Transcript – Secret Places

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Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Five: Secret Places

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Captain Nereena SinJanna. Human, aged twenty-eight, identified as female. Memory regards her time as an officer with the Federal Army and her experience in the Doldr Marshes, and was donated on the thirteenth of the month of Kalla, in the year 710. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the thirtieth of Thresherstine, 729.

We Begin.

I was employed with the Federal Army, commissioned as a Second Lieutenant right out of the Academy, assigned to the Seventh Company of Wind Coast Rangers. I earned my promotion to First Lieutenant in my first year with the regiment, following a commendation from Captain Uraqash after the Battle of the Oren Dunes.

I say this because I want to be clear that I did not buy my position like a lot of officers you might have heard of, those preening jaycocks who strut about with their pristine uniforms as if they’re the greatest military minds in all history rather than just scrubs with deep pockets, or more often than not, with rich parents who’ll buy their commission for them just so they can say their kid’s an officer of the Federation.

Wastes of air, the lot of them. I earned my damned place and I earned the respect of my troops, not because my daddy owns the cotton mills over in South Eswood or because my mummy sits on some board or other, but because they all know that I lead by example, that I don’t order anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t be able to do myself and that I will be there when the time comes, usually leading the charge.

Ten years I gave to the army. My promotion to captain was longer coming but that made sense. After the Pacification of Upper Vivvok, there weren’t many more big battles to prove myself in.

I know there’s talk of war with the Laohin Republic but that’s been going on since I joined the army and it’s no more true now than it was then. Sure, there’s been a whole lot of flint-cocking but nothing’s actually happened and trade is still going on between us and them last time I checked.

I finally made captain when Uraqash got bumped up to Lieutenant Colonel and he pushed my name through. I heard that he cited my record and reputation as the best examples of a line officer which did make me feel a little smug.

That quickly went away when Uraqash found me after my promotion ceremony. He took me out for celebratory drinks and that’s when he told me that this was likely as high as I would go. He said that, though I was a good officer, one of the best he’d ever seen, the fact was that there were a lot of rich scrubs and their kids who were buying up all the high ranked spots as fast as they became available. He only had a certain amount of pull with the Board of Generals and he’d pretty much used all of that to get me my captaincy.

I was angry, of course I was. I’d basically been told my career had hit the ceiling and why? Not because I wasn’t good enough but because my purse wasn’t as deep as the rich idiot who probably couldn’t tell the butt of his rifle from the barrel. And there was nothing I could do about it.

I’m not trying to excuse what I did but I feel like it needs explaining. See, I’d never have gone to that part of town normally, nor would I have drunk that much. I know my limits and I know an officer needs to maintain the proper level of dignity which I normally do. But after Uraqash left me that night, I don’t know, I think I just lost it.

The regiment barracks are in Winmouth, over on the west coast. I’d been living there pretty much ever since I joined the army so I knew there was a part of town that it was dangerous to go to, especially for someone in uniform. I think that’s why I went. I was so angry, I was looking for an excuse to let off some aggression.

I wasn’t going to start anything myself; I might have been drunk but I still had enough wits about me to know that would have been a stupid idea. But, if someone else started something, well… that was another story. If it got really heated, all the better; I had ten years of hand-to-hand combat training I could draw on and I had my side-sword with me in case things got really out of hand.

It was a small pub in a back alley in the east part of town, near the saltworks. A sign swinging above the door named it as The Lordling’s Fancy. The minute I opened the door I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for. Dark, dingy, looked like it hadn’t had a good clean since before it was opened which, by the look of it, might have been before unification.

The patrons were an ugly bunch. Rough, scarred, maybe three teeth between the lot of them, sitting around rough, unvarnished tables that had been banged up about as much as the folks sat around them, drinking what I suppose might have been beer at some point.

The place was a real pit, which was exactly what I was after.

The girl behind the bar was a turshen, small with large, hazel eyes, her long ears poking up through a flat cap. She might have been quite pretty, actually, if she hadn’t been looking at me like I was something she’d have to scrape off a bar stool at the end of the night.

I approached the bar but didn’t even get a word out before she cut over me. Told me they didn’t serve my kind.

Now, I had seen some humans in there so I knew that wasn’t what she meant, so I asked her what she meant by ‘my kind’.

Blue-back scum, she answered.

Blue-backs, if you don’t know, is a reference to the blue coats that the federal army has as part of it uniform, and I don’t think it’s ever been used as a term of endearment. I’d heard it thrown around a few times during the Vivvok Pacification, but it really threw me to hear it here.

