in the trench behind which the four goblins fought. Troubled at the prospect of leaving the women unarmed, Vflynn leaver them some crude bone spears and a dagger, and Altraam leaves some ham.
The source of the corpse vine seeds is quickly found. Vines reach out from an nearby cave mouth, all truncated at a demarcation line. Wands of drying corpse vine are stacked near the entrance, clearly indicating someone is harvesting it. Venturing inward, a woman lurches clumsily towards them, vines growing through her, restraining her. Torches are produced and she is driven into a corner. Searching the cave yields nothing but a broad expanse of corpse vine, so the space is quickly exited. As Tomas crosses the vines, he feels a sharp pain in his ankle. He looks down to see a tendril of vine pull loose, leaving a small wound in his foot. Vflynn fetches ice and the wound is frozen, then cauterised by Erfiren’s fire attack.
Another cave is almost empty. In its centre is a goblin, its body half-turned into ice, a perfect ice spear clutched in its hands. Blows to its wrists snap them cleanly, and the spear is taken.
The smell of glaarg greets Second Skirmish in the next cave…
Only when the smell is recognised do they notice the odd texture to the floor. They stand upon a broad expanse of glaargae, its surface rimed with frost. It reacts not at all to their presence, so they press on into the cave. Inside, a lethargic, sunken-bodied glaarg clings to the wall. Leaf-tipped tentacles droop on the floor, a single small polyp flaps open on its icy carapace. Yellow shoots of corpse vine spring from its tentacles. The moribund creature is left alone and Second Skirmish continue their wandering exploration.
Tight, twisting tunnels through ice and stone are dubbed ‘Erfiren’s intestines’ for no clear reason. Dead ends and near-impassable gaps impede progress, forcing reversals and backtracks. The danger grows when something bites Altraam’s arm; even after a second attack he does not see the foe. When they realise the corridors are changing behind them, they increase the pace, looking for a way out, with Erfiren leaving a trail of return markers behind them.
When they find a broad circular chamber with a glowing blue sphere on a plinth, they wonder if their quest is at an end. It is silent, still, the blue sphere radiating a cold, bright light. Wondering if it could be so simple, Cian approaches, and attempts to cover the strange artefact with a cloth…
…only to be assailed from above by a RUG MUNCHER (I may have said this was a glaargae). It drops on him, acid secretions eating at his skin. The glamour suddenly drops, and Vflynn realises they are in an empty chamber, the victims of a magical ambush. Swords flicker, and the rug muncher is cut through by Tomas and Yeld, with Vflynn stabbing at it with her torch. Cian hurls the beast from his back, but suffers 6 Body damage, leaving his skin raw and pink, eaten through in places by the revolting creature’s ichor. Disheartened by the episode, Second Skirmish press on.
Relieved that they have emerged from the tight, twisting, changing tunnels, Second Skirmish is little troubled by the sight of a pile of ice in a cave ahead. But as the approach, it shifts, grinds, and an enormous bipedal figure rises from the crystalline mound. It is a skeletal ogre, its bones turned to translucent blue ice. Its skull is missing, but it has no trouble locating them as it charges forward, raising an icy club high.
Heavy blows rain on Second Skirmish. Yeld is knocked sideways, Altraam quickly follows. Tomas and Vflynn try to engage it, while Cian searches for some clue to the thing’s power. He finds another trench blocking their exit, this one with what looks like a rope ladder coiled on the far side. Hoping to find some clue to defeating the beast, he leaps the gap, skidding to a halt on the far side.
Tomas and Vflynn struggle to harm the monster, their blades doing little more than chipping flakes of ice away. Vflynn draws her Numenorean dagger; ignoring the ominous sense of otherworldly presence looming in her mind, she strikes at the foe. A solid hit does little damage, but where she strikes, the hard, cold ice changes to fragile, yellowing bone. The effect fades almost immediately, but she realises it may give them a chance. Tomas readies himself and Vflynn strikes again, narrowly ducking under another swing of the huge club. She stabs, piercing the heavy bone of its pelvis. The ice retreats, Tomas swings, strikes a solid blow at exactly the right spot. He feels his sword cleave through bone and moments later there is a tinkling crash, and the ogre collapses into a pile of glittering shards. High fives may or may not have followed the victory.
The fallen are bruised and breathless but otherwise intact. Attention turns to the exit across the trench, where Cian has managed to secure the rope ladder to anchor points on the near side. He has also taken his pants off for some reason. Nobody bothers asking.
