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The HEL Jumper [Chapter 3.13]

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“Good morning, First Lieutenant. And you must be Veera? I was told to expect the both of you. Please be seated anywhere you like,” the short, thin gentleman offered, gesturing around his office. It was the oddest and most anachronistic portion of the ship Winters had visited by far, though in that particular case it was not a bad thing. Instead it was an indication that Natori Kaczynski had taken the mental health of his crew into careful consideration when implementing his vision for the Event Horizon. Instead of a sleek, modern cube of metal or plastic polymer, he felt like he’d been transported to a row home in some quaint European city. The floor was richly carpeted by oriental or persian rugs, he didn’t know which. The walls were done up with unassuming, muted green wallpaper, and the moulding and ceiling varnished wood. Bookshelves lined the perimeter of the space, punctuated by a stone bust of an unknown man, a display case of historical medical implements, and a vase on a pedestal that contained what appeared to be live flowers. That particular fixture was of utter fascination to Veera, and with a squeeze of her hand she left Russell’s side to examine them.
“How strange and beautiful,” she murmured, testing the delicate petals of the orchid with her fingertips and giving the plant itself a curious sniff. As she did so Russell watched her closely, and in turn the ship’s psychologist, one Doctor Lamont, watched him. It had been impossible to miss the soldier’s stone-faced expression upon his arrival, but seeing it soften was both curious and reassuring to the medical professional. That the alien spoke english with apparent comfort was also a pleasant surprise.
“Do you not have flowers on your world?” He asked gently.
“No, we do not,” Veera replied. “My husband tells me that our forests are like those of the northern reaches of your planet. Pine trees?”
“Yeah, those are the ones,” Russell affirmed. “That specific type of flower there is an orchid.”
“It’s wonderful. I’m sorry for interrupting,” Veera offered.
“My dear, please! We are here to talk, and unless the two of you have somewhere else you need to be I see no reason why we shouldn’t begin with flowers,” Lamont replied before looking about curiously. “The Admiral informed me that I should expect a rather...unusual guest, as he put it? Given that it does not seem to be an alien I cannot help but wonder.”
‘That would be me,’ Io offered, utilizing the speaker concealed in the ceiling to make her presence known. ‘Due to the lack of projection technology in this room you will simply have to take my word for it. My name is Io. I used to be Lieutenant Winters’ VI partner and I am now his best friend, AI companion, and solemn holder of the trials he has faced while on Mara.’
“And that is, of course, the other reason we are here,” Lamont acknowledged, gesturing to a couple of chairs and a chaise lounge straight out of a twentieth century psychologist’s office. “Please, do make yourselves comfortable wherever you like. I will ask our esteemed Admiral about this apparent leap forward in human technological prowess another time.”
Veera, being a lover of soft things as with most of her species, was happy to be seated upon the recliner, though she did not lay back. Russell didn’t seem to mind, instead choosing the least comfortable looking chair in the room as Lamont was seated on his own, wheeled out from behind his wooden desk. He had a pencil and notebook in hand.
“You don’t mind, do you? I prefer the old ways.”
“Whatever works for you, doc,” Russell replied stoically.
“I presume you would not enjoy hearing how I am here to help you and that I am someone you may consider a confidant?” Lamont offered.
“Not when I know damn well everything said here is going to be a matter of semi-public record at my tribunal hearing,” the soldier said sternly.
“Russell! He’s just here to help!” Veera interrupted. Doctor Lamont watched and waited as the human looked at the alien that claimed to be his wife.
“It’s more complicated than that, Veera,” he eventually said.
“You are here to help my husband, right?” The Cauthan rounded on Lamont. He nodded.
“I can assure you I am, Veera. However, the fact that this is a military matter does, as the Lieutenant said, complicate things. I am required to report to the Admiral my personal evaluation of his mental state, fitness for duty, and to opine on the events that have brought us all to this juncture. But when this is over, Lieutenant, know that my door will remain open to you in confidence.”
“Yeah let’s just…can we get on with it?” Russell requested. The feeling that he was somewhere outside of the HEL despite knowing very well where he was did not sit well with him.
“We may indeed. Veera, Io, I would like to ask the two of you to stop me at any time should you feel the need to interject or pose a question. However, I would also request that you allow the Lieutenant to speak uninterrupted. Is that acceptable to the two of you?”
“Yes,” both Veera and Io replied, the former feeling her feathers rustle slightly. There was something off about the situation, something that made her nervous. She didn’t think Doctor Lamont a threat, but there was no denying that he was something other than a friend. She would have preferred Russell be speaking with Antoth.
“Thank you. Lieutenant I have already reviewed your files up until your arrival in this system when the Lancer was destroyed. Your combat actions and evaluations during that mission were retrieved so we need not address those matters unless you feel it necessary. Do you think you could start at the beginning and tell me about the important things that happened to you since you arrived here?”
Winters took a deep breath and rested his forehead on his thumb and two fingers, rubbing his head for a moment before looking back to the psychologist who was waiting for him patiently. “Yeah, might as well get this over with.”
“I still can’t believe you named an alien bat Steve,” Private Orlova groused as she and the rest of her squad left the armory after almost two days on Mara. They could have remained far longer, but Natori had insisted that they return to the ship to exercise, eat, and otherwise maintain a semblance of their normal routine. He had assured them that they would be given an opportunity to explore the Forge once the research teams were prepared to actually enter the structure, and that Steve the aquila would be well cared for in the camp while they were gone. The question of diet had been taken up happily by a handful of the Event Horizon’s crew, given that research on the Forge and the rest of its surroundings would have to be painstakingly conducted in a systematic manner. Tracking down various plants and insects to see which ones a scaled bat preferred to munch on was practically chaos by comparison. Rex laughed as he locked away his skull-painted helmet
“You’re just jealous because you didn’t think of it first. I’m starving guys, should we see what Gus has cooked up? Should be just about lunchtime.”
“Always thinking with your stomach,” Mendes remarked, earning him a punch in the shoulder.
“Don’t act like you’re not. Lipp?”
“What am I, your boss? Go ahead if you want! The Admiral said our next brief will take place tonight, probably just a review and discussion of future plans. Science is so damn slow.”
“Which is why we are soldiers and not scientists,” Natalya concluded as the four of them stepped out into the hallways of the ship, only to be met by a very peculiar pair. A victorious grin spread across Lipper’s face.
“Well well well, if it isn’t the fluffer nutter. I don’t think we’ve ever met personally,” he said more than loudly enough for Winters and Veera to hear. The Omega Jumper had been taking his wife on a tour of the ship following a lengthy review of his stay on Mara. There had been discussion of the good, but the focus was on things he would have rather forgotten: Jess’ death, the crew’s funeral, the raid, and the slaying of the ursae. Io appeared in his visor immediately, clad in her barbarian armor and having already painted her face with blood.
‘If you don’t, I will,’ she informed him. That comment earned her a glare from Russell, who silently walked up to the four Jumpers. He was the tallest.
“That’s First Lieutenant or Sir to you…Sergeant,” he growled, making a show of looking Lipper up and down. His face showed he was none too impressed. Lipper scoffed.
“Do you see the Admiral around here? Cause I sure as hell don’t, Omega. I’ve been down on that planet. I ain’t scared of you, and I sure as hell ain’t kissing the boots of a guy who spend the better part of a year sitting around in the sun and fucking the locals.”
A thousand and one retorts came to Winters’ lips, many of which Io was supplying in rapid succession and a few of which had come from his teenage years and Alice. Instead he turned his back to them, a blatant display of fearlessness, and walked away, taking Veera by the hand. “Let’s get out of here before I kill one of them,” he told her evenly. Veera couldn’t help but look over her shoulder at the squad of four. The woman and the shortest among them, a man with bronze skin, looked concerned. But the other two who looked more similar to Russell had gleeful expressions on their face.
“Hey cutie, if you ever feel like bedding a real man I think Private Mendes over here is feeling pretty open minded after being planetside,” Lipper called out, taking the opportunity to rib one of his own at Winters’ expense. Veera tore herself away from Russell and marched right up to them.
“I know what laying with a man is like, and need only glance at you to know you would not satisfy me in the slightest!” She yelled hotly, bringing a truly surprised look to the Sergeant’s face for the first time. Behind her it was Winters’ turn to smile viciously with a watchful eye as Veera continued her tirade while Rex muttered ‘shit, she speaks English?!’.
“I would rather be set upon by a pack of hyrven than lay with you. You are nothing more than a cub at his first harvest festival who thinks only of himself, and I feel bad for these other three humans who are forced to follow you,” she asserted, understanding easily enough that the four humans in front of her were like her husband in terms of their training at least, and that Lipper was their commander.
“I’m not going to ask twice. You take that back,” the Sergeant warned.
“Oh, and now you’re threatening a primitive female? How manly and brave of you,” Veera taunted, well versed in the art of verbal sparring after spending more than a few cycles with the town's guard force.
“And were it not for us, your primitive little village would have been wiped off the map!”
“Lipper, that’s enough man! Jesus Cristo,” Mendes insisted, watching Russell like a hawk. The look in his eyes gave the Private chills.
“That’s Sergeant to you, Private Mendes!”
“And my name is Veera to you, human! You are no better than the Ghaelen who threatened us. Just another petty chieftain!”
The next events of the next few seconds seemed both an instant and eternity to Private Orlova, who up until that point had remained silent. The moment Lipper’s hand shot out and wrapped around Veera’s wrist the Omega Jumper leapt to action, clearing the distance between him and their group with frightening speed. Veera’s heart hammered, slamming into her chest as her body reacted the way her inner animal wanted her to. She wanted to hurt the human who had so insulted her husband and her people, but again and again Russell had taught her to play to her strengths and an enemy’s weakness. The sad reality was that Lipper was far too large for her to win a fair fight. But she knew that just once, and only once, she would have the element of surprise. After all, he clearly saw her as a zero on the threat scale. With a snarl, Veera swiped at him, knowing he would likely stop her. When he did, she twisted and danced, trying to circle behind him while moving his arms into a less defensive position. It was mostly unsuccessful and she cried out in pain as a couple of her feathers were irrevocably bent in the wrong direction, but the momentary opening was all Russell needed.
‘VENGEANCE!’ Io roared with unabashed bloodlust, encouraging her partner. Both Veera and Natalya gasped as Winters slugged Lipper so hard the cracking of his jaw was audible. The Sergeant’s grip on Veera went slack as he crumpled to the metal floor in a heap, releasing her to find a safe distance as the situation spiraled out of control.
“Oh you’re fucking dead, Omega bitch!” Rex roared, taking a swing at Winters that the Jumper was clearly ready for.
“Any day, Beta Boy. Who or what are you overcompensating for, you walking slab of meat? Maybe your sorry excuse for a commanding officer?” Russell taunted, squaring up as punches began to fly. Rex wasn’t holding back in the slightest, but that didn’t matter to him. He’d seen all of his moves before.
“You aren’t gonna look so hot when you’re out cold on your ass,” the Beta Jumper insisted, throwing a vicious uppercut that Russell was forced to block, hardening his core as the follow up blow landed. The pain was good. He laughed.
“So they’ve got Howles training Beta now? What the fuck did he do to deserve that?” Winters jabbed, making reference to one of the men who had shaped his own development as an HEL soldier. Slowly he shifted into the combat style of Antoth and his men. There was no point in fighting like a human, especially when the Jumper in front of him was fighting the way he was, a proficient carbon copy of several HEL instructors. “Seen it,” he quipped, ducking under a left hook before rolling backwards to avoid the uppercut that had laid him out on the second day of Jumper training. Rex was good, he had to admit, and the man was strong, but he was not innovative.
“Fuck. You!” The Private roared, landing another couple of brutal but not debilitating hits. Russell shrugged them off, continuing to dance around Rex as the dull, bludgeoning pain awakened his senses. He was reminded of his fight with Kaha at the harvest festival, though he opted for a much different resolution. When the next punch came he blocked with both hands, forcefully pushing a hole open in Rex’s guard and sending his head through it. With a roar that would have made Antoth proud, Russell crushed Rex’s nose with his own cranium. Completely unprepared for the nature of the attack and resulting pain, Rex staggered long enough for Winters to grab his head and force it down into a vicious strike from his knee. Two more similar strikes to the Beta Jumper’s diaphragm had him on the ground coughing like he was about to choke up one of his own lungs, unable to breathe through his horribly contorted nose. That was when Russell rounded on Natalya with fury in his eyes. It had been a long time since he’d taken or dished out such brutal hits against other humans with no rules.
“Russell! Stop this!” Veera tried meekly.
“Not interested,” Orlova scoffed, arms across her chest as she looked over the men with disgust.
“You think I fucking care?!” Winters roared. “I thought you were supposed to be a Jumper!”
“I’m going to have to insist we dance instead, Lieutenant, though I admit I’m not nearly so attractive as Natalya,” Mendes interrupted, grabbing Winters’ arm in a competent grapple that forced him to turn away from Veera and Orlova. “In my country we all learn to dance from the time we can walk. You’re quite the partner.”
“I’m going to enjoy grinding you into dust, Private,” Winters snarled, a carnivorous smile on his face as the two men circled for a moment and then clashed, grappling and wrestling as Veera finally composed herself enough to attempt to finish what she started.
“Io!” She yelled. “Stop them!”
“What in the world is Io?” Orlova demanded.
‘Oh very well. I guess we’ve already taken out half of them,’ the AI groused. ‘And Mendes was polite enough. I’d hate to see him die.’
“IO! And get Antoth too!” Veera insisted, terrified that Io’s joke might possibly come true. All she had wanted to do was put an uppity human in his place. She could barely hear Io over the grunting of Mendes and Winters as they toppled to the ground in some perverse imitation of a scrum between guards.
‘That will be more difficult, but I’m on it…’
“Io, a pleasure to see you! Has Lieutenant Winters finished his evaluation? What are you up to now?” Natori wondered as the beautiful woman appeared on his display. To his shock and confusion she quickly dressed herself as something out of a metal show back on Earth, or perhaps Halloween.
‘THE ESTABLISHMENT OF DOMINANCE!’ Io roared, causing every human on the bridge as well as Qul’Roth, who was working back into his old routine, to stare at her with open mouths. ‘No seriously, my Jumper is kicking the shit out of your Jumpers. Get down to the armory now.’
Natori was halfway to the door before she finished. “Turnwell…I may need another coffee later.”
“Not a problem sir,” the First Mate replied sympathetically.
“Envoy, please leave violence to the humans,” Kaczynski insisted before turning his back and sprinting off. The Ghaelen nodded to himself.
“I believe I’ll do just that. Perhaps I can pay engineer Prakash in hydroponics a visit?”
“Anytime you want to quit, just say it,” Winters gasped for air, slamming his fist into Mendes’ side. The Brazilian Jumper had him in a surprisingly firm chokehold, but it was costing him dearly.
“Not on…your life,” Mendes grunted. Russell was about to promise just that when a booming voice filled the corridors.
“That is enough!” Admiral Kaczynski roared. “Lieutenant Winters, Private Mendes, opposite walls, now!”
Exhausted and not wanting to push their luck, the two men did just that, standing on each side of the corridor as Alice of all people looked on from Naotri’s wrist-mounted device. “Admiral, what’s going on? You said the hail was urgent? I found Antoth. Ratha is here as well.”
“I would like to know that myself,” Natori muttered darkly, looking around to find Lipper unconscious, Rex clutching his abdomen, and the two women standing by. Natalya was explaining to Veera that they should not move Lipper due to the potential of aggravating possible injuries to his head or spinal column. “Veera, Natalya, I would like the two of you to explain what happened here.”
“Yes sir,” Natalya replied, pushing Veera gently forward with her. “You will not be in trouble, Cauthan. Speak the truth only.”
It took not five minutes for the story to be derailed the moment that Veera revealed that Lipper had laid his hands on her.
“Veera!” Ratha yelled, barging into view on the projection from Mara that hovered above Natori’s wrist. “Get over here now!”
