First Prequel to the Battle of the Valley of Death
The Great Gathering
At long last an army capable of striking a deadly blow at the vampire duchess’s horrid hegemony of the north had assembled, and not a moment too soon for her foul forces had reached further south than ever before. Consisting of five armies from different city states, including a multitude of mercenaries, it was vast in size. Its soldiers hailed from all over Tilea and beyond – from Estalia, the Empire and even far-flung Cathay, with dwarf and halfling regiments as well as those of men. Their assembly spawned a sprawling camp, filling an entire valley in the wide, low hills west of Trantio. At the camp’s heart stood a massive tent, where the allies’ council of war was about to begin.
Having traveled at the head of the last two armies to arrive, Arch-Lector Bernado Ugolini now made his way to that tent, accompanied by several of his Cathayan bodyguards. As he walked, he scrutinised the soldiers he passed to satisfy himself that there was indeed enough strength in the three southern armies already present to make his (about to be) proposed plan viable. In truth, he had expected more – the Verezzan and Luccinan contingents appeared to be significantly depleted in strength. Perhaps, he thought, they were divided and so also distributed elsewhere in the camp, but he knew this was unlikely for it not at all the usual practice. As the massive Portomaggioran army made up for any deficiency in numbers on the lesser realms’ behalf, he did not let it worry him. Indeed, his spirits were sufficiently lifted to put a smile upon his face. The Tileans in the camp saw this as a sign of his pleasure, his happy blessing upon them, and respectfully made the sign of Morr as he passed. Even Myrmidia-worshipping soldiers knew which god to pray to when facing the undead.
Of course, his expression grew stern before he entered the command tent, for he knew full well that there was work yet to be done inside, and no guarantee of success. He had marched with enough conglomerate armies, either advising or commanding them, to know that it was never easy to reach a consensus concerning strategy. What with commanders from no less than five different states, several of whom did not merely distrust each other but had effectively been enemies until the dire threat of undeath had forced their cooperation, he expected the canvass walls to house a veritable cornucopia of conflicting concerns, incompatible priorities and discordant interests. More than this, there would most likely be disagreements between officers within the same army.
Passing Lord Alessio Falconi’s guards both outside and in …
… he discovered a gathering of officers and their attendants around a central table. Lord Alessio of Portomaggiore was immediately apparent, standing beneath a painted, silken banner sporting his family’s golden falcon, with an eclectic collection of what must be his captains gathered around him. He was well known to have travelled widely, and it appeared he had brought some of those he had encountered back with him. Upon thinking this, Bernado had to suppress a new smile, for of course he himself was guarded by strangely garbed Cathayans.
The young Lord Silvano, whom Bernado knew very well indeed from their shared adventures and who had rode with him from Remas, was already in attendance, liveried in Pavonan blue and white, and as such identical to the blue and white of Lord Alessio’s army. Some childish remnant lurking in the corner of Bernado’s mind wondered whether this was perhaps a sign that the two armies would work well together?
No doubt some of the others were from Verezzo and Luccini, but Bernado could not see the young King Ferronso amongst them, nor his good friend from youth, the philosopher Lord Lucca of Verezzo. Perhaps they had yet to arrive? What could possibly delay them, considering their armies had reportedly marched alongside the Portomaggiorans, he knew not. Perhaps their absence had something to do with the small numbers of their soldiers outside? As he took his allotted place, a place of honour to the right of the allied armies’ effective captain-general, Lord Alessio, he presumed all would become clear, momentarily.
Many amongst the officers made the sign of Morr, and Bernado acknowledged them graciously by lifting his hand in a sign of blessing and saying a brief prayer in the ancient tongue of Tilea. Appropriately, it was the captain general, Lord Alessio who then spoke,
“Your holiness, you are most welcome. I think I speak for us all when I say we are mightily reassured by your presence amongst us, especially in light of the task that now faces us. May Morr protect us in the fight to come.
Bernado did smile now. “And I am most happy to be here with you, captain general, for here at last, it seems to me upon my first impression, is gathered an army sufficient for the work of eradicating the vampires’ evil from Tilea. Morr’s blessings are most assuredly to be poured upon this army.”
“We are most happy too that you brought Lord Silvano with you,” said Alessio, bowing slightly to the young Pavonan lord, who returned the gesture. “Though I have to ask, where is Duke Guidobaldo?”
“My father felt it was his duty to return home,” said Silvano. “Our city currently lies unprotected, a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to continue now that the tyrant Boulderguts has slipped from our reach and the vampire duchess’s army is so close.”
“Ah yes,” said Lord Alessio. “We marched north in the hope of defeating Boulderguts once and for all, to prevent his further devastation. Indeed, I fashioned this army with the brutes in mind. Now we are faced with a quite different foe. Pray tell, my Lord Silvano, if your father took leave with his army, what command is left to you?”
“My father has fully honoured his commitments, taking only our horse soldiers and a newly raised regiment of Reman bravi. I now command our guns and household foot soldiers.”
“So he left behind only that which would slow him down as he went home,” muttered a grizzled, old soldier, heavily bearded and heavily armoured, wearing the yellow and blue of Verezzo.
Lord Silvano showed no sign of displeasure at this disparaging remark. Bernado had noticed that since the brutal blow to the young lord’s head at Via Diocleta, Silvano had suffered more than merely physical consequences. One of his eyes was now fashioned of glass, and he looked somehow older than his years. More noticeable, perhaps, was his distant nature, as if he were at one remove from that which occurred around him; as if, as one of the Reman priests had put it, he had taken ‘a step closer to death’. Here now, when many others would have reacted angrily to such a comment, the young lord exhibited an absence of any emotion.
