Lilykai Kodel, Ratik Ranger

Sole Survivor
Thanks for the fish

It’s been days and no change. The Lieutenant and I are in the deep tree well of an ancient tree. The snow has built up so that we are completely hidden when we are down near the base. I have dug to the ground and laid out my waterproof half tent to lay him on. He’s covered with everything I have that might give warmth: blanket, the snow leopard skin, my spare clothes…everything. I can’t afford to make a fire until I know what happened and I can’t know that until he wakes up….if he wakes up. I checked his person for information on his patrol or even just his name, but he has nothing. He doesn’t have anything but the clothes on his back: no weapons, no identification, nothing but uniform and boots.

I have to admit, when I first found out he was alive my reaction was “Shit!”. Because I knew that meant things were about to get much worse, not better. It meant I would be spending days…precious time I don’t have, doing exactly what I’m doing…tending a wounded soldier while running out of food. I’ve dropped to quarter rations per day and even at that I’m not sure I’ll get back to the garrison without passing out from hunger and falling unconscious in the snow which means freezing to death. In other words tending to him may just kill us both. I had already been waffling between going back or pushing forward and finding him settled that internal argument. So now, I wait and watch to see if he wakes up, hour after hour, day after day.

His wounds have been cleaned and tended. I was forced to cut the outside seam of his pants to clean and apply a poultice to the leg wound, and sew it up. That was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. Sewing up a living human is not pretty. Not to mention I’m a horrible seamstress (as the repairs on my coat will attest). Poor thing will carry a nice size scar up his leg to remind him of me, that is if he ever wakes again and we live through this. The head wound is deep but it seems like it was kinda cleaned and preserved by the moths which is pretty fascinating and gross at the same time. So I really only had to bandage that one. Those are the only two wounds I could find to tend. He may have breaks or something internal, but I’m no healer so I can’t do anything about that. After a lot of deliberation I gave him my last healing potion to take care of anything I couldn’t see and maybe shore up what I could.

————

I awaken because he’s thrashing again. The last day or so he’s had a fever. (I’m having trouble with the passage of time down here and I don’t dare leave him) I’m melting snow for water with my body heat and trying to dribble it in his mouth to some success. I keep the blankets, wrap, clothes, everything on him to try to keep him warm and protected. Sometimes he throws them all off and I start over, talking to him quietly and telling him our predicament. I tell him he has to be quiet, that we don’t know what’s out there and we have to stay hidden. I don’t know if he understands, but when I talk he seems to calm down, so I talk a lot to him quietly. Tell him stories about what I’ve seen so far, where I’ve been. I ask questions that go unanswered: who are you, where are you from, what is your name?

————

I have calculated our odds of survival. I’ve pulled out everything I have to eat and organized it by days and I realize that if I don’t leave soldier boy right away I am surely to starve and die. Mathematically, there’s just no way for me to maintain enough strength to make it to the garrison without passing out with what rations I have left. As it is, right now, I couldn’t maintain my running speed for more than a half an hour or so without rest I’m so weak. And it’s just getting worse. My body heat is dropping too, it’s taking longer to melt the snow to drink. I told him I had to go, that if I didn’t leave right away neither one of us would make it and I was sorry I had to leave him.

————
That was three days ago. I’m still here. I tried to leave. I packed everything up. He still has a fever, his condition hasn’t improved at all. But I couldn’t do it. So I made him a promise instead, “I will never leave you. You fought to live and I won’t abandon you. One way or another I will get you back to your family. You have my word.”

Now I’m trying to figure out what the fuck I’m gonna do. I’m keeping up my strength the best I can, I peek out and move around our tree a little (making extra sure to cover my tracks) to keep my muscles moving, trying to keep my strength up. I make my quarter rations last as long as I can in a day. Soon I’m going to adjust it to every other day. The other morning I thought I caught sight of a centaur, but I could be mistaken. I still don’t dare light a fire without knowing what is out here; our little tree-cave is pretty warm compared to the outside though so other than not being able to make pine needle stew it’s OK.

He’s still unconscious but the fever broke last night. That’s a good sign, right?

————

I hear movement nearby [successful observation roll] and freeze. I stare at my patient…’please don’t wake, please don’t wake’ I think hard…..I move so slowly towards him and gently place my hand over his mouth. My face is turned towards the outside…listening, looking to see any signs of disturbance in the branches that shield us from the outside world. My sword is in hand but my maneuverability is limited here…..I’ll have to burst out from cover and draw them away from soldier boy or we’re both toast. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard movement outside our hideaway. I’ll need to work on moving us soon I think. Whatever it was, it’s moved off. I haven’t picked up any more noise outside. Turning back towards my companion I’m taken aback to see him staring back at me. We both freeze for a moment, before I move in closer to him, my mouth right beside his ear “Quiet, they’re close. We need to move tonight or as soon as you can.” There’s no response from him for a long moment, his eyes have closed again.

I’m beginning to wonder if I imagined it…him opening his eyes. Then he nods.

————

“Lex Smith”, soldier boy…the Lieutenant croaks out quietly when I ask his name again a few hours later when he’s coherent once more. I can’t help but snicker a little when he tells me. Of course his name is Lex, it’s a very common name for guys close to my age. A lot of baby boys were named Lex after the youngest prince, it was a little before my time but I’ve met plenty of Lex’s while visiting Marner. I think he picks up my amusement but he just smirks and rests his head back down. “Where are the rest of my men?” I knew this question was coming, I had a feeling his thrashing had to do with the battle. “You are the only one I found, I saw nothing more.” I tell him quietly. The pain in his eyes tells me I needn’t add anything else. “We’ll need to move from here soon, we’ve been stuck in this place awhile and I’m afraid they’ll find us.” I see him try to wiggle the foot of his bad leg and wince. “We’ll go at night, I’ll support your weight….we’ll just do the best we can.” He watches me after I’ve finished, like he’s mulling over whether to argue or not and then finally just gives me a curt nod.

————

We’re in a new place. We made it about a quarter a mile. Farther than I expected before he couldn’t walk; even with me half carrying him. Mind you he never said a word, but I could tell by his huffing like a pony that the pain was close to unbearable. Once we got into place in another tree well and I got him bedded down Lex passed out almost immediately. Part of that might be from hunger. Now there’s two of us eating the measly rations. I haven’t the heart to tell him the truth of how dire our circumstances are. At this point we only have about 2 days of food left, and that’s with quarter rations…maybe a bit more, but I doubt it. I took what rations we had for today: grains, dried berries, some seeds and hard tack and mashed it up in a bowl with some water until it was the consistency of mashed potatoes or paste. When I handed Lex his serving he looked at me like I was trying to poison him. I just looked back blankly, shrugged, and choked down my portion. It was horrible. I think I might have caught him scowling at his plate, daring it to be eaten. At any rate hunger won and he finished.

————

“I need to know what I’m facing.” This is the first time I’ve approached the subject with him. He looks past me, his features twisted in pain, but not from his wounds. He raises his hand and brings it down his face, wiping away the grief, and his expression has been replaced with that of a hardened soldier. “We were directed to this area from our regular route. Everything was normal, we’re just riding along, then suddenly it’s just mayhem. Horses were screaming….men were screaming. At some point I had drawn my sword but the enemy just came out of nowhere, they were a blur. Then one was beside me, it looked like a giant bug or something, really tall and it cut down my horse. I jumped clear just in time, but before I could react he had cut my leg and I got hit in the head with one of the throwing stars they used. All my men were dying around me.” He falls silent and I don’t push. I’m actually startled when he breaks the silence again.

“I woke up when I was being dragged by one of them. I pulled a dagger I kept in my boot and stabbed him. I don’t think he expected that. He jumped at me and I killed him. Then I just started dragging myself away. I don’t know how far I got before I passed out again. I just felt the cold, got sleepy and closed my eyes.” He pauses and for the first time since he started talking meets my eyes again. “Then I woke again and saw you.”

————

I left Lex in our makeshift camp to scout around. This morning I told him we’re out of food for good now. We try to eat some pine needles and bark. Yeah, that was not…..successful. I am out and away from camp to get eyes on the enemy myself. I’m bolstered to be moving again, in spite of my weakened state. I haven’t found anything of the creatures Lex spoke of. Like before I decide to climb a tree and watch. Just as I get settled I see movement in a tree, at my same level, about 40 feet away. It’s one of them. He was completely silent, if it wasn’t for the smallest of movements that caught the corner of my eye [19 observation roll] I would have never noticed him. His silence unsettles me, I freeze and wonder if he saw me climb up here and is biding his time, waiting for backup….what? Barely breathing so my exhale doesn’t alert him to my presence I watch and wait. After 10 minutes or so he suddenly launches himself from his perch, jumping easily 15’ to the ground below and bounds into the next tree, then the next, and then away. Now I know why there were no tracks for me to follow. These things move through the trees. I search where I know he landed and only spot a shallow 3 pronged footprint. I would have never recognized it as such had I not witnessed it myself. I wait another 15 minutes before moving out of my position, in case his retreat was a ruse and he is circling back on me. I hear nor see anything so I slink back down to the ground. I move away from the direction he was going and make a large arc towards our camp at the tree. I find, on my way back a small stream near us. That is good news….fresh water. I take the opportunity to refill my empty waterskin.

I’m creeping back towards our camp from the stream, moving quickly from tree to tree and holding my position awaiting an enemy to drop from the air. It is that preparation that keeps me from being surprised [successful surprise..errr….NOT surprised roll!] when one of them leaps right in front of me. My reactions are pure instinct when I slam two arrows in him at point blank range. He staggers back a pace, but not before leaving me with a glancing blow to my arm with his weird green weapon on a stick. I sink another arrow right into his face and he falls without making a sound. In fact, it is unnervingly quiet. You would have never guessed that we just fought it was so quick and noiseless. Quickly I look around to see if there are any others. Seeing no movement I hastily dig a pit in the snow and cover him completely. I hope to buy us time before any more of his kind find out we’re here. I hide my tracks hastily on the way back to camp. As I scurry into the tree well my movements alarm Lex who it sitting with my dagger I left him at the ready. I silently signal for quiet and rest on my stomach peeking out from beneath the limbs waiting for others. After a long wait there is no movement and I allow myself to relax and turn around.

Lex hasn’t made a move nor a noise the whole time, but when I relax my stance he finally whispers, “What happened?” I start to answer and realize my mouth is completely dry from the fear and adrenalin. I take a drink from my skin and offer some to him. “I found a stream not far from here. That’s good news.” He frowns and takes the skin from me, he knows I know that’s not what he was asking. “I saw one of them moving in the trees.” I continue as he drinks. “Then one sprang on me not far from here and I killed it. I hid his body, but there’s no way of knowing if I was followed.” I turn back and stare out through the branches a bit longer. “They’re just so fast.” I place extra emphasis on the last word and turn to see Lex nodding solemnly in agreement.

“You’re hurt.” He points to my arm that is seeping a small trickle of blood. “Not too bad,” I respond, but start to shuck my coat off anyway. I don’t know if those things can smell blood or not. Better not take the risk. I tear off a bit of fabric from the bottom of my shirt and attempt to tie it off. “Let me.” Lex says as he slides closer towards me. He binds the wound good and tight. “There….now we’re even.” He says with a slight uptick of a grin. I can’t help but smile in return. In the midst of all this he’s cracking a joke….honestly I think that is funnier than the joke itself. “You wish.” My lame attempt at a comeback.

We spend the rest of the night on watch and sleeping. We fill our bellies with water instead of food. At least I can sleep now though. Before Lex woke up I was sleeping for an hour here or there; three at the most in the dead of night. But now that he’s conscious I can sleep a full 6 hours or so. It has helped me to regain some strength even with the lack of food. We had been close to deciding to build a fire in this new place, it had been so long since we saw anything, but after today we know that’s not safe.

“I’m going out.” Lex announces the following morning.
“Are you fucking kidding me!” I snap at him in return. He looks at me like no one has ever spoken to him like that before. Maybe he thought I would defer to him due to his rank of Lieutenant. Regardless, I make no apologies.
“I need to move around and I want to get out of here for awhile and get some air.” He states matter of factly, like it’s no big deal. I honestly get the impression he wants to run into one, deal a little payback of his own.
“You don’t understand. These creatures are the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen and I’m not sure if I could hold off more than one at a time and I’m not willing to take that risk because you want fresh air.” I growl menacingly at him.
“I’m aware of how dangerous they are.” He growls right back at me, “more than probably you know.” His eyes cast down and away sadly.
I soften my stance, “Look, how about near dusk tonight, we’ll have shadows to move between, maybe they will have given up for the day. I didn’t work this hard to save you just to throw it away.” I take a deep breath and release it. He’s right, we need to start moving around….him especially, if we’re ever going to make a break from the area. “We’ll go out tonight before dark.” I see him mull it over and nod his assent.

It’s an hour or so before dark, the shadows are long when we sneak out of our camp. I have cut off a branch for Lex and stripped it down for him to use as a crutch. I’ll need free movement to fight if we run into more creatures. I help pull him out of the hole and he stands up, trying out the crutch. He nods and gives me a half smile as we move towards the stream. Ever cautious we make it there without being spotted. I bend down to fill the skin and he starts to shuffle away. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” I whisper yell at his back. “Wait for me!”

He turns and looks at me in exasperation. “I have to do this by myself.” He starts.
“No way! We stick together, don’t be ridiculous.” I fuss at him as quietly as possible.
He casts his eyes to the heavens, takes a deep breath and repeats, “I need to do this by myself.”
At this point I don’t know what this guy thinks he has to prove but I’m having none of it. As I wind up to really let him know what I think of his plan he interrupts before I have a chance to start. “Look, I have to take a piss…OK!”
I’m instantly deflated. “Oh…ok, well. That’s good…right? I mean…that means you weren’t injured that badly and everything is working…right?”

He looks at me like I’ve lost my ever loving mind. I feel like I want to melt into the snow. He turns and slips behind some bushes, I busy myself with refilling both skins, my wine one has been empty since Martume. As I’m standing up I hear Lex hobbling hurriedly through the brambles. “Ranger! Ranger!” He exclaims excitedly in a whisper. Outside of the tree well I can see how gaunt he is in the dying sunlight. Without saying anything I give him the ‘what’ expression. He is pointing back the way he came with his free hand.

“Fish! I saw fish in the water!”

View
Desolated Forest
"Lost and Found"

Sgt. Peka is manning the gates as Martume, Ronin, and I approach. I watch as he braces himself when he catches sight of the sled and then visibly relaxes when he sees it’s a bear and not more dead men. Ronin is currently pulling it so he follows Peka to the mess hall or smokehouse or wherever it needs to go. Martume turns to me just inside the gate.

“Thank you for assisting me Sargent. You can continue on your run now.” He states matter of factly.

“Do I need to make a report for the Ranger Corp?” I ask, although I think I already know the answer.

“That won’t be necessary, I will let them know you were assisting me if they ask about you.” He turns and goes towards the Commander’s office.

I had wondered if I would be invited to assist with whatever is happening in a month, and find a pang of disappointment at the realization that I’m left out.

At this time Captain Moonshadow approaches from the yard and welcomes me back, directing me to a barracks where I can stay the night. I put my things away and rest for a bit before going to the mess hall. I don’t see anyone I know so I eat quickly and retire to bed. I had forgotten how noisy and bustling the garrison was. I find it unnerving and am actually looking forward to getting on with my run alone.

