Campaign Diary: The Sword of the Remnant


#1

12th of Rabbit, in the 844th Year since the Old Empire’s Fall

Let these words record the passing of Konstantin Kolayavich Maharov, called Clutter, 53rd Tantarian Lorekeeper, who completed his service to the Legion on the fields of Ettenmark on 10 Rabbit 844, attempting to hold the eastern flank’s line, as Rampart fell.

His name is entered into the Book of the Dead, beside the nine hundred and thirty seven others who fell in battle against the Cinder King’s army.

I here record that I, Bianca Valentina Storace de Nessuno of Or, called Spite, have accepted willingly the duties of Lorekeeper with his passing, in addition to my duties as Quartermaster General. For the Legion, I shall discharge this office and keep the Annals to the best of my ability, that our history may continue to be writ.

A new Actual Play Report.

Well, not precisely. We have four players, including myself – Robert (the Commander), Chris (the Marshal), Greg (the Quartermaster) and myself - spread unevenly around the world, and so the group plays intermittently through text on Discord. As such, this is less an After Action Report and more a fully transcribed Actual Play-by-default. Compared with most, this means it’ll have… lets call it extraneous detail. The game is thorough, and moves slowly, in a way Band of Blades was probably not built for, and we’ve only finished our third missions in six months. I’ll be intercutting the Annals as kept by the PC lorekeeper with the sessions themselves and my mechanical comments as we go.

Because the quartermaster duties felt a little too actuarial and fiddly, we’ve combined the QM role with the Lorekeeper role to give the player more window for storytelling along with the inevitable math.

We started relatively early in the Beta, and because we cannot help but world-build as a group, our table’s setting has evolved ever further away from the ‘canon’. For example, our Panya is only relatively recently resettled, having a Colonial American Pilgrim vibe; our Or is a collection of independent city-states with a Les Mis class divide instead of the “universal ennoblement” thing; the timeline with the Emperor and the Legion has been stretched out by another few hundred years; oh, and the Chosen of the Living God work… very very differently.

The way we play also means that we’ve focused on a different set of priorities to many groups. We have a lot more focus on the command staff and their lives, for example, and we spend more time and detail back at camp relative to time actually on missions.

Content Warning - Like an idiot, I forgot to add this yesterday. The following contains bad language, occasionally reasonably explicit body horror, implicit (though never explicit) torture and, of course, violence.

I’d say that is enough preamble before the introduction, so…


#2

THE GENERALS OF THE COUNCIL

Our command staff are much less sketches and much more the through line characters for the entire game.

Lord Commander Dmitri Alexovich Czecha
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Served with the Legion, 19 years

Commanded the Legion, 8 days

Hailing from the Zemyati lands to the far east, Alexovich entered as a junior ensign and rapidly rose to Lieutenant on the back of affable manners and obvious ability… where he stayed for 16 years. Seemingly contentedly stalled out as a confident, if increasingly long in the tooth, officer he seemed to neither seek nor be pushed towards more senior command.

Until the disaster.

Until the Breaking, and the war that followed.

With the senior command of the Legion cut down, the armies shattered and companies divided, the aging officer, by dint of seniority, took brevet command of the largest remnant of the Legion and gathered up the rest of the troops as best he could. When the Legion reached quorum, they voted him to the Lord Commander position. When asked why, they had one consensus answer: he kept us alive.

Unsure as to whether the disastrous circumstances changed the man, or revealed potential he had long previously repressed, Alexovich remains a positive beacon of hope, mixed with a cool, seemingly fearless pragmatism.

Marshal Zinovia “Fang” Lubovyena
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Served with the Legion, 14 years

Marshaled the Legion, 7 years

Lobovyena is a Zemyati chieftains-daughter who was ransomed to an Orite noble house during her formative years to ensure a peace along a shared border between the two domains. As such, always seen as an outsider upon her return to Zemya, it was easy for Lobovyena to leave her Clan and seek her fortune with the Eternal Legion. Pressed early on by her reputation among her own people as being soft, she made a name for herself in the Remnant as an officer who leads from the front. It earned her the nickname “Fang”, and her rough image is something that she plays into with her leadership style. The legionnaires see her as the devil you want on your own side, cunning and efficient in the field yet protective of her own men.

Quartermaster General Bianca Valentina Storace de Nessuno of Or Also known as: Spite and That Bitch
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Time with the Legion, 24 years, seven months, seventeen weeks, two days

Time as Quartermaster, 7 years, two months, twenty-nine weeks, six days

Time as Lorekeeper, 9 days

She has been with the Legion so long, the only person now living who knows how she got there is… her, and she’s not telling. It’s in the Lore, of course, a day and a date and a signature. The signature is in precise, meticulous handwriting. A shade of things to come. There are rumors, of course. That Bianca was a Contessa’s heir who threw it all away to run after the love of a soldier. Or perhaps to seek revenge on a soldier. Or possibly both. Or neither.

That she is educated has never been in dispute, that she understands letters and numbers and arcane concepts like double-ledger accounting. Perhaps she had apprenticed with the Alchemists or Mechanists guilds, or her family held position or sway in one or either. To those who know – the few who remain – the odds favor the Alchemists storyline; in her years on the march, she was the reliable choice when something needed to be made to cease to exist. Bridge, bulwark, or battlefield, she blew them all up. To do this required supplies; to acquire supplies required understanding how the Legion was supplied to begin with; which led, in short order, to suggestions as to how this could be accomplished more efficiently, at less cost, at greater reward. Which led… …well, ultimately, to where she is now.

She is known to be generous with a drink and a story, quick to anger, and to curse a streak of lightning when roused. She has a fondness for dogs around the camp, because they can be trusted, can be trained, can find food when everyone else is starving, and if treated well will raise the alarm loud and fierce, and they’ll fight, to boot.

She is demanding of the masters under her command, notorious for not just her insistence of an accurate accounting, but requiring clarity of records. Yet she defends her masters and supply officers ferociously, unhesitating about offering praise where it is due, and lo to any new recruit who somehow sees the men and women under her command as in anyway lesser of mettle.

She is ruthless in hunting down theft or misappropriations – that is for other armies, not for the Legion. The Legion stands together, or the Legion falls. This, in part, is why she has taken it upon herself to care for, maintain, and guard the Annals in the absence of a new Lorekeeper. She tends the standard. She keeps the books. And she has begun the thankless task of updating the Annals in the few, captured moments of quiet she has stolen since the defeat and retreat of the week before.


#3

CAMPAIGN SET-UP

Chosen and Broken
Rather than pick as GM, I let the Commander select their Chosen and one of their two Broken (leaving the last one for myself to round out for tone). I got back Zora and Render.

For Render, I asked a prompting question of whether any of the Council had ever served under him, and got back… this.

The ice of Zemyati breeds a people for oaths, of promises small and large, but every Zemyati knows the oaths most sacred are the secret promises one makes to oneself. That is the essence of chivalry, which in their savage family struggles developed independently, but with equal passion, to the witty, graceful knights of the West. More than a few Zemyati travelled Westward to the Great Court of Lances, won their spurs and hung their shields as part of the Thousandfold Mirror.

Aleksander Alexovich was such a one. So great was his chivalry that the divine fire of the Living God moved into him, making him the new Unbroken Shield of Man, successor to a dozen Chosen of the Shield before him. The perfect older brother, who taught Dmitri to pick up a sword, to ride a horse, to stand firm in battle. The perfect brother, perfect even in his humility and encouragement, even in the face of parental praise and shared expectations. The brother that Dmitri loved, despite fleeing the expectation of a famous sibling: to be a great success himself, or to be a failure, to eclipse himself wholly in a mediocre life. The brother turned monster.

Aleksander is now the Bone-Render, the Hollow Knight, the Shattered Bulwark.

Yeah. I definitely was not going to say no to that, so I quickly scrambled.

I ‘borrowed’ the core conceit from the Circle out of Steph Swainton’s The Year of Our War – the Chosen of the Living God were selected centuries before the Empire was founded, but for their mastery of a skill. If any mortal can best them at their defining skill, the holy flame transmigrates to create a new Chosen.

And on that basis…

Zora of the Living Blade is the greatest swordswoman that ever lived. She is also, like all Chosen, a mystery, tales of her accomplishments, abilities and exploits highly unreliable as she enters and exits history over the centuries. Allegedly, she defeated the Swordfather, the former Chosen of the Living God who is said to have forged the first ever blade, in single combat in the years before the First Bartan Invasion, and seemingly inherited his immortality.

She broke Dar long ago, and was as close to a victor as the Godswar had, driving off the Legion with a small band of sword saints and striking down many Chosen in single combat. She has no demonstrated miracles other than her own prowess and undying nature, though a vial of her burning blood – if somehow taken from her in battle - is attested without support to be a holy token of potency bringing enlightenment to the great warriors and conquerors of Zemyati history. She claims it is her destiny to slay the Cinder King with the right blade, a blade she thirsts for. Of course, Aleksander Alexovich made the exact same claim before his Breaking…

The Zemyati view of the supernatural does not consider a place for an entity that answers prayers, nor offers hope, nor provides succor to the weak. No, the powers have abandoned man, as shown in the harshness of the world, but have left tests for the worthy to prove themselves against. Zora, the last unBroken Chosen of the Living God, ended the Godswar herself. She is alluring in her humanity, relative to the other Chosen, and fearsome in her martial perfection.

For Zora’s blessing, Star of the Dawn was taken, to fit with Dmitri’s stoic resilience. I did not decide what Render’s second power would be at the game’s outset, but instead decided that would depend on which missions the Council selected first in the Western Front – if the missions thwarted the creation of Heartless, he would have a new elite troop type called Alabaster Riders, or vice versa. I think this worked out pretty well.

Along with Render, I took Stormbreaker. Bashing into copywrite, I nonetheless renamed her Stormbringer, as I think it sounds better. As her advances, I took The Coven and Nature’s Fury.

Supplies and Starting Position

My fellows of the Council—

Not going to litigate the clusterfuck. We get out of this shitstorm, hopefully there’ll be time for that later. Also, a lot of wine. I will say that getting out of that shitstorm at all was a trick, and with the passing of Clutter I have taken it upon myself to keep the Annals until we have moment and means to appoint a new Lorekeeper. Which is to say, Gorgeous, you and Fang are writ large on the last page right now. Hopefully we’ll have a few more pages, if not volumes, to add.

The purpose of this document is to advise you both as to our current status regarding materiel and supplies. As of today, here’s where we stand:

Food – we’re good. In fact, we’re practically rolling in it. So if nothing else, we can all go down with full bellies. And likely drunk, as I’ve managed some brandy and port, along with that sticky Zemyati stuff that, when you cut it with water, passes for wine. Also some herbs. So that’ll help morale. I’ve managed a few supply carts, as well, a couple that survived the battle, a couple that had been abandoned in the same, and one that we found roadside and are fixing up. The rear axle is shot, but I’ve got my blacksmiths making the repairs, so it’ll be ready come morning.

Supply Carts – See above. Weapons and armor are being repaired as we speak. We’re set to carry what we have, but not much more.

Horses – well, we have some, but they’re a mixed bag. Half a dozen of them can swing for light cavalry if we’re pressed, and they’re swift enough to double for the scouts, but the rest I wouldn’t take any bets on them seeing out the winter. As far as pack animals go, we’re set for the supply carts. Beyond that, we’re fucked.

Black Shot – I had a very…intense…conversation with Dottore Giancarlo and was able, at length, to persuade him to donate what Black Shot he had available. This is in lieu of any fucking Alchemist who would be able to make it for us. But needs must. Three kegs, carefully bundled and very, very secure. I’ve no idea how long it’ll last us, but as far as strategic assets, that may be our best one, next to Gorgeous continuing to be a clever bastard.

Support Personnel – aside from the afore-mentioned blacksmiths, I managed to find a handful of others who are willing to march with us. They won’t eat into payroll too hard – most of them have no interest in sticking around here, for obvious reasons. One engineer amongst them, two blacksmiths, two carpenters, and the usual assortment of hangers-on. That’s not true. Our numbers are such and the situation such that we’ve less hangers-on than would be expected. I will not be surprised if we pick up more as we make our way east.

Any questions, you know where to find me.

~Spite

Mercy
The Legion Mercy, who Bianca calls Taisa, has been under her care-slash-at her side for the past four years, since the girl was nine. It is Taisa who is responsible for the scars Bianca now sports, and more importantly, the face and head that the scars ride upon. The details of the explosion are unimportant, and the campaign forgotten in all but the Annals. Whether it’s in gratitude or because of the girl’s connection to the Healer, Bianca has kept the girl with the Legion ever since. Now 13, the toll of Taisa’s calling is growing more and more evident. Her spine has bent cruelly, turning the girl into a hunchback and causing her obvious pain. Whether she is truly a mute in unknown, but she has not been heard to speak in over two years, and communicates primarily through signs and writing.


#4

Marshaling the Remnant

Because it was going to be months before people saw their commanding officers again, I wanted to give everyone a chance to make their mark. The Commander got the choice of Chosen and Broken, and the Quartermaster-turned-Lorekeeper got to have say over the terms of the Contract, starting loadout and Legion values through crossed-out Back at Camp scenes, so I gave the Marshal some new choices:

The New Muster, the New Legion
The old Legion was gutted in the Battle. Not even two score survived. But under your guidance, piece by piece, the Legion has been reborn. You had some choices in remaking the reduced Remnant, though near all were unworthy to your weathered eye.

Did the survivors favour:

  1. Bartan footmen, freshfaced and full of hope. They did not know the Traditions, or the Lore. They had never before faced an army, let alone faced the living dead. Most of them died on the fields of Ettenmark, but a msattering of more experienced Bartans, with longsword, armour and musket, helped you keep their countrymen in line.
  2. The disciplined, well-equipped condottieri of the Or, with longrifle and sabre, in it for the coin.
  3. The quick and quiet frontiersmen from Panya, mobile and lightly armoured but unused to crowds and formations.
  4. The primal and honourable clan warriors of distant Zemya, as strong as they are stubborn.

Her unique heritage as a hostage in Or give her insights that ensure the obedience of the mercenary Condottieri that have been serving with the Legion for the past three years.

The Legion has ancient and storied traditions for its centuries, originally a hundred troops but stretching between a score and a thousand as fortune waxes and wanes. Now, the most you can throw together are fists (groups of five fighters trained together as per the Rules of the Annals).

Did you restore two of the oldest centuries entirely destroyed in the Battle of Ettenmark - the Shattered Lions and the Grinning Ravens – or did you create, name and provide a sigil for new Fists or your own creation? What are the names of the new blood, the ten rookies across these two Fists?

After the calamitous Battle of Ettenmark, Marshal “Fang” was one of the backbones that held the Legion together. After the destruction of the Shattered Lions and the Grinning Ravens, she quickly formed two new inheritor fists, the Scarred Lions and the Laughing Ravens, who would honor those who had fallen before them.

The Legion has, at times in its history and under different Marshals, had titled the elite and unattached members of the Legion Specialists or Champions. What is the title of your best?

Lobovyena has elected to call her elite soldiers Specialists, reflecting a practical meritocracy rather than the somewhat aggrandizing title of Champions.

You may have also recruited something unusual, as desperate times call for desperate measures. What occurred?

  1. You have five of these elite sworn to the Legion. One hero of the battle offered to march with you and fight for you, but would not swear to the Legion for their own mysterious reasons. Did you accept them? Or…
  2. A Fist from the Isles, the Hanged Men, have stayed on with the Legion, bringing your fighting strength to 35. But they were injured in the Battle, and the priests say that while their physical wounds were healed, they have become Blighted. Did they stay with you? Or…
  3. Did you reject both, maintaining the purity of the Remnant and its traditions? If you go this way, the enemy will equally be denied some fortuitous turn.

The lone hero who refrained from swearing into the Legion was sent away. Fang figured they would die fighting on their own, with or without the Remnant. By setting themselves above the tenents of the Legion, they could could sow dissent during an already difficult journey ahead. The Hanged Men will be allowed to continue to fight with the Legion. Disallowing Fists to continue under the Eternal Legion banner due to Corruption could set a dangerous precedent for the campaign. However, the Hanged Men will march alone, set camp alone, and won’t be permitted to mingle with the rest of the forces. They will also be the first to be sent into battle, until they die for the cause.


#5

The Specialists

Topaz Running Iron
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Created by the Commander, Topaz is the quintessential Panyar. An eccentric trapper turned deadly sniper from a utopian collective of religious free-thinkers. He is shrewd, fast-moving and pious in his own odd way. He is talks in an ideomatic dialect that Robert invented on the fly, somewhere in between Mennonites, Cockney and Jack Sparrow, essentially demanding that Panya be shaped to fit. Marksman all the way.

Greg suggested that with rifles where they were, and with the class embracing pistol-users, that X-Com reference be damned, they weren’t really Snipers, and so the designation Master Gunner was born, which will be how I refer to Topaz and his ilk from here on out.

Captain Raffaelle Orazio de Deori
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Created by the Quartermaster, the Captain was one of the Legion’s best and brightest, which is good, because as of Ettenmark, he is literally the last officer standing. From one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Deori families, somewhere between the Medicis and the Borgias, his reasons for being in the Legion are unknown. With Lead from the Front and a spread of skills, Rafe is a charmer and a thinker. He was Dmitri’s best friend before everything changed.

Sable Flowing Gale
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Created by the Marshal, the Remnant doctor is a Romantic figure, with dashing dashes of Byron and Shelley, all primed for battlefield medicine and saving the Aldermarni natives from dire and gloomy occupation. Sable is a university man, and somewhat quiet about his Panyar heritage, though it shows through many of his actions. Not Today was a no-brainer. He is also one of the Marked, though he tends to keep his cat’s claws trims and hidden.

Koylat Roidoinovich
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Created by the Marshal, the nervous Scout was an ill-fit with Zimya’s warrior culture, preferring to avoid trouble of all kind. Ghost plus Scout and Scrounge 2, he is good at what he does.

Frieta Laghari
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Created by the Marshal. A Bartan heavy, the only thing stronger than her heart are her muscles. A defender of rookies everywhere with Protector, her focus is always and forever to keep everyone alive. A job she does not feel she has been doing well lately.


#6

13 - 15 Rabbit 844

This shall be a long entry. I am wrestling my gut desire to keep this an accounting. Marking it in numbers would be easier. I have spent the last several days, amidst the duties in trying to restore and marshal our remnant, with the problem of how to discharge this office. Clutter could write; we shall see if I can.

Ettenmark Fields was a disaster, and I suspect the blame for it lies at the feet of many. Whether it was ultimately a failure of intelligence or arrogance, I have my suspicions, but it doesn’t matter anymore. What matters now is that our remnant is all that stands between the retreating Eastern Alliance and the Cinder King’s advance.

With the death of Lord Rakash Khatri, holder of the Contract, the Council has determined that the Contract is still True. Our mission, then, is to cover the retreat and harry the enemy until we can reach Skydagger Keep in the Westwall Mountains. We must achieve this by winter, before the pass closes, and hold it until the weather – if it be with us – does what the Eastern Alliance could not, and stop the Cinder King’s advance. We have a long way to go. We march for what remains of the Western Front. We should achieve it tomorrow.

