The small valley nestled between the tall peaks of Iron Pine gave way to an opening between the trees, revealing a blanket of uninterrupted snow. It had fallen just the night before and to this point not a single being had disrupted the smooth white layer of this meadow. Though beautiful and pristine it was unfortunate for Viveck as it meant that nothing worth hunting had gone through this area, usually rife with game.
He sighed, icy breath clouding in front of him in frustration. This hunt had started in the morning and already the sun had reached its peak without a single tuft or feather to be seen. Today he was not picky and would be equally happy with a deer or snow grouse or hare. But this perfect and uninterrupted canvas of white snow that stretched before him was nothing but an unpleasant memory and a poor show.
Surely, he thought, the animals should be up and moving at this point after the storm. Perhaps it was too open, or the Ice Grass that sustained so many of Iron Pines creatures was not present under this layer of snowfall. It did not matter, not to him at this moment. The hunt was turning into a bust and he wanted to move on, crossing the field.
Viveck reentered the more heavily wooded area of the mountains where the tree’s limbs began to cast dark shadows punctuated by beams of the midday sun. On occasion he would pause to listen. More often than not it was simply snow falling with a soft thud on the ground below. A high branch would give way leading to a crystallized shower through the spotlights from above. Eventually though, with a carefully trained ear, Viveck heard the repetitive crunch of something moving through ice covered snow.
Pulling an arrow quietly from his quiver and knocking it on his bow string he began to move forward. Ahead of him there was a small river that would still be running, even in this cold. That freshwater was the life of this forest when all the ponds were locked in ice. He could hear the slow steps ahead as well as what sounded like dragging. Viveck had not caught that sound until he moved closer. Something in his ear was feeling very wrong. The feet sounded too large, the dragging sound, and now that he was listening closely, it was almost certainly a two legged creature.
The frozen peaks had their fair share of grisly monsters that would walk upon two legs. While useless for food it would still be a good hunt for the region. Viveck pressed himself against a rock near the source of the sound, just across the brook. Slowly as he might, he began to move around the outcropping to spy his prey.
What caught his attention first was the footprints. Nothing unusual with them exactly but the trail of fresh blood around them certainly was noticeable in the new snow. Viveck continued to turn until he saw, not a monster of the peaks, but a man, severely injured and clutching his abdomen.
This wounded soul looked beaten, his leg was the source of the dragging as he was not capable of lifting it fully, and his body slumped to one side without the support. He was also ill-prepared to be so far into the mountains. He wore heavy chain armor and a green tabard consistent, unfortunately, with the Guardian’s colors in the region.
Viveck cursed under his breath but put the arrow back in his quiver. A few stones above the water allowed him to cross with ease to be on the same side with the Mathosian.
“Friend,” He called, keeping his hand on the hilt of his dagger. Viveck did not expect to need it but he still did not trust the colors. Many Mathosians, and really any member of the Guardians, would attack an Eth like himself on sight, especially this far north. The man did not seem to notice Viveck and continued forward.
“You are wounded, this snow will be the death of you,” Viveck stated moving towards him. Reaching out to the man, Viveck turn him about with less effort than expected. For a moment he saw the man’s face before he fell to the snow. This Mathosian was white as the snow, lips blue and his eyes seemed glossed over. The wound to his abdomen still bled but around it the blood had become dark. Viveck had not seen it before, but the man had clearly walked this distance without his boots and in that time his toes had turned black.
In the snow the man lay, weak and incapable of rational thought. He tried to pull himself in the direction of the water’s source, muttering a prayer to the vigil but he was not able to move. His strength had been sapped and with Viveck’s interference what little strength remained in this man had been sapped. Worse yet, knowing these mountains, this man would die here and there was nothing Viveck could do. He knelt down the Mathosian and brought his arms back, keeping him from clawing further into the snow.
“What happened to you? How did you get this wound?” Viveck tried to keep the dying man’s attention but he simply continued to mutter his prayer to the Vigil. It took almost no effort when Viveck examined the wound, moving the frozen hand out of the way, earning a small groan of discomforted protest from the Mathosian.
The nearly diamond shape of the wound was easily recognizable. He had been stabbed, not mauled. Viveck had wished he was mauled, horrible as it may sound. An animal or beast is just a product of its nature. This was done by a person who either allowed this man to walk away into a blizzard or had simply lost track of him.
