379YE Summer Solstice winds of war
The Imperial military campaigns seem - with one obvious exception - to be going well. Karsk remains an Imperial territory; the Thule and the Imperial forces continue watch each other carefully but there are no significant engagements.
In Reikos, Imperial forces have largely become bogged down in Haros, but they are making some progress. The Druj for their part have retreated behind the walls of their massive citadel at what was once High Chalcis, and most engagements are with ambushers or wicked curses.
The deadlock in Sermersuaq has shifted slightly. The Empire has recaptured a little ground from the Thule, but there is still a long way to go and the death toll continues to rise.
The campaign in the forests of Holberg has ended with the Druj being driven back across the river into the Mallum. The malignant spirits possessing trees continue to cause chaos and destruction, but for now the League territory has been liberated. The remaining Druj are little more than bandits.
A significant force of elite Imperial troops remain engaged in campaigns outside the borders of the Empire; some fifty companies fight the Druj in distant Axos, seeking to end the siege of Ipotavo. It remains to be seen what effect this will have.
Finally... the Grendel have finally made their move. A major naval assault accompanied by lightning raids against Ossuary has cost the Urizen control of the Legacy. It appears that the southern barbarians are intent on capturing the entire territory.
The sun is bright, but the ice is slippery, as they say in Korotny.
A strained "peace" continues in Karsk. The Northern Eagle and the Black Thorns maintain their positions; the forces loyal to the sovereign of Branoc gather around the great hill there, but maintain a careful distance from the Thule occupation force. The army of unliving, accused troops under Varushkan control fade into the hills of Nitrost, unseen except for the occasional glimpse on nights of the new moon.
The citadel of ice and bone in Nitros remains, unmelting, as Spring turns to Summer. The grim heralds who garrison their walls chafe under their enforced inaction, but the Thule do not come. A twisted fortress of trees and ivy winds itself together in Lestazny, to keep close watch for rumours of unwholesome activity in the south. The supernatural vitality that has surged through the waterways of Karsk has faded away; the last remnants of its touch visible only in what promises to be a bumper crop for the Varushkan farms after years of poor yields in a warzone.
Across the no-man's-land between the western regions under Imperial control, and the eastern regions dominated by the orcs there are occasional minor engagements between scouts or patrols, but nothing comes of them. In Kosti and Veresk, things seem almost to be back to normal. There is some talk of a joint venture between the younger members of the two vales to start a new settlement in Lestasny, and put the shame of Isember into the past where it belongs.
Wagons of mithril, escorted by warriors from the Malinov, Sloev and Pravin families of Moresvah wend north to deliver military supplies and more volunteers to the Northern Eagle. This will be the final such delivery - a year has passed since the Imperial heroes resolved the issue with the Three Sisters and the Thule invaders. They are grateful, but it is time to focus on their own concerns again. Now that Karsk is liberated - or at least the parts of Karsk that the three families care about.
Another caravan wends north and west, this time from the Imperial warehouses at Vorota. It is laden with wains of mithril, a gift from the Varushkan people to their allies in Karsk. A contingent of fur-and-leather clad men and women meet it at the eastern "border" of the northern hills. There is a guarded welcome, a temporary camp with a rough wooden palisade is set up and sealed against the night. The hillsfolk of Branoc and the hillsfolk of Nitrost share an evening of hospitality before the people of the Broken Hill take the wagons the rest of the way, back to their secluded vales.
The Thule ... are silent. There is rumour of delegation coming down out of the peaks, but there is no sign that their forces here are any less alert than they were last season.
As to the rumours of an army of rampaging husks and disembodied spirits in the woods south-western Lestaznic forests ... they seem to have come to nothing. Nothing more has been heard. It seems that the problem has completely resolved itself without Imperial intervention.
Hard Rain Falling
Reikos never changes, not any more. Life changes, death ... death is the end of change.
The main forces of the Stone Toad withdraw into their great citadel in the east, into Urith Barath, which the Empire called High Chalcis. They seal their gates, and they set siege engines of vicious cruelty on the walls. There they wait for the Empire to come to them.
