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.


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.


“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.”

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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.”


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.”


The Legion stood in formation in the middle of their previous camp at the western front. They were ready to march, heading north to the nearby town of Plainsworth. Food, bullets, and other supplies had been loaded onto horse-drawn carts. The banners of each squad hung in the air above them. Before their order to march, Commander Blas had climbed onto the back of one of the carts and addressed the Legion.

“Last night I received information from one of the Karl’s personal advisors.” Commander Blas shouted. Valeria looked for Gada. He sat atop a horse near the supply carts, Marshal Viltorovna at his side, watching the speech. Valeria had everything she owned on her back, packed into a bag and hanging off her belt. The other Ghost Owls were watching next to her. Rakash clutched the Ghost Owls standard, a blue and white owl in flight between two lightning bolts.

“Karl Aldke Skeider is dead, killed when Karlsburg fell.” Some of the legionnaires exchanged worried looks and whispers. Commander Blas waited a moment to let the news settle in. “And I have also been told that Vlaisim, the Shining One, Chosen of the Living God, was broken by the Cinder King during the siege.” The whispers increased. Arun said a prayer next to her.

“The battle of Ettenmark Field was a loss, and we have recorded many names in the Legion’s annals. Too many names. But this is not the end of this war. Most of you have not been with the Legion long and you do not know our history. We have killed tyrants, and beasts, and the dead arisen. We have fought for money, we have fought for vengeance, and we have fought for the Gods. Now, we fight for humanity.”

The Commander took a beat. He was wearing his iron breastplate, the longsword hanging off his hip had a large lion’s head carved into the pummel that caught the early morning’s light.

“The Legion’s annals tell us of an ancient fortification to the east,” the Commander turned and pointed behind him. “Skydagger Keep.” He turned back to the crowd. “It guards the pass into the Eastern Kingdoms, to Barta and Or. That is where we march. To hold the undead tide. We will give the Cinder King hell for what he did to our proud Legion. And we will hold!” The Legionnaires had stopped whispering and were standing stoically before their Commander.

A member of the Grinning Ravens raised their fist in the air and yelled, “For Aldermark!”

Another in the ranks of the Star Vipers, “For Barta!”

Arun joined the other fists in the air, “For the Gods!”

One by one the kingdoms of humanity were represented by the Legion until they were all cheering. Valeria smiled and applauded the Commander’s speech.

The Commander gave a brief grin and hopped off the cart. “Forward!” he yelled, and the column marched slowly away from the camp at the western front.

The march to Plainsworth started strong. Everyone was eager to leave behind the mud and the memories of the western front. A few refugees had joined them, though several more stayed behind, or left for their own destinies. But as the days passed the Legion was reminded, over and over, of the loss suffered at Ettenmark. Groups of refugees camped on the side of the road amidst broken carts, lame horses, and injuries that prevented them from keeping pace with others that had fled Karlsburg and the surrounding villages.

Many asked for news from the front. Some begged for food, others tried to push their children onto the back of the Legion’s carts, begging for them to be hastened to safety. Valeria and some of the others had spared a ration or two before orders from the Marshal traveled down the line:

“Give up nothing.”

Valeria resented the lack of empathy even though she understood the reasoning. The Legion had retreated from Karlsburg with speed. The Quartermaster had been generous with food and supplies, an effort to counteract the low morale, but now the Legion probably had barely enough to last them until Plainsworth.

On the second day of marching she was daydreaming of Orite paved streets littered with cherry blossoms when she realized Buren was looking at her.


“She asked why you joined the Legion,” Fulon said ahead of her.

Valeria blinked a few times, “Oh, uh…”

“Didn’t you know? Her parents are Dukes back in Or,” Arun smiled next to her. “She gave up a life of cushions and warm meals for all this.” He gestured to the marching Legion.

“Your parents are royalty?” Buren asked, eyes wide.

Valeria turned to Arun, “Shut up.” Arun chuckled. To Buren she said, “Yes, but it’s not like here in Aldermark. There’s more noble lineages and titles in Or than there are grains of sand. They own some land, that’s it.”

“So why’d you come here?” Fulon looked at her, nonplussed. “Sounds like a pretty nice life.”

“It’s boring,” Valeria shook her head. “All politics and etiquette. I preferred the tournaments. I fought on horseback and with sword. So as soon as I had the chance I left and sought ought the Legion.”

Buren shook her head. “If I had rich folks I wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah,” Fulon added. “Fuck that. Our mom and dad made shoes in Karlsburg. They were over the moon when we joined the guard. We took care of them.” She lifted her head. “Didn’t run away.”

“I didn’t run,” Valeria said quickly.

“Yeah well you didn’t stand and fight either.” Fulon raised her voice. Some members of the Shattered Lions squad in front of them turned to look at her. “You didn’t lose anything, you just left it behind. You can just go back any fucking time you want.”

“Fulon leave it,” Buren grabbed her arm and pulled her across to the other side of the column of legionnaires. Valeria could hear her exchanging heated words in the Aldermani language with her twin.

“Don’t blame her,” Arun said. “She’s lost a lot.”

Valeria looked at the muddy road slowly passing underneath her boots. “It’s war, we’ve all lost something.”

Arun looked at her, “Yeah?”

Valeria thought about clashing with a knight bespoked in flowers, their longswords entwined in the middle of a cheering crowd, her rich black hair.