“My father left me with exactly that best suited for an assault upon the walls of Trantio,” explained Lord Silvano.
Bernado nodded. “More than that, my lord, your father removed from our city those left unemployed by the fall of so many noble houses during the recent unrest. Such men could have proved most troublesome to us had they not been given new purpose. I am grateful to your father for this, and that the soldiers he left under your command are veterans who have proved themselves several times over in this war. I for one would never criticise Duke Guidobaldo’s desire to care for the well-being of his people.”
He glanced at the Verezzan captain to gauge the man’s response, but the fellow was an old veteran, an Empire mercenary by the looks of him, and simply looked on as if nothing of consequence had happened. Bernado supposed such a man would have faced such horrors during his life as a soldier that he would barely register a little awkwardness in conversation. Bernado noted, however, the comment had revealed there was still antipathy between Verezzo and Pavona, born of Lord Lucca’s allegedly tardy rejection of Duke Guidobaldo’s niece as a wife for his son. For some time, Bernado suspected Duke Guidobaldo had engineered the perceived slight to serve his own purpose (being to conquer every city-state neighbouring his own) each time claiming some matter of honour or revenge as his motive. Whether this were true or not, the bad feeling engendered between the two states was apparently still felt.
Bernado now addressed Lord Alessio, “I must ask, captain general, where are King Ferronso and Lord Lucca?
Lord Alessio gave only the hint of a frown, but several other officers noticeably glanced at each other, both acknowledging and revealing their general disquiet.
“They have also left a portion of their forces under my command,” Lord Alessio answered. “And indeed, like the good duke, saw fit to ensure that those forces were of the kind useful in an assault. Might I introduce Barone Iacopo Brunetti of Poliena, commanding the Verezzan brigade …”
Here Bernado thought Alessio was gesturing towards the mumbling Verezzan captain, but then realised there was a halfling standing by the man’s side, who now bowed.
The little barone sported a heavy iron helmet and clutched a polearm in both hands. Behind him was another halfling, an archer liveried in the yellow and blue of Verezzo.
” … and Captain Muzio Vanni.” This time he did indicate the plain spoken Verezzan. Then he turned to address another, “And this is General Marsilio da Fermo, commander of the Luccinan brigade.”
General Marsilio was another old soldier, almost white haired, in full, unadorned plate armour. He leaned upon a great battle axe of an archaic design, its haft almost as tall as him.
“Your presence, Barone Iacopo and General Marsilio,” said Bernado, choosing not to mention the captain by name, “as well as that of those you command, pleases me greatly. But I must ask again: where are your masters?”
“Blame the Sartosan scum for my king’s absence,” said General Marsilio. “Their love for gold means they care nothing for the living of Tilea. To them, this war merely presents an opportunity to raid the coastal cities whilst our armies are busy elsewhere.”
Bernado had heard the rumours of increased Sartosan activity in the Pirate’s Current, and of some northern seaman named Volker who was attempting to unite them. “The King has returned to Luccini then?” he asked.
“Aye, but unlike Lord Silvano, he has left me with little more than a single regiment to command,” said the general, sounding embittered. And well he might, thought Bernado, for the rank of general sat ill alongside command of one regiment.
“And a great gun,” said Lord Alessio.
“Aye, a single piece,” said the Luccinan with unconcealed contempt.
It occurred to Bernado that the young king might have been glad, at least, to leave his general behind, for the fellow did not seem to care about mincing his words and youthful monarchs often had a certain fragile pride about them.
“Then the pirates are to blame,” declared Bernado, “and not King Ferronso. He cannot be expected personally to fight this foe while his people are being ravaged and robbed by corsairs.”
General Marsilio acknowledged the arch-lector with a nod. Bernado turned to the halfling.
“Barone Iacopo, I was looking forward to meeting again with Lord Lucca. I can only presume he too has other concerns?”
The halfling’s voice, like most of his kind, was somewhat lilting, and in tone like that a of youth.
“A great many, your holiness. They weigh upon him heavily. If you would oblige?” asked the halfling as he gestured for a servant garbed in a flamboyant hat and carrying a polished brass horn, to come up. Bernado nodded his assent, and the courtly youth stepped forwards, unravelled a paper and began to read:
“This to his Holiness Bernado Ugolini, the righteous right hand of Morr, from your old friend Lucca. I pray you are well, and that your dreams treat you kindly. My heart is heavy with the knowledge that I shall not be with you before Trantio, and it pains me that you might think the less of me for it. Not willing to ask another to make excuses upon my behalf, I would by this missive explain myself to you, and all those with you who are to face the foul army threatening every Tilean realm. I know full well that the fate of every living Tilean hangs in the balance, and yet I cannot ignore the responsibilities of rule and the love and protection I owe my people. None presently know Razger Boulderguts’ whereabouts, but it seems to me that the brute most likely intends to circumnavigate the great allied army in order to attack the south. He has performed just such maneouevres before, and despite defeat at your hands went on to lay waste to Ridraffa. Furthermore, there are reliable reports of a large band of greenskins this side of the mountains, sufficient in strength to extract a ransom from the Pavonan town of Scozzese. Knowing that you are bringing the armies of both Remas and Pavona to join with the Portomaggiorans, and that I have left with you all that is of real use in the assault to come, thus fashioning an army entirely capable of victory in the struggle ahead, I feel that the only course of action open to me is to return to Verezzo to do what I can to keep my subjects safe from these other threats. Furthermore, it seems to me that were the rumours of an alliance between the vampires and brutes true, then it would be remiss to leave the allied army’s rear unguarded, so that Razger could launch an attack to relieve Trantio. My soldiers can guard against just such a move.
