Campaign Diary: The Sword of the Remnant

The stone statue shatters against the floor, shards of rock flying. The combatants scatter, and the Black Oak woman presses left, hoping to move around Rafe to the exit. The heftier knight clatters to his knees, protected from the falling debris by his shield.

Sable wipes blood from his nose and fearlessly pushes back in towards the fray, this time successfully recovering Theo to drag him to safety. The doctor, nervous, begins his assessment of the deep cut. He is surprised when a rough hand pushes him aside, and the green-robed Mercy kneels beside him. The eyes on the man’s neck blink out of synch, and his back twitches unnaturally, but as he rolls up his sleeves, it is the glowing hands of the Mercy that reach out for the Andrastan’s neck. The wound begins to knit beneath his hands, and his aberrant eyes cry thick, heavy tears of blood.

“There, there, child, we’ll take care of you now, ye’ll be right.”

The Mercy healed Theo from Harm 3 to Harm 2. This exceeds the usual effect of a Mercy, but I thought, given he was in his place of power, a little heroic exertion was justified. I still marked him as Wounded.

Vani staggers at the rumble, the rain of stone-dust and fragments unexpected and ominous, its sound as much audible as a vibration through the bones. The Black Oak resets himself, favoring his right, the sharp edge of his shield slashing out to buy him room. If she had breath for it, she would offer a prayer.

Frieta does better, the larger Bartan dropping her shoulder, then shifting with her hips and coming up as she lunges. The top of her shield catches the bottom of his, and the opening is there for an instant, and Vani takes it, the point of her blade entering between plates of armor at his armpit as the knight’s arm rises involuntarily. She drives up, twists, her full weight until the blade can go no further, then yanks free. He drops heavy.

She pivots, squaring up again, but there is no room to join Leopold and the Captain, even as Frieta scrambles over a table, a shelf, seeking to offer aid on the flank. Leopold steps back, raising his blade to warn Vani back from the two fighters. It’s not that the blades are a blur, not the rapier work she is familiar with from the other Vipers. But the exchanges are now coming so quickly she expects to see sparks.

Fighting with two swords has always been explained to her as either arrogance or supreme skill. The woman seems to fall to the latter. But Vani sees the mistake when it comes, the knight catching the Captain’s lunge in a rising cross-block, and the moment she does she realizes her mistake. Whether by luck or intention, the Captain exposes her midline as she parries, and the kick he delivers to her chest rings on armor and slams her back against a set of shelves.

She tries to throw off his blade and regain her footing, but she is simply not quick enough. His sword slashes, lacerates her face and takes an eye, and then again, across her throat. She pitches forward, one sword lost as she instinctively reaches for her throat, the other dropped, going to her eye. He catches her against his chest as she falls, lowers her face first to watch the rest of her lifeblood leave her.

This was a tough engagement. The Vipers are built for brains, not brawn, and putting together group Skirmish rolls was a real challenge, especially with Theo out of action. Three rolls down the track of this, and some Stress divvied out, the Threat 2 Specialist NPCs did the heavy lifting.

The squad catches their breath for a moment. Then Leo is scrambling for the shelves.

Leo quickly riffles through the books, glancing at the marginalia and the brief notes that the dead woman has sketched out. He quirks an eyebrow, before glancing back at the woman with a half smile.
"What a pity. Well, at least one of your conclusions did you credit today."

The Captain ducks around a pile of rubble. “It’s time to leave, Fist Leader.”

"Yes, sir. On my way."

The room continues to shake as Leo guides his Fist at their labours, though it feels more in the nature of aftershock and aftermath now. Even amidst the holiest and most storied of books in this magnificent library, the Bok dem Blud stands out, a massive tome sitting on a pillar dedicated to the book alone. It weighs as much as Frieta’s shield, the dark red leather seeming to absorb the light. Ripples of movement flow along the cover, as if the title is constantly being written by the tititular fluid.

The Book of Blood is the major prize here. I named it as an in-joke for my very DCU-aware players.

The information the players will unpack later, but is mostly guessed by Greg-as-Vani already, is that Mercies are (in my setting) part found and part made.

First, you need people with an exceptional degree of empathy, because to work the miracle cure, a Mercy must genuinely wish that the injury had happened to them and not the sufferer. Secondly, the Mercy must have a sound medical knowledge of the wound to be able to safely absorb it.

This mystical understanding of the body and spirit is also what allows a Mercy to heal faster and more surely than others, and inculcating this understanding is what both the medical lab and the torture devices above are for. Children make good Mercys for small wounds - if the will is there, it is rarely jaded - but are worse at complex wounds, and they heal slower, so tend to be found in big temples and royal courts, not on battlefields. What is going on with Taisa remains a mystery.

The Temple of Mercy also believe this why Mercies cannot transition Blight - first and foremost, Mercies generally do not want an incurable corrupting blight, so cannot transfer it; and secondly, do not understand it enough to move it.

The Book of Blood solves the second problem, teaching Mercies meditative exercises tpo understand the Curse of Dar, which is close enough to Blight to work. The mechanics are that Legion Mercies can undo Corruption now, even to the point of reversing Blight, but it transfers to them and like Alchermists, they get slowly corrupted until their pool fills. I’d love opinions on whether people felt this was balanced for a relic.

I also gave Leo a Research roll, and with a partial success, I said he could pick up books with information on two of three possible topics - info on Askira’s Chosen and the ritual to summon her; info about the Church’s creation of Mercies; and information about Dar and its curse. He went with the latter two.

Leopold grabs two sets of heavy volumes from the desk and crams them - albeit carefully- into his book bag. It is with some regret that the third volume proves too cumbersome to lift, and he hastens back over the corpse to rejoin the rest of the soldiers.

"On we go, sir. Do we try for the last room?"

“I don’t think it’s a choice, Fist Leader,” the Captain rolls his shoulder, “The ways out all go through the axis now.”

Rafe looks to Sage, dispatched up the tall narrow ladders to crane up and look out one of the small angled windows for light.

They call down, “You were right, sir, some of the dead are preparing to cross the river. A number seem missing, but there’s a boat’s worth.”

The Mercy wipes some blood off himself with his robes, and pats Theo on the cheeks. Theo feels he can rise now, and it is clearly at the old man’s expense. He does not fall back into a reverie, but he sits on his ass hard, and his breathing is ragged and wet.

“They have someone big with them, sir,” the Panya speaks as they clamber down, “Fills the damn boat.”

“The Seal is broken,” the Mercy chokes out, “Askira to our aid, the Seal.”

Sable reaches out to gently calm the man, but his bedside manner gets nowhere, his hands brushed aside roughly. Rafe’s sword flickers back to life, the blue and red flames licking the edge of the blade like dying embers.

“If the Seal is broken, what does that mean?”

The old man groans, and his eyes still weep blood.

“I had crossed too far… too far, and yet I awoke. The dead and damned may enter freely now, this place has been blasphemed against. Grundholt’s miracle has ended.”

“I know you are suffering, but please bear with us,” the Captain kneels beside the Mercy, “We have come to rescue the holy works in this chapel as best we can.”

Rafe holds out the key, and hopes it is enough, “We have the blessing of Her Eminence in our efforts. But understand, we have a wider responsibility. I am disturbed by the enemy’s interest here, and if you can tell us anything about what is risked if we simply depart now…”

The old man coughs, and makes the effort to stand, “Apologies, I take your… support for granted. Trust I do not take much stock in parochial prejudices, not even against the Remnant. I am the Most Humble and Merciful Mattin, for my sins stripped of the title of Most Wise.”

He adjusts his robe so the eyes and feathers are hidden, “The Cathedral is gone from the faithful. It is no weapon or tool sized for their hands, anything but… ah, but here, here the mark of the Powers remains impressed strongly on the Weave.”

While the term means nothing to Rafe, the academics recognise the Weave as an obscure, and perhaps arcane, term adopted by sorcerers (and recently by agnostics uncomfortable with words like ‘miracle’ and ‘god’) for those patterns of energy that connect the Chosen with what common folk call magick - the Orite trinity with their alchemy, or the Chosen of Ostra with Mercies.

The old man nods at the flaming sword, “I see you have also been touched by the Powers, son. So perhaps you will understand…”

His bloodshot eyes - the ones in his head - meet Rafe’s. “They will rape this place, as they have many others, as fuel for their Cinder flames.”

Vani doesn’t move for several seconds. The end of her sword looks black in the light of the library, what drips from its tip hitting the floor in a deep crimson. She lifts her head, watches as Theo is helped closer, as Sage and Leopold begin quickly searching the shelves, pulling volumes. She looks to the Mercy, blood running from his eyes, a brighter shade of the same stuff coating her blade.

All at once she shudders, then sheathes her sword and twists her pack onto the table nearby. She quickly pulls Kseniya’s tunic from within, begins tearing it into strips, no wider than two fingers. She ties them together, begins knotting them at regular intervals. Frieta can hear her praying under her breath.

“Oil,” she says. “Who has oil?”

Without waiting for an answer, her eye falls to the lantern clipped to Theo’s harness. She snatches it free, quickly unscrewing the shield.

“Two, no, three,” she says, speaking more to herself than any of the others. She holds up one of the strips she is fashioning, gnaws her lip for a moment.

“Maybe fifteen minutes. There, there, and there.”

She turns to the Captain, still holding the lantern, its reservoir now exposed. She soaks one of the strips as she speaks, wrings it out, sets it aside.

“We must burn it,” she says, and the Oritian officer can see the tears shining in her eyes. “We must burn it all , sir. Because they are not like him…” and she doesn’t need to indicate the Mercy for her meaning to be clear “…and they will not take this pain and transcend it. They will take this pain and they will corrupt it, all of it. All of the knowledge here, they will not seek wisdom from it, they will seek only torment with it. If we leave them this wisdom, they will use it to Corrupt our Lady. They will do it. They will Break her as they have the rest.”

Without waiting for the Captain to answer, she turns to the Mercy.

“Most Humble, I beg your understanding. I beg your forgiveness.”

She looks to the rest of the Vipers. The tears run freely down her cheeks, though she does not sob.

“We must,” Vani says.

The Mercy puts his hands on Vani’s shoulder and wipes a tear from her cheek. “Be not afraid, dear, for She still walks this world.”

“She doesn’t dwell in a stone building, we just keep hold of the warmth of the miracles of her past Chosen, and her Mercies. Alchemy did not becomes diseased because they took the guildhalls and academies of Deori. It fell because of Blighter fell, and none other.”

He gestures out towards the small window, from which light pours in, “Hold in your faith. Shreya is out there, my daughter. She is unBroken. Nothing they can do here today can change that.”

He sighs, “Burn this place, if you wish to deny them knowledge. Burn this place, and hope that the the reliquaries even can burn with it.”

“But do not fear the Breaking of the Lady while Shreya flies the land bringing respite. The gods are not so small, child.”

Apart from being just a nice establishing scene with Mattin, I was noticing my players were pretty sure that the Oak had some way of using the cathedral to break Askira, or some equally nefarious big advancement of their agenda. This put me in a spot, because firstly, in some sense, they were right, but it wasn’t something they were at all obliged or even able to prevent, and secondly, they were off on the details, but I wasn’t sure how to pass that on. A little Giles-from-Buffy exposition goes a long way, though.

