I sleep a little late. After writing my letter to Martume I wrote an identical one to Lex telling him my theory and to be extra safe. I encouraged him to get a dog. Somehow I can already sense him crinkling his nose at that prospect, he doesn’t need a pet, that’s why he has Steve. I have not heard anything from him, I was hoping for a letter by now. I know it wouldn’t take that long to get a letter to me here from Three Rivers, I thought there might be one waiting…..
Making my way downstairs to the table, breakfast arrives almost immediately upon my arrival. I picture one of Diedre’s maids watching the hallway, waiting to signal the kitchen that I’m up. Its kinda creepy.
Diedre and Durante are waiting for me. It looks as though their plates were removed long ago and they’ve been sipping coffee and tea while they killed the time. Both stand to greet me when I enter causing me to give them a ‘what’s gotten into you?’ smirk as I take my seat.
“What’s the plan?” Juan asks. I smile at him, that he’s gone from doubting me to trusting me so quickly. He’s got many more years experience on me, but I guess I’ve proved my worth here these last days.
Pulling my letters and report from my coat pocket I slide them over to Diedre. “Could you send these through a messenger for me? I had trouble sleeping last night and wrote them up.” She glances at the addresses. I hold my breath when she reads, ‘Three Rivers Garrison, Commander Lex Smith’ but she seems not to notice anything out of the ordinary and nods in agreement.
I turn towards Juan, but am obviously speaking to both of them. “One of those letters is to the Royal Observer. I acted as a scout for him recently and was able to work closely with him.” I eat a bite and let this sink in, choosing my next words carefully. “Since the beginning of my run I have intervened and stopped two other attacks upon members of the royal family…”
Durante looks completely caught off guard and Diedre audibly intakes a breath.”Who?” She asks fearfully.
“Your Uncle and someone else close to the King.” I’m obviously being vague for a reason and neither of them push the issue.
“So you think this latest attack on Diedre was part of that?” If Captain Durante had any lingering doubts about my abilities or dedication they have just fizzled away. The fact that I just told him I’ve saved two other royals prior to Diedre and am enlisting the help of the Royal Observer convinces him of my competence. The appraising look he gives tells me so.
I shrug and sigh. “I don’t really know. Juan, all these incidents were months apart; completely different kinds of attacks…..on the surface there is nothing in common amongst them. Except the targets were all from the same family, the Royal Family. And that is enough to catch my attention and send a message to Martume. Because…if I’m wrong, and he tells me so…OK, I’m a paranoid idiot. So what. But if I’m not being a paranoid idiot……” I let the rest of that sentence hang in mid air.
“What do you want us to do? How can we protect our people?” Diedre implores. I see the loss of her steward, her guards and her people weighing heavy on her mind.
Again, I don’t have any cut and dry answers for her, but I have some suggestions. And at the last moment, I have an idea…. “Ok, well. There’s something you need to know about the woman in your woods-“
“The witch?” Durante asks, I roll my eyes at him. “Hermit…” he corrects.
“Actually, I don’t think she’s either of those things. I think she’s something altogether new and unknown.” Diedre opens her mouth to ask for clarification, I hold up my hand for them to give me chance to explain after I shovel a few bites of breakfast in my mouth, I’m starved.
“Her name is Cassandra. She lives in a gypsy wagon that looks as though it was once a boat. It is sunken to its axles in mud in the middle of your forest. Where it came to rest at least 60 or 70 years ago. Before you were even here she lived in that forest. She’s watched your estate grow around her, and watched over you.”
They are stunned. I can see anger flit across Durante’s face as he wants to feel betrayed that I didn’t share this before, but its mixed with understanding why I didn’t. There is no way he would have accepted my opinion. I had to prove myself first.
Diedre, on the other hand, looks entirely curious about her. “Does she look old? What does she seem like?”
“If you ever meet her don’t ask her age.” I exclaim. “At least don’t ask that first….” I add more quietly.
“You asked her how old she was? First?” Durante chuckles as he drinks some of his coffee. “I thought you were smarter than that.”
