The Huntress and Her Hounds:
She always had an oddness to her, or at least that’s what the old maids said. Svala “Haresbreath” Snorrisdottir couldn't care less. Small in girth for a warrior-rin, the battle-axe and stiff plate of her father’s charges never felt natural. But Snorri Saggasson was not the type to have an untrained daughter. Instead, he taught her to hunt with a crossbow, hatchet, and other woodland tools. What she lacked in heft, Svala made up for in fluid precision and calculating accuracy. The daughter of Snorri, granddaughter of Saggaas might never join her father’s famed shieldwall, but she did her clan proud nonetheless, besting countless would-be challengers in the sparring ring. Even old grim face, Norgrim Proudsong, had rested his hand on her shoulder once while praising her father for his prodigious talents as a trainer of Karakigrom warriors.
Svala "Haresbreath" Snorrisdottir, Veteran Ranger and Champion of the Karakigrom
...Not that any of that mattered much to the Haresbreath. In the tradition of her clan, Svala had taken to ranging and exploring the wilds of Azyr. Her successes in tracking beasts and capturing them alive for sale in the markets lead Svala to be entrusted with the young king’s own missions. She scouted mountain passes, deep canyon trails, and even underground roads that few knew existed. Whereas most rangers lived on the fringe of society, the young rin was granted her own patrol of quarrelers just in time to join the vanguard on Rungi’s march from the Celestial Realms. Two-weeks ago today King Rungi had entrusted her yet again, his orders simple and to the point - “Clear the path, young sister,” directed the king. “Find a route into the mountains, leave markers for the throng to follow, and if you can do so safely, establish a valley camp from which we can evaluate the surrounding peaks.”
Sounded so simple. How wrong she was.
Wolf howls had been heard, and the potential for a greenskin raiding party to be nearby was very real, though if they were they’d remained out of sight since their first attempt at the gate. Disciplined as they were, her rangers could not survive long if a greenskin force of any real size found them. But tonight, with the sun setting on the 14th day of marching and now solidly in the upper foothills, only a lone, aged wolf had been found. About to roll over and catch some rare sleep by the fire before her watch began, a glint from the sun’s last rays rebounding off a sharp metal edge caught her eye. It was a fleeting image, but one she had trained herself to recognize.
Half of the troop fanned out and settled into paired teams, back-to-back to prevent an ambush. The Haresbreath was bracketed by her remaining team as she stood still as stone, ears searching for signs of movement. A twig snapped. Further ahead, a misstep followed by the whooshing of a sinking leg through snow. Whoever had been watching was now fleeing. With a raised point they were aimed. A brisk chop of her hand signaled to the first wave of bolts into the brush. Red feathered bolts sped between trees at knee level. The howl of pain told Svala that at least one had reached their target. As they closed on the location of the noise, the rangers were disappointed to see that in place of a body was a trail of footprints and blood. More shocking still was the bolt. It's tip, though expectedly bloody from having punctured it's target, was bent and missing a sizable chip as though it had struck armor rather than flesh. Odd for a scout.
They followed the trail, always in formation as Svala insisted. Whereas other ranger patrols operated as loose collections of hunters, or even independent warbands alongside the force, Svala had trained those in her charge to operate in tight formations. This concentrated their shots and made them harder to isolate and pick off. The Haresbreath’s “Hounds,” as they’d become known, were the king’s favored unit to hunt down key targets within a threatening force. And hunt they did in the first days since emerging into Chamon. This evening’s prey was becoming even more curious… The Hounds found that they’d reached the edge of the treeline, and though the brittle pines with their sharp, greyish needles only provided mediocre cover, it was much appreciated as they trail-blazed through this unknown land. The veteran ranger looked out at patchy grass and rocky outcroppings that gave way sharply to narrow ravines. These channels expanded outwards like a maze between the foothills, and from what she could see, they extended right up to the now clearly visible base of the mountain range she had been searching for. The whole scene reeked of grot ambushes and trickery.
