To His Holiness Bernado Ugolini, Most Highly Favoured of Morr, from your faithful servant, Brother Migliore.
The End of Autumn, 2403
If it pleases your holiness, I hereby and humbly present the conclusions of my researches into the history of the Ratto Uomo, commissioned by yourself in light of the ever more numerous reports of sightings upon the seas around, and even within the lands of, Tilea.
Concerning their ships
The ratto uomo are not natural seafarers, but can it be claimed that any land-born race truly is? Perhaps the elves have perfected the art of maritime navigation more fully than all others, but even their sailors must find their sea legs before becoming accustomed to ship-board life. All vessels are subject to the vicissitudes of the seas, battered by the winds and waves, pulled by the currents, baked by the sun and befuddled by the light of the chaos moon. All sailors of all races fear becoming embayed on a lee-shore or attack by corsairs, and there are none who are immune to ship’s fever, the bloody flux, scurvy or simple starvation when sustenance proves hard to find. Nevertheless, the ratto uomo must not be thought to be deficient in their mastery of the seas, for I have learned from the salty dogs of the holy city and Portomaggiore that the ratmen’s vessels have long been able to sail close-hauled on a bowline, indeed directly into the wind, being for the most part propelled not by sails but by great screws affixed beneath their sterns, powered by blasts of sulphurous steam made forceful by the conjoined, mundane and etheric heat of their sky-stones. This is why they are so feared, for they can bear down upon a prize from leeward as easily as windward. Furthermore, even their tenders and their lesser, lighter vessels, of insufficient worth to warrant such infernal engines, are most often galleys, and as the ratto uomo care not a jot if their slaves are worked en-masse unto their very deaths, then they can similarly speed through the seas contrary to any wind, so that any sailing ship in pursuit must tack close to have a chance to intercept them.
Several many seamen made the claim that the reports of ratto uomo in the gulf are on the increase, yet at the same time, a good number instead told me that there have always been reports of such sightings, and that nothing has changed, for tired, hungry, fearful eyes can conjure many a danger in the distance, the mists or in the crepuscular hour. It can rarely be known why lone ships are lost at sea, for survivors from such vessels are very few in number. Of those lost ships whose fates are known, the vast majority were travelling in convoy – their loss thus witnessed by the crews of their companions, and few of these ever report attacks by ratto uomo. Yet, there are those who say that this in itself is evidence, for the ratmen are renowned as bullies and cowards, and as such prefer to prey upon weak and lonely prizes, the better to ensure their own survival and success.
One particular curiosity concerning the ratto uomo’s sea-going activities is their reputed use of sub-marine vessels. No such vessel has ever been captured intact, but they have been, through the centuries, reported and have even been known to ram ships. Whether or not these vessels are similarly propelled by turning screws or by oars none can say for certain, although in IC 2286 the Viadazan Maestro Romolo Auriemma, apparently inspired by the recovered wreckage of part of such a vessel, drew up plans for a sub-marine vessel in which the oars were made watertight by protruding through leather-sealed ports.
It seems that he constructed said vessel but that nothing is known of his trails, not even whether his efforts were in any way successful. His rather dense treatise discusses many practical issues, concerning how to let out or receive of anything without the admission of water? How to propel and direct without the usual advantages of wind & tides, or the sight of the heavens? How to supply air for respiration? How to keep fires lit for light & cooking? As well as some rather obscure scribblings which seem to detail the leather seals and what appears to be fin-ended oars able to contract and dilate as required for either pressing upon or passing through the water. The last of his pages shows a weight suspended beneath to enable falling and rising.
How similar the vessel Maestro Romolo designed and constructed was to the kind employed by the ratto uomo is, however, a matter of pure speculation.
Concerning the Underpasses
In the great library of the Palazio Endrezzi, I discovered the texts your scholarly adviser Stoldo Schiavone remembered perusing during his youthful studies. One of the volumes was missing, but fortunately the volume with a chapter considering the ratto uomo’s underground movements during the great war nearly two centuries ago was present and I scoured it for anything of possible importance. This I have transcribed here almost exactly as the original.
Excerpts from Anichino Didonato’s IC 2361 treatise about the Ratto Uomo Wars of IC 2212-15, Volume 2, Chapter 6: Concerning Caverns, Sewers and the Great Underpasses
By the Summer of the year IC 2213 it had become generally known that the great swarm-armies of ratto uomo were emerging not merely from the ancient city sewers, as did their emissaries, assassins and spies so frequently during the past two, murderous decades, nor were they simply camped in cavernous holds before their assaults, or marching by night to hide in ruinous places and wastelands and swamps, but that they were issuing from the mouths of great underpasses, being tunnels of enormous proportions stretching for many leagues beneath almost the entire length and breadth of Tilea.
