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The Armies of Mogrethby Geoff Gander
An Engagement in Baruthaz
Drugyr shivered in his cloak as the ox-drawn wagon rumbled over the heavily rutted road. Tuurash had told him that this part of the Frontier had been under Mogreth’s control for the better part of 50 years – long enough to have roads built and lay the foundations for a few settlements. All that had been swept aside, of course, by the Taymorans, just as Mogreth had done to its enemy many years earlier. You’d think the Taymorans would have at least maintained the roads, Drugyr thought, absently rubbing his sore bottom.
He glanced at the lumbering forms of fearsome V’hruggs in front of the wagon, and ahead of them the line of troglodyte soldiers marching in stony silence. He suspected that, before this day was out, an uncomfortable ride would be the least of his concerns. The chilly breeze picked up, whipping the edges of his cloak and driving icy fingers down his back. Damn the orders that sent him here!
It all seemed so innocuous – go to Isshum to make some deals with Tuurash on behalf of his mistress. But then the old lizard made a proposal of his own, which Mistress Kerghyd couldn’t refuse. Now he was in the forsaken Frontier, right between two nations that hated each other, accompanying a massed force of lizards and dwarves, each here for their own reasons. Drugyr grumbled as the wind picked up again. If the universe was fair, Tuurash would be shivering out here, too.
He looked over at the heavy form of Uthak squatting on the bench next to him, encased in heavy armour and scanning the road ahead. The troglodyte returned his gaze. “Not to worry,” he said with a low grunt, “Master said I look after you. You come back alive.”
Drugyr opened his mouth to reply when a piercing shriek cut through his thoughts. He looked up and saw two scouts race overhead on their leathery-winged mounts. Six had gone out, he recalled. The V’hruggs’ harnesses jingled noisily as the beasts began to stir – clearly, they smelled something amiss. A low murmur ran through the soldiers, accompanied by creaking harnesses and clanking steel. Khalgoth’s deep voice could be heard not far behind, barking orders to his officers. “It comes, dwarf,” rumbled Uthak, “Stay close to me, no matter what.”
A warm, sulphurous blast of air whipped over Drugyr’s head from behind. He looked up and saw several dart-shaped green clouds trail overhead, disappearing over the next rise. At the same time, the troops ran to the sides of the road, just shy of a ridge, forming up in squares with their spears at the ready. In their midst, archers took up positions. The V’hruggs and their handlers held their positions; the beasts were clearly agitated, and the troglodytes assigned to them were only barely keeping them in check.
“I would have liked to entrench on the slopes, with the enemy in plain view. This location is far from ideal, Sehgdar,” said Khalgoth, drawing up beside Drugyr’s wagon. “But it seems the apes want to engage us here. How shall this affect your general’s troop placement?”
The battle-scarred dwarf who accompanied the sorcerer king glanced at Drugyr, nodded, and turned to his companion. “Not at all,” he replied in a metallic, rasping voice, “This terrain will pose no problems for General Dryag’s conscripts, and they will hold the line if need be. Even now they are moving into position on the left and right flanks. The Seekers shall be held in reserve down the line.”
Khalgoth turned back to look at the line of silent, pale figures, dressed in blackened armour. “Are you certain they will be enough?”
Sehgdar returned the lizard man’s gaze. “Even half that number would more than suffice. You shall see.”
The conversation was interrupted by a chorus of distant screams. Khalgoth chortled. “My apprentices have done well. The acid rain will disturb the commoners among them. Sehgdar, have the general see to his troops, and perhaps we shall confer soon.” He then turned to a kneeling lizard man – a captain, if Drugyr was not mistaken. “Relay the following down the chain: under no circumstances are fallen soldiers to be left intact. I don’t want surprises.”
“It shall be so, Anointed One.”
Drugyr saw that the combined force had assembled on a ridge overlooking a broad, lightly forested plain. A walled town – a fairly new Taymoran settlement, by the look of it – lay about two miles distant. This, then, was the target, and judging by the size of the Taymoran force advancing up the slopes, it was one the enemy would not yield easily. Knots of Mogrethian archers and dwarven boltmen were already taking pot-shots, but this did nothing to divert the Taymorans from their path.
