Campaign Diary: The Sword of the Remnant


#21

THE HUNT FOR THE DREAD RIDER

The QM assigned Blackshot and Religious Supplies for this one, with the reliquaries available because of the Acquire Assets action. As a Soldier, Bernike gives everyone horses for free, and I decided that applied even when she was an NPC - the Hanged Men were cavalry through and through. Rafe used his Channels off the bat to have a messenger raven to courier messages back to camp, in case the hunt needed back-up.

There was real thought put into Specialist allocation - Topaz still had Harm 1 from the first mission, while Frieta the Heavy was good to go, but there was a real desire to have the sniper do the assassination and avoid hand-to-hand engagement with Mihkin if at all possible. The lore gathered above, and the fact that Mihkin was one of Render’s direct reports and Dmitri’s opposite number in this theatre of battle, had everyone sweating.

The Engagement Roll was Desperate, again, which I reflected in two assumptions - firstly, that the Orites with intelligence would be hard to find and unfriendly in disposition, and because of that delay, at best Mihkin’s spotters would have the high ground looking for trouble when the Legion arrived at the right spot.

The eight Remnant ride out from the wooden walls and into the desolate battleground. Rolling hills and emerald grass had been churned into dust and mud. The travel starts easy, if grim enough, as the horses make good speed along the roads. Tired, bloodstained soldiers skulk over the fields with clubs, occasionally lifting the stone heads up in the air to bring down on the heads of anything that twitches, but more often crouching to sift through pockets and pouches. Some salute, but most avoid the Legionnaires, none meeting the eyes of the blighted Hanged Men.

With each wooden culvert across a trench the Hanged Men led their horses over, however, the travel becomes more challenging, horses slowing to pick their path through the battlefield. Under the blue dawn light, the land is eerily silent.

Topaz checks map against sky and corrects course, the old scout’s directions guiding him towards the Orite deserters. Atop a small hill with occasional patches of wildflowers or thistles to remind the riders that this should be Ettenmark in late spring, the party find themselves beside a smouldering pyre, blackened bones and charred flesh of a score of fallen collapsing in atop themselves. This exhausted pyre marks the utmost edge of any effort to clear the fallen, and serves as sign of the company’s approach to the Orite camp.

Beyond this vantage, Topaz’ sharp eyes make out churned ground, riven with artillery shells and layered with the dead of an intense skirmish. Some are in the red and black armour of the Cinder, others the grey of the Zemyati band that fell upon them, all now brown with mud and gore. Swords pierced skulls, chests scorched with blackshot fire, limbs removed. Crows tear casually at the fallen, their enthusiasm at the feast faded from satiation into desultory pecking.

The crows are not the only creatures picking at the dead. Six figures, coloured a strange chessboard monochrome, sifted through the field. These were Gaunt, which had been Render’s favoured infantry at Ettenmark. They were slow, but had proven eerily resistant to blackshot fusillades, able to close with their weapons.

Each had heavy plates of armour pressed directly into their flesh, puckered and melted skin having settled around the metal and fusing it to muscle. On each, a plate is marked with Render’s orange hand. Most are armed with greatswords or axes, but several have strange instruments: curved metal shaped somewhere between a meathook and a scythe, attached to a thin chain wrapped around their arms.

One spins the blade languidly, and sinks it into a distant corpse, before turning and slowly dragging the body from beneath its killer and towards the corpsecart. The cart, low on two large wheels, is parked on the roadside, over a dozen bodies piled atop and room for more. Long poles, from where the Gaunt must pull, thrust into the air.

Two hunched figures are attached by long chains to the cart, clawing at the ground in frustration. From their breathing and snarling, they seem to be alive, but their eyes are sewn shut with thick black thread and their lips torn away. Ragged mouth flesh reveals teeth filed into fangs, and thick chains are cruelly piercing their naked backs, clearly causing them pain as they pull the iron taut in their capering.

One sniffs the air, and then it throws back its mutilated head and howls. Its partner takes up the call, joining the cacophony. They pull and drag with renewed vigour against their chains, and point fingers with bone and nail fused into claws.

I love Hounds. They are terrible and terrifying. So I just had to find a twist to make them worse, and for me, that was the idea they were living people, utterly reduced and broken. This fits squarely into what I see as Render’s MO - the dead are made into soldiers; but the living can also be made useful, because so far, they are harder to get a hold of in suitable condition. Most Hounds the Legion encounter would have been created after the capture of Karlsburg, while Gaunt are forged from those fallen at Ettenmark.

The Gaunt take note, and turn their heads… …not towards the Legion, but towards a small wagon wending along the road, filled with a small household of goods, a skinny youth at the reigns.

The tallest of the Gaunts, neck twisted by a heavy silver pauldron wrought into its flesh, unhooks the straining chains from the corpsecart, and the once-men reduced now to hunting hounds of the undead bound across the field in long, eager strides, mouths snapping, tongues lolling and hands pounding into the mud.

The dead soldier closest to the wagon hefts his greatsword up, glancing at the blade with a primal glee rare on the dead, and holds it so the long blade runs parallel to the ground. He begins to charge, first slow, but building speed, a zweihändermiester technique for bringing down horses.

There was a 3-tick clock before the peasants died, but the players were so aggressive and effective, it never came up. Topaz still has Harm 1 from the first mission, but Robert used had some real luck with the dice. Topaz used his Sharpshooter ability to lay down suppressive fire for the first time, taking Topaz’ first real stress and keeping the enemy away from the wagon. I think he had the first crit of the game.

It was also the slowest fight of all time, with everyone traveling around over the course of weeks, so it was rather sapped of tension and I ended up wrapping it up in a desultory manner to get on with the story.

A shot rings out, and the swordsman’s charge ends with a tumble into the dirt. Another shot rings, the same rifle but impossibly quick, and tears up the ground near the savage men. Their momentum slows as they spin around, up to two legs again, sniffing the air, and then again, the crack, driving them backwards.

The Gaunt glance around in alarm, and their commander barks out some echoing orders. Those that can seeking such cover as is available, crouching behind bodies and their cart, heads pivoting around as they try to pin down the location of the shooters that have them pinned down.

Topaz jams the bolt back, ignoring the blistering of his fingers across the reluctant metal. The rifle swings up again, reports, and another ball streaks across the field. And another. And another.

As the Gaunt scatter, he hisses between his teeth, but even as his hands move steady and calm, almost faster than the eye can see, his body rattles. He judders and locks his shoulders and neck in place, even, as his legs tremble unheeded on the hillock behind him. He hisses.

"If thou would act, then act right hasty, my darlings!"

Sable shoots Topaz a sidelong glance as the doctor’s Panyar countryman begins laying down suppressive fire at the abominations below the hill. The rifle shots and the CLACK-CLACK of the bolt action is spooking Sable’s’ horse, but medic leans in and helps his animal regain its compose with a soothing word and a soft touch.

The Panyar’s eyes are dispassionate as he rises back up in the saddle with his gilded pistol drawn. With a surgeon’s steady hand, Sable aims down the barrel and sends black death down from the hill, his healer’s oaths clearly not extending to those risen by means of the dark arts.

Two more gaunt haunting the periphery closer to the hill have no opportunity to find shelter from the hail of bullets. The doctor and the Hanged Men blast away from horseback, and while many bullets fly wide or spark off the iron plates worked into the pale flesh, enough sink deep to injure one and bring two more to the ground.

The tall Gaunt commander and their guard have found good shelter behind the cart, and one of the remaining soldiers has bands of blackened metal wrapped around their torso, limbs and head, and wields one of the chained scythes. Her face is pulled too taut under the nails to have any expression, but she swings her blade with proficiency, pulling a Zemyati cadaver off the ground and gripping it tightly against her.

Thunder and flame. After the Specialists picked off the vulnerable, the Hanged Men bear down inexorably on the remaining Gaunt. The combined effect of sabre, shot and steed rend apart Render’s favoured, reminding the specialists of the power of a Legion cavalry charge.

The once-woman finds no protection from her improvised shield of flesh, a scimitar taking her head, and those that hared off are run to ground with a merciless accounting. Topaz continues to cover the flanks, taking down one of the fleeing hounds. The Gaunt leader with the silver shoulders seeks to rally, and with a grim cry, seeks to avenge his forces against a flagging Zaher, but Raffaele’s Orite pistol and bright rapier protect the bulky Islander from harm.

The Desert Kings executed a thousand charges over the centuries, and their knowledge is embodied in unremitting wrath of the Islander cavalrymen. The entire event is textbook, literally as described in the Annals, and soon over.

In the wake, there are bodies both fresh and old, the lopsided corpsecart and a victorious, uninjured band of Remnant. Topaz turns over one of the ‘hounds’ with his foot, and is dismayed to find the body warm, and still bleeding. Up close, the marks of the transformation are stark – scratches where hair was shaved from the head; dried blood caked around the thick black thread crisscrossed through the eyes; signs of infection around the torn lips and engorged nose; even some signs of healing around where the iron chains were inserted roughly into the spine. For the first time in a while, Topaz is confronted by an enemy that did not merely collapse like a puppet with the strings cut, but has, in increments, died, their internal mechanisms disrupted terminally.

The Panyar mumbles and chews one lip absently, picking through the aberrant bodies carefully. Where they are still too warm, he nudges them with the muzzle of his rifle, checking pupils for slight flickers, or the still air for even a hint of breath. Then, with a sigh, he draws a weighty knife, wicked sharp, and begins to cut what he can from the bodies to restore them to some sense of humanity.

Topaz snips the thread across the Hound’s eyes and begins to unravel and unpick, proficient and careful but hindered by the flashburns to his fingers. As he pulls free the black cord, similar to fishing wire, the eyes open to reveal glazed sightless orbs, soft brown, that give a human cast to the expression. As Topaz prepares, more details of the fleshwork become apparent. The fusion is similar to that which makes the Gaunt, and though you can only imagine the incredible pain the process inflicts, it is clearly a more gentle process, as the subject lived. Equally clearly, some supernatural reagent or effect is at work, for the hounds to not only survive but maintain such vigour and mobility.

The peasant’s wagon is loaded with small casks of wine, a cage with several chickens and rapidly filled boxes filled with sundries. There are three smallfolk in their wagon, though they have done their best to disguise this. A young man in grey and dirty robes holds the reins, but the woman that clung to his arm and the girl child that sheltered beneath her skirts have both done their best to hide, taking the opportunity of the fight to shelter beneath a tarpaulin.

The youth looks nervously at the many weapons out, being loaded and cleaned. The young man makes a strange peasant, with his soft hands and bowl haircut. He is rake thin, natural Aldermani scrawniness exacerbated by deprivations of war and travel.

“Thank you, heroes,” the man cries out to Rafe, in the learned trade Orite of an educated Aldermani, “You will be in our… my prayers this night, and all nights hereafter!”

Sable shoots Rafe a glance, before turning back toward the scrawny Aldermani peasant.

“Where do you travel from? Where is your destination?”

As the doctor addresses the youth with sabre in hand, the young man leans back defensively. He relaxes when he sees the medic’s holy mark across the back of Sable’s hand.

“Good master healer,” he calls out, “Like so many poor souls, I flee with what I can carry. A small town called Flood, but an hour out of the capital, no reason you should know of it.”

There is a clink, from beneath the tarp, and a sound of something metal rolling. The man’s long neck tilts to glance behind him before he nervously turns back to face the soldiers.

“I, ah, I go to Plainsworth, I hope, in time for the summer feast day, and from there…, east, and to wherever I can find safety.”

Sable nods reassuringly as the peasant answers his questions.

“I know Flood. In seven years, they haven’t bothered to complete the bridge over its namesake water feature, because of the proximity to the bridge at Karlsburg just north of the town. Good people. Pious.”

The doctor sheathes his blade, and folds his hands in front of him, so his healer’s tattoo is still visible. His voice is not unkind.

“Now, you could help us, good sir,” says Sable. “If you could inform us in any way, of the movements of the Cinder King’s troops, it would greatly assist us on our mission. And even if you have nothing, I will grant the services of my profession to you.”

The peasant nods slowly, clearly surprised at the foreign sellsword’s knowledge of his place of departure.

“I am sorry, sir,” the man lowers the reins, shrugging, “I have been keeping to the road by necessity, but have avoided such dead as have been about… until now.”

Rafe, approaching calmly, pistol drawn but lowered, let’s Sable take the lead. He takes out from his pocket a small coloured box, and takes from it a string of candied fruits. Sable renews his offer of aid, and the traveller politely tries to shrug it off. He has no injuries, luckily, and only hopes for any advice the band have as to obstacles between here and Plainsworth.

Sable frowns, “The Cinder Army marches on the Old Roads, trying to intercept such good men seeking shelter as yourself. We are not sure how complete the net is, but…”

There is a rustling clatter, and a small hand attached to a small arm darts out from beneath the tarp, snatching at the sweet on the end of the string. Amidst the commotion, another sound of rolling metal against wood, and a chalice - silver, with several gemstones each worth more than the entire cart - rolls and stops against the man’s foot. He looks up, fear in his eyes.

Sable, folded arms tapping on his chest, raises an eyebrow as the bejeweled chalice comes to a stop at the peasant’s foot.

“That’s a pretty nice cup you got there,” says the doctor. “Is that ah, a family relic from Flood, the town that’s too poor to build its own bridge, or is there something you want to explain to us?”

Soldiers of the Remnant come from all classes, creeds and lands, and the education available to each varies accordingly. Topaz knew little of the world of high art or culture; Sable, as a Panyar, has his exposure in his university years; Rafe had been exposed to the signs of wealth and worth since the cradle.

Every member of the Legion has, however, over the course of the campaign, become familiarised with the artifacts and reliquaries of the major churches - the scapulas and beads of Barta or the strange carved idols of Panya. And of course, on a sadder but more pragmatic note, every soldier developed an eye for shares of plunder and loot, for when a siege ends or a keep surrenders.

While no reliquary of import or relic of a Chosen, the cup is patently the work of a master from the Aldermark high church, of a sort that sat upon an altar to Asrika, the Western face of the deity that poorer souls and the Eastern Bartan Faith would know as Ortes, Goddess of Healing. It was worthy of a great cathedral, and likely sat beside other such treasures both sacred and mundane, showing the prestige of the Holy Mother Church and the power of whatever matriarch, bishop or beatified soul wore the robes of office.

As the young man freezes in panic, the weight of deciding what to say on his face, the tarp is pulled back to reveal the woman and child beneath. The woman is in azure robes over skin of the fair Aldermark complexion, with a shaved head marked with a healer’s sign, folded wings mirroring Sable’s own brand. She is clearly a holy woman, while the child, judging by its own once-white robes made dirty by travel and the nature of children, was certainly a Mercy.

She speaks in fluent Oritian, with a slight western accent, “It is well, Diabon. These men are loyal enemies and noble souls, and will not loot us.”

She offers out her elegant hand, covered in rings and tied together by thin strands of gold than shimmer and chink musically together as Rafe aids her up to sit beside the man on the bench.

“We are the Most Benificent Shara of the Church of the Blessed Queen of Life. Our friend here spoke no lie to you. We have seen no dead on these roads, we depart from Flood and we seek Plainsworth.”

She smiles a forced smile, and Sable can tell she is evaluating him in particular. “What he omitted is we transmit the sacred artifacts of the Chapel of the Waters from the Sunken Cathedral to a new place of safety.”

The doctor’s brow furrows as he listens intently to Shara’s explanation. Sable nods a few times, either to show that he is following her story, or perhaps he is checking off what she is relating to him against his own knowledge.

“Well then, Most Beneficent Shara,” says Sable, finally, “I presume you won’t mind if we catalogue your relics, in case we need to make an inquiry of acquisition if our conflict with Render’s abominations turns out to be a protracted affair? And should you not reveal your true destination?”

Shara frowns, thin arched eyebrows coming together, and clicks her long painted nails together.

“Good doctor,” she sighs lightly, “We go to Plainsworth, as Diabon spoke. Where else can anyone living go?”

“You sound rather like a bandit, with your talk of inventories and acquisitions. Our Church objects to the signs of Our Lady’s kindness being taken by mercenaries and deployed as weapons, when they were intended for higher destinies.”

Her eyes go past Sable, past Rafe, to the Hanged Men, still bloody from battle and now gathering up to protect their leaders.

“We are in no position to object. Still, for both our sakes, after this battle, we would hope to travel from here quickly instead of waiting for a tedious exchange.”

She shrugs, and lifts the cup, offering it out, “If it expedited matters, we would happily offer you this cup as a… donation, for your heroic efforts. One… healer to another.”

Sable’s disposition saddens as Shara refers to the Specs and the Hanged Men as common bandits. This is what the land has become. A wasteland, where nothing but carrion and crow wander lost.

Sable, if you recall, has gone Soft.

“Why sinks my heart, why faltereth my tongue? Had I three lives, I’d die in such a cause, And rise, with ghosts, over the well-fought field.”

Sable holds up his hands in a gesture signifying refusal to accept the bribe, “We are no outlaws, and neither do we want your alms. I am but a healer, such as yourself, seeking to Shepard those less fortunate in times of tribulation. T’is a sorrowful day when the meek refuse the trust of those whose arrows aim true. Let today not be that day."

He glances at Rafe to ensure he has the Captain’s support.

“I can’t say for certain that the Remnant will travel to Plainsworth or not, but we will most likely go in that general direction. Why don’t you join up and travel under our cloak? Your journey would undoubtedly be a safer one.”

Uncertainty crosses the Most Benificent Shara’s fine features, and she draws her cloak up over her shoulders despite the warmth of the summer sun.

“It is a strange season where the daughters of Aldermark would breathe the same air as the sons of Tartarus, let alone break bread.”

The Liberty Wars
Little is known about pre-Empire history of the region. A middle period acquisition of the Empire in 448 AFI (Ante Finem Imperii), the provinces of Western and Central Aldke were profitable sources of tin, lumber, fur and grain. The Fourth Known Emperor annexed the land, unified it into two connected provinces, and created dual administrative and religious bureaucracies.

By the mid-first century, the relationship was strained, with the post-Cataclysm Imperial government struggling with internecine wars, a corrupt civil service and a severe famine. Imperial overreliance on Aldke levies for civil wars ate away at local systems, draining the labour pool and returning armed men dissatisfied with serfdom and promised freeholds. Increased grain tithes to keep the Eastern Kingdoms fed were resented and often ruinous.

In Old Aldke, alder indicated seniority (originally in the general sense ‘a chiefton or person of high rank’), from ealdor, and ‘mark’, from mearc , meaning boundary, margin or limit. In other words, Aldermark loosely translates as “the limit of the old man’s authority”, and the nation’s very name is in honour of their long, bitter war for freedom against the Tantarian Empire.(edited)

The final conflagration kicked off in 45 AFI, sparked by tensions over hunting rights on ever-expanding Imperial estates. The national mythology of Aldermark speaks to Founding Farmers and Heroic Hunters, dire sieges, midnight rides, foreign sorcery and atrocity, and local men called by destiny. The Legion often star in these simplified stories as the villain, burning villages and desecrating holy sites. They are never defeated in battle, serving as a sort of boogeyman. The contemporaneous Annals present a Legion at once less competent and less monstrous, though the alleged misdeeds are close enough to the confirmed record. The Legion Marshal at the time was a former Ghost Owl, and their methods were aimed - ineffectively - at breaking the nascent national spirit.

It was not until 25 AFI that the Aldermarni won their independence, under the guidance of the newly created position of Karl. The reality, in stark contrast to the myth, is that the early Karls maintained internal borders, offices of governance and systems of taxation, with the “fruit of freedom” only emerging slowly over the next century. From the Imperial side, the loss is generally considered both proof of the cancer in the Empire’s heart and the formal beginning of the end, with the entire Empire entirely disbanded within the next thirty years.

Rafe has been watching, hands gently on his horses neck, and leans forward, “These are strange seasons, holy one.”

The Orite scion points down at Topaz and the Gaunt he is kindly and patiently preparing for burial.

“Insofar as anyone fights for the Aldermark, it is us.”

The priestess bites at her lip, and glances at the man at her side, the child beneath her skirts chewing away at Rafe’s candy. The young man speaks before she decides, “Where are you encamped?” “Over that hill, several hours back at the old military fort.”

He shakes his head, but Shara waves him off. “We will travel your path and accept your protection, but to leave the roads across the battlefield… sir, we do not dare leave the roads alone for that long. If you would offer your protection, and are sincere in that generosity, we would ask it now. Have two of your men escort us to your camp, and we would be in your debt.”

This was an attempt at Sway with mixed results, and as such, I ruled if they wanted the Most Benificent and her Mercy to head to Legion Central, it would costing them two bodies that would have helped.

Sable looks off into the distance for a beat before walking up to Officer Deori. Speaks with the man in soft tones.

“The kid is a Mercy. I think its worth the risk.”

They share a nod in agreement. Sable walks back toward the peasants and their wagon that is supposedly loaded with riches. The doctor runs a hand through thick black hair. “Bahasa!” Sable calls out.

