The Curse of Destiny (Winter 2013-2014)

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The Curse of Destiny
Follow the 2013-2014 winter narrative here.

WEAKNESS -
"For the Future" (S. Galanthia)
"For the Past" (N. Galanthia)
"The Porcelain Age" (Imladar)
"Scars of the Body" (Thessi)
"One Year Later" (Falkirk)​

SILENCE -
"Know Your Enemy" (S. Galanthia)
"Know Your Place" (N. Galanthia)
"Voiceless" (Imladar)
"A Blind Eye" (Thessi)
"Before the Storm" (Falkirk)​

DESTRUCTION -
"In Madness, Courage" (S. Galanthia)
"In Madness, Faith" (N. Galanthia)
"Platinum Fury" (Imladar)
"Beaten Gold" (Thessi)
"Rain of Terror" (Falkirk)​

PARALYSIS -
"Red" (Galanthia)
"The Glass Age" (Imladar)
"Scars of the Mind" (Thessi)
"Standstill" (Falkirk)​
 
WEAKNESS

“Welcome to the Prism, your Grace.”

Sir Nevin Kendrick, Duke of Ashbury, gestured for the kneeling guards to rise. They did, as one, with the precision of military drilling. Their multi-hued chainmail jingled against the coin-encrusted scarves and belts they wore. Bright colored silks and linens were wrapped around their heads and faces, covering as much identity as possible.

“The facility looks incredible, Robillarde. Is the tour available?”

The stocky Rom warrior nodded and the guards opened the doors. Beyond them was a white room, built from polished white marble. It led to a long corridor of white marble with seven guards positioned every seven feet. The first guard was dressed in shades of red, the second in oranges, the third in yellows, then green, then blue, then indigo, then violet. Robillarde opened the door at the end of the corridor for Nevin.

“Stay on your guard, your Grace. All of the Prism Guard here have seen his terrible works. We can identify his influence and we can remove his curse, but his words can poison as surely as his spirit can. If we sense that his influence has taken hold, even you will be held to account by our blades.”

“You are a fine soldier, Robillarde Bezznia. Your mother would be proud.”

The Prism itself was a miracle of magical engineering. It was a crystal cube suspended over an open pit deep beneath Ashbury City. Seven powerful celestial lights orbited the cube on oblong paths, their white light washing down on the translucent prison.

The lights entering at different angles cast a colored storm within. At the center sat an unshaven, yet proud man in a rough fabric suit, but for the dazzling display only one color seemed to hang upon him.

Green.

“I’m glad you’ve decided to visit, Duke Kendrick. It’s been a long … what season is it outside right now?”

“It’s winter, Imagos Pyatt. The month of Raccoon. It’s currently a harsh, snow-filled nightmare. I see that they are keeping you warm here.”

Imagos relaxed in his chair, looking comfortable despite the chains that bound him to the floor.

“Indeed they are. It’d be nice to have more company though.”

“I can perfectly assure you that won’t happen. Only I have clearance to be here. Even the Ordo Aurum and Duke Logan aren’t allowed in here without my specific say-so.”

Nevin walked in slow paces around the chained man. The lights surrounding the prison made his senses feel blurry and his sixth, magical sense was entirely suppressed by arcane nature of the prison. The alchemical stimulants he imbibed before entrance burned through his veins, keeping him hyperaware of his surroundings.

“So, what can I do for you, your Grace?”

Nevin pulled a folded parchment from his coat and handed it to Imagos. As he unfolded it he was already peeking at the writing. It was a grid, marked out by quill, and filled out with headings that read: Life, Death, Chaos, Order, Flame, Ice, Stone, Lightning.

Below each Element there were rows reading Dragons, Icons, Landbond, and several more notes. Each intersection had scribbles, notes, and ideas.

“This was written by a friend. I need it filled out. I have to fix this mess you have made.”

“Or you will die.”

“Yes, or I will die,” Nevin growled.

Imagos turned the sheet over and over, as if learning to read once again. He sat in silence, thinking. After several long minutes he looked up to the pacing Duke.

“Agreed. I’ll take my payment up front.”

Nevin stopped in his tracks. His angry glare didn’t phase the imprisoned criminal.

“My payment, Nevin Kendrick, is for you to keep me apprised of current events of fair Tar’Navaria. I’d like stories to think about.”

Nevin grabbed the parchment away from Imagos.

“I’ll take this somewhere else.”

Imagos, finally riled, surged to stand up against his restraints.

“No! Don’t. Please, I have nothing else. I’ll help.”

Nevin smiled and tossed the parchment at Imagos’ feet.

“Do not forget who is in charge here.”

Imagos slumped back into his chair, “We are cursed, Kendrick. Not this paltry curse that I can will upon the weak. No, the curse upon us is potent. Potent enough that to it, WE are weak. A Duke of Ashbury and a Dominus of Galanthia are mewling, weak children to it. It owns us, Nevin. It OWNS us. It is the force of progress that pushes us into a new era for an entire continent. It pushes us into the cataclysmic rebirth of peoples that never believed that they could be changed, much less destroyed. It is the curse of being meant for something massive in this life. Even if that something terrifies you.

It is the curse of destiny, Nevin Kendrick.

Now pull up a chair, you have some stories to tell.”
 
For the Future

Strength has always been important to Galanthia. Six hundred years of carving an empire out of the hostile bedlam of the Outeragi, the “Plains of Rage” as the Icenians say, made its defenders proficient and its castes clear. Warriors were warriors, artisans were artisans, and slaves were slaves.

The plague destroyed that strength.

Galanthia Major, the jewel of the fertile lands, succumbed first. The ghoulish victims reanimated by the Red Madness took the city so brutally that flight was the only option. People ran in every direction. There’s no counting how many died in flight from the Madness, or to the Outeragi, or to the fear and panic made manifest in wanton slaughter by the City Guard.

Those that lived ran north or they ran south. Those that ran north found the remnants of the Imperial Senate, the privileged nobles and undead that had usurped beautiful Galanthia from the late beloved Emperor. They had to accept the tyrannical rule of those immortal lords or suffer one of several fates worse than death.

Most that ran south found one of the several cities that supported the Rebellion. Prophethome, the seat of power of Sandral Corradone; Port Jacelyn, the repurposed docks named for the Admiral of the Camulans; Strattonheim, the delta town of bridges and lochs; or New Lempur, the remnant city of the devastated nation.

Some, however, were too old or infirm to finish the flight to the safety of the south. They parked their wagons in a large circle halfway to Prophethome and made camp in the plains, determined to meet their end in revelry and joy. Soldiers and former guards stumbled upon this oasis of hope and were fed and cared for there, these brave men and women repaid the kindness by standing watch and defending this sliver of happiness.

This was what being Galanthian meant. Overcome the rigors of hard life with the will to not just survive, but to dance and sing in the face of death.

The settlement grew with every passing hour during those dark days. Artisans stopped to share their goods, mages stopped to spread their magic, and masons stopped to build a wall.

The wall began as gathered stone, then it became scavenged brick and mortar, then redbrick golems lifted massive rocks into place. Iron, wood, stone, reed…it all was added.

In only a few short weeks, the city of Plainsheart was born.

The madness did not stop though, and the red continue to throw themselves mindlessly at the guards. It was inevitable that they would suffer casualties. The shields of the dead were hung on the northfacing side of the wall, so that their sigils would catch the sun and shine brilliantly every day. The Wall of Shields now holds over five hundred memorials to gallant defenders of the people.

Lucius Raphio hung the five hundred and thirty seventh.

His father’s shield was a sturdy iron and wood heater, the heraldry on it red and blue quartered, the popular colors of the Rebellion. Red for valiant blood spilled on the ground, blue for the clear, rich skies of a bright future.

He gave a moment of silence for his loss. It had been two days already, since Ganius Raphio was slain by the red. He was a fine father, a talented doctore, and a doting grandfather. Considering the horrors of the last year, young Agrio Raphio was lucky to have spent much time with him.

Lucius patted the shield one last time and walked back to the front gate, he barely stopped to witness the work parties gathering and burning the dead. Two days had brought them only halfway to completion.

The soldiers let him through with smiles and kind words of condolence. They were his soldiers, though he had been given leave to grieve. He was a Decanus, a leader of ten men. Such meant little, as Plainsheart had no true military structure. They were friends of his that survived or people he had become friends with along the way, bound more by loyalty and friendship than by military duty.

He accepted their words and moved on, he wanted to see his son. Agrio would be continuing his lessons with one of the camps new doctore, a man named Haldr.

They were in the hastily assembled town yard, which was nothing more that lantern posts and large stones surrounding a patch of scrub grass. Flimsy buildings were under construction nearby, barely facades with small rooms attached. Most still lived in wagons and vardas about town.

Agrio was growing strongly, at ten years old he was already developing a talent for shield and sword work. Haldr was a good teacher. He called himself Vakkar and adorned himself with a peculiar blue warpaint and equally peculiar blue tattooing. He called himself Haldr of Rustbeast, claiming that Rustbeast was a tribe that Corradone had allowed to settle in the southern Outeragi.

He told Agrio fanciful stories of survivalist life on faraway islands, tales of sea dragons, and sagas about faerie courts and nobles. They were harmless enough and Agrio hung on the large man’s every word.

Several pairs of fighters dueled harmlessly in the square as well. Several of the faces were unknown to Lucius, but in the bleak cold of winter new faces sprung up like spring flowers.

Agrio was practicing his guard while Haldr pointed out gaps in his defense, when a voice called to Lucius.

“Lucius Raphio, I have come for your life.”

Lucius glanced towards the speaker, not quite sure what he heard. The new faces from the square had stopped sparring and had drawn iron daggers. One stood in front of the rest, and he smiled. His crooked teeth were offset by long, iron fangs in place of his canines.

Lucius drew the short blade at his side. Haldr, equally as confused, drew his own rusty blade and stood in front of Agrio.

Lucius opened his mouth to question these men, but they struck quickly. It was all he could do to defend himself. Were they equipped with anything larger than daggers, they may just have gotten their wish. He moved and guarded and countered with all the practice his father had pressed upon him. He struck lethal blows on two opponents, but the man with the iron fang’s dagger struck Lucius across the throat.

Haldr kicked the man down and cut his head from his shoulders. The head rolled to a stop but did not stop smiling.

Lucius choked on his own blood, unable to cry out. Haldr pressed a hand to the wound to staunch the bleeding, but he needed a physician. As Haldr turned to cry out for one, his eyes fell upon the square.

It was empty.
 
For the Past

“The weakness of mortality is not something I have brushed upon in a very long time,” said Sirus Omegaddon.

Rezimus kept a respectful distance from the old vampire. The crimson, congealing blood-jelly of the Red covered them both. Red runners had rushed the high incline of Boltcliff for hours; Rezimus has almost depleted his spiritual stock of fire and lightning. The other human defenders looked just as worn, but only suffered minor hurts. The presence of a famed Senator drove them to levels of zeal they rarely felt in these days of ruin.

