Cherry blossoms in winter

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    • Markshire PCs:

    She straightened, alert to the slight sounds of someone approaching the grove, someone stealthy. She relaxed as she heard her friend quietly call her name.

    “Sun..Sun. Where are you?”

    “Hush, Hon-tae—over here. You always were as subtle as an ox—no wonder your parents always catch you when we try to sneak out.” As she said it, the thought came suddenly that she should check the path her friend had taken, and she looked quickly around her. No pursuers.

    “No, I wasn’t followed, Sun. I may not be as nimble as you, but I’m not stupid, you know.” Hon-tae was no ox, as slim as Sun-Ok but just a finger taller, thanks to her half-elf father. They had been friends since Hon came of age, a decade past. Their mothers had been friends since childhood, over two centuries—an understanding there that defeated almost all of the girls’ adolescent capers. Sun-Ok’s father, also a full-blooded elf, served with Hon’s as an archer for Lord Deng.

    Hon-tae’s exasperation melted, her expression softening with concern. “You’re jumpy, though, aren’t you?”

    “Wouldn’t you be? After what I did? What’s happening? What are people saying?”

    “Sun,” Hon paused, overly long, unsure how to proceed, “people are…very busy.”

    “Of course, they are preparing the village for the ascension festival for Lord Deng. Mother was already collecting spell components for father’s firework arrows.” Sun’s frustration with her friend’s reticence showed as she moved on quickly. “But women talk in the paddies, men talk when building stands. What do they think?”

    “Sun, there will be no fireworks arrows at the festival. Probably never again—people are sad about that.”

    “Hon-tae, what are you talking about?”

    Sun-Ok’s friend took a deep breath. “When you left, your father went straight to your common room, drew his wae gum, and spilled his innards on the floor.”

    Sun’s eyes widened and moistened. She turned away quickly, unknowingly avoiding the outstretched, comforting hand extended by her friend. Staring sightless toward the distant mountains, she stood for some time. When she spoke at last, her voice held no inflection, and even Hon-tae could not judge what her friend was feeling.

    “What…do the people say about that?”

    Hon-tae swallowed and then answered quickly. “Cheng Tok-Kon was well-liked; no one can remember more cherry blossoms strewn at a funeral. They honor him, and respect his oath-loyalty. Cheng Tok-Kon is missed.” She was careful, now, to use Sun’s father’s full name—such was the way their people properly referred to the dead.

    A single low sob escaped Sun-Ok as she considered the centuries of life her father had lost, the centuries of him that she had lost. She composed herself and turned back to her friend. Gently placing a hand on Hon-tae’s shoulder, she quietly asked, “And what, my friend, do they say about me?”

    “Sun, everyone thinks the situation is a great tragedy—” Hon-tae abruptly stopped, responding to Sun-Ok lightly squeezing her shoulder. She looked into her friend’s eyes as she went on. “Okay, but that much is true. Both the other elf-blooded families know your dilemma, but the humans mostly just do not understand. Sun, they cannot, not really. Some human women are sympathetic, though.”

    Sun-Ok dropped her head to her friend’s chest and sighed. “Humans—their terrible short lives make them think their petty struggles are great. No perspective—right back to my problem. Lord Deng knows I could be his great-grandmother in human years but he knows it only with his head. Shoot, I knew his great-grandmother when I was little and she was, too. If he saw with his heart, he would know I could never do this thing he asks…”

    As Sun’s words tapered off, Hon-tae cut in, a bit tentatively, and Sun leaned back. “Some humans—most of their menfolk—say the Right of Blood has always been the lord’s, and that this is our way and your obligation. They would never say it to an elf-blood, but they probably think you dishonored your family by running. But…” Hon-tae continued, past the objection she felt her friend about to make, “the human women split. Some say you should have done it, like their men say. A few say you had to run, that the Right of Blood hasn’t been claimed in our realm at least for over 60 years now. Others say you could find another way out…”

    Sun laughed bitterly. “You and I have gone over this, Hon. What other way was there? Marry the only elf-boy in the village? Chung-hi can’t even string a bow yet. Lose my virginity to some other human man first? What good is that? Silly human women—they want me to sleep with their husbands or sons so I don’t have to sleep with the Lord? Pffff. He is a baby to me. When I think about it, I see him as a baby; I hear him cry; his skin is soft and hairless; he even smells like a baby. How could anyone…. Men and their oaths, their duty, their obligations, their traditions. My father has served these Dengs for, what, 12 human generations now? He slew the Horn-helm leader with a single arrow at 200 paces, he has kept these Dengs on the throne these past…” She stopped, suddenly, the rage draining from her eyes and her face going slack. “Father…Cheng Tok-Kon was a master archer, an elf of great honor. He is missed.”

    They sat quietly for several minutes. Sun-Ok did not notice her friend shifting nervously beside her.

    “So, I can’t go back, can I, Hon?” They had talked it through before, so the question was asked merely because it had to be. “You’ll give Mother my love?”

    “No. Yes. Sun….” Stymied by the two questions, neither of which she really had to answer, Hon-tae sensed she was about to fail miserably in the hardest part of her mission here tonight, a mission—no adolescent caper this—she’d planned at length with her own mother and had so far handled with moderate success. She pulled a scrap of paper from her robe and tossed it to her friend. “Here…I…can’t…I’m so sorry.” Hon-tae ran back toward their village.

    Confused, Sun-Ok unfolded the paper and read a note in her friend’s handwriting, with a short poem in that of Hon-tae’s mother:

    Sun—yesterday your mother went to the river.

    blood from the floor mats
    blends with tears in the water
    as she washes them

    She stopped crying when Deng’s riders came to draw and quarter her. Cheng Hyung-Ok is missed.

    A single, sharp cry of pain chased Hon-tae back to the village.

    • Markshire PCs:

    The half-orc captain looked down from the rail to the scrap of elven girl on the pier below. Her clothes were odd, oft-repaired but neat—doubtless one of the many foreigners who wandered into the fast-growing merchant city every day. She looked healthy if underfed—no mean accomplishment for the newcomers, who succumbed in droves to the new plagues and the increasingly violent and aggressive Beggars’ and Thieves’ Guilds. There were parts of the city now where the captain himself would not go. Hells, he wouldn’t even go ashore on some trips—when the plagues were so bad the carts of dead filled the streets.

    He glanced back over the ship to make sure the men were doing their tasks, readying the ship for the crossing. He turned back to the girl, who just stared at him blankly through the oddly slanted eyes of the Far Lands. Sure he’d regret it, he nonetheless broke the silence. “What you want, girl?”

    The girl seemed startled that he spoke, but curious, backing and tilting her head slightly like a hawk might if the rabbit he had caught suddenly tried to fight back. She pointed at the gangplank.

    “Gghhar. We’re too busy, ye vregl. Sell it somewhere else; my men are done with shore leave.”

    A spark of fire came into the girl’s eyes when he spoke the local slang—she’d heard it before, obviously. She sneered slightly, composed herself, and lowered her arm. Then, overdramatically, she pointed in turn at herself, the gangplank, the deck, and out to sea.

    “My apologies, miss” the Captain said sarcastically, crudely sketching an imitation of the deep bows the FarLanders exchanged all the time. “Of course ye’ll be wantin’ passage and have no way to pay for it. We’re a merchant ship, girlie—merrr-chant—filled to the gunnels with—” He turned to the mate across the deck. “Lars, what we carrying this trip? Salt cod?”

    “Nuts, cap’n.”

    “Gghhar, that’s right—filled to the gunnel with almonds from the south. Make crossing, sell nuts, buy hides or something else to take to the next port. Merr-chant, girlie. No passengers.”

    The girl continued to stare at him, her finger still pointing out to sea. It looked to the captain like she might be about to cry, but her arm was steady, and her gaze still fixed.

    “Don’t go blubbering, ye macker, look here.” The half-orc stepped quickly to a nearby barrel, popped the bung, and spilled some almonds into his tar-stained hand. He stepped back to the rail, crouched down, and showed them to her. “Almonds yes go to sea. Not you.” As he said these last words, he used his other hand to move her pointing hand for emphasis—from almond to sea, from her to the dock. She stepped back quickly when he was done, and he rose.

    “Well, that’s that then,” muttered the Captain to himself. As he turned away, he just barely noticed the girl bowing to him. “Eh? Off with ya, then…”

    Something in the flash of the girl’s face as she bowed low gave him pause—a smile? He turned back to the rail, his foot crushing something. Instantly, he called to the mate, “Lars, who was it swabbed this deck? It’s a mess, ye macker, bring me the cat, I’ll flog—” He broke off as he looked down at the almond shells he’d stepped on, then to his empty hand, then to the girl, who calmly tossed the shelled and stolen nuts in the air and caught them in her mouth, crunching away happily and then pointing back out to sea.

    “Gggharrr.” The Captain cursed, kicked the shells onto the pier, then laughed once, loudly enough so the nearby crew knew they could show the smiles they’d been hiding. He called up into the rigging. “Marco, you drunken half-elf piece of guano, stop butchering that sail you’re pretending to mend and get down here. Speak your elf-gibberish to the girl and tell her she can earn her passage—she gets off when every single sail is mended—spares, too. No question she’s deft, let’s hope she can sew like a good girl, and ain’t just some elven clown.”

    As the half-elf slid and climbed nimbly down the ropes, the Captain surveyed his ship and his crew. What he saw brought the regrets he’d anticipated earlier. He looked once more at his empty hand, wondering how she’d done it so quickly, without his noticing. He realized some of the crew might be watching him, and he quickly re-bunged the barrel. “Where’s she headed, Marco?”

    “Uh, cap’n, I asked her just that: she said she’s going where we’re going.”


    “No, sir. She doesn’t know that place. She just said ‘Where you are going.’”

    “You tell her about the crossing? How it’s the most lucrative trade route, if you can only survive?”

    “Cap’n, she didn’t care—at all—she just wants to go…anywhere.”

    Oh, well, she’d tire of it soon enough—almost all elves did. The decision had been made—too late to back out now—so the Captain just tried to limit the damage. “Marco, show her the ropes but give her some damned gloves—we want her to sew with those quick hands, not be a tarred-up rope-monkey like you. And for the gods’ sakes show her how to puke over the side without following it—she’s a lubber for sure.”

    “And lads—three more things. Yeah, three, like the number of fingers old Ratsnuh’s got left. You all can count to three, right? Put your fingers down, Ratsnuh.” He shook his head.

    “First, leave is over—you let her pathetic self be. The crossing’s hard enough without that kind of trouble, and look, Zino brought me the cat anyway—you know how much I like to use it. Second, Marco, tell her no shares, just passage, eh? Last thing—maybe some other idiot told some of you idiots that a woman aboard’s unlucky? Ghhar—when was the last time you heard me laugh? That makes her the luckiest damn charm you sorry lot will ever see. Now, get back to work. We leave in an hour.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    [dialogue in the elven tongue]

    “What? You’ve never seen half-orcs before?” Marco was incredulous.

    “Maybe. But not until I left home. My land is almost all humans, a few of elven blood. The humans are…not tolerant of differences. Half-orcs would live with orcs, if there even are any. We fight all orc-bloods together, elf-bloods and humans, kill on sight.”

    “Well, don’t try to kill the Captain, alright? He’s a good ‘un—came in the hawsehole.”

    Sun was perplexed. “Hawsehole?”

    “Sorry, girl, that’s sailor-talk. Hawsehole’s where the rope that holds the anchor comes into the ship.”

    “He must have been smaller when he crawled through there.”

    Marco laughed. “No, that’s just a turn of phrase—means he was an ordinary sailor before he became captain and that don’t happen too much. You saw the tar on his hands, right? Captains like that are the best sailors, know how the ship works inside and out, know how the men think, know weather. Just don’t happen much because so few of us learn how to read and write, or save any money.”

    “So, he owns the ship?”

    Marco laughed again. “No, none of us make that kind of money! But he did buy a small share. The owner’s smart—knows Cap’n Thrakh will work the ship hard but safely if he has a stake.” Marco, paused, a little bit shy. “Sun-Ok, you’re funny.”

    Sun smiled, openly, enough to welcome Marco’s friendship but nothing more. She was practiced in such deflections from decades living among human boys. “Not on purpose,” she winked. “There is just so much I do not know…”

    They sat together by the rail in companionable silence for several minutes.

    “You said the humans in your land aren’t tolerant—how do the elves live with them, then?”

    “Hmmm. We elf-bloods live with them, work with them. But we keep apart and they keep us apart. No way to live apart—humans are everywhere. It’s a little hard to explain. The stories are that ages ago, a small band of elves entered the Kingdom, fleeing a dragon that terrorized their own land. Back then the Kingdom was all monsters and humans.” Sun paused, thinking how to tell the story so it would make sense to Marco.

    “Humans rode to fight the elves, thinking them just another type of monster invading their realm. The band took refuge in some rocks at the top of a hill, certain that this would be their last stand. The humans charged many times, and each time the elves showered arrows on them. The human armor was good, but the horses died in the hundreds, and the human horse-soldiers trudged back down the hill. The elves had no way to make more shafts, and let them go, saving their ammunition for the nearing end.

    “The humans had short bows, and were adept at ferocious swordwork, but had never seen such skill at such a range—seeing that and the apparent mercy, they parleyed at last, managed to communicate enough to make peace as the ravens feasted on horsemeat. Ever since, the elves have been a small group in the Kingdom, providing the core of its missile forces and a small adjunct to their magical arts.”

    Marco nodded. “So, they kept you around because you were useful? They tolerate you only that much?”

    “Yes, in the simplest sense. But friendships formed, as well, to a degree. More importantly, humans saw that the prowess of the elves provided military might, allowing the Kingdom to dominate its enemies, and their longevity provided wisdom and stability that helped diminish internal squabbling between Lords.”

    Sun-Ok paused, wondering whether to continue. What could it hurt? “There was also a small tradition among my people, resulting from that battle, that we kept hidden from the humans.” Marco looked up.

    “We were very short on ammunition, yes? A few of my people, the cleverest and the nimblest, were sent down the hill, between cavalry charges and during them, in broad daylight, to recover spent arrows from the ground and from the corpses. They would only survive if they could hide in those conditions, slither, keep quiet, feign death. My people keep this tradition alive—and hide it from the humans—in part to honor those brave elves who sneaked out of the battle lines, and in part because we know, at some point, the human tolerance may end, and we may have to hide again.

    “Those among us keeping this tradition we call Serpents, to remember the way they slithered through the grass and dead to recover arrows.”

    Sun-Ok paused, and Marco turned to look at her, interrupting before she could continue. “No need to say it—you were one of these secret Serpents, right?”

    Sun smiled. “You’re smarter than you look, Marco.” He blushed. “Yes, that’s where my aptitudes lie, and what I was raised to be, and hiding did keep me alive during my travels, but my real training had not yet begun, and now…who knows?”

    “Well, what I know,” said Marco, standing and stretching before he continued, “is that if we don’t prove ourselves useful, Cap’n Thrakh will show us how tolerant the cat-o-nine-tails is. Let’s teach you how to mend a sail.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Blimey! There she goes…again!”

    Thrakh shook his head. “Doesn’t look like her little elf-skin could hold all that, does it, Lars? At least she did it over the rail this time.” He paused, nodded towards the retching girl. “What you think?”

    “Hells, Cap’n, we’re barely out of port—what if we hit some real chop? And the crossing? I just don’t know…”

    “Well, looks like she’s got Marco trailing after her like a puppy; he’ll keep her safe for now. That’s not what I meant, though, Lars, and you know it.”

