Out of The Ashes – Chapter 8

[THE CLANS SEEK RESHANESE PATRONAGE. WHAT IS YOUR REPLY?]

“Good luck, Ambassador,” you say. “You’ll need it.”

Ambassador Yesui gives you an amused look. “There is no luck in my line of work. Only opportunity. Those who seize it prosper, and those who let it slip…” she trails off, then changes the subject. “I find it strange that an enemy would wish me well.”

You shrug. “As strange as an enemies sitting at the same table and having a pleasant conversation?”

Yesui smiles. “Just so.”

“If today’s ally may be tomorrow’s enemy,” Adrian cuts in, “perhaps the reverse can be true as well.”

Zhenjin’s face clouds over, and Yesui’s other bodyguards begin to mutter angrily. “You would have us be allies? After what your people have inflicted on mine? After–”

“Zhenjin,” Yesui says warningly. He shoots you an incensed look, but falls silent. “My bodyguard has no tact, but he speaks truth. Your people have wronged us greatly–” she raises a hand to forestall Adrian’s rebuttal. “–and we have wronged you in turn.”

“I cannot dispute that,” you say, “but–”

Yesui shakes her head slowly. “It is not so easy to forgive, Knight of Imvarr. It is not so easy to forget.”

You nod. “One of the first Knights wrote: ‘The tree of violence grows swift and strong; its roots gorge themselves with blood. But its branches cast a dark shadow, and it bears only bitter fruit.

The tree of mercy is delicate and fragile; it must be tended with care, kept safe from worms and rot and frost. But its blossoms are fragrant, its fruit is rich and sweet.’ ”

“I would not have thought to hear this from a warrior,” Yesui says.

You nod again. “A lord commands,” you say. “A general directs. A soldier fights and kills. But a surgeon saves those that can be saved, and eases the passing of those who cannot. All place a different value on life, and I cannot say who is right or wrong.”

Out of the corner of your eye, you see Lord Anselm and Lady Jin returning from their meeting with Reshan’s Finance Minister. Your superior looks inordinately pleased with himself, your host wary, and the black-robed Minister looks like someone who’s been convinced to do something unpleasant.

“Ambassador!” Lord Anselm says brightly. “Good to see you at our table. Is something the matter?”

“I was hoping to discuss the river tariffs,” Yesui says without preamble. “Nine parts in a hundred?”

“Nine? They’ll have my head on a pike,” your superior shoots back, sitting down and pulling a plate towards him. “Twelve, and I’ll put in a good word with the new Duke…”

~~

Zhenjin’s ire subsides as Ambassador Yesui wheedles Lord Anselm down to one part in ten, and he begins to move restlessly as they make small talk. You watch him impassively in case he tries anything, but he doesn’t seem to have violence on his mind. In fact…

“Is there something you want to say to me?” you ask Zhenjin. He has promised you a tale – perhaps he means to tell it now?

“Yes,” he says, and the conversations die down. “I will tell it now, if there are no objections.” He looks around the table for approval, then clears his throat.

“It was at Krakov,” he begins, and you know who he is talking about.

“Sixteen,” you say. “His name was Johannes.”

Zhenjin’s lips are a thin line as he gazes over your shoulder and into the past, putting a name to the face of his past opponent. Then eyes harden, and the young man steels himself against the unwanted connection. “You knew him?”

You nod. Then: “Tell me how he died. I will bring your tale back to the Order, so his successor may learn the truth.”

Zhenjin’s nod is jerky. Out of the corner of your eye, Yesui’s gaze flickers to your face for a moment. Then she coughs and looks away, and Zhenjin obliges.

“It was Krakov where I first fought one of your kind,” he says again. “Where we first learnt that Knights could be killed.” He leans back slightly, casting his gaze about the table. “How much do you know?”

“I am told it was a battle of some import,” Lady Jin says with a shrug. “Heavy losses on both sides, but eventual victory for the clans.”

Yesui nods. “Overwhelming victory in the field – our first – followed by a six-month siege. An Imvarri army dead, along with two Knights.”

“A city razed,” Adrian growls. “Its inhabitants put to the sword.” Yesui’s bodyguards bristle at the accusation in his words, but decorum keeps them in check.

“Unfortunate. But – alas – all too common in war.” Lord Anselm leans back in his seat, ignoring Adrian’s look of betrayal. “Forty-Seven?” he asks.

“I was there,” you say, and you remember.

~~

You remember the disastrous rout; the Second Army caught on the march just as it left Krakov – a volley of arrows followed by a wedge of elite troops and heavy cavalry punching through Lord-Commander Gregor’s weakened center, splitting the army in half and encircling its thirty thousand soldiers to be butchered like sheep.

Then signal banners wavering over the carnage for brief moments, standard-bearers fighting tooth and nail for a few more seconds to pass on the Lord-Commander’s last message:

Retreat.

A desperate push for freedom, agonized screams tearing through the air behind you; some are cut off by choked gurgling, others go on and on and on…

Columns of panicking men and women struggling to maintain formation at a dead sprint, slipping and sliding in the mud while arrows fall like hissing rain and howling half-men tear into the rear…

But Imvarri discipline holds. Your force takes grievous losses, dozens of men dying in agony for every foot of ground you take, but they fix their eyes on your back as you cut through the encircling clansmen, carving a path to salvation with steel and fire.

Nothing stands in your way for more than a moment, enemy rank-and-file fleeing in the face of inevitability – a pack of shapeshifters hurls themselves into the melee in a cacophony of howls and roars; a cumulative ton of feral strength and bestial fury seeking your death, but you cut them apart in the blink of an eye.

A spearhead of grim-faced soldiers widens your breach for their comrades to pass, and your ragged division tears its way out of the killing field step by bloody step. The few surviving mages churn the soil and mud behind the rearguard into quicksand, stymieing your enemy’s pursuit.

After what feels like an eternity, a ragged cheer goes up from the Imvarri as you break out of the encirclement, the last enemies finally breaking and scattering. The city of Krakov sits barely a mile ahead of you, its walls the only safe haven within a day’s travel.

But you have so few soldiers left – two thousand, if your eyes can still be trusted – and more clansmen are surely be on their way. A competent commander would send shapeshifters and cavalry to catch up to you before all two thousand men can find shelter in the city, and the Khagan is nothing if not competent.

A full retreat is suicide, you think. We won’t get everyone into the city in time, and the enemy will attack when Krakov’s gates open to let us through. If we fight and lose, they’ll take the city in a day.

You traverse the length of the column, loping past exhausted troops in an attempt to consult a surviving officer on strategy, but your efforts are in vain. Not a single red armband remains – it seems the clansmen focused on finishing off the chain of command after killing mages.

Two thousand is not nearly enough, you think as your soldiers stumble and limp past you, too tired to do anything but put one foot in front of another. Ten thousand would not be enough.

You consider your options, then make your decision…

~~

WHAT DID YOU CHOOSE?
1. [Sacrifice. You bought time with the lives of your soldiers. Five hundred men and women in ambush a distance from the city walls were no match for the best warriors the plains had to offer, but they blunted the Khagan’s advance enough for you to evacuate everyone else.]

2. [Endurance. You organized a fighting withdrawal into Krakov. The Khagan hammered your forces between his elite troops and the anvil of the city gates, but you held your ground in the face of heavy losses. Imvarri steel may bend, but it does not break easily.]

3. [Aggression. You feigned retreat, then fell upon your pursuers. The Khagan’s elite soldiers were deadly and swift, but in their minds they had already won. After all, how much fight could a routed foe possibly put up?]

~~

“–we cut down almost all the Imvarri, but the Alukhai and Tariat were too eager for glory and spoils. Their ranks thinned, and they let a handful of soldiers escape,” Zhenjin is saying. “Four– five thousand?”

“Closer to five,” you say. “Two thousand from the western pocket, a little more than two and a half from the east. The eastern breakout was able to pull away and flee. Those from the west… not so much.”

The clansman nods. “I heard the tales of your flight,” he says. “The Khagan sent sixty of his finest warriors and ten thousand men to bar your path to the city, but they returned without success.”

You remain silent.

“Truly, a cornered foe is capable of anything,” Zhenjin continues, and you can tell from his grimace that the words are bitter on his tongue.

Lady Jin nods. “A trapped beast will gnaw its own leg off to gain freedom; a man can escape almost any snare, if he has wits and strength and composure in equal measure.”

“Beyond that,” Lord Anselm says, “killing the hunter tends to be a valid – if somewhat more bloodthirsty – option.”

I did what was necessary, you think. I did what I had to–

Yesui interrupts your thoughts. “Those of my people who fought at Krakov have a name for you,” she says. “For all three of you. They call the archer Khar Sumnuud, the assassin Olon Sün. Black Arrow and Hungry Ghost.”

She pauses for a moment. Looks you up and down, gaze keen and appraising and just the slightest bit wary.

“They call you Yargachin,” she says finally. “Butcher.”

You incline your head in acceptance as Zhenjin continues his tale. War is war, after all.

~~

Zhenjin’s tale of the siege is, unsurprisingly, a grim one. Taking a city tends to be as messy and lethal as it is long, especially one as well defended as Krakov.

