Friday, August 26, 2022

City-State RPG Retrospective & Stories

We recently completed the five-turn, 20-day City-State RPG I proposed a few weeks ago. I had six excellent players and it proved to be a very interesting and rewarding experience. The tempo pushed me to my limits as a GM, but that is not a complaint.

If you have any questions after this, please ask in the comments and I or one of the players can answer you, or email me at

Here are some characteristics that I would recommend to GMs trying out a player-as-polity game for the first time:

Ongoing venue for personal roleplay and coordination

For some reason when I first conceptualized the game I thought of it as something like Diplomacy, where players can agree to cooperate but also launch surprise attacks on each other at any time. I was interested in this idea but not married to it; I think the reason it came to me first is for the same reason that so many computer game companies’ first efforts are on PVP arena games. It’s very simple to conceptualize and structure a situation where the players’ opposition consists of other players. I thought that pitting anonymous players against each other could be interesting, but I was torn because (A) I’ve never seen PVP work well in RPGs and there was the potential for perceptions of favoritism despite the very mechanical nature of turn outputs (bonus/malus/threat destroyed), and (B) the game was likely to feel emptier and more solitary for players if there was always suspicion between player states. I thought, “What is a party of city-states?” Well, an alliance, and so was born the player party, the Concord of the Southern Sea.

The players were under no obligation to cooperate, they simply could not attack or sabotage other players’ city-states. They COULD spy on each other if they so chose. Ultimately nobody did so, though once or twice a player would unilaterally take an action in another player’s backyard, but always to address some other threat or contingency.

I got lucky with the players of this game. They were excellent both socially and in terms of roleplay, and furthermore were generally punctual submitting action requests. They got along well, coordinated and were engaged in the roleplaying. Those things are NOT guaranteed and have NOT been a universal experience in the games I’ve GM’d, so I essentially had a perfect venue with which to test and explore the system and the factions that the players established (more detail about them later).

I think party play was a far less lonely experience, and that the PVE experience was optimal for a first playthrough of this system or this type of game. It allowed me to put larger and more dramatic threats into the game since the players COULD back each other up and WOULD liberate each other if one fell to the invading empire or one of their personal threats.

Near the end of the game, something began to happen that could have TURNED the scenario towards PVP; check out the play report(s) if you’d like the details. One idea I had at the start was having a “secret cultist” style player whose job it was to [create x bad outcome], but ultimately I decided against SUGGESTING it, but I would have accepted it had a player asked me if he or she could do something like that.

The game mechanics are primarily player facing, BUT you could certainly have PVP activity by just comparing roll outcomes.

Note that if you use this system, be sure you have a solid reference for updating each player’s stats turn-on-turn.

Despite individual characters generally having no mechanical effect, each player created casts of characters for their factions with no inducement from me besides saying that it was an option. This was EXTREMELY USEFUL as a GM, and also made the game feel much more alive. Some players had ensemble casts, some had a highly-developed head of state with supporting characters. All had distinctive heads of state, and all were distinctive for different reasons and in different directions.
The players were invested in their characters, and so was I before too long. They played them to the hilt and I felt able to psychologically inhabit them as I depicted their actions in the field during turn reports (based partly on the outcome of the action die roll and their survival roll). To be clear, the players inhabited characters during Congresses, and then I took control of them when the characters were tasked out to spearhead player actions.
Naturally it was extremely interesting to have characters that were created by players in isolation, and to then mix them in the game (both with the players inhabiting them together in Congresses, and sometimes me depicting them together during actions).
Note that it’s not always true that characters had no mechanical effect; it was possible for a character to gain the ability to impart a +1 to particular actions through being involved in very special events during gameplay, though I don’t think it happened in this game (plenty of characters did get KILLED or underwent Occult transmutation, however), though one player gave one of his starting bonuses to his king, so the mechanic was present in the game.

Characters didn’t begin with bonuses etc not because I don’t think individuals can play an outsized role in a polity’s history, but partly because I wanted to begin by focusing on the grand maneuvers of states. The other element was that I was very cagey about adding too many variables to execute and account for, given that I had six players with 8-11 actions each per turn every four days, with just one guaranteed day to work; I knew I could basically handle that, BUT I also knew it would be a struggle at times, which I was fine with going in, even interested in. If I’d had a more in-depth system, I think something would have had to have been modified, either reducing the number of possible outlets (ie # of actions a player could take per turn), or increasing the amount of days per turn, or reducing the number of players (which is the least attractive option to me). I had the intuition that longer than 20 days wasn’t tenable, and less than 3 days for players to come up with actions wasn’t likely to work out well given the vagaries of life, and that less than 5 turns wasn’t likely to be enough time for a good arc, so that’s how the timeframe shook out.
So the mechanics had to gel exactly with the timeframe; as it was I was just about at the limit of what I could handle and what I think was desireable to ask of and provide to the players.

One player suggested having action points that a player could spend along the axes provided (ie Expeditionary Warfare, Diplomatic Influence etc) sort of like political points in a Paradox game, which would limit the outputs per turn but not the RANGE of outputs; this is a possibility, but I did want to keep players’ options open as much as possible each turn. Ultimately I knew I could write a single sentence in reply to a players’ action if I absolutely needed to given time constraints, though I did usually prioritize diegetically fleshing out the more dramatic or hinge/central actions inside each given report.
The other reason to have a set number of action points would have forced potentially interesting dilemmas, which I think was more the player’s point in recommending this. 

Ongoing venue for personal roleplay and coordination
There was a “Congress” each turn, a meeting of representatives from each player faction. This was a chance to do in-character reports and coordination; each player would voice one of the characters they’d created (often but not always their head of state), who would also often be involved in subsequent Turn Report capers (ie the actual execution of the game), sometimes being killed in the process.
One player (that of Mertia) based his whole faction around its king and sent him into battle a lot despite his chance of dying being the same as any other character (when facing danger: 10% on a success, 25% on a partial success, and 50% on a failure).
The Congresses played out in a Discord server, but they could also be the context for doing something like this at a tabletop. In person I suppose the players would discuss, submit their actions to you, and talk over the situation while you roll and record their results, before you return to them and present their outcomes mechanically and/or diegetically. Obviously your depiction of ingame events would be sketches more than anything, at least using this system; if players had fewer outputs per turn, or if you had just ~3 players, you could do the whole 8-11 actions per this system, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing that in person with 6 players like the game we just had, that’s still at least 48 rolls/sentences per turn.

Each player had the chance to host the Congress at their faction. This included a writeup of how their proceedings were carried out, and in doing so each player showcased their writing, faction, and hospitality to the other players and I. These are included later in the post.

Notionally, NPC factions recruited to the alliance were present at the Congress, though in practice I was basically silent with them unless a player interacted with them as part of their Turn Actions. This was partly because I am averse to having anything like a DMPC even when the players have sought out allies, partly because I wanted the Congress to be their place to discuss in character as a party of equals, and partly because I was so consumed writing Action Reports that I didn’t manage to open any roleplay fronts in the Congress itself.

Once or twice the Congress was interrupted by hostile forces assaulting the host city. 

In one case, the visiting representatives had to escape the Empire of the Twin Canals via a noviplane launched from an aqueduct when the Empire’s capital of Megakratheon was assaulted by Anarcho-Syndicalist rebels, who rapidly overcame the drug-addled garrison and the outnumbered imperial guard. They reached the Emperor just as he enacted a drastic ritual connected to his private religion.

The other was an attack on the city of Troutbridge by prairie nomads because of Troutbridge’s protection of Great Loom, an unwarlike library-city. The invaders wiped out an emplaced force of Troutbridge Marines using spider artillery and then sent slaves in with a battering ram that blew out the city wall like a giant shaped charge.

The game’s map was drawn up by player Dan Sullivan based on a shitty sketch I sent the players because I wasn’t able to do something digital in time; he did a great job.



Note that the layout I provided isn’t necessarily canonical to the contents of this blog; if I were to put out something like this as e.g. a game book PDF, I’d provide 3 maps with different geography and city-state locations. This is a world that’s supposed to have semi-open semi-absent historicity when you pick it up. It starts to change when you begin play, but the history and canon aren’t there to be respected or to necessarily shape play. Any history exists in a dream state, a before-time that cannot be confirmed, an interpretation. The contours of the city-states and creatures etc in the world are assumed to be based on a history, but the history is implied until it comes into focus for some gameplay-specific reason.

Continuing on, I want to make a few observations about the game’s outcome spread and level of mechanization.

The three possible outcomes to an action roll (Fail, Partial Success, and Total Success) put proceedings more in the realm of myth than mechanism, meaning that it was sort of irrelevant exactly how many battleships you had or what your exact naval strategy was; your starting bonus was a result of your conceptualization of your faction, so if you thought to yourself “I have seven battleships, which is a lot for a city-state, so I have +2 in Expeditionary Warfare and an additional +1 in set piece battles”, that’s how the fact of having a lot of battleships played into the game.

After the game, one player suggested having more exact mechanics for force compositions and battles, not because he didn’t enjoy the battles but because some players really enjoy being able to plug more exact force dimensions into a game and its battlefields. Indeed, I’ve said before that the push and pull of a battle and the engagement of solving its puzzle is a drama in itself. I think what’s existentially at stake due to a battle can elevate its felt meaning such that it can carry weight even if the outcome is rolled at a more abstract level, but having specific force compositions that players can select and employ for definite results would be a good option if this City-State RPG were to be released as a game book or something similar.
I am fond of the idea of a gameworld having multiple official resolutions, say one at which events are handled abstractly at the level of a conflict with a single modified die roll, and another that plays out in a way I mentally label “basketball” with specific individuals/units/weapons platforms moving definitely in space and having individual attacks and maneuvers resolved, a la D&D on a hex grid or a wargame.

For a five-turn game it felt wrong to permanently reduce stats on a Total Failure, so I typically gave a -1 malus for the next turn. +1 and -1 are huge modifiers in a 2d6 spread so this seemed to be enough.

I considered allowing threats to snowball so that they would become more mechanically difficult to defeat as an anti-turtling measure, but in point of fact there were only five turns and a person will want to move the ball as far upfield as possible within a space that bounded. If the game was indefinite there would have been less incentive to go after threats immediately. There was no turtling to speak of; I tried to make clear who each player’s potential enemies were right from the start (except in cases where it was supposed to be a mystery), and generally speaking the players were pretty energetic in either defeating or transforming threats.

Ultimately there was only one enemy that required more than a single decisive victory to beat, which was the ultimate enemy (the invading empire). In a long campaign I would probably have polity threats take two or more victories to beat depending on the size of the player group, but for a five turn game it worked given the size of the map.

Now we get to the stories.

This is going to proceed in the following sequence:
        Example of Characters and Action Requests
        Action Results
        Player Faction Arc Valences
        The Tale of the Southern Sea

First, the introduction to the game, which also introduces the player factions.


A vast assembly of baroque battleships and ornate aircraft carriers haunts the deepest oceans of the world.

They travel the continents conquering coastal cities. The ports supply the needs to their fleet, and the cities supply the wants of their nobles. They leave garrisons of armored warriors to hold the people in check alongside whatever brutal mercenaries will take Cynthian gold to become eternal pariahs.

They are the Cynthian Empire. They feel a horror and hatred of the land. Some Knights dwell in their coastal fiefdoms and some few go deep inland to sabotage the efforts of nations who might resist them. The masters of the empire dwell always aboard the mighty Cynthian Home Fleet.

The Cynthians once held an outpost in the Southern Sea: the royal city-state of Mertia and her nearby holdings. The Mertian capital served as a coaling station and drydock for the Cynthian fleet until one year ago, when Mertia threw off the Cynthian yoke and destroyed its garrison of Sea Legionnaires.

For a time, Cynthia was silent, but the horizons are darkening for hearts all around the Southern Sea. There is no treatment more brutal than that reserved by empires for their rebels. 

Cynthia will return, and when the hour comes, they will avenge themselves on the small kingdom of Mertia and burn a lesson into the eyes of every onlooker. The error of the uprising must be corrected and then some. There will be territorial additions to the Empire.

It began with the Kingdom of Kadwa. An arid western kingdom loved by few due to the tyranny and myopia of its ruling House, but the largest nation near the western mouth of the Southern Sea. The Cynthians came with no warning and crushed the Kadwan cities, sent flameships up the rivers to burn the fields, and annihilated the degraded Kadwan military encampments in vast clouds of mustard gas. The royal family and most of the aristocracy were captured and were stood before the machine guns of the Sea Legions. Few survived, escaping to Mandrake.

The smoking ports of Kadwa were put to use as Cynthian coaling stations and repair yards. The Cynthians now had their staging ground. The writing was on the wall, and the talk in many cities was that Cynthian rage would not stop at Mertia. 

A treaty of mutual defense was proposed among the nations of the Southern Sea. In the end there were just six signatories.

Not all were so certain of the threat.

Some nations felt that the Cynthians wouldn’t be capable of new conquests while metabolizing Kadwa. Their goal in the Southern Sea would be the reclamation of Mertia, and that joining some compact against the Cynthians would simply attract sabotage and murder by hidden Cynthian Knights.

But in the great halls of Megakratheon, atop the mile-high megaliths of the Empire of the Twin Canals, the representatives of six nations gathered to swear a pact of mutual defense against the depredations of the Cynthian Empire. 

There was Altenado, the far western port of call for the tempestuous Knights of the Rosy Ray. These sea-raiding nobles had come to blows with Cynthian arms before and had no fear of them, but had forecasted that their deepwater port of Altenado (seized from a rapacious mercantile company) would be an irresistible target for Cynthia. There were rumors that the ostentatious, opulent and wild Knights had really been brought to the table by the gold of the Twin Canals, but as Sir Gilderoy Albert Cleo Felix, Dawn-Hawk of the Knights, strode into the hall of signing laden with arms and fine port, he showed no deference to anything but the principle of the treaty: defiance of the great golden kraken that now strangled the Western Sea.

There was Angharath, City of the Gap, a narrow and fortified strait running between the open sea and the cool waters of the Century Lakes. This dense city-state and its lochland holdings wrap around a mighty port serviced by internal railroads. This jewel of the crown of the Lady of the Gap would never be safe while Cynthian battleships steamed for the Southern Sea. The Royal Consort of the Lady of the Gap, Dannet of foremost House Morado, flew his heraldic biplane onto the actual battlements of the meeting hall and stepped down trailing an enormous scarf which he hurled to flutter across the skyline of Megakratheon. He drew a peacock quill which could have pierced the heart of a dragon and signed the Concord.

There were the Earthhearts, surprising all. High King Malcom Skull came in a haze of chanting smoke and purple-eyed, black-furred eth rats from a shadowed corner. The rats peered into the souls of those present. King Skull wore a terrible visage, bone-white talc and ichor scratched across him, and he bore a gnarled staff of bladed antlers, golden feathers and petrified heads. He cast bird skulls painted with arcotheurgic sigils across the floor before him, approached the dais where lay the Concord of the Southern Seas, and, with eyes wide and livid, slit a finger on his bladed staff and spilled ghostly, smoking blood across an open space on the signing register. The rats hissed at once, there was a trembling in the darkness, and King Skull rose into the air and was borne back into the darkness on the hidden wings of his spectral rats.

There was Mertia, westernmost of the Signatories, the small kingdom which had won its freedom at the cost of blood, Cynthian and Mertian. Mertia is situated on a broad peninsula containing the capital, the titular city of Mertia itself, inland along a major river opening onto the bay of Gulls. Up until this treaty the Mertian peninsula has stood like a lone tree before an impending avalanche, and Prince Argimen of the old royal family has come to sign the Concord and offer his gratitude to the other Signatories for standing against the nautical savagery of the Cynthian Empire. Prince Argimen led the revolt against the Cynthians, and he has sworn to the Burning Eye that he shall not accept Mertia’s crown while the Cynthians still threaten his people.

There was Troutbridge, a prosperous industrial city-state upon the northern riverlands. Some in the wealthy and free republic of Troutbridge feel that they are not a party to any struggle over arid Kadwa, far-flung Mertia, or the pariah archipelago of the pirate-ridden Southern Sea, but Troutbridge has been brought to the table by the passion of its Prime Minister, Ferran Lamarca. The vision of tyranny being brought to the independent peoples of the Southern Sea and then exported upriver to Troutbridge and her allies led him to make an impassioned case to the Council of Troutbridge to join the Concord. He persuaded them by the space of a single vote. His failure to similarly convince Troutbridge’s aloof allies, the city-states of Ascension, Diadem, Great Loom and Starling & Shrike to become formal signatories haunts his countenance like a wraith as he leans over the table in his rumpled navy blue suit and signs the Concord.

And there was the Empire of the Twin Canals. The great empire of thirteen peoples. The foremost naval power of the Southern Sea. The most tempting port on earth. There will be only one Empire on the shores of the Southern Sea, and by the Builders of Megakratheon it will be that of the Twin Canals. The Cynthians would be thrown from the Southern Sea. Not one inch of soil would be theirs. Hulking Twin Canals super heavy infantry carry the Concord to the mysterious Emperor of the Twin Canals where he sits in his throne in the shadows. He signs it. Then the Concord is carried back on its dais.

The Concord would be enshrined at the Fire Isles, the seasonally-inhabited islands where the Games of Fire are held each year. The Fire Isles are as far east as the Twin Canals and the Earthhearts. If the Cynthians reach the Fire Isles it will mean that the Southern Sea has fallen. The Concord will be lit by the braziers of the Shrine of Fire until the day that the Southern Sea is secure.

The Cynthians have sworn to extirpate all Signatories of the Concord from the memory of the world.


Next, I want you to have an example of what players submitted to me.
This document contains the player of Altenado’s characters and Action Requests, which were written in an engaging in-character style.

Here are folders with each players’ Action Reports and Congress writeups. Each tells the story of the game from that faction’s perspective.

Here’s how I see the general valence of each faction’s arc:

Valence: Swashbuckling naval warfare with riotous, impetuous nobles wreaking havoc upon foes across the Southern Sea, sometimes getting smashed up, never backing down, always leading the charge.
Per the player: “Some hybrid of bogan and Cavalier. Terribly fancy lads with a vicious streak a mile wide, but absolutely loving their (self-created) exile out to the sticks. Instead of five clapped-out utes on blocks in the front yard, it's a little more like a clapped-out protected cruiser in the dock and a dodgy-looking air wing on the back acres”

Valence: The deeds of a proud, strange, mad, fearsome aristocracy locked in a twin struggle against dark Occult forces and their creditors.
Per the player: “The steamer bringing the delegates had been allowed - after stringent checks - to pass the walls and guns of the harbour, and was inching towards House Centine’s private docks. From where Quellazaire, Lady of the Gap, was standing, high in the domed mansion complex of her Residence, it looked like a child’s toy. She idly moved her hand to obscure it. There; gone; there; gone. Looking away, she turned to a indistinct bundle, swathed in blue cloth. Her attendants busied themselves: as the cloth was slowly and reverently unwound, her hair was combed straight and a thin and jewelled cap was set on her head. The bundle stood revealed: the crown of the Gap. The golden walls of the mural crown framed two filigreed horns and a net of dangling chains. Noble power is maintained by a careful balance of brutality and style: the walls and guns outside the Residence serve for one, the ostentatious crown another.”
“…somewhat like a colder, wetter, and much smaller Istanbul. The Constantinople of Cumbria or the Lochs.”

    The Earthhearts
Valence: The Earthheart player’s Turn Orders were wonderfully expressionistic, so I got as deep into Weird Fiction territory as I liked in executing them. The rules of this game break down when dealing with the Occult, and the rules of the world break down when the Earthhearts get involved. 
Per the player: “…the 12th God of the Earthheart is Shiboleth, that formless god who knows not the word EARTH, cannot form it with his god-tongue, and has 1,000 forms trying to make such a noise, all manner of stone idol and sacred glade and sarlac pit. He is best not invited in, but then again, here we are in Archenadir, emerging now from just such a pit.”

    The Empire of the Twin Canals
Valence: Old Testament imperial repression and conquest, internal struggle against administrative corruption and a drug-addicted military, the Emperor’s personal quest to realize the potential inherent to his own private religion in the midst of a gathering storm of tragedy, brutality, and the all-consuming Occult.
Per the player: “The Emperor (formerly Emperor Second-Cothsychyn) worships an interpretation of The Master in the Mirror*, the non-attachment figure of the empire's slaves. He believes that the world of shadows and reflections is the more true one, and seeks to immanentize it. This is of course all a very secret matter and he, regrettably, must also spend time keeping his empire running in the physical world if he is to have the resources and free time necessary to indulge in his spiritual explorations.
*One's reflection being the most perfect, platonic ideal of a slave; the Master In The Mirror is (according to folk legend) a reflection that mimicked its owner so perfectly that it did what he would do before he would do it, thus making the "real" man the reflection.”

Valence: Heroic industrial fantasy ending in a megatwist. Mertia’s Prince is a true hero fighting an imperial power hell-bent on revenge until the specter of defeat takes him to a desperate place.
Per the player: “Prince Argimen has so far refused to be crowned, saying he will not accept the title while the Cynthian threat remains. […] The Kingdom is a personalist regime built around the figure of Prince Argimen. Should the prince be killed, captured, incapacitated, or discredited the state is likely to fragment or collapse“

Valence: 20th century battles against foes with strange weapons and powers. Hardboiled investigations and the vagaries of republic. The struggle of one man to protect aloof potential allies long enough to persuade them to join in a faraway struggle which might be the safeguard of the world.
Per the player, about the Prime Minister: “He assumes nothing but the best in others and believes that people are intrinsically good. This assumption is both one of his strongest points and one of his biggest weaknesses. His assumptions often become reality, as he has a way of making people want to live up to his expectations, but he can easily overlook dangers like Jordi’s potential for rebellion. Ferran is a secular humanist, a true believer in democracy who always prefers to have the moral high ground. This has worked for him in his political career and he now finds himself at the pinnacle. However, more practical members of his cabinet sometimes become frustrated with Ferran’s inflexibility and his commitment to human rights.”

Finally, I have included the Tale of the Southern Sea below, which is each faction’s major events blended together into a lightly edited single narrative which tells the complete story of the campaign.

The Tale of the Southern Sea

The following news pieces are distillations of each nation’s starting situation, which can be found in their respective “Start” documents.

    The News of Altenado
-The Lethemarket Southern Sea Archipelago Company (LSSAC) presents documents claiming to be the rightful successor of the Company that the Knights of the Rosy Ray destroyed. This amounts to a claim on the City of Altenado.
-Ships are disappearing in Mertian waters. None are flagged as Mertian or Altenadean. Foreign polities are beginning to suspect Altenadean raiders and Mertian laxity towards the depredations of their ally. The King of Bombaryx declares that Altenado will be held responsible for the disappearance of Bombargian ships, and a Bombargian battleship fired on an Altenadean frigate.

    The News of Angharath
-House Steprazor of Angharath owes massive debts to the international banking order of the Knights Tarragon. There is a street battle in Angharath between Steprazor and Tarragon Knights and retainers. The Steprazors force their creditors from the field and besiege them in the local Knights Tarragon bank.
-Altenadean motorbike dragoons encounter gray-fatigued riders scouting Angharath’s lakelands. The riders retreat and Altenadean lowborn infantry enters the fens to scout for any presence.

    The News of the Earthhearts
-Strange creatures that burn gems into their beholders’ eye sockets are appearing, possibly related to tattered portals to the Green Realm that lead to the Empire of the Twin Canals.
-King Skull of the Earthhearts has a vision of twins, triplets, quadruplets, he can’t say for sure, but he’s one of them. One of them is a world of logic set up like a giant confluence of metal cranes forming the shape of a hallucigenian, but unconnected to the earth; another is in a world of chaos magic like the roaring of soil overtaking stone and sucking it of minerals.
-Archzenite nobles are meeting with the Plenarite and Plaudit tribes despite historically being their enemies.

    The News of the Empire of the Twin Canals
-A vessel of Atrialian smugglers carrying narcotics and horrific scintillic and chemical weapons is captured in Megakratheon, the capital of the Twin Canals. They confess under threat of scaphism that the weapons were bound for a Twin Canals military unit that is acting as a kind of drug cartel, supplying most of the Canalite military with narcotics.
One particular container was stolen by the Thieves’ Guild of Megakratheon, murdering a number of Secret Policemen and military conscripts in the process.
-An unknown group parachuted into one of the Twin Canals’ subject territories, but it took the local military forces six hours to do anything about it.
-Members of the Earthhearts are turning up in the lands of the Pterid tribe, another subject of the Empire of the Twin Canals.

    The News of Mertia
-People are making paranoid and demented claims against Altenado in the issue of the disappearing ships. The most unconstrained proclamations to this effect are occurring around an old desalination plant.
-Bandit activity is skyrocketing in the Mertian highlands. It is of stunning brutality and committed by unknown actors. People are deserting Mertia’s agricultural lands for the security of the capital.

    The News of Troutbridge
-Industrial production seems to be expanding in the hostile, warlike state of Grimwall. Troutbridge has urged the nearby city of Ascension to use its advanced scout planes to ascertain what’s happening. So far no action has been taken.
-Scouts embedded with the Earthhearts report that the Affidavit tribal allies of the cruel city-state of Archzenith are conducting wide-ranging sorties near Diadem. Troutbridge has advised Diadem to beef up its defenses. So far no action has been taken.
-Troutbridge Marines operating in the riverlands near Great Loom have discovered nomads from Feyglades scouting approaches to Great Loom and skirmished with them. Troutbridge has implored Great Loom to fortify its passes. So far no action has been taken. 
-A bomb went off in Troutbridge’s wharves; it was a powerful and well-made shaped charge, but it was placed very amateurishly and its damage was easily repaired.
-The Anarcho-Syndicalist underground in the nearby Free Cities of Tourmaline Gorge has risen in fully-fledged guerilla warfare. Starling & Shrike agents commit a massacre of turncoat S&S detectives who’d gone over to the Syndicalists, drawing condemnation and isolation from Diadem, Great Loom and Ascension. The Free Cities are very corrupt but are presently, at least, republics. 

    South of Feyglade, by the Coast
Sir Dorian Victor Severus Ignace Bradford of Altenado looked over the gentle veldt with great satisfaction. Statecraft and administration were strange bedfellows for a man of such unbridled virility; he preferred polo in Vineforest, smoking caps in Mandrake, and big game hunts in Kadwa. That world had been washed away now. A shame.
He glassed the valley with binoculars from the back of his motorbike.

All was not lost.

“Boy!” he barked, “Get the hunt!” referring to the horde of dogs they’d brought with them. The boy obligingly led them forward, rows of gleaming tongues wagging in a carpet of fur.
The bloody poor provincials of this deserted plain could wait; a glorious herd of antelope poured down a low ridge on the other side of the valley.
“Onward! There they are!”
His motorbike roared and he set off at once. The boy unclipped the hounds and the party followed as best it could.

He reached the open valley when the ridgeline darkened behind the antelopes. The hounds went on heedlessly. Sir Dorian drew up short. There were antlers on the ridge, but they weren’t on ruminants. They were on men. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of nomads on a hunt of their own. 

“M-my lord, what do we do?”
“We show our bravery,” he rumbled, roared his engine and cut a semicircle in the grass as he rode straight for the force above.
Thin clouds swirled in from the sea, a strange azure like blue sky laced by a constant lightning. 

A contingent of horsemen made their way down the ridge; they wore fur-clad rifles, precious jewelry, and hand grenades tucked into flaps cut into their skin and dried. Some of them had been scarified quite beautifully. 

The foremost of them had been sheared of his nose, lips and cheeks. The naked muscle beneath had been tanned like hide and tattooed black. Somehow he’d gotten rid of his irises, so his face was a black streak with milk-white eyes and teeth, a monster in the darkness.

He spoke with his tongue and teeth.

“You’ve come far for a meal,” he hissed ephemerally. Sir Dorian could barely make him out, like a portent on the wind.
“I prefer to take my meals with friends! I am here in good cheer, a hunter upon empty lands. To whom do I join in common hunt?”
“The hunt is common. The hunt is mutual,” said the nomad.
“Aye,” said Sir Dorian, shifting slightly.
“If you would join me, Altenadean, you must be like me. Come, and we will mark you as a guest of Feyglade.”
There was coldness in his voice. 
Sir Dorian stood up in the stirrups of his motorbike and gazed at the nomad. Then he sat down and worked his hands over the handlebars, his complexion growing dark and red.
“And who are you? The King of Feyglade?”
“I have his ear.”
“I will have yours,” growled Sir Dorian. He gunned his motorcycle and it leapt forward.

The foremost nomads reared back and Sir Dorian plunged his lance through the nomad chief’s chest, unhorsing him as he entered the fragrant forest of horse legs. The chieftain fell off his horse’s back with a plunge wound so torn his ribs were showing, and Sir Dorian turned, drawing his machine pistol and spraying down the party as he did so. The nomads galloped up the ridgeline and those atop it retreated. Sir Dorian’s servants and retainers knelt, firing their rifles and fowling pieces on the retreating nomads; a number of them dropped and writhed, a number of horses were knocked flat or went loping lamely from the beaten ground. Puffs of dirt rose where bullets missed their mark or carried through it.

Soon the nomads were gone.

“Well!” cried the sweating Sir Dorian with fearsome pride, “Now we’ve taken the measure of them! And they are wanting!”

A moment later there was a low whistling.

“Artillery!” cried one of the retainers and they threw themselves flat. Sir Dorian reared forward and looked about for the impact.

There was a little *ploop* as a shell touched down in the midst of of them. They were frozen for a moment. Then they breathed out slowly.
“Bloody primitives can’t manage a field piece,” said Sir Dorian.

Then a cap popped off of the back of the shell and thousands of hideous blue, orange and green spiders came pouring out of the top.

“Ah!” he cried and revved his motorbike away from them. He had not heard the other shells go off with his ringing ears, hadn’t seen the spiders make their way across the grass. Sir Dorian and his men were in a sea of them. They climbed the chrome of his motorbike.

A farmer of Feyglade, yet un-brutalized by the nomads, lay in the grass a mile out watching the scene with a pair of binoculars. He saw Sir Dorian ride away as the party fell. Then he saw Sir Dorian fall and lay there.
He went to saddle his horse and make a report at Altenado.

    Megakratheon: Capital of the Twin Canals
Widowbane Wuldych oversees a gleaming stretch of urban canal. The banks are marble and scattered with pink petals that drift against the cloudless blue sky. Women gather on nearby balconies and empty freshly woven petal baskets into the air, calling out to the brave Serpentine paratroopers boarding the dozen titanic enneaplanes in the water below.

If you want to track a parachutist, send a parachutist. They’d both know where to go to ground.

That’s why they’d called Widowbane.

They lifted off from Megakratheon and flew over the glittering sea. Widowbane was seduced by this. Being on a mission of death from the skies melted his soul with its terrible grandeur. Death would wash over him, the cleansing force that gave life to the survivor. Perhaps he would pay the price. But more likely they would unleash the frenzy of their hearts on infiltrators and Moonmoths. He took it with equanimity. Many in the plane did not.

He looked around him in disgust. Shaking legs. Vomit. Weakness. Decrepitude. They were not just terrified of their just submission to the Gravekeeper. Most of them were drug addicts.
They would be cleansed in fire.
The bay doors opened. Light and air poured past the plane. A crew chief near the cockpit cocked a pistol. A green light switched on as the pilot cleared them to jump.

“Everyone off!”

The Serpentines grudgingly turned and faced the wind. They began to pour off the rear ramp, their static lines catching on a cable of steel. Their parachutes opened behind the plane- most of them, Widowbane was sure. He made sure every last one of them had gotten off before he hooked up, and he went to the edge and peered down with anticipation. They were just clearing the green land of the Moonmoth’s isle. The great megalithic aqueducts shone like polished rust over the sea. Most of the men had jumped out over the ocean; perhaps a third had exited over the ground.
Wuldych’s heart pounded. He stormed to the cockpit, tore it open and looked at the pilot. The man gazed back at him with eyes as foggy as cotton. Doped out of his skull. Wuldych placed his .45 against the man’s nose and fired, blowing his drug-addled brains out over the instruments. The crew chief grabbed him from behind.
“Sir, what are you-“
“You let him fly, you-“
Wuldych elbowed the man in the face and then emptied the pistol into him, then rushed up the tilting belly of the airplane as it began to face the earth. He leapt up, heart sinking, grabbed the edge of the ramp, then picked himself up, stood on it for a split second as the enneaplane hurtled nose-first for the earth, and leapt off the edge. He roared as he fell and yanked his static line free from his parachute. It opened, and looked around just as he fell through the trees.

