Overview

The Empire pushes forward on the eastern front. After a year of preparation, the Empire sends sends troops into Reikos, and finally gets first hand experience of the devastation the Druj have wrought in their absence. Karsk is once again Imperial territory thanks in large part to a profusion of magical enchantments - but the Thule remain a force to be reckoned with, In Holberg, the Empire launches a counterattack against the Druj, sweeping south and east from the gates of the city, driving the barbarians from the ruins of the lower city and laying siege to the crumbling fortress of Rebeshof.

Things are a little more mixed on the western front. The orcs of the Lasambrian Hills mostly withdraw from Segura with only a few die-hard, stubborn raiders refusing to honour the agreement with the Imperial Senate; the Dawnish army of the Eastern Sky make short work of these stragglers. In contrast, the campaign to keep the Thule from the Silver Peaks remains at a near deadlock, with the barbarians making only small gains. The loss of life in Wintermark is ... tremendous.

On the whole, however, the Empire appears to be reclaiming territory from the barbarians. Perhaps the tide has turned at last?

Four miracles, four mysteries

Varushka is a place of mystery and has its own share of wonders. They are dark, but they are wonders none-the-less. The Empire has suffered both exhilarating victory and crushing defeat in Karsk; but it has refused to retreat or let the Thule take one inch of the dark soil that is not soaked with blood.

The hills and forests, under the cold stars of Autumn, have become a place of miracles. In the west, a great citadel of glacier ice and dark basalt stone looms. Grim armoured giants man the walls, watching for the advance of the Thule with pitiless eyes. In the east, spiralling towers of gold and deep red wood greet the dawn, guarded by crimson-and-amber lion knights. They are the first miracle, and they are glorious and terrible as the morning and the night.

The second miracle comes from the south, and marches alongside the Citadel Guard. A legion of pale soldiers in cerulean blue and silver adamant. The captains of the elfin host ride impossible beasts - great white steeds with ivory hooves and ocean-deep eyes, each with a single curling horn in the centre of their forehead. They are beautiful and without mercy, spearing orcs and tossing them aside like so much chaff. They march beneath the banner of the white unicorn; the legion of Jaheris, come from the Summer Realm at the behest of the Imperial magicians to face the wroth of their master's lover amid the black hills of Karsk. They are cold as the moon, and full of vicious wit, but their wild ferocity is a wondrous mirror of the calm passion of the Urizen sentinels.

The third miracle rises from the earth of Varushka itself. A legion of ghost-soldiers and skeletal-champions joins the shambling animate corpses of the Black Thorns. While the husks lead the way into battle, the vanguard of each attack, the ghost-soldiers and accurséd wights bring up the rear. Silent, limned with flickering green fire beneath the dark clouds, they appear without warning and depart the same way when the sun first touches the horizon ... and they seem to obey the orders of a Varushkan general - a massive, grim draughir man bound in chains. When they engage the Thule, they are bound up by a bank of living fog that blinds their foes but does not hinder them or their allies. They are lead into battle by a flock of ghostly crows and ravens that seem to lead them unerringly to where their foes are weakest, and spread confusion in the enemy ranks. These cursed remnants inflict vicious slaughter on the Thule, alongside the wild men and women of northern Karsk who seem almost feral next to the armoured schlacta of the Golden Axe.

A fourth miracle; once again, the waters of Karsk sparkle with the irrepressible light of life and health. Any wound that is not fatal, heals in time. Each morning, the dew on the ground revitalises those who have survived the night. The rivers of life run through the hills and forests of Karsk.

The Thule themselves are on the move, pressing forward into the regions still in Imperial hands. Yet their focus seems elsewhere - beyond the golden citadel that serves as the headquarters of their warlocks, and the magic their magicians wield in battle, there is little sign of their great sorcerous might. The clashes are bloody, but how much more terrible would they have been if the waters had run clear, or with blood, instead of with the essence of health and healing?

Of all the supernatural aid mustered against the Thule arguably the most important is the strategic brilliance conjured up by the leaders of the Golden Axe. Time and again during the season the Thule attacks are only defeated by the arcane insights employed to the Imperial general and his allies.

And in the end ... in the end the orcs are pushed back, back out of the hills of Nitrost and back to their makeshift defences in the east and the north. When the sun rises on the last day of Autumn, there is no doubt. Karsk is once again in Imperial hands.

But for how long can the Empire hold it this time?

How certain is it that the Imperial senate will uphold the Varushkan claim to this territory once again?

How will the Thule react now that the Empire is arrayed against them once more in its strength?

And what of the dark presences that slumber in the forests and the hills - is their thirst for blood slaked or is their appetite merely whetted ...?