    “Yeah…well…the men are okay with it for now, I think. You said the right things to ‘em. Old Snargill—he’s always a troublemaker, you know—grumbled something about how Marco’s not the only one she’s got wrapped around her finger.”

    Thrakh looked sharply at his mate. “Oh? He meant me, huh?”

    Lars laughed. “Yeah, but don’t worry about it. The rest of the crew ‘t was on deck’s right there with you. And Jacobssen whacked Snargill good with a belaying pin t’ moment he said it. No problem there.”

    Thrakh grunted, which Lars knew was his way of showing satisfaction. Despite what he’d said earlier, he hated to flog his men. It was much better if they disciplined themselves—and Lars was the perfect one to make that happen, as his back still bore the lashes he’d taken from a sadistic captain years ago. “’E hit ‘im hard?”

    “Naaaah—just enough.”

    The two stood quietly by the tiller for a few minutes, happy to be back at sea. Still, Thrakh thought to himself, best to keep clear of the girl, put an end to that kind of talk—rank did have some privileges, but he wasn’t the kind to flaunt those in front of the men.

    “There is, one thing, though, Cap’n.”

    “Yeah? What’s that?”

    “She’ll never get all the canvas patched if she’s always at the rail—there she goes again! It’ll take her forever to earn the passage!”

    Thrakh grunted once more.

    • Markshire PCs:

    [dialogue in the elven tongue]


    “It’ll get better, you’ll see. I’ve never met anybody who had their sea legs natural—we’ve all earned ‘em the same way y’re doin’ it.” Marco tossed her a damp rag.

    “It is not,” Sun-Ok halted as another retch started and then came out as merely an explosive burp. “It is not my legs that are bothering me.” She threw the rag back at him.

    “Aye, lass, I know. Still, we need to get yer legs under you, or next time you go running for the rail, ye’ll pitch right over. You’ve great balance—start with that.”

    “But my balance comes from the earth.” Sun paused as she fought down another burp. “In the Kingdom, we learn in military arts and everyday stretching that power flows from the earth, it is our one lasting connection to the world around us, to each other, even to opponents.” She yanked a bucket toward her, furious with her body’s lack of control as she was wracked by another heave. “Here there’s no earth, no source, and thus no…discipline. Uggggggghhh.,” she finished with a moan.

    “Right, just heaving and pitching, up down, back and forth.”

    Sun vomited forcefully. “And I thought you were a nice guy. Please shut up.”

    “Sorry,” grinned Marco. “Wherever you get your legs, you’d better find ‘em soon, or the Cap’n ‘ll make me lash you to the mast.”

    “Not the mast—I’d make the deck too messy.”

    “Ha. Ye’re right, probably at the end of the yardarm.” He stood and smiled, seeing in her humor the strength to overcome. “We’ll make a sailor of you yet. See if you can sleep and…”

    “Yes, Marco?”

    “That barrel has some seawater in it, should ya want to wash out yer hair, yer clothes…”

    “My hair?” she said, her face suddenly filling with rage. “Marco, get me a looking-glass. Right NOW!”

    Next morning, she looked to Marco a bit less green. And clean—studiously, fastidiously clean. There was even a scent of something fresh in the air, though he couldn’t quite identify the odor. “How by the gods did ya manage that on this old barge, with just some seawater?”

    “Manage what?” Sun asked, innocently.

    “The..your…Never mind.” He shook his head. “Well you look a bit better. Shall we go get some breakfast, so you can sacrifice it to the gods of wind and sea later?”

    “Perhaps some…broth?”

    “Well, don’t expect too much out of Ratsnuh—about all he can do aboard now is cook, and he’s not all that good at that. But let’s go.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    “I’ve been thinking ‘bout what you said ‘bout your connection to earth and all that,” Marco said in elven, as they walked into the galley. “If there’s anyone who can help you with that, it’s Ragnar—he’s the only dwarf in the crew, in fact the only dwarf I’ve ever met who’s left their beloved rocks for the sea. The adjustment was hard for him, too, so maybe he can give ya some advice.”

    “Don’t think I can’t pick out me own name amidst them fairy words, Marco. Yer telling the lass who the most eligible man in the crew is, no doubt.” Ragnar walked over to them, squat and sturdy, with a beard so thick that his eyes appeared to sit on a shelf of red hair. Oddly for a dwarf, he moved lightly, on the balls of his feet rather than the soles.

    “Actually, she was just tellin’ me she’s never met a dwarf before.”

    “Never met a dwarf, eh? Well, once you try a dwarf, them elf-boys and humans won’t do. And one like Ragnar, of the Stonecrusher clan, would put you off even other dwarves.”

    “She did say she’d seen one when she was a little girl, about eighty years ago, when a circus came through her village…”

    “CIRCUS? Marco, I’ll rip out yer…er…eighty…”

    “There ya go, good dwarf. Now sit with us for a minute.”

    “Don’t push it, Marco—ye ain’t as clever as ye think.” But Ragnar did sit and listen as Marco relayed Sun’s explanation of the previous night.

    “Bah, sounds like mystical bilgewater to me, but…” Ragnar paused. “What I did at first was picture meself ashore, and not just ashore but back home in the tunnels. Now that illusion’s second nature, and I feels like the damn ship is solid earth all the time.”

    “Her problem seems a bit deeper than that, Ragnar.”

    “Yar. Well, what I was thinkin’ was this illusion works for me, right? I’m on solid ground right now, not this pitchin’ tub. So, she wraps her arms ‘round me belly, far as they’ll reach anyway, and maybe she gets this connection o’ hers back.”

    “I don’t know, seems kinda…” Marco trailed off as Sun reached for an abandoned tankard and vomited as discreetly as possible into it. She sat back up and looked on curiously. “Hells, I guess it’s worth a try. Lemme ask ‘er.”

    Moments later, with Sun’s arms vainly struggling to reach around even to his back, Ragnar called out: “There ye go lads—who else has gotten a hug from the lass? Dwarves are always first with the ladies, and Ragnar Stonecrusher is first among dwarves! ‘Ill-ooo-sion’—gawds you’re gullible.” The following belly-laugh made Sun straighten and look over to Marco in puzzlement.

    “Bloody dwarf,” muttered Marco, and he quickly explained to Sun what had happened. She turned back to Ragnar with a look part glare and part frown.

    A high-pitched cackle came from Ratsnuh over by the slop-pots. “Marco—one. Ragnar—one. The match is tied, gentlemen. Er…and lady.” The wizened gnome held up the stump of his left wrist and one of the three remaining fingers on his right hand to show the tally.

    Sun’s gaze snapped over to the gnome, her glare melting briefly at his disfigurement, then she slowly turned her head back to Ragnar. Her frown was gone, and she gave Marco just a flicker of a smile as she turned and walked unsteadily over to the slop-pots. The galley fell silent.

    Ratsnuh stared as she approached, his arms still in the air. She leaned against the bulkhead to steady herself, and slowly reached out to him. Gently, she took his remaining hand in both of hers and folded down his upraised finger. She lightly traced with her finger the scars where his fingers had been, then did the same to the stump of his other arm. Then, quicker than Ratsnuh could react, Sun bent and just as tenderly kissed each of the three scars. Ratsnuh’s legs buckled and he sat, hard, on the deck.

    She turned and walked purposefully toward Ragnar, whose grin had turned slackjawed. She smiled, shook her head slightly, and patted him gently on his hairy cheek, then strode out the galley, crashing slightly into the frame of the door as she passed through.
    From the floor, Ratsnuh raised his arms just above the level of the slop-pots, and extended his three fingers. With that same insane cackle, he cried out “Elf lass—three. Crew—nil.” Laughter followed Sun down the passageway, Ragnar’s loudest of all.

    “Gghar…what the hells is she doing?”

    “I don’t know, Cap’n.” Lars, chuckling, had just come up after breakfast to take his watch. He stared for a moment or two. “It looks a little like dancin’ and a little like the way the monks practice at the temple. Kind of peaceful, though, ain’t it?”

    “Mmmm,” replied Thrakh noncommittally. He noticed Marco emerging from below decks. “You—git yer useless half-elf hide up here.” Marco scrambled quickly to his side. “What,” Thrakh pointed at the girl, “is that?”

    Marco turned, smiling slightly as he saw Sun-Ok performing the stretching she’d described to him. “That, Cap’n,” said Marco, “is a girl who’s found ‘er sea-legs.”

    Thrakh mumbled something guttural and looked back at the girl. She was motionless, her right leg straight behind her and her left leg bent as far as it could, bringing her low to the deck with all her weight on her toes. Her right arm reached toward the sky and her left extended behind her, on exactly the same angle as her opposite leg. An annoyed look crossed her face as a corkscrewing wave hit the ship, then she turned her head slightly and retched, holding her body still. She turned her head back.

    “Clean that up, ye Farlander ninny! Don’t just stand there like a damn statue!” She looked up at Thrakh’s shout, and Marco hastily pantomimed mopping the deck. She leapt up, bowed to the Captain, and scurried off to find a bucket and swab. “Mmmm,” Thrakh looked at the two men beside him, “Put ‘er to work. Yer watch, Lars.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Cap’n, c’n I show ye summat?”

    “Aye, Lars, what is it?”

    “For’rd, Cap’n. Jacobssen, take the tiller for a minute. Steady course.”

    As they walked toward the bow, Thrakh looked over the ship and crew. Everything looked good, but the crew…there was something odd there. It took him a moment to place what was wrong, because to all appearances they were acting entirely normal. Which was in fact what was strange—usually this close to the crossing, they’d be quiet, nervous of the upcoming ordeal. But today they were grousing, talking, and joking around as usual.

    “O’er here Cap’n.”

    Thrakh stepped to the sail and looked at the patch that Lars pointed to, right around the grommet—the damn sails always ripped out there, and they were constantly being mended. He’d have to remind the owner when they returned to lay in some new canvas. “One o’ ‘ers?”

    “Who else, Cap’n?”

    Thrakh grunted; the girl’s needlework was now as good as anyone else on the crew could manage, but right near Lars’ finger there was a small figure stitched in shiny purple thread. “What is it?”

    “Dunno. Holy symbol, maybe?”

    Thrakh looked at the symbol, a circle maybe a thumb’s width across, a snaky line through the middle, half purple with a dot of canvas showing through, half empty with a dot of purple. “Mebbe. Ne’er seen the like. That all ye wanted t’ show me?”

    “Aye, Cap’n.”

    The two men walked quietly back to the stern. “Thanks, Jacobssen, I’ve got it. Back t’ work,” said Thrakh. A moment later, he turned to Lars, “Ev’ry patch?”

    “Since she got to be any good.”

    “Hmmm. Why ye worried?”

    Lars hesitated, unsure how to proceed. Thrakh knew he was eager to captain his own ship one day, and sometimes tested him in little ways, hidden behind his gruff and taciturn manner. This felt like one of those times, but Lars could never really tell. “Coupla things. First, where’d she get the thread?”

    “Think she stole it?”

    “Well, with what ‘appened t’ other day…” Lars referred to the discovery that the girl had been feeding herself on almonds pilfered from the hold rather than on Ratsnuh’s questionable efforts. When she was told not to eat the cargo, which was, in a way, the money of everyone aboard, she’d prostrated herself before Thrakh and released a torrent of words in her native tongue. “An apology, I think, Cap’n. My fault, I should’ve told her,” Marco had said, and promised to make good the minor losses from his own share.

    “Ye’ve sharp eyes for spottin’ ships on the horizon, Lars, but ye can’t afford t’ o’erlook anythin’ on yer own ship. Know the robes she wears fer ‘er mornin’ dance? Where they ain’t patches o’ homespun, they’re that same shiny purple.” Thrakh smiled, briefly, at the recollection of that incident as well. They’d given the girl some more sailor-like clothes to wear, which were much too large for her, and she’d promptly altered them to her own size. When she wore them for her morning dance or whatever it was, though, the clothes made her feminine silhouette just a bit too apparent, and Thrakh had insisted she wear the shapeless, patched-up robes for her exercises. “Barely any purple left t’ see, but it’s there. What else?”

    “Well..uh..I guess just: why?”

    “Hmmmm. Ye’re a good sailor, boy. Ye’re skilled. Ye feel proud when ye bring t’ ship to dock clean in a tricky wind, right? Well, we can’t stamp our marks on a good dockin’ or an ‘ard tack change, but a craftsman—som’n who makes summat wit’ ‘is own ‘ands—can.” Thrakh paused, and went on. “’Nother thing about that—t’ take that fine thread through that thick canvas like that is some work, don’t ya think? Tells ya a bit about yer crewman.”

    Lars thought about that for a second, hesitated, and spoke again. “I c’n see that, I guess, Cap’n, but that symbol looks a bit, I dunno, magical or somethin’. I mean,” Lars straightened, “some of the superstitious, and..”

    “Good, good, Lars. Now ye’re thinkin’ like a captain. Ye just have ta think it all t’ way through.” Thrakh paused, and nodded over to the girl, who was seated by the port rail with a sail piled next to her and a corner of it on her lap, sewing. “Now does that look,” said Thrakh, as the ship corkscrewed slightly in chop and the girl vomited calmly in a nearby bucket, “like a girl with an ounce of magic in ‘er?”

    They stood quietly for several minutes. At length another wave caught the ship just wrong, and the girl vomited again, half-missing the bucket this time. She moved the corner of sail carefully to one side and jumped to her feet. In a reasonable imitation of Thrakh—reasonable given her atrocious accent and her clear alto voice—they could just hear her say, “Clean that up, ye ninny.” She reached for a swab as the crew nearby laughed.

    Thrakh frowned menacingly, but Lars—who had long noticed the crew’s improved spirits—smiled, nodded at the men about the ship, and spoke softly. “Some kind o’ magic, mebbe.” Thrakh’s eyes followed the gesture, then he made a single, strange low bark and clapped Lars on the shoulder. “Yer watch, Lars. I’ll be in me cabin.”

    “Ain’t that somethin’…” Lars muttered to himself. “Twice in one voyage.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Why damn ship stop?” Sun-Ok asked. She insisted, more and more, on practicing Common, but it was frequently difficult to understand her.

    “We needs water and supplies before t’ crossin’,” explained Ragnar, nodding toward a small island to starboard. “We’ll take t’ boats ashore ‘n spend a day or two ‘ere.”

    “Good. Sun wort-less damn belly peace, maybe.”

    Ragnar took a few seconds to figure that one out. “Er, mebbe not, lass. The island’ll keep t’ wind off us a bit, but sometime t’ anchor makes the motion worse. There, see what I mean?” She’d retched yet again. “Unless… Wait ’ere, lass.”

    Ragnar walked to the stern. “Cap’n?”

    “What do ye want, ye miserable dwarf-maggot?” Thrakh said impatiently.

    “Just this, sir. Lass is wastin’ away, ain’t she? Ain’t kept nothin’ down the whole voyage—‘at’s nigh on t’ree weeks now, sir. I was thinkin’ mebbe she’d eat summat if she was wit t’ shore party, Cap’n. She ‘uz skinny alright when she come aboard, but now she all bones, be a little elf-skeleton any day, sir.”

    “Not many ‘ave as much meat ‘round ‘em as you, Ragnar; she’ll be fine. ‘Tis too dangerous ashore. You know that.”

    “Cap’n?” interjected Lars.

    “What now, Lars?”

    “Just…‘er work’s slowin’ down, Cap’n. Might be worth lookin’ into.”

    “Gawds. Alright, Ragnar, go bring ‘er here. This, Lars, is why ye might not want yer own ship one day—ye’re called on to solve ev’ry damn little problem what comes up, usually when ye’re the busiest.”