Theophilus takes a few arduous steps. Steadies himself on one of the ransacked plinths that had held a volume that Leo had stashed into his pack. He winces in pain; the re-knitted wound on his neck was still raw, despite having been healed by the Most Humble and Merciful Mattin. The Warrior-Scholar’s expression of agony might as well be for mourning what must come to pass with the library they were taking refuge in.

“I came East to learn,” says Theo with a melancholy tone. “It seems harder and harder to do so without leaving blood and ash in our wake.”

The Andrasti Viper takes thumb and forefinger to his beard, which he strokes thoughtfully, finding something somewhere to carry on.

“I say this not without hurt,” Theo says. “But Vani is right. Setting these texts to the torch is the lesser of two evils. And at least we’re saving the most precious tomes we found, right Leo?” Theophilus smiles a wan smile.

Mattin turns on Theo, and for the first time, his expression is dark.

“You take, what, a dozen books from a thousand, and claim you have the most precious? The secret to treating the Red Pox is here, and the maps to unknot the womb of suffering women. The lost treatments to blackrot and the key to the language of the proto-Panyari may be on these shelves, and because they did not meet your soldier’s needs, you have what is precious?”

He staggers from the exertion, and coughs an intensive fit. The spluttering has drawn blood, and his anger seems to fade with his focus.

“Look, you know your business. If this place is so dangerous it must be denied future generations so there can be future generations… do as you will. But respect what you are destroying.”

“I will not beg a Mercy for mercy,” says Theo. “Especially not one who heals me within the hour after I threaten his life. But you take what you will from me, Master Mattin. This war is far from over. Mayhap my actions can sway you better than ill-chosen words.”

With that, Theo steps in and props the many-eyed Mercy up onto his shoulder. They make an odd couple in a stranger embrace.

Lots of back and forth, and the group decide the best plan is to send Vani out to Scout again - with her one die - and this time to the last, most dangerous location.

Vani scouts ahead alone once more, boots wrapped and weapons adjusted so the sound won’t reverberate through the cold stone walls and through the open curved roof, heart heavy with the task ahead. The large main chamber is easy to find, taking up as is does the bulk of the structure. The cruciform main body is the ceremonial heart.

She goes through a long narrow corridor, and up a steep staircase, quietly entering onto a narrow walkway with an aged and cracking iron handrail, long disused expect for what she imagines must be maintenance of the windows that run along the left hand side. She moves in perfect silence, and has a vantage that will allow her to fulfill the Captain’s orders.

Blue-green algae grows along cracks in the stonework, giving off a quiet glow, and light trickles in through the stain glass windows above. Thick wet dust quiets her movements, and she hopes the long shadows hide her. The nave below is filled with deep water, the floor well beneath the river. The aisles and ambulatory are solid enough rock, and only lightly damp, with baroquely decorated gutters and a protective pulpitum holding the lapping water at bay. The columns reaches from deep below the water to the atrium, framing the church in a harmonious manner, and Vani can image the pious masses of Karksburg gathering in small decorated boats to celebrate the high holy days, coronations and other major events.

From the apse through to the high altar, it is dry, and this is the space that the knights have desecrated… or perhaps reconsecrated. The chapel wall behind the altar, presumably where the Seal was inscribed, had been blasted apart, and a rough elliptical hole gapes in the wall. Ritual sigils are burned into the stone of the chancel floor, and the altar itself has been decorated in bleeding swords and horned skulls. Candles burn in a circle, but with a black glower, eating rather than giving off light.

As Vani edges closer to where the Black Oak congregate, she can see they stand to attention around the edge of the apse, where a Zemyati vessel - still with the scratch-mark of Kseniya’s axe - pulls up, followed by another filled with Gaunts. The welcoming party are dressed in the heavy and finely fitted Zemyati armour, each in a better-worked example of the smith’s art than anything the Legion can offer. Helms are shaped like screaming faces, and patterns are acid-etched in blues and blacks, but Vani suspects the decoration is not at the price of function. Where each suit would normally sport their family heraldry, an ugly red handprint instead can be seen.

The vaulted ceilings and reaching pillars are designed to convey a sense of something scaled beyond the human, but somehow the figure that steps from the boat to the shore seems far too large for the space. His heavy black plate is more utilitarian than that of his followers, with ugly rivets that glow red and warp the air around them, as if there was a fire burning beneath the steel. He has no shield, but instead a sword twice as large as any two handed Vani has seen. A tawny mane of shoulder-length hair and a rugged warrior’s beard gives a leonel cast to his features. Reaching up his neck is a distinct impression of splayed handprint made in seared, twisted flesh, the thumb stretching to make an ugly chasm across the beard to the lip.

He has no shield - symbolism!

The huge man’s resemblance to the Lord Commander is pronounced, though more in the manner than the exact features. There is a maturity and strength to the face that contrasts with the boyish features that gave Gorgeous his name. The same alert eyes twinkle in the face, though where Dmitri looks like he shares a common joke or insight, these only give the impression they mock the solemnity and obeisance of those around him.

“Lord Render,” the knight in charge - a tall thin man with immaculately parted hair - salutes, mailed gauntlet ringing against chestplate, “As you step over the threshold, it is my personal honour to welcome you to the Kapternamus-Voenvrač.”

The immense man steps across to ‘shore’, footfalls of his black iron boots echoing loudly throughout the cathedral. The knights are utterly still, as if holding their breath.

“Thank you, Radaghast.”

The voice is warm and rich, accustomed to easy command. There is a subtle edge to it that disturbs Vani, an undertone of abrasive heaviness that reminds her of a wet log on a fire.

“How long until we begin consecration? Irag and the Riders have completed their element.”

The pair walk alongside each other the long way around the chancel. As Render states thoughtfully our a clerestory window, Vani can see the knight’s face visibly sour.

“Ah, the excellent and most loyal Irag. I understand he is called… the Flayed… now?”

Render raises an eyebrow, “In my service, is any sacrifice too much?.”

“No, Lord Render. Our oath is… without limit.”

The man hums and demures, “Please understand it will be a few days before the Temple of the Burning Heart is fully scalable…”

The voice fades, starts again then turns quickly into a self-interruption as Render’s gaze turns to him, “But of course we will of course have an inaugural ritual here in your presence, a demonstration of the future of the unfailing oathkeeper.”

Render nods dismissively, and continues on, walking circuitously towards the altar. He smiles as he sees the changes, and claps his hands together.

“Now, this is something. Even Stormbringer has nothing to compare with what you accomplish. Even the Bone Wastes would struggle with the full ambit of your… vision.”

Listening intently from above, the Bartan Viper nonetheless is carefully mapping out what she can see. She discerns a possible path from the library wing to the exit across the area cordoned off for the choir and organ. It is far more stable than the platform she is on, enough for the Mercy and Theo, if more exposed to those below. Without many ranged weapons to hand, though, there may be an opportunity to simple outrace before the knights can take a boat to the jetty.

“With the medical arrangements and the power buried in the vaults, you will have quite the facility on your hands.”

Radaghast nods eagerly, “This could be - and will be - built anywhere - but the Cathedral seemed a convenient and symbolic first site.”

Render smiles deeply, eyes closed, arms extended out over the ritual circle.

“Ah…” Render issues a deep, ugly exhumation, smile vanished, and the gross crackling in his throat thickens ominously, “Radaghast, I sense an enemy.”

Vani starts, and backs away from the edge. Still, she is sure she is well hidden, high and in the shadows.

“Aftermath, my master, just remnants,” Radaghast kicks a chunk of shattered wall aside a little desperately, “We have shattered the Seal, but this place is simply awash in Askira’s petty wonders. Anastasia is assessing and sorting as we speak, to see what is worthy of my attention.”

"No.”

The Hollow Knight’s voice hardens, and Radaghast stops in his tracks.

“Not Shreya.”

"Zora.”

Vani begins to crawl back along the walkway, caution above speed, her heart racing.

“Your sister?” Radaghast’s face is incredulous.

“Yessss… a recent working. One… she dredged it from the bones of that pathetic anachronism, Mihkin. Damn it.

“Sir, I assure you, we have been guarding the entrance throughout. None of your sister’s mongrel band…”

Silence. I will deal with your failures in a moment. Hmmm… that Zemyati brave. She loosed my hounds…”

Render turns and roars our an incohate scream of rage, the burning edge to his voice turning all-consuming. Vani cannot but hold herself, and it feels like the entire cathedral shakes. Radaghast, the target of the frustration, staggers back and falls backward into the ritual circle with a huge clatter.

Render steps forward after him, into the circle, and bodily lifts the Black Oak knight to his feet, “You have disappointed me, Radaghast.”

“I have always been loyal, Aleksandr. Even at the Breaking…”

“Loyal, yes,” Render calms slowly, bringing himself under control, “But imperfect . You failed me, even…”

He looks around at the ritual space, almost wistful, “Even after accomplishing so much.”

“I can do more, master. Aleksandr, I can be more…”

Render reaches into the man’s chest, tearing through armour and rib in a single motion, and with a twist, pulls Radaghast’s heart out from his chest. He drops the body, and holds the still-beating organ aloft, as it burns with black fire. The candles ignite into tall fonts of flame, and even from her perch far above, Vani feels the room turn colder.

“You can be more, Radaghast. And thanks to your insights, your great discovery, now… now you are.”

Render laughs as the heart burns away into ash. The ritual circle burns with black fire. Moments later, the body that was Radaghast arises. The hole in its chest is scorched closed, and the flesh seems… more. So much more muscle, thick neck pressing against the man’s once-perfectly fitted armour. The heartless thing kneels, and Vani can see his eyes have changed colour. Now, under the perfectly pared hair, there are cruel mocking eyes that perfectly match its masters.

Render draws his sword - easily seven feet long and a foot wide - from his back, and knights the man before him.

“Arise, Radaghast, First of the Heartless.”

He turns, and holds the blade aloft.

“GAUNT, KNIGHTS, search the Chapel.”

He smiles, “And Radaghast, wherever they have run to, hunt down the hated Legion. Find the entrance they used, or catch them as they seek High Fulon. Bring me their skulls.”

The heartless knight rises, and takes a blade from a terrified knight standing beside him.

“As you command, Lord Render.”

Render laughs, and laughs, and laughs.

BY THE POWER OF RENDER

At the outset, I mentioned that I hadn’t decided what Render’s second power would be at the game’s outset, but instead decided that would depend on which missions the Council selected first in the Western Front.

The key decision from the players here was to assassinate Mihkin and not go to Karlsburg. This prevented them from finding out about Radaghast’s plans for the Cathedral from Fisher, and missing an opportunity to stop him writing down the ritual, which brings us to Render unlocking the Heartless.

Alternatively, however, if Mihkin had finished his work, he would have summoned forth a greater and more potent army of Alabaster Riders, upgrading them to a Threat 3 enemy type defined by speed, swordskill and banshee screams.

Since Render starts with two advances, he was definitely going to accomplish one or the other, which made me feel Vani witnessing what amounted to a cut scene above was entirely fair. If the Commander had asked different intel questions - Robert’s set tend to be very “How do we be smart about this mission?” and less “What are the enemy doing?” - I’d have painted this dilemma for them in narrative terms.

