General Montsigaard is tight-lipped with pain, seated in a folding chair in the command tent. A crisp new uniform accents his drawn face and three days of patchy gray stubble. Blood still seeps through his bandages.
The General’s tent buzzes with a constant flow of dispatch runners who stumble in and out, vacant-eyed with exhaustion. Despair sits heavy on their shoulders, dogging their steps. Only discipline keeps them on their feet. Discipline and fear. A nearby field desk is covered with torn maps, smudged diagrams, and a hundred hastily scrawled reports, requests, pleas, excuses, casualty lists; scraps from desperate, confused commanders trying to gather the pieces of a shattered army. Trying to make sense of tragic loss and crushing defeat.
“You’re going back to the river, south this time, to Wael’s Bluff,” Montsigaard orders. “It overlooks the shallows at the narrow bend outside the city. ‘Ferryman’s Curse’ they call it. Whatever foul things the Cinder King was doing in Karlsburg are finished. He’s building barges now, preparing to cross. I want to know where so we can stick a blade in his plans. Understood?”
You nod, prepare to leave, then notice an aide glaring at you.
What? Then you remember.
You pull yourself straight and salute but it’s a good three seconds late. An afterthought. The General doesn’t seem to notice – or perhaps he doesn’t care right now. He wants information, not formalities.
Get it done.
Wael’s Bluff is home to several farms but there’s no sign of life. Of the living, anyway. Undead peasants clump together in the yard and on the dirt track, moaning and twitching in aimless malice. In the distance, a large red-skinned figure stands before a bonfire of corpses, speaking to forms swirling in the reeking black smoke.
(The players’ deployment roll was bad. The party started split and in the open.)
Each group advanced cautiously.
Half way there, scabbed heads perk up and milky eyes narrow with hunger and cunning. The undead begin to jerk and shamble toward them, reaching out with filthy hands, gasping and snarling.
The party wades in, arrows and bolts flying, maces and blades swinging. Spells sizzle through the air and the walking corpses fall like sacks of wet grain. But there are so many and they keep coming.
Hearing the fighting break out, the large red figure turns from the fire to face the intruders. Rather than roar and charge, he simply smiles at them and pulls a small red copper bell from his belt. Standing perfectly still, he rings it four times before hooking it back in place.
Another moment, then his smile turns to a sneer and he strides toward Matt’s Wizard, John’s Ranger, and Tom’s Warrior, his massive sword whistling huge arcs through the air.
Meanwhile on the dirt track, Derek’s Cleric, Other Pat’s Druid, and Max’s Assassin dispatch the zombie swarms with relative ease. The way to the first objective looks clear.
Sensing the other group is in trouble, the Cleric veers off to assist. The Assassin skirts the shadow of the trees down the dirt track, intent on the closest objective. The Druid waits to see if any new threats emerge.
“It can’t be this easy.”
No, it isn’t.
Something emerges from the house at the end of the lane, a skeletal warrior dressed in the tattered rags of one of the Empire’s elite regiments, one deployed in the first army that marched West to meet the Cinder King. A rune is carved into the bleached bone of its forehead, glowing and malevolent. It comes down the steps and rushes toward the Druid.
In that same moment, four figures appear near the bonfire summoned by the Demon. They cross the lawn at an unnatural speed, loping on stilt legs with an awkward grace.
They are still alive – not undead – but they have been turned into something less than human. Emaciated, covered with burn blisters, bloody weals, and jagged lacerations, strange bird masks have been grafted to their heads. Mockeries of tattered wings are chained on their backs, bobbing and rustling as they move. Worst of all, they have rusted swords bound to their hands and feet.
They are Carrion Crows: prisoners of the Cinder King, gone mad from torture and black magic, broken and reformed to do his bidding.
These new adversaries move swiftly. Most of the undead fodder have fallen but the battle is far from over. The Demon laughs and wounds John’s Ranger. The Skeleton Captain charges the Druid.
The Cleric Lazarus finds himself blocked by two Crows and a mob of rotting undead. A crossbow bolt glances off the Demon’s bone armor. The Wizard’s spells decimate the zombies clawing at him but the Ranger takes a second wound from the Demon’s sword and goes down.
Faced with the Skeleton Captain on the road, the Druid hurriedly summons his Timber Wolf familiar. But the Reanimated marauder is quicker and the Timber Wolf falls under its blade.
Meanwhile, tasked with going for the objectives, the Assassin ignores the Druid/Skeleton combat and reaches the first location. One down. On to the second.
Angered by the success, the Demon sends a pair of Crows back to the bluff. The pair strides through the tall grass and cuts off the Assassin at the farm house.
The Ranger is down. The Druid’s Familiar is dead and he is facing the Skeleton Captain alone. Lazarus is still encircled by enemies. Tom’s Soldier is wounded. The Demon cackles as he steps over the fallen Ranger’s body toward Matt’s Wizard.
A cloud wall the color of gravestones moves across the sky, throwing the countryside into shadow. A cold wind blows from the charnel city across the river, carrying the stench of smoke, ruin, and decay.
“I miss one game,” Derek mutters. “And look what happens. We need to clean this mess up right-freaking-now.”
With that rallying cry, the Cleric Lazarus Sturn pummels his adversaries, first one of the Crows, then the zombie mob. Free for a moment, he rushes to lay hands on John’s Ranger before he bleeds out. Matt’s Wizard launches spell after spell at the Demon. None of them wound him severely, but they do keep him off balance long enough for the Warrior to apply a Healing Potion to the Ranger as well, removing the second wound token.
A sudden east wind at his back, John’s Ranger gets to his feet and nocks an arrow in his bow. Lazarus sends the second Crow tumbling to the dirt.
“That’s more like it.”
Over on the road, the Skeleton catches the full force of an arcane blast in the face and clatters to the ground. The glowing rune flickers and fades.
Behind the farm house, the Assassin evades before the Crows can close in in him. He throws a smoke grenade at his feet and darts toward the second objective before the twisted parodies can recover.
Lazarus, now backed up by the freshly-healed Ranger and Tom’s Warrior, take on the Demon. “Who’s laughing now?”
Under their combined assault, the Hell-Spawn is defeated. A blow from Lazarus’ mace breaks a horn before crushing its malformed skull.
“Another decoration for the main gate,” the Cleric says as he wipes his mace clean on the creature’s stringy hair. “Something to boost morale.”
The Druid and Assassin join them near the stand of trees. At the farmhouse, the last two Crows flail in the smoke, unable to get clear.
At the bluff, the corpse fire dies out. An strong east wind is pushing the cloud wall back. The sun emerges. Both objectives have been achieved. It’s time to go.
UPDATE: Sept 20, 2019
Recent successes have put the Army resources at 50% or more, so they marched from the Western Front to Plainsworth. Still a long way to go but they’re one step closer to the safety of Skydagger Keep.