The jerk was stupendous and he bounced up and down in the air for a good ten seconds before he could take a full breath and think straight. He was ten feet off the ground, his canopy caught in the trees. He looked around. He saw a slurried corpse some distance away, a man who had burned in. Then in the distance he saw a few more Serpentines stuck in the trees, and men moving on the ground. He tried to get in a position to release his canopy, but the risers had become brutally twisted in the descent and final turbulence.

It was silent and the sunlight fitfully penetrated the trees. He heard voices as the men on foot came to trapped Serpentines.
“Not that one…” came a voice, then a gunshot.
“No, not him…” another gunshot.

They walked across the dead leaves towards him. Seven of them.

Four were Anarcho-Syndicalist military cadre from the City of Leagues, their damned black berets and red-black armbands. They looked up at him with grim scorn.
Two were local Moonmoth woodsmen armed with hunting rifles. The guides looked up at him with a mix of awe and terror. They had never known power in the Twin Canals. They had done the killing.
The last man, the foremost, looked up at Wuldych calmly, almost kindly.
He wore a silver-chased black hood that draped down to his ankles. Black fatigues, black web gear, silver equipment. His face was so pale he was almost gray. 
“Yes. This is the one.”
Wuldych worked his mouth, unable to speak, trying to reach up to rake his hands down his face.
“M-my l-lord…”
“Yes. Don’t worry. Gentlemen, cut him down.”
The woodsmen stepped forward.
By the Builder, it was the Emperor of the Twin Canals as he had looked when Wuldych had first laid eyes on him thirty years ago.

The report came in the next day. The airborne jump had been an unmitigated catastrophe. Many men had jumped over the seas and drowned, many found that their officers had died on impact and deserted. Two planes dropped their complement over the wrong island, two more planes had been lost. Survivors reported sporadic battles with an unknown enemy.

The Serpentines and transporters had been in garrison in Megakratheon. Everyone knew what that meant. The word was on everyone’s lips. Heroin.

A gunshot man lurched into a Moonmoth fishing village and was sewn up by a fisherman. The stranger demanded the fisherman take him to Megakratheon, and was obliged. The wounded man staggered into the Grand Megalith of the Shepherd’s Crook, and asked for Chief Lonal mac Hayrt by name. He would never had been granted an audience had he not been a Serpentine Paratrooper. He gave his testimony before he died. He was one of the men caught in the trees.

Chief Lonal mac Hayrt gave his report to the Emperor, then set out with redoubled purpose.

    The Riverlands, East of Troutbridge
Battlegroup Troutbridge East encounters an outlying fishing village that is totally abandoned. The lead rivership dispatches its Marine scouts and they follow tracks to a clandestine holding facility operated by Bounty slavers well within Troutbridge’s territory. It’s a cavern with foliage-covered boards pulled over it; the interior is filled with steel cages for the industrial transport of animals, now containing people from Troutbridge’s outlying hamlets. The place is laden with filth and there are unattended corpses.
The scouts garotte as many Bountymen as they can before being spotted and engaging in a close-quarters shootout. The slavers are utterly wrong-footed and are slaughtered. A handful of scouts are wounded. The people are brought back to the river flotilla. 

Battlegroup Troutbridge South runs straight into a force of Feyglade nomads mid-river crossing en route to Great Loom. The river force machine-guns as many riders as possible before dispatching their Marine complements to clear the riversides. One group of nomads is able to come around behind the Marines and hit a rivership with a flamethrower, ultimately killing everyone aboard despite some of the crew and complement making it into the river. Their burns were too extensive for a good outcome. The nomad flamethrower team was eliminated, and most of the survivors routed on horseback.

Troutbridge enjoys an impromptu holiday with the return of the citizens who had not even been reported missing yet. Dignitaries from Great Loom fly in to congratulate the local Marine commanders.

Prince Argimen’s newly-acquired battlecruiser made its way up the coast to Bombaryx. The trees waved as if in slow motion along the shore, tousled and bowed by the summer wind.

The city came suddenly, a sprawling network of onyx tollhouses and chambers above asphalt wharves with strange white residue in the water. The city lay behind, a sprawl of arching roofs, and there at the heart of it the Panopticon of Bombaryx, the strange pillar that marked the eternal night of madness. It glittered with a thousand telescopes fixing upon Prince Argimen.

He stepped onto the wharf, alone. Sworn Partisans waited wearily in the ship. He’d waved them off but they’d practically stormed the ship. They did not argue with the look in his eyes when they docked. He bade them stay and they stayed.
A party swept up towards him along the dock.

Princes Peter and Jedwyn Bombaryx, with a party of Bombargian infantry in gas masks and High Priest Francis Gander, wearing a red-hot medallion of the Burning Eyes. He winced every time the hot, soft metal touched his pockmarked bare chest between his loose black robe.

Peter came up to Prince Argimen and stood nose to nose with him.
“The pirate king,” breathed the Bombaryx.
“Only to Cynthia,” replied Prince Argimen, holding dead still.
“Have you come to pay tribute, then? Reparations, that you may seek our protection?”
The Bombargian prince’s breath had a strange metallic quality, almost sweet.
“I have come to speak of mutual protection.”
“We have nothing to fear from Cynthia. Just you,” breathed Peter.
“You have something to fear. We don’t,” said Jedwyn, looking at Prince Argimen and putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“I have not come to make you an enemy of Cynthia. That doesn’t change my feeling that you already are.”
“He speaks the truth!” booms High Priest Gander, holding his sigil of the Burning Eye before Prince Argimen as if a censer, “Though I welcome the Cynthians to bring destruction to this den of sin!”
“Very well,” said Prince Peter, and swept brusquely from Agriman’s face, “My father shall be the judge of that.”
They stood at the heart of the Panopticon of Bombaryx. A dark place, cast iron and onyx. King Carl Bombaryx sat on a great hunk of metal shaped like a throne, though there were beautiful swirls of jet laid into the smoking onyx of the floor. The king’s eyes were so red he had the aspect of something tortured in Hell but unwilling to let go of the thing that anchored him. Soldiers lined the walls, silent in their armor, their weapons as vertical as the wall’s graven flues.

“The destroyer of my people,” breathed the King.
“I have arranged the hunting of the destroyer. No effort will be spared. The villain will be found.” 
“We have found the villain! It is the pirates of Altenado, the blight of the western sea! Are they the ones you have given this hunt?”
The king sat flabbergasted.
“The people of Altenado are no threat to you. We share many foes in this sea. The Grave of the Sorcerers. The evil of Bounty. The Red Charter sand thieves. And soon, the Cynthians. The Altenadeans have spared no efforts against any of these threats. They have spared no risk. We owe them a debt, King Carl. I have come with their full knowledge. Their honor is mine, and I come before you unarmed with anything but the honor of the Concord. My country stands defenseless except for the aid of our allies. This union is Mertia’s only protection in our dangerous sea. Ultimately, it will be the only thing that can protect any of us.”
“We have no business with the Cynthians. If you don’t wish to be their vassal, that is between you and they.” 
“Respectfully, the Cynthians will soon have business with you. When have the Cynthians ever stood the presence of a naval power with battleships in one of their contested seas? They have a method. A calculus. An allowable concentration of force among foreign powers. You upset that balance, and they will not allow any one power to stand like a dagger at their back as they execute their promise to destroy the Concord of the Southern Sea. Will they tolerate your guns and battleships in the rear of their fleet as they assault Megakratheon? When you could wipe them out with a bombardment. No. They would come for you first.”

The king was tapping his chin.

“You have a logic to your equation, Argimen. If that was all just a way of saying that you need time to make your report, very well. The Altenadeans and your Concord may travel without fearing the guns of Bombaryx. But do not tarry. The hounds of my House are eager to see justice served. You’re not all talk, are you, Prince Argimen?”

“No, King Carl. I must now return to a far less civilized form of discourse.”

    The Outskirts of Mertia
Outriders in the hills, armored cars on the roads. Sworn Partisans rowing in the swamps.

There was no vast assembly of force at Mertia. Nothing so obvious. Simply a meticulous preparation, an arraying of forces in the hinterlands, a check and recheck as Prince Argimen went unit-to-unit receiving their briefings. They explained back to him what he had briefed them. They knew. They were ready.

Prince Argimen galloped into Mertia, his cloak bundled around him and rippling. A force of officers swarming behind him. The dawn was breaking over the silver sea. There was a host of mighty warships in the ocean.

Prince Argimen brought set his satchel on the pommel of his horse and drew out a leather-bound sheaf. Protocols for the newly-acquired Altenadean ships to bring their big guns to bear on Mertia’s maimed backcountry. A naval attaché rode up and joined the officers. A colonel of the Sworn Partisans with a messenger boy rode forth. He removed his cap and looked at Prince Argimen.
“At your orders.”

The campaign against the bandits was prepared.

    The Southern Sea, Southeast of Altenado
Sir Clement Simon Axel of Rammack steamed for the isles around Atrialia. He hefted a bag of gold where he sat in his wood-chased captain’s quarters, his boots upon a rumpled assortment of nautical maps on the table. 

The room was a riot of rare tropical birds, which stood by the windows and squawked at a low roar like frogs after the rain.

Suddenly they leapt up as one and began rushing through the air, a turbulent multicolored storm trapped in the confines of the cabin. The noise they made was uproarious.

“Now, my pretties, I just gave you your seed, you mustn’t…” he trailed off.
There was a tremendous lurch and he was knocked sidelong as the windows shattered. He pushed himself to his knees, uncomprehending.

“W-w-what’s happened?” he sputtered, repeating it as he got his hand on a windowsill and promptly cut it. He forced himself up and felt heat, saw that the deck was nothing but a cloud of black smoke. There was panicked shouting, indistinct through his ringing ears.
A sailor in a blood-striped, sootstained white boiler suit came hobbling through the smoke, gripping his throat.
“What’s become of us? What’s become of us?” Sir Clement called, then began to cough.
“There- there was nothing,” rasped the sailor.
Sir Clement looked into a clearing in the smoke.
Then everything was force and fire.

His birds made their way back to Altenado.

    Beneath the Twin Canals
The first step of the Empire’s bloody harvest of its corrupt officials was to tune up the combine. Chief Lonal mac Hayrt gathered 133 officers of the Secret Police and 16 men of the Death Brigade in a subterranean canal. This was normal cloak and dagger stuff. A meeting in the dark before the commencement of skulduggery. The men shifted, coughed and smoked, gazing around at each other. There was much recognition. Much smiling, much laughing, handshakes and back-slaps. Many men here had done business before, cutting each other in. Wine had been spilled between them, sometimes blood. Great sources of graft had been traded for favors, stolen heirlooms twirled in their hands and given away like pocket change.

A few of the men present were straight-laced. Shifty. Uncomfortable. They knew they were in the company of the most corrupt men in their organizations. They had tried to avoid such associations, but here they were.

Hayrt was doing a silent headcount on those present. A few jauntily lifted their expensive hats. He took a few steps up a little stone staircase leading out of the canal and cleared his throat. The men fell silent.
“One hundred and thirty seven charges of graft or dereliction of duty. Twelve charges of Syndicalist treason.”
He shook his head.
“Gentlemen, you tried to bullshit the bullshitter.” 
He took the last few steps and shut the door.
A second later, engineers released the floodgates into the tunnel.
A small contingent of high-ranking Secret Police officers were waiting for him.
“Let’s get to work.”

A few weeks of infiltration, then the work sites are secured. Paper trailing and background checks begin. These had never been done before, not really. The municipal records offices are rifled as bloated civil servants stood back and sweated. The profiles become clear. Men who were taken and released for Anarcho-Syndicalist agitation three or four times. A man who’d planted a bomb under a canal strut- his arrest report found in a trash can. The duty chief had just bought an Ascension Aeromarine seaplane with all extra features.
The association boards are completed. Twenty-two local Anarcho-Syndicalist assets, twelve Leagues cadre. The assets are sealed in the cornerstones of new abutments to the Archlocks of Megakratheon, the City of Leagues cadres are held by Lonal mac Hayrt’s personal flying squad.

They were not turned over to the government. 

Lonal mac Hayrt had his men ask some interesting questions of high government officials while undercover.
A high mason overseeing the renovation of the East Canals had directed his people to stay away from certain areas and install back doors in others; when asked why, he said so he could sell a map to the Red Charter and go sit on a beach in the Little Iguanas. He was sealed in one such secret chamber.
The actual Lord Mayor of Megakratheon was asked if he would sell city assets to foreign speculators. He was quoted, “I’d sell the Emperor’s ass to a pack of horny Earthhearts if you had the gold.”
He was shortly after treated to scaphism in a public duck pond.
The Lord Mayor’s attitude was not as much of a surprise to mac Hayrt as it might have been. His men had been infiltrating the Lord Mayor’s administration, as well.

Enneaplanes flew low and slow over Megakratheon, over the halls of power and the richest residential neighborhoods where those who sold their influence to the highest bidder had walked their gardens gazing down on the beautiful canals and the ruinous rookeries. These were where the enneaplanes opened their ramps.

Civil servants, ministers, excise officers, prosecutors and treasurers came pouring out of the planes and splattered across manor homes and government buildings. Missives were nailed to the doors. The janitors would be sent home for the day. It was on the remaining officials to clean them.

Bribery is a traditional way of life for people in the Empire of the Twin Canals, but the message is clear: that aspect of Twin Canals culture is being put to an end by another aspect of Twin Canals culture. The utter brutality of Canalite administration.

Lonal mac Hayrt brings several interesting prisoners for the Emperor’s questioning.

There are the Leagues Cadre, a Vineforest prince who has gone over to the Syndicalists, and a Starling & Shrike detective who had infiltrated the city’s Secret Police but did not show up to the initial purge. He had subsequently been caught infiltrating the prison of all places, trying to join the thieves by going to the one place where he knew they’d be.

The party is stood by a window and made to watch the enneaplanes opening. The Syndicalists gape. The Starling grins humorlessly. The Vineforest prince spins around and cries, “How can you expect Leagues to let you be when this is your justice? Do you think we have not tried such things in Vineforest? Do you think they held back the tide?”
“Well, you’re amateurs in Vineforest,” comments the Starling.
“Silence! The Emperor will choose the topic when he is ready to address you,” shouts a Canalite officer.

The Secret Police squad that apprehended the Starling & Shrike detective get a brainwave and send a man in to claim that is one of the pigeons attempting to avoid the purge. The man is successfully taken on as an advisor. The Thieves’ don’t put him through the usual cement-of-blood initiation of executing a captive in a really hideous way because they know a Starling would be very reckless to do that. The mole is able to report on their dealings for awhile.

The inner cabal of the Thieves have shifted their meeting place from somewhere in a
godforsaken rookery to a secret chamber in the side of one of Megakratheon’s great megaliths. He is finally allowed to join one of these events. He staggers into a Secret Police precinct soaked, gibbering and incoherent the next day.

He is strapped down and given a medical examination; whatever destroyed his mind, he hasn’t been physically tortured. The only phrase of note which the stenographer jots down is “Boy Emperor.”

A team of Sworn Partisans investigates the desalination plant from a distance, observing it through their scopes. They settle in for the night to watch for patterns of life.

The next day, their company commander treks up the hill to check on the team. He sees their guns poking out of their cloaks, spread on the ground.

They don’t move as he approaches. He lifts up their cloak.

Someone has chopped them into pieces and mixed their limbs, so each man has the outline of a man but has body parts from each of the team-members. The team leader’s sniper rifle has a little piece of paper over the forward lens. When you look through it, you see a little drawing of Prince Argimen in the crosshairs.
There are signs of a struggle in this place.

A detective staggers into a Sworn Partisan drinking house and collapses. He cannot speak and soon goes into cardiac arrest.
An autopsy reveals massive quantities of lead and mercury in his tissues.

    Troutbridge Dockyards
Troutbridge Federal Investigators conduct an advanced forensic assessment of the bombing site and find that the explosion was an expertly-packed shaped charge, indicating the involvement of some kind of foreign military despite the amateurish target-selection.

An undercover investigation is conducted into the dockyard and several unions; the investigators report that they do not suspect substantial Syndicalist involvement in Troutbridge’s unions, but nor have they been able to identify the social infrastructure around the bombing.

Detective Leo Agosti stood by and watched the Troutwallian stevedores haul wreckage from the site of the South Wharf bombing.
The sun was breaking through the leaves and he smelled bread baking on the wind. Children sat on a nearby wall and watched.
The stevedores were pissed. They had a cause. Suddenly everything had been thrown into perspective.
Detective Agosti went over to the kids. He reached into his coat and threw them a box of chocolates he’d forgotten to give his girlfriend. One caught it and they nearly fell off the wall remonstrating over it. Leo smiled.
“Ain’t you ever heard you shouldn’t take candy from strangers?”

”Yeah, but these have peanut butter.”
The city’s internal rail yard was on the other side of the wall. That would be the kids’ hangout.
“You guys see anything weird around here lately? Anybody weird?”
“Some guys have been coming around here. Mean. Don’t look healthy.”
“You know any of em?”

”I’ve seen one,” said another kid, “Lives on 23rd and Terry. Lives with his mom. Big orange house.”
“Green windowsills?”

”Uh huh.”

“Thanks kid.”

Detective Agosti waited in a motorcar. He saw the kid come out. Maybe twenty. Black navy coat, black beret, unwashed hair, ill-fitting slacks, hands jammed in his pockets like a brace. Leo got out and followed him. 
The kid walked down to an industrial area. Disused, fading paint and rust. Scattered bits of masonry, old half buried cans.
He went into a shed. Leo crept to the ventilation windows.
“You hear the welfare queens got into it with the nomads and slavers?”
“Hope some got dragged away. You hear a patrol boat got hit by a flamethrower? I would have laughed so hard.”
“Sardines in a tin can. Bet they screamed when they burned up. Goodbye, assholes…”
“Goodbye assholes after the nomads get em. Think you’re tough now? They’ll make you more of a bitch than that faggot prime minister.”
“So what’s the plan? Why bother with the docks? Let’s hit a cafe or something.” 
“We do that, no more bombs. Frankly, I wanna play some more, so let’s just do what they want til they give us something really juicy. Then I kill my mom and we skip town in the boat. Go blow up the Games of Fire or something.”
“I’m going to the store.”
“No you’re not.” Leo Agosti opened the door, gun drawn.

They’d filled it with furniture. There were couches, easy chairs, and a filthy bed with chains on it.

Five of them. That was a lot.

Leo looked around at them for a moment.

“What the fuck is your problem?” he asked

They looked at him with slack lips. Uncomprehending.

“Why are you so fucking mad?”

One of them dove down and put his hands beneath his easy chair.

“Sam, don’t-” screamed another.

Leo fell backwards. The blast sent hot chunks of stone and steel into his face and knees. He scrambled backwards over the gravel; smoke was pouring from the shed. Leo saw blood on the gravel. His blood. There was a ragged scream from inside. He got up, pushed his way through the door, smearing blood on the chipping paint. He coughed, stepping on cotton blown out of the chairs. He found one of the boys laying limply under a turned-over couch, and dragged him, knees shaking, onto the gravel. He went back and found another who’d lost his hand and was gasping, looking around, severely concussed. Leo took him out by his remaining hand like a scared kid and handcuffed him to a drainpipe. 

Leo returned once more, stumbling on rubble, and passed an old metal desk in the swirling dust. The boy who’d triggered the bomb was there; scorched guts and ribs, no legs, no hands, face knocked loose by sheer displacement of flesh. A few organs on the ground nearby.
Leo kept walking.
He tallied them up once he had four of them on the gravel. The first boy had expired. Three living Antinatalists ready for some non-philosophical questioning.

He decided not to tell them about the execution order yet.

    Angharath, the Centine Residence
Quovadis Centine sits with Jjerod Marakey, a House Kirkcullen agent, in the bay window of a beautiful library overlooking the Gap with the lakelands on one side and the Sea on the other. She thinks of the operative’s mission to infiltrate the Knights Tarragon and gives a hard smile, turning her attention from the framed canvas in her hand and places her brush into a goblet of water.

She begins to discuss famous cases of graft with relish. Officials who made off with whole fortunes, who went abroad and became celebrities from the money they stole from state treasuries and international aid funds. The operative leans in and asks her to describe cases of great bribery among the nobles of the world. She does him one better and goes into the most brazen ripoffs of Angharath’s fabled history, such as a Gap Castellan to be exiled for Occultism disappearing with the Lady’s sapphired mantle, later surfacing in Mandrake having sold it for 10,000 ounces of gold.

By the time she finishes describing the things he bought, they are practically hugging each other. They fall back in ecstasy, gazing into the middle distance with visions of aeroplanes dancing in their heads. She doesn’t care about the implications of the look on his face; whatever he does, it won’t affect her. The agent stands, straightens his tunic and bows, his cheeks flushed. She waves him away, gazing lazily over the giving sea.

    The Lakeland, North of Angharath
House Manticora motorbike lancers circumnavigate the fens and lochs as Hundredsmen row through the foggy reeds in low canoes, wrapped in blankets against the early morning chill. A Hundredsman leans aross the bow of a canoe with a submachine gun beneath him and suddenly comes face to face through the fog with an officer of the Grimwall Dragoons on the back of a white horse up to its shoulders in muck. The boat gently bumps against the horse and the Grimwall Dragoon draws his saber. The Hundredsman cuts him off his horse with a burst of gunfire.

The shots ring across the swamp and the Hundredsmen prime their weapons with a grim tension in their jaws, running their hands over their scraggly faces.
They find the Dragoons here and there in little clumps, still on horseback. The Dragoons fire on them through the fog, little tunnels swirling between the parties finding men like invisible death spells. The Manticoran knights and sergeants park their motorbikes at the edge of the fens and lochs with rifles laid across the vehicles and fire on flecks of gray where they appear here and there in the fog.
Then they see what the Dragoons are defending. The smog of the fen itself congeals and lifts up here and there, and clouds of steam go drifting up into the air and away to the northeast, melding with the clouds above.

As soon as the last of the steam clouds have disappeared, the remaining Grimwall dragoons break contact and retreat into the rough hills with all speed.
A few Grimwall Dragoons are taken alive. None of them are officers. None of them know what they were defending. Nothing is found.

    Angharath, Hall of Audience
Official spending is slashed and the next Morado feast has only fifty hart and boar instead of the usual hundred. A portion of the whale oil reserves are sold off, and two families (the Morado and Manticora) sell heirlooms to contribute to the state treasury. The state war chest is kept under 24/7 guard by House Manticora knights after a minor House Darlsmog scion is seen prowling around the chamber with a crowbar; when spotted he simply orders the lowborn guards to stand aside and leaves.

    Angharath, the Docks
Kodyne Morado attempts to direct the establishment of a new drydock on top of existing dockyard infrastructure, given the already-sprawling nature of the docks. The cranes are concentrated atop the moldering brick roofs of warehouses, which are themselves built on top of workshops, and when the cranes attempt to lift up huge rebar-laced blocks of concrete which are to serve as the foundations of the new drydock, several of the ceilings cave in. There follows a gigantic collapse which sends crane cables whipping around the worksite in clouds of blood and splinters. The crashing of the foundation blocks causes such a shockwave in the earth that fires erupt in nearby buildings as candles and stoves are knocked askew. Kodyne Morado is struck by a cable, and all that can be found of her is her bloody glasses.

There were vast quantities of citizens near the dockyard on Victory Shifts or simply providing moral support for the undertaking. As soon as the cranes collapsed they sprang into action to pull down burning buildings, prop up collapsing supports, and prevent industrial equipment from rolling into the water or down onto the lower layers of the docks. Connor Roughshore was on the scene and courageously photographed the efforts. His reporting has actually had the effect of increasing the civic pride of the common people, despite the chaos of the collapse. As such, Angharath’s industrial capacity suffers no penalty.

Blame for the catastrophe largely falls upon Kodyne Morado.

    Streets of Angharath
Anthrud Kirkcullen selects a minor Kirkcullen retainer, Jjerod Marakey, for the Knights Tarragon infiltration mission. Anthrud has Quovadis Centine train the agent on bribery, clads him in the armor of a dead Tarragon, and sends him to the Tarragon bank in Atrialia.

Soon after, the siege of the Tarragon office in Angharath is lifted and the besieged Knights Tarragon escape with their documents, treasure, and Nuncio Steprazor. Jjerod Marakey is nowhere to be found.

The truth soon comes to light.

Connor Roughshore was covering the industrial effort, but he had a young reporter fresh from service with the Hundreds, Alan Gill, covering the siege with a camera from a curtained second-story window. Gill photographed Jjerod Marakey in a long, hooded cloak approaching Nuncio Steprazor with an ironbound chest under his arm. They spoke, and later that day Nuncio Steprazor ordered all his men away from the siege site. Jjerod Marakey backed an unmarked 5-ton truck up to the front of the Knights Tarragon office, the Knights Tarragon rushed into the back of the truck with Nuncio Steprazor (and as much of their treasure as they could carry). The truck peeled out and left the city with all speed, cleared at the gate by an extremely testy Nuncio Steprazor. Alan Gill followed them at a distance on his motorbike and tracked them up the coast; the Knights Tarragon, alongside Nuncio Steprazor and Jjerod Marakey, boarded an enneaplane moored by a lonely beach. The plane took off in the direction of Atrialia.

Alan Gill breaks the story in a special edition and later that day is murdered in a drive-by shooting. Connor Roughshore breaks a window with his fist. Alan Gill did not consult him before laying on the special edition.

The Darlsmog compose a poem ridiculing House Kirkcullen. It notably omits any criticism of House Steprazor. Pelagio Steprazor, however, goes temporarily insane and tears apart his entire manor, gibbering that he will rip Nuncio Steprazor limb from limb. It takes days for the servants to put his manor back together.

Anthrud Kirkcullen’s men abroad report that Nuncio Steprazor has gone into exile in Mandrake, and Jjerod Marakey has taken refuge as a Tarragon advisor in their Lethebridge branch.

    The Southern Sea, North of Mertia
Lady Natalia Maxim Fatima Estel de Florina, Sir Jan, and Sieur Thierry Stephan Maximillian de Beaumont stood on the prow of the *Obstreperous*, a potent pocket battleship in service of Altenado. Behind her there steamed an assortment of cruisers, destroyers and frigates to confuse any naval onlooker seeking to identify them, because many were painted in the livery of their noble captains. 

They were bound for Mertia, and she’d just made her appearance on the coast like a little golden coin. The sight of the city’s brasswork was unfamiliar, as these had been hostile waters until recently. They knew that Sir Gilderoy Albert Cleo Felix of Bradford was there, underneath that little sunspot.

Lady Natalia gazed through her characteristic spyglass as John Rigel, a cinematographer from Troutbridge, stood back and filmed the elegant trio.

“Milady,” rumbled Thierry, the wind ruffling his perfectly-coiffed white hair, “I must confess that you have made a splendid selection of ships from the perspective of Mertia. But is it not best to retain the cream- milady! Milady, are you listening?”

“Wreckage, three miles off Mertia. Fresh. Sinking, light smoke. Thanofane flag. Torpedoes took her at the waterline. Gilderoy was right, the old bastard. Submarines. Sir Jan, flag the Matron’s Apron and have her put her floatplanes out right now. We need them airborne and scanning!”

Minutes later the floatplane carrier opened her forward sea doors and let out the floatplanes, which took off and began weaving through the sky. 
The nobles leaned over the railing and strained their eyes. Lady Natalia leapt, nearly knocking Sieur Thierry sidelong.

The floatplanes were making a weaving pattern over a patch of sea; they could see something the ship could not.

“Thief Taker, bearing to 270!” she cried. The battleship made the flag signal and the Thief Taker broke right, heading beneath the floatplanes. At her signal they cast off depth charges. The sea shook, and minutes later sections of boiler attached to dark hunks of beautifully-varnished metal began to bob to the surface alongside men half crushed by the charges or the rushing water.

A Cynthian submarine.

“Milady! A most brilliantly doctrinal attack!”
“Well don’t you know, Thierry dearie,” she grinned, “I wrote the book. Now let’s go brighten up the Congress with our good tidings.”

    The Inauguration of the New Year
Earthheart tribesmen skirmish with the Plaudits, who emerge from their burbling mud in the place of things to fire parasites from blowguns and hurl bolas that uncurl into pairs of giant spiders on strings as they’re thrown.
The Earthheart men behave very terrified of this and retreat, uncharacteristically pursued some distance by the Plaudits.
Meanwhile, a number of Earthheart youths go rushing into the swamp behind them and steal a good number of the Plaudit’s food crocodiles. Many of them prove themselves as warriors by doing this and receive their initiation gifts.

A number of eyeless corpses are placed in Plenarite territory. Several war parties are disrupted to the point of falling down the endless crags that characterize their land; however, a corpse monitor reports to King Vile that several Plenarite shamans gathered around one such corpse and conducted a spirit quest. They physically disappeared, as did the corpse. They had not yet returned by the time the corpse monitor left to devour some raw meat. 

Later there is a spiritquest.

King Ruxnan Vile creeps along the gleaming crumbs. The tatters of the Green blow like the wind; like there is a numinous fear of him, or like an animal restless in the presence of something it can’t quite smell. The stones gleam like a larger necklace. King Vile breathes. His warriors chant, make prostrations, slap their rifles with the clacking of automatic preparation, summoning the rifle spirit to clean King Ruxnan’s soul and direct him like an unthinking thing, a gunshot meteor dragging fate with it like shavings to a lodestone.

The tatters of the Green licked him as he entered the heady silence. No wind, no insects. The warrior with the drum ceased beating it and slashed the surface. Birds came pouring out, rushing around, finding the breadcrumbs, following King Vile.
He advanced. They clawed him. Pulled him. Inveighed him. He followed. Then they were gone.

He found strong eyes. He sat on a clearing. He looked down below. A man in a black, silver chased cowl with his arm around a big, frightened, grizzled man in military fatigues at a campfire. The man in the cowl looked just like Ruxnan Vile, if Ruxnan Vile had never seen a day of sunshine.

He crept on. This place shows strange things, not all to be touched.

Strong eyes. As strong as the first, no stronger, just as serene. Another bandit tribe; their symbology all butterflies and velociraptors. They flitted, they stalked. One danced with them who smiled like sacred rites were something to be humored and enjoyed. One who looked like Ruxnan Vile.

Finally he came to a clearing. A place where men gathered around a fire that was not a fire, a fire that was trapped sound, echoing in a ball. 

Then men looked close, gaping in awe. Rough men, men with hands at prayer but slackening. A man hiding behind a tree, eyes hard and frightened. Ruxnan looked up. There was a boy floating upside down in the boughs of the trees against the midnight lavender sky, looking down. He was almost unnoticed by the men at the orb; just one looked at him.

He looked like Ruxnan Vile as a boy.

The orb was released and a creature of sound drew the sound from the lungs and lips of the men, a scream beyond what their bodies could offer and their lungs cracked as the vibrating form drank their noise, growing, scraping the barrel as the cracking of their bones fed it, resplendent, buzzing like the edge of heaven.

King Vile staggered backwards and turned to run.
He found himself facing a great stone, a mile-high rock that glittered without surface minerals; it shone with winowpanes. He gazed up at it in the swirling clouds and there, at the top, was a figure. King Vile could not quite make him out.

The next day, King Vile staggered back through the Green Realm tatters and fell into the arms of his warriors. He had done it. He knew the way to the megaliths of the Twin Canals.

Another ritual follows.

The bowl is passed and murder vine flows and blends. The madness courses through eyes and hands like the claws in clouds bringing static bands of lightning between earth and the vitiating horror without.

The costumes rip open bands of waiting potential in space and draw in those who gaze into the dark, fearing; in closets, sheds, elevators and pits across the lands of Grimwall, Archzenith, Ascension, and of the Plaudits and Plenarites, men are swallowed or enticed by forms (bodily forms) of madness, creatures and oversized bent animals, warped monsters of myth, all containing bodies.

There they are disgorged beneath the beating of the drums and there King Ruxnan Vile’s countenance falls upon them all at once beneath the manifold rims of his gild and mossy crown.

The argonauts of unknown pathways are tucked back in their beds and bowers after imbibing the tincture of the vines and pastels, whispering messages from the Earthhearts as they went.

An effigy of High King Malcomb Skull is riddled with gunfire and flesheater beetles, terrorizing the revelers in their laxity. They fall to the earth and then gaze up, only slowly realizing that they have not failed so fatally at their duty as to have lost their High King. Sobriety (of a physiological if not a psychological nature) returns to the Earthhearts, and they stand ready against threats of a more transformative nature.

