Sub Sigillo Confessionis
(‘Under the seal of confession’, therefore to be kept secret.)
Near the city of Viadaza, in the rear gardens of the Palazzo Sebardi, at the close of Autumn 2402
Lector Bernado could see that Lector Erkhart was ill at ease, being so stilted by the need to suppress some species of twitching affliction that he was forced to clasp his hands together tightly as if to hold himself in place. It made him appear furtive, although upon closer inspection, his eyes suggested it was more a consequence of fear.
Unlike Lector Bernado, who wore the traditional vermillion robes of his office, Erkhart was dressed more humbly, in the kind of course woollen cassock favoured by the lowest orders of priesthood. Bernado had not asked him why, assuming it was because Erkhart had lost his see when the city of Trantio fell, and so probably thought it either improper or unreasonable to don his robes of office. Each to his own, thought Bernado, musing on the fact that when he had lost Viadaza, it never occurred to him to alter his own wardrobe. He had considered it an act of defiance to maintain his official trappings, for doing so showed he had refused to accept the enemy’s claim of possession.
There was little colour in the palatial gardens, it being so late in Autumn, but a lay-brother was busy tidying one of the circular beds of herbs.
Bernado was pleased to know that another part of Viadaza was rid of the stench of corruption and the lingering sense of horror, thus recovering a sense of normality and peace. Apart from the Lectors, the only others present were two armoured guards (who accompanied Bernado everywhere now), his secretary Father Piero and one of his small staff of gnomish clerks.
Erkhart, like so many others, had begun by asking when the arch-lector would order the army to march again. Then, again like so many others, he begged Bernado to encourage the arch-lector to delay no longer. This surprised him, for he had expected the ruined lector to request a force be dispatched to recapture Trantio. Then again, he also knew Erkhart had been in conversation with the Disciplinati di Morr and the spiritual leaders of the several dedicant congregations, so it was possible he had been won over by their fanatical fervour. If he had participated in the dedicants self-administered scourging, then that might explain his tortured twitches. Yet, Erkhart’s exaggeratedly nervous state suggested something else.
The truth came to light when he spoke further, describing the flight from Trantio before its fall, his own weakness in the face of the Ogres’ advance, and the impossible dilemma of choosing whether to go north with the few or south with the many. Having chosen north, for that was where the arch-lector was, he was then wracked by guilt upon hearing of the terrible fate of those who did go south. Here, Erkhart’s voice faltered, and he spoke more quietly.
“I know now that going north was another part of my penance. I should never have left Trantio, and only added insult to injury by doing so.”
Bernado could not think what Erkhart meant by this last comment: ‘Insult to injury’ implied two faults, and that therefore his abandonment of Trantio was not his only sin.
“But surely you see, brother,” said Bernado, “that without sufficient strength to defend the city, it would have been madness to stay? How can you accept blame for what was a necessary action brought about by forces beyond your control? If you will not blame the ogres – and I cannot see why you do not lay this evil deed squarely upon their shoulders – then perhaps the blame lies more upon Duke Guidobaldo, for not providing sufficient forces to defend that which he had himself so violently taken? When he took his prize, he should have accepted the responsibilities that came with it.”
“No, I cannot blame the duke,” answered Erkhart. “I bear the burden of sin. I should have accepted my punishment, and stayed regardless of the threat. My advice to you, if you will take it from such as myself, who promised so much to so little effect, is this: Do not leave Viadaza. You lost it once and it has been returned to you. Be not so careless, nor regardless of Morr’s will, to lose it again.”
Bernado nodded. “I do want to stay, and have petitioned his holiness to allow me to do so. But I doubt my wish will be granted, for the arch-lector has left Remas to pursue Morr’s will – why should we not also be expected to go wheresoever we are needed?
“Still, I cannot see why you blame yourself,” he added. “This talk of punishment and multiple sins. We all make mistakes, for which we ought to be penitent, but to heap such blame upon yourself for acting as you thought best at the time, this I do not understand. I myself delayed giving support for the Viadazan crusade, and although I did finally march with them, fighting upon the field at Pontremola, when I heard the city was lost to the armies of the undead, I did not return. It was not fear that prevented me, although I was afraid, but rather the knowledge that the city was already lost and that my immediate return could not change that. Surely it was just the same with you? What great fault do you believe you bear?”
Lector Erkhart fixed Bernado with an intent gaze, then his eyes unfocused as if to look upon some imagined object.
“Might we take leave of the others, brother, to talk privately?” Erkhart asked.
Bernado nodded his consent, gesturing to the guards and servants to wait. The two lectors then turned towards the grassy gap between the hedged enclosures, leading towards a statue of Myrmidia in the centre of the gardens.
They walked in silence until they reached the foot of the statue. No-one could hear them now.
“I take it you are not offended by the statue?” asked Bernado, wondering if a man promoted to lectorship by Duke Guidobaldo might share the schismatic Pavonan Morrite monotheism. Capolicchio, lector of Pavona itself, was very much a schismatic, and indeed was considered by many to be the highest authority within the sect.
Erkhart shook his head in a manner that mirrored the twitches he had exhibited earlier. “That is not my sin. I have never had Sagrannalian leanings, nor have I ever given the impression of doing so – not even to gain Duke Guidobaldo’s favour. No, I gained his favour by other means.”
He fell silent, and Bernado knew he was preparing to give his confession.
“Go on,” said Bernado, making the sign of Morr’s blessing. “Sub sigillo confessionis.”
Once again, Erkhart’s hands twisted together before his waist, as if each was trying to restrain the other. “My sin was not schism. Nor was it leaving Trantio – that was merely my failure to accept my penance. I should have stayed to be butchered by the brutes.” Here, momentarily, he faltered again.
Then, fixing Bernado with his gaze, perhaps to make it clear that he was hiding nothing, that this was a full and frank confession, he continued.
“I was sent by the arch-lector to correct Duke Giudobaldo, to deliver the edict for peace between all princes, to directly order him to cease his vainglorious war at a time when greater Tilea was in need of defence against the true enemy. I personally swore to the arch-lector that I would apply myself body and soul to that task, yet I was lured from that straight and true path by offer of the gift of lectorship of the cruelly conquered city of Trantio. I grasped the tainted office with both hands, and even wrote to the arch-lector to inform him how all that was done, by both the duke and myself, was good, proper and for the greater glory of Morr. I told his holiness the duke was a righteous lord, who had sacrificed his son for the good of the people of Trantio, and by removing the tyrant Girenzo could now set about protecting them from the undead threat.”
“I saw the letter,” said Bernado, remembering how at the time he had wondered if there was something more to the story, something that had not been said. He spoke sternly, “Continue.”
“From that time the knowledge that it was not truly so, that I had succumbed to greed and a lust for power, gnawed at me. And still my own greed was so great that I lied to the arch-lector.”
“How so? Confess fully or not at all, for a partial account is tantamount to another lie.”
“I told the arch-lector that I arrived after the fall of the city, and so Duke Guidobaldo knew nothing of the holy edict ordering peace. That was my greatest lie, for I had arrived at Trantio two days before the assault. The Duke promised me the reward of high office to buy my silence. More than that, I promised to mislead the arch-lector so that it would appear the duke had completed his war before the inconvenient edict was shown to him. That way, Duke Guidobaldo could regretfully explain that he had received the edict to late, through no fault of his own.”
This is the sin that makes him ashamed to wear his robes of office, thought Bernado. When he looked at Erkhart, however, he could see there was yet more to know. He decided not to press his penitant further, for the man’s agony was plain enough, and it was merely a matter of waiting.
“Even as I took up residence in the palace it became plain that my sin had spawned more evil in its wake. When I asked what had become of Lector Silvestro, I was met first by silence, then later by the story of a mob who burst into the palace to murder him for being the friend of, and counsellor to, Prince Girenzo. But although there were plentiful signs of disturbance in the palace, and everything of value had been stolen, I never found any of Silvestro’s servants who had been present that day to witness the event. I cannot say what was done, but I wondered just who could possibly have goaded the mysterious mob to murder a priest of Morr, when all would surely know they were damned for doing so.
“Then, just as I began to wonder if the duke would allow the Sharlian Riders who had accompanied me from Remas to return there, knowing as they did that we had arrived before the final battle, I learned that their service also had very conveniently been bought.
They were promised increased pay to enter Pavonan service. I spoke to Captain Presrae and he seemed blissfully unaware of the whole affair, either because he cared nothing for such things, or cared too little to question the matter. He knew I was carrying the edict, but not its full nature, nor what I had written in return.
