War Dogs

  • I’m having that dream again. It is the same dream I have had every night. My limbs are bound tight against my body, and the rope chafes against my skin. The bruises they left ache as I squirm to alleviate the burning rope, to no avail. My mouth tastes like iron, and my cheek hurts from biting it upon the impact of a fist knocking me down prior. It’s dark and cramped, and the things inside of my makeshift prison jab and poke at me. I can see out through the crack of the door, light, but it feels so distant.
    Even as I place my eye up against it, it feels so distant. And the voices, so distant. Everything distant. And I can hear my heart in my ears and a voice in my head telling me that I will never get out. And the quieter it gets outside, the louder it gets inside my chest. And the light seems to fade away… and away… and away… drifting into the distance like a bird on the wind.
    “And then what?” The aged man asked, pouring tea.
    “And then I wake up.” The young prince replied, slumped in his chair.
    Prince Kasimir sat facing a beautiful garden, in an uncomfortable but well carved chair. The smell of sweat tea churned his stomach, but he did not refuse his host. The elderly man beside him, clad in fine blue robes, once had a great mane of black hair. But age had whitened it, and thinned it significantly atop his head. As he slid the tea cup forward, Kasimir rubbed his tired eyes, as if it would remove the exhaustion, but of course it did nothing but blur his vision for a brief period.
    “You look like death, you know.”
    “I know.”
    “I think you need a vacation.”
    “A vacation?” Kasimir scoffed at the notion. “The city crumbles if I so much as turn my back to refill my glass with water. I loathe the idea of taking a vacation, extended or brief.”
    “Maybe that’s the problem, Prince Kasimir.”
    “You think the city will collapse without you. Seems you put a lot of pressure on yourself.”
    “If I don’t…”
    Kasimir trailed off, staring at the bright blue sky with irritation as it battered his aching pupils.
    Who will?

    The throne room was lavish for Peltarch, though humble for what Peltarch had become in the eyes of its people. The people came and trod their feet on the red and gold carpets that led up to the throne, itself a well carved piece of stone cushioned by red and gold, the softest of things, to comfort a king. And the king sat, in his armor of gold and black, shaking hands of those who had come to petition. Or complain, as Kasimir often attributed it.
    His brother sat on the throne, no loose fitting luxurious silks or finely woven robes. He wore the armor now, and kept his back straight, as if armor and a straightened spine would make him a different man. His helmet sat on a table nearby, winged and glorious, with the shape of a crown melded to the metal. And in a sheathe nearby, the sword, that spoke of great battles, and long ago places. These things weren’t Thalaman, but they treated it like it was, and Kasimir felt alone. Crazy. As if he was the only one who remembered who Thalaman was.
    Kasimir sat at his desk, which had been flooded with papers and books. The candles lit him when the sun could not, but the desk always felt somewhat shrouded. Perhaps it was the looming book cases, or some other furniture that came and went. On occasion a petitioner would bow to Kasimir, noticing his gaze as they walked down the carpet towards his brother. On occasion they’d look at him, and quickly glance away, as if avoiding the gorgons roaming the wilds.
    They did not look at him as they did his brother. They never had, and they never would. It suited him just fine, socializing was not a weakness of the young prince but his methods and what came natural were hardly that of golden haired kings and crusaders. He spoke from the back of the eyes, and not the chest, he spoke words like strands of webs that he connected from point A to point B. His mind always focused on where he wanted it to go. To him, conversation was not relaxation, conversation was the method of progress. The battle on getting what he wanted.
    As his eyes watered and his gaze faltered, Kasimir slouched in his chair. The aged wood creaked under his movements. He had not slept properly in some time, each night plagued with dreams that would send him upright. And even when his sleep was not abruptly broken long before the sun crested over the horizon, he would awake feeling as if he had not slept at all. It was as if a curse had been placed on him, and he could not understand.
    Why now? It had happened what felt like a lifetime ago. A year, maybe more, maybe less. It had not entered his mind, now it was all he could think about, from the feeling of rope against his skin to the pressing of something against his ribs from within his makeshift prison. How it made him feel as if he could not inhale, always forcing the air back out.
    And as he thought of it, once again being bound and helpless, unsure of whether even his trained agents could save him, he felt his stomach churn. And he felt the ringing in his ears, which drowned out the familiar voices of those in the throne room. And it felt like for a moment he was slipping away, and he could not come back. He reached to the shore, but the waves pulled him further. And there was nothing. Just himself, and the endless blue, and all that he had failed to do.
    The blue so quickly faded with a jump from a voice and a recoil from a touch on the shoulder. Thaddeus stood over him, clutching a thick book in one hand, and holding Kasimir’s shoulder with the other. A wrinkled face twisted in concern and understanding. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kasimir opened it quicker. He killed the hatched thought before it could grow.
    “Have you got the records, then?”
    Kasimir’s tired eyes fell to the book. But Thaddeus was the most annoying of people, one who cared.
    “You look exhausted. You need some rest.”
    “I need the records, Thaddeus.” Kasimir replied, reaching out and taking them from the concerned Herald. “I need to do my duties.”
    “At least drink some tea, prince. I can have it up here in a moment.”
    Kasimir trailed off. Anger born of frustration quickly gave way to defeat grown from reluctant acceptance. He gave a small nod and opened the book as Thaddeus walked away. Numbers and names, names and numbers, a record of people from businesses that he needed to speak with. People. So many people to speak with. Things to do. People to meet. Businesses to course correct. All for Peltarch. Peltarch was born through deals, on the back of idealism, someone had told him that once.
