Lilykai Kodel, Ratik Ranger

Following Orders
The story of Steve

It’s the middle of the night by the time I wake, the garrison is mostly quiet. The men I knocked out must not have squealed on me, nor did their lookout man. Maybe they didn’t want to explain why they were carrying clubs and blankets. I notice Commander Temakos didn’t take my suggestion to bring the men in from the tents outside the gate. I grab my bow and sword and climb to a watchtower overlooking their camp.

There are three archers inside the lookout tower. I startle them with my sudden appearance. “Whoa…..hey Ranger. Is there something you need?” They all look nervous, eyes darting back and forth between each other. I wonder if they know something I don’t or just nervous around rangers in general. It could go either way.

“Nope, just woke up. Nothing to do. Thought I’d take a watch.” I answer offhandedly. If nothing else, it’s the truth. I scan the tree-line looking for movement. The men behind me are quiet but I hear their uniforms rustling as they are talking to one another with gestures instead of words. Maybe they’re trying to pick who gets to talk first.

“Sure….thanks, that would be…great.” So they’ve chosen their leader. I turn to him smiling. Hopefully not a creepy ‘you might be next’ kinda smile…..sometimes I accidentally do that, especially when I’m anxious like now. He visibly relaxes so I must’ve gotten it right.

“Have you seen anything unusual today? Any signs of movement in the forest?” I ask quietly.

All three shake their head, “Nothing at all. Do you think they’re coming? The ones who attacked you?” They almost stand fully at attention in their nervousness around me.

Shrugging and turning back to look out, “Not sure. Every time I thought we lost them one would pop up. I tried to cover my tracks getting here….but…..I’m just not sure.” My shoulders droop a little in defeat.

That gesture, as small as it was, resonates with them I guess. I feel a light patting on my shoulder; a show of support. “We heard you fought off a lot of them and saved the royal. Was that Lieutenant you arrived with the Prince? What is he like?”

I see all three of them avidly listening and awaiting my assessment of Lex. Shrugging, “He’s nice, a pretty good guy. Seemed OK….really good cook.” I leave out the part about the incessant talking, goofy jokes, easy smiles. That seems too personal. They ask about the creatures and I start giving all the details I reported in the office. I know this will get around the grapevine and the men will at least get accurate details on how to fight the Crickets through official channels or camp gossip. We’ve been chatting amicably for a long time and sharing stories when one of them says something completely unexpected.

“Did you hear about those four guys that were killed in the barracks?” I start to choke on the sip of water I was drinking.

“What! Four guys were killed? Four?” I ask once regaining my composure.

“Yeah, three of them had the backs of their heads bashed in and one sliced across his front.” The man next to him nodding emphatically.

I blink slowly, a shocked look on my face. I murdered four men. I defended myself against four men. Whomever set them to it; I can only imagine it was Jotai, didn’t report me. “Temakos is investigating it, but nothing has been said yet.”

“They were 4 of those Three River men.” One of the other privates interjects and the third rolls his eyes at that.

“Three River men?” I ask, confused.

“Yeah, them.” The guard nearest me points out the opening facing the camp outside. “They arrived from Three Rivers Garrison to help in the search. There are also some calvary coming from a southern garrison too, but they haven’t arrived yet. Hope they’re better than those guys are.” I notice exasperation in his tone.

“What’s the problem with them?” I ask curiously. Most military units I’ve seen pretty much have their shit in order. Hearing the disgust in this soldier’s tone is highly unusual.

“They’re a mess. Sloppy….not just their uniforms but their training too. Their officers seem disinterested with regulations and when our Lieutenants and Sergeants said something to them they were downright hostile over our “interference”. That got the Commander’s attention and she came down on them all as the superior officer in charge. They’ve kept their heads down and to themselves since then.” He looks out the opening overlooking their tents. “Whatever they were doing in our barracks it was probably no good.”

I almost admit to the feat that moment. Almost. In the end I think it’s better to keep my mouth shut. Momentarily, I wonder if they actually suspect the truth but they don’t show any signs of it. [successful Insight roll!] The description of the Three Rivers troops and their superior officers does explain how Jotai ended up being a Sergeant. Between extensive Ranger training and a bully attitude he would succeed in a slipshod organization like that.

As morning comes and the men are relieved by the next watch I go along and join them for breakfast. We enter the mess together and I can’t help but look around for Lex, to see if he is still around, but he’s not here. We all assume I will be joining them for the attack on the Cricket hive so I’m not surprised when I get a message that Commander Temakos wants to see me in her office. I quickly finish the last of my huge breakfast and report. Lex is in the office, clean shaven, in a new uniform….looking very princely. Even after a bath and new clothes I still feel like a homely street urchin and can’t help but unconsciously check my hands and nails for grime.

“I have orders for you.” Temakos starts without preamble. I’m prepared to hear what my part of the engagement will be, I’m excited to hand those Crickets their asses. “You are to continue on your run and check on the civilians on your route.”…..wait….what?

“What?” I manage to sputter out, confusion written all over my face.

“You are to continue on your run Ranger. This is a military matter now and we’re going to handle it.” She speaks slowly as if to a small child.

My temper ignites. “Wait a damn minute! You’re telling me you’re actually going to send the one person in this whole place who has engaged, survived multiple attacks, and killed these dangerous and COMPLETELY UNKNOWN creatures away from the fight. While you and a bunch of green soldiers go in and get killed!!” Yes, I’m yelling at the Commander. Sometimes my emotions override my better sense.

Temakos speaks lowly and slowly through clenched teeth. “My men are not green. They are a well trained, seasoned army. Assuming you told me everything of importance, we are not going in uniformed. Did you provide all pertinent information Sergeant? Or did you leave out something of importance?”

“Oh, I suppose the only thing I left out is that you’re all gonna fucking die. I suppose that’s kind of important.” I’m seething and my mouth is running on it’s own. My internal editor has left the building.

“Lily…..” Lex breaks in and speaks to me for the first time since we arrived here.

“What?!” I interject hotly, “you’re gonna tell me they’re taking you out there to lead them back. You! The one I found and saved from death. This is bullshit and you know it.” He flinches at my tone and remarks but I don’t give a damn. I’ve got nothing to lose here.

“Actually,” Temakos starts and turns her attention to Lex, “the Lieutenant is going to be returning to the Capital. By order of the Queen. And he’ll be carrying my message and your report regarding the Crickets.”

It’s Lex’s turn to be furious. “What! She can’t do that! I’m a member of the military. She has no authority to give me orders.”

Temakos is now looking at us like the cat that ate the canary. She’s been waiting to hit us both at once. “She is the Queen and she is your mother. She has the authority to order me to send you back to the Capitol. I serve the King and Queen of Ratik. As do both of you. You are to return immediately.” She then turns her attention to me. “And I believe the next stop on your run is the Dancing Bear Inn. You can accompany the Prince there, it’s 2 days away.”

My eyes narrow at her, “Won’t you send a contingent of guards with him? For his protection?”

“I think sending guards with him would draw more attention to the fact that he’s the Prince. It’s better if he remains the Lieutenant, don’t you agree?”

I want to knock that smug look right off her face. She got me. There’s no way I’m letting Lex travel alone along the River road when I believe the Crickets could be around any corner. It’s my turn to answer between gritted teeth.

“I suppose that’s correct. But considering the circumstances it seems rather reckless.”

“I’m not completely helpless you know.” Lex declares emphatically. He’s still mad about his orders. We both ignore him.

“Then the Ranger who has been ordered to continue her run should probably accompany him for his protection. Do you think you can do that?” Temakos’s grins widens. I hate her, I hate being outsmarted by her. In a tone that brokers no argument she continues, “I’ve arranged to give you two horses to speed your travel out of the area. Gather your gear and leave immediately. You’re both dismissed.”

Lex, still muttering, salutes crisply and spins on his heel, long strides taking him into the nearest room off the main office area. I just glare at her another second longer and turn to leave.

“Oh Sergeant, wait a minute. There’s one last thing I needed to ask you.” Her tone is simultaneously conversational and dangerous. I freeze with my back to her, afraid that my expression might betray me. I’m sure she’s going to drop the news regarding the 4 dead men. “You haven’t spoken to anyone about Lex’s true identity have you? You didn’t mention to anyone he’s the Prince?”

I think about my conversation with the guards, what they asked….how I answered. “Not at all.” I lie and leave before she can question me further.

I grab my gear from the civilian tent, tip the woman an extra copper for watching my stuff and go towards the stables. Lex is there fussing over two broken down looking mares. Well, not completely broken down, but pretty close. I watch as he checks and re-checks the saddles and tack on them. By his face and movements he is still angry, but his voice is soft and warm when he speaks softly to the horses. They love him.

I hate horses. I used to ride as a kid, but after a bad experience I have kept my distance for all these years….and have every intention of avoiding horses whenever I can. Except, apparently, today.

[Game mechanic notes: An element of 5e is to encourage RP. One way they do it is having a section on the character sheet that is: Personality traits, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws. I decided to make something really specific for a flaw. I wrote ‘Horse Averse’ and came up with a whole backstory as to why Lily doesn’t trust horses or like them.]

Lex finally notices I’m there and asks if I’m ready. I nod and we load up our stuff. I notice he now has a couple of saddle bags full of gear and supplies. I imagine we’re both packing extra food. I stare at the horse and take a deep breath. Approaching it, she skitters away from me a bit. I feel Lex’s eyes watching us as he sits easily in his saddle. Fucker. I don’t know if I’m mad about having to leave, riding a horse, or the fact that it’s so easy for him. All three, I decide and reach for her again. I try to grab the pommel and put my foot in the stirrup to swing up but she balks as I get close and I barely get my footing before falling in a heap.

[Botched Animal Handling roll. Saved from falling on my ass by great Athletics roll. Skill rolls are so much fun. Really, I mean it. They are fun.]

“You’re scaring her.” Mr. Perfect says from atop his horse. “Let me help.”

“I’m fine, it’s fine.” I bark back at him. He ignores me and slides off the saddle; goes to my crazy asshole horse and says softly, “It’s OK. You can do it. She’s just a little nervous. Just stay calm and everything will be ok.” I stop and watch, puzzling over whether he’s talking to her or me actually. The horse drops her head, almost resting it on his shoulder and makes a quiet noise. He takes that opportunity to look over at me with a ‘Well, are you gonna get on her or not’ expression of impatience. The horse, he was definitely talking to the horse. Once again I take the pommel and this time slip my foot in the stirrup and swing my leg over the saddle. The horse doesn’t move. Lex lets out a dazzling smile for her and pats her affectionately. “There you go, what a good girl you are. I knew you could do it.”

