artwork by callmeplisskin
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Chapter 1: A Noble Mission
A hush fell over the meadow as we stepped into the clearing and out into the sunlight. Where moments before there had been the sounds of birds and crickets and frogs, there was now just a silence that felt as heavy as the humid air.
We approached the now-familiar pond in the center, Scintilla and Selandra walking beside me in stride. All day I’d been filled with anticipation for another afternoon with the sexy dragon-lady sisters and their tentacled friends.
“I’m quite surprised to see you back here so soon, Alynnya,” Scintilla said in her usual sultry voice. “Of course, you’re always welcome, but…”
“Surprised?” her sister snorted. “I’m only surprised she waited this long.”
I smiled sweetly at both but immediately returned my focus to the blue-green water ahead.
“Perhaps you would like to disrobe, and…” Scintilla cut herself off as my pale shift dress landed in the grass before her and I stepped directly into the pond. I situated myself against the bank and spread my legs. Almost immediately I could feel a ripple of movement under the water…
“Ranger Slatefire, are you paying attention?”
My head snapped up and I sheepishly met my commanding officer’s eyes. “Yes, Mistress! I mean, yes, Ma’am!”
“Then sit up straight and keep your legs under your own table.”
I glanced down and saw my legs splayed wide while I leaned back in my seat, just as they were a moment ago in the dragon ladies’ secret pond. I pushed myself back up straight amid a chorus of giggles and snorts from my fellow rangers.
These weekly briefings were brutal. The only tolerable thing about them is that they were when new assignments were handed out. Of course, I hadn’t received a decent assignment in weeks…just the usual things like mediating a feud between merchants or getting a baby drakeling out of a tree.
It was no wonder my mind wandered to more exciting memories and fantasies of adventures.
Moments later, just as my mind was beginning to wander back to the dragon ladies’ fun-seeking friends in the pond, something in my commander’s latest brief caught my ear. Something about wolf attacks and missing girls in the western provinces. Now she had my undivided attention.
She described how wolves of some sort had been attacking oddly specific targets that animals normally wouldn’t be interested in. And to add a little more intrigue, several of the eldest daughters or wives of area businessmen had disappeared–one per month, for several months.
Finally, a noble mission!! I caught my commander’s eye, and raised my hand tentatively.
“Ranger Slatefire, why am I not surprised to have you volunteer. Given your ‘experience’ with monsters and such.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I believe I’m the perfect candidate for the assignment.”
Night was falling on my third day in the city, and I had yet to come up with a meaningful lead. And it was increasingly difficult to get anyone to talk openly with me. The last few I had approached got a fearful look in their eyes and waved me away before I could introduce myself.
Of course I wasn’t introducing myself as a ranger. Instead, I told them I was a scholar interested in learning about local wolf lore. I had learned many bits of information, heard several wild rumors, and listened to some crazy conspiracy theories. But no solid facts or clues.
The only recurring themes I heard from the few who would speak openly with me seemed like typical superstitious lore: a monster appearing by the light of a full moon, an offering being given to placate the beast, a screaming damsel hanging by her wrists in a dramatic ceremony.
I had to confess, the tales brought to mind some of my own experiences with monsters over the years–not all of which had been unpleasant. And so I found myself a little more eager to hear salacious details than an objective scholar might be–I had to fight to keep my composure.
Unfortunately, the more specific my questions became about the attacks and missing women, the less helpful the locals became. One by one, they would fall silent or leave abruptly.
Now, there were only three more full days until the night of the Harvest Moon and I was still getting nowhere. One fact I had learned was that the disappearances always happened the night before the full moon. Which meant only two more days until the night of the next disappearance. I was running out of time. I stared into my mug of scrumpy, watching the small bubbles rise to the surface of the cloudy drink. I needed to learn who was taking them, and how.
Two more mugs appeared in my peripheral vision. A frail looking older woman slipped into the tavern booth across from me and looked about furtively.
“You the uni girl askin’ bout the werewolf cult?” she whispered.
“Sorry, the what? Werewolf cult…”
She cut me off with a hiss. “Hush now girl, if someone ‘ears us we’ll both be disappeared.”
She then launched into a crazy tale about a secret society who had made an unholy pact with a werewolf pack. In exchange for a monthly tribute, the werewolves would attack targets who stood in the cultists’ way. And the tribute, she said, was in the form of a young woman.
The secret cult, she told me, was called ‘The Order of the Red Rose.’
I thanked her for the cider and began to patronizingly dismiss her ludicrous tale as just a salacious story to get young men excited about damsels in distress, and to keep young girls in line. She interrupted me by pushing a piece of parchment across the table at me.
I glanced down and saw a pencil sketch of a very pretty young woman. She reminded me of my friend, the wizard’s assistant; demure and innocent looking with soft eyes and a lovely smile.
“This is my daughter Jess. She went to apply for a secretary job at that big merchant’s office in the city center. Just one day before the Strawberry Moon. And I have never heard from her again. I just know those people there have done something terrible to her. Please help me!”
I studied her face again. I saw her differently now…not the wild look of a crazed old woman, but the angst-ridden face of a mother who has lost a daughter. My heart ached for her, while my mind was making connections to my other clues.
There were few motivations as strong as a mother’s concern for her child. I began to understand the risk she must have taken in approaching me, which gave me reason to trust her. I thanked her for the cider, and promised I would look for her daughter.
“Keep the drawing,” she said. Just bring my Jess back to me.” Without another word she slipped away and out the back door of the tavern.
I stared at the sketch and began to formulate a plan. I feared it might be too late for her daughter, but at least I could keep her fate from becoming the fate of another.
Behind the tavern, a distinguished looking man stepped from the shadows and grasped the old woman’s arm. “Well, did the ranger believe you?”
The woman’s frail slouch disappeared as she stood up straight and pushed her shoulders back. “Indeed she did, Sir. I think you’ll be seeing her well before the Harvest Moon. Perhaps even in the morning. At the office.”
“Well done, then. Return to your home and do not come to the office tomorrow.”
“And you’ll spare my daughter Jess the ritual, Sir? You promised.”
“We’ll see. If this one is worthy of the ritual, your daughter will be spared. At least for this month’s moon. Go home and be with her.”
To be continued–