5317 Summary

The ordeal on my father’s estate left me drained physically and emotionally, and the damage to my face was slow in healing. My recuperation in the war-torn Ankh was long and painful. An elderly seamstress tended to me for the most part, and her mundane healing salves eventually healed the scars, but my eye remained lost, and magical healing was ineffective in restoring it. As the war raged on, certain elements had begun scouring the city for outsiders, and it was round this time that Tellema, the seamstress, told me that it would be wise if I found my way out of the city, sooner rather than later, lest I find myself leaving the city facedown in the river.

A stolen skiff proved to be my salvation, and that it belonged to the boatman who had dumped me overboard on my way into the city was pure coincidence. In time I returned to Arrakis and Dagger Deep, where I was reunited with my companions and my wife, who, it turned out, was not particularly bothered by my long, unexplained absence.

While I tried to live without my eye, I gradually came to the conclusion that it needed to be replaced, and set about researching a solution to the problem. Before I enlisted the help of mages in conducting a ritual that would counteract whatever it was the necromancer had done, my friend Hector suggested speaking to the mage Serenity, a gnome with a faculty for fusing magic and machinery, and asking her to craft a replacement eye for me. As it turned out, this was a matter of course for her, and she declined even to take any payment for her work. So it was that on Samhain of the year 5316 I came into possession of a mechanical eye, and saw the other half of the world for the first time in months.

I spent a long, wet few weeks up and down the island of Arrakis, until I heard of an alliance of kingdoms leading an army to crush Northbrook in their stronghold in the Nai Nai Wastes. Seeking an opportunity to earn coin, as well as strike a blow against one of my less favoured enemies, I followed the army northward. Shortly I met with the Hand of the Red King, one Autumn Culley, and offered her my services as both operator and consultant, confident that the tactical knowledge gleaned from my father and his veterans would serve me well in this capacity. It pains me to say that that one nugget of wisdom from my father proved true; an alliance is a fragile thing, and leadership thereof was, at best, ephemeral, as the ego and ambition of individuals will constantly pit them against one another. Autumn’s faith in my knowledge was not shared by the others, and my lack of affiliation with any kingdom left me by the wayside in that regard.

My abilities as a killer, on the other hand, came in handy on numerous occasions; on one, I thwarted the efforts of Northbrook infiltrators to sabotage the coalition forces’ stores of black powder; on another, I discovered one of several nests of saboteurs in a ruined village, intended to detonate a supply of powder and devastate the Red Keep’s forces who were stationed there. I kept out of the battles proper, believing them best fought by professional soldiers, and the campaign ended rather abruptly when Northbrook’s keep, and the entirety of their army, disappeared in a mass implosion, seemingly leaving us victorious. While the campaign gave me a confidence in myself, it failed to pay, as any potential valuables disappeared with the enemy.

As the wet season came to a close, I returned to Dagger Deep, eager to see my old friends and acquaintances. One acquaintanceship I was dismayed to remake was Northbrook returning to attack Dagger Deep once more. Our supposed victory had been hollow, and I later learned that the magical event had been a ritual gone wrong, carried out by one of their Wretched Court, that plunged the forces of Northbrook into the Infernal plane, where they rebuilt their strength and planned to exact vengeance upon the free peoples of Arrakis.

This year, I found myself increasingly interested in politics; the squabbling of the leaders during the Northbrook campaign left me somewhat chilled to the idea of nobility, and I believed a stronger system of meritocracy could have more decisive results in battles such as had been fought that winter. My personal respect for those capable individuals such as Autumn, Caius of Uberland and King Willumarius himself did not, in my mind, endorse the system of patronage and inheritance within which they operated, and at which the common people, such as myself, were at the mercy of. To this end I founded what I hoped would be a force for change in Dagger Deep, the Independent Citizens’ Advisory Council, to represent those who were not affiliated with any kingdom, and thus found their voices falling on deaf ears in matters of state.

The Council started small, and included my friends Zarnor and Rothfur, as well as the paladin Reven and a dwarf friend of his. Unfortunately, it stayed small, as I found myself increasingly struck with weariness and pain in my chest, hauntingly reminiscent of the corruption I’d suffered as a result of my time in the Abyss. As a result, I could not invest the necessary energy to keep the Council growing and moving forward, at least for the time being. Consulting with numerous healers, both magical and mundane, revealed that the corruption had returned with gusto, and I once again found myself staring a painful, slow death in the face.

My energy became devoted to dealing with this, and in the meantime, the civil war in Ankh ended; indeed, the authorities in that odd city claimed that no such conflict had ever taken place. Nevertheless, with Helm’s Deep closed off to me thanks to the continuing suzerainty of my enemies there, I felt Ankh was the best place to find a permanent solution to my illness. One evening, in a tavern, I was approached by the assistant of one who had caught wind of my inquiries, and believed he had a cure. The individual was called Bonkargo Mekkafizz, and considering my lack of success in other channels, I felt this worth at least some of my time pursuing.

So it was that the next night I arrived at the address given to me, to find a closed fish shop. A crude wooden sign hanging on the wall directed “subjects” around the back of the building and to enter the cellar. My hackles rose and I kept a firm grip on my dagger as I proceeded down the dark alley and into the slightly ajar wooden door I found there. The room was dimly lit, but I could make out a number of cylindrical shapes in the gloom.

Just as my eyes were adjusting, a burst of light filled the room, and I was momentarily blinded. While I waited for the spots to clear from my vision, a high pitched voice announced, “Greetings, friend Dar! You find yourself in the presence of Magus Doctor Bonkargo Mekkafizz, Alumnus of Ankhadian University, Traverser of Realms Unknown, Master of Machine and Magic!” There was a pause after this speech, and I got the impression I was meant to fill it with applause or gasps, but I declined to do so. Gradually my vision cleared, and I saw a squat man, even for a gnome, perched on a stool in front of me, some residual sparks still flickering from his outstretched hands. His eyes were mechanical, like mine was, but had a large number of attachments mounted outside the sockets; he had a beard but it was scraggly and looked burned in a number of places. Rather than the robes I normally associated with practitioners of academic magic, he was dressed in ordinary workman’s roughspun, topped with a heavy leather apron that held numerous instruments, some of which looked medical and others that would not be out of place in a carpenter’s toolbox. The room, too, resembled a workshop more than a wizard’s study, and I found my eyes drawn to a heavy wooden table with a stained top.

I stared him in the eye, and his smile faltered briefly, then he cleared his throat and said, “Yes, I apologize for the theatrics, it’s simply that I am delighted to have you offering yourself up for my work!”

As I was about to protest, he charged onward, saying, “The establishment here in Ankh, and beyond, is less than keen to embrace my ideas! Indeed, after earning my third degree at the university, they positively pushed me out! Can you believe they felt my experiments were crossing a line? Indeed! To stifle growth, that is the greatest tragedy imaginable.”

I didn’t bother trying to respond.

He continued, “Your affliction is one I have seen before, yes! The corruption of the lungs, always ultimately fatal, yet I believe I have found the solution. You know what does not corrupt? What does not age?” I simply stared, and he went on. “Metal, of course! Leather! Artificial materials! The bellows of a forge, with care, with the proper enchantments, will last long past the blacksmith’s natural end. It is my belief that this principle can be applied to humans as well! My proposal, my dear friend, is that I replace your faulty, natural organs with devices of my own manufacture, that will not age, will not ever fail except through trauma or misuse.”

I admit, I was somewhat astounded. An eye was one thing, a hand another, but to have my insides replaced with machinery? The magus, as he addressed himself, went on, explaining that he had performed the procedure successfully in the past, and wanted now to experiment further, to enhance the natural body beyond its limits and create better people. He offered to perform the lung replacement free of charge, so long as I consented to his attempting other improvements on me, fusions of mechanical devices and magical energies that would grant me abilities normally closed off to non-practitioners of magic. He would allow me to distort light around myself so as to appear invisible, to interfere through magical currents with the thoughts of others and force them to ignore me, to disrupt the body’s natural flows and render them asleep; less fantastical than these were his offer of reinforced bone and muscle that would increase my strength exponentially, and an internal device that would heal wounds to my flesh and repair damage to the machinery he would fuse with that flesh.

A long discussion of the particulars followed, and I found him becoming much more calm and serious while instructing me on his craft than he had been initially. Despite my reservations, I was interested, and his offer of improvements to my natural abilities in addition to saving my life sealed the deal, as it were. After some weeks of contemplation and consultation with those close to me, I chose to go forward with the procedure.

The particulars are unimportant; know only that it was a success. Indeed, the first test of my newfound strength was to punch a hole through three inches of solid oak. The magus was annoyed with my treatment of his operating table, but we were both more pleased with the results of his experiment. True to his word, he accepted no coin, but gifted me with a device that would allow me to monitor the level of ambient magical energy stored in my reservoir, and instructed me on how to absorb more when that level ran low.

My return to Dagger Deep was punctuated by an attack by Northbrook, which was thwarted in part by their newly redeemed former general Zarek. A ritual was performed trapping the leader of Northbrook, one Morghul, on this plane, and with a special sword Zarek could supposedly kill him once and for all, and then a group of casters, led by Autumn, would destroy the sword. I don’t particularly trust a man who as indirectly tried to kill me on innumerable occasions, as I’m aware of the concept of lying, but I suppose it’s worth the risk.

