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A note from RemarkTM

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They had the men, almost. They had a plan, sort of. What they didn’t have, was time. Konstantin was amazed at the miracle Deirdre had worked in gathering together the amount of forces she had so quickly, but if they were to have any chance of getting to Rome before it was too late, they had to move immediately. Every day spent bivouacked in the wilds lessened their chances of reaching Rome while the twins were still alive, even if it did allow more men and women to answer the summons of Deirdre’s ravens. She had been sending the birds out en masse to the scattered pockets of her resistance movement ever since they had stepped off of the Faroese fishing trawler and started storming across the continent. Tellingly, none of her ravens had been sent back north. Her entire attention was devoted to what lay before them. Neither she nor Konstantin spared any time or energy coordinating with the forces they had left behind in Iceland. Truthfully, they were both fleeing their grievous losses as much as they were charging headlong into battle. The thought of what they had left behind was too much to bear so, for good or ill, they ignored potential allies in favor of whatever assets they could gather during their frantic rush south.

Luckily, the response to Deirdre’s call, both mundane, and thaumaturgic, was nothing short of impressive. The Black Raven had friends. Terrifying friends.

Konstantin paused from sharpening his knives, and took a moment to look over the men and women camped amongst the trees and rocks around him. Their raider army was as diverse as it was dangerous. Berserkers and Reavers from the tribes of Norway, barbarically splendid in their wolf pelts and winter camouflage, shared a fire with more civilized soldiers of the Northern Trade Alliance. Roman expatriates broke bread with turbaned Moorish corsairs. Semi-feral LAMOEs and rangers from the Wilds trickled in daily, swelling Deirdre’s ranks, and that wasn’t all. Other, more bizarre forces had answered the black witch’s call.

Their identities were shrouded in mystery; and neither they nor Deirdre were talking. All Konstantin knew about them were overheard whispers and gossip from the more regular troops.

There were a score of willowy, alabaster skinned women, so identical they might have been clones, who only communicated in a strange humming dialect, but seemed to understand Deirdre perfectly, and she they. There was a hairy giant, a cyclopean beast that had lumbered into camp one evening dragging a primitive club made out of the trunk of a dead tree. He had yet to speak at all, but he responded to simple gestured commands. Even Deirdre had been nervous to confront him, but ultimately, she had let him come along for the march mainly because he hadn’t done anything overtly aggressive and, she admitted ruefully, they probably couldn’t have stopped him anyway. The giant was impressive, but in Konstantin’s view however, the most intimidating volunteers were the three proud witch-queens who had arrived in close succession with their covens the afternoon before. Dejagore, Nordburg, Ferrozoica. The witches’ rumored homelands were each more legendary than the last. Konstantin had never felt such a dense accumulation of magical powers. With the witch-queens and the pale sisters mingled throughout the camp, the air itself seemed to shiver and shimmer, like heat mirage without the heat.

Konstantin was astounded by the force Deirdre had assembled, but he knew that even with the numbers she had produced, and the stores of weaponry she had cached throughout the wilderness, even if she and the other witches were able to use their powers to successfully hide their advance from enemy notice until they were within spitting distance of the city walls, even with the Pope and his main army still far to the South battling in their crusade for the Moorish oil fields, even with all that, they didn’t actually have a chance in hell of successfully conquering Rome. The best they could hope for, and the current plan, as it stood, was for their forces to cause enough panic and destruction in the Roman countryside for the city’s strength and attention to be drawn to them. With the garrison lured out in response to the visible threat on their horizon, it was hoped that a small covert team could then successfully infiltrate the city.
Konstantin’s intimate knowledge of Rome made him the natural leader for the infiltration team. Deirdre, by necessity, would command the raider army. Nobody else could get her disparate forces to coordinate. She didn’t like the necessity; she wanted to be the one to find the twins.

Konstantin, who knew the terrible powers of Rome better than anyone, doubted that the plan would succeed, but he had kept his own council on the matter. He feared that even if everything went perfectly, no matter how good Deirdre’s warding spells were, now that they were this deep into Church lands, almost within striking distance of The City itself, every extra second they spent waiting raised the odds astronomically of them being discovered, and lessened the odds of the twins survival. If they were found now, before they got the secret strike force into position, he figured they would be lucky if they were even able to escape with their lives, let alone successfully complete the mission.

Just as Konstantin finished with his knives, there was a commotion at the edge of camp. “Mistress Deirdre! Where’s Mistress Deirdre!?” one of their scouts sprinted up to Konstantin, his face flushed with effort, “Sir! We’ve got contacts!” While he spoke, a thunderous roar, punctuated by metallic creaks and sharp pops, became noticeable from the forest behind him. Konstantin sprang to his feet, and peered into the murky depths of the forest. Something big was approaching. The forest canopy trembled as trees were crushed and shattered, and the disturbance drew swiftly nearer.
Konstantin’s jaw clenched in horror. They were too late.