“El Sayed! I hope this brief encounter with the enemy was enough to satiate your bloodlust. You’re on security detail. Get these two and the child back to camp safely. We’ll carry on without you.”

The Hanged Men, surrounding the wagon but with their eyes to the horizons, salute at Sable’s call. The priestess smiles, “Thank you, son of the faith. You serve your calling well, for a man at arms.”

Bahasa scowls a deeper scowl, the repressed satisfaction of the battle lost in an instant. El Sayid laughs in surprise, and turns himself so fast as he glances to his captain for reprieve that his horse shuffled around confused.

“We serve the Remnant,” Taidos asserts, voice quiet but insistent, “And the healer has been good to us. A better death another day, my friend.”

As the dispatched pair pull alongside the wagon, Bahasa touches his fist leader on the shoulder.

“Until it ends, then.”

The cavalry call out in response, and then stand at attention as the wagon begins its journey around the battle-stricken hill. Rafe watches them go, still quiet, and then looks to Sable, “It’s going to make things harder, Doctor.”

Topaz finishes his knifework, looking at the still brutalised bodies, confident at least that they are no longer wholly perverse. Wiping his hands in the dirt, the Panyar remembers a time when the Remnant had breathing space for civility, for respecting the dead. Before the dead were all too many.

He muttered some Panyar phrases under his breath, covered one eye, and spat. The formalities had been observed. The gods would not begrudge them time.

“Wind’s right western,” he sighed, wandering back towards his fellows. “Time to make ourselves a-scarce, eh, Dad?”


#22

Just a small world-building interlude before we have several Orites enter stage right…

What is Or?

It is not a country, for too proud are the independent city-states and undersized petty kingdoms crowding around the warm and shallow waters of the Faithless Sea, where the winters are mild, and olive and almond trees grew in great profusion; It is not even a region, as parts of Barta, Zemya and even Panya clearly overlap with Or’s nominal sphere of influence; It is no cohesive people, no shared blood. Their cities are cosmopolitan, and Orites are people of many different skins, faiths, tribes and ways; It is not, as many assume, a matter of legacy, for though they are of Imperium, so are Zemya and Barta. So even are Aldermark, against their protestations.

Arguably, Or is a language more than anything else. The people who speak Or can be found everywhere, and where that tongue spread, so do Orite ways. Indeed, for more than six hundred years, Or has dominated the cultural, military and intellectual landscape of the subcontinent.

Luckily for the rest of the East, regional harmony is tenuous at best. Power ebbs and flows between the great cities like Fucina, Mestieri and the twin cities of Fiori and Diori, and the feuds between noble families are eternal. The feuds between the families pale before the tension is between the haves and have nots. For the poor that come to the cities looking or work in the factories and shops, the cities are crowded, filthy and dangerous; for the titled, the cities are opulent, advanced and still very dangerous.

The region is so often beset by internal and political strife that it poses little threat to technologically backwards Barta. In its worst guise, this discord manifests as warfare between grasping nobles or revolutionary conflict between the social estates but more frequently, the poor are cleared out by defeat in annual barricade revolutions and the internecine squabbles of Or’s overpopulated aristocracy are resolved through the more elegant medium of assassination. Proud and oft prickly, Orites on first meeting often ask each other probing questions to determine lineage and factional affiliation, and vengeance is commonplace.

Standing above all the conflicts, it is the pan-regional academies, salons, universities and guilds that truly rule. These institutes – collectively known as the Intelligentsia - created many of the wonders seen in the world today, from a variety of clockwork inventions, steam powered engines, to precision ground lenses, and meticulously machined guns. Their achievements in metalurgy, math and astronomy are unmatched. The Intelligentsia dispense their own justice, fund their own armies, and can effectively prosecute their own wars, albeit with the sanction of whichever lesser noble that will take up the cause. It was their concern over the corruption of alchemy that has turned Or as a whole to support the Eastern Alliance.

The Most Serene and Inspired Duchy of Fiori has flown the blue and white flag of its independence for nearly two centuries now, since the dissolution of the personal union tying Fiori to Diori and the stalemate in the civil war that followed. Since independence, the Duchy has been held tightly by the cosmopolitan, enlightened and tyrannical Meordani family, currently led by Duchess Matthilda Merodani di Fiori. The family takes as their symbol not one of the real Great Beasts, but the fantastical fire-breathing dragon, an overt reference to their command of superior cannon and rifle.

Fiori is in the perfect position for making guns and steel, with river providing energy, forest for fuel and charcoal, and several strategic mines within a day’s ride of the mountain city, though it remains heavily reliant on the coastal ports for the ingredients for gunpowder and higher alchemies. The city itself is one of the Seven Sacred Cities of Civilisation, famous for its Iron Roads, which carry goods on steam-powered wagons; its astrological clocktower, said to be the most precise in the world; and the repurposed and magnificent Fucinian palace, the Guildhall of the Gunsmith.


#23

The mounted band saw the camp of the Orite deserters, their poorly established tent coming into sight. The city of Fioria is one of the splendours of the modern age, and the designers of its uniforms and equipment take pride in reflecting that glory. The tent remains a dark navy blue, and though designed to be square and spacious, now leans precariously against a farmer’s wall separating the wending sideroad from a trampled field.

On the other side of the wall, there are a dozen souls. Their uniforms were once a bright white and blue, with brocade and epaulette and golden buttons the shape of the legendary dragon that symbolised the ducal house of Meordani, with leather belts, fur cloaks, officer’s boots and for the women, silvery masks that take the place of hats. These uniforms, though, like the troops who wore them, were wretched and ragged. They had become stained, torn and faded, and taken on an evil smell. Men rolled up their sleeves and trouser legs, and the women exposed their faces.

For all the indignity, Sable observes that very few have injuries of any kind. The firepit and the latrines were in spitting distance of each other, and the company of cannoneers huddled between them. Heavy-built horses in dragoon’s tack chew on grass, tied to an ancient well. Rifles lie on the ground, as do small piles before each soldier, and they seem to be trading small items back and forth, with echoes of intense disputation in Oritian echoing across the field.

As they notice the Legion move down the highway, the men scramble for their guns, and for shelter behind the wall or well. Though the man with the markings of a lieutenant clearly sat with the group, hand over his squinting eyes as he looks into the sun, it is a small man who approaches the Remnant. He has a patchy beard, and his broad forehead is greasy and sweaty. A mechanised repeater pistol rests in his twitching hand, and he stands on the far side of the wall, stones reaching his chest. His smile is fake, and though it does not reach his bloodshot eyes, it reveals a staggeringly white set of pearly teeth. He reeks of wine and human filth.

“Bonjour, guten tag, monsieurs, mi amigos, and hello to you,” he calls out, waving his empty hand, “No trouble, comprende? Move along, move along, nothing here for you, si?”

Topaz slowly, nonchalantly, eases his rifle looser on his shoulder and shifts his grip, ready to swing it downwards if he needs to. His eyes flick from deserter to deserter, pausing hotly on the lieutenant before flicking to the little man. The Panyar thins his lips, baring his teeth in something cousin to - but clearly not - a smile.

“I think we will be the judges as to whether there is anything for us here, or not,” says Sable.

“I am Doctor Sable Flowing Gale of the Legion of the Remnant. I speak for Officer Raffaele Orazio de Deori, and our company at large. Who are you, and what is your business in this region?”

The ugly man flashes his shining teeth again, and taps his well-oiled pistol against his thigh.

“Ah, you speak my native tongue well, friend.”

The little man’s tone is ingratiating, and like the armed troops behind him, takes a long look at Rafe, reacting the the Ozario name.

“Worthy of a follower of the flower of Deorian chivalry, and of an educated man, sir!”

He bows, a drunken move with little stability, and gestures behind him, but his eyes stay cold and narrow, “I am Officer-Alcheme Rigalemmo Prenza de Fiori, bodyman to Principe Alphonse Medora de Fiori, at your service.”

Behind Prenza, the artillery men nervously look to each other, but as the shock of the cavalry approach wears off, their greater numbers encourage them to more obviously point their weapons.

“Our business, like all poor souls haunting this place, is the harvest, as we gather what we can to ease our journey to safety. You seem well-provisioned, my friend, my good friend, and sworn to help a man in distress.”

His smile grows more expansive, “Perhaps, if you do not desire to leave us in peace, you could donate to our humble cause?”

A failure at the Risky/Standard Sway roll has turned them from hostile to highwaymen. Still wanting the information badly, Topaz escalates to Desperate here, forcing them to back down. He accepts a Devil’s Bargain that these men will hate Topaz, regardless of the outcome, and if it comes to bullets, he will be the prime (and very exposed) target.

Topaz idly swings his rifle down, a casual gesture at lightning speed, still smiling. He makes sure the muzzle is clearly encompassing de Fiori.

"I find my sabertache right generous supplied with shot and bullet, but I am afeared it is my habit to gift them but one at a time."

One more Desperate Action xp for Topaz, who is racking them up, and a success!

The man starts, a seeming seizure as his arm lifts, freezes, twitches, drops. A similar ripple washes out, as the well-crafted (if perhaps not so well cared for) Orite rifles aim and the Hanged Men lean into their horses for greater cover, their own weapons obviously in hand. While the Hanged Men are spreading their fire, unable to target everyone, nearly all the deserters have their weapons trained on the clearly deadly Panya.

“Oh, a clever fucking woodsman,” Prenza spits on the ground, though taking a step backwards as he does so, “And here I was thinking I treated with gentlefolk.”

The lieutenant, barely visible from behind the well, calls in a hoarse voice, “Wait, wait…” Guns click as hammers are pulled. Prenza snarls over his shoulder, “But this animal …”, before being interrupted.

“You want something from us, gentlemen, and perhaps we are not adverse to providing it. Let’s not be hasty.”


#24

Raff gives it a second, then another, long enough that the tension is now audible in the creak of leather and the clink of metal and the quickening of breath.

Then he starts laughing. A full throated, good-natured laugh. He shoots a grin at Topaz, another at Prenza, before settling gaze on the half-hidden lieutenant.

Signore de Fiori – Lieutenant, forgive me – I commend you. For a group so eager to reap an easy harvest, they seem even more eager to take to a much harder culling,” he says, “But I suppose what is written is true, that words cut deeper than swords, at least at first.”

He drops from his horse, reaching into a coat pocket, ignoring the bristling arms and the indignant, angry looks that fail to hide root cowardice. He produces a bottle as he makes his way forward.

“Come, kinsman, and have a taste of the homeland’s brandy while we discuss what can be shared, and what cannot.”

Risky Consort, and I ruled the luxury item would allow for greater effect.

Rafe steps from his horse, bottle hanging out between thumb and forefinger, foggy brown glass twinkling in the glare. The lieutenant is still mostly obfuscated, but Prenza startles, and Rafe is sure for a moment he is destined to die in a hail of crossfire as Topaz, the Hanged and the Orites all draw up. The small man has torn his overlarge eyes away from Topaz and turned his head towards the handsome officer. And then he cries.

“Oh, by the Blessed Alchemists lost to us… Amaro Zahari Riserva.”

Uncontrollable tears stream down his dirty face, carving rivulets of skin in the grit. He sobs loudly, gulping, and his arm is against his mouth. He gestures with his other arm, but no other words come out. He seems struck, exhaustion and anger and hunger and surprise all tearing down emotional walls.

The lieutenant stands, rifle all but dropped, looking dumbstruck at his aide. One of the other deserters steps forward and supports Prenza by the arm. The crying man chokes back a sob behind his white teeth, and points to a seat around the extinguished campfire, waving emphatically. The lieutenant steps forward and reaches it gently for the bottle.

“Take a load off, then, and we’ll talk. And it is Principe, not lieutenant, eh?”

Raffaelle pulls the bottle back a half-inch, a slight smile, inclines his head to the man.

“Forgive me. We’re far enough from home that which title matters and which does not sometimes eludes me.”

He pulls the cork with his teeth, offering the bottle first not to the lieutenant but too Prenza. To the lieutenant, he says, "We must always take care of our men, after all?"

He waits, then passes the bottle back to the man.

“Now then, my Principe, a seat and a brief chat, and we can each be on our way. I have for you, simply, questions about something that occurred during the battle past. It is not – " he raises his hands in a genial, somewhat dismissive gesture " – about anything you or your men may have done , I assure you. Rather, it is about that hellborne nightmare Mihkin. I am told you and yours had the devil’s own luck and saw the fiend at close, and I am glad to see you alive to tell the tale.”

As Raffaele begins socializing with his kinsmen, Sable exhales deeply. The Panyar doctor hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath throughout the tense standoff, not knowing if they were going to break bread or break bones.

Sable shoots Topaz a glance, before closing his eyes and taking another deep breath. Then he takes a few steps to find a good spot to sit down at. The doctor produces his notebook and a piece of graphite from a belt pouch, and starts making sketches of the uniforms the Orite deserters are wearing. It is indeterminable if Sable is doing this to relax, or for intelligence gathering purposes. Probably a bit of both.

Prenza takes the open bottle gently, wordlessly, and stares at it for a good long moment, before wiping his mouth and taking a sip. The others trickle back to centre, reverting from armed force to gathered huddle. Wine is drawn up and drunk by those who wait. This close to the deserters, Sable can see the rewards of their efforts - coins, Bartan charms, rings and buttons, a jade figurine of a large predatory cat, gold teeth and a clockwork lens covered in gore and dried blood, a mechanical eye pulled from a man’s head.

The prince listens to Rafe, nodding away issues of protocol, and takes the liquor when his turn comes around.

“Luck?” the Prince chokes out, “You would not say that if you had seen…”

A shadow falls over the faces of the artillerymen when the Dread Rider is mentioned. Despite the irreligiousity of Or, signs of holy protection are made, and the men and women look at their feet. The Legion Officer, a fine observer of the subtleties of power in his homeland, notes the haggard lieutenant fade off and then, after a moment, look to Prenza seeking guidance.

The small lesser alchemist takes the bottle again from a man to his left, before his turn has come around, and nods. “We saw the one called Mihkin, good master,” his voice is cold, with little of the bluster of before, “And we ran from him as you would run from fire itself.”

He runs his hand through thinning hair, “And like with flame, no man can ever run fast enough.”

“Our escort held the hills, good sir, and we lobbed our blackshot into the dead. But when the Rider came, all was for nothing. He ran ahead of his band, and fools that we were, we took this as our moment. We hit him with a cannonball, and I swear to the Art, we knocked him from his mount, no word of lie.”

A shudder passes through the deserters, and another swing of the brandy is taken, “But he rose again, sir, he did. And he drew weapon and turned his eyes on us, even as his pale horrors sped by him and broke into our Bartan allies, beating them into the dust, and he began to walk up the hill.”

Prenza offers Rafe his bottle back, and puts a hand on his knee, “I saw his eyes, kind sir, and they were… laughing at me. He saw my face, and I ran. I ran with the certainty that death itself was behind me…”

He shrugs, “I know not why you wish to know of… of Mihkin. But whatever your purpose, abandon it.”

He listens, and it takes little to let his face show that he is, indeed, empathetic to the horror the men describe. He takes the bottle from Prenza, still attentive, and when the man is done speaking, he does not chase the silence, but lets it sit for several seconds. Then he raises the bottle to Prenza, to the lieutenant, to the gathered men, in a modest gesture, attempting in the motion to acknowledge their experience where he knows words cannot, and will not, suffice. He takes a sip, then offers the bottle back to the lieutenant.

"You and yours have certainly earned it," he says.

He goes into his coat once more, still speaking, pulls the cloth map of the battlefield. He spreads it out between himself and Prenza.

"That you stood and scored him so speaks of courage and determination. That you fled his onslaught speaks of wisdom. I say that with all sincerity, all truth. None but a Chosen could have done more, and scores indeed did far, far less."

He looks at Prenza, meeting the man’s eyes, then to the lieutenant, then to the others, before returning to the small man.

"Can you show me where it happened, please? And you say the ball that struck the bastard dismounted him? Can you recall the terrain, at all? A description of where he might have fallen in that blessed moment of hope before he rose again?"

As Rafe speaks, the Orites bend in to listen, and despite the foul harvest resting on the ground between them, they seem comforted to see themselves in the officer’s description of their actions on that fateful day. Prenza listens to the request, and after another silence where he exchanges glances with his comrades, nods, adams apple gulping nervously.

“It is your funeral, brave fool, and though I am loathe to send you to it… well, I can see your spirit is set.”

He takes out a pair of filthy pince-nez and cleans the murk with a corner of his shirt.

“We were stationed on a hill, near a small cottage,” he pulls over Raffaele’s map, and peers down along his pronounced nose, eyes searching as he speaks, “We saw the alabaster bastards coming against us, and the knights arrayed themselves on the ridgeline to charge down into any stragglers that reached us. Gods, we laughed. Would you believe we laughed?”

A woman speaks up, “Cavalry against cannon…”

The prince-lieutenant sighs, “But then the Dread Rider cut though his own line, pulled ahead.”

The gambler resumes the thread, “I barely had time to load and light, let alone a moment to aim. But we fired, and caught him at the bottom of the hill. As was said, he fell, and rose, and the knights charged down. He brushed them aside like… like… these big Bartan heavies, thrown about like children. They screamed, signor. Screamed. And then the Alabaster hit them… and we ran.”

Pranza takes a graphite, makes some rough marks, and passes the cloth back to Rafe, “This is where he fell, on the North-West face. Or close enough to.”

And Rafe notes the spot, confirms it is one of the spots the Marshal had pointed him to. There is a chain of assumptions at work – that he cannot move so fast as to be at every site; that Mihkin himself has lost a possession in the battle; that he has not had time to find it – but the Orite’s story seems to strengthen the Council’s hypothesis.

Sable has a change of heart as he renders his portraits of the Orite deserters. He’s a quick draftsman. In a short span he has already drawn a soldier languidly relaxing in the grass with a flower in his hat, his rifle carelessly tossed beside him; a voracious gambler raking in his winnings of looted goods; and a portrait of Prenza knocking back liquor.

The doctor rips the drawings out of his notebook, and goes around the camp and hands them out to his subjects. He had decided that moments switch too quickly between calm and chaos out in the field, and that any violence avoided should be cherished. What else were the Legion’s efforts worth, if not for the comfort of peace, however brief?

“Something to keep for your loved ones,” Sable says to the surprised soldiers with a wan smile. “For when this is all over.”

He holds off on Pranza’s, not wanting to interrupt Rafe’s interaction with the man.

Sable returns to his spot, and turns his attention toward the Hanged Men. The doctor deftly uses his graphite to sketch out the background. Sable works intently for a few minutes, before he first smells the sweet smoke of a shinsta grass joint, and then hears the booming voice behind him.

“In another life, you could have been an artist!” says Galdor Zaher. “Aha, you’ve taken an interest in the Chief, I see.”

The Hanged Man is peeking over Sable’s shoulder at his sketch of Berenike Taidos. Her features are rendered in great detail. The curvature of her nose. Her bangs hanging past her milky grey eyes but not directly in them. The scar across her eyebrow, and the one running from her collar bone up her neck a bit.

“She is a distinguished and formidable woman,” says Sable.

“You must practice caution, dear doctor,” Zaher says. “I have seen the Chief sever the head of every snake that approaches her!”

Another booming laugh. Sable frowns, and looks at Zaher. “What is this, the Orite inquisition? Give me that!”

The doctor snatches the joint out of the Hanged Man’s hand, and takes a drag of it. Sable exhales the smoke out of his nostrils as he inspects the embers at the tip, making sure it doesn’t burn too quickly.

“What do you make of our present situation, Zaher?” asks Sable. “Was it a mistake to let Bahasa and El Sayed go?”

Zaher puts a finger to his lips, and his face softens in concentration. The laughter goes from his eyes.

“A mistake, good healer, knower of a thousand remedies?”, the butcher speaks slowly, thoughtful, “It depends on what you see, and what you seek.”

Amiably, he draws on the shared smoke, and then passes it on to one of the Orites.

“In the Isles, there is the tiger and the cockatrix. The tiger is strong, and cunning, and observant. Many men work together to hunt the tiger, and the more, the better, for not all who go out to the jungles return.”

Bushy eyebrows pull together, and he chews on his cheek.

“For the bird of stone, ah, another story. It is savage, and venomous, and only strikes opportunistically, but otherwise is hard to find. It is hunted by one man, alone, armed with a sword in the dark. He is risking everything, but more men make the hunt harder.”

Zaher makes the weighing motion with his hands and then turns it into a shrug, “Do we hunt the tiger, healer, or the cockatrix?”

After examining the map, Raff nods to Prenza, taking the paper back to fold and replace within his coat.

"Thank you, my friend. Perhaps, with what you have shared with us, there can be some answer for all you have endured."

He rises, turning to the lieutenant, and inclines his head deferentially.

"And thank you, Principe, for your time and your courtesy. I wish I had another bottle to send with you. Instead, I wish you the safety of home. May you see it soon, and give it my regards."

