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?”