This was a rough part of town, sure, but Winmouth is a military town. I’d expected some shoulder thumping but never thought I’d find anti-federal attitude.

I think it surprised me enough to make me forget how pissed off I was for a minute.

I was able to get my composure back quick enough. I’d like to say that was down to my military experience, after all I’d fought hardened militants in the Oren Dunes, I wasn’t about to be stared down by some rabbit-ear with a wasp in her blouse, but I think it had far more to do with the bottle of whiskey I’d polished off before heading over to that bar.

I told her I was there for a drink. She told me I should go. I told her I’d like to see her make me. And that’s when a meaty hand the size of my head slapped down on my shoulder.

I looked up into the face of a huge orklin saltworker. And I mean huge for an orklin, I know they’re normally pretty bulky folks but this guy was built like a locomotive.

He had at least a foot on me and he was staring down his snout at me, his eyes so bloodshot that they were almost red. His tusks were long and jagged, and even in my state I could tell I’d come off worse if this bruiser decided to use them. I decided I wouldn’t give him the chance.

He had just opened his mouth. Might have been about to ask me to leave, or ask the turshen girl if she wanted help, but whatever it was never came out because my fist took him in the jaw and he went down like a poleaxed cow.

And then all the Depths broke lose.

You’d think they’d have all ganged up on me. They should have and, being honest, it would have served me right for being so stupid. I can’t stress how much I regret what I did, and not just because of what happened after.

But I think there were a fair few in that pit who had grudges against other patrons and the second some got to their feet to come teach me a lesson, others got up to make use of the distraction to vent some aggression of their own.

Pretty soon, the pub was a maelstrom of fists, pained grunts, breaking glass and upending tables. The air was full of bottles, tankards, chairs, pretty much anything anyone could get a good swing with. I managed to avoid most of it but that’s not to say I was completely ignored.

That orklin I’d dropped had had some pals who were none too happy that I’d just clobbered their mate. I was able to get a few good shots in but they were ready for me unlike the first one so they didn’t go down so easily. Eventually they’d forced me back to taking cover behind the bar. That worked for a little while, there were a fair few empty bottles I could use to keep them at bay.

Then that turshen bar girl, she’d ducked out of sight when the fight first started, well she came out of nowhere holding a bloody blunderbuss. I barely got out the way in time, the thing took out a chunk of the counter. I heard someone screaming too but I didn’t get a look at who she’d hit.

That’s the last thing I remember clearly. It got pretty crazy after that. But I definitely remember the next bit.

I don’t remember doing it. I never intended to do it. I know I went out looking for trouble, sure for a fight that night, but that was all. I took my side-sword just in case I bit off more than I could chew and I got into serious trouble. I never intended on actually using it. I don’t remember using it.

But that’s the next thing I remember. No, the next thing I remember is the screaming. People running. The door banging open, the half-light of the street lamps coming in, casting that pale illumination across the pub floor. Showing the body lying at my feet, spread eagled, eyes blank, staring up at the ceiling without seeing it. With my side-sword sticking out of his chest.

I’ve seen dead bodies before, sure. I’ve killed before. I’ve done it with the rifle and with the sword, that’s just part of the job. But that’s war. No matter what the attitude of the folks in that pub were, they were still citizens of the Federation. They were the people I’d sworn to protect. And I’d just killed one of them. I couldn’t move, or even think. I just stood there, looking down on the man I’d killed, for no reason but that I was angry with my own life. No reason at all really. I was horrified.

The lawkeepers turned up not long after. Doubt they bother coming to that part of town most of the time, the Lordling’s Fancy is the kind of place that they would tend to ignore to save time on paperwork. But tavern brawls are one thing, murder is quite another and as soon as they found out who I was, they hauled me back to the barracks and turned me over to Colonel Nadair, the Regiment Commander.

She is not a woman to take lightly, and she doesn’t take offences lightly either. She held nothing back. A court martial was called but that was pretty much a formality. I’d been discovered at the scene, drunk and I owned the weapon that did the deed. Throw that in with the half dozen eye witnesses, the trial was over before it had even begun. The only reason I avoided prison time was the court ruling I hadn’t premeditated the killing and must have acted in self-defence.

I was given a hundred lashes in the punishment square, nearly a week-long public spectacle, followed by dishonourable discharge. Honestly, prison would have been kinder. My life had been tied to the army. Without it, I had nothing. No job, no home since I was obviously kicked out of the barracks. And without any kind of income, I wasn’t likely going to be able to afford anywhere to live very long, not that I fancied staying in Winmouth anyway. So, I packed up what I could and moved back to Sullis where my parents, the Three bless them, took me in.