While trying to piece together what may have happened to this man, Viveck noticed the silence. Nothing but the brook moving around the ice and stone. It took only a moment before Viveck realized why this seemed odd and looked down at the Mathosian. His eyes were out of focus and his muttering prayer had ended. Hey lay still now.
Viveck stripped the sigil the man had worn from him. He may not be welcomed into the Guardian camp but he would be able to go to Whitefall and present it to them without fear of reprieve. With a look downstream and the trail left by this man running parallel, Viveck decided to try and find the cause of the Mathosian’s demise. He pocketed the sigil and followed his tracks.
Despite the grievous wound suffered, the Mathosian had made impressive distance. Viveck had surmised the man had been out for at least a day if not more. When dusk began to fall and the forrest grew dark there was no choice but to find a spot to lay low for the night and pick the trail up again in the morning.
It did not take long to form a shelter. Within his pack Viveck always held a spade, blanket, and some rope along with other equipment needed to survive the cold nights in the mountain. He cut into heavily packed snow and covered this small gap with branches from the pines. When the last glimpse of daylight faded he had a small fire going, casting orange dancing light across the snow covered trees.
He sat at the opening of his simple cave, eyes open wide and lost in the fire. Viveck was dedicating his full attention to his ears, listening throughout the woods for the crunch of footsteps, the snarl of an animal, or the whispers of a lurker. He heard nothing but the crack of his fire and a growing wind approaching. Knowing that even though the stream had thawed this winter could, and would, throw more bitterly icy storms at Iron Pine, Viveck snuffed the fire with some snow and retreated deeper into his shelter, covering the entrance with more branches.
Once inside, Viveck moved his pack behind him as a makeshift pillow. It was uncomfortable but better than the cold snow. He had set his dagger and hatchet on either side of his body just under his hands which brought him a small sense of comfort. There was a great deal of space between civilization in Iron Pine Peak, and that space was filled with many dangers. Notably, that wind which was a distance away now began to whip around the small camp. Snow was shifting outside, pilling upon the branches and hard pack snow of the shelter. Viveck felt as though he was in a coffin trapped inside a cyclone.
Sleep did not come easy that night. Eventually, after giving up trying to hear anything through the storm, Viveck allowed his mind to drift off. He thought of the man he found and what he must have been thinking, traveling deeper into the woods. Was he hoping to find a community? Perhaps a logging or mining camp using the stream? The man was not a native to Iron Pine, Viveck was certain of that much. Brought in by the Guardian Command to march in a land that would not have been welcoming but bitter and cold.
The wind continued beyond his small shelter. The trail would be difficult to pick up, but Viveck was confident in his ability to do so. A life in the ice and snow had brought to him a set of skills that had gained Viveck a certain level of respect, particularly in his social circles. The Chancel welcomed him now and knew his value, as did the Defiant leadership. For a great many years he had belonged to a Syndicate, that while it may not always be the most righteous group always seemed to strive for something worthy. He had always strived to bring a combination of his skill in the wild and with the political navigation he had learned in his youth.
As he finally let sleep fall over him he thought back to that childhood, as though seeing it again. His mother, dressed finely stood out the most. She was from Shimmersand and her dark skin seemed out of place surrounded by the many northern folk. His younger sister, dark like his mother but with fair hair like his father had in youth. His father, a Baron of Iron Pine, tall and muscular, his hair now grey with age. The Baron title would have been passed onto Viveck but that day never came.
The memory disturbed his sleep and he work, feeling as though he were in a coffin. The wind had subsided, at least he could no longer hear it. The shelter had become buried under snow, drifted over night, but the branches still held. He reached into his bag, feeling for a small glass ball. Rolling it in his hands he repeated the phrase knif ssussun. The ball began to glow a soft light with a bit of magic he had picked up over his travels. He continued until the light was sufficient for him to prepare. The ball was easy to press into the pack snow walls and free his hands, packing his belongings back into his bag and moving to face the entrance on his hands and knees.
Even with the spade in hand it was not terribly easy to dig through the new layer of snow. When he finally breached the wall he found it still dark. The wind had subsided and a light snowfall was now coming down. Icy breath hung in the air, illuminated by the soft light of the orb. Still, it must have been nearing dawn as a soft light was illuminating the clouds above. Viveck grabbed his orb off the cave wall, whispering v’dri to it and let it fade out. The trail may be buried but he knew the man would have still been following the stream. Viveck continued on.
