As Winter Comes

After Action Report - 8th day of Deepwinter

Sir,

Please find my secondary After Action Report for the 8th day of Hammer. As always, the names of the party members have been omitted in case this report should fall into enemy hands.

Report continues:

Having crossed the bridge (see my last report) we came upon a small cave hidden behind an overturned tree. After much debate, we decided to enter. We were in need of rest in any case and as you know, the many serious head injuries I received during my career can cause me to lapse into unconsciousness easily if I do not rest.

We explored what ended up being a decent sized cave and were able to refill our water skins from a small pool fed by an underground stream. We also discovered some crude cave paintings. The Bard estimated them to be 40 or 50 years old and said that they told the tale of the “Razortooth Tribe” of Goblins. Whether the creature we met in the forest is a member of said tribe, I cannot tell.

After a brief rest, we continued along the road. Whilst travelling, I noticed a small fiery explosion. It reminded me of the type seen when The Bard teleports himself. I made the party aware but neither The Bard nor The Mage were able to detect any specific Magickery.

Approximately 20 minutes travel later, we came across another bridge. As we crossed, we were confronted by what I can only describe as a hell hound. It was a hound, which looked like it was from hell – fire and brimstone and so on.

The beast approached but did not attack. Instead it dropped what appeared to be a human leg bone in front of us and then backed off. I decided that it wanted to play fetch, so I picked up the bone and was about to throw it, when The Scout noticed writing on it.

The writing was as follows:
“Leave the case. Co-operate and we might find an arrangement that spares your lives. Carry this with you if you wish to bargain”.

We discussed our options and came up with a plan. We decided that we should obey the warning to the letter, to see if we might coax our blackmailer out into the open. We left the case as instructed, but took the documents out first.

We proceeded, unaccosted by the hound or by the direwolves and other smaller creatures he seemed to be grouped with.

Shortly afterwards, the master showed himself. He appeared by teleport and blocked our way forward. He looked like a man, but had green skin and was armed with a glaive. He was missing the small finger from his left hand and was wearing it on a cord around his neck. The Mage and The Bard later identified him as a Perfidious Devil – a creature which makes bargains on behalf of the underworld. He engaged us in conversation but when it became clear we would not give up the documents, he attacked. He was capable of summoning strange, faceless but humanoid creature called Lemurs.

We fought well and the creature did not seem willing to die for whomever engaged him to retrieve the documents. Defeated, his minions dead, he disappeared.

After healing our wounds, The Scout and The Bard decided to see if they could retrieve the case from where we left it on the road. The Mage and I decided to press onwards with the civilians. The Scout and The Bard later caught up with us. They had retrieved the case. I believe they may have ran into some trouble as they both looked the worse for wear, but I did not press them for details as I have learned (via serious head injuries) not to annoy an angry half-orc.

We continued on the road and approximately 30 minutes later we came across a Dragonborn wearing nothing but his smallclothes, sitting on a rock. The Dragonborn, when engaged in conversation, identified himself as one Khadral of Clan Petras, from the mountains of Ostalin.

After much discussion, we agreed to accompany him to warehouse where he had set up camp. The warehouse was approximately half a mile away, down a small path. There, over mushroom and onion soup, he told us of his quest and asked for our help. He had allied with a Dryad named Begnira, in an attempt to free a nearby glade from the all encompassing fire.

We discussed the merits of helping him at great length, with some members of the party being particularly against delaying our mission. We eventually agreed to help him in exchange for him brewing us some more of the fire resisting potions that T had supplied us with. On a personal note, I believe the delay to our mission was justified for two reasons.

1. Clan Petras lives in a part of the world that is also familiar with the attention of the Ragesians and helping them may help us at some point in the future.
2. If Khadral is successful in his ultimate goal of extinguishing the burning forest and the resistances role in assisting him is brought to light, we may find some additional allies in the Elladrin slums.

Our assistance was provided in the form of gathering Karaha mushrooms for a potion Khadral needed to mix for his plan. The mushrooms were located in a large cave system hidden behind a huge boulder, which Khadral was unwilling to enter due to the strange screaming sounds coming from within.

After entering the cave, we followed a narrow tunnel to a large cavern, lit from above but a hole in the roof. The Cavern itself, was bisected by a river of freezing water fed by a small waterfall. The screaming sound was incredibly loud and made communications extremely difficult, so we were reduced to talking through hand gestures.