“But worse, much worse, was yet to come. I had suspicion enough to be concerned, and yet I did nothing to prevent it. My sins were multiplying and I was becoming crushed under the weight of them. Although I had allowed my silence to be bought, another priest-emissary, Father Franco de Pistoni, had of course been carrying the edict to Prince Girenzo of Trantio: the arch-lector had sent priests with letters to every Tilean prince and ruler. Father Franco had been unable to enter the city because of the besieging Pavonan army, and must surely have known that I too had arrived before Duke Guidobaldo ordered the assault. I was afraid he might return to the arch-lector to reveal the truth, and in my weakness, I expressed this fear to the duke.”
Bernado was beginning to comprehend the full horror of what had been done, and yet he still hoped that it might not be true. “I heard that Father Franco was killed by brigands, a party of Compagnia del Sole soldiers fleeing from the Battle of the Princes, who were later killed by Pavonan soldiers for their crime.”
“Yes, the murderers were killed, and without trial,” said Erkhart, “three days after I spoke to the duke of my concerns.”
“Do you know whether the murderers were in fact Compagnia men?” asked Bernado.
“Perhaps. But whoever they were, none could now reveal what really happened. Were they made to do it? Ordered? Tricked? And if they were not Compagnia men, who were they? Why did they so conveniently kill that particular priest, when there’s no sane Tilean alive who would not baulk at committing such a heinous crime?”
“But you have no certain proof of Pavonan wrongdoing,” pondered Bernado. “Unless … Did you speak to Duke Guidobaldo about this?
“No, I confess I dare not do so. He would have thought it an implied accusation, and I was clinging to the hope that some greater good might result from my sins and the duke’s transgressions. Now that Trantio has fallen I know that nothing good came of it, only righteous punishment.”
Bernado was hesitant to answer immediately. He himself had shown frailty and bad judgement, but Erkhart had clearly gone much further, adding deliberate lies in the pursuit of personal ambition, joining a corrupt game of worldly politicking. Even lying to his Holiness, Calictus II himself! And yet, the war against the vampires was not yet won, and to reveal such secrets now could shatter the alliances of the holy army – Lord Silvano, Duke Guidobaldo’s heir, served in the army itself, commanding several regiments. This consideration brought to mind the holy doctrine of ‘double-effect’, which held that in pursuit of a greater good, then lesser evils were permissible. One could not, for example, win a just war without the risk of harming innocents along the way. To attempt to do so would be like fighting with one arm tied behind one’s back. What Erkhart had done, his and Duke Guidobaldo’s lies, the possibility of not one but several priestly assassinations, all this was very bad indeed. But right now the balance lay between victory in a holy war on one side, and the failure to reveal past crimes on the other. The first need was great, the second could wait.
He looked Erkhart in the eyes, and began, “Let us consider the matter, brother, in light of holy doctrine, and our present, desperate need to prevail against a most wicked and dangerous foe …”
The Battle for Ebino
Prequel: Te Morrum Laudamus (Morr, We Praise You)
Winter IC 2422-3. A short distance south of Ebino
It was less than quarter of an hour since first light and already the burgeoning camp was a hive of activity. Many within had laboured through the night, attempting to satisfy the arch-lector’s demand that the earthwork circumvallation be completed within two days. Considering the proximity of the vampire-ruled city of Ebino, there were very few who begrudged this hurried deadline and even fewer who yearned for sleep. What mortal man would relish the prospect of being unconscious and undefended when a force of undead monsters could sally out from deathly quiet walls only a mile or so distant?
Having finally shrugged off the queasy terror gifted by yet another night-long torrent of nightmares, partly achieved by the ritual of his morning prayers and partly with a practised effort of will, Father Biagino decided he ought to take the air and stretch his legs. He was keen to see how the camp’s defences were coming along, not least because of the future horrors suggested by his nightmares. The dreams he remembered, despite his urge to forget, had revealed to him a grand yet grisly army much greater and more terrible than that he had faced at Pontremola.
He told himself that it could not be so – only yesterday the scouts had confidently reported a weak force garrisoning Ebino – and yet there it was. Before the dream army, and quite unable to escape due to some mysterious thickening of the air, he became as a mouse in the way of a bull – more accurately, an old, diseased mouse with legs stuck in glue-like mud facing the snorting, red-eyed king of all demonic bulls. As the mighty foe came on relentlessly, he turned in desperation to see what safety his comrades could provide …
… only to discover (once again) that they too were living-dead, their eyes empty of all life apart from hateful hunger.
The enemy was on all sides. And he had not a friend in the world.
When he threw his hands up to block out the sight, which was all he could think to do, pain seared into his palms, as if his cursed vision was burning through his very flesh. Tearing them away again, he saw blood pouring from ragged holes, and he fell.
From then, the nightmare took a turn for the worse, becoming the part he could not bring himself even to think about.
He was accompanied on his morning constitutional by a guard, a veteran Reman crossbowman called Adelmo, who had replaced the one outside his tent through the night. Adelmo proved to be a talkative fellow, a quality Biagino currently appreciated for the distraction it gave, and which therefore he was happy to encourage.
“Quite a difference already,” said the crossbowman pointing ahead. “I saw this gate just after dark and it was little more than a few marker posts.”
Biagino stopped a moment to look the earthworks over. Without a doubt much work had been done, for it was no small feat to enclose the camp of an army as large as this Holy Army of Morr, but it was still far from a reassuring sight. Small sections of earthwork were in place, but most were little more than low piles of earth, the traced beginnings of a defence achieving little more than marking out where the completed circumvallation would eventually sit. He pointed at a finished section by the gate and asked,
“Will they make the whole circuit as high?”
“I should think so, father,” said Adelmo. “As per the general’s orders: ‘An outer ditch with an earthen bank no less than four feet high, parapeted throughout, with gabions at the gates’. O’course, if we stay any longer than a few days, it’ll grow much bigger than that. This is just for starters.”
They had stopped at the spot where the strange volley gun had been emplaced. It had been taken from maestro Angelo’s steam engine, and thus had no wheeled carriage. Just as Biagino pondered the consequences of this, Adelmo spoke.
“Well, that’s not going anywhere soon,” he declared. “If it comes to battle here at the camp, I hope this turns out to be the spot it’s needed. Seems to me, father, there’s a distinct lack of artillery in this army, considering what we’re up against and where they’re at.”
Biagino simply nodded. He had passed the maestro’s steam engine as he made his way to his tent last night. The entire upper platform had been torn away, removing all its guns – big and small – in the process, so that in its stead a huge ramp (as yet incomplete) could be fabricated upon its back.
This was the result of one of the maestro’s suggestions concerning how to assault the city, what with both walls and a moat stubbornly obstructing the army’s passage. Da Leoni had made the idea sound so simple: remove the gun-platform and in its place mount a flat bridge of roughly-hewn boards obliquely rising from a little way above the ground at the rear, while extending out beyond the front until reaching the same height as the crenelations. Then, using the engine’s proven strength, roll on up to the wall until close enough to allow soldiers simply to run up onto the battlements. Of course, the maestro had added, if the enemy were living Tileans the exercise would be severely compromised by artillery fire from the towers, but in this case, it could be assumed there would be no such danger. Biagino had marvelled how the maestro could make the prospect of fighting the living dead sound like an advantage.
Several soldiers were attending to the multi-barrelled piece, while others were filling a gabion beside it with rubble.
A large wagon stood nearby, with a tunic-less, sweating soldier aloft hurling the contents, large rocks, to the ground …
… whereupon two labourers wielding pick axes broke the stones into manageable chunks.
If this was the effort required simply to place an engine of war in some earthen defence-works, thought Biagino, then surely the maestro’s breezy description of what was necessary to make an entirely novel, massive and mobile military amalgamation of bridge and ramp must have been somewhat rash?
Biagino turned to his companion and asked, “Do you think the maestro’s plan to mount the walls will work?”
Adelmo grinned, making himself look a tad foolish in the process, and answered, “Why not? As long as the engine moves, and the bridge upon it is long enough, and strong enough, and the enemy does nothing to impede its progress, then yes, it should successfully deliver our lads into the arms of the foe.”
“Besides,” he added, “if it doesn’t work, then there’s the petard. Maybe all the maestro’s engine really has to do is draw the enemy’s attention away from that?”
