Recap of our pandemic play

I’ve had a game going with some friends of mine over Roll20 since early May when we’ve all been stuck inside. Other than me, the four players have scant experience with TTRPGs so it’s been a learning experience but we’ve had some absolutely wild emergent play. I’ve been listening to the Black Company so fleshed out my bulleted notes about our play through into some narrative for the Annals. I’ve probably been a kind GM, holding back on dropping any of the specialists and the Legion’s morale is still high, but I can see the campaign economy beginning to toll and harm/stress is adding up. And that’s with rolling up multiple special missions and -1 time rewards, getting mostly 1s on advances, 6s on secondary missions (first non-6 was this session and even then it was a 5!), and generally rolling fairly well on crucial rolls in-mission. Feel free to mine this for mission ideas!

4 Iztaila, Summer 848 OEF – Retreat from the Ettenmark Fields

The armies of the East were shattered at the Ettenmark Fields. It was only through a heroic rearguard action led by the Legion’s Commander himself and the abrupt and unexpected intervention of Zora, a Chosen of the Living God unseen for a century, that the Legion was able to escape the carnage relatively intact. Zora gave us something to fight for, a tiny glimmer when all hope for humanity seemed lost. The Legion would march across Ettenmark, aiming to beat the winter winds and the undead hordes to Skydagger Keep, and hold the mountain passes leading to the Eastern Kingdoms until the snows arrived to slow our hellish adversaries.

As the Legion retreated, scouts reported that the Commander had been taken to a grim mountain fortress on the edge of the blasted lands of Dar. Fearing what could happen if the Commander was turned to the Cinder King’s side, we agreed on a daring rescue mission. Four of the Legion’s most celebrated warriors, veterans of countless commissions across the known world – the heavy Colayovich Bearblood, the sniper Zayayev the Bent, the medic Azure Surging Tide, and the scout Amber Raging Wind – led the Ember Wolves into the fortress.

The troops reached the Commander just before he broke, with Amber Raging Wind using the undead’s own fiendish shrapnel grenade traps to cut down the fiendish inquisitor and the Cinder Guard who protected him. In the midst of the fighting, the Ember Wolves broke and one of them, Graf Valmir Rodiano, was cut down by a rotter. Rodiano was the first of the Legion’s number to fall in the fighting retreat to Skydagger Keep, but he would not be the last.

It was only Bearblood’s heroic intervention that kept us from losing more of our number. In addition to the dead, the mission took its toll on the Legion. Bearblood’s mind is eroding, and all he talks about now is slaughtering undead. Zayayev been so affected by all this that his previous sense of humor has all but vanished into an icy coldness, and I’ve heard some of the rankers wonder if he is more dead than alive. I stood on battlefields with these men in the Islands and elsewhere and if they are cracking then I wonder what chance the rest of us have.

Upon the Wolves’ successful return with the catatonic Commander, Zora toasted us for a job well done and drank with us all well into the night. In the morning, we chose a new Commander from the ranks to take over. Humanity’s hour grows late, but we’ve faced long odds before. The Legion is full of cruel, hard men and women used to fighting in the dark.

10 Iztaila, Summer 848 OEF – The Western Front (Mission Phase)

We reached the all but abandoned Western Front with the forces of the Broken close on our heels. It’s obvious at this point that we are pursued by Render and Breaker. The Legion is diminished in numbers and it seems excessive, but perhaps the Cinder King feels assured of his coming victory. I think I would be in his place.

At night, we were kept awake by braying and mourning sounds and the feeling that eyes were watching us from just beyond our campfires. We were caught on one side between the undead crossing the Tigeria and on the other the uncaring mountains. And then Zora entered the command tent, screaming in incoherent rage about a codex left behind by another one of the Chosen in the trenches of Ettenmark – though it was unclear how she knew this, as she had not been present.

Our new Commander made a choice to send Bearblood, our lieutenant Vani Manabur, and Azure Surging Tide with the Ghost Owls back across the Tigeria into the trenches of Ettenmark, while Zayayev the Bent and Amber Raging Wind went with the Star Vipers to see if they could find a path through the mountains in the village of Rothenburg.

