Jan 202014

I stood in the failing light with my hand pressing against my most recent of wounds. The pain was sharp but not unbearable, and I was thankful once more for the simplest of runes I had at my disposal. We still had some light to see by, did the three of us, and details that had faded from attention as the fight remained in sharp focus were starting to become clear. Broken bottles and damaged household ornamentation littered the ground along with more corpses. Dead bodies seemed to be an almost permanent part of my life back then, and I set about dragging them away from the open ground inside the ranch.

Every step I took sent another spike of pain from my leg up my spine and set off a flash behind my eyes, but the work needed doing. Brand seemed to have vanished once more, scouting the area for other threats no doubt, and Valerius was rushing to the aid of his countryman, dressed in the raiment of the priesthood. And a toma it seemed. The partisans and their servile lackeys looked to have had their fun by torturing the poor dumb creature as well as the priest. The animal was swiftly put beyond pain, with a dozen or so arrows still buried in its flesh.

The priest was doing much better, but I left Valerius to the God botherer. I’d had enough of such things from Skuza, and could only imagine how much more intense the priest would be in his desire to see us all on the true path.

As I was stacking the bodies away from where we would be sleeping, the others made their way into the ranch, looking about them, checking for dangers not yet neutralised. I nodded and smiled as they led the wagons in, overhearing Skuza admonishing his faithful caravan master for not rushing sooner to our aid. I can’t blame Vitus for keeping the Numare as far away from danger as possible, but it was heartening to see Skuza willing to lend a hand to his traveling companions. I didn’t fear so much for our employer – Vitus would have done everything in his power to keep him safe from harm – but well meaning amateurism can be downright lethal to everyone when employed in sword play, no matter whose side one was on.

Drazar was amongst them and he made eye contact, his deep blue eyes flickering in the reflected light of the fires even behind his damnable mask. In a few moments he was beside me, “You’re hurt my friend. There is little I can do today, not after the previous excitement, but I can at least reduce the severity of your wound”. With that he stepped closer and put a hand on my arm, his fingers cold enough for me to notice through thick leather, but a strange and comforting warmth spread from these digits and through my body.

It seemed to do enough to restore my humours to something close to where they belonged, but physically I can’t see that anyone looking would have noticed much of a difference. Caderyn in fact was looking me over as I stood, feeling the strangest tingle from the half Daemon’s grasp, and he didn’t seem impressed. I can only imagine how pale I must have looked after loosing a fair bit of blood and having no chance for a rest all day. “Kantrel”, says he, “I can take care of this, sit yourself down”.

Ever the proud one I tried to argue my case, after everything that we’d been through I didn’t want anyone to think that I wasn’t willing to put in with everyone else on the unpleasant task of cleaning up, especially considering the kicking that he’d taken at the hands of the Corbie and not asked for a rest. I had barely gotten the first three words clear before I was interrupted, “You look fuckin’ terrible, There’s not much left to be done, and we can get it done without you. We’ll need you in good shape for the night and for tomorrow, so get yourself sat the fuck down. Now.”

Stubborn and willful I may have been, but he was right, and letting my pride get in the way of what was the best for everyone would be the action of a fool. I nodded my head and walked towards one of the larger fires, picking up anything that would burn as I went, adding it as fuel before I sat down.

Everyone was inside by now and busying themselves while the light remained. Brand had returned, and with the aid of Catranasia and Caderyn were sorting and loading anything of value into the wagons, increasing our pay off with every scavenged item. Valerius had lowered the priest down from the wall he had been tied to, and had given him something to help him sleep while others had done the decent thing and taken down the hanging corpses of the family that had once lived here. There’s no reason to believe they were nice people who had spent their lives working towards the betterment of their fellow man, but even if they were bastards to a man of them, getting hanged for living where others would rather you didn’t, just wasn’t fair.

With the bodies taken care of, and a nice pot of tea on the go thanks to yours truly, the buildings that made up the ranch and family home were scoured too. As hard as it was to imagine anything left of value, a few more items were loaded into the almost overflowing wagons. It also seemed that we were not the only living people still dwelling within the ranch. Brand and Valerius returned from the main house with an old and swarthy looking fellow in tow.

He was dressed in latest fashion of the Margomarissi; that being a strange mix of Pelosian clothing and more functional garb more likely to be seen on farmers and frontiersmen. He spoke the language well, and seemed to take the fresh crop of corpses in his stride as he surveyed us. Over his shoulders was a leather strap that at first I took to be part of a weapon sling, but as he stepped out of the shadows, he was revealed to be carrying a fiddle over his back. “No no, I don’t call this place my home”, he says, in answer to a question from either Brand or Valerius that I had not heard, “I was just passing through and was called upon to entertain, as is my calling in fact. The gentlemen I found here were already in their cups, drinking some hateful concoction that seemed to get them drunker and more angry than it had any right to. Damned near blind too! Appeasing them seemed to be the order of the day”.

“Safe to say they weren’t friends of yours then?”, asked Valerius, hand never too far from the hilt of his weapon.

“Friendship is very much a matter of opinion that changes quickly depending on the situation. For instance, as of this moment, you all look very friendly to me, but the fact that you came here and killed all of these men, means you wouldn’t have always looked as such”. He smiled as he spoke, but kept his distance from us, obviously still sizing us all up.

As old as he was, I was fairly sure he was of no threat to us, even if he had his suspicions about our party, so I offered him a drink of warm tea and a spot by the fire that was slowly cooking the toma that Brand had earlier butchered. “Take a seat friend, we mean you no harm”.

“Ah”, he replies, moving closer at last, “that’s just what the last fellows said, and it didn’t end too well for them it seems”. But he took the cup, and lowered himself to the ground with the aid of a stick. Closer up, he looked even older, but who’s to say what was age, and what was caused by a life hard lived. He seemed friendly enough, but I remembered his earlier comment, and just how friendly the negotiator from Thorgrim was while threatening to kill us all. Still, he had my curiosity, and while injured I was happy to sit and talk.

“The Names Kantrel”, I began, “and like yourself, we’re just passing through. If you’re heading in the same direction, you’re more than welcome to tag along”.

“Well now lad, the road is indeed a dangerous place, and based on the day’s adventure, I think I could do worse than keep you lot company for a spell. For all the violence carried out here, it’s nice to see you taking the time to look after them that survived. Do you know if the girl’s still down the well by the way”? He asked it in such a throw away manner, at first I took it to be the set up for a joke, but his eyes stayed cold and focused as he asked, no hint of a smile on his face. Valerius and Vitus were on their feet faster than I could even form a word, rushing towards the well as I tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

The entertainer, called Silver Piece – presumably something to do with the money he has earned in his vocation – managed to work out what I was trying to ask, and filled in the details while a rope was prepared. The partisans had soon tired of their most basic of sports and were convinced that the masters of the house had more treasure hidden away. After raping, torturing and eventually killing most of the remaining family without finding out anything of use, they had come to their own conclusions. With the buildings ransacked, there would have been few hiding places left, and one of the swine – drunk, high, or stupidly – had thought of the well.

With no easy way to search it though, they had resorted to simply throwing young women down it and hoping for the best. After the first two had perished from the fall, the third had survived, but when she claimed not to have found anything, they had simply left her down there to die. This was hours past, and she had long since stopped crying for help. I turned towards the well in time to see my companions pulling a near naked and soaking wet slip of a girl up from the darkness. She fell to the ground the moment she released the rope, and her skin was blue below the waist.

Catranasia and Fjorlief were soon at her side, the Hutzlunr Vytch well versed in treating those exposed to freezing conditions. Although almost completely silent, the poor thing seemed happier to be around the women, shying away from anyone else who even came close to her. Around her neck was a metal collar, marking her out as another of the ranch’s serviles. It seemed that the partisans were just as happy to torture those who lived under the rule of the Pelosians too.

Once she was able to walk, stiffly and with help, Brand and Valerius went with her and her minders to the smithy, and between them removed the mark of her servitude. Slavery is far from the most noble of ways to make a living, but I am not so naive as to expect anyone reading this to think my family’s fortunes weren’t built in some way on such trading. The Pelosians seem much more at ease with it though, with even their own citizens being forced into servitude when unable to pay a debt or convicted of a crime.

These periods of forced labour are supposed to be limited, until the debt has been paid or the crime worked off, but clever masters keep their workers in chains for a very long time. Not only must the debt be worked off, but the master may also add on charges for the food the servile eats, the roof over their head, and the rags they wear while working, adding more and more the longer the wretches are detained. It looked like the girl’s time was at an end though, and all I could do was hope that she would forget all of this as soon as possible, and start a new life for herself.

*     *     *

As everyone settled down for a slightly early night, I took the time to discuss my injury with Valerius. Although the pain was still present, flaring up at the slightest damned provocation, it seemed like I was over the worst of it. So much so that I wasn’t even allotted anything from his supply of medicines. I choose to think that this was down to his respect for me, and belief in my fortitude, but it might just have been because he was a miserable bastard who didn’t like me much. Either way, he checked my injuries and made sure they wouldn’t get any worse.

He also took the time to bring up a slightly more delicate matter. Since we were on a Pelosian road, by the end of the next day we would have been past a check point. A military one at that, and as such it would likely be a bit more thorough than a civilian one. In the back of one of the wagons there still laid an expensive and flamboyant weapon that would be sure to attract some unwanted attention. “It’ll get us all hanged”, he says, “and what good will its value do us then. Get rid of it before we set off, as I won’t swing for you”. Fair point, thinks I, and agree that come the morning, the problem will be solved.

Watches were set as normal, and knowing that I would be stiff and sore come the morning, I unrolled my blanket and did what I could to get comfortable. We all slept under that stars that night – with Skuza giving up his wagon for the still unconscious priest – as no one looked keen to spend the night under a roof that had seen such horrors. As the rooms were being cleared, a store room was discovered – everything of value removed or destroyed of course – containing the corpses of four young serving girls. Each had been beaten and used in the most despicable of ways. Three looked to have died from the severity of the beatings they had taken, but the last stared out of one dead eye, the other socket a home for a small knife, the handle slick with blood.

As Silver Piece had pointed out when asked earlier what kind of songs he sang, and he replied, “At this time, it seems to be naught but dirges, there’s nothing but death hereabouts”. A maudlin thought, but none of us could deny the truth of it.

Some hours later I was roused by Caderyn, who told us of an overseer’s cottage on a rise above the ranch that looked to be lit from within. It was so far away, with too much open ground to worry me much, and since I had other plans that morning, I trusted Brand to investigate and he up and vanished into the predawn grey.

With a length of rope in hand, I carried the mace to the edge of the well and set about lowering it down slowly, so as not to make too much of a noise and awaken the others. Once I felt it touch bottom, I sliced the rope and let it fall in after the weapon. Vitus walked past as I was working, giving me a respectful nod as he did so. I’m not sure if he knew of my reasoning, but regardless, I had mended a bridge in sore need of maintenance by leaving it behind. For now.

I wasn’t quite ready to give up the thing entirely though. Like the armour that Caderyn had hidden earlier, I knew that we could get a pretty penny for it indeed when placed in front of the correct buyer. I took my knife and carved into a brick on the side of the well a simple representation of the rune I had been working on. I would give Caderyn a simple copy of it in the morning, should he make his way back without me, but no else would know what it meant. Not for many a year at least.

With plenty of time left, I set about memorising more runes for the day. Some had proven very useful indeed, others hadn’t even been used, but at the time, what I really wanted was to try out the rune of my own design as soon as possible. It was considerably more complicated than anything else that I had been taught, and would take longer to learn and master. With time being short, I made some tough decisions that morning, but when the customary screaming and hollering started, I felt surprisingly confident.

The morning ruckus, courtesy of the New Raphelian who was far more than he seemed, was muted that day. In deference to the traumatised young girl, he had left the ranch and took of his Daemon bothering a fair distance away. I was still ready with warm drinks and the fire coaxed back to life to reheat last night’s toma though, and took the time to thank Brand for his consideration as we packed and readied for the day’s travel.

It should have been a good start to a very positive day. True, we had pissed off one of the most powerful warlords in the region, but we were alive and had rescued a couple of people, and would likely make a pretty profit on the goods we’d snagged in the process. Sadly, the Pelo worshiping priest was up and about, and seemed less than pleased with his potential new traveling companions. Not only was he pushing for more work to be done for our universal conversion to Pelo’s way, he was decidedly unhappy about embarking on journey with a New Raphelian savage, a partisan looking Dummonii, and the man in the mask, Drazar.

I did my best to defend our employer’s efforts in turning us all from the heathen pass, but Skuza seemed determined to get himself into trouble. I understand that he was looking forward to returning home and filling the ears of all who would listen of his brave and daring exploits, but informing the priest of our little trip through the caves of the dead was not exactly a smart move. I was swearing under my breath – and in Dummonii – while the priest tried even harder to be an insufferable little bastard, having spied the slip of a girl whom we had rescued the evening before. “That servile has been released! She has much more to work off before she can be judged free by a council of Numare”!

Caderyn looked to me to translate this gushing torrent of self important bullshit, and I was glad for the distraction. I would have been more than happy to punch the pious little prick and be done with it, but didn’t fancy pushing my luck. It was one thing to kill a warrior of God when he was hell-bent on murdering one of our party, but quite another to just punch a sickly and injured man because he was being an arse. Luckily, both Valerius and Skuza were able to reason with him before my patience ran out and was replaced with anger and violence.

They convinced him that after all she had endured at the hands of the partisans, her debt should be considered repaid. Two Numare seemed able to outbid one priest, but if we were in a major Pelosian city, I imagine things could have gone very differently indeed. Cowed by their words, and very lucky not to have a broken nose, he shut his trap on the matter and accompanied the boss into his carriage, leaving the rest of us to make our way out of the ranch.

Drazar had done more for my injuries that morning, and the ministrations of Valerius had done wonders, allowing me almost full freedom of movement again. I took advantage of this to drop behind from my usual position at the head of our convoy and walked at the rear, keeping pace with Daemon blooded masked man, honouring a promise to teach him my language. I had already gone through the basics, and decided to make it fun that morning, teaching him instead a bawdy dockside song. Along with what it all meant of course.

There’s little point learning how to speak to a Raphelian unless you’re going to pick up a fair few curses and expletives. Luckily our new traveling companion Silver Piece knew the tune of this one, and with a fiddle helping out I had everyone in the rear wagon joining in as we walked.

I bang on the door but you won’t let me in, ’cause you’re sick and tired of me reeking of gin. Locked all the doors from the front to the back, And left me a note telling me I should pack.

I walk in the bar and the fella’s all cheer, They order me up a whiskey and beer. You ask me why I’m writing this poem, Some call it a tavern but I call it home.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk Pour my beer down the sink I’ve got more in the trunk.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk And I’m going to be drunk till the next time I’m drunk!

You’ve given me an option, you say I must choose, ‘tween you and the liqour, then I’ll take the booze! Jumpin’ on Western down to the south side, Where I’ll sit down and exercise my Bajo’s pride.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk Pour my beer down the sink I’ve got more in the trunk.

Fuck you, I’m drunk Fuck you, I’m drunk And I’m going to be drunk till the next time I’m drunk!*

*     *     *

A good bit of fun of course, but we still had places to be, and were on a Pelosian road. I left Drazar working on his words and wandered back to front to exchange words with Caderyn, “We’re soon going to be coming across some men of both military and Pelosian persuasions. I hate to tell you this my friend, but they won’t be too keen on seeing you at the head of this caravan”.

“Bugger it”, he swore, “You’re right, there’s no point starting trouble, but if it comes looking for us, just give me a shout and I’ll come and cut some fuckers in half for you”. An offer I would happily accept if needed, but until then, he did the sensible thing and took a position closer to out rear.

Within minutes I was sure that I had timed the move damned near to perfection as we saw some Pelosian troops lamenting a wailing at the side of the road. At first I took them for a lancer unit that had been all but destroyed, but Vitus was quickly to the front to investigate the noise and looked down his nose at them. I raised a quizzical eyebrow at him as he turned his back on them, “Numare cavalry”, he answered, spitting onto the ground. “Gentleman soldiers with almost as little training as Skuza, come out here to the badlands and then go and get all poetical and weepy when then quite rightly get slaughtered or end up having to eat their mounts. Not worth the time it’d take to piss on them”.

I couldn’t help but notice he had kept his voice low throughout that summary, but could hardly blame him. He had the freedom to talk to me as he saw fit, but would risk his that – and maybe even his life – if he was overheard badmouthing a Numare. As we continued on our way, the reason for the lamentations was soon obvious; ahead of us at the side of the road was a large pile of dismembered tether, some still wearing the barding and colours of  a Pelosian unit. With no clue what had happened to them, we carried on our way, but the sight of Pelosian soldiers mourning their dead was something we would have to get used to due to its frequency.

Silver Piece didn’t seem to concerned with all of this though, and when he spied a gathering of legionnaires, he nodded to us and smiled before peeling off to join them. As the distance between us increased the sounds of a melancholy tune being played on a fiddle drifted past us on the wind.

I can’t say I was sad to see him go, having known him for less than a day, but the manner of our meeting was enough for him to come to my mind on occasion even now.

The morning turned into afternoon as the sight of bodies and troops grew with each passing hour. It was an unusual feeling to be all but surrounded by armed troops and dead bodies, but to feel somehow safe. Vitus and Valerius soon joined me at the front with a friendly nod. “I think it might be best if we took point from here”, said the physician, with Vitus dipping his head in agreement, “We’re not far now from the check point, and with a Numare at our front, we’ll get through a damned sight quicker. Vitus here looks the part too, but it’d best if the Legions built up slowly to the rest of you”.

A good point, condescendingly made, so I bowed and dropped back. Caderyn was still at our rear, so I kept pace with Skuza’s carriage and whistled along to other shanties that I had in mind to teach Drazar. Ahead of us, the crowds of people began to thicken until we were nothing more than the back end of a long queue of humanity and beasts. With Valerius bullying and cajoling the lower born we quickly made our way to the special area for Numare only.

Skuza was soon in his element, and when the book-keepers at the gate demanded paperwork, he swiftly presented his travel papers. The doctor did most of the talking from I gathered after the fact, and with good cause. It seemed that honourable Ser Skuza was unwilling to allow any conversational opportunity to pass with recounting the tale of the Caves of the Dead. This kind of thing was guaranteed to put the wind up any officious bean counter, so Valerius was forced to interject, giving viable and believable reasons for us stepping off the approved path.