“Lesson learned.” I nod towards him. “Anyway, she warned me about something skulking around and that she thought it came from the Rift. She sent her bird, Pip,….you remember him,” Durante nods. “she sent him to watch over me and help me find the thing. As odd as it sounds, I trust her.”
“What do you think she is, if you don’t think she’s a witch?” Diedre asks.
Shaking my head, “I don’t know. Nothing I’ve heard of, not that Rangers are very schooled in the otherworldly. No more than anyone else. I did inform the Royal Observer she is there. So he knows too.” They both nod, obviously glad that Martume is aware of her.
“And you don’t think she’s a threat?” Durante presses.
“No, I really don’t. In fact, after I leave here I was going to go see her and ask her to warn you if she senses something again. Maybe protect you if she does.” They both have skeptical looks on their faces. “She can hide herself in her forest. If she hadn’t wanted me to find her, I wouldn’t have. I’m going to ask her to hide you there if something else dangerous….like that shapeshifter…comes along after I’m gone. Just go to her, both of you. You will be safe.”
I’m not certain why I feel so strongly about this, but I do. Just the idea of Diedre going there to be hidden makes me feel better about leaving. I’m learning to trust my gut more and more. Durante looks much less convinced.
“Surely, there is something more we can do other than ‘hide in the woods’. Any other ideas” he asks.
“Yes, I thought maybe you can institute a password system to ensure that the people who come to the keep belong here. In case there is another shapeshifter.” His demeanor brightens at the thought of having a plan in place. “I noticed when I asked you the question-“
‘..my brothers name-“ Diedre interjects.
“Yes, when I asked that; the shapeshifter didn’t have the answer. That means she couldn’t read your mind, because you definitely had an answer.”
“So, if we make a password an infiltrator wouldn’t know what it is.” Durante is pleased. I make a point not to bring up that there are a litany of ways someone could get a password if they really wanted to. This will make them all; the soldiers and the Captain, feel like they are doing something to protect Diedre. Right now that’s what they need. “I like that idea…” he looks into space, tapping his chin. I think he’s coming up with passwords already.
“There is something else…..” I reach into my pack. “The Royal Observer gave me this at Three Rivers, when he had to subdue the commander there. We had a difference of opinion about capture/kill issues….I’ll tell you about it some other time. After Martume captured the commander he came out with this weird metal ball." Actually it looks like a ball made from metal strips. “Martume told me if I ever needed to subdue someone all I need to do is throw it at them and the ball will expand and trap them inside.” As I lay it on the table in front of Diedre I explain his instructions, how to throw it, that it will expand to encase the person and since it is iron, it can counter magical spells; dampen magical abilities.
“He must think a lot of you to have given you this.” She says quietly, studying it.
“Well, I think he would approve of me handing it over to you now. If you had this with you before, you could have trapped the witch-thing as she changed. You’re going to have to keep it with you at all times.” I point out. “It’s not going to do you much good stuck in a drawer.”
“How am I supposed to do that? I don’t have pockets in all my dresses.” She retorts.
I do not disguise the slow roll of my eyes, my whole head, at her remarks and let my gaze fall on Durante with a ‘can you believe this’ expression.
“We’ll get you a purse to carry. You’ll put it in a bag with a dagger.” Durante says in a voice that brokers no argument.
“She can use a dagger? Can she use one or does she hold it like it’s a weird foreign object that’s going to spring to life on it’s own at any moment.” I illustrate my remark by holding my butter knife in the least effective and most girly girly way possible, and swing it around like I’m trying to swat a fly with it.” My intent works and I’m able to break the mood and make Juan laugh. Diedre is incensed.
“That is NOT funny. I KNOW how to use a dagger.” She huffs. We both crack up, Durante and I.
Replacing my knife and finishing breakfast. “OK, ok….you know how to use one. I won’t test you on that. I’m going to go talk to Cassandra and set up a system for her to warn you if she needs to. Make sure nobody shoots at her bird, I imagine she’ll send a message with Pip.” I get an idea that will help me to smooth the way with Cassandra. “Can I go to your pantry and get some supplies?”
“Sure, anything you need. Are you coming back?” Diedre asks, her annoyance regarding my dagger performance forgotten.
“Yes, briefly…just to report what Cassandra says. You got me a password, Durante?”