“What about you Rakash?” Valeria looked passed Arun, ignoring his question. “Why did you join the Legion.”

The Bartan’s dark meaty hands still gripped the Ghost Owl’s banner, the base of the pole secured in a leather sling around his body. “I wanted to die.”

Valeria and Arun turned to look at him. Rakash looked back. His left eye was a pale milky white, surrounded by scar tissue.

“I served the navy in Barta. Fourty years. We fished, we traded, we hunted pirates. My crew and I prayed to Vazara every morning and every evening. Fourty years and not a single storm, not one torn net. Her bounty gave me a family. Children. Grandchildren.” One of his hands went to his head to find a trinket that was not there and he sighed.

“One day, just as we were coming into port, a squall came out of nowhere. A bolt of lightning struck the ship. Only four of us washed ashore. Two of them died soon after from fever. The other drank himself to death. A month later we heard that Vazara’s Chosen had been broken, turned by the Cinder King. The same day my crew were killed.” The Bartan shifted the banner across his broad chest.

“The day I heard the news I walked naked into the sea, took a blade across my palms and mixed my blood with the salt. I swore to be Vazara’s new Chosen, to take vengeance on the dead, or die trying. I found the Legion on the road a year later. The Marshal heard my story, and took me in.”

Valeria didn’t know what to say. Arun put a hand on Rakash’s shoulder and said something to him in Bartan. Rakash nodded and gave a short reply. They both grinned at each other. Arun turned to look back at Valeria and smiled.

“Look at us. One big happy fucking family.”

The march to Plainsworth took a week. A week of hard compacted rations. A week of screams in the night. The Legion gained a train of refugees. They couldn’t give up their supplies, but these people who had fled their homes knew that if the undead descended upon them, they stood a much greater chance marching and sleeping alongside the legionnaires.

Their pace quickened on the final day. Rumours had spread among the legionnaires that Plainsworth served as the Legion’s base of operations. They owned property, a barracks where they could sleep in beds and have warm meals again. Valeria was looking forward to not spending every night sleeping on the ground right next to four other bodies.

When they arrived Plainsworth was overrun by people. It looked like the whole population of Karlsburg were trying to gain shelter in the small town. Canvas tents, wagons, and crates of worldly possessions littered the ground below the town’s single wall, a holdover from the Tantari Empire some 400 years ago. The old stone wall stretched fifty feet into the air, obscuring the town behind.

When the Legion approached they were met with dozens of refugees. They offered jewels, chickens, livestock, even deeds to property. They all wanted one thing: entry into the town. The gates in the Tantari wall were closed, members of the Plainsworth militia were keeping back a loud and frustrated crowd. The Legion marched as close as it could, pressed against the throng, before the Marshal ordered them to stop.

A woman rushed to Valeria’s side.

“You, you are Orite yes? You have a good life in Or?” She had a Zemyati accent. Her face was caked with dust, her eyes wild with something Valeria couldn’t quite place.

“Um, yes.”

“You take her?” The woman turned and put her hand behind a small girl, clutching to the woman’s legs. “Take her inside. Make her safe. I have money.” She produced a small leather pouch full of coins. “Good money. Just one small child.”

“Uh, I’m sorry I can’t–”

“Please!” She yelled. Valeria shook her head, trying to think of how to respond. When the woman saw her hesitation she said something sharp in Zemyati and moved down the line to the Star Vipers squad behind them and made the same plea.

“You think we’ll get in?” Arun was next to her, it was his turn to bear the Ghost Owl’s standard.

“Plainsworth is where the Legion was formed.” She nodded up at the wall. “Back when that wall was new. Can’t imagine they’d refuse us. It’s a breadbasket town, they’d be happy just to have more soldiers inside I’m sure.”

“Yeah?” Fulon was behind her. “And where’d you hear all that?”

Valeria sighed. The twins had barely spoken to her for the entire march.

“University. In Or.”

Fulon snorted in response. Valeria held her head up high.

Soon the order to march forward traveled down the line and the legionnaires made their way passed the refugees. The town’s militia were trying to keep them back as the gates opened to let the Legion inside.

“We will let you in soon! Please stay back! There is no more room at this time, the mayor is constructing more shelters but we cannot take any more! Please! Make way for the Legion!”

The gate closed behind them. Valeria could still hear the crowd beyond as a muted indistinct roar, a tide held back by Tantari stone. Inside, Plainsworth’s streets weren’t nearly as choked as Valeria had assumed. Beyond the gate was a well in the center of a paved square. A long line of people waited their turn to take water, and the square was littered with large canvas tents, many more were being constructed by townspeople and local militia.

People watched them and pointed as they passed deeper into the town. Windows were shuttered and the tight alleys between the squat buildings were full of small tents and lean-tos where people whispered and gathered around small fires. The Legion marched until they were in front of a square three-story building. It was wider than the others on the avenue, with narrow windows, and the flags of the Legion’s squads hanging from the rooftop. The flags were faded and frayed with age. Before the Legion’s barracks were a group of people lined up before a cauldron set up on stakes above a fire dug into the gravel. A steady stream of people were leaving the barracks with bowls and dishes as a squat man ladled out the cauldron’s contents.

The line of legionnaires stopped and Valeria could see the Commander and the Marshal marching up the steps into the barracks. Soon after shouts and loud voices could be heard and the two came out of the building and approached the man ladling out soup.

