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  1. For over two hundred years, the jungle lowlands of Hallendren and the mountain highlands of Idris have been at war. Tensions stretch back to the days of the Manywar, when Kalad the Usurper seized control of Hallendren, forcing the royal family to flee to Idris. Today, Hallendren is a sprawling lush valley kingdom, where the elusive Tears of Edgli grow. Despite Hallendren’s remote location, the Tears of Edgli, rare plants that produce dyes that hold fast in almost any cloth, are highly valued and trading in dyes forms much of Hallendren’s wealth. Stark Idris, on the other hand, sits high in the mountain, controlling the northern trade passes—vital arteries—that connect Hallendren to the kingdoms beyond. Meanwhile, the mineral deposits in the highlands pour wealth into the Idrian king’s coffers. There have always been whispers of war. Tensions simmer beneath the surface. But Idris and Hallendren have always traded, always grudgingly tolerated each other. Until now. You were among the youngest officers in the Idrian army when the Hallendren assassins struck in the night, slipping into Bevalis like ghosts and slitting King Gamlin’s throat while he slept. How could we have known that the fate of so many would rest upon your decisions? The splatter of his father’s blood had, at one point, been a bright red against the subdued earthy tans and greys and whites of the royal bedroom. Now, it was a dried, crusty brown, and still, Prince Dedelin could not take his eyes off it. Off the grey blankets that had held his father, trussing him up like a sheep for the slaughter. What had it felt like, dying? Had he suffered, Dedelin wondered, even though it was surely a moot point. Even though his father was not returning, never coming back, stolen from him and from Idris by the blade of Hallendren assassins. They had cut the king down, and he lay in repose in the chapel, but Dedelin could not bring himself to move. Not now. Not while he struggled to keep his composure. His father, King Gamlin. Those capable hands that had dandled him as a child, the stern voice that had guided him through his studies. Tutoring him in governance and the way of kings. Thick-bearded, with an expressive face as long as they were within the confines of the palace walls. Gamlin was quick to smile, quick to scowl, laughed easily. All gone now. Torn away from him too soon. Dedelin did not feel ready. Did one ever feel ready, he wondered. Or were you simply forced to it: thrust into position and made to hold, like the sturdy door frames of stonewalled Idrian cottages? “Your Majesty.” Dedelin hid his flinch, kept any sign of startlement from bleeding into his hair. The title was too new. It felt...wrong. He turned. General Yarda stood waiting, his hands clasped behind his back, his thick beard tied in three places. The burly man had been his father’s general. And now Dedelin commanded his allegiance. “Word from our spies in the south,” the general said, briskly. Dedelin did not know how Yarda kept his composure. A harsh man, born of harsh winters. The crisp chill of the highland air, the solid bones of the mountain: that was General Yarda. Nothing seemed to daunt the man. “Hallendren’s Lifeless armies are on the march.” Dedelin did not manage to conceal the shock of bone-white that streaked through his hair. “All of them?” Hallendren’s Lifeless were the stuff of nightmares: untiring killing machines held to a semblance of life by the blasphemous use of Awakening. Ordinary soldiers tired, had chillblains, felt fear. Lifeless did not. “Three armies in the field,” General Yarda said, quietly. “All heading towards the border.” “Why now?” Dedelin blurted, and regretted it. All his lessons in statecraft told him why: they’d killed his father. It was a provocation, and now Dedelin had to respond. The Lifeless armies were a test of the new king, but if Dedelin did not respond decisively, provocation could become actual conquest. Even if it was only making a statement, if Dedelin backed down, the next time the Idrians met the Hallendren at the negotiating table, it would be from a position of weakness. He ran a hand through his hair, willing it black again. Willing himself to be the king that his father was. “According to the Hallendren ambassador,” General Yarda replied, “It is but a routine training exercise. But Hallendren’s armies have not trained so close to the border. Not in recent years. I’ve doubled the garrison at the passes and urged the people to the south to seek shelter in the mountains.” Crossing the Idrian