If I were a proud man, I would have stayed, but I am justly humbled by my duty to my people, obliged to accept sound reason, and beholden to taking the best course of strategic action. When it comes to the safe future of Tilea, however, I am yours to command, and so if I have chosen wrongly, then simply say so and I will return immediately. Ever your servant, and always your friend, Lucca Vescussi, Lord of Verezzo.”
Bernado dismissed the servant and thanked the barone. “I do not doubt Lord Lucca’s sincerity,” he declared, “for I know him to be as honest as he is wise. However, I was led to believe the army of the VMC is also marching north to aid us in our war, and by way of Verezzo. Would they not be of use in defeating any brutes and goblins attempting to outflank us?”
“In his wisdom, my master did take the VMC into account in his deliberations, your holiness,” said the barone, “but not as a reassurance, rather as a further cause for concern. He does not yet trust them, which in truth made for another reason to return home.”
Bernado could not argue against his old friend’s suspicions, for he himself did not know whether the Marienburgers were to be trusted. An army ruled by merchants was an unusual thing anywhere in the world, certainly in Tilea, and nothing the VMC had so far done proved their intentions harmless. They had offered protection to Alciente, and now they ruled it. They promised to fight Khurnag’s Waagh, and now they ruled all that they took from his forces. They had swallowed up Capelli without a fight, simply because the town knew it could not defend itself against such force. And it was their soldiers who had thought to interfere somewhat unhelpfully with Raverno’s self-inflicted troubles by razing the contado of Camponeffro. There was even a rumour that the VMC had hired mercenary bands of goblins. Mind you, similar tales were told of Lord Alessio, so one could not single out the northerners on this account.
Suddenly the Verezzan captain spoke again. “Nor did our master wish to fight alongside the Pavonan duke.”
The halfling looked askance at his companion. “Not so, Captain Muzio,” he was quick to counter.
“Aye, maybe you’re right,” said the captain. “If it was one of Lord Lucca concerns, I’m sure it was very low on his list.”
One of Lord Alessio’s officers, a bald, fierce looking man in full plate leaning upon his sword like a cane, snorted in laughter at this.
Lord Alessio did not rebuke the man. Instead saying,
“No matter. Even if true, we must put such petty animosities behind us, for the enemy threatens every Tilean. Like you yourself said, your holiness, and it seems Lord Lucca also believes, we have a force entirely sufficient for the task in hand. So now, shall we proceed with formulating our plan of attack? I would know first what powder each army has available, for the walls of Trantio are strong and will take require much battering if we are to breach them. My lord Silvano, were the walls breached during your father’s war against Prince Girenzo?”
“They were, captain general, but they were fully repaired during our occupation of the city. I myself oversaw the commencement of the work, and received a report when it was completed, a matter of weeks before the ogres came. I do not believe the walls were in any way dismantled during the subsequent withdrawal from the city.”
“You mean the flight from the city, after your soldiers stripped it of everything of worth,” said Captain Muzio.
Bernado had had enough of this man. “I suggest you hold your tongue, captain,” he said firmly, noticing the concern writ upon the faces of nearly all gathered, not least the captain’s nominal commander, the halfling Barone Iacopo. “If all you have to offer is accusations concerning Duke Guidobaldo’s past actions, then it seems to me you are of little use to this council.”
“I shall speak no more of it, your holiness,” said the captain. “And I apologise to all concerned for my o’er hasty words.
The young Pavonan lord’s face showed nothing but indifference. If he had noticed the formality of the apology, perhaps revealing its superficial nature, he gave no sign.
Bernado, not for the first time, wondered why – as ever in Tilea – a tangle of complications invariably threatened to imbue any alliance with an intrinsic fragility. Already, several, substantial absences meant this great army, large as it was, was nevertheless a much-reduced version of its potentially massive size. And now those officers remaining were exhibiting their mutual distrust, before a plan had been even been discussed. He had learned the hard way that every commander in a composite force such as this had his own priorities, fears and desires, his own different plans concerning how to achieve victory. Even their ideas of what constituted victory varied. Despite these concerns, he knew he himself was about to be guilty of exactly the same sort of contrariness. Still, what needed saying must be said, so he turned to Lord Alessio,
“Before you proceed, captain general, I would speak of my own concerns, for they will bear heavily upon the plans we make here.”
For the merest moment, Lord Alessio looked perplexed. But it did not last. Perhaps, thought Bernado, his own bitter experiences meant the captain-general recognised the inevitable nature of the game they were now playing?
“Of course, your Holiness,” said the captain general. “I greatly value your guidance. We all do.”
The easy acceptance and subtle flattery of this comment did make Bernado wonder about the man’s sincerity – this was not the first time he had detected Lord Alessio’s clever combination of both business and courtly skills.
Such skills would serve him well in the juggling act of commanding such an army as this. Bernado was counting on him possessing a similar talent for strategy.
