Meet the Iconics
|By the time she'd come of age, Zova had long known she didn't fit in with the Clan of the Moon.
Although Zova's parents loved her and supported her in all ways, she was still the only daughter among four siblings, and while she got on well with her brothers, she often felt left out. As Zova grew older, her parents' Desnan teachings intrigued her, yet she felt a stronger kinship to the animals of the world than to the night sky above. In training for the hunt, Zova reveled in the act of stalking and pouncing like the animals she so empathized with, but she found herself impatient with her mother's preferred method of hunting with the bow and struggled to train her own archery skills. In time, when her friends began to flirt and pursue romantic trysts, Zova realized that while she valued and greatly enjoyed the company of those friends, she felt no drive to find such a romantic partner for herself. Increasingly she found herself restless, curious about the world beyond the Cinderlands. She'd seen illustrations and heard stories of the vast oceans, glacial wonderlands, and above all else the wonders of the deep forest, but paintings and tales could not sate her curiosity. Where the Clan of the Moon's territories in the arid west of the Cinderlands seemed to contain all the necessities of life for everyone she knew, Zova longed for the color green.
Zova's parents saw it coming, of course, well before she made clear her intention to travel the world and seek its wonders. They worried for her safety, but they also knew that of all their children, Zova's passion for life, her respect for the natural world, her keen perception, and her almost uncanny knack for getting the upper hand in a fight made her the best suited to leave the proverbial nest. Despite her awkward place in the clan, she still loved her family and adored her home, and promised to return as often as she could—and to bring stories of marvels from her adventures when she did.
She had no real plan or timetable to follow as she left the Cinderlands, knowing only that she wished to travel west, toward the oft-glimpsed lands of vibrant green she'd long been lured by. Whenever she felt homesick, Zova found she need only look to the sky to feel at home, knowing she gazed upon the same sights her family did. The moon was always there, a welcome and soothing constant in her life. As days turned to weeks, Zova found that nature itself was a more than adequate surrogate family, and more besides. Though she had always felt alone in crowds as a child, watching everyone else interact with each other, here in the natural world she felt like she belonged. The animals of the world were as companionable as anyone as long as they were treated with respect—and certainly more diverse and interesting as a whole than the people she'd known up to that point!
The Storval Rise presented Zova her first significant challenge. She knew of its existence, but had never seen the massive cliffs with her own eyes. Standing atop them, the sweeping expanse of greenery below seemed to taunt her—so near, yet so far. The carefree antics of falcons as they swooped out over the cliff filled Zova not with jealousy, but with inspiration. If only she could fly, she could join them in their graceful exits from the Cinderlands! But as she watched the falcons hunt and play, she felt her own perception grow keen, like a kinship with the raptors was waking in her vision. As if using a falcon's eyes while gazing down the cliffside, Zova found that she could pick a treacherous but navigable path down the cliffs. She did not marvel at this—she accepted it with simple pride.
Despite her keen eyesight, Zova's descent was fraught with peril. She nearly died thrice on the climb (twice to near falls, once to a redback rattlesnake she accidentally stepped upon and was only just able to calm before it bit her), but late that night, as the waxing moon rose, she finally set foot into the Ashwood. Lit by the moon, the forest's greens appeared almost black, yet Zova reveled nonetheless. Here was the world she'd dreamed of, a realm that she had to imagine back home in the scrubby Cinderland hills. For the remainder of the night and well into the next day, Zova sprinted and explored, climbed trees and delved into tangles of roots, hunted and played and delighted until she finally came to a toppled statue along the banks of a rushing river. She made camp in the shelter formed by the oversized statue's moss-draped chin, and soon collapsed into exhausted sleep.
When she woke, it was deep night once again. The now-full moon's light filtered through the canopy in pale beams, and while the ground was hard and the air was cool, it was the peal of an unearthly howl that had roused Zova from sleep. The howl was unlike anything she had ever heard—plainly the cry of an alpha wolf, yet carrying within it tones of malevolence and cruelty that felt far too human. Truly frightened for the first time in her life, Zova staggered to her feet and took her bow in hand, only to find her campsite surrounded by a pack of the largest wolves she had ever seen.
For the first few moments, Zova's arrows held the strangely aggressive pack at bay, but as the fight wore on, it became apparent to the wolves that Zova was no predator of note. Her arrows missed more often than not, and those lucky few that scored hits were only glancing blows. As she fought, Zova did her best to empathize with the wolves, only to realize in horror that a stronger will than her own imposed upon them. When the wolves finally overcame all fear of her archery, Zova threw aside her useless bow and reached for her knife—only to find she had lost it at some point during the previous night's enraptured frolic through the woods. The wolves closed in, and Zova feared her journey was about to come to a sudden end.
Again that malignant howl scarred the night, and Zova could feel a presence approaching through the tangles. As the wolves closed their circle around her, she found herself hoping that the wolves would kill her before whatever hateful thing they obeyed arrived to finish the job. When the first wolf struck, she frantically swiped at it with her hand, a desperate attempt of self-preservation. For a few moments, she couldn't understand what had caused the wolf's yelp of pain and its sudden retreat. The other wolves had frozen as well, as if confused—a confusion that Zova felt as she looked down at her bloodstained hands...only to see that they were now bloodstained talons.
The will to survive rose in Zova, and with a snarl, she went on the offensive. She lunged at the next wolf, slashing across its snout with the birdlike talon that, a moment before, had been her hand. Again and again she cut and clawed, and the wolves, unsettled by her transformation, fell back. Zova became the predator, and as the last wolf fled, she held high her talons and cried out in triumph.
That cry was answered by the selfsame hateful howl. The master of the wolves had come. Zova whirled, raised her claws in a challenge, and froze in fear. What had emerged from the darkest part of Ashwood was neither person nor beast—nor was it strictly alive. A ghostly form, seemingly shed from moonlight itself, crouched in the air above, a towering man-wolf with orange eyes, fur that shimmered and wavered in unfelt wind, and teeth and claws of all-too-solid razor-sharp bone. Yet what the thing said was the crowning horror.
Zova didn't attempt to fight. She whirled and fled, never looking back as the mad howl of the ghost wolf pursued her. She clambered onto the toppled statue, sprinted across its brow, and plunged from its crown into the churning river below. Perhaps it was the current's speed that saved her, or perhaps it was the ghost's inability to pursue, or maybe it was just luck. Whatever the cause, Zova washed ashore a mile downstream, barely alive—but alive she was.
Zova never returned to the Ashwood. Those to whom she's told her tale smirk in disbelief—not from claims of an encounter with a ghost wolf (for many parts of Varisia host stranger terrors than ghosts or werewolves), but that she had escaped to tell the tale at all. The legend of Loper, the ghostwolf of Ashwood, has frightened many listeners, for in most of these tales the victims are lucky just to survive. Zova never revealed to anyone the two words Loper spoke to her that night, yet she feels that in those two words lies the explanation of her escape. She vowed to some day return to Ashwood and solve this mystery—preferably in the company of a group of adventurers, for a faithful pack brings so much more to a fight than can a lone predator!
Until that day, Zova travels from town to town, exploring her growing power as a shifter and the confusing nature of adventuring party dynamics. Her protective nature is augmented by the compassion she feels for these all-too-often orphans, for she knows she is not the norm among her traveling companions in having a family who loves her and a home she can some day return to.
Yet on nights when the moon rises high and unwelcome dreams torment her sleep, Zova can't help but wonder—are those she calls her brothers really her brothers at all?1