Legacy Fiction - War Torn Alliances

War Torn Alliances

War Torn Alliances was a narrative league for Warmachine & Hordes that took place in 2012.

Season 1: Gnarls – Tomb of the Deathless

By Aeryn Rudel

Elyshyvah stared up at the noonday sun and grimaced. She had rarely ventured this far south, and the heat of the late spring was all but intolerable. Before her lay a marshland that eventually merged with the Gnarls. Its still, brackish waters were warmed over and swarming with clouds of biting flies. To a Nyss accustomed to ice, wind, and snow, the terrain felt more hellish than any she had ever encountered. Stepping back into the shade of the forest’s edge, she let the gnarled oak branches shield her from the brunt of the sun’s glare.

Behind Elyshyvah, a dozen Nyss striders hunkered in the shade, enduring the heat without complaint. They, like she, bore the blessings of Everblight upon their flesh, though theirs were far more obvious: transfigured legs granted them swift speed, and bony barbs protruded from their limbs and faces. Elyshyvah’s blight was far subtler, with few physical manifestations beyond a pattern of purplish spots that ran from the base of her neck to the small of her back. As a battle shepherd, her gifts were more oriented toward her natural sorcerous talents and the manipulation of the Legion’s fearsome dragonspawn.

The final member of Elyshyvah’s band lurked farther back, in the deeper shadows of the forest. The nephilim stood silently, its clawed hands wrapped around the stock of an immense crossbow and its eyeless head slowly panning from side to side, seeing everything through a sense that was not quite sight.

The band had traveled from the north through the great forest the humans and trollkin called the Olgunholt and crossed the Dragon’s Tongue River, taking great pains to pass unnoticed. The servants of Everblight had many enemies this far south, and Elyshyvah’s small band would be easy prey for the well-armed groups of trollkin and humans in the area. Her small force, however, was quite skilled at getting in and out of enemy territory quickly and quietly.

Her mistress, Vayl, also known as the Consul of Everblight, had chosen her and her striders for this very reason, tasking them with infiltrating dangerous areas in search of items of keen interest to Vayl—and through her, the dragon Everblight. Because of her unique role, Elyshyvah enjoyed great latitude and autonomy, freedom that had enabled her to successfully recover several important artifacts for her mistress.

To complete her missions, Elyshyvah unfortunately often had to work with those who would be considered enemies under other circumstances. Such was the case now. Vayl had forged an alliance with a human sorceress called Fiona the Black, who knew the location of an ancient Orgoth site that both wished to explore. Elyshyvah and her band of striders had been dispatched to meet with one of the human sorceress’ subordinates. Elyshyvah knew little of Fiona the Black other than that she worshipped the human god Thamar.

“Elyshyvah,” a deep, masculine voice whispered behind her. She hadn’t heard Ryvar approach, but she was suddenly keenly aware of the strider assassin’s proximity.

Elyshyvah turned to face him, planting the butt of her battle staff in the ground before her. “What is it, Ryvar?” she asked, her tone icy.

Standing easily a foot taller than Elyshyuah, Ryvar was large by Nyss standards, even for those who bore the dragon’s blight. His limbs were corded with lean muscle and his deft, long-fingered hands were equally at home wielding his curved sword, drawing the recurved bow across his back, or strangling the life from an opponent with sheer strength alone. He and his partner, Kyryl, held a unique position among Everblight’s striders; the pair operated as a skilled assassination team tasked with slaying specific targets chosen by the dragon’s warlocks.

“We are eager to set forth,” Ryvar said in his low, hissing voice. The whispered croak was a battle souvenir from years before, when a Tharn warrior had ripped open his throat. “Vayl requires quickness of action in this matter.”

Elyshyvah’s fingers tightened around her staff. “I am aware of what Vayl requires, Ryvar,” she said. “Do not forget I have served the Consul ably for many years.”

“Of course,” Ryvar replied as he nodded slightly, one cornerof his thin lips turning up in a subtle smirk. “Althoughyou have not been so able of late.” He glanced pointedlyat Elyshyvah’s left leg. A livid scar marred the ivory fleshthere, just below the edge of her boiled-leather skirt. The Iosan warcaster Kaelyssa had inflicted the wound more than a year before. After taking part in the destruction of an

Iosan stronghold in the Thundercliff Peaks, Elyshyvah had tracked Kaelyssa to a dwarven fortress the Iosan had fled to for refuge and engaged the warcaster in single combat. The reward for her hubris had been an overwhelming defeat and a wound she would carry the rest of her days.

Even worse, her surviving striders had pulled her from the battle and taken her, feeble and shamed, before Vayl. The Consul of Everblight had not raged and threatened Elyshyvah with pain and death; Vayl had no use for such crude measures. Instead, she had simply ordered Elyshyvah to heal her wounds and had bidden her return to her duties when she was able. When Elyshyvah had later assembled her striders, she had discovered that Ryvar and Kyryl had been added to her band—their presence a subtle reminder that failure would not be tolerated a second time.

“Return to the shade, Ryvar,” Elyshyvah said. “I would not have you waste your strength in this heat before I have need of you.”

“As you wish,” Ryvar said and bowed. “When you do have need, Kyryl and I will be very close.” He then returned to his partner, who squatted at the foot of a particularly large and misshapen oak running a whetstone over the edge of her sword.

Turning her attention back to the marsh, Elyshyvah was relieved to see a dozen forms moving slowly toward her through the mire. A black-robed figure led the group, presumably Fiona’s representative.

“Melech,” Elyshyvah called out to her nephilim bolt thrower. The creature turned its great, eyeless head toward her at the sound of its name. “Come to me.” It responded immediately and moved to stand next to her. The huge dragonspawn towered over her, and its bulk filled her with pride and confidence.

Elyshyvah remained at the edge of the forest in plain sight, letting the humans wade through the muck. She wasn’t about to enter the marsh again if she didn’t have to. When they reached the sward that buffered the marsh from the forest, she turned to address her striders. “Remain here. I want bows in hand, but do not nock arrows or draw unless I give the command.” She then moved beyond the shade of the trees with Melech following.

The approaching humans wore loose-fitting shirts and trousers and were armed with pistols and an assortment of close-combat weapons, mostly basket-hilted swords and short-hafted axes. Their skin was brown and leathery from constant exposure to the sun and the salty spray of the ocean. They looked lean and hard, if somewhat undisciplined. The leader was dressed similarly to the rest, though his garb was predominately black and seemed both cleaner and of higher quality. He carried no weapon, but a priest of the dark goddess likely had other ways to defend himself.

The group halted a dozen yards away, and the man in black advanced alone. Behind him, the rest eyed the hulking form of Melech, their hands lingering on pistol butts and sword hilts. The man in black seemed completely unfazed by the nephilim, and he walked briskly in Elyshyvah’s direction.

The Thamarite’s dark hair was cropped short to the scalp, and the hair on his face had been neatly sculpted around his mouth and chin. His brow was wide and clear, and his eyes shone a vivid blue that reminded her of clear northern skies. She supposed he was comely by the standards that humans judged such things.

“You are Elyshyvah?” the man said in Aeric, his barbarous accent betraying his unfamiliarity with the language. “What tongues can you speak?”

Her grasp of human languages was limited, but she had a working knowledge of Khardic and Cygnaran. She chose the latter, for the man did not have the look of the north about him. “I am she,” she said.

“I am called Garrus,” he replied, also in Cygnaran. “My mistress bade me give you this.” He held out a folded scrap of parchment, which Elyshyvah took and opened. Scrawled on the parchment was the symbol Vayl had told her to expect: tripartite arrows on a black field. It was the symbol of the goddess Thamar, the deity whom Fiona served. It was also the sign that this was Fiona’s chosen representative.

Elyshyvah nodded and handed the parchment back to Garrus, who tucked it away beneath his robe. “You will take us to the tomb,” she said.

“I will,” Garrus said, “as long as you understand the terms.”

“The terms have not changed,” Elyshyvah said, bristling. “The sword belongs to your mistress; the tome belongs to mine.” She placed one hand on Melech’s massive, scaly forearm. “I will keep the agreement as long as you do,” she said.

“Good,” Garrus replied, ignoring Elyshyvah’s subtle threat. “Then let us proceed.”

Garrus walked a few paces behind the Nyss female and the hulking dragonspawn beside her. Her warriors, whom she had called striders, moved ahead of her in the direction he had indicated based on the encoded notes Fiona had provided him. His own men followed behind him in a ragged line. They walked abreast in small groups of three or four with all the skill one could expect of men more accustomed to the rolling decks of a ship than tangled forest depths. Still, the sea dogs were handpicked from the crew of the Ill Fortune, Fiona’s own ship, and he knew they were adept with the pistols, swords, and axes they carried.

Elyshyvah had not spoken since the two groups had begun moving south toward their goal. She and her “men” seemed quite savage. The effect of dragonblight on their bodies interested him, though, and he welcomed the rare chance to observe it up close.

Even more intriguing than the blighted Nyss was the dragonspawn that accompanied them. Garrus knew he was likely one of the few humans in western Immoren to come so close to one of the beasts and live to tell about it. Humanoid, it stood upon two wide, taloned feet, and its long, sinewy arms ended in four-fingered hands. The dragonspawn gripped a crossbow the size of a small ballista, telling Garrus it possessed intellect beyond that of a simple beast. It was a fascinating creature, and he would like nothing more than to study it in more detail—preferably on his vivisection table.

Garrus turned his thoughts back to the task at hand. Fiona had entrusted him above all others to seek out the Orgoth tomb and retrieve Harrowdim, the legendary blade reputed to be interred there. Fiona’s interest in the blade was understandable; the fell magic of the Orgoth was compelling to any who sought deeper understanding of the occult. He was honored she had chosen him to complete this task.

The trees slowly thinned, and what oaks and poplars remained were quite lifeless, their bare branches skeletal and twisted. Eventually, the terrain stood completely devoid of life. Garrus frowned, puzzled. Nothing he had been told had led him to expect this kind of devastation. Beneath their feet, the ground crunched and crackled as their tread reduced layers of detritus to grey powder. He glanced at the Nyss leader and saw that her expression was grim.

“What happened here?” she asked in Cygnaran, glancing around at the still, dead landscape.

“The Orgoth’s powerful necromantic magic could weaken and kill living things,” Garrus replied, moving up to walk beside her, “but I would have expected such energies to have faded long ago . . .” Elyshyvah nodded, but her expression remained dark, and they continued in silence.

The group soon emerged into a clearing of chalky earth from which the ragged stumps of long-dead trees thrust up like the rotting teeth of some great, decrepit beast. In the center rose a broad mound of earth and stone ringed by six rune-etched pillars, each ten or so feet in height and appearing to be of more recent construction than the ancient barrow. One side of the tomb was dominated by a dark opening outlined in black stone and so large it could easily have accommodated something twice the height of a man and several times as wide. The huge stone slab that must have sealed the tomb lay on the ground nearby. The Nyss woman growled, and Garrus himself felt a pang of dismay that the seal had been breached.

Elyshyvah gestured to one of her band, and the striders took positions around the clearing, slinging their bows in favor of their short, curved swords. The dragonspawn stayed near her. Garrus directed his own men nearer to the mound and then moved to examine one of the monoliths more closely.

Watching him, Elyshyvah said, “What of these pillars? They are not Orgoth. Do you recognize the runes?”

Garrus frowned. “They are trollkin-made. A warning, perhaps, or some kind of ward.”

“A ward? Will they bar our passage?”

Garrus shook his head. “I do not think so; they are likely meant to limit the spread of whatever energies linger here.”

Elyshyvah nodded stiffly before moving off to speak with one of her striders, a large male whom Garrus had noticed held himself apart from the rest.

“Yorvek,” Garrus called out to his group of sea dogs. A dark-skinned man with a bandolier of pistols across his chest moved to stand before him. “We’re going in, Bosun,” Garrus said. “I want torches lit and weapons ready. Choose two men to keep watch up top.”

“Aye,” Yorvek said before heading back to his men.

Garrus turned his attention back to Elyshyvah and saw that she had issued orders similar to his own. Most of the striders and her dragonspawn were moving toward the opening of the barrow mound; the remaining two striders stood near the edge of the clearing. The big male she had recently spoken with was handing her a lit torch; he appeared to be staying behind.

“I am ready,” Elyshyvah said as she approached the mound. She pointed to the entrance with her bladed staff. “You will go first.”

Garrus restrained a grimace at her obvious distrust. He himself wasn’t entirely happy with the thought of ten blighted Nyss and a dragonspawn at his back as he descended into a gloom-haunted tomb, but he doubted Elyshyvah would betray him before they had explored the barrow mound completely. He was far more concerned with the possibility of Orgoth traps. Well, he would just have to make the best of it. The Nyss would most likely trip something in their ignorance, and he couldn’t take the chance.

“Very well,” he said, “but it is vital you and your . . . people follow my instructions. The Orgoth did not look kindly on trespassers.” He took a lit torch from Yorvek and held it aloft. The scattered light revealed a steep passageway of smooth worked stone that led into the earth. The stale, musty air that wafted from the depths of the tomb smelled faintly of rot. “Stay behind me,” he said to his men over his shoulder and stepped across the threshold into the dark.

Elyshyvah sent her dragonspawn behind the humans and followed it into the darkness. She could hear its talons clicking surely against the stone floor; it had no need of a torch to see. Her striders came after her, their movements careful in the unnatural surroundings.

The procession moved slowly, a pace set by the cautious progress of the priest in the lead. Elyshyvah studied the walls of the steadily descending passage as they continued. They were bare for the most part, but occasionally she spotted what looked like more trollkin runes scrawled into the stone. Other places showed finely sculpted faces, leering and demonic. They were part of a common motif she knew to be associated with Orgoth ruins and artifacts.

Several times the group came upon skeletons lying scattered in the slanted passage, suggesting more recent intrusion. Near these and several other times, the Thamarite priest bid the others to stop as he examined the walls and their markings. Seeming to know the ways of the Orgoth and their traps, he warned them against stepping on certain stones. Several times he pushed his fingers into nearly invisible openings and prompted grinding sounds within the walls, deactivating whatever deadly surprises would have sprung upon them.

After a long period of torch-lit gloom, Elyshyvah noticed a glow ahead. The yellowish light gradually grew in intensity, spilling up the passage and casting strange, distorted shadows upon the walls. As they approached, she realized it emanated from a sizable, open chamber at the end of the passage.

Garrus and his men moved into the room without hesitation. Elyshyvah held up her right hand and raised her index and middle fingers. Behind her, she heard the striders respond to her signal by sheathing their swords and unslinging their bows. The chamber ahead looked quite large—large enough for missile fire.

As Elyshyvah moved into the circular chamber, she was stunned by its sheer size. Constructed entirely of worked stone and stretching hundreds of feet in diameter, it boasted a domed ceiling that rose 30 feet or more into the air. The ceiling was covered in strange sigils and more of the bestial faces she had seen in the passage. A massive pit containing a towering bonfire dominated the center of the room, its flames a vivid yellow that burned with unnatural brightness and without apparent fuel.

Though largely barren, the chamber featured a mammoth throne of black stone that sat on a raised dais directly across from the entrance, to the north. Scattered in front of the throne were the broken remains of dozens of skeletons. Most still clutched rusting iron weapons or cruder stone weapons and were clad in the tattered remains of clothing or armor. Upon the throne sat the mummified corpse of a large man clad in elaborate steel armor. A naked sword rested upon its knees.

Garrus and his men had begun moving toward the throne, giving the fire pit a wide berth. With Melech behind her, Elyshyvah followed. Her striders spread out along the perimeter of the chamber, bows in hand and arrows nocked.

As they neared the throne, Elyshyvah could make out more details of the ancient armor worn by its occupant. It looked decidedly Orgoth. Breastplate, greaves, and vambraces all bore grotesque humanoid faces, disturbingly elongated to accommodate the piece of armor they each adorned. A conical, open-faced helm with curling steel horns sat upon the corpse’s bowed head.

When Elyshyvah joined Garrus in front of the throne, he pointed to the great sword that rested on the Orgoth warrior’s knees and said, “That is Harrowdim.” The single-edged weapon resembled a two-handed falchion. Howling, bestial faces shifted and writhed on the blade’s surface, their tortured countenances glowing a faint acid-green.

“Then take it,” she replied.

Garrus shook his head. “I don’t think it will be so easy,” he warned. “Harrowdim is too great a prize to be unguarded.” He stared at the throne and the figure upon it, lost in thought.

Elyshyvah looked down at the skeletal remains in front of the throne. They all bore the telltale signs of violent death: cracked ribs, broken skulls, and shivered weapons. Most had clearly been there for many years, but shreds of desiccated flesh clung to the bones of a few, indicating more recent death. One of the skeletons was smaller and finer-boned than the others, and it clutched a massive tome covered in leather dyed a deep blue. Her eyes fixed knowingly on its surface, but she gave no outward sign of interest.

Garrus’ voice brought her attention back to the throne and the sword. “I see no indication of wards or traps. There must be a guardian.” He turned and scanned the walls, but his frown indicated he saw no more sign of another entrance than she did.

“A guardian, we could fight,” she said flatly. “How do we find it?”

Garrus looked at her evenly, a predatory smile on his lips. “We lure it out.”

He turned toward his men, who had kept a short distance back, and pointed to a light-haired one near the edge of the chamber. “You,” he called out. “Retrieve the sword.” The sea dog hesitated, then cursed as his fellows looked to him with darkened faces. He moved toward the throne with his pistol raised, trying not to step on any of the skeletons heaped in front of it.

When he reached the throne, the man stretched out one hand and curled his fingers around the worn leather wrap of the great sword’s hilt. Sweat was beading on his brow. He lifted the weapon, and a smile broke upon his weathered face.

Sword in hand, he turned and started back toward Garrus. He made it exactly three paces before stopping suddenly, his features twisting in agony.

“Look at the blade,” Garrus whispered.

The writhing faces along Harrowdim’s length had grown much brighter. Their lurid illumination had taken on an almost tangible quality, creeping up the sea dog’s arm in tendrils of emerald radiance. The man fell to his knees, features pinched in obvious pain as the awful green glow quickly enveloped his entire body.

Elyshyvah watched with morbid fascination as his flesh began to wither, collapsing around his bones as if the green fire that limned his body was wringing the life from his flesh. His mouth hung open and stretched wider and wider as the skin became paper-thin and pulled taut across his skull. His eyes shriveled in their sockets, collapsing inward before disappearing completely. Remarkably, he remained horribly alive as the sword greedily sucked the life from his flesh. Even after the man was reduced to nothing more than a husk, he still twitched feebly, spindly fingers wrapped around Harrowdim’s hilt. Finally, the man became still, and the sword fell from his grip and clattered to the stone floor.

The sword was glowing fiercely, and the radiance rose to a searing intensity that forced all in the room to shield their eyes. The painful illumination slowly dimmed and eventually winked out like a candle snuffed by the wind.

Elyshyvah removed her forearm from her eyes and curled her fingers reflexively around her battle staff. She immediately saw that the humans had pointed pistols at the throne, and her striders had drawn their bows, barbed arrows twinkling in the firelight. Melech hissed and raised its crossbow.

The Orgoth corpse was a corpse no longer. It stood in front of the throne, bronze skin visible in the gaps of its armor. The face that stared out from beneath its helm possessed a noble bearing, with a wide jaw, a hawkish nose, and deep-set eyes the color of onyx.

