The Story

You can’t believe everything you hear in the world of Desolation.

By Stephen J. Herron

Snow was falling on the settlement. Winter had come in fast on the heels of the Night of Fire, and many feared it would be a long, tough season.

The settlement didn’t even have a name. It barely had any buildings, but it had hundreds of people flocking to it. The snow was already 3 feet deep by the time the young man arrived. His name meant “golden roof” in the language of his homeland, and it was quite appropriate. Right now his hood was pulled up over his blond hair, but his long, green traveling cloak barely kept out the cold. His hands were gloved and his boots were soaked from trudging through the snow. His horse had long since been traded for more important things.

He stood at the head of a line of people seeking entry into what passed for a town. His pockets and backpack were filled with trading items – pieces of iron and other metal. He was alone, and was looking forward to some company and a warm meal.

“Are you alone?” the guard asked him.

“Everyone I know is dead,” replied the young man, his voice filled with a sort of sadness. “I buried the last of them in the snow about a half mile away.”

The guard just nodded, and let the man in. There had been too many refugees like this. The settlement was full of lost souls who just wanted a place to rest – somewhere they could feel like they weren’t alone.

More figures were lined up behind the young man, including a much older man. He did his best to support his weary frame on a staff. The guard stared suspiciously at the staff and the man holding it.

“Now then,” he said, “we’re not really comfortable with mages in the settlement you know?”

A few people stopped to watch. The young man turned to view the scene with wary interest.

“I am not a mage!” snapped the old man. His hand tightened around the staff with a white-knuckled grip.

“Give up the staff, then,” suggested the guard, eyeing the carved oak.

“Would you ask an old man to give up his only means of support in his infirmity?” asked the old man in amazement.

Several people in the crowd exchanged uncertain glances.

The guard looked a bit uncertain for a moment, then seemed to recall his duty.

“Yes. Give it up, or get the hell out.”

He pushed the old man aside to make room for a group of women and children who scurried past the gate into the settlement.

The young man shook his head and made his way deeper into the settlement. He laughed as some children ran past.

“The next generation!” he said to their mother, giving her a warm smile. “Keep them safe!”

He took her hand in his own, which was gloved to keep out the cold. When she withdrew her hand, she held a bent iron spoon. She might be able to trade it for a warm meal.

“Thank you…” she sniffled, and hugged him in gratitude.

“Go on, now,” he said. “Keep an eye on them.”

The man smiled to himself and looked around for what passed for an inn in this place. He saw a clumsily painted sign over the door of a barn with the words “The Broken Quill” written upon it.

He pushed his way inside and was surprised to see a crowd of people. Such life here, he thought, even in such a shattered world. He looked around and found a pretty face behind the plank of wood that served as a bar. He walked over and pulled back his hood.

The barmaid noticed him immediately and ignored several other patrons as she walked over to him.

“Hello, stranger, and welcome to the Quill,” she said, taking in his tall, lean form. She sat a broken cup in front of him, which held a bitter smelling liquid.

“The first one is on me. The second one will cost you a story.”

He grabbed the drink and sniffed it carefully. He frowned, knocked it back and shuddered.

“The second one may cost me more than that, I fear,” he said, wincing.

The girl grinned. “Tell me about yourself.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard my story before. I’m a long way from home, and all my companions are long dead. I left them out there in the snow. And here I am, alone in a bar with a pretty girl who is serving me what may once have been used to clean drains.”

She poured him another.

“The third one will cost you a kiss from that pretty, eloquent mouth,” she said, and she meant it.

He shook his head, refusing the drink.

“One more of these,” he said, “and my mouth will be neither. What passes for entertainment around here?”

She looked disappointed, but tilted her head toward the center of the room.

“Stories,” she said. “The owner of the Quill used to be a historian in the capital for one of the big universities. He’s writing the stories down. Can you believe it? He says he’s doing it for the future generations. As if there’s going to be any.”
The young man smiled to himself, remembering the woman and her children outside. The girl looked askance at him.

“Did I say something interesting?”

He looked around at her and smiled.

“You’ll have lots of big fat babies, don’t you worry. Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I have some stories to listen to.”

He walked over to the large circle of tables and chairs where the majority of the inn’s patrons were seated, and found a place to sit.

A burly man in his late fifties sat in a large chair. He had a huge book open on the table in front of him. A quill scratched back and forth upon the paper, and dipped from time to time into a pot of ink as he wrote, very quickly, recording what the current storyteller said.

This storyteller was standing on a table in the middle of the circle of patrons. In a loud, slightly drunken voice, he was telling a story about Necromancy.

The blond man raised his eyebrows, fascinated.

“This should be interesting!” he commented to the man beside him, before sitting back to listen intently.

I knew a woman who once lived in Kar’Danan. She told me many tales of that fetid place, where the Circle of Dust pulls the strings of their puppet kings. There, the many corrupt baronies vie for power. Over the years, the kings and queens of Kar’Danan have had the eternal screams of one of their own to remind them of their place. He was a king who thought to rise up and remove the long, bony fingers of the Circle from around the royal’s throats. The name of that king, they say, is lost to history. But in truth, he screams it in agony from his perch upon the gates of the Burning Palace. It was all they left him able to say. Now his name means “betrayer” in the tongue of Kar’Danan.

The woman I knew told me the Burning Palace was swallowed by a lake during the Night of Fire, but the king screams still from beneath that lake, for a punishment by the Nine is forever.

The Nine… aye, there’s a word that fills any Kar’Daner with fear. Few have ever seen them all, and none but King Oliver Ashland knows all their names. The most powerful of the Circle was called Kalen. He was ancient, with white hair and a crackling voice. Some say Kalen was the one who put the curse on the Betrayer himself. They say Kalen was the only one of the Nine to survive the Night of Fire because of his twisted abilities. He had branded hundreds of people with his Mark. The Mark of the Grinning Brigade.

A small voice coughed, interrupting the storyteller. He glanced over to a little girl who was sitting beside the young blond man.

“What is it, little one?” he asked impatiently, eager to continue with his tale.

“Why were they grinning? Were they happy?”

“No, child. They were undead. Skeletons. Their dead faces always look like they are grinning.”

The child let out a whimper. The young man beside her placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Ssshhh. You’re safe here. No skeletons will harm you, I promise!”

She looked up gratefully at the stranger, and beamed her own grin at him. He smiled back, and a few people chuckled at this exchange.

The storyteller, slightly annoyed at the interruption, got back to his work.

Kalen had long hated the Empire. He created the Grinning Brigade as an insult, a parody of the Grand Army.

His toy army was a thousand strong. He had crafted it carefully. Each skeletal soldier was perfect, without flaw. He hand picked every single bone to make sure it was of the best quality, and pieced together his brigade one by one. It required powerful Necromantic magicks, but he perfected a way of sharing any painful magical feedback with others. Though even mages within the Empire practiced this “marking” with willing participants in trade for small works here and there, Kalen forced it upon peasants. His dark version of the brand made it possible to even kill and consume those so marked. It was said that those killed in such a way would come back as powerful undead that only Kalen could control.

However, Kalen never marked women or children, nor did he allow harm to come to them. I wonder perhaps if he had once been in love, or once had children of his own. In any case, neither woman nor child ever had cause to fear Kalen or his undead army, though the rest of the Nine had no such weakness.

The woman I spoke of once met Kalen. She had survived the destruction of her village at the hands of his Grinning Brigade, and had been spared. She had not seen Kalen’s face, but had just seen his smile from beneath his hood and heard his voice.

“He told me to run, and to not look back,” she said to me, and her voice had been filled with terror. She had run, you see. But she had looked back. She later clawed her own eyes out, unable to live with the visions that overwhelmed her every night.

Kalen feared no one. They say that his decrepit ancient form was only kept whole through the use of Necromantic rituals. The Circle of Dust relied upon his magical knowledge and the Grinning Brigade to protect them from upstart barons who would think to come to the Burning Palace and take their power.

Continued at top »

In truth, many have wondered why the Circle never ruled openly over Kar’Danan. Why did they allow the kings and queens to rule? Why did they keep the barons in constant conflict, and why did they allow the Empire to exist?

No one knows for sure. Perhaps the Nine just wanted to be left alone with their magical studies, and that the petty politics of Kar’Danan kept the population distracted enough to let the Circle do what they wanted.

The Night of Fire fell upon Kar’Danan as harshly as it fell elsewhere, and though some might think the Necromancers would have been happy surrounded by death, in truth I think they suffered as much as any other mage.

The stories say that Kalen had placed his brand upon hundreds of people, and he ushered the entirety of his power at once to command his brigade to climb up and around his personal keep. It is said most of the Grinning Brigade was destroyed in the process, becoming a shield of bone to keep out the worst of the Night of Fire. As he focused the raw necromantic power of the Weave through his body and his hands, they began to erupt in flame. Hundreds of people died in his place, taking the death that was meant for him, but he was not spared completely. His hands burn to this day. He feels no pain, but his hands will forever smoke with a raging black fire.

The rest of the Nine almost certainly perished during the Night of Fire, along with the most powerful mages across the world. We can be thankful for that. A few scattered practitioners of the dark art remain, certainly, but they are as much at risk from Burn as any other mage. Perhaps they will be consumed by their own talents.

But be sure of this. Kalen the Necromancer, Last of the Nine, still walks the land – rebuilding the Grinning Brigade, one bone at a time.

The storyteller finished his tale, got off the table and sat down. He looked satisfied, perhaps smug in his telling, and sipped on some very poor mead.

“I wonder,” asked the young man thoughtfully, running his hand through his hair, “what you’d ask one of the Nine, if you had the chance.”

“I’d ask him to leave the inn!” said one person in the crowd, and a few others laughed nervously.

The historian looked up, intrigued.

“An interesting question, my friend! I’d ask him if there were really only nine of them. I’ve always wondered.”

An older woman raised her hand, nervously. She looked strangely hopeful.

“I’d ask if they can really bring back the dead.”

A few people nodded at this.

The storyteller coughed uncomfortably. “I always did wonder if Kalen really let the women and children go, and why,” he said.

The young man gave this question some consideration himself. He was silent, seemingly a thousand miles away.

The historian pointed his quill at the young man then. “What about you, friend? What would you ask?”

The young man looked up from his thoughts, and smiled.

“I suppose I do have a question, but it’s for you, actually,” he said, looking at the storyteller, who seemed pleased at being singled out.

“What makes you think he was old?” asked the young man.

The storyteller blinked at the unexpected question.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve portrayed Kalen the Necromancer as a wizened old man, hair as white as snow, with more lines on his face than borders on a map of the Warlands. Why do you think that is? Why are the Circle of Dust always thought of as being old?”

The group thought for a while. Then the barmaid, who herself was barely out of her teens, spoke up.

“Perhaps it’s about experience,” she said. “You can only really get enough life experience to earn a place in the Circle through long years of practice and hard slog.”

The young blond man smiled warmly at her.

“That’s such a sweet and lovely idea. What is your name, pretty girl?”

She blushed furiously, glad that the handsome stranger had turned his attention back to her once more.  

“I am Meena,” she said softly, but not without first giving him a direct and meaningful look.

“Well, Meena,” said the young man, conspiratorially, “of the Nine, only two were over 50. The rest of us were much younger. And I mean really, actually young. We didn’t use magic to keep us young or anything like that. And Kalen, the most powerful Necromancer of the Nine? He was actually the youngest. He was barely 16 when he joined the Circle, but he could do things that the oldest couldn’t even imagine.”

The room was silent. They stared at the young man, mouths agape. From outside, shouts of alarm could be heard. The settlement was under attack.

Tears sprang from Meena’s eyes, running down her cheeks.

“How … how do you know that.”

The young man smiled at her with genuine warmth.

“Because, Meena, I am Kalen. And let me tell you that it’s not about experience, or age. It’s about power. It’s about raw talent. And it’s about never being what people expect you to be.”

He stood up, and took the glove off his right hand. A dark glow burst from his fingertips, as if a silent purple fire was boiling around his entire hand.

“I’ll also answer your question,” he said to the storyteller. “It’s true that I don’t kill women and children. I let the children grow up first. You’ve got to have the next generation of recruits. And it’s always good to leave a few people to tell a few stories. I love a good story.”

He pointed his burning hand to the barmaid, and walked slowly up to her. With his fingertip he drew a sigil upon her right breast that sizzled with arcane power then faded, almost completely. He smiled gently, almost beneficently as he drew.

“There. Now you’ll always be safe,” he said. “Protected from my friends outside in the snow. Not one will ever lay a bony finger upon you.”

He leaned in close.

“I promised you’d live to have many fat babies, didn’t I?

“It’s very nice to meet you,” he turned and said to the awestruck and terrified occupants of the inn, “and I’d like to welcome you all to the Grinning Brigade.”

He turned to Meena. He looked regretful.

“Run. Don’t look back.”

Then the screaming started.

New Talent

Burn Burden

Prerequisite: Magic 12, Magical Aptitude, Burn Transfer, Burn Transfer II, Burn Reduction

You can permanently brand unwilling targets with a magic mark that allows you to transfer Burn damage to them.

Benefit: You can brand anyone, willing or not, and transfer your Burn to them. One point of Burn can be transferred for each brand made.
A subject can only be branded once by the spell caster, but the brand remains on the target for life. When Burn is transferred, the branded person receives lethal damage instead of Burn damage. That person cannot have more Burn transferred to them until the Burn damage has healed. The branded person must be alive for the Burn to transfer. If a person would be reduced to zero health by the point of Burn inflicted by the brand, their body is consumed by the Weave in a destructive manner, completely destroying it.A magic user can maintain brands equal to three times her Magic Skill Rating. A magic user can choose the order in which the Burn is transferred among those she branded. Branded people cannot sense which direction the magic user is, but she can sense those she marked. The brands are in addition to marks available from Burn Transfer.
Normal: Burn only affects the magic user casting the spell.
Advanced: This Talent may not be taken a second time.


Kalen – Necromancer (npc 6)
Archetype: Spell Caster
Motivation: Power
Health: 11
Style: 6
BOD: 5         CHA: 4
DEX: 3         INT: 7
STR: 4         WIL: 4
SIZE: 0        INIT: 10     
MOVE: 7        DEF: 8   
PER: 11        STUN: 5





















Brew Magic Potion



















































1.  Magic Aptitude: Necromancy
2.  Burn Reduction
3.  Burn Transfer
4.  Burn Transfer II
5.  Robust (+2 Health)
6.  Burn Burden
1. Arrogant
2. Despised
3. Hunted
4. Personal Code: Avoids killing innocent women and children
Desolation Greymalkin Designs