The Outer Realms are in crisis. After nearly four decades of summer, winter has descended, bringing desperation and chaos with it. In the north, a growing horde of bugbears gathers beneath the great wall at Wulfric's Keep, while the town of St. Rufinus, once a center of faith and commerce, is rumored to be infested with undead after a mysterious plague killed most of the residents. Further south, small bands of bugbears and hill giants have managed to cross the thickening sea ice to prey on coastal villages and travelers on the Shepherds' Road.

You are one of such travelers. The convoy of oxcart sleds with which you were traveling was beset by a bugbear raiding party, and you were captured. After taunting and beating you, the bugbears bound you, piled you into the back of a sled with your fellow prisoners and lashed a tarp over you, which helped ward off the wind and cold but locked you in darkness for the length of the journey.

After a cramped and arduous journey of several days, the bugbears finally removed the tarp, dragged you into the sunlight and locked you in a crude circular cage made of narrow tree trunks driven into the frozen ground.You appear to be on the edge of a frozen bay, with mountains behind you and the frozen water stretching out toward what looks like a hazy shoreline far to the west.

Your situation is grim, and you know that if you are to escape, you must do so soon. You have no shelter, so you huddle together for warmth, but you still grow weaker with each passing night. Once per day, a small goblin brings you an iron pot of stewed, musky-tasting meat and a clay jug of half-frozen water, but it is so meager that you feel your body beginning to waste beneath your ragged clothing.

Will you be able to escape? Or will you meet whatever fate awaits you as prisoners and slaves?

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Valindra crouches behind an up-thrust slab of ice and watches their enemies approach. Solera and Ainorei flank her, the snow elf’s hands flexed and ready for spell-craft, the gnome’s fingertips lambent with flickers of arcane energy. Valindra has nocked two arrows to her bow string but has not yet drawn it. It is a cold and grey on the ice as the dusk descends on them. She wants to savor the moment.

From out of the arctic gloaming they approach, four frost giants spread in a loose line preceded by four winter wolves that sniff the air as they seek their quarry. Valindra can make them out more clearly now, the details of their appearance crystalizing as they draw near. Their shaggy capes of mammoth hide, white beards fluttering like grim pennants in the winter wind, massively cruel axes and cudgels held in colossal fists, the giants advance. She can see their faces now, yellowish eyes set deep in abnormous folds of bluish flesh. The giants are cautious and alert, stalking their prey.

Or so they think.

Valindra smiles at her two companions. This is the third party that the giants have sent to hunt them. The first two will not be returning home. Nor will this one.

She finds it all very amusing. Their first raid on the giants’ glacial lair had killed near two score of their foes. She and her two companions then withdrew from the glacier into the mountains to rest and re-strategize a second assault. They had left no survivors. No witnesses to tell the tale of the attack. The giants must believe a more sizable force had assailed them. Valindra smirks. Imagine their surprise were they to learn that two elves and a tiny gnome have injured them so grievously.

The giants come closer, but cannot see them in their concealment. Soon they will be within range.

Even now, with her focus on the advancing foe, Valindra can feel the Leaf Lord’s presence all around her. She feels it in the fractured and tumbled landscape of ice stretching in all directions. She feels it in the slate gray sky arching above their heads. She feels it in the spectral tendrils of snow that endlessly dance and swirl across the frozen plain. She feels it, and she is grateful. Grateful to be one small part of the Leaf Lord’s dominion and grateful for the friends who stand beside her.

Closing her eyes and drawing deeply upon the Leaf Lord’s supremacy, Valindra whispers words of power to her arrows. Redolent with killing energy, the cedar shafts vibrate slightly, alive now, sleek predators eager to slip their tethers and fly at their prey.

