The Last Blades

The Legend of The Broken Blade
Campaign Recap and Living Log

The Legend of the Broken Blade begins amidst the cold stones of Solemnus, capital city of the Solemn Kingdom at the end of their long and losing war with the Thantil Ascendancy.

The Companions of the Broken Blade began as a disparate set of mercenaries in the employ of The Laughing Blades, one of several mercenary companies hired by the Solemn Kingdom to aid in their defense against the Ascendancy. For three years the war raged. Each of those who would become the Companions distinguished themselves in service, but it was not until the Siege of Solemnus that they were brought together and bound by common purpose.

To the flickering torch lit confines of his command tent, Tulius Half-Man, captain of The Laughing Blades, summoned the Companions. There Lady Selia, Attache to the Blades, laid out a last desperate gamble for the survival of Solemnus, The Knights Repentant, the Laughing Blades, and indeed the Sorrowful Kingdom as a whole.

Built into the side of a mountain, and at the end of a long and costly war, Solemnus had limited supplies. Given enough time, the besieging legion of the ascendancy could simply starve them out, taking the city without losing a single life. However, the army had a weakness. There was only a single source of fresh water accessible by the Ascendancy’s forces, an ancient cistern that once provided water to the city before being rendered obsolete. If the cistern could be poisoned, compromising the supplies of White Legion, they could be forced to attack, at the very least giving the defenders a fighting chance at survival.

Lady Selia provided the Companions with potent poison, and somewhat sparse plans of the enemy encampment. Under cover of darkness, the party made their way past watchful pickets and behind enemy lines. They navigated the sprawling encampment, bluffing their way past various checkpoints before reaching one of the access wells of the cistern. There they stealthily fed the poison into the well before beginning their trek back towards the city.

Unfortunately, they were spotted on their way out of the camp by one of the mercenaries in the employ of the White Legion. Their lies didn’t stand up to the questions posed by the mercenary, and they were forced to make a break for it, bursting past the pickets into the no-man’s land between the besieging army and the Walls of Solemnus. Large groups of soldiers pursued, but the Companions managed to outdistance them, gaining the walls and making it back into the relative safety of Solemnus.

The plan worked as desired, and the next morning, clearly having discovered the state of their water supplies, The White Legion launched an all out assault on Solemnus. The Companions stood stalwart on the walls, shield to shield with the Solumn Army and their compatriots in the Laughing Blades, as wave after wave of Kobold Auxiliaries launched themselves against the defenders and fire and stone rained down around them. The defense seemed to be going well until the magical and physical bombardment of Solemnus’ walls finally had its desired affect. As the Companions gazed in horror, a large section of the wall they defended was brought crashing down, and into this gap the forces of the Ascendancy poured.

Despite the disaster, the party found itself spurred to truly heroic heights, as it leaped from the walls into the yawning gap and began to single handedly turn the tide. It was then that the commander of the Legion chose to make his presence felt. Amidst a guard of heavily armored elite legionnaires, a scarred warrior whose very presence was terror strode into the gap, the air crackling with cold around him, and the ground freezing beneath his very step. He seemed equally adept at both wielding his immense greatsword and utilizing magic. Before long, the last remaining vestiges of the defense were crushed, and the party, clearly faced with an opponent far beyond them, was forced to flee into the city.

For days they hid amidst the stone buildings of Solemnus, fighting a guerrilla defense even as the Ascendancy solidified its grip on the city, but eventually they were cornered and captured.

From Solemnus they and many other captives were taken on a long and grueling march away from the mountains and toward the Sheltered Sea. Exhausted and starving they were loaded onto a ship and manacled in a dark and damp hold. It was there that The Companions, for all they knew the last surviving Blades, made their first attempt to escape and first met the dragonborn who would become their nemesis. Displaying an impressive resourcefulness and dexterity, Demi Morefoot managed to release herself, and then the other Companions, from their manacles, along with one of the prisoners who shared the hold with them. Unfortunately, one of the other prisoners mind seemed to have cracked under the strain, and, unable to keep him quiet, enough of a ruckus was raised to alert the guards. A brawl followed, with the party subduing the first several guards, but more show up, along with an unusually thin dragonborn in exquisite robes. He applauds their tenacity, but calmly explains the impossibility of their escape. Kherze Tor, filled with rage and unwilling to listen to reason, launches himself in an attack, but the thin dragonborn quickly casts a spell that paralyzes the raging barbarian, rendering him impotent. With the odds severely against them, the party once again surrenders. This time they are led to a different hold, where they are chained with thin, delicate looking spellsilver, a material that quickly proves resistant to their most tenacious attempts to remove it.

After a short and uneventful voyage, the Companions were led above deck, were they beheld a city unlike anything they’d ever seen, shining with gleaming white marble and polished silver. Souring towers pierced the sky and dragon motifs were everywhere. Estuar, The Silver Citadel, a monument to the wealth and glory of the Thantil Ascendancy. While they stood gawking, the guards informed them that they were bound for The Grand Arena.

The Companions, along with lines of other prisoners, were marched into the city were they were greeted by crowds of jeering and cursing residents of the city, not just dragonborn, but all the civilized races. Food and worse are tossed at them and the other prisoners. Lorenzo, always aware of his appearance, was hit right in the face with thick brown substance that smelled as though it could only possibly have been produced in the bowels of an ancient dragon.

On one particularly crowded street, several rowdier members of the crowd pushed past the guards, stabbing one prisoner and landing several blows on the Companions before order was restored by the guards. After order was restored, the guards marched the party up several main thoroughfares, always heading in the direction of the Grand Arena, but just before they reached it they turned off onto a side street. They were then marched through a twisting series of alleys before arriving at the back entrance of what was clearly a great palace. They entered the palace and made their way through servants quarters and storage rooms, passing a blacksmiths workshop and an exotic stable, eventually arriving at a large stark stone room. A brazier burned within with cold blue fire. A long steel bar ran along the center of the room, great rings welded into it a regular intervals. The companions, bruised and exhausted, were chained to the bar by neck and wrists. The White Dragonborn Sorcerer they recognized from the ship then entered. He looked over the prisoners, then moved to the brazier, from which he removes a long brand. Runes carved into the side of the brand glowed with the same cold flame as the brazier.