“Unleash the V’hruggs,” a voice bellowed. Almost at once, the troglodyte handlers stepped away from the charges, and began running to the rear, prodding the beasts with glowing sticks as they passed. A stream of bellows erupted, and, one after another, the ponderous creatures bolted and ran down the slope, eager to run away from the searing pain. In their agony they trampled the advancing Taymorans, who quickly regrouped and struck back. As quick as their tiny brains allowed them, the V’hruggs realised that they were now being attacked, and they responded in kind. Drugyr saw the nearest one bite an unfortunate in two, while sweeping two more aside with its tail. The nearby Mogrethian soldiers grinned broadly as the screams of fear and agony from the enemy lines multiplied.
“Watch, dwarf, and see how even the stupidest beast can be useful in battle,” murmured Khalgoth. “The diversion will last a few minutes, but it will unbalance them, and grant us enough time to firm our positions.”
If Khalgoth was about to say anything else, it was cut short by a blast of cold air, followed by a wave of black mist. Khalgoth muttered a few words and waved his hand, and Drugyr noticed that the air around him seemed to be tingling. Wherever the mist touched the ground on the ridge it coalesced into serpentine smoke trails, which immediately pursued, and engulfed, all who stood near them. In their wake they left desiccated corpses, who immediately turned on their still-living former companions. Cries of fear spread among the front ranks, and a slowly-growing trickle of fleeing troglodytes passed Drugyr’s position.
“Weaklings,” spat Khalgoth. He turned to face a knot of robed lizard men standing some distance behind him. “Altoth! Istaash! Deal with the death serpents! Urtarak, bring forth the worm heralds!”
While his apprentices went to work, Khalgoth drew a necklace from his pouch and placed its pendant, a large ruby, on his forehead. It immediately began to glow brightly, and the sorcerer king glared at his approaching opponents. He shouted a series of words, and a red bolt flew from the gem. Within seconds it hit the advancing enemy, and exploded into a web of red lightning. Those caught in the sudden storm pitched over screaming and, one by one, began convulsing. Those unaffected tried to back away, sowing confusion, which gave way to blinding panic as a series of loud wet pops erupted. Drugyr averted his eyes in disgust once he recognised the source of the sickening sounds – Khalgoth had made his victims’ blood boil, and now it was erupting from every orifice. Archers took advantage of the confusion to unleash several volleys into the Taymorans.
Just as the enemy seemed to be recovering, a fresh series of screams began to erupt, this time from deep within the Taymoran ranks. “Yurgh-Thal delivers to His faithful,” said Khalgoth. Drugyr opened his mouth to ask what he meant by that, but Uthak forestalled him with a gesture, and pointed to the southwest. The dwarf pulled out his spyglass, and recoiled at what he saw. In the midst of the Taymoran troops were several huge, man-shaped creatures, who seemed to be made of large, writhing worms. The creatures were pummelling everything they could reach, and spraying others with streams of worms, but even those too far away to be hit seemed to be possessed of an unearthly fear. The men began attacking each other in their desperate urge to flee.
But already one of the creatures had been dissolved in a bright white light, followed by another. “We’ve blunted their edge. It is time we withdraw to a better position,” said Khalgoth. Without another word the troglodyte porters and wagon drivers turned the makeshift command post around and drew back several hundred feet to a small rise, where the Seekers stood silently. “Pay close attention, dwarf,” the sorcerer king added, once everything was in place, “You are in for a good show.”
They did not have long to wait. The armies of Mogreth withdrew in good order to take up new positions in front of the command post, and they had only just settled in when the lead Taymoran force swept over the ridge like a cresting wave. It broke against the leading row of troglodyte spearmen, who then dropped their weapons and withdrew behind the rank of swordsmen, who stepped into the breach and began slaughtering the disoriented foe. A loud cheer arose from the Taymorans as they rallied, and soon the clash of steel drowned out almost all other sounds.
For a time it seemed the line would hold, but Drugyr noticed that every time a soldier fell, he would rise within moments if one of his companions did not dismember him, and the enemy slowly grew in number. The troglodytes fought on, goaded by their lizard man officers, and aided by the occasional spell from Khalgoth and his apprentices, but the front line steadily crept towards Drugyr’s position.
Up ahead, the Taymorans were taking advantage of the situation by redoubling their attack. Their leading foot soldiers were being reinforced by heavily armoured shock troops – Exalted, Drugyr guessed, judging by their evident strength and the shadowy clouds that floated above them. Standing noticeably taller than the others, the new arrivals strode quickly into battle, wielding their heavy swords with ease, and cleaving wide swaths through the Mogrethian lines.
