It’s official – I’m moving house again at the end of the month. That means I have to say goodbye to Dice and Decks, at least as a regular attendee, and that means some sort of elaborate farewell is in order. I felt that a big, narrative-focused multiplayer Warmachine game might be appropriate. The backstory for it comes after the break. It’s not strictly canonical – in order to account for the warcasters the various players want to use or have available, it has to bend the setting a little out of shape – and I’m well aware of its similarity to the finale of Warmachine: Apotheosis, although I hope I’ve put enough of a spin on it for it to be more than just a blatant rip-off. Anyway, I wanted to defend my favourite terrain piece, so boo sucks even if it is unoriginal. Story after the break!
STRIKOYA (GREYLORD COVENANT HEADQUARTERS), KHADOR
Zerkokva’s iron heels tinked with every step she took, down here in the bowels of the Strikoya. Despite the close links between her favoured Research Chancellery and the more practical work being done in War Improvements, Zerkova seldom visited these soot-stained depths. Indeed, it was a rare thing for her to return to the Strikoya at all, save when circumstances required she consult another member of her order, as they did today.
She turned a corner and proceeded down a wide flight of stairs, sufficient for four men-o-war to walk abreast, her long coat trailing on the grubby iron-plated floor behind her. Before her was a long, high room, the industrial heart of the Improvements Chancellery – here new weapons were tested, new refinements made, and here rested one of Khador’s finest achievements in the field of military mechanika, on the rare occasions when said achievement was not deployed.
Even at rest, primary boiler cooled out of engagements and support systems running on accumulator power, Alexander Karchev was an unnerving sight. Between battles, the man in the machine was brought down to his peers for repairs and recuperation – Zerkova had heard that he never truly rested, that his crippled body suffered too much to allow him the luxury of true sleep, and that he only found some small relief when his mind was occupied by study or combat.
Today, Zerkova proposed to offer him both. She approached his iron bulk with due caution, and received the nod that passed for the quadriplegic warcaster’s salute.
“Kommander Karchev. May I be seated?” Karchev nodded, and Zerkova pulled up an unoccupied stool from a nearby workbench, arranging herself upon it before she continued to speak. “I would occupy your time for a short while, and request your assistance with a small problem.”
“Speak your piece,” Karchev rumbled. “My time is hardly occupied.”
“Withdrawal behind the lines is a waste of your time and your talents, kommander, which I propose to rectify. You have no doubt heard the latest intelligence from the Thornwood? Cryxian and Protectorate forces in repeated engagements around Bloodsmeath Marsh?”
“It has been mentioned to me. Continue.”
“The latest news from our colleagues in the Prikaz Chancellery will, perhaps, not be known to you. When the Protectorate’s interdiction diverted south, toward the Cygnaran border, the Cryxians did not give chase. The Prikaz surmise that the repeated skirmishes around the marsh’s edge occurred purely to drive the Menites away, indicating – ”
“That Cryx pursues operations on the very fringes of Khadoran territory, and possibly within it also,” said Karchev, shuffling forward in his harness and attending Zerkova more closely.
“Indeed. There is something within Bloodsmeath that is of interest to them, which means it is of interest to me.” Zerkova leant forward to meet Karchev’s gaze. “Alas, the High Kommand has dispatched me to Ravensgard, to take the place recently vacated by yourself.”
“And you want me to take your place in investigating this Cryxian incursion?”
“You are a ranking member of the Covenant, kommander, as I have in the past allowed myself to forget. I seek to make amends by making use of your insight here.”
Karchev appeared lost in thought for a moment, looking through rather than at Zerkova, his gaze focused on a point beyond. “Does the mission even need warjacks?”
“The Cryxian presence has already repulsed armed members of the Protectorate’s Interdiction of Judgement. It is safe to assume that considerable force will be in order to dislodge them. Another good reason to send you – a small strike team of warjacks will be more effective under your command than mine.”
“Will be provided by the Covenant’s own assets.”
“So Gurvaldt does not know.”
“The supreme kommandant is not a Greylord. He need only know the military applications of our discoveries – if any.”
“I dislike the thought of disobeying the High Kommand.” Karchev leant back again, taut cables relaxing as his harness settled back into place within the lumbering warjack chassis that housed it. “My orders are to remain behind the lines.”
