The Battle of the Isean Hills
Prequel: Each to Their Own
The army of the Disciplinati di Morr, bereft of its beloved, founding father, but still bound to the service of holy Morr, had drawn close to the city of Ebino and then halted. When they learned the vampire duchess had more than sufficient forces within the city to repel any assault they attempted, their new pastor-general, Father Lorenzo of Urbimo, ordered the fortification of their camp so that they might instead blockade the city, harrying any forces attempting to leave the city or join the garrison, while awaiting reinforcements of their own.
Fully aware of their depleted strength (indeed, having sent her servant Adolfo to prey on them to bring about just this end), the Duchess Maria decided she would not give them time to lick their wounds, nor allow any more forces to join them, but would instead march from the city in strength to deliver her ‘colpo di grazia’.
On the morning of the battle, each of the two armies prepared themselves for the fight ahead. In the part-completed, fortified camp they were building upon the hills to the south of the city, the Disciplinati di Morr gathered for prayers; while in the fields below the ruined Church of San Sabrella to the east of Ebino’s moated walls, the vampire Duchess Maria drew all the unliving servants she had in the city to her.
The Disciplinati’s new pastor-general, the Urbiman priest Father Lorenzo, was not the orator Father Carradalio had been, and so instead of an inspired, stirring speech, he simply read from the holy book of Morr. A swathe of dedicants crowded around him, as well as lesser priests and Captain Vogel’s palace guards, and all fell silent as he intoned.
Father Lorenzo chose his passage carefully. While in Urbimo, overseeing the cruel cleansing of the town, he had favoured the verses concerning the purity of the soul required for passage into Morr’s heavenly garden, and the punishments necessary for those who tainted themselves with wicked words, deeds and thoughts, or lured Morr’s living servants into the same. When the impure were burned, he had concentrated on the chapters describing the torments awaiting those who were not suitably cleansed either through their own will and discipline, or by the punishments inflicted upon them as a curative penance.
Here, however, before battling the vampire duchess’s foul army, he knew that something more uplifting was required. The men gathered around him were to face hell later that day, which made threatening them with the same seem somewhat redundant. He wanted to inspire them to fight fearlessly, to lay down their lives without hesitation, and so it was that he read of the abundant rewards awaiting them in Morr’s garden-paradise.
Several priests, their hands clasped in humility, stood closest to Father Lorenzo. These few knew the text well enough to add their own voices to the most important parts, thus ensuring those words were better heard by all. Other than the priests’ occasionally conjoined voices and the fluttering of the ragged banners (these fashioned from the tattered remains of ancient saints’ robes), the only other sound was the occasional ripple of mutters and whispers through the crowd as they involuntarily muttered repetitions of this or that inspired phrase.
The holy book’s words revealed that every drop of blood the dedicants shed in Morr’s service would be amply compensated with heavenly wine; that long labours for their lord-god would earn them ages of ease; and that every moment of agony would be rewarded by eons of ecstasy. Indeed, those who were sufficiently holy in the here and now could experience the first hint of that eternal ecstasy within the very agonies themselves, their pain tinged with the perfect pleasures to come.
The dedicants’ attention was given a keener edge by the knowledge of what they were about to face, and as they listened to the holy book’s powerful promises, their fears were swept away and replaced with excited anticipation. The more they suffered this day, the greater the rewards would be. It was all many of them could do not to begin their flagellation there and then!
Maria knew Lord Adolfo was dead, for she had sensed his demise two weeks before. As for Biagino, he had gone so far from her that although she could feel something was amiss, she could no longer know whether he (un)lived or not. Here and now her only her vampiric servant was captain Bernhardt, who would be her lieutenant in battle. There was a necromancer, Saffiro, a wretched fellow whose fawning company she could hardly bear, his blood so dry as to be undrinkable, his very being seeming to be composed entirely of mould, dust and rags, but even ignoring her distaste for him, such a creature would prove a poor second on the field of battle. Bernhardt, on the other hand, was very much a warrior, having been a condottiere captain in life, during which he fought both in the northern realm of the Empire and all over Tilea.
