Shadows and Blood

Stormpeace, Part 2

Firelight spread a rich, orange glow against the darkness of heavy stone that threatened to swallow them up in darkness. The storm raged outside, but being within the thick walls of the tor was like being in a deep mountain cave. Drier, though – that was something. The heat from the fire began to dry even the thoroughly water-logged gowns of the traveling ladies. One of them, taller and with hair blackened by the rain, vigorously chafed the arms of the other – younger, with a soft face and dark blonde hair that would lighten into spun gold when dry.

The Kid, relentlessly energetic, roamed the edges of the large anteroom they found themselves in. He found solid iron doors on all four walls, including double doors through which they’d entered and in the opposite wall, and smaller single doors to the east and west. He eyed each them carefully for a moment as he came to them, then tugged at their handles. Each time, he gained nothing for his efforts except the knowledge that the doors were either locked from the inside, too heavy for his elven frame to budge, or rusted shut.

Zanfire knelt near the doors through which they’d entered the crypt, trying to gauge how long the storm would continue. The ranger, after shaking off the water from his cloak and restringing his bow, strode beside him. “How far did you bring them through this mess?”

“Not far – mile, maybe two. Hard to tell in this,” he gestured towards the cascading sheets of rain.
“From the Fork Road?”
“Yeah.”
“Mile and a half. I know this area pretty well. You’re out of Adbar?” the ranger glanced towards Zanfire’s swords.
“Was.”
“Not easy for an elf to fit in up there. People call me G.O.B.,” he grinned, pronouncing it like Jobe.
“Zanfire.”
“Good name – strong. Sorry to be so chatty; you’re the first person I’ve gotten to talk to since winter broke. Orcs are moving through, you know.”
Zanfire nodded and kept watch outside.
“Hey,” G.O.B. started again, voice lowered this time. “What do you know about the humans that came with you?” Zanfire shrugged.
“They were on the coach I was guarding.”
“The grey one, in the robes. He a wizard?” Zanfire eyed G.O.B. closely this time, then turned back to the rain.
“Don’t know. Go ask him.” G.O.B. frowned, cut his almond-shaped eyes towards the one who had sparked his curiosity, then shook his head. Under his breath, he muttered, “Don’t trust wizards.”

A thanks to the gods of peace and quiet flashed across Zanfire’s mind as the ranger moved back towards the fire, but it was squelched as the nobleman approached him. Over his shoulder, Zanfire could see the young barbarian gazing with unabashed interest at the two human girls, while Ruprecht’s tutor sat near them. The older girl turned her head towards Zanfire, and for a long moment, they held each other’s gaze.

“Scout! I want to thank you for guiding us here. I am Lord Alvin Heyward. I’m sure I know your commander at Citadel Adbar – as soon as I arrive in Sundabar, I will send him a letter of commendation on your behalf.”
“Don’t serve at Adbar anymore. Finished my time on the first of Tarsakh.”
“You left the service of the Marches? Why?”
“Don’t see how that’s any of your concern. Lucky for you I did, though.”
“Indeed. How can I repay you for your service?”

Before Zanfire could respond, the sky outside lit up a harsh blue-white and the atmosphere became rank with the scent of scorched air. Before his eyes had opened from their instinctive shutting-out of the sudden radiance, thunder exploded through the tor! The other doors slammed open with a dull gong as iron met stone. The shepherds called out softly to soothe their flocks. As the rest of the group shook the concussion out of their heads, a faint screeching noise became audible from the dark opening beyond the inner double doors.

“What’s that???” the younger girl shrieked. “What’s THAT???” Her sister covered her mouth to mute her screams and hugged her close with her other arm. “Shh…”

Eisbarzorn tossed his hammer nervously from hand to hand, and the tiny druid stood beside him, staff in hand. Together, they approached the dark hallway, where the screeching was drawing steadily closer. An arrow swished past them into the dark, and a squeal of pain could be heard over the squeals. “Rats,” Tylfan muttered, and “and not just a few, either.”

A bottle shattered in front of the opening to the crypt, and the Kid shouted, “That’s oil! Fire it up!” Tylfan grinned and concentrated for a moment, rubbing the staff his master had sought for him from Obed-Hai. For a tiny moment, he created a connection to the Elemental Plane of Fire – just long enough for a flickering spirit of fire to ignite the puddle of oil! The light flashed in the beady eyes and dirty brown fur of a horde of yard-long dire rats!

