Chapter 076: Among the ash
I stood among pitiful remnants of the Unmaker’s necromancers. Their position - ‘safely’ hidden behind about 2000 soldiers cultists lacking significant magical skills and instead trained in hand-to-hand combat - meant little before the archspell.
In silence I watched what I presumed to be the enemy commander’s command group. A tall necromancers in pretty stereotypical black robe, plus a lot of various assistants. Writers, signifiers, a council of officers advising him on strategy and tactics.
All turned into salt statues. They had enough time to notice what was happening, judging from the fact that they were contorted with fear. Most at least managed to cover their eyes. Not like it mattered at this point.
There was also a lot of ‘fire and sulphur’, so everything aside from the mortals was scorched. They were… not touched. The fire would burn and unmake all buildings and other signs of human habitation in the area (leaving not even ashes behind), but there was nothing to unmake here. The fire would do nothing to the people, though if I managed to hold the spell as long as it should be held it would cause the statues to disintegrate due to heat. But even combined, we lacked mana to do that.
For a split second, right when the spell unleashed its power… I think I saw an eye gazing at us from the skies. Inri didn’t seem very happy with the Unmakers’. Judgment and execution were both pretty swift.
He is generally shown to be a good guy, but… well, He is the same entity (even if separate part of it) whose prophet rejoiced as 450 priests of Moloch were slaughtered at Mount Carmel (then again, their faith was ok with burning little children alive as sacrifices to their god which God dissed thoroughly, so it wasn’t done for the lulz). The same entity that supposedly burned Sodom for it’s citizens depravity and because they dared to try to break a sacred law of hospitality. The same entity that physically removed merchants from the Temple for disrespecting it. And that was in ‘our’ world. Here the game was played more openly.
Nice guy and so on, but there was an iron gauntlet under that velvet glove. What differed Inri from Overtyrant was that Overtyrant had an iron gauntlet with another iron gauntlet inside. And had some mean looking spikes as decorations for both.
“How are you doing?” With all the dead silence around, I had no problems hearing someone coming. When she got close I notice how light and quiet the steps were. With Syna temporarily gone, there was only one option left.
“Bad.” I turned towards Simea. “Technically speaking, I just committed a major war crime. Using an archspell or an archhex against an army of mortals is a major nope.”
“Technically speaking, you saved few hundred civilians. Including a lot of women and children.” She pointed out.
Well, maybe if I didn’t just kill more than two thousand human beings… or computer programs so life-like that they were essentially humans. The sheer number was breathtaking.
I sighed. Or dighed. Such a word being an abbreviation of a depressed sigh should be a thing.
“Well, we have seven militiamen in a state of catatonia. Zero casualties.” Which meant they were going to recuperate. Not as the same people they were before witnessing materialized fury of God and being found… wanting, though. Still, it’s nice to know that at least from Inri’s position we had a moral high ground in this battle.” We found sixty-seven surviving Unmakers. Including three necromancers. All in catatonia.”
There was only one way of them not getting… salty. Inri looked at their souls and purposefully spared them. They might have been dragged into the cult by force, or just lost their faith in it after they witnessed the atrocities. They saw its evils and correctly understood that it was evil. But they didn’t leave the cult, knowing that it would - without a doubt - kill them. And their families. Or even unleashed their undead body on their families.
“Have the militia carry them back.” I didn’t trust the locals in that. They would most likely lynch the survivors.
“What are we going to do?” I looked at Simea. Closely. And… she seemed as lost as I was. Too much of too scary things were happening in short succession. Vanvyra. The burning city of Ambryxis. The accidental unleashing of a Pentagram-corrupted archdaemon. The ongoing genocide. The entire army just wiped out by a single archspell. We… we just weren’t mentally prepared for all of this. If any of us still believed that it was just a game, then just maybe…
“I don’t know.” I looked at now calm skies above us. Calmed me less than I hoped. “We just got ourselves an another group of outcasts. We can’t just abandon them. There are still undead roaming the area. And Unmakers’ without a doubt has felt the aftershock of the archspell. They will send more of their soldiers. And even more undead. We also can’t just evacuate them over to our side and left them to wander the area, because then Ambryxis will know of the portal.”
