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Zeri Rekani

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Zeri Rekani had been summoned by the Bhathairk Council of Elders.

Entrusted, after she vehemently volunteered, with a task that might help solve the riddle of Anima.

The woman Zeri herself had found inside the black heart of the Amalgamation.

The monster that had come close to destroying Bhathairk itself.

* * * * *​

Her family was split when Zeri had come home and told them the news: that she would be journeying to the Spine to procure a reagent, a rare flower, that the Circle of Shamans needed to deduce where the Amalgamation had come from. What the woman named Anima's involvement with It was--unfortunate victim, or willing perpetrator. It was not the only method the Council and the Circle had at their disposal to enact appropriate justice for or against Anima and ensure the safety of the great Orcish stronghold, but it was a viable one.

Ma understood. Pa was very reluctant. And, like her parents, her brothers were likewise split. But, unlike before, when both Ma and Pa were against Zeri journeying out on her own like her elder sister, now at least Ma was supportive. Ma even talked Pa into it, citing that Zeri had done well enough on her short and solo expeditions outside of Bhathairk, that she was quite capable of hunting and traveling and surviving on her own. And, what really made Zeri's heart swell with pride and accomplishment, was the last thing Ma had said to Pa before he relented: "Zeri's not a little girl anymore. She is of age. She can do this."

And Pa did relent. Even gave his blessing that Zeri could go alone, as she wanted. This, on the one condition that he purchase and provide for her two Portal Stone keys, such that she could shorten the journey considerably. Zeri agreed, Ma and Pa nodded in shared consent, and Zeri accompanied her Pa to the Great Bazaar.

There, after seeking out a stall run by a mage schooled in Alliria, Pa traded for the two Portal Stone keys. Handed them to Zeri. Then placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "May the Spirits guide your journey, and your safe return."

Zeri knew that Pa, a full-blooded elf, did not believe in the Spirits as Ma did--not to the same degree. But he knew that Zeri took after Ma, that Zeri believed with all her heart that the Spirits pervaded Arethil and dwelt within every aspect of life. And despite this, he spoke the customary farewell of believers to her. He truly wanted nothing more than for her to be well and for her to be happy, even if those two desires often conflicted.

They embraced, father and daughter, there in the busy Great Bazaar of Bhathairk.

And that night Zeri cried the bittersweet tears of a parting before she slept.

* * * * *​

She had set out from Bhathairk with a crossing of the Bystra river provided by one of the many fisherorcs who went into the river with their small boats. Trekked south first along the Bystra and the bountiful forests along its shores and then west into the Taagi Baara Steppes.

Zeri carried everything she would need in her traveling pack: hide lean-to tent, waterskins and salted rations, thick woolen blanket, firestarter kit, among many other necessities--even found a little room for the combs and styling implements for her hair. Her hunting spear, bow, and bedroll were strapped to the outside of her pack. All told, the pack was heavy, but she had grown more and more accustomed to its weight. Her ventures outside the walls of Bhathairk with her Ma or Pa or her elder sister or her brothers--or some combination thereof--helped build her endurance, this all done when she was younger. Her more recent solo expeditions helped even more so.

What Zeri wasn't used to was the cold. Or would be the cold, once she arrived in The Spine. Bhathairk and the surrounding environs stayed warm throughout most of the year; the winters could be biting, sure, and maybe those experiences would help.

Zeri, normally, wore little clothes: her moccasins, large loincloth, halter, fur bracers. Tribal, orcish, comfortable, good for air flow. But for this journey into the Spine she had to bring along her winter clothes: thick parka and pants and boots and gloves and cloak. Funny. She'd just recently heard the traveling tales of HotepseAken and thought about how much she preferred warmer climates, rather than bundling up like this to brave colder ones.

But bundle up she did.

Once she reached the Taagi Baara Steppes Portal Stone, Zeri took a moment to don all of her winter clothes (stored a bag also strapped to her pack) and then used the ancient device to teleport to The Spine.

* * * * *



(Pinterest)​

The experience of using a Portal Stone, something she'd never done before, was...unpleasant. But it was over with.

The Spine's Portal Stone was to the west of Crobhear Lake, in the foothills of a branching range of mountains. These mountains lay to the east, stretching north and south as far as Zeri could even see. The flower she sought grew high in the mountains, so she set out east, climbing the slowly ascending foothills into the mountain proper over the course of two days.

Presently, shafts of sunlight filtered through the tangle of low, naked branches of the trees in the mountain forest, the green needles of these trees higher up. Zeri stepped carefully over collections of large rocks embedded in the soil and over fallen and broken logs and around the sparse blooms of bushes congregating at the base of the trees and occasionally elsewhere. Wind rustled gently among the trunks and the branches, and the sky above contained no hints of a coming storm. Birds unseen sang their songs to one another, and the sun had yet to reach its noontime apex.

And Zeri walked through this beautiful expanse in search of the flower which might aid her home.

But something had become aware of her presence in its territory.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Weylin Kyrel

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Winter had left the Spine already and Spring had arrived to take its place. It was the time of plenty and of growth. The time of renewal following the time of sleep. It was a happy, warm season here in the Spine. But those foreign to the land would no doubt not see this. They would believe just because a little snow was left higher up the slopes and a chilling wind still blew that the dreamer's season was still upon them.

Weylin found himself crouched down low studying something in this warm period. His thicker cloak and clothes had been stored away. In there place he wore simple wool and leather rather than layers of them with furs. Greens and browns replaced the whites and blacks he had worn before.

The hunter had a frown on his face as he reached down with a gloved hand and stuck it into a slimy goo. He sniffed it, gagged, and held it away from his sensitive nose. White, his faithful companion, padded up and took a sniff herself. She made a low growl as her human wiped the stuff in the dirt to clean it off his glove. The two of them knew the smell. There was a troll around. They were big, lumbering brutes with little intelligence but much strength and the ability to recover from most none fatal injuries given a bit of time. They required fire or magic or magic fire to kill quickly.

Weylin did not like this revelation. His mood was already a little soured as it was as he had been told by the wise ones that he needed to leave the Spine and connect with his other heritage. Exactly what that meant he did not know but he had been slow to actually get himself to leave. He had no idea where to even go and if he did he did not know which paths there he should take. Everything past the Spine was foreign and frightening to him.

And now he also had to deal with a troll....

The hunter lifted himself up higher and began to move. Staying in one place with a troll around would mean death. They might be slower than bears, wolves, and mountain cats but they only needed to hit you one time to kill you. So with speed as their tools, the pair dove further on in hopes to leaving the troll's territory.

=======

An hour had past since Weylin and White had found the trace of the troll. They both were keeping their eyes and ears on the look out for any clue as to one of the beasts attempting to ambush them from the rocks or trees that many of their kind could blend in with. Up ahead the snapping of twigs and crunching of leaves told them something was moving. They got themselves lower and Weylin notched his arrow onto his bow string. Then they pushed forward....

... And they ran right into Zeri Rekani. Her orcish features put the both of them immediately on edge as did the fact she was a stranger. With his arrow aimed at her and enough distance between them that she surely couldn't cross it before he could pull and loose the arrow in the human said, "Who are you? Why are you here?" White had her ears pinned back and was giving off a low growl.
 
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Zeri Rekani

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Zeri had packed her cloak back inside the bag strapped to her traveling pack. It had become apparent on the first day of her ascent into the mountains that the cloak, along with the thick parka and pants, was a bit too much. The physical exertion of walking kept her blood pumping and warm, bringing down the necessity of the cloak on top of her winter clothes. Her parka had a fur-lined hood attached to it, so she didn't need the cloak for that either. When night fell and the cold intensified, she did pull the cloak back out in addition to the blanket, but otherwise she did not need it.

Perhaps that would change, as she climbed further up the mountain's heights and drew closer to the habitable range in which the rare flower grew. But until she reached the steep lands where the snow did not melt, the cloak stayed in reserve in her traveling pack.

In the back of her mind she knew that she would need to hunt or forage for food soon--her rations were running a bit low. A half-day spent focused on a hunt could help, or perhaps a fortunate opportunity would deliver her some game. She had seen a number of fleeting mountain goats, some deer, tree-climbing rodents and bushy rabbits. Hawks and, more worryingly, a distant pack of wolves and a lone bear she had seen as well. No incidents with any predators--or worse, monsters--yet.

Failing to catch or kill game for meat, she could forage. Wild, untamed fruits and vegetables, grubs and insects, could be found if one were to look well enough, and knew which could be readily eaten, which needed prepared, and which should be left alone.

And it was while these ponderings and considerations were going through her mind that she heard a stern voice talking to her in Common.

Two things happened at once: Zeri's eyes snapped up from their generally downward track and at the young human man who had spoken, and Zeri also losing her footing from flinching in her utter surprise and falling--coaxed heavily by the pack on her back--down onto her rear on the forest floor.

He'd, he'd come from nowhere! Granted she wasn't looking and wasn't paying as much attention as she ought to have been, but to her one moment he wasn't there, and in the next he was, standing among the tall trees of mountainside with his bow drawn and arrow nocked and his dog at his side.

Was he a bandit? Why would there be a bandit way out here? Weren't bandits supposed to be close to roads and well-traveled routes? Maybe he wasn't a bandit, and instead this was his land, or the land of his people, and she had unwittingly trespassed.

Zeri shied backward slightly as she sat awkwardly on the ground and raised her hands up to just beneath her chin, a mildly defensive posture that would certainly be of no help should the man loose that arrow. She figured it best to answer his questions; and, as well, felt lucky that he even bothered to ask rather than opening with a shot from his bow.

"I'm Z-Zeri. Zeri Rekani, from Bhathairk. I don't mean you or any one else harm, I-I'm just here in search of something for my people. A flower. A rare flower. An Urdelveogg. I only need to get one a-and then I'll be gone from here, I promise!"

Her inner eyebrows curled upward in a pleading manner.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Weylin Kyrel

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As the orcess finally noticed Weylin and White's presence she jerked and ended up falling onto her behind. Then she began to crawl away a bit and even pleaded with him. She claimed she was here for a flower and that was all.... Was this reality? Weylin knew orcs and none of them were this timid or passive. They might not try to kill him in the way the tribe that had wiped out his family had but they were not like this. She was reacting the way one of the settlers or travelers might.