Biagino said nothing, but he had been even less convinced by the maestro’s (second) proposition to construct the ‘biggest petard Tilea has ever known’. The proposed components of the yet be built contraption had been lying close to the area where engine was being converted, little more than a rusty, old cannon barrel brought from Viadaza and a battered, spare boiler for the engine, to be fastened together somehow and mounted upon a carriage so that the whole could trundle up to be placed against the gate, there to blow it apart. Biagino’s doubts were not the of the usual kind regarding petards, which tended to concern the difficulty in finding a petardier, a volunteer mad enough to attempt the placing of it. There really was no difficulty there, what with scores of fanatical flagellants and dedicants committed to sacrificing themselves for Morr in any way necessary, perhaps the messier the better? Rather, he worried about how the petardier could hope to reach his destination without deadly interference from the enemy. The undead might not have missiles to shoot, but they could surely hurl rocks, even just tip them over the parapet? And worse, in his dreams he had watched ghastly spirits swarming through stone and wood as if there were nothing there at all, thus able to sally out without even opening the gate.
Looking back at the volley gun, Biagino watched an armoured matross ramming home an iron ball into one of the nine barrels, while yet another rock was tumbled into the wicker-weaved gabion beside him.
The two of them then left the soldiers to their labours and walked a little further to a stretch of earthen barricade heaped so low it allowed easy access into the camp’s interior. Biagino led and Adelmo followed as they headed towards the very heart of the camp, where a second, much smaller ring of earthworks had been quickly thrown up, the beginnings of an inner defensive circuit to surround the army’s carroccio. This time, however, the work had apparently already halted. No-one laboured here, as if the pathetically low mound was already considered adequate – fit for purpose. Instead, a congregation of clergy and dedicants had gathered within, completely surrounding the holy wagon, being joined in ominous chanting, part prayer and part summonation of Morr’s divine presence.
Biagino heard Adelmo gasp at his side.
The physical cause of Adelmo’s audible surprise was nothing more than the barest rippling of a breeze rolling out from the enclosure, but it was laced with a hair-raising and gut-wrenching sensation of powerful intent, like one might suppose a god’s breath would feel as it washed over you.
Biagino had sensed it too, perhaps more forcefully than the crossbowman, because for him it evoked memories of rituals and rites, of prayers he himself had employed to conjure curses and blessings in battle. It also reminded him of the terrors inhabiting his dreams. He did not gasp, but for a mad moment yearned instead to throw back his head and scream, allowing the spiritual potency to penetrate his being and set his soul alight. He held the compulsion in check, for he knew if he were to give in to it, he would surely and immediately slide into a new kind of madness – the same divinely gifted ecstasy that coursed through flagellants, as the pain of their scourging reached its almost unbearable peak.
The congregation had arrayed itself in a ring around the large wagon, consisting of both ordained priests and avowed lay brothers, as well as fanatical cultists and dedicants. A flagellant prophet stood by the carroccio, waving a holy book in one hand and a heavy, studded club in the other.
Upon the wagon-shrine’s lower level a cleric spoke prayers over the gilded tabernacle containing a carefully selected collection of holy Reman relics brought by order of the arch-lector. Upon the upper platform two priests, somewhat incongruously framed by brass-barrelled swivel guns, gestured with raised hands to lead the prayerful chanting of those gathered around. Fluttering above their heads was the cross-keyed standard of the Reman Church of Morr, showing both the gold and silver keys to Morr’s garden.
Biagino had to look twice before he realised that one of the officiating priests was none other than Erkhart, the lector of Trantio, the very same man who only weeks before had arrived wretched and broken at Viadaza, assailed by doubts and the guilt of having abandoned his city. Now, dressed in a humble woollen cassock, he had the steely glint of a fanatic in his eyes, and looked every bit like the sort of man who could successfully channel mighty Morr’s divine will.
“In manus tuas, Morre, commendo spiritum meum,” prayed Adelmo. (‘Into your hands, Morr, I commend my spirit.’)
Biagino raised his hand to bless the crossbowman, to reassure him. The true power of prayer was manifestly evident here, even to a layman. The arch-lector himself had ordered the holy ritual, intending that its potency would crescendo into a force sufficient to wash over the entire city of Ebino, unpicking the dark-magics animating the undead. While the maestro Angelo was to use mathematical and mechanical magic to forge his ingenious weapons of war, the church would call upon divine power to strike at the foe. Biagino, however, was not reassured. In his dreams the vampires were unstoppable, their will undeniable, their servants relentless, their proximity nigh, their victory inevitable. Even if his dreams were only half right, then this ritual was still not enough.
Suddenly a new voice, an ululation more strained and crazed than all the rest, surged up to dominate. It seemed to contain no words, but in truth was just one name, sung without ending: Morr. And it emanated from the mouth of the wild-haired fanatic with the club. His hair blazed from his head like black fire, and his waist was wrapped in penitential chains upon which iron balls swung to bruise his shins.
“ … oooor … oooor … oooor” went the wail, the sound of the crowd’s chanting undiminished, yet seeming so now that this cry had joined the throng. Then the wail began to multiply, splitting into a crazed choir of sound. Biagino peered at the fanatic, wondering how such a thing was possible, his bemusement only ending when he caught a glimpse of motion upon the other side of the sacred compound. More fanatics had appeared, racing around the periphery, their weapons brandished, their mouths agape as they too cried out Morr’s holy name.
Adelmo flinched when he too saw the motion, his crossbow sliding from his shoulder as his other hand clutched at his sword hilt. Then, he too saw what it was. He exhaled, then sniffed.
“Here they come,” he said, as if the scene were something tired and familiar. “Father, forgive me, but with a battle brewing, I can’t decide if we need more or less of their kind.”
Biagino said nothing. At Pontremola he had witnessed almost every regiment on the field flee from the foe – the battle having been won by General d’Alessio’s slaying of the vampire duke alone, not by any resoluteness or courage in the massed ranks. When the vampire duke fell, his army weakened across the field, some stumbling, others crumbling away, until those left retired under the command of a lesser vampire. There was little the broken Viadazan army could do to stop them leaving, but at least they had won the battle. This new Holy Army could not rely on such a stroke of luck to win its battles, especially as it was unknown whether the vampire duchess would even put herself in harm’s way. Instead, they needed fighting men who could and would stand their ground against such a terrifying foe. These flagellants were such men. Once they had whipped themselves into a crazed frenzy, they would fight to the last. Whether or not a general could ensure they did so to some real purpose on the field, that was a different matter.
“Hello!” said Adelmo all of a sudden. “Now there’s a leader fit to inspire warriors!”
Biagino broke from his reverie and saw immediately who Adelmo had meant. At the head of the column of flagellating fanatics, sword in hand, cassock hoiked up to allow him to run unimpeded, chins and belly a-wobbling, was the Campogrottan priest Peppe di Lazzaro.
“If he carries on like that he’ll do himself an injury,” Adelmo added.
“Isn’t that the point?” quipped Biagino as the crazed priest hurtled passed them pursued by a large gang of much more fearsome followers.
There was little either of them could do while the frantic procession cavorted by them, swinging around the sacred compound and heading off back to the place whence they came. No doubt they would re-appear in a little while as their violent dance circumnavigated whatever other part of the camp they had chosen to steer by. Once they had gone from sight Biagino suddenly felt as if he was being watched. Glancing off to the side he saw the arch-lector’s colourful tent, attended by his Reman guards. It was not them who were looking at him, however, but the arch-lector himself, from within the shadowed interior.
Biagino supposed the arch-lector would surely beckon him over or at least make some other sign of recognition, as he had done on most other occasions. But no, he just stood motionless, staring.
It made Biagino wonder what his holiness had dreamt last night.
The Battle for Ebino, Part One
Winter IC 2420-3. A short distance south of Ebino
As Biagino looked away, lest the arch-lector notice his stare and take offence, a sound erupted from the other side of the camp – drums, the call to arms, and shouting. The chanting ceased immediately as all the gathered clergy and dedicants turned to look. Soldiers were tumbling from their huts and tents, joining the throng running towards their colours and ensigns.
“I think that means they’re coming, father,” said Adelmo. “And there I was a-thinking it would be us doing the attacking.”
“But the scouts said they were only a small force,” Biagino. “Why would they leave the walls?”
“Either the scouts were wrong, or the enemy doesn’t care about being outnumbered,” said Adelmo. “My money’s on both.”