Let this be known about Ettenmark - what was fielded against the Eastern Alliance was beyond anything seen before. New manner of adversary was deployed, Broken-made and Cinder King-honed, no doubt. The death-denied enemy worked with purpose and, worse, intelligence. They refused our attempts to flank. They counter-attacked at the right moment, and with speed.

I’m looking back through these many, many pages, and I find the words of Aleria Racine, called Laughing Mistress, she who was the 17th Lorekeeper, and I find her entries on military doctrine and tactics, as set down in turn by Cassian Tessaro, called Empire’s Star, our Commander at that time. This is, it seems, the first declaration of the value of a Legionnaire, that “one of the Legion should stand against five of the enemy.”

Well, Ettenmark flipped that but good. If five of ours could drop one of theirs, we were doing well.

To list what we have lost would take a volume in itself. Almost all of the Legion who came with us from the Isles have fallen. Almost all our supplies are lost. Almost all of our support is destroyed. Our Oritian alchemists are either murdered or fled. Our Mercies are perished, save but Taisa, and I fear her survival is my own guilt. Our horses are slain. Our canon are abandoned or destroyed. Our very centuries are broken down to fists.

Amidst all this, Commander Canonniae Destaine, she who was called Rampart, was dismounted and slain at the place called Weaver’s Field. Her body was not recovered. I did not witness her death. Few who did still live. The rumor is that she went as our Commander should, furious, swinging and slashing. The rumor is that it took dozens of the unrested dead to take her down. For Fang and myself, there has been no time to mourn. We wonder, each of us, without saying so, if there ever shall be. Rampart led us well, and for many years. She was the third of us, the first amongst us. We were the Crones.

There was not much time to decree a new Commander. Captain Dmitri Alexovich Alexov of Clan Czecha, called Gorgeous, rallied us at Ettenmark, held his line and brilliantly extricated our Remnant. He raised the Banner. He kept us alive. The Legion lives, and it is not untrue – if grand – to say, because of his actions on that dark day. He was acclaimed by the survivors who promote him to be our new Commander.

Our Lorekeeper is slain. Our Spymaster has betrayed us, and would it in my power, I would have her name struck from the Annals for betraying her Oath and her Contract.

Our Commander is dead. Fang and I convened hasty Council, as much as we could. We discussed, briefly, what choices were ours to still make. But Fang is Marshal for a reason, and while I may fancy myself a tactician grown of experience more of education, it remains that I am Quartermaster, and for the moment Lorekeeper, as well. There must be a third, and in truth, it must be a third who is new, who breaks whatever complacency we may have unwittingly embraced ourselves. We are a handful who survive, and in Captain Alexovich the troops see hope, or at least they have convinced themselves that is what he presents.

If I had the time – and gods living and dead, I wish Clutter were still with us as much as I wish Rampart were – I would draw up accounts of Gorgeous over the last decades to see what, if any, hints there were of this snap of brilliance. He has been – and I fancy his own words would confirm this – unremarkable, if constant, in his service and Oath. What can I say of him other than he has a pretty face, and has survived this long, all the while without distinguishing himself? Fang is more sanguine. It will be what it is. But what it is is no small thing. We are left with little choice.

I hear record that Dmitri Alexovich Czecha, called Gorgeous, is promoted to General, and named the 60th Commander of the Eternal Legion.

And that brings us, I think, to the briefing for the first mission. I’ll aim to have something up tonight or tomorrow.


#7

The First Mission, Briefing

The men and women guarding the flimsy palisade had watched in a mixture of envy and fear as Zora of the Living Blade had walked into camp and marched herself to the Two Crones and the Lieutenant… no, the Lord Commander.

Zora, it seemed, unlike them, did not concern herself with armour, with coat, with a human need for warmth. She shivered, certainly, and she bled where some monstrosity had cut her deep, but neither seemed to affect her, let alone reach her consciousness. She stands at the edge of the command tent near the flap, as if unsure whether to enter or depart. Her ankles shed flakes of knee-deep mud, blonde hair pasted to her face by the freezing rain, and tue to her name, she has a sword in each hand.

In the left, a broken straightblade with jewelled hilt; in her right, a plain Legion straight sword taken from… one of your dead.

"This will serve most well," she nods, and tucks the whole blade into her belt, sheathless, "For my assault. No truly great hero should be abandoned ever, yes? For her honour, I will fight."

“I assume you do not mind that I keep this? The woman who held it before is gone. Died telling me of the crowlike dead that trawled through the sea of corpse for your commander. Gave me my lead.”

She walks over to the Wartable of the Remnant Council, four centuries old, the sand and stones in its centre still arranged by the former Commander for Ettenmark and West Aldermark. She stabs the broken sword in one edge, nicking the wood, and cocks her head. "This is the Raleigh Castle, here. Plaguebringer’s, for now. And though I shall lead your men to a good show, for some time to come. I shall not shake her free, not with your three score.”

The mission is an Assault mission, with Glory at stake. Zora, the Generals and the thirty recruits will attack the front gate, while the Specs head in the back. Obviously, I moved the stakes around a lot, but given the campaign’s premise was Dmitri was the new Commander, the in-book opportunity to save the old Commander was out the window entire.
Rewards: Knowing the fallen Commander won’t betray the Legion bolsters faith in the new Command (+2 Morale). The enemy not having the Legion’s secrets will prevent early intervention by Blighter (-1 Pressure). Zora has requested this Mission (+1 Favour).
Optional: Pale has Intel on him, and if it can be recovered, +1 Intel.
Penalties: If the Commander is raised as undead, -1 Morale and +2 Time. If the Specialists put the Commander to rest but cannot destroy Pale, only add +1 Time.

The Lady Marshall Zinovia Lubovyena, more familiarly referred to as Fang, was pinching her temples with the forefinger and thumb of her right hand, trying to exorcise a splitting headache. She hadn’t had a chance to wash the blood out of her hair in days. Her coat had a slash across the chest that hadn’t quite cut through the fabric. But even glancing blows would leave a sting. The Lady Marshall Fang was hungry, but not for food, for they had been well provisioned by the Quartermaster. No, she was hungry for revenge. For the disaster at Ettenmark, and more poignantly, for the loss of the late Commander.

“Understood, Zora,” says Fang. “But we can still bloody their lip. What can we confirm about the Castle’s defenses?”

The question sits like a rock in the middle of the room. There is a moment when the outside sounds of barked orders and dragged boxes wash in from outside the tent uncontested. Since Katia’s defection in the Shallow Seas, Spite had been the one to manage intelligence and strategy, and what she knew about an Aldermark fortress could be written on the back of a bandit’s receipt. Rising up from a steep cliffface, strong and austere, the image conjured was of an aged red and grey behemoth squatting on a mountainous pass.

Artillery Captain Apajua - a newly ‘promoted’ Bartan, who had commanded artillery when the Legion still had artillery - spoke up.

“Raleigh holds the black canons of Dar at bay,” she considers, and throws in as afterthought, “Plus their armies, I suppose. So, walls and guns and a good view in all directions that aren’t sheer mountain… like this drain.”

The Commander’s intel question was “What would be a good item to bring?” and I responded “You’ll want to be able to blow stuff up, even if explosives are rare on the ground with no alchemist.”

The skepticism imprinted on the last word was palpable.

Dmitri speaks.

“Do you remember when Red Harry Rittenhaus broke his tailbone, and couldn’t sit horse square for a week? The Stormgarde Imperials cut the top of his saddle-sagged head off, like a dowager duchess opening up a boiled egg. Don’t underestimate the value of a fractured tailpipe. On such things are mighty conquests made.”

His words are followed by a frown. “I agree it stinks, as drains are wont to do. But no-one likes a castle assault at the best of times, which this isn’t. I want this done quick, and in as far as we can, quiet. We have to tidy up after ourselves, and that means the Lady Commander’s body has to be…dealt with. And we need to silence that Inquisitor if we can. But other than that, if we can get out clean, I’d call that a feastday gift. I don’t want anyone thinking this is a chance for revenge. We’ll pay these bastards back in time. This mission isn’t for blood. It’s a farewell.”

Bianca eyefucks the Chosen for several seconds after Gorgeous speaks, then strikes a match off the map table and lights the unlit clay pipe that’s been hanging from the corner of her mouth all this time. She shakes out the match with the same gesture that waves the cloud of smoke away from about her head, flicks the dead stick off to a corner.

Zora catches Spite’s gaze, and though the general’s glare has cowed kings, here it inspires only a mildly expectant impatience. Bianca can feel the returned stare in her bones, there is an impossible energy surrounding Heaven’s Sword, a palpable heat akin to the moment before a first kiss or the drawing of a weapon in an argument. When Bianca closes her eyes, the Living Blade’s attention wanders to picking at a hangnail with her teeth, and there is no sign she is paying any heed to the words spoken around her but not at her.

She closes her eyes and puffs in silence, one hand idly scratching the head of the smelly mongrel at heel.

“They’ll need light, because it’ll be dark as the inside of an asshole in that tunnel. That’ll be a risk. They’ll need to move quick. That’ll be a risk. They’ll need to be carrying charges. Less of a risk, we wrap 'em in oilcloth and the powder won’t do dick without a lit fuse. They’ll need to make damn sure they’ve got matches and a tinderbox as well, because getting to the target and not making the fire will mean failure. A couple with climbing kit, in case. They’ll need the Black Shot, for sure, because all the obvious reasons. And the brief has to emphasize speed. Avoid engagement until on target.”

The QM assigned Blackshot to the mission, and everyone but the Panyar Gunner went with light load. Explosives took two utility slots per charge. Naively, I allowed the players to assign all 5 Specialists to the mission, on the basis that the entire Legion were being deployed either on the Mission or the distraction to cover the Mission. The Ravens were taken first, a squad of rookies in a Fist that had never served together before because… I guess because the Marshal thought they had potential?

She goes silent, puffing again.

“Four charges, but maybe six, spread them about. Plant two for the egress to make sure they can get out, whatever links the sewer to the castle proper. They plant those charges below before infil, light 'em on the way out. That’s the signal for the retreat up top as well. Not the first boom – that’s our Lady’s departure and the Pale fucker – but the second.”

She puffs again, then opens her eyes, ignoring the Chosen and looking to Fang, then Gorgeous. "You think?"

Lips pursed, Fang considers Quartermaster General’s proposed plan. “We’re going to need quick minds to locate the Commander’s remains in time before those charges detonate. I am sending all of the remaining Specialists in with Captain Raffaele Orazio de Deori in charge. The Laughing Ravens will support them. I will have them outfitted to Spite’s specifics.”

Marshall Fang raises an eyebrow as she scans the Generals, the Chosen and the few remaining Officers.

“Is there anything else we should cover? If not, I propose we stride into action. The Legion desperately needs this op to succeed, ladies and gentlemen, and the element of surprise is just about the only edge we have right now.”


#8

THE FIRST MISSION

For better or worse, our new Commander’s actions have caught the eye of the Chosen of the Living God of the Zemyati, the Dar-Breaker and Ender of the Godswar, Zora. She marches with us, in as much as she marches at all. By her insistence and the Commander’s acquiescence, on the night of 14 Rabbit, an operation was undertaken on intelligence provided by the Chosen. Rampart’s body was removed the field and taken to Raleigh Castle, on the border of Dar…
In the haste to undertake the mission, no designation was assigned. For the purposes of these Annals, I have designated the operation Rampart…

The rain has already picked up, a wind with it. It whines through the gaps in the tent where Raffaelle Orazio de Deori watches the veterans making their last preparations, where the rookies who make up The Laughing Ravens try to imitate them without being too obvious about it. He weaves slowly between them, checking their gear, adjusting a strap here, patting a shoulder there, offering the occasional wink or grin.

When he sees that Topaz has finished loading he catches each of the Specialist’s eye, one by one. It doesn’t take more than a look, not even a nod, to know that they’re ready. Even the newest of the veterans has what the Rookies doesn’t.

They’ll come back with it, Raffaelle thinks. If they come back at all.

“Here it is,” he says. “We know the mission, we know the objective. We move quickly, we move quietly, and when quietly isn’t an option any longer we move even more quickly. We do not stand and fight unless I order you to stand and fight. We move. Noise discipline is in effect.”

He looks at the Rookies. "We fight as two fire teams, two elements. We coordinate. I lead one, Topaz Running Iron leads the other. With me are Lipika, De Luca, and Frieta and Kolyat. With Topaz are Sable, Igorov, Cobalt Dancing Lightning, and Endrizzi. These are your fire teams, this is how we break our element if we have room, if we need to flank, to hold a position, to set up a crossfire. Otherwise, we stay together."

He nods at Kolyat.

"Kolyat will take point."

He pauses. "Know where your Black Shot is." He directs this at the Rookies. "We will load before we enter the tunnel. That first shot will count, whenever it comes, if it comes. Keep your discipline."

He grins. “This one is for the Legion. Nobody else. No fucking duke or bloodthirsty general or piss-drinker politician. This one is for us. Let’s get it done.”

Greg was playing the Captain; Robert, Topaz the Panyar Gunner; and Chris as Sable, the doctor.

To start things off, I created two clocks - a ten tick clock, “This is how long Zora and the Legion can distract the undead from when you hit the sewers. After that, you are not getting out.” and a five-tick clock for “This is how long Rampart’s mind will hold. After this, Pale must not escape, because he has what he needs.”

The first roll of the game was Engagement. As the Remnant’s rough luck this mission would have it - and boy did they have rough luck, it came up Desperate. I immediately ticked off one tick on each clock, set two Crows in the old sewers, investigating for catacombs, leading some Rotters, and hidden by the darkness and the rushing, powerful water.

The exhausted scout, fire in his wiry arms, is first to pull his exhausted form over the lip of crumbling rock. A foot below, Topaz hauls himself up second, muttering something about the definition of “accessible” to a Chosen, and a Zemyati one at that.

The others wait below on an overhang, where Officer de Deori has allowed a brief moment for the preparing of firearms with blackshot. From maybe a hundred yards above, out of sight, the small band can hear the sounds of combat. Shots crack, and the clarion laughter of the Living Blade echoes down as she engages whatever there is to engage. A mighty roar made by no human throat indicates that whatever they face, she has certainly drawn out something the specialists are glad not to be facing.

After the goat track had tapered off, things had become challenging. Climbing the last leg of the rain-slicked mountainside in the dark was a trial for Kolyat and Topaz, and near impossible for most of the others, even with the aid of the knotted ropes left along the way. Each rookie, as they crested the rise, had a look of relief of their face. For a moment.

Two by two, they have reached opposite sides of the mighty spear of grey water, vomited out of the mouth of the dark sewer maw before them before stabbing into the sky and tumbling wildly below. The water had removed the aged iron grate, pushing the rusted and ancient guard from its post, but the turbulent waters reached Frieta’s waist and would strain even her mighty thews. It is with sinking heart that the small band break into their assigned formation and order, each step a struggle against the flow.

So begins the game, and so begins the story of “Greg hates the dice, the dice hate Greg”. The first roll of the game after the failed Engagement roll. Players go with a group action to traverse the storm sewers. The Officer leads for that sweet Lead from the Front benefit. And everyone rolls below a three. Four stress for Diori on the first roll AND they fail.

The tunnel is broad, with room for each of the fire teams to hew to a side, each holding a hooded lantern aloft. Every several feet, the lanterns reveal some face of a grotesque, gargoyle mouth pouring water but some blocked in ancient times. In places, there are footpaths on the side, stonework slick and coated in thick black-green moss that seems to absorb the light, but in others, the ledges have fallen away, and the stormwater pushes too fast and the debris swirls too cruelly. The sweet and pungent smell of the storm gives way in increments by the earthy aromas of rat, rot and ruin.

Kolyat, covering the group from the front with his bow, moves in and out of the bouncing light of the hooded lanterns. A half-dozen yards ahead of the main force, the scout slips, and when his hand goes out to the wall, it finds only the crumbling rock of lose stone. In an instant, the sure-footed officer is there with a wry look, his grip strong as he lifts the thin man to his feet.

Consequence for the first roll’s failure is Koylat is washed away. Rafe makes a Prowess Resist Roll, and pick up 2 more stress for Diori.

Robert - “We have a strong, mentally healthy command staff. Yes, we do.”

Indeed, Raf is everywhere at once, providing discipline and guidance. Where the water becomes deep, he has packs and explosives held high; where the recruits fall behind, he is there to set the pace with whispered words; at turns and corners, he has the shooter and scout in position to provide cover. Twice, an Aldermani corpse has washed by, naked and scarred beyond recognition. It feels like it has been an eternity, legs protesting at the protracted effort, eyes drawn to every flickering shadow, but it can be no more than a tenth of a candle when one of those corners reveals a third corpse. One that yet moves. Topaz makes the gesture to hold, and the hooded lanterns snap shut.

At an intersection where three flows churn together and feed into the company’s passage, under an arched dome that allows in some light, two shapes lumber inelegantly, pushing against the water with some difficulty. Backlit, Topaz can see they are bloated and water-logged. One, once the finery of a noble house, the other a cook’s apron, but both reduced to soaking and torn rags. The nobleman, hefty and swollen, misses an arm, and the cook, perhaps once shapely, is missing its nose, but they grab and sniff nonetheless, exploring their surrounds like a newborn animal.

Sable turns out to be the sole Spec with Research, so he makes a Research roll.

I really wanted to emphasize the side of Band of Blades where the Broken are new, the Legion are new and the horrors of the campaign are new, so I declared that there were a generic undead infantry line troop, Threat 0 without equipment, called Cinder Infantry. They were raised with Cinder Blood shipped from the Bone Wastes, took days to create, required a fairly intact corpse and were nearly as vulnerable to harm as humans, if indefatigable and feeling no pain.

Every other kind of undead had been kept hidden until Ettenmark, as secret weapons now revealed, and everything about them would need to be discerned through observation. Rotters are first up, which Chris nearly named “zomboids” but ultimately became “Rotters” or “Shamblers”.

To Sable’s trained eye, two truths are evident. Firstly, as a field medic, he discerns that the shambling horrids are already damaged far beyond what most of dead he has encountered could sustain. They are made durable, somehow. Secondly, it is clear that unlike the lone undead the Remnant has met on the road, these are not feral, some sort of purpose writ in their pained steps, and this tells him something else - something more cogent or potent - will be nearby, unseen. He swallows, deeply.


#9

Raffaelle watches the two Specialists ahead, in the spectral darkness. Topaz throws a signal. He repeats it, passes it down the line. Behind him and opposite, the Rookies come to a sudden, tense halt. Watching Topaz and Sable, the officer reaches out for his scout. He holds up his hand, flashes the sign for Bow, then for Arrow - not for Black Shot - then uses his fingers to indicate the trajectory. He waits for Kolyat’s confirmation, the drawing of the arrow, before looking back to Sable and Topaz, each of whom has pulled to either side of the sewer. He points at Topaz, holds up one finger, flashes “hold,” then holds up two fingers, followed by the near-universal gesture of cutting a throat. As soon as the confirmation comes, he nods to Kolyat to let fly.