“How many?”

“I’m not certain. They were moving too fast. They’re not on foot! I couldn’t stay to count, I was about to be overrun. They have war machines!”

Konstantin had seen the Pope’s army mustering for the Moorish war. He had witnessed the ground-shaking might of the Church’s armored divisions first hand. He knew they were hearing the sound of tank treads crushing through the dense undergrowth of the forest.

The soldiers milled around the former Inquisitor uncertainly, some gathering weapons and preparing to make a stand while others eased back into the sheltering embrace of the trees at the far end of the clearing.

“What’s all the commotion?” Deirdre appeared beside Konstantin, nonchalantly braiding fresh feathers into her hair.

Konstantin snorted, “It appears we have tarried here too long. The Church has found us.”

“It appears that way, yes,” Deirdre responded.

Konstantin watched her out of the corner of his eye. “Then why are you smiling?” he asked.

“Appearances…can be deceiving.”

With a last cry of anguish, the forest surrendered to the relentless onslaught of the heavy metal war machines, and the first behemoth rolled into view. Deirdre’s men aimed their weapons, but she stopped them with an upraised hand.
The monstrous tank rolled forward into the clearing, where it stopped and shut down with a rattle, a last puff of diesel smoke drifting into the suddenly quieter air. Clanking noises inside the tank set the men’s trigger fingers twitching again, but again Deirdre stopped them. With a hiss of escaping air, the top hatch eased open. When it was fully extended a familiar gravelly voice hollered up from the tank’s interior.

“Don’t shoot! I’m coming out!”

Long grey fingers reached up, grabbed the lip of the tank hatch, and Lieutenant pulled his bald, bug-eyed, goateed face into view.

He gave a fanged grin.

“Hello.”

***

“Lieutenant!” Konstantin barked a relieved laugh, “what are you doing here!? And where the hell did you get a tank?”

“What, this old thing?” he slapped the burnished metal of the hatch he was leaning out of, “it’s easy to commandeer a platoon of Leopard-4s when you’re a general in the unified defense force of New Hamburg.”

Deirdre clapped her hands together. “You’re a general now! Congratulations! And…unified defense force? Does that mean?”

General Lieutenant nodded proudly. “Yes, the war is over. Greens and Greys have ceased all hostilities, and are working together to salvage as much of the remaining infrastructure as possible. We’ve even begun a civilian re-colonization program!”

“Then surely you should be there,” Konstantin protested, “I’m certain your city needs your leadership talents now more than ever.”

“No,” Lieutenant shook his head firmly, “my place is here, with you two. All of my people know what you both did to end our conflict. You saved us all. If I hadn’t responded to Deirdre’s raven, I would have been demoted to private Lieutenant, and ordered out here anyway. This way, I got to bring some of our prettiest toys to your party, and New Hamburg gets to pay some of its debt back to two of our national heroes.”

“Lieutenant, thank you.” Dierdre said quietly, deeply moved by their friend’s loyalty and bravery, “I know it takes a lot to volunteer to go toe to toe with The Church. They’re the biggest, baddest empire currently in existence with reason.”
Lieutenant posed proudly atop his iron steed. “That’s exactly why you need me Deirdre. From what I can see, you’ve built yourself a fearsome little army here. Now your army has a general.”

He grinned his froggy grin. Deirdre found herself grinning back, and then, caught up with his infectious enthusiasm, she whooped loudly. Jumping up, she agilely clambered aboard his tank, and walked out along the top of its main cannon to the very edge. Catching her intent, Lieutenant called down into the bowels of his machine, and had the cannon turret elevated as much as possible, raising Deirdre up to where all her men and women could see and hear her clearly.

“Sisters! Brothers! For too long have we been bent beneath the yolk of tyranny. For too long has humanity been oppressed by the greedy few. For too long have our friends, and neighbors, and relatives known nothing but slavery and strife. Well, I say no longer! Prepare yourselves! Sleep well! Tomorrow, we go to war!”

At her words, nearly five hundred voices roared out, as all of her gathered warriors gave sound to their excitement. With upraised arms, Deirdre egged her bloodthirsty troops on. Clenched fists beat upon armored breasts, booted feet stamped the dark earth. The white sisters danced in a frenzied circle around Lieutenant’s tank as the berserkers in the crowd frothed about in paroxysms of delighted blood lust. Even the giant, who had no idea what Deirdre had said, was visibly excited, causing a small chain reaction when he pushed over a dead tree for the simple joy of destruction.
The only people not caught up in the celebration were the three witch-queens, who stared expectantly at Deirdre from their place in the crowd, Konstantin, and Deirdre herself. Noticing her peers gaze, Deirdre dropped from her perch, and ran over to them. From his position a few strides away, Konstantin strained to hear what passed between them.