Biagino recalled how he had thought it was strange when the scouts corrected their earlier estimations of the enemy’s size, reporting that the defending force had greatly diminished. It was suggested a large part of their strength had marched away towards Miragliano, although many present had simply assumed fear was the cause of the scouts’ original overestimation. Perhaps instead the contradiction was part of a ploy to lure the Holy Army of Morr into a false sense of security? Perhaps what he had seen in his dreams – an army with a front stretching at least as wide as their own – had been closer to the truth?
Suddenly he was jostled and Adelmo had to catch him so he did not fall. The fanatical dedicants were pouring past the pair of them.
Instinctively, Biagino’s eyes widened and his body tensed, for he knew that they carried every conceivable sort of armament, including the sort of clumsy instruments that no truly sane man would attempt to employ as a weapon.
Once they had passed he wondered why they had abandoned the carroccio, when their ritual had been so obviously working, but when he glanced at it he saw they had not entirely done so. Several remained with the wagon, Lector Erkhart and Father Peppe di Lazzaro amongst them.
“Best be off, father,” shouted Adelmo. “I reckon we’ll both be needed in this fight. In our own ways, that is.”
Biagino nodded and the two of them joined the general mass of soldiers heading off towards the camp’s periphery.
Some Mechanics: Battle Scenario Rules
Deployment: The Holy Army of Morr deployed in a semi-completed earthwork-fortified camp, with some restrictions on space. The Undead Army of the Vampire Countess Maria were to deploy 24” away from the earthworks.
Missing units: One unit of the Holy Army of Morr had already been destroyed by an earlier sally* by the Vargheists – the arabyan horse were no more. They did manage, against the odds, to get a countershot off, killing one of the monsters, but then they got cut to pieces, losing eight of their number to the charge, then the rest being charged again before they reached their camp. The undead player had one Vargheist missing. So sad.
(* This was resolved by what we call a ‘paper battle’, when the GM fights a little conflict, rolling dice without toy soldiers, or even players, so that we can get in with the important battles.)
Helblaster (Removed from steam tank platform): This is already set up on the defences, fixed and unmoveable. It has no carriage.
Carroccio: This began kind of ‘stuck’ within its compound, but could become moveable with effort.
* To move it the order must be given. A D6 was then rolled in subsequent player turns, allowing it to move the next turn on 6+, the turn after on 4+, then the next and subsequent turns on 3+.
* It had a number of ‘free’ (no points paid) flagellant ‘camp followers’ with it (Morrite ‘dedicants’) being 6D6 in number, rolled before battle starts. These could not move more than 6” away from the carroccio, unless they were pursuing a fleeing foe.
To reflect what the player had been trying to achieve before the battle, the carroccio could, depending on what was done with it, and some die rolls, increase the range of its immune to fear & Battle Standard effect, or perhaps have a weakening effect on necromantic magic. To do either there needed to be a minimum of a dozen flagellants present.
* To increase the range of the carroccio’s immune to fear and battle standard effect by 2D3”, the attendant flagellant fanatics must not move or be in combat, instead spending the turn praying. In the magic phase they must pass an Ld test. This would be an increase lasting throughout this battle.
* To affect the undead enemy’s magic pool, the attendant flagellants must not move or be in combat, spending the turn flagellating themselves, and thus apply rules for the ‘End is Nigh’! If at least one model was removed as a casualty of this self-harm, the undead enemy player’s magic pool would be reduced by D3 power dice in their next magic phase.
Steam Tank: This was currently under conversion, with a large ramp partially completed on top, with scaffolding all around it. All its artillery pieces had been removed. In order to move it must spend 2+ steam points: the first steam point didn’t generate movement, but rather allowed the engine to break it free from the scaffolding (etc) around it. From then on it followed steam tank rules, but with no shooting capability.
Holy Army of Morr @ 4854 pts
Arch-Lector’s Own troops (plus the Viadazan clergy & fanatics) @ 2195 pts:
Arch-Lector of Morr Calictus II @ 201
Urbano D’Alessio, Condottiere General @ 172 pts
Priest of Morr, Fr. Federico Tinti)@ 55 pts
Priest of Morr, Fr. Peppe di Lazzaro, Obsidian amulet & Gold Sigil Sword @ 100
Priest of Morr, Fr. Biagino @ 85 pts
7 Knights with full armour and command @ 186 pts
36 Condotta Pikemen (Estalian Mercenaries) @ 399 pts
8 Dwarf Sea Ranger Skirmishers @ 112
30 Flagellants with leader @ 370 pts (this group possibly having swollen to a greater size)
Carroccio @ 265 (counts as Army Standard @ 18” effect) + 3D6 Flagellants
Magic standard (Home-rules): Standard of Morr: All Tilean/Estalian troops within range of its battle Standard effect are immune to Fear (+85)
Maestro Angelo da Leoni’s Steam-Tank @ 250 (From which 3 swivel guns and a helblaster volley gun have been removed and placed elsewhere.)
2 Baggage wagons
The young Pavonan lord and his guard @ 328 pts
8 Mercenary Elven Knights
Arabyan Mercenaries (The ‘Sons of the Desert’) gifted by Lord Alessio Falconi of Portomaggiore @ 2331 pts
General ‘Caliph’ Gedik Mamidous
Two ‘Emirs’, Sakhrrif and Immeed (one with Battle Standard)
Vizier (wizard) Jafhashua al Hadi
9 Arabyan Camel Riders
30 Arabyan Spearmen
25 Arabyan Elite Spearmen (Heavy armour, corroding standard)
24 Crossbowmen (two companies of 12)
12 Border Horsemen
10 Musketeers (30″, S5, armour pierce, move or fire, prepared shot – after firing, spend next shooting phase reloading before fire again, may move while doing)
25 Black Guard Swordsmen (elite)
2 baggage wagons
2 Galloper Guns commanded by mercenary artillery captain Pandolfo da Barbiano
Here’s a pic of some of the above army set up in readiness for transferral to the table. Several things were already placed, as per the scenario. The 6D6 flagellants with the carroccio would be determined at the start of the game. I had the 36 figures ready, but should have known we wouldn’t need anything like that many!
The arabyan horse in the middle of this lot were destroyed before the battle! I had allowed Craig, playing the arch-lector Calictus, to order ritual prayers to deleteriously affect necromantic magic and to turn the steam tank into a mobile ramp (like a ‘Hobart’s funny’ from D-Day), so when Daz (the vampire player) wanted to try a dastardly surprise attack versus a random scouting unit by flying vampire-monsters, of course I had to allow that too. The randomness came from the fact that Vargheists are frenzied, and I reckoned that meant it was pretty random which one they attacked – whoever they happened to see first! The arabyan horse were the unlucky ones – first for being rolled as the target, second for being too weak to defend against such horrors!
The Undead Army @ 4320 pts total
Vampire Lord (Maria)
Strigoi Ghoul King
10 Dire Wolves
43 Crypt Ghouls
29 Grave Guard
20 Grave Guard
6 Crypt Horrors
8 Black Knights
3 Spirit Hosts
This was effectively a simplified version of the Holy Army of Morr’s camp, suitable for game-play purposes.
The Battle for Ebino, Part Two
The Holy Army of Morr rushed to deploy its entire strength along the partially completed defences. All three heavy horse regiments took a place on the far left of the line, with the mercenary elves known as the Sharlian Riders on their bright, white horses acting as the Pavonan Lord Silvano’s bodyguard on the extreme end of the line. The Caliph Gedik Mamidous’ camelry rode behind, with the Reman knights, led by the hero of Pontremola and commander of the army in the field, General d’Alessio, to their right. Captain Pandolfo di Barbiano’s brace of galloper guns trundled up behind the knights, hoping to find a spot from which to fire after the knights advanced.
The Arabyan Black Guard swordsmen massed in the rear of the cavalry, upon a hill from which they could look down at the Carroccio and its little guard company of flagellants (Note: The 6D6 roll for to ascertain the flagellants’ actual number came up a measly 12!) Several priests and brothers had remained with the wagon-shrine, there to continue their prayers and chanting.
Incomplete as their ritual was, nevertheless for many of the living souls close by, there was a palpable sense of Morr’s presence, or at the very least, a air of hopefulness to quell their fear of the terrible foe.
The large regiment of Estalian pikemen took up position near the centre of the line, with the arch-lector Calictus II himself by their side. Several swivel guns and the volley gun were placed in the very centre of the line, and stretching out to the right of them stood first the Arabyan musketeers with their impressively long barreled pieces, and then in succession, the Arabyan light spearmen, the main body of Morrite flagellants and the Arabyan heavy spearmen.