Myself, The Bard and The Scout proceeded to gather the mushrooms, with The Mage on overwatch. We had been gathering the mushrooms for a few minutes when The Mage alerted us to the appearance of several “Mushroom men”. The creatures were larger than a man and had heads like mushroom caps. They had with them an exceptionally large and horrendous beast. The creatures were hostile, presumably because we had encroached on their territory and were harvesting either their food or their young.

We engaged the enemy in combat, though I was a few seconds late to the fight as I had not heard The Mages magical warning in all the din. The creatures themselves bore no weapons, but seemed to have a magical ability to lessen their wounds by sharing any wound received by one, amongst the entire group.

Despite their abilities, we prevailed, slaying all but one, which retreated.

We finished gathering the mushrooms and set about discovering the source of the screaming noise. On a ledge above the cavern, we discovered the long buried corpses of 3 Goblins and an Elladrin Solei Palancis Legonaire. The Mage identified a piece of an Alarm spell, which the Bard took with him. As we exited the tunnel, the screaming stopped. In the sudden and blessed silence, the Bard advised us that Alarm Spells are broken when a piece of the spell is moved a certain distance away from the spell’s source. He posited that the Legonaire had set the spell and the Goblins had tripped it, but had slain him so he could not turn it off.

Our mission complete, we returned to Khadral with the mushrooms.

Sergeant “D”.
8th day of Hammer.
Report Ends.

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Fire, Ash, Bats, Goblins and a half-naked Donnacha

Dear Konrad,

I am writing this, not knowing if and when I can send the letter. I may have a chance once we reach Lyceum.

We spent the night at Haddin’s place to gather our strength for the upcoming journey into the burning forest. Torrent conveyed to us what little information she had on the it. It was as much documented history and eye-witness reports as it was folk tales. The forest called “Innenotdar” was once home to a group of Eladrin 40 years ago. During the conflict between the Ragesian Empire and Shihalest they were driven out of the forest and fled to Gate Pass. It is unclear who set the forest on fire, the Ragesians or the Shihalesti. What is certain though – this forest has been on fire ever since. I remember lectures about how scholars of Gabal’s have been sent out to investigate it. Although they agree that magic is at hand, they have not come to any conclusion as to what caused it or what keeps fueling the fires. Sufficed to say, I was both anxious and afraid to venture inside!

This place is as fascinating as it is terrifying. We dare not stray from the path, to our left and right are burning trees and bushes. The core of the trees is still there, yet there is no crown, no leafs – only ash. Where we walk, the road seems fairly untouched by the flames. At one point I could swear I saw the fire back away from us, as if the forest reacts to us. Looking back it seems like the road is fully engulfed in flames, as it is in front of us. Yet our relative surroundings are clear of the inferno. I cannot explain what magic as at work here. The heat is almost unbearable and the sounds that echo through this place are dreadful. So are the creatures in here. We encountered bodies, fiery bats and a burning goblin. I do not know if the bodies where human. They seemed human-like and I believe I heard them speak. They were charred to the bone, but still on fire. Whatever this was, it couldn’t have been alive, but yet it was moving. I can see why nobody ever comes here – this place is hell.
The burning bats were tough enemies. If we got to close we would get burned which made fighting them all the more difficult. After we killed the bats, the goblin started talking non-sense about them coming back and ran off.

About half-way through the forest we reached a stone bridge across a gorge. All the crazy stunts Donnacha pulled so far pale in comparison to what would unfold next. He took of his armour (in a burning forest full of hostile creatures!) and decided to repel down the cliff side of the bridge with the intention to explore a wreckage at the bottom. And while dangling under the bridge in his under garments he screamed up “Hey guys, there is something here under the bridge!” (He must have suffered a serious head injury at some point during his military career. Yes, that must be it – will check for scars tomorrow.)
Naturally whatever was under the bridge woke up and we had of fight off swarms of lesser bats. No less dangerous though. I managed to keep them clear off the group for the most time and Ta’waran made good use of her Longbow. She could still use some training though, her aim is off sometimes. Donnacha, still half naked, made it back up and tried to shoot them with his crossbow. Clearly the man has never fired a ranged weapon before. Why he carries one around, is a mystery to me. My spells seemed to have an enhanced effect on them though, so I was able to dispatch of them without any of us sustaining any serious injuries.

Between Donnacha undressing, burning and talking corpses, fire bats and a crazy goblin – I doubt the other half of the forest can hold more surprises.

