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.