The Fall of Aldermark - A Band of Blades story

I like using RPGs as writing exercises. I recently picked up Band of Blades and wanted to do my own solo let’s play to get acquainted with the rules, and figured this time I could record my characters and their adventures for posterity. I started with 3 rookies, Shreya as chosen, and the Blighted and Breaker for Broken. Enjoy!

Chapter One: The Bridge to Karlsburg

The moon had shattered 3 years ago, but it still cast its pale blue light on Hozelbrucke bridge and the Tigeria river below it. The pieces hung close together in the night sky, and if Valeria squinted into the last of the evening’s rain she could almost picture it whole again. Maybe if she did she could remember what life was like before the Cinder King and his Broken. Before his army of undead had routed the armies of the Eastern Kingdoms, scouring the soil with pox and plague and turning every living soul into a thrall. Before the dwindling forces of Or and Bartan began recruiting criminals and mercenaries. Before the Legion joined the fight. Before Valeria joined the fight.

Something jabbed her in the back and Valeria turned and grabbed at her sword, heart beating against the leather protecting her chest. Arun scowled from behind her, his tattooed eyes making him look every bit the bandit he claimed to be. He jabbed her in the ribs again with the butt of his oar, and pointed ahead of them. They had finally reached the bridge. Rakash ahead of her stowed his oar in the little wooden boat they shared and steadied it against one of the stone pillars supporting the bridge with a meaty hand. Arun stowed his oar, then gingerly stepped by Valeria and helped Rakash secure the boat with rope and pittons from his climbing kit.

The boat had been a tough sell. The two Bartans had insisted that no one around Karlsburg would be willing to part with anything, much less a conveyance to get them away from the advancing army of the dead. But Valeria had found an old couple fleeing the city who were impressed with her Orite rank, and so she negotiated for the location of their fishing boat. All it had cost her where the medical supplies the Legion had allotted her. Rakash and Arun frowned at the loss, but neither were going to argue the point further. None of them wanted to be in view of the capital as they did their work.

The boat secured, Rakash pulled the first of four bundles of reagents from the boat and began securing them to the stone pillar. The Marshall of the Legion had chosen the three of them specifically for this mission, and had underscored in no uncertain terms that this was the moment to prove themselves.

“Shreya has selected you three to blow the bridge. Karlsburg is lost. The dead are at our heels. We’ll do our best to ensure none cross the river to outflank you.” The quartermaster had shown them how to use the bottles, to connect them via corkscrew shaped tubes of glass, and how long they would have before the science of alchemy did whatever it did to disintegrate everything around them. The quartermaster drilled the three of them several times, only satisfied when each one could name and assemble the components without mistakes.

“Just make sure to keep it stored separately from your lamp oil,” the quartermaster smiled, “or there won’t be enough left of you to record anything in the Legion’s annals.”

Before they had left, Shreya herself had spoken to them. Valeria could still see her solid golden eyes in her mind, staring somewhere over their shoulders as she spoke. Her voice vibrating everything around them.

“If the bridge survives, you will have my mercy.” Valeria remembered the Chosen’s mercy. The other two members of their squad had refused the mission. They were all rookies, barely a year served in the Legion, they said, and in no position to undertake such a dangerous mission so close to the advancing enemy. Valeria would have spoken up as well, but Shreya’s sword was so fast. The Chosen had moved on before the rookie’s heads hit the dirt. Valeria tried to remember their names.

Arun jabbed at her again. Valeria almost let out an Orite string of curses but Arun pressed a gloved finger to his lips, and pointed at Rakash. His large hands had made quick work of the improvised bomb, securing it to the bridge support with ropes and more pitons. The old Bartan untied the boat from the pillar and took up an oar. Arun did the same and whispered to Valeria as he stepped around her.

“Watch the bridge, princess.” Valeria winced. She was a Viscount, but she knew Arun didn’t care about the exhaustive minutiae of Orite lineages and peerage. Valeria drew up her musket, checked that the firing mechanism was still dry, and scanned the river and shorelines.

The dead had reached Karlsburg. As the three of them had hunted for the boat they could see smoke rising from the city on the other side of the river. She could now hear the occasional scream above the steady flow of water.

Slowly they made their way to the next support. Arun found a spot in the column where some of the stone bricks had become loose. He and Rakash used this to store the alchemicals while Valeria watched, her heart counting the agonizing seconds before they could move on.

That is when she heard the splash. Something large had fallen into the river ahead of them just as the Bartans had finished securing the bomb. Valeria turned to see a hand rise from the water and grope at the air as it breached the surface, pale in the broken moonlight. Another splash behind them. Then another.

The dead had arrived.

“Go, go!” Arun hissed as the men took up the oars and paddled quickly to the next support. Valeria surveyed the water with her musket, looking to see if any of the derelict bodies swam close.

More and more were falling into the river now, dropping at random, as if something huge was above forcing the zombies off the bridge as it moved. One bobbed to the surface upriver, and locked its pale decaying eyes on Valeria as she took aim.

“Wait!” Rakash warned too late. The shot from Valeria’s musket echoed off the water and stones, the bullet penetrating the zombie’s skull. Rakash cursed and finished tying off the satchel to the bridge. Arun grabbed his oar, both men at the front now, paddling hard. He grinned and shook his head at her.