I’ll stay vigilant and watch Dagger Deep in the event that Northbrook should attack again. I’ll play no part in the destruction of the sword, but I’ll certainly be there, fists ready, to keep Northbrook from preventing that destruction. I’ve fought against these undead creatures from the first day I came to Dagger Deep, and to truly see an end to them would be gratifying, to say the least. When that’s done, I intend to travel to Ankh for the winter, as Helm’s Deep is still forbidden ground to me and the prospect of spending it in a tent again is less than appealing. Who knows, perhaps I’ll even get some coin out of this war.

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The Assassin; Or, There and Back Again

Sleeping under the stars every night for the weeks leading up to our descent into the Abyss hardly prepared me for the month I would spend there. Late from the relative comforts of Helm’s Deep, staring up at the night sky, I dreamed of hot meals and dry sheets; when Yog’Sothoth plunged our island through the portal and danger was constant, I longed only to see the same stars again. There is an alarming lack of consistency in the how others describe their experiences. Some saw a reversal of colours, some saw the world all in black and white, and others still saw no change at all. I, myself, witnessed a red sky during the day, and an alien array of celestial bodies at night, all pervaded by the constant stink of blood.

The moment we made our transition into the Abyss, a great change overtook me. I felt as though the very core of my being had been ripped out. I felt softer, weaker, and I was plagued by headaches for days. None of the healers in Dagger Deep knew what to make of my condition, and when the process was reversed and Arrakis returned to the material plane, the changes I had undergone remained. Arcane mystics in Ankh fared no better, and the greatest healer I have known, Relan, Bishop of Ithus, found his powers useless in curing me. Since our return I have also been plagued by a worsening cough, even as I feel some of my previous vigour returning. Some weeks past I went toe to toe with a giant and managed to overpower him through brute strength. That feat drained me as no other battle has before. Bella remains light in my hands, but it seems swinging her takes more out of me every time. The healers tell me there is a corruption in my chest, some residue of the air in the Abyss. I have spent half my coin on useless herbal concoctions and the other half being told that nothing can be done to cure me of this affliction.

I am twenty-six years old, by my own reckoning. I have never owned anything that I could not carry, nor known the touch of a woman, without coin changing hands (one way or the other). I flounder in my careers as a town guard and as a spy, and the secret agents of my homeland, the Order of Wolves, seem to have lost interest in me. I feel without purpose, without direction, beyond survival. Survival itself seems to be a short term goal, as all signs point to my impending death. Another adherent to Ithus, Brother Hector, implores me to remain strong and steadfast; my mentor and friend, the Hrogn barbarian Merek, suggests that I whore and fight my way to the grave. Ultimately, I am struck with a great melancholy. I see my end coming, and nothing with which to fill the intervening time.

Nothing except, perhaps, reclaiming the legacy of my father. The strangeness of my vision in the Dragon peaks, when I should most certainly have died, led me to redouble my efforts in translating the Captain’s journal. A scholar in Ankh succeeded, and it appears that my vision was correct. A lifetime of not knowing my father, when he stood above me all along. I have a name, at last; Sandar Ilos Zolus. The same name as that of my father, the last great general of the Empire, whose land lies burned and ruined under the heel of a power-obsessed mage. If I am to die, well and truly, perhaps there could be some meaning in dying for my name. To reclaim my father’s estate might afford me some comfort, and to die in the effort might ease my soul wherever it should end up. I do not make friends easily, and this has held true of my time in Dagger Deep, but there are some I would count as comrades. I believe those who would undertake this journey with me are few, but I also believe they would not turn back for all the world, especially if they were to get paid at the end. I shall make my inquiries, and begin to settle my affairs, and continue searching for something to relieve the corruption in my lungs so that I might once more let out a proper battle cry before the end.

***

Some weeks passed, my condition worsening. Through a proxy I arranged for supplies and mounts to be picked up outside of Ankh the day after the Festival of Osis. A number of the denizens of Dagger Deep had, indeed, come to my aid. They were Dice, an acolyte of Cheeba; Zarnor, my orc companion; Hector, acolyte of Ithus; and Merek, barbarian member of Hrogn. Meeting us in Helm’s Deep were my mercenary friends, the twins Oleg and Meven. I also acquired a wife in the form of the tavern maid Fritha. I was highly intoxicated at the time, but found the idea of being her fifth concurrent husband appealing. Four other men could not be wrong. She had no idea of the journey I was planning, and I admit I am nervous at the wrath my return might incur.

I left Dagger Deep with Zarnor and Merek at the end of the Festival of Osis, and our ride to Helm’s Deep was uneventful. Some distance from the city proper I packed myself into a crate so that I might be smuggled in without attracting the attention of any lingering enemies. It was a hot, uncomfortable several hours, and I was dropped and turned on my head a number of times, but was no worse for wear when Zarnor freed me on the deck of the cargo skiff on its way to Ankh. I paid the captain the agreed-upon price, and we disembarked into that strange city.

We met Hector and Dice in a tavern where I had also arranged to meet with the two agents of Ter’solma, a powerful healer and a mage. It was a solemn company that rode out the next morning. I was somewhat reluctant to have followers of three different gods in the party, but it also seemed wise to hedge my bets, as it were.

The first four days were uneventful, and the weather fairly mild. It was on the morning of the fifth that Zarnor made his request. He asked that we cross the Dragon Peaks further north than usual, so that he might stop in a location significant to him. The change would only add a day’s ride, so the company agreed. The rest of the fifth day proved far more exciting, as I will attest.

While riding through the forest on an old trail, I was at the head of our small column, keeping a watchful eye out for trouble, when my horse very suddenly sprouted the friendlier end of a crossbow bolt from his eye socket. A blood-curdling shriek and the beast went down, pinning my leg beneath its body. The rest of the company shouted and surged forward as our attackers burst from the trees. As I struggled to free myself, I heard several more crossbows fire, and Meven bellowing in pain. Oleg stood over me, sending crumpled bodies flying with his crowbar, and when there was a momentary lull, he reached down and casually yanked me from under the dead horse with one hand, and set me on my feet. I drew my sword and entered the fray.

It was a true melee, and I fought back to back with Oleg. I could hear but not see Hector, shouting exhortations to Ithus, and the occasional scream from someone who got in front of Merek or Zarnor. Dice was a whirlwind, silent, cutting enemies down with his blade or breaking bone with his shield. The Ter’solmans defended themselves adequately, and Meven seemed to have appointed himself their guardian, driving the enemy back with his hammer.

As quickly as the ambush began, it was over. We stood victorious, surrounded by the dead. As we began to breathe and take stock of injuries, there was a final shout. One of the assassins leaped from the ground clutching a dagger. He caught Meven off guard and drove the point through the dwarf’s chainmail into his belly. Meven responded with a hammer to the skull, but the damage was done. He collapsed to his knees, gasping with pain, trying to pull at his armour, then keeled over and was still. The healer attempted to revive him, but the blade had apparently been coated with some fell poison, and nothing could be done. The divines said a prayer over his body, drowned out by Oleg’s soul-shattering howl of grief. He began savaging the bodies with his weapon, and I didn’t have the heart to stop him. This carried on for several moments before he went crashing into the trees.

I picked one of the more intact corpses, and looked it over thoroughly. The crossbow was of Imperial make, the leather armour the right style, and on one cheek he bore the brand of the provincial irregulars, deserters who had been captured and forced into suicide reconnaissance units. A cursory examination revealed the rest of the dozen to have a similar background. Assassins, hired from within the Empire. This was far from a random attack, and deeply disconcerting, because with no prisoners it was impossible to know if they were sent from Camorra by Lord Tyrell, or if the mage I was hunting had learned we were coming.

While we waited for Oleg to return, we moved the bodies off the road and lit a fire. With the death of Meven, no one felt much like continuing that day. It was nearing twilight when I heard noises in the trees, and stood up to greet Oleg. Instead of my giant companion, I greeted another crossbow bolt, this one hitting me high in the chest. Someone whimpered, and then all was black.

***

I woke to find the Ter’solman healer and a fat man I did not recognize looking down at me. Beyond them, a thatch roof. I could hear the sounds of a tavern. More than anything, I felt an intense pain in my chest. The healer informed that I had indeed died, once again, but removing the bolt from between my ribs had proved troublesome, and this local pig farmer had helped them to extract it before bringing me back. She expressed shock at the state of my lungs, asked if I’d never had a healer look at them. I waved her and the chirurgeon away, staggered to my feet, and made my way to the door of the inn. It was long past dark, and from the booming voices in the common room my companions were well into their cups. No more traveling today.

I sat up most of the night pointing a scavenged crossbow at the door to my room. After consulting with Zarnor, we came to the conclusion that speed was now of the essence. With the assassins having failed, more would certainly come, and we were still four days from the relative safety of the mountains. At the break of dawn, I roused my companions. Oleg had followed us to the inn, and informed me that he had met Merek on the road west. The barbarian had urgent business on Arrakis, apparently. Our numbers were dwindling already.

We were on the road not long after that, eating in the saddle, my purse lighter for having purchased a new horse, and for the next three days we rode from dawn until dusk, pushing the horses harder than was probably fair. At long last, we reached the base of the Dragon Peaks, and prepared to enter the pass Zarnor had specified. It was late afternoon, but Zarnor assured us that we could reach his destination before true dark and safely camp there.

Riding into the mountains for the first time since the winter didn’t produce any great emotion in me, though I rubbed my forearm self-consciously, remembering the wounds left by the wolf. Perhaps by now they’d moved to greener pastures. For high summer, this section of the mountains was bare, and the magically attuned of our number began to seem tense. We came onto a plateau, and all were silent.

It was a desolate place, with little soil and unexplained scorch marks. Even I could sense a dark energy. Zarnor told us to wait, and walked off a short distance. He stood silently for a few moments and then returned, telling us that a village was about a mile further on, and we could spend the night there. His face suggested against asking questions, and we rode on to spend a cheerless night in the small village inn.