I had a hard time finding work. Not many places are willing to hire anyone with my record. I could sometimes get part-time work as an unskilled labourer, get paid not even half what I’d been earning with the army, and those were the good days.

Most of what I earned I lost in the taverns. I think it’s fair to say I went into one heck of a decline. My life became a cycle of menial work and drink, with some sleep every now and again when I was able to close my eyes.

I know, I know, drink was one of the reasons I was in the mess to begin with, but it did make things slightly more bearable. And, if I hadn’t been in such a state, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to what came next. And I wouldn’t be here now.

His name was Sergeant Paeter DeSanna. He was a creep I’d done my best to avoid throughout my years with the Rangers. He wasn’t in my company, thank the Chained, but I’d seen him around the barracks or in the mess halls. He’d always leered at me whenever he saw me. Always gave me the urge to take a very hot shower.

He approached me one night in the Oarsman’s Arms, offered to buy me a drink.

I told him to pound floorboards while he could still walk in a straight line. I had no idea what he was doing there, Sullis is hardly just a quick carriage ride from Winmouth, but I honestly could not have cared less. I guessed that he’d taken some leave and gone somewhere he wouldn’t be known and had come up to me, not recognising who I was.

Turned out I was wrong. He did recognise me. In fact, he’d come all that way specifically to find me. Said he might have a way for me to get back in with the army.

Now, obviously I was suspicious of this, but I was also kind of desperate enough that I was prepared to hear the little weasel out. So, I didn’t immediately punt him across the common room when he pulled out the stool next to mine.

Then he started talking. He told me about this guy he knew, a clerk in the Central Command offices who would be able to make sure the record of my discharge was lost while pushing through some paperwork that would get me a new commission in another regiment.

It was a bad idea. I know that now. I knew it then. But desperation will make the worst idea seem tempting.

So, instead of emptying my beer over his head, I asked him what I’d have to do. He told me there was something he needed. Something he couldn’t get for himself. Deep in the Doldr Marshes. He showed me a map, told me what to look out for. It sounded simple enough.

I agreed, didn’t even ask why he couldn’t do it himself. I probably should have.

The Doldr Marshes aren’t that far from the southern wind coast, maybe half a day’s journey inland, depending on the road you take. And it didn’t take long to find the first marker that DeSanna had pointed out on the map. He’d given that to me so I checked it again.

A tall, ancient frostpine that was missing its top and had three long scratch marks running down its trunk.

DeSanna’s instructions were to stand facing north with the tree at my back. I would see a large boulder covered in lichen. I had to then walk in a straight line from the tree to that boulder. This was the first… well, he called it a bridge.

The Doldr Marshes are well known for being treacherous. A lot of it looks like solid ground but is actually deep, murky water with lumps of moss and dirt floating on the top. Most of it only comes up to your knees or your waist but there are quite a few hidden depths and sink holes. DeSanna said that the path he laid out would be safe.

So, the first bridge ran from the frostpine to the huge boulder, then to a hillock where a small copse of coalwoods were growing. Then to another marked frostpine, then to an old standing stone, you get the idea.

I don’t know how long it took exactly but I’d guess at a little over an hour and a half before I reached what DeSanna had said was where this thing he was after was.

By that point, I’d seen a few standing stones as I’d made my way through the marshes, but all of them had been solitary. The place I’d been pointed to was a wide stretch of solid land in the middle of the marshes and on it was a whole circle of standing stones. And at their centre was a huge stone altar.

It was a strange looking thing. It looked like someone had taken a piece of grey stone and another of sandstone and… mixed them together somehow, like they’d been pushed into each other. There was this line running down the middle where the two colours blended into each other. I’d never seen anything like it.

DeSanna had said I’d find what I was looking for in the stone circle, that it would be small, small enough to carry in one hand. He hadn’t told me any more than that but the dry land wasn’t that big so I figured I’d give the area a thorough look over and I should find whatever it was.

It was as I was approaching the stone circle that things started to get… strange.

It was the scorch marks I noticed first. Marsh grass was growing all over that little dry spot but here and there were dead patches where clearly something had been burned. Not like there had been a wild fire, more like smaller fires that had been lit there, cooking fires or something like that.

Then, as I got closer to the altar, I saw there was another colour there, along with the grey and the sand. Here and there, all over it, were these black splotches with streaks of the same colour running down the stone sides.

I told myself it couldn’t be what I thought it was, there was no way. Rites like that haven’t been done in this part of the world for, what, thousands of years?

But I know what it was. I’ve spent enough time around medicinal tents to recognise old blood when I see it. And I knew, deep down, that over time stains like those are eventually washed away by the rains. So, though those stains might have been old, they weren’t that old.