Behind these foot regiments, two companies of crossbowmen occupied each of a pair of hills, while in the little dip between rested maestro Angelo da Leoni’s timber-clad steam engine, surrounded by scaffolding and topped by the incomplete ramp (intended to overcome the moated walls of Ebino). The maestro himself stood upon the scaffolding, shouting down to the already sweating crewmen within the workings, issuing a complicated combination of instructions concerning how to build up steam, which parts of both the scaffolding and the supports for the ramp needed removing, and what alterations in driving and steering procedures would be necessary now that the gun platform was missing. Glancing repeatedly towards the front of the battle-line, he interspersed his orders with, “Hurry now!”, “Make haste” and “No time for that”.
A wheeled contraption of a rather less elaborate and ingenious design trundled up at the flagellants’ fore, its cacophonous bronze bell swinging erratically. ‘Fighting’ Father Antonello, who nearly died leading the poorest of the Viadazan militia at Pontremola, and who had spent his time in Remas forging the very band of fanatics he now led, walked barefoot next to the bell, his sword held aloft as he sang of the painful, purging ecstasy of serving Morr’s will to the death. At Pontremola his voice had been clear and strong, but here it had become the pained and wheezing cry of a man who had bloodily scourged himself of every thought but battle.
For a moment, once the army was arrayed as best it could, there was almost complete silence. The peeling drums ceased their instructions, the sergeants and captains gave rest to their voices, and every mercenary soldier upon the field, Tilean or Arabyan, fell silent. Even the flagellants ceased their loud chants, and instead spoke their prayers in growled whispers through clenched teeth. The only other sounds were the jangling of the mounts’ harnesses and the snapped fluttering of silken standards.
Not one living soul present could help but fall quiet, for it was in that moment the enemy hove into view, surmounting the ridge between the camp and Ebino.
Every single thing that moved among their ranks was foul, and many were truly terrible to behold. Several large companies of skeletal warriors, wearing only the remnants of ancient armour and rags, with not a scrap of flesh to clothe their bones, made up their right, including an ancient head-hunter’s chariot piled high with the skulls of those he had taken in life and (presumably) in death also. Closer to the centre of their line, being the first thing all living eyes were drawn to, was the un-living corpse of a huge dragon-beast. Its motion seemed impossibly easy, considering it was nothing more than bleached bones and the thinnest, taut tatters of leathery flesh. When its long neck came curling down to thrust its monstrous head forwards, a sound issued from its gaping maw – the echo of a cry from some hellish realm beyond the seam, twisted then amplified as it found its way into the mortal world.
Behind this flew some smaller, demonic creatures, although as they would tower over any mortal man their smallness was only in comparison to the dragon.
In the very heart of the line came a monstrous amalgamation of unliving parts, bound by a blue-hued miasma, the whole like something plucked from a nightmare, perhaps several nightmares conjoined. It appeared to be hauled by skeletal riders, although the mounts’ hooves struck nothing but air as the ground was several yards beneath them. Limbless corpses with chattering teeth were impaled upon a shrine-like balcony, upon which stood a crooked figure robed in a cloth woven from shadows.
This horror alone proved the vampire duchess’s corrupting power had grown far greater than that which Duke Alessandro ever wielded, and that in the passage of time since she left Viadaza to return northwards, she had been diligent in her work to make a very hell of the north. The like of such an ‘apparatus ad mortem’, such an ‘ammasso dei cadaveri’, had not been witnessed in Tilea for many a century. But nor had an undead army the size of which surrounded it. Ahead of the horror loped a band of undead brutes, and beside them a regiment of ancient palace guards led by the vampire Lord Adolfo (the tales of his death at the hands of the duchess, punishment for the loss of Viadaza, were thus proved false). Next in line were two huge bands of ghouls and zombies, with a barely visible ghostly host of troubled spirits lurching ahead of them.
Upon the very far left of Duchess’s army there rode a deathly hunt, with flail-armed riders galloping in eerie, ethereal silence behind a pack of slavering hounds.
They were not the only riders upon the field, for at the very centre of the line, beside the monstrous dragon, was a company of skeletal men at arms, their mounts’ caparisoned carcasses enclosed in carapaces of iron. In their midst rode the vampire Duchess Maria, with a gaze every bit as piercing as her bared fangs could be.
As the Holy Army of Morr took in the full horror of what faced them, the arch-lector’s long serving company of mercenary dwarfs jogged up towards the side of the steam engine, having been ordered to move wheresoever it went.
Most of the vampire duchess’s horde momentarily slowed as she surveyed the foe arrayed before her, but out on the left the ghastly hunt did not break its stride, outstripping all the rest and closing upon the enemy with palpably cruel intent.
Note: Deployment and Scouting Moves completed. Battle to follow.
The Battle for Ebino, Part Three
The near-silence was broken by the sudden blaring of horns ordering the riders to advance. The young Lord Silvano, the only soldier upon the field to sport the blue and white of Pavona, was the first off the mark, accompanied by his Sharlian Riders. The irony that they had been bribed generously to leave Reman service to serve the duke of Pavona, yet now they had been sent by that same duke to serve his son in Reman service, was lost on the young Lord Silvano (although the elves themselves were aware, and indeed had made many a jest out the situation).
To Silvano’s immediate right, the mounted nobility of Remas spurred their own mounts to keep up as close they could to the young lord’s flank – a visconte, a barone, and several-many Cavalieri, bearing a cross-keyed standard aloft and led by General d’Alessio, his shield bearing Morr’s hourglasses.
The veteran general forgave young Silvano his impetuousness in being the first to advance, though by right that honour should not have fallen to him. Silvano was burdened with an irrepressible need to prove himself, born of all that had happened in his young life: the death of his brother in single combat, the mutinous conduct of his own soldiers at Viadaza and the recent fall of the city he had been granted governorship of by his father.
He also yearned to placate his father for his perceived failings by proving himself in battle. Where and when better to do so than here and now, against the greatest and most wicked threat facing Tilea? Most of all, he wanted to beat the vampire duchess and her foul horde as soon as possible, thus releasing himself from his vow and allowing his return to Pavona to aid his father in the war against the ogres threatening to destroy his homeland.
Behind the Sharlian riders came the Sons of the Desert’s camelry, carrying spears almost the length of pikes. It had been noted that the desert mounts scared the horses, and so their position in the rear was no accident. Thus it was that the left wing of the Holy Army of Morr’s vanguard, entirely consisting of riders, crossed the nascent defences to move directly towards the massed ranks of the walking dead.
On the army’s far right, the steam engine’s workings juddered into life, emitting bursting bouts of sooty steam, then after the squeal of grinding gears and the strained creak of stressed timbers, it broke free of the scaffolding enclosing it and jolted forwards leaving a trail of broken planks behind. The maestro Angelo watched it trundle away, cursing at its lack of armament. At Viadaza it had thundered aimlessly about, unable to inflict any real damage upon the walls or the foe shielded behind them, whereas now, part-way through the transformation intended to put right that particular deficiency and turn it into a wall-assaulting engine, it was going into battle without the guns that could make it truly effective in the open field. He was more than a little vexed at the constantly changing circumstances that prevented him from proving himself as a military engineer of genius. Had he just sent his greatest creation to its doom?
The dwarven rangers watched the engine go by, waiting for their chance to move up in its wake, all the better to support it during the battle.
While the famous Captain da Barbiano’s galloper guns positioned themselves behind the beginnings of the earthwork vallation …
… the regiments of foot soldiers stood their ground. The Arabyan light spear regiment looked on nervously over the piled timbers gathered for the parapet, while the black-robed vizier in their front rank began the dramatic gestures required for a conjuration.
But his efforts evidently failed, for his hands came together in a conclusive clap and nothing at all happened. He cursed in some archaic tongue only half understood by the men around him. No other magical manipulation of the etheric winds had any obvious effect, but several of the slavering death-hounds did fall to crossbow quarrels …
… and the shambling blue-skinned horrors in the centre of the duchess’s line were bloodied by musket shots. At the carroccio, however, the clergy and fanatical dedicants were singing potent prayers with gusto, and as every Estalian and Tilean who could hear them took heart from the parts they recognised, their fear of the foe began to ebb away further (Game note: As per the house rule, they now had +4″ range to the carroccio’s ‘Hold your Ground’ & Immune to Fear effect, making it 22″ in range.) The black robed swordsmen above the carroccio, who knew little of the foreigners’ gods and had certainly never prayed to them, simply looked down in confusion at the fuss, and wondered why such supposedly fearless warriors would give themselves over to song when there was a battle to fight.