***

The next two days were uneventful. We passed through the mountains, and by evening of the second day had reached the edge of my father’s land. Stabbing up at the darkening horizon was an ugly black spire. It seemed that the mage truly had built a tower. I spent an hour scouting the surrounding area, but saw nothing of note. We spent a fireless night under the stars and awoke to a light drizzle.

Fanning out into the empty field, I led the way toward the tower. All was eerily silent, and nothing moved. The Tersolman mage informed us that he had cast a spell that would reveal any invisible foes, but an army of orcs failed to materialize.

I reached the tower first. Tower was an apt term, as I could see the top only by craning my neck back. I began walking around it, looking for an entrance, but didn’t get far. There was a sudden snapping sound, and I could hear the wind, though I had not been conscious of not hearing it before. More startling than that were the mix of orcish and Imperial mercenaries that appeared as though out of nowhere, surrounding myself and the party with crossbows and spears leveled. I could see no gaps in their ranks, and with every move we made they stepped closer, closing a circle around each of us.

A voice boomed out from above. “You should never have come back, Sandar. Bring them.”

We were forcibly separated, and marched toward the manor house. They had restored part of it, and as I discovered, expanded the cellar into a veritable dungeon. My companions and I found ourselves stripped of our weapons and imprisoned alone in dank cells. Hours later, a pair of soldiers dragged me out and down the hall to a small room.

My wrists were chained and attached to a hook in the ceiling, hanging me so my toes were barely scraping the floor. A decidedly uncomfortable position. A pair of orcs stood guard by the door, and I could hear someone behind me tinkering with metal or glass. I was turned around roughly and brought face to face with a small, unassuming man, a southerner by the look of him, dressed like a butcher and holding a metal instrument in one hand. He raised it, and I could see that it was an impossibly fine blade; a gentle caress down my cheek caused no pain, but I could feel warm blood streaming from a wound.

“It would be Master Dar. Master Sandar, yes? Of course,” he said, chuckling and nodding. “The good master expresses his regrets, of course, that he could not attend. There would be no doubt he will attend soon, of course. Yes.” With the last word he slit open my shirt; deciding not to waste any more time, I summoned my strength and kicked at him wildly with both feet. My boots connected solidly with his chest and sent him crashing against the wall with a howl. The next instant it seemed blows were raining down from every direction, my chest, stomach and back being pummeled with fists.

The torturer staggered to his feet, let out a snarl and the barrage ended, the orcs stepping back as silently as they had attacked. The man turned his back on me, picking through a leather case and producing a long hook, like we’d use for moving bales of hay, before all of this happened. He got very close to me, and said, “Master Sandar, you will not do that again. The good master wants you alive, of course, and I am very good at keeping you alive. There would be no doubt that even my talents are not unlimited, yes?” I closed my eyes and fought back a scream as the hook pierced my side.

***

Back in my cell, I woke to the sound of the door opening. A figure entered from the dimly lit corridor, and suddenly the cell was bright. Standing above me was an elf, who didn’t look much older than myself, as their kind goes, in a plain black robe. I had never seen him before, but I knew who he must be, and I raged at my muscles to move. He must have seen this, because a wave of his hand stopped my struggles and very nearly my breath. I was completely immobilized. The mage sat down next to me, almost companionably, and put a hand on my knee.

“Dar, Dar. So young, so impetuous, even for a human. I would have been perfectly happy to let you live out your days on the coast. I didn’t want you; I just wanted your father’s land. Speak.”

I found my mouth free, and said, “Why? What the hell do you need this kind of power for? Why here? The Empire is rotten, dying.”

He laughed, with the barest hint of condescension. “You know so little, yet speak with such authority. Although, in this case, you are right. This realm is overdue for its collapse. It shrinks rather than shatters. I will deal it the death blow, and avenge my people.”

“What people? The elves? They seem to be doing alright. I think they outnumber humans on Arrakis.”

“Not just any elves. The Builders, workers of stone and steel. Think of the elves you know, in their forests and towers. We were much more akin to humans. Warlike. Cruel. We built Camorra, laid the foundations of Montun, countless other places you Imperials take for granted. Thousands of years ago you humans forced us out, took our land. You people breed like rats. Kill a human and barely two decades later he’s replaced twofold. Breathing the same air as you, even now, makes me nauseous. Rats”

“I’ve never heard of any Builders. There can’t be many of you. You the last, then?”

That seemed to anger him. “The last faithful one. The others, they’ve joined the other kingdoms, given up stone. They sing to trees and ignore what’s truly in their blood. But I tell you, Sandar, when I’ve cleansed my land of your kind, they’ll return. They’ll hear the call of stone again.”

“Cleansed? There’s a bloody lot of Imperials. Eventually you’ll run out of companies to hire.”

“Do you want to know my plan, young Dar? Will that bring you comfort?”

“Just spit it out.”

“This is a land of infinite death. Wars have been fought here for thousands of years, even before you humans came. There are more dead than are alive now. With the power of this intersection, I will raise them all, human, elf, dwarf, orc, and wipe the Empire clean. I have studied my whole life to this end. Undead that are not undead. Come, Sandar.”

I was momentarily confused, but my stomach sank as my confusion cleared. My father entered the cell, stooping to fit through the doorway, clad head to toe in his rent armour. His eyes lacked the spark of life, but were somehow still present, and not in the way of other zombies I’ve seen. He was, indeed, something else. The elf cackled at the look on my face, and said, “You see! He’s perfect! All of the skills and knowledge he possessed in life, the tactical prowess, the understanding of politics, but utterly loyal. He cannot be turned by divine magic, and he is physically whole. Imagine it, young Dar! An endless army of them. And he will lead it. Your Empire will fall.”

I forced myself to look away, and the elf laughed again. The heavy footsteps told me my father was leaving, but I still could not bear to watch him. If the elf said anything else after that, I didn’t hear it.

***

The next few hours passed slowly as I heard various screams, at one point several at once, and from the laughs I knew Oleg was making a spirited attempt at escape. But I knew the rest were my companions, and I felt powerless to help. Gradually my strength recovered, and I promised myself that the next time the cell door opened, someone was going to die.

When next I heard a key in the lock, I stood up and moved next to the door, tensed and ready. The moment it opened I threw myself at the guard and looped my belt around his neck. His companion drew a sword and stabbed at me but I shoved my captive between us and his body took the blow. I threw the dead man at his companion and jumped after, sending the live guard to the floor with my hands around his neck. He took a surprising amount of time to strangle but eventually he stopped kicking. I took his sword and keys and set about freeing my companions.

The first I found was Dice, who seemed surprised to see me there, followed by Zarnor, who was disgruntled that it had taken this long. Before any more could be freed, a squad of five Imperials attacked. It was a furious fight, and served to remind me that when one chooses to wield a spear, one should always carry another weapon for when an orc takes it.

I confess that I have a certain darkness in my soul. I’ve killed when it was not strictly necessary, or used my fists when words might have sufficed. There have been moments where I relished in the fight, and lost all sense of myself in the slaughter. Nothing in my upbringing would account for it; I don’t believe myself evil, because I always regret it when I have gone too far, but something takes hold of me, guides my hand, and I am powerless to stop it. I tell this because I want to be clear, when I opened the door of the torture chamber and saw my friend Oleg strapped to a board, his hands and feet gone, his eyes charred holes, my thinking was razor keen. I took all of this in in an instant. One of the burly orcs charged at me, and the pilfered dagger in my hand flashed across his neck faster than I would have warranted possible, and I hurled my stolen sword at the other orc, burying eight inches of steel in his chest and dropping him to the floor.

The torturer himself cowered in a far corner. I stared at him, and without turning around, said, “Go find the others. Prepare to move out.”

“Dar, this is a waste of time,” Zarnor replied. I said nothing, and after a moment I heard him and Dice trotting down the corridor. I closed the door carefully, then crossed the room. The torturer held his small blade out at me, the impossibly sharp one, but I knew his heart was not behind the gesture. He was a coward; I’d met his like before. They know all of the places that hurt most, but a moving body is too great of a challenge. I snapped an order and he dropped the blade, standing slowly. Taking hold of the front of his apron with one hand, I slapped him soundly with the other. He let out a sob, and my fist ramming into his belly drove the air from him, producing only a wheezing gasp. He doubled over, but I hauled him upright and asked, “Where is our gear?” Confused, the torturer extended one arm, pointing vaguely down the hall; I grabbed the outstretched finger and bent it backwards. At the moment it snapped he found enough air to scream. I kicked his feet out from underneath him, then drove a foot into his midsection two or three times. Stooping down, I picked both him and his knife up, and making eye contact, held the blade to his throat. I said, “I’d like for you to know how it feels to be restrained, helpless, while a raving lunatic cuts into you without any compunction or hesitation, but, well, I just don’t have the time.” With that, I sliced across his throat effortlessly, then stepped back before I was drenched in his blood, and he crumpled to the floor.

I moved to stand next to Oleg, taking in the extent of his injuries. There was not much of him left, and while I could hear the faintest whisper of a breath, a hand on his shoulder and saying his name produced no response. This small, weak, coward of a man had broken my giant friend, when the lowest gangs of Helm’s Deep could not. I knew that Oleg would not want to die this way, and I felt my fingers curl involuntarily around the handle of the knife.