In early Autumn 2213 the army of the ‘Third Reman Pact’ fought at the mouth of the tunnel to the east of Remas, and also at an exit near Ebino, but in both cases, despite overwhelming the enemy forces in the vicinity of the mouth, could not penetrate deep into the tunnels without the loss of a great many soldiers. Such a sacrifice was considered a price not worth paying, for should the ratto uomo send another army through the tunnel, then whatever costly victories had been achieved would prove futile. The mouth of the tunnel near Remas was collapsed with the use of black powder, but that action also proved of limited consequence, for the enemy simply carved another portal further back along the tunnel, upon the eastern side of the River Remo. At least it allowed a defence to be made at Stiani, where the Pact’s forces were massed and the great Battle of Stiani was fought in the summer of 2214 in which a mighty horde of ratto uomo was defeated and scattered, their wicked engines destroyed and mountainous piles of their corpses burned. See Chapter 8 for a full account of this battle.
The underpasses were not what one might commonly imagine, akin to brick-built sewers, nor even ancient, twisting, irregular caverns, accessed one to another by squeezing through skewed crevices and cracks. Instead they were wide enough for an army to march in column of ranks and files.
The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 2, ‘Concerning the Enemy’s Armies’
The ratto uomo fielded horde-legions with triple the numbers of the Tilean armies they faced. These were divided into regularly sized, regimented bodies scuttle-marching in strict rank and files. Each such body was commanded by a chieftain, accompanied by a bodyguard-lieutenant, several musicians bearing shrill instruments and the bearer of a ragged banner.
Most commonly they carried long bladed spears and round, iron-rimmed shields, being clothed in dirty rags with scrap-plates of iron armour on their upper bodies and arms.
Their natural proclivity to swarm, as might their tiny brethren when threatened by some cataclysmic event such as a flood or wildfire, meant that they had an uncanny agility, even when packed tightly in ranks and files of the closest order. They marched this way also, as closely dressed as a body of Tilean soldiers might be only in the moments before engaging a foe.
Here Chapter 6 continues:
The great underpasses, and the mouths they served, were high enough to allow the passage of engines of war of considerable size. Some engines were propelled by strange mechanisms, in which sulphurous steam was created by shards of burning sky-stone to turn gears and consequently the wheels, as might river waters turn a mill wheel. Such was the unreliability of these engines, and the ever-present danger that they might self-combust or even explode, that they were most commonly moved upon the march by slaves. Both their own ratto uomo, and their larger brute cousins, were employed as such beasts of burden, often together, so that while the smaller slaves where whipped to perform most of the labour, the brutes would be required to lend a more mighty hand as occasion demanded, such as when stuck in a rut, struggling through mud or upon an upward slope.
When transported through the tunnels, it seems that the engines were invariably removed from the main body of the army, most likely due to the relative slowness of their lumbering progress and perhaps also a reluctance to manoeuvre such unstable burdens in close proximity to the army’s massed soldiers. Any sudden detonation would surely have sent a wave of fire washing along the tunnels, capable of immolating many hundreds among the huddled hordes if it were to reach them before its heat was sufficiently dissipated.
Each engine, its slaves and matrosses, was governed by an engineer whose understanding was sufficient to coax his ward into destructive power as and when required. They often carried a shard of the precious sky-stone themselves, mounted upon a haft of iron, the function of which was unknown, but has been variously speculated to be either like unto a key with which to breathe life into the engine, or a stinging staff with which to berate and bully their underlings, or perhaps merely a badge to signal their own importance and professed mastery of the mystery of said stone?
How the underpasses were constructed is unknown for certain. What parts near unto the mouths were inspected closely by miners showed some scattered signs of chiselling, more frequently a swirling form of scraping, while other stretches seemed to have been scorched, the rock surface part-melted or glazed. Knowing the ratto uomo’s predilection to employ mighty machines in battle, as well as vast throngs of slaves of their own kind, then it was supposed that either one, or indeed both of these methods, were employed to hew through the rock. It is presumed the passages linked to natural underground fissures, for where else could the vast quantity of debris created by their mining, howsoever it was done, be put? Some scholars suggested that it were possible that the rocks were carried away by slaves, and indeed there are ancient tales, many hundreds of years old, of entirely new hills appearing in the far northern region of Albu (although the stories claim, among other things, that they were made as cairns for the eternal repose of giants or even that monstrous moles dwelling a thousand fathoms beneath the ground had thrown them up over-night when they came aloft to breath sufficient air to sustain them for another millennia).
