A Boreal Quest

GM: Varangian
Players: Walker
Synopsis: Walker embarks on an astral quest to learn the Ice Sheet spell, which sends him through an astral frozen north.
Date: 22th September, 2080


Preparing himself to venture once more into the metaplanes, Walker gets ready in his little apartment in Mountain Hills. The curtains are drawn, the door is locked and the shaman throws on his more traditional garb for the occasion. A white sheet is laid out on the floor, because blood and upholstery really don't mix, and Walker stretches out on it before getting comfortable.

Just before he closes his eyes, he checks the fit of his set of rings and the broad hoop on a chain around his neck, activating both foci. Then he drifts from his body and moves in a direction that nobody can point in and finds himself in darkness before the threshold.

For a moment, there's a heavy, pressing silence, accompanied only by Walker's own heartbeat. Throbbing…
dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun…

"Awake, sojourner," a voice speaks that dispels that pressing silence and all is empty. The Threshold is nothing new to him, the omnipresent darkness being paradoxically familiar in a way in its ineffability. At first, there is nothing but him there, but slowly something materialises next to him. A subtle shape of a face, taking shape into a floating mask, carved out of a single piece of exquisite wood, adorned with beads, paint and feathers, like an ancient Medicine Man's mask from his tribe's deepest history.

"We meet again, Walks-With-Spirits," it says, its voice subdued and flat, like it projects straight into his mind rather than bounce around in some non-existent space. "You seek knowledge. But are you worthy of uncovering its secrets?"

As he watches the mask take form, Walker smiles at the familiar features. Almost involuntarily, the facsimiles of clothes he clads his astral form in drift away: they don't matter here, they are but trinkets.

In their place, a mask in the same style shapes itself on his head, almost as if formed from his features. The same wood forms the basis, but the elf's is adorned in fractal traceries of gold and copper, with a mane of brilliant cobalt feathers covering his hair.

As it solidifies, a spiderweb of cracks forms on it's surface, a deep blue-black colour in stark contrast to the bright colours of the mask. Dull blood that sparkles like rubies as it catches the not-light of the shaman's aura oozes from the cracks to track down his face and torso.

With his mask finished, Walker stares levelly at the mask and answers levelly, "That is for you to decide, Dweller. All that I am is here."

That ancient mask slowly begins to transform as well. An unseen wind grabs hold of its feathery manes, suspended beads on thread rattling back and forth.

"The autumn leaves are falling, and soon, winter shall come. Until you reach your goal, you shall be trapped in endless winter. No-one shall come for your aid, you must face the cold…"

The mask changes colour as frost begins to build around its wooden frame, first as shimmering crystals and as the ice grows thicker, it becomes completely encased in a layer of crystalline ice, its hanging beads turning into icicles. From its mouth blows a horrid cold wind, sending Walker almost reeling backwards. The cold is unnatural and goes straight through him, as if attempting to tear his ethereal flesh from its bones. He remains intact, but his form is thrown through the void. It all goes dark, only the horrible cold, remains.

SPLASH! He awakens again underwater. An ancient warship, made from wood and with many oars, has been struck by an unknown foe and torn apart, its broken hull sinking into the endless depths. He sinks, a trail of bubbles reaching for the surface with its warm light that grows all the more distant. Around him in the water, bits of broken wood and oars, shields and swords, sailors and warriors alike sinking into their cold, deep grave.

Walker draws a ragged breath as the frigid blast hits him, momentarily regretting his change of wardrobe before he recalls that cold here is illusory… probably. Shame it doesn't feel like that though. As he tumbles, he ponders the Dweller's words.

Then he hits the water, and though his astral form survives the impact his breath is knocked out of him. Casting around, he quickly decides not to test how imaginary drowning here would be as he gathers mana to lift himself free.

The dark depths of this frozen sea is looming closer and closer… not only because he is sinking further down, but it appears the darkness itself is -moving-… like a formless, timeless horror that lurks below, ready to consume him should he fail his quest. Already around him, he can see how some of the warriors, burdened down by their heavy suits of maille, are grabbed by its dark tendrils. The lucky ones are torn apart, disappearing into a cloud of blood that appears black as night in the water… others are swallowed whole to some unspeakable fate.