I really hate horses.

We leave the garrison in silence. As we pass in front of the Three Rivers tents I look for Jotai or anybody else giving me a sideways glance and see nothing out of the ordinary. One of Temakos’s Lieutenants is dressing down some soldiers on their shoddy uniforms and tent formations. The privates are trying to fix everything and do their best. Their officers and Sergeants nowhere to be seen. I shake my head and turn back towards the road.
Lex is literally muttering angrily to himself, the sky, the ground (not the horse), anything and everything but me I guess. He hasn’t really said much to me at all so far. As a result, I’m startled when he finally does say something.

“It’s not fair you know.” He’s looking at me when he says it this time. It’s probably the tenth time I’ve heard this remark from him all morning. But now he’s actually speaking to me.

“Nope, not fair.” I leave out the part where I contemplated handing him my horse and heading straight north to take on the Crickets by myself until the troops showed up. That I abandoned the idea because I couldn’t trust him not to follow, and I couldn’t fathom leaving him to travel unguarded. Essentially I leave out the part where he’s the reason I’m not fighting Crickets right this very minute.

“She thinks she can just boss me around and control my life.” He practically snarls out.

I’m confused, “Temakos?”

“No! The Queen. She’s calling me back, then she’ll see that I’m removed from the military so she can keep me in the palace and under her thumb. She’ll be throwing parties and setting me up to meet someone ‘worthy’ to marry. She has a whole plan for me. She won’t stop until she has me engaged to some diplomat’s daughter or a rich merchants daughter.”

He sounds like a spoiled brat. I’m about to tell him as much when I hear thundering hooves coming towards us. I turn my attention forward again and casually sling my bow off my shoulder, fingering an arrow in my quiver. My horse stops since I’ve dropped the reigns. Around a corner 8 heavily armored soldiers on large stallions approach. They must be the men from Oakdale Garrison that I heard about from the guys on the watch.

Our horses have instinctively moved to the side of the road to make room for the riders. I watch them study our poor old nags as they approach. The leaders salute Lex and one actually notes the almost nocked arrow and bow in my lap. He grins at me as he passes, perhaps realizing that had they not been “friendly” they most certainly would have been “feathered.”

The sight of calvary riders, has Lex fired up once more and his growling and muttering begin again. I can’t take it anymore. “I’m gonna hunt a bit. The campground waypoint is a few hours away. Can you take my horse for me and meet me there? If I catch something will you cook it?” I appeal to his love of cooking to brighten his mood and it does, at least momentarily. He takes my reins as I pull my pack and gear off the beastie.

“Be careful.” He says as I start away. I just give him a wave over my shoulder without looking back. It’s so good to be back in the forest again. I’ve been hearing it as we’re traveling the road. The birds and squirrels are music to me now. I run about 20 yards to the north of the road and parallel it. Truth be told I just wanted to get off that damn horse and away from the sulky prince. I’m keeping a watch on them from a distance [stealth rolls] and looking for game trails. I’ll be sure to catch us something for dinner before he gets to the camp.

I cruise around checking tracks, watching the road, and generally running around for half the day. I notice that since he’s alone with the horses Lex has picked up the pace but is still taking it easy on the old mares. He walks them more than they gallop. Finally I break away from the road far enough to flush out a bevy of quail and kill two for our dinner. I am sitting on a stump plucking them by a small fire when Lex approaches the camp area off the road halfway to the Inn.

“You beat me here.” Says captain obvious. The look I give him pretty much calls him that.

“Horses do OK?” I ask as I finish the first bird and start on the second one. He’s removing the saddles and blankets from both. I don’t say it, but I’m thankful to him for dealing with mine. I’m perfectly happy sitting far away plucking at our dinner. I think Lex has picked up on it and just handles them both without comment.

“Yes, they did fine.” He answers as he pats the one he’s brushing affectionately. “They’re tired and have worked hard today.” The one he finished brushing down first nudges him from behind for more attention. He laughs as he rubs her behind an ear and says quietly, “You like that don’t you. You’re like Steve.”

Now this has my attention and I stop what I’m doing to focus on him fully. He has that sad look he would get before we made it back to the garrison. “Who’s Steve?” I break the silence, my curiosity getting the best of me.

Lex finishes brushing his horse and hobbles them both so they can graze nearby without going too far. He sits down near me and starts going through his stuff; getting his cooking gear ready, before he answers. “Steve was my horse.” His tone grave and serious.

“Your horse’s name was Steve?” I know this is serious for him. I try to keep my tone respectful. But seriously…his horse’s name was Steve. “Isn’t that…kind of…not what you name a horse.”

“I suppose you would name your horse what? Blackie? Wildfire?” He replies sarcastically.

“Well, yeah…something along those lines. A horse name. Not a people name…you know…like Steve. Why would you name a horse Steve?”

“All my horses are named Steve.” He says matter-of-factly. Like I’m the idiot here that doesn’t know this normal, ordinary thing.

“Of course…all your horses are named Steve. All the palace horses are all named Steve. Makes it easy to remember their names I suppose. It’s perfectly sensible.” I’m looking at him like he’s crazy.

“No, not all the palace horses, just mine. My father gave me my first horse when I was 5.”

“Wait a minute” I interrupt. “You got your first horse when you were Five! Five. That’s dangerous.”

“It is not.” He becomes defensive. “I didn’t have anyone to play with and on my 5th birthday my dad gave me a horse and I said, ‘You are my horse, and you will be my friend and I will call you Steve.’ After that I’ve named all my horses Steve.” He looks away and starts breaking down the first quail into pieces. I focus back on my work and contemplate what he says as I finish plucking the bird. His story is both sweet and sad. And the fact that when he called in his sleep for Steve he was calling to his horse is sadder still.

The quail finally done, I cut it apart like he did the first one and hand him the pieces. “Steve is a good name for a horse.” Its all I can think to say to let him know how sorry I am that he lost his friend in battle.

He smiles as he takes the pieces from me and nods. “I think so too.” I get a flash of what he must’ve looked like, a small boy dressed smartly on his birthday. Looking into the eyes of a horse twice his size and declaring seriously, ‘You will be my friend and I will call you Steve.’ I cannot hide my smile at the thought.

Of course dinner is marvelous. I fill the conversation with questions about how he prepared the birds and what spices he used. I may never cook as well as the Prince of Ratik, but I can sure as hell do a lot better than I have been in the past. When discussing food and cooking Lex has a different attitude. Over the past week or so I’ve realized that there is the Prince and there is Lex. When you’re talking about food or cooking or…apparently horses…you’re talking to Lex. When you’re talking about military duty, service, or family you are talking to the prince. He’s much more guarded, even with me. I don’t blame him…it’s understandable.

“I’ll take first watch”, I declare as I take the dirty dishes. We still have the whoever doesn’t cook, cleans rule.

When I’ve returned and sit the dishes out to dry I see that he’s setting up his tent. “Where’s yours?” He asks.

“Don’t use one.” I shrug, “mainly just sleep in a tree.” I point to the nearest one that I had chosen for the night. He’s looking at it and frowning harshly. “Why don’t you sleep in my tent when I’m on watch. No need to stay in a tree tonight.” He looks rather pleased with himself when I nod in agreement.

The night is uneventful. I wake Lex and take his place in the tent. It’s warm and comfortable. I awaken to the smell of coffee, bacon and eggs. “Wow, you prepared for this trip a lot better than I did.” I declare as I watch him pull the bacon off the griddle. I start getting my teapot out of my gear, filling it and setting it beside the fire to warm.

“There’s coffee ready.” He says.

“I’m more of a tea girl. Coffee’s fine, I just prefer this when I have it.” I see him study me for a moment and nod as though he’s committing it to memory. I have no idea why he would bother, after the next couple of days we’ll never see each other again. Breakfast is delicious and I rave over it much to his embarrassment. “Hey, if you don’t want accolades, don’t cook so good.” I mumble with a mouth full of bacon.

It’s getting time to go and I’m faced with that horse again. I’m standing, staring, and contemplating my first move when Lex offers a deal. “Why don’t I get the horses ready and you can pack up the tent and camp.”

I look at him and know what he’s doing. He’s cutting me some slack. Anybody who reads horses and people as well as he does can sense my discomfort. But I hate taking the easy road, I hate him thinking I can’t handle something. In the end though, it’s just not worth the fight. I nod and start breaking down the camp. Once it’s done I turn to where he’s talking and calming the horses. Specifically my horse who is looking at me skeptically. Can horses look at you skeptically? Mine sure can. Again, he’s talking in low tones to her. “You can do this. It’s going to be fine, just relax and trust her.” I take the pommel and put one foot in the stirrup as he holds her and strokes her nose.

“Are you talking to her or me when you say that.” I ask quietly, because I’m terrified of startling this beast and having her drag me down the road by my heel in the stirrup. He just smiles as an answer. I heave myself up.

The ride to the Inn is rather quiet. Lex is not as furious as he was yesterday so the grimacing and angry muttering to no one in particular has practically disappeared. Because he isn’t in such a bad mood I ride with him most of the day. We stop mid-day for some hot broth lunch and give the horses a break. It is shortly after we’ve resumed our travels that I spot the tracks crossing the road from South to North.

“Not good.” I’m crouching on the ground studying the tracks up close. I’ve studied these in the Academy, this is my first chance to see any in real life. “Wargs and Orcs,” I point to the forest to the north of the road, “heading in that direction.” I pause, thinking. The tracks are over a week old. It could just be a raiding party or something. We are west of the Dancing Bear, they might be circling back around to hit the Inn from the forest. Lex has been quietly watching me, he’s been around me enough to recognize my ‘thinking face’.

“Should we track them through the forest? See where they went?” I hear the hopeful tone in his voice. Anything to avoid going straight back to the palace. I’m glad my back is to him so he can’t see my eyeroll and smirk. But he does settle it for me, there’s no way in hell I’m dragging him into danger. Not when I should be protecting him.