“Good shot princess,” he said casually, “now when we die I will be safe knowing it wasn’t because you have terrible aim.” Rakash shushed him as the boat bounced against the next support. The armored Bartan didn’t even bother tying off the boat this time, just tossed the oar to the deck, dug his leather boot between stones in the support and held the boat with the other.

“Here,” Arun said, producing an oil lamp. “Since we’ve abandoned stealth.”

Rakash turned, “You fool! Remember what the quartermaster said? You want us all to die?”

More dead were falling into the river, compelled by the noise. Valeria finished reloading her musket with another shot, and raised her hand with the sign that the Legion had taught her meant ‘make ready to fire’. Arun saw, grabbed his own rifle, checked the firing mechanism, and shouldered it alongside her.

“Aim!” she said, picking a target. A young woman, her face half eaten away by pale worms. “Fire!”

Two shots rang out, two bodies sank to the bottom of the Tigeria. More were approaching, drawn to the noise and light of gunfire, paddling slowly but gradually against the current.

Valeria started to reload alongside Arun. She could hear him muttering prayers as he struggled to load the shot.

“We’re being surrounded old man!” He shouted. Rakash dropped back into the boat and took up both oars.

“Just one more!” he replied.

“Ready!” Valeria shouted. Arun threw the ram rod from the muzzle and took up his rifle. Valeria picked out one of the closest swimmers. “Aim!”

“Behind!” Rakash cried. Valeria turned. Above them, next to the column they had drawn up alongside, a series of hands were reaching below the bridge for purchases in the stone work. First three, then six, then a dozen, all connected to each other through sutures and iron nails. Several more wrapped themselves around the other side of the column, each the manyfold arms that made up a horror, an amalgamation of screaming and moaning undead bodies working in concert together. The rest of its expanse slid from the bridge above them, awkwardly dangling from the support as its lower extremities splashed into the water, it’s manifold arms gripping the column kept it from sinking.

“Ready!” Valeria screamed, kneeling in the boat as Arun turned and steadied himself for a shot. Rakash and his heavy armor kept the boat counterbalanced as he grabbed for his own rifle. “Aim!” The fleshy mass pulled itself against the current, grabbing higher and higher at the pillar. A series of partially dismembered torsos that made up one its legs rose up to capsize the boat. “Fire!”

The three shots tore into the maze of flesh. Several bodies came loose, the horror faltered and collapsed backward into the river. Valeria could still see the pink and white flesh writhing beneath the surface, but Rakash had already tossed his rifle aside.

“One more!” He repeated as he hammered a piton into the bridge support, his body stretching from the boat. “Just one more!”

Before Valeria could respond she felt wet hands grasping at her back. The rotters from the river had finally closed the distance. She could feel sharp bony fingers biting into the flesh around her neck as they tried to drag her under by the collar. She turned to see Arun struggling against two more, each with one of his arms in their grasp. Valeria awkwardly unsheathed her sword and stabbed one through the eye. As it slid into the river, Arun pushed the other off the boat, drew his own sword and swung it above Valeria’s head. She heard a sploosh and felt the grip on her neck go limp. Arun reached down and helped her up, black and green ichor covering his face.

As she stood she could see eight more rotters trying to lift themselves onto the boat. Rakash was hammering a piton into place as two, three, then six arms grabbed him from the boat and smashed his body against the column. The horror had returned, it’s other arm wrapping around the column as it rose from the river. Valeria turned to Arun, who began screaming prayers and divine names as he slashed at the rotters’ hands. When she looked to Rakash she could see him fumbling with something from his pack, struggling to right himself as he dangled from the hands. The old Bartan straightened his arm.

Lamp oil. Valeria turned and tackled Arun over the side of the boat as the dead climbed on. A second after she hit the water the world roared in her ears. She tried to make herself as small as she could, hoping the noise and chaos would pass her by. Moments later something heavy pushed down on her, threatening to drag her to the cold depths of the river. Valeria opened her eyes to see a stone block above her, one of many now plunging into the river. She pushed against it, letting it slide around her as she kicked at the water for the surface.

When she breached she sucked in air, sputtered, and looked around. She was confused. She couldn’t see the bridge at first, but then noticed the partial remnants at either end of the shore, above and behind her. Bodyparts floated around her, along with wood and other detritus. A call from the shore drew her attention. There on the bank was Arun, waving at her.

When she swam closer she could see a body next to him, Rakash. The left side of him was charred and burned,most of the metal plates of his armor blown clear by the explosion.

“He’s breathing. Barely. Somehow.” Arun shook his head and stared out at Karlsburg burning in the distance as Valeria dragged herself upright next to him.

“We should get going,” she said. “All of Aldermark would have heard that.” She looked down at Rakash. He looked dead, his skin still smouldered from the alchemical reagents eating away at him. “Should we…” she gestured at Rakash.

“Are you kidding me?” Arun looked at her. “If not for him we’re for the chop. If he dies he gets the proper Legionnaire funeral at least. Burn him proper. He ain’t coming back as one of those.” Arun groaned as he stood. Valeria nodded, ashamed at herself for thinking otherwise. Everyone who served the Legion was treated equally, and everyone got to be recorded in its histories. Especially suicidal old Bartans.

“We should find something we could use as a stretcher,” she said. Arun nodded.

