++LIVING IN THE NIGHT++ Winter 381YE Winds of War

During the Autumn Equinox the Grendel sent an elite warband to collapse the Crow Road, the pass connecting Willstone in Redoubt with Cinon. Had they succeeded, the Imperial forces in Spiral would have risked becoming trapped, cut off from support, and easy prey for their barbarian opponents. Thanks to the swift intervention of Imperial heroes, the salt lords’ strategy was stymied. Control of the pass proves crucial in the coming weeks. With the pass open, the Towerjacks are able to withdraw toward Sarvos to resupply, and the Green Shield and Iron Helms are able to move down to support the Imperial forces still engaged in Spiral.

It also allows the Fire of the South and the Red Wind Corsairs to make a daring march from their isolated position in northern Ossuary. They push north through the Twilight Gate, skirting the Druj armies in sodden Proceris, and coming round through Zenith and Redoubt to join the main Imperial force in Cinon. They are joined, to the surprise of many, by a small force from Axos. Three hundred age
ma and toxatai, under the command of Circe Icastos, daughter of General Dancia of Ipotavo. The skirmishers are newly arrived, having chartered swift vessels with the assistance of the Imperial ambassador to Axos. They are quiet, grim faced, and keep themselves to themselves. On reaching Spiral, they immediately present themselves to General Nicassia of the Citadel Guard - they are here to repay a debt to the Urizen who helped defend Ipotavo against the Druj.

For nearly a month, though, the Wolves of War and the Citadel Guard hold Spiral alone against the combined might of the Grendel armies. They are not idle while they wait for their reinforcements; withdrawing soldiers from Ateri and Ossuary, they begin to slowly move south-east into the very heart of Spiral itself; the barren plains of Screed at the centre of which squats the malign presence of the Black Plateau.

The Grendel have effectively controlled Screed for nearly thirty years, sweeping across it largely uncontested in the final weeks of their original invasion, then again in the Summer of 379YE. There have been skirmishes, of course, but there has never been a significant military engagement in Screed between the Empire and the barbarians. Until now.

The Fire of the South, the Citadel Guard, and the Green Shields push slowly forwards south and east, carefully conserving their strength. The physicks and magicians who accompany them, bolstered by a number of priests, focus their attention on preserving the lives of their fellow soldiers - their lives and their spirits as well, perhaps. The Black Plateau continues to grumble. Everyone in Screed seems supernaturally aware of its location at all time - even when they cannot physically see it they know exactly where it is, and cannot shake the fearful impression that it is watching them. Some sensitive souls find the experience goes beyond unnerving and becomes unbearable.

The disquiet is exacerbated by the presence of both the Iron Helms and the thousand shambling husks fighting alongside the Green Shields. The corpses ridden by flesh-hungry spirits of the Wasteland seem … agitated … by Screed. They are more vicious, and a little harder to control. Something about this place, about the gloom that pervades the arid valleys, makes them irritable. More brutal. Crueler. They rarely wait for their opponents to die before they start feeding on them, and it takes a strong will to call them off once the battle is engaged. There are even a few reports of incidents where the hungry dead have snapped at Imperial soldiers - never those of the Green Shield, but the warriors of the other armies begin to give the Wintermark force a wide berth.

The main bulk of the Imperial force is represented by the Wolves of War. Supported by nearly nine thousand additional troops lead by independent captains, their forces outnumber the other three armies put together. They are further supported by heavily armoured cohorts drawn from the Free Companies, and by a significant force of heavily armoured Imperial Orc reavers. The mercenaries are in the van, leading a steady grinding advance across Screed, consolidating gains and fortifying the Imperial position as they go.

The Iron Helms balance the need to claim ground with the desire to kill the southern orcs. Since the Fire of the South, Red Wind Corsairs, and the Green Shields will not fight alongside them; the Helms move north supported by the Wolves of War and Citadel Guard, while the main Imperial force sweeps south around the Black Plateau. The Varushkan army keeps their cruelty carefully leashed, but the Grendel are in no doubt as to their presence. Their dark banners, and the cloud of carrion birds that drift in their wake would be warning enough, but the presence of the Black Plateau seems to make their advance even more pronounced. They are a terror in the night, and not only for the barbarians; some Imperials speak in hushed tones of sweaty nightmares in which they were devoured by red-eyed soot-black hounds with iron teeth.

With most of the Imperial forces focused on claiming ground and preserving the lives of their soldiers, the Red Wind Corsairs enthusiastically seek opportunities to engage the Grendel directly. Coming after the successful raid against the Legacy last season, spirits are high and even the brooding malignancy of the Black Plateau can do little to quash them. With the words of the Freeborn assembly ringing in their ears, they launch daring raids against the Grendel supply camps. Their target is the wealth the orcs have accumulated there - crystal mana, magical ore, and the valuables stolen from conquered spires. More than a few, following the lead of the priests, take the opportunity to capture Grendel officers and ransom them back to their commanders for a healthy profit.

The orcs of the Broken Shore are a little on the back foot; their main forces are focused in Ateri, Ankra, and Ossuary. The main Grendel presence in Screed appears to be a dozen or so fortified camps, mostly built around captured Urizen spires. Scattered in a wide ring around the edges of Screed, they serve as supply depots and watchposts rather than significant fortifications. The first handful fall to the Empire before the Grendel can move their armies in to defend the others. There seems to be no significant Grendel force near the Black Plateau itself, and they are loath to engage the Empire in it’s shadow - and truth be told, the soldiers of the Empire are no keener than the barbarians to get close to it.

