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Fiction The Outland Legion

Discussion in 'Fluff and Stories' started by J.Logan, Jun 10, 2024.

  1. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    Summary:

    From the Isle of Madrigal comes a lizardman temple-host. Their ongoing mission - tasked by none other than the Slann mage-priest Annat'corri - is to traverse the lands of the warmbloods, to track down and remove any potential threats to the Great Plan before they have a chance to grow into actual threats.

    But, in order to perform their duty, it was decided early on in their mission that the temple-host needed to adapt. It would be easier to seek out these threats if they could communicate with the warmbloods native to these lands. To that effect, these lizardmen have adapted, taken to wearing the garb of the warmbloods, followed their strange rules about what defines a civilised race, and learnt to speak their tongue.

    Now, these lizardmen sell their services in exchange for information, gossip and rumours. They are the Legion, and this is their tale.
     
  2. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    Notes:
    Hola, Children of the Gods.

    This an upload of my first attempt at fiction in the setting of Warhammer, and doubles as fluff for my own army (still at this time in the midst of being converted). T'is a tale of a particularly eccentric band of lizardmen. You might have seen this work elsewhere (I also post on AO3, FF.Net and Spacebattles). All are still me. Though in order to not flood the forum with a barrage of posts, I'll be taking this opportunity to re-read my work and then make any corrective editations before posting each chapter.

    Feel free to comment, even if it just to jeer at how... odd... these lizardmen are.

    Hope you enjoy.

    -Jay
     
  3. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    Prologue
    The Old World - The Border Prince Peninsula

    -

    The village of Schnappleberg was no stranger to raiding marauders. It was an unfortunate consequence from a combination of being only a small village that was placed in just the wrong spot for protection from larger settlements—Wissenheim being just far enough that any aid would typically arrive too late to be of any real help. The Wissenheim militia would arrive, chase away those who were trying to loot the dredges, and then claim credit for saving the town, never mind the damage already caused by their delayed arrival.

    As a consequence, the people of Schnappleberg tended to pool together a community pot dedicated to paying any bands of sellswords that might be passing through the area for protection. It gave the people of Schnappleberg a sense of protection, the sellswords got paid and enjoyed free lodging on top, everybody was happy. Except for whichever marauding raiders had decided to pick on the village at that particular time.

    The one downside, there was a dependency on there actually being travelling bands of sellswords to hire. There was hardly a set routine that said 'this time of the year a band of mercenaries will be travelling within one thousand leagues of our quaint little village.' It had actually become the full-time job of a quartet of Schnappleberg's youths to be scouting around the village for both signs of an impending raid, and for sellswords who could be hired to deter said raid.

    Schnappleberg could confidently claim that one such band of sellswords had begun their rise to fame with such a contract. But alas, it had been a long time since they'd last heard tell of the Grudgebringers in these parts. They had long since moved on to more lucrative ventures, far from Schnappleberg.

    Unfortunately, for some months now there had been no sign of any sellswords or mercenary companies. As if the fates were having a jest at Schnappleberg's expense, it appeared that a warband was on the approach, the kind of warband that the elders dreaded ever having to hear of. Not orcs, not this time. Worse still, standards were seen, standards which bore the eight-pointed star.

    There was a rumour that—a few days travel away—there was a large force of mercenaries making camp. A little further travel than Wissenheim, but also more likely to start moving toward Schnappleberg before the raid hit, rather than waiting because they didn't want leave their home unguarded.

    It was with fear of what might happen if they didn't at least try to confirm the rumour of a mercenary company that one of the youths who acted as the eyes of the village—a young lad of no more than fourteen summers—was given the community pot, all of the coinage saved, and was tasked with seeking these rumoured sellswords.

    That had been a week ago.

    Much of the village believed the young lad to be dead, to have run afoul of either bandits or creatures. A small minority had come to the conclusion that he had instead abandoned them in favour of going to Wissenheim with the coin meant to pay for Schnappleberg's protection.

    Whatever the truth of it, the threat hadn't ceased its approach. It had occasionally paused, roughly where other small villages and hamlets lay. All that the people of Schnappleberg could do now was wait fearfully, even as they armed themselves with whatever was on hand. Pitchforks, farming scythes, and in one case a homemade bow usually used to hunt for game, now being readied to protect home and family from something far more dangerous.

