The Undiscovered Country

Father Paul’s letters to the Homlinthians, letter 586:


(Found in the hands of a dead courier dated 6 weeks ago.)

1 I am disturbed to have not heard from your good church for over two weeks now, I am aware you have had problems with messengers on the road in the past, it is sometimes months before I hear replies from my messages, I hope you are not still having similar troubles, one could be moved to thinking his letters of spiritual guidance are not well received by the faithful of Hommlet, which I know cannot be true…

I am called to be an apostle by the will of The One, and our brother Sosthenes,

2 To the church of The One in Hommlet, to those sanctified in The One and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord The One —their Lord and ours:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father The One.

3 I always thank The One for you because of his grace given you in The One. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— One thus confirming our testimony about Saints among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord The One to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord The One.

4 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with him.

5 Because you are strong in faith I write to you to give happy news. The rumours of the Daughter of Lord Black, who had been said to have left her father’s house and in hearsay most inaccurate; to have taken a member of The One’s sisterhood with her to break her vows, are entirely false.

6 As your good parishioners reported, Lady Black was instrumental in the driving out of a most vexing threat to your good parish. This was just the start of the good ladies deeds in The Ones name (I should council; rumours on the disturbing appearance regarding the daughter of the good noble Lord Black should be frowned upon most heinously!).

7 Verily, from the reports we hear in the capital, Lady Black hath devoted herself to The One and chosen to take the goodly sister Rose to help her found their Mission to The One in the lands north of the Orcland Plains. I admit their absence was a little sudden, but I suspect the Holy Spirit moved them so, and you know how young girls are.

8 Thankfully I have received word from Lady Telia that they have united three tribal human villages (and even some orks) under The Holy Church, and have broken ground on construction of a chapel between the three villages. Joyous news of our Lord’s worship spread.

9 I do hope this letter finds you well and puts to rest scoreless rumours that have originated from fair Hommlet as to the conduct of sisters of the Church of The One that seemed to come from your fair town.

Father Paul’s letters to the Homlinthians, letter 589:
(Returned, upon the absence of the town.)

1 I must advise with most emphasis that the chapel of Hommlet’s lack of response to mine ministries must be addressed, for The One speaks the truth of the Word through me, and I impart it to thee… This said; I am most troubled to have not heard word from your good ministry.

2 Travelers tell tale of an assault on Fandolin, and assault on Hommlet, I pray these incidence were just brigands and passed without incident?

I hear you had champions fighting your course, clearly The One doth provide at one’s time of need.

3 Once again I besiege my brother Homlinthians to respond to the letter of Father Paul, I have lost contact with the Mission Chapel raised to the Lord by Lady Black and Sister Rose, they were dedicated in their reports of the Mission’s success in shepherding new followers of The One, but now they fall silent… I desire to know Hommlet is well, and simply to occupied to reply, rather than assume the worst as I do for our two youngest sisters.

Ever yours,

Father Paul

Season 4 Session 8 (which Obsidian Portal won't let me call the post)

The party loot the fuck out of the Hunting Lodge. Tuakiin has an adventure with a carpet of teleportation, which mainly involves a tedious five-mile hike back to the lodge.

Nobody can decide what to do about the teleportation circle. While the party are resting, two hobgoblins emerge from said circle. Kai goes down to knock fuck out of them (Anarië goes down to watch). He kills one and brings the other back as a captive.

Under interrogation, the captive hobgoblin spills the beans about the enemy stronghold at Rhest, from whence he came, in return for not being killed, being inducted into the Ogre’s Union and set to work repairing the Hunting Lodge, and not being killed. (I know I said “not being killed” twice, but it really is terribly important.) He tells them that the enemy forces there are led by a total prick who has a pet dragon. All he knows about the dragon is that it is black, and definitely older than the one in the published module.

The party destroy the teleport circle and fuck off in the general direction of Rhest. Along the way, they meet up with Krom. Later, Krom’s ranger senses tell him that a dragon is in the vicinity, but it turns out it’s only a harrowblade. The party kill the fuck out of it.

Nearby are some bits of elf. Inside the harrowblade are more bits of elf, and a ring.

Some more elves arrive, flying on the backs of giant fucking owls. They’re a bit pissed off at first, but the party show them the ring and convince them that they are good guys (a less difficult task now that Brond has fucked off to run a pub).

The elves take them on the backs of some spare owls back to Not!Lothlorien, where they meet the big boss elf and a weeping woman – something about her bloke getting eaten by a harrowblade. Boss Elf tells them that Rhest is full of absolute bastards, and that the elves want to totally fuck with them. As this is more or less the party’s plan too, everyone gets along famously.