The warrior walked slowly forward and stooped at the sea dog’s remains to retrieve Harrowdim. His movement was all that was needed to break the murderous tension in the room. The muted slap of strider bowstrings striking leather vambraces sounded and was quickly followed by the thunderous roar of the sea dogs’ pistols. A hail of arrows and pistol shot struck the Orgoth warrior, driving him back a number of steps to the base of his throne, but they fell to the floor in a litter of broken shafts and flattened lead balls. The fusillade of missiles seemed to have had little effect.

The thunder of gunfire gave way to the desperate fury of reloading as the sea dogs rammed fresh cartridges into the breaches of their weapons. The striders continued to fire, smoothly nocking arrows, drawing, and releasing again and again.

The Orgoth warrior hefted Harrowdim and his wide mouth split in a feral grin. Suddenly, the deep thrum of Melech’s crossbow filled the chamber. The huge bolt struck the warrior’s breastplate, slamming him back against the throne. The projectile had penetrated armor and the flesh below, leaving nearly two feet of fletched bolt projecting from his body.

The Orgoth recovered his balance instantly. The dark rage that filled his aquiline features was ancient and terrifying. He reached up with one hand, ripped the bolt from his chest, and flung it away. He then took Harrowdim in both hands and disappeared.

A heartbeat later, Elyshyvah heard Melech screech. She turned to see the dragonspawn on its knees before the warrior, black blood pouring from a gigantic wound in its abdomen. The Orgoth’s sword flashed, and the nephilim’s head came away from its body in a spray of blood.

A burst of reprising gunfire followed Melech’s death, but the warrior had vanished again. Elyshyvah dropped her torch and whirled around in place, holding her battle staff out in front of her in a protective stance. The entire chamber had erupted into a cacophony of Nyss and human voices crying out in confusion and rage.

The warrior reappeared in the middle of a group of sea dogs, his sword flickering: once, twice, three times. Then he was gone, leaving three corpses behind. Seconds later, he appeared again on the other side of the chamber next to two striders, and Harrowdim slaked its thirst for carnage on Nyss flesh. Strider arrows and sea dog pistol shots slammed into the wall as the warrior vanished again.

Silence reigned for a moment, and then the Orgoth reappeared on his throne, Harrowdim resting once again on his knees. Rivulets of blood ran sluggishly down the gore-spattered blade and onto the warrior’s armored legs beforedripping to the stone floor.

Sea dog pistols and Nyss bows swung toward the throne, causing Elyshyvah and Garrus to cry out in near-unison in their respective tongues: “Hold your fire!”

The Orgoth warrior stared down at the figures before him, his black eyes glittering. “You dare intrude upon my court?” he asked, booming voice filling every inch of the colossal chamber. “You will pay your respects before this throne or suffer for your temerity.” He spoke Cygnaran, but in an accent unlike anything Elyshyvah had ever heard.

Garrus stepped forward and kneeled before the throne. “Forgive our intrusion, Great One,” he said, voice shaking. “We did not come seeking to rouse your ire.”

The Orgoth warrior’s gaze shifted to Elyshyvah. She felt its weight upon her as a tangible thing, a dark and stifling malevolence. “What of you, pale one?” he asked. “Too haughty to kneel before your better?”

Elyshyvah inclined her head. “I, too, mean no disrespect, but I cannot kneel before this throne,” she said, wondering if those words would be her last. “My fealty belongs to one greater even than you.”

“Greater than me?” The warrior threw back his head and laughed. “You have spine, cold one. I admire that in a slave. Kneel or stand; it makes no difference to me.”

Garrus rose to his feet. “I am called Garrus,” he said. ”The one whom I serve has sent me to treat with you. That is what brought us to your . . . hall.”

“What is it you seek?” the Orgoth inquired. “I have no treasure, and even my slaves are naught but bones now.”

Garrus, perhaps unconsciously, glanced at the shriveled corpse of the sea dog before the throne. The act did not escape the Orgoth’s attention.

“Of course, you seek the blade,” he said, placing one hand on Harrowdim’s hilt. ”I will not keep it from you.” He grasped the sword by the blade and held it out hilt-first. “Come forward and take it.”

“My mistress has much interest in Harrowdim,” Garrus admitted, though he took a step away from the throne.

“No?” the warrior said, grinning. “And you?” He pointed the hilt toward Elyshyvah.

She said nothing and simply stood still.

The warrior returned the sword to his lap and settled back into his throne. “It has been long years since anyone worthy has come seeking the sword,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Garrus asked.

“The blade has grown heavy these long years. I would be inclined to pass it on to one worthy of its power,” the warrior said. “Perhaps one of you.”

“How do I—we—prove our worth?” Garrus asked, glancing at Elyshyvah. She did not like what she saw in the human’s eyes.

The Orgoth warrior smiled, showing a neat row of perfect white teeth. “You survive.”


Grigor Orlov ripped his axe from the corpse of the Nyss warrior at his feet. The opponent had proved tougher than he had anticipated, weathering a blast from his Vanguard’s shield cannon before charging into melee with his sword. He had been forced to dispatch the creature with his rune axe. The other Nyss in the clearing had vanished into the dead forest, and Grigor hadn’t bothered to send any of his Winter Guard out after him.
Ahead, near the immense barrow mound, his allies stood over the mangled corpses of two humans—seamen by the look of them, not unlike those he’d seen crewing privateer ships operating out of Five Fingers and other unsavory ports. The trollkin’s axes had made short work of the pirates, but a trollkin warrior had also been slain. Grigor supposed a pistol ball in the brainpan was an injury from which even the incredibly resilient trollkin could not recover.
“Do you recognize these men?” a female trollkin asked, breaking away from the other warriors and approaching Grigor. This was Janissa Stonetide, a trollkin runeshaper of some repute. She was tall and well formed, with the pale skin of a shaman or sorcerer among her kind. She wore a stout skirt of rune-carved stones over ring mail. Her only weapon was an immense war pick, its steel head inscribed with more runes.
“That one has the mark of Thamar on his arm.” Grigor pointed to one of the dead humans with a large tattoo in the shape of three arrows. “My guess is they belong to Fiona the Black.”
“Then what the crone said is true,” Janissa said. “They seek Harrowdim.”
“So it would seem,” he said. “But what of this twisted creature?” He gestured to the dead Nyss at his feet.
“Dragon-blighted Nyss,” Janissa answered. “My people have battled these abominations in the north. It is odd, however, to see one so far south, and even odder that they would be working with these pirates. I have never heard of them allying with anyone.”
As a koldun lord, Grigor possessed passing knowledge of the twisted Nyss, though he had never seen one before now. He knew their leaders were powerful sorcerers who might be interested in an Orgoth artifact.
“Two men and two Nyss, standing watch,” he said. “The rest of them must be below.”
Janissa nodded. “Likely.”
Grigor looked around the clearing. It stood as an immense scar in the middle of the great forest, a space of dry, lifeless earth 200 yards in diameter. The Orgoth barrow mound sat in the middle of the clearing ringed by six pillars inlaid with runes. “These columns,” he asked, “what is their purpose?”
“My people placed them here centuries ago to contain theevil within,” Janissa said. “But their power is fading.”
“Can you restore them?” Grigor asked. Zevanna Agha had directed him to assist Janissa, though she hadn’t told him why. The trollkin shaman’s skill at creating and repairing the runic wards of her people could be one reason.
“I can, but we must root out the humans and Nyss below,” she said. “We cannot allow them to unleash the evil within this tomb.”
“Evil enough to stir the Old Witch to action is certainly worthy of fear or respect,” Grigor said. “The fact that she has involved you and your people also speaks volumes.”
Janissa scowled. “We owe the crone nothing. We heeded her words because my people understand this evil better than any,” she said, her voice tinged with anger.
In truth, Grigor was uncertain why the Old Witch had chosen to contain rather than claim the evil within the Orgoth tomb. He had served Koldun Kommander Zerkova for more than a decade, plundering tombs no different than this one in search of Orgoth artifacts. The Greylord Covenant had seized hundreds of dangerous items, harnessing their power to serve the Motherland. What made this one any different?
“Fair enough” Grigor replied. “But the reason I am here is because your people failed to keep this place secret and secure.” He pointed to the huge granite slab lying next to the barrow mound’s entrance. It had obviously once sealed the tomb.
Janissa’s scowl deepened. “I am not interested in bandying words with you, human. You may not comprehend the threat posed by the horrors in that tomb, but remember what the crone said.”
The Old Witch had left their company shortly after they departed the trollkin village. Before she had vanished into the Gnarls, however, she had pulled aside Grigor and Janissa and whispered urgently: “Vards made to contain the dead are not obstacles to the living.”
“I remember,” Grigor said. “The Old Witch’s warning suggests we must stop those who would plunder this tomb. Let us work toward that.”
“I agree,” Janissa said and turned to rejoin the six trollkin warriors standing near the opening in the barrow mound. Grigor hung his rune axe on his belt and then gathered his own men, eight members of the Winter Guard handpicked for both bravery and loyalty. He would have preferred a detachment of doom reavers, but they were too deep in Cygnaran territory to risk using such unpredictable assets. Instead, the Koldun kommander had left him in charge of one of the refurbished Vanguard warjacks she had claimed in the conquest of Llael. He knew that with the warjack he could deal with any threats the trollkin and Winter Guard could not. Luckily, the entrance into the barrow mound and the tunnel below seemed large enough to accommodate the hulking machine.
“The Vanguard and I will go first,” Grigor said to Janissa when they and their men had assembled before the opening. “We should be able to repel an ambush—or conduct a protected retreat, if necessary.”
“Agreed,” Janissa said and took a torch from one of her warriors. Grigor’s Winter Guard also distributed torches among themselves. He did not take a torch; his rune axe shed a soft blue radiance bright enough to reveal the way.
“Come,” Grigor said to the Vanguard at his side. He had no sorcerous ability to link to a warjack’s cortex, but he had been trained to command the huge machines using verbal commands and gestures. The Vanguard responded immediately, dropping its right arm so that its huge polearm hung parallel to the ground; it then followed him into the unknown.
Janissa crouched low as she moved down the angled stone passage, trying to keep her head out of the thick black smoke that belched from the warjack’s smokestack. They moved neither quickly nor stealthily; given they were not the first to intrude, they knew the guardians of the tomb must already be roused.
The walls of the tunnel were composed of stone from floor to ceiling, and she noticed trollkin runes etched into them in various places. Rather than serving as wards themselves, these symbols coordinated with the glyphs inscribed on the pillars above to strengthen the magic and draw it further into the tomb. Maintaining the runes was a responsibility handed down to a powerful runeshaper every generation. Janissa had recently received the honor of that duty—along with the dire knowledge of why the wards were necessary.
The legend of Harrowdim was long known to her clan. The Orgoth had brought the sword to these shores nearly a thousand years ago, and it and its wielder had sown much destruction in western Immoren. Harrowdim was not merely an enchanted blade. It supposedly allowed its wielder to cheat death and rise again after interment. No doubt the Orgoth lord who had held it waited below, biding his time to be set free and resume his campaign of enslavement and conquest. The Orgoth had buried their leader with his sword after he fell in battle, but her people had constructed the wards that trapped him there after learning he would rise again. Unfortunately wards did not keep away foolish men in search of riches and powerful Orgoth magic.
Luckily, Janissa was not the only one wary of the evil contained below. When the Old Witch had suddenly appeared in her village along with Grigor and his men, she thought they meant to attack. The ancient crone, however, had merely wished to speak with her, though Grigor had done most of the talking. He told her that Fiona the Black sought what rested in the tomb and had dispatched one of her more powerful Thamarite underlings to see the task done.
Janissa doubted that she would have taken Grigor at his word had the Old Witch not been present. His order was known to descend like vultures on Orgoth ruins, seizing whatever they could find to be employed by their army. Such thinking was folly, as she and her people had long known: nothing the Orgoth had left behind was without taint.
Bringing her attention back to the passageway, Janissa saw that it opened up into a vast space lit by a queer yellow light cast from a raging bonfire within a central fire pit. As she and the rest of her trollkin moved into the space, she saw they were not alone.
At the northern end of the chamber, beyond the fire pit, a large figure clad in Orgoth armor lounged in a throne carved of black stone that sat upon a raised dais. Before him stood a group of blighted Nyss armored in boiled leather and armed with short swords and recurved bows. Across from them clustered a group of unarmored humans wielding heavy pistols and a variety of hand weapons. At the sound of the new arrivals the nearest turned and raised their weapons warily.
Janissa scanned both groups to spot their respective leaders. It wasn’t difficult. A tall Nyss female with a bladed staff stood among her people, who gathered protectively around her. Fiona’s sea dogs all appeared similar to her eyes, but one of the humans was clothed only in black and bore the mark of Thamar visibly on his person, a brazen display by what must have been Fiona’s priest.
“Here now is the means by which you prove yourself worthy,” the warrior on the throne said, his penetrating, baritone voice ringing off the walls of the stone chamber. He pointed a massive sword in their direction, its blade glowing a virulent green. The Orgoth was possessed of incredible stature and seemed physically equal to the largest trollkin in Janissa’s band. His armor was festooned with leering, demonic faces that added a bestial quality to his already imposing appearance. Framed by his horned helmet, his face was human enough, its features hawkish and somewhat predatory. His eyes, however, were decidedly inhuman—orbs of solid black that glinted hungrily in the firelight. Janissa had never seen Harrowdim in person, but there was little doubt in her mind that the sword in the Orgoth’s right hand was the infamous weapon.
She could feel the tension in the room rise, and she turned toward Grigor to shout words of caution. Her words, however, were utterly drowned out by the shattering boom of the Vanguard’s shield cannon followed by the staccato thunder of Winter Guard blunderbusses. The volley slammed into the sea dogs, and nearly half of them fell before the onslaught.
Chaos erupted in the chamber. The remaining sea dogs scattered, firing their pistols as they ran. The blighted Nyss followed suit, pulling back to the outer edge of the chamber. They held their bows in hand but had not yet fired.
“Kill them all!” Grigor shouted as he raised his rune axe. Pistol balls pinged off the Vanguard’s hull but did little damage. The Winter Guard had crowded in behind the warjack and were hurriedly reloading their blunderbusses.
A Nyss arrow whistled over Janissa’s head. The Nyss and their leader were moving around the perimeter of the chamber, firing their bows as they came.
“Shields up, lads!” Janissa cried and plucked her pick, Earthsplitter, from her belt. The kriel warriors responded immediately by forming a compact wedge that held her at its center. Arrows began to rattle off trollkin shields as the warriors moved forward.
Janissa snatched a quick look back at Grigor to see that he and his men had also begun moving forward. Rifle and cannon fire again drowned out all other sound in the chamber, as the Winter Guard and the Vanguard unloaded on the sea dogs again.
The Nyss had not abandoned their bows, even as Janissa and the kriel warriors pressed forward. In fact, they were moving back and to the left, as if they were trying to skirt around the trollkin. Their leader’s attention seemed fixated on something apart from the battle. As her followers covered her by sending arrows at the nearest Winter Guard flank, she dashed to one of the skeletons on the floor near the throne and grabbed a tome from its clutches. Both it and the skeleton upon which it lay seemed rimed by a thin layer of hardened frost, but she wrested it free and smiled. Nodding to her subordinates, the female Nyss pointed toward the entrance. Then her eyes caught Janissa’s; she held up her staff, and the archers ceased fire.
Janissa placed a hand on the trollkin in front of her. “Wait,” she said. The trollkin stopped moving, though they still held their shields high. Janissa stared at the Nyss leader and placed her pick over her shoulder. She hoped that holding the weapon in a neutral stance would convey the message she intended: I won’t try to kill you if you return the favor. It seemed this one was only tangentially involved in the threat of awakening the evil here.
The Nyss female nodded and lowered her staff; likewise, the Nyss warriors let their bows dip and then began moving toward the passage leading to the surface.
“Let them go, lads,” Janissa said. “We’ve got more immediate concerns.” She turned to see that most of the sea dogs had been shot down by the Winter Guard or dismembered by the Vanguard’s poleaxe. By virtue of her party’s swift attack, only a single Khadoran soldier had succumbed to the sea dogs’ pistols, though several more bore superficial wounds.
A single battle took place before the Orgoth throne. Grigor’s rune axe glowed with brilliant blue light, and the Thamarite’s right fist crackled with ebony fire as they circled one another with wary eagerness. The priest suddenly launched a blast of black flame at Grigor, but the Vanguard moved quickly to intercept the gout of searing fire. The hellish heat licked hungrily at the warjack’s shield, partially melting the alloyed steel. That was all the opening Grigor needed. He charged forward around the Vanguard, attacking the priest from a sharp angle. The Thamarite backpedaled desperately, and Janissa heard him muttering the frenzied words of some dire enchantment. Unfortunately for him, the dark prayer died unfinished upon his lips. Grigor brought his axe down in a mighty overhand blow and split the priest’s skull down to the teeth in a spray of blood and brain matter. The man slumped to the ground, tearing Grigor’s axe from his grip.
Janissa and her trollkin had moved nearer the throne while Grigor and the Thamarite battled, holding weapons at the ready. Grigor placed one boot on the dead Thamarite’s chest, reached down, and wrenched his axe free from the corpse. He then stood and turned toward the Orgoth warrior on the throne.
“I sense power in you,” the warrior said, pointing Harrowdim at Grigor. “And you.” He moved the sword toward Janissa. “Which of you is worthier? Which of you has the strength to wield Harrowdim?”
Janissa ignored the Orgoth and crossed the short space between herself and Grigor. Noticing his eyes locked on the great, naked blade, she felt the first tendrils of dread worm their way into her gut. “Grigor,” she said. “We must go.”
The Khadoran tore his eyes away from Harrowdim to look at Janissa. “No, I do not think I am ready to leave just yet,” he said, his voice flat and hollow. As his gaze flickered between her and the Orgoth warrior, Grigor placed one hand on the hilt of his rune axe and said, “You should rejoin your kin.”
“Do not be a fool,” she whispered.
“Move away from me, Janissa,” Grigor said sharply. “Now.”
The Khadoran’s biting tone caused a few of his men to swing their rifles in her direction; in response, her kriel warriors surged forward behind her. She held up a hand to stop them. “Do not do this, Grigor,” she said, walking backward toward her kith. “We can still leave and complete our task.”
Grigor ignored her plea and stepped toward the throne. “How can I prove myself worthy?” he asked.
The Orgoth warrior grinned. “Ah, a man with stone and fire in his heart,” he said. “If you wish to claim the blade, you must be the sole worthy supplicant before this throne.” The warrior looked at Janissa. “There is currently another.”
Grigor turned toward the runeshaper, his eyes flinty gray orbs devoid of reason or compassion. No stranger to battle, Janissa could feel the tension that was always a prelude to violence rise to a crescendo.
“Kill them,” Grigor ordered, and the rifles of his Winter Guard swung in unison to take aim at Janissa and her warriors. Expecting that response, Janissa was able to call upon Dhunia’s gifts before the humans’ fingers could tense on their triggers. Sending her will spiraling down into the stone at her feet, she commanded the bones of Dhunia to do her bidding. The stone buckled, and a tide of earth and rubble rose before her in an impervious wall. The blunderbusses discharged an instant later, their lead slugs thudding harmlessly against the wall of stone.
The spell was a taxing one, and Janissa let the wall collapse as soon as the immediate danger had passed. But it had given her an advantage: the humans would not have time to reload their weapons before being forced to meet her kriel warriors in hand-to-hand combat.
Janissa gripped Earthsplitter and charged forward. Needing no further encouragement, her kriel warriors followed her with a chorus of furious battle cries. While her kin drove at the Winter Guard, Janissa chose another target, heading straight for Grigor and the hulking metal form of his Vanguard.
She was strong in both magic and warcraft, but no single trollkin without the might of Borka Kegslayer or Madrak Ironhide could hope to best a koldun lord and a warjack in single combat. That was not her aim; she merely needed to keep Grigor busy while her kriel warriors dealt with the Winter Guard.
Grigor saw her coming and barked a command to the warjack. The Vanguard rounded on her, aiming the short-barreled cannon on its great shield in her direction. Again, she summoned the might of earth and stone to her defense. The stone floor trembled before her as she held out one hand, feeling the magic she had unleashed as a tangible thing. Closing her fist, she ripped loose a mammoth chunk of rock from the floor and then lashed her hand toward Grigor and his warjack, propelling the boulder forward.
Grigor dove aside as the mass of earth and rock smashed into the Vanguard with a tremendous crash of splitting stone and buckling metal. The warjack was knocked to the ground by the impact. Though its shield had taken the brunt of the blow, Janissa could see that its great steel bulwark was seriously damaged. Nearly on top of the machine now, she leapt into the air and vaulted over the Vanguard’s shield to bring down Earthsplitter in a tremendous blow. The weapon’s honed steel beak punctured the Vanguard’s hull just above its head, penetrating the delicate engineering that powered the behemoth. A shower of sparks exploded around Janissa’s weapon, followed by a gout of greasy black fluid. The warjack shuddered, and she was certain she had struck something vital to its operation.
Janissa wrenched her pick free and leapt from the prone warjack’s hull, looking for Grigor. He stood a dozen paces away, rune axe in hand, blood flowing down his face from a gash on his forehead. She set her feet and prepared to summon another rock hammer. Grigor saw what she was doing and pumped his fist into the air. “Rise!” he shouted. She did not understand the command until she heard the squeal of metal behind her. Janissa whirled to see that the Vanguard had surged to its feet and sent the great crescent blade of its poleaxe slashing through the air toward her. She brought Earthsplitter up in a desperate attempt to parry the blow. The warjack’s weapon crashed into her pick, nearly ripping it from her grasp and sending a spike of agony up her arm as the bones in her wrist snapped like twigs beneath the onslaught.
Grigor chose that moment to attack, bounding across the distance between them with startling speed. Turning to meet his charge, she was forced to transfer Earthsplitter to her left hand. As Grigor’s rune-covered axe crashed down, she knew she would not be able to deflect it fully.
The trollkin snapped her pick down to catch Grigor’s axe, but he was faster, and the steel blade darted in under her guard and bit into the skirt of rune stones hanging from her belt. A handful of the stones shattered, and the axe penetrated the ring mail she wore beneath, gouging into the flesh of her left thigh.
Janissa cried out in agony and backpedaled, tearing the axe from her body in the process. Grigor rushed forward again and lashed out with a heavy boot, kicking her feet out from under her. Janissa crashed to the ground, and the air left her lungs in a brutal rush. She rolled over and tried to crawl away, but she didn’t make it far.
“Yield!” Janissa heard Grigor yell, and she felt the lethal point of the Vanguard’s polearm spike at the small of her back. She wanted to scream her defiance, but she could not suck enough air into her lungs to cry out.
The sounds of combat in the room began to fade; Janissa surmised her kriel warriors had broken off their melee with the Winter Guard for fear she would be killed. Feeling the pressure of the Vanguard’s weapon ease from her back, Janissa rolled over, ignoring the searing pain in her left arm and thigh. The stone floor beneath her was slick with blood, and she hoped her natural hardiness would halt the bleeding before she lost consciousness.
She saw that Grigor had turned away from her to stand before the throne. The Orgoth warrior held Harrowdim across his arms, its hilt projecting over his armored forearms. Horror coursed through her as she realized what was about to happen.
“I am victorious,” Grigor said. “Give me the blade.”
The Orgoth stepped forward. “So you are,” he said, his face a mask of predatory glee. “And so I shall.” The hilt of the sword was now mere inches from the Khadoran’s face.
“Grigor,” Janissa managed to croak. “Do not do this.”
The Khadoran whipped his head around, his face twisted with rage and a desire so potent it was almost palpable. “The sword will go to the Covenant,” he said. “We will use its power to bring defeat to our enemies and glory to the Motherland.”
“Take it and those things will be yours,” the Orgoth warrior said. “Take it and become part of the legend of Harrowdim.”
“Yes,” Grigor said. He licked his lips and allowed his hand to hover over the hilt of the great blade. “I have bent many such artifacts to my will; this one, too, shall serve me.” Janissa thought she heard a moment of hesitation in his voice, even fear, and she hoped that would force reason back into his mind. Her hope had barely flickered to life before it was crushed beneath the smothering weight of despair, as Grigor’s hand curled around Harrowdim’s hilt.
“No, no, no,” Janissa breathed as she climbed to her feet.
The room was suddenly bathed in an eerie green glow as the writhing faces along the blade began to exude a terrible luminance. The light moved from the blade to Grigor’s body, outlining him in poisonous green.
The Orgoth warrior stepped back, and Janissa saw something she hadn’t expected. He collapsed back onto his throne and whispered something in a language she did not recognize, the weariness and longing in the words unmistakable. He sagged into his armor as his flesh began to melt before her eyes, sloughing away from his bones in a semi-liquid tide. In seconds, all that remained was a pile of slime-slicked bones and ancient armor. The terrible force that had kept the Orgoth warrior alive for untold centuries had left him—and now resided in Grigor.
Janissa had been moving slowly backward toward the three kriel warriors who had survived their battle with the Winter Guard. The humans, however, stood frozen, staring at their leader in shock. The glow from Harrowdim’s blade had faded, leaving Grigor apparently unharmed. The change was subtle, but when Janissa saw it, she felt sick terror: Grigor’s eyes, formerly a hard steel gray, had become glittering orbs of black onyx that shone with a malign intellect that was not his own.
Janissa heard the Old Witch’s words echo again in her mind, and their meaning suddenly became horrifically clear: The trollkin runes had kept the evil imprisoned because the arisen Orgoth had long ago ceased to be a living creature. Through the blade, his will had passed to a living man. Grigor Orlov would not be subject to the ward’s magic, and the evil possessing him would be free unto the world again.
Harrowdim would animate Grigor if Janissa could somehow manage to strike him down—and subject him to the power of the runes. But that was not an option; she lacked the power for such a task. Only one option remained, if she still possessed the strength to see it done. Finally reaching her kriel warriors, she leaned on one for a moment before giving the order. “We must leave,” she said. “Now!”
The trollkin began moving toward the passage to the surface. Without light, they would have to navigate the subterranean darkness by touch alone. Janissa looked back at Grigor just before they entered the passageway and saw that the remaining Winter Guard had clustered around him, their blunderbusses aimed at their former leader. He had not moved since taking possession of the sword—perhaps it took some time for his will to be entirely subsumed—but then, as if he sensed her gaze upon him, Grigor lifted Harrowdim in one hand and pointed it at her. His face bore a rictus grin of malevolent delight that filled her with cold dread.
“Run!” she howled at the kriel warriors, and they surged ahead heedless of the darkness. A blind, fear-maddened flight to the surface ensued, and though they navigated the passage in under a minute, it seemed to take far longer. Janissa kept looking back over her shoulder expecting to see a gangrenous green light growing brighter as the thing in the tomb gleefully pursued them into the world above. But it never came. The trollkin burst from the tomb and into the bright, forgiving sun of the late afternoon.
Janissa and the kriel warriors collapsed onto the lifeless gray earth surrounding the barrow mound in a tangle, breathless and nearly mad with terror. But it was not over. Janissa struggled to her feet and stepped toward the dreadful entrance. Slamming Earthsplitter into the ground, she closed her eyes and allowed her will to permeate the earth beneath her, feeling every rock, clump of dirt, and grain of sand. She delved deeper, into the very bones of the earth, and there she took hold of the primal energies that roiled in the blind depths. Janissa drew strength from the power she sensed in the rune-inscribed columns around her, each imbued with the lore and skill of predecessors dating back centuries.
It began as a slight tremor, a deep thrumming that shifted the loose dirt in the clearing. As Janissa continued to pour her will into the ground, the shaking grew into a bass rumble that made the dead trees clatter like kindling gathered for a fire. Sweat stood out on her brow, and the pain in her wounds rose along with the shaking—but she would not relent, not even when the ground before her began to buck and writhe like tossing waves on a stony sea. Finally, when her strength was nearly gone, the Orgoth barrow mound that had been so cunningly constructed succumbed at last to the mighty forces she had assembled against it. The mound sagged and then collapsed, a tide of dust and stone exploding from the epicenter.
Janissa fell to her knees, exhausted, and watched the chain reaction she had set in motion unfold. The ground continued to heave, uprooting the tottering trees around the clearing and tossing them into the air to crash back down in a shower of dust and dry-rotted wood. Though the runic pillars around the barrow mound had been buried deep, the violent shaking tore them loose. The kriel warriors behind Janissa dove to the ground and held up their shields against the onslaught of debris raining down upon them.
Finally, the shuddering earth subsided. When the dust had settled, Janissa saw that the barrow mound had been nearly destroyed. It was now little more than a bare hillock, the opening in its side smashed flat and sealed completely. She rose shakily to her feet, wincing at the pain from her wounds, and walked slowly over to the nearest pillar. It lay on its side, cracked in half, and when she reached out to touch it, she could not feel the familiar thrumming of the sigils’ magic.
The words of the Old Witch once again rose to the fore of her mind: Wards made to contain the dead are not obstacles to the living.
Was Grigor still down there, buried beneath tons of earth and stone yet kept alive by Harrowdim until he could claw his way free? What if the crushing weight of the collapse was not enough to contain that evil? Janissa again regarded the destroyed pillar before her; new runes would need to be carved in order to contain the living as well as the dead. She had much work to do.

