Above, in the flurry something moved with purpose. It floated undisturbed by gale force winds until it stared down
"You did not fail me." She spoke in the whisper of winds whistling through trees.
She caressed his cheek before planting a kiss on his forehead. Eyes closed she rummaged through the cleric's memory
The breath of life had almost entirely left the cleric's body. Auril grabbed one of the body's hands and pulled it up along with the body.
"You will have your wish" She whispered
"Hey! Stranger, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, just a little-"
They stoppped mid sentence, their voice was soft, unlike the gruff tones they were used to. The man looking down at them smiled.
"Well Miss, why don't you come with me to see the elder? -
Miss? The rest of what the man had said became nothing but background noise. What did the man mean "Miss"? He was clearly a man, even if, no... no.
"Miss, before we go into the elder's home I want to know if you traveled alone."
"No!" Shrieked the cleric and slapped his hand away
"I'm sorry, just I don't know what's going on. I..."
He noticed for the first time how much taller the man was than him. It was odd.
"Let's just get you inside."
He led them up the wooden stairs and into the wooden cabin that was the village elder's home. The inside was warm and decorated with furniture made of local wood and game. It was much as it was years ago.
"Erich says I have a new guest here, however all I can sense is Aleksi, faithful of Auril. What brings you back here?" She asked
She still knew him! Maybe she could help deal with what had happened, maybe-
"Elder Gerd, how did you know it was me? I have changed much and even my voice is different." Said the cleric
"Aleksi, it is good to know you do not hide anymore. My eyes may be gone to the frost, but my sight is truer than ever."
The elder held a finger up to Aleksi's lips.
"You had only lied to yourself."
The elder ran her bony hand over his face. He let her out of respect.
"Your face feels like the one i can see."
"It is okay, your goddess loves you. You bear her mark upon you, an honor so rare."
There was no way Auril cared for them. She was a cold goddess, perfect in her stoicism. Unmoved like a glacier
Why did that feel right? Why? Why? Why wouldn't the tears stop? Something inside snapped, like an over wound spring. She cried and cried until her consciousness left her
"Th-that's how that feels..." She mumbled with a small smile
She touched it and felt her skin turn to goose flesh. The feeling of her goddess' power was familiar, but it had never been this intense.
"My faithful child, you have earned your reward. Your oath made many years ago is fulfilled. You are free to live the life you desired
She stared at the message in the snow. It was Auril that had given her this new life, her faith was rewarded. Her oath was fulfilled. She could merely live this life, here as a villager
"The decision will remain yours, my faithful. Our oath will be renewed when and if you wish."
The snow began to melt creating pools of water.
Drops of water fell from the table.
A tear added to the melted snow. She wiped her eyes and looked into her reflection; a pretty face framed by silvery white hair and ice blue eyes red with tears.
"I'm sorry" She said to her relfection
She raised the necklace up ready to put it on.
"We can help others, being like this is more than enough."
She placed the necklace around her neck.
"Auril, I accept the oath and retur-
"The oath is renewed. You will serve me again as you had for years. I have a gift for you as well, turn and face me."
She obeyed and turned to see Auril clad not in the armor she was depicted in, but a flowing dress of snow.
"Before your gift, a price. Aleksi hardly fits you now, what is your name?"
She looked down at her feet. She had a name in mind, but the sheer presence of Auril kept her from speaking up.
"clair" She said almost silently
Her heart was nearly beating out of her chest. Her breaths were shallow and her cheeks burned. She'd never felt like this before
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to shout, just I -"
Auril placed a finger over her lips.
"Clair. Do not apologize you have done nothing wrong."
"Your gift, Clair."
Auril bent down as she lifted Clair's chin up once more. The goddess kissed her follower. Clair squeaked as she realized what was happening, but quickly melted into the kiss.
"I have breathed a portion of my power into you, Clair. Be well."
Clair was a mess. She was like a glass of water someone continued to overfill. It was all too much for her. The embrace refused to leave her mind.
Clair opened her eyes and was disappointed her goddess was not there. She turned her head back towards the window. The liquid was still there, pooling.
It took her a moment to realize what had happened. Auril had merely set her atop the bed.
As Aleksi she had a meeting with the village elder concerning the local troubles.
