In the place of endless evening,
The cold home of ghosts,
Must allies be found
In the sunless realm
Shades strike bargains
Or grapple with wit and word
Until a man strides out
Armed against the Darkness clan
Carving his name on the night
Earth Day, Fertility Week, Earth Season to Air Day, Fertility Week
Tool Day passes, marking the autumnal equinox. The days are equally long and short. The tools for the harvest are blessed by the Earth priestesses in a ceremony all attend. The harvest time begins.
Both Neela and Orvald still sleep in the smithy, the only place Jarstak allows the haunted couple to bed down. They are suffering bad dreams. Nightmares of torment and suffering; reliving the same death over and over again. They are tired and sleepless. The ghosts that inhabit them are beginning to consume them.
On Air Day the Red Moon is part way into its cycle and the Lunar magic begins to wax strong. A Lunar column comes up the King’s Road from Boldhome, destined for Jonstown and beyond.
At the head of the column rides a captain and his lieutenant. With them is a standard-bearer. Atop the standard is the symbol of the regimental god, a bat. A red banner hangs from the cross-piece.
The column comprises around half a regiment of Hoplites, some 20 files of men, led by an Enomotarch. They wear cuirasses of bronze scale armour, and each has a red scarf wrapped around his helmet. Each hoplite carries a two-handed spear and a round shield in the shape of the Red Moon. They are accompanied by a couple of files of Peltasts, the infamous javelin-armed scouts and skirmishers.
The column marches with its own baggage train: half a dozen ox carts piled with stores, and three dozen mules, each carrying packs stencilled with symbols of the regiment. Weathered-looking muleteers goad the beasts along.
Orvald tracks the Lunars as they tramp up the road. Standard procedure for the Kendring Clan is for the weaponthanes to shadow the column.
Children are sent off as runners to the pastures to warn the shepherds, who move their flocks as far away from the King’s Road as practical. Animals are brought in from the fields and women and children run to the houses and bar themselves behind doors until the column is long past.
There have been occasions in the past where Lunar columns have stopped to round up sheep for their stores. Occasionally they even pay for what they take (though rarely their actual worth). Often they descend on steads and harass the inhabitants, stealing what they can and abusing the women. Any attempt at confronting the occupying troops brings immediate reprisal. From time to time the bodies of crucified resisters have been raised beside the King’s Road as an example to the clansmen.
However, today the column just marches past, uninterested in the Blue Starling stead. Maybe they will stop at Goodhaven. They often do, demanding tribute from Olfir the Chieftain.
On Fire Day Fastulv, Neela and Orvald trek into the Brambleberry Hills, along the familiar path past the Troll Ruins to Asterid’s cave in the forest. The shaman waits for them, her gambling sticks at her feet.
Fastulv bears with him a spear, made by Neela. It cost him dear, but it is a good and sturdy weapon. However, Neela privately curses her workmanship, believing that she could have forged a better weapon from the metal she had.
Fastulv approaches the shaman and says that he has come to accept the spirit magic with which he can fight the trolls. Asterid says that this will involve a journey to the Other Place. She warns him of the dangers of dealing with the spirits, but Fastulv is resolute. So the shaman picks up her drum and begins to lead the trio into the forest along an unfamiliar path, chanting and banging her drum as they go.
They are not sure of when the scenery begins to change, but the forest around them grows more shadowy. The sky above goes black although the forest itself remains weirdly lit as if it were dusk. The trees and plants have somehow changed. Tree branches look less like wood and more like fossilized bone. The grass no longer resembles green fronds but instead pokes calcified fingers up from the ground.
Even the sound of this prehistoric forest is different. The rustling of trees fades to be replaced by the clicking sound of tiny dead things scuttling about in the gloom.
Asterid stops, telling the party to go on without her. She says that ahead they will meet three spirits. Fastulv may have to do things for these shades of the forest and bargain with them for their power. However, none of the party should under any circumstances give their names to the spirits until the bargain is concluded. To give their names would invite an attack.
Fastulv leads onwards, his Alynx padding at his heels and flanked by Neela and Orvald. There is not so much a path ahead of them as a line between the trees which they follow. Shadowy things watch the party from the fossil forest.
Ahead, Fastulv sees an owl, a snow white-faced creature with some tawny colour on its wings. He approaches it and greets it, politely. The owl responds to the shepherd in a woman’s voice. It asks Fastulv’s name but he refuses to give it. The owl then says it is hungry and demands to be fed. It says there is a shadow mouse somewhere nearby and asks Fastulv to help. The scout listens and can hear the mouse scrabbling in the stony undergrowth nearby.
