Campaign Diary: The Sword of the Remnant


#41

Won’t Anybody Like Gorgeous?

Spite leans against the central post in the Marshal’s tent, watching Fang appear and disappear behind the thin-walled modesty screen. The steam from the hot water rises into the already-warming summer air inside the already-heated tent. Every so often, Fang mutters or grunts.

"You need help back there?"

"I know how to bathe myself."

"Sure you do," Spite says, grinning. "I taught you, remember?"

Fang’s head pops up, or rather over, the screen. “I am the daughter of a Zemyati chief, I damn well knew how to bathe before I ever met you.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t actually do it.”

Spite cranes her head as Fang returns to her ablutions. She makes a low whistle at the sight of the black and purple bruise rising from the Marshal’s mid-thigh, over her hip, dissipating below her ribs.

"Fucking Hells, Zin…she caught you good."

The other woman tosses back her wet hair, splashing Spite in the process, reaches out for her top, catches Spite’s throw without looking.

“I gave as I got.” “To hear tell, you almost gave more than you got. Just go easy. We’re short-staffed as it is, right?”

“Yeah, yeah.” says Zinovia over the sound of her splashing water onto her upper body from the wash basin.

“She went gentle. They are not all from her, you know? One of those fucking rotters caught me right over the shoulder. Burns like hell.”

A snort and a spit.

“That will do,” Fang says. She comes out from behind the modesty screen wearing a pair pants where the caked mud had been brushed off and then deemed clean enough, boots that cut off at the knee, and no top. She has about a finger’s worth of medical salve applied to a cut across her left eyebrow.

“Hey, Spite, will you toss me that shirt over there? Thanks.”

"You might want to wrap the girls, first."

Spite peers around, finding a not-entirely stained halter, and throwing that to Fang after the shirt.

“Admittedly, there’s not much to wrap.”

Fang turns around toward the tent flaps leading to the vestibule just in time to see the gangly shape of Gorgeous as she fastens the last few buttons of her blouse. Genuinely surprised, Fang raises her eyebrows, wide-eyed, then winces at the jolt of pain from the cut.

“Well, look at that,” says Zinovia. She continues with a spooky voice. “The Crones converge. Ominous. Come on in, Gorgeous. Spite is here too.”

Dmitri glances down at his feet, not embarrassed, but reserved somehow. "Oh. Oh good. It is good that you are both here."

He sighs and sits, sucking the good humour out of the room.

"I need both of your opinion on something. If you could convey an immediate and tangible strategic advantage, but only by assuming significant personal risk - would you do it? You have been the Council for far longer than I."

Spite listens. Her brow furrows with mild confusion.

“As a member of the Council, you mean? I don’t know, it would depend on a number of factors, I’d think.”

She looks at him curiously. “From your manner, I’m thinking this isn’t a hypothetical question. Something happen?”

Dmitri nods. “In a way, yes. I have spoken to Her Eminence, to see what might be salvaged from the Chapel of the Waters. She let me know precisely who was responsible for it’s current condition - who might be there.”

He sinks onto a folding stool, steeples his hands between his knees.

"The Knights of the Black Oak."

“Render’s oathsworn riders.”

Dmitri nods. "Yes, but still living men. They swore an oath to him, back when he was the best of my people, and they have cleaved to that oath with him down the darkest of paths. But they will fight like men."

He sighs. "Men I know. They were sworn to Clan Czecha. Before they killed my family, they were part of it. I have seen them in their cups, at their books, in love and on the field of battle. I know how they will think. It might give us the edge we need."

He looks to his co-Councilors, speaks softly and simply. "I should be there."

When Gorgeous started explaining about the Order of the Black Oak, and ultimately the implications thereof, Zinovia felt tired. It was that particular flavor of Zemyati honor obligations that absolutely drove her up the walls.

Fang pinches the bridge of her nose and winces. Takes a deep breath, as if she was winding up a clockwork soldier, ready to do battle against spinning tops on a kitchen floor back in Or. Left hand on her hip. Spite had seen this one before. And there comes the patented Fang-points-and-accuses-stance that the Marshal deploys when she’s particularly flustered and mad.

Godsdamnit, Dmitri,” Fang says. “Now you pull this shit?”

The Marshal’s nostrils are flaring, but Spite doesn’t spot any flames coming out of them. Yet.

“Between Spite and me, we got thirty plus years with the Legion, fourteen on the Council. When Rampart died, you don’t think we felt honor-bound to go save her remains from being desecrated and mangled by that blasted crazy scientist-corpse-crafter? You don’t think we felt that same burn in our hearts, to go do something about it, as you do now? To fucking rage against the Cinder King?”

Fang was feeling it now. She was gathering momentum.

“But did you see either of us charge out of the Remnant camp, like some starry-eyed errant knight, out to win a cup and a kingdom? No. Because that is the fucking easy way out.”

Both hands are on the hips now. The pointing had become moot. This was getting bad.

“You were elected Commander by your fellow soldiers after the clusterfuck at Ettenmark Fields, Dmitri. Your sole responsibility right now is to honor that commitment. You don’t get to pick and choose when to be the Commander. Brief the Specs and the Fist that I’ve assigned, the Star Vipers. Prepare them. Hone them into the sharpest blade that they can be. But you will not go riding off on a reckless expedition to the Water Temple just because your clan mates fucked up and sided with Render.”

Zinovia was breathing as heavily as when she had finished her sparring match with Zora. And despite Fang’s well chosen cluster of word-arrows she had just launched straight at Gorgeous’ heart, the unspoken one was the sharpest. The one that didn’t need to be fired.

Because if you die in the field, the Remnant might not survive.

Spite had been prepared to speak. Had been prepared, even to be patient and reasonable and to do her damndest to keep from anything that might even remotely possibly be perceived as condescending at all from her words and her tone. And then Fang hit him with the scabbard, hilt, and blade as well, as far as Spite is concerned. But her stomach is in knots, and she catches herself running a fingernail down the scar that cuts her face, and stops herself. And waits as the silence spreads like settling dust.

Dmitri’s face flushes in anger for a moment as he receives Fang’s ire. His knuckles whiten, the canny generals notice, but he doesn’t budge. Still unmoving, he pushes all the air out of his lungs in one long exhalation before standing. He’s taller than Fang, looks down to her, without obvious rage, but instead a kind of tired courtesy.

“I’ve been here longer than you, Zinovia. Not in supreme command, but I took the Oath before you did, and earned my spurs first too. I’m not some raw recruit you need to bust up, even if I never aspired to your glories.”

He steps backwards towards the chest at the end of the room.

“This is not about revenge. It’s not even about anger. You think I want to get my hands bloody - bloodier - still?”

He crosses his arms, “Maybe I do. But this is about more than that. It’s about our people. It’s about the Legion.”

Dmitri glances out beyond the tent flap towards the remnant of the company.

"How can I send good men and women to their deaths when I know that if I had been there, if I had given them the edge, they might still be alive?"

There’s a moment’s pause, after Dmitri stands, arms folded, somber expression, when he has glanced out of the tent, then back to look at the two women. Then Bianca laughs.

“Pull the other one,” she says. “It’s got bells on.”

She grins, “Yeah, you’re Gorgeous, and oh, the big soulful eyes, and you really do care about the soldiers under your command, don’t you? Good. Join the fucking club. Somehow, fifty-nine Commanders before you have managed to send good men and women out to die knowing that, if they had been there, they could’ve given them some edge.”

She cocks her head, looks to Fang for a moment, then back to him.

“Who are you, Dmitri? All these years you hid in the ranks, you didn’t rise, you didn’t shine. You survived, you did your job. The Annals record you the way they have thousands of others, did his job, moving on. Who are you? Which is it? If you’re suddenly as sentimental as you’re pretending, that’s a far cry from the man who was willing to spend blood taking down Mihkin ‘for a win.’”

She pauses, eyes him. Shakes her head slightly.

“I don’t get it, and I don’t get you. And what’s worse, right now? I don’t trust you. And the reason I don’t trust you is that you’re saying this is about the Legion, but the Legion needs a Commander, and that’s you. But you’re willing to play your Oath as your argument. You come in with some green-rook bullshit, and two breaths later you’re getting in the Marshal’s face and trying to pull years on her? Which is it?”

Her expression softens, even as the crow’s feet dig their talons around her eyes. She steps closer, not angry, almost curious, now.

"Who are you? Just some officer who got lucky when it counted? Are you our Commander? Are you trying to get out of it, is that it? Trying to get yourself killed?"

Her tone has softened, genuinely bewildered. She stops, shoulders almost sagging. She shakes her head once more, meets his eyes without rancor or even suspicion.

“It’s a ridiculous request and you know that. All your years in, you have to know that. Why would you even propose it?”

It is a practiced routine, like a dance. Seven years together as Crones will do that to a partnership. Now, it was Zinovia’s turn to be quiet, and give Dmitri a blank stare. Spite speaks and makes Fang’s point for her, about the Marshal’s eternal conundrum. How do you send good men to die? It’s not supposed to be an easy thing to do.

If it ever gets easy to do, you’re probably a monster.

Zinovia remembers Hansika’s cooking. The Bartan had always been eager to fill a belly. The Marshal reminded herself to make sure to check in on Adav. The siblings had enlisted together, and insisted on serving in the same Fist. Fang thinks about how Knight Reuben Orlando always had been so eager to discuss politics with her, the latest populist trends in Or. The Marshal felt bad that she’d always been so dismissive of his youthful optimism. The young knight was never going to get to prove her wrong now.

Spite’s probing questions about Dmitri’s character pulls her back into the here and now. Again, the practiced dance with Spite, weaving in and out. Working new angles, not letting Dmitri to settle.

“These are valid questions that demand honest answers,” says the Marshal. “You’re a good soldier, Dmitri. I know you see the big picture here. It was never going to be easy. Do the right thing. Let the Vipers and the Specs do their job. Trust them to succeed in your absence.”

Dmitri shakes his head, even as he responds in the affirmative.

“Alright, alright. Marshall, I’d appreciate you setting up an additional briefing with the Vipers and whoever else you are choosing to send. There might be something I can give them they can use.”

He sinks back down on the chest, takes a leather roll of cigarillos from his sleeve and draws one before offering them the packet.

“Bianca - you want to know the secret? To being an unremarkable man? I did what it was called on me to do…and I didn’t do enough. I didn’t give enough.”

He lights up. “The best and the brightest are all gone now. The great lights have gone out. And a part of me wonders if I - if many of us - had done more, if we might’ve stopped some of this before it started. And damn me if the only way out of it isn’t to find whatever we’ve got left, our last reserve, and spend it.”

He look at her through a coil of smoke, “I don’t want to die, Quartermaster. But if the coin of my life will buy us a little more, I won’t hesitate to wager it. I know you don’t think I’m a very good Commander, and for all I know you might be right. I can’t be the only one to think that maybe the day will come where I am more valuable in the field than directing it. More valuable as a corpse.”

A pause, "But not, it seems, today."

I don’t know what kind of Commander you are," Bianca says, “Good or bad, a coward or a hero, I don’t know. I don’t think you do, either. But I know you’re playing games. you’re doing it right now. My questions stand, and you literally blowing smoke doesn’t make them vanish, Dmitri.”

“You don’t think very highly of us, it seems. Or maybe just of me. Fine. But we’re pulling this wagon of shit together, and until you realize that – that it’s taking all of us – we’re going to have problems.”

Another head-shake. “I didn’t ask how you hid yourself. I’m asking why.”

She glances to Fang once more. “I’ll get you something for that bruise.” And she exits out into the camp.

Dmitri chuckles as Spite leaves, a little ruefully, but warmly all the same. " Fang and Spite , eh? Remind me the next time I come to you for advice to put my damn armour on."

The Quartermaster storms across the court and into her tent in a mood, and it was not helped to see the Annals spread out over her turned-over shield. Zora, sitting on the floor, was surrounded by piles texts of varied ages, all out of their usual place of keeping. She is reading through a small volume bound in a disturbing shade of leather, with her feet crossed below her.

When Spite enters, her canine companions slide up beside her, hanging their tail between their legs and hanging their heads, as if feeling guilty for not barking. The Chosen does not look up, but continues reading one of the Elder Annals - not the translated volume of the lost tongue, but an original account of the Imperial Painlords of G’hom. She has a frenetic air, skimming pages back and forward. Without any sifting or sorting, she grabs out for another book, and opens it midway, glances, closes it, then slides to the floor.