    “Another fine day in Peltarch, eh?”
    The desk creaked as Thalaman sat on it. That Kasimir had not heard his metallic approach was testament to how out of it he was. Thalaman looked down to him, biting from a red apple, offering it to Kasimir who swatted at his hand lightly.
    “You’re on my papers.”
    Thalaman shifted off, but kept a looming posture, staring down at the papers with disinterest. Kasimir tried to look back to the book, but the lingering of his brother disrupted his already strained concentration.
    “Is there something you want?”
    Kasimir looked up to a face that many would say was his. But not quite his. Softer, with brighter eyes, and golden hair that seemed to flow like water. A beautiful look for a beautiful king. And Kasimir, with hair liked a cursed raven, framing a pale face with a natural scowl. The contrast was irritating. Thalaman smiled at him, as if he had asked a dumb question, and it was immediate that Kasimir knew he wouldn’t get an answer.
    “Why don’t we go skip rocks or something?”
    “Skip rocks?”
    “Like we used to. Skip the rocks on the docks or something. Or I don’t know. Let’s go walk somewhere.”
    “Why do… what?”
    Thalaman laughed again, picking up a piece of paper and tossing it as quickly as he did back to the table once he confirmed that it was full of information that wasn’t remotely interesting.
    “I was just thinking, you know.” Thalaman bit into his apple again, as if to punctuate his sentence.
    “That’s rare for you.” Kasimir jabbed with light venom during his chewing. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
    “Mean!” He spoke with a mouth full of fruit, spitting just a little bit onto Kasimir’s desk, furthering his annoyance.
    “Dare I even ask what you were thinking of… dear brother?”
    “Well I was thinking… mm… I was thinking that so much has changed lately. The city has changed, we’ve changed, it feels like a new era of sorts.”
    “We’ve changed?” Kasimir lent back, tenting his fingers. “I suppose you think you’re a paladin now?”
    “I’m certainly pretty enough to be one.”
    “Not so much wise enough, though.”
    “You have a vile tongue, Kas, a very hurtful and vile tongue.” Thalaman put his forearm over his eyes in a dramatic gesture. “This is why you’re never invited to my parties.”
    As he felt his vision briefly blur, Kas grumbled. The young prince stood up, adjusting his tunic, as he began to walk away.
    “You don’t look well.” Thalaman gave a concerned look as Kasimir turned to face him. “If you need anything…”
    “I don’t.”
    Kasimir grunted as he left the throne room, seeking solace in the cold dim light of his personal quarters. Thalaman watched him leave, feeling himself reflexively grind his teeth. Once again, Thalaman felt powerless. Once again, Peltarch moved without him.

    The sound of arguing woke Kasimir. The afternoon sun had long since set, and only lit candles on his desk and the torches in the hall that came under the cracks in the door gave off any light. It took him a few seconds to recover, swallowing and feeling pain in his throat. He reached out for a metal cup beside him and sipped the cool water within, letting out a groan. The arguing continued, it was quiet, whispered, but loud enough to be audible. Heated.
    “I am your king.” Thalaman’s voice was unusually tense.
    “I understand.” The modulated voice of a Far Scout.
    “So why was I not told?”
    “The prince-“
    “But I am your king.”
    “… and he is the prince.”
    “My liege, please. This is all in the past now.” A third voice, the voice of the Herald Thaddeus.
    “Whatever happened… we must ensure we do not repeat it. But there is no point arguing it now. Now we must tend to the Prince.”
    “… Yeah. You’re right.”
    Kasimir tried to stand up, but a shooting pain in his leg called him to yell. He heard footsteps, as the door opened. He looked over to the light now bursting forward from the doorway. Thalaman looked into the room, and though his face was somewhat shrouded in shadow from the light behind him, Kasimir could see his utter concern. Kasimir tossed the blankets away, seeing his leg covered in a sort of cast.
    As Thalaman entered the room, the far scout and herald followed after. Jackal, Kasimir noted, seemed as hard to read as ever. While Thaddeus seemed… almost disappointed. It was not something he was used to seeing from Thaddeus, at least, when that disappointment was clearly aimed at him.
    “You were kidnapped by N’Jast Assassins.” Thalaman spoke the moment he saw Kasimir open his mouth, causing the prince to fall silent immediately. “How could you not tell me?”
    Kasimir couldn’t answer right away. He felt dizzy again. His gaze fell to his leg, then back to Thalaman, as he tried to once again clamber out of bed. But as he grunted, shifting his legs over the edge, Thalaman came over and shoved him back.
    “You aren’t getting out of bed.”
    “I have papers-“
    “No. You have nothing. Not until your leg heals… naturally. I’ve had you confined to your room.”
    “What are you talking about?” Kasimir growled. “This isn’t the time for your shit-“
    “My shit? No. This is exactly the time for this.”
    Kasimir recoiled. Thalaman rarely stood up to him, and when he did it was often over the most petty issues, and there was always a feeling that Thalaman knew it was petty. But this… this was raw rage. Thaddeus cleared his throat. Thalaman turned back.
    “You have your orders, far scout. Perform them immediately. And Thaddeus… please attend to my brothers work for now.”
    “It shall be done.” Thaddeus left.
    The far scout merely nodded and left last, leaving the two brothers alone.
    “No Thaddeus… he’s too slow. I need to get this done before-“
    “Why do you constantly undermine me Kas?”
    Once again Kas recoiled.
    “… I don’t undermine you.”
    “You didn’t tell me. You made sure everyone who knew kept their mouths shut. Why?”