“If it is a matter of orders, magziev,” Zerkova replied, absently toying with her koldun’s insignia, “consider this an order from the Covenant. The High Obavnik has given me full authority over the contested territories, and it is on that authority that I charge you to go south. I had been intending merely to request, but if you will insist on running to Irusk for confirmation – “
“I run nowhere.” Karchev’s voice was even, as was his gaze, and if he was moved by the change in tone, he gave no sign of it. “If such are your orders, koldun, then I obey, in the Motherland’s name; but woe betide you if I am needed elsewhere – or if there turns out to be nothing in Bloodsmeath but a Cryxian feint.”
“Your counsel is noted. I will have my own mechaniks prepare you for departure. Take mainly warjacks, and travel fast.”
GREYBRANCH GAP, BLOODSTONE MARCHES, EAST OF CYGNAR
Even if the cold mountain air could have stayed the High Reclaimer in his march, he would have overcome it. Frost glittered on the mountain road, but his corded muscles pumped ceaselessly as he ate up the miles with long, measured strides. Behind him, attendants bore Cremator and various sacred texts from the Tower library; behind them, his warjacks marched in step, the rich pink and bright gold of their armour bold against the cold grey floor of the pass.
The vision had come to him at morning prayers, in his stifling cell within the Tower barracks. He had known, without knowing, that Severius needed him in the north – had known, furthermore, that his sacred trust, the ushering of those souls whose faith had earned them Menoth’s care into Urcaen and their long service therein, was under threat. A dark power festered in Bloodsmeath, and its shadow fell across the gauntlet that had to be run between the worlds.
Unbidden, and uncounselled – a reclaimer needed no second opinion, and heeded no voice that might dissuade him from Menoth’s work – the High Reclaimer had begun his march north. His warjacks had been made ready for him by vassals who shared his vision, and with every stop on his northward journey, the ranks of the faithful had swelled; like him, they were guided north not by orders, nor by design, but by certainty borne of true faith.
To his heightened senses, their spirits were like candle-flames, lovingly kindled and slow-burning, but burning nonetheless, despite the damp, obscuring filth spilling south from their intended destination. Some of those candles would be burning at the journey’s end – others would go out. Which would stay alight, and which would not, was Menoth’s will – it was the High Reclaimer’s sacred charge to direct them on their way, and their fire at Menoth’s enemies.
Masked, and mainly shivering amidst the cold, despite the heat radiating from the Reclaimer’s warjacks, the forces of the Protectorate marched on. Ahead lay the Dragon’s Tongue, and from there it was a long march through Khadoran and Cygnaran territory alike to Bloodsmeath. True Law or no True Law, there were those among them who prayed to Menoth that their passage would be swift, and without judgement.
The High Reclaimer knew this also – their prayers would not be answered. Menoth judged. It was not a mortal’s lot to complain or raise objection, and those that did had much to fear, whether from monk, exemplar, scrutator or simply the divinely guided hand of the Reclaimant Order.
They crested the pass, and he looked out at the lands before him. Immediately at the mountains’ feet lay the heathen, masterless flea-pit called Ternon Crag, and beyond that, the Widower’s Wood on the border with Cygnar. Through that wood they would have to go, skirting eastwards to avoid Corvis before swinging back west to cross the Black River.
If the High Reclaimer prayed, if he were a man inclined to bargain with his god, he might have prayed for swift and safe passage through that wood, where wild things and ancient enemies were known to lurk, and Cygnaran troops occasionally patrolled. He was not such a man, though, and his masked visage remained inscrutable. He held out a hand, and unbidden, a lesser priest stepped forward and handed him Cremator; another buckled the weapon’s fuel line to a tank on the High Reclaimer’s back.
If Menoth saw fit to place opponents in their way, the High Reclaimer was ready.
THE QUORIN TEMPLE, BLOODSMEATH MARSH
Steam hissed, conduits writhed, and metal feet stamped ceaselessly on the soggy ground. Unliving hands tugged at stone and weed and ivy, ripping away the detritus of centuries from a crooked, broken ruin that jutted awkwardly by the shores of Bloodsmeath. Mechanithralls, ill-suited to fine labour but bent to this work of lifting and shifting by necessity, pounded at the superstructure, forcing scree and clitter into some sort of secure foundation. It had been by chance that the temple had remained above the surface, and their master was not about to let it sink again.
Within the temple itself, where few were permitted to tread for fear of collapsing the structure, the iron shells housing the Withershadow Combine clustered in debate, baleful fires in empty sockets directed hither and yon, ceaselessly measuring, comparing, speculating. Bane thralls, spirits too proud and fickle for menial work, drifted about on guard, standing watch over the looming metal presence at the heart of the temple.
