Cherry blossoms in winter

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    • Markshire PCs:

    Life proceeded thus for Sun-Ok for many months, crafting, hunting, practicing. She was whole in the Way, improving her skills harmoniously in all she did. In her efforts to master tailor-craft, she branched into other areas—metalwork, tinkering, alchemy, woodworking and even food preparation—so that she might produce all she needed for tailoring, or at least understand its production: studs and wires, needles, dyes, tent-poles, and of course that wondrous enchanting oil.

    She continued as well to have adventures and to do good in her small ways. She aided nuns and gripplis, orphans and travelers. She even helped Bognar, with whom she had nearly collided upon first arriving in Foothold, retrieve some special sand; despite that, he still stared at her in passing as he walked up and down the town’s main street, making her very uncomfortable. She even ran errands for Gustov, who had laughed as she slipped in the corral that first day.

    Sun-Ok foiled evil rituals, orc forays, and bizarre plots. More precisely, she helped her friends do these things, and they helped her. Except, of course, for the time when Mez walked into Alec’s house—again, strangely, when she was at the tanning rack—and cast the tick-tock spell, the same one her father had used to catch her when she was young and misbehaving. Then, while she was stopped in time, Mez cast a horrible spell that sent her to Elvidnir. But of course it wasn’t her friend Mez, but a shape-changing impostor; after her cleric-friend Hilde brought her back and she retrieved her skins from Alec’s rack, they followed its trail outside, where it had taken the form of Alec, whom they’d just left inside. Eventually they lost its trail in the forest; there was a subsequent encounter, but as far as she knew the impostor was never apprehended.

    Even with the mis-adventures, though, gradually she came to feel that she could contribute on a more even footing, and even act in turn as a mentor on occasion to her less experienced comrades. For she met new people all the time. Keli, a tough, tobacco-chewing fighter, reliable in a scrap and glamorously dressed outside one. Kamas, a brilliant elf mage, oddly popular with Markshire’s fey, with his own doubts about Markshire’s religion. And of course Traudek, the staunch narcoleptic dwarf fighter.

    One of Sun-Ok’s most cherished memories of that period was taking Traudek, a new arrival but a quick learner, to the orc caves to practice his defense and her flanking attacks. The bandits had set a massive ambush in the forest, and the two of them fought their way in from the perimeter. Never one to shirk, Traudek charged ahead, right into the traps Sun-Ok had spotted, but neglected to warn him about—in the heat of battle, in particular, she often assumed, from modesty mostly, that others would be more perceptive than she. As he lay unconscious, Sun-Ok ran lightly to him, cursing her oversight.

    There were bandits and traps everywhere, dozens upon dozens of each. She stood over his body grimly, her longbow seemingly seeking targets on its own and the bandits falling in droves. Traud came to, but she motioned to him to stay down—the arrows in both directions were thick in the air. Some bandits charged—none quickly enough. Some shot their own missiles at her—few pierced her tough dire bear armor. Some did not even see where her arrows came from, her slanted elven eyes more adept at spotting targets in the dim light. And eventually, the arrows stopped, for there were no more bandits to be seen.

    It was a memory she cherished for several reasons. Because it proved to her that she was at last useful, and getting ever better in her arts. Because the fight itself had a story-book quality to it, defending a fallen friend against all odds, but it had that quality solely because they had erred so badly—she enjoyed the irony of that. Because Traudek, while waiting prone for the arrows to stop, actually dozed off. Because when he finally stood they “argued” for several minutes, each claiming responsibility for the trap fiasco. And because the forest was graced with beautiful shafts of light and dark as they peaceably strolled the battlefield afterward, he collecting loot from arrow-feathered corpses while she collected the bandits’ traps.

    • Markshire PCs:

    It was one of the other new people she met that very nearly threw Sun-Ok’s reordered life back into confusion. She would remember that day always as well.

    It did not start any differently than any other day—as the sun rose over Foothold’s cemetery, her kneeling shadow stretching across the graves, she stood and bowed to her ancestors. Then she walked slowly toward Alec’s house, her shadow and a long day of tailor-craft before her. As she passed the tavern, a large pile of snow slid off the roof, landing near her feet. She looked up and then shrugged. A steady stream of smoke rose from the chimney—either the fire’s rising warmth or the new sun must have melted some of the deeply packed snow.