A favored aspect of the Ranger Corp for me was the isolation, watching out for myself and working independently from others. Having to answer to someone every day and look after them has been tiring. Shucking that responsibility comes as a relief and I’m looking forward to getting on with my route and going where I want.

Which is why Commander Temakos and Captain Moonshadow find me studying my map at breakfast when they join me at the table. In theory I should be going directly east down the road to the Dancing Bear Inn and across the district to a hunting lodge and cabin. The Captain asks if that is my plan. “I don’t know.” I reply while still studying my map, “I’m thinking of going northeast a ways,” I indicate a general area, “where this…..well, where this nothingness is. I just want to scout around a bit.” Truth be told I’m curious if any of those hobgoblins or unusual creatures might be lurking within our borders unnoticed since no Rangers have traveled that area of late, or ever, as far as I know. Chuckling from both the Captain and Commander draws me out of my thoughts and I look at them quizzically. “I guess that’s what traveling with the Royal Observer will do to you.” Captain Moonshadow jokes. “Make you want to go off by yourself.” Temakos finishes.

“Maybe a little bit.” I sheepishly admit. “Where are they anyway?”

“They left last night for the capital.” She replies. It strikes me as unusual that they left in the night, but she seems unfazed. “When will you be leaving?” Temakos asks. “I was going to restock my rations and leave right away.” They nod in unison. Neither asks anything about where we went or what happened. I get the feeling they’d rather not know. We finish our meal making small talk; I pack and leave shortly after. There are no homesteads or people for weeks in the direction I’m heading but I have 9 days of rations and can hunt better than most so I’m not worried. I have re-filled my quiver, my food pocket and re-stocked healing potions again. All my potions were used in my trip with the Royal Observer and the garrison could only spare three. Better than nothing.

Immediately North of the garrison, about a day out, the forest starts breaking up into rough terrain. A combination of forest and plains with steep hills and gullies. The temperatures, although warmer than before, are still below freezing; and windy, blizzard conditions have started. I have to keep moving to keep warm. Because of the low cloud cover and short winter days it starts getting dark around 3:00, and temperatures begin to drop dramatically. Because of the weather and terrain I have not spotted any game, or tracks of any kind. I’m running at a slower speed, looking for a good location to camp when I stumble upon (quite literally) a large chasm in front of me. It is only 8’ across, but 40’ down, so missing the jump could be painful at best, deadly at it’s worst. I decide not to take any chances and use my grappling hook to catch a fallen tree on the other side, swing, and climb up. [dex roll and strength roll, we’re still using AD&D rules…no athletics yet]

As I’m winding up my rope I hear a great whooshing overhead; before I can register where it comes from a giant owl shits all over me. In shock over the unprovoked attack I only get off one arrow and nick it’s wing. It flies away and I’m left trying to clean myself off with cold wet snow. I do a half assed job and call it good. My search for a site to camp continues and I finally find a good sized tree that has fallen over, providing protection from the wind. I dig out an area and build a fire. I’m a little concerned at the lack of game so far so I eat everything I’ve saved in my food pocket and a days worth of rations. I set my alarm snares, something I haven’t had to do in awhile since sharing a watch, and bed down for the night.

It has snowed heavily all night long. Fortunately, I am now in the habit of setting up my half shelter because if it wasn’t for that I would have been buried in snow. It is warmer, 30’s, but that just makes the snow wetter and heavier. My snow walkers are a must again just to be able to move somewhat quickly over the broken terrain. [Roll for surprise…success!] A slight bit of movement catches my eye so I am ready for action when a large cloud of Crowsquitos lift of from something they have been feeding on and come at me. I pick off 6 with arrows while they are still in the air but once they descend upon me I am left with drawing my sword and slicing through them at close range. I take a few wounds, just punctures, no poison (thankfully) and kill all 17 of them eventually.

[A word about Crowsquitos. My GM describes Stirges. ‘Large bird like creatures, black, with mosquito like noses that they use to suck blood. I immediately name them Crowsquitos because why would you use the name Stirges when you can use the word Crowsquito! So that’s what they are. Interestingly, crowsquitos were first introduced in the late 70’s in the world of Greyhawk, and since this campaign is in Ratik….it just makes sense Lilykai would run into these horrible things. Turns out they are native to the area.]

I walk amongst the Crowsquito carcasses to see what they were feasting on only to find the owl from before. My arrow had done enough damage to make it easy prey for these vile creatures and I am saddened to have aided them. I chastise myself for reacting so hastily before, making a mental note to try to have a more measured response in the future. I turn and continue north. Before long some signs of hares are in the snow. Lots of signs. All moving south and west, all together. I really need to catch some fresh meat or it’s rations again, and then, to my surprise; another chasm. This is so weird. They don’t seem right somehow. This one is even larger, about 9’ across and 80’ down. I get out my grappling hook again and prepare to swing across like before. [Rolled a 1 for Dex]. “Dammit!” My yell echoes in the chasm and across the open land. When I tried to make the toss my arm got tangled in the rope and bonked myself in the head with the grappling hook. Here I sit on the ground slightly dazed holding a chunk of snow on the large egg sized lump on my forehead. Once the throbbing lessens I do manage the toss, swing and climb up to the other side. I spend the rest of my day fuming, setting snares, eating rations with tea and hoping for the best tomorrow.

The temperature drops radically again overnight and stays that way. Everything has iced over and remains frozen. I caught one emaciated rabbit in a snare. Hardly enough to eat, but I eat it anyway. There is something wrong with the forest here, it just feels wrong. With the lack of food and game I’m torn between heading back while I have enough rations to get me all the way to the garrison or press forward and try to figure out what is happening here. There aren’t any signs of life anywhere. I’m actually hoping to see some wolves, just to prove this forest is like any other…and maybe eat one… No luck. I decide to press forward and go to half rations. This will buy me more time to figure out what’s happening here.

I’m moving slowly today, between the cold and lack of meat it’s just slower going. [At this point my GM is having me roll constitution checks for cold and hunger. I am failing miserably and getting worried] I have climbed over 3 or 4 fallen tree trunks in succession before I realize I’ve wandered into a vast treefall area. Backtracking the way I came I climb the tallest tree on the edge of the opening and look down upon a massive scene of destruction. It looks as though a tornado or something similar on a huge scale touched down and sent ancient trees flying like matchsticks. My attention is so captured by the sight I miss the spider webbing that is in the tree I’ve chosen to climb until I am stuck in it. I see the web continue down to the ground and into the treefall. I have wiggled enough to know the spider is on it’s way so I draw my sword and wait. As expected it comes along the webbing straight at me. I believe it probably thought it would find a stray bird or squirrel, not a Ranger with a sword. It lunges at me multiple times and does strike true. But getting in close enough to bite me means it is close enough to stab. I may be hungry, but not that hungry, I let it’s body fall away below. It takes 2 of my potions to heal back to normal. And I still don’t have anything to eat.

Remembering the last time I engaged a giant spider it had a mate I decide to cut myself free and avoid the treefall area, circling around it. I am unsure if I could walk away from a skirmish with another spider. And there’s still the matter of finding food before it gets dark again which is coming on soon. I continue further north, seeing nothing in the forest. It is eerily quiet; no noise, not even birds. I have calculated my food consumption, and if I stay on half rations and turn around now I can probably make it back to the garrison before completely running out. Except I still won’t know what’s happening out here and the forest is giving me clues that something is happening. As I deliberate, my boot crunches through the crusty snow and I spy some blood. Snow has been continually falling and covering the ground, but I can make out, where I stand, there was a battle here. The snow and ground underneath have been disturbed and there are tracks of horses and men, but not one sign of any of their bodies. Everything has been removed, only the broken ground remains.

My curiosity helps me forget my hunger. I find some drag marks under the snow but they miraculously disappear. I stand in a small clearing surrounded by deep green cedars and evergreens in a forest devoid of life at the site of a violent and vanished battle. [missed observation rolls] I have no idea what to do next. In my head I hear my uncle’s advice ‘When you’re completely out of ideas, change your perspective.’ I look around me at the trees, pick one of the larger ones and begin to climb. Halfway up I see some movement out of the corner of my eye. Thinking it’s another spider I reach for my sword only to see a couple of winter moths, their pale, pale white/blue wings fluttering on the branch beside my head. Releasing the hilt of my sword I climb higher.

From my vantage point I can see where the battle took place, on the edge of the clearing. It is fairly well contained which tells me it was swift and deadly. The mystery is where the bodies went, and how did they simply vanish out of this place. More movement in the trees, more moths. That is strange. I tear my eyes from the battle site and look around the tree branches. I realize the tree I’m in and others near me have an unusual amount of moths fluttering around in them. I adjust my eyes to look for the moths, they blend deceptively into the snowy background. I climb more, to the highest point of the tree. At this height I can actually make out a living river of winter moths fluttering in the treetops. Their wings moving in unison as they undulate up and around as one massive flock. Had I not climbed higher I would have never seen them. I watch them moving in an endless stream further north and east of my position. They are my only clue, so I follow their lead.
Staying in the trees, where I actually feel safer, I move cautiously from branch to branch.

[I had to roll 10 Dex rolls, more than 3 fails in a row and I plummet to the ground….luckily that never happened, although it was close]

I slip a few times before stopping to watch. The winter moths, the group I was following and others from different directions, come together in the forest; at least 40’ up and swirl down like a delicate silent tornado of soft fluttering wings. They land on the ground in a huge mound where they stay, piling one atop another. I carefully climb down and silently approach. The moths make no notice of me and the forest is still silent as a grave. It is a grave I’m thinking of when I near the moth’s destination. The mound looks exactly like that. I reach it and carefully push a group of moths aside, they flit aloft in an irritated fashion. It is then I catch a wiff of the unusual smell, something sickly sweet. My fingers, as I push the moths get covered in something viscous and thick. I hold them up to see some weird greenish goo on my fingertips, the moths immediately gravitate to it and start eating the stuff. I push more moths away, clearing off whatever is under the lump when I recognize something. Part of a military uniform. A clue to the mystery battle.

With less care I start to move the moths away. Flicking the goo off of the body the moths start to follow where it lands in the snow. I have uncovered enough to see it is a soldier in the mounted calvary, the border patrol. What is a border patrol doing this far inland? I doesn’t make sense. He has suffered a great wound to his leg and head. I think it was the head wound that probably did him in. I start to check his body for identification or clues to his patrol unit. I’ve cleared the goo from his chest and face to try to get answers when suddenly he takes a deep breath.

He is alive.

View
Hobgoblin Massacre
"Who can you trust?"

We had been following the well worn path to the dwarf’s home for hours before breaking off and climbing up one of the hills running alongside it. Given the abundance of hobgoblin tracks it didn’t seem prudent to get trapped down in the gully with no cover while our enemy had the high ground and the advantage.

Which is exactly the situation the hobgoblins are currently in, except they don’t know it yet. There are 16 of them harassing the door to the dwarf, Tedar’s, home. They are about 80’ from our position, trapped in a dead end dugout. I have both their retreat and their current position covered. They are armed with Spears and swords; filthy chain armor that is both crusty and rusty. Hobgoblins aren’t known for their smarts and clearly this is an issue as I watch them intermittently bang on the reinforced door with their spears while yelling incoherently and then turning on each other and yelling some more, shoving one another with their shields. It is obvious this standoff is wearing on their patience.

“Handle this for me, will you?” Martume says from behind me. I turn towards him with a rebuttal ready only to watch him walk a few paces away and lay down on the ground flat on his back, his arms tucked under his head and legs crossed. He closes his eyes like it’s the perfect time for an afternoon nap.

I glance at Ro, his swords have soundlessly made their way into his hands. “Stay low, out of sight……if one of them slips by be ready to hit the trail and kill them, otherwise….” I nod in the snoozing mage’s direction, “guard him.”

I take cover by a grouping of large boulders at the edge of the peak. Removing my quiver, I wedge it between two rocks so that I have quick access to my ammunition. I have 36 arrows, that’s 2 per hobgoblin with a few to spare, should be doable. I draw the first arrow and take aim at one of the creatures loitering in the back looking bored. My aim is true and the arrow slices through his unprotected neck; he falls like a sack of potatoes. I pause and wait for a reaction that never comes. His ‘comrades’ are oblivious of their fallen cohort. Four more arrows and three more fallen hobgoblins. The Ronin is grinding his teeth he wants in the battle so badly, but realizes that this advantage is too much to give up just for the glory of battle. After killing 5 of their fellow soldiers one of the hobgoblins actually realizes they are dead behind him. Being the idiots that they are, however, he just stares blankly at the surrounding hills, not raising the alarm at all. I wonder fleetingly if it occurred to him before my next arrow buried itself in his forehead.

“Could you hurry this up a bit?” I hear from behind me. Ok, enough playing around. I drop two more in succession and the last one down is actually thrown into others by the door with the force of impact. It is at this time that the brains of the bunch, and that’s not saying much, realizes that he’s lost almost half his men and is under attack. He barks orders at the rest who turn their backs on the door and stare numbly at the surrounding hills, where I’m certain they see nothing. Not wanting to give away my position I wait until they are looking at the opposite side and let fly with another flurry of arrows. Three more die with only a grunt on their lips. I nod to Ro who begins to work his way down the side of our hill to intercept any who try to run. Which two of them do…decide to try to run. I catch one of them in the knee which trips him into his companion. I have no mercy, killing both of them as they lay on the ground.

The remaining three clump together and stare impotently up at their surroundings. I realize at this point not one of them carry bows so I stand from my cover and take aim at the one nearest me, sending an arrow straight through his armor and into his heart. The leader, or the one who acts as if he is, sees me take aim at him and drags his fellow survivor into the path of the arrow that was meant for him. His drops his dead ‘friend’ at his feet and bellows a guttural curse in my direction. While I speak a little of the horde tongue it is hard to pick out many of his words…except one. I distinctly hear ‘Ratik’ thrown in with the rest. The last thing he sees, if he can see this far, is the smile on my face as my killing arrow approaches its target.

“You didn’t leave one!” I hear a shout from below. “Sorry!” I yell back. It’s plain to hear I’m not sorry at all. I pick up my quiver and walk to where Martume still rests. He looks up as I approach, “So, you’re finished?” He asks with a twinkle in his eyes. I realize that his reaction, his lack of action, has actually bolstered my confidence. He knew I could do it alone. He walks to the edge of the embankment, I follow beside him and we watch as The Ronin starts going through the hobgoblins bodies. Beside me I hear Martume inhale and release a long sigh. “How many arrows do you have left?” He asks. Without looking I immediately reply, “Twelve.” Out of the corner of my eye I see him nod once and turn to leave.

We descend the hill the way we came, retracing our steps cautiously. As we come around the bend to the site of the skirmish I see that The Ronin has finished searching….let’s be honest…looting the bodies of the hobgoblins. He has also stacked their weapons together. His efficiency is notable and a little sad. He has told me of his past, of being orphaned and living on the streets. He told me how he was taken into a noble man’s house and given menial jobs to determine his worth. He had been sent on an errand when his Lord and all in their compound were killed by assassins from a competing family. Having spent most of his life in poverty and without direction, he trying to find his way, and possibly a job, in Ratik. “They were carrying a lot of coin.” He announces happily. I look at Martume questioningly. “Your kills, you do get to keep it.” He says to me. I’m not sure why, but this makes me uncomfortable. As a Ranger I am paid for my services. All of this occurred why in the line of duty for the Royal Observer. I have no need of additional monies beyond my salary, and the idea of carrying a lot…and by the looks of these laden bags he’s holding, there is a lot…..doesn’t really appeal to me.