    Altenadean Waterfront
A drunken noble staggers into the wrong room at a boarding house and is fired upon. The reprobates escape. The next day, bullets are dug out of the noble’s body as he drinks port by the gallon. The shot is sent to a hunting aficionado, who identifies them as being special fragmentation rounds utilized by members of the Coquelicot Company, a division of Red Charter sand thieves currently under the employ of the Lethemarket South Sea Archipelago Company as mercenaries.
What they were doing in Altenado, nobody is certain.

Beller Kirkcullen steps into the muddy streets of Mandrake and promptly treats himself to a thimbleful of Mandracoran absinthe, which he has missed dearly. It can be imported, but there’s nothing like a bottle of the real thing opened at the still. He leaves the finery-clogged waterfront speakeasy and makes his way to the Kadwan Club, half drinking hall and half embassy, where he has arranged to meet with Uram Eyomi, a Kadwan survivor of the kingdom-wide massacres.

Beller stands outside the scratched pinewood doors until a retainer with a semi-automatic shotgun in hand opens it for him. Eyomi is in the lobby, embraces Beller, and leads him past a reception hall full of Kadwans crowded around tables carted in from wholesalers. They go up narrow stairs, down dark corridors, and climb a final staircase so steep it’s like a solid stepladder. They emerge into a dark, musty and windowless library lit only by a fire. Little clusters of tall armchairs circle around low, heavy round tables. Men sit and talk here and there. Beller looks to a nearby shelf and smiles at the familiar sight of Tales of the Wine, a compilation of swashbuckling stories that he loved as a boy. Eyomi takes Beller past several clusters of sitting men to an empty pair of chairs in the corner, when Beller glances into the face of a man and stops, gasping with sudden rage. Then he looks around the little gathering and his blood runs cold.

Nuncio Steprazor sits opposite a little group of Kadwans in the sumptuous regalia of their highest nobles. It is the men who flank Nuncio in the plush armchairs who make the Kirkcullen freeze. They are Angharathine nobles exiled for Occultism. Nuncio looks up at him and freezes mid-sentence.

Beller reaches into his velvet smoking jacket and grasps his machine pistol with grim purpose, biting his lip with terror and cold fury as he prepares to wipe away the stains of Angharath. The spry young Steprazor armsman leaps up into Beller and jams his forearm against the Minister’s hand, pinning it inside his jacket as they both fall onto the carpet. Nuncio grabs his stiletto in his free hand, but they say old age and treachery will defeat youth and exuberance. Beller leans up an inch and bites off Nuncio’s nose. The Occultists leap up and Nuncio screams and rears off him, blood pouring across Beller’s face and eyes. Beller tears out his machine pistol and sprays the vicinity of Nuncio and the Occultists, and the room erupts into chaos while cursing Kadwan nobles leap up try to get away from the gunfire, twisting up the carpet and knocking over tables. A strange mechanical wind goes back and forth in the air.

Beller takes a split second to wipe away the blood and sees the chaos double as the wall begins to melt in a hideous burbling slurry that moans like a great old fat man being stimulated erotically. Beller staggers backwards, trying to spot the renegade Angharathans, and sees a lump curling up under the corner of a carpet, emitting Nuncio’s plaintive cries but strangely distorted as if filtered through a chamber half-filled with violently effervescent water. Beller is about to shoot when spiny protrusions erupt from the swaddled form and plunge towards him beneath the carpet with impossible speed. He leaps for the tiny staircase and falls sideways down it, ignoring his jarred arm and leg as he dashes down the hallway, away from the dark chamber where there is screaming and a horrific vibrato moaning.

Beller sits in a study in the great Centine manor. He has one arm in a sling and carries an open bottle of Mandracoran absinthe in the other. He sits far from the fireplace, far from the shelves. He waits for Danet Morado and Anthrud Kirkcullen. He will not speak to anybody else.

He tells them what has transpired, but he does not mention the place where the melting wall touched him on his heel. Now strange text from slurried books swirls around his newly-viscid flesh.

    Altenado, Central Hills
Gunther Tribald of Troutbridge and Lady Marielle of Altenado conducted a series of experiments attempting to create micro-vibrations in water such that microportions of water would brace against each other in such a way as to create a section of solid water like room-temperature ice, thus capturing whatever vessel happened to be occupying it at the time. Such was the theory. Something happened, however, when they discovered the research notes of Delter mac Brenpah of Megakratheon on this very subject. They added mirrors to the test zone and, finally, activated the device.
They were the only ones present in the room, but when the research aides rushed into the room, they found the mirrors had shattered and the researchers were nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a gray-skinned, hairless hermaphrodite with unfamiliar faces laying in a pool of disentrapped water.

The person was shouting.

“Hahahahahaha! It worked! What worked? Who said that? Gunter, where are you? I’m right here!”

    Troutbridge Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Troutbridge receives its first report from Starling & Shrike. They have infiltrated a man, who reports that Grimwall has massively increased the production of battle tanks; he estimates three hundred will be completed in the next five to six months. Grimwall’s officers speak of Angharath as a speculative target, but don’t seem to know for sure amongst themselves whether the tanks will be employed against Angharath or another state. It seems that this is being planned at a very high level.
There is also a special program associated with the tanks, some kind of advanced technology that they will be fitted with, but he has not yet gained the access and placement necessary to ascertain anything for certain about this program. The operation is ongoing.

    The Mertian Highlands
The villages are lifeless places. Walls pockmarked with bullets. Corpses in the grass, slain children in the arms of twisted mothers. People dumped in ditches, stiff, pale, clothes in disarray. Death shrinks people. Takes them out of focus.
The path to each village stinks with foreboding.

Prince Argimen goes numb. Otherwise he would lay down in one of the empty beds and not get up. But he knows what must be done. This remains higher than any other consideration.

He lays beneath a green tarp strewn with boughs. Sworn Partisans lay in a line beside him beneath their tarps in the slick leaves, shifting slightly with their rifles and submachine guns beneath them. He smells the birch and pine.

Men are coming up the muddy road beneath them. Loping. They’re rangy. Clothes of burlap. They have bags of plunder slung about their midsections. They have weapons; most are old and rotten, but the foremost of them has a modern semi-automatic rifle. Worth more than a house in many lands.
Prince Argimen shoots him. A light machine gun to his left opens up and rakes the group, little bullet spikes rising and falling in the muddy road. They fall. They writhe. The Sworn Partisans keep shooting.
They’ll take prisoners the next time they encounter the marauders.

Prince Argimen rides in an armored car. It turns a corner into a stately little town square. Marauders rush away from a pile of treasure on a carpet where bound, naked women lay amidst bowls of silver, candelabras, and strongboxes. The machine gunner opens up and several of the burlap-clad bandits drop rigidly. Cavalry rushes in from behind the armored car and they cut down or shoot those who escaped the car’s main gun. Argimen looks out a firing slit and sees a bandit peering from a second story window before retreating. Argimen swings open the door, climbs out, hurls it shut behind him and rushes into the door. It’s locked. He steps back and hurls himself at it with a kick, breaking the lock fully clear of the door. The bandit rushes across the top of the staircase. Argimen goes up the stars, mad with fury, pistol raised. He sees the bandit and the bandit fires several shots from a pistol of his own. Argimen ducks and the sawdust from the bannister flutters down upon his neck. He sticks his head up and the bandit fires again, tousling his hair. A Sworn Partisan comes to the door. “My lord?” he hisses, seeing sawdust on the air and hair on the stairs.
Argimen looks at him briefly then dives backwards up the stairs, firing. The bandit ducks into a room and shouts, “I surrender!” 
“Throw out your gun!”
He throws it with a thump.
“Come out with your hands high!” 
He comes, silhouetted against a window in the room behind him.
Argimen prepares to fire, then stays his finger. It is like placing a fork in a delicious meal and then not eating it. He pushes the plate away.
“Come down the stairs.”
The man comes around and descends. The Sworn Partisan keeps him at gunpoint. Argimen looks in the bandit’s face.
He is stupid. Brutalized. His world is small, simple and horrible but punctuated by extreme atavistic freedom. Agriman looks at him and cannot tell whether the man has ever thought through his situation and his deeds. He cannot tell anything about this man’s inner life. For an agent of evil, this man moves with the wind.

Argimen grabs the bandit’s face with one hand, clamping his cheeks, bringing him close.
“Who are you. *Where* are you from.”
“You’re Kadwan?”
“Why are you here? Why are you killing my people?”
“The Cynthians left us nothing. It was fight for them or perish.”
Prince Argimen squeezed his face.
“You haven’t fought til now.”
The man closed his eyes.
“They rewarded you.” 
“Only some of us.”
“You took it out in spoils.”
“In what?”
“You stole from us. You raped. What do I do with you?”
“I surrender.”
A montage of potential punishments flashed through Prince Argime’s head. The Sworn Partisan looked on animatedly. No one would stop the Prince from tearing this villain apart like a wildcat on a rat.
Prince Argimen thought of the Mertians at work in the capital. He thought of the balmy sea. Thought of his role in all of this. To be the anti-Cynthian. He had a chance of being that for people if he lived the role.
He tucked his pistol in a sash woven around his midsection, searched the filibuster, then pushed him to the Sworn Partisan.

“Take him into custody.”

The Prince sits in a large tent with a steel mug of cold, thin coffee. A batman brings him a report. Agriman looks at it and nearly spills his coffee. 3,841 marauders killed, 12,132 captured. 363 Mertian soldiers dead, 713 wounded.
Prince Agriman looks up at the batman.
“What do we do with them all?”
”My lord, we await your instructions.

    Troutbridge, Trout Bridge
Ferran Lamarca stands near Counselor Presiding Jimwick of Great Loom as the bony, shaky but laughing and waving prisoners who’d been rescued are helped by Marines in dress uniform across the cobblestone bridge of Troutbridge’s central confluence as people throng and throw blue scarves and handkerchiefs across them. Following behind them come a number of Marines carrying the strange regalia of dispatched Feyglade nomads.

“Not bad, eh?” asks Lamarca genially.
“It is an inspiring thing,” says the Counselor Presiding while rubbing his chin, “this reminds me of a painting by Geraul-“
“I know the one,” says Lamarca, “Listen, Jim. You know that idea I had? We can take care of the riverlands, you can see that. But we aren’t experts of every discipline of warfare. Part of warfare is the written word. You don’t need to have seen something before to write it. You don’t have to show people a parade like this to inspire them.”
“Could we actually help you with that?” asks the Counselor Presiding genuinely.
Ferran turns to him and puts his hands on Jimwick’s shoulders. He looks at him with an open face.
“Jim. We can’t do it without you. And it’s not just us. It’s what we need in these city-states. It’s what people need on the Southern Sea. Inspiration.”
The Counselor looks at the laughing pairs going up and over the bridge.

The next day, Great Loom signed the Concord of the Southern Sea.

    The Thieves’ Guild of Megakratheon
“Alright you pricks,” growls Ors Remferr, “We know you cocksuckers stole some little shipping container from that Atrialian freighter, and that’s fine. Ok. Dandy. Consider it my gift to you. But I’ve got your number, you fucking turd burglars. I don’t know if you noticed, but the whole fucking judiciary is slathered in human colons right now and the sons of bitches you couldn’t bribe are scooping em off with snow shovels. That means your days of graft are OVER. You’ve got one choice, and one chance. You play ball with me, and I won’t play pinochle on your balls. Capisce?”

“Yes, of course! Whatever it is you wish!” cries the Thief Lord with a twinkle in his eye.

“Good. I knew you’d get the picture. Ok, so here’s the gig, chairman. You keep your fingers out of my pie and I’ll keep my fingers out of your eye. You wanna rob ships? Cool. We all read Tales of the Wine. But we’re gonna call the shots. We’re gonna finger the ships. You take whatever you want, sink em, boil em, play with em in the tub, I don’t care as long as you make sure they don’t get where they’re going with what they’re going there with. You follow?”

”Perfectly,” says the Thief Lord with a smile.

“Well! Good! I guess you guys got where you are by being reasonable. Ok, then, who’s got the cognac?”

    The Coast of the Southern Sea
The Knights Tarragon publicly underwrite an expansion of the Lethemarket Southern Sea Archipelago Company’s fleet and land forces, the latter of which includes the hiring of the Cerise Company and the Midnight Company. The Cerise Company are a battalion of Red Charter Companymen operating a mine that is going dry west of Setroxia; they execute their slaves and march northwest for Lethemarket. The Midnight Company are a regiment of deserters from the Caravelan people, who are subjects of the Empire of the Twin Canals. The Midnight Company are known for their destruction battalions and littoral flamethrower ships.

The terms of Tarragon financing for the LSSAC paramilitary activity are unknown.

    The Coast of the Twin Canals
New production standards and training programs are submissively adopted by the Ministry of Industry and the universities. 

Several glassworks are erected with all speed, but sand buyers quickly run into a problem; several of them return from a surveying mission to the archipelago with their hands cut off.

It’s discovered that the Red Charter Companies are dredging sand from the Megakratheon archipelago and coast after bribing or killing local leaders. The island of the Caravelans has been reduced in size by almost 30%, ruining the local fisheries and ecosystem, and the coast of Megakratheon has been dangerously undermined. Luckily, an industrial effort is underway, and the workers are able to quickly place sea supports around the edge of the city.

The Red Charter will probably have to be dealt with, but in the meantime Golgarine Ishbyd decides that the glassworks cannot sit idle.

She walks into the office of a Lethemarket South Sea Archipelago Company’s sand mining operation down the coast from Megakratheon. She walks past a lionskin settee, runs her hand across the fur, and then makes herself comfortable upon it.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” she says to the perplexed magistrate. He gazes over her curvaceous figure for a moment, then uncertainly calls out, “Guards.”
A pair of Canalite super heavy infantry walk into the office, semi-automatic shotguns laid across their pauldrons at jaunty angles.

The LSSAC sand operations down the coast from Megakratheon become the possessions of the Emperor of the Twin Canals.

    The Desalination Plant
Captain Fain went alone. He would lose no more of his men to this phantom threat. This mocker and destroyer. He would lay himself and his expertise as a Sworn Partisan on the line. If he died, that would be one more piece of evidence for the prince. Let the analysis bear fruit, or the fiend be run to ground, but he would not wait while his men were ground to mincemeat by an unknown enemy.

He moved toward the water plant by the predawn light, rifle lowered within the confines of his cloak, dew licking his boots. He paused by the corrugated iron door. The air was sweet. The rust was a bloody red. 
Something moved in the corridor within. Captain Fain swung in suddenly, leveling his rifle across his knee, clicking on a flashlight beside it. His hawk’s eyes saw nothing but faintly whirling dust.

He clicked off the light and advanced. His eyes were of no use here. He would fire by sound and the subtlest ripple of the air. He came to a staircase down into a ruined place littered with overturned carts and cabinets like an upside-down shipping container.

There was a hint of noise behind him. He whirled backwards rifle-butt first and caught somebody in the head. A body fell and teeth clattered across the linoleum floor. Fain knelt in the darkness, rifle at the ready. He saw a body and blood. The man was unconscious. Fain tucked the man’s knife inside an exposed section of wall, searched him, bound him to the hinge of a door with a length of parachute cord and descended the staircase.

He moved through a vast chamber. Enormous water turbines and centrifuges stood about like the statuary of molemarian engineers. 
Something fell down the inside of a great metal tube. He froze in terror. He raised his rifle, but all was silent. 
He backed up, and bumped into something. He whirled. It was a hip-high chalk-white runestone, strange symbols glowing blood red. There was a man creeping up from the other side, pistol leveled. Fain fell, laying his rifle across the runestone as the man fired. Stinging shards and dust peppered Fain’s face, but he was already firing and the man dropped with a reedy yell of pain. There was no despair in his lungs; he had been ready to die. Fain gazed at him for a minute, then advanced on his body.

“A passable killer,” came a voice from behind him. Fain whirled and fired. Or tried to. Nothing happened. He looked down the sights, feeling himself go pale. A man was there in the darkness, spinning Fain’s rifle bolt around a finger. He’d lifted it while Fain was at the runestone. The captain felt for his pistol. That was gone too.

“You have truly outplayed me,” breathed Captain Fain, “What is the nature of this thing?” He nodded at the runestone.

“I induced a certain cult to put it here. No doubt they will move it now that you have slaughtered their guardians. It is poisoning us both as we stand here. I am not cultist but I am willing to make sacrifices to a higher purpose.”

“And what purpose is that?”
“Prince Argimen. He is Mertia, and Mertia must be destroyed.”
“You are a Cynthian.”
“No,” said the man with a smile, and there was no hint of deception in him.
“Then why destroy us?”
“Argimen is written into fate like a golden thread that draws string and spiderweb along with it. His deeds will lay a stepping stone in the path to my people’s destruction. So he must be destroyed first.”
“Who are you?” 
“Alas, there may be other ears upon this meeting, so I must leave you unawares. Fear not, you may watch from the afterlife.”

    Garrenton, Kadwan Coast
James Haul crept down a gangway in the middle of the night.
Steam poured past lights. Sheds and workshops on stilts. 
Sea Legionnaires watched from windows. Glinting helms. Shifting in the dark like waiting muck beasts.
A Starling & Shrike detective in a Cynthian-held port.
He was in his element.

He gazed up to the ancient Kadwan cliff-castle overlooking the docks. The parapets. He closed his eyes and tasted the air. He pushed into the brush and moved to the wall.
Pitons and a tiny hammer. This rock would be climbed like any other.
An hour later he was in. The place hummed with tension. His body coursed with life. He made his way across ancient cobblestones. Past machine guns and mortar positions. Past manservants and Legionnaires. Kadwan mercenaries.
No garottings. No knifings. No defenestrations. No blackmail. No payouts. No evidence.

He picked the lock of a radiotelegraphy cage workspace and slipped inside. A generator. A coffee grinder. Maps pinned with string.
Cynthian fleet projections. 
He scanned them, moving as little as possible, blood coursing in his ears.
Garrenton. Four nights hence. One destroyer, two frigates, a light cruiser and a battlecruiser. The Altenadeans might find that a stiff fight but it was inside the parameters. James Haul committed it to memory. Then he moved out.

He was several miles up the coast when he realized he’d forgotten to lock the cage. He froze and his heart hammered. He was exhausted. Could he make that climb again? Could he make it through the castle without detection now?
He told himself that it would change nothing. Some guard or technician would be punished for leaving the door unlocked. He moved on up the coast.

    The Southern Sea, just west of Garrenton, Kadwa
Senyora Natalia Maxim Fatima Estel de Florina stood in the conning tower of the Truculent with a spyglass raised, casting her eye across the Kadwan coast. The fleet was arrayed in escadrille behind the Truculent, and all could see her voluminous dress billowing in the wind like an extra ensign.
The guns were primed. The engines were lubricated. The men were ready. But there were no Cynthians.

She focused her spyglass on the sleepy Kadwan town of Garrenton. A few figures moved here and there. She could see opulent, multistory Cynthian tents erected before the drydocks and coaling yard. But no destroyers, no frigates, no battlecruiser. She hmphed.
Well, she had her orders. The shipyard at Garrenton would be denied to the enemy.
“All ships,” she called in a high monotone, “Fire!”
She drew out the last syllable until the bombardment erupted. She looked through her shaking spyglass as dozens of enormous naval shells fell upon Garrenton and detonated, blowing masonry and steel hundreds of feet into the air on the backs of mist-clad shockwaves. The sound came in late like thunder after lightning. Garrenton was disappearing into the smoke and dust of the barrage.

She looked up and down up the coast for any secondary targets. Then she noticed landforms just off the coast.
“Della von Bräcken!” she called down to the bridge, “Was there an archipelago off the coast here?”
“No!” called Della from beneath.
Natalia squinted. Then she gasped. The brown surface was canvas. And it was unraveling.
She tore the spyglass from her face and it clanged on the railing as she leaned forward. Her heart beat at her windpipe. Her thighs quaked. A wall of blazing purple appeared beneath the canvas as it fluttered back, and then here and there a dozen smaller streaks of color appeared in the water.

They were ships throwing off their camouflage. The largest of them dwarfed Garrenton itself. It was deep purple and chased with golden scrollwork. It was like conjoined twin battleships with a landing deck between their six enormous turrets. A Cynthian Home Fleet super heavy dreadnought. A turret-armed aircraft carrier.
It was screened by cruisers and destroyers and the Altenadean fleet had fired their loaded rounds.

“Della, bring the fleet around. Load and fire on the dreadnought. Give the order now, dear.”
Her voice was calm. Her heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings. The canvases covering the Cynthian war fleet had all fluttered down and pooled on the sea behind them. The Cynthian guns were fixing on her fleet. The dreadnought’s guns were fixing on her. 

She reached into a pocket hidden in her petticoat and drew out a little wooden box. She opened it, withdrew a very small cake and set it into her mouth, savoring it. Then the Cynthian guns split the air with auroras of fire. She closed her eyes and a second later was annihilated.

    The Southern Sea, Kadwan Horizon
Pelagio stood at the prow of the Grimwraith, smiling mightily in spite of himself. The hold was filled with plunder from the little Lethemarket plantations and trading houses scattered around the South Sea archipelagos; saffron, coffee, gold and jewels. Such gifts would make fine adornments to this Midsummer Ball. The First Mate spoke.
“Oath, Lord, to see Pelagio Steprazor smile. This is a strange omen.”
“Take heart, Mulligan. The fates have already decided in our favor.”

There came a call from the crow’s nest, where a boy operated a powerful telescope on a bronze runner.

“Sir! Fire on the horizon!” 
“What? By the Hymnsinger, that’s Kadwa!” 
“Aye! Could it be the Altenadeans?“
“We shall find out! Full steam westerly!”
The ships of the line turned one after another and billowed gouts of fresh oilsmoke like mighty coal-black serpent spirits summoned from a steel-clad hell. 
“What do you see? God’s balls man, speak!”

The lookout boy fell to his hands and knees, and the telescope unlatched, fell and smashed on the ironclad deck. Pelagio looked up, veins popping in his empurpled brow. 

The boy looked down, trying to string himself together enough to give words.

“Th-the Alte- sir… they burn.”
“By the Fates,” said Pelagio.
He audibly grasped the forerail and gazed into the distance as the prow split the waves. A great streak of purple hemmed with gold like a god of blue whales. Many tiny gleaming shards beneath it, killer spawn of the mothership. Frigates, cruisers, destroyers.
He strained his weatherbeaten eyes, and then he saw plumes of fire rise from the great one like blooming roses desperate for the sunshine.
It was a Cynthian battle carrier. A vast ship with six enormous battleship turrets distributed across both sides of a landing deck. It was engaging him. 
He whirled, gaping, looking around the deck. All eyes were on him. All faces were open. All bodies were frozen.
He fell to his knees and pulled his cape over his head.
Then the shells hit. 

Dulcimer Morado watched from the Gapwarden as the prow of the Grimwraith was blasted into the sea in a split-second tornado of steel and flame. He looked up into the air gaping and saw sailors and soldiers twisting in the wind above the ship, blown hundreds of feet into the air partially disrobed and limp as ragdolls with arms and legs outstretched.

The command deck of the Grimwraith was crushed and burning, as well; bodies poured from the billowing smoke. Fires spread along fuel lines in the deck.

“All about! Discharge cannons and burn due east!” he bellowed and sailors tripped over themselves rushing to convey his command.
“Will they not follow us?” asked Grailin Kirkcullen.
“Their frigates and cruisers, perhaps, but we will outrun their capital ships!”
“We will not outrun that,” gasped the Kirkcullen.
Dulcimer leaned forward, and ran his hands across the railing with a squeak. Dozens of fighters were pouring into the air from the deck of the battle carrier.
“Great Gods.”
The enemy planes engulfed the Altenadeans, and bomb blasts rocked the burning warships. Half of the squadrons came dead for the Angharathans.
Dulcimer turned to Grailin and drew his sword.
“Kneel.” Grailin knelt.
Dulcimer placed his sword on Grailin’s shoulders in turn.
“I knight you by our faith in the Lady and my right as the acting commander of this battlefleet. Stand.” Grailin stood.
“Today you earn your spurs.”
Dulcimer turned to the command cabin, sword raised straight up, yelled “FIRE!” and and cut a slash in the air. The Gapwarden’s batteries let off an earth-shattering broadside at the Cynthian fleet as they came about, pushing great depressions into the water with the power of their guns.. 
The nobles turned together and faced the oncoming fighter planes. They glinted in the noonday light, gold above sliver, gilded across their faces and reflected in the glassy sea. The nobles were content with their last acts.
Dulcimer heard gunfire and the glint of the fighters was marked by fire. He tightened his grip on the rail and closed his eyes, wincing down in spite of himself. Then he heard explosions. He opened an eye and looked up. There was fire on the water! Several Cynthian fighters were down and burning.
His knees almost gave out. A second wing of fighter planes had emerged from an inland cloudbank and were intercepting the Cynthians in enfilade. More were coming over the Altenadean fleet, mauling the unprepared Cynthian fighter squadrons which had been in a feeding frenzy over the exposed Altenadeans. The interceptors were pale green with white bands, and they had TROUTBRIDGE MARINES emblazoned upon their bodies.
“Halt! We have top cover! Stand and cover the Altenadeans!” screamed Dulcimer at a passing ensign.
“But my lord, we shall be hit by the Cynthian guns! Let us withdraw while they are occupied with the Altenadeans!”
“WE ARE THE ALTENADEANS!” He leveled his sword at the ensign. “You have my orders! We stand and fire!” 
“My lord,” said the ensign and sprinted up into the bridge.

Frau Sofia Leonore Kinge von Meintz stood on the prow of the Ursus Maritimus with a pair of binoculars. She lowered them and smartly handed them off to a minor nobleman acting as an ensign.
“All guns to max depression. All hands to coal, boilers, guns, electric. Sailors leaving post for the wounded will be shot. Go!”

She watched the Cynthian guns adjust their angle. The Truculent was consumed by flames and the Brute Beast was lasting severely. Three quarters of the Altenadean fleet smoked with hits. Not a single Cynthian round had missed.
Shrapnel had unstrung a pair of sailors on the deck of the Ursus. They screamed and bled where they lay. The Ursus turned about. 
The Altenadean fleet fired. Explosions rocked the pristine purple hulls of the Cynthian ships. Ugly smoke poured past the gilded decks. Two could play at this game.
The Altenadean fleet had turned three quarters about so they could withdraw with their guns upon the Cynthians. Sofia looked east, at the vast empty sea. This would be a gruesome retreat.
They steamed due southeast. Slowly, slowly. The Cynthians shrank slowly. And they fired again.
They ignored the Truculent this time. She was consumed in flames. Human torches fell into the flame-covered water. The escorts fired upon the Altenadean fleet, but the dreadnought executed the Brute Beast. Six turrets of four guns each. The Brute Beast crumpled in slow motion beneath the machine-gunning of naval gunfire. Sofia could see the explosions in the Brute Beast’s near-side portholes before she blew in half, with people, pipes and panels weaving on the wind a hundred feet above.

The Altenadeans gave the Cynthians another round of fire. A Cynthian frigate was stove at the waterline and its cavernous wound began to suck frothing water like the mouth of a rabid dog. A destroyer was set on fire and a hissing stream of fire like a butane torch came blasting from a light ammunition bay. Moments later smoking men walked out and fell down.

Then, like a miracle, a second rain of fire touched down on the Cynthians and blew men and metal from the bodies of ships. One of the mighty dreadnought’s turrets was struck and exploded with the ready round within, leaving a wrecked ammunition elevator exposed to the sun like a calcified anemone. Sofia did an about face, took her binoculars from her attentive ensign and raised them above her rosying cheeks.
There, on the horizon, was the warfleet of Angharath. Their guns were smoking and they were turning to broadside position.

They would save many lives and ships this day.

She turned to the Cynthian fleet but did not raise her binoculars. She could see what was happening as clear as day. Biplanes were pouring like the bats of night from the dreadnought’s airstrip.

This was the only time Sofia’s countenance flickered. 

The Altenadeans had a chance of escaping the Cynthian ambush if they could link up with the Angharathi, but the cloud of fighters, bombers and flamelayers would allow them no chance. They would be eaten alive at sea.
The warplanes were on them before the Cynthian fleet could fire another round. Fighters strafed decks with machine guns, cutting down sailors. Bombers dropped their payloads onto towers, turrets, down smokestacks. Flamelayers burnt concentrations of men or lit lifeboats on fire where they stood on the decks. The planes ducked and weaved so that the Altenadean machine gunners could barely pick a target.

A fighter passed them by and the rear machine gunner let off a burst. The ensign was struck and gave a gargled cry, toppling sidelong onto the deck. Sofia brushed splinters from her hair. The crews had their orders. She would not give up the deck.
She turned to look at the north coast of the southern sea. That place that had become her home. A place that could offer her no succor.
The thought died away as pinpricks appeared in the northern clouds. She squinted and her mouth fell open. Dozens of little shapes were bearing right for them. Suddenly the heavens were lit up with beams of light that streaked overhead like lightning straightened by the decree of God. A host of warplanes were pouring tracer fire into the Cynthian swarm overhead, who were utterly out of position for air combat. The intercepting air wing picked and chose their targets, and slaughtered Cynthian fighters began slamming into the water around them, exploding or smearing white canals into the surface and sinking from sight. Some of the dying warplanes wore the livery of Cynthian knights.

Half of the warplanes had gone to the Angharathi fleet; they too were bushwhacked from the clouds in enfilade and overthrown.
Sofia looked up to the warplanes that were saving them as a squadron of fighter-bombers flew by in a chevron to perform a synchronized dive on one of the dreadnought’s great turrets. She read what was emblazoned across their light green bodies: TROUTBRIDGE MARINES.
The drama was caught on film by Rigel, the cinematographer.
The Cynthian concentration of fire on the Altenadean fleet slackened and soon Sofia had pulled clear of the range at which the fleets were guaranteed hits and into the arms of the Angharathi, who could have fled and spared themselves but stayed and laid a withering fire upon the Cynthians until the Concord fleets could break contact and steam for the open sea.

The Angharathi have paid a price for their valor. 
The LGS Grimwraith exploded with all hands and the LGS Loch Knowsley Monster sank in flames, but Cynthian ships burned that day too, and beneath Angharathi gunfire and Troutbridge air cover the bulk of the mauled and smoking Altenadean fleet was able to pull itself free from the jaws of death.

    Altenado, Captains’ Hall
Lady Monica makes her report after leading a night parachute jump onto a deserted isle in waters frequented by kidnappers from the Grave of the Sorcerers. Half-buried in sand strewn over their cloaks, they witnessed a Cynthian submarine with some kind of advanced periscope suite go by, and using binoculars, picked out a radiotelegraphy station through the actual portholes of the vessel. Then, following it beyond the horizon several hours later, came a vast Cynthian Home Fleet Super Heavy Dreadnought. Clearly the coordination between these two assets allows the massive warship to fire over the horizon.

    Southern Sea, Central Archipelago
Triangulating the likely points of origin and destination of the two ships based on their course, Lady Monica and Sir Thierry coordinate the establishment of coastwatchers and radiotelegraphy stations throughout Altenado Bay and a number of minor isles in the Southern Sea. They will keep Altenado apprised of major fleet movements passing south of the city.

One coastwatcher keeps tabs on a man sitting on a palm tree-lined beach on a minor isle used as a sleepy resort community for the middle class. He sits for a long time, cradling a gun in his lap. Then he picks it up, puts it against the roof of his mouth and fires. The coastwatcher comes down and checks him. It is James Haul, a Starling & Shrike agent.

Starling & Shrike pays recompense to Altenado for their bad information and the severe damage to the joint Concord fleets, assuming public responsibility for the debacle.

Vidi walked with the Lord Mayor, looking up at him earnestly. Finally the Lord Mayor stopped and looked down at him.
“Have you heard the news?”
“About the terrible thing that happened to Diadem at the International Aviation Conference? Yes, of course I have. No more a hideous tragedy has befallen a free people since the fall of Mandala. I see the evidence of it here and there, but the people of Diadem are strong, and-“
“Vidi, it isn’t that. It’s the news from Garrenton.”
“In Kadwa?”
“Yes. You must not have seen the papers this morning. A joint Angharathine-Altenadean fleet was ambushed by the Cynthians and smashed.”
Vidi’s brow flickered.
“Apparently Troutbridge Marine aviators made a good account of themselves, but the allies lost a number of ships and the ones that got away were badly damaged.”
“But there are the Mertians, backstopped by the Empire of the Twin Canals! There is still much seapower between the Concord!”

