This is the second part of the Project Arise playtest story. You can find the first part here.
The party’s stats can be found here.
Roland, a fiery farmboy with grand dreams of adventure, has experienced the first painful consequences of actual battle. And now he stares up at a girl, about his age, staring at him, holding onto a ruby pendant hung around her neck.
He takes her in more clearly. She has distinctly long ears, and her features have angles unfamiliar to him, but he’s seen people like that from a distance and doesn’t wonder too much at it. Her eyes are a mingling of purple and gold, but it’s hard to tell at this distance. Her dress looks plain enough - nothing like the royal ladies he glimpsed twice in his life, during processions out of the castle - but is still of finer make than the coarse cotton the folks of the farmlands wear.
“Who are you?” he asks uncertainly.
“I don’t know,” she says with a warm smile.
Her eyes take in the two soldiers.
“I killed them,” Roland says in shock. He’s still not grasped the reality–
“They aren’t dead,” she says immediately. Kneeling, she reaches out a hand for one soldier, then another. A gentle green light bridges the space between her outstretched palm and the pair of prone forms. After a moment, she nods in satisfaction. “It will take time, but they will recover.”
Roland realizes they had just tried to kill him. “How much time?”
“I don’t know,” the girl says again, and approaches him.
Carefully, she extracts the knife from his side. Roland grits his teeth for the pain he’s been dreading, and it comes. But it’s followed immediately by waves of a soothing sensation, as the green glow reappears and the warmth of her hand rests on his skin. He smells roses after the rain, and tastes the copper of blood mingling with the juicy sweetness of grapes fresh off the vine, and feels a comforting heat spread from the site of the injury. It’s like… like resting beside a campfire, wrapped in blankets, watching the stars.
If healing feels this good, it almost makes me want to get hurt again, thinks Roland, and realizes in shock what he’s thinking.
“What’s your name?” he asks cautiously.
“I don’t know,” she says, brows furrowed as she concentrates on the process.
“How can you not know your name?”
The girl stands up, nodding in satisfaction at the outcome of her work. “I don’t know,” she says finally.
Roland tilts his head. “What do you know?”
“I know I’ve lost my memory. I know people with weapons chased me. I was in a cellar, inside a castle. People dressed like this hunted me. I ran out of that place, and came here. I hid, but they came close to finding me when you intervened. And so here we are.”
“So you see, I’ve very little to work with when it comes to questions.” She gives a little nod at the end of her recitation, as though satisfied with this work as well.
Roland is at a loss. “You..”
He has enough to answer his own questions about her. You have a home? I don’t know. You have somewhere to go? I don’t know. You feel safe alone in this forest, with killers stalking you? Probably not.
He gets to his feet. “You should come back to my village. Maybe we can help you figure it out.”
The girl holds up a hand. “Let’s search these men,” she suggests. “Maybe they carry something that will tell us who they are. If we learn that, it may tell me who I am.”
Roland nods. “Well until then, do you have a name you’d like me to use?”
The girl thinks, and nods at last. She lays a hand on the pendant she wears. “The first thing I remember is this gem. I felt sure I had to put it on. So I did. If this is what defines me for the moment, then please call me ‘Gem’.”
Roland grins. “Okay. ‘Gem’. My name’s Roland. It’s nice ta meetcha.” He sticks out a hand, for a country handshake, but Gem is already checking the fallen soldiers.
He watches as she rises, pocketing a few things that look like gold pieces.
“Nothing I recognize,” she says at last.
Turning to Roland, she smiles again. “Your village, you said? That is a very kind offer. But as you saw, people are hunting me. I don’t want them to endanger your people too.”
“We can hide you if they come,” Roland says impulsively, before thinking through whether his folk would go for that.
Gem looks thoughtful. “Well. I must keep moving. Anywhere I go is equally imperiled, until I go far enough until those men stop hunting me. If that’s possible.”