“Ratha, what the hell are you-”
“Shut up, scarface! When you’re rightfully furious you can come back. Until then I will defend my people since you refuse to! Veera, let me see your feathers now. Where did he grab you? This vision is blurry!” Out of respect for her leaders and not wanting to make more of a fuss, Veera held out her arm. “It hurts, doesn’t it?” Ratha asked quietly, placing her nose as close as possible to Alice’s display.
“Of course, Ratha. That does not mean I intend to cry about it,” Veera replied, peeved at being treated like a cub. The hallway fell deathly silent as the Huntress ‘rounded’ on Natori.
“You, human chieftain! You will execute the male who laid his hands on her or I will; make your choice!” They could all see the angry flare of Ratha’s crest before Antoth reprimanded her.
“Don’t you dare! She is one of us, Antoth! You cannot allow this to stand! If he were one of our kind you would be flogging him in the square right now! They will never respect us if they do not fear us.”
“And when you are Sun Priest you may choose to rule by fear if you think them the same!” Antoth boomed with barely contained rage. “Until then you will remember yourself, Huntress. Admiral…your soldier has put me in a very difficult position.”
Natori cast a glance at Lipper’s body, assuring himself that at least his chest was rising and falling. An alert popped up in his inbox. “Io, not now.”
‘I believe this will be necessary when this is all finished,’ the AI replied simply before stepping back out of the projection. He saw she had composed a shipwide email with a text file attachment. It was marked highest priority. Natori pinched the bridge of his nose. A headache was forming there as Mendes and Winters looked on with morbid interest. If anything, Russell was more shocked than the Beta Jumper. Ratha had treated Veera as one of her own.
“Antoth, if Sergeant Lipper were one of your people, what would happen to him?” Natori asked fearfully.
“Death!” Ratha shrieked.
“GET. OUT!” Antoth’s voice somehow grew louder still.
“We are in my temple, you unbearable mate of mine!”
“OUT!” The Sun Priest seethed as Ratha drew her knife and waved it at the screen. Alice felt like running as fast as her legs could carry her.
“I will not forget this, human,” she warned before storming off, her pregnant belly doing nothing to diffuse the aura of malice surrounding her. Both Natori and Antoth breathed a sigh of relief.
“Admiral, while my mate is out of line she is…correct. Your question? If a male of this village were to proposition a mated female and then harm her…the kindest I could do for him would be flogging him within an inch of his life with a barbed flail. Most would demand exile or execution. Both are death sentences, one just takes longer than the other,” Antoth explained in a deep, regretful voice.
“Antoth, really it’s just a couple feathers,” Veera spoke up with fear in her voice.
“No Veera, it is not just a couple feathers,” Antoth corrected her kindly but sternly. “In that, Ratha is also correct. You are one of us, you are of breeding age, and you have suffered harm.”
“By God,” Alice could be heard whispering.
“Antoth, I take responsibility for my soldier’s actions and beg your forgiveness. This is my mistake,” Natori stated immediately, watching as Lipper finally stirred to life. Natalya moved to his side, forcing him to remain still and to not speak or move his head.
‘The medical teams are already on their way,’ Io assured Kaczynski as Rex finally pulled himself into a seated position. She knew that grace in victory was her prize to claim, and that human literature almost universally rewarded those who accepted triumph with humility. Kaczynski continued to entreat the Cauthan for his soldier’s life.
“Thank you. Antoth, I will be honest with you. Out of respect for your people and way of life I have kept all details of your village and culture hidden from all but a handful of my crew. These soldiers were not among that number and did not know of your customs. I had hoped that this could have been done slowly, easing our two peoples together with minimal disruption. I was wrong. Io appears to have compiled a compendium of knowledge on your way of life for all of my crew and insists I send it out immediately to prevent any further misunderstandings, especially of this nature. On behalf of my people, and given that your own came out very much the victor here, I implore you to show mercy,” Natori pleaded. “And don’t you move a muscle, Sergeant. We will speak when this is all over.”
Antoth’s low, rumbling laugh soon could be heard coming from Natori’s device. “Admiral, you lost the possibility for minimal disruption the moment you sent Alice Winters to us. Half of my farmers decided to leave their fields this morning to examine the trinket she made for Thantis. Many clamor for their own…”
“Antoth, I’ve been trying to explain to them that unless their vision is poor they don’t…yes, I’m sorry, not the time or place!” Alice squeaked, falling silent again as Antoth took her by the shoulder. She walked with him through the temple of Valta until they found Ratha in the midst of gutting a chesko that had been felled that morning.
“What?” She spat.
“The human chieftain pleads for mercy, Ratha,” Antoth spoke firmly. “And in light of the services of both Winters siblings to our people, just this once, we will grant it. Admiral, I need assurance he will be punished according to your own species’ customs.”
“You have my word,” Natori agreed immediately as Io nodded sagely just offscreen. “The disciplinary actions will range anywhere from manual labor, to solitary confinement for a period of time, to a potential loss of his command position depending upon the evaluation of a tribunal. You have my profound thanks, Antoth.”
“When he recovers,” the Cauthan grunted disdainfully as Ratha held her tongue, apparently appeased by Natori’s plea. “Tell him that Alice saved his life.”
“I will do that, Antoth. Unless there is anything else?”
“No, but I will think on this and speak with you another time,” the village head promised. “Alice Winters, my gratitude for your haste in bringing this to our attention. You appear pale.”
With an unadulterated sigh of relief, Alice killed the connection and left the rest of them alone in the corridors just outside the armory. The Admiral looked between Mendes and Winters. “Both of you have latrine duty for a week. Lieutenant, do the Cauthan have an equivalent?”
“Outhouses, sir.”
“Then you may serve your sentence on Mara if you choose. Private?”
“Sir,” Mendes replied, making no protest. He was the only combatant left standing from Beta and knew the punishment was token. Whatever else needed to be said between the two men was conveyed silently, evinced only by a curt nod from Natori.
“And since you’re both awake now,” Kacznski said with acid on his tongue, looking between Rex and Lipper. “If your own broken bodies and egos are not punishment enough…I will see to it that justice is served in this matter. I wonder, Sergeant Lipper, if you ever imagined being saved by a civilian when you joined the Jumper corps.” The Admiral’s pointed musings were cut off as a medical team arrived with two stretchers. He issued orders at once, describing the injuries reported. With that information in hand, the medics loaded Lipper and Rex onto the beds and carted them away, one of them shining a pen light into the Sergeant’s eyes to check for concussive damage. “Mendes, Winters, I assume the two of you can make it to the infirmary on your own power?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Get checked out and then report to me in my quarters, Lieutenant. Private, consider yourself dismissed once the medical team clears you. Private Orlova, your team will remain aboard until further notice. I would get comfortable.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now everyone who is a human, get out of my sight,” Natori gave his final order, watching as Winters, Mendes, and Orlova saluted and departed. “I am very sorry, Veera. Do you require medical attention for your feathers?”
“Ah no, it’s fine. A simple knife will suffice. What’s going to happen to Russell? He didn’t start it! I-”
“Io no doubt has the entire altercation recorded and at the ready. Oh, and you can send that message, Io,” Natori approved, sighing as every crew member aboard the Event Horizon was given mandatory reading. “Would you care to join me in my cabin? I would like to speak with you, if I might?”
“And to think I started today learning about flowers,” Veera lamented, though her statement caught Natori’s attention as Io and he shared a look. With a nod they bade one another farewell. He figured she might be checking on her body’s progress.
“Perhaps we could continue with that instead?” He suggested. “If you wouldn’t mind a further tour of my ship?”
“Ah…no, I suppose not?”
“It will just be while we are waiting for your husband, I assure you,” Natori said, reading the look on Veera’s face easily enough. He wondered if the shaking feathers meant fear or something different. “Io, when the Lieutenant is cleared please send him to hydroponics bay number seven. Thank you.”
‘Of course, Admiral. I look forward to devising a redoubled training schedule for your…I guess we can still call them Jumpers. Perhaps the rookie guard force would be more appropriate sparring partners?’
And so Io left Veera and Natori in silence, having made it quite clear that just because she helped run his ship and let him in on her secret cyborg project, she was in no way, shape, or form on ‘his side’ when it came to the inevitable frictions between Omega and Beta.
“Oh dear, I think I know that look. Sentaura, I apologize but I’m gonna have to step away for a tick,” Lachlan informed his Cauthan host, peering over almost harvest-ready crops to see a rather distraught looking human looking right back at him. She was wearing a pair of durable pants and a white tank top. Sentaura walked to his side carefully, avoiding both her plants and the occasional fungus that shared the soil.
“Is there something wrong?” She demanded.
“If it’s somethin’ that would be affectin’ you or your boy you’ll be the first ta know,” he promised.
“Then go to her. I managed well enough before you came,” Sentaura insisted. Lachlan wondered if her tone and choice of words were a subtle compliment or a trick of the translation program. Permission ‘granted’, the Marine dusted his hands off and moved swiftly to Alice’s side where she promptly hugged him for dear life.
“Rusty got in a fight. A bad fight!” She sniffed. “Veera was there too!”
“Woah woah, hold yer horses there pretty lass. Why don’t we start from the beginnin’?” Lachlan insisted, placing an arm around her shoulders and leading her away from the well populated fields. In addition to not wanting to cause a scene, Lachlan figured the shade of the trees would be preferable. Not to mention it was where he had stashed his canteen for the day. He offered it to her and she accepted readily.
“Already picking up on some local tricks?” She teased softly, tilting her head back and allowing some of the water to trickle onto her tongue. “Hey, there’s…oh what the heck is it called…”
“Sentaura called it niacta root,” Lachlan supplied as Alice snapped her fingers.
“That’s the one! Xan totally got in trouble with Thantis for mixing too much of it into a draught for the guardsmen. Apparently if you go overboard it’ll numb your lips and throat for a while, at least if you’re a Cauthan. Super refreshing though, right? Lachlan, Rusty beat the shit out of Lipper and the others!”
Lachlan felt as though someone had smashed him upside the head with a mallet, and he was sure it showed on his face. He ran his fingers along the trail of his moustache and sizable beard before seeking clarity. “What do ya mean he beat the shit outta four Jumpers?”
“Look, all I know is that I got a call from Io desperately telling me to get Antoth. She said she couldn’t reach you!”
“Oh shite…that musta been when the tyke ran off with my helmet!” Lachlan groaned. “Do ye have any idea how fast those little legs can run when they don’ wanna be caught?!”
“I forgive you because you’re the best human dad on Mara,” Alice managed to smile before returning to her dour disposition, running a finger along the side of his canteen. “By the time I found Antoth and Ratha it was over. Lipper was on the ground, out cold. Rex looked like he could barely breathe. Veera and Natalya were watching as my brother and Mendes were wrapped up in some stupid MMA style crap. That was when Natori finally broke it up and things went bad.”
“Lassie, what do ya mean Lipp and Rex getting destroyed wasn’t the bad bit?” The Marine demanded in a quiet tone.
“The moment Antoth and Ratha found out that Lipper had touched Veera…taunted her and my brother, apparently bent a couple of her feathers. That Huntress started screeching like a banshee that Lipper had to die. I thought she was just being hormonal and pregnant until Antoth agreed.”
“By me grandmum and all else that’s holy, what do ye mean he has ta die?!” Lachlan yelped. Alice shook her head sadly.
“Remember when we first came down here and Veera warned you about touching her?”
“How could I forget?”
“Well apparently, Lipper committed one of the worst possible crimes as far as this village goes. He propositioned a married woman, even if it was surely just a crass joke. He touched her, and she sustained injury.”
“So what did the head fuzzball have ta say about all this?” MacGregor wondered. Alice snorted at the idea of anyone calling Antoth a fuzzball other than perhaps Io herself.
“He said that if Lipper were a Cauthan the best he could hope for is being flogged within an inch of his life with a barbed flail. His words, not mine,” Alice gasped. “But more likely the sentence would be exile or execution. Natori basically had to get on hands and knees, metaphorically speaking of course, to save him. It wasn’t enough.”
“What the bloody hell! Yer tellin’ me they…” MacGregor tempered his anger as Alice hugged herself and began crying, tearfully searching for the record of the conversation. She finally found the segment she’d been looking for.
‘Tell him that Alice saved his life.’
“What did he mean by that?” Mac wondered quietly.
“Be careful, please!” Alice implored, compelling the Marine to pick himself up and sit down at her side, giving her a shoulder to lean on. She indulged immediately. “I know how kind and thoughtful you are, just please be careful. Lipper was just picking another stupid fight and it almost got him killed. If you believe Antoth, the only reason he’s being shown mercy is because I got some glasses for Thantis! I didn’t want this, any of this!”
“But aren’t ye happy we’re here instead o’ somewhere else?”
“I know Mac, it’s just…saving people is what my brother is supposed to do. I just wanted to study them and be a part of this for a while! They all seemed so cute up until now.”
“Are ye havin’ second thoughts?”
“No…nothing like that. I just suddenly feel as though there’s a weight on our shoulders we didn’t ask for.”
“That’s just a part of bein’ a soldier, lass. So don’t ye worry about me one bit. And I’ll be here farmin’ these weird mushrooms an’ cucumbers if ya need anything.”
“What is...what is wrong with you?” Alice demanded as she devolved into a giggling fit.
“Do ye have any idea what it’s like fer a country boy ta deal with HEL food fer so long? She’s a bloody good cook, Alice.”
“Oh no…not you too!” The woman tragically moaned. “Just like my brother. I’m sure Veera lured him in with her cooking and then sunk her talons in deep!”
“Now yer just havin’ a go at my expense,” Lachlan pointed out happily, resting a tentative arm over her shoulders. She didn’t seem to take issue.
“Thanks Mac, you’re the best. So, have you decided to pay Cromwell a visit yet?”
Lachlan, who had just taken a sip of water himself, promptly sprayed the contents of his mouth all over the forest floor before coughing and spluttering. “I thought we were here ta talk about yer problems!”
“And what better way to take my mind off the fact that I apparently saved a Jumper from barbaric execution than by gossiping about the pilot who clearly wants to jump your bones?” Alice questioned devilishly. Mac leaned his head back against the tree they were seated against in defeat.
“Alice, I barely know her. I ain’t gonna sleep with her.”
“Oooh, you know me! Are you going to sleep with me?” She pressed. The silent, horrified look he sent her way was enough to have her clutching her side in stitches. “Ok, I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”
“Yer not sorry one bit!” He insisted. “But yer a damn good friend, Alice. And I’ve been around the block once or twice. I know that even best friends can…have things come between em once sex gets involved.”
“Wait, are you saying you’ve…you know, thought about me…like that?” Alice squeaked, suddenly feeling shy and quite aware of the fact that Lachlan was holding her.
“Is it that strange? It’s not like yer an unappealin’ lass,” Lachlan replied seriously. “But like I said, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing ta do. If ya feel the need we can talk about it another time, Alice. I don’t think now’s best.”
“Yeah, yeah you’re right I just didn’t know you…I’m making it weird, aren’t I?”
“You could always say ye find me horribly unattractive and that would be that!” The Marine suggested. Alice looked up at him.
“Except then I’d be lying. But you’re right, Mac. Now is definitely not the time and…yeah, I would hate it if something wrecked whatever it is we have right now. Just…thank you so much.”
“Aww, it’s nothin’! I’m just glad Lipp gets to keep his head. Damn hot head it is too, always bound ta get him in trouble one day. Yer brother didn’t go easy on him I bet.”
“How did you know my brother won just fine?” Alice questioned.
“Other than you tellin’ me? Are ye kiddin’ lass? Lipper and his squad are well trained, but yer brother’s killed. If ye believe the stories he’s done a fair bit o’ killin’. My money’s on him, always. But let’s not dwell on this any longer. Ye said in that letter yesterday you fixed up the ol’ death priest with transition lenses? Why don’t ya go say hi and show him how they work? Perfect day for it.”
“And I’ll let you get back to farming,” Alice chuckled, standing and brushing herself off as Lachlan followed.
“I gotta earn my keep!” Lachlan agreed heartily, waving to Sentaura as they returned from the forest. The Cauthan had been watching them closely. She hummed to herself, pleased that he seemed to have found himself a mate. He was nice enough for an alien.
“Mmm, so that’s how it is. How curious!”
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[The Nothing Mage] - Chapter 101