The ground of the underpasses was like unto a beach, part-pebbled, part-sand, which in itself gave several miners cause to wonder at how exactly it had come to be so. It was suggested that perhaps the ground was a by-product of the pulverising of the rock, or some sort of burning?
The tunnel mouths aforementioned were almost certainly extensions of the same underpass, stretching from Ebino then under the River Tarano just before the River Bellagio branched off, then beneath the River Trantino north-west of Scorcio, then beneath the mouth of the River Remo itself then corkscrewing up to exit through a sea facing wall of rock, thus requiring a ramp to be made from the debris which poured from the mouth. How the whole was ventilated was never properly discovered, and it could only be speculated that there were some form of ventilation shafts, perhaps guarded by iron grills or the like, with apertures cunningly concealed from the upper world.
Chapter 6, Part 2: Concerning the Collapsing of the Underpasses
Having had such limited success in collapsing the tunnel mouths, the renowned maestro Abramo Ruggiere of Urbimo was tasked with discovering a way to destroy the underpasses. He was chosen because of his successful engagements in great architectural works such as redirecting the Via Aurelia to avoid the flood plains west of Astiano and damning the River Riatti near Terenne to create an artificial lake, and his proven expertise in the construction of great helical grooved shafts screws with which to lift and direct water. He proposed re-directing an artificial offshoot of the River Remo to permanently flood a long section of the underpass, but to employ a different method involving fiery conjurations and gunpowder to collapse the tunnel in the western reaches of Usola, south-east of Ebino, so that if either method proved unsuccessful then the other might make up for the deficiency, and also should the ratto uomo discover the operation before it was completed and devise some method to thwart it, then the same method could not be applied to the other stretch.
Other city states, including Miragliano, Trantio and Astiano, were expected to assume the responsibility of collapsing or otherwise preventing the use any tunnels in their own proximity, and it is possible, if not likely, that several different methods were employed for these works.
Both maestro Abramo’s proposed methods proved effective. At torrent of water drawn from the Remo was poured through a large, carved hole into the underpass and flowed freely for several days until it began to spill out from the hole, presumably because the enemy had collapsed the tunnel themselves at a removed point in order to block the water’s further onrush. At that point, as had been planned, the maestro ordered the damning of the Remo’s outflow so that the river might resume its course. Subsequently a smaller channel was dug to ensure that the waters within the underpass would be replenished continually, thus replacing any lost due to flooding through underground fissures, whether natural or unnatural.
To the north, near Ebino, several fire wizards were employed to conjure a magically induced wave of flame to wash along the underpass, where large quantities of blackpowder, both barrels and grenadoes (the latter jammed into fissures in the rock walls) had already been placed at both frequent and regular intervals. It was presumed that each blast would add to the wave of flame as it flowed, so that as the ethereally derived power of the heat dwindled, the fury of the mundane flames would increase in inverse proportion.
Thus it was that the course of the war was changed considerably, for subsequently the enemy had to rely upon overland marches and the seas, and was much less able to conceal the disposition of their forces.
I have copied here, as best my limited ability allows, the little map included in the chapter:
Here the chapter ended. The remainder of the book concentrated upon the history of the Third Reman Pact and of the war itself, mainly concerning the politics and rulers of the various Tilean states involved in the war, as well as a veritable cornucopia of stories concerning the nobility, some important and others insignificant, but of very little consequence to our world two centuries later.
As you yourself wisely suggested, I myself discussed my findings, as well as that I had learned from both the sailors and Anichino Didonato’s other volumes, with the maestro Angelo da Leoni. He allowed me to visit him in his workshop, where he was surrounded by books, papers, schemas and strange artefacts, the like of some of which I had never seen before. A large, spherical, globe of strangely-hued metal gave off occasional stuttering clicks throughout our meeting, but neither the maestro nor his gnomish assistant paid it any attention.
He clearly found my account fascinating and was prompted to wax both lyrically and generously in sharing his own thoughts. He seemed most intrigued by the possibility that the ratmen’s tunnelling engines, if they did indeed employ heat to burn the subterraneous rock – as the evidence of scorching suggested – might be, in form, rather like his own engine which he gifted to the Disciplinati di Morr for their march into the north. That consisted, he told me, of lenses both dioptrical and catoptrical, some of pure glass and others of glass admixed with powdered sky-stone, being employed to separate, then concentrate a conjoining of light both etheric and mundane, vastly increasing the heat thereby manifested. Such an apparatus, especially if the source of ethereal light were not the far-away sun but a shard of pure sky-stone, of a size and form that would most likely bake the very flesh of anyone standing close enough to work the device, might indeed produce a shaft of such brilliant intensity as to burn away the rock or at the least make it (to a depth of several feet) so brittle in consistency that simply scraping at it would subsequently cause it to crumble it away.