“No, the tracks are a week old. If they are going to attack the Inn they might have done that by now. We should probably hurry there. Do you mind taking my horse again? I’m faster on foot through the forest.” He looks disappointed but nods. The tracks continue north while I run east towards The Dancing Bear. I zig-zag through the forest but don’t see any more orc or warg tracks, although I do see a large stag. My parents taught me not to show up somewhere empty-handed so I take it down with a couple of shots and field dress it.

Technically I’m not sneaking around, but I still end up scaring the guys on guard around the Inn when I melt out of the forest with a dead stag draped across my shoulders. “Sorry about that.” I say to the one nearest to me who is grabbing his chest and breathing hard. He’s only about 14 so I’m pretty sure he isn’t having a heart attack. His brothers come running from the yelp he gave out only to start laughing and teasing him at the sight of me. They introduce themselves as Lem, John and Derek, sons of the owners, Darlene and Chris. I ask them about a Lieutenant arriving with a couple of horses and they tell me he arrived several minutes before me. He’s tending his horses in the stables. The oldest takes the stag and sends one of the others into the kitchen as I go to check in with Lex and let him know I arrived fine.

“I thought you’d be here first, like last time.” He narrows his eyes at me, “Did you run into trouble?”

Smiling, I shake my head no. “Not unless you call a large stag trouble. Thought I’d bag something for them to serve, to eat. They never accept my money, so I try to pay other ways that they can’t refuse.”

I see my explanation seep in, “That’s not a bad idea. I never thought of that.”

We agree to meet up again for dinner and I go through the back door into the kitchen. I’m sweaty and covered in animal blood, something that might unnerve the crowd in the main room. The woman there introduces herself as Darlene. She is tall, slightly plump, and and has deep dimples in her cheeks when she looks up and smiles at me. “Welcome Ranger. Lem told me you brought us a stag. That’s very nice of you.” She hands me a mug of tea as I perch on a stool near the warm stove away from the table where she’s working.

“Not a problem, my folks taught me not to come to a place empty handed if you can help it.” I sip the tea slowly, it warms me from the inside out. We chat briefly before she calls in Chris to get a bath going in my room. I ask them if they’ve seen any wargs or orcs around. First they look at me like I’m crazy, then I explain the tracks. Neither of them have seen anything like that for many seasons. They’re surprised, even for an early winter this is much farther east than raiding parties travel. Both agree to keep a sharp eye out, and warn the boys. After Chris goes upstairs to ready my bath I ask Darlene if she has a dress I could borrow for tonight, that I haven’t dressed nice in a long time.

Her eyes narrow at me, “You want to wear a dress tonight? One of my old dresses?” I shrug and nod like it’s no big deal. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with a particular Lieutenant who came in earlier and asked if the ranger he was traveling with had arrived yet, would it?”

“Ummmm, no.” Does it? I hadn’t thought it did. Oh no, what am I thinking. “Yeah, never mind. I don’t know what I was thinking….I don’t want you..”

“Oh pooh, you can’t back out now.” She’s smiling broadly as she wipes her floured hands on her apron. “Follow me, we’ll find you something.” She leads the way towards their quarters in the back, off the main floor. She opens up an old trunk in the corner and starts sifting through what appears to be various fabrics. “These were mine when I was much younger,” she looks at herself and laughs heartily, “and smaller. Here, this one will bring out your eyes.” She holds up a dark green homespun dress that is very nice, plain… but nice.

“It’s perfect” I say as she holds it up to my shoulders. “Thank you so much.” I’m honestly touched by her kindness. She doesn’t know me from Adam yet here we are in her room going through her old clothes together like girlfriends. I reach out to take the dress and she grabs it back towards her chest.

“Not with those filthy hands you’re not. In fact, when you change into this leave your clothes outside the door so I can wash them before you leave tomorrow. I’ll have them ready before daybreak. Let’s go upstairs and check on your bath.” I follow her up the stairs to room 5. It is a good sized room, not the largest, but not too small. Chris comes in after us with the last buckets of warm water and stokes up the fire. After he leaves Darlene turns back to me, “Keep this dress. There will be other Inns and stops that you’ll want to look nice and you can have something with you. It won’t take up too much room.”

“You really have to let me give you something for it, this is…..” I am constantly amazed by the generosity of the people in my district, on my run.

“Nonsense. It is my pleasure. It’s been four years since we had a Ranger that was a girl through here and I’m more than happy to help you out.” She moves to the bed and lays the dress out. I don’t understand what she means to ‘help’ me with. I just wanted to wear something different for a change.

I soak in the hot bath much longer than I intended and take time to wash my hair not just once, but twice! I try to dry it out as much as possible but as long as it is I decide to pile it up in a loose bun so I can go eat. The dress fits pretty well, the sleeves are a little snug and there’s some extra room in the bust, but not too bad. Darlene is right, the color is nice on me.

I come down the stairs and some of the men who were sitting at a nearby table stop talking and stare. I am thinking this was a mistake. I am used to slipping in and out of areas undetected and here I’ve done something to be more noticeable. Darlene is behind the bar and grinning at me so hard it must hurt those dimpled cheeks of hers. I stop at the landing and look to see if Lex is in the main room yet and spy him at a small table for two in the corner. I turn back towards Darlene and her smile is even wider and I do believe she just waggled her eyebrows at me.

I look back to where Lex is sitting and he is now standing as I start to approach the table. That’s……gallant. He holds my chair and slides it in for me. OK, this is really weird…..I didn’t think this through at all. It’s like an accidental date or something. I don’t think either one of us was expecting this and we just don’t know how to act. Darlene comes over and tells us we have a choice between chicken or venison steak thanks to the Ranger. We both choose the steak. She brings over a nice bottle of wine. I check the label but don’t recognize the vineyard. After he’s relaxed a bit, Lex starts whining about having to return to the palace again. I’ve finally had enough.

“Oh, boo hoo. You have to go and report to your parents and stay home and sleep in a bed in a nice warm room while I’ll be out in the forest all alone, in the cold, probably fighting something that wants to kill me and wondering where my next meal is coming from. I feel so sorry for you, you life is so tough.” And then I slug back the rest of my wine in one gulp. That shut him up. He’s just staring at the table now, not saying anything.

“Look, what I meant…”

“I got what you meant.” He says sadly.

“You’ve just been whining about it for two days now. There’s nothing you can do about your orders like there’s nothing I can do about my orders. You just have to re-group and…..” I let the words die out. He’s shut down, I can tell. I don’t know what I was trying to say anyway. I watch the other travelers for a few moments before standing up. My movements startle him and he jumps up as well.

Shaking my head I motion for him to sit back down, “I’m tired. I’m going to go to sleep early. It will be a long day tomorrow.”

“Ok,” he looks suddenly shocked. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“Sure, tomorrow.” I repeat as I turn away. I have no intention of ever seeing him again, and am shocked at how sad it makes me.

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Nemisis

He’s the Prince. I feel sad, betrayed. I actually really liked him; the constant chirping, the attempts at humor that came out wrong. It was endearing. But now I realize that there will never be anything between us. I would be wasting my time trying to develop any sort of relationship with this man, he is far, far above my station.

My mother always claimed that the Queen and her children were spoiled and entitled. Don’t get me wrong, both my parents; my father in particular, have high praise for the king and his governance. As people who live off the land we are directly affected by his taxation and policies. My family is very loyal to the crown. I am in the ranks Ranger Corp now. My uncle is such a famous Ranger Captain, he’s practically a legend….actually, I think he might truly be a legend to many people.

Speaking of Uncles…….

“So, the uncle you’ve been going on about is actually Baron Mordecai, my boss, and my uncle’s best friend.” This is the first time I’ve said anything to him in several minutes, I’ve just been staring and contemplating his revelation as I eat.

“Who’s your uncle?” He asks tentatively.

“Eldiss Tulas. I’ve been hearing stories about their ‘adventures’ for years now. Apparently they used to take me down to the Far and Away and perch me on a barstool playing my squeezebox while they trolled the place picking up women. Once my mother found out about that it came to an end I guess. I was too young to remember.”

“You play an instrument?” He asks excitedly. He’s completely missed the point of my remarks, or is pointedly ignoring them. I just look at him blandly and he continues. “They did the same thing with me, except it was a Mandolin. I always loved going off with those two.”

Great, so he’s a super rich, spoiled, noble…..womanizer. Wow, I guess I’m lucky to have found out so quickly, before I got too enamored. Although, he hasn’t seemed too spoiled or self important all this time. Could it be my mother was wrong? I want to know what he was doing out here…..in a patrol.
“I’m surprised they let the prince go out with the border patrol. Aren’t you supposed to have guards or something? Why were you even out this way? We aren’t anywhere near the border.”

My tone must’ve been a little accusatory as he seems really defensive right now, “I didn’t need guards, I was surrounded by plenty of soldiers, I’ve been in the service as Lex Smith for three years and have been on the patrol all that time without any trouble other than the usual skirmishes. I don’t know why we were sent here. Our Captain got new orders sending us in the area to check something out, I was just one of the Lieutenants, I didn’t see the orders.” His face is flushed and eyes flash as he vents, I’ve made him good and angry I think.

Our roles have changed. I’m not sure if he can sense it or not, but we are no longer ‘comrades in arms’, a soldier and a ranger looking to get out alive. Now I am a Ranger responsible for the health and welfare of the Prince. He is my charge and it is my duty to see him safely home. Perhaps that’s how he’s viewed me all along, and I just didn’t see it. Has my judgement been clouded? If he’s like the uncle he so dearly loves maybe he thought he could have a protector and a little something on the side. Is he a womanizer like them and just looking for another notch on his belt?

“So, you’ve just been parading around as Lex Smith and nobody ever figured out who you are and you’ve just…what? Worked your way up from private to Lieutenant in a few years?” I can’t help the cynical tone in my voice, I feel deceived. I feel played. “And Smith…really? You chose Smith as your alias name. You didn’t even change your first name?”

“There are a lot of guys my age named Lex…”

“I know, they are named after you.” I interject. He takes the opportunity to roll his eyes at me.

“There are a lot of guys named Lex and I don’t really look much like a Johansen…so Smith. It seemed to work just fine. Nobody thought of me any different.”

“So you’re telling me nobody in your patrol knew who you were”

He shakes his head no.

“Who does know the true identity of Lex Smith, if your commanding officer didn’t know.”

“Baron Mordecai knows, since he’s in charge of all the military. He could keep an eye on my whereabouts and know my orders. The King knew where I was stationed.”

“The King,” I repeat..”your father.”

