12th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Yegor trundled along as fast as the clattering Man-O-War armor would permit, temper flaring almost as hot as the boiler on his back. The panicked kompany emerged from the trees and sprinted with renewed energy to outskirts of Albyn. About half the town was a scattering of one- and two- story residences and small businesses sprawling freely around a circular town center where the larger apartment structures were located. The outer edges had been totally evacuated by the citizens, and the entire circumference of Albyn was surrounded by two lines of razor wire spaced with ditches full of strangle-gas mines. Nobody would be sneaking in without a lot of suffering and noise.
There was one break in the defenses that faced west; a small gated checkpoint in the fences of wire and traps. The Khadoran survivors climbed the short hill to the town and filed anxiously into its protection. Many were walking wounded. Any too injured to run had been left behind, except one.
The Kovnik was being dragged by two large Guardsmen, one arm over each shoulder, feet dragging limply on the grass. Somehow he was still conscious in spite of the horrific wound he bore: his abdomen was lacerated and pouring blood. Yegor walked behind them, shielding them with his size and trying to figure out how the Kovnik had survived. The remaining destroyer shadowed his movements, thumping along behind him, still awaiting new instruction.
During the retreat that snot-nosed little warcaster child had unleashed a formidable attack from his machine, and Yegor had been forst to cast a spell of deviation to mitigate the damage. It would have been an absolute slaughter otherwise. But the danger had also set up a perfect opportunity to kill Vasily, who had been leading from the front of the retreating line screaming orders and trying to stop a panic. With tremendous concentration and no small amount of luck, Yegor had permitted the formula for the spell to sag just a little in the right spot, focusing on Vasily’s location and letting a chain gun bullet slide away straight at the commanding officer.
Unfortunately the speed at which this maneuver occurred meant Yegor couldn’t be even remotely accurate, and the bullet had struck the ground at Vasily’s feet. It was only because of the enemy warcaster’s injection of arcane power into the round that it exploded with enough force to nearly disembowel the Kovnik. That should have been the end of it, but somehow the man had survived, remained conscious, and gotten help from a pair of rather brave but misguided soldiers to escort him away from the fight. And now Yegor was here, trying to figure out what to do next.
That had been his best chance. Vasily should have died in battle, Yegor would have strong-armed his second-in-command to relinquish control of the surviving forces, and the greylords in the town could continue their dark rituals on the select unlucky citizens without the burden of secrecy. Now he was forced to consider less convenient options.
“Send a unit of widowmakers into the trees in case the Cygnarans wish to follow,” Yegor barked at the gate sentry as he muscled his way through. The sentry hesitated.
“Uh, lord Forgeseer, who is in comman–”
“Look at the Kovnik!” Yegor shouted back impatiently, spittle flying. “He’s in no position to give orders! Now obey!”
“Yes, Forgeseer!” the sentry chirped in terror and scampered off to deliver the order. That hesitation was the exact sort of nonsense Yegor did not have time for. It would only get worse if Vasily’s death did not come quickly. He would not convince Kapitan Pietra– Vasily’s designated successor– to yield authority while Vasily was alive. And gods, the man was still conscious. His tenacity only made the problem worse!
“Yegor…” Vasily muttered weakly, voice barely more than a croak. Yegor was yanked from his dark reverie.
“Yes, Kovnik?” he said, maneuvering awkwardly in the bulky armor to tower in front of Vasily.
“The… the plan must… proceed…” Vasily’s face was ashen.
“Of course, Kovnik. Do you want us to open fire now–”
“N-no…” Vasily interrupted, grimacing with the strain of speaking. “Wait… wait like we planned…”
“I will have the siege mortar prepped and ready, Kovnik,” Yegor answered obediently. He looked at the officer’s two wards. “Take him to the infirmary and notify any of the surviving Kapitans that he has been wounded,” Yegor ordered. “Pietra will want to see him,” he added grudgingly. They gently led the wounded man away. Yegor pounded through the town to find a mechanik team to remove his armor and assess the warjack that was following him like an anxious dog.