He introduced himself as Thurkesh Khorental, Slavemaster of House Khorendath and advisor to The Drakus of Clan Khor, Dhorash Khorendath. As he did so he began to approach the prisoners, raising the brand and touching it to the prisoners forehead. The blue light flared, and the screams that escaped the mouths of those branded were horrific, far worse than would be expected from a normal brand. Thurkesh held the brand for a moment at each forehead, and when removed, there was the faintest flicker of blue flame on each which quickly faded, leaving no visible mark.

Thurkesh explained that the brand would mark them as property of House Khorendath, and that they would have a chance to prove themselves valuable within the Arena, winning rewards and glory or dying. Verath realized that these were the infamous Thantil Mind Brands, magical bonds that would tie the branded to the one who branded them, giving him power over them and an ability to track them unerringly.

Once all the prisoners were branded, and those who had fallen unconscious from the pain regained consciousness, the guards returned. They unchained the party from the bar before leading them through the palace grounds and into an underground passage. They marched through a winding and maze like series of passages before ascending, eventually arriving at a a huge, round, pillared room topped with a copper half dome and filled with groups of gladiators engaged in training. Sunlight streamed through the open ceiling, gleaming on the mosaics of gladiatorial combat that covered the walls and pillars. The gate slammed shut behind them, and from a guarded balcony above the room their new owner, Dhorash Khorendath, presented himself to the newly arrived gladiators. The party recognized him as the fearsome scarred warrior from the Battle of Solemnus. Thurkesh stood at his side. He welcomed the gladiators, explaining that their lives and deaths were now his to do with as he would, and that if they fought well they would earn endless glory. He then bade them eat and rest, for they would fight on the morrow.

The Companions explored their new home and fought several battles in the arena, where they took the name they would become known by, The Broken Blades, and won glory for themselves. They met several notable characters within the Ludus, including Faemon Festerfoot, a priest of the goddess of disease Eflorexia, Kromtagh Necksnapper, an ogre gladiator of prodigious might, and Allesandra Destoliano, Champion of House Khorendath. They also made the acquaintance of a brilliant gnomish doctor, gambled with a goblin beastmaster, and had several of their party temporarily turned to stone in a battle with basilisks.

Eventually the party, partly at the urging of a secret note Demi somehow acquired
at some point, made a deal with the Eflorexian priest to acquire weapons made from some form of noxious stone and made their way into the sewers beneath the Ludus. Their absence was discovered not long after escaping, and they were chased through the maze of tunnels by parties of guards and hunting drake hounds. They discovered the lair of a hidden necromancer, Morag ChozAstul an outcast from Dragonborn society, and helped him acquire corpses for his experiments. In return he gave them a map of the sewers, showing a way out, as well as a coin which might let them contact him in the future.

The exit in question turned out to be a section of wall in the sewers which had collapsed in disrepair, revealing an entrance to a series of tunnels buried beneath the city far older, and far stranger, than the city or the sewers they had heretofore traversed.

The tunnels they found themselves in were made of a strange stone, smooth and glass like and covered in strange carvings and writings, many of which prominently featured chained figures of many races supplicating before some type of tentacled fish-like things. Some of the angles and geometries of the carvings struck the party as subtly wrong, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on why. In addition, each of them experienced the occasional disturbing sensation of motion within the stone out of the corner of their eye when they were not looking at it. The party had no idea how old the tunnels were, but while they bore the weight of great age, the stonework itself seemed brand new, free from the ravages of time.

Through this weird maze the party fled, fighting strange creatures and fishy cultists as they went, throwbacks of a bygone age, insane worshipers of the unspeakable things that once called the tunnels home, creatures from even deeper within the earth, and hungry oozes. In one cave Vereth and Demi stole the gemstone eye from a sculpture of a demon toad god from his foul disciples. In another chamber Kherze fought a great demon of shadows amidst an inferno of black flame while the party struggled to rescue him. He emerged bearing a dark weapon of great power, the Shadestyl.

Finally, after an unknown amount of time, the party discovered a flaw in the stonework and crawled towards fresh air. As soon as they were out of the tunnels the stone weapons given to them by Faemon burst into swirling fungal spores which swirled in the air around them before coalescing into the form of the plague priest, who thanked them for freeing him and then vanished.

The party found itself on the edge of the Sheltered Sea to the north of Estuar, overlooking the picturesque fishing village Illmaara. Following the cryptic directions of Demi’s mysterious note, they found a safehouse of The Fist of the Open Palm, The Laughing Blade’s covert ops division. Within they were met by a shrouded man who introduced himself as Jung Carolus, onetime spymaster of the Blades. He said that he would help them to escape and get them to the Nailor Republics, where the order of monks to which he belonged might free them of the Mind Brands. In return he asked for their aid, as there was “something big coming” and he needed allies.

After eating and resting briefly, with several in the party having strange dreams, Jung lead them down several paths through the village, until somehow they found themselves in an utterly different world. The Grey Road, he called it. A path through the Shadenthiyll, Home of the Shadeth Daemon Lords. It was an endless landscape of barren mores drawn in monochromatic shades of grey, utterly different from the pastoral landscape they had passed through to get to Illmaara. A silvery grey road cut straight across it, shimmering in the diffused light of an alien sky dominated by a swirling storm of light and shadow dancing in whorls and eddies caused by some undetectable current. Lightning flashed regularly from it, but no thunder ever came. In the far distance, almost at the edge of sight, there was what appeared to be an impossibly large fortress of pure black, so dark it hurt ones eyes to look at for too long and yet was difficult to turn away from. Somehow the black fortress seemed to float in the sky itself.

Jung led the party through the Shadenthiyll, warning them not to leave the Grey Road under any circumstances, and as much as possible to travel quietly and stick to the light of a strange golden lantern he carried. Each step they took seemed to subtly shift the landscape about them, in a way that made their heads swim. The feeling was that somehow the earth itself was shifting like smoke when weren’t looking at it. They would top a hill, and suddenly there’d be a grove of trees that they hadn’t seen from the previous hill. They’d pass through the grove and suddenly a river would be running parallel to the road where there was none before. The only thing that stayed constant were the road itself and the Black Fortress, always floating in the distance at the edge of their vision.

Along the way they fought trolls that seemed carved from pure shadow and weeping banshees. As they made across a grim mountain range Jung was forced to send them on ahead when the great Mastiffs of Gruthsmarn the Huntsman, a Shadeth Lord with a particularly viscous reputation, picked up their scent. He gave them the lantern, telling them to follow the road, that it would take them where they must go, before turning back to hold off their pursuers.