I think this “see what happens” approach works pretty well, and I’ll definitely try do things like it again.

There is a truth to the scout, to moving in stealth, and Vani has never had opportunity to speak to any of the others about it. Not Kseniya, certainly not the ghost that is Kolyat.

The truth is that it’s terrifying. The truth is that, if you think too much about what you are doing, you become incapable of doing it at all. You freeze, unable to progress, unable to retreat, certain than any movement will mean your discovery, and just as certain that remaining motionless will mean the same. It is the cold terror, that presses like a weight against the base of the spine, and it climbs through the back, leaking into muscles, trying to reach the mind and steal all reason. She does not think she is good at this. She wishes she was better at this. But she is sure where she must be and tentative where she needs be and she thinks she has herself mastered.

Then she sees Render. She listens, afraid to breathe and knowing she must, all the more afraid when his voice seems to change. All the more afraid as she watches him take the heart from the knight before him, the knight who has groveled, subservient, base, to his commands. And this is how Render rewards him. Changes him. Malforms him. And she thinks that the Zemyati are bastards, that these knights are bastards all, to follow this evil so eagerly and so willingly, knowing that their reward will be the fate that has befallen Radaghast.

This was a Devil’s Bargain for the Scout roll - +1d to be motivated by a growing prejudice against Zemyati.

As Render is bellowing for the Gaunt, she is moving as quickly as she dares, faster and faster the further she gets from the vile forms left behind, until she is almost sprinting when she returns to the library. She speaks directly to the Captain.

“Render has arrived. He killed one of his knights, tore out his heart and made him…something else, he called it ‘Heartless.’”

She swallows, catching her breath. “I have a route. We can get out, but you need to follow me now, we need to move now. He knows someone is here. He can sense Zora, somehow, and he’s sending the fucking Zemyati knights and the Gaunt to search for us.”

The moment she stops speaking, the Captain is turning his head to Frieta.

“Take the Mercy. Vani, on point. Vipers fall in behind her. I’ll take up the rear. If you’ve got muskets, load them now, but keep your damn fingers off the triggers. Noise discipline in effect.”

He gestures to Vani. Move out.

Rafe pauses as everyone begins to leave, “Leopold, you have command. Do not wait for me, do not wait at the rendezvous as that would put Kseniya in danger. Take everyone to camp at full speed. Evade, outwit, outpace. Do not engage unless you must. Hope to find Zora before he finds you.”

He lifts his sword, which licks with fire.

“I have something I have to do first.”

Theophilus abides by the Captain’s orders, and loads his musket. As de Deori hands over command to Orpik, the Andrasti Warrior-Scholar smiles wide.

“If you fell a Broken, Captain, then we must surely speak at camp!”

Despite the pain shooting through his body, Theophilus found comfort in operating as a unit. Doing things together with his Fist-mates the way they had done numerous times before. When in enemy territory, the familiar becomes a strength, something to draw upon. It was all happening around him. The war with the Broken. The heroics of Zora, and those who she favors. What was wrestling with words and muscles back in the Principalities compared to this? What else was the measure of a man if not to kill the unkillable, to stand unflinching in the face of treachery and desecrators? Perhaps it was not so simple. Regardless, it was always a boon to find a scrap of humility amidst the chaos. To ease distress among those one cares for.

Under his breath, Theo whispers to Vani, as she prepares to take lead: “You did good.” And with that, Theo manages to lock down the temptation of hubris.

Frieta’s first instinct is to protest, to fall in behind the captain, and bring her own mighty - if not magical - weapon to hand. But she stops, the anguish writ clear on her face, as she looks at the Vipers moving into formation, at Theo’s referred bravado. Sable puts a hand on her shoulder, and she slumps slightly, turning to face Leo for orders. She looks over her shoulder at Rafe, as if to say something, but her mouth closes and she finds no words have come out.

Shippers begin to look at Frieta and Rafe, wondering. Which is great, as long as they don’t expect me as GM to have any answers.

Leo turns to the Vipers.

"You heard the Captain. Noises off. It is only natural, at this moment, to feel a powerful sense of dread . That is just your body, reacting naturally. But you are more than your body. You are the Vipers. You are the Legion. Adapt. Survive."

With no more talk, and just a gentle nudge on Frieta’s shoulder to speed her away, they dart onwards through the path that Vani has marked out. The Gaunt and the Knights thudding through the Chapel, the sounds of cracking and chanting, cover whatever scant noise they make until they gulp the night air down and fleetly dash across the jetty, alighting the Fist in the available boat.

The boat is something between a dinghy and a sloop, barely enough room to accommodate the Vipers and their plunder. But then, clearly, Render’s facilities are not built for comfort.

“Did you see that?” mutters Sage, their voice dark. “They’ll tear that place apart and then come looking for us in no time at all.”

Theo coughs, more than a little scratch in his voice despite the healing his neck has received.
"We have one advantage. They have killed so many of us already."

He gestures, and the Vipers take a quick inventory of the shattered bodies and broken stones that float down ahead of them.

Leo smiles thinly. "Quite right, Fist Regular. Quite right, too. Frieta. Vani. If you would be so good as to row us directly towards the rubble, please."

He hunkers down in the boat as the burlier soldiers work the oars with a devilish efficiency. "If the stones are not sinking, it means that the turbulence of the river is enough to push them onwards before they can sink downwards. Even for small bricks and stones…that is the fastest part of the river. This boat has a shallow bottom, which means the material we move behind will be more likely to warn us of any submarine obstacle. And, perhaps most critically, we are very likely to blend in with the shattered and the dead."

He gestures at the others to distribute their weight as best they can and to lie low. "And row, ladies. Row."

Their desperate rowing takes them further into rubble wracked rapids, stones below jutting upwards to scatter stones above, leaving the Vipers mere seconds to turn aside or dash their little boat to splinters. More than one knock divots the hull, leading the soldiers to bail frantically with helms and cookpots, all the while steering into the most frantic of the waters. At the last, when their boat can hold no more under the strain, with the Chapel a vanishing, burning dot behind them, they break hastily for shore.

Adjusting positioning from Risky/Standard to Desperate/Greater, and then Pushing to boot, they take a 4. They get well ahead of their pursuers, but then lose the boat and it is all on foot back to the fort from here. The way the players see it, they have a Terminator on their tail, a bunch of physically less strong rookies, some with injuries, and over a day of travel ahead of them. Even with their lead, things look dicey.

So begins the most harrowing chase of the Vipers’ lives. It takes them most of the night to make it to the rendezvous point, but aside from confirming that Kseniya is not there (and briefly grabbing such items as they can from their cache of supplies) they must move again.

"We have made it across country. I expect that we have lost immediate pursuit, thanks to the river. But they do not need to follow us. They only need to find us."

“And they’re on the way to do it.” Vani calls down from her perch high above, on a boulder skirting the lip of the hill. “There’s a line of movement in the trees east of the Cathedral. They’re headed for camp. Breaking trails and looking to cut us off.”

Frieta spits. “They can do it, too. Long ranks of searchers, they’ll wrap us up like a python and squeeze us to death. Maybe we break through their lines?”

"If we have to," frowns Leo. "But for now I say we press our advantage. The closer we get to camp, the better. Wring out your socks and empty your shoes. Keep your feet dry. We march double-time. Be ready for sprinting."

Theo, his voice stronger every moment, pipes up from his seat beside the Mercy. "To the men of Andrasti birth, these wide plains are like smooth roads! We learn to run across the rocky spars of the olive groves, and count the goat as a second mother! Follow me!"

The Andrasti is as good as his word, pushing through his injuries and keeping pace, indefatigably carrying the Mercy. The others struggle, and though they are some miles ahead, as they reach the crossing of the Imperial road in the dusk, they see the figure of the Heartless against the sky, tirelessly in pursuit.

The players considered a number of plans, including ambushing some gaunt bodythieves with a corpsecart to disguise themselves as the dead, searching razed farms to find some horses, inserting a high Stress flashback to there being armed men at the rendezvous, and going the long way around to try avoid searchers. In the end of the day, they go with the direct plan to take their lead and outrace.

With a 5, I rule they almost make it - within flare distance of the camp - when it catches them. There is a 4 tick clock for how long they need to survive the engagement until help arrives.

They run. The terror of their adversary lends their battered bodies fresh reserves, a burst of speed that carries them back towards the camp…but it avails them little. It is not a matter of moves and countermoves. Their enemy does not respond to their endeavors with a change in tactics, but simply, implacably, closing in.

The Vipers cross into a river and ford a lake with reeds to use as breathing apparatus. The Heartless crosses. The Vipers rock climb across a canyon after cutting a bridge to evade pursuit. The Heartless crosses. It does not play with them. They remain ahead by their own merits…but moment by moment, the advantage lessens.

Then, Theo, at the head of the column, the blind Mercy on his wounded back, points, joy in his voice.

"There! Beyond the vale! The camp!"

One last flagging effort. But it is not enough.

Group Maneuver roll, to no avail. I advised the players that they could fill the clock and succeed at the mission here and now if they’d agree Frieta dies holding it off, but for some reason, they decided trading the Heavy at this point was too high a price. They get all attached.

The Heartless breaks from the treeline, its sword angled in a runner’s arc. Leopold draws a line in the dirt.

"FORM RANKS!"

The Vipers kneel in the dirt in two serried rows, three in front, two in the rear, muskets fixed. Frieta, who stands in the centre, readies her axe before the firing line. Leopold raises a flare pistol over his head, borrowed from Frieta’s pack.

"First rank! FIRE!!"

The flare goes up as the first rank of muskets report. The Heartless runs into the volley, bullets striking home, striking true. And still it comes. It is slower, perhaps, working and weaving, but it comes all the same. "Damn," barks Leo, fear in his voice, unmistakably for the first time.

"SECOND RANK! FIRE!"

Bullets streak into the Heartless pursuer, but even as its momentum is disrupted by a shot to the shoulder it spins and flings its sword, like a hammer at a tournament, and it flies from its hand with all the force of a mortar shell. Vani’s eyes widen as the blade crunches through her armour. A slow black trickle of blood leaks out. She swoons, and collapses on her knees in the dirt. Then she grins at the enemy through bloody teeth.

"Heh. Got your s-sword."

She passes out. And still the creature comes on.

Group Shoot, 1 tick off the clock, 1 Rookie down (surviving by burning Armour and Resisting). 1 Harm to Frieta, which she takes on her fine Armour.

“The shadow,” whispers Theo. “By all that’s holy - look at its shadow!”

The black mass roils, without surface or mass, but with an ineffable presence out in front of the creature. Against the line of the sun.

"The shadow!" gasps Leo.

"Excrutiatum tenebrae!"

His hands trembling, he tears through his bag to seize the book on Dar. He snaps it open with one hand, flicks through the pages with the other, his spent pistol falling forgotten from his hand.

"Frieta! I need you to buy me some time."

The titan of the Remnant stands, her huge face split in a grin as savage as her axe.

"That is a Bartan specialty."

With a war cry rumbling in her throat, she charges the abomination.

Robert asked to take the next action as a Research Action from Leo, finding some occult manner of warding the Heartless off using the knowledge uncovered in the Cathedral about Dar. I was leery here - not only did I not want to establish any reliable magical defences that could be executed with Research rolls, but even if there were to be one, I definitely didn’t want it to be a Protection Against Heartless spell. On the other hand, it was a cool idea, it followed the fiction so far, and they were going to be utterly wrecked if this came to the Vipers in a Skirmish.

