Into the woods
"So we're agreed?", said Halina - she'd taken the lead for this little enterprise. The siblings Piotr and Agnes nodded, drawing their swords as one. They were to provide the muscle.
"Sure - I'm certain I can slay them with this before the rest of you have time to blink" - with a mean smile, Fritz took his crossbow and began to settle into position in a nearby tree. Only Greta hesitated.
The young mountebank spoke, suspicion in her voice. "You swear we'll split it five ways? No funny business? I've got people waiting for me, you know that. Let's not... we get the coin, we take our shares, we never see each other again."
Halina laughed. The older actor was amused at Greta's reluctance; but she couldn't fault it. "I swear on our city, the City of the North, greatest of the four - we will all receive our dues." Greta scowled.
From the shadows where she had concealed herself, Agnes also spoke. "I think the time for objecting was that bar in town where we all met, no? We are out here in the dark and the cold of the north on the Karov road and it is now that you are getting cold feet? Tsh."
Greta sighed. "Fine. I'll get into posi- what was that?!" Halina rolled her eyes. "Greta. Come. I can hear the approach of the wagon in the distance. We must be ready."
"You don't understand. I heard a scream, I think... or the sound of a bell?". Now it was Piotr's turn to sigh in the shadows. "Greta. Come on. We are all wanting to get back into the warm and spend a large amount of money on sausages and beer. Well, I mean... that's my plan; fuck the rest of you. So get it together."
Greta finally relented, and as agreed took up the position of the injured traveller on the road. When the merchant from the city came past with her guards, they would stop for her; her acting skills would see to that. And that Halina's knife and Fritz's bow and the swords of the twins would see to the rest, and the prize of the merchant's cargo would be theirs.
She waited there in silence. In the distance, she heard the slow trundle of the cart, the tread of the oxen, indistinct conversation between the travelers. They would be here in a few minutes; she could already see their lights. The other four had hidden by now... she could no longer see them against the shadows.
She waited. She began to moan in mocked pain, and she saw the figures up ahead start to hurry and talk amoungst themselves. Finally she saw them - the merchant and, yes, just two guards. This would be easy.
"Help, help! I was injured on the road, my ankle!" The figures ran up, bending down concerned, Greta the plaintive youngster to them. In a moment, Fritz would loose his bow, and that would be that.
A scream rang out from the tree, and the merchant and the guards wheeled around. Greta lay there still, confused. "What's that?!"
Something fell from the tree. Even in the dim light, Greta recognized the face... or what was left of it. It was - or had been - Fritz.
"Oh, fuck this!" - the twins lept out, and Halina, and then, and then - they descended. Figures dressed in dark robes, flesh pallid and slightly ethereal. They seemed to melt from the trees themselves. "And through the woods the shadows creep." said the first - how many were there, though, they seemed to surround the three of them, while the merchant, the guards, and Greta - still pretending her injury - just watched.
"The servants, bloodied, wounded deep." As one, the dark figures spoke, advancing on the ertswhile bandits. "Their hearts lie empty, full of spite." They spoke again, and took another step forward, Piotr and Agnes raising their swords, Halina readying her dagger.
Once more they spoke. "Their voices, empty, bitter, ice." On this final word they descended on Halina, and Piotr, and Agnes, and tore them apart, into flesh, and the ground was thick with blood. One of them turned to Greta, and she steeled herself, preparing for the blow. And it spoke again. "Safe passage granted to the four of you, by the Prince of the Icy Heart. Metri is his domain. By will and compact, he protects. Travel safe."
And then the dark figures, uncountable in their number, seemed to vanish into the night as quickly as they had appeared.
The merchant ran forward to Greta, her lantern lighting the concern and horror on her face. "Are you... are you alright? Be well, child, do not fear. Let us leave this place, before... but who were these poor people?"
"Bandits and thieves," spoke one of the guards, "I recognize Fritz von Locul here from his poster. But what those things were..." The four of them stood in torchlight, trying not to look at the remains of what had been Greta's companions.
"Come, child, rest on the cart. We shall have to return to the city and report this." The merchant offered to lift Greta up, and she accepted, carefully keeping up the pretense of her injured leg. She'd have to do so for a while, but... it was better than being left in this forest with... whatever they were.
As the cart was turned around and she sat upon it, the last she saw of her comrades was the remains of Halina's face, eyes glinting in the fading light. Accusing. That sight would stay with Greta for a long while after the rest of this night fell into the haze of drunken memory... but it was that she longed to forget the most.
Something very strange has happened to the region of Metri in the northern territory of Temeschwar. Since the coldest night of the winter thus far - when the ground was frosted with snow and ice - a darkness has crept into it. Strange spirits are seen, ghostly figures in the night. The dead are said to wander abroad. And yet they do not seem to wish those travellers ill - quite the contrary.
Since the darkness fell across the paths of Metri, there has been no reported incidence of bandit attacks, roadside muggings or opportune violence. The trade routes passing through Metri north to Skarsind and east to Karov have never been easier to travel. Instead, those who intend violence and threaten others are torn apart by ghostly figures that seem to come from nowhere, muttering doggerel and professing themselves servants of "the Prince of the Icy Heart, who offers safe passage". After the first few such incidents... well, word soon gets round. Those who practice the art of robbery choose different tracks, far from Metri where the roads have become surprisingly safe.
Not that people feel safe. The scattered murders are brutal and messy, and there is a constant feeling of being watched by many eyes. According to a story coming from the Fortress of Salt - the mithril mine which is Metri's only notable feature - an argument over spilt beer in the miner's quarters turns messy. One miner, advancing on the other with blood in her eye has his heart torn out by a gaunt figure erupting from a nearby passage. Since then, everyone is being very civil to one another in the mine... just in case. No more incidents have occurred since then but the workers are deeply uneasy. They remain at their posts for now - they are paid well, after all - but the atmosphere at the Fortress is strained, to put it mildly.
The region of Metri in Temeschwar has gained the haunted quality. A presence lurks there. Ghosts and shadows seem to wait behind every crag and tree. Diviners in the territory indicate that they do not think this is the result of an enchantment - that it is somehow the influence of creatures of the realms - but the presence of the potent shrouds covering the Empire means it is hard for them to be absolutely certain. a few more superstitious types, especially those fleeing homes in Metri for the presumed safety of Temeschwar, whisper that this is no temporary curse or magical aura, but that something dark has quietly slipped over the border and set up home.
The major landmark of Metri is the Fortress of Salt, and though as a mithril deposit it is inherently resistant to magical interference, the unease has spread here too. The production of mithril at the Fortress of Salt has not been interrupted, but the current holder of the seat may wish to take precautions to ensure that the current ominous state of affairs does not grow worse. Nobody seems to have any suggestions for how the current affliction might be healed, so perhaps it is nothing to worry about. Still, in the days leading up to the summit, a number of strange looking individuals have been seen around and about in Metri - all asking after Tobias Shanks...
"So the riddle is, how far can you go into the forest?" said the woodcutter.
The smart-mouthed child pondered the question sucking her thumb.
After a moment she pulled it out of her mouth with a loud popping noise and, in a self-satisfied tone of voice, said: "Halfway of course! Because after that you are coming out of the forest.
The woodcutter grinned, and the child was a little frightened by how many teeth were in his mouth.
As his smile broadened, he leaned close to the smart-mouthed little child, and put a hand on each of her shoulders. The child was even more frightened by how strong and bony his fingers were.
But she was even more frightened when the woodcutter's eyes began to glow, and as the meaty stench of his breath washed over her he whispered"Oh child ... silly child ... you do not know the half of it."Traditional Varushkan Tale