After several hours of marching along the stream, Viveck found the site of the conflict. Even under the snow the sight of an overturned carriage, branded with the Symbol of the Vigil could be seen easily enough on its side along what would generously be called a road. This attack, Viveck knew, had occurred at least two days prior. Even so, he pulled his hatchet and dagger out as he approached. Each step was careful, cautious, and silent. A large lump of snow in front of the carriage Viveck recognized as the pull horse. It made him terribly aware of what the other, smaller lumps of snow were.
Climbing onto the side of the enclosed carriage, as it was now the top, he glanced inside of the carriage and saw two corpses, matching the garb of the man he found earlier, both pierced with arrows. Their weapons were absent along with anything else of use or value inside the cart. An ambush, Viveck assumed. He could see though, their sigils still present and climbed inside the carriage to retrieve them and bestow the same courtesy to these souls as the man he had found before.
As he removed the second sigil he hear a voice growing closer causing Viveck to freeze in place. His eyes lost focus as all his attention returned to his ears, listening. Though distant he could pick up on the conversation.
“This is the one that we was supposed to go to?” the first voice said, his voice seemed muffled slightly, likely by a face covering.
“Only Guardians we hit this month,” Replied a second voice, deep but feminine. “Teige says there should be a book or something like that. Wants to hit more Guardian supply runs. Said they have better steel than the locals.”
“What’s a book got to do with that?” a third voice said, though it was interrupted by a sniffling nose and a short cough.
“Does it matter?” the second voice replied. They were close now. “Get in that carriage and find the books. Grab any you spot.” Viveck snapped back to his surroundings, looking for a spot to hide within the small confines of the carriage. With good luck, this siffling bandit would not pay attention to the fresh tracks Viveck had left behind. He pressed himself against a wall, pushing his will to being unseen, another bit of magic that could cause someone to go unnoticed for an extra moment. The voices had come from the opposite direction as Viveck’s approach, so it was not impossible for this man to fall into his trap.
Viveck heard the sound of someone climbing onto the top of the carriage. The sound stopped for a moment.
“Greiva, the-” he began but was interupted.
“Get the books before I leave you matching the corpses!” the second voice called back, Greiva apparently. The man huffed and sniffed his nose before climbing down inside the carriage, not noticing Viveck who was motionless. This man bore an unmistakable insignia of the Red Snow, a vile gang that hid in the mountain peaks, allied with the Storm Legion and enemy of Viveck. He stepped on the bodies with little regard and began to pull apart the boxes.
“You find anything yet?” the first voice called out.
“I’m lookin! Gods…” He tossed items aside that had not been deemed valuable enough the first time through before turning around and facing Viveck. It took a moment. He simply looked forward, not quite comprehending Viveck’s presence but certain something was there. It wasn’t until Viveck plunged his dagger through the man’s throat that the veil of magic that hid him was completely removed. No sounds escaped the man, and Viveck caught his body to prevent it falling with a thud. Instead he slid down as the life drained away to rest with the bodies he had just been standing upon.
The white leather of Viveck had a stream of red blood across his arm which he wiped away with the jacket of his slain victim. The only exit was above in full view of Greiva and the other Red Snow, and he did not know how well armed they were. Viveck looked around for something to give him an advantage when he spotted several small books along with a ledger behind where he was standing. This was what this Teige had been after. A schedule and routes of Guardian supplies moving to Whitefall. Perfect targets. The books were of less importance, journals and the like.
“Voll? Would you hurry it up in there?” The first voice was closer now. Viveck could hear him walking closer to the carriage. Again, he worried about his tracks in the snow. He threw the first book out of the opening towards the source of the voice and heard it hit the snow.
“Careful with those you dolt,” Greiva called out. Viveck climbed up so he would not be seen but was close to the exit. He tossed out the second book close to the first. He could hear the first voice grumble as he bent over to pick it up. With this Viveck sprung into action.
He pushed up and through the open carriage door, bringing himself up on top, looking down at the vulnerable man picking up the book in the snow. Using his speed, Viveck flung his dagger at the man’s center of mass. For a moment it gleamed in the air, silver and red with the other man’s blood, before burying itself deep in the side. As he toppled to the snow with pain Viveck lunged at him with his hatched out, bringing it down on his head with a voracious crack of bone.
