by Don Bisdorf
When Scratch interrupted my prayers that morning, I should have known it was a bad omen. I was kneeling in the courtyard of the castle we’d taken from the Lavarnans, pronouncing my devotions, when I heard the lieutenant’s voice at my shoulder.
“Ask your goddess for a plate of bacon while you’re at it.”
I paused to whisper a prayer for patience. Then I opened my eyes.
Scratch stood there, grinning, her belt full of knives, her raven-feathered wings tucked behind her back. “Thorsh confiscated the Duchess’s best supplies. All that’s left for us is what she was feeding her troops.”
Her soldiers had all been products of spiritualist magic—clacks, or half-souled—and they’d fought us to the death. Their deaths, mostly. We’d lost Rooster, though, when a walking skeleton stabbed him from behind with a spear. That had taken the shine out of our victory.
“What do the half-souled eat?” I asked Scratch.
“Moldy bread, looks like. I was thinking about heading across the river. I’ll bet someone in town will be happy to cook breakfast for a hero of the Eastern Cities Army.”
“For free, I’m guessing.”
“I should hope so. And if they’re not feeling grateful to the people who drove off the wicked Lavarnan spiritualist, you can threaten to step on their houses.”
She was exaggerating. I’m big, but not that big. Not quite. “You want me to help you steal food from civilians.”
“What else do you have to do today? The Lavarnans are gone, and Kuld doesn’t need our help to melt that bell.” She aimed a thumb over her shoulder, toward the bell tower, and toward the reason Command had sent us to take the castle.
I stood up. I was far from home, and the sight of a ten-foot tall woman getting to her feet was usually enough to put an end to most arguments out here. But Scratch was used to seeing me, and besides, she’d been born without a sense of fear. It wasn’t a Verellan thing. I’d heard the rest of her people were gentle and peace-loving. It was hard to believe after you’d seen what Scratch did with her knives.
“If we can find breakfast,” I told her, “I’ll pay.”
“Suits me. You’ll be the one eating ten meals’ worth.”
That’s when we saw Kuld leaving the bell tower. His thick fists were clenched, and he was grumbling around the clay pipe in his teeth. He was so angry he was steaming. I mean that literally. The air shimmered around him, and he left a trail of steam vapor. As a fire elementalist, his fury was a physical force.
He was headed for the castle gate. I called across the courtyard. “What happened?”
“They aren’t going to melt the damned bell!”
Scratch and I looked at each other. “They’re not going to melt it?” she said. “That’s what they sent us here for. That’s what—”
She put her lips together, but I could finish the sentence myself. The chance to destroy the Lavarnan bell was what Rooster had died for.
Kuld went out the gate. He was either headed to the river to cool off, or to the trees to start a forest fire.
Without another word, Scratch and I started toward the tower. She kicked a bone out of her path, probably part of one of the clacks we’d cut down when we’d taken the place.
The old lord of Fel’s Brook had been friendly to the Eastern Cities, but he’d died fighting the Lavarnans, and the castle had fallen into their hands. Intelligence found out that Duchess Noma Retorn, a Lavarnan spiritualist, had arrived at the castle with a large bell. The bell was supposed to contain some sort of potent magic, and Command didn’t want to risk a large force against it. They’d sent our squad ahead to take the castle and prevent the Duchess from ringing her bell.
The castle had been guarded by a mob of walking skeletons and a handful of half-souled soldiers. I didn’t mind the clacks. Sure, they never got tired and never felt pain, but it was satisfying to smash them under my iron gauntlets.
Fighting the half-souled bothered me because most of them had been civilians or soldiers the Lavarnans had captured. The spiritualists had torn apart their minds, leaving just enough intelligence to carry weapons and obey orders. A half-souled soldier would fight me to his last drop of blood, and when I’d get back to the Eastern Cities, I’d meet someone’s eyes in the street and wonder if I’d killed her husband or son.
After Kuld incinerated the Duchess, the castle was ours. We’d removed the bell’s clapper and moved it into the keep on the far side of the castle. Both the bell and clapper were engraved with spiritualist symbols, and Kuld could see that they had to work together to activate the bell’s magic. He could have melted the bell, but Captain Melioreth wanted to wait for a second opinion, in case the Lavarnans had rigged the bell to do something unpleasant if we tampered with it.