Meanwhile, we were all getting eyeballed by a mixture of legionaries and hired mercenary guards making sure we were all law abiding and respectable citizens. Of course, we weren’t but most of us at least managed to put up a pretty good pretense. The Pelosians know how much my countrymen admire their civilisation  - so much so that they often copy indiscriminately anything of Pelo that looks interesting, without bothering to find out anything about its cultural significance – and all I got was a friendly bow. I returned with a deeper bow, showing humility and respect, and was promptly ignored.

As all this was going on, in the damnable heat of the day, we were unlucky enough to have a most singular fellow in front of us, trying his best to get through the checkpoint to deliver his goods to the city. Dressed in clothing similar to a monk’s habit, he was shouting some nonsense about interring all of his countryman’s remains within a crypt. This explained the smell at least. His barrow was filled with limbs in a heaped pile. Flies surrounded him and were soon seeking sustenance on us all. Thankfully for us, the border guards eventually tired of his shouting – and the smell – and heaved the barrow down the slope and away from the road. sadly, many other people were below us seeking a way into the city, and one unfortunate family had their afternoon rudely interrupted by the unexpected arrival of dozens of rotting limbs.

There were still plenty of guards to keep an eye on us though, and Brand got a bit more attention. Vitus had the good sense to indicate towards me, as if we were together, to which I nodded a reply. A smart move when dealing with a society that actively embraces slavery. The women were largely ignored, apart from an occasional leering look that I recognised well having used it several times myself. And then there was Drazar.

I didn’t know what had put him in such an odd mood, but he looked ready to challenge them for his right to exist in the Pelosian heartlands. Thankfully he seemed to have the good sense to give in to their questioning before they tried to drag him away and throw after the limbs, but the answers he gave seemed to perplex them at first. Knowing him as I did, I could see how much untruth he was spinning, but they should have been able to see through his poorly fabricated lies regardless. I have known many watchmen, and no matter how stupid they appear to be, one should never underestimate their ability to see through fabrications and lies.

A minute later though, and they were walking away to investigate the next caravan. Insofar as it’s possible whilst wearing a full face mask, the dowser looked pretty smug, and I can’t say I blame him. Ideally I would have preferred him to be able too talk round a couple of guards without resorting to mind manipulation – as I’m sure I had just seen – but since it worked, I wasn’t about to complain.

Even a Numare still waits at the whim of bureaucracy it seemed, as the long minutes dragged by. Glancing about the other travelers, I spied a few selling meats and drinks for those waiting, and made sure we were all taken care off. I had partaken of finer repasts by that point in my life, but since I had a hell of a lot worse to come, I should have been more grateful. Still, the warm herb tea was pleasant enough.

Before we all succumbed to starvation and boredom, the high born returned with their paperwork correctly notarised and stamped, allowing us to continue into the city. Like most settlements on this side of the border it was split into districts, with the citizens allowed into the higher areas, and the rest of us scum relegated to the lower districts, with the whores and the skrites. Such is life.

It was easy going once we were inside, with Skuza staying with the wagons until we set up in a hostel. With a short backwards glance him and Valerius made their way to the Piamarium, leaving us in the Axe & Lamp, possibly the finest tavern in the Profanarium. We had a few choices on our rooms, with the cheapest being bedding down in some large communal area. Slumming it though I was back then, I fancied better than that after our journey that far. After making a few inquiries, there were more private rooms available for a few extra coin.

I was very glad I asked, as poor Vitus informed me that his masters purse didn’t stretch to even the simplest of flop house floors. I could have slept with the wagons once more, but remembered that I had a spare purse about my person, and offered up the spoils of my victory against Haaken Chains to pay for everyone to get a night’s sleep on something marginally softer than dirt. For Vitus I went one further.

He was a man that inspired trust, and I wanted him to trust me. I knew that I had risked that trust by dealing with the warrior priest, and although some well placed words had put me past the worst of his ire – and disposing of the mace went even further to repairing that smoldering bridge – he was still keeping half an eye on me. Well, after the last few days we’d had, nothing mends some wounds better than a bottle of nice wine. The innkeeper was quick to help me, thinking me wealthy for paying for all the rooms and seeking his advice on which wine to purchase as a gift. When I presented it to Vitus, his face split in a wide grin and he quickly ripped the cork free with his teeth, pouring some into a goblet.

Before he had the chance to offer it around – and I’m certain he would have done, generous fellow that he was – I stopped him, “This is just for you my friend. On this long and dangerous road you have dealt with us fairly and kept us safe. Your master is a good man, but at present he isn’t able to reward you as much as you so clearly deserve. Drink this bottle yourself. Thank you.” This got a smile, which is about as good as I could have hoped, but more was to come.

He stood back from the table, and with raised drink, exclaimed, “To Ser Eduardo Skuza, my noble employer. May he spend the night far away from us for a fuckin’ change!” I couldn’t help but agree and raised my own goblet of small beer in toast with everyone else.

*     *     *

The Axe and Lamp knew their clientele well, and after days out on the road surviving on game meat and what roots and tubers we could scrounge for a stew, I was happy to partake of some tangy fruits and peppery vegetables while we drank and spoke of past adventures and future concerns. One topic very much on the minds of those with coin in pocket and a Daemon-may-care attitude to the future was the evening’s attraction; Pelosian fighting moles! Small creatures with sharp claws and teeth, and a nose that resembled tentacles, they were apparently highly prized. Asking around it seemed that you could buy one as a pet for a few bits of tin, but laying your hands on a trained fighting sod came it a handful of Gold Jacks.

The frenzy that surrounded the gambling on them fighting seemed to justify the prices, even if the individual bets weren’t that high. You have to remember of course that this was a down and dirty road side hostel, and I imagined a small fortune would have changed hands that evening alone.

An old itch began to make itself known as my eyes drifted over the chalk boards with names and numbers scrawled all over them. Those days I struggled with the written form, but I could still make sense of a book keepers board, no matter what language it was in. The crowds were already baying even though the sun was still in the sky and I’d had no more than two small beers, and I started to think about ways to make money.

We could get Fjorlief to work her will on the champion of our choice. Drazar seemed like he could tell a bluff from the truth, and in dire circumstances Caderyn’s and prowess in a fight could be used as a distraction. As this thought briefly crossed my mind I saw that the Dummonii was already engaged thusly, slamming the face of some poor unfortunate into a table with alarming speed.

The disagreement seemed to be over almost as swiftly as it begun though, with both parties moving away to rejoin their respective groups with no recriminations. Looking about the room, it was obvious that such activities were normal, and engaging in any tricky would surely result in a large brawl. I shook my head, remembering just how often I would lose everything but my trousers in the chance houses, and drunk as a monk would demand honour be satisfied. People got hurt when that happened; occasionally people died. I looked down at the dregs of my second drink and pushed it to one side.

I had left my home to stay off that path, to become something more. My new friends seemed happy to gamble and fight and drink, but I was happy just being in their company. With a few coins left in Haaken’s purse I offered one last round for them and returned to the bar. While there I bent the innkeeper’s ear once more, trying to ascertain anything of use for the last leg of our voyage. Most rumour seemed to indicate that with the war wrapping up for the year, attention would be placed elsewhere. The reason for hostilities ceasing was also being discussed.

When the head of any mercenary company dies, it has ripple effects, but it seems that a power vacuum had formed when a rather important one was murdered. Not only that, but another was looking to compete for the positions of People’s Champion in the very city we were heading towards. This would put them in effective control of a large body of fighting men, even if not able to give them direct orders, but by manipulating their various animosities. I had sense of foreshadowing at this news, but returned with the drinks rather than pick at scab of an idea only half formed.

Fjorlief had decided to take the  chance on a fighting mole that had caught her eye, and staked near to her last coin on its victory. I wasn’t sure, and still aren’t, if she engaged in trickery to see it to victory, but she managed to walk away with a bit more money than she started. With luck being on our side, I thought it would be a good time to call it a night. Although the sun had only just set, I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I could once again sleep under a roof, and wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity.

Saying my good nights, noting that Vitus had already done considerable damage to his bottle, I made my way towards the stairs when something gave me pause. Looking back over my shoulder I saw what looked to be another of Thorgrim’s men. My breathe stopped in my throat as it was clear that he was heading towards the table I had recently departed. With my hand on the hilt of my Baseado, I stepped down once and took the time to size up this potential threat.

He was a big fellow, no doubt, and carried himself with easy confidence, but something wasn’t quite right. At his waist was a naught but a knife. I felt sure he could kill with it as easy I could with my own weapon, but since I was far from the most well equipped warrior in the room, it didn’t make sense that he would try to take us all on with nothing but a knife. His eyes gave something else away; he wasn’t looking around the room for other threats, or at least not to himself. Following in his wake was the final clue though.

He was a smaller, older man, wearing a slightly faded red cloak and toga. His hair was rapidly calling the retreat away from a highly aggressive forehead, and the only thing he carried was a stick to help him walk. But, he walked with just as much confidence as his taller friend, and was smiling to himself as sighted our group sat around the table, recounting the highlights of the mole fight.

I knew I could beat them both to the table, and maybe even slide the Baseado deep into the big lad’s ribs while I did it, but even with Drazar’s help I was still far from fighting fit. Discretion seemed the better part of valour at the time, so I simply stood at the table’s edge as they approached. The big one just stood, towering over all of us by Fjorlief and myself; the elder took a seat and began to talk. His voice carried just far enough without him needing to raise it at all, making it clear that he was used to talking to large groups of people, and even more used to having his word heeded.

“Good evening. Your master will soon be arrested for being unable to pay his debts”. Understandably this caused something of a commotion amongst us, but since I was one of the few sober heads still sat at the table, I motioned for him to continue. “There are those of us who would rather not see this take place. For all of his faults, and he is in possession of a multitude of them, he still has friends. Those searching for him now are not amongst this number.

“This is just a friendly warning, if you wish to continue your journey – remain in possession of your goods and chattels – I advise you to waste no time.” The smile was gone. This was a real thing. We had all worked hard to make it this far with no reward – hell, Caderyn and I had ditched a fortunes worth of armour and weaponry just to get through this alive. Many of us had bled for our employer, either through loyalty, greed, or – in my case – the promise of fulfilling a contract with a man of influence. We had to act, and act quickly.

*Lyrics reproduced and altered without permission of Flogging Molly. Go and check out their stuff!

Jan 092014

As the man’s body lay slowly cooling on the ground before me all I was thinking about was getting back to my companions. I had no idea that the death of Chains was to be the start of my own storied life, or just how much more blood would be spilled by day’s end.

I was in pain, but my wits weren’t dulled, and knowing that trouble was surely following I went quickly about my business. He was a big fellow, and the fine brass arm rings he had worn could each be sported as a crown by yours truly, such was the girth of his forearms. I took them quickly, along with his iron collar and the chain that had so very nearly shattered my thigh bone. With his coin pouch tied to my belt I took to my heels, hoping to close some distance with the others before trouble closed on me.

They would surely make it to the river crossing before I did, but would have to slow down while attempting to make their way safely to the other bank. Moving at a jog I came first across Catranasia though, looking to be in deep conservation with the one named Vraag Man. This was another storied man from Thorgrim’s mob, and by the extent of his injuries, I was sure the others had given him a hell of a thrashing. His skin was waxen and pale, with the shafts of arrows protruding from an arm that looked shattered by a mighty blow. In all honesty, I was amazed he was on his feet, but it seemed to be anger keeping him upright.

As I was moving quickly I had no chance to hide my approach, and he made certain that the lady was between us. It looked like he was in the mood to avoid another confrontation, and although I was in much better shape, I was happy to pass by without combat. He wasn’t going to just let me stroll on by though, “What’s the name of your fuckin’ tree-hugger?”, he asked, growling at me in Pelo-Margo.

Seeing the arrows that had yet to be removed from his left arm, I had assumed that Valerius had shot him once or twice, but it was a pleasant surprise to know that the Dummoni had finally had some success with his own bow. For half a second I was ready to give up a different name, but in the heat of the moment that only others that came to mind were Pelosian, and I’m certain he would have seen right through that. “Caderyn”, I answered, feeling bad for surrendering a friend’s name, but my options were limited.

“Well, I want me fuckin’ hatchet back off of him. It’s mine, and I mean to have it returned to me”, he spat with the same growl in his voice. He didn’t exactly look in the best of shape to be making demands, but I was far from my best and thought it best not to challenge him. His anger was constantly bubbling up, and although I was fairly certain which of us would fall first, I was almost as certain that I would suffer another major injury before he dropped.

“And just how the hell do you expect him to get it to you? Your mad bastard of a boss is rolling his ship in the other direction to us, and I can’t imagine my man will make the long walk to give back an axe that was lobbed at him”. All fair points, I think you’ll agree, but it seems that almost all of Thorgrim’s story men were a wee bit touched in the head, and Vraag man was no exception.

“I don’t give a fuck how, but if he don’t get it back, I’ll find ‘im and rip his fuckin’ face off with me teeth”! A charming fellow and no mistake. But I didn’t doubt him, and the Margomarissi was a dangerous enough place to travel without a blood thirsty savage looking for you with revenge in mind. Especially if he was hungry.

“You know of Maidens Play”, I asked, getting a swift nod in answer, “Go there tomorrow, and your axe will be stuck in a riverside tree, that’s the best I can do. Now, what’s your play with regards to me and the lady”?

“You’re gonna walk past us first, and when I feel like you’re not gonna pull any sneaky shit, the young lady can follow”, I nodded my agreement and began walking around him and Catranasia in a wide arc, not wanting to antagonise him if I could help it.  He stalked his way around her as I moved, keeping her between us at all times until he felt comfortable. Then spoke something softly to her that I never caught, and she turned away and made to follow me. Knowing she was putting some distance between herself and the crazy sod I again broke into a jog, hearing her footsteps match my speed as we made our way onward.

*     *     *

We made good time back to the caravans, and got there as Caderyn was wading out into the deep and rapid water. Praying to some god of water swells or something, he seemed always an inch from being dragged away from us forever. His Gods obviously favoured him though, and he shouted back that he had found a secure crossing. I was happy to catch my breath as the first wagon made its way into the river, knowing that there’d be little I could offer in the way of help.

The first two passed through the swollen river without a problem, and when it came to the third, I tried to help keep the hormorn in line, but only succeeded in not making the crossing actually any harder. We were safe for a while though, and got everyone loaded into a wagon and began planning for the attack that was almost certain to fall on us. Drazar has spooked a few of the tethers earlier, and no mistake, but none of us were foolish enough to think that Thorgrim wouldn’t have plenty more cavalry at his disposal.

With that in mind, I headed towards Caderyn before we set off again. He was clearly injured and I wouldn’t like to say who had come off worse in the last confrontation, so did what I could before speaking, tracing a rune in the air in front of him, closing his wounds and cleaning the dirt from them. In his belt was a hatchet that matched one that Vraag Man still had about his person when we spoke. “There’s man that wants that back”, says I, pointing to his belt, “I’m not telling you that you need to give it back to him, but he warned he would hunt you down to get it, and I believe him. If you’d rather not worry about keeping an eye over your shoulder for the rest of your life, I’d embed it in the tree over there, and he can pick it up himself later”.

He looked thoughtful for a second, before nodding and looking towards the tree. In a swift move he slid the axe free and flung it with a grunt, forcing the blade to bite deep of the wood. It didn’t stay there long though; as we were preparing to move off, discussing our route, the Dummonii was once more praying to one or more Gods, and looked ready to offer up a sacrifice to the river. The hatchet must have caught his eye, still stained with his own blood as it was, and he made his decision quickly. It never even occurred to me to stop him as he wrenched it free, and with a final benediction, hurled it into the white frothing water.

Although Vraag man was still a threat, mounted troops were the only ones that would have a chance of catching us up in large numbers. And although the crossing might be enough to dissuade them, we weren’t going to stake even a tin coin on those odds. So we set about making caltrops from bent and fastened nails, with Brand even showing me how to make an actual bola, as I only had one more shot at bringing a beast down with a rune.

Maybe an hour had passed on the road when we found somewhere with terrain that might possibly be in our favour. We had for once decided on taking a Pelosian road for the current leg of our journey, knowing that the smoother surface and more direct route would see us quicker to our destination. Sadly it offered very poor cover, with only an occasional copse of trees and broken down viaducts to stop us from being surrounded by quicker mounted soldiers.

The weather was in our favour at least though, as a mist had descended as we worked, and had made it harder for the tether-men to spot our hastily constructed traps. As we set the wagons up to keep Skuza safe and to the rear, they rode forth from the mist. A dozen regular riders, and another man who had a very different bearing than the others. The regular cavalry held a distant position, keeping them from even a long shot with a bow, but the leader moved closer, being careful not to make himself too obvious a target. The mist failed to hide that the back four were struggling to keep their tethers under control though; it looked like a few of our caltrops had found their mark!

“Good day gentlemen, I pleasure to meet you all! I am an emissary of Thorgrim the Difficult, and I’m here to negotiate your safe passage through these lands. He has heard of your journey thus far; an inconsequential group of vagabonds transporting a paltry amount of cargo, yet today he has lost two of his story men! Whom here was responsible for the death of Haaken Chains?” I raised my arm, Baseado held aloft to answer him, smiling as I did so. We held eye contact for a moment, and to his credit he he showed no fear or intimidation. “And what about Vraag Man”?

Caderyn raised his own arm at the question, but I knew that when last I had seen Vraag Man, he was alive and about as well as could be expected. Thorgrim was certainly a bastard of the highest order, but I hadn’t expected him to have killed one of his own men just for losing a fight. Still, I would eventually learn that it does you no good at all to expect anything of that contrary sod.

“Very well done gentlemen, but I think your luck has run out, and now your only option is to try and placate my employer with an offering”. Valerius perked up at this, but he had been the least optimistic of us all when considering our chances of outrunning or out fighting whoever was at our heels. It was the only the realisation that they could circle the wagons whether we were moving or stationary – and he would be much more likely to land an arrow when not perched on the back of a rocking vehicle – that had him in agreement that we should stop to stand and fight.

“And just how much would Thorgrim want from us in exchange for free passage”, he asked, while the rest of us began sizing up our enemies, preparing for a charge.

“Very little really, when compared to your lives. Your wagons and the women should just about do it I think.”, he replied with a smirk that made me surprised he hadn’t spent a more significant proportion of his life getting punched in the face.

At the mention of women, Fjorlief was quick to retort, as she stood to her not inconsiderable height and bellowed across to him, “No man’s going to stick anything in me that won’t get cut off as he tries”!

After my fight against Haaken I was feeling pretty damned invincible, and that’s the only I excuse I have for what slipped from lip in reply, while the fancy horseman backed away from his insistence on taking the women. I looked over and made brief eye contact with the formidable woman and smiled, “I don’t know, give me a couple of drinks and I might be able to convince you otherwise”. Ah, the confidence of youth.

