Media Vita in Morte Sumus
(In the midst of Death we are in Life)
Early Spring 2403
Biagino grinned as he scrutinised the two prisoners before him, an expression of joy somewhat marred by the sharp fangs revealed in so doing, and the malignant gleam of his narrowed eyes.
They were the only two living people within a mile of this spot, making the sound of their gasping seem all the louder. Yet this did not mean the graveyard was otherwise silent, what with the fluttering of Biagino’s robes in the breeze and the clinking clatter of bone meeting iron armour – the undead were also unquiet.
“I have to say, this is a most pleasant surprise,” Biagino declared, his voice little more than a croak, yet audible nevertheless. “You are exactly what I was hoping for. More than that,” he added, his dry rasp transforming into something more akin to a growl, “I like you. It will be a pleasure to have your service for a long, long time.”
The men before him were a disparate pair. Both exhibited deep fear, but each in their own, particular way. One, a dedicant of the Disciplinati di Morr, stood straight in rigid defiance, determined to die on his feet and so conjure the illusion of courage to the end. Open mouthed, he gulped at the air, like one who had only moments before been drowning. Both his robes and flesh were torn and bloodied, the delicious sight and scent of which stirred up with the smell of his hot, exhaled breath to arouse the ancient hunger in Biagino.
The other was a lesser priest. He knelt, his tonsured head bowed, wringing his hands tightly together as he stumbled over a prayer, his strained voice little more than a whisper. A mortal man would have struggled to discern the words, but Biagino had the acute senses possessed by most vampires and could hear every syllable. Not that he needed to, for he knew the prayer intimately, having spoken if often enough when alive. It was a prayer for protection against evil.
“Júdica Morre nocéntes me,” the priest intoned, forcing the words – along with spittle and blood – through clenched teeth, “expúgna impugnántes me … me … Confundántur et revereántur quaeréntes ánimam meam.”
Biagino was surprised to feel the prayer’s potency working upon him. There was a sting to the words, a sharpness, as if their very sound was barbed, and the intent they carried scratched against some weakness hidden deep within him. Rather than recoil at the sensation, however, he gave himself up to it, like someone lowering themselves into bath water a little too hot for comfort, and so turned the feeble curse into a source of stimulation. Quite contrary to its purpose, he was enlivened by it, pricked into an even more present awareness than his ordinary state of being.
“Your faith is palpable,” he said. “I am impressed by the power of it. Such spirit, such strength. I want you to keep these things, only I would have them serve the great Nagash and not your pathetic, sleeping excuse for a god. Morr is not worthy of such passion. It is wasted upon him. I will put your fervour to much better use.”
Biagino turned his attention to the two robed and hooded thralls standing behind the prisoners. They were the first of his newly made clergy, La Fraternita di Morti Irrequieti. They too were vampires, but begotten in such a way that they were wholly beholden to his will. Their service was so complete that their very thoughts consisted almost entirely of echoes of his own; their minds were almost solely concerned with serving him, with just enough of their own, personal cruelty to revel in their deeds.
It took only the tiniest of nods to convey his command, and the two thralls began chanting.
“Anima Nagashi, sanctifica me. Corpus Nagashi, salve me. Sanguis Nagashi, inebria me.”
“Yes, we are blessed by him,” said Biagino, and for a moment was tempted to join them in the chant. Instead he looked down at the Morrite priest, who was rocking gently as he continued his own prayer. Biagino chose instead to listen to the priest’s words, having completely forgotten that when alive the confused jumble of sound – rasping breaths, chanting thralls and stuttering priest – would have left him struggling to comprehend any individual part. Now no effort was needed, especially as the words were laced with delicate shards which prickled at his mind.
“Avertántur retrórsum … et … et … confundántur, co … cogitántes míhi mála.”
“I am not going to wrong thee,” complained Biagino, “but rather make thee right in the eyes of a true god. And I am afraid it is too late to overthrow us, for your battle was fought and lost.” He chuckled. “I am surprised you did not notice. It didn’t escape my notice, as you can see. Why don’t you turn your thoughts to what is to happen now? It is foolishness to dwell on that which has passed, that which cannot be changed. You would do well to accept what is happening now, and to embrace that which is to come.”
The priest whimpered pathetically …
… then recommenced his weakening attempt at prayer, “Fíant táamquam pul … táamquam púlvis ante fáciem vénti …. et … et Daemonus Morre coárctans eos.”
“Tut tut, good priest. You can see that I am not dust, and you know your prayer cannot make me so. As for the languid demons who serve your god, they are no more able to wake than he. Your prayer is wasted, your power has waned, your god is wanting.”
Biagino brought his staff down to point at the priest, mere inches from his bald pate. “Enough,” he hissed, for the first time allowing anger to brace his words. The priest fell silent, his hands suddenly limp, his shoulders sagging. Biagino had wrapped him in his own curse, unspoken as it was but much more powerful than anything the priest had conjured.
“Forget all the prayers you have learned. They are ash. Forget all whom you loved. They are lost. Forget all whom you knew. They are doomed. You are to be remade, your flesh refashioned to serve us despite its worldly corruption, and your mind will no more be your own. Oh, and you must learn some new prayers.”
The thralls’ chanting, delivered as if one voice, grew louder. “Aqua lateris Nagashi, lava me. Nagashi, conforta me. O Nagashi, exaudi me.”
“Listen, learn and know. He will wash the flesh from you, and give you strength like you have never known. And your prayers will allow almighty Nagash to drink deep of your soul.”