“The defenders refused to surrender, so we camped a third of a mile away from the city walls,” he says. “Far enough to keep us safe from the stone-hurlers, but not far enough for Khar Sumnuud. Two hundred dead on the first day – pack leaders, shamans, medicine-bearers, picked off one by one. Strong warriors or wise healers, youthful or battle-hardened, brave or cowardly… all dead the same way.”

Zhenjin purses his lips and whistles, and Yesui’s bodyguards begin to fidget.

“First a faint whistle getting louder and louder. Then–”

He claps his hands abruptly, and the bodyguards jump and shoot him reproachful looks.

“Another one gone,” he says, scowling. “Just like that. No honor in their deaths – not even the chance of retaliation. We moved the camp three times, back and back and back. But we were never far enough, and could not retreat further without dangerously thinning our lines. So we grit our teeth and watched good men and women die as we felled trees and dug into the earth to form the circumvallation – watchtowers and barracks ringing a ten-foot earthen wall.”

You remember Thirty-Five casually loosing arrow after arrow from the city walls. “It’s like killing ants,” she’d said. “No matter how many you squash, there are a thousand more.”

Zhenjin goes on:

“We completed the wall six days and nine hundred men later. It should have taken us two weeks, but we worked ourselves to the bone. We would be safe once it was up, after all.

Olon Sün had been busy, as it turned out. The night the earthworks were complete and we toasted our success, he slit four dozen throats – medicine men, experienced fighters, pack leaders… important men and women whose loss would be felt most keenly.

From then on, his targets slept together, packed into great tents ringed with keen-nosed shapeshifters. But Olon Sün never so much as tested the sentries.

He knew we couldn’t guard everything at once, so he switched to sabotage. No-one so much as caught a glimpse of him in action – all we ever saw was the trail of destruction he left behind: siege engines and tents in flames, food and water laced with slow-acting poison that took its toll over weeks…”

The plainsman grins.

“Then he slipped up. We held a clandestine meeting of most of the surviving medicine-men – the bait was too tempting for him to pass up. He was expecting four or five shapeshifters, maybe eight at most, but we had two dozen lying in wait.

We fell upon him when he tried to silence the sentries – his ungodly power made him almost invisible in the dim light, but we sniffed him out and tore him to pieces.”

Zhenjin pauses for a moment, then continues: “For what it’s worth, Olon Sün went down fighting. He killed six of us, and left me with this.” He pulls at his collar, revealing a jagged scar across one side of his neck and part of his chest.

“I… see,” you say. “He…”

What else do I say? You wonder, a vague sense of unease crawling up your spine. What do I say in memory of a fellow warrior who gave his life in battle? What do I say to his killer?

What will they say about me?

“He will be missed,” you say at last.

Out of the Ashes – Interlude 3

The camp is noisy as usual. Soldiers joke and swap stories as they dine, breaking out into sporadic bursts of laughter. They make merry with a quiet desperation, the melodies of a dozen songs unspooling into the night sky – songs of home, of lovers and family awaiting the victorious soldier’s return.

The songs are familiar but irrelevant – nothing awaits you back in the Tower. Nothing save another mission and old memories, best forgotten.

Metal clanks on metal as some soldiers maintain their gear; sharpening swords and spears, tightening straps on shields, polishing armor till it gleams softly in the firelight. A young man scribbles on grubby parchment with borrowed quill and ink, tongue sticking out as he works on a home-bound letter.

To whom? You wonder. A parent? A sibling? A friend? A lover?

He breaks into a grin as one of his comrades yells encouragement and pats him on the back, and you realize he can’t be older than eighteen–

The cost of victory is always death, you think. The tiniest of sparks – disagreement over gods, money, land, I know not which – ignites the fires of war, and we are all burned…

But it matters not why we fight – there is no righteous cause capable of stopping an arrow or turning a blade aside, no justice that can put a man’s blood and entrails back in him as he writhes in the mud.

Men and women embrace under the night sky, heedless of discipline or consequence – there are rules against fraternization, but tonight no regulation will be enforced.

Let them find comfort, you think to yourself. Nobody will begrudge a little joy before the horror; a little calm before the storm. There will be no joy or calm tomorrow.

You’ve seen the reports. The invaders are converging in hordes – archers on sturdy horses, lancers on armored stallions, infantry and mages… Castle Rubinsk is small, but its position atop a hill overlooking the Volgrad’s waters has made it a thorn in the side of the plainsmen for the past months. Now sixty thousand of them are descending on the province to pluck it out.

Rubinsk’s fields are heavy with golden wheat, but there are no farmers for the harvest here. Only soldiers. Gold will soon become red, you think. Lord-Commander Reynar has made his intentions clear.

~~

You feel a tension in the air when you wake – a heady mix of alertness and apprehension of men and women preparing for battle. Patrols tramp past your tent as you dress and don your armor, and the ever-present murmuring of soldiers has faded to silence.

The enemy is here.

Soldiers and horsemen pour from the camp’s wooden palisades in steel rivers, standard-bearers calling out a marching cadence. Spears and swords gleam in the morning sun as the First Army maneuvers into position, the very earth trembling under the thunder of boot and hoof as you fall in alongside a column of pikemen.

How many will die today? How many men and women will fall to sword or lance or arrow, never to see another dawn?

Forty thousand of Imvarr’s finest soldiers stand ready to repel the invading plainsmen, but you’re not sure if they’ll be enough. The Lord-Commander’s strategy is unconventional – his infantry has been divided into homogenous blocks of a thousand men, each a miniature army capable of fighting on when encircled. Mounted archers equipped with stronger bows will beat the plainsmen at their own game, and the heavy cavalry will be held in reserve for a decisive hammer-blow…

But the Second Army paid a heavy price for underestimating the swiftness of the plainsmen’s horses and the deadliness of their arrows. If the infantry folds too quickly or our mounted archers fail… we lose everything.

Ten thousand Imvarri and two of your Order gave their lives last summer, pierced by arrows and butchered by scimitars. Krakov was a grievous loss that will take years to replace, you were told. Failure at Rubinsk is unacceptable.

It will be different this time, you tell yourself, standing at the head of a thousand men on the left flank. We will prevail. Reynar has more soldiers, more horsemen, more Knights. Twenty of your kind – the finest warriors of your Order – have been assigned to his command. A huge risk to take, but the plainsmen must be stopped.

Lord-Commander Reynar and his personal guard make their way to the front of the army on horseback. One of his companions makes a gesture with her hands, and Reynar’s voice echoes like thunder.

“Men and women of Imvarr! The Great Khan is on his way here as we speak – he leads forty thousand of the savages on their damned ponies, with twenty thousand more on foot. The horse-fuckers seem to have taken a liking to fair Rubinsk,” the Lord-Commander booms. “I say we bury them here.”

A roar rises from thousands of throats, going on and on like the crashing of waves, and Lord-Commander Reynar waits for it to subside.

“They have the advantage of numbers, but I have faith in Imvarri steel! Not just the swords and spears and arrows which will soon be tasting the enemy’s blood, but your training, your discipline, and your bravery. Hold firm, follow orders, and fight well. That is all.” Another cheer from the army, and the Lord-Commander and his entourage take their place at the center.

A fine speech, you think. But words mean nothing on the battlefield. Steel will decide.

~~

The First Army advances across the plains, halting on Reynar’s command – blocks of men arranged in a checkerboard formation, loose enough to minimize damage from arrows but close enough to support each other.

You feel the army’s tension again, stronger than before. Soldiers shift uneasily in their armor, resting man-high shields in the mud. Archers plant bundles of arrows into the dirt, and mages begin pulling defensive walls from the ground. Then–

A sharp intake of breath as the plainsmen’s first banners crest a distant hill. “Here they come,” someone mutters, and you hear faint clanks as the soldiers’ fidgeting becomes more pronounced.

Then the horde comes into view – a dark stain of men and horses that bleeds across the golden hills. From this distance they look like ants swarming from a disturbed nest, united in violent purpose.

“God preserve us,” another soldier whispers. “There’s so many of them.” As the plainsmen gallop towards you, murmurs break out in the ranks – half-hearted jokes, promises, prayers for salvation…

You draw your sword and take a few steps forward, leaving the First Army’s front line behind. And as the light of the morning sun bathes you in warmth…

You raise your sword, its blade a sliver of golden radiance against the blue sky, and out of the corner of your eye you can see your fellows doing the same.

“IMVARR,” you shout, and forty thousand soldiers take up the call.

~~

“We stood across the battlefield, him and me, gambling the fate of two peoples on the events of one afternoon.
I won.”
– Lord-Commander Reynar

Out of the Ashes – Chapter 7

[A CLANSMAN CLAIMS TO HAVE KILLED ONE OF YOUR ORDER. WHAT WILL YOU DO?]

You look into his eyes and he stares back. Wariness flickers through his gaze for a moment and his hand twitches toward his belt, but you look deeper and see–

Revulsion. Rage. You should not exist, his gaze seems to say. You belong in hell, not on earth. And beneath that…

Sorrow. Pain. Loss.

“I’m sorry,” you say instinctively, and for a moment he looks surprised. Not the response he was expecting, you suppose. Anger, perhaps. Indignation or outrage, maybe. Not this. “It seems war has taken its toll on all of us. I would hear of your battle, if you are willing.”

There is a long moment of silence before he stares down at his boots. “It was not so glorious a deed,” he admits grudgingly.

“But it was done nonetheless,” you reply. “He had comrades. Friends, perhaps. Family. Knowing his fate will be good for them.”