Rigar

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Approaching the Fire Forest
As they drew closer to the Fire Forest our adventures find a farmstead

Our intrepid band continued onwards through the snowfilled woods of the mountains. As their horses rode, they could feel the snow melting below their hooves. The Fire Forest was close now.

Leaving the mountains, our destination came into view. A forest full of trees, stripped of all but their branches and each one burning bright and constant. The border to the forest was marked by a boiling river. We would soon have to cross it but an unexpected sight was before us. A farmstead stood below us with a young girl sitting by the road watching the forest burn.

Nervously, Ta’Waran and Donnacha approached her. Without looking she spoke a vision;
“The Scourge comes and the Skulls of the Dragon pursue you. I saw it in a dream.”

The girl introduced herself to us as Crystin, daughter of Haddin. This name was known to us. Haddin was a powerful wizard from Gate Pass. His brother had done terrible things and was known for his violent nature. One day, he turned over a new leaf. It transpired that Haddin had been controlling his brother with magic. When this news got out Haddin’s reputation was ruined, his brother perished trying to stand up for him and he was driven from the city. Crystin informed us that he had been living as a hermit here ever since and, realising our destination, begged us to convince her father to leave.

After some discussion, we agreed. Haddin sat by his hearth, over which was a hammer that we took to be his brothers and was far from glad to have vistors. He carried the burden of years of guilt and was reluctant to leave his home inspite of the impending danged posed by the Ragesians. With a combination of charm, flattery and reasoning we convinced him. Ta’waran’s knowledge of the Ragesians and Donnacha tactically using the connection with Crystin proved especially relevant.

Rather than head immediately, we elected to rest a while at the farmstead. This would give us a full days worth of travel through the Fire Forest, though things are never that simple. There was a heavy knock at the door. It was a Ragesian Inquisitor, Boreas and his minions. He was sent to dispatch the old wizard and his daughter. What they got was Donnacha charging them down instead!

The fight was long and hard, but we prevailed and collapsed to get sleep leaving the world with 1 less inquizitor and 5 less Ragesian hobgoblins.

End of Act 1

Paelias

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Flashback - Colatongue Part 2

November

Built to resemble the maw of some great beast, the front gates of Castle Korstull had impressed the magnificent emperor when he’d first seen them, but he had raised palaces of his own in the decades since. Now they looked to him like nothing more than the hastily assembled sets of some Wayfarers’ comedy. He remembered what Leska had told him before he’d left, that some young bard in Ragos had penned a play about his life, probably in an attempt to earn his patronage. He’d laughed at the folly of that, yet he found himself wondering about it now, about how such a play might begin, about what soliloquies this crowing upstart had written into his mouth.

Would there be a scene of his childhood, a half-orc raised among backwoods highlanders, tribesmen who wandered the mountains of the North, having no land to hold as their own? How many acts would it take him to carve out a nation for his kin, how many trumpets and alarums as he turned it into an empire? Which of his enemies would be judged worthy of their own death scenes, which allies would rhyme couplets after his dramatic exits?

He was certain Shaaladel would be the handsome scene-stealer, declaiming regally on the nature of their fragile peace as they debated the rebellion in Gate Pass, with no hint of the craven schemer beneath the regal façade. And surely Leska would be cheated of her rightful prominence, as misunderstood by a grasping playmaker as she was by all the rest of his subjects. They all looked at her and saw a frightful mask, unaware that the creature behind that grisly visage was far more human — and more terrifying — that they could have imagined. Leska should’ve been the subject of a play, he thought. She had all the makings of a tragedy, while he had none. His play would be boring, the legendary emperor decided. After all, he always won.

As soon as he dismounted his horse, he was frightfully attended. Inquisitor bodyguards in their horrific masks and blood-splattered lieutenants with word from General Magdus fell in step behind him as he walked. Within a few moments, they had ascended to the throne room, where he took his dinner and dispatched orders. The throne room and the royal bedroom adjoining it were appropriately princely, festooned with tapestries, murals, and other palatial regalia. When the castle was built, these rooms had been prayed over by priests for three days. It was said no one could enter these rooms against the will of the one who sat upon the throne. The great emperor was unimpressed. He placed the Torch of the Burning Sky in a ruby- studded sconce, scraped his boot against the corner of the throne to remove a clump of gray mud, then sat down and called for the leaders of the force that had resisted him.