She extends her hand in a rough approximation of Roland’s offered handshake from earlier. “What is this?” she asks curiously.
Roland is out of his depth. Everyone knows what a handshake is. But he approaches, clasps her hand, and shakes - trying hard to balance firmness and gentleness. “It’s how we greet people, and make friends,” he explains with a smile.
She meets his handshake, and his smile. Together, they head in the direction of Roland’s village.
Mindful of the ambush from earlier, they do not travel so openly. Despite her lack of memory, Gem seems quite familiar with how to walk quietly - avoiding stepping on twigs and branches on the forest floor, minding the rustle of her clothing, breathing evenly. As a hunter, Roland has learned to be quiet from watching his elders during his formative years. But she’s better at it than he is.
It takes longer than Roland normally takes, because he’s accustomed to the peculiarities of the paths through the forest and Gem is not.
There’s a hill overlooking the village, and the forests and farmlands that surround it. It’s a beautiful place to watch the stars, and the view of the village is perfect. Roland leads Gem out of the forest, and to the top of the rise.
What they see shocks him to his core.
There is a military force here - dozens of soldiers dressed in a uniform he’s never seen before. It’s not the one he saw on the men in the forest, either. They’re rounding up the villagers, and marching them into massive wagons of riveted black iron. There are a few soldiers - commanders, Roland thinks - that seem to be mounted into horse bodies, their upper torsos where a horse’s head ought to be.
Roland and Gem stay crouched and out of sight as they take in the sight of the village being abducted.
It’s not just them. He can see other, similar soldiers on the road heading to the castle.
Every one of the soldiers, and every one of the wagons, bears a symbol he’s never seen before.
Roland wants to jump up - rush down - attack - free his people. But he feels Gem’s hand rest gently on his arm in restraint.
He thinks of the knife wound he got earlier. That was only two men. There’s a dozen times that many here, easily. He wouldn’t have a chance.
He wants to do something.
He can’t be a proper knight. He can’t grow crops like a proper farmer. He can’t keep his people safe, which is all he’s been trying to do in his patrols.
All he’s been able to do is help Gem.
He rubs tears out of his eyes, and slinks down the hill with Gem in tow.
The pair are huddled in a dried-up riverbed Roland knows about. When the rains come next season, it will fill with water, but it’s dry enough now. It’s hard to see things hidden here unless you’re right next to it.
“We can’t hide out in the forest forever,” Gem says thoughtfully.
Roland nods. The symbol of those people who abducted the villagers is burned into his memory. Like Gem, he now has a mystery to unravel.
“But where can we go?” she asks him.
It’s easy to forget she lost her memory, Roland thinks. She seems really smart, and she pays attention to everything.
“The castle is probably being attacked,” Roland says, thinking out loud. “We could go see. But if these are enemies, it would be dangerous. And the people hunting you came from there, you said?”
Roland isn’t sure what to make of this. These guys were pretty scummy. But if they’re from the castle…?
The castle is supposed to be the good guys.
He shakes his head. He’ll worry about it later.
“There’s the City,” he says. “But it’s miles away.”
“Then we travel miles,” Gem announces. “Which city?”
Which city? Can’t there be only one city? The way it’s been described to Roland, it’s so grand, so big, full of so many people, there could only be one such place in the world.
“I don’t know what it’s called,” he admits. “We farm folk just call it ‘the City’. We sell food and stuff to them.”
Gem nods. “I see. Certainly there will be people of erudition there. Perhaps they can deduce a detail about our respective puzzles.”
She sure does use some big words, Roland thinks. Gem must have been someone important.
“There’s the Langroad,” he says. “It crosses over the Ramblegate River, then becomes the Cossway. That’s all I know. But we can follow the road, stay in the wilds next to it, and get to the City without being spotted.”
Gem brightens up at this news. “Wonderful. Lead, and I shall follow.”
The only way Roland knows of going to the City is to get a wagon, load it with supplies, and follow the road. He can’t do any of that - no wagon, no supplies, no road.