“I might be convinced to take just one wagon back with me, and for that you have my word that Thorgrim will not pursue you. He admires men of courage, and that might just be enough for him to forgive you the loss of two story men in one day. This is a good deal for you, and I advise you to take it.” Throughout his little speech, the cool demeanour dropped somewhat, but he still seemed confident that he was the one in control of the situation, “If you don’t give me a tribute, Thorgrim will hunt you down to the ends of Uma”!

“And doesn’t that sound like a hell of story to tell”, I shout, refusing to be bullied by him, just because he had us outnumbered with superior troops, and two of our front line fighters were badly injured.

He smiled at this, “It is that kind of bravery my Lord approves of, what are your names so that I might speak of you after you die here today”? We all gave our names, and were told his; Hetgar if I remember correctly.

Valerius seemed happy to continue the negotiations from there, while the rest of us spoke quietly amongst ourselves, planning an attack before he would have the chance to either take what was ours or organise his men to charge us down. Fjorlief and Drazar were talking animatedly about ley lines or some such, and assured me that they could scatter the horses, or just remove Hetgar as an obstacle.

He was surely another storied man was Hetgar, but after the day I’d had, I felt up to the fight, especially as this time I wouldn’t be going it alone. The tether-men would be a real problem though, so I asked them to do what they could to scatter them to the six winds. As I waited for them to work their will, I watched as Valerius drew from a wagon the mace I had taken as a trophy, and did my best to catch up on the conversation. He had talked the Hutzlunr down to half a wagon’s worth of quality goods, and the mace had helped.

Apparently Thorgrim had a soft spot for the nuns of the Grey Hospice who had been slain by Fedenzo, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the weapon without a fight. Keeping my gaze fixed on Hetgar I reached down and hefted up the mace in one hand, and smiled as I pushed it back into the wagon. Valerius looked ready to shout me down for a moment, but he must have seen something in my eyes and relented.

A second later, the tethers in the distance erupted in noise and panic, scattering about and unseating a rider or two in the confusion. Hetgar looked behind him at the disturbance, but seemed unsure of what to do at first. He had held his position at range to keep him from becoming a pin cushion, but was quickly losing the backing of his cavalry. If he still had them under his control, I imagine what follows would have turned very differently for your humble narrator.

We all stood ready to receive a charge though, and he was happy to oblige mere seconds later, going it alone. Confident as I was, I was also happy to take any extra edge available to me, and as he closed on us, I opened up another Sudden Squall. With any luck, it would unseat him, removing his advantage, and giving the rest of us a much better chance of finishing him off quickly. I needn’t have worried though.

As the wind blew away from me, the tether he was charging in on simply ceased to be. It didn’t vanish as such, just stopped being a tether, and instead became a red mist with a few thick clumps of offal floating away from it. This crimson vapour was blown backwards by the gust of wing thrown up by my rune, and left a ten yard long stain on the landscape. A few of his compatriots who had managed to keep control of their chargers saw this horrendous sight and quickly turned tail and ran.

Hetgar had carried on towards us though, his momentum unimpeded by the exploding tether – a neat little trick from the Earth Power users who were very thankful indeed that we had chosen a ley line to fight on – and he landed with a thud only yards from where I stood. With my sword point angled down like a lance I rushed towards him, Valerius shouting behind me that I shouldn’t kill him. By then there was nothing to be done to arrest my charge though, and as he looked up at me I screamed, “And that’s three, mother fucker!”, as the point of my Baseado pushed easily through the soft material of his trews and tore apart his ankle.

I’d like to think it was the last thing he heard as he passed out from the pain. He would wake some time later, stripped naked, courtesy of Valerius who had a wicked streak it seemed, knowing that on that day, three of Thorgrim’s storied men had fallen beneath the blows of our group. Hell, my face was the final thing one of them would ever see, and Hetgar would have my words ringing in his ears for just as long as he was hobbled by the injury I did him.

*     *     *

The tether-men were still a problem though, so as Valerius relieved Hetgar of his clothing, anyone with a ranged weapon loosed arrows or bolts towards those that remained. Even I joined in, making use a stockbow that we had acquired early in our journey, but hit nothing at all. Still, we kept them from regrouping, and were soon on our way. A note was left was left on Hetgar’s unconscious form, but at the time I was unable to see what was written, hopefully Valerius had a sense of humour that wouldn’t anger Thorgim too much.

With that we were away, moving the hormorn as fast as we dared after a very eventful day, and as the evening drew in, it seemed we had left our enemies behind us. Since we had stuck to more civilised roads, we were moving through worked fields, with burnt and abandoned villas dotted around. Workers and civilians were in scant supply though, as it seemed teh partisans had done their work well hereabouts.

Ahead of us was a large secured villa with enclosed grounds. It was open, and looked abandoned like so many other Pelosian structures we had come across, and would be a great place to spend the night. True enough, as was rightly pointed out, anyone who was looking for us through the night was sure to search there. But if any of Thorgrim’s people were still hunting us down, I was a lot happier to be behind some big walls, rather than huddled under a wagon.

Even from a safe distance, Drazar was able to work his magic, and it seemed the place wasn’t quite as empty as we had thought. There were a dozen or so people in there, but none of them seemed to be in great shape. Based on what we had seen so far, I was expecting to find a family of Pelosians huddled together after a partisan raid. Valerius looked to share this suspicion, so we left everyone else with the wagons and made our way there through the darkening evening.

Although he was a Doctor by trade, his skill with a bow and ability to blend into shadows meant I was sure he had also spent some time working as a scout. What I was less sure about was which side he had been paid by, but for now such concerns were easily dismissed.

As we closed on our destination, I held back. If the place was a Pelosian refuge, they would be more comfortable with one of their own walking in first. Sadly, this was not what we were faced with. Once more the Dummonii had been here, but this time some had stayed behind to get drunk on the spoils. Five or so of the bastards were getting merrily pissed on rotgut that would make a hormorn blind, and another half dozen house servants that looked happy that their masters were no longer in charge were guzzling the poison like it was going out of fashion.

They were pissed, and although there was only two of us, Valerius was happy to get into a fight this time. Maybe after seeing everyone else spending the day kicking arse and taking names he just wanted in on the action. With so much combustible liquid knocking around, he had a plan to thin their numbers and sow some discord too.

With a bit of help from some flint and steel, a fire arrow was soon arcing into the building. Rather than just going for one of several puddles made by broken bottles, it struck and shattered one held by a drunken reveler. Suffice to say, all bloody hell broke lose in short order. The serviles were quick to gather what grog they could and disappear out a back door, but the partisans were drunk and stupid enough to charge towards us.

There was only the two of us though, so I needed to slow them down somewhat. Putting on my best Pelosian accent I shouted loudly, “There’s hardly any of them! We have this door covered, come in from the back”! Three of them ran in that direction, the others shouting out how stupid they were, but another arrow shut one of them up quite fatally.

By this time Brand was making his own way towards us, having been alerted by the fire, but Caderyn was staying put. Maybe a little bit of sympathy for his country men, or he was unwilling to again risk further injury, but luckily he wasn’t needed. By later accounts it seemed that Skuza was quite keen to rush to the fore, with only Vitus’ calming voice able to keep him alive.

As the remaining Dummonii pulled themselves together and ran towards us I was once more able to use a rune to take one down, the magical cords tightening around his legs as he fell. Admittedly, he was so pissed a stiff breeze could have done the same, but any little helps.

Brand was already amongst them as they spilled out of the door. I hadn’t seen him arrive, but a second later, there he was, in the midst of the action, sword – not aflame at present – swinging with gusto, dropping partisans with ease. It was almost too easy, and it looked like fortune would favour us all that day. She is a fickle bitch though, and just as I was ready to declare this fight over and offer terms, a brute of a Dummonii exited a side door, looking more pissed off than pissed.

Brand was engaged elsewhere and Valerius with his bow had kept some distance, so it was down to me again. I didn’t want to give him time to think so hurried towards him, swinging the point of my sword round and opening up a wound on his chest before he knew what has happening. It must have hurt, but close by it was obvious he was stone cold sober and out for blood.

He drew himself close to me, hoping to reduce the effectiveness of my long sword, and thrust a curved dagger toward my already injured legs. I felt the blade bite deep, and the white hot agony as he twisted it. A simple little trick to make it easier to pull the blade free, with the added bonus of opening a bigger wound for your opponent to bleed out of.

After taking out two better men already that day, I wasn’t about to die to some piece of shit partisan though. I pulled back and pushed the point of my Baseado under his chin and with a guttural scream pressed up and back with all my strength. With hot blood on my hands he fell backwards and a went down onto one knee. With so much action that day I had one piece of luck left, and with my final healing rune closed the wound to stop any further  blood loss and looked about me.

He was the last of them. We had taken the villa.

Jan 022014

The title of this blog – welcome back after the holidays by the way – is a small bit of an introductory paragraph to a game idea I’ve had rattling around in the old noggin for the past couple of weeks. I’ll go into detail about it a bit further down, but for now there’s going to be a bit of a catch up, and some ideas about where the blog’s going.

This was originally going to be a New Year’s Revolutions style of post, as I have a few ideas about things I want to do over the next few months. Sadly though, even though for the next month or so I’m expecting life to return to normal, there’s still a whole lot going on that’s outside of my control. After that I will hopefully be busier than I’ve ever been, and will be playing the whole writing thing by ear.

There’s a couple of things I won’t be doing though. Firstly, I won’t making any promises on when I’ll be posting on here. I’ll be continuing my Orbis RPG game write ups as my weekly post – the game starts again next Tuesday, and I can’t wait – but other than that, I have other things to concentrate on. Because of more important things, I’m also not going be able to review games. It’s not as if I get sent a butt-load of them to begin with, but the time it takes to read the entire rule book, and the struggle to get people together to play it, just makes it unfeasible at present.

One of the things that I will be working on though is my Steampunk robot RPG, Rise of the Automata. It got put on the back burner a few months before the holidays as work was getting crazy and I had other things on my plate too. I never stopped thinking about the game though, and have a few ideas about setting and narration that I want to get down, plus some fun new bits that should allow players to have more of a say in character development and making shiny gadgets.

This is obviously going to be a big project, writing wise, and means that my other cool idea may have to sit gestating a while longer before I get round to fleshing it out. What’s odd is that when I started the blog, I found myself worrying that I would run out of ideas and things to talk about, and was amazed when I would read other people’s blogs and see how they struggled to find the time and mental energy to keep up with everything that they wanted to concentrate on.

And here I find myself without the time to get going on a pretty cool idea. Actually, it’s not so much the lack of time, it’s the fact that I really want to see the Steampunk game finished. I had to put a fairly long term hold on the card game I was working on, simply because of the problems that come along with producing and play testing  game that requires so many physical components. I still lack the finds to create a working prototype and take myself along with it to gaming and Steampunk conventions.

I have a dear friend who has lamented that I have never finished the game as he’s a keen Steampunk creator and really liked it, but life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. An RPG has far fewer necessary components that are required to enjoy it. That’s kind of the reason why I decided to to try and create one, along with having a pretty nifty idea for a base system mechanic, that works really well with a Steampunk setting.

The new game though, I have approached slightly differently. I have no system in mind at all, and only a very vague idea about how the game would work. Depending on how much I want to get it done, it could very well end up being a setting for a modular system like Savage Worlds. I hope not, as designing the system for Rise… has been a damned fine experience.

This game – so far without a name – came about because I have been thinking about running a horror game again. Regular readers will know that I’m a bit of fan of the genre, and I always like to inject a little horror into games I run; so long as it doesn’t detract from the base theme and genre. What I have never done though, although I’m a huge fan, is run something Lovecraftian.

I love the Mythos, but have never been a huge fan of any of the systems. Call of Cthulhu does a good job of handling investigations, but I would prefer a more involved combat system, and Trail of Cthulhu doesn’t appeal at all I’m afraid. Not only that, but I’ve had it my mind for a while now that there’s scope out there for role playing in a world that has seen the investigators to have already lost to the cultists.

In the final month of the year 2013, the rituals were performed, at the right time in the right places. There was nothing that those who worked against the Elder Ones and their minions could do. Strange lights were seen in the skies, and the world awoke to find harbingers of the ancient and unspeakable evils that had lain dormant for so very long.

That was two hundred and thirty-seven years ago, and still the evil has not fully returned to our world. After all, what are mere centuries to beings from beyond time and space? Their cultists stalk to halls of power, sacrifices are made in their honour, fed to the other-worldly  creatures that are said to herald their arrival.

The world hasn’t stood still though, and for most people, their lives continued much as before, but with all permeating dread and fear as constant companions. Technology has marched on, both in the hands of those praying daily for the arrival of the Gods, and also those who use to try and thwart the will of these deluded fools.

The Gods are coming. Can they be stopped?

Dec 122013

That night was a time for quiet reflection for almost all of us. Drazar was happy to talk to me, but other than a brief conversation with Brand, kept to his own company. We spoke on a few matters; he thanked me for rushing to his defense, but I was quick to point out that I would do that for anyone in our traveling party. Still having him think well of me was a good thing, I just wished that everyone else was willing to think the same way about everyone else. We still had a hell of a road ahead of us, and without knowing exactly what faced us, I was still expecting more trouble on the road and keeping everyone from each others throats was essential.

He also confirmed my suspicions that he was of half Daemon stock, and that was why he wore the mask. I thought to myself that the more sensible course of action would be to get his arse the hell away from Pelosia, but he must have his own reasons for staying so close to their border. As we spoke I tried my best to remove the wards that prevented him from entering the hospice. Using my dagger for a purpose it very much wasn’t intended for, I pried away a paint covered board from each side of the doorway, but he was still unable to make his way past the boundary. “Thank you for the effort, but the wards remain and I am not sure it would be safe for me to try to cross. If you would be so kind as to bring some food out for me?” I nodded and patted him on the shoulder as Valerius stomped his way back into the hospice.

I was still happy to avoid him so let him pass without word, but before I had even gotten to the food pot, he was stomping his way back out, carrying the helmet of Fedenzo towards the hole that him and Brand had been digging. As I was making my way from the pot, Skuza’s man Geru was making his own towards it. Usually such a thing wouldn’t even be worth drawing attention to, but he had clearly been told what had happened. “Pardon me”, he says, talking slightly louder than required and occasionally bumping into things, “for my hearing is not what it once was. Also my eyesight has deteriorated considerably this evening, so I haven’t been able to see or hear anything interesting at all for several hours now”. I smiled at his antics, making a point to speak up myself when replying and then taking the time to steer him away from tables he seemed determined to walk into to prove his sightlessness.

I was half convinced that Skuza had coached him to behave as he did, but even if he had made the decision on his own, I couldn’t rightly blame him. I wasn’t too happy about executing witnesses, but even the hour or so since the fight had ended had cooled my head down on the subject and I  was beginning to see the sense in it. I’m not sure if I would have done the deed myself, but it was getting harder to stay angry at Valerius for doing what had needed to be done.

With a nice big bowl of broth filled I made my way back outside to see them bringing the bodies down from where they had been hanged. I would have liked to have helped at this point; the poor women had done nothing to deserve what had happened to them. Valerius was taking control of the operation however, and had taken the time to seek help from the New Raphelian, but had not even spoken to me. Maybe he saw this as an act of penance for himself, or just didn’t want to be anywhere near me. Either way, I again steered clear of him.

Knowing that Drazar would be unable to pass into the hospice to sleep in a bed, I made up a fire by the wagons and sat with him as we watched the men work. As we did, Catranasia came out from within the hospice. She was wearing a rough woolen cloak, but was carrying a sack’s worth of stuff in it as she stumbled into the darkness. She had made her way to the Nun’s chambers looking for medical supplies and had apparently hit the mother lode. Caderyn had seen her too, and was quite happy to lend a hand and get all the goodies loaded into the back of a wagon. If they saw the massive mace that was in there, neither commented or drew Valerius’ attention to it in case he decided to bury that with the dead knight too. Slightly mercenary I know, but I needed a big pay day after this job, and that mace would be worth a small fortune if sold to the right buyer.

It was at this time that Drazar sat and spoke to the Yerwian. I only caught a few words here and there, but from what I could discern they were talking about things Daemonic. I wasn’t sure why Drazar had thought that Brand would know more than he did about his condition, but they spoke for some time, so I guess he knew more than he let on.

With watches set – I remember taking the time to remind everyone when they were expected to be awake and whom they were to rouse before returning to bed as a few of us would be bedding down under the stars – I made my way back outside to the wagons and the fire, and curled up beneath one of the wagons. I kept my steel inches from my hand as I slept. I wasn’t so much expecting trouble from outside, but still hadn’t quite shaken the feeling that Valerius had one more body that might might like to throw into the hastily dug grave.

*     *     *

A shout woke me some time later, but since I was still an hour or so from ready for my shift to start I wasn’t awake enough to take in what was said. I just grabbed the hilt of my Basaedo and rolled out of my blanket toward the noise.

I could just about make out the darkened shadow of Caderyn running towards the stables. It wasn’t far from where the wagons had been arranged into a crescent so I quickly made it to my feet and began to run after him. Valerius was by the door, holding onto a length of rope keeping it closed. The Dummonii had covered the ground quicker than I, so I missed the start of the conversation, but it seemed there was someone in there, and Valerius suspected it was another nun.

The furthest I had even gone into the hospice was the ground floor, but the Pelosian had apparently taken the time to explore more thoroughly and had noted more beds than hanging bodies. As the two of us were there now as back up, he let go of the door so that it could be opened and shouted into the building, “Come out now, there’s nothing to be scared of”, but the only reply was the noise of the tether kicking up a fuss. Walking slowly towards it, I raised my left hand and placed it above the beast’s snout, making soothing noises, and within a few seconds it had stilled. Turning away – with my hand still in place – I looked up to see the grubby face of a young lady leaning over the the loft space and staring down at us.

“Please, come down”, said Valerius, in the closest he seems to have to a soothing voice, “We are not your enemies, and we will not treat you as such. You must be cold and hungry, we have food and a warm fire. Tell us your story”.

It was very much as we expected. Fedenzo has arrived with injured men, and had executed the nuns after they had admitted under torture that they offered aid to the Dummonii. They hadn’t needed to be tortured to give up such information, but it seemed the knight had wanted more, and had suspected them of performing dark rituals. After who knew how long, they were dragged outside and hanged until dead. The young woman had been out of the hospice when they arrived and as such had managed to stay hidden.