    Those Chaos aligned marauders arrived, and with them came fire and death.

    They cared not for the cries, for the pleas of mercy; if anything, there was a sick, twisted pleasure in hearing their victims beg for their lives. Those who had taken arms against them were cut down mercilessly, no matter how effective such weapons may be. It was as though the mere thought of trying was simply motivation enough to cull those who dared. It mattered not that a broken bottle was all one man held in a frantic, fearful frenzy. It could feasibly be used as a weapon, therefore the penalty was death.

    One mother huddled in the corner of her home, infant held in tight embrace, eyes shut while tears leaked between lashes as she awaited the inevitable. They were rounding up the villagers, those who hadn't raised arms, the mothers and the children. What they planned, she knew not, and she dreaded to think.

    Her door splintered as a large hulking man in armour inscribed with runes that were sickening to gaze upon entered. The mother wept silently, even whilst she prayed for salvation. If not for her, then for her infant.

    The armoured man approached her, footsteps loud reverberations upon the wooden floor. He sniggered, clearly enjoyed her fear—enjoyed her misery.

    The remnants of her door connected with the wall as somebody else entered. Their footfalls were not nearly so loud, naught but soft pattering, a sound similar to her child slapping his palms upon the floor in a rhythmic pattern. The loud footsteps paused. Against her will, her eyes opened.

    At first, she assumed the newcomer to be a daemon of some variety. It was short, small of stature, and so very clearly not of the race of man, neither were they elf nor dwarf. It had a vibrant green hue to its flesh, while its eyes were bulged out as though trying to escape from the skull of the creature. She was almost startled to glimpse a slender tail.

    But then she noted something different about this creature. The first was that it was garbed in clothing. She'd almost missed that detail for the fact that it wore a green jacket and breeches, and while the green was a different, darker hue from the flesh, it had still momentarily confused her sight. Then she took note of what this creature held.

    Is it normal, she wondered, for daemon's to carry muskets?

    For it was true, this diminutive creature held in its hands a musket, the like that Empire statesmen might be issued. There were no eldritch runes marring this handgun either. It truly looked like something that might have come out of the Empire.

    The marauder hesitated at the sight of the diminutive being, and though his face was hidden beneath a helmet, he was very clearly projecting a sense of confusion.

    'What?' The question was whispered with utmost confusion.

    Another pair burst through the broken door, likewise armed with muskets pointed to the marauder. One of them was a sandy yellow-brown, and wore a similar garb as the first, whilst the third was a vibrant blue, and it too wore the green clothing. With the three standing close to each other, it gave the sense that their garments were a uniform of some variety.

    The Chaos worshipper started forward, jagged blade rising up with no question as to the intent. But as though it had been awaiting the excuse, the first of small creatures to have appeared pulled the trigger of its musket. The Chaos marauder stumbled back with blood spewing from his neck, where the bullet had pierced through. He gargled, a hand reached for the open wound as though to block the escape of the red liquid.

    The gunshot seemed to echo endlessly, though the mother knew deep down that such wasn't the case. The echo had ended almost instantly, yet rang repeatedly. It was later that she would realise that it wasn't an echo she heard, but of other handguns in the village being fired.

    One of the creatures, the sandy yellow-brown one, lunged forward, jabbed the muzzle of its musket, where a blade affixed to the end of the weapon's length punctured into the chest of the marauder, about where the heart should lay beneath. The blade managed to puncture the armour, and it was then twisted as though to make certain that it had done the job before being ripped out.

    The creatures chittered while the green one fished around at a pouch on its person, then started to reload the musket with the spoils of its search. The yellowish one turned, so that one of those large bulging eyes was affixed to the mother. Its head tilted as it took in her appearance, then gave a slight hiss as its eye lowered enough to see the infant held in her arms.

    'Are you alright, missus?'

    The mother started in surprise at the Reikspiel that exited the creature's mouth. It wasn't a perfect example of the imperial tongue, there was a slight accent that she could not identify, but it was close enough that if she hadn't seen the one speaking, she would have assumed the words to have come from a human with a sore throat.