“Yeah, don’t want to carry him all the way to camp on our backs.” He looked up and down the shore. “Hey uh, princess?”

Valeria looked at him, too tired to register the slight, “What?”

Arun held up his hands, surrendering. “I just wanted to say thanks for saving my life.” He winked a tattooed eye at her. “I’ll make sure no one calls you princess anymore.”

Valeria chuckled.

CHAPTER TWO: THE WESTERN FRONT

Commander Blas Rodano peered at the maps arrayed before him and smoothed his beard with his hand.

“So the bridge is destroyed then?” He didn’t look at Valeria, who stood at attention at the other side of the table.

“Yes, Commander.” Valeria watched as he scratched at old scars beneath his beard and along his neck and collarbone. Blas, despite being Commander of the Legion, was never one for badges of station or fine clothes. He often appeared around camp dressed as he was now, in a simple linen tunic with trousers and riding boots, his thick gray hair a mess of odd angles. He reached for a quill, dabbed it in some ink, drew an X on the bridge to Karlsburg.

“Losses?”

“None, Commander. Rookie Rakash Darhi suffered extensive burns, though the Mercy said he could pull through.” The Commander leaned closer to the map.

“Well, we have Shreya to thank for that I’m sure. Our Mercy keeps saying how her treatments seem even more potent in the presence of the Chosen of Asrika.” Valeria remembered two heads hitting the dirt as Shreya turned away from them.

“It would have been easier with a full squadron. Commander,” she added belatedly. Blas looked up at her for the first time since she had come into the command tent, and his weathered face broke into a brief grin.

“I know it’s a difficult adjustment, having a Chosen of the gods with the Legion. But the Legion takes all kinds, and the Chosen are always welcome.”

Valeria looked at the ground, face flush with embarrassment. “Of course, sir.”

“Speaking of,” he tore a piece of bread off a small loaf on the table and ate as he talked, “Marshal Viltorovna has found some recruits to fill out your ranks. Refugees from the city, I am told. Go find her. Then get some rest. You’ve earned it.”

Valeria saluted and turned to exit the tent.

“And rookie?”

She stopped and turned, back still stiff at attention. The Commander locked eyes with her for a long moment as he chewed on his bread. The tent was sparsely adorned. A single bookshelf, maps of the various kingdoms, a rack for the Commander’s armor. The Legion had left Karlsburg in a hurry, no time to take keepsakes. But maybe this was just how the Commander lived. As plain as his clothes.

“What do you think Shreya would have done, if she heard you question her decisions?” Valeria remembered a tournament ground in Or, a lady on a horse raising her lance in triumph, blue eyes locked on hers.

“I don’t know, Commander.”

“Let’s keep it that way.”

Valeria turned and left.

The camp at the western front was a solemn disaster. She had been here just a week ago, when the Legion had met up with the armies of Aldermark. Thousands of men and women, professional soldiers, mercenaries, all the Chosen of the Gods that remained unbroken. They all marched past Karlsburg, to the fields of Ettenmark where they planned to break the Cinder King’s advance once and for all.

Now all that remained were scared soldiers and refugees. They huddled around campfires and stared vacantly past the wooden palisades that defended them. There was the occasional screech and howl from the distance. The undead had started to slowly cross the river. Every sound made the whole camp twitch, like it was a single organism, an animal desperate to flee.

The Legion was the only company that had made it back to the camp. The occasional survivor from the eastern armies had wondered in after the Legion had returned, covered in soil and sweat and blood. They would wake up screaming in the night. The children would cry for missing parents, and each morning more and more people disappeared, either taken by the dead or hoping to flee under the cover of night.

Valeria found the Marshal just outside the tents for the Ghost Owls, Valeria’s squadron. Two women stood at attention in front of her, black haired and olive skinned twin sisters in armor that marked them as Karlsburg city guards. Marshal Tatinika Viltorovna paced back and forth in front of them as she spoke. Her hair cut short, bright blonde, almost white. She wore a crisp blue button down uniform under a long coat of leather and fur, despite the summer heat. She stood a foot taller than almost everyone in the Legion.

“We will see what you are made of soon, yes?” The Marshal’s Zemyati accent often turned her w’s into v’s. “No time to mourn for your fucking city. You are Legion now, yes?”

The twins nodded in unison, “Yes, Marshal!”

The Marshal turned and saw Valeria. “Good. This is Viscount Valeria Sanicci. She is a rookie, like you. But she has been with us longer than you, so you listen to her. Understood?”

“Yes Marshal!”

The Marshal turned to Valeria. “These are Buren and Fulon Weyer of Karlsburg. They are Ghost Owls now. You tell them what they need to know. Show them around, yes?”

Valeria nodded, “Of course Marshal.” Valeria saluted, along with the Weyer twins as the Marshal departed, hands folded behind her back.

Valeria looked at the new rookies. “How do I tell you apart?” Fulon raised her hand and showed off her braided black hair.

“I have the long hair ma’am.”

“And you are…”

“She’s Fulon,” said Buren.

“That’s Buren,” said Fulon. Valeria squinted, suddenly realizing she had not slept since she left to destroy the bridge.

“Alright then. So you were with the city guard?”

“Yeah,” said Buren. “We were watching from the walls.”

“During the battle,” added Fulon.

Valeria started adding logs to the dying fire pit dug outside the Owls’ tent.