I don’t know if Valerius had convinced himself that this was all still some sort of misunderstanding, but hearing it from the girl was surely the proof he needed we had done, I had done, the right thing by putting an end to Fedenzo. Either way, by the time morning broke he had seemed to have lost his bitter edge somewhat.

Before that though, I had my own watch to stand, but rather than drifting off into a half sleep like I had done in the past, I decided to spend my time on something useful. Up until a few years back I was still in possession of my early notes for the Di Gregori Distracting Refraction, but I was made an offer it made no sense to refuse. It was the first time anyone else had been taught the most important aspect of casting the rune, and my handwriting stated it, if not exactly clearly: cast & step. I kept that bit to myself for many a year as I wanted to keep the advantage if I ever faced off against someone else who had learnt it. These days though, it doesn’t make that much difference.

I had roped in Brand to help me, and equipped him with a long thin branch that he could use to swing at me. Or at least where he thought I was. I cast it several times, making sure that I was aware of the angle that the light refracted at so my own blows would hit their mark. That morning I was still far from certain, swinging wide almost as much as Brand did, but the practice was well taken. I also realised that there was a pleasing side effect.

The rune was supposed to centre on me, creating an oval disk slightly bigger than a tower shield that would turn the light away, making it appear as though I had moved, hopefully causing an enemy to strike at empty air while I attacked from a position of surprise. Because I had centered it on myself though, on my aura apparently, it had fully encircled me.

This would mean that even people standing behind me would think I was standing where no one was, giving me even better protection. The practice casting ate up most of our watch, but still allowed Brand the time to prepare for his morning rituals. By now, we were all used to the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but we had an extra body with us, and Valerius was tasked with calming the poor thing down after her sleep was so rudely interrupted.

After breakfast we began getting the beasts of burden ready for another day’s travel, and I was more than happy to help. Geru did his best, but whenever he noticed anyone watching him, would be sure to stumble and occasionally take the time to walk into something he could plainly see. I don’t hold it against him that he was worried we’d kill him in his sleep, but it was taking up valuable time.

Skuza seemed like even he had hurried that morning. He had clearly not taken the time to bathe or even shave himself before we made our way out of the hospice. He looked more ill than I had ever seen him, and not the coughs of shakes of a nobleman away from his home comforts, but like he was actually sick. His skin was grey, and the eyes sunk into his face in dark pools. He walked slowly, with Vitus on his arm and a thick looking winter cloak wrapped tightly around him in spite of the already warm morning.

His wagon master seemed like the night’s sleep and some time to reflect on the previous evening’s action had been just what he needed. He wasn’t exactly ready to smile and offer us a drink, but he said a lot without ever opening his mouth by nodding to each of us as he led Skuza to the relative safety of his carriage. Maybe not an acceptance of what had happened, but at least an understanding of its necessity.

With everything squared away we were good to go, but there was still the matter of the young girl and the remaining injured soldiers. She seemed happy to stick around and try to offer help to those who needed it. Hopefully she would be able to survive without all the medicine that Catranasia had stolen, and with Pelo on her side, anything was possible. It seemed that his blessing hadn’t extended to the men though, as most had passed during the night. Of the few that remained, the old chap who lost his eyes seemed happy to stay too, to help administer to the fallen and maybe even don the grey cloaks of this order. Good luck to them, thinks I, but I was pleased to put the damned place behind me.

*     *     *

The air was so warm that morning that the muddy ground around us was steaming as the water evaporated. The track was rutted and uneven, and on occasion Caderyn and I had to slow our pace for the wagons as we trekked back the way we came to the fork in road before making our way to Maidens Play. The water vapour rising from the ground quickly mixed with the thickening fog, and before long we were lucky to see more than a dozen or so yards ahead of us. It carried on this way for a while, until we started to close in on the swollen river.

What we saw cutting slowly through the mist was enough to defy belief at first. The carved wooden figurehead of a ship appeared to making its way slowly along the road some distance away from us.

As the mists parted, we saw the whole picture, ship and all. The entire thing was lifted off the ground on four gargantuan wheels, and pulled along by a small army of slaves to the beat of a deep drum. Something so crazy, so audacious, would have taken a particular kind of mind to envisage. There were few people in these parts stupid or stubborn enough to attempt such a thing, and one name was coming to my mind above all others, but I hoped I was wrong.

Thorgrim the Difficult“, says Caderyn who had stopped at my side to take in the spectacle, and had similar thoughts to my own.

“Shit”, I agreed, “Thorgrim the bastarding Difficult. If that is him, and who the hell else could it be, we have no chance in a fight. Do we run for it, or try and make an offering”? Caderyn paused to think about this, his eyes locked on the unusual sight ahead of us. In a few seconds we had both come to the same conclusion. The knight’s huge mace was still in the back of one of the wagons, and might make a worthy offering. Of course I’d heard the stories about his usual weapon of choice.

He had once had three brothers, and they had all distrusted one another, possible down to the traditional Hutzlunr viewpoint with regard to families. Thorgrim was the biggest bastard of the lot of them though, and so had arranged for them all to be executed. Before that he had a Vytch – one of his several wives by all account – tear their souls from their bodies and had them bound to his Hutzaxe.

He spoke to it too, asked its council no less. Hell, there were even stories that he’d left the damned thing in charge of his army when he had other business. Crazy men are notoriously tricky to deal with, and this one was a head above even the worst that the Margomarissi had to offer.

Our decision was made for us though, as we could see a few tether and even a couple of chariots heading towards us at speed. They didn’t look like they were wanting a quiet chat about the weather, but luckily they were coming from a direction we could move away from and still make it to the river crossing at Maidens Play. If we were fast enough and had a good deal of luck.

As Caderyn and I ran back to the wagons and jumped up to grab some ropes to keep us in place, Fjorlief was on the ground, communing with nature to make the hormorn run like greased shit. They got moving quickly, and then Skuza’s carriage rattled up to speed following it, and Catranasia did her best to catch up, with me gripping tight to the rear wagon, trying to keep the animals focused best I could.

We weren’t far from the crossing by this point, but even with Earth Power coursing through them, the beasts were never going to outrun the tethers or the chariots. the best we could hope for was an easy run and that one of them might lose a wheel or throw a rider. They were already closing the distance though, and there was little we could do but hope.

Apart from Drazar that was. With his own Earth Power he could do something, but he would need to be on the ground. The thought had obviously occurred to him as he dropped from the wagon, probably grinning behind his mask, and landed without seeming to hurt himself too much, then quickly shrunk away in the distance as we moved on.

The ground was still harsh as we bounced our way along the road. The speed and rough terrain was surely causing some damage to our wagons, and I could only imagine the colours and quantity of vomit that must already have been covering the inside of the Boss’s carriage. I could see Valerius climbing on top of it though with his bow in hand and already strung. He must have thought he could at least get a shot off, and Caderyn wasn’t to be outdone by the Pelosian with a Dummonii bow, and was clambering with a lot less grace onto the top of the first wagon.

Behind us we could hear cursing in the Hutzlunr tongue, and see the tethers start to pull away from the chase as their riders berated them loudly. This was the half-Daemon doing what he could to help, and he wasn’t done yet. A few moments later one of the chariots had flipped over, crushing the two beasts pulling it and almost certainly crippling the driver. The other chariot wasn’t slowing down though and at least one more tether was still closing.

The men who rode with and fought alongside Thorgrim were all storied men. It might seem like a strange concept to you if the most excitement you get is a giddy little thrill at the casino once a mune, but for people who live to kill, their name is very important, and how people think about them, even more so. So to ride with Thorgrim, you needed a name with a story attached to it, a reason why people called you thus. And these stories were always bloody, always brutal, and usually true. If even the couple of them still heading our way made it and managed to climb onto a wagon, engaging us one on one, our blood would join the rain and mist, making mud of the road.

Drazar had given me an idea to even the score somewhat though, so I acted quickly, without thinking too far ahead. The two bowmen were in position, and the Pelosian was already drawing the string back, an arrow knocked and pointed at the man on the tether. That just left the other chariot, and I could do something about that. The range of my runic attacks were tiny though, and if I waited for them to close to within it and missed, the chariot would already be upon us. So I braced myself, and let go of the rope, keeping my Basaedo away from my body as I dropped and rolled clear of the wagon’s wheels and the stamping feet of the tether.

I turned and saw over my shoulder the look of confusion on Caderyn’s face. I had no Earth Power so no reason to be on the ground, and I imagine he would have been happier if the other trained swordsman was still around if the archers failed to bring down the fucker swinging a hatchet who was now very close indeed to the rear wagon.

No, I had no Earth Power, but if I wanted to be useful, I needed to be close to the animals pulling the chariot. I had one rune learnt that could bring down one of them, and after watching Drazar at work, I knew that would be enough to halt the entire thing. I moved away from the middle of the road and waited, the shape already formed in my head that I would need to carve into the air in front of me.

As it thundered towards me I got my first look at the driver. He was wearing a loose looking mail shirt and padded armour elsewhere, which gave me some hope.The Basaedo is a thrusting weapon, and the point could easily punch through the mail and into his flesh.

The rest of him gave me a moments pause; his face looked disfigured, but not from any scars. It was lumped and swollen in places, and just looked wrong. I would find out later why this was, and why my steel didn’t cut through him as easy as it should if he was only wearing loose mail armour.

The Hutzlunr Vytches brew magic potions for their men. These make them bigger and stronger, berserk and immune to pain. They also often disfigure them, and toughen the malformed skin, turning it into a form of natural armour. And he was smiling.

He had seen me, but then I wasn’t really hiding, and was angling the chariot to run me down, seemingly not caring that I was holding my ground rather than ducking into the undergrowth as he flicked the reins to increase his speed. I was happy to keep eye contact with the ugly grinning sod as my fingers formed the curved rune and I threw the phantom rope forward towards the front legs of the beast on the right. All I could do was hope that it was so fixated on keeping up its speed that it would be unable to move away from the entangling cords.

As I felt the rope make contact I kept my eyes locked on Smiler and pulled my fist back in one swift movement, tightening the rope and bringing both legs together in an instant. It fell forward as its back legs crashed into its front, and the other creature wheeled around, centered on the fulcrum that was the chariot’s yoke as they both crashed into the ground. And of course, Smiler had just sped them up hoping to crush me beneath their talonned feet and the momentum drove the chariot over them both, flinging him up and forward, smashing him into the road with a thud.

I had managed to avoid the flying vehicle, but Smiler had some luck all of his own and had managed survived the crash. He was already getting to his feet, be it slowly and gently. I don’t doubt that I could have just ran back to the wagons and left him to walk back as a failure to Thorgrim the Difficult, but Smiler had pissed me off. I walked towards him, and thrust my steel hard into his leg, hoping to keep him on the ground and retain the advantage.

The Basaedo went through the armour easily, but his toughened skin stopped it from dealing as much as damage as I would have liked. This was going to be a real fight, I thought, as he drew himself up to his full height in front of me, the movement pulling the tip of my steel free, letting blood run from the wound.

As all this was going on, the rest of the caravan weren’t doing much better. The hatchet-man was damned hard to pin with arrows, and only a couple even came close. He had managed to jump from the tether to the rear wagon by now, and by all accounts had done so with ease and style. Like I said, storied men are not to be trifled with.

While the archers carried on trying to bring him down, he had jumped onto the seat and kicked Catranasia to the dirt. She was damned lucky to avoid a serious injury, but also to find Drazar. He had somehow managed to catch up with the wagons – Earth Power no doubt – but could do little else from where he was. No, it was Vitus who saved the day on that wagon, with some help from Valerius.

He jumped off his own quickly moving tether and managed to land next to Hatchet-man and remove him as a threat. By this point he had a couple of arrow shafts in his left arm courtesy of Valerius, so all it took was a couple of solid blows from the caravan master, and down he went, shouting his hatred of archers as he fell.

That just left me and Smiler. He had pulled a length of chain from around his waist and was swinging it in tight circles as he came for me. It was lucky that I had my dagger in hand as it was, but he was too quick, and before I knew what was happening he had whipped the chain out towards my legs and the blow landed hard. Staggering backwards I just about managed to keep my feet and returned the blow as quick as I dared. I wanted to end this quickly, but after his first strike I knew I couldn’t live through many more so had to fight carefully.

I wished I had put more time into the new rune, but even casting something simple could have given him an opening here, so I just aimed low and went in again, trying for the already wounded leg. This time I felt the blow strike deep and he cried out and stepped backwards, pulling himself away from my steel. Turning my stance I readied for his counter, but the crash must have taken more of a toll than it seemed and he took two more steps backwards before falling comically onto his arse into the mud. He sat there for a second, that damned smile back on his lips as the air left his lungs for the last time.

My legs were bruised and shaking as he fell all the way back, and I knew I was in no fit state to run to catch up with the wagons. Hopefully Smiler had something about his person that would make the delay worth while.

Dec 072013

Killing a worthy opponent doesn’t usually bother me. By this time in my life I have realised how little it matters to keep score, but in my youth I would often take pride in such things. Strangely, even though the body at my feet had been skilled fighter and would have been a sore test of my skills had I been alone, I felt a little melancholic. Although Daggerbills are said to posses a keen animal intelligence, they still do what they are trained to do, and that makes them – like all pets – little more than slaves. There’s nothing to be gained from killing such a creature, and I wish – even to this day – that we had acted differently.

There were other concerns at the time though, and finding out why we had to kill the Daggerbill was one of them.  Laying dead a few paces back was our answer. The man looked to be a scout, and after going through his things, there was little doubt he was either that or a smuggler. He had a tent designed to kept hidden throughout the year, and in various locales, and carried on him clothing that would allow him to pass for either a Dummonii or a Pelosian. It looked like he had failed to convince at least one side though, as he had died slowly from several wounds. It was hard to say for sure if they were caused by the dirks of the Partisans, or the sword shorts favoured by the Pelosian Legions, but he had died slowly from a wound that had cut deep.

It looked like he had lain there dying for some time, and had finally passed a day or so before we came across him. His pet was obviously loyal, and had stayed to defend its master even when there was no saving him. I don’t know if the Gods look kindly on animals and birds, but I would like to think that they would make a special case for this one. We found a name tag on it as we were searching for anything of value, and finding out it was named “Daffy” didn’t help my mood at all, but at least I had a name for it if ever I had the chance to offer up a prayer.

Valerius was quick to take everything he could see of use or that would be worth more than a copper or two. I don’t know if he was also a book keeper in his real life, or if it was just in Pelosian nature to organise and record everything, but he was always the first to take on such a role, writing stick in hand, cataloging what we were taking while the rest of us packed it away. Most of it would be worth a little bit, adding maybe a few coins each to our share if we could find a buyer, but he did have one item of significant value on him. A leather bracer with an engraved coin fitted in place so it would sit over the inner wrist.

I had seen such items before, and was impressed that the scout had been able to afford one. At first I thought it was worth little though, as the wax seal that protects the rune was already broken. In the fight for his life he must have been desperate, and summoned forth the rune engraved there; Faranol’s Most Excellent Testudo as I remembered. It would have brought forth a magical shield centered on the bracer to help him defend himself. It had obviously been either too little or too late, and I was ready to throw it into the pile of assorted goods. I’m glad I took the time to pay a bit more attention though. There was still wax around the coin, and turning it over I saw that the clever little man had made sure both sides were engrave with the same rune.

Having one use left made it worth at least a couple of hundred coins, if we could find someone to pay for it, so I drew Valerius’ attention to the item, explaining what it was and how it was used. I don’t know if I expected him to impressed by the object, but he barely raised his head from his book keeping as I spoke.

With the fog still hanging heavy in the air, it seemed like night was almost upon us already. We were still some hours from the river crossing though, so made what ground we could before night fully enveloped us. The road we were on was clearly well used, and as we made our way through the early dusk, the signs of other travelers became more obvious. Littering the ground on either side of the road were discarded water skins and food waste. The path was rutted and muddy, with boot prints still in evidence all around us. If you’re reading this from the comfort of your family home, a home you have little reason to leave, you might wonder why this set my nerves so on edge.

That far away from civilisation, there’s no one you should trust. At any point we could have come across a detachment of Pelosian soldiers, and we’d be almost as likely to have our lives threatened as we did by the Partisans the day before. Only Skuza and Valerius would have a chance of keeping our skins safe if that happened, and it was far from certain they’d be able to do so easily. Even without the soldiers on either side, there would still be bandits to deal with on the roads. With the war wrapping up for the winter, they would be out in force, preying on anyone left behind, taking what they could by force or deceit.

Eventually the light vanished from the world though, and with no other option we made camp just off the road, and had to hope for the best. Caderyn was still suffering after his wrestle with the Corbie and was in no fit state to bring down fresh game for our evening meal. Daffy had one last purpose though, and we ate well from his flesh. Hard to imagine that I had lamented his passing only hours previous, and there I was licking the grease from my fingers as I tore the skin from his thighs with my teeth. A good bird to the end.

*     *     *

We slept well that night, and I had taken the time remind everyone not familiar with the activities of the New Raphelian people what would happen at dawn. I was once again awake after my watch and was amazed how Brand was able to know when the sun rose, as the mist was even thicker today. It seemed like people were finally getting used to the hollering and waling from him, as even Skuza had little to say about it over breakfast. “Really Valerius, every morning?” was all he had to say as the doctor nodded his head resignedly.

His resolve was obviously shaken though, as his desire to “rough it” with the men had vanished that morning, replaced with an overwhelming desire to have a warm bath. I knew how long it would take his poor manservant to drag the bloody thing into place, fill it with water and heat it all too, and was ready to convince him against such foolishness. Brand was quicker than I that morning though, and was able to talk him round. “My lord”, I seem to recall him saying, “You should wait until we have completed the day’s travel. You will be hot and dirty after our journey, and will only need to bathe again, so why not wait”? he looked doubtful, but the forlorn expression on his man’s face seemed to have done the job.

“Very well, for this morning just a thorough wash should suffice”, he says, looking slightly crestfallen. “And a shave mind you, must maintain a certain standard, no matter where one lays one’s head.” I did feel sorry for his man, and I had helped carry that gods forsaken bath myself, but I felt the need for a little flourish, and since I had a couple of the runes prepared, I used the Wash-maiden to freshen myself and my clothes up while the water was heated for Skuza. As the old man set about sharpening Skuza’s pearl handled straight razor, I noticed the edge on my own wasn’t up to the task. Rather than spend the time, or ask the old fellow to do it for me – I’m sure Skuza would have insisted had I asked – I set about it with another rune.

Over kill for certain; the rune used was designed for combat, to put a murderous edge or point on a blade so that it cuts through armour and skin like they were butter. Still, a clean shaved cheek was in order, and I’m sure I wouldn’t regret showing off later.