15 Iztaila, Summer 848 OEF – The Western Front (Primary Mission, Orange Lion - Success)

The Ghost Owls slipped across the Tigeria at night in a small craft piloted by a boatman who had refused to flee in the face of the undead hordes. Though paralyzed with fear, one of the Ghost Owls, Princips Anton Lorio, was able to calm him down. The squad headed back into the trenches, which were covered in poison gas that lingered from the battle. Manabur had known to bring along something, but there was no guarantee that it worked, and all we had were towels soaked in some kind of alchemical substance.

Fighting time until the alchemical substance wore off and hordes of rotters and crows, the squad made their way to the fortified bunker that held the information. The door had collapsed, forcing them to find another way in through collapsed wood and masonry, holding off the undead as Red Hook, a massive living siege weapon devised by the crazed mind of Blighter, headed towards them. Azure Surging Tide and Anton Lorio retrieved the intelligence and a cache of Black Shot and the Legionnaires hoofed it out. Unable to get back to the boat, they decided to cross back over the Felimene Bridge, a huge Old Empire construction spanning the Tigeria.

A hole in the center of the bridge had been blown by the retreating Eastern armies, but Blighter had figured out how to ford it, using a knot of rotters to form a plank by which their hordes could proceed. The Legion’s approach was informed by Azure Surging Tide, who had been a historical scholar of the Old Empire before joining the Legion, and had brought historical blueprints of the bridge with the papers he always carried around. Beneath the bridge was a series of engineered catwalks and pipes, used for repairs and to pump hot water to ensure the bridge did not freeze over in the frigid Aldermark winter. The Legionnaires climbed up and traversed the damaged catwalk as the undead marched mere feet above them. By the time they were noticed, they had emerged on the other side, and marched back under cover of darkness with the information Zora had wanted. She barely even acknowledged them as she took the chest containing the codex into her tent. We did not see her again for days.

23 Iztaila, Summer 848 OEF – The Western Front (Secondary Mission, Diamond Thorn – Success)

Zayayev, Amber Raging Wind, and the Star Vipers returned from Rothenburg, their faces grim. Using the extreme devotion of these people to the Twins, one of Render’s Knights of the Black Oak had taken the place of the village hetman and begun to convert villagers into gaunt. The Legionnaires uncovered the plot and slew the Knight in single combat, then freed the villagers from the town gaol. Among them was a ranger who knew a path through the mountains that could speed the Legion’s travels to Plainsworth.

Wasting no time, the Commander ordered the Legion to mount up and proceed through the pass towards Plainsworth, making great time as we headed towards the doomed city.

29 Iztaila, Summer 848 OEF – Plainsworth (Mission Phase)

We marched into Plainsworth and set up our camp in the center of the town’s commons, ignoring glares from the townspeople that ranged from somewhat suspicious to downright hostile. The Commander forbade the usual sort of fraternization that Legionnaires tended to get up to in a town such as this one to avoid the town becoming more a death trap to us than were the forces of Blighter, who were encroaching upon its Old Empire walls. Zora remains in her tent and has not said a word to any of us. Perhaps it is for the best. She fills me with dread every time her eyes catch mine, even while I long for her to grace me with a glance.

1 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Plainsworth (Primary Mission, Gates of Hell – Success)

Blighter’s vanguard made it here sooner than we had anticipated. A massive thud woke us all from our slumber this morning. The crash was enough to send lanterns and papers flying across the command tent. We could not save Plainsworth, and we knew it, but we could at least buy the townspeople – and ourselves – enough time to make an orderly withdrawal from the doomed city. The Marshal ordered Zayayev, Bearblood, and Azure Surging Tide with the Shattered Lions to relieve the town’s defenders.

When they arrived at the breach in the wall, they found the town militia standing atop a makeshift barricade, wavering under an assault from waves of rotters but no indication of what had caused the breach. The Legionnaires quickly reinforced the barricade and Azure Surging Tide’s growls, affected from old storybooks of Old Empire heroes, kept the Plainsworth citizens from breaking. While Zayayev climbed the wall to get a better vantage, Bearblood led the squad up onto the barricade. Our men fired their muskets in a volley then fixed bayonets and used the high ground to their advantage, while Bearblood’s axe tolled their ranks. Yet Bearblood’s obsession got the better of him and he slipped and fell off the barricade, finding himself on his back, surrounded by the putrescent foe.