The unfortunates sift through the water, and then, at the precise centre of the nexus, pause. Topaz can just make out the face of the once-noble through his scope, and is shaken by its expression of mild frustration – beneath the purling of the flesh, it takes on the very expression of a man of wealth aggrieved to be inconvenienced.

Koylat’s arrow arcs through the underground, passing unseen and clattering against the farthest wall. The sound of steel on stone echoes loudly down each of the paths. The rotters make no urgent move, but they turn their heads. Down the scope, the Panyar discerns a confusion that morphs into an animistic curiosity. Slowly, first one and then the other, they twist their frames to face the sound, and with a snuffling, groaning sound somewhere between a man snoring and a dog growling, they press against the current in the direction of the fallen arrow.

Quick Fortune roll for Koylat to distract the dead as a Set-Up for Topaz’ Shoot Action. Wasn’t sure how NPC Specialists should work when it comes to setting up or acting, but decided their presence needed to have value, and it made fictional sense.

Topaz tips back his hat, puts the scope to his eye and focuses through the glass to watch. As the shambling heaps order themselves, he adjusts himself and takes his shot. If the sound of an arrow makes the recruits cringe, the crack of the masterworked rifle makes them positively quail. The bullet rips through the head of the cook and buries itself in the neck of the noble, and the appointed shooter smiles. But neither fall, and when they turn back in his direction, it is with a speed and force beyond anything they have shown to date. In his surprise, his hands slip on the bolt as he moves to reload, and the things start to knuckle-walk, carried now in his direction by the water.

Mixed success, went with Limited Effect. Both Rotters were badly injured, but I decided with no blackshot (unsure of how much shooting this game would entail, Robert was keeping his unstable alchemical powder dry) and a single bullet, I’d take the chance to show off the resilience of these “new” undead.

The doctor, fearing this sort of eventuality, steps a little forward, pistol in hand. As they close the distance, he lets loose three more savage rapports, aiming not for the head, but for the heart, where he has picked out three sucking and infected puncture marks. Two balls connect, and a grey fluid spurts out with remarkable force, like a lanced boil bursting beneath the scalpel. The moment after, there is a heavy click of Topaz’ gun snapping into place. The barrel flies up, but the undead sag, the resilient animating force gone, and they sink into water.

Aaaaaand… time to bring in their Desperate position.

As Topaz, the sharp-eyed marksman, surveys the scene, however, he catches a hint of a different black against the darkness surrounding the victorious medic. Without a ripple in the rushing water, without drawing Sable’s gaze from the rotters, something rises. Tall and lean to the point of skeletal, it is wrapped tightly in a dark cloak. There is no gleam off the long cruel beak of it’s mask, an affectation of Orite plague doctors, but in black leather rather than the accepted white. One gloved fist closes on the man’s unruly hair and tilts his head left in an irresistible motion, and even as he feels the cold grip, the doctor still has yet to hear a sound. The other hand brings a long obsidian blade across to slit the medic’s throat.

Behind the company, running along the slick walls at an impossible angle and at twice the pace of a normal man, moves an identical cloaked and masked figure. Unseen, unheard, it carries a pair of gleaming curved blades destined for the Bartan heavy taking up the rear.

For this Desperate Engagement, I frankly think I left it a little too late so as not to feel arbitrary. In my defence, I had no idea the dice would be so treacherous if the warm-up rolls!

Topaz uses Aim, and gets another mixed success, so I suggest he can either saves Sable but miss the Crow OR save Sable’s life, kill the Crow, but have Sable still take 2 Harm. He goes with the latter.

Sable frantically pulls himself upwards on the freezing arm of the creature, even as blood seeps from his ill-used scalp. The blow from the thing’s knife comes in too low for his exposed throat. Not expecting a leap towards it, the assailant’s blade skitters along an armoured chest, scraping like a disused steel door. Topaz hisses between his teeth as he takes a split-second glance down the barrel of his rifle, something between a laugh and a shudder.

CRACK.

The report of the rifle at close range is deafening in the echoing tunnel as the black shot ignites at the muzzle of the gun. Sable feels the rush of the ball over his shoulder as the emerald tinged shot blurs into the mask of the creature, a burst of scintillating light in the stretched and murky darkness. Contact. The ball rips into the creature, burning a jagged hole far beyond the simple circumference of the iron pellet - which alone might have been enough to kill a man or a lesser monster. The black shot sizzles furiously across it, sending flecks of shadow scattering against the tunnel wall, until the creature drops away in pieces.

In the moment of its extinguishment, green and furious fire coursing along its frame, it tilts its face skywards, an eerie mimicry of a man screaming his death cry. Even now, its silence is unbroken.

Oh, and Chris resisted the Harm for Sable anyway, at the cost of a few Stress…

And we introduce Crows, which the guys name “Silent Surgeons” or, for the less fancy types, “Flutters”. I think they were sold in this scene, and to this day, players don’t really believe me that they are Threat 1.

I asked Robert a for a little colour around his rifle, looking to flesh out the character, and as is always the case with Robert and I (to everyone else’s chagrin) this kicked off an exceedingly long tangent about exactly what sort of period guns we were looking at in the technological mishmash of Blades. I will save you all the ins and outs, and skip to the end – the rifle is somewhat fancier than the Dreyse, but rather than being industrially produced, are made only by certain Orite Guilds under actively enforced patent, while muskets are pretty on par with the Charleville.


#10

Literally in the shit, in the shit, thinks Raffaelle, and then Kolyat is signalling from the rear. Rafe pivots on muck-covered stone, barely sees the moving darkness resolving into another one of those things, the faint reflected gleam off of the blades wielded in each hand. It is the battlefield familiarity of adrenaline, the time dilation. He is aware of Kolyat slipping a leg to the side and reaching back for an arrow. He is aware of Frieta, only beginning to move in response to Kolyat and himself. He is aware of the rookies, the Laughing Ravens, of De Luca in his element, eyes wide he can see their whites in the gloom.

And in all this he knows there is no time for tactics or issuing orders or even speech. He can only draw the revolver in his left hand and with his right slam Lipika out of the way and then he fires, three shots one atop the other, the reports somehow softer than the boom of Topaz’s long gun, of Sable’s own handgun. The bullets draw a line, mid sternum up to plague-doctor-mask, the holes boiling green, soundless Black Shot fire as if in parody of the creature’s own silence.

Half-scrambling, half-capering through the mire, Topaz Running Iron still splashes but a little as he makes his way over to Raf. Pausing to reload his rifle as he speaks, he leans in and whispers, a hint of his usually ever-present clove cigarette on his breath.

“Dad,” he says, “I know thee’ll want to move us on right quick, but they was looking for something. Smelling it right enough, aye?”

The Captain shakes his head, “Keep an eye open, if we figure it out, grand. But it’s not the mission. What we need now is a way inside.”

Raffaelle reloads quickly, motions Kolyat up to the just shy of the junction to keep watch, sending Frieta with him. He points to the clockwork remains, then to Sable.

"Shift them to the side, we can maybe grab them on the way back." He turns, voice low, "Laughing Ravens, take a moment and take a look. That is what we do. They die. We kill them. But they die."

He give it a breath to sink in, then says, "Back into your elements, noise discipline is in effect."

He looks at the choices ahead of him. Then Margrave Cyprian De Luca, de facto spokesperson for the rookies, clears his throat. Points up the main channel.

“That’ll lead to the shitter,” he says.

Cyprian was the first rookie to get fleshed out, an Orite on their way one day to Officer.

Raff grins. "Was thinking the same."

He takes a moment, aware of the pressing of time. Shakes his head slightly. Can’t let them see you hesitate.

"One charge." He points at the juncture beneath the arch from the main channel. "Place it. We blow it on the way out."

He faces the soldiers. “Kolyat, up front. We’re moving fast now. Rest of you, stay close, keep your firearm dry, and keep an eye open. You see anything on the walls worth noting, say so – might be another way in. Otherwise, we’re going up through the out door.”

Doors and corners. Cover, clear, search.

From the moment the company clambers up through the floors, the mission moves from stealth and struggle against the current to speed and shows of strength.

Toilets, remarkably clean and disused - clear.

Koylat slips ahead, bow readied, melee weapon easily accessed. He sees the main floor of the bailey keep is remarkably empty and lifeless. There are wet, sometimes bloody footprints, of a kind a Rotter might leave. There are dragmarks, where bleeding victims have been dragged from room to room.

Changing rooms, with bright green Darian robes and red and brown Aldermani shirts and breeches hanging - clear.

Doors are swung open or kicked down, benches and barriers are pincered, wardrobes thrown open.

Imperial-style bathhouse, a sightless human head floating in the main pool - clear.

Rafe marshals his forces, maintaining the rhythms that ensure nobody is left exposed or gets careless in a process as repetitive as it is terrifying.

The hallway, a fireteam covering left and right - clear .

Cobalt Dancing Lightning, covering the left flank in a thin passage, glances out an arrow-slit. Outside, he can see the grounds of the keep. Silent Surgeons, armed with pistols, crouch in unnatural positions atop kennel and battlement. Their long, haunting faces are turned to look down the hill, where a mix of ambling Rotters and more conventional Cinder forces in Darian leather armour march out from a long barracks towards the battlements.

The blood-stained kitchen, where the vegetables were going to rot but all the meathooks were suspiciously empty - clear .**

The dining room, with tables, chairs and tapestries worth a month’s salary a piece shoved recklessly against a wall, space now filled with crates marked with the calligraphy of Cinder Kingdoms and Bone Wastes* - clear.

The Small Hall, where intimate feasts and subtle diplomacy were once carried out - - - -

The Small Hall has magnificent archway rather than door, and the Laughing Ravens and attached specialists come around and through to witness a scene that must have happened in the room thousands of times. Men and women sit on the thrones of office, bejewelled rings on their fingers and ermine trimmings to their Aldermari finery. A woman in green robe and shaved head bows before them and speaks to them in lilting, susurrating Darian. She has a ring of sigils tattooed around her skull, and her eyes are a bright enough green to match her robes.

The sitting nobles, however, are dead, throats cut or a bullet through their foreheads. Blood has poured down their rich clothes, tongues loll from mouths, and their eyes have been plucked out. The woman breaks off her cant as she sees you, hand starting to go to her belt, but abandons the first instinctive reaction, lifts her arms above her head, and with a strange, sad smile, gently goes down to her knees before the first breachers reach her, bayonets bristling.

This is around where the Marshal decided De Luca was a trans man modelling himself after the Captain, but I’m not sure exactly when that happened, so his gender might shift a bit early on.

It was also decided that De Luca had visited Dar on a diplomatic mission, and there were several questions back and forth about what the Legion knew about Dar beyond “Zora broke it” back and forth, leading to this “excerpt from the Annals” -

The following things are written in the Annals of the Eternal Legion. Attested to be the Most Wretched Raeg, 48th Tantarian Lorekeeper, the following is true. Nothing is certain until so attested.

Maehedraa is burning down, burning down – opening to an Aldermani children’s rhyme

Ancient Dar. Black Dar. Fallen Dar. How many words in how many tongues have been inspired by just how awful and despairing Dar is? So many dark words our bitter soldiery use to attest to the benighted region, lamenting every step that carries them deeper into the cursed wastes, your humble lorekeeper can no longer record them.

Some history would perhaps be as effective as any litany of profanities, and so shall suffice. Future reader, I hope you shall have no particular reason to know that the region we now call Dar was once a single polity, Dal-Vahar. It was, by contemporary accounts, a vast and lush kingdom, with jungles to match the Daresh woods and mines that produced all the wonders of the world.

All great lights cast a shadow, and Dal-Vahar served as counterweight to the glory and majesty of the Empire we served in our days of duty. Though it had some obscure faith of martyrdom and the soul’s transcendence of the body, served by countless bothersome ascetic traditions, Dar was nigh-unique in having no Chosen or other manifestations of the Gods, and its only mystical claims were the small and dubious miracles of the Annax, the figurehead leader of Dar’s church and state alike.

Woe to all who live, for a catalysm broke Dar. Some place this disaster at the hands of the Living Blade, second of her name; while others claim it was the work of the Imperial Alchemists, testing a weapon without name, terrible enough to be stricken from all records. If the cause is oblique, he tragic outcome is at least relatively certain. Deadly shadows have been bound to Dar’s confines, and banished from the few remaining cities and roads protected with the elder stones. The they walk its ashen fields as parasites on the living, beggars for scraps of a man’s blood or soul. In the west, where the glorious capital of Maehedraa once rested, there is now the Gap, pit so deep the ocean flows into it at high tide and has not yet filled. In the centre of the Gap, rising from the waters, is a basalt throne on a pillar of obsidian.

The Dar cannot leave their hellish land. After a few years away, the flesh of anyone born in Dar blackens and rots until they return home or die. The exact boundaries of this curse are imprecise, as various Aeinautae – or Dethroners of Tyrants in the common tongue – have taken and held various territories on the Aldermark and Andrastan borders, and where they hold, the curse seems to extend.

Dar has its own black coinage, marked with a ten-pointed crown, and most civilised folks refuse to take it. But not the Remnant, for we take our pay in what is offered. Just as Dal-Vahar once mirrored the Empire, so to do the people of Dar mirror the Remnant we have become. Haunted, iron-willed, doing what we must as we wait for our day of reckoning.

Moving is good. Repetition is good. Drilling rookies is good. Not giving them too much time to think is good. The teams leapfrog through empty halls, take doors, make entry, clear, and move on.

Raffaelle moves his attention from the rookies to the maneuvers to the environment, over and over, nudging correction here and there, relying on Topaz and Frieta to keep the squads organized. Then they enter the Small Hall, and because they are moving when they enter, they don’t stop, and because they have done this now enough, the Laughing Ravens don’t falter, at least, not yet. The woman in the green robe, the only living person – if she is living at all, Raffaelle thinks – turns, and it is her reaction more than anything else that makes him conclude she is alive, and with the details of the dead in their thrones filtering in, further conclude she is likely quite mad. It doesn’t matter.

He advances as Kolyat and Frieta move ahead, as a half dozen muskets and blades rattle into position on her. She is on her knees when Raffaelle reaches her. He puts his pistol to her neck, anyway, waits while the belt with its flasks and vials is removed and handed carefully off to Sable. While Kolyat ropes the woman’s hands behind her back, Raffaelle orders Topaz to deploy the fire teams to cover the room. The element moves, less coordination this time. The Laughing Ravens have seen the display of madness here, and it has had time to sink in.

“Inquisitor Pale,” Raffaelle asks the woman, not unkindly. “Where is he? Where is the Commander’s body?”

The woman, bound and covered, laughs a thin, nervous laugh. She shrugs, and speaks more of her sibilant hisses. De Luca steps forward, and haltingly says something back to the woman, glancing at Rafe for approval. The woman laughs again, and replies, more slowly and loudly, pronouncing each word. The Orite noble’s eyes narrow, but his musket lowers slightly, and he says something again in halting Dar.

“I think… she is offering to cooperate, sir,” his voice is tight, “Though I am having trouble keeping up. She says she has answers, if we guarantee her life and leave her here.”

Raffaelle nods slightly at De Luca, makes a slight gesture with his free hand and pulls his pistol away, holstering it. He speaks to De Luca, "Ask her what I asked her, keep–"

And he sees Lipika hasn’t moved with the others, as Topaz is placing them around the room, the young soldier just staring at the body in the throne opposite her. A woman, tongue swollen and grey bulging from pale, bloodless lips, empty sockets and streaks of dried blood down the noblewoman’s face in a mockery of tears.

“Lipika!” he barks her name, strides towards her. “Turn it about, turn it about.”
And he’s at her, now, one hand on the barrel of her musket, gently pushing it down, the other on her shoulder as he turns her while putting himself between the soldier and the occupied throne.
“Look at me, soldier. Look at me. Who’re you? You’re a Laughing Raven. You don’t scream, and you don’t go hysterical with cackling, neither. You’ve got an order. Follow your order. Cover that angle.”

He looks to Topaz, turning the young soldier and giving her a gentle push in the master gunner’s direction. “Stand to it, soldier.” He holds a moment longer, to make sure she’s through it, that she’s moving, then returns to De Luca. “What’s she said?”

This whole bit actually overwrote where I described the rookies breaking, some fleeing and others panicking. What replaces it is the outcome of a Resolve Resist by Rafe, which - given his horrible early Group Actions and a poor roll here - actually has the Officer trauma out here. Theoretically, it should have taken him out of the rest of the scene but… yeah, we all missed that rule at the time, and they’d had a poor enough hand dealt anyway. Rafe took Haunted here, and from this point on, will be dreaming of kings and queens with missing eyes and cut throats.

As Lipka turns her moon-shaped face to shakingly look at Rafe, the Officer recognises that she cannot be more than fifteen. Her eyes return to focus, and she mouths “Laughing Raven” as her shoulders straighten. De Luca rips his attention from the scene, turns his gaze to his subject. His face takes on an attractive smile, almost apologetic, and softly, he speaks more Dar, occasional Aldermani words thrown in to plug gaps. Old courtier’s training called to the surface, Da Luca carries on insistently. The woman nods her head, shakes it, speaks some more.

“Not quite an impasse, sir,” your translator glances back, “The… question man… has an office upstairs, but he won’t be in it. His notes could be, though. Offering a teaser, I suppose. But she is really, really insistent that she shouldn’t die.” He consider, “Um, no, that we don’t want her to die. Or to take her with us.”

This was a Sway roll by Rafe, with reduced effect because of the linguistic barrier.

Raffaelle listens to what De Luca says, then drops to his haunches to meet eyes with the woman. Looking at her, he says, "Tell her that if she helps us, we will leave her as we found her. But she must lead us to the office, and then she must tell us where we will find him. Those are the conditions. And find out her name."

Soter,” the woman’s green eyes sparkle as she meets Raf’s eyes. With her alabaster skin and thin features, there is an intense beauty to her.

More Darian, with more intense refusals, and Da Luca, frustrated, talks to Rafe, “She doesn’t want to move from here. Too much risk they… the dead… will kill her.”

“She can take a number,” Cobalt snerks, and the rookies break into a smile.

“What’s driving this, Da Luca? Why does she want to stay here ?” In broken Aldermani, the woman’s voice rises, “She is Dar. To leave… is die. To die… is to find…” She shudders, and closes her eyes, “… salvation.”

“She serves the Cinder King now , sir,” Da Luca extracts meaning from her babble of words, “She serves and lives. If she leaves, she dies and she still serves.”

“To live is… most better,” Soter asserts.

More talking, now with gesticulation of the head. Da Luca takes off his helmet and runs his hands through his hair, straining to puzzle things out.

“Very good. Directions are as good as we can expect, I believe.”

The interview becomes a mummer’s play, “The… question man… has only been here for a short time. We have an office upstairs, fourth on the right up the nearest stairs, with his… their… it’s… private notes and instructions. There are some… dead birds? I don’t know what she means, sorry… upstairs, though.”