    'Missus? Are you well?' The creature repeated the question. It even had the right inflections to its voice to show that it was clearly concerned. Or mimicking concern so perfectly that, again, without seeing the source, she would have honestly believed a human from one of the Empire's provinces to be expressing concern.

    The question finally registered. Whatever her misgivings of the creatures, they had just killed the marauder that was coming for her.

    'I'm fine.' The words were stuttered, shock was starting to set in.

    The creature nodded and patted itself until it eventually found a waterskin, which it held out for her. While it was doing that, it had twisted its head so that the eye on the opposite side of its head was better able to look at the other two.

    'Happy, Mizki, to that window. The other regiment will be here soon, let's keep these Chaos swine from noticing, ey?'

    'Ya got it, boss,' the original—the green one—said with a firm nod and then moved to the nearby window and propped the musket against the frame.

    The other one chittered and moved to position itself next to the green one. The yellow one turned back to the mother after she had unconsciously accepted the offered waterskin.

    'My name is Major Sharpe'tus, head of the skirmishers.'

    'We're Sharpe's Chosen, we are,' the green one said with a tone that would convey good humour in a human.

    'Muzzle it, Happy,' Sharpe'tus snapped. 'Start shooting.'

    "Happy" didn't answer verbally, but did angle its musket and pull the trigger.

    'What... are you?' the mother asked, though she wasn't certain if she'd meant to or not.

    'Skirmishers for the Legion,' Sharpe'tus reiterated his previous comment. Then seemed to acknowledge what she had actually meant by the question. 'We are what your kind refers to as lizardmen.'

    'I've not heard of such.'

    'Not surprising that,' Happy commented offhandedly as he reloaded his musket. 'It doesn't help that we're rather... off... from the usual mould.'

    The mother didn't know what he meant by that, didn't deign to ask. Sharpe'tus accepted back his waterskin after she absently took a sip from it, still too out of it to tell herself that it was a bad idea to accept a drink from a creature that might still be a daemon pulling a trick on her. It tasted of plain old water, but who was to really say?

    The two "lizardmen" at the window took turns firing their muskets, followed by a swift reload. Now that she thought about it, the mother realised that she could hear the barking retorts of more than just the two handguns.

    'How many of you...?'

    'I led the entirety of the skirmishers,' Sharpe'tus said as though that would answer everything. 'We went ahead of the rest of the legion, to try to minimize the damage that the Chaos worshippers could cause in the meantime. I'm sorry we weren't fast enough to fend off the raid entirely, we only got word two days ago.'

    'Got... word?'

    Sharpe'tus tilted his head. 'You sent a boy to recruit us. Luitwin Fric.'

    The name seemed to clear the fog from the mother's mind, and a feeling of relief swelled within her until it inflated her chest. Her eldest son was alive! 'You are the mercenary company we heard rumours of? He found you?'

    She couldn't be certain but she got the impression that Sharpe'tus was smiling. 'That's us. Mind you, young Luitwin was a little concerned that we were lying to him about who we are.'

    'Prob'ly weren't expecting big lizards, major, on account of us not being locals an' all.' The other skirmisher at the window—Mizki, the mother absently recalled—snorted in sarcastic derision.

    Sharpe'tus turned to fully face the skirmisher in question, but any word he might have had was lost as both of the other lizardmen flinched away from the window in time to avoid an arrow, which instead embedded itself into the opposite wall.

    'Daemon-humping bastard.' Mizki sounded so offended at the event that it was almost comical.

    'Who was it?' Happy asked.

    'By the bridge.'

    Happy nodded and angled around so that his musket could point toward the bridge at the western end of the village. Two seconds later, he pulled the trigger, the flint hammer slammed down and the weapon barked. Another second passed, and then Happy gave a firm nod to Mizki.

    'I have avenged you,' Happy said in a dry tone.

    Somewhere outside, in the distance, a horn was sounded. Sharpe'tus tilted his head and listened. Shortly after the horn had finished, the beating of drums took its place.

    'Ah, sounds like the Primus Regiment has arrived. Have no fear, sounds like the marshal sent the best.' He paused, tilted his head briefly in that way that some people did when about to make a contrarian or joking comment. 'Well, second best.'

