Edited and Posted by Jozh
One way or another, the soldiers of Contingent 151 had earned the honor of serving under Kommander Kroskov. Kroskov was a bold and brash Khadoran military man who professed great love for The Motherland. He had served in both the Invasion of the Thornwood and The Llaelese War, both victories for Khador. He was stationed in Thornwood swamps when the Cryxian undead hoards rampaged, and he was at many battlefronts fighting to keep Thornwood from Cygnar and Cryx. He was well decorated and stern.
The Contingent was on downtime in Merywyn, the capital of Llael, where they’d been for a month since their last successful mission near the southern border of Khador. The young doctor, Specialist Alexi Repparmann played cards with his steamjack “Ivor”, taking notes on its reactions. The others lounged about the inn where they’d rented rooms.
One fine morning, First Lieutenant Mikhail Skarrov arrived on their doorstep and let himself in. “Gentlemen, lady, good morning.”
Sergeants Josephine Durand and Konstantin Dragov stood at attention and saluted, and Alexi scrambled to follow suit. Specialist Pravo Ostavil – an operative on loan from KhadSpec as he liked to say – nodded to the lieutenant from his seat at the table.
Skarrov walked through the old inn hall and poured himself a drink. “At ease, soldiers. Today is your lucky day,” he said with a hint of sarcasm. “Always a lucky day in the service of the Motherland.”
The trollkin Blegovian StautTrunk finally looked up and noticed the lieutenant with a grunt. Josephine relaxed, but only a little. Pravo leaned back in his chair, taking another sip of Llaelese coffee. Alexi put the cards away and took out his medical/toolkit.
“You’ve got new orders,” Skarrov continued, pulling an envelope out of his coat and placing it on the table before him. “Please peruse the following. I’ll answer questions as I can.”
Pravo opened the envelope and spread the letter it contained on the table for everyone to see.
You are hereby ordered by Kommander Kroskov to gather your equipment and travel to Ohk. There you will re-supply and investigate the whereabouts of a location to the North-West along The Windless Waste coastline which is shrouded in ice currently; the exact location of the target is insufficient. Reportedly the location is a small, icy peninsula where an old keep was built atop the cliff. The keep has just come under our investigation during our search for a Khadoran sailing vessel which was sunk in the icy waters, reportedly by pirates.
Your orders are to travel to this keep, handle any rabble or resistance taking up residence and retrieve any cargo from the sunken vessel that is salvageable. The cargo is Khadoran property and supplies, you are not to dismantle or tamper with it in any way short of preparing it for travel and disbursement. Execute any opposition with extreme prejudice as they are operating outside of the Khadoran law and are charged with treason.
Upon securing the location for the Khadoran army you are to wait for the occupying contingent to arrive with word from Lieutenant Skorrik in Ohk which you will follow until you are relieved of your post. You will maintain the keeps location to yourselves as secret in order to maintain its strategic value for the military might of The Motherland. Your orders dictate you do not vacate the premises until further orders are forwarded and signed by me.
“Pack a koat, komrades,” Pravo drawled.
“And add frostbite treatments to my list,” Alexi muttered to himself.
“It is indeed frosty this time of year,” said Skarrov.
“This all seems very straightforward,” said Josephine. “As long as we can find this keep.”
Konstantin nodded. “It will be good to be working again. I tire of the downtime.”
The lieutenant inclined his head. “Indeed. Method of travel is left to your discretion, however the Motherland will provide the cost of provisions.”
“Ready to leave Llael, anyway. Smellink bad here, da?” Pravo sneered at Josephine.
“And I have yet to see the heart of the Motherland,” she said, ignoring the jab.
“I can be ready to leave in thirty minutes,” said Konstantin. The hulking soldier headed to his room to prepare for the journey.
“All right, let’s make ready,” said Josephine to his back.
“Good day, soldiers. Menoth guide you,” said Skarrov.
“Dasvidaniya, First Lieutenant,” said Pravo. The officer gave a half wave of his mechanikal arm on his way out.
Blegovian clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “I’m gonna enjoy bringing the great axe of justice to these treasonous fools.”
* * *
Upon picking up a military transport with the railway Blaustavya Shipping and Rail (BS&R) – “Big Iron” – the Contingent found itself among farmers, merchants and other military men on leave headed to the capitol city. They were the only armed soldiers aboard the train. They got occasional looks of concern from the other passengers.
They passed the time in transit in various ways. Konstantin was either working out or speaking with his fellow soldiers, clearly making an attempt to get to know them better. Josephine seemed the most receptive to his overtures, and the two sergeants conversed more openly. Blegovian recounted a story of narrowly avoiding tipping off some Cyrxian Bane Thralls while on a recon mission by hiding in a tree. Pravo mostly kept to himself and played with one of his knives. Alexi continued attempting to teach card games to Ivor.