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Season 2: Olgunholt - Ancient Emnity

By William Shick

In the darkness the Beast of All Shapes consumed, and wherever it strode chaos and savagery reigned. In its shadow, hordes of twisted and wicked creatures enacted its vile and terrible will. The Beast and its children sought to extinguish the order Menoth willed upon Caen. Though Menoth had left His children to prove themselves worthy of its attention, He had not forgotten them. For their refusal to bend beneath the onslaught of the Vomiter of Darkness, Menoth gave His chosen tribes the instruments they would need to repel and conquer the darkness. The first of his gifts was the Flame, both weapon and beacon to cast back the shadow. Second was the Wall - as long as it surrounded their homes and the Faithful stood vigil upon it, the Beast’s minions would break as surf upon a rock.

  • The Canon of the True Law


Since the days of the Orgoth, the small town of Tolven had stood within the oppressive darkness of the Olgunholt forest as a bastion of civilization carved from the wilds. A simple two-story stone temple devoted to Menoth dominated the town square, which was surrounded by modest clay-roofed houses. Around the town Stood a stout wall of logs hewn from the forest.The brilliant orange glow that illuminated the night might have been beautiful were it not for one simple fact: It was Tolven itseIf that burned.

High Paladin Dahkev Falchin of the Order of the Wall felt the heat at his back and heard the clamor of voices as the defenders struggled to douse the flames, but his focus did not waver. His grip tightened on his mighty firebrand, Vigil, as the shapes of two bestial Tharn broke from their pack to move toward him.The flickering light gave their movements an unworldly grace even as it made their unnatural appearance yet more terrifying. Sensing slow prey, the Tharn split up, one rushing straight at Dahkev while the other circled about to flank him. As the hulking form of the first Tharn strode within reach, the heavily armored paladin planted his feet firmly into the earth and set his Tower Shield between him and his attacker…

He intoned a prayer taught to all initiates of the Order of the Wall: “I am an embodiment of Menoth’s gifts. I wield the flame and am the wall against which the darkness breaks.”

The Tharn ravager’s first blow thudded harmlessly into. great Dahkev’s defense. The paladin delivered a crosswise cut that that caught the unarmored Tharn directly in his side and sliced

clean through his spine. Sensing the second attacker charging from his left, Dahkev leveraged all his strength and brought his shield around to crash into the Tharn’s thickly muscled body. The heavy shield knocked the ravager off balance, and the incoming strike glanced off Dahkev’s shoulder. In a blur, Dahkev brought Vigil down in an overhand swing and cleaved through the Tharn’s head like an overripe melon.

As Dahkev pushed into the attacking Tharn, he heard several cruelly barbed javelins hiss by and thud into the earth behind him. Years of intense physical conditioning gave him a speed

belied by his heavily armoured appearance. He charged and engaged several female bloodtrackers who had sought to lay him low from a distance. Their bladed fighting claws bounced off his heavy armor, even as his own sword cut a bloody swath among the agile but unarmored huntresses. Though his blade reaped a grim tally, hundreds more Tharn seemed to pour forth from the darkness toward the burning gates of Tolven.

The defenders atop the wall fired, and Dahkev watched as the crossbow bolts felled several of the enemy. He was relieved to see Valinte and his Exemplar errants unleash volley after volley from their blessed crossbows into the Devourer worshipers with disciplined efficiency, then draw their blades and shields to engage the Tharn that overtook them.

Dahkev continued forward, sending another Tharn to the wilds of Urcaen with each step. Despite the tumult around him, his mind remained as steady as the mountain against the storm. Where Vigil struck and failed to kill, holy flames engulfed his foe in Menoth’s cleansing fire. With each stroke, Dahkev heard the voice of his old master, steady and rhythmic within his mind: ”Shield up, eyes focused on your next opponent, not your last. Shield up, eyes focused…”

As Dahkev looked to his next opponent, his gaze fell upon the largest Tharn warrior he had ever seen. Atop his head sat a crown of bones made from cracked human femurs. Macabre armor woven from a variety of bones, many of them human, covered his chest. In his hands he held a massive hooked axe, chipped with constant use but gleaming deadly in the firelight. Dahkev watched in horror as a mighty blow of the axe smashed one of Valinte’s Exemplars to the ground, splitting the knight’s armor open like a walnut. With a roar of triumph, the Tharn punched through the knight’s exposed chest. Dahkev closed his eyes as the human screamed. When Dahkev opened his eyes, he saw the Tharn’s massive hand dripping with blood from the knight’s beating heart in its iron grip. The creature brought the bloody organ to his lips and tore into the tough muscle. A rush of fresh slick blood flowed from his fanged maw.

A righteous anger surged through Dahkev. His holy duty compelled him to send this embodiment of the Beast of All Shapes screaming into the abyss of Urcaen. He gave a shout and brought his sword down in a blur. The savage nimbly sidestepped the strike, and Vigil thudded into the dirt. As Dahkev stumbled, the Tharn stepped back before delivering his own powerful blow. The paladin brought his shield up to block and felt his arm go numb from the impact. He desperately tried to regain his footing quickly, but the speed of the attacks kept him on the defensive. As the Tharn brought his axe down for an overhand strike, Dahkev raised his shield high, and the axe rebounded. For a fleeting moment, the Tharn’s midsection was exposed. Dahkev lashed out with Vigil, but once again his opponent leapt clear of the danger.

The Tharn chieftain struck low to take out Dahkev’s leg below the knee. Dhakev was ready for such a move and stepped back in time to avoid it. In an uncanny display of skill, the Tharn reversed the blow mid-swing, and the back edge of his axe crashed into Dahkev’s shin guard. Dahkev’s leg buckled from the impact, but he caught himself just in time to block another sweeping strike. The keen edge of the Tharn’s weapon buried itself in the heavy wood of the paladin’s shield.

Seizing the opportunity, Dahkev released his hold on the shield and drove forward. He ignored the pain in his leg and brought Vigil up in a slashing arc that shattered the Tharn’s bone armor and carved through the thick, corded muscle of his torso. With a howl the chieftain fell back. Smoke rose from the wound, but to Dahkev’s surprise, the creature’s impure flesh did not ignite.

The paladin limped in pain as he leveled Vigil at the Tharn’s neck, his eyes staring intently into those of his enemy. The Tharn’s face twisted into a snarl of rage and pain before he spoke in guttural Ordic: “Your walls mean nothing against the power of the Wurm. They shall fail against its fury, and my brethren will feast upon your flesh.”

Before Dahkev could deliver the coup de grace, he was knocked off balance as a lithe figure pounced on him and pinned his arms to his side with powerful leg muscles. He struggled to free himself as the Tharn hunting claws struck his armor, searching for a vulnerable join in the heavy plate. He retained his footing and found himself face-to-face with a female Tharn, her features concealed beneath a mask of tanned deer hide. Her lips curled back in a snarl that exposed predatory canines, and she roared curses in her guttural language, the stink of her hot breath assaulting his nose. Despite the fury of her assault, Dahkev’s armor held firm and blunted each strike. He drew back his head and drove it forward to crash his heavy steel helm into the bloodtracker’s face with a satisfying crunch. Her grip on his arms loosened. With a roar of his own, he wrenched his arms free and pushed with all his might to send her flying. Instead of crashing to the ground, the Tharn huntress’ body twisted quickly in midair, and she landed in a crouched battle stance. Dahkev grimaced as he realized she now stood between him and his sword, which lay by the Tharn chieftain.

The hiss of crossbow bolts cut the air. As the first two struck the ground just short of her, the huntress growled and sprang up into a somersault; the next round of bolts struck the ground where she had just been. Dahkev could see the tension in her body as she looked to him and then to the wounded Tharn warrior. Another volley of crossbow bolts forced her to dash back with incredible speed. Dahkev tensed. He contemplated making a move for his sword, but it would mean leaving his side exposed. He did not doubt the bloodtracker would be on top of him before he could reach Vigil. The decision was made for him when he heard Valinte give a battle cry behind him and charge.

Even faced with several charging Exemplar Errants, the Tharn female seemed reluctant to retreat, but with a final grow, she related and sprang well out of danger. Dahkev frowned as he watched her go. She turned to look back one last time at the falled Tharn chieftain before disappearing into the darkness.

Valentine sheathed his sword as he said, “Is your nobility so great that you feel it dishonorable to face a female Devourer worshiper with your blade?”

Dhakev ignored the jab. He knew there was little to be gained from indulging Valinte’s insults. There had been no love lost between them as children, and it seemed the rift between them had only widened since Valinte had joined the ranks of the Exemplar order. Dahkev supposed that, in essence, their mutual hostility underscored the issues Tolven had faced since its conversion from the more traditional Ordic Menite beliefs to the Sul-Menite faith of the Protectorate of Menoth, back when their fathers had been children.

Since childhood Dahkev had heard the tales of how Vice Scrutator Severius had emerged from the forest and used divine magic and holy fire to lay low the greatest horde of Devourer worshipers ever to best the walls of Tolven. After he had cleansed the outlying woods, Severius had stood before the people and persuaded the town of Tolven to join the Sul-Menite fold. He had helped establish several institutions, including an Exemplar garrison, and had left behind several knights from his own personal escort to aid in defense while new initiates were recruited and trained.

His most tangible and impressive gift to the town of Tolven, however, had been a battle-scarred Crusader warjack named Burden of Duty. Severius had commanded it to protect the town from all that would do it harm. The warjack had helped complete the new temple and then taken up vigil in front of the sacred building, where it had stood without stirring for many years now. Burden of Duty nevertheless remained a powerful symbol of the town’s oaths to Menoth and Imer, and the townsfolk had kept the machine’s heartfire constantly lit and refueled.