The mist again was our constant companion as we trudged through the grey light of the morning, seeing all around us the detritus of passing traffic and soon enough the signs of a recent and bloody battle. Bodies were littering the ground around us and as we moved further into their still and silent ranks, living people could be spied amongst them. Scavengers and ghouls, looking thin and wan as they scurried around, pulling scraps of clothes from remained of the bodies. It looked like anything of value had long since been claimed, perhaps by stronger more able bodied sorts than this sorry lot. They were determined though, and as we passed through them, their ranks began to thicken.

We must have looked like rich pickings indeed, when the best they could have hoped for until now was a set of teeth without too much rot, and maybe a ring ripped from the gut of a man who had swallowed it to keep it safe. The bloody and ragged masses were eyeing us hungrily as we made our way through the open air charnel house that the war had left behind. I was loath to advertise our wealth any more than I had to, but they also needed to know what would happen if they were foolish enough to try and rush us, so I drew my Basaedo as I walked forward. In no time at all, there were dozens, with dozens more in reserve, and they knew they had us outnumbered. I was eyeing the crowd looking out for ringleaders and bravos, but for now they seemed content to keep enough distance from us so they couldn’t feel the sting of a weapon.

I was feeling nervous, but doing my best to stay calm, or at least look it. If the horde thought they had us spooked, they could just about muster the courage to swamp us. I glanced to my left to see how Caderyn was fairing, and if I looked anything like as spooked as him, we were sure to be overrun in moments. Spitting onto the ground near one of the vagrants, I did my best to look imposing, hoping my not inconsiderable height might make up for the nerves that were almost certainly showing all over my face by now.

Valerius must have been aware of our predicament too, as the next time I glanced to our rear he had climbed onto the top of his wagon, and was stringing his bow. “Don’t worry about them, they’re just scavengers. They’re weak”, came Caderyn’s voice as we walked, and I just wished he looked as confident as he sounded. We were approaching a large ruck of them, and they edged closer as we moved forwards. I strengthened my grip on my steel as the Dummonii brought his shield up, looking ready to smash it into the face of anyone who came too close. “Stay away from this caravan”, he shouted, “you don’t want to end up like these poor bastards, yer innards getting picked through at the side of the road”!

A high pitched voice, screeching almost to the point of breaking came back at us, “Many have made such threats, Partisan, and they lay around you still. You’re not the ones to stop us”! In the midst of all the blood and ichor, it took a moment to work out where the call had come from, but twenty or so yards away a woman was on her knees, bloody up to her shoulders, one hand deep up the guts of a fallen warrior. Her other hand was dripping blackened blood from an organ she had torn from the man, and as she finished her cry she threw it towards us. With a dull wet noise it struck the side of Skuza’s carriage, and left a dark trail as it slid quickly into the dirt.

“Then try my words, hag! Step forward and find see if you have the stomach for killing, rather than harvesting from those already dead”, came his reply. The woman held her ground, but refused to drop her gaze. Any second now – I think – and the crowd will lose control. But they held back as we moved onward, Valerius an imposing figure from his perch, and Brand’s cold eyes keeping them back when our words weren’t enough. Ahead of us and a way off the road, even more scavengers could be seen.

These weren’t random people looking for a few hard earned coins though, but more likely the stronger of them that had claimed their prizes early, and were now sharing in the pleasure of having money to spend and gamble. Once again it seemed like the night was coming down early due to the damnable mist, and they had already lit fires to dance and fuck around. More of them were playing games, either of sport or to gamble on, with cat calls and jeers, accusations of cheating joining in the sound of dice rolling and the turn of a card. Children ran amongst them, playing games their own, and if you didn’t look too closely at what they were using as ‘balls’ in their games, it could almost be jolly.

Skuza seemed like he had something to prove after getting his home pelted with human organs, and the fact that they were some distance away did wonders for his courage. He was out of his carriage and drawing his sword as we went past them, insisting that something be done to put a stop to the ungodly way they were desecrating the dead. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact they were treating the corpses of both sides with the same lack of respect, but it was unnecessary anyway. His health was a constant vexation for him, but once again had saved us from his caterwauling as he struggled for both breath and balance before losing to both and falling silently down. Thankfully the scavengers were more concerned with their own merriment than claiming us as an extra prize, and as the minutes passed we left them behind.

The bodies laying all around became fewer as we moved away from the worst of the fighting that this nameless field had seen, and that meant less vagrants to threaten our safety. Without knowing exactly when, it seemed like we had made our way into what was once a village of some kind. The buildings were even less complete than the ones we had passed through recently, but I was still on edge. Luckily the lack of walls gave us plenty on opportunity to check them out for ambushes before we got too close. Eventually we came to a fork in the road, and Vitus was quick to call us to a halt so we could choose our best course.

Caderyn was keen on heading left towards Maiden’s Play and the river crossing he knew of, but Vitus wasn’t happy about attempting a crossing at night with so many animals and so few trained handlers. I voiced my agreement, and when Vitus offered another option I was even more vocal. Down the right hand path there was a hostel, a place of healing where anyone was welcome, be they Partisan or Pelosian, Or neither, as I so happened to be. We could have a night sleeping indoors, although they may have been left open all night, as was the way of these nuns. We could eat while sat around a table, and Skuza could bugger off to a Numare only private room for his bath so none of the rest of us would have to worry about his vanity shield falling over in a stiff breeze. I think Caderyn would have been prepared to try for the crossing rather than hang out with a bunch of Pelosian holy women, but everyone else was in agreement, and so we turned the hormorn right and set of to the hostel.

*     *     *

It was a couple of hours later that we saw the lights ahead of us, and I remember smiling to myself in anticipation. It was a large building, with huge lumber logs driven into the ground to create a hell of wall. The outer doors were, as we expected, open to all who would seek refuge. Closing in though, the smile dropped from all of our faces.

There were figures in the doorway, six of them. One was stood, ready to welcome us into the hostel, but the others hung from the wooden beams that crossed the top of the entrance way. From the clothes that were stuck to their slight frames with drying blood, I suspected they were the nuns. Our gracious host had kept the torches burning, so even from a fair distance we could see that they had been subjected to many wounds before being hanged. “Greetings”, he yelled, his voice sounding strange coming from within a large and ornate metal helm. “Welcome to this place of safety”!

His entire body was encased in metal. It was the first time in my life I had seen anyone wearing a full set of Pelo’s Plate, and to this day it still inspires a certain kind of awe. He was a short man, and stockily built, and as we drew closer I could see several ribbons of parchment hanging from his armour. At the time I had no idea what was the point of this ornamentation, but I have since discovered they were prayers and blessings, each commemorating a battle or engagement the soldier had fought in. The amount he had draped about his frame meant he was certainly a champion of high regard, but his voice didn’t seem to match his appearance.

True enough, his voice was certainly affected by the full helm he wore, but even so, it sounded too young for one so highly decorated. I know that most armies are happy to recruit from the young and impressionable, but they must have grabbed this one from his mother’s teat if he had been campaigning long enough to have so many laurels and still sound like a boy dressed in his father’s best. The voice notwithstanding, we had all slowed down as we approached. Hanging nuns are enough to give even paid killers a moments pause, especially when the bugger that almost certainly strung them up is welcoming you in, seemingly unaware of their presence.

With one hand on the grip of an eight flanged mace, easily big enough to give the Hutzlunr something to think about, he gestured again for us to come in, “please weary travelers, enter and enjoy what little hospitality we have to spare. All are welcome here, except those who practice dark and forbidden rituals that shame Pelo’s grace.” He was obviously crazy, but he just as obviously had a pretty fatal case of religion too. Over the few days of the journey so far, I had thought Skuza a little too pious for comfort, but he was nothing compared to the holy warriors of the Mazarantiom.

Those forbidden rituals he talked of could be the only reason he had strung the nuns up by the necks after torturing them. I very much wanted to not enter the place he had made his own, but to back away now would have looked suspicious to him, and at the time I had no reason to think he wasn’t alone. Behind him I could see several bodies on the floor of the courtyard, and for all I knew he could have dispatched them all, or had a dozen friends tending to the wounded, all armoured like himself. “My friends, there is no reason to be afraid to enter. Only those traitorous to the way of Pelo would turn away from his light which is offered within. You are not such traitors are you?” The voice, while still sounding younger than it should, now had an edge of steel to it. Iron can be hardened to steel in many ways, but craziness does a damned fine job.

What option did I have? I sheathed my steel and stepped forward with a smile. Caderyn looked worried, and ready to kill. “What the hell’s going on here”, he asked in Dummonii, hoping the crazy bastard hadn’t learned his tongue. With only a couple of dozen strides until we would be face to face with the man in the shiny armour, I had to keep my voice down.

“I think that the bastard in the metal has some damned strange ideas about what constitutes a sin, and has acted against these women in the manner you see before you. He should give us passage as long as we act like Skuza’s men , so for now play the good little slave, and we might see the morning”. He looked at me askance, and I realised I had used the Raphelian word for slave. I had no idea how to get across to him what I meant, so just nodded towards Brand and hoped he could figure it out. By then we were a few paces away so I bowed deeply to the man in charge. “Good evening my lord”, said I, “We were unsure if you had room for us, I can see behind you that many injured are currently in residence within these illustrious walls”.

“Worry not weary travelers, these doors remain always open, and welcoming to any who need aid. Please, enter and take your rest”. I walked past him with Caderyn and was glad to put as many paces as possible between me and him. How he could see so happy, with blood from his victims dripping inches from his shiny plate; it just made me want to punch him, and never stop. Behind me I could hear Valerius question the knight, asking about officers and detachments, but it seemed that no one was in charge here but the crazy bastard. At least he had introduced himself, now that he was talking to another Pelosian. His name was Ser Castus Fedenzo, and there was only him and his squire who were better off than the nearly dead bodies of soldiers that littered the hostel courtyard.

We saw his squire shortly after that, walking amongst the bodies, administering aid where he could. Slattero was his name, and he looked tired to the point of falling over, but still managed to smile when he saw us. “Welcome travelers, I wish I had more to offer you, but I have many patients, and scant resources as it is”. Looking about I realised that my estimates on the number of casualties was well short of the truth, dozens upon dozens of men laid about, and I wouldn’t want to bet more than a copper or two that any two of them would live to see the sunrise. The squire was quick to walk from us to see to a wounded man who had just begun screaming in agony, giving me the chance to speak to those of us still with the caravans.

“If we sleep here tonight, sleep with a weapon close to hand, and try and stay close to each other”, I begun in Pelo-Margo, “This bastard is crazy, and I have no idea what he’ll do. I do know that while he’s in that armour he could kill any one of us easy as breathing, and I’m not sure if all of us together could take him down without him taking one of us with him.” Caderyn didn’t look convinced though and was looking towards the exit.

“I don’t want to be here for a night, not with that prick. I could get out of here, stay somewhere safer until morning”. I’m sure he thought he was making a sensible move, but when dealing with crazy, sensible doesn’t always make sense.

“He’ll take that as an insult at the very least, and at worst he’ll imagine you have something to hide of an heretic nature. He will ask us what that is, and torture us to find out. Right now, with the way Skuza has been about Pelo’s way, I’m not sure if he would even put up much of a fuss about one of us being at the mercy of that prick. You’ll put us all at danger if you leave, just try and stay out of his way, this is a big enough place and we can sleep with the wagons.” I put on my most earnest face as I spoke, and thankfully my words got through to him. He nodded to me before checking again that his axe and shield were ready to be used if needed and walked back into the shadows of the wagons that were being arranged in a crescent formation. Fjorlief looked just as doubtful, and I tried my best to reassure her. “Just play nice, and when in doubt, smile and bow. It seems he doesn’t speak anything other than Pelosian, so he might not even bother trying to convert you. Me on the other hand…” I smiled and turned away to make sure everyone else was prepared for the worst.

From the large central building I could hear the high pitched tones of our far from gracious host inviting us all in for a meal. I wandered over to see the Pelosians stood near the doorway. Said doorway was surrounded by symbols daubed onto the wood in white paint, as were all the windows. My training in the complex arts of Daemonology was nonexistent and still is, but the Pelosian’s anti-Daemonic fervour left me in no doubt that Fedenzo had painted them there to keep out any sign of Daemonic taint. At the time I had no idea just how much this would be a problem for some of our party, but I had my suspicions about Drazar that would soon be confirmed.

I had no such problems, and was very happy to play nice with the crazy murdering fucker, so walked towards him with a smile all over my face, and dropped into my best Pelosian, “Why thank you kind host. I know these ladies and gentlemen would be happy to join you, but some of our party have other duties”. Drazar was staying clear for one, and Caderyn looked like he was happy to stay with the wagons. “Once they have finished they will probably just eat some rations and sleep under the stars, as is their way”. He looked happy to have myself and Fjorlief join them, but was insistent that the others also sit together and eat; some kind of Pelosian matter about treating your guests well, but at the time I just put it down to all the crazy.

Skuza was in his element, offering food to his man before he had anything himself, and then talking to Fedenzo about Pelo and all that is holy. Fjorlief caught none of it, but the knight was looking towards her and asked if we had yet to take our rightful place on the path of Pelo’s way. I had to translate for her, but did my best to deflect the question, “We are all in the process of being educated by our noble employer, my lord Skuza”. Of course he was quick to take the praise, but Fedenzo was just as quick to question his training in such matters.

“Ah, of course. One does one’s humble best, ah, but I think I’m making some substantial headway, in matters of the, ah, spiritual”, he mumbled away, obviously nervous in the face of such religious fervour. By now the knight had taken his helmet off, and his face looked just as young as the voice that issued from it. Playing nice seemed to have worked though as he did seem to be at his ease with us. After we had all eaten, Skuza was quick to take his leave and go and enjoy a bath, but our host offered the facilities to our female companions first. Once again I had to translate, but made sure to include a warning, and that if there was any trouble that Fjorlief was to stamp hard onto the floor three times to let us know. As they walked through the door to the upper floor, Fedenzo placed his prodigious mace against the door to keep the men folk from disturbing them and went out to see if the rest of our group was yet ready to join us for an evening meal.

*     *     *

For several years prior to this venture I allowed myself to get into all manner of trouble by acting before I thought about the consequences. Watching the Knight stride purposefully towards the doorway I began thinking about what could go wrong if I was correct in any way about Drazar’s true nature. I couldn’t follow the conversation, but I saw over his shoulder that Drazar was at least engaging with him. The masked man was walking towards the door, but slowly. Fedenzo’s back was to me, but I imagined his eyes fixed on Drazar, following his every pace as they slowed down the closer he got to the door and its painted sigils. My breathing had all but stopped as he came to a halt a pace or two from the door, then reversed his course, stepping backwards away from the knight. Shit.

I exhaled slowly as Fedenzo turned to face back into the building and began walking with a purpose towards the large mace he had left blocking access to the upper floor. All my thoughts about what could go wrong, what could go right, who would get hurt, who could die; they vanished and I found myself striding towards him, aiming to stop him before he had a chance to grab his weapon. He had taken his helmet off, which gave me a small chance, but my dagger would be next to useless in parrying the eight flanged mace he had his eyes set on. As I closed the distance, I knew I wouldn’t have long to put a stop to this, “Please, you don’t want to do this”, I said, with quiet resolve.

“He refuses to pass the wards. Either he’s barred from entering because of them, or he fears to try. It is my duty to question him, and I intend to do that very thing”. He had stopped short at my approach, and given me an opportunity; I could either leave him to his delusion that would give him cause to torture and kill poor Drazar, or I could try and stop him. Words weren’t going to be enough though, it is often impossible to reason with those who have eschewed it in favour of religion. Violence was my only option, but I had a few other tricks up my sleeve before we would have to exchange blows. With a swift movement that he clearly wasn’t expecting I had inscribed Lisanna’s Sudden Squall onto the air in font of me while drawing my Baseado with my right hand.

Even behind the rune hanging in the air in front of me I could feel the draft of air being sucked forward to blow away from me with the force of a gale. Fedenzo looked ready to resist, but the weight of his armour threw him off balance and he toppled to the ground in front of my, sliding a few yards away as the wind increased. I had the advantage, but couldn’t press it just yet. Walking forward even a pace would take me passed the rune I had traced in the air, and would see me caught in the squall as well. That would be a neophyte error, and one I wasn’t about to make. Caderyn it seemed wasn’t aware that the air was still moving with the speed and force of small hurricane, and with a cry of “For Branoc!” he charged towards the fallen knight with his axe held high. I knew it was going to happen, but there was no way I could have warned him in time, and he fell forward, slipping over the ground too, joining Fedenzo in a heap on the floor. Whoever this Branoc was, he obviously didn’t favour those who charger headlong into magical gales.

With only a few seconds left before he would try and regain his footing I had to keep my advantage. Remembering that two more of our party were upstairs I first called for reinforcements. I had told Fjorlief what to do if she needed help, and hoped she would understand that I was in need myself as I shouted “Three!”, and lifted my left hand towards the blade of my steel, preparing to put a wicked edge on it with a rune reserved for this very kind of situation.

Damnation! I had cast that rune earlier in the day just to sharpen a razor and impress Skuza!

I wasn’t out of tricks yet though, and the wind would take a few more seconds to die down. Pelanore’s Bumbling Befuddlement would have to do. It was a subtle rune, and there was no real way of knowing it had worked, unless the victim just flat out fell on his arse, but I had to try it. Helmet or not, I needed every edge I could get. Encased in his armour as he was I thought back to my schooling as i prepared to strike him, the rune glowing faintly as it was cast. “Aim for armpits, the throat or the belly. All armour has weak points, and if the wearer needs to move a limb that’s where you can slide a blade. Unless the bastard’s wearing Pelo’s plate though, then you’re fucked young ser”. All wise words indeed.

And here I was, stood in front of a man who was getting back to his feet wearing a well decorated set of Pelo’s bastarding plate. Caderyn was regaining his footing too, as the air whipped past them both, and I could hear from behind me the crashing of large and hurried footsteps coming down the stairs. “Cease this foolishness, NOW!”, came a cry from behind me. Valerius, I had guessed, without turning my back on my opponent for even for a second. At least he seemed on our side, hoping his voice would calm down Fedenzo where mine had failed.

Sadly it didn’t seem to have worked as he was striding confidently towards me, probably hoping to brush me aside as he went for his mace. I struck out quickly, hoping to convince him otherwise, but if the rune had taken affect, he was still in possession of his fighter’s instincts, and managed to turn his head away at the last second. The Dummonii had more luck than me though. Striking from behind, his axe glanced off the knight’s head, opening a bright red wound that barely seemed to slow him down. Rushing past me and into the fray at that point was a tall, wet and naked Hutzlunr women, screaming bloody murder and armed with the two handed sword she had reclaimed for a fallen enemy. Damn, thinks I, somewhat inappropriately, that’s a fine looking woman, and built to my kind of scale.