New? Start here!
Into the wilds, ’tis time to flee, We follow where he flies. The Nothing Mage such danger brings, To hear their sorry cries.
-The Saga of the Nothing Mage
Two men stood together in a dark taiga, watching on as a third sobbed over a reddened corpse. Though the frigid wind should’ve set them both shivering, the cold could touch neither of the onlookers. An eerie silence hung in the air, as if the scene was missing a sound which so desperately belonged.
“You killed her,” Charlie said.
“I know,” the nothing mage replied. He didn’t look away. Though his heart screamed he turn and run and hide away from the visage before him, the man looked on. Tears streaked down his face.
“You killed me too.”
“I did.” He welcomed this pain. He’d wrought it, after all. How foolish he’d been to ever try and escape it. “I’m sorry.”
“I forgive you. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Oh, but it was. Years had passed since that fateful day in the streets of Red’s Crossing, and never once had Declan uttered those words. Not to him.
“I’m sorry too,” Charlie continued. “I was stupid and childish and cruel, and I never should’ve threatened you like that. Not with magic.”
He swallowed, “It’s ok. You didn’t deserve to…”
“Neither did she.”
Declan nodded. “Neither did she.”
The two watchers fell silent as the weeping man finally stood, his eyes red with tears as were his hands with blood. Her blood. In a flurry of spell-casting, the mourner conjured a spade of ice reinforced by wood and stone. With a breath, he got to work on the soft ground.
Declan longed to help the man. Twice before they’d buried friends together, and though time and circumstances had forced them apart, the throbbing ache in his chest wouldn’t deny the simple fact that he’d loved her too. But he couldn’t. The nothing mage was unwelcome here; both men would have to grieve on their own.
It was slow going. In spite of the frigid air, beads of sweat joined the tears dripping down the digging man’s cheeks.
Declan watched him toil in silence, his own face just as wet as he witnessed the true devastation he’d caused. Such was the price. He couldn’t say precisely when the snow began to fall. It was far too early in the season for such weather, but something about the drifting specks and the sudden spots of frigid moisture wherever they struck his skin felt right. The sky wept with him.
His breathing calmed when Charlie wrapped an arm around him, the chill of his icy touch overcome by the warmth of the gesture. For hours they stood like that, watching the mourner dig as Declan took whatever comfort he could from Charlie’s closeness. It wasn’t until the grave was finished and the corpse found its final resting place that the boy pulled away.
The nothing mage twisted to look at his childhood friend. An orchid, its petals white as the falling snow, sat clutched within his grip. Charlie held it out.
With a nod, Declan claimed the proffered flower. He swallowed. The nothing mage turned back towards the open grave. He approached, his passage leaving a trail of footprints in the thin blanket of new snow. He looked her in the face once he arrived. She’d been beautiful, once.
As his vision blurred from the moisture in his eyes, the nothing mage reached out, extending his fist over the hole. “I’m sorry.” He opened his hand, and the orchid fell. It seemed to drift down, much as the snow did around him, before finally coming to rest atop the girl’s remains.
Declan breathed. “What now?”
Charlie met his gaze, sympathy in his eyes, “Now? Now it’s time to wake up.”
The sun had already risen when Declan left his shelter the following morning. He’d lingered in the dark box for some time in hopes of allowing his eyes to recover from the night’s tears. It was better if he didn’t give Daniel a reason to ask questions.
“Good morning!” the redhead greeted from the other side of a roaring campfire.
Declan squinted at the brightness of the day, “Morning.” He gestured at the small stack of burning twigs, “Is that a good idea? What if someone spots the smoke?”
Daniel shrugged, “What if someone spots the smoke? Maybe they’ll have a bedroll I could trade for. Not like there’s any people out here anyway.”
Declan cocked an eyebrow. Right, he thought, Daniel hasn’t been running from the army all this time. He looked around at the grassy tundra surrounding them. “Where did you even get the wood?”
“Back in the woods.” He pointed up at Edward, “If I’m gonna be lugging him around anyway, I may as well throw a few days’ firewood on with him whenever I find it.”
The nothing mage opened his mouth to ask why the redhead didn’t simply cast a heating cantrip before remembering how inconsistent Daniel’s mana was. Channeling a spell long term probably wasn’t wise.
“Anyway,” he continued, reaching into a pack behind him, “do you want some jerky?”
Declan accepted with more than a little enthusiasm. Chewy and tough as the dried meat was, it was still meat. Neither the dry breads from the Storm Court nor the assorted vegetables from Croveus Manor could sate that particular craving. He was happy to avoid carving up the beasts which hunted him, if only because he had no idea how to go about doing so. Daniel’s jerky was a welcome change.
He made it halfway through his breakfast before a familiar muttering began once more.
“I see Edward made it through the night.”
“He always does,” Daniel replied. “I’m pretty sure at this point he’s just refusing to die. Whatever messed up shit he sees when his eyes go all purple won’t let him.”
Declan thought back to Freddy ending Sarah’s suffering with a swift spell, as well as the fact it was something they’d apparently discussed beforehand. He shuddered. “Have you ever thought about…? I can’t imagine how much pain he’s in.”
“Every day. Especially when he’s keeping me awake at night. Trouble is, he’s the only reason I’m here. If I put him out of his misery, I’ll wind up arriving at this ‘focal point’ of his with no idea what I’m supposed to be doing there.”
“Isn’t that a bit callous?”
Daniel shrugged, “It’s the truth. Besides, he clearly wants me to take him there. Far be it from me to kill him before we arrive.”
Declan nodded, tuning out the muttering as he wondered if the Fae pulled Edward’s strings or their mysterious adversary. Daniel had another idea.
“Oh, he’s on one of his newer ones if you wanted to listen.”
Curiosity piqued, Declan waited as madman finished up the latter lines of the verse before looping back to the beginning.
“The stars align, the planets shift,
Their walls are split in twain.
Behold, behold, the syzygy,
Now we shall feast again.”
“Well that’s not particularly useful,” Declan commented, taking the moment to write the verse down anyway. “We already knew the syzygy meant something bad.”
Daniel turned up his hands, “Have any of his verses been useful?”
“Good point.”
“On that note,” the redhead pushed to his feet, “we may as well be off. No point sitting around all day.”
Declan followed his lead, gathering up his supplies and burying the campfire with a simple earth spell. As they began their first day of traveling together, Declan’s mind turned over Edward’s verse. Though it contained nothing new about the syzygy itself, the final line told him something about the poems themselves, specifically the word ‘we.’
It seemed to imply Edward’s ramblings were from the perspective of these mysterious invaders. Declan wondered what that meant. Were they manipulating him directly? If so, it might explain why he was so eager to bring Daniel to the focal point.
Then again, it was entirely possible the strange mutterings were not random visions, but carefully chosen words designed to illicit a particular reaction from Declan. Divines knew he might not have listened to Lady Elsia and the Deep Fae if he hadn’t already been listening to vaguely prophetic ramblings from Edward.
In a way it made sense for the poems to be from the Fae. The Folk were, after all, natural violet mages. Perhaps this all was just another way for them to manipulate him. Declan didn’t rule it out. Still, it remained equally plausible that the invaders had invaded the Edward’s mind just as they had the minds of beasts.
He recalled the healer in Belstead, and his mention of an abnormally mana-charged tumor on the violet mage’s brain. He shuddered to think he’d made the manipulation possible, whatever its true source.
Declan resolved, in the end, to analyze the verses as he could but not to act upon them for the time being. Not that there was much he could do, but he figured the information they contained was the opposite of trustworthy. He’d been manipulated too many times to believe the words that easily.
Two hours in to their day’s trek, Declan took over Daniel’s position pulling the handcart. He lasted all of twenty minutes before his arms ached and his hands began to blister. The hills especially, shallow as they were, challenged him. Forty minutes into his turn pulling the Edward and their supplies, Declan turned to magic.
With his expansive reserves, he could balance and drive the wooden cart for hours without running dry, but he was loath to do so. He’d heard enough tales of monsters in the south to allow himself to fully deplete. Instead he handed the cart back to Daniel whenever his mana pool reached half capacity, allowing the redhead to take up the slack while he recharged.
By the time the sun had arced past its midpoint in the sky, Declan had a newfound respect for his fellow anomaly. The fact Daniel had managed to pull the cart through the bloody Gindalts truly astounded him. When he said as much, Daniel merely shrugged.
“You get used to it, I guess. Maybe I’m just stronger than you.” The sly grin on his face and the confidence of the comment left Declan little choice but to admit defeat.
“If you weren’t before, you are now.” He gestured to the slope of the hill they currently climbed, “I could hardly make it up this slope.”
Daniel laughed, “There’s the upside of all this then. I’ll come out of this ordeal able to lift a horse.”
Declan replied with a chuckle of his own, “Why would you ever want to?”
“Think of how many tavern bets I could win. Or the women. Ladies love a strong fellow.”
“Tavern bets? I thought you wanted to be a respected magus researching history.”
“What’s the point of having a respectable career if I can’t spend the money at the tavern?”
Declan shrugged, “Hells if I know.”
“That’s bloody right. I grew up in a tavern; I’ll be damned if earning magus keeps me out of one, respectable or otherwise. Towers are nice and all, but they’re just not the same.”
“You’ve just gotta find one with a Tavern in it. The Climber’s Reprieve was a nice enough…” Declan trailed off as he stepped high enough on the gentle hill to see what lay in the valley beyond. “Well shit. What’re the odds?”
Daniel caught up, peering over the hilltop just long enough to break down laughing. “Just when—” he wheezed, “just when I was complaining about the Towers…”
Sure enough, just ahead—and below—them stood the shortest Tower Declan had ever seen. His eyes widened as he too let out a laugh. “It’s gotta be Tower Baspil,” he said, “any other and we would’ve seen it miles away.” There was something off-putting about seeing a structure he was so used to dominating the skyline not even surpass the height of the hills around it.
“Shortest Tower known to man. Five floors total, including the two below ground.”
Daniel shrugged, already taking off down the hill, “Sounds to me like a warm place to spend the night.”
Declan couldn’t help but agree. Even though the sun hadn’t quite begun to near the horizon, there could hardly be a more auspicious place to sleep. If nothing else, the Tower’s magically impenetrable marble meant he wouldn’t have to spend the time constructing and enchanting a shelter of his own.
Besides, Declan appreciated the opportunity to spend the evening alone.
Daniel set the cart to rest at the building’s base as he tugged open the thick door, eager to investigate the uninhabited Tower. Declan followed, already prepared for disappointment.
As he expected, the first floor held only a door to the monster habitat and the stairs up and down. Indeed, the ground floor of Tower Baspil looked identical to that of Tower Krispins—unadorned and barren. The two mages climbed together to the top floor, finding it as empty as the hundreds of unused floors they’d known at Tower Vestriam. It was, altogether, rather uninteresting.
“Ah well,” Daniel sighed, “it’s still a roof for the night.”
“It—uh,” Declan said, “it would probably be better if we slept in different areas. Just in case I…”
“Right, right. You can sleep up here, Edward and I will take the landings.”
Declan’s eyes widened as he mentally compared the small landings with the massive empty floor, “Are you sure?”
Daniel shrugged, “I’m not about to lug the madman all the way up here if that’s what you’re asking. Just put him to sleep again like you did last night and I’ll be fine.”
“You have a deal.”
The nothing mage spent the following thirty minutes getting the others settled in on the ground floor landing, sharing a nice meal with Daniel, and casting Brian’s anesthetic on Edward.
When, at an early hour, he retired up to the room he’d commandeered for the night, he made a point of carrying his pack and lute up with him. He knew Brian wouldn’t expect the sound of lute practice to travel through the Tower door, so it made the perfect excuse for his true activity,
Once he’d secured the oaken door behind him, Declan sat directly on the cold marble, leaning up against the wall as he dug through his pack. A flash of grief echoed through his chest as he pulled out the bloody tome.
He didn’t quite know why he kept the notebook hidden from his traveling companion, but something about their chance encounter so close to the syzygy disquieted him. Declan supposed he’d have to share news of their shared mentor’s death eventually, but he was determined to have all the facts first.
So, with a goal in mind and an evening to spend, Declan pulled open Leskelian’s notes and began to read.
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Back to Victoria (Steelshod 429)