He dusts the seat of his trousers, taking his leave and returning to his horse. Before he mounts, he takes his notebook from another pocket, and quickly scribbles on a page, before tearing it free. He looks to Prenza, gesturing him over, his manner the same relaxed geniality he has worked to project so far. To the man, he lowers his voice slightly though is careful not to allow his posture to convey secrecy or conspiracy.

"Sir, you are clearly a learned man, and I suspect in more than in matters of artillery. This war is like the fire you spoke of, and you are wise enough to know it. It matters not how far you run, it will catch us all. Unless we fight it."

He pauses a moment, then offers the man his hand. "I wish you safe travels, wherever you are bound."

With that, he turns and swings himself up into his saddle, the note no longer in his hand, but in the palm of the little alchemist.

"Hanged Men," he says. "Now, we ride hard."


#25

The Battle at the Shepherd’s Hut, upon the fields of Ettenmark

On their officer’s command, the group loads their blackshot and speeds their horses towards the mark on the map. Hooves cover hills and plains and road, and it is no easy matter to spur the horses by scenes smelling of death and devastation.

The going is exhausting, but the band had been chosen well, and all are at least skilled horsemen. Taidos’ eyes look like the sky before a terrible storm, grey and cold and threatening, and through example rather than command, she spurs the small band – smaller now with the departure of the escort – to a punishing pace. On no face is there a flicker of doubt or complaint.

In the early going, the Hanged Men whoop and cry in Island fashion, though it is a joyless sound, but in time, there is no excess left for anything but the beast and the path. The Panya sharpshooter and the Khepri, the Islander outrider, move ahead, scouting around corners, atop hills and some small distance ahead, and then falling back to confirm with the others. Topaz’ hands burn where they grip the reins, injuries from Raliegh willfully denied but unable to be forgotten. His eyes are peeled for movement, but this far out from the camps of both living and the dead, there is little to see but the crows.

Khepri is the first to spot the shepherd’s hut, a humble structure atop a small run of hills, poking out from a ridge above the road, and he signals for Topaz. The sniper draws out his machined rifle, and puts the scope to his eye.

Two mounted archers wait atop the ridge. At a distance, it would be easy to mistake them for skeletons, so white and emaciated are they. But there is skin there, pressed in on each rib, sinking in, and nails and ears and hair besides. Their steeds are lean, roiling cords of unnatural muscle rippling and flexing beneath the alabaster skin even as the beast stands still. The eyes of steed and rider alike are pitch black voids, and they look out from their vantage, thick and twisted bows gently resting in their boney hands. Their glinting dark eyes stare out from the hill, looking down the approaches for quarry.

This is the second half of the Desperate Position from the Engagement Roll I mentioned above - Mihkin is here, denying Topaz any easy window to position himself, and his watchers are on the high ground.

In Rafe’s order, the Hanged Men spur to action.

Taidos and Sable take the lead, charging around the hill. The nearest undead rider turns its head, and observes the racers with cold black eyes that register no surprise. It cries out, a keening wail that bounces between the valleys below.

The second rider pushes its shock of crinkled white hair from its face, and canters forward to the ridge line. It draws its bow, aims carefully, and lets loose. One arrow falls short, though barely, but the second is moments behind. Sable feels the arrow whisk past his face, turning his head to watch it fly by, and by the time he has turned his attention back to the hill, the pair of riders are moving along the ridge above in parallel with his movements, nocking more of their long white-feathered arrows.

Before they can loose, musket shots ring out from behind the doctor, as Rafe has given the signal for the second wave of Legionnaires to move. The Alabaster Riders snarl, unsure of where to aim as their targets scatter, peeling off in different directions, drawing them further from their perch. And so the dance begins. There is musket fire and reloading, false charges and feints, all timed with calls from the officer, the words old Imperial commands drilled into every Legion horseman.

The Remnant and Riders move around and between each other in a strange looping patterns, each iteration luring the dead incrementally away from their vantage without giving them too clean a shot at any of the fast-moving cavalry. Bows are faster than muskets, and more accurate in the cold skilled hands of the Riders, and the aberrant steeds swiftly obey the will of their masters.

In every moment, death looms, but with five against two, the Hanged Men have the numbers to harry and drive in a coordinated fashion, providing windows for reloading and recovery, for driving the dead off the vulnerable and for taking them ever further from Mihkin and the high ground.

In the chaos of the skirmish, the gunner moves low and quiet on foot. He shadows the long way around, letting his friends draw the attention of the dead. When the firing and shouting starts, the scout quickens his pace and crosses the open road, the most dangerous moment, before agile moving up the final slope. As Topaz crawls through the long grass and reaches the crest of the hill, he sees into the wide valley below. It is littered with the Ettenmark dead.

Looming over the fallen, a great black steed, twenty hands high, and covered in the heavy barding resembling the armour of the Cinder Guard. It skitters impatiently, hooves raking into the earth in frustration. It is disturbed by the cries of the White Riders, neighing in displeasure. It is another moment before the gunman makes out his quarry.

The plan was to make a Group Action Maneuver roll, excluding Topaz, to draw the Riders out of position and create an opportunity for the Gunner to snipe Mihkin - if he could find him - from maximum range. The Hanged Man had Scale, but the Riders had Potency while on ‘horseback’, and it came down to success on a Desperate roll, incurring a few stress for poor Rafe, some Harm for rookies resisted with Armour and the Desperate situation rolls forward into their ongoing engagement.

Topaz made a Risky Scout action to sneak into position, Set Up by the group action.

Though, looking down at Mihkin, the Dread Rider, commander of Render’s cavalry, it is hard, even from behind the barrel of a gun, to envision him as the hunted. He is as described, behemoth big and black plate, skulls for pauldrons, face covered by dark metal but with malevolent and ancient eyes glimmering red in its depths. He has a wicked-looking flail on his belt, and there is a jagged crack running along his breastplate, cutting across the warped, ruddy handprint that marks him as Render’s. His weapon, a long lance with the wood scorched black, rests on the earth beside his horse, smouldering, a shimmer of heat rising above its length.

He kneels in a pile of corpses at the foot of the hill, mindless of the blood up his arms and the chest crushed beneath his leg, ignoring the screams of his escort, hands pushing a horse aside as he scrabbles for his object. Where his shadow falls, grass and flowers wither and die.

Meet Mihkin. He is a Threat 4 opponent, but weakened from his usual potency by injuries from Ettenmark and the loss of the item by which Render and the Cinder King have bound him to their cause. I created a ten-tick clock, and established for each level of Harm he did to the Legion, it would clear a tick. His flaming lance and horse still served as Potent, even above his Threat, and you cannot engage him in melee without taking damage from the heat, even where he lands no blow.


#26

Book of the Undead

Render’s Troops, as per the Annals after this Mission

The Gaunt (Threat 1, armoured) - Render’s preferred infantry, these exemplify his approach to the dead. Made only from the hardened bodies of warriors, they are carefully crafted into unliving weapons. These monsters have had armour, plates and weapons bolted or fused directly onto their flesh, and are reanimated after they are so equipped. They are slower than most undead, but the armour gives them great protection, including a partial immunity to blackshot.

Hounds (Threat 1, with potencies)- Hounds were once people, now with eyes sewn shut, lips ripped off, teeth filed to points, and chains attached to their ribs, spines, or collar bones. Unlike most other frontline troops, they seem to be still alive, converted rather than killed into service. They have superlative senses of hearing and smell, able to detect humans at great distances, though the mechanism of this detection is erratic for reasons unknown. Most elite troops in Render’s army hold a few on a leash to find any escaped enemies, rewarding a good hunt with a limb of the hunted to feast on.

Alabaster Riders (Threat 1, with potencies for screaming, riding and scouting) - These ancient dead served Mihkin, and are utterly unique amongst the Cinder King’s forces in having undead animals in their service. There are reasons to suspect they are not created by whatever means other undead are. Rider and horse are skin and bone, and they are fast-moving and better with sword or bow than their peers. Their screams are unnatural, harming and haunting the living.


#27

Frustrated by the feints and shots of an enemy they cannot bring down, one of the dead opens its mouth and screams.

The cry is seemingly endless, so high-pitched and piercing as to be at once deafening and near inaudible, a ringing pain that reaches into the bones of every nearby Legionnaire. The horses seem to suffer more than the riders, trained warhorses panicking and bucking, swinging their heads from side to side. Khepri’s chestnut rears up in agonised shock, throwing the outrider from the back of her saddle. She falls and lands on the ground with a sickening crunch.

The second rider senses weakness, and moves to ride Khepri down. Bernike is the only one near, and unable to get her own steed under control, casts her musket aside and leaps. Even as the long, knobbly, dead fingers go to release the arrow, the captain of the Hanged Men crashes bodily into the Alabaster, arms grappling and legs flailing as she desperately seeks purchase on its courser. The arrow goes wide.

The screaming rider falls silent, exhausting whatever foul air fills its heaving ribcage, and the doctor and officer calm their beasts. The screamer draws a long, silvery sword and charges at them. Between Taidos and her unwilling fellow traveller, there is an exchange of blows, sudden and violent, combatants in too close a proximity for either properly use their weapons. Taidos tries to draw her kopesh, but the rider’s sharp elbow catches her behind the ear. As the doctor and officer watch on helplessly, she tumbles down to fall beside Khepri.

Sable and Rafe resisted the scream, which otherwise caused limited effect to actions that require focus or use of horses. A Desperate Skirmish, bringing 2 Harm to Taidos and putting Khepri in a situation where she will die without intervention.

Topaz lies in the mattock of grass, dirt smeared on the bronzed gilt of his rifle, blocking out even a hint from the sun. He has only a few moments, but he knows from experience that haste is a form of panic. Taking the shot, he muses, is the art of finding all the time in the world. The doctor’s remedies had dulled the pain in his hands to a raw ache, like a graze under vinegar, but left them supple and deft. Deft enough for this.

Ah, the Doctor skill, doing good work. Attache carries a long way, if used strategically and you’re willing to double down continually on risking your medic.

The Dread Rider fossicks in the dirt, stretching his neck at a curious angle, craning to see something.
'May fortune go gentle on thy humble sprog," murmured Topaz by way of invocation, as the gap between Mikhin’s helm and his breastplate entered the narrow field at the end of the Panyar’s scope.

Contact.

The crack of the rifle is high and clear across the plains, carrying even across the sound of battle, as the ball flies straight and true, taking the monstrosity in the throat and blowing chunks of blackened gore out across the torn battlefield. Topaz grins to himself, tongue between his teeth.

Robert Pushed for a die, used Blackshot, used Aim, was using his fine rifle, and was sniping at an enemy that did not know of his position, and took a Desperate position to increase his Effect. Mihkin was Threat 4, with his invulnerability a big deal. He succeeded, and the math hurt my brain. I went with Limited Effect (Invulnerable)>Standard Effect (Blackshot)>Greater Effect (Aim)>‘Even Greater’ Effect (Shift to Desperate)>“Legendary” Effect (Set Up)>Greater (Relative Threat), which I made 4 ticks off Mihkin’s clock.

I would love to know if I did that right, or how other GMs would have handled it.

And then the Dread Rider turns.

Fast, faster than Topaz on his best day, the titan is athwart his horse, then mounted. Great hooves crash and tear at the sod, as whatever concealments the Panyar hunter’s life has taught him are swept away under the hawk-eyed gaze of the skull-clad cavalryman. Mihkin, the Dread Rider, is riding him down. Topaz’s heart skips and judders in his chest, but he plants his heel against the instinct to run.

No time for running. Running takes time. But the shootist in the shot has all the time in the world.

He shakes the spent shot from the breach and slams another bullet in, injured hands quick and deft. Mihkin is already on the hillside, closing on him, no trace of fear or confusion in the horse, only a will to utter annihilation in the face of the rider. Topaz swings his rifle up. Mihkin is closer now. Too close for him to cry off, if he fires. He fires.

The bullet flies true a second time, again striking inside the helm and spattering gore, and the Dread Rider sways is in his saddle as if to topple. The horse hitches half a gait. And then, they are as one again, an unstoppable force.

Topaz could fire again, and I offered a Devil’s Bargain - if Topaz held his ground ensuring Mihkin would reach melee, he’d get a better shot. Robert accepted, Aimed with Blackshot again, etc etc, and took another 4 ticks off Mihkin, bringing him well past half-dead before he did anything. Which, I suppose, is the entire point of a sniper, so fair do. And Topaz was in for some pain.

The horse is nearly upon him, and though Topaz leaps to the side, Mihkin’s lance is keen, his aim as true as any shootist’s bullet. Topaz tries to roll at the right moment, curses himself as he feels his rifle slip from his grasp as he curls, twisting himself away from being impaled. It’s enough to keep the lance from his chest, and it skitters down the armor of his back. It would be enough to keep him from wounding - save for the flame.

The fire flickers along the lance, catching the sniper’s dusty coat alight. His roll douses much of the fire in dirt, until he smokes only a little, but it is enough for flesh to crackle. Smoke sits in his lungs and eyes and he tries to clear his head. He snatches his pistol from his belt, his traveler’s gear forgone in its stead. He’ll be going back to camp easily enough…or he won’t be going back at all.

The partial success plus the Devil’s Bargain meant Topaz lost his rifle and was taking Harm. He spent his Armour to reduce, and Resisted, bringing it down to a Level 2 Harm.

Where the second bullet entered the throat, the strap binding Mihkin’s black helm has torn open, and the faceplate has fallen loose, clattering against his bone shoulderguards.

Topaz finds himself staring up into a face most ancient and terrible. There is an age to it unlike anything the sniper had witnessed in his years of travels, its very shape and features dating back to some distant and long-lost race gone before Panya was dreamed of. The red eyes are sunken, held within thick epicanthic folds, and possess a terrible cruelty. Yellowed skin wrinkles as the muscles move. The broad, flat jaw is torn open to the blackened bones, dark gore smeared on black plate, but yet it moves.

Remnant,” Mihkin slurs out, “Ahhh, it would be thine hand.”

The Dread Rider towers over Topaz, constantly combusting lance already twisting around to strike again, the green steel of the spear-tip burning the hottest white.

“Thou mayst seek to avenge your many many fallen, but thy death only will aid mine return to favour,” and with that, the spear strikes down again, and again, and again, Topaz rolling desperately to stay at length, the burned flesh protesting each time it is pressed to the ground.

“It has been so long since I tasted such pain,” Mihkin laughs, “I dislike this new world, these coward’s firearms, this brazen alchemy.”

His hand touches at his jaw, and already, the thin skin stretches over more of the black pulsing veins, knitting together what the Blackshot had rent apart.

“Methinks I shall witness its passing with some joy.”

Mihkin heals 2 ticks on his clock from Topaz’ level two Harm.

Topaz snaps to lift his pistol into an aiming position, but now he is close, Mihkin’s preternatural speed has told, and his destrier has came upon him, the Black Lord’s left hand reaching down, batting the Panya hat aside as he snatches Topaz’ hair, dragging him through the earth.

“Since thou hast taken me from my work,” he laughs again, “Let us see what thou friends are about.”


#28

In many ways, Sable was an untraditional Panyar. A metropolitan at heart, he preferred civilization over the great forests, and as a young man he had journeyed to the Aldermark City of Witten to learn modern medicine from the brightest minds in the known world.

While he did respect the religious traditions of Panya, Sable was neither a superstitious nor a particularly pious man. He was comfortable in the wilderlands, but more as a gatherer of herbs and strange flowers, less as a loping hunter with the scent of his prey flaring in his nostrils.

But now, riding hard in the saddle, Sable was Panyar. His hair is a wild mane whipping about, looking like tendrils of smoke trailing behind him. His rifle rests in his grip as easy as any bow. The doctor is Sable Flowing Gale, and he is faster than the wind.

Even with the choice to be anywhere else, I would still choose to be here, riding with my brothers and sisters in battle. Until it ends.

The skirmish is chaotic and presents a pressing mortal danger. Sable feels the anxiety well up inside his chest, pressing against the inside of his throat. The Alabaster Hunters move with eerie control and focus as they move to split up the outriders. Sable turns a hard right as his horse kicks up a spray of dirt and gravel and manages to stay on Raffaele. He does notice Khepri and Berenike Taidos go down as the Hanged Men and the Specs are cut off from each other.

The skeletal Alabaster Hunters’ gambit had paid dividends. Galdor Zaher is the one Islander who manages to hang onto Raffaele and himself. Sable Flowing Gale shoots a glance at a hard-set Zaher and the decisive Raffaele. They had but heartbeats to decide what to do, and the lives of the remaining Hanged Men depends upon it.

Flashback - Part I - Greg asked for a flashback.
Raff nods, looking over the map one more time before nodding and taking it back to fold and replace within his coat.

"Thank you, my friend. Perhaps, with what you have shared with us, there can be some answer for all you have endured."

He rises, turning to the lieutenant, and inclines his head deferentially. "And thank you, Principe, for your time and your courtesy. I wish I had another bottle to send with you. Instead, I wish you the safety of home. May you see it soon, and give it my regards."

He dusts the seat of his trousers, taking his leave and returning to his horse. Before he mounts, he takes his notebook from another pocket, and quickly scribbles on a page, before tearing it free.

He looks to Prenza, gesturing him over, his manner the same relaxed geniality he has worked to project so far. To the man, he lowers his voice slightly though is careful not to allow his posture to convey secrecy or conspiracy.

"Sir, you are clearly a learned man, and I suspect in more than in matters of artillery. This war is like the fire you spoke of, and you are wise enough to know it. It matters not how far you run, it will catch us all. Unless we fight it."

He gauges the man’s reaction a moment, sees his words taking hold. He turns his hand, showing the paper folded in his palm.

"Would you do a kinsman a kindness in return for the one I offer you, my friend?"

He lets his eye drop meaningfully to Prenza’s coat, more precisely to the slightly swollen lump that breaks its line at the man’s hip. His eyes go back to the bespectacled man’s.

"You still carry two grenades, I see, and you spoke of the black shot, as well. You would favor me with the gift of one. You would bless me if the one you offered threw the black shot, as well."

Raffaele smiles gently. Prenza hesitates, conflicted, considering. Perhaps it is Captain’s manner, or the memory of the brandy, or the words themselves, or all together, but all at once he produces one of the cruel iron balls from where it hangs on his waist.

Raffaele offers the man his hand, "I wish you safe travels, wherever you are bound."

With that, he turns and swings himself up into his saddle, the note no longer in his hand, but in the palm of the little alchemist. The grenade he carefully tucks within his jacket.

"Hanged Men," he says. "Now, we ride hard."

BOOM, that was a flashback. Greg proposed it, and given we’d established Prenza was an explosives man by trade and that he got on well with Rafe, I called it 1 Stress.

Raffaele look on as the scarred, weathered warrior leaps towards the Rider, her fast and furious exchange of blows, her being thrown from the back of the white, worm-ridden mount.

Taidos is one of the Old Legion - less recruited than purchased from her father from some sand-and-goats nomadic tribe - and had served for seven years. She had fought in five campaigns, including this one. She had risen to a junior command post, she could drink more fermented milk than anyone in the rolls, and she had been corrupted even before Ettenmark, eyes lost - though somehow not sight - from the arrow of a Rider much as this one.

Berinke is dazed by the blow, and she screams something slurred in the Islander tongue - she screams for Khepri to move. She twists and stretches as she falls, hands fluttering to her belt, an oddly deliberate motion that does not stop her hitting the ground awkwardly. Sable turns to Rafe, questions in his eyes, desperate to help, but in that instant, Rafe has little to offer, as each of them must prepare themselves for their own assailant, drawing breath and swinging its silver blade down.

Flashback - Part II -
Topaz shifts, moving with surprising speed and stealth for all his bulk. The Captain’s eyes follow him a moment, until he disappears out of sight. Behind him, the horses idle, unsettled, all-too aware of what floats in the air, already anticipating what is to come.

They are like that, *Raffaele thinks. They know this cannot be clean.

He turns his horse slightly, relaying once more the plan for the maneuver. The Hanged Men nod, assent. Taidos has lit a fire in her eyes. He guides his horse beside hers, bends his head close so that neither can be overheard.

"We ride to kill the bastard, make no mistake. All is for nothing if we do not succeed in that, Berenike. You know this is true."

He meets her eyes. They are close, almost intimately close. His gaze is answered with a determination that borders on ferocity. She does not need to say a word. It is understood. From beneath his jacket, he subtly passes her the cruel iron ball.

"We are the leaders," he says softly. "We do what we must to succeed in our mission, to preserve the lives of our soldiers. If it comes to it, do what you must."

She looks at the heavy ball in her hand, raises her tainted eyes to the Captain. Despite it all, in this instant, Raffaele think that she is, perhaps, not pretty, but with her own beauty nonetheless. She nods, once, slipping the grenade into the pouch on her belt.

"We will do what we must," she says, and turns her horse to address the Hanged Men.

