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Forest of Vengeful Spirits

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On a high mountain path through stormy weather, Vieryl clutched her travel cloak to her neck, pulling the hood closer around her face. She would have made better time, but she was slowed by a caravan of human men leading oxen carrying large sacks of grain and rice. The oxen were afraid of the dark and the storm, and had to be whipped, cajoled, and pulled in order to move. They stayed close to the cliff on their right, lest they should fall in the great misty abyss to their left.

“Why do these men cling to the mountain so?” she asked a straggler in front of her. “They’d move much faster if they used the space to their left.”

“Don’t you have eyes to see?!” the man snapped. “It’s so dark out, and the ravine’s so deep—one misstep and they’ll fall to their deaths!”

Vieryl knitted her brow in confusion, until she remembered that men and beasts couldn’t see in the dark as well as her. She was drow, after all.

Most of the wild elves in the High Forest could see fairly well in dim lighting, but none as well as her. Since the sun hurt her eyes and made her drowsy anyway, she often took the night's watch in their high tree lookouts. The wild elves were a fading people; thought scarce or extinct as humans and dwarves razed their forests for farmlands, or cut down trees to fuel many a fireplace in sprawling stone cities. The drow had been long wiped out above the surface; driven underdark or under mountains. Vieryl herself might have been raised by them, had her mother's dying wish not been that she be raised by her close friend, the wood elf Daeghun Farlong. So, off Vieryl went to be raised with another dying elven people like her own. But while drow lived in the shadows with spiders, the wild elves lived high in trees in the forest.

She might have stayed there forever, living her long nights and fading twilight years with them, had that horrible battle of demons and warlocks not raged near her home. Had that silver sword not shattered, splaying shards everywhere. Had that shard not embedded into her chest, too deep to remove without killing her. Yet, it was killing her all the same. She had been informed by the village elder that the silver shard was magically draining her life as sure as a spider drains the life of its prey...

She felt something cold and sharp as ice stab her near the heart. She clutched her chest and tried to ignore the pain as rain fell around her. Don't think of that. Not here.

She gasped and turned her face to the side as an overseer passed by. Her people hadn’t been seen above the undermountain for nearly three hundred years, and she wanted to keep it that way.

Despairing of ever getting around them by path, she inspected the rough terrain above. The trees and underbrush had all been burned, so the soil was loose under the water’s heavy downpour. It was another reason the men and the ox struggled to get their footing. The mud was slippery beneath their feet, and their progress was not helped by heavy streams of water flooding down on them.

It was far too rugged for her elk, Anara, to hoof it. Her thin legs would just sink in the deep mud, or get washed away by the floodwater falling over them. If only there was a healthy canopy to catch the rain, and underbrush to absorb the water, tree roots to hold the soil, she and Anara could have cleared above the men in the rough overhead in seconds.

Her elk spooked at a flash of lightning, and Vieryl patted the creature’s face assuredly.

A short and stout figure in a thick cloak marched up to her, jabbing a big sausage finger in her direction.

“What in the Nine Hells are YOU doing up here?!” he boomed at her.

She froze all over. She wrapped her cloak tighter around her face, hoping they wouldn’t see the obsidian of her skin. “Traveling.”

“Don’t get smart with me!” he sneered. “You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of old Callum of the Neverwinter Night.”

“I--I’m sorry, Callum of the Neverwinter Nine,” Vieryl said, bowing deeply. “I meant no offense. I-I’m merely a weary traveler seeking the Land of the Gods to the Frozen North, beyond the Evermoors of Faerun.”

“Evermoors!” Callum exclaimed, “Don’t you know--?!”

One of the oxen slipped and fell, its whole front legs sunk into the mud. It fell right over its handler’s leg, sucking him in below the waist. The man cried out in alarm, and the oxen around the fallen began to spook.

“Don’t panic!” Callum called in a stern yet even voice, “I’ll be right there!”

It didn’t take too long to pull the oxen out of the mud, though it did involve a lot of pulling and cajoling from three men. The man extracted from the mud thankfully didn’t break a leg either, though he was chilled “in… some place you don’t want to get chilled.”

The men laughed.

“All right, that’s enough yucking about. The sooner we get home, the sooner we can eat. LET’S MOVE!”

The men grunted as they pulled the groaning oxen alone. Everyone had forgotten about Vieryl. She despaired to hear the cry of oxen being whipped. They were scared! Creatures like this weren’t meant to be out this late, in this stormy weather, in land stripped bear, where there were no trees, roots, or underbrush to catch the rain.