The time has come. Solera has begun her evocation. Gesturing and chanting she conjures a lethal blast of cleansing flame from the aether. As Ainorei levitates off the ice, the air around the gnome’s compact body shimmers and coruscates with the latent energy she will soon unleash. Valindra raises Whisper, draws the bowstring to her ear, takes aim, and lets fly.
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Death of a dragon
Magic has always come easily to Solera. Even as a child, many years ago in the distant north, she had mastered the spells and cantrips more quickly than the other pupils of the tribe. The gestures, the incantations, nimble handling of the physical components are like second nature to her. It has always been so.

And so, as she watches the white dragon approach in the sky, she feels no apprehension. As the rest of the party shouts cries of alarm and hastily prepares for battle, Solera merely smiles and turns to face the beast as it rapidly descends upon them. Calmly, she draws a small leather bag from her belt pouch and draws a pinch of sulfur. From a pocket sewn within her cloak she produces a marble-sized rolled sphere of bat guano. She then tosses the sulfur into the air, holds the guano before her in an upturned palm and speaks a magic charm while gesturing over it. Suddenly, the guano ignites and darts off, speeding towards the dragon.

Solera has always been proud of this spell. It was considered the mark of a true wizard to be able to cast it, and its mastery was seen as a real badge of honor. And so it is with deep satisfaction that she watches the fireball explode, engulfing the dragon in flames. The evil thing screams in agony as, wings ablaze, it hurtles like a fiery comet from the sky to crash into the ice plain. The others remain silent for several moments, just staring at the smoke trail in the sky. Then, having put their weapons away, they resume their journey.
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New Life
Twelve days. Chapped cheeks, torn up feet. Scarred face from the ice shards that nearly did us in. A ship full of undead. A dragon. While Solera and Rara seem almost cheerful sometimes, I grow weary of slogging through snow that sometimes reaches over my head, and fighting foes I’ve done no wrong. Today, just as I felt on the verge of complaining, my senses pricked that we were among friends. Valindra spotted movement ahead and quickly identified the slow-moving cluster as gnomes. Despite the cold and the fear, I felt a spark of warmth flicker within as they neared. It wasn’t only my own delight stirring within. I could sense a new excitement in Zilni, which only intensified as we gathered together and shared news. They were a solemn bunch, and carried, with reverence, a tiny bundle that could only be that of the dead. I could feel a restless excitement in Zilni, urging that the fallen one be revealed. Immediately upon Wilvine’s gentle uncovering of her face, awareness… recognition warmed me like heat from a long-burning fire. I knew that Zilni had picked her up in the in-between, where we are not yet dead, but no longer alive. He left me to breathe new life into Selssa, and I could not feel sad at his loss, as they were both so alight with a joy so effusive as to make us forget, for a time, that we were in a frozen hell. How strange that two violent, untimely deaths ultimately resulted in a new life. I pray that this marvel will be constant companion in my mind, reminding me that not all is lost, even when the worst has happened.
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Me Seethes if I Can’t Breathes
Rara was cold and restless. She and her friends had been walking for days across the heavy pack ice, under horrible conditions of blowing snow and freezing gales, sometimes working around soft brash ice. Here, now was a chance at distraction.

The party stood one hundred stride from the boat beset in the ice. They had agreed that it was a dragon-headed long ship of the North People, the fact that there were several North Men frozen in place at their oars and clearly their leader lashed to the mast, reinforced that conclusion. An aura of magic emanated from him, especially his sword.

They quibbled about what to do and what spells to cast. Valindra summoned a mammoth, a fierce giant creature that Rara had never seen or heard of before. Rara was thankful for the haste spell from Solera and the strength spell from Valindra, but she could never get used to the smell and source of bear semen.

Ever the mischievous one, Rara scooped two handfuls of snow and fashioned a snowball, which she then threw towards the deck of the ship. That did the trick! A heavy mist began to obscure the icebound ship, as the blue skinned North Men slowly shed their ice encased shells, with sharp cracks echoing in the air.