They have mostly abandoned the rest of Reikos to the Empire ... but actually reclaiming the territory for the Empire is no less challenging. Traps and guerrilla ambushers are only the half of it. The Druj have poisoned wells, and in some places entire sections of previously fertile land are sour and sickly. In one farmstead outside Haros, a malignant curse awaits Navarr scouts that inflicts madness and mind-clenching terror. In another, the walls of an entire chapter were so infused with suffering and grief that it required the assistance of multiple guides and Highborn priests to enable the soldiers to enter and search for waiting Druj. Then there is the matter of the tormented ghosts of the Vigilant Swan, who resist all efforts to reopen the white granite quarry.
After a while, the stake-lined pits and night-time attacks are seen as preferable to the ... other things ...
The main impediment to gaining ground in Reikos remains the miasma of dread that infuses the very air itself. It is omnipresent, a pall of despair that saps the will to fight - and in some cases the will to live. It grinds away every positive emotion, and even threatens virtuous thought. At night, the nightmares come - spun from the minds of the sleeping soldiers, from their personal fears, and from their private grief. One Highborn magister comments that it is as if the three armies - the Granite Pillar, the Quiet Step and the Valiant Pegasus - are somehow outside the world. The Empire seems impossibly distant - it is easy to forget sometimes that joy and love exist in the world at all. The priests of both Highguard and Navarr are hard-pressed to keep the spectre of dread under control so that the armies can keep pressing forward.
While the Valiant Pegasus and the Granite Pillar push forward into Haros Water, the Navarr are more cautious. In the end, and after a season of fighting concentrated around the southern regions, the Empire has made little progress. Still, while there are plenty of little skirmishes, most interaction with the Druj involves finding their (invariably trapped and despoiled) abandoned positions and baggage trains. As a consequence there are few significant casualties among the Imperial forces.
Scant consolation, perhaps.
The slow trudge forward becomes much worse, however, in the final fortnight before the Summer Solstice. Out of nowhere, heavy black clouds race across the whole of Reikos, born in a tumultuous gyre above the walls of Urith ... of High Chalcis. Thunder roars, lightning flashes ... within minutes everyone and everything is soaked to the skin. The thick mud becomes almost liquid underfoot, every ditch and pothole begins to fill with dirty water. The oxen pulling the Imperial baggage trains panic, overturning wagons and breaking wheels, and crushing one poor drover to death in their panic. Visibility drops, speaking to someone further away than arm's length becomes next to impossible.
Ten minutes after the thunderous deluge begins, it becomes even worse. The clouds lighten, tinged with a sickly sunset crimson. The rain turns the colour of blood - after only a short time, it seems like every soldier is drenched in gore, as if they have waded through a slaughterhouse. Some of the soldiers in the Quiet Step and the Valiant Pegasus begin to panic - the world itself seems to be coming to and end ...
... but after a few more minutes, the blood-rain ceases. The torrential downpour continues but soon washes away the crimson taint.
The magisters and the vates mutter and grumble. Rituals are preformed. Divinations sought. The rain continues, day and night, with barely a few hours irregular respite during which the air is filled with midges and flies. Those who have fought in Holberg recognise the sickening taste in the air - the taste of water infested with corrupted Spring magic. The unliving husks accompanying the Valiant Pegasus - their orc bodies and human corpses increasingly indistinguishable - begin to rot .. but the magic of Winter that infuses them means the rot does not progress far. Instead, they just begin to *stink*.
The rivers are running red, with defilement. And, everywhere, they begin to rise as the rain continues.
And then ... then, people begin to fall sick ...
... very sick.
Gralm and Ull
The Thule launch an overwhelming assault against Imperial positions the week after the Spring Equinox. Their warbeasts lead the fray, under the fluttering banners of the ice hound. Well over twenty-thousand orcs attack the Imperial forces, trying to claim the last areas of the Silver Peaks they do not already control. Their forces are heavily supported by Thule battle-magic. Their warbeasts, their twisted dire creatures, and the orcs who fight alongside them burn with a berserk rage that urges them to inflict terrible casualties - slaughtering the weak, the injured or those cut off from their allies.
The barbarian armies are again supported by several thousand knights of the Crimson Queen, Eleonaris. They fight on, raising their crimson banners under the bright sun. Their captains ride sleekly muscled golden beasts larger than an ox which are to cats what a hurricane is to the gentle rains of spring. They relish every chance to strike against the Empire, and especially seek out the Dawnish knights - they mock them, and they mock especially the name of the Eastern Sky fighting in distant Holberg.