“Are you Jasper?” Commander Blas asked, hands on his hips.

“I am.” The squat man looked up the Commander and back at the rest of the Legion. “You’re not looking to stay here, are you?”

Marshal Viltorovna stepped forward, her arms folded behind her, her crisp uniform hanging from her broad shoulders.

“You are addressing Commander Blas Rodano of the Legion.”

“Alright, alright.” Jasper put down the ladle and wiped his hands on a stained apron tied around his round waist. “All sorts in Plainsworth these days, I meant no offense.”

“Where is Keeper Kita? We left this place under her care.”

“Ah, Kita left. ‘Bout… three weeks ago? Went East, to Barta she said. I’m Jasper, new Keeper.”

“And why, Keeper, is my barracks full of people?”

Jasper shrugged, “Needed a place to stay.”

The Commander stared open-mouthed. Marshal Viltorovna cleared her throat.

“Plainsworth has been the home of the Legion for four hundred years. Those beds are ours.”

“No, they’re not.” Jasper was half as tall as the Zemyaki Marshal, but he still stood his ground. “Mayor said all empty beds and rooms in Plainsworth must be open to the refugees fleeing the war. You weren’t here, so I let them stay. You want them gone? Find somewhere else for them to stay. Simple.”

The Commander looked back at the column of legionnaires. Most had stripped their backpacks. Some were sitting on the steps of nearby houses, massaging blistered feet.

“My Legion,” the Commander said, lowering his voice, “comes here from Ettenmark field. They’ve been sleeping in the mud and dirt. Please.”

Jasper looked up at him, nonplussed. He shrugged, “Take it up with the Mayor then, not my fault there were all these empty beds.”

The Commander frowned and looked at the Marshal. They stared wordlessly at each other for a moment before the Commander said something Valeria couldn’t hear. Marshal Viltorovna walked down the formation of legionnaires. Suddenly backpacks were on shoulders and stoops became unoccupied.

“Legion! About face!” Everyone turned around, back towards the Tantari wall. “We march to the square. Once there you will set up your tents and assist the new residents with setting up their own.”

“What about–” Fulon was looking longingly back at the barracks.

Marshal Viltorovna stopped walking right in front of her. She was a foot and a half taller than the Aldermani.

“March!” she barked and Fulon’s feet carried her forward with the rest of the Legion.

There wasn’t much space left in the town square. The Ghost Owls and the other squadrons had to set up their tents near the Tantari wall. Valeria could hear the occasional shout from beyond it. She did her best to ignore the sounds as she helped the others set up the tent. When they were finishing Arun tapped her on the shoulder.

“Incoming,” he said. Valeria turned and looked. Marshal Viltorovna was approaching, her arms folded behind her.

“Ghost Owls!” Valeria and Arun stood at attention. Rakash joined them and the twins rapidly emerged from inside the tent so they were all standing in line in front of it.

“With me,” the Marshal turned on her heel and leaded them to the Commander’s tent. It had been set up near the road that lead to their barracks, furthest away from the wall. Before they entered Valeria spotted Shreya walking slowly amidst the refugee’s tents, golden eyes slowly scanning people as they stared back.

Inside the Commander’s tent were several crates and barrels stacked against one of the canvas walls. The remains of the Legion’s supplies, Valeria guessed. Also inside were Commander Blas and Gada Royota. Gada was sitting on top of one of the barrels while the Commander peered at a map of Aldermark. Valeria could clearly see Plainsworth under the Commander’s weathered gaze.

“Owls,” the old Orite Commander drawled as the squad stood at attention in front of him.

“Sir,” Valeria said. Arun and Rakash also addressed the Commander. Valeria wasn’t sure that the twins had replied. The Commander peered at them over the rim of a pewter goblet as he drank. Drops of water fell from his grey beard onto the map below him.

“We have intel about the Kingfisher Knight. Apparently he’s holed up in a cave along the mountains south of here.” He nodded towards Gada. “The Karl’s spy will fill you in.”

Arun and Rakash looked at each other.

“You don’t know the Kingfisher Knight?” Commander Blas looked at the Bartans. Arun shook his head. Buren had her hand in the air.

“Yes, rookie?”

“I know Commander, sir.”

The Commander flashed one of his brief grins. Gada rose from the barrel and slowly walked around the Owls to stand next to the Commander.

“Voyis Kariyevich,” he whispered. “Zemyati. Kingfisher Knight. Hero of Ettenmark. The first time. Pushed back the dead. Held the line. Retired.”

Buren put her arm down, disappointed. “I heard he was Aldermani.”

“Most do,” Commander Blas said still grinning. “The Legion needs experienced troops. Most of our officers fell at Ettenmark. And we need people who have fought the dead and won. You’ll leave Plainsworth as soon as possible. Gada will lead you to where Voyis resides. It’s your mission to convince him to join the Legion and bring him back here.”

“Why wouldn’t he fight?” Fulon asked. Gada and Blas looked at her.

“As I said. Gada will fill you in on the details,” the Commander replied and returned to staring at the map. Valeria took the hint, saluted, and went to leave the tent. Fulon didn’t move.

“What about the barracks?” she asked.

Commander Blas looked up at her. “You have your orders, rookie.”

“I don’t want to sleep on the ground anymore. Not when there’s beds and food for us.”