She charged towards Fedenzo and swung at him, the impact so solid I could feel it through my feet, but the plate did its job. Brand was also in my eye line as this was going on, moving past us and out of the door. All I could assume was that he was hoping to find Drazar and defend him if we failed to bring Fedenzo down. It seemed that the knight had similar thoughts, and had realised he wasn’t getting through us to reclaim his mace. With few better choices available to him, he turned his back and ran through the melee towards the door.

I was flatfooted by this, no doubt. My pride was also a little wounded if I’m honest. It’s not often someone I’m in a sword fight with regards me as so little a threat that they turn and walk away from me. I made him regret it though, and stabbed into his face as he turned, his own momentum and a flick of my wrist opening up a bright red smile across his cheek. The point of my steel had bitten deep, and as the blood dropped onto the floor I heard the rattle of teeth hitting wood accompanying it.

Once again though, it seemed like Pelo was providing the impetus for him though, and he was away and running, leaving a trail of claret coloured drops in his wake. He had barged between us all, but some if us were quick on his heels, naked or otherwise. I admit to being a tiny bit distracted by all of the fine female flesh on show, and I was slower than I should have been in keeping up with Fedenzo, especially considering he was wearing heavy plate and bleeding from several wounds to the head. By the time I had closed the distance he had come across Drazar, and the Yerwian had already suffered a wound, his arm looking ragged and behind the rags that remained of his sleeve, also slightly scaled.

Blows quickly rained down on Fedenzo and it was only a matter of time before he fell. In the ruck I lost track of who had inflicted what wounds, but I remember with some pride that he finally fell from a bite of my own steel. I had thrust forward towards his face again, knowing that the armour would protect him everywhere else, and the point had pierced his eye, pushing back several inches. He was still upright as the blade withdrew, and I was thinking he may in fact be favoured by his God, but then his other eye went dark and he fell forward into the dirt.

Looking around, everyone of us seemed alive, but with a few wounds dotted about. Drazar looked me in the eye, and with a slight nod began walking amongst us, working his skills, and using magic to heal the damage that the knight had wrought. I checked everyone was okay, and could see Caderyn looking at the armour. I’m sure it would need beating out in a few places if it was going to fit him, but either way it was worth a small fortune. Looking him in the eye I said, “Don’t show disrespect to the body, but take the armour if you think it’s worth the effort”.

Fjorlief only just seemed to remember her sky clad appearance, and made to head back towards the communal area. I was heading that way too, so tagged along for the short walk. I don’t know what I was thinking, if there was any chance she would be interested in me, but I had to take the shot. “You fought well”, I say, with a cheeky smile playing across my lips, “and looked damned good while doing so, if I might add!” She looked across at me – I thanked the gods for being so tall, as if she had looked down on me after I had said that, I may very well have burst into flames – and smiled back, but hers looked a little more confused than I would have liked. What the hell, she was a fine looking woman, and could handle herself with a weapon, but maybe now wasn’t the time. I wasn’t going to let it go that easily though, just hang back for a spell.

As we came upon the doorway, Valerius was walking out of it, grim faced and would likely have charged us down if we had stayed in his path. Inside was something unexpected though; one more dead body than I had accounted for. The corpse of Slattero was laying face down on a table, where previously he had eaten after his master had prepared a bowl for him. The dark puddle around his head was all the information I needed about how he had died, but the why confused me somewhat. I turned to Vitus, who had stayed put throughout the fight, probably unsure what the hell to do, and who was on the right side. “What happened here”, I asked, pointing to the boy’s body.

“Valerius”, was the reply, delivered with a voice as cold as ice. At first I thought he was angry at the Numare, but the more we talked, the more I realised he was angry at me for striking down our host. “The boy had seen what happened, he could have talked, and Valerius wasn’t happy about that”.

“Who could the boy have spoken to? We were to be gone in the morning, and we could have destroyed any paperwork that Skuza handed over that could have placed us here”! I have never minded killing, and don’t want anyone to think that I was a saint that never struck an unfair blow on an undeserving enemy, but this still angered me. The lad was just trying to help the injured, and I doubt he had enjoyed what his master had perpetrated upon the nuns, and he certainly didn’t deserve to have died at the hand of someone he would have expected to protect him. “Sod it, lets get the body outside and bury them both”.

“So you killed Fedenzo then? And what the hell were you playing at attacking him like that? How do you expect me – expect us – to trust you if you’re going to behave like a fucking savage”! Vitus was on his feet, and heading towards me, not quite fast enough for it to be considered an attack, but I’m sure the thought of striking me down had occurred to him.

“I killed the man who slaughtered the nuns. I killed the man who was going after one of our traveling companions. And I have already killed others who have threatened this caravan’s safety. It was what I was hired to do, and I will do it just as vigorously defending anyone in it, yourself included. It’s why Skuza picked me, and if he picked Drazar as well, I don’t ask why, I just keep him alive. That’s my job, never doubt I will do it to the best of my ability.” I think that calmed him down, as his shoulders slumped and he nodded slowly in either agreement or resignation.

Skuza and Catranasia were around by now, and both had looked a mixture of angry and confused as I had walked in, but placated by my words. I meant every bit of it too. I had tried to get it across to Drazar, that even from a totally selfish viewpoint, my best chance of surviving until we reached the city was if everyone else was still alive and willing to fight to make sure I got there in one piece. Take that out of the equation, and I was trying to build a reputation. If every person in this group walked away from the endeavour knowing I was a man to be trusted when I was on a contract, and told their associates, I would be in good stead for my career.

That was a thought for the future though, and at the present, I wanted words with Valerius. I was killer, no doubt, but he was a murderer. As I walked back into the darkness, dead and dying bodies ranged all around me, I saw him on his knees. What makes one man pray for another who was so clearly deranged is beyond me, but I saw that my initial assumption was incorrect. He was digging a grave for the knight with his own hands. I realised at that point that I still had my sword in my hand, and that the knight’s blood still covered the point. I wiped it off onto the wet grass and watched. Whatever his reasons for doing what he had done, approaching him about them now was more likely to cause more trouble than resolve anything.

Anyway, Drazar was heading over, and he looked like he wanted to talk.

Dec 042013

Balance is a tricky thing in RPGs. Some would even argue that it is not relevant and that player agency and good games mastering should be all that is required. I disagree with such sentiments, and think when it comes to character generation, the process should allow for everyone to begin on a level playing field. This is sorely tested when magic is introduced into pretty much any system. Even the simplest of systems can sometimes struggle, but I think Savage Worlds is one of the few that does it well.

One of the classics has a differing approach, with magic being pretty under-powered for starting characters, but growing to epic proportions later, allowing them to outclass their sword wielding brethren as they raise through the levels. In Orbis there are various schools of magic – some high, some low – and they all have differing power levels. For the first time ever I have generated a character with some magic ability, but haven’t concentrated on it. For the people who haven’t been keeping up, my character is a duelist who has access to the power of Geomancy which he mainly uses to give himself advantage in combat.

Geomancy is the power to change the world around you by casting runes. These changes can be small and subtle, such as cleaning the clothes you’re wearing or honing the edge of a blade, or large and obvious, like removing the pull of Uma’s gravity from large objects. In terms most gamers should understand, it is the closest magic system to the traditional way of magic or sorcery from D&D, with a limit on how many “spells” you can learn, and how many you can cast a day, with more powerful runes only available when you have enough points/ranks in the skill. Like D&D magic then, it looks like you start small and could become massively powerful. The amount of time you would need to devote to the art is a huge restriction though.

I have played magic users that within a few months of play could call down fire from the heavens. In Orbis however, there is no way that an adventuring character could ever have the time or resources to spend on learning and mastering such powerful runes. In this way it has an inbuilt balance that is kept under control by the players. Could I learn the truly powerful runes that could shake the very foundations of Uma? Of course I could, but it would be the very definition of a boring role playing experience, and would still take far too long.

There are of course other options to you though. Heart’s Fire is an elemental power that has almost limitless destructive potential. You’d be a bloody fool to unleash it all though, as every use of the Fire carries with it a risk of mutation. This risk rises with continued use and increases in line with how powerful a Fire you wish to wield. Again, self limiting by the player’s choices, and most adventurers only pull out the big guns when their lives depend on it, knowing full well that even if they survive they might never be the same again.

Earth Power is strange one. It is almost limitless from a very early stage, with users able to do almost anything they could imagine! Sounds great so far, but it only affects living things. And the living thing needs to be in contact with Uma. As does the person casting it. So, limited again, but so far I have seen characters with this power possess the will of their enemies or uproot great trees. To keep it under control somewhat, the character has a limited number of “points” that they use to activate their powers. The more powerful the magic, the more points it costs. Come the following dawn though, all points return without even needing the traditional hour or what-have-you of meditation that is usually required for such things.

For me, the one that looks the most broken though, is Daemonology. Basically the ability to reach through the fabric of reality and bring forth creatures whose will you bent to your own with powers almost without limit. Unlike the other magics, the Daemonologist is massively powerful right from the off. The only real limit is that each creature they bring through drains points from their Willpower attribute. Although this can go up, most people who create a Daemonologist have it as high as it’s going to go pretty early on, and soon hit the point where even attempting to bring anything else through is just another way to commit suicide.

In our current game we have one such character who has begun play with a Daemon bound weapon. Because of this weapon, Brand is now the best fighter in the game, easily surpassing professional warriors who have dedicated a boat load of points and abilities in learning how to effectively swing a sword. When I first realised this, I was stunned as I thought that this threw the balance out completely. Not only was he the most effective fighter, but he could still use Daemonology to even better effect! The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that the balance was just a bit backwards.

Other magic users get better – with limits – as time progresses and advancement points are acquired, but the Daemonologist hits their upper point pretty damned quickly and need to look to other areas to improve themselves. Unlike other magic users, they are also unable to use their powers responsively. If I was faced with a superior enemy, I could cast a rune to knock them from their feet and then impale them as they laid helpless. A Daemonologist would require hours – if not days – to bring a creature through to help them in a fight. Add to this the cultural problems with Daemons that exist throughout Uma, and you could end with a character with immense power that isn’t allowed into entire countries.

The lower magics that exist act more like special skills than world altering powers, so don’t need the time spent discussing them. The High magics mentioned above though, are amazing. Each has been created in a way that makes sense within the physics of the world, even of they can sometimes warp said physics. They exist in the cultures of Uma differently, and how you feel about any of them could vary depending on which city you were born in. And, importantly, none of them break the game. You could try, but you would fail, and end up having a fairly rubbish time while you did so. They add so much to the game world, and fight perfectly well into the system without needing a huge amount of extra rules just for them, that you’d be foolish to create a character without at least taking a look at what’s available to you.

In other news, it looks like Kickstarter has sorted out the money going to the lads who created this amazing game, and the digital copies should be going out by the end of the week. If you backed this campaign, I’d love to know what you think about the game when it arrives, so please let me by dropping me a comment below.

Dec 022013

Yeah, I know, almost totally pointless title up there huh? This needed to be done though, as I know not everyone who reads this thing is on Facebook and has liked the page I have for it. It’s that page that I use for little news bits, both about the blog and on other geeky gaming related things that interest me, and I used to make a wee announcement last week. This is a bit more detail, and a catch up for everyone.

Some of my more regular fans will have noticed that I have been far from usual active self recently. This is both on the blog, and with regard to a few other projects too. My column has had to go on hold, and the game I’m designing is very much on the back burner. I’ve been unable to devote the time I’d like to spend trawling the RPG blogosphere – is that still a word people even use? – and even having the time to get into conversations with people on G+.

The reason for all this is that I’ve been devoting almost all my spare time to a rather large project. You see, since graduating university I have been struggling on the same part time wage I had to supplement my income while I studied. This is a pitifully small amount of money, and it’s been a horrible couple of years. The only way I’ve been able to survive is because of the kindness of my darling girlfriend, ebaying some unwanted items, some rare overtime and the extra bit of money I managed to bring in with little writing gigs here and there. It was very much not enough though, so a few months back I made a big decision.

I was getting quite depressed about the lack of opportunities, and each rejection for a job I applied for dragged me further down. I needed to do something to take control of my life again. Since starting the blog, it was one of the few things that made me happy and that was mainly down to doing my own thing at my own pace for a change. So, after conferring with the missus I started putting plans in motion to go into business for myself.

I have spent almost every spare moment since then doing everything I could to make this happen, and it is now getting pretty damned close to becoming a reality. I have all but secured full funding for my idea, and am just waiting to hear back from a couple of people about some final touches. As long as nothing goes awry though, I should be opening my own comic book store early in the new year.

This will still be a whole bunch of work, but most of it will happen during working hours and I should end up getting some evenings back, once I get my head around book keeping and the like. Until then, I’m afraid that the way I use this blog will have to change. Instead of writing a weekly column on whatever role playing topic crosses my mind, I will be keeping up the Orbis player diary that I’ve been writing. This is simply down to the fun of doing some creative writing that doesn’t take as much out of me, but means I still get a creative output. Due to my strange schedule at present, I won’t be able to release it on any given day however, so either keep checking back or follow me on some social media thingy. Like Twitter.

Other than that, thanks for the support everyone, and if you live anywhere near me, I expect to see you in my store as soon as it’s open.

Nov 302013

Drazar and I sat for a while in conversation that evening. After being offered up as a sacrifice to a Daemon, I knew he wasn’t going to be in the best of moods. At the time I still didn’t know why, but since I hadn’t had the chance to discuss it with Fjorlief, I just set about damping down the fire somewhat. Out there, taking the hard roads through a hard country, I didn’t want to be worried about two of my fellow travelers being at each others throats. Not when it looked like we would have no shortage of strangers more than happy to take on that job.

He seemed happy to listen to me, but managed to once again steer clear of the question of his mask. I wasn’t going to push him too hard though; he seemed happy to talk to me about other things, and pushing him away would have just made matters worse. Caderyn had no such qualms, and was quick to assume the worst, “She was probably off due to your spirit being aflame and being eaten away. You must have done something to cause offense”? He had obviously either overheard our conversation or had been privy to the Vytch’s opinions already.

While we were in the caves of the dead, I had noted that something wasn’t quite write with our Yerwian friend. From what I understood of such matters, he was a wielder of the Earth Powers and something in those dark caves had affected how he was able to sense the flow of the earth power. To this day, I couldn’t explain it any better than that, but it had obviously affected him if I had noticed it while he was hidden behind his mask. The Vytch also used the Earth Powers for her own magics, but didn’t seem to have been as put out by our subterranean journey as Drazar. Maybe she was surprised by how much it had affected him, and that was what she thought was “wrong” about him.

Either way, the Dummonni’s interruption called an end to our conversation and before long Skuza was making his presence known. Thankfully the herbal concoction that Valerius had provided had kept him out of our hair through the worst of the day, but he was up and about again now. For some reason he seemed determined to spend time with us as a man of the people he so clearly wasn’t. He at least seemed on Drazar’s side about the debate, agreeing with me that just getting along would be the best option.

The fact that he seemed equally frightened by the idea of a foreigner, a magic user and a woman probably tells you a lot about the kind of man he was, and after the day we’d had I decided to have some fun with the poor fellow. I knew he was trying his best, but it just wasn’t the right time. As he was stalking the campsite, hand on the pommel of his ferros, trying his damnedest to look every inch the wandering hero, I turned back to Drazar with a smile, “When he next has his back to us, throw a stick into the tree line. Lets see how brave and heroic he really is”.

He looked over to me and I could swear that he was smiling beneath his mask, eyes deep blue even the red light of the fire. There’s only so long that you can have some Numare try and convert you I guess, and that time was long since passed in Drazar’s case. He waited for the right moment and swiftly threw a short branch into the trees at the edge of our camp. Skuza wheeled around hurriedly, hand gripped tightly around his honour blade, eyes wide with fear. It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing, but then Drazar threw again. Skuza spun like a top seeking out the Dummonii partisans that he was sure were waiting just beyond the range of his vision, readying their knives to skin us all at a  moments notice.

They never appeared of course, but Valerius and Brand shortly made their way back, curtailing our fun. I don’t doubt that the physician had as little time for Skuza as the rest of us, but as a fellow Numare, he seemed honour bound to show him respect, and would probably have looked down on us for toying with him. That being said, I was happy to see his stern expression tonight as with it came a Toma. Not the mythological fiend that the Daemon had impersonated to trick us, but an honest to goodness toma. We ate well that evening, with a fresh stew made with vegetables from Brand thrown in the pot too. Brand being Brand, he was quick to work his way through the offal that the rest of us had left behind, tutting away at us for being wasteful.

We weren’t letting it all go to waste though; Valerius had claimed one of its horns, either for a drinking vessel or a prize, and I had asked for the skin. Brand set about treating it for me, and I still have the gloves that were made from that beast to this day.

*     *     *

Once we were all fed, it was time to get some sleep. We maintained the same watch pattern, regardless of Drazar and Fjorlief’s objections to spending so much time together alone. They would just have to put up with it, and if they managed to survive the night together, than there might yet be hope for them. As I pulled my blanket around myself I listened to the noises of the forest at night. After our near call with the vraag the other night, I didn’t fancy being caught out again. All I could hear though were the noises of some Scaren, and the unmistakable cawing of the Corbie that seemed to be following us from the caves.

I hoped no one was foolish enough to try and bring down one of the winged rodents for sport or food. Their defensive mechanism has to be seen to be believed, and really does no benefit to the individual scaren that has to employ it. Luckily I was awoken some time later without finding anyone covered in bits of flesh and foul smelling ichor.

I had a couple of hours before full dawn, so I made sure there was water for a hot drink and anyone who needed to shave, then set about my morning ritual of re-imprinting some selected runes in my memory, in case I might need them during the day. As I was finishing up, I spotted Brand getting himself ready for his particular morning ritual, and smiled as I realised that I had forgotten to remind our employer of the wake up call he was about to receive. As the bellowing and wailing began, I thought how lucky we were to be camped so close to the mountains still, as the echoes joined in his own high pitched shouts, adding to the cacophonous assault.

“Bless Pelo! Is this to happen every morning”! Skuza threw open the window of his caravan and shouted out to us.

