FEPlanet Community

Full Version: Vanguard Rising
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.
Pages: 1 2
Ambrose pulled his cloak tighter against the cold. His breath steamed in the frosty air as snow fell in gentle flakes around him. His armor was no help, either. The steel sucked the heat from behind his gambeson. The cloak was helping somewhat, but he didn't want to be in this weather much longer. His contact, an old spy named Caleb he'd happened to run into before crossing the mountains, had mentioned three people who might take interest in his cause, and greater interest given the target was also in the same area. When pressed, he was willing to try and direct them all to a specific inn.

At last, a town came into view. The castle overlooking the place was the residence of the local Lycian overlord. The town was of large size, but some of that had been destroyed in the war several years ago.

There was one person he was truly desirous of meeting: a bandit calling herself Tangle. Word was that she had a group of bandits that helped her harry Lycian supplies and troops trying to rule over their conquered territory. If he could get them to join up with his people and cause, they could do so much more than just harry. His dream would be closer to being a reality. The Vanguard would be more of a credible threat. The other two were of lesser import, but he was willing to accept any help. One was an unpleasant exile from Ostia, and the other was an Etrurian native.

He found a large inn. The sign had large sturgeon painted on it, with the words 'the Hearty Sturgeon' naming the place. The lights from the fireplace and chandelier were bright on this overcast day, and growing brighter as the day dimmed. At last, he thought, a place to get out of the cold. He hoped he could find the three he needed soon.

Ambrose entered the place, crowded with townsmen. Their clothes were looking less well-mended than their cut would have expected, but considering what the assassin had heard about the tyrant in this area, was it any surprise that few enough of the citizens could afford a to go to the tailor? Among the patrons were quite a variety of figures. But are the ones I need among them? he thought. He heard offers to other patrons of the 'Sturgeon Special,' while also hearing grumbling about a 'Damn Pascal.' Won't need to worry about that guy for too much longer.

The mercenary chose a bench table with an open seat. He warmed his hands by the fire as he waited. Surely Caleb would find him, point him in the right direction...
Nichol's travels had not treated him nicely. Until he'd decided to stop caring, that was. As soon as he'd begun to do that, he found, he blended in with the people of western Lycia just fine... or was it southern Etruria at this point? The people that mattered no longer believed there was any distinction, he supposed. A brief stay in a town full of disgruntled mercenaries was all it had taken to meet a few interesting characters until, for whatever reason, one of those characters had compelled him to pursue another one of the characters on a route suspiciously free of any trouble... Finally, he saw the man. He'd been getting tired of sipping.

"Sir Fred!" Nichol shouted the name he somehow remembered a heavily-armed man giving him a week or so south of here. A few heads turned. Ah, blast. Right. Armour. To Nichol's chagrin, he'd been wearing his Imperial guard armour when he had been shambling through the Etrurian hinterlands a few days back only to have been spotted by some locals who'd promptly run away screaming bloody murder... No matter. A few locally-coloured words would be plenty enough to make the townspeople doubt they were glancing at the same man. "'s my honour t' welcome you to the ol' Kingdom, mate!" He feigned a cough as the heads turned away, then seated himself at the table opposite Ambrose. "Or is it you who should be welcoming me...?" He took a gulp of what was, believe it or not, only his first ale for the evening. "Your man mentioned a job?"
"Sturgeon would be lovely. I would quite literally murder a person for some good fish right now." Tangle sounded absolutely nothing like a local, dramatic alto tones displaying the elevated Aquleian dialect common to scholars and nobles throughout Etruria. After this enthusiastic address to the server, the sage herself dropped into a vacant space on the beside Ambrose. "Or, a Lycian, at least," she added in a quieter tone that shouldn't carry. Her off-kilter grin was either an acknowledged that she was joking, or deeply worrisome in its own right. It depended on how optimistic one wanted to be.