“Will it truly?” The Plainsman looks up at you, a ragged edge in his voice.

“No,” you say. “But uncertainty is worse.”

“You may be right,” he says. “I will tell you–”

“It is time,” Ambassador Yesui cuts in as one of the courtiers beckons to her. “Come, Zhenjin.”

“–some other time, then.” The man – Zhenjin – bows to you and turns away, and you remember–

You remember wind howling across a cloud-darkened sea of dying grass. You remember the taste of tea, warm and rich – as foreign to you as kindness. You remember a father’s fondness, a warrior’s pride; a dying man’s resignation.

What a small world we live in, you think with a sigh. What a small, bloody, cruel world.

It’s not long before another courtier beckons to Lord Anselm. He steps forward, red coat swishing, and you and Adrian follow close behind.

~~
The palace doors swing open silently, several tons of perfectly-balanced steel pivoting on massive columns. You look around as you enter; the palace’s interior walls are painted to match the city at dusk – ten thousand buildings glowing by lamplight, roads and thoroughfares branching like the roots of some great tree.

A faux horizon calls to you in every direction, mist-shrouded peaks and moonlit lakes rendered with lifelike precision. As you look up, you see a night sky of black velvet studded with shining diamonds, each star a gleaming point of light in the darkness. And the floor–

The floor–

The floor is a painting of an underwater grotto filled with fantastic creatures and figures in bright finery, a riot of color captured in infinitesimal detail. You can’t help but wonder what kind of genius could have produced a work of such magnitude…

Then the figures move beneath you, a shoal of fish flickers by in an iridescent torrent, and you realize it’s real. A caldera filled with water, glass walls and ceiling cunningly placed for men and women to walk alongside the wonders of the sea…

The sheer cost of producing such a structure – acquiring the glass, setting it in place so snugly that not a drop of water could escape, capturing the aquarium’s inhabitants and keeping them fed…

Lord Anselm seems vaguely impressed, but Adrian is all but gaping at the sight. “It’s beautiful,” he whispers.

Lady Jin smiles at your expressions and steps forward, descending a great glass staircase mere feet from the entrance. “This way, Honored Guests,” she says, and you follow.

You’re surrounded by people when you step off the stairs – servants bearing platters, grave ministers in dark robes, scions of the Great Houses in fine silk seated at food-laden tables. A gilded dais sits at the far end of the hall, obscured by shimmering curtains.

The throne.

Soft strains of music mix with the hum of conversation as a herald glances down at his scroll.

“Ambassador Anselm of Imvarr,” he calls out. “Lady Jin Yuehai.” Every eye in the banquet hall turns to regard the four of you – a wave of polite applause washes across the room, nobles and ambassadors and ministers giving you their best courtly smiles.

You can’t help but remember your superior’s words: “He who smiles widest hides the sharpest knife…”

Lord Anselm grins then, his manner brisk and carefree. “Time to get down to business.”

~~

The Emperor is displeased. Influence rolls off him in waves, heating the surrounding air as you approach the dais. A mere suggestion of warmth soon turns into the relentless heat of the midday sun, but you ignore it.

You have been through worse.

Lord Anselm’s expression doesn’t change a whit as he strides through the furnace, but you spy a bead of moisture running down his forehead. Adrian and Lady Jin are not so lucky – the noblewoman’s face is flushed and drenched with sweat. Your colleague has it even worse, stumbling over his own feet and gasping for breath as he contends with smothering Influence.

First the torturer and now this, you think. Are all kings so desperate to prove their power?

The four of you stop at the base of the dais. Lady Jin falls to her knees, forehead to the ground, and the three of you take a knee beside her. “Long Live the Emperor,” the four you say in unison, but the suffocating presence does not recede.

Instead, there’s a rustle behind the curtains, and the Emperor of Reshan replies: “Welcome, ambassadors of Imvarr.”

Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years. The voice that emerges from the curtains is smooth and clear, but there is steel in it. This is the voice of absolute authority, every word bearing an almost unthinkable weight. “We are glad to have you in our courts. We trust our hospitality has been… sufficient?”

“Very much so, your Highness,” your superior replies, ignoring the scorching heat. “We have no complaints–”

Dark blood oozes from Adrian’s nostrils, and he pitches forward with an agonized groan. You catch him before he hits the ground, draping a protective cloak of Power over his form as concerned muttering breaks out amongst the onlookers, and anger rears its ugly head yet again.

“Your Highness,” you say quietly; Lord Anselm winces but doesn’t intervene. “Don’t you think it’s a little warm in here?”

The heat doubles in intensity as the Emperor brings the full weight of his Influence down, but you stand firm. “Offer the Reshanese all the respect they are due,” you remember Lord Anselm saying, “but accept no insult. We are here as equals.” You envelop your companions in an aegis of Power, turning the worst of the magic aside, but it will not hold forever–

Then the murderous heat dissipates, and the Son of Heaven laughs long and loud. “Our presence tends to overpower those of… lesser strength,” he says. “We will keep your companions’ frailty in mind, next we meet.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” you say.

“Of course,” he replies. “Rise, then, and enjoy the festivities.”

~~

The four of you get to your feet and retreat into the crowd. The dignitaries give you a wide berth, not wishing to risk the Emperor’s displeasure, and you take a seat at one of the tables. Adrian collapses into a chair and lays his head on the wood, eyes closed.

“That was close,” Lord Anselm says. “I know I told you not to take any insult lying down, but…”

“I think my life just flashed past my eyes,” Lady Jin murmurs, snagging a glass of wine from a passing servant’s tray and downing it in a single gulp. “Please never do that again.”

You lower your head. “I apologize.” I was operating at peak capacity before we arrived in Reshan, you think. But now my judgement is lapsing. “It–”

Adrian cuts you off. “He’s so strong,” he groans. “God. I gave it everything I had, but he crushed me without even trying.”

“It will not happen again,” you say to nobody in particular.

~~

It’s not long before Lady Jin leads Lord Anselm away to confer with the Minister of Finance, an especially grave looking man in dark robes. You listen in on their conversation for a few moments, but it’s nothing but pleasantries and honeyed words.

“How are you feeling?” You ask Adrian after a moment.

“Like shit,” he says, giving you a wobbly grin. “But it’s getting better. Thanks for the help.”

“Think nothing of it,” you say, as a servant loads up your table with food – a rainbow of spiced meats and pickled fish and dozens of other dishes you cannot identify. “You should eat.”

“Maybe,” he replies, eyeing the luxurious spread. “There’s so much of it,” he says. “Where do I even start?”

“Wherever you like,” you say after a moment’s thought. “It’s not going to disappear.”

Adrian heaps his plate with a morsel from each dish before digging in, hesitantly at first and then with the haste of a starving man. You raise an eyebrow, and your colleague freezes with his chopsticks in his mouth when he finally notices. “Magic is hungry work,” he says defensively, and you can’t help but laugh…

Then you hear footsteps over the murmuring and music. You look up to see Ambassador Yesui approach your table cautiously, her bodyguards not far behind. “May I sit?” She asks in the language of her people.

“Please,” you reply in kind. “Lord Anselm is busy at the moment, but you are welcome to wait with us.” Adrian nods in agreement.

Yesui inclines her head and beckons to Zhenjin, and the two of them sit down. “You speak our tongue well,” she says after a short silence.

“You are too kind, Ambassador,” you reply. “How may I be of service?”

“Zhenjin is recollecting the tale he promised you,” she says, “and I simply wish to talk.”

“Ah,” you reply. “Did you have any particular topic in mind?”

“Well,” Yesui begins, “I cannot help but notice that Lord Anselm is thirty feet away from your person…”

“He is well-protected,” you reply. “No harm will befall him while I am alive.”

“You seem awfully confident in your abilities,” she goes on. “Defying the Emperor was counterproductive at best; suicidal at worst.”

“It had to be done,” you say, angling your head toward the Prime Minister. The delegates of Reshan’s conquered territories descend upon him in a gaggle of ostentation, bowing and scraping and proffering gifts. “Imvarr is no vassal state. We are equals.”

Yesui’s eyes gleam in the lamplight. “I suppose,” she murmurs with wry amusement. “They remind me of dogs, baring throat and belly for scraps from their master’s table.”

You shrug. “An obedient hound will always have food, warmth, and shelter.”

“You should know,” Yesui replies, but there is neither heat nor venom in her voice. “Have you ever been free to choose your own path, Knight?”

“Have you?” you ask in return. “A wolf chooses to hunt; a dog chooses to serve. But they are both slaves to hunger, are they not?”

“True,” Yesui says, and you see something that looks like respect in her eyes. “But a dog depends on the kindness of its master; a wolf depends on speed, cunning and the cooperation of its pack. They are beholden to none but their equals.”

“In the lean winter, a dog can count on its owner,” you counter. “But the wolf must find larger quarry or perish, and a bear – even tired from its long sleep – is no easy prey.”

“I cannot dispute that,” Yesui whispers, and for a moment you worry that you have gone too far. Then she smiles warmly and says: “But that is why I am here, yes? Perhaps the time has come for the wolf to find a master.”

~~

WHAT IS YOUR REPLY?
1. [Critical. “For all your talk about freedom, it seems you are more dog than wolf.”]
2. [Neutral. “Perhaps. Good luck, Ambassador – you’ll need it.”]
3. [Supportive. “There is no shame in survival. I wish you all the best, Ambassador.”]

