IV: Converging Fronts

Prologue
VII Legion (Virvien) Encampment, on the Ivarium/Salenia border

For the seventh time that morning a scout rushed into the tent of General Hellios Arella Marieus, quickly pressing a report into the hands of Graachus, the general’s aide, before rushing back out again. As before, Graachus patiently the wooden figures arrayed on the map of the borderlands. A large mass of red figures— the so-called “Bloodwave”—clustered near the most important city of Westlock: Victoria. A much smaller number of green figures stood around the city.

Marieus seemed pleased by the reports. With a long stick, embellished by symbols of Ivarium’s faded imperial glory, he tapped a nearly-empty region of the map that represented Salenia.

“I see opportunity, Graachus. The Bloodwave is within pissing distance of Victoria. Westlock couldn’t be more distracted.”

“A shame we must remain,” replied Graachus.

Marieus wearily leaned on the map table and both men nodded. A scout entered the tent, panting and out of breath. Graachus intercepted him.

“Message from the Empress for the general,” said the scout.

Marieus walked across the room and seized the note from the scout. His stoic face began to smile.

“Graachus, order all commanders to mobilize,” Marieus said. “Ivarium has annexed Salenia.”

“Is that course wise, sir? Westlock has pledged aid to Salenia, and the Empress publicly ordered you not to provoke Westlock.”

Marieus paced across the tent, holding the plotting stick behind his back. “Now she has privately ordered me to annex Salenia. The Ivar crave glory; after our losses to the Dsjer-tet we need victory. Westlock has more pressing concerns,” Marieus said pointing at the red figures on the map.

“Yes, the Bloodwave. And if Westlock doesn’t fall?”

“Then I have annexed Salenia, caused a military crisis, and the diplomats will sort it out. More importantly, we will have a victory. But now, the legion acts alone, for the good of Ivarum.”

“Why give us secret orders?” asked Graachus.

Marieus sat at the head of the command table, resting his elbows on the map while steepling his hands. “I am nothing more than a loyal servant of the Empress, I go where she cannot be seen. Westlock will try diplomacy, but it will come be too late. Though she may condemn me before Westlock, someday we will sit in her courts being honored with triumphs.”


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Chapter One: Favor for a Nation
Central Army Camp, outside Victoria

Long trains of laborers and militiamen clogged the road to Victoria as the city scrambled to prepare for siege. The Forcemaster Malathia strode through the throng, taking in the rushed preparations. She had been surprised that morning by a message from her old friend Dvora, a High Priestess in the Church of Asyra. Why did she summon me? she wondered, as she approached the Priestess who was occupied with fortifying an ancient gate. “Dvora!” she called as she approached. “I was surprised to hear from you. What does Westlock require?”

The Priestess eagerly rushed to greet her friend, saluting the Forcemaster in her priestly way before answering: “It wasn’t me, to be honest. I had mentioned your reputation as an expert in, shall we say, ‘unconventional’ warfare to General Hoarvath. He asked me reach out to you.”

“I’ve had some small victories, I suppose,” Malathia replied with some embarrassment.

The Priestess smiled at her modesty. “In times of doubt, I like to think that Asyra guides me through our shared past. Have you heard the story of the last Bloodwave attack?”

“I know that the elves call it the Leaf Cutter War, but I know little about it.”

Dvora nodded. “Yes. That war was ended when a small band of elves infiltrated the Bloodwave camp and assassinated the Warchief. With no one to lead them, the tribes fell to infighting and broke off their attack. I believe that strategy can work once again.”

Malathia cut her off: “I see where this is going. You want me to strike at the heart of the Bloodwave? That’s a tall order. There must be thousands of orcs between here and his camp.”

“I’m sure I can convince Hoarvath to spare a team of elite warriors. It’s not much, but with the siege…” the Priestess let her sentence trail off.

“Troops would only slow me down. Stealth and speed will be my allies. That, and superior firepower. And I know just who can provide it!”


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Chapter Two: First of the Spires
Victorian Royal Deuling Glade, Westlock

Flowers blossomed on the trees giving the entire glade a pleasant aroma. It was easy for Malathia to forget why she had come.