Lord Asphyxious hissed and glowered to himself, drifting in the air a foot or so above the temple floor. His mind was mostly elsewhere, occupying the cortices of his patrolling warjacks; the Combine were tasked with decoding every function of the temple.
Through one bonejack’s hazy perceptions, he caught sight of a dark figure drifting toward the temple, and he turned slowly in the air to welcome her, allowing himself to descend slowly to the ground. Deneghra stepped daintily between the thralls on guard, bowing her head to the Combine in passing – they feigned not to notice her, or perhaps they were so deep in ancient scholarship that their ignorance of her presence was for real.
She favoured Asphyxious with a deeper gesture of respect, bending to kneel amidst the muck and slime of the temple floor. Such things were commonly endured in Cryx.
Arise, sweet Deneghra,” he whispered, extending an iron claw. She took it, smiling, and stood by her lord and master’s side. The claw closed about her hand, and Asphyxious continued speaking, interrupted at times by the hiss of escaping steam. “Once… once, all this was Morrdh. A nation ripe to our purposes, had my predecessors but had the wit to make it so.”
This ruin does predate the Orgoth, then, as you believed?”
It does.” Asphyxious’ lensed eye flared and clattered as he focused on something in the middle distance. “We stand at the Gates of Woe, as named by… the upstart Thamar. Our source spoke true, and the Combine’s study confirms it.”
I knew it.” Deneghra grinned, delighted, and took the liberty of drawing closer to Asphyxious, clutching his metal hand to herself and laying her head along the pistons of his arm.
Thou sensed it too, then?” Asphyxious’ skull swivelled down in its housing, the lens whirring and the pinprick of green fire in his empty socket narrowing.
How could I not, my lord? The air here is thick with souls, and ancient suffering.” Deneghra stretched out her free arm langorously, and twirled her fingers in the air. “I can feel them. You taught me well,” she finished, bringing her hand back to rest on his. The lich lord’s glowering skull, missing its jaw and lacking even the fixed grin of a completed face, made no sign of a response, but there were subtle pitches to his eerie voice that she had learned to recognise, and when he spoke, she knew that he was proud.
Not full souls. These are forfeit. Mere echoes. Powers beyond our reach have claim to them. On this spot, in ancient days, the lost kingdom made its plea-bargain with a force lying beyond even our master’s reach. Yet this is no mere curiosity. Lore there is here that can be put to use. These ghosts are shadows of a past even I do not remember. I would question them afore we send this rubble to the depths.”
My lord!” A voice like Asphyxious’, but thin and high, and somehow more humble, hailed them from behind. The warcasters turned – Admonia of the Combine had approached them, skull bowed in obeisance to Asphyxious. “We may yet have a purpose for this place. The Morridane who once worshipped here could do so again. Imagine this place reconsecrated – the cult resurrected, and paying its devotions and its tithed souls to the Dragonfather!”
Or to him, Deneghra said to herself, casting a glance up at Asphyxious. The iron claw had twitched as Admonia spoke; Asphyxious had come to the same conclusion. When he spoke, though, nothing of this purpose was betrayed.
What of the Sounder at the Gates, who the ancients made pact with? Cheated of his prize, would he not take arms against our master?”
The ancient rites binding this place to him are weak with passing centuries. Rededication should be possible.”
Perhaps a test?” Denegha whispered, slipping around and under Asphyxious’ arm. He released her hand as she turned, and laid it on her shoulder. “If the exalted members of the Combine can work their magic, and a powerful soul be provided for sacrifice? If that soul’s release would not draw the Sounder hither, would we not know that his attention has left this temple?“
“Thou hast a plan in mind, my exquisite pupil? Go then, about thy purpose. Bring me a sacrifice!”
DEEPWOOD TOWER, ON CYGNAR’S BORDER WITH KHADOR AND ORD
Haley had dismissed the guard. Right now, she needed solitude, and fresh air, and the top of Deepwood Tower was the only place she was likely to get either. She drew her cloak tight around her and peered out into the woody gloom to the south, idly following the Bramblerut down into Cygnar proper. Save for Northguard on the far shore of Bloodsmeath, which shimmered and heaved ominously in the moonlight some fifty miles to the north-east, she was as far out as she could go without her very presence constituting an act of war.