Leo’s eyes scan the pages frantically, as with an academic gesture he slides his spectacles further up his nose. As if in contrast, when he is done, he hastily lays the book to the verge, and then, like an animal, tears at the day old wound in his arm with his teeth. He spits the scab on the ground, and wets his hand in the welling blood. His other grips a wisp of cloth, a torn shroud of the Immaculate Kriemhild. The trickle stains it red.

"Confutatis maledictum in quesciat infernum dominus."

He spins, flicking his blood around his soldiers as if in some perverse unction. It drips too from his own mouth.

"In regulus conscupiat non incantatum est. Glorificatum et fidelis cum tenebrae gloria deum."

A deal was struck - Leo could confuse the Heartless’ sense of friend and foe, distracting it, if he risked heavy Corruption (this counted as Desperate/Limited) and he could increase the effect by burning up an entire religious supplies dot. He took the deal.

The Orite stops. Stock still. He stares at the struggle between the monster and the soldier, as the Heartless wrests aside the war-axe, gleaming in the fading sun.

"I know you now," says the Fist Leader. "Not only your vessel, but the will that works it. I have fought you all my life! Putrefaction. Depredation. The shadow. But I name you, Death, my enemy!"

The Heartless, its hands still moving to block Frieta’s relentless blows, looks up to the Vipers, as if recognizing someone over a long distance.

“We are bound together, you and I. Each other’s creatures. With my mind, I will block you from my body. I stand with the armies of man, from whom you would steal grace away. But this I vow: you are Broken, but I will break you. I will tear down your works, and burn your creatures and from their shattered stones and ashes consecrate a new monument to man’s mastery of his fate. You have haunted us too long! In the end, I, I shall be master!”

The shroud darkens even from this crimson of blood to a sick, oily black, matched in colour and rippling unnaturalness with the Heartless’ strange shadow. Leo’s voice carries across the field, and the immense creature slows in its battle against Frieta, it’s crushing fist paused in the air. The face turns to look at Leo, and for a few seconds, the expression is not the cold, impersonal sneer, but something more akin to surprise, offence, even outrage.

Frieta does not hesitate, slamming it again and again, but somehow, even stationary, it seems impervious. The collective effect is time, as the Vipers and Frieta scramble back. It ignores the Bartan, though, and now all its attention is on Leo.

With a 5, I gave him 2 ticks on the clock. Which was impressive, but also left a tick to mark off and nothing really left in the Viper’s tank. Leo also took 4 Corruption.

Leo draws his rapier and darts backwards rapidly, dropping the tainted rag, ducking under the flying fists. Sable shoots it directly in the eye as it approaches, and its head tilts, but it’s motion is barely slowed. Theo and Vani can do little but look on, as Frieta delivers a flurry of blows, falling back as she goes, weaving this way and that. When she flags, as she must every few hits, the others still standing step in, pistols and blades flashing, kiting and harrying.

After catching her breath, Frieta goes to slam her shield into its side, hoping to unbalance it, pull it off Leo, but this time it is ready - it has anticipated, and it tears her shield from her arm, leather snapping, and uses it as an improvised club, smashing the Bartan back several feet, and then bringing the shield down on Leo’s head, pounding him into the dirt.

A final group Skirmish, Leo and Frieta take Harm, but they get that last precious tick.

A small blonde figure walks onto the battlefield, pulling the blade from Vani’s body as she passes, somehow searing the Bartan’s wounds closed as she does. Wordlessly, Zora holds it diagonally across her body, pointed down, and her eyes flash with inner fire. There is a blur, dash and strike all as one, and then she stands on the far side of the Heartless, sword now bloody, tip pointed at the sky. The huge Heartless falls into two severed pieces.

And that ends the third mission!

Hi Rip
Your tales are excellent and impressive as Always in the imagination displayed by your players. I can’t wit to hear from what happened to the Captain left behind!
I also like the way you used a clock in combat very much, by filling it with “time gained”, with the result that the Heartless was not fictionaly finished by a blow from the squd but by the apparition of the “Choses ex machina”.
Some questions on the mechanical part of it (if you remember those details):

  • It seems you assigned a 4 segment clock to the T2 Heartless?
  • During the fight, what was the Position of Frieta+squad for the Skirmish? Controlled or Risky. Seems it was Controlled from the fact that only one Rookie took Harm at the same time? But hey, you sure make it sound like it was Desperate all the time. Which leads to the question: why would Leo choose to renounce a Controlled Skirmish action where the damage is limited, IOT do a Desperate Research action. It was very nice for the tale and the fiction but seems like a strange tactical choice.

This was because it was a “time gained” clock, not a “defeat the Heartless” clock. If they were battling it the death, I would have gone with 8, but the whole point of the Maneuver rolls on the river and the chase back to camp was that they were nearly home, and had done a good job getting to a range where they could send off a flare. Respecting all that hard work (and incurred stress and rolling for Greater effect and so on), I made the Heartless ‘easier’. For a given value of easier.

So Vani went down on the Group Shoot action, before it got into Skirmish range. A big part of that was because the Heartless was at range without a ranged weapon. Throwing the sword was what I came up with, and I decided that would logically hit one rookie only. I actually felt a bit rough concentrating harm on one person so as to kill, but it seemed fairest and most logical.

Leo then avoided Skirmish because:

  1. With Theo injured and Skeniya absent, the Vipers have no skirmishers. Whoops! But Leo has Research 2 and the Darian book I counted as Scrolls and Books, so 3 dice.
  2. They were totally tanked up on Stress, and on the verge of Trauma, so really wanted a way a single Viper could slow down a Heartless.

If you mean the last Skirmish roll, it was actually remarkably benign for the last roll of such a desperate battle - it was a Desperate Skirmish Group Action, fwiw. Frieta, Sable, Sage, Leo and Theo were all in the group, so they had Scale to cancel out the Threat, but I’d given the first Heartless Potency in melee, so it was one higher. As a Group Action, it did 2 Harm to everyone, but most of the group (Frieta, Sable, Leo) had ablative armour available and just took the 1 Harm. Leo resisted injury to Theo (or maybe Sage? Whomever it was would have died), which I let him resist along with his own harm down to Harm 3. If he’d taken one stress from the resist roll, he would have traumaed, but… he didn’t.

I see. Man, you’re tough on your players, increasing the lethality of even T2 enemies! You have practically made a T3 out of a Heartless. Have you given your players more XP (the last trigger)? They deserved it! In my case, I always have to restrain myself, because it seems that if I went full ahead with my own imagination during combats, there would be too many PC and Rookies deaths and too many mission failures. And then at the end of each mission (not so many until now), I wonder if I have been too soft. But the balance will come, I hope, with more experience with BoB…

I vacillate between tough and gentle (though don’t tell them this, I want them terrified!). Even in this mission, the Heartless was strong in melee, but that was after I soft-served the pair of Threat 2 Black Oak in the library when it was clear Theo was bleeding out, the fight was losing momentum and the players were tired of it. And as discussed above, Mihkin was similarly weakened for a Threat 4 last mission, without me reducing the xp.

Its a flexible enough system I think you can add some individuality to individual undead without changing the overall Threat level - when I ‘designed’ the First of the Heartless, I didn’t know if he’d ever get in combat range, let alone Skirmish range, with the Vipers. Hell, I still wonder how this session would have gone if they’d settled on the plan of trying to find some horses or a quisling bodythief in Render’s service instead of marching home!

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Secondary Mission - Western Citadel

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

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

Verbatim After Action Report of Topaz Running Iron, Specialist Master Gunner, regarding the mission designated Western Citadel as recorded for the Annals

This be the testimony of Topaz Running Iron, eleven years a sworn man and loyal to his oath, regards the evil doings o’er at the devil-cursed Balne Brewery.

Oh, thou needst the mission name? Aye, twas Western Citadel, I believe.

As ye knowest, I am not a lettered man, and thusly these words be put down in the book by our scrivener, and I affirm they be fair and true.

So, some days prior, Fang didst pull ol’ Topaz aside, and said firm unto me, “You be unc to them sneaky bugger owls, and take Kolly and your good self down to this bottler of the pig’s ear, an’ rescue them fair workin’ boys we hear are trapped there. Oh,” she says, “An’ his commandership do ask you sniff out what Stormbringer and Plagueblighter are about”.

Now, the journey started with a fearsome gale unfit for man or beast. Thou hast never seen nothing so wild and dire as what came from that devil’s sky. Unnatural were the clouds what lashed our backs, thunder ringing in our ears like a corporal with a hangover, and ne’er a moment of reprieve to wring the wet from thy stockings. Still, Remnant marches in mud like we march on roads, one foot afore another, and surely surely, to Balne do we did go.

Mark thoust, and mind as ye plan our ways, that if we march 'gainst such ceaseless cursed weather, it shall make a metre into a mile and a mile into a campaign.

We bade our good time at Balne, watching from the hills. What we spied was most strange. Thou must believe ol’ Topaz, the dead were in a disputation with their own selves, Render’s sort bristling weapons in all directions like a porcupine, but only on the left, whilst Stormbreaker kept her own half a sieging, her side a mix of lightning-blasted wretches and living types hexed to her service, all keeping a watch on the right only.

It put me in mind of old goodwife Margo, and her feudings with the Azure fam what neighboured her orchid. They as had legal proceedings afore the elders over where the fence line had been drawn by Broken Reed in 26, and their enmity did make the fruit easy pickings for a young Topaz, as the pears that I took were blamed one to the other’s account and vice that versa.

Jah and Kolly know their scout’s business, and had similar musings, and we devised a smallish ruse. We took possession, via means not worthy of those pages, of some o’the costumes of the hexed types, and the Owls made their way to the brewery nice and easy. They stuck to Render’s side o’the line, and when them Gaunt did accost them, twas the ones dressed in Breaker’s robes did answer most rudely. It worked a treat, and by the time the dead sussed out my fam, the Owls could rabbit the last stretch o’ground, robes up round their knobblies.

At least, they could with a little help. Our owls fly well, give them that, and I had kept my distance, watching all the doings through the scope. Where called for, I brought the silence to those who might close, y’see. And then scarpered, lest my heroics be the last y’hear from good Topaz.

Turns out I weren’t the only watcher with a firearm on call. As my lovely little owls approached the Balne, a few more dead were picked off by guards behind the brewery windows. Jahander had to show right quick the nature of his ruse, and lucky for us all, is a handsome and unmarked enough lad that they were ushered in to meet the self-appointed defenders therein.

I will not strain thy patience, but shall share now the purpose of the bastard dead. This intelligencing was draw in part from mine own spyings and my time as a wee mite in my homeland, and in part from what Koylat witnessed in the haunted distillery, and in part from what we learned from Hermina on the return to camp. In plain truth, some is surmise, but I herd all the pieces here into one pile of truth, and you can make of it what ye will.

After Ettenmark, the refugees flocked along the roadways, chokin’ tight those veins like the duchess in a corset. But Stormbreaker moved fast, as we ourselves found. The folks of towns like Mechior and Balne, they were good Askira-fearin’ souls, and took in such desperates and unfortunates as they could, hopin’ it weren’t the end of everything and they could wait out until some big army swooped in to deliver them unto safety.