It had to be a trick. Yes. Yes it was a trick. Weylin narrowed his eyes and began to draw back his arrow. White's growling grew louder to match her human's intensity. He knew this orcess was tricking him somehow. There was no possible way an orc in the Spine could be this meek.

Then the hunter began to notice her clothing. It looked different. It was not created in the fashion of the Spine tribes. It did not cover enough and left too much exposed to the wind. It reminded him more of something travelers might wear.... She was a traveling orcess from a foreign tribe outside of the Spine. How had he not noticed before? She said she was from some Bthathaik place. He thought it just one of the many orc holds in the region but it must be from beyond it. So if this was true then she was telling him the truth and was only here for a flower and not tricking him.

Weylin pulled back a bit further before letting the string slowly return back to its rested state. A sigh was allowed to escape his lungs as he did matching the eased effort he had to make with the bow just so the arrow would not go sailing her way. As he lowered the point to the ground White stopped growling, although kept her ears pinned. She thought her human was being a fool yet again.

"Zeri yes? You shouldn't be here. It is dangerous." Weylin said as he began to already glance around. The troll could be anywhere and he did not like having to stand still this long. A disgusting scent faintly reached White's nose, which caught her attention and got her growling again. Then Weylin caught it even fainter for a second. He frowned as he said, "Get up and move. Don't stop walking."

Zeri Rekani
 
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Zeri Rekani

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Oh no. Oh no, no, no. He was pulling back on the arrow. Back even more than he already had it. Zeri, with no better option save to try and haphazardly shift her traveling pack around and use it as some poor means of cover, only closed her eyes and averted her head and brought her hands up to shield her face.

Yet the arrow didn't come.

The first thing Zeri noticed wasn't the sigh that had come from the young human man, but the cessation of growling from his dog. Zeri dared to opened her eyes and turn her head and peek from behind the shield of her hands and fingers.

Well, he didn't like her presence here, but at least he hadn't put an arrow through her. Her parka and her pants were thick, but she doubted either could fully stop an arrow: they weren't textile armor. A moot point, if he had decided to loose the arrow and struck her in the neck or head.

Zeri yes? You shouldn't be here. It is dangerous.

"Oh. What? I saw a bear not too far back but it--"

Get up and move. Don't stop walking.

His tone was firm, and his dog had begun growling again. Given what he'd said previously it didn't...seem...like she was being kidnapped. If that were the case he'd probably still have the bow and arrow aimed at her. But she had never encountered bandits or raiders or pirates or outlaws of any description in her life, only heard stories about them from the mercenaries and adventurers and sailors and caravan hands and all the rest who came through Bhathairk. And some of those tales were, um, pretty tall. Even Zeri could figure out--often enough, anyway--when a man was boasting and adding in a few extra bad men to make his feats seem more impressive than they actually were. If they had even happened at all.

Maybe it was a kidnapping, for all Zeri knew. No two tales were exactly the same. Some outlaws were rough, some were cunning, some were charming, and all in their own unique ways. Maybe it was a kidnapping, but she didn't think so. Unless he'd been mocking her by saying she shouldn't be here. Um, but, again...why try to kidnap people way out where there were hardly any? And the denizens of the Spine, the orcish tribes and dwarves and frontier humans, were all of a hardier sort and certainly wouldn't make for good targets. Not so lucrative. At least, from what Zeri reckoned.

If not a kidnapping, then...?

Did the human man know something that Zeri didn't? There was that bear about an hour behind her, but it wasn't very interested in her at all. Maybe there were others? A den close by? Another wolf pack? Were mountain lions real? They had to be. Zeri saw pelts from big cats before. Didn't mean they had to come necessarily from the Spine or any other mountain, but big cats existed. They were elusive. Sneaky. One of them could have been stalking her.

"Okay, okay," Zeri said hurriedly, pushing aside her myriad thoughts and just complying. He still had his bow in hand, after all. "I'm standing up. I'll walk."

And she did just that, rolling over so that she was on all fours and pushing herself up and back onto her feet, this method of standing up necessitated by the weight of her traveling pack. She started walking as instructed, sparing a few nervous glances toward the human man as she did, alternating between these glances and little flicks of her eyes to check the uneven ground where she would be stepping.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Weylin Kyrel

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The orcess said something about a bear. Weylin was not sure. He was not paying attention to her right now. The scent got a little stronger and was just enough for him to tell the direction. It was coming from the way the girl had been walking. This thing was hunting her. He could leave her here as bait and get away, but the thought never once crossed his mind the way it might most others. Instead as she began to move he just said, "Wrong way." Then he pointed in the better direction for her to be moving.

This one was too slow. The troll would get them at the pace the girl was setting. Weylin prioritized speed and mobility in the Spine for a reason. What was her biggest problem causing it? He studied her over as he followed along behind her with White sort of roaming out to act like a scout. She seemed fit enough if not use to the terrain. But the terrain should not be slowing her down this much. It would effect the troll just as much anyways so was a none factor right now. What was the problem?

Then Weylin noticed the posture of the orcess. It was her pack. The bulging thing was too heavy for her in this unfamiliar place and was bringing her pace down to a crawl. He caught up to her from behind and said as he got next to her, "Your pack. Remove it."

Then the hunter waited for her to do as he had instructed. The scent had dipped a bit while they were walking as the troll likely got confused by something so stopped, but had picked up its own pace after. It was catching up with them and would overtake them if they did not speed up within the next minute or so. He looked to the girl to see if she had gotten her pack off yet.

Thank the spirits she did have it off. The man scooped it up and threw it over his back in one swift motion. The thing was heavier than he had thought. What all was she carrying? He frowned a bit at that then started to move again. As he did he said, "Follow."

The extra weight did not seem to slow Weylin down too much. He was use to having to carry deer or other similarly heavy prey long distances. If Zeri Rekani paid attention to him she would notice how he weaved his way through the rocks and roots so quickly. It would not be too difficult to copy either. Even White was moving through things swiftly in a similar fashion to her human.

Weylin's mind began to race. They needed a safe place. They needed somewhere to get away from the troll. The brutes were slow, sluggish, and stupid but they were unrelenting when they wanted something dead. It was clear from the way it kept following along their trail that it wanted this stranger. Why it wanted her was a mystery, but an unimportant one. He needed to get her to safety. It was his duty and the right thing to do at the moment.

But they could not slow down or the troll would get them. It made it difficult to come up with a plan. Hopefully an idea would come to his mind soon.
 
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Zeri Rekani

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Wrong way.

"What? Oh. I'm sorry. I just,"--two nervous laughs--"kept walking the way I was going, I--"

The young human man pointed in the direction he wanted her to go.

"Alright. Okay. I'll...just go that way then."

Zeri turned and started in this new direction, stepping over a familiar set of rounded rocks that might have been deposited in their current resting spot by a stream or little river hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years ago. She scooted around a bush here and a bush there and grabbed at the trunk of a tree as she went down a small, but steep, decline. A low-hanging branch from a different tree lightly graced the hood of her parka and pulled it down as she passed by. She didn't bother to pull it back up.

Your pack. Remove it.

Zeri flinched at the sudden closeness of the man right next to her. Just like when he had first appeared: one moment, not there; the next, whoosh, right there. At the same time her shoulders hiked up in her flinch, she turned her head toward the sound of his voice and shied slightly away.

"Ah. Can I--can I just grab my combs before--?" Her wiser instincts intruded then on her incessant need to keep her hair groomed. She unshouldered her pack with a few smooth motions, said as she did, "Nevermind. I'm not trying anything. Here. It's all yours," and set the pack down on the forest floor.

So it was a robbery then. Alright. It was a touch concerning, even worrisome, to lose all of her supplies, but she'd manage; she'd been in this situation before. Not the robbery part, but the being in the wilderness without tools or supplies part. But the Spirits of the Forest would provide: there were plentiful rocks, sticks, makeshift twine components--she could build an improvised spear, hunt with it. Fire would be trickier, and the nights colder and far less comfortable without her bedroll and blanket and pillow. No shelter either. She was going to have to beseech the Spirits mightily, give gratitude for everything two-fold more than was customary.

The man picked up the pack. Shouldered it. Was he going to break one of her legs now? She heard that...happened...during some robberies from a caravan hand once. I-It didn't make sense for him to do it; it wasn't like they were near some settlement where she could summon help.

He didn't. Break one of her legs. Yet. Just said, Follow.

She complied. Saying, "I will. I am. I'm doing it right now."

A few seconds passed.

"You can have the pack. Everything in it. Really, I-I don't mind. There's no"--an even more nervous and worried collection of quiet laughs--"no need to do anything...drastic. Right? I won't tell anyone. I swear I won't tell anyone. We can keep this, um, civil. Nice. You know?"

Zeri followed after the human with an agility of her own, achieving this much easier without the weight of her pack hampering her movements. It wasn't backbreaking, the weight of her pack, but it precluded being able to hop as deftly as she could now and bounce as effortlessly over hazardously protruding roots and rocks. The human man kept up his own agility regardless of Zeri's pack, she noted. In that regard he was more orc than she was--his strength. Just like humans could have sons or daughters that towered above their norm, orcs (or an orc and an elf in Zeri's case) could have a daughter who was both small in stature and short in physical prowess.

Somewhere distantly behind them, a crashing and a snapping of naked branches from a tree. Birds abandoning their perches and flying up and away in a flutter of wings. Zeri did not notice. She was far too concerned with the human man and his--she reckoned--dubious intentions.

Up ahead, however, Zeri did notice something. Not a noise, but a sight. Through the trees she could see things which, by their very shape, were not natural. Constructions. Buildings. And they were drawing nearer and nearer at their hurried pace.

"Is that where you live?" Zeri asked. She immediately walked it back. "I don't--I don't want to pry. It's not my business, you probably like your privacy, I imagine. I...um...I don't know why I assumed that. F-Forget I said anything. I'm sorry. I'm being rude."

And she kept following his lead. Trying not to wonder how this would end.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Weylin Kyrel

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Talk, talk, talk. Words, words, words. This orcess was becoming more and more of a human settler than a tribal orc with every passing second. Did she not know the value of silence? Save her breath for moving and when there wasn't a troll tracking her down. It was as if this girl was oblivious to the fact it was around....