Boltcliff sat to the east of ruined Galanthia Major, perched high on the cliffs overlooking the Vacarran Sea. It was just as ramshackle as the southern city of Plainsheart, but maintained a sinister and military purpose. Many ballistae were nestled on the cliffside gaining unprecedented bolt access to the western sea. One ballista was nestled on a marble platform, a place of prophetic prominence, and it was larger than any ballistae that Rezimus had ever seen.

And he had seen quite a few.

Camulan, Sarr, Vakkar and South Galanthian ships all feared to tread in these waters; such was its deadly reality.

Sirus wiped the gore off of his blades and sheathed them back at his waist. He wore a combination of leather armor and senatorial robes that looked like they were perfectly familiar with being soaked in blood. He set about placing orders with the remaining soldiers to clean the area of bodies. In doing so he kept a wide berth of the rotting Red corpses.

Even the powerful vampires of the North feared something, noted Rezimus.

“Visitor Rezimus, please, join me in the apothecary’s tent,” he asked, though it may as well have been an order.

The recently dead and soon-to-be were under treatment within, several healing mages tended to Sirus’ blacked wounds. Their chants were low and filled with ruinous magic, pumping the necrotic energy into Sirus that he needed to heal his dead body.

“Tell me of the other cities, Rezimus. I’d like to hear how the other Houses live in fat squalor as the Omegaddon guard them from the end of the world.”

Rezimus’ willpower was already strained to its limit preventing him from cringing at the casual use of dark power, but he swallowed hard and spoke what he had practiced.

“I have been to Lakeheart, my lord. House Iridessa has built a flourishing trade on the northern rivers. The mystical properties of the lake itself have proven to make that hodge podge city of scuttled ships and barges into a notable wizard’s study.”

Sirus nodded, “Lichlady Iridessa was a fine sorceress in her mortal days. Her ascension made for a fine addition to the Senate. Go on.”

“Houses Axios, Strygonne, and Lochaber have turned dead Starkenstein into something truly awe-inspiring. Reviving so much of the lost dead there.”

“Axios has survived? This surprises me. They breed human stock for ascetic, dour warriors. They fight well enough, but the teachings of self-denial towards the vampiric condition seem backward. Strygonne is well liked enough. Contrary to their warped flesh, they have wise minds. House Lochaber has much rebuilding to do. Late Matros threw everything his House owned into that eternal border war. I hope dearly that their fortress city proves to be worth the investment in blood.”

Sirus refastened his armor as the mages finished their careful work. He held up a hand to pause Rezimus while he searched the beds of the fallen. He sniffed the air above each as he passed, until he found a soldier sleeping peacefully with alchemical aid. He lifted a clean bleeding bowl from a nearby table and placed in under the soldier’s arm. With a sharpened fingernail, Sirus drew a bloody line across the man’s forearm, letting the blood drip down into the bowl. He lifted a hand to Rezimus to continue.

“House Innerac has disbanded with the disappearance of Senator Lucius, who was pronounced slain by the Senate. House Omegaddon has retained control of the military in the north.”

Sirus nodded, “Good. We shall continue to fortify and grow. Soon, we can return to the days when unlife was simple and orderly. Galanthia can shake off the anomaly of progress that human emperors have visited upon us. The old ways were the best ways, the strongest ways. In the early days of Galanthia we built and we structured and we supported our gains with stone and bone.”

Sirus picked the blood-filled bowl off the floor and offered it to Rezimus, who politely declined. Sirus shrugged and raised it in toast.

“For the past, friend Rezimus.”

Sirus drank it down in one gulp and set the bowl back on the floor. He dismissed Rezimus with a casual wave.

Rezimus trudged his way back to his own tent on the outskirts of Boltcliff south, just out of view of the nearest guard tower. He sat down to his small writing table. On the table sat an obsidian falcon statue, but when he sat the statue turned its head to look at him.

“Falcon, take message. Your Grace, I have made contact with the vampire in control of Boltcliff. His trust will come easy. Destruction of the Ballista will come easy. Message over. Falcon, fly to Nevin Kendrick. Construct sender name: Izer.”
 
The Porcelain Age

Sir Neville Stenhouse could not deny the beauty of the Daralassia. It had only been just over a year since her maiden voyage and already songs and epics were spreading about the massive ship. She was like a porcelain swan made of crystalline flower petals and though Sir Stenhouse rarely attributed much to poetry, he found no other way to express these thoughts.

In Widowcroft, the most beauty one could find in a single moment was a healer’s face as they jolted your sorry form with life energy.

“I told you she was magnificent, Count Neville.”

“Words barely do her justice, your Majesty.”

Queen Sonia Bouchard was dressed in a queen’s finery. A meeting with not one, but both of the High Lords of Imladar merited little else. Not just for the fanciful station that the Imladari exhibited, but also for the game of ingratiation she was forced to play with them. As the two powerful elves strode down the disembarkation ramp, she suddenly felt a curious missingness in not having Sir Amaranthus present.

Both elves stopped several paces away from Sonia and dipped measured bows to her. Gilthalion Thantellin was clad in his usual white regalia and Valdorian Thantellin was clad in the liquid silver and porcelain skin of his construct body.

“Queen Sonia, your Majesty. We are ever pleased that you have graced us with your presence,” smiled Gilthalion.

“I thank you for your kind invitation.”

Sonia still simmered that the ‘invitation’ was clearly not one to be ignored, being as such it was delivered by a squad of friendly, yet veteran construct-clad Imladari knights.

“It has been some time since I saw you last, High Lord Valdorian,” she continued. “The tales of your exploits travel well.”

“I certainly hope so,” Valdorian said. His voice had a ringing echo, as if he were talking into a teacup. “I’ve had to pay a lot of bards.”

She gestured with a hand to Sir Neville. “This is Sir Neville Stenhouse, Count of WidowCroft and DunkaLee. He has become my right hand in foreign affairs.”

Sir Neville offered a short bow, but his eyes washed over the magical mechanism of Valdorian’s golem.

“It is an honor to meet you both, finally,” he said. “Your construct, is it made from the same processes as the Daralassia?”

“Indeed, it is. In fact, Valdorian would be pleased to give you a tour of the ship so that you may judge for yourself,” Gilthalion offered.

Valdorian turned and led Sir Neville up the ramp as Gilthalion turned back to Sonia.

“I have a spread prepared just for you in the bayside courtyard.”

As they walked to the gorgeous bayside garden, Imladari children stopped playing to offer polite bows to the human queen. Their parents did the same. Sonia stopped at short intervals to lay a hand on a child’s head or arm and smile. The gathering, happy crowd of elves struck an odd chord in Sonia. Even in racially diverse Ashbury, she had never seen such admiration for a foreign ruler not of the same race.

Even the look of happiness felt alien to her. It had become a rare commodity.

“Every child you see here, your Majesty,” whispered Gilthalion, so that just she could hear. “Was born after we formed this new Kingdom. This Imladar is all they know. This is what we defend, these children. We have a weakness for the innocent. To protect them, to give them everything they deserve to grow and prosper.”

Sonia looked up at Gilthalion, curious.

“We call this the Porcelain Age of Imladar, your Majesty,” he began out loud. “An age of art and culture and beauty. An age for Imladar to aspire to the benefit of all Tar’Navaria. We can establish order where currently there is none. We can bring justice to those who would cause harm to the innocent. We can lay evil low. You have proven this in Icenia. Tranquis was ended. An elemental general killed in battle. No small feat, I know. I fought his ogres not long beforehand. A symbolic victory that good can win. It can finally win.”

“I will certainly aid in the endless war against evil. You know that well, but why this special meeting for something you know I already believe in?”

Gilthalion gestured to the south, past the blue waters of the bay and past the magnificent hull of the massive ship.

“One great foe still stands, your Majesty. I know that you are unfamiliar with the truth behind their nation since they have kept their profile low since they were transposed here from Tyrra. Imperial Thessi, even now, girds its fleets for war and fills its armies with slave soldiers. They have had fifteen years of uninhibited growth to prepare. They desire to take Southern Tar’Navaria for themselves.”

Sonia’s disbelief was palpable.

“You brought me here to talk of more war? After all the hardship Icenia has just endured? I don’t know if I can be a part of this, Gilthalion.”

“Icenia still recovers. This conflict will be left to Imladar to handle. We are primed and we are in exactly the position needed to defend this land, Imladar needs support.”

“All of this based on the supposition that Thessi will invade to the North?”

“Educated prediction. Our ships make report of the Thessi slave ships off the coast of the Sarr Kingdoms. Take this into consideration: If we do nothing and they invade, the suffering will be immense. All of the children you see here will be in mortal danger. As will the children of Brittington be. Believe in us.”

Queen Sonia Bouchard breathed out hard, yet again she was stuck. The decision was difficult, but would have to be made.

+++

“I never rightly trusted the Thessi, High Lord. I often spoke with my fellow Barons about the potential conflict that would arise. Icenia has battled Galanthia for centuries, so no one knows warfare against a necromancer, slaver scum foe better than we do. To be honest, I’ve never trusted the biata either. I’d never even heard of them until Ashbury plopped down here. I’ve seen too many go rogue and even the ones that don’t are hardly trustworthy. A whole empire of them? You’re just asking for trouble.”

Valdorian nodded in response to Neville’s off-hand rant.

“May I give you a gift, Count?”

Neville half-smiled, “I certainly would not say no.”

Valdorian waved a hand towards the forecastle of the ship. A door slid to the side and a red and black robed figure stepped out of the chamber. It shone dully in the sunlight, liquid black metal with red and black glass plates on top. It was fashioned very much like Valdorian’s, but built in the colors of WidowCroft.

“This is our latest model. We have sent it as a gift directly to you. Those who lead WidowCroft are known to us, indeed. We would be honored to have the strength and support of just such a hero.”

Neville’s mouth opened and shut in delighted surprise.

“High Lord,” he finally managed. “I am your man.”
 
Scars of the Body

They looked on with a mixture of shock, disgust, and grim curiosity. The bizarre contraption began pumping hot, red blood through glass tubes into the hematite-etched granite sarcophagus. The heavy stone casket blotted out most of the screaming, but the sound of nails scratching desperately at the lid was unmistakable.

“Does the subject expire in this process?” Khordel asked. As an Arzt of the Blaues Sanctum, he fulfilled the grim curiosity aspect of the observers.

“Yes,” answered Calibos Thardik. “They must or the changes will not persist within their spirit. This process is too expensive to be ruined by a single resurrection.”

Khordel nodded, his blue and orange feathers bobbed in the torchlight. As he stepped back into the line of observers he took stock of his peers. To his left was a large Braun warrior, a Herz of a Kabal. His name was Gervhart and looked deeply displeased by the display before them. His face was covered in red and brown markings that were the same colors as his feathers. He had refused to part with his sword, a massive crystalline thing, before entering the chamber.

To his right was a warrior in dull gray plate, which had also refused to part with his weapon before entering. This warrior was slim and paranoid, where Gervhart was confident and large. The tan and violet feathers on his brow barely peeked out from under his iron circlet. He gave his name as Naaman and said no more since. The blade at his waist was slim and curved and kept in an ornate, lacquered scabbard. Naaman noticed Khordel’s scrutiny and frowned.