Hoping their deaths would provide some distraction, he ordered their executions on the spot. He watched attentively, eating stew from a brass tureen, as his bodyguards went about their work. Inquisitors all, trained in the art of torture by Leska herself, the men of his personal guard sensed the dread emperor’s apathy, and stretched their imaginations to make each prisoner’s end more entertaining than the previous one. But the spectacle soon descended into farce and common vulgarity; he grew listless again. He called for wine from the castle cellars and sat in silence, drinking 50-year-old vintages straight from their bottles. Before long, he grew lethargic and announced that he would retire.

All but a handful of his guards bowed deeply and left. The remaining three would stand outside his chamber as he slept. The immortal emperor extinguished the torch as he pulled it from its sconce and walked towards the bedroom, yet he stopped before the door, turned to one of his guards, and began to speak. He said, “I am more weary than I ever knew a mortal or immortal man could be. This world of half-men and vain posturing, this age of sheep who masquerade as lords, diminishes in my eyes by the day. I thought the gods would not long tolerate ambitions such as mine, but like a pack of beaten whores, they offer not defense but more accommodation. Everything that I once coveted turns stale. I grasp the fruits of conquest and each morsel tastes of ashes in my mouth. In seven months, my pennants could cast shadows over all the nations of the known lands, and yet this spent and whelping bitch they call the world cannot, for all my ravaging, yet birth a cur whose sharpest fangs don’t break against my skin. When I bid you to kill those men tonight, I found myself searching their eyes for signs that, in their fatal throes, their dying souls might glimpse another realm, a realm that better suited me. But I saw none. Did you see anything at all?”

The Inquisitor, Darius, stared for a long time into those wild eyes, dumbstruck by this strange and sudden candor. In the end, shamed by his lack of a proper answer — or any answer at all — the bodyguard merely shook his head. Somehow disappointed, and knowing himself a fool for it, the doomed emperor walked away without a word and locked his bedroom door behind him. His name was Drakus Coaltongue, and his curse was to be the most powerful man in the world.

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The Gauntlet

We left the watch tower early. It felt good to be out and on our way. Best not think about what’s happening in Gate Pass. After a few hours’ travel Donnacha and Rigar said we were about to pass through “The Gauntlet” – a long, narrow gorge through the mountains. They told stories of ambushes and hidden attackers up on the high ledges.

The stories were true. As we entered “The Gauntlet” I spotted some shadows high above. Soon after we were bombarded with rocks and arrows. We spurred on our horses and dashed through as quickly as possible. Our attackers knew what they were doing and were setup at intervals all along the gorge, attacking our horses as we charged past. Too high up for us to realistically fight back, though I was angry enough to break some skulls. Kathor of the Black Horse was blocking our way at the end of the gorge. Made little effort to stop us. I didn’t wait around to ask why, but I’m still baffled.

Our party took heavy injuries and mine and Donnacha’s horses were half dead by the end. Rigar somehow made it through intact. Must be some wizard trick. Paelias had a few troubles but made it through ok. The ambushers didn’t follow us. Can’t have been paid enough.

We rested briefly to catch our breath, then again set off toward the Innentodar forest. We spotted a dwarven work gang in the distance. Seems a new dwarf settlement was being established in the mountainside under ‘King’ Marben Diamondheart. Never heard of him if I’m honest.

We surrendered our weapons – not too happily – and were taken to the King. He was friendly for a dwarf. We were maybe a tad too honest with him about being with the Resistance. He did seem to appreciate this but still wanted ‘proof’ of our good intentions. Paelias and Donnacha went off to investigate some theft in the grain stores. Me and Rigar helped them fix some of their shoddy engineering. I expected better from dwarven engineers, but they aren’t used to building outside. They got caught out by wind and rain; easy enough problems to fix.

We feasted well last night. Dwarves are not always good company but they know how to throw a feast. After they offered us ale and warm beds, and we left in good spirits this morning. As we walked it got a lot warmer as leaving the mountains – Innentodar is getting closer.

We’ve just fought off a group of Gnolls and their hyenas. Rigar is becoming more adept with his magic. He is actually quite effective now in combat. Without a sword or any real weapon to speak of. He said he hits them with their own minds. Or something. Huh.

Ta’Waran

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Leaving the City

Dear Konrad,

I hope this letter finds you alive and well. The least I can expect from Buron is to get it to you safely, seeing as every rebellion friendly soul we meet on the way out thinks we’re their personal errand boys.

Whilst the others went to Erdan Menash’s estate and retrieved the information we were looking for, I attended some important business in the safe house. I agreed to improve the magical barriers and enchantments they had in place for the hideout of some magic users they were harbouring from the inquisitors. I don’t have to tell you that their efforts were sub-standard at best; so it was wise to ask me for help. Although I am more than capable, this task had left me tired, so bear with me while I try to recollect what happened after that.