The young man stopped chopping, set the knife down and turned around. He had the same dirty blond hair and soft brown eyes he had as a child. His face was matured, but held some optimistic mirth still.
"Oh, uh, you must be Elder's guest."
She bit her lip
The young man bowed slightly. He was only a little shorter than she had been before the change.
"Elder says that you are an old friend, but you appear so young. If you'll forgive my rudeness, how old are you, Miss Clair?"
He looked at her as though she'd grown a second head.
"Clearly, you can't be that old. You barely look older than my sister."
"I am, how is Beatrix?"
The man blinked. Gears seemed to turn in his head.
She nodded and adjusted the robe so she could grab the pendant. The young man's eyes caught the shine from it.
"I, I recognize that."
This was very rapidly getting entirely out of her control. The situation combined with the embarrassment and the hunger left with little wit.
She didn't know how to deal with this.
"I, he died. Then Auril brought me back like this."
"You're joking, right? You're just his daughter here and he told you to mess with me. You couldn't be, could you?"
Berthold's face scrunched up
Tears streaked down his face as he moved towards her, looking for an embrace. She returned it, somehow, even at his size the young man felt small in her arms.
He hugged more tightly. She could her a cane hitting wood.
"You're so different now, you even died."
"It wasn't so bad. I, I wanted this."
"You used to be so strong and- is this what you wanted?"
The sound of the approaching cane was close
Berthold broke the hug and wiped the tears away. He nodded at the Elder and bowed to Clair before pulling the stew off the fire.
Clair said a quick goodbye to Berthold and followed the surpsingly fast old woman.
"You remember the crisis from your first visit, yes?"
She thought back on those terrible creatures. Once ordinary humans, twisted by the depravity of their crimes. Gaunt things that knew only hunger.
Gone was the nervous woman seeing a child she once knew and in her place was the steely cleric of Auril.
"I do not know, their origin is blocked to even my sight." The elder responded
"That is not normal, they shouldn't be able to sense magic like that"
The Elder shook her head.
"No it is not. They have even worn at the wards the local fae provided me. I no longer have anything to offer them that would not bring harm to the village."
Clair nodded. The old woman seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
"I'll need arms and armor... if I am even able to bear them."
"Do not worry yourself over that now, young Berthold has finished the stew. I wonder if you will be as voracious as you once were."
The Elder laughed as she began hobbling out the room.
She shook her head, causing her long white hair to obscure her vision. The worry about the Fae fell away as she saw her thin fingers part her hair from her face. The scent of the stew permeated the halls of the Elder's home-
The room was lit by small magically charged stones that had become ubiquitous-
"Alek-Clair, next time allow me to-"
The Elder tapped the young man's side with a boney finger.
"No, it's fine, really. I'm used to just taking a seat. You don't have to."
"At least let me serve you dinner. Bea and the others should be here any moment."
"Beatrix has become quite the social butterfly since you last saw her, unlike Berthold."
Berthold had grabbed the ladle and gestured accusingly.
"Due in no small part to taking care of the home!"
Clair looked at the man, he seemed flustered. Was he wanting to take up her mantle when she passed?
"The Fae are dangerous, Berthold. They don't like prying eyes either."
"Bea, Ren, Erich! I'm glad you made it on time, for once."
She took her coat off and set it on the back of a chair and then pulled a seat out.
The woman with auburn hair tied back in a ponytail sat down.
Erich had walked over to Berthold and began assisting by taking bowls of the stew to each of the guests. Erich placed a bowl in front of Clair and leaned down.
She felt herself flush red.
"Uh, nothing just had a tough time sleeping and-"
"No, the window, when I saw you, you were already tucked into bed."
She breathed a sigh of relief.
She fumbled and brought up her pendant to show him.
"Try not to have them break anything next time."
He said and gave the pair their bowls before grabbing his own. Berthold delivered one to the Elder and sat down with his.
Clair looked at the stew in her bowl. It was as she remembered it; pork, tubers and a couple other vegetables stewed for hours. The tubers held the heat wonderfully.
Bea stopped stealing chunks of pork and looked over to Clair.
Clair felt her stomach drop. Why was she feeling panic? This didn't happen with Berthold, it was just kind of awkward.