All hope looked lost for Bearblood, but Zayayev had reached the top of the wall, and his black shot fell steadily and accurately, felling the crow commanders and leaving the rotters in disarray. Bearblood swung his mighty axe in a wide arc, clearing a path, and Azure Surging Tide pulled him back up onto the barricade.

Just then Zayayev spotted a cart being pulled by a horror, watched over by two crows. On the cart were iron barrels, which the sniper guessed were filled with Blighter’s horrific poison gas. At the same time, the source of the breach became clear, as the mighty Red Hook, a towering living siege weapon with a hook for an arm, came shambling towards the defenders.

Zayayev looked for a weakness in the horror pulling the cart. The ankle joints were strange, as the thing’s feet were a bunch of arms and legs fused together, and Zayayev fired black shot at them. The horror fell and writhed, unable to move any further. The two crows began to push the barrels on a suicide mission, nearing the breach, but Zayayev’s last ammunition cut them both down, saving Plainsworth from the horrible effects of the gas we saw in the trenches of Ettenmark Fields.

Meanwhile, Bearblood and the others charged out from the barricade towards Red Hook. The horrifying creature felled Parkresh Arani of the Shattered Lions and a dozen militiamen before Bearblood brought it down, pushing himself to the brink of death in order to perform superhuman feats in his obsessive bloodlust. His axe lodged in the creature’s morbid flesh at one point, but he always brought another with him. Finally, with the help of Klarina Keen-Axe of the Shattered Lions and what was left of the town militia, he split open its head like he was bringing down a tree.

Battered and bruised, the squad returned, toting the iron barrels full of poison gas. You never know when such a weapon might come in handy. The Legion hasn’t survived centuries by turning down a weapon – even one as terrible as this.

We remember our dead, but the victory lifted the spirits of those who were living. No longer distrusted by the townpeople, the Quartermaster convinced the Commander to allow our soldiers some liberty.

4 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Plainsworth (Secondary Mission, Spring Cleaning – Success)

All but the staid Commander, teetotaler Marshal, and the enigmatic Spymaster were hungover the next morning, when Buren Beher, the famed royal surgeon of Aldermark and perhaps the greatest doctor in the known world, entered the command tent. He explained that his most promising apprentice, Tof Scabrescy, had gone into the hills outside Plainsworth, to the crumbling Old Empire-era temple to Ashrika known as the Hospital of the Lady of Mercy to find something, anything that might help against the blight. He had not returned and asked that the Legion send a squad to Middenheim, a village near the Hospital, to find out where he had gone.

The Marshal dispatched Vani Manabur, Amber Raging Wind, and the Star Vipers to Middenheim. They found the village full of blighted villagers, groaning of experiments in the Hospital, for whom they could do little for but provide a merciful death. They entered the Hospital and traversed its dark, twisted hallways, finding inhuman experiments. Two Legionnaires, Vermilion Charging Reef and Baronet Katovica Sanicci, were lost as twisted horrors fell upon them. But Manabur’s leadership and Amber Raging Wind’s stealth, along with the growing prowess of one of the squad members, Silver Surging Weald, let them cut their way into the Hospital’s innermost sanctum. There they confronted the twisted crow known as the Doctor, who was beginning to experiment on Tof Scabrescy. The Doctor escaped from our clutches, but we rescued Tof, who requested permission from Buren Beher to join the Legion.

In the end, we lost two Star Vipers and gained one surgical prodigy and one of the Star Vipers became a grizzled veteran. Perhaps a rational person might call it a good trade, but we could ill-afford to lose a single Legionnaire.

7 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Plainsworth (Campaign Phase)

As the black of night set in, a growing knot of citizens of Plainsworth and Legionnaires asked me to spin a tale from the Annals. I told of the Legion’s founding, when a plague swept the Old Empire during the reign of the Seventh Emperor and laid the imperial cohorts low, a situation the horse people of the south were waiting to take advantage of. I told of how Cincinnatus raised an army of peasants and beggars who had survived the plague, and how their immunity to it proved a great advantage in driving back the invaders and their Chosen – the name is long since forgotten, even to the Annals – at a moment when all hope seemed lost for the Empire. And I told of how that army became the Legion, the bodyguard of the Emperors, whose founding principle was that all Legionnaires were equal once they took the oath, no matter their station or birth.