“Is it true?” asked Fulon.

“About the Chosen, she means,” said Buren.

“What about them?” Valeria sat heavily on the cool dirt next to the fire, the twins joined her.

“Shreya. She’s the reason the Legion survived?”

Valeria sighed, “I don’t know. We lost a lot of soldiers too. We just happened to get lucky.”

“Where are the others?” Buren asked.

“The other Chosen, she means.” Fulon asked.

“I don’t know,” Valeria replied, sharper than she meant. The twins glanced at each other and let the campfire and the occasional wail in the distance permeate the air for a moment. Valeria took a breath, “We scattered after the retreat. Commander Blas said one of them is in the South, the rest are probably heading East, if they’re alive.”

Buren chuckled, “They can’t kill a Chosen.”

Valeria glared into the flames, “They’re still human.”

“What’s she like?” asked Fulon.

Valeria looked around the camp. There were only a dozen tents housing the Legion, a few dozen more for those that survived the battle at Ettenmark fields and the refugees. A wooden fortification stood at the far side of the camp, surrounded by its own palisades and patrolled by Legion scouts. Asrika was usually easy to spot, her golden eyes and statuesque bearing made her easy to spot. Valeria realized she hadn’t seen the Chosen since she and Arun had dragged Rakash back from the bridge that morning.

“You’ll see for yourself eventually. It’s hard to put into words.”

The twins both nodded. Either their curiosity had finally been sated or they realized that Valeria wasn’t in the mood.

Arun joined them with a small cask of ale under his arm, and a plate stacked with loafs, cheese, and salted meat in the other. “Liberty day!” he announced as he set the food next to the fire. The Bartan looked at the twins, the trinkets in his hair jangling as he sat. “Who are they?”

Valeria pointed, “Buren and Fulon. The Weyer twins of Karlsburg. Marshal says they’re the newest Ghost Owls.”

“Arun,” he said taking a cup from his pack and pouring himself some ale. Valeria grabbed her own pewter cup and filled it after him. “Sorry about your city.”

“Yeah,” Buren said solemnly, taking a loaf.

“Us too,” said Fulon, biting into some cheese. “What’s Liberty day?”

“We are free to take leave of our senses,” replied Arun with a belch. “Ears broke out the good stuff, she only does that when we’re about to fight or she thinks we’re about to desert.”

The twins looked at each other, their olive skin slightly pale.

“He’s joking,” Valeria grinned into her cup. She liked that Arun was giving the new recruits a hard time, and that he had finally stopped making fun of her. “And don’t call her Ears.”

“Why not? She has big ears.”

Valeria looked at the twins, who were looking at each other, trying to figure out who was going to ask first.

“The quartermaster,” Valeria explained. “She’s Payan, her mark from the forest is rabbit ears.”

“Hence,” Arun interrupted, “Ears. Plus it’s a lot easier than saying Quartermaster Silver Listening Glade every time.”

The twins chuckled. Buren asked, “Why did you join the Legion Arun?”

“It was either that or rot in a jail cell.”

Their eyebrows rose, “Really?”

Arun nodded, “It’s true. I was locked up in Karlsburg when the Legion passed through. This was months back when the front was still west of here. One day the jailer comes to my cell, says ‘Look here Mr. Diwa, I would love to see you rot in here but the Karl says the Legion gets their pick of prisoners, so if you want you can die on your feet or here on your ass.’ I picked the former option,” Arun said with a wink.

“What did you do?” asked Buren.

Arun grinned and tilted his head so his trinkets slid around the thin gold scarf covering his hair, bouncing into each other. “Lots of things.”

Valeria sighed, downed the rest of her drink, and got to her feet. “Come on, I’ll show you around.” She wanted to get away from Arun’s flirting, and eventually she needed the Marshall see her giving the recruits their orientation. She also wasn’t interested in answering why she was here.

Valeria spent the rest of the day showing the twins the camp and the various squadrons, easily identified by the banners that flew above their tents. The Ember Wolves and Grinning Ravens, the first and second frontline units respectively, were taking bets on an impromptu wrestling match between the squads. Cheers erupted from the Ember Wolves as a gaunt Bartan threw a larger Zemyati over his hip and into the mud.

The experimental and eclectic Star Vipers were engaged in a game of chance Valeria didn’t recognize. It involved sliding opaque jars around a table, one of which hid a scorpion with a black and yellow carapace.

The Shattered Lions, oldest of the Legion’s squadrons, were meeting with Commander Blas, recording their deeds at Ettenmark field in the large leather tome that contained the Legion’s annals. The twins idled a moment there, remarking that Karlsburg history far outlived the Legion’s founding 400 years ago. Valeria moved them along quickly before the Commander overheard them.

The Quartermaster was meeting with Marshal Viltorovna amid the Legion’s storage carts. Valeria knew not to interrupt, but Silver Listening Glade still smiled and waved at the new recruits.

“Did you get enough to eat rookies?” Her long curly auburn hair fell on one of her long fuzzy ears, which twitched in reflex until it was free, stretching a foot above her head.

“They’re fine,” Valeria answered and pushed the twins along as they stared at the food on display.

