War Dogs; a tale of blood and coin

Intermission: Rise of the dark lord

For something undead, the concept of being afraid is… an uncomfortable one. The wisp snaked its way through the Thornwood effortlessly, but its movements were imperceptibly slowed by the distant yet unshakeable thought that this was not a place it wished to be.

The Cryx occupation of the Thornwood had infected the land; it’s influence warping the very ground and all the life that had once flourished here. Abominations crept through the wood as the screams of distant victims echoed throughout the forest… But that’s not what slowed the wisp as it swirled its way down a cave which had been turned into a laboratory of sorts.

Ghastly experiments were carried out, with bodies being stretched and cut in ways that would have chilled the souls of the bravest mortals. Various tables still had living occupants, whose screams were muffled by tubes of foul looking liquid that were rammed down their throats; as their bodies were cut, electrocuted, modified, and prodded for the advancement of the Cryx.

Eventually however, the wisp arrived at its destination; a large central hall where the myriad of operating tables and human sized test tubes stopped, to be replaced with a single larger table where necrotechs and ghastly looking surgeons surrounded a single body that writhed with an unnatural energy.

“… My lord?” whispered the wisp as its hollowed eyes darted around the chamber. The necrotech’s did nothing to stop working, but a booming voice that sounded like it was coming from everywhere rocked the chamber.

“Leane my dear… What news do you bring?”

The wisp shivered, its incorporeal form somehow finding something to be cold about as the voice snaked around its very form. It did not like remembering the life it had before…

With hesitation, the wisp spoke again.

“My lord… the expedition to the north has been lost. Our forces have just returned in full retreat”

Now there was movement as a necrotech was suddenly cast aside, its body launched away from the table with a velocity that almost made it look like it had been fired from a cannon. The other necrotechs were quick to scurry backwards as the being on the table raised itself.

If Lord Exonne, the iron lich on the table had once been human, it was almost impossible to tell now. It was no less than 12 feet tall, with a body that looked half human and half farrow, augmented everywhere with sickly slates of Cryx metal erupting from its flesh. It’s face was probably the most human thing about it, but the skin hung just a little too far from the flesh, and the areas between the gray pallid flesh and blackened farrow fur looked just a little too disconnected to be trusted…

WHAT?! BRING ME THE SICAR RIGHT NOW” began the lich, its prosthetic large right claw twisting like a drill being primed to rend stone from metal.

But the lich was smart… and in a moment realized that for as useless a sniveling coward as his lieutenant Sicar was; he would know better than to send a wisp to relay news that he should speak himself. The surprise of the realization caught the giant as its anger was quickly replaced with a lightning fast series of logical conclusions… There would be questions to answer; of which included those that Exonne would have to answer for itself to the likes of Asphyxious later today…

“Sicar is no more master… Nor is Mali and any of its people…” whispered the wisp hesitantly.

“How?” asked the lich, taking its first great stride towards the wisp which quietly recoiled in fear.

“Artillery strike… The diversionary mercenaries commandeered one of our siege engines, and burned the town while the majority of our forces were preparing to process the civilians… Including Sicar”

The lich thought on this for a moment as it absently stroked a razor sharp claw against the nearby table, causing an ear piercing shriek every time the metal met resistance.

“Just like Sicar to get greedy… His foolishness has cost us dearly” thought the Lich aloud as it contemplated all the times it would’ve torn the lieutenant apart just for the sake of doing so. Mali was to be the foothold the Cryx needed to begin launching their offensive, but the loss of so many of their resources and the lost element of surprise would be difficult to explain. Asphyxious was not one to broker failure…

“Our witness-” stuttered the wisp before the lich cut it off.

“Witness? I thought all the civilians were purged?”

To answer, two thralls marched in, a mangled gurney of black twisted metal between their metal hands. Upon it rested a single being, its flesh and clothing burned beyond recognition. The lich moved up and signalled the necrotechs to follow suit as they surrounded what was left of the being on the table.