The Imperial troops are not without their own supernatural allies - the great tower of black iron and glacier ice conjured by Imperial magicians does not melt under the Summer heat. if anything, it becomes more beautiful and terrible, sunlight causing it to glitter and shimmer like a vast jewel. The hulking, fur-wrapped, tattooed creatures - the orc-like giants that garrison the walls - bellow their delight as the Knights of Eleonaris attack the walls, and slaughter Summer knight and barbarian orc with equal gusto. The citadel is a major feature in the defence of Sermersuaq - providing a safe haven for the injured, a central base of operations for the commanders, and a symbol of Imperial defiance overlooking the Stonefield Ice Caves. The Winter Sun add to the garrison, responding with tireless endurance to news of other Imperial forces under threat. it is they that track and kill the Thule raiding parties that seek to slip down into Suaq Fount and the East Flows, preventing any attempt to circle round the Imperial line.
The shambling undead that accompany the Red Wind Corsairs have none of the cold brilliance of the Summer knights, none of the unyielding fortitude of Cathan Canae's guardians, none of the cold discipline of the Imperial orcs. Under the influence of the powerful spring magic infusing Sermersuaq, a number of them have begun to sprout fungus and moss, and even flowers. It is sometimes easy to forget that there are human and orc corpses, driven by flesh-hungry Winter spirits, hidden beneath the garlands of greenery that slowly overtake them.
The Freeborn soldiers have no time for the defensive measures of their companions. They push out from Imperial positions, and take the battle to the Thule. As before, they focus on attacking baggage trains and camps - higher up in the mountains than any other Imperial force chooses to roam. They use their unliving auxiliaries to shield their forces while they loot the Thule, but they suffer significant losses in the process. The Winterfolk soldiers openly call them maggots now, and will have little to do with them.
So much blood! So much death!
The Fist of the Mountains, supported by the power of the Autumn Archmage's Great Enchantment, refuse to cede even one inch of ground. They fight beside the Hounds of Glory, and each Dawnish knight has sworn an oath to keep the Thule back or to die trying. Between them, they hold the line against the Thule. They make them pay for each assault they launch ... and the Thule do not have enough spirit to pay the bill when it comes due.
While the orcs fight savagely, breaking against the defences of the Empire, the warlocks who direct the barbarian armies do so with cold precision and strategic brilliance. They withdraw from Imperial traps before they can close, and demonstrate preternatural knowledge of the Empire's movements. At the same time, the Thule hunters again demonstrate uncanny awareness of the hills, mountains and valleys in which they fight - there are reports of orc raiders who make impossible charges down the side of sheer cliffs, or sally forth from cave mouths which disappear as suddenly as they appeared.
That said, the armies of the Green Shield, Hounds of Glory and Golden Axe demonstrate similar strategic insight. Over the course of the three months of hard campaigning, it becomes clear that the defensive strategy of the Imperial commanders will win the day over the brute aggression of the orcs.
Win the day? Yes. The Imperial forces manage to hold their positions for the first time since the war began. The curse of tradition is broken, and the Green Shield and Fist of the Mountain are joined in fellowship once more. With the addition of the newly arrived Varushkan forces under the Golden Axe, the tide at last begins to turn.
The Thule claim no new territory, take no ground ... and more than that ... they are forced to pull back slightly. The reason? The attacks by the Red Wind Corsairs. While the rest of the Empire focused their attention on defence, the Freeborn attacked - and the damage they inflicted on the baggage trains and the high-peak camps has begun to take its toll. A daring raid into the Stonefields, attacking a Thule supply position is the final straw for the orcs - the Freeborn claim a bounty of tempest jade and crystal mana, and the Empire takes back a little ground. Only a little - the Thule cede the southernmost parts of the Stonefields - but it is a start.
So much death!
But life, also. This is Spring under the influence of the magic that sings in every drop of dew. The Thule thought to poison the waters, but the Varushkan magicians not only turned aside their curse, they turned it back on itself. Carpets of spring flowers turn the mountains and the cold plains alike into a rainbow of ocean blue, and milk white, and delicate lilac. The beasts feel the magic moving in their blood, and the trees in their sap. The fish in the great lakes teem so densely that a hunter could walk from one side of the Atkonartoq to the other without getting one's boots wet. If it were not for the barbarian orcs, it would be a good time to be a hunter, or a fisher, or a herder, or a farmer in Sermersuaq. It is certainly a good time to be a healer - a cup of water, with or without herbs infused, will cure almost any physical ailment.