As she produced a spare bit of cloth to tie unruly, blonde hair back out of her eyes, the threadbare embroidery on her sleeves was very obvious in the firelight. Like many in the room, her clothing -- both her dress and her slightly ragged cloak -- had seen better days. Her particular manner of dress indicated that she'd fallen from a significantly higher height than most here, however. "Oh, but I'm interrupting!" She glanced between the two men with a scrutinising air, before settling on Ambrose. "Ah, well. You may as well introduce us."
Priam Rhodes, age 26. Ostian military veteran. Dishonorably discharged and exiled on pain of death. Incorrigible smartass.

In spite of his very precarious position in life at the moment, he sat, very casually, at the back corner table of The Hearty Sturgeon. Dirt-covered boots on the table, in utter disregard for the glares of the barmaids. Two weeks of scraggly beard scattered unevenly across his chin, disastrously messy orangey-brown hair shedding left and right every time he moved his head. Armor battered as all getout and rusting here and there. Picking his teeth with a fishbone as he glanced around, cool as he pleased. The only lively thing about him was the surprisingly sharp look in his otherwise sleepy-looking eyes.

"Ya know, this fish ain't half what it's cracked up to be," he remarked, with no concern whatsoever as to who might overhear him. "Overcooked and dry as a bone. Got half a mind to ask for a refund."
Ambrose turned his back on the fire, his hands having warmed enough in his gloves, to greet the first arrival, when suddenly the second showed up. As some asshat was complaining about his food aloud, Ambrose said to them, "Yes, I am Ambrose, though I prefer Fred. And yes, I do have a job, provided you both are who you say you are."

He focused on Nichol. "Nichol Kless," then on Tangle, "and Tangle Rose, correct?"

They nodded. Soon after, Tangle's Sturgeon Stew was delivered, a barmaid refilled Nichol's stein, and Ambrose ordered and paid for his and their foodstuffs.

Amid the din of the place, Ambrose said, "So, we're all aware what happened here. Lycia won. The guy ruling this place was captain of a unit that helped burn the Tower of the Saint, with members of the new Church by his side. When the Emperor was parceling out the conquered territory, he saw the name of that captain, and made him lord over this place, and he's made life hell for the Etrurians ever since. Heavy taxes, in both gold and goods, and his subjects get killed or tortured if they ever speak up about their unfair treatment under Lord Pascal of Thria.

"So. The job. I'm hiring you, for the task of ending his Lordship's reign. Permanently. Think you're up for it?"
A growling sigh escaped Nichol. "'Lord' Pascal. Exactly the kind of person..." He let himself trail off into another swig of ale as he realised that it might not be the best idea to let himself finish that particular sentence: he had originally participated in selling out his homeland to the Empire with the empty promise that the people would no longer suffer under the whims of corrupt noblemen. Pascal was exactly the kind of person who wasn't supposed to have any power in the new order... but, of course, he did. That would teach Nichol to blindly trust anyone who called themselves an "Empire" again.

"... needs to meet his maker." Nichol finally chose a suitable ending for his sentence. "Aye, I'm with you." He raised his cup in a salute, looking to Ambrose, then Tangle, then a third man who was ranting about the fish being mediocre. Hey, it's true. Perhaps Nichol cared about the state of things a little more than he gave himself credit for. Either way, this was an opportunity he couldn't turn down; his hometown was probably even worse off than this place, anyway. There was nothing for him back there. His face broke into a smirk as he remembered the make of the armour that was hidden under his bed in the local inn. "As it happens, I've got some attire that might scare this fellow's guards into letting us into his keep... How often do you suppose this town gets visitors from Thria?"
Tangle spooned a piece of pinkish fish out of her bowl, blowing on it gently, then taking an experimental bite. "That is dry," she admitted. This did not stop her from attacking the rest of the bowl with a ravenous ferocity barely contained by the table manners drilled into her from early childhood. It might have been excusable to think she wasn't entirely listening as Ambrose spoke. When it came time for him to pose his question however, she held up a hand, finished chewing her mouthful of fish and root vegetable before she spoke. Her immediate comment was airy: "They do always like burning things, but then when you turn it around on them, it's all complaints. And a bit of, screaming. And some clawing at your leg, if you stand too close..."