Hey there!
I don’t post these daily anymore, so just in case you’re a newcomer and you’ve never seen a Steelshod post before… click here to start at the beginning
This is the latest chapter out of several hundred, and I don’t think it will make much sense without context. This isn’t an episodic story so much as one long narrative.
Hopefully, you’ll enjoy yourself, and I’ll see you back here in good time. If not, no big deal. But I think if you start here you’re going to be very, very lost.
Table of Contents – includes earlier installments, maps, character sheets, our discord server, and other documents.
First | Previous | Next
World map
Here is a general lore doc including character profiles and here is a basic roster showing who’s where, and who is a PC: Steelshod Roster!
Note for Binge-Readers: This is generally live-updated to reflect the current state of the game! Hopefully if you’re binging you can keep better track of who’s going where, because you just recently read about them going there.
The Road to Victoria
As I mentioned before, we’re now pivoting to the team that was just recently assembled.
We realized that we don’t want to temporally get out of wack, and we don’t know how long the team will take in Victoria, so we decided to play it out a bit there and see what happens.
So this is the team that Aleksandr & Yorrin just dispatched back to Victoria to try to secure Victoria’s entry into the Coalition
Specifically, their goal is to “fix” Victoria’s problems with the violent Wncar clan called the Fáinne de Bharraí, or “Collar of Thorns” in Middish.
Most likely, by killing the current leaders.
Particularly the druid Partholon, the one that turned a bunch of monks into trees.
The man that James vowed to gift a large amount of antimony—and also vowed to kill.
Aleksandr has dispatched a large group to deal with them. You can check the roster for the full list.
Short version is they are led by Cara, entrusted with overall command as one of the most trusted and reliable subcommanders beneath Aleksandr & Yorrin.
The present PCs are Felix, Zelde, Agrippa, and Cyril. And James. So that’s two each for the guys and one for me.
Perrin & Prudence are here too. As is Amos.
Levin and Orson, too (though Orson is mostly here to take care of Felix & Cara’s baby girl, Felina, and does not intend to join the fighting)
Evan and Gerald, Bear, Ben… Drengi and a lot of Ulfskennar. It’s quite the team.
They are stacked especially in scouty, outdoorsy types, and heavy hitters.
A team that should be able to navigate dense woods and kill anything that they find there.
As well as, oddly, Borthul— who specifically asked to go in order to see if this Partholon is the sorcerer James thinks he is. He’s particularly curious about the people turned into trees part of the story.
The team followed Aleksandr to Karim to get some upgraded gear and the antimony shipment. Yorrin was able to source about thirty pounds of antimony, which is a considerable amount of the fairly rare metal and will hopefully be seen as sufficient to satisfy their promise.
(As we review the amount, I read over Partholon’s sheet to figure out why he even wants antimony in the first place. Remember, u/bayardofthetrails is the one that designed this druid bad guy.)
(Then I see it, and my jaw drops. “Holy shit,” I say out loud. Yeah, the thing Partholon uses antimony for only uses about a tenth of a pound, so thirty pounds of it will provide him with three hundred... uh, “uses.” Yeah. That’s plenty.)
So they hit the road, James’ saddlebags loaded up with thirty pounds of antimony.
They are a week or two behind Gwynneth, the Sons of Victory, as well as Francis Atlee-Kinsey and the Victorian Hawks.
But they’re all mounted, so they make pretty good time as they backtrack through the Underpass and push hard north towards Victoria.
They’re a good sized force, bristling with menace, and they are not harassed on the road to Victoria.
They make good time and soon enough they cross into the territory generally considered to belong to the Free City.
When they’re maybe an hour out from the city itself, they see a small group of riders approach on the horizon.
Just five figures. Too small to be a threat.
They watch the group approach, and when they’re still a good distance out Cara soon identifies them as Wncari. Collar of Thorns.
Not hugely shocking, but Steelshod does wonder amongst themselves how these guys found them so fast.
Do they have scouts watching the road all up and down Victoria? Plenty of the terrain has been open rolling hills, without a lot of places to hide.
Zelde suggests that maybe they are being watched by magic.
James agrees immediately. That makes sense to him.
Felix scoffs. “Oh, what, this druid can turn people into trees and watch us through every blade of grass?”
Zelde nods enthusiastically. “Ja!” She says. She spits in the grass to demonstrate her displeasure at this sorcery.
Borthul interjects to say that he’s never heard of sorcery that would led a man see through grass
Zelde shrugs, says she has heard of wizards seeing through animals, at least.
Borthul has to admit he’s heard of that, as well, but never actually met a sorcerer that could do it.
Zelde suggests Felix could kill every bird they pass, but this plan is not taken very seriously.
Their chatter and speculation dies down as the small group of Wncari grows closer
They are armed with bows, spears, and blades, but they are not menacing anyone with their weaponry.
James vaguely recognizes one of them as having been present at his final meeting with Partholon.
The man grins and greets James casually.
He introduces himself as Osion mac Danaan, one of the Laochra.
Cara steps forward to introduce herself, and Osion seems momentarily taken aback by her accent.
He asks where she’s from.
She gives him a level gaze and says “Steelshod.”
Osion shrugs. He says that he’s come to welcome them, and because he assumes James has the antimony that was promised.
Agrippa objects, says they were intending to deliver the antimony to the big man.
Osion has no idea what Agrippa is saying, however, since the Spatalian accent gives him pause.
James interjects, reiterates the point. They are to give the antimony to Partholon directly.
Osion says again that’s not really necessary, he can take it.
And it’s at this point that Cyril interjects, asking how they’re supposed to know for sure that Osion is even a representative of Partholon.
Osion blinks at yet another accent being thrown in the mix, though he has an easier time with Loranette than he did with Spatalian.
He at least follows along as Cyril objects that they can’t trust for sure that Osion is truly representing Partholon.
Osion objects, points out that James recognizes him, doesn’t he? He is one of Dolan’s men, and he follows Partholon, as he is one of the Daoine Fáinne de Bharraí.
“Collar of Thorns, to you,” he adds when he is mostly met with blank looks.
James shrugs. It doesn’t matter. He swore a vow to Partholon. Not just a vow, a blood oath.
So Partholon is who he is going to give the antimony to.
Osion sighs. He can’t argue with that. A blood oath is a blood oath.
Cyril suggests perhaps they could arrange some place to meet Partholon once they are ready to give him the antimony?
Osion is clearly struggling to parse Cyril’s accent. He frowns, and takes out a small skin of liquid. He chucks it to Cyril and tells him to take a sip.
Cyril frowns, but he sniffs it and identifies it as strong liquor. He shrugs and takes a sip. It is whisky, and strong
Cyril comments on the quality of the drink, and Osion sighs.
He admits that he hoped that the strong drink would clear out Cyril’s mouth and make him easier to understand.
Cyril rolls his eyes, and then puts on a fabulous terrible “frenchman trying to impersonate an englishman” accent as he says maybe he should try to speak more like a Middishman.
Zelde instantly brightens and says he is way easier to understand now.
In fact, several other members of Steelshod speak up. Ben strongly agrees with Zelde, as does Felix.
Cyril sighs, rolling his eyes that his joke has backfired. He mutters that Middish accents are absurd, and Agrippa quietly agrees.
Drengi and his ulfskennar watch all of this accent shenanigans with mostly blank looks.
This particular group of Steelshod really is an accent clusterfuck when we dig into it like this.
Nevertheless, Cyril takes out a wineskin of his own and passes it to Osion. The Wncar takes a sip, and now they’ve both shared drink.
Osion seems a little more open and friendly after that. Cyril asks if Osion knows why Partholon wants this antimony
Osion has no idea, though. The ways of sorcerers and druids are strange and mysterious, and if anything that goes triple for Partholon.
Agrippa comments that the main use he knows for antimony is as an aid for the expulsion of undesirable contents of one’s body by all available methods.
Osion shrugs, says he’s sure Partholon has some use for it. Maybe they’ll find out later, eh?
Cara cuts into the discussion now.
They’ve got business to attend in Victoria.
When they’re done there, they’ll find Partholon and give him the antimony directly.
She tells Osion and his people to go on their merry way and tell Partholon they failed.
Osion comments that Cara is a fiery lass, and obviously he likes it.
Felix advises him that he probably doesn’t want to go barking up that tree, as he might get bit.
But Osion just grins, says he might like that.
Cara just looks at him, deadpan. Then she breaks into a smile and beckons him closer.
Osion seems to consider for a moment, then urges his horse forward and leans in to try to steal a kiss.
Cara’s suckerpunch doesn’t take Osion off his horse, but it does bust his nose and leave him reeling in the saddle.
Osion spits blood.
Cara’s sudden movement wakes up Felina, who was swaddled close to her chest, and the baby cries.
Osion does a double-take when he realizes this—Felina had been so closely swaddled he had not noticed her.
He finally puts things together…
Wncari woman, in command of this company, married to a Middish, with a babe…
“You’re the fuckin’ heir to that new Wncari kingdom, aren’t you?” Osion says, shocked.
Cara just smiles.
Osion shakes his head. He’s clearly some mixture of shocked and amused at this turn of events.
Cara tells him to fuck off back to his master now.
Osion and his men finally fall back and head for the horizon.
And Steelshod continues on to Victoria.
At this point, we pause briefly.
We’re trying something a little different here.
Since bayardofthetrails knows the Victorian NPCs quite well, he will be GMing while we are inside Victoria.
He will decide what the Council does, how they react, what Francis Atlee-Kinsey decides, etc.
I will GM the game when they’re outside the city walls… even though Bayard invented Partholon, I would rather run the combat/danger sections of the game, and let him focus all of his energy on playing Felix and Cyril to the fullest in their attempts to stop the Collar of Thorns.
So, for now, Bayard takes over GMing. I play as James, primarily, though Bayard and I both jump in and out of the various Steelshod NPCs as needed. We both know them pretty well.
The city of Victoria stands as large and impressive as ever
It has impressive stone walls adorned with hundreds of spears.
The gates are open, but they do see a more substantial armed presence on the walls than the last time James was in Victoria.
The city slopes up and down as it sprawls across five small hills.
They soon cross the Argentum, a good sized river that flows along the southern side of the city and, many miles downstream, eventually merges with the Ironblood.
They’re stopped at the gates by some Victorian guards.
Cara greets the guards, which initially causes them to look even more guarded.
But she introduces herself and Steelshod, and at that point the guards seem to relax a little.
James rides forward and introduces himself, says they are following behind Francis Atlee-Kinsey and the Hawks.
The guard nods. He was expecting them, but Francis had left orders that they wouldn’t arrive for another week most likely.
Nevertheless, the guard says it is no problem. Francis left instructions that Steelshod was to be quartered within Fort Victory.
He happily escorts them within.
The streets are old cobbled Cassaline, busy with people that give this column of armed men a wide berth.
Soon after they enter the walls, before they reach their destination, two members of their company quietly disappear.
Prudence and Skogg discreetly dismount and disappear into the crowds, planning to take the lay of the city.
The guard doesn’t even notice, he just leads them on to the middle of the city.
Victoria—the city proper, that is—looks something like this
Fort Victory, their destination, is the old Cassaline legion fortification from the old days.
Long since repurposed into a general headquarters for the Victorian military—the Hawks, the Sons, and any other volunteer forces the city might field.
It is directly across from a large, grand building—the King’s Council
Originally built by the Cassalines as a grand temple to their gods complete with a beautiful amphitheater, it now serves as the center of government
The hundreds of Victorian councilmembers that make decisions for their strange little nation meet there.
For now, they skip the Coucil building and instead head inside Fort Victory.
It’s laid out like a Cassaline casta—because of course that’s exactly what it is. Or at least, what it was.
Hawks are posted up within the walls, but there’s plenty of unused space
They quarter their horses and they’re shown to the barracks.
The guard says that he will notify the Council and Francis of their arrival immediately.
Then Steelshod is left alone.
The decisionmakers waste no time, immediately sequestering themselves in a side room with a large table.
There’s a map on the wall, and they look it over.
It’s old, and probably outdated, but it still shows the lay of the land pretty well.
James studies it for a bit, trying to reconcile what he sees on the map with what he recalls from his journey out into the woods.
He realizes the treeline for the forests to the west looks way too close to Victoria on the map. The real treeline is much further receded than that.
This sort of makes sense, of course—that is, after all, Partholon’s biggest cause for his feud with Victoria. The destruction of what he called “The One Forest”
James taps on the map where he thinks the treeline really is, and Cyril draws out a piece of chalk and makes a few marks on the map.
When James mentions that the destruction of the forest is a major inciting issue in this conflict, though…
Cyril wonders aloud if perhaps one way to demoralize or drive away the Collar of Thorns might be to simply begin burning down the forest.
Everyone hesitates at that.
Some voice objections of various kinds. James in particular says that while he very much intends to take out Partholon, he would rather not create a situation where every member of the Collar of Thorns is incensed to vengeance and violence.
Cara, surprisingly, actually sort of agrees with Cyril
Insofar as she thinks James is dreaming… the Fáinne de Bharraí are a very nasty sort of Wncar. They keep to “the old ways” and they have a long and bloody history