They didn’t linger long at the Mercy’s tent either. Hadelaide, the Legion’s only surviving medic, was crouched next to Rakash, a hand on his burned armed, her face covered in sweat and pain. Her red and white robes appeared soaked through, she was practically steaming. Her other hand clutched a talisman at her chest, her knuckles white. Valeria knew that the Mercies shared a portion of the goddess Asrika’s power. Nothing like the Chosen, but it let them take the pain and wounds of others onto themselves. She didn’t want to think about how that would work with Rakash.

Last was the Silver Stags, the Legion’s rearguard, who were enjoying their Liberty day in the wooden fort, keeping an eye on the sodden fields around them. As the day darkened they could see the orange glow of Karlsburg burning in the distance. One of the Stags pointed to the other end of the camp. At first it looked like one of the distant embers from the burning capital had reached all the way to what remained of the western front.

“The Chosen,” Valeria said. The twins quickly left the fort, eager to see the avatar of Asrika in the flesh. The Silver Stags followed, as did Valeria after a steadying breath.

The rest of the squads had gathered in the center of the camp, near the largest fire, and were engrossed in a raunchy song about a Orite Lord’s various trysts with his honor guard when Shreya reached them. Her golden eyes lit the way before her like torches. She raised her ornate glaive into the air and plunged it into the earth before her. Valeria could feel a small shockwave in her boots, as did the rest of the Legion as the song abruptly stopped. Somewhere among Mercy Hadelaide’s wounded a man cried out in fear.

Shreya flung something to the fire. It appeared to be a horse’s head, but as Valeria’s eyes adjusted to the flames she saw that the head had several eyes from various beasts around its mouth and snout, and two warped human faces emerged from the horror’s mane, just above the severed neck.

The Chosen’s voice made the twins jump, “We must return to Karlsburg.”

1 Like

CHAPTER THREE: THE SPY OF KARLSBURG

Valeria put her shoulder to the door of the church of Mattiar and shoved with everything she had. Arun and the twins joined her and inch by painstaking inch the old wood began to give way. She could make out the sound of benches and chairs protesting against the church’s stone floor, someone had barricaded the entrance, hoping to find sanctuary with the Aldermani god. Valeria could have laughed at the irony of it, she was about to die because someone had fortified themselves against the dead.

“You have three days,” Commander Blas had told them in his sparse tent. Valeria and the rest of the Ghost Owls were there, along with Marshal Viltorovna and the Star Vipers. “Shreya has reported a signal from Karlsburg, from the spire of the church of Mattiar. One of the Karl’s spies has survived, and he has been gathering intel on our enemy in the city.”

The Ghost Owls squeezed their way into the church one by one, the gap they made barely large enough to fit them in their armor. Wails of the dead echoed through the streets behind them. Valeria suppressed a cough. The inferno consuming the city had yet to reach the church, but it wouldn’t be long. Valeria took stock. The church could have seated hundreds in the main hall, lined with stained glass that showed the various deeds of the twin gods of the Aldermani, Mattiar the smith and Gerholtz the hunter. Buren and Fulon knelt between the pews and said a brief prayer.

“Ghost Owls, you will leave with the Star Vipers for Karlsburg at first light. Once you cross the Tigeria, you will exfiltrate the spy from the city. Star Vipers, you will perform troop reconnaissance in the area. Find out who is sacking Karlsburg, who survived the battle of Ettenmark, and what they intend. You will both meet at the Tigeria at dawn on the third day and then meet us here.”

Behind the pews was a raised lectern and a functioning smithy that doubled as a shrine to the crafter god. Two doors were set into the back wall of the church hall, flanking the smithy.

“There,” Buren pointed at the left door. “That one goes up to the spire.” Her voice echoed in the empty church, despite the sounds of collapsing buildings in the distance.

“The other leads to the offices and rectory,” Fulon added. Arun shushed them. Fulon looked at him and frowned, “Maybe someone survived, there’s–”

A hiss answered her. The right door opened and a priest clad in sacraments stumbled out. Green and black ichor flowed from his gaping mouth and a wound in his chest. Half a dozen more stood up from between the pews, a few more stumbled after the undead priest.

“They survived alright,” Arun drew his sword. “Forward, don’t let them surround us!”

Valeria and the twins closed ranks, forcing the rotters to awkwardly file in between the pews or stumble over them. The first four fell to the Owls’ blades quickly, but the next wave got in close, their blood splashed on Valeria’s arm and the twins’ faces as they were stabbed through.

“Fuck!” Buren screamed.

“It burns!” said her twin.

“These rotters are fresh, full of alchemicals,” said Valeria through gritted teeth as she tried to shake the zombie’s blood from her arm.

Buren yelled and charged the last two rotters, pinning them to a pew with her shield and jabbing around it with her sword until they stopped moving. Arun looked at Valeria, clearly impressed. Then the church shook as something slammed into the doors they had squeezed through. Several arms were reaching through the gap, burned so badly Valeria could see through to their bones. Above the manifold arms a burned head with several faces and screaming mouths was trying to force its way through.

“Fuck,” she said.

“The fucker from the bridge. Weyers!” Arun shouted and ran at the door, throwing himself against it. The twins followed behind him, pushing against the door and the pews supporting it, stabbing at the groping arms as best they could.

“Go!” Arun shouted to Valeria. “You get him, we’ll hold this thing off. Hurry!”

