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.