She moans, gesturing with the book at the tent opening, entirely unclear if she means the author or someone outside, “Bianca, why must they disappoint us?”

She thinks of saying something, but the fact is there isn’t really anything to say. There is something almost childlike in the way Zora moves through the world, Spite thinks. A selfless selfishness. She pats Storm’s flank, scratches Curly’s neck. She looks to Taisa, balled up on her cot, blanket over her shoulders in the heat, bare legs visible, pale and dirty. Not for the first time in the last several weeks, Bianca wishes for a bath, a proper bath, in a big tub, with hot water and lavender and good scented soaps. A bath from another time and place and life, all of which are long lost, now.

So, with nothing to say, she steps carefully over the strewn books to the desk and begins quietly reordering those that Zora has apparently finished with. When the Chosen speaks, the fact that she has spoken as much as what she says, surprises Bianca.

“Because otherwise they could never inspire us.”

She looks at the Chosen, seated on the floor. There is a Chosen, seated on my floor. She sighs and carefully edges her chair out, mindful to catch neither books nor Zora, and sits, surprising herself with how heavily she does so.

“Though I’m not certain I know which ‘they’ you’re speaking of, Chosen. Is there something you’re looking for? Perhaps I can help.”

The small Zimyati woman looks up at Bianca from the floor, and closes her eyes.

“I fight against the tide, Bianca,” her voice is distant, and a little aggrieved, “And I thought to have the Remnant of Tantarus by my side. Do you know, when I fought your Legion before, you held me at bay before my victory? You stymied me at every turn, you were inspired, and devoted past death.”

As Spite approaches to collect some books, Zora thrusts one in her hand out to the quartermaster to be tidied away.

“But… I forget how long ago that was. Dmitri, he is not ready. Did he decide to face the knights in the Chapel? No, it matters not. If he goes, it is because he is not ready for command. If he stays, it is because he has not shaken the habit of cowing to your sense of his duty. Where is the man I found at Ettenmark?”

The Blade shakes her head, and grabs for another object, an old scrolled map of the farthest east from a war centuries forgotten. She unfurls the map, and then immediately lets it roll up again, “And Raffaele has done nothing with his gift from Mihkin, and you ask me to restrain my testing hand. And I cannot find the relics of power mentioned here at all.”

“Your Mercy,” she gestures at Taisa, “at least knows her duty well. She at least is fucking Legion.”

Standing, she looks at Bianca, and the childishness or petulance falls away, shed like an outer layer of skin, and the ancient eyes with their primal heat seem to drink Bianca in, “I do need your help. Yours above the others, perhaps, and I should have seen this.”

She gestures to the marks on Spite’s uniform, “You are the quartermaster of the Legion. You… find things, and do preserve them, and do create them. And now you are the keeper of books, old stories, of what the Legion was, where it has been.”

She takes the standard Legion sword off her belt, “I need of you to build my Legion for me, yes. The one I need to kill the Cinder King. And I will help you to be finding the things I am needing.”

Bianca looks from the sword in her hand to the Chosen holding it. She nods, once, slightly, then rises, gesturing for Zora to take her seat. She moves to the chest by the rack that serves as her bed, and from within it pulls a scraped earthenware jug. She finds two cups that are not entirely filthy, moves a stool closer to the makeshift table with her boot, then sits. She pours two shots, leaving the jug uncorked, pushes a cup towards Zora.

“You aren’t easy to talk to,” Bianca says. “I’m getting that out first. So I’m just gonna talk, take it or leave it.”

She picks up her cup, swirls the liquor within, looking at it.

“You’re impatient. I can only imagine that, if I had done all you have done, lived all you have lived, seen all you have seen, that I would be impatient, too. You have purpose. I stand with that purpose. I would see it fulfilled. I fucking burn to see it fulfilled, Zora.”

“But it’s going to take time. We’re both going to need it. To hone the blades. To build the army. We do that, we stop the advance at Skydagger, you know it will draw the Cinder King to you. You know it will.”

She looks into her cup, downs its contents. It’s old, and it’s Zemyati, and it’s been in that jug a long time. She waits until the Chosen has emptied hers, then refills both.

“You’re the second person today who’s said our best days are past, perhaps not in as many words. I disagree. More, that’s not what the Legion is. We look forward. We look with purpose.”

A shrug. “Captain De Deori is heading out on mission. You’re disappointed he has not used his blade as yet? I promise you, he will use it when the time is right, and you will hear of it. Dmitri hasn’t found his way yet? That’s outstanding, but we’re three for three on the mission’s he’s called, Zora. There is a true Commander in there. Once he gets past whatever he’s fighting – doubt, fear, a broken damn heart, I don’t know – we’ll see it. Or he’ll crumble, and there will be another.”

“In your time you’ve seen the rise and fall of cities, nations, heroes, and more. They rise. They fall.” She knocks back her drink. “We are rising.”

The Chosen smiles when Bianca calls her difficult to speak to, but says nothing, taking the proffered seat and placing her naked blade on the table between them. When Spite drinks, Zora also drinks, downing the heady brew like water, and then when the cup is refilled, downs the next without hesitation. She listens attentively through the whole thing, and when the general is through, pours another drink for the pair, which she also downs instantly. The third drink seems to hit her, and she exhales.

“My… father,” she seems uncertain of the word, “He has given me many skills, but speech is not amongst them. Your Orite is the… twenty-third tongue I have had to master, and with each one, the native speakers think me the stranger for it.”

She runs her finger over the edge of the blade, “I was said to be quite eloquent in Old Takmani.”

“This is because I am old, Bianca. And this makes me patient, and not its opposite as you believe. I can wait for my strike, and can prepare. I have spent centuries preparing for holy war, plotting every move, preparing for every contingency, designing a campaign to make the world good and right.”

She picks up the sword, and holds it aloft, and it lights with pale fire that casts strange shadows around the tent. She speaks with conviction, and she meets Bianca’s eyes. She also pours herself another drink while Bianca is starting on the last round.

“I do not doubt your fire, for I can see it. And I see Rafaelles, and Dmitris. I know what each of you would have been without the Legion, and what you could become in it. That is a gift my father gave me. I know exactly what warrior’s soul lies in every breast, inerrantly.”

“In another era, in another war,” she swings the sword around, almost playfully, and Bianca wonders if the Living Blade is tipsy, “We could forge such an army here, with the Living Blade and the Tantarian Legion together, as this world has never seen.”

The sword extinguishes, “But Bianca, this is not that war. Nine Chosen were called with the sole divine purpose of ending the Cinder King. Two… remnants, let us say… of the Zimyati joined them, and the Living Shield swore it was his destiny to lead the battle that would extinguish the black fire. He commanded more than half of Heaven. He gathered his weapons and tools, honed his White Oak Knights, inspired the Eastern Alliance.”

“Five are Broken, and Shreya Merciful has lost her godsdamned mind. Alchemy is tainted, and another ritual of Breaking is in the air, I can smell it, another god who will fall. Is it my destiny to slay the Cinder King, or will he break that fate too?”

This is far and away the most Spite has ever heard the Chosen say, not just about herself and her peers, but words strung together. Her usual truncated elliptical asides would, perhaps, be more comforting.

“It is no fault of yours to be born in this time, but if I am not destined to be sufficient, then I need the army that can defy the gods and march against heaven to fulfill a contract. What I ask is not hard, it is impossible.”

Zora picks up the jug, and pours out the last skerricks of the fiery juice. “It is not that I am impatient, Bianca. I am simply out of time,” Her voice goes very quiet, very small, and she drains the last, “You are rising, but… you must rise now.”

“Oh, it’s not that you’re not eloquent,” Spite says, aware that the alcohol may well be priming her to say things she will later regret.

“You’re pretty eloquent when you turn your mind to it, but you don’t have much use for it — which is fine with me, by the way — that’s not it. It’s that you’re a fucking Chosen, Zora.”

She stops herself before adding, and we have to wonder what happens if you break, too.

“And I lied. I know you’re patient. You must be. War demands it, if not age. Timing is everything. I feel the urgency, I do. I mean what I say, I will sharpen the damn sword for you if it’ll end up in the Cinder King’s excuse for a heart. I want that, and if you’re means to it getting there, I’ll give my blood to see it done. But I’d not give it cheap.”

She watches the sword dance with fire. She leans back, reflexively, as the blade swipes nearer. Watches as it goes out, as Zora sets it down. Old as she is, she looks too young for all of this, Spite thinks. And the unspoken question hangs, who next will be Broken, and what can be done to stop it. She watches the Chosen empty the jug.

“We specialize in impossible,” she says, simply. She gestures with her now-empty cup at the volumes scattered around the tent, on the floor, stacked at their elbows.

“That’s who we are. That’s our Oath. We are rising now , Zora. You have to see that. It’s been two weeks since Ettenmark. We should never have made it this far. Already, we’re doing the impossible. And you know with what we have, we cannot make the battle yet. With what we have, it would be folly, and leave nothing. We are rising now, and we will rise faster as we move forward, and with you to hone us, we will rise faster still. Despair is corrosive, it kills the heart, it murders the soldier before battle. We’ve still got hope, for fuck’s sake. Take heart in that. Have faith in that. Faith, some dirty tricks, some good intelligence, and a little luck…wars have been won on less.”

Zora listens, and at the end, nods, then stands to make her way to the exit. At the tent opening, she stops, and half turns her head. “I will leave your smiths to you, but your fighters, with your blessing, I shall begin honing.”

Bianca grins. “Actually…I have some thoughts about that, too. But I’ll share those with you later. Hone them. Just make sure we’ve got enough left to fight with.”


#42

Houserule: Deploying the Commander

This wasn’t just a hypothetical discussion. Since I don’t like the fiction not to be reflected in the mechanics, when Robert brought up Dmitri’s passion to go on the Primary Mission, I proposed the following:

Dmitri can go on the mission as one of the Specs, an Officer with four advances.

If he goes, the Legion immediately takes +1 Pressure from his absence.

If he is Harmed past Harm 1, another Spec must be taken out of rotation next Mission as acting Commander and the Legion takes an additional +1 Pressure.

If he dies, the Legion takes an addition -2 Morale hit on top of the -1 for any death, take a further +2 Pressure and -1 Intel.

As you can see, they didn’t go for it.

Still, it sets a precedent. Chris has already indicated that Fang is a Heavy with Weaponmaster. Bianca could be either a Medic or an Officer, I’d be interested to see how she would be written up.

What do you all think? Too harsh? Too light? Roughly balanced?


#43

I’m putting this here, because in the next mission, one of the Rookies (to my great surprise) was Andrasti, and we had to come up with something before deployment…

House Rule - Andrasti Heritage

Our version of the Andrastan Principalities is losely based on Ottoman-controlled Greece.

The Andrastan Paladinate was a place of ancient cities, golden beaches and several island chains. With a history of leading in science, art and poetry during the early Imperial Era, they lost pride of place some centuries ago. Now more of a rural backwater, their government by knightly orders devoted to the old Imperial pantheon, with the heads of the chapters (some hereditary, others not) voting on the Knight-Commander. The orders often made war against each other, and had not adapted to modern military methods, making them easy pickings for the Cinder King’s Western campaign.

Currently occupied by the Broken Binder and her Striga (thanks, @Drew_Stevens!), the populace that still resist oppression have turned to bitter guerrilla warfare in the hills and along the coast. There are very few Andrasti in the Legion, but those that are present have the following traits to choose from -

Passionate - Can have up to Consort 4
Knightly - +1 dot to Skirmish
Bold - +1d to Desperate Actions
Scholarly - You can always equip (and use) books and notes without taking up a utility slot, even as a rookie


#44

At least Rafe likes Dmitri

“…in summary, even turned to the service of the Cinder King, I would expect their techniques to subconsciously influence the way in which they frame engagements. They won’t be above ambuscade, but for most of them, the sword techniques that they were initially drilled with require them to square off to control the ground. That’s a habit that’s hard to break.”

The Commander nods. “That’s it. You know where to take it from here. Get squared away, and rendezvous by the front gate in a watch. Dismissed.”

As the Vipers file out, with his back half turned, Dmitri raises two fingers on his right hand.

"Captain de Deori. A moment, if you can spare it."

"Yes, sir."

After the last of them file out, Dmitri pauses for a second to let the sounds of milling soldiery fade into the distance. He puffs for a moment, and grins.