“Apple.” He declares definitively.
Excusing myself, I take my plate to the kitchen and let them know I have permission to stock up. I grab some sausages, preserved meats, root vegetables, apples and cheese. In the pantry I grab some small jars of green beans and corn…and one special item.
As I go out the side door I see Durante at the guard gate giving instructions. I make sure to pause and look at him, “Apple.” I say with all the seriousness I can muster and pass through the gate after he nods his acceptance.
Bill greets me at the dock. Based on his expression, word has spread about my fight with the shapeshifter last night. Even though we only make our usual small talk about the weather, the logs coming downstream, and how he’s doing fishing; he has a prideful manner about him today. Not in a cocky way; more like a ‘our Ranger can kick butt’ kind of manner. I let him know I’ll be coming back within the hour and he agrees to wait.
Wondering whether or not Cassandra will let me find her again, I wander off into the forest in the general direction as before, the first time we met. I experience the same disorientation as I move deeper into the woods but before it takes hold completely, the feeling vanishes and the forest suddenly just feels normal. Grinning, I realize that I have been given permission.
“Cawww, cawww” I hear Pip through the trees and another voice, Cassandra’s speaking to him. I can’t make out her words [Perception fail] but I bet it’s her saying she knows it’s me.
“Good morning.” I greet them both as I move into her clearing. She’s mending some clothes, sitting on her stump. I notice her small campfire going and realize I never smelled smoke on my way here [Insight success]. Interesting.
Cassandra looks into the sky and back to me, “Barely. I thought you Rangers got up early.” The woman never fails to put me in my place.
“I earned some extra sleep I think.” I gesture towards the stump I last occupied and she nods the OK to sit with her. I’ve learned from my last time here….never presume.
“Pip told me about last night. That poor couple, they were very sweet.”
It occurs to me that she knows everyone here, has known them all of their lives. “Yes, it’s pretty bad. Diedre also lost her trusted Steward and a couple of guards too.”
Cassandra stops in her work to look at me. “That is a lot of loss for us. Violence doesn’t visit the estates very often, actually hardly at all. You killed the thing?”
“No, it flew away….towards the Rift.” I reply sadly. “You were right about it’s origins, it was from there. Very powerful.” I start fishing through my pack and retrieve the extra jar I picked up in the pantry. It catches her attention and I grin as I get up and hand them to her, “Apricots.”
“Why did you bring me Apricots?” She asks slyly. Like she knows it’s more than a gift.
“Two reasons,” I tick them off on my fingers as I speak, “One, like the strawberry jam, I didn’t think you’ve had any in quite awhile.” She nods along, like I’m not far wrong. “And two, I have a favor to ask you.” Now she puts down the jar beside her and looks at me like she may or may not agree to accept it.
“Diedre is the third ‘Ratik’ I have defended these last few months,” I pause and see this information has genuinely peaked her interest. “I fear there might be another attempt on her life…on any of them, really. I have sent word so that the rest have been warned too. But you are like a secret ace up my sleeve. The way you can make yourself…..” I look for the right words, “the way you can make it difficult to navigate these woods…” She smiles at that sentiment, “this could be useful since really I’m the only one that knows about it and has spoken with you…..in a long time…”
“That is true.” She admits. “No one outside of this valley knows I’m here.” Her face saddens a bit.
“Why is that?” I gesture towards her caravan, “you obviously traveled with others. What happened to them?” I am genuinely curious, but more than that I don’t want her to think I’m just using her and her abilities for my own means. I’m honestly interested in her and concerned.
Her face grows sad and Pip, sensing her emotions, hops off his perch to stand near her. She smiles softly at the gesture and strokes his head. “I did travel with “The Family” for awhile. You see, I lost my memory and they found me wandering alone. I didn’t know my name, where I was from, anything….They took me in and I traveled with them for quite awhile. Then I had to leave.”
She says the last part as if that is all for now. Of course that little story has created an avalanche of questions in my mind, but I can tell I need to save them for another time. I’ve already pressed my luck with this woman the first time we met, I don’t want to ruin things now. She has been quiet as I’m contemplating this and then suddenly breaks her silence.