Buren pet her hand on Fulon’s arm. Fulon shrugged it off.

“In Karlsburg we had beds. No Aldermani soldier should be treated this way.”

“Then I thank the Gods that you are no longer a soldier of Aldermark, and are therefore unable to take offense.” Commander Blas straightened up and stared at Fulon, who was grinding her teeth together. “In the Legion there are no nationalities, no noble titles, no priorities other than the service of your fellow legionnaires. Understand?”

Buren put her hand on Fulon’s shoulder and directed her outside.


The dead were roaming the hills south of Plainsworth. Gada was preternaturally adept at knowing where and when they would appear. The Dar spy lead the Ghost Owls down the road out of town for a few hours before turning south into the wooded hills outside the town. They had camped for the night before zig-zagging between hunting trails and forging through brush, winding their way up and down the foothills as mountains loomed above them. Valeria and the others often saw tell-tale signs of the undead: heavy tracks in the fields, decaying limbs and discarded clothing, bu Gada always seemed to be one step ahead of them.

On the night of the second day they climbed a hill to see that the grass fields beyond were dead and yellowed. Pools of murky water dotted the landscape, reflecting the moonlight. A deer carcass lay next to one of the putrid puddles, body abuzz with flies.

That’s when they found the Kingfisher Knight’s cave. The entrance was fairly obvious, a cave mouth about twelve feet wide set into a small cliff next to the blighted fields. A wooden door frame and walls had been secured into the cave mouth, holding an oddly shaped, heavy concave metal door. It wasn’t until Valeria saw the other side of it that she realized what it was. The convex side of the door had several thick leather straps bolted to the metal. The knight had fashioned his tower shield into a door.

Before they had crossed the threshold, Gada had turned to look out into the night and muttered to the Ghost Owls as they filed in,

“We don’t have long.”

Voyis Kariyevich, the Kingfisher Knight, was massive, easily a foot taller than Marshal Viltorovna, and his Zemyati accent was even thicker than hers. His hair was short, wispy, and white, with a bushy mustache that lined his mouth and chin. His skin was white, almost grey, his chest covered in a dirty linen shirt, his brown pants frayed and dirty at the hem above his bare, calloused feet.

“You will all take wine, yes?” The cave was cozy. A few worn carpets lay on the more level parts of the cave. Oil lanterns and candles lit the interior. A small bookcase held a few well worn volumes, an oddly ornate wooden desk held several dirty plates. A few wooden cases lined the walls, one of which had opened and produced two bottles of Bartan red wine.

The most striking feature of the cave was a shrine. Carved into the back wall was a representation of Gerholtz, one of the twin gods of the Aldermani. It was a detailed bas releif that depicted the clean shaven, muscular man shooting his bow into a massive serpent. Below the carving was waht looked like a sarcophagus. The stone of the cave had been chipped and carved to form a rectangular box with a lid. It sat just above a basin also carved into the rock. It was full of fresh water, and was large enough to contain the Kingfisher.

Seeing this the Weyer twins bowed and said some prayers in Aldermani. Voyis laughed,

“It is just a reliquary. Inside is some piece from some Chosen I think. Too long ago now, nothing left. But still, I keep it safe.” Voyis shook his head. “I have not had the pleasure of the Legion’s company in some time. Last time was Karlsburg I think. 837. Not as old was this wine, but still good I think!” He laughed. His booming voice filled the cave around them. Valeria looked nervously at the shield set in the entrance.

“Just before the Cinder King,” Gada said pointedly. The Kingfisher Knight paused briefly and grunted as he searched around the cave for cups. He poured one for himself and Fulon. Buren and Arun took a cup as well. Valeria and Gada refused the drink, and Rakash stood guard next to the door, peering between the wooden boards.

“That is why you are here, yes?” Voyis asked. “You want the Kingfisher Knight in your little battle, hmm?”

Gada looked at Valeria and dabbed at his eye with a black handkerchief.

“Karlsburg has fallen, Sir Voyis,” Valeria said. “The dead are crossing the Tigeria. People are fleeing east. So is the Legion.” Voyis turned to face her, staring at her as he drank deeply from the cup.

“Just Voyis please. I am no knight. I am retired.”

“The dead don’t care,” Gada whispered as he stepped between them to join Rakash at the door.

“He’s right. And you are still a hero.” Valeria looked at Buren, and motioned at her. “We’ve all heard the stories.”

Buren nodded and swallowed her wine. “Yeah, I mean yes Sir, uh, I mean yes Voyis.” Buren shook her head, cheeks reddening. “You faced down the Panyan Bandit Kings. You stood against the dead and pushed them back across the Tigeria with the Aldermark army.”

Voyis grinned. “A lifetime ago maybe.”

A raspy scream from outside.

“They’re coming,” Rakash said. Gada strung his bow. Arun and the twins got to their feet. Valeria looked at Voyis. Something inside her snapped. He wasn’t an asset the Commander wanted, suddenly this huge Zemyati was just another thing that could get her and the other Ghost Owls killed.

“I get that you don’t want anything to do with this war. If we’re being honest I don’t either. But without your help, we’re all dead here. You’ve ignored this fight as long as you can.” As Arun passed them by he pressed something into Voyis’ chest. Valeria thought it was a wooden beam, but as her eyes ran across it she realized it was a giant greatsword sheathed in leather. A massive fish was breaking a pool of water along the blade, woven in silver thread. Voyis looked down at the blade, clutching it to his barrel chest with a massive hand.