Biagino smiled, his eyelids almost closing as malevolent satisfaction coursed through him. Then he turned his attention to the dedicant. This one would be easier, for not only was the man of a more malleable nature, his raw anger and fear already almost perfectly formed, but he had already made the mistake of looking into Biagino’s eyes. As soon as he did so, Biagino refused to let go, and within moments the man was so entranced that he lost the power to blink, or do anything else for that matter.
Now Biagino joined the thralls’ droning intonation. “Intra tua vulnera absconde me. Ne permittas me separari a te. In hora mortis meae voca me, et custodierit me in aeternum, ut cum servos tuis laudem te in saecula saeculorum.”
There was a moment’s silence. Then Biagino said, “Now, let us all pray together.”
The prayer was repeated, once, twice, thrice. By the fourth repetition both priest and dedicant also intoned. Biagino himself fell quiet, to watch and listen for a little while. When the prayer came to an end, there was silence.
Then Biagino made the tiniest of gestures with his forefinger. Quicker than any mortal man could manage, the thralls lurched suddenly forwards, arms outstretched, as if they might embrace the two prisoners as old friends.
Needless to say, that was not their intent.
By Order of the Praepositus Generalis
The City of Remas, Spring IC 2403, At the ruins of Tragustan’s Forum
Brother Vincenzo, Admonitor of the Disciplinati di Morr and thus Father Carradalio’s right-hand man, stood motionless as three more dedicants approached the ruins. He carried his staff of office, the brass top containing the holy relic of Saint Albudin’s upper teeth, while at his side hung a flask of thrice blessed water from the sacred spring at Tabbinu, a potent ward against vampires, the mere touch of which would burn and blister their skin more horribly than aqua fortis would mortal flesh. His many layered robes were voluminous, the sleeves so wide they hung to his knees, his heavy woollen hood almost entirely obscuring his eyes.
His guards, posted in a wide circle around him, gave the newcomers no heed, instead continuing to peer purposefully out into the surrounding woods whilst clutching their spears or polearms. This was just one of several such visiting groups that day, neither the first nor the last, and like all the others they were attired in the grey and red robes favoured by the dedicants of the Disciplinati di Morr. In such circumstances, the guards’ inattentiveness was understandable, but it now occurred to Vincenzo it might well prove dangerous. For all anyone knew, these three could be assassins in disguise – a sinister possibility made no less likely by the fact that two of them wore the full hoods so common amongst dedicants.
As they drew close, Vincenzo focused on the one face he could see, for the man wore nothing but a large zucchetto cap upon his head, and was pleased to discover it was Brother Gaspare. Further reassurance was provided by the fact Gaspare carried a sword, his left hand clutching the pommel, which would be odd indeed if he were an unwilling captive being used by the others to gain proximity. Nevertheless, now was not the time to make assumptions. This was a day of many murders and multiple treacheries across the length and breadth of the city. Success required calculated risks, not unnecessary ones.
“Halt,” he ordered while they were still ten yards away. “Speak.”
It was Gaspare who replied. “By your leave, Brother Vincenzo, we have come to report the southern quarter is almost completely taken. Only a handful of dwellings remain barricaded against us, none of any significance, and their defiance cannot last.”
“Praise be to Morr!” prayed Vincenzo. “So the palazzos are already taken? Both Capistrano and Ordini?”
“Aye, brother, both of them. Some Capistrani bravi made a stand on the Ponte Sistotti, having lit a great fire on the Ponte Ruptus to ensure none could pass there instead. They were not many, but Marshal Raimondo and the Brothers of Righteous Pain* didn’t even stop to count them before charging the bridge.”
“Once those few were slain, those beyond the bridge lay down their arms, protesting they never wished to fight, only those fools already dead. The palazzo gates lay open, and Roberto Capistrani led prayers of thanks that we had so righteously corrected the rebellious bravi serving his foolish nephew on the bridge.”
“Still, he was taken prisoner, yes?”
“And his nephew?” enquired Vincenzo.
“Either fled or hiding. Marshal Raimondo is searching for him now. If he is in the palazzo he will be found.”
Vincenzo was surprised at this news. He had expected considerable resistance from such a family as the Capistrano – the Reman nobilities’ long and bloody history of time-honoured hatreds had spurred many a clash of arms between them, even full-blown sieges. The duels, disputes and disagreements between their petty armies of bravi could turn a street red, and their pride was famously obdurate. Perhaps the ease of victory was Morr’s work? Perhaps the bravi recognised the holy origins of the dedicati’s fervour, and their fear of Morr proved greater than their pride?
“What of the Ordini family?” asked Vincenzo.
“I myself witnessed what happened there,” said Brother Gaspare. “We approached their palazzo at the very same moment Brother Raimondo charged the Capistrano’s bridge. The Ordini’s men came out, armed and armoured, to meet us. No doubt they had already had word concerning what happened at the western Palazzos and knew full well we did not have gentle intentions.”
“They came out to fight?” interrupted Vincenzo. “Why would they do so?”
“I believe they thought a simple show of strength and the spillage of blood would send us running. We had crossbows, but such was the spirit filling us that several brothers dashed forwards to fight before any bolts could be released.”
“One of their captains ran at Brother Damiano, a furious madness in his eyes, but Damiano simply waited, his axe raised …
“The captain lost his head when the cut was made. The other bravi faltered, but not our brothers. Half the bravi were killed before another captain, maybe one of Galdio Ordini’s sons, ordered their retreat.”