    “That’s different. I knew you’d-“
    “You knew I would do something other than you would do. That’s the thing, Kas. That’s what I’m talking about. You always think you can do things better. Every decision I have ever made, you sit there and alter it until it’s what you would have done instead.” Thalaman shoved him back as Kasimir tried to stand up again. “But this… this is a new kind of absurdity.”
    “I was trying to protect Peltarch.”
    “My kingdom.”
    “… Is that what this is about? You think I’m usurping your authority?”
    “It’s my burden, Kasimir. My kingdom, my burden. My people, and my peoples problems.”
    “I’m not trying to be king.”
    “No, you’re just trying to keep me away from it all because you think your way is best.”
    Kasimir went to argue, but found himself coughing. He reached out for the cup again, and Thalaman brought to his hand with a brief look of concern. Thalaman looked down at Kasimir, a face full of pity and annoyance. After gulping another mouthful, Kasimir sighed, placing the cup back again.
    “N’Jast’s moves are designed to make us paranoid. Designed to provoke us… I think. I didn’t want you running off to war.”
    “Gods Kas do you think so little of me?”
    “High Hold, Thalaman. High Hold.”
    There was a pause, as Kasimir let it linger.
    “You… you wanted the fame that came with a war. Riding off the back of your victories. High Hold is one thing. We know High Hold. But N’Jast? We haven’t heard of them in years, and now they’re back. If you had have rid off to war against them in some vain idea that it’d make you a legend-“
    “I’ve made mistakes, Kas. I’ve acted impulsively. I’ve hurt people. I know that. But have I really been so bad you kept this… this conspiracy a secret from me?”
    “I had to be sure.” Kasimir ground his teeth. “I had to be sure the city hall was clear. The clerks were clear. I couldn’t… I couldn’t risk it. I’m sorry Thal, but I did the right thing.”
    “Did you? Because from what the far scout has told me we’re no closer to uncovering the N’Jast situation than when this all started. You’ve lost your mind, fell down the stairs, and have kept a conspiracy from me. It doesn’t sound like you did the right thing. It sounds like it’s all falling apart.”
    “I told you… I’m not trying to be king. You’re the king, but-“
    “I’m not just the king, you fool!” Thalaman shoved Kasimir back a third time as he once again tried to stand up. “I’m your brother.”
    “You are my family, Kasimir. Of course I would have drawn a sword and screamed for war. Of course I would have. And they’d have dragged me back kicking and screaming from raising my banners. Because they hurt my brother. I’m not going to lie about that.”
    Thalaman fell beside Kasimir, sitting on his bed. Silence fell between them.
    “You’re my brother…”
    “We’ve lost so much, Kas. And for the past decade I’ve been hearing about it. Hearing about the king. Hearing about how great our dad was. Hearing about how it wouldn’t have happened under his watch. Yeah well you know what the truth is, Kas? Dad never had to deal with any of this shit… so maybe sometimes I get a little angry when I hear that. Yeah maybe I… maybe I act out a little. Maybe if they don’t want me there, I won’t be there.”
    Silence. Kasimir just sat beside his brother, looking down at the floor from his bed.
    “… Even still I’ve always thought one day they’d see me as a good king. That it’d all click. But it never has… it hasn’t clicked. I still don’t know what to do anymore. But… but I had you, Kas. I had my shady brother at my back. And I had a feeling that when shit was about to be flung at my face, you’d be the first to raise a hand in defense.”
    “… I would.”
    “And I’d do the same for you… I promised myself I’d always protect my loved one. My family. My friends.” Thal reached out and put a hand on his brothers shoulder, squeezing it. “Kasimir I don’t want to lose you… and I almost did. Please… please trust me. Please don’t hide this war from me. We’ve all made mistakes… we’ve all made poor choices. But please.”
    The two brothers stared into each others eyes. After a period of silence, Kas adjusted himself, lifting his legs. Thalaman stood up to aid him. A small smile appeared on Thal’s face, as it seemed Kasimir was accepting the situation. Kasimir put his head back against the pillows, closing his eyes with a quiet sigh. After a pause, he spoke.
    “… I’m scared.”
    “… I’m scared this is something we can’t win.”
    There was a rustling noise as Thalaman lowered himself beside Kas’s bed, pressing his back up against it, sitting on the floor. He held up a hand, and Kas grabbed it, just like their childhood. The occasional forgotten memory of a brotherly bond.
    “No matter what, Kas… we face it together.” Thalaman gripped tighter. “Nobody messes with the Fishers.”
    Thalaman’s eyes fell to the still open door, where the far scout once stood. His orders echoed in his ears.
    Find out their plans.
    Find out their situation.
    Find out if war is looming.
    N’jast… Thalaman though… what is it like?

    The sound of a roaring crowd filled his ears as he slid around the corner. Chewing on the pastry in his mouth, the young man was struggling to put his coat on properly. His long hair was a mess partially contained by the black tie that kept it in a ponytail, and one of his shoes had its laces come undone. None the less he sprinted across the streets as fast as he could, dodging citizens as he ducked dived and kept the pace.
    As the sound of cheering grew louder, resistance grew harder, and he found himself pushing through the crowd with a constant stream of apologizes that only emerged after he swallowed the remains of the pastry painfully. Finally, he broke through the crowd, and hopped over a small barrier set up.
    “I made it!”
    A large hand came across his cheek, the perfect arc made the perfect noise, as the young man almost toppled over.
    “You didn’t make shit, Lamb.”