The Weight of the Mountains

After the Autumn Equinox, the days grow shorter and the winds grow colder. In the north, in Sermersuaq, the sky is overcast by day and frigid-clear by night, lit by the cold perfection of the great aurora that dances above Tsirku. The Silver Peaks echo to the rhythms of war... and are answered by the imperious brazen horns of the Hounds of Glory, the raised voices and pounding drums of the Red Wind Corsairs and the Fire of the South, and the relentless crunch-crunch-crunch of the Winter Sun over fresh fallen snow.

The number of Thule banners in Sermersuaq has all but doubled since the battle of the Stonefields. They hold the high passes and the low plains, and now their attention turns inexorably, once again, toward the Ice Caves and the great deposits of star metal concealed within. If they take the caves, they will control the entire Silver Peaks - the mines, the mana fields, and the passes through the mountains.

They do not come alone, this barbarian ocean of Thule soldiers and warlocks and terrible furred beasts out of the far north. A cohort of Summer knights marches beside them. Their golden helms glinting in the cold Autumn sun; their crimson surcoats soak up the blood of their prey. They laugh as they fight, glorying in the exhilaration of battle in a way only a few mortals can truly match ... mortals like the Hounds of Glory and the Freeborn kohan. The warriors of Summer seem to take great pains to seek the Dawnish and the Freeborn out, preferring them over the orcs. The Thule, by contrast, are full of eagerness to face the Imperial orcs in battle once again. Both sides care bound up in a bloody contest to see who can seize the highest ground, who can drive their enemies off the treacherous paths or trap them in a jagged gorge.

Battle rages throughout the foothills, across the Stonefields, and even in some parts of the high peaks on the edge of the treeline where the pines give way to eternal snow. Neither side is defending - the Thule seek to push down the slopes to take the Ice caves, the Empire strives to force them back up from the plains, back toward Otkodov.

The Empire is outnumbered - but not by much. They fight from a frigid citadel of translucent ice that forms itself directly in the path of the Thule advance. A ragged cheer goes up from the Imperial soldiers, but the Thule barely break their advance - they seem to have been expecting the citadel, almost. They have makeshift siege engines, and several dozen massive shaggy ogres bred no doubt as living battering rams in the pits of Otkodov.

Blood stains the early snow - so much blood! But the snow itself glitters with a hidden power, as do the streams and cool mountain springs. The waters of Sermersuaq run with life - and not just the Silverpeaks. From Lansipari to East Floes to northern Sarda, the lakes and rivers teem with life - few suaq have seen so many fish. The beasts glow with health and fertility under the magic of Spring, from the rabbits of the southern plains to the mammoth of the northern tundras. So much life.

So much death. The magic means that any blow that is not fatal will heal overnight, but once this is apparent it simply fuels the savagery of the Thule and their faerie allies - and many Imperial troops are quick to match it. A thousand humans and orcs die in the three months between the heart of Autumn and the heart of Winter. At least as many Thule, also - the magic is indiscriminate - yet for each one who falls and does not rise there is one who might have never risen who stands, and fights.

The barbarians have supernatural aid to match that of the Empire. The Red Wind Corsairs fight with preternatural clarity, anticipating Thule tactics and meeting them with clever stratagems of their own ... but the generals of the Thule are nearly as adept at unravelling the cunning plans of the Empire in their turn. The shambling host of the Holberg dead - animate husks with hungry Winter spirits bound inside - fight implacably, rising again and again despite the best efforts of the savage orc hunters ... but their sluggishness and slow advance is more than countered by the swift-moving Thule whose uncanny ability to navigate the foothills allows them to outmaneuver the grasping unliving brutes. As Winter comes closer, the walking dead are slower and slower to rise, and some fail to return entirely. Eventually, the rotten dead lie in droves wherever the Imperial orcs have fought. The Winter spirits escape the cold flesh and the forces of corruption and decay begin to catch up with them.

It is an even match, even so - but then, slowly, inexorably, the Thule begin to turn the tide. They push slowly forward, claiming the upper foothills ... and there they stop. Whatever else it has achieved, this bloody work, it has kept the northern orcs from claiming the ice caves. Yet they now control a little over half of the Silver Peaks ... and already their scavengers are stripping the mountains of every resource they can lay their hands on.

For now; the Thule show no sign that they intend to retreat. Indeed, they seem more committed to claiming the mountains of Sermersuaq than ever.

The garden of Highguard

The Garden of Highguard. A sleepy stretch of the Couros river; a place for gentle walks in shady parks; for contemplation of the virtues in quiet shrines; for the study of the threefold arts of chirurgery, physick and apothecary at the houses of healing in High Chalcis. Quiet settlements, connected by well-maintained roads. A place for introspection and celebration of what it meant to be Highborn. It should have been safe.