The Elder set her spoon down.
"She is Clair, faithful of Auril. You should remember her, she saved you."
Clair could only managed a dazed sound as Bea continued to speak.
"So you're like Rene then, right? She used to-"
Bea froze in place
Rene was standing and had her hands held in strange shapes. She was a spell weaver it seemed. Clair nodded and slipped out of the paralyzed Bea's grip.
Clair moved over to Rene who dropped her hands and let Bea go.
"Really wish you'd stop doing that Ren."
"Stop acting like an imbecile and maybe I will. Now, apologies to the poor girl."
"I'm sorry Ale-" Rene glared at her "I'm sorry Clair."
Bea seemed to light up when she heard this.
"I owe you for saving her life, it seems. I'll see you tomorrow, Clair. Bea, let's go. Elder, Berthold, thank you for the meal."
"What just happened?"
The Elder was into another bowl of stew and Berthold was covering his face with his hands. Erich looked up and spoke.
"My sister and his sister are an item, been that was for a couple years."
"She's got magic?"
Erich ate another spoonful of stew.
"Yea, when he was a kid she was the only one in my family that got the gift."
"If I heard that all right, you're like my sister. That'd explain a lot about how you acted when we first met."
He sighed and stood up.
"I'd better head out. Thanks, Bert and good luck Clair."
Bertgrabbed the empty bowls and took them out of the room before returning for the pot
Clair nodded, thanked her for the hospitality and followed Berthold. She knew that the family dealt with the Fae, but she didn't want to meet with any of those until she had to.
"It seemed to like you, but let's get inside, Clair. Don't want to be out when the pixies return."
She nodded. It was a fairly common name for it, there were others like her favorite one; sprite bites.
"We're any of their favors worth it?"
Berthold's face scrunched up.
"I didn't get these that way."
"I got careless a year ago, Nana, the uh Elder... she was teaching me some of the old ways. I was to make a small exchange with the Fae."
"So, are you going to tell me what went wrong?"
"I made a bad deal after realizing I'd worn my iron cleated shoes. I didn't want to risk scrutiny so I let them suggest a price, they wanted a pint."
She knew where this was going.
"A pint of what?"
Clair frowned and interrupted him.
"They meant blood, Berthold."
"I know that now, look, I'm more experienced for it. It's okay."
She bit her lip and looked at his arms. She hadn't tried any magic since the change and to see little, well now big Berthold hurt was eating at her.
"Berthold, let me see your scars. It'll be like back then."
Berthold smiled faintly and let her see his arms.
He walked down the hall towards the kitchen. Why hadn't the spell worked,? She'd said the words and felt the magic well up-
"A simple act of mending a broken twig should be easy enough."
She broke it and tried again, this time watching the hand holding the twig.
She broke the twig once more and set the pieces on the ground before casting the spell again. Nothing happened, the twig remained broken. She repeated this test several times and found that the mending spell only worked if she physically touched the twig.
"Nearly done?" She asked
He placed the collected ash into a clay pot and walked over.
"I figured it out, let me try again, please."
He nodded and gave her his arms.
"I may look different now, but I can still patch you back up, kid. Try not to hurt yourself again."
"I promise I won't Miss Clair."
Hearing her name like this felt good.
"I'm glad you and your sister turned out so well, always knew you were good kids."
He hugged her. It was a small surprise and she let out a small gasp.
"I'm going to see Rene tomorrow, can you show me where she lives?"
"Sure thing, are you turning in?"
She smiled and turned away.
"Sleep well, good night."
Once she got to the room she'd been given she set to do right by the Elder. The debris from Auril's entrance was piled on the table near the window. She placed as much as she could-
She was somewhere in the forest and she could feel eyes on her from all sides. She had no weapon, but was in chainmail worn over a gambeson. Snow was falling.
"By the authority of Auril, goddess of Winter and the Fae Lord of this forest I have been granted passage. Disperse."
The glares from between the trees and within the shadows cast by their boughs only grew in menace. This was wrong.
"We honor no such authority and care not for it, little priestess."
The surrounding shadows grew and squirmed as they crept over the white snow that stood between them.
The quivering shades ceased and drew back slightly as a man stepped out of them. His entire being as obscured from her vision and appeared as seething smoke.