“Indeed my Lord”, I replied, with a smile on my face and a warming beverage in my hand, “the daemons do not rest, so our holy man does not either. It is truly a good sign for the day though, just listen to the earth shouting back to him in agreement. Uma herself has blessed this day for us”! I wasn’t entirely sure he believed me, but I was just trying to get through the morning without incident, and was happy for him to take his cup and join us for breakfast. Maybe in future I should learn more about this Pelo, god or man that he was, and use it to placate our nervous patron.

The hunter’s gatherings still remained so we ate well indeed, and Skuza decided to forgo his morning bath, roughing it with his men, as we discussed our route for the day. As a non native to either of the lands we were skirting the borders off, I had little to offer in the discussion, but it seemed that once again we were to brave the Dummonii side as it looked like the quickest way to reach our destination. The other option was a place called Kad-Bah, but only the Pelosians seemed keen on journeying there, and not even all of them.

They made pointed looks towards the New Raphelian and the other foreigners, but Catranasia seemed to have something else on her mind that made her want to steer clear of the outpost. It had a ferry that we could use to cross the river easier, but there would likely have been a day long delay both waiting for the ferry and jumping through the Pelosian bureaucratic hoops. It was all much of a muchness to me, but I was happy to cede to Caderyn’s plan when he informed us all of a fording point only really known to scouts on the Dummonii side. The place was called Maiden’s Play, but I had reason to doubt we would have as much fun as the name implied. With everyone in agreement though, we quickly set off, at our usual walking pace, with the fighters taking point.

*     *     *

It was plainly clear that we were in the disputed lands, and that the war – although winding down for the year – was still fresh, and had left fresh scars on the countryside. Ahead of us were six impaled Pelosian men. All looked like legionnaires to me, with tattoos on their shoulders, bar one that was probably a priest of Pelo. They had been stripped of anything else though, and left to die, naked with a sharp pole thrust up through their arses and out of their mouths. I’d heard stories of such atrocities – and the things that Pelosians did to their own enemies – while I was back home, but it was another thing entirely to see the poor sods hanging limp like that. The partisans were supposedly skilled at such things, and could leave you hanging like that until you died from hunger, rather than pierce any vital organs on the way through.

I doubt if such a thing is possible now, but at the time the stories seemed very real. They had been indeed been there for days, and dead for about that long. The skin was already tightening in the heat, and black carrion flies were everywhere. Soon the bodies would be little more than nests for maggots and eventually just a stain on the wood. Valerius was as grim faced as I had ever seen him, but Skuza was almost apoplectic. Once he had cleared his gut of his breakfast at the sight and smell of the impaled Pelosians, he insisted we cut them down and bury them.

Looking about, it was fairly clear that what ever had happened here had taken place days ago, but I doubt Skuza knew that at all; he just wanted to do the right thing, the bloody fool. The fact that a holy man was hung up there made him doubly sure, even as he once again lost control of the contents of his stomach. “My lord”, interrupted Valerius, “look about you. The tree line is close, and we have no idea if the scalpers are still around. This could likely be a trap, designed to get well meaning folk such as ourselves to stop, so that we can be run through just like these poor souls”.

“Also, we don’t want to offend Krath”. We turned and looked at Caderyn at this, wondering just who the fuck this Krath was, but fully expecting it to be some kind of god of bloody awful deaths and horror. The boss seemed to be the only one who wanted to do anything for the poor bastards – I for one was happy to keep going until we made it across the river, stopping for any length of time made us tempting targets for anyone with a grudge, Dummonii or otherwise. Skuza didn’t want to give up on this though, it seemed like it meant more to him than his own safety, but luckily for us, his constitution got the better of him. He was breathing too quickly, but struggling to suck in any air, and with his hand on his chest he fell unceremoniously backwards in a dead faint.

Valerius and Vitus lifted him back into his caravan, and we all moved off, glad to leave the grim spectacle behind us. Were these more ghosts that would follow me? I hadn’t killed them, or left them to die with a ten foot pole stuffed right up their fundament, but just leaving them like that could still have pissed them off somewhat. They never did haunt me, but I do wonder if Skuza still remembers them?

As we marched further onward there were more signs of the recent hostilities; a few half destroyed buildings in the Pelosian villa style, and corpses of hormorn lying by the side of the road. Someone with better eyesight than me also spotted day old tracks of some zolts, moving tightly together, probably someone’s guard beasts or part of a hunting pack, but it kept us all concentrating on our surroundings, that’s for sure. When I saw more ruined buildings up ahead, I got a strange nervous tickle down the back of my neck. The others looked ready to carry on down the road, but there was at least two buildings on each side of the road, and half ruined or not, they made great hiding places for anyone wanting to ambush us.

“I know it looks like a couple of days since anyone was round these parts”, says I, “but I’d be happier taking a look at those buildings on foot for now, just in case there’s anyone left around waiting to give us a surprise”. Most of them looked at me like I was a paranoid fool, but Drazar was quick to offer his assistance. With his mastery of the Earth Power, I was glad to have him on side, and it seemed that taking the time to talk to him the evening before had worked out in my favour. I thought for a while it would just be the two of us, but Caderyn eventually offered to join us too, something that I would be very thankful for later.

As we made our way forward, Caderyn’s training as a scout was obvious, as he quickly disappeared into the undergrowth, constantly moving from cover to cover. Even Drazar seemed to know what he was doing, but hung back a little his deep blue eyes concentrating through the mask as he slowly stalked towards the buildings. As we neared them I was struggling to keep the Dummonii in sight, so skilled was he at keeping hidden, but Drazar pointed me towards a certain building. I could see nothing unusual about it; no figures in the windows, or shadows moving within, but he seemed sure, and I knew well enough to heed his advise.

Moving closer, I began to hear the sounds of talking. The language was clearly Dummonii, and there was at least four or five people engaging in conversation. I moved as close as I dared before I spotted a bowman on the roof of another building, and realised just how much danger we were all in. From where I was hidden I could just about make out a few obvious partisans, one built like a brick shit-house with a Hutz-axe in hand, a couple of women – including one sat on a tether – and a handful of other rough looking types. I could also just about make out Caderyn, and signaled him to be wary as best I could.

Thinking such a thought, I turned to see Drazar walking down the street towards the building. He was trying his best to stay in cover, but there was no way that anyone stationed on a roof would fail to see him. It was either take a risk or watch or him stuck with Dummonii arrows. Luckily for him, I acted as usual without even really thinking, and gave out a low whistle. The Gods alone know if it sounded like a bird native to anywhere even in these lands, but it got his attention without alerting the Dummonii, and he scampered back to where I was secreted. “Partisans, Drazar”, I whispered, “You need to get back to the wagons and bring Brand and Valerius. Make sure he has his bow strung, there’s at least an archer or two”. And with a nod he was off, keeping his head low heading back towards the carts.

It helped that Caderyn was making a distraction of his own, but at the time I was more concerned with my own skin. He had walked right up to the Partisans, weapons not drawn, hands held high, looking ready to parley. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then he was talking, loudly at first, claiming to be one of them, or at least in the same line of work. It calmed them down somewhat, and after that he dropped his voice so that I couldn’t make out more than an occasional word. The way he had managed to get close to them with alarming them had me worried that he was about to betray us, and I kept my sword in my hand, the fingers of my other hand tracing out a Rune of sharpening on the air above the blade.

No matter how hard I strained, I couldn’t make out what was being said, but behind them I noticed something that shouldn’t be. A still living Pelosian, stripped almost naked was standing unsteadily on a buggy. His neck had a rope coiled around it that was hanging from the tree above, and every little breeze seemed like it would be enough to knock him off balance and end his life. I looked around for a way to get to him when I finely heard something from the Partisan: “Killing many Pelosians!” It was the big sod, the one carrying the Hutz-axe that looked almost the right size for him. I spied Caderyn quickly, and he seemed to be making placatory hand signals to the men, but I still wasn’t sure exactly whose side he was on.

The wait for reinforcements took an age, so long in fact that Caderyn was walking away from the Partisans, almost straight towards me. I know he was formidable in a fight, but I also knew he was injured, and hoped that if he was about to attack I could take advantage of that and at least finish him off quickly. He still had no weapons drawn though, and was whispering as he came upon my hiding spot, “They mean to let us pass, come back with me, but keep your weapon sheathed”.

Sod that, thinks I, “They haven’t seen me, if I stand up now, how do I know I won’t get perished”?

“Come on you bloody idiot”, was his only reply, but he didn’t seem to want to draw their attention to me, so kept on walking before any of the partisans would get suspicious of his dallying in the rubble. I watched him walk away, back towards the caravans, and held my position, happy to be able to at least hear them talk, now that Caderyn was no longer there, practically whispering. What I heard was something very similar to the conversation going on between my friends I would later find out. Some wanted to kill us as we approached, others were happy to let us past if we didn’t start any trouble, and a few just plain didn’t trust that we were just going to go on our way without trying to kill them all.

I heard all this, and saw the dark fleeting shape of Brand in the tree line. I didn’t know why he wasn’t attacking, but was happy to at least know that him and his magic sword were close by. It would certainly scare the crap out of a bunch of pissant partisans, and could give us the edge we’d need against a group with better numbers and position, should it come to that. It wasn’t to come to that though, and before long, I saw the caravan heading towards me, rolling along at its usual slow pace, with Caderyn at its front. “Come on out Kantrel”, he shouted, “we have safe passage, just put your bloody sword away”! The bugger was looking right at me, and there was little I could do from where I was. I wasn’t going to meekly step forward though, so instead I stood up swiftly with a smile on my face and my steel in hand. With a flourish I swept the length of the blade across my front, and slid it swiftly into its scabbard while turning to face the partisans with a smile and a bow.

Turning my back on them was a hell of a risk, knowing now that they had at least two men with warbows in the buildings above me, but I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me worry about them, “Don’t worry none, they don’t plan on killing us, just letting us go past if we keep ourselves out of trouble” I said. As I rejoined my companions, I shared a smile with Vitus, who seemed pleased that we had at least got a little something over them, but they weren’t going to let us have the last laugh. One of them had walked towards the hanging man as I had walked away, and as we neared them, ready to go past, he kicked the buggy out from under his feet. The rope went tight, and his legs started to kick. The drop wasn’t far enough to break his neck, and it would be a slow death for this man, whoever he was. “Next we meet, your going to die first, pig-sticker man”, sneered the big fellow, looking at me with a powerful hatred. I kept my hand on the hilt of my sword, knowing that only Caderyn and I were still armed and met his gaze: “I’ll be waiting, when the midnight killer smiles”, I replied in Raphelian and carried on walking, leaving him looking confused.

*     *     *

The rest of the day passed uneventfully; more walking, more signs of war. We were never a very chatty group on the march, but we were practically silent that afternoon. Only Caderyn seemed his usual self, but I can’t imagine him losing any sleep over a dead Pelosian, regardless of whether it was a combatant or just an innocent farmer. This close to the front line, I don’t suppose anyone could be thought of as an innocent bystander.

Come the evening we settled down for another night, and Skuza brought forth a bottle of white wine, and several goblets. It was a small bottle, and shared between us all, we we were lucky to get more than a mouthful each. I wasn’t in the mood to be drinking, so took a small sip for the sake of decorum, than passed what little was left on to Vitus. More than anyone, he seemed to have taken the Pelosian’s unwarranted death to heart. I noticed that Valerius also didn’t seem to be in the mood for drink, but didn’t draw any attention to it. As we sipped, Skuza again went into his man of the people act.

After the day we had had, I wasn’t in the mood to play with him for fun, so instead thought I would do him a favour. He had after all spared us some of his no doubt very expensive wine. As he waffled on about Portage ales and this being the closest thing he had to offer, I took the time to thank him, not only for that, but for being willing to lead from the front when facing the Partisans. I slight bending of the truth, but it lifted his confidence somewhat to know that the men thought highly of him, and in the days to come, we would sorely need him to stay focused on the path ahead, believing he was a capable man to lead us.

With the wine all drunk, we called it a night, set the watches, and prepared ourselves to be woken at dawn in the usual fashion.

*     *     *

The next day we began our journey through the foothills towards the vale of mists, and were lucky enough to have an uneventful morning. Noon rolled around soon enough, and we were again confronted with the signs of the war. At least eight dead Dummonii, each executed in the style of the legion. After dispatching the deserter, I knew the signs well enough, but we moved on with barely a word. It was true that both sides were capable of atrocities in this conflict, but since we had recently seen what the Partisans were willing to do first hand, we were’t in a rush to defend them, or honour their fallen.

We moved on through the mists and ahead of us we heard some kind of commotion. The fog was too thick to see that far ahead of us, but the sounds of a struggle still reached us. Drazar used his gifts to pinpoint its location, and a few of us headed off in that direction. At first I thought we were facing more vraag based on the noises we were hearing, but as we closed in, something bigger was seen striding through the mist. Its long pointed beak was sharp enough to rival my steel, and it moved quickly, like a fencer sizing up an opponent.

The Dagger bill was huge, and if it wasn’t in our way, I would have been happy to have gone around it, rather than tangle with it. We didn’t have that luxury though, so we went at it with a gusto. The mist was too think to be entirely accurate about what happened during the melee, but I do remember Drazar falling at one point. The point of my Baseado found its target, but the thing was wearing armour! Around its neck hung a small steel plate acting as a breastplate.

The cling of metal on metal had me startled, and I glanced around, not sure what to expect. On the ground behind the bleeding Dagger Bill was a body in a pool of blood. Seeing this, I looked again at the creature, taking in its livery and decoration. It was clearly a pet of some kind, maybe even a riding beast, but these things were often trained to defend their owners too. In a few more seconds, the bird was down, with Fjorlief claiming the final blow, and its neck. As we all calmed down, getting out breathe back, we stepped forward around the fallen body, wondering what had become of it.

Nov 242013

I have often wondered if the name of the Caves of the Dead was incorrect, or if we were just lucky. The walls between this world and another, were definitely thinner in those dark and winding caverns, but either that world wasn’t the next, or we were just pretty lucky.

As we made made our way deeper and farther underground, the temperature plummeted. In no time at all, the air was filled with our frozen breath, and the steady dripping of ice cold water. I had sold some of my winter clothes in tiny little village on the way to the Margomarissi, and used the money to purchase food and a thin mail vest, expecting to need that more than some stout under garments. I was regretting that decision at the time, and had to make do with wrapping my cloak tight around myself and pulling on my thin gloves, for all the warmth this afforded me.

Fjorlief looked to have the best protection from the cold, wrapped up like a swaddled infant, but if we got into a fight, she would be ill prepared to let alone draw her new two handed sword, let alone swing it to attack. Those of us on foot did the best we could, helped out by walking rather than sitting stationary as the cold seeped into our bones. One of the Pelosian drivers, Catranasia, seemed to be suffering the most, even with advice from the Hutzlunr on how to keep the cold at bay.

She had obviously come to the conclusion that Skuza would be too damned scared to take any route other than on approved Pelosian roads, and would arrive at market in time to spend her share of the profits on buying some warm and woolly clothing. Hopefully this would be a rare mistake, and one that she wouldn’t come to regret. Something seemed off about Drazar now I think back on it, but since he was always hidden behind that damnable mask, I have no idea why such a thought would come to me.

Maybe it was just the way he sat as the dripping intensified, huddled even more closely to himself, as if he could force the water to ignore gravity’s call by sheer force of will. For the rest of us, the heavier water falling was something to be pleased about. “We’re about half way there, by my reckoning”, piped up Caderyn, “or at least we will be once we’re under the river proper”. Everyone nodded, happy in the knowledge that we would only have to endure the biting cold and wet surroundings for a few more hours at most.

The darkness of the caves cannot be over-emphasised at this time, but when it lessened, we weren’t happy with what the light revealed. With few light sources available to us, and the walls slick black with moisture, we were lucky not have had any accidents as we moved through the tunnels. Ahead though, there seemed to be light. Moving closer we found ourselves in a pool of white, above us a natural fissure in the rocks wide enough to let light down even this far. I blinked my eyes rapidly to get accustomed to the glare, and around me the walls of of the cave stared back unblinking.

Embedded into the walls were countless skulls, their empty sockets staring at us all. Some were certainly – or at least at one time were – human, but others were either men from an earlier time, when savagery had warped their physique, or they were something different entirely. Something from another place, that may have tried to look human, but had failed in some small way. Too long in tooth, bigger in eye, flatter of the skull…

Enough to fool some people, maybe allowing them to get close enough to feed, perhaps? I know now why I was feeling such things, why my mind was drifting further into fantasy, rather than concentrating on the very real dangers around us, but it took a Hormorn bellowing and dragging its horn against the stones to break me out of my fancy, and think about why I was acting so strangely.

Covering the walls, the bones, the skulls – everywhere, around us and above – grew a black moss. Shadow moss. An hallucinogenic growth taken by Dummonii priests as part of their rituals, and anyone else for that matter, who just wanted something of an escape. The water dripping from the ceiling, that had been falling onto our faces for at least an hour solidly had run through the moss, picking up fibers as it did. What ever alchemical agent it was within the shadow moss that caused its users to see what could not be seen had obviously been working on me, if not all of us.

In that moment of clarity, I knew I had to warn everyone, lest we all succumb to delusions, trapping ourselves forever in not only the caves, but also our fevered imaginations. Most of the party was quick to heed my warning, wiping their water away from their mouths, and pulling their hoods further over their face to prevent more from dripping onto their lips. There was little we could do for the hormorn, and we could only trust to their constitution and the skill of their handlers.

“It lets you see the dead”, I heard Caderyn say, as we made ready to move once more into the darkness. He was staring at the moss covered walls as he spoke, seemingly lost in thought, maybe remembering his last trip to this hellish place. I was about to ask why that could be considered a good thing, when he reached forward and tore some of the moss from the wall and held it in his hand. I could see what was going to happen, but seemed unable to stop him, to even want to try. In all honesty, if he hadn’t done what I knew he was about to do, I dare say I would have. With barely a moments pause, he opened his mouth and pushed the small handful of moss between his lips.

I half smiled at this. His reasoning was clear; if he could see the dead, he could warn us all of dangers we might not be able to comprehend. I’d have done it for the thrill myself, and to have saved anyone else from having to do something they may not have wanted to. I wasn’t sure if he was doing because he wanted to, or because he saw it as his duty to as the only Dummonii amongst us. At least, so far as we knew. I wasn’t going to let his visions take us too far off our course though, or allow him to hurt himself as he had done something quite noble, intentionally or not. I would stay by him until we were out of the caves, watching his back for corporeal threats, as he guarded us from other worldly ones.

*     *     *

We walked some way, Caderyn at our front, with me as his shadow. Valerius stayed close by too, for which I was thankful. The markings we were seeing on the walls near splits in out path meant nothing to me. Caderyn seemed led by something else, and I was following him, Valerius had to act as our guide.