Walker's body begins to move; levitating upwards through the water, as if pulled up by an invisible rope. It goes faster and faster, until he eventually flies straight through the hull of the destroyed warship, passing by only the drowning, waterlogged screams of its doomed crew.

He breaks past the surface of the water, and floats up above the water.

Around him unfolds a massive sea-battle, ancient wooden longships full of painted shields circling around each other in a maelstrom of chaos. The sound of screams, of people falling overboard, of roaring fire-bombs launched by catapults is deafening. He finds himself floating above the water, while men in their thousands are dying in this horrid massacre. Arms stretch out from the surface of the water. A man, stranded on a sheet of broken hull, lies screaming, both his legs having been cut off. In the distance, there is the scream of a woman, that is the loudest of all.

Acting more on instinct than anything else, Walker alights next to the injured man. He makes an intricate series of gestures with his hands before putting a hand to the man's chest, doing what he can to alleviate his suffering.

As he waits for the magic to fully close the wounds, he squints through the smoke and flame for the source of the woman's screaming.

Walker's expression turns grim as he gets a better look at the man's wounds, not to mention the sheer quantity of his blood on the deck and in the water. Shaking his head sadly, the elf puts a hand over the man's eyes and utters a single word.

"Sleep."

The man's screaming stops as the gentle magic envelops his mind and snuffs out conscious thought. With a final glance down at the shattered body, Walker takes off again in the direction of the distant screams.

The terror in the man's eyes as he sees his own life slowly ebb away is worse than witnessing the gore of his dismembered body. He screams, a hand grabbing hold of Walker's arm, "Please… I don't want to die…" he pleads, with a voice so pathetic it is hard not to pity him. It only ends when Walker's stunbolt hits him. The grip loosens, and he fall unconscious, with closed eyes. There isn't much time to mourn him, though, as within seconds, two warships facing each other collide right in front of them, their hulls exploding into a cascade of splinters and warriors through into the air. It nearly proceeds in slow-motion as Walker flies past them, one sailor flying right past him before he plummets and is impaled on a broken mast.

Flying across this scene of devastation, he dodges a shower of arrows that rains down on a ship below him, wounded warriors falling overboard with screams of agony. Finally, though, he locates the woman's scream. She's standing on the bowsprit of a sinking ship, her body already waist-deep in water. Clearly, in a moment she'll sink with the rest of the ship.

Behind his mask, Walker's face could be made of stone as he crosses the battlefield. He's no stranger to death, but to witness it on this scale is something wholly new to him. Not for the first time in his life, he finds himself wishing that he couldn't see the terror and pain in the auras of the dying.

Then he spots the woman, perhaps the only person he's seen so far that isn't already dead from her wounds. Sweeping down out of the sky he wraps an arm around her waist, shivering a little at the cold water. "Hold on!" he shouts into her ear, trusting that at least the emotional content will get the message across in this place. He pushes back upwards, fighting to free the pair of them from the frigid depths and whatever lies beneath.

Once he reaches up to the trapped woman, he notices how familiar she looks… a tall and powerful woman, with brown hair, violet eyes and a scarred lip. She closes her eyes as he wraps his arms around her waist to pull her away. He can feel that she's cold to the touch, her body shivering. He pulls, but nothing happens… that's when he notices.

She's chained to the hull of the ship.

The boat rumbles, and no matter how hard he pulls, she is sinking…

Mixed feeling rushes through Walker; deep inside he -knows- that the Dweller is testing him, and what is happening here isn't -real-…

Yet, he looks on helplessly as those impenetrable chains pulls the woman down with the ship. She looks up with her terror-struck violet eyes for one final time until she breaks below the surface, down into that freezing cold, dark water… and as long as he holds on to her, he's going down as well.

The woman's appearance comes as a surprise at first, but then Walker chides himself. He let her walk into that fucking underground shrine like a lamb to the slaughter didn't he? Who else would the Dweller throw in his face right now?

-No-

Something in Walker's core turns to steel at the thought of letting the past repeat itself. It might not be real, but the choices he makes certainly are.

He locks his other arm around her as his astral form slips beneath the water, blazing with light as he fights against this fate. Spirit is unbreakable, metal is nothing, and failure is simply unthinkable.

