A smear of grey across the sky
A warning in the distance
An indecipherable alarm

And there you stood, your mouths agape
Your minds adrift and far from harm

Smoke on the horizon …

Black Company mantra

The boy and the wildling

Lithvar was just finishing shelving the day’s manuscripts when he heard the noise; when he was shelving Lithvar  had a tendency to be distracted by every creaking and cracking sound in the temple compound, and especially by any sound or smell from the kitchen. So when he heard the rustling and banging in the kitchen, he immediately thought of someone was preparing something for tomorrow, something he could cadge a little of. Even though he spent all day sitting down in the library, Lithvar was at that age of boyhood where he was constantly hungry, and he had long since become a familiar fixture in the kitchen. Strict rules of asceticism were supposed to apply in this temple, but Lithvar was no trainee – just a library assistant – and all the serving staff liked him. Seeing his chance, he hastily stuffed the last manuscript into its slot – some pointless document about the coming End of Times – and dashed swiftly and quietly down to the kitchen. He was given a lot of leeway, but disturbing the monks in their interminable evening prayers was not part of it, so he had to move silently. No trouble for a light-footed wood boy on the cusp of adolescence …

… he reached the kitchen to find it abandoned and silent. It was dark, but he could hear a scrabbling noise from inside. He slipped through the doorway and found himself staring at a bizarre scene of theft and rapture. To one side of the kitchen the smaller scrap bin had been overturned, and something was digging around inside, scratching hungrily for food. At first he thought it an animal, but after a moment it seemed to sense him and stuck its head over the bin’s edge: it was a wild-eyed elf-child of some kind, its hair ragged and matted, its face covered in filth. In its mouth was the messy remnants of a fish head, and in one hand it held stale bread. They didn’t have a chance to lock eyes though before Lithvar noticed the other thing on the kitchen bench. The bench was a great stone thing, that ran along half the length of the middle of the room. It had been cleaned down after dinner but Lithvar had left a single illuminated manuscript here after dinner, when he had sneaked down to steal some apple pie and eaten it while reading the book. Moonlight streamed down from a window high on the south wall of the room, and the book lay in a pool of silver radiance like some holy text that the gods wanted to be found. And indeed someone had found it: squatting on the bench staring down at the book was a tiny creature, a gnome child no more than maybe half a metre tall. In one hand it held a leg of rotten chicken; a chunk of the festering meat hung half-chewed out of the side of the little beast’s mouth. But it wasn’t eating, or looking around, or anything: it was staring in wonderment at the gleaming letter “D” that took up the top half of the page, and with one grubby finger it was tracing the outline of the silver dragon that traced the outline of the “D”, a dragon that shone like a real living thing in this mystical moonlight. The little beast was so wrapt in the lettering of the book that it didn’t notice Lithvar at all – it was captured in the joy of letters, just as Lithvar had been two years ago when he was first brought here.

Lithvar knew of these things: they were wildlings, children abandoned on the edge of the Wildwood by slavers, bandits or reckless families and left to fend for themselves. Most died, but the smarter ones formed together into wild gangs, moving from town to town and living by their wits, mostly by theft and sometimes a little prostitution. They were lost to the wilderness, mostly they didn’t speak or they shared a language their own band had created, forged together out of all the tongues of the members. They didn’t usually make it to adulthood, but those few who did would end up at New Port or Santa Cora, living as thieves, or would be inducted into a bandit gang and used as savage scouts till they died. But these two were too young for that, still wandering the wilds stealing food. Lithvar found himself not at all scared of them, just moved by a desire to help them. He stepped forward into the edge of the moon’s glow and whispered a greeting to the tiny thing. As he moved the other wildling dissolved into shadow and was gone with that supernal grace and speed that only wild wood elves can master. The gnome-child, however, was not so fast – it leapt back from the book but, still part entranced, didn’t leave the bench; instead it crept slowly away from this giant boy striding into the light, but it kept one eye on that book.

“Would you like me to read it to you?” Lithvar asked gently, but this scared the thing even more; it slipped further back into the shadows, and out of the spell of the book.

“Oh, okay … how about some food…?” Lithvar stepped slowly away from the table and turned to the pantry, unlocking it and opening it as quietly as he could. When he turned back bearing bread and cheese the gnome-child was gone, lost in the shadows. He sighed, not unsurprised, and placed the food on the table between the book and the shadows, just on the edge of the moonlight. A few moments later he saw two wide, pale blue eyes staring from the edge of the bench. Slowly the child moved back onto the bench, looking for the food but staring at the book.