    Happy gave a loud snort, fired his musket and then fully turned to face Sharpe'tus whilst he reloaded. 'Oh, don't let Mort hear ya disrespectin' his regiment there, Sharpe. Gets all defensive like, that fellow does.'

    'He can kiss my cloaca, the blowhard----' The final word of the comment was drowned out when Mizki chose that moment to fire at that some unseen target. Whether the comment was simply banter between two personalities, or an actual feud, the mother couldn't tell, Sharpe'tus didn't let anything into his tone as he uttered where this Mort could kiss. He checked his musket and after seeing everything was in order, gave Happy a pat on the shoulder and then moved out the door, musket at his shoulder.

    The rest of the battle, if it could be called that, was short, brutal. The Chaos worshippers were wiped out to the last man. During the confusion caused by the skirmishers—who had hidden themselves within nearly every building in Schnappleberg—firing at them, a regiment of more lizardmen, these ones far larger than the skirmishers had led the townsfolk to believe, had arrived in the form of two battalions. One battalion had approached from the north, and when the Chaos raiders had seen the large reptilian warriors with gleaming armour, heavy shields and keen blades, they had realised how outmatched they were. With that knowledge firmly in mind, they had tried to withdraw across the bridge to the west.

    Maybe they had hoped to use the bridge as a bottleneck—though the lizardmen warriors of the Primus Regiment were the worst choice to try such a manoeuvre against, not that the raiders could have known that—or maybe they had hoped that it would simply slow down the lizards enough to be able to escape.

    They hit a problem when they encountered the second battalion doing a very accurate impression of an unbreakable wall at the other end of the bridge. A wall that was apparently not above jabbing spears through the gaps between their linked shields. The fate of the Chaos worshippers was akin to that of an insect caught between two hands clapped together.

    In the aftermath, the reptilian warriors gathered the dead, found any and all items that belonged to the raiders and made a point of putting them in the same pile as the now deceased Chaos worshippers—separate from the sons and fathers who had died defending their home—before then putting the Chaos pile to the torch, leaving behind naught but ash.

    Then, a large figure appeared, one of the lizardmen but one who had size that managed to dwarf even the warriors of Primus Regiment. This new reptile had pale green and yellow scales and gleaming, intelligent eyes. It was garbed simply, unlike the uniforms of either of the other two types of lizardmen. It wore a simple blue frock coat, though it must have been tailored specifically for its size.

    At its side was a smaller example of the strange creatures, more alike the skirmishers than the warriors. However, this one's eyes were different from those of the skirmishers, they weren't bulging out and they didn't seem to move independently as those of the skirmishers did, and it had a fin atop its head. This smaller one had light purple scales and wore clothing fit for nobility, though still simple enough for travel, and most amusingly wore a woollen flat cap, seemingly ignorant of how it didn't quite sit right atop its head due in no small part to its finned crest.

    The large reptile met the Schnappleberg's representative, towered over the poor fellow before snorting and dropping down so that it was sat cross-legged on the ground. It was still taller than the human, but the difference wasn't quite so intimidating.

    The rest of the village was unable to hear the conversation, but after roughly fifteen minutes, the two lizardmen handed the representative a full coin purse and then departed. With them followed all the other reptilian warriors.

    When asked, Hasso Eicher, the chosen representative—who also, it turned out, was aware of the existence of the lizardmen, though his understanding was that they were nothing like those that Schnappleberg had encountered, which he would later rationalize as "maybe these ones were to those what I'd heard of, what Bretonnia is to the Empire"—told that the fee had never been coin. Instead they had asked for, in order of preference: knowledge of events, even if only in the form of rumours; raw materials and supplies; and the facilities to craft those materials.

    Eicher would go on to mention that he had heard a rumour the last time he had been in Wissenheim, two weeks prior. The rumour in question would send them up north and east, toward Averland, where an orcish warband had supposedly been sighted. That rumour had apparently been exactly the sort that they had been interested in, and so, by all accounts, that would be where they would be travelling.

    The following day a Free Company of Wissenheim arrived. Once again they were too late to have been of help for the actual problem, but this time they were also too late to even help with the cleanup. The man in charge dismounted his steed even as his eyes scanned the damage, took in the burials for deceased family in progress, and glowered in annoyance.

    'What happened here?' he asked in a sharp tone.