The strength of the renewed assault caught one lizard man captain by surprise, and he found himself enmeshed in combat with one of the dark warriors. He dodged one swipe and drove his sword into the Exalted’s thigh. His opponent paused for an instant, looked down at the wound, and shoved the captain back. While the lizard man was still staggering, the Taymoran brought his sword down in a scything motion, slicing the creature from collar bone to abdomen. The Exalted kicked the lizard man from his sword and licked the blood, and there was a triumphant cry as the Taymorans finally broke through the lines.
“Seekers, advance!” Dryag bellowed. As one, the Seekers stirred and began marching towards the gap in the lines, their stony faces fixed upon the foe. Amid the din of battle – of screams, hisses, guttural roars, clashing steel, and the sizzle of magic – the tread of one hundred dwarves marching in perfect unison stood out as a discordant note, one that soon attracted the notice of those nearby.
A low dwarvish command was uttered, and the Seekers drew their weapons in unison. “Never seen that,” Uthak evidently impressed, remarked. “What are they?”
Drugyr contemplated the Seekers and repressed a shudder. “They are Seekers, dwarven warriors who want to restore their honour, or atone for something. They shave their heads to show their penance, and they live to serve. Once a dwarf joins, he’s done.”
The vanguard of the Taymoran force moved quickly to intercept the Seekers. A knot of Exalted surged ahead of their companions, grinning toothily at the prospect of more bloodshed. A Seeker stepped towards the nearest one, his battleaxe sweeping across the Taymoran’s torso in a sweeping arc. The axe head glowed as it passed through the creature’s flesh, and a loud hum pierced the air, followed by the strong odour of burned flesh. The Exalted opened his mouth to scream, but a jet of flame burst from his mouth, which swiftly engulfed his body in a bright flash. The other Exalted recoiled in shock and pain, and the Seeker stepped over the charred skeleton of his former opponent and struck another. He was quickly joined by his companions, and soon a chorus of bright flashes and humming began to blot out the other sounds of battle.
The Exalted in the rear, seeing the fate of their companions, barked orders to the foot soldiers, but those at the fore had begun dropping their weapons and fleeing. Taking heart from the sudden reversal of fortunes, the Mogrethian troops struck back with renewed vigour, and soon closed the gap. The Seekers continued their advance, but Drugyr noticed that there were fewer of them, and every so often one of them would stiffen and glow briefly, before collapsing in a burned-out heap. He suspected these Seekers had been chosen because their time was almost up.
As Drugyr expected, Dryag had redeployed the dwarven conscripts, as they were now streaming into the fray. Comparatively fresh, they forced the Taymorans to give ground quickly, and soon the humans were in full retreat. The battle must have taken its toll on the unseen Taymoran wizards, as well, as many of the undead were now wandering aimlessly. Khalgoth and his apprentices reduced most of these to ashes.
At Khalgoth’s order, the command post was brought to its former position, and Drugyr could see both his people and the Mogrethians descending the slopes, while the Taymorans withdrew to the town. It seemed some of the locals had little faith in their protectors, as the dwarf could see small knots of people fleeing further south, towards Taymor proper. Apparently Khalgoth and his apprentices noticed this too, as more of those horrible worm creatures popped up within the town itself, and sowed chaos. The enemy had not given up entirely, however, as mobs of newly-risen undead were dispatched to slow down pursuit, and Taymoran archers taught the overeager to be more cautious.
“Let us finish this. Sehgdar, I understand your artillerists are in place?”
“Indeed, Lord Khalgoth,” replied the dwarf, ignoring the lizard man’s grimace at his lack of deference. “By your leave I shall have General Dryag give the order.” Khalgoth nodded, and within moments Dryag barked to a small cluster of dwarves far to the rear, surrounding a collection of large metal tubes connected to pipes and softly glowing machines that gave off odd-coloured plumes of smoke. The dwarves sprang into action as they shifted the barrels with winches, and opened chambers in the rear, into which they dropped softly glowing silver spheres. Having finished this the dwarves pulled on massive levers, and released them after a brief delay.
A blast of air, followed by a deafening BANG, bowled over those standing close to the cannons, as the spheres hurtled into the sky in a low arc, and fell into the town below. The spheres vanished once they hit the ground, but their effect was no less dramatic than the commotion made in firing them. Like a pond, the ground buckled and rippled outwards from each impact site, shattering town walls and buildings, hurling debris and people high into the air, and leaving churned earth in their wake.