    After stretching in Alec’s warm house, she set to work. Where her hands were not calloused from her rapier and bow, they quickly grew chapped from the tanning acid. The tanning oil did not really help, except to keep the callouses from cracking—the only thing that made the least difference was a small jar of hand cream that Lily had found for her in some place called Arik. Sun-Ok guarded what remained of the cream jealously and used it sparingly—she had no idea how to get more.

    That day she worked at a heightened pace, assiduously turning bags full of skins into bags full of leather, and then into bags full of various leather armors. And of course she made the magic cat-bags as well, so that she could still labor bearing the weight of all those armors. And she crafted some new items also—cloth hoods with metal wire thread woven in, that would help deflect blows. It was a hugely productive and satisfying day, but it was exhausting, and at the end of it she felt the soreness of accomplishment coupled with a raging thirst from the close, warm atmosphere in Alec’s house.

    So she stopped in at the tavern afterwards, unenthusiastically accepting the wine offered by the bartender—none of the brewers she had asked in Markshire had yet been able to produce rice wine. The taciturn Gian, a regular, glumly vacated his seat on the couch, for she had noted previously that he responded well to the scent of fresh leather. Thus she sat comfortably, sipping and mulling over in her mind the many tailoring successes of her day. As usual, the few failures did not weigh heavily on her mind—she learned from them but moved past them quickly.

    Sun-Ok also started to think again about a project she had in mind. She had found a wonderful magic robe that helped her blend into the shadows, but it was both hideously ugly and poorly colored for Markshire’s varied terrain: woods, plains, mountains, town, and snow. She was planning how to tailor it to be beautiful and elegantly simple like the robes back in the Kingdom, yet colored to suit concealment in more of the environments here in Markshire. It was a perplexing problem—reconciling beauty and stealth, Markshire and home—but a pleasant and relaxing one to contemplate at the end of a long day.

    She looked up as a man spoke briefly to the bartender just a few feet from her—he is a quiet one, she thought, I didn’t hear him come in. Gian fidgeted next to her—he would give up his seat for her but never went very far, as if he feared someone else might take it when she left. So she gave the new arrival a second look—white cloak, armor in whites and grays, with dark spots on the chest-piece like the pinfeathers of a snowy owl. With her robe project in mind, she immediately placed that in the snow-stealth category, and, as he threw back his hood, she looked at the wearer: average height for a male human, a bit thin, nearly hairless with strange tattoos on his gaunt cheeks. He went to sit at a table, ignoring the drunk waitress.

    Interested in his armor, Sun-Ok rose to go introduce herself, thanking Gian for the seat, which he promptly reoccupied. She approached, then hesitated when the human clutched his stomach in pain and—instead of turning pale or red as humans normally might when ill—darkened, if just for an instant.

    It was an extraordinary thing. She was certain she had not blinked or imagined it—after all, she had been hoping to catch his eye as she walked toward him. She looked around the tavern—none of the candles and lanterns had suddenly gone out, either. She hesitated, but was also curious, and he was clearly in pain.

    “You alright?” More quietly, Sun-Ok added, “Best not eat here if stomach bad already…”

    He looked up, pausing only a moment to consider her first, “It’s a pain…I am accustomed to…and food…no.” As she continued to peer at him with both concern and curiosity, his features briefly registered surprise, and she wondered which of the two surprised him—surely if he had the pain that often, and darkened that often, it wasn’t her curiosity…

    “Join me…if you wish,” he said, interrupting her thoughts.

    She sat down promptly, her curiosity fully engaged, setting the rest of her wine on the table gently. He even spoke oddly, at least based on what she had been studying of Markshire’s language—not like she did struggling to put thoughts into the proper words, but more as if he struggled to bring his thoughts out at all for public consideration. It made for a decidedly strange conversation, made even stranger when he spoke, fluently but with a very odd accent, the Ancient words of beauty: “Whence do you hail?”

    She looked at him sharply, responding in kind “From a far-off realm, where only elf-bloods speak the Ancient words and none would teach them to…other races. Do you bear some trace of our blood in your veins?”

