Winds of war : the death of death

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[size=200]THE DEATH OF DEATH[/size]
Whenever someone says “could this get any worse?” veterans of the Reikos campaign will wince and change the subject.

The rain keeps up throughout the Summer months and well into Autumn. The mud is only the half of it - the stinking mud, made feculant and pestilential by the rampant magic of Spring. Everywhere the waters rise, washing away topsoil, causing tree and ruined chapter alike to become treacherous or deadly. Everything is soaking wet, all the time, and the water is tainted. An apt metaphor for Reikos, perhaps.

Thanks to the Druj sorcery, even the smallest wound may fester gangrenously … or become an invitation to maggots and flies to burrow under the skin and require amputation. Bad enough on a trek through the woodlands … but on a battlefield?

Then there is the miasma. The Quiet Step and the Granite Pillar are gone, and new armies have taken their place. The Strong Reeds and the Bounders, hearty men and women who think they understand a rough campaign. The Citadel Guard, concealing their revulsion at the corrupted, corrupting war zone into which they have marched. The Wolves of War, seasoned League troops supported by hard-bitten Varushkan wagon-raiders who have fought the Wolves in Karsk and for whom a few orcs and a little bad weather hold no terrors.

By the time they reach the Valiant Pegasus, sheltering in the ruins of Haros, they have been exposed to the Druj miasma for nearly a week. It is difficult to decide which has the more profound effect on these newcomers - the terrible crushing weight of the miasma, and the rain, and the dark magic … or the soul-numbed state of the Highborn soldiers when they finally reach them.

One shocked officer mutters that there is little to tell between the shambling Highborn siege engineers and the shambling unliving corpses that accompany them.

Oh, how insightful that seemed at the time. How untrue a comparison it quickly proved to be.

The corpses bolstering the Valiant Pegasus - provided by the darkest magic of the Winter realm - do not last the month. At first the collapse appears to be a few isolated incidents. A corpse here and there ruptures wetly, bloated with internal gases - the preservative magic that keeps their flesh intact no match for the rotting touch of the Rivers of Death. Nobody spots the spores until it is too late. By that time, the fungus has spread through the unquiet dead like the Reikos Flux is spreading through the living soldiers … but where one in ten humans fall seriously ill, all the husks succumb to the spreading fungus that devours their dead flesh. Some of the mushrooms are quite beautiful - eggshell blue, or the gentle flush of delicate rose - others stink to high heaven. It is almost a mercy when the last of the husks splits apart, releasing heavy yellow spores into the air.

The rain is a blessing, in a way - it stops the spores spreading for a start. While they do not seem to be able to find purchase on living flesh, they infest damp leather and canvas if given the chance.

A thousand corpses, animated and brought from Spiral, undone in less than a week, no longer suitable as hosts for the ravenous Winter spirits bound within them. Now unbound … in a land where death reigns like a pagan king … where the dead often lie unburied because there is nobody left to dig their graves …

The first encounters with wild husks occur as the last major enclaves of Druj resistance are rooted out of Haros Water, and the five Imperial armies set their sights on the great citadel of Urith Barath … of High Chalcis, as was. A few patrols report gaunt and ghoulish figures, some human, mostly orcs, engaged in unspeakable feasts. They flee in the face of armed men and women … but then return to skulk in the shadows waiting for weakness to strike so they may feed. It is scant consolation, but engagements with these scattered gangs of baleful grues indicate they are physically very weak - and show signs of being consumed by the same fungal spores that riddled the dead flesh of their original hosts.

The road to High Chalcis is marked with horrors. Now and again, the scouts spy a slave encampment. Some are obviously abandoned - the bodies of the slaughtered slaves lying where they fell … or shambling slowly around their pens ridden by Winter spirits … these are horrible but easy enough to pass by. Even the wagon raiders accompanying the Wolves of War leave the slave camps untouched (and they are among some of the first to break into ruined or abandoned Druj positions during the slow advance westward).

The worst though … the worst are the ones where the slaves obviously still live. In some cases, the Druj have withdrawn and not even bothered to put them out of their misery, leaving them to die of starvation (because nobody will die of thirst in Reikos this season), or of the flux. Those are the worst, because the orders are to leave the camps alone, rather than risk refugees that might spread the pestilence of the Reikos Flux to other parts of the Empire. A few Druj guerrillas take advantage once they notice the Imperial troops giving the slave camps a wide berth, and retreat into them when the armies draw near.