***

I found my friends gathered at the exit of the cellar, by following a trail of bodies. They were all whole, though somewhat worse for wear. Hector handed me my sword belt and offered a grim smile, despite his left eye being swollen nearly shut. Dice threw the bolt and opened the heavy cellar door, and we quietly made our way out into the darkness. Despite the chaos, it seemed no alarm had been raised. Some windows in the manor house showed flickering lights, and the top of the tower glowed with an unearthly light. I pulled Zarnor close, and whispered, “Can you light some fires in the house? Quietly.” He bared his tusks in what might have been a smile, and slipped off into the shadows.

The rest of us walked quickly to the tower, unmolested, and this time I managed to find the entrance. It was unlocked, and we entered the dimly lit foyer. An Imperial seemed to be on guard, but he was asleep in a chair. He never woke. We started up the wooden steps, and it was on the third floor that we encountered our first resistance. A group of four mercenaries scrambled up from their card game, but the fight was over in seconds. One of them screamed, however, and footsteps from above materialized into a handful of soldiers. The way they moved set them apart, however; as they came close, I realized they were more examples of the necromancer’s new type of undead. We began to fight, but blows against them were shrugged off. Only serious trauma seemed to have any effect. The healer from Ter’solma began working a spell that succeeded in weakening the creatures, and Hector urged me to continue upward and find the necromancer.

I moved up flight after flight of steps, passing through what appeared to be arcane and alchemical laboratories, meeting no more enemies until I reached what I took to be the penultimate floor. There, in the centre of a suite of living quarters, stood my father. In the candle light his state of undeath was more apparent; the skin was grey, his eye sockets hollow, the tears in his armour showing unhealed wounds on the body. His left hand gripped the hilt of Invictus, his six foot greatsword; the steel gleamed. I stepped forward and he did not move, but I found myself slowing as I approached, reminded of his immense size and power. I am not a small man, but he stood better than a foot taller than me, and perhaps half again as broad. The whispers of giant blood came back to me, but then he spoke, and such idle speculation fell by the wayside.

“Dar,” was all he said. His voice was deep as ever, but somehow hollow, as though it came from a great distance.

“Captain,” I replied, sheathing my sword.

“You can call me father. I think you’ve earned that.”

“No.”

“No? The lads always said that you wanted to know who your father was. Are you not happy to know now?”

“My father is dead. I’d be happier to know he wasn’t also still walking around.”

“I loved your mother, you know. In my way. In what time we had.”

“Yes.” This was rapidly becoming tiresome, and I knew that the mage was attempting to manipulate me through this husk.

“I…remember. You used to talk more. What has changed?”

“You’re dead, Captain. I keep telling you.”

“I do not feel…dead. The master gave me new life. He can do the same for you. He will do the same for you.”

I closed my eyes. I did not expect an emotional reunion, an explanation for the lie I lived for most of my life. I was, thus, not disappointed, so I said, “Then let him try.” The Captain surged forward with the same astonishing speed I had always known, and I was hard-pressed to avoid his charge. A swing of his sword took a lock of my hair. His assault was precise and efficient, and it was all I could do to avoid his attacks. Finally his foot caught the edge of a rug, causing him to stumble. I slipped under his guard and drew my dagger, then threw myself onto his back. Repeated thrusts to the neck and chest failed to slow him, but I managed to sever the straps of his cuirass and it fell to the floor, along with me. He attacked with renewed vigour, and in his eagerness to reach me, he overextended a thrust, letting me hack at a knee with my sword. It was a surprisingly effective blow, nearly severing his leg. This did slow him down.

I retreated at this point, catching my breath, and with a snarl of rage that did not come from the man I knew, he hurled his enormous sword at me, which I managed to dodge, barely. He dragged himself across the floor toward me, and I picked up his sword. The weight was staggering, but with a roar, I raised it above my head, and then impaled him with it, the blade stabbing through his spine and sticking into the floor. He struggled to move, and snarled and growled at me. Clearly whatever measure of his soul remained lost control in the heat of battle. I picked up a lit oil lamp, and without more than a moment or two of hesitation, threw it down on him. The glass shattered and the oil ignited in a small explosion, and the flames spread across his body and outward onto the wooden floor rapidly. I ignored the screams.

The final trapdoor was concealed in a corner behind a silk curtain. Evidently the necromancer preferred something of a life of luxury. I climbed the ladder and opened the hatch, then pulled myself up onto the roof of the tower. I was met with a strange sight: The elf stood in the centre of a complex pattern of lines and figures, a mixture of the arcane, divine and draconic scripts, plus more I did not recognize; all were glowing blue, and the staff in his hand blazed with a black flame that I could just make out against the night. His posture indicated that he expected me, and I expected nothing less. The man had an ego. He opened his mouth, no doubt to further stroke said ego, but I refused him the chance to speak. By the time he realized I was charging, he was too late to strike me down with some incantation or other; my shoulder crashed into him and he fell down, hard. My sword came down on his staff, sundering it, and sending a wave of energy back up the blade, which I dropped as soon as I felt the burning in my hands.  The necromancer struggled to rise, and my boot found his face, holding him down. He was physically far weaker than me, and my foot obstructing his speech evidently kept him from lashing out with magic.

Something struck me from behind, sending me crashing forward and making my head ring. An orc stood over me, clad in black armour and wielding a massive club. The elf scrambled to his feet, and began incanting something, but a grunt from the orc cut him off. This was obviously the chieftain, and he wanted to fight me in honourable combat. Bugger that, but why not play along? I thought, as I stood, shakily. The orc kicked my sword over to me and I picked it up. As he set into a fighting stance, I drew my dagger and threw it underhand, and it stuck into his gut. Bellowing with rage, he charged at me, and I met him with a tackle. We both fell and set about with knees, elbows and fists; we were of equal strength and the contest didn’t seem to be progressing until I felt an impact on my back and my body became racked with painful spasms. The orc stood and retrieved his cudgel, and in my writhing I saw the elf standing close by; he looked exhausted, as I’ve often seen casters do after expending themselves.

As the orc raised his weapon to finish me, something crashed into him from behind, sending him to his knees, and then Hector appeared, wrapping the chain of his flail around the chieftain’s neck. As my friend strangled the war leader, I got to my knees and threw the elf to the ground once more, beating him into submission. I heard a crack, and looked to see that Hector’s struggle was over, the orc limp in his arms. We both stopped for a moment to catch our breath, and in that moment the elf spoke, his words slurred but intelligible. He said, “Dar…Sandar. Your…your affliction. I can fix it. Let me live and I will fix it.” I punched him again and he groaned, then said, “Please…please, you don’t have to die. You’ve beaten me as it is. Please.”

I looked over at Hector, but he simply looked exhausted, and said, “It is your choice, brother.” I stood, and then pulled the elf to his feet, saying, “If you try to betray me, I will kill you, or he will. Bear that in mind while you consider your next course of action.” The elf placed his left hand on my face, covering my eye, and began an incantation. I felt warmth spreading outward from the point of contact, and it abruptly turned into a torrent. Whatever magic he was working was coursing through my body, and with howl of rage I grabbed his wrist and wrenched his hand away from my face. Flames still flowed forth from his hand as he laughed maniacally. My fists rained down on him, and he continued to laugh as he was driven to his knees, and the laughter continued still as I dragged him to the low wall around the tower, raised him over my head with a strength hitherto unknown to me, and threw him over. The laughter stopped as he fell and the elf shouted something. I didn’t catch it, but the ground caught him ungently. As the battle fury left my body I was acutely aware that I could see about half as much as I could before, and that the skin on the right side of my face appeared to be gone. I slumped down against the wall, and Hector rushed over to me, speaking, but his words are now lost as well.

The rest of my companions emerged from the trap door, and the Ter’solman mage called us to gather around him as the tower was sure to collapse soon. Hector and Zarnor managed to drag me over, the mage incanted a spell, and we abruptly appeared on a forested hill some distance away.

Through the haze of my agony, I could see the tower wreathed in flames, and the manor house similarly afflicted. We stood silently and watched for several minutes. I opened my mouth to speak, and the world exploded.

***

I came to in a daze, and was somewhat startled to find myself on what appeared to be the same hill, but was devoid of any trees, save a handful of blasted trunks. My friends were strewn about me, groaning as they regained consciousness, and I looked to where I thought the estate must be. Since my return I’ve learned the word “crater,” and that describes what remained of my former home. There was a deep bowl surrounding where the tower had stood, and no sign whatsoever of either the tower or the house. The fields were burned clean, as far as the eye could see. I became aware of the smell of burning hair and roast pork, then realized that it was us, clothing and hair all lightly singed, and what was left of my face. Somewhat disturbingly, my stomach growled at that moment. The laughter it sparked was welcome.

***

The journey home began peacefully enough, but my suggestion of crossing the Dragon peaks further south proved unwise, as we encountered an Imperial patrol out of Camorra on our way into the mountains. Evidently I matched the description of a wanted criminal, but as the interrogation continued, the lieutenant in charge blanched, and decided that this hardened band of fighters was not worth arresting.

As we continued westward, the healer in our group attempted repeatedly to repair the damage to my face, but to no avail. A variety of spells and herbs failed to heal the burns more quickly, and nothing would bring back my eye. We even stopped in the same inn as before, and the local doctor, the pig farmer, was at a loss, his hogs never having been engaged in mortal combat with powerful sorcerers, at least not to his knowledge. At this point the Ter’solmans left us, with the suggestion I attempt to smuggle myself into Ankh and seek help there among the casters of a more experimental nature.