Confirming my thought, Ro exclaims, “There is more than 200 silver (he holds up a bag in one hand) and 85 gold (he hold up the other) here altogether!” Quickly doing the calculations I realize this is about 6 years of comfortable living in Ratik. I approach the bag of gold, reach in and take out a handful, putting them in my pocket. “You can keep the rest, I have a salary.” I see his face fall and realize my insensitivity. “What I mean is, I can’t carry a lot…I’m on the job and cannot carry more than I can use. They have my pay for me at the garrisons if I need to buy something so I don’t have to carry it.” I pat him on the shoulder affectionately, “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have survived the Ice Devils and maybe not the bird ladies. You deserve this…..and” I add with a sly grin, “you have to carry it.” I can see that he is somewhat mollified. He nods and packs the bags away. “What of their weapons?” He asks Martume who shrugs his response, walks past us and knocks politely on the door.

I see movement towards the top of the structure and as quickly as I look up all I catch is the closing of a small panel. Shortly after I hear the unlocking of many locks and the scraping of a bar being removed. The door opens about a foot and a half and Martume quickly slips through followed by Ronin and me. We are greeted with the visage of a well armored dwarf in full plate with intermingled gray/red hair and beard…both braided. He is holding a really heavy looking wood and steel crossbow in one hand and a massive hammer in the other. He is spitting mad. “How dare you steal my kills!” he snarls in my direction. Not wanting to make the situation worse I just shrug and point in the direction of Martume. Secretly I wonder if twelve arrows is enough to take him, and if that’s why Martume asked me how many I had left.

The dwarf snarls another commentary in his native tongue at Martume’ who patiently waits for him to finish and responds quietly with one sentence. I have no idea what has been said, but it completely takes the wind out of the dwarf’s sails. He visibly stills, turns and sits his weapons down by the door. Even in full plate he moves as though he’s only in street clothes. He walks back to where Ro and I stand.
“Tedar Bergermount of Turbek Hold” he states bluntly and holds out his hand. “Sargent Lilykai Kodel, Ranger of Ratik” I respond as I grip his hand. He turns and gives us a brief tour of his home. The level we are on contains coal and some other ore in piles along the wall, the stairs to the next level are carved out of the stone wall and lead to a great hall and kitchen. He gestures to another set of stairs that leads to sleeping chambers upstairs from this level.

“Thank you for your help with those hobgoblins,” he starts saying as he opens the securely shuttered windows on this level. “They have been harassing me for months now, thinking they can run me out.” He looks out the window, “But this is my home and you’re not getting it!” He yells at the dead bodies below. “Want some food, I suppose” he starts pulling out food from various cabinets. “It would be nice,” Martume responds evenly. I notice that Ro and I are remaining silent and moving cautiously while these two predators circle one another in their own way. They keep looking at each other as if they are having a deep conversation without saying a word, I eat something quickly and ask if there is an area to get cleaned up and tend to my gear. Tedar shows Ro and I upstairs into rooms where we can stay overnight. He tells us he needs to talk to Martume privately and to stay upstairs. As I watch his departing back I pull out my flask (thankfully full) and remark to Ro, “I feel like little kids sent to bed early so the parents can fight.” He snickers quietly as he hands me his mug and we proceed to get drunk on Hausen Hold firewater.

I must’ve dropped off to sleep because the next thing I know somebody is trying to take my flask out of my hand. Without having to think my dagger is in my free hand and pressed against the culprit’s wrist. Not enough to draw blood but plenty enough to give warning. I hear the baritone of Tedar say “I was just admiring your flask there, lass. Nothing more.” I raise my head and open my eyes fully. “It was a gift.” I answer him, with a bit of challenge in my tone. “And a fine one, at that.” He replies as he inspects it and moves towards a cupboard. “Looks like it could use a refill though.” I watch him pull out a small cask, uncork it and pour a dark amber liquid into my flask. Handing it back to me he gives me a ‘drink up’ gesture. “Try that on for size.” It is rich and smoky, warms my throat and stomach as I swallow. “Mmmm, very nice.” I say with a slow grin. This is good stuff. I hear Ro and Martume and clinking dishes downstairs, glancing out the window I note that the sun is setting. “Dinner is almost ready, come on down.” Tedar says quietly. Before turning away to go downstairs he stops and just as quietly gravely warns me, “Do not trust Martume. He will take advantage of you, he will use you. He cannot be trusted.” He holds my gaze. “I’m just following orders, doing my job.” I reply evenly. “Just watch out for yourself is what I’m saying.” He responds as he retreats back down the stairs.

Dinner is a smaller version of the Hausen Hold feasts with multiple kinds of meats and vegetables and lovely, lovely bread. Tedar, however, grumbles a lot about unexpected guests even though he seems to be enjoying having company at the same time. As I’ve come to know from my previous experience with dwarves his mood lightens increasingly with every mug of beer he drinks, and he begins to tell his stories of the old days when he was a clan leader in Turbek Hold, then suddenly his story turns dark and he tells of the day that ‘Ice Devil’s’ came in from the frozen glacier and goblins, the ones he had described earlier being defeated time and time again, combined forces with a red dragon at the front entrance. I freeze mid bite as I know what comes next. Tedar was on watch that night and knocked clear by the dragon when she attacked. When he regained consciousness the dragon and goblins were in residence and everyone he knew and loved was gone. It is at this point that Ronin shares his story of returning to his master’s compound and finding everyone he knew had been killed by the assassins and his desire for revenge. The two share a moment for the lost. Not having experienced anything like that myself, I just raise my mug in solidarity.

“Now that we have that out of the way, why don’t you tell me how you come to wear a Hausen Hold crest on your coat?” I am familiar with storytelling and dwarves so I was ready for this. I proceed to tell the tale of the acid pudding and fire dwarf tossing. It lightens the mood markedly and Martume seems to be rather enjoying the story as well. After I’m finished and have described the following victory feast and presentation of the flask Tedar says, “Well, it’s not a surprise Bergrat honored you so, a creature like that could have wiped out the hold before they knew how to fight it. Dwarves are stubborn, just the idea to take torches down into the mines wouldn’t have crossed their minds for months, not until they’d lost a lot of men. It’s entirely possible that the next time you went there you would find it empty. You probably saved the entire hold.” That idea is quite shocking, and I’m sure my stunned expression reflects that. “You may be little, elf Ranger of Ratik, but you are a smart fighter.” I see him sizing me up, for what, I don’t know…but it makes me think it’s time to take my leave and get some rest so I bid my companions good night and go upstairs to my room. It isn’t much later that I hear the others following suit.

A large breakfast awaits us in the morning. I help as much as I can as thanks, but Tedar has things well under control. I fill my food pocket with pancake rolls and thank our host gratefully. When we are leaving he says cryptically to Martume “I will meet your group at the garrison in a month.” Then he takes Ronin and I aside after Martume has stepped outside and once again warns us, “Do not trust Martume, he does not…how do you say..’have your back’. He will not stand with you.” I do not wish to argue with my host so I just nod. Ro, on the other hand, looks ready to dispute him so I tug his arm to get him moving and we follow where Martume has already started down the path.

The bodies of the hobgoblins have been dragged away and there is a pile of smoldering bones where the path opens into Tedar’s clearing. I guess he was busy this morning, and is definitely sending a warning to those who would wish him harm. Martume is quiet and I can’t help but wonder if he overheard Tedar’s warning to us.

By late afternoon we are back in the forest and far from the skull gates. I admit I’m more relaxed once we got away from there. I see wolf tracks when we are in the forest again, but leading away from the direction we are traveling. There is nothing else of note this day and nothing occurs during our watches in the night.

The next day we have a quick breakfast and keep traveling through lunch. All of us seem to be ready to cross back into Ratik’s borders. The wolf tracks criss cross back in our direction and [successful observation roll] I’m starting to hear their calls and howls to each other getting closer. Around 3pm only an hour or so before dark, I realize the cacophony of yelps and howls have stopped altogether. Instead of relieved I am even more on edge and indicate to Ronin to stay closer to Martume. No sooner have I given that order than we are ambushed by the pack! There are easily 10 or 12 wolves ringing us. Ro and I go to work, he with his swords and I with my bow. It takes a few rounds but eventually all the wolves are dead. I shoot the fleeing ones before they are out of range so that we won’t have to worry as much during our watches this night. But the battle and blood soaked ground does mean we have to travel another 2 hours before we can camp, wanting to put as much distance between us and this place as we can.

The night goes easy, I take the late night watch [Lily always takes the darkest hours], Ro takes early morning. For whatever reason Martume doesn’t use his fancy tent again, just takes mine, like before. Breakfast is brief and the snow is harder so we don’t have to use the snow walkers and I can finally just run. It’s good to be back within my country’s borders. Just for fun I put on a little speed, and Ro keeps up well. I glance behind us at Martume, in his fancy little velvet bright colored boots…that never seem to sink into the snow…..

[these boots were always just described by their looks and minor explanation of how he moves in them, it’s not until now that I actually pay close enough attention to realize they are magical, and most likely boots of Speed or Free Movement, although that is never fully disclosed]

“How fast can you really run?” I slyly inquire of Ronin.
“I can move much faster, what about you?” He responds.
“Let’s find out how fast he can go.” I nod back towards Martume who has not even broken a sweat or begun to pant. Which is remarkable considering his age. I’ve figured out his boots are most likely ‘beguiled’ but I am curious as to what the limit is. Ro grins mischievously.
“Yes, let’s find out” he whispers and picks up speed considerably.

I match his pace easily. I still have plenty of speed and stamina left in reserve. Glancing over my shoulder I catch Martume’s eye and he gives me a mirthful smile. A smile that says, “I can do this all day, can you?” So I quicken my pace even more leaving them both in the dust…..errr…..snow. Just because I can, and because it’s been SO LONG since I’ve really been able to go all out I push myself to my limits, sprinting as fast as a bolting horse through the trees, dodging low limbs and debris on the forest floor with ease. I get so lost in the exhilaration of the moment that I forget how much distance I can put between myself and my charges. I slow and then stop quickly after, not wanting to lose them altogether.

Turning back the way I came I see Martume easily coming to a stop a few feet behind me. Putting my hands on my hips, I shake my head from side to side. “I’m starting to wonder if you really needed me in this little adventure at all.” He smiles, makes himself comfortable sitting on a rock, folds his hands in his lap, “Maybe, maybe not. But it has been interesting traveling with you in either case.” I just smile in response and look in the direction we came from. I begin to pace, having expected Ronin to arrive at least a couple of minutes ago.

“He should be here by now….something’s wrong.” I say to Martume. “I’ll wait here.” He responds immediately. I feel like a fool. Here we were just playing around, goofing off and something happened. I feel like I’ve been derelict in my duties to see us back to the garrison safely. The last thought makes me speed up a little more, back to Ronin’s location. As I get close I hear roaring and the sounds of swords striking something. Ronin is locked in battle with a great black bear. He is still on his feet and the bear is gravely wounded, but for that matter so is Ronin. I want to intervene and kill the beast, but I won’t taint Ro’s honor and kill. I watch as the bear takes a mighty swipe that Ro deftly dodges, as the bear’s weight is thrown in the direction of the swing Ronin slips to the opposite side and slices through the bears midsection. The bear roars in agony and falls to it’s side in defeat, still growling and panting. I hear Ronin say something in his own tongue quietly to the bear before piercing its heart and giving it mercy.

“Sorry, I left you.” My voice seems loud in the sudden quiet of the forest. Ronin is startled from his reverie and solemnly nods. I realize his hand is on his side and there is blood there. I pull some healing potions from my inner pockets. “Take these, we still have a long way to travel. Can’t have you bleeding out.” I can tell he wants to argue but sees the logic in my remarks. He takes both potions and his wounds close. “Can you field dress him while I make a sled?” At this Ro looks quizzically at me. “We’ll make it to the garrison tonight probably and bear meat will go a long way. Would be a shame to leave your kill laying out here for the wolves.” My friend smiles broadly at this, I think he likes the idea of giving something back…or maybe just showing off his kill; maybe a little of both.

We both make short work of our tasks and start through the forest back towards Martume. “I was getting concerned,” he starts to say before he spots the sled, “oh, a bear!” Ronin explains that he was following us pretty well…at least our tracks, when the bear came at him. “He was a good fight, he died well.” Ronin says at the end of his tale.

Because of the extra time dealing with the beast and pulling a sled we don’t make it to the Garrison this night. I’m a little more tense during my watch, worried that more wolves will investigate us, especially with this recent kill, but we are not bothered. The following day (after bear steak breakfast) we finally reach the northern road to the garrison. I’ll be sleeping in a bed tonight.

View
Finding Tedar
Beyond borders

“She has bred.” Martume announces ominously.

Ro and I are stunned, both from his implications and from the fact we just trip attacked and dragged a regenerating Ice Colossus into a campfire. [In the world of Ratik, all things huge are called Colossus. So an Ice Colossus is an Ice Troll in the monster manual.]

“And by she…you mean…” I stammer out.

“The dragon of course.” Martume replies flatly.

“Yeah, I was hoping maybe I had misunderstood something there.” I say as I kick another log into the fire, checking it to make sure the creature is staying dead. “So what’s our plan now?”

“We need to find a dwarf,” Martume is looking into the darkness, “we should start out tonight.”

It’s dark, but a clear night for a change. Between the moonlight and snow we could travel for several miles before needing to rest. With my darkvision I can see fine. I notice Martume’s tone and expression are as neutral as ever. Ronin and I get our snow walkers [snow shoes] and start in the direction Martume motioned, east. After awhile the clouds begin to close in and we rope up in the darkness with me in the lead. It’s the right decision, shortly after we start running again I break through the trees to find an open clearing with bones sticking ominously out of the snow here and there. I stop immediately and signal my fellow travelers by snapping my fingers quietly. We light my lantern and see that there are brambles placed in a way as to make avoiding the clearing difficult. Clearly something wants us to come this way.

“Ro, will you hand me one of those roasts?” It seems a shame to waste food, but in this case I think it’s prudent. I hook the boar roast with my grappling hook. I swear I see a mixture of interest (from the idea) and disappointment (loss of the roast) cross Martume’s face. I can see, even in the low light of the lantern, that there is a strange snow covered shape in the center of this glade. A couple of swings around with the hook and I let it fly, keeping hold of the rope end……my aim is true and it hits dead center [ excellent agility roll! ] into the shape with a muffled whump, powdered snow puffs into the air from the impact.

Before the snowflakes start to drift back down, the ground erupts as a 3’ tall furry white spider emerges. It’s eyes are huge and an unnerving shade of pink, it’s fangs dripping with venom. Without a thought my bow is in hand with an arrow drawn. [ As badly as I roll to hit, my initiative rolls are always great ] I sink 2 in it quickly, hoping to drop it before the spider can cover the distance to where we are standing. I hear the metallic ting of Ro’s blades leaving their sheaths. Martume is just standing still. One of my arrows hits the joint between body and leg and my spirits are briefly lifted that his movements towards us will be limited. Before I can celebrate too much it cries out an unholy screeching noise that causes me to flinch and shudder.

At it’s call of distress the spider’s mate pops up from the ground a mere handful of feet away from us. It charges. I have been caught off guard and the single arrow I release flies wide. Ronin steps quickly between me and the second spider and lets loose with his swords. The light from the lantern only splashes briefly off the surface of his blades, they move so quickly. Before she has an opportunity to strike she is cut apart. I take the opportunity to drop two more arrows into the first spider killing him where he stands.