Yegor’s foul mood at Vasily’s survival was only made worse by the shame he felt fleeing from an enemy arcanist. Warcaster or not, Yegor had sensed the limits of the young man’s power and knew if it had simply been a toe-to-toe fight Yegor would have split him in half. Yegor did not have the unusual connection to the arcane that a warcaster experienced. A warcaster’s ability to communicate with mechanikal technology was really just a byproduct of their total immersion in the arcane flow. Typically, those gifted with magic experienced arcane power like a mental muscle. It could be honed, strengthened, exercised, but it still required effort to use and– depending on one’s endurance– the process was quite draining.
A warcaster felt no such strain from using magic. Their magical potential was limited only by the rate at which they could absorb and release arcane power. Yegor had spent his entire life developing his arcane gift and still knew that no level of training would ever allow him the power that an experienced warcaster could bring to bear. Being so limited, and yet seeing what was possible just out of reach, rankled him. His training as a warjack marshal was born of his need to feel at least somewhat as capable as those gods that walked caen, though he lacked the crucial psychic bond.
But that trencher boy was no real warcaster. Yegor had a lifetime of spells and practice at his disposal, plus the sheer protection and force he could bring to bear with his armor. If he’d been able to close the distance he could have frozen that little brat’s feet to the ground and smashed his head in with a blast of ice. No fancy power field would have stopped that. Instead, he was forced to cover the retreating soldiers and flee like a coward. Yegor ground his teeth painfully.
“You! Release my armor!” Yegor barked at a pair of mechaniks who emerged from the town to survey the destroyer. They descended upon the Forgeseer with tools, cranking at the thick bolts that sealed him into his shell. Grunting, they pried away broad plates until Yegor was able to climb out in a most undignified manner, stomach jiggling unceremoniously. He wore only a form-fitting padded leather jerkin and breeches. “My robes are in my quarters. Meet me at the siege cannon,” he demanded.
“Sir, the destroyer?” one of the mechaniks asked as they other one scurried off, looking at the heavy machine. Gouges of bullet strikes tarnished its red paint.
“One of you lead it into the city square, power it down and give it an inspection,” Yegor ordered. “Is the spriggan running?” he asked.
“Yes sir, it’s on patrol,” the mechanik answered, pointing east along the razor wire fence. Another beastly warjack– even heavier and more armored than the destroyer, wielding a rectangular pavise shield length-wise and a fourteen-foot heavy lance — clumped slowly along the perimeter.
“Good. Keep it that way for now,” Yegor said.
“We shouldn’t let it run too many hours,” the mechanik said hesitantly.
“Yes, yes,” Yegor muttered. “Keep it on patrol as long as it is safe to run. I want the swans to see that we have more pain to deliver if they feel bold.”
“Sir,” the mechanik nodded curtly before leading the destroyer away, cobblestones cracking under its steps. Moving as quickly as he could without looking too flustered, he crossed through the narrow town, visually checking fortifications in the streets and intersections that he crossed. Sandbags, heavy concrete dragon’s teeth to provide cover and obstruct anything bigger than a suited Man-o-War, wooden yetzhik barriers looped with razor wire to stop infantry. Fire teams on second and third story windows. Good, good. Once the kompany recovered from its disarray, they would be ready. A few terrified citizens peered from cracked doorways at his passing, slamming them shut as he approached. He tried not to feel self-conscious in his tight-fitting leather undersuit.
Yegor finally reached his destination and was relieved to see the mechanik was ahead of him carrying one of his heavy black wizard robes. At the north end of the town, concealed from spying eyes and covered in a camouflaging tarp, was the siege mortar.
It was a monster. Weighing almost as much as a juggernaut and just as large, it could fire 610mm bombs at a maximum range of nearly a full league. A league. If they knew where to shoot, it was conceivable this weapon could demolish the First Army’s support positions with ease. Unfortunately, delivering ordnance to target at that range with any accuracy without direct line of sight was incredibly difficult, but the possibility alone was… exhilarating. This particular siege mortar was a smaller variant designed to be mounted on the new Victor-class colossal warjacks. Bringing one out here had been Vasily’s idea. The KMA had built a concrete firing platform and tested the weapon months ago, when the initial fortifications had been established.
Yegor dearly hoped that the little runt of a warcaster would be out on the field when the time came for revenge.