    He was told quickly that 'A mercenary company managed to get here in time to save us.'

    'What mercenary company?' he followed up with.

    'They called themselves the Outland Legion,' he was answered. 'They were odd ones they were.'

    That marked the extent that Bertrand Graebner and his men were able to learn that was factual. But as to the absurd number of claims that this Outland Legion was made entirely of what sounded eerily like the tales that came from Lustria, but with black powder weapons? Well, never let it be said that the peasantry out in the middle of nowhere didn't have an imagination. Blatant falsehood but imaginative.



    -TBC
     
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  4. Imrahil
    Slann

    Imrahil Thirtheenth Spawning

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    Interesting!

    * Reminder to self to read this *

    Grrr, !mrahil
     
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  5. Killer Angel
    Slann

    Killer Angel Prophet of the Stars Staff Member

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    yep, me too! :)
     
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  6. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    The Village of Daxweiler


    The Old World - Eastern Stirland, Near the World's Edge Mountains

    -

    Major Mort eyed the distant mountains with a baleful eye. The World's Edge. An overly dramatic name, there was plenty of world on the other side of those vast mountains, but to the humans of the Empire, those mountains must have represented an end of all that they called civilisation. On the other side of those vast and seemingly endless mountains, there lay the lands so aptly named "The Darklands", home to orcs, ogres and many more creatures that would sooner mutilate a human than talk. Get past the Darklands and one would find oneself in what the ogres called a kingdom.

    If the Empire thought that the World's Edge was a vast and imposing barrier, just imagine how they'd feel about the Mountains of Mourn. In comparison, the World's Edge felt small and insignificant. It was only after managing to pass the Mountains of Mourn that one might find civilisation again.

    Mort had been to the Mountains of Mourn but once in his long existence. That had been many, many, centuries before the Outland Legion had been even a concept to be expanded upon. Mort sometimes allowed himself to miss those days. There had been a simple joy to his existence before this fool-hardy venture. He had been an eternity warden for Lord Annat'corri, had been privileged enough to stand by his master's side, locked within the Star Chamber whilst the ancient Slann had cast his mind into the eternity of the cosmos.

    There were times that he gave himself a moment to wonder whether his life now was a punishment for some misdemeanour. Only moments were given to allow such weakness. His wasn't to question the will of Lord Annat'corri, or the Old Ones. He might not like his new position, but he wouldn't complain. The Oldblood Ingwel'tonl was not a bad leader for the Legion, and had never dismissed Mort's discomfort, had allowed the eternity warden to run the three regiments under him as he saw fit. While the majority of the Outland Legion had slowly adapted and changed to their current state, had adopted the use of the warmblood's black powder—had conformed—Mort's three regiments stood by the earliest adaptations the Legion had made. The clothing was simpler, the armour was simpler—back then it had been felt that the armour was needed to convince the warmbloods of their status as warriors—but both did just fine for their purpose.

    It was irrelevant that the Legion had slowly learnt and advanced, developed better methods of garb and arms. The original style had done exactly what it needed and had been enough, Mort refused to change his regiments based on the fickleness of the warmbloods. That he allowed his regiments—that he had allowed himself—to conform even as much as he had should be enough.

    He tore his eyes away from the World's Edge, his personally allotted time for brooding over, and he pivoted around, ignored how the cloak he wore flared out in what Major Sharpe'tus would mock him for as being needlessly dramatic, whatever that meant. As the skinks had started to say whenever downtime was finished with: time to get back to business. He snorted in annoyance that even in his mind he was beginning to adopt some of the odd sayings of the warmbloods. However, he was still better off than Colonel Solinaraxl, or Major Sharpe'tus and his skirmishers, who seemed incapable of stopping the humanistic behaviour. It was Sharpe'tus and his so-called "Chosen" that had caused his name to be permanently shortened from Moretexl.

    Mort sidestepped a red-coated skink and eyed the gunpowder weapon in the smaller lizardman's arm which had seemingly replaced the bolt-spitters as the weapon of choice. Mort wasn't incapable of acknowledging the potency of the muskets, there was a reason that the Empire's humans, and the Dawi, had taken to black powder weapons. However, it still felt like an unneeded departure from how things should be and had always been.