Despite the town’s conversion, some tenets of the Sul-Menite faith had yet to take hold among the faithful there. According to old temple law, the scrutator always served as a masked dispenser of judgment and punishment, and Severius’ Exemplars believed the scrutator caste should be regarded above all ordinary clergy. Tolven’s governance had not yet been given over to the scrutator, though. Instead, the senior-most town priest, a potentate of traditional leanings, had remained in charge of tending to the faithful. The Exemplars preferred to turn to the town’s current scrutator, a younger and ambitious priest named Thallion, who admired the ways of the Protectorate.

'The last of the temple’s senior potentates, Valinte’s father, had always held the Order of the Wall in high regard. He had been less enthusiastic about his son joining the growing Exemplar order, and the two had become estranged. With the passing of Valinte’s father, the Exemplars had grown stronger and had helped elevate Scrutator and Potentate Thallion to leadership of the clergy above two more experienced priests, severing the town’s final ties to the old ways. Following his ascension, Thallion’s policies soon brought him into conflict with the Order of the Wall and Dahkev.

“Valinte, this one is still alive!” one of the Exemplars shouted as he kicked the wounded Tharn chieftain hard in the ribs.

“Excellent. We will bring him to Scrutator Thallion. He will make a good example to the savages our blessed weapons failed to slay today.”

Dahkev paused as he lifted Vigil from the ground. “For years the Tharn have been content to leave Tolven unmolested, the memory of Severius’ cleansing fire still echoing in their minds. The only citizens who needed to fear them were those who lived in the outskirts or ventured deep into the wilds. Yet within a week of your order’s raid on their hunting grounds, they mounted one of their most brutal attacks in twenty years. Now you seek to antagonize them further? Fulfill our duty as guardians of Tolven and its people. Dispatch this one and be done with it, lest you tempt the Beast’s minions to greater acts of depravity.”

Valinte scoffed. “Our duty is to Menoth and Scrutator Thallion, who serves him. Our faith is the instrument that allows us to fulfill our duty even when we do not understand it. Your order would do well to remember this.”

Dahkev opened his mouth to retort, then sighed. He turned to help the townspeople already repairing the damage of the night’s attack. The fires upon the wall had been extinguished, replaced by the fires of funeral pits fed with the bodies of fallen Tharn, deemed unworthy of proper burial. Dahkev’s eyes rested upon the forms of Tolven’s fallen citizens, and he stopped.

“I remember the lessons of your father - the same lessons he tried to teach you. He would say faith is making hard decisions in service to those you have sworn to protect, despite the consequences.” He stooped to pick up his ruined shield, then continued, quoting scripture: “‘When the Vomiter of Darkness threatened to extinguish man, who had never bowed to Menoth, He extended compassion and gave man the gifts to shelter himself against the darkness.’ Your order would do well to remember that."

Before Valinte could respond, Dahkev strapped the ruined shield on his back, rested Vigil across his shoulder, and made his way back to Tolven, prepared for a long night of watch.

Safely hidden among the thick boughs of a mighty oak tree, Hunt Mother Casidhe watched the town of Tolven. Her body remained completely still, but fury raged within her, and her thoughts were a jumble. She had watched the armored knights take their tuath’s chieftain, Verock, from the battlefield. Heightened by the power of her own transformation, her keen eyes peered through the early morning gloom, past the walls and houses to the central building upon which sat the hated symbol of Menoth, the Devourer’s greatest enemy. There she saw Verock bound and stretched across a black iron rack. Cruel barbed chains bit into his ankles and wrists while weighted censers filled with acrid incense pulled the chains taut. The pain had to be excruciating, yet Verock did not make a single sound. Pride swelled within her breast. She had chosen her mate well.

Silently her athletic form leapt from tree limb to tree limb before her feet hit the soft earth. She raced through the thick undergrowth, back toward her tuath. She bounded through the forest, the power of the Wurm giving her body strength and stamina far beyond that of any lesser creature. She was predation given form, every sense razor sharp. She could smell the musk of deer and hear the scratching of rodents beneath the soft, decaying leaves upon the forest floor. Despite the thick canopy through which only dusty yellow rays of light shone, Casidhe could see everything with crystal clarity. A thin sheen of sweat covered her body, but she felt no fatigue as she strode to the center of the Kuroc camp. Her personal guard, a pair of huntresses, bowed their heads in submission. A gruff voice called from behind her, and a hulking Tharn pushed his way through the smaller females. A mane of white hair cascaded from a helm made from the skull of an elk. Casidhe instantly recognized her father, Tormac, and raised her hand in greeting as he approached.

“Hunt Mother,” Tormac said, bowing his head slightly, “I am pleased you have returned to us. With Verock gone the tribe looks to you alone now. You must choose a new mate and chieftain to lead us. Already dissent grows.” He growled as he looked toward a group of Tharn males standing nearby. Their leader Gorsad, a hulking brute with a ragged scar running down his chest, bared his teeth in a grin-a clear challenge to the older Tharn warrior.

“Verock is not dead. The humans of the village have taken him.” Casidhe said viciously, watching as he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Too long has the truce between our former chieftain and their weak priest kept us from wiping their stain from our land. A truce they sought to wash away in our blood. Now they seek to break Verock’s spirit. But I intend to take him back and drown the streets of their accursed town in their own blood.”

“Casidhe-_” Tormac stopped and corrected himself. “Hunt Mother, this is not our way. Verock has fallen in battle. Dead or alive, he is no longer fit to lead us. The Beast values only strength.”

Casidhe fixed Tormac with an icy glare. “I will have Verock back. And I will see that he and I will feast upon the hearts of those who have shackled him! I am your priestess and this is my will!” Her mood riled her chosen guard, and she felt them tense.

Before Tormac could respond, another voice broke in. “Tormac may be old, but he speaks wisdom. Verock is gone. It is time you chose a more worthy mate.”

Casidhe spun to face the intruder. Her eyes narrowed as Gorsad approached. “There is no debate. I am the priestess and hunt mother of this tribe. Beware you do not overstep yourself in these matters,” she snarled.

The challenger locked eyes with her as his lips pulled back to reveal carefully groomed teeth. “Perhaps it is you who oversteps. If you are not willing to perform your duties, there are other females who will.”

Casidhe could sense the eyes of the entire tuath upon them, carefully watching the confrontation to see how she would respond to this challenge against her leadership


She lashed out as fast as a viper striking, her hunting claw slicing a wicked gash across Gorsad’s face. The Tharn male howled and with a sweep of his arm knocked her off balance. His body twisted as bones and skin reshaped themselves into a true visage of the Beast of All Shapes. With a speed belied by his size, he pulled his great axe off his back and into a deadly arc, cleaving one of Casidhe’s guards in twain. Before the body had reached the ground he had already stepped forward and applied his enormous strength to reverse the direction of the cumbersome weapon, bringing the haft up to smash into Tormac’s face and send the elder reeling. Casidhe let out a war cry and rushed forward even as her single remaining honor guard surged toward Gorsad, but his wide, powerful swings forced them all back. He had long been a powerful devotee of the Beast, second only to Verock in ferocity and strength, and now he directed all his rage at Casidhe. She twisted left and right, ducked under his guard and struck at him with her hunting claw, but she seemed unable to do more than superficial damage.

She leapt to avoid another axe strike, but Gorsad bashed his heavily muscled body into her, knocking her to the ground. She was at his mercy, but her rage and pride remained undiminished. Suddenly she saw his triumph turn to shock. A loud report of gunfire rang out, and Gorsad fell to his knees, blood pouring from a hole his chest.

At the forest edge thirty feet behind them, Caside saw a woman clad in a chainmail skirt and dark overcoat holding a smoking hand cannon, a wicked grin upon her face. A pair of massive horns curved up from beneath her tangled jet-black hair, and acrid smoke poured from the twin stacks that rose from her back, their ends carved to resemble grinning skulls. At her side a brutal-looking sword gleamed in the dim forest light.

The Tharn who had been watching the fight now turned menacingly toward the Satyxis. Before they could close on her, the ground around her burst, spraying wet clumps of earth. Out of this crawled several helljacks on taloned feet, grotesque jaws clacking like those of macabre puppets. The forest erupted into tumult as two more hulking helljacks scuttled forth on crab-like legs and came to rest just behind their mistress.

Before the Tharn could react to these new threats the Satyxis warcaster said, “I come looking to parley with yer mistress. The one called Casidhe.”

Casidhe recognized the Ordic words. Verock had taught her the tongue to better understand their enemies. Bounding up from the ground, she stepped forward with a confidence acquired through years as a Tharn leader and fixed the woman with her most predatory stare. “I am Casidhe, Priestess of the Kuroc tuath. You have interfered in affairs that do not concern you. Tell me why I should not strike you down and feast upon your heart beneath the moons.”

The intruder laughed. “I admire yer spirit, but I’ave seen the weave of fate, and that is not a thread ye wish to pull.” The woman rested her hand calmly upon the hilt of her sword. “I be Skarre Ravenmane. I come to recover something of great value from within the walls of Tolven.”

“Why should this matter to us?” Casidhe asked.

“The fates tell me there be something that belongs to ye there as well, yes? I offer an alliance. A way for us both to get what we want.” Her cold, pale eyes gleamed with power waiting to be unleashed.

“If Tolven has such treasures hidden within it, why would we let you have them? Perhaps we should simply kill you and take both for ourselves.”

Skarre’s posture changed and a bemused look crossed her features. “The artifact I want is the skull of someone who was very close to an enemy of my master.”

Casidhe fought to restrain her fury. “Do not mock me! You expect me to believe that you have traveled all this way for a piece of a dead man?”

“Aye, that I 'ave. My lord wishes to question this man in order to learn the weaknesses of his enemy.” The Tharn felt gooseflesh rise on her skin as a dark nimbus of energy began to glow about the woman. Sickly green runes coalesced and circled Skarre’s body. “For us, there is no tale a dead man will not tell.” Her black lips cracked in a wicked half-smile. “So, we 'ave an accord?”

Casidhe looked at the dark tempest that raged around the woman, then at each of her monstrous warjacks. She could imagine the walls of Tolven knocked to the ground, taste the flesh of its people, feel their warm, coppery blood infuse her with the Devourer’s power. Most of all, she thought of the terrible vengeance she would wreak with Verock at her side.

She realized she was smiling so wide it hurt.

Dahkev stood within Tolven’s temple, despair growing within him as the potentate addressed those gathered. Since their last attack, the Tharn had butchered the families who inhabited the farms outside the wall and left the gruesome evidence in the fields before the city. Though people living on the outskirts had gone missing from time to time in the past, their remote and isolated condition had seemed to spare them the Tharn’s full attention. Now it was as if a black force guided the savage creatures to every last one, and Thallion pushed for a violent response, which would surely endanger the entire city.

“The agents of the Beast seek to destroy us from without. They butcher the faithful and stand as a blight upon our land. By Menoth’s holy command, it is our duty to cleanse the stain of the Vomiter of Darkness from all of Caen once and for all!” Scrutator Thallion thumped his staff on the temple’s stone floor to punctuate his point to the council. The Exemplars shouted agreement while the paladins yelled their dissent.

Dahkev could no longer stand by and listen to this madness. “You have already provoked the Tharn twice, against the advice of my order: once by sending your Exemplars into the depths of the forest and now by torturing their chieftain rather than sending him straight to Urcaen. And look how they have responded! With a savagery we have never seen the like of before. Now you wish to empty our defenses and make war upon them in their dark forest?” Dahkey was shocked to hear the words pour from his own mouth. “You may believe the Tharn to be simple savages, but they are gifted with a cunning that rivals that of the greatest predators on Caen. They want us to step outside the safety of our walls.”

Valinte’s voice rang out in accusation. “The Order of the Wall would rather hide behind fortifications than deliver the judgment of Menoth to the barbarous disciples of his ancient foe.”

“We hide behind no wall, but stand upon it as a bulwark against the darkness of all that would seek to harm Menoth’s flock,” Dahkev responded. “Our duty is to protect the living, not seek vengeance for the reclaimed.”

The temple erupted in shouts as Exemplars, paladins, and town representatives argued over the best course of action. The low drumming of Scrutator Thallion’s priestly staff of office upon the stone floor broke the clamor.

“I will have order in this holy place! Our path is clear, and my command is backed by the power afforded my station as Menoth’s chosen representative. We will take the fight to the lair of the Beast and end, once and for all, their oppressive blight upon the faithful.” He turned his golden-masked face toward Dahkev. “That the Order of the Wall does not consent to join our holy crusade is immaterial. Your order is steeped in archaic tradition at odds with the needs of the present. Stand upon your wall and await our glorious return. There are many others who will gladly serve as instruments of the Lawgiver’s holy wrath.” He turned back to the assembled congregation and lifted his arms. “To war, for the glory of Menoth!”


Casidhe watched silently as the column of Menites slowly made their way through the overgrown trail, deeper into the forest. Her hand tightened around the haft of a javelin. It had been Skarre’s plan that used the humans settled outside Tolven to their advantage. The Satyxis had divined the location of each isolated farm and had promised that the display of the remains would draw the Menites from within their walls. She had not predicted, however, that they would bring Verock along as some kind of trophy. Casidhe fought the urge to race toward his flayed and weary body and kill every last Menite she could find.

The front of the Menite column passed a heavily overgrown waystone, and Casidhe lifted her hand in signal. The Tharn’s inhuman howls filled the calm forest air as they charged forth, their deadly weapons gleaming. Casidhe hurled her javelin at an armored knight as she ran. The barbed projectile punched through armor to pierce the man’s vital organs. Smiling with satisfaction, she instinctively drew another javelin and hurled it into the chaos even as her powerful legs propelled her over the uneven landscape toward Verock.

As she weaved through the swirling melee she saw knight clash against Tharn, calm discipline leveled against brute force. She saw Tormac, his beard streaked with blood, swinging his great axe in wide, powerful arcs, his superior strength and reach reaping a grim harvest among the Menites. A priestly acolyte sought to lay him low with a blow from a holy staff, but Tormac simply roared and ripped out the acolyte’s throat with a free hand. He brought the fresh hunk of flesh to his mouth, and the bloody sacrifice fueled his assault.

Casidhe was within yards of the cart that carried Verock and a heavily vested priest whose face was hidden behind a gold mask when an Exemplar attempted to block her path. She feigned a strike with her claw, and in the split second he brought up his shield, she leapt. Using the knight’s shield as a stepping stone, she bounded over his head, thrusting a javelin into his back as she did so. She landed in the cart and backhanded the priest with her hunting claw to send him unconscious to the ground.

From this elevated vantage point she could better view the tide of battle. Though the Tharn’s savage ambush was wreaking havoc among the Menites, the calm discipline of the Exemplar errants created a bulwark against the slaughter. Now the Tharn had been pushed back, and Skarre was beginning her own assault.

A high-pitched wail sliced through the cacophony of battle as a sickly green energy bolt tore through the air. It exploded into flames amid a tightly packed group of knights and consumed them. The dull report of a Leviathan’s spiker cannon was followed by the tortured screams of its victims.Around the Exemplar column, the ground erupted as the Helldivers emerged. Their gnashing maws tore apart flesh and armor alike. Casidhe saw the horned visage of Skarre herself wading into battle, green runes swirling about her as she cleaved through Menites with casual ease.

Seeing the tide of battle turning, Casidhe focused on Verock. His breath came in shallow, ragged gasps, and his bruised flesh was riddled with festering sores. She felt her breath catch in her throat as she looked into his eyes. Where vibrant green had once shone fiercely, there was now only charred tissue. She tried to control her shock as she cut him down from the rack. “Verock, my chieftain, I am here. You are free.”

Verock tried to speak, his voice raw and cracked from days without water. Finally with great effort he whispered, “Casidhe…” His hand searched blindly for her. She grabbed it and pulled it to her cheek. “I always knew … I had chosen my mate … well.”

Casidhe felt tears burn her eyes as she fought the storm within her. “It was I who chose well.” She gingerly kissed his hand as she held it against her face. Verock’s chest slowed, then stilled completely. Tears streamed down her face. Then she threw her head back and howled. Her body shook with rage as she released his hand.

She leapt down onto the back of an Exemplar battling two bloodtrackers. The twin blades of her claw sank into the gap between his helm and shoulder armor, and a crimson spray of arterial blood covered her face. Before his body hit the ground, she sprang toward another errant, pinning him beneath his shield, and drove her claw through the visor slit of his helm. In her fury she allowed the Devourer’s power coursing through her veins to consume her entire being. She killed without thought or plan. Where she stepped, chaos and destruction reigned. Even as the last Menite fell from her blade, her fury had yet to be appeased.

From the corner of her eye Casidhe saw the priest who had been with Verock beginning to stir. Her eyes narrowed, she stalked toward him and ripped the golden mask from his head. His eyes blinked open and widened in shock, and she growled in Ordic, “You have taken what is most precious to me. Now it is my turn. Your town will burn and the flesh of your people shall be consumed in honor of the Beast. But their suffering shall be nothing compared to yours. Before I am done, you shall beg me to rip your heart from your chest and feast upon it before your eyes.”

High Paladin Dahkev stood upon the wall of Tolven and stared toward the dense, shadowed forest. His every sense waited for yet another Tharn attack or, as he found himself hoping more and more, the sounds of Scrutator Thallion and his war host’s return. Nearly five days had passed since Thallion had led the entire garrison of Exemplars, and those townspeople foolhardy enough to follow, into the forest to bring the Tharn to heel. Though Dahkev hoped for their return, rationally he knew they were dead the second they left the town’s gates.

For the last two days the town had been under constant attack by small bands of Tharn. Dahkev and his fellow paladins had repulsed each assault, but something about the raids had troubled him. For all their savagery, the Tharn possessed malevolent cunning. They would not throw away warriors or expend effort for no gain. Though the attacks had certainly put the townspeople on edge and ensured that Dahkev had enjoyed very little sleep, they had ultimately accomplished nothing. He rocked on his feet, trying to ward off the fatigue as his mind puzzled, when a familiar voice rang out behind him.

Hunger, exhaustion, pain: these are feelings of the body. But the body is nothing but a vessel. It is subservient to the true power that lies within, the soul gifted at birth and destined to be reclaimed by Menoth. Your flesh will try to deceive you, to hide the truth that it is your soul which commands your flesh and not the opposite. Master your soul, and your flesh will be sustained by the will of Menoth." Dahkev turned and saw the elderly form of Grand Paladin Colm Kannock. A thin smile stretched across the man’s wizened face as he indicated the cup he carried. “Of course, the soul never minds a hot cup of tea.”

Though the grand paladin was nearly seventy years old, his eyes still burned with the fires of youth. Combined with the rough, close-cropped white beard that framed his jaw, they gave him a rakish appearance at odds with what one would expect from the head of their town’s martial order. He stood unbent by age, tall and proud. He wore only the simple garb of his office, but his firebrand Heretic’s Debt hung at his side.

Dahkev bowed his head as he accepted the steaming cup from Colm. He blew on it to cool its contents, then took a slow, soothing draught of the hot liquid. He felt his exhaustion recede. “Thank you, master.”

The old paladin simply winked. “Trials of the flesh are for neophytes and Exemplars. Though the lessons of the soul and its superiority over flesh are important, a paladin understands that sometimes an act of compassion is all that is required to bring the rebellious body to heel.” Colm made a show of stretching his stiff neck. “A lesson that one truly begins to appreciate at my age.” He moved past Dahkev and took a position on the wall. “So, no sign of our scrutator?”