Beneath a cherry grove, Laddinfance dropped his hands as lightening crackled through a Gorgon Archer, collapsing it. The Primus shook out his fingers and bounced in place.

“Impressive, but a little flashy even for you,” Malathia said.

“With the arena closed I have to keep up my skills somehow,” Laddinfance said smiling. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“I have a proposal for you.”

“I am flattered, but really what would people say? Besides there isn’t a ring.”

Ignoring his flippancy, Malathia continued.

“How would you like to be a war hero?” she said.

“Westlock asked me to stand on their walls. I declined that act of suicide,” Laddinfance replied.

“I was thinking a suicide more worthy of your talents.”

Laddinfance’s lips curled into a smirk. “Dvora wants you to kill the Warlord.”

“How do you know that?” asked Malathia.

Her surprise elicited a small chuckle.

“Because she asked me first. Dvora told you about the Leaf Cutter wars. How the elves bravely assassinated the Warchief, the horde broke up and everyone was saved.”

“Yes…”

“Did she tell how they did it? They sent eighty of their bravest warriors and most skilled wizards. They had magic we can only dream about. Eighty elves went in, two came back, and they did not come back whole.”

“That’s a good omen then. We’re the two destined to survive.”

“I will make you a deal. If you can strike me before my lighting strikes you, then I will join you,” Laddinfance said.

Malathia nodded, and the two mages walked to dueling positions. Laddinfance signaled and Malathia ran towards him, summoning Galvitar. Laddinfance cut loose a thunderbolt, sound echoing throughout the glade. A fierce determination in her eyes, Malathia deflected the bolt. Then yanked the wizard to her feet. Placing her sword at his neck, she said,”Can we leave now?”

Laddinfance laughed.

“I underestimated you, Mal; you’re as crazy as I am. Far be it from me to let a pretty lady face untold dangers unescorted. I’m in. Besides I could use a memorial to my greatness in statuary row.”


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Chapter Three: Reflections of Guilt
Dvora’s personal shrine in Victoria, Westlock

High Priestess Dvora knelt before the serene countenance of the statue of Asyra and prayed for guidance. Even she could see that General Hoarvath’s defensive preparations were little more than a show to give heart to the common folk. The Bloodwave would wash over Victoria and rip open the heartland of her beloved Westlock despite them. But that was not the worst. The Church also was in danger.

Opening her eyes, she turned to look again at the scroll beside her, and her vision clouded with anger. The Arraxian Crown—the Infernians themselves—had somehow infiltrated her Church. The scroll reported the capture of an Arraxian Warlock. But how many more lurked in the shadows, spreading their poison and blasphemous lies? Was the Bloodwave some kind of punishment? she thought. Are we suffering because the Church was not vigilant enough?

With a sigh, she rose. As she did, her gaze was drawn to the statue of the Dawnbreaker: Asyra’s loyal consort and the symbol of the militaristic aspects of her faith. Dvora had always believed in peace. But now the clouds of war could be seen everywhere. Or is it my fault? If I had allowed the inquisitors a little more latitude, the Church might not be in this state.

Slowly, she walked to her desk. Taking up a quill, she began to write a letter to Sir Erevar, the Paladin. Her hand quivering slightly as she wrote, the letter half entreaty, half apology. It was her testimony that had led to Erevar’s exile for his overzealous measures in defense of the faith. Am I really asking him to return? she wondered.

She crumpled up the parchment and tossed it aside. Steeling her nerves, she began again. This time with a firm hand. I might not be able to save Westlock. But maybe, just maybe, I can still save my Church. And in the end, isn’t that more important than a military victory?


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Chapter Four: The Weight of War
Salenia, near the border with Westlock

General Marieus sat upon his horse and watched the stream of ragged peasants file east. Behind the line of refugees a thick column of smoke curled into the sky. The charred ruins of the town these people had once called home still smoldered in the morning cold.

“General”, Graachus said reining his horse behind Marieus.

“Is it not glorious, see the progress we’ve made. Salenia has fallen before me like wheat before the reaper”.

“Yes we have had a great success, but the supply lines are becoming overtaxed, and the men are …” Graachus trailed off.