“Do you remember that time we got drunk in Narskon, woke up late in the basement of that bordello? They’d locked the doors on us, and we had to get out across the stage , with you tarted up in silken veils as–”

"Rose," says the Captain. "Raffaele Ora Sio dE ori."

Dmitri leans back on the table. "I feel like that all the time now - dancing like my life depended on it, trying to prevent my skirt from blowing up. How am I doing?"

“Are we talking as old hands or is this the Commander asking an assessment of one of his officers?”

"Oh, I always begin my formal appraisals by beginning with stories of near court-martialling for almost missing reveille, and how I saved my skin by a talent for drag."

Dmitri flicks across his cigarillo case to Rafe, “By the Seven Faces, just talk to me, Rafe. I promise, I won’t bite your head off.”

Raff catches the case from the air, considers it for a moment before snapping it open and selecting one. He takes his time cutting the end and lighting it, clearly thinking.

“We’re still standing and we’re making progress,” he says finally, watching exhaled smoke waft. He hands the case back. “That’s for the good, Dee. That’s better than where we were looking a week ago.”

He thinks, brow creasing. Watching Dmitri. “I can’t imagine how hard it is on you. No ramp up, just straight down the barrel. But the calls have worked so far, and the Fists are willing to fight still, and that’s in no small part because they know you’re picking their battles for them.”

Dmitri shrugs. “It’s good of you to say, but in truth it isn’t hard, in the way you might think. I can make the decisions. I can even be sure about them.”

He lights up, waves the taper to extinguish it and takes a drag. “The worst part isn’t about the decisions I take. It’s the decisions I don’t take, or can’t. The places where I can’t be. The things I left undone for too long.”

Raffaele grins. “That’s the same thing, just saying it a different way. Isn’t that what command is, on every level? Sergeants to Generals? At some point, you’ve got to make a choice, and that mean you’re leaving other ones behind.”

He puffs on the cigarillo, enjoying it. “And what the hells does that mean, anyway, Dee? ‘The things I left undone for too long.’ You’re what, two weeks in?”

He looks at the ember, blows on it for a moment, watching it brighten, then fade. “Thing you’ve got to remember is that we’re different. The Legion, I mean. You saw it before Ettenmark. All those prettied soldiers in their bright colors and plumes. I’m not saying they weren’t good, but they weren’t as good as us. That’s straight truth. There’s never been a fighting force like us. And it’s because we’re always making choices it would never occur to the others out there to make. We find choices where there shouldn’t be any, because we — even now — still can.”

He laughs, genuinely amused for the first time in days, if not weeks. “I mean, we dropped the Dread Rider, Dmitri! With a squad of six! That was by choice, and we did it our way, not his. Our choices, not his. And if we’d let Her Eminence go it alone, yes, we’d have had two more troops with us and maybe Berenike would still be alive.”

He looks at the ember again, blows on it again. “A choice. Things we couldn’t do. Things I couldn’t do. And I stack them against the things I did, and hope the wins outweigh the losses.”

Dmitri nods. “You’re right. Doesn’t make the accounting any easier.” He smiles sadly. “We had some good years, didn’t we? Before the shit came down. That’s something.”

“Oh, gods, yes! On and off the field, man.” He hesitates, shakes his head slightly. “Look, Dee, this is a shit situation, and I suspect if Clutter was still here, he’d tell us the Annals don’t have anything like it. This is all new, my friend, for all of us. And godsdamn, it’s taking a toll, that’s true.”

Another pause. “I can’t stop seeing Rampart, Dmitri. The way we found her. I close my eyes and I see her, and…that fucking room, with Soter, the Dar woman…”

He pauses. Flicks ash. Looks to Dmitri.

“We had great years. And I refuse to believe we’re paying the price for them.”

Another glance to the door of the tent. “Raff, if I ask something of you, as a personal favour - you don’t have to do it - but can you hear me out, under promise that you won’t tell any of the others?”

He follows Dmitri’s gaze, looks back to him, only slightly puzzled. Without hesitation, he answers,

“On my honor as an officer, a rogue, and most of all, as the man who held your head out of the bucket the night you decided outdrinking not only me but Fancy, Little Heart, and Mumper was a good idea. I’m still kinda pissed you actually did it.” The grin fades. “You know I’ve always got your flank, Dee.”

Dmitri nods. "Aye, I know it, old friend."

His face grows distant. "Hear me then, my chosen brother, and know that of the living men and women who hold the Chapel, the Zimyati Knights of the Black Oak, once I loved them too, as I love you."

Though his voice is still cold and a little strange, level, Raff sees to his shock tears pooling in the Commander’s eyes. “I can’t imagine what it was like when you went to recover Rampart, but we’ve each seen things that…stagger us. That change the definition of things we thought could be in the world. Things that rape the natural order. And yet…these are living knights, to all accounts unmarred and unchanged who ride in the train of the great disease. How can anyone - anyone - do such a thing?”

He claps Raff on the shoulder.

"We must know, I think. The Legion must learn. But more than that, in truth, I have to know. Because here I stand still, and I swear to you in each of them was more grace than I have ever mustered or known. Either I cannot recognize character…or the threat we face is even stronger in some way than even our nightmare has shown us. Because it is compelling. Because it has compelled."

He wipes the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, a swift, shamed gesture, semi-conscious. And then he looks to his friend.

“I don’t know who you will face. But if Stepavisk is there…tell him that once, beneath a circle of elms, the Commander of the Legion offered to release him from an oath. Remind him that he cut the palm of his good hand and bled into the earth, and said that an oath could never be released, but he would be glad of it embracing another duty. Tell him that it was my honour to free him.”

A shuddering breath. "But tell him now that time is done. His first-sworn oathkeeper bids him lay down his arms, surrender himself to the Remnant, and tell us all he knows of the enemy."

There are moments when all the masks and all the armor drops, and those are the moments — Raffaele suspects — that bind and birth friendships stronger and deeper than lovers, than family. He reaches for Dmitri’s forearm, the Commander’s hand resting on his shoulder, not to push it away but instead to grip it, squeezing the corded muscle beneath the sleeve. He does not look away. He would not dare. He would not dismiss or diminish his friend’s pain, nor his tears. And he finds no shame in them.

“We have fought on fields great and small, crawled through shit and jumped through flame,” he says, his voice softer. “We have done it together. I will do this, if there is even the barest opportunity available, I will do this.”


(A B) #45

To prevent exactly this, I let the Commander decide to spend an Intel for a special mission after I have presented him the three generated missions (including specials if so decided by the dice).


(A B) #46

Shouldn’t it be three ticks for a Harm 3?


#47

Yup, that’s my mistake. I believe Topaz may have cleared two with the boosted R&R and one from the Mercy, and kept Harm 1, but honestly, I’d have to check.


#48

Smart. That way they can only ever get two Specials by intent. I’ll do that from now on!


#49

VIPERS OF THE SEVEN STARS OF SAJRIOS

I asked my players to consider mixing it up for this primary mission, so they deployed… Rafe and Sable.

But seriously, they definitely shook it up by taking on playing three of the Viper Rookies, leaving me with the entire mission leadership (Rafe and Frieta, with Sable using Attache) to run as NPCs. Thanks, guys. Religious supplies were assigned, but no blackshot, since it is running low and they imagined they’d be mostly fighting the Black Oak.

This left Topaz and Kolyat led the Ghost Owls on what was going to be the sneakiest, stealthiest secondary mission of all time. They were assigned horses for their recon mission.

As such, I’ll have to introduce the Vipers -

Leopold Orpik (Robert) is the acting (but as yet unconfirmed) fist leader or corporal of the Vipers. An Orite scholar and a true genius, the reasons why Leo is got caught up in the New Muster instead of continuing his life as a scion of Orite academia are… unknown. He is adapting to soldiering, and in the Vipers, his skills are appreciated and his quirks ignored. Leo is obsessed with immortality.
image

Kseniya Kranharichna (Greg) is every inch a Zemyati, and the only member of the Vipers not to have Research. She scouts, hunts, fights, persuades and generally takes care of keeping the other Vipers alive.
image

Sage Whispering Grove is the quick, deadly, uncanny spiritualist of the bunch.

Vani Mehta is the engineer. While research-capable, she is the one with skills like Rig and Wreck. You know, the useful skills.

Theophilus Demetriou IV (Chris) is… a whole lot. Perhaps the only Andrasti in the Legion, he views every day as an adventure in which his curiosity can be sated. He talks a lot.

The departure of the band marks a significant diminution of the hustle of activity at the fort, as a full half of the fighting force departs. The Owls on horseback, along with the Vipers and all Specialists, exit the palisades, and make their way west.

Camp the first night is a pleasant affair, with Theophilus preparing some Western delicacies unknown to most. Jahander falls in beside Frieta, and the mismatched pair fall into casual Bartan, perhaps happy to have someone they can look in the eye without straining, while Sable and Leo sequester themselves to debate the anatomy of the dead. Veridian tells Panyar ghost stories about the haunting moon and its terrible curses, all the while whittling while she speaks.

Given the particularities of their callings, there is more a spirit of comradery than rivalry between the Ghost Owls and the Vipers of the Seven Stars. Kseniya joins Glittering Night of the Owls as she scouts ahead, but the others make conversation, gossiping about the battle between the Marshal and the Chosen, who had visited Karlsburg in past lives, and of course who is sleeping with who back at camp.

The Imperial Road, renamed the Königsstraße by the locals, runs out ahead of them, connecting Karlsburg, Plainsworth and, to their distant south, ending at the Maw, where the ancient road to Dar ceases. Because of its usefulness, it is less neglected or graffitied than most Imperial relics in Aldermark, in decent condition for horse and man alike, mortar worn from the cobblestones, but with working drainage on either side and culverts carrying the group over uneven ground.

As they march, the weather turns. Unseasonably fat clouds cluster over the northern plains, and even here, the ground is wet and the wind powerful enough to make men hold to their hats. Stormbreaker’s work, and the Vipers do not envy the Ghosts, who’s mission up to Balne will take them directly into the worst of it.

As the weather sours, the Captain seems to come alive, shaking off the last of whatever reverie or despondence held him to check everyone’s waterproofing.

“We’re all getting a lot wetter than this before we’re done, so quit complaining! Consider it a gift to check your waterproofing works, soldiers!”

“This is certainly the first time I have had the pleasure to journey with friends and purpose as sorcerous storms gather!” says Theophilus Demetriou IV.

He then confidently sets his backpack on a large rock and begins sorting through it.

“Not bad, for a curious son of the Paladinate, if I may say so myself.”

Gunpowder, tinderbox, notebooks, dry clothes, food stuffs, the petrified claw of an eagle his Father had gifted him on the day he had reached manhood. All still dry.

“Aha!” exclaims Theo. “Mere winds and wetness shall not deter the House Demetriou of its jaunty eagerness for perilous undertakings!”

It is not entirely certain who he is talking to. Everyone and nobody, presumably. He points off in the direction of their destination in the West.

“Even in far off Andrastus, we have heard of the famed Asrikan Chapel of the Waters. Oh, the noble truths we are about to uncover, and then hide again from the vile clutches of the Broken!”

Kseniya can feel the change in the weather coming, thinks about telling the others, but knowing what she does from the briefing, decides against it. They’ll all be getting very wet, soon enough. She hides a smile when the Captain says as much. She doesn’t speak much. She still thinks she is a "new" Viper, and has found that it’s easier to just listen to the others and learn that way, because there is much to learn and she is painfully aware of everything she doesn’t know.

At first, she wondered how she ended up with the Vipers, anyway, but in the last several months, it’s become clearer – the academics need to be tempered with a pragmatist. It isn’t that, for instance, Theo gets so obsessed with his treatises that he forgets to muster, or that Leo doesn’t keep his eyes peeled while gathering samples. They’re professionals, they would never be so sloppy. But sometimes, Kseniya thinks, they miss the forest for the trees.

But this is her first full deployment like this, this isn’t Ettenmark, nothing like that. This is a special operation , the kind of job the Legion is known for, a briefing from the Commander himself, orders from the Marshal herself, with the Captain who killed the Dread Rider and the Doctor who Refuses Death.

Theo, the Andrasti warrior-scholar, is built like a dancer, strong yet lithe. His hair and well-kept, full beard is salt and peppered, and his skin is tanned and leathery from a life lived on the road. Theophilus wears a light chlamys cloak with the angular designs of Adrastus over his uniform. A worn leaf-bladed Xiphos hangs from his leather belt. After securing his equipment to his satisfaction, Theo throws his pack back onto his broad shoulders.