There had been a garrison of standard Lavarnan soldiers across the river in Fel’s Brook, but we’d held the castle against them for a night and a day, until First Company arrived and drove them off. Our reinforcements had brought Lieutenant Colonel Thorsh with them. Supposedly, he was one of the best elementalists the Eastern Cities had. He’d gone up to the top of the tower and studied the bell all night. We thought he was working out how to destroy the bell safely.
We’d been wrong.
During the fight, I’d kicked down the wide double doors to the bell tower. Someone had taken away the wreckage, but the doorway remained open, and Scratch and I could hear Thorsh talking to our captain.
“It’s beyond anything we thought the Lavarnans could accomplish,” Thorsh was saying. “One stroke of this bell could snuff out the souls of everyone who hears it, from miles away. With this, a single animated skeleton with enough strength to ring the bell could destroy any of our armies. Or our cities. Of course it’s horrible. That’s the whole point.”
The ground floor of the tower was tidier than the last time I’d seen it. Someone had carried off the bodies of Duchess Retorn’s half-souled defenders, and had swept up the ashes that had been the Duchess herself. Four people stood in the empty space: two Eastern Cities soldiers, Captain Melioreth, and Lieutenant Colonel Thorsh.
Thorsh had earned his rank through his mastery of elemental magic and through his political connections, not through military experience. He was in his mid-thirties, tall and pale, and his narrow face and long dark hair marked him as a nobleman of Falconwind. He might have been distantly related to the captain, but she wouldn’t be happy to hear anyone suggest it.
Our C.O. was about the same age, with the same dark hair and narrow features, but there was no other resemblance. Thorsh’s uniform was clean and well-tailored, while Melioreth’s had seen months of hard use. While Thorsh posed in the center of the room, gesturing like a stage actor, Melioreth stood silent and alert. From her position, she could watch both the front door and the entrance to the stairway, and though her grip on her bow seemed casual, I knew she could put an arrow in the air the moment a threat appeared.
I ducked through the door, following Scratch. Any other door in the castle might have been more of a problem for me, but this one had been made wide enough for the tower’s original bell, and it had admitted the Lavarnan weapon just as easily. When I looked up through the vertical tunnel of the tower, I could see the black metal of the new bell, five stories off the ground. It was big enough that three men could have stood up inside it. It would have been a tight fit for me.
Thorsh lost track of his monologue when he saw me blocking the sunlight. He nearly fell back a step, but he remembered his nobility and held fast.
The captain spoke while Thorsh was still closing his mouth. “Lieutenant Colonel Thorsh, this is Lieutenant Hesst and Sergeant Urn.” She gestured to Scratch, then me.
We saluted, and Thorsh sketched a salute of his own. “What is it?” he asked us.
“Lieutenant Kuld looked a little out of sorts,” Scratch said. “We thought we’d check in with the captain to see if everything was okay.”
Thorsh glanced at the captain, probably expecting her to dismiss us.
She didn’t. “Lieutenant Colonel Thorsh believes this bell might be a valuable weapon in the Eastern Cities arsenal,” she said.
I was suddenly cold to my bones. I was so stunned that it took me a long moment to realize that I should be ready to grab Scratch in case she went for Thorsh’s throat.
Fortunately, her first reaction was to laugh. “That?” She pointed up at the bell. “That’s not a weapon, sir. That’s a nightmare that came out of the head of some Lavarnan madwoman.”
Thorsh shook his head. “You shouldn’t take our own propaganda so seriously. The spiritualists aren’t a pack of cackling, hand-wringing villains, doing evil just for evil’s sake.”
Scratch glanced up at me. “The Duchess did cackle a little.”
“I would have called it a chuckle,” I told her.
“What I mean,” Thorsh said, “is that they didn’t build this bell with the intent of actually using it. Certainly they might use it once, as a demonstration, but after that, they’d never have to ring it again. They would end the war with one pull of a rope.”
“You don’t know that they would have stopped so soon,” Captain Melioreth said. “They don’t treat human lives the same way we do. They wouldn’t think of it as genocide. They’d just be rearranging the spiritual energy of this side of the continent.”