Actually, something was off about this land. The further north and west she traveled, the colder it got. Soon she came upon deciduous forests of fur and pine that kept their leaves in winter, blanketed in snow. She had heard tale of barbarians and giants that ruled the lands, and fierce dragons that ruled the sky. Yet, she encountered none.

And, the further north she traveled, the more she noticed something even odder; the snow gave way to a thriving underbrush, the deciduous pines gave way to temperate canopies, and the ground itself seemed warm to her feet. (Though the air remained crisp and chill as ever.) When she and Anara stopped to drink water, they found many a bubbling spring and river running with mildly warm water.

Just when she thought she arrived in the Frozen North, she and Anara found a temperate haven. She wondered if she had gone the wrong way, or if her compass was not working; or if the eponymous Neverwinter was merely a misnomer.

“Callum!” they called. “A word?”

“Yes, Lord Nasher.”

She saw the dwarf approach two armored human men and a cloaked elven wizard standing beside the caravan. It was easy to tell that one was the commander, another the second-in-command.

The commander was tall and broad, with bushy blond hair and an equally bushy mustache, wearing golden armor. He clutched a greatsword at his hilt. His second-in-command was a tall, broad human with slick black hair and silver-looking armor, wielding a large warhammer and broad metal shield. The dwarf, Callum, wore bronze armor and--

Vieryl groaned. I see what you did there.

“Lord Callum,” the commander said. He had a deep, booming voice. “We are falling behind schedule. I trust you and your men can stop dawdling and get things underway?”

“The men are moving as fast as they can, Nasher,” Ser Callum said impatiently. “It’s impossible for them to get their footing in this rain.”

They would if there were trees to sop up the rain, Vieryl thought, wondering what happened to them.

The men were far away from her, but her elf ears were so sharp she could pick it up anyway.

“At this rate, we won’t be arriving by morning,” the oily voiced elf grumbled, closing his grimoire.

“We must not lose faith,” the second-in-command said soothingly. His voice was a low baritone. “With Tyr to guide us, all paths shall be illuminated.”

“Save it for the church, priest,” Callum said, and turned back to the men.

“ONWARD, MEN!” the commander boomed, “Just a little further. We’ll be home soon. Let’s move!”

The commander and his second-in-command seemed uneasy, though. The wizard pinched up his scowling face, but said nothing.

“Do you think it’ll be long before...?”

A gasp rippled along the men.

“LOOK!” one of the men yelled. “THERE THEY ARE!”

Vieryl’s eyes followed where the men were pointing.

On another mountain across the ravine, where the trees had been cut to the stumps and the grass burned to ash, two stark white wolves and one soot-colored, all the size of small horses, ran towards them. She might not have noticed the soot-colored one, if it weren't for a man in a mask and a cloak of wolfs pelt riding.

The men began to yell and scramble for their weapons. They pulled out umbrellas and strange metal cylinders with dragon designs on the side.

“Don’t let the oxen panic!” the commander bellowed. “Keep to the right!”

Every soldier not holding a dragon cylinder pressed the oxen against the cliff side as best as they could.
Still more men scrambled to hold umbrellas over the cylinders and pull out bags of dust. The men often shouted and fussed, “Don’t get it wet!” “Keep the powder dry!”

Vieryl felt as antsy as the animals, and wondered if she should leave.

The commander turned to a pale moon elf clad in silks to his right. “Sand, can you handle this?”

“With PLEASURE, my GLORIOUS leader,” he said with such affected devotion that she could not tell if he was sarcastic, or a bootlick. His natural speaking voice seemed oily and slimy enough.

The men all paused for a moment. The wizard pulled out a grimoire kept dry from an umbrella held over his head, and began muttering incantations in an ominous ancient language.

“Ready...” the second-in-command bellowed in his deep baritone.

The men all made last-minute adjustments to their cylinders.

“FIRE!”

Fire shot out of the cylinders as the sorcerer rained fire out of his fingertips.

The land around the wolves exploded. They danced easily around the flames.

Anara spooked, and it was all Vieryl could do to keep her calm. She held her reigns close and caressed her face as best as she could.

“SECOND ROUND!” the men bellowed.

After a long pause, another volley of explosions rained around the wolves. The masked man riding the wolf gestured to his left, and the wolves easily glided around in an arch.

The men with the oxen remained alert, and fired a third round when the white wolves circled back around again, forcing the wolves to retreat.