“Such was our fury that before they reached the palazzo gate a further half of those left were slain. They could not hold the gate against us long enough to close it, and we took the palace easily. What few survived are now being held, as are the servants and a number of the family. Old Galdeo was not there, nor his sons.”
“You said one of his sons was in the street.”
“Possibly, brother. But that man could not be found either.”
Brother Vincenzo remembered Father Carradalio’s words: “Divide and rule – that’s the way. We must first foster the factions’ mutual distrusts, fan their rivalries, and then, most important of all, when our attack is made we must ensure they don’t have any time to coordinate. By the time they realise the danger they are in, it will be too late to unite into any sort of effective opposition.” Surely, thought Vincenzo, one or two escaped nobles could not present any sort of real threat later on? Besides, the noble factions were not the greatest threat to the Disciplinati di Morr’s capture of the city.
“And the arch lector’s guard?” Vincenzo asked. “Did they not interfere?”
It was one of the hooded dedicants who spoke, his voice somewhat muffled as a consequence.
“We dealt with them before the attacks were begun. Father Gabrielle and myself met Captain Vogel in the first hour of daylight, in the gardens behind the Palazzo Montini. The captain said he knew what must be done, pledging himself a true servant of Morr, and agreed to Father Carrradalio’s terms.”
“All of them?”
“Aye, brother, but he demanded a particular concession.”
Captain Luppolt Vogel was a mercenary from Nuln, a swaggering bravado who instilled complete loyalty in his men. That, and the fact that all were veterans skilled in the martial arts, was what made the arch-lector’s palace guard dangerous, not their numbers, for they were little more than a hundred strong. If the captain had chosen to oppose the Disciplinati’s work that day he could not have prevented their victory, but a lot more dedicants would lie dead by nightfall. Vincenzo was glad to hear that the captain was enlightened enough to recognise, and accept, Morr’s proper and necessary supremacy.
Father Carradalio had ordered that an offer of promotion should be made, making Captain Vogel commander of the entire Reman garrison, and that he be permitted to enlarge his personal company to at least double its current size. In return, the captain was to promise not to interfere with the day’s events, nor to assist any faction or individual opposed to the Disciplinati’s coup. Vincenzo had not expected the captain to ask for anything else.
“What concession?” asked Vincenzo.
“That he and his soldiers be allowed to protect the lectors from harm. When Father Gabrielle objected, saying that agreeing to such would allow the lectors to act against us, Vogel denied that was so. He said protecting them from harm did not mean permitting their communication with the city’s nobility and other factions.”
Hidden by the shadow of his heavy hood …
… Brother Vincenzo raised his eyebrows. “So the captain’s idea of protection is to keep them prisoner?” he asked.
“After a fashion. He even suggested that their ‘protection’ would increase if the lectors expressed any opposition to Father Carradalio, in this way preventing them from taking any action that might lead to their own harm.”
The mercenary obviously took his contractual vows seriously, thought Vincenzo, even if he had found a convenient way to follow them by the letter rather than by the spirit. He decided that was something to keep in mind during all future dealings with the man.
So far, so good, thought Vincenzo. Every report, and almost all had now come in, was of success. There had been a high cost in lives, including many a dedicant lost to the holy cause, but the city was almost wholly under Father Carradalio’s control. By midnight the task would be almost complete, so that as the Morrite lectors met the next day to cast their votes for the new arch-lector, they would surely be forced to choose Father Carradalio. To do otherwise would be to fly in the face of common sense, for Father Carradalio, Praepositus Generalis of the Disciplinati di Morr, would control the entire city. He would not be merely the strongest power in Remas, he would be the only power. Once he also had the arch-lectorship then his most holy and enlightened rule would be complete.
With luck it would happen just in the nick of time, for umpteen forces loomed outside the city walls, threatening at the least to upset the ascendancy of Morr’s true church, and at the most to destroy the city completely. Any one of these forces could arrive, and at any hour. Captain-General Scaringella might return with the remnants of the Reman army, declaring martial law and thus his own rule …
… or perhaps Razger Boulderguts’ double army of ogres would outmanoeuvre the captain-general and attack first?
It was even rumoured that the mercenary Compagnia del Sol, newly arrived from Estalia at the nearby port of Urbimo, had been contracted by Luigi Grasica and Overlord Matuzzi to seize the city for them.
Worst of all, the vile and abominable, unliving army of the vampire duchess seemed again to be moving southwards.
Once Father Caradallio, guided by Morr’s spirit, was in possession of the church, city and army of Remas, his forces swelled by legions of fanatical dedicants, then decisive action could at last be taken. In the past, Remas had been too slow to respond, what with a dithering overlord and an uncertain clergy. For years, the first response to danger was to issue declarations and warnings, to plead for aid from neighbouring principalities, or to hire another company of mercenaries to sew into the realm’s patch-work army. As Father Carradalio had preached to the throng of dedicants only the day before:
“We are the living embodiment of Morr in this world: his eyes and ears, his voice and limbs. As such we already command the citizens’ fears, for all people must die and all fear what will become of them when they do. Once we take the reins of worldly power, then in time the people’s hearts and souls will belong to us too, for only those who yield unto Morr’s true church will be permitted to prosper. If Remas is to survive, if the living of Tilea are to defeat the unholy wickedness that threatens to swallow us whole, consuming both our bodies and souls, we must first annihilate all enemies of the faith, both those within the church and without, purifying the clergy, cleansing Remas, and forging a mighty army of blessed dedicants through which Morr’s mighty will can be channelled in furious anger.”