The Lord Mayor smiled sadly and put his hand on Vidi’s shoulder.

“And I wish the Concord well, but… the Mertians are a tadpole that has just opened its eyes, and the Twin Canals, well… that nation is like an ogre with tuberculosis, and I wouldn’t want to be near it when it falls. The Concord is beset by foes, Vidi. Troutbridge has been a good friend to us, but we cannot account for your actions in throwing your hat into the Southern Sea. Mertia is stillborn, Angharath an inbred dodderer, the Altenadeans are madmen, the Empire is a drug-addled tyranny, and the Earthhearts… how could you have bound your fate to such people? You are masters of the riverlands, let the Cynthians contest you there should they decide to test your mettle! But now Troutbridge is an organ in a dying body. We cannot join you, my friend. The Cynthians want ports, always ports. They will not come here, and we are in no position to send men to help you after the savaging the Antinatalists gave us at the Aviation Conference. The lights are going out in the Southern Sea and we must look to our own flickering torch. I wish you luck, Vidi. May the Burning Eye save you.”

    The Mertian Coast
Many of the Sworn Partisans have gotten to know some of the captured Kadwan raiders during the trek back to the capital, and a group of them take it upon themselves to don captured burlap clothing and walk among the Kadwans at the vast POW camps established on the shores of the promontory. Part of the reason for this placement is to keep them penned in, however the garrison commander has also permitted them to fish in order to supplement their wheat ration.

The Sworn Partisans going undercover in the camps report that the Kadwans are extraordinarily embittered about what has befallen their homeland, and may of them discuss extreme regret at their actions in the Mertian hinterlands, saying that they didn’t realize that they could be as bad as the Cynthians until they found themselves in conditions of absolute dislocation. Many swear that they would work voluntarily for Mertia for their entire lives if it could gain them some degree of absolution; this is probably hyperbole, but the Sworn Partisans believe that many of the Kadwans would jump at the chance to do something for Mertia now that their odyssey of destruction has been brought to an end.

News reaches Mertia of the heavy Altenadean-Angharathi defeat off Kadwa, and the people of Mertia enter a kind of time of grieving; many are anguished that the ships that were delivered to them were not present in the first major engagement against the Cynthians. As such, the shipbuilding industry redoubles its efforts and is spared no consideration by the people of Mertia; combined with the new military researchers, a number of Cynthian escorts are finished and given Mertian livery, and furthermore a great battleship that was thought to be a multi-year project is finished in a number of months. It stands ready for Prince Agriman to christen it. 

The Sworn Partisans, hearts soaring from their victory against the hinterland reavers, are desperate to take the fight to the enemy and experience an influx of recruits, some native, some from quite far away.

The Free Riflemen have caught wind of what happened to the scout squad through friends in the Sworn Partisans, and, out of loyalty to Mertia and out of a desire to distinguish themselves from the international revolutionary Syndicalists with whom people often scornfully equate them, they post up in the reeds around the water purification plant one night.

They see a number of men emerging, carrying something in a crate on a litter. When they accost the men, there is a brief gunbattle during which one Free Rifleman is killed and most of the unknown party is eliminated. A single one of the men is captured; he is a Glossolalian. Inside the crate is a strange runestone glowing with sickly sigils.

The Free Riflemen subsequently win a degree of acceptance from the people of Mertia. Notably, they (and their leaders, who are educated men) may be able to move in freely Syndicalist-held areas in a way that most Concord personnel could not. 

    Altenado, Captains’ Hall
Sir Patrick reports an excellent time sharing silphium-flavored Mertian gin with King Carl Bombaryx, who offers the watery city of Bombaryx as a training venue for any nautical sports practiced by Altenadeans looking to compete in the Games of Fire. Emissaries from Great Loom take up the idea of “The Concord fights for your Honor” with great animation, and immediately begin setting up a film studio to produce it.

    Megakratheon, Capital of the Twin Canals
Attempting to second-guess the Emperor’s wishes, 5th Vertex Grandmason Asch Temertin has great mirrored panes installed upon the port citadels of Megakratheon. These are capable of concentrating light in entrapment patterns and then projecting it in a beam to scorch incoming vessels in the manner of a weapon found on the Panopticon of Bombaryx.

The Emperor’s new Imperial Ethnological and Demographic Corps progresses with fits and starts; the Earthhearts prove elusive just when Twin Canals researchers are attempting to find them, however Ulwan Lodestone-Tyric finds that her experiences with the Craterids translate quite well to dealing with the Pterids. She reports that their religion has developed a new undercurrent; they speak of a Fisherman Emperor walking among them, granting them untold power.

A number of IEDC officials are eventually taken and burned alive in a giant wicker man by the Pterids. In its place, there seems to be a great smoking hole in time and space, a realm of green trees burning to the soil, never expanding but visible from a mile away. No Canalite has yet dared to approach it.
An IEDC official studying religion on the westernmost island is shot by Anarcho-Syndicalist rebels for seeming to promote religion.

Delter mac Brenpah coats a lodestone of phlogiston creosote with scintillic powder and attempts to charge it with mirror-reflected sun rays. The laboratory is liquefied, and the scintillia-changed liquid courses through the streets, turning three of the city’s ninety-seven neighborhoods into ghost towns through fatal epilepsy.

The people scream for revenge against Atrialia for this hideous tragedy.

    The Southern Sea, Atrialian Horizon
The great fleet of the Twin Canals goes forth from Megakratheon. They are patterned after the city’s mile-high megaliths, like floating slabs of implacable rock.
They steam through the volcanic rock of the Fire Islands and past the dome of Daimonia. 

There, in the distance, is the rotten tooth of Atrialia spiking out of the silvertressed sea. Reams of city-scape spiraling around the island’s soaring rock heart.
Ships were scattered here and there off the coast, waiting to load or departing for leveler ports of call. 

Admiral mac Tralgahan drew out a vial of powdered guano from his vast, stiff charcoal overcoat and dusted it across his mustache, before gathering his bristles into his nose and inhaling deeply. Guano had gone all across his coat. His pupils narrowed to infinitesimal dimensions and he gasped like the despair of omnipotence.
Fire-adjuster adjutants were standing by with ledgers ready.
“Engage all targets. 22 to 127, 34 to 99,” he began reciting fire control orders whose supernatural precision would terrorize a crack fire control officer of most navies.
A minute later the grand navy of the Twin Canals opened fire on every ship present at once. Freighters buckled and blew or spilled their guts into the sea. Atrialian patrol boats were blown into inobservability, nothing but skeletonized frames remaining in firestorms upon the water. A great yacht from Cape Cittacotte blew apart like a pile of paperscraps in a windstorm, men in bathrobes and women in bikinis flying through the maelstrom.

The Atrialian shore guns were scrambling to prepare. Men ran between them, desperately trying to locate their absent fellows or open shell and part boxes they had neglected in times of easy wind.

Admiral mac Tralgahan uttered a litany of death and within the minute enormous naval shells hurtled visibly through the air towards the shore batteries, blowing them apart in carpets of flame that let off sheets of asphalt-colored smog.
The Admiral gritted his cracked and stained teeth as he leered on the sunny shores of Atrialia. He saw in the stone of the island’s central spire the thing that had driven him from the spiritual company of his fellow man. He saw the legends of radioactive runestones written in the legends of the South Sea underworld. He saw the connections of top to bottom and realized this accursed isle was the source of his secret horror. This place of narcotic delusion was where the stones were made. He had to get to their source. He had to destroy them or be destroyed.

“Max rate of fire, expend all ready penetrators on Atrialia, targets free. Full steam ahead, seize the port and prepare to disembark.”

“Sir?” asked a Caravelan adjutant uncertainly.
Admiral mac Tralgahan whipped sideways and the adjutant’s head rolled into the water, his body collapsing amidst his fellows and spilling blood around their shoes.
The Admiral had his saber fully extended. It vibrated slightly in the air.

“I repeat my order.”

“My lord!” the ensigns shouted over one another and scrambled to give the word.

The Imperial fleet pushed its way into the harbor of Atrialia, passing disemboweled ships burning like the pits of hell on a subterranean sea, and bumped up against one another for space on the shores and wharves. Armed sailors and naval infantry began descending from rope netting and chains, armed with everything from machine guns and grenade launchers to revolvers, bats and cutlasses. Atrialia was a charred wreckage in a suffocating cloud of smoke but most of its citizens had survived the devastating if brief bombardment, and immediately a protracted battle began.
Admiral Yeol mac Tralgahan led a contingent of Canalite super heavy shipguards in their clanking armor, fighting his way up a broad and treed promenade towards the flaming manor of the Atrialian tyrant, Goval. He would answer for his unnatural skulduggery. 

Behind the fleet, a tiny lighter departed almost secretly for Megakratheon. On board, a junior ensign left without orders to inform the Emperor of the amphibious invasion of Atrialia.

Jack Easterly of Troutbridge Federal Intelligence stood in the garb of an Archzenite security man, black boiler fatigues and a silver circlet. He adjusted the strap of his rifle and followed Tazriem Hightower at a distance.

Tazriem met with a foreign noble, whom he embraced. They walked the cobblestone streets past bustling drinking houses and cafes, couturiers and furriers, leatherworkers and snakescale souters. Gradually Jack neared them from behind.
Tazriem was smiling gently.

“Beller, the gentlemen of Angharath are a fabled people. You and I are kin. Masters of our own kin of the earth. That’s why we can marry. Serve together in the Orders. Keep the faith with one another and trade our subjects like cattle.”

“Is that a yes, my friend?”

They came to a great vault door of depleted troglodite mounted in the wall. Tazriem ran his hand across one of the barrels of an antiaircraft gun as the guards opened the door.
It swung open and they looked into the dripping jungle, the acidmaking guts of a disemboweled dragon.

“We must explain the situation to the Affidavits, and I want you to be there when we do so.”

“The Affidavits? Are they not your subjects? Do you not have them bound by their addiction to the foul poppy of Setroxia?”

“For the most part, and I would recommend you implement such controls on the Earthhearts, but not all among them have given themselves to our treasure. Those are the ones we rely upon most for command and control. They require a degree of persuasion.”

“Very well.” If Tazriem had wanted to kill him, that could have been accomplished in Archzenith.

They walked through the door and Jack surreptitiously followed them. The guards thought nothing of them. A humble, silent minder for the master of House Hightower as he left Archzenith’s walls.

They walked along the river, and Jack followed, falling further behind. He would not blend in here. Soon they began to pass cracked masonry, smoothed and defaced pillars, standing alcoves containing things ripped away and replaced with molten candles, pooled and quivering as they walked by.
They began to ascend a hill’s soft soil. Buildings now. Fanes. Huts, the most recent addition. Here and there men and women lay, gaunt and obese, watching them through lidded eyes. Puffed hands and necks. Trackmarks down the arms. Warriors knelt on the roofs or on stacks of masonry, rifles and submachine guns in hand. Some of them had reeds all through their skin so they were limned as if by saints, their auras a rotten brown.

They came to a great opening between a circle of once-majestic buildings. There in the center of it, surrounded by two semicircles of fat, gold-laden Affidavit noblemen, was a vast blue serpent sitting upright in its coils. The crown of its flare-necked head stood 30’ above the ground, and it had great crossed arms. It was partially gilded, so that flakes of gold hemmed sapphire scales.

Beller let out a long breath.
“Such a terrible idol.”
“He is even worse in deed,” said Tazriem, looking at Beller with a terrible humor.
Beller looked at Tazriem, then up at the snake. It was perfectly still. Then it cocked its head and looked right at him. He gasped and fell to his rear. It slithered forward and loomed above him, gazing down, perfectly still once more, its great yellow cat’s eyes affixed on him with livid interest.

“The blood of foreign lands,” said Tazriem, “I know you do love seasoning. Enjoy.”
The snake’s tongue darted out for a split second.

“This one’s scent is truly unique,” it murmured deeply, voice as smooth as a coiling snake but without hiss.

“Angharathi. He’s taken the winds all his life, and the tincture of the fens. You will find him with a fuller flavor than the airy and cloistered men of Diadem.”

Beller could not reach for his gun. He was a subject of existential madness, of every form of corruption on earth. He could not escape it. Why reach? He was a locus of horror. It would find him again.

The snake reached down, picked Beller up and swallowed him whole. He thrashed in its stomach, and then was still.

“Strange… very strange…” said the snake.
“Oh?” said Tazriem.
“I feel unwell.”
“Perhaps he was scrofulous. But you have never had trouble with diseased Affidavits.”
“No, it is something… AH!” the snake jolted horribly, and then fell on its side. Tazriem jumped back and its claws raked through the soil.
It looked at the sky, and then began thrashing around like something pinned in place but going into death throes to break free. Its tail lashed this way and that, knocking Affidavit noblemen into blubberous pieces, their guts and limbs mixing with dirt and gold in the air.

The snake began to turn a pale white, beginning at its stomach and then spreading through its body like something bleeding to death in moments. Strange black text, runes, sigils began to rise from its flesh, marking it all over like an arcogoetic scarlet fever.

The snake looked at its claws as the whiteness and raised black symbols began to overtake them.

“WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME?” it screamed as Jack Easterly sprinted away through the jungle boughs.

    Near Grimwall
Anthrud stood on the wet ridgeline beneath dripping trees. The sky was dark with clouds and the forest beneath him shook slowly with the wind.
He had a burning brazier of incense slung over his arms as he puzzled over his maps. Lukas Kirkcullen and Bradley Morado flanked him. Anthrud was dressed as a hired psychopomp of Thanofane, Lukas as one of the rich Reist tombkeeper priests of Vatrium, and Bradley was dressed in the severe black high-collared suit of a confessor of the Burning Eye.
“We were supposed to bring scouts, my lord,” Bradley Morado chided Anthrud.
“We are scouts. The bloody map is wrong,” said Anthrud, scowling.
“Let me see it,” said Bradley, well-used to navigating his House’s hinterland fiefs.
He laid the map across his knee and shielded it from the droplets that still fell from the trees. He scanned the horizon.
“That cliff.” He scanned the map, then looked up again. “That lake.”
He looked at a map. He drew his finger from a lake on the map to a hill marked by contour lines, then bounced it off the hill and to a cluster of contour lines that gathered into a single line. A cliff.
He looked up, traced his finger from the lake, to their position, then pointed to a cliff on the horizon.
Anthrud nodded smartly.
“I hereby dub thee point-man.”

They stood beneath the archaic face of Grimwall. Vast caverns were cut like visors into the cliffs and a thin steam poured from the upper chambers; it had been invisible against the clouds, but from beneath they were able to scrutinize its conspicuous contours. It carried in it a shimmer of green.
They knelt and brought forth their climbing gear, mounting the wall and beginning the climb to the lowest chamber.

They moved down the shadows of a disused underhall, chains hanging from a basement ceiling like lichen. They entered the mouth of a glowing chamber that had once been a freight elevator and saw that it was like a great crooked shaft which could be traversed to a higher elevation. They crossed the rubble of forgotten projects cast down this shaft to lay at the lowest plane and then saw a deputation descending a ribbed canal in the easy angle of the shaft which before they could not see.

The Angharathines were marked against a broad sheet of rebar-laced concrete. The party above stopped. They scrutinized one another.
Those descending were Grimwall gendarmes carrying short carbines, sans their breastplates. Foremost among them was a man clad entirely in dried mud laced with reeds that had been reinforced with some kind of molten metal dried in spirals around them. He wore a living headdress of birds that had been knitted together with the metalled reeds, and they jumped this way and that but were leashed to him, and he had the aspect of a corvic medusa.
“Priests,” called a security man, “what are you doing in the Underwall?”
“A service for those in the underworld,” called Anthrud Kirkcullen.
“You are no priests,” hissed the mud shaman, “For there are no outsider’s eyes upon you.”

Anthrud thought about arguing but thought better of it and with a jump slid into a kneeling position behind a bisected statue of a mountaineer who was proudly becoming a mountain himself. He drew his pistol as he moved and sighted in on the mud priest and fired, blowing the man’s crown of filth spattering across his companions and freeing his tethered birds. The security men were only briefly stunned and tried to minimize their profiles as they fired, devoid of cover, but the noblemen’s sharp eyes and callous disregard for the lowborn had the bodies of gendarmes sliding down their elevator rail groove in a few moments.
Their ears rang with gunfire.
“We shall not stay hidden for long. Hie with me and we will unearth Grimwall’s secret before we depart this place in our bodies or in our souls.”

They sprinted through the clanking halls of Grimwall’s industrial underbelly. The horde of gray-suited security forces on their heels grew by the minute.

Bullets flew and grenades bounced as the nobles held their position in the heart of a great vehicle bay. 

“How in burning blood will we get free of this place?” asked Lukas.
“I think I know how it will go,” deadpanned Bradley.

Unpainted jeeps and trucks were strewn in a sea around them, tanks were elevated on platformed pillars for all manner of checks and additions. The army of Grimwall was swelling in the great mouth of the chamber, which stretched back indefinitely.

Lukas knelt in the cab of a jeep and shot a colonel, a pistol-wielding pilot, and a drummer boy with an appropriated carbine, then leaned down and seized Anthrud by his cloak and gave him a yank.

“Oh lord and master, what is the bloody plan?”

Anthrud was in a frothing battle trance, firing bursts from a metal-stamped submachine gun.
“We choke the corridor with their corpses,” he intoned like this was some kind of read-aloud.
Considering a dozen men had already passed into the chamber this seemed too little too late, but Lukas turned and dropped another two with his carbine.

Then the human wave at the tunnel mouth surged forward, many falling over each other like bits of wheat before a thresher. An enormous, hideous form pulled itself through the chamber mouth and crawled up the wall above the door. It was a vast black tarantula with a gilded saddle on which sat a man in a smart gray tunic with golden epaulettes, their tassels hanging down towards the ground. He looked up at them and fired his semiautomatic pistol at them. Then the spider shivered and lurched, and ten thousand quills leapt from its back and perforated the vehicle bay. The nobles lurched down and heard the thwack passing through everything around them; they looked about in fear and wonder and saw that the ground was peppered with holes like the mantle of some alluvial stone. The damned quills had gone through the metal of every vehicle and the concrete of the ground. They had not been hit by the grace of the Burning Eye. There would be no second mercy. 

“Fall back into the depths!” rasped Anthrud and the nobles turned and sprinted one by one, the rearmost emptying his weapon as those foremost reloaded and turned.
So they bounded into the darkness.

They entered a strange place.
Pools of water had been erected here and the plans of the fens grew inside them. Tangled beneath great ferns and beside bobbing reeds were Grimwall battle tanks. And ephemeral mist hung over this place, and as they breathed it they smelled sweetness beyond the natural.
The vehicle bay opened over the great forest and the purple starry sky.
Lukas ran to the mouth of the bay.
“We’ve reached the edge! But there’s no bloody way down!”
“There is,” intoned Anthrud fanatically, “Follow me into the depths, my brothers.”
He clambered onto a tank and unlatched the porthole. Lukas rolled his eyes and they followed him atop the tank.
It was full of water. Anthrud looked up at them darkly, and then submerged himself in the pool. His nostrils flared. He looked up at them and nodded. They followed him in.
There was an ignition lever. Anthrud pulled it and the tank became weightless. They looked from the firing slits and saw that they had left the ground.

Impossible things are not unknown in this world. So it was that the nobles adapted without madness or incomprehension. This was the system. Stunned as they were, they adapted themselves to it.
The tank slid forward. Bullets bounced off of its hide. The air outside became thick with mist, blinding them, and then it receded. Then it came again.
They were over the forest. Grimwall glowed orange behind them like a standing stone holy to a desert. Black shapes wreathed with mist followed.
Anthrud made no noise. He merely gestured. Bradley fell onto one of the tank’s side guns and swiveled it to the rear, firing. The Grimwall tanks were silhouetted against the city. The nobles were shadows in the night.
There was an explosion. He had caught the tank in its viewing slit and the shell had penetrated its magazine. Steam billowed and water cascaded as the tank lost its magic and fell like a missile into the forest beneath.
Perhaps the kill had been a necessity, but they had marked themselves on the eyes of the gunners ahead with the fire of their discharge. One of the mist-tanks fired a central howitzer and the shell detonated on the Angharathi tank’s left tread. They were jolted by the watery shockwave, and then nearly pulled from the tank as the water began to drain. It went slowly and as it did, they began to lose altitude. As their heads came free, Bradley had just enough time to shout, “Aim for that lake!”
Minutes later the nobles dragged themselves sodden to the shore. Balls of mist floated above, fruitlessly searching for the raiders.
“Well we’ve answered one question,” said Anthrud. There was a vial of water from the tank in his belt.
“And how many are born,” said Lukas.

    Streets of Angharath
Several members of House Darlsmog are accosted by House Manticorans one night as they stroll the streets with several hooded men; one is revealed to be an exiled Angharathi Occultist, who is shot before he can work some hellish magic upon the city. Another is a Knight Tarragon financier, who under interrogation reveals that the Knights Tarragon are financing an effort to have Angharathi exiles in Mandrake retake control of Angharath so that it can be transformed into an extraterritorial haven of the Lethemarket South Sea Archipelago Company as their north shore base of operations, with yearly dividends paid to the Knights Tarragon. But he didn’t realize the exiles were Occultists.

    Angharathine Possessions
Angharath receives warning from Altenado via the new Altenadean radiotelegraphy stations that an LSSAC invasion fleet is en route, consisting of armed Q-ships disguised as freighters and loaded with mercenaries from around the Southern Seas. The shore guns of the gap are trained on the exact point of arrival of the LSSAC fleet, and several serviceable ships are subtly pushed out from the Gap to fire on the oncoming vessels.

What was not expected was the droves of mercenaries led by Knights Tarragon attacking up each of the coasts. They came with trucks, armored cars and on horseback, pushing up a hundred minor roads to the lakelands, heralded by desperate shepherds rushing in to warn their noble overlords.

House Morado were the first to engage the invaders by land, setting out onto their rural fiefs to parry the foe wherever he was met. Morado Knights and retainers fought from the trees and gullies, eliminating their uncertain lowborn foes and bringing down banker knights abandoned by their fickle allies.

The fight was stiffer in the west than the east, and many unprepared Moradans fiefs (sheltered to the west by Altenado) were overrun and burned, families awakening to find their fortified homes on fire and inescapable. House Manticora motorcycle dragoons sallied forth to bridge the gaps, engaging LSSAC armored cars using antitank rifles fired across the handlebars of their motorcycles. They too were engaged by an overwhelming foe, with LSSAC and Tarragon biplanes soaring in to provide topcover to their embattled forces, strafing Manticoran positions. Motorcycles burned and men in shattered armor lay in the dewy grass of morning. Then, as the LSSAC and Tarragon forces threatened to overthrow the Manticoran and Moradan defenders, they were met by a deadly pincer from land and air. A wave of House Centine fighters washed over the battlefield in close combat with the LSSAC and Tarragon biplanes, shooting them down here and there into the lochs and fens. Dannet Morado followed the Knight Commander of the Tarragon fighter wing into a breathtaking plunge through a storm of dogfighting biplanes and shot him down just as he would have pulled up over Loch Knowsley, being splashed by the actual impact of the Knight Commander’s biplane on the water, pulling up at the last second to rejoin the cloud of battle and score another three kills. A new Centine would be conceived that night.

Just as the aerial clash began, a host of Altenadean outriders appeared behind the LSSAC formation and began tearing into them with a vengeance, slaughtering routing mercenaries and unprepared rearguards alike. Simultaneously, the shore guns of the Gap and the slightly-forward fleet opened fire on the unsuspecting LSSAC Q-ship convoy and set it burning and sinking within minutes. At this the LSSAC and Tarragon command and control utterly broke down, with mercenaries fleeing in every direction, now unable to return to their ships in any significant numbers. An LSSAC contracting official and six Tarragon knights were captured in the aftermath of the battle.

    The Earthhearts’ Harrowing of their Enemies
Bizarre golems march upon Grimwall’s lower battlements and the guard retreats in horror, thinking this revenge from the earth for consorting with the spirits of water. When they emerge the golems are gone, and many members of the guard are imprisoned for psychological weakness at thinking shapes in the fog were mud monsters.

Giant weasels swarm throughout the lands of the Affidavits, Plenarites and Plaudits, harrowing their lands in a way none are prepared for. Tamlaukit Blood rides among the enemy upon two weasels, hurling lengths of salt crystal shaped like lightning bolts, heaping agony upon their unprepared hides. He goes in a shroud of fur and it is said that a great caterpillar has arisen from a chrysalis in which it was nursed by weasels, perhaps gestated among weasels. Archzenith and their bandit tribe allies are thrown into disarray, making for an easy infiltration of their territory.

High King Malcomb Skull has dreams of lightning, charged as if by channels of the sun. He awakens and fire spreads from his lightning fingertips, glowing, burning all. He raises into the air and is ready to hurl fusion beams of divine bisection upon the enemies of the Earthhearts.

    Troutbridge Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Starling & Shrike reports that their man in Grimwall has confirmed that while previously Grimwall had planned to attack Ascension, they have instead decided to assault BOMBARYX. This is due to the confirmed sinking of Bombargian vessels by the Cynthians; the Grimwudlians now (perhaps pessimistically) believe that Bombaryx will join the Concord of the Southern Sea, thus totally encircling Grimwall with two unfriendly networks of allies centered around Troutbridge.

The agent also reports having witnessed something utterly incredible: mist-shrouded flying tanks departing a cliff-face vehicle bay, to which the agent was descending by climbing rig after having learned that it was the most off-limits place in Grimwall. The rear tanks appeared to be chasing the foremost tank, and there was an exchange of fire in which one of the pursuing tanks was shot down before the pursued tank was brought down as well.

The vehicle bay was subsequently thronged with Grimwall security forces TO INCLUDE A COLONEL RIDING ON THE BACK OF A GIANT SPIDER and the agent was forced to call off his infiltration of the bay; he will make another attempt once the security situation has normalized and will report.

    Troutbridge Chamber of Commerce
Troutbridge performs an inquiry about the possibility of paying Angharath’s debts to the Knights Tarragon.
Jordi returns shaking his head and presents the Tarragon bill to several Houses of Angharath to the Prime Minister, who audibly gasps. The debts racked up by aristocracy are incomprehensible to modern republics with market economies, and the money is instead turned to research.

    Troutbridge PD
Leo finished with his interrogation.
Two things were clear.
First, the kids’ contact was not from Troutbridge. He had the accent but they could tell his attitude was all wrong. 
Second, he was mysophobic.
That would be enough to ID him at their meeting site.
He had one of the kids who was not too mussed give the meeting symbol. Dropping an empty tin next to a trash can at a trolley station.
Then he handed them off to Troutbridge PD.

The meeting would be in a luxury hotel in the central business district. 

Leo stood outside. The building was like a white marble cathedral. Brass chasing. The flags of 22 countries. Luxury cars pulling up and going.
Leo had changed clothes and wrapped his wounds but his face was cut up like a boxer. He wore a rumpled suit and his tie was askew. He walked into the building.
He looked around. If there was a handler, he would not be looking at Leo. A few people gave him concerned glances. There was a man leaning at the bar in a position where he could see the room, but he was not looking at Leo. The man was pale, powerfully built, and wore a suit tailored on the finest menswear avenue in Troutbridge. That man’s suit was worth dozens of ounces of gold and was utterly pristine. He was in a hotel in Troutbridge, wearing a suit made in Troutbridge. He was wearing gloves and he was drinking coffee.
This was Leo’s man.

He sat beside the stranger.

Leo ordered a snowmelt. The man’s ears visibly perked at the Starling delicacy.
Leo turned his hands over and began to examine his filthy fingernails.
The man looked at Leo’s nails and leaned away almost imperceptibly.
Leo looked at the man and grinned. He’d eaten a piece of toffee and intentionally left his teeth dirty.
The man gritted his teeth at Leo, his teeth immaculately white.
“Where you from, friend?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not in the mood to talk.” 
He sounded like he was from Troutbridge, though Leo wouldn’t have put a demur that way. 
“You gonna meet some kids here?”
The man leaned in towards him and reached towards his leg. Leo caught his wrist in an iron grip and smiled. The man spoke.
“Leave this place or I will kill you here and your city guard will never catch me. Many will die before I disappear. You know this is true.”

The man yanked his hand into Leo’s hand and they began a mutual squeeze, each attempting to crush the other.
 The man had an iron grip but Leo was no slouch. It felt like there was a star of force between them. His hand was growing strained and numb but he didn’t cave.

The bartender put Leo’s snowmelt down with a smile. Whipped cream topped with hot coffee. Leo took the long dessert spoon with his free hand and took a bite, smiling into the handler’s face. Then he blew hot coffee and whipped cream into the man’s eyes. He roared and reared back, whipping Leo between him and the bar and over an empty stool next to him. This guy was stronger than a silverback gorilla and Leo’s arm was nearly dislocated as he went rolling over the barstool and across the plush green carpet.

“This man has assaulted me,” declared the handler like an outraged Duke at a winter ball, wiping his eyes, “By the rules of mutual combat I shall chastise him.”
“Not here!” yelled the bartender, but the handler leapt like a Games of Fire gold medalist across the carpet and his wingtip missed Leo’s temple by a hair, clipping his scalp as it passed him by. Leo rolled away, got half to his feet and leapt into the handler’s hips, knocking him onto his rear. The handler got Leo into a triangle choke and instantly he felt like his eyes would pop out, but he reached down and grabbed the handler’s balls with one hand and reached for his pistol with the other. The handler squeezed but did not relinquish Leo’s neck until he realized Leo had his gun in hand, after which the handler sprang into the air like from his rear end like a cat and then kicked Leo’s gun across the room, where it shattered a little tower of sweets in between two old ladies having high tea. Leo sprang back as the man assumed a fighting posture slightly bent over and scowling.

“You’re a Cynthian. You’re behind the bombing. You’re a Cynthian Knight and you’re here to sabotage this country!”
“And you are a Crag of Songs Killer. We can trade accusations all day. Let us trade blows!” 

The man launched a side kick that could have broken bone but Leo knew he’d be off-center after having his balls squeezed; the handler wouldn’t want to swing his upper body, and Leo hard-read his incoming kick. Leo slid back with more grace than his rugged form gave a hint of, caught the handler’s heel in the crook of his arm and then sprang in, driving a kick into the inside of the man’s far knee. The man cried out as his leg buckled and Leo rode it all the way to the ground before catching the man’s wrist in a handcuff and fastening it to his ankle.
Several Troutbridge patrolmen ran in with guns drawn and in a flash Leo had his badge held high.

Leo walked down the hallway at the Clothier’s Precinct, tilting his head to one side, working out a kink where the handler had almost broken his neck. He was joined by a Starling & Shrike Forensic-Criminological detective holding a folder a sheaf of paper.

“Whaddaya got, Julian? Lotta Cynthian cues, right?”
“I’m sorry Leo. We just can’t be sure. Mysophobia is common among the world’s high nobility, and none of the phrases that you’ve given me bear an absolutely definite Cynthian syntax. He could be Bombargian, Theoseverian, Archzenite. He could even be Angharathi,” said the Starling, giving Leo a look.
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, let’s see if he’ll talk to us.”

They went into the interrogation room. The handler smiled at Leo, then he looked at Julian in his black-and-whites and his smile broadened.
“Who are you?” asked Leo.
“I am Ostvelar Zutash of the Malvistan Kingdom. I am here to…”
Julian stood with his head cocked, his ear in the air. Then he laughed.
“Oh, yeah. One hundred percent Cynthian.”
Leo looked down at the handler.
“Thanks, champ. We’ll let the Queen know you fucked this whole thing up.”
The detectives turned and walked out of the interrogation room. Julian shook Leo’s hand.
“That was a dangerous man you brought in. Many security officials have been murdered by Cynthian Knights.”
“What can I say. It’s Troutbridge. I couldn’t let him get away.”
Julian nodded.

Leo walked into the precinct’s dayroom and was met with a round of applause. 

    The Southern Sea, Lethemarket Horizon
Chief Lonal mac Hayrt sat in the belly of an unmarked frigate heading to the vicinity of the isle of the Moonmoths, where a number of boats would disembark by night and carry Red Chartermen to the shores.

“What kind of loot can we expect?” asked a grizzled and mad-eyed Red Charterman.
“All the pussy you can stab,” grinned a Charterman who sat across from him.
“It’s smack city on the island,” commented another, “Get yourself a few kilos and put it in the bottom of your pack. Sell it in Mandrake or Cape Cittacotte when this is over and you’ll do better than ripping off pearls and lockets.”