The first wave of the nasty creatures leapt over the flames, their foul drool sizzling in the blaze, and the warriors burst into action. Zanfire sprinted towards one on the far left, twirling past it and thrusting both short swords into its torso and abdomen. Eisbarzorn kicked one back into the fire and shattered the skull of another with a vicious cross-body strike. G.O.B. loosed two arrows in the space of a heartbeat, dropping a fourth creature in its tracks. More rats, crazed by the lightning and the flames, pushed their way forward. The halfling let his staff fall to the floor, drew out a set of heavy darts, and started snapping them with brisk and uncanny accuracy. The tutor withdrew a light crossbow from his robes and began firing bolts steadily. Under the onslaught of blade and hammer and projectile rain, an even dozen dire rats lay stinking and smoldering in short order.

THOR ODINSON! Your might has brought us victory!” roared Eisbarzorn, his massive lungs filling the room with his joy. He swung his hammer in a mighty two-fisted arc, clanging it off the floor hard enough to send sparks shooting into the air. Zanfire wiped his blades clean, or as clean as possible anyway, on a mangy pelt, while Tylfan stowed the rest of his darts back in their pouch and collected his staff. He met the talkative ranger’s eyes and gave him a quick nod. Annoying he might be, but shooting like that would always come in handy.

As they continued to clean up after their encounter with the dire rats, the Kid strolled into view, jingling a bit and looking pleased with himself. “Good work, boys!” he laughed. “Thanks for taking care of that mess. Gave me a chance to do a little exploring!” He jerked his head back towards the western door. “I guess whoever they buried in here didn’t want to be penniless on the other side! Less for him, more for me!”

“Coward!” Eisbarzorn shouted at the grinning elf, who was twirling a pouch in one hand.
“Curious, really,” the Kid replied, tossing the pouch to the big human. “Take your share – I’m not gonna cheat you out of what you’ve earned!” Cutting his eyes to Zanfire, he aimed a fake frown at him and said, “Didn’t expect that, did you, greyback?”

“Ruprecht? Ruprecht, where are you???” the tutor asked, peering into the shadows. Everyone looked around for the tall man in the blue and white armor. “Where did he go? Did anyone see him?”

The dark-haired girl pointed towards the darkness where the eastern door must have been. The flames from the bonfire barely illuminated her outstretched arm – the rest of the room was swiftly being swallowed up in inky blackness. “When the lightning strike blew the doors open,” she began in a husky but strong voice, “he was over there, I think.” All heads turned that way as a high, mournful woman’s wail reached out through the lightless room, gripped their guts, and twisted hard. Higher and higher, louder and louder, the scream pierced their heads and pulled at their minds!

“Osmund! To me! HELP!” came Ruprecht’s shout from the same direction. Desperation tinged each syllable, and his tutor, already moving that way, broke into a shuffling run. Eisbarzorn leapt ahead of him and rushed through the blackness, running towards the sounds of danger. As they approached, a sickly green glow lit their way, shining from the room at the end of the short hallway. They clapped their hands to their ears as they burst into the room, where the shriek echoed off the walls.

A disembodied head floated, maybe six feet above the floor of the antechamber. The source of the diseased light, it flapped around the young knight on foul little batwings sprouting from its temples. Ruprecht slashed towards it with his guisarme, once – twice! As he sliced at the foul vargouille, Osmund could see wetness that must be blood running from under the boy’s helmet that could only be blood. The scream must have ruptured his ears, perhaps even burst something in his nose. But still, he continued to struggle against the terrible scream. He moved left quickly, then with a mighty spin, anticipated the head’s ungainly move in the opposite direction. With a sound like the bursting of a rotten melon, the guisarme gashed through the floating head from jaw to temple. Another swing, this time against the wall, and the two sides of the head splatted to the floor. The boy took a deep breath and fell to one knee.

“Ruprecht!” Osmund cried out and rushed forward.

“Father?” Ruprecht sighed, then slumped towards the ground. Eisbarzorn caught him before he landed, and carried him back to the main chamber.