Weylin wanted to smack his own face. That was it. She did not realize the danger she was in at all. He had not been listening to her up to this point as his focus was entirely on the ever closer signs of the troll behind them. First it had been the scent of the thing, but the wind had shifted so that was lost. That would have been less concerning to him if it had not been replaced by the sound of the thing trundling through the trees. If it was close enough to be heard it was close enough to sprint them down if the trees grew thin enough.

The hunter just said to Zeri as he kept his eyes and ears as open as absolutely possible, "Silence. No more talking."

The troll could likely hear her. It probably could not make out her words but hear the muffled sound that gave her and him away. Trolls relied more on their sight and smell after all, although how they didn't notice their putrid mix of rotting flesh, stale musk, and souring blood was unknown. The main problem right now was this troll had her scent and now could hear her. The thing just could not see them and that was what was keeping them alive.

Weylin was already on edge enough not knowing where they could go given the closeness of the troll when he clearly heard the sound of the troll charging a tree. They did that sometimes when they were frustrated and very hungry. It was not good news for them. Trolls were already tenacious but they had managed to upset it by avoiding it for so long. And the crash confirmed it was even closer now than before. How was it moving faster than them through these woods?

More words came from Zeri but Weylin's focus on listening actually caused him to pick up what she was saying for once. She was going on about where he lived. What did she mean by that? He lived in the woods wherever he could find a safe place to rest not in some kind of house....

Weylin stopped in his tracks. A house in this area would be impossible. Too many things roamed the woods such as trolls. But that was only an issue for those living in the woods. It was entirely different if you lived under it. She had found a dwarven outpost. Those things were scattered all around the mountain side. The dwarves were always fighting someone, especially themselves, so they were constantly building outposts. If there was one here it might save them from the troll.

As the hunter was looking around a short series of barks erupted from off in the woods somewhere. It was White signalling her human that the troll was near. They had no more time left. He managed to spot the stones of the building as some crunching slowly began to build in the direction they had come from.

In a bit of a panic he quickly ran over to the orcess and scooped her up. Then he began to sprint as fast as he could towards the stones. She struggled, which was an issue, but he remained determined. He was not going to stop or drop her no matter what.

Suddenly from right behind them a hulking mass of partially fur covered flesh splintered trees as it came charging in. It had narrowly missed them and likely would have gotten one of them if he had not picked up the orcess when he did. It was gray and red with that rancid reek of a troll. It had three sets of eyes as one was in the middle of its forehead larger than the other two. Huge tusks stuck out of its jaw and a huge, flat nose seemed to take up what space its eyes and mouth did not. It roared at them furiously as it thrashed around the trees. Those not thick enough snapped while those that were bent. It pounded the ground, causing dirt to fly up into a cloud. Then it calmed and sniffed the air. It set its three eyes on Weylin and Zeri before getting into a stance to charge yet again.

This was what Weylin dreaded would happen and it was worse than he thought. It was not just a mountain troll but an elder one at that. That was how it had caught up to them so quickly. It could stride twice as fast as any orc or human or elf and did not fear knocking down trees like blades of grass. They needed in that outpost already but were not.

Thankfully the entrance was facing their way. A gift of luck had been given to them. His legs straining from the effort of both maintaining the full speed sprint as well as carrying the heavy load that was Zeri and her pack, the hunter did not yield. He rushed forward as quickly as he could as a blur of white past them and made it into the place first.

The troll charged once more. Its height carrying its massive bulk faster than anything could hope to outrun it. It craved flesh, fresh and bloody. It craved the scent of the half orc woman it had never eaten the likes of before.

The ground rumbled beneath Weylin's feet. It reminded him of when he had giants sprinting around him. Only this time he could not hope to make a deal to avoid being consumed. He began to prey to the spirit of nature that his death could at least save this lost traveler as his end in his mind was certain. Then he felt pressure and weight hit his back. Some of his ribs cracked on the impact despite the cushion that was Zeri's pack. It sent him and her flying forward. It sent them flying straight into the doorway of the outpost and tumbling too far into it for the troll to get them.

Zeri Rekani
 
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Silence. No more talking.

Zeri couldn't help it. She already talked a lot naturally. And she talked more when she met someone new. When she was curious about something. When she was nervous. It just so happened that this particular encounter happened to contain all three of these qualities. She wasn't exactly sure if being quiet was, in fact, the way she could ensure that she walked away from this. With both legs unbroken. Even if it was some sort of mystical challenge, for her to stay silent in this situation for five minutes and in exchange everything would be made okay again, she...retained her doubts that she could.

She kept following the young human man. Young human robber? Bandit? Kidnapper? ...Slaver? She hadn't even thought of that one yet. This just kept getting worse and worse.

Then he stopped. Just stopped. Not long after she mentioned his house (or what wasn't his house). He was glancing around. His dog, elsewhere, started barking. Zeri stepped awkwardly on a rock as she turned to look toward the sound, hissed and winced softly, then tested her foot. Seemed alright. Just needed to be careful, even now. Especially now.

Zeri's brow narrowed then. She heard something. Behind? Not the wind, deeper and visceral than that. Like a tree falling or--

Her feet weren't on the ground anymore. She went from standing, to laying--in a sense. The man. The human man, the robber-bandit-kidnapper-slaver human man, he-he just grabbed her! Carried her! Oh no, no, no, what was in that house over there? It was bad. It was bad, wasn't it? And he was taking her there.

"H-Hey!" Zeri exclaimed. She grabbed one of his upper arms in one hand to steady herself, and beat on his chest with her hand. Squirmed her legs. "Put me down! I did everything you asked! Maybe. Not. The talking part. But! Let me go and--!"

That deep and visceral cracking, those guttural snaps of branches and crackings of trunks, those weren't figments of her imagination. Those were real. Not the wind, not the bear that she saw, not even a bunch of other humans coming around to join the young man as part of some outlaw band or something. And Zeri saw past the man's arm and his shoulder as she was carried something BIG and hideous stomping toward them with a frightening simian gait--the same sort of gait the Amalgamation itself walked in.

All the color drained out of her face and her mouth and eyes and brows sank in a single, fleeting moment of shock and incredulity, then flared up immediately thereafter into a crackling terror.

"Aaaaaaaaahhhhh--on second thought, don't! Don't let me go!" Zeri said, her words as pale with fear as her face.

What was that thing??

In the catastrophic implosion of her mind into terror in that moment, her knowledge (secondhand as it was) of trolls was lost amidst the noise. In a calmer setting she might have been able to pinpoint the key features that distinguished this particular troll as a mountain troll, as distinct from the other types found elsewhere in Arethil. She might have even been able to say that it was an elder troll--maybe. But none of that was currently forthcoming. All she knew was that the thing behind her was a lot more hostile and far more frightening than the human man who was carrying her.

It was getting closer. Closer. Spirits! It was fast! It was going to--!

Hit them. The young human took a mighty blow to the back, the sound of it like a deep WHAP as the troll's hand clapped hard against Zeri's pack. Both Zeri and the human went sailing. A smack. Against wood. She felt it on the sleeve of her parka and the leg of pants of her right side. A sudden change of scenery.

Zeri had hit the door of the dwarven longhouse and knocked it open and both she and the human man flew inside and onto the floor and rolled to various lengths across the length of the hall before each coming to a stop. The light spilling in through the open doorway was blocked almost instantaneously by the long, reaching arm of the troll, thrust into the longhouse and scraping against the floor and grabbing at the two who had gone just enough out of reach.

Zeri pushed herself up onto all fours. Glanced with alarm toward the door, then tempered alarm as she saw that--for now--the troll could not get to them, then with worry as her eyes settled on the human man.

Was this it the whole time? The troll? He knew about it? Not a kidnapping or robbery at all? Was he hunting the troll? Or was the troll hunting him? Nevermind! Nevermind! The creature was still there, still trying to get at them, held at bay only for as long as this dwarven construction could withstand it.

Zeri crawled over to the man in a scrambling haste and just started touching him all over: his arms, his chest, his neck, his cheeks. She didn't really know all that much about healing arts or aid--that was mostly the work of the shamans and the medicine orcs, to some extent the foreign apothecaries and healers, in Bhathairk. But she didn't feel any blood or anything; no wetness felt through her gloves. That was good. Right?

"Are you okay?? Hey, uh"--she didn't know his name, so, awkwardly, she said, "human, can you hear me? Please be okay. I'm sorry. I should have walked faster. Ran faster. Not..."

She shook her head. The troll's hand scraped against the floor and the wall of the longhouse.

"We can't stay here, and I can't carry you! There must be..."

Something. She started glancing around the longhouse. Searching for something that wasn't just another door leading outside--that would be the worst possible option.

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Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt.

Weylin's ears were ringing. He had taken a majority of the impact of the charge as well as the tumble. What exactly had happened to Zeri during it was a mystery to him that he was currently in no position to solve. As bad as the death bells were the haze had taken his eyes. It was impossible for him to focus on anything right now and every attempt just seemed to make it worse. Also was the world spinning slowly upside down?

A bit of blood dripped from the hunter's head to the floor.

A breath came rushing into his lungs. He had not even realized he was not breathing there. With the expansion of the air came intense, precise pain. His back just behind his lungs was were it originated but seemed to just spread out to everything around it. The breath out was just as bad. The whole experience caused him to wince and groan a bit.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

The troll was done trying to reach for the two of them and had started to try and bash its way into the outpost. This action caused White, who just seemed to pop up out of thin air not far from the two of them, to start barking up a storm with growling thrown in so the troll knew she was serious about tearing its throat out. But this just frustrated the pure brawn. It roared loudly back then doubled its efforts at breaking through the stone.

Weylin made a weak whistle to get her to stop provoking the beast, but it was just drowned out by the two of them having their shouting match. This action even backfired as it just made him feel like he had a sword run through his chest from his back. He groaned out in pain again.

