‘Get the Tordale Guard on that ridge with their rifles,’ Meabh gestured with a gauntleted hand for emphasis, ‘Watch and shoot. I don’t want any more surprises from those Blackridge orcs.’
The halfling Captain’s aide nodded and mounted his aralez to deliver the orders. Meabh watched his departure and then returned attention to her remaining staff. This was her first command, and she was determined to prove herself. Whilst a valuable lesson, the embarrassment of being caught off-guard by the orcs still smarted. Meabh turned to her second-in-command.
‘Sergeant Connell, how are the troops?’
‘Fine spirits S-…Ma’am, apologies! Usual grumbling about being down to four meals a day on campaign. Taking time to rest has done them good though, they’re fighting fit.’
‘Thank you Sergeant. Carys, any luck with the balloons?’
‘Glad you asked Ma’am! We adjusted the fuel mix for lower viscosity then increased the ballast to account for temperature impacts on buoyancy. Navigation has proven trickier, but Jones had this ingenious…’
‘Engineer,’ Meabh raised a hand, ‘thank you. Any further business?’
‘Aye Ma’am,’ said Sergeant Connell, ‘the scouts have found something. You may want a look.’
‘Lay on then Sergeant.’
Mounting her aralez, Meabh followed the Sergeant and his own steed. Their path took them past blocks of meandering infantry who waved greetings. Meabh returned each gesture with a swift nod or broad smile. It slowed progress, but any perceived snub risked getting back to her family on return from the campaign. Frankly, she preferred taking her chances with the orcs. Eventually, the lines of troops and ox-drawn artillery fell behind. A group of poachers on their lean aralez mounts waited at the front of the column to escort them further.
A short ride with the scouts led them along a rocky outcrop until a horrific scene greeted them. Meabh felt bile rising to her throat and fought to keep her composure as the smell hit them, sweet and rank. Scattered frostfangs lay torn and gutted, their riders decapitated and cast aside. Likely so focused on reaching Chill, the patrol had fallen prey to ambush. A group of fur-clad ogres ranged through the carnage, inspecting wounds, and probing the ground. The largest of them looked up at the halflings’ arrival and strode over to greet them.
‘Captain,’ he said in a low rumble, ‘looks like the work of reapers.’
‘Recent?’, Meabh asked.
‘Two days, three at most.’’
‘That’s when we were striking camp,’ Meabh raised a hand to cover her mouth and nose. ‘Had I pressed forward we might have saved them.’
‘If you say so Captain.’
‘No more hesitation. I need your hunters to find a path so the artillery can reach higher ground. Sergeant Connell,’ she called. ‘It’s time for us to pick up the pace!’
Progress up the Ygrituul valley had been steady. The Nightstalker presence had subsided this far south, leaving the increasingly belligerent orcs from Blackridge as their main challenge. Through careful scouting, the Shirefolk and their ogre mercenaries had made effective use of the terrain. Treacherous snowdrifts were avoided and safe routes located. Artillery emplacements now commanded excellent views in support of the main advance.
Against a co-ordinated force the orcs had eventually given up their direct assaults. Now they waited to attack amid thick snow or heavy fog.
Meabh had taken a rare opportunity to sit and clean her lance. Her aralez, Reily, enjoyed himself in the snow, snapping his jaws at lightly falling flakes. Despite the harrying attacks of the Orcs, they were making reasonable progress toward the city of Chill. Morale remained high for the time being, despite the casualties they had taken so far. She hoped the other forces pushing north experienced similar good fortune. A deep cough shocked Meabh from her thoughts. A hulking ogre warlock approached her, carrying a jangling trinket-laden staff.
‘Well met Captain’, he boomed.
‘Warlock. You are most welcome at my table.’
‘Ah, thank you,’ he paused and planted his staff firmly in the snow. ‘I climbed the peak here in contemplation of the elements. A troubling sight came to me.’
‘I am not one for visions, Sir. Please speak plainly.’
‘You misunderstand. How would you say? The sight was troubling to me?’
At this, Meabh’s eye twitched slightly and her heartbeat quickened. ‘I presume you can show me?’
‘Indeed’ he said, nodding. ‘This way please.’
The two walked side by side in silence, ascending to a ridge where Carys and Sergeant Connell awaited them. As she reached the ridge line the air felt somehow dense and alive with energy. Her staff exchanged worried glances with the warlock.
‘Tell me what you see, Captain,’ said the warlock.
‘Mountains?’ she asked. ‘Our warriors? Is this a wisdom thing? Should I say opportunity or aspiration?’
‘No, be still. Be patient.’
Meabh stared intently at the frosty terrain spread out below her. As her eyes relaxed and her vision blurred slightly, things began to make sense. Thin traces of shimmering energy streamed into view, somehow full of both all colours and none. They rippled through the air to the West, flowing from horizon to horizon. Despite its delicate beauty, there was something uncomfortable, even sickening, about the light and she looked away. Ribbons of colour continued to swim across her vision in the moments that followed.
‘Is that…from the void?’ she asked, turning to the warlock. ‘Should it do that?’
‘It should not,’ he replied. ‘Strange plans are in motion, Captain. I sense it is feeding some phenomenon.’
‘Scout reports on the path taken by the Nightstalkers seem to tally with the energy flows Ma’am,’ reported Sergeant Connell.
‘Speculation Ma’am but what if the Nightstalker incursion is a side effect?’ Carys asked. ‘The reports of void-cages during the Abyssal incursions make no mention of this energy.’
‘If this is true, we’ve been trying to solve the wrong problem. I need certainty Carys, not more questions.’
‘Captain,’ the Warlock spoke softly, ‘I have heard that the Twilight Kin meddle with such things, and their spies have been seen before in the Ice Mountains. I do not know what we are looking at, but I can feel it is important.’
Meabh’s eye began to flutter uncontrollably. She closed her eyes to hide the nervous tic she had wrestled with since childhood. Time seemed to slow, and she could feel the weight of the moment growing heavier on her shoulders. This was going to be one of those decisions that nobody wanted to take responsibility for. The kind that would make or break her military career.
Folk back home had said she wasn’t ready for this, baulking at the very idea of a young ‘lass’ from Wictun given her first command by the Muster Master. He had been the only one to see her potential. Was she ready to now gamble that opportunity, and indeed her whole future?
She snapped her thoughts away from herself and inhaled deeply. She had wanted to escape an ordinary life, to get out into the world, and to make a difference. And now she would. Indeed, her next order might doom or save an entire city and all the lives within.
Meabh scanned the horizon, her choices laid out physically in front of her. She could see the Norgared Pass snaking through the mountains towards Chill. She should move the army onward, and aid the defenders as ordered. Or they could act on their discovery and disrupt what now looked to be the enemy’s true plan, even if they did not fully understand it yet.
She inhaled deeply, readying her words. She squared her shoulders, summoned a smile, and turned to her unit commanders.
‘No time to lose. Carys, get your Aeronauts in the air. I want to know where those energy streams are going! Sergeant Connell, halt our advance and have the scouts recalled.’
She turned to her ogre companion.
‘Warlock, kindly send word to our allies of your discovery, and a new objective. Finally we can put a stop to this madness.’ In turn, and with a grim-faced smile she then looked them each squarely in the eye. ‘We have void-cages to close.’
Author: Jess Townshend