Out of the Ashes – Chapter 5

[WHAT WILL YOU DO?]

“Is that a direct order, my lord?” you ask after a moment.

Lord Anselm gives you an unreadable look. “Does it have to be?”

“No, my lord,” you reply softly. “I understand.”

“Good,” he says. “Come – the sooner we get this done, the better.”

~~

Adrian is putting the final stitches on the Penitent’s chest as the two of you enter his room. Lord Anselm coughs quietly, and your colleague looks up from his patient.

“Oh, no,” he says. “No, no, no.”

“Good stitching,” Lord Anselm says. “But a regrettable waste of effort. Forty-Seven, if you would be so kind?”

You sit down at the head of the bed and place your hand on the Penitent’s face. His breath is shallow and ragged, little puffs of air against your palm.

So fragile, you think to yourself. Just–

“STOP,” Adrian growls. The room shudders under the weight of his Influence, air and wood shivering and warping in defiance of all natural laws. You rise from the bed, curling your hand into a fist.

“Don’t do this, Adrian,” you say. “We both know what will happen.”

“I know. But I can’t just stand by and watch…” Adrian takes in a shuddering breath. “Watch you kill him.”

You look to Lord Anselm, but he remains cruelly silent.

“He’s… broken.” The words are bitter in your mouth as you repeat your superior’s argument. “There’s nothing we can do. It might be a mercy–”

“He smiled,” Adrian interrupts, eyes raw with anger and pain. “When I cleaned his wounds and started stitching him up, he smiled. You pulled him out from his own personal Hell and gave him hope, and now you’re TAKING IT AWAY?”

“The world is a cruel place,” Lord Anselm murmurs. “But we cannot afford to defy Imperial justice, and I would rather not see this poor soul back under the torturer’s knife. If he were in any shape to talk, I am certain he would ask for death.”

Then the Penitent’s head twitches ever so slightly.

Slowly, with great effort, the broken prisoner – traitor to the Imperial Court, bargaining chip in a high-stakes game between empires, victim of unspeakable torment – shakes his head.

~~

“My Lord!” Adrian cries out, and both of you turn to look at Lord Anselm.

“This changes nothing,” your superior replies. “His survival will cost us too much. The negotiations are far too important to be jeopardized by… this.”

“Might there…” you say tentatively, and Lord Anselm turns his gaze on you. “Might there be some way to use the Penitent to our advantage, my lord?”

“Hm.” Your superior frowns for a moment. “Such as?”

“Perhaps he knows something we could use, my lord.” Adrian suggests. “Or someone who could give us an edge in the negotiations.”

“Unlikely,” Lord Anselm says. “I would rather not take the risk–”

“There will be none, my lord,” you say quickly. “Give us until evening. If his survival is of no use to us by then… I will do what is necessary. We will be none the worse off for the delay.”

A moment of tense silence.

Then Lord Anselm sighs. “Very well. Evening, and not a moment longer. Until then, I will be in the study.”

“Your will be done, my lord,” you say.

~~

As soon as Lord Anselm leaves, the two of you leap into action. Adrian snatches up a brush and paper from the table, and you grind an inkstick into a dish of water.

“Can you write?” you ask.

After a short while, the Penitent nods.

“Great,” Adrian says. “We’ll try to get you out of this, but we can’t do it without your help. Will you answer our questions?”

The Penitent nods again, more quickly this time. His eyes, previously glazed and vacant, wander warily around the room before focusing on your colleague.

“Are you in pain? Do you need anything? Food? Water?”

The Penitent shakes his head.

“Who are you, then?” Adrian asks, dipping the brush in ink and handing it over.

The Penitent stares at the brush for a long while. Then he lowers his hand shakily to the table, and begins to write. His handwriting is clumsy and slow, like a child’s first foray into calligraphy.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, this unworthy one thanks you. His tears fall freely, soaking into the paper and smudging the ink, but the words are still legible.

The Penitent takes a deep breath, composing himself, and continues.

My name is Li Qingshan. I was a captain in the Crown Princess’ army when she and her brother waged war…

As he writes, his hand becomes steadier, each stroke of the brush surer and more certain than the last.

We fought and killed and died for months, painting Reshan with soldiers’ blood. Brown soil, green fields, blue rivers…

All red.

Then the Princess fought her brother. I was there when Dragon dueled Phoenix, splitting the heavens and shaking the earth. I still remember the moment he struck her down. The world held its breath as she fell and fell and fell…

I ran. So did my men. We split up and laid low, hoping to make it out of the Empire. But my luck ran out. They found me. And the rest…

Li shrugs and looks up from his writing. The rest is as you know it.

“I’m sorry,” Adrian says.

Li smiles weakly. Don’t be, he writes. I still live, and…

His gaze flickers down to the brush for a moment. Then he shakes his head. It is of no consequence. Is there anything else you would like to know?

“Forgive my bluntness, but do you know anything… important?” you ask. “Our lord is an ambassador from Imvarr-Across-the-Sea. He desires something that will aid him in his negotiations with the Imperial Court.”

Li furrows his brow for a long while, then shakes his head. Only rumors and superstition from my time hiding in the countryside, he writes. Some believe that the Emperor had his mother murdered before she could crown his sister. Others believe that the Crown Princess still lives, and that the droughts are a result of the Dragon’s absence.

The head of the brush dances faster and faster, almost a blur on the parchment as he writes like a man possessed. They believe that one day she will march on the Capital at the head of a new army, and the downtrodden and the oppressed will rise to overthrow the Court’s opulence.

He lets out a soundless chuckle, finishing off the last character with a theatrical flourish.
A fool’s hope. But there is nothing else for us, now.

~~

“We need to find something,” Adrian whispers as Li rises unsteadily from the table to pour himself a cup of water. You offered to help, but the former captain was insistent in doing this himself. “I don’t think Li knows anything important.”

“I have my duty,” you reply. “If he is of no use to Lord Anselm by evening, I will kill him.” It will not be the first time you’ve taken a life to prevent further suffering. It will likely not be the last, either.

Adrian makes a hopeless noise. Then he frowns. “Wait. Why did Li shake his head?”

~~

I shook my head, Li writes a while later in response to your query, because…

He stares at the brush again.

“Because?” Adrian prompts gently.

Xiaoque, Li writes. My little sparrow. I– we– were married, and she was with child when the Empress was killed. When the war broke out, she packed her things fled to East Mountain. Far away from the fighting. I don’t know whether she made it. But…

I don’t care what happens to me, he writes, and the tears begin to fall again. But – just once more before I die – I want to see them again.

Please.

“I promise–”

“We’ll help,” Adrian says.

“–nothing.” You finish, giving Adrian a disapproving look. “You heard my lord earlier, Li. If we have nothing to give him by evening…”

Li nods. I know. A swift death. It will be an honor to die at your hand.

You shake your head. “There is no honor in death.”

Perhaps you are right, Li writes. Perhaps not. Still, it will be far preferable to the alternative – five more months of torture as they acclimatize my body to the biomancy. Then the transformation into a war-creature, mad with pain and flesh-hunger…

“What?” Adrian says, leaning closer to read the words. “You can’t be serious.” The warbeasts of Reshan and their means of production have been a jealously guarded secret for years.

I am, Li writes. Those who could not endure the… rigors… of the knife were fed to the beasts, and we were made to watch. I envied the end to their suffering. We all did.

Adrian looks up, hope in his eyes. “Good enough for you?” he asks.

“Absolutely,” you reply.

~~

“Interesting,” Lord Anselm says in the study. “Obtaining the location of Li’s prison will present a… unique opportunity. Finding out how the warbeasts are made far outweighs the drawbacks of keeping him alive.”

“It’s not a certainty, my lord,” you remind him. Adrian narrows his eyes at you.

“Nothing in life is certain,” Lord Anselm replies. “But this is good enough. Good work. If we find out where the warbeasts are held or made…” he trails off.

“Of course, my lord.” You answer his unspoken question.

“Excellent. Now, listen carefully: I will need Li to write a letter…”

~~

Li’s eyes widen when you return to the room and convey Lord Anselm’s instructions. A thousand thanks, he writes with a shaky hand. I… have not dared to dream since I was captured. But now…

He looks up, and you see gratitude and joy and determination in his gaze. Now I have hope. Thank you.

~~

“I suppose you found your answer in the end,” you say to Adrian a while later. Li is in the next room, working on Lord Anselm’s letter – through the wall, you hear the shuffling of paper and the grinding of inks against stone.

“I suppose I did,” your colleague murmurs. “So much for being a dutiful soldier.”

You shrug. “Kindness is rarer than obedience. More valuable, too.”

He frowns. “Really? I’m not sure if I agree.”

“I think your actions spoke loudly enough,” you say.

“Yours, too,” Adrian replies, and you blink in surprise.

“Oh?”

He grins at you. “For all your talk about duty, you have a softer heart than you let on.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you say, hiding a smile. “Every member of my Order is forged in the crucibles of the Golden Tower. Our bones and flesh are cast from tempered steel, our skin and hair spun from bright copper, our eyes carved from the finest of gemstones…”

Your colleague rolls his eyes. “And what happens when you pull on your leg, like you’re pulling mine right now?”

“It comes right off,” you lie. “Screws and bolts everywhere. An absolutely dreadful mess.”