As her army assembled almost in silence, she beckoned Bernhardt over. He was clad in full plate armour and carried a blade almost as long, from tip to pommel, as she was tall. When he came to a halt before her, she said,
“Good captain, faithful, favoured servant, your hand.”
Despite not knowing why she asked, he reached out without hesitation. She laid her own hand upon his, her cold, pearl-white fingers resting upon the layered steel plates of his gauntlet.
Now he understood. This action was a sign of her favour – that this day she honoured him above all others. As she looked at him, her eyes seemed just as palpable as her touch, and for moment he forgot all but his fierce love for his mistress. All about them the duchess’s undead servants became still, momentarily bereft of any directive will.
Moving one step closer, Maria brought her mouth almost to Bernhardt’s cheek. She spoke quietly concerning what she expected of him in the battle to come, which was that he should give his all in her service, both his sword arm and his military ken and, if necessary, his life. She wished the foe killed to a man, so not one could escape to reveal the nature of her own forces to her enemies in the south. Having been sired by her, and utterly beholden to her will, he willingly accepted all she commanded. He could do nothing else.
Less than an hour later, near the head of the army, the two of them rode together towards the enemy’s camp.
The Battle, Part 1
Working with an almost frenzied vigour that few ordinary soldiers or labourers could ever match, the Disciplinati Di Morr’s dedicants had constructed substantial defences for their camp, even in the short time they had available before the Duchess marched out against them.
(Game Note: I allowed the Disciplinati player to put the scenery, including the hills, however he liked within his deployment zone, to represent the fact that his army had chosen the best spot they could find to camp, and had built the defences as they wished.)
Their brace of Reman guns was placed in a bastion-battery atop a steep slope, while the two large regiments of dedicants defended the almost complete stretch of barricades running out from the base of the hill. Maestro da Leoni’s ‘Engine of Light’ had been hauled between the massed dedicants, while Captain Vogel and his professional soldiers waited in the rear, Father Lorenzo amongst them, intending to move up to wherever they were needed. The two small companies of crossbow, one Reman, one Urbiman, flanked the larger foot regiments, each having taken to raised ground to afford themselves a better view.
Barone Pietro Cybo and his small company of light horse waited out to the far left of the army, atop a little hill, having claimed he would look for a chance to outflank the enemy. In truth, the baron had refused to dismount to help defend ‘walls of dirt’ (as he had put it himself) and it was actually pride that had sent him out so far from the rest.
The vampire Duchess Maria, eager to destroy the foe quickly, amassed her army directly in front of the enemy’s defences, intending to march right at them without any fancy manoeuvring.
(Game Note: I commanded the vampire army, now an NPC army since the player left the campaign and the hobby!), and so any deficiencies you might perceive in the duchess’s tactics are down to my not-exactly ‘honed’ wargaming skills!)
Her foot soldiers, being skeletons, crypt horrors and ghouls, formed the right of her army, aiming right at the defended stretch of barricades, while her knights, wraiths and wolves, herself and Bernhardt included, formed the left, hoping to overwhelm the defences at their extremity, burst through and thus ravage the camp’s interior.
Maria wanted her army to assault the foe as one, and so restrained the bodies so that when they did begin to close upon the foe they came up more cohesively than they otherwise would have done. (Game Note: No vanguard moves by either the wolves or wraiths.) Her second, the vampire Bernhardt, rode with the smaller body of mounted soldiers, dropping back slightly to keep an eye on the enemy horse to the right, and if they proved too cowardly to commit, which he suspected might be the case, to espy an opportunity to support the rest of the army as required.
The Morrite dedicants watched the undead army come on, with a calm imbued by a resignation to their fate and a devoted belief that their god Morr favoured them. He had tested them, without doubt, even allowing their worldly father to be cruelly taken from them, but they had proven themselves unshakeable in their faith. Most now fervently believed Morr’s love for them could only have grown stronger.
One regiment fair-bristled with the steel edges and barbed tips of their vicious halberd blades …
… while the other regiment hefted flails, whips and clubs. Both chanted words of devotion which filled them with an ever-growing lust for battle, a blind fury they were ready to release at any moment.
From above, the Reman gunners watched the enemy advance, judging the distances and adjusting the barrels elevation accordingly.
The undead foot, left a little behind by the mounted warriors’ initial advance (having only shank’s nag to transport them), and being a little too far away from the duchess to feel the full strength of her will, suddenly, and quite unnaturally, lurched forwards as she and her necromancer had intended, invigorated by the winds of magic conjured to course through them. In this way they re-aligned themselves with the horse soldiers.
(Game note: Vanhel’s Dance Macabre in action, as planned – it’s quite rare anything I build into an initial plan comes to fruition!)
Maria’s army were coming up fast indeed. Realising that to delay even a moment further could mean he would fail even to distract the enemy as they advanced, never mind harm them, Barone Pietro led his horsemen down the slope to approach from the enemy’s right flank. They were the only part of the army that moved.
The crew of the Luminark, having worked upon their machine almost constantly since it’s shamefully negligible contribution to the assault upon Viadaza, polishing the lenses almost hourly so that not one speck might ingrain itself upon the glass, now prayed fervently for Morr’s blessing as they wound the wheel that would bring the foremost, smallest lens into alignment and so release a beam of burning etheric light. The whole engine bucked as a crackling condensation of energy broiled between the stepped lenses then burst forwards to burn three of Maria’s knightly companions to dust!
But the crew did not notice the enemy riders’ deaths, for once again, in exactly the same manner as had happened in Viadaza, the mizzen lens cracked and, as well as momentarily sapping the breath from them, also sapped all hope that the machine would contribute any further harm to the foe. They had but one such lens left, the least perfect of the three they had begun the journey with for its peripheries were not fully polished, and which would take many an hour to affix correctly to the machine. Two of the crew shed tears at their failure, although within moments their disappointment had turned into fear as they remembered how close the terrible enemy was.
Crossbow bolts brought down a few dire wolves and skeletons …
… then the first round-shot from the guns shattered the entire rear rank of Maria’s knights, and the second broke the rest apart, even brushing Maria as it passed! (Game note, she passed her 4+ ward to survive!) Maria was left alone, with only her ghostly wraiths close by!
End of turn 1
The Battle, Part 2
Twisting in her saddle to see all about her, with a flick of her wrist Duchess Maria sent the dire wolves charging into Barone Pietro’s company of horse. One wolf was brought down by an arrow on the way, but the rest tore into the enemy with tooth and claw.
In the first moments of the immediately ensuing fight four riders and five wolves were slain.
Another of Maria’s tiny gesture sent her mounted wraiths hurtling into the fanatical dedicants nearest to them. Four Morrites were hewn in two by the partly-ethereal scythes, while they themselves could do nothing to harm the ghostly foe.
(Game Note: I had never really worked out just what these hexwraiths were capable of, in the right circumstances. I had intended them to pass through enemy units, not to engage them directly, thinking rank and standard bonuses would swing the combats. Here I discovered how capable they were of pinning down even large units of a certain kind – the dedicants had no banner and so all they had going for them was their rank bonus. This combat resolution score the Hexwraiths were easily able to exceed with their great weapons’ strength 5 attacks, and their steeds’ attacks too.)
Maria herself joined Captain Bernhardt and his little company of knights, but the magics they and the necromancer conjured had no effect. The enemy’s prayers, however, were not so weak, injuring one of the crypt horrors, and summoning a holy protective blessing upon Captain Vogel’s Reman Guard. The Urbiman crossbowmen brought down one of Bernhardt’s knights, and suddenly both vampires looked vulnerable. (Game note: No ‘Look out sir’ on the knights anymore!) Then, just when they might have fatally wounded the exposed foe, not one but both cannons misfired. Perhaps the crewmen’s fear had caused their fumbling failure? Perhaps they had lost Morr’s failure? Or perhaps the powder was just a little too damp?
The Barone and his riders cut the last of the wolves down, then watched in horror as the blue-tinged wraiths continued their apparently unstoppable slaughter of the massed dedicants defending the wall.
Maria now sensed that the tables had turned. She saw the dedicants blades sweeping by the dozen ineffectually through the hexwraiths, then noticed the gunners’ frantic activity, desperately attempting to put their eerily quiet guns in working order. She knew this moment could be her best chance, and so she ordered Bernhardt to leave her and charge the crossbowmen on the enemy’s camps’ extreme left …
… and her Crypt Horrors and ghouls to charge into the unengaged regiment of dedicants. The latter failed to reach the enemy, and so the brutes were left for now to fight alone.
The crossbowmen failed to harm their attackers with their hurriedly launched bolts, and the vampire captain and his companions inflicted a brutal slaughter upon them. The last few fled and the undead riders’ mounts clattered over the bastion to penetrate the defences. Maria cast a deadly curse upon the dedicants fighting her wraiths, killing no less than eight of them, then the hex wraiths killed two more (again, just enough to ensure that the necromantic magic animating them stayed strong).
The Crypt Horrors found themselves facing a great mass of dedicants, ensconced behind a sturdy earth and timber wall.
They were to prove no match for the frenzied hacking of so many halberds, and all but one perished in the ensuing fight.
From behind, the necromancer Saffiro could see that it would take a lot more than a few horrors to defeat such a body.
Maria was also cognizant of the situation and took a moment to consider who to command to charge next. The Hexwraiths had completely tied up the other body of dedicants, but she wanted both regiments utterly destroyed. This was the army who had killed her pet Adolfo, and they would pay for their action.
There was a pleasing sense of reassurance in the fact that she was in a position to make such choices. She was not being forced to respond to the enemy’s manoeuvres but had firmly gained the initiative. Victory, she believed, was surely hers. Many of her soldiers still had to die to achieve that victory, but considering they had died before and yet still served her, it seemed of little consequence to her.
She was so delighted with how things stood that she failed to notice Barone Pietro and his surviving riders off to her right. They had seen her though, and the barone had the mad thought that perhaps he could take her on.
And so it was they closed upon her, the riders to loose their arrows, the Barone to fire his pistols.
Yet to no effect at all. Almost idly, Maria turned to look upon them, a kind of evil euphoria coursing through her. She saw them now as nothing more than a potential annoyance. She even smiled as she wondered if they knew it themselves.
While she leered at them, her hexwraiths continued their bloody work, slaying half a dozen more dedicants, whilst the last of her brute Horrors was cut down. Then she turned away, her mind made up – the ghouls would charge next.
End of turn 3.
The Battle, Final Part
The great mob of ghouls, who now equalled the enemy’s regiment in size thanks to the brute Horrors’ attacks and the cultists own murderous flagellations to maintain their state of crazed frenzy, charged headlong into the defences.
Maria cantered without undue haste to the side of the hex-wraiths and watched as Captain Bernhardt and his knights turned to threaten the Reman soldiery within the camp.
Whilst the winds of magic proved little more than a gentle breeze, so that not one spell could be successfully conjured, the fight between the ghouls and the dedicants proved very bloody indeed. Seventeen dedicants dies in the initial assault, and eighteen ghouls! (Game Note: The ‘End is Nigh’ roll meant the dedicants could re-roll to hits and to wounds for their 38 (yup!) attacks. In light of this, perhaps 18 seems like a bad result!) Two more ghouls collapsed from the weakening of the magics that kept them whole.
Captain Vogel knew he had to act decisively, before the enemy riders could launch themselves at him and his men. But when he ordered a charge, his so-called professionals proved wanting, and the hesitant lurch that resulted meant that the initiative was lost. The vampire Bernhardt and his knights were already spurring their fleshless horses into action. Standing with the Remans, Father Lorenzo quickly realised that something had gone awry, and so prayed for Morr’s Holy Protection to be gifted upon the men with him. He sensed its power as it enfolded them.
Upon the bastion-battery on the Disciplinati’s right, the cannoneers had shoved packets of grape shot down their pieces’ muzzles, and now both guns blasted the skeletons below them, shattering seven. (Game Note: 10 + 10 shots, but with 8th ed rules, you have to roll to hit as well as wound.) The bony warriors barely noticed, which in truth was the case most of the time!
The broken machine trundled about behind the defences, it’s crew’s shame exacerbated by the knowledge it was highly unlikely they would ever to get the chance to prove themselves or their machine in future battles, due to the fact that they were almost certainly going to die in this one.
The Morrite dedicants fighting the ghouls, however, were so gripped with bloodlust that no such defeatist thoughts impinged upon their minds. They now slaughtered the last of the ghouls before them, to the loss of only one of their own to the foe’s vicious claws, but at a cost of two of their own to flagellation. The hexwraiths to their left, however, had cut down another four dedicants amongst their brother regiment, who despite their manic efforts could cause absolutely no harm in return. Meanwhil, Maria rode very close by as if nothing of consequence were occurring!
(Game Note: I was still amazed at what the hex-wraiths were doing, and could only imagine how frustrated I would have been about it if I had commanded the other side! BTW, we had toyed with the idea that the campaign player helping out by commanding an NPC army should command the undead, but as his player character, Lord Alessio Falconi, was currently engaged in a war against Maria’s servants in the south, it seemed only right that he should command here enemies in this game too!)
Maria was smiling, but there was not a soul alive who could see. She blew a kiss to Captain Bernhardt as he glanced at her upon the threshold of his charge, and then she joined him in hurtling headlong into Vogel’s hesitant Remans.
The Necromancer Saffiro had watched the slaughter of both the brute Horrors and the ghouls with interest and was now satisfied to see that only a few dedicants remained upon the defences. “My turn!” he thought to himself, then raised his hands to command his skeletons to charge.
In they went, scrabbling over the piles of corpses strewn before the barricade without a care in the world, to stab a veritable forest of spears at the poor, tired souls on the walls!
Before long there was but one cultist remaining. He stumbled back, his pointed hood so obscuring his sight that he had no idea he was the last. Whatever idea he did have, however, was his last.
While the Hexwraiths’ scythes continued their bounteous harvesting of souls …
… Maria fatally cursed four of the Remans, then momentarily lost control of her magic while resurrected the missing knight. She was only saved from injury by her magical wards. Several more Remans died to the vampires’ and knights’ blades, and two of the knights were cut down in return. Somehow, the Remans had survived the initial impact, but the situation did not look good.
As Maria’s fight went on, cannon balls were fired to little effect, more dedicants were hewn by the wraiths, and crossbow bolts clattered ineffectually against the corpse cart. Barone Pietro and his company rode to the rear of the undead and watched, aghast, as the slaughter went on. The riders dreaded the thought of charging in. Luckily for them, the barone gave no such command.
Maria now allowed a fury to course through her and she personally cut down six of the Remans. This, added to the bloody work done by Bernhardt and the knights, was too much for the Remans, and they turned to flee. Father Lorenzo was one of the first of them to be cut down in that flight, then Captain Vogel’s head was removed deftly by Bernhardt, while the remainder joined them in death soon enough.
As the crossbowmen on the hill wished they had run away when they had the chance, and the gunners abandoned their pieces to tumble pell-mell down the far slope, Barone Pietro suddenly realised that he and his men might be the only ones to escape the slaughter!
If, that is, they fled now.
Which is what they did.
End of turn 6
Next Installment: Part 24