But, before I could really think through what I’d seen, I saw what I was there for. There was a small recess in the altar I hadn’t noticed at first but, as I got closer, I could see it and inside there was this small statue.

I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it looked like. I don’t mean I didn’t see it; I mean… this is going to sound really odd, but it changed its shape as I was looking at it. When I first saw it, I thought it looked like a mass of writhing tentacles reaching upward, like a kraken reaching up out of the water. But I swear with every step I took it changed. I didn’t take my eyes off of it. It was almost like one of those perception drawings that shift as you’re looking at it.

Well as I approached the altar it shifted from being a mass of tentacles to looking like a shoal of swimming fish. The next minute it looked like the snarling maw of a feral beast, then a mass of rough fur and claws and teeth. Then it looked like a pile of old bones, fragile enough to blow away in the wind.

When I was no more than a few paces from the altar, it looked to me like an impossible shape, an infinite loop that somehow had a clear beginning and an end.

And that’s not all. This is where you call me a lunatic and throw me out of this place, but I swear to you that as I approached that altar, I began to hear voices. Low, whispering voices, all saying the same word. I couldn’t really make it out but it sounded like, “Sha’attaMot.”

But that’s not the strangest part. No, the strangest part was I could feel myself changing as I approached that statue. With every step, my limbs became heavier. I felt weaker, more tired. I looked down and I saw my skin wither like the skin of a prune. Liver spots appeared all up my arm. I felt at my face and found it drawn and withered as much as my arms, the bones of my skull all too noticeable through the now thin skin of my face.

But strangely, at the time, none of that scared me. It felt normal, the most natural thing in the world. This wave of acceptance washed over me. I knew that all I had to do was take the statue and all would be well, that this was just a fleeting thing. I reached out to take the statue.

And the next thing I knew, I was on the ground, pinned beneath something, someone. I struggled and yelled but the person on top of me snapped at me to be quiet.

Then I heard them whisper a word I couldn’t make out and, suddenly, there was this fiery glow and incredible heat.

I felt the weight lift off of me and I pushed myself onto my feet. I saw the person who’d pinned me was a human man with dark skin and a shaved head. He wore this long, smoke-grey coat with this ornate knife hanging from his belt. He was wearing this golden medallion, looked like an X-shape at the centre of a sunburst.

I glanced past him and saw that the stone altar was now, somehow, impossibly, ablaze with bright flames.

The man in grey told me to return the way I had come and to think no more of this place or what I had seen, all while giving me this really intense stare. I’d met enough dangerous people in my life to recognise one when I saw them so I was more than happy to oblige.

I left the marshes, following the same path. My body grew stronger and more awake with each step I took away from that place. I didn’t look back, not once, even when I felt the heat of the flames.

Final Notes: There is quite a bit to go through with this one so we shall start with the details that can be conclusively proven. Captain SinJanna attended the Federal Officers Academy in Whitburgh, graduating in the year 698 in the top ten percent of her class and was then commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with the Wind Coast Rangers regiment, moving up to the rank of Captain in the proceeding ten years.

She received a dishonourable discharge in 709 following a drunken tavern brawl which resulted in the death of a saltworker by the name of Auleck Rhes. A court martial ruled this manslaughter in the second degree and Captain SinJanna was punished just as she described in her memory.

The next part is where we hit the stumbling blocks. We have had no luck tracking down this Sergeant DeSanna. Records show he did indeed serve in the Wind Coast Rangers but that he went AWOL shortly after Captain SinJanna’s discharge. There are no records of him after that time.

As for what the Captain described in the Doldr Marshes, that area has been very well mapped out so I requested the aid of my acquaintance in the Geography department of the Elalton University. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that this altar mentioned in the memory even exists, and there has never been any evidence found of any religious groups or practices within the marshes. As for Captain SinJanna’s visions, I have no explanation for that. I suppose it’s possible that gasses released by the marshes could have caused hallucinations, but I am by no means an expert on such things.

Szelia was able to track down Captain SinJanna, who is now working as private security for the Arborus Cotton Mill. She declined to give any follow up statements but says she stands by what she said in the memory she donated.

The one final thing I do feel worth noting is this mysterious stranger who appears towards the end of the memory. I don’t recognise the description of the man, however the medallion he was wearing, the X within a golden sunburst, is very familiar. It is the symbol of the Delean Brotherhood, a group of religious extremists connected with a string of arsons that occurred roughly twenty years ago, a sizeable chunk of the Doldr woodland apparently being among them.

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]