He lets out a bark of laughter, and you go on: “In all seriousness, I don’t know if you meant that as a compliment. But… thank you.”

“Any time,” Adrian says. “You know, some of my fellow mages believed the Knights were…” he trails off.

“Were?” you prompt.

“Inhuman,” he mutters.

“And what do you think?” you ask softly.

Adrian looks you in the eye. “I think my colleagues were wrong.”

~~

ARE THEY?

1. [YES. Regardless of the procedure that made you a Knight, you are still human.]
2. [NOT ENTIRELY. You were once like any other. You are something else, now – something simultaneously greater and lesser than a mortal man. But that doesn’t change the way you think or the way you feel…]

Out of the Ashes: Chapter 4

[WHAT DO YOU FEEL?]

“That’s enough.”

You step forward, something cold and brittle uncoiling within you. The torturer doesn’t look up as you approach, but the courtier raises an arm to bar your way. “My colleague requires space–”

You shove him aside, approaching the torturer’s armored bulk. Surprise flashes across the prisoner’s expression for the briefest of moments, then hope…

The torturer turns as his comrade shouts a warning, but he is too late. Eyes widen in surprise behind the ornate grille of his faceplate a moment before your punch lands with enough force to dent metal. He stumbles backward, clawing at his head, and you take his legs out from under him with a swiping kick to the knee.

Isidore all but leaps from his sheath as you take him by the handle, parting the Penitent’s bonds with ease. You tug at an emaciated arm, and the captive emerges from the coffin like a hapless sea creature wrenched from its shell – naked, pink, and quivering. He clutches you like a drowning man, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“Rest,” you say as gently as you can. “I have you, now.”

You pivot on your heel and head for the exit, but after six strides a steel chain leaps from the courtier’s sleeve and locks itself around your ankles with a clink. Very slowly, you turn on your heel to regard your captor.

“How dare you,” he snarls, red-faced and trembling in rage as your enchanted bindings tighten. “Interfering in the administration of Imperial justice, laying a hand on an envoy–”

Deep down inside, something snaps.

With some difficulty, you kneel and place the prisoner on the ground. Then you stand up, sheathe Isidore, and take a step toward the courtier.

Tempered steel shrieks in protest for an instant before giving way, shattered links spraying in every direction. The courtier crouches into a fighting stance; the armored torturer gets to his feet, pulling off his ruined helmet and preparing for combat.

“I am about to do much worse,” you say softly. Power leaks from the skin of your palms, heating the air till it shimmers – you pull your gloves off, tucking them into your pockets. No sense burning another pair.
Everyone starts shouting at the same time. The courtier spits imprecations at you, insulting your lineage and laying curses on your relatives, Lady Jin calls for her guards to stand down, and Adrian attempts to defuse the situation.

“We don’t have to do this! Stand down, both of you, and let’s talk this over–” He’s clearly concerned about the diplomatic implications, but you are beyond caring.

The yelling fades to a dull throb as you take another step forward. Your opponents make their move –the armored guard lunges at you in a gleaming blur, far faster than an ordinary human; a swarm of gleaming needles leaps from beneath the courtier’s robes. They’re aiming to kill, years of training backed up by humiliation and righteous outrage.

It doesn’t matter.

You step out of the armored torturer’s line of attack and grab his wrist, pivoting him to face the incoming barrage of darts. A split-second passes, but you don’t hear the ping of metal on metal – Adrian has one hand outstretched, struggling to keep the needles stationary. They quiver in mid-air like a school of fish, and you seize the opportunity with extreme prejudice.

You squeeze down on the torturer’s wrist until metal crumples and bone gives way, then hit him on the back of the neck. The unconscious body drops like a sack of bricks, and you cross the distance to the courtier before he can blink.

He chokes and gurgles as you fasten your fingers around his throat and lift him off the ground. Behind you, the needles fall to the ground in a tinkling rain, but you’re not done. Power surges through your hand, scorching hair and searing flesh, and his eyes bulge out in a silent scream.

As the smell of cooking meat fills the air, you lean in close. “The next time you reduce a person to a helpless, mewling wreck whose only hope is the mercy of another… remember this.”

Then you drop him.

He hits the ground, moaning in pain. After a moment, he looks up at you, and you see only hate in his eyes. “Mark my words, foreign dog,” he growls. “The Emperor will hear–”

“What in all the hells,” Lord Anselm says very quietly, “is going on here?”

~~

You look up. He’s standing three feet from you, still as a statue.

WHAT– when did he get here?

Nobody speaks, and Lord Anselm goes on: “I can see that some sort of…” he makes a show of looking around, “misunderstanding must have occurred. Was it the Penitent?”

The courtier nods, clutching his bleeding neck and glaring at you.

“Ah,” Lord Anselm says. “The Knights are excellent bodyguards, but they tend to follow instructions to the letter. My orders were to protect every living soul under Lady Jin’s roof – it appears they were interpreted somewhat… literally, and you became a threat the moment you harmed the criminal.” He bows his head in supplication, giving no outward indication of the outright lie he’s just told. “You have my sincere apologies.”

The courtier looks unconvinced. “If what you say is true, rescind the order and allow me to carry out my duty.”

Lord Anselm smiles. “All in good time. I will personally see to it that justice is administered, and will reprimand my subordinate for a lack of discretion. In the meantime, good sir, I suggest you seek medical attention. Honorable Lady, would you be so kind?”

Lady Jin snaps her fingers. Hidden panels in the walls slide open, and six armed guards hurry over to the courtier and his unconscious comrade. The courtier’s face darkens at the prospect of leaving without his prisoner, but he leaves without further fuss.

~~

Once the two injured men are out of sight, you bow your head. “I–”

“Follow me,” Lord Anselm’s voice cracks like a whip, and you close your mouth. “Both of you. Leave the Penitent.”

The two of you follow Lord Anselm back to Adrian’s room in the Guest Manor. Once inside, he makes a hand gesture and Adrian extends his Influence, checking for eavesdroppers.

An agonizing ten seconds of silence passes before Adrian shakes his head, and Lord Anselm sighs.

“I didn’t think it’d happen so soon, or I would’ve warned you in advance,” he says. “You reacted with much less subtlety than I’d hoped, but… I can work with this.”

You frown, and out of the corner of your eye Adrian looks equally confused. “My lord?”

“It was a play for power,” Lord Anselm says. “Doing nothing would have been a sign of weakness. Now, though, the court can claim offence at your flouting of imperial justice and try to squeeze more out of the negotiations. Either way, they stand to gain – and all it took was one poor soul.”

You shake your head. “Such an easy decision to make, given that none of them had to suffer.”

Lord Anselm shrugs. “One wretch for the prosperity of a nation. I may not agree with the imperial court, but I believe their decision was thoroughly weighed.”

“On a broken scale,” Adrian says. There’s an unexpected heat in his voice, and his fists are clenched.

Lord Anselm shrugs again. “Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, I do not intend to give them what they seek.” His voice is cold as stone, his gaze hard as flint. “This changes nothing. Make the necessary preparations for tonight.”

~~

Lord Anselm stalks out of the room, muttering something under his breath. Adrian waits until he’s gone, then sinks into a chair. After a moment, he mutters: “Do you think we did the right thing?”

“Yes”, you reply instantly. Then you think again. “Wait–”

Your colleague makes a hopeless noise. “I know. Torturing someone like that… just thinking about it makes me sick. But–”

You consider the situation for a moment. “Perhaps they’re right?”

Adrian nods. “Perhaps the Imperial Court does dispense true justice, and we are the misguided ones,” he says glumly.

You shrug. “The law is the law, and I broke it.”

“We broke it,” he replies. “Whether or not we were justified…”

“Probably not,” you say. “But I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Would you?”

“I…” He frowns, mulling it over. “I don’t know. I’ll have to give it some more thought.”

“Fair enough,” you say. “Let me know when you find an answer?”

“Of course,” Adrian replies, giving you a faint smile. “You know, I could really do with some wine…”

“Don’t even think about it,” you say, moving for the door. “I’m going to bring the Penitent back.”

Adrian nods. “Best to put him in my room,” he says. “I’ll stitch him up.”

~~

You head back to the training room, bandages and a set of Adrian’s spare clothing tucked under your arm. The Penitent is exactly where you left him – Lady Jin is nowhere to be seen, but maids are busying themselves with cleanup, hurrying around with washcloths and buckets of water. None of them dares approach the figure lying on the wood, motionless except for the shallow rising and falling of his chest.

I half-expected Lady Jin to have restrained him or turned him over to the authorities, you think. She probably wants to see what we’ll do.

The Penitent is still bleeding as you patch him up and dress him. He tries to help, but he’s so weak he can barely move, let alone dress himself. You cradle him in your arms and head upstairs, and he babbles something unintelligible.

“Your pain is over,” you say in Reshanese. “I will not let you suffer further.”

~~

After depositing the Penitent in Adrian’s room, you head back to your room and begin preparations for the evening’s banquet. A dress coat in Imvarri red goes over your usual ensemble, and you put Elizabeth and Isidore away. The rules were clear – you’re only allowed one weapon.
Walking over to your chest of belongings, you reach past clothing and travel essentials until you find what you’re looking for – your sword. Your crossbow and knife, useful and reliable beyond reproach, are named for your predecessors – those who bore your Shard before you.