Targeting their enemy down the hill would be a much simpler task than trying to shoot a league into enemy lines. They were maybe only a quarter league away, thinking themselves safe and victorious in their new defensive position. Yegor was sorely tempted to open up on them right away as payback for the withdrawal. But no, that was not the plan. They had to be patient. For all Vasily’s irritating foibles, the plan he’d constructed was well-thought. Yegor had to at least give him that.
Yegor grabbed his robe from the mechanik and swung it around his back, slipping into it and tying the sash quickly.
“It is sound to fire?” Yegor asked the mechanik, peering under the huge tarp at the mega-weapon.
“Everything is oiled and checked. It is ready to fire,” the mechanik answered dutifully. “We still need the Man-O-War to load and aim, however,” the mechanik said probingly, obviously wanting some information about the battle.
“Three are dead, but two have been kept in reserve. They are on standby. I don’t want them burning coal unnecessarily,” Yegor said. “Be prepared to suit them up at a moment’s notice. Make sure the emplacement remains concealed until the instant we are ready. I do not want to tip our hand.”
“Ah,” the mechanik murmured. “So the battle, ah…”
“The battle went more or less exactly as I anticipated,” Yegor rumbled confidently. “We lost a few more in the withdrawal than I would have liked, and the speed of their attack was… unexpected. But now they are vulnerable.”
“I am glad to not be where they are standing,” the mechanik said ominously, shaking his head.
Yegor chuckled. “If you are confident all is ready here, go assist in the repair of the destroyer. We’re down to two ‘jacks, we must treat them carefully now,” Yegor said before spinning around. “I have another matter I must see to.”
He swept off back to the center of the town, to the entry of a large inn flanked by two Winter Guard. They stood aside as he approached the door. He paused before entering.
“Tell me, ah,” he said quietly, “have you heard any… strange noises coming out of here?” he asked. The guards looked at each other, then at him.
“No sir,” one of them said. She was a young woman, couldn’t have been older than nineteen. He searched her eyes for a moment. She wilted under his gaze. The other guard stared studiously ahead.
“Mm. Thank you,” Yegor replied courteously. He was pretty sure she wasn’t lying. That was good. He retrieved a large iron key from around his neck, unlocked the door, shut it behind him and locked it once again.
The building– once a very trendy four-story inn and tavern– was now dark and boarded up. A few candles sat on the wooden bar, casting a feeble light on the empty main floor. Yegor walked to the cellar door at the back, wooden floorboards creaking under his weight, and unlocked that with yet another key. He swung the thick door open. Cheery yellow light emanated from below. He shut and locked the door behind him. Its inner face had been padded with thick mattresses.
“Grekhov, Prokhor, Ilya,” he spoke three names as he lumbered down the steep stairway, gliding his hand along the cool stone wall for balance.
“Yegor, is that you?” a gravelly voice called up. Yegor entered the main chamber of the expansive cellar lit by braziers in each corner and a candelabra hanging from the low arched ceiling. Everything that had once filled this space had been replaced with rows and rows of iron cages. In each cage was a wretched-looking man or woman, shackled to the rear grate, painfully gagged with cloth, red-rimmed eyes streaming tears. Each prisoner had a fellblade chained to their leg. In the center of the room, standing alone near a large wooden table laden with fellblades stood Grekhov, the oldest of the greybeards.
“Where are Prokhor and Ilya?” Yegor asked.
“Resting. We work in shifts. Where is Dimitri?” Grekhov asked, although the look on his face suggested he already knew the answer. Yegor sighed.
“Dimitri and the others, they… did not survive,” Yegor said softly.
Grekhov let out a disgusted snort. “Bah,” he said, turning back to the table. “I knew I should never have allowed you to put them on the front.” He smacked the wooden surface irritably, making the cursed blades wiggle as though come to life. “You are careless,” Grehkov bit accusingly, “and sloppy.” The old man sighed, regathering his composure and turneing slowly, clasping his hands behind his back. “Tell me,” he said calmly, voice tinged with curiosity, “did you want them dead for some reason? Like Vasily?” seeing the incensed look on Yegor’s face, Grekhov put his hands up and smiled disarmingly. “Do not look so hurt. I think it is a fair question. If it is true, I would simply like to know your reason.”