    He smiled briefly. She was unsure whether it was a smile she wished to see again—it was somehow wrong, or perhaps just private and untouchable, but unnerving regardless. “No, only a trace of that beauty on my tongue.” It was an eloquent answer, with the layered possible meanings and resultant ambiguity that her people relished, but here—in Markshire, from a human, at a somewhat seedy tavern—it served only to make her more uncomfortable. He noticed, or perhaps did not, but proceeded in the dialect of Markshire. “I just…learned it…a while back.”

    From there the conversation progressed more normally, in a way more typical of new acquaintances in this place. Later, she would recall that she had explained her life as a tailor and a scout, but could not recall that he had shared many details of his own path. At the time, though, she had sensed no dissembling. Which was really quite remarkable, for the man oozed pride, almost to the point of conceit.

    Yet he also seemed lonely somehow. Part of that may have been the contrast between his obvious familiarity with the tavern and its regulars and the degree to which he and the regulars studiously ignored each other. But part of it seemed to be internal—as though he considered himself so different that he made himself unable to share anything meaningful with others.

    And that sad sense of nearly-conceited, self-imposed loneliness—in conjunction, of course, with her own nagging curiosity—is what led Sun-Ok to accept his offer to go out to the woods to practice scouting. And so she followed him out of the tavern, pausing a moment first to wrap her cloak around her. As she emerged just a step or two behind him onto Foothold’s main street, she noted the rising sun—they had talked for hours, through the night, yet it seemed so brief. Even moreso, just then, because he was…gone.

    • Markshire PCs:

    Sun-Ok was so surprised she almost stumbled down the small steps at the tavern’s door. She cursed him briefly under her breath, recalling in a flash the many times back in the Kingdom that she had had to abandon or stand up the more persistent of her would-be human suitors, only later politely and gently inventing some plausible and deflecting excuse. She knew she was not the most attractive woman around, but she was never the one stood up: what was wrong with this land?

    Then, remembering the nature of the place they had just left, Sun-Ok patted her coin pouch. Reassured, she glanced about, unable to spot any tracks in the trampled snow of the street. “Drat that man—that boy—and Bognar and his ceaseless slushy rambling, too,” she thought.

    She was just considering that she had not even learned his name—and storing away in her brain a reminder to look into ways to move across snow without leaving tracks—when he reappeared, right in front of her, leaning against the barracks across the street. And that sudden reappearance, the outline of his white clothes now clear against the gray stone wall behind him, is what threatened to throw her calm life again into chaos. Was it possible? A Serpent? Here? But a human? How? Her mind raced, but her tongue lay stunned. He laughed, not kindly, and merely turned toward the gate.

    What else could she do? She followed.

    Silently, they moved through the woods. They did not speak as they let arrows fly at some prowling cats, and he just observed as she stooped to skin them, the familiar activity bringing her mind no peace. They spotted a small troop of orcs, who did not see them in the shadows of the forest. He nodded toward them, and she approached, dispatching them quickly with her rapier as he watched. It had happened without comment, without discussion—she was no longer Sun-Ok, seeking to provide company and comfort to a lonely, pained new acquaintance. She was now Sun-Ok, prospective pupil perhaps, being evaluated certainly. Her mind raced with the possibilities, as well as the confusions.

    Neither bothered to search the orcs’ bodies, and they moved on. To, of all places, the one-eye camp. Where she hesitated, however briefly, and he of course noticed. “Nervous?” he asked with just a hint of a sneer. “Just stay hidden, watch, and don’t move around much—you’re loud.”

    She bridled at the criticism, but said nothing—he had tacitly accepted the teacher’s role, at least for the moment, and she would make the most of it, regardless of her reservations. And so she watched, silently, from the shadows, as he shot arrow after arrow into one one-eye after another, sometimes dazing them with a mysterious wave of his hand, sometimes vanishing back into the shadows as they spotted him, never engaging more than one at a time.

    It was impressive—not for the bowmanship, which was faster but only a bit more accurate than her own, but for the tactical mastery and for the ability to hide when spotted. It was clearly the Serpent’s way, even if how he had come to that path remained a mystery. And he was extraordinarily stealthy—she could not see him either when he was hiding, though she could sometimes, rarely, hear him. One time, after he concealed himself between arrow shots, she intentionally stumbled into him, to see if she was tracking his small movements at all. He responded to her mumbled apology only with a hissed order to stay quiet.