“So… another several hundred people in the Hold? I don’t think it might work.” She answered. “Without clearing the rest of the… oh.” Right. I thought of the same. We just got ourselves about twenty adventurers on various of competence. And almost seventy Unmakers’ that survived the Fall of Sodom that could be… persuaded to cooperate. Clearing the rest of the Hold was possible. Feeding them was going to be a problem…
One thing was sure. I wasn’t handing anyone to Hlla. Fuck that bitch.
I turned back, facing the battlefield. More than two thousand contorted human figurines, sculpted from rocksalt. Like some twisted version of terracotta army.
I dighed. With an extra d.
We returned to the refugee camp. It was hard to hide the massive blast of light merely few kilometres away, and the number of unconscious prisoners we brought back. So we didn’t try that at all.
We admitted to using some powerful magic to defeat the Unmakers’ army. Then I loudly refused to execute the prisoners, and the only reason that allowed us to avoid the bloodshed was that the former Hlla’s soldiers weren’t insane enough to pick a fight with us.
After things calmed down, I made a meeting with them all. I explained their situation. That Hlla’s abandoned them completely and, in fact, will most likely not return for them. The whole refugee camp being swarmed by undead would be easy way of hiding the truth. Her soldiers knew that the refugee camp was lost, but…
I mean, let’s face it. She purposefully used it as bait. Judging from the distances between and the camp being quite decently hidden, the fact that undead found it so quickly was glaringly weird. She used it to redirect undead from her back (using some powerful - but subtle and undetectable - magic), and then merely fought a retreating battle against Unmakers’ vanguard.
Now both the Unmakers’ and Hlla were most likely their enemies, even if Hlla would probably hide it well. And with no way of escaping the provinces other than visiting Ashkar (out of the frying pan into the fire in it’s finest), the only chance for them was to accompany us through the portal.
When they reluctantly agreed, I proceed to explain them the situation. I wasn’t going to pretend what we’re doing is not a rebellion. I openly admitted that Leria is a Chosen One of Overtyrant - which scared them a lot. Then she made a pledge that she would not lay a hand on them as long as they wouldn’t betray us. At least one of them knew enough about the anathema of dishonor to be able to convey to others what that meant.
They agreed. Even more reluctantly. We weren’t going to let them out of the Hold for a while, probably until the end of the Twilight War. There was to be done inside.
Civilians were much more straightforward. Prospect of food, clean water, some basic level of hygiene and lack of undead wanting to murder them was all they really needed.
We departed soon after.
The first part of the return voyage was to bring the civilians, wounded adventurers and prisoners out of the threat of sudden death. Which we achieved by contacting Players that remained in the Hold: Menara, our blacksmith.
She had Rytar prepare a suitable workforce, stuffed with winter clothing. Together with some of ‘our’ adventurers (Kovacs returned just in time, sensing some shitstorm happening around) they took all the people unable to fight from us right before the Aether Gate.
That freed the militiamen and some better feeling adventurers - 52 people as a whole, including my party and Syna and Vaera that joined us in the meantime - for some urgent mission.
2100 of soldiers and necromancers must have made an encampment somewhere close. On the other side of the bridge where Hlla tried to stop them, most likely. Encampment meant food and everything else required to keep the Hold working until the end of the winter (and Twilight War, most likely).
Together with the fifty warriors we also took about fifty five workers. We had to wait near the portal for them to go to the Hold and back, but we could certainly use some working hands.
Firstly we visited the battlefield, and stole everything valuable from the bodies of the cult officers and necromancers. Then we marched towards the Hlla’s forces battlefield. The bridge was untouched - if you excluded it being literally covered in bodies.
We found the camp less maybe five hours later. Some basic level of fortifications, a lot of tents. Some camp followers. Prostitutes and slaves of the higher ranked cultists, people to help keep the equipment workable. Even damn bakers.
Also some defenders. Maybe fifty soldiers that didn’t join the battle because of being wounded in prior engagement. Mostly lightly. They were tasked with making sure nobody attacks the encampment.
We stormed the camp, surprising remaining Unmakers’ inside completely. They were separated into squads defending several keypoints, so when more than fifty enemies stormed the palisade in a single point and Firewing conjured a barrier spell that prevented them from escaping, it was a massacre. We wiped them out, squad by squad.
The palisade - reinforced by magic - fell in less than two minutes. Then we massacred all remaining Unmakers’ soldiers. Next we snapped a slave collars on every non-combatants and began pillaging the camp.