“Hmm… most interesting” boomed the lich as its right claw gently turned the mangled body. The body was indeed badly burned, but unlikely the artillery strike; this one was burned with conventional fire, its flesh now warped and blotched with all features having been torn away. In the absence of features however, Exonne placed the tip of its claw against the only distinguishing mark left on the creatures face.

A single bullet hole, right between its iosian eyes.

And with that, it’s dead eyes snapped open as it glared at those that surrounding it.

“… Most interesting”

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Epilogue

The journey to Korsk is surprisingly quiet given the events you walk away from. To your dismay, there is nobody else on the road heading from Mali to Korsk that you encounter, and you distantly hope that it’s because they’ve headed for Ord or Ios; but you know better…

As you pass from hamlet, to village, to town; the stories become louder and more fantastic, all the while being utterly without merit. It’s a Cygnarian bio weapon, or a show of rebellion from the local Llaese resistance; but the conclusion is that Mali has been wiped off the map and early estimates indicate that the town will never be restored. It’s of some surprise to you to learn that there’s almost no mention of the Cryx, but it makes sense… The Cryx were operating well beyond their borders (with their operations based to the south, a raid in northern Llael is all but impossible to fathom), and even if it was known; such rumors would do nothing but instill a panic amongst the populace.

By the end of the first day of travel, you and the group have procured horses on the Kayazy coin and have already started heading for a nearby town where a train can take the group to Korsk. You learn the eliminators, sisters named Taylaria and Valera are actually fairly pleasant company; carrying themselves with a sense of honor and hard won world experience. Despite the reputation of the Kayazy, the two of them are fairly jovial in their dealings with you, and you can tell from their various scars and stories that the two are no doubt a force to be reckoned with.

Korsk, the capital of Khador, is a welcome sight after the second day. While it lacks the technological advancements of Cygnar, or the cultural color of Ord, Korsk is clearly an orderly city of brick and mortar; defying the beginnings of the winter chill that has clearly begun to grip the northern capital city. Her people are hardy however, and if the winter’s chill bothers them; they demonstrate no signs of their discomfort.

The eliminators bid you farewell and provide you tickets back to Ord, as well as a promise that the War Dogs may call upon their services should they be needed. You are somewhat wary about having such close ties to the Kayazy, but frankly you’re better off being on their good side than their bad; and Valera and Taylaria seemed like good friends to have at your back.

Your eventual meeting with the retired Kovnik Ulrich goes about as well as you might expect. Your profession almost requires that you forget that everyone you kill was someone’s son or daughter, if only to help you get through the day of killing for profit; so delivering the news of a dead son strikes a nerve as you let the Kovnik know his only son has passed on. For your efforts however, the Kovnik provides you ample coin for your efforts and promises more work in the future.

As your payment is split between the group, you take a moment to draw in the crisp morning air. The last week alone has given you experiences and scars that are unlikely to ever come away from you; but you have coin in your pockets and you live to fight another day which is all any Dog could ever ask for. With that thought, you square your shoulders and look out across the city; wondering where your path may take you next.

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Conclusion

It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Semyon was the first off the line, his blasting pike levelled at Sylan in a slam to push the errant Iosian off his course. For a man in such heavy armor, the ex-iron fang’s movements were like liquid as his slam lifted the lithe man off the ground and into a tree.

The sound of the Iosian smashing into the tree couldn’t be heard however, as everyone else’s eyes were inexplicably drawn to the scream of cannon fire. The cryx warmachine ground its gears, sounding something akin to metal being ripped and torn as it unleashed its first volley; this one aimed directly at the town center. Green lightning arched into the air, lighting the valley up with a dull green light.

The silence of the moment was unnerving. The townsfolk of Mali who had been shouting and screaming as they were herded towards the Cryx fell silent, as did their undead captors who in their final moments seemed to recognize what it was that was about to befall them. All eyes were locked on the skies as the green comet streaked towards the town.