“Summon all the sisters,” Deirdre said, “we need to gather all of our powers for the coming battles. We have rituals to perform. Tonight we hold the Sabbat.”

***

Konstantin was not happy. In the broadest sense, he realized he had never in his life been happy. Currently however, he was even more not happy than normal. He had fled his former life, and home, and everything he knew to save a sister who he had ultimately failed. Now she was dead, he was cast out from his order, and all he had left was a rag-tag band of misfits, outlaws, freaks, and witches. And the witches were dancing.

When Deirdre had said they were holding a Witches’ Sabbat, he wasn’t sure what he expected, but this wasn’t it. He knew it was a ritual, or it involved rituals designed to increase both the strength and control of their magic, but to Konstantin it just seemed like they were having a party.

There was no apparent organization to the event, beyond the fact that all of the witches were loosely gathered around a bonfire they had bullied some of the normal soldiers into creating, this despite Konstantin’s protests that its light would make them more visible to Church patrols. To his even deeper dismay, one of the covens had produced a battery powered boom box, which they set up to play through the PA system on Lieutenant’s Leopard tank. If any enemies were close by, and they somehow missed the flickering glow of the enormous fire, whose flames sometimes reached above the tree top canopy, they would have an even harder time ignoring the throbbing bass of the music which now filled the clearing.

The witches had all prepared for the event in different ways; some were kitted out as if for battle, some had worn their finest dresses, and a strong majority were wearing very little at all, except for seemingly random smears of body paint and mud.

The sight of so many nude and sweaty female bodies gyrating vigorously in the flickering light of the great fire had proven an irresistible attraction for most of the men of the army, despite their orders to get some sleep, and they now clustered in a ring around the women, too nervous to step forward from the shadows and join the women in the firelight, but too intrigued to turn away.

To Konstantin’s disgust, more and more frequently as the evening wore on women were pausing in their dance and breaking away from their sisters to approach the circle of men. After scanning the crowd they would speak quietly to one of the men, and more often than not would then drag the suddenly grinning soldier off into the darkness and privacy of the surrounding forest.

Konstantin had seen enough. Scowling, he began elbowing his way back through the press of bodies to the relative quiet of his tent. Before he could pull back the flap to enter however, Deirdre materialized out of the darkness beside him.

“Frederick. Wait.”

Konstantin paused, but he glared determinedly at a point a few inches above the black witch’s head. Deirdre was one of the women who had chosen not to wear clothes that evening.

“What is this?” he growled at her, “other than a huge security risk? All these women are doing is partying!”

“No.” Deirdre’s tone was as firm as the hand she used to pull Konstantin’s head down so he would look her in the eye. “That’s not true. There is more going on here than you can see with your eyes Inquisitor. Can’t you feel it?”

Konstantin had to admit that the entire camp reeked of ozone, and had since just after the women began their dance. He also noted that Deirdre’s normally dark skin was glowing faintly, a detail he had missed while she was still in the firelight.

“And even if it was just a party,” Deirdre continued, “don’t we owe them one? We are after all asking all of these people to put their lives in danger, and quite possibly die, for us. This is our war, isn’t it? Not theirs.”

Deirdre’s gaze intensified. “I’m willing to endure a security risk now, if it gives us even a slight advantage in the upcoming battle. What are you willing to endure, Mr. Konstantin, for a better chance to save the girls, or for that matter for a better chance at your revenge?”

Konstantin’s voice was as hard and unyielding as stone. “Anything,” he said.

Deirdre drew a deep breath, allowing her outer shell of confidence and control to crack slightly.

“Good. That’s good. I hope you’re telling the truth, because there’s a part of the ritual tonight that requires a partner. A willing partner. Now, normally for this, I would have my Naoise, but…” At this, her shell cracked a little further, allowing Konstantin to glimpse a measure of the anguish and pain she was holding inside, “but he’s not here anymore. So, Frederick William Konstantin, to finish the rite, I need you.”

Backing away from him while maintaining eye contact, Deirdre slipped through the flap into his tent.

Konstantin thought about the pain she had allowed him to see, the pain that so clearly mirrored his own. He thought about those who had brought this pain upon them and their meager chances of actually succeeding in their quest for vengeance. He had been telling the truth. He would endure anything for a better chance at his revenge.
That was why he followed the black witch into the tent. That, and because he didn’t want to hurt anymore. With Deirdre, he might be able to make the pain stop. At least for a little while.

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