“Off the other side off that hallway we passed, there are stairs down. They lead to the cellars and, yes, dungeons. Once down, we will be able to follow the sounds - the only ones down there are the Inquisitor about its work, it’s assistant, and it’s two guards.” As the woman’s voice grows into a crescendo of panic, Da Luca tries and fails to interject, “She is rather scared of the guards, I’m losing her here.”

Raffaelle takes it all in, puts his hands on the woman’s shoulders. Speaks intensely, low. “Ask her if she wants to be free. Dead and free of him.”

Once the Captain’s words are translated, Soter laughs, and it is not the nervous titter she has given to Da Luca so far. No, it is a dark, fullthroated sound, the veritable laughter of the damned. Da Luca asks some further questions, and he tries to directly relay the woman’s words as she speaks.

“She asks… are we sorcerers of such might as to break the curse of Dar? How would we… by the Chosen, I don’t know… ah, how would we take from the throne what it has been promised? Do we think that when the risen bodies fall, anything changes for the souls of the likes of her? Dead or alive… there is no freedom.”

Raffaelle nods, once, slightly. He rises, "Thank her for her help, and her silence in this. That I wish we could do more for her. Then rejoin your element."

He waits for De Luca to do as ordered, watches the soldier move back to his element. He moves to the troops, speaks quickly.

“We’re going for the office first. We know where we’re going, and if it turns out she’s lying, well, it’s better than finding that out in the dungeons, isn’t it?”

He flashes a grin. “Sable stay with the Master Gunner’s fire team on the ascent, you’re going for the office. Topaz’s group goes for the office, we hold the top of the stairs and the hall so nothing sneaks in on them. We know we’ve got more of those damn silent doctors around. We know they die. We know they die quiet.”

He looks to Topaz. “You guys grab what you can, everything you can, then reform on us. Soon as you’re back, we go straight to the primary target.” He gestures. “Move.”

And then, as the last leaves the room, he draws his dagger and and swiftly returns to the woman. She recoils at the blade, but a moment later its work is done and back in its sheath on his belt. The rope lays on the floor. “Don’t make me regret this,” he murmurs to her, and then hurries to rejoin the others.


#11

Cobalt Dancing Lightning, like all his countrymen who adhere to the ways of the Panyar Fearful, had spent a night buried in his unadorned wooden coffin. His pater and grandpater waited sternly above, in case he rung the coward’s bell, and he had been sore tempted. It had been, until now, the worst night of his life. Where other Panyar were named by the Marked or the strange fey of the woods, for the Fearful, the rite’s sacred purpose was for a person to know themselves, and to mark that profound learning, grant themself a true name.

The second rookie to get fleshed out, a Fortune roll for a successful scouting of enemy positions, and a window for Panya to be discussed in the wake of what Topaz was becoming, with his dialect and funny hat.

The Panyar here have a variety of disparate religious groups, most outside the Eastern mainstream, that moved into Panya after the Godswar. The Fearful, short for Devil-Fearing, revile the Horned One and the ruins, but believe Nyx will deliver the pious of Panya from the land’s ‘curse’. They often live on the fringes of Aldermark and Or, they embrace modernity and are generally pacifism. This pacifism does not extend to the dead. Other groups, including the ones Sable and Topaz would be from, will emerge over time.

Cobalt was the dancing lightning, the fleetfooted flame that streaks uneven across the sky. Here, he moves somewhat in defiance of the commanding officer’s orders but with Topaz’ quiet endorsement, the old head knowing when a Panyar must be given some liberty. In return, Cobalt demonstrated his skill, moving ahead of the main force and darting between shadows.

Twice, he spotted the blackclad ghouls as they slid noiselessly across the hallways, and twice he avoided their gaze. He marked the cycle of their rounds, and the times they would be farthest away from the office and most vulnerable. The fireteams cover the hallways, moving at a more controlled pace, closing in on Cobalt’s position.

In a fit of curiosity, the Panyar peeled through the keyhole, and noted no lurking monsters in the office. Only some papers on a desk, a coloured map with the notes in Dar, an inkwell and a chair. Satisfied, he signals back to the Master Gunner covering him.

Along a pea-soup coloured corridor, past the porcelain vase with the long-dead flowers, sat the office door, and Topaz’s group. Sable was ushered in, and turned to his appointed task, even as the others prepared themselves for a desperate melee with whatever came around the corner.

The doctor quickly skims his eyes across the room, dismissing dust-covered volumes of Imperial history, dubious guides to Bartan heraldry and a mediocre collection of snuffboxes. The Inquisitor’s things are of a fresher hue, and include a black leather portfolio of sketches and drawings, shorthand casenotes organised neatly on the desk for the ink to dry and a map. Sable cannot read the notes on the map, but can quickly make out that its original purpose was to show a division of territory, superseded by the task of showing Pale directions to the obscure Raleigh Castle.

The case notes are far more what he was looking for. The Testimonie of Canonniae Destaine, aka Commander Rampart of the mercenary companie, the Eternal Legion it began, and then subtitled And also, a fulle and proper accounting of the successe of the Lichenstowe Method of postmortum interrogation and rectuitement, demonstrated gainste a traynned subgect .

Precise records, thankfully in Orite, capturing the state of the Commander’s corpse, discernible medical history, cause of death, and the time the work began, several hours ago. The first notes thereafter shift into an amaneusis’ professional shorthand, but Sable is able to roughly keep up. It is, it seems, disordered anecdotes from the Commander’s… no, the former Commanders… childhood.

Orite is the lingua franca that you can assume every Legionnaire and most Aldermarni speaks; Panya does not have its own tongue.

After failing to make a Risky Research roll to get the right intel out before the Surgeons are upon him, Sable escalates to make a Desperate Research roll, and he Pushes, with a mixed success. As well as giving him the intel, I make a call that seems at odds with where the cannon setting has gone - in rare cases, particularly with direct exposure to the thoughts or spirit of the Broken and their close adherents, Corruption can spread memetically as well as physically. Sable picks up 3 Corruption here.

Far more important, Sable considers, are the sketches. A few portraits and landscapes, but mostly anatomical drawings.
image

Human and animal forms, alive but with their skin peeled back, muscles (marked with letters and numbers associated to the key on the side) so perfectly rendered they seem to twitch, circles of focus drawing the eye into critical and obscure junctions of the biological machine, providing a distinct and demarcated display for each tendon, each bone, each vein.

image

Sable, an attendee of the University of Witten, was not disturbed by the smiling faces of the ‘subjects’ as they peeled back their own skin, nor their placid willingness to eat an apple while their stomach had been cut open and their digestive track in display. It was an aesthetic of the kind, the sort of hobby he would have taken up himself if war and poetry had not become his callings. The others wait impatiently as a pale Sable, sweat beading on his brow as he brings the lantern closer to the papers and turns, ever faster between the pages.

There are many forms of violence. Sable Flowing Gale had experienced a lot of them first hand, from the inequities he faced as a Panyar traveling abroad in both the East and the West, to the more obvious violence committed in the field of battle. The doctor was not unfamiliar to the notion of violent ideas. Sable had read the seditious writings of Halbren, the anarchic and audacious critic of the Aldermani crown, and he had witnessed students lead xenophobic riots outside the University of Witten, guided by the unsavory yet convenient opinions of Marcrulix Acht.

Yet never before had Sable been exposed to such seductive and vivacious ideas. The concepts within were untamed, obvious in their harm, yet they possessed a poetic cadence that went beyond the intriguing. It was as if Sable was exposed to the rhythm of the dark, beating heart of the author himself, bleeding first onto the page, and then directly into Sable’s mind. The flagrant composition was surprisingly brilliant. There was an economy of words at hand that made it so simple for Sable to follow along, to become complicit in the evils contained within.

Without any false pretense, Sable Flowing Gale was considered an intellectual man by his peers, yet to Inquisitor Pale’s writings, he had no defenses. Instead of trying to fight it, Sable accepted the truth and carried on. He was on thin ice and he knew it. The doctor locked on to the task of evaluating the usefulness of the texts for the Legion’s use. He skimmed the deranged and delightful, and focused on the materiels that contained military intel. That became the doctor’s escape route. As Sable removed himself from his reading and started gathering his curated selection of notebooks, charts and records to bring back to camp, the Panyar doctor came to an unsettling realization. He had become inspired.

The rookies behind Sable cannot make out the bloodshot veins in his eyes turn black, or that blackness leak into skin behind the eye. When the doctor wipes his sleeve to take the sweat from his eyes, he does not see the sleeve comes away stained red.

For Rafe, the waiting is the worst part, in so many ways. Waiting in camp is boredom. Waiting on the march is tedium and exhaustion. Waiting in ambush is a catastrophic combination of anxiety and fear that gives way to boredom, tedium, and fatigue.

With Topaz’s half of the squad making their search, Raffaelle is left with his half posted up, half in ambush, half in watch. The lighting should be in their favor, the Captain thinks. But with these damned things, it clearly doesn’t matter. At the sounds of the skirmish down the hall, De Luca slides a boot forward but Raffaelle reaches out and motions him still. It is a signal to everyone as much as to the rookie – steady on, let them do their job.

The tension of waiting like this makes muscles ache. Only Frieta, half-shadowed against a wall, looks at all relaxed. Even Kolyat, used to moving and working in silence, seems strained, and Raffaelle thinks that, of course, that’s right. He’s used to working alone. He’s used to picking when he moves and when he doesn’t. His mind is wandering. He understands this, because this, too, is part of the waiting. Active attention becomes passive attention, almost meditative. One remembers the oddest things, silly things. The feel of the felt that one night at the card table. The scent of the lady’s perfume, and why is it that Lipika makes him think of that? Right, she had a lady in waiting, didn’t she, looked a little like her, that must be it.

A pair of silent figures emerge around a corner, arms linked, heads close together like lovers in conference. They instantly slide apart, and the Legionnaires charge in. Chaos erupts. Endrizzi, first to close, swings her musket like a club, but it is easy for the surgeon to flow around the blow, and the wooden flat catches Cobalt in the chest. The second surgeon’s black eye fixes on Topaz, and a fist jabs twice into the Panyar.

At the other end of this corridor, Raf’s fireteam hold just above the staircase, with time to brood as they cover the long stretch of hallway between them and their fellows. They, at least, have the benefit of the dimmed lantern light, which illuminates a portrait of a scowling man of military mien, captured in paint well past his physical prime.

Another surgeon comes into sight, at the base of the stairs, carrying a handful of notes in a small case. It sees the team, and rather than move towards the stairs, it leaps in one smooth movement onto the balustrade, a small blade snapping out from its boot as it kicks towards Rafe’s eye.


#12

The struggle of trying to put several documents together in one place, I mucked up sequencing. Probably not for the last time.

The surgeon glides around the corner below, and Raffaelle feels no alarm at all, just a simple, right, then, here we go . It’s the damn waiting that does it. It makes everything feel slow, even what he knows is absurdly, frighteningly fast.

Like the way the damned creature jumps in a flutter of black, as silent as ever, to alight on the balustrade and lash out with its right boot. And Raffaelle thinks, you know, with the mask, it really does look like a bird, and the boot-blade, I suppose that’s meant to be a talon, isn’t it?

And while the mind is busy with these thoughts, the other thinking that will keep him alive is doing its own. He start to turn and rise out of his crouch as the creature is in the air, feels the hiss of the blade as the boot almost scores his eye.

He catches the leg inelegantly as the kick passes, wraps an arm around it at the knee and yanks. Frieta is there, grabbing the thing’s masked head and pulling the other way, and they’re bringing it down, feeling the horrible strength resisting them all the way. Lipika, surprisingly, moves before De Luca, even before Kolyat. There is the sound of splitting skin, the meat and cloth splintering noise, as her bayonet plunges into the surgeon’s chest. It arches, only to collapse as De Luca stabs, and Lipika stabs again, and Kolyat, and De Luca, and Raffaelle and Frieta hold the damned thing until they feel it break, the strength vanishing. Raffaelle rolls, motions them back to their positions to watch.

A quick search of the body, there had been something in its hand, a notecase, that’s what he thought it was. Probably useless, probably worthless, but that’s not for him to decide. Find the notes, and it’s another present for poor fucked Dimitri and the Council. He stuffs the prize into his tunic, scrambles to his feet. A pat on Lipika’s shoulder, a quick nod to De Luca, and a look of gratitude to Frieta and Kolyat.

Well fucking done.

On his side of the balkanised battle, down the corridor, Topaz chuckles through bloody teeth as the Silent Surgeon’s fist rattles his jaw. He pushes his bayonet up into the creature, trying to make the best of the close range, but he can’t quite push enough to do more than a glancing blow.

Then Igorov is behind the monster, pushing not inconsiderable weight down onto the eerily quiet thing , a brief grunt of effort the only sound as the undead is impaled on the sharp blade, before dissipating into gossamer. Topaz offers the burly rookie a bloody grin.

Beyond them, Endrizzi struggles with the second stranger, trying as quietly as possible to dart backwards as the touch of the creature snakes forward again and again. The Master Gunner checks a sigh and springs, his body in a tackle pose, a knife produced from a boot. Endrizzi glances upwards in shock, distracting the Silent Surgeon from his pray (and doubtless sparing the rookie some more serious harm), in time for the monster to turn, struggle and block the knife blow. Endrizzi steps forward and opens the thing from behind, like cutting cloth. The final tatters drift away.

Topaz hisses. "This be why I prefer guns."

With a series of group Skirmish rolls, with Scale, the band make pretty short work of the Crows, collecting only a few lightly Harmed rookies. Poor doctor Sable picked up another few points of Stress as he Resists some Harm. I’ve forgotten to mention it, but the Zora Clock and Commander clock had been ticking away. At this stage, I filled the clock for the Commander’s mind to be shattered and available to Pale, and at the end of this fight, Zora was at 7 ticks. The description above where Cobalt saw outside is about the 5 point. Reading back over the OOC chat thread, its clear the players were feeling the time pressure intensely, and things really start to transition from “quiet” to “urgent”.

And urgent, of course, means blowing shit up.

The company perform a quick visual check for corruption, check their ammunition and their explosives, and make their way downwards into the depths. The levels below the fortress are utterly dark, apart from the lanterns, with disused iron-wrought sconces every several feet. In the bowels, the devotion to appearances remain, but turn to cruelty - screaming faces marked into the wall, and cells are barred by twisting green-tinged iron bars.

Inside the windowless cells, there are small tables, wooden toilets, stone sinks and sometimes, skeletal remains, clearly left behind to display the fate of unransomed prisoners and unredeemed political unfortunates.

The occasional room has other purposes - a small chapel dedicated to Askira, the Aldermarni face of the universally beloved healing goddess; a forgotten crypt to nameless dead Darites; an ancient armoury for swords and spears; and a reserve cellar for ageing wines and spirits - but in the main, this place is for prisoners of war.

It is not long into this netherworld that the band is guided by uncanny sounds. A sound, with elements of the scraping of metal on metal, the whirring of a mechanical engine for pumping, a woman’s screams and a man’s smooth, insistent words, but none clashing or overlapping, no sequence, but rather somehow a blend of the whole, a single organic musicality that drives out wider awareness.
Regardless of the faith or otherwise of the individual soldier, it is blasphemous, and it is your compass.

Kolyat moves with grace, purposeful, allowing sight to replace hearing as he guides his peers through the empty rooms and halls. As the band are passing a series of particularly heavily decorated cells, he returns around the corner, signals for a hold and whispers.

“Zhe torture chamber is ahead, a dozen yards away. Two Cinder Guards stand vigil, heavier than our Frieta. Zhey are armoured in black, axe and blunderbus at the ready, just outside the door from which our nightmare concert comes.”

Raffaelle receives Kolyat’s scouting report without a change of expression. He knows the children are watching. He squints in the darkness, then motions the group back further. The tactical decision is made quickly. He indicates where he wants Topaz and Sable, then turns to the Laughing Ravens and makes damn-sure their bayonets are fixed. Then he pulls one of the remaining charges, cuts down the timing-fuse himself.

He hands it off to Frieta. "For Her," he whispers to Frieta, knowing that for all of them, at this moment, "Her" is their late commander. "Land it at their feet."

He draws his pistol, motions the squad up silently to the corner. He looks to Frieta and nods.

Frieta grits her teeth as she receives the demolition charge from Raffaelle. Her calloused hands are gentle but firm. She steadies herself right up at the corner, and peeks as far ahead as she is able to without breaking the line of sight to the Cinder Guards by poking her head out. Makes a mental adjustment so she can land the bomb right at the feet of the armored undead, just like her captain had ordered.

It had been raining that night, when Frieta found out that her sister had been killed at the Battle of Blackmotte. She had been angry and inconsolable. Punched out more than a few soldiers who had tried to get her to come to her senses. Commander Rampart hadn’t talked to her. She had just sat down next to her, with a two tin cups and a bottle of brandy. Didn’t try to explain anything, or adviser her. Instead, she had weathered the pain with her.

Frieta focuses and takes a deep breath. She rips the pull-fuse, releasing the alchemical acid that burns through to the detonator. The Bartan Heavy steps out into the hallway and throws the satchel charge with all of her might.

This one is for her.

This was a Fortune roll based of Frieta’s Wreck, with an Assist from Sable’s player, as part of his answer “What was Rampart like as a commander?” And in perhaps the only really good roll of the mission, it came up with the 6. The guards are still Threat 3, with a shared 10-tick clock, but this filled up 4 ticks and burned through their Armour instantly.

Also, with the Battle of Blackmotte (and Sable’s anarchist and heretical authors above), I keep a running list of things like that so I can ensure that’ll turn up in the plot or the lore later.

The alchemical satchel charge is heavy, and uneven, but in Frieta’s hands, it flies through the air in a mostly intended arc, the fuse the sole point of light as it flips end over end in the dark. The Cinder Guards react instantly, strangely deft for men of their size as they roll for cover.

Frieta darts sideways, and though the black-clad enemy gunner mostly reaches cover, his partner only gets to a corner where his arms go up and his back turned as the massive conflagration of fire and force engulfs them and covers them for an instant from the company’s view.

In that moment, several figure fly across the open hall, taking cover as they can on the far side, and as the smoke clears, rents on their black armour reveal pale and wounded flesh that does not bleed. They stand, and as one opens fire, the other charges forward like a horse, mighty axe raised high.

Musket balls rend into the mighty guard, tearing into his head and torso, but cannot bring his down or halt his charge. As he closes, Da Luca leaps forward, bayonet in hand and stabs into the thing’s heart. It staggers, it’s interminable momentum stopped, but it’s heavy black greataxe comes down on on the Orite’s shoulder, blood splattering backwards.

Before it is certain if the creature lives or dies, his partner emerges from behind its cover and steps over the blast-shattered and fallen door. It lifts its oversized blunderbus, an archaic but masterworked device, and lets loose a load of stinking, corrupted shot.

The rookies quail, and Lipika turns to flee, before Topaz’ laughter echoes through the room. The man’s confidence breaks the horror of the engagement, and the raw recruits return their focus to the onrushing giant, blade in hand.