With a heavy sigh mixed in, “yes, my father.”

“So, what does your mother think of all this?”

Wow, I have heard people described as having thunderclouds in their expressions but have rarely seen it until now, well now and a handful of times with my mother. Lex practically growls out his next response. “She is not happy about it, but she has not had any say in the matter. It’s my life, I can do what I want with it.”

I have a feeling that last statement is directed less at me but is actually an old argument between the two of them. Interesting. I hold up my hands in surrender, “Ok, you can live your life lying your way through the military all you want. I won’t judge.” He resorts to staring daggers at me at this point. “Sorry, I just…it just seems….I don’t know…” my voice trails off. How do I explain that it somehow hurts to learn the truth.

Once I’ve finished my plate and tossed the bones into the fire, I find I’m running my finger across my dish, getting every last bit of it. I blush, embarrassed, when I realize Lex is watching.
“Thank you for dinner……” I say as I get up and reach for his plate.
“I can wash them.” He starts to rise, I wave him back down nonchalantly.
“Nope. You cooked, I clean. That’s the deal.” I take his plate and refill our tea mugs, luckily I always travel with 2 tin mugs. In case I lost one, or met someone to share with. For some reason, with Lex, that saddens me now.

Before washing the dishes with the warmed water I take a moment, finally, to wash my hands and face a little. My cheek aches only a tiny bit now, but he’s right, I can feel a line across my cheekbone where the scar will be. A memento of our adventure.

Lex has been staring at the fire, not speaking for the last several minutes. Mulling things over. “What were you doing out this way? Is this part of your run? How did you find me?”

It’s his turn to be full of questions. Honestly, I’m surprised it’s taken him this long to find out. Then again, we’ve been rather busy up to now. “Yes, this is part of my district. My whole territory is ‘The North’.” I pause, taking a moment to put my thoughts into words…..why was I out this way….it is a valid question.

“A few weeks ago I was tasked with acting as a scout for the Royal Observer and his guard. After returning them to Griff Garrison……..” I look at him with a knowing expression, “…after returning them I needed to go off on my own for awhile. I didn’t want to be around anybody. Just explore the territory. I know that probably doesn’t make any sense. I can hardly explain it.” I intentionally avoid the question of how I found him. I don’t think following winter moth’s around will add to my credibility.

For the first time since I uncovered his secret, he smiles. “No, that actually makes perfect sense to me. Spending time with the Royal Observer can be….daunting. You would want a rest afterwards. Now see what kind of trouble you got into trying to shirk your duties” He laughs as he finishes his tea, and picks up my sword. “I’ll take first watch……wake you in a few hours.”

He doesn’t wake me in a few hours. I do that on my own after 6 hours of warm, dry, sleep. I roll over and see him leaning against one of the boulders at the entrance, sword in hand, looking outside.

“Anything?” My voice makes him startle and jump a little.
“Nope. Nothing.”
“You didn’t wake me.”
“How long did you keep watch day and night without sleep?” He answers while keeping his focus outside the cave.

I get up from my bed of blankets and fur. “Still, we will move faster tomorrow if you have some sleep. Take my bed, its all warmed up.” As I approach I hold my hand out for my sword. Reluctantly, he hands it over. I’ll be honest, I’ve missed holding it these last couple of days.

“Sorry about the stench.” I say to him as he crawls into my sleeping nest and I fix my gaze outside. I swear I hear him say ‘I don’t mind’, but when I turn back to check he is already asleep. Must’ve been my imagination.

The next morning is actually bright and sunny. It definitely lifts our spirits.

Also, over the course of the evening, while sleeping, I felt what my uncle and other Ranger Captains call ‘the gift’. Where the spirit of the forest, or the old gods, or whatever you believe in grants you the ability to sling. We learn about it during our training, and some of the Rangers who can do it actually put on demonstrations to the cadets at the academy and explain how you sling once you are granted the ability. My father has told me that as a half elf it might come to me quickly, but it still was a surprise. I am preoccupied with this feeling; wanting to tell my cadet friends, tell my Dad…..he’ll be thrilled. These thoughts and the overall contentment of having a fuller belly and a long rest distract me from my duties. So I don’t register the Cricket until he lands between us.

I spin around towards the sound of its landing. I hear Lex parry the creature’s strike. Lex’s block manages to open up the Cricket’s torso to me and I send 2 arrows driving hard into it’s chest. It staggers back and Lex thrusts my blade into it before he’s out of reach. The shocked expressions on both our faces reveal that neither of us were expecting that attack.
[Failed contested stealth roll]
“Crap. They’re still around.” I mutter as he nods solemnly. I look back in the direction we came, our trail clearly marked with our footprints. “Maybe it was the smoke that clued them in last night.”

He nods, “It’s possible, I really thought we were in the clear, though.”

“Me too.” I point in the direction we’re heading. “You lead for awhile. I’m going to make sure we’re not followed. As he moves ahead I cast my first slinging, asking the forest to cover our tracks and make it so no creature magical or otherwise can follow where we go. [Pass without trace]. I see a shimmer across the snow in our wake and hope that it does the trick. I use the spell once more as we continue through the day and travel in silence.

“No fire.” Lex declares dismally. I shake my head ‘No.’ “Tree well?” He asks and I nod. This time he chooses and we settle in for a cold hungry night.

I sleep off and on. It’s like I’m back to the beginning where I can only grab an hour here and there and have to be ‘on’ all the time. I don’t want to admit it but I know it’s because Lex is a prince. He’s become my duty; another wedge that seems to shut down communication between us. He’s picked up on it and become sullen. Trying to lighten the mood I tell him not to worry, at this pace we’ll be at the garrison in the early afternoon tomorrow and he’ll finally be rid of me. It was meant as a joke but he just stares at me and looks hurt, turns away and tries to sleep. Looks like he’s not the only one who says the wrong thing in the wrong way.

Before dawn I turn to nudge Lex awake only to find him already watching me. I cannot read his expression in the shadows. I nod towards the opening in the branches and start out with an arrow at the ready. Last night I realized I only had 9 left. I cannot waste any shots today. After a few moments Lex follows me out carrying my sword, prepared for attack. We depart south in silence. I’ve been terrified that at the very end of our trek we’ll be ambushed like his patrol and won’t stand a chance, to come so far and still get killed, or watch him die. It puts me on edge.

“We’re less than an hour away” I announce, breaking our long quiet. We’ve gone all morning without a word, both of us on guard and focusing on the environment. Lex doesn’t look nearly as happy as I thought he would at my declaration.

“What do you think will happen when we arrive?” He quietly asks.
“Well, probably…..” I start out gravely, “…they will throw a big party for the Chosen One’s return, and we’ll all bow down to you and kiss your fingers or feet or whatever it is you ‘royal folk’ do when gracing us commoners with your presence.” I look at him with an evil grin that turns into laughter at the look on his face. I think he might be picturing what I just said.

He schools his features and declares seriously, “It’s the back of my hand. You are supposed to kiss the back of my hand.” The twinkle in his eyes gives away his jest. I burst out laughing. Once it begins to subside and he is grinning triumphantly I add “At least it’s not your ass,” which causes him to throw back his head and truly laugh; joining my renewed chuckles.

We’re just pulling ourselves together when we break through the trees. I slow as I take in the scene. “This is unusual.” I mutter to Lex. We have come through to the east of the garrison, overshot it a bit, and as we make our way around to the front gate there are many tents and troops camped outside of the Griff Mt. Garrison walls. “So this isn’t normal?” He asks as we study the troops milling about outside their tents watching our approach. “Not when I was here last.” I respond quietly. “Something is definitely up. I wonder if there’s already been an attack or something.”

“Ohhhhhh, look boys. It’s a Ranger. My, my, aren’t they something…..so Important.” By the tone of voice and the mockery it holds I can tell that whoever just yelled this thinks they insulted a ranger. But in truth they only succeeded in confusing me, and Lex; by the way he looks at me and gives me a ‘What the Fuck?’ expression. I just shrug and we continue walking towards the gate.

Quite a few soldiers notice us as we walk out of the forest and before we arrive at the gate we are approached by a rather large contingent of guards. The leader, Captain Moonshadow, looks amazed to see us. “Commander Temakos wishes to speak with you right away.” He looks at Lex, his uniform and back to me, back and forth between us like he can’t believe we’re standing before him. “Ok….” I answer, clearly there is something happening which I am not privy to. We are escorted into the garrison. As we pass the area where the heckler was I cannot see anybody who looks particularly disgruntled. But I note that the whole army in that camp looks a bit disheveled and untrained. Even after our ordeal, Lex looks more put together than most of those soldiers.

“What is going on Captain?” I ask Moonshadow. “She’ll tell you.” He answers me under his breath. I turn to Lex, confusion written on my face. He doesn’t look back at me but I see an expression of resolve and defeat in his eyes. I think he knows more about what is happening than I do right now. I decide to keep my mouth shut and watch.

We are led into Commander Temakos’s office. As she looks up from the map she was studying annoyance at being disturbed is written all over her face. It quickly melds into shock, recognition and then…..happiness, or something that probably passes for that on her features. “Lex!” She declares suddenly. “Lady Temakos.” He answers as he approaches her. They shake hands and move into that half hug thing you do with someone you might know well but it’s been awhile or something like that. I look at Moonshadow. “Lady?” I mouth to him without using my voice, “Later.” He responds in kind as the other two greet each other.

“Sgt. Kodel. What do you have to report?” I am snapped out of my focus on the Captain and return my attention to Commander/Lady Temakos.

“We have a problem.” I start. I watch her eyebrow raise at my statement. “There are creatures here (I indicate the location of the hive on the map) the likes I’ve never seen before. I need to get another Ranger here and an army to go kill them all.” I realize I’ve blurted out the need for additional Rangers without even thinking of it. Not to mention an army.

Temakos essentially ignores everything I just said and starts talking about taking her forces into the forest towards the hive. I’m furious. “No! You don’t understand, these things are extremely dangerous, they are silent, they are fast, and they are deadly. You need Rangers, plural, to take these on.”

“There has never been a need for more than one Ranger in a skirmish before. I don’t see why there should be a need now.” She states imperiously.

“Well, that would be because you’ve never seen them, never fought them, and you don’t know what you’re dealing with.” I snarl back at her. My temper is on full steam, everything I’ve felt of late comes boiling over. “You think you know what you’re facing but you don’t have a bloody clue and you’re just willing to throw away all these lives because you think you know what you’re doing.”