“Am thinkink ‘jack is wasted on kard play. I approve,” the operative commented.
“It’s learning, and so am I,” said Alexi. “You should join us, Pravo.”
“Da, will playink hand.” He put his knife way as an afterthought. The others watched the two men play cards with the machine with varying degrees of interest.
* * *
They arrived at the train station in Ohk in the late afternoon of the fourth day of travel – bored, but unmolested. The city was primarily industrial, but it contained a number of outfitters and provisions depots, as well.
“Great,” Blegovian complained. “I’d heard Ohk was full of ‘jack factories. This place reeks of sea and soot.”
“When do we leave for the op, Sergeant Durand?” asked Konstantin.
“It’ll be dark before we can set out. Maybe we should start in the morning.” In a lower tone she added, “Specialist Ostavil noticed a man who followed us from Merywyn. I’d like to flush him out before we leave.”
Pravo shrugged. “Da, seeink him before.” He briefly described the man he’d seen to the others – dark hair, leather duster, and tinted goggles. “Kould be anyone, really. Am takink walk now. Hear what is to hear.”
Konstantin nodded. “We should let the specialists deal with the espionage. Shall I find us boarding for the night, Sergeant?”
“Good idea, Sergeant Dragov. See to it, please,” she said. She turned and saw Alexi about to walk onto the tracks, his nose deep in a book. With a sigh, she moved to save the young doctor from his own studious nature. She lost track of Blegovian, but began herding Alexi and the ‘jack – which was carrying the Contingent’s luggage – after Konstantin.
They found a bustling inn that appeared almost over-full with an abnormally large number of Nyss elves huddled on the floor of the commons. Konstantin saw to the task of procuring lodging from the tavern owner Owens. When the man saw Ivor looming just outside the door to the inn – it didn’t look like the ‘jack would fit through the door without some property damage – he said, “Vell, if ja are vith za steamjack, please keep heem outside, komrade.”
Konstantin caught Josephine’s expression at the sight of the other elves. It was…complicated. “What’s with the refugees,” he asked Owens casually.
“Vell, zey are Nyss, zo I azzume zey have fled Nyssor…Kommink here in droves lately.”
Konstantin shrugged, overpaid for the two rooms that were available, and delivered the tavern keeper’s message to the doctor, who scarcely heard him, as he managed to trip over a sleeping Nyss. The elf got up and cursed him in an unfamiliar tongue, and Alexi offered a brief apology in Caspian. Josephine adjusted her weapon belt and headed over to collect the doctor – again.
“I don’t understand, are you injured?” Alexi was saying to the Nyss. The elf waved him away and curled its leg away, hissing foreign curses.
“Leave him be, Specialist Repparmann,” said Josephine, almost sounding motherly.
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you,” Alexi said to the Nyss. He followed after Josephine over to a table Konstantin had secured. “Sorry, Sergeant,” he murmured to her, sounding contrite.
“No damage done. But please, pay more attention to where you’re going.”
Blegovian came in shortly after, explaining that he’d tried to catch sight of their tail at the rail station. He hadn’t had any luck, unfortunately. “If only I’d had a tree to hide in,” said the trollkin, laughing boisterously at his own joke. The contingent settled in around a table and ordered food and drinks while they awaited Pravo.
The operative reported in a half hour later. “Our friend from train is in another inn, not far from here. Have lead on gobber who might know about our keep. Plannink to go interview him.”
“Good work,” said Josephine. “Well go look for him, too.”
“No. No, don’t do that,” said Pravo. “Stay. Rest. Will let you know when is time for shootink someone, da?” His tone was just shy of insolent, but before the sergeant could reply he was back out the door.
* * *
Pravo rolled his eyes at the thought of the durak Llaelese – no matter her claims of loyalty to the Motherland – sergeant on an intelligence gathering assignment. He set his prejudice aside for the moment, as there was work to do. He found the gobber’s shop, but it was closed as the day wound down to dusk. Pravo asked around to find out where the merchant lived and was directed to an old stone and iron-shod house. The operative knocked on the door.
A few moments passed before the door opened. Pravo looked down to see the goblin standing in the way. “Yeh? Vhat ya vhant?”
Pravo smiled disarmingly. “If you are Irkuk, a moment of your time, sir.”
“That’s me. What fer? State yer business, s’kolt outside.”
“Information. Maybe a map.” Pravo glanced back into the house trying to get a read on the gobber from any physical clues that might be visible. Irkuk lived modestly based on his belongings, but his possessions were definitely of finer quality. Turning his attention back to the little man, the operative added, “And if what I’ve heard is true, perhaps justice for ‘stinking bandits’?”
That seemed to pique the gobber’s interest. “Got coin?”