“It is not true,” Yegor spat, and he meant it. He had known the ternion probably wouldn’t survive the heated engagement, but he had by no means wanted them dead. “And Vasily didn’t die, as I planned,” Yegor admitted in disgust. This particular news warranted Grekhov’s alarm.
“What? How then am I expected to proceed?” Grekhov said angrily. “You promised–”
“I know what I promised,” Yegor interrupted, pacing anxiously, ignoring the terrified prisoners in their cages who watched the exchange in rapt attention. “And I will deliver. I must… find another solution, that is all.”
“This entire exercise seems terribly short-sighted,” Grekhov said angrily. “First, we are expected to create doom reavers in a matter of days from weak, cowering village people, and then we are expected to do it discreetly, and now you say that it must now remain secret? What is the point of all this?” Grekhov demanded. “This is not the circumstance Zerkova was led to understand.”
“I withheld no detail from my plan,” Yegor growled threateningly. “Do not accuse me of lying to the Obavnik.”
“Well this hardly feels like the grand design it first seemed,” Grekhov said, eyebrows raised. “Must I remind you that this is no suicide mission? These weapons must be recovered–”
“They will be recovered!” Yegor bellowed, arms shaking. Grekhov’s eyes narrowed and he took a step toward the larger man, pointing accusingly.
“Do not yell at me,” Grekhov hissed, long white beard quivering in anger. The two men stared each other down for several seconds. Yegor finally blew out a long breath, breaking his gaze.
“I apologize, Koldun Lord,” Yegor said. “My gore is still up from battle,” he offered.
“I can tell,” Grekhov said serenely, as though they had not been prepared to tear each others’ throats out a moment ago. “Although I think it is now time for obfuscation to be cast aside, Forgeseer.” He tilted his head. “You do not plan to survive this advancing battalion,” he said. It was not a question.
Yegor paused a long time before answering. He had to tread very carefully now.
“No,” he finally stated. “I do not.”
Grekhov chuckled. “And us? You planned to throw our lives away along with your own?”
“No,” Yegor said, and this was the truth. “You, Prokhor and Ilya must evacuate before the enemy threatens to break through. There is no sense in you dying here.”
“And how exactly is Zerkova expected to get her investment back if you plan for this town to be overrun?” Grekhov asked. “If you expect to die, it seems to me that you have nothing to lose by disobedience.”
Yegor paused a lot longer before answering this charge.
“You are right,” he said at last. “They will not be recovered.”
It was Grekhov’s turn to pause. When he finally spoke, he did not sound upset.
“I admire your courage and sacrifice, Yegor, but these tools do not come easily,” he said. “This is not just about you. We collect and maintain these blades at great cost to the Order. And making new ones… well, you know their price,” Grekhov said.
“I know,” Yegor said. “I know their price, and I know their value.”
“Then help me understand,” Grekhov said pleadingly. “Why throw them away? Why lie to the Order?”
Yegor walked to one of the caged prisoners as if noticing them for the first time. It was a woman– maybe in her forties– with long auburn hair that might have been beautiful if it weren’t so caked in sweat and dirt. She trembled at his approach, tearing violently at her restraints and screaming into her gag. It was not fear that drove her madness. It was bloodlust. He could see it in her eyes. She wanted to kill him. It was probably a natural desire given what he was putting her through, but there was an unholy tinge to her ferocity…
He looked at the blade chained to her ankle. The ghastly faces on the surface seemed to shift and warp subtly as he looked at them. He looked away.
“Have you ever faced Cryxians?” Yegor asked. Grekhov blinked a few times, surprised at the subject change, but took it in stride.
“No. Have you?”
“No,” Yegor answered, “but I know men who have, and I have read reports of Cryxian incursions. Do you know what makes the Nightmare Empire so effective?”
“The fact that their leader is a fourteen-thousand ton dragon?” Grekhov answered dryly.
Yegor snorted in amusement. “Toruk doesn’t come out to fight his own battles. Gods help us if he did,” he chuckled. “No, it is the fact that nobody survives a Cryxian attack uninjured, and injured troops are ineffective.”