The big man in Mechior, he took up with one of these raggedy runners, much as de Diori did. Where we picked up a bishopess, though, he got hisself in bed with a witch. And she turned his mind, and took his soul, and soon enough, he was making hisself tyrant o’er all, and telling folks they could keep the dead away if they sacrificed strangers to Nyx’o’the’Moonlight at the ludja stones.

Ludja stones? Thou cannot say what they be? Ach. Well, then, in Panyar, even bubbies have the kenning of ludja stones. Damn big menhirs covered in the lost words of those what came before Panya. Sacred, and common enough, though thou don’t as usually rise up this far westerly. My fam back home use them to bless their hunts beneath the solstice moon, nekkid dancing and that sort of thing.

Here, they got used for darkling foul business. Thou knowest folks when afeared. Some thought this was a bright spark of a plan, and others loathed themselves for playing as part, but felt it better than taking their chances on the Emperor’s roadway, with nothing ‘tween them and the undead except the fabric of their shirt. And some, mark my words, were hexed with them Bartan curses, as the witch spread her black sorceries cut by cut, assuring there was always a quorum for ill deeds suggested by our villains.

Then Her Ladyship came to Balne. I’m told, and I pass on to thee, that though a Countess or Marchessa or whatnot, Hermina Machada is no lady. When she arrived at Balne, she were seven days drunk, shot up bad, wounds stinking, wild-eyed and foul-mouthed, and primed to place a ball tween the eyes of any who aggravated. And this tyrant aggravated, and she shot him dead rather than dance ‘neath the moon.

The town turned into a harridan’s wail. The witch and her soul-taken brood against Her Ladyship and those that felt their conscience’s pangs, and the righteous fell back to the Brewery. The witches tied the place up tighter than a Mercy’s nethers, and were joined by Render’s plated jackboots to provide muscle.

When and as they could not get their cold hands upon the innocents, the dead took what they could. The hexed were still used to sacrifice afore the stones, as were them poor souls we’re calling hounds now, but their need for bodies remained.

Render and Breaker seem to me as fractious as any two could be, and what they each hungered for there might vary. Or maybe it’s just pride, and the usual way of generals.

So, we were in a fine spot. The dead were getting impatient, and we had driven them further into a mood, if thou canst as say the dead have moods and such.

Speaking of impatience, the feeling was mutualled by the doughty defender o’Balne. She dickered hard with Jahander – she sorely wanted the eight of ‘em to take up the irons, an’ charge out, which was not as we Remmies had planned it. Our boy wanted her to dunk her head in some cold water and get her to see sense. He had the better argumentation, and with the bucket, the better rhetoric style, and I am gladdened heartily good sense carried the day.

My plan was simple. The dead need their commanders like we need mother’s milk, so Ol’ Topaz would do his gunner’s business, quiet-like, taking their rankers and sending their souls back to the King of Cinders one body at a time. Koylat would do the same from within, plus any who had weapons to work at distance.

When they were more’n a little riled, I’d lead ‘em on a merry chase, and that is when Jah would lead the civilians out all mouse-like. No final stands, no funerals for the too-young fallen, nothing too fancy.

The story as we tole it in our minds, it mostly happened like that in the real as well, as you can see since I stand before you telling the story. I took out more’n Kolly, but I had the better vantage. Took two days to make them all feral and foolish, and it got most hairy when they stormed the brewery door, but all went our way, didn’t it just?

Fair is fair, and I must especially give good words about the Owls. Between us, Jah is not precisely my cup of tea, but he and his harem of scouts, they are proper inheritors of their badges. They got the civilians out quick and quiet, they left to real marks and they weren’t the sort to quail at duty. We can work with ‘em, aye, and make something of ‘em, mark down my words.

But there are two things, one confession and one warning, that I must lay before you keepers of the books, afore we can close the accounting.

First, I took the captain of the Gaunt, easily enough, and the lietenant who took the hexed under wing. But the witch… it took me a time, but I sited her through my scope at the ludja circle. She had witch’s hexes all o’er her costume, and she were more beautiful than any lass I ever did see, with a bonny freckled face and red hair like the sun. Oh, she were all grace and pleasings.

Now, I have had many a face down my sites, and not in all my years have I stayed my hand. But I saw her beauty, and I hesitated. And it were not lust, I promise. For my shame, I tell you this. I dared not pull mine trigger, and twas for terror for my mortal soul.

The second is my best guess as to what that woman in green were aiming for in that bloody ring. When things went to madness and they chased after Jahander, they shook off their robes. And the figures that they displayed were chimera, mange-ridden beasts on two legs, with faces of dogs or wings of bats. Somehow, they are playing with the trickster Moon’s magic, godstheft, aye.

Every Panyar kens that the moon is a vengeful goddess. She has no Mercies nor prophets nor workers of alchem, she keeps all her power for hesself. The occasional hag knows her ways, and we all tell of werewolves and changelings, but that’s campfire talk, ye ken? So if they steal Nyx’ name and affront her so… well, greater minds than this old head will have to make sense of the madness.

Anyhow, Jah and Kolly grabbed their opportune moment and shepherded our Balne-kin our the back door. Then they did their runner and I met them for the tromping homewards, no less wet than the way there.

Now, Her Ladyship, she is no treat to travel with, a right royal pain, but them brewer boys are ready for a yarn and a laugh. And to her credit, she mothered them lot like a hen with fresh-hatched chickies, all the way back. Noblish obleey, they calls it.

This is my account o’the Western Citadel. It went well, and could hardly have gone better given when we entered the frame. Credit to his commandership for picking up the scent, because I shudder to think what they would have made if we hain’t rousted them out of the business at hand.

The Road to Plainsworth

This scene was played after the Emerald Light, but set during.

The morning both missions depart, after Spite has watched the Ghost Owls and the Star Vipers with their respective specs disappear into the wasteland that is the front, she returns to her tent. She checks on Taisa, pets Storm and Curly, feeding them scraps from her breakfast. She settles at her desk, and works for the next several hours, first on the Annals, then on the manifests. With Apuja she runs tallies, then takes her notebook and steps into the afternoon sun, squinting through the haze and the heat at the camp in its activity. She walks, checking her figures, taking her notes, until finally finding Fang drilling the Ravens. She waits until the Marshal is finished, catches her eye.

“Come on,” she tells her. Together, they reach the Commander’s tent. Bianca raps the post before leaning her head through the flap.

“Commander, we need a minute,” she says to Gorgeous. “A few minutes, actually.”

She steps in, holding the flap for Zin, then moves to where the maps are laid out. She glances down, tilting her head to account for the upside down angle, then looks to Dmitri.

“It’s time you told us what you’re thinking,” she says. “What route you’re hoping to take after Plainsworth. I’ve got to start planning our manifests to support your strategy, and the sooner you share that with us, the sooner I can tell yo what we’ll need to make it happen.”

Dmitri smiles, his face temporarily boyish again as it splits in a grin that is almost goofy in its self-consciousness, before it disappears, like summer lightning.

"Of course. You only had to ask."

He waves to the camp chairs around the map, invites them to take a seat, “I’ve been thinking about this. Zora says, and others whisper, that in the mountains there are great secrets. You’ve heard the stories. The Red Adder. The Lance of Ulan Quell. Drominger’s Grimoire.”

He traces the Long Road with his fingertip, his touch as delicate as a lover’s.

“Even without those, a band of soldiers, braving depredation, could make a decisive march through mountains. With luck, we could avoid entanglement and take Skydagger with our forces in tact. Nothing like Render’s forces, of course, but you know siegecraft. The walls will make one man worth ten. There, we might face him in battle. Check him. Hold him long enough to stem the tide.”

The Commander shakes his head. Though his tone is again playful, his face is deadly serious.

"Which is why we are not going to do it."

He turns away from the map, his attention on the Legion’s torn banner. “Every major engagement of this war – the Chosen riding out through to the slaughter at Ettenmark has been predicated on establishing our strongest position and meeting the monstrosity in force. And every time, we’ve lost. Some scattered battles in our favour, but not where it counts.”

Spite clears a seat and settles, kicking her legs out and watching as much as listening to Dmitri as the Commander speaks. Her expression is attentive, if curious, brow furrowing and crow’s feet deepening for several seconds as she listens to his thinking.

He turns back to them. "Render thinks like that. Whatever he is now, he was a Zemyati knight. Even fighting without honour, battle is about the application of force. The masterstroke. The killing blow."

He sits in his chair. “No more thinking like heroes. We need to think like soldiers. A force that big, undead or not, that means logistics. Coordination issues. Dissatisfaction. They’re occupying country now. That’s never easy.”

He taps the south of the map. “I say we go here. The forces are thicker, but they’re active. Activity means exposure. Exposure means opportunity.”

He glances to the Panya forest and grins, more ruefully. "I propose we move quickly via the southern route and punch through, doing as much distracting damage as possible en route. Nothing decisive, but enough guerilla engagements to sow a little disarray. I think we have to be the burr in their ass. It will make them hew a little closer to us, but when we break for Skydagger, it will make it that much harder for them to come at us in force."

He looks up at his peers.

“We’re playing for time. So let’s play.”

In the brief silence that follows Bianca nods slightly, gnawing the corner of her lower lip.

“Certainly a workable route,” she says, finally. “I can work with that if that’s the final decision. My only… look, it’s not even a concern, per se, but a thought I’d like to make sure you’ve considered, perhaps.”

She trails off for a moment, formulating how best to say what she has to offer next. “Our objective is to reach Skydagger and hold it through the winter. That’s the whole purpose of the campaign, as I understand our contract. I’m sure you or Fang will correct me if I’m mistaken. But if that is the purpose of the campaign, then any engagement with the enemy outside of achieving that specific objective strikes me as… potentially counterproductive.”

She hesitates again, then adds, “I follow your reasoning half of the way, Dmitri. But there’s a half that I don’t. We have one objective. You seem to want us to have another. And my concern, I suppose, is that harrying the enemy, willfully engaging their forces, may leave us unable to fulfill the contract.”

She raises a hand quickly. “My concern is solely that we do not confuse our goals, here, or engage in a course that will prevent us from completing the primary mission. We have one objective, only. One. Reach Skydagger before the pass closes and hold the pass through the winter. That’s all. Everything else must be secondary in support of that. That’s the contract.”

“I agree. That’s the contract and that’s what I mean for us to do. But there’s two parts to that equation, Bianca. Reach, and hold.” Dmitri scratches his chin, “The path to Skydagger, no matter how we cut it, is going to be a brutal forced march through hostile country. We’ll be outmanned, out-resourced and hunted. You know this.”

A pause. “But that’s the easy part . If we want to fulfill the contract, we need to hold it. If we get there, and we can’t, it’ll be a lot of miles for nothing.”

He shrugs. “I see this as leaving us with two options. The Long Road around, or the path through. If we take the Long Road, we cede Render the chance to prepare down here. Whether he knows we are going there or not, he will have to pass through Skydagger for the next stage of the war. That means he’ll be heading there in force. If we let him get organised, we have to be damn sure that whatever we pull together up in the peaks is enough to beat him on his best day - because from up there we can’t guarantee anything down here won’t go his way.”