Pravo smirked, placing one hand on a heavy pouch. “Please. I would not waste your time otherwise.”
“Then I got a bit of time. Get in out o’ the kolt.” He waved Pravo in. “Ye got a moment ‘til my food cools off to eat, then yer out.”
Pravo stepped inside and took another moment to appraise the expensive liquor on a shelf as well as what appeared to be a collection of tapestries and old metal parts from the Orgoth era. “Nice,” he commented. “You collect?”
Irkuk quirked an eye at him. “Aye, a hobby. Talk fast, my soup cools.”
The spy nodded. “Fine, fine. I’m seeking a bounty. Last lead puts the mark somewhere north-west of Ohk. I’m told you might have maps of the region. Also that you were assaulted by bandits on the coast. I’m thinking my mark might be among them, but I’m interested in any ruins in that direction where someone might go to ground.”
“Damn bandits, aye. I was accosted, stopped on my route. I was asked to help them make a profit on some goods I thought reputable. When they led me to their damn icy keep on the bluff, they done took all my things. I escaped one night and made it back. I ain’t got any recollection of how it’s mapped, but I remember the landmarks to find the place.”
The gobber paused for a moment, giving Pravo a shrewd look. “Ye got the right coin, I’ll take ye far enough to see tha’ place – an old Orgoth keep. But I ain’t getting’ closer than the mountain pass. Damn dangerous.”
“We can work something out, I’m sure. Drink?” Pravo offered, reaching for a bottle of Llaelese wine.
* * *
Konstantin finished dinner and settled into one of the rooms he’d rented for the Contingent. Blegovian commented on the difference in the Iron Fang. During downtime, the big man was more lighthearted and laid back. Since they’d begun the mission, Konstantin seemed more focused and driven – his demeanor that of a consummate professional. The trollkin ordered another round of drinks for his remaining comrades. It took a while to arrive, and Blegovian was not shy about “reminding” the tavern keeper.
After they’d finished their drinks, Josephine glanced over at Alexi and proclaimed, “You’ll bunk with me tonight. Safer for you that way, anyway.” The doctor nodded, gathered up his books and retired to the other rented room. Josephine followed him up, leaving Blegovian alone at the table. However, after a few minutes staring at the wall while Alexi read and scribbled notes with the lamps turned up, she came back downstairs and squeezed in next to the trollkin. “Specialist Stauttrunk.”
“Sergeant! Just in time for last call!” he said merrily, slapping another mug down before her.
She nodded her thanks. “I normally would not drink like this, but I may never get any sleep otherwise.”
They sat and drank together for a while, before Pravo finally strolled back into the tavern. “Kapture tail and interrogate him?” he asked without preamble, taking one of the empty chairs.
“I think that would be best,” said Josephine, misunderstanding his question. “How did it go with the gobber?”
“Ah. You have not already done so,” he commented, a scathing criticism. “некомпетентность,” he muttered, almost too low to hear. Josephine heard it clearly, as he’d intended.
“Drink?” Blegovian asked with a tusky grin. “Drink like what, a fish? You’ll get me dancing on a bar and shouting off the tips of elfin ears. Well, maybe not tonight. But some time we’ll get ripsnortin’ plowed.”
“No thank you, komrade. Am under impression that we are on klock, da?” said Pravo. He looked back at Josephine and answered her question. “Gobber will guidink us to bandits. And ‘icy Orgoth keep’.”
“We still haven’t seen this tail since we arrived here,” she said.
Pravo glanced around at the empty mugs on the table. “Ah.”
Blegovian blinked at him. “What? I’ve only had three of these little thimbles. That doesn’t count for squat.” Pravo gave the trollkin a flat look.
“Should we go and pay him a visit then?” Josephine asked.
“As you suggest,” said Pravo, his tone vaguely sarcastic.
“Let me go and get the others,” she said. She went upstairs to fetch the others
Seeing that Josephine had already strapped on her armor, Konstantin asked, “Are you wanting me prepared for combat, ma’am?”
“Yes, shall I bring Ivor?” asked Alexi.“Better safe than sorry,” she confirmed.
Once the Contingent had made the necessary preparations, they made their way to the other inn. The commons was mostly filled with humans and Nyss, but they did not see the tail amid the throng. The barkeep was a middle-aged Khadoran woman, and she eyed the armed soldiers warily while washing mugs behind the counter.
“I’ll watch the back door,” Blegovian suggested to Josephine.
“Heh. Phrasink,” said Pravo in an undertone.
At her nod, the trollkin crossed the room to the rear exit and stepped outside to take a look around.
To the sergeant Pravo said, “Flush him out?”
“Sounds best. He must be upstairs?” She nodded at the barkeep. “She might know which room.”
“I know which room,” he said softly.
