Of Kings and Dragons
The Circle of Niira
The Hero’s are Gathered Around Niira the Lonely
Snow and fog fall on Kalsgard, blanketing the city in darkness even though the sun still sat in the sky. The streets lie deserted with mounds of snow covering the city’s secrets. With spring approaching, winter should be fading. However, its icy cold fingers only dug deeper into the land.
Having arrived in town as guards of a merchant train, Tholan Frostmane, the Great White Walker of the Wastes, and Alrik Feyfound, the Fey Touched Wander, found refuge in the Hunting Serpent Inn. They are less than friends but more than acquaintances. Alrik takes advantage of the crowded common room to earn his meal and a bed with a grand oratory of valor and bravery. Tholan is distracted by the citizens around him. Spending so much of his time in the wastes, he rarely sees so many people in one spot.
The inn’s door bursts open, sending a chilled wind with snow and ice into the room. A lone female Ulfen warrior enters. Her furs and dark hair are wet with winter’s touch. As if on cue, The Hunting Serpent’s proprietor, Tosti Finehall, leaps to meet her needs. He doesn’t ask them, he simply responds to her. Their long standing friendship tells him all he needs to know. Longstrider’s preferred room is quickly prepared, its previous occupants compensated for their loss. A hot bath is drawn and a meal is placed before her. As she eats, a young dirty woman enters the tavern. She sits at the bar next to Longstrider. The Ulfen warrior notices the stranger but continues with her meal even as others at the bar move away from the new arrival.
Tholan watches Longstrider closely. Her reputation has reached him on the wastes. Her presence impresses him as much as her legend. While she eats, he notices a stranger watching her back.
Across town, two weary warriors arrive at the Temple of Gorum. Gorreg, dark half-orc cleric of Gorum, shakes the snow from his furs as he walks through the gates of the crenellated fortress. The half-orc is a man of few words, letting his sword arm speak for him. Egil Ironwolf ignores the snow covering his cloak. The Ulfen warrior also likes to speak with his sword, but most often the insults spewed from his mouth cuts his enemies deeper than his steel.
The two warriors have served the dark god of war for several years. Tonight they ask for a warm bed in return for their service. What they find isn’t welcoming. Bjorn Stormwolf, the temple prefect is a hard man, demanding continuos dedication to his brutal god. In exchange for straw beds in the temple stables, Master Bjorn demands a series of daunting labors from the two travelers. Their first task is to clean the very stable straw that will serve as their beds.
In a smaller section of town, known as the Jade Quarter, a loan Tian wizard strolls the cold streets. His purpose a mystery to anyone viewing him from the comfort of their warm abodes. The lone man brushes ice from his long thin mustache. Ahead of him, Thryan knows a warm fire awaits, one that will warm his chilled bones. How the Ulfen locals tolerate the infernal cold is a mystery to the small man.
The Lost Rivers Mercantile helps him earn a living, but the rumors of his boss, Jutta Baum and her past plague him. The demands the company has placed on him lately prevents him from putting time into his studies. Before bed tonight, he will find time. Learning a new spell will ease his troubled mind.
Thryan’s plans are interrupted by the snow and fog parting just enough to reveal a lone cloaked figure standing on the city wall. Curious, he approaches. The voice of the woman floats to him, but her words are drowned out by the wind’s low moaning. He cautiously approaches closer.
“Winter comes for the seven-headed dragon,” she chants, before her words are again lost to the wind. Glancing at the guard shack, Thryan spots a sleeping guard. The city wall stands undefended and a lone woman goes undetected by everyone but him.
Hob stands before his father. He knows his request is one that the old man will likely reject, but it is one he has contemplated for many months, and one he must make. Born the third child of a large family, he had been condemned to inherit nothing of his father’s wealth. With little expected of him, he found himself shipped off to the church of Erastil. Now he has returned home with a plan on his mind.
“Father,” he said, “I would like to serve Erastil by restoring the Deadeye’s Debris. In order to do so, I will need crowns. Will you help me?”
“The Deadeye’s Debris has remained a pile of rocks for a reason, son. Perhaps you should avoid it like everyone else.”
Hob remained silent, his heart sinking in rejection.
His father continued. “No, I will not lend you the money.” Hob tensed. “However, I will help you raise the money. If you work hard at it, perhaps you will accomplish something where others have failed.”
Hob did his best to hide his surprise. It was not what he had hoped for, but it was far more than he had expected. Spurred on by his success, Hob leaves the warmth of his home and heads for the Deadeye’s Debris. Arnora the Faithful is likely there. He is eager to discuss his plans with her.