The next morning, the Commander ordered us to mount up and ride out. We left Plainsworth behind us, riding for the steppes where the horse people ruled, just as the undead hordes arrived in force. I prayed to all the gods I knew to show the city mercy, but Zora did not even look back as we rode. Whatever gods remain are not listening to us.

12 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Sunstrider Camp (Mission Phase)

The Legion rode into the Sunstrider Camp around midday, and for the first time since we had begun this fighting retreat, we received a greeting that could be described as something better than hostile. The plainsfolk who gathered at Sunstrider Camp during the summer were the descendants of the horse people of centuries past, whose defeat at the hands of the original Legion had seen them subsumed into the Old Empire. There was respect there, and the Commander and the Horse Lady Tsaga had a camaraderie that belied a history there.

On the way, we had passed the camp of the Horse Lord Nettar. Amber Raging Wind had gone ahead and returned, reporting that his men suffered from the blight. Worse, one of the most feared servants of Render, Zenya the Sable Arrow, was seen entering his camp. But she had also seen the firemanes. Reckoning we could take the majestic mounts for ourselves and deny them to our enemies, the Commander agreed on a daring plan to rustle up the firemanes and break them loose from the corral. The Marshal sent our best riders – Vani Manabur, Amber Raging Wind, and Tof, the newest recruit – with the Ghost Owls on the mission.

When we arrived at Sunstrider Camp were given a location to pitch our camp befitting a close ally of the Horse Lady, but she immediately began to ask for our help in exchange. First, she said, the Legion could deal with the massive, overcrowded camp of refugees, who were threatening to riot and break the fragile peace at Sunstrider Camp. No dice, said the Commander. I knew what he was thinking. The possibility we could end in a situation firing on refugees when the hordes of the undead were bearing down on us was too much even for we heartless veterans to bear.

Tsaga made another offer. A self-styled bandit queen, Falka, had made camp up in the mountains, where she was preying on travelers along both the eastern and western roads. Tsaga’s warriors were policing the roads, but they were spread thin. The Commander nodded, and the Marshal ordered Bearblood, Zayayev, Azure Surging Tide, and the Grinning Ravens to either enlist Falka in the fight against the undead, or bring her head back if they could not.

15 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Sunstrider Camp (Secondary Mission, Flaming Spear – Success)

Our horse thieves rode into camp at dawn, waking us all with their whooping. We all cursed and grumbled. Until, that is, we rubbed our weary eyes and saw the majestic red horses that the Ghost Owls had led back to our camp. All exhaustion forgotten, we too began to cheer.

The Ghost Owls had done what they do, broken into the corral and rode off with the horses. They had been pursued by the blighted plainsfolk and Zenya, but the Legionnaires proved a match in horsemanship and Nettar’s men were without their firemanes. The Ghost Owls rode hard through the night and back to the safety of the camp just ahead of their pursuers. I’ve never seen the Quartermaster as happy as the day he got those horses. Maybe if we find some cannon.

20 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Sunstrider Camp (Primary Mission, Kingfisher – Success)

Given precise intelligence on their patrols, the Grinning Ravens ambushed a group of bandits near the eastern road. Though the Legion had them right where we wanted them, attempts to cow the bandits nearly led to a resumption of hostilities. Zayayev ended that, though, calmly shooting one bandit right through the eye as he tried to raise his musket to fire. This show of force convinced them that, while refugees might be easy prey, the Legion were different beasts altogether. Professionals. The best. An important lesson we’ve had to teach throughout our history.

The Ravens demanded the bandits take them to the fort Falka was holed up in. What was expected was a camp in the mountains. What they got instead was a city carved into a mountain, a relic of an ancient age that Azure Surging Tide tells me he believes predated the Old Empire.

The bandits, with commanding firing lanes, demanded the Ravens surrender their weapons. Everyone was convinced this was a good idea, given the fact the squad was facing a fortress of bandits.

I find it difficult to record what happened next in good faith. Everyone who was there tells me swears that it is absolutely true, including Zayayev. The deadeyed sniper was once a quick wit, but he hadn’t smiled since the retreat from Ettenmark. But, still, I cannot believe it actually happened.

