A Letter from Antonio Mugello to the most noble Barone Iacopo Brunetti, Regent of Verezzo
As I wrote unto my beloved Lord Lucca (may he sit beside Morr in the garden of eternal summer) to impart what little I had learned of events throughout Tilea, so humbly I send this missive to you. My love for Lord Lucca and my loyalty to Verezzo are now offered to you, noble lord, for you have been a faithful servant of the first and have become the guardian of the latter.
I have been lodged in Remas throughout the winter, a place most conducive to the garnering of knowledge concerning the whole of Tilea. Sometimes I witness the events themselves. A month ago, I myself witnessed the arrival of the army of the VMC, led by General Valckenburgh, who had given up the siege of Pavona. I know not what you have heard concerning the VMC but presume that Duke Guidobaldo’s accusation that they were behind Lord Lucca’s murder and the looting of Spomanti must be painfully well known to you. From what I have learned, my lord, it seems to be generally accepted, at least here in Remas, that Duke Guidobaldo lied, and was himself responsible for the unforgiveable deed. My Lord Lucca warned me on several separate occasions concerning Duke Guidobaldo’s duplicitousness, and it gives me nothing but great sadness to know that his words are – post mortem – further proof of his great wisdom. Furthermore, in the last missive I received from my Lord Lucca he informed me that he had met with General Valckenburgh and found him to be a most honourable officer, who had marched north out of an earnest desire to assist in the defeat of the terrible foe. Lord Lucca was rarely, if ever, mistaken in his judgement of another, and I can see no reason to suppose he was mistaken regarding the general.
This, of course, explains recent events, most obviously General Valckenburgh’s siege of Pavona. He must have been furious to be slandered in such a way – angry enough to lure him from his march north to face the vampires threatening every living soul in Tilea. I have heard some in Remas voice their confusion as to why Valckenburgh did not complete what he had begun at Pavona, for Guidobaldo’s actions and subsequent lies were no less than a declaration of war, but (if you will allow me to offer mine own humble opinion) the answer seems clear to me. While we, who have suffered the loss of our dear lord at the Pavonan duke’s hands can feel only an enduring, righteous anger, General Valckenburgh personally suffered slander alone, and as his fury had time to subside (as ours can never do) he must have decided that the pursuit of satisfaction regarding what in another time would be a serious matter, seemed relatively petty in light of the great threat offered by the vampire duchess.
And so it is that Valckenburgh’s army is now camped here in the realm of Remas, apparently intending to rest a while. Perhaps they are waiting for Spring before recommencing their march? Or their halt might well be part of some grand strategy jointly agreed by the arch-lector of Morr, Lord Alessio Falconi and General Valckenburgh? I cannot know. It does strike me, and others too, as odd that Valckenburgh has now allowed himself to be delayed yet again, having only just overcome the anger that previously delayed him. Some say he is too easily distracted, but I believe, considering that which I am yet to relate to you, that he has more material concerns to factor in to his strategies, such as the reports of ratto-uomo forces and tunnel mouths north of the Trantine Hills, as well as the razing of Luccini and kidnapping of King Ferronso by the pirates of Sartosa.
By your leave, noble Barone, I will attempt to address these concerns, and more, in turn.
It is now commonly known in Remas that the ratto uomo are once again stirring in Tilea, what with Lord Alessio’s army discovering several entrances to huge tunnels north of the Trantine Hills, and even sighting verminous forces marching above ground. I cannot know what was said in the official missives, nor even if much more detail was contained therein, but enough Reman soldiers marching with Lord Alessio have sent word to their families and friends for the news to have spread. Perhaps unsurprisingly, knowing the cowardly nature of the ratto uomo (unless amassed in great strength) those forces fled back into the tunnels to avoid giving battle. Yet, the fact that they are openly active has begun to cause considerable consternation in a city with a somewhat chequered history of dealing with the verminkind. It has long been presumed in Tilea that ratto uomo always lurk in the shadows, whispering manipulative lies, stealing valuables, sewing discord and disease. Some say that all those who dwell within a city’s walls are never more than two dozen yards from a rat-man! But it has been many a decade since verminkind have marched in strength within sight of men rather than concealed underground or in barren places while embroiled in their interminable civil wars.