Everyone has a nice long rest and does some shopping. The party buy loads of cool magical elf fashion wear, but laugh at the ludicrously overpriced +1 leather armour.

Sadness of Longing

Sitting at the centre of the protective aura she had created over her companions, Rima tried to settle into a restful trance, but her heart was heavy. She missed her soulmate, but it wasn’t that that was weighing on her mind. Whilst her connection to Vani was patchy and almost muffled in this place, she could feel enough of her presence to know she was out there somewhere and that was…enough. No – her feelings of disquiet had another more basic source and she had been using the urgency of their situation to hide from them.

As she worked through her muscle relaxation techniques, she set her mind adrift and pushed at the edges of the dark thoughts she had been trying to ignore. Holding on to her composure she traced her memories deeper – the happiness she’d felt as she’d explored on her adventure, stopping in villages and towns, spreading the beauty of music. She’d learnt many new songs and tales of old, as well as written her own songs. It had been a wonderful time. Even when she’d be drawn into adventuring with that strange group of misfits in Hommlet, it had still been fun and the music had flowed……but then……..!

She shivered involuntarily, her mind almost rising out of her her trance as the darkness took shape. Yes – there it was…….the point where the rising tide of enemies began to seem overwhelming. Where there was no good or right feeling option other than to save who they could. Where death and hate were the only things on the rise. Where moving a town into the path of unknown danger was a better option than any other they could comprehend. Where even the Spring Queen was crying out for help in the night. It was almost too much….too much to remain optimistic in the face of. Too much…….it was drowning out the music in her soul and she was falling into the dark.

Tears streamed silently down her face as she accepted the despair, freeing it from the bindings that had been stopping it from overwhelming her. In her heart she knew she needed to embrace these unfamiliar feelings if she was to endure them. Otherwise she was in danger of becoming reckless in her behaviour or worse, to lose her self. They did not have the luxury of time to deal with anything but the present situation, so she had to let it go.

Grasping that thought she guided her mind to the calming song her mother had sung to her as a child. Letting it drift across her consciousness, she felt the dark despair receding, not by force as before, but as if blown by the summer breeze in the forest. Like on the day she and Vani had first gone to sacred willow pool together and bathed in it’s crisp waters, singing their songs of love and laughter.

Her heart warmed as she remembered those songs, the despair but a wisp in her mind now. She would carry on, she had to, to ensure that others had days like those. Because there were lives that needed protecting & more songs to be sung. Because there had to be hope……….and songs of hope are the most powerful.

Settling deeper into her trance, Rima’s expression regained it’s usual tranquil state as she listened to the music of life coursing through her veins and through the world around her, hinting at secrets yet to uncover and its tenacity to survive.

Season 4 Session 9

Carreg, Ser Marius and Günther pick themselves up after the explosion, and Mortimer makes his way back from the safe distance to which he teleported. There is no trace of The Bard.

Meanwhile, No Name and Rima have seen a great explosion on a hill. Surmising that this must be where their friends are, they head in that direction.

They arrive in the middle of an argument. Two arguments, in fact: the issue of what to do with the captured minotaurs is still unresolved, and Günther is refusing to accept Carreg and Mortimer’s outlandish tales about life after death. The new arrivals fail to resolve the latter dispute, with No Name backing up Günther’s skepticism, while Rima explains that she has actually returned from the afterlife. Even Carreg’s claim that she has sent a message to The Bard by mystical means is met with disbelief. A consensus does, however, develop on the issue of the prisoners: the group will leave them tied up and carry on with their mission. As Günther points out, they will be able to free themselves within ten minutes, but this should at least give the group some distance from them before they are on their feet again. Everyone carrying a glass staff takes steps to disguise it before setting off.

[In the grey sands, The Bard sits alone beside his ledger. A wind swirls. Sand forms itself into the shape of a man with the bearing of Asmodeus. It transpires that this land is not the Grey Wastes after all, but what remains of Hell. He implores The Bard to have his friends send more power, and gives the obscure advice that “Not every door is a mirror” before disintegrating. The Bard hears Carreg’s message, and gives a somewhat perplexed response.]

Our heroes soon find themselves followed and flanked by three large groups of minotaurs, keeping pace with the group and staying close to the horizon.

[Rima has a go at messaging The Bard, passing on messages from the party, in particular Mortimer’s suggestion to make a draw a door if he can’t find one. The Bard walks some distance from the plinths and tries inscribing a doorway in the sand. The doorway opens, revealing only a blank floor.]