“The blood. It is gryphon blood,” growled Gervhart.

Calibos grinned, which in the torchlight was a rictus framed by his own green and violet feathers.

“Well noticed, good Braun. I’d been told that the Braun knew their bloods; I’m pleased to not be disappointed. We bleed our gryphons regularly and keep their blood in stock for many purposes. We distill it into wine, or we add hard alchemy for purposes such as this. The psychospiritual properties of the stuff ensure that the changes we wrought are permanent past death.”

Khordel looked pensive. “May I ask exactly what these changes are?”

“Absolutely, good Blaues. Before this part of the process the candidates are inscribed with celestial markings upon their skin, using a variety of magical inks. The combination of which grants them a different preternatural ability. They are injected with a number of alchemical substances designed to enhance their natural biochemistry as well as strengthen structural parts of the body where we surgically attach weaponry.”

“This sounds very painful,” said Khordel.

“It is. Excruciating, in fact. A small price to pay. The Emperor calls them his Painguard. Ideally, they will serve as his bodyguard and his shock troops.”

“Shock troops for what?” asked Gervhart.

“For the next great expansion, of course. Thessi’s manifest destiny upon this new continent. This is why we are reaching out to the Getragen of the north. We offer a place in the new order to come.”

The three Getragen shot each other skeptical looks, but Calibos did not notice. He was checking the sarcophagus.

“Ah, excellent! The candidate has dissipated. Let us retire to the Circle so that we may witness his resurrection.”

The Circle was surrounded by glass and stone walls, with seats for observers. Khordel noted its similarity to the surgery rooms of the Sanctum. Calibos waved them to sit, though none of them did. With the excited glee of a young child, Calibos watched the proceedings. Three mages stood in the Circle; they had just finished lighting candles on the inner wall. Each wore a robe with the heraldry of an owl in flight and each had their hood up, hiding their faces. They began chanting as the spiritual energy of the room built.

Several minutes of chanting passed before a body began to form. A skeleton formed first, but it had sheen to it, as if it were made of pearl.

“The injections of quicksilver into the candidates have stuck past resurrection, very good. The very skeleton of the subject is strengthened by the process,” explained Calibos.

The circulatory system appeared next, then the organs. There were several organs which were strange colors and several organs which were not recognizable in the least.

“These organs promote a faster metabolism. Healing is faster, alchemical healing is more effective, poisons are less effective.”

Musculature rippled over the bones and organs next. Much like a weaver at a loom, the muscle packed in a tight pattern.

“The muscle is denser, with nerves stripped out. Exertion is easier, and damage hinders the candidates less.”

The skin rolled over the muscle next, it was hairless, but the feathers of the face were solid black. Written all over the skin, like a man-sized battle scroll, was celestial script.

“The inks and script grant the candidate differing abilities based on the candidates training and the script itself. I believe this script grants the ability to unmake eldritch constructs. Very valuable.”

Finally, Naaman spoke. “How can these mages handle the celestial backlash of this process?”

Calibos considered his question, and then knocked on the glass. He motioned to the mages to remove their hoods.

As the candidate breathed a tortured gasp into his new lungs, the mages pulled down their hoods. Their pale faces were well kept, but their natures were apparent.

Liches.

“In undeath, we can explore the other half of magic, my friends, an entire half of Fortannis that is denied to us in life. We can defy our very racial weakness,” Calibos grinned proudly.

Khordel, Gervhart, and Naaman are shot each other far more urgent skeptical glances.

“Uh,” began Khordel. “I think we must discuss our, uh, future partnership with the Thessi with our own leaders. They will be glad to hear this news.”

“Of course!” exclaimed Calibos. “I will have you transported wherever you would like to go. I look forward to a prosperous partnership, my friends. If you will excuse me for a moment.”

As Calibos got up and left the room, the three Getragen huddled closely.

“This is a problem,” said Khordel.

“How likely is it that these Thessi will allow our cultures to thrive? They will surely just subsume us and subject us to these atrocities,” said Naaman.

“I know where we can bring this information. A recent initiate of mine told me about a place called Ashbury,” said Gervhart.

The three agreed silently.
 
One Year Later
by Donna Hellmuth

“It’s a tra--”

There was light and heat and sound so fierce that all seemed drowned in murky water
for that moment. The vanguard soldiers clad in blue and red all but vanished before her eyes,
reduced to nothing but dust in a blink, and the horses before her ran screaming into the night,
covered in flames. Brothers in arms were screaming words she couldn’t hear, turning tail to
escape the explosive traps as they lit the air on fire, but she wouldn’t retreat – she couldn’t. She
had been doing it for going on a year now, and survival just wasn’t enough anymore.

Dame Vacht Silverfang roared into the night, drawing her blade and spurring her
warhorse onward through the foul heat of rising flames. The only response was a chorus of war
cries as hungry, haggard men poured from the trees around them wielding dull swords and rusty
axes. The northerners were out of supplies; a season of war and a destroyed harvest was taking
its toll with the winter freeze. Half of them didn’t even bear their clan colors anymore -- they had
rotted away over the months.

Her men, themselves bearing Falkirk and Stirling colors, leapt into the fight with
weapons raised and nary a thought. This had become routine to them, slashing through
yellowskins and opposing clansmen alike. There was no conversation, only battle, blades, and
blood. Falkirk had become soaked enough with it to last an age.

Her unpolished steel sloughed through the bone of a man’s spine as he unhorsed one of
her brethren, only to see the Stirling soldier trampled by the same frightened horse. She had to
kick the man off of her sword to dislodge it – her arm ached, she was getting too tired these days.

Too much fighting and not enough food were running down she and her squad, and it showed.
They had been on the road to Deannanburg for days, trudging against early snows and constantly
watching for any glimpse of yellow between the barren trees. There was no relent tonight; there
was no sense to be talked into desperate men, and so they tasted bloodied steel.

“Wait! I yield! I swear upon my mother’s grave, I yield!” One of the clansmen threw
down his sword and raised his hands – no, not a man, he was but a boy, just old enough to grow
a beard. In the sparse torchlight, he seemed as dirty, unshaven, and starved as his brothers in
arms. As he dropped to his knees before the squad of well-armed soldiers, three more did the
same, gazing up with empty, sunken eyes. There was no fight left in them. The war had beaten
them, body and soul.

“Lower your arms, men.” Vacht sheathed her whetted sword, motioning to her scout
to ensure there were no more traps or men hiding in the darkness. A healer clad in blue and
white began seeing to the wounded the moment the clash ended, bringing momentary reprieve
to their aches and wounds. Others stooped to pick up the bloodied belongings of a few that
had dissipated; one Argyleman laid still in permanent death, face down in frozen mud. No one
touched him. Not even his comrades.

“Arrest them.”

The order caught a glance from an accompanying ducal soldier, a look that plainly said
why? They hadn’t nearly enough food to sustain more mouths on the way to Deannanburg, nor
could they spare the added travel time with four extra men on foot. But Vacht only met the look
with steel eyes; she had no patience left to tolerate questioning subordinates. She dismounted
from her horse before the first clansman to surrender, keeping a tawny paw firm upon the hilt of
her sword.

“Where are the rest of your clansmen? Where are the Tolmies hiding?”

He murmured something, words that slurred into one another with his Argyle accent. He
wouldn’t look at her. She nudged him with the toe of her boot.

“Speak up, boy.”

“Y-you should really burn him, ma’am.” He was looking at the body of his clansman
as the healer gently touched his neck. There was a spark of fear in his eyes, brittle and shaky.

Anticipation.

“What do you mean? Why?”

Before she had the time to turn, there was a shriek. The dead Argyleman was returning to
his feet, raising black eyes upon those around him – and then he was a screaming blur, lunging
into the closest living body with jaws snapping wildly.

“Necromancy!” Vacht drew her sword and rushed forward as the tackled Stirling soldier
helplessly gushed blood from his throat. One broad arc of her blade brought the head rolling
off of the creature and to the ground – but the body didn’t seem to notice the loss as it lunged at
her. The shock stunned her for a moment, long enough to be knocked clean off her feet, but now
there was an unearthly creature on her, crushing her, clawing furiously at her face.

And just as quickly, it was gone. There was a flash of steel, a thump on the ground, and
then a hand seized her by the arm to pull her back to her feet.

“Looks like somethin’ got the drop on you, Vacht.” She knew that voice, that thick Ross
drawl. “Let’s move. We have our work cut out for us here in Argyle.”

“Looks like it, Keegan.”
 
SILENCE

One month had passed since Nevin left the parchment with Imagos Pyatt. Winter was in full force, despite a number of days of premature thaw that instilled false hope. The driving snows and heavy blizzards of ice caused unavoidable delays and stoppages in trade, travel, and communication.

Reaching the Prism was beyond an effort, it was an ordeal. Where the color and architecture amazed him before, they fell far below his notice now. Even the stoicism of the Prism Guard in the face of crippling cold merited no remark.

His business with Pyatt demanded his entire attention.

“Nevin,” acknowledged Imagos Pyatt.

Nevin said nothing. He dragged his chair from the corner of the cell and sat in it, glaring all the while.

Imagos returned the glare with an amused grin. He was already unfolding the parchment on his lap. “I sense that you are displeased with me.”

“Have you deciphered what I gave you?”

Imagos shook his head. Nevin slumped back in his chair and breathed hard. Irritation blossomed into fury behind his dark eyes.

“At least, not much of it. I can tell you that chasing dragons and elemental icons isn’t going to find you the pieces of the land bond. They don’t have them. In truth, they can’t truly possess them, no one can. They aren’t objects. Except, of course, when they are.”

Nevin’s glare eased up none.

“The landbond is formed of the spiritual pulses of Fortannis itself. Rather, I’ll say, a landbond. Just as a person can have many faces in their life so, too, can the world have many spiritual pulses. The world is a miraculous blend of every element, both spiritual and physical. As iron and oxygen and calcium and gold and silver and all of the physical elements work in unity to craft the physical properties that we understand, the spiritual elements do the same. We know that the world is more than just metal and dirt and water, we know that a person is more than just blood and bone and meat. A person is fire and death, a person is stone and order and ice, a person is lightning and chaos and life. All eight spiritual pulses of Fortannis through Tar’Navaria intersect with one another at a point that we like to call ‘existence.’ Often, someone or something or some place will be important enough to existence that this intersection rests closely to their spirit. This is what is colloquially known as ‘the landbond.’ It really doesn’t have anything to do with the land itself so much as it relates to the destiny of the land. When enough beings believe strongly enough in that destiny, then you can potentially see that bond manifest in the spirit of a person who embodies that destiny. Are you still with me?”

Nevin nodded and gestured for Imagos to conclude more concisely.

“An elemental, even an Icon, can’t sip of this bond. They are not of Fortannis, and so cannot partake of the world’s spirit. They are the stuff and spirit of their own dimensions, which are just shadows of the spirit of Fortannis. Each elemental realm is a parody of the thoughts and spirits and beliefs of that element. They are cautionary tales and mighty exemplars both, but they do not truly exist.”