    When the camp itself was cleared they entered the caves. He showed her how to better lure a single one-eye down a passage, out of sight and hearing of the others, then watched as her rapier did its work. He was visibly surprised, just once—when she used the wondrous rapier Durok had made her to bring a one-eye to its knees, then dispatching it, her head turned away, with a vicious stroke up into the underside of its jaw that left her covered in blood but unfazed. “Eclipse,” she said softly as the blow landed, using the Ancient word, for so she had named the rapier. He said nothing, however, until they stood at the rope leading down to the lair of the ice-snakes.

    “You know what lies below?”

    She tilted her head, curious again about the dream-image of the baby ice-snakes, about whether she was about to learn some great truth from them and from this puzzling human. But she just nodded.

    • Markshire PCs:

    And she would, in fact, learn a great truth down there. But not from the ice-snakes, whose tattered bodies they left on the floor behind them. The human attacked them with his sword, from hiding, and she would emerge from the dark a moment or two behind him, laying the ice-snakes low with powerful rapier thrusts from the flanks. It was amazing that they could coordinate so well having known each other for so short a span, the human breaking the silence only as the last ice-snake perished.

    “You’re…capable…with that rapier,” he said, in his oddly reluctant manner of speech. She half-nodded and half-bowed to acknowledge the praise, determined to impress him, if possible, with a non-committal silence like his own. “Personally, though,” he went on, “I prefer the bow.”

    Unsure whether this was just a statement or a rebuke, she mutely followed as he headed toward the cyclops’ heavily trapped treasure chest, where long ago she and her friends had found some roses. He told her to stand back, but she quickly peeked over his shoulder to examine the traps—hard but not impossible. She was surprised, then, when the chest sprung open, acid having destroyed much of the contents. “So,” she thought, “I might have some other skills with which to impress him.” And as she considered the man’s pride-near-conceit, she chastened herself, “But not right now.”

    “Pity,” the man said, “mere baubles. But we can talk here.” And so they did, changing roles from the tavern, he telling a bit about himself and she asking the occasional question. He spoke of his loneliness—without really knowing it perhaps—confirming for Sun-Ok the admonition Marco had given her so long ago, that people would hesitate to trust those with Serpent abilities. And he spoke of the shadows and how he was comfortable in them, and among them, in a way he could never again be with people.

    Her Markshire words were still far from perfect, but it sounded to Sun-Ok like the man thought the shadows were alive, that they reached out to him, aided him, comforted him, sustained him. She was just trying to decide the right way to broach this with him when he clutched his stomach again. This time, in the darkness of the cave, when he darkened, he became almost a shadow himself, not quite insubstantial, but very disconcertingly part of the darkness.

    Slightly worried, she decided the best way to ask was to stay close to the truth and just pretend linguistic difficulty—this solution had stood her in good stead in the past. “But shadows just where light not reach, you say they alive?”

    Surprisingly, his face lit up, and his tone became almost jovially boisterous. Almost, because there was still that underlying tone of conceit. “Of course they are! Haven’t you been listening?” And he pushed her toward a point in the cave where some light reflected oddly through the ice. “Look at your own shadow. Watch it. Now move, slowly. It moves with you, right? Follows you without being told? Changes size on its own? Hides where the light is brightest?”

    He seemed caught up in his demonstration, so Sun-Ok was not sure whether he intentionally cut off the objection she was about to make. “Now meet mine,” he said. And, somehow, he brought his own shadow to life.

    She was stunned, but recovered her wits enough to examine it closely, and even to touch it. “Don’t,” said the man, “they don’t like that.” She backed away. But the shadow just looked at her with a strange grin, then stepped closer to her, and further from the man who had summoned it. In a low but airy and distant voice, the shadow spoke, “Never mind…this one time.”

    After a few moments of stunned silence, observing the man and his shadow, listening to them discussing her, Sun-Ok at length approached the man again. “I don’t…”

    The two of them looked at her as though she had interrupted a family meal. The man gestured, and the shadow became once again just a pattern of darkness on the cave floor behind him. The man made an exaggerated yawn and said it was time for him to leave.