The road led them to a strange but welcoming inn. Within “The Halfway Home” they made the acquaintance of Insectoid bards and Frog minstrels, played dragonchess with devils, shared the warmth of a fire with the Lamian Queen of a distant world, arm wrestled ogres, had a game of riddles with shadow sprites, shared wine with dimension hopping sorcerers and another strange libation shadows, all before getting a wonderful nights sleep. When they awoke the inn was gone, and they were once again on the silver road through an endless stretch of wilderness.

As they continued on they passed beneath the shadow of the Still Mountain, a great volcanic mountain turned into a fortress by Mistress Teroumous, one of the most powerful of the Shadeth Lords. There they fought and killed a young shadow dragon, and were forced to pay a toll to Teroumous’ servents in order to pass peacefully through her lands.

Finally they passed back out of the grey road, emerging in Crisenza in the Nailor Republics. Demi immediately slipped away, while the rest of the party made their way to the home of Jung’s ally Illio Contosto who arranged passage for them to the Monasterium De Umbra. As they waited, they met an elven Bladesinger, who also had business at the monastery and so joined them. They foiled an assassination attempt on Lord Contosto. They made contact with the Shadow Whispers, a guild of spies and power brokers who offered them information in return for their service, though they promptly refused to fulfill their end of the bargain when it became clear doing so would mean killing a man they saw as innocent. They averted a bread riot, saving a family of bakers and learning of massive grain shortages in Crisenza caused by blight and banditry, and heard rumors of a plague starting in the Narrows.

Finally they boarded a ship to the hidden monastery, where the monks they met engaged them in several weeks of training, explaining only that it would be necessary to complete the ritual that would free them of the Brands. Once this training was complete they were taken to a strange room with a glowing maze carved into the floor. They walked the maze one by one, their bodies and minds seemingly broken down and rebuilt by the magics suffusing it, transported once they reached the center to what appeared to be a version of the monestary that existed on the Shadenthiyl. They traversed halls filled with oily black tentacles and haunted by whispering balls of shadowy madness. They found carvings which told of a hidden history of the world. They passed through the Seal of Methalstempholis, making a deal with it’s bound guardian, Iycarium the Shifter, promising his release in return for safe passage. They traversed an invisible maze as shadowy waters rose around them. And eventually they found themselves back in the normal world, within a hidden vault, the archives of the Shadow Monks. There they were confronted by Thurkesh, seemingly betrayed by the monks, who unleashed him Mind Hunters on them, twisted creatures bound and dominated by his magics, empty husks of slaves left with nothing but a hunger for magic and intelligence. The Companions were slain entirely as Thurkesh looked on laughing.

They were then resurrected by the monks, all but Kherze, whose body had disappeared along with The Shadow’s Touch. The monks revealed that their deaths had been necessary in order to complete the breaking of the Mind Brand, and that they had used Thurkesh to facilitate this so that he would believe them dead. With the Shadowkeeper, leader of the monks, was Jung Carolus. He had survived his travails in the Shadenthiyll and asked them now to complete their end of the bargain, to be his allies in the coming days. He asked them to return to Crisenza, to aid Illio Contosto in his attempts to keep Crisenza free and independent in the face of increased manipulation by the Thantil Ascendancy.

The party agreed, setting out after recovering from their ordeal in a ship bound for Crisenza. Unfortunately the ship they were in was attacked in route by pirates, who captured them, along with a monk, and took them via portal to a hidden underground fortress. They became prisoners of Captain Zalitha, the Queen of Storms, a powerful genasii sorceress. They were kept prisoner for days before finally making their an escape attempt, charming, fighting, and sneaking their way through the sprawling fortress to Zalitha’s throne room. Impressed, she offered to set them free on two conditions. One, that they agree not to interfere with her operations in the future, and two, that they agree to owe her a favor, which she would collect at some point. The Broken Blades agreed, and, after Vereth engaged in a duel of honor with Yllor the Red, Zalitha’s first mate, slaying him and taking his magical paired long swords, Zalitha sent them through a magic portal back to Crisenza.

Once again on the island of Crisenza, Elistan, the elven blade singer, bid the party farewell, leaving to pursue his own ends. They began making their way back to the Crisenza City, along the way encountering a group of bandits. They chased the bandits back to their hideout, encountering a mercenary monk who quickly joined forces with them when it was revealed he had been hired by Contosto to track down and slay said bandits.

Once inside they engaged in a fierce combat with the bandits. One of them, a rather uncouth dwarf, turned against the rest. It turned out he was a survivor of the Laughing Blades himself and recognized the party from their time there. They discovered a note indicating that the bandits had been hired to high jack grain shipments into the city by someone from within the city itself.

They return to the city to find it much changed, marred by plague and fire, overcome by riots and conflict. The guards escort them through what feels like a warzone taking them to the walled and guarded Garden Quarter where Contosto lives. There he tells them all that has happened while they were gone, and sweeps them into his carriage bound for a hearing at the Ducal Palace. The grain shortages had gotten dire, sparking massive bread riots. Plague had swept through the city, killing an estimated one in 10 citizens, and continuing to rage. Fires had broken out, most of the Narrows burning down in one of the more intense one, leaving much of the poorer populace without shelter in addition to the lack of food, which only sparked more riots. The other Nailor Republics had issued a quarantine, creating a cordon of war ships around the entire island, allowing no one to leave, and choking off trade. Some type of creature had landed in the midst of the city, going on a rampage, soaking itself in blood and lives, and then rising on great shadowy wings and flying to the north. Fear was rampant that it would return. The Thantil Ambassador had offered his people’s aid to Duke Crisenza, but Lord Contosto feared it was little more than a thinly veiled attempt to seize control of the Republic during the crisis. It was on the matter of this aid that the Duke now summoned the powerful of the Republic to consult.

Amidst the insane opulence of the Ducal Palace, Lord Contosto and the party listened to the powerful of the city make their speeches. The Ascendancy Ambassador, Arkosh Estulnoth, once again presented his offer of aid. The Trademaster of the Merchants Guild, Gerardo Ventossa, spoke in favor of The Ascendancy’s offer. An infernal prince of The Court of Lies abstained from expressing an opinion, although he did make it clear that The Court of Lies would be happy to assist with the problems facing Crisenza, for a price. During this process one of the Broken Blades snuck onto the floor of the hall and overheard a hushed conversation among the Thantil contingent about keeping "the documents safe and secret. Lord Daveed Sonostro, speaking on behalf of his own house, as well as the Houses Ennorio, Fidelius, and Dourgia, spoke in favor of the ascendancy. Illio Contosto then spoke, speaking on behalf of his house and the Houses Alto and Syntello, against accepting the aid, calling it a trap. Duke Crisenza then called the meeting over, promising to reconvene in three days time to render a verdict.