Mugello’s letter is continued after the following story …
Such a Shame-Waste!
Somewhere in Tilea, End of Winter, IC 2403-4
In the night’s quietest hour, in the city’s loneliest corner, several assassins, sharp of tooth and claw, were inspecting their work.
“A job very well done, master, yes?” said one, still clutching the heavy blade he had pommeled one of their victims with before strangling the man.
“They are dead,” said the master. “Which was our aim-desire, so yes, if it pleases you, heap congratulations where and how you like. But this here is nothing but a beginning-start. Here lie the foundations of that which we shall make-forge. No, not that … the first cracks in that which we will destroy. Yes, that’s better.”
The first looked at the sword now prominently lodged in the other corpse, his eyes then flicking to scrutinise the ragged edge of his own blade.
“Master,” he said, “forgive, but that blade is good and sharp – such a shame-waste to leave it here.”
“The sword stays. We must-need ensure the menthings think-believe their own kind did this.”
“Yes, not us, never us,” hissed the first. He prodded his own victim with his taloned foot. “Yet master, a mere-nothing thought, but this one here has a knife. Would that not suit-satisfy?”
The master seemed to have a mind to be generous.
“It might just do,” he agreed. “But no, I like the sword. It draws the eye. A knife is but a small thing and gives but small ideas – the tool of petty-squabbling thieves, too easily dismissed as bloody vengeance between the basest of men-things. This sword tells another story, for it is the kind the men-thing guards carry. Let their captains think-believe their own guards bear the blame for this naughtiness.”
“So very clever master, yes. Yet could not a soldier dispatch-kill such as these and be proud, boasting of his most satisfactory work?”
“A soldier might boast, had any one of them done this,” said the master.
“But none of them did, and so none will make such a claim. Then the captains will think-believe their command-control is weak, and that they know not what their own soldiers do.”
“Yes, Master,” said the first, finally giving up on his petty quest to obtain the sword.
“Now,” ordered the master, “look and look again. Make certain-sure there is no sign of our presence here.”
The first looked at the corpses and then around them.
“There was only your throwing star where now instead the sword is stuck-pierced,” he said. “This man-thing I squeeze-strangled, and he but scrape-scratched at me, pathetic-weak.”
“Look again, make certain-sure,” commanded the master. “Nothing dropped. No fur under his nails. No paw print marking the ground.”
The first hunched down and looked closer. He was getting nervous, as could be seen from the raised fur on the back of his neck.
“Master, forgive, but do we not linger-stay here too long?” he asked. “If the men-things come they will see us ourselves, not just that we leave-drop behind, and they will know all.”
“Hush-quiet,” snapped the master. “I am no half-wit fool. I chose this spot. I chose this time. No-one will come. Four nights this place was quiet-empty. Besides, look, look,” he gestured at the guards stationed all around them, “we have eyes to see and ears to hear all around.”
“If anyone approaches,” the master continued, “we shall know in plenty-enough time to make our escape. Now, make haste, and be sure there no sign-clue of our presence.”
Antonio Mugello’s letter continued
On more than one occasion I have heard it voiced that this resurgence of the ratto uomo could spell the end of all civilisation in Tilea, for if this is a new offensive, then it has begun just as the whole peninsula lies exhausted and weakened by the ongoing war against the vampires, having only recently emerged from several conflicts – the War of the Princes, the scattering of Khurnag’s Waagh and a veritable battering at the hands of Boulderguts’ brutes. There simply might not be sufficient strength remaining in Tilea to resist the ratto uomo hordes. Fearful rumours are rife concerning what diseases they might already be spreading, who they are about to assassinate, and which foolish rulers they have lured into a false alliance? In Remas, the memory of arch-lector Ordini’s ignominious deal remains a scab upon the city’s reputation. Is it any surprise the Remans are openly asking which madman has called upon the verminkind’s aid, perhaps hoping to attain the upper hand in some petty squabble, to gain vengeance or to retrieve some lost power? Since time immemorial there have always been fools who believe they can benefit from such a foul alliance.