A blast rings out across the plain, drowning entire the other Rider’s second attempt at a scream. Fire, red and green, engulfs the space around Taidos, spreading out and scorching, its concussive power knocking the scrambling Khepri further back.

In its wake, Sable sees little left of horse or rider. The Islander’s burnt body is twisted, her face and chest ripped into shreds, leaving little of the woman he knew - only the echo of her last words in his ears.

It ends.

The moon chases the sun. The sun chases the moon.

Topaz tries to keep up as best he can, his legs straining as he sprints alongside the rider. In the split seconds he lags, he feels his hair tear along his scalp, a tracing of fire along his skull, like being tattooed with hot iron. And Mihkin canters to his prey.

The moon chases the sun. The sun chases the moon.

The figures in battle appear as friezes, captured in the moment when the woodsman can swing then into his field of view. He sees Taidos fumbling at her belt.

Predator and prey

The monster moves towards her. "It ends." The explosion rocks the blasted plains of Ettenmark, spraying then in gore and sod. Even Mihkin seems shocked, his unseelie horse stumbling in the flash.

The sun. Topaz pulls his pistol from the thong on his belt with a flourish, mad enough to keep it loaded. A mite of madness keeps thee amongst the livers, son. Recall that hence.

He jams it against the tightly gripped lock of his hair, ignoring the proximity of the unstable firearm to his brainbox.

"La, Mihkin," he spits, "Thy crawlers are just meat, in the end. A bit maggoty, but liable to char."

He blows away the mailed fist gripping at his hair, trying to ignore the dazzling of his brain in the flash.

Blessed by the sun and moon, to slay a phantasm like this one. Apt not to join the deaders for some watches yet.

Freed, he rolls away from the horse, trying to ignore the pain from his wounds. He fumbles with shot and tries to load the pistol.

“CAREFUL, CHICKENS! THIS ONE’S GASHES KNIT STITCHED, UNNATURAL.”

Topaz also asked for a flashback - people were clearly getting into a rhythm - to have a standard pistol as one of his utility items, since he’d misread the Sniper loadout as having both rifle and pistol. I said sure, for 1 Stress, but clarified we didn’t want this kind of thing to supersede the benefits of Channels. A good Desperate roll managed to break Topaz free, though he takes another level 2 harm, which this time escalated to level 3.

Mihkin roars, hand drawing up and clutches into a fist. Dark blood drips between the fingers of his mauled fists. His swings his burning lance wildly, scorching the grass from the ground and throwing up scorched clods, but does not slow his movement towards the Legion even as the shaken Topaz rolls aside, moving to flank with the Rider crossing blades with Rafe.

“FOR SHADOW’S FLAME!”

He watches as Taidos leaps; he sees the second pale rider wheel; he sees Mihkin charging down at Topaz. Two hundred yards, one hundred yards, the distances that are so impossibly far to cover quickly on foot, space that is devoured by horse, both dead and alive.

And he knows what Berenike will do as she does it, knew it the moment Khepri was dismounted, hit the turf on her back, air exploding from her lungs. He knows because Berenike Taidos, like Raffaele Orazio de Deori, understands the math. The math is rarely so straightforward. The math is rarely so kind. But this calculation is easy. He has drawn his sword. Sable is looking towards him. He kicks his horse’s flanks and yanks the reins… …and turns away as the grenade does its work, rising in his stirrups and screaming.

"At him!"

He charges Mihkin, the Dread Rider in his own gallop towards them, lance trailing flame in one hand and Topaz dragged along by the hair in the other. But Topaz is not dead, and even over the pounding of hooves and the dying wail of horse and rider, he can hear the big Panyar spitting out prayers and curses, mixing tongues, twisting as he struggles. He barely sees the pistol come up, the roar-pop of the shot and then Topaz is summersaulting, tumbling through a cloud of dust to a stop, rising to his knees, blood streaming from his scalp, screaming something to them that Raffaele cannot make out.

The lance burns, streams, coming into line. Black blood trails from mailed fist. A nightmare howl of its voice.

“For Shadow’s Flame!”

And Raffaele is up in his stirrups again, leaning forward, and screaming in answer, "FOR BERENIKE!"

Rafe leading a Group Skirmish Action, with Scale and with Lead from the Front, with Sable and Rafe Pushing, everyone in the group using Blackshot, and Assisted by Topaz through his warning (which, by the by, makes Topaz Trauma, and he takes Reckless, which… yeah, fair cop.

It happens almost all at once. The lance, he knows, is for his heart. He knows, as well, that his attempt to parry it aside will fail. He knows, also – though how he knows this he cannot say – that the mounted hatred bearing down on him at this moment is not as hurt as he should be, shot at least twice with Topaz’s black shot.

But in the lucid-adrenaline dilation of this moment, he is thinking, quite rationally, that if he takes the lance to the chest, that will force Mihkin’s arm out at least somewhat, enough to put bullets into the fiend’s heart.

Instead, the bullets come first , and that there are two shots and not just one does not truly register until after the fact. He does not see them strike Mihkin, but in the seconds before they meet, he reaps their result.

And Blessed are the Hanged Men, who ride and shoot as one , he thinks, or remembers. Isn’t that one of their sayings? Didn’t Berinike used to say that?

The rounds hit the Dread Rider, black shot pops of green flame that spark, high center mass, just off the midline. Whether they actually hurt him, Raffaele does not know, and may never. What he does know is that their impact turns him on his steed just enough-- --and then they collide, and Raffaele’s parry takes the lance, already off its line, and shoves it aside as he meets Mihkin’s armor with his shoulder at thirty miles an hour. Sword, lance, and steeds are lost.

He tastes earth and blood and when he raises his head from the turf, can see Topaz, a blurred, bloodied apparition some twenty yards away, shouting and reloading. For a moment, Raffaele wonders why Topaz seems so damn upset. Then he remembers, and rolls, and Mihkin is already on his feet, leaking…something and bellowing as he advances.

Over the next few rolls, some Harm to Rafe, Sable and the Hanged Men from the Skirmish, Resisted by the players, much of it or taking off the rookies’ ablative armour. Mihkin managed to heal 1 more tick before going down, but in the end, double-scale, blackshot and burning stress carried the day.

I think, reasonably, another rookie honestly should have died here by the maths, but such a big deal had been made around Taidos’ sacrifice and as the first one fallen that taking out one of the less well-developed Hanged Men seemed… off, so I let it slide.

Rafaelle searches for his pistol, finds it is still in his hand. He raises it as the sound of thunder dopplers towards him in stereo. Mihkin, focused on the captain, prone, on his back, the easy target, hears too late. Khepri thunders past on his left. Zaher gallops by on his right. Each leaves their lance, shattered, behind as pass, their points buried in Mihkin’s back. The Dread Rider drops to his knees. If there is any emotion on his face, Raffaele cannot read it, but in the shift of the shoulders beneath the heavy armor there seems, if anything, exhaustion.

In that moment, Mihkin speaks.

“At last, at long last, the reckoning. If thou are mine true end,” he heaves, “Then thee shouldst mourn Mihkin, soldier. Thy kind has seen so little, mortals… just a flicker… a flicker of a candle… and yet together, thy fire engulfs the earth. I am joyous… in mine end… I found a fire with fury equal thine own. A hate and a grief that will end… you… all…”

The power, the scale, of Mihkin is such that even on his knees, he comes to Rafe’s height, and he uses this to meet Rafe’s eyes, “Render is coming.”

As if that was the last of his power, Mihkin falls to his knees, and his giant, torn hand touches something in the dirt. His face cracks into a bitter smile. He pulls it up, a small drum, weather by time, with small beads attached with string, and stares.

As Rafe steps forward, gun up, the Dread Rider holds it out, and laughs, “It was here. It is here. Cassera, it is…”

The laughter echoes, until it is eaten by the pistol’s rapport.

Raffaele empties his revolver into the Dread Rider’s chest and head. Five shots. He rises, unsteady, tasting copper, in time to see the remaining alabaster bowmen twist in two directions at once, hears first Topaz’s shot behind him, Sable’s shot ahead of him. The creature flops from its saddle. Khepri and Zaher walk their horses beside Raffaele. There is a momentary, pained silence as everyone takes in the task completed, the bodies spent.

Raffaele raises his head. “Sable! See to Topaz, then attend to Berinike’s body. She returns with us.” He looks to the remaining Hanged Men. “You two help me here.”

With that, he bends and carefully takes the small, time-touched drum in his hand. He pulls what was once, perhaps, a fine handkerchief from his coat and is now more a rag than anything else, wrapping it carefully. He restores both to his pocket.

As the riders begin to pull the armor from the dead fiend’s body, he calls back his horse, and with his notebook scribbles a quick message that he tears, folds, and attaches to the caged raven. He looses the bird, watches it flap and fly away.

Then he turns back to Khepri and Zaher, "Burn that fucker to ash."


#29

And that ends the second mission!

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE RANCH… I MEAN, FORT…

There were a number of interstitial scenes we played out back at the Fort where people were travelling or had work deadlines, which I pulled out because they were right in the middle of fighting Mihkin or the like.

One of the things that I think fed into the long mission selection debate the first time was the slight strangeness that comes from the Commander being handed three missions ex nihilo, so one of my objectives this time was to thread the seeds for possible upcoming missions into play.

Gorgeous
A half-finished candle burns beside two spent puddles of wax. Light enters the tent from outside, but insufficient for the task at hand. Dmitri sips at a mug of Andrastii khaf, thankful supplies are not yet rationed.

Several maps are sprawled across the table – Pale’s map, recovered from Raliegh Castle, with its all too vague references to Stormbreaker’s military dispositions; shorthand cartography scrawled in the hands of Koylat and the Ghost Owls, showing their limited first-hand observations of local conditions; and some cloth maps bartered from the soldiers they found at the camp, piecemeal inheritances of the collapsed Alliance. All lying atop the sand and stones of the Wartable, where the new-minted Commander of the Remnant struggles to interpolate the information, moving pieces around in a game of Conquest played against the shadow enemies in his mind, pacing out the journey ahead and planning his strategy.

Several military manuals have been taken down from the shelf, open to various pages, as Gorgeous attempts to gauge his instincts against those of his long-dust heroes – Decitus, thirteenth commander of the Legion, past master of the long march; Atromia, historian of war with her book on asymmetrical warfare; and Saphk, the inescapable pedant, with her Thousand Dictums of Leadership.

The command tent is crowded with their ghosts, oppressive with figures he must compare against, but none loom as large as Rampart. He drinks from her cup, shaves at her bowl, sleeps on her bed, reads her books. Not yet having appointed an aide-de-camp, there has been no opportunity to make changes, and he is not entirely sure he would feel he had the right to.

As the Commander looks over Pale’s notes for the hundredth time, his attention is drawn to a small symbol etched in north of their position. Almost like a hub-and-spoke, but with crisscrossed marks like parallel lightning strikes, it so closely resembles the shorthand for the storm witch’s forces. The differences are subtle enough to be missed, or attributed to a lax hand. Unlike her other deployments, the move does not choke a pass or blockade a road, but rather overlooks an unimportant tributary to the Tiagra. On most other maps, there is nothing there, but…

He shuffles through the documents and pulls out a rough piece of cloth. The map has no scale, and few landmarks other than villages and roads, but alongside a creek, Gorgeous jams down his finger.

Balne Brewery

Dmitri had never been there, of course, but the name was not entirely unfamiliar.

"A tankard of Balne," smiled another man in another life, snacking a callous handful of coin down on a countertop, letting the barman take not just the price of the drink, but the leisurely extra left over. Cream flecks over a swirl of rich dark, dark like ironwood, dark like old blood.

Fang
Reyansh Jahandar stood tall, arms behind back, legs shoulder to the part before Lobovenya. Even at nominal attention, he had a languidness that could easily be mistaken for apathy, but the Marshal, with her instinct for dangerous people, suspected it was rather an embodiment of the unit motto of the Ghost Owls – calm before the storm. Jahandar’s uniform is somehow immaculate, crisp green and gold perfectly fitting his frame, the black skin of his bald head neatly shaved, and his brown leather boots polished and mudless.

Fang in contrast was washing the blood off her arms in a stone basin sitting on a table, sleeves rolled up and her back turned to the scout. She was physically spent, after another night leading troops to harry a pack of rabid dead. Though the horde was a rabble of the common mindless cinder infantry and the fresh-raised corpses, their numbers were larger and their tactics more coherent than they had been the night before. The longer the Legion waited in in Ettenmark, the more of a target they would become, and the higher the chances they would draw the ire of something truly dangerous.

“At ease,” she calls over her shoulder.

Jahander’s voice is rich and deep, and his words are chosen with slow deliberation, “May I speak freely, Lady Marshal?”

She nods, her hands rubbing vigorously against a towel. “You asked for this meeting, officer.”

Officer ”, Jahandar repeats, voice laced with tension, “Indeed.”

“I said you could speak your mind, Jahander. Spit it out.”

Reyansh paces to Fang’s desk, picking up a long dagger in a red leather sheath resting there, part drawing it and looking at his reflection in the blade.

“I request on behalf of my unit that you reconsider Specialist Koylat’s acting charge over the Owls.”

The Owl sheathes the dagger again, and taps it against his right-hand fingers, counting off his points.

“He is… not one of us. I mean that literally, as you know, he has never served with the Ghosts. Further, he is a most fine scout and scavenger, nobody argues that or his place as specialist, but he has no instinct for command, and his cautious demeanor inspires uncertainty in the men. Thirdly, before… all this… I was third in charge of the Ghost Owls, and in line for promotion before… the changes befell us.”

Fang nods slowly, acknowledging but not confirming, “It has been a week. There is much left to decide. I will consider your petition.”

“That will not be sufficient, ma’am,” he smiles, placing the dagger back down, “You have already confirmed De Luca, Taidos and Apajua as Corporals. I… and my men… deserve no less honour.”

He stands back to attention, “On behalf of the Ghost Owls, I insist on confirmation of my command.”

The Lady Marshal Zinovia is sparked by Reyansh’s choice of words.

“Oh, you insist, do you?” says Fang, her tone amused and tinged with a cold, budding anger at the Ghost Owl’s persistence. The Marshal’s lips curve into a terse smile.

“Specialist Roidionovich and Margrave De Luca recovered the late Commander Rampart’s remains from deep within the clutches of the enemy. Berenike Taidos carries herself with grace and nobility despite the corruption of her flesh. The Hanged Men need her. And Apajua, well, let’s just say I rely heavily on her reports in my decision making process.”

The Marshal gets up from her seat and approaches Reyansh. She puts her hands on her hips, and gets into his personal space. The Owl can smell the gore of vanquished ghouls on her.

“So what is it you intend to bring to the table besides tradition and culture, Reyansh? And don’t pretend that I don’t know about your resentment of Apajua. If I find out that you ambition is part of some sort of ploy of one-upmanship, I will not be amused, soldier.”

“Marshal ma’am,” the Owl snaps his feels together, but does not flinch away.

Unlike most men, Reynash does not quail beneath the Marshal’s withering comments, though he does stand more to attention, his gaze going far over Zinovia’s head.

“While I am but dust on the winds, unworthy of the heroes of Gai’Xuan, I am the only man left to you capable of l rebuilding the Ghost Owls,” his voice remains low and proud, but now its purr has an edge to it, “I am the fastest runner, the quietest shadow, and my blade is sharp against all throats. I have the faith of my sisters in the dark, and my bravery is not questioned. All will attest to it.”

He lowers his head so his nose and Fang’s are a mere inch apart, “That is what I bring. That is who I am. I am the lord of air and silence, I am the Legion’s shadow. I am who you need .”

The Lady Marshal’s smile softens as it finally reaches her eyes.

“And more than anything, I suppose you are alive. You show the Legion that its okay, nay even advisable, to move on from that clusterfuck at Ettenmark Fields."

She pauses, "Very well. Take charge of your fist, Reyansh, and let you ambitions drive your heart.”

Fang breaks off, letting Reyansh win the brief no-blink stare off, and approaches a small table with a leather map on it. She motions for the leader of the Ghost Owls to join her.

“Now, for your first assignment, I need you and your men to confirm enemy troop movements just west of these foothills that lead into the Anvil Mountains…”

Spite
Good weather and secure walls bring a sense of joy to the Legion camp. As she works, part of Bianca’s attention is fixed on the clear cloudless expanse above, waiting for the shadow of de Diori’s raven, but in its absence, her attention has turned to other matters.

The Quartermaster has taken advantage of the mood, and under the blue and bird-filled skies, soldiers of all ranks are put to the endless list of outdoor chores, which they take to with rare good will. They deepen ditches and plant stakes, peel potatoes and fletch arrows, strip rope and pry out iron nails from disused sections of the fort, and inventory supplies. The exertions of labour seems to shed a little more of the burden of being the last survivors. The Ember Wolves bake themselves in the long grass, resting after a night sortie against the dead, while De Luca leads several Laughing Ravens in a good-humoured race to see who can fill the most waterskins from the well.

Keep them busy, keep them working, she thinks. And we do this for a thousand reasons, to keep them from thinking too much or worrying too much or wondering too much, but mostly we do it because this is discipline, and without it, we’re fucked.

She wanders the camp, letting her pipe go out and eventually tucking it back into her belt, half an eye on Savrelli who is still limping, but at least seems spared infection. She moderates her pace, enough that Savrelli can keep up, not so obviously slow as to offend the soldier with perceived condescension. The ringing from the blacksmiths grows louder, calling to them as they approach. It’s a noise she knows, like so many things about the Legion, so deep it is in her bones. It is a knowing without knowing, and she knows something is different even before they round the open-sided tents to take in the scene.

Reuben, the hirsute master armourer from the Orite guilds, leads his journeymen as they sharpen swords, hammer out dents in armour and generally tend to the thousand worked items that keep the Legion dangerous. Reuben raises his eyes, swipes sweat from his face and nearly-bald pate as he approaches. But already, Bianca’s eyes are on the Chosen, and she can see it even as the blacksmith says it himself. Her hammer sounds different . Someone, she thinks, is going to wear armor worked by a Chosen.

Reuben nods as she approaches, no interest in military hierarchy from him, and after his voice is drowned by the loud ringing of metal on metal, seems to start mid-sentence,

“…upside is she is a marvel, and her work extraordinary. But my boys cannot work around her, Nessuno, they stammer and faint like monks at a haydance.”

As she steps into the fort’s smithy, where the raw heat has the pair of well-muscled smiths stripped down to the waist, Bianca sees Zora, perhaps moved by the general tenor and energy, has broken her general isolation, wielding a riveting hammer against a silver-etched breastplate.

She laughs in delight at her work, “Again?”

The journeyman smith behind wipes off his brow, look of awe on his features, and whistles, “Please, Chosen.”

Zora nods, her own brow fairly free of sweat, and lifts the hammer again and brings it down in a double-tap motion, before lifting her gaze to look at Spite, arm lifting and falling again.

“Bianca,” she greets, “I am being shown the new techniques of armour-making.”

"So I see!" Bianca calls back to her, smiling broadly. Then she pivots back to Reuben and, much more quietly, asks, "Is this putting us behind?"

Reuben does his best to match her tone, his usual bellow modulated to the volume of a man drinking at a crowded pub.

“Not as such, I suppose,” he ventures, “Not so far.”

He glances over at a shining helmet, bright and gold, in a peculiar Zimyati style, tapering to a long point and with chain like a veil.

“But I am not sure how long I have this smithy at my disposal, Nessuno, and I do not wish to waste it on a whim. It is… for you to say.”

She gnaws her lip a moment, squinting past the blacksmith’, out into the remnant fortress, the soldiers, the followers. Then she puts a hand on his shoulder, keeping her voice lowered, still.

"I shall see what I can do. How many pieces has she done? Once she departs, gather them all and you and Savrelli are to bring them to my tent and put them into security. No matter what the pieces, understand, Reuben?"

She claps his shoulder, straightens, turns to watch the Chosen at her work. She waits until Zora has paused, or finished, before speaking.

"Chosen? A moment of your time, if you would?"

Reuben seems to ease from Spite’s casual contact, and nods. Zora, in the background, finishes some fine work, and blows some red, drying paste of an area surrounding the panel she has been hammering. She leans over and scratches away with her thumb, and then nods.

“Certainly, certainly,” she calls, slapping the journeyman on the shoulder, and then puts him bodily in front of a smelter, placing his hands on a bellows. The man nervously pumps, and Zora leaps over the table between them, dusting off her hands.

As they step away from the forge, the Chosen’s voice is gentle enough, but she has the trick of projection, and Spite can make out every word.

“What is in your thoughts, Bianca?”

Bianca makes her way from the blacksmiths, directing her feet to the heart of the camp, noting from the corner of her eye the effect the Chosen’s passing has on all around them.

“Nothing,” she admits after a dozen steps. “Not a thing, only to get you out of the forge so they’d stop stammering, stuttering, and swelling at your presence.”

She shoots the Chosen a grin. “I can’t tell if you don’t see it or if you don’t care, but by your very presence you can get these soldiers falling all over themselves. Right now, it’s neither good nor ill. Well, no, it leans to the good. But perhaps – you’ll forgive my boldness – you might wish to… be a little more judicious in how you share your presence.”

