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!]