Path of Devastation was a narrative league that ran in 2015.
By William Shick
Almsbrook, Northern Cygnar South of Point Bourne, 609 AR
Samuel Briggsway lounged comfortably in his favorite corner booth near the back of the Muddy Swine, a giggling lady of the tavern’s upper hospitality floor pressing in on each side. Several empty mugs sat upon the table that separated the trio from the rest of the tavern. He tried to mentally calculate the tab as he let his fingers dance over his companions’ bare shoulders, but the alcoholic fog from the drinks muddled his thinking. After several failed attempts, he realized he didn’t give one damn about the total.
A Steelhead had no need to worry about the coin in his pockets—there was always more just a bloody scrum away. If he’d wanted to waste his life fretting over sums and ledgers, working his fingers to the bone, he would have just stayed back in Fennholm and worked in his family’s shop. He turned his attention fully to the ladies beside him.
One of the girls leaned over and whispered something in his ear, accentuating it with a delicate flick of her tongue. A mischievous grin turned up the corners of his mouth within his close-cropped beard.
“I knew there was a reason I liked you, Bella,” he said, his voice low. He pulled his arm free and reached for one of the mugs on the table. A scowl furrowed his features as he tipped it toward his lips only to feel no liquid hit his tongue. He brought the mug up to his eyes, the lines of his frown deepening as he examined the empty inside as if expecting the lack of drink to be some foul trick.
“I figured I’d find you here, Briggs.” The familiar voice cut through the mercenary’s good mood like a halberd through a torso. He brought the mug down and looked up into the familiar face of Sergeant Pemberton, kitted out in full Steelhead battledress.
“That’s ‘Lieutenant Briggsway’ to you, Sergeant,” Briggs shot back as he returned to a lounging position, carefully watching Ash’s face for any show of emotion. The Steelhead sergeant was as stoic as any a person he’d ever met. He could count on his fingers the number of times he’d seen Ash’s exterior crack since they were kids. He often wondered how they had ever become so close—but he had never once not been grateful that Morrow had seen fit to give him such a staunch friend for the last twenty-seven years of his life.
Ash raised an eyebrow at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be on duty, Lieutenant?”
“I am on duty, Sergeant,” Briggs waved to the tavern with a flourish, “watching over the fine people of Almsbrook, as we have been contracted to do by His Lordship Baron Hawthorne.”
“And we are so grateful for it!” one of the girls said. Her hand slid down to squeeze his thigh, causing Briggs to jump and then grin once more.
A commotion rose from the bar, nearer the front of the
tavern. Briggs’ smile turned into a twist of displeasure as he recognized the annoying bark of Tanner Murghold. As far as Briggs was concerned, Mughold was proof that the Steelheads would take anyone on who could hold a weapon and keep some semblance of a march step. Briggs looked past Ash and tuned his ears on Murghold’s sneer of a voice. As usual, the man was bickering over his tab. Apparently he felt the services rendered weren’t befitting the payment due.
“Sniveling half-sack of a man,” Briggs muttered. Ash turned to follow Brigg’s gaze momentarily before turning back to the table.
“Ladies,” the Steelhead sergeant said, nodding that it was time for them to go. The two let out a slight whine of protest, but Ash’s stern gaze got them up and moving.
Briggs made a theatric sigh. “Another time, my dears,” he said. He gently pressed a gold piece into each one’s delicate palm. Standing, he adjusted his steel cuirass and picked up his cavalry axe and blunderbuss from where they were leaning against the wall. “What?” he asked, feeling Ash’s stare on him.
“I was just wondering if you understood how these girls’ trade works. Because by the looks of you they’ve yet to render any actually services beyond escalating your bar tab.”
“Since when did I hire you on as my personal financier?” Briggs gave Ash an expectant look as he secured his weapons. The sergeant just shrugged. “So—besides interrupting my company, did you have a reason for tracking me down? Or did you just get that weird tingle in the back of your head that told you I was enjoying myself?”
“Is that what that is?” Ash asked. “I thought I just had chronic headaches. Didn’t realize the cause had been staring me in the face these last two decades.”
“Har, har,” Briggs said.
“A runner just came bearing captain’s orders. There’s a bit of trouble brewing on the southwest side of town. The captain needs us to help ‘placate the situation,’ as he put it. Basically, he wants you fine dandies to put on a nice pony show for the townsfolk.”