From the Ducal Palace the party and Lord Contosto returned to his home, there to plan their actions. They gave him the letter showing someone within the city had been funding the bandits, as well as the location of the bandit hideout which still contained a large amount of grain. They also mentioned the overheard conversation about secret Ascendancy documents. Lord Contosto suggests that they break into the Thantil Embassy and steal these documents, which may contain proof of long term plans to subvert the independence of Crisenza.

A plan is made. Knowing the routine of one of the Ascendancy officers from the embassy, Lorenzo, in disguise as a female dragonborn, and with coaching by Verath, planned to seduce the officer, luring him to a room in an inn, where he would drug him and steal the magical pass stone that allowed access to the embassy, hopefully returning it before the officer awoke so none would know that anything had been stolen. Then, with the help of a local farmer, they planned to cause a distraction among the patrolling guards so that they could approach a side entrance unseen. They also set up a wagon to roll into the side of the building to use as a contingency escape plan in case they needed to beat a hasty retreat. They acquired several magical scrolls and prepared a set of spells they thought would provide them with the most versatile set of abilities to deal with the unknown dangers within the warehouse. For the most part the plan went off without a hitch, until they reached the central office.

In the waiting room in front of the office they encountered a beautiful silver sculpture of a slumbering dragon, along with what appeared to be some type of magical password lock. They cast silence on the room, then made an attempt to crack the lock. They guessed the password wrong, and the sculpture in the room transformed into a living silver dragon. The party fought it in silence, before figuring out how to pass the door.

In the central office they found The Ambassador in consultation with none other than Thurkesh. The thin dragonborn seemed shocked to see them alive, but recovered his senses quickly, shouting at Arkosh to take care of them, for “nothing can be allowed to interfere with our master’s plans!”, then he cast a fireball at them and seemed to disappear into thin air. The party engaged in a difficult battle with the ambassador, a mighty wizard in his own right. They finally managed to cut him down, but his essence seemed to collapse into itself, then exploded out in a shadowy demonic shape, the wizards staff Arkosh had been carrying transformed into a mighty black axe. They fought the Shadeth, managing finally to bring it down, and upon searching the room discovered a secret door leading to a chamber in which the real Arkosh was imprisoned. The ambassador explained that Thurkesh had come to him several weeks before with orders to use the ongoing chaos to engender a political takeover of Crisenza. When Arkosh had demanded to contact his superiors on Thantalos to confirm the orders Thurkesh had summoned that Shadeth Demon and used it to usurp his position, thereby ensuring the Ascendency’s complicity in a takeover plot of Crisenza. Arkosh leads the party to papers and records showing Thurkeshs plans to replace the ranking members of the Merchants Guild with Ascendant merchants, and to reduce the power of the Noble Houses within Crisenza until they and their duke were little more than puppets of the Ascendancy. He provides these to them, promising to be in attendance at the council in two days time and explain the situation to the duke and collected nobles. He then escorted them out of the building, and bid them good evening.

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Meanwhile, somewhere else...
Part 2

Iol.jpgIn the salty waters of an oddly angled chamber in an ancient sunken city, The Dreamers drift. For millennia their city has lain in darkness, and only through the fitful dreams of mortal servants have they touched the outside world. But now strange stone begins to glow, bringing a cold light to stygian depths that haven’t known its touch since time immemorial, and The Dreamers begin to stir. Vast alien minds reach out to touch their surroundings, awakening dormant magic and bringing the long dead city to life. The language of thought spills forth as tentacled limbs stretch sinuously.

There is little time

The thought bears in its words the images of the crumbling of Sur, and of a shadowy menace out of time and space. Of old enemies awakened once again to power. Of the fall of young empires and the rising of old.

The mocking sword is shattered, and our power rises

We must move quickly if we are to prevent our FATHER from seizing control of this new age as he did the last

“Father” means so much more than progenitor in the language of thought. It bears within it the concept of crushing weight. Of restless slumber. Of betrayal and fear. And above al elsel, of immense, unfathomable power.

The first moves are made. Though the tadpole did as expected, the little shadow has accepted the bargain

The snakes and the shadows have made their moves as well, but as yet, the lizards remain unaware of the coming storm

They are pawns and less than pawns. Their glory is fleeting beneath the gaze of time

We must not underestimate them as our FATHER once did

There is a long pause, and then the varied minds twine together in tacit agreement.

No, we must not. They have a role to play in the coming game. We must ensure it is our role

The creatures reach out with their thoughts and take control of those tiny mortal minds they have previously touched only in dreams. In a vast palace on the shore of a salty lake, many miles above the city, orders are given, and armies begin to mobilize.

The time of silence has ended. Now is the time of conquest

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Lorenzo Interlude #2
During the siege of Solemnus

(The dark fortress-city of Solemnus 05:00 hours).

Tulius Half-man strode down a stone hallway deep within the ramparts. The clomp of his heavy leather boots echoed through the passageway empty before the dawn changing of the guard. He marched up to a heavy oaken door and rapped his knuckles on it sharply. He waited a few breaths, but there was no response. Unperturbed, he pounded the heel of his fist against it, feeling the reinforcing bands rattle with the force of his blows. A few moments later, a muffled voice answered “Testa di cazzo, it is before even the dawn. Can you thrice-cursed, death-crazed lunatics not read?”

Tulius glanced bemusedly at a lacquered wooden sign hanging from a nail in the center of the door. Spidery calligraphy burned into the wood spelled out:

Quartermaster
Hours: 10:00-14:00
Appointment Necessary

Underneath it was a piece of parchment, this one more hastily written and affixed to the door with a dagger:

Do not disturb. Important negotiations in progress.

Tulius smirked and pounded again. “Wake up Lorenzo, you lazy bastard! I need to speak to you about provisions for the upcoming siege.” From inside came a loud groan and the sound of shuffling feet. The door creaked and a bloodshot eye appeared in the crack, somewhat out of focus. It took a too-long moment to double-confirm the identity of its visitor before roughly pulling the door fully open.