“How interesting.” I hear from behind me. I turn to see Martume covered with webbing…stuck in place. How…what….When did that happen? I feel like imitating my mother saying ‘I can’t turn my back on you for a minute’, but it seems rather inappropriate to say that to The Royal Observer. No matter how much he deserves hearing it.
“How do you suggest we get you unstuck?” I ask Martume in the most neutral tone I can muster. “We could try fire…..” I suggest with only a slight bit of humor in my voice. I hear Ro, behind me, disguise his laugh under a fit of coughing.

“Do you have any wine?” Is Martume’s answer. He knows I do, I am a Kodel after all. I raise the lantern up so I can get a good look at him stuck to the tree behind him. I can’t even figure out when the spider had an opportunity to do this, much less the aim. “Maybeeee……” is my answer.

“Well, stop dawdling and pour it over the webbing then” Martume orders me. I get my wine skin out. My newly filled wineskin I might add, and glumly pour splashes over the sticky mess. Sure enough the webbing starts to dissolve like snow in the rain.

“How did you know this would work?” I ask Martume as he starts to move around and wiggle free. Despite my rationing it is obvious it will take the entire amount to free him completely…damn.

“I wouldn’t be much of a Royal Observer if I didn’t know my way around a snow spider and how to get out of its web” he answers matter of factly. As though getting webbed by a giant furry spider is nothing of importance. “We should investigate it’s lair.” He nods towards Ronin. I decide to take the rear and guard against any others. They go into the second trapdoor hole and yell up for me to join them. They have discovered the nest where the female had laid her eggs. There are more than 2 dozen…holy crap. Just seeing them awaiting hatching in the dim light of the lantern makes my skin crawl. Like being underground in a spider den doesn’t do that enough. I take out the remaining 2 flasks of oil I’m carrying and start sprinkling it around as evenly as possible. I light a dried out piece of moss that’s tucked in around the eggs with the lantern and ignite the works in flame. I’m thankful that there is only the sound of crackling eggsacks and no screeching. Soon the smoke starts to fill the small cavern we’re in and we must move on to the other area where the first spider popped out of the ground.

It’s here we find the desiccated body of something stuck to the wall. After cutting it loose we discover a dead goblin. No pity there. Ronin finds a ring on it though, he and Martume confer over whether or not it is Magic…or as most citizens of Ratik call it…’Beguiled’. I just keep watch, I don’t like being underground. More and more as the smoke starts filling in the space I’m wanting to move on. Finally the other two agree that there’s nothing else to see here. [ I didn’t get this ring. In fact, I don’t know who ended up with it. It just seemed out of character for Lilykai to scramble for loot. Now later…..]

We cross the rest of the clearing and continue through the forest another slow quarter of a mile, roped up so no one gets lost in the dark. Finally Martume declares that it is time to camp for the night. We set up the tents, make a small fire and have a quick dinner. I take the time to update my ranger map with these new sites. Well, actually…since we’re outside of Ratik’s borders I’m making these notes on the back side of my map. But if, for whatever reason, I find myself in this part of the land again, I’ll at least have a clue of what’s here. As I’m finishing up my changes I realize I’m getting increasingly sleepy….unusually so. There is beautiful music in the breeze. Suddenly I snap out of my haze. [ Charm save!!! ]

I look up and see that Martume is fast asleep and The Ronin is walking into the forest with a dazed expression. Immediately I nock an arrow and follow stealthily a few feet behind him. After 10 minutes I can tell by the thinning of the trees that we are nearing a small clearing. As he gets closer I notice that Ro has a goofy grin plastered on his face, it looks odd seeing him with that smile. If I didn’t already know he was beguiled I would surely suspect something is wrong. Two shadowy forms descend into the clearing as he gets closer. They are disgusting, vile abominations that are seemingly part vulture and part human, woman to be precise. Except these are more like hags with craggy faces, deeply lined with wrinkles and sharp angled chins and noses. Their faces look hungrily at Ro as he approaches and the one who isn’t actually singing chuckles darkly as he nears. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for me) they are so consumed with Ro’s approach they don’t notice me at all.[ I get a surprise round ] I release my arrow which flies true and pierces the one singing in the chest. Her melody transforms into a screech of pain and Ro is immediately released from her spell and has his swords in hand in a flash. Seeing that one already carries one of my arrows in her breast he pounces on the sister and starts slashing, narrowly dodging her clawed fingers. I am able to fire two more arrows into mine, her face contorted in pain and fury as she falls. As I turn to the other I watch just as The Ronin delivers her death.

[ My GM has made creatures and monsters like this rare in Ratik, so Lily doesn’t know of Harpies. She might have been taught about them in the Ranger Academy, but she’s never faced any down. In a way, not using the common names for these monsters: “You see two Harpies” helps me not to metagame what they are and how to kill them…..I just accept things as they come and hope for the best ]

Today we have fought an Ice Collosus, giant white snowy spiders, and two bird ladies. We look at each other wearily, there is no need to exchange words as we return to camp. “First watch” I say as we get to the fire, still burning. He nods and falls into bed. It seems no time at all has passed before it is his turn. I notice he has pieces of cloth in his ears when he takes over. I smile and give him a thumbs up (since he can’t hear me anyway) before falling deep asleep.

The next morning I awaken to the smell of roasting chicken. At the fire I see 3 cornish hens cooking over the fire. Ro is by the fire and catches my puzzled expression, “Robe” he says with a head nod towards Martume, who is currently looking off into the forest. I raise one eyebrow and he just shrugs. I can’t help but wonder if they came out of the robe already plucked and ready or alive and kicking. I realize I really don’t want to know, I’m too hungry.

Martume is in a happy mood, full of smiles. “Do you know how far we have to go today?” I ask. “No, not yet,” he answers in a nonchalant tone. As I tear into my portion of breakfast I ponder the fact that we’re a good ways beyond Ratik’s border, far into enemy/horde territories… where there is no chance of help arriving if we get in over our heads. Add to this the fact that The Royal Observer doesn’t have any idea how long it will take us to get where we’re going; which means we are just a little this side of lost; we’re pretty much sitting on a recipe for disaster. But, for whatever reason, instead of worried or despondent I find that I’m more energized…..I’m actually a little excited. This exploration is something no one that I know has ever done before, or seen before, or that any of us trained for either. I begin to wonder about what my Ranger Cadet friends Tulas, Wheir, and Cass are up to. They too are on their first runs. I only know Wheir is south, I don’t know where the other two were sent. I can’t wait to exchange stories with them when we meet back in Marner. Thinking of my friends has put an unexpected smile on my face and I look up in time to see Martume catch it and glance away as he removes something unusual from his robe.

In his hand rests a long brass cylinder. It extends from his palm to the end of his index finger. He holds his hand flat and taps the cylinder a couple of times. I watch in awe as thin, almost transparent wings unfold from the sides, the cylinder begins to taper and tiny little brass legs pop out from underneath. Then the ‘front’ of it evolves into a small round head and the brass dragonfly he’s now holding hops and flutters around him. “Pack your things, it’s time to go” Martume tells us as he stares at the dragonfly. Quickly, Ro and I pack up camp and stamp out the fire. I take an extra few minutes to cover our trail and camp. Martume nods at my work and then strokes the little brass bug while whispering something I can’t quite make out.

The dragonfly is airborne and we are following it. It doesn’t travel exceptionally fast and I find that when I try to determine our path we go from East for awhile to North, then back West and South. We are literally running around in circles……or so it seems. After hours of this random pattern we are standing before a large boulder where the dragonfly sits down. Beyond it is a wall of impassable old growth forest. It’s like a solid wall of tree trunk, limbs, and undergrowth. “This is where you wait.” Martume says over his shoulder and takes a few steps towards the undergrowth. I watch intently as he veritably disappears in front of me. I blink a few times to make sure my vision is clear, shrug and look at Ro. “This is where we wait.” I repeat. Ever the stoic one, he just takes a seat in the snow.

It has to be only a few minutes before I hear a rustling in the undergrowth again. As if appearing from thin air; Martume, a man dressed in bark and animal skins, and a giant grizzly bear emerge from the trees. I leap to my feet and draw my sword, never taking my eyes from the bear. The bear, in turn, howls at the unknown man and both he and Martume yell at me to strand down. “Sir, that is a grizzly bear and I happen to know first hand what they can do.” It takes all of my control to keep a tremor from my voice.

“Sergeant,” Martume speaks low to me, “put away your sword.” My eyes dart between him and the bear. The unknown man says something to the bear who then sits back on his haunches, crosses his arms over his chest and…..I swear…looks at me as if to say, “your turn.” I blink a couple of times slowly just to make sure I’m really seeing what I’m seeing and then cautiously sheath my sword. Martume nods approvingly at me, “Very well, I would like to introduce you both to Keiko and Garnet.” He gestures to the two behind him. I cannot tell which one is Keiko and which is Garnet, the names could go either way. My brow furrows as I wait for a bit of clarification that never comes.

[ OK, full disclosure here. I wrote the names in my notes and didn’t determine which was which. I think it’s actually funnier this way instead of asking for the answer. ]

“This way,” the man starts to speak and walk ahead past both Ro and me, “you are looking for Tedar the dwarf.” As he walks on, the bear begins to move behind us. I keep pace with the man, away from the bear. Martume is on his other side with Ronin to his left. I keep my hand on my hilt and continually monitor the bear. Unconciously, my free hand brushes across the chest of my coat, a movement that the man notices but says nothing about.

After an hour or so of traveling at a brisk pace through the forest the man stops and points off into the trees. “You want to continue east,” he indicates. “Go straight until you hit the hills. He’s trying to make a go with a small mine and cottage. But a hobgoblin tribe…Tribe of the Severed Head have decided to make their home there too.” He glances back at us, “but at least there aren’t any humans in the forest.” I open my mouth to protest, something about his rudeness…or the fact that HE is in fact HUMAN.…and living in the forest, but I feel the slight pressure of Martume’s hand on my shoulder and stow it for now. Man and bear leave us to our own devices; blending back into the forest from the direction we came, and we continue east in silence.

It’s a couple of hours before sunset when we break out of the trees and are faced with bleak, barren plains. There are 2 skulls on posts, like a gateway. I move out into the open…close to them to study. I turn back towards Ronin and Martume, “Human.” I announce grimly. Martume frowns and looks towards the west and the setting sun. “We should go back to the forest for the night.” He starts walking back the way we came. This makes me a bit anxious. For one thing, he didn’t seem this on edge when we were near a dragon.

We find a nice clearing, I scout around and make a plan for a defendable position if we find ourselves fighting off a pack tonight. Returning to the clearing I watch as Martume searches through his robes for something. “Aha!” He pronounces as he brings out a small white cube that fits in the palm of his hand. He looks at me with a pleased look on his face, bends down, and rolls the cube onto the ground. Once it comes to rest a few feet away it springs to life on it’s own accord and becomes a very large (8’ tall in the center) tent. “Would you like to join me for dinner?” Martume says as he enters. Ro and I exchange a look and tentatively follow him.

The tent is completely furnished, and warm. There is a burning brazier in the corner. There is a table with cooked food in the middle, and a chair, and a bed, and a screened off area. There are a lot more things in this tent than should fit. Thanks to my father, I have been taught the ways of magic and enchanted items. So I am not quite as superstitious about magical things as my fellow citizens. This tent, however, does push my boundaries of comfortable normal. I join Martume and Ronin at the table. Tentatively, I poke at my meal; what appears to be lamb stew, with plenty of vegetables..and there’s fresh bread and butter too… I feign blowing on a spoonful as I watch Ro eat several bites. He doesn’t fall over dead or pass out (or cluck like chicken) so I take a small bite. It tastes great, and warms my stomach as I finish not one but two bowls. Martume has been studying his map, and I believe studying us as well, during dinner. “Well, I’m ready to rest now. If you two wouldn’t mind leaving me to it.” He unceremoniously shows us the…door,..flap,…exit, whatever.

“At least he fed us.” I say to Ronin as we find ourselves standing in the snow outside. He nods and starts to set up his own tent. I decide, in light of the snowfall, to use my half shelter tonight. It’s a cold night, I take first watch and have no issues. Ro finishes the watch and also sees nothing.

I am awakened to the smell of bacon and something sweet. I don’t see anyone in the camp and the fire has burned low. Inside the tall tent I hear voices. There’s nowhere to knock and I find I don’t quite know what to do so I fall back on my military/ranger training. “Permission to enter, Sir.” I bark out. Much more loudly than I anticipated. The flap opens suddenly with a sharp “Shhhhh” and a frowning Royal Observer who is waving me inside. I apologize sheepishly as I enter the tent. This time the table is covered with all manner of breakfast goodies. My embarrassment is discarded as I attack my meal with gusto. There are pancakes with real maple syrup, something I’ve only had a handful of times, sausages and bacon, eggs and biscuits. I pile it all on my plate and refill my food pocket with sausage/pancake rolls. We’re ready to move on.

Once outside Martume snaps his fingers and the tent disappears, leaving only the plain white cube laying on the ground. Ronin and I scurry to take down ours and put away our bedrolls as Martume looks on patiently. “Back the way we went yesterday?” I ask and am given the affirmative. We depart the forest again, me in the point position, Martume and then Ronin bringing up the rear. Knowing we are in hobgoblin territory, I’m on full alert.

We pass through the “gates” of the plains we found yesterday. Almost immediately I find hobgoblin tracks in the snow all around. They are traveling back and forth; here and there, all over the hills. I have an arrow nocked as we creep along the base of a rise. I’m on high alert, moving cautiously and listening intently for a blind attack. As we round the next hill a little further in I can smell, before we see, smoke in the distance. As we creep closer we realize the smoke is coming from an area about a quarter mile away from of us. We stick to the trail, and I notice the tracks are getting fresher and fresher; then we are only two rises away from the smoke. From here I can barely make out snarls and shouts from the distance. Stopping, I turn to Martume and Ro and indicate that we need to leave the path and go up the nearest hillock to get a better view. They nod and follow my lead.

As we crest the top of the butte we have a good view of the battle….or siege more like it…happening below us. The trail we’ve been following dead ends at the gate of a small cottage that is built into the side of a hill. Being familiar with Hausen Hold, I recognize the construction of a 12’ stone Dwarven door. It is a good thing the door so well made, as it is currently keeping about a dozen hobgoblins at bay.

View
Beyond the Borders
Hoth strategy

I rise before dawn and grab a quick breakfast before going to the meeting point at the front gate. As hoped, I am the first to arrive. The air is crisp and the clouds high, it looks like the snowfall will be later in the day today if at all. Of course we are heading on a northwest route that will be taking us into the Griff Mountain Range (and out of Ratik’s borders) so regardless of the weather here, I imagine we will be seeing more aggressive conditions.

As I look back towards the garrison I see Martume approaching with a rather off looking character. He is tall, and human, but his armor and weapons are not of Ratik. The layered metal plating and twin thin swords on his back are somehow familiar even though I’m sure we’ve never met before. When he nears and I can see his face I realize that I have read about his country and culture before. My traveling companion is from The Scarlet Brotherhood. When he stops he slightly bows to me (I return the gesture). Then he begins speaking. His dialect is both rapid and clipped and I struggle initially to understand his greeting. I believe he has introduced himself as either named Ronin or his designation/title is that. I can’t quite tell and as I’ve said ‘I beg your pardon’ one too many times already; I just nod and hold out my hand as I respond, “Lilykai Kodel…Ranger.”