“No, I fear we are on our own.” Dahkev set the mug on the rampart.

“Menoth reclaims us all in his own time. We can only hope to show such worth on Caen that he invites us to take our place within Urcaen.” Colm’s sharp eyes narrowed as he peered into the gloom of the forest. “And speaking of visitors, it seems we have some now.”

Dahkev’s body tensed as he followed Colm’s gaze. He expected to see Tharn pouring from the woods. Instead he was shocked to see a line of strangely armored knights riding at a gentle trot from the tree line. Both mounts and riders bore mirror-smooth white armor, which curved in elegant patterns before terminating in brutal spikes. Emblazoned upon the knights’ shields were sinuous runes that spiraled and twisted about a central point. Each rider held aloft a peculiar lance, while a strangely curved greatsword rested in a sheath at his side.

The lead rider broke from his compatriots and galloped forward to stop before the gates of Tolven and the paladins upon the wall. The rider paused for a moment before pulling his ornate helm from his head. Dahkev gasped as a pair of long, pointed ears became visible. Dahkev had heard stories of the elven race, but never in his life had he believed he would see one of its members- -much less a whole mounted contingent of them!- before the gates of Tolven.

The elf raised his gauntleted hand in greeting and called out in perfect Ordic, “Defenders of Tolven, I have come to offer aid to you against the coming storm that threatens to leave your town awash in its own people’s blood.”

Dahkev called back, “How do we know you are not the same storm of which you speak?”

The elf stared at him, his sharp features cold and emotionless.They were so pristine, they reminded Dahkev of the porcelain dolls his mother had kept from her childhood. “Much like you, paladin, I serve the will of my goddess. She has shown me terrible visions I cannot fathom, yet which through my faith have led me here to protect this place.” He reached into a satchel on the side of his saddle. Dahkev could see sunlight glint off a gold surface as the elf withdrew something. “Whether you believe in my visions or not, I know your order to be charged with defending the ranks of your god’s followers. The Tharn have already destroyed the soldiers of your town who marched to meet them within the woods.” He lifted Thallion’s golden scrutator mask high into the air for Dahkev to see. “My men and I seek nothing from you or your people. We only wish to fulfill the will of our goddess, and on this day the Tharn are our enemies.”

In disbelief, Dahkev looked to Colm for guidance. “What do we do now?”

The grand paladin’s fierce brown eyes fixed on Dahkev’s. “My time on this world grows short. You must begin accepting the burden of command. Listen to your soul and Menoth will guide you.”

Dahkev slowly nodded and looked back over the ramparts. “What is your name?”

The elf stared back before replying, “I am Fane Knight Skeryth Issyen.”

“Fane Knight Skeryth Issyen,” Dahkev said, “welcome to Tolven.”

Casidhe inhaled the cool morning air as she ran her finger down the exposed torso of the Menite priest who had taken Verock from her. She took particular delight as she pressed her nail into his soft flesh and felt skin and muscle part, rewarding her with a fresh stream of blood. The Menite struggled against his bonds, which held him taut against the same device they had used to torture Verock.

She turned back to survey the town of Tolven, its tall wooden walls a seemingly indomitable bulwark against the surrounding wilds. So long had they kept the Menites safe from the predations of the Devourer. She felt the hulking form of Tormac move up beside her, the smell of his hot breath and matted furs assaulting her heightened senses.

“It is time to show these Menites the fate that awaits them,” she said, turning to look at the powerful white mane. A crimson gash still lingered across the side of his face where Gorsad had struck him, making the mighty Tharn look all the more feral. She pointed to the priest. “Bring him and follow me.” She strode out into the open field as Tormac hefted the iron rack with a grunt. She pointed for him to plant the device into the soft earth, then let out an unearthly war cry.
Tormac tilted his head back and added his own booming cry to hers. On cue, guttural Tharn cries filled the forest around Tolven and built to a deafening crescendo. They stopped just as suddenly. Casidhe watched the walls of Tolven spring to life as the townspeople rushed to see what enemy lay beyond. She enjoyed the sight of them scrambling about like ants whose colony had been disturbed. Satisfied that their eyes were now fixed on her, she drew a wicked ceremonial dagger from her belt and strode slowly to the struggling priest.

She leaned in close, her cheek pressed against his, and said softly, “Now you can show your people how they will be sent screaming to the belly of the Devourer.” With a sudden jerk of her arm she drove the dagger into the priest’s midsection and slowly dragged the blade up to his sternum, then plunged her hand into the wound. His unnatural shrieks escalated as her hand pushed its way through the inside of his chest cavity. Warm blood slicked down her arm as her fingers finally wrapped around his rapidly beating heart. She let her hand rest there for a moment as she looked into the priest’s wild gaze. His body shuddered uncontrollably from shock. “For you, my chieftain,” she said as she yanked with all her force. She grunted as the arteries and veins resisted and tore. Then she withdrew her prize. With her free hand she pulled the priest’s head up by his hair so he could see the red mass of muscle she held aloft. She brought it to her mouth and tore off a great chunk with pointed teeth. She savored the look in his fading eyes as he watched her devour his heart.

Dahkev forced himself to watch the gruesome sight–a reminder that should he falter in his duty, all of Tolven would be subject to a similar grisly fate. As the Tharn priestess completed her ritual and discarded the bloody lump of flesh, the ground around the town’s gates heaved. Several Helldiver bonejacks burst forth and skittered on black iron talons to rip great chunks from the sturdy gates. The defenders hurried to combat them, and the entire forest erupted with Tharn as if the black maw of the Devourer itself had vomited them forth.

Dahkev raced down the wall and toward the gates, which were already splintered from the bonejacks’ voracious maws. With a loud crack of shattered timber, the gates broke apart and the infernal machines raced forward. Dahkev leveled his mighty shield, and other paladins joined him to create a steel wall against the onrushing tide. With practiced calm he waited until the first Helldiver leapt toward him, then swung Vigil in a graceful arc that caught the bonejack square in the middle. With a shower of sparks, the blessed blade clove clean through armor plating and delicate internal workings. The Helldiver crashed to the ground with a hiss of steam, the green fire extinguished from its eyes.

Dahkev turned. Another Helldiver had driven a nearby paladin to the ground under its heavy bulk. He brought Vigil crashing down on the Helldiver’s carapace and held its gnashing teeth at bay with his mighty tower shield. As Menoth’s holy fire consumed the machine, Dahkev pulled his battered compatriot to his feet. The gates breached, massive Tharn ravagers charged the shining wall of paladins. The attackers’ powerful hooked axes swept in brutal arcs to crash down in punishing overhanded blows. Townspeople armed with crossbows loosed barbed arrows to strike at any bestial warriors who broke through the line.

Sweat dripped down Dahkev’s face as he held against the press of Tharn. Vigil wreaked Menoth’s own terrible vengeance upon the worshipers of his ancient foe. Dahkev felt the Tharn tide ebb, and his spirits soared as the gate was suddenly clear of enemies. He was about to raise his shield in triumph when he heard screams behind him. He turned to see the wall to his left ripped down by two monstrous helljacks, which scuttled over the shattered timbers like creatures of nightmare.

Several paladins moved to slow the Cryxian machines, their firebrands cleaving great scores into the helliacks’ armor. Amid the battle, a woman with massive horns jutting from her head stepped casually between the two helljacks. Dahkev watched as she leveled a bladed hand cannon at the first paladin and fired a bullet into his shoulder, then raced forward and drove her sword through his midsection before he could react. A second paladin moved to avenge his fallen brother. She kicked the dead paladin off her blade and into the feet of the onrushing one, who tripped and crashed to the ground. Her eyes flared with power, and the Harrower that had just climbed over the shattered wall drove its great scything claw into the downed paladin’s back, easily punching through armor and flesh. The warcaster then spun and parried the third paladin’s strike. His blade glanced harmlessly off her own, even as she brought her horned head forward in a vicious headbutt that sent him crashing to the ground. As she reloaded her pistol, she pinned him down with a heeled boot pressed hard onto his torso. Snapping the breach of her hand cannon shut, she looked down with a satisfied smirk, then discharged the weapon directly into his exposed face.

Dahkey’s insides twisted at the fate of his brothers, but he had no time to avenge their deaths; Tharn now poured from both the shattered gate and breached wall. The Tharn and the two powerful helliacks drove the town’s defenders back toward the temple, where the women and children had taken refuge. As the mass of Tharn shoved into the close confines of Tolven’s narrow streets, Dahkev made one last prayer to Menoth that his elven allies would remain true to their word.

Casidhe watched as Skarre’s helliacks tore down Tolven’s walls and the Helldivers shattered the gates. Skarre had asked for diversionary attacks so her Helldivers could get within range of the gates unnoticed, and it had been well worth the small price in Tharn blood. Casidhe spared the Satyxis no more thought as the woman slipped off to plunder whatever grave it was she sought. The Cryxian helljacks were left among the Tharn to aid their slaughter.

Filled with the power of the Devourer, Casidhe raced through the streets of Tolven, laying waste to its defenders with claw and javelin. Tormac remained close by, dispatching Menites with each powerful sweep of his axe. Though each kill brought her satisfaction, Casidhe hunted one paladin in particular: the one who had bested Verock and ordered him tortured at the hands of the priest she had slaughtered.

Following his scent amid the chaos of battle, she rounded a corner to find him surrounded by a group of defenders engaged in a fighting retreat. A smile broke across her face, and she vaulted onto a nearby roof to dart across the rooftops of the small, close-packed houses. She drew a javelin from her quiver, her grip tightening in anticipation of the kill. As she drew back her arm to send the barbed projectile into the paladin’s neck, she heard the distinct rumble of thunder shake the cobbled streets.

Her heart jumped into her throat; a shining line of white losan knights charged down from the central temple, then split to drive through the streets choked with combatants. The paladins broke away with coordinated precision and pressed themselves as best they could against the walls of the houses, leaving the Tharn to suffer the full brunt of the mounted assault. Gleaming lances pierced Tharn flesh while the warhorses’ iron-shod hooves and bladed helms added to the carnage. Casidhe watched as Tormac was run through by a knight’s lance, only to strike down its bearer and two other knights before he was finally laid low, three lances driven through his body.

From her elevated vantage point, she saw another group of cavalry led by a knight in particularly ornate armor crash into the Leviathan. Several well-placed strikes brought it crashing to the ground with a shriek of ruptured piping and escaping steam.

While the weaker flanks fell to the weight of the powerful cavalry charge, the mass of Tharn warriors in the center where Casidhe now stalked her prey held firm. The impetus of their charge broken, the knights were quickly overwhelmed. The brutal Tharn pulled them from their mounts and hacked them apart with their axes. The remaining defenders retreated to the temple. Snarling at her quarry’s lucky escape, Casidhe took one last look at the fallen form of Tormac before resuming her hunt.

Dahkev grunted as a Tharn axe tore his shield from his grasp. Gripping Vigil in both hands, he swung the blade in an upward arc to split the ravager from groin to sternum. Though he would fight to his last breath, he realized that, with the enemy bolstered by the Cryxian helljacks, the defenders of Tolven stood little chance.

The last of his paladins clustered around the town center, in front of the indomitable figure of the Crusader called Burden of Duty. Grand Paladin Kannock emerged from the temple entrance, clad in simple vestments and carrying his firebrand Heretic’s Debt in one hand. He immediately strode toward the Harrower that advanced to flank the circle of defenders from the left. With a shout and a surge of youthful vigor, he charged the great black iron machine, Heretic’s Debt limned in holy fire.

Dahkev grimaced as the Harrower’s claw lashed out to strike the grand paladin. Rather than dodge the attack, Colm charged through it. The claw missed him. Colm swung his blade in a powerful arc that sliced through the iron plate of the helljack’s legs and brought it crashing to the ground. With a final shout, he drove his firebrand into its carapace. A shower of sparks announced its death.

The assembled defenders’ shouts of joy were cut short. Before Colm could withdraw his blade from the ruined Harrower, the lithe form of a bloodtracker pounced upon him from the rooftops and drove him to the ground. Her hunting claw sliced again and again into the elder warrior’s flesh. Then the Tharn huntress drew herself up from her victim’s body and let out a guttural battle cry as she raced to join the charging Tharn.

For the third time that day, the stalwart discipline of the Order of the Wall pitted itself against Tharn savagery. Dahkev’s arms burned with exhaustion and blood poured from several small cuts and wounds, but he unleashed a terrible reckoning on any Tharn that stepped into his reach. He knew, though, it was only a matter of time before his body would fail him.

As he cut down another particularly large Tharn warrior, he felt searing pain blossom in his side. He looked down to see the shaft of a javelin jutting from his armor. Turning, he fell to his knees and saw the masked face of the Tharn huntress who had ripped Thallion’s heart from his chest. Her teeth bared in a wicked smile, she strode toward him, the same cruel sacrificial dagger she had used on Thallion clutched in her hand.

Dahkev looked up at the glowing gaze of the Crusader, his blood spilling over the stones of the town’s square to stain its mighty feet. Resolve built within his chest. Defiance rang in his voice as he prayed aloud. “Menoth, grant me the strength to break this tide of darkness with my final breath.”

Vigil held weakly by his side, Dahkev pulled himself to his feet. He heard a great grinding of gears amid the wail and bellow of steam as Burden of Duty came to life. It strode forward and swung its powerful mace into a knot of Tharn, crushing several to pulp. Dahkev stared in wonder as the mighty warjack stepped between him and the remaining Tharn to wreak vengeance upon them.

The noise of the warjack’s machinery suddenly faded in a thundering of hooves. Fane Knight Skeryth Issyen and his remaining knights had returned to help rout the Tharn. Caught between the fury of the guardian warjack and the power of the fane knights, the will of the Tharn finally broke, and the tide turned. Dahkev pushed on, and Burden of Duty strode dutifully before him, its blessed mace crushing any enemy in its path.

When the all-clear sounded sometime later, Dahkev made his way back to the town wall. The wound in his side burned agonizingly and he could barely lift Vigil, but he had to see for himself that Tolven was safe once again. As he stood upon the ruined wall with the hulking form of Burden of Duty beside him, Dahkev felt a renewed vigor flow through him. Staring out at the impenetrable blackness of the forest, he knew his watch was far from over. He turned back to see Skeryth Issyen striding toward him, the losan’s expression stoic and resolved. It was strange to find reassurance in such foreign features. “Do you still stand with us, Fane Knight?” he asked.

Skeryth inclined his head slightly and said, “Our duty is not yet done. We shall ensure this place survives at least one more night.”

The words may not have been optimistic, but Dahkev nodded in return, feeling an odd respect for the other armored figure. Each knew their faith would sustain them, come what may.

Season 3: Thornwood - Wayward Fortunes

By Aeryn Rudel

Captain Corleg Ironforged removed his helmet, upended it, and poured a thin stream of sweat into the mud. He stood ankle-deep in the stuff at the edge of a vast bog that stretched as far as he could see ahead, directly in the way of the route he and his men had been following for nearly a week. Their march through the northern Thornwood and the Bloodsmeath Marsh had provided limited visibility, and he was not entirely certain they were going in the right direction to eventually arrive at Corvis.

The heavy canopy of the trees they had just passed through had offered some respite from the unusually intense summer heat, but he knew the murky water would be like standing in a warm bath. To make matters worse, his heavy Forge Guard armor would only intensify the sun’s burning glare in the more exposed region ahead, although it might also keep the hordes of biting insects at bay.

He propped his two-handed mechanikal hammer over one shoulder and glanced around. There seemed to be no clear way through the swamp, which was filled with thick stands of moss-laden trees. He turned to see that the rest of his Forge Guard had halted as well. Behind his own men a small group of High Shield Gun Corps slogged through the muck, axes in hand, shields and rifles stowed across their backs. Mixed within the Gun Corps were a dozen farrow, scouts hired to see them through the Thornwood.

One of the members of the Gun Corps nodded and raised one hand to halt his men. His black pauldron marked him as an officer, but Vornek Blackheel was perhaps the sorriest example of a Rhulic commander Corleg had ever encountered. His men, drawn from remote Baram Fort in the Thunderpeak Cliffs, were a collection of drunkards, layabouts, and incompetents—that they had been allowed to keep their commission within the Gun Corps defied reason. But with conflict mounting throughout the Iron Kingdoms, resources were stretched thin, and a commander had to make use of the resources available to him.

Vornek squished through the mud toward him, futilely swatting at the cloud of biting flies that hovered around his head. He was tall for a Rhulfolk and still fit despite being well into his sixties. His nose was a squashed mass of red veins that spoke of a life of violence and a predilection for strong drink. His weapons were in good shape, however, and their owner still looked quite capable of using them.

“What do you want?” Vornek asked gruffly. “Need a break?”

“No, Captain. I do not need a break,” Corleg began. “As you are no doubt aware, we are quite clearly lost.” He pointed one finger at the greenish-brown expanse of the swamp before them. “That is a swamp. I thought we had left the marsh behind us. I know we can’t have reached Widower’s Wood yet. Our guides don’t seem to be ‘guiding’ us in the right direction.”

The other man frowned, scratched at his beard, and then spat a thoroughly chewed wad of yellow bitterleaf from his mouth. “Well, what did you expect? They’re farrow.”

Corleg fought down the urge to reach out and throttle the Gun Corps captain. They were nominally of the same rank, although how Vornek had attained anything above latrine scrubber was a mystery to him. The Searforge, however, knowing the condition of Vornek and his men, had granted Corleg command of their joint operation. “Yes, Captain,” Corleg said through clenched teeth. “Correct. They are farrow. Farrow you said could lead us through the forest, so we could avoid the Khadoran blockades watching the Black River. By my estimates we should be at the ruins of Fort Rhyker by now.”

Vornek reached into a pouch on his belt, fished out a new pinch of dried leaf, and stuffed it into his mouth. “Aye,” he said at last. “They led us to a swamp instead.”

Corleg drew in a deep breath and shook his head, fighting the urge to scream at the Gun Corps captain. The situation was not entirely Vornek’s fault. They had lost their only detailed map of the region during a skirmish with a Khadoran patrol shortly after they had entered the northern forest. This had added weight to the argument in favor of hiring the farrow as guides, a decision Corleg now regretted.

He tried to remember the particulars of this area. He thought the map had shown a swampy area around a sizable lake west of Fort Rhyker, marked with warning sigils. That would put them more than twenty miles off course. He turned back to Vornek. “What do you propose now? We can’t pull our wagon through a swamp, and the Avalancher will be slowed considerably by the water.”

“We could probably manage the ’jack, but the wagon’s a problem. Sure as hell won’t float,” Vornek said, glancing back to where half a dozen ogrun warriors in the service of Horgenhold were hauling a wagon piled with crates and boxes through the muck. Behind it, a grimy and mud- splattered Avalancher trudged slowly, barely keeping pace with the ogrun. “Maybe we should go back and try to find another route.”

Corleg shook his head. “No. We’re short on food and fuel as it is, and between Khadoran patrols and Tharn encampments, it was blind luck we got here intact. We can’t go wandering randomly through the woods.”

Vornek looked around for a moment, squinting through the trees. He pointed ahead and to the left, in what might have been a southeasterly direction. “I think I can see a more solid region up ahead that way. We should cut through the swamp and make for the Black River. Get our bearings.”