“Sorry boss, I was not expecting you,” the tall tiefling said in a significantly less-than-apologetic tone of voice as he sauntered away from the door. He was naked from the waist up, with a colorful length of what must have once been a curtain in a noble’s estate jauntily wrapped around his waist like a sarong. His perfectly proportioned, lean frame was highlighted by olive skin a few shades more golden than the average Nailori. His ebony horns swept back from his forehead into his handsomely tousled long hair.

Tulius glanced around the room. It was a large room, primarily used for storage. Barrels and crates were stacked to the ceiling, full of the Blades’ more valuable goods – Alcohol, arrowheads, dried meat…that’s pretty much the three pillars of our existence these days Tulius thought to himself as his eyes alighted on a brightly colored screen separating out a small sleeping area from the rest of the room. It depicted a verdant scene of carousing satyrs that stood in stark contrast to the monotonous grey-on-grey theme of Solemnus. Behind it, a pile of heavy blankets rose and fell slightly.

Looks like the ‘negotiations’ with Solemnus’ quartermaster have gone well tonight, Tulius allowed himself a worried frown while the tiefling’s back was turned. It’s a bad sign – discipline is slipping even amongst the core of the Knights Repentant. Their despair is turning to the need to escape. Lorenzo takes advantage and the Blades benefit, but the walls crumble around us nonetheless.

Lorenzo’s delicately clawed hands cleared the desk – straightening skewed stacks of papers and squirreling away a nearly empty bottle of good red wine and two glasses into a drawer. He unstrung a key from around his neck, using it to open another drawer to produce an impressively large ledger bound in black leather. The tiefling flipped through a few pages and turned the book to face Tulius, his clawed finger pointing to the bottom line of a complex calculation.

“Given our experiences in Mournys, we have sufficient arrowheads for fending off at least 32 days of solid attack, but half of them still need to be attached to arrows. The lumber we received in exchange for protecting the merchant we met on the road should be more than sufficient for that as well as approximately 5 small siege engines if we should wish to augment the Knights’ already impressive arsenal. Given current headcount, food we are set for at least 6 months with proper rationing including limes and other preserved fruit to fend off scurvy. Most importantly, we have sufficient alcohol to prop up morale as long as the food holds out, but I suggest team-building exercises for the units re-org’d by the losses in the rear guard. We have scouts in the tunnels in the mountains looking for a way through to the other side to ensure at least a portion of our supply chain remains in operation even when the obvious entrances to the mountain are blocked by the Scalebacks. I am presently in negotiations with some of the less ascetic Knights to exchange some of our ‘forbidden’ luxury goods for more arrowheads – one can never have enough arrows, sei d’accordo?”

Tulius nodded sharply and leaned back in his chair, putting his feet on the desk. “My friend, if our employers were half as competent at their jobs as you are at yours, we would be screwing willing maidens on the Great Horde of Thantil by now.”

Lorenzo gave a mocking bow as he snapped his fingers over a pot of water to make it steam. He turned his hand and it levitated to pour into two mugs with brown dust at the bottom. How and where does he get this stuff? Tulius thought to himself as he reached greedily for the hot cup of coffee.

“So Lorenzo, it looks like we are well prepared for the coming battle. Since our job now is to wait for death, we might as well get back to our game.”

Lorenzo’s face brightened. He rose to his feet and gestured towards one corner of the room “Ci capo, I have set up our board right over here.”

The ceiling-high piles of crates and barrels had been cleared from this area to hollow out a shrine-like alcove in front of the room’s sole arrow slit. The arched area contained only a small table and two mismatched comfortable chairs, probably scavenged from some noble refugee desperate for protection.

A narrow beam of morning light shone across the table, highlighting the centerpiece, an exquisitely carved Dragonchess board. The board was mid-game, the traditional red and white pieces arranged in a complex pattern. Each was finely carved from ivory or rosewood, symbolizing the White heroes and Red villains of the Great Schism.

On the White side of the table were piles of books on Dragonchess strategy, the spines mostly written in sharp-edged Draconic runes, but a few in Elven and even one in the script of Old Mentir. A huge leather-bound ledger lay open next to them, heavy with page upon page of diagrams and calculations written in Lorenzo’s spidery script.

In contrast, the Red side of the table lay bare, save for an oversized tankard, perhaps to lubricate Tulius’ mind during late-night games.

Lorenzo strode to his side of the table. “Thank you for teaching me this – it is a most interesting game. It is like the Chess they play in Nailor, but there are twice as many pieces and hence it is much more complex. I have been studying its history, to better understand the meaning and strategy. It is the final battle of the Kyiran War, yes?”

“Indeed, the starting board positions represent the final battle lines between the loyalist Thantiran forces led by The White Legion of Clan Khor and the remnants of Clan Kyir’s Red Legion,” Tulius said as he sank gratefully into the softly upholstered chair on his side of the table. “It is the chief entertainment amongst the elite of Thantalos – its strategy and subtlety are immense…which I see you have been studying. It is said if one truly understands Dragonchess, then one understands the soul of what it is to be Dragonborn.”

The conversation fell into a lull as both players studied the board and began moving pieces.

Lorenzo was fully focused on the board. He considered his moves carefully, often pausing to flip through his ledger to appropriate pages, take notes and murmur comments like “Yes, the Tarrasch defense, which I counter with… [flip, flip] …yes, the Schara-Hennig Countergambit.”

Tulius moved his pieces confidently, seeming to never pause to think, eyes often straying from the board to study his opponent’s face.

After a quick succession of moves and captures, Lorenzo started to grin, his overly sharp canines giving his countenance a feral look.

Even an untrained player could glance at the board and tell that the board position increasingly favored the White side. The bulk of the Red army was surrounded in one corner, their main force of Dragons and Knights outnumbered with only a small group of fast, but weak pieces, separated at the edge of the board, split off from the core by one of Lorenzo’s incisive pincer attacks. Lorenzo had brought the entirety of his White force to bear on the Red Castle– methodically and ruthlessly thwarting Tulius’ counter attacks.

A few moves more yielded Lorenzo a Red Dragon and soon afterwards, the capture of the most powerful Red piece, the Red Drakus.

Lorenzo paused to lean back, confident of his impending victory. “My friend, today something is off with you – I have never captured your Drakus so quickly.”

Tulius grunted, his hand on his chin, brow furrowed in thought.