Another undead scream from beyond the cave. The knight looked at Valeria. She could feel her heart pounding against her armour. She needed to move, to make ready, to see what was happening.

Slowly Voyis moved his hand away from his chest, tugging down the linen of his shirt. Valeria gasped. The skin beneath the shirt was shiny and infected. Purple veins lead to reddish blue skin above Voyi’s heart, where a large yellow eye the size of her fist stared out at her.

“I fight for you here. But I cannot leave this place.” Voyis turned and marched toward one of the crates. “Keep them back!” His hands gripped the lid, threw it to the other side of the cave, and began taking out pieces of plate armour.

Rakash was kicking out the wooden boards of Voyis’ improvised front entrance, creating holes through which the Owls could shoot at the incoming dead. Valeria loaded her musket and peered out into the night. The moonlight reflected off dozens of pale bodies rushing up the hill beneath the cliff. Something huge was moving behind them, moaning. Gada patted her on the shoulder and went to the back of the cave to help the Kingfisher Knight suit up.

Valeria looked down the line. Rakash, Arun, and the twins had all loaded their rifles and were tracking targets through the holes Rakash had made in the entrance.

“Ready!” she yelled.

The muskets cocked.

“Aim!” Valeria looked down the sights until she could pick out a face.


Five shots rang out and echoed in the cave, the entrance briefly filled with smoke before dozens of bodies pressed against the entrance. Grey hands and rotting arms reached through the door. Valeria could hear the wood crack and strain against the weight.

“Reload!” the Owls filled their muskets with powder and shot. The dead screamed and moaned at them, crawling over each other, pale eyes staring vacantly into the cave.

“Ready! Aim! Fire!”

Another series of shots filled the cave. Twice dead bodies slumped against the entrance, blackened limbs going limp. The bodies were now buffering them from the undead, but were quickly being replaced. The doorway groaned once again. Valeria felt something large stomping behind her. She turned and saw Voyis Kariyevich, the Kingfisher Knight, resplendent in heavy plate. He and Gada and only managed to secure the breastplate, pauldrons, and a single arm band. But he strode fearlessly towards the door and handed one of the twins his great sword. He fixed his arm firmly against his tower shield and strapped it in place, then reached back for his weapon and held the massive blade in one hand.

The Kingfisher Knight screamed something in Zemyati and shoved against the door, pushing back against the tide. The wooden walls groaned and splintered, and several more arms pushed their way around the giant’s tower shield.

“Ready!” Valeria refilled her rifle and cocked the firing mechanism.

“One shot left,” Arun said next to her. Valeria nodded.

“For Karlsburg!” she shouted. The twins held their rifles tightly.


As the shots rang out the wood finally gave way, freeing Voyis’ shield from it’s cage. Dead bodies slumped to the floor as the Kingfisher Knight whirled his greatsword around him, severed heads and limbs flying through the air in his wake.

An arrow shot passed Valeria’s head. It penetrated one rotter as it ducked under Voyi’s sword, and embedded itself into another zombie behind it. Both fell to the ground. Valeria looked behind her and saw Gada on one knee near the basin, clutching his bow. He gave her a thin lipped smile.

Fulon and Buren took up their swords and joined the melee, raising their shields and hacking at the undead that slipped passed Voyis. A few moments later all the rotters had been cut down, and bodies littered the mouth of the cave. Valeria looked at them and saw what appeared to be normal people mixed in with the undead. Gada turned one of these over and ripped open their shirt. A faded rune was drawn upon their chest, reminiscent of the one the Legion had seen back at the western front.

“More hexed,” Arun remarked. Gada nodded and looked out of the entrance of the cave.

“Another one,” he whispered. Something groaned in the dark. Voyis retreated back towards the cave.

“Incoming!” he shouted, raising his tower shield before him. Valeria took up her rifle but there was no time. The awful mess of limbs and heads was upon them, another horror cooked up by the Cinder King’s lackeys. It slammed into Voyis, arms and legs trying to wrap themselves around his shield. The Zemyati stabbed and cut at the amalgam, black blood spilling over his sword and armour.

Rakash drew his sword and charged forward. Arun shouted after him in Bartan and charged behind. They flanked the horror on one side, blades stabbing into its flesh, spraying them with ichor. Valeria drew her own sword and watched as the horror climbed up onto Voyis’ tower shield, supporting itself with several hands on the ceiling of the cave. The giant Zemyati was struggling with the weight as the horror sought to climb up and over him.

Two arrows struck the horror in one of its wailing faces, which immediately erupted in green flames. Gada’s blackshot arrows made the horror scream, the sound amplified by the cave. Valeria closed her eyes and turned away, hoping, willing the thing to shut up. The creature fell silent as the green fire spread, filling the cave with the smell of rotting flesh. Valeria opened her eyes to see Voyis kicking the horror as it twitched on the ground. Arun and Rakash looked alright, and were facing out into the night for more signs of the dead. Buren was helping Fulon up from where one of the horror’s many limbs had pinned her atop some corpses.

Gada walked up next to Valeria, removing the string from his bow. “That’s all. Safe for now,” he whispered. Valeria looked at him, one eye was weeping blood.

“How? How do you know?” Gada looked at her and shrugged.