“Know that what I am about to suggest comes from my own bitter experiences, not simply from prayerful contemplation,” Bernado began. “I sometimes feel I have been more a soldier than a churchman. I fought with the holy peasant-army of Viadaza against the vampire duke at the Bridge of Pontremola. Against the odds, perhaps, victory was gained, for by the hand of one man – General Urbano D’Alessio, may he find blissful rest in the garden of Morr – the vampire duke was slain, and his army faltered. Nevertheless, they escaped in force, and in all likelihood became the core of the vampire Duchess’s army. Worse than that, despite a victory bought dearly with the blood of many, the city of Viadaza was captured by the undead the very next day when Lord Adolfo revealed himself to be a vampire. I was also amongst the army that recaptured Viadaza, along with Lord Silvano here, only to watch as the vampire Lord Adolfo escaped with his foul servants to attend his cruel mistress. Only recently I fought at the Via Diocleta, where the joint armies of Remas and Pavona drove the tyrant Boulderguts from the Remas. This too was called a victory, for Boulderguts was prevented from reaching the holy city. But then he marched on to raze Ridraffa to the ground, and to escape northwards in command of a significant force and hauling a vast train of loot stolen at such a cost in lives. Now he presents more than a potential thorn in our side, for he could yet, with perhaps minimal reinforcements, bring ruin to many more cities.”
Bernado fell silent here for a moment, to let the miserable truth of what he had just said, how three of the greatest victories achieved in recent years had ultimately proved fruitless, sink in. He could not help but look at Lord Silvano, who was wounded at Via Diocleta, but again saw only the same detachment. The rest waited in anticipation to hear why he was telling them this.
“I will not allow another great sacrifice to be made, the deaths of thousands, so much suffering for so little gain. The foe must not be allowed to escape from Trantio, to rally elsewhere. This time the enemy must be annihilated. Even if they flee the city, they must be caught and destroyed. Not one, single, foul servant can be allowed to return north to the vampire duchess.”
He paused again, to judge the reaction of the men before him. They seemed solemnly agreeable so far.
“So, I propose the following plan: I will, with the aid of brave Lord Silvano here, lead the armies of Remas and the Pavona north towards the contada of Preto, while the rest of you assault the city. When you win, which you surely must do with the strength at your disposal, and our enemies again attempts to escape, we will intercept and utterly destroy them. In this way, the vampires’ final defeat will truly have begun. As we speak, the fanatical army of the Disciplinati di Morr is pursuing the vampire duchess towards Ebino. When they catch her, she will have only what remains to her after the second assault on Viadaza, and nothing from this southern army to come to her aid. Even if the Disciplinati ‘s army fails to destroy her army completely, we can march north with sufficient strength to deliver the necessary coup de grace.”
He knew that those gathered had not in their wildest dreams expected him to suggest dividing their strength at the very moment that such a force had at long last successfully been gathered. But he had weighed everything as best he could and was convinced the enemy could not prevail against the three armies from the south.
No-one spoke, instead waiting for Lord Alessio’s reply.
“I think,” said the captain general, “your Holiness, you have the true measure of what is required of us. We cannot allow the enemy to slip away. Even if we surround the city they could break through, as they have done before.”
Here Lord Alessio fell silent.
“But to take two armies for a task that may not even prove necessary,” said General Marsilio, “surely that is too much? It could weaken us critically before the walls of Trantio. If we cannot beat them, they will not run.”
“By your leave, General Alessio,” said the bald-headed officer by his side. “We need not send all the Remans and Pavonans, but rather send those from each army who are of little use in the assault. My own demigryphs, the Black Guard and the Knights of the Lady would all be wasted before the walls, as would all the rest of the horse.”
“But do we have sufficient horse to ensure victory over a retreating foe, Lord Black?” asked one of Lord Alessio’s advisers lurking in the rear, a short man, who looked more courtier than soldier. Lord Alessio listened without turning, as if there were such a familiarity between the two that he need not do so. “King Ferronso took his mounted men at arms away with him. Lord Lucca took his light horse. Now we learn that Duke Guidobaldo’s mounted knights have also gone.”
The captain-general seemed to be pondering the courtier’s concerns – Bernado assumed he was counting riders in his mind.
“Then the soldiers of my army will make up the shortfall,” offered Bernado. “This was my suggestion, and I would have my own forces committed to ensuring its success. My dwarfs cannot move as rapidly as the horse, but they can catch up every evening. My skirmishers and crossbowmen should also be sufficiently fleet of foot, certainly for the task in hand, for we are not asking them to travel a great distance. And we must, of course, send some of my fighting priests, for those we face are our god’s particular enemy, and my priests’ prayers could prove vital to success. I will stay here with you, for then I myself might channel holy Morr’s anger against the foe.”
“I can spare Pandolfo and his galloper gun,” said Barone Iacopo. “Its shots would barely chip the walls of Trantio but could sting the foe in the open field.”
“Good, good,” said Lord Alessio. “Then we can pursue your holiness’s plan, but with a force drawn from all the armies, sufficiently strong, sufficiently fast. Lord Marcus will command this interceptor force …”
“But Alessio …” interrupted Lord Black, only to be silenced by Lord Alessio’s raising of a hand.
“I would have you, Ned, with me before the city walls. If some monstrous creature were to emerge, or hellish riders, then you and your demigryphs may be needed. I think it would be unwise to leave our flanks unguarded before Trantio, considering what horrors may sally forth.”
“Lord-general,” came the thickly accented voice of the arabyan standing behind the captain-general. “What about the colossus, whither would you have it go?”