He hustles up to the officer in charge.

“Captain De Deori,” says the Scion of Demetriou, “I wanted you to know that your strength of will has been noted and deemed admirable. Your decisive actions in the field that led to the destruction of the Dread Rider continues to inspire the entire Legion.”

Theophilus shifts his backpack, before he speaks again. There is a peculiar twinkle in his eye as he continues.

“Tell me, officer,” Theo says. “What does it feel like to strike a myth from the world?”

"Ah… thank you for the compliment, Fist Regular Demetriou.”

He touches the man lightly on the shoulder, and lets his voice raise a bit for others to hear, “I’ll say they look a fright, and you can’t be reckless, but are nothing beyond the abilities a Legion squad doing things the right way."

The Captain looks Theo down with a stern but not censorious gaze, “But as to the details, perhaps we are better off saving something for back at camp, eh? Today has enough challenges of its own without spending time on past glories.”

Theophilus smiles sincerely but unapologetically.

“Back at camp then,” he says. Theo squints and peers forward. “It seems the road is widening ahead!”

The Andrasti Viper Legionnaire marches ever onward.

FIST REGULAR, ROOKIE, SOLDIER, WHATEVER
One of the things we struggled with narratively in the campaign set-up is the idea that every survivor is a rookie except for the five specialists. I really like the narrative intent of breaking everybody in, showing them the ropes, seeing who they are, but it creates a lot of oddities.

So while we haven’t touched the mechanics, we assume the ‘rookies’ aren’t necessarily rookies. The majority have been with the Legion since the New Muster, almost eighteen months ago, and Ettenmark was their first real battle, but others like the Hanged Men and Jahander have been serving for up to several years in the previous campaign. As such, we tend to call rookies ‘Regulars’ and soldiers ‘Veterans’.


#50

The grey walls of Watershed break through the Tiagra surface and rise gloriously into the clouds. Though the structure must sink over a hundred metres down to the muddy floor, you could never tell looking at the massive edifice. Asrika may be the Aldermarni face of the healing god Ostra, but does not share her associations with the virtue of humility.

The idea that people know more about miracles or powers and Chosen, but nobody really knows about “gods” or even if they exist is one I want to run with. As such, different cultures have different names and mythologies for the same powers - the god or goddess of compassion and healing, for example, has Chosen that can appear anywhere, and claim to be of different gods (or different faces of the same god, whatever). And many alchemists are agnostic or atheists, believing themselves to be sorcerers tapping into a wily and unstable power source but not acknowledging it has a personality. The exception to this is the Living God, who really is a “Zemyati only” deity, though arguably because their seven Chosen have all been Zemyati.

There is not one nave-and-transept, but two in a double-cross, each flanked by magnificent towers. Statues of past Chosen, more than lifesized, stretch across the façade, with angelic wings and snake-headed staves, and even from this distance, the sharp-eyed can make out hints of various scenes beautifully rendered in stained glass. The many pools placed amongst its countless spires and buttresses are overflowing, making ceaseless cascading waterfalls that tumbling through the air before further smashing the tumultuous river below.

image

The mighty Tiagra is swollen from the storms upriver, fast-moving water threatening to break banks. Where it should provide a kind access to the Cathedral’s grand jetty-portal, it instead swirls around the waist of the stone figures that make the archway. A small ship bumps against the worked stone. Large enough for perhaps eight men, its rope vanishes beneath the water. The Black Oak are already within.

Across the river, Flood has been razed, but dozens of Gaunt have entrenched in its ruins. There is the stitching tent, the cauldron where the Cinder King’s soldiers are reborn and the foundry, where iron is fused with flesh to make the Gaunt, but there also unique accommodations for living flesh. A well-made cage filled with eyeless people seems to serve as some sort of “kennel” for the Hounds, and latrines have been dug, horses tied and the food as well as the gold of the pilgrim town has been gathered up. Several Zimyati roundtents are established, with Render’s orange banners flickering wildly in the wind.

The Ettenmark side of the river is sparser, but not empty. Loosely scattered around the bank closest to you are several Gaunt standing guard, collectively under the command of a stocky Zimyati. The man huddles inside his heavy armour, pulling a red greatcloak tight.

The Captain takes Leo, Frieta and Sable aside, and leans in to be heard.

“Alright, we know the approach, and we have the Deep.”

Somewhere between “mission premise loadout” and “Rafe used his Channels”, I just allowed the party to have enough high-quality Deep to get them across the river and search underwater.

Sable sweeps his dripping hair off his face, “You are a man of surprises, Captain.”

The doctor takes the package from the officer, and makes an assessment, “I’d wager that split amongst a group this big, we could have as much as a hour, as little as thirty minutes, before everyone takes a deep gasp."

Rafe nods, “Which gives us three options. With the spotters on our side, we go up river towards the blown bridge, which means we are not fighting the current. We’ll not have as much time to search the underwater portions of the chapel, which include at least one vault.”

He counts off a second finger, “Downriver, which is riskier, but if we succeed, would give us more time.”

“Third, we can try take out the guards very quickly and very quietly. Best of both worlds, but the risk…”

He looks to Leo, “You haven’t served under me yet, fist leader, so I’ll be clear. It’s my call, but opinions, and particularly the brilliant ideas your squad is known for, would be welcome.”

"You flatter us, Captain, but what ingenuity we can bring to bear is, of course, at your disposal."

Leopold sidles forward - a way of movement that sounds paradoxical, but is in keeping with the man’s peculiar manner. There is nothing indirect about his path or even irregular in his gait. To the contrary, it is too regular. Choreographed, almost eerie without being abhorrent.

Pulling his black leather gloves tight across his hands, the fist leader adjusts his pince-nez and peers across the river.

"If I may venture a thought, Captain: there are living men amongst the dead. The Hounds are trained, compelled, to savage such men. If a single raider - gifted with Deep so as not to breathe - and coated in the plentiful gore of the Ettenmark battlefield, were to loosen their shackles…well, that brave soul would, in all likelihood, pass for the dead. The confusion created amongst the enemy might allow us to pass downriver unnoticed. Even a camp of monsters is still a military camp, you can see it by their bivouac here. Chaos is both the natural bane of such environs, and perversely often found in abundant supply."

Sable coughs, "Surely to pass across the river would render any scent marking ineffective?"

Leopold chuckles self-effacingly, "I had anticipated this, Doctor. Preserving a melange of the local charnel in an oilcloth, such as those that make up our tents, would shield it for a brief swim, and allow our infiltrator to adopt the ruse on the far embankment."

As the leaders talk, Kseniya takes in the enemy. Hears them. Sees them. Smells them. She listens, at the edge of earshot, to Leo talking strategy with the Captain and the Doctor. She wonders if the plan is a good one. She likes it. She likes it because it seems to her Legion, which – in her opinion – is one of the reasons they were hurt so badly at Ettenmark, and not incidentally one of the reasons they managed to survive. Change the rules. Change the engagement. Deny the enemy their strengths, their advantages. Undermine them. Confuse them. Cheat.

It isn’t cheating if you’re alive and they’re dead when it’s all over. That’s victory.

She can’t remember who said that. But there are two problems that she sees to the plan, one of them more concerning than the other. The less-concerning is the idea that the Hounds can be tricked to go after the living in the camp. She wonders at that. It would be foolish, or arrogant, to not have some means of controlling that aggression if such two different units are bivouacked together.

Then again, she thinks – was it Leo who said it? – that these are new creations to the Cinder King’s armies. Created, perhaps, by different Broken, even. It is possible, plausible even, that putting them together in such combinations is new. The second is a more practical, and immediate question. How much Deep is there? Sending more than one soldier across the river to enact the plan diminishes that soldier’s time under its effects. Whoever goes would have to go fast, work fast, and then move as quickly as was safe to meet up with the rest. Either that or drown.

“If,” she says. “We undertake Leo’s plan. I volunteer.”


(A B) #51

Also, it lets the Commander and the generals reflect on the rewards and penalties of the three generated missions, and decide if they’d rather spend their rare Intel point(s) to help those missions OR get a Special mission.


(A B) #52

Exactly. With their “naive hope” still intact and their inexperience, as written in the rules, it would seem that the RAW Rookies have not fought ont the Ettenmark Fields and have all been recruited, somehow, between Ettenmark and the starting mission !

But it bothers only me, since my players, while enjoying the game, are not (yet?) engaged enough in the setting to notice the discrepancy. So I let it roll, and haven’t tried to justify it fictionally.


#53

Yeah, Leo is a great character and I wouldn’t want a game where he cannot be introduced, but “naive hope” is not really part of his kit.

Maybe an optional rule where a rookie can have either naive hope or unearned confidence. :wink:


#54

The Captain looks at the Zimyati, bringing her into the conversation fully with his eyes, and she has the sense of being judged, though to what result, she is not sure.

He nods, “You can swim, and you can scout, so your brave offer is accepted.”

He lifts a cautioning finger, “But I’ve had a Zemyati friend volunteering for things for a long time, and my advice to them are my orders to you. The act of going is heroic enough, leave coup-counting and bragging rights at the door.”

He smiles to take the sting out of any implied criticism, “Timing needs be precise, and you’ll be going alone. So just the basics - into the camp unseen, open the cage and get the five hells out of there and back under the water. If it can’t be done, don’t do it. Pick your time to make your way to the Cathedral.”

He considers, “We’ll aim to meet you at the submerged entry, but we won’t wait. If you miss us, meet us where we can breath. And if that isn’t going to work, use your judgement and meet us after we exit at the rendezvous.”

He gestures at Leo and Sable, “These gentlemen will provide your drugs and entrails.”

Leo was the first character other than Sable to make a Research roll, to know how to distract the hounds, and ‘officially’ discerned their sensitivity to human breathing. Luckily, this combines great with a Deep-based plan!

Sable uses a needle to extract a certain amount of the fluid through the stopper, and readies himself. He also takes his pistol from his hip, and offers it up. “I’ll be expecting this back, regular.”

“And you back, Kseniya.” Leo’s voice is calm and measured, almost stern, as if he were instructing her to hand him a delicate object carefully. When she glances at him, he smiles faintly. “Death is our enemy. We can’t have you stepping over into her ranks.”

“It wont’t be. My choice.”

She inclines her head to Leo, acknowledging the statement, but also the futility of the admonition. She raises a hand to the Doctor, shakes her head slightly. There’s a slight slouch that comes with it, a tilting of the shoulders, as if to say, I appreciate the thought, but if it gets that far blowing my own brains out won’t be enough, and blowing any of theirs out means I won’t be making it back.

There was a cool digression here as the players asked what the value of an unblown-out brain was to the enemy for gathering intel on the Legion. Wanting consequences for the fiction, I decided that with Pale’s death at Raleigh in the first mission, Blighter’s research into extracting information from the dead was ongoing, but had suffered a severe setback, and it would be some time before the a Legion grunt would be at risk of what Rampart went through.

She shrugs off her pack, swinging it into her hand and holding it out for Vani to take. She hands her musket to the woman, next, then begins unfastening her oiled and blackened leather armor. It’s well-broken in, and rolls tightly. She removes her boots, leggings, and then top, leaving her standing in her underclothes which are quickly soaked by the rain, drops beading and running down her shoulders, arms, and back. She takes her belt back from Vani, slinging it as a bandoleer and tightening it. She secures her axe, then turns to Leo.

Greg asked is Kseniya could have a Zemyati hatchet instead of a family knife, and I said yes, because the idea of rustic Zemyati nomads sealing contracts and celebrating marriages with their grandmother’s axe is… good.

"Back." She turns to him, presenting her back, waiting for him to affix the bundle full of its putrid contents.

An intensity has awakened Andrasti Scholar-Warrior’s eyes. He is taking in Kseniya’s preparations as he punches into an open hand.

“This is what I’ve been talking about, Vani!” says Theophilus, “This is the spirit that beckons a man from far off Andrastus to join the finest ranks of Legionnaires to ever march!”

Theo leans in and speaks directly to First Recruit Kranharichna.

“Allow me to help you in this unflinching and virtuous display of arete, Kseniya. Let me spot your approach to the Tiagra for you. That way you can just worry about going fast , and not avoiding the twice-cursed gaunts.”