I myself have heard a myriad of theories and list the following not merely to repeat malicious gossip nor to revel in rumour, but to give the mind of the people, as it may contain more than one kernel of truth. I will address some of the most likely first, in that they concern wicked powers who would feel no compunction at allying with the likes of the ratto oumo.
Have the Sartosans made an agreement of some sort? Would such sea dogs baulk at the idea of sharing the spoils with sewer rats, if not to do so could mean no spoils at all? The very fact that both appeared at one and the same time seems in itself to link them. Just as the Sartosans ravaged Luccini, the ratto uomo appeared skulking at new tunnel mouths, so that those in between could not know which way to look! If divided, we may well be more easily conquered or robbed.
Has the vampire duchess, now hard-pressed by the gathering armies of Tilea, offered the ratto uomo some portion of the peninsula in return for luring away the armies currently threatening her? I do not pretend to know the mind of a vampire, and despite the noble trappings and haughty demeanour many adopt, I cannot dismiss the possibility that they might stoop so low as to bargain with verminkind. There seems to be no wickedness that vampires are not capable of, and thus only their evil pride might dissuade them. Much is known of Duchess Maria in life, but all we can know now is that in undeath she is surely not at all the same. Anyone who surrounds themselves with a putrid court of rotting corpses cannot be so particular as to refuse to meet with flea-ridden vermin.
Several noblemen (of which there are not that many in Remas since the uprisings) have suggested that the VMC, ruled by greed alone, has signed a secret contract in which they carve up Tilea between themselves and the verminkind – the VMC to rule the south while the ratto-uomo ruin the north. I heard one signore say this would explain why the army of the VMC has marched north so leisurely, allowing itself to be easily distracted. It may well be to their advantage that Lord Alessio’s Portomaggioran and Reman army bears the brunt of the fight against the vampire duchess, for then both Portomaggiore and the Remas can be all the more easily subdued afterwards. Furthermore, claimed the nobleman, the real reason General Valckenburgh lifted the siege or Pavona was because he saw such a ruined realm as a waste of effort, and wanted to keep his army strong to defeat the weakened Portomaggioran and Reman armies, then to seize much richer realms instead. I can say that I saw real fear in the eyes of those who listened to this signore’s words, for all must have suddenly suspected the army of the VMC’s prolonged encampment at Remas was nothing more than an opportunity to rest and reconnoitre before seizing the city for themselves. Those fearful people had not Lord Lucca’s wise counsel to guide them, but of course, had I spoken my mind, then as a Verezzan rebutting a Reman gentleman, they would not have heard me.
I even heard one fellow, Pavonan by his accent, say that the dwarfen king in the mountains has made a pact with the verminkind, to bring about an end to their meddling in the dwarfs’ mines. I voiced my doubt, telling the man that the dwarfs of Karak Borgo have always craved trade, and the sort of destruction the ratto uomo cause would not be at all conducive to such. He just laughed, saying that would be presuming the king of the dwarfs is in command of his wits, whilst his companion spat and declared no dwarf could be trusted.
Mention of these Pavonans brings me to a matter I must address, but I would first have you know that I have attempted to consider this dispassionately, as would an entirely uninterested observer, despite the fact that it concerns the murderer of our beloved master.