“It stays,” ordered Lord Alessio. “The weight of the foe’s magic will bear against us in the assault, and, though very thankful of the priests’ prayers, I would fight like with like. You and your construct will stay, to protect the other flank.”
Second Prequel to ‘The Battle of the Valley of Death’
Unholy of Unholies
Trantio City, Early Autumn 2403
Moved by the malice coursing through his every vein, Biagino mounted the sanctuary and strode to the altar. Although the congregation’s whimpering could be heard throughout the building, he failed to perceive it – for him, the sound was buried beneath the much more powerful sensation of their fear and the delicious stench of so much warm blood. As he greedily guzzled great gulps of the despair emanating from every living soul gathered within the church, their pathetic sobbing was akin to being merely one of several subtle notes possessed by a fine wine. He had other things on his mind to distract him, not least the fact that an enormous army was camped to the west of the city, obviously intent upon doing battle.
Since late afternoon he had been mulling over what to do about the enemy. Should he meet them upon the walls of Trantio, forcing them to assault the city, or out in the field where he could bring his whole force to bear? Should he even be attempting to take on such a massive foe at all? Perhaps his mistress would prefer he retreat than risk losing the army he now commanded? He had left Viadaza with his own Church of Nagash, including his vampire thralls and the huge mob of resurrected cultists he named the Disciplinati di Nagash but referred to as his children, and a small but substantial army gifted to him by the Duchess Maria, containing powerful, arcane constructs and even a monstrous, undead dragon. Once he arrived at Trantio, this army had grown even stronger, as he, his step-get Captain Tusco and the necromancer Pascal della Cava, raised several regiments of ancient warriors, both foot soldiers and horse, from the ancient graves and burial pits of the necropolis valley of Norochia.
Yet the enemy army, no doubt a grand alliance of several states, made all this seem paltry in comparison. This was not to be an easy decision.
Once behind the altar he gave vent to an involuntary hiss and slammed his gold-topped crozier upon the stone floor, the sharp sound of which elicited a temporary silence.
His red-robed acolytes, the vampire thralls known as La Fraternita di Morti Irrequieti, stood nearby on the sanctuary, while his newly raised, fleshless soldiers lined every wall of the church, but he paid them no attention. They gave him nothing, only took from him. It was his will that lent them purpose – without him they would neither be nor do. It was the wretched huddle of people in the nave that fascinated him, for he could feed on them, play with them, delight in their dread.
Tonight, however, he wanted something different. He wanted their worship. Raising his hands to command general attention, he began.
“Let us pray!”
There was some confusion amongst the gathered, and even that gave him joy. The living were a veritable cornucopia of feelings, every one improved by a seasoning of terror and despair. He leered at them, then raised his eyes to the great church’s ceiling, and began intoning.
“Nagashi, exaudi nos.
Domine, majestatis infinitae.
Domine, fornax ardens.
Domine, virtutum omnium abysse.
Domine, omni laude dignissime.”
He fell silent and lowered his head to glare at the cowering flock before him.
“Well?” he demanded.
Someone began to sob – a woman by the sound of it.
“No,” he hissed angrily. “Say the words.”
The nearest acolyte, his face obscured by a hood, now sang in a voice as beautiful as it was terrible,
“Sanctificetur nomen tuum.”
This was followed by a stumbled attempt at repetition by the cowed congregation. Apart from the children, all the reluctant worshippers knew the words, being the same as those chanted by all Tileans during the most common service to Morr. The entire unholy mass was to be an inversion of the familiar; a profane mockery twisted to serve Nagash.
“Better,” muttered Biagino. His satisfied smile revealed the crooked fangs sitting uncomfortably large in his mouth. Then he addressed the congregation with a short homily.
“It gives me great satisfaction to see you all gathered here today. You are the last of the living in the city, and in what days remain of that life, your prayers will serve as the perfect prelude to your imminent sacrifice. Let your every thought be fearful, and all your pain and suffering be a gift unto glorious Nagash, for soon you will be his entirely, for ever more, and then all your suffering will end.”
He crooked his finger at his acolyte, who now sang another prayer, pausing between each line to allow the congregation to give their faltering repetition.
“Libera nos, Domine …
A peste et fame…
A morte perpetua …”
“Indeed, you shall never fall sick again,” declared Biagino, recommencing his homily. “Nor feel the pang of hunger. You will be delivered from all these things. Death itself shall not come to thee, and you will forget all that you knew, even the name of the false god Morr, for you will walk this earth as a servant of great Nagash, wholly beholden to his will through the medium of myself, his true servant.”
His own words reminded him that there were still creatures in Norochia that he had yet to bend to his will – a mob of ghouls and a large pack of dire wolves. And there were without a doubt still many more ancient warriors lying there he had yet to summon to swell the ranks of his army.
This train of thought was suddenly disturbed by a commotion at the back of the nave. Peering with a power of sight his old, living body was pathetically incapable of, he spied a desperate fool clambering over a pew in an pathetic attempt to flee, only to come face to face with the rank of skeletal guards. Two thrusts of a rusty-tipped spear sent the potential escapee scrambling back to the other prisoners.
Biagino tutted to show his disapproval, his subsequent sneering glare no more or less ugly than his face at rest.
“I will brook no such nonsense,” he warned. “Any foolishness will be punished most severely. There are worse ways to suffer than your present misery. Now, shall we continue with our prayers?”
Biagino himself took up the prayers once more.