Theo Assists Kseniya in her Maneuver roll to get across the river unseen. I have to say, I loved how aggressive this plan was, especially while playing rookies.
“How do we evade the sparse spotters on this side of the river to buy ourselves time?”
“Let us send a rookie on a solo mission to fuck up their entire everything, that should do it.”

And then the needle goes into Kseniya’s arm, everything spins. There is a cold sensation in her chest, and she tried to gasp, but instead only gawps. For all her control, her hand goes to her throat, as her mouth grasps for air it cannot take in.

“Are you alright?”, the doctor smiles, “I’m joking, of course, you won’t be able to speak until the Deep passes.”

Kseniya feels her body - or all of it but her nose, jaw and chest, anyway - relax in stages, as she brings herself to terms with the fact that she cannot, but does not need to, take in air.

“And on which note,” Sable continues, carefully priming a second dose to a precise balance, “if your lungs feel like you are relaxing, it’s a very clear sign you are in danger.”

She watches the needle disappear into her arm, the Doctor’s fingers slender and she thinks delicate. She looks into his eyes as the plunger presses down, opens her mouth to answer, and feels the suffocation instead. Her eyes widen, a momentary flash of panic that turns to realization, understanding. She doesn’t move, aware that she is, for the moment, as still as the dead themselves.

Then she feels her heartbeat, as if becoming aware of its constant presence, and she can imagine feeling the blood moving in her veins, through her body. She nods to the Doctor. She waits for Theo, following along after him, feeling the bite of the rain and the cold settling in. The river will be colder, but it is, at the moment, not unpleasant given the heat of the last few days and the travel. The ground is still hard beneath the softening layer of wet earth, not quite yet turned to mud. She checks her load again, adjusts the belt, tightening it further.

They take cover in the scrub, shy of the banks. The rain ripples in sheets across the river. She thinks she should try to control her breathing, then remembers again that she isn’t breathing at all. Theo throws a hand signal for her wait, moves off, disappearing. He reappears a few moments later, holding up a fist. What he does next, she doesn’t know, but the fist opens to a bladed hand, and he gestures across the water once, and before she can think about it, Kseniya goes.

I created a 4-tick clock, Kseniya sets off the alarms, and a 6-tick clock, Kseniya’s Deep wears off. She made a Risky/Standard Manouver roll, Assisted, to cross the river, and gets a 5. I marked a tick off both clocks as a consequence, and she crosses the river where she wants to be.
Greg made a Prowess Resist to negate the tick off the alarm clock (pardon pun) and gets his first Crit of the game. On a Resistance roll with an unstressed rookie.
Because of course.

She enters the water as fast as she dares, uncertain of the depth and unwilling to dive until the last possible moment. The water has a cold that bites, a current that shoves, and she goes down deeper, consciously fighting the urge to do the opposite, reminding herself that she does not need to breathe, that she does not need to breathe, she does not need to breathe.

She swims, hard, as fast as she can, feeling the pressure of time as the pressure of the water, the drag of the oilskin strapped to her back, the press of her grandmother’s axe between her shoulders. It feels too long a swim. It feels wrong. It’s taking forever. Then she is touching the opposite bank, and surfacing to the sounds of a camp, the enemy’s camp.

There is no scent, and that is puzzling for a moment before, again, she remembers there is no air to draw, that she simply cannot do so. She crawls along the muddy bank, into a water-carved recess, muddy and slick, removes the bandoleer and releases Leopold’s “gift.”

She is grateful she cannot smell when she opens it. With both hands, she smears the contents over her body, down her arms and over her torso, along her legs and between them, through her hair, her face, even behind her ears. What little remains when she is finished, she lays and rolls in, then replaces her bandoleer and axe. She smears them with the dregs. Finished, she folds the emptied oilskin, then slips it through the waistband of her shorts at her hip.

If there was an ability to take a deep breath, now would be the time. But she cannot, and so she advances towards the camp, trying to time movements and stay in cover, closer and closer to where the Hounds snuff and scrabble in their enclosure.

There is something deeply unsettling about the camp. It is not the alien horror - the cauldron large enough for a dozen humans to fit in, brewing away under heavy guard; or the eerie silence of the gaunt on guard, holding the chain of an eyeless man scratching at the ground - but rather the familiarity.

This is a Zimyati camp, from the defiant establishment of tents in the ruins of available buildings, to the relative placement of spotters, stables, squatter. And certainly, the place a raid leader would keep those worth maintaining as hostages, there was a cage, built crudely from what was left of a house, with perhaps fifteen living souls crushed together. A mix of those from the church and Flood, and judging from their state, they must have been there at least a week. The kennels are also where they should be, even if the corral’s inhabitants are nothing like the wardogs of the Steppes.

Risky/Standard Scout, and Greg turns down a Devil’s Bargain - I suggested the exertion costs Kseniya 2 ticks on her Deep clock, and he suggested… it doesn’t. He rolls, and lands the clutch 4, finding herself in a Desperate position - 2 ticks off the Alarm Clock, and she is trapped near the enemy with no clear path to her goal.

As she crawls and clambers, the Hounds sniff and whine, and Kseniya wonders just how reliable the masking is, but they do not respond to her proximity. She pauses suddenly on a roof, several feet from the kennel, and gets low. On the main road of Flood-as-Was, a long haired man summons two haunts to him. The pair walk over, and he snaps at them, “To me.”

The pair do, and the knight speaks, “Karlsberg has provided the necessary supplies. The ritual should be underway.”

The Gaunt do not respond, “The Shattered Shield has announced he will indeed attend the final fall of the Chapel in person. The twice-chosen must see the work completed lest his displeasure be felt.”

“Ready the remaining boats and the last of the… the… the materials. Have all your company ready to move in strength to the Chapel as soon as His Lordship gives the word.”

Silence, “And salute, damn your eyes.”

There is a clatter as the Gaunt salute, and an eerie voice made by no human throat growls out a reply, “Yes, knight-captain.”


#55

Timeline

As I mentioned above, while I know objectively eight centuries is a damn long timeline and the Legion canonically is a long-standing fighting force, I nonetheless stretched everything out. This was in part because we’d already established that there had been 60 Commanders, and a 7-year service life felt a little harsh, even for the Legion. So I basically doubled all the durations, added a few other pieces of colour and all was well.

Ante Finem Imperii

831 AFI: The Founding.
The Empire begins its conquest of the continent of the kingdoms and cultures of Asmund. It claims many firsts, including the first accurate and recorded history, but it represses many heterodox cultures, and who knows what knowledge was lost.

626 AFI: The Eastern Cessation.
The Swordfather of the Living Blade, Chosen of the Living God, accepts the ‘divinity’ of the Empire and agrees to pay tribute in soldiers and swords to the West.

470 AFI: The Choosing of Zora
Zora defeats the Swordfather in combat and inherits his divine nature.

403 AFI: The Fair Wind
The proto-Bartan peoples, fleeing some great disaster, land in what will become southern Or, and become ‘the Great Enemy’, beginning several campaigns against the Empire that will cause decades of turmoil.

348 AFI: Tantarus Ascends
The 7th Emperor takes the throne of the Empire, and after defeating the Bartan ‘hordes’, expands the borders from sea to sea. It is thereafter it is known as the Tantarian Empire in official histories.

328 AFI: Legion Founded
As part of a reform of the Imperial Legions after the Betrayal at Janioch, Tantarus incorporates Bartan generals into his high command. At the same time, he founds the Legion as an honour guard, an elite unit trained to fight impossible threats to the Empire.

111 AFI: The Cataclysm
The Anax of Dar vanishes, Maehedraa sinks beneath the waves, fire burns the skies and the Cataclysm befalls the one nation to stand in meaningful opposition to the Empire.

25 AFI: The Liberation of Aldermark
After decades of war, the Karl forces the Empire to sign a humiliating treaty recognizing Western autonomy.

In Anno Imperatorem Novissimis

Don’t latin-check me, its… um… fantasy. The fantasy being I can translate things into Latin.

0 AIN. Old Empire Falls.
The tottering Empire shatters. The Last Emperor is killed by several Chosen and the seat of the Empire is shattered. The Legion, earning the title ‘Remnant’, becomes a mercenary unit. They sell their services to nations and people that can afford them.

250 AIN: The Godswar Begins.
Also known as the Great Crusade, several Chosen battle each other, allegedly reflecting a war in heaven here upon the earth. Terrifying artefacts are created among the gods.

350 AIN: The Godswar Ends.
Religious crusades come to an end. In some church calenders, this is a new year 1. Many bound to the Gods, like the Keepers of the Akashic Records and the Gravetenders of Hespia, are slain or their powers cease to work, leading to the common belief that their gods died. The Legion is reduced to a handful before rebuilding.

433 AIN: The Maker vs the Makers
When the immortal priests of the Faith of the Maker fail to crush the nascent green shoots of the Intelligencia, Diori gains new prominence as something other than an Imperial military port.

517 AIN: The Dancer’s Plague
Laugher, Chosen of Nyx, causes the Week of Grim Dancing, killing the thousands of citizens of Onyx, and then dies, his purpose complete.

550 AIN: The First War of Mercy
After the Chosen Merhiem resurrects herself twice, Barta and Aldermark go to war over Askira claiming eternal preeminence over the healing churches.

690 AIN: The Second War of Mercy
The Temples of War and Mercy go to battle against the secular throne over their right to mount Crusades in the name of the Chosen.

750 AIN: The Resettlement
Though the Imperial ban on moving into the ancient and allegedly cursed Duresh and Talon forests have long been dishonoured, it is only with the exile of the Panyar faiths by Barta and Aldermark that the settlements and colonies of Panya begin to coalesce.

780 AIN: The Wars of Dust and Garters
War between the southern Zemyati clans and the Island breaks out when Prince Mswati Kem’Malsassi uses the first dreadnaught to shake the suzerainty of Dvoyin Jowan of Clan Sovva.

812 AIN: The Panyar-Zemyati Wars
More an extended pillaging than a war.

819 AIN: The Ascension of the Shield
Aleksandr Alexovich Czecha becomes the Living Shield of Man.

834 AIN: Cinder King Appears
The Cinder King gains a crown of True Fire. He uses powerful sorceries to slay a city and build his first army.

837 AIN: First Breaking
A Chosen manifests itself far in the west to face the Cinder King. The First Breaking occurs.

839 AIN: The Burning Armies
The Cinder King rolls over what organised resistance Dar can offer, defeats the Palidinate of Andrastus and boxes Royin within its borders, without opposition from the Gods. Aldermark marshals its armies, and the Twin Gods Choose.

840 AIN: First War for Aldermark
The Cinder King faces Aldermani armies. When one of the Twins is Broken, an unprecedented nine Chosen are Called, and unite with the armies of the Eastern Kingdoms.

841 AIN: Conquest of Aldermark
The Cinder King pushes east. The Aldermani fight a retreating battle buying time. Cinder King crosses the Tigeria for the first time.

842 AIN: The Great Breaking
The discovery and refinement of Blackshot helps Eastern armies push the Cinder King back. In a decisive battle a full five Chosen are Broken, but the line holds.

843 AIN: The New Muster
Shreya, Chosen of Mercy, returns to the Eastern Kingdom for fresh levies. The duchies and city-states of Or, tepid in their support to date, notice the growing corruption of alchemists, and commit fully to the effort. The Eastern Kingdoms dig deep hiring mercenaries, and levies are placed even on some Zemyati tribes. A Bartan noble enlists the Legion from their contract in the Isles. They march with the armies of the Eastern Kingdoms.

844 AIN: Ettenmark Fields
The Cinder King and his court retreat from Asmund entirely, across the Tempest Sea. Though he is gone, his Broken remain busy. The decisive battle is west of the capital of Aldermark and new and horrendous undead decimate the Eastern armies.


#56

Kseniya thinks this would have worked better by night, but she thinks a lot of things would be better, could be better, right now. Stalking through a defilement of her people’s ways, the Gaunt with their strange, almost noises and the few living beyond them and the…the Hounds do not bay, but they make a noise all their own, and it is pervasive and grows louder the closer she works to their enclosure.