“I think your statistics are wrong on that account, my dear friend,” Grekhov said.
“No, listen to me,” Yegor said urgently. “No man can endure their forces without mental scars. Consider it: seeing your comrades torn to shreds, reassembled and reanimated to kill you, right before your eyes. Watching tortured souls ripped from bodies to fuel their dark machines. Whole companies incinerated with blight fire. The stink of death on a scale no natural battlefield can ever replicate.” Yegor shook his head. “I am no fresh-faced soldier, but I suspect even I might blanch in the face of such horror. As would you.”
“What is your point?” Grekhov asked wearily.
“When any number of our troops are forced to engage with Cryx, they are immediately rotated out of combat afterward,” Yegor explained intensely. “Did you know that?”
“I did not,” Grekhov said paitently.
“Combat effectiveness and cohesion plummets otherwise,” Yegor said. “They must recover.”
“So what, you’re trying to scare the Cygnarans away with a handful of feeble sword-wielding maniacs?” Grekhov asked, skeptical. “If this were a force of actual doom reavers, I could see your point. But look at these wretches.” He pointed at the poor villagers in their cages. “Half of them can’t even lift the weapon!” he shook his head in dismay. “I cannot work miracles, Yegor. It takes months–”
“Grekhov, listen to me,” Yegor said pleadingly. He took the older man gently by the shoulders, looking him in the eye. “You cannot repeat what I am about to tell you.” Grekhov’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded.’
“Alright,” Grekhov said.
“Section Three is under a special directive from the Supreme Kommandant himself,” Yegor began. “War is not going well at Riversmet, and a contingency plan is in place if Great Prince Vladimir cannot retake it. Irusk needs the rail line between Elsinburg and Merywyn to remain under our control at any cost. Any cost, Grekhov,” Yegor whispered. “That is my mission. Albyn is nothing to High Kommand. This is a bump in the road, but it is the most defensible position between them–” he pointed up and behind himself in the general direction of the Cygnaran advance– “and the North-South Line. Albyn was fortified as a last stand between the enemy and our supply conduit. That corridor must remain open until Supreme Kommandant Irusk can move the men and supplies he needs for his attack,” Yegor said.
“His attack on where?” Grekhov asked.
“That is not something I needed to know, and so I do not know,” Yegor said. “The entire First Army is marching through Llael, Grekhov. We are vastly outnumbered. Our only hope is to bruise and batter them so viciously that by the time they cut us off, by the time they surround and siege Merywyn, they won’t be so advantaged. Albyn is going to fall,” Yegor confessed. “My job is to make sure it falls on top of their legs.”
Grekhov worked his jaw as he processed all of this information, finally looking back up at Yegor.
“So this is all just to demoralize them,” Grekhov said, gesturing at the caged victims. Yegor nodded. Grekhov sighed in resignation. “Surely there has to be a less expensive way of doing that, Yegor.”
“By the time Albyn has a filthy blue flag on its soil, that battalion is going to be so wounded, so shell-shocked, so horrified by what we’ve done here that they’ll be hardly more than zombies walking north,” Yegor declared. “Our reserve forces are fresh, rested, and supplied, waiting for whatever enemy breaks through.”
“And when the enemy receives reinforcements?” Grekhov asked.
“We’ve planned for that as well,” Yegor said. “Vasily is many things, but he is not short-sighted.” Grekhov shook his head skeptically.
“Yegor, this seems… overly optimistic,” he said. “I hope you are not underestimating their resilience.”
“Grekhov, I cannot kill them all here, or I would. So I am forced to cripple them instead. Please, help me do this. The Supreme Kommandant is depending on us,” Yegor pleaded. Grekhov let out a long sigh.
“Very well,” he said quietly. Yegor slapped his on the shoulder triumphantly.
“Thank you!” Yegor said in relief. Grekhov turned to the woman in the cage.
“But this…” he said, gesturing toward her in dismay. “This is hardly what I would consider ‘terrifying’, Yegor.”
“We are calloused men,” Yegor answered. “Being forced to shoot civilians, even those who have been turned into weapons against their will, is not something Cygnarans are wont to do. And yet they will have no choice. It will erode them long after this battle ends.”