She let that stand for a few seconds, until the slightly worrisome grin returned, and she used her empty spoon to jab the air for emphasis at key words. "More seriously, though, at this point, you'd have to pay me not to kill him. And I'd just take your money and kill him anyway, so it's good that's not the plan."

Green eyes snapped over to Nichol as he spoke. "It's a bit of a backwater out here. Not much call for important visitors of any kind from anywhere, unless they're dropping in on our soon-to-be-late local lord."
Priam, having taken his sweet time and waited until the others showed up before doing anything, finally stood and sauntered over to the table where the other three were.

Then laughed.

"The woman's got a point. Who the fuck's gonna fall for that? What's gonna happen is, you'll try to go in through the front like that then get surrounded and cut down quicker than y'can say 'I'm an idiot.' Which is somethin' I get the feeling ya don't say to yerself near well enough."

"Nah, here's how ya handle this shit if ya got half a brain in your head," he continued, sliding into the seat next to Tangle then placing his feet on yet another table. The glares from the barmaids intensified by an order of magnitude. "There's no way y'can take on that many guards in a straight-up fight, I don't care what kinda badass ya think ya are. This is a lord we're talkin' here, not the mayor of some backwater in the sticks. He's got fortifications. He's got soldiers that have actual armor and actual training. He might even have a ballista for all y'know."

He tossed the fishbone into the air. It proceeded to land in someone's drink. "What ya do is, ya set a charge on one side of their castle and set it off. Then while they're all scramblin' around tryin' to figure out what the hell's goin' on, y'go 'round to the side, take a grappling hook and climb up. Go in, hit hard, hit fast, get out. 'Cuz yer a guerilla force, not a fuckin' army."
"And you must be Priam," Ambrose said, looking around Tangle at the disheveled new arrival. "Good. Now we're all here. My man, Caleb, has infiltrated the garrison and is posing as a servant. Not to make light of the good advice, Priam, but I am aiming to send a message, not cause wanton destruction and chaos. Tonight, we will meet him at the postern. He will let us in, and show us to Pascal's chamber. We will kill him, and hang him by his entrails from his tower. Nichol, your attire might help us deceive any guards we meet into thinking we're supposed to be in there. Thanks for bringing it. We will leave in two hours from now."

At that moment, Ambrose received his stew and stein of ale. The mercenary/assassin ate ravenously, despite the dryness of the fish. He tossed the fishbones in the fire, before turning to the Lady of Flames.

"Tangle, there's something I'd like to discuss with you in private, if you wouldn't mind?"
A wistful expression crossed Tangle's face. "Ah, well. His plan had explosions. But I like how yours ends. And who doesn't enjoy a good disguise?" She twirled her spoon dramatically as she spoke, indicating first Priam, then Ambrose, then Nichol,  smiling at the visions both versions of events conjured to mind. She raised her bowl to her lips with her other hand, downing the liquid left behind with obvious relish. "The broth, though, is quite delicious," she decided. "Hard to make that dry, I suppose."

Tangle let the empty bowl fall to the table with an unnecessary wood-on-wood clatter, uncrossed her legs, and shot up to her feet with a bounce in her step. "In private? sounds dreadfully important. I don't mind at all."
It took a moment for Nichol to process Priam's absurd bluntness. It was ruffling, but... honest, at least. If he could count the plans that failed only because some guardsman was too scared to speak up during his time in the imperial corps, he'd probably be able to come up with a dozen. "Good point," he replied demurely. "I take it you've some experience in this sort of business?" He excused Ambrose and Tangle with a nod and braced himself to be the sole target of Priam's ranting. It was true; guerilla tactics didn't come naturally to Nichol. His strong suit was... well, it wasn't honourable combat either. He was only a middling talent at that. Perhaps he could learn a thing or two from this man.
"Well, yeah," replied Priam, tilting his chair about as far back as it could go without him crashing backwards. "The Ostian Army didn't keep me 'round long as they did 'cuz I was so good at makin' friends, that's for sure." He grinned about as much as if he'd told a joke at someone else's expense.