“I apologize that conversation with me will be a trifle one-sided,” says Gem, as the pair begin their journey across fields and over rises. “If I could remember more…”
Roland laughs it off. “I don’t know much about much, and I remember all my life,” he admits ruefully. In truth, his eyes have been opened very wide in the last day. “So how ’bout, I tell you what I know, and you tell me what you think of it all. You’re smart, and maybe something will make you remember.”
He tells her about the Langroad, half a mile away from them, and the kinds of travelers he’s occasionally spotted heading past the village on their way to it. There’s animals like horses, and ambulatory plants called oxvines, and the occasional big metal things that move like beasts, all hauling cargo in wagons or on their backs or sometimes atop a floating disc.
He tells her about the crops they grow, and other crops grown by other farmers throughout the whole Valley. Everyone needs more things than they can make themselves, but everyone makes more than their own village needs, so it all gets sent to the City, or up and down the road to other communities. All of these things have names and uses.
Gem listens, and nods appreciatively, and makes comments or asks questions. But none of it seems familiar.
The second day, Roland fails to anticipate the rain. As a result, instead of making good time through the fields as he’d hoped, he leads Gem through the adjoining forest. It’s gloomy, and dark, but at least they only get damp instead of drenched. Still, the mud and the mood slow them down. There’s less conversation and more determined marching.
On the third day, Gem finally starts talking more. Roland isn’t sure if she is scared about having lost her memory, but she’s definitely opening up more.
She doesn’t know the names of plants, but she knows their natures. She comments on the fields of the farmers, and what they contain. She remarks on the trees and the bushes of the woods. She makes guesses about what’s edible and what’s not, and from Roland’s experiences she is mostly correct.
They have to ford the Ramblegate. Roland isn’t eager to swim. But they accidentally cross paths with a woodcutter, who tells them about a rope-and-raft arrangement she uses to get across. They reach the river, head downstream per the instructions, and find it as described.
A rope runs across the width of the river, fastened securely to two sturdy trees on both banks. A raft is tied to the rope. The rope is arranged in a loop, and pulling it drags the raft from bank to bank. Roland tugs, arm over arm, fighting the weight of the rope and the raft and the strength of the current, until the raft is near enough to hop onto. More hauling gets the pair across the river and on their way.
The path Roland chooses takes the pair up onto a ridge, looking down on the Cossway - the broad, busy road that leads to the City and connects to other arteries of regional commerce.
There are fewer carts than he expected. But no soldiers.
Roland has his usual travel gear. He carries stuff to make traps, plus a short rod, fishing line, and hooks. He has salt, a few carefully wrapped packets of seasoning, and an assortment of magia crystals to start fires or preserve and purify water. Usually, he refills at the village. Now, his supplies are dwindling.
Now, he has to start thinking about where these things come from.
When he begins to feel hopeless, he looks at Gem. He has to protect her - keep her safe from whoever’s hunting her, fight off anyone else who tries to take advantage of her. And he’s realizing that she can protect him too. Her quick wit, her healing gifts, and her force of will give him comfort when he needs it.
It takes two more days to reach the end of the Cossway. Roland thought that the ridge would go all the way there. Instead, they reach a dead end where they can see the City, but not reach it without descending a very treacherous and very high cliff face.
But what a sight!
The City is built in the middle of a lake. There is a long bridge, made of gray stone, connecting the Cossway’s end to an enormous gate set into the City’s considerably fortified walls. A queue of merchants and their wagons has formed in front of the gate, and are being carefully searched before any are admitted. City guards, resplendent in their bright livery, stand watch over the proceedings, and more guards man the walls above.
There are parts of the City built up out of the lake, not wrapped inside the walls. Roland can see one such, and points it out to Gem.
The two backtrack carefully until they find an easy slope. They descend and work their way around the bottom of the ridge during the rest of the afternoon. By evening, both Roland and Gem agree they should be able to reach the City on foot from their chosen campsite.