Or maybe it wasn’t silence… Maybe it was just the comparison to the sound of the rippling explosion that tore its way across the view before the group. A deafening roar echoed past you, pushing gout of hot air past you as you raised your forearms to protect your face. For the briefest of moments, it was as bright as day in the valley of Mali; the sun emanating from the town and in a shade of green and orange as powder kegs and stores of blasting powder and fireworks erupted in tandem with the artillery shell.

A second comet of green was fired to seal the deal; but there was nothing left of the town; just dust and the occasional husk of a metal construct, be it the beam of a building, or the hollowed out remains of a helljack. If there was anything else; living or undead within the city limits, it was all just dust now.

“We have to leave… Another vanguard of the undead is approaching and I believe them to be in the thousands” mutters one of the eliminators, her voice oddly devoid of the gravity that one might expect of a person who just committed a mass murder. Maybe she viewed it as having saved all those souls, or perhaps it was just a lifetime of war and blood that drained her of any sympathy that would have stayed her hand.

Everyone is about to about to agree when Sylan’s voice catches your attention.

MURDERERS” shouts a gravelly voice. The iosian is slow to his feet but gestures one of his twin magical blades back and forth between everyone.

“I swear by my ancestors, you will all pay for this. If it’s the last thing I do, your last breath will be by my bla-” begins Sylan as he begins to limp away before his thoughts are cut short by a clean bullet between the eyes. While unfortunate, the Dogs will not tolerate a threat to their ranks; future or present.

With the undead closing, the group gathered what they could and sabotaged the siege equipment before vanishing into the night with the Kayazy. It had been a very long night indeed and you’re eager to put this wretched town behind you.

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The path to hell...

If you never have to shoot, cut, bash, punch, or otherwise stab another undead again; it’ll be too soon.

Your weapons and clothes are slick with signs of your latest conflict. Never before have you faced a force as pervasive or as numerically superior, but here you are. The group’s steamjack has very clearly seen better days and you suspect it may take a while to restore its functionality to full; but it’s still standing which is a lot more than you can say for the army you faced.

The air is cold and still in this moment of solitude, but it is far from quiet. The growing sound of screaming from behind your position up the valley has steadily grown through the fight and you know it won’t be long till whatever is making their way towards you will be here… While none amongst you know precisely what is causing it, it most accurately can be described as the howling shrieks of a thousand different voices; all out for blood.

Light coughing and gurgling draw your attention and weapons to a heap on the floor which once belonged to Lucious. He’s trying to crawl away but you suspect for a moment that escape is not his intention… Nevertheless you ready your weapons of choice as you and your compatriots draw close to the dying man.

Where once was a man driven by his necromantic warping, is now a man who is all but being held together by a tormenting pain that twists his features to an extent that makes you feel just a little sorry for him. The hollow green light which once emanated from his eyes has faded to reveal tired gray eyes that you suspect once twinkled with love and happiness.

You feel a gasp escape you as two thoughts connect when you realize you have seen this man before, albeit in far better health… It’s none other than Mayor Iblis, the man in office for the town of Mali. Without his necromantic power, his features have softened a little and you’re better able to see the connection that you wouldn’t have otherwise drawn between the man in the barn those few nights ago, and the mayor whose face you caught in passing during your reconnaissance of the town.

A splurt of tainted blood calls one of you to kneel down to apply pressure on the wound, although the gesture is probably a cosmetic one at this point.

“Thank… Thank you… The voice has lifted…” coughs the man to nobody in particular. His eyes drift for a moment back in the direction of his beloved town.

“I… I am so sorry… I never wanted this” splutters the man finally before expiring on the ground before you. You can’t see the town from here, and you have the distinct sense that his greatest dying regret was in not being able to see his town one last time. You may never know what exactly happened here, but it’s clear that Iblis did not do this of his own volition, and that this is just one more crime the Cryx need answer for.

