It was the pain that woke him, a dull pulse that brought him to the edge of sensation. The steady beat was like a drum, leading him through a never ending, twisting maze whose exit lead to horrific possibilities. Ever so slowly he felt his body awaken once again, aware of every cell, every fiber that screamed in agony at him while accelerating him out of oblivion and into...

Shawn snapped his eyes open, expecting to see a battle still raging about him. Instead it was darkness that greeted his eyes, the kind of dark experienced only on the night of a new moon. A few stars poked down to give a feeble light, just enought to make out the shapes of trees around him. As his ears began responding again, he was able to make out a low sobbing not far away and a soft rustle of breath next to him, erratic and choked.

As the elf lay still, waiting for the pain to go away, he thought of the last things he had seen. Sslik fighters milling around, slaughtering the human farmers that had provoked the attack. Jeron falling down dead with his throat torn out. Shawn closed his eyes, keeping his composure and forcing himself to think. Time enough to mourn later, for now he had to survive. Ever so slowly he sat up, wincing as broken ribs and bruised limbs protested intensely.

"Well, at least I'm still alive," he whispered, testing his range of motion. His wrists were bound with leather straps, the backs of his hands together so as to prevent any chance of untying his bonds, or anybody else's for that matter. His ankles were also bound, crossed over each other so as to hinder any movement attempts. "Heh, this complicates matters."

A crackle of flames came from behind him, and he rolled over slowly to get a view. Several small fires were burning, spits hung with meat slabs and small woodland creatures roasting above them. Shawn winced, hoping that the tales of cannibalistic Sslik didn't apply to this particular band. The mere thought was disgusting, but he wouldn't have been surprised. Food is food to animals, and these creatures would be acting against their nature to simply let fresh meat go unused.

Shawn turned away from the fires and the feasting reptiles, testing his bonds yet again. The leather was of high quality, and bound tightly enough that he had no motion available to even start with. Obviously this particular group had captured many of a more mammalian persuasion before and knew how to deal with them. Laying back down, Shawn wondered what his fate would be. Killed, no doubt. But would he be left to rot, or turned on a spit?


"Three dead," Dagger Maw muttered. The Elder Council sat around a small fire, shadows playing across their snouts and faces. None had spoken a word since they had begun to dine, and the Scout could take it no longer. "Shadow Spear did not attack. Shadow Spear said that The Scaled were not animals and would wait. Now Red Tail, Three Claws and Grinning Moon are dead. Does Shadow Spear still think that Softskins can be trusted, or treated like friends?"

"Silence," Star Eye hissed. It was a small Scaled, barely taller than a Softskin female. The Elder was the youngest present, only eight decades old, but held a lot of respect due to it's ability to quickly end disputes between the War Elders and the Band Elders. "Shadow Spear did right by waiting. No matter which attacked first, Softskin or Scaled, three Scaled would have died. Much is risked in war. Star Eye should not have to teach this lesson to a fighter such as Dagger Maw."

"Star Eye is correct," another Band Elder murmured as Dagger Maw scowled. The smith was big and burly, larger than most of the fighters and with scales blackened by years at a forge. "No matter the beginning, the outcome would have been the same. The War Elders should be thanking Kasha for such a victory. Nearly fifty Softskins killed or captured, for the loss of three fighters? Sounds like a great victory to Stone Tree."

"Bah," barked Sleeps with Crows, glancing at Shadow Spear. The cheiftan was sitting very still, arms wrapped about it's knees and staring into the fire. "Only four of the Softskins were true fighters. The rest were about as dangerous as day old hatchlings."

"A raindrop does little alone, but a storm can wipe out mountains," Star Eye replied, quoting an ancient Sslik proverb. "Fifty Softskin farmers with crude weapons can still be dangerous."

The War Elders glared at the diminutive Weaver, knowing it was correct but their pride not wanting to accept the obvious truth.

"Enough of this," Shadow Spear said quietly, causing all of the elders to immediately turn and look at it. "Shadow Spear does not want to listen to constant blame fixing or excuse making. Kasha willed that Red Tail, Three Claws and Grinning Moon should die today, and join Kasha in paradise. Who is Shadow Spear to doubt that?"

"What is important is that The Weeping Feathers are one day from the rest of the Iron Fangs," Dagger Maw said, glancing at Mist Eye. The Cleric was silent just as Shadow Spear had been, staring into the fire in deep thought. "The remaining Softskins will be shared by the Weeping Feathers in the morning, and then the Weeping Feathers will finish the journey."