He waved a hand, dismissing her words. “I’m not going to argue the point, since it’s irrelevant. _We_ have the bell now. We can use it to win the war. All of the killing, all of the destruction, could come to an end. Tomorrow.”
“When we start using their weapons, we become just like them. That’s what we’re fighting against.”
“No. We’re fighting for our survival,” he said. “And this isn’t a debate. I’m just following orders. This decision was made at the highest level.” He spread his hands and smiled. “Celebrate your victory, Captain. You may never have to fire that bow in anger again.”
I’d seen the captain bend the rules. I’d heard her cursing the names of our generals, and I’d watched her shaking her head at written instructions from Command. But I’d never seen her disobey a direct order.
In an instant, she had an arrow nocked and was aiming straight up. The arrow’s shaft was painted red, which meant it was one of the explosive signal arrows that Kuld had enchanted for her. She let it fly.
Scratch whirled. Her wings smote the air, and she was out of the tower.
The arrow went wide of the bell and struck the crossbar that held it up. There was a bang and a yellow flash.
The captain grabbed the soldier nearest her and dragged him into the shelter of the stairwell.
Thorsh stared up the tower, his hands hovering in the air. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to raise his magic, or if he just wasn’t sure what was happening.
The crossbar snapped. The bell fell, turning over slowly, trailing fragments of its mounting. It was a black metal fist rushing down at us, and not even a giant woman from Golo could stop it.
I took a step, grabbed Thorsh, and threw him on my shoulder. The other soldier started to draw on me, but I slapped his sword away, took him by the front of his uniform, and pulled him out the front door.
I sidestepped before the bell hit. The ground shook, and stone flew out into the courtyard.
Soldiers stopped what they were doing and stared at the cloud of dust. Thorsh struggled on my shoulder. “Put me down! I order you to—”
I let go of the soldier, and I put Thorsh back on his feet. This time he did back away from me. “Your captain just—” He put his hands to his forehead and stared into the tower.
At the castle’s front gate, I saw Kuld. He had come back just in time to see the bell fall. He stood there, dumbfounded, holding his pipe.
Scratch was high in the ramparts, looking down at us. I knew that look. She was picking her targets.
We heard stones shifting in the tower, and then the captain appeared, followed by the soldier she’d pulled to safety. He blinked at the sunlight, and saw Thorsh. “Sir, the bell is…it broke in half…”
Thorsh sputtered. He pointed at the captain and shouted loud enough for all of First Company to hear him. “Arrest Captain Melioreth!”
The soldier next to the captain immediately took her arm, and she didn’t move to stop him. Her eyes never left Thorsh. “You need me in the field,” she said, “not in a cell somewhere.”
Thorsh had his composure back now, and he tugged the wrinkles out of his uniform. “Once again, Captain, that decision is not yours to make.”
As they led the captain away, she met my eyes, and shook her head once. She knew what I was willing to do, and we both knew that the rest of the squad would back my play. But the captain didn’t want the rest of us in shackles.
Kuld stood glowering at the castle gate. Scratch lurked in the ramparts, staring back at me.
I had a feeling the captain wasn’t going to be the only one of us disobeying orders. +
Captain Arza Melioreth
Despite Arza’s noble birth, she tries to avoid Eastern City politics as much as possible so she can do her job: defending her homeland from the Lavarnans.
High Concept: Special Missions Squad Leader
Trouble: Not Popular with the Brass
Other Aspects: Daughter of Falconwind Nobility • Archer’s Patience • Some Prices Are Too High
Great (+4) Shoot
Good (+3) Notice, Will
Fair (+2) Athletics, Fight, Stealth
Average (+1) Contacts, Lore, Physique, Ride
Falconwind Longbow. A standard longbow can attack at a range of three zones, but a Falconwind bow has a range of five zones.
Countermagic Arrows. You can use Shoot instead of Magic to remove a magical effect.
Infiltration. +2 to Notice to discover aspects related to terrain and buildings, such as Good Spot for an Ambush or Secret Entrance.
Instead of the Drive skill, this setting has Ride, which characters use to control horses and other transport animals.