They even have a history of violence against Cara’s own clan and the other clans of the hills, when they felt slighted.
Her father told stories…
Generations ago, the Fáinne de Bharraí were rather like the Briste ar Feach of southern Caedia… their druids were dark sorcerers with traditions that went way back.
And even more recently, when they were called “the Broken Collar” rather than the Collar of Thorns. When they seemed self-aware of their own fallen glory.
Even then, they were fierce and vicious. Some twenty years ago they tried to rise up against the Victorians, and they made a bloody show of it. It came to naught, but it was… messy. Cara’s people heard of it even in their own hills.
If they’ve reclaimed their old name… they’re fired up. Partholon might be the cause of it, a source of power and courage… but she doubts this ends with him.
Cyril nods. So then, he wonders… what would placate them? What is it that they want?
Is there any hope of resolving this without slaughtering the Collar of Thorns to a man?
James reiterates that he’s pretty sure what they want is to restore the “One Forest” that used to cover this whole land.
Which… given Partholon’s ability to transform men into trees… and given the huge population of Victoria… might actually be achievable. If they were to successfully conquer the city.
But that’s a big If.
As for whether or not they can be placated… Cara doubts it. The Collar of Thorns is not likely to accept a solution like the one her father did.
The Fáinne de Bharraí see the clans of Cara’s homeland as soft. Civilized. Barely a step above Middish.
Just about the only clan in Cara’s hills that the Fáinne de Bharraí saw as truly keeping to the old ways was the Cuig Dorn… and that’s the clan that likes to go into battle naked, and covered in woad.
So no, they won’t be nearly so eager to take on the role of “nation” the way her people did.
Cyril observes that Partholon is not a madman, though. Not just a zealot. The existing armistice is an obvious sign that he is capable of diplomacy, strategic planning, and rational decisionmaking.
Cara agrees… but none of that indicates that he’s going to be willing to coexist peacefully with the Victorians.
The best she thinks they can hope for is… fear, or something like it.
Kill Partholon, maybe kill the warchief Dolan, and maybe any number of additional lieutenants. Until whoever assumes command is too afraid to keep fighting.
Maybe delay this civil war for another thirty years or so.
Agrippa points out that they also need to keep their eyes peeled for chimeras and any sign of Unferth.
If Partholon is a sorcerer, possibly with ties to the Thaumati, then it’s highly likely Unferth could have found him and made contact.
They have to assume the possibility that Unferth’s creatures will be at large in the forests, possibly working “under” Partholon so long as such is useful to Unferth.
This brings the topic back to fire, as well… Cyril’s plan to burn down the forest is nicely consistent with Agrippa’s observation that fire is known to be an effective tool against Thaumati magic and chimeras.
Agrippa and Cyril, strangely, seem to be very much on the same wavelength.
The strategizing goes on for a while.
Eventually, Gwynneth pops over, having ducked out of the Council meeting early.
She greets everyone and they spend some time picking her brain about the Collar of Thorns, specifically their tactics, since she’s fought them before.
She gives a brief rundown… they favor night attacks, they tend to operate in thirteen-man parties, they favor ambushes.
She knows a few bits of information, but nothing earth-shattering.
Then Gwynneth fills them in on where the Council is at so far.
Unsurprisingly, they are not eager to break the armistice.
They don’t want to pick fight with the Collar. They want to take the year, build up their own armies, train up more of their people to fight.
Which is understandable.
Albeit frustrating.
Steelshod considers their options… what can they do without Victoria’s aid, and without taking actions that end up breaking the armistice against Victoria’s wishes?
James recalls the exact terms of the deal.
A year of peace between the Collar of Thorns and Victoria
James personally vowed to keep that peace, but he did not speak for Steelshod
He also vowed to bring Partholon all the antimony Steelshod could reasonably acquire
And, finally, James recounts how he threw in one last vow, bound in blood the same as the vows Partholon had demanded.
When he swore that he would kill Partholon for his crimes, and for the murder of the monks.
So yeah.
Technically Steelshod could go this alone.
They could pick a fight and claim Victoria isn’t involved.
Though whether or not the Fáinne de Bharraí will see it that way is… tenuous at best.
Though Partholon seemed quite set on precise wording of the oath. And the oath did not include Steelshod.
So this loophole might legitimately work.
As far as how Steelshod will wage this war, though… that remains to be seen.
They are, after all, maybe forty or so fighters.
Gwynneth says there are several thousand Collar of Thorns out there according to Victoria’s best estimates.
Steelshod is good at rough odds, but even so those are atrocious
At this point, Perrin speaks up.
He asks James to clarify… the peace he negotiated was for Victoria, or for Victorians?
“For example… Tiny and Lioness are Victorians. But they’re part of Steelshod, not representatives of the city-state. Can they fight?”
James confirms that it was Victoria, the nation. Not all Victorians, who he surely could not speak on behalf of.
Perrin nods. Good, good.
“So then! It seems to me,” Perrin says “That before we head out we ought to spend a day or two here in the city and… do a bit of hiring.”
There are a lot of snickers at that.
Victorians are, as everyone knows, all free men. No serfs here. Every man the king of his own little castle.
So they’re free, individually, to hire onto Steelshod and join this fight.
Gwynneth winks and says she thinks she knows a bunch of folks that would happily work for Steelshod on the cheap.
In fact, she calls out to Tiny and asks him to go find Garth. James recognizes the name—Garth Luttrel is a veteran of the Sons, the guy that Oliver was practicing axe-fighting with when they were here last time.
Tiny ducks out to go get the old fellow.
Gwynneth turns to the others and adds that she thinks more than just the Sons could likely be scrounged up for some coin.
And several of the members present are flush with coin.
Perrin agrees to take the lead on trying to hire folks.
But if they want to be able to present this face to the Collar in a plausible way that keeps them off of Victoria, then it may not do to be based out of Victoria.
They look over the map, trying to scout out their options.
One thing Perrin also asks about—scattered throughout the Midlands are some derelict Cassaline ruins that are not maintained and well-kept by lords.
Collapsed forts or watchtowers, ruined walls, and the like
Cara agrees—her people used to love using such places when striking at Caedia.
She also recalls not that long ago when Felix and Zelde tracked some bandits near Farrowell to one such ruin.
So… are there any such ruins near Victoria or the forests that perhaps they could use?
Gwynneth points a few out.
She also points out the most fortified township in the region outside Victoria itself
A walled town called Ronald’s Basin.
She believes a good amount of the folks may have evacuated into the city, or at least they were supposed to.
Might be a potential fortification they could use out there.
Overall, the Victoria region looks something like this
The One Forest is split by the Argentum, and the Victorians have their own names for both sides of the forest.
So the North Forest & South Forest on the map are the territory of the Collar of Thorns.
Around this point, Francis Atlee-Kinsey arrives.
He tells them that they’ve been arguing over an unrelated matter, which is what held him up
As far as Steelshod and the Collar of Thorns… he basically repeats what Gwynneth already basically said.
The Council doesn’t want to fight yet.
If Steelshod somehow solves this issue for them, however, they might.
Francis isn’t sure if the Council will join the Coalition, but he can say this much: As commander of the Hawks, if Victoria is no longer worried about the Collar of Thorns then he personally will ensure a good number of his men are sent out to support Steelshod as a thanks.
He has that much authority, at least.
But the overall city-state still seems divided.
Francis is, reluctantly, in favor of the Coalition.
Dorothea Brownell, the other single most significant councilmember (and usually Francis’s archrival), is actually also in favor of the Coalition
Again, assuming the Collar of Thorns is dealt with.
But a lot of the smaller influential members are skeptical.
They are skeptical of the main claims… of Unferth, of the chimera, of the scale of the threat.
Francis admits he is skeptical too
But he saw the monks turned into trees with James. He heard credible reports from trusted members of the Sons that told the story of the avatar of Taer.
Francis has seen enough strangeness recently that he is willing to believe their outlandish tales of Unferth.
And if even half of it is true, he is on board with the plan. Unferth is worth dealing with.
But the Council isn’t so sure.
Skeptical of the claims, and also skeptical that they can’t simply weather whatever is to come the way they always have.
Victoria is a defensible city. Self-sufficient. Protected.
They just aren’t willing to commit to anything yet.
Cara shrugs.
In the end, none of this matters much.
Yorrin & Aleksandr gave her orders.
Solve this problem, then win over Victoria.
Even if the latter doesn’t work out, she still intends to do the former.
Partholon has enough of Unferth’s stink about him—or something like it—that she knows Yorrin will want him dealt with regardless.
So that’s their goal. The rest of it can wait.
Francis seems to appreciate Cara’s blunt approach.
When he hears that they are planning on hiring Victorians, he seems more amused than perturbed.
He says they cannot hire his Hawks, as they are considered an official standing army for the city. If they were involved, there’s no question it would be a violation of the oath with Partholon.
But any other citizen of Victoria is free to hire on if he so chooses… even Gwynneth’s Sons, potentially, since they often serve as mercenaries for neighboring kingdoms.
So while Francis can’t provide any tangible support, he tells them he’s happy to answer any strategic questions they might have.
They pick his brain a little.
In the end it’s mostly stuff Gwynneth already told them. They fill him in on anything he didn’t know, stress some of the reasons that VIctoria should join the Coalition, etc.
He confirms that the three Cassaline fortifications best positioned for their purposes are, according to his scouts, all occupied by Collar of Thorns warriors.
So if they intend to venture out and want a base of operations with defenses in place already, their best bet will be to fortify in Ronald’s Basin.
The only other thing Francis mentions that catches their attention is that his scouts have reported that they have not seen as many signs of the wolf packs that normally rove in the North and South Forests.
That worries everyone.
Agrippa immediately voices the fear they all have—that this means Unferth is already involved.
Drengi says that when they get out there, he and the other ulfskennar can try to make contact with the wolf packs.
That draws a lot of weird looks.
He clarifies—ulfskennar howls can communicate with regular wolves.
He thinks this is sort of obvious—did anyone not know that?
It’s not like wolves have long and fun conversations or anything
But their howls mean basic stuff… who are you, this is our territory, go away, let’s mate
Ulfskennar can imitate those messages, and can at least try to coax wolves to respond the way the would to a rival wolfpack.
Drengi also reminds them that he and the other bersarks can usually smell the stink of chimeras from a good ways off.
If they’re here, he will know.
Their conversation with Francis winds down.
He advises that Steelshod send a representative to the Council in the morning, though, just to state their case.
For now, he takes his leave.
Steelshod settles into their barracks quarters.
After a while, Tiny shows up with Garth in tow.
Gwynneth has told him that he should work with Steelshod, and he’s happy to “hire on” as a merc
He says he’ll handpick a score of other Sons to hire on as well, and venture out when Steelshod leaves Victoria.
Around this point Prudence and Skogg also return from scouting the city.
We roll a Spymaster check for Yorrin, to represent Steelshod-sympathetic rogues operating in Victoria for Prudence to contact.
Prudence uses her Tier 14, A Little Bird Told Me, which allows her to spend 5 points of Yorrin’s Spy Network for her own benefit, and gain what I’ve termed “deep intel” about a person, place, or thing.
Basically, some sort of borderline-unreasonable bit of intelligence she’s found from somewhere.
In this case, Prudence is investigating the name she heard from the previous report given by James and Oliver.
“Athos” — the mysterious operative that seemed to be in Victoria last time they were here, and was quietly operating to stall or stop James & Oliver.
Prudence doesn’t learn Athos’s true identity or employer. That would be too good, in both my opinion and Bayard’s (and remember, he’s still GMing right now, so it’s his call)
But Prudence has learned some valuable facts.
Athos apparently approached the wrong group in the underbelly, inadvertently trying to hire some Yorrin-loyal thieves to work against Steelshod’s interests.
They declined, and tried to keep tabs on him.
So what they know, and pass to Prudence, is that Athos is still in Victoria… for now at least.
But he seems to be rolling up his operations as we speak. He seems to realize he’s been blown, or else he’s achieved all of his goals
One way or the other he seems to be preparing to skip town.
Prudence isn’t sure where he is exactly, though.
But she has some eyes out there watching for him.
So that’s… news.
It’s not really good, or bad. They are optimistic that it’s good, and Athos will get out of their way
But they’re also worried it might mean he’s already done what he wanted to do, and perhaps poisoned the well against Steelshod or who knows what else.
Nevertheless, it is what it is.
After Prudence’s report, everyone bunks down for the night.
In the morning, they will head in to meet with the King’s Council
And try to convince the most fractious, argumentative, and difficult governing body in the world that it is in their best interests to join Steelshod’s Coalition to fight a war half a world away.
Alright folks, that should do to kick off this next little arc. I have maybe one or at most two more posts worth of material to write up. We’re still in this arc at the moment, though. I think it will be a nice mix of politics and deeply scary violence in roughly equal measure, when all's said and done.
I hope you’re all staying safe and doing well. Until next time!
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(PART 2) Italics through the Wise Man's Fear

