“Soft the pale flakes fall, dancing on the wind like lost souls, clinging to our garments like forlorn orphans begging for invite inside to sit shivering by the fire,” the human said, watching the snow fall..
“I hate bards,” Urgrim grumbled as he brushed snow from his thick cloak with big, gnarled hands. “Can’t you just say it’s snowing and let it go at that?”
Brethan smiled. “And miss a chance to stir your temper? I think not.”
The dwarf grunted. “If the flakes keep dancing, they’ll cover the trail. Then we’ll be the lost souls.”
“Not with Krepp tracking. I suspect he might track a bird if he had a mind.”
“Nothing so difficult as that,” a voice said softly. A halfing in a light gray cloak emerged from the rough tangle of bushes beside the trail, barely disturbing the snow topped branches. He pushed back the hood of his cloak, shook out his thick brown mass of hair, and knelt to sketch lines in the new snow with a quick finger. “The slavers left the trail about a quarter mile ahead, slanting to the southwest, no doubt to cut the road further south and cross the Conerica at the Westerling Bridge. The child is with them.”
“If they cross the river they’ll be in Cheliax proper. And there will be guards at the bridge,” Brethan said, frowning at the ranger’s map.
“Then we get them ‘afore they cross,” Urgrim said. “How far ahead are they?”
“Three hours if we follow their track, less if we cut through rougher country. Their string of captives slows them.” The haflling stood and wiped away the crude map with his boot tip; an old habit from the Goblinblood Wars that had ravaged Isger. He looked east to where the Chitterwood was a mere smudge on a horizon already darkening with the fade of day, then up at the leaden sky. “Be dark in a couple of hours. If we don’t catch them before nightfall we won’t save anyone.”
Brethan nodded somberly, recalling the bodies of a frontier family, daring to build their cabin along the fringe of the Chitterwood. They had followed the tracks from the farm, closing the gap steadily.
“Let’s move,” he said as he hitched up his pack straps. “The sun wanes and no man may stay its passing, nor regain time lost in idleness.”
“’Let’s move’ was sufficient,” Urgrim muttered as he secured his axes and crossbow for the run. Krepp smiled grimly, turned on his heel, and led the way swiftly along the trail.
The way became difficult when the ranger turned them south from the trail into the wilderness less than an hour later. Still he steered a good way, working with the lay of the land.
“Can they make the bridge if they don’t camp?” Brethan asked, ducking a branch that clutched at him with winter stripped fingers.
“They will never make the bridge,” Krepp replied over his shoulder. “Night soon. We must move faster.”
Despite their reckless haste, by the time they cleared the woods, the day had ended. They stood atop a hill overlooking broken terrain. Perhaps a mile away a campfire burned.
“We’re too late.” Krepp looked to the west where a dim glow in the clouds marked the setting sun. He strung his bow and moved towards the camp. Brethan drew his sword and sang softly a prayer to Desna while Urgrim cocked his crossbow and set a quarrel in place.
Screams broke out from the direction of the fire before they had closed half the distance. Krepp motioned to either side with his bow and his companions moved to his flanks, spreading out and breaking into a run. The sounds from the campsite were ones of horror and pain, the pleadings of someone in mortal terror, the curses of a frightened man that ended abruptly. By the time they reached the camp it was silent.
The three slipped between the trees, weapons at the ready, and looked upon a horrific scene. The Chelish slavers were scattered about like discarded puppets, slashed and bloody, three of them. The slaves lay still, shackled in death, as ruined as the cruel men who had taken them. One set of shackles was empty.
A captive moaned and Brethan moved quickly to him while Krepp and Urgrim warily scanned the dark places beyond the fire light. The bard knelt and, singing a quick phrase, sent healing energy into the torn body. The wounds were deep and ragged and responded sluggishly to the spell., but the man took a deep breath and stared wildly about.
“The slavers came across someone this morning, and added them to your group,” Brethan said. “Was it a child?”
“A young boy… bloody clothes… said his family… slain by goblins.” The man looked fearfully into the dark. “He… slipped his shackles as we made camp… ran into the woods. A guard went after him… there were screams. Then… then a creature came, attacked the guards… killed them all… turned on us. We couldn’t run… couldn’t fight.”
The bard searched the guards, found a key, and released the wounded man. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and led him over to sit by the fire.
“It’s out there, probably watching us,” Krepp whispered as he fed wood to the fire. “It would attack but for the fire. Fire light reveals its true nature, so it’s cautious.”
“What…what is it?” the captive asked.
“We don’t know what name to give it,” Brethan answered. “By day it appears human, alive. But at night it changes. There were many Isgeri orphans after the war. Some the priests of Asmodeus gathered to their monasteries, but others were taken by things worse than devil lovers; dark necromancers infesting the Chitterwood, worshipping Urgathoa.”
The captive shivered, “But…it’s a child.”
“No,” Krepp said firmly. “Not now. Tales spread along the trade routes of strange children, lurking at the edge of campsites at night, refusing to come near the fire. And darker whispers of the fate of those who ventured into the dark after them. We came upon a slaughtered farm family two days ago and the spoor of a clawed beast that became a child’s footprints a dozen strides from the cabin. We followed, and when the tracks met those of the slavers we followed those.”
“And now we have run the thing to ground, what?” Urgrim asked. “I have no silver weapon.”
“It’s not a were creature.” Brethan removed his lute from it’s canvas case. “It fears fire, not silver or steel.”
“Then we burn the damned thing,” the dwarf snarled.
“How?” the halfling countered. “It won’t stand and fight if we wield fire. It will run, and we will have to chase it anew.”
“No, it will come to us,” Brethan sighed. He began to sing.
The bard started softly, his voice barely a whisper, the sound of his lute less than the brush of wind through winter leaves. He sang of home and family, of a mother’s loving embrace, a father’s proud hand on a son’s shoulder. There was movement at the edge of the firelight. And then a child stood there.
He was small and thin, with hair like sun dried straw, eyes large and sad. His clothing was tattered and stained, his feet bare and uncaring of the snow they trod. He took a step forward and the fire cast a shadow behind him not at all that of a young boy. It was bestial, hunched over, and moved independent of the child.
The bard continued his song, a threnody wrenching the heart as it told of things loved and lost; if a dying tree regretted the falling of it’s final leaves, a cat its lost kittens, a mother the death of her only child, it was in that song. Krepp wept at the sorrow of it. Urgrim cast down his eyes. And the child drew closer.
It’s shadow grew longer and more animated, as if struggling to stop those small bare feet moving towards the fire that crackled and sent orange embers up into the night sky. It changed in the light; the skin horribly burned, the fingers long and curled with black talons. But the eyes remained those of a child. And it wept. Dark tears, black tears, ran down the face. As the shadow writhed like a tormented thing, the creature stepped into the fire, compelled by the song.
It caught fire instantly, like old corn husks, but it made no sign of physical pain. As the fire consumed it, grateful eyes met those of the bard, and without a sound it burned away to ash, the wicked shadow rising with the smoke, twisting away into the night.
Brethan sank to his knees. “I sang a song of sorrow…and called a child to me…”
Urgrim laid his hand on the shoulder of the weeping bard. Unconvincingly, voice thick with emotion, he said, “I hate bards.”