Annihilation! (Prequel to a Battle)

(Oops! I have been forgetting to transfer stories and reports from the forums to here. My excuse is that I HAVE been working a lot on this site, but ‘at the other end’, i.e. adding better and more pictures to the earlier chapters as I churn out video versions, slowly catching up with the campaign’s ‘present day’! I will rectify as best I can right now!)

South of Campogrotta, Summer 2404

First out had been the scouts, scurrying off in all directions to ascertain if it was safe for the rest of the army to emerge. They learned that the land immediately south of the river was only partially forested, with curving valleys through grassy sloped hills in between the scattered copses and larger woods. The forest proper began to the south, a little way off, which was where, they hoped, any sylvan elves would stay. Not that they were really scouting for elven forces, but rather to ensure the Campogrottan manthings were not present on this side of the river in any strength. They had also been ordered to slaughter any and all patrols they encountered, the ensure that word of the army’s presence did not pass back to Campogrotta too soon.

When enough scouts had returned to report no sightings – apart from a band of soldiers at the bridge leading to the city, several miles off, Seer-Lord Urlak Ashoscrochor himself, with some chieftains, clawleaders and his bodyguard regiment, had been the first of the army proper to leave the tunnel mouth. The scouts had already picked a route for the army, and what scouts had not returned were concealed at intervals along it, the better to spot any enemy approach and to carry the news back before an enemy got too close to the army.

Normally, when above ground, skaven would be expected to take the most concealed route, which would mean favouring the wooded stretches, but this was not to be the case on this occasion. Urlak had observed the annihilation bombard’s progress and knew that not only was its passage best facilitated by even ground and open spaces, but that it would likely prove catastrophically disastrous to move it through any other terrain. The engine’s attendants scurried ahead to remove rocks and fallen branches, fill holes and test the firmness of the ground, having become skilled in the art. But it would be impossible for them to clear away the tangled mass of undergrowth in the woods, never mind clearing roots and branches, in anything like sufficient time to allow the bombard’s continuous progress. It could never be allowed to stop for more than a few moments at a time, otherwise everything around it, even its protectively-gowned attendants, would wither and die. Nor could it be allowed to topple or crash, or even just jolt too hard, for then the grenado carried within might prematurely detonate. And so, despite all usual practice and the strong desire to lurk in the shadows, the bombard had to travel in the open, with the army moving necessarily ahead of it (for nothing could survive very long in its wake). That said, their route would at least favour the valley bottoms, with the hills providing at least some cover from prying eyes.

At Urlak’s request, the scouts led him to a hillside from which he would be able to watch the army embark upon the short journey. He had some decisions to make and had it in his head that it would be easier to make them if he could have a good look at the component parts of the large force at his disposal.

First to heave into view were the warriors of Clan Fiddlash’s ‘Red Jullgak’ Regiment. Armed with barbed spears and bearing round, iron-rimmed shields, they marched in good order, the sound of their hissing and snarling mingled with the clattering of their armour and gear, both louder than the noise their footfalls made upon the soft ground.

These warriors had already marched through the underpass far to the south of here, only to return without joining in battle, too late to join in the assault on Ravola. Unbloodied as they were, nevertheless, they seemed keen for a fight, and it was hard to imagine that any foe could withstand the charge of such a swarm of warriors.

Urlak’s chief scout was pointing at the regiment’s rear.

“Great and most noble lord,” hissed the scout, “See, see? How they push and shove? How even those at the back strain and strive to march on. They are eager-keen for the battle-fight, yes?”

And well they might be, thought Urlak. Fiddlash’s warriors had missed the looting of Ravola, instead marching almost non-stop in the underpass for many a week (on his orders). He had taken measures to ensure that few in his army knew just how dangerous the annihilation bombard was – especially to their own army, so the warriors must be assuming they would be ordered into battle soon. Their pent-up desire to fight could well be reaching fever-pitch. Or … perhaps the bombard’s potentially disastrous deadliness was no secret at all, and those at the regiment’s rear were pushing due to a desire to keep as far as possible from it. Everyone knew it poisoned the ground wherever it passed, but he had been hoping the otherwise ignorant masses had yet to realise just how much damage it would do if it were to miscarry in some way.

Urlak watched the warriors intently, for he had to decide which parts of his army to send ahead with the annihilation bombard. When it fired, hopefully bringing about the death of every single creature in Campogrotta, it had to be close enough to lob the grenade into the city. It would need guards to ensure it attained the required proximity, and not an insubstantial number, otherwise it could fail simply because an enemy patrol intercepted it.