"Not what, but who?"
His voice dripped with hatred that only came with familiarity and bloodlust
"You have changed so much, Aleksi."
Her blood went cold. The figure reached a hand into the air and pulled a blade out of a small distortion
He thrust the blade into her gut. She screamed.
She had bolted upright in bed and the sound of her scream had woken her from the night terror. Moments later Berthold rushed in accompanied by the Elder.
"Stay away!" She shrieked
Her breathing was labored and she could feel herself drenched in sweat. A tense moment passed as she kept the jagged shard between her and the-
She slowed her breathing and tried to focus. Slowly, the panic receded and her senses returned. The blurs became distinct. Berthold was holding his hands up while the Elder looked on calmly.
"I, I'm sorry."
She dropped the shard and it rolled off the bed.
"It's okay, we're here. May I sit?"
She nodded and Berthold sat on the bed. It creaked slightly under his weight.
She nodded again, but she didn't want to mention the loss of perception.
"I uh, I get those sometimes too."
He placed a hand on her leg through the blanket.
"For a few years after you saved us, Bea and I, it was hard. I'd wake up crying, muttering to myself."
Berthold looked her in the eyes.
"For what, A-Clair, sorry, still getting used to it. You were a wandering cleric, Bea and I were lucky you were there at all."
"Now, what the hells happened to you?"
"Someone from my past, I'm missing pieces, but he said I should have made sure he was dead."
It seemed to wither and dissolve until all that remained was a small lock of hair and a tooth.
She turned to Berthold, he was sitting against the wall, sweating. His eyes were moving erratically and he seemed to be mouthing words. He was holding the hand that was bitten close to his chest.
"Just stay quiet, gotta stay silent. Can't, let them find me."
She remembered this, he was saying this back in the wendigo lair. She pulled a spell together and reached out.
"Phobophage, fear eater. Terrible creatures. They're not of this plane either, someone summoned it here. Then they sent it after you. Faithful of Auril, our troubles and yours continue to grow"
The Elder's face hardened. She nodded.
"A very competent spellweaver could. Do you have any idea who it was?"
She wracked her brain, she knew who this was, but almost everything specific was missing.
The Elder tightened her grip on her cane making her knuckles go white.
"I will make sure he stays dead next time, no one hurts my little ones. For now though we have more pressing matters."
"Retrieve Rene and then go see the smith. I will tend to Berthold."
She hobbled over to the sleeping man and began looking him over, daubing the black venom from his body. Clair grabbed some clothing and quickly changed in another room.
She walked out of the house and into the morning air.
It was decidedly different in style to the others of the village. She had expected something like this, students of the arcane arts tended towards to be... eccentric.
"State your name and purpose of your visit after knocking three times.
If the door does not open, DO NOT attempt to forcibly enter."
She sighed, the thing was likely warded to hell and back. If she did try to force it, the damn thing might level the house and her.
"I am Clair Eldridge. Bea's brother has been hurt and the Elder requests Rene at once."
No response. A moment passed and she could hear something fall, a grunt if pain and an apology. There was some more clattering and a thud.
"Clair! Come in, come in! Just uh, don't mind the mess or my state of dress, eheh"
She reached out an arm and waved it dismissively.
"If Bert was actually in danger, I'd know. Rene set up an enchantment on an old ring of mine. It's meant to glow whenever he's in trouble. Now, come in, I insist."
Bea nodded energetically her hair getting in front of her face. She moved it out of the way before turning back and fully opening the door.
"Look, Rene, I know you're here somewhere. Shit, I was just there." She groaned "Fine, have it your way you little exhibitionist."
Bea raised a palm towards the couch and said Rene's name.
"Rene, remove the illusion and cover yourself, she's a priest, damn it."
The air above the couch shimmered and Rene's body began to appear
"Of course, Bea, especially when you say it like that..."
"Concentrate" She murmured
The shimmer left Rene's eyes and they narrowed.
"My true name, really?"
Bea shrugged. Rene scoffed as she stood up, the blanket weaving itself into a full robe.
"You, uh, didn't get the full pronunciation did you? Oh, and what's going on that merited interrupting our fun?"
Her just moments ago blissful expression had turned severe. Clair felt her skin turn to goose flesh.