“Nagash, domine et magister
Adveniat regnum tuum, Domine
Fiat voluntas tua”
Once again, the response was ingrained in the forced-worshippers’ minds, despite the unholy insertion of foul Nagash’s name in the preceding prayer.
“Nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum,” they sang with a tunelessness occasioned by fear.
Now, where was I? he asked himself. Ah yes, the valley.
Suddenly, he knew exactly what to do. He would array his forces in the valley and meet the foe there, where the ground itself would provide him with reinforcements. He could wrest magical mastery of the wild inhabitants to make them his to command also.
The enemy would find themselves facing a foe from their nightmares in a place of their nightmares.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nagashi, exaudi nos (Nagash, graciously hear us.)
Domine, majestatis infinitae (Lord, of infinite majesty)
Domine, fornax ardens (lord, burning furnace)
Domine, virtutum omnium abysse, (Lord, bottomless pit of all virtues)
Domine, omni laude dignissime, (Lord, most worthy of all praise)
Sanctificetur nomen tuum (Hallowed be thy name)
Libera nos, Domine (Lord deliver us)
A peste et fame (From pestilence and famine)
A morte perpetua (From everlasting death)
Nagash, domine et magister (Nagash, lord and master)
Adveniat regnum tuum, Domine (Thy kingdom come.)
Fiat voluntas tua (Thy will be done)
Nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum (Now, always and forever)
The Battle of the Valley of Death
The Necropolis Valley of Norochia, west of Trantio, Early Autumn, IC 2403
Captain General Lord Alessio Falconi, despite everyone else’s surprise that the enemy had left the protection of the city walls to assemble in the nearby valley of Norochia, did not hesitate in issuing new battle orders. He knew that with a force as huge and unwieldy as this great alliance army, containing battalions from five different realms, any indecision on his behalf could escalate into a hazardous delay upon the field.
It was generally agreed the enemy must be expecting to gain some advantage from choosing to fight outside the city walls, and although some believed a relief force must be on its way to join the enemy host, most thought it was glaringly obvious why the undead would choose Trantio’s ancient necropolis as their battleground – the reinforcements were, in effect, already there. They just had to claw their way out of their graves to muster with the already animated corpses serving their vampire masters!
Lord Alessio had incorporated both possibilities into his thinking. If there was a force on its way, then it would surely be intercepted by the mounted force he had ordered to skirt north of the city. The horse-soldiers’ manoeuvre had been intended to prevent any enemies escaping Trantio, thus (un)living to fight another day, but they were also very well placed to serve in this new, if unexpected, role. And if the vampires did intend to bolster their strength with warriors newly raised from the ancient graveyards and tombs, then speed was of the essence. Lord Alessio’s army must engage the enemy as soon as possible, to limit the time available for any necromantic machinations.
And so the allied army, consisting almost solely of foot soldiers and artillery (having been selected to besiege the city), marched boldly to array themselves upon the western ridge of the valley, despite the horrific sight of the enemy silently forming up on the eastern slopes. They performed the manoeuvre well, thanks to the drills Lord Alessio had required of them during their march. Three times he had ordered them to form from marching column into line of battle, their performance improving on each occasion, despite the fact that he specified a different disposition every time. Lord Alessio needed the allied contingents to act as a cohesive force in the field, and to know that they could and would follow his orders promptly. He had them march in a specific order each day, all the better to facilitate his orders for deployment. Unlike their practices, however, this time budge barrels were unloaded and powder distributed, their handguns made ready, matches lit, and the giant colossus-construct was conjured from its slumber (upon a covered pallet carried by three massive wains) to take its place on the far left of the line.
The captain general’s own army was mainly concentrated on the right of the line. He intended these, being the soldiers he most trusted, to secure that flank from any enemy attempt to outmanoeuvre the army. He also concentrated the army’s artillery on this flank, no less than six great cannons and four master engineers (four of the component contingents having brought their own engineers to tend their own pieces). There were a brace of Pavonan pieces, another two Portomaggioran, as well as Reman and Luccinan guns, all of which were also shielded by his own troops. He expected the guns to deliver several crucial and crippling blasts against the foe and was therefore keen to ensure they could not be interfered with by the enemy – another reason to have his most trusted soldiers upon that flank.
On the furthest flank was Lord Ned’s hunting pack of demigryphs, the fastest troops Lord Alessio had with this army, commanded by his most ferocious commander. This was the only mounted company he had not sent away with the interceptor force heading to the north of the city. If anyone was to prove a match for whatever might attempt to break through, or ride around, the flank to attack the guns, then it was Lord Ned and his monstrous cavalry. Nevertheless, to assist them in this task was a company of handgunners, who might at least slow the enemy sufficiently to allow Lord Ned to bring his own company to bear upon them.
Next in line towards the army centre, was his large regiment of spears and his crossbow, and beyond these Portomaggiorans, upon the lower ground, were massed troops of the allied forces. The Cathayan mercenaries of the arch-lector’s Reman army stood centre-front, crossbowmen and halberdiers with banners showing the keys to Morr’s Garden, while the Verezzan’s large pike regiment and crossbowmen were to their right. Behind them was the smaller Luccinan pike regiment, bearing a royal banner of three fleur de lis (after all, they served a king) and to their left was the second company of Portomaggioran handgunners.
Further left were young Lord Silvano’s Pavonans – archers, halberdiers, handgunners. Their original strength had been reduced by constant war, yet they were still a significant force. The two huge blocks of baggage were clustered behind them, with an unusual halfling war machine nestled in between.