“Tell that to all of the Falkirkers felled by the blades of Death.”

Imagos shrugged. “Physical properties and existence are not mutually exclusive.”

“So to possess a piece of the landbond, one must both ‘exist’ and be important to Fortannis' destiny in regards to that specific facet?”

“Yeah, you’ve got it now,” grinned Imagos.

“That could be anything,” growled Nevin.

“I told you I didn’t have much.”

Nevin gripped the bridge of his nose and could feel his own pulse due to blood pressure and alchemical stimulant. “I suppose you want more stories?”

“If you would.”
 
Know Your Enemy

It was the blue lochs and red brick bridges that truly defined the free city of Strattonheim. Under the control of the vampire Lochaber the city was a waypoint for callous inspections by guards and harsh taxation by the Dominus. Today, the lochs were filled with barges and rafts heading south from the delta, carrying supplies and survivors to new lives in Prophethome. Red and blue liveried soldiers paced the bridges, scanning the vessels for foul conduct, but free peoples passed around the vigilant guards on day to day business. Trade flourished here and it was apparent in the faces of the people, bright smiles of women and girls attending the shops on the cobbles, determined eyes of artisans busily crafting their wares.

No matter the brightness of smile or the fierceness of labor, all looked away from the robed man and his companions in their midst. The robed man was a blue ivy marked Dominus, one of a new breed of Galanthian lords that took to calling themselves, “inquisitors.” His companions were a mail-clad Decanus with a red, poorly healed gash across his throat and a tall, blue-painted warrior.

All gave the distinct impression that they were headed somewhere dangerous, and with lethal purpose.

The building at which they arrived stood some distance from the waterways and saw little foot traffic. The inquisitor banged on the door, the sound of blades exiting scabbards was clear through the wooden portal. He nodded to the large man.

“Vakkar? If you will.”

One strike from the massive iron axe blew the door clear off its hinges. The Decanus and the Dominus dashed into the room before the splinters had settled. From the Dominus flew a barrage of amber-hued glass vials. They struck upon wall and mailed warrior alike. Puffs of noxious fluid corroded skin where it contacted, causing a panicked response from the motley gang hidden in the darkness of the room.

“Lucius, one is escaping through the window,” rumbled Haldr the Rustbeast as he tossed his axe aside and drew a long knife. The man with the wounded throat dashed past the scattering men, but could not place a hand on the one who fled.

“Chase him, Raphio. We will meet you when we are done here,” declaimed the Dominus. The Dominus drew a sword and an axe from his waist and began to reap his bloody justice.

Lucius climbed up through the window and out onto the cobbled alleyway. He saw the man run down the alley to his left and round a corner. He drew and armed his crossbow, then set off in pursuit.

Around the corner, the alley opened up into the cobbled street, and the man was tearing unsubtly through the throng of people towards the nearest bridge. Lucius gritted his teeth and tried to keep pace, but the crowd gathering prevented him from catching up. By the time he had reached the bridge, the man had already dove into the blue murk of the canal. He took stock of the nearby city, the next bridge downstream was a one hundred yard dash to the south. He began to run towards it.

Guards were already jogging towards him, seeing the disturbance in the peace. He let them see and follow him as he ran. The guard on the far bridge took notice and donned his helmet. Lucius stopped and took aim, loosing a bolt at the far guard.

The bolt struck the guard’s helm and glanced off with a loud, metallic ring. The stunned guard couldn’t keep his balance and toppled backwards into the canal.

Almost immediately, Lucius was tackled from behind. Guards lifted him up roughly, keeping him restrained with their bare hands.

“Who are you?” One demanded.

Lucius smiled, but said nothing. Up ahead sputtering and cursing could be heard from the canal. Two men struggled against current and each other. Nearby men jumped into the canal to help the struggling guard with the man that grappled him. It took only moments to subdue the feeling man and drag him out of the water.

“Good work, Lucius. I bet you’re happy someone was there to see that shot. Guards, you can put your weapons up,” said the Dominus. He and the Vakkar jogged forward from the north, the same way Lucius had come. Both were out of breath, covered in blood, and the Dominus was limping on pained knees.

The guards released Lucius immediately. They came to attention as fast as they could and offered slight bows.

“Yes, Dominus Andros von Stratton”

+++

Lucius sat forward on the rickety stool as Andros cleaned the blood off of his interrogation tools. The bloody man shackled to a bloody chair gasped wetly as red spittle splattered from his mouth. Haldr leaned against the door to the room, absent-mindedly running a stone over the edge of his axe.

“Why haven’t you asked any questions?” gasped the man.

Andros held up two long fangs made of iron. They were still covered in the pink pulp of the man’s gums. “I haven’t had an Ironfang to question in months. I had to warm up.”
 
Know Your Place

“Know your place, Silas Omegaddon.”

If he hadn’t seen this with his own eyes, Rezimus would have never believed it. Silas knelt prostrate on the cold stone floor of Castle Arienne’s cloister. Rezimus had always seen vampires as brutal, unclean killing machines and to every possible degree, they were. This, however, was a different side of a society he could never have imagined.

“Yes, Lord Lochaber. Sorry, Lord Lochaber,” muttered Silas.

Rezimus was equally dismayed when Silas told him that they would be venturing to Fort Lochaber to stand before its patriarch. He expected some distant cousin or misbegotten spawn of the infamous Matros Lochaber. The ancient beast that lorded over this blasted corner of North Galanthia was Matros Lochaber’s father and he was displeased.

“The Mark of Swords on your face declares you a warrior, Silas, not a prophet. I am displeased that you have journeyed this far from Boltcliff. You have been given a place in this empire, so you must adhere to it.”

“My dread lord, Ironfang scouts have been returning far less frequently. We have precious little intelligence of the movements of the south. I only desire to use my place as a warrior to strike Plainsheart before it has time to become a hardened fortification.”

The old beast on the dais scratched its long nails on the carved marble arms of its granite throne. The screeching echo filled the cavernous, torch lit chamber. Rezimus had stood before many daunting challenges in his human life, but this place filled him with a deep terror. Maintaining his cover identity in the face of entities he would rather hew to pieces and burn required all of his courage. Duty kept him in place.

“Then send slaves, Silas. Send skeletons, but the blood of true Galanthians will remain in her cities until the entire Senate decides that it should flow.”

Silas pushed himself up from the ground, rising to his feet even as Lord Lochaber snarled.

“Was it the Senate’s vote that Lucius Innerac be thrown at Icenia’s walls?” Silas challenged. “Was it their vote that Anders Narcos be hurled upon their pikes? Did they discuss long the writ that sent Matros to his death?”

“If you value your continued ability to speak, then you will be silent,” hissed Lord Lochaber.

Silas closed his mouth, but venom still brewed in his mind. Rezimus could feel his pulse race. The rage of the undead unnerved him, as if they would at any moment rip him to pieces. The sound of footsteps pounding on the chamber floor diverted the vampires’ anger from themselves to whoever just entered the chamber.

“Dread lords, news from the east. An Icenian assault on our outer palisade. We have already presented a counterattack, but will need Senatorial oversight,” gasped a wounded Sword of Lore. A stumbled his way into the chamber, sinking to his knees before the dais.

“Go practice your warriorship, Omegaddon. This can only be regarded in your favor afterwards,” sneered Lord Lochaber.

+++

This was the one moment Rezimus had hoped would never happen. A moment where he would have to combat Icenians to maintain his cover. In fact, it was why he kept his spywork as far away from Fort Lochaber as possible. Of course, Silas would want to be neck deep in Icenian blood on the front lines, so skirting the battle was also not possible. His disguise made him look like a Sword of Lore and was so good that it had been fooling a Senator. It would certainly fool an Ashban soldier. He pulled his hood down further all the more anyway.

When Silas and Rezimus arrived to the pitched battle, the skeletal auxiliary had already been mostly dispatched and the living soldiers of Galanthia had joined the fight. The Icenians were proving implacable. The thunder of thousands of hooves drummed from the north as cavalry bore down upon the Galanthian lines. They were Kor’Rin by the looks of them, wild and enchanted with their bizarre celestial marks.

Silas did not want to fight wild hoblings, however. He did not want to fight rank and file Ashban meat either. His eyes were on a far better prize.

Heavily magicked warriors in red and black held the core of the Icenian force. Rezimus recognized the Vanguard of Corrheim immediately and could do nothing as Silas strode through the melee toward them.

“Icenians, I am Senator Silas Omegaddon. Send forth your champion and let’s have an end to this tussle.”

A dwarf stepped forward, “I am Lord Squire Marcusagrim Anvilstrike. We will agree to no such terms.”

Silas sighed, which was odd enough for a creature that didn’t require breathing.

“Not you, Lord Squire, that this Fort behind me is not actually my post, so I care very little for it, but I can tell you that the worst monstrosities of House Lochaber are buried deep under the castle. They will have no compunctions about releasing them upon your army and ruining most of the landscape in the process. So consider this, I win this duel and you leave. Your champion wins and you may stake me and continue on to your own doom.”

The dwarf did not receive a moment to reply.

“I’ll slay you, vampire,” said a biata woman. She carried a curved sword almost as tall as herself. “I am Gwendara Alanik.”

Marcusagrim attempted to raise a hand to stop her, but she pushed it back down.

“I can do this, Grim. I’ve been yearning for some payback against vampires for a while now.”

The Vanguard circled around to create a perimeter around the duel from the swirling death of the battle. Nearby soldiers could not help but stop and watch, despite the potential harm to themselves. Silas shrugged and drew his short blades.

Gwendara wasted no time on the attack. Scything blows rained down on Silas’ head and shoulders. Sparks of magical force lit as her sword met his blades in a flurry of blocks. Silas gave ground and circled, keeping his feet moving and his weight balanced. Gwendara kept in step with each movement he made, keeping her sword cutting, looking to gain purchase. Silas then faked a circle step and as Gwendara moved to intercept, he drove his foot into her knee. Her leg buckled under his monstrous strength and she dropped to the ground.

“That’s the trouble with those kinds of swords, Gwendara Alanik. No leg coverage,” Silas commented casually. “Can you stand?”

Gwendara attempted to put her weight on the damaged limb, but it immediately buckled again. Silas sheathed his blades and lifted Gwendara from the ground by her throat. She fought against his grip, but his undeath granted strength was far greater. Her bloodstream sang out her fear and for his calm exterior, he was still an immortal monster that fed on blood. His fangs bared.

“My dread lord,” interrupted Rezimus. “Wait!”

Silas’ head whipped around to glare at Rezimus. “Why!?”

“She…uh, she is not fit for consumption and the potential for becoming a vampire herself, my lord. Her spirit… it is thick with the essence of Morganna,” Rezimus stammered.

Silas cut a long, red line in her neck and placed the drop of blood on his tongue. He grimaced and spat onto the ground. “It is. How perceptive of you, Rezimus. You have felt the touch of Morganna’s knife, have you? Lucky you did or you’d be finding a place amongst the Omegaddon tomorrow.”