She hugs what shadows she can find, drops motionless in the mud at a tent’s edge, straining to listen and for the first time grateful that she cannot hear her own breathing. The broken buildings provide more cover, and she manages slick handholds and pulls herself onto a roof, laying flat, crawling as quickly as she dares. She can hear the horses. She imagines she can smell the fire where the living reside, and perhaps even what they are cooking upon it. Her eye strays to the cage with the living prisoners, and she can imagine their smell, too. There is nothing for it. There is nothing she can do for them. If she was better or stronger or faster or smarter, or even better equipped, perhaps then. But perhaps not.

Moral dilemma vs military reality, gotta hit that theme.

She holds at the sound of the voice, as much surprised by it as by the fact that it, too, is Zemyati. She dares a look, sees the knight with long hair speaking to the Gaunt. This surprises her, but it shouldn’t, she realizes. Of course the Gaunt must be able to take orders. Of course the orders would need to be spoken. She thinks back to the cluster of boats she passed on the shore.

But that is not why she’s here. The roof gives way to another, and she is able to drag herself along its edge, and then the kennel is beneath her, the door in reach. She frees the vial Leopold has given her from where she’s secured it in her unmentionables, lowers herself so she is almost in reach of the lock, dangling.

And slips, hits the ground on her shoulder and rolls out and back against the side of the building. The Hounds snuffle and search, but she doesn’t move, and is grateful she does not have to hold her breath. The Hounds calm themselves, scratching at the earth, at themselves, at each other.

She removes the stopper, edges to the door, pouring the contents into the lock. There is a wisp of smoke, almost too thin to be seen. She backs away, back into the cover of the wall, discards the spent vial.

Greg’s heroic solo mission continues on. It’s one of the tensest and most successful demonstrations of the mechanics, and I think everyone was hooked, watching their screen and the dice roller. Several plans were considered and discarded for how to get the Hounds out of their cage - digging them free with the axe (with a Devil’s Bargain to lose the Zemyati clan weapon); breaking the lock loudly; a zero dice Rig action to pick the lock - but in the end, they go with a flashback for Leo to have provided some lock-eating acid. The roll is Desperate/Standard, and it is a success!

There is only the sounds of the camp, of Gaunt shuffling closer. A horse whinnies. The lock breaks with a soft noise, springs giving up their tension all at once. It may be that or the nature of the mechanism itself, but once broken, the door begins to swing even as the Hounds raise their heads in unison, snuffling loudly. One, near the door, pushes it, jumps back as it swings wide.

There is a fraction of a pause, and then all the Hounds go at once, scrambling over one another as they pour through the door. They pass close enough Kseniya can see details, the puckered suture lines, the yellow-pus encrusted lids, the shining mucous dripping from their nostrils. And they are past, and then the shouting starts. Not all of it is human. There is a scream, and another, and only one is from a horse.

She scurries back towards the river, clinging to the cover of the broken walls, slips down the muddy drop to the bank, sees the boats waiting, flipped, on the shore. She glances back to the camp where the shouts have grown louder, the cries fewer. She frees her hatchet, rushes to the nearest boat, and raises her arm to hack a hole in its hull.

The hatchet slips from her hand, flips end over end through the air over her head. She tries to track it and move at once, not wanting to be where it will come down. Her hands, she thinks. Slimy and slick and covered with the gore that’s still coating her, and the rain, too, it’s worked to make her slippery.

A roll to destroy the boats, aiming to stop the knights in camp and their ‘master’ from reaching the Cathedral. She fails, and so I rule she is detected and does no real damage.

She backs into the side of the boat, knocks it off its stand. Half falls the short distance onto the shore. It’s not a long fall, nor a hard fall, and it does no damage. What it does, however, is amplify the acoustics of the shape. She goes for her hatchet already knowing, but risks the look back over her shoulder all the same.

The long-haired knight is shouting and pointing her direction, running her way. Gaunt advance and follow. There are, at least for the moment, no Hounds. Kseniya takes some satisfaction in that. Then she’s in the water and swimming hard. Away from the Cathedral, a decision made without making it, but in the water she looks back and the camp is in motion, the long-haired knight still visible, shouting. Gaunt and Hounds race along the bank. The purpose of the mission was to create a distraction, she thinks. Good job.

She swims, letting the current help her, head up to try and track her pursuers. She dives once, surfacing a dozen seconds later, does it again, staying down longer. She has been carried past the Gaunt on the opposite bank. She can still hear their sounds, the shouts. She dives again, stays under for almost thirty seconds before breaking the water once more. They are still following. She dives, twists, and swims the opposite direction, deeper and deeper until she can feel the water trying to crush her and the riverbed beneath her hand. She pulls herself along, against the current. She feels the spasm in her gut, in what Theo or Leo would call her “diaphragm.” She knows what it means, and all at once the urgent need to breath is as insistent and savage as an untamed lust. She fights it, kicking upwards, praying to the Living God that she hasn’t lost her bearings, that she will surface where she needs to be, or close enough. The need to breath is overwhelming, irresistible, and she fights it and fights it and breaks the surface into the rain and gulps at the air.

She is on the side she needs to be on, but the bridge and the Cathedral are barely in view. The current, she thinks, has carried her miles from her Fist. She drags herself onto the bank, into sodden weeds and more mud and for a moment lays there, simply breathing in the rain. The swim has removed her disguise, the rain has taken care of what was left.

If they got her scent, they will still be searching for her. They will not know who she was, but they will know what she did. They will perhaps think she is some local, some resistance. The worst thing she could do would be to lead them to the Legion, to the Fist. There is no way to contact them. If she goes to the rendezvous and is discovered, the Fist, if successful, will meet her there, and enter a trap. She cannot keep the rendezvous. Which leaves her the fallback. Which leaves her returning to camp.

She picks herself up, surveying around her. She strips off her remaining clothes, keeping them in one hand. She carries the hatchet in her other, the belt still slung around her middle. If she can find dry clothes along the way, great. But she has a long way to walk and rubbing herself raw on wet cloth would only be insult to injury. And besides, a naked woman with a hatchet is not likely to be interfered with, she thinks.

One last Maneuver roll to get safely out of dodge; one more success when most needed. Kseniya at this point has 6 Stress, is naked, unarmed apart from her axe, and is covered in gore. Greg changes playbook from Kseniya to Vani, the Bartar rigger, and Kkeniya, now a fully fleshed out and fully fledged Zemyati badass, rides into the sunset, her part of this mission done.

I really enjoyed the hiest-y aspect of this mission, and it reminded me that the game does have its Blades DNA and we can lean into that.


#57

The Vipers each process their trepidation in different ways as Kseniya vanishes beneath the water. For a time, they can track her, but as she gets used to not coming up for air, and as the distance grows, they abandon any sense of her progress. It is no clearer when she emerged from the other side, or how she made her way the Hound’s cage.

Every time a Gaunt marches near the enclosure, or moves with speed, the watchers react, though it increasingly meaningless to say they hold their breath, as after a suitable period, Sable begins distributing the Deep injection by injection.

What becomes utterly clear is that she succeeds - several horrid figures bound from the enclosure, harassing knights, clambering over the hostage cage, ravaging horses and smashing their way through camp. Gaunt react slowly and awkwardly, their infused armour getting in the way as they chase down the escaped former humans, trying to command them to heel with minimal effect.

As the band start to make their way towards the water’s edge at the point just upriver of the Chapel, the raven-haired soldier becomes visible. Wet and bloody, near-naked and armed only with an axe, she furiously attacks the boats near the shore. There is some confusion, some scrambling, and then she is racing away, perused all closely by an iron-shinned Gaunt and his comrades. The Gaunt on this side huddle near their leader, seeking instruction, and the Black Oak points his sword downstream, sending them to cut her off if she crosses, his face a mixture of awe and gratitude to have something to do.

The path is clear, and with reluctance, the Captain takes his moment, turning away from the fleeing Kseniya and giving final orders and instructions before the silence of submerging.

Despite their many advantages and precautions, the journey into the Tiagra is fraught. The mud is slick, deep and silty, and the small group must swim rather than walk, letting the current do most of the work and correcting only when necessary. Frieta is a powerhouse, seeming to pull the band with no concern for the treacherous currents, and the other soldiers follow behind assuredly, everyone pulling their weight. Knowing when to exert their precious reserves of strength is its own Herculean effort.

Murk swirls, rucked up from beneath, making the Vipers as sightless as they are breathless. Kseniya’s heroics are appreciated twice when the tied band must surface to ensure they don’t get carried past their target, unseen by the distracted dead on either shore.

Debris from the destroyed bridge and burned Karlsberg powers in the blackness, and a shattered stone slams into Leo’s shoulder, a jagged steel edge embedded in the rock tearing the rope apart and pushing him down and away. Vani reacts instinctively, hand grabbing at the loose rope and holding tight. The Orite mask tucked into his coat pocket flies free, and it’s silvery twinkle shoots away. The fist leader is quickly reconnected to his subordinates. It is, all in all, it must be said, it’s a successful operation.

The architectural graces of the Cathedral are harder to make out beneath the water, but still undeniable. Stylised stonework and statues, grotesques and grates, naves and nooks, Magnus has spared no expense with the submerged sections of his masterwork. With the effort it took to swim down, it is hard to imagine how the building was ever constructed. Emerging from a swirl of disturbed silt, a huge stone dolphin wearing the crown of miraculous healing emerges, mouth closed. Sable makes a quiet genuflection at the representation of the Doctor’s God.

Theophilus wades into the Tiagra with a forceful assertiveness, lapping at the cold waters with both hands as he descends. He had never used Deep before, but had attended many a hedonistic bacchanal dedicated to Lycanos the Moon Reveler on his home island in the Principalities. As an avid user of clairvoyant drugs, Theo leans into the effects of the water breathing agent.

The Warrior-Scholar was lashed together between Sage Whispering Grove and one of the Specialists. The Panyar of the Vipers of the Seven Stars has a reputation of preaching about druidic and shamanistic beliefs, and was the unit’s animal and beast specialist. Had Kseniya not volunteered to set loose the Hounds in the Cinder camp earlier, Sage would probably been first in line.

When Theo gets about to his waist down in the water, he turns and waits for Sage to catch up. They lock arms, and plunge into the river together. The two Vipers take turns at being the lead swimmer, the other just hanging onto the other until they switch. This technique allows them to conserve their strength somewhat, and also makes it a bit easier to dodge the debris caught in the current.

Luckily Deep provides them time, but it still takes Vani’s mechanically-minded eyes to pick out the small steel glint that marks the keyhole and to wipe it off. The Captain, his flaming sword extinguished for now by the pressing water, pulls out the reliquary and inserts it. With a grinding felt as vibrations more than heard, the dolphin’s mouth slowly opens, ancient mechanical system protesting to its use, and the Vipers move into the Watershed Cathedral, and into the Tomb of Blessed Merheim.

The water is cleaner and less disturbed inside, though still terribly cold. As the dolphin’s great gaping snout closes slowly behind them, it is clear that there is no light here either. Leo tuts, draws out his Zemyati whaler’s lantern, and after a few tries, manages to activate its inner mechanism and bring its dim, oily light to the scene.

The tomb has no windows, but rather tiny marble dioramas of the three lives of Merheim. Where Grundholt, as a great Aldermarni warrior-healer of the Godswar, was celebrated above, Merheim’s two miraculous self-resurrections and their sparking of the First War of Mercy were more controversial outside the faith.

It is also an ossuary, walls covered in grooves with cunning designs wrought from human bones. The long corridor has many displays on either side behind watertight crystal, holding various bone boxes, an obsidian carving of a human heart, and even a left boot. The room’s end is dominated by a large sarcophagus, with a smaller stone coffin to its side. It is clear there is more than the Vipers can carry. The architects had taken account of the location, and are exits to be found in all dimensions.

image

As the Vipers and Specs make their way into the Sunken Cathedral, the Warrior-Scholar filled with awe in reverence to enter the magnum opus of Magnus. It was an honest honor to witness one of the finest holy sites of the High Othmer tradition in person. Theo swims over to one of the Merheim dioramas. He runs his calloused hands across the smooth stone reliefs, appreciating the masterwork Othmeri masonry on display. The Andrasti Legionnaire turns back toward Sage and nods excitedly.

Controlled Group Maneuver roll, picking up some Stress for Theo, marking off 2 lantern uses to count as the special underwater lantern, followed by a Research roll. They rolled well enough to ask some questions about the tomb, its history and the contents, which are reflected below.

Leopold rolls his jarred shoulder in the water as he swims quietly assessing the damage. There appears to be no loss of function even at full rotation - something which makes it easier for him to ignore the pain, the body’s key signal that it has suffered damage.