I posted the first part of this before but if you didn't see that, these are all the italics from Wise Man's Fear and the Name of the Wind. It could be useful for some code or just if you're interested. This is the second part obviously. Here you go:
The Wise Man's Fear's Italics:
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[Translation] The Libero's murderer: how Arrigo Sacchi revolutionized tactics and built the best team of all times.

-"How was Italian football before Sacchi?" -"Like now."
Just two words are enough for Arrigo Sacchi to disarm your face-to-face strategy and leave you out of the game like a beginner. Three words that, however, do not strictly correspond to reality. They are only half true. Only by digging deep into his footballing imagination can one discover how the man who built one of the greatest teams of all time is able to disregard his legacy and blur it in the timeline of the evolution of the beautiful game in Italy. Despite his modesty, there is no doubt that Arrigo Sacchi and his Milan team mark a turning point for Italian football, although from the manager's point of view it is not a turning point but a mere parenthesis. Italian football changed during his time on the bench, but recovered its natural course as soon as he stepped off the pitch and into the offices. "Clearly there has been some change, but not like in the rest of Europe. The televisions have made us see that a different kind of football is being played. 'They've changed all over the world except in Italy,' Costacurta told me a few years ago when we were watching the Italian U-21s against Denmark," explains Sacchi. What are the reasons for this lack of evolution in Italian football? Sacchi is able to recite them with the confidence with which a surgeon points out the ills to be removed. "In Italy, you don't know what the merit is, you just want to win. The fans and the journalists don't ask for the show or the fun, they ask for the victory. -And then how do we seek this victory? -We seek it in the way we know best, through cunning or the art of achieving what we set out to do. Then, our football is a football that costs to be updated and to evolve". Like a wharf which, however much you stretch, returns to its original form, Italian football always tends towards its most primal concepts. And to find the origin of those concepts, you have to do some archaeological work until you get back to the embryonic stage of football in Italy.
World football is roughly divided into four schools. First we have the direct style which was born in England and is still representative of British teams nowadays. Then we have the cheerful, colourful and lighthearted way of life that the Brazilians have been able to bring to the pitch to the height of artistic movement. Thirdly, there is the Dutch philosophy. The so-called total football with which Rinus Michels overtook Herbert Chapman's WM team to surprise the world, generating an idea of play that still has imitators, as is the case of Barcelona in recent times. Finally, we find the Italian style, baptized under the term of Catenaccio, which means lock in Italian. A nomenclature, by the way, quite illustrative of the ideals of the game. In its most basic concepts, the Italian is a football mostly defensive and disciplined, where the result prevails over any commitment to aesthetics. In line with Niccolò Machiavelli's 'Prince' ("the end justifies the means"), Italian football has always assumed that anything is permissible as long as victory is achieved.
Ironically, Catenaccio has no Italian parents. It is not clear who invented this style, but none of those who claim paternity were born in Italy. According to the accomplished historian Brian Glanville, the Catenaccio was invented by the Austrian coach Karl Rappan during the first half of the 20th century. In the 1940s, Rappan developed a tactic that the press christened Riegel (lock, in German) and consisted of having one of the five men on the WM front line move in behind the three defenders. The job of this sweeper would be to keep an eye on the opposing forwards who were running away from their marker. Helenio Herrera, however, not only proclaimed himself the inventor of the Catenaccio but claimed to be the first player to play the role of a sweeper. "It occurred to me when I was playing in France," explains the Argentine coach, as Simon Kuper relates in Football Against the Enemy. "We were playing with the WM formation then," continues Mago Herrera, "and in a game where we were winning 1-0 with 15 minutes to go, I left my position to get behind the defense. I had these ideas in my time as a player and when I became a manager years later I remembered them." Glanville believes Rappan invented the Catenaccio, Nereo Rocco introduced it to Italy and Helenio Herrera perfected it. Whether it was one or the other who invented it, both versions agree that the key piece of this style is the figure of the Libero. Without it, there would be no Catenaccio.
The success of the ultra-defensive Inter Milan during the 1960s, which razed Europe to the ground with two consecutive European Cups (1964 and 1965), made the Catenaccio the book that rested on the bedside table of any self-respecting Italian coach. Anyone who wanted to win had to resort to defensive football. Nereo Rocco's triumphs with Milan in the late 1960s and Giovanni Trapattoni's triumphs with Juventus in the 1980s did not invite the idea of an alternative. That was the context in which a discreet footballer who had not managed to get out of the lower ranks of Italian football decided to hang up his boots to become a coach. At just 26, Arrigo Sacchi sat on the bench for the first time. At Baracca Lugo, a team in the neighbourhood where he worked as a shoemaker. "I was 26, my goalkeeper was 39 and my striker was 32. I had to win them" It was the start of a rise to the elite with stops at Bellaria and Rimini and the youth teams of Cesena and Fiorentina. But fate awaited him at Parma, with whom he would achieve promotion to Serie B in just one season and leave him three points behind the top flight of Italian football. During that season, a 1986-1987 Italian Cup play-off would change his life forever. He would beat AC Milan by the smallest of margins, playing a game that caught the eye of the Rossoneri's top executive. It was on that night that Silvio Berlusconi was enthralled by Arrigo Sacchi.