Greiva was taken by surprise as she watched her companion killed in the snow. She steadied herself, gripping a wooden staff tightly in her hand as Viveck stood over the fresh corpse. The hatchet and dagger combined to make a sickening, sucking sound as they left the man’s body.
Viveck squared himself to Greiva, giving his blades a small shake, dotting the fresh snow with spots of crimson blood. For her credit, she did not seem afraid of Viveck despite his violent entrance, rather she seemed prepared.
“You killed these soldiers,” Viveck called to her, stating it as a fact. Greiva glanced to the lumps of snow.
“Don’t see any soldiers,” She replied. “Only people who have been killed here were killed by you. This will be a service to the people of Iron Pine!” She took a step forward and forced her arcane energy through her staff. It erupted in icy bolts at Viveck who dodged them, jumping to his side. They struck the carriage behind him, freezing on contact. Again she launched the Ice Bolts at him, forcing him to move. He worked his way to a thick tree just as one bolt glanced his sleeve.
He slipped his dagger back into its sheath and reached for a small vial of grey liquid. Only by good fortune did he have it with him on this hunt, though he had packed it expecting to use it against some sort of violent beast. Again he focused his will into becoming unseen and chanced a glance around the tree. He saw Greiva cautiously approaching with her staff at the ready.
Greiva herself was muttering under her breath, channeling the cold air around her and holding the raw power of the elements at her call. Cold air began to be drawn to her, charged with arcane power. The spell she was weaving would be powerful when unleashed, and Viveck knew he must act quickly or become another lump under the snow.
Still under the effect of of his own magic, he lunged at his opponent, throwing the grey vial ahead of him. His aim was perfect as it cracked in Greiva’s face and covered her eyes with a burning liquid. In her panic she released the spell she was building up, throwing it just wide of Viveck’s approach and striking one of the large trees.
On instinct Greiva reached to her eyes to wipe away the liquid. As he hand moved across red droplets appeared across her face. The grey liquid not only burned but had powdered glass mixed in scraping at her skin as she tried to remove it. With this distraction Viveck struck her in the head with the back of his hatchet, knocking her to the ground and the staff she used to channel her powers away. Greiva lay in pain in the snow, barely clinging to consciousness, though she likely wished she would have simply been knocked out.
Viveck cared little to her pain in this moment. He grabbed her by he jacket and dragged her through the snow to the carriage. She was propped against the rear where the wheel was sticking part way out of the snow only a few feet from one of her dead companions. Within a tool box attached to the carriage Viveck produced several feet of rope and returned to the groaning woman and bounder her to the wheel. Her hands were tied behind her back and her ankles bound together.
With Greiva secured, Viveck began the task of uncovering as many of the bodies as he could. The process of pulling a frozen corpse out of the snow is a difficult and depressing one. Their bodies become stiff and their faces are frozen in that last moment before death took them. Each body that was uncovered was lacking in weapons, taken by the Red Snow no doubt, but still had their sigils which added to Viveck’s collection. Each was moved to line up along the carriage opposite of Greiva, who now seemed to be trying to force the pain away and quietly winced on occasion.
Viveck grabbed the staff where it lay in the snow to examine it closer. White wood, carved and smooth, topped with a blue gem. The arcane power seemed to pulse a bit off the gem like waves of cold air.
“Don’t touch that,” a voice moaned behind Viveck. He turned to see Greiva struggling to eye him through the blood and grey liquid smeared across her face. “Thats mine!”
“This?” Viveck replied, gesturing with the staff. “I’m no mage, but are these not very valuable? It seems that way, the way your eyes follow it like that.” Greiva’s attention snapped back to look at his face the best she could.
“This staff,” Viveck continued. “Is mine now. I can’t trust you with it, as you can see.” He pointed to the row of frozen bodies and then to the damaged tree from her errant blast. Viveck approached her and kneeled down, holding the blue gem close to her head.
“Take a good look at this gem, if you can. I know that vial stings but it is good at keeping the bears away.” Viveck pulled his dagger out of it’s sheath. Greiva’s eye now darted between the blade, the gem, and Viveck’s face. It lingered on it for a moment, trying to measure the man.
“You plan to kill me because of a few dead Mathosians, Eth?” She spat the words at him.
