Corruption

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.

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.