    A group of four chuckled at Lamb’s misfortune. The man who had struck him was a half orc, whose grayish skin bulged under the fancy white dress shirt he wore. Like Lamb, he wore a belt with various instruments of investigation. The half orc in question was Watchkeeper Jorren. Much like Jorren, Lamb was also a Watchkeeper. The other three men were clad in red and black armor, the faceless and intimidating gear worn by the N’Jast Troopers, backbone of the N’Jast Army.
    “What’s a matter Lambie? Sleep in?”
    “No.” Lamb grunted as he lent down to tie his shoes. “… yes.”
    Jorren grabbed him by the collar and pushed him forward further past the barrier. The Troopers had cordoned off several key points across the parade route to ensure they could maintain control. More Troopers came in to sight as Lamb made his way to his designated spot.
    “You know Lamb, if you didn’t spend all night reading those books of yours maybe you’d get a decent sleep. And then I wouldn’t have to beat your ass in front of the men every time you showed up an hour late.”
    “I like to learn, what can I say?”
    “I know the books you read, Que’qo.” Jorren shoved Lamb again as they approached a small metal platform. “You ain’t learning from them.”
    Jorren produced a large blue crystal from his belt, and looked down to a metal console on the railing of the platform. He pressed the crystal into it, and the console itself lit up with magical essence. He placed his hands on the console, as four metal V’s flanking the platform suddenly came to life. They began to lift the platform up, like the legs of a spider.
    Up this high, Lamb could see the vast stretch of the main road and the parade route. So many citizens had come to celebrate the anniversary of the War of Unification. Jorren began to pilot the moving platform, also known as a Spider Tower, carefully through the crowd. He came to a stop at a street corner that stretched off the main road elsewhere, then took a flask from his belt and opened it with a grunt.
    “Right. Keep an eye out for any miscreants.”
    “Found one.” Lamb said, poking Jorren’s cheek.
    “I will break that finger, Que’qo.”
    Lamb lent his back against the railings, looking down to the crowd. He took the time to properly groom himself, fixing his long black hair, and adjusting his coat properly. It jingled a bit, both from the keys he kept in one pocket, and the crystal he kept in the other.
    “Think we’ll see the Hierophant from here?”
    “Not clearly.” Jorren elbowed Lamb. “And that’s also not what you’re being paid to look for anyway.”
    “Ow. Come on, who doesn’t want to see the Hierophant? They say if he locks eyes with you that you’ll have a year of good luck.”
    “And if something happens on our watch, Metzger is going to ensure you don’t have a year left alive.”
    Lamb shuddered at the image of Metzger, one of N’Jasts greatest commanders for sure, but also one of its most notorious figures. A hulking slab of meat clad in huge, heavy armor, wielding axes the size of a regular man.
    “Where is Metzger anyway? Is he slumming it like the rest of us?”
    “You shitting me? Metzger? He and the others are probably up there with the Hierophant.”
    Jorren motioned with his chin towards the shining palace atop a hill. The Palace of N’Jast, known as the Court of Stars, was always visible. From the main street, from the bottom of the Rookery, no matter where you were. You’d at least see the tiniest part of that shining structure. The stronghold of N’Jast. The place where its glorious throne was kept. The home of the Emperor, or, as they called him, the Hierophant.
    “What do you think it’s like in there?”
    “It’s spacious. I never went too far in, but I saw the lobby once.” Jorren mused, letting a moment of gossip escape his lips.
    “They really have a fake sky?”
    “Night sky, yeah. Its why they call it the court of stars.”
    The crowd erupted into fierce cheers, breaking Lamb’s train of thought. He craned his head down to the street to see the passing parade. The N’Jast Army marched proudly through the streets, clad in their finest red and black armor. With them were a battalion of War Mages from the Order of Jassa. War machines broke up the various groups marching today, each one holding a flag of N’Jast as well as whatever flag related to the group. The flag of N’Jast was the only one Lamb knew, and he was always proud when he saw the red flag with the black gauntlet, with the crested red eye in its palm.
    The crowd grew even louder as a man on horseback passed at the front of another group of soldiers. He was a handsome man, with short brown hair, and a well kept mustache. On top of the armor he wore, he had a white and gold side cape, and rested a long barreled firearm on his lap.
    “Shit. Belmont’s in the parade? I didn’t know he was back.”
    “Guess things went well for him with the Tugians.”
    General Belmont, another of N’Jast’s so called “lords of war” who led the sizable military in the name of the Hierophant. A lover of artificers and technology, a real “thinker” general, or so Lamb heard. Lamb watched him go, eyes drawn to him, wondering what the life of a general was like. It was not that Lamb was a common grunt. Watchkeepers were a step above regular Troopers, trained in containing domestic affairs and dealing with “interior incidents” (in other words, they were just guard inspectors) Lamb was fine with the position, though he did miss the thrill of going to battle against the enemies of N’Jast. At least, going to battle with them on a traditional battlefield. Mostly because it meant more time to himself, and a slightly bigger paycheck.
    Jorren elbowed him again when it was clear he had lost focus, and Lamb cleared his throat.

    The crowd erupted into cheers once more, as a static metallic noise echoed across the city. Lamb’s eyes drifted to the Court of Stars, though he could not see anything. Surely he was there. Disappointed, his eyes drifted to the glowing speaker a little below his spider tower. It vibrates as it simulated the Hierophant’s voice, as many of these speakers did, across N’Jast.
    “People of N’Jast…”
    He trailed off, and the crowd fell silent, Lamb took the flask from Jorren and gave it a swig, feeling the burn that only cheap whiskey could give you. He handed it back, and once again leaned on the platform, curious.