    Ragnar escorted the girl aft and then turned away, slowly coiling some rope just within hearing.

    “Well, Cheng, how’re you feelin’, lass?” It was Thrakh’s practice to address his crewmen by their first names only after the first voyage.

    “Damn same, Cap’n.”

    Thrakh shook his head; with the way she talked, this simple conversation could take hours, and he had minutes at most. “Alright, then, roll up yer sleeves, Cheng.”

    When she did not respond, Thrakh reached out and did it for her. Her skin was a bit cold, and there wasn’t much muscle left there. The girl had grit, but she was in a bad way. Thrakh let go of her arms and she pushed her sleeves back down.

    “Ggghharr. Well, ye do need t’ eat summat, Cheng. Ye’r thin like a…thread.”

    Sun looked down at herself briefly, then back up. “Sun eat damn slop. Bastard slop come out. Thread not Sun damn good.”

    Thrakh decided quickly that he’d never figure out the last part of it, but it didn’t really matter much—he didn’t have many options.

    “Hells. Well, ye’ll have to go ashore, see if you c’n git yerself fed. We’ve another two weeks ‘til port, though, so make sure ya eat plenty. Cheng, there’s danger on ‘t island—you know any soldierin’?”

    She was paying close attention to the captain’s words, but it still took her a few moments to translate and then answer. “Sun eat. Sun hide. Sun shoot damn bow.”

    Well, that was clear enough, at least, thought Thrakh. “Send ‘er in the second boat. Have Marco keep an eye on ‘er. Let ‘er pick a bow and some ammunition. Feed ‘er what ye can.” He raised his voice: “You hear all that, Ragnar?”

    “Er…aye, Cap’n.”

    “Well, take care of it, ye moron!” As the thin girl and the wide dwarf moved off, Thrakh’s tone softened in a way Lars hadn’t heard before. “Lars?”

    “Aye, Cap’n?”

    “That one…well, she’ll never be a sailor…”

    “Never seen anyone seasick that bad, ‘strue, sir.”

    “So, she’ll be leavin’ us in Markshire…”

    “Aye, she ought to ‘ve finished the mending by then.”

    “Regardless of the sewing, ye dolt. And…” Thrakh paused, leadingly.

    Damn, thought Lars, another of his little tests. Okay, just think it through…nothing. “We…throw ‘er a goodbye party?”

    “NO, YOU IDIOT!” Thrakh’s voice was louder than he’d intended, and his voice softened again in that odd way. “How d’ye think she’ll be treated ashore if she talks like she does?”

    “There’s plenty of folk in Markshire don’t speak proper, Cap’n…”

    “Ya really are thick sometimes—it ain’t that she don’t talk pretty, she curses like a bloody pirate now. What are them Markshire folk gonna think, girl like that and all that garbage comin’ out ‘er trap?”


    “Exactly. Nils was studyin’ to be a priest afore ‘e took to bottle, right? Well, ‘ave ‘im and Marco clean up ‘er Common after ye get back with provisions. Now git ashore. Ye know what to do.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    [dialogue in the elven tongue]

    “Hey, that hurt,” Marco said. One of the oilskin packets used to protect bowstrings from the salt air had just grazed a small scar across his cheek. “It’s not my fault, you know.”

    Sun-Ok grunted lightly, either in response or from the effort required to string the big recurved bow she had brought ashore. She had sat in sullen silence on the boat after he told her, speaking at last now that they were ashore—and in elven, afraid of saying something improper in the tongue she had been learning. “You could’ve told me.”

    I didn’t teach you those words, or even use them around you. I…wouldn’t. You picked that up from the rest of the crew, and you’re a quick study. Not my fault…” Marco trailed off as he watched her, panting slightly, set the newly strung bow down near her bedroll. His tone softened as she obsessively and unthinkingly brought order to their campsite. “Don’t worry about it—Nils will straighten you up…”

    “Nils can’t even straighten himself up,” she started, exasperated. “It’s just,” she stopped fidgeting with their gear, sat, and stared into her lap. Wistfully, she went on. “It’s just that I’m alone, Marco: no people, no family, the world and the ways I know far away and unknown here. If I survive, it’s because I can fit in, because I can adapt, and now…”

    “Now, you’ll have a whole new world to learn about and fit into. Sun,” he said, reaching out and gently raising her chin so she looked at him, “we are all sad that you’ll be leaving us, too. But not one of us doubts that you’ll thrive wherever you go.” He looked at his hand, and abruptly let go, “Thrive, that is, if you get a little food in you. Gods, who’s ever heard of a grown elf who can barely string a bow?”

    The first boat’s crew had already started bringing in fresh fruit and some other supplies. Marco watched in amazement as she dug in, ravenously, all fastidiousness gone as juice and pulp dribbled from her mouth and onto her clothes. Despite her obvious hunger, there was no passion in the feast; she ate as matter-of-factly as she had been vomiting aboard, and as diligently as she worked on the sails. He shook his head to himself, and they sat in easy silence as the crew went about their tasks.

    Lars was organizing some men over by a faint path leading into the trees. He looked much more impressive—fearsome even—in the chainmail he had donned after coming ashore: a cutlass hung at his hip, and a crossbow was strapped to his back. In fact, most of the crew looked dangerous—armed to the teeth with a bizarre assortment of weapons and bits of armor. The group with Lars had made a sled of sorts that was loaded with small casks.

    Marco nodded toward Lars. “They’ll be going inland for fresh water—there’s a spring a few hours’ walk from here. Be back late tomorrow. We’ll stay here with this lot, and see if they can bring in fruit faster than you can eat it.” She looked up sheepishly, mid-bite into an oversized pear. Marco smiled. “You go ahead, Sun; it’s why you’re here. Try to enjoy it, though, okay?”

    As the water party filed into the woods, Sun-Ok continued to gorge herself, and Marco sat beside her, quietly alert, watching the treeline.

    • Markshire PCs:

    [dialogue in the elven tongue]

    “Marco, wake up—what’s the matter with you?” Like much of the crew, Marco was a light sleeper aboard—where constant watch changes and the frequent need to change sail demanded it—but dead to the world when ashore.

    “Uhhhnnn….what’s happening, Sun? Groggily, he sat up and rubbed his eyes. Moonlight cast odd shadows on the rock-strewn beach and the nearby woods, but all looked calm.

    “Something’s wrong—the forest is moving…”

    He looked closer at the trees but saw nothing. About thirty paces away, at the fire, though…”Snargill, you’ve got sentry duty, you idiot,” called Marco. “Get away from the fire—you can’t see anything from there.”

    The sentry stood lazily, shot Marco a look, and turned away from the comforting fire. A few sleepy voices grumbled at the noise.

    “I don’t see anything, Sun—what did you…” He stopped as Snargill made an abrupt gurgling noise, part-shout and part-grunt. Marco turned back to see four short javelins protruding from the sailor’s chest, and a handful more stuck in the sand around his collapsing body. He shouted the first thing that came to mind: “Stations! Stations!”

    The attack was organized, fierce and sudden, the dozen sailors sleepy, slow and ill-prepared. Rastnuh, by the food and the fire, reacted first. He could still cast some rudimentary magic with his remaining hand—he swallowed a potion, vanished, and let off a light spell.

    Four of the creatures rushed each flank, and eight came from the woods toward the fire at the center of the disorderly encampment. They were short creatures, mottled brown and green like the foliage from which they burst, their flesh seemingly composed of leaves and sticks. Each group was accompanied by a few dog-like creatures, similarly brown and green, and not much shorter than their masters. Half of each group were armed with long stabbing spears, the other half with clubs and javelins, but these now ran toward the sailors with odd short reeds held to their mouths in their off-hands. They came in silence, the dogs trained to head for those already risen, the spearmen going for sleeping or rising forms, and the others firing tiny darts from their blowpipes at any available target.

    Marco and Sun had lost track of the rest of the skirmish, though—they kicked Johanssen awake and concerned themselves solely with the flank group rushing their little trio of bedrolls. Marco and Johanssen each took a dart, the poison making them sluggish. Sun loosed arrows at the two dogs headed their way, and hit both, but the dogs did not falter. She backed away to target the slower spearmen. Johanssen managed to fell one of the dogs with a clumsy swing of his broadsword, but the other latched onto Marco’s sword arm. He punched at it with his free hand, wrestling to stay erect. Sun’s shafts seemed to have no effect on the other creatures either, and she quickly inspected the next arrow she drew—plenty sharp. Johanssen half-fell and half-dived onto the dog savaging Marco’s arm, snapping its neck with an oddly wooden sound.

    Sun nocked and fired her arrow, surprising herself with her own accuracy as she actually split a blowpipe being aimed her way. But the creature merely dropped the split reed, drew its club, and rushed onward, the arrow seemingly lodged in the back of its throat and protruding from its mouth, which seemed to gape in a horrible grin.

    Johanssen struggled to his feet, and the dogs’ masters were just steps away when Marco turned to her and shouted, “Sun—run!”

    Fearful, impotent, she turned, but the campfire area behind them was similarly beset. There was nowhere to run.

    • Markshire PCs:

    “What those things?” Sun-Ok stood with Rastnuh looking down on the corpses around her, and the litter of leaves and twigs broken off by Marco’s longsword. Marco had run off to help finish the fighting around the campfire after Rastnuh suddenly appeared next to them, looking very determined with a large cooking knife held in his three fingers. She avoided looking at Johannsen’s body—he’d been forced back to his knees and taken a club to the head, where it was still stuck, held by the arm of the creature she’d struck in the mouth. The creature’s lower half was a few meters away, testament to Marco’s rage, which had transformed the moments of terror into a lingering if victorious depression.

    “We’s calls ‘em pygmies, the dogs thornies,” the gnome said. “Don’t really know if they’re plant or animal—jes’ know they don’t like us comin’ ‘ere. Well,” he paused, “also know they don’t seem t’ mind arrows ‘n such.”

    “So why give Sun bow?” She gripped it tightly, still.

    The gnome glanced up at her briefly, then smiled. “Ere’s other stuff in t’ woods, too.” He nodded at the vegepygmy torso nearby. “Damn fine shot that, though.”

    She knelt to touch Johanssen’s still-warm hand, then rose and looked around. The sailors asleep on the other flank—Gromssh, Narjvik, and Rennie—had been overwhelmed. They were all from the other watch, and Sun hadn’t had much chance to know them. The main attack around the campsite had been slowed by the scattered crates and casks storing the gathered foodstuffs. The sailors there had lost another two men besides Snargill, but the entire attacking force lay in piles of foliage on the ground. A couple of the piles smoldered where sailors had grabbed branches from the fire to use as weapons.

    “They come again?”

    “Probly not. And Lars’ll be back with the others in a few hours.” The gnome saw Marco coming back up the beach, glanced at the horizon, and turned back toward the campfire. “Be dawn pretty soon, better start cookin’.”

    [subsequent dialogue in the elven tongue]

    “Seven dead out of twelve. Cap’n ‘ll be none too pleased.” Marco nodded at the undercrewed boat struggling in from the ship. “Won’t be on it, ‘course; Thrakh’ll stay aboard, but a short crew could make the Crossing a bit dicey.” He paused, quietly thoughtful. “Or maybe not…”

    Sun picked up Johanssen’s broadsword and started pushing the enemy remains away from his body and their bedrolls. “So,” Marco said, “you don’t want to talk about what happened?”

    Sun-Ok looked up at him, a degree of anguish in her eyes, and a hint of anger. “What’s there to talk about? They attacked us, and this bow and I could do nothing to prevent this…” she said, pointing at Johanssen’s crushed head. She saw no malice in Marco, and her tone softened. “I have hunted before—and harvested—not sure which this is, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen death, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

    He studied her, but saw no pretense. How…strange. “Sorry about that—could’ve given you a sling, too, I guess, or a sword.” He patted the hilt of his own.

    “You’re good with that.”

    “Well, when I get mad I can flail around pretty well, I guess. And you…” he paused. “At least you stopped that bugger from shooting any more of those damn darts.”

    She smiled, heartened by his words. “Tut-tut, Marco. Such language.”

    He reddened, then suddenly remembered to reach up and remove the dart from his numb shoulder. He turned it over in his hands and gathered his thoughts, calming down after the thrill of battle.

    “No, that’s not what I meant—I kind of assumed you’d seen trouble before.” He gestured vaguely around the camp. Sun-Ok looked up, curious. She really didn’t know—very strange. “When I told you to run, you turned toward the fire, then dove behind that little boulder.” She nodded, and he went on. “I was looking right at you—and you vanished, just like Rastnuh but without a potion.” Her eyes, in the space of an instant, widened in surprise, brightened, and then clouded. “How’d you do that?”

    “Really?! Hmmm.” She was excited, a bit distracted as she explained. “Remember, I told you about the Serpents? About my aptitude? Among my people—among the elf-bloods—membership in the Serpents is largely by possession of innate ability like what you saw…That’s then refined through training and further selection happens during that process. But without training, those of us with the aptitude merely experience it in times of great stress, fear, or danger—we can’t control it. Some of us are even born in that state—I wasn’t—the fear and shock of delivery triggering it like some kind of reflex. Without training, though, it’ll just always be an involuntary thing…” She trailed off, slightly saddened. “And with me, at least, it’s not invisibility—it’s more like…the chameleon. I remember subconsciously thinking, as I saw the melee by the fire, ‘rock,’ and I must have changed somehow to resemble the rock…”

    Marco looked at her, understanding her loss but more concerned with her present and future. After a few moments, he spoke again. “Sun, whatever it is—however it works—don’t tell anyone else about it. Ever.”

    “It doesn’t matter anymore, but why not?”

    “It’s understandable when a mage casts an invisibility spell or some gnome drinks a potion, but people don’t walk around like that, certainly not just at will. It’d make other folks fearful, suspicious, hateful…You’d never be trusted.”

    A few minutes lapsed, both quietly cleaning up, then they buried Johanssen. As they marked his grave in silence, Marco at last snorted a little near-derisive laugh, “Not like bein’ a chameleon’s goin’ to help in the Crossing anyway—and now we’ve only Lars and the cap’n what can take the helm.” He seemed to share in her fatalism if not her sense of loss, but then changed tone. “Let’s see what that gnome’s made for breakfast.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    Ahead of the ship loomed a low, unmoving bank of ugly, brown-tinted clouds. Outside the clouds, the water was slack, the wind an intermittent sigh that slowly, fitfully, and inexorably pushed the ship onward. Under the clouds, a grey mist rose from the water, which seemed oddly alive with ripples and whitecaps, like a windy but wave-protected harbor. The patch of weather seemed lively within, but immobile, and the mist and low cloud obscured vision from without.

    As they had neared it, over the course of the day, the crew had grown subdued, and Sun-Ok sensed among them strange currents of fear, agitation, worry, impatience, and despair. “Not big—see edges ‘fore close get—why go ’round not?” she asked Marco.

    “It’s—where we have to go,” said Marco vaguely, with a tinge of fatalism. Seeing her uncertainty, he tried to raise her spirits. “Water’s pretty calm in it. Ye won’t need the bucket.”

    She unthinkingly stowed the pail that was her near-constant companion in a locker, but Marco could tell she was still distressed. He shrugged. “Can’t do anything ’bout it anyway. Most likely be home safe before you know it.”

    She turned and gave him an odd look. Damn, thought Marco, you idiot, let your head work before your tongue wags. He still wasn’t sure why she’d left her homeland, but he guessed she couldn’t return, or perhaps that she just had nothing there to return to. “Sorry—be in port before you know it.”

