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Broken Chains: A World Eaters Tale

A Warhammer 40K Fan Story

By Neal LitherlandPublished about a year ago Updated 11 months ago 23 min read
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This story is a sequel to Waking Dogs.

Locanthus VII was in chaos. Fires raged out of control, blood ran in the streets, and alarms blared from every spire, each of them bellowing conflicting commands at the citizens of the city. Las fire crackled through the night, and bolters bellowed their explosive wrath. Nightmares in red armor roamed the streets, their battle cries nearly as loud as the roar of their weapons as they brought death and destruction. The carnage blotted out the stars, and smoke billowed to the heavens like a burnt offering to all the gods of slaughter that had ever looked down on nights filled with bloodshed.

Atillus watched all of this unfold from the broken bunker that had been the headquarters of the city’s defense force. Standing before a projection table, the captain of the Skull Cutters warband watched a map of the city that showed every guard company, every piece of artillery, every armored unit, and every militia squad who’d activated their communications equipment as they tried to move into position. Overlaid onto the city through his helmet display, however, were the positions of his men. They were far smaller in number, but that would not be the case for long.

His band had been given the task of breaking this hive to prove that they had what it took to stand among Huron Blackheart’s forces. They were to destroy its defenses, and conquer it, but Blackheart wanted the populous and resources ready and able to be put to use. The master of the Red Corsairs knew the reputation of Atillus and his force, but reputations were built of wind and whispers; proof was the price of standing among his captains. Atillus had forced his snarl into a smile, and said that not only would they take the place as Blackheart demanded, but they would do so in less than a day and a night. Blackheart had returned the captain’s smile, and said he looked forward to news of the Skull Cutters’ triumph.

“In position, sir,” the sibilant voice of Naraxes whispered through the vox link. Atillus’s lips drew back from his teeth, and he felt his jaw clench tight enough to creak.

“Attack,” Atillus barked. He watched as dozens of blue lights vanished off the board, the city’s defenders going dark in such a rapid succession that they seemed to blink out all at once. Atillus switched to a wider channel. “Sky Riders, attack point Theta. Now!”

Atillus closed the vox before any of the Night Lords from the raptor unit could confirm his orders. His breath tore in and out of his throat, and he could smell blood leaking from his nostrils. His veins were on fire, every beat of his twin hearts pumping a flood of adrenaline into his muscles that begged for release. His temples throbbed, and his skull was a maelstrom of noise and agony. The Butcher’s Nails howled, demanding sacrifice of their own. A sharp crack sounded inside his helmet, and Atillus spit out a fragment of one of his teeth.

“My lord,” Sybel said, her soft voice cutting through the pain in his brain. “May I be of some assistance?”

Atillus rounded on the sorceress, the actuators in his bloodstained armor thrumming with power, and the lights of his eye lenses narrowing as they focused on her. His power ax was in his hand, though he didn’t remember hefting it from where it had rested against the table. Sybel merely stood there, gazing up at him. Her simple robe was smooth and clean, her skin soft and unblemished. Her shaven skull gleamed in the light of the command screens, but it was her eyes even more than the sorceress’s voice that drew the World Eater’s attention. They were swirl of blue tinged with streaks of deep, royal purple. It was like looking into her mind, and seeing a galaxy unfold before you. A galaxy that promised a respite from pain, and a reprieve from the need for blood and death. He had gotten lost in it before, and a part of him desperately wanted to again.

“No,” Atillus said, forcing his jaw to move around the single word. He lowered his weapon with a visible effort, snorting breath out of his nose like a wounded bull. “Now is not the time.”

Sybel inclined her head slightly, acknowledging his word without breaking his gaze. He returned the ax to where it had rested, and forced his hands to uncurl from the fists they’d become. He turned back to the table, bringing his helmet display back into focus. Dozens of additional blue tags had vanished from the field while he’d been distracted, and the attack had progressed apace… but something was wrong. Four red tags that had been in motion moments ago had gone black, and still.

“Harrowers, report,” Atillus growled into his vox link. His pulse, which had begun to steady, spiked once more as his eyes moved from one display to the next, staring at the flat-lined readouts. “Barca, Naius, Crassus, Rexor, respond.”