    “You know me to be a fair ruler. A kind ruler… but even I have my flaws. No man, no woman, no person is perfect. So allow me a moment of weakness…”
    His voice was like honey, even through the speakers, it made you feel warm inside. Whether it was natural or not, who could say, nobody would dare ask. Jorren and Lamb exchanged a look of curiosity.
    “Fairness would demand that I await General Belmont, who would have the honors of telling you about our recent victory over the Tugians who had rallied to the east to invade our lands. But I am a greedy man, and I can’t help but spoil the surprise. Once more, our soldiers have brought their homeland pride!”
    The crowd erupted into cheers, Jorren couldn’t help but shake his head lightly and smirk.
    “They’re eating it up.”
    “With the scattering of this recent threat, our men will progress further to the east, pushing into hostile territory and bringing it to heel. Progress continues unimpeded. This would not be possible without all of you. Each and every one of you are a vital cog in our machine. This parade is for all of us. Celebrate now, for the glory of N’Jast. For the glory of its people.”
    “For the Hierophant!” They chanted and cheered.
    “For the Hierophant.” Lamb mused, a big smile at the sight of gold confetti being tossed into the sky.
    “For the Hierophant.” Jorren trailed off.
    “Man I’m glad I’m not on duty tonight.”
    “Wouldn’t say that just yet.” Jorren mused, patting Lamb harsh on the head. “Watch Master wants to see you. Says he has a list for you.”
    “…. Oh come on!”

  • “This here is a giant. He’s bigger than you. Stronger than you. Not quite as ugly as you, but you get the point.”
    A grizzled gnome limped across the training field of Black Road Keep, headquarters of the N’Jasti Army. The gnome motioned to the chained fire giant, who snarled and fought against his enchanted chains, but could do nothing to escape.
    “Today you will learn how to fell something bigger and stronger than you. By acting as a unit. A team.”
    Lamb made his way through the main gate, yawning into his hand. He jolted as he heard the gnomes voice call out.
    “If you fail, you may end up like Watchkeeper Lamb here. A useless layabout. Isn’t that right, Lamb?”
    “What? I mean… uh… Watch Master!” Lamb put his fist on his chest and stood up straight.
    “Watch Master. Now he finds his dutiful spirit. It’s too late, Lamb, a little birdie told me about your tardiness… again.”
    “Aha… ha.”
    Limping over to him, the grizzled Watch Master, who oversaw the defenses of the city and doubled as an instructor, scratched his balding and graying head. He motioned over to a group of tables, specifically to one with a smattering of letters and parchments, in between a huge selection of weapons.
    “Your mission, if you choose to accept it… and you will choose to accept it, Lamb.”
    Opening one of them up, Lamb sighed.
    “This is courier work, Chief.”
    “And today you are the Hierophant’s finest courier.” Giving Lamb a firm pat on the back of the leg, the gnome smirked. “Unless you want to be a training dummy.”
    “Fine fine… I mean… yes sir.”
    Lamb sighed and walked towards the stables, stopping when the Watch Master whistled.
    “Where do you think you’re going, Watchkeeper?”
    “To the stables, sir?”
    “A horse, I’d imagine… uh sir.”
    “Oh no, Lamb. With your tardiness lately I’m wondering if its a stamina thing. Too slow. Too doughy. You’ll be taking the route on foot.”
    “But sir-“
    “Lamb do you like N’Jast?”
    “Of course I do, sir.”
    “Do you like the smell of the battlefield? The iron of blood, that of your enemies, and the sound of metal on metal?”
    “Do you like fighting for a greater cause, Lamb?”
    “Of course.”
    “Do you believe that were all in this together, Lamb?”
    “Of course, sir.”
    “That every part matters, from the smallest cog, to the biggest, in this great war machine?”
    “Yes, sir!” Lamb pumped his fists a little.
    “Then you know that everyone has their part to play. And even this is serious work. It’s important. So you’ll take it seriously, right?”
    “Of course Watch Master!”
    SLAM. The gates slammed behind Lamb as he left, feeling hype. However as he took a moment to stand still and squint, he couldn’t help but wondered if he’d just been played somehow.

    The first stop on his list was the Order of Jassa, the only academy of magic in N’Jast. Due to the strict control on magic within N’Jast’s territory, the Order of Jassa was the only place one could legally practice the craft… without running afoul of the law and facing some serious punishment, of course. The tower of Jassa was quite tall, surrounded by a thick gate, which Lamb knocked on. A little viewing port opened.
    “State your name.” A blue cloaked figure smirked.
    “It’s me.”
    “I don’t know an It’s me.”
    “… It’s me, Mal.”
    “I don’t know that either.”
    “Que’qo… it’s Watchkeeper Lamb.”
    “First name?”
    “… It’s Temple Lamb.” Lamb sighed. “Are you happy, Mal?”
    “I am.”
    The blue figure opened the port more, sitting on a magically hovering seat. The symbol of the order, Jassa’s Dagger, draped around his neck. Mal scratched his stubble.
    “What is it? Someone die? Or another for the order?”
    “No. Just the Watch Masters instructions for placements.” Lamb passed one of the parchments through.
    “They got you doing courier work? Get fucked, Lamb.”
    “I mean how unfortunate, Watchkeeper.”
    “I don’t suppose I could borrow one of your floating chairs to make this easier?”
    “Let me ask.”
    Mal shut the viewing port and did an exaggerated two sided conversation by himself, full of wacky voices and all, before he opened it about 35 seconds later.
    “Sorry pal, shit out of luck.”