Pulled down by the weight of the ship, they are sinking even deeper. The light above slowly shrinks as they descend into the cold, watery darkness, and those black tendrils deep below…

As his lungs burn and his vision dims, Walker comes to something of a revelation. For once, his totem is right. He /is/ the only one here that matters, the only 'real' one. The Dweller made his trap well, to be sure, but it is just smoke and mirrors. He releases his grip, not stopping to watch the woman disappear into the depths as he rockets back to the surface.

As Walker finally breaks through that freezing surface again, that horrid cold wind that brought him here comes again, showering this whole tragic landscape in a massive blizzard, with clouds of ice so thick it's impossible to see anything. The harsh wind forcing him to descend, he eventually comes through the clouds of snow and frost and finds himself on terra firma. Or at least, on thick sheets of snow. The sea, the broken ships and the battlefield is gone. He suddenly stands in a majestic wintery landscape in the middle of a forest. The trees are all young and slender birches, with brilliantly crimson leaves still plentiful on its branches despite the apparent season, bathing the landscape in red, white and black.

The horror and bloodshed of the last metaplane is gone, replaced by this image of perfect serenity. Frankly, it is a relief, though it has yet to reveal its own mystery.

Forcing himself to calm after his ordeal, Walker takes a moment to appreciate this new tranquility. A deep breath of the crisp air helps dispel the worst of the shakes before he curiously moves to examine one of the nearby trees, curious about the odd mismatch between their foliage and the snow that blankets the ground.

The trees are birch, nothing unusual about them except that their leaves are bright red. When Walker looks closer and puts his hand on the trunk, he also notices that there are carvings into the tree, bright red like the leaves as if the wood had that colour underneath the white bark. Each tree has a separate rune carved into it; simple and almost crude-looking runes, chiseled in straight lines seemingly by a sharp knife. More and more runes, seemingly in the thousands of thousands, as the forest goes on.

Quickly, he notices that most of the runes appear again and again on different trees. All in all, there are probably no more than a dozen runes.

Moving from tree to tree, Walker takes a moment to examine the trees with different runes, as well as a few with the same, trying to discern a pattern in the markings. Perhaps some kind of calendar? Or some way of focussing the mana in the area? Hopefully not viking kids carving their names in an entire forest…

The trees go on and on. It must've taken a long time to carve these runes, even as simple as they are. He wanders about, until he eventually reaches a small clearing with a little mound. The snow here is pristine, like a perfect white sheet without the slightest blemish, not even a wayward red leaf upon it. Thus, the stone in front of him stands out. A proud monolith, about as tall as him, covered in a layer of snow. Next to it lies an old skeleton, only half a skull and a bony arm reaching up above the snow, a chisel in its hand.

Peering curiously at this oddly perfect scene, Walker approaches the monolith and the skeleton cautiously. Cocking his head for a moment, he eventually reaches out to brush the snow from the monolith, half-expecting to find a familiar set of runes inscribed there.

Unsurprisingly, it is a runic stone, with a graceful lindworm coiling about itself, its body adorned with dull red runes. Only problem is… the stone isn't completed. One rune is missing; the final one, close to the head of the wyrm.

Walker takes the time to carefully examine the runes on the trees, comparing them carefully with those already on the stone. When he's convinced he has the correct shape memorised he takes up the former stonecarver's chisel and sets to work.

The forest is so silent that the sound of metal scraping against the cold, hard stone echoes between the trees, almost as if the stone was calling to all these rune-encrusted trees. The rune is not complicated to make, and soon enough he completes it. The rune stone looks complete, but nothing happens. It seems that something is still missing before the stone's magic can be activated…?

He remembers… runes need to be activated with blood.

Standing over the runestone, Walker discards the chisel and slowly draws the fingers of one hand across the other like a knife. Intent being just as deadly here as a blade, the shaman's blood drips from his hand to run down the runestone, flowing into the cracks and marking the snow with his blood.

As the forgotten runestone's magical power is activated with a blood sacrifice, its warm glow melts the sheet of ice covering it. The warmth continues, spreading out through the wintry landscape with supernatural speed, like weeks turning into seconds. The snow disappears, the red foliage left behind by those curious red birch trees turn into a canopy of bright red mushrooms on the ground as green grasses grow out in a second. Butterflies and birds suddenly inhabit the trees, but the time only goes faster.