“Well, now that introductions are out of the way, we should begin,” Martume exclaims as he claps his hands together and smiles broadly. It’s at that moment that chicken makes a rather noisy appearance coming from the gate. The phrase ‘mad as a wet hen’ comes to mind as I see Chicken approach Martume. He goes to her, him, it…and I can only catch snippets of the conversation. If that’s what you call what I’m watching between an old man and a chicken. I try to eavesdrop, “….no, you have to stay…..[low bocking]…I know what I said……You need to stay and protect the garrison.” I hear a loud ruffling of feathers and a huff and chicken is marching back towards the gate. This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.

“Ranger, if you could lead the way?” I nod and begin jogging in the direction we’ve already noted on our maps.

In spite of it’s odd construction “Ronin’s” armor is remarkably quiet. There is a faint clicking/occasional clacking noise, but it is not nearly as noisy as I would have thought it would be upon first glance. I am wearing my snow walkers on my boots so the deep snow is not slowing my progress. But I can hear Ronin breathing heavier in his effort to keep stride. I angle our path towards the nearest copse of trees and pick up a little speed. I arrive slightly ahead of the other two and am using my hatchet to cut small green branches as they approach. “Help you out a little in the snow,” I mutter to Ronin as he stops under the tree, catching his breath. I nod to the snow walkers I’m wearing. I glance at Martume and notice that he’s not sinking into the deep snow like he should. I make a mental note of that along with the fact that he’s wearing exactly what I last saw him in and doesn’t seem to be cold in the least. Interesting.

“What about you Martume? Need a pair?” I ask, purely out of curiosity, as I’m fashioning the first one. “No, I think I’ll be fine.” He answers mildly as he watches me like a hawk. I think Martume puts the ‘Observer’ in Royal Observer. I look down and focus on what I’m doing in order to hide my smile. For whatever reason I find Martume more interesting and entertaining than intimidating. Before I start the second one The Ronin (I still haven’t decided how to address him) asks me how to make them. I show him how to hold the green branches together and bind them with the rope pieces, how to weave the smaller pieces into a “net” of rope and branch, strong enough to withstand holding his weight while running. It takes a little longer since I’m explaining to him how to construct it; but I notice Martume, who at first seemed to be in a hurry, patiently waiting and watching our interaction. I strap on my own and stand ready to depart once more a few minutes later. “Well,” I say while looking into the distance, “whatever time we lost making those we’ll make up pretty quickly this afternoon. It looks like we’re in for even deeper snow drifts in the direction we’re moving.” And without another word I start running.

I wasn’t sure how our progress would be; an old man in a bathrobe and a stranger from a strange land are untested traveling companions for a Ranger. Having anybody travel with a Ranger is unusual, we’re loners by trade and sometimes by choice. I am surprised to find I don’t mind traveling companions. I always looked forward to going on my run solo….having only myself to depend on….but the solitude does get….lonely. So for now, as long as they’re not slowing us down, I’m rather happy for the company.

A couple of hours later I get my bow ready and pull away from the others a little. Sure enough, once I am a bit separated from the group I am able to spot a couple of fat hares on a berm just beyond the hill I’m cresting. Before they have a chance to move I’ve let loose a pair of arrows and the hares are mine. I wave to Martume and the Ronin to continue in the direction we were moving while I retrieve them. As I’m gutting and cleaning the rabbits on the hill, packing them in a waterproof bag with snow so they’ll keep for dinner, I notice some odd tracks and a lone feather in the snow several feet away from me. [perception roll 9, that’s with bonuses] The area we are traveling in is rather uncharted. There aren’t any farmsteads or population of any kind out this way which means there isn’t a need for any regular patrols and I would guess no Ranger has ever ventured this far either. So the wildlife is probably very…wild. I decide it is best if I stay near my charges and not let them venture too far without me. I hurry to follow their tracks and catch up.

The afternoon light is waning, I start looking for a nice clearing for us to spend the night. My normal habit it to find a stand of trees with one large enough for me to climb into and sleep at least 10’ off the ground. My worst nightmare is to awaken from a sound slumber by being mauled by something. Teeth and claws sinking into my skin is not a good way to start the day. However, thinking about those two climbing up into a tree is so absurd I have to work to stifle laughter. After another hour of travel I spot a nice area off to the east of where we are heading and start to angle there. When I stop I notice Martume inspecting my choice. It must pass muster because he simply nods once and sits off to the side in the snow, legs crossed.

“Can you get us some firewood?” I ask Ronin while handing him my hatchet. He nods, drops his gear unceremoniously where he was standing and walks off into the forest. He is obviously used to sleeping out so I hold back from telling him exactly what kind of wood to get. I drop my pack in the tree well closest to me, retrieve the bag with the hares and begin to skin and prepare them for a stew. I have some potatoes and carrots in my bag to go with it. Ronin returns with a nice stack of wood rather quickly and gets a fire started as I finish my preparations. I notice that Martume hasn’t moved in this whole time and has his eyes closed. Somehow I doubt he’s sleeping.

Dinner is warm and filling, our tents are set up near the bases of the trees, I only travel with a half shelter and I set that up for Martume who isn’t carrying a thing. I rarely use it (tree!) so it’s not a big deal for me to go without cover. I’ll just curl up at the base under the low bows and be quite comfortable. A good, deep, tree well is better than a tent any day to me. The Ronin and I decide to split watch duties, each taking 6 hour shifts. I take first watch and the night goes easy. I awaken Ro to take over, and crawl into my bed, falling asleep before my head comes to rest on the ground. The next morning I awaken to the smell of bacon and eggs. I crawl out to face the bright and shiny face of Martume grinning cheerfully. I look at the two pans going over the fire and then at Ro, who catches my eye, looks at the food on the fire and shrugs at me. My mother taught me to never look a gift horse in the mouth, and I think this is very fine advice. “Wow, smells great. Thanks for making breakfast, sir.” Maritime just smiles wider, stirs the eggs and flips a little bit of shell out of them into the fire. Oh goody….crunchy eggs and burned bacon.

We’re moving steadily through snow drifts when I start to get a bad feeling. The forest doesn’t feel right to me [17, successful insight roll!]. I realize I haven’t seen any movement or heard the chatter of any birds, squirrels or any creatures at all…small or large. The wrongness persists and I find myself unconsciously reaching for my bow and slowing my pace slightly. All my senses are on alert. Seemingly from nowhere a huge creature lunges in my direction. From behind me I hear swords slide from their sheaths as know that Ro sees it too. Before I can even think about it I’ve lodged 2 arrows in it’s midsection, not slowing the beast one bit. It is huge, at least 8 feet tall, has a furry body (he stands upright) and a bird head. Or to be more specific an owl head. It continues its charge at me and wildly swings one of it’s huge clawed paws, barely raking my shoulder as I dodge out of it’s way at the last minute. It is exceptionally fast and agile for a creature of its size. I barely dodge it’s second swing and by that time it has spotted Ro, standing solid with his swords, and charges at him with it’s beak.

Ro stands his ground until the very last second when he spins away to his right (away from my line of fire) and slashes at the creatures leg. He makes good contact and it lets out a screech and staggers as it’s weight becomes too much for that leg to hold completely. It recovers it’s balance enough to spin and face Ro again, ready to strike with it’s claws. Unknowingly, however, it has made a fatal error and placed itself between my bow and his swords. I quickly drive 2 more arrows into it, this time deep into it’s neck. As is flinches from their impact Ro is able to slip his blades deep into it’s abdomen and release it’s steaming entrails onto the snow. It collapses in a heap, dead.

Martume pops out of nowhere grinning madly. “That was very well done! Wow, that’s a big one!”

“A big one what?!” I say incredulously. I look at the Ronin who has the same disbelieving expression on his face as I do. I ask him, “Have you seen one of these things before in your land?” He shakes his head slowly back and forth while muttering something in his native tongue.

I turn to Martume and repeat myself, “A big one what?” And I gesture furiously at the heap of dead thing laying before me. “Well, that of course. Come on, we better get moving. They usually travel in pairs. Mates.” And then he starts jogging in the direction we were heading before this interruption, leaving Ro and I just staring at each other with our mouths open. I throw my arms out to the side in an exaggerated gesture of exasperation and start following him. I run with an arrow nocked for at least an hour before starting to relax. Just as I do there is a grunting and rustling in some undergrowth to my right. I spin towards the noise and let loose my arrow, hitting whatever it is. It then screams and bursts out of the bushes, only to be met with my second arrow. The wild boar falls dead, sliding near where I’m standing with an arrow lodged deep in its head, through it’s eye [20!!]

As I’m field dressing the boar I have The Ronin keep guard. We have traveled many miles since the crazy animal bird creature, but I’m not willing to take any chances on another coming along while I’m busily carving up this pig. After I’ve cut apart and packed away the best portions of the meat for Ro and I to carry we go further towards our mystery destination. According to Maritime we will be arriving near the site late this afternoon, right before dark.

We start up the base of the Griff Mountains, in less than an hour the terrain has increased to a 20% grade, but we remain in forestland. Right before the end of the day we come across an unnatural tree line. It is apparent that there was a major catastrophe here. To the North and South of where we stand (facing west, into the mountains) we can see where the natural tree line is. In front of us, however, is complete devastation and chaos. There is no centralized point of the disaster, no direction of debris to establish where the devastation began and ended. It’s simply absolute bedlam. Trees look as though they were ripped from the ground and tossed aside, root ball and all, some tree trunks appear to have been simply exploded, other large swaths are burned to cinders. This was an old forest, many of the trees were as big as 6 to 8’ across, they would have been around 100 feet tall. Yet they looked tossed about and burned like tall grass in a meadow.

I open my mouth to ask Martume what we are witnessing when he cut’s me off with “Shhhh, dragon country.” I freeze and I see Ronin visibly pale. No one I know in Ratik has personally experienced a dragon attack, there hasn’t been one recorded in over 75 years. But we’ve all heard tales of the death and havoc they bring. This forest debris is proof that the stories are true.

It is the end of the day so we pull back, away for the scene of destruction. As we camp both Ro and I are on edge. We cook up a roast from that boar, so at least we eat well tonight. The smoke from the fire and the smell from the food put me more on alert rather than less. To me, it’s like a beacon saying ‘Come get us!’. Clearly, the tree fall area has me nervous. We each take a long watch this night, but nothing untoward happens. [this was before the transfer to 5e, it wasn’t out yet, so there was no Alarm spell at the time…you just kept watch and hoped they didn’t have stealth]

The next morning Martume is up and ready to go early. He seems all business today, definitely a change of temperament. “Take me to the edge of the tree line to the North of here, then wait.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “What do you mean just wait? Just hang out in the trees and hope you come back? I’m supposed to help protect you, right? I mean…HE’s your guard, right? This just doesn’t seem….safe.”

“I will be fine, but I need to go in alone. For your protection.”

That just sounds ominous to me. I’m not sure who I should worry about more. “What should we do if you don’t come back?” I’m starting to raise my voice.

“If I don’t return in two days you should go back to the Garrison and let them know I’m gone.” He responds mildly.

I think to myself ‘I will never show back up there empty handed, you better come back, or I’m going in there after you’; but I nod to him as if I’m taking orders. He starts away from us and Ro and I head back towards the camp. Neither one of us has much to say, we’re both very much uncomfortable leaving Martume to go in alone. I scan the horizon as we are moving and note a Glacier that runs between the mountains. It must be unnaturally cold there to hold such a solid chunk of ice so massive. I dismiss it as nothing more than The North. It is a mistake I won’t make again.

As dusk approaches Ronin and I stoke up the fire even hotter than before. We’ve kept it going all day but as the night approaches the cold is starting to come on strong. We take turns keeping watch for Martume (and dragons!) and gathering wood for our stockpile. Dinner will need to be cooked soon so we’ve started preparing the fire for pots and pans. Ronin and I haven’t said much all day, it’s been a companionable silence between us punctuated by an occasional suggestion or quip. I think both of us are just on edge knowing what lies beneath the mountain before us.

Our silence serves us well. In the midst of the cracking of the fire we hear a completely different cracking noise, louder and deeper. Both of us turn to face the darkening forest, our hands on hilts and bow when out of the trees a colossus made of Ice and Frost emerges. It’s long blue arms swing out before it. It’s fingers shaped like the deadliest of ice sickles, honed to a sharp pointed claw. It’s preternatural howl sounds like something between an ice floe smashing into rocks and the howl of a Nor’easter wind.

We stand stock still in shock for a brief moment before I break to the left and try to put two arrows into the creature, they glance off. The beast seemingly unharmed. Ronin swiftly draws his blades as he charges, the metal ringing off of the ice; barely biting into it. He rolls away just as the creature slashes at him, a glancing blow that digs into Ronin’s armor but does little damage. In that moment we both know we’re in trouble.

Locking eyes we turn and run through the forest dodging between trees to slow the colossus down so that we can swing back for slash and dash attacks. We are barely harming it while I’ve taken a deep slashing wound to my side. I’ve discarded my bow as useless, the arrows completely ineffective against the ice monster. Our swords are barely better and we find ourselves being hounded further and further away from our camp.

I get an idea and pull a flask of oil from my pocket. Tossing it to Ro I yell, “Follow me! I have a plan.” In truth I haven’t much of a plan other than Ratik’s favored saying when dealing with the abhorrent, ‘Fire Cleanses All’. I race past the monster, making sure he sees me and follows. Ronin and I are much faster than it is through the trees and we have outpaced it quickly back to camp. “Throw that when you think is right” I yell to Ro as I stop and pull out my grappling hook. I hold the rope loosely in one hand while I ready the hook in the other. The creature bursts through the trees hot on our train and I have seconds to throw the hook around its leg. My throw is true (19!) and the hook swings around both legs, entangling him in the rope, which I then pull tight, locking everything into place. The colossus stutter steps before it’s forward momentum begins pulling it down like a mighty cedar. Ronin jumps from cover and breaks the flask all over the torso of it, before joining me at the rope. Before it has fully landed we are pulling with all out might towards the campfire. We drag the creature into the heart of it, the oil and wood cracking and popping from the ice and fire. Quickly we throw more and more wood onto the flames until the creature thrashes no more. We keep the fire high and an alert vigil awaiting more attacks but the only thing to emerge from the woods is Martume, looking grave.

In spite of the roaring bonfire beside me, his next words chill me to the core.
“She Has Bred.”

[Player note: Yes, I was inspired by the Rebel stand on the Ice Planet Hoth. What can I say….it works for AtAt’s and Ice Trolls!]

View
Sgt. Lily
A Day Off

“Ranger Lilykai Kodel, effective immediately you have earned the rank of Sergeant. Congratulations. Additionally, you have been given a special assignment. Let me introduce you to The Royal Observer”

They all salute, except The Royal Observer, who simply nods and finishes his banana. I return the salute to the Commander and Sergeant, accepting my new stripes. I have a sneaking suspicion this has something to do with thwarting an assassination attempt on Baron Mordecai.

Before I lower my arm from my salute Tamikos stares hard at me. For a moment I think I did it wrong, when she says fiercely, “Where did you get that bandana?” She spied it peeking out from my coat sleeve I suppose.

“Ummm” I frown and stall for a moment trying to decide how much to disclose. “It was a gift.”

Martume’ approaches as Tamikos continues, “The last time I saw a bandana just like this it belonged to a farmer who’d been killed near here. I saw to the family’s burial.” Martume’ has taken my arm and is pulling up the sleeve to look more closely at the bandana. I get a feeling he knows something but says nothing.