Raffaelle draws his officer’s sword, same in make and kind as the one Zora carries outside, and roars in rage and frustration as he matches the Cinder Guard’s charge with his own. Though grossly mismatched in size, the pair exchange blows and parries, honed skill against brute strength. Igorov, inspired by Raf’s dance, tries to leap on the monster’s back, and with a terrible cracking sound, is broken against the stone wall for his trouble as the Guard retreats from a thrust into its thigh.

Noting Cinder Guards are each as dangerous as a Infamous, and outpace the danger of a Horror or a Shadow Witch, I wanted these foes to be nightmares, so had directly engaging them in melee as a Desperate Action with Limited Effect.

At this stage, with maybe eight failed rolls and a Trauma behind him, Greg was getting terrified of the cruel, cruel dice. To the point we had deleted our diceroller and installed a a new one, to no discernibly better results. So Greg lead one GA, doubling Scale with Lead from the Front, for a mixed success, killing Igorov with Harm 5.

Sable scrambles forward and pulls the young Zemyati back. He considers with brief irony that the Inquisitor’s sketches of the flayed human spine have shown him how to do this job, and he tears the man’s shirt open, rubbing the Mercy’s balms and triaging.

Igorov died here, Harm 5 reduced to 4 with his Armour, and Sable got a chance to show off his beloved Not Today and his Doctor skill, bringing Igorov to Harm 3 with “shattered neck”.

Topaz is still chuckling as the clash of arms fills the corridor, but his laughter dulls as Igorov smashes against the wall. He glances across at Sable’s frantic ministrations, keen sniper’s eyes picking out the shaky rhythm of the Zemyati’s breath. Nodding, he spits and takes a long, slow breath before leaping to an even footed stance. Raffaelle fences gamely with the behemoth, but each time the heavy sword swings down, the gallant officer is forced to take a step back down the corridor. They are three feet from Topaz now, a grunting, bleeding mess of steel. The Master Gunner sights along his long iron.

Two feet.

One.

SNAP.

The rifle cracks in the corridor, a simple bullet moving through the slit of the Cinder Guard’s visor, shaving shards of metal from helm and ball alike, but not so much to change its deadly momentum. There is a soft, wet sound from inside the giant’s helmet, and then, with a clang, the great monster strikes the stone floor.

Everything that he had learned at the University of Witten is absolutely useless. Sable Flowing Gale is attempting to check if Igorov’s vital organs are ruptured, but all the techniques he has learned are failing to inform him if they are intact or not.

“Don’t leave me, kid,” says Sable, trying to keep Igorov in the moment. “Marshall Fang is from Zemya. If I let one of her countrymen die, she’s going to have me digging latrines for weeks.”

if any of us live, the Doctor left that last part out. All Sable can do is try and bind Igorov’s ribcage together, to try and set the bones in place so they don’t rip a lung. The Panyar doctor grunts as he ties the bandaging as tight as possible.

Only in fading, we know life’s might You are not yet needed in the light Come back now to the dark, Come with Death’s blessing Time stands still later, for resting "

Igorov spits up blood, and Sable thinks he is losing him. Then the Zemyati rookie grits his teeth, and speaks.

“With all due respect, Doctor. That was terrible .” Sable wipes the blood off Igorov’s lips, and smiles.

This was back when I will still getting my ahead around risk and position and effect, and the combination of Potency, Threat, Scale and the use of Aim and Blackshot all in the one engagement really made me glad we were playing by post instead of live. I got enough time to read and reread the sections before making a gut call and saying they had filled the clock with a 5.

Overall, this fight had a lot of Resisting, Assisting, Group Actions, and from the mix, Sable ended up pushing over into Trauma. It was a really interesting balance, where the players were 100% committed to not having a single rookie die, while I was reasonable sure that was the outcome of going sword to sword with the Cinder Guard, and it resolved itself ultimately the right way - the characters achieved their goals, but at high personal cost.

Sable took ‘Soft’ as a Trauma, becoming far more sympathetic than in his early, almost Frankensteinian portrayal, and between that and Rafe’s ‘Haunted’, these decisions have cast a really long shadow over the game, which is the kind of thing I love.

Topaz spits again, this time on the corpse. He nods to Raf, and waves the troops forward.

“C’mon, Ravens. There’s work ahead for thee.”


#13

The torture chamber has nobody living within it, yet lives up to its name. It is filled with racks and iron maidens, with channels for blood built into the floor and leading - one assumes - into the sewers below.

In the centre of the room, a large and evil-looking throne holds the Commander’s body. She is strapped down, with needles piercing her naked skin, her rib cage expertly sliced open. A red-hued fluid with a fiery touch is being pumped from one of the calligraphied barrels from upstairs her heart. Her eyes are held open with clamps, and her face, familiar to every Legionnaire, is twisted into a look of bitter grief. She whispers constantly, except when she shrieks and screams. There is some illumination, a torch by which an Orite amanuensis has been taking the Inquisitor’s dictation, breaking now from its task in shock.

The inquisitor, Pale, has been looming over the device, but is staggering back. He is dressed like a Surgeon, in the black strapped leather and cloak, but his face is visible, patrician features twisted into a sickly grimace, one part incredulity and one part loathing.

“What… have you done … how dare …”

Raffaelle runs forward, shouting for the others, “On me! On me!” Everything has gone wrong and somehow they’re here and alive and they’ve made it this far and the last thing he wants is for momentum to be lost. He skids to a stop in the dungeon. The same, other-brain awareness of what is around him filters in, but he only has eyes for Rampart, or what was once Rampart. The Commander. Their Commander.

He has seen horrible, horrible things. This past week, the things he saw. But this is a blasphemy of a new order, and he knows he will never not see her in his nightmares, now. He will never not catalogue and imagine and elaborate the horrors done to their Commander. The murder of the body and rape of her rest, the defiling of her mind and memory, and soul. And then the Inquisitor makes the mistake of asking, "…how dare …"

And Raffaelle levels his pistol, but he needn’t bother. The fusillade is thunderous. The bodies fall and flop.

"Like that," he says.

The doctor holsters his pistol without taking his eyes off the former Commander, trapped in her painful, liminal state, lost somewhere between life and death. Sable’s adams apple bobs up and down vigorously as he swallows hard and approaches the terrifying remains of the woman whose decisions had saved all of their lives at numerous times.

“Shhh, Shhhhhh,” says Sable Flowing Gale, feebly trying to hush the pained whimpers and moans of the late Commander Rampart. “It’s over, Commander. It’s over.”

Honestly, the doctor wasn’t sure who he was speaking to: his squamates, the Commander, or himself. It really didn’t matter at this point, so Sable falls silent. With soft hands, he removes the clamps on Rampart’s eyelids first, and gently shuts her eyes with a brush of his fingers. Then, as quickly as he dares, Sable starts unfastening the Commander from the throne of undeath.

As he pulls the clamps from Rampart’s eyes, the doctor can hear her murmuring confession, words of won battles and lost lives pouring from her lips.

Spiteonthewronghorse, Wealllaugheduntil, Happytookthecurvedsword…

The red blood and black tar are pouring into her veins, animating her mental faculties, while other occult chemicals forbidden for human experimentation work subtler changes. As the doctor reaches down to examine the path of the tubes, seeing what goes where, hands opening the fasts on her arms, the Commander snaps out her hand and grabs his wrist in an iron grip.

Legionairre,” her voice takes a clarity, and her head twists against the remaining restraints, her torn eyes turning their sightless gaze on Sable, fixating on his uniform’s sigil, “Bianca for… the dragon was a myth, but he took my flower in the cave … Bianca can lead you well. Rafe for Marshal if Fang has fallen. Suffer, but do not retreat. Retreat, but do not break. Break, but do not die.”

She grunts with difficulty, and mumbles more rambling words about Islander curries, but does not release the wrist.

“The sword… the standard… the Remnant lives.”

She groans a long, agonising groan, “THE REMNANT LIVES.”

And with that, Remnant collapses, a puppet with her strings cut, a dead woman.

As the Commander gives the Legion her last orders, all that Sable Flowing Gale could feel was a deep, sincere gratitude. Well beyond her watch, and still vigilant.

“Thank you,” the doctor says.

Sable frees his wrist from Rampart’s rigor mortis grip, and hoists her over his shoulder. Her corpse fluids were all over his uniform now, spilled onto his britches and shoes alike. A hesitation. Sable can’t avert the need to confront the twice-dead Inquisitor Pale. He turns to face the ruined mess on the floor.

“You wasted your brilliance on these aberrant practices, this anti-doctoring. You should have been saving lives. I am glad to have been here to see your life’s work ended.”

The doctor then turns his attention to the officer, and nods.

Topaz shuffles across the killing floor in an odd, shuffling gait, like a dancing crab, until he hovers near the body of the fallen Commander. He does another little half-turn, an oddly dedicated caper.

“You’ve caught the Moon now, Mum. Take care.”

Sable, Panyar to the bone, recognizes a modified version of The Horned King’s Dance - a deepwood rite to speed on the departed. When done, he surveys the carnage and the room carefully again and nods once, as if satisfied, before swinging his rifle up onto his shoulder.

"What say thee, Dad? Shall we explode yon grate, take our escape by the crapscuttle? Or did thee have something elsewise planned?"

The retreat through the sewers and down the mountainside is made difficult by the two corpses, and by the grievously injured Igorov. While the detonation of one of the remaining alchemical explosives brings both satisfaction and protection from pursuit, it does not prevent the occasional encounter with feral and leaderless undead.

The trek through the hilly terrain is hard, but there is a reprieve when the rain ceases and dawn breaks. Under the ruddy sun emerging from cloud, Topaz can see in one direction the Legion’s position. In the other direction, he can see the distant cloud of marching dead. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Cinder foot make their way across the great river that protects your position, slow but inexorable. The Legion has some days yet, but will have to retreat.

When the war camp of the Legion comes into sight, the ragged and tired recruits of Raven break into a cheer. They barely notice the camp is nearly empty - the strike force have returned before the diversionary expedition, and less than a dozen rookies under the watchful eye of a supply officer are there to gratefully welcome your return.

And with two Traumaed Specs, a Rookie with Harm 4, several with Harm 1, and nobody dead, the Legion had succeeded on their first mission!


#14

15 Rabbit 844

I note that the actual details of the discovery and recovery of Rampart are…thin.

Captain De Deori’s report becomes unusually terse, even for him, and none of the other Specialists attached to the mission break from that. Their description of Inquisitor Pale and the items recovered from him give insight, and imagination and the state of her return fill in the rest, so I suppose it’s hardly surprising. But if future reports suffer from such self-censorship, I’ll need to speak to Fang about it.

We cannot gather accurate intelligence and we cannot make informed decisions moving forward if we turn squeamish — no matter how just that turn may be — in the face of the horror of our enemy. If nothing else, these horrors must be documented. If the Legion falls, or if the Legion prevails, the Annals must tell the truth. For a certain value of truth. (And let’s be honest, here. I’m looking at over fifty previous keepers of the Annals, all of them with their own standards of what is “truth.” Which, I suppose, is the point…)

The problem is, of course, these are horrors, and of a kind no army has ever had to face, or at least never faced and lived to tell the tale. Maintaining morale and unit cohesion in the face of this is a daunting task, and one that will only become harder when we are confronted with the inevitable setbacks. That we have any morale to speak of is, in and of itself, a minor miracle.

The first mission was my second time running anything Forged in the Dark, after a BitD one-shot some distant time ago. I definitely struggled a lot with stakes, vacillating between making things Controlled to nearly killing people off, on too uneven a keel. Between that a player preference for some Group Actions and several truly ghastly rolls in a row, this ended up being more brutal than it looks on paper. Nobody had read any setting stuff except for Chris and most mere learning the mechanics via lengthy staccato discord chats, so a lot of things were misread of misapplied at various points requiring correction - for one Group Action, we had every NPC roll seperately, which… ouch.

I was pretty happy with the back-and-forth between myself and the group in regards to world building, and really liked the Legion that was developing. I learned the Remnant’s colours are green and gold, and that the former Spymaster defected in the Isles, a distant location south-east of Zemya where the Legion’s last campaign was held.

Some players, I think, struggled - and probably continue to struggle - with the troupe play aspect and the changing of characters between the Specs and the Commanders caused that whiplash to be unveiled for the first time. I’ll delve into this when we get around to mission selection later, but its definitely been a juggling act to balance their desire to spend time with a character against the game’s strategic layer which suggests spreading out your attention is sensible and safe even where people aren’t dying.


(A B) #15

All this is brilliant. Thanks a lot. Rules are a bit tough to use and I struggle in the same way as you do. But how I wish my players had half the imagination and creativity yours are displaying! I hope it will come when they are more knowledgable of the rules and more used to the setting.


#16

Glad you liked it! My players are all excellent storytellers and writers (in my very biased opinion, mind, though some of them do it for a living), but honestly, part of the secret is… we cheat. By which I mean we take advantage of the fact we’re writing this slowly, and can take our time to think about things. Campaign set-up and the first mission inclusive took us, I think, from March until May?

On the rules side, we have gotten a lot better since here. The players are all pretty proficient with the principles, though because of the time factor, they struggle not to overplan things. As for myself, I’m much more comfortable with the rules a couple more missions on, and know how I could have managed things like the Cinder Guard or the sneaking around upstairs far more smoothly. My only problem now - and my players will fervently disagree - is I’m too soft, and let the rookies live far too often.

But you live, you learn, and when you’re brave enough, you kill.


#17

FIRST CAMPAIGN PHASE

We did initial set-up – excluding Lorekeeper, as we hadn’t bundled that in with the QM role yet – fairly smoothly.

As per Spite’s letter above, the Legion take food a plenty, horses, blackshot, supply carts and labourers. The mission gave them a morale boost, making them pretty damn happy for a group that just got decimated, and kept Time down. This made time passing feel much less stressful, to the point I think they may have taken the ease of Advancing for granted. Something that may bite them in the ass down the line…

With people travelling wildly, we settled in for a run of freeplay scenes with whomever was available -

THE HANGED MEN

The Hanged Men are the last of the Legion’s cavalry, destroyed at Ettenmark. They are also Blighted. While this effectively gave the Legion 5 extra recruits – one of which is a Soldier with the Cavalry Advance – at no cost, I think it worked really well in getting people thinking about what is at stake with Corruption and Blight. I also gave Render an extra Lieutenant in exchange, which will come up later.

In what I think part of the players finding the shared vision of the Legion ethos, the Remnant entirely flip on their brand new quarantine policy in what has to be a couple of days.

Sable crosses the campgrounds, wiping the blood off his hands onto a stained towel. Exhaustion is in his bones, despite the stimulating elixirs he self-medicates with, but he has one more duty before he can grab a brief and disturbed hour of sleep.

At the edge of the encampment, almost pressed against the walls, there is a large red tent. Several soldiers gather around a fire, drinking deeply from a bowl they are passing around. The air around them is heavy with smoke, their small fire banked with green wood. Blood and fermented milk swill around in the wooden bowl. The doctor sees the bowl is near empty, big enough for many men, but only few remain.

The gathered warriors do not stand to attention as the doctor approaches, but turn around on their log to acknowledge his approach. One stands, an image of a hanged man emblazoned on her vest, her left eye white, wriggling grey spots appearing and disappearing.

“Honoured healer,” Taidos, fist leader of the blighted, bows, “we submit to your studious gaze. Would you care for a drink?”

Behind her, the large brute, Bahasa, scowls, arms crossed over his hair chest.

"Berenike Taidos," says Sable. "You are known to me, and I accept your offer of generous hospitality."

The doctor is handed the communal drinking bowl, and he raises it to his lips and takes a swig. While the mouthfeel is unpleasant --it is cut, probably because the component liquids don’t mix well, leaving an oily top layer that clings to his palate-- the sweet, boozy flavor with a deep iron aftertaste is not bad. An acquired taste for sure, but not bad.

“Do I owe thanks to you and your Hanged Men for taking part in Chosen Zora’s divisionary assault of the keep earlier? Or did the Commander have other plans for you today?”

“We battled the poison ones, sword against sword, sword against squishy fist,” Eshaq El Sayed laughs through his nose, and Sable’s eyes are drawn to the scarlet claw marks on his throat, “Always always. First to the front, last to retreat, my brother, until it ends.”

“Until it ends,” the entire fist echoes as one.

Bahasa grabs the bowl back, swigging deep, “Curse of the hanged, thanks to the fucking Cr…”

Taidos growls, and the large man falls silent. The leader turns back to Sable, and her mouth twists into a broad smile.

“Apologies, my friend, thousand apologies. Bahasa is like a new-broken mare, always irritable when ridden hard to battle.”

She shrugs the moment away, “But, ah, we were not quite last to retreat this outing. The blessed one of the Eastern spirits, she fights well and long.”

El Sayid scratches at his chest, “Say, healer, your rooks say that you found some holy texts. No fear, I overheard, did not engage. Secret books of the priests of the dead…”

The raven-haired man leans in, and his voice has a small quiver as he tries to keep his tone light and even.

Sable Flowing Gale takes a seat at the camp fire of the Hanged Men. He looks into the fire, listens to it splutter and spark for a moment before answering the Islander.

“Yes, I have uncovered texts authored by the lackeys of the Plaguebringer. These writings are no sacred scripture though. They are more like medical journals. You know, careful notes detailing their sinister work. Brilliant ideas, really, but such heresy is not for casual perusal.”

The drinking bowl is being passed around for a second round, and Sable gladly accepts. The burn of the liquor is pleasant, and helping the doctor in processing the day’s experiences. Sable decided to cut straight to it.

“Tell me, Hanged Men,” says the medic. “How have things been? How are you coping?”

The fist listen, whisper to each other in their own tongue. Something in Berenike settles, and she leans backwards.

“You are the only person to share our fire, my friend. You are the only one to drink from our bowl,” she gestures back at the rest of camp, “And though you come warmly, even you are allowed to come only as our healer.”

“So it is,” she throws the dregs of the bowl into the fire, and stands with sudden determination, “Until it ends.”

As addressed to the Eternal Legion High Command, namely: Lord Commander Dimitri Alexovich, Lady Marshal Zinovia Lubovyena and Quartermaster General Bianca Valentina Storace de Nessuno

After performing my doctoring services for the Laughing Ravens, I spent some time with our blighted patrol, the Hanged Men. They know when I am assessing them, even as we break bread, drink, and make conversation at their camp fire. The squad is undoubtedly showing signs of corruption; from milky eyes with no pupils, to studded bone ridges beneath the hairline, unnaturally sharpened lateral and cuspid teeth (upper and lower), leathery skin patches on the hands and forearms, etc. Their conditions have not worsened since my last visit two days ago. The Hanged Men show no sign of physical deterioration, so far. As I have not found a way to stave off the symptoms, I can only expect their condition to worsen. We have known this for some time. The reason for this missive pertains more to the psychological profile of the subjects.

The Hanged Men are being isolated, and they know it. They are showing signs of feeling unwanted, and of being feared. It is my professional assessment that we must change these undesired emotions with the subjects, because as a realist, I must warn you. The Hanged Men will not be the only blighted squad among the Legion during this campaign.