Damage is inevitable. The regenerative property is the great secret of our quintessence.

Not for the first time, he considered the battle report on Mihkin, True regeneration. In the hands of our enemies.

As he lights the lantern with a sharp tsk, he directs the beam from reliquary to reliquary trying to take an inventory, before turning his attention to the Ossuary. The Aldermani used the Cryptosteon, the Language of Bones. They each had their codes and their symbols, a left phalange as a love token, a broken ulna as a warning. As he glanced around the relics, he hoped for some sign that might aid him in separating the wheat from the chaff.

Ah, the Knife of Ashes, he recognised, Forged over the coals of Great Hulthem’s pyre, tempered in the last of his blood. The patron of surgeons.

He swims over and indicates the cabinet, inviting his fellows to prise up or break the crystal only when he is sure it will not trigger any damage to the tomb-breakers or the item itself.

The Longstriding Boot of ‘Rubberknee’ McGee, who ran sixteen leagues in a night to warn the Orite Free Companies of the Crimson Janissaire advance, adjudicated as a miracle over 225 years ago.

The key, he realises, will be balancing the weight. He mulls a collection of holy skulls before nodding, and then swimming over to the smaller sarcophagus.

Gilt, he thinks, only attracts the guilty.

He stifles the urge to chuckle at his own thoughts, lest he reward his excitement with a lungful of river water. Floating over the coffin, he grins.

Yes, this is the one.

After it clears a careful check for nasty surprises, the smaller coffin - still an artwork in its own right - is pried open. It is easier beneath the water than above, and Leo recognises the interior must also be submerged. Inside is a perfectly preserved human arm, still pink, expertly removed at the joint, pale flesh bending at the elbow as if beckoning. The index and small finger have been removed.

I advised the players at this point they’d looted about half of the religious supplies in the mission target, and if they bailed now they could leave with 1 square. They of course stayed the course.


#58

The arm definitely twitches as it is extracted from the stone on which it… rests, and Frieta grasps at her own reliquaries. The other items are silently allocated in line with the agreed protocols. Theo, as the architectural expert, points the way out as best he can, leading the scavenging party through the catacombs. There are occasional fish nibbling on the bones, and some patches of vibrant plant life somewhere between moss and seaweed.

The tunnels are in some disrepair, some narrow and others gargantuan, and they twist in complex configurations. More than once, they reach shrines that serve as dead ends, or find they have looped back into a corridor they have crossed minutes before. Leo occasionally pauses the group to inspect a skull or a plaque, and a small collection of oddities and relics are deemed worth the weight.

At one point, facing a wall of shattered swords and spears, symbolising the immorality of the human form, the group is plunged into dark, and Leo has to relight his lamp, the precious oil having burned through the available air too fast. Sable indicates, at a point, that the Deep has passed the halfway, and the group should secure air, word passing through agreed tugs and elaborate charades.

The tunnels Theo chooses thereafter slowly incline upwards. There is before the Vipers a chamber so large the lamplight does not reach the far side. It slopes up, with identical gentle steps on both roof and ceiling making it hard to keep their bearings. The walls are more marble imagery, stern mothers and fathers of the faith supporting Mercies as they go about healing the sick and crippled. Suddenly, a bright burst of fish, a school swarming around the party’s legs and arms. There is a whispering, skittering sound - the first real sound the party have heard since diving into the river - and movement from above.

‘Combined deadly fish and toxic, burning algae walls’ trap is a little more fantasical than I’d usually go with Blades, but I wanted this to feel a little bit like a dungeon crawl, and to give credit to Zora’s warning about the healing goddess. Also, it serves a purpose in the building, protecting the submerged tomb. There is a warning, and an instruction on how to pass, but its coded in religious parable and… on the other side of the deadly passage.

Theo goes wide-eyed for a beat as he recognizes the danger that him and his Fist have found themselves in. Then he fans out his left hand out behind him to signal to Sage Whispering Grove to stay behind him. The Andrasti Warrior-Scholar draws his Xiphos sword and readies himself to slay some scaled underwater monsters. As the shoal of murder eels makes contact with Theophilus, he uses the flat of his leaf-shaped blade to smack them aside, creating a wedge inside the onrush of morays.

Theo then switches grip, and strikes upward , sending gluttonous aquatic alpha predators into the lethal acid algae that grows on the ceiling of the sunken chamber. A sickly green luminescence radiates as Devil Morays burn to their deaths. With the poise of an athlete Theophilus realigns himself at a slant by letting his legs float backward and up, above his chest. Then he kicks and sends himself like an arrow down at the rest of the Devil Morays and slashes at them with lightning alacrity.

Bisected eels float around them seeping black blood from their wounds as Theo returns to Sage Whispering Grove.

In the turgid water, the onslaught of the monstrous fish is an oppressive crush, a swirl of steel razors emerging from stygian blackness and disappearing again beyond those whom they tear apart. Leo, who will never make a marksman with his slight nearsightedness, has an advantage here - it is always a little harder for him to see and he has learned to do more with less. He sees, amongst the tumult, a set of jagged and broken stones, not unlike those that struck him in the shoulder before. And beyond them, another school of killers, moving towards the Captain.

Seeing his chance, Leo flicks himself across to a pillar and kicks off with both legs, slamming his body into the passing rock. The force of the blow diverts the stone, breaking up the fish just before they strike the captain. They swirl about the pair, but pass around them unharmed. Leo grins at de Deori.

Simple physics, he seems to say.

The Bartan divined the threat from a thousand small signs in the moments before it went down: rusted metals beside the thick algae, and the transition of the shadows showed something large hidden against the roof. She was behind the doctor before the others had reacted, flickering her lantern on and off, pouring the oil in as fast as the mechanism will eat. Her red eyes flash in the suddenly bright light, driving the fish into Theo’s ready blade, her silhouette cast long against the walls, hair billowing in the water.

This was a game of “Protect Actions where Rookies save Specs”. After a failed Scout and Research roll beforehand, this deadly algae and alien fishery was simply done to the players, and they had to resist. Harsh, but dungeons can be that way.

In the light, she glances up, and makes out inscribed on the roof -

the airless water the writhing sinner the burning halls bring long scars to seeds of mercy the black pain ripens the golden sacrament beneath the ever-humbling eye

After the trinity of rescues, Rafe – still silent – but a grateful hand on Leo’s shoulder, and gives the signal to progress carefully. The long, gradiated stairs give way in time to a circular portal leading up into light, air and a roughly hexagonal chamber.

Above and around the portal was intended to be the dramatic entrance to the sunken catacombs, but the unnatural storm has flooded this room and the rooms around it as well, water up to Theo’s waist. There are several decorative dressing screens, with painted Aldermani scenes of cranes fishing, colourful orchids and dragons playing among rainclouds, and soft towels floating. From here, the directions of the Most Loyal Diabon come into place, and the Vipers must choose a path.


#59

After the submerged tomb, the Remnant were aware of three areas of especial value or interest -

  1. The Shelter or Seed of Mercy
  2. The Library
  3. The main chapel

They knew the route between them (with the above being the default order) and it became a question now of staying power - how long could the Vipers carry on looting before it got too hot. First up was the Shelter.

beneath the ever-compassionate eye in ceaseless agony the seed of mercy embraces the flesh and shall rejoice and scream there and for the lady go I for this durance have I felt before

These words are engraved above the door of the Shelter of Mercy. The area takes up the north-west limb of the Cathedral and the connected tower, and the water here laps around ankles, covering the white tiles. There are shared quarters here, with simple but comfortable cots with chests at one end, a kitchen, and an office for the Most Loyal Gerta, Antissin of the Pure.

Instructional religious art and simple anatomical diagrams hang on the walls, and on one cot, a list of herbs has been left, corners curling from the damp. The space could house perhaps thirty, in simple comfort, but there is little of value. The stairs lead up to the tower, where a thick iron door bars progress, though it opens to the key.

The room here is a large space filled with beautifully crafted instruments. There is a gilded stretching rack with silver manacles, a standing humaniform box that resembles a winged angel that opens to reveal the inner workings of an iron maiden, two stone surgical tables and a row of vices with cranking handles decorated with allegorical filigree.

Off to one side, Sable is quick to sniff out a room of medical supplies and drugs, well stocked with bandages, chemicals, and sutures. On the other side, a morgue, still with a score of preserved cadavers from a mix of peasant and church stock. Some have been used for heavy surgery more than once, their empty heads and chests stitched back together, while various aberrant or diseased specimens of human and animal organs sit preserved in jars. Another smaller staircase leads higher into the tower.

Leopold coughs softly as the Deep gives out, before taking sudden, if silent, gulps of air. After a few seconds he quietly vomits, a small pool of black tar staining the handkerchief he has laid out, which he neatly knots around a stone and drops back into the water. His eyes cling to the surgical tables and the instruments, undisguised covetousness on his face. As Sable looks to the surgery and the morgue, the Fist Leader approaches the Panyar.

"Doctor, what do you make of these?"

Sable runs his finger across the toxins, and speaks in a distant voice.

“I fear… for all that is familiar… we are a long way from the halls of Witten, Master Orpik.”

Leo eyes the instruments, feeling the weight of a scalpel, gazes at a oversized human heart, “It does have echoes of a teaching hospital.”

Sable looks back out at the larger chamber, and touches his healer’s brand, “Or what came in the strange aeons before us. They taught and studied here, my friend, but… someone also endured. Tools of healing and tools for pain, designed by the same hand, seen as sides of the coin.”

“Those who wander toward civilization often stumble along with an ungainly, drunken gait,” says Theophilus. “The dead ends must be excavated.”

The Andrasti Warrior-Scholar speaks in a matter-of-factly voice, but the disturbing purpose of the beautifully wrought instruments and workbenches leaves more than a sour taste in Theo’s mouth. The words are not convincing. Theo looks like he is about to speak more, offer up more on the Andrastan perspective of what might have been going on in this chamber. Instead, he looks off to the side, then into the floor tiles, and then he just kind of gestures, and gives up at it. The Scion of House Demetriou drops to a knee and starts inspecting the floor tiles instead. He is taking samples of the strange algae growing between them, intent on turning his disappointment toward Magnus into something productive.

Never meet your heroes, Theo. But there is a greater mystery at play here…

Sable is clearly thinking deeply, his broad forehead tied in a series of deep rivets.

“I’m not… sure it’s that simple, Theo.”

He places his arm in one of the vices, and his hand on the handle, the angles clearly aligned for the subject to be the user. “Whatever this is, its not mere sadism, nor am I convinced this was ineffective. This reminds me of…”

The Doctor looks to the Captain, and then fades off.

Callback to Pale’s notes and Sable’s corruption. If only the GM could get xp for playing people’s traumas and heritage!

Vani is quiet as she explores the various mechanisms and tools. She lacks the medical or architectural knowledge of her peers, but has a sense for the way things work honed in her days at the Bartan holy school. She was also, perhaps, more familiar with the Temple of Mercy than the others, having been devout and steeped in their doctrine ever since her youth. She realised instantly what Sable deduced - that the devices, all of them, would be used to inflict harm on the self, and nonlethally.

Leo calls Vani over to the angel-box, and she easily demonstrates for him the internal mechanism for opening and closing, proof of the subject’s control of the process. As she does, her eye is drawn to the eyeslits, aiming at a particular spot on the wall.

“What were they looking at?”

She speaks aloud as she walks over, glad to have her voice back. Exploring the far wall, she finds a latch, and it opens a section of the wall, sliding it open with a clatter. Behind the wall, a chamber with nothing but a simple mat, surrounded with more words written to Askira -

the seed of mercy is planted in the knowing of the flesh the all-loving eye must encompass and encircle the beloved sinner and the wings unfurl with the estacty of the agony pain is our blessing gnosis is our wing affinity is our tool self is sacrificed to desire for the sinners respite she walks in the wake of the willing she takes flight from the false judge in desire for purity the eye closes when thee art thou the eye opens

Very much a where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms thing going on here, yeah.

Sitting there on the mat is an old man. He sits in a lotus position, meditating or perhaps unconscious, in the green robes of a retired Mercy. He is blighted beyond anything Vani had seen, with eyes on his face and shoulders, and black slimey feathers tearing from his arms. He is alive, though covered in small wounds and cuts.

The Warrior-Scholar enters the secret chamber behind Vani with quick steps. Upon seeing the blighted Mercy, Theo immediately draws his leaf-bladed Xiphos sword and begins circling the aged man.