    A brief, sad smile flickered across her face, and she turned back to look at the coming turmoil. “Then what?” she asked distractedly.

    Marco grimaced slightly behind her. Double idiot, he thought to himself. Oh well, never will understand women—poor thing. “Then,” Marco paused, and she looked back at him. “Then you make your own path, your own…” He looked about, then pointed at the purple symbol she’d sewn on the flapping sail beside them, a symbol whose explanation he still wasn’t sure he fully grasped. “Your own…that.”

    Sun-Ok glanced at the sail, watched the symbol flap and fold in the lazy wind for several minutes. She looked slowly around her, taking in the ship, the crew, the water, the sky, and the slowly sinking sun. Her eyes seemed focused and yet blank at the same time.

    At length, she reached out and touched an increasingly fidgety Marcos on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend,” she said in elven, then walked to the stern rail. Once there, she looked out over their minimal wake for a moment, kneeled, and bowed to touch her forehead briefly to the deck. She stayed kneeling, silent, eyes closed, facing astern.

    Thrakh, at the wheel, just shook his head. Yep, thought Marco. Never will understand them.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Thrakh held the tiller as the ship passed into the mist; Lars, nervously alert, stood oddly apart from him. The whole crew was on watch, but also strangely stationed about the ship, above and below decks, scattered. The thrumming began as soon as the mists closed behind them, an indistinct vibrating hum, felt as much as heard, seemingly part of the place itself. The ship, the men, the very air around them all seemed to throb to it—even the water through which they moved seemed somehow to churn and froth to its rhythm.

    Sun-Ok looked about, but the men on deck showed little reaction to the thrum—they all bore the varied looks of fear, anxiety or determination that they had prior. It was still an hour short of nightfall, but the brownish clouds made the light dusky, and the mist gave the ship and its crew the look of a watercolor spattered with rain, the furthest shapes melting and the colors seeming to run and bleed together.

    The sails were utterly slack now, and the vibration made it impossible to feel if they were even moving. She leaned out over the rail to peer astern. Even through the mist and the frothing water, their wake was visible, if anything becoming more pronounced. She looked up at Thrakh, noting his focus and determination to keep the course, though how he was determining that course without sun, stars or landmarks remained a mystery.

    The fact that the ship was accelerating in no wind had filled her at first with dread, but after considering for several minutes the captain and what she knew of him, the dread changed to relief that their speed might end more quickly whatever ordeal was approaching. As that sense of the unknown mounted, however, it merged with the unreality to create an overwhelming feeling of helplessness—and a simultaneous and terrible sense of liberation that made her legs so weak that Sun-Ok sat heavily on the deck.

    It was while she was sitting there that the first sheets of rain began to fall.

    At least, it looked at first like rain—like the isolated sheets of rain visible at the edge of an approaching storm. The first few sheets, hitting the sea soundlessly well off the bow, were grey and brown like the mist and clouds around them. Within moments, however, it became clear that the “rain” was as much like colored light than water, somewhere between glistening drops of light and glowing pellets of rain. Sheets of blue rain-light, of red, of all colors began to fall ahead of the ship, and to flicker, partially obscured, in the murk and mist ahead.

    The first to hit the ship was beautiful in its own way—a bright turquoise sheet of rain-light that struck the foresail, disappearing into it, with the sound of tinkling bells, the sound fading quickly. The next, a dark olive, struck the bow railing to port, the drops turning dark red and thick as they struck the wood, dripping down and seemingly freezing—despite the mild temperature—into a dozen icicles of blood. These melted slowly, running off into the scupper as a sheet of violet rain-light struck the crow’s nest and top-spar, leaving a ragged patch of orange and black butterflies behind it. The butterflies blew off in an unfelt wind—some clinging a few moments longer than others—fluttered for a few heartbeats, and seemed to dissolve in the thickening mist.

    No storm materialized as they entered the deepening murk, however—the grey-brown clouds merely seemed to hang lower, and the mist from the water seemed more palpable. The sheets of rain-light continued, however, with increasing frequency, even if they did not coalesce into a downpour.

    A dark yellow sheet fell across six barrels lashed to the port rail amidships. A moment or two later, the four barrels that had been struck burst open, pouring forth not the almonds they had contained, but hundreds of glowing, lavender scorpions, as big as a man’s foot. Many fell overboard immediately, the rest running about madly until they encountered the stream of cold blood running in the port scupper. They rushed to it in frenzied lines, becoming two writhing masses, one following it to where it drained amidships, the creatures dropping into the water and disappearing with the blood.

    The other group of scorpions scurried toward the blood’s source, the slowly dripping icicles at the bow rail. Generally, the men had stood clear of the falling sheets, avoiding them as best they could, their dispersal around the ship apparently an effort to aid in that effort and limit damage. Zino, however, was paralyzed with fear when the scorpions emerged, and standing too close to the slowly running blood. The second mass swarmed over him, covering him completely, stingers flailing. The mass writhed briefly, then disappeared, leaving no trace of the crewman.

    One of the remaining barrels rolled free of the now-slack lashings toward Marco. He leapt to one side, but the barrel split as it struck the aft lockers beside him, spilling untouched almonds over his feet. He laughed, too loudly, and ran to tie down the remaining barrel.

    Lars, still waiting by the tiller to take over from Thrakh if needed, was watching the clouds closely. He shouted a warning as a glistening black sheet of rain-light emerged, falling directly toward the middle of the ship where Marco knelt. Marco stood, and slipped in the spilled almonds.

    The slip probably saved him. The black rain sliced through the slack sail, leaving a ragged, irregular tear through the folds; some of it struck the barrel Marco had been trying to save, cutting it cleanly in half from top to bottom, the two pieces falling to either side, with only a few buckets full of almonds left in them to spill to the deck. Of greatest concern, though, was the gaping hole the rain made in the deck itself.

    “Through the hull! Takin’ water!” came a shout from below decks. Thrakh nodded grimly to Lars, who scurried below decks, screaming, “Buckets, canvas, wedges, mallets—fast, boys, fast!” Marco turned to shove the remains of the barrels off the deck, and Sun-Ok, seeing no one else moving to his assistance and startled by the sounds of the mallets below, at last overcame her sense of helplessness, grabbing a swab and running across to help clear the almonds.

    The rain-light did not pause. Tranak, the only other half-orc in the crew, was too slow to avoid a sheet of rain-light colored a violent, reddish orange. It struck him squarely along the backs of his legs as he dove vainly to one side. The crew on deck held their breath for a few moments, staring to see what would happen, but the only noticeable effect was a strong smell of vinegar. Tranak rose to his feet, roared, and ran to the bow rail, taunting the weather ahead in the guttural, snorting tongue of his father. The first buckets were passed up from below, and the crew on deck, except for the half-orcs at each end of the ship, moved to help.

    The terror continued as the crew worked—heightened, if anything, by the wild unpredictability of the rain-light and by the need to bail, which denied them any chance at dodging it. The ship lost the bowsprit to another black sheet, and a putrid green sheet released the sound of wolves howling as it struck. A dark blue sheet brought the odor of baking bread, and a pale white rain turned most of the shredded mainsail into ribbons of oozing flesh that hung like new, curing bacon. Screams of mountain cats, crying babies, and hunting hawks, smells foul and fair, bizarre apparitions—all made even stranger by the sheets that had no apparent effects, or created unidentifiable shapes, sounds, and odors. On and on, a half-hour that seemed an eternity, until at last the pace began to slacken noticeably.

    The mallets had ceased their pounding some minutes before, the makeshift plugs of canvas and wedge being packed as well with cotton and anything else the crew could find to stem the leak. Lars at last emerged from below decks. He squeezed past the bucket-line and started climbing the short ladder to the helm. “Ought to hold, but we’ll be bailing steady all the..grauhhh.” His sentence turned into a cry of agony as he was struck by one of the final sheets to fall near the ship—a pattering of dusky rose droplets that hit the back of his shirt and vanished. He fell to the deck, crumpling at the foot of the ladder face down and making a single odd gurgling sound before going still.

    Still, that is, except for a bizarre, shifting movement beneath his shirt. Nils moved to help him, cutting his shirt away deftly with a dagger and revealing golden, six-inch maggots writhing along and through Lars’ flogging-scars, feasting. Following a tight nod from Thrakh, Nils pushed the horrid corpse off the deck with a pike.

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Warm winds, Lars, warm winds,” muttered Thrakh, steering them out of the murk and toward the warm, dry light of a dawning day. The buckets continued to move, and Nils began to chant a prayer for the dead. When he was finished, he went forward to take Tranak, who now sat weeping quietly—below.

    As they neared the outer edge, Thrakh called out, “Lads—we’ve got seamen’s work ahead—every other man from buckets to sails.” He pointed to the ripped, slowly dripping flesh that was the ship’s mainsail. “Take that mess down first and toss it o’er—we’ll need proper canvas right quick.”

    As he watched the men, he noted that their spirits seemed to be recovering more quickly than usual—despite the loss of Lars, who was well-liked. “Only three casualties,” thought Thrakh, “besides the usual lost night: one dead, one mad, and one…gone. Lightest we’ve ever had. Hmmm—wonder what they’re nattering on about.”

    He looked around, then remembered he was the only trained helmsman left aboard. “Marco—what you got there? Bring it.”

    Marco gave some quick instructions to the other crewmen cutting down the mainsail, and they cut out a large section and lugged it back to Thrakh. Marco just pointed—the black rain-light had sliced cleanly and easily through the sail, but stopped right at one of the girl’s purple symbols. “Could just’ve been the way the sail was hanging,” Thrakh began, then looked as Marco indicated another section of canvas, this turned to the thin flesh, where the symbol also remained unchanged, blood and something fatty oozing over the purple threads.

    Thrakh gave a quick sharp glance toward the girl, who was still quietly passing buckets. Then he shook his head. “No rhyme or reason to the Crossing, lads—now, stop yer lollygaggin’, toss it all, and get some new sail up!” As he looked over the crew manhandling the disgusting, greasy and bloody “sail,” he added, “Marco—you lads can wash that off with the bailing buckets when ye’re done—gulls’ll eat ye else.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Come,” Thrakh gruffly answered the knock on his cabin door, looking up from the charts to see the girl come in, bow, and step aside so Marco could enter behind her. “Prop the door open, Marco. What d’ye need?”

    Marco shuffled a bit. Thrakh wondered why he was nervous—he knew the watches better than anyone, knew if he had a rest from steering then the two of them had breaks from bailing. “She, er, wants to understand the Crossing, Cap’n. Asked me to translate.”

    Thrakh snorted, then thought better of the comment he’d been about to make, and looked at the two speculatively. “Alright. Step up here, both of you. Cheng, can you read a map?”

    After the translation, she nodded, then shook her head as she looked at the sea charts covering the table. “Right,” said Thrakh, “Those’re all depths and shoals, but these,” he paused as he pulled two maps from a wide thin drawer, “might make some sense.”

    Putting one map on top of the other, he continued. “This is where we were, before the Crossing.” He pointed to an anchor on the map, “That’s Sevarik, the port where she came aboard, right? And that way over there is where she’s probably from,” he said pointing to a spot on the very edge of the map, decorated with dragons, figures in pointy straw hats working in fields, and one figure with a large strange sword wearing odd, brightly colored armor and a helmet and mask resembling a demon’s head. The girl smiled briefly, then pointed and asked something.

    “Cap’n, she says the people look kind of right, but that her land ends in a normal coast, with islands out past it—not that huge cliff and the oceans pouring over like a waterfall.”

    Thrakh snorted. “Tell her that’s why I use the charts—mapmakers just make stuff up.” The girl shrugged as Marco translated, and Thrakh went on. “But she wants to know about the Crossing, right? That’d be right about—here,” and he pointed at a spot in the middle of the ocean, not too far from Sevarik.

    “Can’t really explain it much better than to say you sail through it, and you end up here.” With that, he pulled the second map out and put it on top of the first. The lands and oceans looked completely different, and Thrakh’s finger was clearly pointing to a different spot in this map’s oceans. “Winds seem to blow to that spot, pretty steady, from all directions, which is strange enough, and why we’ve had to beat upwind so long to get away from it,” he added, as the girl vomited in her matter-of-fact way into a bucket she’d brought in. “Sun and stars are different, too, and when we pass through it’s a few hours later in the day—was near sunset as we went in and just dawn when we came out.”

    “Brought a mage along one trip who wanted to study it—twas before you joined, Marco—he wanted to learn what happens…” Thrakh frowned, then went on, “inside it. Had all kinds of ideas about gates and planes and the like, kept talking about fabrics and materials and holes and wrinkles, too. Pretty sure he was mad.” Thrakh shrugged. “’E didn’t make it.”

    Thrakh took a drink from a flask while Marco translated, then he spoke again. “That’s it, really. Should be in Malkir, here, in a week or so,” he said, pointing to another anchor drawn on the top map. “Refit there for a bit, but she’ll leave us there, as we make a few local runs before we head back.”

    His voice didn’t exactly soften, but he spoke more quietly. “Only way I know for her to get back, get home if she ever wants to, is to sail through it again—and with her stomach?” Thrakh shook his head. “Take her if she wants—tell her we’re in Malkir a few times a year and a few other ships make the run from time to time. Up to her—she knows the risk now.”

    When Marco had finished repeating the Captain’s words in elven, Sun-Ok stared at the map, then lifted a corner of it high to look at the one below. After a few moments, she lowered it and raised it several times, eventually leaving the corner raised and reaching out with her other hand to trace gently the straw-hatted ink figures toiling in the fields of the Far Lands.

    Thrakh took another swallow from his flask, watching as she placed her palm over the drawing, unsure whether it was a gesture of obliteration or blessing or something else. She withdrew her hand from between the maps, lowered the corner of the top one back in place, and looked up at Thrakh.

    “Thank you, Cap’n,” she said, and reached to touch him gently on the shoulder. She bowed and left the cabin, Marco trailing after. Without being told, Marco pulled the door quietly shut.

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Well, Sun, this where we part ways then?” It was the first time Thrakh had addressed her by that name, and she tilted her head curiously at him, then nodded. Thrakh, watching the unloading of the ship onto Malkir’s wharf, was oblivious to her curiosity, but assumed her assent from the small bag of possessions she carried. “Ratsnuh’s given ye some rations, I’m sure, probly a dirk, too.”

    He turned and looked at her, considering. “Ye won’t want to stay ’ere in Malkir—it’s a pit, filled with lowlife proper bastards like them.” He pointed to two of the stevedores on the dock, who had dropped the cask of almonds they carried and now faced each other with knives drawn. He shrugged, shaking his head as the two began to circle. “No place for a nice, softspoken lass with no meat on ’er bones.”

    “Damn right, Cap’n.”

    Thrakh turned to look for Nils, stifling the curses he was preparing for the drunken ex-acolyte when he noticed the wide grin on the girl’s face. He barked softly.

    “Well….Marco’ll take ye to the caravans. After that…hmmm. Remember that second map—one we’re on now?” She nodded, and he went on. “I know a few folk ’ere—sometimes we winter here and travel a bit. Only one on that whole map I trust though—chum o’ mine in fact from when I was a wee Thrakh.”

    While the captain paused a moment with his memories, Sun-Ok tried to picture him as a small half-orc child. She failed, and Thrakh continued.

    “Name’s Drelka—Cap’n Mahal to you—loves the water like me, but ’as a stomach like you. Decided to stay ’ere after we made the Crossing, runs a riverboat now up north. Sent word to ’im, he’ll be waiting for you in Starcroft. He’ll set ye right up in Markshire. Er—don’t mention ’is stomach—probly rip yer ’ead clean off.”