With a feral effort Silas snapped Gwendara’s neck and hurled her corpse to the Vanguard. “Your consolation prize, Lord Squire. I don’t suppose you’ll be honoring the implicit agreement?”

“Not a ******* chance,” replied Marcusagrim.

Silas nodded and willed all nearby undead to attack the Vanguard. “So be it.”

As the Vanguard stood fast against the new onslaught, Silas Omegaddon turned and walked back towards the palisades. Rezimus lingered, yearning to return to Icenian life, but he still had a job to do. So he followed the damned, dirty monster.

“As for you, Rezimus,” Silas said as they walked. “This is your only warning. Keep your silence… and know your place.”
 
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Voiceless

Imladar, for the first time since it had rebuilt itself, girded for war.

In the east, ships flocked to the ports, bringing in raw materials from all over. Ores, wood, reagents, craftsmen, all manners of supplies were needed to outfit the Imladari warhost. The labor would go for days at a time, dockhands working day and night shifts despite the winter chill. Caravans were loaded and dispatched to every town in Imladar.

In the south, Evorran mercenaries flocked to the elven towns in the interest of fighting for Imladari platinum. Human caravans were dutifully search by Imladari guards and cleared for entrance into the country. Elven lords haggled against each other for the right to hire prestigious private militaries. Silver flowed like water and cultures blended overnight.

In the west, emissaries from Gilthalion Thantellin, Voice of the People, gained entrance into Cil Cilurion to establish an embassy there. The Ordo Aurum was pleased to accommodate them and they were given a building within the Avacar district.

In the north, the Halls of Battle nestled in the mountains rang day and night with the sound of warriors training, both in flesh and in golem bodies. Elves who were too young to take up a blade when Imladar was re-established were now fit for soldiery. They took pride in learning the skills of magic and war, yearning for the kind of glorious battle that would be sung about to their children.

In Alacondras, Queen Celwen the First motioned for Gilthalion and Valdorian to rise. Her eyes glowed with her innate magical power and her voice was two voices, both speaking the same words.

“Today, we set aside our Voice and we take up our shield.”

Gilthalion and Valdorian exchanged a look that contained the decades of brotherhood, trust, pain, loss, and joy, then with no words need being spoken Valdorian turned and left the throne room.

Imladar’s Protector had much work to do.
 
A Blind Eye

Naaman’s blade exited its sheath faster than the Thessi captain’s eye could follow.

“I would like you explain to me why you opened fire on that ship. Don’t speak too quickly, I’m very slow.”

“Spies,” the Thessi said. The curved blade at his throat seemed not to panic him in the least. “That ship was a spy vessel sent to watch our naval progress. It will be difficult for them to make a report from the bottom of the sea.”

“It looked like a merchant vessel to me,” Naaman growled.

“You’re right; a spy vessel would look like a spy vessel, would it not?”

Naaman retracted his blade and smoothly placed it back in its sheath. The Thessi captain rubbed his neck casually, as if it had only been sore from sleeping.

“The alchemists and councilmen may have been too eager to trust the native biata of Tar’Navaria, but understand me,” the captain said. “I do not trust anyone but Thessi and even then, I do not trust Thessi that much. The racial enemy of the biata… are the biata.”

“Is this why a warship was chosen to send me back west? To make some show of power? If so, that is extraordinarily petty.”

“I do as I’m ordered, Getragen. I took you aboard because the Maradmiral told me to take you aboard. So, yes, it is likely a show of power. Yes, it is petty. That is life.”

Naaman nodded in understanding. A strange bond was forming with this captain, whether or not he liked to admit it. Pragmatic souls had a way of respecting each other.

“I do not speak as a major leader of the Saurenumer. We do not have leaders as you do. We’re nomads. We travel wastelands searching out ancient evils and making sure they stay dead or hidden. I’m curious as to why the Thessi would find interest in us.”

The captain shrugged. “Perhaps because you draw a blade faster than I could follow, place it in a killing position before I could defend, and still have the presence of mind for ironic comment.”

Naaman laughed. “Alright, captain. I can see the merit of my people’s ancient art of the blade. Tell me about your people. It is interesting that in the ten thousand years since the Getragen were locked away that biata would be brought from another realm.”

“Water flows into empty space. The world needs biata. Tar’Navaria lacked for too long and like water breaking through a dam, Thessi was deposited forth onto this continent.”

“And Ashbury?”

The captain’s face grimaced with disgust. “If you could call the thin-blooded chickens of Ashbury biata, then yes.”

“I do not understand your rivalry.”

“That’s fine, I don’t intend to go into depth about it. What the Saurenumer need to know is that the Thessi Empire desires only the strongest stock of biata. The Getragen are old and, from what we have seen, pure in their bloodlines. We intend to spread from our little island and bring the world into the kind of order that only biata could bring about.”

Naaman had heard that argument before. “If they resist?”

“Don’t act so shocked at our methods. We’ve studied the Getragen that brought war to the northwest not long ago. Judging from your reaction, they weren’t so popular with the rest of the Getragen.”

“Popular? They insisted on subjugation through military power.”

“We only subjugate those that deserve subjugation. The noble Getragen are worthy for invitation.”

“If I resist?” challenged Naaman, hand on the grip of his sword.

“Is this a show of power? That would be petty.”

A call went out from amidships. There were swimmers in the water and the sergeant-at-arms ordered the crew to open fire with crossbow. The sound of bolts being driven into screaming sailors stole the captain’s attention for the briefest of moments. Naaman slashed his blade forth with a speed that would shame a striking snake. As the curved sword made contact with the captain’s exposed neck, it bent and shattered.

The captain grabbed Naaman by the neck and lifted him with the barest of efforts. “Next time, you best make sure your blade is made of silver.”

Naaman grabbed at the hand constricting his throat enough to ask, “Who are you?”

“I’m the Emperor of Thessi, Getragen. Apologies for the deception, but I was hoping you’d see things my way.”

The Emperor wrenched Naaman’s neck hard, then tossed the Saurenumer off the deck into the already bloody water. He turned to his sergeant-at-arms, “Bring me the next Getragen. The brown and red one.”
 
Before the Storm
by Donna Hellmuth

“What did she do?”

Beyond the window sprawled the courtyard of Deannanburg Castle, once an exquisite portrait of Falkirk architecture and ingenuity but now a somber staging ground for the remnants of the dirty, starving ducal army. The camps beyond the reinforced walls seemed a graveyard of lost souls; men and women that had lost their homes, their families, their very worlds, with nothing left but to give their lives to their homeland. They milled restlessly as the snow began to fall.

At the center of the courtyard stood a stone platform from which many proud speeches and declarations had been given over the ages. Vacht could remember kneeling there in all her finest armor as Duke Colin Hendry rested his ceremonial blade upon her shoulder, not so long before his death. Even back then, just as the clouds were beginning to gather over Falkirk, life had seemed kind.

Now, the platform supported an executioner’s block. A ragged woman knelt before it.

“Another of the Tolmies’ spies; we caught her trying to steal and burn my correspondences. Pay her no mind, she’s just another example now.” Keegan stood at the long table in the War Room, poring over the new reports from Stirling Keep; this room had always been her domain, the den of the Warlord, but without the Hendrys, it seemed empty. It seemed cold.

“Who judged her trial?” Vacht couldn’t take her eyes off of the prisoner at the block in the courtyard. She was shouting something indiscernible into the sky, surely something about her loyalty to hearth and home, as all Falkirkers were wont to do before death. There was but a small gathering of soldiers and villagers near the platform, looking on with empty eyes and stone-etched faces. None of them spoke. This was not the first execution they’d seen of late, nor would it be the last.

“I did.”

Vacht turned from the window finally, turning her gaze to Warlord Keegan where she stood, her brow furrowed hard. “Is that entirely ethical, warlady?” Keegan lifted her gaze, brows reaching her hairline.

“Ethical? You still don’t quite get it, Vacht – this is clan rule. We’ve no time for bureaucracy and trials. In clan rule, might makes right – in clan rule, I am the law.” She shook her head, returning to the parchments sprawled on the table. “I would’ve thought you of all people might appreciate that sort of justice.”

Of all people.

“Not all Gorbe are savages, warlady.” Vacht tightened her jaw and looked back to the window. The nameless prisoner was pushed forward upon the block by the hooded executioner, and without further ado, his axe had liberated her spirit from her body. No one else moved. No one seemed to even blink. Her corporeal remains were unceremoniously tossed into the nearest body-burning pyre; another Falkirker reduced to ash and bones. No doubt Colin and Sheila Hendry were both rolling in their graves, wherever they were.

“The pyres …” She squinted into the snowy dark outside, watching the men and women gathered around the columns of flame for warmth. There was a question at the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t know quite how to word it.

“For the dead. You might have noticed – they’re not very good at staying that way anymore.” Keegan rose from the table, rolling up one parchment to set aside and instead unrolling a weathered map of their great, broken duchy.

“Death has forsaken Falkirk.”

A frown etched itself upon Vacht’s dark lips as she relinquished her grim view at the window. She retreated towards the warmth of the low-burning fire; much of the Hendrys’ precious Deannan forests had been hewn for the war efforts, but there was little left anymore. Everywhere, supplies ran dry.

“You already know what I’m going to say, Keegan. You know where we may seek help. All we need to do is –“

“And you already know my answer, Vacht. No. Falkirk is no longer beholden to the kingdom or its rotting carcass. We don’t need their help. We will handle this ourselves. We did it once; we will again.” The warlord’s look was razor sharp. Despite the burning fire, the air in the War Room seemed suddenly icy as warlord and knight traded eyes. An anger welled in Vacht, an anger that had nowhere to go but break upon stone walls. She had no power here.

“I received this for you, warlady.” She stepped forward and laid another roll of parchment upon the table before Keegan. A single purple ribbon tied it closed. Without another word, she drew off the ribbon and scanned the letter’s contents with hard eyes.

I write to you today for a singular purpose: the salvation of Icenia and Falkirk …” She scoffed, shaking her head as she concluded reading the correspondence. “Cedric Fruvous, the Purple Wizard?” She seemed to mull over the name for a fractured moment, but then turned to toss the parchment into the fire.

“Thank you for the kindling, Vacht. You are dismissed.”

There was nothing else to say. With a long, hard look, Dame Vacht briskly departed the room, ushering her men of Stirling out of the castle and back to their horses. She wouldn’t spend another wasted minute in this damned barony, pleading with stubborn mules while good men and women died for nothing.

Words wouldn’t save this duchy, but silence would destroy it once and for all.
 
DESTRUCTION

Nevin Kendrick’s patience ran out. Imagos Pyatt had achieved nothing. Not a single spot on the grid had been filled. Only pointless ramblings about this nature of the planes or that nature of Fortannis poured forth from him. No direct answers. Nothing but riddles.

“…in addition to the particular way in which a spirit interacts with both the force of life and the force of death, a spirit can brush upon the baser essences of …”

Imagos continued to ramble. Nevin was convinced that is was a ploy. Of course it was a ploy. The sound of his own voice pleased him. Or was it Nevin’s irritation? Nevin hadn’t slept soundly in months. He hadn’t slept at all in days. Why did he keep coming to this animal’s cage? Why should he have to be subjected to this insane rambling? This was Imagos’ fault.