But your sword has no name. The blade is an extension of the body, your masters used to say. The body is an extension of the mind. The mind is an extension of the soul.

You draw your blade silently. Nothing fancy – just four feet of gray steel from crossguard to tip, simple leather bindings around the grip. No decoration besides the mark of your Order on the pommel. No adornment besides your name, carved into the flat of the blade.

The weapon is perfectly balanced, and a flick of your wrist sends it dancing through the air. You long to give it a practice swing, but…

No. You clamp down on the urge. Not here. Not now.

You sheathe your sword and buckle it to your hip, feeling a faint hum of disappointment as you do so. Just then, you hear footsteps, and Lord Anselm walks into the room.

“Forty-Seven,” he says without preamble, “I need you to kill that poor soul. The sooner the better.”

You close your eyes. You knew this order would come, and yet–

“Look,” Lord Anselm says, something like sympathy in his voice. “He’s broken, and no sane doctor or biomancer will dare to fix him. There’s nothing left for him besides a half-life, filled with maidservants and gruel and nightmares…” He trails off.

You sigh. “He’s of no use to us, and helping him further will only antagonize the Reshanese?” The words leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

“I’m glad you understand,” Lord Anselm says. “There is nothing else we can do for him, now.”

You take in a deep breath.

~~

[WHAT WILL YOU DO?]

[Follow your orders. Kill the Penitent.]
[There might be something you can do… (Write-in)]

Out of the Ashes: Chapter 3

[HOW MANY LIVES HAVE YOU TAKEN?]

“Seven hundred and twenty two counting both draugr last night,” you reply. Adrian sucks in a sharp breath.

“Two of them?”

You nod. “Strong and tough, but they die the same as everything else. Blessed silver works well, too.”
Your colleague shakes his head incredulously. “I saw one tear a dozen soldiers apart in seconds.”

“That does sound like something a draugr would do,” you say. “Especially if the squad was inexperienced. Speaking of which, you’ve seen combat before – have you killed anyone?”

“I–” his mouth moves wordlessly. “It was a blur, and there were so many… I can’t remember. Five? Ten? Too many. We found out later that their mages outnumbered us three to one.” he shudders. “Nothing compared to seven hundred, but–”

You shake your head. “One is too many.” Each kill is crystal clear in your memory, preserved like a fly in amber. Some of your victims were defiant, some resigned. Most were fearful. It didn’t matter in the end.

Nothing does.

“…Does it ever get easier?” your colleague asks.

You consider his question for a moment. “My Order considers violence a necessary evil. I find it…” you pause, looking for the right word.

Adrian scratches his chin. “Difficult?”

“I find it regrettable,” you say at last.

~~

You soon find yourselves in the Jin Mansion’s shadow. Much like its smaller cousin, the building resembles a massive stone flower – but the similarities end there. Instead of white and green, the mansion’s exterior is a rich blue with miniscule script flowing up its walls in gilded vines – ancestral names, dates and accomplishments packed into swirling patterns of dazzling intensity.

Jin He, Tenth Day of the Sixth Month of the Year of the Wooden Monkey: Appointed Grand Prefect of Xishan…

Jin Bao, Third Day of the Eighth Month of the Year of the Wooden Rooster: Served with honor in the pacification of the Southern Rebellion…

The list goes on and on, the history and genealogy of an entire Great House transcribed on its seat of power.

“Did you see that?” Adrian whispers as you step over the threshold and hand your coat to a waiting servant. “The writing on the walls…”

You nod.

“If you would be so kind as to follow me, Honored Guests,” the servant says. “The Lady of the House awaits.” Her voice is high and sweet, like the trilling of a caged songbird.

~~

The interior of the mansion is as opulent as its exterior. You walk down corridor after corridor of priceless artwork – exquisite paintings and calligraphy, delicate vases and urns nestled in alcoves, intricate clockwork figurines and mechanisms that whirr and tick as they move…

You emerge into some sort of training hall, racks of practice weapons resting against bare walls. A staff-wielding woman spars with an imaginary foe in the middle of the room, striking and parrying with practiced grace.

Your guide knocks softly on the door, and Lady Jin turns to meet your gaze.

“Thank you, Mei,” she says in Reshanese, putting her weapon down. “You may take your leave now.” The servant bows and heads back into the corridor.

Both of you remain silent as the noble approaches you, bare feet gliding over lacquered wood. When she is ten steps away, you bow at the waist, and Adrian does the same a split-second later.

Lady Jin inclines her head ever-so-slightly as you straighten up. She looks somewhere between twenty and forty, but has ruled her House for over two hundred years. Do not underestimate her, you have been warned. You will not live to make such a mistake again.

“Welcome, ambassadors.” She speaks your tongue flawlessly, words crisp and precise with no hint of an accent. “I beg your forgiveness for the meager hospitality – you must be used to a higher degree of comfort.”

Her false modesty appears completely sincere. Is this an act, or does she truly believe her extravagant hospitality inadequate? Neither option sits particularly well with you.

“Not at all, Your Grace.” Adrian replies smoothly. “We – our lord included – were greatly impressed by the courtesies you have bestowed upon us. He is a strong advocate for closer relations between our two nations, and your hospitality lends much weight to his beliefs.”

“It gladdens me to hear such,” she says. “Of the matter we discussed yesterday…”

You nod. “It is done, Your Grace.”

“My thanks,” she replies. “The jiangshi – what do you call it? Draugr? – has killed my people for close to a month, despite my best efforts. For you to track and destroy it in a night… such a deed deserves recompense, wouldn’t you say?”

You shake your head. “I would not presume to trouble you any further, Your Grace–”

She waves her hand, cutting you off. “It is no trouble at all. What is it you desire?”

“If I may be so bold, Your Grace,” you say after a moment’s consideration, “I would ask a boon of you – its nature and magnitude to be decided at a later date, perhaps?”

Lady Jin laughs, high and clear. “So practical! Much as I hate being indebted to another, I am a woman of my word… very well. I will oblige.”

You bow again in thanks, and she goes on: “How fare your preparations for the banquet tonight?”

“They go well, Your Grace,” Adrian replies. “We are eager to visit the palace and see its wonders.”

“Ah! My humble abode is but a hovel in comparison to the splendor of the Imperial Court,” Lady Jin says. As you and your colleague begin to raise differing opinions, she cuts you off with another wave of her hand.

“Save your breath,” she says, a twinkle in her eye. “You may argue with me later tonight, if you please. I doubt you will, though – His Majesty the Son of Heaven has spared no expense in his hospitality…”

~~

Today, the Son of Heaven’s mourning ends. Twelve months and two days of abstention from official duties (a full year with one day more at the beginning and end, for the years of mourning are three in number), prayers and offerings of incense, burnings and buryings and sacrifices, watery gruel and rough linen garb…

Death brings enough misery to the living – it seems strange that anyone should prescribe more. But it is not your place to question another’s beliefs. And if anybody deserved mourning, you suppose it would be the previous ruler of Reshan.

Seventy years of age when she was taken by an assassin’s knife, the Empress’ death drowned an empire in the flames of civil war, pitting her two children against each other. Eventually, justice won out – in a three-day duel that boiled the seas and blackened the sky, the Son of Heaven cast his murderous sister down in a duel and crushed her armies… or so the story goes. History is a luxury of the victor, and fact is often less convenient than fiction.

Whatever the circumstances behind your presence in Reshan, your mission is clear. Assist Lord Anselm in his quest to strengthen diplomatic ties between the two empires, you were told. Do so by any means necessary.

~~

A soft knock on the door interrupts your train of thought, and the servant from before bows and glides across the room. She whispers something into Lady Jin’s ear, and the noble frowns.

“No,” she murmurs. “That is… I cannot in good faith demand such a thing of them. Tell him I will–”

The servant shakes her head urgently, muttering again. You make out the words “Imperial Seal”, and Lady Jin lets out a heavy breath. “Very well,” she says, looking a few decades older. “Show him in.”

The servant bows hurriedly and leaves in a swish of skirts, almost running in her haste. Lady Jin looks at the two of you, sadness in her eyes.

“I would like to apologize,” she says, “for what is about to transpire.”

“Should we be concerned for our safety, Your Grace?” You ask, keeping your voice even and curling the fingers of one hand into a loose fist. Power swirls within you like a storm, howling for release, and thought/image/feeling flashes through your mind–

Strike first – only a split second – kill archers in the walls – back along the corridor – guards – kill them too – kill the servants, dead men tell no tales – retrieve the Principal – burn your way to the docks – strike now now Now NOW–

Lady Jin reels backward, raising an arm instinctively in a defensive gesture, but you quash the murderous impulse with an effort of will. Not now, you tell yourself. Not until she makes her move.

“I mean you no harm,” Lady Jin replies, the fear in her eyes fading into wariness. “But I must put you in a difficult position – His Majesty has decreed it so, and it is not my place to question his judgement.”

“Difficult? How so?” Adrian asks.

“The punishment for treason is fate worse than death,” she says, “and His Majesty wishes for you to witness it first-hand. Here they come.” A corner of her mouth twitches in displeasure.

Boots clunk heavily across wooden flooring, and a courtier garbed in red with silver trim marches into the room. He is accompanied by a guard clad in gleaming steel from head to toe, and a stylized metal coffin floats serenely through the air behind the duo.

Mage.