Until the Druj did the unthinkable and came south through the haunted Forest of Peytaht. Until they slaughtered the students at Exile, and brought their armies into the heart of the Empire and burnt the shady parks, and defiled the quiet shrines and made charnel pits of the houses of healing. Then, slowly and inexorably like a pestilence, like a black plague, they drove the Highborn from their garden and despite the best efforts of the Empire, claimed Reikos as wholly and completely their own.

That was a year ago, and now the Highborn are returning. The Granite Pillar and their Navarr allies of the Quiet step cross the Couros into Reikos, both armies guided and empowered with the sight beyond sight, the clarity of the strategist, the keen eyes of the Day that penetrate the plans of the enemy. They are, perhaps, a little unprepared for what they find.

Reikos has been devastated. The dead are innumerable, and those who have not been slain have been carried off to slavery and worse. A great citadel of broken stone and twisted metal stands now where the gardens of High Chalcis once stood - a terrible symbol of Druj dominion. Scouts report that from the walls flutter the tattered, soiled, defiled banners of all the chapters of Reikos with pride of place given to those of Cantiarch's Hold and the Suns of Couros. Above them all flutter the banners of a Druj clan - a white toad.

The Vigilant Swan is an open-cast quarry now, with a legion of battered and broken Highborn slaves toiling until they drop under the merciless gaze of their orc masters. Who knows what state the rest of the territory is in?

And over everything ... everyone... hangs a miasma. It is almost tangible, it can almost be tasted in the air. The weight of it is like death, like the dread that comes in the night when you start awake from a forgotten nightmare and for a moment cannot remember quite where you are. It is in the air, in the water, in the soil. It claws at the hearts of the soldiers of Highguard and Navarr urging them to turn and flee.

It is worse at night. The stars are wrong. They twist in the sky, unnaturally - there is a powerful fell magic at work, a shroud of shadows that during the day covers the sky in dark clouds and often as not plunges the territory into twilight long before the sun has touched the horizon.

But the armies of the Empire do not surrender to fear. The 'Pillar and the 'Step advance into Riverwatch. Tabernacle is in ruins - the once proud chapter looks as if it has been torn apart, probably stone and wood for the citadel at High Chalcis. It is also a ghost town - no sign of any human. The caution of the Empire's heroes is well placed - the ruins have been laid with traps and cruel deadfalls, making them practically impassible for anything other than small groups of scouts such as the Navarr and the Highborn Unconquered.

The Druj are quick to respond the the intrusion as well - there are raiding forces several hundred warriors strong stalking the ruins of Reikos, slaughtering everyone they meet who puts up any resistance. They barely even bother to make an example of their prisoners. Once they realise there are Imperial troops in Reikos again, they begin to organise a strong defence - they make little effort to engage the armies directly, harrying, flanking, striking once and then falling back towards prepared defences. It is like fighting mist - a mist that cuts and burns.

In the end, after several months, Imperial forces have barely made a foothold here - the gnawing unnatural dread makes it very difficult to hold ground - even the staunchest Highborn finds it hard to stand against the Druj for any length of time in the face of the miasma, the pounding drums, and the knowledge that their backs are to the Couros.

Still - some ground is claimed. The best Navarr scouts have spread out in small groups across the ruined plains of Reikos and will return shortly to give a full accounting of the situation in the charnel wastes to their general. The Druj have been driven from the ruins of Tabernacle, more or less; but there is still much to do before even Riverwatch is liberated - and the battle for control of the Vigilant Swan will be fierce indeed.

Interlude

Segura

Sir Jory wiped the sweat from his eyes and glared at the middle-aged knight before him.

"You can wipe that stupid grin off your face, Jessica, for a start. I am not in the mood to play 'good news and better news' with you today. it is too hot and my .. my leg hurts."

Sir Jory blushed in spite of himself. The orc's spear had not gone into his leg ... not precisely.

The questing knight tried to control her grin, but didn't answer. She raised her eyebrows at her friend. After a moment he sighed.

"Go on then, give me the good news."

Jessica's broad grin returned and if anything widened.

"The good news is that all three Lasambrian forces have withdrawn in good order back over the western border into their dam'd hills."

Sir Jory nodded thoughtfully.

"As agreed then. And the better news?"

"Not all of them have gone - we've got pockets of resistance from Anduz to the tributaries of the Scorrero. They're refusing to surrender, and threw spears at me when I insisted. It looks like a few hundred die-hards rather than a proper force but ... they're feisty, Jory. Dam'd feisty. It'll most likely take us several months to root them all out - and there's even a few bandits in there as well who need to be reminded that this is the Empire and they are part of it."

Sir Jory's grin spread across his face to match that of his companion.

"We'd best get started then," he smiled.

Spiral

Magister Horace smoothed the front of his vestment as he stared out of the wide high-arched window into the darkness. He did not like the mountains very much.

"These windows are far too wide," he opined to his second. The scribe looked up from her writing desk.