“…the intersections of the elements are more important than the elements themselves. The merging of these powers create existence at its fundamental level. The lesser the complexity of the intersection, the earlier in the formation of Fortannis the existence manifests…”

Nevin’s head throbbed at the temples. The frustration, the anger, the bitterness, and the stress collided with the stimulants, the arcane defenses of the Prism, and his sleep deprivation. His face flushed with heat, his eyes itched, and he couldn’t slow his heartbeat.

“……the earlier the manifestation the older the entity. The older the entity the more powerful. Especially in the case of the magisterium set of elements. The combination of the cosmic abstractions generates entities which exhibit far more invasive qualities to younger entities. These entities can maintain an imbalance of elemental force for their existence is simpler than, say, yours. They can exist at the intersection of, say, Death and Chaos or Life and Order. Where such partial attachment would kill you….”

“It’s your fault,” Nevin slurred.

Imagos stopped rambling. “What?”

Nevin stood up on unsteady legs. He lunged for Imagos, grabbing him by the collar of his suit. Imagos, still chained to the floor, looked confused until Nevin’s fist crashed into his face. The confusion turned to panic as the punching continued. Nevin’s face was grim, his jaw set in exertion, like a man enduring the mechanical effort of digging a grave.

Imagos’ blood sputtered from his mouth and nose. The breaking of cartilage and teeth could be heard with every hit. Thankfully, the Jade Skeleton said nothing. The door to the Prism opened and Robillarde Bezznia rushed into to pull Nevin away.

“Your Grace, what are you doing?”

Nevin blinked as he refocused on the Prism Guard’s face. He shook off Robillarde’s grip and walked back to Imagos, launching a kick into the prisoner’s chest. The chair went over backwards, the chains pulling at Imagos’ wrist and shoulders as he fell. He cried out in pain as they dislocated.

“That is pain, Imagos Pyatt. Base physical pain. It pales in comparison to the pain and destruction happening outside these walls. I can make sure you experience this pain, every minute of your life, until the day Death takes you forever. People die with every idle minute that passes. Don’t you care about Galanthia? Listen closely, for if I don’t get a return on this last investment of information. Your life will get far worse.”
 
In Madness, Courage

A month to fortify Plainsheart seemed like all the time in the world, but by day thirty it seemed every possible setback that could happen, happened. Coin ran short, food spoiled, walls collapsed, storms ravaged, and the red madness hurled bodies at tired, morale-starved defenders.

Even now, lightning storms struck daily. Eldritch lightning licked across flagpoles and armor, seemingly of its own accord. Skies remained dark through the day, and what sun managed to shine through burned with desert heat. In the sun’s absence, sheets of freezing rain washed over the homes and fields. The ground itself rumbled its displeasure with the catastrophic weather.

Whatever madness had befallen Tar’Navaria, the noble spirits of South Galanthia stood by their virtues: Strength, Loyalty, and Courage.

Hopefully, their virtues would have to make up for the fortifications that had not been finished.

The North Galanthians were here.

“Dominus Miliardo, the caravans of non-combatants have finally departed. They should be clear completely before the North Galanthians can mount any sort of flanking maneuver,” said Andros von Stratton.

Dominus Miliardo Ziroco nodded his acknowledgment. The two lords of Galanthia had not worked with each other long, but they formed a pragmatic bond quickly. Ziroco was a man of the battlefield. Tactics, troops, and command were his strengths. The time for intelligence and interrogation was over for now, so Andros deferred to the warlord.

From the stone tower that loomed above the second wall of Plainsheart, the Domini could see the array of forces in clarity. The outer wall, built entirely in the last thirty days, was a narrow crescent to the north, which wrapped around the fledgling city’s upper half. It was a work of art, in siege architecture terms. Murder-gates were placed at chokepoints in the wall, where archers could fire upon enemy forces that entered them. The front was tall enough to require effort to scale, but was low enough to encourage the climb. The ramparts only led into the inner labyrinth of winding stone passages and chambers full of soldiers.

It was an unfinished work that with North Galanthian effort would be destroyed, but destruction was its destiny and it would have to suffice.

“We’ve taken in all reinforcements from ProphetHome, Andros?”

“Aye, Dominus, including the contingent of Rustbeast tribesmen. They are already positioned at the outer wall. Archers are ready and the murder-gates are prepped.”

Miliardo leaned against the crenellated tower wall, watching the impending siege below.

“Signal the mages. Let’s show the tyrannical North the light of our courage.”

+++

Along the second wall, wizards conjured, in unison, bright orbs of light that illuminated the wall’s façade. Six hundred polished shields shone brilliantly in the electric twilight. Wisps of lightning lit along the display. The fallen of South Galanthia were there with each individual heraldry on display. The reds and blues of South Galanthia reminded the anxious defenders for what they fought: A free Galanthia, free of the rule of immortal monsters and cruel necromancers.

Thunder pealed in the dark skies above. Then the undead army of the north began to march. It began with the iron shod boots of the skeletal regiment, and then was followed by the chanting of the devoted humans of the Swords of Lore. They had brought no cavalry, presumably marching their troops to exhaustion on the journey here. Lucius Raphio knew what kept the Galanthians moving. He had known that blind faith when he had served the Senate. He had known the terrible fear of his vampiric masters. He had slain formidable foes, simply because he was more afraid of his own general. So shall these soldiers.

The wall suffered its first assault, skeleton warriors hoisting ladders to the ramparts. Archers loosed deadly quarrels in their direction, but without flesh or organs many shaft did not find purchase. Once the undead came level with the archers, footmen set to the task of casting them off with sword and mace. The close combat had far greater effect on the invaders than the archery, so archers began to draw their blades and wade into the swirling fight.

Despite the fury of the defenders, the weight of numbers favored the skeletons. Squads of them were ignoring the melee on the ramparts and were running down into the wall’s inner corridor.

Lucius Raphio and Haldr of Rustbeast waited within, along with an eager compliment of Vakkar huscarls. Axes and blades hacked and hewed, powerful and pure magic lit the room, and undead crumbled to grey dust by the dozens. All along the length of the wall-labyrinth the same scene was being played. Vakkar sang their battle songs even as they fought. Morale was strong.

Time moved strangely for Lucius. In each fight, time slowed to a crawl. He could watch every attack as if it were flowing through water. He could watch the entire room for weak points in his men’s defense or the enemies’. Time also seemed to speed by, as the bell in the town square rang midnight.

The skeleton assault decreased to a trickle. Granted, they had come on for hours. Defenders had begun the tasks of rotating out squads so that fresh soldiers could take their places and broken ones could be joined together. Apothecaries and healers traveled quickly from group to group, restoring health through magic or elixir. That is when the crying began.

A child wandered, terrified, just outside the main gate, a young girl, maybe ten years of age. The fresh soldiers on that section of the wall called to Lucius for orders, to which he signaled to them to let her in. The soldiers called to her through one of the murder-gates and she ran to the gate.

The soldiers led the little girl in and once inside, Lucius knelt down to look at her. She was very pale and…

…and she had fangs.

The girl swiped a too strong hand into Lucius’ face and sent him reeling to the side. The girl moved too fast out of the reach of the soldiers and into the labyrinth. He recovered as quickly as possible, pausing only to wipe the blood out of his eye. At each murder gate soldiers had let children in and they were just as ferociously turning on their would-be saviors.

Absolute mayhem had erupted inside the corridors. Horrified screams of defenders dying in mortal pain issued forth. The echoes terrified soldiers that could not see what was happening. The child-monsters ran unchecked through the passages, reaping a bloody toll. Lucius passed chambers filled with bodies, torn apart by feral strength, where blood had pooled enough to be hazardous. Only occasionally did he find the mangled remains of one of the beasts.

He ran as quickly as possible through the carnage to the chamber that Haldr was defending. The large stone room was spraying every inch with fresh arterial blood. It dripped from the ceiling and sloshed at the feet. Most of the Vakkar in here were dead or dying, but Haldr was still alive. Haldr sat against a wall, breathing hard. As he looked up to see Lucius, it was apparent that the large tribesman was weeping.

Seeing Lucius’ confusion, Haldr said, “I tried to teach him to keep his shield higher. He didn’t.”

Lucius saw the cloven, small body. It was pale and bloody, but it had his eyes and his face. Lucius sunk to his knees, his will to fight destroyed. Thus was North Galanthia’s first assault and all Lucius Raphio could do was mouth the word, “Agrio.”
 
In Madness, Faith

There was nothing quite like a battlefield after a battle. Silas Omegaddon breathed in the rich smell of blood hanging in the air and crouched down to the still breathing body at his feet. With a strange reverence he pulled the red and black clad dwarf up to sitting position and leaned him against a nearby corpse that had refused to dissipate. He inspected the dwarf’s wounds.

“Lord Squire, you fought well, but you have a collapsed lung, several mangled organs, and you have lost a lot of blood. I don’t intend to heal you, for you deserve to resurrect for your act of Icenian aggression. Your team and most of your soldiery will resurrect here as well. I believe many bodies will be staying here. I shall be dining upon them, I assure you. I think you should know the truth of your loss here. I told you House Lochaber found horrible monsters under lock beneath that castle. Now that we have released them, I have no intention of collecting them. They may cause Galanthia trouble, they may not. I’m certain they will cause Icenia and your clan problems. They are the lost sons of the dwarf lich, locked away from him for centuries. From their performance in this battle, I’d say they desire a great deal of vengeance toward the dwarves that imprisoned them.”

Silas held his blade to the dwarf’s throat, preparing to sever his head.

“I wish you luck with that.”

+++

“Honestly, I’m surprised the children were that effective,” said Silas. “Call it a shot in the dark.”

Rezimus boiled inside. Whatever willpower kept him in his cover identity was hemorrhaging like blood from a wound. He had already witnessed this beast brutally murder Icenian citizens while unable to do anything, for fear of breaking his cover, but that fear of his own death paled in comparison to his hatred of this evil monster.

Silas waved on the human regiment to begin the process of holding the outer wall, so that they could mount their siege of the city proper. The North-loyal Swords of Lore marched in their blue and gray livery to the wall, where they could file into the open gates. Southerners and Vakkar fled from the wall to the city gates in scattered, broken ranks. Those that did not flee resisted as hard as they could, but their deaths were inevitable. Silas’ personal necromancers gathered bodies into large piles and began the grisly task of turning corpses into soldiers. Silas personally took control of the resulting undead through his own force of will and began rebuilding his skeletal ranks.

Rezimus stood by Silas’ side whilst the vampire carried on so casually in the face of such dark power. His eyes were fixated on Silas’ heart and the desire to stab it in fury. The chamber they occupied was a stinking slaughterhouse, so Rezimus asked permission to exit to ramparts for fresh air. Silas dismissed him without so much as a word.

