Rhea stood outside with a small group of armed freelancers, wrapped warmly in winter gear and waiting idly for the contract holder to arrive. The job post had been simple: an escort mission through the Shiverpeak Mountains departing on Wintersday morning. The meeting point, a quiet steading in the snowy outskirts, shone with festive lights in the waning darkness. Its residents were sleeping cozily in their warm lodges, leaving only the small group and a few dolyaks awake in the clearing. Rhea pulled up the collar of her jacket against the cold as one of the dolyaks shook, making little bells ring from within its pack.
The sun had just begun to peak over the horizon when the door to a nearby lodge creaked open. Rhea saw a young asura shuffle out, nose buried in a clipboard, humming as he found his way over to the group. He stopped in front them, blinking in surprise, only to break into a sudden and energetic smile.
“You all must be the help!” He scuttled toward the closest dolyak and with a quick tug, pulled himself off the ground and onto the creature’s head. Dusting the snow from the bottom of his trousers, he looked up to meet their eyes.
“I am Yemm of the Funwerks crew, apprentice to Toymaker Tixx, designer of all Wintersday toys.” He waved his arms in a grand gesture. “In the spirit of spreading Wintersday Cheer, Toymaker Tixx has requested that I,” he pointed a thumb proudly at his chest, “deliver these packages to all the residents of the Shiverpeak Mountains in Lornar’s Pass. In addition to the honor of participating in this most magnanimous of contracts, a payment of 30 gold will be given to each person that assists me in delivering all the gifts. Any questions?”
The freelancers looked at each other, a few just barely managing to hide their excitement. 30 gold was a lot for a simple escort job. Rhea wondered if finding willing hires to work on Wintersday had driven him to raise the payment. She wasn’t going to protest at the very least. She could use the funds, and didn’t mind being on the road during the holidays.
“Great!” Apprentice Yemm clapped his hands together, clearly taking the silence as a confirmation. “Time to head out then!” With an enthusiastic flick of the reins, he steered the dolyak out past the gates, the others following in his wake.
The main road was the safest route through Lornar’s Pass. Yemm, however, seemed to have his own path in mind. Instead of sharing his destinations, he would simply start walking in a new direction. As hired escorts, the freelancers had no choice but to begrudgingly follow and keep up. Often, Yemm’s changes in course would occur with his attention on his clipboard and not on the path before them.
Rhea could only watch as Yemm meandered right into a nest of sleeping griffons, then shortly after paraded through a field of dormant ice wurms. Each time, the team was forced into action, defending the dolyaks and their unobservant employer, while Yemm would continue his way forward as if he was unaware of the tussle around him. Afterward, Rhea would eye the asura incredulously, but would hold back her complaints – at the end of each detour, they always arrived at a lodge or camp of surprised but otherwise delighted residents. Yemm would distribute his gifts, wish them well, then set off for his next destination.
“Just one more stop to go,” he exclaimed, walking past more ice wurm corpses and skipping ahead of the group. Rhea heard a soft but irritated grumble from one of her fellow freelancers. She sighed, but nevertheless sheathed her daggers and followed Yemm back to the main road.
As the party reached a bend in the path, Yemm stopped, looking toward a nearby mountain. Rhea curiously turned to look as well. In the distance, a tiny figure scuttled across the snow, poking its head up to sniff the air, then hurriedly dove into a cave opening at the mountain’s base.
“A skritt,” Rhea observed, walking up to Yemm. “The skritt in this region are mostly scavengers and sometimes get hostile. Best we go around.”
He turned to her. “The skritt are residents of Lornar’s Pass,” he insisted with a determined look. “That means that gifts must be delivered to them too. I always keep a few extra in case of these situations.” He reached up to the nearest dolyak’s pack and began rummaging for a box.
“I-I don’t know about this,” Rhea stuttered, eyeing the cave.
But it was too late. Yemm had already begun hopping off toward the cave entrance with one of the packages in tow. Rhea looked back at the other freelancers, gathering the reins of one of the dolyaks and following after her employer.
The darkness of the cave was a stark contrast to the bright day outside, but Yemm’s voice carried through the caverns. “Dear skritt civilian,” he proclaimed. “I am the apprentice of the great Toymaker Tixx and I bring joyous Wintersday presents!”
As her eyes adjusted to the cave, Rhea could see the lone skritt crouching near one of the walls. It blinked and cocked its head in curiosity at the gift in Yemm’s outstretched hands.
“This is for you. Happy Wintersday,” he exclaimed with a full beaming smile.