“Right now, I am your only chance at walking out of these woods alive. What you should concern yourself with is what will happen when I pluck this gem out of my new staff,” Viveck said with a calm in his voice. He moved the dagger to the gem and started to wedge it between the stone and wood. Greiva winced but was not moving as though she were afraid.
“You destroy that staff and you are killing me. I won’t survive out here without it,” She snipped at him. Viveck paused for a moment.
“I think you will manage. I have heard that breaking these staffs though tends to discharge some of the built of energy. Is that true, I wonder?” Greiva looked back at the stone. Viveck continued to work in his dagger.
“If it does, you will get hit too,” Greiva replied.
“You’ll get the worse of it, though.” The woman’s eyes began to dart between the stone and his face.
“Stop! Stop!” she finally let her worry overtake her. Viveck pulled the dagger away from the stone. “What do you want from me?” Viveck smiled at her.
“You need to answer some of my questions. You do that and I will see what I can do to get you out of this place with your limbs intact, what with that nasty chill coming through.” Viveck re-sheathed his blade and stood over her, moving the staff away as well.
“What questions?” her tone was disgruntled and broken.
“Your camp first of all,” Viveck began. “Red Snow, no doubt, but how many are there?”
“A few. Maybe a dozen.” Viveck looked at her.
“I am not sure if you have the skill to survive out here alone, but I doubt it as I will be taking this staff with me,” he replied to her.
“Sixteen. It is Teige’s camp, he’s in charge of the Red Snow this side of the mountains.” She was quick as she spoke, anger nipping at each word.
“How well is the camp defended?” Viveck asked. Greiva turned her head away from him, prompting Viveck to lightly kick her bound feet. “Greiva, I am trying to work with you here.”
“What does an Eth care if a couple Guardians end up buried in the snow anyway?” she spat back. “You a convert or something? Worshiping their Vigil?” Viveck sighed and walked a few feet away, carrying her staff away. He approached a smaller but sturdy tree.
It was quick. A smooth swing while gripping the staff by its end followed by a loud crack and a burst of arcane energy. The staff shattered with the gem stone head flying into the woods leaving Viveck gripping nothing more that a stick. Blue icy magic was sprayed out on the surrounding tree trunks.
“You can have this back.” He turned back and threw the stump of Greiva’s staff back at her. She was shocked and seemed ready to weep. “Consider how much more difficult you have made this on both of us. You said it yourself, that you can’t survive without that staff. If you are to get to Whitefall from here, your only chance of surviving, it is now going to take more work for me. If you continue to be difficult, Greiva,” he leaned on her name, “I will follow your tracks back to the camp and Teige will know that you were the one who led me there, I promise that.”
“Four guards at the camp,” she muttered, looking longingly at the broken staff end. “Teige has his tent above the camp on a small hill. If you climb through Ruin’s Craig you can approach it from the rear.”
Viveck stood again. He wasn’t happy, though he had the information. He had never been comfortable with questioning people in this way, pressing them in this way. He grabbed his pack and pulled out a kit to create torches with and tossed it to her feet.
“You know how to dig a shelter?” She nodded at him. “It is likely a way to Whitefall. You will need light if you wish to make it before morning.” He approached her again and ripped the Red Snow symbol from her clothing. “I would not wear this anymore, you understand.” She nodded in reply.
Viveck went to the man he had killed before and pulled off his blood stained cloak. He had a small steel dagger on his belt which Viveck also took. The cloak he tossed atop the torch kit and the dagger he placed near Greiva.
“Continue in the direction this caravan was going. If you are stopped or questioned ask for directions to the Baron’s Watchtower. Or, if you are clever, run far away. I hear Ember Isle is nice.” Viveck turned to begin his march for Ruin’s Craig. He could hear Greiva working to get the knife, he hadn’t made it difficult.
“You love her?” He heard Greiva call out. He paused and turned back to face Greiva trying to hide his confusion on the question. “Only reason I can figure you care. You are after that Elf Teige took. She is the reason we knew about the ledgers, you know. Teige wasn’t so kind in getting that information out her, she sold out the Guardians.”
“You sold out the Red Snow,” Viveck replied. “Teige won’t find out so long as you walk away.” Greiva just looked back but Viveck could tell she understood.
They had a prisoner. Viveck had not prepared for this and he knew that time was now running against him. He moved more quickly this time with the new pressure. The Craig would be dangerous but it was his best bet to prevent one more death at the hands of the Red Snow.
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