“How long you think the Empire has? Fucking Syndies in the islands, tribes inland…”
“Yeah. I’m more worried about the goddamn Syndicalists than the junkie Imperial troops. Hell, we could probably recruit the fucking Moonmoths, but those Syndicalists are some square motherfuckers…”
“Interesting,” said Lonal mac Hayrt. He drew his pistol from beneath the black breastplate he wore over his red fatigues and began shooting Red Chartermen in their faces. Three members of the Secret Police seated around him leveled their submachine guns and sprayed down the hold as Chartermen lurched away from them and fell in the flashing light.
They went upstairs for the crew.

Similar scenes played out across the Southern Sea and the isles of the Twin Canals.

    Lethemarket Proper
Innafwyn stood in a sumptuous waiting room in Lethemarket, carrying a bouquet of black roses nervously in her hands.
Alan Thelavole, Director of the Lethemarket Southern Sea Archipelago company, stepped out of a lift with an Art Deco gate before her.
“Mr. Thelavole,” she said, “I come to you in peace.”
Two scarred Red Charter guards stepped out of the lift behind him wearing ugly expressions. A Knights Tarragon financier followed, looking at her grimly.
There was submachine gun fire in the next room as her security detail was eliminated.

A pair of porters carried a large box into a statehouse in Megakratheon. A steward approached it curiously. He hadn’t ordered anything. The box was unmarked.

“Open it,” he said to them.

They pried the lid off. Innafwyn stood up. She was nude, gagged, and her face was forlorn. Her hands had been cut off and olive branches had been stuffed into her wrists. The steward took her gag away with shaking hands and sand poured from her mouth. Her tongue had been cut out. There was subtle stitchwork across one of her breasts. The time bomb in her chest exploded, killing the steward and the porters.

    The Imperial Megalith
Dr Pipach reports a miraculous discovery; the explorers’ bathyscape was approached by men from beneath the sea who wore blue murrine glass domes over their heads and had chalky white bodies. They guided the bathyscape into some kind of shaped-coral sea cave and presented the alienists with a number of small gold statues of incalculable worth. Dr Pipach believes that a return journey would be welcomed by the xenostygians; for the time being, Dr Pipach believes that undersea stations would be quite feasible if the regional coral could be ground down and reformatted into something airtight.

Goval fights to the death alongside his bodyguard of whores. No Glossolalian runestones are found; this was apparently a neurotic assumption of Admiral Yeol mac Tralgahan.
The Buildercult demolitionists mill around the ruined streets of Atrialia, avoiding the huddled forms of survivors of the takeover. They scowl at the shoddy masonry of the city’s public buildings.
The people of Atrialia are in no position to bargain with the Emperor and become the 13th people of the Empire of the Twin Canals.
Admiral Yeol mac Tralgahan returns to Megakratheon as if to be received as a conquering hero. 

King Vile stood in the middle of a muddy street of Mandrake, watching the creaking carts and the cavorting exiled aristocrats tilt hither and yon. King Vile wore a voluminous lime green overcoat, a pair of white silk scarves which were growing dirty at the tassels from caressing the lane, a pair of crocodile hide riding boots which peaked above his knee, two sashes scrawled with custom-made creation myths (one orange, the other dun), and a vast tricorne hat with sabretooth tiger claws at each of its peaks. He felt he looked the part, and none gainsaid him in this place of riotous couture.

He moves towards a place where he has heard Kadwan exiles meet, a sunken patio between a number of buildings where off-kilter tables and easy chairs are strewn, tea and cappuccino are spilled, movements are plotted. 

He arrives and peers over the edge. Kadwans alright, sitting about, leaning in. Tea is spilled across the tables. Liqueur. Absinthe. Nothing is being drank. Mud wells between the cobblestones and strange yellowing reeds rise amongst them.
He descends a staircase into the sunken patio and a man rises up, turning to look at King Vile. The man seemed to spin in place as he rose, almost weightless, knocking his chair inside. His head tilts back slowly to face the unknown king. He does not speak. 
“Hail,” rasps King Vile, reaching the bottom of the stairs. The rest of the Kadwans are still. The one who had faced him on the stairs still faced the stairs, but now he spins slowly to face King Vile. Suddenly the Kadwan sped towards King Vile through the air, without spring, simple immediate velocity. King Vile leapt, drew and slashed with his greenstone smatchet in a single action, cutting the Kadwan in half from crown to coccyx, but there was no blood as the two heaps of clothed jerky landed on the landing behind him, just a whip of something black in the air above King Vile, but when he glanced at it he was gone.
Now the Kadwans began to move at him at once. They do not walk, they glide with their shoes tapping almost silently against the cobblestones, pushing through the wispy reeds. 
“What manner of dragon is this,” breathed King Vile, “Whose claws are men and whose body is the wind?”

A nobleman came to the staircase on the far side and happened to glance down into the patio, seeing the men sliding across the cobblestones. His eyes bulged and he drew his ornate, chased, gilded double barreled sawed off shotgun from a hanging velveted casket box like for a nomad’s short bow.

“Surely a manifestation of the Occult!” the noble hissed. King Vile did not warn him off; his fate was for the World Machine to decided. Only men of the Tribe were in league with their own souls.

Two Kadwans sped at King Vile like cannonballs, and he rolled, chopping at one with his splitter. He cut the man’s head off and it bounced gummily on the cobblestones, but no blood fell. The second body buffeted him and he rolled head over heels, but the nobleman fired both his barrels and blew the Kadwan’s arm off. Again, no sign of pain. 

Then King Ruxnan saw it. Bands of sinewy black muscles snaked along the ground into each of the Kadwans. They were puppets of something that lay beneath.

“Look! The world dragon takes them!” shouted King Vile to the noble, but it was too late.

The liquorice muscle of the man King Vile had bisected was laying dormant on the ground, but seeming to rouse itself, it snaked its way up the far wall and into the leg of the nobleman, who convulsed hideously and dropped his glimmering sawed-off fowling piece into the mud beneath him. His complexion paled, he grimaced and his eyes glazed over, and then he hurtled across the patio at King Vile, who barely dodged him, the man’s body cracking the stones of the stairway behind him.
The cobblestones at the heart of the patio began to rumble, and then the center most ones were displaced by vomiting earth. From beneath them rose a great mass of black chitinous muscle, knobbed and hard-ridged. The center of this flexing mass suddenly produced a face, unknown to King Vile but distinctly Angharathi in its features, and filled with hatred.
“Give up,” hissed the man in the mass, “Do not make this unduly painful for you. You will be my doll, as will all this city.”

“You will be nothing but the roots of the earth, as is your place, bottom feeder. You shall feed on corpses, not that who belong to the Maiden of the Morn. Otherwise I will drive you into the light of the knowledge of man and you will be torn free of your refuge!”

The wind began to stir around King Vile, and light poured through the silvery film of cloud overhead. King Vile began to raise into the air to match the corpse-puppets of the transformed Angharathi, and his greenstone weapon hummed with earthgranted tectonic power; a counteroccult trowel to remove this weed from the garden. 

“Fie!” cried the creature, “No such thing shall befall me! I, Nuncio Steprazor, shall retake my rightful place in Angharath! Then I shall drain her lakes and crush you with their power!”
Then the man-creature slid into the grown, sucking its tendrils behind it like a plant in reverse-sprout.

King Vile climbed the stairs slowly, gazing down at the hole left in the cobblestones and the twelve dead dry Kadwans. He paused, and then ascended into the lively streets of Mandrake, where people drank, smoke, sang and laughed, unawares of the hideous drama that had just played out in the stony pit behind him.

King Vile and the Earthhearts had allies who would be grateful to learn of this revelation.

    Diadem and Archzenith
The Archzenites attack Diadem with their lapdogs, the Affidavits, and conquer it. Meanwhile, a force of Earthheart raiders steal into Archzenith and go into her mines. They wander for a time, seeking the source of the Archzenites’ infinite wealth, but find mostly mined-out tunnels of precisely the same bore no matter which direction they turn. The Earthhearts spread out to better cover the mines, as they seem to be devoid of guards with Archzenith’s armies mostly gone to Diadem. One of the Earthhearts, Jackal Hyde, is a great skald. He is examining a set of brilliant graphite drawings a miner from Palmgrove drew upon a wall when there is a great rumbling. The ground begins to collapse beneath Jackal, and he runs away, sprinting for the surface. He is joined by the other Earthhearts as a vast chasm opens behind them with a collapse and a great, oblong thing begins to slide out of the depths of the earth.

This is all the undermined mantle of Archzenith can take. The Earthhearts sprint into the sunshine and away from the city but the ground collapses behind them, sinking the city instantly into a great bowl in the earth. No discrete forms remain; all has been destroyed by its undermining. All Archzenites have died save those who’d gone to conquer Diadem.

On their way back, the Earthhearts encounter great war parties from the Plaudits and Plenarites. These other tribal raiders bear many wounds and have a hangdog aspect; they had attacked the Earthhearts’ core territories when the raiders had gone to Archzenith. None the worse from their escape, the Earthhearts charge and utterly destroy the core of both the Plenarites and Plaudits, slaughtering their nobles and weaponthanes in close combat before scattering their lay warriors and auxiliaries to the wind.

The Plenarites and Plaudits cease to function as cohesive political entities, most going into exile in distant lands. The Earthhearts expand into their territories, founding many new herds.

    The Imperial Megalith
The gibbering Sapphire Sultan returns to Megakratheon, supported on the arms of his pit crew. He managed to enter the strange tear in reality when walking among the Pterids, and saw strange and terrible things therein. What he can tell the Emperor is that he witnessed a pair of Emperors conversing by a river made of fire. One of the Emperors wore a black mantle and walked in a little swarm of clockwork machines; the other wore a bear’s pelt and was seated on a throne of moths. They looked at him at once and he fled; when he emerged, the Pterids doused his vehicle (and him) in the blood and guts of animals and sent him on his way with shouts of laughter.

    Above Megakratheon
Vast mirrors are established over Megakratheon and through ingenious reel projection, complex imagery can be disseminated throughout the streets, only becoming translucent when one draws quite near. Unfortunately, projection of the great dome eludes the mirrorworkers as it’s easier to project things onto surfaces than into the air, as is the fitting of such devices to expeditionary vehicles, however quiet hazardous-seeming illusions can be generated in Megakratheon proper. Research is ongoing.

    En Route to the City of Leagues
The tiny seaplane flew over the coast. Sapphire coils crashing in naturalistic chandeliers of froth across the warm forest shores of the Mertian coast. The climate thickened as they flew due south of the Grave of the Sorcerers, the pastel riot of the rainforest coast and vast rocks deathly dry far upon the horizon. 
The mighty rainforest weakened as they drew near the the stately Potemkin city of Lethemarket, and they banked out to sea to stay free of its fairy-tale towers which may contain anti-aircraft artillery trained on a Prince’s plane, though today it carried strange cargo for the Royal We: Captain Andrew Bled, an independent militia rifleman and socialist trained at the Institute for Philosophy at Crynel. He and his men had only been recently integrated into the Mertian political system, and Captain Bled had now been called on to travel to the City of Leagues and argue Mertia’s case to them. To some of his former classmates at Crynel, no doubt. To argue for an alliance that was two thirds or more aristocratic, depending on what you call the magnates of the Earthhearts. Captain Bled was still drawn from long nights on the windswept prairie, and long days battling Kadwan exiles made mercenaries of Cynthian gold. He gazed into the middle distance, thinking of things to come, things that had been, what might be said of things that were. Minister Isabel Margrave apprehended him pensively. 

They landed briefly in Megakratheon to fuel, touching down in a vast aqueduct soaring over the bedrock of the city. Great graven and inhabited stones rose around them in the dawn mist, and armored Canalite super heavy infantry brought forth the fuel at the behest of the Emperor. Minister Margrave exchanged pleasantries with them but Captain Bond gazed at them with scorn and hatred. He was not a rebel because he was Mertian; had his nation been different, so might his vocation. 

Then came the great bloody desert where smiled the quilted colors of Setroxia’s opium fields, mountains, and beyond a wetter clime still arid to one emerging from the balmy bay of Megakratheon’s power. There in the plain on short grass and starlight was the City of Leagues, a yellowlit place of sprawl kneeling blackly manifold like a geometric arthropod whose legs were forges and foundries. 

Black fighters bearing the long red triangle across their wings escorted the petitioners, their white biplane like an angel, dove or swan fallen into the World Machine and silently sorted to its final position by unspeaking psychopomp autonoma.

They flew low over the city. It was a place of vents, tunnels, great blocks like obsidian temples, everywhere sheds and hammocks for sleeping; vast hammocks between buildings, families looking up from where they gathered on blankets, fires burning inside sheet metal shelters and foundries which knew no flicker. No towers; a great sprawl, utility upon utility.

They landed on a vast basin. Men were waiting for them on a stamped metal platform by a stair of slats that wound down the outside wall. They were not smiling, but neither were they armed. They descended the stairs while Leagues security men searched the seaplane for observation devices.

Minister Margrave and Captain Bled were led down and through open-air corridors of metal struts supporting buildings and platforms around them, steaming apparatuses and open-air workshops with tiny foundries feeding them specialty parts. Boys sat on inactive lathes and watched them, their overcoats hiked high.

At last the party was led into a vehicle bay that had once been a stable. There were industrial lights for the working of engines, but great shutter doors were pulled down and the lights were dimmed. A wooden table and chairs were carried into the center of the room and three foremen sat down on one side of the table, indicating Captain Bled and Minister Margrave were to sit across from them. In the shadows of the room, people moved and gathered, a silent assembly whose faces were mystery. This meeting was to be attended by a great many people.

“Sirs,” said Minister Margrave, leaning in, “This was to be a private meeting.”
“It was to be a secret meeting, and it is. There’s nobody here who can’t be trusted. You don’t yet appreciate the way we do things here if you think you’ll meet with three of us and we’ll make all the decisions for our people.”
“To whom do we speak?”
“Mason, Smith and Baker.”
“No Abbott?” deadpanned Captain Bled with a smile.
The Leagues men gazed at him and one stroked his beard. Isabel looked as well.
“I’m Bled. Great profession.” He was still smiling.
“I know you,” said Baker, “I recognize you from the Institute. You were a year ahead of me. You weren’t with the Union.”
“We were students, not laborers. There’s a time to learn and a time to act. They follow in that order.”
“You still have something to prove, don’t you. I remember the debates. You’re a… what do they call it? A socialist?” 
“I’m a Mertian and a socialist. Also in that order.”
“Why are you here? We have your foreign minister. Why send you? Did the Prince think we’d like you because you’re a fellow traveler?”
“I’m here so that my people’s future doesn’t get clouded with bullshit and diplomatic tact. I know you. I know what you value. A lot of people out there think that Leagues is just another power and comfort game, that the whole Anarcho-Syndicalist thing is just a facade to let you stay on top and reap the benefits. But I’m fully aware that you’re not joking. That you three and people who are like you believe what you say. You tell people quite clearly what you want. Not everyone believes you. Well, I do. I know you take the future seriously and I know you care about the exact definitions. I’m here to talk to you on that level.”
“Well, that’s a breath of fresh air,” said Smith, raising his eyebrows and leaning back slightly.”
“I know. I deal with people who don’t think I’m serious, either.”
“So what of it, then. Mertia. What do you want?”
“Revolution. We’re rebels against the Cynthians. The most dangerous aristocracy on the planet.”
“We’re in an alliance. We have an alliance helping us do this.”
Mason smiled.
“We get to the heart of the matter. The enemy of our enemy is our…”
“What if our enemies are in your Concord?”
“What are you saying? The Cynthians are your friends?”
“No. The Cynthians are barely even human. They’re like the hurricane that’s tearing up Kadwa right now. Maybe… a cleansing tide. They wash away governments. Ripe conditions for Syndicalism when we push them back out.”

Andrew Bled looked at Isabel and then back at the Leaguesmen. He thought for a moment.

“What makes you think a unified Cynthian Empire is any less dangerous to you than a patchwork of unstable independent states?”
“The Cynthians are a sea power. Sea people. We own the hinterlands. Whatever ports they take, we’ll give them a war from the woods that’ll never end. It doesn’t matter if it takes generations. If they slacken at one place for one moment, we take it. In the meantime we kill their nobles here and there, ones and twos. That’s a game we can play for longer than they can. And the longer that people dwell under Cynthian tyranny, the more they’ll long for us.”

“Is that why you don’t have any people in Troutbridge?”

The man’s face soured.
“False consciousness. The workers of Troutbridge are palliated by trinkets, but they lack true meaning. Their lives are pointless and they know it.”
“Children, art, beauty…”
“Trappings. At the core of it, what is the vision of Troutbridge? What’s its destiny? Trade, and… what? Sitting there in the garden with the children and katydids?” He leaned forward. “Do you think I’ve never known such things? Look up and there’s blackness in the blue sky. You go to your comfy grave while billions suffer and your children inherit a situation that’s no clearer than you found it. What do they make of it? It’s meaningless. A bleak game that they rolled well in. So they sit in Troutbridge and eat bonbons while people starve and shiver in Setroxia, Altenado, Cape Cittacotte, Atrialia and the whole damned Empire of the Twin Canals. No reason for it. No solution. Just the way it is. A cruel universe with pleasure for some and pain for others. A perverse universe.” He leaned in. “That’s why there are Antinatalist killers in Troutbridge. No Syndicalists, though. Which would you choose?” He leaned back. “We have no Antinatalists here.”
“Because of your vision.”
“Because people with vision will take a hammock between two foundries over nihilism in a cottage. What of Mertia? What is your vision of Mertia, my socialist royalist friend? Revolution? Will there be a White Terror against Cynthian collaborators when King Argimen takes the throne?”
“There’ll be a parliament where socialists are represented. That’s not unheard of. What about Anarcho-Syndicalists? Will they be part of the parliament? I know what you might say. You’re waiting for a parliament of unions. That’s a long ways out. You talk about the people shivering in Setroxia, but what can you do for them in the short term? You have rebels, you have donation programs in some cities, but where are you represented in the actual politics of a government? Anywhere in the world? Don’t you think you could harness some of that power for the aim you’re trying to achieve? That you could improve conditions or bring people closer to a world where there’s enough international solidarity to stop injustice and starvation in Setroxia? Do you have to kill everybody who doesn’t want union government before that can happen? Anyone who won’t join your project willingly?”
“What do you think you’ll accomplish as a socialist who’s part of a government? Do you think the aristocracies of the Southern Sea will ever actually embrace Socialism or Syndicalism? You’re filing at the edges. We’re flipping over the whole edifice and starting from scratch.”
“And forcing meaning on Troutbridge, Ascension, Diadem, Attar. Unasked for. No Cynthian liberation there. Why don’t you prove something and go where the tyranny is.”
“Oh, well, you have other allies we could go to,” the man leaned in, “The Twin Canals. The greatest cesspool of oppression and tyranny on the Southern Sea. The least equitable social structure this side of the Cynthians. No, I think we’ll start there.”
“I speak for Mertia. Mertian freedom. There are calcified aristocracies on the Southern Sea, I grant you that. But Mertia’s a place where the edifice has been torn down, where we’re starting from scratch. You might want to alleviate the suffering of people who have nothing, but in Mertia we have meaning and we have a system by which the people with the least resources can be looked after. That’s my job. That’s my purpose. You’re an international revolutionary Anarcho-Syndicalist. You can think of the long term. You can think of the final fate of mankind. In the meantime, I’m going to do what I can to make sure that some of the resources which Mertia and Troutbridge are manifestly excellent at creating go to people who are experiencing actual physical suffering and not just ennui. That’s giving to mankind in the short term. That’s a model that you should try to protect while you’re overthrowing the worst of the worst. There’s a place for the overthrow. That’s why I’m a free company militiaman. But it won’t make things more equitable for the foreseeable future if we overthrew the Mertian government.”
“We have no plans to overthrow Mertia in the short term.”
“What about the allies that nurture her?”

The foremen sat back.

“The fact is we’re not eager to have the Cynthians take over anybody. There are certain societies, like the Twin Canals, where we could see a Cynthian invasion being a net benefit to our cause in the long term, but it’s hyperbole to say that we’d like them to seize Altenado, Angharath, or Lethebridge and so forth. They have too much raw potential that’d be destroyed. We certainly don’t want the Cynthians to retake Mertia; your government type is wrong, but nobody who’s not a psychopath isn’t inspired by what happened there.”

He leans in.

“The Union’s moving towards the Southern Sea from two directions. You’re well aware of them. Northwest of Troutbridge in The Free Cities of Tourmaline Gorge, and southeast through the Empire of the Twin Canals. If you read the papers this morning you’ll see the last of the Tourmaline cities, Pastoria, just fell to our forces. That leaves Vineforest, and then possibly Troutbridge. Speaking practically, they’re the key to the riverlands. The rivers are conduits to everything. To Starling & Shrike.”

He leaned back.

“Five cities are a lot to metabolize. There’s a lot of work to be done there. A lot of rot to be washed away, especially in Pastoria. We don’t want the Cynthians in the Southern Sea unless they’re dealing with the Twin Canals. If you’ll fight the Cynthians, and Troutbridge is supporting you, then we’ll spare Troutbridge for now.”

“But not the Twin Canals.”

Mason leaned back, looked at the others, then looked at Andrew.

“We’re not able to call our hounds off the Twin Canals, Bled. Leagues is no longer in control of Anarcho-Syndicalist efforts there. We’ve been usurped by some kind of legendary figure. Our cadres are his cadres now. Our minders get sent away at gunpoint. Frankly, if the Concord could get rid of him we’d be in your debt. That’s a lot of our people he’s tying up.”

“What do you know about him?”

“Almost nothing. His own philosophy is compatible with our vision of the future, bringing about total syndicalism, but the idea is he’s the one destined to do it and then pass it off to mankind forever and aye. We feel that’s unlikely to happen, and a personalist state aping syndicalism while controlling Megakratheon would be a big problem for the prospects of unitary international syndicalism. I’m not sure what kind of contacts you have in the Twin Canals, but given that you’re both in the Concord, I suggest you use some of your reach-out-and-touch power to bring an end to whatever strange situation is developing there. As it is, we’ll stay away from Troutbridge. If you can help us with this problem, we’ll be amenable to helping you with the Cynthians. Correct?” He looked at the other two Leaguesmen. They nodded with varying of slowness, stroking their beards.

“Alright then. I think we have a concordance, if not a Concord.”

    The Riverlands, South of Great Loom
Sergeant Senior Grade Oriol Martell lay in his armor at the edge of a draw. His platoon had their boots in the muck but were in a perfect position to meet the nomad force which was using this valley complex to reach Great Loom, reported by a civilian mail plane.

The morning was fresh and he rested his hands and submachine gun in the dewy grass.

He saw shapes moving in the far woodline and was exhilarated. Horsemen absolutely drenched in blood, red as the little plastic toy horsemen he’d had as a boy. The nomads rode with guns, crossbows, grenade launchers. The slaughterers of Feyglade, Troutbridge’s erstwhile naive ally.
The automatic rifleman to his left shifted and placed his cheek on his weapon. Martell placed his hand on the man’s barrel. “Crotch level, along the horses. Then when it goes to ground, a man’s crotch level.” Corporal Fiduci nodded and Oriol released his hand.


The first burst of gunfire cut three nomads off their horses. The band of perhaps a hundred horsemen immediately turned and charged the Troutbridge position, but the Marines slaughtered them, cutting men and horses to pieces as they rode. Soon the nomads had dismounted and were rushing back to their woodline, their animals a shielding wall of horseflesh. The nomads settled in behind trees and opened fire on the Troutbridge position.

“Loom up!” shouted Sergeant Martell. The Great Loom security platoon waiting behind them in the draw ran forward and threw themselves down between Marines, after which Sergeant Martell and his men peeled back and ran left up the draw so they could cross the open without being right in front of the nomads. Tasting the blood of exhaustion they continued running beneath their armor and ammunition as the Great Loomers engaged the nomads with rifle fire; their first taste of any form of combat. The Marines rushed across the open space between the woodlines and the nomads marked them. A few bullets came there way, but then there was the pop of a grenade fired from a custom-made rifle. It wasn’t an explosion; instead, it released a ravenous swarm of blue, orange, red and green spiders that flowed across the ground amongst the Marines. 

“Baker!” shouted Martell, and the combat engineer drenched the impact site in napalm from his flamethrower. A few little wicks of flame came rushing from the blooming inferno, but the arachnids had by and large been burnt to a crisp before they could board anyone’s fatigues.

The platoon rushed into the forest, got on line, and advanced on the nomads where the Great Loomers had them engaged.
Oriol felt a weight and thickness in the air before him. A wall of pressure between him and the enemy. He pushed through it. They would come into view in just a few moments. It felt like an eternity.

He went over a little hump of dirt and saw a pair of nomads crouching among the roots of a tree, trying to keep watch on both directions at once. They failed, both glancing at where the Loomers were shooting at them. Sergeant Martell opened up with his submachine gun, riding it back and forth across them once. They slumped and fell sideways in a cloud of sawdust, stretching out and stiffening as their blood ran into the dirt.

Michaels cracked a flare and hurled it hissing into the air between the woodlines. This was the signal for the Loomers to stop firing, and that they did, sliding back down into their draw.

The Marine platoon advanced relentlessly into the nomad position, shooting as they moved, targeting every inch of bloodcovered flesh they saw with deadly precision. Sergeant Martell was foremost among them, breathing hard with sweat pouring down his face. 
He came around a tree and a nomad was ready for him with a double barreled shotgun. Martell saw the barrels explode in smoke and fire and he was bowled head over heels down a little slope as the buckshot slammed into him. He lay there panting for a moment with a sense of adrenaline-drenched super-reality before standing up, walking up the slope and mowing the nomad down at point-blank range, seeing little flaps of flesh open up as the man spun and fell over, clasping his shotgun limply to his body.

Oriol stepped over the body and advanced into a little area of flat ground in the trees. There was no one else around, though firing continued to his left and right. He started as he saw a face in a little crook of roots. The face had no visible pupils, and its lips and nose had been cut away, the muscle beneath tattooed black. There was a tiny iron hole beneath it. A grenade launcher.
There was a puff of smoke and Sergeant Martell was knocked over once more. This time it was not buckshot on his armor, it was a spider grenade. He looked down and saw the things flowing all over him from the round, stuck in the metal plane on his chest. He knocked it away but it was too late. They had gotten into his collar and were beginning to bite him all over, icy little stabs that grew angry with swelling almost immediately. Oriol got up and staggered forward across the copse, and the nomad reared back from his firing position, fumbling for a huge revolver in his belt. He wore a belted mantle of gold squares around his chest and shoulders and had strips of graven ivory as a brace around his midsection. Oriol raised his submachine gun and emptied it into the chieftain, and he couldn’t say what was rib and what was ivory as the man collapsed at the waist and fell sidelong in a cloud of splinters.

Oriol felt like he was on fire and turned to where his platoon would be advancing. He knew about the nomads’ biological weapons from a threat briefing. These were not natural spiders. This was not a poison you could survive. They had to be eradicated.
He staggered to where Baker was kneeling waiting for orders. The corporal gaped at him. Sergeant Martell grimaced as as spiders crawled all over his face
“Do it,” he said.
You did not argue with Sergeant Oriol in combat. Corporal Baker hesitated for just a moment. Then he did his duty.

Not a single nomad escaped that killzone. Other columns from Feyglade were broken and turned back by river ships and joint deputations of Troutbridge Marines and Great Loom security forces.

Sergeant Martell was posthumously awarded a Founder of Troutbridge, the city-state’s highest award. The Councilor Presiding of Great Loom placed the award in a blue and white flag of Troutbridge, which Prime Minister Lamarca presented to Mrs. Sarah Martell.  

    Streets of Megakratheon
A wily Death Brigade squad caught a group of Thieves red handed, and instead of the usual shoot-em-in-the-head, they offered to let one thief live if he showed them key infrastructure of the Thieves’ Guild. He revealed a number of hidden passages, codes and standard operating procedures, and only then was shot.

The Thieves’ Guild, thinking it had hoodwinked the Empire into complacency through agreeing to hit select nautical targets on their behalf, is utterly wrong-footed by the sudden clandestine onslaught launched by the Secret Police and Death Brigade.
The Thief Lord and his inner circle are interrupted in the midst of a strange rite, a gaseous pseudohumanoid form lingering above a pit of ice in which there is a body, seam-vibrations in the air like translucent spikes giving the sound of crystal cables tensioning. They whirled and the rite was broken, the gaseous thing dissipating with an ear-bloodying scream. Several of the Thieves went for their weapons and were cut down in a hail of gunfire. Just a few were captured.

What the Death Brigade found in the ice was of great interest. It was a little boy, whom the Thieves were subjecting to Occult pressure in order to unleash his potential on behalf of the Guild. They had even enlisted the aid of a silt entity, but the boy’s powers remained steadfastly inaccessible to the Thieves, though they had first manifested when the boy was removed from the shipping container. None knew of his true origins.

The boy said nothing other than to request being brought before the Emperor. The guards agreed that this was an excellent idea through which no wrong could come about, and proceeded to do so at once, even smuggling the boy past the Emperor’s personal guards.

The Emperor laid eyes on the boy. The boy resembled the Emperor in his youth. He was a sacred child taken from safekeeping with a bandit tribe but captured by Bounty slavers, used for a Glossolalian flesh interface, sold as an existential superweapon to the city-states of Myrmyxicus and Majuscule, enemies of the Twin Canals.
“Who were your parents?” asked the Emperor.
“The Master in the Mirror and the Fates,” he answered, “As were yours.”
“And the other Emperors, the ones who look like me. They share our parentage?”
“No,” said the boy, “They are not your weight, they are your balance. You share a parent- the Master in the Mirror- but they have other mothers. They do not seek your integration, as I do. They have come to thresh you. To assay you. To see if you are the Emperor of the Twin Canals, or if they are.”
Then the boy was gone. A refracted reflection of an underlying aspect of the Emperor. The Emperor walked to a great opening in his chamber and looked across the skyline of Megakratheon. He looked upon the great array of mirrors. He saw what was missing.

    Altenado, Captains’ Hall
A deputation from Starling & Shrike humbly approaches Sir Gilderoy Albert Cleo Felix. They report that after dispatching the state intervention squad of the Starling & Shrike Council to Kadwa, they have ascertained the movement of the Cynthian Home Fleet Super Heavy Dreadnought Debellatio east from the hurricane due south of Glossolalia with orders to dock at Lethemarket. The agents are quite sure about the Debellatio’s course of action, but recommend that you confirm its movement with your archipelagic radiotelegraphy stations before launching any decisive operations.

    The Southern Sea
Herr Jan Carolus Peter-Henrik von Meintz of Altenado and Prince Argimen of Mertia sat together in a beautiful drawing room.

The walls were midnight blue divided by panes of white that shimmered with raised golden fronds. The furniture matched the walls. Four great many-tiered chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and between them there was a mural of a great king handing his son up to the angel of victory, a tale of a victory against the Cynythians on a faraway sea. An auspicious thing to meet beneath on a day like today.

Jan laid across a voluminous settee between two marble caryatids, while Prince Argimen sat across on a bench he’d pulled away from the piano. He leaned forward and was playing a set of reed pipes tunefully.
When he finished, Sir Jan let out his breath.
“A devilish turn at the pipes, Argimen.”
“It was a Kadwan air.”
A butler knocked at the doors and entered half a body length.
“My lords, it is time.”
Prince Argimen stood, walked to the piano and placed his pipes upon it. He touched the glossy black surface briefly. Jan swung his feet to the floor.
“Everything is very real, isn’t it?”
“Yes. And surreal.”
They walked onto the promenade.

They were on an airship.

To their left and right in the clouds stood four rigid-hulled airships. The cold wind clung to them as they circumnavigated the central cabin, descending to a lower platform where there were four wheeled gliders waiting for their complement. When the time came, the glider platforms of each airship would tip forward and one-by-one the gliders would fall silently into space, traversing the clouds until they came above their target.

They would descend upon the Cynthian Home Fleet Super Heavy Dreadnought Debellatio, now passing South of Glossolalia. Its location had been predicted by a Starling & Shrike intelligence mission and now it had just been reported by an Altenadean coastwatching station in the archipelago. 
Sir Jan would guide them through the clouds. Unerringly, or they would all perish in a distant plot of sea.