The Duchess’s unholy army came on slowly but surely, and apart from the ghostly-hunt out upon the far left flank, only the monstrous undead dragon seemed to be in any hurry to reach the foe. Its huge wings flapped but three times, and with little swiftness, yet somehow lifted it sufficiently far to land before the Reman nobility. Upon its arrival, however, it did nothing more than hiss with mean intent. (Game Note: Its ‘Death Shriek’ had no effect.)
Still, although its threatening display caused no physical harm, the beast’s mere proximity was no easy thing to endure. Only the tiniest scraps of muscle still connected its bones (what remained being as tough as buff-leather armour) and its grey flesh was also very much an incomplete covering, nevertheless a long, sharp tongue, the colour of dried blood and like that a master butcher might display with pride upon his stall, thrust stiffly between the massive teeth of its gaping maw. The fleshless talons upon the joints of its wings flexed and curled with intent, and every motion its flinching tail made produced a clackety eruption of sound as bone struck bone along its entire length.
Much louder was the hate-filled howl delivered by the vampire Adolfo, as if he could barely contain the lust for battle broiling within him. His elite guard made no sound, perhaps heard no sounds either. As they halted a moment, several of their blades shimmered with an unworldy green glow. Their master raised his hand to shield the sun from his eyes and so better descry the enemy who had driven him from the city he ruled in both life and undeath, and so shamed him before his beloved mistress the duchess Maria. He believed his devotion to her knew no bounds, and he intended that the enemy would learn this the hard way. Yet, deep down, buried beneath the fury, pride, lust and brutal cunning, there was a part of him that wanted his own unlife never to end, whatever became of the duchess. This was what had allowed him to flee Viadaza even as it fell, and was why he halted here to scrutinize the foe even though he could see several of the duchess’ other servants had already advanced much further.
The hunters and their hounds were the keenest of the undead forces, heading straight towards the Arabyan heavy spearmen, entirely unconcerned by the fall of several of their number.
Watching their approach, the spearmen’s amir simply kept repeating, “Steady … steady …!”
The situation was both reversed and magnified upon the far side of the field, for there it was the living riders, much greater in number, who rapidly closed the gap between themselves and the foe. Their blaring horns suddenly gave vent to a new, more urgent flurry of notes – the ‘charge’ – and all three bodies of riders crashed headlong into their skeletal opponents. So many were they and their foe, and arrayed so widely, that the arabyans and elves found themselves jointly taking on not two but three regiments of osseous foot soldiers, while the Reman nobility levelled their lances to attack the great dragon itself!
Lord Silvano held his own in the subsequent fight, which the elves around him thought was as much as could be expected from an as yet unblooded youth, while several skeletons were felled by the riders’ lances.
The mercenary Caliph Gedik Mamidous found himself locked in combat against a vampire, and the two of them drew blood (much to the vampire’s distraction) but neither could fell the other. His emir and camel riders brought down many skeletons in both the regiments they faced, the camels themselves breaking several of the enemy into pieces under their heavy, splayed feet. The conjoined impact and heavy casualties so fractured the magical forces animating the undead warriors that thirty more crumbled in the rear ranks! (Game Note: Joint combat of 2 units vs. 3 units won by 10 points, thus 10 extra casualties in each of the skeleton and grave guard regiments!) The Holy Army of Morr had struck a severe blow here on the flank – the enemy being significantly sapped of strength. But their charge had been halted, their impetus spent, and now it came to sword-blade and lance-butt there was yet more work still to be done.
Although General d’Alessio had faced such a beast as the dragon before, at Pontremola, he had to steel himself as he drew close. Several lance-points found their marks, and the beast was visibly injured by the attack, even stumbling as it momentarily lost its balance.
Yet, like the camels and elves to their left, the knights’ charge alone could not finish off the monster, and now they would have to fight without the driving force gifted by their initial charge, their lance attacks becoming more akin to mere prods than piercing thrusts. (Game note: They caused one wound, and 3 more due to combat resolution. So close!)
Crossbows, swivel guns and the volley gun all did what they could to harm the approaching blue-skinned brutes, but with little apparent effect. The musketeers were too busy re-loading their extra-ordinarily long-barrelled pieces to contribute their own leaden shot. Captain di Barbiano decided to join the effort and targeted the same body of monstrous zombies, and was left dumbfounded when one of his piece’s barrels blew apart …
… and the other sent a round shot into the dirt rather than the foe. His first contribution to battle after all those weeks and weeks of hard-riding, only to find his firepower (and the value of his investments) reduced by half!
On the far right of the Holy Army’s line, the maestro’s engine continued its trundling movement through the gap in the lines before it.
In an effort to ensure its path towards the main enemy regiments remained clear, the crossbows atop the hill behind and the pistol-armed dwarf rangers accompanying it, managed to reduce the hunt’s hounds down to only two, while the vizier’s second attempt to rain magical lightening upon the hunt’s riders halved their number in a dramatic explosion of flashes.
As the spears of blue light manifested in the air around the ghostly riders, the vizier began cackling, but this quickly turned into a more pained sound as he clutched his head and had to be caught by the men at his side before he tumbled over. When his hands came away he seemed dazed, yet took his place in the front rank once more. None of his companions thought to question him concerning what had happened – his trembling was proof enough that something had gone awry in his conjurations.
The duchess’s army had been visibly harmed, and those who could see it now allowed themselves to believe that the day really would be theirs – even as the duchess herself led her mounted guard in a charge against the Reman nobility struggling against the dragon.
But then the vampires summoned every scrap of etheric wind they could, and commenced the work of repairing and strengthening their warriors. Beside the head-hunter’s chariot of skulls, fallen skeletons by the dozen began to get back up to their feet …
… and so it went on until nearly every undead regiment in the field was almost entirely whole again. The riders, every one of whom had dared to hope that they were only moments away from bursting through the few soldiers remaining in their way, which would have allowed them to turn upon the vampire duchess’s flank and rear to begin the real work of annihilating her army, suddenly found themselves facing regiments almost as strong as they had been when they first entered the field!
A sickening sense of doubt began to spread through the men, elves and dwarfs of the arch-lector’s army. It was not merely fear of the foe, but the soldierly knowledge that if the foe refused to stay dead, then the fight could only go one way.
Was this the beginning of the end of the arch-lector’s holy war?
The Battle for Ebino, Part Four
As the winged horrors behind the regimented skeletons on the undead right did little more than hop and flap, merely edging toward the middle of the field as if they could not agree between themselves where first to strike, the vampire duchess herself showed no such indecision in her combat with the Reman nobility. She had spied her old master’s killer, General d’Alessio, among them, and sought to wreak vengeance for what he had done. Her mount’s blood-hued barding marked her out, although she radiated such an aura of evil that she would have drawn the gaze of every living thing in her proximity whatever she wore.
At the very moment she and her riders clashed with the Remans, the fight upon the slopes to her right was going badly for the living. Fallen elves, Arabyans and skeletons tumbled together down the hill. Such a hard fight, combined with the recent resurrection of nearly every skeleton they had fought so hard to kill, sapped the resolve of the living warriors and they all turned to flee. Both camel and horse-riders outpaced their pedestrian pursuers, however, with the Caliph Gedik Mamidous leading his own men pell-mell through the Black Guard swordsmen and much further than Lord Silvano and his elves.
The Holy Army of Morr’s left flank, which only a little while before had seemed all but victorious, was now in possibly fatal disarray. There was still a chance the riders might rally, and the swordsmen might find the courage to stand their ground. And if the Reman nobility also maintained their fight against the monstrous dragongheist, and if the winged horrors continued their dithering, then perhaps the tables could yet turn again in their favour? But this faint hope receded when the Vampire Duchess’ blade cut General d’Alessio in two, before he could even lift his own sword to parry. As his horribly mutilated corpse tumbled to the ground in two places, his plate-armoured companions somehow found the courage to maintain their ground in the centre of the field (1), which allowed the Estalian pikemen behind them to advance ‘at the charge’, the serried ranks of their pike-tips aimed squarely at the osseous riders. In the process, they carried the somewhat flustered Father Biagino along with them.