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Prologue

10 Tarsakh, 1372 DR

The bards sing that, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Well, the Silver Marches are where you go when home slams the door in your face. That’s how it is for some, anyway. For others, the Marches are the last place in Faerun where a body can breathe free, can carve a living – build a freehold – not live life by another’s leave. Does a place consist only of what people bring to it and make of it, or can a place have a character all its own?

Like many wild things, the Silver Marches use toughness to mask a striking fragility. Oh, the land will remain! The impenetrable Spine of the World protects life from the screaming winds of Icewind Dale and the deadly cold of the Farfrost. To the south, the High Forest lurks, unchanged for longer than elves remember. East? Anauroch – the forbidding desert wasteland that covers the scars of an ancient Magewar. From the west, travelers come from more populated lands, more “civilized” places. If they get past the Evermoors, they can visit Silverymoon, Gem of the North and the seat of the loose league of cities that passes for a governing body here in the Marches

Not everyone likes Alustriel’s League. Some ignore it altogether; some wish silver would become iron and rule rather than partner. And some would set the world ablaze just to watch it burn. There are more shadows than silver here, truth be told, and unless the gods intervene, I fear that this fragile balance will be swept away in a river of blood.

Hopefully,
Aramalian Icespear, the Vigilant

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Stormpeace, Part 1

“Nine Hells!” the old man muttered to himself from the driver’s seat of the coach. He snapped the reins, urging more speed from the four-horse team, though he already knew it was pointless. The wind screamed in his teeth, making his eyes water as he eyed the colossal stormwall roaring out of the West. Tarsakh was usually a peaceful month in the Silver Marches, but when spring storms came, they were killers. This was the worst Miles had seen in decades. If they could have reached the trail to Deadsnows, they might have holed up at the Marthammor Duin hospice. The high and mighty lord down below would gripe, to be sure, but he’d have lived to gripe – something that was getting less and less certain with each thunderclap.

Inside the coach, an odd mix of Marchfolk glanced out the windows with growing trepidation. All of them that is, except the quiet one with the bronze skin. Too bulky for an elf, his almond eyes and swept-back ears belied his mixed parentage. He clutched a lute to his chest. He hadn’t moved in an hour. He hadn’t spoken in three – more’s the pity, as good bardsong would soothe the nerves in a wicked storm like this. Two young women in bright silk traveling dresses sat wide-eyed and trembling on either side of their father, a barrel-chested man with silvering temples and a jeweled courtier’s blade. Across from them, a young man and his tutor whispered in unfamiliar accents.

Near the doors, two elves had placed themselves as far apart from each other as possible. One, in dark leathers, wore twin short swords bearing the sigil of Citadel Adbar and a slate-grey traveling cloak. The other wore a bright blue cape with glittering gold trim, matched rapier and main-gauche, and an insouciant ear-to-ear grin.

“Why so tense, trooper? Never seen a storm before?” the flashy rogue jabbed at the other elf, whose jaw tightened but otherwise showed no indication of hearing. He’d ignored his non-stop chatter for the past three hours, keeping his eyes moving over the landscape and the dark sky. He had work to do. Brigands were more than willing to loot a full coach like this, and Zanfire Azahalbael would not be caught by surprise or distracted by the Kid. This storm was distressing him, though – more than he wanted to admit. Brigands, orcs, and even ogres, he could handle. But what could a wandering elf scout do against the wrath of the Storm God?


THOR!!!!” he bellowed as the lightning crackled nearly, making the hair on his arms and neck stand up. Thunder exploded a heartbeat later, thrilling his heart with the power of his god. Truly, an unfamiliar observer might mistake him for the god whose name he bore, for he was a giant of a young human. He topped out over seven feet, with the blond hair and blue eyes of the tundra barbarians, rather than the black locks and dark eyes of the local Uthgardt tribes. “THOR!!! I am Eisbarzorn, son of Beornezorn, and I see you!” he roared as the next lightning bolt painted the landscape in stark white. The young barbarian, dressed in polar bear hide, brandished his warhammer and the sky and cried out his exultation until the clouds opened and began pelting down icy rain. The he turned and began jogging north, towards his lair in the rocky hills east of Deadsnows. When the rain began to be mixed with pebble-sized hail, he laughed ruefully and began looking for a closer place to take shelter. An ancient tor rose up from the ground, perhaps half a mile northwest – perhaps there would be a sheltered nook he could tuck his bulk into and wait it out.