    He was actually walking back out of the cavern before she could gather herself. “Wait…please…you teach me more…sometime?” He turned, slowly, and faced her, across that oddly glinting patch of ice. He did not speak for some time, but her people were known for their patience.

    “You can fight, yet you are not a complete thundering bulked up idiot like most of the warriors here.” He paused, and she thought she might have found a way to answer the question she could not ask.

    “The serpents of ice…” she started, in the Ancient words, and then intentionally trailed off.

    But he had no reaction to the word, just continued on. “Yes, you fought well there,” he said, seemingly annoyed that he had to repeat the praise. “And you have acquired somewhere at least the fundamentals of stealth. And,” and here he paused and shrugged, “my shadow did not despise you. Which actually counts for far more than you could possibly know…”

    He clutched his stomach, darkened, and gazed at her for a few more moments. “Yes…I will…share…what I have…learned…when I can. Until then—practice. Hard. Use these,” he said, tossing her a few small badges. “The darkness they make is a little like living with the shadows. Very little.”

    She caught the badges deftly and bowed, realizing there was still something unsaid between them. “I am Cheng Sun-Ok. Honored.”

    Somewhat startled, he answered, again in that reluctant way, “I…am Dram.” Once more, he showed her the smile she did not wish to see. “And you have your first test—other one-eyes have doubtless returned above, and more ice-snakes have doubtless come out of their holes down here. Get out on your own.” And with that, he leaned into the shadows and was gone. Again.

    • Markshire PCs:

    The great truth that Sun-Ok learned that day in the ice-snake caves actually revealed itself to her later, when she thought about her experience there. Which was really not surprising, since that was her way. And since, of course, with Dram’s departure she experienced a sharp sense of dread. For her last time, visiting the one-eye camp, had been life-taking, and life-changing.

    So, she donned her hideous robe and sneaked out past the ice-snakes. She battled the one-eyes above, testing the badges of darkness and finding that they did enable her to sneak up, attack, retreat, and sneak up again. But it was a faint parody of the Serpent way, so she soon resorted to her old methods, bolstered by the luring techniques Dram had shown her.

    She quickly overcame her dread of the one-eyes. Over the time since her terrible last visit, she had become more experienced, and had also assembled the proper equipment to fight them—armor and hoods and other gear to absorb and deflect blows, and to lend strength to her own. The one-eyes would land a telling strike on occasion, but not as often as she and Eclipse; still, it was a good thing she had a ready supply of her healing kits.

    And shortly after she passed out through the one-eyes’ gate, she sat in the drifting snow and contemplated all she had done and seen that day. She laughed aloud as she realized she was again sheeted in blood, but that this time it was mostly not her own. And that laughter boded well—and her personal hygiene would come promptly—for this time the lesson did not take long in coming. Dram’s derision had been strongest when she suggested that shadows were merely where light was blocked. And that was the great truth he had shown her—that darkness was not light’s absence, but that it had its own existence.

    And her mind leapt to where she first used one of his badges, right on the spot where she had a few hours before knocked the one-eye to its knees and slain it. And she thought of the word she had spoken then, the name she had given to Durok’s rapier long before, “Eclipse.” And an image came naturally to her mind, the sun half-covered in creeping darkness. And she thought of the symbol of the Way, half-light and half-dark.

    And Sun-Ok realized, right then, that the shadows—and Dram’s shadow in particular—remained an enigma to her because they were the reconciliation between those two opposites, the path between light and dark, the Serpent Way. It was a way she could sense now—thanks to the revelation that darkness existed independent of the light—even if she could not follow it yet.

    She stood, invigorated by her discovery, certain that if she studied, and thought, and practiced, it would come easily. She would have to learn to see the ways in which light and darkness were the same, of course, but she brushed that aside excitedly. She had a mentor, she had the aptitude, and—reminded, soberingly, as she looked at the peaks either side of the one-eye gate, of the threats posed her by Markshire’s extremes of Law and Chaos—she had the need.

    It did not matter to her, then, that her mentor was not a Serpent from her traditions—she herself might never know what exactly her tradition was. Nor did his eccentricities bother her overly much—she would learn what he could teach, regardless, and if he lacked the knowledge of the Way to understand it properly, she might, possibly, enlighten him. That would depend, obviously—he was human, after all, even if he seemed to keep his art hidden just as the elf-blood Serpents did back home. Nor was she worried that her aptitude was untested, nor that her need might come calling before she was ready.