Not like I really wanted the slavery thing, but we barely had a choice. With necromancers dead, the magic protecting the camp from undead attention was going to dissolve soon. So leaving them here was tantamount to killing them all. The only alternative was taking them with us, and we had to find a way to make them behave on the way.
Besides, there was a fair chance that at least some families of soldiers we imprisoned were in the camp. Or at least families of officers and necromancers (it was pretty common) and we ‘took’ them too.
So we had little choice in that matter, since we couldn’t check who was a family member. Prisoners were still unconscious. The prisoners discovering that we murdered their families would be a pain. And would ruin any chances of recruiting them.
Militiamen as we called them were actually closer to being novitiates in a religious military order. Good discipline, and fledgling zealotry. They were fine with my orders. The adventurers that accompanied us… well, let’s just say that even the Imperium tends to look through it’s fingers on raping and pillaging through enemy camps, as long as it happens after the battle was decided. Not very different than how it looked on Earth in corresponding times.
In the end I managed to avoid another shitstorms by buying them off. After we safely enslaved the camp followers (almost TWO FUCKING HUNDRED OF THEM!!!) we divided into three parts. One went for food. Second went for anything shiny and valuable. Third for magical stuff. The third one was essentially Firewing with some sidekick sorcerers from the militia.
I told them to bring all the shinies to us. I was going to hide it in our party’s equipment (including Kovacs’ part), and then fairly divide the money between all surviving adventurers and militiamen, including those that were already evacuated into the Hold.
With the Unmakers’ letting themselves loose on a capital of the province (even one less than prosperous), the gains… wow. It’s rare for a less than a hundred to defeat more than two thousands. A lot to divide.
We also captured a lot of carts and horses that we could use to carry the loot to the Hold. Still raging winter would cover the tracks quickly.
Before departing we set fire to the camp. With Firewing expertise, it was sure to burn to the ground soon.
“Well, it’s going to get crowded.” Rytar, the chief of our workforce and (still) a slave shook his head, seeing me and the party entering the Hold as the last ones. “We are planning to expand, right? There is no way that we can accommodate so many people. It’s more than twice the old number, and it was already too much.”
“I… need to take a shower.” Leria immediately answered. “If any of you has a brilliant idea of rushing down immediately, it’s a nope.” Huh, how strict and demanding.
“Well, we brought enough food and bedrolls to survive for a while.” The disposal of … waste is going to be a problem. Or it would be a problem, if we couldn’t just throw it into the underground river. Screw the ecoterrorists! “I believe we should take a three or four days of rest. And prepare. Somebody is against it?” They shrugged their heads. Rytar just sighed. “Well, it’s resting time then.”
I had a rather long talk with Simea the next night. About… many things. My problems with the strangling fear of doing anything further - I avoided doing that recently so much I almost guilt-tripped myself into impotence. And her problems with things not progressing - which was still better than things progressing in a bad way, but…
Things get pretty steamy by the end. Steamy and about as vanilla as we could go. I haven’t mention this to Simea but I expected that it was a possibility and prepared some fast-working aphrodisiac that I took when she wasn’t looking and I always almost sure we were going to end going this way. Because of that I ALMOST had no problem with getting things to end.
I was awoken by a persistent knocking to the door of our bedroom. In the middle of the night. Ugh. Who the fuck…
“Mmm… Av?” Simea woke up too.
“Shh. Go back to sleep, I will kick whoever’s there in the ass and be right back.” She closed her eyes, and I left the bed. I quickly pulled on some absolutely rudimentary level of clothing (my robe, with nothing beneath it), and then opened the door.
A man in his thirties. Unknown to me, but with so many new faces around… He carried no weapon.
“What is it, and who are you?” I’m SERIOUSLY pissed off. Just internally. Deeply internally. Screaming at people rarely helps. Also, how did he even got here, he had to walk through the first set of door, to even...
He pulled out a badge. Heads of a dragon and a crow, with their backs to each other. A symbol of the Brotherhood of Crows, imperial secret police/assassin guild/spec ops fusion.
“General Hnatiuk and colonel Von Osten send their regards.” He smiled. “They wish to establish closer relations with your group.”
Aaaand… there goes our secrecy.
Also: fucking Brotherhood and their top-dog posturing. He could just meet some of us in the city, or knock on our door. Instead, the asshole just had to pull stuff like that. Instantly establishing who is on top in that relationship, since he could as well just set the place aflame or sneak into my bedroom and stab us in the eye.