The orcess was in a panic. She was talking again as well. Something about not being able to carry him.... Oh right. The troll was still close even if they were safe for now. With a very painful effort he got himself back onto his feet. Instinctively he twisted his body about trying to find a comfortable way to stand but none could be found. It seemed he was just going to have to deal with the pain. Looking around quickly Weylin vaguely recognized the layout of this place. It was an old dwarf outpost. A very old dwarf outpost. The stones were thicker as well than a normal one. Was it built to handle a siege? He was not sure. That was more of his dad's thing. But he recognized the layout just enough to know they were roughly still in the entrance.

Pointing into the darkness away from the troll Weylin said, "In. Further in." Then with each step causing sharp spikes in the pain of his torso he began to head slowly inside. These outposts always had more build into the mountain than was exposed on the surface. The top layer was more of an entrance way than a proper building in that way.

As the pair went further in they would find the floor sloped downward. It was not in an uncomfortable or difficult to walk fashion but more of just being noticeable. Eventually the hallway, which had lacked doors or off shoot rooms, would become a room. It was also a dead end. But the sounds of the troll were much fainter now than they had been before. The shaking they likely felt earlier was gone now as well. But it left one to wonder what this outpost even was used for or if the obvious strange design was the reason it was abandoned in the first place.

Weylin could not walk any further. The pain was too much for him from just that short walk. He had to sit down on the floor. As the hunter lowered himself down his dog companion came over and laid down next to him. She acted like a supportive pillow he could lean on. He got the pack off and then pushed it out towards Zeri.

"Here. It is returned."

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There was blood. He was hurt. She saw it drip down from his head, from a spot she had not checked with her gloved hands. But he was breathing! That was good, right? He groaned some, his face scrunched up some with pain, but he was awake. Conscious. It could have been worse--she didn't know if she'd be able to drag him as far as they might need to go, or--more pressingly--as fast as they might need to go.

His dog was nearby, somehow gotten inside the dwarven-made building, and barking angrily at the troll battering the stone construction. It held (thank the dwarves and the Spirit of Stone for that!), but this was only just for now. That troll was huge. A mass of hulking, furious muscle. If the longhouse couldn't hold, then Zeri and the young human man would be in dire peril once more.

"Hey, hey," Zeri said to him. "You're okay, you're okay. You're doing great."

She felt a touch bashful and guilty in the fact that she didn't exactly know either of those things--if he was okay or if he was doing great. But, in some small way, she hoped that just by saying this to him, that he might allow himself to believe her and that tiny boost of optimism could help him along in whatever way he needed. Sometimes just thinking positively, having an encouraging friend, or a belief that things were going well (even if they were not) could do wonders; the mind had a way of assuaging the aches and agonies of the body.

Another loud and reverberating THUD against the stonework of the dwarven longhouse, the top-side structure of the outpost.

The human man started to get up. Find his feet again. Zeri started standing with him.

"There you are. Easy. Just like that. I'm not going to leave you, okay? I'm right here."

THUD, and a frustrated, low-pitched growling from the troll outside.

The human man seemed to stagger some. Twisted his body around in a way that--to Zeri--appeared only to cause him to grimace again. She didn't want him to fall or stumble, so she stepped next to him, side-by-side. Took one of his arms and draped it over her shoulders, supported his lower back with her own arm.

Said, "H-Here. Lean on me if you need to. Really, I don't mind. We can--"

THUD, yet again, from a different spot against the outside wall of the dwarven structure. The troll in its aggression testing, almost systematically, for weak spots.

The human man said to go in. Further in.

Into the darkness further in.

Zeri swallowed. Bit her lip for second. Then said, "Alright. F-Further in, then. I can--We can do this. Spirits, we can do this."

She hated the dark. Hated it. There, there, there was just something really unsettling about it. About what could be in it. About not being able to see what could be in it. Really, anything could be in it. She almost always fell asleep to the light of a campfire or the faint shimmer of the moon and stars on a cloudless night. And Bhathairk was hardly ever completely dark; maybe if it was windy or stormy and all of the night fires and candles and torches went out. She just, she, well, she just didn't like the dark. And she had never grown out of it.

But down the sloping hall they would go. It was either the troll, or the dark. And while she was afraid of the dark and what could be in it, she was most certainly afraid of the troll and what it definitely want to do to her and the human man.

At the very least, it wasn't completely pitch black down here. Some scant amount of reflected light that leaked in from the surface structure made it down to this...dead-end? Oh no. They needed a light. Something to find a way, if there was a way. If the troll got into the above-ground portion of the outpost, it might be able to crawl on its belly down the sloping hallway and reach them.

The human man, his steps slowing and drawing closer together, indicated that he couldn't walk any further. Not right now. He sat down and Zeri sat down across from him. Close, to better make out his dim outline in the underhall. If she was going to be in the dark, she didn't want to be alone.

He then took off Zeri's pack and pushed it toward her, sealing that this was not the robbery she had assumed it to be.

"Oh. Thank you," she said. Pulled it over to her side. Her firestarter kit was buried inside--it could come in handy for making an impromptu torch.

She looked back at him. A thread of concern weaved in her tone as she said, "You're bleeding. Are you...does anything else hurt? I don't know much about how to render aid, j-just some of the basics. I can help. If you know what to do. And need. Help. I can do what you tell me to do, is what I'm trying to say."

Then, she added emphatically, "I'm really good at following instructions, I won't make it worse, I promise!"

Aside from the...talking...thing.

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By the gods this orcess did not know how to stop talking. On and on and on and on she went. It was better when his ears were ringing and he couldn't make out what she was saying but by the time they made it to the dead end room that had stopped and her words were clear enough to understand.

A thank you then some rambling about bleeding. Was he bleeding? Likely. Weylin hurt enough that it would be strange if he had not broken his skin at least one time in all of this. She went on asking if anything else hurt. Of course it did. He was hit by an elder mountain troll and sent tumbling with this same orcess in his arms into a building made entirely out of stone. That sort of thing tended to hurt, bruise, and bleed someone.

Weylin had started to scratch White to calm her down when Zeri's last comment was spoken. Was she serious? There was nothing to do right now but rest and wait out the troll. It could not get into the building no matter how hard it tried and even if it did then it could not get far. The hallways was too cramped for the thing. All it could do was crawl on its belly to get them and while they could not flee at least they would die knowing it was going with them from a much slower and crueler death by starvation as it would not be able to escape this building that would be its tomb.

The orcess had been frustrating the hunter this whole time with all of her words, ignorance to the dangers around her, and now asking him to tell her what to do next. She had a head and could think for herself. So finally done with it all and walking away not being an option the human decided to vent a bit.

Weylin looked directly at Zeri and got her attention, which they were close enough she could see all of it. He said as he just kept on scratching White, "You can help. First strip off all clothing. Next mount me. Finally mate with me. It is how we humans heal."

It was all obviously a lie. He was being sarcastic, although he had said it in a bit of a dry tone given how painful just breathing was right now for him. There was no way she would believe him. What kind of nonsense was it for any living thing to heal from having sex? Humans and orcs and many other races were not that different from each other. This was also true of most animals as well. Whatever worked for one likely would work for another.

Hopefully the sarcasm would tell her that there was nothing they could do right now but wait. The pounding thuds had even slowed down already. The troll had been very active for some time and likely was beginning to tire. The likelihood of it sleeping outside of the building was very high however so they could not leave but eventually the troll's stomach would get it to look for easier prey. Say one of the giant's mammoths or one of the giant's themselves.

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First her eyebrows perked up at the mention of, You can help.

And then they narrowed.

Narrowed some more.

Then her jaw dropped in indignation.

And last her nose scrunched up as her indignation reached it too.

Zeri pursed her lips together and raised her hand to slap the man across the face, but only got to the raising of her hand and held it there up in the air close to her head. Instead of following through and slapping him, she thrust her hand down and crossed her arms firmly and let out an angry puff of air from her mouth. Lips pursed together again, they trembled down into an agitated frown. Her current irritation allowed her to forget all about the unnerving dark and the troll still stalking around above ground and outside the longhouse.

"You don't have to make fun of me," she said, turning her head up and askew so she didn't have to look at him. Genuine hurt was the undercurrent of her words. Brief and vivid memories of certain unpleasantries around Bhathairk in her earlier childhood sprang back to life. Full-blooded tribesorc children saying to her, "Can you hear the sun burning" referencing her ears and, "Hey, your tusks grew in upside-down" referencing her incisors. Names like "Half-Greenie" stuck for a while, seeing that her skin wasn't as deeply green as the full-bloods, and "Lute," because for some reason all the full-blooded children who lived around her home thought that all elves could play the lute and play it well.

Another angry huff.

"So I didn't know about you and I didn't know about the troll and I'm sorry I couldn't run fast enough and I'm sorry you got hit by that thing. There."

Zeri turned away from him and sat facing her traveling pack and mumbled bitterly, "I just wanted to help."

She opened up her pack and started rummaging around the inside and taking stock of the damages. Busy swirling in an aggrieved spiral in her mind and not paying much attention what was and what was not actually damaged inside the pack just yet. Mostly moving things around to little effect.

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The hunter was very irritated and in a particularly foul mood. This combination lead to him having been a bit of an ass towards the poor orcess. And he knew it as soon as she started to get rightfully upset with him. But he was too upset himself to apologize.... Well not right away. He just sat there petting White while in pain and trying not to look at her as she messed with her pack.

But the inevitable came. More and more glances went her way. That guilty feeling when you lashed out at someone wrongfully and knew it began to grow. The little voice in his head telling him he needed to do the right thing got louder. A couple of minutes past in physical and emotional agony before a sigh left him. A sigh that also caused a series of sharp pains to erupt from around his back.

"Sorry. Shouldn't have said that. Nothing we can do but wait. It will leave, eventually." Weylin said to Zeri in a serious although kind of ashamed at himself way. With that done he went back to just dealing with the pain and the guilt and the nearly stopped thumping of the troll as it grew tired outside of the dwarf outpost.

Weylin didn't know when but he started to feel sleepy. His eyes were becoming harder and harder to keep open. It made sense. The body always needed to rest after getting hurt so it could heal and the darkness made it easy to get sleepy. But it upset White for some reason. She started to get finicky and then nudged him with her head. It made it hard for him to fall asleep and so he tried to pacify her by petting her some more. It didn't work.

Crack.