The crowd of the Hunting Serpent Inn cheers as Alrik finishes his latest oration. Tholan ignores his comrade as he eyes the mousy stalker watching Hela. As the warrior woman finishes her meal and disappears into a back room where a steaming bath awaits, the stalker approaches the curtain shielding her from the common room. The bear shaman reacts and intercepts the stranger, sending him fleeing from the curtain. A roar of laughter erupts from the man’s friends as his hope of spying on Longstrider is interrupted.
Tholan glances at the curtain. He knows Longstrider’s story. Despite the grime of the wastes that had clung to her tonight, her legendary beauty had shown through. Hela had been destined to be a queen. Her voice, her pale smooth skin, her poise; it would have all made for a beautiful queen. The peasant had most likely heard the stories too. However, his juvenile attempt to spy on Longstrider had left Tholan with a taste of disgust for him.
During the commotion, the strange dirty woman leaves the tavern. She hadn’t drank or eaten anything, nor had she been offered anything. Her head had remained bowed and her eyes cast only at the worn surface of the bar. Tosti Finehall sighs with relief at her departure.
As Thryan approaches the woman on the wall, he strains to hear what she has to say, but the wind carries her words away. Before reaching her, he realizes she is only distracting him from his warm evening. He alters his course and instead of approaching her, he wakes the guard. Immediately the surprised man yells out a challenge to both Thryan and the woman. She is jerked from her trance as Thryan is rushed from the wall.
With snow swirling around him, Thryan watches the woman descend to the street. Without looking at him, she strolls past, mumbling to herself, “Death is coming.” Her hair is blond and frost covered. Her face is dirty and her thin dress is loose around her. She wraps her cloak around her to ward off the cold. As Thryan turns to watch, she is swallowed up by the shifting snow and fog. He doubts her simple cloak will protect her.
Confused, Thryan looks back to the city wall. The gates are closed, sealed early for the night. Suddenly they crack and begin to swing inward. As Thryan watches, the snow and fog part to reveal a shifting mass of shadows. He tenses, but quickly relaxes when a party of Ulfen march out of the snow and through the gates. Thryan steps aside to allow them to pass. A dog sled comes from behind the walking men, passes them and speeds off into the growing darkness. Thryan turns and continues on toward his warm residence, the woman’s words plaguing his mind. He doubts his studies will be able to banish them.
With the cold biting deep, Hob hurries through the city. He could have waited until tomorrow, but doing so would have given his father time to change his mind. Rounding a corner, he is startled to find a lone cloaked figure standing in the middle of the street, mumbling softly.
Easing forward, Hob listens to the woman. She is repeating her words, over and over. He listens for several moments, but finds some of the words elude him.
“The Five-headed Dragon cares little for its treasures,
and they are lost to the cracks of its lair.
Two more and the heads…,
causing the treasures to suffer more.
Only the challenge of the dragon born,…
For any to survive,… must lead.
Because Winter comes for the Seven-headed Dragon.”
Standing nearly next to the woman, Hob leans in closer. His movements, or the warmth of his close body, pulls her attention. She turns to look at him, stopping her chanting. Her eyes are wild, her hair dirty, her face tear streaked. He starts to speak.
Suddenly, the woman lashes out. Her claws dig deep into his face, leaving streaks of pain. He jerks back, and the woman is gone. Stunned and shaken, Hob searches the street for her, but cannot find her. The tracks in the snow are confusing, but he doesn’t think any of them are hers. Curious, but unable to figure out exactly what has happened, he continues his journey to the Deadeye’s Debris.
Egil has no idea how long he has been allowed to sleep. It has not been long enough for him to feel rested, but it has been long enough for his muscles to grow stiff. He shifts, but the rock poking him in his back shifts with him. He grunts and shifts again, but he only finds a moment of relief before a larger rock shifts up next to him. Grunting with frustration, he turns to find the source of his irritation. What he finds is a small young woman. Her knees poking him in his back. She is barefoot and wearing a thin ragged dress. Dirt streaks her face. She is uncovered and shivering from the cold. Their single lantern doing nothing to push away the night air.
Egil reaches out to wake her. As his hand touches her, she leaps up from her curled position. Glaring at him with eyes filled with madness she screeches, and attacks him.
Caught by surprise, Egil tries to deflect her attack. The crazy woman claws her way up his massive frame. Her teeth sink deep into his collar bone at the base of his neck. Blood spurts as stars of pain dance across his vision. He tumbles over backwards with her clinging to his neck.