What I propose is that we set up the Hanged Men as role models for other legionnaires who will undoubtedly contract and suffer the blight during our push toward Skydagger Keep. We have to show the rest of the Legion how to carry blight and still function as soldiers without giving into despair and becoming liabilities. It is important that we find compassion in our hearts toward the Hanged Men, and re-welcome them into our fold.

Bernike Taidos, their stalwart leader, is an affable and competent woman. If we permit them to commingle with the rest of the Legion, I do not believe that they will overreach. One way to begin this would be to ask around for volunteers, who can accompany me as I do my rounds with the Islanders.

Eternally,

Sable Flowing Gale.

Bianca rereads Sable’s report, initials it in the green ink used by her. Gorgeous uses red. Fang uses blue. Their marks are on the document already. She feels about for her pipe, thumbs tobac into it with her thumb from its pouch. At the far end of the tent, Taisa sleeps, curled up, three of the dogs nestled about her. It’s summer and it’s hot at night, and the girl sleeps with three dogs keeping her warm.

Outside, the camp rattles with the first signs of pre-dawn takedown. They’ll break camp fast, march by the time the sun is full. She lights the pipe, puffs for a few seconds in silence. Her arms, ass, and legs are sore, the way they’re sore after battle. Almost nobody sat the Chosen’s diversion out. It literally didn’t matter how you cut them, there were always more. The Chosen, Bianca reflects, was enjoying herself a little too much.

She rises with a grunt that she is glad nobody is around her to hear. She knows she is getting older. She knows she’s likely lived too long already. By all rights, she should’ve been dead a decade past, if not longer. Makes no sense, no rhyme nor reason, why some live and some don’t, and the thing that burns her the most about the Cinder King is that he is, fundamentally, a cheater . It’s not that he cheats death; it’s that he cheats others from death. He changes the rules, changes them so much there’s no rules left.

One of the dogs – the one she calls Storm – rises from Taisa’s side and trots after her as she steps out, shakes herself out of sleep beside her hip. Bianca scratches its head absently, looking over the camp. “Breakfast,” she says, after a moment. She puts two fingers in her mouth, whistles for a runner, and gives him the message.

~Later~

It’s not a grand spread, but it’s a solid, real breakfast, because there’s eggs and meat left, and hot tea and honeycomb and the bread is fresh. She’s on her second pipe of the day when the Hanged Men arrive, hold at the flap of the tent. The runner steps inside.

“They’re here.” She nods, “Go pack.”

He goes. She waits, trying to figure out how long will be long enough. Dawn means the camp is alive. People are moving. Soldiers will see. She wants this seen, but it has to be for the right amount of time. Too long, it’ll look like reprimand. Too short and there’s no fucking point.

“Taidos! Roll those damn flaps back and get me some light in here! And then get yourselves in here, food’s getting fucking cold!”

They enter. Bianca’s hand falls to Storm’s neck, pressing gently, holding the dog steady. She eyes the Hanged Men as they present themselves uncertainly. She looks them over, making no pretense about it. Letting them see her see them .

“Well, sit down and eat, dammit,” she says, leaning forward and beginning to fill the battered mugs with tea. “We’ve got road to devour and fighting to do and fuck knows when we’ll have the comfort and companionship of a hot breakfast next.”

She rolls the small talk as they settle, uncomfortable and uncertain. She stills the dogs, asking inanities – where you from, how long, what’d you do before, and who’d you leave behind. Lulls them into boredom while they eat, until she sees them relax despite themselves, because you can’t be at attention forever, especially not with a boiled egg and a chicken leg in your mouth.

Then she tells a story, the one about the Backwards Charge at Gold, which is called that in the Annals because Spite ended up on the wrong horse, that motherfucker that Fang had bought, the one they joked had demonblood in its veins. And the motherfucker turned her into cavalry when she was never, ever cavalry before and has not been since.

About the way Rampart was pissing herself laughing, and Fang, and Clutter, and that wet cunt who-shall-not-be-named who Gathered Whispers (and Bianca spits at having to mention her), and how Spite did everything wrong – and the Hanged Men know cavalry, they know dumb-luck and stupid mistakes – and yet somehow had grace and luck and smarts at the right time and stupidity at the right time to live through it all. It is a funny damn story, and she gets her gold near the end, when the first sniggers have turned to chuckles and then, finally, to laughter.

And with that, Bianca has the Hanged Men to breakfast, and makes damn well sure everyone in the Legion knows she did it, and wishes they’d been invited, as well.

RAMPART

The ‘formal’ Back at Camp scene chosen from the list was “Rememberance for the fallen”, here the funeral and wake for Commander Rampart.

Spite finishes and steps back, aware of Taisa looking up at her. She reaches out, runs fingers through the young woman’s hair, an almost-absent gesture of reassurance.

“It’ll do,” Spite says, as much as to herself as to the girl. She puts two fingers to her mouth, whistles sharp. The flap parts, and four of the Legion enter from where they’re been waiting outside. They’ve cleaned up as best they can. Captain de Deori leads the group. Another of the Laughing Ravens, Endrizzi, and two others she can’t put names to at this moment.

“Take her.”

Together the four lift Rampart’s body, or more precisely the sheet she now lays upon, and at Deori’s word carry her out of the quartermaster tent. Spite checks her pocket again, finds the phial, follows, Taisa at her side, half-shuffling.

Outside, the night is still summer-warm, the distant scent of the past battle whispering on the wind, discernible beneath the odors of the camp, the cooking fires, the soldiers, the horses. Gorgeous and Fang are waiting at the pyre, as well as what remains of the company. Full-stop for this one, Spite thinks.

Rampart’s body has been prepared, repaired, as best Spite and Taisa can manage. Asking Sable to do it seemed somehow wrong. Open wounds have been closed, the body dressed and wrapped, the late commander’s hair brushed and braided. Her sword was lost when she was lost, so Spite has used her own, affixing the sheath to Rampart’s belt.

The company rattles from attention at a motion from Gorgeous. He looks at Spite, and she thinks again how young he is, how steady yet innocuous he has been all these past years. In torchlight, she imagines new lines already creasing his face, though if it’s only imagination it makes no difference. He’ll have the real ones soon enough.

“Here is the Legion,” Spite says. “Ten thousand of us or one of us, here is the Legion, and we do not forget. Glittering in sunlight or sheltering in shadow, here is the Legion. We are the Legion. We carry that, each of us, in our hearts, on our backs. Here is the Legion.”

She stops, swallows. She can’t stop looking at Rampart. She is thinking of so many years, of the woman’s growl, of her laughter, of her cursing. She is thinking of her screaming in battle-rage and barking orders as clear and calm as winter ice. She is thinking of her drunk and weeping when she believed she was alone, paging through Clutter’s books.

“We march on,” Spite says. “We fight on. We complete the contract. That is the duty of our Commander, to lead the march, the fight, to fulfill the contract. That is our honor, our only honor. We do the job. We always do the job.”

She steps closer to the pyre, the body, rests her hand on Rampart’s head.

“Here is Rampart. Here is the Legion. We release her from our service, knowing she served with all her heart, knowing that she gave us everything she could, and then again gave us more…”

She pauses. There is so much more she wants to say, but she thinks she has said too much already. She bends, kisses Rampart’s cold forehead. She takes the phial from her pocket.

“…her contract is fulfilled.”

Spite steps back, throws the phial at the pyre. The tiny container shatters, spattering oil, a whiff of alchemical acidity that is promptly lost in its ignition with the air. The fire erupts at once, spreading quickly along the wood.

“For the Legion,” Spite says.

Dmitri stares into the pyre, watching the flames sent Rampart wherever she was going. He half-expected her to wake up on the fire and pat out some errant flames. Bark an order or two in her scratchy voice and get them moving again.

Her contract is fulfilled.

It had been the three Crones for so long that Fang and Spite looked oddly amputated, in a way that they hadn’t until now. Her presence marking the truth of her absence. Despite the snarls and scars, Dmitri noted the loving care with which the body had been prepared to be sent on. More delicate than a lover, more faithful than a friend.

Conscious of the need to say something, even after all the years at her command, Dmitri felt a little perverse here, as if he had come to the funeral in the dead woman’s clothes. But silence would compound the problem, make him seem too willing to take her cup without thanks.

"When we go, all we have is ourselves to send us on. All we have are the annals by which to be remembered." He took in the scant numbers of the Remnant. "And remember we shall."

Faces grim, in the firelight. At least they all came back alive, this time. At least there is that.

It is a stern Marshall Fang who watches the late Commander Rampart burn on the pyre they had erected and lit for her. She has stayed silent, but she knows its her turn to speak.

“Death is for the dead,” says Fang as she stares into the blazing flames that claim the first Crone.

“Funerals are for the living. So I want everyone to take their time here and send off Commander Rampart properly.”

The Marshall then turns to face the congregated Legion, “And then we move on . We honor the sacrifices of those who grant us the ultimate gift, their life in service, but we do not dwell on the dead. There will be no idolatry. We are strong, because we are of flesh and blood, because we are mortal.”

The Marshall draws her blade, and holds it up. Inspects it in the firelight. Then she lets out a high, piercing war cry full of sorrow, joy, fear and pride. Fang re-sheaths her sword and stares back at the Legion with something wild in her eyes. More than a few rookies flinch, thinking she might attack them before she speaks again.

“Life is for the living. So live !”

As Fang turns her attention back to the pyre, Spite and Gorgeous can see that there is a slight twitch in her face.

That’s the three members of the Council in a nutshell.

ZORA

This was a chance to check in on how it was to have a Chosen at camp, and Robert stepped in to flesh out Frieta.

Frieta Laghari was pious. Not afire or afraid with the eccentric superstitions of the Panyar, nor cold and skeptical like the Orite, but devoted enough, devoted in her bones, in a manner both practical and sentimental. The gods were real, they worked miracles every day, the Chosen were their instruments and incarnations. Like most Bartans, while she honoured the Horned Beast, the Trinity of Civility, Orcus and a hundred other gods, her first devotions were to Ostra, Lady of Mercy, and Kol, Lord of War.

The Commander had been Zemyati, however, and so it was to a small and bent tree just outside the camp’s protections that the Frieta turned her attentions. She cut herself, and made a prayer to the Living God, bleeding a few drops onto the ground.

“May her trials be seen as worthy.”

Beside the massive specialist, the Chosen seemed too fragile to be a divine instrument. Unlike other Chosen, she has no flaming aura, no circling white doves, no azure skin or flowers blooming beneath her tread. Even when Frieta fell to her knees, Zoya was less than a head taller.

“May her trials be seen as worthy,” the Bartan replied.

Zoya looks at the heavy, “I hear you bested one of the Cinder Guard?” Frieta nods, “With Kol’s aid, yes, holy one.”

“Killed one so mighty, with the blood of the king in their veins. Royal blood.”

Zoya sits beside her in the dust, and there is a sad smile on her face. Her voice is soft, “In the older faiths, as practiced in the Empire, to lay hands on one with royal blood was a terrible sin. The Emperor was divine, afterall, and all that shared their essence. It was an affront to all the gods to cause harm to one lifted above the common folk, earning a soul eternal damnation and torment. After all, all they did - good or ill by the lights of the fireflies - was imbued with ineffable, infallible purpose.”

Frieta, unsure of whether to keep kneeling or sit, looks up, but Zoya’s attention is on the tree. There is a silence, as Zoya cuts her own palm with her Legion blade and bleeds onto the ground.

“You know,” she whispers, looking over her shoulder, “I’m not sure there are any gods.”

Frieta blinks and stutters, her huge frame temporarily unbalanced.

"Holy one…"

What a way to begin. To a blasphemy.

Frieta knew she was not quick or clever, like some members of the company. Though she was fast enough in a fight, she would watch some of the others, that queer lightning crackling in their eyes as they reached strange, near frightening leaps and connections. Frieta did not think as fast as them. She reacted as fast as most of them - or faster - because of how she thought. Certainty. Frieta was sure . No pause between thought and action for second-guessing. No running faster than she could keep up. Running exactly as fast, for exactly as long as she could.

The gods were real. As certain a foundation as unyielding stone. A solid place to plant your feet for the fight. But so was reverence for the Chosen.

Chosen can err, she thinks. They can Break. You’ve seen it. Consciously she has not spoken for some moments, she looks to Zora.

"What makes you say that?"

Zora wipes her bleeding hand on her tunic.

“Because I killed an old man.”

She looks at her blade as she sheathes it one-handed, “The priests say I am became divine, because I stuck the business end in an old man who thought he was too potent to need to stay current with duelling styles. The priests say this meant it was his will to transition, to become one with me.”

The woman closes her eyes, lost in memory, “He sure didn’t act like it was his will. And I have killed many who were meant to be gods, and many who aren’t, and it felt much the same.”

Her eyes open and look into Frieta’s, “Just as you killed the Cinder Guard. It’s the same, just harder, right?”

“Still, I have believed we were divine. Believed without proof beyond our miracles, as I am told we gods demand. And it seemed enough… until we started to break.”

Zora eyes are a little wide, the usual fire and intensity behind them pressing, digging into Frieta for some sort of answer, “If we are gods, soldier, what is it that can change us? And why would we allow it?”

CHECKING IN ON OUR GOOD, GOOD RAVENS

“Look, I am not gonna lie,” says Margrave Cyprian Da Luca. “I was excited when I found out that Topaz Running Iron was on the mission with us.”

The Orite Legionnaire was chowing down on some reheated beans together with an assortment of other rookies who were curious of how the retrieval of the late Commander Rampart had gone down. Sable had put Da Luca’s arm in a shoulder splint to keep the axe wound from reopening, but he could still hang onto his bowl of beans no problem.

Da Luca was pointing at Knight Ruben Orlando, one of the Scarred Lions, with his spoon, as he was finishing chewing a mouthful of the food stuffs.

“No joke, man,” says the Orite Margrave. “That Panyar Master Gunner is a stone cold killer.”

Da Luca starts gesticulating with his one healthy hand as he excitedly continues.

“One of those masked surgeons almost gutted the doctor, and Topaz was all like, ‘nah, Dad,’ and went BLAK-BLAK and shot it right in the face!”

The spoon clattered as the Margrave tossed into the empty bowl and washed his food down with some watered down wine.

“I am telling you Ruben, if you go out into the field, to do some real shit, you want my man Topaz Running Iron by your side. He kept calling the Captain ‘Dad’ too. It was kinda weird, but I liked it. He sounded confident. Maybe I’ll try it next time, too.”

Knight Ruben Orlando of the Scarred Lions slapped Da Luca gently on the back of the head.

“Don’t do that, Da Luca. That’s a Panyar thing. You’re just going to sound like an idiot.”

“Ah, yeah,” agrees the Margrave. “You’re probably right. But damn if Topaz isn’t the sharpest dagger in the Legion right now! Blew out a Cinder Guard with a single bullet. Damn it, man.”

TRAUMA FOR RAFE & SABLE

There was a decent haul of xp, especially for Topaz. Robert is way more comfortable pushing the edge for that extra xp than the others. I cannot remember how all the many-times-overwritten sheets looked, but I know Rafe took Hardened so Trauma would not knock the poor Captain out next mission.

Along with spending the xp, Chris and Greg wanted a chance to foreshadow how Rafe and Sable had changed. I always love a good foreshadowing…

The camp of the Eternal Legion had a different energy to it after the successful recovery of the late former Commander. There was a sense of vindication, and relief that the death of leader was not being exploited by the vile lackeys of the Plaguebringer. The Legion expected to be on the move before too long, so there was a hustle and a bustle to the entire operation. Sable Flowing Gale finds Captain Raffaele Orazio de Deori between errands.

“Sir Captain, a moment of your time,” says the doctor. “Do you mind if I walk with you?”

The question was rhetorical, “How did you feel about this past mission? Any keen observations about the other Specs, or the Laughing Ravens? That would be of use to me, I mean, as a doctor.”

“Ditch the rank bullshit,” Raffaelle says. “We’re not in front of the Rooks.”

He steps off the drag, posts up near a stack of supply crates that have yet to be loaded. He reaches beneath his cloak, produces his flask, takes a pull and then offers it to the medic.

"How do I feel about it? By every metric we have it was an absolute success. Even the diversionary force came back without a loss."

He takes the flask back from Sable, pulls again, then caps it and returns it from whence it came.

“You saw Fang when she came back, she was dripping their fucking gore. And don’t get me started about our Chosen.”

He sighs, smudges his temple when he rubs it, and makes the mistake of closing his eyes. Instantly, he sees Rampart again, foul fluid pulsing, forced through her veins, the death-denied anguish in her face.

"Any keen observations." He laughs, a short sound, trying to kick the memories back into hiding. "Yeah. It was an unqualified victory."

He meets Sable’s eyes, “So why the fuck doesn’t it feel like one?”

Sable Flowing Gale holds Raffaele’s gaze for as long as he can.

“We did all that, and it was still… just about putting one of our own to bed.”

The doctor breaks eye contact and looks off to the side, watching the Scarred Lions load up one of the supply carts.

“All that effort, and we were still too late. Mam is still dead.”

The Panyar doctor takes a deep breath. His eyes are steady again when he turns his attention back to the Captain.

“Look, Raffaele,” says Sable. “I just wanted you to know that you were right. About keeping the Dar woman alive. There are some rivers we don’t cross, and you saw to that.”

Sable Flowing Gale was looking Raffaele in the eye, but the Officer got a sense that the doctor was looking through him, and examining his own oaths to the practice medicine, about always giving aid freely whatever the cost.

“If I would have shot her, that would have been something I’d always have to live with. Becoming… the opposite of what I came out here to be. But now I don’t have to.” The medic takes another sip of the brandy they were passing between the two of them. Sable tips his head to his Captain. “So there is that, too. Thank you, Raf.”


#18

CAMPAIGN ACTIONS

Honestly, Greg really surprised me with his Campaign Actions. Given Morale was high, Topaz was low stress and on Harm 1, and Sable and Rafe had swung back to low stress after Trauma, he decided to avoid Liberty and R&R actions. Despite being in the Western Front (or technically before it, I suppose), he doubled down on Acquire Assets.

He aimed for Religious Supplies, and got a Standard, and for Artillery, which came up Poor. I struggled to work out the rules for this from the Beta document, but landed on what turned out to be pretty in synch with the rules proper – they found some cannon, but it was busted and needed repair. I started a 4-tick “Repair the Black Beauties” clock.

Given how incredibly useful the religious supplies turned out to be, and given they had none before this, this was a pretty solid play.

When you consider that only a week ago, the Legion was defeated, retreating at speed, the high spirits of the men and women of the Legion was surprising. There had been well over a thousand marching under the banner a month ago, but the fifty who remained in the colours of green and gold worked in focused accord as they harvested the battlefield and laughed and argued over drinks at the campfire.

All had seen battle at least twice in the past fortnight, and the only hint of real discord was the growing rivalry between Reyansh, the bald-headed, preening and panther-like master of the Ghost Owls, and Apajua, former siege engineer and now supply officer. She denied his requests for blackshot and desire to be seen as the Ghost Owl leader, and he in turn sneered at her pretentious of rank as “Captain of the Artillery”.