Previously sleepy eyes were fully opened now. What was that noise?

Craack.

Weylin straightened up, ignoring the pain such an action caused him, and focused really hard on listening for that noise again.... But things just stayed quiet. Had he been hearing things? Seemed like it. Perhaps he had hit his head harder than he thought and it was making him see and hear spirits.

Craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.

The noise was impossible to ignore. It lasted for a long time and was loud. It was almost as loud as when the troll was beating on the walls. What could it be? Weylin couldn't place where it was coming from. It just seemed to echo from all around them in the room. He looked over to Zeri and said, "We should le-"

Where once there was floor for them to sit on was now only crumbled stone and a short fall into an underground river. The water was rushing down deeper into the mountain and carrying them with it. The hunter attempted to find a grip on the walls around him but it was straight and smooth. This was no river. It was an underground canal and it was taking them somewhere. It was taking them somewhere they didn't want to be.

Weylin gave up on trying to grab a hold of some kind realizing where they were and what was happening now. Instead he just got on arm around White and the other around Zeri. The hunter pulled them both up close to him in the hopes of keeping the three of them together. The pain this caused was more intense than any he had felt up to this point but it wouldn't deter him. Right now he needed to make sure they survived and escaped this new challenge.

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Zeri's mind settled enough for her to start assessing the contents of her pack. Her hunting spear and bow were okay; had they been strapped to the back of the pack instead of the sides, that would have been awful. Obsidian was hard to come by for her spear, and her bow--although somewhat basic as far as bows went--was crafted for her by her father and held an endearing value because of it. When she lifted up the folded hide of the tent, however, underneath she could see that all of the arrows inside her quiver were snapped. She frowned and pulled out the quiver and discarded the broken arrows on the ground.

And her hatchet was broken? It was still somewhat usable, but one third to one half of the handle had broken off from the troll's hit. She left it in. Tent pegs were bent; the metal itself bowed into an "r" shape. Possibly still useful, so she left them. Two of her four waterskins had burst, getting her blanket (among other things) wet inside her pack. Hm. Not good. She would need to dry the blanket tonight with the heat of a campfire. Her firestarter kit looked okay: the flint and steel were there and undamaged.

Her combs! Her scissors! Everything! All of her grooming implements had sustained damage in one form or another--all of it ruined. With a heavy and unwilling sigh, Zeri extracted the implements and tossed them aside as she had with the broken arrows. Some of those pieces were expensive; it had taken a lot of things to trade for her finer pair of styling scissors.

Zeri rearranged her pack and strapped it shut with her bedroll on top when the young human man finally spoke again. Apologized.

Zeri glanced at him from the corners of her eyes. A tiny trace of lingering, stubborn anger, though mostly it was a cooling irritation. Her eyes went back to her pack and then back to him after a second and then back to the pack. She wanted to say something, but stopped herself. What was the use. He'd didn't want to hear it anyway.

So she sat cross-legged in the semi-darkness. Sat and thought. After a while she leaned forward onto her pack and laid her arms on the bedroll strapped on top. Rested her chin on her folded arms. Sat and thought some more.

Zeri heard a little something. Assumed it was the troll's doing outside. Ignored it.

Another little something. And the human's dog seemed agitated.

Pushing aside her upset feelings in favor of practicality, she asked him, "Did you hear something?"

Then, as if prompted by the mere act of her asking, the same noise came again and this time came roaring in with a much sharper and louder CRAAACK. The human man barely had time to say anything in response when the floor quite literally gave way beneath them.

Zeri gave a high-pitched yelp of surprise and clutched at her pack and then the frigid water hit her and she was submerged and the sheer shock of the enveloping cold of the water caused in that moment her entire body to seize up. The water gushed painfully up her nose, flooded into her open mouth before she could close it. Soaked near immediately through her parka and her pants and her boots; these articles of clothes may have retained some amount of resistance to water, but they were never meant to be totally submerged.

Her pack was buoyant--for the moment--and helped her orient herself in the thick darkness of the underground canal. With a hard pump of her arms and legs she burst up above the surface of the water and coughed out the water in her throat and took in a big gulp of air. Treaded the water to keep from sinking back in; she was a good enough swimmer, and had gone many a time for a swim in the Bystra and Wda rivers. But those waters weren't nearly as icy as this. This had to be meltwater, from higher up in the mountains. Was this natural, this underground river? It was hard to tell, dark as it was.

The current was sweeping her along. Away from the very faint downward light of the hole that had once been the floor she and the human man were sitting on.

She was already shivering. This wasn't good: only her cloak (inside the bag strapped to her pack), the canvas of her bedroll foundation, and her tent were waterproof. Nothing else. It wasn't as cold as she thought it would be in the Spine, yes, but soaked through like this? With the wind, once they got back outside? No. Now she definitely needed to start a fire (a problem made tricky by the ruination of the tinder in her firestarter kit, now undoubtedly soaked). A big fire, to dry all of her belongings.

A concern for the future. Right now, the current of the canal and the pitch darkness ahead were pressing.

"Where are you??" Zeri called out. "Where are you, I can hardly see!"

There. She felt his arm. The sound of additional splashing indicated that he had his dog too, or at least that his dog was nearby.

"Hey!" Zeri said, spitting out a little more water as her head bobbed low in the current, down to the opening of her nose, and then bobbed back up. "I can't tell how wide the river is! Is there something to grab? A ledge? Can you feel anything?"

She held her pack with one hand and onto the young human man with the other and kicked her legs enough to stay afloat as they drifted briskly.

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The hunter held onto the orcess and his dog as tight as he could. The pain this action should have caused was thankfully being numbed by the frigid cold of the canal water. Little blessings in moments of intense danger. It was taking everything he could to keep them together so they would not get separated. They were going to share each other's fate in this place. He was making sure of it.

The orcess spoke, which she had been so silent the whole time, and asked him some questions. They were already this far into things so he had no reason not to speak. "Not a river. Canal. Completely smooth. Just hold onto me. Should reach an end soon." He didn't know if that was true or not. Sure he had some experience with dwarves, mostly their abandoned buildings, but being so far under the mountain and in a canal was entirely new to him.

Waters just rushed along, but they began to slow. The steeper decline they had been a part of was becoming flatter now. It had taken them ten long minutes from the time they fell into it from above to reach a point where it was flat enough they were able to lazily float rather than hope they weren't slammed into the sides of the canal.

White began to try and paddle after a point to one side. Weylin immediately began to kick his legs to get them all moving with her. He didn't know why she was doing this but trusted her with his life. It was clear to him she realized something he hadn't. This trust paid off as they eventually found themselves in a side spot similar to an eddy in a river only this one was square and the bottom of the canal rose to meet his feet.

Weylin carried the dog and orcess out of the water when he got into shallow enough water for his feet to touch the bottom. It was incredibly painful. All of the numbing from the cold was shattered as his effort pulled the muscles around his cracked ribs. But he pushed on until they were completely free of the false river. They were now in an open area like a little underground port. Giant glowing crystals offered faint light from above so that they might see this for themselves.

Now back to the dry stone, Weylin let down both of the ladies in his arms and collapsed. His breathing was haggard and pained. Sleep was his only concern right now and the hope it would bring comfort after. But he was already shivering. All of them were soaked through. He pulled himself into a fetal position and just kept on shivering. They had survived the troll and then falling into the canal but the cold might be what took him in the end. It was a death delayed from the winter. The snow was finally going to see him off to the next realm just from its liquid state rather than its solid one.

The area around them was full of abandoned buildings. It was full of abandoned buildings, bones, and signs of a battle once taking place here. All of the remains would point to a long over battle between dwarves. The scars of it were still visible with smoke marks staining the stones, bodies still laying where they fell, and none of the goods that couldn't perish were missing. It was as if both sides were wiped out and no one survived to pick it and make it clean again. Part of the goods still remaining was a tipped over cart full of charcoal and bags full of tiny metallic shavings near what once was a forge.

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A canal? Really? Was that true? Completely smooth walls, directly underneath the above-ground outpost--it stood to reason. That meant it had a purpose. Going somewhere--whether inside the mountain itself or perhaps out of it. An end--a constructed end--should come along, as the human had said. Even if this particular portion of the canal wasn't intended for anyone to travel in, it was a small comfort to know that they wouldn't be at the whim of a natural underground river, with whatever wild twists and turns or even dangerous rock formations lying ahead in the dark.

That utter dark.

Zeri, trembling for reasons more than the soaking through of her winter clothes and the sharp claws of frigidity digging into every inch of her body, clutched tighter to the human man. Tread her legs in the water and stayed afloat and struggled more and more to keep her waterlogged pack up.

The Spirits of Water guided them along. For while these Spirits harbored many beneficent and life-giving traits, they were also wily and free-flowing as they pleased. Dwarven-made canal or natural river, this remained true; water could be channeled, but never conquered. Neither Zeri nor the human nor his dog were above the Spirits' rushing mercies.

It seemed to go on forever, their hapless ride along the canal's current in that interminable dark. Zeri's feet and hands had gone numb, her teeth chattering and her lips quivering, that cold of the canal's water feeling as though it were turning her bones to ice.

But then. Light. Ahead. Dim light, like the low light of the onset of evening, but light nonetheless. The dark wasn't interminable.

"S-S-Something." Zeri drew in a shivering breath as a splash of water rolled down the back of her head and neck. "Up-p-p-ahead."

The human's dog--visible now, as was the man himself--knew it too. Saw better than Zeri or her master, and paddled off on her own once the thin canal had given way to a much larger cavern, a sculpted cavern, touched by the meticulous hands of dwarven stonesmiths. Embedded in the walls and dome-shaped stony ceiling overhead were the crystals which accounted for the light in the cavern. And, as Zeri looked and tracked the dog's movements, she saw it too: A port. An actual port, deep in the belly of this singular mountain out of the Spine. It was not massive; this place resembled in size a village of one or two hundred people.

Maybe there was somebody who could help them!

The young human man started swimming after his dog, keeping his hold on Zeri, and she aided as much as she could, mustering what strength the cold hadn't sapped and kicking her feet behind them to propel the two of them along. And at last the waters of the canal tapered off and the rising stone of the dock found them and allowed for them to regain their footing and be free of the Spirit of Water's wily grasp.