“Would you like to know what it says?” He asked gently. The gnome child obviously couldn’t understand him much, but it understood his tone; it seemed to relax a little as it reached for the food.

They shared a few moments more before some noise in the upper levels of the cloisters disturbed the gnome. Lithvar heard someone coming, and moments later the gnome was gone, properly this time, carrying a chunk of bread with it into the wild night. Lithvar hastily cleared the food away, sighing in disappointment as he did so. His moment of connection was over, and it was back to the books for him …

… but over the next nights the gnome-child returned, and for a few weeks he had a strange and savage friend. He taught the gnome-child a few of the rudimentary letters in the book, and helped it to eat and rest. But eventually they were caught; he was caned and the gnome-child fled, moving on with its band to the next village, probably to forget him and his kindnesses forever …

The prisoner and the knave

In the years after he met the gnome child Lithvar grew into an awkward, shy teenager. He still loved books, he still spent his days in the library, and he still had no patience for prayers and asceticism, though he had begun to learn a little of the secrets of the temple where he lived. He had also become more comfortable with the grounds of the temple, and especially liked to take the air in the Southern garden, which had a pretty fountain and pool that he liked to relax by in the cool of the early morning. He felt very lucky here in this temple. Though he knew nothing of the religion that had found and sheltered him – and indeed, knew nothing about why he was here or where his family were – he trusted the priests implicitly. They were sometimes strict and often distant, but he been treated well here and although he knew little of the outside world, he knew enough to guess that life would have been much harder in the outside world for a seemingly orphaned boy of his age.

So it was that one morning he descended the marble stairs from the library into the cool of the garden, to sprawl on the bench beside the pool and have his faith in his elders shattered.

When he emerged into the garden he found it already occupied, by a sobbing boy no older than himself. The boy was staring at himself in the pond, his reflection disturbed only by occasional teardrops. His sobs were almost silent, but it was enough for Lithvar to know that this boy was upset about something. He coughed gently, always shy of speech even now, and the crouched boy spun around. For a moment Lithvar was reminded of that strange evening years ago in the moonlight, but that child could not have grown so much, this must be some other interloper. This boy was obviously injured in some way: his head was bandaged, blood and something else seeping through the bandages that were clearly freshly applied. His tear-stained face appeared to be bruised, and he wore ragged clothes that, in the places where they were ripped away revealed fresh scars and bruises. Was this what Lithvar had looked like when he was taken in by his nameless temple?

The boy backed away from him in obvious fear. “It’s okay,” he said, slightly helplessly, holding out one arm cautiously. “I’m not here to hurt you, I just want to sit on this bench.” He sat down carefully. The boy stared at him for a moment longer, then with an outraged howl he tore the bandages off and thrust his entire head into the pool, shaking it under the water. Lithvar, shocked, rushed forward to pull the boy from the pool. “Don’t!” he gasped. “You should keep the …” his voice trailed off as the boy turned to face him, dripping water from … two horribly disfigured stumps growing out of his skull. They looked for all the world like the stumps of horns, as Lithvar was used to seeing on the strange beast head hanging preserved over the fireplace in the library. Blood and clear liquid oozed from the base of the stumps where the damage had been done. It looked incredibly painful! The boy was sobbing again, and collapsed with a howl at Lithvar’s feet.

“What has happened to you!” Lithvar asked in horror. And then, remembering to always be reassuring with strange interlopers … “Don’t worry, our priests will make it better.”

The boy’s head snapped up from its huddle, and he stared furiously at Lithvar through stunning eyes, one violet and one black. “Your priests did this!” he snarled.

“What?” Lithvar took a step back, shocked at the accusation. “No! They are kind!”

“Kind?” The boy spat. “They want to drive my demons out. They had me locked in a room, they cut me and beat me.”

“No! They must be trying to heal you!”

The boy rocked forward a little, head tilting to one side, eyes widening. “You don’t … believe they would do this?” He asked softly.

“No! They are kind. They have always been kind …” His voice trailed off. He remembered the night they found him with the gnome child, and the boy’s cries and screams after they dragged him away. Where was that child now? They would never tell him what they did …

The boy rose up onto his knees, grabbed Lithvar’s hand before he could recoil. Was it Lithvar’s imagination, or was the boy’s skin slightly dry and … scaly?