“The Imperial Edict arrives!” The courtier cries in Reshanese. Lady Jin falls to her knees, pressing her forehead against the ground. You and Adrian bow but remain standing – Lord Anselm’s instructions were clear. The courtier may speak with the Emperor’s voice, but you will kneel only to the Emperor himself.

“His Majesty the Emperor, the Son of Heaven and Lord of Ten Thousand Years, has decreed that all who enter his palace must first witness the full price of wickedness,” the courtier proclaims. “The Vessel of Penitance behind me contains a heinous traitor, arrested for crimes against Heaven too numerous to count – high treason, sedition, murder, rape, arson, theft… No amount of punishment is enough for such filth.”

You can hear hate in his voice, bitter and strident. “This ends the Imperial Edict.”

The coffin opens to reveal a trembling man – pale, hairless and naked from head to toe. His arms, legs and torso are bound by leather straps, and his eyes are mad and unfocused as he struggles desperately against his bonds.

His mouth dangles open, a dark void stained with smears of deep red. Tongue and teeth have been removed, leaving only empty gums, and you hear the whistle of air escaping his throat as he tries to scream through mangled vocal cords.

“How long has he been in custody?” Lady Jin asks, rising to her feet. Her face is a shade paler than before, and a bead of sweat is forming slowly on her brow.

“Two hundred and six days,” the courtier spits. “Not long enough for the likes of it.”

“Two hundred and six days of flaying and brining,” Lady Jin whispers. “Of flesh slowly pared away by the torturer’s knife. Two hundred and six nights of biomancy, renewing the body for the horrors to begin again at dawn.”

Adrian looks like he’s going to be sick. He stares at his boots, grimacing as his chest heaves violently.

You shake your head. In your five years of service, you have seen angry and frightened men do horrific things to their enemies. But this deliberate cruelty, the sheer premeditation and artifice and effort invested in the suffering of another…

I would not wish this on my worst enemy, you decide. What manner of twisted mind birthed such a punishment?

“Thus always to traitors,” the courtier proclaims triumphantly, and the armored guard steps forward. Gleaming scalpel blades slide from the tips of its gauntlets with a snick, and the captive’s struggles intensify as he recognizes the sound of impending agony. His eyes dart wildly about the room, but everyone avoids his gaze.

Everyone except you.

He looks pleadingly into your eyes – a wretched creature that was once human, now broken beyond repair by the tender mercies of the Imperial Torturer. The first incision splits his skin from groin to chin, and the captive convulses in his bonds as bladed fingers begin peeling his skin away from his flesh.

For a moment, the whistling of his neutered screams is the only thing you hear. Then you become aware of the pounding of your heart – and an unfamiliar feeling stirring within your chest.

Something you thought you’d buried forever, in the training halls of your youth…

Emotion.

~~

[WHAT DO YOU FEEL?]

[Sadness. The mission takes precedence over all else. You cannot damage the goodwill between your two nations for the sake of one criminal.]
[Anger. No crime deserves such a punishment. You will not stand for this sick display of pain and suffering.]
[Determination. You have a duty not only to your nation, but to all humanity. Perhaps there is something you can do, some compromise that can be reached…? (Write-in)]

Out of the Ashes: Chapter 2

[You are aide and bodyguard to Lord Maximilian Anselm, a diplomat charged with improving the tenuous relationship between your two empires. Tread lightly, for every action you or your charge makes will be scrutinized by a dozen courtiers and spies…]

You hold the draugr’s gaze as sharpened silver punches through bone and into tissue with a wet thud. It gasps and shudders, limbs twitching and spasming as its – his? – body betrays him. Tapered claws rasp weakly against the stone floor as he reaches for the bolt sticking into his forehead, complete and utter surprise in his eyes.

You do not look away. You watch him silently as the light fades from his eyes, his presence flickering like a candle on the verge of burning out…

Then it is gone. Life dwells no longer in the man-shaped lump of meat that lies before you – no hopes, no fears, no dreams. Nothing. Every living being is different, but every corpse is the same.

You sigh and turn on your heel, looking away at last.

~~

It is nearly dawn as you head uphill, toward the heart of the Northern Capital. The local populace is beginning to go about its daily business, filling the cool air with the sound of a thousand greetings and conversations and arguments, the smell of food steaming and roasting and frying. You take in your surroundings as you walk down the road, everything in crystal focus at once.

Slowly, the rush of battle deserts you, and the world begins to… fade? You haven’t come up with a better word for it yet. Colors become less vibrant, discrete conversations re-weave themselves into a vague buzzing, and you become acutely aware of the thumping in your chest.

Civilians mill and mingle nervously, and you can feel the tension in the air like a thick cloud. Lawmen in red lacquer stand watch at street corners, ready to leap into the crowd at a moment’s notice, and people on the streets watch you with subdued wariness as you pass. Nothing overt – minute shifts in position so their faces are harder to see, subtle glances from downturned heads, subdued murmuring in your wake–

You can’t blame them. Anything out of the ordinary is worth a second glance – or a third, or a fourth – for today, of all days, is special.

~~

The organized chaos of jumbled shops and dwellings stops abruptly as you reach your next destination – the Jin Estate. The Jins are one of the most powerful of the Great Houses, and their estate is an enormous plot of land ensconced behind high walls. A broad walkway separates intricate stone from haphazard wood, and guards in blue and purple livery circumnavigate the outer perimeter in pairs.

Wrought iron gates swing open as you approach the main entrance, and four guards bow at the waist. One of them – the most senior, from the looks of it – says without looking up: “Honored Guest, Lord Anselm wishes us to inform you–” his voice falters for a moment, “–that he is waiting in the study.”

You nod in acknowledgement. “My thanks.”

The guards shiver almost imperceptibly, keeping their eyes on the perfectly-manicured lawn until you pass. When you’re out of human earshot, one of them murmurs “–it talks–” before his comrades shut him up.

You should be used to it by now – five years in service of the Republic ought to have acclimatized you. But the guard’s comment still stings a little. One of your many failings, or so you’ve been told.

You quash the unpleasant thought and proceed to the guest manor. The building resembles a giant flower of pure jade, delicate-looking petals of pale translucence reaching heavenward from a bed of vibrant green in an exquisite spiral.

It doesn’t look very defensible to you – the petals are one good trebuchet hit away from shattering and collapsing inward, and the front entrance is far wider than necessary. But you suppose it will have to do, for now.

The study is on the fourth floor. You make your way through a corridor and up a staircase of priceless sandalwood. The house servants give you a wide berth at all times, and there’s something about their body language that you can’t place…. You’re still puzzling over it as you push the ornate door open.

“Ah, there you are,” Lord Maximilian Anselm says from the balcony, and you lose your train of thought. He looks out over the city, watching the first rays of dawn paint the world in liquid warmth. “Is it done?”

“Yes, my lord,” you reply. Your superior is a tall man, pale-faced and golden-haired. Even reclining against the carven balustrade, his posture screams of authority – of an absolute confidence that the world is his.

“Excellent!” He says. “Rouse your colleague and report to Lady Jin once we’re done here.”

Most men would not be so at ease in such a situation, you think as he turns around. Then you see the loaded crossbow in his hand.

Not again–

Metal limbs snap open to send six inches of sharpened metal whizzing across the room, and you make a split second decision…

The bolt is smooth and slightly warm in your grip as you pluck it out of the air. Two of its fellows follow suit as you approach Lord Anselm, and you catch them without breaking step.

“Is this entirely necessary, my lord?” You ask, keeping your voice steady as you kneel down at his feet. It would have been easier to dodge the shots entirely, but you suspect property damage wouldn’t have gone over well with your hosts…

Lord Anselm’s aquiline features break into a smile. “Tell me, Forty-Seven. A good soldier tests his spear regularly to ensure it remains sharp, does he not?”

“He does, my lord.”

“I will need you to be sharp in the days to come,” he says, “for he who smiles the widest also hides the keenest knife.”

“That might be you, my lord,” you reply.

Lord Anselm lets out a soft chuckle. “You may be right.” he says. “Dismissed.”

~~

Leaving Lord Anselm to his contemplation, you head down the hall and knock softly on another door. It’s unlocked and there’s no response from inside, so you push it open and enter.

Reality shifts as you step over the threshold – piles of clothing wriggle and squirm in the corner of your eye, words crawl spider-like across parchment in complicated loops and swirls, and unnaturally cool air clings to your skin in a viscous film.

“Hello, Forty-Seven.” Adrian mutters from his desk. You raise a hand in gretting, and he leans in to squint at two glasses of wine sitting in front of him. “I’m a little busy – do you want to sit down somewhere? This will probably take a while.”

You shake your head. “Lady Jin is expecting us in the Central Mansion.” Your colleague groans. One of the glasses floats upward, coming to rest a few inches above the surface of the desk.

You frown. “Is there a problem? You seem agitated.”

“Lord Anselm wants me to present a bottle of wine to her,” he replies. “But he gave me two and one of them has poison in it.”

“Are you sure?” You ask.

“He says it’ll be good exercise,” Adrian mutters. The second glass twitches and wobbles on its axis as he buries his face in his hands, and you reach out to steady it before it can spill its contents across the desk. He gives you a grateful look and goes on: “I’ve been up all night trying to figure out which bottle it is, but…”

He makes a hopeless gesture and withdraws his Influence. Reality reasserts itself – everything falls still, the air returns to normal, and the floating glass of wine sinks slowly to its proper place on the desk.