"No, Dagger Maw," Shadow Spear said. It stood up, still thinking hard. After a moment, it began to speak. "Dagger Maw is not quite correct. The Softskins will not be eaten in the morning."

"Does Shadow Spear intend to release the Softskins?" Star Eye asked, raising a browridge in puzzlement.

"Shadow Spear will take the Softskins with the Weeping Feathers," Shadow Spear replied. The Elders all stood, staring at their cheiftan like it was insane. It gestured for them to sit again, sighing. "Shadow Spear knows that the Elders do not like the idea. But Shadow Spear has been thinking about such a thing for a long time. The Softskins know much that the Scaled could learn, and thus better themselves. The Scaled must learn from the Softskins, or else the Scaled will forever be hunted."

" 'Do not consort with Softskins, for treachery and hate is all that can be recieved' ," Mist Eye said, glancing around the circle for support. "Mist Eye says that the Softskins should be killed immediately, rather than be allowed to poison or destroy the Weeping Feathers."

"Sleeps with Crows agrees," the Shaman growled, shaking it's staff to emphasize the point. "The Softskins would do the same to any Scaled. Or else the Softskins would torture and enslave the Scaled, a worse fate."

"And at the first sign of other Softskins, the captured ones would turn on the Weeping Feathers," Star Eye added. It made a slashing motion with it's claws. "Hinder the defense or even slay some of the Scaled. Two are spellcasters and too dangerous to be left alive."

"Sit," Shadow Spear said, crossing it's arms. When the Elders complied, Shadow Spear looked up into the night sky. "Shadow Spear has many reasons for doing this. Some Shadow Spear has already explained, and that should be enough. But there is more...

"First, the Human females did not fight," it continued, pointing towards where the captives lay in the darkness. "The other two Softskins also held back until the last moment, when the choice became fight or die. Second, Shadow Spear had a vision from Kasha years ago. Kasha said that Shadow Spear would one day have five Softskins in Shadow Spears grasp, and that the Softskins should be spared. And finally, Shadow Spear is the Chief, and Shadow Spear says that the Softskins go with the Weeping Feathers. That alone is enough."

Shadow Spear did not realize that it's voice was rising until it was shouting out the last sentence. The entire camp was staring at it and the Elders, an unblinking audience watching it's anger. Slowly the eyes turned away again, and Shadow Spear nodded, dismissing the Elders. As they all stood, Shadow Spear held up a hand, holding them a moment longer.

"Tomorrow, Shadow Spear will speak with Twin Lakes," the chief told them. "Twin Lakes may decide that Shadow Spear is a fool, maybe not. If Shadow Spear is a fool, then the Elders may eat the Softskins. But for now, the Softskins live, and Shadow Spear will cut the bindings."


"Jewel," Shawn called softly, trying to force his eyes to pierce the darkness and reveal his friend. He had finally deduced that the tiny sobs near him could only come from a Dryad, and his heart swelled in hope. "Jewel, are you there?"

"Huh?" Answered a tiny voice, the sobs dying down to a sniffle. "Shawn, you're alive?"

"Yeah," the elf answered, smiling in the dark. "I don't know who else made it, but at least we did..."

"I thought you were dead," Jewel said, her voice sinking into a monotone. Shawn sensed her moving, perhaps to sit up. "You got hit so hard, I didn't think a Half Giant could survive it. But Jeron didn't make it. Boradin...I don't know. I saw him make a break for it right before I blacked out. I think that Shaman cast something on me, but I don't know."

"What's important now is that we two are alive," Shawn replied as the Dryad trailed off. He rolled closer to Jewel and sat up as she burst into a new round of tears. He felt like crying too, for Jeron and Boradin had been like brothers. The others in their Dalimond based Guild had been more distant, either working in their own groups or simply being out of Shawns league. "Come, stop your crying. It'll be alright."

A sudden commotion from behind him made Shawn look back over his shoulder. A large, dark Sslik at the nearest fire was yelling in it's strange tongue, pointing back towards them. With a nod and a final comment, it grabbed a torch from the fire and began walking towards them.

"Uh oh," Shawn muttered, laying down again. "Jewel, pretend to be knocked out or something. One of them is coming this way."