“Please, help me!” The boy gasped urgently. “You know this place. You can help me leave!”

“Nothing is stopping you! Just go to the gates! Here, I’ll show you!” Lithvar drew the boy up, but then paused. “But wait, if you’re leaving, I should get some food for the road. You can’t go off without food!”

The boy looked around urgently. “There’s no time! We should go. You can’t …”

His protests trailed off, eyes wide, looking over Lithvar’s shoulder. Lithvar turned slowly. The temple Elder was standing there, flanked by two men in steel armour. They carried some kind of chains, strung with wicked-looking barbs and ending in a nasty blunt hook-thing. They both looked levelly at Lithvar with cold, expressionless faces. One twitched his left hand, making the chain rattle. The boy stepped away from Lithvar and started moving towards the stairs he had come down, but stopped as another one of the guards emerged from the shadows of the stairwell.

“Lithvar,” the elder said, not unkindly. “Please, what are you doing here?”

“Um …” Lithvar stumbled. “This boy … I found … he wants to leave. Um, I was just going to get him food and show him the gates.”

“No Lithvar, you weren’t,” the elder said gently. “He can’t leave. Tyhalt is sick, and he needs to stay here until he is better.”

“NOT SICK!” The boy wailed. “Don’t hurt me more! Lithvar, help me!” He stumbled forward and fell to his knees behind Lithvar, wrapping his arms around Lithvar’s waist. “Don’t let them hurt me again!”

The men stepped forward smoothly and swiftly. One grabbed Lithvar by the shoulders and arms, and before he could even think to move the other had the boy Tyhalt in a strong grip. Lithvar heard the chain rattling but noticed a swift glance from the elder, and the chain stopped. He couldn’t look around but he heard the sound of Tyhalt kicking the guard’s armour, followed by a thumping sound and cries. The elder nodded at Lithvar’s guard, and he began to be dragged in towards the stairs.

“We will talk later, Lithvar,” the elder told him. “Tyhalt needs to be returned to treatment.”

As he was dragged into the hallway Lithvar heard the boy crying and howling, then go suddenly silent as the chains rattled. Before the guard kicked a door closed he thought he heard muffled voices, the elder speaking loudly maybe, and then cries. But then the door shut and he was dragged into the cool darkness and merciful silence of the inner cloisters.

Later that day he spoke with the elder, but he learnt nothing of the boy, nor did he see him again. That day something changed in the happy silence of Lithvar’s life. Soon he was gone, taking a bundle of books and food and setting off into the world to find a new way…

The nightmare and the warden

Syrion was really still a boy when his father cast him out. Still a boy, but old enough to be caught atop his father’s third consort, and that was too flagrant an error for even his own long-suffering father to tolerate. Whether it was the shame of being cuckolded by his own son – and with his new favourite, no less! – or the realization that this child would only bring his royal house down, it cannot be said. Certainly as Syrion left the town incognito the next morning, bearing what little he could steal or beg from family retainers, head bowed in shame, the rumours he heard of that consort’s ill-omened end were not pretty. Still, he had got what he wanted, and what fault of his that her high-pitched warblings were fit to wake the dead (and his father’s guards)? Besides, the argument had been waiting to be had, and now he was free he could really show his father how great he was. He would make his own noble future, and return a powerful man to rival his own father. Then they would see who was an embarrassment to who!

… Syrion was still really only a boy a few months later when, down on his luck and too childish to manage his money, he found himself drinking his last gold piece away in a seedy tavern in some pointless town on the edge of the Wild Wood. It was hardly his fault – again, a woman had brought trouble down upon him because she couldn’t keep her ecstasy to herself. This time it was the daughter of the merchant whose caravan he had been guarding, and now here he was, unceremoniously dumped from his work and lucky not to have copped a stupendous beating – a good thing for him that the merchant’s retainers lacked any military prowess, and had been scared to touch him. Still, he had already handed over his deposit to a loan shark in Newport, and had been depending on the payment on delivery for food, clothes and lodging. So here he was, in a nowhere town with nowhere to go and no money. So it was that he found himself nursing bad ale and a bad heart, wondering if he would have to go slinking back to his father in shame, because there was surely no work to be had hereabouts, when a little group of men sidled up to him and offered him a paltry sum of money to beat up a local troublemaker.