    “… Right. Well… guess I’ll be seeing you, Mal.”
    With a bitter wave, Lamb turned away to hoof it back across the city. The shining tower of mages looming over him, with the occasional sound of magical activity echoing quietly.

    Next was the the Shadow Hold, or the Office of Inquisitors. Inquisitors were, in Lamb’s view, Watchkeepers on magic juice. They were often clerics or highly devout folk, mixed in with mages, who often aided in the capture of criminals. However their primary purpose was to deal with heretics and rogue mages, especially those who dealt in demon summoning. The Inquisitors served a vital purpose, even still, they were looked upon with fear.
    But hey, they always made a spectacle out of public executions, and few tears were shed over traitors, so Lamb never quite held much negativity towards them. The Shadow Hold was a simplistic two story building with a courtyard. The two glowing eyes on the gates looked down to Lamb as he passed, examining him closely. He waved to them. As he entered, he saw figures in black cloaks moving about, covering their light armor and numerous weapons. On occasion one would stop and nod, and Lamb would nod back, but they were rarely talkative.
    As Lamb reached the doors to the main building, a figure appeared from the doors. He pushed down his hood, looking at Lamb with hostility. He was a buff man, tanned skin, about 6’5 with short blonde hair, and had two swords of odd make on both sides of his belt. One made of red glass, one made of blue glass. He approached Lamb, almost as if about to strike him, and then picked him up and spun him around with a hug so violent it caused Lamb’s bones to creak.
    “Little Lambie!”
    “What’s up, pup?”
    The hulking man dropped Lamb, who almost fell over, feeling dizzy. The hulking figure was High Inquisitor Kay, but of course, Lamb preferred to call him by his first name, Hector.
    “I think you snapped my spine, Hec.”
    “Good. Broken bones make for a strong man.” He replied, softly punching Lamb in the back and making a pop noise with his mouth. “What brings the Watch Masters finest to my doors?”
    “Ugh… this.”
    Lamb wheezed as he handed over the parchment. Flipping it open, Hector nodded.
    “Tag and bag. Tag and bag. Burning. Simple stuff. Consider it done and dusted.”
    Hector looked from the note to Lamb and smirked, shadow boxing him.
    “So when are you coming around to our side, Lambie? When are you going to trade the coat for a cloak?”
    “Come on Hector, we both know I’d set myself on fire the first burning I attended.”
    “Burned skin makes for a strong man.”
    “That doesn’t sound right.”
    Snorting, Hector pretended to give him an uppercut, and Lamb flung himself back as if hit. The two shared a laugh.
    “Seriously, we’ll go shoot darts this week. You and me, it’s been too long little pup.”
    “Sounds good. I have to go to the House of Sparks so I’ll get going.”
    “Oh yeah? Going to see the Chemists?”
    “Thankfully no.”
    “Hah! Be seeing you, pup.”
    Rubbing his sore back, Lamb went to his final destination.

    The House of Sparks was a factory located within the heart of what was more or less N’Jast’s industrial district. It was not so much one factory as it was a bunch of buildings that eventually coalesced into one single organism. While on the outside it still kept a lot of its original look, on the inside walls had been torn down and paths made to make it more easy to walk about. It was not a place that Lamb liked to visit often, not because the technology they tinkered with wasn’t cool, but because it always made his lungs burn.
    Lamb pushed his way through the main factory floor. It was a huge open space, where war machines and imperial armaments were worked on by gaggles of gnomes and humans who called themselves the artificers. A walkway loomed overhead, where access to the taller constructs was granted. The smell of fumes wafted from a nearby hallway, causing Lamb to tear up a bit.
    Down the hall would lead to the labs of the Chemists, who were a branch of the House of Sparks who dealt in… chemicals and mixtures. Alchemy. They were an odd bunch, and were in charge of a lot of odd projects Lamb didn’t understand, but knew to stay away from, as it was too dangerous to idle around. Well, so was all this stuff… wouldn’t stop him from bothering the artificers.
    At a table at the back of the factory floor loomed a figure, hunched over and working with delicate tools. Lamb approached, coughing again as he approached. It smelt of burning metal and all sorts of stuff Lamb would rather not be smelling.
    “I am busy, Lamb.”
    “It’ll only take a second.”
    Zahn turned to face Lamb, the goggles he was wearing made his eyes appear super huge, causing Lamb to recoil in shock. Lifting them, Zahn frowned. He was never a pleasant fellow to speak with, always grumpy, always sneering. And quite frankly the stories about him made it clear that a bad attitude was the least of his crimes. Zahn didn’t see people, they say, he saw parts. That was the Master of the House of Sparks, for you. None the less, Lamb was rarely phased, and found Zahn to be more of a curiosity than a demon.
    “What is it?”
    “A list of repairs needed on the Watch Golems.”
    “And you are bringing this to me and not an assistant because…?”
    “Because.” Lamb smirked. “I love talking with you?”
    Zahn went to turn away, and Lamb grabbed his shoulder to bring him back.
    “Because two of them are old empire models and the Watch Master was very insistent that only you touch them.”
    “… hmn. Reasonable.”
    “I am glad you think so.”
    Zahn snatched the folded parchment that Lamb raised out of his hand. He unfolded it, squinting his gray eyes and scratching his short brown hair.
    “Fine. It will be done. Now if you’ll excuse me-“
    “Did you see the parade?”
    “I have work to do-“
    “Belmont is back too.”
    “Que’qo…” Zahn looked back, goggles lowered and tools now in his hands. “Don’t you have something better to do than bother me?”
    “Not until tomorrow.”