You are about to return to the task of securing your horses when the ground shakes violently and a bright green star flies overhead towards the town once again. The artillery battery is firing once again!

Your companions and you nod in unison as everyone runs for the artillery piece, weapons already in hand as you round the corner…

… To find a most curious sight.

The promised Khadoran eliminators are here, one with her back turned to you while her fingers dance across the interface of the Cryxian artillery piece, while the other is busy trading blows with none other than Sylan Brightwatch who is busy trying to get past.

Your arrival distracts the iosian just long enough for one of the eliminators to seize the advantage however. She’s dances forward and puts a savage sweeping kick into the elf, throwing him backwards onto his back.

“You have to stop them! They’re trying to kill everyone!” shouts Sylan as he scrambles to his feet.

“We have to do this you stupid elf!” counters the more forward of the two, her words filled with a similar anger.

From here you have a clear view of the town and you feel your heart sink. The Cygnar and Khador fronts have been completely obliterated, and much to your surprise, the townspeople are being herded back to the center of town from the north by an army of Cryx.

“I think… I’ve almost got it. Next barrage should do the trick” mutters the other eliminator aloud as the massive artillery piece’s gears grind into place to automatically reload another massive explosive round into place.

“This is insanity; you’re going to kill hundreds of people!” retorts the elf as he spins his daggers into hand, pacing himself slightly to the left to see if he can find a path to the artillery operator.

“Better than giving the Cryx hundreds of soldiers and a foothold here” she replies as she puts herself in his path. At the sight of the elf’s daggers, she draws her own as she drops into a fighter’s stance. She had restrained herself to hand to hand fighting when the elf had first appeared to plead his case, but it looked like things were getting rather serious now.

“Some of them could escape… Some of them could be in hiding! You take that shot; and they’re all dead…” tries the last member of the Talon guard company, but it’s clear that he knows his words won’t reach the kayazy’s ears.

The piercing cry of the artillery gun preparing to fire seems to be all that Sylan needs, his path through the kayazy and to the equipment operator singular and clear; even if it is complete suicide.

And with that; he takes his first step forward.

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End of Day 3 - A momentary detour

Your weapon feels heavy in your hand as the last risen thrall falls. You almost feel a desire to double check the fallen to ensure they don’t stand up once again, but the truth is that the thrall’s barely knew how to move in an orderly formation; sitting still for long enough to be able to fake their own deaths seems unlikely.

… And with that thought you drive your hand weapon into the nearest dead one more time. Better safe than sorry right?

You delayed your trip to the artillery battery to save these three in the hopes that they would be of use to you; but your curiosity piques when you realize that the one man you saved is actually the Cygnarian warcaster. Given the path, it’s clear their plan was one of desertion which very nearly ended as poorly as the fate of those this man has left behind.

You feel your thoughts lingering for a moment to the men back on the two fronts. Your efforts managed to open the north corridor to Mali, buying the refugees a way out as they scrambled past you to the relative safety of the northern plains. For the first time in years, Cygnar and Khador fought side by side; the Cygnarians attempting to delay the Cryx across the south eastern river, while Khador stood before the open plains of the south west. Neutralization of the artillery batteries would be paramount if they were going to survive the day; so here you were, racing towards the screaming artillery batteries down this path that crossed through the hills.

The begging and pleading for mercy on the part of the Cygnarian warcaster recaptures your attention. It’s easy to press this man into service however; Cygnar happens to offer a rather good bounty on deserters, and you will gladly take this man’s head if he won’t offer you his services.

On that note, another screaming artillery round rockets across the night sky; the sound of the impact marked with the distant rumble of additional explosions. Evidently their shots are drawing closer to the intended target.

The time for action is now and you spare a moment to check your equipment before spurring your borrowed horse forwards into the night.

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End of Day 2 - Betrayal?

There’s an image that will haunt you for at least a few more years (or at least a few more booze filled nights).