01. "The birth of Sacchi's Milan"

Silvio Berlusconi had recently became the owner of Milan. After a failed attempt to take over Inter Milan, he ended up buying the Rossoneri on 20 February 1986, ready to build the best team in the world. Although Milan did not seem to be the most suitable club to do so. The golden years when Europe was painted in red and black had already long survived only in the history books. In the early 1980s, Milan was going through its most traumatic period. Former president Felice Colombo, members of his board and some players were involved in the 'Caso Totonero' (blackjack), the illegal betting and match fixing scandal that rocked Italian football in the 1979-1980 season. As a result, Milan were administratively relegated to Serie B and began a dark period from which they could not escape. Despite the arrival of stars such as Paolo Rossi, top scorer in the 1982 World Cup in Spain, or the hiring of symbols such as Nils Liedholm to the bench, Milan did not get off the ground again. Berlusconi would become the end of Rossoneri's troubles. He took over from Giuseppe Farina in the presidency, brought optimism to the stands, millions to the coffers and, above all, a new philosophy for the team. He set himself the goal of becoming the best club in the world by always opting for attacking football that would be attractive to fans. To achieve this ambitious goal, he relied on the coach he had fallen in love with when he faced him in the Italian Cup. He trusted Arrigo Sacchi.
An unknown, with no past as a footballer, he was in charge of one of the most successful teams in Europe, making front-page coverage in the Italian press. The headslines that considered Berlusconi's gamble to be wrong were multiplying. They accused him of losing his mind. It was too shocking that someone who had not previously been a professional footballer should take over one of the giants of Italian football. That was the first obstacle Sacchi encountered in his promotion to the elite. It was a rare thing at the time. Ottavio Bianchi coached Napoli, Rino Marchesi coached Juventus, both of whom had a history with the Italian national team, and the illustrious Giovanni Trappatoni, who was a European champion in Rossoneri colours, sat on the Inter Milan bench. However, Milan's fate was in the hands of a rookie who was not known for his footballing skills. Replacing a myth like Liedholm didn't make things any easier either. Sacchi defended himself as his Milan would later, knocking out the critics with a simple phrase: "I didn't know that to become a jockey, you first have to be a horse".
Despite the doubts of the surroundings, there was total confidence in Arrigo Sacchi at the club. Silvio Berlusconi gave his new manager full powers to build a team to suit him. "My work at Milan is made possible by a great club. A club that was positively impressed by what I did at Parma, that believed in a few things and followed me completely. They even threw out some players who were undoubtedly valuable, but who were not functional and others who were not professionally as I wanted them to be," says the Italian coach. Sacchi does not give out any names so as not to reveal the identity of these non-functional or unprofessional players, but to draw your own conclusions you need only look at the list of players who left Milan that summer in 1987. Agostino Di Bartolomei set out for Cesena despite being the player who had played the most matches the previous season. Dario Bonetti, Ray Wilkins and Mark Hateley, among others, followed the same path.
But the key of that summer was not in the departures, but in the arrivals. Sacchi marked a clear line in the transfer policy. "I believed in ideas and work," says the Italian coach, "and to do this I needed to have reliable people, people who were enthusiastic, generous, a culture of professionalism, perfectionists, and we looked for these kinds of people. Then, that they were functional to the technical project we had in mind and that they were complementary to each other." It was within these parameters that Sacchi brought Walter Bianchi and Roberto Mussi with him from Parma, requested the signing of Carlo Ancelotti and was given two top stars by Silvio Berlusconi's checkbook: Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. The former arrived from Ajax in exchange for 1.75 million euros. For the second, 13.5 million was paid to PSV Eindhoven. Both would become the totemic symbols of their Milan. "Van Basten was the best, but Gullit was the emblem. Without being the best he was the one who helped me the most", Sacchi confesses. Together, they formed the basis of the team along with promising youngsters such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Roberto Donadoni. Frank Rijkaard, the Holy Trinity's companion from the Rossoneri tulips, was not due to arrive in Milan until the following summer.
After a summer of avoiding criticism and disdain while transmitting to some heavyweights that they should make the suitcase, Sacchi managed to build his Milan and this had its first test in official match in the Coppa d'Italia against Bari. The business card could not have been better. The Rossoneri won 5-0 with goals from Donadoni, Virdis, Van Basten, Gullit and Massaro, and that 23 August 1987 has become a holy day in the history of Milan. It was the moment when the team that changed the destiny of the entity was born. Three days later it would beat Como, then Monza, and then make its Serie A debut with a win over Pisa. Milan had become a machine, from the beginning, that was very difficult to stop. Disappointments such as the early elimination from the UEFA Cup against Espanyol and some unexpected results injected doubts in Berlusconi, who even flirted with Johan Cruyff to give him the Rossoneri bench, but negotiations with the Dutchman did not bear fruit. Sacchi held on to his position and ended up building one of the best teams in history.

02. Milan's tactical analysis.

Sacchi's avant-garde ideas were the reconstruction of tactical values not only in Milan and Italian football, but also had a great impact on the world stage. His tactics marked a complete break with the style that was being imposed in Italy and, therefore, also in Europe. It was a tactical revolution and, as such, it required some sacrifice. Marat's death set fire to the French revolution and the assassination of Martin Luther King accelerated his 'dream'. For his own revolution, Arrigo Sacchi murdered the Libero. The Libero represented the icon of the Catenaccio, the figure with which the hitherto unquestionable WM formation was overthrown to create a new style in which defensive concepts were varied. "Italy has a defensive mentality in general, not just in football. For centuries everyone was invading us. When I arrived, most of the attention was on the defensive phase. We had a libero and a line of markers. The offensive phase was left to the intelligence and common sense of the only creative element in the team, the number 10," he says in 'Inverting The Pyramid'.
Sacchi changed everything. He abolished the law of the sweeper to form a very forward four-man defensive line that was perfectly synchronised to zonal marking and managing offside when necessary. Franco Baresi was in charge of the back line and marked the line over which the rest of the defence was to be deployed. Such a forward defensive line meant that spaces were reduced, providing a key safety net for the other two lines to push the opposition's ball out of their control. Thus, if an opposing player crossed a line, he immediately crashed into the next one. "We wanted to get the ball back as quickly as possible," says Sacchi, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. However, every move of that pressure was totally studied. To the extent that there was a false pressure, like the striker: "Sometimes we practised a false pressure. We pretended to put pressure, but in reality we used that time to recover our strength".
That kind of defensive work was the first necessary condition for a footballing bet that depended solely and exclusively on ruling the game through possession. Without the ball there was no plan. So it was necessary to get it back as soon as possible. In a way, it was a reinvention of Rinus Michels' total football. "We had the presumption, also the hope, of knowing how to do everything. We wanted to get the ball away from our opponents quickly and when we had it, we wanted to know when to have possession or when to play a vertical game. We defended by attacking, by running forward," explains Sacchi, "and when we had the ball we knew when we had to play upright or, on the contrary, when to pass backwards, change sides." As he talks about his tactical ideals, Sacchi seems to have moved into the dressing room for a moment. He looks down, forgets about the camera, the focus and even the journalist in front of him, and stands in front of an imaginary team he's coaching before a game or during a training session. He speaks without resting. Having a tactical conversation with Sacchi is the perfect metaphor for the game that Milan played on the field: he takes possession, monopolises the words and leaves hardly any space for the interlocutor to interact. He is the unequivocal master of the dialogue and one can only shut up, listen and learn. "We trained believing that pressure was important because it allowed us to grow our self-esteem and personality and impose on others a rhythm of play they were not used to. We also tried to condition them when they had the ball. But when we had the ball we had to know how to manage it and understand if it was time to play vertically or start again with the ball, change the game or change the zone. It was a team that I think knew everything and was played by excellent performers, with a great club behind them. We had the interpreters and they were all functional. For me, they were the best players in the world, all 18 of them. I knew that wasn't the case, but I wouldn't have swapped them for anyone else," he concludes, before taking a breath. By way of false pressure, we intuited.
Paradoxically, that Milan that needed the ball so much to represent their football ideas on the field, often worked out without it. The ball was not a usual assistant in Milanello, training center of the Milan team. Sometimes, Arrigo Sacchi designed purely theoretical work sessions in which the players did not even need to jump onto the field. At other times, he encouraged positional play and Sacchi forced his disciples to show him where they should be on the pitch depending on where an imaginary ball was. The coach would walk around the pitch and the players would have to correct their position with millimetric precision. His tactics revolutionised Italian football to the point where the foundations of the game were called into question. Italian teams were divided internally according to the characteristics of their players. Some had the responsibility to defend and others were in charge of attacking, being exempt from running backwards. With Sacchi, although this had already happened with Michels, both parties merged to reward the block. They all ran to get the ball back and they all represented basic pieces in the creation of attacking football. With Sacchi came the supremacy of the group over the individual in the Serie A.