So it was that Biagino found himself caught in the midst of massive melee. He flailed his sword almost without thought, his mind wholly intent upon the prayers necessary to summon Morr’s blessings. The words came easy, the gestures less so (for obvious reasons), but to no avail. He was lost from Morr’s sight. A chill ran through him as he understood that in this moment of dire need, he had been abandoned by the god to whom he had given so much. (2)
As the elven riders and young Lord Silvano turned to face the enemy once again, the Arabyan swordsmen found the courage to charge the small company of skeletons to their front …
… while behind Gedik Mamidous halted his camel riders and ordered them to reform as a body.
Captain di Barbiano’s last surviving gun sent a ball ploughing harmlessly into the ground before the blue-skinned horrors in the midst of the enemy’s line …
… then enough crossbow bolts and musket bullets found better marks, felling three of them. All this was watched by the arch-lector Calictus, standing alone beside the swivel guns that had been removed from the steam tank, obscured from the enemy’s eyes by a wagon of stones sitting beside the incomplete defence-works. He had barely moved since the battle began, and indeed it seemed to those nearby that he was lost in prayerful reverie. In truth, it was fear and doubt that had held him so from the first moment he saw the frightful nature of the foe. There were many among the Holy Army of Morr who still believed the battle could be won, especially as the entire right wing of the army had yet to engage the enemy, including the large mob of indomitable, frenzied fanatics and the pistol-toting veteran dwarfs beside them, while the riders who had fled upon the left had already rallied rather than leaving the field. But his holiness was not reassured by these facts, instead his mind was filled with turmoil. How could the terrors they faced possibly be defeated? Had he tarried too long at Viadaza allowing them to grow too strong? Would the Arabyans, being mercenaries and not servants of Morr, stay and fight? Did he send too large a force to assist in the war to the south, thus critically weakening this army? Was he unworthy of holy Morr’s blessings? Were his nightmares of the last few nights coming true?
As the priests and dedicants attending the carroccio abandoned their hymns and instead set about mortifying their flesh with flails and cords, conjuring a religious ecstasy of pain to channel the spiritual power of Morr (4), the rather more physical presence of the steam-tank seemed unstoppable as it coursed its way towards the heart of the enemy’s line.
The Arabyan swordsmen, on the other hand, seemed only to contact the enemy for the briefest of moments, before they turned and ran, heading straight towards their commander Gedik, the skeletons in pursuit.
Their flight thus hindered, the skeletons soon caught them, bloodily tearing through them and on into the camel riders. Gedik Mamidous thus found himself once again in combat against the aureate-armoured vampire …
… but this time he had lost the will to fight, and as two of his riders perished upon ancient blades, he ordered the remainder to flee as they had so often practised. Once more they successfully escaped their pursuers, and this time Gedik had decided enough was enough. He was not going to allow the destruction of his entire company in an unwinnable battle, and so he commanded his horn-player to sound the general retreat, then hurtled with his riders through the camp and away from the battlefield for good.
Although the arch-lector had never before heard that particular call upon the horn, he could guess its meaning. Besides, even if it were not an order to retreat, the caliph’s flight could not bode when almost half the army’s strength consisted of Arabyans. Within moments he could see that several companies of desert-men had indeed begun to fall back.
The duchess’s foul servants were launching their attacks across their entire front. The winged horrors finally chose their target, beginning an arcing flight towards the Sharlian Riders. Lord Silvano steeled himself, lowering his visor and starting to speak his command to stand their ground, but Captain Presrae suddenly clutched his arm. The elf gestured towards the fleeing Arabyans, saying,
“It’s over, my lord. Best we go now. Your father would not want to lose another son.”
Lord Silvano exhaled in frustration, then turned his horse away. Accompanied by the elves, he too left the field, galloping harder and faster than he had ever done so before to keep up with the Sharlian Riders’ white steeds. He did not look back.
The elves and Arabyans were not alone, for the dwarfs, facing a charge by the remaining riders of the ghostly hunt, chose that very same moment to leave. They had been ordered to accompany the steam tank, but they could not keep up with it, which made them feel that they had been foolishly misemployed, which in turn wounded their pride.
Besides, it was clear to them that their continued efforts could not possibly help the steam engine, for it had become stuck, stalling as a cloud of viridescent spirits swarmed over and under, through and into it, plunging the crew into a waking nightmare. The crew’s screams and the enemy’s eerie wailing mingled together, exactly as the engine’s vented steam swirled and mixed with the spirits’ ethereal vapours. The maestro saw it all from his place on the scaffolding – he had not moved from that vantage point since the engine left – and as the dwarfs fled by he shouted but one word, “Wait!” before leaping down to join them. (5)
Suddenly it seemed as though a dark cloud had moved over the field of battle, spreading its shadow upon the ground. This was no natural phenomenon, rather it was an emanation from the huge, hellish conglomeration of grisly parts moving at the heart of the duchess’s army, and in its absence of light it bore a magical mortification.
His Holiness the arch-lector himself felt its cold touch deep inside his mortal frame, and was left gasping for air while nearby umpteen musketeers, swivel gunners, pikemen and artillerymen fell lifeless to the ground (to the fearful confusion of their fellows). This curse seemed to fan the winds of dark magic for it was then that every soldier of the pike regiment reeled under the duchess’s enchanted gaze, fumbling for their footing as if they were suddenly addled by strong liquors. Lord Adolfo felt the surge too, and in his boiling rage, which had grown only greater as the battle grew longer, he garnered more necromantic magic that he could possibly control, so that even as undead riders and horrors were reanimated, the five guards closest to him burst into pieces as the uncontrollable energies spilling from the sides of his spell ripped through them.
Having been distracted, as well as lulled into a foolish and false sense of security by the heavy wagon of stones before him, Calictus at last realised the abominable, charnel agglomeration was coming directly at him. Its ever-shifting tangle of parts held a sick fascination, and he could not look away from it. The noise of it, a convoluted choir of grinding shrieks and howls, seemed to be directed at him in particular.
He could also hear a voice, pathetically faint but alive, and nothing like the pure hatred-made-sound emanating from the mortified monstrosity. It was calling him. “Your Holiness!” There was snarling too, and shouting from a little way off “Run! Run!” It was the crew of the volleygun, fleeing the brute horrors.
The Estalians’ pikes had become unnaturally heavy in their hands due to the cruel chill of the lingering shadow-curse, but the foe before them was newly invigorated. All this would combine to bring about their ruin.
Duchess Maria, despite sitting side saddle and deceptively delicate, slew half a dozen pikemen with her own blade, while her riders hewed down another five and the dragon’s fangs tore through a knight’s neck, removing head, helm and plume with one snap! Held fast by the scrum of armoured men and mounts surrounding him, Biagino could do little more than attempt to stay upon his feet. His sword was lost, though he did not know it, and through gritted teeth he spoke a desperate fragment of prayer, over and over: “Into Your hands … Into Your hands …”
Unsurprisingly, the pikemen became overwhelmed by panic-fear. They reeled backwards, stumbling and tripping over the dead and dying. One or two yielded to the madness and suicidaly launched themselves at the foe, but most dropped their pikes as they attempted to escape. Nearly all were torn to pieces by the duchess and her savage servants. In the midst of the mayhem was Father Biagino, his last living moment being the sight and sound of an iron lance punching through the helmeted head of a transfixed soldier, and his final thought so dreadful that there were no words to express it.
More and more of the undead army came on now, including a vast throng of vile, rotten, walking corpses on the left.
Captain di Barbiano ordered his surviving crewmen to limber his one remaining piece and flee …
… while both large regiments of Arabyan spearmen, now that word had reached them of General Gedik’s departure, began a surprisingly orderly withdrawal. One of the companies of crossbowmen lingered long enough to loose a few shots before their own departure …
… while nearly those with the baggage wagons began hauling their burdens away, given some confidence by the sight of the Arabyan force’s disciplined departure. Yet there were some still among the living who had not yet even considered retreat, for they were so filled with an holy lust for battle that they had utterly failed to notice the collapse of the army around them. With Father Antonello and the bell-cart at the fore, the flagellating dedicants’ chains clattered and flames sputtered as at last they decided the enemy was close enough to attack.
Screaming battle cries in the form of adulatory prayers to holy Morr, they charged headlong into the last few riders of the ghostly hunt.
Nought but wisps of etheric essence remained as Morr’s holy warriors burst straight through the ghostly riders to plunge deep and messily into the crowd of animated corpses beyond. The mass of rotting flesh swallowed them up entirely, and even as the flagellants tore foe after foe after foe apart, the vampiric conjurers summoned more and more zombies to forge a huge, hellish heap of tangled, mangled corpses – dying, dead and undead. Father Antonello and his band of scarred brothers were lost to the eyes of the living.