"They kept me where they knew I'd work best- with as few other people as possible an'almost no oversight. The kinda corps where I could just pull crazy shit out of my ass and have it work. Those were the good days. But, well. The higher-ups, they didn't much like that. Having a corps they couldn't control. They tried t'bring in some hot shit military academy graduate who called himself an officer even though the only qualifications the dumbfuck had was that Daddy was too rich for his kid to start from the bottom like everybody else."

He shrugged. "Didn't take too kind when I told him just what I thought of that. And here I am. Pannin' through the reject bin as if I'm gonna find gold instead of shit."
"I'll lead the way," he said, standing and going to the innkeeper. "Sir, I'll need a room for some private time with my lady."

The bald man with the huge mustache behind the counter looked him over, then Tangle, then shrugged as he named the price. Ambrose paid it and took the key. When they reached the room, he let her in, following behind and locking the door. He set his ear to it, trying to hear if someone were following them. Never could be too careful.

"Now, before you throw a fireball at me, allow me to explain my offer," the mercenary said, walking over to the table and sitting facing the woman."But first, a question. Have you ever heard of the Black Fang?"

She considered the matter, and replied, "I've heard the name vaguely referenced before, but just the name. It has no significance to me."

"In Bern, where I came from, they're an old folk legend; heroes of a time long past. A group of assassins led by the Reed family whose entire goal was the protection of the people from nobles who abused their positions of power," Ambrose explained. "A mage corrupted their operations, sending a woman to seduce the leader of the Fang. A Lycian noble of considerable character was forced to put them down. Thanks to that, the name has a less generous reputation in Lycia.

"But I'm rambling. Point is, they were a guild of assassins that acted on the orders of none but their own consciences. They're dead now, and I've no intention of bringing a story that should remain in the past back to the forefront of history. However, I am the leader of my own guild, the Vanguard, and my intentions are the same as the original Black Fang: the protection of the oppressed through the assassination of the oppressors, with the ultimate goal of assassinating the Emperor of Lycia. My biggest problem is that I am short on manpower. I have some refugees fortifying and repairing a mountain castle for our base of operations, and a few strong men willing to get their hands dirty, but that's not enough.

"I've heard that you lead a group of freedom fighters, too. It occurred to me that it might be beneficial to join forces, mine with yours. Will you join me in my cause?"
Seeing Ambrose sit down, Tangle followed suit... although not at the table. Instead, she perched on the foot of the bed, legs crossed, one elbow braced against her knee, chin propped up on her hand as she watched him keenly. There was nothing amorous about the choice in seating arrangement, but Tangle didn't know this man well yet, and seeing how he responded to small eccentricities was important.

His excuse for why they were here had made Tangle's eyebrows shoot up once the innkeeper had stopped looking directly at her, but she did now appreciate the implication that she would have been within her rights to throw a fireball at him. It was always good to establish that sort of baseline expectation. Ordinarily, she might have made a joke about buying her dinner first, but, well, he had. The actual question turned out to be more interesting, regardless. "Hm." Idly, she pulled on the twine that secured her Guiding Ring around her neck, using her free hand to idly swing the distinctive piece back and forth while she considered how to answer.

Tangle had read about the Black Fang, by name and veiled reference in most places. But in considerably more detail in some of the surviving writings of Pent of Reglay. Which, she realised with a slight stab, might no longer survive, with the occupation's attitude toward Etruria's cherished magical tradition... It, perhaps, made the lie she settled on a little more blunt than it might have been: "I've heard the name vaguely referenced before," she said, shrugging one-shouldered, "but just the name. It has no significance to me." In the end, a great deal more depended on what Ambrose thought the Black Fang had been. She wanted to hear his explanation.