Seconds now seem to nearly turn into years. Scores of figures appears, resembling little more than humanoid-shaped blurs of light, so fast do they move. In a matter of seconds, they are tearing down the runic trees, turning it into lumber and they seem to be building a village around him. Wooden houses, a palisade, and finally even a Jarl's great hall around him. He is standing right in the middle of it as it is being built, walls of reddish and white birch rising around him, until he finally finds himself standing in a completed longhouse.

A great hearth burns in the centre of the room, its fire burning unnaturally red. In the centre of the room is a long table, and all the blurred figures are seated for a feast. There are bowls of fruit, great platters of roast meat and tankards of strong drink.

Right in front of him sits the only figure at this enormous table that isn't a blur. It's Walker himself, though he looks different. His blonde hair is braided, his skin is full of runic tattoos. It's him, if he had followed a different path. And right across the table from him, there is an empty spot. The only spot at the whole table.

Standing in front of this odd reflection of himself, Walker can't help but be contemplative. For a brief moment, thoughts chase through his head about how his life could have been different. Half-remembered memories that he doesn't think are his flit from his mind even as he recalls them.

It's only a brief moment though. The elf smirks at his viking self and takes the seat opposite with a clatter. Inclining his head a little to look down his nose at this doppelganger, he deadpans, "Your hair looks ridiculous."

The Walker - or perhaps Gangr? - across the table doesn't reply, but he grins with a toothy smile. He raises a hand, and blurred-out thralls come carrying on a drinking horn that they slam down on the table. Although it seems to be carved from a single horn, it is enormous, easily big enough to fit him inside of it.

"MANNR THYRSTYR ER! DREKKA AF HORNINU INN FAUM AIGA!"

His voice is familiar yet quite alien. The men at the table tap ther tankards, and Gangr stands up. He looks at the horn, waves his hands in gestures that look familiar and alien at the same time, and the empty horn magically fills up, much to the cheering joy of the crowds. Gangr raises his tankard and dip it in the horn, then downs his mug in a single sweep, wiping his mouth. Then he points across the table.

"Syna Galdrigi thinn nu, ek mannir min drykku gifr." The horn is empty.

Walker doesn't know any viking-speak, but there's no mistaking a drinking contest when he sees one. Despite him not doing it very often these days, the elf has plenty of experience. He doesn't shout, he doesn't need to. He just returns the smile, heavy on the canines, extends his right hand, and snaps his fingers.

-SNAP-

The rooms goes silent, a beat passes. One of the vikings, who must be the assigned heckler, shouts something. Walker winks at Gangr, and a geyser of ale erupts from the horn. The elf grabs his own tankard, fills it in the stream and gulps it down without the grin ever leaving his face.

Beneath the cascades of magical beer, the true battle begins. Gangr stands up, fills his mug from the horn and downs it in a single sweep, expecting Walker to do the same.

And so it continues, the two shamans from very different lives pitting themselves against each other for nothing more than pride. Well maybe for fun too, it's good beer after all. His counterpart does well, and before long the two have their arms round each other's shoulders singing some wordless drinking song that seems to make sense of them.

The sun on the snow fades outside, the hall lit only by the crackling fire now. Eventually though, Walker's semi-'real' state proves the edge, and as his counterpart gets groggy and sleepy Walker leaves him in the able care of a couple of very pretty young blondes with matching braids. Valkyries perhaps? The elf isn't sure, but they certainly look the part.

There's a great uproar in the hall as Gangr, the tribe's great shaman and all-round alpha male, keels over and falls asleep with his head in the lap of one of the blondes. The music of harp and drums go quiet, and for a second only the crackling fireplace can be heard. Then… there's snoring. The entire hall bursts out in great laughter over their shaman's disgrace, and the party continues again. Nobody seems to pay attention to the victor of this epic duel.

A small wooden door leading outside opens, alluringly lit by moonlight.

Chuckling softly to himself, Walker takes his opportunity to slip away into the night. It's not about the adulation, it's about enjoying the game after all.

Stepping out into the snow, the wintry night is calm and quiet. The moon paints everything gently blue, and the thin layer of frost over each tree and house in the village makes it glitter like crystal. In the distance the forest clears, and the moonlight reflects upon the coast. However, there are fires, like torches, gathered there, disrupting the serenity of the place.