“So that’s them, huh?” Callum murmured to the commander and second-in-command.

“That’s them,” the religious second-in-command growled. He was a tall and broad human man in shining armor, murmured in his deep baritone. Yet his voice was so harsh and low she almost couldn’t hear him. “I’m worried, Lord Nasher. Normally, they cover themselves in soot to blend in with the landscape.”

"They didn't start doing THAT until that damned wolf man joined them," Callum growled.

“They’re obviously trying to lure us into a false sense of complacency” the commander said. He had a booming voice to rival his second-in-command. “Be alert for a trap.”

Vieryl pressed her elk’s face closer to her own for reassurance.

They threw another volley of fire and explosions, until the bright white wolves were forced to run away.

“I don’t understand,” the dwarf said, “They didn’t seem that big to me.”

“They’re just pups,” the commander said. “Wait until you see their mother.”

Vieryl’s ear twitched. She looked up at the rough terrain above their heads. She heard before she saw. Footsteps deeper and louder than any animal present smashed twigs and caved mud beneath them. Leafless brush and trees shook as something big creature glided through them. Vieryl heard the labored breathing of a huge, galloping animal. She saw a great white beast with blood red eyes.

“Look!” she cried, pointing above their heads.

Too late.

A white wolf the size of a small elephant pounced into the middle of the caravan, breaking the back of an oxen and forcing several men off the cliff. A few men screamed as they were thrown below. The giant wolf easily tore out the throat of an oxen in front of her, rendering it lifeless beneath her paws. She swiped an armful of men down the cliff. A live ox screamed as it hit a tree branch on its way down.

Vieryl instinctively jumped on Anara, who backed away several paces.

Before the men could react, the giant wolf with two tails charged through the caravan like a fox through grass. Most men tried to duck out of her way without luck. If they didn’t have so much room between themselves and the cliff, they would have all fallen to their deaths.

The giant wolf charged at the commander, who didn’t move. The men around him rippled into a defensive position, bracing themselves for the giant wolf charging right for them, readying their swords, shields, and cylinders.

The dwarf and second-in-command pulled out their war-hammers and their shields. “Have at you!”

The giant wolf seemed to ignore them, panting and snarling as she fixed her eyes on the commander. He stood tall and resolute, hands on the hilt of his sword; the blade of which was pressed into the ground.

“Ready, Sand?” he asked.

“Ready, Mi’lord.”

Just as the giant wolf approached, Lord Nasher bellowed, “FIRE!” A firearm from one of his bodyguards discharged. A wound opened in her right breast, slowing her charge. The second firearm discharged, just as the wizard “Sand” then released a torrent of fire that engulfed the wolf. Lord Nasher then drew his greatsword and plunged it into her breast just as the force of the firearm and flame both threw her from the cliff. She too hit a tree branch on her way down.

She left pure chaos behind. Men and oxen alike lay flat against the wall and the path like blades of grass after a body ran through. Many oxen had fainted or fallen over. Several were dead, and one or two were dangerously close to dangling off the cliff. The men were all crying and yelling as they struggled to re-establish order; find out who was alive, who was injured, who was knocked out, and who was dead.

The white wolves retreated from the far hillside.

Callum laughed triumphantly, looking down the cliff. “HA HA HA HA! WE GOT HER!”

“She’s a god,” Lord Nasher said. “It will take more than that.”

Vieryl gasped. A god?! So she was in the right place after all?!

As the men struggled to establish order, the leaders stood calmly watching. "Looks like she did some damage," the moon wizard Sand said, closing his grimoire.

Lord Nasher strode forward with a flick of his cloak. “Let’s move out.”

“B-but sir,” the second-in-command protested, “What about the men who fell?”

“They’re dead,” Lord Nasher said dismissively, “Let’s get the living home.”

Ice ran through Vieryl’s belly. What kind of man callously abandons his troops like that?

She looked down the canyon below. She could only see rain and mist, and hear a loud torrent from the river below. The current would be strong and choppy from all this rain. Any who fell in the river wouldn’t make it. But perhaps… anyone who fell on the side of the river’s banks…

She rotated her ears as best as she could to pick up any minute sounds, but heard nothing.

She looked back again at the men as they struggled to collect themselves and move out.

She would find nothing up here tonight.

After much soothing and cajoling, she managed to convince Anara to follow her down the mountain path. If any of these men were alive, she would find them…

She clutched the reign with her icy fingers.

And whatever gods might still be down there.