As the terrain becomes more hilly, the minotaurs continue to follow, and as sunset approaches it looks as though the group is in for another rough night in hostile territory.

Just then, an echoing sound of water can be heard. They have arrived at Wave Echo Cave, and not before time. Rima scouts inside the cave mouth, finding a tunnel leading to a cavern which looks like a suitable place to pitch up for the night. The group decides to spend the night in the cavern, in the safety of Rima’s tiny hut, and move on in the morning down one of the two exits from the cavern that seem to lead deeper into the cave.

The plan is foiled, however, when a minotaur scout enters the cavern during the first watch and sees the tiny hut. He soon returns with half a dozen of his friends, at least one of whom is familiar with this kind of magic and orders two minotaurs to remain on guard while the rest if them go to fetch the full minotaur party. They intend to wait in the cavern in strength until the magic ends, then attack.

It is clear that the group will have to move on before the main force arrives. They charge out of the hut and make short work of the two minotaurs. While Ser Marius tries unsuccessfully to convince his colleagues to chase down the departed minotaurs, Mortimer raises one of corpses as a minotaur zombie enslaved to his will.

They head briskly down the north west tunnel, coming to a chamber with a tidal pool. There is a corridor leading off, and a narrow tunnel on the other side of the pool. Initial investigations of the latter tunnel by Ser Marius and Mortimer are inconclusive, but Rima’s scouting of the main exit is much more fruitful. She finds that the corridor leads to stairs going downwards to a lower corridor, with a door through which goblin voices can be heard and an open chamber at the end containing bugbears.

With much of the party more in need of a rest than a fight, they decide on a non-violent approach. Sneaking down the stairs, they pass the goblins’ door, which Mortimer orders his minotaur to keep shut, and approach the bugbears’ chamber. Only one of them is awake and on guard, the other two sleeping, and No Name charms him (much to Carreg’s displeasure), giving him the slightly terrifying over-affectionateness of a sentimental drunk in a Govan public house.

By these means, the party successfully evade the guarding creatures and come to a large wooden door. It is firmly locked, and the signs of damage on its surface attest to unsuccessful attempts to open it by force. Günther manages to open the lock by cunning, and they find themselves in a large chamber that appears to be some sort of temple. They lock the doors behind them, and prepare to settle down for the night.

[The Bard sits alone, composing a song about his experiences in the afterlife.]

Which is when Mortimer begins his ritual to bring back The Bard. He needs three mirrors, or so he believes. Both Rima and Ser Marius are able to supply a compact mirror, which they carry for purposes of disguise and vanity respectively. For the third, Mortimer experiments with a reflective sword blade, which makes too small a portal, before eventually settling on pouring out water to make a reflective pool. Out of this pool, glistening wet and devilishly handsome, comes The Bard.

Now reunited with their friend, the party have a long and welcome sleep. In the night, Mortimer dreams of yet more powerful ways to cheat death, while Günther wrestles with this unexpected theological revelation and Carreg’s prayers finally find a recipient.

Bard Rhapsody

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a grey world,
Transported from reality.

Open my eyes,
Look up to the skies and see,
I’m just a poor Bard,
I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go,
Singing high, singing low,
Anyway the sand blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me.

Beardy, just killed myself,
Put a staff over my leg,
broke in half and now I’m dead.
Beardy, life had just begun,
But now I’ve gone and blown it all away.

Beardy, ooh,
Did it make you cry?
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow,
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.

Is it too late? Has my time come?
Sent shivers down my spine,
But still looking handsome all the time.
Is this goodbye, everybody, have I got to go,
Do I leave you all behind and face my ledger.

Beardy, ooh (anyway the sand blows),
I don’t wanna die,
There’s so many songs to sing and write.

I see a little silhouetto of a sand man,
Asmodeus, Asmodeus, I do remember you.
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very very impressive to me.

I’m just a poor Bard, everybody loves me.
I’m just a poor Bard from a poor family,
Spare me my life from this monstrosity.

Easy come, easy go, will you give me a clue?
Asmodeus! Not every mirror is a door (give me a clue!)
Asmodeus! Not every door is a mirror (give me a clue)
Asmodeus! Not every mirror is a door (give me a clue)
Not every door is a mirror (give me a clue)
Will I ever get home
Will I ever get home, oh.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
Oh, Asmodeus give me a clue
Asmodeus has a ledger put aside for me, for me, for me.