The rapid dripping of water from their soaked clothes and bodies down to the dry stone of the dock seemed to echo in the dwarven port. Two small boats rocked lazily in the dock's waters, occasionally bumping into one another with the quiet thump of wood gently clapping together. Even the sound of the waters' current, slow as it had become compared to their descent, echoed in a lonely way around the confines of the cavern.

"H-Hel-l-l-o?" Zeri called out, her voice not nearly as loud as she wanted (hoped) it would be. But it was loud enough to tell her one thing, along with the evidence of the general stillness and quiet, the lack of any hustle and bustle of everyday life.

The port was empty. Abandoned. Not a soul, dwarven or otherwise.

Zeri gave her pack a final tug and dragged it that much further from the lapping water at the edge of the dock. She saw the human man, collapsed and shivering and curled up beside her, his dog showing a degree of alarm for her master.

There was so much to do. And it all needed to be done quickly, lest they both get sick from the biting cold weakening their bodies. Or worse...perish.

Zeri pulled off her boots and set them aside; two accompanying splashes of water falling out of each boot. She took in some rapid breaths and forced herself to stand, barely holding herself up on shaking knees. She slid off her gloves and dropped them. Then started working on her parka. It was incredibly difficult, with her fingers numbed and quivering uncontrollably, to undo the belt and straps which held the parka together. But she shed her soaked coat and dropped it as well. She loosened the belt around her winter pants and pulled them down to her knees and--not trusting the shakiness of her body--sat down momentarily to free the remainders of her legs and feet. She pulled off her fur bracers and set them on the pile of her wet clothes as well. Her halter top and her loincloth were both leather and didn't hold water--certainly not like her heavier winter clothes--so these she left on. Her underwear, made of cloth, was different; as soaked as her other clothes. Modesty wasn't a luxury she could presently afford, but, even so, she turned away from the collapsed human man such that her back was to him and slid her underwear down her legs and placed it as discreetly as she could among her other waterlogged articles.

All the while as she shed her soaked clothes, she spoke to the young human, uncertain if he was conscious and aware but hoping that he was. Her words trembled out of lips devoid of their usual vibrant green color, "H-H-Hey, h-human. S-Sorry, I d-don't know your n-name. You n-n-n-need to get out of th-those clothes. The c-c-cold will k-kill you. C-Can you h-hear me? I hope you can hear m-m-me."

And, once finished ridding herself of the heavy, waterlogged clothes and the dagger-like freezing cold they assisted pressing into her, she said, "L-Listen. I'm g-g-going to find some t-tinder. Start a f-f-f--" a shivering gasp escaped her throat and became something of a pained whimper near the end.

"I'll b-be back. I p-p-promise."

She took a precious moment to secure her broken hatchet from her pack and stood again on unsteady legs and headed into the small dwarven port town. Her bare wet feet slapped and smacked quietly on the stone ground. Ground which, like the air itself, was cold--the frigidity of the canal's water and lack of any activity (fires, forges, warm dwarven bodies breathing and exhaling) driving down the temperature in the cavern. Not as cold as the mountain air outside, but, with her skin wet and her hair damp and clinging to the top and sides of her head, deadly cold enough.

Even the horror of seeing the dwarven remains in the stone paths between the buildings and inside them couldn't properly penetrate Zeri's mind. All she could think of was the cold, cold, cold sinking ever closer to that last bright spot of warmth beating in her chest. Her arms up to her elbows and her legs up to her knees were numb now too.

And she saw the forge. Saw the cart. Searched through and--SPIRITS! Blackrock! A whole sack of it! The Spirit of Earth provided! And the rough sack itself would make excellent tinder to start and nurture a fire until it was strong enough to catch onto the coals.

Zeri grabbed the sack, her arms fighting bitterly against carrying it and the broken hatchet, but she managed. She trudged back the way she had come through the port town and back toward the dock--a short walk away.

It would be seen if the human man had been able to take his own clothes off; those lethal, drenched articles inviting the bitter cold to consume him. If he didn't, if he couldn't, it would be up to her to do it after she started the fire.

He didn't let her die when the troll was bearing down on them. She wouldn't let him die now that the raw cold was likewise threatening them.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Cold.

It was the only word to describe how Weylin felt. All of his energy was spent and in the wake of this his entire body was cold. It had nothing left in it to allow movement. The numbness of it kept the pain at bay but it also meant he was having a hard time feeling anything.

Numbness.

Weylin couldn't stop the shivering. It was as if the entirety of his being was now nothing but this motion. His body knew the dangers of his temperature dropping and how everything was sapping the heat out of him more and more with each passing moment. So much was being taken from him, so much had been taken from him, that he could no longer feel anything. Not pain. Not heat. Not himself. He was nothing more than a body shivering out of instinct despite how apathetic the barely illuminated void had become.

Weylin's clothing was made up of wool. The species was native to the Spine and so was good at repelling water, but even it had gotten soaked. What before would have allowed him to shrug off rain and snow was now nothing more than a drenched burial shroud for him to be wrapped up in within this already full tomb of a dwarf town.

White was not happy but had gotten most of the water shaken out of her fur. While she was not in much better shape than her human and the short green one her fur was thankfully great at repelling water. She was no water dog but a coat of fur designed to keep the rain and snow out high in the mountains could do well at keeping her drier than them. But even she was cold now. The time they spent in the frigid canal had gotten her soaked. It had gotten to her undercoat. This meant she would outlast her human and this scared her. So she snuggled herself up into him as best she could and hoped they could warm each other up. It had gotten them through the winter and all she could do was hope it got them through this now with him so badly injured and unable to move.

Zeri Rekani would return from her venture to find a human who had not heard a word she had said. His mind was as numb as his body. The wet clothes he wore still clung to him and his current survival was due to the efforts his dog was taking to keep him warm. Something needed to be done or the both of them would not make it out of this situation alive.
 
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He hadn't moved. The human hadn't moved. Was he dead? He couldn't be dead. Please don't let him be dead before she even had a chance to do anything. No, no, no, there, see, he was shivering--not dead. His dog had huddled in close to him, and they were sharing body heat. Zeri would have to do the same; share her body heat along with him, for it was a preciously finite resource at present. She could only hope that the human's dog wouldn't see this as aggression, or otherwise become defensive.

Zeri set the sack of blackrock down by the human man. Almost collapsed herself when she'd done it. With trembling hands and staggered, quivering breaths she dumped out the contents of the sack. She'd hadn't seen any loose stones or bricks around to properly construct a firepit, but that was the least of her worries. An open fire on the stone ground would do well enough. Zeri arranged about half of the coals into a rough circle--stacking them a few levels high, a shallow pyramid of sorts--and pushed the other half aside, to be added when necessary. Her broken hatchet may have been made less effective at splitting wood, but the blade worked well enough to cut the rough burlap into a few strips. She draped the strips over the pile of blackrock.

She went to her pack then and retrieved the flint and steel from her firestarter kit. Blew what hot air she could muster onto the implements. Shook them in the air. Blew more hot air onto them. Felt them. Dry.

She crouched by the pile of coal, thinking that she might pass out. Her eyelids felt as if two ropes were tied to them and two oxen were trying to drag them shut. And as she tried sparking the burlap, she sang to herself to keep herself awake. Quiet, shaky verses:

♫ Ancestors of old, whose past deeds are bold
Guide my path, and guide my heart
Let me hear your song, let-- ♫


A tiny glow. A burgeoning flame. Zeri grinned triumphantly in her cold-stricken way as the flame, the Spirit of Fire, took mercy and spread vigorously across the burlap strips. Steaming embers began to rise from the coals which directly touched these alighted strips.

Zeri turned to her pack again and took out her cloak and the canvas foundation of her bedroll and the hide of her tent. All were a little slick with a thin film of lingering water, but--once the fire got going in earnest and when their body heat rose--these would be made dry. Zeri laid the tent out on the ground and her cloak on top of the tent and the canvas foundation on top of the cloak: as much insulation as possible from the cold ground of the dock, a measure against the stone leeching their precious heat from them.

She dragged this collection of items--this insulated bedding--toward the human man. Close to him and the fire.

Now for the tricky part. Getting him out of his clothes. Without upsetting his dog.

"If you can h-hear me," she said to human man. Unsure, still, if he actually could hear her and lacked the strength to respond, or if her words fell on deaf ears. Even if he couldn't understand them though, maybe just the sound--knowing that someone was here--would be enough. "I'm g-g-going to get th-these off. Okay?"

She crouched next to him. Set about her task, starting with the clothes of his upper body.

She said, "I d-don't want to hurt you. But I don't kn-know what was injured and what w-wasn't. You didn't t-t-tell me. So I just h-have to do this. Like this."

Zeri had to fiddle and find any straps or buttons or what else. But she pulled off his shirt with some effort. The boots were easier, of course. She loosened his pants enough such that she could shimmy them down his legs and off. A brief pause.

"If you're j-j-just pretending," she said, "just keep p-pretending and don't make any stupid j-j-jokes this t-time."

And she removed the last bits of his wet clothing, leaving him naked. She kept her eyes averted from his nethers, but the flushing of her cheeks happened all the same.

There was only so much time to succumb to embarrassment. It had to be pushed aside, or they would both suffer the grip of deadly cold. Zeri got behind him and hooked her arms under his and dragged him, burning the last reserves of strength she had left in her muscles, onto the makeshift bedding by the now healthy fire. Her legs finally gave out and she fell down onto her rear, the wind in her lungs knocked out for a second.

Since she had the human under his arms, she sat him up. Squirmed in close behind him, her legs stretched out alongside his, her chest pressed tight against his back, her arms wrapped about his sternum. She rested her chin on his shoulder, shivering still from the freezing water dampening her skin.

Yet she began to feel the warm of the fire at her side.

The meager warmth of the human man she clung to.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Darkness wraps her arms around you. A chilling embrace felt by your bones. She whispers silence, a soft thump in the ear with each heart beat, to her favorite ones. Warmth was a memory so easily forgotten it might as well be of each and every breath taken and no less essential for life. Those who find themselves within her love were subject to it no matter their will or their desire.