The Lieutenant standing behind Temakos looks shocked, Lex looks grim, and I see from the corner of my eye, Moonshadow slowly shake his head. I’ve pretty much stepped right in it and I actually don’t give a damn. Temakos leans down across the desk towards me until we are eye to eye (she is quite a bit taller than me) and says through clenched teeth. “Then why don’t you enlighten me about exactly what these ‘dangerous creatures’ are?”

I take a deep breath and start describing everything in detail. What they look like, how they move, the green goo, the death in the hive….the hatching rooms. I show them the throwing star I had taken from one of the fights. Lex backs me up completely and adds what happened to his patrol, how quickly they were ambushed and killed. I feel vindicated when I hear him chime in and validate everything I’ve said. But in spite of that the Commander seems unmoved.

I can tell that my suggestions will go unheeded. “Ranger, why don’t you get a bunk in the barracks and some food. It sounds like you could use some.” I gather my pack and bow, before I turn away from everyone I realize Lex has come around to say something to me. He looks like I feel, like he doesn’t want to be separated. Then he hands me my sword. “I guess you’ll need this back.” I nod my thanks and slowly retrieve it from him, slipping it back into it’s sheath. “Well, I guess this is…”

“Lex, you’ll be staying here tonight, in one of these rooms.” Temakos interrupts and indicates a bedroom off of the main office. “I’ll have someone bring you something to eat and have a bath drawn up.” And there it is like a chasm between us. What I’ve known all along about the two of us….different worlds, different lives. The likes of me aren’t meant for those like him. I give him a slight smile before turning away. Sometimes it’s best not to try to say goodbye.

I dump my belongings in an empty bunk in one of the barracks and go towards the supply/storeroom. The soldier there does a double take as I enter. “Can I get some clothes?” I ask as I approach the counter. “Sure, Ranger….looks like you need a set of…..everything.” Not having looked in a mirror I can only imagine how bad I am. Dirt, blood, green goo, a month of sweat….I’m not even sure if these clothes can be cleaned. As if reading my mind she says, “Why don’t you drop those clothes into the nearest fireplace once you change out of them.” I look at her quickly, thinking she’s teasing me, only to realize the private is completely serious. “Yeah, I guess they’re pretty bad.” I pick up the stack that she’s placed in front of me and thank her as she notes it all in her ledger. Next it’s to the women’s bathhouse and then…finally to the mess hall for dinner. But not before dropping my encrusted clothes into the nearest fireplace.

The word is out about the Crickets as I hear whispers and snippets of conversation when I get my meal. Just like at Hausen Hold I end up with two large plates full of food. My stomach is doing cartwheels thanks to the abundance and smells. My mouth literally waters as I sit down alone, my back to the full table of raucous soldiers near the corner.

“See, what did I tell you. Rangers think they’re better than us all, get the most food, new clothes, the best gear. Like they’re superior or something.” I recognize the same voice from before, and somehow it actually sounds familiar. But when I hazard a quick glance behind me, I don’t recognize anyone in particular. [That my friends is a blown perception roll both outside as I was coming into the garrison and again during dinner. I hate blown perception rolls, they suck so much]

Sgt. Peka suddenly appears before me. It looks like he’s the only one brave enough to approach me, or stupid enough, depends on how you look at it. “So…..you rescued the Prince.” He starts in a hushed tone.

“Didn’t know that was him, just thought he was any other soldier.” I respond and keep eating. “What is going on around here?” I indicate with my fork all the additional people.

“Well, we got word that a member of the royal family had gone missing and their last orders placed them in the area. The extra soldiers and orders from the King arrived almost right after you left. So you didn’t know anything about the search or anything? We’ve been sending patrols out day and night all through the forest looking for him.”

I shake my head, “Nope, I just took off in a direction and ran into trouble. That seems to be a habit of mine.”

“Well, that habit will probably get you promoted if you don’t look out.” Peka jokes and pats my shoulder as he leaves. I’m glad we’re friends, and I’m glad to be filled in about what’s going on. He’s a good guy.

I finish my dinner alone. It feels weird to be alone again. As I rise from the table, “There she goes, wonder what other Sgt. She’s gonna order around. Ranger thinks she’s in charge of the military now.” What the fuck asshole is this! I spin around just in time to see the heckler. And this time I get a good look at him. [Thank the dice gods above I finally rolled a 15!] I can’t believe my eyes but it is Richard Jotai. My Ranger Academy nemesis. I guess that’s what you call a guy who taunted you, picked fights with you, and finally jumped you in a dark alley in Marner with a couple of his goon friends. He didn’t expect there would be civilian witnesses and their testimony would get him kicked out of the corps. All along he blamed me for everything that happened to him. And that mutherfucker is right here in front of me. I’m too tired for this. I just give him a hard look, bus my table and leave.

One hour after falling asleep in my bunk I’m awakened by my silent alarm [Alarm spell]. I’ll be honest, I was just trying out one of my new spells; getting used to slinging. But here it is, going off to warn me. I listen to the footsteps trying to approach me stealthily…there are 4 of them. When they are just within reach I roll out of the bed and flip my folding shovel open. They are each carrying a large blanket and a piece of lumber the size of a large club. This is a really bad idea. I tell them as much.

“This is a really bad idea, you should walk away.” They continue towards me, leering and glancing at one another. “I’m not joking, this is going to end very badly for you.” One of them, a weasel-y faced looking one responds, “What are you going to do about it…Ranger…you are outnumbered here. We’re gonna do whatever we want.”

“No you’re not.” I answer matter-of-factly and leap across the bunk towards the one opposite from where I was standing. He lurches back, I spin the shovel around by the handle, and smack him quickly on the back of the head. He drops like a rock. I turn to his companions, “See…this is not going to turn out the way you want. You still have a chance to walk away.” My voice is low and steady, the words are delivered less like threats and more like simple truths. I wish they understood that, but they keep coming. The one nearest me takes an awkward swing across the bunk that I easily duck, I respond with another thunk to the back of his head with the flat of my shovel. I change tactics with them and declare, “I really like this shovel as a weapon. It’s quite effective and beautifully balanced.” I give it a twirl and freeze in the ready position.

“I’ll remember that when I pick it up off your bod….” Mouthpiece doesn’t get to finish, I drop him with a quick flick of my wrist. Twirling the shovel before me like a baton I address the last man standing, weasel face. “I gave your friends a chance and just knocked them out. But you’ve had plenty of warning and I won’t go so easy on you. Drop the blanket and club and surrender.” For a moment I think I’ve convinced him, then he smiles maniacally at me and lunges. I take the opportunity to run the shovel’s edge diagonally across his body and slice him open from shoulder to hip. I stand over his bleeding corpse. “You had your chance.” Movement at the end of the barracks tent catches my eye and I see their lookout take off. Quickly I grab up my gear, clean my shovel off on one of their blankets and holster it. I’m tired and don’t feel like reporting this and having to explain myself to Temakos one more time.

“I need a bed.” I tell the woman at the check in area of the civilian Inn style ‘women’s tent’. “How much?”
“Uhhh, Ranger…you can sleep in the barracks for free you know…” she starts to reply.
“Too crowded. How much.” My tone indicates my impatience.
“A copper is all.”
I hand her a coin and follow her to a bed. This time I don’t even bother to take off my coat, I just fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I expect I’ll be awakened soon by an officer wanting to know why I just killed a guy once his companions wake up and report me.

But that never happens. I sleep another 5 hours and wake in the middle of the night.

[OOG: when I made Lilykai’s backstory I developed friends and then for fun, decided to give her a ranger academy nemesis. That was all I wrote: Nemesis, Jotai. Almost a year later he rears his ugly head. It was a cool use of backstory.]

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Mechanics Intermission
the big switch

A brief pause to discuss Mechanics.

At the beginning of this adventure we started in an AD&D home-brew arrangement that picked out elements from editions up to 3rd. I took some really awesome proficiencies (I thought) like rope use and lip reading and mountain climbing. I was up to 5th level and was obviously proficient with the bow and longsword. With the bow I had the sniper/sharpshooter ability which meant if I was traveling with an arrow nocked I was able to get a shot off before Initiative. And people, let me tell you, I was ALWAYS traveling with an arrow nocked. I had the 3/2 attack or whatever it is called so that every other round I could attack twice. Life was good. But….it still could be better. There weren’t any specific skill rolls to make so I was always rolling for observation (wisdom) and strength and dex. That’s pretty much it. Everything boiled down to the three or four (occasionally Intelligence was thrown in just for variety) attributes.

Healing was 3 points per day. Rangers didn’t have any magic and I traveled alone, so 3 points. I will fight to the last, where one more round will take me out and that means my character is literally laying around for over a week trying to heal up 32 hp. What can I say, she reads a lot.

Along comes 5e.

There are 18 different skills you can roll to see if you succeed or fail in something. That’s on top of the straight 6 Attributes (STR, DEX, CON, etc) you can roll to save. Rangers get spells. Please, let me repeat as this is very important……Rangers. Get. Spells. All those bits of metal snares I have to take time to set out before sleeping up in a tree….that is now called Alarm. (I’ve only written about the alarm snares a few times here, but I assure you I said it every night she slept outdoors). Yes, some people who really like spells will say “Ranger spells in the lower level suck.” Maybe, but if that’s how you feel you’re probably looking for a wizard instead of a Ranger. Lower level you get : cure wounds or goodberry, alarm, pass without trace, and hunters mark. Anything else is gravy.
Do you realize that if I had been playing 5e I could have cast goodberry every day and would have never been starving. 1 berry is 1 day of food. Kinda kills the rp, though, doesn’t it?
Oh, and one more thing….you heal completely after a long rest.

We switched Lily from AD&D to 5e.
As she slept in the goblin cave.

She was level 5 when we switched. And on the cusp of 6 when we started the next session.

All of her equipment stayed the same. We recalculated her AC and she was at 16. Her Attributes remained the same. Saving throws got easier. Attack and Damage bonuses got awesome. Lost my rope, lip reading, and mountain climbing proficiencies. Lost my sniper ability to shoot before initiative. Got to attack twice per round, every round.

Then there was all the other (on top of magic) bonuses Rangers get: archetypes, favored terrain, favored enemies, and the cool attributes and traits that roleplaying helps to give me advantages. And from my GM’s point of view….18 skills to test.

