Rowan stared about the gathered group of mercenaries. His Mercenaries. His Vagabond Arms. And he smiled a smile that felt genuine for the first time in a long time.
They were a rag tag group, even for a mercenary company. The exiled Cambion of Song, named Minoka sat on a log, surrounded by a tight circle of men. All appeared to be human, all bearing the same bronze plate armor. Each chest piece the same scratch and dented surface, where an insignia had been pried free. Mercenaries from one of the bigger companies, maybe. More likely deserters from one of the royal armies, fleeing their lands and seeking a living as sell swords.
Rowan wasn’t one to judge, however. More than once had he turned against a commander who saw his life as nothing more than simple collateral in the name of some greater good. Work long enough as a sell sword and you were bound to face the same choice. Die for another man’s noble cause or become traitor and survive. He knew what choice he had made. He knew what choice he would make again.
The Artificer Caelus had form quite a following it as well seemed, though he seemed quite uncomfortable with the attention. The young man seemed to busy himself with the map before him, occasionally taking small bites of food and sips of ale. He appeared to be doing his very best to ignore the men and women who had flocked to him as a symbol of hope for the battle ahead.
“So, how are we going to get through the surrounding goblin camps, past dozens of armed goblins and blow up the entrance to the cave?” Asked young man, said ale foam lining the fuzz of what he knows doubt believed to be a mustache.
“Well, we will need a distraction.” Caelus said, “A big one.”
“You know what, I always found distracting, Bran?” Mosh said, the Lupine Naguai’s teeth gleaming in the fire light. “Pretty Song girls with magic voices. What you say princess, how about you sing the goblins a tune. Make them fall in love with you like your little posse of runaway guards.”
“Watch your tongue, dog.” One of the men snapped, hand gripping on his sword.
“Oh, awk! How will I ever recover from your verbal wit, Sir vagrant sell sword! You looked at me and pierced through my tough façade and called me a, dare I say the word.” Mosh clutched at his throat as he spat out the word, “Dog. If only I could think of a retort to match your wit. Something, anything. Maybe the fact that the closest I came to being a dog was when I bought your mother for the night with a piece bread crust and chicken bone.”
Rowan got to his feet as the man lunged, sword halfway out of his sheath as Mosh rolled out of the way landing in a crouch, fangs bared and claws sprouting from his fingertips.
Warriors caught in a hateful stare.
Foolish minds and heart laid bare.
A dreamer kiss upon their lips
Their grip on consciousness begins to slip.
Rowan fought the dropping of his eyelids as Minoka’s song washed over him. The residual Magick was weakened as it radiated away from her targets. Mosh collapsed to his knees, claws retracting into his fingers as he caught himself from falling to the ground. With great effort he raised his head, staring at the larger man in his bronze armor. The human seemed to be bearing the song with much less grace, eyes rolling back into his head as he swayed on his feet.
“I got you, you bastard.” Mosh slurred before balling his fist and slamming it hard into his own jaw. The blow seemed to pull him free from Minoka’s Magick if only a little. The sell sword swayed heavy to his left, over corrected and landed hard with his face in the dirt. A dumb smile plastered his face as he made strange kissing faces in his sleep.
Mosh words were marked by the sudden thud of his head on the log he was sitting on. A stupid grin plastered on his face as Sinette ran to check on the young Naguai.
“He will be fine,” Minoka said, her words short and clipped with annoyance. “As for your plan, Trust I will be working independently from the man who carries a weapon designed to melt my flesh.”
With that Minoka, turned and walked to the far end of camp trailed by her noble group of followers. The group around Caelus looked at the two unconscious men laid out in the dirt and then at each other.
“So, as I was saying, if you ask me the best way is to set the boss on it.” Bran continued, “Old Rowan Whitehorn, facing off against a few dozen goblins, legendary hammer in hand.”
“Rowan Whitehorn, killed by a couple hundred dozen goblin arrows, spears and swords.” Mosh muttered, unconsciously, “Born an Elk, died a porcupine.”
“Does he just talk shit as a natural reflex?” Sinette asked, golden eyes blinking as she stared at the unconscious Naguai at the now snoring form of Mosh.
“Whitehorn wouldn’t be killed by goblins” the boy said, looking defeated.