She turned, and looked north-west instead, into the Ordic heartland, toward Fellig and Zerkova’s Hill. Haley was a soldier, through and through, but there were times when being a living weapon grew tiresome. This was such a time. It was one thing to be stationed on the Dead Line and know that one’s adversaries were beyond all common ground, were a menace that existed solely to kill or be killed – it was another to stand on this point between three nations and know that any day now she might be robbing others of their families – fellow Morrowans, fellow people. Was there someone out there, to north, or even to west if the fates of nations turned and Ord saw more advantage in Khador’s side than Cygnar’s, who would grow up swearing vengeance against Cygnar, against Victoria Haley who slew her father?
Can’t sleep?” said someone beside her. Haley jumped, despite herself, and looked around. Then she really jumped, four feet back and one in the air. With one hand she grabbed for the guard’s rifle, resting in the rack at her side; with the other, she reached for the cord that would sound a whistle far below and alert the tower.
Her hands passed through both, and the glowing, ghostly outline of a girl in front of her smiled sadly. Too late, Haley realised she’d left her spear below; she was vulnerable, and already bespelled.
Get gone,” she said finally, looking over her counterpart’s shoulder, toward the glittering marsh in the distance. “I’ve nothin’ to say to ye I’ve not said afore. Soon as this spell o’ yours is off me, you’re dead.”
Victoria, really.” Deneghra pouted and tipped her head sideways. “You’re my sister. I’m not even armed. Besides,” she went on, and the pout became a wicked little grin, “you’ve killed me once already; it didn’t stick, remember?”
What d’ye want, then?”
You.” Deneghra leant in close to Haley, and the air grew colder as she did so. Mere inches from Haley’s face, she stopped and licked her lips, lizard-quick. “You have something that belongs to me. Mine by right. Yours by accident of birth and incompetence long uncorrected.”
Suppose it’s yer soul, or somethin’ twice as vile.” Haley looked from side to side – anywhere but into Deneghra’s wide and eager eyes. She caught sight of a lantern’s light in the stairwell, turning the corner ahead of its carrier.
Hardly.” Deneghra leant in, closer still, and whispered into Haley’s ear – her breath did not steam in the evening air. “It’s my life. My destiny.”
The lamp-light climbed the stairs, as did its owner – the sergeant of the guard, a veteran long gunner who’d fought with Haley on the Dead Line, and whose presence she’d requested when she was reassigned.
Captain, are you all right? I heard voices, and…” He trailed off as Deneghra twirled gracefully away from Haley, making no sound at all as she spun and stood – hips cocked, lips parted, eyes darting – at the head of the stairs. Slowly, his hands fell toward his sides, and he bent to set his rifle and the lantern on the floor. He averted his eyes for only a second, some half-remembered discipline still present beneath his helpless lust, and Haley realised as Deneghra stepped forward that her sister’s concentration was broken – her hands were on the rifle, and the whistle-cord, and she could feel them.
As the alarm sounded shrill and voices cried out from the fortress beneath them, Deneghra’s expression turned sour. She clapped her hands around the sergeant’s head as he knelt before her, and with a scowl of effort she snapped it clean. Something thin and pale and green as Deneghra herself rose, wispy and afraid, from his eyes and mouth – with a sound like an indrawn breath, it pulled itself up, but its substance was already caught in the trap at Deneghra’s waist, and it fell inward, its escape cut off sharp. Deneghra leapt back, passing through the tower turrets and into the air even as Haley brought her rifle to bear and aimed. Ghastly green now, floating over the distant Bloodsmeath that could still be seen beneath and through her, she seemed to recover her composure. Haley’s bullet sang through her, and she smiled, gesturing behind her with a bloodless hand.
That’s where you’ll find me, sister mine. Catch me if you can!”
Deneghra spread her arms and fell away on the breeze. Haley threw down the rifle and balled her hands, gathering lighting between them ready to strike out, but Deneghra was drifting too far and too fast, and Haley’s blast went wild. Her sister was gone, into the night.
Footsteps came wild and quick up the stairs, as the rest of Haley’s Dead Line squad piled up the stairs – to their credit, the sight of their sergeant dead at their feet did nothing to stop them falling in beside Haley.
What’s afoot, captain?”
Haley’s mind was racing, and she spoke to herself as much as to the long gunner. “Cryx. Message, def’nitely. Trap? Prob’bly.”
Turn out the guard. We march for Bloodsmeath at first light.”