A Walking Plague

Alrik woke the next morning with the dream still fresh in his mind, the people in the circle familiar strangers. Even as he sat up, Tholan woke. As their eyes met, they knew each had had the same dream. Both of them had stood in the Circle, and it had been more than a dream.

In the common room, they found strangers sleeping along one wall. Two of them had roused early as well and the four strangers knew they had met in the dream. Gorregand Egil joined Alrik and Tholan at a table. None of them understood what the dream meant and all of them were cautious to discuss it openly.

Awakened by his guests, Tosti poked his sleeping serving girls and then descended to the kitchen to wake the cook. He would have preferred his guests sleep in, but such is the curse of an innkeeper.

Hob left the Deadeye’s Debris before Arnora woke. His stomach growled and he feared she would demand he read to fill his appetite, something he knew would not satisfy him. Only the Hunting Serpent Inn appeared to be serving an early breakfast. Entering, Hob is shocked to find a table with four warriors, each of which had been in his dreams the night before. He approached them cautiously and as their eyes met his, he knew they recognized him as well.

Hela soon existed her room and glanced briefly at the party gathered at the table. She took a package from Tosti and departed without speaking to the party.

Outside the inn, Thryan was making his way to the Lost Rivers Mercantile when he noticed Hela departing the inn. As the warrior woman exited, Thryan spotted a party of familiar faces gathered around a table. Entering the tavern, he found the people from his dreams.

Isabella served the party an early breakfast of bacon, bread, cheese and goat’s milk. She drew the eye of Egil as she brushed her body against his. The warrior was easily distracted by the Varisian woman. Her slender dark beauty was a true gem among the larger pale Ulfen women of the Linnorm Kingdoms.

In hushed voices the party discussed the dream and the strange woman at the center of it. They started with the identity of the other members of the circle. They were unable to identify two of them, but Tholan remembered that Hela Longstrider was one of the missing four. If she had had the same dream, she had not indicated it as she left the inn. Also Varin Naess, Commander of the city guard, was identified as another member of the Circle.

The chant by the woman at the center of the Circle had the ring of prophecy. It made clear reference to the five-headed dragon as the five Linnorm Kingdoms currently with kings, assuming Opir Eightfingers and Freyr Darkwine were true kings. Once two new kings were named, the kingdoms would war. The prophecy left no doubt war would occur. Only by the “Old Runestone” challenging the linnorm Fafnheir and being named the High King could the war be stopped.

Depending on who the two new kings were, loyalties would be tested. Those loyalties would decide the fate of many an Ulfen.

Support for Aki Blood-Eagle would strengthen King Sveinn Blood-Eagle. As would support for Varin. With Varin being a part of the Circle, his importance was assured.

Support for Husstander Icehunter would cause internal strife with Castellan Freyr Darkwine of Hagreach. Husstander’s dislike for Darkwine was well known. War between the two would grant Irrisen unfettered access to the Kingdoms.

Support for Kultur Shieldheart would strengthen King Ingimundr and Broken Bay. Ingimundr’s desire to renew the old ways would draw the ire of the southern lands against all the Linnorm Kingdom’s.

Llovn Stonewalker would never abandon the Kopparberget mines even after becoming a Linnorm King. War with Opir Eightfingers was sure to follow Stonewalker’s crown.

The prophecy left no way to avoid war, but it did leave room to affect its outcome. The fate of the Lands of the Linnorm Kings lay in their hands.

The Circle of Niira had little reference to the “Old Runestone”. Alrik knew that King Blood-Eagle was known to be stubborn as a stone, or so his wife, Runa often claimed. He also knew that the original runestone marking the founding of Kalsgard sat as a monument in the Oak Quarter of the city.

The individual encounters with Niira were deemed just as important as the dreams of the Circle.

Despite Egil’s distraction with Isabella, he and Gorreg briefly described their encounter with Master Bjorn of the Temple of Gorum, and with the mysterious stranger he met with. They described how Niira led them to the alley and then helped them escape. Hob concluded that they were meant to see the meeting.

Thryan told of his brief encounter with Niira at the wall and then about the entry of the strangers after hours. The gates should not have been opened after being sealed for the night. If an exception had been made, perhaps the guard responsible would know why.

The party split up, with Hob and the twins of war going to the old runestone. Hob had sent a letter to Varin with information about the dreams and a request to meet them at the runestone just before noon. Tholan went to see where the dog sled had disappeared to. Thryan had trailed the party that entered to their inn and the dog sled had not been a part of their group. The sled had held two passengers. One drove the sled and the passenger had been wrapped in blankets.