Narratively, however, we both wanted to reconcile it, and this is how we did. Rangers, when they are green newbies (level 1) have no real magic (slinging is the slang in Ratik) the more they run their district and face danger the more they are “gifted with slinging” once a Ranger has exhibited slinging, they are made a Sergeant and eventually Captain. Lily just became a Sergeant, but that’s probably because she saved the Baron. And now she can sling. The other accommodation we made for the new rules is that if you heal your wounds magically before resting overnight you are good as new. If you heal overnight you have scars from your injuries and you are sore and achy which can affect RP. This is the only reason why you would heal instead of just sleep, unless you’re in battle. And yes, I’ve healed her up magically so she wouldn’t be covered in scars. I like the face one, but she doesn’t need to be polka dotted thanks to waves of arrows.

So, to recap, we’re running under 5e rules now and you might catch some narrative explanations as to her decisions or changed abilities, but the biggest difference on the surface is the sudden appearance of slinging and no longer sitting around to heal.

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Secrets Revealed
"What's up Doc?"

Lt. Lex Smith will not shut up. Once we’ve moved away from the last attack site and our final camp he has started chattering non-stop it seems:

“Where are we?”
“A Forest.”
“Oh, a forest, yes…kinda hard to miss that”
“Did you notice there are no birds?”
I just give him a hard look.
“Huh, no squirrels either.”
I roll my eyes at him.
“What’s your favorite color?”
Maybe if I ignore him he will shut up.
“My favorite color is blue…just saying”
Maybe if I point my sword at him he will shut up. Damn, I forgot…he’s carrying my sword.
“What’s your favorite food?”
Maybe if I point an arrow at him..… I turn and point an arrow at him.
“You don’t talk much…..ok, yes, yes. We gotta be quiet”
That lasts about 10 minutes.
“Why does everything taste and smell like flowers?”
I look at him like he’s a madman. Maybe that head injury was worse than I thought. I turn back around and keep moving. I hear him muttering to himself as I move around to follow for awhile, making sure we aren’t being flanked.
“It’s like I’m talking to myself. I had better conversations with Steve.”
“What was that?” It’s the first time I’ve said anything in a couple of hours.
“I said I wished I had some tea.”

This isn’t the first time he’s mentioned a guy named Steve. He would mutter his name while unconscious too. He hasn’t mentioned his patrol at all and I notice that he does get quiet and stare off into space occasionally. He must be thinking about them, and Steve, whoever he was. It’s not my business so I don’t push.

We move without stopping for hours; most of the day, in fact. Lex is really hurting I can tell, and based on a brief glance to his leg I think his wound has opened up again. But we haven’t been followed yet….I hope. The area of the forest we are moving in is younger, must’ve had a fire or something years ago. The trees are a bit sparser and smaller. Which is good news in that it is harder, if not impossible, for the Crickets to move easily from tree to tree. The bad news is there is nothing large enough for us to find a deep tree well, we’re going to be camping more in the open tonight. I slow Lex down, “There’s no sense in tearing out all your stitches.” I mutter. “They might be able to smell blood.”

“Then we should do something about your face” he retorts. I am about to be offended when he reaches up and brushes his hand against my cheek…it stings and he shows me the tips of his fingers covered in blood. I forgot about that in all the excitement. I must look like a gory mess. “Way to block that weapon with your face.” He says with a smirk. I can’t help but chuckle, or at least start to…it hurts like fuck to smile and I wince a little instead.

“We better stop and dress our wounds then, I guess.” Before it is fully dark I find an evergreen with low heavy branches we can sleep under. Until we crawl under them, though, we’re in the open. Lex plops onto the snow as I’m trying to extract my waterproof cloak for us to sit on. I give him an exasperated look which he mirrors right back to me. I sit down next to him with the remnants of my spare shirt I’ve been using for bandage material, theres not a lot of it left. “Here, I need to check your leg,” I say brusquely as I tear off another strip of fabric. He pulls away slightly from me, “No. I can do it.” He snaps back. Which is shocking, because all this time he hasn’t really been anything but congenial. Instinctively my hackles raise; the stress, exhaustion, and danger making my temper want to flare in light of his defiance. Then I see him….as if for the first time. He’s tired and scruffy, dark circles under his eyes. He’s tried to be friendly and I’ve spent all day being gruff and dismissive. I wouldn’t want my help either if I was him. Instead of arguing I take a deep breath as I slide a little closer.

“Sorry, I’m just really worried about us still. It will be hard for you to dress your own leg, please let me help. And I’m going to need your help with this.” I gesture at my throbbing cheek. Now that I’ve stopped moving the pain is becoming apparent. Oddly, he brightens at that idea. “Sure, I can help out with that.” He actually smiles and reaches for the shirt remnants.

“Nope,” I grab it back. “You first. I think you’re bleeding again. If you tore out any stitches Lex Smith, you’re in trouble. I could barely sew you up the first time.” I gift him with a brief smile. He actually looks shocked.

His leg is bleeding a little, but not too badly and the stitches, as awful as they are, have held. It doesn’t look like there’s any infection, although it is puffy and swollen. I realize, when I glance up at his face and the blush there, that I have been prodding and touching his upper thigh rather intently. This was different when he was not awake, it’s far more intimate now. I think from now on I will let him handle this himself.

“OK, your turn.” He breaks the silence. I hand over what is left of the shirt and look up at him in the dying light of the day. He frowns and is intent on the work of cleaning the blood from my face. He holds me still, after several flinches, by gripping my chin with one hand and wiping my cheek and face with the cold damp cloth.

I realize I’ve never really looked him in the face much. It was mainly dark in the tree well and I’ve been a little busy keeping us alive. He is youngish, it’s kinda hard to tell with the scruffy beard he’s got going. Probably not yet 25 (actually my age in fact). Dark hair, grey eyes with light green flecks around the edges. Good teeth. My mother thinks good teeth is important in a man. She says it’s one of the first things she noticed about my dad. Really mom? Not the pointed ears? My thoughts make me start to laugh so my face twitches which causes pain which causes me to flinch again.

“Sorry, I was being careful” his voice breaks the long quiet we’ve shared.
I shake my head a tiny bit while still trapped in his grasp. “Not that,” I say quietly. “I was thinking about my parents.”

“They probably miss you.” He says as he’s gently wiping the area underneath the cut. I can tell he’s hesitant to clean the wound. Afraid to hurt me. “But they must be proud.” He adds before I can answer. I just nod slightly. His grip on my chin tightens slightly as he finally goes after the cut. Pain flares, but not too bad. “It’s a clean cut, there won’t be much of a scar.”

He’s looking intently at what he’s doing so he doesn’t catch the tic of my eyebrow and the quirk in the corner of my mouth indicating the last thing I’m worried about right now…or ever….is whether or not I’m going to scar. Dude, have you seen the scar on my chest….well, no, right, I guess you haven’t. “I’m no stranger to scars.” I tell him as he finally relinquishes his hold on me.

Glancing back at the cedar branches I am overcome with exhaustion. The stress of the day has caught up to me fully, I cannot bear the thought of going out to try to hunt or fish or scavenge right now, what I need is sleep. I reach in my ration bag and pull out the last of the nuts and seeds that were left. I make it look as if I’m doling it out between us when in fact I’m giving it all to the Lieutenant. “Here’s your share, I need to get some sleep.” As I drag myself under the branches and spread out the cloak for us to sleep on and try to stay a bit dry I hear him sigh heavily. “Something wrong?”

“No,” he answers as he pulls himself under and lays on his back. “My handful of nuts was extraordinarily filling. I’m stuffed.” Turning on my side, back towards him, “You have no idea.” I whisper in return.

I am suddenly awakened by an ear splitting shriek that causes me to sit up so quickly I crash my head into the underside of the branches. Nocking an arrow I roll out only to see the backside of an elk tearing into the trees. Dammit, I missed the opportunity to get a shot off before it was gone. Lex is not far after me, his leg slowing his reaction time, “What the hell….”
“It was an elk stag.” I answer before he finishes. Looking around I see that it has snowed overnight. The great part of that is that it has covered our tracks. The bad part is that traveling is going to be difficult today. I had lost my snow walkers earlier when Lex and I left our first hiding place. In my haste I left them behind. I want to start moving as quickly as possible today, however, if I take the time to make walkers for us it will speed us up in the long run.

“I need to go cut some limbs and make something to help us move around faster today. Are you OK with that? It might take me a bit of time but I think it will be worth it in the end.” Lex just stares at me for a bit before responding. I think I might have shocked him with speaking 3 consecutive sentences. “Sure, be careful.” He stammers as I collect my hatchet from the gear and leave him the pack and my sword. I return after a half an hour with 2 pairs of snow walkers.

Lex is sitting outside of the tree on my cloak, sword in hand, pack beside him. Somehow he looks different but I can’t place it right away. Finally he can’t ignore me standing there staring, “What?” He says. It’s then that I realize I can see his face, specifically, his clean shaven face. He shaved. “What’s with the…..” My voice trails off as I gesture towards my face and look pointedly at his. “Oh, well…” he starts a little sheepishly, searching for the right words. “I didn’t want to die with a beard.”

“Huh, well…thanks for the vote of confidence there.” I say with one hand on my hip. His face falls a bit, he didn’t realize how that would sound to me. Shaking my head and waving dismissively, “Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t mean it that way.”

Getting back to business, I hand him his snow walkers. He looks at them quizzically. “They’ll help you get through the snow. Here, watch” and I show him how to strap them to his boots. Lex is amazed and impressed, “Wow, these are great.” He states as he waddles around. He wants to leave the crutch behind. “Just carry it with you in case you need it later, when we’re getting tired.” I try a compromise, try to avoid another argument regarding what he can and can’t do. This guy does not like to be told he can’t do something, definitely an officer. He relents and ends up carrying my sword in one hand and the crutch in the other. We head south, ever closer to the garrison and civilization.