    She digested this, then nodded.

    “Well, off with ye then, lass.” He turned to look around the ship. “Canvas is in good shape—pity.” This last he seemed to say to himself, so she simply nodded again and turned to leave the ship. Marco, broadsword at his hip, joined her at the gangplank, and they joined the steady procession of almond-filled barrels being rolled ashore.

    “Marco,” Thrakh called as they stepped onto the wharf. “After the caravan, see if ye can find any hands to hire, ’specially helmsmen—we’re short. Not much to pick from ’ere, but do what ye can. And see if ye can get a store o’ purple thread delivered—we’ve a new tradition to keep up.”

    • Markshire PCs:

    The ox-drawn cart bumped and slid along over the snow-covered road. Sun-Ok shivered as she looked out from under the pile of pelts the caravan driver had gruffly tossed on top of her when she boarded in Stonemark. They were nearing a small village, with a castle of some kind just south of it.

    She was tired of caravans and tired of travel—the monotony of getting from place to place, alleviated only with occasional overwhelming vistas of great natural beauty and confusing perceptions of ill-understood peoples and customs. She longed to settle somewhere for a while. Marco had passed her a pouch of coins when he’d set her on the caravan to Starcroft, blushed at her hug, and then quickly waved goodbye. The ride had been long, boring and restless. She got a brief, welcome respite on Mahal’s boat—he made a show of saying how she’d have to work to pay her passage, but he didn’t really need much help to crew the small riverboat, and with Thrakh’s referral she was able to sleep and eat her fill—regaining some of her strength as they made their way upriver to Stonemark.

    When they’d arrived, she was openly awestruck by the large city, its many buildings and confusing streets, its people and their varied dress and the bizarre masks they sometimes wore. “Not right for ye either,” Drelka had said. “More of a village lass, I’ll warrant.” He’d walked her kindly but quietly through the streets to the stables, and set her on another caravan. She’d insisted on paying her own way, but had thanked him repeatedly for his help.

    “This be Yar,” the driver called, “Ye’ll have to ride with another fella if’n you want to go on to Foot’old like ye said.”

    Discouraged, she counted out the last of the coins Marco had given her to another driver, then climbed into his cart. He said nothing at all during the short trip, and took no pains to make her warm or comfortable. When they stopped, he went to work immediately caring for his animals and unloading the small amount of cargo they’d brought. She jumped down lightly from the cart, stretched, and said to him, “Need work—warm clothes—where go?”

    He seemed startled that she had spoken to him, glanced briefly at the temple beside them, and then pointed at a hill rising behind some low buildings across this new town’s main street.

    Sun-Ok frowned briefly at his rudeness, then nodded and turned toward the hill. She nearly collided with a short, thickly clothed figure walking purposefully toward the gates to her right, and she unthinkingly apologized in her own language. He stopped, stared at her for several moments, then wordlessly moved on toward the gate. He looked at the gate for a moment, then turned and walked just as purposefully back toward the other side of the town. As he passed her, he stared again, and again uttered not a word.

    Shivering and unsettled, she continued on toward the hill, blundering into a small corral. She became confused among the odd pack animals gathered there and was bumped by a bear of some kind. She fell heavily to the ground, and fell again as she rose, slipping in the slushy, richly dunged snow of the corral. Three men standing nearby laughed derisively, but she rose carefully, composed herself, and walked off silently to a cave entrance up the hill. Once inside, she passed through some very large doors and closed them behind her. Warm at last, she thought, and at least, as she looked at her patched, wet and filthy robe with distress.

    The merchants below had replacements, of course, and even some cloaks that looked invitingly warm, but none would extend her credit. She wandered about, growing hungry, and eventually tried a door that opened onto a marvelous, peaceful cave filled with healthy, growing plants. She wondered at the magic of the place, for the plants had water but no sunlight to speak of. She didn’t waste much time thinking about it, though, instead running about and gathering food, which she ate with gusto, sitting on a bench. The only beings in the cave were some lazy bees, so she quickly stripped out of her robe and washed it, largely ineffectively, using a nearby pail of water.

    In her damp clothes, she wandered some more, finding many useful plants in the cave but still seeing no one, and eventually went through a door into a room built into the cave wall. It had ovens, presses, and tables where one could work. Again, no one was there, so she stripped once more and dried her clothes on an oven, considering her situation. If she could just find a needle, and maybe some thread, she could perhaps make some new clothes from all that cotton growing outside.

    Sun-Ok dressed, went back to the merchants, and eventually managed to trade some of the food she’d gathered for enough coins to purchase a sewing kit. She returned to the cave with a new sense of purpose, sure only that she needed new and warmer clothes and that she could at least sew. She surveyed the cave more methodically, gathering cotton and several medicinal herbs, as well as food to sustain her. In the workroom, later, she decided that the clothes she could make, after much trial and error and wasted cotton, were better than what she had—at least they were whole and clean—but they really weren’t very nice.

    Making something new from scratch was a lot harder than mending sails. But she did know mending, so she set about using the herbs she’d found to make healing ointments, bundling them with simple cotton bandages to make a kit people could use to heal their own injuries. She made two, again after much trial and error, then took them back to where the merchants gathered to hawk their wares.

    She walked up to the first one she saw, an oddly clothed half-orc, and showed him what she’d made. He agreed to buy as many as she could produce. She wondered at that—perhaps this place was more dangerous than it appeared—but then quickly thought over the prices she had haggled at the other merchants. She’d be able to buy better clothes quickly—maybe even the barely adequate bow that bowyer was so inordinately proud of.

    Sun-Ok smiled at the half-orc, and he smiled a disconcertingly tusky smile back. She didn’t care, just then, whether he was the first friendly person she’d met in this town, or whether he was considering eating her, or whether he was contemplating the profit he could make on her kits—Sun-Ok had found a job.

    • Markshire PCs:

    In short order, Sun-Ok became an experienced harvester of cotton and herbs. It pleased her to have something to do, and to produce the eminently useful healing kits—it pleased her even more as she became more skilled at making them, for she was certain, then, that she had at least found some measure of the Way.

    And so, she spent day after day in the cave and its workroom—warm, fed, and newly clothed, sleeping curled up in a corner by an oven, seeing no one except on her occasional strolls into the next cavern to visit the merchants. She sold stacks of healing to the half-orc, whose name, she had found, was Noatun. She’d also learned that the merchant cave was the “Bazaar” and that her cave—hers, in her mind, because no one else seemed to go there, and no one ever reprimanded her for harvesting there—was the “Grotto.”

    At times, for fun, she would practice hiding and sneaking around the Grotto, seeing if the bees could find her. She also had to practice extensively with the strange doors of this new land. They were clumsy, heavy, swinging things—not the light, elegant, sliding screens of home—and they often had bizarrely complicated ways of opening them, almost like a puzzle-box. And, of course, she followed the Way, tending to her soul by focusing on her work and producing as many of the life-giving kits as she possibly could, and of the highest quality she could. She even took to embroidering the symbol of the Way on her creations, as she had on Thrakh’s sails, hoping that in some small way its harmony would spread with the healing goodness of the kits.

    She supposed some people—humans especially, and perhaps most of all humans of this realm, so far from understanding the Way—would find her life tedious. For her, though, it was glorious—days and weeks practicing the arts for which she had talent, blissfully unencumbered by any obligations other than those of her own soul.

    One day, she woke in the workroom to find her peace and harmony disturbed—shouts and the sounds of spells and combat came from the Grotto. At first, she hid, unwilling to abandon her peaceful existence and uncertain about enmeshing herself in the conflicts of this realm. But it was her Grotto somebody was fighting over—they might destroy her source of cotton and life-giving herbs. And she did have that new recurved bow. So she wrenched the door open, knocking herself a bit silly with it, as she’d forgotten, in the heat of the moment, that it swung instead of sliding. And so she stepped out, dazed and no longer hidden, into the Grotto.

    The first thing she noticed was that the bees were gone—dead or hiding probably, for strange rock-creatures seemed to appear from the walls and floor of the cave itself. A human man with a large staff was casting spells at them, and a slim elven girl was fighting them. She thought briefly of asking the man to not damage the plants with his spells—but she lacked the words and in any event one of the creatures was coming towards her now. It seemed angry at her, and since the elven girl was fighting them, it was clear what side she should be on. She sprang lightly away and put an arrow to her new bow.

    And so passed the next minutes, Sun-Ok darting around the different areas of the cave, shooting her arrows with limited effect into the creatures’ stony skins while the others carried the brunt of the fighting. Another woman came to join the battle, which at last ended with the arrival through the wall of a giant rock creature they could barely hurt. Guardsmen from the Bazaar ran in and perished beneath its rocky fists, while the rest of them attacked the thing with everything they could—arrows, spells, and weapons—until at last the huge creature fell, crumbling into hundreds of pieces of stone.

    In the quiet that followed, introductions were made—the human man Mezano, the elven girl Tam, the later arrival Lily. They all seemed to know each other, but treated Sun-Ok respectfully all the same. Still, their conversation was hard to follow, so Sun-Ok looked around the Grotto, checking in particular on her cotton and herbs. She noted some glints of metal in the stones that had made up the giant rock-thing, and called to the others. It was gold, and other metals she couldn’t immediately identify, but the others didn’t seem all that interested. She was picking them up—filling her pack so that she could barely move—when she spotted an almond tree. Surely that hadn’t been there before? She limped over and picked a few almonds, discovering yet more of the precious metal-bearing rocks amid its branches. She picked up everything she could find, counted it all carefully, and walked, ever so slowly, back to the other three.

    They were just discussing how to use the valuable rocks—something about selling the “nuggets” to a dwarf who could “do rock,” and sharing afterward, but this language was still difficult for Sun-Ok—when an armored man bustled in, demanding to know what had happened. Sun-Ok listened quietly, at last determining that the man was the Captain of the town’s guards. Sun-Ok sensed that Tam had some animosity toward him, but the elf told how she had been gathering plants when the first creature broke through the wall, and then had run for help to the Bazaar, where she found Mezano. Sun-Ok sighed at the girl’s story, relieved and disappointed at the same time—it wasn’t her Grotto alone after all, but at least anyone was permitted to pick plants here. Mezano then took up the thread, saying how they re-entered the Grotto and began fighting the rock-creatures after sending a Guard to warn the Captain, whose name was Hillar.

    Then, for some reason, they suggested Sun-Ok tell the rest of the story, which she did, with her broken words. When she came to the “nuggets,” though, it got confusing. Had she mistaken the words “nuts” and “nuggets”? The others insisted she’d collected “nuts,” and she had, and had found metal-rocks in the almond tree, as well. Or maybe they just didn’t want Hillar to know about the metals. Sun-Ok went along, even eating an almond to show the Captain the “nuts,” glad she didn’t have to move anywhere, since all that metal made her walk slower than a baby’s crawl. She got the feeling that the Captain knew he was being tricked, though—for he said the oddest thing about sharing any loot they had found with the dead guardsmen. As Hillar left, she wondered to herself what use a soulless body could have for metal rocks, or even for almonds.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Thus began Sun-Ok’s real introduction to the tumult of Foothold and its varied inhabitants. For the most part, she remained calm in the Way, but oft-confused by the people, their speech, and their strange values. At least some things grew clearer with time: the Captain had been encouraging them to donate money to the families of the dead guards, not to their corpses; the dwarf who bought their nuggets—which was the right word after all—was named Durok, and he was a skilled crafter of metal.

    Some things, though, remained perplexing. Why would they insist she, weak and a stranger, carry all the metal? Because it ended up not being worth all that much? Was it a test? Or a sign of trust? And why did they insist on equal shares, when she had contributed so little? They were questions that echoed in her mind from time to time—but only from time to time, because these new comrades introduced her to new places and people, so many and so quickly, that she was perpetually filled with questions.

    Many of those Sun-Ok met were generous—with answers to her questions, with their time deciphering her halting speech, with items they found that they thought she might need. She traded what she could—healing kits mainly—for these gifts, but still she felt she was not contributing fairly to these developing friendships.

    That began to change when Tam’s half-sister Nitha introduced her to one of the most important men in Foothold—important to Sun-Ok at least—Alec, the tanner. He showed her new facets of the tailor’s craft that played such a large part in keeping her in the Way: how to use a skinning knife, how to cure the skin and tan the hide. He wasn’t exactly generous—she ended up purchasing from him almost all of the supplies she needed for her work, and he never once confided his family name to her—but he did open his doors to her, and open a door for her to a host of new options for caring for her own soul along the Way. Her joy expanded as she learned the art of making ever more useful items—wondrous armors, magical bags, and even better healing kits. The embroidered symbol of the Way slowly spread its way into Markshire, unheralded, unnoticed, and unexplained, but spreading nonetheless.

    Sun-Ok also took a secret pleasure in reading the stories of Markshire’s many gods. It was a secret pleasure because her people had no gods, considering the entire concept somewhat barbaric and hugely unenlightened. But the stories were entertaining, and it did help her with the language.

    Underlying that pleasure, though, was a vague unsettling fear, and a number of unresolved questions. How could these people ever find harmony if their gods were constantly bickering and fighting? Why were they so ready and able to use body parts of animals and people in their various crafts, yet so opposed to the animation and use of soulless corpses? Sun-Ok, of course, could not perform such magics, but the philosophical contradiction still worried her. She had the feeling, somehow, that it was important to understanding these people, but she could not settle the issue in her mind. The people here were worried about their souls—worried within the narrow definitions laid down by their respective gods, of course—but seemed to judge a thing by some unknown, inherent characteristic, rather than strictly by the utility of the thing and the use to which it was put. These worries nagged at the back of her mind, like a question she knew she would never be able to answer.

    She became even more perplexed, of course, when she died.

    She had been invited to raid an orc lair by Mezano and Tam—they had become friends after that first chaotic fight in the Grotto, and Sun-Ok was always delighted by the different forms Mez could take with his magic. And the orcs here—the full-blooded ones at least—were just as evil as the ones back home, their lair disturbingly close to Foothold, and to Alec’s house in particular. So she went, and used her bow admirably. Until they were ambushed on their way out, and a huge orc charged at her and smashed her with a spiked club. Which is, of course, an entirely normal thing for an orc to do.

    What was not normal—at least not expected—for Sun-Ok was that her soul did not leave her body for another. Nor did it go to the spiritworld to await another body, which could happen if one didn’t adhere to the Way. Instead, she went to a strange place, a temple of sorts filled with fire and screams. And when there, she clearly remembered everything about her life as Sun-Ok, every step both off and along the Way. She looked around curiously—not really a very nice place to visit, even if it was warm.

    She stood in the strange place, trying to reconcile all that, for a minute or two, then she felt an odd tugging. In a moment, she arrived back in the orc cave, back with her new friends, who looked down at her—she was suddenly lying on the ground—with obvious concern. They used a healing kit on her—in her confusion she didn’t notice whether it was one of hers that she had given them—and she rose shakily to her feet.

    Later, after they had left the orc cave and she had had some time to think, they confirmed that she had died and gone to Elvidnir, Markshire’s dead-place. They had brought her back through some magic, but apparently there was a creature there named Garm who would enforce some deal Odin had made to allow his people’s souls to return to life.

    Mez explained all this, gently, as though it would clear things up for her—but it did only on a superficial level. The questions Sun-Ok’s death and re-life raised were altogether more unnerving. Was she subject, then, in this place, to the whims of its struggling gods? Was her soul? If the soul did not move on in Markshire, was there a purpose to the Way here? Was there a purpose to her?