So much blood!
Even with the enchantments of life singing in the streams, the death toll continues to be terrible. Over a thousand Imperial troops are lost - aye, even in victory there are over a thousand men and women who will not fight again. The Thule death toll is reckoned to be at least half again as much, perhaps even higher.
For now the tide of battle has shifted in the Empire's a favour ... but the Thule still hold the upper passes and most of the Stonefields. Their curses still rain misfortune across the plains and lakes of Sermersuaq. The Empire has won a small victory here, but the campaign is not the war.
The Empire receives an unlooked-for reminder that time is running out when Imperial orc patrols capture and destroy two large warbands of Jotun orcs who are reaving down into Stark and the Suaq Wastes. Expeditionary, probing raids but raids nonetheless. If the Jotun join the battle in Sermersuaq then even this small victory over the Thule might prove to be nothing more than a prelude to destruction.
The Liberation of Holberg
Spring in the forests of Holberg, in the woodlands of Utterlund and Misericorde. Infused with a malignant, despicable evil that hates humankind, and also with the tattered remnants of the Druj occupation forces.
Once, Utterlund was a tamed woodland - a hunting preserve for the rich and the bored, or those who sought an escape from the constant company of other humans. Once, Misericorde was a haunt of bandits and brigands, a wilderland bordering the Semmerlak on one side and one bank of the great river running along the southern border of the Mallum.
Now, they are the final battlefield of the Liberation of Holberg, a campaign thirty years in the making. It has been a long, long battle. Two fortifications and countless Imperial lives to finally push the Druj here, to the edge of the Empire. They have raised the trees of Utterlund and Misericorde against the Empire, but the magic they have unleashed is indiscriminate - the Druj are no more protected from it than the armies are.
The Imperial forces sweep from the plains of Ennerlund into the forest as the days grow longer. The trees are twisted and unwholesome - shaped by Druj magic, or perhaps just Druj malice. The previously welcoming southern woodlands have become a maze of thickets and hook-bladed thorns. The vines and briars themselves are alive, driven by hateful instinct to trip and tear, and sometimes constrict and crush. Without warning, a tree might strike with mighty branches against a passing column - or a cadre of Druj ambushers might emerge shrieking from the undergrowth to strike with poisoned spears and barbed arrows before retreating into the gloom.
The Drakes and the Fire of the South press the Druj on all sides - the Freeborn troops full of Summer enchantment that pushes them to particularly powerful attacks against their orcish foe. Together the soldiers of the Marches and the Brass Coast seek out the retreating Druj and put them to sword and pike.
Whenever they engage the orcs, they seek to fall back deeper into the woods and try to flank the Imperial positions. The disciplined Imperial troops resist the lure to separate, methodical in their pursuit. Some of the orcs have already fled - back into the Mallum, across the river. One army still fights beneath the serpent banner, three others beneath the banners of the scorpion. The southern woods are twisted, but they are still reasonably open compared to the wilder forest along the river to the north. Over several weeks, the Druj give up their positions and retreat before the advancing Imperials.
This season, the Knights of Eleonaris fight alongside the Dawnish warriors of the Eastern Sky. Crimson surcotes and scarlet banners flutter in the gloom. They are armoured in bloodgold, wielding wide-bladed spears and rune-inscribed arrows of sharpened flint. Proud and imperious, they show their foes no mercy - and yet they show little friendship to the humans they fight alongside. They seem to chafe under the leadership of the Dawnish commanders, barely able to contain their dislike of the mortals they fight alongside. Yet, over the course of the campaign, it seems their attitude softens. They show a little more respect - having seen the Dawnish knights in battle.
The Summer Storm strike straight to the heart of the Druj forces. They are ruthless and unflinching in their attack. They pursue the Scorpion Sting, pursue the tattered remnants of the army that once ruled proudly from the fallen citadel of Rebeshof. There is no mercy for the Druj of the Scorpion Sting. The Imperial orcs slew their Het, and now they are coming for the rest of the army. In the woods around twisted Sorensdromen - once a gentle park where lovers would walk and whisper sweet words - the Druj have established a supply camp. Cut off from the main force by the Imperial advance, the orcs there attempt to surrender to the Summer Storm. Their words are met with steel and shallow graves. The Druj will not weasel their way out in the face of Imperial fury, not this time.