The sound of a few men wandering past the tent in low conversation disrupts them for a moment before the Commander goes on.

“I’ve been over this a few times, and as far as I can see it we have but one advantage, such as it is. We are so few that we can mobilize fast and stick to more detailed plans. If we use that advantage in the south to keep him - them - from organizing, then when we get to the pass we will have done what we can to even the odds. This isn’t just a race to the finish line, it’s like…the ticking of an Orite clock. We need to hold out long enough for it to wind down.”

“Do you see what I’m saying? I’m not proposing we try to beat them on the field, or forget about where we need to go. Nothing grand. Just…a little chaos.”

Zinovia has been listening intently to the back and forth between Bianca and Dmitri, lips pursed. She runs a finger across her jawline, before repositioning herself in her camping chair, putting one leg over the other and setting her hands on her knee.

“The combat training of our rookies can be adjusted to prepare for sabotage, harrying lines and guerrilla warfare.”

Not without a note of content pride in her voice, Fang continues. “Chaos is well within our capabilities.”

The Marshal of the Remnant stands, and approaches the map. She puts two hands on it, and leans forward, inspecting the northern route.

“But note there is more than myths and legends in the mountains, Commander.”

Fang looks at each of Bianca and Dmitri in turn, “They are the one and only place on this continent full of black earth."

"In our two latest and successful operations, one of which took down the mighty Dread Rider Mihkin himself, the alchemical stuff has been instrumental in our people surviving encounters with the undead. Now. I follow your rationale, Dmitri. But if we take the course you suggest, we’ll really need to plan ahead to ensure our Blackshot supplies don’t run low.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Bianca speaks before Dmitri can, shaking her head.

“There’s nothing new in that, Zin,” she says. “Whichever road we take, we’re always going to be short on something. That’s the way this is going to roll until we reach Skydagger, and probably after, and forever and ever, amen. If it’s not the black shot, it’ll be horses. If it’s not horses, it’ll be soldiers. If it’s not soldiers, it’ll be food. We’re going to be scrounging and wheeling and dealing whichever route we take, whatever way we go.”

Zinovia raises an eyebrow as to indicate her ceding the point to Bianca. She begins to return to her seat. Spite scratches the scar along her cheek, looks to Dmitri.

“Have you shared your thinking with Zora?”

When her fellow Crone mentions the Living Sword, the Marshal scrunches her face together into an exaggerated wince and sits back down, arms crossed.

“Not yet.” He smiles. “I thought I might let Zinovia do it, since they’ve been bonding so well. I’m not the blademaster you are, Zin - I’m fairly certain she’d kill me.”

He raises a hand. “I’ll tell her, I’ll tell her. I just thought I’d discuss it with the two of you first.”

Fang holds up her hands defensively.

“Look, I just happen to believe that one of us should stay friendly and cordial with a being like her at all times, that’s all! And maybe maintaining said friendship without receiving flaming swords or grand destinies. Is that so controversial?”

She looks off to the side and continues under her breath. “She proved she could kill me, in front of my own men too. I know I kind of invited it, but still.”

What Zinovia wasn’t telling the other two Generals about was that she did have her share of differences with the Living Sword. She felt like it was gonna catch up to her, sooner or later. But maybe not just yet.

Dmitri shakes his head. “It was a joke, Zin. Nothing more, I promise. I meant what I said about your skill though. She’s a Chosen. There’s no-one in the camp she couldn’t outmatch. What the men will remember is how well you fought and how long you stood.”

He tilts his head. “I don’t know what you both think is going on with Zora and I, but I’m not her… pet. The interest she’s taken in me, I don’t know if I’m the man she thinks I am, the man for her project. But I have a job that I promised to do: to lead this Legion. That’s my priority here.”

“And you are leading this Legion, Commander,” says Zinovia.

“How do you feel, Quartermaster? I am confident that the Fists can continue to disrupt Render’s march without engaging in outright pitched battles. We can throw the Broken’s logistics into disarray with minimal casualties as we have, by leaning heavily on Specialist leadership. I think there is merit in this plan. Are there any reassurances I can provide you with to come to an agreement with Dmitri and I?”

Again, Bianca worries the scar on her face.

“The question is the route, and it doesn’t have to be answered yet. Once we leave Plainsworth, that’s when the final decision will need to be made. As for the rest—” she makes an almost-dismissive gesture, “—I think there’s a misconception at work, perhaps. We’re not going to get to Skydagger, by any route, without engaging the enemy along the way, without engaging in operations as we go. It’s a given. By our very presence, we are disruptive. By our travel, we will harry. That’s understood.”

She looks to Fang. “I don’t need reassurances. But I will need to know the route once we commit to it. The last push will be hard — we’ll need food, cold weather gear, just to name the obvious. We’ll need boats if we’re going to cross the lake. If we go north instead, we’re going to need even more food, earlier. Things like that.” She shrugs. “We’ve got until Plainsworth. I just wanted to know what we’re thinking.”

Then, to Gorgeous, back to the last conversation, “You’re not her pet. But you are the focus of her attention, and the favor she grants us is due to you in no small measure, I think. She cannot be ignored, and she should not be dismissed. I’ve…been trying to get a grip on her, one way or another, but the fact is, with her years and her…perspective…I’m not sure how knowable she is. She’s like what she represents. Good to have a sword at hand if you need it and know how to use it, bad if you’re drunk and ornery.”

She rises, dusting her seat. Nods to each of the generals. “Appreciate the time and hearing your thinking. Obviously we’ll revisit this once we’ve moved on.”

GM Notes

Emerald Light was a welcome change of pace for players and GM alike. The dungeon crawl aspect was fun, playing the Viper rookies worked out really well, and it was a solid on-screen debut for the Knights, the Heartless and Render himself, all of which are pretty central to the campaign. I felt I was getting the hang of position and effect, which made it easier to challenge without feeling arbitrary.

Strategically, I think the players - especially Greg as Quartermaster - have some buyer’s remorse for staying in the Western Front instead of advancing, which comes with real limitations for Campaign Actions and Mission Types, but given they pulled off two Special Missions they have quite the haul - a new Specialist, 5 uses of religious supplies, labourers, a Mercy and a relic that helps treat corruption, with no deaths.

Greg playing Vani and Kseniya raised a lot of questions about the purpose of xp - is it a reward for the player, a recognition of the actions of the character or a resource to advance the Legion?

Obviously, its a bit of all three, but in cases like this, those objectives do pull away from each other - Vani and Kseniya both were badass, got fleshed out and achieved their goals, but does only one of them get xp? With a fairly even split like this (Vani got more screen time, Kseniya pulled off a challenging solo mission), what to do?

We settled on simply splitting xp between them, effectively tying it to the player. Its certainly balanced, but perhaps less exciting than some hypothetical better alternative I haven’t come up with.

This was also where a lot of the setting stuff crystalised in play, helped by the Viper’s more curious and academic bents. We had many opportunities to talk about Gods, Chosen, politics, the composition of Render’s forces, the command structure of the Legion before Ettenmark and of course Dmitri’s big secret.

As they prepare to advance, I updated the map to show them the situation in Plainsworth, expanding the ‘zoom’ if you will. The ludja stones at Balne brewery become a place of power for Stormbreaker (which matters as the clock ticks inexorably towards ten), Render finally crosses the river and begins to pincer Plainsworth, and the Plainsworth militia and friendly horse nomad partisans get marked on.

I’m excited by the proposed plan to march along the southern-most route, and am going to start giving some thought to what Eastlake and Westlake might look like for me!

Campaign Actions

The QM takes an R&R action, and based on the intention to keep to the populated south, begins a LTP to build a spy network, which I give a 4 tick clock. At least there are rules for it! By forgoing the recruitment of the Panyar and Prenza, there will be some consequences and possibly clocks started regarding Legion values and attitudes.

This snapshot is post the Advance roll, so marginally in the future as the Remnant head to Plainsworth, but gives an overview of where they’ve hit three missions in.

The Legion stats are:

Commander
Pressure 0
Time 8/10 (Summer)
Intel 1
Favour 2 (Zora)

Marshal
Morale 8
Fists 4 active, 3 benched (Hanged Men and Shattered Lions incomplete, Vipers too broken to use)
Specialists 6 (!)

Quartermaster
Supply 1/4
Supply Carts 1
Food Stores 2 (5 uses)
Horses 1 (1 use)
Religious Supplies 3 (7 uses)
Blackshot 1 (1 use)
Labourers 2
Siege Weapons 1 (Broken, 3/4 towards repair)
Special - Relic: Book of Blood
Special - Mercy 2 (both wounded)

Lorekeeper
3/5 dead (Berenike Taidos; Hansika Rahj; Knight Ruben Orlando)

Long Term Projects
Recruit Informers 2/4
Repair Artillery 3/4

Fang, on Duty

When Fang returns to her own tent, she could not shake a deep sense of insecurity from within her. It is the same fight she had been waging her whole life; her Zemyati upbringing versus her formative years in Or. Zinovia does not cling to her Zemyati heritage as tightly nor as deliberately as she had in her youth, but it was still unmistakably there. Her sparring session with Zora was as much evidence to this as anything.

She also could not deny the things she had learned in Or; high culture, science, philosophy. The Marshal had gone against her Zemyati instincts when meeting with the Council. And she was glad that it had been Gorgeous who suggested the plan. He was starting to see the limitations of the brazen mindset of their nation as well. But what had caused Spite to hold back? Why had they not seen eye to eye?

Fang forced herself to put it out of her mind, for the moment. It was as Bianca had said, they would return to the issue once they reached Plainsworth. Zin pours herself a small tin cup of Cognac, and sits down at her makeshift desk (four small crates stacked into a cube with a small three legged stool). Lights a wicker candle, and pulls out a leather bound tome from a pile of books. Shimya Lipika had brought her a few new regional herbs and flowers that she was missing from her collection, and it was time to enter them into her herbal journal. Sable had promised to deliver some rare algae and seaweeds from the Sunken Cathedral. The Marshal was excited about that.

Zinovia always has a few small science projects like this running at any given time. Thinking about any subject no matter its relevancy at a high level kept her mind honed. Not much different from sharpening her blade or maintaining her rifle, as far as Fang was concerned.

After the Marshal had finished cataloguing the new entries, she was ready to make the rounds among the Fists. She began with the Scarred Lions. He is sitting by by one of the camp fires, carving a wooden fetish when she finds him. He has been marked by dark rings under his eyes since his sister Hansika was murdered by the Aldermani partisan chieftain.

“How is your Fist doing, Adav?” asks Zinovia.

Adav lifts his head from his work, and shrugs.

“My Fist, Marshal?” He whittles a long gouge, and the rough shape of an eye emerges from the gnarled wood. “We bide. We prowl. We grieve. But we are no Fist.”

"That is fair enough, I suppose," says the Marshal. “But let me remind you. You are always a Fist. The Lions were once the bodyguards Emperor Tantarus himself, under the banner of the Crimson Lions. That proud group of soldiers was almost decimated to a man during an attempted and failed coup by the Emperor’s nephew Narshei Kalabak. They were then reborn as the Shattered Lions to commemorate their dedication and bravery.”

Zinovia looks Adav in the eyes.