Yet he foresaw innumerate difficulties and dangers inherent in the employment of such an apparatus, not least the great cloud of poisonous fumes that he believed would be produced. Here he showed me several strange masks, hoods and sleeved cloaks he had fashioned, kept in a wardrobe in his workshop, intended to be worn at times of plague or when foul and foetid fumes tainted the air, and spoke of the possibility that similar garments might be employed to permit workers to labour at least for some time before succumbing to the noxious vapours. Yet, still he checked himself, for he now declared such a sudden boiling, even of only that constituent part of rock that gifted the quality of hardness, and its almost instantaneous transformation into vapour, would of necessity cause a great and violent on-rush of air, at most explosive and at the least like unto the strongest of gales. This would be forced unstoppably through the great tunnel to be released and diminished only wherever vents pierced the roof to reach the upper world, which surely there must have been. Indeed, he proposed that such vents, placed at regular intervals, would have had different purposes over time, from allowing air to circulate sufficiently to make work in the tunnels just possible, then later allowing the necessary escape of the bursting, noxious vapours. Perhaps some of these vents, the suggested, if only those most suitably placed, were then later transformed into the concealed ventilation shafts intended to serve the tunnel permanently?
Before I left, and as a most gracious gesture to show his respect for you my lord, he instructed his gnomish clerk to take a copy of a paper of consequence, that might better inform natural philosophers and engineers of at least the basic principles of his burning apparatus, if not the full and complicated practicalities of its construction, which were more explored in the making and calibration of the apparatus than in any schema or drawn design beforehand. I enclose said page here.
I remain, as always and forever more, your most humble servant, for you are great Morr’s most blessed and my heart only knows love for him and those who serve him truly.
An excerpt from Bonacorso Fidelibus’s work: “The Many Wars of the Early 25th Century”
Despite the hopes raised by the crushing victories achieved in the realm of Trantio, first at the necropolis valley of Norochia and then further north in the Trantine hills, as well as the news of the ogre tyrant Razger Bouldergut’s departure through the mountainous pass of the Via Nano into the Border Princes, the entire peninsula of Tilea remained wracked by war or the imminent threat of war. Great armies were on the move, alliance-forces combined and divided in response to this particular threat and that, and old enmities and hatreds continued, as ever, to interfere with the greater need.
The army of the VMC had marched all the way from Alcente upon the southern-most tip of the peninsula to Pavona. Its general, Jan Valckenburgh, was intending to join with the Lord Alessio’s mighty army to drive the vampires once and for all to their destruction but had instead become distracted by the reported treachery of the ruler of Pavona, Duke Guidobaldo Gondi.
The Pavonan duke had claimed in a public letter that a force of VMC soldiers, disguised as Lord Alessio’s Portomaggiorans, had attacked the realm of Verezzo, killing the philosopher Lord Lucca Vescussi and plundering the region known as Spomanti. General Valckenburgh, who had interrogated a band of Verezzan rogues fleeing the troubles in their realm, declared Duke Guidobaldo’s words to be lies, claiming instead that it was Duke Guidobaldo’s own Pavonan soldiers, disguised as Portomaggiorans, who had performed the foul deed, spurred by a greed for plunder now that their own realm was so weakened by the depredations of Bouldergut’s brute ogres, and also in order to distract and damage all the realms around them, so that Pavona might not appear so weak in comparison.
Many argued over the truth of the matter. Some said that the Pavonan duke was guilty and had made the false claim simply to hide the fact that he himself was responsible for the raid and murder, cleverly befuddling the picture so that if people learned that the Portomaggiorans were not to blame, he could respond with another lie on top of the original deception. Others said that the VMC was responsible, being dishonourable plunderers by their very nature, and had used the lie as an excuse to go on from plundering Verezzo to plunder Pavona also, all the while claiming to be entirely innocent, instead simply responding appropriately to Duke Guidobaldo’s outrageous defamation and hoping to find proof of his foul deeds to restore their honourable reputation!
Whatever the truth, the army of the VMC now drew close enough to lay siege to the ancient, mightily walled city of Pavona, wherein was garrisoned the last of the Pavonan armies. The young Lord Silvano, who had fought so bravely in the war against the vampires (at Viadaza, Ebino and Trantio) had only recently arrived home, given leave to depart from the grand alliance army after the victory in Norochia, where his men had not even needed to unsheathe their swords.
Lord Silvano’s father Duke Guidobaldo also returned, having travelled from Verezzo where he had offered sanctuary to all the citizens, promising them homes, livelihoods and protection in his own realm. Learning of the VMC army’s approach to his city, however, he could not tarry to escort those who accepted his offer, but raced back to his own city, arriving in the nick of time, only matter of hours before the army of the VMC drew themselves up to within handgun shot of the city walls, in preparation to lay siege. He was greeted by his son, but any happiness that they might have felt at being reunited was surely dwarfed by their concerns regarding the forthcoming struggle.
The VMC had marched north to share the burden of the terrible war against the vampires and brutes. Instead they had now embarked upon a war of honour against one of the oldest Tilean city-states, despite the vampire Duchess Maria’s complete destruction of the army of the Dedicati di Morr at Ebino, and the landing of an army of Sartosan pirates upon the coast at Luccini.
It is to the latter event that I shall next turn. King Ferronso of Luccini had taken leave of the grand alliance army at Trantio as soon as he received reports of the Sartosan threat to the coastal realms. He did not do so lightly, and indeed left a significant portion of his small army’s strength with the alliance force, under the command of the condottiere General Marsilio da Fermo. The army’s council of war agreed that they had more than adequate strength to defeat the enemy’s army in Trantio, and so it would be unfair to demand that the young king remained with them when his realm faced such troubles. But the journey home was long, and although the king rode as fast as he possibly could, accompanied by his guard of noble men-at-arms, he arrived too late to defend his realm. The Sartosans had landed in great strength, utterly overwhelmed the city of Luccini itself, plundered it thoroughly, and then moved on to take all they could from Aversa to the east. Thus it was that the young king could only watch, more spy than warrior hero, as his realm was ravaged by an enemy far too strong for him to face.
(To be continued below.)
All is Lost! Is All Lost?
They had left their mounts hidden deep in the woods, with the rest of the company, then the three of them, cautiously, if a little clumsily due to their armour, picked their way to the trees’ edge. Although he had already been informed of what was happening in Aversa, the young King Ferronso insisted on seeing with his own eyes, and his companions, for several reasons – not least that he was their king – chose not to argue. Signore Pierozzo went a little way ahead of the king and Barone Vettorio, stopping to beckon them on only when he had made sure it was safe to do so.
Before they reached the boundary, they could hear the enemy, some laughing, others shouting. Pierozzo insisted he go ahead alone to assess the situation. He returned a little while later and led them to a spot he had discovered from where the town could be seen, but where the trees and bushes where thick enough to provide concealment. There they halted and watched a while in silence, until, as was proper, the king chose to speak.
“All is lost,” he said, dejectedly. “If only we’d got here quicker. If only I’d left the Portomaggiorans sooner.”
“Your highness, you bear no blame,” said the barone. “We came as soon as we heard, and none but the gods could ride faster, not in armour at least.”
“Then we should have left our armour and used faster mounts. And we should never have stopped for sleep.
“Then we would have arrived ill-equipped in every way to thwart such a numerous foe.”
“We are ill equipped, Vettorio! Why did I leave so many soldiers in Lord Alessio’s service? Why did I not bring them back with me?”
“Sire, you were honour bound,” said the barone. “The vampires were yet to be faced in battle, and to refuse to lend any aid to such a design would be wrong in the gods’ eyes.”
“Aye, your highness, you did only what was right,” added Pierozzo. “Besides, the pike and guns would have slowed us to less than half the pace and still made us no more able to defeat such a numerous foe.”
“But it is a king’s duty to protect his realm. First and foremost. In that I’ve failed.”
“You strove to do exactly that, sire, against the brutes who had torn realm after realm apart, and against the restless dead who threatened far worse,” argued the barone. He gestured at the men before them, “These Sartosans bear all the blame for this deed. Not only are they thieves and murderers, but cowardly opportunists for choosing to strike just when we were engaged elsewhere upon a rightful and necessary war. They too will stand before Morr in the end, and he will scorn them.”
“If it is capable for men to be worse even than vampires,” said Signore Pierozzo, “then these men are so.”
King Ferronso squinted as he watched the activity between the trees and the town, where several bodies of men were engaged upon drill practice.
“All is lost,” he repeated. This time his companions said nothing. He sniffed, then turned to the barone. “Vettorio, is all lost?”
“This is bad, sire. But not as bad as it could be. These men have plundered and raped your people, most likely stolen the strongest to sell as slaves. But they won’t eat them as the brutes would have done, nor will they kill them and turn their corpses into foul servants as would the vampires.”
These words did not seem to reassure the king at all. He merely winced at the hearing of them.
“Nor will they stay, your highness,” the barone quickly added. “Sartosans do not conquer, but rather they steal what they can, and then move on.”
“So, when they choose to go, I can return to whatever ruins they leave behind them?” said the king. “Weeping women and frightened children? Not a scrap of gold to pay my debts, nor wine to drink, nor even beef or mutton to eat?”
“The realm will heal, sire, given time.”
“Yes, I suppose it will,” said Ferronso, somewhat dismissively. “I am still king.”
His two companions fell silent, at a loss as to what to say to such a child-like remark.
“They have pikes,” the king announced, unexpectedly. “I never knew pirates to be pikemen.”
“Aye, sire,” said Signore Pierozzo. “Those are our pikes.”
“The town militia’s. They must have taken them from the arsenal. Maybe they feared we might return, and well-mounted?”
“If they did then they expected more of us,” said the king dejectedly.
The three of them then watched the enemy a while. The Sartosans had divided themselves into little companies, all the better to practise with the pikes. Each little body had a commander, no doubt a fellow who was experienced in the handling of a pike, to guide them through their postures, and ensure they could do so as one. Some were busy at the charge, although unusually they did not hold the pikes at their necks but thrust them from their waists like spears.
This struck the barone as odd, for it was not the Tilean way. Perhaps the fellow in charge was from some far away realm where such a drill was employed? Others stood at order and watched, while a heavily bearded northerner in a huge green coat and an orange scarf, a Marienburger most likely, tested the strength of the hold of one of their number.
Still others came up as if just about to join in the practice …
… while one tardy fellow stood by a stand of pikes leaning against a building, trying each one as if deciding which was best.
“There don’t seem to be that many of them,” said the king.
His companions, somewhat judiciously, and knowing the young king well, said nothing.
“But then I suppose these are just some of them,” the king added after a while.
“There are indeed many more, Sire,” said Pierozzo. “Here, in the city and across your realm. They have a great number of handgunners, batteries of cannons and swivel guns.”
“What guns?” asked the king.
“Small pieces of artillery, such as are mounted upon stanchions on ships’ gunwales. Neither handgun nor cannon, but somewhere in between.”
“Yes,” said the king, sounding impatient. “I know those.”
Pierozzo nodded, then continued, “There are dwarfs amongst them, even greenskins …”
The king scowled at this comment, which made Pierozzo stop.
“Go on,” said the king. “What else?”
“And regiments of fighters festooned in weapons of every kind.”
“No armour though?”
“None, sire. I’m led to believe they fear the consequences should they fall into the sea.”
The young king thought about this for a moment. Then he pointed towards three pikeless men who were watching the rest.
“Who are they?” he asked.
“I cannot say, sire. Captains, perhaps? At least one of them.”
“The one in the black coat, I’ll bet,” said the king. “That one by his side in the robes, he’s a wizard, surely?”
“Most likely, sire. And the other one, some other officer, like a first mate or a Bo’s’un or such like.”
“Would it not be for the best, sire, that we leave now, before someone spies us?” asked the barone. The king did not answer, but just turned and began strolling away. His companions joined him.
“I will not wait until I can creep home, skulking in the shadows in the meantime,” announced the king. “These Sartosans must be punished. What they’ve taken must be retrieved. My people need to know I am a vengeful king, and others must learn what happens to those who offend me.”
“Of course, sire,” said Barone Vettorio, glancing briefly at Pierozzo.
“So, how exactly do I do what must be done?” asked the king.
Another excerpt from Bonacorso Fidelibus’s work: “The Many Wars of the Early 25th Century”
Autumn, 2403 continued
In the central parts of the peninsula, war had wracked the realms as would a violent storm or a great wave washing back and forth repeatedly, wrecking all in its path with each passage. The city of Trantio, ravaged by the War of the Princes, wasted by the plundering progress of Boulderguts’ brutes, then polluted when possessed by the putrid army of the Church of Nagash, had now been captured by the Grand Alliance army commanded by Lord Alessio Falconi of Portomaggiore. Having driven the undead force from the field of battle in the Valley of Norochia, then decimated the rest of the army as it fled north, a large portion of Lord Alessio’s great army had been forced to tarry some time, due to the need to cleanse the realm of corruption. Just as had happened twice at Viadaza, there were thousands of corpses to be destroyed, so that the evil that had animated them might be prevented from doing so again. Great pits were dug for the burning of the corpses in the necropolis valley, then the land was re-consecrated, while every corner of every building, street and alley in the city was scoured for now dead undead. Bones both bloody and dry were piled upon carts, most of which were taken to the valley for burning, but some were burned in lesser gardens of Morr within the city precincts. Here a severed limb still twitched, there a lipless jaw snapped shut, while many a rotting hand clutched and grabbed, as the evil curse that had once gripped the city lingered. Priests accompanied all the labourers and soldiers as they went about their horrible work, praying incessantly to ensure that the dead remained dead until they could be turned to ash.
Lord Alessio led the rest of the army, by far the biggest contingent, north, moving as rapidly as possible in the hope of catching what small fraction of the enemy had escaped his army. By the time he reached the ruins of the walled town of Scorcio, however, he had come to accept he could not hope to catch the foe, for the enemy’s tireless legs made him quick. Furthermore, both Scorcio and Preto had been as badly tainted as the city of Trantio, and to leave them unremedied would have been dangerously reckless. And so the great army’s advance was temporarily prevented by the necessities arising from its already achieved successes and progresses.
The last of the enemy, reduced to a mob of once-dedicant zombies, who even in undeath remained frantic and strange in their motions, as well as a company of more ancient, osseous warriors, were commanded by one of the duchess’s favoured servants, her archpriest Biagino. Once he served Morr, gifted by visions and so driven by inspired purpose to be one of the leading agents in the raising of the god’s holy armies, but now, since his capture, he had become a twisted mockery of his once-living self. Running night and day without halt, taking the most barren and inaccessible route to make pursuit all the harder for any who attempted to do so, he led the last remnant of his army back towards his beloved lady.
Some powerful and wicked sense, a gift of his cursed affliction, directed him towards Ebino, where the Duchess Maria was. She had utterly overwhelmed the army of Morrite dedicants who had marched to face her, killing them to a man. Their bodies lay thickly about the earthwork defences they had fashioned for their camp, along with the cooling corpses of dishonoured Reman palazzio guard (sent to serve Father Carradalio a consequence of their inaction during the Discplinati’s seizure of Remas).
While a living commander would have been faced with the inconvenience of clouds of fat flies and the overpowering stench of a thousand corpses requiring burial, she and her necromantic servant Safiro saw only an opportunity to increase the fighting strength of her army. For hours and hours, perhaps days, she and foul Safiro conjured dark, magical energies to coalesce within and animate the corpses …
… so that one by one, the once-holy army of the Disciplinati di Morr and the Reman guardsmen struggled to their feet, then staggered, ungainly, away from the defences …
… to muster themselves awkwardly outside, there to await the duchess’s further command.
Perhaps the unnatural strength and agility possessed by so many vampires allowed (that which was once) Maria to stroll easily, even regally through the carnage of battle …
… to beckon up the dead with a calmly sinister gracefulness? Whatever the truth, the ultimate fate of blessèd Father Carradalio’s Disciplinati di Morr, in horribly direct opposition to their most earnestly, painfully determined goal, was merely to swell the stinking ranks of the duchess’s Ebinan army.
Round and round the horror churned, as now yet again another army would have to face the foe in battle, to kill that which was already dead.
In Campogrotta there was a new ruler – or at least a ruler-in-waiting, serving an apprenticeship of sorts before obtaining sole possession – for King Jaldeog of Karak Borgo had gifted the entire realm, in a sorry state indeed after the harsh rule of the ogres, to the condottiere commander of the Compagnia del Sole, Captain Bruno Mazallini. This was done in part as payment of debts, for the king had hired the company to assist in his war against Boulderguts’ lieutenants, but then won the war before the mercenaries arrived. But mostly it was done because it was the quickest and easiest way to bring about the return of the realm back to health and security. There were contractual clauses to abide by, of course (such is the way of dwarfs), and a good number of King Jaldeog’s bearded servants yet remained in the city as friendly advisers. Within only weeks life in the city was beginning to return to normality.
Yet other hirelings, the Bretonnian Brabanzon, were marching north, with their fiery new commander, the Lady Perrette, as well as the still-sickly Baron Garoy and a strong contingent of Karak Borgo warriors, making their way to the realm of Ravola there to drive out the last of the brute-bullies Razger Boulderguts had left behind when he embarked upon his bloody chevauchee into the heart of Tilea.
In the city the Bretonnians had so recently departed, the taverns were once again filled with men and dwarfs, clattering tankards and puffing upon pipes, as they forgot their troubles and discussed the opportunities ahead of them.
But for many a week and more it was only those who came from outside the city who could feel any sort of true happiness. Those who had been in the city during its occupation, much reduced in number and to a person grieving the loss of neighbours, friends and family, wore haunted looks upon their faces and struggled to find words for even the most mundane moments. Perhaps some part of them sensed that the apparent return to their old, familiar way of life was transitory? That the future held new horrors sufficient and more to rival those of the past?
For unknown to almost everyone, sly and sinister agents already inhabited the shadows of the darkest hours, creeping surreptitiously through the streets, hither and thither …
… some to watch, others to whisper; for the hour of their coming, for which they had long prepared with complex machinations and conspiracies so deep as to be truly unfathomable, was at hand.
Note: This little story was originally drafted by the player who commands Portomaggiore, which is only fitting as it involves a conversation between his own player character, Lord Alessio Falconi, and his closest adviser (an NPC). It was then re-written by me to better fit the campaign’s ‘writing style’ (i.e. my writing style). Much was swapped around, but little was changed in terms of the substance of what the characters said. I did change a bullet hole in a map into a knife, but that was for the picture’s sake … after all, who would even have been able to see a minuscule, pin-prick bullet hole in a map actually measuring 1 cm by 1.5 cm?
There is only one picture, but I reckon sometimes just one picture is just right!
The story …
A TENT IN THE MIDDLE OF WAR
Somewhere in the realm of Trantio, at the end of Autumn 2403
Lord Alessio was glad he was alone. The flash of fury that had just driven him to thrust his knife into the table was not something he would wish his servants and officers to see. He had a reputation for calmness and self-control to maintain. Still, he thought, he need not beat himself up about his impetuousness, for the news he had received would drive even the most meditative of monks to distraction. If his weakness was nothing more than the mere momentary desire to stick a knife into a map, then it truly paled into insignificance when compared to the weakness of the man whose actions had instigated his anger – Duke Guidobaldo.
As the anger subsided, which it quickly did, he looked at the knife and chuckled. It had struck the map exactly where he intended, obliterating the inked name of Pavona in the process.
Movement at the entrance of the tent caught his eye, and he looked up to see Lord Black leaning into the tent.
“My Lord,” said his visitor. “May I?”
Alessio gestured to his friend to enter. As Lord Black strode in he looked immediately at the knife.
“I see you’ve heard the news,” he said, apparently understanding immediately what had just happened. “It never rains but it pours, eh? First the Sartosans sap us of the Luccinans, and now the soldiers of the VMC have become distracted by a sudden need to make war against the Pavonans.”
“We are attempting to fight a war to save all of Tilea, Ned,” said Alessio, “against the enemy of life itself. And what does every other Tilean ruler do to help?”
“They set about attacking each other?”
“Of course! What else?”
Ned leaned upon his scabbarded sword and looked at the map. “Well, at least they’re all willing to fight,” he said.
Alessio gave a pained chuckle.
“So, what do we do?” asked Ned.
Alessio pondered a moment, then spoke, “As I see it, we have three options. We could march to Pavona in an attempt to convince the VMC not to sack the city, then deal with the duke.”
“So, you don’t believe his claim that the VMC murdered Lord Lucca?”
Alessio just rolled his eyes, then continued, “Or we could leave them both to their misery and return home. Whichever squabbling fools survive will have to face the duchess themselves.”
“Aye, and if they then lose for want of sufficient strength, we will end up fighting their walking corpses when the duchess makes them her own.”
“Which leads me to the third option,” said Alessio. “We can press on with the forces we have at our disposal regardless, to try our luck against the duchess despite our lack of allies.”
“Several have tried that before without much success. Do you think the army she commands is as strong as that we defeated in Norochia?”
“If she wiped out an entire horde of fanatical Morrites at Ebino, then she’s not lacking in strength. I had thought of sending word to the mountain dwarves and the Compagnia del Sole to request that they dispatch a force to join us, but I’ve a feeling they’re still too distracted by the recapture of Campogrotta and the need to deal with the ogres remaining in Ravola. And now that Verezzo has been so badly wounded we can hardly expect their payments to continue, which makes simply feeding our army more difficult. I like and respect his son, as you know, but Duke Guidobaldo picked a terrible time to pull one of his bloody tricks. One would hope the VMC had been here long enough to realise that revenge is a dish best served cold.”
“Can we not put the spending at home on hold a while?” asked Ned. “Do we need a new harbour right now? Cannot Hakim wait a little longer for his lighthouse to be completed? And in light of the threat, even the Ravernans might be willing to show patience over the pace of the works in their realm.”
“We could save gold at home, yes” agreed Alessio, “but if the Sartosans move north then that gold will be needed at home.”
“So, which is it going to be?” asked Ned.
Alessio prized the knife from the map and pushed the torn edges where Pavona used to be flat again.
“That’s the question,” said Alessio.
Next Installment: Part 26