While the Taymorans were picking themselves out of the wreckage, the dwarves and Mogrethians surged over them like the incoming tide. Within an hour it was over, with the victors looting what remained of the town, and putting the survivors in chains. Once the area was firmly under control, Khalgoth invited Drugyr to visit him in his tent.
“Your people are impressive, dwarf, I had never expected such ingenuity. Your people are truly gifted in the art of war. Please accept my thanks, and convey my regard to your mistress. I understand that Sehgdar has managed to secure that which your people were seeking?”
“Yes, Anointed One,” replied Drugyr hastily, “Sehgdar is most pleased. I trust that your people have obtained what they wish?”
“Indeed. Fewer slaves than hoped, but that, I suppose, was a consequence of our actions. Still, we secured enough for Theliir’s immediate needs, plus some surplus for sale. Some wealth, too, but the best part was the sheer destruction. I think the accursed Taymorans will be licking their wounds for some time,” he said contentedly, but added in a low grumble, “If I had more troops, I could seize this advantage and press further. But no more of that.”
The discussion was interrupted by a sudden commotion outside, punctuated by the clash of steel and a loud gasp of pain. As Drugyr stood a bright slit appeared in one of the tent walls, through which came a dark-haired woman in a brown cloak, armed with a sword. The nearest guard, a lizard man, drew his sword to meet the intruder, slashing wildly. The woman expertly ducked under her opponent’s swing and rolled on the ground, only to pop up on the balls of her feet behind the guard. He had just enough time to register that his enemy was no longer in front of him when the bloody tip of a sword sprouted from his abdomen.
Drugyr backed away, and tripped over a small chest. Wild-eyed, he lay prone and stared at the woman as she kicked her dying foe off of her blade and spun towards Khalgoth, her eyes burning with fury. The second guard leaped in front of the woman, thrusting his sword like a lance. The woman parried the attack with a flick of her wrist and jabbed the lizard man in the eye with a previously unseen dagger. The guard dropped his sword and clutched at his wound, hissing in agony. She kicked him aside and continued toward Khalgoth, who was now standing with his arms crossed, staring levelly at her.
She took one more step before stopping abruptly and staggering, as though stepping into a wall. Khalgoth pointed at the woman and whispered a syllable, and she collapsed in a heap. The sorcerer king prodded the woman with a foot and placed a hand in front of her face. Nodding, he bellowed for his apprentices. When they arrived, he said to them in a low voice, “Clean this mess up and place the female in my stock tent. Restrain her well, but do not harm her.”
Taraxi sat shivering in the tent. She was cold and wet, and the lone brazier in the other corner provided just enough light to see, and no heat. At least the carpet was thick and warm. She looked down at the shackles clamped around her wrists – well made, but the lock was simple. Her captors relied on fear, and the thick iron stake to which the restraints were bolted, to keep their prisoners in line. Good thing her anger was stronger than her fear.
She twisted her body towards her hands, and stretched two fingers from her left band into the inside of her belt. Stifling a grunt, she felt around frantically, until she found the tiny sheath, and the tiny metal tool it contained. An eternity passed as she carefully inched it out, while listening to the sibilant conversation outside. With a defiant grin Taraxi pulled out her lockpick and immediately went to work, and less than a minute later was standing, rubbing her wrists quickly. She needed a weapon. Along one wall she saw a couple of spare tent poles. Taraxi hefted one of them – a little thinner than a staff, and a bit too long, but the wood was solid and it had a sharpened end. At least she could keep her enemies away from her in a fight.
Taraxi was starting to form a plan when the tent flap was pulled aside, and a troglodyte warrior entered. As his eyes were adjusting to the gloom he noticed that his prisoner was unbound, and armed. He opened his mouth to shout, and his hand darted to his sword. Taraxi slid her hands to the middle of the pole and lunged forwards. The pole shuddered slightly as its point pierced the troglodyte’s neck. The warrior tried to scream, but the only sound that escaped was a strangled, wet gurgle. He tried to twist the shaft out of the woman’s arms but Taraxi maintained her grip, tucking the pole under one arm and grabbing her dying foe’s hand with the other. The troglodyte’s eyes bulged as he continued to struggle for breath, and he began to stagger. Taraxi held firm while her enemy slowly sank to the ground. His struggles grew steadily weaker, and finally stopped.