“Maybe its time the Lions carry that august name again. What do you think?”

Adav chips away with his knife, quietly.

“Hansika made a mango chilli chutney, she pickled only slightly more jars than I ate, it was heavenly.”

He hangs his head, “I used to joke it was the best thing about having a sister. I, ah, I don’t joke much.”

“That was the thing. I stayed to school, studied, was set to be a priest, she cooked and cleaned and helped our parents.”

“Do you like spice, Marshal? Do you know what a chilli is?”

Fang ignores the nonsequitor nature of the question, “Oh, I know what they are . Like them… let’s say my mouth likes them more than my stomach.”

Adav smiles, “Typical Zemyati. Between that and the fact mango trees just don’t do well in Aldermark, we haven’t had any new jars since Or. She made a chutney with oranges and less chilli now… I mean since. Far more popular with the Lions.”

He sighs, and opens his bad and shows four jars.

“But for the mango stuff? This is what’s left. All there will ever be.”

He smiles, a sad quiet smile, “I think the Lions would like the name change, ma’am. For myself, I just want to be back out there, fighting. With the Lions, with another Fist, I don’t care, as long as I’m not staring at the gap in the roster that was her name, now whittling her death mask attempt after attempt. As soon as you can make it happen.”

The Marshal wrestles that cold lump in her stomach down. Holds it in place. Regains her composure.

“I have been assessing the Panyars that are traveling with us for suitable replacements. The same with the Orites under Rigalemmo Prenza de Fiori. And if no-one presents themselves, we will find someone in Plainsworth.”

Zinovia puts a hand on Adav’s arm. “You will have your opportunity. Soon.”

The Marshal’s face softens a bit. “Also, somehow Spite leveraged some nice, aged Orite cheeses off of the alcheme. You are welcome to have it for your chutney, if you’d like. Got some cured meats too. Could make for a decent field platter.”

Gorgeous and the Living Blade

It is the part of night where night is long over, but dawn is just a suggestion. Purple ripens to yellow, the last watches a rapidly healing bruise. And Dmitri rustles the flap of Zora’s tent, where even now, a lantern dimly flickers.

"Chosen?" asks the Commander. "Do you have a moment?"

Zora is behind Dmitri, sword to his throat, hand around his wrist, mouth against his ear.

“An enemy approaches your army from behind. They could raze your command tent or break your flank. Which is preferable?”

"Oh, good," he mutters to himself, "And you already have a sword."

“I’m not in the tent, or you wouldn’t be asking. But my flank is already broken if they’re coming for the centre. The fortification of a camp is round .” He eyes the blade below his chin. “Let them come for the tent. A broken circle is two wide arms. Let us enfold them and crush them.”

“As you will.”

She punches him on the throat, spins him around, kicks him into the tent and jumps forward, bearing him down to the ground.

“If you cannot command your flanks, your Annals are gone. Horrors are on you. Your arms go to crush… wolves, yes, and stags…” His arms are up and around her, but finds his left arm is literally pressing into a dagger. “Will can triumph, but only with the stoicism.”

Dmitri tries to swallow.

“You cannot speak, so show.”

Pulled as close as lovers, Dmitri is suddenly, acutely aware of Zora’s body in a way that - thus far at least - the Chosen has not struck him. Lean flanks and delicate features, a coiled knot of muscle against him, urgent whisper in his face. How long has it been since I’ve been with a woman?

He flashes his eyes at her, ignoring the edge of the dagger in his arm, drawing her a little closer, his arms tighter around her. He grips the dagger hand as tight as he can, feels the cut moving along his sleeve, but too close to slash properly, to tight to do him more damage. Slam. He smashes his forehead into her nose and jaw, with everything he’s got in it. Whips it back. In again. In again. He doesn’t stop.

Zora laughs as the head comes in, high-fluted and raw, as his forehead cracks into her jaw. Blood connects their hands, and Gorgeous finds his grip slipping, but she doesn’t pull away. The cuts are deep, and some part of his mind is aware he won’t be holding a pen tomorrow, but he carries on.

Twice more he smashes into her divine countenance, blood on her smiling teeth. Dmitri feels her leg wrap around his, and twist, then the pair of them on the floor, Zora on top, hand over his throat. She laughs again, pure joy in the sound of it.

Dmitri tears the knife from her hand, a trick he learned in the frozen tent that passes as both tavern and brothel in of Gujwei, but cannot hold it. It clatters across the dusty floor, slipping beneath Zora’s Shrine to the Living God. He kicks, his knee reaching her back, and she bucks like a rider, and punches him. Her thighs are on either side of his pelvis, and Dmitri is sure it’s more than blood that makes the hand against his face red, that it’s a fire, and he can feel her fingers burn.

Fire. Alright.

He kicks up again and jams his knee in her back, not to damage but to narrow her point of balance before he shoves, half-wrenching, half-dragging the pair of them into a roll. Body to body they clatter first into the Shrine, knocking the devotionals from the shrine in a shower of wax and fire. Then they strike the pole in the tent wall. Dmitri pulls with his remaining strength, seeking to pull the tent down into the flames.

Dmitri experiences the entwining of defiant will and willful submission that has defined Zemyati devotional praxis for centuries, known to warrior-mystics from all clans as the Passion of Zora.

There is chaos. Conflict. Heat, vibrant and physical. A teaching pain, inflicted on the self and the other for advantage. Cunning and force. Joyous laughter. Ritual and instinct.

Dmitri can see the burning heart rise out from his chest, feel the kiss of war scald and parch his tongue, know the lash of cold steel, hears her laugh echoing like the clashing blades and marching boots of a thousand Remnant throughout centuries. He feels layers peel back, to reveal his true and naked self.

And he feels the true essence of Zora, precious and gentle, delicate. And from that seed, war ignites, a phoenix of unquenchable power, and it consumes all except for a will strong enough to master it, a will he can longer say belongs to him or to her.

When Dmitri comes to himself, the inside of the tent is gutted, nothing but himself, Zora and ash within, but somehow nothing has strayed beyond the flap. He finds his senses return to him, with pain and exhaustion, and Zora is there, watching, evaluating, chin on her knees as she sits on the floor.

“You wish to march east.”

Dmitri rubs soot out of his hair. He feels oddly naked, and his wounds ache, though his clothes have survived the process. He feels birthed, almost. Baptised by fire, as the Bartans say.

Flashes of their exchange pop into his mind - fragmentary images. At a certain point he was no longer struggling with her physically. They simply remained locked in place as the fire raged around them, each waiting for the other to move first.

Did I see the things I saw? Or merely think them? What is the difference, here where what we can see and touch is just one aspect of what we experience?

He thinks of what it must mean to be Chosen, what it gives…and what it takes. Not for the first time, he ponders how much was changed within his brother before they could see it, whether something else wore his skin and filled him. A puppet, dancing to music that now felt like violent discord. And yet, in Zora, there was something altogether human entire, something of and from them, that needed protection. A grace innate, not bestowed.

But he simply says: "East by south-east, yes, before we turn northward. I would cross the lake and go amongst the fighting."

She frowns, and it falls short of a pout, but not by much.

“It is no bad plan. For fighters to fight, that is.”

She looks at Dmitri dust out his hair and, perhaps a little self-consciously, does the same, “And if you are a mercenary captain, that the letter and spirit of the contract will be met, it is good. It could buy humanity it’s year of grace, which is… much.”

She stands, and walks over to where the sword was kicked, and picks up the warped and burned hilt, beneath the jagged slag that is all that remains of the Legion blade she carried since Ettenmark.

“But I must think strategically. What comes next, how we could ever go beyond not loosing to the win. And to that end, you forgo much, Dmitri.”

Her voice is calm and distant, “The Red Adder, which your quartermaster could wield against giants. Quell’s burial mound, where Cassera yet sleeps. The thing you call a lance, but is no such. My father’s hearth, at Kevala, where I could be magnified and even Chosen may Choose.”

She sighs, and stands, “I hear a flare calling me to arms. It seems I must go and rescue your Vipers from what Render has already built. Know Breaker will not sleep on this, and will take what you abandon. To make this strategy work, you will need to go on the aggressive, and cost Render more in attrition than these old dusty antiques could be worth.”

She smiles, “Far more aggressive. You must liberate his slave camps, sow discord with his Broken allies, disrupt his supply from Blighter and the Cinder King, blunt the momentum and sap Render’s strength, all the while recruiting your own men, gathering your own arms and supplies, so that he dies at Skydagger.”

She tosses aside the sword, and as she leaves the tent, she pauses and touches Dmitri’s face, gently. It is not sensual, or soft, but is maternal, in the strict sense of the word Zemyati know.

“If you go South, Dmitri, the monster that is Render must die at Skydagger, because I will not be strong enough to kill him alone. And with this choice, I never will be.”

The Vipers of the Seven Stars

“Cracked cranial bone, fractured ribs seven through ten, broken arm, and blunt trauma to the left shoulder, chest and thigh,” says Theophilus.

He was in the infirmary tent, counting off the Fist Leader’s injuries to a cot ridden Leopold.

“Not so bad, this time.”

Theo frowns, his concern for his squad mate real despite his glib remark. He sits down on a stool. Sets the satchel down that he had brought. Leans in with his hands steepled in front of him.

“I saw Doctor Gale on the way in as he was leaving,” continues the Andrasti Viper. “As long as you get rest, you have good chances at a full recovery. He also mentioned something about a metal plate for the old brain box? Could suit your reputation as a dark practitioner of Thanatosis and other teneberal arts.”

Theo coughs, a bit embarrassed at his need to make light of the durance they had gone through.

“I am not here to make jokes,” says Theophilus. “I am here to thank you. For saving Sage. He would have been dead without you. Now, not a hair is harmed on his gentle head. I love him as much as any of us, but if he had gone to see the Horned One before marrying my sister, I, ah-"

The Warrior-Scholar, always so gregarious and easy with words, chokes up and falls silent. Theo bites his knuckles to avoid his voice from cracking. He refrains from wiping the tears out of his eyes. Instead, he digs into the satchel he had brought.

“So That Bitch wouldn’t let me bring the Bok dem Blud, or the tome detailing the Curse of Dar, but she did let me bring the Book of Mercy. It’s rather interesting, its got a section written by Pater Viruxes, where he details how Blight is both similar and dissimilar to a wasting disease.”

Theo brings folds one leg over the other, clears his throat, and opens the leather bound volume.

As wythe a typicale rotting, the Blyghte shall worsen severestly as tyme passeth. Where it dyffers, is in the patterne of its spreading, not needinge a clear cut pathe through the corpus to spreadeth. Unlyke a infecksion, a Blyghted part of the corpus wyll not be raw to the touch in any significant magnitude upone its…

The Ravens

Sofia Endrizzi and Margrave Cyprian de Luca are on guard duty. The Margrave is pacing nervously, careful not to leave the area they have been designated to be responsible for, but pacing none the less.

“You hear about Kseniya?” asks de Luca, “You know, of the Vipers of the Seven Stars?”

Endrizzi raises an eyebrow as if to indicate that the question was suspicious, a conversational trap that was bound to lead down a path she might not be willing to take. Sofia dutifully nods and acknowledges her Fist Leader.

“Of course you have,” says the Margrave. “Everyone fucking has. I am gonna talk about it anyways, because its stressing me out!”