Over the next few months, there are countless engagements between the Empire and the Grendel armies. Wherever possible, the barbarians try to control the battleground - falling back to defensive positions, moving through Ankra and Ateri to flank the Imperial advance, drawing their enemies into broken terrain the Grendel troops have previously scouted. Their eyes and ears are everywhere - adept scouts on both sides play a deadly game of cat and mouse through the foothills and barren valleys. But it is noticeable that their soldiers seem more cautious than normal, perhaps even a little more predictable - something has clearly put them on the defensive.

As the weeks wear on, the engagements become fewer in number but significantly more bloody. At first, probing raids from both sides are easily repulsed, but as the Empire takes more territory there is less room for the Grendel armies to manoeuvre. The two sides clash in larger and larger numbers.

There is more at work in Spiral than just humans and orcs fighting, however. This is Urizen, after all. Some far-ranging scouts from the Imperial armies make sorties far south as the coast. They bring back confusing reports of powerful magic at work in the waters of the Bay of Catazaar. They talk of spires of razor-sharp rock and coral erupting from the sea floor, and of a thick sea fog that rises without warning full of dancing lights and large hard-to-see shapes. Vessels berthed at the rebuilt port of Apulus are protection, but the magic plays havoc with any vessel at sea off the coast of Spiral.

Indeed, the scouts also report that the port at Apulus is more than rebuilt - it is significantly fortified. The Grendel appear to have built a castle on the southern coast with almost supernatural speed, and are using the garrison there to support their troops in the defence of their conquered territories.

Yet these enchantments pale beside magic neither side controls. The Black Plateau itself is here - and it is gathering power. While Imperial forces have encountered it’s subtle, pervasive influence before they are not prepared for direct exposure to its madness. It seems to ebb and flow, and the dreams at least seem tied to the influence of the moon. On nights when the moon is dark, those who sleep in Screed experience dreams of despair and creeping paranoia. On nights when the moon is full and bright, their sleep is riven with dreams of blood and savagery flavoured by their darkest, hidden urges.

The dreams are only part of it. Even with the sun at its height, there are the phantasms and delusions; sometimes a half-familiar voice whispers from the shadow inside an empty tent. Sometimes one seems to spot and old friend, an enemy, a loved one in a crowd. Odd certainties come from nowhere - one confused band of Freeborn scouts reports with absolute confidence a major Grendel force moving along a dry river bed that on further investigation seem to have existed only in their minds. This tragic tale comes with a grim warning - while moving to intercept the imaginary force the Freeborn soldiers are flanked by a very real Grendel army coming from the south, and the Red Wind Corsairs are badly bloodied before they can pull back to defensive positions. Two of the scouts take their own lives in grief and shame.

There is a rash of suicides - not only soldiers taking their own lives in despair but raging warriors hurling themselves with bloody abandon against their enemies without thought for their own survival. The madness is infectious - a whole warband might suddenly break rank and attack the enemy without support leaving their commanders with a handful of seconds to decide whether to abandon the plan and support their maddened troops or leave them to die at the hands of the enemy. There are reports of Urizen sentinels abandoning poise, mutilating and torturing captured Grendel prisoners. Of League captains withdrawing their forces in disarray convinced that at any moment they will be overwhelmed by imaginary monsters. Of a Wintermark patrol found dead at each other’s hands, the lone survivor sobbing a broken tale of betrayal and suspicion that boiled over into murder around the camp fire.

The only positive is that the Empire are not alone in suffering the baleful touch of Screed; the Grendel generals seem to be having just as much difficulty controlling themselves and their troops as their opposite numbers in the Empire.

Dreadful as the insidious effects of Screed are, the situation could have been much worse. The majority of both orc and human armies have chosen defensive approaches intended to minimise loss of life and it is just as well that they do. It is noticeable that the Iron Helms and the Red Wind Corsairs suffer more losses to the pernicious influence of the accursed ground than the other Imperial armies.

Despite their caution, the Grendel armies do not give ground easily. They are not fighting to the death to the defend the region but nor are they just falling back. It seems almost like a calculated effort to husband their resources, avoiding giving up any more land than they absolutely must while they wait for something. The Empire pushes them hard but by the time the next summit draws near the region itself remains in the hands of the orcs of the Broken Shore, and the only real change is the landscape itself. If the Black Plateau were grumbling before, now it is growling. If it was shifting restively in its sleep, now it is beginning to stir to wakefulness. But has it’s appetite been sated by all the blood spilled… or merely whetted?

The Empire has made significant headway into Screed, but the Grendel still control the region. While everyone has been focused in the centre of Spiral, and the Grendel have been on the defensive, Imperial gains in Ankra (and their minor gains in Ossuary) have not been compromised - yet.

The influence of the Black Plateau has increased casualties suffered by both sides fighting in Spiral, and the situation appears to be getting worse. Anyone who wishes to roleplay there were present during the recent campaign is free to create their own horror stories of things they have encountered, based around themes of creeping fear, haunting phantasms, eerie dreams, gnawing suspicion, and outbursts of uncontrolled anger.

Furthermore, any Imperial general of one of the armies engaged in Spiral, and any character with a military unit assigned to support those armies, may e-mail profounddecisions.co.uk and volunteer to have been more profoundly effected by the Black Plateau than their peers. They will begin the next game cursed with a powerful roleplaying effect that may significantly influence their behaviour.

Finally, there are stone sea-spines and weird hypnotic fog rising off the southern coast that are playing havoc with shipping fleets. The spiny spikes fade with the coming of the Winter Solstice, but the odd mist and its peculiar lights show no signs of going away. Any fleet based in Spiral suffers a 50% penalty to its production this season, and will continue to do so as long as the seductive fog curse remains in place.

Not a short one, but there’s a lot of moving parts in Spiral. The photo is by Tom Garnett.

#Sometimesitsinthedreamlands, #Bllodforthebloodgeographicalfeature,


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