The world below
The tunnel divides.
Narrow branches lead up, down, left and right. A broader central avenue shows signs of use, and is avoided for now as the others are explored. One leads to a frozen pond, fish visible in the ice at the bottom. The smell of glaarg turns them back from another rapidly narrowing tunnel, but two others lead to a different view of the same thing: a substantial underground village, perhaps a quarter of the size of Cathorna. From low-ceilinged caves ten metres higher than the village, they look out onto damaged and decayed stone buildings, each repaired using blocks of ice cut to match the stonework. Timber is used sparsely throughout. A broad road leads through the centre, with neat, well-work paths crisscrossing between the even lines of buildings. Some huts are built against the walls of the cave, others are tucked into nooks and crevasses in the rock. It has the feel of a place long-abandoned and reoccupied. People of perhaps Cardolan, Daen and Hillman stock go about their business, cooking food over outdoor fireplaces, hanging sheets of moss and lichen, grinding other materials, or simply talking and playing in the streets. It seems normal, peaceful, but in the centre of the village a figure lies spreadeagled on a stone plinth in the centre of two circles of stone with fire crackling between them. Something sits atop his chest. They hear a distant scream from the figure, faintly see something like tentacles writhing on the thing. Children watch from beyond the circles; as he screams, they laugh and throw things at him, prompting more screaming and flailing. It is hard to tell, but it looks like the thing catches some of the objects they throw…
Unmanned lookout posts dot the upper caves. Collared night goats wander and sniff. Smaller caves are stacked with rolls of lichen and moss, slabs of arocca, carcasses of night goats. Booted footprints crisscross the space.
As they explore, Erfiren witnesses a curious interaction below. A tall bearded figure, one hand tightly gripping the arm of a woman, speaks with a well-dressed elf. They speak for a minute or more, then the bearded man roughly shoves the woman towards the elf. She falls at his feet; the elf looks down and both he and the bearded man laugh. The bearded man places four rolls of moss or lichen into a sack and forces it into the woman’s hands, then the elf unwraps a sword from a cloth and hands it to the man. There are final words and the elf strides away towards a tunnel at the rear of the cave, forcing the woman ahead of him.
With no other options, Second Skirmish descend the cliffs from the right side galleryand sneak into the village. From a safe vantage inside an abandoned building they observe the rear tunnel. Ice walls narrow it from six metres to three in the middle, the gap closed by gates seemingly made form timber recovered from a boat. Guards stand behind wooden palisades atop the ice walls, watching outwards. They are alone, and some distance from the village; there is talk of rushing them to get by, but it is interrupted by the sound of voices. The guards speak to someone on the far side, then open the gates and an elf enters, though not the one seen before. They appear to mock him briefly, laughing as he heads for the village. Second Skirmish quickly debates approaching the bearded figure in the centre of the village, but Tomas and Cian propose approaching the elf, surmising from the interaction with the guards that he is in some way an outcast. The proposal is adopted and the elf is <cough> pssted as he passes. Though wary, he appears curious, and comes close enough to speak.
They learn that he is Cirphen, a scout from far to the west, sent to bring back Sulkana two years ago after Dellaran left. He says he was sent by an elven king, that Elesse’s death was a matter of grave consequence to his people, and that an elf living in Cathorna could no longer be allowed. He says he travelled with a man he met in Bree, but that the last thing he remembers was being in a boat with him coming up the Firen, then blackness. He says the man claimed to be a close friend of Dellaran and Elesse, and sympathetic to his wishes, but oddly wary when he spoke of Cathorna.
Of his time in the ice caverns, he is willingly forthcoming:
“I have been here some three years now. I negotiate with the savages for food, giving them carved charms and simple weapons in return. They are little more than animals now; they fight each other, fight the goblins, sometimes raid the caves claimed by Calon and Eledhron – the other elves trapped down here. Sometimes they try to kill me for their own amusement. One day they will succeed. The villagers protect them because they fashion the ice weapons for which they trade. Goblins, ice worms and glaargs are a constant threat down here, as are the creatures that still occasionally find their way down from the river; without those weapons, they would be as vulnerable as than the goblins.
In that time I have tried to escape, but I think the Seed itself has kept me back. Each time I find a new tunnel, each time I try to mine my way out, it seems to grow back faster, to grow harder beneath my simple tools. Once I found a narrow passage that seemed to lead upward; when I was forced to turn back after reaching its end I found my return path blocked by stalactites. I drew upon what little magic remains to me to break through.