I rejoined the others just in time to rescue them from an ambush they ran into. I’m telling you Konrad, these guys would be doomed without me.
We dispatched of the imposters wearing city guard uniforms, who later turned out to be Black Horse mercenaries.
To our surprise, after the battle was over, Rantel came out of hiding. I am sure you’ve heard of him and his exploits in and around Gate Pass.
He knew who we are, what we are up to and where we are headed. He seemed quite arrogant, if you ask me! He wants us to take a letter to his sister in Lyceum. Like I said, errand boys…

The note the others received from Menash got us an audience with Captain Herreman. He followed the instructions in the note and set the plan in motion to get us out of the city.
He organized 4 of his trusted men, horses, guard uniforms and a reasonable patrol order, should we be questioned. The patrol was led by a lieutenant, who made no effort to introduce himself to us. I do expect such rude behaviour from the rank and file, but then again, Donnacha seems surprisingly well mannered.

On our way out, the 4 soldiers made quick work of mobs gathering, using the general panic in the city to their advantage. We came across looters in the shop “Ronald’s Radiant Reagents”. Ronald was already dead – a shame, he was a nice guy. Mistaking us for city guards, due to our disguise, the murderers attacked us. Their leader seemed awfully familiar and when Torrent joined us she recognised the halfling and convinced him to surrender.

When we approached the gate our ploy worked and we are now camped for the night outside the city in guard post.

I am not sure when I will be able to write again. Please be careful and be safe. No doubt you heard the bells ring tonight. The inquisitors are in the city. Be mindful of who you are seen with!

With best regards,
Rigar

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Flashback - Coaltongue Part 1

November

Desolation. Gray earth trod beneath boots on the march; snapped trees waiting for the flames. And soon, the victorious emperor knew, there would be that fire. There always was. Often enough, he brought it, but even when he didn’t, it arose. After every battle, something burned — as if the universe followed some unwritten protocol that conflagration should be the epilogue to carnage. It was even more reliable than the crows.

Castle Korstull was taken. The mighty emperor figured he’d lost, at worst, one man in twenty. He’d known it would be so. Tonight, he would sleep on the sheets of a fallen prince, and the only cost had been a week’s planning and the blood of men he did not know. If the victory had meant anything to him, he would’ve called it a bargain.

When had conquest lost its luster? Was it just the ease, or was it something else? The glorious emperor stared into the flames of the torch he bore in his left hand, the famed artifact he had christened the Torch of the Burning Sky. Since the day he had acquired this strange token, born a century before in miracle and catastrophe, he had never lost a battle. It was as if he’d forgotten how.

He feared his own restlessness, and was all the more frustrated to realize that it might be the only thing he feared. What would the ache for challenge drive him to? The inscrutable emperor had begun to calculate the betrayal of his oldest ally; whether it was out of strategy, ambition, or boredom, he could not tell.

That ally, of course, planned to turn on him first. There had been no intelligence of such an act, but it went without saying. His ally went by the unlikely name of Shaaladel, and if the invincible emperor had forgotten how to lose, Shaaladel had forgotten how not to betray.

The all-knowing emperor’s foresight fatigued him. He’d spent the final hours of many brave men’s lives hoping for some surprise — a sudden ambush, unexpected reinforcements, even a mere change in tactics — that might lend the least excitement to this clash of nations. But like the planets in their courses, his enemies plodded, unwavering, along the path he had laid out to their defeat.

Fate’s arsenal had been emptied, it seemed, and no ordeals remained to try the blessed emperor. He had conquered Sindaire tonight, a nation that had already been his in all but name, for no better reason than that they had given him an excuse. Soon, he would test him- self against his other neighbors — Ostalin, Dassen — but knew that they would fall just as quickly. He wondered what he’d done to anger the gods before his birth, that they should curse him by giving him only a single world to conquer.

Perhaps, he mused, he should avenge himself on the heavens. He peered up through the gathering cloud-rack and contemplated this, until his view was obscured by a high-vaulted arch passing overhead. He trained his gaze forward now, as the warhorse he sat upon ambled through the yawning entryways of the castle. Built to resemble the maw of some great beast, the front gates of Castle Korstull had impressed the magnificent emperor when he’d first seen them, but he had raised palaces of his own in the decades since. Now they looked to him like nothing more than the hastily assembled sets of some Wayfarers’ comedy. He remembered what Leska had told him before he’d left, that some young bard in Ragos had penned a play about his life, probably in an attempt to earn his patronage. He’d laughed at the folly of that, yet he found himself wondering about it now, about how such a play might begin, about what soliloquies this crowing upstart had written into his mouth.