Now that he could do! And what an easy troublemaker to find – some kind of demon that could be found in a barn nearby, a real demon with horns and a tail! They would only pay him a couple of silvers to do the job, but everyone knew that demons had treasure and besides! Think of the fame! And they bought him another drink! Which he downed ceremoniously, before staggering out to find this demon and collect his money…

… At the barn he staggered through the door, yelling bravely, and drew his sword with a yell. Standing there in the half-light was a full demon! It had red skin and fiery eyes, stood maybe 3m tall at the shoulder, and had huge horns and a long, whip-like tail. Was it scaled or furry? He couldn’t quite tell because of his blurred vision – some evil demon magic no doubt. This demon was standing over a supine figure, someone who was twitching and yelling in fear but transfixed before the demon, perhaps even semi-conscious with terror. A desperate tableau! Even though this demon, on closer inspection, appeared to be vague and barely material, in fact almost see-through – a seeming, perhaps? – it was still clearly a life-and-death moment for this poor traveller sleeping in the wrong barn! Syrion charged forward and with a couple of flourishes of his mighty sword arm was able to destroy the beast. It fled to its own plane, disappearing in a puff of sulphur, and leaving behind a little nick of horn. Syrion took the horn as proof of his job done, and sagged down beside the terrified traveller, who seemed to have returned to sleep. Now Syrion too was very tired. He needed to sleep off his drunken state. He would collect his reward in the morning …

… and so it was that he slept beside the warlock boy, Tyhalt, and while he slept there for the first time in a long time Tyhalt’s nightmares did not come – no demons manifested in his sleep, no infernal sendings or seemings troubled him. In the morning he and Syrion set out together, and it was only later in the day that Syrion realized Tyhalt was the demon he was supposed to have given a beating. By then Tyhalt had already proposed a money-making scheme to him: Tyhalt would appear in villages to terrorize them, and then Syrion would arrive fortuitously, collecting money to drive Tyhalt out. A lucrative venture! And one Syrion could hardly turn down. Thus it was that they became friends in crime, and wanderers on the fringe of the Wild Wood, as Syrion established his reputation as a paladin and demon-slayer…

 The doomed and the saved

Smoke on the horizon
Can the flames be far behind?
You run for cover, but it’s too late
You are engulfed, you are
The smoke on the horizon

– Black Company mantra

The cult found Ayn bound and dying in the sacrificial pit of one of their sacred ruins. She had been dumped there by her tribe – some kind of honour killing – doused in acid and left to die, or to be eaten while she died by one of the many ruthless scavengers of the wastes. Of course they only learnt later that her fate had been of such mundane savagery – at first, finding her in that venerated and holy hollow, they assumed she was a message from their crazed doomsday gods, so they saved her as best they could. From that day forth she was their slavish devotee, but scarred beyond recognition and shamed by the accusations of her tribe, she insisted on always being swathed head to toe in layers of impenetrable black cloth. Her face was so disfigured that she could never show it: instead she had a blank black mask, lacking even eyes (for who needs eyes when one’s mysterious gods of the End will give one all the sight one needs?) She became their living shadow, perfect adherent of their teachings, servant of their unholy and morbid gods.

Life passed that way for a few years. Ayn came of age, though no one could tell what changes might be happening inside those shrouds, and the cult too grew a little, found a wealthy patron, set up a little stockade in the edge of the wild woods. Things were going well, perhaps so well that their dreams of the 13th Age’s catastrophic end in fire and acid began to fade. Doomsday became a faint echo of their gods’ purpose, they went through the prayers and the motions but they did not, perhaps, care as much as once they did, living this comfortable life here in their little holy stockade. Except for Ayn. This cult had healed her, and its gods gave her sight – if her faith in their dread purpose ever waned or faded, so did her sight, and so every day she was perfect in her devotions to them, and in truth all she ever really dreamt of was the end of the earth – and especially of her old tribe, washed away in a tide of acid hate. When the Tiefling and the Paladin came, originally planning some scam but then deciding to stay for a few days so that the paladin could try and find what was beneath the strange girl’s robes, Ayn did not notice his attentions. She had thoughts only for the signs of the End Times, for that time when the world would be judged in fire and acid, and she would ascend to the heavens to become whole again. If she noticed the Paladin watching her impatiently, she ignored him. But she probably did not notice.