    She was not worried, because she had at long last glimpsed her true Way, and she was giddy with the possibilities. She did not doubt anymore that the Serpent’s Way could be hers in Markshire. And somewhere—deep in a place she rarely visited, a place perhaps she could only ever really discuss with her far-off friend Hon-tae—she knew that it was the only Way she could ever follow home, to the place where she knew her soul had a future.

    • Markshire PCs:

    “Your kneecaps is mine, scumbag!”

    The shout did not startle Sun-Ok: she had lost track of the number of times she had heard it while wandering the plains north of Foothold. She sighed mentally, and bowed her head as she listened carefully for the sounds that inevitably followed the kobold taunt: muffled footsteps approaching through the snow and quarrels twanging out of crossbows.

    A bolt struck her and glanced off her dire bear armor—another bruise, she thought, but noted the direction from which it had come. The footsteps neared, and, head still bowed, she crouched and drew Eclipse in a single fluid motion, the traditional defensive drawing posture with the ye do. It blocked the club that she knew, from repeated experience and a low whistle it made through the air, was swinging toward where her waist had been a moment before. Sensing the source of the blow, she stabbed a quick counter, and heard the kobold’s death rattle.

    She launched herself quickly along the path she deemed the quarrel to have traveled, pausing briefly to listen for the weapon being wound back for another shot. The crossbow twanged again, a few yards away, and her shield flew up, catching this one, a lucky reflex. She stamped forward toward the sound’s source, making fierce diagonal downward strokes with Eclipse at each step. She made contact—hard, shoulder-jarring contact—and heard something fall with a thud a few feet away. That’s strange, she thought, and crouched cautiously down, shield high, to listen.

    “Agla barac kafa jush,” came the chant, again familiar to her. But the words of the kobold shaman’s spell had a faint deadness to them, as if they came to her partially funneled. She flexed out her shield-hand and felt for it—there. With a strange joy—for she knew that the shaman’s color-dazzling spell could not harm her—she ran the next few yards, shield-arm extended to the wall she had sensed and Eclipse held across her body, edge out. It did not end as gracefully as she’d hoped—she bowled the creature over backwards, the rapier slicing its throat as she collapsed clumsily on top of it.

    The two of them lay still, and there was silence except for her beating heart. The skirmish was over. She pulled up the blindfold she had made from her own bandages, the purple symbol of the Way barely visible through the shaman’s blood. “Another bath tonight,” she thought. She looked curiously back at the kobold crossbowman, whose head lay a few feet from its body, then thanked Durok mentally for the marvelous tool he had given her.

    She had been practicing thus for days, emulating as best she could the dark-fighting training her father had once described for her. And it was useful, she had to admit. For the lack of vision definitely heightened her other abilities: notably smell and hearing, though she also felt her reflexes were oddly enhanced as well. Possibly, though, this was just the tension of being in constant danger, a tension that was exhausting in the extreme, and that exhaustion led her to sit quietly for a few moments next to the dead shaman.

    The dark-fighting training had not provided her, however, what she had fervently hoped it would—the insight she needed to follow the Serpent Way.

    That insight was of course not nearly as forthcoming as she had imagined it would be. She had spent hours gazing at her own shadow, doing this in private after she received a number of odd looks from the local townsfolk. Then she had stared at any shadow for hours a day, trying to come to some understanding of that mystical line between light and dark—this proved more comfortable than twisting around to look at one’s own shadow, but no more fruitful. And she had spent hours, lying flat on her back on the bed of the forest, unseen by the marauding orcs around her, becoming dappled with sunlight and shadow herself—but still no nearer to grasping it.

    Dram had been helpful, to a degree. He had helped define for her the roles that silence and camouflage played, and had confirmed that his own shadow was, due to Markshire’s dominant antipathy to the “undead,” a very private secret. He had even encouraged her, in what eventually became a somewhat disheartening way, to keep trying, and to find her own path, as he put it, “into the dark.”