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The plan starts coming together

First time in the Eladrin ghetto. It’s a strange place but we made it out alive, and with the box – finally.

Erdan Menash has strange taste. His staff are all dressed in bright multicolours like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We were shown inside and saw his garish celebrations. When Erdan arrived he told us that there was a red dragon over Gate Pass on the night of the attacks. He also told us about a huge earth elemental that had manifested in the sewers and killed several councilmen.

We discussed the situation with the intel we’d gotten hold of. He was not convinced by our plan so Paelias smoothly explained everything we had discovered. Donnacha was impassioned by his duty to the city, and I backed up our story with my plans for travelling cross-country to Lyceum. We convinced him eventually. He told us that Captain Herreman would be travelling out of the south gate in the next few days, and gave us a letter allowing us to travel with his squad.

Erdan also donated some strange items from his collection; Torrent took a falchion shaped like a dolphin. Humans…

We left Erdan’s manor and started walking through the snow toward the barracks. We were approached by some guards who shouted at us to stop. Donnacha challenged them as their uniforms didn’t look right. He had good reason as they attacked us; a move they will regret….

Ta’waran

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Flashback - Kathor

December

Gate Pass’s skyline seemed to sag beneath the mantle of snow. The city huddled between the mountains, looking wary as a beggar in an alley, tucking in under a white blanket and wondering where to turn for a friendly face. Its streets were thick with slush, barely foot- printed. Rumors of war, Kathor thought, must have been keeping even the drunks at home. The usual all-night parties and intoxicated revelry weren’t spilling out of doors this year, and the folks who were celebrating seemed to have all picked their tavern early in the evening and stayed there. Some cities capered and caroused on the eve of war, a final riot in the face of destruction, but tonight, in the Free City-State of Gate Pass, the celebrations seemed muted, solemn, almost funereal. The city was dark, the waning moon only a thin silver splinter, and there weren’t lights in most of the windows. Even a few inns had closed their doors at sundown.

No one was doing business outdoors tonight, it appeared, except for the Resistance. And because the Resistance was on the move, so were their enemies.

The bounty hunters called themselves the Black Horses. Their leader was a man named Renard, but those inside the city walls tonight were under the command of Renard’s second, a former soldier who hailed from Ragesia, the vast empire just west of Gate Pass. That was Kathor, and he didn’t want to be there.

Standing high above the streets now, atop one of many vantage points in this city of towers and buttresses, Kathor could see out for miles, over the ice-topped walls and into the west. Across the valley and the bottom of the nearby pass, distant fires dotted the horizon. Scattered in groups, they twinkled through the falling snow like earthbound constellations. The glorious Second Army of the Ragesian Empire was camped on the city’s doorstep, far sooner than expected, and the locals expected an attack within the week. But Kathor knew how fast that force could move, and to his mind, a week was very wishful thinking.

He couldn’t help thinking that he belonged out there, with the army. With his father. For a second, impossible as it was, Kathor let himself search for the blur of a high banner in the wind, or the circle of larger fires that would surround the general’s tent, before he turned away, shaking his head. Even if he knew where the old man was, what would be the point? As much as Kathor wanted to be out there with the army, he knew the conquest of Gate Pass would not be for the glory of the Empire. It would be for the glory of one woman. Since the assassination of Drakus Coaltongue, the Emperor of Ragesia, less than two months before, the world had descended into madness. Coaltongue’s chief allies and lieutenants had immediately begun positioning themselves as the next in line. Over time, two candidates had risen as the likely successors: Lord Shaaladel, ruler of the Shahalesti elves, and Leska, Coaltongue’s Supreme Inquisitor.

It was Leska who had seized command of the scattered Ragesian armies. Instead of summoning them together, she had set those forces to work on pursuing new conquests of Ragesia’s neighbors. This tactic provided multiple benefits: it kept the generals too busy to plot against her, and kept rival nations too busy to interfere. But the conquest of Gate Pass was different.