Rene spoke while idly fixing her hair.
"A Phobophage, then and summoned specifically for you? Interesting. Bea, get me the book-
Bea looked at Rene, looked at the mess of a room and then back to Rene. She made an exaggerated shrug. Rene rolled her eyes.
"The pile next to the place we made an alembic break last week"
"There's something I want to check. It won't hurt and nothing should happen."
"Sure, but tell me what you're checking first."
"A couple things, specifically your morphic resonance. It's the uh, reason the usual polymorph-
Clair had heard of the concept before and hearing it now made her curious as well.
"Alright, go for it, Rene."
She reached a hand out and splayed her fingers wide before touching Clair's chest.
Rene pulled her hand back.
Before she could respond, Rene spoke again.
"Speak of the devil."
"This is the right book, thank you, babe. Ah ha, here!" She pressed a finger against one of the pages "While very useful at sending a message, the Phobophage has been mostly discarded by many-
"Can you track them?"
Rene raised an eyebrow.
"Of course, what do you take me for, some sort of hedge wizard?"
She bowed slightly towards Rene, not just to show respect, but hide the growing blush. It was a similar feeling to the night she had renewed her vows to Auril.
"Clair... you don't have to keep your head down around me, it was only a joke, you didn't really insult me."
The taller woman reached down with a hand-
"So it's like that?"
Clair looked up into Rene's eyes, they seemed to glimmer like like gold dust in a stream. She felt weak in her knees and very small, but it wasn't bad.
"Did I do something wrong?" Said Clair, her voice soft and breathy
Rene smiled at the flustered cleric.
"No, you didn't. Now, while this is fun, we have something more urgent to handle. I'm going to go see Berthold and the Elder, are you coming too?"
"No, he Elder wanted me to see the local smith. Is it still the same old man?"
"Well yes and no, his kid handles the Forge now." Said Bea
"Bea, we should get going. Make sure to wear something for the cold."
"Your winter goddess seems very kind, nothing like the last one I dealt with. Are you familiar with Esara?"
"Yes, not personally, though."
Rene had pulled her hair back and waved a hand over her throat. All around her neck and on her wrists were long ropey scars. Around them the skin looked like healed over burns.
Rene stared daggers at her.
"No, these stay. They're all I have left of my sister and my mother."
She looked down. She hadn't meant it like that. She felt the swell of magic she'd pulled in dissipate.
Rene waved a hand and the flesh seemed to smooth back to a healthy texture and color.
"See, if I use this type of magic it will just go back when I let the spell drop. The past stays. Look, I hear Bea finishing up."
"Don't apologize, you may not be able to help me, but you saved the woman I love and her-
Clair couldn't speak. She nodded and broke the hug.
She blinked and looked out the now open door at Rene and Bea in their winter clothing. There was a small moment of panic as she looked down her body, everything was where it should be. She sighed in relief and stepped into outside.
"You do remember where Marcus' place is right? I'm sure you do, but just look for the plume of smoke from the forge."
Bea turned and waved in a single motion before bounding through the snow towards Rene.
"She's still the same kid after all these years."
She smiled and turned to check for the smoke.
"Da, we got a lady visitor!" Yelled a child's voice
Did Marcus have a kid now?
"Missy, where'd you get that pendant?" He asked
She felt relieved, why only came with the relief and a moment to think.
She didn't respond, Marcus' sheer presence was intimidating and the question itself was difficult and it didn't seem to get easier each time she'd answered it either.
She laughed nervously.
"Sort of... ha..."
"What? Ah hells, we can talk more once you're inside, come in. Not right to leave a lady out in the cold."
He pulled the door fully open.
"Vance! Quit hidin' and get the lady a stool! Er, sorry but that miss. Now you were saying you were sort of old Aleksi's kid?"
"Out with it lass!" He shouted
She shook, his voice was like thunder. She wanted to answer, but the words wouldn't come. What was different about telling Marcus? He seemed to notice her reaction and his face softened
"I'm sorry, take your time."
"Here, miss. Da said you needed a stool." Said a small child
The kid was probably only 7 or 8 judging on their size. They had shaggy black hair and vibrant blue eyes. She sat on the stool.