As he finished, Tangle stopped swinging the ring back and forth on its twine, fingers running over the smooth metal instead. She wished she were wearing it. The old habit of twisting it on her finger as she thought died hard. "I am, first and foremost, a patriot," she informed him. "I and any followers who have come to work alongside me are fighting for Etruria before any other goal." For all that the maps were being redrawn to pretend that the greatest kingdom on Elibe no longer existed. And for all that, so far, they'd only had the resources to carry out small-scale operations, to say the least. Regardless, she wanted to stress that her and Ambrose's goals were not wholly identical. She was fighting for something different than merely the well being of a nebulously defined and seemingly pan-national 'people'. On the other hand, allies -- ones who dreamed big enough to imagine themselves striking down the Emperor himself, who had a castle at their disposal... What was that saying about the enemy of one's enemy?  "An alliance may be beneficial, however," she allowed.

She was silent for another further, thoughtful moment. Then she stopped, and straightened up on her perch at the end of the bed. "What we are attempting does sound like it currently runs together rather nicely. And I like the way you talk about disemboweling people who deserve it -- good attention to presentation. I will join your cause, if you don't mind that I wasn't exactly born a peasant girl."
The Ostian army. Not the Imperial army. He's older than I took him for, Nichol mused. "I joined up with the Imperial Guard a few years ago," he replied. "Figured it would be better than the peasant life. Ended up stuck in a garrison, of course. Felt like I was rotting there for an age and a half. Then they started sending my unit on suicide missions— best I can figure, some idiot corporal had a grudge. I took the hint and deserted." As he paused to take a drink, Nichol remembered the old fortress where he'd once been stationed, completely cut off from the outside world. It was probably still manned; he couldn't imagine the Guard being willing to mothball even a single outpost any farther than spitting distance from the Lycian heartland.

"Anyway, this..." Nichol thought of the events that had brought him to this place. He very well could have become a bandit, living off of plunder, but he had seized upon a lead as soon as he'd found one. Striking back against the regime was a more noble labour than banditry on the surface, but it was just as subversive. "... Stirring up trouble. Still sounds better than the peasant life, all things considered."
Priam shrugged. "Sure as fuck beats tillin' a field, don't it? Or makin' damn boots for the next fifty years, poppin' out brats t'make more boots t'make more brats t'make more boots. That shit ain't for me, hell no. That's a waste of time and air." Not that his dad had given him the option of inheriting the boot trade to begin with.

He grabbed an unattended drink and took a big swig, then slid it back into place as if it was nothing. "I ain't lettin' nothin' tie me down. I'm my own man, and if the rest of the world don't like it tough tits."
"Excellent," Ambrose said, clapping his leather gauntlets together. "And I've never put a great deal of stock into the station of one's birth. I'm just glad to have more help. And speaking of help," he lowered his voice, "In the event that our presence gets noticed in Pascal's castle before we've killed him, I'm of a mind to send you and Priam off to cause explosions in another part of the castle. If necessary, flatten the whole damn thing." He grinned wolfishly. "We'll make them regret their decisions here, my lady. One way or another, I promise you, in the name of Etruria, and the Vanguard."

He let his promise hang in the air a moment before standing, declaring, "Well, let's go back to the others. I'm sure they're at each other's throats by now."

After dinner, once most of the patrons of the tavern had gone home drunk, warm, and full, Ambrose led the others in the dark. Their feet made faint funth funth sounds as they walked through the snow. The group skirted the edge of the nearby lake, which had not yet frozen over, though the snow at the water's edge was covering ice. The snow continued falling in soft flakes, the wind having died down some time ago.

The castle was situated atop a nearby hill, and the postern was set behind that. If Ambrose hadn't gone over the place with a map from Caleb beforehand, the snow would have left him lost. At last, taking a lesser known trail, they came upon a post, where lay the corpses of two guards, their throats slit. An old man stood just visible inside the doorway. Ambrose recognized the old man as soon as he set eyes on him, but they did not greet each other aloud. Their mission required silence.