Assholes, all of them.
“... can imagine my embarrassment when I understood I forgot to establish a contact with the Imperium back in Vanvyra!” The Crow was surprisingly amiable person. Then again, they were trained to be like that. “I was planning to fix this as soon as possible but we were pretty busy.”
We were sitting in my de facto office, still in the middle of the night. We barely started though.
“Yes, we noticed.” Oh? “We are monitoring the usage of archmagic. It was hard to miss the recent explosion of it in Anaetalia. Especially with it being a theurgic magic.”
“And you connected us to it?” I was genuinely surprised.
“Each magic is unique. You just need gauges that are precise enough and you can easily figure out who used it. Not with every magic, but when it’s this strong and it happens in the area we’re monitoring closely… it can be done. I regret to inform you that you have quite clear magical signature.”
There was still question of how exactly they monitored stuff like that. That wasn’t… kinda supposed to be possible. But I wasn’t going to dig inside.
“I presume you aren’t going to arrest me for a war crime, right?” He would render me unconscious the second I opened door.
“No, but we are very interested in what’s actually happening in the province.” Straight into the point. Or, actually, not at all. He is obviously curious how we got back so fast, but he isn’t going to betray that.
“Nothing nice.” I began describing the situation - without mentioning the Gate - only for Leria (I send for her before we sat here) to come in.
“Am I interrupting something?” She was - of course - in her combat gear. The lesser version of it. No plates, only chainmail. And a short one. Enough to show the people in the Hold that ‘their’ Chosen One was always ready to fight.
“No, we were waiting for you.” Her brow raised up.
Then I introduced the Crow operative. And we spent almost four hours talking.
We quite quickly moved on the most pressing matter.
“Yes, the Imperium is quite interested in a cooperation.” The Crow, going by the name of Numerian (they all carried names of past Grand Emperors) was pretty open about it. “The problem is that even our resources are limited. Especially if Ashkar intervenes we will need every possible asset to win. We are willing to help you, but not for nothing.”
And that’s where my most recent sudden moment of clarity came into being. I know precisely why Gods arranged for the Aether Gate being here.
“So… how much are you willing to pay for a location of an Aether Gate leading directly to Anaetalia?” Crows are never stunned. They are just look at you with a pokerface for a longer while, simulating a moment of thoughtfulness and thus covering their internal shock.
“Aether Gate? That’s unexpected.” Right you are.
This single discovery instantly overturned political and military stalemate that kept entire Aevaria in its stranglehold since Tyranny and Imperium’s arrival. For the first time in its history, the Imperium had a decent chance for an annexation of the Northern Aevaria.
Due to the way the mountainpasses and strongholds aligned, there were only two sensible points to attack. Historically speaking the Imperium marching west always did so through the so called Iron and Bronze Gates. Gates as in ‘gates of the fortress that the Dragonspine Mountains were’ from some old poem.
Iron Gate went through Saltrock Mountains in the eastern interior of the Northern Aevaria. It allowed to attack the kingdom directly.
Bronze Gate went through Retalia and Vanvyra to Ambryxis and then (through the regions of Varthia and Mithelia) into the eastern holds of the Tyranny.
The forces engaging on both fronts could not cooperate, which allowed Northern Aevaria to enlist help of the Ashkar. In most cases though, Imperium was forced to divide its forces to cater for the both fronts (to avoid Ashkar or Ambryxis ‘dukedom’ forces from entering its own territory to pillage, murder and rape in various sequences), which allowed the Kingdom to decimate the Iron Gate’s front first by focusing its entire military might at it.
Now however, Bronze Gate’s forces could march through the region - with Vanvyra held by a sympathizing rebels, and Ambryxis woefully weakened - and enter Aevaria from the western side, cutting off Northern Aevaria from Ashkar’s help (they would likely conquer it themselves, but they wanted to avoid the Imperium annexing it too much to stop themselves from intervening).
What’s more, this would neutralize the southern front entirely. Bronze Gate’s forces could begin decimating western lands of the Northern Aevaria, allowing the Iron Gate’s armies to steamroll through the open plains and overwhelm the surprised defenders.
All while being in position to almost immediately return the bulk of their forces to the Ambryxis region, repelling any organized counter-offensives of the natives and potential Ashkarian intervention (that’s in case their notoriously uncreative army staff would managed to figure out what was happening and shake off the stupor).