I look at her, “Your deserters did it?”

She nods, “Shortly after we noticed they were gone we saw smoke from the nearby farm. The whole family had been murdered. We tried to follow their tracks but it had snowed over them. How did you come to get this in your possession?” She narrows her eyes at me.

“She brought their bodies in” Sgt. Peka interjects, nodding in my direction.

Martume’, who is still studying the bandana says, without looking up, “You didn’t kill them did you?” I shake my head. “Did the Vengeful Walker see you?” I nod. “Ahhhh, he had an aura of revenge against evil that has been transferred into this token. He left you this as a gift after completing his mission. It will protect you from true evil.” He looks up at me as he releases my arm, “Did you try to stop him?” I shake my head no again. Earlier his tone was jovial, and blasé. Now his voice drops low, with a foreboding quality, “That’s good, trying to stop him would have been…….unwise.”

Tamikos has been listening intently to the exchange, I can tell she has decided to let the subject rest, for the moment. But she’s still not too sure about me.

“Now, let me see your map!” his jovial tone is back again. I reach in my inner coat pocket and pull out my Ranger Map. It is standard issue with all known landmarks and homesteads of the north on it, all the places I’m supposed to check in. I spread it out as instructed on the Commander’s desk. He then pulls out an older version from somewhere in his robe and unrolls it on top of mine. His map is much different. Where mine shows the garrison, the farms I’ve seen and those to come in the east; his has the same garrison, fewer farms and a dwarven hold at the border of the Griff Mountain Range where mine has none. He nods at our maps and points to the hold. I think I know where I’m heading next…a lost dwarven hold! This is my kind of special assignment!

As I am rolling up my map, making a note where to add the lost hold on it, Commander Tamikos asks Sgt. Peka to show me to the barracks where I can stay tonight and the mess hall. Which sounds fantastic, I’m famished. As we are leaving I hear Martume’ ask Tamikos if she would like some hibiscus ginger-root lemon zest mushroom tea. I glance back to see the look on her face which is somewhere in between aghast and disgust. Guess she’s not a tea lover.

Sgt. Peka takes me by the barracks on our way to the mess hall so I can drop my gear off. I leave my pack, but keep sword, bow and quiver. Apparently that’s normal for Rangers as he doesn’t seem to register it as strange. Peka is nice and we make small talk, him pointing out the various tents of the tent city within the walls of the garrison. Two of them are the equivalent of Inns, except one is for men and the other for women, allowing for privacy I suppose, since there are no inner walls. There are also some merchant stalls that have closed up already. He drops me off at the Mess and bids me goodnight as he finishes his rounds, he’s on patrol tonight. Because the garrison is constantly busy the kitchen serves dinner late and I can get plenty to eat. They have the luxury of beef, pork and venison for dinner. I enjoy a hearty steak with potatoes and carrots. It’s been a long day with little to eat and I’m making up for it now. And lots of bread, I miss warm bread the most. No one sits with me although they sneak looks when they think I’m not paying attention. I overhear some men at another table talking about going to Rollo’s. Remembering Peka’s tour, I know that it was the largest, and loudest, tent in the yard….ahhhh, the bar. It’s late, my belly is full, and my legs are tired, so I’m off to the bed….no drinking for me tonight.

The next morning I sleep in a bit, at least for me. It’s just as well, the crush for breakfast in the Mess is over by the time I arrive. I am having a huge breakfast (eggs, bacon, potatoes, bread, ham…and lots of tea) when the second in command joins me. Captain Moonshadow, like myself, is a half-elf. He is also a priest, but not of St. Cuthbert, which is most common here in Ratik. It’s nice that this garrison has it’s own healer, there aren’t a lot of priests in service right now. I’ve heard that almost every regiment had an active priest/healer during the Horde Wars, but over the decades their numbers have decreased. The Captain has been in the service for awhile. He’s probably close to the Commander’s age, and by the sound of it has been assigned to Griff Mountain since before Tamakos was appointed here.

I remember the merchant’s jewelry I’ve got in my pack and bring it out to show the Captain and ask whether he had seen the man before. He does remember him, the merchant passed through quite awhile ago, long before winter set in. He had a shop in Marner, was a magical weapons dealer, but doesn’t remember his name. Moonshadow thought he might have been going to the Dwarven hold up in the mountains. We discuss what would have brought him out all this way but neither of us can determine anything conclusive. “He looked a little rough, like he’s been sleeping in the wild. His clothes were like he wasn’t prepared for the weather here.” We both think it’s unusual for a merchant, or anyone for that matter, to make it this far north and west without being properly prepared for conditions. I thank him for the information and ask him to note the merchant’s passing in their reports, as I will in mine, in case anyone comes looking for him.

Captain Moonshadow then proceeds to tell me about The Royal Observer. Apparently, this is a little known position in the realm except among commanders and those in charge of things. The position is, based on his description, second in command to the King. In fact, Martume’ is supposed to perform his duties outside all chains of command, including the King. The Captain describes him as one who works independently and above all others so he can see the “bigger picture” of threats to the realm. I say, “He looks like a crazy old man in a bathrobe to me.” Moonshadow smiles and replies, “Don’t let him fool you, there is a method to his madness.”

“I better go see when he wants to leave then, don’t want to seem lax in my duties.” I thank the Captain for his insight and bid him good morning. He tells me to find him before leaving the garrison, he has some healing potions for me, “You’ll need them.” he says ominously. I hope he’s just pulling my leg, but somehow I don’t think that’s the case.

I find the Royal Observer outside the walls of the garrison inspecting…….the grass. What little is peeking out from under the snow by the outer wall anyway. There is a chicken following him around. As I get near the chicken jumps onto his shoulder and seems to be talking….uh, bocking at him….and he seems to be talking back. Oh, boy. He turns to me “Ah, Sgt. Kodel. Good to see you this morning.”

“Good morning to you, sir, uhh Royal Obs-“
“No, no.” he interrupts. “No need to address me like that, just call me Martume.” he leans in and whispers to me conspiratorially, “it helps me keep my cover.”

I can’t help but think ‘your cover as a loon in a bathrobe?’ no problem. I wonder if my face betrays my thoughts as he chuckles quietly and says,

“and this is Chicken. He’s…well, he’s chicken.” The chicken on Martume’s shoulder stands up as tall as a regular sized chicken can and says “Bock, bock.”, with it’s little chest thrust out proudly. I think to myself…..’what was in that tea this morning.’

“Uh, nice to meet you Chicken….” the end of the sentence lilting up like a question. Like I’m wondering if this is what I was supposed to say. They both bob their heads in unison and Martume graces me with a very large smile, so yes, I think that was what I was supposed to say.

“Well, Martume, sir….when did you want to leave? I’m pretty much ready when you are, I just have to restock some gear and drop off my report.”

“You have all day to rest Sgt. We’re waiting on another person. There is a Royal Guard coming to join us as my…….guard. We’ll leave tomorrow in the morning. Just meet us at the front gate.”

“If you already have a guard, why do you need me?” I blurt it out before I can help myself. My curiosity, and lack of tact, has gotten me into plenty of trouble before. In fact, that might explain why I’m stuck out here in the North on my first run. I probably said something I shouldn’t have to someone important. I’ve still not puzzled it out yet, though.

Martume holds up his hand in a calming gesture and says, “You are my scout and my tracker. And you are the guard to my guard, and to me, and to chicken.” “Bock, bock,” chicken adds with certainty. And Maritime nods along with him…her…it. I need a drink.

“Ok, then. OK….I guess I’ll meet you out here? By the gate…tomorrow.”

“Yes, we’ll see you then.” Maritime suddenly speaks in a sage like quiet tone. There is clearly more to him than meets the eye.

I’ve not had a day off that was not due to the receiving of grave wounds in……months. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I take the time to go through all my gear; oil my weapons and clean them. Re-string my bow and go through my quiver, re-fletching arrows as needed. I clean my coat out, all the pockets (especially the food pocket, crumbs were accumulating), clean and condition the leather (I do this with my boots too, along with re-lacing them). Finally, with all my gear maintenance complete I have to do what I have been putting off to the last, sew. There are several tears from the wolves that need repair and some Sergeant stripes to attach. An hour and a thoroughly punctured thumb later I am finished and ready for a sorely (thumb!) deserved drink.

It’s mid-day by the time I’ve completed my maintenance so before hitting Rollo’s I go to the garrison stores to replenish my rations, arrows and other incidentals, which in my case is extra clothes and socks. I’m going through clothes much faster than I expected, between the torn fabric and blood there is really nothing worth repairing. All of my supplies are noted in a ledger that I sign so that the Ranger Corp can be billed. The taxpayers money at work….new socks for the Ranger! I feel a little guilty at the amount of gear I have to replace but the private doesn’t even flinch at the long list of items I’m signing for. Maybe this is normal? I also swing by to see the Captain in the main office and receive 5 (!) healing potions. He’s too busy to chat, but not to busy to ominously say ‘Good Luck’ while grinning mischievously.

Next, pack in tow, I hit the bar. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a drink, since Hausen Hold, which feels years away right about now. In fact, if he’s got some whiskey I’ll refill my flask! I step into the large tent, it’s about the size of a barracks tent. Along one end is a full wooden bar, and there are tables scattered around the open space. There are a few soldiers, not many at this time of day. They all stop their chatter to stare. I can’t quite tell if it’s because a) I’m a Ranger b) I’m a girl, or c) I’m half-elf. Their Captain is C so I’m leaning heavily towards a combination of A and B together. I take an empty stool at the bar.

The bartender is, as expected, friendly and jovial. “Hello Ranger! Welcome to Rollo’s! Care for a drink?” He has an infectious smile and I find myself matching his expression. “Yes please, do you have wine?” He claps his hands before rubbing them together. “Oh, yes, I have some of the finest wines in all of Ratik, only 3 coppers. I’ll get you a glass.” He brings a bottle up from under the bar and pours a glass, leaving the bottle nearby to attend to the beer keg at the end of the bar.

There are a few things of interest in this exchange. One, three coppers for wine is actually pretty expensive. In Marner you can get a really decent glass for a single copper and a bottle for 3. This doesn’t really matter to me as I just got paid and have nowhere to spend it. I think that’s the case with all the soldiers here and Rollo’s prices reflect that. Two, this is really shit wine. In fact, it’s less wine and more water. I reach over and turn the bottle to see the label and there isn’t one, not surprising. If he knew who he was serving this wine to he might not have been so bold to call it “fine”. [Backstory!] Third, and last, it’s notable that he’s charging me at all. According to my Uncle Eldiss…..a Ranger Captain and most well known Ranger in service, while wearing the coat a Ranger is lucky to ever pay for a drink (which explains a lot of things about my uncle). He says there aren’t a lot of taverns or Inns that will charge a ranger when they know we go into the wild alone every day to risk our lives for the realm. I guess Uncle has never been to Rollos.

I am shaken from my reverie when Rollo hollers from the end of the bar “Nobody take nothing, I’ve got to get another keg.” And then literally disappears behind the bar. Then a see the flap in the tent twitch. What the…..I look around at the other men in the tent who are going about their conversations like the bartender disappearing suddenly is no big deal. Then, out of nowhere, “You want another glass of wine?” As my back was turned he popped right back in front of me. “Whaaa, uh…” I slug the last dregs of my horrible wine. “You have any whiskey?” I ask.

“Alas, no. I can’t seem to get the stuff out so far North.” (I don’t think that’s exactly true.) “And the Captain seems to think that it’s best the men keep to wine and beer” (I think this might be true as his homemade whiskey would probably blind someone.) And that’s what I decided he serves, homemade beer and wine. “So…..another glass?” I nod and put 3 more coins on the bar. This finishes said bottle and actual dregs of something come out of it and settle at the bottom of my glass. My father, if he were dead, would turn in his grave. I school my face to neutral and take a sip…..hmmm. I never considered “gritty” as a description of a wine, I’ll have to add it to my repertoire.

“Rollo! Refill!” comes a loud call from one of the tables. The bartender hollers back that he’ll be right there and goes around the end of the bar. He suddenly drops about three and a half feet. Wait a minute, this guy’s a hafling! My curiosity peaked I stand up from my stool and lean over the bar to see behind it. Sure enough, all along the length of the back of the bar, there is a raised platform. So when he “disappeared” he actually had jumped down and under where I couldn’t see him. Clever.

I don’t finish my horrible wine. In fact, I pull my flask from Bergrat out and swish what little remains of the firewater in my mouth to get rid of the taste. Yes, it’s that bad. I shake my flask, determining how little is left and, wishing I had more to take on the trip, cork the lid back on and slide the flask back into my pocket.

On the way to return my gear to the barracks before dinner I peruse the merchant stalls; there is really not much to see that I can use, I have to keep my load as light as possible. Although running across a book would be nice, I can’t believe I left without one. It just never occurred to me I’d have time to read. But no luck. I do find a merchant with some coffee and tins of tea, I am able to purchase some more tea, I’ve gone through what Falwyn gave me pretty quickly. The merchant, unlike Rollo, does not want to charge me, but takes a couple of coppers at my insistence. He says the standard goodbye that still makes me uncomfortable as I do not yet feel worthy, “Thank You for Your Service!” in a loud voice. I nod and hurry towards my bunk.

I get an early dinner, enjoying the last time I’ll have beef for awhile….and bread. Then it’s early to bed in order to meet Martume (and chicken) early tomorrow morning.

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Intermission
Horde War and Mage background

Game notes update:

I didn’t want to ruin the flow of the last chapter so I thought I’d fill in these details in an intermission from our intrepid Ranger.

The Horde War. When my GM presented me with the description of Griff Mt. Garrison he included that little bit I mentioned about the Ratik Horde War. But I hadn’t been told the background story about the war yet. He filled me in after the session.

The goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, etc., were in the realm fighting and raiding just like they do in the countries and lands that border Ratik. The King and military generals had enough of it and started a systematic purge of the horde monsters from their country. They amassed their troops in the south, routing out all the creatures, their villages and camps, all of them, from the south to the north. They essentially pushed out all the horde creatures to beyond their borders. This happened 2 generations ago. So, Lilykai is part of the first generation to have never had to fight, be at war, with any horde creatures. Baron Mordecai, her parents, her Uncle Eldiss, Martume and the current King are the generation that were younger (her age) when the horde were finally routed out of Ratik. So they were most likely in on the last of war, if at all. In the North, most household’s (the Red Hawk Meadow ones for example) have veterans of that war living there. Which is why most of them are also well armed. In the Ranger and Military academies, most battle and tactics are taught against a horde army example. So even though the current generation has not encountered or fought horde monsters (for the most part, with a few exceptions) they are well trained in fighting those particular enemies and have a lot of knowledge about them. Most of Lily’s generation, have never faced a horde monster in person. So, as a green Ranger on her first run, what you’ve seen her fight is the only thing she’s ever fought. Those goblins she killed raiding the Artus farm….first ones she’s ever encountered.