The Living Sword listens as she walks, and there is surprise on her face.

“More… judicious? You question, then, the exercise of my judgement?”

She tilts her head, and looks into Bianca’s eyes, “I am Zora Unconquerable. I judge all that do battle. Like the smith, I sift the iron into steel, like the quartermaster, I discard the broken and exalt the pure. If they cannot do their duty in my presence, how will they respond when a Broken tests them?”

She looks into Bianca’s smile, and laughs.

“You are bold. Bolder, perhaps, than your Commander, if more cautious than your Marshal. And you know your people, as a general should. But you must be ready for me to test them, or they are lost.”

She offers her hand to the Orite general, “But all things have their time. You may sow, before I reap. I will… be prudent, as you petition.”

23 Rabbit 844
Grasping Storm is still ongoing. We have received no word. The camp is functioning, but barely. I hear the Specialists shouting at all hours, the ring of blades, the bustle of labor. The forges have been fired nonstop, weapons and armored repaired. I had a conversation – I use the word loosely – with the Chosen a few days past when I went to check on Ruben’s progress and discovered her amongst the smiths. Her presence runs the risk of taking us off schedule. She, in turn, sees it as honing the fighting force. She applies the whetstone in the wrong place; the smiths are not part of the Legion, but rather are attached, laboring at our behest. If she inspires them, so much the better. But damn me if she takes us off schedule. We have little enough as it is; I do not wish us to lose more due to her fancy. I cannot imagine that any Chosen is like us, they have their needs and drives and desires, I am certain. Hers, I am told, is to kill the Cinder King herself, and bless her if she finds the opportunity and means, and fuck us all to hell is she is Broken like the rest. But in her eyes there is zealotry, and it tells me she does not care whose blood is spilled to achieve her ends. She worries me, and I would be a fool if she did not.

The Council
In the central square, there is a square of sand set out with a green rope. Lubovyena stands to the side of it, drilling the Grinning Ravens, instructing Sabbatini on the finer points of swordcraft as the other rookies strike and parry in sequence. Her strict tone curls the man’s toes even as he struggles with the placement of his hand on the grip.

Dmitri, emerging now into the day, squints against the brightness and, shaking off a caffeine headache, watches on. KA-TANG! Fang slaps Baronet Giulia Sabbatini’s sword out of its arc, protecting herself from the Rookie’s slash.

“Keep up your footwork!” the Marshal barks at the recruit. “If you’d been quicker, you would have been able to get at my legs, at least!”

Sabbatini was frowning, her lips pursed as she strained to try and take a point off her instructor. Out of the corner of Fang’s eye, she notices the newly arrived. When she turns her attention back at Sabbatini, the rookie makes her move. This time the Baronet is fast. In a bold maneuver, the rookie grabs Fang’s sword arm with her free hand, and she steps in and keeps her steel close to her own body, ready to win the bout.

Fang drops her training sword from her main hand, and catches it on the blade with the mailed fist of her off-hand. The Marshal then simply trips the Baronet Giulia Sabbatini of Or with the cross guard of her sword, who falls flat on her ass. Hand clasps hand as Lubovyena helps Sabbatini back onto her feet. The practice sword gets thrust into the dirt, where it is left swaying as Fang turns away from the stunned student without looking back.

“Expect the unexpected,” the Marshal offers.

A call goes out, from the crow’s nest, and at first, it sounds like the Hanged Men are returning. A few moments later, the call is countermanded, and the camp is advised a small number of strangers are on their way, but under Legion colours.

The usual procedures are conducted as the Council goes to greet the small and humble wagon. It is flanked by two of the Hanged Men dispatched with Raffaele, and has three passengers – a man, a woman and a child, but clearly not kin. The child is dirty, blond and dressed in white robes. The driver is dressed as a peasant farmer, but has the hands and build of a man who works indoors.

It is the woman who is impossible to fit with the chickens and clay pots that surround her. Tall and fair, dressed in religious robes of ermine and expensive dies and marked prominently with the symbol of Asrika the Benefactor, gold chain and jewels on her hands and neck. She has an aura of assumed superiority, and all in all, her appearance suggests she should be greeted with pomp and ceremony, with kneeling crowds begging for miracles and doing homage.

“May the powers that choose bless and keep you, captains,” she inclines her head, “We are the Most Beneficent Shara. We have been offered the protection of your guard, to shield us from evil on our path.”

Her eyes scan around again, as if doubting their ability to deliver on this promise. A few soldiers - mostly Bartans - draw a little closer, and she makes a casual benediction.

“The Church of Mercy thanks you for your compassion.”

Fang has peeled off her mailed gloves and hung them off her belt by the time she reaches the newcomers.

“Marshal Zinovia Lubovyena,” she says, offering her hand to the Most Beneficent Shara. “But most people around here call me Fang. Welcome to the Legion of the Remnant. Three more mouths to fill, but it seems we are missing a few expected faces.”

The Marshal takes a deep breath, apprehensive that the worst possible outcome has become reality.

“Seek out Quartermaster Spite, so she can get you situated. For now, you will have to excuse me, but I need to debrief my men. We will speak later.”

Fang starts walking off toward her command tent, but not before calling out and waving at the returning Hanged Men.

“Bahasa! El Sayed! Report to me immediately! I need to know about the Specs and the rest of your fist!”

The Most Beneficent Shara has the face of a saint, and age maintains her graceful, patient, caring smile through the Marshal’s introductions. She cannot entirely restrain the involuntary tightening of her knuckles, however, when the hand, still sandy with duelling sand, is cursorily proffered.

She dismounts from the carriage, child Mercy close by their side. She makes her way towards the small Bartan crowd, gifting out alms and asking names and hopes with the politician’s quick knack.

Spite has been sitting at the work surface she calls a desk, which is not a desk but rather a repurposed shield some thirty years out of service, once used to protect a chariot, or so the legend goes. Inverted and set on saw horses, it does the job. She checks her math.

“And then she offered me her hand,” she says. “Bloody offered me her hand, as if we were shaking on some agreement, and did I say to her, listen, Chosen, I understand you’re Chosen and all, but culling my fucking blacksmiths isn’t, actually, going to help us survive . Did I say that?”

She totals, underlines, sets down the quill.

"I did not."

She looks to Taisa, the girl sitting beside her cot, knees to her chest, chin on her knees. Storm dozes beside her, head on her feet. Curly dozes beside Storm. Neither dog is truly asleep, eyes half-lidded.

“When did you last eat?” she asks the girl. Taisa shrugs. Bianca sighs, heaves herself up, moves to fetch some jerky from her own store. She tears a chunk, rips it into three. The largest she gives to Taisa. Storm and Curly eagerly begin chewing on the smaller bits. She pets the girl’s hair.

"Eat," she murmurs. To her relief, if not satisfaction, Taisa does.

Then Spite hears the carriage outside. Curious, she moves to the rolled back flaps, watches the unfolding show with interest, and comes to several conclusions. Her eye lingers on the girl in the Mercy’s robes at the woman’s side, unbent, unbowed, and possibly unused. Which begs the question if the child is indeed a Mercy at all, she thinks.

She watches as Fang directs a man toward her, and he makes his awkward, gangly way across the square. The priest reaches her, nervous, sweating, and so out of place she is almost inclined to offer him a mercy herself. Then he opens his mouth.

“Quartermaster… ah, Quartermaster…,” the man clears his throat, “Did I truly hear that you are called Spite?”

"General Bianca Valentina Storace de Nessuno of Or," she says, by way of answer. "Spite is my war name and we are, as you know, Loyal One, very much at war at the moment."

He sighs, his fingers twining and untwining, “Apologies, soldiers have their ways, I am sure. I am Always Loyal Diabon, son and servant of the Church of Mercy. I am told you will arrange my lady’s accomodation until Plainsworth.”

“And, lady general, if I might suggest… Her Eminence prefers feather pillows, a white wine, perhaps some rosewater, a silver razor, scented candles, and fresh bread with olive oil.”

The tall man pulls on the cloth collar, and scratches his neck, “And speaking for myself, anything in a halfway civilised fabric, I would appreciate it.”

She listens, and for a moment considers ushering him into the tent, but decides against it. She nods. She listens. She nods. She is silent for several seconds, then, just staring into the Loyal One’s eyes, trying to determine if the man is staggeringly naive, or stupid, or – most charitably – simply in shock. She lets her gaze slip past him, to the Most Beneficient, now working on a couple of the Laughing Ravens. The smile never reaches her eyes. She avoids getting too close to them.

She looks back to Diabon.

"We are an army at war and preparing to march shortly, Loyal One," she says, not unkindly. "And if your party is here, your party is here because the same cruel fates have befallen you that have plagued us all. There will be no feather pillows. There will be no white wine. There will be no rosewater. There will be no scented candles, nor fresh bread, nor olive oil. I can provide a razor, it will be steel, and will need to be sharpened."

She pauses. "I tell you this not because we would deny Her Eminence – nor you, Loyal One – such things, but because we simply do not have them to provide. What we can offer is some measure of safety, some measure of security, food and drink that will nourish, though perhaps not please, and the protection the Legion can offer. These we offer gladly, and I hope you will receive them graciously."

She pauses again, gauging his reaction, "I will see to accommodation, and I will do my best to billet the three of you together. Separate accommodations are impossible, though the Commander may see it fit to offer Her Eminence the use of his tent."

She starts to turn away, stops.

“I’ll see what I can do about finding you a shirt.”

The Most Loyal Diabon’s fishstare gets blanked and wider as Bianca speaks, but the man is, whatever else, no idiot, and he closes his jaw, nodding to show he at least hears the words.

“I understand, General Nessuno,” he attempts to put a hearty warmth in his voice, but it is mostly a tired emptiness, “And let it be known the Temple appreciates your kindness, especially given your… constrained resources. Generosity is blessed, even more favoured by Our Lady from those with little as much as from those with bounty.”

He glances over her shoulder into the tent. “One more matter, if you will, and then I shall take no more of your time.”

He gestures behind them, towards the small crowd, “Perhaps a guard could be arranged for the Blessed Vessel? She is innocent, and in a camp, and it would be too easy for her instincts to lead her to… offer her purity and her holy gift inappropriately, in response to some camp follower’s tragic tale.”

Diabon pulls a ring out of his pocket, pure gold, and offers it to Spite, “We understand generosity as well, General, and like yourself, there is that we can offer, and that we must not.”

Bianca looks at the ring in Diabon’s hand, smiles slightly, shakes her head. She reaches out, closes his fingers back over it.

"What we offer, we offer because that is who we are, Loyal One."

She smiles a little more, lets her hand drop. She looks past him, to the girl, following in Her Eminence’s footsteps.

“I’m not sure I understand, Most Loyal.” Her brow creases slightly, genuinely puzzled. “Surely you and Her Eminence act as her guardian?”

Diabon shakes his head, “In the sense that the Most Benign is the mother of all orphaned children, of course, but she was one of several Mercies dedicated and sanctified for the protection of the Karl’s royal line and his court.”

His face falls with some specific grief breaking through the general, “She was attending the Cathedral, finalising her training as a Mercy, but her brothers, sisters and protectors were lost when Karlsberg fell.”

“Like all who are so touched by compassion and empathy that they can change the world of flesh with the power of spirit, the Mercy cares… too much. It is her instinct to heal, and help, when discretion is also needed. I could watch her, but hoped to focus my time on reaching out by missive to see what remains of the Temple in Aldermark.”

Bianca takes this in, considering, then nods.

“Once we have you and Her Eminence billeted, I will see about care for the Mercy. But this is a soldier’s camp, Most Loyal, and you will find pain is as common as dirt here, I fear.”


#30

And that ends the second mission! Long haul to this point, for players and readers (if any).

The Campaign Actions and so on will come up over the next few days.

This is my first time sharing a game with a broader audience, mostly because I can take advantage of the fact its already all written down, so please provide any feedback on whether this is the right sort of game information to be sharing, or if there is anything else you’d like to see or know, or any etiquette I’m missing!


#31

Field Report for Operation Grasping Storm

Since this was a secondary mission along similar lines, I was thrilled to find @Duan’s Book of Calonya and… borrowed… wholecloth.

The mission objective was to make contact with the Aldermani resistance and seek actionable intelligence, and ideally, an alliance. At the Lady Marshal’s command and following the Commander’s strategy to avoid direct engagement with Stormbreaker’s blockade along the Imperial Highway, Specialist Laghari was given command of Scout Koylat and the Scarred Lions. The Quartermaster provisioned the warhorses not embedded with the Hanged Men.

While Koylat was there to find the trails, this was clearly not intended by the Council to be a mission of stealth or speed – the dispatch of the Scarred Lions, the pride of the Legion, standard-bearers under the command of Specialist Laghari, on the Legion’s last remaining heavy warhorses, underscored that point. Koylat had established some local contacts, and while these provided useful early intelligence, by the time the roads became goat tracks and the towns had become at best villages, the locals were deeply hostile. Most fled, but those that could be found were still unwilling to cooperate with an armed force flying an infamous Imperial banner.

Moreover, it seems this unwillingness did not pass in both directions. In a historical irony, in is the village of Lionsbreak, the site according to the Annals of a Shattered Lion’s stalemate against the proto-Aldermarni some centuries ago, that the band were confronted by an overwhelming number of bandits. The first attempts at diplomacy crashed against enmity and greed. Koylat barely managed to convey that the group was Legion before they were was attacked.

The fighting was fierce, and Knight Orlando was gravely injured before the Lions were pacified by superior numbers. Unwilling to treat the group as anything other than deserters from the Eastern Alliance, Hemmel Brauchhell, a sour-faced one-eyed figure, proclaimed she was willing to pressgang Lagheri and the stronger Bartans, if they could prove their strength of will by killing their erstwhile comrades, but the scavengers could not feed this many useless ‘Imperial’ mouths.

Hansika refused to turn on her fellows, and annoyed by her defiance, Hemmel slew her. When Hemmel attempted the same approach with Laghari, the Heavy took her head in a single exchange. Laghari asserted that this was sufficient to show strength, and the Lions were escorted – tied up and at spearpoint, but alive – into the mountains.

image

Hemmel’ “fortress” was a series of honeycomb caves, with perhaps four score fighters guarding the passes. Despite their officer’s airs, trenches were not dug and defences had not been constructed in a proper military manner. Slaves were held in cages, mostly attractive men and women of Eastern descent, and offered to fighters as rewards. Bartans were most popular.

Representatives of other credible partisan bands were invited for discussions – the Xerquelets, the Hristovsi, the Jordanova Eight, the Alderyansti, the Poberits, Kola’s Bold - and until their arrival, the Legion were given the freedom of the camp, though escorted at all times.

The Lions argued over how to carry out their orders from here, and what if anything to do about the slaves. Frieta wished to free them, but was persuaded by Sabattini to wait. Sabbatini used this opportunity to gamble and drink with the partisans, earning their trust and friendship and determining the stakes of the meetings ahead. The partisans, she observed, are mostly light mountain troops, and their numbers could be anywhere between a hundred and five hundred, depending on how you count. They use a unique kind of musket, adapted to wet conditions but with shorter range, and have little access to blackshot or Orite weapons, scavenging supply from the living and the undead. More a loose network of small bands than an army, the line between combatant, camp follower and informant is blurred to the point of being eradicated, with only the distinction between Aldermani and slave mattering.

image

In this environment, ability to gather troops or give orders is driven by ability to offer food, slaves and gunpowder and above all else, a desire to be attached to the personal legend of a ‘hero’. In this the ever-shifting morass of feuds and alliances between these ‘heroes’, Hemmel, it seems, was a chief rival of Darius Xerphenon amongst the partisans – apart from personal loathing, they fought over Hemmel’s banditry and slaving, and over Hemmel’s xenophobic rejection of the Eastern Alliance. After the defeat at Ettenmark, Hemmel’s star had been waxing, but with her death, the Xerquelets were clearly the richest and most influential, and their leader, Darius Xerphenon, had a unique opportunity to consolidate power at the upcoming meeting.

Sabattini also discerned a strange behavior amongst some of Hemmel’s slaves. Not anything as cogent as a conspiracy so much as a rash of reported blackouts, some medical supplies in their care disappearing and minor but unexplained injuries. Once the guests arrived, a great feast was opened with devotions by religious ceremonies to the gods of hunting and horses, followed by duels of honour to settle grudges and then… politics. Sabattini arranged for Laghari to attend as the “slayer of Hemmel”, Koylat as her aide, and dressed her up in accord with Aldermarni aesthetic preferences, before returning to her carousing amongst the lower orders.

The self-proclaimed King of the Mountains proved a dashing figure, all braggadocio and style, his personal guard forgoing subtlety in exchange for highly colourful uniforms and tricorn hats.
image

In the opening bouts of the honour duels, he and his allies killed six men using a pair of daggers, and Sabattini discerned that the sensitivity of his ‘honour’ seemed to match closely with which leaders might prove obstacles to his consolidation of power. Nonetheless, an old Aldermani scion of a founding family, Jordan, was too polite to create any opening for a misadventure, and held firm on the need to resist alliance with ‘Imperials’ and to retain the traditional right of fighters to war slaves. He offered to join the Xerquelets, but only if Xerphenon renounced the Legion and sent them home that night.

Xerphenon proposed a toast to cement the bargain, but Sabattini burst in, knocking the glass from the leader’s lips, declaring the slaves had poisoned the wine. On being exposed, several of the slaves attending the dinner launched into a vicious attack on the guests, and stranger still, several partisan leaders joined. The traitors fought with kitchen knives and swords and bare hands with equal desperation, in juddering frenzied motions, and in every case, they fought to the death. Even more disturbingly, during the battle, their faces turned from confusion, to panic, to tearful begging to be killed. They were overcome, in no small part to the Specialist’s contributions, though Frieta and Koylat were injured in the fighting. In the aftermath, Xerphenon swore a life debt to the Lions, and he loaded them with gifts of gold and silver. The partisans agreed to suspend the practice of slavery at least for the time being, and to make common cause with the Legion. The bodies of the frenzied were examined, and the only common factor was strange hexes -marks similar to Bartan sigils of the Temple of Sea and Sky- carved into the shoulders or backs of the dead.

25 Rabbit 844
Grasping Storm is completed successfully. Contact with the Partisans has been established, and guarantees of their assistance have been secured. What we will do in this theatre with gifts of gold, jewels and silk, I am not entirely sure, but perhaps Plainsworth will provide an opportunity to dump it for something useful.


#32

TIME PASSES/CAMPAIGN ACTIONS

Advance or not to Advance?

Evening cuts the sky, and evening shifts stand-to, rotating posts. The meal is prepared. Soldiers eat.

Bianca has dispatched two of her "helpers" to clear and clean rooms within the keep, doing what she can to provide fresh straw for the bedding, having the rooms aired and swept as quickly as possible. She makes certain pitchers of fresh water are provided, and bowls, and yes, not one but two steel razors, each of them sharpened. She has Her Eminence and the rest of her party’s meals brought to them.

And then the raven comes. She takes the note from its leg quickly, restoring it to its cage and seeing to its feeding. She hates this moment, the moment before reading the message. Not knowing is better than the moment before the answer. It is in this moment that the apprehension, the childhood fears, all flare in the stomach. What is the news? Good or bad?

The news, in the main, is good.

She drops what she’s doing and runs to Gorgeous’ tent, lamplight fighting back the sunset within.

“It’s done. They did it. Taidos is dead. They’re on their way back. De Deori adds Cassera in quotes, may have some significance. I’ll dig into the books tonight, but other than her tragic death, not seeing an immediate connection. May not be one. I’ll let Fang know the news.”

“Cassera” is a fairytale figure, somewhere between Sleeping Beauty and Juliet, from very ancient stories of the Empire’s earliest days. In some tellings, she is the daughter of an Imperial general, and in others, she is one of those infinitely marriageable beauties married to said general. In either telling, she is known far and wide for her music, grows sick from a mysterious illness that prevents her from playing, and several heroes quest to find a fruit that will cure her. Most are knocked out by trials of skill or virtue, but one finds something in the far west…

Dmitri leans on the table, letting loose a briefly puffed sigh, before straightening and running his hands through his hair. He smiles wanly.

“Good. That’s good.”

His smile drops away, “I’m sorry to hear about Taidos. A fine soldier, and a sad loss. But still…one casualty against that thing.”

He pauses. "We can stand proud on that, Bianca. We can stand proud on that.

He mumbles something to himself, Spite realizing that it is likely unintentional, on the cusp of hearing. We have to do better next time.

Looking at him, Spite realises that Dmitri is at least a day unshaven, has lost more than a little weight. His cheekbones are contrasted against his face. Always slender, he is hardening into something sharp. Glancing up at the Quartermaster again, he gestures to a chair.

“I spoke to the devout who have joined us. They were aware of him, you know. They said we had thrown our men away in facing Mihkin. That none could stand against the monster. Yet, here we are.”