    Zahn growled, then turned back to his table. After a second of being able to work, Lamb spoke again.
    “You’ve met Belmont right?”
    “Ugh… yes, Lamb, I have met him. He funds the Guild. Of course I have met him.”
    “What is he like?”
    “He is less annoying than you.” Zahn sighed. “He understands the value of hard work. Uninterrupted hard work.”
    “And he likes machines, right?”
    “I would assume so or he would not have funded us.”
    Zahn continued to work. Lamb loomed over him, hands behind his back, letting out little hoohs and haahs. Zahn was working on what appeared to be a complex series of… tubes and switches and sparky things that Lamb could not fathom. Zahn ground his teeth a bit, and looked back, big goggly eyes narrowing.
    “I guess I’m just curious.”
    “Que’qo… what is going to take to be rid of you, Lamb?”
    “I want to borrow a rifle.”
    “Take it and begone.”
    Lamb lent over to the rifle shelf and snatched up a thick and heavy long barreled weapon. He walked off waving.
    “Always a pleasure Zahn.”
    “I will invest in locks, Watchkeeper.”

    That night the celebrations continued. Taverns rang out with the sounds of music. The streets were full of revelry. Luckily for Lamb, his duty was only until the afternoon, and as such he could indulge in the revelry instead of have to police it. He sat in the largest tavern in N’Jast, the Garden of Gold, drinking with the other Troopers.
    “I swear to fuck their leader was huge. Eight feet tall. His horse just as big.”
    “No way.”
    “And Belmont KABOOM nails this guy right in the head hahaha!”
    The Troopers who had returned from their recent victory were in high spirits. That their victory had lined up with the celebration of the War of Unification seemed like a good sign. Lamb was too young to truly remember the War of Unification, but he had listened to the history classes all the same. After their crushing defeat at the hands of the Profane Ones, N’jast rose up under the guidance of a healer and teacher, crushing those who sought to control the city, and driving outside forces away.
    In four days, N’Jast was unified from a broken mess of politics and greedy factions, into one fit fighting force. And in two weeks it had begun to take back holdings it used to own. All under the careful guidance of the Hierophant, the Emperor of N’Jast, though he never used the latter title himself. And since then they had only grown larger and larger, engulfing clans, tribes and holdings all across the eastern way.
    “Que’qo’s don’t know what’s going to hit them come next harvest.”
    “Kemba Pa.”
    Lamb looked down to the firearm he had secured from Zahn. It was a thick rifle, heavy and unwieldy, used by the N’Jast Riflemen, Belmont’s personal unit. Lamb stood up, stretching.
    “Going already, Lambie?”
    “He must be tired.”
    “Drink too much?”
    “First Jorren and now Lamb. Watchkeepers gotta learn to pace themselves.”
    “Ah well it’s just hearing all these cool war stories. How am I to compete? I need to leave in shame.”
    Lamb gave a dramatic flourish with a forearm over his eyes, causing the lively troopers to chuckle. He left the tavern with his weapon, feeling a buzz from his drinks.

    Lamb made his way to the Edge, the last streets before one reached the Rookery. The Rookery was a place Lamb did not like, it reminded him too much of the past. The slums of N’Jast, where all that which did not belong (but was not outright destroyed) was pushed. He had grown up there, and was one of the few to escape it. He climbed a ladder up top of a downtrodden building, and sat staring up at one of N’Jast’s mighty statues. The stars shined brightly down upon the city, almost as if blessing the glorious nation.
    Lamb spun around to the makeshift shooting gallery he had designed. Bottles were already set up on crates. A few jugs and ceramic vases. He took out a pouch of little round bullets. Firearms were pretty hard to get even in N’Jast, and using them for fun was out of the question. Still, the Watchkeeper had some pull it seemed. He loaded it up, and aimed it at the largest vase, pulling the trigger. With a loud boom… he missed entirely.
    Lamb loaded up another shot as he pondered the war. He had fought in battles, all Troopers had, even Watchkeepers and Inquisitors. Everyone served the war effort in some way. Lamb wondered if he would ever take to the fields again. Battling some fierce barbarian foes, or maybe the Tugians and their horde. Maybe he’d fight the Thayans… or Peltarch. The Profane Ones. Lamb lined up the shot, and fired, blowing apart the vase.
    Lamb was loyal. He always would be. Few in N’Jast weren’t. Why wouldn’t they be? N’Jast was everything. The Hierophant was everything. As Lamb loaded up another shot, he heard arguing. Crawling over to the other side of the roof, he looked down.
    “That sounded like a shot.”
    “We’re near the Rookery. Calm down. It’s usually a crook with a stolen smokepowder pistol. The riflemen don’t fire idly.”
    Jorren’s voice caused Lamb to raise an eyebrow. His fellow Watchkeeper stood down in the alley with a person he didn’t recognize in a thick black cloak.
    “Here, take it and go.”
    “And you didn’t get it from me.”
    “I know.”
    The cloaked figure left, and Jorren sighed, tipping his head back. He saw Lamb, blinking. Lamb blinked back, rifle still in his hands.
    “Uh. What’re you doing, Lamb?”
    “… Target practice. You?”
    “… Personal issues.”
    “…” Jorren sighed. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
    Pointing to Lamb’s gun, Lamb smiled sheepishly.
    “Uh. Deal.”
    Lamb moved away from the roof as Jorren left. It was a suspicious sight, but he trusted Jorren. After all, N’Jast gave them everything. Why would he ever seek to betray it?