There was silence on the vox. When he tried to access the display from the Harrowers’ helmets, he was met with empty, black feeds. Every one of them had been destroyed. There was nothing near their locations that could have caused this. There was not a single weapon emplacements or soldier that would have posed a threat to any of his brothers, much less a fist of them. Atillus gripped the edge of the table, his gauntlets making the steel edges creak as he squeezed. His eyes darted across the city, seeking one specific red badge. He found it in a moment. It was still, and the vitals were fluctuating wildly.

“Gracchus, respond!” Atillus yelled into the link. He accessed the link. There were no visuals, but he heard the sound of armor being rent, and the crackle of a power weapon as it tore flesh and pulverized bone. Then he heard something else; harsh, barking laughter. Gracchus’s vital readout stopped, and the rending sound ceased.

“I’m right behind you, sergeant,” a voice growled into the link. Then a final blow landed, and the link went dead.

For a moment, Atillus’s hearts stopped. The flesh on the back of his neck tightened, and even the torture of the Nails in his skull seemed remote and unimportant. Memories ran through his mind like a knotted rope, jerking and starting in brief flashes that were all sight and sound with little to no meaning. He saw heaps of corpses stacked on pyres, heard the roars of daemons, and felt the shaking impact of a thousand different drop ships. The roar of heavy guns and battle cries reverberated between his ears, and he watched as world after world bent the knee to him and the other conquerors. The cascade continued, until it ended at the bright lights of the apothecarion, and he remembered the last time he had ever felt real fear as he stared down at the blood-slicked table. One of his men had clapped him on the shoulder, and spoken those very words to him before he’d been remade in their father’s image.

“Crixus,” Atillus said.

“My lord?” Sybel asked.

Atillus ignored the sorceress. The adrenaline was rushing through him again, and the red mist was rising as the Nails tried to take him. His eyes fell on where Gracchus lay dead, and in his mind he drew a straight line from that location to the bunker in which he stood. It was no more than a few kilometers, and the sands were falling through the hourglass. He hefted his weapon again, and turned from the table.

“My lord? What are you doing?” Sybel asked, taking a step closer to him. “The battle, the men-”

“Silence,” Atillus snarled. “An assassin comes. I will deal with him.”

Sybel opened her mouth as if to say something else, then closed it and retreated. The witch had the talent to reach into one’s mind, but she had been at Atillus’s side long enough to know when not to put her hand in the beast’s cage. The captain descended the stairs to the ferrocrete deck below, and into the bunker’s halls. He stepped over the torn and mangled bodies of the city’s guard, each step a little surer than the last until the echoes of the past were shaken from his bones.

Atillus emerged from the smashed front gates of the command center like a gladiator stepping into the arena, ready to lay waste to his foes. A flight of wide, stone steps led to an open square below. A figure waited there in the gloom, lit only by the burning vehicles and flaming hab blocks. That figure wore a suit of Mark V power armor that had been scoured by battle until barely any enamel remained. The paldrons, chest plate, and knee guards bore no heraldry other than spatters of blood, and the marine displayed no marks of faith but the signs of violence. All it took was a tilt of his head, though, and Atillus knew in what remained of his soul that it was Crixus inside that war plate.

The captain of the Skull Cutters opened his mouth to call out to his old battle brother. Greetings and challenges all tried to rise from his throat, but they tangled on his tongue. In the end, all that came out of him was a wordless roar; the primal bellow of a beast that had been challenged. Crixus said nothing. He merely nodded, and raised his power sword.

Atillus rushed forward, the stairs splintering beneath his thundering boots as he pounded toward Crixus. Crixus waited, and just as Atillus’s servos whirred, Crixus swung his blade. The sword didn’t block the ax, but deflected it upward, changing its arc. Before Crixus could seize the advantage, Atillus lowered his shoulder, ramming it into Crixus’s chest plate. Crixus turned the stumble into a spin, hammering his gauntleted fist into Atillus’s side. Atillus’s armor plating cracked, but he didn’t so much as hesitate as he brought his ax down again and again. Crixus parried blow after blow, and bright surges of power lit the night. They moved faster and faster, weapons whirling in a storm of steel and crackling power fields, every swing mere inches away from ending the other’s life. Atillus was a howling storm, his ax striking with the power and unpredictability of a thunderbolt. Crixus was the raging sea, shifting and turning, never where one expected it to be.

A sound carried across the battle. It was a mere whisper, nearly lost in the cacophony of the duel, but Crixus heard it even if he wasn’t aware that he heard it. As his sword slashed and struck, the world around him began to shudder like a glass about to shatter under the pressure of a high note held too long. He blinked, and he and Atillus were once more in the ludus, surrounded by their brothers as they trained. The two of them fought as they always had, Atillus the stronger, Crixus the faster, each trying to outdo the other, searching for openings. Blows came and went, whistling with deadly surety, but none landed. Crixus laughed, reveling in the thrill of movement and the precision of the drill as he danced on the edge of death, trusting the man he called brother to hold his fury at the last second before his strike could land.

Crixus’s blade flicked in, and he stopped before it would have run his sergeant through. Rather than ceasing, Atillus roared, and chopped his ax down in a vicious backhand. Crixus managed to dodge the attack, but the blade dug a deep furrow through his pauldron. Before Crixus could regain his momentum Atillus bulled forward, every blow of his weapon closer and closer to ending Crixus’s life. Crixus heard roaring in his ears, but it was little more than distorted noise; a conversation in a half-remembered dream.

Atillus raised his ax over his head, and as Crixus moved to parry automatically, Atillus stepped in close and drove his helmet into Crixus’s. The blow hit hard enough to knock him back a step, rocking his head back. Atillus brought his ax down with both hands. Crixus got his sword up in time to blunt the blow, but not to stop it. His sword flew from his hand, and the ax sheared through steel and cerumite alike. The remnants of a helmet bounced across the broken ground, sparking and dying before coming to rest against a splintered retaining wall. The unmarked marine was driven to one knee by the sheer force of the strike that had nearly decapitated him.

The face that stared up at Atillus was seamed with violence, and death. Scars crisscrossed the cheeks and forehead, each a testament to an enemy who had nearly laid him low. His nose was a broken mountain range, surrounded by lumps of malformed flesh. Stubble sprouted around the scars, adding a coarseness to the face’s already rough contours. Blood ran from a wound in the shaven scalp, and from both nostrils. The marine’s bottom lip had been split, as well, and blood coated his teeth even as his enhanced biology sealed his hurts. It was the eyes that made Atillus hesitate. In the midst of that battlefield of a face, Crixus’s eyes were the bright, fierce blue of a noon day sky on Terra. They stared into Atillus’s soul, and in that gaze the World Eater saw no madness. No fear. Only a hate so cold it chilled the blood burning in his veins. Those eyes flicked over his shoulder, and Atillus half turned to see Sybel at the top of the stairs. Sweat glistened on the sorceress’s brow, and Atillus knew what she’d done. He knew why he was alive in that moment, instead of spitted on Crixus’s sword as he should have been. He turned his full attention back to the marine before him.

“Crixus,” Atillus snarled, the muscles in his jaw twitching. “I will give you one chance. Take up the chain. Swear me your fealty, and I will spare you my ax.”

“Show me your face,” Crixus growled. “Slave or corpse, I would look you in the eye.”

Atillus fought the Nails, and for a moment it seemed they would win. Then the Captain of the Skull Cutters raised his hand, and disconnected his gorget. Gas hissed from the life support system's connection. He clasped the bladed horn of his helm, and pulled, sliding it off over his head. His face was both more, and less, than Crixus remembered. He had forgotten how dark Atillus’s eyes were, but the traitor only had one left, the other replaced by a finely crafted bionic that glowed a deep, angry red. The small scar across the bridge of his nose was still there, but the rest of the nose had been cut away, leaving a hole in the middle of his face. His jaw was still thick, bulging with heavy muscle, but half of his mouth had been torn off to reveal the teeth beneath. Teeth that were mostly steel implants, with only a few of his originals remaining. His hair was still dark, a stripe of it running back down the center of his head. Atillus smiled at Crixus, and in that smile Crixus saw the man he had once followed into heresy. Crixus got to one knee, and held up his right hand. His sword hand, where the scars of the chain still lingered on his armor.

“Your blood,” Atillus said, holding out his helm with one hand. “And your oath.”

Crixus held his old sergeant’s gaze as he removed the gauntlet on his right hand. Dropping the armored glove to the ground, he gripped the helmet’s other horn. Blood wept from his palm, leaking down the sharpened steel like a single, bright tear. Atillus nodded.

“For the blood god,” he said, his growling voice nearly a purr.

Crixus drew a deep breath. Instead of an oath of fealty, though, he flexed his throat, and spat. The dark glob of phlegm caught Atillus full in the face, sizzling as soon as the potent acid made contact with his flesh. The metal of his bionic blackened, and the coatings over the lens hissed and bubbled. His skin blistered, and when he tried to blink the acid away it merely ate deeper into his remaining eye. Even Atillus’s gene-forged anatomy couldn’t heal itself fast enough to stop the damage.

Atillus roared, in outrage as much as in pain, and brought his ax down. Crixus was already moving. He had taken his old sergeant’s measure, and he knew where the blow would fall before the swing had even begun. As the ax buried itself in the stone Crixus pulled hard on the helmet, catching Atillus off-guard as what was left of his sight went dark. As Atillus tried to catch his balance, to right himself, Crixus hammered his left fist into the World Eater’s broken face. The implant in the side of Atillus’s head dented under the force of the blow, and his skin split open. Atillus made to stand, and Crixus grabbed the back of his head with both hands, yanking down as he rose, driving his forehead into his former battle-brother’s face. The flesh and bone, weakened by the acid from Crixus’s Betcher’s Gland and the fractures of his power armored fist, cracked with a wet, crunching sound.

That would have been enough to kill most marines, but Atillus was a World Eater. Blinded and dying, he bit, he snarled, and he thrashed. He let fly his own spittle, the sizzling glob shooting past Crixus’s shoulder and splattering the stones in a hissing spray. A blow from his fist glanced off the side of Crixus’s head, and Atillus released his ax as he tried to snake his arm around Crixus’s throat. Crixus squeezed Atillus’s head harder, digging his fingers into the back of his skull. The skin split, and Crixus felt the skull shift in his grip. Atillus snapped at him, trying to sink his teeth into Crixus’s face. Crixus found what he sought, and squeezed. There was a snap, and a high-pitched noise he’d barely been aware of went silent. He pulled, and the Butcher’s Nails came free with a sickening, tearing sound. Atillus seized, every nerve rebelling and screaming as his body lost all control. Crixus watched his old sergeant as his muscles flexed and clawed, trying with every fiber to cling to life. But soon enough those muscles went slack, and a last breath escaped his smashed and bloody lips.

“We never needed these,” Crixus growled, flinging the mess of twisted wires and torn brain matter away from him. “We should have died without them.”

Crixus stood, lifted Atillus’s dropped ax, and brought it down on the corpse. One well-placed blow split the outer layers of his armor. A second cracked the carapace entirely. The third drove the blade in deep, destroying the World Eater’s gene seed and rendering it useless. One more bloodline cut short, just as the others had been. Crixus let go of the ax, leaving it buried in the corpse, and raised his head toward the top of the stairs. The sorceress still stood there, her robe blowing in the wind. Her face was composed, but there was an acrid scent on the wind that Crixus knew well. Fear. He stood, leaving another of his brothers dead in his wake as he mounted the steps.

“My lord, please,” Sybel said, raising her voice above the din of the embattled city. “If you wish to take the warband, I can help you!”

“I don’t want the band,” Crixus snarled.

“Vengeance, then?” she asked. “They know me. They trust me. I could lead the other astartes to you like lambs to the slaughter!”

“My brothers are dead,” Crixus said, drawing closer. “They were the only astartes I came for.”

“I can quiet the Nails,” Sybel said.

Crixus had his mouth open to reply, when he met her eyes. Now that he was closer to her, he saw the flashes of blue and purple that filled them. As he watched they began to swirl, slowly at first, but then faster. They blurred together in a way that made Crixus’s head swim, and for a moment he felt like he was falling. He blinked, and his head cleared. He heard a quiet that seemed to stretch on forever. His heartbeat slowed, and his breathing grew deep, and regular. He was staring up at the stars… stars that had been shrouded by the fog of war for as long as he could remember. They seemed so bright, and for a moment he felt like he could reach out his hand and cup them in his palm.

“Sardane, what are you staring at?” his mother asked. Her normally rough voice was soft, soothing, and it made him smile as he pointed up at the sky. His hand was bandaged across the knuckles, with dried blood staining the cloth.

“That’s where I’m going, mama,” he said, pulling his shoulders back and puffing out his chest. He was sore and bruised, but he couldn’t help himself. “Once the trials are done, and they pick me, they’re going to turn me into one of their warriors. I’m going to go to the stars, and I’m gonna take back those worlds just like the Emperor took back ours!”

He turned, and looked at his mother’s face. She was tall and rawboned, with sharp cheekbones, and thick, red hair streaked with white in places. Tattoos covered her arms down to her wrists, and she still wore the heavy, crossed weapon belts she’d borne her whole life. Even though the war for this world was over, and peace had been promised to those who’d survived, she kept her blade and banger close. Her face was grim, but when she looked at him her scarred lips quirked into a smile.

“And what makes you think they’re going to choose you, hmmm?” she asked, putting her hand over his.

“Because I want it,” he said, his forehead furrowing. “I want it more than anybody else. Some of the boys might be bigger, or faster, or stronger, but they aren’t going to take this away from me. I’m gonna be on that line, no matter who it is I have to shove out of my way.”

His mother looked down at him, and for a moment it was like a cloud covered her face. The crease in her forehead, the one he only saw when she was in a lot of pain, cut deep into her skin. He watched her push it away, and smile, but it wasn’t a happy smile. It was one of those fierce smiles; the ones that showed her teeth, but narrowed her eyes. She touched his brow, and tilted his head back slightly.

“You will, and I know you will, because you’re my son. But you listen to me, boy, and you listen well,” his mother said, bending down until she was nearly eye level with him. “No matter what this Emperor tells you, and no matter what his dogs say, do not forget what I taught you.”

He returned her fierce smile with one of his own. There was still blood on his teeth from the trials in the pit that day to determine who would advance to the next round of choosing. He flexed his neck and pushed forward, lightly butting his forehead against hers.

“Fight with your head,” he said.

“And kill with your heart,” she finished.

He reached up and put his bandaged hand on the back of her head. She mirrored his movement, but when she did he felt a pressure that shouldn’t have been there. He felt old scars that never stopped hurting, and muscles that contracted as pain coursed through him. It shot down his neck, and into his head, making his pulse spike, then spike again. Something inside his head was screaming, like whirling blades that wouldn’t stop howling until they were fed enough blood to quiet them again. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them he saw his mother’s eyes were wrong. They were filled with blue specks and purple streaks. The Nails revved louder, and Crixus wrapped his hand around the sorceress’s throat.

“You dare,” he snarled. The sorceress raised a hand, making a gesture with her fingers. Crixus caught her hand before she could finish her spell, and squeezed. Her fingers snapped like twigs, and blood spurted from his fist. Breath hissed between her teeth, and she tried to draw enough air to breathe. The world of bygone memory around them grew soft, the edges losing their firmness. Then everything began to melt like candle wax. Crixus put her face nearly against his own. He smiled, and it was the old, fierce smile he’d learned from his mother so long ago. “If you would see, then see.”

The world shifted and changed. They saw arenas of blood where children killed one another for the privilege of dying on a surgeon’s table trying to become gods. The brutality and beatings they called training, breaking bones and splintering teeth in the name of firing the clay of the young marines filled the air with screams of agony and victory. Faceless giants of another age fought against the War Hounds, black blood and curses of betrayal flying. He showed her worlds brought into compliance by conquerors, who made the subjugation into a game. These memories whipped by one after another, reeking of pain and fury. Rivers of blood flowed alongside the ever-growing mounds of the dead. Crixus felt the sorceress squirm in his grip, and inside his mind. She tried to free herself, but in her fear she had delved too deep. She had touched the place where the Nails dwelt, and reached inside its cage. Like the teeth of a chain blade The Nails pulled her in, even as they tore her to pieces.

“All of it,” Crixus growled, blood and spittle running over his lip as he tightened his grip.

He made her see. The broken, enraged beast that was Angron. The rent bodies of his brothers who had resisted the primarch’s decree, and the shattered minds of those who had submitted to their father’s cruel demand. All the battles that had come before, all the blood that had been spilled, that was but a drop in the ocean of gore that came after the Red Angel walked among them. He showed her men who had made themselves into weapons, and made her watch them lose their minds to wanton butchery. They became beasts, and then they became something even less. Corruption ran rampant as they slew whoever they could reach. They took journeys into the foulest hells, the charnel worlds dedicated to murder and death lit only by the burning bodies of the fallen. Men, women, and children were slain in such tallies that any individual act, no matter how depraved, lost meaning entirely. Then it happened again, and again, and again, for thousands upon thousands of years. Crixus forced her to walk the highways of corpses left in his wake, across hundreds of worlds that had been stained with genocide, until her feet were broken, and her mind was ragged. All the while the sky of his memory was filled with the raw, screaming desire of the Nails as they demanded blood like a blind, idiot god who in its hunger and thirst could speak no other words. She screamed, and Crixus felt the connection break.

Crixus opened his eyes to the burning hive city. The greasy smoke, ashen winds, and sounds of artillery were all real enough. Sybel was still screaming, clawing at her eyes as if she could somehow unsee what had been seared into her mind. He tossed her over the edge, putting her out of his mind even before her cries ended in a slick, liquid impact far below.

He descended the stairs in three rapid bounds. He replaced his gauntlet, the cut on his palm already little more than an angry scar. He removed the remains of his helmet from the connection joint of his gorget, and picked up Atillus’s helmet from where it had fallen. He slid it over his own head, the mag locks whirring as it sealed in place. His eyes searched the battlefield, his muscles twitching from the adrenaline as he sought a new target. There were many to choose from. Not as many as there had been, but enough. Crixus smiled again, and a growl reverberated from deep in his chest. He had meant to leave once his task was done. To steal a ship, and chart a course for his next target. But Sybel’s touch had blown away the fog he had wandered in for so many centuries, at least for now. She had reminded him of who he had once been, when mankind had pulled itself from the bloody dirt and dared any who thought themselves strong enough to step into the pit to test their mettle.

Through his vox, Crixus listened to an intercepted transmission from a nearby guard position. Their commander was panicked, their hard point nearly overrun as they called for reinforcements between blasts of ranked las fire. The old War Hound took up his sword, and ran toward the call.

He reminded himself to leave at least one of the warband alive. Someone would need to tell his brothers that he was coming for them.

Would You Like To See More?

If you want to see more of my work covering the grim darkness of the far future, the fantastical realm of Golarion, and more, then don't forget to check out my full Vocal archive, as well as some of my other stories linked below! You may also enjoy the Table Talk archive over on my gaming blog Improved Initiative, where many other stories have made their home.

EDIT: A Vox in The Void has done a phenomenal audio version of this story, as well. So please subscribe to his channel, and check out his other stories!

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- Beyond The Black: The Emperor's Hand: Gav Smythe has fought daemons and traitors in the Emperor's name all his life... but this may be the greatest challenge the ogryn has yet faced!

- The Irregulars: My official contribution to the Pathfinder Tales, The Irregulars follows an Andoran unit as they throw a wrench into the gears of Molthune's war machine.

- Waking Dogs- A World Eaters Tale: For my fans of Warhammer 40K, this is a story I felt compelled to tell about one of the infamous World Eaters remembering who he once was. It was also dramatized by the channel A Vox in The Void, for those who enjoy audio renditions.

- Crier's Knife: My sword and sorcery novel, we follow Dirk Crier as he sets out to collect his wayward cousin from parts unknown. Dark tidings lie ahead, but those who stand in his way will learn why the mountain folk say only a dead man crosses a Crier.

- Old Soldiers: The myrmidon were engineered during the Hyperion Conflict, and though it's been over for a decade or more, Pollux has never truly managed to adjust to a world that was never made for him. Isolated, trying to keep a grip on his own mind, his life is finally beginning to turn around when agents of a shadowy conspiracy come for him. When that happens, Pollux does what he was made to do, and he and the remaining myrmidon will show those who pulled the trigger why they should have let these old soldiers fade away.

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About the Creator

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

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Blog: Improved Initiative and The Literary Mercenary

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