“And abandon our cargo?” Corleg said in disbelief. “The Searforge hired us to deliver weapons and munitions to Corvis. I will not simply—“

“I said nothing about abandoning the cargo,” Vornek said, cutting him off. “Don’t get your unders in a twist.”

Corleg opened to his mouth to loose a blistering retort, but a blood-curdling scream from behind Vornek stopped him short. The Gun Corps captain whirled around, drawing his carbine from his back in one surprisingly smooth motion.

Corleg stuffed his helmet back on his head and took his hammer in both hands. Ahead, a group of large, scaly humanoids had risen up out of the swamp. Corleg recognized them instantly as gatormen—primitive reptilian men known for their great strength and savagery. The gatormen had surprised two members of the Gun Corps near the edge of the water and had hacked them down with heavy axe-like weapons.

Vornek positioned his shield in front of him and fired his carbine one-handed. A gatorman standing over the corpse of one of his men staggered backward, clutching a gushing wound in its throat. “To me, boys!” Vornek shouted and rushed forward. The rest of the Gun Corps pulled back and locked their shields together around their leader.

More gatormen emerged from the swamp, and eight of the scaly brutes charged forward at the Gun Corps. Corleg waved his hammer over his head and heard his men moving up from behind. “Left flank! Move!”

As one, the ten Forge Guard moved toward the Gun Corps line, and as they approached, Vornek’s booming voice rang out. “Shields and shooters, boys!” In response, each member of the Gun Corps dropped his shield into the mud and braced his carbine atop it.

The farrow, obviously having no desire to engage the gatormen in melee, pulled back and opened fire with the crude heavy rifles they carried. Twelve shots later, they had managed to kill a single gatorman and pulled back to a point well behind the Gun Corps.

The dwarves opened up on the gatormen with their own weapons. Four gatormen went down thrashing and hissing beneath the fusillade, and the rest slowed their advance, now wary of the dwarven guns. Their hesitation allowed Corleg and his men to reach them, and those Rhulfolk advanced in close order, hammers held high.

Corleg whipped his hammer around his head to build momentum and then smashed the heavy weapon into the first enemy he encountered. The head of the great mechanika hammer flared brightly on impact, and the eight-foot-tall gatorman was knocked from its feet and sent flying. It collided with one of its fellows, and they both went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs. The carbines of the Gun Corps fired en masse half a second later, and the two downed gatormen went still and simply floated silently in a widening nimbus of scarlet.

The remaining two gatormen, seeing they were sorely outnumbered and outmatched, attempted to escape beneath the water. One of them was shot to pieces before it could submerge; the other disappeared beneath the surface of the swamp.

The battle had ended so quickly that the ogrun hauling the wagon hadn’t even had time to grab their weapons and join the fray. They now moved up and created a protective barrier around the dwarven troops, their pole cleavers creating a small but lethal hedge.

“Reload!” Vornek shouted. “Keep ranks. There may be more of those scaly bastards in the water.”

“Captain,” Corleg said and splashed through the mire to stand beside Vornek. “Your men acquitted themselves…very well.”

“Surprised, eh?” Vornek said with a sour smile. “I know we’re not what you’re used to in Horgenhold. We’re dirty, ugly, and foul-mouthed, and most of us drink enough to pickle an ogrun, but we can get the job done in a pinch.”

Corleg coughed and nodded, somewhat embarrassed by Vornek’s blunt appraisal of his men. “Yes, well-”

Vornek turned away without waiting for a reply. “You!” he shouted, pointing at the largest of the farrow. “Come over here.” The farrow moved to stand before him.

“I hope you’re better with those shooters than you’ve shown so far,” the Gun Corps captain said. “There’s bound to be more gators out there in that stinking bog.”

“Lersh can fight more . . .” the farrow grunted in broken Rhulic, and then his tusked face broke open in a ghastly smile, “. . . if pay more.”

“Pay more!?” Corleg said. “We paid you to lead us to the Black River, and you led us into this swamp!”

The farrow shook his misshapen head. “Then we leave short shields and go away.”

“That’s fine, piggy,” Vornek said with a shrug. “We had a pretty easy time with those gators, and there’s enough of us that they probably won’t attack again. A dozen farrow on their own, though? You’ll get eaten before you make it half a mile.” He poked his carbine at the big farrow to drive home his point.

Lersh crinkled up his snout, glanced at the scaly corpses floating in the mire, and scratched his stomach. Finally, he grunted and said, “We fight for short shields. No more pay.”

Vornek chuckled. “Good. Maybe you aren’t as stupid as I thought.”

“I take it you want to continue on through the swamp,” Corleg said to Vornek after Lersh had walked away. “How do you propose we do that?”

Vornek looked back at the dwarven wagon and smiled. “Easy. We make a boat.”

Mortitheurge Helkara stepped from the reed raft and onto a large, mossy island situated near the west shore of Blindwater Lake. The island was covered in the squat grassy huts of the gatormen, the single largest village of the reptilian creatures she had ever encountered. As a paingiver taskmaster, it was her duty to command the formidable, if primitive, gatormen in battle, and she had had many dealings with them in the past, but she knew this time it would be different.

Ahead, a trio of gatorman warriors led the way through the village. Her sizable force of bloodrunners had been left a mile or so behind in the swamp; the gatorman leader, a powerful bokor called Bloody Barnabas, had requested she come alone. She might have refused if it had been anyone but Barnabas making the demand and if her need had not been so pressing. The archdomina had commanded her to make contact with the great gatorman nation that populated the swamps around Blindwater Lake within the Thornwood and commandeer a number of their warriors—and perhaps one of their great shamans—to serve the Skorne Empire in the next major campaign in the west.

Unfortunately, she could not simply walk into Bloody Barnabas’ domain and demand tribute as she had done so many times with lesser groups of gatormen. By all accounts, Barnabas was a mighty gatorman bokor, with martial and magical skill rivaling that of the most formidable skorne tyrants. He was also known to be utterly unpredictable, prone to fits of murderous rage, and possessed of delusions of grandeur that included aspirations of godhood. In short, he was just as likely to murder and eat Helkara as he was to listen to or bargain with her.

In the past, she had dealt with Barnabas’ second, a bokor named Calaban, when she needed gatorman warriors. In her experience, it was Calaban who was the true mastermind behind the gatorman alliance, and it was he who coordinated its expansion. Calaban had even instructed her to avoid dealing directly with Barnabas, but the ancient gatorman bokor had, for some inscrutable reason, taken an interest in her arrangement with the Blindwater Congregation. This time, Barnabas had demanded she speak with him instead.

They had reached the center of the village, a clear open space that held a massive hut,

like a longhouse, festooned with what could only be trophies from Barnabas’ past exploits, from the bones of massive, unrecognizable beasts to bits of the great machines humans called warjacks. There were so many that the foundations of the longhouse were almost entirely obscured, giving the impression that Barnabas’ abode was constructed completely from the remnants of his fallen enemies.

Barnabas himself sat upon a throne of sorts positioned in front of his longhouse. It was largely constructed of bones, skulls, and the shattered remnants of broken weapons. Atop the throne rose a massive fanged skull whose empty reptilian sockets looked down on the clearing. Barnabas sat forward, taloned fingers wrapped around the haft of a savage two-handed axe. His face was partially obscured by a ragged leather hood, but Helkara had a clear view of the long ivory fangs that projected from the upper and lower jaw of his reptilian snout.

Another gatorman stood to the right of the throne, his scales painted with white swirling patterns that covered him from head to toe. He gripped a short, barbed spear in one hand, its stone head hung with feathers, bones, and scraps of metal. Helkara noticed that this gatorman appeared to be the only one in the village that dared venture so close to the great bokor.

Barnabas shifted in his throne as Helkara approached and waved away her escort with a casual flick of one hand. The guards held their heads almost straight up, baring their throats, and then retreated. Helkara now stood, alone and unarmed, not more than ten feet from what was arguably the most powerful gatorman in western Immoren.

“Great hok-shisan,” Helkara said in the rumbling syllables of Quor-Gar, the gatorman tongue, baring her throat in the same manner as the guards. It was an incredibly submissive gesture and one expected by gatormen when being addressed by an inferior, who, quite to her disgust, she certainly was. “I offer greetings of my great chief, the greatest warrior of my people.”

“Red scale,” Barnabas said. His voice was a deep, hungry growl that filled Helkara with a nameless dread. She had never before felt so threatened, so vulnerable. She suddenly realized she had never before felt like prey. “You have come for my warriors. Yes?”

Helkara was quite familiar with the gatorman language and had no difficulty understanding Barnabas. Speaking Quor-Gar was another matter, however, as it incorporated complex body language and guttural sounds in addition to spoken words. Since she lacked a tail and other vital pieces of gatorman anatomy, her answers would have to be brief and simplistic.

“Yes,” she said. “My great chief has need.” She paused and took a breath. “She asks, will the hok-shisan bring his axe also?”

Barnabas’ eyes narrowed, and his tail twitched from side to side like that of an angry ferox. “Impudent! Your chieftain was unwise to send an inferior to treat with me,” he said, then snapped his jaws together with a menacing clack. His long, scaled fingers tightened around the haft of his axe, and Helkara could feel the air grow thicker, the world somehow smaller against the tide of his displeasure. “And what do you offer for this favor? Surely your ‘great chief’ did not send you to beg before my throne with nothing.”

Helkara gritted her teeth. Dealing with this savage creature at such a disadvantage was infuriating, but she dare not antagonize him. She scraped the ground with her right foot, digging a shallow hole in the mud, and again bared her throat. It was the most submissive gesture she knew, and one that was meant to convey desperation and need. “I offer weapons of fine steel,” she said. “And the friendship of my great chieftain.”

She stood still and silent. Any movement might be construed as an insult—or worse yet, a hostile action. She was glad the gatormen had confiscated her weapons; she doubted she would have been able to keep her hands from them out of pure survival instinct.

Barnabas suddenly stood and moved rapidly across the short space between them. He was massive, easily the size of a cyclops brute, and the smell that accompanied him—a foul mixture of spoiled meat, swampy earth, and reptilian stink— was all but overwhelming. He strode within a few feet of her, and her senses, honed through years of study with the mightiest of skorne mortitheurges, were all but overwhelmed by the strength of his will, his ancient, indomitable spirit, from which his own magic was surely derived.

“You are lucky, little red scale,” Barnabas said, staring down at her, the rotting stink of his breath washing over her like a warm, stagnant wind. “Today, I have chosen to be generous.”

Helkara dared to look up at the massive gatorman bokor. “You will send my great chieftain warriors?”

Barnabas took a step back and let his jaws gape open, the gatorman equivalent of a nod. “I shall,” he said. “But first I require a service of you.”

“Speak it,” Helkara said, relief flooding through her body— relief because she had a chance to complete her mission, and relief because she might avoid being eaten alive.

“Interlopers intrude on my domain—dwarves, well armed with steel and fire,” Barnabas said. “I know not why they approach, and do not care. You will slay them for me.”

“Yes, great hok-shisan.”

“Garvak will show you the way,” Barnabas said, pointing one taloned finger at the bokor standing next to his throne. Helkara could feel strong magic in this gatorman as well, although nothing so potent as his master.

She bared her throat again. “It is an honor to slay these interlopers for you, hok-shisan.”

“Then waste no time,” he replied and walked back to his throne. “Return when it is done, and your chief will have the warriors she requires. Serve me well and perhaps we may speak of more personal assistance.”

Vornek slashed his arm down, and the Avalancher’s cannon went off in a blast of smoke and flame. The explosive shell struck a group of gatormen not twenty yards away, flinging their broken bodies in all directions. The rest of his Gun Corps had lined up in front of the warjack, kneeling in the water and firing their carbines at the swarm of reptilian marauders that had suddenly appeared from the swamp.

Corleg and his Forge Guard stood ahead of the Gun Corps with half a dozen ogrun warriors. Vornek, of course, knew the reputation of the Forge Guard, but he’d never seen them in the heat of battle. Vornek watched as Corleg and his lieutenant, a stocky dwarf named Borl, stood in the center of the Forge Guard line, their heavy armor shedding blows from gatorman poleaxes with nary a scratch. Behind the Forge Guard line stood the ogrun warriors; they attacked over the heads of their dwarven compatriots, cutting down gatormen with each slash of their pole cleavers.

Corleg wielded his hammer as if it were made of lightweight tin and wood instead of forty pounds of mechanika- enhanced steel. It blurred around his head and struck each mark with exceptional speed and precision. Where it landed bones were crushed, flesh pulped, and gatorman lives extinguished. The rest of the Forge Guard fought nearly as well as their leader, and despite the number of enemies, the combined might of dwarves and ogrun had forced the gatorman back and was holding them at bay…for the moment.

Ogrun and Forge Guard were spread out enough that theGun Corps behind them had a clear view of the enemy through the gaps in their line. The farrow guides stood near the Avalancher as they’d been directed and were firing their rifles at any gatormen that got past the Forge Guard and ogrun to engage the warjack directly. They were also nominally protecting the Searforge cargo, a dozen wooden crates on a crude barge that had been cobbled together from the remains of the dwarven wagon.

Vornek stood slightly behind the Gun Corps, next to the Avalancher so he could easily command it. It had been quite a while since he’d marshaled a warjack, but once the battle had begun, the techniques had come back to him.

Shortly after midday, they’d been attacked by an overwhelming force of gatormen supported by—and this is the part he still couldn’t get his head around—skorne warriors. The attackers had come barreling out of a large stand of cypress trees and charged directly into the middle of the surprised dwarves. They’d lost half the Gun Corps right then and there, plus a couple of Forge Guard to boot. He and Corleg had sounded the retreat and their band had managed to reach a fairly defensible position, with their backs against an impenetrable tangle of swamp trees. The explosive shells from the Avalancher’s cannons, the constant fire from the Gun Corps and farrow, and the efforts of the Forge Guard and ogrun had kept the enemy back— but that wasn’t going to last forever.

A gatorman shaman accompanied the combined enemy force, with a towering bipedal gator

that was easily the size of the Avalancher. The bokor had kept his beast out of the battle so far but had lashed the dwarven ranks with bolts of black energy that withered the flesh of any dwarf struck by them. As far as Vornek could tell, the skorne were led by a tall female armed with a polearm of some kind, a bladed crescent moon set upon a stout metal pole. She stood next to the gatorman shaman and seemed to be casting spells of her own, although Vornek couldn’t discern any offensive elements to her sorcery. She also commanded a small force of skorne warriors armed with daggers that were horribly fast and nimble enough, it seemed, to dodge bullets.

A cacophony of squealing and grunting caused Vornek to whirl around. The farrow were aiming their guns at another of the giant gator beasts as it came charging through the swamp behind their position. Its target was obvious. The pig-men fired their rifles in unison but either missed or simply failed to penetrate the thick hide of the beast.

“Turn around!” Vornek howled at the Avalancher. The warjack responded immediately and swiveled its cumbersome bulk toward the oncoming warbeast. It got off a single shot with its cannon at nearly point-blank range, splattering a portion of the beast’s insides across the swamp. The wound was likely mortal, but it didn’t slow the enormous gator, which plowed into the Avalancher’s shield, gripped it tightly with its claws, and then rolled onto its back. The weight of the beast pulled the warjack down into the water, and a huge billowing cloud of steam went up as the Avalancher’s boiler was flooded and abruptly extinguished.

Vornek moved away from the massive gator; it had pulled the crushing weight of the warjack down on top of itself and was thrashing out its death throes. Without the Avalancher, he knew they were in serious trouble.

“Get the barge!” Vornek shouted at the farrow and pointed his carbine at the cargo-laden skiff that had somehow avoided the charging warbeast. The pig-men obeyed and moved to surround it.

The fallen warjack had galvanized the gators and skorne, and they charged forward en masse. The Forge Guard and ogrun cut down the first few, and then Corleg waved his hammer above his head, signaling his men to retreat.

“Keep firing, boys!” Vornek yelled. “Keep ’em off the Forge Guard!” The remaining Gun Corps laid down a blistering hail of gunfire that stalled the enemy advance for a few precious seconds, allowing Corleg and the ogrun to move behind them.

“We can’t hold them off without the warjack!” Corleg shouted, pulling his helmet off to gain brief respite from the stifling heat.

“No we can’t,” Vornek agreed. “There’s too many, and once that bokor looses his beast on us, we’re gator food.”

“Then we shall die honorably,” Corleg said gravely.

“Hah!” Vornek snorted. “I’m not planning to die honorably orotherwise. Just hold those bloody gators off for a few minutes.”

Corleg nodded and stuffed his helmet back on his head. “Forge Guard! With me!” The heavily armored dwarven warriors formed a rough wedge around their leader and waded back into the fray. The ogrun joined them and the Gun Corps continued to lay down suppressing fire.

Vornek splashed through the marsh to the inert Avalancher. The warbeast beneath it was quite dead now. He squatted down next to the warjack’s cannon protruding from the water and opened the breech. Inside was an unfired shell. He reached in and pulled it free, grunting at the effort of lifting the thing. The shell was a foot and a half long and weighed close to twenty pounds.

Vornek hefted the Avalancher cannon shell and turned to the farrow guarding the cargo barge. “Lersh!” he shouted at the farrow leader. “Push that barge over here.”

Helkara grinned savagely as the warjack toppled into the swamp. Without it, the dwarves would be easy targets. “We should attack with all our force now,” she said to Garvak, the gatorman bokor Barnabas had sent with her.

His jaws gaped in agreement. “The prey is weak now.” He turned toward the hulking gator beast and she felt his will expand like a sudden pressure in the air as he gave it an unspoken command. The beast moved forward behind the wall of gatormen pushing forward into the ranks of dwarves and ogrun.

Helkara raised her staff and pointed it at the dwarves. Her bloodrunners needed no further encouragement and began moving around to the right and left. They would strike from the flanks once the gatorman had engaged the armored dwarves and ogrun in melee. She felt no need to enter battle herself; instead she followed closely behind the advancing gatormen, using her mortitheurgy to enhance their strength and resilience. This was her role and her purpose: enlivening the primitive flesh of the savages who served the Skorne Empire.

The battle was quickly becoming a slaughter, and many of the armored dwarves and ogrun had fallen to the gatormen or the great beast fighting alongside them. More dwarves, and what appeared to be farrow, were positioned behind the melee, firing short rifles at any unengaged enemy. She paid them no mind—they would fall quickly once the dwarven heavy infantry was destroyed.

Suddenly Helkara heard one of the dwarven voices rise above the din of battle. She did not speak their crude, guttural tongue, but the meaning was clear enough. The heavily armored dwarves and most of the ogrun pulled away from combat and began a fighting retreat back toward the dwarven gun line and what appeared to be a floating barge laden with boxes and crates. Three of the ogrun, in an ultimately useless bit of heroism, charged the huge gator warbeast, killing it with multiple strikes from their heavy polearms. The ogrun were cut down seconds later by gatormen and bloodrunners.

There were enough bodies in the water now that some of the gatormen had stopped to take trophies or tear off hunks of flesh to devour. This slowed their advance considerably and allowed the dwarves time to rally around the skiff. The dwarves had halted their retreat, however, and were trying to salvage a portion of their cargo by unloading some of the crates and transferring them to the waiting arms of ogrun or farrow.

Helkara poked her staff into the back of a gatorman chewing on a dwarven arm torn from a floating corpse. “Move!” she shouted “At them!” The gatorman hissed but dropped its prize and obeyed, moving toward the fresher fare around the dwarven skiff. A few more motivational prods from her staff had the rest of the gatormen advancing once more, and again she followed closely behind, urging them on with her mortitheurgical power.