    He had to remind himself that that was part of the point. The Legion had to make use of what they had, what they could get, and if in doing so they had an easier time interacting with the warmbloods and their almost contrarian views of civility, then so much the better.

    Mort found the inn that the local villagers had loaned to the Legion, where Marshal Ingwel'tonl had set up office to plot out the Legion's next move. The oldblood looked up at his entry, one finger rested upon the large map which had seemingly become a permanent fixture of his person when off the battlefield.

    'Mort.' Ingwel'tonl's eyes crinkled in the closest approximation that their kind could get to a smile.

    'Marshal.' Mort's voice was a low, deep rumble, the type that made other people's chests vibrate in concert.

    Ingwel'tonl peered back at the map spread across the tabletop and tapped his finger. 'The locals have been saying the same thing as the previous two villages: unknown armoured characters coming from the direction of the World's Edge. Those lucky enough to have seen but not been killed described them. Same as before, if they aren't Chaos, they're savages.'

    Mort leaned forward, eyed the map. It had various scribbles and notes written down upon it, most by Ingwel'tonl's hand, though the odd change of font marked where he had allowed somebody else to mark down a point of interest worth recording. Mort's eyes moved specifically to the spot where the oldblood's finger rested. Mort wasn't as proficient in map reading as Ingwel'tonl or either of the colonels, but he did recognise that it was close to the village of Daxweiler, and at the very edge of the mountains.

    Ingwel'tonl grabbed a quill and circled the spot in question. 'There is an old pathway.' He paused, tilted his head and seemed to search his mind, possibly for a different choice of words as after three seconds he scowled at the map. 'That might be a generous description.'

    Mort snorted in bemusement. 'Wouldn't such a path have a fort? The warmbloods aren't fond of letting things in from those mountains.'

    'Once upon a time, I am told.' Ingwel'tonl leaned back in his seat, ignored the creaking as the furniture struggled with his eight and half feet of broad muscled mass. 'The passage was apparently bigger, at one time. Landquakes and rockslides closed it off. Even the Dawi don't have a presence in the vicinity.'

    Mort rumbled in thought. 'The fort is still there? Abandoned?'

    'According to the locals. Apparently, it is a common source of delight for their spawn to make dares to get as close as they can to the "haunted" fort.'

    A single breath was released from Mort, it almost sounded like a "hah" if one strained their ears. 'So the savages will have taken it by now.'

    'Most likely.'

    'We will be going there?'

    'Soon.' Ingwel'tonl stood and rolled up the map. 'First I want to scout the place. Sharpe will be taking some of his skirmishers. Most of the rest of us will be moving to the next village along, in case they know of anything important that Daxweiler's locals don't.'

    'When do we leave?' Mort asked, eager to get moving.

    'You aren't for the next two days.'

    Mort cast the oldblood a look, silently questioned the reasoning.

    'The villagers are scared. There have been whispers of villages being attacked by raiders. They are willing to pay in livestock and timber for protection, so I've chosen for you to stay behind with members of the Primus and Mad Dog Regiments.'

    '"Mad Dog",' Mort growled out in annoyance. 'Not Fortis?'

    Fortis Regiment was the skink regiment under his usual command, whereas Mad Dog Regiment—named for the mountain pass which was incidentally where the regiment had first seen combat—was the newest of the skink regiments, and therefore one of the numerous red-coated musket-using regiments.

    The oldblood cast a look upon Mort. 'I was planning to only leave Mad Dog, but they're still not used to working alongside your regiments and their style. So, while you're here, you'll be working on team cohesion.'

    Mort silently felt it an unnecessary exercise, but his wasn't to question those higher up on the Legion's hierarchy. His was to accept and do.

    Ingwel'tonl rolled up his map and carefully deposited it in the hollowed horn that would protect it from the elements. He then turned back to Mort and allowed some amusement to show in his eyes.

    'You could take the time to work on your human relations skills.'

    Fully aware that it was a jest at his expense that meant no actual harm, Mort contained his annoyance and instead showed that just because he limited how much he and his followers conformed, that didn't mean he was ignorant of the habits and traditions of the warmbloods. In that vein, he tucked his thumb and far finger against his palm and held up the remaining two fingers in a "V" shape then flapped his hand up and down twice.