Even the Kid had quieted as the storm began in earnest. Thunder shook the coach, and the hail had already cracked one of the windows. Zanfire wished, and not for the first time, that he’d ridden shotgun with the driver rather than letting Miles talk him into sitting inside. Wetter, maybe? Yes, but he’d be able to see what was happening out front, and he’d be away from the terrified murmuring from the traveling family. The girls let out little yelps of fear with each booming thunderclap – it was a wonder that the bard hadn’t been awakened by one of them. The young man’s tutor muttered something to his charge, and nodding, he began buckling on pieces of armor from the sack stowed under their bench seat. Zanfire eyed them curiously, and opened his mouth to inquire, when an explosion rattled the whole coach. The world lit up outside and the thunder rang out loud enough to drown out the screaming girls, but the lightning hadn’t been visible from either side of the coach. When the ride began to slow and get rougher, Zanfire couldn’t wait any longer. He opened the coach door nearest to him and swung himself neatly up onto the driver’s bench. For a moment, he couldn’t speak – he just gaped. Miles’ face was ashen, and his hair and eyebrows scorched, but that wasn’t the bizarre sight. The truly bizarre sight was out front.

The horses were just gone.


He unstrung his bow with a deep frown. It was a definite risk in this orc-infested territory, but this storm would ruin a good bowstring, and those weren’t easy to come by. He tucked the string with his backup string in a deep pocket of his cloak, then turned his thoughts again towards shelter. He’d been tracking an orc hunting party for two days, and let this weather sneak up on him. Stupid stupid stupid. Now he was caught out – miles and miles from the little glade he called home right now. Squatting on his haunches with his cloak pulled over him to protect his nightvision from the lightning, the ranger closed his eyes and visualized the area, trying to remember if he’d seen anywhere on his tracking run that might come in handy just now. That tor! What do the locals call it again? High-something, he thought, but he hadn’t talked to another person in a long time, so he might be wrong. Whatever it was called, it was the closest thing to cover in the vicinity. He stood up, hood pulled low, and began to jog west. He was forced to pause only once, as he drew close to Deadsnows Trail, to pause and listen for danger. Crossing the road, he moved back into a trot. He slowed to a walk as the bulk of the tor rose up before him, and began looking for a cave, a deadfall, or any kind of indentation that would allow him to huddle and rest. The rain fell so hard around him, he almost walked right into the huge man with shaggy blond hair, examining an odd pile of rock.


Zanfire yanked the brake level for dear life – if the coach got any farther off the road, flipping was a real possibility. He heard the Kid shout out from the other door, and barked back, “Stay inside! Get the others ready to move!” in a tone from his days on the training field. The coach shuddered, teetered ominously for a looong moment, then crashed back down on all four wheels. Old Miles still sat on the driver’s bench, staring in shock. Zanfire slapped him across the face, hard.

“Wake up, Miles! We’ve got to move!”

Zanfire dropped lightly to the ground and yanked open the coach door. The Kid, to his credit, had relayed the message, and the passengers had already started disembarking from the other side. The bard, though, still hadn’t stirred. Zanfire climbed into the coach, grabbed the bard by the shoulders and gave him a hard shake. His head thumped against the wall of the coach, but his eyes did not open. The tutor appeared at Zanfire’s side.

“What can I do to help, noble elf?” he asked quietly. Zanfire shrugged in frustration.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him – I can’t wake him up!”
The human reached into one of the pockets of his traveling outfit and found an odd-looking capsule. He raised it until it was right under the half-elf’s nose, and snapped it in two. A pungent odor immediately filled the coach, making Zanfire’s eyes water and sting. The bard still didn’t move. His eyes rolled behind their lids, as if he was in the grips of a terrible dream that would not let him go.

“Ruprecht!” the tutor called out, and his companion rushed into the coach. “We must carry him, Ruprecht. We cannot leave him here.” Zanfire eyed them appreciatively – they had a soft, southern look about them. Hospitality was the golden rule among the goodly folk of the Marches – he had not expected to see it from travelers from a distant land. He nodded a thank-you to them and grabbed his own rucksack from its spot under his seat.