    • Markshire PCs:

    They were questions to which she found no answers. Not that she could ask anyone here directly, of course, even using the ancient words of beauty. But no one seemed able to shed much light on them, even indirectly: not the nuns, not the priests, not even her new friends.

    And certainly not that sorceress Faith, who offered Sun-Ok a job shortly after meeting her. When Sun-Ok accepted the offer, stating that she would do her best but really had no idea how or if she were capable, Faith turned into a demon—right there in Odin’s temple! Sun-Ok assumed this was to impress her or intimidate her with the seriousness of the contract, but she was fairly certain her broken Markshire words were insufficient to convey her sense of honor, let alone the meaning of the Way.

    Yet it was that unsettling, ambiguous meeting with Faith—her demon-form right next to the impressive statue of Odin, or perhaps just the coincidence of her name—that oddly enough brought Sun-Ok to at least a degree of resolution.

    Despite having read the stories, she decided, she might never understand Markshire’s gods well enough to follow them—or even just one of them, or however that worked. What she knew was the Way—so she would stick to that, and if Odin liked her enough to make a deal on her behalf, that was his business. He seemed a pleasant enough fellow—they probably could be friends if he would ever answer the occasional “hello” she gave to his statues. And his deal, in this dangerous Markshire place, at least gave her more time as Sun-Ok to tend to her soul and live in the Way.

    Sun-Ok’s decision, then, was in some ways a simple one—to be true to herself and what she knew. It was anything but simple, though, in the face of what she was experiencing in Markshire, and learning of it.

    The emphasis the people and their gods placed on order versus chaos, freedom versus restraint—this remained unfathomable to Sun-Ok. At worst, when following the Way there is tension between the opposites that is resolved by the Way itself—but in Markshire the gods or the people or both somehow escalated that tension into a persistent and festering conflict.

    Moreover, it was a conflict that they seemed to nurture, some almost reveling in it and some wallowing, the conflict itself often spilling over—unnoticed, largely, by people mired in these traditions—into racial hatred and intolerance. It was precisely that fostering of conflict that remained impenetrably foreign to Sun-Ok, the racial discord a slow-burning flame that she longed to quench.

    But if the poles of Law and Chaos were firm, entrenched and resolute—so was Sun-Ok. She resolved further to quietly follow the Way between those two towers, yet to stop running, and stop hiding. She would fight, on her terms, against evil. And where she could, here and there, she would sprinkle some droplets of humor and goodwill on those flames of racial violence.

    • Markshire PCs:

    It was only to her friend Panitha that Sun-Ok explained her decision. Wonderful, mysterious, damaged, elf-blood Nitha—the only one in this land who seemed to understand even somewhat the Way, the only one to whom Sun-Ok had confided her reason for fleeing the Kingdom. Sun-Ok had never asked Nitha about her father—whether her injury and the abandonment of the bardic path her father had wished for her had led to his disappointment with her. If they had that in common, it remained unspoken. Perhaps Nitha reminded Sun-Ok of her own father, as well—the wild powers of the sorcerer tempered with the discipline of the warrior—but there were parts of Sun-Ok’s psyche that she left carefully alone, denying them the introspection that was typical of her.

    It was Nitha, of course, who supported Sun-Ok’s decision, instructing her in how to train in the arts of combat—the use of armor and shield, the various weapons and techniques. Even if many of these were not Nitha’s own fighting-style, she seemed to know how and where to learn them.

    And, of course, she continued practicing the tailor’s art, supplemented now both by her own increased hunting prowess and by a profitable business relationship with the beautiful Aelswith, Mez’s sister-in-law. Aelswith remained a puzzle to Sun: unwilling to accept repayment of the seed money for the business, she was a skilled fighter of evil who seemed more concerned with household chores like dusting, and while hesitant to take a life, she was a prolific huntress and provider of skins. In truth, though, her relationship to Aelswith remained superficial but friendly, the puzzles unexplored. Sun-Ok was learning to live the Way while carrying many unanswered questions.

    It was during this time, as well, that Sun-Ok developed a blossoming friendship with Durok, the dwarven crafter of metals to whom she had sold those first “nuts.” He was hard on the outside, gruff, taciturn and no-nonsense in the way of many dwarves she had met, much like the metal he worked, never affected by the strong drink he avidly consumed. She—much like the goods she produced—was soft and flexible, open yet mysterious, somewhat distracted at times, and easily if rarely intoxicated like so many elf-bloods. Yet, somehow, there was an odd kinship between the two that went beyond their shared dedication to their respective crafts.

    Durok produced for her many wondrous items, for which she would trade what she was able—mainly magic bags that helped him carry all that heavy metal. There was a marvelous ye do, what the people in Markshire called a rapier, and a shield she could move with outstanding quickness to block blows. But her kinship with Durok was consecrated, figuratively and literally, when he produced for her a mail shirt of outstanding quality. Just as he spat on his hand before shaking to seal a deal, he cut his arm to drip blood on the armor, binding her to the dwarven Bloodaxe clan.

    She was still somewhat concerned about Durok’s wanton use of his bodily fluids—she never asked what he had done to produce the shield, and had only seen his sweat go into the construction of the rapier—but it was an oath she accepted nonetheless. Durok did not know how hard it was for her to accept any oath—she’d never told him about her father—but he was perhaps the only one in Markshire to whom she would make such a pledge: an appropriate if unspoken testament to their bond of friendship and another small step toward the racial harmony she craved.

    • Markshire PCs:

    So, Sun-Ok spent months learning the warrior’s way. It was difficult—the discipline and technique so different from the skills of hiding she had developed before. And the practice was brutal—punishing both to her own slim body and those of her unfortunate but obviously evil targets: kobolds, goblins, orcs, and ogres for the most part.

    There were other friendships Sun-Ok made and developed during those adventures. The mischievous Tam and her other half-sister, the melodious Ava, of course, and dear Mez, losing himself too often in drink, but always ready with a new spell to bedazzle her, a scroll to bring her back from the dead-place, and a smile for even her worst jokes.

    There was Zeb, the fierce halfling, her tiger: she was eternally thankful that he preferred taller women—judging by his tireless efforts any taller woman—but grateful for his dynamic friendship nonetheless. And Sar, Faith’s husband, a bear of a man, determined and unconcerned with his own safety, either loved by Thor or hated, a mystery and a pain tied to his lost hand that she did not fully grasp. And Portales, the gnomish bard, bursting with undirected energy, who could talk so long and so fast that one’s very thoughts fell on deafened, ringing ears.

    And then there was Kayla—part stern druid, part inscrutable panther, part vulnerable girl. Strangely enough, it was in Kayla’s disparate personalities that Sun-Ok discovered the closest equivalent in Markshire to the Way. For Kayla—the whole Kayla—had a harmony with nature and the woodlands that was startlingly close to the harmonious oneness of the Way, and an aversion, similar to Sun-Ok’s, to Markshire’s extremes of Law and Chaos.

    They eventually moved past the burdens they each carried to become friends as well. One evening, they sat comfortably in Kayla’s grove discussing life, Sun-Ok hoping to show her friend that man and his works were not unnatural, that there was a harmony to be found between town and forest as well, and paths that reconciled them. That was plenty for one evening, Sun-Ok thought—the nature of souls and “afterlife” could wait. And it was just as Sun-Ok thought this that the world she knew as Markshire once again threw her into spiritual disarray.

    For into the grove strode a hideous creature, trailing and oozing all manner of vermin. At one point, apparently, this thing had been Kayla’s father, Vastion Evergreen, and her heart went out to her friend for the pain she must know. For now, quite clearly to Sun-Ok, he was the epitome of vermin, a visitation from her own spiritworld, one of the “perfected” souls who tortured those who had failed in the Way and thus had to await reincarnation. Sun-Ok stood, alarmed, confused and paralyzed with fear.

    Fortunately, the thing had come to torment its daughter, and Sun-Ok was seemingly beneath its interest. Sun-Ok felt deeply her friend’s suffering, but was too caught up in her own thoughts to understand exactly what they were saying to each other. Once the thing left, content this time to merely terrify and dishearten, both Kayla and Sun-Ok were so drained and shaken—for their very different reasons—that they merely hugged, consoled each other briefly, and parted ways.

    Sun-Ok returned to Foothold alone with her thoughts—and a few scattered spiders, which she dispatched rather too violently, angry with what they represented and that they dared interrupt her struggling mind.

    What was that thing from her spiritworld doing here, if her soul could only travel as far as Markshire’s Elvidnir? How had a Markshire soul even gotten to her spiritworld in the first place, let alone become perfected in the Way, even if it was a vermin’s Way? What did the appearance of this nightmare creature from her country’s legends mean? Was it a sign of some sort? What were the implications for her, for following the Way?

    Spider legs and less identifiable parts littered the forest floor behind her as Sun-Ok, uninjured, at last neared Foothold’s walls. Somewhere, Vastion Lord of Vermin walked, unaware, doubtless, of the loud, scattered questions he had raised in Sun-Ok’s mind. And—just as certainly—unconcerned with the small, persistent voice of her soul, struggling to be heard in that mind, worrying about the damage his venomous words had done to her friend Kayla.

    • Markshire PCs:

    The spirit Vastion haunted Sun-Ok in the following days. It was not fear of the thing itself, for she quickly decided that either she would face the thing or not, defeat it or not, whether she feared it or not. So, with respect to Vastion itself, she readily fell, unthinkingly, into that same sense of fatalistic, helpless liberation she had experienced during the Crossing.

    What Sun-Ok struggled with was what it meant for her soul. Was her spiritworld reachable then, from Markshire? Would it be possible, when the time came, for her soul to slip the clutches of Odin, or Garm, or Hel—it remained uncertain who exactly was laying claim to her, and she’d long given up trying to decide why—and migrate to another body? If so, how?

    Still, though, she arrived at no answers. And slowly, that small voice of concern about Kayla grew louder—but her friend was nowhere to be found.

    So, it was in this troubled state of mind that Sun-Ok readily agreed to help her friend Ava raid the Demonskull Orc caves one more time. Perhaps she felt drawn to that spot of her first death, perhaps she wished to check Kayla’s druid circle, a short walk from the cave. Perhaps she wished only to further practice her fighting skills, or perhaps she sought to confirm her decision to fight evil. They were all valid reasons to go with Ava, but she seemed unable to concentrate—to focus in on an answer to the introspective questions she had been raised over decades to constantly ask: “Why am I doing this? How does it keep me in the Way?”

    Sun and Ava fought through the orc caves methodically. Yet something was obviously wrong: the orcs had set many traps, placed sentries, and were altogether defending themselves more cleverly than was their typical, brutish, spiked-club-to-the-head norm. Sun-Ok gave not a thought to the ease with which she herself reverted to her old skills—removing traps, sneaking up to sentries and slitting their throats. Instead, just one thought entered her confused mind. Someone smarter was directing the orcs now: had Vastion come here after his terrorizing appearance at Kayla’s nearby circle?

    She quickly dismissed that thought, as there were no vermin running about the cave. But the second thought—about how natural it was for her to follow her old hiding ways—never pushed into Sun-Ok’s question-crowded brain. And as she and Ava left the orc caves, the evil horde decimated and their traps destroyed, she stepped unthinkingly over that spot where her soul had first departed for Elvidnir—and returned.

    They passed into the forest, ready for trouble as always but expecting quiet. Instead, they heard a distant ringing of clashing weapons, and Sun-Ok darted toward Kayla’s circle to investigate. Empty—but Ava had already located the source just to the north: two oddly clad humans by a small ruined building, fresh orc corpses at their feet and an older body—human, seemingly, and prepared for burial—to one side.

    Their story was at first confusing: they were sailors, assigned to bury their dead captain in a place he had loved, these very woods, far from the sea. Yet they were oddly unprepared, without tools and without the unique roses that were also part of the captain’s dying wish. Before the tale was done another steadfast friend, Blizzard, joined them quietly from the forest’s dappled shadows.

    Blizzard—everything he did was quiet and enigmatic. If he would only speak, Sun-Ok might discover if, as she suspected, he came from a realm close to her own. His face proclaimed it, his fighting style as well, and he often wore the pointed straw hat common to the lands that included the Kingdom. He understood the tongue of Markshire, but not Sun-Ok’s own native language, and she knew none of the languages spoken by the Kingdom’s neighbors; yet Blizzard communicated only with signs and the drawings he skillfully sketched in his journal. She sensed his silence, rather than a physical muteness, was the result of a vow or mission—perhaps he was a member of one of the odd monastic orders that the Kingdom’s neighbors reportedly generated in bewildering numbers.

    However mysterious, Sun-Ok was heartened by the arrival of Blizzard, smiling briefly at his straw hat, remembering Thrakh’s fanciful maps. She turned back to the two sailors as they finished their yarn—the roses they needed to fill the captain’s behest were held by the fearsome, one-eyed giants living a long hike to the southeast with their strange ice-snake pets.

    That news made them all hesitate, for they were daunting enemies, much more dangerous than even the cleverest orcs. Sun-Ok had faced them once before, helping Durok obtain ice to forge her rapier, but it had been a simple matter then for her to assist Durok and Mez’s bodyguard Walis—sturdy fighters both—with well-placed attacks from the flanks. With a bard like Ava, helpful in a fight but too noisy to sneak, and a dedicated bowman and flanker like Blizzard, this time it would be Sun-Ok herself going head-to-head with the cyclops.

    Perhaps that first fairly painless encounter clouded Sun-Ok’s judgment, or perhaps the fighting abilities she had developed since filled her with excessive confidence. But what swayed her, ultimately, to take up the task in spite of her fear was, oddly enough, the sight of Blizzard’s straw hat. For it provoked in her, with the sea-captain’s body lying right there, overpowering memories of Thrakh and Marco, of the debts she owed to all the sailors and captains she had met in her travels. She did not fully comprehend this foreign concern with the handling of the corpse after the soul had departed, but she vowed that she would do what she could to respect and fulfill the captain’s wishes—for the sake of the sailors she had known.

    And so, with this one thought silencing all the others in her bewildered mind, she convinced her friends to go retrieve the roses, leaving the two sailors with tools to properly prepare the captain’s grave.

    That there were dozens more one-eyes in the camp than there had been the first time did not matter to her. And she made no effort at all to use the wiles of her former path—the traps and finesse that might have provided an edge over the cyclops’ size and strength. Instead, with that one thought echoing in her mind, she relied on her new fighting discipline. And she failed, dismally.

    As the one-eye clubs blotted out the sky above her, Sun-Ok emerged, angry and confused, once again in Elvidnir. She was saddened, shortly, when Blizzard appeared next to her, for she read into his customary silence a condemnation that most likely he did not intend. Doubtless this place of Markshire’s dead was as problematic for him as it was for her, and the tragedy of bringing him here fell squarely on her narrow, slumping shoulders.

    The battle raged on, a confusing struggle, with each of them visiting Elvidnir and returning. At last, they drew breath, together, at the one-eye gate, spattered in their own gore and that they had generated, cyclops corpses everywhere.

    At some point, Sun-Ok noted, they had been joined by Kyle, a snide and distasteful sort she had met on a few occasions in the tavern next to Alec’s house. She held her tongue, though, for he too had been badly injured, so he must have helped against the terrible foes. She was surprised at his willingness, but gave him the benefit of the doubt—the times she had met him were after all always after long tiring days spent at work next door.

    Sun-Ok was also in no condition to question anyone else’s actions—for they were her own acts that had brought them to such a state. And if the questions that fact raised for her were starting to flash through her mind, they remained blotted out by the honor she felt she owed to her sailor-friends. And by the drums—for a few of the one-eyes remained, injured, and seemed to be summoning reinforcements.