The Commander shuffles some papers on his makeshift desk, clearing space.

“Please, sit. There’s something else I want to discuss, if you have some time, particularly if you are diving into the archives.”

Bianca holds in the opening. The lighting in the tent is feeble, and it’s not, she realizes, because of the in-between hour. The new Commander has been burning the candle at both ends. She steps in, nodding slightly, digging into a pocket for her matches. She uses them to relight two of the candles that have gone out, rather than burned down, moves them to the table before she sits.

“I’ve some minutes. A couple things to deal with. Need to figure out how to babysit the Mercy they’ve brought along, amongst them. Did Her Eminence decline the offer of your tent?”

Dmitri chuckles.

“In truth, I think she took one look and decided that a cleanly scrubbed room, however simple, might be preferable to…whatever I’ve done…to the finery. I’ve told her it’s hers if she wants it, with my compliments. Maybe she’ll make me move out after a night in this place.”

He smiles again, “I used to keep my own billet immaculate, damn it. But then, you know that.”

“I can have someone assigned as an aide,” Bianca says. “Might be tight until we get more boots but someone to help out isn’t outside your remit, you know that, right?”

She runs a hand through her hair, extends her long legs and sags back in the seat.

“Her Eminence worries me. Putting her in a room makes it a tad easier to keep an eye on her.”

Reaching into his pile of papers, the Commander produces an old map and slides it across the table.

“What do you know about the Balne Brewery?”

Spite looks at the map, idly worrying its edge with a fingernail.

“Nothing more than the beer was dark and good. Something about the water from the river, I think.”

She cocks her head, peering more closely at the marking on the map. “She marked it? The Stormbringer?”

“It’s Pale’s hand. It looks like an afterthought, but it’s not. See the impressions? Marked clean. There’s no droplets here, this isn’t an error. This was important to them.”

He knocks on the table.

Is important to them. And that worries me. It’s a nothing target…unless it’s not.”

Dmitri glances back to the wall of the tent, taking in the shattered battlefield he cannot see.

“I know we need to resupply, recruit if we can. There are too few of us. But with Mihkin dead, Render’s forces are scattered from our position. I imagine they’ll come for blood, but it’ll take a week or two. We could still mobilise in time to leave them empty handed, even if we stayed a few more days. If you think we can manage it?”

“I think if Pale thought it was important, it’s important,” Bianca says.

She looks from the map to Dmitri, meets his eyes. She knows she is hard on him, and has been hard on him, and she absolutely plans to continue to be hard on him. Going easy on him is pointless, and will get them all killed.

So it is with quiet emphasis that she adds, “And if your instinct is the same, we should definitely chase it. We can sit a couple more days. We’re good on food, and if what we got from Kolyat and the others can be trusted to hold for a week or so, we should be fine.”

And with that, it looks like the Legion are forgoing advancing to sit on the Western Front, and with the Quartermaster’s blessing no less!

Zora & Rafe
It was just over the full day from when they first set out when Officer Raffaele Orazio de Deori led the Hanged Men back to camp, along with the cracked armed, armour and standard of the fallen enemy general. The standard is a bone-and-silver, the lance still smokes and burns.

The call of their return interrupts the breakfast meal, hot eggs and fresh bread from the ovens. El Sayed and Bahasa – the thick and the thin of the cavalry – has been ignoring the meal, instead awaiting their return. They rush forth to embrace their fistmates. Moishe is soon crying, heavy manful tears pouring unrestrained onto Zaher’s shoulder, while El Sayed takes Taidos’ horse from Sable with a deep reverence.

Various soldiers come forward, to shake Hanged hands they had been avoiding as corrupted, to help Topaz gently unstick from the saddle he had bled into, and to gape at the scale of the Dread Rider’s armour. There is a collective exhalation, seemingly louder than a cheer could be. There is awe in the faces of the newer Legionnaires, but it blends with a sense of possibility. They are Legion. We are becoming Legion. Maybe… maybe… we can kill the unkillable. There is also the empty horse being lead back, the injuries. The price is not far from their minds either.

Zora moves around the edges of the scene, for once mostly unnoticed, and takes Mihkin’s helmet from the trophies. She lifts it, and looks into its eyes for a few moments. And then she puts it down, and puts her hand on the lance. The fire burns from its dull red to blue, and the Chosen has to lift the spear from its sling - a feat she accomplishes one-handed - so it does not burn the horse.

She tightens her grip, and the fire around her hand turns purple and then an intense white. It flames for a moment, and then the fire in the lance softens, guts and dies. In its place, there is a new fire in Zora’s eyes.

She turns to Rafe, “You have honoured the Desert Kings well, and put an old and tired soul to rest. Your name, and the name of the Hanged Men, is worthy of your Annals.”

She reaches out and touches his chest. A fire ignites by his side, his sword flickering alight, but it does not burn him.

“His fire is yours, Lord Orazio. You may not see this yet, but you have a story that is being told. If you wish to know more about how to face such holy powers, how to harness the flame, please come find me.”


#33

Camp, at evening

20 Rabbit 844
The camp grows, and not in the way we would wish.

We are petitioned for membership by a party of Panyar, invited by Master Gunner Topaz before he sustained his injuries, who are much the worse for wear. They’ll require rehabilitation and care to be brought up to anything approaching Legion standard, and that is if we take them on.

The matter was put to assembly, with Topaz speaking – well, I wouldn’t say “eloquently” given his very Panya turns of phrase, but passionately might suit – on their behalf. He is clearly influenced by speaking for his countrymen, that cannot be denied.

His declaration was countered by that of Radomir Iravirovich Drusa of the Ember Wolves. The argument presented was (and I simplify, but it boils down to this) “that the Legion needs to be strong.” Thus, he argues, the soldiers Topaz speaks for had failed in their strength on the field of battle – in other words, had demonstrated that they were weak – and their very presence further weakens the Legion. Drusa seems, in my opinion, to have attended a different battle. We all failed on the fields of Ettenmark.

The discussion is moot at this time, to be honest. Pending the disposition of Grasping Storm, still ongoing, I cannot even begin to determine if we have the resources to spare needed to rehabilitate these Panyar. I barely have resources to manage recruitment at all, and to be blunt, selecting from the dregs that inhabit the Western Front is like slogging through mud in full armor.

In the evening, the Legion, sans watches, cooks and those on mission, gather around the great hall. Taking advantage of the great hall, built for the grand generals and nobles of the Alliance army, the supply officers have hung the green and gold banner, and displayed Mihkin’s armour and lance on a longtable. Red wine is poured, the syrupy Zimyati kind, and glasses toasted and names cheered as Spite writes their names in the List of the Fallen. It is quick, compared to the even symbolically chosen names from hundreds lost in the past weeks.

After the memorial, the readings. Spite holds forth from one of the older Annals – a reading from the Year of Five Emperors, when the Legion served under the terrible Silence of Bythnia, and defended a besieged city for four years without speaking a single word. The Lorekeeper of the time was very expansive, perhaps in response to his limited opportunities for expression, and the passage is lengthy, but the Quartermaster does her best to turn the strange chapter of Remnant history into a story about duty and durance and the necessity of discipline.

Those not of the Legion are not generally welcome, but Zora is there, in the shadows. Dmitri cannot help think that she was already centuries old in the time of Silence, and that Mihkin, that Rafe killed today, was centuries older again. He pulls his eyes away from her as the reading ends, and takes to his feet.

“We are Legion,” he invokes, the words becoming habit, “And as a Legion we gather.”

Dmitri has shaved, at least, and his uniform is buttoned correctly. He guides the Council through the standing business, as the Marshal updates of watch schedules with the Lions on mission, and Dame Savrelli advises the progress of the stocktake. It is a quick affair, rarely taking longer than a quarter of an hour, and is expedited today after the length of the Reading.

Then Dmitri stands, “The Council opens the floor, for petitions and other business.”

To the shock of those not on the outriding mission, Topaz stands up. Though not exactly taciturn, the sniper spoke rarely in council, seemingly content to drift along towards the killing with the best intentions of his fellows.

Limping, he pulls himself to the front of the milling pack, and carefully removes his battered hat. Smooths his raggedy beard, ineffectually, before speaking.

“I hope thee bide right hearty, fam. Thou knowest I ain’t a lad for jawing overmuch. But I would slide a boon from thy mas and pas, if thee’d have me.”

He tilts his head and speaks on, "It were hard out there, in the Ettenmark. Not just for them as the sun went down on. Good folk, worthies, lost their bones or went wits-wandering. Not Legion, mind ye, but strong crew all a-same."

He gestures at his battered body.

“Pride of kill belongs to Taidos. But I stood, lonesome, at odds to the Dread Rider. Stood and saw true his face, and he mine. I’d blame no brother for spilling his belly-tea into his socks when faced with that, aye, and no sister neither. We were starred to best him, but there’s no sure bets in battle.”

He nods to his fellows, "It were a great deed we done. But we only found them as knew where Mihkin was because others - Panyar-kin, ye kennit? - stood long enough to see the yellow of their bellies and the brown of their fleeing backs. The true was broke, and the cowards scampered to swap curtsies in the dugout."

He spits on the floor, “Them as is kin humble themselves to Ol’ Topaz. ‘Tell thy fam,’ they says, ‘thy worthies, that there be Panyar who are down, but not out. Who’d come among thee’. I knowst we have but little to spare, and they’ll be bairns, half-starved and more than a little crazed. But no pretty knights nor grand magisters stood firm against our foe. What difference is the bastard flea to the gentle chigger? Give us some time, and I’d gauge my eye we could have some Legionairres among us! Aye! Who says thee nay?”

Radomir Iravirovich Drusa stood, and as he unfolded, the giant looked like he’d never reach his full height of seven feet. New blood of the Ember Wolves, he wore their heavy armour even now, as if it had no weight. Like most of the nomadic Drusa Clan, he had sharp features, dark hair braided down to his waist, nails painted red, and a family knife larger and less ceremonious than most Zimyati.

“I say nyet ,” he holds his head high, “Like Brother Topaz, I prefer actions to words, but would deny him, if it were mine to say.” “I too was at Ettenmark. It was my first great battle in your number, and I was proud to stand there alongside you and try to defend the living from the dead. And… it was a great battle. Many died, it is so. And many fled, it is so. Battle has one certainty, though, as every Zimyati knows. It tests.”

He breaths deep, and looks around the room.

“I am worthy. You are all worthy. You proved it. The Legion was reduced in number on the field, but brothers and sisters, I say it was blessed that day by the Living God.”

Eyes cannot but turn to Zora, but Radomir is looking at Dmitri, “A new Commander was chosen, one to lead with untold brilliance and strength. A Chosen of the Zimyati God witnessed him, and us, and came to stand at our side, shoulder to shoulder.”

He nods at Topaz, “Brother Topaz is humble, but in battle, he has killed dozens, perhaps hundreds, with his rifle. Today, it was not chance that took down Mihkin, but his presence, and the presence of others who stood at Ettenmark and thrived.”

He walks over to stand near Rafe, arms out wide, hands tight in fists, “And for that strength, the Swordfather blessed our Legion with a sign of her favour!”

“Some strong died, today and Ettenmark. And more at the battle were the mewling weak, and could never have withstood this war. And we who proved ourselves and lived, we were exalted! We have a rare opportunity here, my brothers and sisters, to be a Legion forged only from the strong and battle-hardened, small in number but unrivalled in stature!”

He turns to Spite and Fang, and salutes, “Please, generals, do not burden the reborn Legion with the weak, the lost and the mad. Forge us instead into a host of the great and strong!”

Marshal Zinovia Lubovyena’s eyes narrow slightly as she listens to Radomir’s argument. The giant of a man was strangely eloquent and magnetic during his speech, not what you would expect at first glance. Too bad Fang disagreed with the founding principle of his statement. The Marshal stands from her seat, and folds her hands behind the small of her back.

“You speak well, Iravirovich, and you are, of course, entitled to your opinion. But as I see it, mere survival is not the measure of a Legionnaire of the Remnant. One can do very little, yet still survive many battles. Living or dying is not the measure of a Legionnaire. It is the service that counts.”

Zinovia straightens up slightly more at the last sentence, as to accentuate her point.

“Berenike Taidos served for seven years. She fought valiantly during the Night of Frozen Stars. Led her battle brothers and sisters with honor and distinction. And on the day that was to be her last, she seized death and owned it. She turned her expiration into a bold decision to save her Fist.”

Fang lets her gaze wash over the congregation of soldiers. She sees the laconic Cobalt Dancing Lightning, leaning with one foot up against a wall, arms crossed. She sees Dame Mikila Savrelli and the taciturn Fleur Lombard of the Ghost Owls.

“We all die,” says the Marshal. “But it is the answers to when and how are what will ink your name in the legends of the Remnant forever. Nothing more. Nothing less.” Fang clears her throat. “Topaz Running Iron, Radomir Iravirovich Drusa, the Legion thanks you humbly for your words. The Council of Generals will now confer on this issue, and disclose our decision at a time of our choosing.”

Topaz paid off his Devil’s Bargain from the start of the last Mission. Some dissension in the ranks, and the first hint at a possible schism that could affect those all-important (and so far uniformly disastrous) Engagement rolls!


(A B) #34

Hey Rip,
It’s incredible to read such thorough and detailed report. It is Indeed the right sort of information to be sharing, and I wonder how you could do more, really! So thanks and keep on keepin’ on!


#35

CAMPAIGN ACTIONS

Following the fiction, the QM faced a dilemma with Campaign Actions. Clearly, a recruit action was both unnecessary (they had only lost three people) and, on the Western Front, undesirable (with the clock to rehabilitate the recruited) but equally, Topaz’ appeal had to be considered for its impact on the Legion’s morale and values.

To make the choice more balanced (read: difficult), I sweetened the pot by offering any Recruit action would include Prenza, a soldier with the Grenadier advance.

“Ma’am,” Raffaele’s voice came from outside the storage room, “If you have a moment…”

As she opened the door, she saw the officer in the company of the small troll that she glimpsed arrive at camp a few hours ago. The creature had at least washed since she saw him, layers of grit removing to reveal a small Orite with a bulbous head and cold, distant eyes. Bianca suspects its instinct rather than greed that has him glancing past her to assess their stores.

“I would like to introduce Officer- Alcheme Rigalemmo Prenza de Fiori, bodyman to the Principe Alphonse Medora de Fiori.”

“General, a pleasure and an honour,” the man takes off his hat, bows and flashes a remarkable smile of very white teeth.

“Prenza and his unit were essential to us finding the target in our last mission, ma’am, but have been… separated from their main force.”

The fact the Fiori main force likely no longer exists hangs silently between the trio.

“He has some surplus supplies, and given your affection for things that explode, Apajua thought you might want to inspect in person. It’s good Fiori stuff, and more expertly cared for and prepped than most.”

It also hung between them that assessing four or five blast satchels and a few grenades was well within the Bartan’s artillery officer’s general remit.

“Officer Orazio de Diori has been far too kind to this simple servant, general,” the man’s voice is courtly enough, but like knows like and Bianca can detect behind it are the edges of the Fiori gutters, “As has your Legion. The kindness of clean water and a meal speak volumes in these trying times. While I can’t afford to simply gift my supply to you, sadly… not with so few provisions and so far to travel home… I would rather they go to men like de Diori here and help in this war than go to waste.”

“Thank you, Captain. If you’d like to wait outside? Alcheme , a pleasure. Let’s see what you have.”

She waits, watching the small man’s manner as he unpacks and lays out the charges on the table, her attention entirely on him for the moment, the interaction between hands and eyes. The familiarity, the care, the comfort.

Those who work with explosives know two truths. The first is that they will kill you; the second is they’re waiting for the chance to do just that. Sappers either become comfortable with this truth, or broken by it, and how Prenza treats his - literal - charges speaks volumes. Only when he has finished laying them out does she give them her attention, an attention that has 27 years and at least one serious error to learn from behind it.

She takes her time before drawing any conclusions, content to let the man wait and watch, to let his eye range amongst the stores. She knows the explosives are a gambit. De Deori wouldn’t waste her time with what Apajua could do just as well. This is an interview.

As Rafe leaves, the small man unfurls his soft leather case of wares, and begins with some politely high-level questions aimed at gauging Bianca’s expertise and familiarity. Prenza is an alcheme, but no true alchemist. His knowledge of chemistry and alchemy match Bianca’s, but they fall far short of the lionised products of the Orite academies. He was instead likely a peripheral figure orbiting that universe, an apothecary or glass-maker before he was drafted.

Nonetheless, he approaches his tools like an scholar rather than a warrior - these are chymichal reagents he has studied, and which he knows happen to have explosive properties, amongst others, rather than weapons that an alchemist has made. There is care, and no fear, but more the practiced hand of a labourer, like a butcher with a sharp knife or a kennelmaster with an abused beast.

He is also, it seems, a salesman.

“As you can see, the blue finish is the proprietary stabilising property of the Fiori Guilds, and while I cannot reveal its full nature, it is aspected to the hidden moon and the element of earth. Still requires nuance, but substantially less likely to detonate in transit."

He does not lie, not as far as Bianca can discern, but he is seeking best price for valuable goods. He is also seeking, perhaps, something else. He takes out his small gold-rimmed lenses and examines some small vials - eerie blues and purples and greens - in the light.

“I have base compounds as well, enough to create perhaps several more such field grenades, but you would wish to ensure… and I say this with all respect to your artillery officer, having served with many such myself… that it was you yourself that mixed them, as these are highly concentrated, and the formulae are precise.”

He pulls out a pad of writing paper, “I could write out the process for you, if we do strike a bargain, general.”

Bianca notes it all, examining the array with practiced care before pulling out a chair and flipping it around to straddle it. She motions him to one of the stools, uncluttered with materiel.

"These are well made. The blueing was known to me, and in practice here, at least until recently. You prepared these yourself? And have used them yourself?"

The man nods his large head, and smiles, “I prepared the grenades. The charges and reagents were prepared by the Astrologer Superior of the Guild prior to Ettenmark, a most trustworthy provenance.”

His next answer is clearly of less pleasant reminiscences, and his voice goes quiet, “And certainly, I have held and counted and thrown, in service to the Meordani family and the Duchess.”

She takes in the man’s answer, considering him for several seconds longer in silence, before leaning forward on the back of the chair and grinning.

"So what is it you want , Rigelemmo Prenza de Fiori?"

When Bianca smiles, Prenza breaks into an awkward smile of his own, and thinks for a bit, elongating the silence.

“Your boy, he is a charmer. He gave me liquor and a laugh, and since then, a meal and a bath. And he killed the Dread Rider…"

"And he suggested to me, though not in so many words, I should return to active service, and was polite enough not to point out yours was the only opportunity to do for several dozen miles unless I wanted to sign on with Render.”

He laughs, “And I would not be adverse to seeking my own little revenge on the dead.”

He looks around the storeroom, “But I did not volunteer the first time around, and that was for one campaign of service. My first marriage, it did not take. And my service to my oaf of a Principe, I do not feel it to be all that binding. I am not a precipitous man, and I do not wish to volunteer where I am not needed nor wanted.”

Prenza shrugs, and smiles his flashy smile, “The thought of your Legion’s oaths, sworn for life to the contract and your fellows, above all others… it gives a man pause. What are the rewards? What are the pains? It makes him wonder the kind of people he would be getting into bed with.”

Bianca’s grin grows as he speaks. She nods, genuinely pleased.

"They conscripted you, like they did so many. They saw a man with smarts enough to their ends, and no more than those ends, and then they failed you. In your place, I would not want to be burnt twice."

She motions for him to put away the explosives, finds her pipe and pouch. She drops the pouch between them, gestures for him to take from it if he likes as she loads her own. She arches an eyebrow.

"And as for Captain de Deori, he knows how to talk to people, which is a skill an officer should have, and many do not. Better, he knows when to share a drink. That he brought you the long walk here says that you saw, at the least, the potential of a better opportunity."

She lights her pipe, shakes out the match, “We are the Legion, and there are oaths, and a contract, and tradition, and history, and all of it. And I love it, I do, and I admit it. I love it even now, even here, even with all we have endured. I’ve loved it for almost two-thirds my life. And like love, I’ve fucked and been fucked, and I’ve hurt and been hurt, and I’ve had all the rest of it, too. Not to seize too tightly on the ‘getting into bed’ metaphor.”

She puffs for a few moments, as if untangling memories as she looks at him.

“It’s an odd thing, to be Legion. To become Legion is a choice. But to serve is to serve in an army. And in an army, as you know, your choices can be very few. I don’t know if you’re wise as well as smart – I grant you the latter gratis – but you are smart wanting to know if you’re likely to follow a killing officer or a murdering officer.”

She shakes her head slightly. "I cannot convince you of that, and would not. As said, it would be your choice. What I can do is this."