Endrizzi knows da Luca is building steam for a good rant because he was gesticulating with his hands now.

“So the Vipers are in some kind of do-or-die situation, right? Something about needing to swim across a river and kill a bunch of traitorous Zemyati or something like that. Kseniya volunteers without saying a word. I heard she just looked at de Deori and then he gave her the assignment, no assurances needed.”

Cyprian slows down for a bit here, getting side-tracked. “Its got to be some kind of unspoken code among badasses. A language I clearly do not speak yet. It bothers me, Sofia.”

The Margrave catches himself and steers back on topic. “Anyways! Kseniya is given a lethal dose of Deep by Doctor Gale, and then she strips naked, covers herself in gore and viscera to throw off the scent of the deaders, and dives into the river!”

Cyprian slows down again, but this time its more for effect in retelling the now famous Legion tale. “Silent as a shadow and dripping in the blood of our enemies, she rises, a vengeful spirit of those fallen at Ettenmark, ready to claim retribution for the Legion.”

The Margrave throws up his hands, jealous of the heroism of Kseniya.

“I dunno how she does it, but somehow she sets the Hounds free. Probably tossed the cage aside with her bare hands, or chopped it to firewood with her family axe, or blew it up with a bomb or something. Its all a mad dash from here to get back to the other side of the river to survive. But not before she scuttles the enemy boats! And then, after all that shit, she marches back to Camp all alone, without the rest of her Fist. Naked as the day she was born, with nothing but her bloody axe. My man Topaz Running Iron saw her as she was coming back. Of course he’s the one who spotted her. Only someone as bold as him would be so lucky. Bloody Horned One!”

The Margrave puts both of his hands on Endrizzi’s shoulders, and is all but shouting at her. He forces himself to keep his tone down, as to not draw the wrong kind of attention from the Legion higher-ups.

“Do you understand what I am talking about here? I mean I know we recovered the remains of the late Commander Rampart, but lets be honest here. That was all on the Specs. We didn’t do jack shit. I spoke some Dar to an old lady. Hardly the stuff of legend. We managed not to die, as far as I am concerned. The Hanged Men kill the Dread Rider, now Kseniya pulls this solo raid off. They are going to consider us weak, Sofia! Fuck!”

Cyprian steps back without dialing back his intensity. He is nodding furiously now.

“Us Ravens, we need to step it up. Right the fuck now! We gotta do something. Don’t you have anything to say about all this?”

Sofia Endrizzi smiles.

“I think we need to requisition some Deep, Sir,” says Sofia.

Nobody Trusts Dmitri But Raife, Part II

The dead had been aggressive that day, and in numbers. Several score had attacked, penetrating through to the palisades, and it had been all hands to the walls from dawn. With no time to think deeply about his vision or Zora, the Commander had been obliged to take the right flank, leading the rump Lions and Ravens to hold back clawing hands and putrid flesh at bay. The enemy had been rotters, mostly, which were little threat to the tall and spiked walls, but some of the most bloated, poison-logged corpses had learned the trick of vomiting corrupting bile high into the air, requiring some clever work with tower shields and tarpaulins to bring the thing to a successful conclusion.

“An arrogant fool.”

Dmitri starts, turns.

“I was, I see it now. Making such a big deal of not making a big deal. Me, an Orazio, taking a Zemyati grunt as his… as his equal. So broad-minded, so egalitarian. Show me real soldiering, Dee, oh, I’ll be incognito, Dee.”

There is the hiss of a match, and the cigarette end burns red in the shadows. It illuminates, briefly, Rafe’s face – his eyes are bloodshot, and a little wild.

“Incognito. How hard was it not to laugh, my lord Czecha?”

"I never thought it was funny, Rafe. Nor that you were a fool."

Dmitri lights his own cigarette, careful not, as he had so often done in the old days when they were peers, to cadge a light of Rafe’s own to conserve matches, and sinks down on top of a trunk. He keeps out of the light all the same.

“I thought we were kindred spirits, that’s all. How many of us do you think there have been, scattered through the Legion’s history? More than many would wager, I’d say. As many sinking to the bottom as floating to the top, as we did.”

A smoke ring spiralling through the shadows, into the dim sunshine, then a pause.

"I take it you know everything, then?"

Rafe leans back into the seat, and flicks off the lengthening ash. He laughs, and Dmitri can read into the tone.

“Well, well… that is rather the question at hand.”

The Captain’s voice is soft, and has the canny edge Dmitri associated with Rafe playing poker - somewhere between laconic and amused, but not be mistaken for easy-going.

Do I know everything? Are you hoping to sound me out, to size up your damage control?”

Smoke exhales out his nose, frames his face. “By the seven hells, Dee, you’re command now. Under what can only be called false pretences, by any standard, but still, I don’t remember any recall rules in the bylaws. What the fuck?”

“That’s the point, Rafe. There aren’t any rules in the bylaws. I checked. When I enrolled and again when I took command. I didn’t even use a false name. No-one asked and I never volunteered. That was all.”

His voice gets angrier and angrier as he speaks, a flush creeping across his face, though even now he does not let himself grow loud.

“Do you think I’m the worst of it? The only one to seek to disappear in service? You best to check again, signore, because it’s not just second sons who look to pass unnoticed. Robbers, rapists, duelists, poisoners. The Legion’s held them to its bosom as well as honest soldiers and damn heroes besides. All that’s asked is that the rules are followed, and I followed them. What comes before gets left behind. That’s how it’s always been!”

He sighs and the anger seems to drain from him. Dmitri is barely louder than a whisper, and hangs his head, looking at his feet.

"But I never meant for it to get so far."

He steadies himself, looks to his friend. Something in him hardens, bracing for understanding that he fears cannot come.

“At first, it was my secret. An irrelevance, really. Before Alexei Broke, what business was it of anybody’s that I was close to a Chosen? I went across half a world to get away from all that.”

Still quiet, his voice grows stronger as he loses himself in the memory of it.

“Then, afterwards, I thought perhaps it was the time. Not because I felt anyone deserved it, but maybe what I knew could help the Legion. But then I realised, if he could Break…I didn’t know him. I didn’t know what he was capable of. What he could do. What value could my knowledge of him be, if I didn’t know this was coming?”

He comes back to Rafe then, and this time the months of agony, the decision he has wrestled with, are marked on him. The boyish face no longer.

“And I don’t know if he knows where I am. Do you understand me? If I were to make it public, what a target it might paint on the Legion’s backs? I thought about running. But if he was inclined to chase me, what might he subject you to, to know where I was, what he could find of me? And if he didn’t care, why should my presence make a difference?”

The Legion move about them, and Dmitri takes an inventory, as if saying goodbye to them all. Pauses. Looks to his friend.

“I didn’t ask for command, Rafe. Never. Do you recall that? I never used it, or traded on it. I just wanted to keep my company alive. If you want to know something, just ask.”

“That’s good,” Rafe smiles, clapping his hands together, “That’s solid . Marshal will eat that up, she’s a sweetheart at the core. Right balance of justification and guilt, it’ll fly.”

He extinguishes his smoke, lights another one without even noticing.

“Now, I’ll warn you, it rings plausible, but our QM won’t bite. No, not Spite. I don’t know if she’ll blame you, the old spymaster or herself most of all, I really truly don’t, but she’ll fume and spit.”

He laughs, “But she’ll do it quietly. Apart from some unpleasant Council meetings, what can she even do about it? If this gets out, the hit to morale, the security risk, it’s all unarguable.”

Rafe is aware of Dmitri’s eyes on him, waiting for his point, but he carries on, “And either we die, and who is left to hold accounts, or you get us from Ettenmark to Skydagger, and it’ll all be part of the legend. How the humble soldier was a hero in disguise, the brother of a monster destined to avenge his family honour and bring the Legion back to its god-slaying glory. Won’t matter if you intended it or not, that’s how it’ll be told by the bards.”

The Captain waves the cigarette in the air, circling smoke above their heads on a very pronouncedly Orish gesture, “I mean, I’d even buy it.”

He nods, “I’d believe you, Dee.”

There is a long silence, and Rafe looks down at his flaming sword. Some memory dances behind his unreadable eyes, and in the long silence, he struggles. At one point, Dmitri thinks Rafe is ready to forgive him; at another, to grab the blade and stab him.

In the end, Rafe sighs, and leans in, dropping his voice, “But this is where we both know its bullshit. When you sent me out there with seven bodies in my care and a Broken-summoning blade, you maybe didn’t know what it amounted to, but you knew there’d be Oak there. You, Dee, as my old friend, my Commander, called me back and talked me up with the old reminiscence and asked a favour. You tasked me to talk to people and you made sure they knew who you really were.”

“And I, Ah, I said fire and shit and anything you could ask, just me and you, and how high. And if you meant what you said, that the secret was awkward and then pointless and then dangerous, each just a step too late…”

He extinguished the smoke with force, “Then that moment, Dee, that is the moment where you would have told me.”

“Don’t give me that! I told you that a Black Oak knight was sworn to me. I told you that I served with them and loved them! I swore you to secrecy but did not bid you still your tongue from me - and your answer? ‘Yes, brother, without question or pause.’.”

Dmitri puts his hand on Rafe’s shoulder. “You know me! I am Zemyati. We do not gossip, nor do we speak of ourselves without question. It was a private thing, but I would have told you if you’d asked. If I forebore, it was only for my shame. Surely you can understand that, why a man might want that private?”

Rafe slaps the hand aside on his shoulder aside, and grabs Dmitri on either side of his face. He leans in, and his breath is terrible.

“Dee, it’s never been fucking private,” he all but whispers, “Not in any way that matters."

He shivers, whole body shaking.

"Brother, Render’s known you’re here.”

A pause. “How…”

“I found a knight, as requested. I dueled him, and I mastered Zora’s damn sword, and I brought him to surrender. I had questions about you, and from you, and I was going to ask them."

"But Render found me.” Rafe swallows, “But he had a message for you, for his brother, a message for you to… take to your Commander.”

“By blood and ascension, he says you owe duty to him. He says tell your new Commander that Rakash is dead. If you abandon Zora, we can walk. If we’ll go further and cross over to his service, rich. He asked in the name of your father that you make the case that Aleksandr is honourable under any banner.”
“We can’t…”

“Of course not! That’s not the point. The point is… how can I keep your godsdamned secret now?”

The Commander had been stabbed before. Not a killing wound, but that only due to luck and the ministrations of a mercy. It might have been mortal. Some nights he woke, remembering. The kiss of shock, followed by the cold rushing through him. Pain came afterwards, a fiery trace that seared where the icy steel had chilled him.

Ah. Here we are again.

Words, it seemed, could kill as easily as weapons. Rafe watches the colour drain from his friend’s face, the handsome commander rendered corpse-like in the blue of their smoke. Eyes wide. Lips thin. He reels, a little, but with trembling hand he steadies himself on his friend’s shoulder.

I am Zemyati. We have but one way to face death.

He smiles weakly at Rafe, “You can’t, of course. Of course you can’t. But thank you, my friend, for even thinking to ask.”

He draws himself up. The Commander again. Perhaps for the last time.

"Summon the Council. The Marshall and the Quartermaster. This is where the metal hits the meat."