"Thank you, Vance."
"I am Aleksi, I was Aleksi."
He stopped pumping and looked her dead in the eye.
"That. Is the best damned joke I've heard in years."
"You already got me, girl, no need to keeping going and ruin a good laugh." He interrupted
"I'm not joking." She said sternly
Marcus face went stony.
She hung her head. She felt like she'd let Marcus down somehow. When she'd been here last she'd shared drinks with Marcus, she'd also relied on his steel to deal with the wendigo.
What did he mean it was okay? How was anything okay? Sure she was happy, but she felt like she'd let him down. She'd given up on being a strong hero in exchange for being herself. She shook as tears streamed down her face.
She reluctantly inclined her head to face him. His face was as soft as the bearfed , wrinkled thing could be.
"I'm so sorry, I..."
"What are you apologizing for? You told me all about this when we drank that night."
"You told me about wanting to be a woman, you were shit faced so I thought it was a joke. Guess you were telling the truth? So how'd this all happen?"
What, who else had she told? How many people knew? Why did that bother her?
He reached a hand to wipe her tears away. His skin was rough, but warm.
"You did and you bawled back then too. Remember I told you that you were ruining the joke back then too."
He stepped back and then settled on his stool again.
"Auril, yes and she gave me this body."
He raised an eyebrow and returned to the bellows.
"Must've done something big for her to warrant that. I won't pry any more, you seem a bit overwrought."
"It's fine, Aleksi."
She winced a little. That wasn't her name.
"Clair then, it's fine. I assume you're hear for some smithing then?"
She was taken aback at how quickly he went back to business.
"Er, yes my sizing is different, eheh."
"Don't worry about the payment, I'm getting sick and tired of smithing nails and pans all damned day."
"You're probably here to deal with some sort of trouble, like last time."
"Only a damned fool would charge an already proven saviour. We should talk on the origin of those wendigo. If I had to guess I'd say they're what's left of some fool hunters come up from Kasite"
"A hunting party? In this weather?"
"Yea, that's what I told them, but they insisted. Damned fools."
Marcus stood up again. He walked over to a large drawer and began rummaging through it.
"The end of fall, about three months back. Ah, here it is."
He pulled out a fine longbow, or rather what was once a fine longbow.
She took it and ran her hands over it. The wood was fine, but not where the magic resided, it was instead inside the crimson bowstring.
"I assume this was one of the hunter's?"
"Yea, their leader had it when they first came through."
Marcus sat back down.
"I didn't, Vance did. Kid tells me a pretty lady dressed in leaves gave it to him."
Clair started to speak, but Marcus held up one of this huge hands.
"Already had old Leena check them for any attachment to the fae."
"Kid's already part fae, that was their mum. The Spring Maiden and I, well we er."
For the first time she saw Marcus flustered. He had a blush on his weathered cheeks.
"That explains Vance's capricious nature."
She smiled back at him.
This was more like their old talks when she was here years ago.
"So, how did you court the Spring Maiden? You've got a real fancy story for this one right?"
"Hah, well you see..."
Marcus waved his hand dismissively.
"Yea, that was the odd part. Now it wasn't sick or nothing either, so why it was out there alone by a mystery to me at the time. Now, I lines up a shot, pull back the bowstring and she looks at me."
"I'm going to assume that you shot an arrow at the Spring Maiden."
Marcus laughed and nodded.
Clair held a hand up. The Fae were known for their beauty, especially those of the courts.
Marcus looked relieved.
"I go to turn my palm down, feed the soil like Leena says and the Maiden grabs my hand and forces it up. She brings her head to the cut and lick up the blood herself. She pulls back and looks at me, her pale lips stained deeper red."
"Sounds like you were very lucky, Marcus."
"That's not the end of it. The next evening an injured buck walks out of the forest and sits down in front of me. I can hear laughter in the trees."
He pulled the knife out and handed it to Clair. It was made of carved bone and etched with fae script. She tested the edge and saw it cut effortlessly through the leather scrap.
"So I give her my blood and the next day she gives me a deer. We do exchanges like this for weeks until she asks me to accompany her to the clearing where we first met. It was the winter solstice. We had become something akin to friends"
Clair blushed at the thought of it all.
"So Vance really is-"