There have been no more signs of the crickets, and I’m hopeful we might find something to eat. My hopes soar even more when, for the first time in almost 3 weeks, I see tracks in the snow [successful observation roll]. With a smile as brilliant as the sun I point at the ground by my feet, “Rabbit tracks” I’ve never been so excited for something so simple. Then again I’ve never been so hungry before either. It’s been a day and a half since I last ate anything. I’ve been drinking water instead. It’s not fooling my stomach into thinking I’m full anymore. [I’ve started having to roll Constitution rolls again and are so far successful, but the longer I go without food, the higher the DC is getting]

Halfway through the day we come across an old, abandoned, goblin cave in a large clearing. I inspect the ground for tracks, old and new, and any signs of use. Nothing. It doesn’t look like any Crickets have been this way either. Maybe we have found a safe place to stop for the night. The cave is dug out of a berm. There are large boulders near the entrance that you have to slide between to enter. It means if we are attacked by Crickets in the night they can only come at us one at a time and in a cramped space, I have all the advantage here. It is a single large round room with a high ceiling. There is a fire pit in the very center and I can see where they had created a small chimney to let the smoke out through the ground above, so we won’t get smoked out. I notice Lex inspecting the space as well and looking to me as to whether or not we’ll stay.

“It would be nice to stay in a secure place for once.” I start out saying, “it’s early though….to stop for the day. I could set some snares and see if we get lucky.” At the last remark I see Lex’s stance straighten and his eyes take on a hopeful expression. “What about a fire?” He asks while kicking at the old ashes of the fire pit.

“It has been a long time since I’ve been warm and dry,” I remark offhandidly. “I’ll go set some snares and gather wood….”
“I’m going too…” he interjects before I can finish.
“Actually, I was going to say….if you could gather some snow in the cook-pot, and maybe spread out the blankets and stuff in the dry cave it would help. I’ll bring back a little bit of wood first so you can start a fire, then set the snares.”

He looks at me dubiously, like he’s worried about something happening to me. Right before I squeeze through the rocks I turn back and point in a straight south direction, “If I don’t come back you need to go that way. Just straight that way and you’ll run into the garrison or a patrol in about 2 days.” Not waiting for a reply, I move into the forest, returning quickly with some wood dug from beneath the snow near a fallen tree. It is damp, but probably will catch. In that amount of time Lex has gathered clean snow in the pot and my teapot. He has laid out all of my blankets and wraps and cloak so they will dry and warm up once he has the fire going. He’s got my flint and steel all ready.

“It will take me longer to set the snares and gather more,” I indicate the branches and sticks he’s currently arranging. “I don’t want to chop any because of the noise.” He nods and looks up from his work. “Could you look for some herbs or greens under the snow too? Maybe fill out the meal.” First of all, I’m impressed that he is so sure I’m going to catch something. Secondly, I kinda feel like I’m being sent out to go shopping for the impossible. I just nod. “Do my best.” I say as I depart once more.

[Mechanics for hunting: My GM has me roll percentage dice to determine how successful I am at foraging and hunting/trapping. For the record, percentage dice aren’t must better for me than any other, so there’s no advantage that there are two dice for me to roll. In this instance, however…they are great. I roll 87%. Over 50% means I get something and the higher I get over that is the more volume and more variety I get. So, I suppose if I were to roll like 98 or 100% I would have a suckling pig throw itself upon my knocked arrow while holding potatoes and carrots in it’s mouth or something like that. And no, that’s never happened.]

I set the snares in likely places the hares will be moving around. I’ve picked up a few more sets of tracks. Timing is everything and hopefully they haven’t returned to their den for the day. In the meantime, I look around for some shrubs that might indicate the presence of herbs or greens tucked down beneath the snow. I actually get lucky and find some rosemary, along with some old, but not quite rotted wild onion bulbs as well as one garlic bulb. This is the best I can find. Greens and wild rice won’t be showing their faces around here for many months. I’m a bit defeated realizing that, but happy to have found what I did manage to scrounge. I slip the herbs and such in my pocket and return to the downed tree to gather more wood. It is here that I see the telltale footprints of my companion. Apparently he followed my steps to this spot to gather more wood himself. I pick out the driest of what’s left and go to check my snares before returning to the cave.

What do you know….luck is with me today. I have not only one, but two nice sized rabbits trapped. My stomach growls at the sight of them. I make quick work of finishing them off and find that in my excitement I’m literally running back to the cave with my collection of goodies. The only thing slowing me down is the occasional dropped stick that I must retrieve.

Bursting through the opening I find my sword pointed straight at my face. “We should have a warning sign or something when it’s one of us.” Lex declares as he lowers the sword. “I’ve never heard you make so much noise.”

“Rabbits, wood…and look…these….” I respond breathlessly as I drop the wood where I stand and dig the herbs out of my pocket.

“Hey, that’s great.” Lex reaches to take them from me and I notice how clean he is. In the time I’ve been gone He has washed his hands and face, even his clothes look cleaner, although that might just be my imagination. I suddenly feel very self-conscious and filthy. I haven’t bathed or changed clothes in…well, since I was last at Griff garrison….was that a month ago? I can’t change into clean clothes now as my spares have been turned into bandages. My breath is even horrible as I took the opportunity to munch on a couple of those onion bulbs when I was digging for more. Lex looks at me like there is nothing abnormal or stinky about me and says, “I’ll make us dinner tonight. You get to rest for a change. I made some tea for us, I found a tin in your bag. I hope that’s OK.”

“Sure, yeah…..sounds fine.” I mutter as I step quickly away from him so that my stench isn’t overwhelming. I think when we were both filthy it wasn’t so noticeable…now though….
Handing over the hares to him I take the proffered mug of tea and sit down in the dirt near the fire. I let the warmth of it leech into my bones…….

“Hey, Lily…..wake up.” I hear my Dad’s voice whispering to me.
“Can’t I have 5 more minutes?” I ask as I try to cover my eyes a little more.
“Sure, but your dinner is getting cold.” The voice that I realize is not my father responds. At the word dinner my stomach is fully awake and telling me it’s time to get the hell up.

I’m groggy, and shake my head like a puppy to clear it. “How long was I out?” I scan my surroundings to remember where I am.

“Less than an hour. You were tired so I just left you alone.” Lex responds while picking up a mug and a plate. I notice my lynx wrap is beside me, he must’ve covered me up at some point.

“Thanks.” I murmur as he hands me my plate and mug……he retrieved it at some point. Again, the difference in the cleanliness of our hands is striking. “I should get cleaned up first.” I start to say as he goes to get his plate.

“After you eat,” he responds quickly and a little harshly, making me take a second look.…trying to puzzle him out. It is then I see the differences in our plates. Mine definitely holds more than his. “Hey, you gave me more. Here, you need to take some back,” I stab a forkful of meat to give to him when he takes my wrist and pushes it back. “No, that is the right portion.” He says quietly. “I think it probably evens us out.” And I realize he’s known all along that I was doing without to make sure he had something to eat.

I start digging in, too hungry to argue. Just like with the fish I have to make sure not to consume it so fast it makes me sick. Going slow does aid me in other ways. Like recognizing this dish. OK, that seems impossible…but I swear I’ve had rabbit prepared like this before and not that long ago.

[Mechanics: I was told to roll wisdom/insight and nailed it at 18, I was then told ‘you’ve recently had rabbit prepared just like this.’ I had to puzzle the rest out on my own]

I stop eating and focus on the meals I’ve had recently, when I’ve eaten similar food……and it hits me.

“Where did you learn to cook?” I ask slowly, cautiously picking at my food.

“I used to hang out in the kitchen when I was a kid. This dish was taught to me by a friend of my Uncle’s.” He happily replies. Cooking does seem to make him happy.

“Really? Do tell…a friend of your Uncle?” He hasn’t noticed that I have stopped eating and am intently watching him.

“Yes,” he says between bites. “They would take me hunting sometimes and he taught me how to make stewed rabbit when you had very little seasoning.”

“Hmmm, it is very good. I’ve actually only had rabbit like this once before. Recently, in fact.” I place a small bite in my mouth without taking my eyes off of him, watching his reaction.

It is his turn to slow down and push his food around his plate frowning, “Really, recently you say.”

“Yes, recently.” I match his tone and tempo. “The ‘friend’ of your Uncle doesn’t happen to be named Levi, does he?”

Lex stops eating and sits his fork down. He just stares at his plate, “yes….his name is Levi.”

I’ve got him. Son of a bitch. “So, that means…your uncle is Baron Mordecai Ratik. Brother to the King, King Joseph Ratik. And that makes you…….?” I tilt my head to the side in a fake questioning manner, pop another bite in my mouth.

“That makes me……the Prince.” He says glumly.

View
Crickets
Predator/Prey

Raw fish has never been so good. It doesn’t hurt that trout is a clean tasting fish, it also doesn’t hurt that we are literally starving to death. I got Lex back into our hiding place and returned to the creek right before dark. Quietly honing a green branch into a point I stand in the deeper area of the water, ignore the cold, and wait patiently before quickly jabbing my prey. With my first success I send a silent prayer of thanks to Suncow the Satyr for teaching me this. In the end I catch two good sized (let’s be honest, at this point ANY size is good sized) fish. [ 2 successful Dex rolls, 2 failed rolls] Cleaning them quickly in the running water while keeping a sharp eye out for my enemy I hurry back to our tree well. Lex and I tear into the fish like savages, I actually go too fast initially and almost throw it all back up. Taking deep breaths and calming my stomach I start back again more slowly. We both finish in record time and in spite of the bounty discover our bellies still aren’t quite full.

“Thanks.” Lex says sheepishly after his stomach growls loudly in protest over not getting its fill. I nod to him as I’m picking an errant fishbone from my teeth. “When do you think we can move further away?”

I contemplate his question, and think he’s not going to like my answer. “I want to stay here a bit longer. Tomorrow I want to see if I can find out more about these creatures.” I see a stormcloud of emotions cross Lex’s features. “There is no record of anything like this in Ratik,” I continue. “I need to find out a little more before we leave.” I lock eyes to assuage his concern. “I know better how they move now, and what their tracks look like. Give me tomorrow to scout around and then we’ll leave.” I see him want to protest but he also sees the validity of my plan. He presses his lips to a thin line and repeats, “Tomorrow.” Then lays back to rest, still weak even though both of our spirits are bolstered by the hope that comes with a decent meal and an almost full belly.

I decide leave our ‘camp’ before sunrise. I have my coat buttoned up and my weapons ready. Lex is awakened by my moving around in preparation and watches while I re-check my gear. I don’t look up but feel his eyes on me. Taking out my dagger and hatchet, “Keep these just in case.” I hold up my hand for silence before he can protest. “I’m leaving them and my pack with you because if something happens and I don’t return you need to get the word out about these creatures. You need to tell the rest of Ratik they’re here.” He doesn’t protest, but only because he knows I’m right, the expression on his face tells me his displeasure with the situation. I finish getting ready, “If I’m not back tomorrow you should leave…..” Before finishing he interrupts for the first time, “No. I’ll wait 2 days.” To emphasize his point he holds up two fingers; defiance in his eyes. He isn’t being unreasonable so I give him a curt nod of assent, then disappear through the branches.