Will my fans forget me and my dreamy eyes?
Do my friends think they can love me and leave me to die?
Oh, beardy can’t do this to me, beardy,
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.

(Oh, yeah, oh yeah)

Nothing really matters,
Beardy called to me,
Gave her all the clues,
Hopefully beardy, is coming, for me.

Anyway the sand blows.

The Dæjlig News Blues

He was meant to be on watch. But although he was awake, sitting up in the elf-woman’s magical enclosure amidst his sleeping companions, staring out into the underground chamber beyond, Günther’s mind was altogether elsewhere.

Dead was dead. He had always known that. Others might fool themselves, but not Günther. Even when his entire family had been killed, his whole people slaughtered, he had refused to retreat into wishful thinking. They were no more, their bodies chopped into inert, meaningless lumps, their vital spirits snuffed out like candles. He would never see or hear them again.

But now… He had been so sure the Bard was gone, forever destroyed in that explosion. So sure. And yet here he was, lying asleep, all sprawling hair and tight leather, as alive as he had ever been.

At first he had tried telling himself that it was just a technicality. That the Bard had never truly died, that he had simply been sent to another place by the magical surge, and brought back from there by Mortimer’s strange ritual. Even as he said this to himself, though, he knew it was just a distraction from the real truth.

The Bard had visited the realm of the dead. And had returned.

Which could only mean that the afterlife was more than a comforting illusion.

Günther had spent so long seeking the sweet oblivion of death. He’d have died long ago, if he hadn’t been determined to do as much damage to the enemy as he could before the end. He had thought that was the only sense he could make of his life. But now…

Mortimer stirred and murmured. Bad dreams. All soldiers had them, and even he was a soldier in his own way. Günther looked out to the door of the chamber, where Mortimer’s minotaur kept guard, despite falling in battle some hours ago. The walking dead.

More murmuring. Then words, Mortimer speaking in his slumber. “No more… Gnomes… to die…” He shuffled on his bedroll and fell silent.

So this was Mortimer’s grand design. Günther nodded. It was no less than he would expect from this most ambitious of gnomes.

It was an evil ambition. Not intentionally, perhaps. To spare his people the fear of death might be a desire born of compassion. But that compassion would doom the gnomes to an eternity in this land of misery, war, disease and destruction. An eternity of shattered dreams and bitter disappointments.

The Nisse were already in the other realm, surely a happier existence than the one they had left behind. And at last, when he had spent his strength against the enemy, exacted what little vengeance he could for their suffering, Günther would join them. Reunited with his people. His family. A new life, in a new land beyond death.

And nothing, and no one, was going to drag him away from it.

Necromancy, It's a living... and a dying.


: Suggested Listening (seriously, it’s awesome!)

Mortimer leant against the transparent wall of the tiny hut… it wasn’t actually that tiny, for 9 humans, it would be cramped, but with a Nissa, Gnome and a Dwarf, well, there was breathing room… which he’d filled with papers, notes, eXML script, trying to codify how he’d done what he’d done, he’d modified the rituals on the fly, gone on instinct, the feel of the magic. That wasn’t how good Necromancy was done. Well, actually it was how his former master had done it, but that’s why he’d left the fat fool not knowing much actual necromancy at all, the man had even still been using Tenser’s crude spell scribblings for Shining City’s sake!.

He looked up at the hulking figure of his minotaur servant keeping watch for him… that! That was how you did it! A well thought out, well refactored necromantic ritual, with managed Enochian garbage collection, and a desired result; turning the enemy’s strengths against them.

He’d expected backlash, he’d expected revulsion, his early experiments had met with that in the city. In the heat of battle, needs-must, he guessed.

He assumed he’d earnt enough confidence with his fellows, with the whole; ‘bring someone back who’s blown themselves to the nine hells’ trick… that they gave him a free pass. Even Zealous Carrig didn’t seem to worried. Then again, living people were hard to understand.

He was still amazed that worked… The disintegrating the pouch of gems was a little disturbing, though it presented an interesting idea: The gems had come from the magical armour Tuakeen had ended up using, the Gnomes had been a little swifted handed and nicked several of them from it, but the principle stood, if he could exchange magical substance for trans-realm magics, perhaps he could do the same with lifeforce, between a living and wounded or dying? He resolved to try.

His head hit the rock wall behind him gently, his papers slid from his lap as his arms did. Mortimer was exhausted, bringing someone across from the realms beyond was a huge drain, he was amazed he’d managed it when the best he’d expected was to make contact.