The story goes like this: Though the Legionnaires recognized the folly of resistance, Bearblood refused to give up his weapons. Like Zayayev, he too has been changed since the flight from Ettenmark, an unstable, irrational fury coloring his every action. The Ravens expected a fusillade in response, but someone inside the fortress, maybe Falka herself, was amused by Bearblood. To answer his stubbornness, she sent a – and, again, I am only recording what was sworn to me – stark naked woman who was more muscle than flesh to wrestle Bearblood for the right to enter the fortress with weapons in hand. They make them strange in the hills.

What I am told is that Bearblood nearly lost a half dozen times, but pushed himself to the brink of death to pin this woman and secure the right of the Legion to enter the fortress unmolested. For her part, she took it in stride, dusting herself off and saluting our hero. Then the Legion was welcomed into the fortress. In the main hall were hundreds of families, perhaps the families of the bandits themselves. They looked at our troops with suspicion, but the Ravens passed through there and into a great hall where Falka herself held court.

Falka, it turned out, was a girl who had seen no more than 18 summers. That she led a band of highwaymen that had frustrated the veteran troops of Sunstrider camp was a testament to a sharpness belied by her youth. She motioned the Legionnaires to sit as an alarm bell rang through the fortress, indicating an imminent attack. Unperturbed, she made an offer to our squad. She would work together with Tsaga to hit the undead in their rear if the Legion brought her band’s families to the Sunstrider camp and bought time for the bandits themselves to disperse into the woods.

Though Zayayev tells me he pondered if they should simply kill her and be done with it, the cold bastard, the others agreed to the trade. The bandits melted away and left our troops to clean up their mess. The gaunt were coming, led by Render’s Knights of the Black Oak.

Our troops broke up into two groups. Zayayev led the Grinning Ravens to the fortress walls to buy time for Azure Surging Tide and Bearblood to marshal the sudden refugees out of a dark, narrow secret tunnel that Falka had indicated. The Ravens’ sharp volleys tolled among the gaunt, but the undead came on without care. One of their number, Russet Flowing Grove, was pulled from the line and hacked to death beneath wicked blades. Shiya Khatri was saved from the same fate only when her sister Rashi leapt to their defense, taking wounds from the biting blades of the skeletal figures but pulling her sibling back into line.

Back in the fortress interior, Bearblood and Azure Surging Tide were trying to organize an orderly retreat. The Panyar scholar can feign a disciplinarian sometimes, but this was not such a time. He tried to order a bunch of scared men, women, and children who didn’t know him into a tunnel and was greeted with a prying bar to the head for his efforts. Bearblood stepped in and did what Bearblood does best – unrestrained violence – and knocked the offender out in one mighty blow, cowing everyone else into submission. He ordered them into the tunnel, and not one disobeyed.

Even still, the Legion and refugees alike would have been goners if not for Zayayev’s quick thinking. He noticed a weak point in the ages old masonry and took it out, collapsing a wall for long enough to get everyone into the tunnel and out the other side. Even once out of the fortress and away from the immediate danger of Render’s hordes, organizing the refugees proved difficult. One family had gotten separated from the rest and was found teetering over a cliff, but Rashi and Bearblood together pulled them up and Azure Surging Tide splinted their wounds.

The refugees were added to the swelling group near the Sunstrider Camp. A few days later, Falka entered our command tent like a ghost. She and Tsaga met and decided on a plan to harry and harass the undead. On the way out, she winked mischievously at Bearblood, then whispered something to him that gave him a hungry glint in his eye. He wouldn’t speak of it, but Azure Surging Tide suggested to me he has a new admirer among our new bandit friends out there in Aldermark.

That night, a storm swept Sunstrider Camp, thunder and lightning mixing with heavy rains and gale force winds. We took refuge in our tents and waited it out.

The next morning, we mounted up and rode out of the Sunstrider Camp. As we mounted, Anton Lorio told me he had peeked out of his tent the night before and seen Zora out in the storm, the point of fire above her head mixing with the flashes of lightning to bathe her in a terrible shadow. I shivered, but my trepidation turned light as I saw Tsaga’s horsemen lining the road and waving us on our way. For the first time, our advance was unhurried. Whatever Falka and her band of merry men and women were doing behind us, it had slowed Render and Blighter considerably.