Rezimus had barely stepped out onto the outer ramparts, when a body tackled him. He crashed to the floor barely keeping the sharp object in the man’s hand away from his body. The assailant had leverage, and the point dug into his chest, with a desperate heave Rezimus pushed the man off. The wound was not deep, but it did not feel like a blade. The man rolled to his feet and came at him again with a sharpened piece of oak in his hand. Rezimus drew a dagger and slashed at the man’s armed hand. The man hesitated and watched for a weakness in Rezimus’ defense. Rezimus reached down to touch the hard stone under his feet and as the man leapt forward, he gathered the energy within that stone to his hand to hurl.

The sudden bolt of energy stumbled the assailant off of his feet. Rezimus followed with a blast of flame to the fallen man’s back. The man screamed in burning pain before falling unconscious. Rezimus grabbed the oaken stake out of the man’s hand. This man was a would-be vampire slayer and suddenly Rezimus felt a deep regret towards harming him, for in better times he would have fought beside him, holding this stake in his hand he knew why destiny had delivered it to him.

“Rezimus, report,” demanded Silas, emerging from the labyrinth.

Razimus quickly hid the stake in his armor, carefully thinking of his next lie.

“This man attacked me. I dispatched him.”

“Good work,” said Silas, nodding.

Rezimus’ blood surged at the opportunity. He could stake him here and now and be done. This assignment could be over…the assignment. The ballista. Silas’ damnable journeys away from Boltcliff had diverted him from his purpose. He still needed to destroy that ballista and that required returning to Boltcliff with his cover intact. So the charade had to continue.

“Are you alright, Rezimus?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Just thinking of Boltcliff.”

+++

Dawn peaked over the rugged landscape of the Plains of Rage. The assault had abated for the night as Silas consolidated his siege into the wall. Rezimus sat at the desk in his field tent, with the oaken stake placed atop it. He had missed his chance. Now that dawn had come, the magic in the weapon would drift away and he would have nothing left with which to stab Silas.

The sun crept its way into his tent and as the warm rays touched the stake, it began to glow. Rezimus picked it up and felt power still within it. If its power remained past dawn, the South Galanthians must have prepared it with a long siege in mind. Perhaps they were far more prepared than Silas had anticipated.

Rezimus placed the stake back onto the desk and couldn’t help but smile, thinking of the vampire’s deserved destruction.
 
Platinum Fury

In the midnight blood moon of the Vacarran Sea a bolt of ice, fire, and white porcelain sped across sapphire blue waters. Signal fires on the Vacarran Isles were visible to starboard, standing like burning sentinels of the eastern sea. Dragon crested long ships circled the islands like hungry sharks searching for a meal in the red-stained light. Whether they were Vacarran corsairs or Vakkar, or both, was unknown.

Frankly, they all looked the same to Valdorian Thantellin.

The Daralassia made her patrol of the eastern stretch in just under a week in the best conditions, but the onset of spring gave cause for some enjoyment on this matter of routine. The worst Valdorian had seen in the last few months were Gorban pirates with ill-gotten, ill-crewed ships and the good sense to stay away from the flagship of Imladar. The best he’d seen were grateful merchant vessels desiring to share wares and celebrate with the Protector of Imladar and Valdroian, for all his professionalism, could not pass up a party.

In fact, it was not a coincidence that the Daralassia was traveling on a night such as this. The Gorbe often had seaborne festivals in the light of the blood moon. The living crew of the magnificent ship deserved some leave in an exotic location. To their excitement, Gorban single-sails were visible so the south of the Isles. They were illuminating the air with all manner of kites, torches, and celestial lights, all red in honor of the moon above.

“Set course for that flotilla, helmsman. Disengage elemental sails and runners. Take us in easy. Full colors,” ordered Valdorian.

The comet-tails of flame died away and the ship lowered into the water, no longer generating the ice trails that granted it speed. The Imladari colors were hoisted and the ship reduced speed until it approached in peace.

Smaller elements of the celebration flotilla cruised gently toward the porcelain leviathan. Many Sarr were aboard each barge, clearly well into the wine already. Children ran about with sparkling wands and streamers, while parents drank and ate and watched. It didn’t take long for the Daralassia to be at the center of the flotilla.

Valdorian’s archmages waved to the people from the deck and a handful had even loosed some celestial displays of their own into the air. The crowd was delighted. Gilthalion was right, Valdorian thought, Imladar would find strength in being loved by the world. However, they would be loved for such gallant displays rather than for his brother’s gentle words.

“Lower the arcane fields, helmsman, then go enjoy yourself. That’s an order.”

The mage at the helm locked in the anchor and waved his hand over the node that controlled the power flow to the field generators. When the taste of the air changed from tangy to fresh the crew awaited the High Lord’s permission to disembark.

Then Valdorian heard the hum of power flooding into a field generator.

“Helmsman, get those fields under control.”

The mage looked back at Valdorian, “My lord, fields are down. That hum isn’t from us.”

A burst of red-violet energy hammered the side of the Daralassia. The impact of the hit shook the deck and the crew struggled to keep their feet. Valdorian scanned for the source of the shot, but could see none.

Another blast rocked the flagship from the other side.

Crew fell to the ground. One mage had been caught in the blast’s splash. The wound immediately began to decay his leg clean off. Those nearby dragged him to safety despite his flailing. This time, Valdorian saw the flashtrail of the weapon’s discharge. A sleek, black cutter hid, hull down, behind a Gorban clan-ark. He could see the weapon that fired the shot. It looked like four iron pikes attached parallel to each other to an iron cauldron on a rotating base. Crackling, chaotic energy sparked across the pikes as energy poured into it from its operator, a heavily scarred, green and black feathered biata.

“Helmsman, we’re going to need those fields back up. Give me power to the Stormbow.”

Valdorian moved from the helm only a step before a blast hit him directly in the torso and sent him over the rail. The assassin ships gave up their attempt to hide and opened fire more rapidly, spraying the sedentary Daralassia with deadly energy. The crew began to panic as several more were caught in the fusillade and killed or wounded.

Valdorian pulled himself the side of the ship, holding on with the superstrength granted by his artificial body. The white porcelain of his chest plates and face-mask were charred black by the hit. He ran to the altar where the Stormbow sat patiently, buzzing with the current of raw lightning. He lifted the gargantuan weapon and drew one of the carefully wrought and dreadfully expensive quarrels.

He couldn’t take the shot.

The ambush had placed so many innocents in harm’s way that even the best calculated shot could go disastrously wrong. He had to get to open water, which would prove to be equally difficult. There was no way to quickly signal all of the barges for an open course. He would either have to sit still and return fire into the crowd or nudge his way through and hope that the drunken sailors would catch on and move.

“Lord, fields are halfway powered. We are actually suffering severe internal damage from these shots,” the helmsman sounded shocked. Valdorian didn’t blame him.

“Raise anchor. Engage runners.”

Energy lit from the crystal that encrusted the hull like barnacles through ley lines built into the ship’s frame. The ship lifted out of the water as the surface turned to ice beneath it. Without propulsion it began to list randomly with each impact it suffered. The ice shoved aside nearby ships, pushing them into each other. Innocents were panicked and barge pilots were forcing oarcrews to work.

“Power to fireblossoms, torchlight.”

The flower-like artifacts that replaced what would be sails on a normal ship glowed with internal heat and the Daralassia lurched forward. It still kept at a slow spin, despite the thrust of the flames. Barges barely had time to pull out of the way, but Valdorian’s decision to move slowly gave them time.

“My lord, fields are failing.”

“Cut power to fields. Divert to blossoms. Inferno-burn for one second.”

The Daralassia sprinted forward on elemental fury. As the ship broke out of the flotilla the two ambushers were clearly visible with clear lines of fire. Valdorian nocked and loosed bolt after bolt, encased in brilliant lightning, into the waterlines of the firing vessels. Explosions shattered their hulls and they sank into the dark, red waters. No survivors swam from the wreckage.

The helmsman breathed hard. “Three dead, six wounded, my lord.”

“Set course for Imladar. We have crew to resurrect and repairs to make. I will have to answer for the destruction I have wrought here before these people and Thessi will answer for theirs.”
 
Beaten Gold

The military doctrine of Thessi had always included provisions for large regiments of slave warriors, so mercenaries were rarely needed. In the face of war with Imladar, the Emperor decided that he would take no chances. All of the gold in his treasury would mean nothing if those damned elves and their weak-minded allies could fight back.

Today the Imperial Council gathered in strength to oversee and negotiate the fees for a number of the most dangerous freelancers and warlords that terrorized southern Tar’Navaria.

“I am Jekhanut who speaks for the Wablanzut pirates. We demand one gold for every sailor for every day of service. We demand twenty-five gold per ship, per day, for upkeep. We demand four hundred gold in recompense for any ship lost. If these demands be met, we pledge life and claw to the contract.”

Jekhanut was a large Gorbe who looked his role as a pirate of the Vacarran. His heavy wool coat and dreadlocked fur gave the impression of one who had been at sea for a long time. Long enough to have absolutely no idea how ridiculous his demands were.

“Demands like that leave little doubt why you are still and pirate. Your bid is heard, Jekhanut, and shall be discussed. Please, take your seat,” drawled Eoin Merdik. He logged in his treasury ledger the pirate’s bid and pointed to the next entrant.

A blue-tattoed corsairs stood and faced the Council. He didn’t look to be a lumbering brute like his Vacarran kin, but he possessed the same predatory nature.

“I am Malvung, corsair. I have four ships and a hale crew in addition to four dozen enslaved Camulans. They are Shark Tribe and are fit for combat. My demands are far more reasonable than this cat-burglar’s”

Jekhanut rose angrily from his chair, fangs bared.

“See dis lot,” chuckled the Orc waiting for his turn to speak. “Dis lot ain’ fit for babysittin’ an’ you want dem as mercs?”

Eoin gestured to him, instructing him to stand.

“Am Steelroar, I bring orcs wit’ me from the Plains of Rage. We murder and we travel. You give me gold, we murder and travel for you. Simple as dat.”

“You think you’re gonna cut me off and keep breathing, Orc?” Malvung growled.

Steelroar grinned for the promise of violence. Malvung did not back down at all. Every mercenary in front of the Council took to their feet to add to the shouted insults and the violent posturing. Eoin slammed his gavel furiously in a futile attempt to restore order to the chamber. Council guards drew blades and prepared for their own brand of violence, until a hammering louder than the wooden gavel echoed through the chamber.

A hammering of heavy metal on stone.

“Lords and ladies, I’d like to present a bid of my own,” said a proud voice that rang like its owner was speaking through a metal helmet.

The mercenaries stopped their quarreling as they saw the figure that entered the room. Even the Imperial Council reduced to a dull muttering in surprise. He was tall, regal, and had a body of solid gold.

“My name is Sir Nigel Campbell, I bid forth myself, my ship, and my specialists.”

Eoin placed his gavel down carefully. “Why would an Icenian be willing to fight for Thessi and for what ridiculous price?”

“Like you, I have little love for Ashbury. If you include me in your actions against them, I’ll do it for free. For as you can see…”

Nigel offered a glittering smile.

