The Gentleperson’s Guide to Sylvania
The mysterious nation of Sylvania — once vast and influential — has retreated in recent years to its historical borders. There are many who would claim it was “beaten back” or “defeated” — yet a more prudent observer might wonder if this was intended all along by our wise and elegant neighbors, whose long lives give an entirely different meaning to the phrase “long term planning.”
Visitors to Sylvania may enter that forested kingdom only by invitation — and invitations are thin on the ground in these unsettled times. I myself have not passed the borders since I was a small girl — which, of course, has not been so very long ago.
King Istvan III of Sylvania is wise, learned, and, to be honest, gentle readers — even after centuries, still the most beautiful creature ever to grace this life. Sent into the outer lands as a concubine to Dido XXVI in his youth, he has since captivated and successfully wooed a long line of rulers. In his time, he has acted as Consort in Byrsa, Lascaux, Jum, Lapp, Hesperia, and Vosgod. He brought days of unprecedented power and influence to both Jum and Lapp, drove the Byrsans out of Hesperia, and was reforming Vosgod into an artisan civilisation worthy of respect when his spouse Queen Jelena was killed during the revolt that placed the Iron Council in power. (The neverending military aggressions between Sylvania and Vosgod date from this period.) Half the region owes its most elegant and honored traditions to his influence, and rumor in Lascaux now has him preparing to court Queen Nayla I of Nassau.
King Istvan speaks charmingly of the vitality brought to his nation from outside influences, and dazzles all visitors with his stunning treetop palaces and carefully designed treescapes. At his last visit to the royal court of Lascaux, he declared his intention to visit the invigorating islands of Nassau. When asked why he wished to visit the barely civilized isles, he smiled charmingly and quipped, “Fresh blood,” to the laughter of the entire court. The question is only if wisdom and grace can charm such a young and headstrong queen.
Every Elf PC this year was given a “Certificate of Death,” providing the future date of their death due to natural causes. This, courtesy of Sylvania. Of course, they might preempt the given date with an unnatural demise, but their lifespan could not be extended. It seems that every Elf in the world receives such a letter upon reaching their age of majority.
THE REAL STORY, PART 1
King Istvan enjoyed his first several centuries of life, but over time, enjoyed life a little too much, coming to be increasingly obsessed with his own mortality. He was well-known for going on treasure hunts, Indiana Jones-style. But what was not known was that he was not simply searching for treasure, but rather for the secrets of immortality.
Matters came to a head roughly two decades ago, when Istvan discovered a temple of Samwise, an ancient predecessor to the modern Aru religion.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 1: CLOSED BORDERS
It was common knowledge that King Istvan intended to propose himself as a consort to Queen Nayla, bringing his wisdom and experience to the island of Nassau. However, the Queen was somewhat concerned by the rumors that the borders of Sylvania have closed to outsiders nearly entirely. That didn’t seem consistent with the open and friendly face Istvan was putting forth. She therefore dispatched a team of Queensguard to investigate Sylvania, and report back before the Masquerade Ball.
The team crossed the North Shore and first hired a wagon to bring them into Sylvania by road. Upon reaching the edge of the forest, however, the “road” degenerated rapidly into a grooved and rutted mess, making ongoing wheeled travel impossible. The group proceeded on horseback, only to find that one or two turns later the road disappeared entirely. The forest closed in as well, with such a mass of thorny undergrowth that forward progress was nearly impossible.
Opting for a new approach, the party left the forest and made haste for a village alongside a river streaming out of Sylvania. They rented a small fishing canoe, and headed upstream. Several days of travel brought simply “more of the same” — woods on the shore and nothing particularly exciting on the river. Growing suspicious, they invoked the power to Detect North, and found it to be spinning about them. At this point they docked the boat, and attuned to a penny they left in the boat for future navigational purposes. They took off overland, and soon lost themselves in the forest. Even flying up past the treetops revealed only an endless carpet of indistinguishable treetops. At that point they Located the penny to return to the canoe, only to find that it was still at their feet.
Finally growing tired of this, they called out to whoever might be monitoring this little show. To their surprise, they received a response. Eventually they were able to talk their way into the treetop home of Lord Walnut, one of the nobles who guard the border of Sylvania. From the party’s notes:
Lord Walnut had much to discuss, though reluctant to do so. It seems relations amongst the elven Nobility had chilled, with little communication between the capital and outlying domains. Additionally, Sylvania has been suffering a few border invasions of late, that they identify as coming from Lascoux
His daughter, Elm showed us to our rooms, but seemed sad, drained. We asked, and she burst into tears. It seems for 20 some years King Istvan has had a team of advanced magicians utilizing novel magic to foretell the exact date of the natural death of all elves, informing them of this information at their age of maturity. Elm’s death was foretold as the very next day. We offered what consolement we could, then Elm returned to the company of her father.
A great cry awoke us in the night, we ran to find Walnut in violent grief over his daughter’s death. After giving him a moment’s solitude, his grief became rage. He cursed King Istvan loudly, again and again.
A disagreement ensued over these Death Certificates. The party seemed convinced they were bad, perhaps even evil. But Walnut was not completely convinced. He had, after all, been able to spend his daughter’s entire last week with her. If he had not known, he might have been out traveling, and then what? If Istvan had the power to determine these dates for all Elves, was it within his rights to withhold that knowledge? Even so, he cursed Istvan for uncovering that knowledge to begin with.
The party returned with a report that at a minimum, Istvan deserved a good bit of suspicion. Many theories were put forth as to the nature and reason behind the Death Certificates, but nothing could be substantiated without additional investigation. Walnut left the party with a magic token to enable future communication, agreed to assist them in their future investigations, and sent them back in time for the Masquerade.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 2: TEA WITH THE QUEEN
(This was the 5-10yo kids’ run)
As a special honor, Queen Nayla invited her Junior Queensguard to Tea with herself and her courtiers, the afternoon preceding the Masquerade Ball. During the Tea, her Steward brought a special treat: Chocolate Glazed Doughnut Holes prepared specially for the evening’s Masquerade Ball. (Perhaps you can tell there were props for this expedition…)
One of Queen Nayla’s yokel courtiers grabbed the first Doughnut Hole before even the Queen could have a bite. He was rewarded with a monstrous fit of sneezing, and promptly began to break out in violent read and green warts. (See? Always be polite and wait for the Queen to go first…)
Clearly someone was up to no good for the Masquerade Ball!
The Junior Queensguard first accused the Steward, but he had simply carried the tray from the kitchens. Then the proceeded to the kitchens where they cornered Cook, investigated the preparation area, and the space in general. They discovered several things: Cook also proclaimed his innocence, there was a (very) little green man watching from a crack in the wall, and there were traces of red and green Magic Mushrooms in the Chocolate Glazed Doughnut Hole dough and the vegetable soup.
The little green man disappeared upon being noticed, but the Junior Wizard was able to Size Change the Junior Fey to the point that she could follow. The crack led to another corridor, and she circled back to lead the rest of the party to it the regular way. This led to dusty and unused corridors under the palace, but the group was able to follow the footprints to the hideout of the Goblin King and his crew, who were busy laughing about the inadvertent trial run of the Chocolate Glazed Magic Mushroom Doughnut Holes.
The Junior Queensguard lit into them, and after a short battle, the Goblin King was defeated. He had a bag of gold and an unsigned letter on him, offering the gold as payment for creating a distraction at the Masquerade Ball.
Now under time pressure, the Junior Queensguard split up to check the Archives and the castle Post Office for matching samples. Archives: none. Inbound mail: none. Outbound Mail: the handwriting matched a letter from the Ambassador of Sylvania.
They circled back to the kitchen, whereupon Cook informed them that the Ambassador was liable to demand nuts of varying types at any and all hours of the day and night. They took several handfuls and went to confront him. The Ents at the door nearly stopped them, but were bribed with enough of the nuts to allow the group to proceed.
The Ambassador readily answered the door for a delivery of nuts, at which point the Junior Queensguard confronted him with the goblin’s letter and his own in matching hand. He denied, denied, denied, until the Junior Fey used her Faerie Dust to force him to speak only the truth. At that point, to his horror, a full confession rolled immediately off his tongue.
King Istvan had demanded that his ambassador create a distraction at the Masquerade Ball, sufficient that he could carry out his own (unspecified) plan rather than simply proposing marriage as everyone else seemed likely to do.
The Junior Queensguard shackled the ambassador and presented him and his loose tongue to the Queen, who rewarded them richly. They then agreed to watch Istvan extremely closely at the Masquerade Ball, in order to prevent him from carrying out any malicious plan even without the distraction he was expecting.
All this, of course, accounted for Istvan’s foul mood at the Ball.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 3: DEATH CERTIFICATES
After the Masquerade Ball, Lord Walnut contacted the Queensguard with more information on the Death Certificates. He had discovered that they were prepared in batches, and the next batch was due to begin in 10 days. He had a specific location on the edge of the Sylvanian forest (equivalently, on the border of Sylvania) where the process was to begin in the late afternoon. He had no further information.
The party made haste to that location at that time, arriving several hours early to stake out location from within the forest.
They first discovered a pair of horsemen approaching from the North Shore, bearing a sack. It soon became clear that it was a squirming sack. The sack was unceremoniously dumped on the ground near the woods, and the horsemen departed. At the same time, the woods-wise Cleric of Gaia got a vague inkling of movement approaching their position through the woods.
Then, as they say, all heck broke loose. A team of unarmed Cat ninjas knocked out the one PC they noticed, and there was a bit of confusion as various members of both sides did or did not notice the members of the other side. Eventually a proper combat broke out, with Webs, Hydras, and a Jabberwock. The surviving Cat Ninjas attempted to flee with the sack, but the party Webbed it to the ground. Only one Ninja escaped, chased by the faster and meaner Jabberwock. The Hydras meanwhile devoured the rest of the ninjas, to the frustration of the party who needed a captive.
Fortunately, the PCs were also able to chase down the last ninja, and keep him tenuously alive until the Jabberwock departed from whence it came.
The subsequent interrogation revealed that he was a simple mercenary, hired to deliver the sack from Point A to Point B. He was quite willing to cooperate for gold, and had no intention of either returning to Point B to report his failure or of attempting to backstab the PCs after they released him. His grand plan was to take his life and his gold and get the heck out of Dodge. He did offer that they were to be met in a clearing in the woods that evening by three wizards who would receive the sack, and drew a hasty map to the location.
The PCs sped off to that location, arriving shortly before the meeting. They determined that the far side of the clearing was concealed by an Illusion. Breaking the Illusion revealed a pit in the ground, sort of like a whirlpool and made of wood, with the rough appearance of natural growth and rings suggesting great age. At night, they couldn’t see much farther than the 10′ wide maw somewhat below, and retreated to stake out the clearing.
Shortly thereafter the three wizards emerged. “Hey, what happened to our Illusion?” Cue Declaration Phase…
The party magically sealed the exit to the pit and made short work of two of the wizards, while the third rocketed off into the air and disappeared into the deep woods. At that point they took one of the downed wizards captive (allowing the other to, er, expire) and retreated to interrogate the captive in the safety of a Rope Trick. (Rather fortunately, as we will see shortly, they sent the small girl they saved from the bag into a second Rope Trick.)
The captive detailed the ritual that produced the Death Certificates. It has been discovered by Istvan, some two decades ago. The Certificates were created under the light of a Full Moon, in batches of a month’s worth at a time, and the ritual was performed at a special alter forged with the Hammer, Tongs, and etc. of the Underdark, upon which a child must be sacrificed. The rest of the steps and ingredients were relatively mundane.
At this point there was another discussion on the merits of producing Death Certificates at all. The wizard seemed to think a single child was a small price to pay for all the Elves to learn the date of their future demise, such that they could complete their bucket list, put their affairs in order, spend their final time with their friends or family, and etc.
The party seemed to be of the opinion that perhaps the death of the child was not necessary to the ritual at all, and “somebody” was using the extra power for “something” (evil).
The wizard also revealed that this was the only such alter, and these the only trained wizards — King Istvan kept the knowledge very close.
At that point, one of the explosive-filled clocks that the party was carrying around with them detonated. While the Queensguard weren’t damaged beyond the power of Cure Wounds to repair, there was nothing left of the poor wizard save paste.
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 4: THE RITUAL
Having put a stop to the ritual for the time being, but with significant open questions as to the necessity and utility of the sacrifice, the next step appeared to be to research the ritual itself. Lord Walnut was able to uncover the location of the last treasure hunt that Istvan went on — to an ancient temple of Samwise, in Nassau itself!
Knowing its nature and approximate location, the party was able to magically home in on the temple. The entrance was hidden underground, but was still relatively accessible. The PCs were able to dig free the doors, and translate the surrounding text, which mentioned Faith, Love, Hope, and Wisdom.
Upon entering, they found themselves in a small welcome chamber with decorations and statues in a very different style, but overall a reasonably familiar function. The sole door out informed them that they must have Faith to proceed.
The test of faith turned out to be a bridge over a giant chasm, complete on both ends but with a large gap in the middle. The Fey established that simply flying over it did not allow them to proceed beyond the far side. Some tests with a stick revealed that there was no floor or support in the gap. Finally the boldest, or perhaps most faithful, of the Queensguard proceeded to step into the gap without safety or backup plan, and it did indeed provide solid footing for him to cross to the far side, revealing a door leading to the test of Love.
The party was immediately ambushed by angry Orcs from a lair in the cave of Love. They correctly managed to (narrowly) resist aggression, and through a combination of hugs and Telepathy were able to appease the angry Orcs by offering a meal. Upon completing the meal together, the door to the test of Hope opened.
In the room a cold, dark pond awaited. Soon after they entered, smooth, hairless, grey humanoids began to emerge from the depths of the pond, clawing for the blood of the living creatures ahead. The party was able to pass this test as well, offering the mindless creatures warmth and therefore a measure of hope to their painful existence. At this time the door to the final test of Wisdom appeared.
This room contained a small amphitheater, sunken into the floor such that the Queensguard looked down on the center. There, they found a large and ornate altar, bearing a single envelope. Meanwhile, the room had only one exit — a large hole, hastily smashed through the wall to the side, revealing a corridor beyond.
The writing on the envelope promised the reader that it would reveal the date of their future demise, if only they would open it and peruse the letter within. The Queensguard naturally decided that the only course of Wisdom was to ignore the letter, since such knowledge could not lead to any good outcome.
At that point, the final door was revealed to the crypt of the Samwise, where their most honored priests were interred.
THE REAL STORY, PART 2
King Istvan, needless to say, did not pass the Test of Wisdom. Obsessed with life as he was, he opened the letter. The PCs later found his discarded letter, quoting a date two years from when he opened it.
Without being able to progress, Istvan broke out of the final room. And, in so doing, he found the maintenance system for the temple. From this he was able to discern the ritual that empowered the altar to generate letters — and notably to the PCs who followed his footsteps, no sacrifice was involved.
Equally importantly, he discovered the process for creating the mindless drones for the Test of Hope. This involved taking a humanoid and using a different ritual to erase its mind. When that ritual was complete, the drone would last forever, though it would require periodic infusions of “Life Force” to continue to operate. The notes also emphasized the importance of not allowing the drone to acquire a mind.
With the date on his letter giving him a specific and near-term deadline, Istvan put these pieces together. He used the Ritual of the Drone on himself with the small customization that he restored his mind afterward. He brought the Ritual of the Letter to Sylvania with one “minor” addition to provide the ongoing life force he now required to continue to operate.
And that brings us up to the present, whereby the PCs on the the third run had temporarily disabled the Ritual of the Letter, putting the squeeze on the Life Force required for Istvan to carry on…
SYLVANIA EXPEDITION 5: THE END OF ISTVAN
Queen Nayla demanded that the new Ambassador of Sylvania come to answer this latest report. When he did not appear, she sent a detachment of the Queensguard to fetch him (to be questioned, it must be said, not simply “dead or alive”).
Arriving at his quarters, the Queensguard found a terrified servant blubbering about the Ambassador. They pushed in, to be greeted by a grey and shriveled corpse. There was no obvious cause of death, except insofar as the very essence had been sucked out of it. When the group’s Cleric consulted his God, he determined that Istvan caused the death, though not in a way that required him to be present, and the one-word summary of the cause of death was “Drain”.
When the group attempted to report back to the queen, they were put off, despite the importance of their message. They pulled all the strings they could, and upon describing the condition of the ambassador, were told that the Queen herself appeared to be suffering some of the same symptoms, starting from the hand where Istvan had touched her at the Masquerade Ball.
With new urgency, the group departed to the pit where the ritual had been performed, determined to put an end to it, once and for all. They brought a Bag of Holding filled with oil, in case they would be able to burn out the ritual.
Arriving at the clearing, they scouted and investigated the area and the exit of the pit, and then took positions around the edges. Sadly, their precautions were insufficient and they were in turn ambushed by two hostile wizards. Two Fireballs and Four Hydras later, the party was rapidly approaching total defeat. With most of the group down, Yoded Boulderguard heroically invoked a ring of Haste to both grab the Bag of oil from a fallen comrade and sprint for the edge of the pit, where he was met by three of the angry Hydras.
With Yoded about to be ripped into 24 bite-size pieces in Combat Phase, the two party mages had one final chance to act. One, also quite concerned with his own mortality, prepared Teleport. The other, opting to make Yoded’s sacrifice worthwhile, used his final arcane energy to cast Power Word: Pyromancy and Ignite the Bag, spewing a thousand gallons of flaming oil down onto the ritual apparatus below.
With that, Yoded Boulderguard was consumed (R.I.P.), the altar necessary for the ritual was melted to slag, and the last few party members made good their escape. Istvan, one of the two attacking wizards, knelt by the side of the pit to mourn the loss of his last chance to generate or steal the necessary Life Energy.
While Queen Nayla was obviously (and thankfully!) spared disastrous partnership with Istvan, these events leave Sylvania in a tricky place. Istvan, ruler for the better part of a millennium and planning on at least another, left no plans for a succession. Further, he is not technically dead, simply unable to act without a further infusion of Life Energy. It seems unlikely that Sylvania will return to its former prominence for quite some time.
Meanwhile in Nassau, Yoded Boulderguard was posthumously granted the highest honor of the Queensguard: elevated to the Queen’s Own for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity (at the cost of his own life) above and beyond the call of duty.Read More
It was the end of an Age. Long ago the gods had cast from their home the giants who shared it. With both sides resolute in their attitudes toward each other, conflict between them eventually erupted. The gods had on their side a host of the Valiant – the spirits of heroes who had died honorably over the ages. The giants had allies in the form of mighty monsters and strange cults. Both sides were destined to destroy each other so the world could start anew. Unknown to them, that future was written in stone… literally: the descriptions of key events were inscribed on magical tablets known as Fate Stones which caused those details to be inevitable.
Ratri, the goddess of secrets, had a secret of her own — that she was in fact not a god but a mortal who had risen to great enough power to masquerade as a god. To her, the demise of all the god-kind would leave the field clear for her to control the next world. Ratri learned of the Fate Stones and discovered that if one was broken the events it described were able to be changed. She set about locating the Stones, breaking those which opposed her plans (beginning with the prediction of her own death) and protecting those which supported them.
As the final battle raged across the heavens and the mortal realm and the land of the dead, a handful of Valiant whose Fates had been freed by the Wyrd Sisters took action against Ratri’s conspiracy. Through their bravery and sacrifice, they were able to change the ending of the world. Many of the gods were saved, though some were lost and others weakened. Some of the giants were removed, but others elevated in power. Ratri remains at large but with her true nature now revealed to all she will have a harder time making allies… except for those who truly share her cause.
Now a new Age begins, shaped by the ending of the last. With multiple factions fighting, this will be the Age of War. Which side, if any, will emerge victorious at the close remains to be seen in another 1000 years.
After all, it’s not like the future is written in stone.
- Andy’s scenario recap
- Blue’s scenario recap (work in progress)
- Bob’s scenario recap
- Steve C’s scenario recap
- Steve W (Wolf) scenario recap
- York’s scenario recap
- Alex’s scenario recap
- Best Strategist: Chris Cavender
- Best Tactician: Ryan Carr
- Best Roleplayer: Kate Oliver
- Best Player of PrinceCon 40: Corwin Knaff
- Master of Valor Hall: Hugh Huntzinger
PrinceCon 40: Twilight of the Gods
March 13-15, 2015
Valor Hall, part 1
“But Dad, I can fight!”
He scoffed. “You can fight in the tavern.”
“I’ve taken Self-Defense and Arms And Armor just like everyone else!”
“I’m not contesting your skill on the training ground. But listen to me Thorlev,” he continued, emphasizing every word, “You are not a Warrior. You are a Fisherman. There’s no shame in it. I’m a Fisherman too.”
“So what then, we’ll just fish the giants to death?” I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice.
“Do you even listen the histories? Why are there giants alive today?”
“Gnut the Mighty led an army of five hundred thousand men, elves, and dwarves to crush the giants in their hills.”
Everybody knew that. Gnut’s army marched well over a league per hour, carrying their packs on their backs. It was almost half again as fast as an army was supposed to be able to travel. For the Dwarves, it was virtually inconceivable. It seemed brilliant, and he had the giants completely back on their heels.
“So why aren’t the giants all dead?”
I couldn’t think my way out in time. “Because they burned the villages and fields as they retreated.”
“So there was no food left. So our whole army starved. So when Gnut returned in the Spring he had seven thousand men. So that was like three Ages ago.”
He took me by the shoulders and waited until I looked him in the eye. “We have Warriors to fight the giants. And we are the Fishermen who feed the Warriors. Without us, they will die just as surely as if a giant crushed their skull to pulp. Which, by the way, is what will happen to any Fisherman stupid enough to challenge a giant. Do you understand me?”
I looked away, furious. But there was only one way to get out of this so-called conversation. “I understand.”
* * *
I had to bite a fishing rod while I did it, but I managed to cut right through the catch I was gutting, straight into the flesh of my hand. I barely had to fake the cry as I spit out the rod and grabbed my palm, bleeding profusely. My left, of course. Mom came running, and took my directly under her wing.
Dad, of course, was furious. “The Valkyrie leaves at dawn! What am I supposed to do with a short crew?”
She would have none of it. “The same as you did when Armand got tangled in the net. Work harder and fish longer.”
“But now we’ve got the entire defense force to support!”
“And there’s an entire fleet of fisherman to do it. They’re not relying on you alone.”
“I will not. Shirk. My duty.”
“You will not give a hireling time to recover and then force your own son into slavery with a gored hand. You will leave at dawn and Thorlev will not. Or you will find a new wife when you return.”
He was an idiot to even argue. He had married the woman, he ought to know he wasn’t going to talk her out of this. I couldn’t help but smile while I eavesdropped. The entire thing had worked beautifully.
* * *
“And you have your parents’ blessing?”
This was the moment of truth. It must have been obvious to the Sergeant that I did not. But if they didn’t want every warm body in the field, why was he attending the recruiting post in the dead of night?
“Of course, I have the full support of my family.” I held up the wooden sword and padded practice armor I had stolen from the training ground. Just as if my father had sent me fully equipped.
“Can you fight with that hand?”
A bit of an ironic question, since he was missing an entire arm, and apparently it hadn’t disqualified him from service. I waved the bandages at him. “Just a scrape. I’ve trained to strap on my shield, in any case.”
“Excellent.” He handed me a sharpened stick of charcoal, and laid down a half-filled sheet of blank lines. “Certify here.”
As I scrawled my signar, I couldn’t help but think it had been too easy. Even if they needed every warm body in the field, there should have been some resistance to an injured, underage, illicit recruit. Could the situation be more desperate than we knew?
“Uh, it’s sort of the middle of the night. When do I report to the Academy?” I wasn’t terribly looking forward to the three-week Indoctrination, but at least the Academy was inviolate when it came to reluctant parents.
He guffawed. “You’ll report directly to the Second Tinglith, Fifty-Seventh Hafna. Pick any of the nags out back, head for the East Gate, the guards will direct you further.”
I gulped, suddenly wishing I was holding the signed canvas instead of him.
He smiled cruelly. “You’re in the army now. Desertion is punishable by death.”
Valor Hall, part 2
“Name?” the Sergeant in charge of arrivals asked.
“Hroar,” the man next to me, well, roared. He was twice as thick as me in every dimension, and all of it looked like muscle. If I had his size or even half his enthusiasm, maybe I wouldn’t have spent the whole ride brooding on the note I had left my mother.
“Name?” he asked me next.
“Hroar, Thorlev, you are shieldbrothers. Whatever you do, you will not leave each other’s side.” He pointed at Hroar. “If he eats, you eat.” He pointed at me. “If he pisses, you piss.” Then he grabbed us both by our padded jerkins. “If I see one of you without the other, you’ll be cleaning latrines for the rest of your sharply abbreviated lives. Now get out of my sight.”
Some introduction to military life. On the way out, I heard him snap at someone to get the horses back to town.
But this was the middle of an improvised camp that served as the mustering point for half a dozen small towns. We didn’t know where to go. I pulled up short, and Hroar stopped as soon as he noticed.
“You two! Frogs! Over here!” someone else commanded. I looked, and he was pointing to us. Frogs?
“Because we’re green,” Hroar muttered.
The next Sergeant issued us a large canvas square, a couple of sticks, and a pair of boots each. They were too big for me, too small for Hroar. Then he pointed out the fifty-seventh hafna, and ordered us to pitch our tent.
“Uh,” I waved my wooden practice sword inquiringly. He grimaced at me and looked at Hroar expectantly. Hroar produced an axe. It must have been for chopping wood; it was much too small to fight with.
The Sergeant pointed at me. “You — take one of those.” There was a pile of weapons behind him. I couldn’t help but notice they were all battered, chipped, and blood-stained. Secondhand, to say the least.
Then he looked Hroar up and down. “Yours will have to do. You can take his sword when he dies.” I stiffened, though the Sergeant ignored me. “Whatever you do, don’t take one from a giant. You’ll think you can handle it, but you can’t. In the time it takes you to swing, they’ll crush your skull to pulp.”
“And armor, sir?” I asked. I thought the emphasis nicely conveyed my opinion.
“None for you; not worth wasting the time to fit. You though,” he looked back at Hroar, “you can ask the armorer when you reach the lines. Probably they can find a set that fits.” Off a dead man, unless I missed my guess.
“Don’t worry,” Hroar said quietly as we made for the fifty-seventh. “There’s no way they talk to each other. We’ll tell the armorer to get sets for us both.” I thanked him, though I was starting to expect the armorer might take one look and make the same assessment as the last guy.
* * *
I’d like to say we pitched our tent for a sound night of sleep before a full meal and a thorough introduction to our unit, weapons, and tactics. But that was just what I wished for, while I force-marched in a sleep-deprived fog. We were struggling to fit the canvas to the sticks when the order came to march. I even smiled at the joke, before I noticed that Hroar had reversed course and wrapped his boots into the tent.
“Wait, they’re not serious?”
Hroar shook his head. Then I noticed that everyone else was already packed, and forming up into a line. My boots and sword were still on the ground. I grabbed for them. “But what about–”
“Shut it, frog!” somebody yelled. “Get your ass in line before you catch a fly!”
I thought it was a bit much, but if I had to line up, I could line up. At least in a line, we could go to the chow tent together.
Fifteen leagues later, I still hadn’t eaten. I could barely walk another step; the only thing forcing my feet to continue one after the other was the fear of what might happen if I stopped. My hand blistered and the tip of my sword dragged on the ground — apparently none of the dead men had owned a scabbard. I would have given my right arm to be out on the Valkyrie. Still at sea. Dad didn’t even know. I hoped Mom was taking this better than I was.
* * *
I dragged my head up when I heard the shouting ahead. Six days of marching, and I would have cheerfully jumped into a giant’s pot. I guess I knew the front lines weren’t right there, but I had envisioned a carriage. Or at least a horse. Or something. My legs were long since numb, and when my good hand periodically cramped, I switched the sword to the injured one. At the moment, the hand was bleeding down the hilt to my blade. Mixing my life with the blood of men and giants already there. I couldn’t imagine what anybody was yelling about. I would have liked to yell for a rest, but if I got one, I would simply fall to the ground and it would take all the heroes in Valor Hall to move me another inch.
Suddenly Hroar knocked me aside. I summoned the power to squawk, but the sound was drowned by the crunch as a massive club shattered his chest. I simply gaped at the one-eyed giant that stepped into the space. It grunted, shook the wreckage of my shield brother off its weapon, and drew it back to swing at me. In that moment, I knew my end was nigh.
A burst of flame sizzled through the air from behind, leaving bright streaks in my vision. I hadn’t even known there was a mage in our escort. The fire smashed into the giant’s eye, and over the creature’s roar, I could hear the pops and hisses as its large white orb boiled away. Blinded, with the juicy remains of its eye dribbling down its chin, it still managed to smash its club wildly into the ground. Thankfully, and miraculously, not into me.
I finally jerked my sword up, slashing the creature’s ruined face. It stood tall and roared, then leaned back down to swing again. I sidestepped the blow, and tried stabbing instead. My sword dug deep into its face. The great monster roared one last time, and then its legs collapsed out from under it. It shook the earth when it fell, and flung the sword right out of my hand.
“Fifty-Seventh! To me!” a voice called fiercely through the mayhem. There seemed to be giants all around, and the wizard’s work was the only thing keeping any of us alive. I ran for the battle standard.
Three steps from safety, or three steps from armed defenders at least, another massive club smashed my left arm and spun me around. Pain exploded into my head, and for a moment, all I could see was red. Then I saw dirt, streaked with the blood of men. I lay face-down on the ground, while the battle raged above. When I tried to push up, the pain in my arm almost broke me. And then I felt an amazing thing — my other hand was pushing against the hilt of a sword.
“Fifty-Seventh! Fifty-Seventh!” I heard. The Merkismathr holding the standard pounded the staff into the ground. A surge of energy propelled me to my feet, and I felt the wounded arm no more. Flame whooshed overhead, another giant roared, and I smelled its burning flesh. My blade followed the trail. Even Hroar could never take them one on one, but with a little aid from this wizard, I would hunt each giant to the grave.
The next time the enemy swung at me, I couldn’t help but notice how slowly its weapon moved. I ducked out of the path with ease, and sliced open its side under the arm that had passed.
The fools were barely wearing armor at all, only mismatched animal skins. My sword cut through them, as easy as gutting a fish.
In the mists of my peripheral vision, our band of defenders seemed smaller.
Something crashed into my leg, but it was only a little bother.
The next “Fifty-seventh” sounded almost half-hearted.
No more fireballs passed over my head.
The battle standard wavered.
I fought my way back, grabbing it from the dead hand of the Merkismathr as he fell.
The world narrowed around me. I could see the broken and bloodied tip of my sword, I could feel the torn standard fluttering in the wind, and I found my enemy before me.
If these creatures thought they could destroy the Fifty-Seventh, they had another thought coming.
My sword ripped another giant open from knee to groin.
Darkness closed in.
Valor Hall, part 3
When I opened my eyes, I saw nothing but granite. The smells of blood, sweat, and flesh were gone. Arches soared over my head, hundreds of feet in the air. In bas-relief, I saw each of my greatest heroes in their finest moments of glory. I heard an entire Tinglith of warriors, crashing the butts of their spears to the ground together, honoring the victories of our past. The sound echoed and re-echoed through the heights of the chamber. I turned, already knowing what I would see.
High on the far wall, opposite the Heroes, rested the Gods. Heroes and Gods as one, only in Valor Hall.
I suppose I knew I’d never survive an ambush by giants, but what cosmic mix-up of fate had delivered a Fisherman here?
I tore my gaze down from the heavens.
I stood in the Circle of Honor. Hroar knelt before me. As soon as I noticed, he bowed his head and raised his hands.
“Hroar, what are you doing? You sacrificed yourself for me! Let me offer you to the Hall!”
Hroar looked up, plainly in awe. “Thorlev, you killed seven giants today. The battle standard of the Fifty-Seventh did not fall until after the last of the enemy.” Tears streamed down his face. “You have made Heroes of us all. I am merely your witness.”
Suddenly a thousand spear hafts crashed to the marble floor, and a thousand voices rang out in unison. “The Fifty-Seventh!” I felt the tears run down my own face as I saw each and every one of my greatest heroes, fists aloft in my honor.
I raised my broken sword. “The Fifty-Seventh!” I called back, with every fibre of my being.
* * *
“So, uh, what now?” I asked Hroar. We stood off to the side, the short ceremony complete.
He cleared his throat in a way I took to be significant, and looked to the side.
I immediately straightened and fumbled my way through a bow as I recognized Ivar Erikson himself. He still had the vaguely bowlegged walk of a king who’d spent nearly his entire reign astride his warhorse. Behind him on each side walked one of his legendary Riddari — the legs and flanks of a stallion, smoothly transitioning into the powerful chests, massive shoulders, and muscled arms of elite warriors. Somehow the stories didn’t do them justice — it looked like either one could snap me in half and eat me for breakfast; just a small warm-up before moving on to the actual battle. One of them smiled at the other as they noticed me staring.
“Congratulations,” the king said, holding out a hand. Shocked, I gripped his arm in the traditional manner, before thinking it through. Probably his Riddari Guard would break me now. But he stopped me when I tried to pull back.
“No, Thorlev. No man here has claim to a title. We are simply the Valiant. And you’ve earned your place at least as much as I have. After all, I had…” and he nodded to his horse-men.
Lost for words, I just looked from him to his Guard, desperately hoping they agreed. Finally I found my tongue. “I… You do me too much honor!”
“No more than you deserve.” Finally he released my arm. “But listen, now, tell me of your journey.”
“Think back. It’ll take a moment, but then it will come to you. How did you come to be here?”
“There was a battle, the giants…” I couldn’t hide my confusion at the request.
“Most of us remember little. Just bits and pieces. Myself, I recall a soft voice, close to my sister’s, but more… innocent. A horse I knew was not my own. He moved like my armor was spun of feathers. No horse has ever carried me like that. And clouds. They tasted… cold. And… then I was here.” There was something else, something he wasn’t saying, but I wasn’t about to object. He shook himself back to the present. “The Fate Stones, though, speak of another. A man who took a longer journey. Thorlev, is that you?”
I thought back. I had taken up the standard. Killed the last giant… And finally fallen. What next?
* * *
“Thorlev,” a voice whispered. A woman’s voice, strikingly unfamiliar. The way she said my name was like no woman I had ever known. She put feeling into each syllable, as if they were gifts to be unwrapped. “Thorlev, your purpose has only begun.”
I opened my eyes, and her appearance was as striking as her voice. Lithe and beautiful, she looked almost Alfari. As she spoke again, I smelled the flowers woven into her long, brown hair. “Thorlev, Hione calls. Will you answer?”
I had to force my voice to work. “I will.”
She stood, and helped me up beside her. The remains of the battle were there, only… faded. I saw the standard at my feet, but couldn’t make out the symbols. My sword lay next to it, and I could no longer tell whose blood it held. A monstrous leg led away, to a torso with four enormous arms. How I avoided succumbing to that great beast, I’ll never know. I shuddered as I gazed over the field, but I couldn’t see much more than my immediate surroundings. I clutched the woman’s arm.
“You may call me Analia. And this is Runar.” I jerked my head around, having no idea who else she was talking about. There, snorting impatiently, was a small brown horse. He was saddled for two, and while Analia would be light, I had no idea how he’d manage to carry us both. He looked me in the eye and jerked his head as if to say, ‘let’s get on with this!’
Analia slipped onto Runar without hesitation. They both looked back at me. What else could I do? Fearing for the blood, sweat, and iron I was about to subject them to, I mounted behind her.
“Thorlev, there’s something you need to see. It’ll take some time, but it’s a story that must be told.”
Then her legs moved, and Runar leaped into the sky.
* * *
The clouds blew past frenetically as Runar strode through the air. We flew toward the coast, and a great storm loomed, washed over us with all the fury of the Storm Lion, and passed in the wink of an eye. Ships flew madly in and out of their ports. But few, too few. I looked for the Valkyrie, and thought maybe I saw it, though it was too far to be sure. A heavy winter storm blasted through, leaving the nothing but slowly spinning wreckage in its place. The sea frothed and churned, tossing the remaining ships like toys.
“Analia, what… what is this?”
She looked back at me sadly. “This, Thorlev, is what you must tell the Valiant.” It made no sense.
Runar turned inland, as summers and winters passed in rapid succession. I looked back, and counted only three ships. The entire fishing fleet?
“This will not be easy,” she warned, as Runar swooped down from the clouds.
I wasn’t sure what she meant. It was just the burned-out remains of some village. As sun and moon passed over, I saw some pathetic survivor dash out of the nearby hills, pick through the ruins, and flee again into the cover of darkness. As we watched, the sun dawned again and she came back, scouring another part of the remains. Another day, another visit. Each time, she seemed to lurk for a longer time at the ruins of one particular structure. This time she was going to pay for it — the attackers were back. Not even giants; a raiding party from the next village. They sped in and spread out to loot whatever they could, and as Runar turned to depart, the lone survivor was heading back toward her favorite place, unaware. Surrounded, and she didn’t even know it. She arrived just as I lost sight, her destination on the edge of a large clearing. If this was home, that would be the space for the market. Our house had also been on the edge, just about…
“I’m sorry, Thorlev.”
As we disappeared back into the clouds, I heard someone screaming.
Then I realized it was me.
* * *
“At least we fought the giants to a standstill,” I concluded. It wasn’t worth much. I couldn’t even see the ground toward the end, with the land sweeping Jaanmark with a winter the likes of which she had never seen. Three summers missed and it was only getting started. “I think I’m glad I didn’t live to see the rest.”
Ivar Erikson considered my story and nodded. “You’re the one, then. The Last of the Valiant.” He blew out a sigh. “We must warn the others. The end is near.”Read More
The Wyrd Sisters have spoken of the Destiny of the Gods: the time when all barriers would be broken, Ratri would be freed, and the gods’ ancient foes would march on Valor Hall to the ruin of all.
Through the long years we have waited, the army of the gods to counter the army of the giants. In life, all of us were great heroes, worthy of selection to Valor Hall. In this afterlife, we have grown soft, our skills slowly eroded by too much food and drink, too many nights spent carousing. We are not ready.
But those of us who have remained alert have sensed it, and those who would heed the lines of prophecy can see that the twilight of the gods is drawing nigh. We must prepare ourselves, and rouse our fellow Valiant to the defense of this world.
For once in his life, Sparks was at a loss for words. The three of them had prepared for a fast and stealthy trip through the wasteland. But the last member of their small team…
Sarge made a quick introduction. “The magi have agreed to assist. This is Thoorin…”
“Thoorin Firesong,” the mage supplied sharply. “Call me Firesong.”
Bishop coughed, and his face said everything Sparks felt, but at least the man’s brightly-colored robes matched his name. The massive wooden chest, however, and the elderly donkey it was strapped to…
Finally Sparks found his voice again. “So, Sarge, have you explained the ‘move fast’ and ‘don’t be noticed’ parts of the mission to, uh, Firesong?”
The mage answered directly. “I’m sorry, if I may put it in your terms, these are my swords and armor. Non-negotiable. Now, when do we leave?” He turned away to tighten the straps on the pack animal.
“Looks like they’ve saddled us with two asses,” Bishop muttered under his breath.
* * *
Even thirty yards away, Bishop shuddered as he watched the creature pass. This one was smaller, the bastard offspring of the monsters that had nearly killed him. And it didn’t seem to care that the stomping and crashing through underbrush was alerting everyone within earshot. Maybe it just wanted a fight.
With a quick hand motion, Bishop stopped the rest of the team before they started over the small rise. A few gestures later, they were headed around the side instead.
Bishop watched the creature until it was safely out of sight. It still looked nothing more than a walking hunk of clay, with eyes and ears just molded out of the raw material. It walked stiffly, and carried a large tree branch over its shoulder; an improvised club, or perhaps a walking stick for climbing the steeper hills. The thing seemed to have a purpose, but what that could be here and now was beyond understanding.
He doubled back to the group, to be greeted by an outraged Firesong.
“I don’t know why you’re directing us away from the tomb. I’ve explained three times where it is!”
Bishop sighed. “And I’ve told you — we don’t fight in the wasteland unless we absolutely can’t avoid it.”
“Nonsense — I shall sing the fire and they shall trouble us no more.”
Sparks was just as skeptical: “This fire song, uh, Firesong, could you give us a small demonstration? So we can plan our tactics.”
Firesong hummed defiantly, and snapped his fingers at Sparks. A small flame, perhaps the size of a candle, popped into existence and hovered above his palm.
No longer able to keep a straight face, Sarge burst out laughing. “Boy, he really showed you!”
Bishop grinned. “Okay, Firesong, you win. Let’s go back and fight.”
The mage’s face turned as red as his robe. “Damn you, I can scale it up from there.” With a longer song and much more elaborate gestures, he threw a small streak of flame toward a distant bush. It almost hit, shattering a small rock nearby.
Bishop was actually impressed — Sparks could have shot the rock with ease, but his arrow never would have broken it. “How big can you make it?”
Firesong looked away. “Well, uh, that’s a matter of some debate.” He pointed to his trunk. “I believe I’ve identified all the elements of the gestures, but the proper verse eludes me. The scrolls speak of massive explosions, of fire streaking down from the heavens…” He sighed. “So much of the knowledge is lost…”
“Heck of a thing to lose,” Sparks chipped in.
“Look little man,” the mage retorted, “How’d you like to be stringing a bow taller than you are, not that pint-sized version?” He gestured at Bishop. “And the grunt here would be in full-plate armor, though he might need a war horse to move it.”
Sarge cut in before things got further out of hand. “Enough, enough. Firesong, we’ll take what you can give us, but we’re not going to go looking for trouble. Now let’s get back to the mission.”
* * *
The mage paced impatiently, though Bishop returned soon enough.
“It’s there all right,” he nodded at Firesong, “just like he said. But there’s nothing to see. Just a small room, lots of writing on the walls, and a little shrine with one of his magical fires burning on top. Waste of a trip.”
“The Everflame! It is the tomb of Azazel!” Firesong objected. “Legend holds that he was turned away from the Wall, by the Watch I might add, but never made it back to his fortress. Does it say where the fortress is? Is there a map?”
“No, just a bunch of words.”
“And do these words say anything,” Firesong inquired with scathing sarcasm.
Bishop turned away, visibly trying to restrain himself from throttling anyone. It meant he was facing the wrong way to see Firesong dash away, and only heard Sparks call after him, “Wait you idiot! We sent a scout because we wanted to avoid attention!”
* * *
The other three arrived to find Firesong gazing reverently at the walls. “The old tongue! The lost verse is here, I can tell! Just give me a moment…”
Naturally that was the moment the wasteland interrupted. Four people shambled out of the woods opposite the small mausoleum, except maybe ‘people’ was overly generous. Their clothes looked familiar but remained only in tatters, their eyes were completely blank, and the stench of rotting flesh arrived just after they did. They unlimbered makeshift weapons — a rusty axe, a miner’s pick, a sword broken off halfway, and a big stick.
The squad exchanged a silent glance, then sprang into action. Sparks whipped his bow off his back, arrow in hand. Sarge took up position to protect the door, with Firesong inside. Bishop charged the new arrivals like he had something to prove. Moments later, they crashed together.
Bishop knocked huge chunks out of the one with the axe, though it seemed to absorb the punishment without much of a reaction. The other three lumbered on toward the tomb. Sparks took careful aim and shot one right through the eye, though it just carried on with the shaft of an arrow sticking out from its face.
With an eye on the attackers, Sarge called back into the tomb. “We could use some of that Fire Song out here. Right now would be good.”
“A moment, a moment, I’m so close…” came the distracted reply.
Sparks figured if the head didn’t work, he’d try for the heart. The first surprise came when his arrow bounced right off the creature’s chest. It looked down stupidly, at least as shocked as Sparks was, and pulled something small out of the remains of its front pocket.
The second surprise was that Sparks didn’t need to see it to know what it was. A small mirror. Kenny stopped to shave at the oddest times, and left the mirror in his pocket so it would always be handy. There was almost a click in his head as Sparks recognized his friend from the lost patrol. Or what was left of him. The creature looked back toward the tomb and raised a hand. Sparks froze.
The third surprise was the cold hand on his shoulder that spun him around before he could react. Sparks had a moment to wonder how something so awkward had snuck up behind them, and then one of the makeshift weapons smashed into his head.
* * *
Bishop crippled his foe with a crushing blow that shattered its leg. He turned back toward the rest, in time to see three of the creatures close in on Sarge while two more leaned down to finish off Sparks. Bishop broke into a run, though there was no chance he’d reach them in time to stop the inevitable.
At that moment, a harsh voice rang out from the tomb. A massive ball of flame streaked out the door, exploding in the middle of the fight. The force of it knocked Sarge over. It all but blew the creatures apart. Bishop slowed to a halt, awestruck, while greasy nuggets of hot flesh rained down on him.
Then Firesong stepped out, face seared and eyebrows burned to a crisp.
Before anyone could say a word, he broke into an enormous grin. “Now can we look for some trouble?”Read More
One of the sentries poked his head into the command tent. “Major Quinn for you, sir.”
Garret nodded. As soon as Quinn stepped in, he could tell it was bad news.
Garret grimaced at the formality from his best friend.
“Southern patrol is an hour late checking in, sir.”
“That’s the third one?” There had been no sign at all of the first two that went missing.
“Yes sir. And…” his voice trailed off.
“The men are scared. Krebb keeps passing by, ‘just by chance,’ talking about how at least the valley had a wall, at least we knew our patrol routes, we never lost two patrols in a month let alone a day. If I hadn’t checked in on the Northern patrol when they mustered, I get the feeling there might not have been a Northern patrol.”
“Good thing you did, then.” Quinn always had his finger on the pulse of the men.
Before they could continue, the sounds of a commotion came from outside the tent, and the sentry poked back in.
“Lieutenant Sparks, sir, and–”
Sparks’ voice came in, excitable as ever. “Bishop! Survivor from the south patrol!”
Garret and Quinn exchanged glances. “Bring him in.”
Bishop staggered in, supported by Sparks on one side and Doc on the other. He was covered in layers of crusted-on blood and mud, making him look inches thicker than normal.
Unsurprisingly, Sparks launched right in: “So we were just talking about whether to send another patrol on the southern route or keep them closer, I mean would you rather know what happened even at the risk of losing more men or would you do better just to guard the flank and whatever’s farther out there can just stay out there, and Jimmy was saying how we should–”
“Lieutenant Sparks.” Quinn’s voice cut right through, bringing the monologue to a halt.
“Uh, Sir. Sirs.”
The injured man still hadn’t acknowledged them.
Garret stood. “Bishop?” Wild eyes shot up, locking on his face. “Bishop, what happened out there?”
A grating voice emerged, like nothing Garret had heard before. “General.” A pause, then Bishop pulled himself upright. The simple motion tossed Sparks and Doc aside as if they were puppets. Suddenly Garret realized he wasn’t covered in anything. It was his skin, thick black and marbled with red, craggy in a way skin simply wasn’t. His eyes were sinking toward madness, but while gravelly, his voice was steady.
“We were attacked, sir. First by dogs, I guess they were dogs. Wild dogs, with three tails, spikes on their heads, legs with bones and muscles but no skin. Rabid, completely mad. We lost Leonard, Bradley was hurt bad. Patched him up and carried on. When we got to the foothills was when we really got hit.”
Quinn asked the question they were all waiting for. “By what?”
“Creatures, some kind of rock, maybe clay. There were four of them, ten feet tall, looked like you or me,” he said without a trace of irony, “but made from the mountains themselves. Arrows, swords, it all bounced right off. Jordi’s hammer did some damage, but they crushed him quick enough. Didn’t even need anything except their fists.”
“So how did you…?”
“They left me for dead. I was dead. Only–” he gestured toward himself. “I grew back.” Garret heard the disgust in his voice. “Just like them. Halfway, anyway. Now I don’t know what I am.”
Quinn fielded this one too. “You’re a Watchman. Like you were this morning.” Almost involuntarily, Bishop straightened again.
“Until you go mad,” Garret added. The wild eyes locked on him again. “Don’t do it. We need every man. Hold on to it.”
“Sir.” That gritty voice.
“Dismissed.” Bishop ducked out of the tent automatically, with Doc in tow. Sparks started to move, but an imperceptible shake of Quinn’s head held him in place.
Quinn waited a moment, then spoke in a low tone. “Keep an eye on him, Sparks. Make sure he bunks with the Watch, but give him some space. We can’t lose him, we can’t let the civilians hang him out to dry, but if he goes mad…” The implication went unsaid.
Sparks gulped, but didn’t balk. “Sir.”
And then it was just the two of them.
“Sir, dogs or mountains or whatever, we can’t keep sending patrols into this.”
“No, you’re right. Keep the patrols in close, no more exploring, just guard the flanks. We’re going to need a few crack teams, but they’re only going to matter if the rest of us survive.”
“Men we can trust, men who will get the job done, men who will make it back here.”
“Why don’t we just guard the flanks all the way to Sitriph?”
“Teams. To find Sitriph.”
“Find it, sir?”
“Quinn, who do you think I am? We’re chasing a legend, here. We’d all have died in that valley if we sat down and prayed, and Sitriph got us moving. But grandfathers tell stories about the gates of Sitriph. It’s not like I have a map.”
“Garret…” For once, the honorific was forgotten.
“We’ll find it, Quinn. If it’s there, we’ll find it.”
“Pick your best. If Bishop makes it the night, he should go — he obviously has what it takes. Talk to the Magi, quietly. They’ll support us on this. The Priesthood too — we need every advantage. It’ll take at least five teams, and I want your recommendations by morning.”