20 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Duresh Forest (Mission Phase)

The forests of eastern Aldermark are so serene that you might have forgotten there was a war for the survival of humanity on, if not for the sounds of the undead we can hear in the distance each night. We passed a village that had been set upon by something terrible – living or not, we could not tell – and grown men had been torn in half by giant jaws. The Commander told us to ignore it and press on, though we could not sleep soundly knowing such a thing was sharing this forest with us.

Last night the Ember Wolves, who had been forced into camp guarding duty since they broke during the raid on the fortress six weeks prior, were using munitions to blow up forest animals and were taking bets on which one would go the furthest. The Panyar among our number were clearly irate, and even an old soldier found this too cruel and inhuman, but in the end the veterans of the Legion simply watched it happen. Zora, for her part, joined in the gambling. War makes nutcases of us all, and we’ll be lucky to be any more human than Render or Blighter if we complete this suicide mission and reach Skydagger Keep.

Tof’s been studying the Annals with me, taking an interest in the history of the Legion. It’s rare to see rankers care. Even I only begrudgingly accepted my role as Lorekeeper back when I realized the wasting disease had put my fighting days behind me. Now these Annals are my most important possessions. Time changes us all.

In the morning we discovered that the Kinzig, a great Old Empire dam holding back water flowing down from the mountains to the north, had burst, flooding the road and washing out everything in its path. The forest in front of us is now more accurately a swamp. Azure Surging Tide, he of the Old Empire fetish, suggested we might investigate the Kinzig and see if we could traverse the dam to speed our way through the forest. Otherwise, we’ll have to go the long way around to get back to the path, cutting deep into the head start Falka has bought us.

Zora, meanwhile, is urging the Commander to ignore the Kinzig and has requested a squad from the Commander to go off with her towards some ruins that appear on our map. She won’t say why, but we cannot deny the Chosen. I get the feeling even the Commander is suspicious of her motives now. Certainly the Spymaster does not trust her, but that shifty bastard doesn’t trust anyone. The Marshal sent Bearblood, Tof, and Zayayev with the Star Vipers to accompany Zora on her mission. As soon as she was gone, the Commander ordered the lieutenant, Azure Surging Tide, and Amber Raging Wind to take the Ghost Owls and see if it was practicable to traverse the Kinzig. I’m glad the Commander still has some independent authority beyond the Chosen’s preternatural whims.

25 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Duresh Forest (Primary Mission, Crimson Call – Success)

The Star Vipers returned from their mission with Zora, who was under the care of Tof. Bearblood and Zayayev refused to talk about what happened, other than to say that they had been pursued into ruins by Zenya the Sable Arrow. They had lost two of the Star Vipers, Maleksei Alikovna and Tatinika One-Eye but had accomplished their mission, whatever it was. Zora had fought off Zenya but taken an arrow coated in nightshade venom for the trouble. Tof’s treatments had stabilized her, but it was a wonder she was still alive at all. Even a drop of that venom was deadly to all but the very luckiest, and she had been shot through with more than a drop.

Late that night Tof entered my tent, waking me. There were dark bags under his eyes, and his face looked far more haunted than it had before he had left. Couldn’t sleep, he told me.

In a voice reduced to a whisper, he told me the full story of what had occurred at those ruins. The squad had uncovered a deep hole covered in rubble, but Zenya’s appearance upset the plans. Zora told the Legionnaires to deal with whatever was down there while the Chosen dueled Render’s lieutenant.

On their way down, Alikovna had lost hold of the rope and fallen to her death. At the bottom, they had found a passage of hewn stone unseen by human eyes in centuries. Zayayev had scouted ahead but been driven to his knees by voices he couldn’t understand. They must have been something to drive that cold bastard near-mad. The squad advanced and were assaulted by these ghostly voices but stood their ground. They shone light into the room at the end of the corridor.

I need to make sure I get all of this recorded. On the walls were murals depicting figures in battle, including an army in black with a towering figure that Tof believes could only be Zora. They were facing a fiery crown of ten points. I will look through the annals for more, but Tof suggested this must be from the end of the Old Empire, when records of the Legion – why we turned our back on the Last Emperor – were vague and scarce.