    The cloaked figure sat by his campfire. He had hiked for a few hours, and it would only be a few more before the sun came up. He sighed, clutching the envelopes he had been given tightly. Rustling in the bushes caused him to draw his weapon, a hand crossbow. Ready to fire the moment anything emerged, he felt his finger twitch on the trigger. As a figure emerged, he held his fire, though it took all of his power not to pull it immediately.
    “You… you should have announced yourself.”
    “No. I shouldn’t have.”
    The far scout known as Jackal sat across from him. He took out a heavy pouch of gold and tossed it to the cloaked figure, who in turn tossed the envelopes.
    “It’s all here.”
    “And it’s real?”
    “From a malcontent.”
    “And he can be trusted?”
    “I guess… look the more people we bring in to this, the more dangerous it gets. Are you sure this is wise?”
    “No.” Jackal answered bluntly, going through the envelopes. “But orders are orders.”
    “I want more gold next time.”
    Jackal’s eyes moved to him. He didn’t answer, but just the look caused the figure to swallow. Jackal packed up the letters, preparing to leave. He turned back towards the bushes surrounding the camp.
    “They still talk about you and what you did, you know? If they caught me with you, it wouldn’t be a pretty execution.”
    “So… yeah I want more gold.”
    Jackal turned back, still emotionless, still blank, but he didn’t need venom in his words to get it across.
    “You were always very talkative, Que’qo. I suggest… you not be.”
    Jackal kept his gaze on the figure, before leaving. The figure exhaled.
    “Damn it… scary bastard.”

    In the Court of Stars, a meeting was underway. The throne room was beyond majestic. A huge marble room decorated with banners and red carpet, with long rectangle fountains built into the floor acting as a sort of artificial barrier or inside moat that led you towards the huge throne.
    “I know there are traitors in N’Jast, Chaya.” The largest of the figures sneered, an absolute behemoth of a man, the half giant Metzger. “I don’t need you to tell me that.”
    “And you haven’t dealt with them?” Chaya asked, another of the lords of war, a lithe pale skinned elf who was busy polishing her shiny rapier. “I thought brutality was your specialty.”
    “I would have strewn their guts about the streets as a parade opener. But mustache here told me not to.”
    Chaya’s eyes fell to Belmont, who stood before the throne staring at the Hierophant. He broke his gaze to meet Chaya’s, and gave a soft nod.
    “I received a report while I was battling for N’Jast about one of my fake caches being accessed. I figured we’d keep the threads in the wind and see where they go.”
    “Accessed by who?” Chaya raised a brow.
    “Who fucking cares?” Metzger snarled.
    “I understand you don’t, bloodhound, but it is rather important.”
    “Peltarch.” Belmont mused.
    “Peltarch?” Chaya raised her brow once more. “Unusual.”
    “It is… isn’t it, Metzger?”
    “Grrrrn. I don’t know what you’re implying, Que’qo. But I don’t like it.”
    Metzger loomed at full size over Belmont, who did not so much as flinch. Chaya, with swift and efficient movements, holstered her rapier on her belt and sighed.
    “Are you done playing mysterious? And you, are you done playing rabid dog?”
    “Metzger tried to make some moves… they didn’t work out for him.”
    “Did the Hierophant approve?”
    “It’s none of your business, Chaya.”
    “So no.”
    The Hierophant lent his head on is fist, watching his generals squabble in silence. Shrouded in shadows.
    “Who business is it of yours, brat?”
    A figure appeared from the shadows of the throne room, as pale as the moon, and with a noticeable set of fangs. He moved behind Belmont, who raised a hand, accepting the rolled up parchment without looking.
    “Greetings, Majordomo.” Chaya acknowledged the pale man, who ran a long pointed finger hand through his pure white hair.
    “Greetings, General Chaya. I hope that the southlands were gentle to you.”
    “It was a dull campaign.”
    The Majordomo, Valbrek, silently took his place beside the throne. He did not move so much as he glided, his long black and white robes masking his movements so much that it made him feel ghostly and ethereal. As Metzger and Chaya once again began to bicker, the Hierophant raised his hand. With a single snap of his fingers, which felt as if it echoed across the room, silence fell.
    The Hierophant adjusted himself, his bright golden eyes moving to Belmont as he unrolled the scroll. Reading through it, he looked to the Hierophant and gave a small nod.
    “We found it.”
    The Hierophant lent forward, no longer shrouded in shadows. The tall figure wore bright white and gold armor, finely made and with intricate patterns and details all across it. He wore a face mask that covered the upper parts of his face, and golden leaves and fey branches had been woven into a sort of crown in his shining, wavy golden hair, that almost seemed to float on occasion as if he was in water.
    “Good.” He spoke a single word, and the warmth spread across his generals.
    “You… found it?” Metzger licked his lips, hungrily.
    “Where is it?”
    “Not where we were expecting.”
    “Does it work?”
    “I suppose we’ll soon see.”
    The three generals looked to the Hierophant.
    “You know what to do… obtain it at any cost.”
    “It will be done, my Hierophant.”
    The three generals bowed deeply and took their leave. The Hierophant slouched back on his throne, staring up at the tall void above his throne. Sparkling stars shined about, like the night sky, as if there was no roof.
    “Metzger’s plans seemed to have been fruitful, though not in a way he intended.” The Majordomo spoke.
    “Things are progressing as they should.”
    “And Peltarch?”
    “We shall see.”
    The Majordomo bowed his head, as the Hierophant watched him leave, sinking into the shadows. He then looked back to the stars, leaning his head on his fist once again.
    “We shall see.” He repeated to no one but the stars.