Wanting to recover from the ordeal, and keep some distance between myself and my enemies on Arrakis, this seemed a reasonable course of action. Separating from my friends, I paid a boatman a hefty sum to take me across the river, and we reached nearly three quarters of the way across before his crew forced me overboard and I had to swim the rest of the way. Evading a senatorial patrol, I made my way to the commercial district, and some discreet inquiries led me to the shop of one Tellema, an ancient dressmaker who also knew her way around a poultice, and I paid her most of the last of my coin to put me up while my face healed.

***

A week has passed since then, and I write this to attempt to reach some conclusion about my adventure. I avenged my father’s death, and laid his ghost to rest, quite literally, but in the process destroyed everything he’d fought for. My goal, I told myself, had been the reclamation of the Captain’s estate; was I planning to become a farmer? I had little enough patience for the work before. The idea of tallying accounts and haggling grain prices in addition to the labour did not appeal. I came away with scarcely two coins to rub together, and the weight of two dead friends on my conscience. A raving madman claimed a plan to wipe my homeland clean in a tidal wave of death, but heroism has never appealed to me, either. A homeland, I’ll add, that either wants to see me dead, or use me as a spy. A ruined face, but, oddly, I could breathe freely once more. Whatever the elf had done worked to safe my life. Perhaps it was a sick joke on his part, not expecting to survive the encounter regardless of what he did. I’ll never know. I do know that I have stalwart friends that stood beside me, facing down death and insurmountable odds, and despite that, we survived.

Get Dar

Helm’s Deep has been ringing with the sounds of celebration for days. It seems the valiant heroes successfully recovered the Bishop Relan. News must not travel far from Arrakis, because I didn’t even know he had been captured. In any case, I have been rather occupied with my own problems, that are rather less direct than a howling orc. I suppose I still prefer a knife in the back to the orc, because at least my body will simply end up floating in the harbour than roasting on a spit.

When I left Helm’s Deep for the Imbolc Ball, I was convinced that I had greased the right palms and made amends for my role in the Baron’s botched attempt to take over the city’s mercantile endeavours, but on my return I was disabused of this notion. The landlord at my usual accommodations turned me away, and suggested that I leave the city, and for good, before word spread that I was back. The more legitimate players had made their peace, and the Baron’s properties and concerns divided up amongst the survivors, but the underworld was still in upheaval. The power vacuum was quickly filled by a succession of petty criminal tyrants, and the latest had sworn fealty to the greatest of the merchant princes, promising to bring the smugglers, cutthroats and pickpockets under control. Working closely with the Baron left a target painted on my back, and I chose to heed my landlord’s advice.

I pawned some gemstones I’d been saving for an emergency, closed my tabs at the more reputable houses of ill repute, and was on my way to see a man about a very cheap horse when I was stopped by a guardsman. I was immediately suspicious of a lone officer of the law patrolling the slums, where a trio was usually wisest. Criminals rarely managed to chase down all three. After I told him my name, he asked me to accompany him to the precinct house for my own safety, so I relieved him of his truncheon before depositing him unconscious in an alley. I headed for the waterfront, hoping to escape by ship. Leaving by land would surely mean arrest, either by more corrupt guards or for the legitimate charge of assaulting one of their number.

Whatever force helped me through the mountains had apparently abandoned me, because no vessel would take me on for the little coin I had, even across the water to Ankh. I took a cot at a sailors’ hostel and considered my next moves. I’d gathered that the latest master of the underworld was calling himself the Underking, and I very much doubted that throwing myself on his mercy would produce a desirable result. With any luck the guard I knocked out would report back to his unofficial masters rather than his commanding officer, and rouse the city looking for me. Going to the authorities was out of the question. My best option was to seek out any surviving allies of the Baron, but I was sure most of them were either gone from the city or in hiding. The highest ranking man that I knew was the Baron’s factor, who handed out the coin and the orders when the Baron could not afford to get his hands dirty. The factor kept rooms in the market district, and I would simply have to risk going there if I hoped to keep my head.

In the dead of night I left the hostel, and took a circuitous route toward the market, confining myself to back alleys to avoid patrols. When the moon was past its zenith, I reached the factor’s home and let myself in by a window. My candle revealed the place to be intact, and the man himself sleeping soundly in his bed. I woke him scraping a stool across the floor, and after he calmed down, he explained that he had sold his services to the new powers that be, helping them to consolidate the Baron’s interests and activities, and thus kept his life. He didn’t know of any other of the Baron’s men left in the city, and was mildly shocked that I had returned at all. He suggested going to the Underking and begging clemency. In return I suggested he give me any cash he had, so that I could get out of the city.

My purse slightly heavier, I hurried away from the market, hoping the screaming man dangling from a window by his feet would draw attention so that I might go to ground. For days I moved from cellar to attic and back again, and once I was caught in the open by a pair of cutters who recognized me. I killed one but the other escaped, and I was forced to move into another part of the city. The docks were being watched openly, and ship’s captains were keeping armed men posted around the clock to prevent stowaways. I knew that these measures could not be for me alone, and that the factor was either lying or misinformed. I had to find whoever else they were looking for.

I started to shadow the roving bands of killers as best I could, and eventually discovered the hiding spot of one of the few men I’d count as a friend. Baltar was always good with his money, and had bought his way into a brothel as an exotic, veiled beauty, reserved only for certain clients and rarely even seen. The dark, wiry man seemed relieved to see me, especially after I didn’t pull a knife in response to his own. He knew of at least two other associates of the Baron hiding nearby, and left it to me to gather them together. Over the next few days I pulled together half a dozen killers and thieves, and we began to formulate a plan.

We were a motley group, to say the least. There was me, generally regarded as a thug, but an effective one; Baltar, who was one of the best burglars in the city; Dusteye, a female elf that could bluff her way into the king’s privy if the situation demanded; Meven, a dwarven bone breaker; Oleg, Meven’s giant, non-biological twin who favoured a five foot iron bar; and Lestrade, a uniquely talented bard that carved a notch in his lute for every person he strangled with the strings. We decided that the best course of action was to eliminate the Underking, throwing the underworld back into chaos, and either re-insert ourselves or escape the city. Dusteye and Lestrade would ferret out where he kept his court, while Oleg, Meven and I started to pick off his agents in the streets. Baltar would keep hidden in the brothel, where he picked up a startling amount of information.

My group killed a surprising number of men before the Underking increased the size of his patrols, and the guard did the same in response to the bodies piling up. This left myself and the brutes in hiding, but not for long. Dusteye learned that the Underking kept court in a disused mansion in the merchants’ quarter, under the nose of his masters. Lestrade, unfortunately, was discovered by an old acquaintance, and Dusteye found him stabbed to death behind a tavern. Baltar said that he knew the mansion well, and a scouting mission on his part turned up that the mansion only appeared in ill repair. It was a veritable fortress, and by his count there was never fewer than a dozen armed men inside.

I positioned myself to watch the mansion with Baltar, and we observed that the Underking spent nearly all of his time there, and an ever-increasing network of messengers and spies made his will known. A direct assault would surely fail. Another startling development was that the Underking had turned out to be the Baron’s son; a sharp fall for a scion of the pseudonobility. I wondered how he survived the purges, but would not take the time to ask.

Meven and Oleg favoured breaking in the front door, while Dusteye was convinced she and Baltar could make their way inside and let the rest of us in. I presented a rather more brutal plan: Set the structure ablaze and kill any who manage to escape. This was decided upon as our course of action. Dusteye and Baltar would create diversions elsewhere in the city to draw the attention of the guard, and the twins and I would carry out the plan.

The day came, and we didn’t say any goodbyes. Dusteye was to start a brawl on the docks, and Baltar would do the same in a high class inn. At the mansion, all went well, at first, as Meven and Oleg set the house on fire. It caught quickly, and I could hear screaming from inside. What we hadn’t counted on, and I reckoned to be a glaring oversight on Baltar’s part, was the dozen or so armed men in the houses on either side. I left Meven and Oleg to be caught by them and hid in the dilapidated house across the road. The twins accounted themselves well, and managed to escape. Most of the thugs followed them, but a pair stood outside the burning mansion, apparently unable to decide whether or not to save those inside.

By this time a small crowd had gathered, and I worked my way through it to set upon the two men just as they made the decision to move inside. As the second went down, the front door burst open, and a mountain of a man thundered out, carrying a smaller man over one shoulder. I braced myself to stop them, but he knocked me aside like a child. As he charged through the crowd, I saw the limp form he carried was the Underking, and I followed them. For such a large man he was fast, and I struggled to keep up, but after a short time he made his way into a tenement building. I took a calculated risk and went after them. He seemed to have no aim beyond putting his back to a wall, and the giant stopped at the top of a staircase to stare me down.

When I made to move up the stairs, he dropped the Underking and charged down at me. His bull rush knocked me back against a wall, but I recovered and stabbed him with my dagger. It sank in to the hilt, but he didn’t notice it any more than a bee sting. Hammer blows started to rain down on me, and I couldn’t bring my bastard sword to bear. I went to my knees under the assault, trying to ward off his strikes, then collapsed further, curling into a ball. He started kicking and stomping on me then, and I began to fear it was my end. However, a sudden wet thump marked the end of the assault, and I felt his massive form crash to the floor. I opened my eyes to see Oleg yanking his iron bar out of the man’s skull. As I struggled to stand, he pulled me upright, and went up the stairs to finish the Underking without further ado.

We made our escape, me leaning on him, and met Meven outside. The dwarf had lost an eye somewhere and hadn’t bothered to cover up the socket. With the plan more or less complete, we made our way back into the slums. The twins dumped me in a hovel and said they meant to escape the city in the chaos. I wished them well, and began tending to my wounds. Nothing broken, as far as I could tell, but I knew it would be days before I could attempt to leave.