“Ptha! Remain seated and fail to spring into action, fell monk,” says Theophilus. “Your wounds. To whom do you lend your services? Speak quickly and truthfully, your life depends on it!”

Sable leaps in front of the xiphos, slapping it aside as he bends down to check the man, barely pausing long enough for Leo to pointedly pass him his gloves.

“Askira abandon you, man, can’t you see he is wounded?”

Sable opens the man’s eyes - all the man’s eyes - and shines the lantern into them, noting the pupils are rolled back.

“And insensible,” he rolls up his water-heavy sleeves, pulls down the man’s loose top, “This man is in a deep trance, and has lost much blood.”

“Leo,” he instructs, “Bring me the heart of clophis, the salts and the wartroot.”

Rafe looks down, “In enemy territory, doctor.”

“This man needs attention.” Rafe nods, “Not saying otherwise. I’m saying we’re still deep in the shit, and a theory about what is happening here. Vipers, you are the experts. What are we looking at?”

“If I were to hazard a guess, Sir, it’s a Mercy who has strained itself overmuch,” says Theophilus.
“The enemy has turned compassion against us, warped it into a blind angle from which to strike at us with.”

The Andrasti Viper says all of this without taking his eyes off the blighted monk, “Asking permission to eliminate the subject if it refrains from providing answers, Sir.”

Vani cuts in front of Theo with a withering glare.

“He’s a penitent, in meditation, in a trance. The higher Mercies inflict wounds upon themselves to move closer to the divine. They take the pain of others, they must learn to embrace it so as to heal. Don’t mistake the Blight he bears for being blighted.”

She looks to the Captain, “This is a holy man, Captain. Until we have reason otherwise, to strike him down is to do the Cinder King’s work for him.”

And as she speaks this, the thought that has been swimming in the back of her mind reaches the surface, and she wonders aloud, “Such a large force sent to the Cathedral. They’re not here to plunder. They’re here to… to Break.”

Not a bad guess from Greg, and definitely in the ballpark.

Theophilus eyebrows rise sharply at the surprise of Vani’s acerbic words setting him straight. The Andrasti Legionnaire shoots sidelong glances at Rafe and Sable —who remain blank— and Sage, who slowly shakes his head. Theo shrugs, and re-sheathes his sword.

“You learn something new every day, I guess,” says the Warrior-Scholar deferentially, not to pleased about having been dressed down in front of the Fist but absolutely seeing his own fault in it.

“This is more your land than mine. What do I know. He’s not chiseled out of marble, or carved out of wood. Clearly not a piece of art. Eugh.”

Vani turns her face from Theo before he can see her expression, one hand going to the tiny charm wound around her belt, fingering it. It is not the reliquary given by the Quartermaster, but her own token of faith, worn smooth through years of similar use. She drops to her haunches and looks closely at the Mercy, not so much with reverence as much as with respect, glancing to Sable.

“We cannot leave him here. He is touched.” She gestures to the inscription on the walls. “The seed of mercy is planting in the knowing of the flesh. The all-loving eye must encompass and encircle the beloved sinner and the wings unfurl with the ecstasy of the agony.”

She looks to Leo, then to the Captain, “He did this to himself deliberately, as Askira bids. He seeks to fight the Blight by learning it, taking it in and upon himself. Have you ever seen one so touched and not fallen full to corruption? And yet he endures, his faith holds him to his course, through all that has happened. This man walks in her shadow. We cannot abandon him. They would take his Blight and turn it full onto Corruption.”

She looks to takes the medicines Leopold has returned with, holding them for Sable.

“Go gently with him, Doctor. If he emerges too sharp, I fear the shock to his system.”

Again, she looks to the tormented Mercy. “She walks in the wake of the willing,” she murmurs. “In desire for purity the eye closes. When thee art thou, the eye opens.” She fingers her token once more.

“Thy heart is pure, Mercy,” she whispers to him. “But I fear what happens to it if you remain here.”

Sable nods at Vani reassuringly, “Gently.” As he moves the salts away and tries gentler wakings, the Mercy’s eyes flutter weakly, but he says nothing. When Vani whispers, his fingers tighten around his own simple reliquary, the steel smote black and warped. Sable takes the treatments, nimble fingers working their proficient path.

Rafe turns to Sable, “Okay, I buy it. If he is a civilian with intel, he is coming with us. Doctor, prepare him for travel.”

Frieta, silent until now, speaks up in a small voice, “The Seal of Gundholt.”

The doctor glances up from his knees, “Of course. Sir, if the Fist Regular is correct, and it broadly tracks to me, then this man may have crossed to a point where the seal that is keeping the dead outside affects him.”

“He is gone, then?” Sable shrugs, “If he had turned entire, it’d be more… dramatic, I think. This is closer to why I recommended the Hanged Men be not considered for this one.”

For sale, one Mercy, has seen heavy use.

The Vipers secure their prizes, and Vani and Frieta gently bring the green-robed elder to his feet. Slowly, quietly, cautiously, the group descend back into the water-logged rooms below and navigate their way by dim light through the arched corridors of the Chapel of the Waters. Once they reach new areas, Vani leaves the dazed man in Frieta’s capable and massive arms, and slips forward.

Objectively, the distance she travels between the Shelter of Mercy and the Bucherei ei Askira is not great, and it is easy for her to imagine scholars racing between them in a few minutes. In the darkness, and the eerie silence, concerned with enemies and traps, the journey seems prolonged, fraught.

Nonetheless, the great library is hard to miss, being slightly elevated by a few steps, sectioned from the rest of the building by a water-tight door. The area behind the door is the full three stories high, with two walkways above reached by ladders and staircases. The floor is dry for once, covered in mosaic of a two-headed winged figures, green tiles against white flagstones. Each floor is lined with high bookshelves, stuffed with volumes from all ages and times. Frescos and alcoves alternate along the main walls between the rows of books. The frescos are again of Chosen engaged in heroic activities, fighting monsters, sitting in judgement, banishing plagues, casting light over fields of grain and so on. The alcoves contain stone pillars, with particularly impressive and illuminated volumes resting on them. Several short corridors stretch off left and right, presumably leading to more books. Down one such corridor, Vani can make out a display house or museum, filled with the panoply of holy relics and curios. Plinths are topped with jewellery, scroll cases, painted vases, feathers and vials of blood.

As she creeps in for a proper assessment, she moves crouched between two damask-covered reading tables. As she turns past a row of books, there is lectern with a librarian’s log, and a body – the first fresh corpse the Vipers have seen - has fallen across it. Ink is spilled over her face and the book, and several feet her, a pair of Zimyati knights argue in hushed voices. One is tall, with a shaved head and a large axe on his back, while his companion is a smaller woman with a severe face and white pocks on her necks and hands. Both are heavily armoured, and in clear disputation, though Vani cannot speaks enough of the Zimya tongue to follow.

Even though she hears two speak, there is a third, and they clank down one of the corridors behind her, calling out to their fellows. She has not been seen, but she has no obvious way of returning to the Vipers without risking being observed.

DUN-DUN-DUN. This was a mixed success on a Risky Scout roll, fwiw.


#61

Vani waits out the knights, keeping her mental count. Their argument intensifies briefly, and then the woman clearly pulls rank, delivering some witheringly curt remarks that make the larger man hang his head before saluting. The larger knight moves towards the door to stand guard, unslinging his axe with an aura of resentment, and passing by the table Vani has crawled beneath. The other two Black Oak proceed much in the way the Vipers would have, beginning a cursory examination of the room, piling certain books and objects.

“She’s been gone too long.”

The Captain hisses only softly in the silent cathedral, but in the still it carries, if only a little. Leo nods and slides forward, using his cape to muffle the scrape of boots on tile.

“No sounds of violence,” continues de Deori, “No hurried footfalls conducting a further search. She’s pinned down somewhere.”

Orpik nods, and taps the Captain on the shoulder, before drawing his eye to the shadows on the wall of books a few rows over. Bound in doe-skin, they are a pale mustard in colour, save for a few towards the top that are coloured dun, by what on examination is the shadow of a man’s head.

Before de Deori can speak, the Fist Leader is up, and moving carefully across the floor with the light steps of Orite courtly dance. He presses himself against the stacks before picking a row of volumes near the corner. One by one he silently moves them down a row, double stacked, and then the books reversed beyond them, until a small hole peeks through the tomes. Unclasping his cape, Leopold holds the corner just beyond the far row and wiggles it, just gently and slowly. The black would be nearly invisible in the dim corridors. Nearly.

After a moment or two, the Fist hears the soft but unmistakable sound of heavy boots on stone. The sentry draws closer…closer…and still Leo wriggles the cape. It’s not until the armoured man’s hands are practically on it that Orpik spins on his heel around the corner, drawing his thin rapier as he does so, and stabs the man swiftly and neatly through the neck. He spasms once and gurgles faintly, but the Orite legionnaire ducks under him to hold him up (practiced at carrying dying men) and lets arterial spray trickle down his back, before tucking the raider out of site in another row of books and refastening the cape over his gory shoulders. He scurries back to his fellows.

"That was most fortunate," he whispers. "I managed to avoid staining the books."

Back in the room, Vani takes the window of opportunity to throw the crystal inkwell, and the female knight draws a pair of fine blades, swinging them around her wrist before turning to investigate. Even as Leo finishes his bloody work, Theo and Frieta are sliding around him, Theo’s xiphos rising and falling.

The female knight responds, whether by instinct or luck, with a move of her head, and the swift wide blade clangs against armour instead of the skull. The man, alerted, lifts his shield just in time to catch Frieta’s devastating blow, which carves a huge chunk from the top. The pocked woman snarls, and snaps her elbow into Theo’s jaw before stepping up onto a chair and letting gravity carry her forward to the table. The other knight has no weapon to hand, but grips his shield and smashes it into Frieta. She leans back, throwing her shoulder in, as the two grind their tower shields against each other.

A pair of Black Oak Knights are a pair of Threat 2 enemies, which is no slouch against a bunch of rookies, even when they have some Scale.

Theo does not let her flee, pressing his advantage, sliding over the table after her, tucking up the tablecloth as he swings his spin two-handed. She kicks a chair into him, darts back, parries Rafe as he comes from the side. Then she is on the aggressive, her blade knocks Theo’s weapon aside, the second comes down on Theo’s neck, a gush of blood as she escapes Rafe’s blade to take cover at her compatriot’s side, feinting at Frieta to buy the man time to draw his own weapon.

Theo died here, a Rookie failing against a Threat 2 opponent, but he resisted down to Harm 3.

The Xiphos clatters to the ground as the Scion of House Demetriou falls to a knee. His sword hand is now clutching his neck, thin rivulets of lifeblood escaping through his fingers like a river of crimson seen from far above.

The Andrasti Warrior-Scholar grunts and sneers, his mouth bloodied, “No. Debate!

The two Bartan Legionnaires fight as one, Vani darting in and then back to take shelter behind Frieta’s shield. Their square-headed adversary swings his blade in greater and greater fury, and though he never entirely abandons his own ingrained shield discipline, when Frieta smashes her blade into the riveted steel front, Vani takes her chance to snake left and thrust her blade somewhere into the man’s abdomen.

Sable has leaned the Mercy against the wall and, pistol on hand, scrambles forward on hands and knees to place a bandage over Theo’s gushing throat, taking instead a still-booted kick to the face.

Rafe’s blade is everywhere. Though Leo works to support his Captain, his rapier flashing in diagonal sweeps and sudden thrusts easily parried, it is clear to his him that he is in a realm of masters. When Captain de Deori became so skilful is unclear to the Fist Leader. The man was never a slouch, but his strength of arm, his timing, his focus, they were all far away from the relative dilettante Leo has previously observed. And as Rafe parries a blow from each of the sharp eyed woman’s blades, the second deflected just wide enough it yet nicks a chunk Leo’s ear, it becomes clear that skill is needed.

The Vipers keep the Black Oak contained. Inch by inch, blow by blow, they close the circle, until the entire building shakes violently. There is an enormous echoing crack from elsewhere in the Cathedral. The fighters struggle to hold their feet. Books rain from the shelves, marble floor tiles ruck and skew, and the huge statue of Saint Aldrich topples from its pedestal, his outstretched hands and spread wings falling directly atop the circle. The woman facing Rafe smiles as the statue comes down.