Lorenzo leaned forward, “I am curious, why do you always insist to play the Red side? My analysis has shown that in a game between two skilled players, the White should win every time. The starting position is so unbalanced that it is mathematically impossible to protect the Red General against sustained attack and once the centerpiece of their defense has fallen, the game is all but over for the Red side. The remaining Red pieces are weak and have limited defensive capabilities. Red only scores points by delaying the inevitable.”

Tulius grunted again, his eyes uncharacteristically cast down on the board. He growled “stop gloating and move, you prissy, half-breed son of a whore!”

Lorenzo grinned even wider “Right back at you, half-man” and moved another White unit into the embattled Red castle and leaned back in his chair with a shit-eating grin on his face, confident of his victory.

Tulius finally glanced up, his gaze meeting Lorenzo’s as he made his next move. The corner of his mouth twitched as he gave the tiefling a long wink.

Lorenzo glanced down and the grin fell from his face – Tulius was moving the weaker Red flank units around the back of the White army, scything towards the lightly defended White castle.

“You bastard…this whole time…how?”

Both men looked up as a horn sounded on the battlements. It was followed by a thunderous roll of drums from outside the walls. A moment later, the room shook as a catapult stone impacted the walls.

Tulius rose “It has begun my friend. Let us see if our gambit is successful.”

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In The Office Of The Slavemaster

Thurkesh took a rag, and wiped blood from the slave’s bare skin, before bringing his carving knife back to bear. As the impossibly sharp knife carved elaborate curving patterns into it’s rough skin, Thurkesh admired the slave. It was a good specimen and a rare one, a dwarf from the far northern glaciers of Norel, hardy and resilient. It’s mind had been burned out by repeated and aggressive application of the Mind Brand, until there was nothing left but obedience. And Hunger.

A loud knock on his chamber doors disturbed his concentration for only a moment.

“Come in, but stay silent.”

Thurkesh ignored the guard captain who stepped into his office and stood at attention, as his knife continued to carve the patterns of binding and empowerment. He could feel the pressure build in the brand connection between him and the slave as his knife did it’s gory work, a feeling not unlike a growing migraine, a white hot pain behind his eyes. The blood flowed freely now, the bright crimson shocking where it stained the pale white scales of his hands. Thurkesh pushed on, the pent up potential energy of the ritual crackling in the air, until finally he carved a final line along the left side of the slaves neck. There was a sub-audible pop, as the collected energy rushed into the channels carved into the slave’s flesh, and the pressure in Thurkesh’s head was suddenly gone. All along the slaves flesh, the channels had stopped bleeding. They, and its eyes, now glowed with a steady blue flame.

Thurkesh wiped his hands on a silk towel before turning to the guard captain. “What is it?”

The captain did not seem affected by the gruesome display he’d just witnessed. He’d seen much worse in his time serving the Slavemaster.

“There has been an escape from the Ludus, my lord.”

Turkish’s eyes narrowed. “Who?”

“The new gladiators, the ones captured in the Norel Campaign. We are not yet sure how they managed it, but one of our watchers reported them missing not 10 minutes ago.”

Thurkesh sighed. He had told the Drakus that those ones needed further disciplining, that their will was yet too strong, but his lord had been impressed by their actions in the siege of Solemnus and had forbidden him from attempting to break that will. Well, when they were recaptured he would rectify that.

Thurkesh emptied his thoughts of all distractions, then pictured the slaves in his minds eye. As their images became clearer, the magic of the Mind Brand stretched out to them, and Thurkesh felt a strong pulling sensation. Down, below his feet.

“They’re in the sewers. And they haven’t gotten far yet. Send the hunting parties. I will be close behind. If you find them, bring them to me.”

“Yes my lord,” the captain replied, before turning on his heel and leaving Thurkesh’s office.

Thurkesh turned back to his creation, and grinned. He stretched his mind to it, found the core of hunger at the center of its emptiness, and deposited the sense of the escaped slaves in it. He could swear the blue flames in its eyes glowed a bit brighter in response.

“Time to hunt, my beauty. Track them, find them, and then, you will feast.”

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Meanwhile, somewhere else...

Runes carved into the rim of a black iron basin come to life, and the viscous red fluid that fills it begins to boil and glow. The crimson sheen lights an ancient and crumbling room. It stinks of decay and iron, and of a deathless malice. Three sets of eyes, vertically slit and bearing the weight of untold ages, open in three corners of the the oddly angled room. Stilted breath stirs the sour air for the first time in millennia.

“Iss it time?”

“Mayhapssss brother, mayhapssss.”

Voices, strangely sibilant, come from two of the corners. In the third a forked tongue tastes the air in silence before a sinuous body slithers from the shadows toward the bubbling basin in the center of the room.

“Eventss are in motion brothersss, events that may see us ressstored to our ancient glory. Come and ssssseeee.”

The other two forms, bizarre and sinuous as the first, emerge from the shadows. The three gather around the basin and gaze into its depths, where silent images form in the roiling fluid. A battle is fought on the ramparts of a stone city. Crimson cloaked soldiers hold against an endless tide of reptilian soldiers.

“The city dead while living fallssss”

“With dragonsss blood upon itsss wallsss”

The view in the basin seems to zoom in. A group of the soldiers, more puissant than most, is holding their own on this section of the wall. They throw off wave after wave of the attackers.

“These onessss show promise brothersss”

“Yessss. Too much promisss too early, mayhaps mayhapsss.”

“A little nudge to sssset them on the path?”

“A little pull to guide them to our road.”

A scaled hand reaches out towards the basin, and a delicately ornamented claw lightly taps the fluid filling it. In the image within, a catapult shot veers slightly in midair to strike a subtle flaw in the stonework full on. A whole section of the wall collapses, and the reptilian hordes begin to pour through the newly made gap. The soldiers who had been holding their own rush to hold the gap, but when a powerful general arrives to personally take part in the fight, there is not much even they can do.

“Not long now brothersss. Not long indeed.”

“Fatessss are sssealed, and wheelssss begin to turn. We musssst prepare.”

The creature waves a hand. An ancient stone door begins to grind open. It is the sound of a world crushed beneath the weight of tyrants.