Almost without thinking, the arch-lector had staggered away from the wagon of stones, but kept turning back to look at the approaching horrors behind. He began prayer after prayer, each time uttering only a few words before sensing its failure and starting a different one. Then came the voice again, “Your Holiness, please! Make haste.”
“What?” said Calictus as the riders at the front of the impossible, floating abomination levelled their spears and the foul dragon’s head thrust towards him to release its hideous screech.
The appalling sound assaulted him body and soul (6), then congealed sufficiently to knock him from his feet.
“Oh dear …” he began, but then spoke no more, nor ever again.
(1) The arch-lector’s player made a snake eyes break test. This was to be the ‘exception that proved the rule’ regarding his otherwise atrocious dice rolling!
(2) Snake eyes winds of magic roll. There was a certain sort of consistency in the player’s rolling! I’ve never been a superstitious man, but events were making me so.
(3) This was one of the difficult pictures I have ever had to ‘clean up’. My careless players had strewn the tabletop with dice, magic cards, drinks, snacks, and even a hand. Ooooh, if they only knew? (Although that would require the pair of them to read these notes.) Mind you, I shouldn’t complain – in the later picture where the Caliph Gedik Mamidous fled past the tent I had forgotten to attach the Reman Morrite emblems on the tent and so it was still showing the Compagnia del Sole’s device. That took some work with MS Paint to put right too!
(4)-D3 power dice for the undead player next turn as per the scenario rules.
(5) From what we could make of the steam tank rules, it seemed it was well and truly stuck – unable to move, whilst also unable to harm the spirit hosts. Daz, the undead player, was cackling. I think this is what he had intended from the start!
(6) The Mortice Engine’s Ghostly Howl failed to harm the arch-lector, but the Terrorgheist’s Death Shriek caused 7 wounds! His holiness managed to ward save 2, but the 5 that got through killed him, indeed killed him very, very dead.
Sequel to the Battle for Ebino
Biagino could remember almost nothing but dreams, spilling one after the other for what seemed like years on end. Somehow his life had flipped, turning the waking world into a distant, half-memory, while his sleeping sojourns were both experienced and recalled in great and lengthy detail.
Nearly all his dreams consisted of two, particular kinds. The first kind, the painful ones, were claustrophobic affairs in which he could barely move, if indeed at all. In these his body ached to every extremity, his skin itched and prickled all over, and he felt hunger that went beyond mere want of food to want of everything, from air to water, from movement to company. He could sense the fat falling from his bones as his body seemed to consume itself from within. His every muscle was perpetually tensed, while his mouth remained clenched shut in a grimace, despite a steadily growing pressure within his jaws.
The second kind of dreams were the old, familiar nightmares, unfolding as they always had done, to reveal or foretell the horrors of the world, but lasting longer than ever before. And when he might expect to awake, more often than not they simply spilled from one form to another, as if were journeying through an entire realm of nightmares, leaving one to arrive in the next.
And so Biagino knew he was dreaming now. It was one of his recurring nightmares, in which he was surrounded by the living dead, trapped deep within their realm. There was no escape, nor could he hide, so there was no relief either.
This time, however, it was not a nightmare. Not because he was aware he was dreaming, but simply because it was no longer terrifying. In every other sense the dream was the same: foul hands were laid upon him, their rotten, worm-ridden flesh touching his own; dead-eyes somehow peering at him from dark orbits; the screams of a dying man mingled with the gurgled groans of the undead; his mouth filling with hot blood. All this still happened, but now the hands touching him were doing as he himself had instructed, while the pus-filled eyes were those of attentive, obedient servants awaiting his further command. The dying man had perished by Biagino’s own hand, and rather than gagging on the blood, Biagino gulped it down hungrily, like a starving man given warm broth.
It was the same dream in every particular, except he was not the same man.
Then something new happened, which had never before been a part of the dream. Someone spoke to him, and it was the voice of a goddess.
“Ah, sweet priest,” she said. “You have awoken from your slumber. I see you have already breakfasted. You must have been so very hungry.”
Biagino forgot his musings concerning the dream, even that it was a dream, and so failed to notice that it was now continuing longer than it had ever done before. Distracted, he gently pushed the cold hand away that had been placing a stole around his neck …
… then turned away from his meal, letting the man fall to the ground, to look at the speaker. It was the Duchess Maria, more beautiful than he had ever seen her, her flesh as pale as it was flawless, her eyes alight with delightfully playful malice. He smiled, for it filled him with pleasure to look upon her. He remembered the other times he had been in her presence. The memories came flooding back, each one parting to reveal another: as a novice attending the Lector of Miragliano during Lady Anabella’s wedding, when the Duchess was a maid of honour; during his first and second visits to the Ebinan court upon the lector’s business; and in Viadaza when he and Father Gonzalvo had obtained an audience to petition her support for the crusade.
The duchess strode directly over to him, reaching out as she did so, revealing a serpent entwined about her arm.
When she reached him, she stroked his cheek, and he could feel the flickering, licking tongue of the coiled serpent. Rather than the surprise he should have felt at such strange familiarity from a noblewoman towards a lowly priest, and the intimate proximity of a snake, instead he suddenly remembered what was happening.
“I forgot this was a dream,” he said.
“This is no dream, sweet priest,” explained the duchess. “You are awake. Indeed, close to being more so now than you have ever been.”
As she spoke, one of the shambling servants handed Biagino a crozier, headed with a crook of solid gold, then staggered back with a groan.
Upon clutching it he was surprised at how light it was, until realisation dawned and he instead became surprised at his own strength. Lastly, he wondered why it had been given him.
The duchess now laid her hand upon his chest and he could feel the tips of her exquisitely sharp nails. She held his eye, as if to read his thoughts.
“The pretty stick is yours,” she said. “For you are made high-priest today, to rule over our church.”
Biagino grinned. “Usually my dreams are true, even the strange ones.”
The duchess’s hand slid up fast to grab him by the chin, her nails piercing his flesh as she clutched tightly, while the serpent slithered around his neck to his lick at his other cheek. Barely feeling any pain, Biagino was duly reassured that this must be a dream.
“You are not listening, dear priest,” whispered the duchess, her mouth close to his ear, her breath cold. “This is no dream. It is Morr who sleeps, not us. You need never do so again, unless you choose it.”
The first part of what she said made sense to Biagino. Morr was the god of dreams, and so also the god of the dead, who had begun their long and final slumber. But the second part meant little to him.
“The living pray to Morr for help,” the duchess continued, “and he answers them in their dreams. There he can frolic and strut in their make-believe worlds. Yet they foolishly think him powerful in the waking-world too. In this they are wrong. He never wakes. He yearns only to usher all others into his eternal sleep. He is a greedy god, who can never be satisfied.”
Biagino was surprised, for instead of being offended at such blasphemy, it all seemed to make sense, and indeed somehow he had always known. A hat of crimson cloth was now placed upon his head, and the duchess, still clutching his chin, turned his head from one side to the other, as if to admire it. Suddenly she yanked his face to hers, and kissed him. Her lips were cold, and his lips were no warmer. When she released him, she took a step away, her pet snake recoiling itself about her arm.
“We refuse to join Morr’s idle slumber,” she said. “We will not allow ourselves to be imprisoned in his oneiric realm, to have him lord it over us. We choose instead not to live yet never to die. We can rest but need never sleep. And we serve a master greater by far, not merely born a god, but who made himself one through power, cunning and the force of his irresistible will.”
“We?” asked Biagino, despite the feeling that the word was indeed somehow right.
“Vampiri,” said the duchess, standing straight. “Nobili immortale, governanti della notte.” Then she smiled and licked some of his blood from her finger tips. “Succhiatori di sangue.”
She gestured to the ground, and Biagino looked down at the dying man lying there. He felt no pity, only satiety. He let his tongue run over his razor-sharp fangs. In place of hunger and pain he felt strength and power, and in that moment, at long last, he awoke.
He knew what he was.
The duchess gestured and one of the servants dragged the dying man away, its hand placed over his face, its fingers curled into his mouth, hauling him like one might a sack.
Biagino watched without really seeing, for his mind was racing as true understanding suffused into him, gifting a gleefully wicked joy. The urge to laugh was overwhelming, but instead he was surprised to find himself giving vent to a snarling hiss.
The duchess smiled, almost coyly, then curtseyed. “Your holiness,” she addressed him. “High Priest of the ever-living god Nagash.”
Next Installment: Part 14