The Golden Sun scour the woods for stragglers - continuing the grinding advance that flushes out Druj assassins and puts them to the sword. Along with the Summer Storm, they pay special attention to the stragglers of the Scorpion Sting. Caught between the hammer of the orcs and the anvil of Dawn, the soldiers of the Scorpion Sting lose engagement after engagement.
Towards the mid-point of the campaign, the Imperial forces have pushed the remaining Druj back into Misericorde. The battle turns even more vicious. Here the Druj have a slight advantage, more used to fighting in the tangled paths and claustrophobic forests of the east. In some places, the Imperial forces burn them out - where the Druj cannot be flushed from their bolt holes, they perish in fire.
In the end ... in the end the Druj break. Caught between the river and the Empire they choose to take their chances with the river. It becomes clear that their rout was not entirely unplanned - that have taken precautions. Many of their troops have already fled on makeshift rafts and crude pontoons, across the river to the north and east.
At the final tally, the Empire estimates another three thousand or so orcs have been killed, or drowned in the river crossing. The Empire in turn has lost perhaps a third of that number - but that is still a thousand soldiers. The Summer Storm bore the brunt of the casualties in their headlong rush to cut the enemy down; but in return, they tore the enemy to ribbons.
The Scorpion Sting alone lags behind - maybe as few as a thousand troops remain, perhaps a little more. They seem reticent to flee across the river - perhaps they expect quarter. Perhaps they fear the judgement of the Druj for their failure to keep Holberg. Regardless, they are slow to cross the river. A concerted strike from Imperial heroes might be sufficient to break them completely - to rout them before they can make the dubious safety of the Mallum.
For now, though, the armies of the Empire take stock. This is a day that will be remembered by the League for years to come.
The Liberation of Holberg ... is complete.
Curse the Darkness
A little over a fortnight after the Spring Equinox, a great navy of red-sailed ships enters the coastal waters of Spiral from the south. They anchor amid the shattered remains of Apulus, and disgorge thousands of additional Grendel troops along the southern coast. They bear plenty of supplies, and offer continual support to the newly beached army and the Grendel forces already present.
The forces already in Spiral strike north without warning through to Ossuary. They hit the Legacy hard and fast, taking the defenders by surprise. They quickly overwhelm the token Urizen force, and by the time reinforcements from Fort Mezudan reach them, it is already too late. The sentinels are able to retreat, rescuing a few survivors and escorting them north into Zenith.
The Grendel troops plunder the Legacy, and then part of their force takes up a defensible position while the rest marches south and west towards Fort Mezudan. They overrun most of the spires they encounter, joining up with Grendel scouts as they travel. They re-establish uncontested control over Ankra and Cinion. They establish a base at Damakan's Forge, quickly turning the ruined spire into an armed camp.
Meanwhile, the newly arrived army crushes all resistance in Apulus and Apstrus, then turns their attention to Screed and the Black Plateau. They strike in force, rounding up many straggling Urizen magicians seeking to help those freed from the Plateau's fading influence. They leave well-defended positions behind them as they march.
Wherever they go, the Grendel give the Urizen a choice - surrender or die. Those who refuse to surrender are offered no mercy, and the offer is not made a second time. Those who surrender are divested of their magical resources and sent north to the Legacy or south to Apulus where they are set to work constructing siege engines.
The Grendel spare any child under the age of fifteen that they encounter, and make a great show of sending them south to the navy off the southern coast. There they are held aboard the Grendel flagships.
A winged messenger received by Illuminate Nissea in Fort Mezudan reassures her that the Grendel will not harm the captured children, but it would be a shame if their lives were to be placed in peril by the Urizen. The commander of the Grendel forces in Spiral, who identifies himself as Garaigh the Gentle at Apulus, includes a politely worded request for the Imperial garrison at Fort Mezudan to either surrender themselves, or retreat westward to Redoubt. They have been given until the end of the Summer Solstice to give the Grendel their decision. He closes by stressing that, unlike the Empire, the Grendel can be trusted to keep their word - but their magnanimous offer will not be repeated.