Tanya cast a worried glance over her shoulder. They can't be far behind me. Uneasy, she spurred her horse forward a bit. The Prince would want the Staff back, of that she was sure. Well, she was an Outrider - one of the guardians entrusted with the safety of such magical artifacts. No mere mortal could be allowed to possess them. Indeed - no one could. They must be kept on the move, lest dark powers find them and use them again. Tanya thought she heard a galloping horse. She pulled over to the roadside and paused, a hand approaching her sabre. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then a lone rider came around the bend at a trot. He was cloaked in black, but visible as a man, not an elf or dwarf, underneath everything. At his side was a sword, and Tanya thought she could see some throwing axes on his belt. He eyes her for a moment, then paused. "What do you carry?" he asked in a rasping voice. Tanya narrowed her eyes. "I carry nothing, traveler," she growled. "Be along your way." The other rider did not move. "You carry something of great value," he hissed. Tanya's sword was drawn nearly instantly. "Move along," she commanded. "I carry nothing." The other rider moved so fast Tanya didn't realize he even had twitched until she was on the ground. He had grabbed her wrist and pitched her from the saddle, dismounting himself in the process. Tanya felt the staff under her body, under the green cloak she wore to protect her from the chill of winter. Snow began to fall as though summoned. "Give it to me," the rider hissed. Tanya cried out and rolled to her feet, her sword in hand again. She lunged, impaling the man. The rider backhanded her hard enough that she staggered away, then pulled her sword from his chest and broke it over his knee. "Wraith!" Tanya cried. It had been a thousand years since the Dark Lord was defeated in his attempt to conquer the world, and his wraith-lieutenants had faded into myth - but were apparently very real. "I am Lighthearter, the Ice-King of the North," the wraith hissed. "You are mine, mortal." He reached out a hand for her. Tanya grabbed the hand, trying to shove it away, but Lighthearter ignored her and grabbed her throat. Tanya gasped as she was heaved from her feet, choking. Her horse whinnied and trotted towards Lighthearter, snorting aggressively. Lighthearter gave it one glance, then raised a hand to point at it. "Razh N'areth!" he called. "No!" Tanya moaned. A flash of red light flew from his hand, causing the horse to scream once, bloody light shining from its eyes, before dropping in a heap. Tanya felt herself cry out - the horse had been her mount her whole life. The wraith hurled her thirty feet into a tree. Tanya gasped as several of her ribs snapped. She felt the staff being pulled from her coat before she realized what it meant. As soon as she did, she scrambled to her feet. A chain of ice formed around her left hand and heaved it behind her back, linking it to another on her right wrist. The wraith turned and kicked her hard, causing her to fall to her back, screaming at the pain from her ribs. Lighthearter stared at the staff wondrously, then smiled. He raised it into the air. "No," Tanya whispered again, the totality of her failure hitting her. A blast of silent energy shot from the road, the trees whipping around at its passing. There came a moment of calm. Clouds of smoke formed across the roadway, morphing into men and other strange creatures. All carried weapons and looked at Tanya with pitiless, inhuman eyes. The wraith-lords are regathered, Tanya thought desperately. I have to warn the other Outriders - warn the Prince - warn the King, even! Our doom is approaching! Lighthearter was just smiling. "Welcome, brothers," he said. Then from his tongue rolled a stream of syllables in another tongue - a dark tongue. Tanya screamed as they assaulted her ears, and even the very air started to grow black. If she had heard what Lighthearter was saying, perhaps the inevitability of becoming a human sacrifice to augment his powers would have been even more ironic to her.