Living up to her title, the Haresbreath alone crept down the rocky face into the ravine, silent and virtually undetectable. Following the bloody drippings, she noticed signs that the rock faces had been disturbed. Though there were no open passages or tunnels, she suspected that this network of outcroppings and gulleys was quite intentional. Sure enough, the bloody trail ended suddenly with a right turn seemingly into the hillside. Running her hands over several of the great boulders she settled on a crack. Ever so gently Svala rolled the cover-stone from in front of the humid burrow. Svala crept slowly into the crack in the mountain. Every so often she would halt, slide forward, and slit the throat or snap the neck of a snotling lookout.
After killing 5 of the wretches, the passage had widened. There were steps leading more sharply downward than before and an orange glow faintly rising up from the depths. The ranger continued on, the sound of ritualistic drumming growing, until the drums were drowned out by a snarling, snapping, gnashing frenzy. Svala knew this was as far as she could descend and still hope to see the sun’s rays again. The smell of blood was insulting their nostrils and she had begun to sweat from the oppressive, stagnant air in the tunnel.
“Something was building, probably alerted by the scout they had failed to capture,” thought the ranger. She only had a limited force, and based on the ruckus below they were greatly outnumbered... Perhaps she could capitalize on the overzealous nature of greenskins and their reckless love of the chase. Chuckling at the blasphemy of her own plan, Svala poured her personal tankard of especially potent ale all over the cave walls as she backed out of passageway. This was not the sort of ale swigged at by freeguild knights, corsair sailors, or other of the softer folk who might develop a taste for dwarfish refreshment, but instead a homebrew used by generations of her ranging kin to burn away the freeze of particularly harsh mountain storms. Svala hacked free brush from outside the entrance and toss it on top off the piled snotling bodies for kindling, using a small tinder and flint to spark a fire on some strips of bark. Finally she wrapped the burning material around a specially prepared bolt.
Svala noticed that the drumming had stopped. She lowered into a squat facing back into the deep, rotated and aimed down towards the rising glow. She had been raised on stories of Saggaas and his older brother Norgrim facing down beasts of myth. Snorri had taught her to slow her heartbeat, center her weight, and think about her form as she squeezed the trigger by tightening her grip rather than clumsily pulling on it. Just as the first grot paused on the stairs, pointed, and turned backwards to scream in excitement, the bolt hit him center chest, bottle of musky oil shattering from the impact and rags lighting the entire creature in flames. Svala could hear his death screams but did not see them as she had already begun resealing entrance and hastily bracing it shut.
From the pounding and screaming echoing behind her as she scampered back up to the stone ledge where her rangers awaited, she knew her trap had held. The greenskins were roasting in their den, their panic thwarting eachothers’ attempts to escape the fire. The Hounds aimed downward at the door as smoke poured from otherwise invisible seams. Eventually the screams were less man and more beast, but even these died down. Replacing them was a deep, rumbling growl so powerful it could be heard over the crackling flames.
An enormous thud sharpened the senses of the rangers. A second thud was paired with a roar and the sound of splintering. Instead of a third thud there was an explosion of embers and burning wreckage as the giant cave squig burst from the tunnel, charred skin having scraped off over much of its body. Bolts sunk into the raw, exposed flesh. But Svala also noted how these same thick bolts clanged off the shining protrusions scattered over the beast’s back. This unnatural armor wouldn’t be enough to save it though. Her Hounds were taking their toll. The squig closed on their cliffside rampart but fell just at it managed to scrabble up the side and over the edge.
The young veteran gave the creature a shove with her boot, crossbow aimed in case the monster rose again, but it did not. She had heard rumors of squigs growing to this size but had never seen one herself. It was a fascinating, if unsettling prey. The skin around these scales, if that was what they were, was freshly grown and in some places had yet to heal from where the metalic growths had pushed up through it’s back. The Haresbreath cut a large tusk from the lower jaw of the great squig and tore loose one of the large scales. As she secured them in her pack as evidence of their findings, she noted a ring of crooked moons carved into it but said nothing. She rarely did after all. The huntress silently took to the trail again, and her Hounds followed, this time covering their tracks as they retreated back into the tree-cover.
The Huntress' Hounds, Ranger Unit of the Karakigrom