He did not intend, however, to have his entire force, or even the greater part of it, close to the weapon when it fired, for if anything went wrong, he could lose quite literally everything. He had lived long enough to know that when it came to such experimental novelties, they should never be relied upon. Even the army’s tried and tested engines, used for many a century, were prone to catastrophic malfunctions, and indeed there was barely a warpstone weapon of any size, even as small as the jezzails, that could be fully trusted, such was the chaotic nature of the magically powerful, supralunary stone. Furthermore, the instability of the stone waxed in direct proportion to its potency. From what he had been told of the bombard, the grenado housed within its massive barrel contained possibly the most substantial and dense concentrations of powdered warpstone ever fashioned. If it was to misfire, then every living thing within a mile (or more) would likely become a fatality – which is exactly what it was supposed to do when it worked successfully, too, but at a location more conducive to harming the enemy.

While he had been pondering, the plague monks had passed, and then the lesser war machines had trundled by – some propelled by their own engines, others hauled by slaves. Bundles of jezzails and pavaises were strapped to several of them, a practise permitted by the engineers provided the jezzailers assisted, as required, to facilitate the engines’ passage. Such activity was rare enough that that jezzailers were happy to oblige in return for not having to lug their heavy weapons and shields on the march. Urlak knew some of the army’s lighter troops, such as the globadiers and giant rat swarms, were not moving in the line of march, but travelling on a parallel course, like outriders might in a manthings’ army, as a further precautionary measure against ambush.

By the time the slaves began to pass, he knew the bombard would be close. His commanders had planned the army’s order of march according to the importance of its regiments. The most valuable, the clan warriors, were at in the vanguard, whilst towards the rear, where the bombard was, were the more expendable regiments, including the slaves. This way, if the bombard were to be toppled by holes in the ground, strike a fallen tree, be struck itself by a tumbling boulder, or the ever-broiling grenade within it were simply to grow catastrophically hot, any of which could catalyse its premature explosion, then it would be the slaves who suffered most from the ensuing blast.

Even if the bombard suffered no fault, then mere proximity to its peculiarly poisonous ammunition was enough to sap the life from all forms of flora and fauna, and any unprotected skaven. It was therefore considered best, by all who had a say in the matter, that the slaves ought to be the ones to suffer the consequences of its deadly caress rather than anyone other part of the army. Of course, the protectively clothed warriors, the bombard’s attendants and guards, had to be close to it, but then they breathed filtered air and shielded their eyes with thick, tinted lenses.

Clan Fiddlash boasted a great many slaves, most of which were mustered as a fighting force. They passed by in ranks and files, escorted by whip wielding overseers to encourage the steadiness of their pace and the maintenance of their dressing.

It now occurred to Urlak that the overseers were unprotected, a notion that had not previously crossed his mind. He reassured himself with the thought that should the slaves’ masters succumb to the bombard’s poisonous proximity, then the slaves would surely be suffering exactly similarly, and thus unable to take advantage of their guards’ incapacity.

Urlak was pleased to see that none appeared to be in any way affected by the poison. He knew how useful such a horde of slaves could prove, and he would much rather they died serving his purpose in battle than perished simply moving from one place to another. They were not armed with spears, only short swords, giving the advantage to their whip-armed overseers. Any who had shown a hint of intransigence were chained, which would make their journey considerably more difficult. He noticed few were so chained, which boded well regarding their usefulness in battle. Of course, they did not possess shields, for that would make the whips a much less effective encouragement.

Studying the slaves, he pondered. Could they be trusted to form part of the bombard’s escort when it advanced to do its cruel work upon the city? Certainly, any force attempting to reach the war engine would struggle to make headway through such a mass of blade-wielding desperadoes.

But no – he had other tasks in mind for them. Should the bombard be successful in launching its deadly burden, the slaves would be the perfect choice to enter the city afterwards and ensure nothing had survived, as well as to fetch from it whatever treasures and goods could be salvaged. The warpstone poison harmed only living things, not precious metals and the like, and so there could well be good plunder to be had. Better to employ his more dispensable soldiers for such a task.

His musings were disturbed by the chief scout hissing, “Slave scum-filth!”

Urlak glanced at the scout.

“Forgive-forget, please-please, great lord. My words were unnecessary-unedifying.”

Urlak was not really listening and instead returned his attention to the slaves. They were led by what looked like a standard, and in a sense it was, but not one to show allegiance or to symbolize their honour or bravery, but rather solely to guide them – to indicate the direction and speed of their march and where exactly to form up whenever the command was given. Failure to do either resulted in the usual punishment.

On the hill behind Urlak were his best soldiers, his bodyguard regiment, the Yellow Hoods, who accompanied him at all times.

This regiment’s officers provided a useful source of intelligence for him, especially regarding the mood and disposition of the army. Despite the fact they almost always disagreed over some details, the very nature of their disagreement could itself assist Urlak in ascertaining the truth.

His bodyguard had fought very well at Ravola, never once leaving his side even when suffering heavy casualties from the enemy’s arrows and hurled rocks. He now wondered whether, as it had so proven its obedient loyalty, this was the regiment he should send ahead with the bombard?

