Otherwise, read on!
Kip shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, unable to shake the feeling that he was slipping backwards. Even after a tenday’s journey astride the strange, flightless bird, Kip had yet to grow accustomed to his new mount. Judging from the axebeak’s bleat of protest at his squirming, the feeling was mutual. The stablemaster in Hundelstone had assured Kip that the axebeak would prove much more able in the frozen climes of Icewind Dale than any horse, but the elven warrior was beginning to suspect he had been taken in.
Trying to take his mind off his riding, Kip looked about at his companions. Bishop, his sponsor in the church of Helm and the leader of their mission north, trudged behind him on foot leading a recalcitrant mule that carried what few provisions they had left. Gone was the resplendent plate armor Bishop had worn as a member of the Twilight Guard in Waterdeep–the journey over the Spine of the World was arduous enough without carrying so much extra weight–but the cleric had insisted on keeping his mail. Bishop had been on foot ever since his horse had fallen prey to a crag cat on the mountains’ southern slopes, but not once in their travel had Kip heard the man complain.
The same could not be said for Boko, the bard they had met just this morning on the Ten Trail. The man never stopped talking, and most of his words were spent making unfavorable comparisons of the trail’s rigors to the splendid (and, from what Kip could tell, sheltered) life he had led as a member of the Waterdhavian gentry. Already Kip wondered whether the tundra’s howling wind and Bishop’s stoic silence were not preferable to the bard’s incessant prattle.
Boko’s companion, a goliath sorcerer named Bit, was much more reserved. For all the bard’s chatter, it was Bit who held Kip’s attention. Though he seldom spoke, Kip got the impression that more thoughts waited at the gates of the sorcerer’s lips than had ever come to roost in the bard’s scattered brain. Sometimes, Kip would catch Bit examining the trail, the snow, or even the sky with a quizzical expression, and he wondered if the goliath did not see the world with entirely different eyes than the rest of them.
Kip’s reverie was broken by a sudden, ferocious roar.
The snowbank ahead of him erupted, blinding him with a spray of white. Blinking away the snow, Kip caught a glimpse of the monster, a great white bear with the head of an owl, as it lunged toward the party. With not a moment’s hesitation, Kip drew his sword, spurred his mount forward …
… and was promptly thrown to the frozen ground as the axebeak bolted and ran. Spitting snow and cursing the stablemaster of Hundelstone, Kip leapt to his feet, trying to bring his blade up in time to catch the owlbear’s claw as it clove down toward his head, realizing even as he did so that the creature’s weight would carry it through regardless.
“For Helm!” Bishop’s words rang in Kip’s ears as the cleric charged in front of him, his shield raised as a bulwark against the creature’s strike. Claws struck steel, and the cleric staggered backward under the weight of the blow, but now Kip had his feet, and the elf ducked into the opening his companion had made.
Kip stabbed his blade forward and felt the tip bite flesh. The owlbear roared in pain and lashed out with its other claw, but Kip was already springing back, readying his next strike.
The elf was vaguely aware of his other companions behind him. Bit was standing in the midst of the road with his arms raised, tracing arcane symbols in the air, while Boko had scrambled up the opposite snowbank, frantic to get himself out of harm’s way. At least this got him to stop talking, thought Kip as he dodged another swipe from the enraged owlbear.
“I say, do the small ones bite?” came the bard’s voice, and Kip cursed again, this time for celebrating too soon.
Chancing a glance over his shoulder, Kip saw the foppish noble caught between fear and uncertainty as two feathered white creatures the size of armchairs emerged from the far snowbank on either side of the bard, shaking the powder from their backs and hooting curiously at the man caught between them.
The owlbear gave a deep hoot in response, drawing Kip’s attention just at it darted forward, nipping at him with its razor-sharp beak. Kip easily blocked the bite, but the owlbear hooted a second time and snapped at him again. Again, Kip blocked the creature’s attack, wondering as he did so at the monster’s change in tactics.
A second ago it was trying to take my head off with its claws, and now it’s practically giving me love-bites, thought the elf. Did I wound it enough to make it wary of me?
But then Kip heard higher-pitched hoots behind him, and glanced around again to see the two smaller creatures inching closer to the bard, snapping their beaks toward him like the owlbear had demonstrated. Realization broke upon Kip like a ship upon hidden shoals.
This isn’t a battle, he thought. It’s a hunting lesson.1
“Boko, run!” shouted Kip. The bard backpedaled away from the advancing cubs. His foot slipped on the edge of the snowbank. Boko was falling …
The cubs pounced …
Kip shouted again …
… and then there was a roar, and a horrible, sickening pain as the owlbear’s massive paw clove into Kip’s side, cracking his ribs and driving him to the ground. The world was blood, and screams, and darkness.
Kip awoke to a familiar, aching warmth as his body responded to the healing magic, repairing itself with miraculous speed in answer to the cleric’s fervent prayer. Bishop leaned forward into the elf’s field of vision and gave his friend a tight-lipped smile.
“Not today, soldier,” rumbled the cleric, who then stood and turned his attention to the bard who, to judge by his unceasing exclamations of being on death’s door, had survived the fight relatively uninjured.
Another figure bent over Kip, this one unfamiliar. A goliath, larger and more feral-looking than Bit the sorcerer, frowned down at the elf. Behind him, Kip could make out another, much slighter, man looking on in concern. The goliath sighed and shook his head.
“Axebeaks run when they see snowy owlbears. It seems axebeaks are smarter than elves.”
Kip felt his face flush, but then the goliath’s severe expression split into a craggy grin, and he held out an arm as thick as a tree trunk to help the elf up. Mollified, Kip accepted the offer of aid and felt himself pulled entirely off the ground before being set back on his feet. The goliath clapped him hard on the shoulder.
“Next time, you will wait for Keothakan’s blade to join yours before rushing into battle. And leave some glory for the rest of us, eh?”
The goliath clapped Kip’s shoulder again, then turned and shouldered a massive glaive as he looked northward up the trail.
“The human town of Bryn Shander is close. We will get there by dawn if the bard does not stop to play with more owlbear cubs.”
“Wait, does this mean we’re traveling together?” asked Boko, who seemed to have momentarily forgotten his supposedly mortal injuries.
The towering warrior turned to look back at the bard, his face once again as severe as the mountain crags.
“Bonds forged in battle are not easily broken.” And with that, the goliath set off down the trail.
Kip smiled ruefully as he picked up his sword and hurried to recover his mount before rejoining the rest of his companions, old and new. It hadn’t taken long for adventure to find them, here in Faerun’s frozen north. Kip wondered what further excitement lay in store for them once they finally reached their destination …
Bryn Shander, and the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale.
1 Even though the snowy owlbear was a potentially deadly threat for 2nd-level characters, I knew a party of six characters could focus it down pretty quickly. Keeping solo monsters alive long enough to actually challenge the party is a common problem in D&D, so in encounters with a centerpiece monster I’m always looking for opportunities to introduce supporting creatures in order to draw off some of the PCs’ fire and give the players more to think about. Having the juvenile owlbears lying in wait to follow momma’s lead was a fun story beat that also completely turned the players’ tactical considerations on their head, as they now had to worry about extricating their back-line spellcasters from danger instead of just tanking the big bad!
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