A great variety of nobles stood about on the embarkation deck, laden with all manner of ornate and cutting-edge weaponry. Blanketed in bandolier, rioting with firearms. They would not be confused for the uniformed Sea Legionnaires or the crystal-pristine Cynthian knights in their domestic finery.

Sir Jan and Prince Argimen boarded one of the foremost gliders. Sir Jan settled in at the controls, and Prince Argimen counted the men in as they clambered to position, hunkering down or holding ceiling straps. When all were aboard, Sir Jan placed his arm out of a cockpit window and raised his thumb.
The gliders were ready. The ramp was raised. It was time.
The front of the platform lowered with a sickening jolt. The wind whistled mercilessly past them. The clouds obscured the airships to their left and right, but as Argimen looked back, the pilot in the glider behind him gave the thumbs up. Argimen pulled the lever and placed his back against the rear door.
The glider slid forward and all the men leaned back. It fell free of the platform and Prince Argimen felt his limbs tingle, knowing that down below was the moonscape of the sea.

They would not look upon it for some time. Sir Jan leveled them with a jolt. There were gliders sliding free of their airships behind and beside them, curving in course to fall in behind the lead airframe.
They made their passage through the clouds, the men nervous but almost silent, looking about as if to catch some ray of sunshine or evidence of their position on the trackless concourse.

“It’s time,” said Sir Jan.

The men raised themselves and looked out of the windows as the glider descended from the clouds.
There beneath them and ahead, glowing brilliantly atop the ocean waves, was the vast body of the Debellatio. Its six great gun batteries bristled outwards to south and north, and each man breathed a sigh of relief as they saw its runways were clear. There was yet a foreboding as they gazed into the great black mouth of its hangars; many aboard these gliders would never know peace, clarity or sunshine again once they’d gone beneath that deck.

They had 45 minutes until the Mertian fleet came over the horizon.

Sir Jan lowered the glider almost lateral with the Debellatio’s great airstrip. They had most likely been seen but there was no indication a general alarm had yet been raised. Yet as they passed between the first titanic set of guns, a Cynthian biplane emerged from the great hangar and sped towards them.
“Bank!” shouted a nobleman from the floor of the glider.
Sir Jan gritted his teeth, sharpening his nose even further, and tilted the rudder on the glider’s vertical stabilizer to max displacement. The glider began to turn sideways and its wing hit the deck, shredding while dragging the glider slightly off course from the biplane.

It was not enough. The biplane had just started to take off and its propellor and landing gear tore through the glider’s cabin, shredding the ceiling and nearly bisecting the airframe. The noblemen were engulfed in a whirl of sawdust as the glider began to spin, and the front and rear halves of the plane tore themselves free of each other as they slid into the darkness of the hangar. They shot past the glossy limbs of Cynthian biplanes waiting in the dark, gaping faces of men in jumpsuits, and saw that in the great sunlit mouth of the hanger the biplane that had struck them was burning. Gliders passed through the flames on either side.

Prince Argimen looked wildly through the hangar as his half of the glider spun. He saw Jan’s half hit the bottom of a raised Cynthian bomber, disembowel it in a cloud of flames and kept spinning, now afire.

“Secure the hangar!” Prince Argimen screamed at the noble troops in his chalk and bailed out. He rolled three or four times hearing the clattering of his weapons and feeling them dig into his ribs until he spread-eagled himself and spun out just like the glider for a moment. Then he leapt to his hands and knees and sprinted towards the burning gilder-half.

Several Cynthian airmen were gathering around it, and they glistened like men of pastel in their azure jumpsuits in the flaming darkness. Prince Argimen shot them with his .45 pistol as he ran, then leapt bodily forward as a glider nearly bisected him. He passed over its wing and landed heavily amongst his weapons, then picked himself up and reached the glider, nestled in a row of Cynthian biplanes whose paint curled against the heat as the Cynthians rolled or stretched on the bulkhead deck around it.

The torn-open half was jammed against a biplane. The men were trapped in the oven heat inside, several injured by their impacts against the biplanes. They yelled and looked at him pleadingly. Prince Argimen could not see Jan inside. He blew out a window with his shotgun and they ducked, then he cleared as much of the broken glass from the edge of the window as he could and reached through, grabbing the first man. The noble grimaced; he did not want to go through the window, but Argimen yanked him and the man obliged. Both his body and Argimen’s arms were cut by this, but both men were so filled with adrenaline that all they felt was an icy severity. Agony could wait.

Prince Argimen bailed as many men through as possible, and they established a perimeter amongst the biplanes and eliminated every Cynthian in sight. Prince Argimen worked himself through the window now, screaming angrily at the anticipated shredding as it came. He searched the men who were laying inside the glider. He found Herr Jan. He was dead. His head had been cracked on the glider’s dashboard. Prince Argimen straightened him out. 
“A fitting pyre for a lord of the skies,” he murmured. Then he began his work amongst hot glass and hot steel, burning wood and canvas, hoisting incapacitated men through the window.

It was on the rear chalks to clear the Debellatio’s hangar and seize her main guns. It was on Prince Argimen and Herr Jan to fight their way to Bilge Control and ensure the Cynthians could not scuttle their ship.

Prince Argimen rallied a dozen nobles to him and plunged into the underhalls of the Debellatio.

Bullets flew in stately corridors. Grenades disheveling picture-perfect galleries, men bleeding their across sumptuous carpets. Crystal glass, shattered wood, foul gunsmoke on the lissom air.

Fighting in a tall but tiny room. Its walls were clad in golden icons: legions standing side-by-side on battleships, the Queen, resplendent, watching in her negligee of glossy silk, and overgrown coasts burning to charcoal soap before the laughing cloud-soft sea. Prince Argimen struggled to stick his knife into an iron-thewed Cynthian knight as boots fell and gunshots erupted around him.

Barrelling down a vast hall of marble white. Long descending terraces of polished black stone with a wrought golden arch at the base of the furthest wall. The walls curled with rich green ivy rising from smooth teak planters. Sea Legionnaires in their heavy armor knelt behind heavy overturned tables. These men were crack troops, some of the finest on earth in a static fight. It took all the craft of the nobles to kill them, for retreat without order was out of the question for the Queen’s lowborn shock troops. Had the volunteer aristocrats not trained since near birth for modern war, they would have been overcome. Many of them were master hunters who could shoot on instinct. This utterly unfair display of panache split Cynthian helm after Cynthian helm with heavy rifle bullets.

Still half the nobles had fallen by the time Prince Argimen led them through the arch in the furthest wall, passing sopping heaps of gore pouring from seam-split helmets.
Similar scenes were playing out across the Debellatio, for the super heavy dreadnought carried an entire regiment of 1000 Sea Legionnaires. The nobles were outnumbered almost five to one. They could not seize the ship.

They didn’t have to. All they needed were to take her turrets like the horns of a bull and ride them to the conclusion. Mertia’s fleet now came over the horizon and steamed fast for the Debellatio. 

Prince Argimen led them into the humming darkness of the bilge spine station. A vast tunnel beneath the ship, deep underwater, where machines purred like celestial lions in a starless savannah. Corrugated iron platforms over nothingness, a dry river for shifting intake beneath.

A shot rang out and the party was spattered with an Altenadean’s brains. They dove for machinery, toolboxes, railings even. They had no idea where to find the foe.
There came a self-satisfied laughter.
”Come for the bilge, have you? Did you not think we would see through your plan? You fool, nothing could be clearer than that you would sink the ship through the only means available to you. Well, come then, and undo the bilge. You’re so close.”

The man would move after speaking. Prince Argimen peered into the darkness. He saw a crook between a great metal cabinet and some kind of regulator on top of it. It was a perfect sniping position and it was empty.
He raised his shotgun smoothly. He focused just above the barrel, trying to make out the slightest gradient in shadow. He thought he saw the tiniest flicker and he fired. Sparks leapt and a man screamed, falling with a heavy clattering on the walkways below.

Prince Argimen and the Altenadeans were in a kill zone. They had to flank. They had to move laterally. There was no escaping it. They couldn’t remain where they were until Sea Legionnaires came around behind them. Their only chance was to shake the kill zone free.
“Fire and flank!” he shouted and leaned out, firing every round but one into the darkness. Simultaneously the nobles leaned out and discharged their submachine guns, pistols and rifles. Then each man rushed through the network of machine-girded walkways.
Prince Argimen came around a corner and there was a Cynthian Knight in an azure tunic, cyan leggings, and deep blue cloak. He had a pair of pitch-black pistols and he raised them but Prince Argimen fired between. The Cynthian fell with a clatter and his weapons went into the deep. Prince Argimen stood and felt a stinging irritation. He looked down and blood was blossoming from his thigh and armpit. He had no more time to think when a man leapt through the darkness and caught him in the chest with a wood-soled kick. He lurched backwards and tripped, banging his head on a rail behind him.
It was a Cynthian admiral in a vast-collared cloak and golden breastplate clamoring with imagery of the Home Fleet and Queen. He held a jeweled saber and a pearl revolver, which he lowered. Prince Argimen kicked but was shot across the foot, curling away from his wound. The Admiral cycled his revolver and pointed it straight between Argimen’s eyes. There was a stupendous bang and a wave of pressure. Argimen lay with his eyes closed, blood pouring down his face. Then he tried to move. He could. He raised his hands and pushed the head-split Cynthian Admiral off of him. 
Sir Patrick Tjis Isabel of Rammack stood two strides away with a smoking fowling piece.
“My lord, the bilge is yours.”

Three of the Altenadeans Prince Argimen had rallied on the bridge still lived.

On deck, the full design of the Altenadeans had become clear to the Cynthians. The guns were held, and though mustard gas was being prepared to retake them, this would be a hazardous measure even for the Cynthians. They were desperately radioing for the escort ships which had been sent off to scout, but the machines had been flooded with nonsense. The Admiral had taken dozens of Sea Legionnaires and part of the command staff to personally secure the bilge. Now the bilge could not be raised.

Now the fleet of Mertia was coming for them, bristling with Sworn Partisans. They would be boarded from beneath and boarded from above.

In a final act of spite, a dozen Knights carried a great, improvised bomb into one of the ship’s turrets. Half of them were shot but the device was detonated, knocking it free from its moorings and sending it to topple across the flight deck. Of those inside who survived the bombing and the fall, none survived the smoke.

It made no difference to the outcome. The Altenadean fleet came aside the Debellatio and disgorged wave after wave of Sworn Partisans, coming from beneath and throwing the Sea Legionnaires into utter disarray. 

They found their head of state wounded in three places, with three Altenadeans to match guarding the ship’s bilge station. They fought their way to the deck, and finally freed the nobles in the guns from the heavy burden of their bold gamble.

The Debellatio was taken, and with it two dozen biplanes and four hundred Cynthians. It was soon renamed the Eagle of Meintz.

With the movement of the Debellatio confirmed, Marie-Rose turned herself to other signals. Among many other ships being tracked, there was a merchant convoy passing south of Altenado. Marie-Rose ordered a closer reconnaissance, and stranger reports came in: through the portholes, the coastwatchers could see large numbers of odd men, and it appeared that containers and machinery on the deck seemed to be concealing ship’s guns. The vessels were on a course to Angharath.
She immediately ordered a warning be radiotelegraphed to Angharath, and for Altenado’s urban forces to be put on immediate alert. 
She decided not to wait. As soon as Angharath confirmed receipt of the transmission, she ordered a movement by truck, armored car and horseback to reinforce Altenado’s ally.

The shore guns of the Gap are trained on the exact point of arrival of the LSSAC fleet, and several serviceable ships are subtly pushed out from the Gap to fire on the oncoming vessels.

What the Angharathi were not expecting were the droves of mercenaries led by Knights Tarragon attacking up each of the coasts. They came with trucks, armored cars and on horseback, pushing up a hundred minor roads to the lakelands, heralded by desperate shepherds rushing in to warn their noble overlords.
House Morado were the first to engage the invaders by land, setting out onto their rural fiefs to parry the foe wherever he was met. Morado Knights and retainers fought from the trees and gullies, eliminating their uncertain lowborn foes and bringing down banker knights abandoned by their fickle allies.

The fight was stiffer in the west than the east, and many unprepared Moradans fiefs (sheltered to the west by Altenado) were overrun and burned, families awakening to find their fortified homes on fire and inescapable. House Manticora motorcycle dragoons sallied forth to bridge the gaps, engaging LSSAC armored cars using antitank rifles fired across the handlebars of their motorcycles. They too were engaged by an overwhelming foe, with LSSAC and Tarragon biplanes soaring in to provide topcover to their embattled forces, strafing Manticoran positions. Motorcycles burned and men in shattered armor lay in the dewy grass of morning. Then, as the LSSAC and Tarragon forces threatened to overthrow the Manticoran and Moradan defenders, they were met by a deadly pincer from land and air. A wave of House Centine fighters washed over the battlefield in close combat with the LSSAC and Tarragon biplanes, shooting them down here and there into the lochs and fens. Dannet Morado followed the Knight Commander of the Tarragon fighter wing into a breathtaking plunge through a storm of dogfighting biplanes and shot him down just as he would have pulled up over Loch Knowsley, being splashed by the actual impact of the Knight Commander’s biplane on the water, pulling up at the last second to rejoin the cloud of battle and score another three kills. A new Centine would be conceived that night.

Just as the aerial clash began, a host of Altenadean outriders appeared behind the LSSAC formation and began tearing into them with a vengeance, slaughtering routing mercenaries and unprepared rearguards alike. Simultaneously, the shore guns of the Gap and the slightly-forward fleet opened fire on the unsuspecting LSSAC Q-ship convoy and set it burning and sinking within minutes. At this the LSSAC and Tarragon command and control utterly broke down, with mercenaries fleeing in every direction, now unable to return to their ships in any significant numbers.
Three fleeing Knights Tarragon are captured by Altenadean forces.

    Archnadir, the Ruins of Archzenith
Lukas Kirkcullen and his riverboat party witness a vast horde of Bandit Tribesmen from many tribes gathering in the ruins outside Archzenith. A great black and white mating pit of giant snakes reshapes reality around it, almost at random while retaining the essential cohesion of its forms. The warriors who stand nearest are physically transformed, and only the bravest come forward to receive their boon or horror. Some are bent beyond function, some are made terrible but mighty or stretched and given the lope of cheetahs. Then the forces march in all directions, with the great snake pit pushing its way towards Diadem alongside the army of Archzenith. Lukas and his team exfiltrate before they can be overtaken by Bandit Tribesmen.

    News of the Earthhearts
Assandim Alligatormut roves in the ways, finding nothing distinguishable. He looks into the sun and finds that it is actually the locus of a great confluence of mirrors. The sun has been joined by suns reflected from other strata and he is burned to disintegration.

The Earthhearts track Nuncio Steprazor to Angharath, raising a hue and cry when their Occult quarry burrows through the city’s cobblestones, tearing them up. The Angharatines see the hate-filled face of their wayward scion before he disappears, and are made aware of the threat that now lurks beneath the Gap.

The great hurricane leaves behind Roda Ak, the City in the Bottle, now manifest in the sea between Kadwa and the Southern Coast. While the strait is still traversable, there is a difficult-to-navigate cityscape rising from the water. Only the Earthhearts know its true contours.

Many Plaudits and Plenarites have taken refuge in what is purported to be a garden upon the high deserts. The great bundles of wildflowers brought to the exiled tribesmen are received with stunning gratitude, and promises of friendship are made.

The thing in the earth doesn’t seem to care about anything except Jackal Hyde, and so it is learned that where he goes, the thing will eventually follow.

Vidi walked a promenade cut into the cliff face stretching away from Grimwall like a whisper. They came to a little open area cut into the wall where a sumptuous Cittacottean carpet had been rolled out, with a table and a pair of sun chairs next to it. A steel box stood nearby, and there was a black and white parasol like one would see on the coasts of Atrialia behind the table. 

Badger Knox, Grimwall’s foreign minister, gave a silent gesture to the seats and Vidi sat, Badger sitting down across the table, looking out over the great forest. A military attaché opened the box, which was filled with ice, and produce two chilled glasses of anisette. He then smartly departed.
“Thank you,” said Vidi, taking a sip.
“We’re not after Troutbridge.”
“Your allies, we can’t speak for.”
“We are our allies, Badger. We’ve joined together like a family. What would you do if someone attacked your family.”
The minister laughed silently.
“Calling outsiders family is a disgusting concept to us. The Earthhearts are not your family, they’re savage primitives and you’re a fool if you trust them. The Angharathines are not your enemy, they’re inbred toffs so foreign to you that you offend them by your very presence. They’re also our enemies, in our quarrel, killers of our men, and that won’t be solved by any anti-Cynthian pact.”
“So you say you’re not after us, but you would destroy the thing that shields the rivers to your doorstep, namely the Gap…”

Badger spat an anise seed.

“Nothing can shield the rivers to your doorstep. The only thing you have are friends, and then only friends of convenience to the south. What would you have in common with Angharath and Altenado without the Cynthians. You’d be close to us in your government. And then you’ve only got eunuchs to the west, “Great Loom” and Attar. Attar’s probably going to be eaten alive by the nomads or put to work in Bounty. You’re Starling & Shrike’s bodyguard. You’re Ascension’s dumb, mean cousin. And we protect you from the Plaudits, and in times of sanity for Troutbridge, the Earthhearts too.”
“It would seem mutual defense is the order of the day.”
“Who’s not participating in the defense of our fair Southern Sea? Maybe Mandrake doesn’t feel threatened yet, but who has cause and won’t lift a finger…”

”No. They could pack up and head east any time. King Carl. Carl Bombaryx. Your free rider problem in the Southern Sea. He won’t be missed…”
“King Carl is forging ties with the Concord. He’s just begun a trade relationship with Mertia, importing vast quantities of their liquor…”
“Under the circumstances, a naval treaty might be more appropriate. King Carl won’t do anything until the advantage is impossible to ignore. He’ll stand by while the Cynthians savage you like at Garrenton. And if they offer him emoluments, he’ll shove his battleships right up your ass. You’ve got no need of him.”
“You sound like you’re trying to persuade me.”
“What’s done is done. Bombaryx isn’t long for this world, Vidi. Time to accept that. But Troutbridge is safe for now. You have nothing to fear from us. And our feud with the Lady of the Gap… that will be prosecuted in time.”
“Badger, do not assault Bombaryx! They’re no friend of the Cynthians! If they can be won to the Concord, the matter of the Sea’ll be all but decided!”
“And it’ll leave Grimwall almost totally encircled by a military alliance. I don’t think so. And it’s not my call to give. I’m the foreign minister. Not the war minister.” He smiled at Vidi wanly. “Bombaryx dies tonight.”
Vidi knew why Badger was being so open. There was no way in hell Vidi could warn Bombaryx in time. So Badger thought.
“I thank you for your candid speech. I could ask no more. I bid you farewell, Minister Knox.”
Vidi stood, gave a quick bow, and set off.

He and his entourage drove south along the rivers for an hour. Then, they stopped and Vidi went down to the river to piss.

He went to a spot in the reeds. There was a little wooden grille with reeds poking through it. He looked down within.
“It’s Vidi Texador of Troutbridge. Are you awake and decent?”

It was an Altenadean radiotelegraphy station monitoring the river.

Bombaryx was warned immediately.

    The Panopticon of Bombaryx
Patrick is in the actual Panopticon of Bombaryx with King Carl Bombaryx when the ghostly mist-wreathed tanks of Grimwall drop silently from the sky into the streets of the city, immediately collapsing several armories, barracks and motor pools with point-blank shots from their side cannons. Bombaryx is thrown into utter disarray and the king nearly goes totally mad with the sight, and this is even before Grimwall ground forces pierce the perimeter of the city and begin an orderly defeat in detail of Bombaryx’s deranged defenders.
The king grabs Patrick, clawing his arms. “Save our city and you will have our battleships for your Concord! But do something! Now!” 
Patrick ran for the radiotelegraphy station as tank rounds began to shake the Panopticon to its foundations. He just got the message out before it collapsed.

    Angharath, East Gate
There is a terrible commotion at the East Gate as a gang of sweating, shouting Earthhearts crash into the city with weapons raised, rushing this way and that. The guards almost fire on them until they see what has the Earthhearts up in arms: a strange black mass of chitinous bands and branches is tearing its way through the dirt of the city’s outside lane, and then rips is way through the actual cobblestones, uprooting them with strange lengths of licorice-like limbs of sinew. They fire on it and it hisses, picking up several guards, draining them of moisture and then hurling them at the Earthhearts. A Kirkcullen thane was nearby when the thing transpired, and he reported that there was an unmistakable face glowering from in the midst of the hideous mass of black tendrils: Nuncio Steprazor. The thing then burrowed its way into the ground and could not be located again.

Lamarca and the First Lady were alone in his office. He sat with his forehead in his hand, his wife behind him with a hand on his shoulder. Vidi Texador came in, straightened up, then said, “Mr Prime Minister.”

Lamarca jumped up, grabbed the First Lady and gave her a big smooch, which she returned with interest. He tore himself away after a few moments, and they went into a circular common room with a polished stone map of the riverlands for its floor. Press men were pouring into the room, already taking flashbulb photographs, and Councilman Jardine stood by, his shirt untucked. He came forward and shook. Lamarca’s hand, saying, “If the people want war, so be it. They’ll be the ones fighting it. But if they’re in, I’m in. Let’s win this thing and get it the fuck over with.”
Lamarca nodded.
“Sounds like a bipartisan agreement.”

The cool forests waved, the leafstrewn hills beneath veined with sunlight through the boughs. There was a distant thunder upon the rustling wind. 
Figures came by the hundred. Men in armor carrying rifles and machine guns, faces set with grim purpose. They wore dark green and blue camouflage fatigues made for the shadowy draws of the riverlands. Troutbridge Marines. They spread themselves across the hills just outside Bombaryx, gazing down upon the ruin in the making. Hundreds of fires, haze in the air from collapsed buildings, the thunder of tank cannons. The Marines waited. They were the anvil. The hammer flew overhead.

Noviplanes fresh from the Altenadean sea. Splendid nobles in camouflage cloaks stood within wearing parachutes strapped to thin steel wires. Doors opened in the backs of the planes. The noviplanes passed over Bombaryx. Then a hundred parachutes appeared in the air and came down upon the forest.

Grimwall had men ready for this. The dragoons that had harassed the lochs of Angharath. They rode into the woods to intercept the Altenadeans.
The parachutists were nothing if not master hunters. Bursts of submachine gun fire came from near the ground and cut down men and horses. A few canny dragoons pulled up short and shot nobles where they lay beneath their cloaks, but for the most part they were caught utterly by surprise and their battalion was shattered. A few rushed back into the city, a few went north to try to get a vantage point and were picked off by Troutbridge Marine snipers firing with the sound of tank guns.

Altenadean dragonslayer teams with antitank rifles came through the line of submachine gun-armed pickets. They advanced towards the city of Bombaryx, covered by their screen of light infantry and obliquely by the Marines. They moved through Bombaryx’s porously-shattered wall and took positions atop buildings or in alleys. They began to shoot holes on Grimwall’s tanks wherever they saw them, and as Grimwall infantry turned about from their task of encircling and destroying the pockets of Bombargian resistance, they discovered that the dragonslayers’ covering force had moved into positions in windows and ruins. The counterattacking infantry were cut down from the shadows, and as clusters of them tried to get atop nearby buildings to fire they were met with bullets in the back fired by Troutbridge snipers five or six hundred meters behind them.

This was when the full mystery of Grimwall’s water ensorcellment manifested on the battlefield. Tanks, wreathed in mist rose into the air, lowered their guns to max depression, and began blowing the roofs in on top of dragonslayer teams on the second stories of buildings. A few tanks were pierced and fell onto buildings, crumbling them before crashing thunderously upon the cobblestones, but they began to exact a toll upon the antitank rifle teams and Altenadeans exposed in the alleyways. 
Then great streaks of fire began to strike the tanks from a new angle and blow them steaming out of the air. Ships of the Altenadean Navy emerged from where they’d been hugging the coast and began picking off tanks with their cannons. The tanks turned and seemingly picked an Altenadean ship, firing shell after shell into it. Several exploded on the deck, but finally one caught the magazine and it detonated in a well of fire and a black web of smoking ash.
But their fate had been sealed the moment they were caught in the Concord’s pincer. They were pinned against the sky and shot down one by one until tanks were lodged in the strangest places across Bombaryx.

With the destruction of the tanks, the army of Grimwall broke and routed through the walls in the opposite direction from which the Altenadean’s had come, which happened to be into the teeth of the Troutbridge Marine forces waiting for them in the woodline. Many Grimwall troops were butchered in the first barrage, but those who survived almost immediately threw down their weapons and were captured in droves.

An Altenadean dragonslayer team moved forward and approached a barricaded Bombargian machine gun position. Dame Madeline Vaughn Alain cried out to them, “Gilderoy Albert Cleo Felix sends his regards to King Carl Bombaryx!”
The machine gun pointed at the sky and a young man with a pale, sooty face stepped out from behind it and down onto the rubble beneath. A pair of black-fatigued Bombargian soldiers raised up uncertainly in the machine gun position.

“I receive it on his behalf! I am Prince Jedwin Bombaryx, and you are my honored guest! Whom do I receive?”

“Madeline of House Rammack,” she said, and slung the 7’ antitank rifle across her shoulders, her assistant gunner ducking it. “I believe Grimwall’s goose is cooked. Shall we present it to your father?”
“Yes, he should be at the Panopticon, or what’s left of it. Men, maintain this apex. There may yet be graysuits out there.” He came down and the three set out for the great cast-iron ruin.

There were weeping and cries as they approached. Pearlescent white cloths hemmed in gold had been unfurled by Bombargian troops responding to the collapse, and upon them lay in state the entire royal family of Bombaryx. All had been inside the Panopticon when it fell; only Jedwin had been manning the guns. He fell to his knees and put his hands upon his face. Tears fell between his fingers and darkened the stones with tiny spots.
“My burden is too much,” he breathed.
Dame Madeline shifted her antitank rifle across her cuirass-clad shoulders.
“You have time to set it straight upon your shoulders, King Jedwin. Altenado stands by your side. And Troutbridge.”
Troutbridge Marines were entering the square, slowing to a halt and removing their helmets as they saw the Bombargian royal family before them.
“And four other nations, by land, air and sea. Fertile soil for a new Bombaryx.”
“Yes,” he said. He stood and wiped his cheeks. “The battleships of Bombaryx are untouched by the cliff people. That was the prize they sought. A new avenue of conquest on the sea. But our navy won’t be the sea-wall of Bombaryx anymore. It will be a sword in the hand of the Concord of the Southern Sea.”
“Then let the conquerors tremble,” said Dame Madeline, “A new hurricane gathers.”

    Starling & Shrike
Vidi stood before Consul Nicholas Rainier of Starling & Shrike. He had just finished his appeal for Starling & Shrike to join the concord against their Cynthian foes. Vidi wrung his hands behind his back, looking at the Consul earnestly.
The Consul’s eyes blazed. Then he smiled, but his eyes did not soften a bit.
“If you would like to arrange a contract, Mr. Texador, I can direct you to the Foreign States Contracting Officer downstairs. Otherwise I’ll have to bid you good day.”
“Ah,” said Vidi, breathing out very deeply, “Very well, Consul Rainier, I see. Thank you for your time.” 

A joint party of Concord emissaries led by Minister Margrave and Quovadis Centine of Angharath walk into the Grand High Hall of Captains in Mandrake.
“About time!” shouts Grand Commodore Olandia, leaping up from where he was sitting in his magnificent blue uniform and gold braid, “Do you know how embarrassing it’s been to have had to just sit here waiting for you to ask us to join the Concord?”
“You could have reached out to us,” said Minister Margrave as Quovadis smirked at the man.
“That’s not how it works!” he thundered, “I’m a noble, and nobles don’t ask! Now let’s get to work!”

Several state ministers of Mertia are found with their heads ripped off. Literally ripped off, as if tied to two horses that were charged in opposite directions. They have paper missives stuffed in their mouths: Do not neglect domestic affairs.
The Gardens at the old royal manor have been shifted around. The groundskeeper thinks to dig a hole and see if something’s been buried, and he finds several freshly-arrived researchers from Attar who were tied up and buried alive here. They are cold as the ground now. Taunting messages in their taped-over mouths: Do some hands-on research.
Two policemen are shot to death investigating noises from a shed. The shed is arsonized. When the blaze is put out, burnt corpses are found within. Sworn Partisan commanders. If they had messages in their mouths, they are ash now.
Mertia is in a furor. Who is behind the murders? Who will be next?
A pall falls over the city.

    The Imperial Megalith
Ors Remferr returns to the Twin Canals in a fury. He’d gone to the Dukes of Theoseveria for military aid against their mutual enemy of the Red Charter, but they sneered him, begging him for dog treats since they were the mere mercenaries of Megakratheon. They suggested that the Emperor come crawling to them once his capital had fallen to the Syndicalists and perhaps they would allow him to be a garden hermit, perhaps reinstating him as a figurehead in Megakratheon at their leisure- and under their command. They threatened Remferr with being cast into the sacrificial vault of Blazonpeak, and then bade him fly the Duchies before they decided to hunt him and his party for sport. He did, however, return with the statuettes with which he was to present the Dukes.

    The Outskirts of Megakratheon
The Pterid tribe rises in a vast movement to Megakratheon. They set upon the city in vast war canoes, some of which are burnt by the new mirror system, but also make great landings up the coast and traverse to Megakratheon through the wilderness, where they are masters.
The troops of the isles cannot be effectively called upon at such short notice, but the Canalite Super Heavy Infantry of Megakratheon’s citadels arrays throughout the city as in times of yore to receive the charge of their wayward subjects, once upon pike and sword, now with shot and shell.
The Pterids presage their attack with a massive bombardment of Atrialian chlorine gas, but the Canalite troops are ready with their gas masks. It is mainly civilians who suffer the bombardment.
The Pterids wreak havoc in Megakratheon but the new streetlights allow the Canalites to best them in brutal close quarters street fighting, their shotguns and field pieces equipped with canister shot that cuts the Pterids down in cascading droves.
The stony streets of Megakratheon are soaked in blood that shines beneath the nighttime streetlights, but the Pterid assault is broken and the survivors flee into the wilderness, howling at the fate that betrayed them. 
Their Emperor in the Wild is nowhere to be found.

    The Southern Sea, Altenadean Horizon
Marie-Rose’s coastwatchers detect the main Lethemarket South Sea Archipelago Company fleet sailing for Altenado.

Appropriate preparations are made for the welcome.

A vast fleet appeared upon the sea’s horizon facing Altenado. The Lethemarket South Seas Archipelago Company had come for their pound of flesh, which they would take from every man, woman and child of Altenado. Their warships bristled with guns, their troopships rioted with mercenaries. There were no men of the Knights Tarragon amongst that fleet. That bitter divorce had already occurred in the secret backrooms and backalleys of the South Sea Archipelago.

The fleet spread out as it advanced. There were no ships in Altenado’s harbor. The city was defenseless. Deserted by its crusading fleet. Revenge would be swift and terrible.

Suddenly, a barrage of giant shells fell across the battleship Dispute, exploding in shockwaves that carried visible globes of evaporating air and pressed the sea down around them in circular waves. Shards of metal fell across the fleet and a vast cloud of orange-white flame leapt up and out as the ship’s magazine detonated, spreading an inferno of black-billowing oil across the waves.
This scene was repeated with more or less total familial resemblance across five more ships of the fleet. Six capital ships killed. This was the opening barrage of the Eagle of Meintz, firing over the horizon at the direction of hidden radiotelegraphy stations on the coast.
Then the main Altenadean fleet appeared on the horizon just as the LSSAC armada had come to their home port. The Altenadean fleet had their guns loaded and the killzone bracketed. Each ship selected its target in moments and fired.
A rain of blood orange flaming arrows moving nigh on the speed of sound. The sky was livid with lightning darts for just a moment before the shells hit their targets. The LSSAC fleet rocked with dozens upon dozens of explosions, hulls opened, set afire, burning and pouring black pitch upon the water. They turned, attempting to escape as the Altenadean fleet reloaded. Then a darker storm appeared on the horizon as the Eagle of Meintz’s fighter-bomber wings flew in echelons of death for Lethemarket’s wounded fleet.

Not one of their ships escaped Altenadean waters.

The Earthhearts lay in the grass overlooking the fields of Diadem, colored with crops. Diadem’s white towers gave smoke like an osseous factory. King Vile stood up and led them towards the foe. Behind him, High King Malcom Skull wore the regalia of the Inverse Dagger. Today was a day of war, but it was a day to destroy the enemy, not to steal his cows.