As expected, the forest is completely silent, no chirping of birds or chittering of squirrels. I’m growing accustomed to it even as it seems unnatural. I start looking for the tell-tale signs of the three pronged single footprint which would be an indicator that they are in the area. I’ve not moved 10 yards away before I catch a flash of movement. Lucky for me, even in a weakened state, my reflexes are as sharp as my dagger. Just as I’ve finished my turn to face my adversary my arrow is released, flying true, straight into his chest. But not before he was able to throw one of his weapons at me. I flinch to one side reflexively and it saves my life as his thrown weapon sinks into my shoulder instead of into my heart. We’re not finished yet it seems; as this huge bug creature leaps straight at me….frighteningly fast. Time slows down; the briefest of moments and a lifetime all roll together; as I am frozen in the face of an oncoming foe. Then a voice in my head, my Uncle Elidiss’s voice, speaks clearly from the past. “You are fast Lily, use your speed, it will save your life.” At the last second I spin away from his lunging attack and slam another arrow into his back, penetrating the creature’s shell just to the side of it’s spine. There is a hard crunching noise when the arrow point breaches his exoskeleton. Like a giant egg being stepped on and crushed. I see the thing hesitate for a moment like it can’t believe I’m no longer in it’s path. As he spins to face me again he finds the hilt of my sword protruding from his chest where I have just taken the opportunity to stab deeply into his torso. Before his eyes cloud over in death he looks deeply into the defiance of my gaze.

They can be killed and I can do it. This thought repeats through my head as I take the time to hastily bury the thing at the base of a nearby tree. I try to disrupt the ground where we fought so his companions are not alerted to my presence in the area before I’m ready to show myself. As I’m dragging the body, I take time to study it. Definitely more like an insect than anything else. Armored body exoskeleton, gooey inside. Dark green/black colored ‘blood’ oozes from his wounds. I say him…I can only assume. His legs are long and thick like a cricket’s legs. He is a dark olive and brown color and wears leather scraps over his body. His weapons are the most interesting. He has large three pronged throwing stars, and carries a lance /staff with one of them roped into place as a melee weapon. Around his waist is a pouch with more of the throwing stars…..they are milky green, a little lighter than the shade of his body. Crazy sharp too, I sliced my finger just by lightly touching the edge. I wrap the weapon in a cloth and slip it in my pocket to study later.

The body is hidden and I proceed in the direction I was going earlier, altering my course a little to the west. I move painstakingly slow through the forest. Darting quickly from tree to tree I pause for long lengths of time to study and see if there is another Cricket perched above, waiting to pounce. Wait, run, watch….the routine gnaws at my nerves. Finally, about 20 yards away I see something new. There is a large hillock in the trees. If it was covered in snow I would never have noticed it. But this hill is raw earth and in the cold I can see tendrils of steam emerging from it at various points. Ever cautious, I slowly work my way in that direction.

I can feel warmth emitting from the hill. I freeze behind the nearest tree and look for any indication of movement. Nothing. I have to make a 10 yard dash in the open before making it to the opening in the hill. And for all I know when I rush through the entrance it might be straight into the arms of one of these things. Well, it doesn’t do me any good to get this far and not push further. After all I might find the rest of Lex’s patrol being held prisoner. Maybe I can rescue them. One last look around, I take a deep breath and charge.

There are no prisoners. There is only death, decay and rot. Initially, I am overwhelmed with the smell and the heat. It is all I can do not to retch,[successful Constitution save] the fear of making noise is the only thing keeping me together. The interior of this “nest” is like a cross between a beehive and an anthill. There are corridors and chambers dug out of the ground. It is mostly underground and larger than I had imagined. Within the first 6 feet of the entrance I found the first carcass. It was a horse, a patrol horse. It had been encased in the same green goo that I had found on Lex and it had been embedded into the cavern wall with it. Nearby was an assortment of animals: part of an elk, hares, a raccoon family. It was further inside I saw the soldier. After that I stopped studying the walls so closely. There are exposed tree roots here and there and I was lucky enough to be near some to hide behind when a pair of the creatures were walking down the corridor I was in. I held my breath and silently prayed they couldn’t read my heat signature before realizing the entire place was warm enough to hide my body heat. I found a few rooms containing what could be sleeping mats on the floor, or some sort of meeting place. After the near run in with the two in the hallway I am close to bolting, I feel I’ve probably pushed my luck far enough, but my curiosity gets the better of me and I continue to one more passageway. It is here I find the hatching chambers.

These are the largest rooms by far. Probably close to the size of the barracks at Griff garrison. Each one contains about 20-30 large eggs, and there are 4 of these rooms that I see. One hundred and twenty of these things loose in Ratik. In spite of the heat I’m shivering at the thought. Or maybe this is what they mean by trembling in fear. Initially, my desire to wreck havoc on this place takes over and slowly I draw my sword back to begin the destruction. Midway through the gesture I realize the futility, the time it would take to accomplish the act and the attention it would bring would surely result in my death and then no-one would know this was here. Lex would wait his 2 days, but I have the distinct feeling he would come looking for me instead of fleeing as we agreed. Then our nation would be helpless to this….infestation. I return my sword to my side ready for defense, and turn to leave.

“There’s a whole hive of them.” I whisper excitedly as I dive through the branches into our secret camp. As my eyes adjust to the dim light I see Lex in the ready position with the dagger raised and hatchet in his other hand. He relaxes his stance quickly. Over the next few minutes I describe everything I saw to him, almost everything. When he asks about his men, if they were taken prisoner I have to look away and shake my head. Thankfully, he doesn’t press for more details.

“I caught more fish.” He tells me once I’m done with my report. It’s only then I notice the thin fillets laying on the cloak I left him. My eyes narrow and I’m starting to think of a proper way to chastise him when he declares, “We’re starving, we need to eat to be able to leave here and travel. I’m not helpless you know.” There is an edge to his voice, and a defiance that I have come to know in my own reflection. I nod; bite back my original words. “Good thinking,” is choked out instead. He relaxes visibly, the expected argument having evaporated. We eat raw fish again and discuss leaving in the morning, how he’s getting around, and what we might expect. “These are the most dangerous things I’ve ever seen,” I admit while showing him the throwing star and recounting my earlier battle. He’s testing the edge, drawing a thin bead of blood from his thumb. “Told you it was sharp.” I mutter as I watch him. My shoulder starts to throb from my wound. I’m going to need help dressing it.

“It’s like obsidian, but green” he says as he holds it up towards the dying light in our tree well. “Why do you think they are so dangerous?” He effortlessly changes the subject.

I hadn’t really thought to analyze it before, what makes me so anxious about facing them. Why they scare me so……until now. “Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not bragging or anything, what I’m about to say is just the facts….that’s all.” I begin my explanation with a prelude. “My uncle started training me to be a Ranger since I first told him it’s what I want to be when I grow up. I was six at the time. I’ve been training for this job long before becoming a cadet.” I chuckle as I take another small bite of the fish, making it last as long as possible. “He taught me how to gain the advantage in every battle, every fight. No matter my foe, man or beast. As he says; ‘You are the biggest predator in the forest. Everything else is prey.’ Until today I’ve always known this to be true.” I think back to my encounters earlier, pick them apart to make sense of it. “The truth is, I think they are the most dangerous thing I’ve ever faced because they are as good as me. As fast as I am, as accurate, as quiet and stealthy….they are that good.”

I fall silent and let that sink in……to both of us. Lex looks up, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Well, I see what you’re saying but I’m not sure if that’s altogether true.” He pauses for effect, “Because you see, if they were as good as you are, then you wouldn’t be sitting here with me now, would you?”

“Maybe I’m just lucky. Have you ever thought of that?” I retort playfully.

“Maybe we’re both just lucky then,” he replies. “Let’s hope our luck doesn’t run out tomorrow.” I hear him move back to his sleeping area in the darkness as I stare at the edge of the tree-well. I’d hate for us to get jumped our last night here. Just as I’m thinking he’s fallen asleep he solemnly adds, “Get some sleep tonight, we both need you to be sharp tomorrow.” He’s right and I close my eyes while cradling my sword in my lap.

Lex wakes and takes watch without me realizing it. I’m shocked to have slumbered so soundly and relieved too. I do need to stay sharp today. It doesn’t take long to pack up, he had kept everything in my backpack when I left to scout our surroundings. I consult my map one last time and we move out from the tree just after the breaking of dawn. I unsheathe my sword and start to hand it to Lex. “I want you to carry……” My words are cut off by the sudden appearance of one of the Cricket creatures seemingly appearing from thin air, the ground thumps at his landing. “Shit!” I spit out hastily. The creature has released one of his obsidian stars right at Lex. Without thinking I throw myself between them slightly knocking the star with my sword. It is traveling so fast it is barely deflected and grazes my cheek as it passes. I feel the sting and trickle of blood sliding down my face. It’s my turn. I lunge at him as he pulls another star from his pouch to throw. As he raises his arm I slice down with my sword, slashing deep into his throwing arm. My return swing slices through his midsection, catching the edge of his hard shell body and ripping it away from his chest as I cut through. He drops silently.

My chest is heaving as I recover from the sudden influx of fear and adrenaline. All of this happened in the span of 20 seconds. Mere minutes after we departed our camp. I’m torn between wanting to return and hide for safety and just saying ‘Fuck it’ and running for our lives. I look at Lex and see the same thoughts flickering across his face. Then his features harden, he tests his leg with his crutch and says, “I can make it, we can make it.” I’m debating which direction to start when we both jump at crashing sounds coming through the forest to the west of us. I catch a fleeting glimmer of hooves and tails and arms……”Centaurs!” I exclaim a little louder than I intended in my excitement as I point through the trees at the noise. It is then I also see the blur of the Crickets chasing them. I grab Lex’s sleeve and whisper harshly, “Now! This is our chance….we go east.” And we tear through the forest as quickly as he can, not caring to cover our tracks. I keep pace with him, arrow knocked, heart beating so hard I’m sure the sound of it will give us away.

View
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.

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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!]

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