border would be an act of war. “We cannot afford a war in the south, your Majesty,” Yarda continued. “Not this year. Not with the army suffering from the Vendis raids last fall. Our defense has always been in the passes, and we’d make the Hallendren bleed, but it would cost us.” What he meant was that it would cost Idris too much. Men, falling, bleeding, dying for Idrian soil. Could Dedelin ask that of his people? He ground his teeth together. “We need to bring them to the negotiating table. And we need something that will buy us time.” And Idris could not afford the appearance of weakness. They needed reprisal for his father’s death, some way to show that you did not kill a king without consequence. “The guards have captured two of the Awakeners responsible,” said General Yarda. “The rest got away, but my men are currently raiding their safehouse.” Lieutenant Kalsin drew a deep breath. Austre, Lord of Colours, he thought, even as he adjusted his grip on the strap of his shield. Watch over us, and protect us. The rest of the squad readied their weapons and shields. Under orders from the captain, they wore only the cloth uniform of the Idrian royal army; no metal to give away their position with noise. Still, Kalsin would not be surprised if the Awakeners had some other means of telling the safehouse was about to be raided. Awakeners were tricky like that. The safehouse that Idrian intelligence had pointed out to them on the outskirts of Bevalis seemed a cottage like any other: whitewashed, thatched roof, and stone walls that held poorly against the chill of the mountain air. Captain Wryn glanced about them and signalled; the squad moved into position. “No warning,” Wryn had said, earlier. Kalsin had not disagreed. He did not see why Awakeners and kingkillers deserved that. He took point, like he always had. He slammed the boss of his shield into the door. On the second try, it gave way with the sharp crack of splintering wood and Kalsin drove on in, shield up against projectiles, sword out and by his side the moment he cleared the narrow doorframe. Darts clattered against the sturdy wood of the shield, and Kalsin took in his environment at once, willing his eyes to adjust to the dim environment. It took a moment—a sharp contrast from the golden sunlight outside—but then he saw them. Three Awakeners, one of them the one who had flung the darts. The other two held swords. Orders had been to capture if possible; to kill otherwise. Wryn knew all about the dangers of Awakening. Everyone did, in Idris, but especially the southerners. “Surrender in the king’s name!” Kalsin shouted, as the squad spilled through the door after him. He advanced on the Hallendren with the darts, the shield taking the brunt of the assassin’s darts. He slashed out with his sword, judged and aimed for the flat to strike the man. There were other assassins, but his squadmates would take care of them. Something lashed out, and Kalsin found himself falling. Austre, he cried out, half curse, half prayer. A grey sheet, colours drained by fell sorcery, wrapped about his ankle and yanked. The Awakener smiled, and Kalsin somehow managed to bring his shield up between him and the next poison dart. Another loop of cloth wrapped about his wrist, and spiralled up his arm. Kalsin tried to reach for his knife, but he was pinned. Yet another cloth looped about his throat, growing tighter, and the world fuzzed at the edges. Kalsin fought to get to his knife. Spots danced in his vision. He wasn’t going to die here, damnit. And then Wryn was there, and his sword slashed through the cloth, and the next swing smashed into the side of the Awakener’s head, knocking her out. He sliced through the rest of the restraining cloths with swift efficiency. “Get up,” Wryn said. “Not even a welfare check?” Wryn just rolled his eyes and hauled him to his feet. Kalsin snatched up the sword he’d dropped and briefly clasped his shoulder in thanks. The rest of the Idrians were fighting the Hallendren assassins. Kalsin saw four more cloth silhouettes, drained to grey, wielding blades, and gaped. Hallendren blasphemies, he thought, because of course the Hallendren Awakeners saw nothing wrong in spending the Breath of others and using them profligately. Kalsin parried a thrust from a Hallendren blade and riposted. The Hallendren assassin dodged, and Kalsin’s sword cut against the stone of the wall, striking sparks. But Wryn was there, even as Kalsin recovered, and his sword bit deep into the Hallendren. Or would have—there was a flurry of movement as the Hallendren’s grey cloak seemed to come