"Did you hear that?" he hissed loudly.
Grawit opened one bleary eye and glared at the drover.
"No." he said grumpily. "I'm asleep. Why are we stopped"
"Stow it," said Tuk, still alert, scanning the rock walls around him as best he could. He hated this part of the road, where the sun only shone for a short time around noon and the rest of the time was shrouded in gloomy twilight. "I definitely heard something. I think it might be wolves."
"What's the commotion?" A third orc appeared at Tuk's elbow, alert and worried. She shaded her eyes and joined Tuk in looking for danger.
"Tuk heard something," said Grawit yawning. "Again."
Rosslin favoured the drover with a suspicious stare. "Again? What was it this time?"
Tuk sounded defensive as he replied. "It was a wolf I'm sure of it. Or someone pretending to be a wolf."
Rosslin and Grawit exchanged a long suffering glance.
"You shouldn't have let him go see that mystic before we left Runegrott," said Rosslin. "He's been like this for days."
Grawit shrugged as if to say "what can you do" and sat up properly on the narrow bench, yawning and stretching. Tuk bridled.
"She told me she saw it clear as day." he said, a little sulkily. "I'd meet a bloody stranger on the road, and that he - uh - he carried something on his back that she could not see and..."
"And in one hand he had chance and in the other fate," finished Grawit in a sing-song voice, sliding an affectionate arm around the drover's waist. "You said. A few dozen times. In between complaining that we were being watched, and hearing odd noises, and this is the third time we've stopped today. Much longer and salt or not these fish are going to be able to walk all the way to Ironberg by themselves."
Still, for all the gentle mockery in his voice, with his free hand he pulled a javelin out of the quiver strapped on his side of the wagon and his gaze was not on his husband but on the road ahead. There had been talk of renewed activity by bandits since the orcs had set about revitalising the northern trade routes. Army deserters mostly, along with a few disgruntled Winterfolk who refused to leave Skarsind but also refused to accept the presence of their new neighbours.
"What are we looking for?" asked an unfamiliar voice from Grawit's side of the wagon. He snapped his head round and could not contain a cry of fear and surprise, his javelin falling from fingers suddenly, inexplicably numb. As Tuk fumbled for his handaxe, Rosslin shouted an oath and tried to roll under the covered wagon. Unfortunately, as Tuk tried to stand and draw at the same time he fumbled, stumbled, stood on his own cloak and nearly fell head first into the arses of the oxen. At the same time, Rosslin mistimed her agile roll and instead managed to smack her head on the underside of the wagon with an echoing thump, and a groan, and then silence.
A great shaggy shape loomed over Grawit - but was it looming though? Afterward Grawit and Tuk could not quite agree on quite how tall the thing had been. They wrangled about it for the rest of the journey often long into the night - Grawit swearing it was as tall as the top of the covered wagon, Tuk disagreeing and claiming it was shorter than he was, and neither of them prepared to agree even on how many eyes it had, never mind what colour they were.
Either way, the great shaggy shape had managed to get within arm's reach of Grawit and Tuk without arousing the slightest suspicion. It was clearly neither orc nor human, but some unnatural patchwork creature of horns and fur and claws and hooves, its pelt matted with fresh blood. It took a large bite out of something Grawit realised was a wet, bloody heart the size of an ox head and treated the two orcs to a wide, terrifying, gory grin as it leant against the side of the wagon.
Though its voice rasped and growled, its tone was jocular - gleeful even.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you." it said taking another bite out of the dripping offal in its other hand. "I just want to be friends."And then, in the confusion, as Rosslin pulled herself out from under the wagon, and Agga and Nattak came running up from the other wagon shouting, and Tak tried to get his footing, the beast chuckled. And that dreadful, unnatural sound - even more than the insane, impossibly wide grin - made all the blood in Grawit's veins turn to icewater, and all the hair on his back stand on end.
A grim figure has been spotted on several occasions over the last three months lurking around Pakaanan's Pass in Skarsind. Occasionally it is seen in northern Northspires (in Hahnmark) and along the eastern shores of East Floes (in Sermersuaq).
Eye witness reports describe it as a shaggy beast of roughly humanoid proportions, stooped, moving with a loping gait. It is horned, furry, and clearly not human or orc. The initial stories are largely dismissed as describing a rogue shaman or a mystic addled with drugs and visions - or attribute the sightings to a lack of sobriety in the Winterfolk and orcs who report them.
Then the first mammoth corpses start turning up. The hunters and travellers who encounter them speak of finding the gory remains of these majestic beasts, especially in the vicinity of the Clattering Gulley. The first incident occurred five months ago, but since the Summer Solstice there have been at least a dozen more finds. The early remains belonged to single creatures, judged by the hunters to be juvenile males, but the two most recent slaughters have involved small family groups. In each case, the creatures appear to have died of some misfortune (a rockslide, a fall over a cliff, trapped beneath a tree) but after death they have been rent apart in an almost methodical manner. The meat and fur have been largely discarded but all the bones - including the great ivory tusks - are gone, and there are signs that something bestial has feasted on the internal organs especially the heart, brain, liver, and kidneys.
A week before the Autumn equinox, an explanation is provided in the form of the aforementioned shaggy beast. What were dismissed as spooky fireside tales are revealed to be sightings of the Krampus, a creature or spirit previously associated with the Wintermark egregore. The Krampus is a strange being that dispenses curses, but only upon those who ask for them. Individuals who feel the need to atone for something, perhaps an infidelity or a moment of cowardice in battle, approach the Krampus and whisper their crime in its ear. The Krampus curses them, but the curse lasts only until the next winter - at least according to legend and those who survive the curse are said to be absolved of any wrongdoing.
The beast accosts travellers passing through Pakaanan's Pass into Skarsind - especially the merchants leading the caravans travelling as part of the new Crossroads of the North trade network. It ignores people leaving Skarsind, and so far there are no reports that anyone actually looking for the Krampus has been able to find it. Indeed, both a band of Imperial Orcs and a Suaq hunting party who set out with the intention of challenging the beast found their expeditions dissolve into chaos and disaster in short order - everything that could go wrong did go wrong and there are cautionary tales of frostbite, falls, and accidents that have left several of the Krampus hunters permanently damaged.
The creature itself seems disinterested in fighting with humans or orcs. Rather, it seems only interested in delivering its message.
The Krampus has a message for the Imperial Orcs and, rather than simply giving it to them, appears to favour dramatic appearances and shouting it down to travellers from the mountains on the border between Skarsind and Wintermark. While specifics vary, the gist of its message is the same each time.
- It mentions how sorrowful it is that "Burnlin Drum-Heart has not yet sent Runesmiths to carve the stones"
- It expresses curiosity about the Imperial Orcs and their traditions, and offers both to hear their sins and to establish "a compact between Krampus and orcs of the Skarsind tribe" and the many benefits that might come from such an arrangement
- It talks about "a hall of bones" and its desire for a "home before winter comes, either here or with the orcs who know it best"
- It invites "the new masters of Skarsind" to come visit it at its camp above the Clattering Gulley
Its speech is peppered also with odd oaths, riddles, and phrases that make little sense, but the main meat of each message is the same.
An Imperial Orc or Winterfolk character who might have travelled through Pakaanan's Pass during the past three months may have had a personal encounter with the Krampus, seen it from a distance, or heard tales of its antics. The stories of such encounters can be created from the material above.
The civil service have confirmed that a conjunction exists that will cause the Sentinel Gate to open to "the camp of the Krampus, above the Clattering Gulley, in Skarsind" at 10pm on Saturday night that will allow eight people to pass through it, should they wish to do so.