The Free City-State of Gate Pass had been free since the insurrection forty years before because of its location. Gate Pass was named for the narrow passage between the mountains that separated Ragesia and Shaaladel’s kingdom of Shahalesti. In Coaltongue’s time, keeping that central city neutral had held together the peace and sometime alliance between the Emperor and Shaaladel. But now that Lord Shaaladel had emerged as her chief rival, Leska was surely seizing the city to gain further advantage against the elven king. Dragging his gaze from the far-away encampments, Kathor looked down on the pair of humble two-story buildings he’d come up to reconnoiter. They were connected by a bridge, leading from the top floor of the taller one to the roof of the shorter. The taller was a home, while its squat companion was a pub, named the Poison Apple in an example of the locals’ flair for the perverse.

Gate Pass was a city packed with bridges and heights, a web of widening arches crisscrossing over every street, all now rimmed with ice and snow, yet in many places still welcoming, even majestic. A marvelous place, Kathor had thought, years before, when he’d admired the tall buildings. Back then, he’d seen them as a testament to clever citizens who made the most of the narrow mountain pass confining their city.

Nowadays, Kathor didn’t feel much wonder walking these streets. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, the novelty of those clever citizens’ achievement had worn off when he’d started kidnapping them.

Tonight’s targets were meeting at the Poison Apple. The pub was closed, since the owner, a magus, had been carried off by the city guard the night before — Kathor didn’t have to read the note on the door to know that, having led the city guard there himself.

The guardsmen had already been locking up the city’s magi when Kathor had arrived in town, as an attempt to appease the Ragesians and forestall further hostilities. But sometimes, when orders came from Ragesia, he was told to make sure certain ones were picked up immediately, before they could sneak out of town. Yesterday, such an order had come for the magus who owned the Poison Apple. Tonight, one had come for a member of the Resistance, a witch called Torrent.

Information said Torrent would be using the empty tavern to meet a contact, or contacts. How and when his Ragesian employers got their intelligence, he didn’t know, but all their messages so far had been eerily precise. The plan was to attack right after midnight, when the noise of an ambush could be mistaken for nearby New Year celebrations.

Glancing down at an alley around the corner from the Poison Apple, Kathor saw his men trying to look nonchalant as they waited for his signal to attack. Some kicked at the brownish snow shoveled into a pile at the curb, others fiddled with a tarp that hid the weapons on their wagon, but most just couldn’t stop creeping to the corner to peek out at the pub. Clearly, the Black Horses weren’t used to being subtle. Kathor found it hard not to hate them.

He wished he hadn’t brought so many. Kathor had only joined these bounty hunters a month before, and he was already fed up with their company. But Torrent was a witch, and their source said she had a bodyguard of some kind, so overwhelming force had seemed like the safest strategy.

Now, watching all ten men fumbling attempts to stay inconspicuous on the street, he was rethinking his tactics. If Torrent were tipped off…

Mid-thought, he caught his first glimpse of her, strolling down the alleyway along the city’s southern wall, a few blocks away. As expected, she was walking with a massive man, two heads taller than she, wearing a bearskin as a cape over a small fortune in armor. He looked Ragesian. No doubt he was some kind of bodyguard, who would escort Torrent to her mysterious meeting. But he was unlikely to accompany her to the meeting itself; surely the Resistance would not trust any Ragesian, even a turncoat, to be privy to its secretive dealings. Kathor figured the bodyguard was too tall not to have orc blood in his veins. Half-orcs never went down easy, and though this one would probably be long gone before Torrent reached the Poison Apple, Kathor decided bringing ten men had been right after all.

As for Torrent herself, she looked just like the description he’d received: tall for a woman, shock of short white hair, carrying herself like a soldier, and sporting an expensive breastplate he could see gleaming in the dim moonlight even from a distance. Tonight she was wearing a dark winter coat, open in the front, probably because the heavy fur concealed a weapon and she wanted ready access to it. She didn’t look like a witch.

Then again, Kathor thought, neither do I. And if I weren’t, I’d be outside these walls where I belong.

He leaned over the railing to try and catch one of his men’s attention. It took longer than it should have. Kathor was six stories up, watching from the balcony of a boarded-up temple to the Red Archer, a god of summer, of sunrise, and hope, a god who seemed to be out of worshippers nowadays.

When he finally got one of the Black Horses to look his way, Kathor’s signal had them back on task in a hurry, but it took him a long minute to decide Torrent and her friend hadn’t seen him trying to get the bounty hunters to notice his gestures. Fortunately for him, they were stopping often, taking quick turns, clearly more concerned with making sure they weren’t followed than watching for signs of ambush at their destination.