I have not received word from Dusteye or Baltar, but I also have not been murdered by agents of the Underking, so I assume that the plan worked. The heroes returning from the crusade should also help to draw attention away from underworld matters, so that I might make my own escape from the city. For now I wait.

The Times They are a-Changin’

Returning to Arrakis took even longer than I expected. It seemed not a horse or wagon was to be found between Ankh and the Dragon Peaks, but the gods gave us feet for a reason, so I went the old-fashioned way. While passing through a village I decided to stop and rest for a time. A few cups of wine too many meant spending the night at the inn, and the uninterested innkeeper’s daughter meant sleeping alone. Whether or not that frustration saved me, I do not know.

In the dead of night I was awoken by footsteps outside my door. While I searched in the darkness for my sword, someone tried the latch. I heard a muffled curse, and the door shuddered under a blow. Another blow cracked the wood while I wound a sheet around my arm. When the third came, the door shot open, and I swung my blade blindly into the opening. A clank of metal and a shout of surprise told me the attacker was armoured, so I retreated into the room, cursing myself for going to bed naked. A small man in chainmail charged into the room, a torch in one hand and a hatchet in the other. I came at him from the side and drove my foot into his knee while I seized the arm holding the torch. As he went down to his knees, gasping in pain, he tried to bring his axe around but I knocked it out of his grasp, then wrapped my arm around his neck and drove his own torch into his face. This time he shrieked.

As the man collapsed, I felt a pinch in my side, and looked down, alarmed to find the last six inches of a crossbow bolt protruding from between my lower ribs. In a daze I turned my attention back to the door. One form was standing there, outlined against the light, holding a now-empty crossbow, and another was charging at me. I took a step toward him and fell on my face.

***

What woke me this time was the jolt of cold water. I opened my eyes to see a man with a heavily bandaged face dropping a bucket; from what I could tell, he looked very unhappy. I was in a small cellar, tightly bound to a chair, and someone had put my trousers and shirt on me. In one corner stood a man dressed in leathers and holding a crossbow. The bandaged man moved aside, and a third strode forward, this one tall and lean, with a grizzled beard. He tossed something into my lap, and I looked down to see my Mark of the Wolf.

He spoke. “Let’s skip the formalities. You are Dar. Before you left the Empire you spoke to Albinius, the Wolf Priest, and then a trusted agent of Lord Tyrell was killed. I don’t particularly care about that.” He drove a fist into my side, and I was struck with a pain so blinding I didn’t have time to scream. “What I care about,” he continued, “is where you are going now, and why.”

“I’m obviously going to kill the three of you,” I replied, “but first I want to know who you work for. Tyrell?”

Beard chuckled, then cuffed me across the jaw. “Tyrell is a fool.”

“Is this a test? Is the Order testing my loyalty?”

“No, definitely not.”

“Spill the beans, then. Don’t keep us all waiting.”

He punched me in the side again, and when I stopped wheezing, he struck a blow that snapped my head back. “You don’t seem to understand the nature of our relationship. I ask the questions, and if you answer to my satisfaction, I kill you fast.”

I spat out a gob of blood. “I understand it perfectly. You’re going to beat on me until I make a daring escape, thrilling fight, you escape so we can do battle again.” He threw another punch at me, but I dodged my head aside. “The one issue here is that you’ve done a proper job of tying me up. How sturdy is this chair? I might need to go the brute strength route.” I began flexing my legs.

He kicked me hard in the chest, and I fell backwards with the chair, then rolled onto my perforated side. Punctuating his words with kicks to the ribs, he said, “My friend with the crossbow is the best marksman for a hundred leagues. You aren’t going anywhere. Tell me what the Order wants in Dagger Deep.”

“I thought you didn’t know where I was going.”

He and the small man hauled me back upright, only so Beard could kick me back over. “We have eyes everywhere, Dar. I know about your ork friend, I know the Baron paid you to kill Ulrich Renswith, I know you prefer white wine to red. What I don’t know is what possible interest the Order has that far outside the Empire.” Once again they hauled me upright.

“It sounds like you should be giving Albinius his information. You’re clearly a lot better at spying than I am. You still haven’t told me who ‘we’ is, by the way.”

The bearded man had walked a few paces away, rubbing his knuckles, but when I said this he came stalking back. My efforts paid off and I kicked a leg out, breaking the leg of the chair with a snap. My foot connected with his testimonials and he crumpled at the same time as I fell to my side and a crossbow bolt shattered against the stone wall. The rest of the chair came apart when I hit the ground.

I threw myself at Beard, driving him down into the floor with an elbow to his neck. A club came crashing down on my back but I rolled away and got to my feet with a stagger. Chainmail swung his club at me again, and I caught it against my ribs, wrenching it away from him under my arm. A backhanded blow to his bandaged face sent him reeling, and then I broke the club over the back of his neck, sending him to the floor. Crossbow now stood between me and the door, a dagger in either hand. Looking around for another weapon, I saw nothing. I dropped the useless stump of club and said, “Are you one of them, or do you just work for them?”

Taken aback, he replied, “I do as I’m paid.”

“I’ll give you fifty gold coins to bring me my gear and walk away. Sixty if you tell me who the hell they are.”

“Man paid me a hundred for you.”

“The man is going to be dead as soon as you bring me my gear. Sooner if I lose my patience.”

“You make it two hundred, we can work something out.”

I rolled my eyes and crossed the room as he assumed a ready stance. He thrust low with one dagger and I knocked it aside, turning it into a shallow cut along what the Captain called my natural armour. I grabbed hold of his other wrist and stepped in with a headbutt. He dodged back in time to avoid the worst of the blow, but I pressed forward and slammed him against the wall. He was strong for a thin man, and fought me hard as I turned his dagger around and drove it up into his belly. As he slid down the wall, I picked up his other dagger and unceremoniously finished off the other two men.

A search of their pockets turned up nothing other than coins, and when I went upstairs I found the innkeeper, his wife and daughter had been gathered in the kitchen and killed. My belongings were heaped near the back door. I did my best to bind my wounds, but I knew I would have to find a healer in the next village. Leaving the inn, I discovered a trio of horses in the otherwise empty stables, and helped myself to two of them.

***

I traded the horses for a fine coat and a pair of gloves in Ankh. The passage across was uneventful, but when I arrived in Helm’s Deep I discovered rather a lot had changed. The Baron’s move against his rivals had not gone unpunished, and there was a price on my head. It took the vast majority of my money to pay off the right people, and I found myself at the bottom again. Sitting in a common room, a pair of travellers engaged me in conversation, and I found myself travelling north to Uberland, to attend my very first ball.

The Imbolc Ball taught me two things; first, that high society life does not suit me; second, that protection jobs are considerably duller than assassination contracts, but generally involve a meal. Lucina and Maestro were pleasant enough company, though I would have preferred clients that weren’t tourists. Zarnor was good to work with. I hope to work with him again, but I wouldn’t call on him for a job in Helm’s Deep; clients generally want buildings to still be standing at the end of the day.

Kendrid of the Butcher’s Bill is the new Steward of Dagger Deep. What affect this will have, I can’t say. It seems Tychonis of the Red Keep is gathering a crusade against the black orks of Azuk’turoth. I’ll be keeping clear, but I wish them all the luck in the world. I feel a change coming on the wind, though for good or ill, I cannot say.

Journey to the West

Faced with the prospect of overnighting in Camora, waiting for reprisal from Lord Tyrell or another enemy of the Order, I elected to ride out in the late afternoon, with a guard offering a snide remark about finding shelter before the blizzard hit. I was confident in the ability of Lieutenant Singh’s fine gelding to weather the storm, but I chose to ignore the man rather than make another enemy on this trip.

The first two days in the mountains went well enough. Cold and wet, but I managed to struggle through. On the third day, the snow began to fall. Travel rapidly became impossible, and I was forced to shelter in a small cave, with barely enough room for the horse and myself sitting. There was no wood to start a fire, so I bundled myself in a blanket as best I could and struggled to stay awake. The Captain had told me once of a campaign in the northern Dragon Peaks; each morning a count was made of the men who had disappeared or died in the night. The number never dropped below two figures. I resolved that at the very least I would wait to see death coming, instead of going in my sleep.

The terrified whinnying of the horse woke me with a start, to near complete darkness. The moon was blocked by the storm. I could make out shapes in the night, hunched over on four legs and arrayed around the mouth of the cave. I couldn’t see their eyes, but I got the distinct sense we were staring each other down. The moment stretched into eternity, but I finally made the first move, throwing myself onto the back of the horse, or rather, clinging desperately to his side. We bolted out into the night, knocking one of the wolves over in the process, but had scarcely gone a hundred feet before the horse shook me off and continued into the darkness without me.

I regained my feet and turned back in time to see a wolf lunging at me. I brought my left arm up and it bit deeply into my padded bracer. I felt the teeth pierce my skin, then rip muscle as it wrenched my arm to the side. Through the pain I drew my dagger and stabbed the wolf repeatedly in the neck and chest; for several agonizing seconds it continued to bite down, then the jaws finally went slack. The others were closing in, and I struggled to wade away through the knee-deep snow. I made it a short distance before teeth bit into my calf at the same time as a body slammed into my upper back. Teeth bit into my shoulder, and with my good hand I seized a handful of mangy fur and hauled it forward, flipping the wolf onto the ground. I drew my dagger with my left hand, slashed weakly across the muzzle gripping my leg and the animal recoiled with a yelp. As the other wolf got back up I drew my sickle sword and cut it deeply across the chest and face, and it went down.