Taraxi paused to listen. More voices, and footsteps. She had to leave. She drew the troglodyte’s sword and made for the exit, when the flap was cast aside yet again. Taraxi screamed, slashing wildly at her new opponent. The troglodyte barely had time to parry the first blow when he felt a burning pain in his abdomen. He looked down, and had enough time to notice the tent pole sprouting from his midsection before Taraxi neatly decapitated him in a second swing. Before he finished his fall, the Taymoran was already running through the camp, slashing at any who came too close. She dodged expertly around her would-be pursuers, and heard faint cheers from other prisoners. She leaped over a camp fire and ducked under the clumsy swing of a lizard man. She did not engage him, but continued on. She turned a corner, and up ahead saw an improvised gatehouse – the edge of the camp! With renewed effort Taraxi sprinted towards freedom, stabbing at another lizard man as she passed. She was almost on the shocked troglodyte guards, who were hastily drawing their weapons, when everything went dark.
Taraxi awoke on a cold, stone floor. She was in a large room, with a vaulted ceiling supported by massive pillars. Sconces were set into the walls at regular intervals, and their torches cast everything in a sickly yellow light.
“I was wondering when you would finally rouse yourself. A good thing, for you were beginning to try my patience,” said a sharp, vaguely sibilant voice in perfect Taymoran.
Taraxi started and rolled into a defensive crouch, glancing around wildly. Not ten feet from her was an intricately carved wooden throne, on which sat a thin lizard man in grey robes. His single orange eye stared fish-like at her, and her skin crawled.
“Don’t even think of attacking. You are alive because you interested me, but if you prove to be…disappointing…I will not be so compassionate. A slave who tries to escape earns himself a quick death, if he is lucky.”
Taraxi looked down at her hands, but saw nothing, and felt for her belt.
“I took the liberty of confiscating your toys,” the lizard man leaned forward slightly, “I also left you intact. You will remain so if you serve me well. But do not deceive yourself, monkey, you are no less a slave, and you exist at my pleasure.” The lizard man leaned back in his throne, and grinned. “You know who I am, I assume?”
Taraxi swallowed hard. Everyone in Taymor knew about the one-eyed sorcerer king. “Y-you are Khalgoth, the-”
Khalgoth cut her off with a gesture. “You do know. Good. I would be upset if your people forgot. After the most recent adventure, the memories will remain fresh for a good while. Then if you know who I am, you have a decent brain and know where you are,” Khalgoth chuckled dryly and approached Taraxi.
“Theliir lies on the frontier. We have a different existence here, compared to those up north. We face your armies regularly, and consequently are more practical. In Isshum, a fighting woman such as yourself would likely end up in the Arena as a curiosity. But here, a human who has proven herself resourceful enough to not only infiltrate my camp in order to kill me, but almost escape from it as well, is too valuable a tool to throw away.
“You, Taraxi, have no family,” Khalgoth paused while he watched the woman’s eyes widen, “You have wandered Taymor for years, plying your stealthy skills and scouting for the army when you needed the money. You will return to Taymor and continue to do so, but under my guidance. You will travel when instructed to do so, you will report to me when I demand it. If you do this, I shall demand no more.”
Taraxi trembled. She could not believe what she was hearing. She would be released, but on a leash. She wanted to rebel, to strike back at Khalgoth, but knew that any move on her part would effectively end her life. She had heard too much about the sorcerer king to believe otherwise. But perhaps she could find a way to use this to Taymor’s advantage. Her mind began to work furiously.
“Should you doubt me,” Khalgoth continued, “I shall show you this.” He uttered a guttural phrase – Taraxi had been around lizard men often enough to recognise the High Tongue of Mogreth when it was spoken – and her palms began to glow with a faint green luminescence. Her eyes watered as she looked at her hands, but she was sure she could see faint designs etched in her skin. But the lines seemed to move whenever she tried to focus on them. Her spine tingled as a horrible thought began to surface.
Khalgoth bared his teeth in a broad grin. “You are indeed smarter than I thought. You will do very nicely. Know this, human: I have marked you, through the power of the True Lords, as my servant. Anyone blessed by Their power will know you as mine, just as They are now aware of you. Through Them, and Their servants, I will know your thoughts, your words, and your deeds. You are a tool in my hand, and you will be used. Should you prove to be unreliable,” he paused, “there are far worse punishments than being sent to Isshum.”
A lone figure stepped onto the pier at Tamoraz and looked about. Without delay, she headed for a rambling inn just up the hill. The word on the street was that Taymor would march against Mogreth soon, but Taraxi knew that the innkeeper would give her the details. There was much that Khalgoth wished to know.