Similarly (suspiciously) close to the baggage, Barone Iacopo and his Verezzan halfling archers had formed up further to the left, and out on the far-left flank – again because Lord Alessio trusted them – marched the plate-clad Portomaggioran veterans known as the Sea Wolves. Finally, upon the army’s extreme flank, strode the Portomaggioran Colossus, as tall as the tallest of giants (if not taller) and fashioned of enchanted bronze and silvered steel, containing massively intricate iron gears and clockwork mechanisms.
(Game Note: The colossus has the stats, abilities and points-cost of the Tomb Kings’ Heirotitan, but he assists the Portomaggioran army’s spellcasters. This is an example of a player’s own inventive ideas in the campaign. Damo wanted a ‘colossus of Rhodes’ type statue to defend his city, so as a GM I told him the points cost and the time it would take to construct. Later he wanted it to move with his army, which I allowed, but warned him as a consequence of hauling such a massive thing upon wagons his army would march somewhat slower than otherwise it would have done. I try to keep everything balanced. As the undead player had such monstrosities as the terrorgheist and the mortis engine, it seemed fair that with effort, spending and consequences, a ‘standard’ Tilean army might have a suitable monstrous element.)
Upon the eastern side of the valley, the vampire high-priest Biagino watched as the living army assembled. Standing with his Disciplinati di Nagash (the resurrected corpses of the same Morrite dedicants he had marched with when he too had been alive) it crossed his mind that perhaps he should have begun the advance against the enemy earlier, despite the fact his own force had yet to fully assemble. This thought, however, was a fleeting notion, and was soon lost as he scrutinised the enemy army, assessing where the dangers lay, and the weaknesses.
Worryingly, it seemed to him very clear that there were plenty of the former and very few, if any, of the latter. Never before had he seen an army so large. The Viadazan and Reman armies he had marched with when alive had been considerably smaller, and they had nowhere near as many guns. It also occurred to him that he could see not see any horse soldiers, which probably meant that what he could now see was only a portion of the enemy’s true strength. Their army must have been truly massive on the march!
Where are the horsemen? he wondered. Are they out on the flanks, concealed by the lie of the land? If so, then the situation was worse than he had previously thought. What chance did his army have if surrounded entirely? Or are the horse elsewhere? Whatever the truth, he had played his hand and now had to see it through. If he routed the foe before him, he could deal with any mounted soldiers later. And if his enemies were attempting to outflank him, then delay would only give them more time to do so. This was his moment – his chance to prove himself to his mistress and defeat the greatest army sent against her yet.
Biagino, his three thralls and his mob of rotting cultists stood on the right of the army’s centre. Further right was a large regiment of skeletons, the corpse cart, his skeleton riders and a slavering pack of dire wolves.
To his immediate left were two more large regiments of skeletons, one of which obscured from the enemy’s sight by the large church occupying the middle of this stretch of the valley.
Out on the right flank proper, his vargheists lurked behind a large mob of zombies created from those poor souls who had foolishly returned to scratch a living in the ruins of the city of Trantio after the Pavonans abandoned it and the ogres then ransacked it. Beyond them slunk the huge terrogheist, and beside that the mortis engine drifted ethereally. This had a body of undead ogres before it, and a regiment of grave guard beside it. Outermost on the right rode a company of wraiths.
With the merest flick of his wrists, his army beholden to his necromantic will, Biagino commanded his dire wolves and hexwraiths to advance, all the better to get a feel for how the enemy intended to proceed, and how they might respond to the sight of such creatures of the night moving towards them. While the wolves loped between the ancient tombs towards the Portomaggiorans massed on the opposite slope …
… the wraiths moved boldly on the far right towards the colossal construct.
Due to the nature of the deployment, nearly every living soldier could see these two bodies advancing, but instead presenting a threatening countenance, the act of moving ahead of their own lines merely made them seem weak and lonely. The crossbowmen before the wolves calmly hefted their now spanned weapons to fit their bolts, while the gunners upon the higher slope blew upon their coals and prepared for their first volley.
(Deployment and vanguard moves completed.)
There was activity in largest of the valley’s walled graveyards, for a pack of ghouls were busy pulling up the more recently buried bones, sucking out the putrid marrow and chewing on the foul, foetid flesh still clinging to them. There was a plentiful supply, for many of the dead from the recent War of the Princes had been interred in that yard, including several many more who had been executed as undesirables by the Pavonans after their conquest. The ghouls’ feasting was now disturbed, however, for despite their ever-ravenous hunger, they could not fail to notice the gathering armies upon the valley sides.
(Game Note: There were scenario rules for the necropolis valley – the graveyard had a pack of 4D6 ghouls, which would attack any who drew too close, although the undead could use their necromantic magic to make them part of their army. Also, one of the two mausoleums, to be randomly determined by the GM, contained 2D2 swarms of bats, and they too could attack anyone who disturbed them with their proximity, although again the vampires could attempt to gain mastery over them by using their magic dice.)
As soon as Captain-General Lord Alessio spotted the approach of undead vanguard, he ordered the army entire to advance. Lord Ned led his hunting pack forwards, cautiously at first to allow the spearmen beside him to match his move.
In the centre of the line the pikemen began their own advance, forming a column to move between the crossbowmen and handgunners flanking them, thus allowing for volleys of bullet and bolt even as they manoeuvred.