* Fratellanza di dolore giusti
The Battle of the Via Diocleta: Prequel
Spring 2403, On the Via Aurelia
Duke Scaringella and his Reman army marched in the van, as was proper now they were moving through their own territory. The whole force, Pavonans included, was comprised mostly of foot soldiers, along with baggage and a large artillery train, which one might presume would critically limit their speed, ruining their chances of successfully catching the brute foe ahead. This was not so, however, as both armies were pushing themselves hard – the Pavonans keen to exact revenge for the multitude of insults done to them and theirs by Razger Boulderguts’ ogres, and the Remans desperate to ensure their own realm would not suffer a similar fate. Every effort had been made to ensure a good pace, including assigning the Pavonan’s large pistolier regiment to assist the artillery’s passage in every way they could. Although their poor horses would doubtless be in no fit state to fight when it came to battle, the brute foe would be subjected to battery by a storm of iron round-shot rather than the paltry peppering of leaden pistol balls.
Towards the rear of the Reman column rode the newly elected arch-lector of Morr, Bernado Ugolini. He was accompanied by several servants, a handful of guards and clergy, including his Estalian secretary Duarte, followed by a cart carrying his personal baggage and a small body of Reman militiamen who had recently become noticeably more conscientious in their duties, now that they were accompanying not merely the Lector of Viadaza, but rather the holy father of the whole Church of Morr.
The Reman cross-keyed standard was carried before Bernado, while off to his side marched a column of iron-clad dwarfen mercenaries who also sported the crossed keys, painted on their shields. They had served in the miscellaneously mercenary Reman army for more than a decade, along with regiments of Cathayans, Empire soldiers and even some elves.
In truth, Bernado would much prefer to be riding northwards directly to Remas, not chasing ogres to the south. The city and the holy church of Morr were in turmoil, since before his election to the arch-lectorship, and even more-so now. As the church’s chosen ruler, he should be there to guide his flock, heal the divisions tearing the Morrite clergy apart and ensure Morr’s protective presence. Duarte and his all his other advisers agreed, however, that the situation was now so bad there was little he could do without an army to back him, which meant travelling wherever the Reman Captain General, Duke Scaringella and his army went. When he finally returned, not only did he need to be with them, but also to be one of them.
While the arch-lector Calictus II had died at Ebino fighting against the vampire duchess, Duke Scaringella had been leading a small army eastwards to join with Pavonan forces and defeat Razger Boulderguts’ double army of ogres before they reached Remas. At the ruinous city of Astiano the duke had rendezvoused with the joint force of Remans and Pavonans sent away from the ‘Holy Army’ by the arch-lector a little while before his disastrous defeat. (This was the force Bernado had himself commanded as it marched south.) Then, knowing he still had insufficient forces to fight the ogres, the duke had waited, allowing Boulderguts’ army to swing around the north of the city, travelling east to west. He was gambling that as the ogres had already razed Astiano they would have little interest in doing battle there again, this time with no prospect of plunder, whilst praying that the main Pavonan army would reach him in time before the ogres tore Remas apart.
It was a big risk, which nearly every one of the duke’s officers advised against (even if they could not agree what alternative action should be taken). His inactivity meant the very force he had been sent to stop had got between him and what he was meant to be protecting! Luckily, just as news came that the town of Stiani had already been razed to the ground, and it looked like the entire realm might soon be destroyed, Duke Guidobaldo Gondi arrived at the head of the main Pavonan army. It was a force bigger than Scaringella’s, made bigger still when the Pavonans who had come south from Viadaza rejoined their comrades. Several days later the duke’s only surviving son, Lord Silvano, one of the very few who had escaped the terrible defeat at Ebino, also arrived to be reunited with his father.
Then, in an even more welcome (and entirely unexpected) development, the army’s scouts reported that for reasons known only to the ogres, the tyrant Razger Boulderguts and his mercenary ally Mangler had turned southwards rather than striking towards Remas, where the real wealth lay. Had they overestimated the forces defending Remas’ mighty walls? Were they making for the coast and some awaiting ships? Was the sudden change of direction part of a secret agreement with the vampire duchess? Or were they merely taking a detour? Whatever the reason, the allied army now had a chance to do battle with the ogres before they wreaked any further destruction upon the realm.
Other than the clattering of their layers of steel armour, the dwarfs marched in silence. They were armed with strangely short spears, of a sort that could be used as a blade like a short sword, but were better at thrusting out between the interlocked iron of a shield-wall. The dwarfs had become a common sight on the streets of Remas, and since their incorporation into the city’s standing army, the dwarfen quarter had swelled considerably in size. There had been mutterings in the army that the dwarfs were surely not happy to be allied with a Pavonan army, what with Duke Guidobaldo’s expulsion of every dwarf in his realm two years ago. The dwarfs themselves, however, had apparently said nothing concerning the matter to anyone else. Bernado suspected that rather than anger, it was mirth they were concealing – being secretly satisfied at the Pavonan soldiery’s discomfort. If the Pavonans disliked merely camping and marching beside dwarfs, then what did they make of the prospect of relying on them in battle? Perhaps the dwarfs intended to shame the Pavonans with their sturdy prowess and hardy discipline upon the field of battle?
It was late in the afternoon, which on any other march would mean the army should be halting soon. Not this army though. If the last four days were anything to go by, they would march until it grew properly dark. Ogre legs were longer than those of men.