    • Markshire PCs:

    They quickly dispatched the remaining one-eyes in the camp, silencing the drums with much better considered tactics. Sun-Ok turned and followed Kyle into the cyclops cave, her friends following reluctantly, but the thoughts running through her mind caused her not to even notice their hesitation.

    Once inside, Kyle showed his true, selfish colors, sneaking off on his own for the cyclops’ treasure. Sun-Ok distractedly noted his unexpected skill at such stealth, and remained distracted as she and Ava and Blizzard cleared the caves of a few more one-eyes, at last arriving at the rope leading down to the ice-snake caverns.

    It was there—wisely fearing the powerful ice-snakes—that Ava protested and Blizzard mutely shook his head. Sun-Ok nodded silently—she would not ask her friends to do more, but the call to honor still rang loud in her conflicted mind, so she turned and climbed stealthily down the rope, prepared, now, to either sneak along as Kyle had doubtless done before her or face the ice-snakes alone.

    There were no snake corpses below—Kyle was clearly only after the treasure ahead. As she herself slid stealthily past the first snake she saw, she was both heartened and fearful to hear Ava clattering down the rope behind her. Her friends had followed, with every reason not to, and it touched Sun-Ok deeply. As the snake moved toward Ava, Sun-Ok attacked it with a shout, and the three friends proceeded cautiously—healing after each encounter and preparing for the next—to kill all the ice-snakes in the caves.

    They at last arrived at the one-eyes’ treasure chest, Kyle seemingly disgruntled with what he had found within. He turned and left, and the others discovered there the roses they sought, apparently the object of Kyle’s disappointment.

    They too left, Sun-Ok pausing to thank her friends for their loyalty as they passed through the corpse-littered gate. Kyle rejoined them just outside, maintaining an unceasing stream of annoying chatter as they headed back to the grave in the woods. He refused to believe they had gone through all that merely for flowers, despite the roses happily brandished by Blizzard, and he openly questioned Sun-Ok’s honesty—unaware, perhaps, that such an act would earn him only her undying disdain.

    His noise, however, was hard to ignore as they hiked, further befuddling Sun-Ok’s beleaguered thoughts. For the experience had also led her to doubt her previous decision, her commitment to actively fight for good and to follow the warrior’s way. At last they arrived back at the captain’s gravesite, where they calmly handed over the roses and quietly watched the sailors cover the captain’s grave. Sun-Ok nodded to herself contentedly as a fog bearing the smell of sea-salt rolled briefly in—at least that was one debt paid, and one of the many voices in her mind silenced.

    Only to be replaced by another, in the whining, self-satisfied tones of a tattling child—Kyle’s voice, of course. “You buried a body just outside Kayla’s circle? She is not going to like that…”

    Sun-Ok looked briefly over the wall of the ruined house to Kayla’s circle. It hadn’t really occurred to her, though she was fairly certain her friend would not have a problem with it—even if the captain had been a man of town and not forest, he had loved Kayla’s woods, and in any case was buried in a ruin of man’s own construction, like his body slowly being reclaimed by the patient forest and nourishing it. And he had been a sea-captain, after all, a man who every minute of every day worked at keeping his ship of wood and crew of flesh in harmony with the sea and wind around him.

    Already disdainful of Kyle, she merely nodded toward the circle, which he alone had traversed on their way through the woods. “Think she be more upset ’bout the dead orc you left rotting inside it.”

    Kyle glanced nervously back to the very center of Kayla’s circle where the bright, clashing colors of an orc-shield indeed shone through the leaves. He turned to follow the three friends, who had in quiet harmony turned to follow the path back to Foothold. Being who he was, though, he could not help but spoil that quiet and that harmony, ruining as well any chance the walk might have given Sun-Ok to order her troubled mind. His niggling, nattering whining about Kayla accompanied them all the way back to town.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Sun-Ok did not sleep that night. Instead, she sat quietly on the bearskin rug in Alec’s house, enjoying the warmth of the fire he always kept burning, never too hot, to aid in the tanning of hides. For a time she meditated with her eyes closed, for a time she stared into the flames, and for a time she stared at the equipment of her chosen trade—the stacked salt, the curing tubs, the drying racks, the looms. Alec—a quiet man in any event—did not interrupt her thoughts.

    As the sun rose, barely perceived through Alec’s dim windows, Sun-Ok also rose and did her stretching exercises to Alec’s obvious astonishment. She then removed some skins from her pack and set herself slowly and methodically to work. It was a fruitful exercise, calming her in the Way, but it provided no answers.

    Nor did she wash, as was her wont after a fight. So when she headed to the tavern next door at day’s end for a quiet ale, her armor was still covered in sprays of dried blood, and her hair remained matted and clotted with bits of her own brain, knocked loose by one-eye clubs and recreated within a skull remade by the healing magic. She picked at that brain matter idly for a moment, wondering if the magic had gone amiss somehow, and if that explained her inability to reach any answers. She shook her head as she gazed into her untouched ale. Wryly, she thought to herself that it must be the questions themselves that are hard—she would not have been anyone’s choice for village wise woman before the one-eyes bashed her head in, either.

    Of course, no one in Gargoyle’s Tavern mentioned her appearance—they were a quiet and tough crowd in any case, and the waitress was already too drunk to notice. Mez wandered in, ordered a drink and asked after her with concern—but a weak smile and a weaker reassurance were enough to persuade him to sit quietly with her. Mez, she sensed, had plenty of experience wrestling with inner demons over a quiet drink.

    It was not to remain quiet for long. In came Faith, brandishing some newfound magical oddity. She joined them after her excitement wore off, noticed Sun-Ok’s appearance, and asked—Sun-Ok thought with a hint of distaste—if she were alright. After an answering nod, Faith engaged Mez in conversation. Sun-Ok looked up briefly as they mentioned a dirt-covered body that had been dumped at Foothold’s gates, raising some concerns among the guards, but held her own council.

    It was in the middle of that discussion that Kayla walked in. She looked over Sun-Ok and asked coolly “What happened to you?”

    It was the stern Kayla, the inflexible protector of forest, cat, and child. Faith, who was a friend of Kayla and whose task Sun-Ok had not yet completed, watched the two with interest. Sun-Ok merely answered “One-eyes,” and tried in vain to defer or deflect the conversation from the captain’s body. What Kayla felt about that was really the least of her worries just then, but the story came out, Kayla was offended, and once again Markshire and the strange illogical values its peoples held intervened in Sun-Ok’s calm and thoughtful finding of the Way.

    Eventually, Sun-Ok just got frustrated—with the stern Kayla’s unreasoned intransigence, with this land’s bizarre reverence for soul-abandoned corpses, with this odd concern over one body dead of natural causes found near the gates of a town whose surrounds were littered daily with those dead from violence. So she told Kayla, using the Ancient words of beauty, “I regret causing you any difficulties—such was not my intent. In any case, you have remedied whatever problem you perceived with little effort, certainly less than it cost us to give a man who loved your woods his dying wish.”

    Apparently, it was the wrong thing to say to an offended druid, the wrong thing to say if one merely wanted quiet time to think about the past, present, and future of one’s soul.

    • Markshire PCs:

    “You,” the stern Kayla said, standing, “require a lesson—in perception. Come.”

    Her tone—that of a teacher angrily reprimanding a child—gave Sun-Ok pause. Not because she feared Kayla’s wrath—she trusted Kayla at least to be proportionate to the imagined offense, and regardless was beyond caring about the absurd situation. And certainly not because she was well past childhood, well into her second century.

    What concerned Sun-Ok was that in Markshire, to her horror, she had frequently observed that this tone preceded an adult pinching a child on the ear and leading them off. Among her people, this was something no elf-blood—even if part-human and suffering the grave misfortune of ears that did not favor the elven ancestors—would ever tolerate. As Kayla uttered the words, with that observation coming so strongly to mind, Sun-Ok feared her friend would do just that—and that such a pinch might, in Sun-Ok’s current state, catapult her into a blind and dangerous rage.

    Fortunately, Kayla simply strode out the door of the tavern, Sun-Ok following in a simmering yet resigned frustration at the many obstacles this place and these people erected between her and the Way. She paused briefly as they left through Foothold’s east gate—it was not a passage she was permitted to make, the giant-infested valley beyond being considered too perilous at this point in her training, yet the guards must have feared Kayla’s obvious indignation, for they said nothing. Sun-Ok fingered once again the bits of brain stuck in her hair—the two-eyed giants were presumably even more fearsome than the one-eyed—then passed into the valley, slowly getting more and more upset with the ridiculous obtuseness she felt all around her.

    Kayla seemed to be looking for something, and Sun-Ok’s thoughts wandered dangerously. She had been told that beautiful but vicious white tigers lived among the giants of this valley. It was a creature of almost legendary status in her homeland—the baek-ho—but she had actually seen one decades ago in Lord Deng’s castle. Well, a rug made from a white tiger anyway, head and all. Now that she was an accomplished tanner, she longed to find and work their pelts, but when she caught herself peering around for one in the snowy landscape, she laughed, perhaps a bit insanely, earning an odd look from Kayla.

    For to Sun-Ok, at that particular point in time, the baek-ho became the perfect example of Markshire’s wrongness. First, her friends had told her that even the most talented skinners could acquire no pelts from the local white tigers. And if the waste and illogic of that were not enough, one had to head east from Markshire, as she and Kayla were, to find a white tiger—yet everyone knew the baek-ho was the symbol and protector of the west. “Perhaps,” thought Sun-Ok bitterly, “all I need do is walk backwards here—then the Way might be apparent.”

    She was in this dark mood when Kayla at last found what she’d been looking for—a small band of giants to slay. “Now for your lesson,” said Kayla. “Do you like the smell?”

    Sun-Ok saw immediately what Kayla was trying to “teach,” and the kinder side of her even saw a possibility of offering a lesson of her own. With the dark humor she was in, though, she was not about to make it easy for her obstinate friend. So she reverted to her broken Markshire words.

    “Giants smell bad. Knew that already.” She sniffed her own body. “I not smell so good either just now. You bring Sun here for that?”

    This, not unexpectedly, nettled Kayla. “We’ll just see how much you like it when they start to rot.”

    Again, this did not surprise Sun-Ok, who was still ruled by her dark mood. Gesturing at the icy landscape around them, she snorted, “Guess we wait for Thrym to go ‘way and let this place thaw out.” She sat over to one side of the path, pulling her cloak around her, adding, “I prob’ly got 5 or 6 centuries left.”

    “We’ll just hurry it along then,” said Kayla, casting some sort of fire or heat spell over the area.

    “Oh, well,” thought Sun-Ok, loosening her cloak, “some people make bad students.” So she silenced her kinder side, not bothering to point out either that the giants were unburied or that Kayla’s grove, thanks to Thrym, was only marginally warmer than this valley. She was cheered, somewhat, when Mez led a little group up into the Pass, stopping to ask what was going on and if they were alright. He’d obviously been concerned for them and the evident tension between them at the Gargoyle, following and then scrabbling together enough help to pull them out of the Pass if necessary. Sun-Ok was touched, but merely nodded to Kayla and the dead giants, answering “She teaching me what giants smell like.”

    Mez was confused, but he and the others hovered nearby, guarding them without seeming to, while Sun-Ok’s dark mood boiled unseen behind her meditative posture.

    After some time, the giants did start to get a bit ripe, and Kayla came over to her. “And now what do you think? Is that a smell you would want near your home?”

    Sun-Ok stood, stretched, and sniffed gently. Her reply would have been more elegant using the Ancient words, but that would have been uncommonly rude to Mezano and the rest, who had come so far, just in case, and still lurked within hearing range.

    “Is smell of decay, yes,” she nodded. “’Round us all the time, in town and in woods. Go ‘long with smell of life. If you not used to it,” she paused, her frustration close to boiling over, “take sensitive nose back to grove where nothing ever rot.” Sun-Ok briefly considered that she would probably never be angry enough to mention maggots or other vermin to Kayla, but she still had a point to make. “’Cause we,” and here Sun-Ok vaguely motioned to the figures of Mez’s group, who immediately seemed to shrink from the implied inclusion in whatever she was about to say, “we got living people to worry about.”

    And with that, Sun-Ok turned back to Foothold, alone.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Of course, when Sun-Ok arrived back at the east gate, the guards demanded her passport, which, of course, she was not deemed experienced enough to have, despite being older than all four of the gate guards combined. “It is Markshire and the baek-ho in a nutshell,” she thought, but she stifled the near-insane laugh that threatened to bubble out again. “They’ll never let me in if they think me mad,” she thought to herself tiredly. “Or maybe that’s what it takes to get through. Please, ancestors, send me a traveler so I may sleep.”

    She huddled grimly in the softly falling snow, counting herself lucky that a caravan passed inside just two hours later, and that the drivers made no objection to her tagging along at the end as though she belonged. She trudged to the inn for a bath and a soft warm bed, tripping once again on the absurdly large head of the bear rug that nearly blocked the foyer door. She dropped a pouch of gold coins wordlessly to the floor in payment.

    The bath was well worth the outrageous price—Sun-Ok did not, however, get any restful sleep. Her exhausted body stirred fitfully, following the soundless images that flashed through her tortured mind.

    Large lavender scorpions falling into the sea, the face of Odin’s statue, a hideously toothy lizard creature slaughtering kobolds. The images piled after one another, a small part of her mind working, even asleep, to discern any meaningful pattern with which to assimilate them.

    A vegepygmy grinning horribly around an arrow lodged in the back of its throat, war-clubs blotting out the sky, a spinning almond falling slowly toward an upturned eager mouth. A needle pulling purple thread through canvas, a jolting landscape framed by ox-horns, a hooded face spilling forth maggots. Orphaned children staring vacantly into the distance, a beating heart, a cave floor covered in diabolical traps. The stump of a small arm next to the stump of a larger one, a cloud of lazy bees, chunks of meat spilling into an icy chest. A shy Marco, blood in a slow river, an astonished Father Ryche, fireworks exploding, a short dancing figure in a tiger-mask. An eerie painting of some terrible ritual, a gently smiling nun, a charging orc. Arrow-pierced horses writhing on a hillside, a painted image of Loki carrying strands of gold, a hammer beating metal into a long thin blade.

    Her worn-out mind longed to grasp just one scene and cradle it gently into real slumber, but it was not to be. The flood continued. A hand picking cotton, an indistinct elven man surrounded by human and elven women, a beautiful necklace, a frightened goblin. A brew bubbling with bones and mushrooms, a terrified dalmatian puppy, a laughing half-orc, a minotaur holding out a bottle of reddish ale. The face of a roaring white tiger with the mutilated body of a panther. A spider dripping venom. A painting of Thrym in a glaringly white snowscape with some absurd dark goggles drawn over the eyes in charcoal. A human baby with its face contorted, right at the moment before it cries. Animal fat bubbling slowly in a curing tub, dappled sunlight piercing the forest canopy, a circle of standing stones, a wae gum lying in dark blue silk in a lacquered mahogany case, an open and empty grave. A dusty ancestral shrine at sunset, a dwarf’s belly, a gold-bearing rock, a club embedded in Johannsen’s skull. Hon-tae in tears, baby ice-snakes barely visible in their nest, and an injured raccoon. An incredulous Walis, skins on a tanning rack, a half-moon, and a credulous Portales writing eagerly in a book. A bamboo grove leaning in a light wind, a bloody bandage, a bucket of seawater, a loom slowly weaving.