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The history of the Fist of the Open Palm and its demise at the hand of the coward Bombo Brewbreath
The genesis of Demi Moorefoot

On the history of the Fist of the Open Palm:
The Fist of the Open Palm (FOP) is an old and revered unit within the Laughing Blades. It has existed in some form or fashion since the creation of the mercenary company itself. The nuanced operational philosophy of the Fist is always colored by its current commander but the general tasks assigned and handled by the FOP concern defensive and offensive counterintelligence and espionage. For this reason the FOP is enriched in rogues, magic users, and those skilled in the art of deception and lone survival. The FOP focuses on the following:
1) Counter Human Intelligence: concerned with identifying and controlling individuals the Laughing Blades, their allies, or their enemies who are prone to exploitation by intelligence operatives.
2) Counter Signal Intelligence: concerned with identifying and controlling the means of communication used by both the Laughing Blades, their allies, and their enemies
3) Counter Open Source Intelligence: concerned with the control of information that is publically disseminated
4) Counter Technological Intelligence: concerned with the control of magic and technology that could be used by the Laughing Blades, their allies, or their enemies

The FOP is best known within the Laughing Blades by their current leader, who is openly known as the chief spymaster of the mercenary company. Most other members are not openly associated or known to be associated with the Fist, thus it is common amongst the Laughing Blades to assume that any and everyone within the mercenary company could be an FOP agent. In truth this is not far from the mark, since the FOP keeps an extensive network of informants within the ranks to in order to stem possible intelligence leaks and eliminate weak links. Even high level agents within the FOP are not sure that they know the true number or identity of FOP operatives inside the Laughing Blades, though there is generally a tightknit and cohesive bond between FOP operatives who routinely serve together in the field.

On the state of the FOP when Demi Moorefoot joined the Laughing Blades:
When Demi Moorefoot joined the Laughing Blades they had not yet been employed by The Knights Repentant. Their leader was the spymaster Jung Carolus (L12-Monk, human, male), who had held the post for almost a decade (much longer than normal) and ran the FOP more clandestinely than any Blades veteran could remember. The FOP enjoyed great success under Carolus’ leadership and refined and improved many of its protocols for intelligence gathering.

Shortly after Demi Joined the Blades, but before she was recruited into the FOP, the spymaster Carolus disappeared. His departure was shrouded in mystery; most Blades members assumed that he was killed or captured, while a few insisted that he was forced out by the leadership and simply left. In any event, there was not much time for rumor because it was announced within days that the Blades had signed an agreement with the Knights Repentant to defend The Solemn Kingdom in its war with the Ascendency. Not long after the roll of head spymaster and leader of the FOP was given to a Dragonborn from Kyer-Ves named Ayklos Takis (L9 Ranger, female).

Ayklos bore an open disdain for the Ascendency, motivated primarily by the history of her clan. Almost immediately after her appointment as spymaster the FOP was more visible in the day to day life of Blades. The names of FOP agents became more widely known within the ranks, and the careful and meticulous culture of intelligence gathering cultivated by Jung Carolus fell to the wayside, replaced by offensive counterintelligence ops focused on hitting Ascendency supply lines and assassination of Ascendency leadership. It was at this juncture that Demi was recruited by an FOP agent named Onco Gene (L8 Rogue, human, male). Demi had garnered a reputation as a soft spoken and reticent rogue with remarkable potential.

On the fate of the FOP during the war:
Once initiated into the FOP Demi was introduced to 4 other agents, making a total of 7 agents including herself, Ayklos, and Onco. The other agents were Siblis Bloom (L12 Wizard, gnome, female), Bombo Brewbreath (L6 Druid, Halfling, Male), Ragu’n Jojin (L9 Monk, human, male), and Torsten Stunnarson (L4 Ranger, dwarf, male). As far as Demi could tell the 7 agents constituted the full extent of official FOP personnel, though each agent was tasked with creating 2 or 3 close assets within the Blades.

The FOP had several successful missions over two years of war with the Ascendency, but in general failed to strike any major blows in Ascendency supply lines or discover any critically disruptive intelligence regarding Ascendency military plans. And so as the Knights Repentant slowly lost control of the war and were pushed back into a defensive position surrounding the city of Solemnus the primary role of the FOP became scouting enemy forces and harrying enemy troops as they closed in.

On the betrayal of the FOP by the coward Bombo Brewbreath and the heroism of Demi Moorefoot:
On what would become the final week of the FOP’s existence some critical intelligence was obtained during a nightly raid behind Ascendency lines. The intelligence suggested that the Ascendency had procured a legendary magical item (A horn of blasting) that would lay waste to the city walls and accomplish the siege of Solemnus in a single day. The legend of this horn was as old as written history, and though its existence was in doubt the intelligence gathered seemed to credibly suggest that the Ascendency had procured it from the elves of the Feydark, who had kept the horn hidden for millennia to prevent the destruction of civilization amongst the lesser races. Ayklos and other Blades leadership concluded that, true or not, the intelligence could not be ignored, and so they planned to capitalize on the element of surprise to steal the horn from the Ascendency.

The mission fell to the FOP, and so they planned a black ops raid in a small town occupied by the Ascendency, where the horn was being stashed in the remnants of a heavily guarded chapel of Feltus, God of Death. The team of 7 FOP agents methodically made their way into the heart of the chapel, undetected by Ascendency sentinels. Like most chapels of Feltus, the small and modest sanctuary is a small adornment to the bulk of the structure, which consists of a labyrinthine complex of catacombs running beneath the earth. When the group made their way into the central burial chamber they found no horn, only an empty chamber.

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Lorenzo Interlude #1

As Tulius trudged down the column, he saw that Lorenzo was in his element.

From the center of a maelstrom of messengers, scouts and harried merchants, an impeccably dressed, dark-haired man unflappably forged order from chaos. A golden-skinned, delicately clawed hand held open a large leather-bound ledger, the other hand a blur as he checked off lists, logged arriving goods and rapidly wrote receipts as people ran to and fro. His musically accented voice stood out distinctly from the cacophony as he directed an assistant to disburse funds to another supplier and finally turned his full attention to a red-faced, blustering merchant standing in front of several wagons piled high with boxes.

His voice lost its rapid-fire bark and became mellifluous and smooth. “Per favore, can you be serious with me, my friend? I am as much appreciative of the trials and tribulations of the average small-business owner as the next man, but at the end of the day, we have here the potential here for a ‘win-win situation.’ Let’s not muddy the waters with petty price gouging when such strategic partnerships are at stake!”