Despite being distracted by the discomfort of riding a mule (the traditional mount for a lector), and worrying about the forthcoming battle, Bernado had been attempting to think clearly about the situation in Remas, to decide what his best course of action would be. He had learned of his election only two days ago, the news being delivered by a lowly, but respected and trusted priest named Benvenuto, who had killed his horse in his haste to bring the news. Benvenuto also described the recent violent events in the city. Since then, due to the consequences of the civil unrest, the speed of the march and the fact that the army of ogres ahead were burning a path through the realm, killing (and eating) just about everyone they encountered, he had learned nothing more. Still, what he already knew was enough to fill him with concerns.
“Brother Duarte,” he asked the young cleric riding beside him. “Do you think Father Carradalio will harm the overlord?”
As usual, Duarte did not answer immediately. He was a careful, disciplined thinker, of a philosophical bent, and not one to rush to answer even when asked by the arch-lector himself.
“It seems to me most likely, your Holiness, that Father Carradalio was furious at not being elected, especially when he had already acted as if he [i]were[/i] arch-lector. He’d played his hand in seizing the city, blood had flowed in every street. Without the legitimization of election, he is no more than a heretical revolutionary, and his Disciplinati become wild rebels overthrowing the rightful order instead of the city’s saviours. Until the election, all had gone well for him, the result of his planning and preparation. Now, however, he has been forced to think on his feet, to act more rashly. He has gone so far it is too late to retreat, and this makes him desperate. If he could have taken you hostage, your Holiness, then I think he would have done so. Instead he took Overlord Matuzzi, the next best thing. Perhaps even better? But I do not think he would harm the overlord, not now his fury has had time to abate. He needs Lord Matuzzi. He needs his authority, so that he can rule the realm by decree as well as by force and fear. That will make him harder to displace.”
Bernado had already been thinking along similar lines. Overlord Matuzzi had handed over the reins of secular power to Calictus II, Bernado’s predecessor, making him ruler of both church and state. Until the election, the big debate had been whether or not the new arch-lector would automatically inherit that secular authority. Now, however, a third player had entered game.
“No doubt,” asked Bernado, “Carradalio intends to persuade the overlord to yield authority to him?”
“I believe so, your Holiness. He already has the city. He already has nearly all the lower clergy. The people’s fear of the vampires in the north means he most likely has the citizens’ hopes also. With the overlord’s authority, he will have no need of the arch-lectorship.”
“He would have me become a ceremonial puppet while he wields all the real power,” said Bernado.
Although perhaps, he thought to himself, a demagogue like Carradalio and his fanatical Disciplinati were exactly what Remas needs? He had seen so many flee from the undead at Pontremola, and knew full well the final victory had been because of General D’Alessio’s bravery and skill alone. Yet only last night he had heard young Lord Silvano telling of the battle at Ebino – how the flagellants had plunged deep into the enemy’s line and died fighting to the last despite the many monstrous horrors in the duchess’s army, and regardless of the everyone else’s flight. What could a whole army of fanatics do? Perhaps such warriors were Tilea’s only real chance against the vampires? He missed the council of Father Biagino, a man who had both the gift of prophecy and a mind sharp enough to avoid ill-thought or hasty assumptions. When he had asked Lord Silvano about Biagino’s fate in the battle at Ebino, the young noble simply said he never saw nor heard of the priest since that day, and so thought it most likely he perished amongst the multitude.
“Are you well, your Holiness?” asked Duarte, concerned at Bernado’s posture, his frown obscured by his hand clutching at his temples. The arch-lector had been so deep in thought he had not realised what he was doing.
“Yes, brother. Long days, that is all. Pray thee, we shall stop a moment.”
Durate gave the command, and those fore and aft of the arch-lector came to a halt.
The parallel column of dwarfs continued its march, while Bernado turned his mule to face the two priests on foot behind, and Brother Duarte followed suit.
“Father Benvenuto,” said the arch-lector. “Do you know why the lectors voted for me?”
“I would not presume to say, your holiness,” answered the priest. “Apart from to accept that whatever their reasons, it was ultimately Morr’s will that you become so.”
Benvenuto wore a grey, hooded cloak, and despite his sturdily built frame, leaned ponderously, bent-backed, upon a staff. The heavy, leather bags hanging at his waist were at least partially to blame, but he would not allow them to be put onto the cart. When the priest had reached in to withdraw the letters he was carrying, Bernado had seen weighty tomes inside, dark leather embossed with gold leaf. Holy books, or perhaps ledgers of some kind? Bernado assumed he would discover the truth should Father Benvenuto feel the need to employ them.
“Morr’s will, yes. And I pray I shall live up to his expectations,” said Bernado. “But still, presently we abide in the world of mortals and it is men I must measure, not the majesty of Morr. So, Father, if you had to hazard a guess, what would you say was their motive.”
“Fear, your holiness. They are afraid of Father Carradalio and his fanatics.”
“If so, then why choose me in particular?” said Bernado. “Surely there are several lectors in Remas just as capable of putting Carradalio in his place?”
“Maybe so my lord,” agreed the old priest. “But they also fear the vampires. You are the only one amongst them who has met the undead armies in battle. You guided the Viadazan crusaders to their victory at Pontremola …”
“Yet Viadaza, my own see, was lost that very same week,” interrupted Bernado. He felt no joy at the irony.
But Father Benvenuto had not finished. “And then, your holiness, you were by Calictus’s side when Viadaza was retaken and cleansed. You were part of not one but two great victories. In the first he vampire duke died, and in the second you chased Lord Adelfo from the city. The lectors want a proven soldier of Morr leading the church and Remas in the great fight, not an untried rabble rouser like Carradalio.”