Of all the regiments he commanded, this was the one he could trust most to follow the letter of his commands, and not to allow fear or caution to dilute their obedience. Yet, if he were to order them upon that task, they would not then be under his eyes, and who knew what weaknesses might manifest when they were bereft of his stern gaze? More importantly, if he did send them away, he himself would have no bodyguard, and that would not do at all.

Put simply, he did not trust either Clan Fiddlash or Clan Skravell anywhere near enough to risk being separated from his guards.

He turned to the nearest Yellow Hood clawleader …

… and asked,

“Where is the bombard? It ought and should be here now. Is it delayed? Is it stalled? What and why?”

“Noble leader, it comes. I feel and smell it, in the ground and on the wind-breeze.”

Moments later Urlak sensed it too. The clawleader had sharp senses, better than his own. Urlak would remember this, for it could prove useful in future.

“There, there, most high commander,” said the chief scout, pointing down the valley.

Before long the Clan Skryre warriors of the bombard’s guard regiment were below, the swish of their waxed linen and leather robes adding an extra sheen to the rattling sound of their passage. The bombard rolled behind, pushed by the mechanical wheel in which a new driver had to be placed almost every week, despite the several protective layers he wore!

Urlak could see the most senior ranking Skryre commander upon the guard regiment’s other flank, a warlock-engineer named Golchramik. He wore a mask about his upper face, and his eyes were covered by glass, but, unlike all the others, he had no muzzle-mask.

This intrigued Urlak. Was the engineer just careful, always staying ahead of the bombard? Or was he impervious to its poisonous aura, perhaps due to long exposure to similar warpstone effects? If the latter, then it did not bode well for the bombard’s effectiveness, for if this fellow could develop sufficient immunity to forego the wearing of a full mask, then could the grenado really be as deadly as Clan Skryre had promised? Perhaps the engineer was employing some other trick? It was not inconceivable that the substantial tank upon his back was plumbed into his throat or lungs, or that he employed subtle magics to counteract the poison. Urlak knew he was guessing, so decided not to consider the issue further. It mattered not.

(Note: Thanks Damian for the gift of this figure! It’s very generous of you to assist in the growth of your enemy’s army!!)

The rest of those close to the bombard were much more comprehensively covered. Every warrior in the guard regiment wore a full mask, from the snout of which stretched a flexible, filter tube leading to an arrangement of tanks on their backs. There were several different kinds of mask, and an equally varied selection of tanks. Urlak wondered whether, after the engine’s firing, the proportioning of the survivors would reveal which combination was the most effective?

The warriors’ visibility must be restricted, he thought, for they saw the world through bulbous lenses of smoked glass fixed tightly in their leather masks. Whether this part-blindness would prove a perilous impediment was debatable, for if they were fighting near the bombard, whoever they faced would no doubt be seriously suffering (as did any unprotected creature) from its poisonous aura, which would surely more than even the odds. It seemed to Urlak that a more likely source of trouble was the proximity of their bared blades to the long filter tubes, especially when employed in the swish-swash of frenzied combat.

Squinting, he wondered whether this was the reason the tubes were so thick? It looked like the Skryre warriors had bound coarse cloth about them, perhaps hoping that a blade would cut only as deep as the binding and not all the way through to the tube within? Or perhaps, and this seemed more likely, the cloths were intended to seal (if only partially) any gashes and allow sufficient continued breathing until the tube could be properly patched?

Again, however, what did any of this matter? Right now, he needed to think like a warlord and not a tinkering engineer.

The obvious choices regarding to send ahead with the bombard where those warriors garbed in protective gear. Of course, the bombard’s attendants and crew must go, and its guard regiment should obviously accompany it, for they were the only substantial body of troops who could fight in close proximity to it without suffering.

But who and what else to send? The globadiers were similarly protected, and so they would be a sensible choice. As for the rest, he might send those he considered expendable, and if not the slaves, as he had already considered, then perhaps the Plague Monks, their numbers having been sorely diminished by the assault on Ravola? What was left of them could prove useful instead of simply perishing in amongst the multiple melees of a large battle?

Or should he send those that might prove useful to the bombard’s efficiency, such as the warlock engineers? They could assist in its movement and firing should its crew and assistants become casualties. And if he were to send the engineers, then why not send one or more of his army’s lesser engines of war? It could be a cunning ploy to order several machines ahead, for then the bombard would be less conspicuous, hidden ‘like among like’, and whatever enemies were encountered might be distracted by the other engines, no less massive than the bombard and indeed some of them more so. The enemy might thus attack entirely the wrong machines and waste what little time they had stop the bombard.

The bombard itself was chugging by below, three attendants on ether side of it. He chuckled for it looked almost comical, like a massive clockwork toy. Clatter-clatter, clunk-clunk it went. But then he saw how the grass behind it visibly withered then crumbled into powder moments after its passage, and the sight pushed all ideas that it was a toy from his mind.

Could it really destroy a city, and the army within? If so, how best to ensure it got close enough to do so?

He had until the evening to decide.

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