I have no doubt that the following intelligence is known to you, what with your closer proximity to Pavona, but it is clear that Duke Guidobaldo’s realm has suffered dreadfully during the winter, both due to its precarious state after being ravaged by the ogres and then as a consequence of the army of the VMC’s siege. Duke Guidobaldo’s own army is said to be fragmenting – indeed only yesterday I saw with mine own eyes some of Reman bravi who marched away with the Pavonans (to become notorious for the raid on Spomanti), back here upon the streets of Remas. Such mercenary bravi could hardly be expected to honour their contract with Pavona when there is nothing but misery and hunger for them there. The Pavonan people are now sadly starving, for the duke took food from them to feed his soldiers. Furthermore, he has defaulted on so many loans over the last years that not one banking family is prepared to do business with him, and traders demand payments of gold in advance. What will come of all of this, I know not. Possibly his own subjects will revolt, turning against him, or perhaps he will resort again to acts of piracy and murder? Maybe his realm will simply diminish and fade into obscurity?
Or, and this is what plagues my nightmares, perhaps he thinks to regain his power and wealth by means of a verminous pact? Could it be that Duke Guidobaldo of Pavona – desperate as he is, humiliated, his pride in shatters, his realm suffering, known to be capable of such lies and treachery as would put the ratto uomo to shame – could it be that it was he who summoned the verminkind?
Of course, as yet it is unknown whether the ratto uomo will indeed amass in any strength; nor whether they intend a minor interference or a major incursion; nor whether they have in mind the destruction of the whole of Tilea of just some part thereof.
What is known for certain, however, is that the Vampire Duchess has yet to be defeated. Twice before she has sent armies south of Ebino, and it has taken battle after battle to prevent her further advance. Her aggressiveness is proven – if she is not destroyed then she will almost certainly send forth her armies again and again until she has the whole peninsula beneath her foul feet.
All the reports coming from the Reman soldiers under Lord Alessio’s command agree that Duchess Maria once again resides in Ebino. The walled and moated city teems with her undead servants. Every tower parapet is guarded by unblinking eyes. Every tomb, grave and burial pit in Ebino and Miragliano lies empty, the occupants now busied in the duchess’s service.
Mugello’s letter is continued after the following story …
Near the city of Ebino, at the end of Winter, IC 2403-4
This day, this very moment, felt like a culmination of Biagino’s life and undeath, as if everything that had happened to him, good and bad, joyful and sad and everything he had ever done, decent and dire, kind and cruel, led to this moment. Not the culmination, for it was not the end of his undeath, but it was a destination he had, until now, howsoever unwittingly, always been heading towards.
Once more he was directly serving his beloved mistress, and he knew her satisfaction. He strove ecstatically to do whatsoever she wished, and better still, he knew exactly what that was. When leading the army at Trantio he had only the memory of her commands to guide him, which meant agonising over the details, night to night, by himself, to fathom how they could be obeyed in ever-changing circumstances. Now her orders were fresh in his mind, and she remained close enough that he could feel her powerful will and her sharp love in every moment. Her omnipresent guidance meant his decisions came easily, his actions were swift, his delight was magnified. He was like a cherished son receiving praise from his doting mother; a beloved hound petted fondly by its mistress; a favourite blade admired in the moonlight by its wielder.
He rode atop the carroccio that once belonged the arch-lector Calictus II, captured in the same battle in which Biagino was kissed by the duchess and became hers forevermore. In life, Calictus had been his master; he himself was but one of the arch-lector’s many servants; and this great wagon had been the nearest thing to a church of Morr on the field of battle. Now Calictus was dead and he himself had become a High Priest; much of Calictus’ army was his to command, raised from death to march again; and the carroccio was heaped with corpses and made into a formidable focus of necromantic magics in the service of his own Church of Nagash.
As the wagon trundled on, pulled by four pairs of entirely osseous horses, he allowed the magical winds of dark enchantment to flow through him. He could feed on the power the unholy carroccio funnelled, delight as his mistress’s managing will honed and shaped that power, and revel as it poured from him to animate the vast throng of witless worshippers (the Disciplinati di Nagash) all around him.