    Sun-Ok woke at last, unrested, with the dream-images fresh in her mind. They remained, oddly, even as Perido banged on her door, threatening to charge her for another night if she did not clear out. She performed some perfunctory grooming and some basic stretches, then gathered her things, her grumbling stomach giving her the perfect excuse to avoid both Perido and the massive bear-head: she walked instead to the back-stairs and the Grotto, gathering blackberries and eating them slowly on a worn bench, turning the images over in her still-groggy mind.

    They were part fancy and part memory, of course, in the way of dreams, but they offered no coherent answers to the questions that plagued her, no signs pointing her unerringly to the Way. She stood, and sat immediately back down on the bench. For she realized that at the very least her review of the dream-flood had temporarily pushed the questions and doubts aside, allowing her to truly focus, for the first time in days, on just one thing.

    And so she tried again, the first image springing to mind the baek-ho. She recalled with a sad smile her bitter thought of the evening before—that if Markshire’s white tiger lay in the east instead of the west where it belonged, she merely needed to walk backwards when here to find the Way. The thought resonated somehow, and she struck her forehead, wincing as she remembered that she was still bruised from the one-eyes.

    “I never will be the village wise-woman,” she thought. “I’m an idiot not to have seen it before—I need only walk back in my mind over the path I have followed, back to when the Way was clear, then turn around and follow it back. It should be obvious, then, how to get back to the Way from here.” With new purpose at last, she stood and looked around her, listening to the droning bees. “Not here: too warm and too sleepy. If I’m to walk backwards…”

    She smiled and, recognizing that her mind did not always move quickly, gathered some more berries and almonds to sustain her as she retraced and then traced the path of her life. She left the Grotto and the Bazaar, walking toward the Temple of Odin, inhaling deeply as she passed the corral. She ignored the look that Gustov gave her, waited patiently for Bognar to cross before her, and continued past the Temple, up the hill, to a quiet spot overlooking the town’s cemetery. She kneeled, dug a small hole in the snow for her food, and began to meditate peacefully, bowing her head to the closest thing she had to an ancestral shrine.

    The guards defending the town’s walls nearby looked at Sun-Ok and shook their heads but said nothing. In the barracks and at their posts, the topic of why they risked their lives for this town full of lunatics had long been utterly played out.

    • Markshire PCs:

    As it turned out, Sun-Ok’s meditative journey required two trips back and forth through the history of her life, and three trips to the Grotto to get more food.

    The first memory-trip was instructive, for it showed her where and how she had broken from the Way. To a small degree, at least, she had lost her people’s view of death, subscribing to the notion that death was failure and thus, implicitly, a departure from the Way. But of course, death was just a step along the Way, and an unavoidable step at that. Perhaps that deviation sprang from the Markshirian dead-place itself, or Garm’s echoing laugh, or just the need in this place for a powerful god like Odin to intervene.

    It certainly complicated things—death was supposed to take her to a new body after all, even if it sometimes meant a waiting period in the spiritworld. As she turned it over in her mind, though, she realized that it need not make any difference at all—she could just as easily continue in the Way returned to the body of Sun-Ok as she could if her soul migrated to another.

    As for the perplexity that the Vermin-Lord had caused her, she could come to no real answers, but concluded that she probably never would. She had been overwhelmed by her fear, she decided, and her Way was in any event most decidedly not his. This line of thinking actually allowed her to take heart from his appearance, for it at least indicated that her own spiritworld and thus the Way she knew were not so very far away. Hidden, perhaps, but reachable all the same. And so, with respect to Vastion, Sun-Ok remained concerned for Kayla but at ease herself.

    Not that either of these realizations led her to ignore the palpable danger the Vermin-Lord represented, nor the power of the local gods as proven by the very existence of Elvidnir, nor the sway these things held through the beliefs of the local people. Quite the contrary: by establishing that the Way existed—and persisted—alongside these beliefs, Sun-Ok was able to view all of it more objectively, casting a new and penetrating light on what she had before viewed as obstacles and annoyances.

    They had not been large steps from the Way, yet small deviations could have major consequences, as she had seen. Unfortunately, as she completed that first trip back and then forward, she still had no idea what to do to get back to the Way, even if she was comfortably reassured—through her newfound harmonious coexistence with Markshire and its own cosmology—that she could.

    And so, after a break to warm herself and restock in the Grotto, she nestled back into the little cocoon her heat had formed in the still-falling snow above the Foothold cemetery. She was determined to sort through the random-dream images on a second mental trip through her life, certain after the baek-ho epiphany that some truth would emerge between the chaos of dreams and the order of time.

    That second trip was both harder and easier than she imagined. Easier because at least some themes or categories of dream-images were readily apparent, harder because sorting them out solely in her mind was challenging.

    One theme that emerged immediately as she walked backwards through the images was her work as a tailor. This confirmed for her what she already felt so deeply—that the collection of nature’s bounty and the fashioning of it into items of even greater beauty and utility were an integral part of her journey. She had never abandoned her efforts to perfect her art, though, so this simple reassurance did not really help her get back to the Way.

    A second theme from her troubled dreams, however, was the many friendships she had made. And as she placed some of the last images, moving backwards, in this group—Johannsen’s crushed skull, a shy Marco gently rebuffed, and a sobbing Hon-tae—a realization came to Sun-Ok. Her greatest disappointments had come when she failed her friends or caused them to suffer. As she moved back even further, to the images touching on her parents, the pain this thought caused her mushroomed overwhelmingly.

    Yet there, in her makeshift snow-shrine overlooking Foothold’s cemetery, bolstered by the focus her task had provided and a fierce commitment not to dishonor her ancestors, she willed down the tears. And examined her pain.

    In that pain, oddly, she discovered a third set of images—enemies she had fought. And it suddenly came to her that her enemies were evil and her friendships and love good. She had embarked on the warrior’s way with the notion that its discipline would make her a hero of some kind, fighting for some abstract notion of good, becoming a champion in the eyes of others. But what she found, as she looked at her pain and at her enemies, was that yes, evil existed, tangibly: good for Sun-Ok, though, was defined much more intimately, in the heart.

    And it was to that conception of good that she now re-dedicated herself: not a grand, epic crusade against unrelenting evil, but a simple, honest, and ego-less commitment to follow her heart, to help those in need, and to aid her friends.

    As the pain receded, yet more images fell into place—she was not suited to the path of the warrior. To strive for it was taking her further from the Way. And with the newfound warmth in her heart pushing back the cold of her environment, her mind was entirely comfortable with that. She could best help others, she decided, from the rear with her bow, from the flanks with her rapier, and from the front as a scout. Not big things, perhaps, and probably thankless—definitely not a glorious battle—just spotting danger, minimizing it, and then pitching in to eradicate it.

    Tears fell anew as she came to this conclusion, joyful tears this time. For the harmony of heart and mind, reconciled by dreams, was powerful proof that she was returning to the Way.

    “Thank you,” she mouthed to her ancestors, bowing toward the cemetery as she rose. Then, stomach rumbling again, she headed back to the Grotto.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Sun-Ok was almost to Alec’s house to craft magic bags, contentedly trying to work a blackberry seed from between her teeth with her tongue, when she realized she had left her review of the dream-images unfinished. She hesitated, confident she had rediscovered the Way, so finishing the task was probably unnecessary. But then she thought of the wolves—even though their meat was ill-flavored and their pelts virtually useless to her, after the wolves senselessly attacked her she would never waste their flesh and skins, always recovering them to donate later to the poor. And so she resolved not to waste the dream-images, either, went back to the Grotto for food just in case, and finally returned to her spot above the cemetery.

    She nestled comfortably into the little snow burrow she had left. “If I could figure out how to make these cloaks that keep you magically warm,” she thought, “that would be useful. Now, where was I?” She sobered and focused as the image of blood in a river came back to her.

    As she mentally sorted through the images she had not yet placed in time, still moving backward, she came to that of a human baby poised to cry. It was long ago, but it was indeed Lord Deng. She considered that for a moment, and decided that it was merely further confirmation that by following what her heart deemed good, she would still be on the Way.

    Encouraged, she examined in her mind the few images remaining, chastising herself when she found three pictures that clearly should have been placed more recently in time: Odin, Loki, and Thrym. Then she reconsidered: they were clearly more recent for her, but if they were gods they were ageless. And just as she was about to place the images by themselves out of time, another thought came to her. She had dreamed images not of the deities themselves, but of representations of them—a statue, and paintings she had doubtless seen in those books. She had never seen these gods, of course, but she had never actually seen the vividly dreamed image of her father’s blood washing down a river, either. She quickly reviewed all of the dream-images: none of Elvidnir, the one part of Markshirian religion that she had experienced firsthand.

    The conclusion that came to her, happily, confirmed what she had decided before—that Elvidnir was irrelevant to the Way, and that Markshire’s faith, for now at least, was to be observed and not adopted. She also took it to mean that her path between the land’s extremes of Law and Chaos was still the right one for her. And she instantly placed mentally an image of a dusty ancestral shrine right next to those gods—she would dust off that shrine, as best she was able, and do honor to her ancestors even in this far place.

    Sun-Ok was still congratulating herself on her perception when she came to the last image, which stumped her: a dream-image of horses pierced by arrows, writhing on a hill. It stumped her not because she could not place it—it was clearly a picture of her people’s battle with the Kingdom’s cavalry long ago. Nor did it bother her that it was a vivid image, constructed wholly from her own imagination based on stories, for she had never seen a drawing or painting of the battle. Indeed, it would have been supremely unwise for an elf-blood to make or keep a representation of that scene, in particular.

    What was unclear for Sun-Ok was what that image could possibly say to her about following the Way, now, in Markshire. Of course, the Serpent tradition towards which she was raised leapt to mind, but she was far from the training that path required. Perhaps it merely meant that she should focus on stealth in her rediscovered path, so that she might hide from Vastion, or from the threats posed by Markshire’s ideas of Law and Chaos?

    She turned this one image over in her mind for some time, but still could reach no conclusions. So, settled with what she had already decided, she left the questions unanswered. Somehow, though, she was comfortable with that, when before the tumult of questions had left her disconcerted and far from the Way. And so she turned around, mentally, anticipating the last leg of her mental journey, a simple stroll from that image forward in time through dreams on which she had with great effort imposed order.

    And it was, in fact, a pleasant enough trip, like reading Blizzard’s journal, the horrible images taking their place with the enjoyable ones in the wholeness of the Way. Until she stumbled, yet again, near the end.

    “Baby ice-snakes?” she asked herself. She had only seen adults on her two trips to the one-eye camp—of that she was certain. And no nests, of course, even if the adults were hard to spot in their frosty lair. She was about to move on, thinking it an unimportant and fanciful image, when she thought again. There were no ice-snakes in the Kingdom, as far as she knew, but was it not a quintessentially Markshire serpent that blended almost perfectly in its surroundings? And raised from babies? Was it an image telling her that her Serpent past might have a future here?

    She had no answer, but excitedly rushed through the remaining images, finding nothing else. So, keeping Marco’s admonition in mind, she resolved to quietly stay alert in Markshire for the training she could no longer receive, and to study stealth as best she could in this new kingdom of snow.

    She stood, contented but stiff, the snow falling from her back. Her sudden appearance out of her little burrow startled one of the wall guards nearby, and she laughed at his reaction, turning once more to bow to the cemetery and the memory of her ancestors. As she strode off, the guard muttered “Uh-yuh. ‘Nother lunatic,” and faced back to the east.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Wholeheartedly, Sun-Ok then dedicated herself to her arts. In the woods and fields, she practiced stealth. Some days, she would merely sit in the woods, studying the shafts of sun and the patterns of light and dark, watching the shadows shift over the course of the day. But more often, she would stalk and hunt. She was not adept at it, at first: a few times, an enraged bear or other animal sent her back to Elvidnir. But she improved steadily. Her step became even lighter, and her body more lithe to meld into shadow, but her shoulders too grew powerful, both from the constant drawing of the bow and the constant carrying of pelts.

    To others, the intensity with which she honed her skinning knife and the speed with which she moved to skin a kill was sometimes unnerving, yet her heart remained true. She never let an animal’s death be a waste—except for the rats, of course, it being well known among her people that they were ridden with pests and disease—the poor were well fed and clothed by her efforts. And she never killed an animal that would not harm her—the timid deer, the noble white stag. Nor would she buy their pelts from the hunting merchants who sold them—she did not want to encourage others to kill them, either, especially when there were already so many able predators in Markshire’s wilds.

    Kayla knew this about her, of course, which was perhaps why she braved the stench of curing and tanning in Alec’s home to come repair their friendship. But it was too soon, the hurt too fresh for Sun-Ok. She merely kept working at her craft, hanging hides on the tanning rack, as Kayla tried to talk to her. It seemed petty, she knew, but she did not trust herself to say much more than that she had already apologized for the captain’s body, already given the reasons why she had thought Kayla would not take offense.

    She certainly did not tell Kayla that she had considered reclaiming the body from the guards and putting it back in the ground somewhere else in the woods. After all, she had only decided against that when she realized she did not know the local burial customs well enough, such as whether the roses were necessary, or if the body needed to be oriented a specific way, or if Hillar would raise some ridiculous bureaucratic objection. So Sun-Ok, looking up briefly and sadly from the tanning rack, merely wondered aloud why someone would take a friend—covered in blood and bits of her own brains—to a dangerous place to smell dead giants.

    Kayla’s stunned apology for her insensitivity was sincere—had it come from the child Kayla instead of the stern druid, the friendship might have recovered right then. Sun-Ok was content, getting back to the Way, but that for her included following her heart, and her heart was still pained by what Kayla had done. So she merely gazed for several moments at Kayla, standing by Alec’s bear-rug, the stern druid most likely unaccustomed to admitting error, and returned to her tanning.

    For the other art Sun-Ok was developing at that time was of course her tailor-craft. She still made simple items of cotton, and continued making healing kits on occasion, but her hunting truly brought her skills into harmony, for it provided skins that she could cure, tan, and work into marvelous items: magic bags, armors of leather and hide, even toys. Almost every different skin had a use, and the nature of the animal from which it came would most often shine through in the items she produced on Alec’s loom.

    For Sun-Ok, it was a shame that dire bears always seemed to attack people, and a pity to see their corpses lying in the snow. But it was good that their meat fed so many, and it was pure joy to see the resilient armor made from their skins. It was among the best items she could produce, and among the most difficult. Wearing it, one was much more likely to survive a blow from a bear, a giant, or even a cyclops, a claim Sun-Ok was obliged to prove to prospective customers repeatedly. And in the proving, she made a wonderfully harmonious circle back to the skills that had attained the skin in the first place. She was back to the Way, and actively following it.

    The other items she crafted that were both challenging and popular were magic bags, made from the skins of the cougar, crag cat, lion, and malar panther. These bags would actually reduce the weight of the items they carried. Preparing the feline leathers was not all that difficult, of course; the trick lay in using enchanting oil—itself distilled from rare knuckle bones that were often hard to acquire—to bring out the quality of the cat.

    It was during this time, as well, that Sun-Ok became fascinated with the malar panther, whose skin made the finest of the bags. It was not an animal she or her friends had ever seen—she acquired its skins only from the merchants—but it was reputed to be both elusive and fierce, a skilled stalker and effective hunter. It was those qualities—as much as the power implied by the great weight reduction it offered, and more than the desire to provide a reliable source for raw materials—that led her to focus on locating and studying the malar panther. What could it teach her about stealth? If she knew more about the animal itself, might she be able to craft other useful items from it? Inquire as she might, though, she could learn no more than rumor or legend. The malar question hovered in her mind, and she pursued it with diligence rather than obsession—although she supposed Tobur and Lomion, the close-lipped fur-merchants she pestered constantly and even flirted with occasionally to learn their sources, might disagree.

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