The general held up a hand.

“Calm yourself; this is as far as we go. Much further we might actually cross into Westlock, and I do not wish that, yet.”

“That’s good general, but the men have other complaints.”

“Are they not satisfied with the plunder, and glory.” asked Marieus.

“Yes, well satisfied. But, there is some grumbling because you have not allowed them to take slaves. You have allowed these people to flee.”

Marieus’ face scowled. He began riding back toward the war encampment. Graachus followed quickly, trying to calm the general’s fury. Marieus had found his officers before Graachus caught up with him.

“I have been informed you are not pleased with our conquest,” shouted Marieus. “You demand more plunder and slaves, but do you see what these people are?”

“Refugees, the defeated, and the lost,” replied Graachus, the other officers nodding in agreement.

“Wrong, they are weapons. Every refugee is a javelin, aimed at the throat of Westlock. They are stretched to the limit keeping their army supplied in the face of the Bloodwave. Each refugee is one additional mouth that requires food, shelter, and comfort. It pushes Westlock past any possible chance of supporting itself. You may take the traditional amount of slaves, but no more. I will not trade glory today for our victories tomorrow. Am I understood?”

The general’s voice echoed throughout the camp.

“As you command,” said his officers in unison.


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Chapter 5: Lessons Old and New
The Middenmoor, in Westlock

Roaring, the Hydra snapped all of its heads forward in a single, writhing swarm of gnashing hate and unceasing hunger. All three heads struck the orc butcher almost simultaneously. With a disturbing “pop”, the orc was torn into three uneven pieces.

But three more blood-soaked greenskins leapt into the butcher’s place with a howl, their axes slowly taking a toll on the Hydra, already weakened by many wounds.

Scowling, Malathia uttered dread words. Thrusting her hand forward, she projected a wave of invisible force, sending the Orcs tumbling backwards. It would not harm them, but it would give the Hydra a moment to catch its breath. She shouted over her shoulder, “I thought you had a plan to sneak into their camp. This does not look like sneaking!”

“Even I can’t hold an enchantment together that long!” The Wizard shot back.

Suddenly, the area was peppered with a spray of small stones. Looking up, the Forcmaster could see a gang of goblins, perched in the branches of a tree whirling their slings for another volley. “Duck!” she called out, a moment or two later than it mattered.

Laddinfance was grinning. He hadn’t had this much fun since his last victory in the Arena! He knew that he needed something to slow down the orcs. “Maybe that new trick I learned from Vinsaine will work,” he muttered.

Stepping into a cluster of stones, the Wizard began a summoning. Earth magic was not Laddinfance’s forte, but he wasn’t one to reject a new spell just for style. As the power of the spell grew, tiny fissures erupted in the ground around him and steam boiled forth in a bilious cloud. In spite of himself, he found himself holding his breath as the spell neared completion. Was it going to work?

After what felt like an eternity, his efforts were finally rewarded. A massive man-shaped figure of molten iron stepped out of the swirling steam. The creature paused momentarily before the Mage as though to acknowledge him, before rumbling down the rise and smashing into the orc formation…


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Chapter 6: Path of Might
A small church in a hamlet just north of Victoria

Dvora was having second thoughts. Or maybe they were fourth or fifth thoughts. “What have we done?” she sighed regretfully, as the fire burning the small church of Rollingbrook illuminated her face with harsh, unforgiving shadows.

“Do not lose your resolve now, Priestess,” Sir Erevar chided. “It is for this that you have called me back. To wage a war that all deny even exists. We do what must be done, that Westlock may remember the price for consorting with demons.” He spat the word like poison.

Nearby, a monk cried for the loss of his church, moaning “Why, Asyra? Why?” over and again. Erevar’s knights marched a group of villagers into the square: those arrested on suspicion of heresy. Their were many more than Dvora had imagined. How could so many have turned from the Light? Surely they cannot
all be guilty?

The paladin-inquisitor tightened his grip on his axe, the legendary Akeldama. “By my oath, Priestess, all who carry a measure of guilt in this will feel the keen edge of justice.” The villagers looked on the paladin and priestess with undisguised terror.