She gestures to the bundled explosives. “We can negotiate a sale for what you offer. Your eye is quick, and I’ll deal fair with you, but you’ll not get me over a barrel. We’re in a tight place, 'tis true, but it will improve, and I’ll not spend early. And if, perhaps, we say it takes two or three days to reach the terms we’ll now settle upon in this room, and if we say, perhaps, that you may take those two or three days to observe what happens here and perhaps see what the Legion is, well…dealing in explosives isn’t something to be done in haste. Would that suit?”

Prenza furrows his brow, “You are most direct for an Oritian general, m’lady.” And then he smiles, and takes of her tobacc, and after ensuring one more time his satchel is properly secure, lights up. “I look forward to further negotiating with you.”

Spite’s grin grows. “I am not an Oritian general, Alcheme . I’m a Legion one.”

In the end, Greg deferred the decision. With Morale in the mid-range, he only had the one free action, and the dilemma seemed acute. Since the Legion were not advancing, he had Prenza hang around until the next set of Campaign Actions. This gave him the chance to get his Specs back into fighting form, since they were very beaten around. Topaz was Harm 3, and everyone else on Harm 1.

He took a Liberty, to burn off some of the Stress Rafe and Sable had been tanking, and a boosted R&R was taken, burning up the Supply just won from the Secondary Mission and then some, which left only Topaz of the Specs with any residual harm.

Nights passed as the Legion waited on the Lion’s return, and the decision regarding the recruits was postponed. The knowledge that the Remnant would be waiting on the front diffused slowly through the ranks, and people settled in, some shifting from tents to quarters, others arguing about shift rotations.

Topaz, unarguably, rated his own room, and equally logically, was placed near the infirmary. Sable was thus a frequent visitor, the two dissimilar Panya working together on the task of finding ways Topaz could sit without agony. As of this moment, Topaz was slightly less itchy from his clean bandages, but very sore from the balms and potives, so it was quite gingerly that he eases into his stomach in his cot.

Sable washes his hands in the brass bowl, “Having seen what you did out there yesterday, old pa, I can’t fall back of the medical canards of ‘take more care’ or ‘don’t do that again’.”

The doctor starts to pack away his kit, “But I will say you are sun-blessed there is no infection so far. It will be weeks before you can sleep on your back, I reiterate, unless we march, no strain, and if we do, you ride in the wagon. If you want full mobility of your shoulders, we need to minimise scarring.”

After the doctor departed, the Panya gunner felt the frustration of being denied his hands. No whittling, no cards, no cleaning his rifle. No watch to stand, or bed to make. Only the slow passage of time. A little later, the heavy door creaked open, and Topaz looked up.

“Sawbo…”

Rather than the doctor, it was Spite’s permanent shadow, Taisa. The Quartermaster was not behind her. She was dressed in her dark dress, a small and simple outfit made from the same dark green as Legion uniforms. She stood there in the doorway, small hand around the handle, her dark hair falling over her face.

Topaz tries to smile, gently. Gentleness is uncomfortable to his nature, but only much in the way his hunter’s skills are - a precision nestled deep within the canny wildness, a life of painstaking not because of an inclination towards orderliness, but in spite of it.

The doctor was more like the sniper than he paused to consider. He thought the war of his instincts was his alone, was reconcilable. Topaz knows better. He has learned to live with his contradictions, with his divided self. The sun and the moon belong together but are forever apart. Dichotomy, though Topaz did not know the word, was essential to his backwoods philosophy.

He hisses back blood from between his teeth, so not to frighten the girl. Coughs a little, shakes his head. He cannot gesture with his hands, so he tries to let his smile send message enough.

"Come visiting, little dove? What bides you to a raggedy scruff like Old Topaz, eh?"

Taisa takes the words and tone as invitation enough, and whatever kept her hovering in the door passes. She shuffles in, her gait ungainly, her hunch keeping her head on a slight angle, but she smiles tentatively in return to Topaz’s expression. She does not say anything, of course, but there is a small sigh as she sits on the edge of Topaz’ cot, near his head so he can see her. Her malformations do not reach her face or her hands, both of which are those of a pretty child, and she reaches her small fingers to gently touch the side of the huntsman’s face, in a clear mark of sympathy.

In response to Topaz’ question, she gestures lightly as his back, his bandages, and then touches herself on the chest.

"Oh, nay," Topaz pulls his hands back a little, as carefully as he can.

"Nay, nay. Hold fast, dear dove."

As best as he can, Topaz raises a shaking hand forestallingly.

“There’s no red lash here so heavy this hunter can’t carry it lonesome. It’s mine own choosing that cut me up quick. Least of all I can do is bear up. I’d not ask thee to burden thyself.”

He smiles again, pats the bedclothes with the mauled crook of his hand. “Why don’t thee seat thyself, as a curtsey, and keep me company? Aye?”

Taisa pulls back her hands, but she shakes her small head vigorously and touches her breast again, not once but twice. When Topaz does not immediately concede, she sidles along to the indicated place.

For a few minutes, she listens quietly to whatever Topaz chooses to say, her eyes alert, taking it in, but even with his limited experience with younglings, the gunner can sense a growing distraction in her, an impatience. She looks to the door more than once, and wriggles in her seat. Wordlessly, Taisa walks over to where Topaz keeps his rifle, checks it, lifts it with some effort, and hobbles in small steps across the floor, preferring it to Topaz.

Topaz raises his curled hands and shakes his head again.

“Aye, that’s mine own, right enough.”

Recovered from Mihkin, it nevertheless bore the signs of ill use and the scars of the battle. Needing cleaning and care, before it could serve its purpose again.

“You ought lay that flat, dove. Neat as grab as viper by the tail as hold a shooter as them who hain’t the training.”

Taisa shuffles and points the rifle as best she can, taking in the ragged Legion emblem on Topaz’s stained surcoat, lying across the trunk in the corner of the room. Topaz hisses a long sigh between his teeth.

“I glean thy purport, right enough. I have my duties and thee have thine. I’d fain not rob thee of it, but for it’d shame me to cut thee, dove. Might as well tear a ladies gown to wipe dog mess from the gutter for the likes of thee to bear a wound from me.”

The girl scrunches her face, and hisses back, and pulls up her dress an almost inappropriate amount, flipping over the edge to show the symbolic pair of wings. Then she smiles. She puts the rifle down carefully, ensuring it is in its proper place.

She comes back and crawls onto Topaz’ humble furnishings, giving him a brief hug. She smells strongly of camphor and Black Earth, and up close, the lump of flesh on her twisted back is prominent. The contact, remarkably, brings no surge of searing agony.

She releases, and the pain returns - the Panyar has not been healed. But she entwines her small fingers with his, and where they touch, flickers of light lick out and around. A warm glowing light emanates from her eyes. Where she touches him, wrinkles and spots fade from his skin. Aches fade. The implication is clear enough - she is healing him, here and now, but he is free to pull away.

Topaz is about to draw his hands back when the sound of shots firing in the distance startles them both. He tries to jump from his bed, fumbling for the rifle, when he feels the wounds on his shoulders stretch, jagged spasms of agony wracking him. His hands barely wrap around the stock, and tremble.

They both hear the call a moment later. A furious corporal.

“ARKWRIGHT! I swear if you don’t CLEAR your iron when you lay it down on the field, Vassalios will have to fire it FOR you - by kicking you in the STOMACH because I will SHOVE it so far up your ARSE…”

Topaz places the rifle down, but as soon as he does, he totters and falls. Hits the floor, hard.

"POX-ADDLED GOATFUCKER!!"

Taisa stands above him. Silently, she raises an eyebrow. “Aye. Aye. Ye don’t need to go on about it.” He waves away the hand she offers to help him up, crawls to the bed. Once he’s lying back, he beckons her over.

“Thankee, dove. But I won’t have thee carry me. So we dicker, thee and me, aye? I’ll take thy help, right gentle glad of it. But though I know thee aren’t one for jawing neither, we must have a bargain. If you ever need Old Topaz, you get to hand one of the sentry whistles and blast firm. I’ll do for you, no question.”

He offers his hand, "Do we have a bargain?"

Taisa takes the hand, and shakes firmly, and there are free-flowing tears in her eyes. After that, Topaz can recall nothing until the next morning, when he awoke alone, his burns gone.

Two ticks from the boosted R&R removed the Harm 3, and Taisa removes his Harm 1, squaring away the Gunner for future duty. EDIT: Nope, wrong! Bad note taker. The R&R and Mercy removes the Harm 3, and the Harm 1 carried on until a different, later R&R.


#36

MISSION SELECTION

Western Front Missions Part the Second
Time has passed.

Several days after the Hanged Men returned, Frieta and the Lions returned with their story. Physical hex mark checks were introduced (everyone is clean so far) and health and morale improved. In that time, the Remnant are kept occupied with slowly growing hordes of the dead. By a week after Mihkin’s death, these feral raiders have started to be led by Alabaster Riders, lacking the proficiency of the ones that flanked the Dread Rider, but still more dangerous than the average wandering corpse.

Indeed, any reprieve for recuperation or socialisation would have been impossible, if not for the Living Blade, who, sleepless, spends much of nights wandering the area around the fort, slaying bands of undead.

While the Legion does not have a proper intelligence network, their scouts, some paid informants and some passing refugees illuminate some things – Mihkin’s forward camp has entirely disintegrated; Render is building a bridge over the Tiagra, presumably to move east; and militia forces from Plainsworth, on the other side of Stormbringer’s barricade, have attempted to clear the dead from their highway, but were unsuccessful.

Three missions of particular value have presented themselves to the Council for consideration:

Western Citadel (Recon)
According to scout reports, the Marquessa Herminia Machada de Deori, pistolero of the Deorian Free Company, has retreated to a distillery off the Imperial Road. Entirely cut off from retreat to Plainsworth, she has taken the local brewers under her protection and drinks herself into a stupor as her supplies and her bullets dwindle.

The Marquess is not the only person to show interest in the Balne Brewery, however, as troops belonging to both Blighter and Stormbringer were seen making exploratory strikes against the distillery. The mission is to travel to the distillery, exfiltrate the civilians, find out what the dead are after, and if you can, bring back something to drink.
Reward: +1 Labourers; +1 Specialist (Master Gunner)
Optional: One Liberty Action may be boosted for no Supply, if you in turn boost enough alcohol.
Penalty: 1 Rookie Death; +1 Time

You can see this is a Special Mission. I’d rolled one up on the mission count table and Robert spent an Intel to generate a Special Mission, so unsure of what the rules should be at the time of making the call, I just let them have both on the table but didn’t call this one a Special Mission. I’m pretty sure I did that wrong, but clarification would help. If you roll a 6 on the Mission Count table and the Commander spends an Intel, what is meant to happen?

Flying Tiger (Recon)
The alliance with the Mountain King has born early fruit. Along with the pair of promised guides through the mountains, Darius has sent intelligence. While Mihkin’s advance cavalry and mounted archers seem to have disintegrated with his death, a small group of heavy cavalry seem to have retained strategic sense and are traveling north-west at great speed. The partisans have offered to have the Legion alongside as they tail them.
Reward: +3 Intel
Penalty: +1 Pressure

Emerald Light (Special, Religious, Mercy Favour)
In the middle of the Tigeria, is the Sunken Cathedral, also called the Chapel of the Waters. Dedicated to Asrika, the Aldermarni face of the goddess Easterners know as Ostra, the power of healing and compassion. Before Render, this church-palace raised Mercies, and contained the world’s great medical library outside the Orite universities. Before the Godswar and the rise of the Orite academies of learning, healers of the Imperial Legions were trained here, and there are suggestions in the older Annals that certain secrets regarding life and death remain in their hands, secrets so potent they may even help with treating blight.

The Most Beneficent Shara is not especially enamoured with the idea of mercenaries stripping the sacred temple of relics and sacraments the Church has venerated for centuries, but recognising it is better than them being desecrated by the dead, she has agreed to provide the keys the sunken vault. If you can spare the men, a journey could unearth treasures and secrets, but remember, this is a temple deep in the shadow of Render’s army, devoted to a power adamantly opposed to the Cinder King.

Reward: +1 Mercy; +2 Religious Supplies (squares, not dots); The Book of Blood (Relic: Mercy aspected, powers unknown); +5 Victory Points at Skydagger
Penalty: None

Perfect harmony this time in mission selection, IC and OOC. The Cathedral as Primary; the Brewery as Secondary.


#37

FIST ALLOCATION

Fang slew the last of the White Riders, and though it shed no blood, wiped her blade nonetheless. She whooped a victory cry, and then nodded to the Chosen. Zora, surrounded by over a dozen Gaunt corpses, smiled back.

Guarded by the Marshal and the Living Blade, Leo Orpik and his Vipers shouldered his spear and returned to his horse, selecting several knives and vials. The man had been thin before Ettenmark, and now was emaciated, and his long hangdog face was hidden by a battered Orite mask with a snake-and-star symbol to the left of the forehead.

“So, Marshal,” he drawled, “I appreciate the exercise, and the samples.”

He kneels, and begins to cut open the thin skin of the Rider. There is a loud whistle from the chest cavity, as air escapes with pressure and Leo holds his face away from the release. He cuts off a sample of the flesh, and hands it to another Viper to his right.

“These particular specimens are different from Blighter’s work, the so-called rotters and silent surgeons. Indeed, I would suggest they are old , organs and muscle desiccated and blood evaporated long ago. I might speculate…”, he tears back a rib with a cracking sound, and feels around, “… that they are collector’s items, rather than anything the Cinder King created for this war.”

His hands continue to fossick, “Now, I understand the Council may be contemplating a sojourn to the Sunken Cathedral.” The heart, small and black, is removed, “Ah-ha, Doctor Gale will want this … where was I? Ah, yes, I also heard that the Laughing Ravens were being considered for the deployments. Would that be correct?”

Fang sheathed her blade as she folds her arms across her chest. She had anticipated this conversation from Orpik. If she were a paranoid woman, she would have been concerned about the leaks of intel, but Fang was honestly appreciative of the eagerness of her Fists to perform in the field. She liked the competitiveness. It draws out the best of the Legion.

“All Fists are always considered for any deployment,” says Fang. “Permission to speak freely, Leopolz.”

The Marshal smiles coyly.

“What is on your mind?” asks Fang, even though she knew exactly what was on Leopolz Orpik’s mind.

Leo looks up, the crumpled face on his mask looking at Fang, “Considering not only the traditional prerogatives of the Vipers of the Seven Stars, but also our qualifications and capabilities, I would like to volunteer our fist for this mission.”

He stands up, and peels off the black gloves, handing them to Theophilus. “I do not relish the danger, but the thought of the Ravens stumbling through libraries and guessing at what shiny things to grab…” He shudders theatrically, “Marshal, it is too much to bear.”

Fang squints and nods slowly in agreement at Leo, trying hard not to laugh.

"I will spare you of such indignities, Orpik," says Fang. "Ready your Fist. Deem the Vipers chosen for the task."

He salutes, and the Marshal imagines the man giving a rare smile beneath his mask.

Thank you, Marshal,” he says, “We shall indeed be ready.”

He turns and begins preparations for the return to camp. As he moves, Zora approaches Fang, and leans in.

“Do not underestimate the healing bitch. She may present as warm, but I know her. Her places of power are filled with secrets and lies.”

Zinovia absentmindedly rubs her jawline, smearing it with blood from a small cut she’d received in the furious melee earlier.

“Well, Blade Mistress,” says Fang —her voice a bit distant as her mind wanders— “I am glad we are sending our most inquisitive and discerning of falsehoods and trickery then.”

The Marshal stretches her arms out and then pushes her shoulder blades backwards, cracking her back while doing so.

“By the way, Zora,” she says. “At our next sparring session, will you teach me the form of that falling backhanded sword stroke onto one knee? I saw you use it to great effect earlier. Looks like a handy ruse to have.”

And then my quick “five minute” interstitial scene went way off-book.

Zora places her hand on Zinovia’s shoulder, “Child of two lands, daughter of war, I will teach you whatever I can, whenever I can. But know I have vowed to Bianca that I will not test your Legion too hard or too early.”

She draws her sword, roughly kicking a Gaunt out of the way, “And yet, I do think this is neither too hard nor too early for you. Why not now?”

It’s something about how Zora’s hand left Fang’s shoulder. The motion was a little too rapid, a little too deft. A tell left willingly, the Marshal would wager. None the less, the Marshal barely has time to dive and roll out of the path of the Chosen’s sword.

Fang has her own steel, Dancer, drawn by the time she finds her footing again. A smile smile cuts across her face. The Marshal replies with a lunge of her own, but plants her leading foot into the ground a beat too early, and switches attack her into an upward thrusting cross guard strike at the last second. The swords sing in harmonies not completely unfamiliar of each other.

When Oksanna Drubovna burst through the foliage and looked excitedly at the other Scarred Lions they knew something was up. She had a pent up energy about her.

“They are going at it,” she says, as if it explained everything. When the rest of the Lions didn’t pick up on it, Drubovna explains further.

“The Marshal and Zora are sparring!” she says. Then she turns and heads back from where she came, towards the sound of clashing steel. Baronet Giulia Sabbatini looks at Adav Rahj and says “Five gold on the Chosen!” before following hurriedly in the direction Drubovna had left in, Adav in tow.

Dancer clashes against Zora’s standard-issue blade, again and again and again. Sparks fly. The Marshal is a veteran of countless battles, countless duels, one of only sixteen recognized grand masters of the sword; Zora is… Zora.

Zora advances, making a colourful series of circular motions with her blade, somewhere between blows and feints, as Zinovia falls back, parrying some and dodging others. The attacks gather speed, Zora spinning her sword slightly over her head each time, and the clashes get louder and louder, all demanding parries now. The Marshal finds an opportunity for a quick thrust, and when blocked, deploys a favoured trick, extending her arm, sliding along Zora’a blade with a whirring steel-on-steel sound, before striking side-on with all her strength, knocking her opponent to the ground.

Zora rolls, evading the following jabs, and then rolls all the way to her feet, straight into a duelling stance, one hand behind her back. Fang recognises the Chosen’s new stance from her time studying at the Orite courts, readying herself for the following flurry of hard to predict moves. She retorts by adopting one of the more respected Zimyati contributions to the swordsman’s canon, Voyis Kariyevich’s infamous Kingfisher Stance. Why struggle to defend if you can simply attack?

Zora’s eyebrows go up, “Few have mastered Kariyevich.”

It is Dancer that responds for the Marshal. She deploys the unique skewering strikes of the style, reminiscent of the titular kingfisher’s use of its beak, each trying blow demanding that a longsword (or, reputedly, in Voyis’ case, a greatsword) be wielded with a precision usually identified with much smaller, lighter blades. Zora leans back from the angular thrust, and does not have a chance to bring her own style into play before the second strike tears open Zora’s shirt. The fists cheer.

“I knew Kariyevich.”

As the third and ultimate Kingfisher strike looks to land, Zora takes this moment to forcibly demonstrate the falling backhanded stroke Fang had inquired after, and with great effect, denting Zinovia’s armour and inflicting a blow that would have taken the leg off at the knee. The first flush of battle behind them, the two Zimyati renew their grip on their blades. The pair clash a few times, the clanging louder and louder, and then cross swords and push, Zora grunting as the larger woman drives her back. Zora twists, and Dancer slides wide, and the pair first crash into each other and then fly away from each other with great force.

“FANG-FANG-FANG- FANG -"

The Vipers and Wolves and Lions that made up the extermination party cheer. Some, particularly Vipers like Kranjaric, cheer their general, while Radomir and the more pious Bartans pray to their messiah. The pair wheel around each other, Zora throwing her blade from hand to hand. Fang falls into her defensive stance, two hands on the hilt and sword held high. Around the periphery, the wild flurry of betting has become fevered, and the odds fluctuate as the impromptu bookies try to find the ‘line”.

Rather than a guarded approach, Zora simply leaps, covering the yards between them in a flash. The Marshal parries, her feet grinding back inches, and then follows up with a sweeping waist-height blow. Zora flips over the blade, legs high, the silvery longsword inches below her back, and lands roughly on her knees, immediately punching the Marshal in the back of the leg, making it buckle and bringing the pair back to level.

Zinovia is forced to parry the first over her shoulder, and then she turns awkward, parrying left and right, and for the last blow, she is forced to block with her armguard, sparks flying off the metal plate. The pair have grown so close, Zinovia brings Dancer’s hilt into Zora’s chin, and then kicks hard into her sternum.

Zora slides back in the dirt, but rather than skid to a halt, somehow completely reverses her momentum. Body only a foot off the ground, she runs forward on her toes. She would give the impression of someone crawling under wire if she were not also swinging her sword ruthlessly. Zinovia realises if she could only deny Zora her parrying sword or her legs, the Chosen would fall onto her face, but has no chance to deny her either, catching a nasty blow along her foreleg, that would have been a cut if Zora had not used the flat.

A kick into the Living Blade’s face ends the advance, and she kips up off the ground using only her legs. The Marshal is already falling on her, mighty two-handed overhead blows drawing the last of her reserves, but Zora is parrying them one-handed.