alive and snatched at Wryn’s sword arm, tugging him off balance. Kalsin moved in that moment, and his blade met the Hallendren’s and then carried on as Kalsin followed through. His sword took the Hallendren a bit lower than Kalsin had wanted, not quite in the throat, and blood spurted as he yanked the sword free. The Hallendren collapsed, and Kalsin turned about just in time to fend off a strike from one of the cloth silhouettes. Up close, he could see it had been cut to resemble a man. Or a shadow, if shadows were drained to pale grey. The cloth moved and fought like the Hallendren, Kalsin thought, even as they exchanged a few blows. He did not know if this was a limitation of Hallendren Awakening. Austre’s mercy that they could be fought with good steel. Wryn had cut himself free of the cloak and re-entered the fray. Three of the Idrian squad had fallen or were hobbled or in some way taken down: it was difficult, fighting in the cramped confines of the cottage, strewn about with the various traps and tricks. The Hallendren spies had been expecting them. Or perhaps they had simply activated their precautions. Kalsin cut down the cloth silhouette with a series of swift slashes and then strode forward. Wryn was battling another silhouette; meanwhile, the final Hallendren had peeled free and dashed to the cottage’s fireplace. He shoved a handful of papers into the fire, and then cursed. Too late, and the flames were too weak for how much the Hallendren evidently wanted to burn. Kalsin lunged at him, and the Hallendren spun about to beat aside his sword thrust. Kalsin did not offer him the chance to surrender. It had been offered, and denied. Movement. Kalsin backpedalled, sword at the ready, but it was the stricken Hallendren assassin, the one Kalsin had stabbed earlier. He crawled forward with the last of his strength and his fingers tightened about the ankle of his countryman. “My life to yours,” wheezed the Hallendren. “My Breath become yours.” And there it was: Breath, the man’s soul, or perhaps the souls he had stolen, puffed out, like vapour, like the cold northern winds of winter. It drifted up, iridescent, and swept into the other Hallendren. Perhaps it was instinct: perhaps they hadn’t wanted to waste the Breath. Kalsin did not know, but he wasn’t interested in seeing what perversions they could wreak with the salvaged Breath. He stabbed the other Hallendren, just to be sure. Meanwhile, Wryn had moved to the fireplace and was using the poker to flip out as many charred papers as he possibly could. He stomped on the embers, putting them out before anything else could possibly catch fire, or before the sparks could spread. The cottage fell silent now. Only the sound of the crackling fireplace, and their breathing. And groans of pain. Kalsin assessed the situation, now that the Hallendren were down and the cloth silhouettes had stopped. Likely they would need to commit everything in the cottage to flames, to prevent further evil from being done. Gader had been caught in a tripwire, and both Yanav and Taned had been wounded. Pelan at least was still on his feet and he immediately went to see to Yanav, who was bleeding out. Kalsin swept the rest of the small cottage. He disarmed a few more traps and cut down some insistently annoying ropes, and stabbed another cloth silhouette that had been lurking in a nook, but finally the Hallendren safehouse had been secured. Wryn had gathered the papers into a sheaf and was frowning at them as Kalsin approached. “Plans,” he said aloud. “And maps. I think the king will want to see this. As will the general.” “They should’ve burned them the moment we broke through, if not before,” said Kalsin. He would have. “Arrogance, I suppose,” replied Wryn. “It cost them, this day.” So it had, Kalsin thought. So it had. There was a tentative knock on the door, and then the guard entered, with a young Idrian officer in tow. He wore the armband of a lieutenant and moved with a swordsman’s grace. “Your Majesty,” the guardsman said. “General,” he greeted Yarda. “The lieutenant has urgent news that requires your attention.” The Idrian officer bowed, as the guardsman withdrew. “Your Majesty,” he echoed the greeting. “General.” “Lieutenant Kalsin, isn’t it?” General Yarda said. “Wryn’s company. One of the youngest officers currently serving.” That was Yarda, Dedelin thought. He remembered the men who served under him, and he caught that flicker of pleasure on the officer’s face at being recognised by the general before it was schooled to proper Idrian reserve again. “Yes, General,” Lieutenant Kalsin said. He