“I will hide the Baroness in my grove if she needs me to. If I sense another from the Rift I will send Pip with a message to warn them. She is welcome here. But not her Captain. He is too… stuffy.”
I laugh in spite of myself. “You’re right, he is. But he warms up…..eventually.” She looks at me like she doesn’t quite believe me. “Thank you Cassandra, for agreeing to help. It will really help me to rest easy knowing she is protected when I am gone.”
“You are leaving? So soon?” She enquires, her face and tone lightening now that we have moved beyond her past.
“I need to check out the Rift, where the creature went. And try to find the old couple’s….well, you know.” She nods, knowing I mean their remains. “I will come back through before moving further north and east. You’re not quite done with me yet.” I smile and go to shake her hand goodbye.
She grasps me and pulls me in close, “Safe travels Ranger Captain Lilykai Kodel.”
“Thank you, Cassandra Babayoige. Thank you for your…..” I spread my arms out, “…for everything.” I start to leave, and then remember something more, “I expect my book back, the one I loaned you….the next time we see each other again.”
“I do not know what you’re talking about? I know of no such thing.” She grins slyly. Opening my mouth to argue, I realize that she has agreed to open her home, her secret hiding place, to the Baroness because I asked it of her.
“You’re right” I return her grin. “…my mistake.” I turn to leave, waving at her over my shoulder.
It is a quick jog back to the boat and across to the Keep. Walking towards the guard gate, I see the men readying themselves. Before they can utter a word…”Apple.” I say to them and watch as they visibly relax. “Where can I find the Baroness?”
“In the schoolhouse.” One replies, nodding his head in the direction of the little white clapboard house.
I pick up my pace and creep into the small single room building as quietly as possible [Stealth roll fail] which isn’t nearly quiet enough to go unnoticed by a couple of dozen little ears. The floor creaks under my foot as the door swings quietly open and they all turn as one to see who it is. Evanda Alvin waves frantically, as usual. I nod in her direction before turning my attention to Diedre.
She hands the book she was reading to one of the older boys, “Could you please continue for me while I speak with the Ranger.” He takes it and starts reading, his adolescent voice cracking high to low and back again.
“Everything OK?” Her face shows concern.
Nodding, “Yes. I just wanted you to know it’s all arranged. If there is an attack, or anything that makes you feel in danger just go to the edge of the forest and Cassandra will guide you inside to safety. She will protect you. And she said she will let you all know if she senses another creature like the one before.”
“And this only cost me a jar of Apricots?” She asks slyly.
“That was a kindness, me being mannerly.” I snicker. Diedre cocks her eyebrow at the ‘mannerly’ part. “Somebody in the kitchen ratted me out, huh? I’ll pay for it.” I start reaching into my coat pocket.
Diedre lays her hand softly on my arm, “No. I was just teasing you, but maybe we should occasionally deliver some jars to the edge of the forest as my thanks.”
“I’m sure if a patrol happened to ‘drop’ a jar as they pass by, whatever it contained wouldn’t go to waste. Oh, and be sure nobody messes with Pip. He’s her bird you know.”
“Juan already told the guards about her bird. Don’t worry, nobody will be taking shots at him.” She assures me.
“Ok,” I look to the south, my next destination. “I’m going to see if I can find any tracks or indication of where that thing came from.” I feel her hand squeeze my arm and turn to see her watching my face, a half smile on hers.
“I owe you my life.” She says softly, serenely. “Thank you for your service.” The smile grows to a grin….she knows….she knows how uncomfortable that phrase makes me feel.
I laugh awkwardly, “Just doing my duty,” and give her a flourished mocking bow, “Baroness.”
“Get out of here, I have work to do.”
I look over her shoulder to quiet pandemonium. As we’ve been talking the kids have been making faces and pantomiming each other silently so as not to alert her to their goofing off.
“Yes, I need to get back to work too.” I say extra loud as a warning to them. They instantly straighten up as if they’ve been listening to the reader all along. Diedre gives me a knowing scowl. I give her a Ranger salute….not the dirty one.
Captain Juan Durante is nowhere to be seen as I’m leaving. I’m sure he’s checking on something important. “Password.” The guards at the gate say in unison as I’m leaving.