The nightmarish creatures shambled towards them across the ice, Rara couldn’t hold any longer and rushed forward, Tenderizer flaying over her head. She almost stopped cold, suddenly not able to breathe. Enfeebled, she attacked. Hulking over her, the creature retorted by vomiting ice-cold briny seawater. Splashed by the monster’s sick, Rara felt suddenly weak. But alas, she was caught up in her rage. She persisted, unable to breathe, gasping for air that was not there. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears and her sight began to fade as if a tunnel or slowly sinking deeper under water. She continued to raise her hammer into the air, bashing it into anything that moved, not stepping back from whatever was causing this suffocation. Her demise would come from her own brash recklessness, just like her mother. Suddenly, without warning her burning lungs finally grasped air. Coughing, surrounded by ever expanding pools of blood on the ice, she saw Diogenes standing over the North Men’s leader, run through by his sword.
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Tiny Hut!

Valindra is grateful for the warmth of the tiny hut. Erected by Solera through the snow elf’s arcane spellcraft, the so-called “hut” is really a dome of magical energy that keeps out the weather, wind, and cold. From within, its walls are near transparent, almost invisible but for faint torsional vortices of magic swirling in the air at the boundary. From without, however, it appears as a hump of whitish-grey, perfectly blending in with the terrain. Valindra tries to touch her finger to its surface, but it passes right through; it does not block physical objects. Outside the temperature drops as the sun sinks and the wind scours the pack ice. But within, all is cozy if a little cramped. Valindra, her feet still a bit gwenders from the cold, is appreciative of Solera’s spell-working skills.

They have been traversing the sea ice for weeks now, trekking through an unchanging landscape. Before them lies an endless terrain of ice broken and piled into irregular hummocks, jagged pressure ridges, and crevasses. The footing has been treacherous and the going slow as they have had to carefully pick their way through the frozen expanse. The wind blows constantly, making the temperature feel colder than it is. Valindra keeps her delicate face buried under her heavy bear skin cowl and only occasionally peers upward into the grey snow-scoured sky. To the south one can barely make out the faint grey line of the shore, the cliffs at the northern edge of the Forest of Ardred. To the north, sea and sky fuse in a grey white haze that may as well mark the edge of the world. And yet they keep marching

About her, her compatriots prepare for the evening, unfurling bedrolls atop a sealskin tarpaulins. Mostly, they go about their business in silence, exhausted from the day’s long trek, in tune with the nightly routine. All are quiet, that is, but Blair who intones a spell of protection around them. Valindra watches with fascination as the war-priestess chants her poem-like orison and traces her fingers in intricate patterns in the air, as she weaves a hedge of spells about their bivouac against strangers come to call in the night.

The elf fishes a copper kettle from the capacious depths of her pack, fills it with snow, and places it upon a low tripod. A minor bit of dweomercraefting is in order. She thus whispers a few minor druidic words of power, makes a few subtle gestures with her finger tips, and blows gently across the kettle’s rim to set a cantrip in motion. Small flames instantly ignite beneath the vessel, curling about its base, melting the snow and then heating the water within. Valindra smiles at her own craft. Just as the pot verges upon a boil, she whispers softly to the flames, speaking calming words to them, asking them to lessen their intensity. When the heat is reduced, she adds a generous amount of pine needles to the pot and lets them simmer. Before long, the resinous and delicious scent of pine needle tea suffuses the air. Hopefully, it will offer a simple but welcome balm to their spirits after a long day spent in the bitter cold.

Later still, having sorted and re-stowed the items in her kit, she thoughtfully sips the last of the tea while her eyelids grow heavy. She looks upward through the roof of the hut, watching snow fall from the winter night above. Praise to the Leaf Lord for the beauty and majesty of this sky. She and Rara have the third watch as always, so she needs to get her rest. And so, stripped down to her smallclothes, she settles into her bedroll. Her weapons are carefully arranged beside her within easy reach should enemies attack in the night. Solera and Ainorei are on watch. As sleep settles over her, she listens to the wind gust and faffle around their camp, and she feels at peace. It is a cold night and she is glad for Solera’s tiny hut.

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