The citadel of Urith Barath - a great wall of white granite and black stone quarried and built by slaves. Barbed black iron spikes, and the tattered banners of the chapters of Highguard adorn the walls. One great gate of blackened weirwood, and a field of sharpened stakes, scattered with waterlogged trenches. The walls are garrisoned by pitiless orc warriors, and over it all flies the banner of the stone toad.

It is a terrifying sight, like a vision of some heathen underworld given flesh. Even without the miasma, the thought of assaulting the citadel would be a sobering one. The five armies draw up around the lower hills, over twenty-thousand Imperial troops … many of them sick in body or spirit from their exposure to this accursed land where once the gardens of Highguard flourished.

The Valiant Pegasus lead the attack, supported by the Marchers, the Urizeni, and the League army with their Varushkan mercenaries. Perhaps this is how the Druj armies in Holberg felt, assaulting the walls of Holfried. The result is not catastrophically dissimilar. Between the Druj miasma of fear, and the rotting, festering magic of Spring, and the savage defence of the garrison of Urith Barath the Empire is thrown back time and again. Over the course of the first two months of the siege, maybe as many as fifteen-hundred Imperial troops are killed, or maimed, poisoned, or broken in spirit so that they simply cannot go on.

If there was any doubt that orcs are untouched by the Reikos flux, the armies of the Empire see ample proof of it during the terrible siege of what was once High Chalcis. The defenders are hale an healthy - while the Spring corruption of the red-running-rivers assails their bodies with the same indiscriminate voracity with which it attacks the Imperials, the Flux finds no purchase on them. Likewise, the three companies of Imperial orcs that fight alongside the Wolves of War remain in good health throughout - not a one of them falls to the flux. It seems this disease is solely for the human enemies of the Stone Toad.

And oh, does it take it’s toll! The soldiers of the Valiant Pegasus begin to fall first, and most seriously, but it is an indiscriminate killer. As Autumn approaches, it becomes common practice to take a role call each morning to see who has passed away in the night. Or to find the empty bedroll left by a poor soldier whose death has opened a door for a hungry Winter spirit to find a corpse to wear.

Another two thousand Marcher yeomen, Urizen sentinels, League mercenaries, and Highborn champions killed by sickness. One in ten dead of disease. It is no way for a warrior of the Empire to die.

And in the end? Has it been worth it? Two months of sustained siege has cut the garrison, toppled one of the two central towers, and reduced the strength of Urith Barath by perhaps half - perhaps not so much. The Druj remain inside their walls, hunkered down for a long siege, watching with pitiless eyes as Spring magic and disease do their work for them … and helping the reaper along a little with their arrows, and their spears, and their poisons, and their spite.

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Grim to write, hopefully grim to read. A variety of factors - disease, dread miasma, Spring magic, thunderous deluge, wicked bastard orcs, a giant castle - have left the Imperial troops with significant casualties, and significant damage to the walls of Urith Barath.

It’s very hard to predict how this situation will develop - the castle and it’s defenders have nowhere to go, but the Imperial forces have taken a serious blow to their strength and all five armies are now thoroughly infested with the Reikos flux.

On the plus side … actually I feel bad even typing those words … the Empire has finished clearing the Druj out of Haros Water, so that’s two regions of Reikos now in Imperial hands.

They’ve made precisely zero headway in conquering High Chalcis, however (the region, rather than the fortification) - and trust me without the Valiant Pegasus storming the walls the situation would have been even worse.

I expect another Winds of Fortune tracing the progress of the Reikos Flux this afternoon or Wednesday, so watch this space. But anyone - other than an orc - who believes they were in Reikos this downtime is more than welcome to come and pick up a Reikos Flux card before time in. But don’t feel you have to - participation (profounddecisions.co.uk/empi … ticipation) is entirely voluntary.

There may be one more winds of war covering a remaining theatre of engagement, but there is likely to be a break here as my PHB is on a site visit this afternoon and I ideally need him to adjust some adjectives and sign off before I put the next one up.

The photo is Arilia Corvidea of the Suns of Couros looking suitably grim (as portrayed by karen funnell). It is another fine Tom Garnett shot.

#grimdarkftw,#thequarryisstillhauntedaswell, #nomnomnomfugusghouls