The skritt sniffed the air, then slowly crept forward to inspect the box. Rhea approached the pair cautiously, dolyak hooves clopping on the ground.
“Shinies?” the skritt said, taking hold of the box. Its voice echoed for a moment, but was then followed by a series of scratching noises that repeated for too long to have come from the single creature.
Rhea looked up. “Uh… Apprentice Yemm?” The wall above her employer was dotted with little yellow beads of light staring back at them.
“Shinies?” Something chittered behind her. She looked back, past the other dolyaks and freelancers, and saw the gleaming eyes of several skritt.
“Oh. You must have a family here.” Yemm said, looking around in surprise. “Well, Happy Wintersday to you all! Allow me to present to you gifts from the Toymaker Tixx.”
Rhea saw one of the skritt lick its lips as others stretched out of their hiding places to sniff the air. “Sir, I don’t think –”
“Shinies!” it shouted.
That was all it took. The first skritt rushed forward as the others burst out of their alcoves. They lunged for the dolyaks, scampering across rocks and ledges to make their way to the presents.
“Wait!” Yemm shouted. “I-I can’t give you all of them. But if you give me a small moment, I can procure some--”
The skritt didn't seem interested in listening when the "shinies" were so ready to take. They didn’t brandish any weapons, but used their overwhelming number to overcome the party’s little group. The dolyaks danced in panic as the skritt swarmed, the little creatures pulling on their packs and the beasts’ coats. They quickly jumped on top to tear off the bindings and scampered away with the shiny packages.
“There are too many!” one of the freelancers shouted. “We need to retreat before we lose any more cargo.”
Rhea saw several skritt running away, each with a large gift box held above their heads. She shadow-stepped to the furthest one, appearing before it in a puff of smoke, and snatched the box from its hands before it could react. The others halted in surprise as Rhea then disappeared and landed back beside the dolyaks with the stolen present in her hands.
“There’s an exit that way!” Rhea pointed, then returned to face the frenzied skritt. The rest of the team worked quickly as Yemm rushed the dolyaks toward the cave opening. Each freelancer, using weapons or spells, swatted away the lunging skritt and followed closely behind the retreating dolyaks to make sure none of the creatures pursued them out of the cave. Rhea continued to shadowstep back and forth as she could, collecting the scattered gifts that were dropped in the chaos.
As she appeared before the last stolen parcel, Rhea felt the ground begin to shift. One of the freelancers, an elementalist, stood at the mouth of the cave, casting a spell to shake the earth. Moving quickly to avoid the falling rocks, Rhea retreated with the rest of the party in a flurry of kicked up dust. The skritt were blocked from pursuing as the team burst from the cave entrance into the powdery snow.
Rhea brushed herself off as soon as they were in the clear, glancing toward Yemm to see if he had come out of the incident unharmed. Her employer was standing atop a dolyak’s head and was looking out away from the cave. She turned and followed his gaze.
A group of norn and humans were standing on a hilltop not far ahead, waving and laughing at their disheveled group. Yemm beamed and waved back at them, jumping down to rush forward in greeting. Rhea and the group looked to each other in confusion, but followed as their new guides led them to a nearby fort. At the gates, they were greeted with large slaps on the backs by the resident miners, who laughed at their attempt to go through a skritt-filled mine with “shiny” cargo. Rhea looked away in embarrassment but saw Yemm start to hand out gifts to the miners and their families, smiling in complete disregard to the jests.
The freelancers helped distribute the remaining gifts and watched as the children excitedly unwrapped the packages and played with their new toys. Rhea smiled, then scanned the small crowd for Yemm. He was nowhere to be seen, but out of the corner of her eye she saw a bright package dip below a hill beyond the fort gates. Curiously, she followed the trail until she came across the asura standing at the entrance of the mining cave. A bag lay open before him as he busily pulled out a long garland of winterberries. Presents littered the ground at his feet, as well as strings of lights and glistening baubles.
Yemm turned to look at her and smiled. “It’s Wintersday,” he said, as if that were all the explanation needed.
Rhea sighed, then took a portion of the garland from his hand and helped him lace it atop a protruding rock. They emptied the contents of the bag, decorating the cave entrance with the trinkets and brightly colored lights that began to glow as the sun slowly set. Yemm stacked the presents at the center of the cave’s opening then took a step back to admire their work. Balancing the last ornament on a nearby rock, Rhea stepped over to join him.
“Happy Wintersday,” Yemm said, beaming at their handiwork.
They sat watching their decorations glisten in the snow as the first skritt poked its nose out of the rubble to stare eagerly at the stack of gifts.