“You ever face Goblins, Bran” An older with short cropped gray hair woman said, the flames dancing in golden light off of her bastard sword, “They use poison that putrefies the flesh. Poison is a vicious thing. Doesn’t matter how strong you are, how quick you are. Poison doesn’t care. Poison eats you from within. Poison is the hero killer.”
“I was thinking of something more…scientific” Caelus said. “Brute strength has its place. In fact, for my plan to work, I foresee see brute strength being an integral part. However, we do it, we will need to draw enough of them off for us to blast the cave to begin with.”
Rowan turned his attention to the largest group, forming a line as they picketed for the young woman’s attention. A camp stove now sat above flame; a stew being made from the meager supplies Sinette had scavenged from the back of his wagon. The smell of cooking meat, freshly dug wild carrots and herbs filled the camp, drawing the eyes of every mercenary as they lined up to get eyes on the most attractive thing to saunter into his camp.
Someone who knew how to cook. Sinette had gone from lost stranger to the biggest celebrity in his camp.
Sinette filled the cracked and worn bowls from his cupboard with hot stew to grateful hands. Few things were more alluring to the traveling mercenary than a hot meal and a cool drink. She looked at him from across the flames, her golden eyes gleaming with a delight that masked the deep sadness he had seen in them only moments before. She raised a ladle full of the hastily filled stew toward him and smiled.
Rowan smiled back and shook his head raising his bowl dried crickets. Sinette wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Rowan didn’t understand. Crickets were a great source of protein, easy to come by on the road and he even had gone as far to season them. What more could they ask for.
“Quite the party you got going, Boss,” A voice slurred in his ear, the scent of alcohol scorching his nostrils as the young woman pressed her body against his back, her chin resting on his shoulder.
“You’re late, Brandy.” Rowan muttered, pushing the drunken woman from his shoulder with a shrug. “And drunk, though why I am surprised I do not know.”
Brandy pouted, her dark brown curls bouncing as she sat next to him with her arms crossed. Years had gone by since he had run into the former Head of Zentra’s college of Alchemy. When they had first met, she had held him captive, a test subject for her study of Naguai anatomy. It was strange to think of her that way, the stern woman with a scientific mind, turned his drunken second in command.
The alchemist was dressed in her usual traveling attire if you could call it that. The ruffled skirts hung just past her knees; a blouse left more undone than not secured by a corset that seemed painfully tight. Worn black boots still covered in dirt from her trip back to the small village of thimble. The belt containing a dozen bottles of various concoctions that jingled with every sway of her hips. Some appeared glowed with a dangerous iridescent light. Others were simple alcohol, the vice of choice for the once famed Alchemist.
Rowan sighed and passed her the bowl of crickets.
“What did you learn from you travels, Miss grace.”
Brandy pout turned into a beaming smile as she spun toward him, grabbing the bowl in both hands as she straddled the log. Rowan braced himself for his second in commands drunken verbal deluge. She held a cricket between her for finger and thumb, eyeing it with mild curiosity before tossing into her mouth with a satisfying crunch.
“Ok, So a couple months back a tax collector comes in from Song, demands the village elders to pay their due. Elders pay up and are like ‘hey, how about some guards to patrol the hills because we got something out, they’re killing our livestock’. Tax guy is like yeah sure I’ll pass that right on to the noble prancing poofs at the Citadel. They never see him again.”
“Yes, Brandy, I know that what-” Rowan started, but Brandy continued as if he hadn’t spoken.
“Not a week goes by and guess who shows up but the Prince of fucking Spindle himself and his posse Royal guard. Towns like holy fuck we got help for sure with this gold shitting Cambion coming by. Fucking guy drinks their ale, eats their food, bangs a bar maid or four and leaves. Elders stop him out of town, and he is like I’m just here to collect what is owed to us in sheep and barley. They say wait we just got taxed by those Song poofs and he is like cool story give my shit or I’ll lay a Cambion royal beat down you into the next era.”
“I’ve heard of that guy. Heard he attacked a Mana courtesan and-”
“Yeah, yeah not important, Rowan. Can you let me get a word in? Stop being rude.” Brandy, gave him a scornful look which made Rowan regret he didn’t have a barrel of ale to drown himself in, “Anyway town finds itself caught between two nations that don’t give a fuck and some monsters I. The woods. They send some of the young men out to find what’s killing their livestock.”