Let’s face it, death is common place in this business and you certainly can remember the last wretched gasp of pain that slips the surly bonds of mortality as you drove your weapon deeper into your opponent. That slight bulging of the eyes, the spray of strangely warm blood against your skin, that choke of breath as your drained the last of their life away…

… But you’re used to that, and you know that in this life; your ending may not look altogether different. It’s sobering to think that your end will probably not be in a warm bed, surrounded by those who love you when the end comes; but you chose this life and that decision was taken from you the very first time you decided to take that luxury away from another.

But then there was Lucious. You remember the way Sylan kicked over what was left of the old man and felt your skin crawl a little. His eyes were hollowed out, as though they had served as nothing but a speed bump to something that peeled away his essence through those sockets. He’d clearly died days before you met him (an uneasy conclusion about whomever you’ve been speaking with since), but the clear signs of agonizing torture at the hands of necromancy are clear to you.

… If you’d told your younger self that your end may have been like this, in some damp cave having the very essence of your being ripped away from you while you died slowly and painfully; would your path be different now?

Another screech through the night tugs at your attention though. With your pay master dead (or at least, with the original dead); your team has taken the fight to the Cryx who now turn their machinations against the town of Mali. Your desperate fight and resolve has cleared the siege site where massive Cryxian catapults now sit dormant, but your mind races as to what to do now.

There’s no profit to this now; you could easily run into the cornfields and put Mali behind you, but there’s something to be said about the distant scream of artillery turning the town into a smouldering crater. In the distance you can hear the sounds of battle, but it’s clear to hear it’s not going well and will likely continue to go poorly if left unaided.

Sylan’s committed to helping the people of Mali escape, his daggers coated in undead blood and his will bound by the resolve that comes from losing everyone you were entrusted to keep safe. You’d be lying if you didn’t feel a bit of a need to get even, but there’s not even a guarantee you would find Lucious’s impostor if you returned to the town.

Another bright comet of green fire lights the sky, cascading across the night towards the town. If the Cryx plan on annihilation, the siege batteries will hammer the town while their forces simply lock the escape routes to keep everyone trapped within. The Cryx have clearly planned everything to a T and with time, their plan will succeed.

… That said, it’s obvious they never planned on your team surviving their trap… That thought causes you to brighten a little as you feel yourself grip your weapon just a little more. The time for action… is now!

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End of day 1: You never know who's listening...

The distant shuffling of dirt in the otherwise peaceful night sky is haunting. The bodies of the Burning Suns mercenary company are being tossed in a shallow grave behind the rotting barn, their execution solely due to the rushed comments of one member who couldn’t stay quiet till they were out of ear shot.

But the weight and jingle of coins in your pocket reassures you that you’re in a better place. Lucious is clearly not a man to be trifled with, and you can’t help but wonder what a successful job like this could mean for the future of your little band of rogues.

Your journey back to town is filled with questions and mysteries. With the revelation of the contract, you find yourself thinking about how the next few days will play out. Assassinating a nobleman is a hefty crime, but to do so in a manner that could further stoke the flames of war? If the three nobles were actually able to come together during this festival; would it really mean a start to a peace negotiation (if not peace, then perhaps a tenuous continuation of a cease fire?) It was too early to tell, but if peace was to develop; it had to start somewhere and this very well may have been it.

As you pass the stretch of road where you were ambushed, you note with some disgust that the corpses of the monsters you fought earlier are gone. The blood is a clear indication of their failure, but the local wildlife has claimed their carcasses, no doubt feasting not far from your present location.

The elimination of your designated target, the Cygnarian noble will yield 300g for each member of your company; which means a potential 900g for War Dogs. It’s hard to shake the potential extra 900 crowns, or even 1800 crowns with the removal of both additional targets, but for now you force yourself to focus on what’s right in front of you.

Sleep finds you swiftly in the inn, as you dream soundly of blood and coin.

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