Breathing in the cold night air with some relish, Walker takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of the scene. It's like something out of a kitschy kids trid show, minus the singing animate snowman.

Then he spots the torches and hurries through the snow towards the flickering lights.

As Walker approaches the beach he notices what type of gathering it is. People are standing with torches, centred around a single longship that looks ready to disembark. The ship is loaded up with shields, spears, gold and treasure, even dead horses. And there is a pyre at the centre of the boat, with Gangr laying on it, with arms crossed.

Did he drink himself to death? In any case, it seems Walker has, in a sense, stumbled upon his own funeral. The villagers are stricken.

"Our great shaman has died! We must send him to the great Spirit according to the traditional rites!"

"The one conducting these rites should be the shaman of the tribe! You're not worthy!"

And then the group begins to argue loudly.

Walker is a bit non-plussed by the course the Dweller has set him on this time. First watching Varangian drown and now turning up to his own funeral pyre? He makes a mental note to turn up the sarcasm next time around, he rather liked Gangr, even the silly hair.

Thinking fast, he recalls his otherself's features, the runes, the braids, the way everything he said was just a bit too loud somehow. As he remembers, his appearance shifts, smooth skin becoming calloused and weathered, his long fall of hair becoming a mane of braids and his brand expanding to crisscross his entire body in runes. Animal furs and hides go over the top, with a great spear to complete the look.

"Peace! he cries, Gangr's voice echoing from his mouth, "There will always be a shaman!"

The arguing stops in an instant, and the entire tribe's faces turn to face Walker. Or Gangr, or whoever it is. The big, powerful man that first spoke, who might be the warchief of the tribe, nods his head in reverence.

"Great Shaman, you have died. Tradition demands a skald for the dead. Would you do the honour of performing this for our fallen shaman?"

They all nod solemnly, like the idea of a dead person holding a eulogy for themselves makes perfect sense.

Walker closes his eyes and bows his head in acknowledgement. He begins to walk slowly towards the ship, intoning a resounding litany with each step.

"What is a life, but another verse in the saga of our people?" A glow arises around Walker's astral form, golden light bathing the shaman in a gentle radiance.

"The verse of Gangr was a long one, and well sung." The radiance intensifies, suffusing the air around him in a visible aura.

"He lived life to the hilt, with honour and no regrets." The light becomes bright enough that the astral form is difficult to make out.

"Remember this verse, hold it in your hearts. Carry it with you, always." The figure is all but invisible now, an indistinct figure in a second sun that rises from the earth to blind the eyes.

Setting his hand upon the ship's stern, Walker pushes, the heat from his hand making the wood smoke at a touch.

"Farewell, great Shaman. You must go now. Step onto your ship and sail on to the next place of your journey."

The radiance that was Gangr ascends to the deck of the ship, enveloping the viking's physical form in flames as the ship slides silently into the sea and away from the shore.

The mysterious ship sails away towards the horizon, but never reaches it; the golden flames engulf the ship, turning into fine dust spreading in the wind.

The world is black and cold again. Walker can slowly feel himself coming into form as he opens his eyes. It's still snowing within the void… but slowly, the flakes melt, and it begins to rain. The cold fades away, and a pleasant warmth appears out of nowhere.

The Dweller appears, the frost around his mask has disappeared, and It looks much like It did when Walker first entered the metaplane. "The winter is over," the Dweller says. "You faced the cold, and proved yourself worthy."

Walker examines his body, in many ways relieved to have it back to normal. As he returns himself to the form in which he began this journey he nods to the Dweller before shooting it a dirty look. "Both those stunts with the ships were low blows," he observes, smirking, "but then I guess that's your remit after all."

"I didn't create those ships, you did. It seems ships have played a significant part of your life recently." the mask remains motionless, but if it could move Walker can imagine it smiling. "That I leave up to you to think about. Go now, and bring the winter with you to unleash upon your enemies. I release you from this plane."

As he hears the words Walker learns, or perhaps remembers, the insight he came here in search of. He blinks.

When he opens his eyes, he sees the ceiling of his room in Mountain Hills. Sitting up, the shaman rubs gently at his forehead, with a slight frown. "Gonna have nightmares about the first one," he mutters to himself with a resigned expression.

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