“And none come back. Brandy, I know this.” Rowan said through clenched teeth “They found them a week later left out to rot. Try to bury the bodies and they get attacked by goblins. They told me that when we got the contract. You were there. Remember I told them Goblins leave their dead out in the open because-”
“Gobs are rot eaters. Maggots, flies, and dead flesh. I tried telling the bartender the same thing and he goes on this rant about how they don’t because-”
“Brandy! Rowan snapped, “You’re no telling me anything I don’t already know.”
“They kennel master was found killed today.”
“I was getting to that if you would stop interrupting. See all you had to do was let me get a word in your big oaf.” Brandy said, jabbing a finger into his chest before tossing another cricket into her mouth. “Yup butchered along with all of his dogs. Guy lived out on the edge of town, you know because of all the barking and howling. Looks like the gobs began their attack already. Testing the boundaries.”
“Fuck me.” Rowan groaned. He had already signed the papers saying he would protect the village and he was already failing.
“It gets worse.” Brandy said, her words soft so other couldn’t hear.”
“How?” Rowan said.
“The kennel master had gotten six mastiffs. Big old beast he kept in cages. You could see the blood pooling through the bars of the cages. Broken spear shafts from where they fought.” Brandy said, placing the bowl in her lap. “But there weren’t no mastiffs when the villagers arrived. No bodies left to rot. Only bloody paw prints from where they walked out of the cages after being killed.”
Brandy plucked a cricket from the bowl and crunched it. Rowan stared at the remnants of a leg, still twitching on her lips. She didn’t say the word. She didn’t have to.
“Nyx.” Rowan said the word as if it were a curse.
“Yeah, you know what they say, where there is Goblins, it is only a matter of time before there is Nyx.”
Rowan took a long swig from his drinking horn. There had been a time when you go years without hearing about a Nyx sighting. Occasion one would be seen shambling from the site of a battle, only to be destroyed as the sun rose over the hill the following morning.
Lately however, it seemed every village he passed through had a tale of shambling corpses, teeming with twitching black tendril. Some even spoke of living beings, possessed by the Nyx, maddened beasts running at the head of a shambling horde screeching commands in a guttural tongue.
Ghost stories. They had to be.
“We go to the village at first light.” Rowan said, “Talking with the elders and attack at noon when the sun is at its highest. Might be able to get some people to join our cause.
“Sounds right. mean we got a plan now, at least. Might help motivate the villagers to fight if they believe it might work.” Brandy said, crunching another cricket, “Speaking of which, if Caelus is planning on bringing down that cave I might have-”
“Rowan.” Brandy said, laying a hand on the Naguai’s chest, “If you’re worried about another hiccup like in Snow, I assure you-”
“Hiccup? You caused an avalanche. I spent a week digging the wagon out. I nearly lost a toe to frostbite and-”
“We completed the contract.” Brandy snapped, crossing her arms.
“The contract was to get s troll out of a mine.” Rowan hissed throwing his arms out to his side. “When you were done, there was no mine left.”
“Or troll mind you.”
“You are in charge of the medical tent. You are always in charge of the medical tent. Look, I even got you a new apprentice” Rowan said lifting his chin to Sinette. “Girls a Shaman. Plus, she won’t be shot faced. Should work miracles for your survival rate. Now how about we call it a night before you hatch any more ideas to get us all killed.”
Brandy glared at Rowan as he made his way to the campfire, relaying the latest news of the Nyx and their plan to make their way to the village at dawn. She watched the looks of worry, doubt and resolve cross the faces of the new formed band of sell swords. Brandy let out a sigh as she pulled a flask from her belt, checked the label to ensure it was simple whiskey and not one of many deadly concoctions before raising it to her lips.
“You seem to forget, Rowan my love, who I truly am.” Brandy muttered under her breath, before raising the glass in a toast to herself. “I am the great spirit Alchemist. I once ruled over the college of Alchemy. I was respected. I was feared.”
She watched as Rowan dropped to one knee, placing a hand on the small Naguai woman who had wandered helplessly upon his camp. Those hard calloused Hand and that gentle smile. Brandy sighed and craned her head back staring at the starry night sky.