“That may be so. Yet Viadaza has most likely fallen once more, this time for good, which would have made me the lector of nowhere.”
“By your leave, your holiness,” said Duarte. “The lectors may well have been counting on its fall. If Viadaza is lost, then there would be nothing to distract you from defending Remas. I have heard them whisper that Calictus erred in dividing our forces, then marching north himself with only a small portion of our full strength, there to be defeated. When he finally fought, half his army were Arabyan mercenaries who barely knew of Morr. They weren’t even under contract to Remas, and fled the field before the battle was decided. Now Stiani has burned because Captain-General Duke Scaringella was left with far too small an army to stop the ogres.”
“If I might speak, your holiness?” asked Brother Marsilio, the grey robed monk who had accompanied Father Benvenuto from Remas. “The lectors knew you were with the captain general. Once the brute’s double army is defeated, then both you and he will be returning victorious with an army. How could Carradalio’s screeching sermons compete with the commands of Morr’s anointed pontiff? How could his crazed followers stand against a real army?”
Ah, thought Bernado, but what sort of army will we return with? If we are badly mauled in this coming battle, only the battered rump of an army might remain. And even if sufficient force survived to contend with the Disciplinati’s fanatics, would Duke Scaringella do the right thing and restore the proper order?
When he spoke again, he hid all sign of these doubts from his voice. “After you delivered your news to me, Father Benvenuto, you spoke at length with our Captain General, yes?”
“I did, your holiness,” the priest answered.
“I take it he questioned you concerning Remas?” inquired Bernado.
“At length, your holiness. And kept me there when he spoke to his officers, that I might answer whatever else he and they thought to ask. I was given to understand that I must not speak of what I had heard.”
Although Bernado had seen the Captain General since that meeting, when both Scaringella and Duke Guidobaldo came to receive his official blessing (as their new arch-lector), he had not yet had the opportunity to speak with Scaringella privately. He doubted the general would want to discuss the precarious state of Reman affairs in the Pavonans’ presence, especially in light of the unexplained delay – lasting the best part of a day – which occurred the previous week.
During that day, as they waited for the Pavonans, Scaringella had confided to Bernado his suspicion that Duke Guidobaldo did not actually intend to fight the ogres and was considering some other action instead. Perhaps the captain general had the measure of Duke Guidobaldo of Pavona? Yet he also admitted he could not fathom why Guidobaldo would consider allowing those who had injured him so badly to escape. Fearing his dangerous gamble had failed, Scaringella had knelt to pray with Bernado for Remas, pleading with Morr not to allow it to suffer at the hands of brutes when the most holy work of destroying the vampires was yet to be done. That evening, however, Duke Guidobaldo called a council of war, giving no explanation for the delay, and declared that they would pursue the enemy immediately as if nothing strange had happened.
Although Duke Scaringella accepted Guidobaldo had the larger force and so was due the precedence, he was neither asked nor offered to swear obedience to Duke Guidobaldo, being himself was of equal noble rank and a captain-general (which suited him well in light of his distrust). Instead, he simply offered to fight at Duke Guidobaldo’s side, promising to cooperate fully upon the field of battle, doing his utmost to contribute to victory. The matter of dividing the spoils was not discussed for the chase was on and there was no (more) time to waste. Most of the soldiers seemed to presume that as most of the plunder came from Pavonan settlements, then the Pavonans would expect the lion’s share.
Considering Duke Scaringella’s religiosity and apparent acceptance of spiritual authority, Bernado had every reason to think Scaringella’s command concerning Father Benvenuto’s silence was more to prevent the Pavonans learning of his concerns. In light of this, he made the Morrite sign, and spoke,
“I hereby absolve you of any promise you made to keep silent. As your pontiff, I command that you answer me.”
Father Benvenuto nodded his acceptance.
“Did Lord Scaringella voice his opinion concerning Father Carradalio and his dedicants?” Bernado asked.
“He spoke of little else, your holiness, and was in quite a dilemma. He must defend Remas, of course, either by destroying the ogres or chasing them away. His victory must be glorious, so he can return to Remas as a hero, winning the citizens’ favour. He must earn a good portion of the loot so that he can feed and pay the army; and he must prove to be so effective on the field of battle that the Pavonan duke is grateful, becoming an important ally during the struggle ahead. Yet he must do all these things without suffering crippling losses, for he will need the army to put the Disciplinati di Morr back in their place upon your return to Remas.”
“More than that,” Duarte added, “we need the army to fight the vampires.”
Ogres, fanatics and the undead, thought Bernado. Not one but three wars to be fought!
“Brethren,” he said, “let us contend with one thing at a time. Tonight, we shall pray for victory against the brutes.”
The Battle of the Via Diocleta
Passing hurriedly through the villages of Frascoti, south of the great city of Remas, and having insufficient time to loot and raze as they went, the double army of ogres serving Razger Boulderguts were continuing southwards along the ancient Via Diocleta. All of Remas would have breathed a sigh of relief, were not for the fact that the city was internally tangled in turmoil as the fanatical [i]Disciplinati di Morr[/i] wrested control of its streets and gates one by one, and the citizens were distracted by the looming prospect of a vampire led army descending upon them to do worse than even the ogres would have done.