They stood in the waving grass, gazing up at the towers. The people of Diadem gathered at the million windows. They stood mute but enraptured. This force was too small to be their liberators, but they knew they would witness a drama to shape their futures. Then, black bulges began to appear on the bridges between the towers. Something was being lined up and readied. Dark figures were moving against the sky. Gliders sailed from the bridges. They were packed with Archzenite
soldiers and Affidavit warriors. They descended to outflank, encircled and destroy the

King Vile halted, a prayer on his lips, and turned to High King Malcom Skull, who harried aloft a staff made from a sycamore. The Earthheart army raised a great chant, and King Vile took a knee, taking up a handful of dirt lovingly. High King Skull drew a dagger from the top of his staff, and approached King Vile, who stood, his chin low, his brow furrowed. High King Skull reverently placed the dagger against King Vile’s chest, and drove it forward. King Vile took a step back, then turned, blood pouring down his chest, and raised his hands towards the oncoming gliders. The blood subtly began to turn to fire in the grass. High King Skull stepped

King Vile burst into flames. He was consumed by an inferno so dense that his body could no longer be seen. Then, he began to grow. His arms became great wings. He broadened, changed shape until he’d taken the form of a great phoenix made of fire. He crouched, crossed his wings, then sprang into the air trailing steam into the morning. The Earthheart tribe let out a shout to shake the heavens, and all Diadem gasped. He flew this way and that, burning the gliders where they flew. They began to pitch and careen, falling from the air or continuing off into
space like firebirds on their own missions.

Then a second terror came upon the field.

With a blast of soil like the collapsing of Archzenith, a great ball of black and white snakes coiling around each other emerged from the earth and slowly rose into the air. Strange runes came and went across the back of the snakes, and the soil and grass transformed into strange shapes and colors beneath it. It was the great serpent lord of the Affidavits that had transformed after eating Beller Kirkcullen outside Archzenith. The phoenix turned and dove upon it. It burned the snakes,  crisping their hides, clawing at them, biting them, sending heads and tails to crisp on the grass
below. But the phoenix was changing, distorting, feathers of flame falling away from it. Finally the phoenix scarcely had wings anymore and a snake head leapt out and sank black fangs into the phoenix, and with a screech of release the great phoenix burned to ash.

High King Skull’s tattoos blazed with fire, his face a mask of rage and pain. He cast aside his staff, holding the bloody dagger, lifted off of the ground. The burnt serpents turned and all of their reptilian eyes were on him at once. He sped towards it and a dozen heads leapt in on him with fangs bared but he was through them in an instant and drove into the seething mass. Black and white blood began to pour from the coil of snakes and the heads dove into it to find their assailant, and then suddenly High King Skull flew out of the mass trailing fire. Strange, ichory guts poured from the
bottom of the mass, and the serpents hissed blood into the air. Then, the great curling agglomeration sank to the earth, spread almost flat, and was still. High King Malcom Skull descended upon it, reached down inside, and pulled out Beller Kirkcullen one with hand. Beller looked around, blinking. Then, he looked at his heel. It was bare.

His curse had passed to his devourer.

The Earthhearts and the people of Diadem raised a great cry. The people of Diadem
hurled flowers from their halls into the air, and for a moment Diadem’s white walls were dressed with ephemeral colors. Then the surviving soldiers and nobles of Archzenith began to gather at the windows and doors, preparing to rain gunfire onto the Earthhearts. But High King Malcom Skull was already walking among his people, holding up the dazed but infinitely relieved Kirkcullen. The army of Archzenith had been maimed. Today was not the day for the storming of the towers, but the North would be safe from their depredations.Many warriors gazed upon the towers, wishing to go forward and storm them at this moment of glory. But, as High King Skull passed through them, they turned with the savor of the moment’s glory upon them and set out for their homes. They knew they may yet be needed for an even greater deed upon the hazardous shores of the Southern Sea.

    News of Kadwa and Mertia
Many high-ranking Cynthian Knights are assassinated in Kadwa by Mertian agents, severely impacting Cynthia’s command and control and their ability to use Kadwan ports as logistics facilities.

The fallout from this event is a near-total genocide of Kadwans remaining in the Kingdom.
Luckily, many had escaped to Feyglade before the Sea Legionnaires march out of their garrisons into the Kadwan towns.

In Mertia, the new Parliament building is beautiful but somewhat mussed by a gigantic brawl that breaks out the first day between Monarchists, Socialists, urban guildsmen, and rural agriculturalists. The building is closed until mediation procedures can be put in place.

The Home Guard places hidden sentries everywhere throughout the capital of Mertia, including in hidden places in the homes of government officials. One night, a man snuck into the Minister of Talent’s room as he lay in bed with his wife. A single shot ran out and the man collapsed with an ear splitting cry of frustration and rage. An elderly Home Guard man had been sitting in an easy chair in the couple’s darkened walk-in closet and was keeping a faithful watch.

The dead man was an extreme physical specimen, except for numerous scars across his body.
A physiologist who recently immigrated doesn’t recognize any elements of normative Cynthian facial features. The assassin’s identity may never be known.

    The Southern Sea, Lethemarket Horizon
The Angharathi-Mertian fleet went from island to island, rubbing out Lethemarket’s outposts and fortresses. Stone and steel, fire and flame. Dulcimer Morado and Prince Argimen stood in the bridge of the Angharathi battleship Birthright with a gaggle of Centines, Steprazors and Kirkcullens. Prince Argimen called out fire commands dispassionately, and the Angharathines nodded, approving his efficient spreads. Dulcimer considered the Prince from a little ways back from the map table. There was something else on Argimen’s mind.

The fleet surrounded Lethemarket. The city’s guns and anti-aircraft positions had been blasted to smoking shrapnel, the fairy-tale spires of the city blown to cinders. They could see blood in the streets from nearly a mile out upon the sea. Angharathi assault ships were breaking through smaller wood vessels into the port, dropping their ramps so Manticoran motorcycle troops could speed into the city followed by Morado hundredsmen. Centine biplanes flitted here and there, strafing positions and dropping bombs onto pristine lanes.

The personal standard of the Lady of the gap rose above the picturesque castle of the LSSAC Directorship. Lethemarket had fallen, annexed as a personal fief of the Lady of the Gap.

Prince Argimen looked west to the setting sun, to Mertia beyond the horizon. They had found no Cynthians in these seas.

    The Imperial Megalith
Chief Lonal mac Hayrt came into the stately reception chamber to make his report. He cleared his throat.
He did not speak. 
“Lonal?” asked the Emperor.
A Canalite Super Heavy infantryman looked at Chief Lonal. He saw a trickle of blood coming from Lonal’s ear. He rushed at Lonal, grabbed him in his arms, and turned his own back towards the Emperor. 
Lonal exploded, blasting stone from the floor and ceiling, liquefying most of the Canalite guard’s body and sending his bones scattering across the room. Shards of the man’s armor ripped into the Emperor’s body, wounding him for the first time in many years.
The suicide bomber had been wearing Lonal’s skin; he must have had bombs sewn into his body inside Megakratheon, perhaps replacing organs whose absence would not immediately kill.

    News of the Twin Canals
Intelligence is slowing to a trickle; many, many Secret Policemen have been killed by the Death Brigade and vice versa recently, all ostensibly due to Syndicalist membership.

Dr Hunne returns to the xenostygians by bathysphere and finds that they have all died of influenza, which they had no immunity to. Strange creatures are heard moving in the darkness of the xenostygian hold and the IEDC team retreats posthaste.

Despite the Emperor’s recent largesse, it seems many of his subjects have forgotten their place.
Screenings of “The Concord” are deserted and flyers are found spray-painted red and black.
Firley Ipsenyn was seen being kidnapped at gunpoint, bundled into a truck marked out as belonging to a plumbing business, but neither the Secret Police nor the Death Brigade claim to have taken him.

    The Streets of Angharath
Nobles gathered on a cobblestone lane of Angharath. Commoners walked by in drab wet clothes, smoking tiny cigarettes. A horse and cart hauled bolts of cloth with a pair of boys on either side, holding up the great pile.
Anthrud Kirkcullen stood with a dozen gnarled members of the Sarabande guard around him. Several had axes, and he nodded at the locked doors of a cellar. They surrounded it smartly and rained blows on it, stoving it in in moments. Anthrud drew a pair of .45 semiautomatics and commoners flitted away into the alleys.
He led the guard into the speakeasy beneath the Glasscutter’s Guild. There seemed to be nobody in the room. Just tables, chairs, and cabinets. Many cabinets.
Anthrud Kirkcullen fired his .45s into two cabinets at once and two men fell out of them, one dead as a door nail, the other writhing in agony.

At once the conspirators burst from the other cabinets and armoires and were set upon at once by the Sarabande guards with their lacquered shotguns and Sarabande midwives.

Several of the foe were hacked down but several more Guards were thrown together in the air as if by magnetism and fused into a single body, that became a kind of gnarled tree with mismatched clothes knit around it. This was the work of the Occult, and Anthrud sneered, firing on conspirators as they grappled with the Guard.
A man popped up from behind the bar with a submachine gun and raked the proceedings down, blasting damp wood chips off of several Guardsmen. Anthrud recognized him- Gaston Steprazor. Anthrud blew the retainer’s head in half, and looked about with satisfaction as the Guard finished their bloody work.

Then, suddenly, the floor of the speakeasy erupted in a cloud of soil. In the heart of the room a great black mass had burst from the earth, and its tendrils sprang up too, lifting soil and concrete from the floor all throughout the chamber. It stuck its chitinous lengths of licorice-like flesh into the members of the Guard who had survived the fight, and in a heartbeat drained them of moisture. Anthrud gaped in horror, and then nearly fell from his feet as the hate-filled faces of Nuncio Steprazor appeared in the swirling mass of gnarled black bands.

“How does it feel to know that a Kirkcullen made me what I am in the chaos of Mandrake? Now I have come home, finally able to assume my rightful place. I shall be the only noble of Angharath when this is through, and then I shall be King!”
Nuncio punctuated this last word by stabbing a chitinous tendril into Anthrud’s calf, immediately beginning to suck blood. Anthrud dropped a pistol, seized a Sarabande midwife and cut the cable-like black thing that was draining him. Blood poured from the thing as he shook it free from his leg. Then Anthrud dropped his pistol, and picked up another midwife.

“Then it’s time for a regicide, Sarabande-style.”

Nuncio snarled and leapt in with all tendrils. Anthrud cut two with an x-shaped blow of his axes and then swirled them around his hands as he advanced, cutting tendril after tendril and a whirl of blows. His eyes were locked on Nuncio’s floating face, and they burned with hatred.

“Where is Beller?” Anthrud growled, trailing blood from his pierced calf. The black morass shrank back slightly, Nuncio’s face scowling has his many limbs were chopped this way and that by the fearsome nobleman, who had recently led his city to gold in Fully Armored Mêlée. The ancient art of the sharp implement had not been forgotten in Angharath.

“Beller? Why, he was in the same affray I was! No doubt he looks just like me!”

“I WILL MAKE HASH OF YOU BEFORE I HEAR ONE MORE WORD!” screamed Anthrud, and with that he hurled one of the midwives straight through Nuncio’s face.
The mask of flesh was bisected and the axe cut its way through the center mass of tendrils. They spilled limp across the floor with a shudder

Minutes later Anthrud emerged stiffly onto the street where a waiting group of hundredsmen stood with rifles raised, looking on anxiously at the sounds they had heard.
They lowered their rifles. He dragged himself past them.
“Fill it with lead.”

    Joint Concord Fleet, Lethemarket
Prince Argimen cannot sleep. He tosses and turns. Finally, he gets up and takes a rowboat into Lethemarket.
He’s walking along the rubble of the waterfront under the dark blue sky when he passes an Angharathine radiotelegraphy station with its orange lights glowing. A single operator sits within, his hand on his head, his hair spiking through his fingers like a spider’s legs. He looks up and sees Prince Argimen glance through the window. His cigarette falls out of his mouth and he puts his shaking hands on the table.

Prince Argimen stops, carefully opens the door, and steps inside.

It takes the man almost a minute to speak.

Mertia has fallen.

Vidi walks with President Alan Butler of Ascension.
Butler stops and looks at him.
“So it’s a final attack on the Cynthian fleet that you want.”
“That is correct.”
“A decisive battle. Are you aware of the consequences of defeat?”
“We are.”
“That the Concord will be enslaved? That the north will lay open?”
He sighs.
“Well, if Great Loom’s Air Force goes to fight in this thing while the Ascension Air Force sits in the hangar, we’ll look like the greatest pack of malingering cowards to ever to take to the skies. Ascension will not join its fate to the strange states that sit on the actual water, nor the bandit tribes nor whatever’s become of Feyglade, but the Ascension Air Force will be above you in the final engagement. I would pray to the Moon Bear if I had to in order to get them home safe.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. President. Our Concord has so many gods that at least one should do the job.”

    The Grave of the Sorcerers
The frigate was guided along a sandbar of the Grave of the Sorcerers by a pair of rustcolored freighters. Men moved on the darkness, and there were strange bronze orreries laid like carronades on the hull, each with a single swirling orb at its heart.
The megalithic crown of the Grave of the Sorcerers loomed above them, as tall as Megakratheon but naked, skybridged standing-stones instead of the great ascending pile of the capital of the Twin Canals. Great battleships laid beached upon the shores of the Grave, rusting and gutted except their turrets, which slid smoothly to fix upon the Mertian frigate and her international complement.

Captain Armond Ver helped Ulwan Lodestone-Tyric down the disembarkation platform, and a group of Grave warriors in hooded red tunics trooped down the sandy coast to greet them, dilapidated rifles in hand.

The warriors were silent, for they had no tongues, and led the party through sand as soft as moon-dust, passed the battleships with their hidden machine guns and up over the lip of the isle’s dune halo. There, at the heart of it, was a vast, smooth black stone surrounded by canyons inhabited by the men of the Grave, many tents of red and orange, many doorways cut into the walls of the valleys. There were great elevators on the inside legs of the great megalithic structure, and buildings on stone skybridges could be seen against the stars.

The diplomats were led into the canyon and suddenly hooded. The warriors hustled them on with iron hands, but Captain Ver’s hood was frayed enough to see hundreds of livid faces, gaunt, drawn, and filled with fury and sadness and horror lock onto him as he passed them their tents and warrens.

The warriors led them into a tunnel now, an obsidian place where their footsteps squeaked and echoed like the chattering of bats. They were led into a vast chamber lit by a sick green light. Their hoods were pulled away and they saw some kind of lidless gold sarcophagus at the heart of the chamber. It was filled with an ichor that smelled of meat, and there was a scintillating green shimmer across its surface as a barely perceptible mist raised over the sarcophagus.

Arcs of electricity began to flit across the mist. The diplomats could make out words in the crackling of the energy.

“I have been roused and I must issue a warning. Do not prevaricate.”

The diplomats looked at one another.
“My lord,” said Ulwan Lodestone-Tyric, stepping forward, “We bring good cheer on behalf of the Concord. The Emperor of the Twin Canals sends his gracious greetings, and we have brought…”
She trailed off. Sweat was beginning to pour down her paling face, and her hands shook. She dropped a golden xenostygian statuette onto the stone surface of the cavern and it broke in two. She fell to her hands and knees, gasping. A moment later she lay facefirst upon the floor.
“I repeat, do not prevaricate.”
“Help us against the Cynthians and you shall have unlimited men!” shouted Captain Ver, “Both of the Cynthians and of Canalite prisoners!”
“You kidnap upon the sea!” cried Ors Remferr, “Let us give you what you seek! You need not risk your ships against the guns of the Concord if you will aid us!”

The mist was silent.

Hands shaking, Captain Ver reached into his coat and drew out a vial of blood.

“I carry a vial of Prince Argimen’s blood! If- if you help us, the souls of the Mertian kings shall be yours in perpetuity!”

Ors Remferr and the IEDC deputation looked at Captain Ver, stunned. The warriors of the Grave looked at the vial.
“Open that,” said the mist.
Ver uncorked it with shaking hands, blood spilling down his hand and onto the stone floor.
Several distinct mists raised up from the pond of ichor in the golden vat. They separated in the air and began rotating around one another.
These were not the mists of Grimwall. These were green.
A second mist spoke.
“Seal it.”
Armond sealed the vial and pocketed it, wiping his hands on the inside of his sleeves.
The IEDC deputation, all except Ors Remferr, began to sweat and stagger. They clasped one another profusely and sank to the stones, gasping and whispering denials. Armond and Ors looked at them in grim horror, but felt themselves spared. Then two mists left the rotating assembly and descended upon them. 
“No, please!” shouted Armond.
Ors simply sank to a knee, never expecting control of his fate in the first place.
The mists entered the two men. They quaked in seizure for a moment, then stood straight, turned, and departed smartly for the frigate.

    News of the Earthhearts
The cows would not stay still, but slipped their reins and broke the boundaries; then they raced along our forces at sea and watched them in the green realm, daring back strange things with their horns. This has had a somewhat deleterious effect on the pastures.

In their torment, some tribesmen have visions of the sea, submerged as they are in a place of chaos; their speech winds trails that, when replicated in the Green Realm, will deposit a party in the right place at the right time; the details are to reveal themselves in the course of the action.

Preparations are made.

Anthrud Kirkcullen goes into Mertia with the assistance of the Sworn Partisans and familiarizes himself with the city, before embarking on a campaign of elimination. Cynthian nobles out for a midnight stroll are garroted, men in the bath have detached live wires thrown in with them, and he practices his sniping from the hills outside Mertia with aid of a Sworn Partisan spotter.

One day a Starling & Shrike team jointly hired by Troutbridge and Altenado arrives in the city to find coordinates of Cynthian fleets, and Anthrud joins them, leading them through the city. Alas, they are compromised and are forced to fight a running gunbattle with the Cynthian Sea Legion until they can commandeer a radiotelegraphy station and put out the coordinates that they’ve derived. From there they fight their way to a dock, having lost have their members, where they manage to commandeer a Cynthian submarine and escape in a withering barrage of depth charges dropped by Cynthian sub hunting planes.

Tankmason Gistrik played with a glossy hollyleaf in his hand. It was a lacquered thing, the heart as dark as avocadoshell but growing lighter with a grain like wood towards the hard tips where death began, the setting in of an autumn brown. He pushed the spikes into his thumb and fingertip, looking out onto the ocean. Onto the Concord fleet.

It was like a city on the sea. The warfleet of eight nations, the greatest armada ever seen on the Southern Sea. They bladed from the water in many colors in profile like varying tomes on a vast bookshelf. The tanks of the Twin Canals were more uniform, painted like the stone megaliths of their mile-high home. They wove noisily beneath the boughs of the coast, a continual flickering of the sun behind them and a clear path through the leaves ahead. They drove for Mertia, the occupied Kingdom of Prince Argimen, one of the six founders of the Concord of the Southern Sea. By solemn oaths many nations came to her rescue that day.

The tanks pulled up in a holly grove in the highlands outside Mertia. The ground wore a mascara of soot, the remnants of a wildfire started in her late war against Kadwan bandits driven from their homes by Cynthian might. A band of Prince Argimen’s grim rangers, the Sworn Partisans, emerged from the leaves wearing cloaks of autumn. General Asetwyr Kennec alighted from a tank and spoke with them for a moment when vast booms began to sound from the coast. The Sworn Partisans formed a screen ahead of the tanks and they trundled down the coast to Mertia.

At sea, the guns of Altenado had been trained upon a distant point by the direction of Altenado’s coastwatching stations and by coordinates transmitted to them by a desperate band of Starling & Shrike infiltrators. The ships couldn’t see their targets, but they levied death upon waiting Cynthians, who were prepared to receive their enemy but not her shells. 
The Cynthian fleet was arrayed in battleline before the Port of Havia, Mertia’s great dockyard lately reclaimed by their absentee landlord of Cynthia, and it now crossed the transom of the Concord fleet. There were dozens of Cynthian ships, a horde of destroyers and cruisers arrayed around a pair of great battleships shining purple and chased with gold that shone in the aquatic light skipping in bands throughout the clouds. Already smoke rose from several ships of the Cynthian fleet and mist dusted the air between them from the drowned shells of a few missed shots. The Altenadean barrage was done half-blind and had stirred the cauldron of the Cynthian battlefleet. They were repositioning, and further hits would have to be levied eye-to-eye with the enemy. 

A great exchange began. The two fleets lit up with royal plumes of fire almost simultaneously, and the tankers of the coast heard a mighty drumroll over the groaning of their treads. They watched with mouths agape as blasts erupted from the decks of mighty warships and the sea was turned inside out here and there between them in a dance of froth and steel. A booming to herald the dawn of a new era as the battleships of Altenado, Angharath, Mertia, Bombaryx and Mandrake slung constellations of fire that shimmered above the moon-dark sea before detonating in Cynthian steel, casting a glare of sunrise from shattered, smoking hulls.

The battle was joined. Neither fleet spared itself for this would be the decisive battle. The survivors could patch their holes at leisure. Battleships were not resurrected. They were years in the making. 
Now fighter wings began to pour over the Cynthian fleet. Bombardiers from the Troutbridge Marines let off torpedoes that swam through the water, detonating against the listing bellies of escorts or the lissom skin of the battleships, blowing steel up and out like shards of a great fougasse. White Ascension Aeromarine fighters flew in low and daring, raking conning towers and command bridges with heavy rounds, killing men upon the decks and spilling them in unseemly pieces unknown to the quiet lanes of Ascension. Biplanes from Great Loom made dives here and there, testing out their freshly oiled guns against live targets for the first time while their infantry cohorts secured New Kadwa, far to the north where the fallen kingdom met the prairies of the riverlands.

It was not all attack for the Concord. The Bombargian battleship Omen Eye exploded as ill-shielded coal and oil batteries connected with fires in an unsecured magazine, and the blast and subsequent inferno was so powerful as to melt the facing deck of the adjacent Angharathi cruiser Estate. The Cynthian ships were prepared with machine guns and here and there a light green Troutbridge bomber or a sleek white Ascension fighter spiraled into the sea or into the planks and rivets of a Cynthian warship.

There through the vast parent vessels pushed the Concord’s close striking arm. Light battlecruisers of the Troutbridge Navy fired their forward guns with pinpoint accuracy, painting plumes of fire onto naked purple shipflesh between the infernos laid by the Mertian liberators, the nobility of Altenado and Angharathi, and the mysterious admiralty of the Twin Canals.

Then an altogether unaccounted-for development came from behind them. As the battle raged in the outskirts of Mertia, the tank guns of the Twin Canals demolished whitewashed stronghouses where Cynthian Sea Legionnaires had set up with antitank rifles. Tankmason Gistrik glanced once to the sea for a split second and nearly fell into the tank from his machine gun nest. There amidst the fleet were the unmistakable rustcolored vessels that sallied silently from the Grave of the Sorcerers the slavers and tormenters of the lonely places of the Southern Sea. The grim raiders of that desolate isle bathed ships in inexplicable arcs of electricity and heaped their women and children into the sea, taking men hostage for purposes unknown beneath the megalithic skeleton of some great purpose rising above their desert. The isle defied understanding with the guns of its beached battleships.

How had they infiltrated the fleet? What further magic did their four-armed captains possess?

Tankmason Gistrik saw now that the warships of the Grave did not fire upon the Concord, nor upon her low-flying aviators. Instead they overtook the riverine warships of Troutbridge and approached the Cynthians utterly without fear, now casting themselves into pools of oil-filled flames upon the water to unleash their blinding electroshock weapons upon the Cynthians at point-blank range. Cynthian warriors could be seen dropping in puffs of smoke as the men of the Grave deployed their terrible weapons at maximum amperage. Some Cynthians had been leaning against metal and there they leaned still, unable to move as their organs roasted, or else falling limp but unable to detach themselves as their bodies began to smoke and their beautiful butterfly pattern clothes began to blacken.

Tankmason Gistrik shook himself. Strange powers had been on the side of the Concord as of late. The Emperor of the Twin Canals was said to have transformed into a man befitting their myths, but this time a triplet fused in one, not a twin as the legends had it. What extra entity had been added to their pantheon? What extra spirit had moved these developments? 

Then, from behind the horizon, came the final fell testament of the Concord’s power. Falling upon the Cynthian fleet like the wrath of the Burning Eye came a dozen massive shells that blew ships into actual bisection or dissolved whole hull-halves in shockwaves filled with fire. This was the unanswerable rebuke of the Eagle of Meintz, the Cynthian super heavy dreadnought which had been captured by the Concord just a few months before. She lay beyond the horizon but had been served up the position of the Cynthian fleet by a mobile radiotelegraphy station of Great Loom, which one of their scout planes had diverted to.

The Cynthian fleet had nowhere to run and had not given nearly as well as it had gotten. The Mandracoran battleship Gauche unleashed a final barrage with a sideways stop that Tankmason Gistrik swore was a flourish, and eight great shells lay into the smoking hide of the Cynthian battleship Exsanguine with a massive detonation that buckled the orangish hide of a repurposed Grave of the Sorcerers battlefreighter drifting to its side. With that, the Cynthian fleet had been defanged, and what ships were not yet pyre-bearing skeletons now listed degunned and could be annihilated at the leisure of the fleet.

The Eagle of Meintz steamed in to join the Concord fleet as the Troutbridge cruisers chased the Cynthian escorts through the wreckyard, dispatching the remnants at close quarters. Troutbridge and Ascension fighters began landing in the Eagle’s voluminous bays, and Dannet Morado sprinted up a stately scaffolding to join Sir Gilderoy Albert Cleo Felix, the Dawn-Hawk of Altenado, and Prince Argimen of Mertia where they stood on a platform that wreathed a conning tower.

Dannet smelled of gunsmoke and was drenched in sweat, but he threw his arms around Prince Argimen and laughed, rocking the liberator-prince back and forth for a moment.
“We’ve bloody done it! You’ll be king! A king, Argimen! The king of your people!”
Argimen was peering over Dannet’s shoulder. He was not looking at Mertia, where a tattered flag of the Twin Canals 44th Detached Armored Regiment fluttered over an outlying statehouse. He looked to the west, still dark with the clouds of the morning. He pushed gently free of Dannet’s embrace and went to the railing of the conning tower, placing his hands there as he peered into the horizon.
Sir Gilderoy shifted his great revolver aside in his belt, lifted his binoculars from around his neck and handed them to Prince Argimen.

Prince Argimen lifted them to his eyes. He did not speak.

There was a clattering noise beneath them. An ensign had run halfway up the conning tower and was now screaming. His voice was ragged, his cheeks were flushed, his eyes were wide.

“Our stations in Kadwa! They just got us a report, Sir! It’s the Cynthian Home Fleet! The whole thing’s steaming through the Straits of Kadwa!”

The three looked at each other. 

“Turn the ship westerly!” roared Sir Gilderoy.
“Yessir!” called the ensign. 
Dannet glanced at Prince Argimen, then pulled his aviator’s cap over his head.
“Once more into the breach,” he said, and went down the scaffold’s steps two at a time.
Prince Argimen handed the binoculars back to Sir Gilderoy.
“My place is on the Havia Fame, Dawn-Hawk. May I utilize a seaplane?”
“Utilize? It’s yours, Argimen! Go, and the Burning Eye bless you. I’ll see you in the bloody dirt pit of the Congress of the Earthhearts when this is over. Go! And win your kingdom!”

Shells were airborne at that moment. Down below, the ships of Altenado were the first to turn and steam for the enemy. Their flags shone in the pine-laced autumn wind, their proud and pockmarked hulls emblazoned with the livery of a hundred knights who lived by the sword and sea as their ancestors had done, or as the first of their names.

They were the first to be targeted. Shells so large they were like ships themselves began to fall among the Altenadean fleet. One ship detonated, then another. An escort turned, ablaze like a fiery dandelion, shedding men in ruby wicks as they leapt firelogged onto the waves.

“Two can play at that game,” growled Sir Gilderoy with fury, “Decksman! Open the fire of our howitzers!”

“Milord!” shouted a gunner’s mate and he rushed to give the order.

In moments, Altenado’s howitzerships turned from their shielded position within the Concord fleet and raised their great cannons, nearly the size of each ship’s hull. After a moment of study the howitzers fired, consuming themselves in waves of fire, misting the sea with hissing water and sending gigantic rounds at the oncoming fleet. Monitors flitted behind them, offloading new shells, of which the quick howitzerships couldn’t carry more than one without tipping over.
Their shells told. In the distance there were explosions that nearly matched the profiles of their targets. Sir Gilderoy grinned.
“Now we’ll see who really wants it.”

Prince Argimen leapt out of the side of the seaplane onto a boarding platform of the Havia Fame, sprinted up a rickety staircase and pushed his way into the bridge. The crew sprang to attention.
“At ease! How long until a firing solution?”
“Two minutes, sire!” said an ensign running to him, “I’ve never seen vessels steam faster than these!”
“And what do we face?”

”I… I cannot classify them, sir. You’d better come to the tower.”

Prince Argimen swept past him and ascended the bridge’s stairwell, pushed into the sea mist and began climbing the conning tower. An officer in trousers and a sleeveless undershirt peered through the powerful mounted telescope with his mouth ajar. Prince Argimen came and looked down upon him. Still the man looked.
“Pardon me,” 
“Fuck,” breathed the man.
“Excuse me, Lieutenant.”
Prince Argimen put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The lieutenant looked up for a moment, his mouth still open, then pushed himself back from the telescope.
“Sorry, lord.”
Prince Argimen looked through the scope.
“Not half as sorry as I am…” 
One. Two. Three super heavy dreadnoughts. Seven battleships. Fourteen escorts, and two strange, low metallic forms that he could barely make out against the sea.

He stepped back from the telescope.

“How?” he asked. “How can we do it?”

He saw the battle play out in his mind. They would sink one or two of the vast capital ships. And then they would be crushed. There would be no repair. Nothing for it. No future. The cities of this sea would wear Cynthian chains, their leaders and ancient bloodlines drunk up by the sea. There would be no one to rescue them.

“I cannot in good conscience give the order to attack. We must fall back and attempt to hide our fleet. We must return to conditions of guerrilla warfare.”
“The Altenadeans are already engaging. The Angharathi, too. And look, the Bombargians and Mandracorans follow.”

Prince Argimen pressed his hands together and placed them in front of his mouth and nose, gazing at the horizon. He breathed out slowly.
“Very well,” he said, “Kings are the pawns of history.”
Then he turned and descended to the bridge.
The Havia Fame went full speed ahead.

Shells lofted between the fleets but it was war to the knife in the air. Dannet Morado slipped through the storm, blazing away at Cynthian biplanes from his 
freshly-weighted magazines. He followed a knight’s cloudless sulphur-pattern fighter, shooting scraps from its wing until it went into such a spiral the orange-suited Knight came loose of his cockpit and went spinning into the sea. A Cynthian sabaton went beneath, its rear-mounted heavy machine gun firing up at Dannet’s plane, and he felt the telltale vibration of big planekilling shells go through his fighter’s frame. He looked back and there was a spray of gasoline on the wind; he was lucky he hadn’t been immolated by the hits.
That was that. It was air combat for miles and the ships wouldn’t close for quite some time. He had his pick. Go down near the Concord fleet and try to be picked up, or go down near the Cynthian fleet, and… what?
He pictured himself on the deck of a Concord ship. Useless. Perhaps manning a machine gun.
He pictured himself stealing onto a Cynthian ship.
He thought of the Altenadeans cutting out the Eagle of Meintz from above.
He turned westerly and prepared for a crash landing.

The burden of command lay heavy upon Grand Admiral Yeol mac Tralgahan. It was only yesterday that he had laid the yoke upon two more peoples for the Twin Canals, driving the Atrialians to their knees before the Imperial power they’d rotted like a fasciitis, before turning upon the prancing merchants of Lethemarket and wiping away their false charter like the inkstain that it was.
Now the grand fleet of the Twin Canals was fused in the final death struggle with this motley horde of renegade nobles and bloody northern landsmen.

He thought of his strange Emperor and the cracked streets of Megakratheon.
What did he have to return to? What did he have to win?

He drove these thoughts from his mind as he’d seen Red Chartermen driven from noviplanes. 

Then he gazed into the distance, hopeless for a moment, empty and lost. 

He saw the Cynthian ships shimmering. 