“Let me be clear: we offer you and your lovely family safe passage to Solemnus under the protection of the rearguard of our incomparable army.” Lorenzo swept his arm grandly to take in the somewhat bedraggled but still impressively disciplined column of red-cloaked soldiers tromping by “…which guarantees you a fair market for your goods and other benefits including your continued survival and, not to be indiscreet, zero scaled grandchildren to care for in the future.”

“In exchange, all we ask for all of this is you agree to sell us half of the goods you have in your wagons at prices outlined in Section 12, Paragraph C of the contract I’ve drawn up for you.” Lorenzo pointed helpfully with the end of his quill pen to the pertinent section of a very long scroll. “You are free to sell the remaining half to the Penitent Order at whatever price you see fit, or sell them to us at 50% markup from the aforementioned pricing.”

“Your alternative is to throw yourself on the tender mercies of the compassion-impaired, cold-hearted, albino snakes who may or may not be sated by their plunder, pillage and rape of your former city. I’m fairly certain they will take a much less civilized tone during their pricing negotiations with you. If you are very lucky, you will get one of those cursed Brass ones to mince over and look down his nose at you to make tiresome pronouncements like ‘The Thandil Ascendancy claims what is ours’ or somesuch before he cuts your throat.”

“Do we have a deal?”

The plump merchant sputtered impotently, turning a deeper shade of red before hurriedly signing the scroll and storming back to his caravan.

“Molto bene…gratzie!” Lorenzo rolled up the scroll and gave a curt bow before straightening up. He clapped his hands together to get the attention of a solider passing nearby “Attenzione! Please merge these wagons into the caravan and make sure this gentlemen and his family have provisions for the journey!”

The last of the merchants dealt with, Lorenzo inspected the slowly moving caravan and gave a deep sigh of satisfaction.

As Tulius appproached, he turned and snapped an ironic salute. “All hail il Capitano the half-man, half-leader of half an army! How goes the covenant with the Ice Queen? Is your desire to get inside her greaves still outstripping your sense of self-preservation?” The tiefling’s handsome face split into a wide, sharp-toothed grin, the last rays of the sunset reflecting off his short black horns and making his golden skin glow.

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The Last Blades
Prequel

vignette.jpgSnow fell, and Mournys burned. The screams and howls of a city being sacked drifted to the line of refugees and soldiers marching away.

Turns out even the cold blooded legions of the Thantil Ascendancy can’t resist a bit of looting and pillaging after several weeks of hard fought running battles followed by three months of siege. Tulius grinned, Didn’t think the bastards had it in ’em.

“What possible reason could you have to smile, half-man?” The Mournful Lady, Knight-Commander Selia of The Knights Repentant asked, “Our cities burn, our temples lie cast down, and too many supplicants yet avoid the embrace of The Silent Wanderer.”

Tulius didn’t even react to the slur. Indeed, he wore it as a badge of honor. Captain Tulius Half-Man, Commander of The Laughing Blades, the biggest bastard in a company of bastards. Half-Elves might not be the most popular race on the face of Sur, but then, who the hell wants to be popular anyway?

Tulius.jpg
“You aint wrong lady, and here’s one ’supplicant” who’d rather avoid that frigid embrace for awhile yet, if it’s all the same to you!" Tulius’ grin widened.

“Do not blaspheme, Captain. The Wanderer watches. Always.” Somehow Lady Selia’s voice managed to get even colder as she invoked The Lord of the Inevitable End, and Tulius could swear a shadow seemed to dance in her eyes.

Despite himself, he couldn’t suppress a shiver. I chose the wrong damn side in this war. There’s no way the damned Ice Lizards could be any colder than this bitch. He forced himself to meet her eyes, and grin wider.

“If you didn’t want blasphemy, you shouldn’t have hired mercenaries. What do you lot believe? That life is pain? Turns out we agree with you, my boys and I. We just think laughing at the pain is better than running right at its grim end.”

“And how many have suffered so you can laugh, Captain? It is our shame that we must engage such unrepentant sinners as you in our pursuit of our sacred calling.” She paused thoughtfully, “Still, you and your men have sent many to Feltus’ embrace while in service to us, so perhaps you serve The Wanderer yet.”

“And perhaps your lord has a better sense of humor than I thought, Lady,” Tulius glanced back at the smoke rising over Mournys, and his grin fell away. “Or perhaps not.”

“A final reckoning is coming, Captain, make no mistake. The last battle between the heathens of The Ascendancy and The Solemn Kingdom. Grand Chaplain Enise awaits us at Solemnus, along with all that remains of our forces. Will your company be ready?”

Tulius looked over the ragged lines of marching men, the gold and crimson cloaks of The Laughing Blades stark amidst the grey uniforms of the soldiers of the Solemn Kingdom and the dirty browns of the Mournys refugees. He’d lost more than half the company in the two years of this war, but they were still a force to be reckoned with.

By rights I should form them up and march away from this war. Take our chances deeper in the Thousand Kingdoms. “As they’ll ever be,” Tulius replied, “If there’s one good thing that’s come out of this shit war, it’s that it’s given me a chance to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some of my blades have developed a real edge.”

“Good. I’ll make sure they have a prominent place in the coming battles.”

Fuck. You can’t ever keep yourself from bragging, can you Tulius? “Fantastic. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have another chance to prove themselves.”

“Their happiness does not concern me, Captain. Their efficacy does. Be sure they’re ready and capable of following orders.”

Right, that’s enough of that then. “Lady, as soon as you show me someone from your ranks capable of giving orders that make a damn sight of sense, my men will follow them,” Tulius growled, “Until then, kindly shut your damn mouth and let those of us who know how to make war get about it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a defeated army’s withdrawal to oversee, since none of you lot seem willing or capable of doing so.”

With that, Tulius turned his back on Knight-Commander Selia, stomping towards the ranks of the retreating army. He recognized a familiar horned shape trudging wearily through the snow.

“Lorenzo, you slimy bastard! I hope for your sake you secured our supplies before we fled Mournys, or it’s all our asses. We’ve got a long hard march through the snow before we wedge ourselves into one more tight spot for the death lovers, and the damned lizards are going to be nipping at our tails the whole way. We’re gonna need those supplies.”

I really should just march the company away. He wouldn’t though. Despite the reputations of both mercenaries and half-elves, Tulius Half-Man prided himself on his honor. Under his command The Laughing Blades had never broken a contract, and they never would. And we’ll probably all die for my damned honor, because it’s worth so fucking much.

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