The rest of the pack formed a circle around me. Four of them remained, and I was bleeding in three places. I was completely lost, with no idea where my horse had gone or even the direction back to the cave. I beat down the feeling of hopelessness rising in my gut, and launched myself at the largest wolf with a bellow.

Rain on my face woke me, and I opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by trees, lying on soft grass. I got to my feet and surveyed this new setting. A glow seemed to come from nowhere, yet all was dark beyond thirty or so feet. My wounds ached but were not bleeding, and against all odds, I was alive. Suddenly, a voice rang out.

“You are Dar. You are the son. Cast aside your fear. Read what was written.”

I went through my pack and found the fragments of the Captain’s journal I had recovered; where before they were written in esoteric runes, now they were in plain script that I was able to read.

 

The elf sent another of his croaking emissaries today. Wants me off the land. The land I spent twenty years fighting other men’s wars to buy, and another twenty building it up to be worth something. Lord Tyrell’s scum don’t come near, not this far out, and it used to be the rabble practicing their rituals in the hills were afraid to test me. I crushed the skull of the last corpse he sent my way and had young Dar drop it at the edge of the waste. The fool didn’t get the message. Let him come, then. Ilos Zolus does not magic or those who wield it.

Captain Ilos Zolus

 

Only yesterday the servants’ children were playing in the garden, and now no one is left. Joff remains, him and his razor. He insists noblemen do not have beards, even if they’re jumped up infantrymen. Reman and Killios say they’re too old to find other work. Neither of them has lifted a spear in anger in five winters or more, but they practice now, and they’re far faster than I remembered, even now. Dar refuses to leave. He’s in smithy, pounding away at an anvil and trying to expand my breastplate to fit the weight I’ve gained. Perhaps that will be enough.

Captain Ilos Zolus

 

I’ve killed men, women, elves, dwarves. Halflings. I’ve cut down my own folk and razed their huts for gold. I’ve driven families from their homes with nothing, because some bastard merchant across the sea wanted to open a new trade route. I killed a king, once. I like to think he was a good man, leading from the front, but I smelled the mead on his breath. Another drunken fool. What good did I ever do? I played farmer, raised an orphan, lied to him every day. Paid pension to a couple of old soldiers to watch for cattle rustlers, Old men who had nowhere else to go. Like me.

Captain Ilos Zolus

 

It’s all over now. Killios and Joff are dead. Reman is laying out my armour while Dar gathers together what supplies he can for their escape. I wish I’d told him the truth, but now it would only make him stay. Reman always joked to the boy that my first name is Captain, but in truth it is Sandar. Dar is my son; his name is short for Sandar. Was I going to give him this land? Likely not. I’d rather he left the Empire altogether and started a life somewhere. This realm is dying, rotting from the inside. Perhaps they’ll escape, and my wish will be granted. Likely not.

Captain Sandar Ilos Zolus

 

I reeled from the revelations. The Captain was my father. Yet a part of me knew this could not be real, that I was most likely bleeding to death at the top of a mountain. The voice spoke again.

“Cast aside fear. Wake.”

I awoke strapped to a cot in the trading post on the far side of Crow’s Nest Pass. My inquiries revealed that more than two weeks had passed since I left Camora, and had been recuperating in the post for several days. I’d been found outside in the first light of dawn, unconscious, bleeding and broken, and the hunters patched me up. It was several more days before I was deemed well enough to travel, and I set out on foot to continue my journey west.

The diary pages were once again written in runes, and from what the hunters told me of my condition I may well have dragged myself over the pass in a delirious state. But I had not been killed by the wolves, and for that I could come up with no explanation. Was the vision real? I was not dead. Perhaps I killed all of the wolves and somehow made my way through the mountains. It is impossible to know. What I do know is that clients expect my return to Helm’s Deep, and that winter is closer to its end than its beginning.

A Winter’s Tale

After the events of Samhain, I’ve developed something of a distaste for Dagger Deep. The entertainments arranged and approved by the illustrious King Willumarius, consisting of rogue skeletons murdering citizens, as well as a witch doctor blackmailing the dead into attempting his gauntlet of the undead, failed to amuse myself and a number of others. In particular I was humiliated by the ringleader, who magically compelled me to act in the manner of a house cat for far longer than I was comfortable. This, combined with the lack of prospects to make more than a survival wage as a guard, drove me south to Helm’s Deep for the winter, which proved far more profitable.

My work in the city has established my reputation as a reliable, discreet man, and a number of clients call on me regularly. One of the most powerful merchants in the city, who I’ll refer to as the Baron, though he can claim no such title, chose the winter months to move against a number of his oldest rivals. A provided bag of gold set me up in a middling inn belonging to such a rival, with instructions to wait for word from the Baron. For three weeks I drank and diced and moved throughout the markets to establish my presence as just another traveller and speculator. Finally a note arrived, slipped under my door in the night, with two simple words: CASTLE TOMORROW.

The Castle Suite was the finest the inn offered, and from the servants’ mistress I had coaxed the tidbit of information that the master of the inn stayed in it when entertaining some of his less reputable acquaintances. The next morning, I made noises of checking out to find more reasonable accommodation, and the innkeeper panicked at the idea of losing my lucrative custom; he offered me the Sword Room, normally reserved for lesser nobility, at the same rate, and promised he would see my clothes laundered each day at no cost to myself. I accepted, reluctantly, and was not at all shocked to learn that the Sword Room sat next to the Castle Suite.

A pinch of herbs in honey obtained from an apothecary negated the effects of the copious amounts of wine I put away at dinner that evening, and the innkeeper jovially helped me stagger upstairs to my new room, his pockets jangling with the coin he’d just taken from me in a game of dice. I pressed another crown into his palm before collapsing onto the bed, and he graciously made his exit. Hours later, after darkness fell, I heard the thud of heavy army boots in the hall, and the whisper of velvet shoes. The shoes entered the room next door, and the boots stopped outside. Another hour passed. The quick steps of a maid were followed by muffled conversation, and then a slap, before the woman retreated downstairs at an even more brisk pace.

I opened the door to my room, and found a chainmail-clad tough lounging against the wall opposite the Castle Suite. He seemed fooled by my look of confusion after sizing him up, and let out a chuckle as I started to stagger past him, muttering something about the privy. A misstep sent me crashing into him shoulder first, my weight crushing the air from his lungs, and my razor was out in an instant. I opened his throat as he was dazed and lowered him to the floor as quietly as possible. I took the dagger and key from his belt and made my way into the suite.

The sitting room was empty, save for a satin robe tossed casually across a chair, and I could hear worried whispers coming from the bedroom. I opened the door softly, and there the target was, in the arms of a lithe young man who gave me a knowing look. I ordered the old man to his feet and told him to dress. As he did so I handed a small purse to the boy whore, and told him the Baron appreciated his service. I obliged when he asked if he could give the old bastard a boot, who went down with a soft whimper. Then the boy was gone, and I marched the old man out into the hall. He almost let out a cry when he saw his guard dead, but it was cut short as I plunged the guard’s dagger into his heart. I pressed my razor into his hand, stifled him until he died, then dumped him against the wall and scattered a few coins on the ground between the two bodies.

I retired to my room, avoiding the rapidly pooling blood, and waited for the screams. A surprising length of time passed before it came, and I crashed through the door a moment later, half-dressed and sword in hand, to find a maid sobbing at the sight of the two ruined bodies. I took her into my arms as I drunkenly breathed words of comfort, then called at the top of my lungs for the law.

A trio of guardsman arrived within the hour, but the innkeeper refused to entertain the notion that I might be involved with the deaths, citing my custom and just how much I’d had to drink. This relaxed their suspicions, and I stayed in the inn three more days before I left. The Baron paid me handsomely for my efforts, and I booked passage to Ankh, with the intention of heading east. Heading home.

 

 

It took me the better part of a month to reach and then cross the Dragon Peaks. I made inquiries in a traders’ outpost as to the estate of Captain Zolus, in the north of the Empire’s territory, but as expected none of the grizzled trappers and hunters knew what I was talking about. I set my eyes on Camora as my next destination, and set out on the perilous, though ultimately uneventful, trip through Crow’s Nest Pass. Despite the danger of exposure, the lack of activity seemed to make winter the best time to make the trip.

I arrived safely in Camora, capital of the Empire, locked in by snow but protected from the worst storms by ancient arcane wards, the workings of which were lost to time, yet thankfully still functioning. The place rarely saw an end to winter, but sat as the centre of power, as far as something like that could be declared in the Empire. I spent a week in taverns and inns, asking after Captain Zolus; his name was known, of course, though none had heard from him for months. Finally an old beggar sought me out in a common room, and told me he knew the fate of Zolus.

He claimed that some weeks past a badly wounded trader had arrived in the city, and as he lay dying in the Empress’ poorhouse, he told tales of a black tower rising in the north. His last words were of black orcs. The beggar told me that he had ridden with the Captain many years past, knew the location of the estate well, and was certain that the manor had fallen and was, indeed, where this mysterious tower was now. Naturally no one would listen to him, as he was known for having a taste for the drink, and would I be so kind as to furnish him with a bottle? I gave the man some coins and headed for the palace, not sure of my next course of action but inwardly seething with rage at what had become of my home.

I was refused an audience, even with lesser secretaries. My frustration grew, and it finally took the application of a small amount of pressure in a dark alley to gain entrance to the Council’s offices. One Lord Tyrell was the first willing to receive me. He reckoned himself a general, commanding five hundred foot and half as many horse, responsible for enforcing order in the city and surrounding countryside. He, too, claimed that he had ridden with the Captain in his youth, and was alarmed by my story of the Captain’s death. I asked him for a squadron of horse to investigate what was developing in the north, and he balked at my request. I asked in a less polite manner, badly rumpling his very fine silk coat, and he said a handful could accompany me if I so desired. In my haste I agreed, and the next morning set out with six troopers to make the journey north.