Razger’s brute warriors were moving as fast as they could, which was not exactly quickly. Their vast, heavily laden baggage train was overflowing with loot and hauled by a chaotically cobbled together collection of ogres, slaves, horses and oxen – the latter three dwindling on a daily basis as they were eaten by their ravenous masters. They were being pursued by a similarly slow force, the allied armies of Remas and Pavona, who were struggling with several large artillery pieces rather than wagons of plunder.
The Tileans, keen to exact revenge for the destruction of Pavona, and to prevent the same fate befalling Remas, were pushing themselves to the limit. The ogres were working hard, but not so much as the men, for they were unafraid of meeting their pursuers in battle, merely annoyed at the prospect that if they were not careful their loot might be lost. And so it was that the allied army drew slowly and surely closer, crossing the rolling landscape from the town of Stiani towards the road without passing through Frascoti, and in this way aiming to intercept the foe long before they reached the realm of Ridraffa.
They would meet in a barren place, home only to scattered shepherds and their flocks. The ogres, recognising at last that they were not going to outpace the Tileans, left the road to form an uncharacteristically carefully arrayed line to the west of the road, while the allied Tilean armies chose to draw themselves up for battle upon the road itself.
The tyrant Razger’s army, consisting of both his own brutes and the mercenary Mangler’s ‘band’, presented a formidable line indeed. Warriors from both armies were intermixed, but Mangler’s brutes were mostly concentrated towards the centre of the line, while Razger’s forces made up the flanks.
On the far right was a little mob of gnoblar trappers, scurrying alongside a brace of Mournfang riders. Between these and the main fighting force were two companies of leadbelchers, and a large mob of Mangler’s gnoblars. [i](Game note: The player was annoyed with me later on as I had helped him place his force and he had assumed I had placed these 40 gnoblars in a horde formation. I’m sorry to say that was the last thing on my mind, and I just went with what was aesthetically pleasing, and happened to fit neatly on the movement card. Sorry, Jamie!([/i]
In the centre of the line were several bodies of bulls and ironguts, interspaced with rhinox-mounted war engines, behind which was the massive baggage train. On the far left were Razger’s Maneaters, Mangler’s Hunter with his brace of sabretusks, as well as two small bodies of leadbelchers and ironguts. Mangler led his own bodyguard of ironguts, clutching his massive, double handed cleaver and clad in layer upon layer of iron scales.
Razger had joined the biggest of his two bands of bulls, along with his army standard bearer carrying an emblem of the bloody sword and half-moon. His gut-plate tusks marked him out, although the sheer bulk of his presence would suffice to do so even without them.
The Tilean alliance force was not so evenly split as the ogres, as Duke Guidobaldo’s Pavonan army made up much more than half the total strength. Nearly every unit to the right and in the centre of the line was Pavonan, and there were more of his troops, including his son, on the far left. On the farmost right rode the only body of horse in the army, being the plate-armoured nobility led by Visconte Carjaval. Behind them was the as yet untested helstorm, a bizarre engine designed to throw a clutch of explosive rockets at the enemy which Duke Guidobaldo had bought from a Nuln merchant in somewhat happier times. From there towards the centre were a succession of foot regiments, being halberdiers and handgunners, although for some reason Duke Scaringella had seen fit to order his Cathayan crossbowmen over to that flank, where they lurked in rear of the line.
The centre of the allied line consisted of three large bodies of swordsmen, being Pavonans or Asitianans, the latter now wholly incorporated into the Duke’s army and just as loyal to him as his native soldiers. Interspersed between these were four great cannons, two of which tended by engineers. Duke Guidobaldo himself watched from the rear, being the only Pavonan sporting colours other than blue and white.
Most of Scaringella’s Reman army was arrayed upon the left. All were mercenary soldiers under virtually permanent contract, apart from a handful of native Remans. A large body of Dwarfen warriors formed the force’s main strength, behind which was the army’s famous regiment of Cathayan halberdiers. The Reman’s only piece of artillery separated these melee troops from the two regiments of crossbow troops, being body of Tilean condottieri (behind pavises) and more dwarfs. The army’s baggage was clustered behind these two regiments, beside which lingered the bravi skirmishers pressed from the Reman streets. Young Lord Silvano Gondi, Guidobaldo’s lone surviving heir, having come all the way south from the terrible defeat at Ebino with the last of his elven ‘Sharlian’ riders rode on the far left, while a company of Pavonan huntsmen had moved up to conceal themselves behind the rocky hill between them and the foe.
As the last of the troops stepped into place, both armies came to a momentary halt, and an eerie (almost) silence descended upon the alliance army, broken only by the fluttering of flags and the occasional “Stand straight in your ranks and files” or “Watch your dressings!” from the officers. The engineers gave final instructions regarding the elevation of the gun barrels …
… while Visconte Carjaval and his armoured knights struggled to restrain their destriers whilst adjusting shields, lances and helms.
Everyone knew that soon all hell would break loose!
The Battle Begins
The first to move were the gnoblars on the far flank, scurrying up behind the hill, barely noticed by either ogres or men.
What caught the Pavonan soldiery’s eyes was the lonely advance of the Hunter and his two beasts to the left of the centre. He strode boldly as they loped proudly, neither he nor they appearing even slightly concerned at the profusion of barrels, both big and small, in front of them.
Perhaps refusing to be out-done by the hunter, the little company of maneaters also chose to close on the foe, leaving the rest of Razger’s battle line behind.
(Game Note: The Tilean players had failed to get their desperately needed and much prayed for first turn. Even as an impartial GM I voiced my concern that this could be the beginning of the end despite being only the beginning of the beginning!)