“We’ve been putting on a lot of pony shows lately,” Briggs said, the jovial tone dropping from his voice.
“Things have certainly been heating up since Baron Hawthorne and his retinue were called to Point Bourne. Rumor is the Khadorans breached the walls and the swans are in danger of losing the city and the Strategic Academy.”
“You’d expect that with Menites to the south, Khadorans to the north, and Cryxians to the west, the Cygnarans would think twice about stirring up the trollkin in the middle.”
“If it weren’t for the residual trouble with the nearby trollkin the Crael Valley incident kicked up, we wouldn’t have this contract right now, and your notion of ‘on duty’ company might be a lot less pleasant,” Ash said.
Briggs couldn’t deny that. Even when the baron and his standing forces had been here, this contract had been one of the easiest the company had had in years. They’d engaged in small skirmishes with hostile bands of trollkin only twice in the eight months they’d been stationed here. In the six weeks since the baron had left for Point Bourne, the Steelheads had effectively had the run of the town under Captain Miller. Briggs would have been lying if he said he hadn’t enjoyed the newfound freedom. In the interest of public safety, Captain Miller had ordered news of the baron’s departure kept as quiet as possible. He didn’t want to cause any undue distress to the population of Almsbrook.
Briggs wasn’t exactly sure about the captain’s strategy; since Hawthorne’s departure, he could feel a strain in the air that hadn’t been there even at the height of the trollkin scare. It was as if people knew something was wrong, but not knowing exactly what it was only made the whole situation worse. That tension was written on the faces of the local patrons and even in the touch of the working girls of the Swine. Several scuffles had already broken out between Steelheads and townsfolk, and Briggs felt sure they were a long way from settling into anything like normalcy. In the end, he was just glad it was Captain Miller’s problem to deal with and not his.
He grabbed a full mug from a passing server’s tray, gulped down the frothy amber liquid, and slapped a silver piece on the tray with a smile and a wink before the startled serving girl could so much as squeak out a protest.
As the pair of mercenaries made their way toward the door of the Swine, their path inevitably brought them ever closer to the ranting of Murghold. The man was now using every curse and colorful epithet learned over years of campaigning across western Immoren. Briggs’ face scrunched into a tighter frown the closer he got.
“Just leave it be. It’s not worth it,” Ash said into his ear as they closed in.
Briggs, however, wasn’t listening; his attention was locked on Murghold’s hand, which was wrapped painfully tight around the wrist of a working girl with fire-red hair. After nearly a year in service to the baron, Briggs had become acquainted with all of the Swine’s ladies; this was Meredith. To the girl’s credit, she wasn’t backing down despite the increasing threat in Murghold’s words.
“Look, soldier boy, I held up my part of the deal, which means I’m owed what I’m owed. It’s not my fault if a person who ain’t me isn’t able to stand up and do their part.”
“Why, you filthy little—” Murghold’s words were cut off by the Swine’s owner, a big, thick-necked, dark-skinned Thurian fellow named Decker.
“I think it’s time you paid the lady and left. No reason for this to get uncordial.”
“You listen here, you fat, worthless govnosos!” Murghold’s
voice fell to a growl and his face turned bright red as he spat
out the Khadoran insult.
“Briggs. Briggs!” Ash called futilely, but it was too late. Briggs didn’t even register his friend’s words as he interposed himself between Murghold and Meredith, using a sharp elbow to Murghold’s forearm to break his hold on the girl’s wrist.
“You fall into horse dung again, Murghold?” he asked, fixing the other Steelhead with his gaze.
Murghold made an incredulous choking noise. “What?”
“I just figured maybe that’s why you aren’t listening to these fine folks. Because you’ve got manure in your ears.” Briggs’ voice remained perfectly cool.
“Briggs, that’s enough.” Ash said, coming up next to him and scanning the tavern, which had suddenly become eerily quiet. Impending violence had that effect. “We need to be on our way anyway.” Briggs was well aware of the six other Steelheads slowly moving toward him and Murghold. He knew as well as Ash did that every one of them was from Murghold’s platoon.
“Aw, no need to fret, Sergeant. We’re just talking, lieutenant to lieutenant.” Briggs kept his eyes fixed on Murghold while using his peripheral vision to keep tabs on the other Steelheads.
“I think you should do what you always do, Briggs, and listen to your whore friend,” Murghold spat.
An exasperated sigh issued from Ash. “Idiot.”
Before the word was even out of Ash’s mouth, Brigg’s fist smashed into the side of Murghold’s face in a left cross that sent the other Steelhead reeling. Blood and spittle flew from his mouth as he stumbled away from the force of the impact.
Briggs chuckled. “You think he’d have seen that coming,” he shot over to Ash.
Turning back to Murghold he said, “My daddy always said, ‘You ain’t born with manners, you have to be taught ’em.’”
He caught a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye as two of Murghold’s crew moved to catch him from the side. Ash was there in a flash, smashing a mug from the bar into the head of one assailant before turning and catching the other with a powerful uppercut that took the man right off his feet. Briggs timed the thumps of the men hitting the ground as he ducked a wild haymaker from Murghold.
“You almost had those boys hit the ground perfectly synchronized.”
“Not my first time having to watch your ass,” Ash spat back before addressing the remainder of Murghold’s crew. “Look, gents, let’s let the lieutenants hash this out alone.”
“Yeah, no need to join your friends bleeding and embarrassed on the floor.” Briggs felt a grin split his face as he connected with another solid right on Murghold’s smarmy face.
“Thamar’s teeth, Briggs! Shut up!” Ash growled as the other four found their courage within their injured pride. The sergeant didn’t bother trying further appeals, however, and simply charged straight into the men, relying on fists to cool heads now. Despite being outnumbered, the fact that Ash was in full armor certainly helped even the odds. There were precious few spots that were vulnerable in a bout of fisticuffs, and that was without considering the Steelhead sergeant’s own incredible combat prowess. There were few within their company who could hope to stand toe-to-toe with Sergeant Ashley Pemberton in a fight of any kind.
Briggs was half surprised that his single jibe had been enough to encourage the rest of Murghold’s men to jump into the fray. None of these men were fresh off the recruitment line. They all knew what the sergeant was capable of and that good money said you needed at least an eight-to-one advantage in this kind of match up.
He grunted as one of Murghold’s jabs finally connected. Though the blow stung, it had nowhere near the necessary power behind it to cause any real damage. Briggs ignored the hit and used the opening to land his own strike right into Murghold’s nose. He felt the crunch of bone and cartilage beneath his knuckles. Murghold gave a pained yelp and fell to the floor, hands instinctively clutching his face.
Briggs stepped over Murghold. “Ready to apologize?”
Murghold held the hand not clutching his bloody nose up in submission.
“Good boy,” Briggs said.
He could hear Ash breathing slightly heavily behind him and turned to see the sergeant standing over the groaning bodies of the six Steelheads. Ash’s head was bare, revealing her cropped blonde hair. “You good?” he asked.
Stooping to retrieve her helmet from the tavern floor, she answered, “Remember those headaches I was talking about? Pretty sure the pain’s moved into my ass now, too.”
Briggs spread his arms open, palms up, in a show of contrition. Before he could say anything, a hulking, brutish figure half again as tall as a man and easily twice as wide stormed through the door.
“What in the Wurm’s beard is going on here?” Borok’s voiced boomed like thunder through the Muddy Swine. The former ogrun trench buster swept his iron-hard gaze across the smoky interior until it fell on Briggs and Pemberton standing over the forms of Murghold and his unit on the floor. “Briggsway, you want to explain?”
“Sir, just a little officer disagreement,” Briggs said, giving a cavalier shrug. “Lieutenant Murghold and I couldn’t agree on the appropriate tip. Being men of passionate convictions, things got a little heated.”
Borok glared hard at Briggs, but the Steelhead lieutenant didn’t flinch. The ogrun was a scary son of a bitch, made more so by his position as the captain’s trusted second, which granted him all the effective authority of the captain despite his NCO rank. Still, Briggs knew the regs. The worst he’d get in this instance was a couple nights in lockup. Murghold didn’t exactly have a lot of friendly witnesses around. Briggs had learned long ago that if you made a habit of bending the rules it was important to cultivate a lot of friends.
“Any other time, Lieutenant Briggsway, I might enjoy helping you work some of that passion out in the training ring. The sergeant was supposed to bring you posthaste.” The ogrun’s heavy brows furrowed. “Priority VIP inspection in the stables.”
“Priority VIP inspection?” Briggs repeated, his mood instantly changing at the code phrase. He reached down and hauled Murghold up by his collar. “You heard the man. Time to pay your tab.”
Murghold grunted, blood from his broken nose trickling down his face. Briggs walked him up to the bar, and Murghold dropped a few coins on the counter. Briggs winked back at Meredith as the gold chimed against the wooden surface: tink-tink-tink.
He wrapped his arm tight around Murghold’s shoulders and shook him jovially. “Let’s not be stingy with our tip! After all, we want to show some appreciation for these folks’ fine service today.”
Murghold shot him a murderous glare, but Briggs ignored him and continued his light flirtation with Meredith. He was unashamedly showboating at Murghold’s expense. It was true that he’d have taken any opportunity to punch Murghold’s weasel face, but given the circumstances he wasn’t about to let an opportunity for personal gain pass him by, either. After all, what was the point of good deeds if there was no profit in them?
Briggs gave Murghold a wide grin as the man grudgingly added several more coins to the pile, almost doubling the original payment. “Good man!” Briggs said, clapping him on the back. “Now—I have an inspection to get to, and it’s time for you to be someplace else.” He pushed Murghold toward the door, and Ash watched over the rest of the Steelheads as they pulled themselves to their feet and headed toward the exit, eyes carefully averted from the towering Borok. The ogrun moved only slightly away from the door, forcing them to shrink themselves as much as possible to squeeze through the narrow space.
Ash came up beside Briggs as he collected himself to leave and said, “You know, that last move just gave him more of a score to settle.”
Briggs winked at Meredith one last time, his mind on her particular talents. “Probably, but for how good it felt I’m willing to chance it.”
Ash flexed her hands, working out the soreness from the brawl before pulling on her gauntlets as she muttered under her breath, “Yeah, I’m sure you are.”
The stables where Briggs’ cavalry troop was barracked were bustling with activity as the Steelheads worked quickly to mount up. Borok hadn’t been able to provide much information beyond that there was trouble brewing in the southwest district of the town and the captain had ordered Briggs and his cavalry to quell public unrest.
Ash had already left to form up her squad and was making the march to that district now. Civilian policing wasn’t exactly the type of duty Briggs particularly enjoyed. He hadn’t signed with the Steelheads to be a glorified city watchman. That’s what he kept telling himself, anyway. If he were really honest, the root of his discontent was something far deeper. After all, this wasn’t the first time a contract had required that of his company. But the circumstances in Almsbrook over the last several weeks had simply felt different—wrong, even. He pushed the thoughts aside as he mounted his warhorse, a big brown and white mare he’d named Trigger.
He felt a tug on the saddle from below and looked down in time to see the green face of Tak, her long gobber ears protruding from the soft leather cap framing her wide head. “Straps look good, Lieutenant.”
“Told you before,Tak, you aren’t technically enlisted. Call me Briggs.”
Tak just smiled, her goblin features making the mundane expression look almost maniacal. Briggs had long ago decided it was the width of the gobber skull which gave their race the exaggerated features that led to them all looking a bit unhinged. Granted, a lot of gobbers he’d met actually were unhinged, at least by human standards, but he’d known Tak long enough to see that she was more on the human side of normal than most of her kin.
“Don’t stay out too late, Lieutenant. Got a mighty fine stew simmering for tonight,” Tak said, rubbing her hands together. “I was even able to find a hunk of—”
“Stop.” Briggs cut her off. “We’ve talked about this, too. I don’t want to know what’s in your cooking. Just make it taste as good as you do and leave it at that. Okay?”
Tak smiled again. “Aye, aye, Lieutenant!” She brought her hand up in a wild salute. “But how you humans can be so content with things when you don’t know what makes ’em tick, I’ll never understand.”
Briggs shrugged. Tak prepared the best-tasting food he’d ever experienced across all of Immoren, hands-down. After one particularly delicious meal while the company was in the field amid the Bloodsmeath March, weeks out from resupply, he’d made the mistake of asking what had been in it. It was nearly two weeks before he was able to eat anything she put on his plate, regardless of how delicious it smelled.
“Survival instinct, I suppose.” As he kicked Trigger into a trot, he added, “And call me Briggs!”
The ride to the troubled district went quickly with Briggs and his men pushing their steeds at a fast gallop through the relatively wide streets of Almsbrook. He could almost feel the change in the air as they entered the southwest district. The Steelheads were forced to slow as the streets became more crowded with townspeople. Something was definitely up.
Briggs called out for his men to be respectful of the people around but to not dally. It took almost as long to reach Captain Miller and the group of Steelheads in the large square at the heart of the district as it had for Briggs and his men to reach this part of the city from their barracks in the northern district. By the time they arrived, Briggs could tell this was not going to be a simple “pony show.” Townspeople pressed in on the square from all around, voices raised in agitation.
“Captain.” Briggs gave a quick salute as he pulled Trigger up beside Miller. Miller returned the salute with the crispness of a former Cygnaran officer.
“Lieutenant Briggsway. What kept you?”
“Going was a bit slow once we reached the area, sir,” Briggs said.
“My orders were to make haste, not be polite.”
“Aye, sir,” Briggs replied. It looks like there’s enough of a powder keg here without me and my men charging through unarmed civilians in the streets, he thought. He scanned the assembled Steelheads for Ash and found her standing next to the towering Borok. Her squad was working with a few others to hold back the press of the crowd. “Situation, sir?” Briggs asked.
“Civil unrest and disobedience, Lieutenant.” Miller spoke slowly and with emphasis, as if explaining to a particularly dense child.
Briggs swallowed the insubordinate remark that rose in his throat. Instead he said, “Do we know the cause, sir? Might help in calming the locals.”
“Sergeant Korvak and Privates Desalla and Odero have been accused of,” Miller paused, “improprieties with a local merchant’s daughter. When the people of the district discovered I had found our men not guilty of the crime, several of them decided to take matters into their own hands. Sergeant Korvak is dead and Desalla is severely injured.” Miller indicated the mob that surrounded them now. “Of course I immediately took the ringleaders into custody to be hanged.”
Briggs’ face drew into a frown. “Sir, isn’t this a matter for the local law? It seems that these matters are outside our authority—”
Miller cut him off harshly. “When they retaliated against my company they made it a personal matter. Make no mistake, with Baron Hawthorne gone, I am the power in Almsbrook. And I will not see it fall into insubordination on the word of some fishmonger’s daughter.”
The venom in Miller’s tone caught Briggs off guard. “Sir, what are you saying?”
“I’m ordering you to disperse this mob, Lieutenant. It’s time we made an example for the rest of the people of Almsbrook that this kind of challenge to my authority will not be tolerated.”
“If I may, sir,” Briggs began, but the captain was quicker.
“You may not, Lieutenant.” Miller fixed him with a hard stare. “You have your orders. Fulfill them, or I will find you in dereliction of duty and you will be hung right alongside the ringleaders of the lynch mob.”
Briggs swallowed hard and dropped his eyes from Miller’s gaze. He had no doubt Miller would follow through on his threat. “Yes, sir.”
Briggs turned Trigger about and called for his men, making sure to keep his eyes from the faces in the crowd. He hollered out, doing his best to make his voice carry as far as possible: “This assembly has been deemed dangerous to the public safety and unlawful. Please return to your homes immediately.”
Angry shouts answered him back, and he felt the impact of several stones against his armor. He tried once more, to no avail.
He addressed his men. He really didn’t have to try to keep from being heard over the increasing roar of the mob, but he did anyway. “When the order comes, do your best to avoid significant harm, boys.” He felt the foolish part of his brain continue to try to convince him that the final order would never come. That the crowd would see reason and disperse. His men all nodded in assent, but the unease in their eyes was clear. With such a density of people, there was no way harm wasn’t going to come to those who found themselves between Steelhead riders and their fellow townsfolk. Besides, Briggs and his unit were armed men trained for killing, not passive crowd control. Miller knew that. It was precisely why he had called them in.
Briggs locked his eyes on the houses and shops beyond the seething mass of people in the square, giving a small prayer of thanks that his elevated position made it easy to avoid looking into the faces of the people before him. He heard rather than saw the sharp report of military rifles being discharged as Miller bellowed the order for the Steelheads to move in after his final warning to the crowd. Instinctively he kicked the sides of Trigger and felt the half-ton of horseflesh spring into motion beneath him, building deadly momentum in a few heartbeats. He kept his eyes fixed above the crowd until the very last second, when the thunder of hooves met in a riotous clash with the panicked shouts of the people who were just realizing the folly of their choices that day.
He sighed to himself. He was going to have a lot fewer friends at the Swine once word of this got out.