At some point Mortimer slept, for he dreamt; Carig stood before him holding a book, a dying man lay behind her, wasting away.

“feed him” the dwarf said… “feed him power”

“feed him?” the gnome asked “until a moment ago he didn’t exist!”

Then Reema to was there: “Why are you going to feed him?”

“I didn’t say I was I just tried to see if he was there!”

Suddenly The Bard was there, strumming a song about feeding a god, Mortimer turned to run from them

“I just wanted to know! I just wanted to learn!”

The dream shifted and suddenly Mortimer was in one of the vaults of the old library in the shining city… he wasn’t supposed to be, but that had never stopped him. It was the only way he was actually going to learn anything.

He looked up from a book describing how a great mage had plunged the world into darkness, and at the book next to it, one he remembered, laying out the story of the mage that moved the worlds of technology, magic and necromancy, on 500 years in a stroke… and as he looked at the books he heard a voice from beyond, for a necromancer knows such origins:

“Books can be tricky things, can’t they?”

The hairs on the back of the pale gnome’s neck stood up as a shiver ran through him, an effect, very few things elicited from him these days.

“Am I in your Library?” Mortimer asked quietly.

“Not yet”…

“Could I be in it if I wanted to?”

“If you could get to it… what do you seek?”

“To perfect what you, and, incidentally, my grandfather, started.”

“To cheat death… tell me, why are you afraid to die?”

The little mage closed the book carefully and looked around,

“Why does everyone assume it’s the event that scares me? It’s the waste… Soldiers die because that’s all they’ve got to offer the world; violence and death. It’s respected, don’t get me wrong, because they occupy other soldiers so that those who can think and reason and invent, have the chance to do that. That’s why I was a lousy soldier, but I was one… You were a royal bastard. As a soldier, I hate you, but… you got closer than any nice guy I know, in that time you progressed this world far beyond what I see in the east… till the soldiers destroyed it again at any rate.

While my Grandpappy was trying to put his mind in a machine, you bought yourself half a millennium extra, a tough score to beat. However; I have a feeling I might have given myself extra motivation to dodge the final curtain all together. If my informant from the other side is to be believed.”

Mortimer sat looking at the ill defined form that stood over him. He knew who it must be but, as dreams wilt, it wouldn’t resolve properly.

“I’ve done it you know!” Mortimer challenged, sounding a little more shrill than he’d intended. “I’ve denied the Afterlives five entrants! MY studies, MY research, MY staying alive to learn and formulate some more, I’ve brought five people back to the land of the living! It’s not cowardice, it’s a greater destiny!”

The blurry figure nodded. “you have, you have saved 5 people from death… a strange pastime for one who trades in the dead and undead. A bad habit for keeping things alive perhaps..?”

“They were my F… They were useful!”

He was ranting now, but such was the way of dream, realisation of the script could not stop the player on the stage.

“It’s all just practice! One day I’ll put myself and all the other Gnomes, and Nissa, beyond the reach of death! The universe may be out for the extinction of Gnome and proto-Gnome-kind, but I say no, I draw the line! No more Gnomes to die!”

Mortimer wasn’t even aware he had woken himself up, the world seemed as blurry as any dream, as a tear clouded each eye for the very first time.

“No more… Gnomes… to die…”

He sank back to sleep. Oblivious to the silent nods of the Nissa-man lying awake, watching his, troubled, distant-kin opposite.


“St- star of the morning, guide me"

well even if it existed any more it’s too late to see it now, i can’t wait until tomorrow—

“Fire of the deep, inspire m- me"

—morning, shouldn’t be praying again today but i need to get this—

“Stone of the world, hold me"

—off my chest, that’s where the bard would be, held by the world, if there was anything—

“Blood of the willing, leave… m… me."

—left of him, i was just trying to help, show the minotaurs we weren’t who they thought, now he’s gone and it’s my fault it’s my fault it’s my fault it’s my fault it’s my fault it’s my fault

“Lord, I have sinned."