    Ingwel'tonl laughed out in a hissing rasp. 'I will see you again in a few days, major.'

    Once the oldblood disappeared out the door, Mort lowered his hand and moved to the chair previously occupied by the marshal and sat himself down. Two days in which to safeguard the village and run through some training routines with the redcoats. His mind was already coming up with ideas. His approval meant little. He had his role to play.



    *



    Kaiika braced against his shield, left shoulder pressed against the protective barrier while his right hand held a sword, the blade peaking through the slim gap between his shield and that of the saurus to his right. Behind him, another of his brothers of the Primus Regiment held a shield over that of Kaiika, angled such that it formed a roof over the front row. In the second row of the formation, tucked between each pair of saurus were skinks with muskets in hand, the firearms rested upon the shoulders of the saurus who formed the first rank of the formation, muzzles poking through the planned gaps in the shield barrier.

    From what Kaiika could see from his position behind a shield at the front, the bayonets attached to the ends of the muskets were making for a passable spear wall that was protected by the large shields of the Primus Regiment. To the side, Major Mort was eying the formation with a glower. Not that a glower was any different from Mort's usual expression. Kaiika imagined that his elder had emerged from the spawning pool with that glower already in place and perfected.

    'Mad Dog, first rank, fire.' Mort's voice was a rumble of thunder despite not being shouted or even really projected. Mort was the sort that if he spoke, all heard regardless of where they were and what they were doing.

    Kaiika mentally braced himself, and moments later the musket rested upon his left shoulder fired with the kind of retort that he usually associated with a solar engine being fired. His ear canals rang with a shrill pitch, but despite the urge to shake his head and rub at the side of his head, he didn't react.

    'Mad Dog, first and second rank, switch.' And despite the shrill tone ringing in his ear canals, Mort's voice was still just as clearly heard as when the tone hadn't existed.

    The red-coated skink behind Kaiika pulled away, careful to keep the keen edge of the bayonet angled away from the saurus's neck. It wouldn't have hurt him, all the bayonets were plugged with leather sleeves, even Mort wouldn't have them practice an untried manoeuvre that had a bladed weapon anywhere near unprotected necks and eyes. But the fact that the skink had already taken to moving the weapon with the safety of the saurus in front in mind was a boon.

    The skink was quickly replaced by another. The replacement was slow to thread the musket into position, almost too worried about the bayonet harming Kaiika, something that the saurus took note to bring up later. The skinks that had originally formed the firing line were already in the motion of removing their ramrods and reloading their muskets, bullets spat into the barrel and then pushed further down through liberal pumping of the iron stick.

    'Second rank, fire.'

    The muskets fired. Kaiika felt his nostrils twitch as the sharp tang of the smoke hit them. He had once heard that the smoke was irritating to human eyes, but he had never had that problem, couldn't recall ever hearing of any of his kin having such a problem. But while the smoke wasn't a cause of irritation, it was obscuring his vision, even after only two volleys.

    'Enemy cavalry almost on you,' Mort spoke quickly, though his inflection changed in no way.

    The skink behind Kaiika had started to slide his musket back out, getting ready to switch back even before being given the order to, hurriedly pushed it back into position and the smaller lizardman visibly braced himself, feet planted and body almost leaning forward in anticipation of the imaginary cavalry charge.

    'Switch now,' Mort commanded after ten seconds of such anticipation, which Kaiika took to mean that the imaginary cavalry had lost their nerve and backed away for a moment.

    The skinks switched out swiftly and were ordered to fire. Mort paused for a moment, head tilted.

    'Primus, advance. Mad Dog, behind.'

    With the order, Kaiika's entire row lifted themselves from their knee back to their feet and slowly advanced in unison, the second rank close behind. The entire time, their shields never stopped forming a protective shell as they moved.

    'Huddle. Mad Dog second rank, position.'

    And they dropped back to one knee and braced against the shields once more while the skinks brought their muskets back to forming a spiky addition to the wall. On the order to fire, the triggers were pulled, sending another volley of ranged death for any who might dare to keep their distance.

    'Stand down.'

    With those two words, everybody relaxed and lowered their weapons and shields. Mort remained where he was standing, simply watched as those under his command mentally removed themselves from the state of mind that came with violence, even when only in practice.