The bokor Garvak paced alongside Helkara and raised his taloned hands as he summoned his will to manifest a spell. She felt its power and understood instantly it would heighten the predatory nature of the gatormen it affected. She lent her own power to the spell, ensuring it would endure longer. Helkara’s bloodrunners were moving swiftly around the flanks of the gatormen; they would quickly finish any dwarves left alive after the initial rush.

The dwarves were roughly a hundred yards away, and they had now abandoned the skiff and were retreating swiftly into the swamp. They weren’t firing their weapons any longer and appeared to be completely focused on escape, but they had not abandoned the crates and boxes they were carrying, and their retreat was ludicrously slow.

As her bloodrunners neared the skiff and the gatormen flowed around it, Helkara noticed the cargo had been arranged in a very specific way. Four large boxes sat in the center of the barge, and the rest of the boxes and crates were positioned around it in a crude circle. Additionally, what appeared to be a large metal cylinder with a rounded end was wedged between the central crates, roughly half a foot of its length projecting above them.

The arrangement of the metal cylinder and the crates suddenly clicked within her mind, sending a cold wave of dread coursing through her entire body. This turned into outright horror when one of the dwarves suddenly turned and pointed his rifle at the skiff—which was now positioned directly in the center of the gatormen and bloodrunners. Helkara opened her mouth to shout out a warning, but the sharp crack of the dwarven rifle sounded before she could utter a single word.


Corleg watched Vornek aim his carbine at the Avalancher shell wedged between two crates of blasting powder and held his breath. Very little of the shell was visible, and the skiff was easily fifty yards away. He wasn’t sure it would detonate if struck by a bullet, and he was even less sure Vornek’s plan would have the effect the Gun Corps captain hoped.

They’d taken the most valuable cargo from the skiff and positioned crates of weapons—short swords, daggers, and axes—around the blasting powder. In a perfect world, the weapons would act as lethal shrapnel once the shell was detonated, increasing the kill radius of the bomb considerably.

The gators and skorne were now swarming around the skiff, and Corleg heard Vornek draw in a deep breath and then release it slowly. He saw the rifle buck against the Gun Corps captain’s shoulder and heard the crack of the discharge, and then the world dissolved into thunder and fire.

The shell detonated and then set off the blasting powder around it. The secondary explosion was an enveloping roar that Corleg felt more than heard; the shock wave from the blast slammed into him and Vornek and hurled them both from their feet. Corleg splashed down into the muck ten feet away, for once thankful they were in the swamp.

It began to rain pieces of debris and chunks of gatormen and skorne, and Corleg saw one of the Forge Guard go down after being struck by a limbless gatorman torso. He rose to his feet and looked back to where the skiff had been. The barge had been completely annihilated, and most of the gatormen and skorne had simply vanished—although their splattered remains hanging from the trees were a ghoulish enough reminder.

A handful of gatormen had survived, including the bokor. These lucky few had likely been shielded from the blast by their fellows. The skorne leader had also survived, and Corleg watched her climb to her feet, using her staff to brace herself.

“That went well,” Vornek said loudly as he hauled himself out of the muck to Corleg’s right. The Gun Corps captain wiggled his finger in his ear and shook his head vigorously.

“Don’t get me wrong, Vornek,” Corleg began. “Your…plan…saved our lives, and I’m grateful, but we’ve lost more than half our cargo. I don’t think the Searforge would consider this the best outcome.”

“We’re alive; our enemies are dead. That’s about as good as it gets,” Vornek replied with a shrug. “These things happen. My guess is that the Searforge will be happy we managed to salvage anything at all.”

“Perhaps,” Corleg said with a sigh. “What now?”

“Short shields, we must leave,” Lersh, the farrow leader, suddenly said. The big farrow had come up behind them. When they turned at the sound of his voice, he pointed his rifle at the gatorman bokor quickly retreating along with the skorne leader and the remaining gatormen. “That one is belong Barnabas, greatest gator warrior.”

Vornek grimaced. “There’ll be more gators on the way, then.” He looked back in the direction of the retreating enemy and added, “At the least.”

The farrow nodded vigorously, grunting. “More gators soon. Yes. Maybe others, too.”

“Very well,” Corleg said. “Let’s gather what cargo we can and get out of this swamp”.

Vornek fixed Lersh with a stare. “Can you lead us to the river? Without running into the Khadoran blockade north of Corvis?”

Lersh offered the Gun Corps captain a tusk-filled grin. “No worry, short shield. Lersh knows way now. River is east. No Khador men there. Lersh has no doubt this time.”

Season 4: Thornwood - Dark Secrets

By William Shick

Deep within the Thornwood, 608 AR
Grizbile starred intently through the scope of his rifle, focusing his enhanced vision on the chest of the Winter Guard driving a heavily laden supply cart. The Khadorans had been sending supplies through this area frequently in the past several months, but recently the activity had reached a fevered pitch, and now supply caravans were showing up almost daily. Grizbile couldn’t remember when Jarl’s storehouses had been so full. It was about time something had finally gone in their favor.

The pyg bushwhacker took a few deep breaths before exhaling slowly, feeling all his muscle and sinew become utterly still as his finger drew back the trigger of his rifle. There was a loud crack and Grizbile felt the familiar buck of the rifle butt against his shoulder. He nodded in satisfaction as he saw his target go stiff and a crimson blossom of blood stain the brighter red of his chest armor. Several more booms thudded across the forest as Grizbile’s pygs opened fire, each aiming to cause the maximum amount of confusion among the caravan. Grizbile went through the attack in his head, checking off the mental list with cool detachment, just as Jarl had taught him: First take out the drivers and horses of the lead and rear carts to trap the center carts. Next target officers, leaving the panicked men no one to turn to for leadership.

With confusion taking root among the men, it was up to Granch and his burrowers to turn the scene into full-blown chaos. On cue, the earth around the beleaguered Khadorans erupted. The sound of slug guns thundered through the air as the burrowers fired into the backs of those who were desperately trying to mount some sort of defense. Leaderless, beset both in front and from behind, it was time for the finishing blow.

A howl of vented steam shrieked through the dense woods and the ground shook as eight tons of tempered steel and mechanikal aggression burst through the forest. With the force of a runaway locomotive, the Nomad slammed into the center cart, shattering timbers and sending it careening into several unfortunate Khadorans, who were crushed beneath it. The warjack then turned to level its enormous battle blade against the few remaining Winter Guard within reach, chopping them apart in sprays of crimson gore.

One brave Khadoran managed to duck beneath the machine’s great sweeping blows and brought his own axe to bear in a powerful overhand blow. The man barely had time to register a look of horror as his most powerful strike simply glanced off the warjack’s steel hull before the huge iron construct grabbed him about the chest with powerful steel fingers and crushed him to bloody pulp. Faced with this new threat, the few remaining Khadorans turned to flee, desperate to escape the maelstrom of death that had been set upon them.

With practiced ease, Grizbile reloaded his rifle and took aim at the back of one of the fleeing soldiers. The man fell dead before he even heard the report of the rifle. As the pyg prepared to fire again, he saw a lithe figure in full armor step from the forest to intercept the last two Khadorans, a weathered purple and white Vanguard flanking her. The two panicked men skittered to a stop as this new threat emerged before them. With a duelist’s grace, the woman brought her elegant blade up in a fencer’s salute and bade them draw the axes at their belts. She gave them only a moment before she was upon them, her blade striking like a steel viper. She passed through the gap between them and sheathed her blade in a smooth motion as the bodies of the Khadorans hit the ground in perfect unison.

Grizbile slung his rifle over his back and moved to meet her. He was soon joined by the dirt-smeared form of Granch, who wore a grin spread from ear to ear.

“You’d think the mighty Khadoran Empire would offer more of a challenge to a band of ragtag thieves like us, eh, brother?” He chuckled and slapped Grizbile hard on the shoulder.

Grizbile grunted. “You have yet to go up against a true army. And if you were a bit wiser you’d pray to Dhunia that the pickings remain easy.”

The rebuke did nothing to temper the younger pyg’s mood; nothing ever did. “A fine ally Jarl found for us. Ashlynn and her warjacks.”

He looked with awe at the hulking Nomad, which had set its blade down and was now righting the cart it had minutes ago sent flying like so much kindling. Heavy black smoke poured from the warjack’s stack, and the whine of steam and pistons pierced the air as it completed its task.

“Aye, she and her warjacks are certainly valuable. But she asks for, and takes, a lot for her help—and not just in loot.” Grizbile spat. He did not like Jarl’s bargain with the woman. Giving her a larger portion of the supplies they raided was one thing, but agreeing to support her in her own fight was another thing entirely. Their people had enough fighting on their hands already.

He saw Ashlynn begin talking to the trollkin band’s leader, Hadrin Oathheart, “We had good hunting today.” She flipped back a tarp on the rear cart to reveal a full load of black coal. “While I adore my iron brothers, they do have an insatiable appetite.”

She patted the cowl of her personal Vanguard like a faithful dog, and it let out a low whistle of steam. Grizbile had never seen her separated from the ’jack in all the time they’d fought together. She even insisted on keeping it running beneath the earth in the tunnel complex they used as a base of operations—one of several such complexes the trollkin under Jarl had cleared of Cryxians. While the subterranean area was large enough to accommodate the light warjack, the thing put off plenty of acrid smoke even while only idling. Granch and his burrowers had spent tremendous efforts digging ventilation shafts, being sure to painstakingly place them in areas where the smoke would be obscured by the thick growth of the Thornwood.

Grizbile moved up to Hadrin. The big trollkin champion was a powerful warrior, but he had yet to grasp the skills of a bandit’s profession. “We need to move quickly. No telling if there are more Khadorans behind these.” Grizbile could already see his battle brothers going through the routine of preparing the haul for transport, but this part of the operation always made him uneasy.

Hadrin looked at him for a moment before nodding and relaying the message to Ashlynn in Cygnaran. Grizbile was well regarded by Jarl and had been with the legendary trollkin bandit when he was still considered an outlaw, so his words carried extra weight with the champion.

Ashlynn leveled her piercing blue stare at the big trollkin. “Even if another caravan were to stumble upon us, we have ample force to deal with them.” Once again, Grizbile found himself thankful Jarl had insisted he learn basic Cygnaran and Khadoran early on.

Hadrin turned back to him. “She has a point.”

Grizbile scowled, his mood unchanged. “Maybe, but we should be the ones doing the surprising. Unlike her warjacks, our kith are not replaceable.”

Hadrin grunted, and for a moment Grizbile thought the champion was going to overrule him. Even his high status with Jarl only went so far. Hadrin was certainly not bound to listen to anything he said.

Hadrin turned and repeated his desire to move things along quickly. Grizbile saw the smooth features of Ashlynn’s face twitch slightly; the pyg imagined she was not used to taking orders, especially from a trollkin. She nodded at Hadrin, though, and suddenly her Vanguard’s eyes flared. With a loud rumble it moved off toward another carts with her close behind.

“I’d be careful about how you talk about her iron brother,” Granch said, “especially when you only come up to its knee.” He shoved Grizbile playfully.

“At least her brothers don’t talk so much,” Grizbile said. “Come on, we’ve got work to do.”

Captain Maxwell Finn strode through the combined Cygnaran and Khadoran camp. A rough five o’clock shadow covered his jaw, while mud and forest debris clung to his battle dress in random patches. He looked less like an officer and more like some wild grymkin conjured from the darkness of the Thornwood. His signature mini-slugger was strapped to his back. Along with his commando kit it represented a load that even the most fit trencher would have struggled with. Finn however, moved as if the eighty pounds of gear on his back weighed nothing at all.

He’d been humping through the damnable forest for nearly a week, hunting down Cryxian underground holdouts. He was filthy and probably stunk worse than a dead Thornwood mauler, but worse than that, he was hungry. Hard biscuits, moldy cheese, and dried meat that was more akin to leather than jerky might sustain a soldier physically but starved a fighting man’s spirits. He looked back at the haggard faces of the trenchers marching in file behind him. Though they moved with purpose their eyes were empty. What he and his men needed was hot chow, and a lot of it. Morrow help the KP who tried to enforce the food ration on his men today.

As they made their way through the camp, Finn couldn’t help but marvel at the sight of Khadoran and Cygnaran soldiers moving about and intermingling with one another. Most of the mixed groups he saw were officers, and they rarely stayed together longer than necessary to pass missives from one to another or discuss whatever logistical matter was at hand. Still, there was an ease to their communications that had slowly been growing over the last several weeks, since the failed attack against the central Cryxian stronghold. At the thought of that brutal engagement, Finn subconsciously traced his finger over his latest scar, earned from a close call with some bile thralls. He had lost a lot of good men in that fight. And so, he thought with a lack of satisfaction he would have never thought possible, had the Khadorans.

Following the defeat, both forces had fallen back to regroup and lick their wounds. Most of the Cygnaran army had moved south, toward the Dragon’s Tongue River, while the Khadorans had regrouped in the northern part of the Thornwood, each army looking to stay close to their respective supply lines. Even so, there were still plenty of mixed Cygnaran and Khadoran camps on both sides of the common divide. Finn’s battalion had been one of several that had gone with the Khadorans to the north. No matter their feelings for each other, the first battle against Cryx had put the new alliance through the wringer. What everyone had thought would be a brief union of convenience had become a more protracted affair. Now, having seen the size and scope of the Cryxian menace, no one believed the fight would be over quickly or easily.

As much as he still loathed the Khadorans, he had to admit that of all the battles and wars he had fought, this one felt the most right—even though he was fighting alongside a hated enemy. The fact was they weren’t fighting over borders or ideology or simply because mankind had an inbred urge that required a good war now and again.

His musing was broken by the smell of hot stew wafting through the air. The scent was so heavenly it made his stomach growl, and he had to swallow the saliva pooling in his mouth. He was about twenty feet from the mess tent when he heard a voice shout his name.

“Captain Finn! Captain Finn!”

Finn turned to see a young Cygnaran lieutenant running toward him, a scrap of paper in his hand. Finn sighed heavily and with great effort turned away from the mess tent. The lieutenant nearly ran right into him before awkwardly coming to attention.

“Captain Finn, I have orders for you to report to the major at camp HQ immediately.” Without thinking Finn growled, a low and dangerous sound. He forced his annoyance down when he saw the aide take a step back. It wasn’t his fault Finn was going to miss his supper.

Finn turned and barked, “Sergeant Fullet! Front and center!” With practiced discipline a man broke ranks and snapped to attention in front of him. “I’ve got to report to Combined HQ. You, Sergeant, are to ensure the men are given all the hot grub they want. Far as I’m concerned we’ve got a week’s worth of meals owed, and don’t let those miserly kitchen officers tell you any different.”

Fullet’s weary eyes brightened at the order. “Yes, sir!”

“Oh, and Fullet, when you’re done here bring me the biggest bowl you can, down at HQ. I have a feeling we’re in for another long hump.”

Fullet winked, life already returning to his face at the prospect of filling his belly with hot grub. “I’ll bring you a whole kettle, sir.”

A wry smile cracked over Finn’s rough features. He turned back to the lieutenant and said, “All right, son, lead the way.”

The camp HQ tent was centrally located, having served as a marker for the layout of the rest of the camp. Even in alliance with one another, the Cygnaran and Khadoran soldiers kept a strict border between their living spaces. Given the size of the combined army, the troops had been divided into several larger operational hubs overseen by Cygnaran and Khadoran high commands. Each hub had then been further divided into camps which housed two or more battalions, many of those a conglomeration of the two nations’ forces. The division had reduced the amount of chaos and confusion during the continued regrouping efforts following the first battle against Cryx.

Finn pushed his way past the heavy canvas flap and strode in. The center of the tent was filled by a large wooden table covered by several maps. Various markers represented the current positions of the armies’ other operational HQs as well as known or suspected Cryxian lairs. Much to the chagrin of both armies’ high command, the ground beneath the Thornwood seemed to be riddled with caverns and tunnels, giving the enemy seemingly endless places to hide.

“Captain, good of you to join us,” said Major Lionel Standish warmly. “I realize you only just returned from an extended operation, but I’m afraid our Khadoran allies have just discovered a new target. One which has been severely disrupting a vital supply route.” His mustached face held an apologetic expression.

Standish turned to the group of three Khadoran officers who stood opposite him. Each was dressed in full military attire. Finn noticed with some grim humor that their boots were even polished to an impeccable shine. He recognized two of the officers: the commander of the camp’s Khadoran battalion, Kovnik Anya Kardovich, and Lieutenant Vasko Sergi.

Finn had had several dealings with Vasko and had even conducted a few joint operations with him in the field. While the man maintained the airs of Khadoran command within the camp, in battle he was a skilled warrior—and Finn had seen him put himself in harm’s way to protect the men under his command. If he knew nothing else of the man, that fact alone was enough to earn him Finn’s respect. Moreover, unlike the case with most Khadoran officers, he and Vasko had always been straight with each other. If he were going into the hell of the Thornwood with Khadorans at his back, he’d want one of them to be Vasko.

Finn did not recognize the third officer. As he looked him over, he saw the Khadoran taking his measure as well. It was clear the man did not approve of the filthy southern captain. Finn was about to dismiss him as just another pompous officer when he caught sight of the thin trail of smoke wafting from the man’s back. With some surprise he realized this man was a Khadoran warcaster, albeit one he had never met on the battlefield.

Major Standish began introductions with a wave of his hand. “Captain Finn, I believe you already know Kovnik Kardovich and Lieutenant Sergi.” Finn nodded to each of them. “And this,” Standish motioned to the Khadoran warcaster, “is Kovnik Andrei Malakov.” Finn nodded again at the warcaster but received only a dismissive nod of the head in response.

Kovnik Kardovich began, “As Major Standish stated, over the last few weeks several of our supply caravans have gone missing. At first we believed them to be victims of sporadic and uncoordinated Cryxian assaults. We were prepared for this, of course.” She fixed Finn with a cold stare as she continued, “Collateral damage is a simple fact of war.”

The comment made Finn bristle. It was typical of the attitudes of the Khadoran elite.

“However, a pattern has emerged that indicates these strikes are not random but are instead being executed from a central staging point, here.” She stabbed a slender, gloved finger at the map in the center of the table. A scrawled circle marked an area about twenty miles north of their position. “We cannot allow this threat to continue to hamper our supply lines.”

Finn studied the map. “And what of the Cryxians’ disposition? Have our scouts reported back?”

Major Standish glanced uncomfortably toward Kardovich. “This mission is being carried out under Khadoran command. They have assured me their assessment of the situation is accurate.”

Finn scowled, but before he could respond, Vasko spoke. “The enemy is there, Captain Finn. You can be certain we understand the threat presented and are mustering an appropriate response.”

“Which is why you are here,” Kovnik Kardovich cut in. “Your team has eliminated more Cryxian holdouts than any other in this camp. Based on our information, this new hideout represents a significant force.”
“So you want us to solve your problem for you?” Finn growled.

“Unfortunately, Captain, alone even you wouldn’t stand a chance.” The kovnik’s voice was clinical in its assessment. “We have intel that this holdout includes significant warjack support. Therefore you and your men will be attached to Kovnik Malakov along with Lieutenant Sergi and elements of his force.” She fixed the trencher captain with a stern stare. “Make no mistake, this will not be a simple search and destroy.”