“Good. Let’s go.” She turned to Alexi and Konstantin. “Sergeant Dragov, Specialist Repparmann, mind the front?”
“Will do, ma’am,” said the Iron Fang.
“Yes, Sergeant,” said Alexi, sounding awake and aware.
Pravo shrugged and followed Josephine to the stairs. The barwoman continued watching them, but did not move to interfere. The pair ascended and found themselves in a hallway lined with doors. “Which?” whispered Josephine.
Pravo pointed it out wordlessly, and they took up position beside the tail’s room. “Walk softly,” he suggested, his tone one of command.
* * *
Blegovian walked up and down the alley behind the inn, noting that it butted up against other buildings on one side. He didn’t see any other points of egress from the inn, so he posted up at the corner where he could watch the alley and the back of the inn. He crossed his arms and flexed his muscles as a standard warming procedure against the cold Ohk night.
* * *
Once their comrades were up the stairs, Konstantin and Alexi noticed several of the patrons attempted to leave the tavern non-chalantly. The Iron Fang saw a few among them whose faces he recognized from the train, but they wore merchant’s clothing. The doctor scribbled notes about everyone who left, making quick notes to describe each. Without orders to the contrary, the soldiers did not make any attempt to stop anyone.
* * *
“Can you open the door?” Josephine asked Pravo.
His expression suggested that she had just insulted him, but in what way was unclear. But then he produced odd-looking tools and set to work. The door unlocked moments later and Pravo scoffed. But then he glanced over his shoulder as though expecting trouble. He saw no one but a man dressed in merchant attire, and when the man saw the armed soldiers in the hall, he headed back downstairs with wide eyes.
Josephine crept into the small room of their quarry. It had a single small open window with a table beside it and a lone occupant with his back to the door. A black-haired man in a simple tunic sat at the table writing. Pravo took a quick glance into the room seeking out hidden threats or anything that might be used to his advantage. He spotted a travel bag beside the chair and a set of tinted goggles on the table. Then a detail jumped out at him, but before he could act on it, Josephine spoke up.
“Why are you following us, komrade?” she asked the man clearly, her weapons still holstered.
The man jumped slightly and knocked what he was writing out of the window before slowly turning. “I…I…I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
* * *
Alexi had joined Blegovian at the corner, and the two of them noticed a piece of paper float out an open window above and fall softly to the ground in the alley. The trollkin also spotted a glint of moonlight off of something a few rooftops away from the window from which the paper had fallen. He stared at the sight for a few moments pondering its meaning, while Alexi entered the alley and picked up the paper. It was a note, which the young doctor swiftly read and then hid inside his armor.
* * *
“The time for lies is past, don’t you think?” she pressed. “Talk, komrade.”
“Talk about what?” asked the man, clearly flustered.
“It isn’t him,” Pravo said to the sergeant softly. “’Ware.”
“What?” she asked.
The operative reached up to his own head and twisted a few locks of hair around his finger to illustrate what he’d noticed before: the man’s hair was the wrong color.
Josephine fixed the black-haired man with a cold green stare. “You had better be telling the truth, komrade,” she said retreating toward the door. “Or I will be back.”
“I…I…don’t know what you mean, ma’am,” he stuttered.
She held a finger up to her lips, closed, the door behind her, and let all the air out of her lungs at once. Pravo gestured at the stairs with a jerk of his head. She nodded and took a step in that direction.
* * *
“What’s going on, doctor?” Konstantin demanded.
Before Alexi could answer, Blegovian bellowed, “SNIPER!” The Iron Fang looked to the trollkin, then up at the rooftops in the direction the Ranger was pointing. He saw nothing there.
Then Blegovian took off down the street, disappearing into the icy night. Alexi and Konstantin exchanged a look.
* * *
Josephine’s footsteps quickened when she heard Blegovian’s shout, but Pravo froze in place, opting instead to melt back into the shadows beside the door to the man’s room. He heard a muffled scream from beyond the door and then blubbering cries of anguish. He caught the sergeant’s glance as she whirled back around – she had heard it, too. She drew sword and pistol then rushed over and threw the door open once more.
The man she’d been questioning was slumped on the floor, arms clutching his stomach as though hiding something. Josephine rushed to the open window and closed the shutters, in case the trollkin’s sniper was still about. Then she took a knee next to the man to get a closer look at his situation. Pravo then deigned to enter the room, prodding the man with a bare blade. “What have you there, komrade?”
The man did not move for a pregnant moment, and then he fell over to the side, the flesh of his stomach gone, and his guts apparently eaten out of his belly by something caustic. There would be no further questions: he was dead.
“Ah. Well, then,” said Pravo, looking a shade paler than usual.
Josephine gasped then swiftly tried to pull herself together. “That, I did not expect.”