03. Opera Prima

Sacchi's Milan reached its peak in the European Cup. During his time on the Rossoneri bench he gave Silvio Berlusconi a Scudetto, an Italian Super Cup, two European Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and, above all, two European Cups. But, above the titles, key moments are remembered, matches in which Milan was consecrated as one of the best teams of all times. Probably one of those matches was the one that pitted them against Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the 1988-1989 European Cup. Sacchi was facing his second season at the head of Milan. After winning Serie A, he had to export his success to Europe, where Berlusconi's most coveted ambition lay: the European Cup. After beating Bulgaria's Vitosha Sofia (2-7 on aggregate), Red Star on penalties and Werder Bremen with a solitary goal from Marco van Basten in the second leg, he would face Real Madrid in the semi-finals. Although the Merengue players barely remembered those European Cups that Di Stefano won in black-and-white television, they had brought together a generation that had been thrilling the stands: the Quinta del Buitre. The Butragueños, Michel and company were joining international stars like Hugo Sanchez to dream again with the trophy with big ears. There was plenty of talent in Madrid and it was, along with Milan, the fashionable team in Europe. It was unquestionable that the Spanish capital smelled of the Seventh, but the first leg generated doubts. After 90 minutes, the score was a 1-1 draw, but the feeling was very different. Sacchi remembers it clearly and confesses that even Butragueño recognized to him years later that he did not know how they had obtained that draw in the Bernabéu. "Butragueño told me when I was at Real Madrid - when he was vice-president and had been a great player since he was little and therefore knew everything about Real Madrid - that he had never seen in his life, having followed football and having played it, "a team that came to the Bernabeu to do what you did. We managed to recover a draw not knowing how. You looked like twenty and we looked like ten or eleven. You attacked even Buyo", recounts the Italian.
The key to Milan's dominance in Madrid was once again pressure, the hallmark of Sacchi's Milan. Such was the superiority shown by the visitors that, when adding up an insufficient result, the Milan players went into a state of depression. Sacchi had to work as a psychologist to lift the spirits of his team and show them the way to seal their qualification for the European Cup final. "I remember that in the following 15 days I was telling the players: 'Remember that at certain levels, when you have to win and you don't win, you lose nine times out of ten. So either we make a masterpiece or we lose here". That work of motivation was the first stone to build what later has been considered the Opera Prima of Milan. Milan has given three artistic jewels to the world: the Scala, the Duomo and the Manita to Real Madrid. Milan came back with a 5-0 win at the San Siro, although things did not start off well. So much that as soon as the match got underway, Sacchi considered removing his main star Marco van Basten from the field. "When they came here, Madrid started well, we didn't start so well; van Basten was static, so much so that I immediately got a striker warming up. I remember Ramaccioni saying to me: 'Arrigo, calm down a bit'," said Sacchi. Then came the stroke of genius. All it took was a tactical move and the game changed in favour of the Rossoneri. Carlo Ancelotti was the embodiment of the strategy. To find the origin, you have to go back a few days before the meeting. "Carlo unlocked everything," analyses Sacchi, "and that's how I see football. On Tuesday, Evani had been injured in a clash with Albertini; because we trained on Tuesday as if it was already the match, with that strength. I had many solutions to replace him: to put Donadoni as a winger, who although many journalists put him there, we didn't use as a winger. We used him as a midfielder, the fourth central player, because if he ended up on the right or left wing, he bothered the wings, which were Evani and Colombo. Or putting Virdis in attack with Van Basten and Gullit as a midfielder in Donadoni's place, but Gullit didn't guarantee me on a tactical level what Donadoni guaranteed me... In the end I played the player least likely to replace Evani, who was Ancelotti, but he was the most available and gave me his 100%."
The gamble proved to be perfect: "The prize was that the first goal was scored by Ancelotti. And then he played the final in that position too. What did the Steaua coach do? He put Hagi in that area, but he didn't know that we never had a marker, we had two or three, because our team was, in that way, compact, short in that period of time compared to the others, but we were always going to mark with two or three men. And this happened against Real Madrid, where we had a numerical superiority in the pressure on the ball." Sacchi believes that the basis of the victory over Real Madrid was, as it was throughout his career, the importance of the team over the individuals. "They had players with great technique, probably better than us, but we were a great team. They had a group, but less of a team than we did. And in football the collective achieves more than the individual. You have to know this," says the Italian. That victory marks the definitive explosion of Milan, who went on to become the dominant force in European football.
After that, they won the Intercontinental Cup against Nacional de Medellin and went on to reach the footballing heavens. However, that match also represented the change in the way teams faced Milan. The Colombians were the first daring ones who forced Arrigo's thoughts to change. "With Nacional of Medellin they were the ones who made things difficult for us because for the first time we were up against a team that attacked us a lot. Then, of hunters we became hunted. It took us tranquility, security. This requires patience, which is a virtue I have not always had, but at that time I had it. I remember that at half-time Van Basten said to me: 'We are not well, we are not in shape, we have to have patience'. It wasn't a pretty game, but I was amazed at how many people said it was bad. Those people never understood that Milan were playing great football. I have to say that it was a game similar to reading a Kafka book: heavy, difficult," says Sacchi for El Enganche about that 1-0 win for Evani in the last minute of extra time, which represented the club's second Intercontinental and the first one to be shown in his living room. Milan, however, were already a despotic side who had challenged the previously dominant footballing laws and turned them to their advantage.

04. Gullit vs Van Basten, angel vs demon.

Despite the successes achieved with his Milan, Arrigo Sacchi was not lacking detractors. His style was so far removed from Italian traditions that some were unable to digest the change. "Even now it is said that when Milan played well it was because they had good players and when they played badly it was because Sacchi was there," joked the Italian coach, seeking complicity. Gianni Brera, the legendary Italian sports journalist, was one of his fiercest critics. Brera, an exquisite connoisseur of football and tactics, professed admiration for a doctrine that was antithetical to that represented by Sacchi's Milan. His attacks on the ideas of the revolutionary coach were commonplace in the Gazzetta dello Sport. Although Arrigo was intelligent to take advantage of these criticisms and reverse them in his favour. Before the 1989 European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest, he used an article by Brera to motivate his players. "I remember before the final with Steaua, that the greatest Italian sports critic, the poor Brera, an excellent writer, very good indeed, but with footballing ideas very distant from ours, said: 'Milan will play against the champions of dancing football, against the champions of possession of the ball, they will have to wait for it, defend it and go on the counterattack'. On Tuesday before the match the best Italian sports journalist wrote this and I read it because I needed to know his convictions. You cannot say 'do it because I say so'. According to him, we had to use that strategy. Gullit stood up and said 'we'll attack them from the first second until we have the forces. Okay, everybody? And we did."
However, Sacchi's most surprising enemy was not Brera, but was hiding in his own dressing room: Marco van Basten. Known to all, the relationship between the two was not good. So much so that the Dutchman often questioned him in front of the group. Sometimes he found it hard to see the logic in his coach's approach, and so he let him know. "Van Basten asked me why the others were winning and why we had to win and convince them. He also told me that we worked too hard and didn't have any fun. I always told him: 'You're a clever boy and you have to have fun in a different way. We're here to make sure the audience has a good time. He never understood that you can't get a lot without giving a lot. Van Basten has been an extraordinary player for me, not easy to manage, but extraordinary," says Sacchi. Years after their paths diverged, Sacchi and van Basten crossed paths again and the Dutchman acknowledged his mistakes: "When World Soccer recognised not too long ago that Milan had been the best team of all time, from when football existed, I said to him: 'Did you understand why we had to win and convince? And he said: 'I understood. And I understood something else too. Now I am a coach and I understand how many problems I created for you". And I said to him: "If I can console you, I didn't solve many of them." Nevertheless, Sacchi admits that he wouldn't have swapped van Basten for any other player, either of the time or of the present. "When they tell me 'between Ronaldo and van Basten who would you have signed,' I have no doubt: van Basten. But not because van Basten was more talented than Ronaldo, but because he was more functional in terms of our style of football and was a professional who gave more guarantees than Ronaldo, who was an unimaginable talent."
While the estrangement with Marco van Basten was evident, Sacchi had a close relationship with another Dutchman in the team: Ruud Gullit. He was his main support in the dressing room and the player through whom he injected his philosophy to the rest of the players. "Gullit was considered the emblem, for me he was a phenomenal player and an extraordinary person; probably the one who helped me the most without being the best, because the best was van Basten, but he had personality while van Basten hid himself, he was discontinuous. Gullit helped me a lot in making Italian players who always ran backwards run forward. He was the most convinced of this," he says. Sacchi changed the philosophy of Italian football, but Gullit transformed the philosophy of the Milan dressing room. The combination of the two Italian players made Rinus Michels' total football a success, building a Milan that would go down in history.

05. Revolutionary without revolution

After winning everything with Milan, he took over the reins of the Italian national team with whom he was second in the 1994 World Cup. He then went through an erratic career with a brief return to Milan and a few stints with Atletico Madrid and Parma before making the jump to the offices. With the perspective of his entire career, it's time to ask the same question as at the start: what was Italian football like before Sacchi? How have things changed since his revolution? Sacchi himself answers: "There has clearly been some change, but it is not linked to globalisation. Capello said it: 'We've rediscovered the Libero'. Most teams play with a fixed sweeper in the back." With Sacchi, Italian football learned that everyone must defend and attack as one, as a whole, without the previous attack-defence division. But it has forgotten everything else, and that takes its toll in Europe: "More and more we are getting slapped around and then we say: 'Why don't we spend? Why don't we use more start-up money? Then it happens that Borussia Dortmund reach the final and spend less than most of the big Italian teams or that Atletico Madrid reach the final of Champions and spend less. Our clubs are full of foreigners, full of fear, full of an eminently defensive football, playing with a sweeper. Then the result when they play at international level, where they find themselves with one less player in midfield or in attack, with the rival having players of level and leaving the ball and the initiative to them... well, they put you in difficulties".
"Also because outside the country, in general, they're much better at attacking than defending. So, if you want to put them in trouble, you have to attack them, not stop their attack. But all this requires work, organization, time, planning, programming and less improvised teams, teams that make some sense. What does a sense mean? Putting each value in its place. Since we are talking about a team sport, let's start with what unites the team: the game. What is the game about? From ideas and work. And without ideas and work, you don't have the game. If you don't have the game you rely only on individuals, and no individuality will ever have the power of a team. In some teams, this tendency to improvise - which we call fantasy - causes total disorganisation, with the consequence of losing the team," he adds to close a precise X-ray of the ills that Italian football is suffering from. Three decades after the birth of Sacchi's Milan, Italy has forgotten everything it has learned. There is no trace of the game with high pressure, offside is just another resource and even the sweeper, whose assassination triggered everything, has come back to life. Sacchi is a revolutionary without revolution. No one has been able to pick up on his witness. Italy has forgotten him, but football hasn't. Football just cannot forget the creator of one of the best teams in its history.
by Massimo Callegari & Francisco Orti for El (2016).
submitted by LordVelaryon to soccer [link] [comments]

When you place a lay bet on a horse, you’re betting that the horse won’t win an event. If any other horse wins, your bet wins. If any other horse wins, your bet wins. Often it can be profitable to lay the favourite for a race – the odds will offer the best value and you have a greater statistical chance of winning a lay bet than a back bet. Lay betting is a kind of bet where you bet on the horse (or team) not to win. With a regular bet (also known as a back bet) you bet on the horse(or team) to win. Since a horse race usually contains 6-8 horses and jockeys, its almost impossible to cover all the outcomes of the race by betting on all horses to win, as regular arbing with back The liability is what a lay bet loses if the back bet side actually wins, so in this England example the liability was £20. How Back and Lay Betting Work Together. I created this infographic to hopefully illustrate how the back and lay betting works. I use the example of a punter going to bookmakers to make a £10 bet on England. figure 5: this is how your screen looks at Betfair after placing a lay bet. We hope that this brief introduction into “back”- and “lay”-bets at betting exchanges helped you to understand this complex topic. As you can see, there are more betting strategies than just the common bet against the book-maker. If you lay them for £25 you are guaranteed a total profit of £14.25 win, lose or draw at the end of the match. A simpler form of betting which involves both back and lay bets is matched betting. As the name suggests, matched betting is where you match back and lay bets. It’s a great way to make guaranteed profits.

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