Looking up out of the large window next to her desk, the older woman let out an audible sigh of relief. Pushing back a strand of greying hair back behind her ear, she began to add more names to her ledger. She had thought the families in the outlying farms and houses would be stubborn but the recent events had everyone on edge and people seemed to recognise the concept of safety in numbers. Even as the Brolga family passed her window in the town hall, the ink was drying on her ledger of their arrival. They would be staying with the Coopers for the time being and she watched as Xanthippe led them to the host’s family house. Only six more families needed to be convinced to relocate to the confines of Heldren village and she was hoping that Isker and Tengzekil were being as convincing as possible.
A howl of icy wind suddenly shook her window causing the councillor to jump, nearly spilling ink all over her immaculate records. The door to her office opened and the young clerk looked in to see if she was okay. With a nod and smile, Ionnia motioned towards the rattling window and banging shutters. Understanding her silent request, the young man ran outside and started securing all the shutters. If the conditions were not so dire, she would have taken some mirth in watching the gangly youth get blown around by the fierce winds, his cloak almost horizontal behind him. With a slam, her office plunged into darkness as he managed to close the window’s protective shutters. Shaking her head, she realised there was no humour to be found in Heldren that night, and as she lit her desk lantern, hoped that those she championed to investigate the strange occurrences, would return home safely and with answers.
Shaking off the layer of snow that was building up on his grey woollen cloak, Isker took a long pull of his flask, enjoying the warm burning taste of dark spirits wash down his throat. Night was fast approaching and the already cold temperature was continuing to plunge. He and his blue haired friend had gotten all but two families to relocate to the village proper. Even now, as snow whipped around them, he could hear Tengezil, the village carpenter arguing with Garret. The pig farmer was refusing to leave his house and his livestock. He had relocated much of his stock into his small home and already the stench was over-powering, despite the cold numbing his senses. They couldn’t force him, it was his right to stay, and he could understand wanting to save one’s livelihood but the risk seemed so great. No-one knew what this accursed wind heralded.
Tengezil returned to the blacksmiths side and simply shrugged and shook his head. Handing down the flask, the ex-soldier motioned to a grey outline of a distant house and started off, hoping to get the last family into Heldren before night fell. They had gone not more than a few hundred feet when they heard it, a sound that struck too both men’s core, freezing them to the spot. Deep and guttural, the sound keened for several seconds. It was hard to get a bearing of where it originated from, but both men felt a cold, sinking feeling as they stared out at the Tarper’s house, still silhouetted by the driving snow and wind. Neither a coward, they found they could not move their legs, a strange fear paralysing them. As if to taunt their powerlessness even more, a large shadowy shape emerged from the house, and seemed to stop and then stare at them. Then it came.
“Run!” a woman’s scream pierced the howling wind but still the two could not make their legs move. The “thing” moved so fast, lumbering along on all fours despite walking out on two legs.
“Run!” again a woman’s voice yelled out, this time clawing through their fear. As one, both turned and started to run as fast as possible. As they did, an arrow whistled between them, unerringly towards the looming creature before exploding into a ball of fire. A guttural roar of pain followed.
Standing not more than twenty feet behind them was Tess, the quiet elven alchemist from town. As they sprinted past her, Isker realised that she was clad in tight, form fitting chainmail that shimmered in the snowy conditions. He could not actually see an individual link, but appeared as a shimmering mesh of silver. Even as he stared, she drew heavily from a small flask and then notched another arrow in her elven longbow. Soft words of elvish drifted past his ears as the head of the arrow took on a soft, reddish glow and then it was gone. Again, the arrow flew straight and true through the strong winds and another explosion and howl of pain told of the accuracy of the shot. And then she was off.
The three ignored the burning pain in their chests as they fought the difficult terrain, icy conditions and long sprint. Behind them, the beast still came, though slower and seeming in pain as its keening had been replaced by grunts with every step. Heldren appeared in front of them and as they ran into the main street, Tess spun and drew another arrow, ready to halt the beast’s charge. Nothing. Her azure eyes scanned the grey horizon but nothing moved. Swallowing hard to try and disperse utter fear that was threatening to cause her to break down, she slowly walked backwards with arrow drawn towards the town hall. The creature that represented so much loss and pain to her did not reappear, but she swore she could sense its malevolent eyes out there, watching the village with an endless hunger.
It did not take long for the word to spread and with surprisingly efficiency, the council agreed to open the village armoury, it was every person’s right to be able to defend themselves. While dangerous in the wrong hands, Tess agreed to arm as many families as possible with a vial of alchemist’s fire. It was a last resort and not to be used inside the houses. She secretly prayed that she had not made a huge mistake, but she knew what the stakes were.
No one was to be alone, each house and shop was occupied by at least to families and the town hall had what few villagers were trusted enough to form a small militia. Isker was dressed in his old Taldor armour while the town butcher managed to find appropriate sized leather armour and was armed with several long butcher’s knives. Despite his misgivings, Xanthippe was here, armed with a self-made and masterful shortsword and clad in chain. If a call went out from one of the nearby houses, they were to charge as a unit and defend.