“Let’s move.”
“Where to, grayback?” the Kid quipped. “I don’t see anything that looks like an inn around here!”
“Indeed!” shouted the barrel-chested nobleman, shaking off his clutching daughters. “Why have we stopped? I have business in Sundabar that cannot be delayed!”
“Be silent!” Ruprecht retorted. “This is no time for your business. We have stopped because the horses are gone, idiot.” He climbed onto the top of the coach and collected his guisarme and luggage, then lifted the bard easily on to his shoulder again. “Where are we going, sir?”
Zanfire looked around. Miles was standing with the terrified human girls, and the tutor had returned to Ruprecht’s side. The rain was pelting down harder than ever. Before he had served at Citadel Adbar, he’d ridden through this area, and remembered a thick, high tor between here and Deadsnows. He decided quickly, and pointed to the northeast.

“That way – there’s a safe place where we can shelter.” He didn’t know, in fact, whether it would offer either safety or shelter, but they couldn’t stay here. The storm would blow them away.


“Hold up, Argus,” the halfling called out over the thunder and rain. The thick, burly mastiff slowed and stopped, and he slid off the dog’s back. Taking his staff, he muttered a command word and the top of the staff glowed with arcane light. He held the lit end of the staff ahead of him over the trail, looking for any sort of tracks. Nothing – the storm was rapidly turning Deadsnows Trail into a muddy mess. Tylfan Briarward shook his head in frustration and turned back to Argus. “What do you think, old friend? Want to keep going or look for a hole to curl up in?”

The dog whined softly and gave a great shake, slinging water in all directions.

“All right, all right! Don’t be so whiny! You won’t melt – and a little water might help with that stink!” he chuckled, although the scent of wet dog was already beginning to convince him that maybe he’d spoken too soon. He quite enjoyed the water himself, and thought that the storm was a fine and beautiful thing. The lightning would help burn off unhealthy undergrowth that hadn’t survived the winter, and the land would be better for it. But getting struck by lightning would do neither Tylfan nor Argus any good, and what’s worse, he’d never find out who was poisoning the water up in the mountains. Two human infants and dozens of animals has died in recent weeks, all of whom got their water from the Icespear River. All the signs he’d found pointed him in this direction, towards the headwaters south of the town of Deadsnows. A deep anger roiled in his heart at the callousness that caused such deaths, but he wouldn’t be able to deal with the situation tonight.

He swatted Argus on the rump and said, “Go! Find us a place to rest. If you can’t find anything, come back and find me, and we’ll huddle up at Hightower.” The halfling turned south and walked briskly. The light from his staff had just begun to wane when he approached the high mound.


“Stormpeace!” came the shouts from the darkness as Eisbarzorn rushed into the open doors to the burial crypt. That, and the bleating of sheep.

“Aye, Stormpeace,” he replied, sealing the ancient bargain of hospitality. “Will your livestock be disturbed by a fire?” The shepherds replied in the negative, and the barbarian rushed back outside to collect what firewood he could find before it was totally soaked. As he returned with a double armload of wood, he saw a child with a quarterstaff staring into the darkness of the crypt.

“Go in, little one! Go in – this is a time for Stormpeace, not fear.” Striding past him, he dumped the wood several long strides into the dark antechamber, and reached for the flint, steel, and tinder in his backpack.

“Yes, yes. Stormpeace!” replied the halfling as he followed, shaking his head in mild awe at the young human who was more than twice his own height. He shook the water from his robes and walked towards the shepherds, gently murmuring to the sheep as he walked. As he meandered among them, his calm spread through the flock, and they quieted down and actually began to lay down. The shepherds offered their thanks.

Next through the door was the ranger. The barbarian had just gotten the fire started, and as he turned back towards the door, he saw the hooded figure slip through the doorway.

“Stormpeace?” the blond queried. “Stormpeace,” the ranger replied. “And thank you for the fire.”

When Zanfire led the exhausted and soaked travelers into the crypt, the fire was already high and blazing. He called out the ancient word of wilderness hospitality, “Stormpeace!” before the inhabitants of the crypt opened their mouths, and assisted the girls toward the fire.

“Rest here, ladies. You’re safe now.”

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