Neela snaps off some of the calcified branches from nearby trees and uses her lowfire magic to light them, making small, incandescent torches. Their constant light is a help in flushing out the shadow mouse. A tiny dark form darts out from the trees to a place where Fastulv’s alynx can pounce on it. Fastulv rescues the spirit creature from beneath the animal’s paw and picks it up by its tail. It is a smoky shadow in the shape of a mouse. He offers it to the owl who tenderly accepts it with one taloned foot before gulping it down.
The owl’s appetite sated, the pair begin to bargain. Fastulv eventually agrees to give up a little of his happiness in exchange for the spirit’s power. The owl spirit, who possesses the gift of being able to see spirits in the darkness, agrees to this bargain and gives its name as Ghost Mask. It asks Fastulv to close his eyes. The owl closes its own eyes. When they both open their eyes again a change has occurred. Fastulv’s right eye is now the grey and black orb of the owl. The owl’s right eye is that of a man. Neela and Orvald can see that Fastulv’s face no longer has the cheerful cast it once had. After wishing Fastulv well, the owl spirit fades into nothing.
Now Fastulv can see the world differently. Spirits around him appear like small wisps of smoke. In this Other Place shades are bound into the fossilized remains of things that scuttle in the shadows and along the branches of trees. Looking at Neela and Orvald he can see their spirits, curling inside the shells of their bodies. He can see another presence inside each of them: the ghostly hitchhikers of Kerelyne and Minaryth, writhing and silently screaming.
Fastulv, with his companions in tow, continues to walk forward between the trees, his eyes flicking back and forth in search of the next spirit. He comes across a figure by another great fossil tree. This spirit looks like a man: a naked, squat and hairy brute. He is covered in ash and a skull is outlined on his face in chalk. When he speaks his words are sharp and ugly.
After Fastulv again refuses to give up his name, he asks if this is the spirit that might help him fight the trolls. The spirit replies that he is the killing word that will slay all trolls, though he is deadly against people too. However, to master the killing word, Fastulv must fight it and beat it. At that the man evaporates into thin air, transforming into a low, resonant buzzing sound that makes all nearby feel sick and uncomfortable. Only Fastulv can see the spirit with his owl eye, watching the misty figure slash at his soul from the shadows with its claw-like hands.
But Fastulv and his friends fight back, Orvald overwhelming the sound with a mighty bellow of defiance, while Fastulv calls upon Orlanth the howling wind to tear at the spirit. From the shepherd’s spear a mighty whirling wind strikes out at the misty spirit, ripping the buzzing sound asunder. The spirit seems to disperse then reform itself out of the shadow. Now beaten, it appears as a man again and congratulates Fastulv on his victory.
The man and spirit bargain. This spirit wants to feed on Fastulv’s vengeful nature and after giving its name as Trollbone, it binds itself into his great spear, leaving a darkness rune inscribed on the bronze head. The spear is surrounded by a dark glow.
Now Fastulv has the remaining spirit to face. A little further on he encounters it, a sepulchral figure in a shroud that does not speak, but gestures with its long, cadaverous fingers. This spirit does not demand a trial, just a bargain. Fastulv offers it some of that brotherly connection that binds him to the rest of mankind. This is enough for the spirit, who in exchange for increasing Fastulv’s loneliness, confers on him the power to stay concealed from the trolls. Without speaking, it lets the shepherd know that its name is Darkstep.
The bargains done, Fastulv and his companions walk back to Asterid. He can see the shaman’s own great spirit shining in the dark forest. The misty shape of her fetch, Blue Eye, floats nearby. Together, the party follow the woman back through the veil to the real world.
On returning to Asterid’s camp, the shaman gifts the companions with charms and fetishes she has made. Orvald receives a charm that is said to blind the trolls. Neela a charm that makes her hammer hit harder.
Here the companions part. Now that he is armed against the trolls, Fastulv heads up towards the Curled Horn, a massif of stone near a large troll community. He intends to scout it for trollsign. Neela and Orvald head back to the stead to gather supplies and equipment for the troll hunt.
Up in the hills Fastulv casts around, searching for signs where the trolls might travel, and surveying ambush sites. Here, up in the limestone escarpment, there are many small caves with entrances no wider than a single man. There is plenty of overgrowth on the stepped hills that makes it easy to approach undetected. But Fastulv is indiscreet and soon finds himself under slingshot fire from distant figures further up the ridge. They are probably trolls. He recovers a shot. It looks like a lead coin, folded and bitten to make a fearsome projectile. Fearing he may have compromised himself, the scout withdraws to safety.