Vani slipped out of the camp with her wild companion while the others slept and headed a little way down the path Sir Gweneth had indicated she would take Brond when they left. Choosing carefully, she found a vantage point where she could watch the path whilst remaining completely hidden. She was determined to ensure that Brond did indeed leave this place….in one way or another!
She knew she would not be missed from the camp – the group would be too busy recovering from their encounter and discussing the possibility of a second attack. Of course without Brond betraying them and feeding the enemy information, they would surely have better odds of success. Vani understood now why Rima had been so mistrustful of this human, despite her fondness for the rest of the party. Of course Vani found them all suspicious, but she knew this was her own mistrustful nature and the reason she had survived so long. She loved Rima more than life, but she doubted she would ever develop the knack for making friends like her wife did.
As she’d guessed, her wait was long, but so was her patience. Humans slept for so long and seemed to spend a lot of time in the rituals of the morning. She just hoped that they got some useful information out of Brond as recompense for not taking their rightful revenge. Her wait was not in vain, as soon enough, Brond strolled down the path, with no indication of a care in the world. She noted his sister was not with him, but perhaps that was for the best. She seemed to have honour, which she should be wary of tarnishing by association with her sibling, however much she rightly cared for him.
Vani was surprised however when she spied Kai slipping through the trees with his usual soft tread, following him. Her young friend’s serious expression brooked any thoughts she might have had about joining him or following. Rather she contented herself with sending her wild companion along a parallel path for a short distance, just to ensure Brond didn’t circle back round. She couldn’t fathom what the young man would want with such a scoundrel, but then the ways of humans were perplexing.
Once she was sure they were gone and no-one else from the camp had followed, she moved from her hidey hole and scouted the area. She remained worried about the plight of those trying to escape the rampaging army, but was unsure if she was doing enough. The Queen had been most adamant that the Elves would help…..but the Elf she had implored for help only a few days previously had seemed unconvinced. The innocent had to be protected and she had to believe other Elves would have the same attitude.
Suddenly her attention was grabbed by her wild companion’s silent call and an impression of pain. Spinning she slipped quickly and stealthily towards her position. As she drew close she heard the cries and doubled her speed. Reaching her friend she saw the commotion ahead. A small group of refugees had collapsed from exhaustion in a clearing, their injuries indicating they’d only just managed to evade destruction. She might not like strangers, but Vani knew in her soul where her responsibilities lay. Carefully and unthreateningly she left the shadows of the trees and offered her assistance.

Manning Up

The initial attack on the hunting lodge had not gone well. Afterwards, Kai had spent the evening in meditation. In a moment of zen focus it dawned on him that although he was doing great works, protecting this land with his new friends, he was no closer to proving himself a man.

He had acquired skills in the arts, both Druidic and Arcane, and his mastery of all the elements was complete indeed. Thanks to his studies with the elves, he could even call upon the Spirit of Life. He had then, fulfilled the purpose of his Pilgrim’s Walk: he had discovered the forgotten powers of the world. There was more to discover, yes, but he felt he could move on to the next step. Forging his own Seong-In… for which he knew no translation in Common, but it was the weapon or tool of a man that would mark his path in life.

The morning however, came with unexpected and unwelcome news. Brond made his peace with the party, even with his Dragonborn antagonist, and promptly left. He said nothing to the young man who secretly looked up to him, as the first man he’d met in this part of the world.

The man who stood for the kind of manhood Kai was no closer to achieving. Brond could drink, he could inspire – in a rough sort of way, he could charm whomever her pleased into his bed. He could fight, not gracefully like Kai, but passionately, cunningly, in a way that won wars not protected monasteries.

And he hadn’t even given him a look before he left.

As the others returned to the hunting lodge, the young monk decided he had to do something for himself, not just be a player in someone else’s battles. So he slipped away from the group on quiet sandal-clad feet, his wiry form slipping into the treeline, and followed after Brond. He had no reason for stealth, save the fact the further he went without saying anything, the more embarrassing it would be to finally announce his presence.

Finally, Brond made camp, settling down around a fire. Kai was about to step out and say something when he saw him roll out his bedroll away from the fire, in the shadow of a giant oak. Soon, Kai heard him snoring like a champion.

Kai stepped out of cover, wondering what on earth to do now. Why had the mercenary gone to – Kai’s hand moved almost before he heard the twang, snatching the crossbow bolt out of the air before he even saw it whistling towards him from the inky dark. He spun, summoning the winds to hurl it back the way it came, but was cut short by an exclamation.

“Fuck’s sake.”

Brond. And all too awake.

“I thought Cunto the Dragon might come back to finish me off. I didn’t think he’d be twat enough to send you.”

He dropped his crossbow and walked towards Kai with a slow, deliberate stride, hands open. Kai had seen that walk before. Brond liked to wait till he was nearly touching the enemy before drawing his rapiers. It gave them less warning.

“Nobody sent me.” Kai dropped the crossbow bolt

“So what are you doing here, kid?” Brond kept coming, steadily closing the distance.
Kai whipped out his shortsword, holding it tanto style in front of him. Brond didn’t break stride. If the sword bothered him, he didn’t show it.