His senses were not just sharpened far beyond those of mortal men but magnified almost exponentially so that each of the cavorting corpses became an extension of him, limbs with which to strike at the enemy. Even the horses were directed by the power of his own mind. No lash or crop was required, for his mere intention could turn, speed or slow the beasts as easily as a man might walk.
Behind him stood two of his priests, members of La Fraternita di Morti Irrequieti. Their minds were bound to his as his was to Duchess Maria’s, providing a very satisfactory feeling of balance. He could slavishly love and obey the duchess whilst receiving just the same from his priests. His own subjection, which otherwise might seem almost pathetic and demeaning, was given freely, for he himself was the object of exactly equal worship. They were not his puppets, like his hundreds of Disciplinati, for they had minds just as he. They obeyed because they yearned to do so, not because he controlled their very movements. This is why he had created them – having only the Disciplinati to guard him would make him vulnerable. If he were to be distracted, even for a moment, then his Disciplinati would be also. These two priests, however, could react quickly and upon their own initiative. If Biagino were wounded, even dying, these priests would retain all the strength of body and will they ever had, while the Disciplinati would stumble and stagger in bewilderment, or even succumb to death.
Nevertheless, despite his gleeful joy at all these things combined, right this very moment the satisfaction which far surpassed all others, was the gloriously intense pleasure he felt at wielding the Disciplinati horde. Although only a tiny part of each of their minds remained, they were all his to rule, and the sheer size of the throng made him feel mightier than ever before.
Some had been gifted to him by his mistress, resurrected after the Battle of the Isean Hills, close by the city of Ebino. Once dedicants of the Disciplinati di Morr, they had marched north to die. Although rotting, the winter cold had combined with necromantic magics to keep them quite whole, so that a good number, from a distance, might be mistaken for living men. Close up, however, their pallid-grey flesh, staring eyes and perhaps most of all, their stench, revealed the truth.
It amused Biagino to remember just how ugly such flagellating cultists had been when alive –he had seen a fair few – and to see now that death had made them even uglier, which one might well have presumed was not possible!
Most were still clad in the layers of robes they had worn in life, clutching whatever they had been carrying as the died. Many of their faces were obscured by hoods.
The others had been with him much longer, for they had died several seasons earlier at the Battle for Ebino – indeed upon the same day Biagino had fallen. In life they had been part of Arch-Lector Calictus’s Holy Army of Morr. In undeath, they had marched south with him to Trantio, then fled the Valley of Norochia to escort him all the way back to Ebino. It was becoming hard to mistake these for living men, so much of their flesh having rotted away. In parts they were reduced almost to the bone, and their robes were torn, worn and rotted away to a much greater degree, to reveal their now stark chines.
Some amongst the horde displayed the wounds that were most likely responsible for their deaths – great incisions, shattered bones or crumpled skulls. Others had gaping tears in their flesh made by the teeth and nails of their undead comrades during momentary lapses of guidance from their new master.
They felt pain – excruciating pain – but of a kind that no longer arose from the physical wounding of their bodies. It was an agony came from every part of them at one and the same time, both physical and spiritual. They were driven by a furious, hungry hatred, the last emotion left in the fragment of mind they now possessed. They seemed to leer, scowl and glower as they ran, although in truth what remained of their decaying faces could appear no other way.
There was a cruel irony to their condition, for in life they had strived to scourge themselves with chains and knotted cords into an ecstatic pain and so induce a fighting frenzy that meant they felt no fear. Now, their every moment was a painful frenzy and they had forgotten fear entirely. Their craving had been satisfied, to the extreme, even beyond the extremity of their lives.
Biagino loved them all. To him, they were like tin soldiers are to a boy fanatically keen on his games of war; a precious collection to set out this way and that, to admire from one angle and another, while the excitement of the forthcoming battle grows ever stronger.