handed a sheaf of papers to the king. “Your Majesty,” he said. “With Captain Wryn’s compliments. We’ve secured the Hallendren safehouse and the captain is currently seeing to the work of cleaning up. A single prisoner is in custody.” Dedelin accepted the sheaf of papers, and flipped through them briefly. There were scorch marks, as though the Hallendren had sought to burn them. Some of them bore the signature marks of Idrian intelligence, which meant that the Hallendren were beginning to compromise his father’s spy network. He could not see any other way they could have intercepted the missives from Idris’s spies. Perhaps that was why they had struck with such impunity at his father. Perhaps that was why they had been able to kill King Gamlin. Something caught his eye. He stopped thumbing through the papers and extracted it. It was a map, one that had been hastily folded and refolded many times. It was a professionally-drawn map, from some Hallendren cartographer, but as Dedelin pored over it, he realised the value of what he held, and he stared down at the crinkled paper, stunned. It was a map of the Hallendren-controlled jungle, with several routes marked in inks of various colours. Hallendren ostentatiousness, of course, but what drew his disbelieving attention were the marks that indicated the various dye fields where the Tears of Edgli grew, and a landmark lake that had been annotated: ‘The Smoking Mirror.’ The Tears of Edgli, the source of Hallendren's wealth and power. General Yarda’s eyebrows drew together as Dedelin showed him the map. He, too, understood its significance. The corners bore the authentication marks of Idrian intelligence. No doubt the Hallendren had wanted to deny them this piece of intelligence, but it had fallen back into Idrian hands anyway through Austre’s mercy, and the work of the captain’s squad. “A bold move,” General Yarda said, slowly. “It would send a message,” Dedelin said. “A strong one. And it would give Hallendren reason to come to the negotiating table. Right now, they’re trying to pressure us to come crawling. Or perhaps they’re trying to take advantage of what they see as a moment of weakness and crush us.” Weakness. The death of his father to Hallendren assassins. They were dead now, too. Captain Wryn had seen to that. All but one. “We cannot enrage them,” General Yarda cautioned. He stroked his beard. “But a single expedition to raze some of the dye fields would remind them they are just as vulnerable. That we know where their primary export grows. It will take them time to re-secure their dye fields, too. They’re better off negotiating. A small expedition of good, capable soldiers…” he waited for Dedelin’s nod before he turned back to the lieutenant, who was still standing there, arms clasped behind his back. “Get me your captain, Kalsin. The king has an urgent assignment for him.” “What do you dream of, your Grace?” “A lake, Hera. Or at least, I think it’s a lake. Still, like mirror-glass. And pale smoke rising from the surface like the mountain wind...I kneel by the water, and all around me...everything burns.” QF54: The Smoking Mirror “A king must employ every tool at his disposal. The soldier’s sword, and the diplomat’s smile.” —King Dedelin, in the fourth year of his reign. The old king’s corpse is not yet cold. A daring strike from Hallendren assassins has killed King Gamlin in his bed. Sheets, the colours drained to a dull grey, have strangled the king as he slept, holding him helpless as the Awakeners slit his throat. King Dedelin has newly-ascended to the Idrian throne and already, war looms over the fragile mountain kingdom. Above all, his negotiators seek to buy time, but Hallendren’s Lifeless armies are already on the march. Reports from Idrian scouts suggest that they may have finally uncovered the fiercely-guarded location of Hallendren’s dye fields, near the warm pool they name the Smoking Mirror, where they grow the coveted Tears of Edgli. Under secret orders from the king, Captain Wryn has hand-picked members of a scouting expedition to enter the overgrown jungles of the Hallendren lowlands. Your orders are simple: locate the Smoking Mirror. Raze the fields to ash. Cripple the Hallendren economy, and force them to the negotiating table. The king is dead. Long live the king. General Rules: Win Conditions: Roles: General Housekeeping: Sign-ups are now open and will close on next Friday, 16th July, at 2300hrs SGT. Many thanks to @Fifth Scholar for trading QF slots with me due to the weirdness of my schedule. At least I can stop camping on the QF list now Quick Links: