Post by ashenmoon on Feb 1, 2018 15:52:21 GMT
turn 8: day 2, two hours after sunrise
“Khalez!” screamed a voice from behind. Through the din of battle, Donato would hardly have noticed it - had not the fury been so hateful, so desperate, so… betrayed.
A gunshot, close by. He spun around to behold a commotion, a soldier - a Highlander - being wrestled to the ground. His rifle, smoking, was kicked away from his clawing hands.
“What is this? Polano? Is that you?”
“Fuck you,” the so-recently green recruit growled into the gravel. “Fuck your hunt for glory! You and the fucking Inquisition sent us all to our deaths - you abandoned us! Everyone is dead. Marco…”
The man transformed before Donato’s eyes. From raging beast, with barely a transition, now a slobbering wreck.
“Get a hold of yourself! Take him away. This battle isn’t done yet. Get those cannons installed! Zophia! That cavalry is about to ch-”
Turning around, he saw who the gunshot had hit.
Porphyro Lekapenos, master of the Triunes, listened to General Nikaiofaros’ messenger, nodded, and exchanged glances with his two companions. They had known each other for most of their adult lives - the Triunes lived, fought, and died in threes.
A moment of silence descended around them. Only two hundred meters away, guns were spewing acrid clouds into the morning air, and the world was dust and blood and sweat. The cannons which had escaped them were being surrounded by more Republican soldiers. That was to the west: to the north, a large force - perhaps as many as two thousand men - were approaching.
“Get the cataphracts. If we are to delay the enemy reinforcements, we will need more than twenty-one Triunes.”
Soon, his companions returned with Lord Theophan Mousele, every twitch of his enormous battle-steed setting his all-covering armour ringing with metal chimes. His cataphracts disengaged from the western enemy force, and formed up in three wedges, pointing north.
All in all, they numbered some two hundred men.
“Charge!” Porphyro called, and they thundered forth to their doom.
Now the situation was thus: on every flank, Malvernian forces pushed to defend their advantage. In the east, Fuma tribesmen skirmished with their Pebblehoof counterparts, chasing them once more away from the battle. Saktha and Scarred warriors, likewise, pushed Monarchist Embers and Stonefolks back. In the west, similar compositions of Malvernian tribal allies pushed against Donato Khalez’ ailing defences.
And in the north the cataphracts and Triunes, with astounding speed upon the level Plain, weathered a hail of gunfire and burst through Constantin Noval’s approaching reinforcements. The strength of their charge was such that the reinforcements were stopped in their tracks.
But the tide had already turned. A fresh regiment of Stonefolk mountainmen shored up the Republican east flank and pushed forth. And on the west, the Malvernian charge - bereft of the cataphracts’ momentum - faltered. Then the remaining batteries of cannon were set up, and soon the tribesmen were in full retreat.
A fresh wave of Malvernian tribesmen appeared from out the valley - but too late to do more than to form a defensive core around the Iron Curtain, serving as a lodestone for the scattered companies falling back across the plain.
The few surviving Triunes and cataphracts, sensing their allies were safe once more, disengaged and fled across the Plain, shedding weapons and armour for speed.
Republican cannon fire and Stonefolks chased them - but the latter soon faltered as long-ranged Jelin archers began assailing them from the Rear Walls. The former pushed the Malvernians further and further back - until the cannons eventually quieted, and the reunited Republican forces headed north, leaving the Plain.
In the woods northeast of the battle, a game of cat and mouse had played out. The Malvernian raiders - led by Denios Troklos - had been peppered from the trees by Republican snipers. Giving chase, they found the snipers knew the ground well - very well. It took her far longer than it ought to have, but at last, the giant panther Melusine found a group of them crossing through a glade. She pounced, revelling in having captured her prey…
… and found herself weak, powerless like a kitten. “Inquisitors!” she howled. Only by luck was she saved by the squad of Precision marksmen, trading fire with the Republicans while dragging her back over the forest floor, too injured to fend for herself.
Post by ashenmoon on Mar 28, 2018 19:47:01 GMT
Thousands dead or missing - blood, missing limbs and above all, the groaning, babbling and screeching of broken men, as a trail of tears wound its way through the central pass of the mountains.
The Republican soldiers had taken the very worst of it, while Noval's own Ember monarchist forces had rescued them, though at no small cost. The Inquisition, too, had been humbled. Their utter failure of leadership saw the remaining Inquisitors riding at the flanks of the army, shamed wraiths, spurned by the rank and file. Aurelio Manza had lost control of his army, and of the mountains. Superstitious Stonefolk, who had never been their friends for the pain of seeing loved ones burned as heretics, now formed the bulk of the remaining resistance.
Their destination was common, however - the Vaiparo Citadel. And their goal the same. To survive. Perhaps to purchase another day for the Republic - thrice may it be damned.
When the wailing of one soldier, missing a leg, became too much - a Stonefolk clansman buried his axe in the man's skull. Nobody raised a fuss.
The imposing turret of the Vaiparo eventually loomed before them, though word of the invasion must have reached the fort - for the god-killing cannon could not be seen. Cloth and other tricks had hidden it from sight, somehw, despite its enormity.
Only as the army reached the Vaiparo's very gates, did they begin to open.
The fur and plate clad guards beyond stared down judgementally. Their vigil, unbroken.
As scouts and the beacons were lit, to call all remaining garrisons and aid for this stand, Constantin and Donato prepared for their common destiny.
[[Army to move to Vaiparo Citadel and catch what rest they can. The badly wounded and devastated mountaineers are to retreat farther down the mountain pass to rest, regroup and recover when possible, rather than be expected to make a useless stand. Those capable of putting up a fight are to garrison the Vaiparo Citadel, and the Snowbiters are to further fortify the mountain pass and Citadel, and trap the basin.]]
[Send all skirmishing units up ahead to shadow the enemy army, staying scattered to avoid taking casualties from lucky cannon shots. The slingers can directly follow the enemy army on the path, and vanish into the hillsides if cavalry comes chasing at them. My skirmish cavalry C1 and HED's Malachite hand are to explore the side paths, looking for hidden ambush forces or such. The Flock are to fly north by northeast to explore the path through the mountains to see how viable it is for marching our army through.
All sapper units are to start deconstructing the walls our main army is positioned at now, to make it less opportune for southwards attacking. Collapsing stairs and stuff like that, so that we can withdraw behind it without giving the enemy a big advantage.
All our units south of the walls will march up to join the main army, which will make an encampment on the clearing north of the gates. recuperating from its losses and catching its breath for now. If the enemy turns around for another offensive, however, our cavalry will ride east to set up a flank while our infantry will draw behind the walls to defend.
Enemy captives are to be questioned harshly for any intel we can gain. One such will be released with a lamed or injured horse and be given a letter to the enemy command from General Nikaioforos. This letter reads the following:
"Falorian Officers. I beg your forgiveness for our intrusion and for the loss of life in the past two days. I offer you a ceasefire for two days so we may bury our dead, tend to our injured, and pray forgiveness for what has been done."
The purpose of this message is to trick the enemy into believing we are expecting reinforcements we actually aren't, and to provoke them. The armistice can easily be broken by the command of someone above Nikaioforos, which is why he's making it personally, rather than in the name of the empire.
If nothing of note happens for eight hours, we'll start heading north at a slow pace, keeping our skirmishers fanned out ahead of the army in case of ambushes.]
Post by ashenmoon on Mar 28, 2018 19:50:34 GMT
turn 9 ("11"): day 2, nightfall
Skirmishers shadowed the Republican force well into the mountains. The road led north, then turned west, down into the large Itrina valley. An hour after noon, General Nikaioforos was told, the Republicans arrived at the town of that valley - Itrina town - and the skirmishers he had sent had halted well beyond it.
It was mid-afternoon when the Malvernian host began its tentative approach. Scouts found a trap at one side-route from the main road - buried mines, which were disarmed successfully. Other than that, their passage was uncontested. They arrived to the westward turn just as the sun began to set: with the day’s last light in their eyes, the great length of the Itrina valley was laid out before them. Far into the distance, beyond the muddled darkness of Itrina town, glittered Vaiparo citadel in the shadow of the mountains. Judging by the density of light there, most of the Republican force would be holed up in that stronghold.
No reply had yet arrived to Nikaioforos’ letter - then again, the enemy had not had too much time to consider.
Then the Mark appeared by Nikaioforos’ stretcher.
“Hunter is concerned,” he said.
“There is something… wrong. Ahead.”
“Wrong how? Where?”
“A… nothingness. The citadel.”
The Spirit would offer little more of use than that. Yet it was enough to give the questioners interrogating the Republican prisoners something to go on. Soon enough, they learned that there was a giant cannon in the citadel ahead - built and runed specifically to target and destroy magic. A spirit-killer.
The Mark returned.
“The Hunter is disturbed by this… monstrosity. He has decided to offer the campaign further aid from his personal forces.”
“If he could use that trumpet to bring down the walls of Vaiparo, as he did with Vanozza…”
“No. The monstrosity is too dangerous. Yet he has commanded me, and my companions, to assist in any way is judged necessary.”
“Yet… are you not all, in one degree or another, ensorcelled as well? You will be vulnerable to the cannon!”
“Nevertheless, we are offered.”
[12 points of reinforcements, with a catch: each unit must have a magic upgrade.]
Except for distant clots of Malvernian skirmishers shadowing them for many miles into the mountains, the Republican hosts marched for several hours without seeing a soul on the winding mountain road. Bare and brown, sheer mountain-sides flanked them on every side. Past noon the road turned west and they descended into the Itrina valley.
Green fields sprang up, and scattered squalid farmsteads appeared nestled into the hills climbing to either side of the road. And where the mountains had been an even, featureless dun, their sides were now pockmarked by the bright patches of marble-quarries. Far above, white glaciers glistened beneath the clear sky. Dust rose from a few spots along the valley, where active quarries seethed with distant figures passing to and fro mottled working camps.
Itrina town had never lost its frontier attitude - much of its sprawl was taverns and cheap accommodation catering to the marble-miners, and most of its population were people passing through. Times of late had been hard on Itrina’s trade, though - with the turbulence of the past few years, the demand for quality marble had trickled to a near halt. The mostly mined-out quarries to the north side of the mountains were sufficient to meet that supply.
The confident men marching under the Iguana banner drew looks: they had, after all, not passed through here on their way to Vanozza. The manner in which the familiar-looking mountaineer troops walked - dejected, in the shade of the Monarchists - suggested strange tidings. Perhaps emboldened by this curious air, some townsfolk jeered at the sight of limping Inquisitors. A few, unseen, voices cried out:
“Blood and light!”
It was clear that de Campo’s reign and his Inner Crusade had bought little love in this corner of the Republic.
After Constantin Noval had met with Muzio Doria, lieutenant commander of Vaiparo citadel, the latter promptly set about evacuating the valley. Along with the most injured troops, the population of the valley took the mountain road on north. Within a few hours the valley lay all but deserted, the distant din of its quarries leaving an emptiness in the air.
A single rider approached from the south - a Republican soldier, a Highlander mountaineer, riding on a lamed horse. He was brought to the citadel, and passed on a message from General Nikaiofaros of the Malvernian army:
"Falorian Officers. I beg your forgiveness for our intrusion and for the loss of life in the past two days. I offer you a ceasefire for two days so we may bury our dead, tend to our injured, and pray forgiveness for what has been done."
As night fell over the valley, however, sharp-eyed scouts reported they spotted a company or two of enemy cavalry having arrived to the valley.
Donato Khalez wandered the abject remains of his command. Two days ago, the Highlander and Hunter regiments had numbered nearly two thousand. Now, barely a tenth of that number remained.
Zophia was in the care of the field surgeons now. The bullet had been taken out of her shoulder, but there was no guarantee the wound would not infect and kill her nonetheless.
Word arrived: additional reinforcements were arriving from the north, marching through the dark. Two companies from the north side of the mountains. Consulting his memory, Donato drew the dreaded conclusion: this would be the men from the town of Amalla, at the north end of the mountain pass, and the last force of trained warriors in Carrana. The closest reinforcements would be days away.
[Reinforcements at Vaiparo and the new force from Amalla together come to 8 pts]
Synesius Lascaris looked up. In the dark of night, it was hard to see - but he could just discern the hulking shapes of the mountains surrounding Itrina valley. And he could sense the properties of the marble that lay deep in the quarries burrowing into the mountain-sides.
The Mudmen and Iron Giants had suffered a great many casualties over the past days. Only two Giants yet stood, and both were damaged.
He knew he could use that marble to reinforce the army. Yet he would need sacrifices - souls - to power his creations. And they had captured several hundred Republican soldiers over the course of the past few days...
Post by ashenmoon on Mar 28, 2018 19:52:18 GMT
All battle ready forces serving under Khalez's command are to reinforce the bulwarks of the fortress.
The offer of case fire is denied. The enemy may try to gather their dead at their own peril. We will show no mercy.
Khale'z ensures that the great signal fire, visable from signal posts miles upon miles way, is lit so that the Republic may we warned of what has happened in Carrana. Even if the Empire should win this engagement, and there is no conclusive evidence that they will, the main armies of the Republic will ensure that no lasting strategic advantage will be gained. They have lost so much, the Imperial dogs, let them know that the full might of the Republic is coming for them.
The enemy may choose to remain and be hunted down, or flee with the goal of their campaign denied.
~ Constantin Noval
Some dimly lit hall of the Vaiparo, with a citadel overlooking the valley beyond, served their needs well enough. Constantin Noval, who had no place being here, found himself suddenly a centre figure of command of the very place he had been at pains to avoid the previous day. The Vaiparo Citadel was the symbol of Republican might in the Carrana mountains, an Inquisitorial pit from which more men entered it than ever left.
Its commander, Muzio Doria, looked like he had perhaps seen torture, but never combat. His armour and uniform hung loosely upon his malnourished form. Despite all of that, he looked very much in control of his surroundings. This was his home, and he was very much a part of the furniture. Like it or not, even the devilish High Inquisitor Aurelio Manza himself was a guest in this place. The High Inquisitor reclined on one of the chairs, fingers placed as a steeple before him, face hidden by a long hood. Across from him, Colonel Donato Khalez cleaned his fingernails with a dagger.
The sun was casting its first light outside, a wall of light slowly inching towards their table. Constantin Noval was sure it would reach Donato, but not Aurelio Manza who was level with him.
"What is the state of the Gun?" Constantin asked.
Aurelio Manza sneered, and Commander Doria looked as if to play dumb. But Donato Khalez played no games.
"Fully functioning. We have already ordered it disguised."
"Good." Constantin stated. "It must only come into play at the crucial moment. When-"
"When the Hunter shows himself." Aurelio Manza lifted his head, high enough to show his beard, though not yet his face. "When the Archon comes."
"And how do you know he will?" Muzio Doria tittered. "What if they know of this, this weapon? They have taken prisoners..."
"I will lure him here." Aurelio Manza gestured idly. "He is the Hunter. I am sure he hunts."
"What of-" Commander Muzio began, turning his head towards Constantin before he was cut short.
"The monarchists are with us. End of." Donato Khalez interrupted. "They've shown which soil they'll bleed for, no matter the mark upon their banners."
"And when this is over?" Muzio continued.
High Inquisitor Aurelio Manza smiled and lifted his head further yet, betraying mad eyes glimmering in a mad face.
"Then their leader burns, like a candle."
Constantin Noval met the mad gaze unflinchingly.
"But that's later, isn't it."
"Later." Aurelio Manza sighed. "Yes, later."
Constantin Noval walked onto the wide terrace, surveying the valley below. The bastions were teeming with men. Yes, this would be different. This was no Vanozza Fastness. This place was not as old, though its spirit-hating runes were no less potent. The Hunter might yet become the hunted.
[All rested forces to consolidate the Vaiparo Citadel.
The two scouting saboteur units under Donato Khalez, the Stonefolk Pathfinders, Aurelio Manza, and the Peakstrider snipers are all to take up position in the abandoned town and in the vicinity, with the intention of launching a stealth mission to sabotage enemy siege weapons, crucial supplies or assassinate key leaders - and to wage a guerrilla war without ever getting pinned down - also making use of Snowbiter traps and barricades. The Snowbiters are to finish fortifying and trapping the town to that effect, before returning to the Citadel to help hold it with their skills.
Aurelio Manza is to also counter the eagles, with the help of the snipers, and may lure the Hunter to his doom should the opportunity arise.
The reinforcements on the map are 4 different units, and you've said between them 8 each, so therefore I presume each unit has 4 points to spend. Therefore each of them will be companies thus: Quality, Heavy, Range. To take up position in the citadel.]
Nikaioforos had slept most of the way here. Before their departure he had been drifting off now and then, only to be brought back to awareness by the throbbing of his knee. However, after they took off he'd finally relieved command and taken enough medicine to fall into a deep slumber in his cot, which had been softly swaying left and right as it was carried. He finally woke up about an hour before Hunter's message to the pain in his leg when the drugs stopped working. The spirit caught him in the middle of being shaved.
He listened to the message patiently, gesturing at his manservant to cease the shave as he did. He stared out for a bit, contemplating his options. The world outside his tent was starting to grow dark. He asked the spirit to tell him the nature and talents of the magi who were being given over to him, and simultaneously had his shave finished.
"Very well then", he told the messenger. "Bring my deepest gratitude to Lord Hunter. We are all in his eternal debt." As the spirit left, he turned to his servant and curtly ordered: "You, go summon our high command. It's time to discuss what to do now."
Respecting his injury, the generals and commanders met in Nikaioforos' tent. He explained his plan to them, and after some discussion, it was agreed on. There was no way they were going to face that fortress and its fearsome cannon with their army in this condition, only saved from destruction by the exemplary performance of the Iron Curtain. And it was the Iron Curtain that they would turn toward once more for their salvation, along with the Kathodeen harridans whom Lord Hunter had loaned to the war effort. Two of them were former lovers of Nikaioforos.
The army would set up a phantom camp in this spot, with many light sources, and wait until it got dark before turning back and returning to where they'd passed the northward mountain path. The Iron Curtain and the Kathodeen would already head back with the Second Chorus as a body guard just in case. They would begin to clear up that path so the whole army could march through, bypassing the mountains. Nikaioforos also gave an order for the Goma Slingers to return so they might go scout out the path ahead of the magi.
When the army left their phantom camp, they would leave torches and a few spare tents behind so as to trick the enemy into thinking they were camped out for the night, at a casual inspection from a distance.
The army was to march down this mountain path with the infantry at the back - aside from the Second Chorus, of course - and magi specialized in offensive magic would stay with them and take any opportunities to block the path behind them by collapsing cliffs and so forth if possible.
The Flock was given orders to keep an eye on the fortress, and determine if and when the enemy caught up to their ruse. The cavalry would remain with the main column, ready to be wielded when needed.
While the orders were being relayed to everyone, Nikaioforos summoned paper and pen and wrote another letter to delivered by a released enemy captive. It read: "Faloran Commanders. I am sad to not have heard any response for my offer of armistice. My old heart it gladdened to at least be spared from too much bloodshed today. At midnight our army shall commit to mass prayer in memory of the fallen. It would surely please their souls if you were to join us, even if we must be so apart." He signed it and had it sealed, and then sent it away. This would make the enemy suspicious, hopefully. Make them either expect a surprise attack, or think Nikaioforos had a trap planned in case they repeated their night raid. Their safest bet was to stay behind their walls. Or so they'd think.
The released captive took off, westward, and soon after the magi started east. And silently, ever so silently, the army began to pack up their camp once more. Nikaioforos considered their situation, and wrote another letter, to be left in the phantom camp when they marched out. This one read: "We are returning to Malvern. Please excuse our intrusion. Consider it a friendly test of your defences." He had to restrain a chuckle when he sealed that one.
[readjust the exact timing of events if there is any change for the released enemy soldier to see our army preparing to depart; the idea is that he'll be out of viewing distance when things start going; it's okay if he comes across the slingers down the road]
Post by ashenmoon on Mar 28, 2018 20:01:01 GMT
turn 10 ("15"): day 3, dawn
Another released prisoner arrived to the Citadel after dark, with another message from General Nikaioforos:
"Faloran Commanders. I am sad to not have heard any response for my offer of armistice. My old heart it gladdened to at least be spared from too much bloodshed today. At midnight our army shall commit to mass prayer in memory of the fallen. It would surely please their souls if you were to join us, even if we must be so apart."
Aurelio Manza was pleased that the enemy would be thus distracted, and resolved to use the opportunity for his night raid.
Thus it was that he led his task force through the night with no great hurry, and only well after midnight - when the final, yapping cries of Malvernian tribal mourning were nearing its end - that he struck.
It was almost too easy.
There were barely any guards. Small knots of Malvernian soldiery were easily caught off guard, picked off one by one. Soon, Manza and the Pathfinders - with the rangers laying down covering fire from a safe distance - were roaming the enemy camp with near impunity…
… because there was barely anyone there. Most of the tents were empty.
Eventually, he turned back - a few Malvernian companies had finally coalesced from the sprawling emptiness of the camp. There were magics there, which he hungered for - but nowhere did he sense the great prize: the Hunter, let alone the panther-spirit Melusine. He did sense Charger, the centaur-majordomo of Hunter and leader of the Armistice’s Band, who would indeed have been a worthy prey. But, there was something going on which needed clarifying - where had the enemy gone?
One after one, companies snuck out into the night. By midnight, all that remained of the Malvernian camp was empty tents and camp fires which a few hundred Saktha warriors busily moved around, creating the illusion of a bustling camp. Along with the Saktha, squads of offensive magi lingered behind as the main force was already making its way through the mountains in the dark east.
Not long after midnight, and the Sakthas’ best imitation of a mass prayer, the enemy struck.
Gunfire raked the camp. Shadowy bands of raiders swept past in the dark. The Sakthas, spread out to maintain the illusion of a much larger force, were slow to react. Many fell to unseen snipers before Charger, the centaur-majordomo of Hunter and leader of the Armistice’s Band, rallied magi to counter-attack.
The enemy skirmishers fell back - and the Armistice felt the festering approach of Inquisitors-of-rank.
Swiftly the pursuit was called off, and those remaining in the camp were quickly evacuated. Not long after that, the heavy wing-beats of the Flock was heard passing overhead - pursued by the crackle of dark sorcery.
In the blackest night, in the deepest heart of the mountains of Carrana, long wavering lines of light threaded carefully, patiently, quietly. At times, the lights found themselves at a dead end as the maze led them astray; at other times, the lights struggled up steep slopes, or found themselves balancing by the edge of a sudden precipice. A few lights were lost - fallen into the dark, or caught in the labyrinth.
Foremost among them walked the Harridans of House Kathode, murmuring spells of the earth and stone, summoning the spirits of land and travel. And, obstacle by obstacle, they made the world their own. They made the mountains low; rough places were made plain; and the crooked path was made straight. Rocks and boulders rolled to the side. Loose scree slopes became solid ground horses stepped on with ease. Narrow paths along the edge of deep ravines grew broad and steady, enough to support wagons laden with supplies.
Thus the soldiers of Malvern crossed the mountains.
By dawn, weary from the long night, they found themselves looking down the Long Valley and slumbering villages of the Republic.
Shortly after dawn, the Companions returned. Constantin had sent them out, along with other scouts, once Manza returned with his report, to find their enemy. They had been gone longer than expected: they had found the camp completely deserted, and continued on east.
Eventually, they had found the Saktha warriors and magi, hurrying away. The Companions followed the enemy until they departed from the main road, and there no longer was any doubt as to their intentions.
The Malvernians were heading north, to the Long Valley - following the exact same route Constantin and the Monarchists had taken on their way to Vanozza.
Post by ashenmoon on Mar 28, 2018 20:06:53 GMT
They had been deceived.
What to do... what to do.
A good portion of the might of the Malvernian Empire, led by the Hunter himself, was marching straight for Sabria. The beacons had been lit, but help was far away. The Republic´s armies were tied up along the frontiers by Lunium, engaged in back and forth skirmishes with Malvern. Were they to pull back to defend Sabria, the front lines would buckle. Either way, it was unlikely they would make it on time.
It was up to the border guard to give chase...
One of Manza´s nostrils flared. The stench of demons grew stronger. Hunter´s majordomo was indeed near, and drew nearer still. There were signs that the Malvernians in camp were preparing to retreat towards the Long Valley, their ruse successful.
There might never be a better chance to face down Charger without the might of the Empire protecting him.
Manza´s mind was made up. And in that instant, Aurelio Manza let go. All self-control he yet possessed was focused on his Binder tattoos, on keeping the myriad Spirits within himself trapped and tormented. As for the rest of him, Aurelio Manza devolved joyously into a screaming shadow, a black shape in the violet of dawn. Leading his forces forward, he intended to break and scatter the Malvernians with shock, awe and the horror of Charger´s inevitable enslavement.
"For the Inquisition! For Gori!" Manza howled, cloak and silks billowing in the fresh morning wind. As the sun broke over the mountain peaks, his elite fanned out into a spearhead formation, waving runed swords in the air above them. Riders in Black. Tailed by snipers, pathfinders and other men of skill, they headed to their Last Battle.
Nikaioforos had been trying to suppress a smile for most of the ride through the mountains. If he was going to go down in history, then this stunt was something that was definitely making it into the songs.
The army was very worn down by the time it started filing out to the northern valleys. There was insufficient intel on the movements of the enemy. Were they already coming forth and threatening Malvern's army from the west? Could they still be hours from even reaching the exit of the passes?
"Start assembling a camp here, for our forces to rest", he said, gesturing the ivory baton in his hand at the valley up ahead. "The skirmishers have been pushed hard. They get six hours off to start with, unless something comes up. Call forth all of our cavalry that wasn't pushing hard at the front of this expedition. They are to scout westward and gain recon on the enemy."
Things were coming to a head. He had pulled a fast one on the enemy, and who knows, maybe it would give him a window to take that fort guarding the mouth of the valley while it remained largely unguarded. Otherwise, this tactic would convince the enemy that they needed to face him in a straightforward setpiece battle, lest he slip past them or get behind them once again.
While the army began setting up the camp, he warned his lieutenants: "Should the western fort be unguarded, we will continue our march fortwith. Keep your men ready to set off with little warning depending on the results of the camping. If we can occupy the fort before the enemy catches up, the day will be ours, undeniably."
Or they would be caught between a rock and a hard place by the Republic's forces hitting them in the back as they stormed it. Whatever the case be, the battle was nearing its climax. Nikaioforos tapped the baton to the edge of the cot, and looked up at the skies. Such a beautiful day for so much death.
The Empire was headed through the Long Valley.
Of course. Of course.
For all his long years, Noval had made one crucial mistake. He had overestimated the ego of the Enemy. The Archon - a veritable God - did not, it seemed, suffer from the same profound decadence as the Falorans of Varantium. The Malvernians were a different breed altogether, and this was the first time that Noval had faced them in battle. Their blood ran different. They were a more temperate people, born of a harsher climate, and more barren and hostile frontiers.
And they had turned down the option of a glorious final confrontation. They were heading straight to Sabria.
Pacing in the great hall of the Citadel, Noval did not have long to ponder the news in peace.
Muzio Doria, the Citadel´s commander, shuffled over to him, wide eyed.
"They are not coming." he rasped, relief plain in his tone. "We are saved."
"Saved?" Noval guffawed. Then he smacked the man. "We have failed. Sabria is doomed."
A tense silence descended, Muzio Doria massaging his jaw.
"Is that such a bad thing?" Muzio Doria near-snarled, his upper lip twitching
Constantin Noval blinked.
"Such a bad thing?" he mused aloud. And hesitated. Sabria´s Senate had been blasted in a terrorist attack, and the Republic had ceased to be on that day. It was an Inquisitorial tyranny in all but name. And the people knew it, for they all suffered it. It was for that reason as well, besides ancient bonds of allegiance, which compelled the Stonefolk, Pebblehoof and many more people of tradition to rally behind the Monarchist banner.
Noval had joined forces with the Inquisition to defend his homeland from invasion. His Emperor, the man still known to many as Armant Freic, would have no throne to reclaim should the Republic not fall to him, but to the Empress in Malvern.
One way or another. Sabria had to fall. And the Inquisition with it.
"You must hate the Inquisition a great deal, Commander Doria." Constantin Noval stated with a smirk.
"Who does not?" the commander gave his cheek one last pitiful pat, and then inclined his head.
Constantin Noval put his arm around the man´s shoulders, and together they walked onto the Citadel terrace, to behold the virgin valley below, crisp morning slow glittering in the light of a new day. The wind no longer chilled, but refreshed.
"We let the Hunter destroy the Inquisition. And once they have battered one another, we move in. And place Armant Freic upon the throne of a new Empire."
"And broker a peace, if you will." Muzio Doria pleaded in a shrill voice.
"Perhaps." Noval said. "Perhaps."
"You will have to put on a show of doing all you can to save Sabria, of course." Doria did add, however.
"Of course." Noval wiped the corner of his eye. "Of course."
Then he squeezed the commander's shoulder.
"I will ensure nobody ever bothers you again. There will be a mansion to retire to in the new Sabria, when all this is over."
"Oh, I am quite happy here. This is all I have ever known, and I do not much like change." Doria said. "But it would be a relief if the Inquisition stopped poking its nose in my fiefdom. I quite like my privacy, you see."
Constantin Noval kissed the man on the cheek and laughed.
"Oh, you will never hear from the Inquisition again, I am sure. Only one thing is left to do, it seems. I must speak to Donato Khalez."
"Oh, you will not be staying? Not even for tea?" Muzio Doria feigned offence.
"I am afraid not, commander. Time is short. We must give chase."
"Long live the Emperor." Muzio Doria hailed, and kissed Noval´s signet ring.
"Ten thousand years!" Constantin Noval laughed again. And stared out across the valley, one last time.
Post by ashenmoon on Mar 31, 2018 19:33:31 GMT
epilogue: day 3, dawn to midday
The rising sun cast the Malvernians’ shadows deep into the Long Valley. Squadrons of cavalry galloped into the darkness below. The mountainsides glowed red; white-washed hamlets emerged from the cool shade shining brilliantly; all the while lazily twisting threads of smoke were set on fire as they crossed the boundary of shadow and light. A trickling brook, slight and silvery - flashing with the blush of dawn - divided the Valley in two, meandering around the promontory upon which the Malvernians now made camp.
Those men of Malvern looked out upon the scene awakening before them, and they marvelled. The air was crisp and the world vibrant, each detail standing out in reckless novelty. Some of the soldiers spoke in excited tones: but most did not. A sombre mood took hold, and did not let go.
While some were busy setting up camp - notably the Kathodians’ pages, whose mistresses were exhausted after the night’s undertaking - many others found themselves without a task, suspended by that nervous expectation wherein the mind is weary but the body is yet tense with energy. Indeed, more and more, the host grew restless - for their bodily weariness had been drained by the magics of the Kathodian road; and their minds yearned for the dice to fall - for the outcome of their great endeavour to finally be decided.
Only the Saktha warriors - who had lost so many comrades - sat down in the grass in mute meditation: and when others clamoured for action, they stirred not. Their war was done. They had suffered enough, and one and all gained the right to return to their homes.
The Mark approached General Nikaioforos at his cot. Other than the Hunter’s personal pavilion, this was now the locus of power in camp: arrayed about the hill around them were all the other generals - Kolozotes and Boriates foremost among them; the realm of the spirit represented by the Fist, Troklos, and Master, Lascaris; and foreign allies, such as mistress Dreyal and the princess Kassai - along with most of the officer corps. Although Nikaioforos had begun the battle as but one general among many steered by consensus, he now found himself the de facto leader of the Malvernian invasion of the Republic.
“The Charger is fallen,” the Mark announced in clipped tones.
The dignitaries surrounding Nikaioforos' cot burst out in dismay.
“Are you sure?” Nikaioforos asked. The Charger was a powerful spirit indeed, and had guarded the host’s rear through the passage over the mountains.
“Lord Hunter senses his son no longer.”
“A most grievous loss!” groveled General Kolozotes. “Give me command of an expeditionary force to seek out his slayer - maybe an entire battalion; if we are threatened from the rear-”
“No.” The Mark brokered no argument. “This is no time to pursue personal restitution. Besides, if the threat from behind was substantial, our scouts would have spotted it by now. We must move ahead.”
“We are waiting for the scouts’ report,” Nikaioforos provided.
“There is no opposition, as far as the eye can see. In all this valley - barely any grown men, and upon the walls of Sarsanon I see no guards.”
Nikaioforos peered through the brass telescope: the town and fort of Sarza - Sarsanon on Old Malvernian maps - was but a vague blur at this distance, still deep in shade, lit by distant city lights.
“All the more reason for caution!” cut in General Boriates. “It may well be a trap, hidden out of the line of sight. It would be folly to stumble now, when we are so close…”
“There!” someone cried out. “A messenger from the cavalry.”
A scout forced his lathered horse up the slope, then leapt off and was taken to Nikaioforos directly. After a quick salute, his report substantiated the Mark’s observation - wherever the fighting men of the Long Valley were, it wasn’t anywhere nearby.
The host broke camp, leaving behind the Saktha as rearguard - they would anyway not budge - and the covered carts of the sleeping Kathodian magi.
Down the Long Valley they went, past slopes covered in twisted pines and ancient, abandoned, quarries. The mountains - for the most part dull and earthy in the manner of all mountains - gleamed with startling marble here and there where the scars of greedy diggers had cut deep. They followed a path that grew steadily larger - and dustier - the lower into the Valley they progressed. There were no villages as such, merely hamlets scattered in greater or lesser densities, surrounded by goats and fallow fields.
As they passed one house close to the road, Nikaioforos signalled his carriers to halt.
“Good woman!” he called to a guarded matron standing in the doorway, hands on the shoulders of a young boy before her. “Pray tell, where are the men of the village? We wish them no harm: yet it would put us greatly at ease to know they are not down the road, setting us an ambush - no good would come from that.”
“They went with him, the snake-tongued inciter… that lackey of the Lizard Emperor, Noval. If not when he came calling for rebellion by another name, then they joined him when they heard of Malvernians across the mountains. Since it is you who return to me in their stead, I gather they are dead now, the fools.”
Knowing he had circumvented, rather than outright defeated, his enemy, Nikaioforos debated whether to reassure the woman on that regards. Then again, best not to instill in her any false hopes.
“My apologies for any suffering we might have-”
“Spare it. You are men - so were they. So it has always been, and always will be. It is woman’s lot to bear it.”
There was not much to say to that.
They continued down the track. Beside them, the brook grew by meltwater tributaries from the heights surrounding them, until it became a boisterous river that - about half-ways down the valley - issued forth into a great dam.
As they circled the water’s edge, the rush noise of the river grew distant, and was replaced by the placid lapping of waves against the rocky shore. The lake took up a substantial portion of the valley floor, and the road edged close to the mountainsides in circling it.
“It was built by the Mason, long ago,” the Mark pronounced at one point, the expanse water stretching out behind him, cut in half by a stretch of low wall; and beyond it, thin air.
“Strange,” Boriates commented. “The Fastness - this dam - indeed, the mountains are filled with the works of the Fallen one…”
The sentiment towards those archons who had held an elevated position in the Old Empire ever held a contested position in the minds of Malvernians. On the one hand, it was undeniable: most of the great archons of the Old Empire had gone on to serve - even found - the Dominion. Their greatness made for an uncomfortable comparison with the relative poverty of those archons who remained true to the Empire - and to Man.
Yet the Mark showed nothing of that in his, as usual, emotionless reply.
“All of Jovinium is littered with his works. Indeed, this was once his home - and here is where he wrought some of his greatest works. The Bridge, of course, foremost among them…”
In some sense, Nikaioforos reflected, they had come to heal that divide. Oh: wars were fought over territory or money or power and, in the short term, this was no different. But seen from a distant enough perspective… the Dominion was corrupted by seeing spirits as lords. And the Republic was corrupted by seeing mankind as their own lords. But Malvern knew better, knew that harmony lay in between - in that perfect balance between the extremes.
He shook his head, scattering such musings. This was not the time for philosophy. Leave it to the poets of future generations rephrase the sordid events of these days to fit into the grand scheme of history.
A messenger approached. The overseer of a nearby quarry wished to see someone as high-ranking as possible. On a whim, he acceded: as long as the army kept marching down the valley, he could spare a few minutes.
He was carried through a squalid wasteland of broken-down barracks and makeshift dwellings surrounding the quarry. Emaciated and gap-toothed men emerged from dank darknesses to watch their party passing through: here, at last, grown men - if only of a certain, starved, kind.
The overseer, in stark contrast, was fat, and dabbing his sweat-shining bald head with a handkerchief every other sentence: a most distracting affectation. After a most fawning introduction, the nature of his request was at last clear.
“You wish for guards for your shipment and protected trade in Sronos and Malverea?”
“I propose you, good sir - and maybe your closest confidantes? - invest in this shipment, personally, sir! I guarantee you, our marble is of the finest Carrana quality - and Malvern, why, a virgin market! Invest now and provide us with safe passage to the markets, and, why, I guarantee you, five-, ten-fold returns upon your investment!”
“By all that is holy... we can deal with trade after the war is through!”
“But, sir - that is precisely why now is such an opportune moment. In a month’s time, why, our competitors will all have found their ways to your markets - but now, a discerning gentleman will invest wisely (and mayhaps in a position to, ah, strategically, elect not to give the competition much aid) is perfectly poised for a positively gargantuan profit from a momentary monopoly!”
“Ugh. You may continue your operations here, but do not bother any of my officers with this nonsense henceforth - just keep yourself and your slaves in peaceful order and we’ll have no more interest in business with you.”
“Slaves?” the overseer spluttered, offended. “Sir, no - never! We’re free men, here, one and all!”
Nikaioforos eyed the lean-tos and crumbling, temporary, constructions encrusting the rim of the quarry like an infestation.
“Free men choose to live, and work, here?”
“Certainly! Slaves, my word… there are some convict labourers here, certainly, men in debt and the like: but no slaves! They’re free to go whenever they please. Why, they could live somewhere else - they rent apartments here, most of them, seeing as it’s convenient, is all.”
They got out of there as quickly as possible: the dust, thankfully, lingered longer than the stench.
At last they arrived to the plain commanding the floor of the valley. To the south, the mouth of the Snake - the passage through the mountains - gaped open, and empty. To the north, Sarza sat perched upon a leg of the mountains reaching out into the plain. Between, the river circled past the city and disappeared through the gap of the mountains and into the Republic beyond.
Skeins of Malvernian outriders rode back and forth upon the plain. Nikaioforos steered his carriers - and the headquarters of the army - towards Sarza. They climbed the slope towards the city walls, and in their shadows found a score of soldiers lounging in the grass, laughing and drinking. One of them, a man with graying hair yet hulking and lithe as a panther, stood up and approached.
“Longo!” Nikaioforos called. “What is the meaning of this?”
Justiniani Longo, leader of the Malachite Hand's Lunium Finger, laughed and gestured at the city gates. From this angle, Nikaioforos saw that they were open.
“They threw them open, soon as we appeared,” Longo grinned at the approaching officers. “Triunes are inside, now, securing the citadel - but doesn’t seem like there’s a rifle to be had in the entire town. They were all called to Vaiparo.”
A moment of stunned silence followed. It seemed difficult to believe.
“... the city surrendered without even a hint of resistance?” Boriates sputtered at last.
“Well… the Triunes put on a bit of a show. Poor fools have barely seen magic in all their lives - I’m told the mayor fainted, after determining we were devils from this ‘hell’ of theirs!” Longo laughed, as if at a fine joke. “We hinted at the utter destruction of their army, and that was all it took.”
“Any word of that army’s whereabouts?” Nikaioforos inquired.
“I sent scouts to the mountain pass, and once the Flock cleared this region, I sent them as well. Latest report says no one on the road for at least two leagues into the mountains.”
Nikaioforos peered through the gates. The town beyond seemed quiet, yet calm. As if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Kolozotes broke the collective paralysis with a bark of laughter.
“We did it! By the Empress, we’ve won - Carrana is ours!”
“Hardly! What of Vaiparo and the army?” Boriates objected. “We are hardly safe here - we’re cut off from home...”
Longo chimed in: “It seems the town granaries are quite well-supplied. With Sarza as our base... ”
“... Vaiparo is as cut off from home as we are.” Nikaioforos supplied. “Still, they will need to be dealt with, eventually.”
“Our objective,” Kolozotes insisted, “is fulfilled. We have pierced the Republic’s flank. If they are to deal with us, they will need to shift forces from the front. That will give our main army the opportunity it needs. Arrento will be ours within two months, I swear it! Come, why the long faces? We should join Longo, and give our toast to the Empress!”
Nikaioforos looked around, taking in the Valley, the steadily marching army, the plain below, the distant sight of the Republic beyond the mountains. Far overhead, an eagle soared.
“I suppose it feels unfinished, is all,” Boriates muttered uneasily.
“Of course it is!” Nikaioforos replied. “We have won the battle, yet the war remains to be fought. We must plan ahead-”
“General Nikaioforos,” the Mark intoned. “Lord Hunter would speak with you. In private.”
Boriates, Kolozotes, and all the others shot Nikaioforos envious - or perhaps admiring? - glances as he got out of his stretcher and hobbled alongside the Mark towards the Hunter’s palanquin.
The Archon stood beside the enormous, lavishly ornamented, carriage which he had rarely left during the campaign thus far. The demigod left most of the mundane business of warfare to mortal beings - the fact that he had made an appearance now was a testament to his high opinion of the occasion.
As Nikaioforos approached the last steps alone - the Mark stopped some distance away, leaving them space to speak without being overheard - he was almost overwhelmed by a sudden and unfamiliar sense of weight emanating from the divine figure.
The Hunter normally appeared as a youth, barely a man, green eyes glittering, blonde mane flowing in an unfelt wind, body lithe and healthy.
That same description still was true, yet somehow Nikaioforos’ impression was that of the complete opposite - immense age and density ground down upon the almost child-like form. The general was briefly reminded of the stifling awe experienced when confronted with certain natural wonders, such as the otherworldly stalactites and strange rock formations he had once explored in the caves of Sumarea.
“Lord?” Nikaioforos asked.
“Where do the souls of spirits go, when they die?”
The Hunter’s voice was frail, reedy, and utterly forlorn.
“For countless generations of you fleeting mortals, I had Charger by my side. Through the woods and the hills, beneath the sun and strange stars, we were pack, we hunted… his friendship to me is older than your entire misbegotten civilization!” The Hunter panted with powerless fury, swiftly fading to lacklustre apathy. “Together we changed the world - from behind a thousand thousand faces of Man, ours were the wills guiding them - ours was the glory, while mortals were swayed, ever this way or that, by vacuous, ephemeral impulses…”
It was impossible to think, or to respond to words - the presence of the raving Archon was as if a sudden precipice had revealed itself before him, a yawning chasm both paralyzing with fear and exhilarating in its vastness.
“I am… sorry for your loss?” Nikaioforos sputtered at last.
The Hunter eyed him strangely. “And who is this?”
Nikaioforos felt a bead of sweat trickle down his forehead.
“General Nikaioforos, lord. You… sent for me? To discuss our strategy?”
“Strategy? For what?”
“For… the war? For the invasion of the Republic - the avenging of the attack against the Imperial Palace - for the restoration of the Empire…”
He faltered. The Hunter’s gaze betrayed not a hint of understanding, nor recognition.
The silence stretched.
“For the hunt, father,” the Mark spoke crisply from behind. “To track down the beasts who would make prey of you and all our kind."
“The hunt…” the Archon muttered with dawning comprehension.
"The Inquisition, father. What greater prey, than a predator? Imagine - what a daring chase, what feats of bravery and skill lie yet before you!"
And, in an instant, the weight was lifted, and the Hunter bounced gaily on his heels, cheeks flush with the exertion of youth, and sure hands grasped the bow that had drooped in his grip, and piercing eyes scanned the horizon.
“Yes! Yes!” he laughed. “Of course. The Hunt awaits! - ah, it is good to hunt!”