“Finesse wasn’t exactly prioritized during my training,” he says. “It was more ‘turn the training field into quicksand, Recruit’ or ‘burn this stretch of forest down, Recruit’ than ‘I need you to fiddle around with a glass of wine and tell me if it’s been poisoned’.”

You reach out and take a sip from the left cup. The wine is sweet sunshine on your tongue, light and exuberant. But a thread of menace lies beneath the flowers and honey, metallic and almost bitter…

“Arsenic,” you say, putting the glass down. “I wonder how Lord Anselm got it past the guards?”

“Firstly,” Adrian says, “you’re insane.” He rushes over to his travelling case, rummaging around for something.

“It was a very small dose,” you reply. “You would have detected anything stronger.”

“Secondly…” he trails off, too focused on his search to continue. “Ah, here it is.” He hands you a tiny vial of clear liquid, but you wave it away.

“I’ll be fine,” you say. “Don’t worry.”

Adrian frowns at you. “Are you sure?”

You nod.

He shrugs. “Your funeral.” He retrieves a bottle of wine from under his desk. “Let’s go–”

You take a sip from the other glass, swirling the wine around your mouth. Rich and velvety, it leaves you with a lingering taste of elderberry… and the faintest hint of almonds. “Heart of peach.”

“Son of a–” Adrian puts the bottle of wine back on the desk with a clunk. “He poisoned both?”

You nod, and your colleague swears again. “Looks like Lady Jin won’t be getting anything today,” he says. “Do you think this is another one of Lord Anselm’s lessons? Trust no-one, or something like that?”

You shrug. “Possibly. Shall we head out?”

“I can’t believe it,” he mutters, following you out of the room. “I could’ve poisoned her.”

“Lady Jin strikes me as a very difficult woman to kill,” you say.

Adrian nods. “I suppose you would know–” His mouth clicks shut. “I… meant no offence. I merely assumed–”

“None taken,” you say, keenly aware of your Order’s reputation. “You were right to assume so.”

~~

The two of you descend to the ground floor without another word. Then, as you exit the guest manor and head across the lawn, Adrian breaks the silence. “How many years have you been…” he pauses, trying to think of the right word.

“Active?” You suggest.

“Oh,” he says. “I suppose that’s, um, one way to look at it. So…”

“Five years,” you say. “I fought at Huntsman’s Pass, the Siege of Krakov, and Red Fields. You?”

“I was at Red Fields too,” he replies. “Fresh out of training. God, what a bloody mess that was.”

You nod. “Huntsman’s Pass was three weeks; Krakov was a full spring and summer of fighting. But Red Fields killed more men in one afternoon than all the other battles put together.”

Adrian’s next question hangs unspoken in the air – you know what it will be.

~~

HOW MANY LIVES HAVE YOU TAKEN?

1. [Too many. Hundreds of sons and daughters and fathers and mothers lie dead by your hand, families and friends and lovers sundered by your blade.]

2. [Seven hundred and twenty two. You remember every single one. Some were defiant, some were resigned, some were fearful. All of them died the same way.]

3. [Not nearly enough. There are too many of them and too few of your kind. Your duty is a heavy burden to bear, but the alternative is far worse…]

4. [It doesn’t matter. Killing begets more killing, fortunate survivors taking up the sword to avenge their fallen. It will not end until one side lies in utter ruin…]

Out of the Ashes: Chapter 1

The half-moon hangs low and huge in the night sky, limning rain-slick streets in silver. It will be dawn soon – few are awake at this hour, and none are out and about.

This is good.

Moving silently down the street, you take a deep breath. The air is fresh and clear, freed for a moment of its normal scents – the harsh tang of manure; the mingling aromas of a dozen different cooking foods; the intermingling sweet-sour sweat of a hundred different people, hope and fear and pleasure and pain struggling for dominance –

Ah. There it is.

You shiver, detecting a faint note of Something Different in the air. It was once aloof and proud, powerful beyond imagining – the height of carefree decadence. Now it is furtive, secluded. Hiding itself as best it can, resenting the world that brought it so low.

Times change, you muse, and even the mightiest may fall. A pawn in the right place at the right time can take a knight, a rook…

Even a king or a queen.

Chess has never been to your liking. Too straightforward or confined, perhaps? Too violent? You’re not sure.

But the analogy is sound, so you shrug and break into a lope. A bitter wind rips at the unbuttoned front of your coat, causing the fabric to dance and flutter, but you ignore it.

You like your coat open.

The trail picks up over the next few minutes, and eventually you trace it to a narrow-looking alley. As good a place as any, you think, glad you don’t have to run any more.

The presence intensifies tenfold once you step off the street, a cloying stench of curdled hate and sour malice mixed with the faintest tones of apprehension.

It knows what you’re here for. It just doesn’t know why. Even in its diminished state, it’s still more than a match for an armed man – maybe even an entire squad.

The wolf expects the rabbit to run. But you’ve tracked it to its lair, and if you’re not mistaken it’s having second thoughts…

“Why are you here?” A hoarse, rasping whisper. Something rustles against brick, like dry leaves stirred up by the faintest of breezes.

You don’t answer. Its apprehension fades, subsumed by disdain. Complacency.

It knows what you’re here for. It just doesn’t know why, and you feel the exact moment when it
DOESN’T CARE ANYMORE–

A nearly inaudible skitter of claw on brick, and something leaps from three floors up. But you’re already moving, stepping out of its trajectory and reaching into your coat for Elizabeth. She whispers twice, sending silvery death winging through the dark.

Bolts ping off brick as your quarry twists and rolls in midair. It’s a wily one. You duck under an impossibly long limb and fire again and again, keeping your quarry at bay and counting each bolt as it leaps from your weapon. It snarls and takes cover behind a pile of firewood, shrieking curses as you approach.

It pokes its head over the top and you catch a glimpse of skin stretched too tightly over bone, once-handsome features twisted into an ugly snarl. You level Elizabeth and fire on instinct, but it ducks too quickly.

No matter. You reach to your waist for a flash-bomb. Not as potent as the sun, but the light…

Another presence, much like the first but different in a hundred subtle ways–

You turn just a moment too late and the second draugr slams into your side like a charging horse, knocking Elizabeth out of your hand. Claws like steak knives shred the fabric of your coat as you hit the ground hard, but the mail lining holds.

A moment’s frantic struggle before you curl up and plant your legs against its midsection and push, sending it sailing through the air, then the first monstrosity’s bearing down on you as you leap to your feet–

You barely sidestep its lunge – a spearlike arm whooshes through the air an inch from your neck. You snap a kick into the side of a knobbly knee as the draugr goes past, knocking it off balance with a bony crunch you feel rather than hear. Isidore clears his sheath silently, and you sink his gleaming form into your opponent’s neck as it takes in a breath to cry out.

Only a choked gurgle emerges, and you wheel the dying draugr around to meet the charge of its comrade. Slitted eyes widen in surprise as, for a fraction of a second, the remaining draugr sees something it wasn’t expecting…

That’s more than enough time for you to whip Isidore from your first kill and throw. He flickers across the ten or so feet in a dull streak, burying himself deep in the second monstrosity’s chest. Both bodies hit the ground at the same time, one of them still shrieking in pain as blessed silver scorches desiccated flesh. You step over the corpse, scooping Elizabeth from the floor as you approach the live draugr with unhurried footsteps.

“I’m sorry,” you say, taking aim between its eyes. “You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
It looks up. No more hate in its presence now, no more malice. No disdain, no complacency. No surprise. Just fear and resignation and an age-old sadness, deep and wide as the ocean.

“Who are you?” it whispers.

“Nobody in particular,” you murmur, and pull the trigger.

~~

WHO ARE YOU?

1. [You are aide and bodyguard to Lord Maximilian Anselm, a diplomat charged with improving the tenuous relationship between your two empires. Few areas or pieces of information are beyond your reach – you may move through the jade halls and gilded gardens of the Forbidden Palace with impunity – but navigating the Great Houses’ tangled webs of motive and deceit will require nerves of steel and a mind of quicksilver. Tread lightly, for every action you or your charge makes will be scrutinized by a dozen courtiers and spies…]

2. [You are an Inquisitor on the hunt for a heinous criminal. He – or she, or it – has assassinated dukes in broad daylight while remaining unseen by a hundred witnesses, slaughtered entire garrisons of trained men, and evaded your organization’s best hunters for years. But now clues have surfaced that point to its location, and you and your deputy have followed them across the sea…]

3. [You are a freelance monster hunter. Since you left the Huntsmen a few years back and stepped on a boat headed across the ocean, you’ve used skills from your time in the field to exorcise restless spirits and clear the occasional ghoul nest. Plying your skills in the local area, you built up a decent reputation for reliability and discretion. In the past few months, business has picked up as law enforcement tried to get all the riff-raff off the street, but you’ve been hearing scattered rumors of something larger…]

4. [You are a fugitive, on the run for a crime you may or may not have committed. Through sheer luck and the occasional stroke of brilliance, you’ve managed to get out of Imvarr and make it across the sea. Reshanese is not your main tongue, but you picked up violence and treachery with ease, carving out a place for yourself in the underworld. The magistrates started cracking down on crime a month before the Son of Heaven’s mourning was scheduled to end, but tonight something is different…]