In the early morning snow, Tholan was able to track the sled. The city had chosen to sleep in, leaving the tracks in the fresh snow easier to follow. But with the snow still following, they were starting to disappear. He trailed the sled to a spot near the Temple of Gorum. He suspected the rider in the sled had been the small stranger who had met with Master Bjorn in the alley. Tholan then trailed the sled to a small house pressed up against Rannveig’s Run at the southern end of the Ice Quarter.

The front door of the home was slightly ajar, so the cautious warrior entered. The interior was dark and cold, colder than it had been outside. He found the frozen bodies of six dogs in the home. Before he could examine them, there was movement at the edge of his vision. He dived to the side just as a clawed hand touched his elbow. The touch immediately left ice coating his hide armor, as his arm went numb and grew stiff. Tholan turned to confront his attacker.

Winter wrath

The creature was about the size of a teenage boy and bone thin. His skin was blue from the cold. The white of his eyes were pale blue, the irises black. His white hair was thin. His lips were pulled back to reveal his gums. He hissed at Tholan and the air grew colder.

Tholan darted past the creature and dove out the front door of the house and into the snow covered street. He struggled to his feet and turned to face his attacker. The door stood open but the boy did not follow.

Hoping to find answers from the night watchman, Alrik and Thryan made their way to the city guard’s barracks. They doubted the man would be willing to discuss openly with them the night before, but even silence had its way of revealing the truth. They discovered that the night watchman guarding the gates had not returned after his shift. Everyone denied knowing that the gates had been opened after dark.

The two searched for the guard. It took them several hours, but finally they found a strange mound of snow in an alley along the wall. The mound was piled along one side of the alley while the wind swept snow up against the other side. The guard’s body was frozen solid with no visible wounds. They alerted the city watch and the man’s body was hauled away.

Hob, Egil Ironwolf and Gorreg found nothing unusual about the old runestone. It didn’t respond to them and any carvings or writings on it had long since been worn away by weather and time. As many of the city’s inhabitants do, they rubbed it for good luck, but nothing happened.

Varin met them at the stone. Suspecting an ambush, he wasn’t alone. However, he kept the guards back as he approached the members of the Circle. As they suspected, he too had experienced the dreams. He recognized some of them from it. Varin had a wound as well. Niira had bitten him on his leg.

Varin was not as impressed with Niira’s dream. He had witnessed her madness firsthand. He did not trust her prophecy. Niira had not had a true prediction since the death of her sisters. Since then she had descended into madness.

The party revealed all they knew to Varin and he agreed to look into the night watchman.

Varin went to investigate the entry with his officers and the Circle retreated back to the Hunting Serpent Inn. They waited to hear from Varin. Secretly they hoped that revealing Thryan as a witness to the night entry would force the visitor’s to seek them out.

The day passed into afternoon. The Hunting Serpent was deserted except for the Circle and one table of strangers. The two men never spoke with the party, but their interest in Thryan soon grew obvious. The more obvious it became, the colder the room grew.

The Circle had no idea what they would be facing, but they could not continue to ignore the strangers. As Thryan rose to distract the strangers, the strangers responded by rising. The Circle took this as a direct threat and reacted.

As Egil descended from the barmaid’s chamber above the bar, Isabella close behind, one of the strangers leaped for Thryan. The attack struck and Thryan recoiled from the cold of the man’s touch.

Arrows flew from Alrik’s bow, striking true to the second stranger. He rushed forward to attack. Egil reacted quicker, leaping from the stairs to the bar. His sword struck true, delivering a severe blow to the attacker. The man was slammed to the barroom floor. Despite the savage blow, no blood flowed from the man’s wound. As the man attempted to rise, a series of blows rained down on him, killing him.

A series of four arrows flashed from behind the bar. All striking true from Tosti’s finely crafted bow. Both of the attackers lay dead on the floor. The Circle’s ploy had worked, but with both of the frozen attackers dead, they were no closer to receiving answers.

The city guard was summoned by Tosti and Commander Varin arrived with them. Tosti backed up the Circle’s tale of events. The two strangers had clearly attacked them, unprovoked. As the Circle discussed recent events, Thorhall, the hand of the king, and a messenger arrived to speak with Varin. A slaughter had occurred at the city garrison. Soldiers were dead or missing. Several attacks had also been reported throughout the city, bodies left frozen.

The creature Tholan had faced was a winter wraith. They were known to haunt the lonely lost roads of Irrisen. Often they were people who committed acts of evil against loved ones, and then who froze to death before they could atone for their evil. Those killed by the chilled touch of a winter wraith become winter wraiths themselves. The more victims a winter wraith consumed, the more powerful it become.