Only one local had been stubborn enough to ignore the gathering of people. With his house darkened, Argus sat in silence on his wooden rocking chair with a large crossbow across his lap and a glass of dwarven spirits in his hand. The darkness meant little to him, his racial ability to see in even the most lightless caverns made sure he missed little. The howling wind and chill was actually calming, it distracted him from his stewing over his recent decisions. In fact, the conditions almost felt familiar.
His senses were however, quite dulled and he did not even jump went a small hand was placed over the crossbow from the side, sliding it from his grip. Looking up, the tipsy dwarf took in the slight form of his neighbour. The reason of his drunken state, the elven woman looked even more stunning to him in the pale light. She was clad in mithril, the metal of the dwarves and elves, the fine elven armour clinging to every curve on her slight frame.
“Imsh not shmoving to a…” the barber started his defence but the woman shook her head and put her hand up to silence him.
“I am not here to force you from your home Argus, I am here to make sure you are not alone”. Her voice was low and even and its melodic accent soothed the defensive dwarf immediately. It was the last thing he wanted however, shame still burned in his chest. He was angry at himself, of course she rejected him, they were not even of the same race. He was short and hairy and she was tall, ethereal and elegant. But like many of the other dwarven stereotypes he bucked, he found that he could not get beauty of elves from his mind. He found the elven witch exotic but his love for Tessaraea was more than looks, she was kind, intelligent and had been such a close friend.
His self-deprecating thoughts were suddenly obliterated as the elf carefully stepped around in front of him, and sat down onto his lap on an angle and leaned back so that her head lay across his shoulder and back of the chair. Her small hands pulled his arms around her waist and she closed her eyes, a soft wordless melody on her lips. Argus suddenly found himself quite sober and alert and it took him a moment to realise he was not breathing. Her presence was calming though and warmth from her body allowed him to relax. Not moving, he just put the chair into a slight rocking motion and stared out into the darkness beyond his windows. He did not want to leave this chair again but as he flicked his thumb across her mithril shirt, a plan began to form. It could however, wait at least half and hour.
Xanthippe heard it first, a sound that very faintly differed from the howling wind. Straining, she tried to distinguish what it was. Noticing his daughter’s sudden change in alertness, Isker looked to her and realising what she was doing, motioned for everyone to hush. The second time, most of the militia in the town hall heard it, faint but distinctive. A child’s cry.
Several men suddenly surged towards the door, but Isker motioned for them to stop. He ignored the angry and accusatory glares from the concerned villagers but he was the only army experienced person here and he also had to protect them. Again, the cry came, closer and more desperate. He allowed the men to push open a shutter to look but continued to block the door from being opened. The men fought to keep it open, the wind pushing back hard against the building. The cry continued, but nothing but darkness and white could be seen. It didn’t seem right, and Isker called for the shutters to be closed despite the protests.
He thought he was about to have to fight off the angry farmers when the crying stopped and a whistle started. It pierced the wind and a nearby dog started to howl and bark. The sound was directly outside the front doors and it froze every man and woman. It was strange, unlike any whistle a human could produce, and it started to move, with no dip in its sound. Slowly, so painfully slowly, the strange whistle circled the town hall. Not a man moved or breathed, and as it is approached the front again, the nearby dog had worked itself into such a frenzy, it could be heard breaking free from its kennel and make for the sound. Silence. No whistle nor barking. The sudden silence was even more terrifying, as no sounds of fighting was heard nor even the wind.
It became too much, the terrified villagers lost any sense of sound thought and surged forward out of the hall. Isker was thrown to the side as he tried to prevent the mass exodus from safety as each man and woman ran out into the square and towards their homes. The sound of the crying child could be heard again and several stout men turned and ran towards the sound despite Isker’s screams of warning. As they approached the path between two houses where the child in distress could be heard, a large, white furred wolf crawled over the top of the house above, its mouth open and the sound of a child’s cry mockingly erupting from it. Before his very eyes, the men he had known for decades were frozen statues, the cold mist still rising from their crystalline forms matching the roiling coils still coming from their point of origin, the great white wolf.
The chuckling wolf turned its attention to the other villagers who now just stood and stared at it, disbelief and terror written across their face. That distraction was all that was needed. Alexander, the logger never got a sound out as a huge clawed hand crushed his head in one swift action. Within a blink of an eye, both ice troll and winter wolf was among the confused militia.
Three people quickly fell to the onslaught before they finally found their focus. With Isker bellowing orders, they quickly formed a ring around the two attacking creatures. The strange wolf continued to chuckle, a low throaty, mocking sound. It spoke a strange word and the troll surged forward. The line broke immediately, the men who faced its charge turned and ran only to be rent apart by icy strong claws. Again Isker screamed at the men to hold the circle with weapons out.
“Stop this foolish sacrifice of men, human” the wolf growled looking at the desperate blacksmith. “Gift us two men of your choice and we will be done tonight.”
Tightening his grip on his well-worn longsword, Isker eyed the circling wolf. What manner of beast is this he thought to himself, how is this happening? A growl from the troll broke his thoughts and the watched as the wolf cocked its ear before continuing to speak.