Grekhov grunted in acknowledgement but obviously was still unconvinced. Yegor hated to admit it, but the man’s doubt was starting to chip at his own confidence in this plan. He had originally hoped to have much more time to turn these wretches into an actual force of doom reavers. So much was being sacrificed, so much was going to be lost here, he had to be absolutely certain that the toll would be worth the cost…
“There are still… children in town,” Yegor said slowly. At the sound of his words all of the prisoners in the cellar began thrashing madly in unison, wounding their wrists against the iron shackles, cutting their legs on the swords tied to their ankles, screaming hoarsely into their gags. It was as if Yegor had kicked a nest of hornets.
Even Grekhov was taken aback.
“Yegor…” he said, looking up at the bigger wizard in surprise. “That is…”
“Monstrous. Terrible,” Yegor admitted. “But the fact that you even had that reaction– you, a Greylord whose charges are deranged murderers– convinces me that the trenchers will reel when they see what we are capable of.”
“We have never done this to children before,” Grekhov said in disbelief. “Contrary to what our enemies say, the Covenant does have limits. Criminals? Traitors? Lesser races? Sure, we have sacrificed them all to fell blades, but children, Yegor… Citizens of the Empire, no less.”
The hate in the eyes of the prisoners was almost audible.
“Llaelese citizens,” Yegor added. “But yes. It is unforgivable.” He looked at the elderly wizard. “I will die with my shame.”
“And I don’t get that luxury,” Grekhov bit back. “I will have to live with this.”
“You will find a way.”
“I should never have agreed to come here,” Grekhov fumed. “Zerkova will have my head.”
“You really think she cares about children?” Yegor asked, dubious.
“No, she cares that I will have lost dozens of precious fellblades by attaching them to witless southerners in a doomed defense of a town that was never meant to hold!” he shouted.
“Blame me,” Yegor offered. “Tell her I said it was authorized by the Supreme Kommandant.”
“Hah!” Grekhov shouted. “Like she’ll believe me.”
“She won’t,” Yegor said, “but she does know that Irusk has given Section Three authorization for extraordinary measures in Albyn’s defense, and she will know that I am part of that authority. You can appeal Kommand.”
“I hate when Kommand interferes with the Order,” Grekhov said angrily. “It’s always a mess.” he crossed his arms.
“You didn’t reach Koldun Lord through political blundering,” Yegor said with hooded eyes. “You will survive.”
“Yes, I will,” Grekhov spat. “But only by pulling every string at my disposal, and even then, I will almost certainly lose my access to Orgoth artifacts.”
“I do not exaggerate when I say the defense of Llael hinges on us,” Yegor warned. “If you do not comply, I will do the task myself.”
Grekhov groaned, throwing up his hands. “You wouldn’t know how,” he said irritably. “Fine, fine. I will do what you ask. But I want written authorization from you as a Section 3 liason to High Kommand.”
“That is… not quite an accurate summary of my position,” Yegor said delicately.
“I know. But it ought to buy me a little bit of leniency if I can prove you mislead me.”
“Fair,” Yegor agreed.
“You’re a suicidal idiot,” Grekhov fired back.
Yegor simply nodded. “Perhaps.”
“And your name will be disgraced for this,” Grekhov added.
“Probably. But nobody will survive me for Zerkova to punish in my stead. I have no family to protect,” Yegor explained.
“You had better be right about that, because if you even have a distant cousin, Zerkova will conscript that person into her personal reaver guard as retribution,” Grekhov warned.
“No family to protect,” Yegor repeated,”and Zerkova cannot hurt me once I am dead.”
Grekhov chuckled at Yegor’s boldness. “You are suicidal. You should hope that you die here, for your own sake,” Grekhov advised. Yegor shrugged and turned to leave, climbing the steps out of the cellar. He felt suddenly exhausted, tired beyond all weariness he had ever felt before. No price too great, he reminded himself.
“It’s a shame,” Grekhov called as Yegor walked away. “You’re a bold man. Visionary, even. You could have gone far in the Order.”
“I serve the Empress alone, and my life persists at her pleasure,” Yegor answered quietly.