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    "We need shelter! I'm not certain we're still going the right way!" Septimus called. "There's a lee of a stone over there, we can build something."
    Scott checked the stone out to make sure there was no one already sheltering in that spot; it looked as if something stayed there at times, but it wasn't there now. We made our way over to join him and I cast a prepared spell on myself, Talon, and Septimus, which kept off some of the cold. We scrounged under the snow for some detritus that would burn and huddled around it.
    "That's better," Septimus sighed. "We made it a good distance before it started to get bad. We could be here for a bit, though, these storms have been known to last for several days."
    "That would get tedious." Though we've been through worse.
    "We may not have time," Talon fretted.
    "We may not have alternatives," I pointed out. For the time being, the only thing to do was sleep and try to wait it out and ignore the distant howling of wind and wolves.
    Scott, who doesn't sleep, packed snow into blocks and built a little wall to extend our sheltered zone.
    "They say that Lord Fimbulwinter has wolves he has bred specifically that are immune to cold," Septimus told us.
    We had been there something more than half a day when we all clearly heard something snuffling around Scott's wall. When the something poked its head through, it turned out to be a polar bear, surprised to find its shelter occupied.
    Phoenix Talon blinded it. The bear gave a startled sound and sat back, pawing at its eyes, and didn't seem inclined to try its luck again.
    "That was really uncalled-for, Phoenix," I told him.
    We knew when we had been in the lee of the stone for a day; my spell wore off. I cast it again.
    "It doesn't seem to be lessening up," Septimus observed.
    "Can't last forever."
    "I think I've got my bearings now."
    "Really? How?"
    "Well, I keep glancing out and was able to make out the direction the light was moving," he explained with minimal sarcasm. "We could try and press forward."
    Visibility was only about ten feet. Scott made a brief foray out under the sudden suspicion that the storm might be localized on us; it wasn't.
    We decided to give it one more day. We were running out of ideas for charades and resorted to ghost stories. Mine tend to be rather dull, since ghosts don't bother me.
    "I think I've been hanging around Larry and Felix too much," Scott confessed. "On watch last night I came up with an entire month of crimes based around saints' days."
    Near the end of the second day the storm stopped.
    "Hey, we're all rested," Scott observed brightly. We dug our way out and looked around at the very white world. "Pretty well covered our tracks."
    "Yeah, if anyone is following us now, we're in a lot of trouble," the dwarf agreed.
    We trudged forward, toward the mountains. The sky was still overcast and the wind gusted up once in a while, blowing around the snow and doing a good job of concealing our trail while making us thoroughly uncomfortable.
    "What's that?" Scott said, pointing ahead. He had seen something moving, fairly big and probably mounted unless it was a centaur of some kind. He went to mist form while Septimus and I concealed ourselves under some snow; Phoenix Talon stood still in a peculiar way and sort of disappeared.
    Coming around the rocks ahead was a column of figures--Gretchen's troops, three wolf-riders and seven poor saps on foot in the snow. They were alert, arrows set to strings. In front of them strode something we had not seen before; it didn't have a gnoll's fur and wolf-like features, but instead appeared to be a goblin standing nearly eight feet tall. They were coming our way; no way to tell if they had seen us yet.
    The wolf-riders advanced until they were about ten feet from Talon, stopped and scanned around. Two of them rode back to the column and checked the rear. They were being very careful. When those on foot were about fifteen feet from Talon the goblin raised a hand and they all stopped while he scanned.
    "Someone's here," he growled, drawing a very large sword.
    Talon tossed his Ebony Fly in one direction and jumped in the other, stepping behind the goblin to smite him mightily with the katana as all seven weary, tense gnolls let fly at the giant insect. The goblin let out a scream of pain and fury.
    Septimus and I, of course, couldn't see any of this, but we heard the fly's buzz, the zip of arrows, and of course the yell, and started digging our way up.
    Scott thumped the closest wolf-rider solidly twice, resulting in one dead gnoll. His mount gave a yelp.
    The goblin turned to meet Talon's slashing blade again. "It is your doom that you detected us," the monk informed him.
    The goblin leaped, or part of him did. An enormous wolf landed fifteen feet away, leaving the goblin still standing there. He had split in half, half of which turned into a wolf, the other half of which was spinning the massive two-handed sword in a defensive pattern.
    I was clear enough to see this happen, but drew a blank on what kind of creature this might be. I was also more than a little surrounded by gnolls. Beside me, Septimus poked his head up. I stepped over to the nearest wolf-rider and laid a hand on his arm while murmuring under my breath. Blood poured from his mouth, but he was still conscious.
    Scott thumped on the final elite soldier but without the advantage of surprise this time, leaving him clinging to his wolf-mount only through the force of will.
    Phoenix Talon's fly was still circling above us.
    The one I had touched was urging his mount away from the immediate scene and reaching for something on his belt, no doubt a healing potion to put some of his internal organs back where they belonged. His wolf snapped at me in passing, caught nothing but air.
    "Bad doggy."
    The third rider was also leaving, in a different direction, and drinking from a vial as well. They appeared ready to leave the hapless warriors men to fend for themselves.