The Royal Observer. I (the player) had no idea who this guy is. I am told by GM that Lily has heard of the position, but doesn’t know anything specifically about him. Magic and Mages are rare, rare, rare in this country. But she does have a full elf father who came here from the old country so she is aware of Mages and what they are about. Her knowledge is from what her father has taught her, and he has taught her more about what magic is and can do than most citizens of Ratik know their whole lives. As a result her knowledge of “slinging” (Ranger slang for throwing spells) and magic has prepared her to not be surprised or scared when confronted with it. She is not superstitious or suspicious of magic users and Martume. But there are lots and lots of others in the land that are. So me, the player, knows a Mage when she sees one. But Lily, while aware that they exist, hasn’t met one…until now. I do my best to not metagame the girl and just have her explore on her own what Martume is all about. So don’t think of poor Lilykai as ignorant of Mages, just realize that they don’t roam around here in Ratik. Martume will be the first one she’s seen in public.
And think about it, if you lived in a land with low low magic (items, people, things) you would probably keep whatever you can do on the down low yourself. You don’t want to attract unwanted attention.

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Griff Mountain Garrison
Chain of Command

The next morning is clear and bright. It’s still right at freezing which is actually a good thing, the sled won’t get bogged down in the meadow. I’m clearing it out and preparing it for travel when Sybil, holding Luanna, comes around to where I am. “Lily….mama say’s break…” she stops mid-sentence when her eyes fall on the sled. I quickly glance and confirm that the sheet is still in place, covering the bodies. “That’s them, isn’t it.” she states in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Yes” I sigh, “that’s them.”

“Why do you have to take them back? Why not let the wolves have them. That’s what they deserve.” she seethes. The baby is picking up on her emotions and starting to fuss.

I go to her and take Lulu out of her arms, soothing her like I did my little brother when we were kids. “The garrison commander needs to know what happened to the men so I have to report that to her. It’s best that I return the bodies. Also, it serves as a reminder to any others who might consider following their lead. This is what happens to deserters and murderers.”

“Why would they do that? Micha was a soldier there. He would never think of that.” she scrunches her eyebrows as she considers the lumps under the sheet.

“The garrisons take volunteers like Micha as recruits. They also take in convicted criminals who are offered the opportunity to serve to repay their crime. Usually they are low level thieves or something along those lines. I can’t imagine they would make the offer to more dangerous criminals. I don’t know for sure, but maybe these guys had been given a second chance, too bad they wasted it. Their return, dead on a sled, will make a statement to any others.”

She turns to me solemnly. “You made a rhyme.” I chuckle and shake my head, turning towards the yard, I can smell breakfast now. “I do it all the time.” I give her a wink. “Let’s eat.”

Breakfast is a happy affair, we put the seriousness of the situation behind us last night. Emme packs me up food for the next 3 days, it’s quite a distance between the ranch and the Griff Mountain Garrison. Wyn hands me a large tin of tea, I open it and take a whiff….elven tea. This is amazing and enormously expensive. I open my mouth to protest and before I can she lifts an eyebrow and mutters, “Don’t even think about it.” I just nod and grin, putting it in my pack. The men say goodbye first, they are taking horses back to Micha and Emme’s farm to herd their cattle in. They’ve been left to wander these last few days. I say goodbye to all the girls and set off dragging the sled. At the last minute I thought to get some firewood from them, the meadow doesn’t have a lot of trees and limbs laying around, and since I’m pulling a sled anyway, I might as well make it work for me.

I make it a full day without any problems. The temperature is staying low, so the snow is firm and the sled works well. I retrieved my snow walkers before I left the Abner place so I’m not impeded by the deep snow. I make it 32 miles my first day, I’m a third of the way there. I build a decent fire and have tea, dried meat and cheese for dinner, along with some rolls that Emme packed for me. There is no cover out in the field, but I don’t want to sleep near the sled. I dig into a snowbank on the side of a little hill and use my waterproof cloak as a windbreak and fall into a light sleep.

I’m up early and the weather has gotten bad. It is blowing and snowing hard. I stoke up another fire and take the time to have some tea to warm up and some cold sausage before I’m off. Mid morning I hear something coming up behind me and before I know it I’m being pounced on by 3 of the wolves that got away from me before. One knocks me down [crappy initiative roll] but hardly does any damage, I manage to kill it straight away while dodging the bite of another. The third one barely scratches me which puts it within arms reach of my sword, so I make sure it eats it. The last one standing decides that I’m not worth the trouble and it takes off into the heavy snowfall, disappearing quickly. The weather slows me down considerably and I only make it 25 miles today. I stop when I see a small stand of trees in the meadow. I decide I’d rather turn in early and have a tree to climb up just in case more wolves come along.

It’s really cold sleeping in a tree in a snowstorm, and I wake up stiff and barely rested. The next morning the weather remains the same, but no attacks came in the night so that’s a positive. This morning I decide to have a decent breakfast and since I’m in trees I’m able to make a really nice size fire. I use the sled as a windbreak. Tea, oatmeal and ham for brekkie. I’ve got to eat plenty now because I don’t plan to stop again until I reach the garrison. I finish, put out the fire and start hauling the sled again. At least it is sloping all down hill now, I’ll be making good time today.

The weather is no friend of mine. More hard snow, but the wind has let up some. Visibility is still only about 8 feet in any direction. I keep having to stop and brush the snow off the sled and bodies. I didn’t do that yesterday and I realize that was one major reason why I didn’t get as far. I thought I was just getting tired, it didn’t occur to me the sled was actually getting heavier [what can I say Intelligence is Lily’s dump stat….so sad]

It is past dark when I arrive at the Griff Mountain Garrison. This is a large fortress. It’s one of the original garrisons left from the Horde War. So it is much larger than some of the newer ones, like Three Rivers to the east. There is a tall palisade wall with guard towers, a reinforced gate, a couple of barracks, a mess hall, main office with officer quarters, a blacksmith/armory and stables. There is also a small tent city inside where merchants and travelers can sleep/stay, small livestock pens, and a bar. It is bustling with soldiers and civilians alike. It’s the closest thing to a city you will find in the far northeast.

As I approach the guarded gate I am met by a soldier who introduces himself as Sgt. Peka. “Ranger Lilykai Kodel,” I step back a bit to let the rope that’s around my waist go slack and step out of it. I then hand the rope to the Sergeant, “I believe these three deserters came from here.” He looks over my shoulder to the lumpy mass covered in a sheet behind me and I see his face harden a bit. My guess is that he knows that if they’re coming back dead, delivered by a Ranger, there was more trouble than just deserting. He focuses back on me.

“Commander Temakos has been awaiting your arrival. I have orders to escort you to her office immediately.” He hands the sled rope to one of the guards and tells him to deliver it to another Sergeant on duty and turns to walk me to the Commander’s office. It is about 8:00pm and I’m surprised that they are awaiting me at this hour. I wonder if they’ve had a watch out for me for many nights, I’m not on a fixed schedule, but even still….I’m running behind. Can’t help but think I must be in some trouble for something, I would ask the Sgt., but he doesn’t seem to be the talkative type.

We get to the office and Sgt. Peka opens the door and announces me, “Commander, Ranger Kodel has finally arrived.” Yep, I’m in trouble….

I enter the office behind him. The first thing I notice is how incredibly warm it is, there is a blazing fire. Then I see the commander, she stands from her desk and introduces herself. “Commander Corhana Tamikos.” She is taller than me by a head at least, and very fit. We both have the same color hair and length, hers in a ponytail, mine in a braid. She’s probably in her 30’s….late by my guess and the couple of gray hairs I spot. She takes a moment to size me up with her very alert brown eyes, before offering me her hand. I go to take it, glance at mine…wipe it on my pant leg, shrug and shake hers. She briefly lets the corner of her mouth tic up in a stifled grin.

She turns from me and calls to someone in a side room. “Martume, she’s here.” A man comes through the door. The most striking thing about him is the mismatched patchwork weird robe he’s wearing. It’s looks like a cross between a mage robe and a bathrobe. And I’m leaning more towards bathrobe. He’s old, all white hair sticking out everywhere, and a long white beard. And he’s eating….a banana.

Before I can figure out who he is or what’s going on Tamikos goes all commander and shout’s us into attention. In spite of the fact that I am in a completely different branch of the military and technically she is not my commanding officer at all; I snap to attention without thinking.

“Ranger Lilykai Kodel, effective immediately you have earned the rank of Sergeant. Congratulations. Additionally, you have been given a special assignment. Let me introduce you to The Royal Observer”

OK, well I guess I’m not in trouble. I give the weird old man another long look. Or maybe I am.

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Ghost Stories
Protection from Evil

Fuck this.

I quickly decide that I can deal with the bodies and the mystery barefoot man in the morning. As it is I won’t be returning to the Abner house until around midnight, that’s if I don’t have any surprise delays.

I can smell smoke as I’m nearing the house. I barely make out light between the slats of the shutters on the windows. Emme has stayed up for my return. I knock lightly on the door, “Emme, it’s me, Lily. You can open up.” Immediately I hear the bar removed from the door and it swings open. Emme looks tired but happy. Immediately I realize why, “Ranger, is everything OK?” I hear a hoarse voice from the bed.

“Yes, those men won’t be harassing anyone else.” I say to both of them. Micha is sitting up slightly, there is a lump in the bed beside him and a tiny hand poking out from under the quilts, resting on his chest. I smile in spite of the situation. I turn to Emme, “I left them where they fell. I will pack them up tomorrow and take their bodies to the garrison after I’ve delivered you to your parent’s house. She opens her mouth to object but I continue before she gets the chance. “All the animals are dead, they either stabbed them…..for sport….or they just froze. You,” I look in Micha’s direction, “will need at least a week for that shoulder to be usable. And there’s still a pretty aggressive wolf pack wandering around. I can’t, in good conscious, leave you here like this. But I need to move on to my next stops.”

“She’s right.” Micha says from his side of the room. “I’ll feel better if you and Lulu are at your folk’s place. And your mom can help me out with this.” he lifts his shoulder a bit and then winces. He turns his attention back to me, “Thank you Ranger, for….saving me. Em told me what you did.”

“You’re welcome, but it was not a hard decision to make.” I give them both a tired smile. “I don’t know about you two, but I could use some sleep.” I say as I make my way to the fire, Luanna’s blankets are still on the floor, I try to slowly lower myself onto them but instead I crumple like a piece of parchment. I hear Emme take a step towards me, I lift my hand and wave her off as I roll to face the fire and warm up The next thing I know I’m laying on my back and something is rhythmically patting me.
pat,pat,pat……..pat,pat,pat……..pat,pat,pat………

I squint my eyes open a little at a time to see a rosy cheeked two year old playing “patty cake” with my cheek. She notices me watching and erupts into giggles. It is the best sound in the world.

“Lulu, don’t wake the Ranger!” I hear her father admonish her as I awaken fully. He is scooping her up which only results in more delighted laughter. “It’s fine” I say as I sit up. I’m a little stiff from the floor, but nothing I can’t shake off. Emme is bustling around in the kitchen and calls over her shoulder. “I’m making pancakes for breakfast, they’ll be ready soon!” My stomach growls in appreciation. I go to sit at the table, the house is warm and smells delightful from the breakfast being prepared. Bacon is on the table and I snatch a piece before I can stop myself. It’s delicious.

Micha sits across from me with Luanna in his lap, one arm in a sling. He too picks up a piece of bacon, breaks off a bit for the baby and, when Emme catches him and gives him the evil eye, points to me and says “She did it first!”

“Oh, right…sell out the Ranger, see if I ever save your life again.” I quip. They freeze for a moment before we all burst into laughter. Baby Luanna applauds like it is the grandest thing ever. It feels good to relax and laugh after yesterday, but thinking of that reminds me of what I need to do after breakfast. “How do you plan to get to your parent’s place?” I ask them.

“Our oxen were in the pasture with the cattle” Micha begins to explain, “I just need to go up and get them, there’s a small field further west of here where they go. It should only take me a couple of hours at best.” I nod along to his explanation, that is perfect timing for me.

“I need to gather the Bastar…” I pause a moment, and catch myself before I curse in front of the wee one “…..bad guys who started this whole thing. If it’s OK I’d like to use some of your spare lumber to make a rough sled to carry them.”

“Sure, anything you need. I can even help….maybe….a little” Micha says as he examines his arm in a sling. “I’m sure I can use your help.” I reply, much to his relief. I know he feels like he needs to repay me, even though I was doing my job.

We all dig in to a hearty breakfast. And a whole lot of hot tea for me. I’m preparing myself for the task ahead. Micah and I leave together, he heading towards the pasture, me the lumber pile. [Intelligence and Dex rolls…..yes, it takes me a few tries. For every failed dice roll, I come up with an alternate way to accomplish my task, or a reason for the failure (rotten piece of wood), finally I roll 3 successes in a row]

After a half an hour I have a pretty good sized sled that I can use to drag the bodies back to the garrison. It’s daylight now, so the trip to the camp, and their bodies, won’t be as long. I tell Emme I should be back in about 3 hours total. Sooner if I can. I start running where the dead men lay.

There was a fine dusting of snow overnight, but my tracks are plainly visible to the meadow and back. I retrace my steps to the last man, the one I saw killed. As I crest a small hill I can see where it happened about 100 feet in front of me. What catches my attention most, though, is a bright red object in the tree nearby moving in the light breeze like it is waving me down. I go to it first and see that it is pristine, as if newly purchased and never worn. It is lightly tied to the lowest tree branch. I know exactly the last person I saw wearing a red bandana just like this one. He disappeared right in front of me. I reach up to grasp the end and it comes untied from the tree limb as if on it’s own accord. Even though I am warm from running all the way here I get goosebumps suddenly and cram the thing in my pocket. I’ll study it later.

I go to the body. He is stiff from death and cold. I roll him onto the sled. I don’t look at him too closely. I know how he died, I do not doubt what I saw with my own eyes. I drag the now occupied sled to the body by the campfire. I drag him onto the sled beside his companion. I do take a moment here to go through the camp and I find a bag of items that they appear to have taken. There are some coins, mostly coppers and a few silver, a small piece of jewelry, and most notably; a silver brush, comb and mirror. Obviously a set, and obviously not belonging to the deserters.

Thanks to the sled I am still able to keep a brisk pace and make it back to the Abner farm before lunchtime. I go straight towards the barn and start to pull the dead man from the loft. Micha has already been dragging the animals out and putting them in a large fire pit far from the structures. He doesn’t want to encourage wolves by leaving the carcasses abandoned. He insists on helping me even though he has an arm in a sling. I think it makes him feel better to help, so I let him. We pile this body in with the others and cover them with an old sheet so the baby, and Emme, will not have to look upon them.

Then we are ready to leave. The house and barn are locked up tight, we have some preserved and canned food and we start back towards the Belag farm. We’ll arrive soon after dark, barring no encounters with the wolves. I hear them howling in the distance as the sun starts to set but they are far to the east. It is cold enough so that the smell of the dead won’t draw them. I finally start to breathe easy when I spy the lights of the ranch house ahead of us.

As the wagon pulls into the yard I see the door of the house fly open. I have broken away to stash the sled out of view and away from the animals. If these deserters get chewed on by wild animals I’m fine with that, but I don’t want them to lure wolves to the livestock. I use my shovel to half bury them in snow to keep them frozen until tomorrow morning. With these below freezing nights that shouldn’t be too hard.

I’m coming around the corner of the house, looking down as I brush the snow from my gloves and sleeves when I am unexpectedly pounced upon. Arms grab me from front and behind, and squeeze. I startle and tense momentarily before I realize it is Maeglad and Falwyn embracing me, their heads pressed to mine as they quietly say their thanks to me. Once they release me all three of us are hastily wiping away tears.