Finn stared back, undaunted by the kovnik’s withering gaze. “We’ll get it done, sir. That’s what trenchers do.”

“See that you do, Captain,” Kovnik Kardovich said. “You are dismissed.”

Finn chafed at the Khadoran thinking to dismiss him in front of Standish, his actual commanding officer. He looked to the major, who shrugged good-naturedly and gave him a slight nod. Finn brought his hand up in salute and then made his way out of the tent, a persistent niggling in the back of his mind. Something didn’t feel right, but he’d be damned if he knew what it was.

He pushed the thought to the side. There wasn’t anything to be done about it right now. He trusted in his men to get the job done, and they trusted in him to bring them home alive. That was good enough.

The rest would work out as it would. Now where was Fullet with his stew?

A bustle of activity filled the halls of the cavern complex as trollkin, pygs, and humans went about their work beneath the Thornwood. Several trollkin were loading some of the band’s most recent spoils into supply carts destined for Jarl’s main camp. Grizbile felt some satisfaction that thanks to their efforts their friends and families would be well supplied. They had endured much in the last few years, and it was about time they found a bit of comfort in their war-torn home.

Ashlynn stood close by, talking quietly to a gun mage clad in deep black with dark purple trim, Fynch di Lamsyn. Fynch was one of Ashlynn’s most trusted confidants; Grizbile rarely saw the two apart. The man was amiable enough, and in a recent skirmish his skill with a magelock had saved the life of Hadrin Oathheart, earning him close friendship with Hadrin and several of the trollkin leader’s champions.

Grizbile caught sight of Granch, who smiled and waved him over. He and several other pygs were playing some game of chance they had learned from their Llaelese guests. Granch had even gone so far as to carve his own six-sided cubes from pieces of stone cut from the cavern wall. While Grizbile couldn’t understand the appeal of a game in which one lost their belongings on a regular basis, he strode over anyway. He felt his mood lighten as he watched his brother win several rounds of the game, each time whooping in victory as random luck saw him through.

He was almost starting to enjoy himself, giving in to Granch’s cajoling and exuberance, when there was a shout from the cavern entrance and a lone skinner came running in. Grizbile scowled as he heard the trollkin call for Hadrin, who was in conversation with Ashlynn and Fynch. Ashlynn’s ever-present Vanguard towered over the trio, smoke trailing from its stacks. The skinner gesticulated rapidly as he relayed whatever information he had to Hadrin and the two humans. Grizbile didn’t have to hear the words to know it was extremely bad news. He immediately saw their bodies tense and the Vanguard begin shifting loudly on its feet, mirroring Ashlynn’s agitation. After a quick dialogue, Hadrin turned, and his booming voice filled the cavern.

“We have a significant force of Khadorans approaching our position. It seems they are looking for their missing caravans.” He raised his hand to quiet the swelling clamor as the news settled in. “We’ve planned for this. We only need to hold them long enough for our remaining stores here to be safely removed. So let’s get to it.”

Grizbile saw a grin spread across Granch’s face. He knew what his brother was thinking.

“Listen,” he said as he grabbed his brother hard by the shoulder. “This isn’t like attacking an unprepared supply caravan. This is a real fight, so don’t do anything stupid.”

Granch just winked. “Hey, I’ll be careful. You don’t need to worry about me.” He clasped Grizbile on the shoulder and then hurried off to gather his burrowers together. Grizbile watched him go, excitement clearly visible at the chance for a real fight, and shook his head.

“I always worry about you, little brother,” he muttered under his breath. He took one last look toward Granch and then unslung his rifle as he hurried to find his own crew.

Captain Maxwell Finn gritted his teeth as he fought against the shuddering recoil of the mini-slugger in his hands. The thick-corded muscles in his arms bulged as he kept the heavy machine gun steady and raked fire across the trollkin lines. The gun’s heavy caliber bullets slammed into rocks and supply crates to spray splintered wood and shattered stone just as they punctured armor and tore into the soft flesh beneath.

Finn cursed again under his breath as a trencher on his left was struck by a trollkin bullet. The man fell, a gurgled scream issuing from his mouth as he desperately tried to stem the flow of blood from his neck where the round had struck. Finn still had trouble believing it was a band of outlaw trollkin they had run into. The Khadorans had played Standish and him for fools.

He had felt a constant itch in the back of his mind ever since they had infiltrated the tunnel complex. In the recent weeks he had cleared out more Cryxian tunnels than he cared to count, but this one was almost wholly different, sharing only faint similarities in construction with the others. Cryxian tunnels stank of death and decay and were often littered with debris from the necrotechs’ grisly work. Despite a slight dankness, however, these tunnels had good ventilation and were far from the oppressive hell Finn remembered. When they had discovered signs of life—bedrolls, latrines, and fire pits—he had known immediately that something was really off.

“Swift Sergeant!” he bellowed in between bursts of his minislugger. Swift Sergeant Landon Codwell raced effortlessly toward Finn as the rest of his ranger squad laid down covering fire. Finn’s men were trapped in one of the central caverns of the tunnel complex. Thankfully, the place was filled with rocky outcroppings as well as wagons, heavy barrels, and supply crates, which afforded ample cover.

“Captain.” The swift sergeant snapped off a quick salute.

A round snapped by Finn’s ear and slammed into a stone wall to his right, and he swore as several rock shards dug into his exposed arms. “Sergeant, I need you and you men to find me a roundabout. These damn trollkin are having a field day with us, and until Kovnik Malakov gets those blasted ’jacks down here we’re just going to keep getting hammered.”

The sergeant nodded and slipped away down a dimly lit tunnel, giving a shrill whistle. As one, the rest of his team melted into the surrounding terrain, silent as ghosts.

Finn unleashed another salvo of slugger fire and moved toward Sergeant Fullet’s position. Fullet and his men were hunkered down making good use of the area’s ample cover, snapping off shots at the trollkin line. While things were going to hell quick, Finn gave small thanks that so far the only real casualties in this fight had been his men’s ammunition stores.

“Fullet, report.” Finn barked.

“They’ve got us pinned good, sir. Not sure how long we can stand this kind of heat. Sergeant Corley and his commandos are itching to take a chance at closing. He’s pretty sure they can get in there and slow the fire.”

Finn grunted. “Aye, I’m sure Corley’s boys could do it, at that. But the last thing we need is to get in a scrum with trollkin head-on. Codwell’s finding us another way in.”

“Sir . . .” Fullet began, then stopped.

“Out with it, Sergeant,” Finn said.

“Sir, why the hell are we in a firefight with trollkin? I thought we were hunting Cryx?”

Finn paused for a moment. He had been wondering the same thing himself, but there would be time to find out why he had been misinformed by their Khadoran “allies” later. “Command sent us to find out who was intercepting the Khadoran supplies and put an end to it. Trollkin or Cryx doesn’t change that.”

There was a shout across the battle lines, and Finn turned to see a wave of trollkin warriors charging toward them, pouring out from around the scattered cover—and worse yet, from the tunnels that flanked the large central cavern.

“Guess Corley’s boys are going to get a fight after all,” Fullet said.

Finn gave a shout and opened up again with his slugger. A quick review of the situation told him that his men were in trouble. His ears suddenly picked up the unmistakable sound of warjacks echoing through the cavern. The problem was that the sound was coming from in front of him, not behind.

Finn felt a cold dread grip him as he saw the hulking form of two Nomads emerge from one of the main tunnels beyond, heavy black smoke pouring from their stacks as they raced behind the trollkin charge. Where in the hell had those come from? he thought to himself. Trollkin don’t have bloody warjacks! It was the last thing he needed right now.

Finn struggled to calm his racing mind, to focus on the situation. Years of combat experience kicked in, and he saw the battle crystallize in front of him. He was about to give the order for his men to fall back when he saw the line of charging trollkin erupt in a great flash of explosions as deafening thunder shook the cavern. He recognized the distinct thumps of bombards behind him. Malakov had finally decided to arrive—and if the man wasn’t careful, he was going to bring the whole cavern down on top of them.


Grizbile watched as the line of charging trollkin warriors was suddenly awash in flame. He had known the Khadoran warjacks would inevitably make their presence felt, but it was another thing entirely to see their destructive potential unleashed, especially in the tight confines of the cavern. Dust filled the air and rocks tumbled from the walls as the explosive shock shook the ground. Their momentum stalled by the bombardment, the trollkin found themselves under assault by a whole contingent of Khadorans, mostly Winter Guard intermingled with the Cygnaran trenchers. The trollkin had held the upper hand at first, but they were now hopelessly outnumbered.

As he surveyed the battlefield, Grizbile caught sight of Ashlynn, her pet Vanguard close to her as she headed toward the center of the unfolding battle. He knew even she had little hope of turning the tide of the battle, but she could help slow the assault and give the trollkin and Llaelese a chance to evacuate their stolen supplies. Arcane runes glowed around her hand before moving to coalesce around Hadrin and his champions. Their speed enhanced, the champions’ movements turned into a blur of motion as they raced forward to engage the new threat with the warcaster following close behind.
Grizbile took aim through the scope on his rifle and fired into the center of a group of Winter Guard that had begun pouring from behind the Cygnaran lines. When his band had engaged Cygnaran trenchers instead of the Khadorans the trollkin skinner had seen, he had been surprised, to say the least. Now it seemed clear that, chillingly enough, the two forces were working together.

He snapped off his shot and nodded to himself as he saw his target fall. Hammering the breach of his rifle open, he looked back to Ashlynn. With her saber Nemesis in one hand and her massive hand cannon in the other, the woman was alongside Hadrin’s champions, engaging a group of Winter Guard. More arcane runes surrounded her blade, which flashed like lightning in her hands. Where it struck dead bodies fell. Those enemies she did not dispatch were brutally scythed down by the wicked guisarme of her Vanguard. The warjack moved in perfect concert with its mistress, interposing itself between her and any threat to her exposed flank, a towering big brother of steel and steam faithfully guarding its little sister.

Grizbile looked for signs of Granch amid the chaos, but it seemed he and his burrowers had yet to make their presence known. As far as Grizbile was concerned, that was for the best. This battle was not a place his brother needed to be.

A shout went up from one of his fellow bushwhackers, and Grizbile turned to see the hulking red form of a Khadoran Destroyer break into view. The great machine let out a howl of steam before arcane runes surrounded it and it charged the nearest Nomad with a sudden burst of speed. The mercenary warjack was slightly faster and brought its Caspian battle blade down in a sweeping arc that split the Destroyer’s shoulder plating and cleaved through the enemy warjack’s cannon arm. But whereas Ashlynn’s attention was divided, the Khadoran warcaster had poured all his energy into his warjack’s assault.

The Destroyer brought its axe up in a powerful blow that connected where the Nomad’s shoulder and torso met. In a shower of sparks, the Khadoran weapon chopped clean through the joint, leaving the Nomad’s arm to fall to the ground, its hand still clutching its battle blade. Its opponent reeling, the Destroyer unleashed several more attacks, shearing off armor plating and annihilating delicate internal workings of the mercenary warjack. With a shriek of twisted metal and escaping steam, the Nomad collapsed. The Destroyer let out a howl of victory as steam vented from its faceplate. Just then, two more of the monstrous machines emerged from behind the enemy lines, a ramrod straight Khadoran in warcaster armor casually strolling just behind them.

Gritting his teeth in frustration and trying to push down his rising panic, Grizbile loaded another round into his rifle and carefully took aim at the new Khadoran warcaster. His muscles tensed as he exhaled halfway, feeling perfect stillness overtake his body for a brief instant. Gently, he pulled back on the trigger.

The rifle roared and Grizbile saw a shimmering flash encapsulate the warcaster as the round smashed into his power field. Several other members of the pyg’s unit attempted to follow his lead, but the heavy Khadoran warjacks moved to hide the vulnerable warcaster from view. As he reloaded, Grizbile heard two distinct thumps of bombards being fired and the whine of shells sailing through the air. In that moment, he knew with crystal clarity where those shells were aimed. He scrambled to get clear even though he knew it was to late. He had barely thrown himself to the ground when his entire reality was consumed in a wash of fire.

Finn watched as Malakov’s warjacks and Vasko’s Winter Guard wreaked havoc across the battlefield. The Khadorans’ arrival could have been better timed, but Finn wasn’t going to complain.

Despite the fury of the Khadoran assault, the center of the trollkin lines remained firm, breaking the efforts of the northerners like a rock among waves. The trollkin were falling back, but far slower than should have been the case given the numerical advantage of the allied forces. Finn wasn’t sure how, but the way the fight was unfolding told him the trollkin had warcaster support.

The captain pushed himself into cover behind a rough stalagmite and quickly reloaded his mini-slugger with his last belt of ammunition. Looking out across the line, he saw the unmistakable form of Vasko dashing through cover toward him. The Khadoran officer pressed himself hard against the same stalagmite Finn was using for cover.

“Captain,” Vasko said.

Finn grunted. He was still fuming over the Khadorans’ withholding of information. Ignoring the northern lieutenant, he called over to Fullet, who was just across from him using an overturned wagon for cover as he squeezed off shots into the swirling battle.

“Fullet! Codwell’s team found us a workaround. We’re going to use it to slip behind these bastards and catch them in some good old-fashioned crossfire.”

Vasko spoke. “If you don’t mind, Captain, I’ll join you.” He reloaded his blunderbuss as he spoke, “I’d like to end this fight as quickly as possible for my men.”

The Cygnaran captain nodded and motioned for Fullet and his trenchers to prepare to move. Though they were weary, the thought of going on the offensive with the legendary Maxwell Finn in the lead had clearly enlivened their spirits. They moved quickly, staying low in between cover before heading off through one of the ancillary tunnels connected to the main cavern.

Finn whispered small thanks for the fact that with the enemy so heavily engaged there was little chance he and his men would run into trouble on their way around. He marveled at the skill of the rangers as they easily navigated the labyrinth of tunnels and passages they had only recently scouted. In minutes the group emerged from a tunnel that exited behind the trollkin’s main line. With a series of quick hand signals Finn positioned his men in the perfect enfilade position.

He scanned the field. Preparing to give the order to fire, he caught sight of someone he hadn’t seen since the Llaelese War. There, holding the center of the trollkin’s fighting retreat against Khadorans, stood Ashlynn d’Elyse, Nemesis flashing like a thing possessed in her hand. Like a burst dam, memories flooded Finn’s mind of the good men and women, Llaelese and Cygnaran both, who had fought and died next to him in that war. If he gave the order, Ashlynn would join that list.

“Sir?” Fullet asked, his face etched with concern. “Your orders?”

Vasko looked at them. “Eliminate the enemy warcaster! Quickly, while we have the advantage.”

Finn scowled. He took another look at Ashlynn, braving hell to give her allies time to escape. How many times had the woman been in the same situation over the years? How many brave Cygnarans had her actions saved in the various shared battles of the Llaelese War?

“Captain Finn, give the order to fire!” Vasko shouted. He turned to the trenchers. “FIRE!” he bellowed. But none of them moved.

Bugger the Khadorans. He wasn’t about to do their dirty work for them. As far as Finn was concerned he had agreed to fight Cryxians with them, and it didn’t seem there were any Cryxians here. Llael had been an ally to Cygnar for centuries; the Khadorans, for just weeks.

“Lieutenant, don’t you dare presume to give orders to my men!” Finn growled. He turned to Fullet. “Hold your fire.”

“You can’t be serious! That woman is an enemy of the Khadoran Empire and engaged with your own forces!” Vasko was livid, but Finn was done being the Khadorans’ errand boy for today.

Seeing that Finn would not be swayed, Vasko grabbed a rifle from the nearest trencher and took aim at Ashlynn’s unguarded back. Before he could squeeze the trigger, Finn spun him round with a rough hand and slugged him square in the face. Fullet gaped at his superior with equal parts shock and awe.

“That’s for disobeying orders, Lieutenant.” Finn said as the Khadoran crashed to the ground.

Finn winced as he shook his hand and looked at his trenchers. “Save your ammo for the undead. This fight is already won.”

They watched as the battle came to a head. Ashlynn and her remaining two warjacks held the line against the encroaching Khadorans as the remaining trollkin and Llaelese escaped out of one of the main tunnels, dragging what wounded they could with them as Khadoran blunderbuss fire and trencher rifle fire harried them. When her allies had made it out of the cavern, she withdrew. Malakov sent one of his Destroyers forward toward the tunnel, but before the warjack could make its pursuit, there was a rumble like thunder and the opening collapsed in a heap of rock and debris. For a brief moment an eerie silence overtook the cavern.

Finn surveyed the aftermath of the battle. Corpses of trollkin, Cygnarans, and Khadorans lay scattered about the cavern. Some might have said it was the wrong attitude, but Finn was happy to see that the number of Khadoran dead far exceeded the Cygnaran losses. They may have united in the face of a common foe, greater than either side could hope to face alone, but it was clear to him that old ways never would change. Whether a week from now or a year, the alliance would wither and die once the threat was defeated. It might have been too much to bear for a thinking man. Thankfully, Finn was a fighting man.

He caught sight of the Khadoran warcaster Malakov stalking toward him, his fury palpable. Fullet took a step nearer his captain before Finn waved him back.

Malakov jabbed a gauntleted finger into Finn’s chest when he approached. “Explain to me why I shouldn’t execute you right now! You not only assaulted a Khadoran officer, you let a known and dangerous criminal escape!”

Finn didn’t even blink. “I’m not here to do your dirty work, Kovnik. Our alliance is against Cryx and Cryx alone. And I’m the officer in charge of my men—not you, and certainly not Lieutenant Vasko.” He smacked Malakov’s hand away. The Khadoran glared at him, but he seemed at a loss for words. Finn continued, steel in his voice. “If you ever put my men in danger for your motherland’s agenda again, there will be a reckoning.” His eyes still locked on Malakov’s, Finn barked to Fullet, “Sergeant, ready the men to move out.”

“Yes, sir,” Fullet responded immediately. He looked uncomfortably at the seething Malakov and added, “What about the Khadorans?”

“They know the way back.” Finn turned his back on the warcaster, dismissing his presence outright. “Besides, those damn warjacks move too slow, and I have a date with a whole pot of stew.”

“Yes sir!” Fullet saluted and moved off to begin issuing orders to the men.

Finn took one last look across the field. They’d have to recover their dead, but he’d get all his boys home if he had to carry them himself.

Grizbile awoke to see a blurred figure over him. He felt sick, and his legs were oddly numb, but most disturbing of all was that he had the strange sensation of moving. He fought to clear his head and was overcome with the need to retch. By the time he was done, he swore he hadn’t eaten that much in a week. He realized he was being carried on a stretcher above the ground.

His head still swimming, he heard the unmistakable voice of Granch. “Easy, big brother. You took quite a hit.” The words were flat, almost hollow, with none of his brother’s normal exuberance.

“What happened?” he rasped, his throat dry.

Granch looked down at him, a numb expression in his eyes. “We lost.”

Grizbile’s mind churned. “What about . . . supplies?”

“Thanks to Ashlynn, we got most of them out in time.” A pained look crossed the younger pyg’s face. “Can’t say the same for our battle brothers, though.”

Grizbile took a moment to let the information sink in, then forced as much cheer as he had ever mustered into his voice as he reached weakly up to pat the other trollkin’s side. “But we . . . survived . . . right?”

He saw Granch’s eyes flicker down his prone form, and then Granch snapped his head up, fixing his gaze on the road. “Yeah, big brother. We survived.”

Big thanks to @Kaptajn_Congoboy for their help getting this one together!

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