    The now-riderless wolf lunged in at my hamstring while the rest of the gnolls set arrows to string. Three shot at Scott, having not realized what a waste of time that was. They had no clear shot at Talon with the goblin in the way, which left me. Septimus was still mostly buried. Only one of them hit me; a graze. They dropped their bows and pulled out axes.
    Phoenix Talon continued battling with the goblin, which did not appear to be in the best of shape, while keeping one eye on the wolf. He slashed twice with the sword; the goblin backed away, brought the sword around and managed to avoid both blows. He's not there. He's in the wolf now! Said wolf had circled around behind him and was diving for him. Talon abandoned the goblin in favor of defending against the wolf's attack. He avoided its claws, but the teeth snapped at his arm before it backed away from him again. His neck itched at the knowledge of the goblin behind his unprotected back; it did not attack. He'd been right.
    I looked around at all of my eager new friends and their shiny axes and, with mental apologies to Septimus who was going to be caught in the radius, unleashed a Circle of Doom. Thunder pealed; electricity arced around my body and the snow curled up in a wave from the expanding globe, leaving all of them in various stages of hurt and staggered.
    "What the hell was that!" Septimus yelled.
    Scott went after the wolf-rider I had touched, seizing him with a long tendril of quicksilver and pulling him from the saddle. Already wounded, the gnoll was now barely clinging to consciousness.
    The other one made a break for it.
    "No, wait for me!" the abandoned rider shouted.
    "I have to get a message back!"
    The odds of that happening were not particularly good.
    The gnoll warriors around me pulled themselves together, looked at me, and decided on the better part of valor, following the escaping wolf-rider.
    Phoenix Talon slashed at the wolf that seemed to be his real opponent, removing a couple of limbs. By the time it hit the ground, it was an eight-food goblin again, and the one behind Talon disappeared.
    It was not bleeding; that was thick black ichor oozing from the mortal wound.
    I took to the air and cut off the fleeing wolf-rider, overshot him a little. He saw me coming and tried to change course, to no avail. His chest collapsed, and he keeled over. The wolf continued to run; I followed and took care of it with a Searing Light. Bit of overkill, really.
    The other one's mount was trying to get its rider back into the saddle. "Aw, such a good warg," Scott remarked, and crushed its skull before finishing off the rider.
    The gnolls had scattered, but there was no cover anywhere around here. We chased them down and dispatched them one at a time. Phoenix Talon called the fly back to him and looted the bodies for healing potions. Three of the vials were blood-red, and eight were clear.
    Septimus was finally out of the snow, looking around with an expression approaching shock.
    "Sorry about that," I told him.
    Phoenix Talon gave him a potion and asked, "Does anyone know what that thing is?" while pointing at the dead goblinoid.
    "This is insane," I judged after a brief examination. "Somebody took a goblin, infected it with lycanthropy, and bred it with a daemon. Guess everybody needs a hobby...."
    "For future reference, if we ever see one of these and it turns into a wolf, or sheds a wolf, go for the wolf."
    "Maybe we should burn it."
    The others agreed. It left a black column of greasy smoke that was probably visible for a hundred miles; I blessed the smoke as well, just in case there was lingering negative energy. The sword it left behind radiated magic, as did the battle-axes used by the elite guard. Septimus traded his own weapon for one of theirs.
    "This doesn't seem like a standard patrol, and they're not supposed to be up here," Talon mused. We searched the bags on the wargs and found surveying equipment and maps of passes through the mountains.
    "I think Gretchen wants to build herself a nice little ski lodge," I remarked.
    "What, I'm going to turn my attention to the north and take over... the ice?" Scott sounded puzzled.
    "If she was sane, none of us would be here." And of course the ice was there because Fimbulwinter liked it that way.
    "So if she kills Fimbulwinter, she just expands her territory more. And removes a close and dangerous ally," Talon theorized. "It's amazing what a problem allies can be, sometimes. It was vaguely inevitable."
    Septimus was still looking around in amazement. "I'm just.... That took you less than a minute!"
    "We have lots of practice," I told him.
    "Most of the time was spent chasing them down after they ran away!"
    "We had to get rid of them fast," Talon shrugged. "If any of them had gotten away, they might have gotten word back."
    "We're missing our guy who does most of the actual destructive spells," Scott told him with that impression of a grin.
    "Thanks, Scott," I sighed.
    "Well, it's true...."
    "Yes, it is true. You're not really being reassuring."
    "Why is this not reassuring? We're on his side."
    "And I'm very glad for that," the dwarf stated.
    We tried to think of a way to turn this encounter to our advantage. If we could get some rebel forces to raid a northern border troop outpost and make it look like a raid from Fimbulwinter, she might get a serious offensive underway, which would divert her forces and give us an opportunity to strike from the west. It was a thought to keep in mind. Phoenix Talon's fly was still active, Septimus and Scott got on my carpet, and we all flew for a while to get some distance from the site of the battle and the column of smoke where we had burned the goblin-thing.
    As the sun set we reached a high pass through the mountain; Septimus pointed out a landing place; the fly was reaching the limits of its power.
    "We should be fairly safe there in that mass of boulders."
    It was even colder up here than it was on the plain. Phoenix Talon scouted around a bit.

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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson