Tales From the Front: Decline of Empire by Robert Gresham

1

Purvis Wade walked through the leather-covered doors of Sir Dominicus Rell’s office with a feeling of restlessness in his bones. Rell, the imposing head of the secretive Lion’s Fang organization, stood in front of the mahogany desk that dominated his office. Baron Jacquo Dalsine stood beside him. Wade was struck by the contrast between the two; Rell had fair skin and jet-black hair, his multi-colored eyes hinting of Azlanti ancestry. Dalsine on the other hand was the very image of an aging Taldoran dandy; he had a precisely trimmed beard and tailored clothes. His bronze skin was lightly perfumed with exotic orchids. The Baron wore an elboratly-decorated falcata at his waist.

Wade averted his eyes from the Baron, a habit learned from long years dealing with Taldor’s bearded aristocracy. Despite this courtesy, Wade hardly respected the man and Dalsine knew it.
“Ah, Commander Wade.” Dalsine began, “I see the rumors of your injuries were greatly exaggerated.”

“They often are my lord Baron,” Wade said with poison in his voice.

Sir Rell loudly cleared his throat. The gesture chastened both Wade and Dalsine as it was meant to.

“The baron has brought me a request,” Rell said, “and it has to do with your former captain, Iadon Railford.”

“Old Iadon?” Wade responded casually, strolling over to Rell’s well-stocked bar. He poured Vudran gin over ice. “He’s retired up north with his winery. What does the Pathfinder Society want with him?”

“He was retired.” Dalsine interjected, “He’s since passed on. The Pathfinder Society had been negotiating with him to establish a lodge at Railford. His son Becher converted the place into a distillery and is producing a quality product. The Society is unsure if Becher will be as receptive as his father was to the construction of a new lodge.

“However, word in the canals is that Old Iadon passed without bequeathing the land to Becher. That makes Becher a rogue lord. By decree, such lands must be reclaimed for the empire.” Dalsine took a drink from his own glass of spirits. “I have no doubt that Becher is not some treacherous upstart king. Regardless, a rather ambitious army captain by the name of Grald Kretchmoor has taken up arms and marches toward Railford with a contingent of twenty men. The high generals have not sanctioned his mission; it’s the captain’s power play. I know Kretchmoor personally. He’s not the sort of man the empire needs grabbing lands and title. If Railford isn’t controlled by a rogue lord now, it will be once Kretchmoor takes it.”

“That’s where you come in.” Rell said to Wade, walking around his desk and removing a coin purse from one of the drawers. “Lion’s Fang wants you to go to Railford. The lands surrounding the distillery are swampy so you should be able to travel more quickly than a contingent of armored men. Once you’re there, rendezvous with Becher and substantiate the property’s deeds. If they’re not lawfully signed over, there’s nothing we can do to stop Kretchmoor from seizing the land.”

“However, if they are legal,” Baron Dalsine said, “and Becher is receptive to the proposed lodge, convince him to sign the property over to Dominicus Blelor. This would force the Decemvirate to put the lodge into local hands. Dominicus Blelor was a strong ally of Iadon. Knowing the lands are in Blelor’s capable hands would honor Iadon Railford’s memory in his county’s eyes.”

Wade had heard that line used to justify other, darker acts by unsavory nobles and army captains. It did not give him confidence in the merits of this mission.

“I mean no offense, but I’m retired from the Society. In fact, I quit with prejudice.” Wade met Dalsine’s gaze, a risky act if the Baron was in a particularly petulant mood. “Surely you have anxious spelunkers eager to prove themselves and scribe their names in the chronicles.”

Rell walked back to the front of his desk and handed Wade the coins.

“This is not just a Society interest, but also for the security of the Empire. Understood? Good. Quartermaster Llewellynn is awaiting you in his workshop. He will provide any weaponry or magic you will require.”

“Of course sir.” Wade said, downing his gin and walking toward the office door.

“One more thing,” Rell said. Wade stopped in his tracks and turned to face him.

“Do not fail me. Do not fail Prince Stavan.” Rell saluted Wade. It was an unfamiliar gesture to the Lion’s Fang agent. It filled him with dread.

Wade returned the salute and left the office.

2

Travel through the swampy lands surrounding Railford was difficult and the rain did not help. Overgrowth and creepers choked the path. Night fell long before Wade reached the settlement, the dark and the rain obscuring the wooden sign markers, increasing the length of the journey. More than once the muck sucked Wade’s boots from his feet causing him to reach in to retrieve them.

Nearly to Railford, at the base of a hillock, Wade saw the campfires. Stealthily approaching, he saw guards and dogs within the small clearing in the muck. Wade carefully backed up the way he came and gave the soldiers a wide berth as he made his way into the settlement.