I had seen a few of the others strip some moss from the walls, but they weren’t ingesting it, so I said nothing. If they wanted to partake on their own time, that was their call to make. Hell, they could sell the stuff to Pelosian mercenaries for all I cared. It was when I saw the glint of amber that I started to worry about taking things not meant to be touched. Everything we had picked up so far on the road had been taken and counted by Valerius, with the understanding that even if you carried it now, it was the property of Skuza.

This was his endeavour, and I had no problem with this ruling. Fjorlief would have to pay the value of her new sword from her share of the profits, and I was happy to give up a few coins for the Hutzlunr ’s battered brigandine. Caderyn claimed no desire to keep hold of the battered and rusty helmet he was wearing, but that surprised no one. A hunk of uncut amber the size of my fist though, that was tempting to take. Something told me that to do so would to be to risk the ire of whatever else lived inside these caves though, so I stepped quickly forward, keeping the Dummonii at my side.

“That is not for us”.

It took me a moment to realise that he had spoken at all, and I wasn’t sure to whom he was directing the admonishment. I quickly looked about, spotting Catranasia eyeing the amber. I don’t know if she had jumped down to grab it and been stopped, or if Caderyn just knew her mind and was quick enough to stop her from making a grave error. She complied, but others were also keen on taking souvenirs. As I said, there was plenty of shadow moss going to be walking out of the caves with us, but some were looking to grab other fungus too. “Put it back, the spirits ain’t pleased”, once again it was Caderyn who spoke, but I was never sure if he even saw what the others were doing, or was following instructions from the voices in his head.

As we approached another junction, I was sure that he was seeing things the rest of us weren’t. he paused as we neared the left hand turn, but never made a move towards it. Valerius seemed happy to be continuing on our way too, but there was something there that had captured Caderyn’s attention. “Don’t interfere, don’t follow”, he said to the darkness down the tunnel, “We’ve already dealt with you. Go along your way.”

I should have asked who was there that wanted to dog our steps, but it seemed a personal moment, and with a shake of his head, Caderyn turned away and continued down our chosen path. No matter how intently I stared down the side tunnel, I saw nothing but blackness.

*     *     *

That wasn’t the last strangeness that awaited us down paths not taken, but rather that than anything blocking our way. Another alcove, this time with something of flesh within. Almost human from a distance, but up close, it was an “empty one”. No soul left, maybe never had one. When Caderyn spoke, it was getting harder to keep up with his thoughts. It was as if he was asking questions of someone not there, and getting interrupted by them too. He seemed to know what this thing was though, and kept his distance.

The figure was short and squat, barely covered in ragged clothing, but with a clay bowl in its hands. It turned towards us as we approached, and Caderyn assumed a defensive posture, clearly worried that this little thing might be dangerous. It seemed small and inconsequential to me, but I wasn’t about to die because my pride had made me stupid. I didn’t move too far back though, and used the length of my sword to steer the bizarre little homunculus past me, towards the carts.

It didn’t seem to care, or even notice that it had come close to being impaled on several feet of steel, and just carried on until a hormorn put its mouth into the bowl and took the entire wad of moss. With that taken care off, it just carried on back the way we had come as if it hadn’t a care in the world.

I looked towards the Dummonii, hoping he would have something to say that made sense. “We are being hunted. The Toma comes, and this was a warning. It meant no harm, and was sent by a benevolent spirit”. All I could do was nod, but over his shoulder, I saw that this spirit, friendly or not, might have more to say. Another Empty One was heading towards us, slowly, feet almost dragging as it held its bowl of moss towards us. Caderyn turned to follow my gaze, and I saw a smile play across his lips, “They bring more shadow moss, this is a good sign”.

My sword was already in hand, and I wasn’t yet ready to sheath it, as further ahead, I was sure there was another. Caderyn took the moss from the closest one’s bowl, putting into his mouth and began to chew. There was definitely another ahead of us, moving out from an alcove to head in our direction. As it closed on us I directed it past, trusting the others to do the same. looking over my shoulder, it seemed the biggest threat to it was the hormorn.

At least a couple were almost as high as our guide, and none of them seemed to care about trampling one of the creatures underfoot. More were approaching though, and further ahead, more still. I soon lost count, as the darkness made it impossible to keep track, but it seemed like only seconds until the entire cave ahead of us was packed wall to wall with Empty Ones. Were they as friendly as Caderyn thought?

He looked to be changing his mind, but the shadow moss made it a slow process. As they gathered about him, he seemed confused at first. He was obviously certain that they were supposed to be on our side, and was struggling to cope with the idea that they may not, especially as so many were closing in on us like a tide. Eventually, his resolve stiffened and he brought his shield to bear. Although he still seemed determined to avoid killing them, he was less than gentle, pushing them hard away, knocking several from their feet as he diverted them past us.

I was even less forgiving, and had my sword pointing directly at them. The flat wasn’t doing enough to keep them from my way, so I was pushing out with the tip, stabbing into flesh in the hope that they’d realise the danger they were in and keep clear of my sword. It was not to be however. When they had lost their souls, they had obviously also lost a reason to preserve their lives – if one could claim they had such a thing – and they continued to move inexorably against us.

By this time dozens had moved past us, but even more lay ahead. I had stopped caring about what could befall my companions, concentrating on staying on my feet, with enough space about me keep thrusting the basaedo where it needed to be. It wasn’t until I felt warm breathe against my neck that I realised this wasn’t going to be enough. At the front, he wad stalled against the mass of creatures, but those behind had carried on moving. The hormorn had cared not about what they stood on, and were now close to using us as a walkway too.

Panic finally settled upon me, and I found my eyes alighting on anything that might offer a way past, but finding nothing. Caderyn looked almost as worried, with no solution presenting itself. Thank the Gods for women though, especially those with Vytch blood running through their veins. “You’re all idiots! Do what I’m doing!” I looked behind, and was thankful that both Fjorlief and myself were taller than almost everyone else. I could see the Empty Ones streaming past her, not impeding her in any way, but it took a few seconds to see why.

She was taking the shadow moss from each creature as it walked towards her, pocketing it as fast as she could, and then they were just walking on by. Behind her I could already see that dozens were disappearing into the darkness just as eerily as they had appeared ahead of us. There were still dozens ahead, but with the Hutzlunr’s plan seeming to work, we set about it. I was happy to drop the black mold onto the ground as the Empty Ones streamed past us, but others were filling their pockets. I may be mistaken, but I’m almost sure I saw Caderyn stick a handful or two more into his mouth as we thinned out the crowd.

Behind us, the others were following the Vytch’s lead, and within a few minutes the throng ahead of us had started to thin, and minutes later the Empty Ones were nothing but a few retreating shadows. I was happy to take a moment to breath, and at any other time would have been quick to lash out at Caderyn for insisting we were in no danger. A momentary glance was enough to make me wind in my tongue though. His eyes were almost totally glazed over, and I doubt he could have heard what I said, let alone take in its meaning. I remembered my promise to protect him, and went to his side, patting his shoulder and turning him once more in the direction we so fervently hoped would lead us from these dismal caves.

*    *     *

Drazar didn’t seem to come out of this encounter as well as the rest of us though. In the confusion something had happened to him, but I never found out what. Fjorlief was quick to offer her aid though, or at least, so I thought. As I was still more concerned with making sure that whatever was going through Caderyn’s head didn’t spill over to dangerous levels, I missed most of what happened. I would like to think that she was trying to help him, in her own way, and what happened afterwards was just unfortunate. She placed her hands on him, or maybe on his mask, to see what was wrong.

Him apparently. With a look of disgust on her face, she quickly pulled her hands back, “You’re wrong”. Two words, and in relation to no other conversation. She wasn’t disagreeing with a point he’d made, or an idea he’d floated. He was just wrong, in some way that she could sense and was repulsed by. It would of course be nice to live in a world where everyone just got along, but at the time, I would have been happy if they could have at least pretended to for the rest of the journey.

And we were still a way to go until we were even out of the caves. True, the path had inclined back up by now, and the dripping water had slowed considerably, but with possibly hours to go it seemed like scant good fortune at all. Ahead though, there was light. My first thought was daylight, but we were still too deep underground for that. As we moved closer, the light coalesced into a human form. Well, nearly human, and also more than.

She was a head and a half taller than either Fjorlief or myself, and built like a Hutzlunr warrior of legend. Armed with a long spear, and wearing the bare minimum of armour, she was nevertheless impressive. From each temple grew a long curved horn which added to her height and marked her as the Toma that Caderyn thought was hunting us. He seemed unimpressed and stepped forward to meet her, myself still acting as his shadow, unwilling to give up the chance of fighting a Goddess.

“You have brought filth and contamination to this place”, she intoned, “You shall no go further with such abominations in your company”.

“We bring nothing”, replied our half cut guide, struggling up the steep incline to meet her, “many times have people passed through these caves without the likes of you stopping them! The Corbie tribe have allowed us passage, so let us pass!”

“The Corbie have no right to say who walks these caves, that is my right! And I will have tribute. Their shadows will suffice, if any of you hope to see daylight once more!” Caderyn seemed shocked by these words, and was moving forward to meet her, weapons drawn.

“These are my men! Leave them be”, came a shout from behind with a thick Hutzlunr accent. Toma smiled, and left the shout hanging in the air, offering up the silence to be filled. I was almost close enough to slash at the huntress as she spoke first.

“Tribute then. Who shall you offer up to appease me?”

Thinking this a feint to give us opportunity to strike, the next words I heard threw me out of kilter, “Him”. I stopped suddenly, and looked behind, wondering just who the Vytch was was so willing to sacrifice.

I should have known, and you dear reader are almost certainly ahead of me, your lives not being in mortal peril as mine was. With one arm extended, the finger pointing solidly at Drazar, I found I couldn’t move or speak. If she accepted the offering, would we leave the man to have his soul taken by the Goddess?

Time slowed for me, but I imagine Drazar’s mind was racing. I had already seen him wield the earth power, and expected that the Vytch would be just as powerful. Would he strike at her before Toma came for him? Allowing himself vengeance at the cost of his life? Toma spoke first though, “He is unclean, and not worthy of my bite”.

“How about a bite on his shadow then,” countered Fjorlief, indicating Valerius. Surely this was a jest to distract Toma, and we must act quickly. Caderyn jumped at the chance too, and it seemed that a thought that had been fomenting for some time was finally allowed access to his tongue.

“We cannot trust her, she will take more than a bite! She is a Succubus, how do we kill her”, and with that he was charging in to the fight. I was quick to follow, but in less than a second realised that I was too late. She threw her spear like a javelin, and it burst into flame as it flew through the air towards Valerius. Brand was not to be outdone though, as his own weapon was soon engulfed in fire as he drew it ready for combat. I knew him to be a fighter without equal based on only a short time in his company, and with a magic weapon in hand, even the Goddess must not have seemed too challenging. But I swear on the Gods, as the fight started, and his sword lit the cave, a look of terror seemed to come to his face.

Other things were more important though, as I was close enough to Toma to strike out. Before I knew what was happening though, she had vanished, replaced by a fast moving tendril of smoke that began to quickly wend its way towards Valerius. She was certainly keen to get what was offered to her, and there was little I could do to stop her. In this form, she was impervious to my attack, no matter how well placed my blow, it slipped through the smoke as if it wasn’t even there. Cursing her I threw my torch to the ground and pulled out my dagger, readying myself for her counter attack.

It never came though, at least not at me. With flaming sword, Brand slashed at the smoke, and it quickly took on a solid form once more. Whatever hunger she felt, it had obviously gotten the better of her, as she was now surrounded. Caderyn had charged after her, smoke or solid, and was swinging his axe with a look of hatred on his face. Valerius had somehow managed to string his warbow ready to loose an arrow, and with flaming sword Brand was tearing her flesh open.

She was certainly more powerful than she looked, but being either a Goddess or a Daemon, that wasn’t much of a surprise. The wounds inflicted seemed to be closing up almost as quick as they were opened, but never fully sealing. I imagine that if she wasn’t so outnumbered, she would have made short work of us indeed. With the melee tightly packed, I was willing to hold off in case one of our men should fall, and careful enough to avoid getting too close the Dummonii, as he slashed about himself with wild abandon.

Thankfully, I wasn’t needed in the fray, and before long, the creature that called herself Toma was down and vanished, and the group was victorious. I dreaded the conversations that would follow the offering of tribute, but they would have to wait. We still needed to get ourselves free from these caves, and hopefully we had faced the worst they had to offer. I went to check on the Dummonii, to make sure he wasn’t too badly hurt from the fight, but apart from still looking bleary around the eyes, he seemed in fine form. Mostly.

Maybe it was the moss that made him do it, but as I watched, he looked down at the bloody axe in his hand thoughtfully, before lifting it up and running his tongue along the blood soaked edge. Once more I found myself ready to explode at him for being such an idiot, but he had just gone toe to toe with a Daemon, and come out on top, all the while being off his head on shadow moss. Whatever his reason for drinking the blood of his enemy, it was his own.

I followed him once more to the head of the group, as the Pelosians behind us began a pitched discussion on the implications of imbibing Daemon blood. Since I had fed some creature my own blood only a few hours earlier, I saw it as fair game, and just hoped we would see daylight soon enough.

*     *     *

We were to get my wish, but exhaustion had robbed me of the ability to keep track of time. It was early evening when we emerged, and I would like to think we had managed the trip in a day, as I don’t remember sleeping at all while we were down there. One of the Corbie tribe was waiting for us, and in my addled state I was sure it was the tribal leader who was there when we set off. I have no idea if such a thing was even possible, but I just needed to get away from the caves, and out of my damp cloak before the chill could get into me. “Well that was fucking fun”, says I, as the Corbie waffled on, “but it’s going to be dark soon, it’s bloody cold, and we’re all wearing wet clothing. How about we move on sharpish and find somewhere to get a fire going where we can sleep”.

Valerius was too busy engaging with the Corbie, and I was too strung out to be diplomatic, “Or we could just stand around here in our wet clothes having a chat I suppose?” Not the brightest thing to say, and Valerius’ patience must have been wearing almost as thin as mine, as he put me in my place.

“After what we’ve just been through, this is the done thing. I know we’re all wearing cold wet clothes, but I’ll ask for directions to campsite when we’re done talking.” There was little I could say to hurry him along, so I trudged forward and waited for us all to move. Eventually we did, and once we exited the shadow of the mountains, the chill in the air vanished. If we hadn’t been wearing such wet clothes, it would have been quite pleasant. As it was I was very happy to see a patch of open ground ahead of us, with two tall totem poles topped with corbie facing away from each other up ahead.

Well, Valerius had done his job alright, and led us to a campsite. I decided not to mention that we could have found it ourselves by simply following the path, as I think he would have quickly lost what little patience he still had with me. Instead I got a fire going and hung my cloak to dry while the hunters went after our evening meal. I was honing the point of my Basaedo as Skuza prayed to his God for delivering him – somehow forgetting to thank the men and women who dragged his pox ridden arse through the caves – when I heard Drazar and Fjorlief exchanging some loud words.

I didn’t need to make out the details, as I could be pretty sure what they involved, so I just waited for it to all die down. Once they had gotten it off their collective chests, Drazar walked back towards the fire. Although his mask prevented me from seeing his expression, his body was practically humming with anger. “What happened in those caves wasn’t right for anyone. We still have a way to go though, so how about you two learn to live with each other until we get someplace safe”, says I, and hoped that’d be the last of it before we could all get some sleep.

Nov 182013

My way is not the right way for everyone. I understand this, and know that there probably isn’t a right way for everyone, but I’ve kept dozens of player diaries, and read even more that have been written by other gamers. Rather than tell you how they should be done, as I don’t think there is a correct way to do them, I’ll be offering a few things that you should be thinking about if you’re about to start keeping a record of your character’s activities, or are struggling to maintain one already in process.

Firstly, who are you writing it for? Is this something that the other players will be checking in one after every session? Is it for the GM’s eyes only, or maybe just for yourself? Are you putting it out there for the general public, to let people who have never even played the game or spent time with any of the characters involved. Firstly, lets assume that at the least, the other players in your group will be checking in on the diary.

This can present you with some problems if there’s a few things about your character that you’d rather others didn’t find out about. If this is the case, you have a couple of options open to you. You can indulge in some creative editing to keep these things your own dirty little secret, but you need to be careful about keeping the story flowing without giving anything away. If you’re playing in a game that indulges in secrets and conspiracies, you could play up to this. Write out your full character diary, including all the things you don’t want people to know, then redact the sensitive topics before sending it out to the world. Your other option is to write the diary in such a way that there’s would be no way that the players would have any access to it.

In my particular case I have written the diary from the point of view of my character as retired adventurer. This works for a couple of reasons, notably being that at the present time, the character cannot read or write. In case my GM is reading this, it has nothing to due with subtly implanting the suggestion in his mind that I’m going to survive whatever he throws in front of me so that I get the chance to retire and write my memoirs. This might explain why they are so long winded, as I also appear to be channeling the writing style of the late George MacDonald Fraser in his Flashman series of books. It has even occurred to me that they are quickly turning from a  player diary, into the first draft of a novel.

I think this comes down to another option; writing for yourself. True, other people do read them, and I’ve gotten so far positive feedback, but they’re not being written as a way for the other players to check up on for a quick summary of the last week’s adventures. I’m writing my diary because I like writing, and the stories we’re telling weekly are fantastic, and well worth taking the time to commit to page, or in this case screen. The odd thing is, although I am mainly writing for myself, I am sharing with them with a much wider audience by putting them on the blog. If you’re planning on doing something similar, prepare yourself for the challenge of writing about an imaginary world that the reader may never have encountered before.

I’m pretty lucky in this, as the game my character exists in, is in the middle of a successful Kickstarter campaign. Because of this, they have been sharing a lot of stuff about their game that I can link to for people wanting more information. I still need to be careful though, and make sure I take the time to include some details that are required to give the neophyte reader a chance of understanding what the heck is going on.

If you’re looking to create a record of events that’s just there to serve as reminder of the in game activities, then you could try something completely different, and move away from the first person narrative at all. Write from an outsider perspective – I have found that newspaper stories or other journalistic forms work pretty well – and you don’t need to worry about including anything personal, and by necessity your writing should be quick and punchy, without needing to go into too much detail.

More importantly though, set yourself a realistic time frame with your chosen method. My entries are massive, but I give myself plenty of time to write them. If you don’t have the spare time, then give yourself a reason to only write shorter summaries of the action. If your finding yourself getting stressed out about maintaining a schedule at your current expected word count, then you’re missing the point, and should probably reevaluate how your approaching your diary.