The hunter had darkness creeping ever closer about him. White was doing her best to keep her human in the realm of the awoken but soon he might become an eternal dreamer. Eyes would close and never open again. It had already occurred for them both twice. His parents months ago lost to aggression and violence. The same had taken her own. This human and his family took her in. She was saved, raised, and loved. Yet every passing moment brought her closer to losing the last of her precious family. It scared her. It scared her more than giants, trolls, and dragons. She could stand and bark at those enemies defiantly. She could run and flee with her human or they could perish together. But this was not something she could bark, bite, or escape. It scared her. No more was she the big mountain dog able to fight off bears on her own. She was that small pup cowering under a bush whimpering for someone to come and make it all better.... Yet her human could not be the one this time....

When Zeri Rekani finally showed back off after having wandered off so selfishly White began to growl at her. Her human had risked his life for her. He was a fool but one who cared. He was a provider. He was a protector. Yet what did this green one do? She fell. She cowered. She got him hurt. And now he might no longer be with her because of this unwanted one....

Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

White was not having any of Zeri's words. The females were always trouble for her human. Nothing but bad things happened because of them. This one was slender and frail and not even worth mauling for a bear, a bear. Yet she was making soft words and coming over to do something to her human. She was having none of it!

.... Yet she could do nothing about the green one. All she had was needed for her human and herself. Their lives were on the line and they would share their fates. It was what it meant to be a providor. It was what it meant to be a protector. It was what it meant to be family. This one would never understand. This female could never understand. Not their lose. Not their pain. Not them. So while there was nothing more she could do she continued to keep on growling. The female would know what would happen if anything ill came of her human.

Zeri would find Weylin was able to be stripped of his wet clothes without White doing more than weakly growl at her. It was not the kind that came from an animal capable of actually biting but of one making their last defiant stand as their fate came about unhindered. Outside of his manhood, the first thing she would notice as his clothes came off was how utterly pale Weylin's skin was. He looked closer to a corpse than a living form. This made the second thing she noticed was all the more so because of his pale skin. Obsidian black bruises covered his back where he pack had been. They were in a line right across and were swollen badly despite the benefits of the cold on keeping swelling down. As the bruises radiated out they shifted into a blue then finally red. How the hunter had moved and been so active with this kind of injury to his back was inconceivable.

The near spirit was moved without resisting in any way, eyes were closed and breath shallow. She would get him to the bedroll and begin to cling to him for warmth near the fire. The dog got up with what looked like more effort than she had ever used for anything else in her life and swayed over to them on the bedroll. She joined the huddle of bodies and covered up her human's lap. A hateful gaze was given to Zeri that almost seemed like she knew the orcess was looking at him there.

These efforts were not in vain however. Slowly at first but gaining momentum the color returned back to the pale hunter. It seemed his death might not be as certain as it had only minutes earlier.
 
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Zeri felt a measure of relief that the human's dog was--like her master and Zeri herself--too weak to do much of anything. The dog growled but didn't lunge or nip at her. And that was good. Had the dog even the slightest edge of remaining strength over Zeri, she wouldn't have been able to help the human man at all. Or herself. For that matter. If the dog outright attacked her. Would...would the dog have done it? Back when first Zeri had encountered the man? Would the dog have attacked her on his command?

She tried not to think about it. The dog was docile enough at present, even if it was perhaps mostly on the part of the perilous combination of the cold and the wetness.

And Zeri huddled behind the human man's body. Let the warmth of the fire and the warmth of their bodies melt slowly that icy grasp that had taken hold all across her skin and borrowed deep into her muscles. Prickling, tingling feeling began to return ever so slowly still down from her elbows, her knees, trekking back toward her extremities.

She wished her wool blanket was dry. Wished she had something to drape around them to keep more of their body heat trapped within; her cloak might have been a better option than nothing, but it was thin and mostly for staving off the rain and she wanted as much insulation against the stone ground as possible. Ugh, if only her blanket had somehow been spared being soaked! It was going to be a while yet before she could move properly, and a while longer for even the blackrock-fueled fire to completely dry out the wool of the blanket. Her pack was close to the fire, so there would be some partial drying, but the items within that were soaked and retained copious amounts of water would need to be unrolled and unfolded and dried individually. Worries for a future time.

Zeri gradually became aware then of the dog sitting in the human man's lap--she'd honestly lost track of the dog not long after she had started disrobing the man. Hey, at least the dog didn't bite her arms. She could have. Bitten them. They were wrapped around the man's chest and maybe a muzzle's length away from the dog's mouth. Thank the Spirits the dog just wanted to be warm too.

Zeri slid her chin down and off of the human man's shoulder; he was taller than her by a good margin, so she had had to crane her head up to even place her chin on his shoulder to begin with. She pressed her forehead against the human's back, between his shoulderblades and the back of his neck. That was more comfortable.

And she saw it then. The ugly bruises. She loosened her grip around him momentarily and shuffled her body back an inch and saw the extent of the bruising. She let out a shivering gasp--her pack hadn't provided very much cushioning protection against the blow from the troll.

She shuffled her body back toward him. Keenly aware of how tender his back must be, and trying not to press against it as tightly as she had previously. There had to be something around here, something in the little dwarven port town. M-Maybe an apothecary. A general store, perhaps? Did dwarves have their own medicine men, or did they rely more on magic? She didn't know. But she could read dwarvish. Mostly. She wasn't superbly fluent, but she could sound out the words in their script if she was unfamiliar. She might be able to find some kind of remedy here; if not in an apothecary or store, then maybe in a house of wares or on...one...of those bodies. She shivered at the thought. That reminder of what she'd seen.

Zeri pressed her forehead against the back of the man's neck again and her nose touched between his shoulders. She said quietly, "Hey. If you can hear me...I wanted to say thank you. For helping me. For trusting me. You didn't have to, but you did. I'm sorry you got hurt like that. But we're going to make it through this. The Spirit of Fire is with us. All we need is to stay awake. Just stay awake. Okay? I don't know if you are or if you aren't, but you can't sleep. You can't, and I can't--not right now. I don't know if you're awake but I do know you don't like to talk very much. But if you could. If you could just do that. Just say a little something. Let me know you're not..."

Zeri breathed. In and out through her nose. Fought against the weighty feeling of exhaustion dragging her eyelids down.

And the fire crackled.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Despite what Zeri had hoped for Weylin's eyes were already closed. Sleep had taken him. His body needed to repair after everything it had gone through and the cold had just been the little push it needed for him to finally pass out. At least it was once his shivering had stopped.

Weylin dreamed but seemed to have avoided becoming a dreamer. Instead warped events of the day played out for him....

A wooden sign with the picture of a troll was before Weylin. As he looked at it the ground shook a bit as the giant sized White padded up and leaned her head down to look at it. "Says there is a troll. What should we do?" Her voice was young and meek.

"We hunt it and kill it." Weylin said back his voice booming across the mountains.

"Oh fun! Hunting a troll! Hunting a troll!" White cheered as she bounced up and down energetically like a puppy.

Off the pair went following glowing troll tracks and signs pointing like town posts. Eventually they crossed into a clearing and in it was a green skinned beauty, but she was also an orc. Curves upon curves and impossibly perfect proportions. She was lost and scared and chirping like a song bird. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

"You want a flower?"

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

"There is a troll. I am hunting it. You should come too. Maybe we can find your flower."

Chirp. Chirp! Chiiiiiiirp! The orcess leapt into his arms.

But this angered the troll. The big, fat thing swaggered its way on up to the hunter. It was the size of White and had a tree trunk for a club resting on its shoulder as a brown stick thing that was smouldering and smoking was in its mouth. "'ell 'ookie 'ere. A 'uman 'as me gurl. 'ive 'er 'ere!"

"No." The hunter said stoicily and then began to run. The troll tried to jogg off after him but was soon out of breath. He called out huffing and puffing, "Not fair! You 're too fast! Slow 'own!"

Chirp. Chirp.

"Fine. I will slow down, but he is going to hit me."

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

"Yes he will. Trolls hit things because they are mean."

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp!

"'urprise!" Then the troll smacked Weylin with his tree club because the hunter had slowed down.

Off they flew like stones hit by a stick straight down a dwarf bunny hole and into some stone room. Weylin was laying on the floor with a puppy sized White next to him and the orcess not too far away.

"Foolish human. This is why girls are bad for you." White said smugly.

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp. Chirp!

"I'm going to sleep now. Night." Weylin said to them then closed his eyes.


The hunter was completely out of it in Zeri Rekani arms. It was only her and White who were awake and aware now. The dog glared daggers at Zeri for touching her human like she was, but at least now she understood the importance of her family. Well some. She could never fully understand them and it was why she was not good enough for him. No female was. They just wanted him to make their lives easier and give them babies and take care of them while they contributed nothing. Just like the wooly things they use to keep around the house. Freeloaders should just go away or get eaten.
 
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He said nothing. But his body still held within it a small, flickering candle of warmth. Not the warmth which caressed the side closest to the coalfire, no, but a real warmth within. As small as it was. And he was still breathing.

That was good.

Time passed.

That was good.

Time passed.

Of course that was good. It had to be.

"I'm still here," Zeri said. A third party observer may have been rightfully unsure if she was talking to the man, or talking to herself, or perhaps both. "I'm still here. You're doing great. Everything's okay. Everything's okay."

Time passed.

"Everything's okay."

Time passed. And Zeri blinked. Then blinked rapidly in succession. She didn't know if she had closed her eyes for longer or not. It was difficult to tell the passage of time. The sound of the flowing water of the canal and the crackling of the coalfire were both constant, both with a range of variance but ultimately the same.

She couldn't see the dog on the other side of the man, resting in his lap. Her forehead was still pressed against the back of his neck. But the dog wasn't growling. Mercifully.

"You'll be fine. We'll be fine. The Spirit of Fire is with us."

Zeri wiggled her toes. Shifted her head off to one side of the human man's body to see if, in fact, she wasn't imagining it. Yes, she could wiggle her toes and, more over, could feel them wiggling, if faintly. Though her exhaustion was supreme and her muscles relentlessly tired, a tiny measure of strength had returned to her.