Valeria shook her head, then shared a thought as it occurred to her, “Did you know about Voyis?”

Gada nodded, “Yes. Couldn’t say anything before. Just rumours, but…” and he paused and locked eyes with her.

But if you said anything Shreya would have cut him in half, Valeria thought.

“The Quartermaster gave me religious supplies. Reliquaries,” Gada whispered. “Tell him we can help. He isn’t convinced yet.”

“Why me?” Valeria asked.

Gada looked at her and shrugged again.

Voyis walked slowly back into the cave, breathing heavy. He leaned his tower shield and greatsword against the cave wall, grabbed one of the open bottles of wine, and drank deeply from the bottle.

Arun was leading Rakash back to the cave. The older Bartan’s eyes were wide and full of terror. Arun was speaking to him softly in Bartan, he took a cup of wine and tried to convince Rakash to drink. The twins were cleaning undead gore from their armour and weapons.

Valeria approached the Kingfisher Knight. His face was stained with black blood and red wine. He offered her the bottle.

“Nothing like a good fight go get the blood pumping, yes?”

Valeria took the bottle and drank. It was good wine, she could feel it warming her insides. She couldn’t remember the last time she had alcohol.

“We’d be dead if not for you. One of you is worth a dozen of us. The Legion needs people who know how to stand their ground.”

Voyis took the bottle for another swig and passed it back to her. Valeria drank again, deeply this time, as Voyis considered what she said.

“Last time… last time I fight the undead I become blighted. Corrupted. You saw, I am a… liability now.”

Valeria looked at the shrine at the back of the cave and swallowed another mouthful of wine. “That’s why you came here? To purify yourself?”

Voyis nodded. “Tried to. But nothing. So I stay. If the dead come, they come. But I have lost that fight.” He tapped his breastplate. “I do not see what it sees. I am scared maybe something else does.”

Valeria looked for Gada. He quickly produced a large leather shoulder bag, opened it, and handed it to her. Inside were half a dozen reliquaries, thick glass jars stopped with cork and wax. Each contained water and locks of Shreya’s jet black hair. Valeria thought about how it had felt in her hands, how it had smelled of Orite cherries. Valeria blinked a few times, the wine wasn’t helping. Voyis was also looking into the bag, mouth agog. He whispered something in Zemyati.

“The chosen of Asrika marches with the Legion,” Valeria cleared her throat. “I can vouch for these reliquaries. They have kept us safe. They could do the same for you. Either way I leave the choice to you, Voyis Kariyevich.”

The knight stood straight and regarded her for a while before finishing off the wine and giving a loud belch.

“Alright little Orite. Let us see.”

The kingfisher knight began stripping of his armor and then his clothes.

“I heard that the waters here cleanse a man’s sins,” he stepped over the lips of the pool and said a brief prayer in Zemyati. “But it has yet to work.”

Valeria went to Arun. “You know how these are supposed to work?” She showed him the bag of reliquaries. Arun whistled.

“No wonder her hair is so short. Uh, I mean if you hold them they should let you resist corruption. You saw what mine did to that horror in Karlsburg.” Arun looked back at Voyis, sitting in the holy font like it was a bath. “Is he?” Valeria just nodded.

Arun shrugged. “I can often some prayers. Let’s open them up. See how many it takes.”

Arun and Valeria joined the Kingfisher Knight at the edge of the font. The Weyer twins were staring at Voyis, unsure about how to respond. The yellow eye in his chest was staring at them. Arun let out a curse and covered his mouth when he saw it. He drained the wine cup that was still in his hand and begun to prayer in Bartan.

Valeria took a knife from her kit and pried open the first reliquary. Voyis took a breath and moved forward deeper into the font, so it covered his blighted chest. The eye kept staring up at the roof of the cave. Valeria tried not to look at it as she emptied the contents of the reliquary into the pool.

The pool immediately began to boil and froth. Voyis screamed, his back arched. The large eye in his chest was rapidly moving around, the purple infected flesh contracting around it as it smoker and sizzled. It was as if the water in the pool had become acid that only burnt the corruption in Voyis’ chest. The Zemyati writhed in agony, giant hands gripping the edge of the font.

Valeria looked at Arun. He was still repeating Bartan prayers but his voice was wavering. He looked back at Valeria and shook his head. She could feel the force of the roiling boil in the stone beneath her boots.

“Keep going! Do not stop! Don’t stop!” Voyis shouted, his booming voice overpowered the sound of sizzling flesh and boiling water. He slowly pushed himself back under the water and the boiling became more violent as the eye entered the water. Voyis screamed again.

The twins had joined them at the font.

“Whats going on?” Buren asked.

“You’re hurting him, stop!” Fulon cried.

Gada watched from behind them, arms crossed. Valeria looked at him and the Darite just stared back at her.

“Fuck it,” she took out another reliquary, broke the wax seal, and turned it over into the bath. Voyis bucked and screamed again. Arun kept repeating the prayer and put a hand on the giant’s shoulder. Voyis bared his teeth and doubled over in the water, drawing in his arms and legs, rocking back and forth.

“What are you doing?” Fulon demanded.

“Helping,” Gada said simply.

The boiling water began to cease, calming to a murky white colour. Voyis leaned back against the edge of the pool and groaned. Valeria looked for the eye on his chest, but all that remained was a red and blue mark the size of a grapefruit, like a fresh bruise. Voyis sighed and said something in Zemyati. Arun stopped praying and laughed.