Gorreg is roused from his slumber by the screeching woman and Egil’s screams of pain. Despite his sleepiness, Gorreg is amused by Egil’s obvious distress. He rises from his straw bed, but allows his friend to defend himself.
Egil manages to pry the woman from his neck, ripping his flesh and bone. He tosses her aside and feels the swell of rage building inside him. The woman leaps from the floor, blood dripping from her mouth. Gorreg chuckles at his friend, only to be rewarded by the woman’s foot lashing out, connecting solidly with his manhood.
The shock of the blow jolts Gorreg from his sleep. He sits up suddenly and finds that Egil is also rousing from his sleep. The bite on his neck clearly visible and bleeding. The attack by the mad woman had only been a dream. A dream they had shared. A dream that had left his groin aching and Egil’s neck injured.
The two warrior’s are confused by their encounter. They look at each other and then around at the stable. Fear and suspicion plaguing their thoughts.
A creak reaches down at them from the roof of the stables. They look above into the rafters, but the sound is gone. Egil moves to the door and peers outside. He is surprised to see the strange woman who bit his neck. Without looking back at him, she quickly moves around a corner and out of sight.
Curious, Egil and Gorreg pick up their weapons and dart out of the stables after the strange woman. Reaching the corner, they peer around into a dark alley. There is no sign of her. There are two figures cloaked in darkness. One is larger than the other but distance prevents them from making out any details. Their speech is hushed and doesn’t reach the ears of the warrior’s over the eerie howl of the wind. Egil decides to get a closer look.
Slipping around the corner, he darts toward a short barrel. His movements are immediately noticed by the shorter stranger, who turns to face him. The strangers features remain hidden by his cloak. The larger man turns and the two immediately recognize him as Bjorn Stormwolf, the temple prefect and their benefactor. He recognizes them. Pulling his sword, he immediately advances on them.
“Guards!” Bjorn calls out. The smile on his face isn’t from fear of his two opponents.
The smaller shadow turns and immediately disappears down the alley.
Egil and Gorreg ready their weapons and step forward to meet Bjorn. Egil proves the quicker and swings his massive hand-and-a-half sword, drawing first blood, but Bjorn isn’t slowed by the wound.
Gorreg utters an ancient incantation and divine energy fills him. His frame enlarges until he stands twice his normal size.
Bjorn returns Egil’s attack with one of his own. His blow leaving Egil stumbling, but only for a moment as the rage of battle fills him. Bjorn steps back and mumbles an incantation of his own. He grows in stature to match Gorreg.
Gorreg and Egil are confident in their ability to defeat Bjorn, but a warning comes their way. Bjorn’s call has attracted his temple guards. They are approaching quickly. They ponder their odds until Egil spots the wild girl from their dream. She stands next to a small single-man gate in the temple wall. As he watches she opens the gate and disappears through it.
The two warriors hesitate, but understand her call. They quickly dart from the alley and out the gate. Gorreg allows his magic to slip as he stoops to pass through the gate. Egil trips on something hidden by the dark just outside the temple wall. Glancing down, he finds his armor and their packs sitting there. They had left them in the barn. Grabbing their gear, the two disappear into the fog shrouded alleys of Kalsgard.
The Hunting Serpent Inn grew quiet as the night changed to early morning. Alrik Feyfound found his audience wavering, but he continued his work. Tholan Frostmane made his way to their room and lay down for a short nights rest. He rubbed the ring on his finger and allowed sleep to come.
An hour later, Alrik finds his way from the common room, Tholan is asleep. Alrik collapses on his cot. Sleep eludes him and he tosses and turns. Finally, he feels the weight of slumber falling upon him, when a creaking floorboard alert him. Opening his eyes, he finds a slender dirty woman leaning over him. Her eyes are wild, her breathing ragged. Alrik reaches for a weapon but the woman falls upon him. Her body presses him down as her right hand racks the side of his head, leaving his right ear aflame.
Alrik jolts awake, to find the room empty. Tholan is gone and the woman was a dream. He lies back down and eventually sleep pulls him under.
Outside the inn, Tholan wanders the snow covered streets. The magic of his ring only requires him to sleep two hours a night for a full night’s rest. It makes gaining distance during travel easy, but leaves him with little to do in a city that has locked its doors and shutters for a long winter’s night. Pacing he finds himself near the window to Longstrider’s room. He had not seen any sign of her mousy stalker for several hours, but he had decided to keep an eye on her room anyway. His efforts are rewarded with any unfriendly response.