Roland and Gem stand in line for what feels like hours. It might well be, given how slowly everything moves.
They reach the Gate, and the guard inspects the pair. “Business?” he asks in a bored tone of voice.
“Uh, my village was attacked,” Roland says. “So was this girl. We’re trying to figure out who did it.”
“Are you bringing any merchandise to market?” the guard asks dully.
“Move along.” The guard waves a hand, gesturing for the next in line to move up.
“But sir,” Roland protests. “We have to get inside–”
“This is the Stone Gate,” the guard says firmly. “Merchants and approved travelers only.”
The next merchant in line draws near. “Hey, kid,” she calls out. “Take the turtle like everyone else. Don’t waste our time.”
“Turtle?” Roland asks in confusion.
The merchant points west, at a point where the land descends toward the lake.
Roland and Gem shrug at each other, and move away from the busy Gate and its stubborn guard.
They reach the water’s edge and walk for a bit, uncertain. But sure enough, they find the turtle.
The turtle is easily the size of a wagon, or larger. There’s a wooden platform carefully affixed to its shell, and a pole mounted facing forward with a lit lantern hanging from a ring at the top.
The turtle floats aimlessly in the waters of the lake. A wooden dock extends several feet from the shore into the lake. It looks like this is meant to be how one gets across the lake - but what do you do?
Gem points to a small sign, next to the dock. “10 gold per person. Call ‘Paterschildt’ for service,” she reads.
Roland frowns. “I don’t have 10 gold pieces,” he admits. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen 10 gold pieces.”
Gem pulls out the money she obtained from her hunters earlier and presents it for inspection. “I have exactly 10 gold.”
Roland hmms. “Maybe that pendant is worth something–”
Gem protectively clutches the ruby pendant in one hand, and shakes her head.
“I thought you said you found it,” Roland asks. Her immediate defensiveness confuses him.
Gem nods. “I did. But it may be the only thing that could help someone identify me. I have to keep hold of it.”
“Okay…” Roland shrugs, and starts walking to the end of the dock. Maybe there’s another way?
“Paterschildt!” he calls loudly. “We want, uh, service!”
The turtle ends its idleness and begins swimming toward the dock.
“I am Paterschildt,” it announces. “Den turbian dos fatish. Greetings to you, generous travelers.”
“Den lasisch dos fatish,” Gem replies brightly. “Greetings to you, generous host.”
Roland blinks and turns to her. “You speak that language?”
“I guess I do,” Gem smiles brightly.
“Ah! A speaker. I did not expect this,” Paterschildt rumbles. “The fare is 10 gold per person.”
“We cannot afford that,” Roland apologizes. “Isn’t there some other way you could take us over there, to the City I mean?”
“I have not heard the old songs sung in a time,” the turtle confesses in its profound bass voice. “Girl, do you know any of the old songs?”
“I’m afraid I don’t. But I will sing in your language, if that is to your liking?”
The Turtle thrashes excitedly in the lake. “Then we will see if your singing is worth the price of passage. Come aboard, children, come aboard.”
Dusk descends on the world as Paterschildt begins the crossing of the lake. Roland stays close to the center of the platform on its back. Gem does the same, but closer to the turtle’s head, where she sings what doggerel and improvisation she can muster.
“Deris damis olo lamis,
Valder kleft idel seri,
Rubo bibo illo sacro,
Maile rile tero tari…”
By evening, the turtle-raft has come to dock at a ramshackle village built onto a tiny island just outside the City, and connected to it by a small gate.
“Thank you, Paterschildt!” calls Gem, as they disembark onto the dock here.
“Thank you,” echoes Roland excitedly.
“Ilo fatish,” the turtle replies. “Good journeys.”
As the creature swims away, Roland and Gem begin to appreciate the enormity of what they now face. They stand in a new place, ready to chase down two mysteries, without friends, supplies, or a plan.
Still. What other choice is there?