Kuld learned fire magic outside the elitist academic structure of the Eastern Cities elementalists, and they regard him with almost as much contempt as he has for them.
High Concept: Hot-Headed Fire Elementalist
Trouble: Any Idiot Can See I’m Right
Other Aspects: I’d Rather Be Honest Than Polite • Working Class Roots • Spiritualism Is Obscene
Great (+4) Magic
Good (+3) Lore, Will
Fair (+2) Fight, Notice, Stealth
Average (+1) Athletics, Investigate, Provoke, Shoot
Fire Magic. see description
Demolitionist. +2 to Magic when using fire to destroy inanimate objects.
Too Stubborn to Stop. Use Will instead of Physique to judge resistance to fatigue, poison, or other debilitating physical conditions.
Scratch (Lieutenant Hesst)
Most Verellans enjoy soaring between the peaks of their mountainous homeland, meditating on the beauty of life and nature. Scratch likes to kill people.
High Concept: Verellan Assassin
Trouble: Too Fond of Violence
Other Aspects: One with the Shadows • Rules Are for Other People • Hiding from Past Sins
Great (+4) Stealth
Good (+3) Athletics, Notice
Fair (+2) Burglary, Fight, Investigate
Average (+1) Contacts, Deceive, Physique, Will
Wings of Verell. As a Verellan, you have wings, and you can use your Athletics skill to fly.
Free Bird. +2 to Burglary to free yourself from bonds, manacles, and other restraints.
Knife in the Dark. Use Stealth instead of Fight to attack someone who doesn’t know you’re there.
Though many of the Eastern Cities have abandoned religion, the residents of Golo still revere their goddess, and Urn has joined the Afterlife War as a form of worship for her deity.
High Concept: One-Woman Siege Engine
Trouble: My Faith Is Not Superstition
Other Aspects: Give Me a Worthy Challenge • Your Golo Jokes Aren’t Funny • I Like Wide Open Spaces
Great (+4) Physique
Good (+3) Athletics, Fight
Fair (+2) Notice, Provoke, Will
Average (+1) Empathy, Lore, Shoot, Stealth
Golo Stature. The people of Golo are giants, twice the size of other Easterners. Your Scale level (Fate System Toolkit, page 67) is one step higher than normal characters, which reduces physical harm from incoming attacks by two points.
Wall Crawler. +2 to Athletics to climb over obstacles.
Break Through. You can use Fight to attack everyone in your zone without splitting your shifts.
Mental: □□□Physical: □□□□
The Magic Skill
Each magician specializes in the study of one of five elemental forces. If you want to raise this skill to Average (+1) or higher, you must purchase one, and only one, magic specialty stunt, and you must have an aspect that reflects your magic specialty.
The magicians of the Eastern Cities call themselves elementalists, and study either fire, earth, water, or air magic. Lavarnan magicians are all spiritualists, and study spirit magic exclusively.
Overcome: You can use this skill to detect the presence of a magical influence. The level of opposition is equal to the number of zones you are away from the influence. You can also detect the presence of the element you specialize in, with the same level of opposition. You can use this skill to overcome an obstacle where control over your chosen element would help you.
Create an Advantage: You can use the element you specialize in to create advantages. For example, an air elementalist could scatter her enemies with a Gale Force Wind.
Attack: You can attack using your chosen element.
Defend: You may use this skill to defend against magic attacks made by magicians of any specialty.
Magic Specialty Stunts
Fire Magic. You can use your Magic skill to create and control fire and heat. You can put out a fire, but you cannot remove heat to make something colder than it would normally be.
Earth Magic. You can use Magic to shape earth and rock, and create tunnels or local seismic disturbances. You can also sense the presence of tunnels, metals, or precious stones.
Water Magic. You can use Magic to create and manipulate water. You can also create clouds and rain. You can shape and melt ice, but you cannot create ice or snow unless your environment is cold enough to freeze water.
Air Magic. You can use Magic to direct the force of the wind. You can temporarily eliminate someone’s need to breathe, or conversely, you can knock the breath out of someone.
Spirit Magic. You can use Magic to manipulate someone’s thoughts or emotions, and you can communicate with the dead. You inflict mental harm when you use your Magic to attack.