"It doesn't matter, Horace. There's a thousand foot drop on the other side of it and what isn't cliffside is overhang."

"It's still a poor way to build a castle," grumbled the Magister. "Too ... airy. Too ... light. Bloody Urizen."

He looked guilty immediately, and shot a glance to the third figure in the room. A pale skinned merrow patiently sewing by the glimmering lightstone in the corner.

"Not that they have not been excellent hosts, of course."

The merrow looked up, her face unreadable but her eyes full of compassion.

"You wish you were in Reikos, Magister Horace, do you not? It makes you short tempered, and then you feel as if you have shown weakness, and worry that your passion is a failing. It is not, because you never let your passion overwhelm your discipline. It does you great credit."

Horace sighed, and fidgeted with his dragonbone medallion.

"I feel we are wasted here. There is no fight in the Grendel and that thing - " He gestured suddenly to the north-east. "That thing has been in my dreams again."

The merrow magus nodded, and went back to her sewing.

"There is a pattern at work here, Magister Horace. You know it in your heart and still .. still you yearn to take the battle to the orcs who have defiled your homeland. But you do not, and you do not complain, and you stand watch as you are ordered to do. Yet remember that we also serve, who wait and prepare. The Grendel will come, in time. It is ... inevitable."

Magister Horace exchanged a gloomy look with his scribe and went back to staring out across the silent mountains.

Somewhere in the Bay of Catazar

"Were you expecting there to be three ships?" asked Angelo conversationally.

"No." said Captain Drummer. He drew his sword and started to shout orders with a slightly desperate edge to his voice.

"Oh," said Angelo quietly. "Oh dear."

The fall of Holmauer

With the arcane might of the Empire turned north against the Thule or south to support the drive into Reikos, the armies that march out of Holberg are forced rely on cold steel to push through their grim determination to drive the Druj from the Empire. There are no miracles here - bloody, accursèd Holberg is the prize, if the soldiers of the Empire can just find the strength of arms to overcome the bleak horror of the Druj.

After the disastrous Siege of Holberg, the Druj are in disarray. Their plans in tatters - the swift action of the heroes of Empire robbed them of their magical siege engine, and saw the army of the Stalking Cobra scattered to the five winds. Riding on the wave of that victory, over twenty-five thousand Marchers, Dawnish, Highborn, League soldiers and Imperial orcs issued from the great gates of Holberg. Those armies who had endured the great siege gained new support from fresh Marcher soldiers, dour-faced troops of the Strong Reeds force-marched up from distant Astolat. A great coterie of independent captains came to Holberg to fight. Drawn by the banner of the Wolves of War, these captains were bound by a common cause made all the stronger by the power of a grand Autumn working built on a framework of ilium and favours

Leaving the safety of Holberg, they took the fight to the barbarian invaders ... and what a fight it was.

The plan is sound; the Imperial forces are measured in their advance, taking few risks but pushing forward in a steady tide of steel. Not so the Summer Storm - first into the fray, last to leave, pushing always to confront the fearsome forces who marched beneath the Scorpion banner. Always in the vanguard, unmoved by the beating drums, and the grim horror of the Druj, driving them from the field time and again in overwhelming assault after overwhelming assault. They pay the price of course - but this Autumn the Druj are more concerned with survival than slaughter. Five hundred Summer Storm will not come home from this campaign - but then, what Imperial orc can ever come home?

The Druj, for all they are the filth of the world, stood to meet the Empire's advance. The battle wages back and forth across the tattered, broken walls of Holmauer. First one tower, then another falls. The last battered keep collapses under a rain of boulders from the Wolves of War, supported by a few small units of engineers who once marched beneath the banner of the Towerjacks. Once the outer walls around the suburbs of Holberg stood tall and proud. Now, after three decades and more of back-and-forth war; of both sides cannibalising structures to shore up their defences; of wildfires; of siege engines and slaughter ... the gardens and businesses and estates of Holmauer are broken tombs and cracked ruins home to the dead and the desperate.

The Imperial forces do not rest on their laurels. Holmauer is only the start. The fight comes to Rebeshof, all the way to the walls of the Druj castle there. The Scorpion banner retreating behind the walls to escape the Imperial orcs' implacable pursuit. The Golden Sun lays out its great palanquins within sight of the walls, while the Seventh Wave and the Bounders engage in grim competition to see who can find and slaughter the most straggling orcs as the Empire slowly consolidates its hold over half of Rebeshof.

The other armies prepare to lay siege. Irony, worthy of a play, to see the tables turned like this!

Yet... it is early to begin celebrating. There are banners here that have not been seen in Holberg - of the snake and the scorpion and the crimson lizard. The Druj have brought their own reinforcements to match the Marchers. The war for Holberg is not over, yet.

The Druj are bitter, bitter foes. if they are hateful and cruel in victory, they are ten times that in defeat.