“I just gave you the password when I walked in…you directed me to the school-house…” I say to them incredulously.
“Captain’s orders are to get the password coming and going.” One replies
“But that doesn’t make sense. If I’m already in here then I could already have gotten the Baroness. It does you no good to stop me now.” This makes one guard look nervous, the other is still clueless.
“Doesn’t matter. Password. Captain’s Orders.”
I honestly want to argue the point a little longer, but see the futility. I gotta get moving. “OK, fine….apples.” I say with a ‘Ta-Daaaa’ gesture.
In a very serious tone, “You may pass.”
I roll my eyes and move through the gate, down to the banks of the river and towards the south. Bill waves goodbye as he fishes off the pier.
“Caww, caww” a shadow swoops low over me.
“Pip!” I call up to him.
He makes a lazy banking maneuver down to my level. “Cawww” as if to say ‘It is me!’
“Did Cassandra send you?”
“Caww” (I take that to mean ‘maybe, maybe not’)
“Are you coming into the scar with me?”
“CawCaw” (What does it look like?)
[Game note: This is practically actual dialog. I pretty much said these exact things, and my GM did just say ‘Caw’ back every time. With different inflections. And I somehow interpreted them. Maybe right, maybe not. We never really clarified. And then I realized what I was doing and DID say this exact thing-]
“Oh my god, I’m talking to a bird.”
“Caw Cawwwww” (you sure are, crazy lady)
I start focusing on my tracking.
I’ve been circling around to the south and west, trying to intercept any tracks that may have lead from the Rift area to the Mittler’s farm. In the back of my mind I realize it may be fruitless if the thing flew there, but it’s roughly the direction I would be traveling anyway, so I might as well try to find some clues.
Within the hour I see weird biped tracks crossing my path. They are definitely going to or from the Mittler farm. I say ‘to or from’ because what makes these tracks weird is that they are almost a solid oval shape. These aren’t foot or boot prints at all. It’s like some ‘thing’ without any feet, just slabs, walked this way. I follow the tracks, trying to figure out what it is.
[Insight roll success. I think it is some kind of construct, but based on the footprint shapes I can’t tell if it was coming from or going to the rift]
The grounds around the estate farms are lightly forested with tall grasses and sparse undergrowth. Very green. As I move closer and closer towards the Rift I notice the trees give way to only the tall grass and then sporadically there is the rust red of Rift dirt interwoven with the grass, until it is just the Rift dirt. Except it doesn’t seem like dirt at all.
I stand on the edge of the Rift where nothing grows. The ground is raw red colored. It looks like it is sand from a distance, but when I pick it up it doesn’t feel like sand at all. Sand has a coarseness, a bite to it. This feels like nothing. Like heavy powder. But it doesn’t blow like powder, it stays in place on the ground. If it was lighter it would be blowing everywhere because there is a constant wind coming from the east, blowing across the land. It makes me uncomfortable to walk across this, although I couldn’t explain why. I tie a bandana around my nose and mouth. My instincts tell me not to breathe in too much of this stuff.
The footprints have disappeared where they entered the Rift, there aren’t even any indentions where they should have been. This ground doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right under my feet, in my hands. The only word I can think to describe it is- decay. It doesn’t even sound right when you walk across it. Like it absorbs everything that touches it. I stay on the trail, following where the strange footprints would have been, if the mysterious creature had maintained this course.
I realize, based on my Ranger Map, that I am coming to the closest point of the Scar to the estates. Before my run I was able to ask about ‘the Rift’. There really isn’t anything in writing about it, its an informal secret within the ranks of the Rangers. I had to ask around, ask my Uncle Eldiss to get any information. I was able to gain a little knowledge, so this isn’t entirely unexpected. I knew there was a deep canyon within the Rift they nicknamed the Scar, but knowing something and seeing it can often be two different experiences.