I sought to reach that accursed stone, but the ice there freezes faster than elsewhere. And when Calon and Eledhron realised I sought to claim it, they threatened to kill me. They have tried themselves, I know it, but they stopped. I wonder if they wish to remain here.
But…something has changed. Perhaps two months ago, I felt a spirit, an outsider come into this place. It was drawn to the seed, I know it. I felt pain, anger; behind it a hunger for revenge. It is here, now, close to the seed, but it pays us no attention. Since it came, the ice has grown faster, the creatures have grown bolder. And there is something more…a presence, dark and malevolent, greater than any I have known. It reaches through the seed, through the outsider, but how, and why, why NOW I cannot guess.”
When they speak of dealing with the Winter Seed themselves, he tells them he is willing to help, that there is a way to reach it without going past the two guards or alerting the villagers. They readily agree, and follow him to another disused building nearby. He opens the lid on a rusty stove; beneath is a slick, oval tunnel through the ice. One by one they wriggle through and drop into the chill passage, following Cirphen as he crawls and slides ahead. It widens, meets rock, ascends sharply for several metres. After more than twenty minutes slipping and stumbling through the cold and dark, they see a dim blue radiance ahead. Cirphen gestures them to silence, and beckons them forward.
A transparent window of ice offers a view below. Eight metres down, they see a large circular cave. Its walls are translucent blue ice, its floor perfectly smooth. In the centre is an ice mass that half-fills the cave. Massive icicles jut out from the mass, some reaching the walls and ceiling, the entire mass pulsing with a dim blue light.
“The Winter Seed,” says Cirphen. “Or…so I believe. A source of power, regardless.”
He tells them there is a way down, but that they must brave the lair of the biggest horror worm he has yet seen in the Ice Caverns. SS are utterly undaunted by the prospect, and urge him to lead on. They descend, sliding as much as walking, until the tunnel broadens into a wide chamber, a mere metre in height. Thick ice columns brace the low ceiling in several places. Cirphen points to holes, some near a metre wide, telling them they are the passage the worm gouges through the ice as it seeks its prey. They realise the strange warren through which they have crawled must be the remnants of earlier worm burrows. As they set out to cross the space, their foe strikes. Emerging from a tunnel its viciously toothed maw snaps at them, its tail flicking about as they try to flank it. Yet despite its size and ferociousness the battle is short-lived, Erfiren’s arrows and Tomas’ sword taking a quick toll. When the worm tries to flee Altraam drives a spear through it, which jams in the hole. Blades flash and it is messily dispatched. They press on, Cirphen pausing long enough to take some of its hide. “For crafting,” he says.
It takes but five minutes to reach the chamber of the Winter Seed. They emerge into cold stillness, enough that they pull their cloaks tighter. The ice mass is enormous, more than twenty metres long, half that wide and five metres high. Lacking any power that might penetrate its mass, they decide instead to ambush the elves next time they emerge. But as they prepare to set their trap, a voice calls from the tunnel beyond:
“Enough. Thank you, Cirphen.”
Cirphen shuffles away, hiding his face from them all. Another elf emerges from the tunnel, eyeing them one at a time. “Come out” he calls to them in their hiding places. Altraam does so at a dead run, his spear ready, but the elf simply gestures and icicles pierce Altraam’s ankles, fixing him to the ground. Cian attempts a charge, but inexplicably falls to the ground insensate. The others emerge, Yeld complaining bitterly about Second Skirmish’s persistent talent for dragging him into captivity.
“You did well to make it this far,” the elf says. “But…what did you hope to achieve? Once you found this place, what did you intend? Was there a plan? Or did you simply fling yourselves blindly into the unknown, trusting to Fate to deal you a new hand at this moment?” He shrugs slightly. “No matter. You are here now. And I shall take full advantage of that.”
Cian awakens. He is inside a spherical chamber no more than three metres across. The walls are smooth, featureless, faintly blue. As he looks about, a wooden knife falls at his feet. Moments later a rock joins it.
A voice speaks…
“You. You did this. You sent me here.”
He turns. A gaunt Hillman, dressed in worn but well-kept trail leathers faces him. Blood stains his belly and right leg, oozes darkly from a throat wound and mats the hair atop his head. He regards Cian briefly, then reaches out and grabs him by the throat. Dirty black water gushes forth as he opens his mouth and snarls…
“You killed me!”