We go into their house to find Luanna being entertained by Sybil, Micha by the fire and Emme setting the table with more plates. Dinner is about to be served. None of us speak of what just happened during the meal, we’re just not ready to go into it again. After Sybil and Luanna are put to bed, I open up my pack. It is then I remember the items I was supposed to deliver to Emme and hand them over. “So much for being a good messenger” I mutter….Maeglad just refills my wine glass. I then pull out the bag of items that I found at the deserter camp.
“I don’t recognize any of this” says Wyn. “It might have been a wedded gift, it looks like that quality.” She doesn’t know who it might have belonged to though. The five of us solemnly study the once loved items.

“I didn’t kill them, you know.” I start. They all freeze and look at me. I describe what happened: the looks of fear on the men’s faces, the barefoot tracks, the huge man I saw break the last guy’s neck and disappear before me. At the end of my tale I pull the red bandana from my pocket and lay it on the table. Falwyn gasps loudly and exclaims “I know what this is!” We all look to her for answers. “My mother told me about these spirits. When a loved one is taken from someone in a violent way before that person is killed themselves they can become a ‘Vengeful Walker’. They roam the land until they take revenge on whomever or whatever killed the person they loved. That man was probably one of those.”

So, this is now a ghost story. I hold up the bandana, “What is this, though, why was it left behind?” Wyn explains further, “Probably because you didn’t interfere, or because you said you were going to make him face justice. Either way, you were on the spirit’s side. So he left you this boon.”

I shake my head slightly, “ I don’t know about that…it seems…creepy.” She shakes her head and picks it up to examine it further. “No, Lily, you don’t understand. This token has been hallowed. It is intended to keep you safe. You must wear it as protection.” she folds it up until it looks like a cuff, winds it around my wrist and ties it on securely. “Always wear this to keep you safe……protected.”

[Game notes: So this was a weird session, couple of sessions actually. I never killed anything….Ok, let’s explain The Vengeful Walker. This is actually a Revenant as found in the Fiend Folio (1981). My GM just changed up some things and added it to the narrative, made up a story and a new name for it. It is a super powerful monster and as he put it “the smartest thing you did was not try to fight it” apparently, it was way above my level/pay grade. Also, because I not only did not try to get in his way, but tried to reason with it I got an extra, extra boon…the bandana. After we wrapped up the session and xp was awarded (bonus for not fighting the vengeful walker!) I was told “write bandana, protection from evil, on your character sheet.” This marks the first magical item that Lilykai has in her inventory. Seriously. Every bit of her equipment and weapons are regular military issue. Nothing magical….until now. Here are the mechanics of the bandana: evil creatures and people….basically anything EVIL has to roll with disadvantage against Lily. Roll 2 d20’s take the lowest number. This bandana has gone on to save Lily’s ass more than I care to mention. Lily loves her bandana, she hasn’t taken it off in a year and a half game time. She even wears it to fancy dress balls. Because it is magical it still looks brand new.]

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Deserters
Death Runs in Red Hawk Meadow

I pause, looking over the farmstead. I’m currently crouched on the other side of a small berm. Once I stand and start towards the house I have no cover. I listen further for any signs of life and hear nothing but the beating of my pulse in my ears. The shutters and door of the house are closed up tight. This could be a good thing……or. I shake off my hesitancy, unfasten my snow walkers, and walk straight towards the ranch house door. I’m carrying my bow, but without an arrow ready; I don’t want to act like I suspect anything just yet. I step up on the porch and listen at the door. No noise at all.

The silence is unnerving. I walk to the end of the porch to look inside the barn and it’s swinging door. I cannot make out anything beyond the darkened doorway. But on the bright side there aren’t any crossbow bolts sticking out of me yet. If someone was laying in wait they’ve had plenty of opportunity. I go back to the front door and knock. The sound, even though I’m not banging hard, seems deafening compared to the still silence that once was.

“Hello in there! It’s the Ranger, is there anyone inside.” Nothing. Not one sound. I’m watching from the corner of my eye and there’s nothing coming at me from the barn either. I try again, “Hello! My name is Lilykai Kodel, I am an official Ranger of the realm, is there anyone in there?” For a brief moment I think I hear some movement, but it stops. I rack my brain for a way to get through to them. If this is the family, how can they know I am who I say I am. Then I get an idea. “Emme, I stayed with your Da and Mom last night, they’ve sent me with letters for you and some clothes for baby Luanna. Sybil says hello too.”

That did it. I hear quick steps towards the door. I step back a bit and put my hand on my sword in case it’s a trick, but as the door flies open I immediately release it. Before me stands a woman around my age, [Lily is an old maid at 23, she wed the Ranger service] dark circles under her eyes and shivering. I can see her breath even though she’s inside, she has the look of a cornered animal, and I hear a tiny whine from within the room.

As calming as possible, I say quietly “Emme, you’re going to be OK now, I’m here. Let me in and tell me what’s happened so I can fix this.” She moves swiftly and grabs my arm at the elbow, jerking me into the room and slamming the door shut right behind me. My eyes adjust quickly from the brightness of the snow outside to the dim interior of the house. I see what appears to be a pile of blankets shifting on their own, and a man not much older than me in a bed under a large pile of quilts and….clothes. The room is barely above freezing. I can smell the remnants of smoke and see soot here and there on surfaces in the room.

“They came in the night.” Emme starts. She goes to the shifting blanket pile and pulls out a little girl, dressed in everything she owns by the look of it, and cuddles the baby on her lap as she sits on the edge of the bed. “They said they were from the Garrison, and were here to help us,” Emmie starts to tear up “but Micha could tell something was wrong. He was a soldier there. He had his sword and said he didn’t believe them…..and they attacked him. They all got him at once. He hurt one of them pretty badly and got into the house. I locked the door behind him. They tried to get in and couldn’t.” At this point she pauses to collect herself, wiping away tears. “They couldn’t get in so they climbed on the roof and stuffed something in the chimney. They said they could wait us out and if they couldn’t kill us the smoke would. I had to put the fire out and we’ve been locked in here ever since. That was the day before yesterday.”

“Have you heard from them in awhile?” I ask. She shakes her head ‘no’. I have to organize my thoughts. Put my priorities in order. “Let me take a look at his wounds.” I drop my pack and start towards the bed. The baby fusses as I approach and Emme immediately tries to shush her. “Let her make noise, as much as she wants. I dare them to try to come in here.” There is an edge to my voice I have never heard before. At once I fear I might have scared Emme and look into her eyes, I’m met with a flinty look and a wolfish grin. Good. I turn my attentions to Micha.

He’s hurt pretty bad. Cut to the gut, stab in the leg, and a shoulder wound that goes almost all the way to the bone. Emme has wrapped him up pretty well but the wounds are still seeping blood. He seems a little feverish too. The cold might actually be helping him not to bleed out. I have three healing potions in my bag……..but a shit ton of trouble facing me. It doesn’t take me a second to decide. I reach inside my coat to an inner pocket and come out with a vial of shimmering blue liquid. I hear Emme gasp, as she realizes what I’ve got. Lifting Micha’s head and tilting it so I can pour the potion down his throat…. Slowly, slowly….I don’t want him to cough it up or spill any. The guy needs every drop. Once it’s done I let his head rest back on the pillow. He is still unconscious, but he takes a deep breath, filling his lungs….I can see that the wound on his side has stopped bleeding.

I turn to speak to Emme, but before I get a word out she gushes “Thank you so much! I know those are supposed to be for you…..” I shake my head, “They’re for me to do with what I please. Now we need to warm this place up.” I tell Emme that I’m going out and up on the roof to clear the chimney. When it’s done I’ll come down and knock on the door 3 times and she’ll know she can start a fire. Then I go to the barn.

I slip out the front door. It’s about an hour until dusk so the shadows are long which is working in my favor. I’ve left my pack inside so I’m quicker and lighter. I slip into the shadows on the far side of the house and away from the barn. If they charge me, I’ll have some room to shoot. The house is a timber construction, but the corners has been left overlapping so it is easy to get to the top edge of the roof. But beyond that is smooth slate tiles at a good slant. I take my grappling hook off my belt [dwarven made and collapsable!] and snap it into shape. It takes me a couple of tries [Dex rolls] but I hook the lip of the chimney and climb across the roof to it. It looks like the men had tossed in anything they could grab and carry up here. There are several tree branches, a bucket and random clumps of hay. I pull the largest things out and toss them to the ground. The hay I let fall through to the fireplace. Maybe it will help the fire get going. All the while I keep my eyes trained on the barn, waiting for them to come out at me. But no one ever does.

I retrace my steps back down to the porch. Releasing my hook once I’m at the edge again and winding it all up as I watch the barn door from the corner of the house. No movement, no sound. The stillness bothers me more than I care to admit. I’ve only got about a half an hour of daylight left. Which is fine with me, the darkness works in my favor [darkvision]. I creep across the front porch and rap three times quickly as I pass the door, not breaking my stride.

The space between the corner of the house and the barn is wide open. There’s no cover except for the trough near the barn. That’s my target. I bolt, full speed towards the trough and slide in the snow, crashing against the side of it. My bow is out and an arrow nocked, but I didn’t hear a thing as I dashed across and still there’s no movement. If someone is laying in wait, they are very patient. Patient is deadly.

My next advance is through the open doorway. I will be perfectly silhouetted against the dying light outside so again I must be swift. I dart from my hiding place through the door and further to the right, hunkering down low and giving my vision time to adjust.

The first thing I see is carnage in the middle of the barn. It takes a half a beat for me to realize it is a pig, a lone sow. She has been haphazardly “slaughtered” in the barn. I don’t approach to investigate yet. First I must make sure it’s all clear in here. I work around the sides of the barn. The bottom level, this level, is ringed with pens. Plenty of opportunity for someone to lay in wait.

Slowly I creep around the perimeter. In my ears my steps are as loud as an approaching army. At every opportunity for me to be ambushed there is nothing there. By the end of my check I’ve only found dead animals, frozen in their pens. That leaves the second level and once again, the perfect opportunity for me to be vulnerable to attack. I creep up the open stairs. Minding that I place my feet towards the outside of the steps, right over the nails holding them together in hopes of keeping as quiet as possible.

Once again, no attackers come at me out of the darkness. The loft is open except for some bales of hay and bags of feed. I hear scurrying off to my left. I spin, my arrow pulled and ready for release. Breathe…..breathe…….A rat scurries across the floor. I make my way around the perimeter again. I’m saving the stack of feedbags for last. It is the remaining place that someone could make a stand. But by now I know they’re not here. There’s no way that regular fighters could be this quiet for this long. I figure I’ll find the remnants of their stay, nothing more. So I am a little surprised to find a dead body behind the bags.

He’s one of the three, that’s for sure. I go and get a lantern so I can study his corpse for answers. I return from below with the light to a grim sight. Micha did indeed get a couple of good slashes in before they returned the favor. There’s a nice slash across this man’s thigh, he certainly wasn’t going anywhere fast after the fight. It looks like his companions took anything of value, he’s been left with the bare minimum of items, flint and steel, a canteen, and a dagger. Not much more. Not even a blanket. No honor among these thieves it seems. But the most striking thing about his appearance is the look of abject terror on his face. It is literally frozen in place upon his death. I can’t figure out why really, apart from the blood soaked pant leg there doesn’t seem to be any other signs of harm to him. I squat down so that I can look straight on at his face, as much as I’d like not to, and that’s when I see it. There is deep bruising around his throat. No honor among thieves indeed. They decided to kill their companion instead of just abandoning him to his fate. I stand and start down the steps of the barn thinking. Maybe they were afraid he would talk. Maybe he knew what their plans were going to be. Which means they had plans, which means these folks aren’t safe until I find the other two. I pick up my pace and run to the house.

“Emme, it’s Lily. Let me in” I holler through the door as I knock more quietly.” She opens the door and steps aside. I can already feel a little more warmth in the room from the fire she has going. Little Luanna is sitting on a blanket near it. I glance in Micha’s direction and note he’s still unconscious. I get to the point, “There’s one dead in the barn, Micha got him pretty good.” I leave out the part about strangulation. “But the other two got away, I’m going to follow them now before it snows again and covers their tracks. Don’t open the door for anybody but me. If anybody else shows up you tell them the Ranger gave you an order.” I expect her to argue with me over going out again but she just sets her jaw and nods. “I’ll be back, just remember…..only open the door for me, and don’t leave the house.” I hear her bar the door after I’ve closed it behind me.

I take the lantern and go back towards the barn. I can see several footprints coming and going, I follow different sets around and find recent ones that are going straight east into the meadow. After a few paces I realize there is a third pair of footprints following them. I didn’t recognize them at first because, quite frankly, they don’t make sense. The third set is barefoot. Now that I’ve found the trail I douse my lamp and follow the tracks into the darkening horizon.

I’ve tracked them for about three hours. It is a clear night so I’ve been able to follow their tracks pretty easily [three passed observation rolls!….In A Row!!] Before I cross over a small rise I smell smoke from a campfire. I immediately crouch and start to ease over the hill. Just as I’m raising up I hear a blood curdling scream from the direction of the camp. I leap up and start to run towards it. Is there another victim? Am I too late?

As I’m running in the darkness towards the light of the fire a shape charges towards me. I freeze and draw my sword, ready for whomever it is. As he nears I realize from his disheveled appearance that it is one of the deserters from the garrison. “Drop your sword! Don’t……” before I can finish my order he has run full speed past my position. It was as though he didn’t even see me. Then I hear another gurgling scream and continue running towards their camp. As I approach I see a man, his body really, slumped over on his side. I can see that his neck has been broken, similarly to the one in the barn. But I don’t see anyone else, and no one passed me on the way here….it doesn’t make sense.

I look around the campfire and see some belongings strewn about, a broken sword, and I think some of the pig from the Abner place. [Observation roll…..passed!] Then I see more of those crazy barefoot prints. Except this time they are really fresh and I can tell they belong to a really big man. He would have to be well over six feet. How did I run so close past him and not see. I decide to think about it later and just follow those tracks. I run full speed, not having any idea who I am after. I am utterly shocked by the scene that plays out before me.

The deserter that ran past me has been caught. The man that caught him is large, he is a bear of a man. He is wearing overalls and a checked shirt……and no shoes. It is below freezing…how is it he’s running around without shoes. My mind just won’t let that go.

“Heeeelp meeeee.” the deserter’s voice whispers as barefoot man raises him off the ground by the throat. I ready my bow and draw an arrow. “Let him go!” I order. Nothing changes. The deserter is clawing at the arm and hand of the barefoot giant of a man. “I am the Ranger, I will see that he faces justice. Put him down!” I try once again. I don’t want to shoot this man. I don’t know who he is but my internal voice is telling me to hold my shot. The deserter soldier starts screaming. His features are fully contorted in terror.

“DROP HIM!” I scream at the big man as loud as I can. I pull the arrow back, this has to end. Slowly the large, shoeless man turns his head towards me. I don’t want to see his face, I don’t want to see whatever the terrible thing is that makes the soldiers scream. I cannot look away.

The face I see is of a man, a regular man. His expression is the most sorrowful one I’ve ever witnessed. My heart rends at the sight of him. I lower my weapon. I notice the wounds on him; a throat wound beneath his bandana, a wide slash across his torso. They are surely fatal, but there is no blood. As I’m trying to understand he turns back to the whimpering deserter and snaps his neck.

It’s as loud as a crack of a whip and then total silence. There is a soft thud as the body is dropped in the snow. The man then turns towards me, I curse that I had lowered my arrow and bring it up again, though inside I know it is of no use to me. Before he is fully around the wind picks up and he disappears. I am left in total darkness, the cold is creeping in to my bones I have stayed still for so long.

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