“Well fuck.”

Voyis looked back at the Owls assembled around him. “Wine,” he whispered.

Valeria put a hand on his shoulder and smiled, “You earned it.” She got up and looked for the other opened bottle. Rakash was standing at the cave entrance, broken wood and bodies at his feet.

“Someone’s coming,” he said. His armour was still stained with black blood. Valeria put a hand on her sword and looked out into the darkness. She could hear someone crying, whimpering, coming towards them.

“Hello?” it was a woman’s voice, terrified. “Is someone there? Please! Anyone!” Valeria looked back at Gada. He was still standing next to Voyis and the twins. He looked back and shook his head.

Valeria stepped forward next to Rakash. He still had his sword drawn. It looked like it hadn’t left his hand since he had charged the horror. Gradually a women stumbled into the light cast from the lamps and candles of the cave. She wore a dirty pale dress. Her knees and elbows were scabbed, and dirty tears streamed down her face.

“Please! I heard… oh please! Please help, I don’t know what’s happening!”

Rakash raised his sword, “Who are you?”

Valeria put a hand on his arm, “Rakash I don’t think–”

“Please,” the woman said. “I’ve been running so long. I heard voices and–”

Rakash pointed his sword at her, “Stay back!”

“Who is that?” Buren walked forward.

“Who are you?” Valeria asked. The woman was stumbling over the dead, like they were simply rocks in her way. She was a few feet away when Rakash stepped forward to meet her.

“Rakash wait!” But it was too late. His sword was buried in her chest, his breathing hard and erratic. The woman’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly as she slowly looked down at the metal in her chest.

“Fuck!” Buren cried. “What the fuck Rakash!” Valeria put a hand on the old Bartan’s shoulder. He was staring at the woman, large eyes blinking rapidly as if waking from a dream.

“I didn’t…” he said. “I don’t…”

Valeria looked to the woman’s wound. It was deep, but it might have missed her heart.

“Buren,” she yelled. “Buren get some bandages, we might–” the woman grabbed Valeria’s arm and stared at her with a mouth full of black bile.

The Kingdom of Or was always so beautiful in the spring. Hundreds of cherry trees bloomed all at once, and for a few days the streets were covered in a bright pink petal snow. The Orites called them Lover’s Days, and it was customary for many engagements and nuptials to take place during those few days. It should have been a busy time for Valeria. She had to put in an appearance at at least four weddings that day, and one surprise engagement that evening that one of her cousins had been planning for a year.

But she wasn’t going to do any of that. She was marching down the main thoroughfare, booted feet kicking up swaths of petals. She brushed them from her finest suit as she spotted her waiting for Valeria at her favourite spot, a balcony just outside the Garossi Gardens. She was wearing a loose shirt and a vest of golden roses. A dress saber with a hilt of gold was tied around her waist above her black trousers. She turned just as Valeria approached. One lock of her jet black hair hung in front of her porcelain face.

Then she was staring up at small stalactites. The smell of cherry blossoms faded and the world was cold and hard. She was on her back and people were screaming. Valeria pushed herself up onto her elbows. The Garossi Gardens were gone. Rakash still had his sword inside the young woman, but he was floating in the air, several feet above the ground. They both were. The woman’s hair and dress floated around her as if she was submerged in water. A steady stream of tar coloured fluid rushed from her mouth as she grinned wickedly at Rakash.

“Aim!” Arun yelled behind her. Valeria turned and saw Arun and the twins had loaded their rifles and were pointing them at the woman. Gada had a black shot arrow nocked in his bow.

“Fire!” The shots were near deafening in the cave but the woman persisted. The bullets tore through her flesh and only when Gada’s black shot arrow pierced her skin did she react. Rakash fell to the ground and the woman screamed, the sound just as loud as the musket fire. She reached her hands out towards the firing line and shot through the air towards them like a bird of prey.

Valeria jumped to her feet, drew her sword and tried to slash at the women as she flew passed. But as she did so the black ichor falling from the woman’s mouth splattered across her face, covering her eyes and filling her mouth, Valeria shook her head and tried to spit out the foul tasting fluid.

By the time she could see again, the undead woman was skirmishing with the Weyer twins. Buren had buried the edge of her sword into the top of the woman’s skull, but it still thrashed and screamed. Fulon cut into one of its arms, which wrapped around Fulon’s blade and touched her hand. Fulon cried out and clutched her arm as it started to spasm, her sword clattering to the ground.

But then Voyis emerged from the font, towering over the scene as one meaty hand grabbed the floating woman, ripped her from Buren’s sword, and plunged her into the font. The water erupted into boiling plumes and Voyis groaned in pain as he held her under with both hands. Valeria stepped forward, sword still drawn. After a few seconds Voyis stopped struggling and released the undead. When he stood and left the basin his hands were bright red, the flesh burned and peeling. The woman lay at the bottom of the font, body simmering in the holy water, her undead skin slowly dissolving away.

There in the center of her chest, over her heart and just a few inches from where Rakash had stabbed her, Valeria could see something had been stitched into her body, just beneath the skin. The flesh was purple, liked the flesh around the eye that had been embedded in Voyis’ chest. The skin around the stitching squirmed and twitched as the body boiled away.

“Breaker,” Gada rasped from behind her, already packing up his things. “We can’t stay here.”