After some days of this, hours before the decampment, he embarrassed her with some sharp words in front of the whole camp, and she vanished. The Remnant entire marched for three days without rest to the relative safety of the walls of the Alliance camp. At the midway point, there was a loud flank of heavy iron, and the scouting parties converged on the racket. There was several bloody and filthy Legionnaires, dragging broken and mud-clogged cannon.

To the shocked expression of the others, Apajua wiped her face, “There it is, boys. Fucking captain of artillery again, aren’t I?

ADVANCE

19 Rabbit 844

We are encamped on the remains of the Western Front, what was once known as High Fulon Fort, since abandoned but for a handful of deserters and wounded. It’s left us little enough to salvage, but the walls hold, the roofs are still intact, and it is, for the moment, defensible — though that defensibility may be due more to Zora’s presence and her continual nighttime sorties than I’d care to acknowledge.

The Advance, with Zora’s Blessing keeping pressure down, Time reduced and a solid roll, was an easy success for the Commander.

I have them this very rough map. Render in red, Stormbreaker in purple. Raleigh castle and the Legion are also marked in.

The Commander picked Recon Missions as his Commander focus, and I rolled up some missions. I followed this by asking the Quartermaster some questions about how the Legion got hired, and advised that the choice would decide which factions from the East liked and disliked the Remnant. Options included the Temples of War and Mercy, the Intelligensia of Or, the Bartan Circle and some others. Greg went with being in the Temples good graces, pardon pun.

Clutter–

As per request, I met today with Lord Rakash, Eighth of His Name, Most High Minister of the Circle in Matters of War, Keeper of the Lance of Amaretti, Protector of the Reaches, Favored of War & Mercy, Voice of Khant, Mehdi and Bhengha, Elector of Valandy. I attest to these titles in the Annals, and beg you not to make me record them again.

The contract is expansive, and will require the dedication of all our forces to meet its conclusion. I have doubts about the conclusion of the campaign, especially given our lack of intelligence.

Of Lord Rakash himself, I’m not certain what I make of the man, truth be told. He was polite, even courteous to the point of solicitous, which – as you know – is not often the case for such meetings. Mercenary is often a pejorative amongst the nobility, as the Annals record and as you well know. No such disdain was manifest. I was entertained by his Lordship, as well as several advisors, and notably representatives of War and Mercy. I was offered refreshment, and prayers were made prior to consumption.

It is no secret that his Lordship is a devout man, but he is no toady of the church. In truth, he seems awed to have been called to his position, and this perhaps accounts for his kind reception of me. Whether this shall cost him on the field remains to be seen. What I gather is that he sees both his current office – and thus, by extension, his dealings with us – as a duty he cannot, or dare not, shirk. He speaks of the end of civilization, of life, Clutter, and asks us to stand at his side to prevent this. I write this for you and see the hyperbole, but from his mouth it is clear that he believes it anything but.

Terms agreed, contracts being written at this time.

I remain, faithfully in service of our Legion,

Spite

I then asked the Marshal who took over the Eastern Alliance armies post-Ettenmark to help me flesh out the details.

With the infighting that followed Lord Rakesh’ death, who ultimately took command of the forces of the Eastern Alliance?

  1. Was it Elder Dancing Lotus, Questgiver of the Horned Man, speaking on behalf of the Chosen and channelling so-called prophecy?
  2. Did the Abnegic Scholars of the Bifrost Society of United Or threaten to cut off blackshot supplies if they did not have their way?
  3. Did Adikar Khatri inherit her father’s influence as well as his position, maintaining Barta’s overall command?
  4. Was it Vikei Islanovich Firehanded, consolidating power by executing those who resisted her self-proclaimed supreme command?

Chris made the self-flagellating choice of Vikei, I suspect with the idea in mind that Vikea could be the person at fault for Ettenmark and a potential B-plot villian (no, wait, C-plot, after both Broken).

Next up, mission selection…


#19

MISSION OPTIONS

Broken Hawk (Recon)
The intelligence network of the Alliance in Aldermark was constituted from the spies and informers various Eastern nations had placed in Aldermark before the war, and it centred in Karlsburg, the capital and hub of political activity. That network has been shattered by Render’s occupation of the capital. The Bartan Circle have sent a pigeon to the Legion, passing on a message received from an agent trapped in Karlsburg. The agent claims to hold intelligence regarding Render’s plans, intelligence that could be critical to the war effort. Only the Legion is still far enough behind enemy lines to lend aid. The Bartan Circle of Command formally request the urgent exfiltration of their agent from Karlsburg. Failure to do so may leave the Legion exposed to Render’s next move.

Reward: 1 Intel, gain 1 Spy, favour from Barta
Penalty: +1 Pressure; +1 Time

Amber Arrow (Assault)
One of Render’s generals has become a figure of fear amongst the Remnant. Mihkin the Black rides on a dread steed, armed with a smoking lance. He wears black plate, carries Render’s banner high and mounts on his right shoulder the skull of a lieutenant he found unworthy and on his left, the skull of an enemy he found worthy. In every encounter, he has been victorious, his troops slaughtering Legion’s cavalry. This master of Render’s cavalry has been seen by Legion scouts on the battlefield of Ettenmark while they scavenged for Assets. Seen with only a small entourage, separated from his forces. He seems to be searching for something. This is an opportunity for assassination that may not come up again.

Reward: -1 Time, +2 xp for Fist (not Specialists)
Penalty: -2 Morale, Mihkin finds what he seeks

Grasping Storm (Recon)
From the map taken from Raleigh, it’s known the Witch-Queen is moving her forces north along the old Imperial Road, blocking off avenues of any Legion’s retreat towards Plainsworth. As things stand, the Legion will not be able to outmarch the dead, but will need to punch through. There are, however, local resistance movements, made up of bandits-turned-heroes and some devoted survivors of the Aldermani army. To have survived this long, they must know ways to move through the hills, with passes and sources of food and supply off the main thoroughfares. This mission is for your scouts to follow the trail of one Darius Xerphenon, King of the Mountains, and seal a strategic alliance, so he may share his knowledge with the Legion.

Reward: +1 Supply, +1 Intel, favour from the Aldermani Resistance
Penalty: 2 rookie deaths when you depart the Western Front

Mission selection was a big lesson to me in the GM’s best practices. Its easy to say ‘hold lightly’ and ‘play to find out’, but I was 100% sure the players were going to take Broken Hawk and I was going to get to steal the obstacles from Stras’ Actual Play from youtube, introduce the Black Oak Knights and their connection to Dmitri and resolve Greg’s concerns that the Quartermaster playbook felt too reactive by giving him the belated responsibility for managing the Legion’s nascent spy network.

So confident was I that I prepared the following letter and provided it to Robert as the Commander before we started mission selection -

To the Lady Commander Rampart of the Eternal Legion, Confidential,

Though we do not know each other, We write in memory of Our father, who counted you as friend, and on behalf of Our nation. The Republic of Barta thanks you for leal service to our flag and to our great nation. We grieve for your dead, even as we grieve for Our father, and all who fell in the valiant effort against the blasphemous scourge that devours the west. As you hold the armies of darkness at bay, the efforts to prepare a counter-offensive begin. The churches have united in declarations of a holy crusade, and the call to arms has gone out. If we each do our part, we pray that next year shall be the year we save humanity.

As you must be aware, the main force is now under the united command of Dvoryanin Vikei Islanovich Firehanded, first of the declared Zemyati Clans. She moves to take our surviving forces to safety, and notes in her reports to our war council the importance of your efforts.

Brave Legion, you are now the strongest force within the former arena of battle. To this end, the Circle of Lords formally requests your aid. An agent of the Circle - who operates under the title of “Fisher” - has passed word that the cursed entity known as Render now occupies the city of Karlsburg. There, the monster plans atrocity and cruelty, invisible to our eyes and masked from our divinations.

Fisher, always a level-headed and loyal operative of the highest quality, has indicated that he has critical intelligence as to Render’s movements, crucial to our success. He cannot leave Karlsburg without aid.

We request your Legion rescue Fisher from his circumstances, and pass word back to us as to what he knows. If you do not, he shall surely perish, along with many other innocents. The symbols and codes by which to authorise yourself to him are enclosed.

As always, we thank you for your service and affirm the terms of our compact. We pray to meet with you in better days, where you may be honoured alongside the other saviours of Chosen-blessed Barta.

On behalf of the Circle, your employer and friend,

Lady Adikar Khatiri of the Circle, Third of Her Name, Protector of the Reaches, Favoured of War & Mercy, Voice of Khant and Elector of Valandy

More fool I…

MISSION SELECTION

The rear camp of the Eastern Alliance stood on a hill. Unlike the Legion’s camp to the south-west, the battle not reached the tall fortifications. In the aftermath, however, the fighting had. There were scorch marks on the thick trunks of Panyar wood, imported to this treeless plain, and long trenches for bodies, some filled in, some unfinished, some dug up from beneath the earth. The retreat had left a skeletal crew under the command of a drunk and wild-eyed chaplain, with orders to bury the dead and, perhaps now too late with Render’s cavalry already across, blow the bridge at Tigeria once the Legion crossed… if the Legion crossed.

Smaller forward camps, of which there were dozens, had been mostly abandoned, though a few other survivors had holed up there. These war wounded had cleared out a small fraction of the Eastern dead, but constant harassment and the terrifying possibility that those being buried would rise again had ended the effort some days ago. Now they just waited, sole inhabitants of a structure that once housed several hundred soldiers, as attrition and desertion whittled them away.

Once inside the palisade walls, Spite has quickly assessed the position - well fortified, with enough food stores to last a few days, but isolated, and not unknown to the dead. With the bridge to go, the heavier elements of Render’s army should take a week to catch up with you. There were, however, his forward forces, mostly cavalry, along with scavengers, deserters and feral undead, picking their way through fields of rotting dead. Atop the tall wooden walls of the rear camp, the Council had a view down the Etternmark Plains and across the Tigeria River.

In the distance, the great city of Karlsburg burned, the orange flower of its stone towers and wooden mansions prevented the night from ever being truly dark. Render had claimed the city, once one of the Seven Sacred Cities of Civilisation, and he was destroying it.

Dmitri reads the letter twice, sitting uneasily against the wall of a tower on the ramparts, his down low enough that the crenellations give some protection from sniper fire. The burning city glimmers in the distance, a strange orange wychlight which carries the distant ghosts of burning flesh and screams. Dmitri thought about the Great Alabaster, the white way in the center of the city, its smooth surface now cracked and smoking, pasted in gore and soot.

He sighed, then composed himself as the runners came back, escorting Fang and Spite to the top of the wall.

"I thought we should talk up here." He chuckles, bitterly. "A fireside chat."

He hands the letter over to Bianca first, who then passes it over to the Marshall in turn. Dmitri says nothing, leaning against the wall, even when they’ve finished.

"Well–" begins the Quartermaster.

“We’re not going,” says Dmitri. “We have other work to do.”

Lady Marshal Zinovia frowns and leans forward in Commander Gorgeous’ direction, her arms crossed over her chest.

“We have more pressing issues than exfiltrating a Bartan intelligence operative from the flaming shambles that is present day Karlsburg?!”

Fang takes a second to stall her outburst, fails to reel it in, and indulges. She’s not quite at finger pointing yet though.

“You do realize that we are still under contract by the Khatiri family, whether Lord Rakash is dead or not, right?”

She knew it was a blow below the belt but it needed to be said. Her voice was cold like frostbite.

“Look,” says Fang. “The first Crone didn’t give her life so the Remnant could start breaking contracts.”

Zinovia closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and wishes she had resorted to mere finger pointing instead.

“I apologize,” Fang says. “That was unfair, Dimitri. Please tell me you have some compelling arguments for wanting to turn down Lady Khatiri.”

Dmitri inclines his head briefly towards the fire in the distance.

“The Khatri that hired us is that way. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hell out there, and if we had the luxury, I’d suggest we take a short walk into it and escort his body out.”

He points to the other side of the defile, “We don’t deal in luxuries. We deal in steel. Out that way, somewhere in that chaos of broken bones, is Mihkin, the Dread Rider. He’s looking for something, and I propose we find him first.”

He glances down at the scattered fires of their few remaining soldiers.

“We’ve brought home our dead and said such words as we can. But we need to send a message now that the Legion still is a force to be feared . That sometimes, we are the scary thing in the dark. Disrupting Mihkin’s plans will do that.”

"Why not both?" asked Fang. "We could divide forces, and–"

“We need an exit strategy, Marshall. Stormbreaker has already parked on the Imperial Road. We don’t go that way.”

He rubs his chin, flecks of stubble dotting the usually neat boyish jaw.

"There are partisans in the hills who know the country better than we do and the dead ever could. With their help we can get through the lines, keep pushing on."

"Run?"

“It’s not running! It’s the contract !”

Dmitri almost shouts, masters himself just in time. His voice drops low, “Skydagger is the objective. We don’t need secret intelligence to tell us that if they get through there…it’s all over. We’ve blown it twice - we all have, trying to overreach. We have to get this right . Or we’re all dead. That’s the stakes we play for.”

He holds out the letter. “Read it again. ‘Request’, she says. It’s not an order. We took a big job, ladies. We can’t get waylaid on the little ones.”

Bianca holds her tongue while she feels the ember in her gut burn, listens to Fang, listens to Gorgeous’ response. She fights it cool.

He is, she thinks, a boy, unremarkable for so many years. Every army has them, the soldiers – officers included – who coast, doing just enough when required to maintain their status and their place, never distinguishing themselves yet never diminishing. She wonders at a fate that put this man in the right place where he had to act, and she wonders – not for the first time – how much is luck rather than skill, how much has been fortune rather than intelligence. Smart is good. But so too is luck. There are soldiers – hells, she could count herself amongst them – who’ve gotten far on just enough at the right time. The problem is that luck cannot be relied upon. It runs out. Smart doesn’t.

Time will tell, she thinks. This is his first decision, and he’s feeling it. Getting Rampart wasn’t a choice, that was the Chosen’s mission. But now he’s having to make the hard choices, and he is feeling it, sure as the dead are marching this way.

“First of all,” she says quietly, “Skydagger is the end tactical objective, and there’s a hell of a lot of ground to cover between here and there. Running pell-mell for it is as stupid as us staying here with a thumb up our asses. This is going to be a long damn march, and we all know it. So let’s not pretend any of us doesn’t already know that or somehow thinks otherwise. All of us are absolutely and painfully aware of just how dire the situation is.”

“Second, you need to take a moment and get yourself under control. Gods and Chosen know I’m trying to do the same. But if you think there aren’t eyes watching you and hearing the raised voices even if they’re not catching the words, you’re mistaken. Last thing we want is the troops seeing the Council in a shouting match with each other.”

She pauses.

“Third, partisans are nice. I like partisans. I’d love to get on with them. But logistically, if you think we can’t get through without them, you’re mistaken, and while they certainly will be a benefit to us, we can do without them. We’ve got an army to move, two dozen horses, a dozen carts, and – as of this evening – three pieces of broken artillery that I can’t decide are worth their weight in cast iron. Certainly, their help will be useful, but it’s not vital. Like everything we’re discussing, it’s a choice.”

"Fourth, I am very concerned about any mission undertaken against Mihkin. You’re concerned about losing. My fear is that this is an operation that will result in more losses. I’m not being pessimistic, I’m thinking about Fang’s assets, and right now, her assets are shit you can hold in one hand. Her best shooter is wounded, de Deori hasn’t slept since coming back from the op, and Sable’s writing fucking poetry . The fact we got everyone back alive is a miracle. I’m not counting on two in a row, and I know you’re not, either. But of everything proposed, if this operation goes sideways, it’ll break this camp. “Fifth, if you’ll permit me, you need to decide the Commander you want to be. Whether the letter of the contract is all that matters, or if it is also its spirit. Turning our back on Barta’s request is absolutely an option. But they will remember, and it will come back to bite us between here and Skydagger, we can all be certain of that.”

She shakes her head slightly, aware that she has been speaking for a long time. She looks out, at the city burning in the distance and the night.

"All we are is the contract," Bianca says. "Not just the word of the agreement, but its spirit. We do not follow blindly, nor do we disobey recklessly. We choose who we serve, and the manner of that service. But if we achieve Skydagger having sacrificed who we are, what we are, I promise you, we will not be able to hold it. We need to arrive there as the Legion, just as we leave here as the Legion."

She runs a hand through her hair, seemingly finished, then holds up a finger and grins at Gorgeous. “And the last thing. Please don’t ever cut me off at Council again, Commander. I’ve earned my place here, and my counsel, whether you heed it or not, has its value. I’ve gone to pains not to insult you with my words. Do me the same fucking courtesy.”

The in-character argument went on for a long time. It also triggered a less contentious OOC discussion around tactics, role authorities vs decision by consensus.

The Commander’s decision was not the one the others would have gone with, and though they discussed it both in and out of character at length, wasn’t changing, which raised all sorts of questions about how much running the Legion was a team sport.

Compared to the purely narrative games we’ve played as a group before, having an overall objective strategic loss condition seemed to loom in the player’s mind. In other games, characters have goals, stories are told, and if they die, you create a new one, until we feel the story is told, ad infinitum. Here, players were feeling the imperative to ‘win’ (or I think perhaps more accurately “not lose”) which I’d never seen before, and it was turning decision-making fraught and slow, which is the last thing you want in an already-slow medium of play.

Even when it came to playing Specs, the players were uniquely worried about them making objectively bad decisions while in character, because that would affect not just themselves but everyone else’s ability to play on, like a poor partner in a hand of bridge of five hundred.

I think this was compounded by a suspicion that that the Commander role was the most proactive and dynamic, with the QM and Marshal gigs being reactive and obliged to make the Commander’s choices work. On that front, I don’t like to speak for my players, but I think/hope the group settled that the other roles get their choices elsewhere, and the nature of the campaign cycle being a circle, those come back to the Commander in the fullness of time. It also convinced me that with three players, it was worth combining QM and Lorekeeper duties.

Most importantly, everyone also explicitly settled on an agreement that they would play their characters in the moment, without worrying about the overall victory conditions except insofar as that character worried, and the outcome could be what it would be be as long as it made a good story. This hasn’t stopped people fretting over the tactical layer, but its fun to do so, and it has freed people up to make decision without being paralyzed.

Captain Apajua salutes crisply as she approaches the generals at council. The artillery officer was small for a Bartan, and unlike most of her countrymen, wore few of the religious tokens that marked their devotion to their pantheon of gods and saints. A green cap with the badge of a fallen company hangs over her dark hair, a mark of life before Ettenmark.

The furrowing of her thick brows suggests she senses some residue of the tension between her superiors, and it is with deliberation that she unfurls a map atop a black Orite cannon. The machine was a prize from her recent sojourn into the mud, and while Apajua was uninjured, it still bore the scars – her map lay unevenly along a long, jagged crack in the bracing, and her toe tapped unconsciously on a shattered wheel.