"Hey," she said. "I'm going to dry the blanket. I-I have one, you know. We're doing better than we were but we're still loosing heat to the air." A tiny, quivering laugh, near apologetic in character. "The Spirit of Air cools on summer's day, but freezes on a winter's one. It gives and takes. All the Spirits have their good side, and their bad. They are like people. Like you and me. It is their nature, as it is ours."

Zeri began to summon the resolve to move. To get up. It was a mighty effort.

"I'm going to go do that now. Dry the blanket. I'll be right back--I'm still right here, and I'm not going far. Please be patient."

With a few steeling breaths, Zeri scooted back from the young human man. She didn't think he'd be able to stay sitting on his own without falling, and even if she managed to position him with just the right balance she didn't want to risk him toppling over and hitting his head. So, after scooting back, Zeri guided the man down by the shoulders and head to lay flat on the makeshift bedding. She spared a glance at the man's dog, a kind of beseeching glance for continued peace. Then she folded the man's arms on top of his chest--a small effort to help preserve warmth.

Zeri crawled on her hands and knees--hissing sharply as she touched the stinging cold of the stone floor again--toward her pack. Pulled it a bit closer to the bedding for easier access next time. The pack was already open so she reached in and extracted the blanket. Oh yes, it was still heavy with water. She spent a grueling series of minutes hand-wringing out as much water as she could--tiny splashes and drips of it on the stone.

And she then held the blanket as close as she dared to the coalfire. Watched as torrents of steam started to stream off of the blanket as the water evaporated. She turned the blanket to dry the other side and then unfolded it and started working on the damp spots within.

It would take some time. Time made marginally more uncomfortable for the human man, now that she wasn't there to share her warmth along with that of the fire, but this was the best way--the only way--to keep the warmth they'd gathered from the fire and from each other from leaking out into the cool cavern air.

And so she systematically maneuvered the blanket around to ensure that it would be dried completely. It would be quite the treat once she was done, warmed up as it would be.

Weylin Kyrel
 
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Dreaming on the hunter slept. The chirping orcess of thick curves and giant or puppy White adventured by his side. The real White just laid on her human and kept a watchful eye on Zeri Rekani not trusting a single action she took. Females were trouble. Always were. Always would be. Neither of their states would change when she went to get out from behind him. He was at peace finally getting the much needed rest after the events he had been through.

Color seemed to be restored to the once pale human. Or at least most of it was. It was clear the warmth of the fire was doing him good but with the warmth came the issue of his body awakening from its icy slumber. The shivers returned and he began to roll around a bit. This upset White as it forced her to get up off his lap. She resettled herself next to him between him and Zeri, where the orcess was working on drying out the contents of her pack. A few times he even rolled onto a sensitive spot of his back and would wince. But as suddenly as it all began he was still once more.

From behind Zeri in the darkness a bit of wind whistled by. It rustled a couple of bones and bits of metal for the briefest of moments. Everything returned to silence outside of a few echos of Zeri's talking still bouncing off of the empty walls of the abandoned dwarven cavern.

A dwarf in gray and off white clothes was squatted by the fire. Eyes locked onto the glowing embers. Hands were held out for warmth. A bit of an odd flicker happened every time the dwarf slipped his hands over. His hair was peppered as white and gray was coming to dominate the natural black. In a voice that seemed to avoid echoing off the walls the dwarf said, "Ya shoulda grabbed more. Got quick kindling there too. No need for the hard way. Not down here."

The dwarf stood up next to Zeri. Pointing over to Weylin he said, "Yer husband? Don't see no ring. Course could be one of them Old Folk traditions or yer orcish ones. No if it was one of yer then there would be something. Can never tell with them Old Folk though." He seemed to look Zeri up and down while in front of her. "Ye don't act married though. Not from the way ye looked at him naked. Too shy."

"So, lookin' to claim him for marriage or just a quick fling to keep yer tent and bedroll warm for ye in the night?" The dwarf said leaning over the fire with hands stretched out again.
 
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Zeri worked at drying the blanket. Shifting it this way and that. Holding this damp portion of the blanket closest to the fire and then another. She could visibly see her progress, the retreating darker spots across the blanket, turning into the corresponding steam and rising up and out of sight, the Spirits in the water morphing and becoming one with their kindred Spirits in the air.

Goosebumps ran across her skin. She wasn't shivering--well, not as bad as she was before. More like the shivering one might do on a chilly day before getting their blood flowing through physical activity. Certainly not the deathly shivering of the body's last effort to stave off hypothermia. But she endured it, the goosebumps and the cold air which brought them; that frigid meltwater of the canal really sapped any sort of insulating warmth the cavern might have otherwise offered over the open mountain air. The Spirits of Stone in the cavern walls didn't help, but it was hardly their fault--they favored the heat when it was hot, and the iciness when it was cold. Their nature.

And besides, she would be done with this and could be made warm again. Much warmer than before; all around, instead of on this side or that side. And the human man needed this--he wasn't doing as well as Zeri, despite all of her well-wishing. But his body was likewise weakened by injury as well as ravaged by the cold and the aggravating wetness, where Zeri only had the latter to overcome. She couldn't help with the bruises and what other wounds he may have suffered inside his body--not right now--but she could help with this.

She heard a small whistle of wind. It was the first time she had noticed, but she didn't think much of it. She'd spoken with dwarves before in Bhathairk. One of the very first questions she'd ever asked a dwarf was how they could live so deep inside a mountain or under the ground, where the Spirits of Air found it difficult to go. The dwarf chuckled, and replied with a simple answer: vents. Small tunnels built specifically so that the Spirits of Air could flow into and out of their mountain and underground homes.

She thought she saw him for a moment, that dwarf. Squatting by the fire. She ignored it. Kept attending to the drying of--

Zeri flinched hard and her arms flailed and, if she had been holding the blanket directly over the coalfire, she would have accidentally smothered or added some new tinder to the flame. It was the dwarf! Not, him, the one she had talked to when she was child, no, not him specifically, but there was a dwarf! Right there. Right across the fire from her!

Zeri instinctively clutched the blanket close to herself, as if it would act as some sort of shield.

But the dwarf, despite his sudden appearance (where did he come from??) wasn't hostile. He didn't have a bow and arrow or any other manner of weapon aimed at her. He just seemed calm. Beseeching with his hands the Spirits within the coalfire to warm them. And he spoke to her. Zeri relaxed, but her face still retained a measure of bewilderment. Oh. There was more blackrock? She hadn't yet used everything she'd grabbed earlier, but that was good to know. And she, um, missed the kindling. She'd just been so excited to find the blackrock and desperate to get a fire started as soon as possible that it had tunneled her vision, her awareness.

"Oh. Okay. Thank you," she said in reply.

She watched him as he stood and then came to stand next to her. And his next question made her cheeks violently flush red.

"W-What? No." A quick turn of her head and shift of her gaze to the human man and then back to the dwarf. "N-No, he's not. We're...travelers."

The dwarf expounded on his thoughts, his confirmed surmising. A ring. That was a human tradition, wasn't it? Primarily. Dwarves did it too, she supposed. Elves. Okay, so it was a widespread practice. Not in all cases, the ring specifically, but a gifted offering.

He mentioned orcish traditions (and those of the Old Folk? Who...?), and that was correct. Would have been correct. Zeri followed the traditions of her tribesorcs in Bhathairk, but it wasn't the same for all orcs across Arethil, she knew that. Not even within Bhathairk itself for that matter, for while Animism was common it didn't hold exclusive sway over the traditions and customs practiced.

And one of those customs involved her tattoos. They were ritualistic, rites of passage, milestones in life. The tattoo across her right arm (there, along with the others, on account of her being right-handed) was a marker of her first kill during a hunt. The tattoo coming down her face and over her right eye a symbol of her first vision quest with the shamans completed. The tattoo across her leg an emblem of her first journey undertaken and finished; some room for interpretation for this one, but generally, this meant "one week or more spent away from home."

Related to the dwarf's musings, the tattoo across her neck was a signifier that she had had her first womanly flow (for male tribesorcs, it would have been at the deepening of their voice). A bit late in coming, this last tattoo, thanks to her elven blood and the extreme gaps of time between flows and fertility that this imparted; Pa assured her that this was normal, and that it would have been more pronounced if she'd been a full-blooded elf. But, nevertheless, she had gotten her tattoo: she was a woman, even if her Pa still believed her to be his little girl.

The custom for marriage, instead of a ring, was the completion of the tattoo across her neck: the filling in of the gaps, such that it formed a solid band. A ring of sorts, just not one of metal. The same as her Ma had for all the time that Zeri had known her.

She thought on this. Briefly.

Before she was once again flustered by the dwarf. She truly had a ton of questions for him, truly, but all of them evacuated her mind near immediately at his last comment. Once again, her Ma entered her thoughts, but this time on "the talk" she had with her before they had gone to get her neck tattoo; a frank discussion on the tribal views of love and sex, and how they differed from those of other lands and even other races. "The talk" had seemed a moot conversation for a long time; male tribesorcs thought she was "cute," like a small cat or a puppy would be, but they weren't very interested in her diminutive frame. To them it came across as unhealthy, runty, and most damning of all, weak. Some elves and humans (not so much dwarves) had taken passing interest, but Zeri herself didn't reciprocate; she usually busied herself with other things, and, though she enjoyed the attention, she maintained an arresting amount of shyness on the matter.

Shyness which arose once again here.

"N-No!" She said it as if defending herself from an accusation of a crime she didn't commit. She talked fast then, saying, "Not that. Or that! It's not either of those! Warm, yes--that, no! A-And who said it was any of your business anyway? Who are you? I'm Zeri. There. Tell me your name, I told you mine. Where did you even come from?? I'm sorry--I'm being rude. I'm sorry. Not my business. L-Like that wasn't yours! Isn't! Isn't yours!"

She let out an exasperated huff. Then, with the flustering mostly gone, she could feel again the chill of the air. Even though it might have been prudent to not trust the stranger just yet, Zeri didn't even think about it. Just trusted in his innate goodness.

She set about finishing the drying of the wool blanket. None of the questions came slinking back into her mind to be asked, so she, having forgotten that she had already done it, said--in a calmer tone--to the dwarf again:

"Thank you. For telling me about the kindling. We might need it later."

Weylin Kyrel
 
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