Then the Angharathi light cruiser Tilt exploded with a shockwave that shook mac Tralgahan’s ship like a giant had decided to awaken it.
He realized that he’d fallen over and that holes had been torn in the steel bulkheads of his command cabin by the shrapnel of the Tilt. He staggered to his feet with his knotted cane and a blade of light crossed his eyes. He squinted out into the eastern sun.
“I know not what hurricane consumes me,” he breathed, “But if there is one sliver of hope I will cast myself upon it. Battle stations! We follow the fleet to the gates of hell, and if need be we will force our way in!” 

The Eagle of Meintz traded blow after blow with the unholy trio that now consumed the horizon. Vast shells rose and fell like the fists of storm gods, and all the battlers were bloody. Sir Gilderoy Albert Cleo Felix stepped over the guts of an ensign and passed a wall of fire that baked his skin insensate for a moment.
“Have we killed any of their guns?”

”Four, sir, four turrets across the three dreadnoughts.”
“And how many of ours remain?”
“What? I’m nearly deaf with the guns!” 
“Four of ours, sire!”
He scrutinized his foes with bewildered fury.
Three of the blighters to his one mothership.

How would I beat three of me? 
How did they beat Sir Dorian Victor Severus Ignace, perhaps the greatest warrior of Altenado?
With poisonous multitudes.
That was how they beat the Debellatio. That was how they beat “me”.

He rushed to radiotelegraphy.

“Rafe you bloody Troutbridge tosser! It’s time! Get your ships right up behind my skirt! We’re expending all ancillary fuel to get you as close as possible, then your Marines and the bloody Dalamese can climb right up their arse!”

“But if we’re distributed they’ll have a harder time hitting us!”

“They’ll pick you off anyways you bloody river wanker! These aren’t Feyglade charlatans! The only way in is through us! Now do as you’re told!”

He slammed down the receiver and walked out onto the deck as the Troutbridge cruisers took position behind the smoking, pockmarked Eagle.

“Godspeed, Galves, you beautiful landlubber.”

Saltwater washed through the eyes of men in the water, filled their mouths with a taste of the infinite sea-depths. Oil was on the air, acrid burning alloys, a relentless booming, the inescapable battle, herald of relentless consuming carnage.

The Concord had one mission: reduce the volume of incoming fire. They would lose the battle of general attrition.

The fleet attacked the enemy battleships one by one. One by one they demolished and sank them, all the while becoming blasted, pitted, spewing flame from fuel lines and cisterns. Meanwhile the Eagle of Meintz focused its vast shells on the guns of the Cynthian dreadnoughts. Behind her lay the Concord’s child-hope of victory, the chrysalis of a new fortune. Troutbridge Navy cruisers loaded with Marines and mercenaries to clamber aboard the dreadnoughts and repeat the feat of Prince Argimen and Alban Severin Lamprecht Leonhard von Meintz, holding the great guns long enough for the fleet to encompass them.

The Eagle of Meintz suffered with her delivery. The Cynthian super heavy dreadnoughts hit her again and again with their massive turrets, aware that the Concord fleet’s infantry command lay waited in her shadow. The Eagle of Meintz slowed and listed, weeping fire from a hundred hits. A mother maimed in birth. 
“I’ve given you what I can,” came Sir Gilderoy’s report from the Eagle, “It’s up to you to make something of it.”

Rafe Galves had gone down into a ship’s boat with a couple of naval ratings and glass the Cynthian dreadnoughts with his binoculars. The little boat shook with waves from the great impacts on the hide of the Meintz.
Spreading themselves thin would be suicide. There were not enough of them for three ships.
Rafe Galves rubbed his eyes and tried to force thoughts through the explosions and subsequent rains of metal.
There would maybe be enough men for one. 
He sent back the message.
“We steam for the rightmost vessel. Her guns are intact. We will seize the ship and attempt to turn her guns on the Cynthians. For Troutbridge and the Southern Sea.”
He stood back from the transmitter. He had little faith in anything but the death of hundreds upon hundreds in the bellies of those vast ships. Fate forced his hand; there was no less death in that ship than in Cynthian rule of the cities of the Concords. Nothing would be spared in retreat.

“Give the order, all to the right of the Meintz and-“

The fuel bays of the Meintz exploded. The way the walls of the ships blew out to sea was like a rushing race of greyhounds clearing the gates, moving faster than noise or comprehension. There followed an appalling thunderclap and the sight of streams of fire rising above the eviscerated and collapsing Meintz, bits of ship carrying fuel oil onto the wind. Had the Troutbridge cruisers cleared her side they would have been crushed, torn and burnt into rags of dismembered metal.

Rafe realized that he was crumpling the maps of his command cabin beneath his fists, tearing it slightly. He lurched back, and grabbed the collar of the radiotelegraphy operator.

“Send the order. Through the fire. Through the flame. Traverse it and board the rightmost ship. Victory or death. That goes for everyone. Send it.”
“Yessir,” he whispered.
The Troutbridge cruisers made their way through the burning graveyard of lost souls at sea. Corpses, bulkheads, personal belongings floated in the sea, and a patina of gas marked the air, remnants of evaporated shipwater and seawater. Burnt and shredded corpses bobbed here and there, chum blended with the rich garb of Altenado’s couturiers and the light boilersuits of Mertia’s seamen. A survivor lay in the crook of a blown-out bunkhouse, screaming with his skin seared across the iron surface. A Dalamese mercenary ended the man’s pathos with a shot from his obsidian jezzail. 

Rafe Galves bit his knuckle as the Troutbridge cruisers emerged from the Eagle’s shredded ironside. It was almost a kilometer to the nearest dreadnought. The super capital ships could only depress their cannons so far, but there would be at least one barrage before the boarding. Who would be chosen?
All were silent in the battlecruisers as they entered the barren sea. The hands had been dealt. They had only to be revealed.
The guns erupted. Four Troutbridge cruisers exploded and burned with all hands. The survivors endured a rain of metal and a downpour of seawater that threatened to sink them on its own.
The Troutbridge Marines looked at the great ship with baleful eyes. The Navymen looked at each other in terse horror. The subterranean monastic mercenaries gaze implacably forward. Most had arrived planning to die; they met the confirmation of fate with equanimity.
Rafe had survived. “The plan remains the same,” he said to no one in particular, “We execute and God willing we will find a way.”
They pictured the grinning jaws of Cynthian Sea Legionnaires beneath their black fullhelms, their job made that much easier by the barrage. They pictured the laughing Knights, readying to pitilessly hurl the obvious invasion back into the sea.

Dannet Morado stood on the prow of the Cynthian dreadnought Sanctuary in a purple Cynthian boilersuit, gazing down in horror as the Troutbridge cruisers blew. He felt the point of a sword nick the flesh between his shoulders and nearly fell forwards into the sea far below.

He turned, and a Cynthian knight in manylayered coats and tunics had a long, graven saber waving to rest upon his sternum. The blade bore images of the Home Fleet’s demolition of Angelhall, a monumental city of stone beauty that grew in complexity through concentric depths. The Cynthians had destroyed as a preemptive message to its continent.

“Look to your duties, knave, or would you prefer a close reconnaissance on the filthdwellers?”

Dannet’s nostrils flared imperceptibly and only with livid awareness did he preempt his righthand swing into the Cynthian’s face. The high nobles of Angharath are not known to endure accusations of knavery, but he turned a budding grimace into a passable rictus.

“Forgive me, lord. It was so splendid to see them burn.”
“Yes,” said the Cynthian, raising his saber to his shoulder and gazing down upon the ruins, “They’ll be along soon enough. This time we’ll be ready. They think our dearly departed Debellatio has yielded no lessons in nautical citadels, but…”
The Knight broke off and looked to the Sanctuary’s right, between her starboard hull and the next dreadnought, Depurate.

“They come sooner than anticipated,” said the Knight, raising an eyebrow, “Look, peon, they come in canoes! No wonder these went undetected. No matter, they’ll be utterly vulnerable.” The Knight drew in a breath to call out the position of the new arrivals, but Dannet shoved him in the back and then stuck his hands in his pockets and looked around as the Cynthian screamed and fell headfirst into the sea. If he’d been seen, it hadn’t been from the deck. That left the bridge, which would give him just a minute to clear the deck. Dannet stole away with purpose, heart rising, head swimming with possibilities brought on by the Earthhearts below.

They had just paddled free of the Green Realm. Endless turns in frothy rootlogged rivers hanging beneath dewdrop lichen like star embryos laden in nets of primeval fertility. Finally a rivercave that laughed like an agent of fate fulfilling its charter. The delivery of death, yes, but perhaps a greater alchemy was at work in the reshaping of fate.

The Earthhearts would be delivered into the heart of the foe, and with them, the quarry of a relentless hunter that would destroy all to claim its prize. Jackal Hyde, a famed declaimed of poetry, was being pursued by a great presence beneath the earth, a thing that had destroyed Archzenith to claim him. If it would undermine a city, perhaps it would undermine a fleet. This was their gamble, and the gurgling of the rivercave dealt them into play.

Behind them rode a horde of allies on canoes not blessed for the open sea, not blessed for navigation in the Green Realm. Without the Earthheart argonauts they would be lost and devoured by flies or bacteria, fungus of unknown clade, unearthly provenance. As it was they pulled through the realm that was a green ghost, and emerged into seafoam rent by the steel giants of Cynthia.

They looked up above them and unraveled their krait javelins and poleguns for employment against this ephemeral foe. The fact that the Cynthians lived at sea was enough to make them an abomination. The fact that they sought to expand their franchise to the earth was the horror of the depths made manifest. The Plaudits and Plenarites would follow the Earthhearts on their terrestrial spiritquest.

Jackal Hyde was amongst the warriors in their hideframe canoes. He stood up and spread his arms, channeling something in his voice, an unknown confluence of laws so particular and contingent as to be undefinable in an epoch of study. His verses rippled across the water like bowls cut by battleship shells, and the hulls of the nearest Cynthian vessels darkened and lightened in hue like something blushing and paling with passion and terror.

Beneath the earth, something heard. Beneath the earth, something stirred.

Tankmason Gistrik bit his knuckle as he looked at the sea.
The fleets were trading blows but the Concord was taking grievous losses. Already Bombaryx, Altenado, Mertia and the Twin Canals had lost battleships. It was a trade but the Cynthians had more to give. One of their Home Fleet dreadnoughts was listing to port, swimming off center, perhaps sinking, but they had two to spare when the Eagle of Meintz exploded.

Gistrik watched the Troutbridge cruisers emerge from the ship’s graveyard and saw four die, picked off by the dreadnoughts’ mighty guns in plumes of all-consuming fire. The battle was out of range of Gistrik’s paltry tank guns. They had only the de novo prayers of the Mirrorcult. He whispered them and they were ash upon his lips. Then another music came upon his senses.

There was a swan song of unearthly beauty and primeval provenance from amongst the Cynthian fleet; was this some alien expression of Cynthian power? It was a man’s voice raising up shamanic oaths as if to the storm gods who had stirred the sea of Kadwa, so it could not be their Queen. Could it be the voice of the Emperor laying a charm upon the Cynthians? This was a thing of unearthly might; the earth must be changed by this sound.

Indeed. Hollows were sprouting in the trees around his tank. They were breaking open where’d been no seam before, and strange motile wood like great lacquered tongues emerged, snaking across the ground before rigidifying and pointing outwards at the Cynthian fleet. Their tips broke into roots and lolled like hungry tentacles.
Gistrik dragged his fingers down his face.
”Shall we fire on the trees?” whispered Tankshepherd Alain.
“No. They are anathema to steel. Let them work their magic.”

Jackal Hyde finished his final note. There was an instant of silence. Then there was a lurch in the sea.
Far beneath them, in the mantle of the Southern Sea, a great hole had opened. A great creature had emerged, swimming for the surface.
A heartbeat later, millions of gallons of water began pouring into the hole. A great whirlpool began to form amongst the Cynthian fleet, and the dreadnoughts began to turn towards one another. The warriors raised a shout that reverberated from the hulls of the ships. They cast their eyes about for a fastness to climb upon, and there along the waterline of the Sanctuary was a small boat bay. They made for it posthaste and found a fastened hatch; the feastguard Hangburl laughed with his mighty belly and began to take huge bites out of the steel, swallowing them with minimal chewing, until he bit away the fastening mechanism and the door swung open. There in the darkness carnage had already been wrought; blood lay like wine beyond the feast and spattered the walls above life-deflated bodies.

A struggle was underway. A man in purple boilerfatigues lay on his back, a bloody saber discarded on the floor beside him, while a blackhelmed warrior straddled the supine man, strangling him.
The man beneath yelled to the warriors.
“I’m- Dannet- of- Anggggggg-“
High King Malcom Skull recognized this man from Congresses past. He leapt the intervening fifteen feet and wrenched the warriors’ helm around so that his head came off inside of it.
Dannet blocked his face from the outpouring of blood and looked up into the savage countenance of the Earthheart king as he wove the blonde locks of the Sea Legionnaire around his alligatorhide belt, another trophy to join the shrunken and gilded or pitchfilled heads already bobbing there like the heads of a profligate flail.
“Thank you, Malcom! Did you come with the Marines?”
“I came with the Green,” intoned the High King.
“The ship is listing, can you feel that? Has such a blow been struck? Praise the Gap!”
“Yes, the gap has struck indeed. A hole in the bottom of the world. A beast from hell comes for my greatest skald. This fleet is the price I claim.”
“You are the emissary of strange tides. And a blessing. What of the Troutbridge ships?” 
King Skull closed his eyes, then opened them and for a moment they were white.
”They turn around. Back into the fire. Better than the sea.”
The Sanctuary began to tilt in such a way that water poured up into the boat-hold.
“Malcom, what becomes of us now?”
He shrugged.
“I am a king, Dannon. Not a god.”

Prince Argimen personally fought to control an electrical fire in the bridge of the Havia Fame. He’d been burnt over and over, casting out sailors and commanders as they fell in the smoke and heat. He worked feverishly. Several of the Havia’s guns still fired. He could do no more as a commander. He paused after casting another burlap sack full of fire retardant over the blaze. He gazed up at the dreadnoughts through the orange smoke. He saw them tilting, and fell on his rear, his mouth hanging open. He scrambled onto the deck, gasping the fresh air with the lust of suffocation. The tilting of the dreadnoughts filled him with exhilaration, through three Cynthian battleships remained and who knew how many escorts. But there they went! The leftmost pair of Cynthian super heavy dreadnoughts clashed together! There hulls crumpled into one another, almost making a single ship! And then, at the point where they met, they began to sink into the sea. The third dreadnought leaned in towards them, and the battleships were pulled off course, their firing arcs thrown onto the far horizon. Over the growl of the flames and the ringing of his ears, Prince Argimen heard a roar of the voices of men lift up over the Concord fleet. This undoing of their sealed fate was like the harrowing of hell itself. The punishment of the Burning Eye. The vindication of the Fates.

Now the pair of conjoined dreadnoughts began to sink in earnest, a great haze of displaced metal flitting in the mist of ruptured boilers. 
Those who had given up hope remembered it. They fought for it as for the door of a burning building. The guns of the Concord quickened with a terrible fury.
A cry of the death of culture was felt unheard across the decks of the Cynthian battleships.

“We cannot remain at the water!” cried Dannet, “We must arise!”
King Skull shrugged.
“Death above, death below. Mayhap the water will not take us.”

“I think it shall! Let us make for the upper deck! Listen close! I am going to explain to you how to fly a biplane!”
They ascended metal stairs, weapons at the ready. They entered the first line of Cynthian staterooms, expecting a battle to begin any moment. They looked into the white walled rooms, framed in stately black wood or wall-set columns of this stone or that. They had breached no fortress. They trespassed on a necropolis. Everywhere they went, Cynthians lay dead by the dozen.
There had been no mass suicide. These men had died of some wasting disease. Dannet had seen no sign of this on his way to the waterline. What had transpired since the Earthhearts had come?
“Malcom?” he asked tremulously.
King Skull took a deep exhale of the air, then grimaced and spat.
“Something not of this world has slaughtered these men. A fiend of the outer dark. We must step with great caution here.”
“The Occult,” hissed Dannet, pulling in his saber and pistol as if to drive them into somebody.
King Skull looked at him, neither to confirm nor deny. He led them forth like hunters moving within a giant hive. They found only Cynthian death.
Finally they crested the deck of the Sanctuary. The guns had fallen silent. The Concord fleet was putting out such a volume of fire with was like a distributed machine gun, like a burst of life vitiating in from a plane of life, fed in destructive fusion upon the foe. The maimed and desperate Cynthian battleships were listing this way and that; a few escorts corkscrewed slowly, halfway in the water like drinking ducks, and a few others had slipped the rear of the fleet and were heading into existentially unknown waters. The two dreadnoughts next to the Sanctuary were crushed together and sinking, and crawling with hundreds of Cynthians seeking refuge from their disappearing island.
There, beneath the waves, was a galaxy of bubbles rising for the surface and thousands of chunks of steel like a shattered meteoric ironstone. Two vast submarines beneath the surface had engaged a third form, an indistinct shroud that languished, thrashing, in a great cloud of black blood. Whatever had come for Jackal Hyde had encountered the Cynthians’ undersea vanguard and perhaps perished in a contest of destruction. There, too, swam the guts of the Cynthian sea monsters.
Ash fell on the wind like the remnant snow of a broken winter. 
Dannet removed his aviator’s cap and placed it against his chest.
“The very earth and sea have found this Empire wanting today. The Cynthians have been thrown back, thrown out into the annals of history.” He looked at King Skull. “We owe our cities and homes to the valor of our fleet, but Malcom… I cannot make heads or tails of these other fortunes.”
King Skull looked grimly into the sea, so rife with steel and men.
“Look to the Gap-ghost, Morado. I give thanks to the Maiden of Morn and the One Astride the Sea, but we shall need all our Gods before this comes to an end. The cityfolk tell of a Burning Eye that gives justice, but no such spirit looks on this place. Some other thing was called on to punish the Sea Queen, and in this ship we have seen its works. Pray we do not carry its stench.”
“Aye…” said Dannet, looking upon a line of fallen Cynthians who even now cast miasma across the autumn air.

    Troutbridge, Office of the Prime Minister
A Troutbridge intelligence officer in Megakratheon to set up ratlines to the Fire Island managed to pay off a Canalite super heavy infantryman to act as a mole for Troutbridge.
The Canalite walks into Troutbridge a week later, sans his armor, looking very disturbed. He reports that his intelligence handler has been killed assisting Twin Canal forces in street combat against an Anarcho-Syndicalist invasion, but that he has come to make his report to Troutbridge as is due of him. He witnessed much as one of the Emperor’s personal guards.

He relates his tale.

It was a brilliant morning in Megakratheon. The gentle wind brought in sea air like a balm upon the Emperor’s bedchamber. He gazed out of a great opening in his wall across the spires and ziggurat mountains of Megakratheon with the golden sky of morning and the hushing sea beneath.
He went and stood upon the edge, looking down a mile upon his city. His capital. Already there was gunfire at the outskirts; a thousand little red and black boats crowding at the harbors, not a one meant to be there; biplanes dirtying the horizon. He breathed deep and went to have coffee.

He assembled the Concord and apologized diplomatically, but he would have to bid them an early farewell given the Anarcho-Syndicalist forces pushing through the outermost neighborhoods. He walked with them to a great aqueduct high above the city where a noviplane bobbed on pylons and bade the Canalite airmen fuel it up immediately. Then he began walking to the center of the great orrery of mirrors that now hung over Megakratheon like portals to the plane of light.

The Anarcho-Syndicalists pushed through the streets, running wildly through homes and gardens, tenements and towers, firing out of every window on the beleaguered Canalite forces. Men from a dozen islands wore the red and black, and with them came handlers estranged from Leagues now under the sway of an Emperor of the International Union. He walked behind them with a gentle smile as his men advanced relentlessly. Canalite prisoners were pulled to the rear. There was no need for a reeducation of the oppressors in an empire this populous. They would be machine-gunned.

A force of Anarcho-Syndicalists were climbing the face of a megalithic dwelling-rock near the platform where the Emperor stood. A whispered something to a senior priest of the Buildercult and the man nodded and shuffled off. Moments later the mirrors swung and a sunbeam fell upon the climbers. There was a distant screaming a thin black smoke, and several of them fell from the face of the cliff. Several more hung where they were pitoned, curling in the heat, until their cords snapped and they fell upon the cityscape below like the dry dead leaves of autumn. The beam stayed where it was and began to melt slag down the side of the wall. The emperor left it where it was, focusing on something inside himself.

The Anarcho-Syndicalists began to climb the Emperor’s tower. The corrupt, drug-addled garrison troops of the capital could not stand against the Union’s fanatical vanguard or the hordes of recruits that came behind them. The elite Super Heavy Infantry guarding the Emperor’s chambers held the invaders off bitterly, piling black-clothed corpses on the pink marble stairwells until they were like carpets of crushed spiders, but one by one the armored warriors defending the head of state were spilled across the impartial stones as well.

Now two Emperors followed the Anarcho-Syndicalists as they climbed the vast tower. Identical, identically clothed. Lay troopers looked upon them in wonder but said nothing. They were aware of one, but two? Twins? Some dim comprehension dimmed on a few of them who had heard descriptions of the Emperor of the Twin Canals. They saved their thoughts, thinking to tell their comrades when they were comfortably settled in appropriated quarters in Megakratheon’s finer districts that night.

The grand doors to the Promenade of the Orrery were dynamited and Anarcho-Syndicalists streamed through the billowing dust, arms across their noses and mouths. Soft-bellied Buildercult men were shot where they stood, or else threw themselves from the walkways and platforms. They knew better than to plead.

The Emperor turned, smiling, and took a deep breath through his nostrils.

“Turn the mirrors upon me,” he said to a waiting Buildercult elder.
The man bowed, not thinking to argue with the Emperor’s desired method of suicide, and he went to do it. The mirrors swung and the Emperor was immersed in heat which grew more intense by the moment.

The Emperor summoned the mirror-child within himself, and, with closed eyes and a furrowed brow, allowed the boy to be ignited and immolated in a psychic pyre of sacral phlogiston creosote.

The Emperors upon the stairs screamed, making the nearest An-Syn troopers jump, and began to smoke. They lifted into the air, became strangely ephemeral, and then disappeared into the stones of the walls themselves. The troops looked at each other, astounded, bewildered and dismayed.

Shades leapt from beneath the platform, tortured ghosts of the Emperor held shimmering in the air. They flittered inwards towards him with the force of the True Emperor’s will and in the fusion of the light he bound them to his very being. Then he stepped forward from the beam of light, the threefold Emperor of the Twin Canals. Like the homunculus created by entrapment science a year ago in Megakratheon, the Emperor had three faces. Unlike that gray creature, he surged with life.

He looked around him. All was mirror; he saw blurry or infinitely repeating trails of beings poised just outside local cosmic spacetime. They knew what was happening here. They knew his design.

He snapped his fingers and cracks leapt through the air around him, branching like wireframe trees down the platform and cascading to the city beneath.

The first advancing Anarcho-Syndicalists were cut in the aerial web of cracks and cut to pieces, some falling limb-from-limb in cascades of blood, heads and hand grenades pouring from the side of the platform. Others were cut severely and stepped back with carpets of blood wetting their clothes to flap in the wind, staggering backwards with livid ruby smiles deep in their flesh.

The cracks surrounded them, nearly entombed them where they stood, so that there was no escape. A few tried to push their way through and were sashimi’d into layers of flesh and clothing, shorn metal, drooping and slapping onto the stones of the platform.
Those who stood were not spared. Anglebreakers leaped from the shears in space and engulfed men where they stood, reducing them to gummy slurry half in focus, removing essence, phlogiston, aether, prana, qi from them, leaving their bent and warmed forms laying barely recognizable save for what the anglebreaker had not needed to touch to extract its prize.

The shatterlines grew through the streets of Megakratheon and the anglebreakers slipped in here and there, darting forth like insubstantial trap-door spiders of glassy hard-to-perceive polygons. The Anarcho-Syndicalists knew something had gone horribly wrong and danger was spreading from the great mirror annex above, and they fired upon it fruitlessly, but only a few were frightened enough to run away at words of warning alone, given that they trod the jewel of the Southern Sea beneath their feet as conquerors. All who remained wished that they had fled before the sun set upon Megakratheon’s bay that night, and none remained by morning. Those who did not escape in the first minutes were devoured by the anglebreakers. The Anarcho-Syndicalist International of the Twin Canals had ceased to exist in minutes, consumed by the Hounds of the Emperor.

The Emperor walked the drafty streets of Megakratheon, the air cracked in sharp lines here and there. Sometimes a face would appear in a window, gaze upon the trifold Emperor in horror and despair before vanishing into the shadows.

The Master in the Mirror was gone from this place. Perhaps consumed by the anglebreakers like a cloud of locusts. That was alright. The Emperor no longer needed a master. He stood by the glassy bay as veins of distorted reality snaked around him.

Having finished his report, the Canalite super heavy infantryman then sat down and began to cry.

    The Earthhearts
High King Skull’s census of his siblings is a success, though two of the Bloods are missing; they led the twin Pterid and Syndicalist invasions of the Empire of the Twin Canals, but were metabolized by the Blood who is the Emperor of the Twin Canals in an act of inner child sacrifice at the moment of Syndicalist triumph. In doing so, the Emperor cracked the reflections of Megakratheon in many realms, allowing anglebreakers to penetrate local realspace to devour the invading Anarcho-Syndicalists and, eventually, many more citizens of Megakratheon. The twin Bloods who invaded the Empire have now been fused to the Blood Emperor’s soul, alongside his mistress, who committed sati into a sacral wicker man he’d placed himself inside with the aid of captive Pterid shamans.

    The Empire of the Twin Canals
The Emperor stands in a great wicker figure outside Megakratheon. The wicker man is vaguely humanoid, but with many waving tendrils extending from the torso instead of arms. Pterid shamans stand in chains held by Mirrorcultists, and chant with tears staining their cheeks.
Mirrors are turned upon the wicker, and it catches fire, immolating the Emperor. The souls of the Twin Empires had been sucked into the Emperor’s body when he burnt the mirror child into phlogiston creosote during the Syndicalist assault on Megakratheon, but despite his newly-tripartite body they had not yet been integrated into his soul.

Now, in the divine fusion of realms enacted in the wicker, they began to bind into the spiritual substratum of the Emperor. Then, at the moment of molten soulfire, when all were smelted into flux, Golgarine Ishbyd committed sati into the flame. She too was bound into his corpus, and as the flames died, they saw the golden body of the Emperor, four-faced, bearing lingam and bosom, step forward from the wreckage. The Mirrorcultists fell onto their knees before the Fourfold Emperor, jerking their Pterid prisoners on their chains.

Ors Remferr strode from the woods, utterly impassive at the sight of the golden Emperor.
“What news from the Grave?” asked the royal body in a voice that was his and Ishbyd’s.
Ors opened his mouth. A mist emerged and went into the Emperor.
Then Ors Remferr died.
“Assemble the Mirrorcult at the Hall of Mirrors,” said the Emperor, “Every member is
to be there to celebrate the victory over the Buildercult.”
“Yes, my lord,” said the Mirrorcultists uncertainty.
“Dispose of this wreckage,” said the Emperor, gesturing to the Pterids.

In the weeks to come, many mists are seen in Megakratheon. Some enter the cracks in the air, going to who knows what place in what cosmos.

Some time after, mists began to emerge.

Then one day, every man, woman and child in Megakratheon died.

Everyone but the Emperor and the mists, the Star Viruses, now successful in their quest for a conduit to colonize this Earth.

They have found it in the cracks of Megakratheon.

    Mertian Waters
Prince Argimen sat in a spare dignitary’s cabin deep in the Havia Fame. It was the only place he could find that had not been touched by the battle, save a picture frame bearing a panorama of the Little Iguanas, which had fallen behind the bed. He did not replace it. He sat propped on the bed with one leg up, ears ringing, gazing onto the wall’s naked steel.

Captain Armond Ver of the frigate Bel Vento opened the door and poked in his head with a smile. He was sooty and his hair was mussed, but his cheeks bore a warm glow.
“King Argimen,” he said.
King Argimen gave a flitting smile. Then his eyes fell back on the wall.
Armond slipped into the room.
“Your people wait to receive you.”
“Let them wait.” Let them rest, he meant. “I am an empty vessel. I have spent myself and been filled with...” he shook his head, “It overwhelms me. Let me be, Armond. I will emerge in time. But it may be some time. Let me be.”
“But you are needed,” said Armond, sealing the door, “Argimen the Great, Argimen the Liberator. Argimen, the Curse of Cynthia. Or hadn’t you heard? A Cynthian dreadnought cleared without a shot? Surely a king so mighty commands the tiniest creatures, such as the Earthhearts command the greatest.”
King Argimen turned a wary gaze upon Armond, whose face had dropped into a lax neutrality, but whose eyes were livid and hard beyond human capacity.
“Oh, Armond,” said King Argimen, “What have you borne up from the Grave?”
“A herald of the King,” he hissed, “Now a pawn.”
Argimen’s skin began to crawl. Sweat broke out on his forehead. His brow grew hot as his bones grew cold. He backed himself into the bed, feeling for the sheets, pulling them up around him.
“There is no warmth to contain,” said the man by the door.
“What are you?”
“Some sages of the Occult would call me a Star Virus. I would call you a terrestrial bacterium. It has been amusing, Argimen. Thank you for helping me with the Cynthian menace. That should smooth the course of our transcendence.”
And with that, the cold consumed King Argimen. He fell into shivers and then was still. The Mertian king was dead.
The man who was Armond stepped out of the stateroom with a crestfallen gaze to the waiting men of Mertia.
“The King... has given his life at the Altar of Victory. He watches over us from the halls of the Royal Family.”
The men looked at each other, aghast, rudderless, their perfect future cast upon the rocks.
“Did- did he say anything?” asked a sailor.
“Only that he wished to be buried at sea, within sight of Havia. And that his Parliament was his gift to us. That we must work for stability in his name.”
They found themselves and nodded, placing their hats against their chests, tears spilling down their cheeks.

Prince Argimen was buried at sea with the full honors of the surviving fleet. First, 21 cannons fired for the Dawn-Hawk, and then 21 were fired for King Argimen. Dignitaries of 36 cities removed their hats and saluted the dead men of the Concord who had liberated the world from the Cynthian Empire. Argimen and Gilderoy were two names among a great multitude.
The slab where Argimen lay was raised and he slipped into the sea from beneath a flag of Mertia.

A waiting xenostygian coralbone submarine ascended from the dark green deep. It fixed the beam of a bioluminescent bloom upon Argimen’s weighted corpse. An anemonomic bathysphere that crawled with men in eelskin suits and bladder hoods departed from the mouth of the submarine. The hands of men from the alien abyss seized upon the royal corpse in a gestural style unknown to the surface, and an invisible length of ichor retracted the living sphere into the ridged vessel.

The mercenary submarine disgorged its prize in an undersea bay made from a sunken battleship. Four-armed zealots of the Viral Star carried his body into the navel of the island.

Three days later, King Argimen of Mertia walked from the waves of the Havian shore.

His first act was to dissolve the Parliament and declare the Empire of the Twin Canals to be Primus Inter Pares, first friend of Mertia within the Concord.

Days later, a plague killed every man, woman and child in Megakratheon. Approaching ships were set on fire by the great mirror annex above the city.

Only the dark freighters of the Grave of the Sorcerers could be seen coming and going from Megakratheon, and then, soon, from Mertia.


  1. This was thoroughly enjoyable experience. We really DID get lucky with the group (in my opinion at least). I also thought being able to play both as a polity and as a character was the best of both worlds.
    In hindsight, I feel like I made a small mistake with the map. I didn't have quite enough room to put the easternmost and westernmost polities on the map, and as a consequence, it felt a bit as if those polities were ignored a bit as a result (out of sight and all that). I initially wanted to get at least a direction marker in and put the names of places like Vineforest on the map but I never got to it. It’s possible those polities would have played a bigger role had they been dangled in front of our faces a bit more.
    I really like the idea of having several different maps, each with specific places to put a polity! I might be able to put something together for that if you are interested!

    1. That's ok, it certainly encompassed all the starting content except Kadwa, which is sort of an abstraction, and the Cynthian home fleet is just a bunch of ships on open water. I appreciate the offer, I'll reach out to you if the time becomes right for more maps of this nature, and that's an interesting idea having modular locations for city-states

  2. Re. Angharath: Looking at Barrow-in-Furness just from a topographical view, I can see it having a faintly Istanbul-like setting....


Art - First Run