“I have all the gold I need.”
 
Rain of Terror
by Donna Hellmuth

“Warlady Gabriela Tolmie, you are under arrest for the crimes of murder and treason to the crown. What say you?”

“Aye, I say, and what crown would that be?”

The Argylemen had followed them from Deannanburg and set upon their camp at dawn just outside of Kane, half a day’s ride away from Stirling Keep. It was clever: stay one step behind and then slash the heel before it could reach home. It meant the vultures were circling Stirling, waiting for a signal from their commander to strike while it remained vulnerable.

Gabriela Tolmie sat pretty atop her warhorse, gilded in her battle regalia: leather and steel and a proper kilt of green and blue argyle. Proud and confident, flanked by a small regiment of loyal Argylemen – cocky. She thought she had the Stirlingmen pinned down; she thought the fight already over before it had even begun.

“The royal crown of Icenia, where Falkirk rightfully belongs.” There was a chorus of haughty laughter from all sides but hers.

“I’ve always respected your sense of loyalty, Vacht, even for a Gorbe.” Gabriela flashed a smile over the head of her horse before raising her sword high into the air. “That’s why I’m giving your men this one chance: come freely to the right side, and we shall show you quarter. Stay, and ye shall have none.”

Vacht didn’t need to turn her gaze to know none moved. But how many of them considered it, she wondered? How many thought this tiresome war a worthless effort? Her paw tightened upon her blade, yet still she remained stalwart where she stood before their camp; their horses had already been taken and the Argylemen had every advantage, but they would fight to the death if need be. Even then, staring death or worse in the face, Vacht refused to kneel or flinch. Her sense of honor dictated she could not, would not, shed first blood upon brethren – upon a woman she had once sworn an oath of fealty beside, a woman she had once fought and died with.

“Then respect this: I challenge you, the war criminal Gabriela Tolmie, to a duel to the death. To the victor goes the day. No one else need die.”

This brought a heavy pause upon the soldiers and Gabriela’s smile evaporated like ash in the wind. What was it to be? Refuse and lose the respect of every Falkirker, or accept and risk losing a precious opportunity? After a long moment of pregnant silence, the warlord dropped down from her horse.

“I accept your challenge, and I name my weapon of choice: flail.” Now there were new sets of smiles flashing between the Argylemen. Everyone knew too well what Dame Gabby was capable of with a flail in her hands, and it was far from a pretty sight. She knew she had yet another advantage here – Vacht had never used a flail in her life. But if her death meant saving the rest of the Stirlingmen from being cut down where they stood, so be it.

As both opponents sheathed and stripped their swords, there was a small commotion to locate a second flail in the clan before one disgruntled soldier stepped forward. The weapon he offered Vacht was crude and rusty, less than half the quality of what Gabriela produced from her steed: a wicked-looking creature, so well-oiled and polished to a shine that its three chains barely whispered a sound as it moved. A single wooden buckler was provided to each of them from among their own men, and then a wide berth was allotted. Space enough for bloodshed, space enough to die.

For that moment, locking eyes across the swath of grass between them, the silence was deafening but for the foreboding groans of the darkening sky overhead. None dared speak, even breathe, as if all stood upon the edge of a knife. Vacht could smell the fear and anxiety upon her own men, and something else. Something oddly familiar, yet impossible to place.

At once, all fell back into motion: Gabriela lunged forward in a near sprint, whirling her flail into a whirlwind frenzy and moving like a force of nature herself – she had won many a melee tournament in just this fashion, Vacht herself had seen it. But the weight of the war regalia on her made her slower, more cumbersome; with the first swing, Vacht danced out of the way of the bull’s charge, quick and light on her feet. Brute strength would not win this for her, but quick reflex might.

Yet they would not see the end of their match: just as Gabriela spun around to counter Vacht’s evasion with a shield-shattering blow, there was a howl from the sky and a bloodcurdling scream in the woods, promptly followed by the roar of explosive impact. For just that moment, all were taken off guard and Vacht turned her gaze -- and Gabriela seized the opportunity to swing spiked steel into the vulnerable cap of her opponent’s knee.

The pain was blinding hot, enough to bring tears to the war-weathered sarr’s eyes as she fell to the ground. She was dimly aware that something was happening beyond her periphery, a frightened commotion and startled horses fleeing, the smell of fire and burning wood and an overwhelming odor of something so strange yet so familiar. There was heat and something booming, red streaks tumbling from the sky – fire? But Gabriela stood over her, grinning wildly with bloodthirst in her eyes as she raised the flail to strike again –

It was a yellow blur, an unearthly howl. Wild and fast and snarling from black-bleeding jaws, it sprinted to Gabriela and seized her from behind – claws as sharp as razors in her chest, teeth like daggers in her neck, and she screamed, she screamed like nothing Vacht had ever heard in her life. Somewhere in her mind, she recognized the sheer horror of watching Gabriela Tolmie be torn to shreds before her by a rabid, relentless animal, but it was far away now, silenced behind a wall of pain and shock. Her rational mind balked; she knew this could not be possible, she knew that was not Marwolaeth or an ogre at all but an unnatural beast of unfathomable hunger.

Something had changed it.

There was a hand on her shoulder, dragging her, pulling her from the ground. Unable to take her eyes off of the grisly, ruined carcass that had moments earlier been Gabriela in all her arrogant glory, Vacht knew not who pulled her up, who raised her onto that horse to escape – she could see only the incomprehensible scene of lurching yellow monsters bleeding black from eyes and lips as they tore through every living thing in their path. Her people, her brethren, her home. Her life.

“No!” She tried to gather her wits, seizing the reins of the horse she’d been put on. The pain was yet excruciating, but she dragged the horse back around, paying no mind to the mysterious lizard man in sable and orr that had appeared from the shadows to pull her from the all-too-real fire. He reached to seize control of the horse from her but she narrowly eluded his grasp, charging back into the carnage with claws extended. “I’m not leaving them behind!” Not again. No more death. No more.

Fire rained from the skies and there seemed a crackle of electricity in the air but there wasn’t time to question why; there were yellow monsters seething and chasing down her people, and they cared not for any wound inflicted upon them. Her claws tore through meat and gristle to little avail, and to much pain of her own. She could hardly remain seated on her horse but for the strength of adrenaline searing like fire in her own veins.

“Fire! We need to light them! Quickly!” She motioned over her shoulder at the silent lizard man with the sergeant’s sash – despite the chaos around them, he remained stoic, signaling to the squad of men at his command. Almost instantly, they had disappeared into shadow once more, as if they were nothing but silhouettes and wind. Baroness Bonnie had mentioned something of the Firwood Wardens once before, but Vacht had never expected such swift saviors.

Monstrous teeth and claws caught her steed by its throat and it reared, throwing her from the saddle. Surely the fall had done something to her back, but she felt nothing anymore, no pain, no fear. There was only the righteous anger left behind, scalding her flesh and lifting her back to her feet to cut through her assailants – nightmarish monsters made of the very Argylemen that had only moments ago been laughing at her. Who was left alive? Who was dead – or rather, should have been dead?

And then there was burning rain – no, not the fire falling from the skies, but arrows. The shadowy men and women were in the trees, lighting every ravenous beast in a hail of flaming points. There were inhuman shrieks, wails of despair at every turn, but there was a reprieve. Just for a moment, Vacht could look around, she could reach down and lift a fellow wounded Stirlingman from the ground. And then, just down the road, she saw it: Kane. The town was about to be consumed in fire and teeth.

“Get up, soldier. The fight’s not over.”
 
PARALYSIS

Spring warmth had finally broken through the hard Ashban winter. As the ice melted, the pitted and torn roads began to reveal themselves. Trails were gone, mountain passes were collapsed, and ruined houses were found all over the Ducal Fiefs. The winter may have destroyed much, but now the problems lay in decided where to repair.

Robillarde Bezznia was perfectly aware of the analogy this represented for his own people: the Romani. They had suffered a long winter themselves. A winter of the murderous Mulengro, the infighting of the families, the reunification under the lies of the Jade Skeleton, and being again shattered with the death of his mother.

Robillarde did not blame the Ashbans. He thanked them. His mother’s death had been a morbid freedom from her uncertainties, her madnesses, and her addictions. The stain the Jade Skeleton left on her spirit required nothing less. Now, removing the stain of the Jade Skeleton was his entire purpose.

“When was the last time you slept?” asked Tachya, one of his cursebreakers. “Red, Orange, and Blue have just changed shifts. They all stood for ten hours and you have been here since the shift before that. Have you eaten?”

Robillarde managed a smile, if only a weak one. To think of it, he couldn’t remember either. He accepted her offering of bread and cheese. He poured another tankard of the sour smelling alchemical stimulant he was given by Duke Kendrick. He’d been living on this drink just as long as he’d been at the Prism. There was very little to do here. They couldn’t travel, they couldn’t wander. He felt paralyzed by duty.

Tachya tapped him on the shoulder and brought his attention to a group of people approaching. He was expecting a visit from Nevin Kendrick, but this did not look a thing like the Duke’s retinue.

“Duke Kendrick sends his apologies that he did not come in person,” said Raven Nevermore.

Robillarde Bezznia fixed a hard stare on the pack of adventurers that Raven brought with him. The Gilded Claw was known to the Prism Guard and although they were not allowed to enter the prison, His Grace had left permission for Raven to act as courier. Their auras were clean, but different.

“I don’t blame him. Last time he was here, he dislocated both of the Skeleton’s arms.”

Various chuckles passed through the entourage.

“That’s my Duke,” said Raven. “He sent me to pick up a package.”

“Very well. I have it ready for you. Guard it with your lives and do not, under any circumstances, read it.”

Robillarde produced a leather bound book sealed shut by several lengths of wire. Raven took it from him. An elf from the retinue stepped forward to hand a large basket full of food and potions to Robillarde.

“Our thanks,” said Raven. “We take our leave now.”

As the Gilded Claw turned to leave, Robillarde gave their auras one last look. The elf that gave him the basket’s aura was clean. It was assuredly elven, but it was too clean. Only children had auras so unmarred by physical and emotional pain. Adventurers’ auras were never so simple. It felt like… a mask.

“You’ll pass my regard onto His Grace, won’t you?” Robillarde asked.

“Of course,” Raven replied.

“Not you, Raven. Zalinarik.”

The elf with the clean aura gave a smile. “I knew you were the right man for this job, Robillarde Bezznia. Carry on.”

“That’s all, my lord? Carry on? What do we do from here? No prison lasts forever.”

“I wish I had a better answer for you, Robillarde.” Zalinarik admitted. “For now, the world waits. The planes wait and we wait. Much will happen in the near future, but until the minute pieces of the cosmos reveal their plans we hold our positions.”

“That’s not reassuring, my lord.”

“Apologies, my social skills were honed on dragons, not people. Know you this though, dragons don’t have the spirit that these people of Tar’Navaria have. Dragons don’t have the wit and the humor and the raw destiny of mortals like you. So carry on. Exist, because nothing paralyzes a dragon with fear… like a mortal who simply will not cease to exist.”
 
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