The allied army’s wizards and priests, although barely noticeable as they conjured and prayed, were busy. The priests blessed the Verezzan pikemen with holy Morr’s protection, while Lord Alessio’s court magician, the arabyan Hakim, felled four of the zombie cultists accompanying Biagino with a banishment spell. But it was the Colossus that achieved the most astonishing magic, inflicting Shem’s Burning Gaze on the hexwraiths with such power that all five of the ghostly (yet dangerous) riders were dissipated entirely from the mortal realm. A cheer went up from the nearby Portomaggioran Sea Wolves and the halflings, the only allied regiments close enough to witness the event. Their cheer died away, however, when they saw the terrorgheist and the mortis engine still moving up towards them.
While every cannon on the hill was turned to target those same monstrous entities, the hand-gunners and crossbowmen let loose such a volley that not one dire wolf remained to continue its probing advance. This elicited a cheer from the other flank of the allied army.
Biagino frowned, as he was now becoming fully aware of just what the enemy might do before his forces even managed to engage them in combat.
He peered up at the massive artillery battery upon the hill, and from the absence of smoke knew they had yet to be fired. Squinting to make out details despite the painful light behind the guns, he was very dismayed to see where they were aiming.
There was a moment of quiet after the sharp rolling crackle of the handgun volley had dissipated …
… then suddenly the valley was filled with the roaring blast of the entire battery. Not one gun failed to fire, perhaps due to the attendance of no less than four different city-realm’s master engineers. The Pavonan cannons sent magically flaming round-shots at the terrorgheist, one missing but the other tearing right through. A split second later the Reman gun sent its own iron bullet into the beast, and it slumped to the ground bereft of undeath.
Before the Sea Wolves could begin to cheer a second time, the two Portomaggioran cannons and the furthermost Verezzan piece sent no less than three balls into the Mortis Engine, breaking off several large shards of whatever foulness it was made of. For a moment it seemed that it might continue its advance, but it broke into two, as if unfolding, then collapsed in pieces to the ground.
For a moment, there was a stunned silence, perhaps encouraged by the wave of foul magic that washed out, howsoever weakly, from both monstrosities to caress the living soldiers and unnerve them, but it was brief, and as it passed, they knew full well what had been done. A mighty cheer erupted.
Biagino felt the loss. It was not so much painful, more like being winded, as if a considerable portion of his own strength had been sapped away. The only parts of his army already to advance had been immediately obliterated, and while the remainder had yet to take even one step towards the enemy, two of its mightiest components had been blown apart like nothing more than dry leaves.
For the briefest moment, a burning rage threatened to overcome him – a bestial fury which made him want to throw himself and his whole army at the foe, wild and reckless with anger, regardless of the consequences. He yearned to rend their flesh, snap their bones and drink deep of their misery, to sate his ravenous hatred and punish them for daring to oppose him. But the desire quickly passed, and a clarity born of his cunning now suffused him. He knew that to advance in the face of such a foe would mean certain destruction. If there had been more vampires in his army than merely himself and Arnaldo, more necromancers than solely his new servant Severino, then perhaps sufficient aetheric winds could be woven, enough necromantic magic conjured, to repair and sustain the army in the face of the enemy’s thunderous volleys? But he knew it were not so. He had lost so much already, before the fight had even begun, and to continue this battle would surely mean defeat.
His mistress did not send him here to perish, or at least not to do so while barely scratching the enemy. He himself revelled in his new condition, bringing with it the promise of everlasting undeath. He refused to allow pride and anger make him sacrifice all he had, and so he gestured this way and that, as if he were doing nothing more than moving imaginary chess pieces but in truth subtly signalling his lieutenants, and within a moment his will was done.
The necromancer Severino bowed almost imperceptibly and led his regiment of skeletons forwards into what had already proved to be a killing zone …
… while the vampire Arnaldo snarled a command to send the mob of zombies shambling towards the foe.
When the ghouls in the graveyard began pouring out, yearning to feast upon the zombies’ decaying flesh, Arnaldo summoned enough magic to bind them to his service, and thus turn them towards the enemy too.
For a moment, Severino hesitated, having noticed the massive body of spearmen advancing to his left …
… but before he could decide whether to wheel his troops to face them or to continue his march directly on, a lashing hail of missiles was loosed from the soldiers and guns on the hill opposite. All around him his bony warriors were breaking into pieces, the clitter-clatter of their shattered bones clunking from one fleshless anatomy to another to rattle off the vacant skulls and between the empty ribcages of their comrades. Severino was himself pierced several times over by the sharp shower of shards and fell to the ground clutching at his face in a vain attempt to protect himself, whilst muttering the words of a spell he thought could keep at least a part of his regiment on their feet.
Upon the far side of the field a storm of arrows, bolts, bullets, round-shots and even the colossus’s enchanted flames, tore bloodily into the ghouls and zombies, but could not find their mark on the vampire Arnaldo, for he was skulking behind the stone ruins to conjure every scrap of magic he could to keep his zombies intact a little longer.
All this was as Biagino intended, for his only purpose was to escape. The walking corpses he had ordered his lieutenants to lead forwards were to be his rear-guard. He had left them upon the field of battle merely to buy himself time, knowing full well they could never reach the enemy lines. The living soldiers were to be distracted by the task of blasting away at the regiments before them, their vision obscured by clouds of black-powder smoke. By the time they had begun picking their way through the ruins of the valley and over the shattered remains of Biagino’s soldiers, he was already running, surrounded by a crazy mob of flagellant zombies, through the ancient, ruinous village to the valley’s east.
Next Installment: Part 22