“Lord Commander, Lady Marshall, Quartermaster General,” she acknowledges, North Bartan accent heavy, “you all ken Ettenmark well, but you cannae realise how changed the plain is until you see jus’ how many dead lit there. Tha’ much rotting flesh has wrought dark. The enemy have resurrection men out in force, taking those bodies they like most. Corrupted rise on their own, and feast on their fellows, an’ clash with looters and deserters. The only order is where Mihkin’s bloodless gaunt show strength.”

“So,” Dmitri’s eyes tear away from the horizon, arms still leaning on the parapets, “Mihkin.”

“Sir,” she affirms, gesturing to both map and out over the walls, aligning symbol and signified, “He was seen here, here an’ here. Once by me, once by Koylat, once by the Ghost Owls. Digging, every time, or sifting through bodies, with his own hands.” “We’re certain its the Dread Rider each time? No rookies leaping at shadows?”

Fang looks up at the moon, eyes bright in the silver light. The tension between Apajua and Reyansh had not lessened with the supply officer’s recent exploits.

Yeah, I somehow missed the moon was all blown up canonically, so that hasn’t happened. At least yet.

“Ye cannae mistake him, nae even for a Cinder. He looks a fright, skulls for pauldrons, glowin’ red eyes, and a pair o’mounted archers by his side, them on skinless horses of whitest flesh. Nae living man, but nae mindless corpse neither.”

Apajua smiled, but it did not entirely cover the fear in her eyes, or the anger. Emotions that play on every Legionairre’s face when the Rider’s name is mentioned. He had brought Ash to his grave, and Chomer, and on the day of Ettermark’s tragedy, near six score of the Legion’s famous Desert Kings, leaving only the fist that now call themselves the Hanged Men. His legend had been built on Remnant bones.

Spite’s eyes swiftly dance across the map, comparing it against the map of the day of battle, “Those… are all places where Allied artillery was stationed.”

“Ma’am,” Apajua nods, “That is how I chanced across him. I went in deep looking for my black beauties, y’ken the hills they’d stationed the Fucinian fixed artillery at. I watched him for near an hour afore he left, too scared to move. Whatever he is diggin’ for, he is digging thorough, so it innit too big, an’ its found somewhere his horses moved against big guns.”

Fang points to a few more places on the map, “There can only be maybe three more spots that match that description.”

“And whatever his prize is,” the Marshal leans in to look more closely, “how can we be sure he hasn’t found it?”

Apajua swallows, intense black eyes fixing in turn to whomever she speaks to, then subtly flicking back to the Quartermaster-General for approval.

“We cannae be, but I think it’s a good bet. Three spots left, but nae too close to his camp. One man, canvassing all that land, an’ we know he cannae be away from his gaunt too long afore they go skittish. So unless he got very lucky, the search proceeds.”

On 17 Rabbit, by order of the new Commander, two operations were undertaken, designated Amber Arrow and Grasping Storm. A third option, designated Broken Hawk in briefing, was presented on behalf of the Bartan Circle of Command, asking the Legion to exfiltrate their agent {“Fisher”} from Karlsburg. The Commander declined the operation, over my objections, with the likely result that Fisher will be lost, and Render’s forces will have fully control of the city.

Operation: Amber Arrow
Brief: Acquired and observed intelligence confirms that Mihkin, Dread Rider of Render’s cavalry, is known to be searching the fields of Ettenmark. From observation, it is concluded that he, along with a light guard of two Alabaster Riders, is visiting locations where he and his forces engaged the Eastern Alliance during the fighting. It is conjectured that Mihkin is searching for something or someone lost during the battle.
Concept of Operations: A Fist will be dispatched to locate and kill Mihkin; if possible, the Fist is urged to identify and recover whatever it is that the Dread Rider is seeking. It is considered paramount that whatever Mihkin seeks must not be allowed to fall into his hands.
Execution: Marshal Fang has assigned the Hanged Men, with Captain De Deori, Master Gunner Topaz Running Iron, and Doctor Sable Flowing Gale attached. Moving as light cavalry, they will make hasty progress to each of the remaining known locations Mihkin visited during battle in an attempt to ambush him at the site. Intelligence will be gathered en route to determine which site will best serve this purpose.


#20

PRIMARY MISSION - AMBER ARROW

Strategically, its worth pointing out my players knew that the bulk of Render’s forces were trapped on the far side of the Tiagra due to the blown bridge, but Mihkin, a hundred Gaunt and about two hundred of his undead cavalry, the Alabaster Riders, held a position on the Front.

“Gentlemen,” says Marshal Fang, addressing the Specialists Captain Raffaele Orazio de Deori, Master Gunner Topaz Running Iron, and Doctor Sable Flowing Gale.

From the outset, as much as Band of Blades appealed to me, my concern was how my group would take to troupe play. Some I knew would be fine, treating “the Legion” as ‘their’ character. Others would have less comfort with changing skins rapidly, more filling in sketches in stages than really delving deeply in a single spot. So when the Marshal assigned the exact same characters to the exact same players with the use of Sable’s Attache, I wondered what I could do to encourage people mixing it up.

“You have been assigned to strike mission Amber Arrow, which will see the targeted killing of the Cinder Cavalry Officer identified as Mihkin. He has been terrorizing our lines since even before Ettenmark, essentially building a dark reputation of being skilled at slaying Legionnaires. It has come to our knowledge by the combined efforts of Artillery Officer Apajua, Specialist Kolyat Roidionovich and the Ghost Owls that Mihkin appears to be searching for something across the battlefield of the Western Front. This presents us with a window for killing the bastard.”

Marshal Fang indicates three separate locations on a similar map to the one Apajua had used during the Council meeting.

“These are the sites where the Dark Rider is expected to continue his search. Based on the range of his movements during the battle, we have been able to rule out the location furthest away. You will depart camp accompanied by the Hanged Men. You will establish which location Mihkin will be present at, and eliminate the target via ambush. Recovering whatever he is after will be a secondary objective, but if you can do so prior to the ambush, it might prove easier to draw in the Dark Rider.”

Marshal Fang straightens up and widens her stance slightly as folds her arms behind her back. “Any questions, gentlemen?”

Sable Flowing Gale raises a finger to get the Marshal’s attention, and speaks. “I request for Galdor Zaher of the Hanged Men to gain access to the Annals. He reads and writes both Bartan and Oritian surprisingly well. Anything at all that we can dig up on the target will be useful.”

The Marshal nods. “Make it so. Unless Captain de Deori or Master Gunner Topaz have anything to add, you are dismissed. Bring me the head of Mihkin!”

RAFE

It’s with more than a little annoyance that Bianca returns to her duties, muttering to herself as she goes about apportioning the dwindling stores of Black Shot, carefully prepping each admixture of bag, ball, and shot. The only other person she’s willing to entrust this to at this point is Taisa, if only because the girl has the surest hands of any the Quartermaster has ever seen.

Once this is done, she attends to the horses, checking their eyes, their noses, their mouths. Assuring herself that each is shod well and true, that each has been fed, that saddles and bridles and reins and all are without defect. It takes some time. Having lost so many cavalry, there is little to work with.

When all this is done, she whistles for a running and sends him off with orders to find Captain Deori and have him report to her following the Marshall’s briefing. She again thinks she should have been there, but knows making herself absent was the wise choice. She’d not have been able to hold her tongue. Not for the first time, she wonders how it is she ended up in her job.

Deori arrives at her tent in short order. She hands over the Black Shot, the bundles prepared for each of the soldiers carefully batched and bound, and the handful of other supplies she can offer. The she takes one of remaining ravens in its cage and presents that to him, as well.

“You find what that fucker is looking for before he does, you let us know. We won’t be able to offer you much in the way of support, but we can at least try to offer insight if you find yourself with the wherewithal to ask.” She looks at him, the greying bags beneath his eyes. She wonders if he’s managed any sleep at all. He must’ve done, she reasons. He’s still upright and not listing too much to one side or another.

“See you when you’re back,” she tells him.

SABLE

The Hanged Men receive their orders, and Esaq laughs his nasal laugh. The last of the cavalry to fight under the green and gold, there is a wrathful fire in their eyes that translates into a calm, devoted efficiency. While Taidos makes eager suggestions to the Marshal and Officer as to equipment requisitions and choice of steeds, the others go about their preparations.

The swarthy Galdor looks less like a scholar than the butcher he was a past life, bald and portly, but not so fat as to impede riding. Nonetheless, his broken nose and large forehead framed a pair of quick, intelligent eyes, and as thick fingers flick through the pages of the Annals, the eyes skim the words. In four hours, he has travelled back six years, and Galdor presents to Sable a green book with a golden ribbon. One of Clutter’s earliest journals, long before the Remnant took the commission against the dead, that a passage is found –

The ongoing disaster in the West offers a great opportunity to further the Legion’s knowledge of necromancy, even if it comes at a most terrible humanitarian cost. I must confess both I and the lieutenants of the Vipers of the Seven Stars are fascinated that the living dead, formerly confined to the tombs of the Chosen and the poisoned vampire outcasts of Dar, have become omnipresent enough to threaten Aldermark that once overthrew the Empire with main force.

The doctrine of the clergymen holds that the dead were soulless, and regardless of my personal faith or lack thereof, the tales of those scattered exiles and my correspondents in the Orish lands seem to confirm their mindless obeisance to their master and support the view that these are but empty husks infused only with an echo of his will. Their literal and unimaginative repetition of orders until memory of a command fades seemed proof. It was believed that only with the conversion of the Broken One, and the transmutation of his divine spark into unholy fire, that a new tactical awareness and variety of form arose.

The cendrier that has become known as the Dread Rider exposes this dogma as, at the very least, incomplete. This figure has been seen in the Cinder King’s honour guard from the earliest days. He has been reported to speak, to strategize and worst of all, to hold resentments against those who survive him. He is also marked out by his dire legend – his lance, it is said, can incinerate flesh to ash; his steed is said to fly; and beyond even the armour-gifted fortitude of a Cinder Guard, he is held in legend to be invulnerable to mortal weapons.

More realistic assessments, I note, would still leave much to dread. The lance certainly has some mystic quality that makes it burn, and his steed can cross a battlefield over any terrain at a pace no general accounts for.

As to his invulnerability, I have doubts, as even the Chosen can fall, but I can affirm from reliable accounts that a single bullet, even directly penetrating his chestplate where the heart should be, is insufficient.

The targeted Gather Information roll, worth its weight in gold. As you can see, I changed Mihkin up from being one of the Black Oak Knights to being something older and stranger, an undead from the time before the Cinder King, but under his sway. The details of his story may come up later. I also have made him the head of an undead cavalry called the Alabaster Riders, which we’ll see more of later. They are also atavisms of the undead, rather than anything created by Cinderblood, and sworn to Mihkin. This roll was a partial success, so it omits one fairly important detail, which is… ah, but you’ll see.

“Your skills extend beyond the cooking pot, Mister Zaher,” says Sable Flowing Gale, “These are seminal findings. The material is troubling, though.”

The doctor stashes the journal in a shoulder slung satchel for deeper examination at a later point.

“Inform the rest of the Hanged Men on what you have learned of our target, and I will do the same among the Specialists. Carry on.”

Sable stared off in the distance as he considered the implications of this allegedly magical smoking lance. He could manage cuts and slashes from claws, and even gun wounds, depending on the location of the impact. But incinerated flesh, there wouldn’t be much left to work with. The doctor heads over to his mount to ensure that he had packed enough Black Shot for the mission.

The Hanged Men gather in a circle, and Berenike drinks from a skin, before passing it to her left. Galdor drinks, just a sip, and round it goes.

“Until it ends,” Berenike speaks, voice only just above a whispers, but the rest echo loudly.

The hulking Bahasa has a stoic expression on his usually sour face, and he even smiles at Sable before moving to pat his horse.

“It’s different now,” he sighs, “With the beasts. They obey, but do not love us as they once did.” One of the others shrugs, and then cricks his neck.

Sable receives the skin, takes a quick swig of its contents, before handing it off to the lean and quick Khepri. The doctor follows the burly Bahasa.

“You are permitted to move around the camp more freely now,” says Sable. “Perhaps is you spend more time with the animals, they will become more accustomed to your scent?”

The Panyar healer was thankful for Quartermaster Spite providing the squad with reliquaries, holy bones and sacred ashes in brass vials to ward off the creeping seduction of Corruption. Sable had still not shaken his experience in Inquisitor Pale’s office. He realized he probably never would, to be honest.

And yet these Islanders have been afflicted more severely than you.

In a soft voice, Sable presses on with Bahasa. “Are you experiencing any more difficulties ?” he says. “Any new symptoms, or an intensification of existing conditions?”

“Our scent is foul, healer,” the man’s forehead knots and he pats the horse, “And always shall be. Others in the band seek a cure, but I at least am no child.”

He adjusts the knots on his straps, and checks his bandolier.

“Things will get worse, I sense in my bones. A man’s soul is seen by a steed, and they know wrongness is forever.”

Turning, he offers a hand out to Sable, “You have always been good, healer, and I wish to say that I am grateful - we are all eternally grateful - you not only granted us freedom, but arranged for us to die avenging our brothers before the corruption takes us.”

The savagery returns to Bahasa’s face, “Will vow we will bring Mihkin down with us.”

Sable listens intently as Moishe Bahasa speaks.

“You are right,” says the doctor. “Your body and soul might fall to Corruption, but your deeds will live on forever in the Annals. That is the salvation that no healer can bestow. Only the bravery in your heart holds the right to that provenance. That is the reward for marching with the Eternal Legion.”

Sable realizes that he had knotted his fist as he spoke, and holds it up emphatically in encouragement.

Bahasa nods, and his strange and savage smile remains.

“The Remnant is forever.”

After a moment, his head glances to the skies, “Until it ends.”

TOPAZ

The player’s strategy was to narrow down the location Mihkin could be at urgently, so as to get there ahead of him and take up a position. Or at least to guarantee they don’t miss him. Based on their intel - that Mihkin was looking for something, and had been at specific locations - the working theory was pretty solid: He’d dropped “his wallet” in a fight and needed it back. So they wanted to interview people who’d seen him in the battle, which became Topaz’ mission.

After a quick discussion, the sort held in the easy shorthand of long comrades, Officer Deori finds his way to the Quartermaster while Topaz traverses the edges of the wooden fort, into the dark places where the Bartan regulars have retreated.

The loquacious gunner moves from fire to fire, speaking to tired, bloodstained soldiers in a gentle tone, asking after the fate of units and comrades as best they know. Many shy from his approach, while others are relieved to tell their story, but can do nothing but tell their story, painful jagged tales that bring more sympathy than illumination. Any mention of Mihkin brings signs of warding or the grasping of jangling holy symbols, and a uniform instance nobody survived him.

Amongst a handful of Panyar, he finally finds a man with a cloven hoof, missing eye and shattered arm, a man with a story he wants to hear.

“Aye, my unc, my worthy,” he smiles, “The Bartlebies be shattered right enough, naery a man nor woe o’man left amongst nor amidst.”

Before the Imperial Age, the land that is now Panya was home to a great civilisation stepped in lost magics. By Imperial edict, the entire region had been left fallow for centuries, and even after the end of empire, it was verbotin, though loggers, trappers and bandits eked out an existence around the fringes.

Then came the Wars of Mercy, and their aftermath. Older and less developed folk traditions, mystery cults and regional deities gave way to an increasingly oppressive orthodoxy under the auspices of of the Temples of War and Mercy.

Those at odds with the Temples were subject to persecution, taxation and missionary efforts, particularly those that venerated those dangerous gods seen as having little place in a sophisticated theology - the Horned Man and the Moon.

Communities of pilgrims and exiles settled in the forbidden woods, blending with the frontiersmen to form a new culture and ultimately nation. Settling in a decentralised series of villages built in and around the pregenitor’s ruins, Panyar communes are based around family or faith. Those who settle deepest in the woods often become Marked.

The Ludja, contrasted with the Fearful I mentioned above, seek harmony with nature. Theirs is an immanent faith. Eating, sleeping and hunting are all vehicles for demonstrating commitment to the Horned God. They exalt the Marked and the Great Beasts.

Topaz, and this old guy, are from just such communities.

Its worth saying most Panyar communes have mixes of all the cultural strains, and even those with adamantly incompatible views (like the Fearful and the Ludja views of the Marked) have strong traditions of tolerance, cooperation and hospitality.

Topaz smiles, and takes from the man the pipe he was struggling to fill one-handed.

“This is the word, from thee and others. Ach, but it does not help my brothers and I to know who was crushed, not if we don’t know who as did crush ‘em, savvy?”

The man pauses to gratefully take a deep puff of his pipe. A poppy smell wafting through the air, and the man’s remaining eye goes a little distant.

“Ah, indeed, but, my brother from the wild, the Bartans were shattered. The Floremian cocksuckers that manned the long blacks, they being what the brave knights did guard, they branded themselves forever as puling cowards, an’ lived as their rich prize. I did see them, prying gold from a poor man’s jaw, but a sun’s passage past.”

He draws deep, and Topaz leans forward, “Then these deserters, who would as know of the Dread Rider’s presence, ye know where they be?”

“I could lend my humble aid to your Remnant,” he nods, “But in turn, a man asks a favour, eye to eye, oldhead to oldhead. I am past being of use to any man’s army, but my sons and daughters here, they could be made whole again.”

“Speak, brother, to thy pa, to sign them on thy books. They will be but empty stomachs and empty heads for a time, but treat them with the goddess’ mercy, and they’ll turn right good.”

He offers Topaz the pipe, “Do this for me, an’ I’ll do for you.”

Topaz weighs matters up carefully, the odd twitching of his head, the frantic rasping of his tongue over chapped lips betokening a consternation that never affected the sniper in battle. He nods, thrice, a quick bob like he is ducking blows.

“Aye, brother. I’ll speak for thy chickens, right enough. But that’s all I can say square, that I’ll make a jaw for thee. The Marshall don’t dance to my fife, savvy?"

He spits on his palm and holds it out to shake, Panyar style. "An accord, then?"

The oldhead spits on his hand, touches it to his hoof, and shakes, “An accord.”

This was the epitome of the players falling very much into old Shadowrun and Vampire habits here, planning and hypothesizing about the best way to find Mihkin for literal days. My coy answers about the lay of the land in an attempt to keep the tension of “Will we find our mark?” up were definitely counterproductive. With some bad luck and some high prices on the first mission, I think the players had gotten risk adverse and were trying reasonably to hedge their bets. They were definitely aware that flashbacks and resisting were available, but those cost stress and nobody wanted, say, Sable to die if they could plan their way around it.

With Chris’ prompting, we ended up just talking this through openly, and came out the other side to a much faster-paced and more collaborative game. I definitely just say “I haven’t decided that yet” and “That isn’t material” more often, even though its not in my nature, and they’re good sports about living up to starting fresh and detailing in play, using their stress and accepting risk. The medium still means we have more planning and such than we’d even have at an actual table, but equally, we can afford to have more planning - a day either way doesn’t mean much, and it allows us to flesh things out more.