Parallels were made and conclusions were drawn. The gate guard had been dead or so they thought, but now he was leaving a trail of frozen bodies behind him. Tholan warned of the house and the sled dogs there. If they had died like the gate guard, they too could be a threat to the city.

Varin sent soldiers to investigate the missing guard. The party volunteered to help and were sent to check on the sled dogs.

They found the small home empty, the frozen dogs gone. The back door stood ajar and paw prints left a trail in the snow. Tholan tracked them across the frozen Rannveig’s Run. On the other side of the narrow river, the tracks split up into three paths. A lone dog continued east from the river. A pack of two angled south and a pack of three moved north.

Tholan was able to initially spot tracks from the undead creature he had encountered in the house. It appeared the wraith had visited the house twice but he lost the trail in the alleys.

The party choose to follow the three dogs but before they could get far, a woman screamed to the east. Dropping the trail of the three, they charged after the lone animal. As they exited an alley, they found one of the dogs standing over a woman. She bashed at it with a piece of firewood as the creature bit deeply into her arm.

Alrik loosed arrows at the creature, striking true. Egil swung his mighty sword and the blade nearly cut the creature in two.

With the sled dog lying dead, Hob immediately treated the woman’s wounds. She was encouraged to hide indoors and warn any members of her family that other ferocious dogs were prowling the alleys of the city.

Tholan easily picked up the trail of the three dogs again. The trail stuck to the allies. Once it entered a street and the party found clear sign of a struggle. There was a visible trail of blood leading down the street. The trail of the dogs entered another alley across the street.

Tholan quickly studied the alley and realized it was a spot for an ambush. His quarry was displaying a level of intelligence that he would not have expected from sled dogs.

The victim of the attack was found injured, but alive. The animals had stopped the attack and fled up the alley. He did not know why. Hob quickly tended to his wounds.

Turning away from the man, Thryan found Niira standing before him. Her eyes were wide and snow clung to her face and dirty hair. She spoke.

“…Jade Serpent…”

Thryan struggled to understand her but the wind whisked away her words. Without repeating them, she quickly turned and fled. He surged forward after her but she rounded a corner, disappearing from sight. Clearing the alley, he found her gone. There were no footprints in the snow to track. Thryan turned to his new friends but none of them had seen or heard Niira.

Thryan and Alrik both knew of the Jade Serpent. The statue had been brought back by some of the first Ulfen explorers to reach Tian Xia thousands of years ago. Recently rumors said it had been seen in the Amber Quarter of the city.

Thryan knew it was seen every day in the Jade Quarter. Replicas of the statue were common in the quarter. It could be found in numerous styles and even carved in various stones. Thryan wondered if the statue was connected to rumors that Jutta and the Lost Rivers Mercantile were waiting for a caravan from Tian Xia. She as expected to make a very profitable deal with the visitor, a deal that some whispered could give her control of much of the trade over the top of the world.

Alrik was able to relate several legends connected to the statue. Some said it was special to Fafnheir, maybe even holding power over the legendary beast. Some said it held power over all Linnorms or was possibly a petrified Linnorm itself. All the legends could have held truth or they could have all been hopes and dreams. What concerned him was the legend that the Linnorm Kingdoms were tied to the statue. Loss of the Jade Serpent would foretell the fall of the Linnorm Kings.

The team quickly returned to the alley and entered cautiously. As they neared the far end, three of the sled dogs rounded a corner to face them. The missing two sled dogs entered the alley behind them. It was an ambush. While the group had tracked the larger pack, the remaining two dogs had tracked them.

To Tholan, the spirit of the dogs had been corrupted by undeath. Egil and Gorreg didn’t bother waiting for Tholan’s assessment of their enemies. The two quickly engaged the undead animals. Alrik chanted a valorous ballad that encouraged the twins of war. Steel flashed in the narrow alley and bloodless heads were separated from the dogs.

Blazingly, Thryan summoned arcane energies and loosed his magic in the form of fire against the dogs. His actions caught some of his comrades unawares. Arcane energies were rare among the Ulfen, often shunned and feared.

The dogs were little match for the party of warriors and were quickly dispatched. The party was left with several bites and frozen wounds but Hob was more than capable of dealing with the injuries.

As he stretched his limbs, Egil suddenly realized he wasn’t alone. Spinning he found his sword pointed at Niira.

“You betray us all!” she said with a sneer.

Egil kept her gaze locked. He knew looking away would allow her to flee. “I am not interested in your cryptic games witch! You injure us then force us to experience something that may mean nothing at all! Until you give us answers, it is not up to you to judge who betrays who!”

Anger flared in the witch’s eyes. Egil expected an attack, instead he blinked and she was gone.

A Walking Plague

Of Kings and Dragons Kindel Kindel