    And so she had then spent hours in the darkest places she could find—mines, crypts, and dusty, forgotten rooms—trying to understand how the darkness was akin to the light. And she had visited the tallest, snow-covered peaks she could find, where the snow-glare was so bright she wished she had borrowed Zeb’s goggles, to understand the light. All to no avail, but with the depressing feeling that she was very, very close all the same.

    So, sensing that for her the key lay in seeing, differently, she had turned to the visual deprivation of dark-fighting, and she had turned to it nearly in desperation. It was demanding—she had the bruises to show for it—and it was beneficial, but it was not the grand “enlightenment” she had hoped.

    And that skirmish was no different, she thought, as she pulled her blindfold back down and stood tiredly. A bit better, a lucky shield-block, and…

    Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud bellowing roar from close behind her and downwind. Bear, she thought, as a savage blow raked across the side and back of her neck, knocking her to the snow, where her body started to roll down a gentle slope. Polar, from the smell of it, she added, I’ve certainly tanned enough of their pelts to recognize that greasy scent. So, sit facing downwind next time, was her final thought before she blacked out.

    • Markshire PCs:

    She looked around her and saw only blackness; she peered harder, forcing herself to concentrate. Well, it’s cold, she thought curiously, so this can’t be Elvidnir. Or maybe it was: there was a disgusting, grunting, ripping sound as well. Then she remembered the blindfold. Imbecile, she thought to herself, as she reached up and tugged it back up to her forehead.

    The image before her came in a flash. The polar bear’s tracks leading up along the wood’s edge and out to the body of the first kobold, then up to where a spray of her blood lay in the snow next to the shaman. She had startled it when she stood up, obviously, and it now nuzzled into the shaman, feeding vigorously. The marks her own body had made rolling down the slope were clear—for whatever reason, the bear had not pursued her, but now turned to look at her as her torso sat up in the snow.

    And in that moment, in that flash, she saw it. She saw it all. Whether it was the strain of peering stupidly into the blindfold, or the glare as she pulled it off from her unadjusted eyes, or the concussion she undoubtedly had suffered, or the beady black eyes of the polar bear in his white face dripping kobold blood, what exactly it was she would never be able to say. But in that moment, she saw it: the line where light meets dark, where nothing and everything can exist at the same time. It was a path of shadows, of possibilities and impossibilities. It was the Serpent Way.

    Surprised beyond measure and understanding, she blinked, and in the split-second her eyes were closed, the afterimage itself changed, as if, on the inside of her eyelids, there were painted a near-black bear, with glowing white eyes, standing on a pitch-black hill.

    She opened her eyes to see the bear start menacingly toward her, and she willed herself unthinkingly into the image she had seen during that blink—into the black, shadowy snow of the hill. And the bear stopped, confused, then stood to scent the air. It fell back to all fours, roared again, and after a moment turned back to feed on the shaman.

    She was safe—and at long last a Serpent. She felt tears come from her eyes, tears of joy, she supposed, at her hard-won discovery. She wiped them off with her sleeve, staring curiously at the fresh blood she saw there, realizing only then, her fear of the bear fading, that her eyes ached painfully. She was a Serpent, perhaps, but it was both all and not at all as she had thought.

    She looked back at the bear, and closed her eyes for several moments, forcing herself to relax. The sight and the afterimage faded—she had to concentrate to maintain it, and concentrate hard, with eye, mind and will. And so she did, practicing her newfound skill for the very first time, sneaking out across the snow in the afternoon light, up the hill, the only sound her eventual soft call “Anycetylaa,” the Ancient word for “Eclipse.”

    She stood for a long time atop that hill, looking at the line, and at the kobolds, and at the bear. Eventually, she stopped concentrating and grimly wiped her eyes with the bandage-turned-blindfold-turned handkerchief. She fingered the two claw-marks at her neck, below her right ear, that would probably become permanent scars. Her metal-thread hood had blocked most of the blow; if not for that, the bear might have taken her head clean off. She stooped to the bear, but paused with her skinning knife poised—had this bear earned a better fate? But, she thought, what better fate could there be, for a bear? And so the polar bear’s meat ended up in her pack, along with its skin. And along with the two claws that, judging by the elven flesh stuck beneath, had gotten past the hood.

    She hoisted her pack and trudged through the snow back to Foothold, elated, exhausted, and anticipating eagerly with each step a hot bath and a long, dreamless sleep.

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