Moments later, the rest of the brute army marched on, the three main bodies of ogres outpacing the lumbering, war-machine bearing beasts between them, while the smaller body of bulls on their left began to angle away a little, as if to follow the maneaters.
Mangler’s Butcher, Scabgash, marching front and centre of the largest body of bulls, now unleashed a powerful curse at the crew of the cannon before him, killing every one of them instantly, magically crushing their bones from the inside! ([i]Game Note: 9 hits killed the cannon[/i]) As the report of this rippled through the regiment directly on the cannon’s right side, the despairing words met the same report coming from the other side, for the huge ironblaster had fired a roundshot more than twice as heavy as those employed by the Tileans’ pieces, over Razger’s head and right into another cannon, tearing it to pieces. It lay unrecognisable afterwards, with no sign of the crewmen who had been tending it only a moment before.
(Game Note: Insult to injury – the artillery heavy army, carefully selected to fight these ogres, had not only failed to get the first turn, but had already lost nearly half its cannons!)
The Pavonans could barely believe what had happened. Men and horses had put themselves through hell to haul those guns from Pavona, with several many perishing along the way from accidents or exhaustion. And yet here, before they had even fired once in anger, two had been destroyed. Still, this gloomy thought was soon lost, for the somewhat distracting sight of the advancing brute army dislodged it from most men’s minds!
The two bodies of leadbelchers came up on the right, their flank (unnecessarily) secured by the gnoblars, and also fired, but this time to no noticeable effect, apart from the terrifying thunderous roar, flash and smoke they caused.
Even now, with the ogres closing fast, the vast allied army seemed unready. Every man who could see the foe (and the army was so big there were many who had yet even to glimpse them) craved to see at least some ogres brought down before contact was made. Surely with this many artillery pieces, handguns, crossbows and even rockets, the enemy would at least be bloodied before the inevitable mayhem began? There was even confusion at the rear of the battle line, where the manifold roar of the enemy’s guns had several men arguing whether or not it was their own guns or the foe’s they had heard. One fellow even pushed a comrade to the ground for the insane suggestion that their own guns had yet to fire!
All Duke Guidobaldo could do was give the command “Steady!” He himself was behind his band of Astianan Swordsmen – the brigand scum who had flocked to serve the victor’s army even as their city was being plundered by his Pavonan troops. He noted with a little satisfaction that the two cannons in front of him were just about to shoot.
The arch-lector was also behind an artillery piece. His own words were more numerous and quieter, taking the form of a prayer, which he made in preparation for the prayers to come. They would not be so quiet, or at least their effect would not be, for they would invite the great god Morr to vent his wrath upon the enemy.
(The allies first turn…)
At last, and the wait had seemed as long as it was terrible, the drums began to beat and the horns were sounded. The armies of Pavona and Remas were ready to act.
Knowing that they had been caught off-guard by the ogres sudden lurch forwards, and thus failed to deliver the barrage of shot they had fervently hoped for, they did not hold back now. Captain Ettore led the largest of the Pavonan halberdiers’ regiment in a charge against the maneaters, mainly because he was unwilling to be the recipient of their inevitable charge.
Three of his soldiers died from the maneaters’ massive pistols, followed by nine more when they made contact, all to very little observable effect against the thick-skinned brutes. But they had stopped the ogres’ advance and then they somehow held their ground to fight on. On the far right the Visconte Carjaval and his mounted men at arms smashed into the ironguts before them …
… killing two and wounding another. Not one knight had perished in the assault. The brutes turned and fled, while the visconte ordered his men to restrain their pursuit and reform to face the main body of the foe.
The Reman dwarfs, garbed in iron and steel from head to toe, marched in very fine order out from the battle line, wheeling a little to face the foe’s main regiments in the centre. This allowed the Cathayan’s behind them to march up and fill the gap so created.
The Pavonan huntsmen moved boldly over the rocky hill towards the lines of still-smoking leadbelchers …
… while on the other side of the hill young Lord Silvano led his last surviving Sharlian Riders (elven mercenaries) in a charge against the gnoblar trappers. The young lord was bloodied by one of the vicious traps the greenskins lobbed onto the ground before them. Half the gnoblars died in this assault, and the other half fled in panic only to be cut down by the riders pursuing them. Silvano’s pursuit took him and his riders right into the two monstrously large mournfang cavalry who were lumbering up that flank.
As the Pavonan halberdiers struggled to hold their viciously strong and battle hardened opponents …
… the Morrite priest began their prayers in earnest, first cursing the flesh of one of the leadbelcher companies on the enemy’s right, then employing an amulet of coal to kill one of them. An iron round-shot plunged deep into the flesh of the rhinox carrying the ironblaster, and yet the beast still lived! Another round-shot felled one of Mangler’s bulls, but the third cannon and the Helstorm were unable to fire, most likely due to a combination of fear and overhaste on the part of crewmen. Two thunderous volleys from the Pavonan handgunners brought down a brace of leadbelchers, while the Cathayan crossbow wounded another. On the other flank of the army, the Reman crossbow also felled a leadbelcher and sent the rest of them running!
Thus it was that using less than half the pieces that they had arrived on the field with they had managed to kill four ogres, wound several others, and even send some running. Captain General Duke Scaringella cursed angrily, furious that they had been unready to let loose with the full complement of artillery sooner.
Game Note: What a first turn it could have been if all the artillery had fired, followed by a second turn with the same, as well as 54 crossbow and 32 handgunners!
(Next, turn 2 … continued in Tilea Campaign Part 16)
Next Installment: Part 16