The overall area with the dead land and the prison mines is called The Rift. Within the Rift, however, is an even more disturbing area….The Scar. The Scar looks as if someone or something from the heavens slashed down across the land and tore it open to hell. If the dead earth of the Rift is rust red, the walls leading into The Scar are blood red. There are strange howling noises and hissing sounds that emit from it in unpredictable intervals. And the wind…the wind that has been tearing at my clothes and the bandana on my face like a living thing…that wind originates from here. The Scar extends south from where I am standing for at least two weeks of travel, hundreds of miles. One other thing my Uncle warned me about….sometimes things come out from here…..things live in The Scar.
I lay down on the ground to crawl forward to peek over the edge of the Scar. My skin crawls when I get down into the rust colored dirt. Slowly I belly crawl to the edge of the Scar and look down. There is a ledge about 35 feet below me. On it lies the bodies of Sara and Scobe Mittler. From this distance I can’t tell how long they’ve been down there, but I can see that they’ve been partially eaten. And I see why. There is a small creature, what could easily be called a demon, sitting on Sara’s body, feasting. It is roundish, about the size of a large melon, and is red like everything else in this nightmare place. I must’ve made a sound or done something to alert it because it suddenly stops and looks straight at me. Red leathery wings spring into action and it launches itself in my direction. I roll away from the edge of the cliff, draw my sword and ready for battle.
With a screech it flies at me. I swing my sword and make good contact…..nothing happens. My blade seems to bounce off its skin.. It repeats its strange shriek and comes at me, damn that thing is fast for a flying melon, and those are some sharp teeth. I dodge and spin, swinging again. This strike is even more solid than the last, doing nothing.
“Shit!” It tries to strafe me again except this time he gets knocked out of the sky from above. “Cawww Cawww!” Pip’s battle cry rips through the air. He’s been gliding high up, fighting the wind, but swooped in fast. Like my sword, though, his claws only rake across the skin of the little monster. It hisses at him ominously.
I take the opportunity of distraction to stash my sword and unholster my shovel, unfurling it and snapping it into position. Knowing I can’t damage the beastie I do the next best thing; I wind up and bat that thing as far as I can into the Scar.
“Run!” I yell to Pip and we both take off full speed away from the edge. At least we’re traveling with the wind and it’s not slowing us down. After several paces I turn to see the small, flying, figure end the chase and turn back to its meal. I consider returning to try to retrieve the bodies of the fallen couple but decide against it. If that demon called on more I could find myself in a bad way, not being able to strike a blow to them. Not to mention I think that shapeshifter is in there somewhere, and possibly much worse things. I need to do a little more research before proceeding down that hell-hole.
Before returning to Diedre’s estate I decide to check the Cedric Mine, south of here to the west. A prison for the worst criminals in Ratik. The second worse prison is east of here, also in the Rift. It is an iron mine. I know from asking around that the coal mine was once a prosperous little town, but it was slowly abandoned and is now just the prison. Nobody could tell me much more than that. Maybe I can uncover some answers as to why the citizens gave up and left while I’m there. Maybe there are answers regarding the Scar.
The mine is a little over 2 days from the Scar. Pip takes up high in the winds again as I run at a fast clip towards my destination. I keep a vigilant watch over my shoulder in the direction of the Scar throughout the day. The wind never lets up. As darkness starts to fall Pip comes down low near me, he can’t see like I can. “Let’s try to get a little further.” I tell him. We travel together, he gliding low over me, another hour into the darkness.
There is nothing but this powdered earth all around, nothing growing at all. I finally give up and try to find a berm to make camp, something to protect us a little from the wind. I dig further into the ground for protection. This shovel is fantastic.
Something about the ground beneath me still bothers me. I’m loathe to sleep on it. I think Pip feels the same way as I’ve noticed he avoids standing on it at all. He is either on my shoulder or standing on my pack where it lays on the ground. Deciding to trust my instincts, I lay out my sealskin cloak and blanket on the ground beneath where my bedroll will be. For once I actually use my half shelter as it was intended and am thankful for some additional protection from the wind. Pip is watching closely as I get ready to rest. “C’mon buddy, you get in first.” I don’t want to have him between me and anything I might have to fight in the night.
“Caww caw caw.” I may be mistaken, but I think his response sounded relieved and thankful.
“Yeah, I got your back, just like you got mine.” I tell him as we smash together under the shelter. We both try to find rest in this nightmare landscape.