Valeria turned and ran for the stairs, slamming open the door and bolting down the short hallway that ended in a spiral staircase that lined the church’s spire. Above her she could see gaps for windows and holes from the brief siege. She had several stories to climb, and she could still hear Arun and the twins struggling. Something wooden snapped and the horror groaned.

Hanging in the air above her, about half way up the spire, Valeria could see a wooden platform suspended from four ropes that met in one strand. The strand disappeared somewhere at the top of the spire, and appeared to come back down to the base a foot away from her, tied down into a system of pulleys that ended in a crank, stopped by a metal lever. There was a small pile of stones and a bucket of partially used mortar nearby. Someone had been repairing the tower before the city fell.

Valeria quickly stripped her musket, soldier’s kit, ammunition, everything else she carried until she had only her armor and her sword. She yanked at the rope, it was heavy but there wasn’t as much resistance as she would have liked. She whispered a quick prayer to the Maker, the Shaper, and the Builder, and kicked at the lever.

The elevation was quicker than she thought. Her arm strained and she worried she would lose her grip, but in mere moments she had ascended the spire, awkwardly smashed into the pulley system atop it, and landed on her face on a wooden platform just below it.

Valeria turned over. Above her were massive bells suspended by chains, she could see black smoke rising into the sky outside. The fire was getting closer.

When she stood up she was face to face with a ghost pointing a bow and arrow at her. He had pale white skin streaked with dirt and ash. His hair was also white along with his beard, all greasy and unkempt. His ashen clothes stuck to him. Behind him was a nest, a collection of books and papers, a thin wool blanket, a bucket, and a few cushions Valeria recognized from the pews downstairs.

“Show me your skin,” he whispered.

“What?” Valeria’s head was still ringing from the impact. She coughed.

“Your skin!” His voice was raspy and coarse, as if from sickness. Maybe from too much smoke, she thought. His eyes kept darted down the stairs below them. “Not getting fooled again. Need to see the marks. No marks and I don’t kill you. Understand?”

Valeria put up her hands. “I’m from the Legion, we saw your signal.” The wind changed and she coughed again. “I’m here to escort your from the city. Please, we have to–”

“Skin!” He shouted, stepping closer. Valeria had nowhere to go. Another step backward and she would be at the bottom faster than she got here. She didn’t understand what the albino was saying but she knew that if they didn’t leave soon it wouldn’t matter. The two of them didn’t stand a chance.

“Listen to me! We don’t have time for this. I don’t know what you’re talking about but I am not a fucking rotter. My squad is downstairs holding back a fucking horror. If you don’t want to come with me, fine. But I’m not letting them die down there!” Valeria put her hands down and stepped towards the stairs. The man’s arrow followed her. Blood pooled in one of his eyes and fell down his cheek, leaving a crimson trail.

Valeria blinked and took another step back. So he wasn’t an albino with a lung infection. “You’re from Dar.”

The stranger sighed, relaxed the bow, and grabbed a pack hidden beneath his blanket. “Good enough,” he rasped and ran past her down the stairs. Vlaeria joined him.

When they got to the church hall Arun, Buren, and Fulon were still pinning the door shut. The horror had still only forced its arm and head through. The Owls’ blades slashed at the arms and grasping hands as they tried to get a grip on them.

The pale stranger took a knee next to the lectern and opened his bag.

‘What are you doing?” Valeria asked.

“Hey!” screamed Arun from the door. “Is that him?”

“Rotters outside the door. Gathering outside. Need to block it.” The spy took a polished wooden box from his pack.

Valeria stared at him, “How do you…” she watched as he opened the box. Inside were three glass cylinders full of black liquid, each packed into the wooden container with straw and leather. A single metal sphere floated inside each. Black shot. Aldermark’s miracle. The bullets that were meant to turn the tide. Each member of the Legion had been given a few shots at Ettenmark. Valeria remembered the first line of undead falling amidst explosions of green fire. But there had been so many more behind them.

“It’s big enough,” he nodded to the horror in the door. “Get one of them over here.”

“What?” Valeria was having trouble paying attention.

“What the fuck!” Buren screamed.

“Yeah, help!” Fulon added.

The man from Dar drew an arrow from the pack. The head was capped with a similar glass cylinder, sealed with black wax at one end and an iron arrowhead at the other. He looked at Valeria as he strung his bow. “My name is Gada Royota,” he whispered. “They don’t know me. They know you. And we are running out of time.” He looked at her, an odd calm had settled on him since they had descended the stairs.

Valeria took up her rifle and carefully grabbed one of the black shot charges. “Buren! Here!”

“What?!” Buren cried.

“Get over here so we can shoot this fucking thing! Now!” Valeria slowly slid the shot down the barrel with her ramrod. Buren looked at Fulon, who nodded and took her place as she sprinted from the door. The horror filled the church with howling moans as the door advanced a few inches. Valeria held the black shot for Buren as she readied her rifle. Gada aimed his recurve bow at the door.

Valeria could hear Arun’s prayers under the horror’s wailing. He was clutching his reliquary to his chest. The door slid forward again.

“Ready,” Gada rasped. Valeria and Buren cocked their rifles.

At the camp at the Western front, after the Commander had briefed them, Buren had asked,

“What if it takes more than three days?”

“Yeah,” Fulon had added, much to Valeria’s chagrin. “What happens after three days?” The Commander had given one of his brief grins.