“I’d say that… this is worth a lot.” Crow decided against pretending to be an idiot. “I’ve taken an equipment necessary to deployment of a teleport station connected to imperial network. We could send some more advanced materials and weapons that way.”
Wow. That’s some serious investments. Then again, he was around quite fast. There has to be an imperial spy presence in the area, and they could even establish some hidden line of teleport stations around. Lot of shorter jumps made the costs smaller (still high, but no longer astronomical).
“And can you… send some of us for a short trip to the Imperium?” Both Leria and the Crow looked at me questioningly, in an almost perfect synchro. Was the Crow a hidden khardic (his status window said nothing, damn Crows had protection even from that) and Overtyrant was making some meta-joke?!
“Why?” The Crow decided to vocalize his question.
“Well, I think of sending Leria for some sweet randezvous with religious leadership of the Holy Kingdom of Vasyrria.” She made an ‘OF COURSE!’ face. “She could get some significant… gifts. Like an accelerated training that only a Chosen One can go through.” Or proclamation of a War of Symphony against Ambryxis, Northern Aevaria and Tyranny of Ashkar. I wasn’t saying that with Crow around, though.
Leria had something to add. “I can also get picture of the Overkill’s mask appraised.” Shit, I forgot about Overkill in all of that. What was the mask’s part in all of it? Nobody can persuade me that we randomly ran into some weird artifact (that we couldn’t appraise ourselves) connected to Overtyrant while having his Chosen One in a group. Sure, coincidences do happen, but… c’mon.
This just made this an ever better idea. Getting khardic crusade, and fixing the ridiculously low combat power for a Chosen One that kept being a problem recently. Her growth was pretty random, she needed some foundation expansion. Maybe even a Stance or two. Also, a key to figuring out what the heck the Overkill was.
“We might go for that… for an additional cost.” Crow of course wanted to capitalize on our accidentally betrayed interest. “I came to understand that you have a Dragonbride amidst you.”
“If you plan to get him executed, forget it.” No reaction to ‘him’, either good control of himself or he knows more than about us that I would like.
Imperium’s approach to Dragonbrides was pretty much genocidal by default. Not actively genocidal - it wasn’t exactly interested in conquering the mountain elves and wiping their entire leadership. But if any servant of the Grand Emperors encountered one of them or members of the tribes they controlled… then according to all guidelines proper reaction could be summed up as KILL MAIM BURN.
“No, no. It’s quite the opposite.” Huh? “We might have a… use for him.” It’s not about the Grand Emperor wanting some novelty in his bedroom, right?
Then he explained it.
Well, that explains why Vaera escaped from the Saltrock Mountains and got his entire entourage wiped out right in front of the Hold. Gods just refuse to stop piling up their gambits, don’t they?
“Well, I can’t make that decision for him. I’ll just… have a talk with him. And I’ll recommend doing that.”
Crow accepted that. Then we moved on to another subject.
“I can give you only estimates.” He said few maybe twenty minutes (an two lesser subjects) later. “A month or two, tops. That’s when the snow will start melting. It’s not perfect moment for an offensive, since the spring floods and lack of easily accessible food will hamper any major troop movements. Not as bad as the middle of the winter, especially THIS winter. But the Imperium cannot wait longer. We got a bit ahead of the Ashkar and Northern Aevaria in terms of army mobilization, but if the Imperium wastes too much time, they’ll catch up.”
And this will mean more casualties. Sure, Dragonspine Mountains had their own hyper-winters, but no region on the continent avoided being touched by the ‘normal’ winters. Imperium invested a lot in railways and canals that allowed it to function quite well in the middle of ‘normal’ winters. Ashkar, however, was lagging behind because of his harsh underdevelopment.
Northern Aevaria simply didn’t have winter to begin with. But shitload of thunderstorms due to hot northern air headbutting with freezing cold from the mountains. Add snowstorms sometimes descending from the mountains for a bit, with intense snowfalls on the area that soon had +30C temperature.
Floods were terrible. Unexpected perks of vast magic-powered climate engineering. Doubly terrible because they came from three direction at once, directly touching EVERY DAMN RIVER in the country.
A month. It’s better to expect the worst case scenario. Within a month the shit will hit the fan, the War of Twilight will start for real… and this whole ‘adventure’ will find its end.