“You forget who I was.” She whispered, “before I fell in love with a brutish man with a gentle soul. A man who I had imprisoned and tortured only to have him save me when my ambitions nearly tore me apart. You’re lucky I love you, even if you never look at me the way I look at you. I love you.”
She emptied the flask with one last deep swig before looking at the fire. Nearly everyone had left. The young wolf Naguai snored loudly by the flames; his lean body draped over the log next to the young man Caelus. She watched as the young man sat, map in hands and brows furrowed in concentration.
A smile worked past her lips as she stared at the artificer, as she unconsciously fingered two orb like flasks at her hips.
She was not the woman she once was. But that didn’t mean she still didn’t have some tricks up her sleeve.
She hummed a tune as she made her way to the back of Rowan’s wagon. Popping open the small cabinet that held her alchemist tools she smiled, pulling free the rattling orb of unseen power and the glowing embers of pulverized salamander tongue. Grabbing the tinted goggles, she whistled a tune as she went to work.
The next morning The whole of the vagabond arms found themselves with in the shoddily built walls of Thimble. The village was a simple place, a ring of thatch roofed hovels surrounding a town square containing a simple tavern and various merchants peddling their wares.
“Caelus. Sinette. Minoka. Mosh. A moment, please”
Rowan watched as the four made their way through the small crowd of mercenaries under his command. Sinette looked nervous being called out of the crowd. He gave her a reassuring wink as the other gathered. Caelus looked focus as always, Minoka annoyed to be near the man she seemed to believe was her enemy. Mosh appeared to be working a kink out of his neck from his rough night’s sleep.
“I need to meet with the village elders who hired us.” Rowan said, “it might be a while. I need to smooth over our low numbers and get more information about the man who was killed last night. While I am at work, I need you to take care of somethings. Can you take care of that for me?”
Caelus opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the soft form of a woman he had never seen before pressing against his arm.
“Of course, we can,” She breathed against his cheek, “I have been dying to speak to another man of science, Caelus. Maybe you can- Ahhhh!”
Brandy yelped as Rowan’s massive hand caught her by the waist and dragged her away from the Artificer. He moved her as if she weighed nothing, all but throwing her into Sinette.
“Sinette, meet Brandy. Our resident doctor. She will help you with buying medical supplies. Won’t she?” Rowan all but growled.
Brandy rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Of course, she will. Still meet me in the tavern when we are don’t with our errands. I would love to buy you a drink, sweetheart.”
Brandy gave Caelus a wink before all but dragging Sinette with her. The man seemed more confused than anything else.
“And what do you need of me, Master Whitehorn” Minoka said with slight bow.
“For you to never call me that again.” Rowan said, “And recruitment. You were here for a couple hours, and you already had men willing to kill for your honor.”
“To be fair,” Mosh interrupted, “I do have that effect on people.”
“I have learned,” Rowan snapped, “Do me a favor and post up in the tavern and see who you can recruit to our cause. No using your Gift though. If people are going to risk their lives, I don’t want it to be because they believe in the cause, not because they are in love with you.”
“I don’t use my gifts to manipulate humans.” Minoka said, “Not all Cambion are monsters. Some of us care about the mortals we were sworn to protect.”
Rowan blinked, caught back by the sincerity in the woman’s words. He opened his mouth to speak but she had already grabbed her fiddle and walked away. He made a mental note to know more about the girl, regretting judging her so quickly.
“And what is it you need of me.” Caelus said.
“I am assuming you will need more to blow up that cave then what you got in that shield of yours” Rowan reached into his pants pocket and retrieved a pouch of silver. “Buy what you can I am not sure if they will have what you need, but if you can find something we will make it work.”
“And lastly, what can I do for you, boss man.” Mosh said beaming.
Rowan stared at the young Naguai and then back at Caelus.
“Also, I need you to keep Mosh alive.”
And with that Rowan turned and walked away.
**Players, the battle is about to begin. I want to give you this opportunity to role play your characters and truly explore who they are before the battle begins. It is important to let you know this fight is going to be tough and depending on what comes next, it is likely that some may not survive the coming conflict.
If at any points you have any questions about the NPC’s, please feel free to reach out to me on discord. I will help however I can. Thank you again for writing this story with me. See you next week, in the tavern with Rowan Whitehorn**