They entered the castle, and Ambrose felt a small sense of alarm as they passed immediately through a barracks.
Nichol was well aware that his armour, even with all the wadded-up cloth he was wearing underneath, made him a fair bit louder than his cohorts. Up until this point, he'd put the utmost care into every little movement, including the nod he gave to Ambrose's man. Wouldn't want him to think he was the enemy, after all. He secured his helmet one more time: being the light helmet of a guardsman, not a rank-and-file soldier, it lacked a proper visor. It wouldn't matter, anyway, not in the dim flickering torchlight Nichol saw emanating from the barracks up ahead.

Nor did the noise matter, now that they had reached the fortress. Nichol intended to hide in plain sight. He looked to the corpses by the entryway, then to Ambrose. Pascal is the one who needs to die. Not the whole garrison. Hopefully his intent was understood. He heard a retching sound come from deeper within the barracks, and turned to stride down the corridors towards it.

"Identify yourself!" hissed a sentry of some sort.
Nichol began his response with a scoff, grateful he had a little alcohol in his system for this. "I am Corporal Hermann von Dahlschen, Imperial Guardsman," he hissed back at the young man in the stuffiest Thrian accent he could manage. It was a real corporal's name, but he doubted its original bearer was still alive. "I have been sent to perform an audit, beginning on the morrow. Where are your guest quarters?"
"An... an audit?" Relief suddenly washed over the sentry's face. "Oh, thank goodness— I mean..." Nichol felt a momentary pang of sympathy for the local garrison. There likely were real problems with the way this fortress was managed, but the problem he and his comrades sought to fix tonight was on a higher level. "We don't— we don't really get guests, sir," the sentry stammered.
"Lad." Nichol put a hand on the sentry's shoulder, as if he were speaking to a young child. "Surely our lord does not expect a guest of my stature to board in these barracks?"
"No, not— not at— certainly not— no, sir." The sentry squirmed. "Commanders'— the commanders' quarters— I'm— I'm sure there's a spare room you can... sir."

The sentry beckoned Nichol to follow him, and Nichol obliged. Although he was fully armoured, he suddenly felt naked without a spear, only a concealed dagger. He knew he had acted too quickly, already separating himself from the group like this, but he'd been itching to begin as soon as he'd seen the dead bodies. As soon as he was led to some quarters, he would be able to double back with the knowledge of how to get through at least part of the fortress complex unseen. The fewer people were in their way, the fewer dead Etrurians there would have to be. Besides, this was an opportunity to assess the night's watch firsthand. If it turned out Pascal's guards didn't put all their heart into guarding, the job would be a lot easier.
Tangle was deeply of two minds. On one hand, there was the methodical, rational part of her. The one she sometimes hid well, but which was responsible for her having survived this long following the invasion. This could be a relatively simple plan: Murder Pascal, preferably horribly, with as little collateral damage as possible. In and out like ghosts, give or take a corpse or two stuffed into a supply closet, and an usurper lord dangling by his entrails (she hoped that that hadn't been a figure of speech, as much as she was steeling herself for disappointment on that front). It would send their message, and preferably get them all out alive. On the other hand, though? The angry part of her, the vengeful part of her, well... that Tangle honestly wouldn't be too upset if she got an excuse to burn this place, this Etrurian castle stolen and twisted against the people it had been built to protect.

She wasn't so conflicted that she was going to deliberately cause anything to go amiss, though. She couldn't quite help but be impressed as she peered around the corner, watching Nichol lead his new friend away. "Well, he does that well," she murmured, low enough not to carry. "Of course, if they turn on him, I hope it's loud enough that we get some warning." She seemed utterly unbothered by the corpses.
"Ain't our problem, right? Splits the take in less pieces," Priam replied, grinning. Unlike pretty much everyone else in this ragtag troop, Priam was not exactly one for high-handed ideals, or even ideals at all, really. Whether it was Lycia or Etruria, weren't they just bullshitting some cheap excuse to pillage, maim and kill and say "no, really, I'm the good guy?" At least he didn't lie to himself and think he was the "hero." As far as he was concerned (and his opinion mattered the most to himself) that made him better than all these hypocrites, at least.
Pages: 1 2