“Aim.” Valeria sighted the horror’s burnt head. This is for you Rakash, she thought.

“We leave you behind,” Commander Blas had replied.

“Fire.” Arun threw his reliquary into the gap in the door. White fire erupted and burnt the horror’s manifold arm. Three spouts of green fire erupted from the horror’s head as the black shots hit. The thing screamed and thrashed against the door. Arun and Fulon held their ground. Gada drew another black shot arrow, and they all watched as the horror went still and slumped forward, smoke rising from it’s corpse.

Satisfied, Arun and Fulon joined them at the lectern.

“I hope it fucking stays dead this time,” Arun panted. Buren and Fulon embraced each other. Gada gave a dry chuckle and unstrung his bow. With the horror silenced they could hear the moans of rotters beyond the church.

“Follow me,” he whispered. “There is a tunnel in the rectory. Passage out of the city.”

Arun looked at Valeria quizzically. Valeria shrugged and grabbed her kit.

“Oh,” Gada added, “and I will need to see everyone’s skin. Later.”

CHAPTER FOUR: HIDDEN SIGNS

Thunder crashed above the camp at the western front. The storm began that morning as they had made their way from the Tigeria. The Star Vipers had been waiting for them with the horses they had used to travel from the camp. Valeria was happy the worst of the rain hadn’t started until they had rejoined the Legion and she was able to get into her tent with the other Ghost Owls.

“So it could be anyone?” Rakash asked. The five of them were gathered in the tent, listening to the rain pool in the trenches they had dug outside. Rakash had been released that day from the Mercy’s care, and Valeria and the others were filling him in on the day’s events.

“What about the Commander?” asked Buren.

“Or the Marshall?” added Fulon.

“I’m sure they’re fine. Gada was pretty fucking adamant,” replied Arun, picking at the bandages on his arm. The ointments the Mercy had given them for their burns made the tent smell sweet. “Wouldn’t shut up about it.”

The meet at the Tigeria had been awkward. The Karl’s spy had explained, with mounting impatience, that he had been witness to several acts of necromancy, alchemy, and magic within Karlsburg. Each act raised the dead to fight for the Cinder King. One involved injecting dead bodies with the green and black ichor Valeria had already witnessed. Another involved marking a still living body with sigils that bewitched their soul, creating thralls that appeared no different than living humans. This was why Gada was adamant that the Ghost Owls and Star Vipers both strip down so he could be sure that none of them secretly served the Cinder King.

He did this with his bow drawn, knocked with another black shot arrow, bleeding eyes darting all around him.

“And so everyone was… fine?” Rakash looked at them.

“Quite fine,” Arun remarked with a grin. The twins blushed.

Valeria was laying on her bedroll, her winter clothes bundled up under her head. None of them wanted to strip naked so close to Karlsburg, with the dead crossing the river. But none of the Legionaries were willing to go toe-to-toe with an agitated Darite spy. Especially when that spy had intel the Commander was expecting. It had been awkward, but harmless. Nothing but tattoos, scars, and lewd jokes.

Gada had calmed down after that. But when they had mounted their horses and made their way from Karlsburg, she would notice the spy muttering to himself and occasionally turning back to look at the city. When they arrived he asked for the Commander and disappeared inside his tent. Soon after, one by one, every squadron was summoned to Commander Blas’ tent. Rumour quickly spread about a surprise inspection. Nothing had come of it.

Now the Legion was inviting the refugees and soldiers that remained at the western front to do the same. The Owls and Vipers were exempt, having passed Gada’s inspection and given the day to rest after their missions. So far none had resisted.

“I thought people from Dar died if they left.” Buren said.

“No, they just get bloody. Like, from their eyes,” said Fulon.

“It starts that way,” Rakash answered. “A few years outside Dar, then they die. He must have crossed the gap before Ettenmark. No way back now.”

“He could go south, across the ocean,” Valeria thought out loud.

Arun snorted, “That way is too close to the front now. You’d need the Karl’s wealth to convince anyone to take that journey. Or Valeria’s silver tongue. She knows how to get a boat.” Arun laughed. Valeria turned her head to scowl at him.

“Sounds like the work of the Storm Witch,” Rakash spit on the ground.

“Breaker? Here?” Buren asked, eyes wide.

“A Bartan Chosen, of course. No Chosen of the twins would ever do such a thing,” Fulon derided.

“Mattiar’s Chosen was among the first to break to the Cinder King,” Rakash said pointedly.

Fulon rose to her feet, “The Smith would never!”

“Hey!” Arun stood between them. “Sit the hell down!” Fulon blinked a few times at the Bartan, turned on her heel, and marched out of the tent. Rakash absentmindedly reached for a trinket woven in his hair, but his fingers found nothing. The Mercy had cut it all short in order to treat his burns. He scowled at the ground instead.

Buren cleared her throat. “Sorry. The church. It was… it was hard seeing it like that.” She nodded at her leather armour near her bedroll, lined with metal engravings. “We made our uniforms there, at the smith, with our parents.” She gave a sad smile.

“I’m sorry,” Arun said.

Buren nodded. “Who was she? Breaker? Before… you know.” Before the Cinder King did what had never been done before, though Valeria. Before he turned the Chosen against humanity, each a tool to lead the dead and create abominations.