“I have never seen Asyra bring so much fear,” Dvora said, almost too low to hear.

Sir Erevar laughed: a mirthless, mocking laugh. “Then you have not looked into the eyes of demons or heretics. Only they fear our goddess.” His expression turned grim as he examined the priestess. “If you walk this road with me, the people will learn to fear you as well. They will learn to hate you. But, at least we will have saved them from the demons.”

Dvora felt her heart sink. She turned away from the people to hide her shame and tears rolled down her cheeks.


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Chapter 7: Illusory Preparations
Somewhere in the hinterlands of Westlock

After three days of almost constantly fighting against the patrols and scouts of the Bloodwave, Malathia was definitely ready for a rest. We’ve been lucky to avoid the bulk of the army so far, but for how much longer?

“Explain to me again why we can’t just teleport into the middle of them?” she complained, “this is… degrading.”

“The Warlord is wiser than he seems,” Laddenfance smirked. “His officers carry ancient stones that prevent teleportation. We could never cross the distance to his command tent.

Besides, I think you look good as an orc. I’ll be shocked if you don’t get twenty demands for marriage by the time we reach the Warchief’s tent.”

“I’m so glad you’re enjoying this. Just wait until it’s your turn,” she scowled back.

The spell he had used was almost unheard of. No one ever used it in the arena. But that had never limited Laddinfance before. With the obscure
glamor, he had changed the vibrant young Forcemaster into a fearsome orcish woman. Only the keenest of eyes could see through the weaknesses of the spell. And the Bloodwave was short on those.

Revealing the last of his enchantment, Laddinfance’s form shifted into that of a tall, thickly muscled orc of massive proportions. His trademark mustache and smirk fading into the scowling countenance of a brute. “Remember, unless you want a fight, don’t look anybody in the eyes. I will speak for us, as I assume you do not speak orc. We will pretend to be scouts returning from a mission to Victoria. No one would dare obstruct us.”

Malathia did not know how to react. She had halfway expected Laddinfance to transform her alone, and simply whisk himself to the Warlord to meet her. This was a side of him she was certain no one had ever seen.

“Mal? Are you with me?” Laddinfance asked.

“Of course!” she snapped out of her reverie, “I guess we’re ready now. Let’s introduce ourselves to this ‘Trokoth the First’. May his reign be short!”


Repulse Roberto Pitturru

Chapter 8: Uninvited Guests
In the camp of the Bloodwave

Thankfully, full darkness had fallen as the Wizard and the Forcemaster approached the center of the Bloodwave camp. To Malathia’s surprise, things had gone remarkably well. They had only been questioned twice. She had no idea what Laddinfance told them in the guttural orcish tongue, but whatever it was, satisfied the sentries well enough.

Finally, all that stood between the mages and their goal was an open marshaling area, perhaps fifty yards across. As they sheltered behind a tent, they watched as a troop of orcs emerged from the Warchief’s pavilion and marched purposefully into the main camp.

“There it is: Trokoth’s command tent! His generals have left. Now’s our chance, Mal!” Laddinfance whispered.

The Forcemaster did not hesitate to take advantage. Closing her eyes, she tightened her focus and visualized the two guards at the entrance to the tent. Reaching out with her mind, she gently brushed the very edge of their consciousness.

Are all orcs so weak minded? she wondered. It was almost too simple to cloud the thoughts of the sentries. She implanted a tiny impression in the mind of each. When her eyes opened again, she smiled at the Wizard. “This should amuse you, Laddinfance.”

By the time he looked up, the two orcs had turned to each
other. They exchanged first insults, then shoves. A moment later, they were rolling in the dirt in a full-on brawl. Laddinfance chuckled at the sight. “Nicely done!” he said.

Ignoring the fighting orcs, the two mages crept to the opening of the tent and ducked inside. As far as they could tell, they were completely unnoticed. The interior was gloomy. The sole light was a sputtering oil lamp dangling above a map table, covered with a large map of Westlock, marked with the formations of the Bloodwave and the kingdom’s defenders. The numbers looked grim.

“Yes, they are doomed,” said a gruff, orcish voice, “As are you. Accept your death with honor, and I will see that you receive it!”