The contingent was led by a Lieutenant Singh, a dour, grim man of middle years who resented being ordered out of the warmth of Camora to ride to the fringes of settled territory on what he considered a fool’s errand. Few words passed between myself and the soldiers, especially when the discovered the nature of my work. All of the men were nobles of low rank, second and third sons of lesser houses, badly indebted to the banks and laying claim to land far outside the Empire’s practical control. Typical cavalrymen, from what Reman had told me.

A week of hard riding passed before the men turned on me in the night. I awoke to a pair of troopers forcing me to my feet and holding my arms tight, while another stripped me of my weapons and pack. Lieutenant Singh let me know that my assault on Lord Tyrell could not and would not go unpunished. I crushed his nose with a headbutt, and hurled one soldier into the fire. The other went down with a fist to the throat. I helped myself to his sword, and laid about wildly, keeping the other three back as I retrieved my sword belt. I took the Lieutenant’s horse and rode away hard, leaving them behind, stunned.

Another week through increasingly familiar territory brought me home. I saw no black tower, but the manor house still stood half-burned, and buried under snow. A structure out in the fields was new, but I declined to approach it. There was no one about, not even sentries, and I roamed the grounds freely. Little of value was left, but I found the remnants of the Captain’s journal, written in some script I did not know. I set up in the ruins of the house, and waited for dark.

When night fell, I approached the new structure, and it was here I finally found the new residents of the estate. Orcs and other creatures patrolled the area surrounding it, though not thoroughly enough to find me. The squat, square building was constructed of wood, and from what I could tell carved elaborately with runes and sigils. I could not get closer, and so left, and began my journey south before the sun rose.

I knew that Singh and his men would have followed me north or returned to Camora for reinforcements, so I took a different route. However, I also knew my journey would force me to cross the Dragon Peaks again eventually, and that meant passing through the capital. I decided to stop in Montun, the largest city on the fringes of the Empire, and learn what I could of how to pass through the city while avoiding Lord Tyrell’s wrath. My inquiries were cut short when I was confronted by a Wolf Priest and a number of his acolytes. They were unarmed, but I had been raised to recognize the true power in the Empire, and allowed myself to be arrested without argument.

The priest’s name was Albinius, and he offered me passage out of the Empire on two conditions. The first was that I must return to Camora, and employ my skills to remove a servant of Lord Tyrell that had infiltrated the ranks of the Order. The second was that I was to act as the Order’s eyes and ears in Dagger Deep. Albinius would not tell me what interest they had in a hamlet so far beyond the reaches of the Empire, but I agreed. He also would not tell me how they knew that I was established in Arrakis, let alone in Dagger Deep itself. I was in no position to argue, and their aims seemed to line up with mine to a degree, so I accepted the offered Mark and left Montun that night.

Several days later I arrived back in Camora, with the name of the agent I was meant to remove. The guards at the gate stopped me briefly, but waved me through when I showed them the Mark. Acting as an agent of the Order seemed to have some privileges. Tracking the man down was simple enough; the Council members had informally divided the city amongst themselves, with the aim of cutting down on inter-house skirmishes in the streets. Tyrell held the warehouse district, and only a handful of taverns were maintained there. Moving about here was more difficult, but not impossible, and I found my man fairly quickly. I told him that I brought a message from the Order, and he followed me willingly. There was more of a struggle when I brought out a knife, but he was a schemer, not a fighter, and the man died in an alley, the victim of a robbery that would go unsolved.

The Mark let me pass out of the city similarly, and I began my journey westward once again, back to the land of Arrakis and Dagger Deep, and where I would begin to serve a purpose I did not yet understand, and perhaps never would.

The story so far

I was born in winter on the estate of Captain Ilos Zolus. The land was not large, but provided well enough for the serfs and servants who worked it, and for the Captain himself well enough that he made the decision to retire before a sword or lance made the choice for him. He was a mercenary, and a good one, surviving more than forty years campaigning for gold, silver and plunder; the house guards said he was around sixty years old at the time I was born, and he quit war not long after that. The Captain, as we all called him, for he disdained his own minor lordship, was a giant of a man, powerful and swift, and while his fame came from his command of soldiers, he gained that position through skill of arms. It was not uncommon for him to work at heavy tasks beside us, for he stood head and shoulders above any other man on the estate.

My mother was a housemaid, and she died birthing me. Since no one knew who the father was, and none came forward, the Captain appointed himself my guardian, and I was raised by field workers and servants alike. I got on well enough with the other children until adolescence, when I shot up exponentially and became a target of their bullying. I spent more and more time begging to become a soldier under the handful of veterans who had accompanied the Captain home, but none would teach me the arts of war. Reman and Killios were front line infantrymen, skilled with sword and spear, and Joff was the Captain’s batman. Joff was unassuming, and for a long time I thought him effeminate, but one night over a flagon of whiskey, Reman told me a brief story of when Joff killed three assassins with his cutthroat razor, while the Captain lay recuperating from a wound. These four were the men I idolized as I grew up, and Reman in particular seemed to take a shine to me, but even he would not teach me to fight. I worked at cutting wood, tilling fields, and had just been apprenticed to the blacksmith when the trouble began.

The Captain’s land was unremarkable for most of my life, until a mage from Ankh appeared and informed us that it sat on an untapped intersection of ley lines. He wanted to purchase the land from the Captain, but the old man refused. For more than a year the mage sent representatives, with ever-increasing offers of gold, before he resorted to thinly-veiled, and finally open threats. Serfs began to disappear, and occasionally one of the bodies would turn up in a field weeks later, torn apart or twisted beyond recognition by arcane means. The sheriff ignored the Captain’s requests for justice, and eventually the messengers sent out to higher authorities stopped coming back.

The mage himself appeared on a spring morning at the head of a warband, a group of black orcs mercenaries, with a handful of rough-looking humans mixed in. They numbered about eighty, and the Captain ordered the staff off the estate, myself included. I refused to leave, and for once the old man did not get his way. This left four aged veterans of war, and an untrained, untested apprentice blacksmith to defend the estate. The mage made his final offer: the land in exchange for our lives. That night, the attack came. We had barricaded the windows and doors of the manor house as best we could, and I stood my ground beside Reman and Killios when the orcs broke through. Unbeknownst to us, some had entered through a chimney to attack the Captain and Joff. Though Joff and the Captain killed them all, Joff was mortally wounded and the Captain nearly so. Killios gave his life driving the orcs back through the doors, and we shut them tight again, a momentary reprieve. Reman and I finished arming the Captain, who told us to take the last horses and escape while he covered our retreat.

We reluctantly obeyed his orders, slipping out through an old servants’ entrance. Somehow two horses had survived the attack, and we rode away hard. Before leaving the estate entirely, however, we watched from a distance as the Captain crashed through the front doors in his full plate armour, wielding his family’s two-handed sword, cutting down orcs left and right. He cut his way nearly to the leader, the craven mage, before being overwhelmed. Neither of us could stand to watch him die truly, and we left to the sound of screams.

Our journey continued for three days, and we finally left the country of my birth. Reman decided we would make our way toward Arrakis, and set ourselves up as soldiers of fortune, eventually to return and reclaim the Captain’s land, or at least avenge his death. He began to teach me the basics of swordplay, but that apprenticeship would not even last as long as my first one. Weeks after the attack on the estate, we were set upon by a gang of thieves, and I lost my last tie to my former life. A dozen of them attacked, and Reman held his own. Nearly all fell to his blade, and I myself put down two. The leader, a velvet-wrapped bull of a man, produced a flintlock and shot Reman through the heart. I charged him, but he knocked me unconscious. I awoke in the night, barefoot and without horse or weapons. I chose to follow Reman’s plan, no matter what.

A fellow traveller gave me a pair of boots, and a few weeks’ labour in Ankh bought me a sword. I received word that the land of Dagger Deep was a place to make one’s fortune, but before I made my way there, I returned to the deep forest where Reman met his end. The bandit leader had not replaced his own losses, but he seemed to find it amusing that I’d come for revenge. A moment’s lapse in judgment on his part left my boot in his testicles, and another moment’s weakness put him on his knees while I slit his throat. I recovered Reman’s bastard sword, and discovered that Joff’s razor was apparently among what Reman had managed to carry away. With that small bit of closure, I bartered my way onto a ship to Helm’s Deep, and then walked to Dagger Deep.

I was, to say the least, underwhelmed. The place is constantly attacked, by orcs, by necromancers, by some hellishly unpleasant men called Northbrook. Paid work seems scarce. I’ve provided security in the tavern a handful of times; “no weapons” seems a simple enough rule to me, but it still causes argument with a surprising number of people. Merchants in Helm’s Deep have come to call on me when a supplier or rival was proving an issue. Work as a knifeman is far from glorious, but it keeps me fed and clothed. I’ve taken up with the town guard in Dagger Deep, though the majority of them seem at least as criminal as I have become. With any luck I’ll be able to scrape together enough coin to set up a small blacksmithing operation, and wait for an opportunity to broaden my mercenary horizons. I’ve accepted a contract to winter in Helm’s Deep. One of the merchant princes there is in the process of eliminating a number of his competitors at once, and he wants trustworthy killers in place for when the hammer falls. What matters to me is that I have my way out, and if nothing else goes my way, trouble has yet to follow me to Dagger Deep. One assumes because trouble is usually waiting there when I arrive.