Valeria looked to Voyis. He was flexing his red hands and grimacing. He looked around and saw her staring at him, and slowly nodded.

“Let us go then, yes?”

This will be the last of the Fall of Aldermark chapters for a while. Band of Blades is a cool RPG system but there’s way too many moving parts for a solo playthrough. I really like the characters and story I’ve made so far, but I’d like to focus on other projects for a while.

Valeria was hung over. The journey from the Kingfisher Knight’s cave was short and terrifying. No dead crossed their path, but the signs of them were everywhere. The grass was yellowing and the ground smelled putrid, like fresh corpses were buried just beneath the surface. Voyis kept the twins and the other Ghost Owls entertained with stories from his glory days, but Valeria suspected there was something else to it.

She felt it once, the day after the assault at the cave, when Voyis had run out of breath and no one else had anything to say. There was a tightness between all of them, an unspoken dread left over from their encounter with the flying woman. Gada called it a shadow witch, a new undead that Breaker had used in Karlsburg, made by stitching a piece of her own flesh into a living host.

Valeria noticed that Voyis felt this too. He wasn’t scared, he looked guilty. He knew what this was, that everyone was wondering how they could possibly survive this. His storytelling was a way to ward this corruption, but he couldn’t keep it up. Maybe he spent too long in that cave, she thought.

The ground around Plainsworth was similarly plagued. Many of the refugees who had been begging for entrance into the town had moved on. They could sense it too. The armies of the Cinder King were getting close, and the very earth was surrendering before them.

The legionnaires welcomed Voyis with applause and shouts. He soaked up the attention and held court throughout the day as the Marshal tried to keep everyone on task. They were moving out again. Quartermaster Silver Listening Glade had acquired food and horses from the locals, and the rest of the day would be another Liberty day. They were abandoning the town, though no one would say so. Summer was ending, it wouldn’t be long now.

Shreya was standing on the wall when the Ghost Owls arrived back in Plainsworth, and she remained there for the day, motionless, staring into the West.

Valeria and Arun watched her atop the Tantari wall as they passed a wine bottle back and forth. It was a Bartan red, the last from the crate Voyis had insisted on bringing. Valeria could see the wisdom in it now. They sat on the stoop of an abandoned building on the outside of the courtyard. Refugees had moved inside, and they could occasionally hear them rearranging or investigating whatever the previous occupants had left behind.

“What d’you suppose she thinks about?” Arun asked.

Valera shook her head, “I have no idea. Never much cared for the Gods, to be honest.”

Arun looked taken aback. “Not one for the Builder, the Shaper, and the… the other one.”

“The Maker.”

“Ah. Well, no wonder. It’s all the same thing isn’t it? Why bother with three when one could do?”

Valeria smiled. “That’s rich, coming from a Bartan.” She gently pulled at one of Arun’s dreadlocks, woven with symbols and seashells. She shook it back and forth so the materials jingled together. Arun slapped her hand away and smiled. “How many do you have anyway?”

“I lost count.” Arun took another pull from the bottle. “But seriously, she’s from Or, right? You don’t know if she was a marquess or whatever?”

Valeria remembered cherry blossoms again, but thinking about the smell made her stomach turn. “Like I said I don’t know.” Arun gave her the bottle and she took another swig. The hangover had faded and was turning back into a pleasant warmth. Marching would be rough tomorrow, but it was worth it.

Arun was peering at her under his tattooed eyelids. “You know every time someone mentions Shreya you look like you’re about to jump off a cliff.”

Valeria tried to look innocent. “What?”

“And you aren’t a great liar. Pretty good, but I’m pretty sure I’ve had more practice.”

Valeria looked at the dirt on the step beneath them. “You’ve never been to an Orite party, you get plenty of practice.”

“And you’ve never been to an Aldermani prison.” Valeria could feel his eyes on her. “You’re hiding something.”

Valeria took another pull from the bottle. She trusted Arun, more than anyone else in the Ghost Owls, probably more than anyone else in the Legion. But she didn’t know where to even start.

“What do you think the gods want, Arun? I mean… what do you think they’re doing? When all this is happening, when the Cinder King arose, when he broke the first Chosen, and then nine Chosen arose all at once. Why not just kill the undead? Why not just end the Cinder King once and for all?”

Arun looked at her for a little while more, blue eyes meeting hers in the middle of two dark sunburst patterns that covered his eye sockets. “You know it doesn’t work that way.”

“But why not? Why fuck with us like this? It’s so…”



Their eyes eventually found Shreya again, still standing above them on the wall. It was dark, but she glowed faintly with golden light.

“That… thing, on Voyis,” Arun said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. And what happened with those relics… I’ve never seen so many signs that the Gods are trying to protect us. But at the same time I’ve never felt so distant from all of them. I pray that they will make things right, but I think they are, in small ways. I mean just look at Rakash.”

“The new Chosen,” Valeria chuckled.

“Old Bartans don’t get reckless like that without the Gods.” Arun took the wine bottle from her.

“And you think that’s a good thing?” Arun shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he gestured up at Shreya, “but I know what you think.”

Valeria could feel herself blushing.

“I don’t know who she was to you, but you know Asrika’s chosen don’t last. If there’s anything of the Shreya you knew left in there you don’t have long to find out.”

Valeria nodded. “I know. I know.”