Half a dozen small stone cottages surrounded a tall brick and timber building topped with a massive tin-covered water drum. A sign over its looming doors read Railford Distillery est. 4693. A long cylindrical chimney rose from a squat brick building sharing an adjoining wall with the distillery. A low, moss-covered cobblestone wall encircled the entire property. Wade strolled between the buildings casually searching about for signs of life but finding only empty streets and shuttered windows. The sounds of raucous music emanated from one of the stone buildings.

A hand painted sign nailed to a tree before the building read ‘Bloodknuckles Inn’. Smiling, Wade tried to open the door but found it locked. He rapped hard on the wooden frame, the knock echoing in the night. There was no response. Wade took a few steps back and looked up. Slivers of yellow light shone through the cracks of two shuttered windows on the second floor.

A voice in the rain shouted from behind Wade. As he turned, a thrown whiskey bottle crashed hard against Wade’s temple, immediately causing everything to go black.

Purvis Wade regained consciousness and he saw that he was in a small room. Across from him on a dingy cot lay a young man covered to his throat with a heavy wool blanket. The young man’s face was covered in black boils and dark veins, which spread sickly up his cheeks. Tending him was an older man dressed in green. In the doorway of the room stood a grizzled Andoran wearing a faded blue tunic and heavy leather pauldrons. Wade rubbed the lump on his temple as he sat up on the cot.

“Purvis Wade,” the man in the doorway said.

“Dalard Fritch,” Wade responded. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I might ask you the same thing. Some think you’re a scout for those troops camped at the bottom of the hill. It took a lot to convince them otherwise. Now it’s your turn to convince me.”

The man with the boils let out a deep, guttural cough that wracked his body with convulsions.

“Dalsine sent me. He wants me to finder Becher Railford and get him to sign off on a new Pathfinder lodge. Do you know where he’s at?”

“Unfortunately I do. When Iadon died he never turned over the deed to the winery. He and Becher fought a lot before the end. Iadon didn’t approve of the winery becoming a distillery. Threatened to leave the property ownerless on his death. Becher knew that the old man kept his important papers up in a cave in the swamp. Jessup there went with Becher and a few others two days ago to search for them. This morning Jessup came back without the others.”

“The Teeth!” Jessup suddenly screamed from his cot.

Dalard approached the sick man and laid a hand on the cot. When he spoke again his voice was soft and comforting. “Jessup? Can you tell me again, what happened in the swamps?”

The sick man began in a stuttering whisper that grew louder and almost frantic as he spoke.

“Becher led us down an old trail to what used to be the barrel-aging caves. When we got there, the caves were all boarded up, so it took us a while to get in. The place was flooded, barrels floating everywhere and it had a foul stink to it. We poked around a bit till Becher found the back office and the strongbox where he said the deed was. That’s when they came… rising out of the muck, dead folk with sharpened fangs. We tried to fight ‘em but they was too strong. They tore Padrik’s arm right off and started eating it… we tried to get out the way we came in. I made it out, but some of the creatures blocked the entrance, trapping Becher and Walmont inside. After that the entrance collapsed on them. One of the creatures tried to grab me and took a bite out of my leg, so I ran as fast as I could. I don’t know what happened after that.”

Wade shuddered and pulled back the wool blankets covering Jessup. He looked at the leg wound: it had festered and begun to rot. The telltale boils told Wade that Jessup was suffering from ghoul fever, and a severe case at that.

“Dalard. That wound is going to kill him. Worse, the things that did it can smell that sickness on the air like a halfling smells a barbeque. They will follow it back here. You have to get this town secured.”

“Purvis, we’ve been securing buildings and arming townspeople to fight against those soldiers at the base of the hill and you’re telling me we might have a graver threat?”

“I am. The distillery is the most defensible building. Plus the whiskey there can be used to create incendiary potions.” Wade said, turning to the man in green, “You, priest, what spells can you call down?”

“I’ve exhausted most of my ability tending to poor Jessup here,” the priest replied.

“He’s suffering from ghoul fever. If you do not possess restorative magicks he is lost,” Wade said matter-of-factly. The prospect of facing a hungry mob of ghouls assailing the town spurred Wade to action.

“I have a scroll with that magic,” Dalard said, “but I cannot cast it.”

“Give it over,” Wade said. He unfurled the vellum and turned towards Jessup, but the young man was dead.

“Quickly! Burn the corpse before it rises!” Wade instructed.

Dalard and the priest hurriedly moved the body towards a large hearth in the central room of the building, which Wade now saw was Bloodknuckles’s Inn. A dozen men and women occupied the room, some armed with broken bottles, others with farming equipment. They threw the body onto the fire, doused it with whiskey, and watched as flames ate at the corpse.

Wade re-rolled the scroll and put it in his belt.

“Okay now, grab the most able bodied and let’s get to the distillery. It may be our only chance.”

Wade walked straight towards the door of the inn and threw it open, walking into the dark, rainy night.

Tales From the Front: Decline of Empire concludes in Part 2