And noone noticed, either, the shadowy figure on the hillside watching them. The cultists were too comfortable in their easy life; Syrion the Paladin was too focused on Ayn and the mystery beneath her robes; Ayn was too rapt in her religious observances, praying to the dark ones so that she could keep the sight that failed to see the gnome scout hidden in the hills. So it was that he came, he watched, and he slipped away easily to his mercenary band, and he gave them detailed information on how to attack the stockade.

They came the next day: the Black Company, famed for its bravery and cunning, ill-famed for its brutality. The Priestess had paid someone to pay someone to hire someone to find someone to buy a squad to go and slaughter a doomsday cult. The Black Company were the squad, and Cog 11 was their gnome scout. He had come a long way since a library assistant taught him a few words in a glowing book; now he was a murderous adult with no heart, drifting purposeless through life with no greater goal than to fill his empty soul with a lake of blood. The Black Company was his company, but not his place, he had no place. So he watched as they fell on the stockade, but he noted that once again they had failed to follow the plan he had sketched out. They would win, of course – they always did – but it would take longer and be more difficult than needed. Angry at their stupidity, Cog 11 slipped into the stockade through the postern gate he had so carefully opened for them the day before, and prowled the streets looking for men to kill. He cut down a few, the savage pleasure of it muted by his disappointment at being ignored again. They always ignored him.

Then he found them. Syrion, Tyhalt and Ayn, trapped in a barn, fighting. He crept in above them, thinking to set some ambush, but he came to a slow halt as he crawled along the rafters to a good spot for the drop. These people did not seem lost. The big human, Syrion, was fighting with gleeful abandon, but he was brave, not a skulking backstabber like Cog 11. The tiefling and the paladin were obviously allied to each other – not by bonds of military discipline, but by some fierce joy they found in fighting alongside each other. And the black-robed girl, though she could barely muster a prayer, was deep in ecstatic service to her sick gods, flinging weak and pathetic spells about in the vain hope that she could serve some higher purpose than her own shriveled skin.

Cog 11 was amazed. His amazement soon turned to a surprising resolution: he would help them. These people had hope. He had nothing. Perhaps there was an alternative to drowning his sorrows in blood – perhaps he could find a place with people. Not the false companionship of the Company, hard men paid to like each other, but something real. He had never really even sought it out – perhaps there was a way?

With this brief irrational moment of hope eclipsing his usual cynical emptiness, Cog 11 dropped to the floor of the barn and shouldered into the door – which of course didn’t move under his tiny weight. “I have a way out,” he told the surprised paladin. But as they all looked down at him, he heard the creaking boom of a Company trebuchet. Moments later the roof of the barn crashed inward in a torrent of broken wood and flames, and the barn collapsed on them…

… By the time Lithvald stumbled on the stockade the main force of the Black Company had pulled back, leaving a ruined and blackened shell. Ash was falling from the sky with a gentle rain, and the whole area stank of smoke and death. He pushed his way through the wrecked gates into the courtyard, and picked past piles of dead and dying, looking for someone he could help. The ash drifted, settled and formed a thin skein of filthy mud in the rain, and the fires dimmed as the rain intensified. Everywhere horses and men twitched out their last breath. It seemed hopeless.

Lithvald was just considering leaving and returning to his forest when he heard a moan from a low pile of smouldering wood. He dived in and began heaving the wood aside, and after a few moments found the tiefling, who he helped out from under the timbers. As the rain washed away the grime coating the tiefling’s horn and slanted features they stared at each other in amazement. They remembered! Was this the boy Lithvald had tried to help years before? As he hauled the half-demon out from the wood they collapsed into each other, laughing with joy. Such a coincidence!

They helped the mysterious priest girl out, and then Syrion, who was battered from the battle and the ruins. Finally they spied a small crossbow focused on the group from amidst the ruins – Cog 11 returned to his old suspicions. But when he saw his teacher from all those years ago, he too crawled out of the shadows, amazed and awed by the power of fate.

This could not be just luck. This had to be fate. This was a group whom fate had conspired to draw together, to some obscure purpose. They could not separate now. They each had their own goals – of vengeance, lost loved ones to find, fame to make. But they had been drawn into the tangled web of each others’ lives by more than just luck. As Cog 11 urged them to leave the stockade before the Company’s camp followers came to murder and loot the injured, they spoke in amazement of their good luck and their future.

There was something in this. Where would it take them?

Note: this is how our new 13th Age party met. The Black Company Mantra is a slightly edited excerpt from the Assemblage 23 song, Smoke.