“I am sorry human, apparently it will not be of your choice, my friend here wants the one who brings the pain of fire. Bring that one and we will spare your village for rest of the night”
The wolf’s answer did not come from Isker, nor in the form of words. An arrow flew past the circle of humans and dug hard into the creature’s flank before exploding into hot, sticky fire. A human like scream echoed from the creature and as it rolled into the snow another arrow struck the surprised troll, sending it too into the snow.
“Now!” bellowed Isker has he surged forward on the distracted winter beasts. The remaining men also surged forwards, emboldened by the pained sounds of their enemy.
Swords and spears stabbed into the great troll, though many failed to find home through the toughened hide. Despite its pain, it still flailed and several men were thrown back, injured and bruised. It quickly found its feet and will a roar, turned and charged down the road towards the lone archer.
Isker, trained as he was, still found it hard to strike true on the huge wolf. It rolled and snapped as it tried desperately to put out the cruel fire. Isker had to be quick to avoid the sharp claws and dagger like teeth and only managed several shallow cuts on the creatures hide. Quicker than he believed possible, it was up and on him. The creature bore him to the ground, a fury of cold and teeth snapping at his face. Claws found home in his chainmail and he could feel white-hot pain down his chest as chain links separated under the brutal assault. Still, he managed to grip the creature by the neck, forge created muscles straining to keep it at arm’s length.
“Your throat’s hot blood will slake my thirst human” hissed the wolf as it tried to dig in and force its weight down on the struggling human. Isker felt fear grip him again, his strength was failing and this beast’s threat rang true in his ears.
The weight suddenly shifted as the wolf again screamed with its creepy human voice. It rolled off the blacksmith as Xanthippe and two villagers plunged spears into its flank and heaved. The creature rolled until it was caught on the released spears that stuck out like a quillbeast. Two more villagers then responded to Xanthippe’s command and rushed forwards and dragged a heavy, canvas sheet over the creature. Quickly grabbing the various ropes hanging off of it, the villagers started twisting, pulling and heaving it around, entangling the pain enraged creature within its confines. With sudden terror, the beast smelt the unmistakable fumes of oil, it permeated the entrapping material. Its sudden desperate surge timed perfectly with Xanthippe’s final command. Torches hit the thrashing material and the “whoomp” sound temporarily drowned out the wolf’s screams. It burned hot and even the victorious villagers had to retreat some distance from the heat.
Behind them, a lone elf stared down every nightmare she had suffered over the last thirty years. With bow in hand, she stood silently in the street as the great, muscled engine of destruction bore down on her. She had nothing left, no more alchemist’s fire, no more bombs. She loosed another arrow, now no longer guided by her True Striking magic. It hit but bounced off its thick fur. Another followed but without the enhancement of bombs or magic, they barely scratched the beast. Even if they had, the creature’s regeneration powers would have made it moot within seconds.
It was now fifteen feet away, the creature lifted from its four legged gallop to reach out with its life crushing claws. Every inch of her being screamed for her run, terror tightened her throat, and numbed her hands. It was too late, there was no time left and she thought of her long lost brother, his life taken by the cruel, evil ice trolls of the North. Tensing, she stared directly into the mask of rage she faced and yelled “Now”.
Thin, but steel strong wire pulled up from the snow to waist height in a flash. The thin strip of mithril wire that Argus had managed to unravel and straighten from her armour with his surgical tools held fast and the beast fell forwards, flipping over the trap. Diving to side to avoid being crushed by the flailing mass, Tess called out a second time. The beast was in unimaginable pain, while waist high to a human, the mithril wire was only thigh height to the troll and muscle and skin had been torn asunder. While it would heal quickly enough, it was all they needed as doors swung open and village folk surged out and coated the entire area in alchemist’s fire and oil. The street was wide enough to account for some poor throwing, and within seconds, a twenty foot long section of their main Western street was ablaze. The creature tried to surge forwards out of the killing flames but it found itself facing an angry, well groomed dwarf. With a click, the bolt from the heavy crossbow and struck the creature square in the chest, sending it sprawling back into the inferno. Screams could be heard but when it finally burnt out, nothing remained, no trace of the creature was found.
While a cheer did echo around the darkened, snow struck village, it quickly subsided as it became apparently they had lost many neighbours and friends. So much damage, so much life was lost by the claws of two strange beasts. What if there were more? Why hadn’t the Sentinels returned to aid them? And where were their Heroes of Heldren? If this is what had made it to their village, what was out in the woods?
These questions were still keeping them alert when dawn broke over the tiny village of Heldren. It was still cold and blustery, but the light was a welcome friend, chasing away fears and dangers that lurk in the darkness. Ionnia looked on from the town square, overseeing the clean-up. People were tired and weary, many bore wounds from the night’s events but despite their loss, there was grim determination. They had all become Heroes of Heldren that night. As a break in clouds revealed some sunlight, she felt that they had had held up the legacy of Heldren himself and the first settlers of their proud little village.
Walking back inside, she now had to make a decision, what to do if their chosen heroes did not return?