A deep angry growl issues from the shadows under Longstrider’s window. The darkness is deep, made deeper by the fog. Tholan cannot see the wolf growling at him. He can feel it though. It isn’t like the feeling he gets from his friend, Rohrin, or any other bear. It is wolf, but there is something more. Something that feels evil. Tholan starts to back away from the window, and a growl from an alley behind him stops him. He glances around. This time he can see the outline of a wolf in the darkness. As the legends say about Longstrider’s pack, the wolf is larger than normal. Tholan reaches out to it with empathy and feels an immediate response from it. It sees him as a friend but still projects a warning for him to steer clear of the area. The wolf feels different from the first one encountered under the window. The taint is there, but it doesn’t permeate the second beast.
“I mean no harm,” Tholan says as he moves quickly back to the main street. The two wolves do not follow him.
The encounter disturbs Tholan and he finds his way back to his room. Longstrider is safe, but he isn’t sure he is. He lies in his bunk for long minutes before he drifts off to sleep.
Tholan is sitting in the snow outside the inn. It piles over him but he ignores it. His hands are thrust down into it, but they are not numb.
His eyes search the shadows for the wolf. Thoughts of the creature’s evil forces his heart to beat faster and he fears the beast will hear it.
Suddenly, a sharp pain stabs his right hand. He jerks it from the snow to find a small woman biting down hard on his finger. He scrambles away from her as the pain jolts him deeper, pushing him from his dream.
The room is quiet except for the steady breathing of Alrik. The woman and the snow are gone. The wolf was never there. Tholan decides he doesn’t like the city.
Hob had found Arnora the Faithful in the Deadeye’s Debris. However, the meeting hadn’t gone as he had predicted. She had not received his news with enthusiasm. Instead she had placed several large tomes before him and commanded him to read. The reading had been tedious at first. Histories of Deadeye’s temple; its curators, its accomplishments, its failures. Every time he had tried to stop reading and talk with Arnora, she had smacked him and demanded that he read more.
It had taken some time, but eventually a pattern had been revealed. The temple’s failures were many, and they had grown over the years until the temple had fallen into the pile of rubble it was now. Even Arnora had not escaped the curse. She was fully blind in one eye and quickly loosing sight in her other. The warning was obvious to him. Something heavy and ancient lay over the temple. Working through it to bring the temple glory would be difficult.
Eventually Hob found Arnora had succumbed to her own fragile body and fallen asleep, her rod lying across her lap. He tried to continue his studies but the warm fire brought comfort and eventually he fell asleep, thoughts of the strange woman in the street plaguing his thoughts.
It was late but, Gorreg and Egil Ironwolf found a warm spot to sleep in the Hunting Serpent Inn. It wasn’t a pleasant spot, or comfortable, but it was away from Bjorn Stormwolf and the temple of Gorum. The fire was warm and the inn quiet.
Thryan’s studies had not gone as he had wanted. Thoughts of the woman on the wall prevented him from concentrating. Eventually he had given up and turned in for the night.
A party of ten people stood in a circle around a lone thin woman. Snow, fog and darkness surrounded them. One moment the ground was snow covered, the next it was an ancient brick road, the next, it was darkness.
The woman had blond dirty hair. Her face was dark with grime, streaks ran down each cheek from streaming tears. Her dress was plain and dirty. It was little more than a rag that did nothing to hide her female figure when she turned or stooped. Dried blood caked the finger nails of her right hand. Blood stained her teeth, and ran down her chin from the corner of her mouth. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, giving the impression she hadn’t slept in weeks. Her cloak was old and riddled with holes. Her feet bare and scared from travel. The cold left them with sores that would eventually take them from her.
As each figure in the circle looked at her, she stared back at them. If they turned to look at someone else in the circle, it appeared that the strange woman looked at them as well, only to be staring at the individual if he looked back at her. The stranger to one’s right was familiar, the one to the left wasn’t, their faces forgotten as they looked away from each other.
The wild woman chanted. When she reached the end of her chant she started again. It went on and on and on.
“The Five-headed Dragon cares little for its treasures,
and they are lost to the cracks of its lair.
Two more and the heads war,
causing the treasures to suffer more.
Only the challenge of the Dragon Born, naming the King,
can polish the treasures.
For any to survive, the old Runestone must lead.
Because Winter comes for the Seven-headed Dragon.”
Each of them were tied to the woman in the center. One of the circle’s members had a bite mark at the base of his neck. One had claw marks across his throat. Another’s cheek was inflamed where a hand had slapped it. Blood dripped from the finger of yet another. A half-orc stood awkward and constantly shifting, as if pained in his groin. The ear of another was red and bloodied.
Each member of the circle had been marked by fate.