The pair each combine strength, agility and cunning into a pinnacle of the art, and as they wheel around each other, the growing audience are breathless, barely able to keep up. As the fight has worn on, it is obvious to Zinovia, if not at all to the assembled soldiery, that for the first time in many years, she is simply outmatched. While she has held her own, and then some, she will soon tire to the point it is obvious to her men.

“The noise could summon the dead,” the Chosen smiles, “Enough for today?”

Zinovia considers the Chosen’s question for a beat. She wants to continue to fight for the love of the contest, victory be damned. But she knows that she’s pushing herself already, and soon enough, there will be gaunts and Cinder guard and silent surgeons, and they deserved her at her best.

The Marshal drops to standing on her knees. Lets Dancer swing out of her grip and rest on its cross guard between forefinger and thumb. She holds out her hand and waits for Zora to pull her back up on her feet, the customary way to yield in Zemya.

As Zora helps Zinovia back up, she is already turning to face her gathered Fists. She’s smiling and laughing as the gathered Legionnaires meet up with the combatants, cheering and laughing and congratulating them on their performance. When she sees the pile of money that had been tossed into an upturned helmet, Zinovia kicks the hardhat onto its side, spilling the gold pieces and notes.

“What is this shit?” says the Marshal. She gets out a “Whoever bet against me, latrines until Skydagger!” before she bursts out laughing.

“Alright, alright, everyone collect your winnings and get outta here before I report you all to the Commander!”


#38

RAFE & FRIETA

“… No song unsung, no wine untasted… But the tigers come at night…

As the singer’s tone turns from soft to resonant and insistent, Rafe emerges from his fugue with a start. He is awake, bottle in hand, only the dwindling campfire before him. A dozen soldiers are around him, all tearing up as the Bartan heavy sings from a popular Orite operetta. The details of his nightmare scatter from his conscious mind, leaving only exhaustion and ill ease.

With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame
…”

I’ve always liked the Knight’s Tale effect of taking popular music and using it to enrich a fantasy world, and in gaming, copywrite doesn’t apply. I didn’t mean to kick off a discussion about whether this meant the world was a post-apocalyptic future or a parallel universe, but I did.

Frieta glances over, and Rafe is sure she sees him find his bearings. Nobody else seems to have noticed, as he is hidden in darkness, their attention on their music.

But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather.
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed,
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

The song ends with some cheering, clapping, calls for another, but mostly eyes have misted, and people lean on each other or their drink.

“Alright, soldiers,” Rafe swings from his bottle, then stands, finding himself less steady on his feet than he expected, “We’re past curfew. Everyone to where they should be.”

There is a half-mutinous groan, but Frieta claps her hands together loudly and roars in a voice at odds with her singing.

“You heard the officer, grunts, and he wasn’t asking for a vote. Move it or loose it.”

The groans to do not cease, but they are accompanied by a slow shuffling away. Once they are gone, the Bartan warrior comes to stand beside Rafe, her big hand restraining him gently from moving on.

“Hey…” She pauses for a moment, always slow to pick her words, “You still standing, blueblood?”

He blinks at her, needing a moment. He offers her the bottle.

“I’ve had better wars. But your voice makes another campaign worthwhile, Frieta.” He sighs. “We are still standing. And marching. And fighting. And that is more than we can say for many.”

She takes it, and swigs. “We’re still standing. But I… two of mine aren’t, after last outing. You know the score.”

A pause. “I heard. It makes my stomach churn. We’ll do what we have to, but throwing in with that lot…”

She swigs again, and then wipes the bottle and passes back. “And… if I may, sir… you don’t have the look of a gent on his liberty.”

She thinks for a long minute, and then shrugs, “The partisans, they’re are like any of us, with good ones and bad, and a bunch in between.” She catches his look, “I just think… you can’t talk people into setting slaves free in a night, not if they aren’t halfway there already.”

“And I’ll say this for them. They’ve been in this war longer than we have, and they remember how to sing and dance.”

She swigs again, and then wipes the bottle and passes back. “And… if I may, sir… you don’t have the look of a gent on his liberty.”

That gets a slight chuckle.

That gets a slight chuckle. “Yes, well, there’s only so many bottles left.”

He trails off, shakes his head. “We don’t get liberty, you know that. Not yet. A few minutes to catch our breath, maybe the chance to laugh or cry, but we’ll be at it again soon enough. Otherwise we’ll never leave.” He shrugs. Drinks. Hands her back the bottle. “Finish it. We both know we’ve earned it.”

She takes the bottle, and then reaches in beneath her blouse. She pulls out one token, and then another, making a musical jingling sound before she pulls off a small medallion, and puts it in Rafe’s hand.

“Saint Manjusri,” the small reliquary is marked with a four-armed Bartan figure with a cloud over his head and a flaming sword in each hand. In the centre, preserved in a glass bead, is a single drop of dried blood, “He fights the demons of night, and protects the rest of the righteous.”

Raffaele takes the token, letting her lay it in his palm. Tilts it until the pendant drops, holding it by its chain in the dying firelight.

“It’s that obvious, is it?” he asks quietly. “I wouldn’t insult you by refusing. I know what it means to you.”

He looks her in the eyes, holding her gaze for several seconds, perhaps for too long. Then he drapes the token over his neck, tucks it beneath his shirt. “Thank you.”

Frieta smiles, a little shyly, and punches Rafe in the shoulder. Without another word, she nods, shakes the bottle at him as a gesture of thanks, and chases after the rookies into the night.


#39

INTEL QUESTIONS: AN AUDIENCE WITH THE POPE

The scent of patchouli lingers in the stale room, masking the still pungent scent of wood, wet and rough-hewn. Someone has lain down a carpet, one that Dmitri recognizes as Bartan weave, a crosshatching designed to be delicate to the walker above, but extremely hard wearing below. A rug for travelers in style and in state.

This she saved, he mused, knowing the road to come.

He bites back against his judgment. He does not know the Most Beneficent Shara, needs her. He bobs into a bow, careful to show nothing on his face but respect, confident in this, at least, he is successful.

A lifetime’s ingratiating, and a few days in command. Surely it cannot have killed the old instincts yet.

But there is something hard in his eyes when he straightens up, too. Not disrespectful. Just determined to treat as an equal.

“Domine,” he says, using his people’s title for the religious leader. “I had hoped to prevail on you for a moment.”

The Most Beneficent Shara seems familiar with the Zimyati term, and nods as she offers a seat.

“Commander Alexovich, please come in. We are your guest here. Tea?”

She places a kettle over the fire, and stands, looking down at it as she prods at the fire. “Now, how can the Temple help you today?”

Dmitri smiles, "That is the question, but it is to the specific, rather than the general, with which I am concerned today."

He takes the chair, and crosses his leg over his knee, knotting his fingers over it.

"The Watershed Cathedral. The Chapel of the Waters. I know the sanctity of the consecrated places, but you know there is a war on and that the hand of your faith has - thus far - proven one of the best functioning sources of both knowledge, and, where needed, power."

He raises a palm. "I need to know if there is any chance we could make use of what could be found there?"

She stops pouring the tea for a moment, and glances through lidded eyes across the table. “What do you believe in, commander?”

"I believe…in responsibility, Domine. I believe that the decisions we make form patterns, and those patterns give us opportunities - if we are looking for them - to understand ourselves better, and to do what the world is asking of us."

Her Eminence pauses and hands him a cup. "Some of us would call that destiny. What the world is asking of us."

The Commander sips his tea, and then shrugs.

"I would call destiny what the world has planned for us whether we choose it or no. I…find that difficult to accept. I have seen too many people who were given every chance to become who they were supposed to be choose…something different. And too many who have chosen to be more than anything we have any right to expect of them."

The Most Benificent Shara plays with a token from around her neck, “We do not think your view of duty and ours of destiny are so far apart, Commander, if you can accept that we cannot see as clearly as the gods, that the course is foreseen by those above us.”

Dmitri goes to reply, but the priestess holds a forestalling finger, “Normally, I would accord you whatever religious and philosophical premises you desire for the purpose of debate and, ultimately, mutual understanding.”

She sighs, “But this has gone beyond the abstract, beyond the saloon. There are powers, good and evil, cruel and kind, that walk the world, and the Cinder King has immanetised the eschaton, bringing all of them, every single god, into this physical realm at the same time, and forced them to choose between the light and the dark.”

With a snap, she reaches out and grabs the reliquary wrapped around Dmitri’s wrist, a standard protection for the Council, and holds it up against the one in her hand.

“Your kind speak as if it is a coincidence that our Temple is the source of great power against the darkness. It is… no… coincidence.”

She does not release his wrist, but her grip softens, and she leans in closer, so Dmitri can smell her breath, see her eyes.

“You know the holy of holies protect the faithful, cure the supplicants, drive back the darkness, but I have seen your Imperials act like you have reverse engineered this from field tests. They discuss their utility, but few discuss their history.”

“Our relics, they are each the gift of the goddess manifest, her panapoly, her blood, her flesh. They cannot be replaced, and will not come again.”

"And Flood burns, Domine. If these are the End Times, as some say, then all will be swallowed up in death and darkness. And if they are not, if what we choose or what is foreordained leads us somehow to victory – to survival– then what comes after will be something new."

Not taking his eyes from hers, he flings the teacup against the wall, smashing it in a shower of porcelain splinters. Shara flinches at the sound.

"The teacup breaks, Domine. Plain or storied, noble or base, of all things we might say the same: we shall not see their like again."

Camp stores, at least, he thinks, looking at the wreckage. Something to clear with Bianca, have mercy.

He extricates himself from her grip. "I mean no disrespect, your Eminence. To the contrary: if there is a time for what is holy to be called upon it is now . Because we are all called to account."

The Most Beneficent Shara cringes back, and Dmitri finds her grip slack before he takes his arm back.
“No disrespect?”

She laughs, and there is an edge to it, “Commander, if this were Karlsberg last fall, that would be a heretical act.”

The woman touches her head, rubbing the symbol of her god before returning the reliquary to its place.

“But you are right. It is not Karlsburg, because there is no Karlsburg. The sanctuary has shattered, and you may as well scurry in to sweep up the fragments.”

She stands, and dusts herself down, “Ask your questions, we shall provide you what help we can. And we will provide you the keys to the Tomb of the Blessed Merhiem. After all, if not you, Render.”

She looks down at Dmitri, “You know, we met Render once. Before his Breaking. He was a Zemyati too, and an Alexovich of Clan Czecha, much like you.”

Her face is tight, and cold, “He also had a penchant for breaking precious things to have his way.”

Dmitri is suddenly so tired. For a fraction of a moment, an infinitesimal fragment of time, the Commander wants to fall to his knees in front of the priestess, to confess and to be forgiven. To surrender and be made whole, to be given divine direction that he can live for, and with, and by.

But he does not, and with some will banishes even the thought of it. He keeps his face calm and his voice even.

"It is a large family, Domine. There are many distant connections."

He gestures to the shattered porcelain. “I’ll have someone come to clean this up, to bring you a fresh teacup. In the meantime, though, I would be grateful for your wisdom. How strong is the threat we face in plumbing the ancient vault? What would be useful for us to bring?”

Her face remains cold, and Dmitri has the sense that she knows.

“Given your Quartermaster struggled with a feather pillow, Lord Commander, we surely can wait until Plainsworth.”

She sits, and ponders the question, “The particular teacup you aim to smash against a wall today was built by the Most Benificent Magnus shortly after the Godswar, as both a monument to the Chosen Grundholt, who demonstrated that mercy is stronger than justice or memory, and as a symbolic tie between health and the river.”

She continues on, “It is, as a structure, half below the river line and half above. We are no warrior or strategist, but we imagine you will either need a boat that can carry you to the entrance, enough firepower to get you through the front lines, and my key,” and she puts the reliquary she brandished before onto the table, “or enough of the drug, Deep, to bring you to the underwater entrance I will advise you of.”

“The Cathedral has always been a place of great miracles, where the powers of generations of Mercies have been awoken. There is a writ of holy sanctuary inscribed in Grundholt’s blood above the altar. Until that is removed, the dead simply cannot enter.”

She smiles a cruel smile, “We so think Aleksandr will be furious to be held at bay, to be barred from somewhere as unworthy.”

“Which lies at the heart of your second question. We know it is a… large family, many distant connections. But you will have heard of the Order of the Black Oak?”

Dmitri nodded, feeling trapped, “The greatest knights of the Czecha Clan, the order that rode west to the Court of Lances with… the Unbroken Shield.”

“As was,” Her fingers form into the shape of a tree, and then melt, “And when he Broke, and your tree was smote, did you know they held that chivalry demanded they hold faith, even with a fallen god? That they returned to Zemya, and slew your clan fathers, and carved lances and knives and shields from the dead oak?”

She nods slowly, “Of course you know. Not such a large family any more, relatively speaking. And, Commander, the knights are not his undead servitors. They live . And they still serve. Irag the Flagellant. Zenya of the Sable Arrow. Quick Demiter. Nasha the Eaglebearer. Ilya. Alyosha the Kind. Duke Stepavisk. The rest.”

“It is they who hold Karlsberg now. It is from their ranks he will draw those he has dispatched to the Church, to overcome its other defenders, to recover what he seeks and desecrate what he fears.”

“There are other defences” she waves her bejewelled hand languidly, “We are no expert in the Cathedral’s protections. But none will be as dangerous to your men as the Black Oak Knights.”


#40

A letter from Aleksandr Vasovich of Clan Czecha, father of the Unbroken Shield of Man, Incarnation of the Living God, on his Son’s Holy Chivalry, to the assembled leadership of the Clans of the Sixteen Trees

Brothers and Sisters,

Some of you have asked of me for such wisdom as I can provide about the son I share with the Living God, His nature, and the accomplishments and natures of those who serve him not only as sworn fighters but as paladins. These are fair questions, though I claim no special knowledge, and write only what I have witnessed.

It is known that Chosen come, and they go, but they do not stay. The pagans gods incarnate in flesh only for the task to which they are called, each Power wreathing itself in mortal flesh for one lifetime, and then returning to the distant and silent Heavens Above.

I cannot speak to the purposes of the lesser deities and their many Messiahs, but such is not the way of the one true god. In the dawn of man, the Living God forged seven vessels for his majesty, for he is seven times greater than any other God. These holy seven – the Sword, the Shield, the Arrow, the Steed, the Sail, the Song, the Scale – came to gift us the knowledge of their skills, how to forge, and sing, and measure, and fight – and ever since, they have persisted. When a mortal arises who better exemplifies their arete, and can better test the Zimyati people, the flame of God transubstantiates from one flesh to another in a perfect line of succession.

This is not to say the Chosen of the Living God cannot die, for like us, they are tested, and like us, some fail. The Arrow and Sail died in the Godswar; the Song was consumed in the fires of Kevala; the Steed fell in the Second War of Mercy; and the Scale was betrayed by the Last Emperor. The Living Sword became Zora over a thousand years ago, and has never been bested since. She has for over a hundred years been one of our two pillars, along with Sophia, who long served as arbiter of our disputes and source of all honour and oaths.

The Unbroken Shield left the holy Sophia and incarnated in Aleksandr in the 819th Year After the Empire. It is not given to me to say in what manner he was a greater knight than she, or more honourable, but so the fire of God decided.

I can attest he is great and true knight, sworn before my tree, and scion of my house and my heir. I can attest on his ascension, the great oak of the Czecha line, my great tree, turned pure white.

The Shield’s character and nature can best be attested to in the normal manner, by ascertaining the nature of those in his service.

Aleksandr has gathered to himself exactly one hundred illustrious knights from all clans, now adopted into mine own. This is no threat to your titles or rights, I so vow, or any ploy to expand my territories, but only a recognition of the Shield’s duties to all. His order are called the Peers of Heaven, as they are intimates of the divine, or the Knights of the White or Holy Oak, as they now take their tokens in white wood from the tree of his sanctified blood.

Their names are rarely given in full by romancers and singers of ballads, as they are a century strong. Given I am less the wordsmith than the Bartan poets, we follow this tradition here, enumerating the most distinguished of their number, leaving the others to make their own introduction over the course of history through deeds of glory. We speak of these most storied peers in order of precedence:

LADY ILLYA has won the Tournament of Lances on three occasions, and as her prize of victory, received from Zora the sword Drezhidrana. Renown as much as a chaste and courtly lover as a jouster, she has worn the token of many a handsome and highborn young man but remains a virgin still.

DUKE STEPAVISK is a knight of a great Borasi family, related to Imperial blood of past times, and known to you all. Eager for glory, he sought service with the Shield on three occasions, and thrice was he turned away for pride. Stepavisk accepted his failings, and instead swore to serve my younger son instead, and did so for some years, humbled from his station. When he saved Dmitri from the attack of a legendary direwolf, at the loss of his own arm, he was taken on as a knight.

GHESEN is noted for his bravery, his extraordinary physical strength, and also his fury. He slew the Orite Prince Ronalto over an insult and worse, killed an innkeeper over the price of a goose. Though he earned redemption in the Battle of Osgrada, he was left to meditate beneath the Czecha Tree and test those who quested for its wood until he mastered himself.

KONTAVEIT OF THE DLINNYMECH was a student of the legendary Kingfisher Knight, and met Aleksandr at Kariyevich’s feet. She was his commander in the Panyar Wars, but some of her men were lawless, and when Aleksandr castigated them, they sought to slay him in the dark. Kontaveit saved him from treachery, and though she is too fond of drink and too soft on banditry to a true paladin be, she has been a boon companion of the Shield ever since.

ALYOSHA THE KIND, in his compassion, shed tears as he dispatched the Twelve of Or, the bandits of the Steppes and even the sorcerer, Astramariz. He is is an especial protector of children and animals; and though he often attacks with the flat of his blade, so as to shed no blood, is still respected for his skill. Often sought out for council or comfort by his peers.

BERIN THE OLD was once the enemy of the Czecha, and when his son died at the Shield’s hand, rode out to avenge his blood. Despite his age, he fought six bouts with the Living Shield, and blooded him once, and on that day, Aleksandr allowed Berin to adopt him as a second father.

HANDSOME GOTHA has slain countless foemen with his mighty axe, and sunders armour with a single strike. He has made his purpose to seek the reliquaries from the Living God’s Chosen, and return them to Zimyati hands, in the hope their divine fires can be reignited.

HAKIM THE PAGAN is not Zimyati nor a worshipper of the Living God, and took his oath of service to Kor instead of the White Tree. Aleksander, in his wisdom, saw into Hakim’s heart and yet judged him a true knight, and accepted him as a leader amongst his fellows. He wears armour shaped like a great cat.

QUICK DEMETER prides herself as the weakest at arms amongst the Sworn, yet with her great knowledge of medicine, alchemy, astronomy and strategy, has made her indispensable to the Oaken Knights. She is nonetheless a knight, and her Oath is inviolate, for Demeter has turned down fortunes offered by dukes and eminences and kings to remain in the Shield’s service.

It is an oft-quoted adage amongst the Zemyati, “Amongst birds, Kotkas; amongst woman, Nasha”. NASHA THE EAGLEBEARER is the swiftest rider, and serves as messenger of the Shield’s will across all Zimya. Her great bird, Kotkas, is said to whisper knowledge of the terrain and enemies in her ears. She is the greatest mounted fighter amongst the knights.

If the Living Arrow still burnt in this world, it is undoubted that ZENYA OF THE SABLE ARROW would be a Chosen instead of the companion of one. With an eye as keen by night as day, able to shoot over a thousand feet, and armed with arrows blessed with the Living God’s holy fire, she is a scourge of the wicked.

IRAG THE FLAGELLANT is a giant, taller than any Bartan, and of sufficient durance that he is fairly called the “Shield of the Living Shield”. Irag is not only of the sixteen living grand masters of the Blade, but will challenge any man with any weapon, and best him too. Irag is also fairly called “the Flagellant”, as he mortifies the flesh in his quest to be worthy of the Shield’s service.

VLASIM is the commander of the White Oak, and speaks in the Shield’s stead when he is not present. Vlasim’s judgement of character was proven when he abandoned his role as my commander to swear eternal service to my heir before he was transubstantiated, foreseeing the man’s holy destiny. White of beard and strong of arm, Vlasim is accepted even by my son to be a greater tactician than Aleksandr himself.

From these worthies, peerless amongst the Zemyati, the Shield and his purpose for Zimya and the realm of flesh can be seen. A era of great glory is before us, and together we will conquer and prosper.

Signed in blood before the White Oak,

Aleksandr Vasovich Czecha

I really liked the idea of fleshing out the Black Oak, and Dmitri’s history with Render and the changed nature of the Living God’s Chosen gave me a great opportunity to do just that. I’ve always loved Charlemagne and tthe Romance of Three Kingdoms, and think the Catalogue of Ships is one of the coolest things in the Illiad, so just leaned into that.

Also seemed a good place to “put” Vlasim, since:

  1. Mihkin was not a dark general of the Knights any more, and they needed a leader;
  2. Render was not Vlasim any more.