Along another wall of this underground dome were ten skeletons, not undead… but apparently not totally dead, either. They wore black lorica segmentata, the armor of the cohorts of the Old Empire, and on their chests were the crest of the Shattered Lions. My jaw dropped, and he nodded. Lost Legionnaires, ancient brothers. I knew that story. There wasn’t much detail in it; the final days of the Old Empire are as mysterious for us as for any. But the Annals did mention the disappearance of the Lions. It was one of the other times we had dealings with Zora. It fit.

And, as I mentioned, our old brothers and sisters were not apparently entirely dead. Tof, his eyes weary, says there were shadows in the room that no light could reach. The voices seemed to be coming from them. They were speaking Old Imperial, he was sure of it, just close enough to languages they knew that it was familiar but far enough to be incomprehensible to most. But one spoke Aldermani, a language that hadn’t changed much in the ensuing time.

Tof said the shade told him he smelled like her , by which we can only assume he meant Zora. They called the Legion diminished, but greeted Tof as a brother. They asked if the Owls had returned to give them what she had promised them. Tof said they asked what was promised, but the shades would say nothing. They attacked him, their voices breaking into his head. He hears them now, he says.

It was Zayayev who broke the stalemate, firing his pistols at the skeletons in the corner. Their heads exploded, and the shades disappeared. The Vipers had always been the ones to fight unseen enemies, and they had an idea of what to do. They kept them at bay while Bearblood tore heads off and smashed skeletons of Legionnaires long since dead. Tof was not yet fully a Legionnaire, still a surgeon, and he wept as he told me, and even once begged forgiveness. I held him as he wept. Once I was more heartless, but those days left me when the battlefields did.

Tatinika One-Eye died when she was possessed by a shade, Tof says. Zayayev shot her. Living and dead, the Legion swallows its own. She got one shot off, nearly killing another of the Vipers, but Bearblood threw her aside and deflected the shot with his shield. That was all. They emerged back into the light of day and Zora had fought Zenya off but taken an arrow for her troubles.

As Tof left my tent, I wondered if that really was all. Was now-dead One-Eye really the only one who had been possessed by some forgotten brother?

29 Abuztua, Summer 848 OEF – Duresh Forest (Secondary Mission, Western Peak – Failure)

The Ghost Owls made their way into the arcane interior of the Kinzig, but once they reached the breach in the dam that had caused the flooding, they found they had no way to traverse it. Manabur, the lieutenant, made a prudent decision not to risk any further exploration of the Old Empire structure, for who knew what surprises lay in the dark, and the squad returned to camp, unsuccessful in their mission but otherwise no worse for the wear. We were lucky Zora was still confined to her tent; she was none the wiser to realize the Commander had defied her demands to ignore the dam.

Still, Zenya knew we were here, which meant Render knew we were here. The forces of one or both of the Fallen that were chasing us would soon reach us. We mounted our firemanes and took the long way around the swollen gorge. Even with those majestic beasts beneath us, though, we found the forest difficult to navigate without a path and it took much longer than we had anticipated. Along the way, we stopped at villages in the woods, the Quartermaster recruiting any who were willing to abandon their homes and come with us. We couldn’t be choosy. What was left among the Panyar and Aldermani in these villages were those who had been too young or old to fight the undead. Some who we enlisted were just boys and girls barely able to lift a musket. Others were oldsters with nothing left to live for, their children having gone off to fight and never come back.

None of that matters. They took the oaths the Legion’s been taking since the days of Cincinnatus. They’ll die with us as brothers and sisters.

Driven on by Zora’s fervor and the Commander’s steady plans, we had made unbelievably good time across Aldermark. The Legion’s spirits remain high, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the Legion’s deep well of good luck was beginning to run dry as we plunged deeper into the Aldermani forest, the night air taking on a growing chill with each passing day.

Summer was passing into autumn. Our food stocks were beginning to dwindle. Our Chosen was recovering but weak – and we were beginning to wonder if we were trusting one monster to save us from others. We were still so far from Skydagger Keep. It felt like this forest went on without end. The undead were breathing down our backs.

One question assaulted my mind as we rode forward, caught in there thanks to my more poetic instincts: Were these the waning days of the last summer humanity would ever know?

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