He spared a glance to check on his men — they had one of the wheels off the wagon now, as planned, and were doing a passable job of pretending to try and repair it — then made a quick estimate of how long it would take Torrent to reach the tavern.

She was closer now, and he could just make out the handle of a weapon slung across her back, not hidden, but carried openly in defiance of city law. Her companion had no obvious arms, but a man didn’t wear that much armor without expecting to fight, so he probably had something. Either way, despite all the battlefield trappings, the two strolled casually beneath a picturesque array of icicle-draped archways and bridges, and their constant looking back to avoid being tailed made them look more like tourists than members of an armed insurgency.

An insurgency against an occupation that hasn’t even happened yet, Kathor reflected, with grudging admiration. Say what you would about the folk of Gate Pass, there was no doubt they had courage. The Resistance, the movement that had helped drive out Gate Pass’s Ragesian conquerors forty years before, had never broken up, presciently choosing to remain vigilant against future incursions. Torrent was one of their more prominent agents, which might have been why Ragesia had marked her for special attention. Not that the why mattered, Kathor reminded himself. Being second-in-command of this gang of thugs was how he paid the bills, even if he had grown to dislike the men — or more accurately, loathe them — in the past few weeks. Their leader, Renard, had been the first to take Kathor in when he left the army, and that debt had to be respected. Sure, there was no honor in hauling these alleged “enemies” of Ragesia away from their homes and loved ones, but there was honor in fulfilling an obligation. Besides, as much as he hated the work, he’d left behind the only other world he’d ever known, and he honestly had no idea what else to do.

“This is my life now,” Kathor said, out loud, shaking himself out of his reverie. He took one last look at his father’s army in the distance, and then rushed down the stairs. Whether they were fighting for their freedom or not, whether they were witches or not, and whether they deserved it or not, it was time to take these two in.

If he’d planned right, they’d go down quickly. There wouldn’t be any surprises inside the Poison Apple; Kathor already had a spy inside to make sure of that. Except for the owner’s wife, no one else had entered the pub all night. Beyond better intelligence and better control of the battlefield, Kathor had numbers. He had eleven Black Horses, including himself, although he didn’t expect to fight — Kathor still thought of himself as an officer, after all, and there was no honor in ambushing outmatched foes. The targets would be only Torrent and whoever she was meeting, and his information said that group would be fewer than half the number of soldiers he’d brought. And if Torrent or the others had witchcraft, well, he had an answer for that too, didn’t he?

Everything was set, Kathor thought, as he emerged from the temple and joined the company of the men he despised. When the time came, and the midnight bells chimed the New Year, he would be ready.

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After Action Report - 3rd day of Deepwinter

Sir,

Please find my After Action Report for the 3rd day of Hammer. The names of the party members have been omitted in case this report should fall into enemy hands.

Report begins:

With the intelligence mentioned in my previous report, we returned to your location from the warehouse to report our findings.
Upon delivering the report (my previous report – date 2nd day of Hammer) we rested for several hours, awaiting the return of T from her mission.
It was at this point that you advised us of the undead incursion. We proceeded to the vault and engaged a number of Dwarven corpses which appeared to have been awakened by the recent combat within the city. We ultimately prevailed, though I was rendered unconscious for a time.

Upon recuperating, we proceeded to the common room and relaxed for approximately 4 hours before sleeping. During this downtime, the group engaged in various activities, the Bard, the Scout and I providing some support to a number of the refugees.

We were awoken the following morning by you Sir, at which point you made your offer of formal membership of the organisation to us. The Bard seems to have already been a member. If I may make a personal observation Sir, the Mage has my respect and has performed well in combat. I know he has declined the offer of full membership, but I believe he can be trusted.

We received our orders from you at approximately 6am and proceeded directly to The School, with the intention of delaying “S”.

Upon our arrival, we were stopped at the gate by “D”. We engaged him in conversation and he expressed a dislike of “S”. Seeing an opportunity, the Bard and I convinced him to help us delay “S”. He agreed to place a magical shield around her quarters to stop her leaving whilst we were inside.

We proceeded to her quarters and confronted her. A quick tactical assessment told us that her skills, magical ability and experience would grant her overwhelming superiority over us in combat, so we adopted a diplomatic approach. We were successful in convincing her that our goals and those of her masters were aligned and that we should work together.

She agreed to take us to the object and hand it over to us. In exchange, we will provide any valuable intelligence obtained from it to her and her people.

Sergeant “D”.
3rd day of Hammer.
Report Ends.

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