“What’s with the cutlery?”

He was getting close now. Kai stepped backward, matching Brond’s steady pace.

Maintaining the distance. “I couldn’t… you didn’t say anything…. I…” Inwardly, Kai lamented being raised in a monastery where silence was often a ritual. It so often left him lost for words when it mattered most. “Our first meeting was a happy one, you took me in like a brother, invited me to drink with you, we’d go on to fight many battles together. I didn’t want our parting to be me knocking you out and fighting your sister. I thought I was doing what was best.”

“So what do you want, a fucking hand job?”

Kai stumbled over a root as he backed away, but kept his balance. He always kept his balance.

“I want our parting to mean something, not just a series of mindless battles. I realised I’ve learnt from Wizards and Druids, I’ve learned about the arcane world but I don’t know the real world like you do… I was hoping you’d share with me your world, before you hang up your swords, before you give it up. I want you to show me how you fight.

“Fucking hell, kid, you already know how to fight.”

“I know the art, not the fight you’ve lived.”

Kai’s back struck a tree, halting his retreat. He thrust out with his sword to keep Brond from advancing – but before his thrust was complete Brond was upon him, rapiers flashing.

Before he could react, Kai felt one of Brond’s blades pressing into the side of his throat, precisely on the death point that he had learned about in the monastery. The other pressed down on Kai’s sword, keeping it wide.

They were face to face now. Kai could see the criss-cross of scars on Brond’s cheeks, feel his breath on his lips, smell the sweat on his skin.

For a moment, Kai thought about summoning a storm of wind to remove his opponent but he stopped… when had his once friend become his ‘opponent’… was he? Or had Kai’s own actions driven Brond to that?

“You want to be a swordsman? You’ve got my sister, you’ve got the dickless lizard. Why come looking for me?”

Kai felt the rough bark of the tree jutting into his back as Brond steadily pushed against him. After all this time, the man just didn’t understand. If only he could find the right words.
“I want to fight like a man, with feeling, not just a monk, going through… forms.”

Brond stopped pushing. He looked intently at Kai for a long, still moment.

“You don’t want to be a swordsman, do you, kid?” He smiled, as much as he ever smiled.

“You want to be a soldier.”

He stepped back, sheathing his rapiers. “OK. We’ll start now.”

Kai started breathing again. He hadn’t realised he’d stopped. Feelings of relief and even elation rose in him, but he reflexively suppressed them with a calming mantra. Now was a time to stay focused.

He brought his sword up again in a neutral stance, ready to begin his training. But Brond grasped the blade in his mail-clad hand and uncurled Kai’s fingers from the hilt. “That comes later,” he said gently, and tossed Kai’s sword over to the ground beside his own backpack.

So what now? This was not at all what Kai had expected, but of course he should have guessed there would be movement exercises, just as there had been when he trained with his staff. The sensei had insisted he master seventeen combinations of flowing motions of arm and leg before he was even permitted to touch a -

“STAND TO ATTENTION, SOLDIER!” Brond’s sudden shout startled Kai from his reminiscence.

Attention? Of course. He tried to imitate the weird rigid pose the troops he had seen at Master Burne’s tower, standing up straight, chest puffed out. “Stupid fighting-stance,” Kai had thought, “how are you to flow around attacks from this position?” He softened his knees and brought his head down to see his opponent.

“WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU CALL THAT? ARMS STRAIGHT, PALMS AT YOUR SIDES, FEET TOGETHER, EYES FRONT! NOW, SOLDIER!” Kai followed the barked instructions as best he could, Brond shoving his arms and shoulders into the right positions. He stood still while Brond walked slowly around him.

“If you want to be a soldier, you will stand to attention in the presence of a superior. HAVE YOU GOT THAT?”

Kai blinked. “Yes, I’ve got that.”
“Hai sensai!… er… SIR?”
“You will stand to attention until I tell you otherwise. Do you understand?”
“Yes – yes sir.”
“Yes sir!” Of course, stillness was the most fundamental of all the forms of movement. It was the beginning of all monkish training. But to find this understanding here in the West – Kai would never have imagined there would be such sophistication here. Perhaps he had underestimated this culture all along, perhaps hidden under the rough exterior was a subtle and ancient -

Brond’s mailed fist smashed into his jaw, knocking him to the ground. Kai looked up, startled.