Arun shook his head, “Chosen of Vazara has far as I know.” He tilted his head to look at his dreadlocked hair and showed Buren a small carving of a cresting wave that was woven into it.

“Her name was Milika,” Rakash said softly. “She prayed along the coast for calm water. Now they say the storms never stop.”

Lightning illuminated the tent and the thunder silenced everything else. Valeria listened to the rain and voices outside.

Fulon came back and called for her sister. “Buren! Liberty day, come get your food.” Buren leapt up to join her. Arun waited for a beat before leaving as well, Valeria got up to join him.

“Get you something, Rakash?” she asked. The old Bartan was still on his bedroll, lost in thought. He shook his head.

Valeria joined Arun outside. Other legionnaires were heading the same direction.

“Fucking guy,” Arun said. “Spend a whole night dragging him to camp and he looks pissed that he’s still alive.”

“He’ll come around.” Rakash had been silent and sullen since they had returned, asking only a few questions as they talk about their mission back into the city.

Outside the Commander’s tent was a line of a few dozen refugees, many clinging to their belongings as they waited in the rain. Those that left the tent were directed to the Quartermaster. Silver Listening Glade was distributing food to everyone, not just the legionnaires.

“That’s a good idea,” Valeria said.

“Yeah,” replied Arun. “Nice way of saying sorry for making you strip at swordpoint.”

“I don’t think it’s that.”

Arun looked at her.

“We’re advancing tomorrow. Anyone who stays here… this might be the last good meal they have.”

Arun shook his head. “Legion’s all about mercy these days huh.”

Valeria chuckled.

Someone behind them screamed. Valeria turned. One of the refugees. A woman was yelling for help. A man next to her was twitching on the ground, writhing in the mud. Valeria and Arun rushed forward. The woman crouched on the ground, trying to stop his erratic movements.

“Please! Please my brother I don’t-- what’s wrong with him?” Arun held her back.

“It’s okay. Mercy!” he yelled to the legionnaires nearby. “Get the Mercy over here!”

Black fluid erupted from the man’s mouth. The gathering crowd all leapt backward. Valeria reached for her sword. Nothing. She cursed, it was back in her tent. She looked at Arun, who also looked at the tent and back at her. The woman in his arms was staring open mouthed at her brother.

The man tore at his clothing, ripping open his shirt to reveal a curved black marking on his chest. Valeria thought it was a tattoo, but then she could see steam rising from the rain as it hit the ink, and the sigil moved and twitched under his skin, forming a new more elaborate pattern.

“What do we do?” someone shouted.

“Kill him!”

“You can’t!”

“Where is the Mercy?”

“SPEAK!” cried the man as black ichor flowing from his mouth and nose. “SPEAK AND KNOW.” Valeria winced at the sound and the crowd retreated back again. She could feel each consonant like a needle in her skin. “FROM THE GAP OF DAR I COME. FROM THE SOUTH AND WEST AND NORTH. ALL ARE PUNISHED. ALL IS RUIN. ALL IS FALSE. THE CINDER KING COMES. THE CINDER KING COMES. THE CINDER KING COMES. THE CHOSEN OF–”

A glaive inlaid with golden roses split the man’s neck. His head rolled into the mud and became silent. Shreya stood over him, golden eyes fixed on the sigil on his body as it faded into a faint mark, a tattoo faded with age. The rain sizzled as it hit her armor, the flowers that decorated it appeared to burn with invisible fire as she turned and cast her golden eyes on the group of refugees.

Her gaze fell on the women Arun held. Both her and Arun were transfixed. Shreya grabbed the woman’s collar and pulled. Valeria thought she was pulling her to her feet, but instead the woman’s coat and clothes were torn from her body in an instant. Shreya then grabbed her by the neck and lifted her above her head. Shreya slowly turned her head, inspecting her face as she sobbed. She then threw her to the ground, golden eyes peering at her body as she lay in the mud.

She looked to the other refugees and slowly raised her glaive to point at them. One of them, an older man started to remove his clothes. Then the others next to him, his family, Valeria guessed. Soon the whole group were standing in the mud and rain, naked as Shreya moved down the line, glaive leveled at each person as her golden eyes bathed them in light.

Valeria looked behind them, towards the command tent. There Commander Blas and the Marshal were watching. The Commander’s arms folded in front of him. Behind them she could see Gada calmly watching the Chosen, a black shot arrow slowly rolling between his fingers.

When she passed the last refugee in the line Shreya lowered her glaive and kept walking to the wooden fort atop the camp, as if nothing was amiss. There was a brief pause before the refugees started to get dressed. Marshall Viltorovna called over a few legionnaires and ordered them to set up additional tents and covered fires, to help dry the refugees and their possessions.

Valeria helped Arun up from the mud where he was staring at the man’s body. A few other refugees were helping the sister get dressed as she choked back tears.

“What…” Arun shook his head and looked around the camp. “What the hell was that?”

She shook her head as well and rubbed her arms. It felt like the man’s words were still pricking at her skin. “I guess Gada was right about the sigils.”

“I meant Shreya. By the fucking gods that was… I thought she was going to kill them all. Didn’t it look like that?”

“I don’t know Arun.”

“Fuck… who do you think she was before she got Chosen?”

Valeria remembered tucking the stem of a blue rose behind a breastplate, the warmth of breath on her neck, and laughing in the middle of the night.

“I don’t know.”