They were his playthings, his poppets, his bambinos. They were the weapon with which he could slaughter Tilea.
Antonio Mugello’s letter continued
Duchess Maria’s forces, combined with Ebino’s impressive defences, must be sufficiently strong to cause even a general of Lord Alessio’s proven ability, commanding a truly mighty army, to hesitate. He has built a fortified camp south of the Bridge of Pontremola, said to incorporate the bridge into its boundary. Now, apparently, he waits for the army of the VMC. Does he know, I wonder, that they are instead lingering here in Remas?
Having spoken to several seamen of various origins, I have learned that the Sartosans, having already razed Luccini and its villages, defeating its small army in battle and taking the young king Ferronso hostage, then attempted to travel south along the coast. Upon their first attempt they had been driven back by the storms, which is when they took the young king, but then upon their second attempt the storm’s sister, with its easterly winds, apparently drove their fleet towards the island of Sartosa. Considering they attempted the same southerly course twice it seems plain to me that they were intending to raid the rich realm of Alcente. I cannot know for certain but were it not for the storms they would at least have passed that realm. Considering their success at Luccini, where they had only to fight a small army, perhaps they believe Alcente will prove just as easy a target what with its main strength, the army of the VMC, camped many leagues away here in Remas. As I suggested before, perhaps this is the real reason the army of the VMC has halted? General Valckenburgh might be torn between marching north as promised or returning south to protect his realm.
It is reported that Duke Ercole, once regent of Luccini and uncle to the captured king, and the condottiere General Marsilio da Fermo (Luccini’s military commander who once served with you, I believe, in the grand alliance army) have arrived together in Portomaggiore, seeking refuge after their defeat at the hands of the Sartosans. There they are apparently pressing for Lord Alessio’s assistance in the matter of their kidnapped king. They know Lord Alessio well, and perhaps believe him to be fond of the young king, for after all he did attend Ferronso’s crowning. Of course, with no army of their own, with Lord Alessio’s army busy in the north and the rest of his forces no doubt ordered to guard Portomaggiore against Sartosan raids, they are asking for a loan in gold to pay the ransom. Oddly, it seems to be the case that they do not know the actual amount of the ransom demand as their previous negotiations were disrupted by the battle. I suppose the Sartosans will let them know soon enough, for pirates are hardly known for their patience, nor can I imagine such ruffians enjoy having to keep the young king alive.
The mountain dwarfs of Karak Borgo, having driven the last of Boulderguts’ ogres from Campogrotta and Ravola, establishing the Bretonnian nobleman Baron Garoy in the latter and General Mazallini and his Compagnia del Sole in the former, have apparently withdrawn back up the Carraia del Ferro to their mountain fastness. It is a widely held opinion among Reman merchants who have had dealings with the dwarfs, that having defeated the ogres and re-seeded civilisation in the neighbouring realms, King Jaldeog expects trade to flourish and goods to flow once more, however the ongoing vampire threat and the appearance of ratto uomo forces in the north make this unlikely, at least for now. Perhaps King Jaldeog wanted to give both realms sufficient time to re-establish themselves, so that when the wars finally end, both will be ripe for rich trading opportunities? As finishing off the ogres appears to have been the dwarfs’ only intended contribution to the wars, King Jaldeog may now expect the Tilean realms to defeat the vampires. Perhaps the resurgence of the ratto uomo, the dwarf’s particularly hated enemy, might prompt him, even force him, to contribute more to the struggle ahead?
Last of all, I can report that here it is said that you have raised the militia of Verezzo, bolstered their numbers substantially and are currently busied with drilling and exercises, all the better the defend Verezzo from the likes of the duke of Pavona. Of course, you know the truth concerning this, and so my words are intended only to make you aware of what is believed in Remas concerning Verezzan affairs. If there is anything I can do in your service, as your agent in Remas, then you only have to say and it shall become my foremost endeavour to obey.
Your most humble servant
Next Installment: Part 30