“Yes sir!” Kai sprang back to his feet, assuming the attention stance once more. His jaw ached, but still he had to suppress a smile. This was a familiar exercise. In his first year at the monastery, he and his fellow acolytes had lined up every morning at dawn, adopting the stance of the day, remaining in position while the sensei’s assistants had beaten them with sticks. The last monk to break his stance was awarded the honour of serving the master that day. By the end, Kai had served the master more often than any other monk. All he had to do was not fall down. It wasn’t about the physical after all, it was about the -

Brond’s punch to his gut knocked the breath from him, but he remained standing. He cleared his mind of doubt and apprehension, focusing his spirit on the stillness of his body.

Then the onslaught began. Punch after punch, slamming into Kai, ferocious, relentless.

Finally a headbutt that sent Kai reeling back, tripping, falling.


Kai wiped the blood from his eyes, propped himself up on an elbow. Saw Brond standing over him, tall and pitiless.


He had failed again. The monks who had trained him had been skilled and wise, but no match for Brond in raw brutality.

Brond kicked him in the ribs. “CALL YOURSELF A FUCKING SOLDIER?”

Kai felt the Spirit of Fire reach out to him. It wanted him to use it, to retaliate. It tried to feed his anger, to lash out with earth, air and fire. He had weapons all around him. He felt the temptation to use magic (for it was always a temptation, to give in, to use the easy road, just to say the word, move the hand, and let the unearthly power flow through you, after all, you were its master, what could go wrong?). A part of him wanted to change the rules and beat this attacker down with the truths of the world Brond would never grasp.

But that was not today’s lesson. Zen discipline took over burning elemental passions.

Kai forced himself to stand again. He would succeed. He would show Brond that he could make it through this trial. Centring his Ki and making the pain and confusion merely things that existed, not that were happening to him, he prepared to accept any blow, however strong, without wavering.

Brond tripped him.

Kai rolled with the fall, but before he could complete the move and leap back up Brond was upon him, kicking his sides, stamping on his arms, keeping him down.

“STAND THE FUCK UP, YOU LITTLE PRICK!” Brond’s boot smashed into Kai’s crotch, sending a tidal wave of pain through his body. Kai fought to control the pain, to escape the blows, but there was no respite. Brond kicked him in the kidneys, the face, the neck.

The onslaught only stopped when Kai reflexively threw up an age-uke, a move he’d long since trained to also cast up an arcane shield.

Brond paced around the blue/purple radiance surrounding Kai. “Pathetic. The fuck do you call that? IS THAT STANDING TO ATTENTION? IS IT, SOLDIER?”

The light dissipated as it always did, and Brond laid in again, his boots striking harder than ever. Kai rolled and curled, but the kicks kept coming. Was Brond really going to keep going until…

Beneath him, the ground seemed to pitch and sway. Everything was blurred. He made one last effort to raise himself up on agonised limbs, only to fall face down in the muddy grass. It was gritty and sour in his mouth.


Kai wanted to get up so much, but his body refused to obey. A beetle crawled up a blade of grass in front of his right eye. The left eye wouldn’t open.

Through the beetle the boy could sense the Spirit of Life, he could have closed his wounds with a thought… but he’d hid behind spells as a boy, choosing to bend the elements, not fight hand to hand. Choosing to find his manhood in spell books and scrolls. No, if he was really to be a man, he would learn Brond’s way.


His left hand twitched. He closed his fingers on a tuft of grass. Pulled himself up a few agonising inches. His right leg shifted, took some of his weight. Sweat and blood mingled on the grass beneath him.

He raised his head. Moved his left leg. Managed to kneel.


Kai’s legs trembled, but he forced them to let him stand. Groaning through clenched teeth, he brought his feet together. Straightened his back.


Kai looked up, staring Brond in the face. Blinking through the blood. Defiant.

Brond nodded. “Any cunt can learn to stay on his feet, but sooner or later someone’s going to knock him down. When you get knocked down, and you get up again – that’s what makes you a soldier.”

Still Kai stood, trying not to sway.

“Beer’s in the backpack.”

Kai limped toward Brond’s pile of possessions. Fingers fumbling, he opened the backpack. It was full of bottles. Beside it, his shortsword lay discarded.

“Bring us a couple each. After that, I’ll show you where to stick the pointy end.”

“Hai, Sensei!” Kai bowed, this was hardly a dojo, but he would respect the training ground all the same.

“Yeah, whatever. Beer.”

Kai’s people had a saying: you don’t know a man until you fight him, and you can’t call him brother till you study under him.

Kai already knew Brond. Soon, he would call him brother.


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