    Kaiika carefully sheathed his sword and started to move toward the larger saurus. When Mort noticed him, he didn't nod in acknowledgement or any such motion. He just turned his head to fully face the alpha of Primus Regiment and watched his approach.

    'Sergeant.' As always happened when using the adopted titles, Mort sounded like he had just taken a bite out of the sour fruits that grew around the Temple City where they had spent centuries of their existence.

    'Major.' Kaiika returned the use of the title.

    'Thoughts.'

    Kaiika turned to look upon the mingling skinks and saurus, made a note that some were far more receptive to the others than they had been prior to a full day of practicing the mobile firing platform.

    'We have cohesion,' he answered bluntly. 'The formation has potential. But only the Primus and Fortis Regiments… maybe Shield Regiment… have the right shields for such a phalanx.' Kaiika hid the sliver of amusement that formed as he considered his next words and whether to speak them. 'You made a formation that relies on your command being the shield to protect the redcoats.'

    Mort huffed out a breath of air. 'Zakarius will be laughing at me when he hears.'

    Zakarius was another major of the Legion, though his position before the Legion was that of a skink priest, and his oversight was typically over regiments of saurus redcoats. He had been mentored by Mort during his earlier years in the Legion, before ranking up to major, and as such held himself to a similar standard and command style. Mort's relationship with the skink was not antagonistic, but the skink did tend to enjoy teasing Mort for being so set in his ways.

    Kaiika patted Mort's shoulder, whether in sympathy or camaraderie, even he didn't quite know. Regardless, as Mort silently turned, with a clear intent to return to the inn, Kaiika chose to move instead to the small village of tents that was where the majority of the Legion's garrison had posted themselves, nostrils twitching from the lingering odour of black powder.



    *



    Goctu'a watched as one of the redcoats cleaned his musket, curious despite his usual disdain for the weapon. It wasn't as simple a maintenance as simply wiping a blade and then, if the need arose, sharpening the edge with a whetstone. Cleaning the musket was a convoluted ordeal that included forcing a length of metal down the hollowed tube that was two-thirds of the weapon, pumping vigorously. Yet this was apparently different from loading the weapon, which also involved sticking a length of metal down the hollow tube and pumping, though Goctu'a wasn't certain how it was different.

    There were a lot of things that Goctu'a didn't know. He knew that. He accepted that. He was a saurus, a fairly young one by his kind's standards. Old enough that the geas wasn't fully blocking his thoughts, still young enough that there was still an inherent sense that made him follow commands given without pause, without even thinking. It was dangerous, it took a wrong phrase from those in leadership to cause problems when the wording was taken as an order and acted upon before the one to utter the words had a chance to clarify.

    Skinks had never had that problem. They were spawned without the geas, able to think independently from the start, and gifted with the ability to interpret what they were told, to see the nuance that might avoid such a mistake as the accidental killing of those undeserving based entirely on the words "you aren't supposed to be here".

    But, with his thoughts being his own when not given orders, Goctu'a didn't hate the skinks for their inherent freedom. If they lived long enough, all saurus eventually earned that same freedom of thought. It was what set apart the oldbloods. To an extent, it was what set apart the scar veterans, though they earned their freedom from the geas through experience rather than age, and still had some learning to do before they had the same respect that oldbloods had.

    The skink that Goctu'a was watching paused in his routine, amber eyes rested upon the saurus.

    'First time witnessing musket maintenance?' the skink asked in perfect Reikspiel, other than the most minor of lisps, despite the absence of humans making use of the warmblood's tongue necessary.

    Goctu'a gave a single nod. 'My regiment doesn't fight beside redcoat skinks often. And never before so close. Mort doesn't like them.'

    The skink gave a trill, the type that indicated amusement, though tempered with an undertone of understanding. 'Most of us didn't at first. Loud, smelly, hard to get used to, unlike bolt-spitters.'

    Goctu'a tilted his head. 'But you changed, learned to like them?'

    The skink gave a human-like shrug. 'Strangely... yes. Fifty summers of using muskets, learned to use them. Learned to master them. Can't imagine going back. Other Children of the Gods will disapprove, but that's not a change.'

    Goctu'a huffed in amused agreement at the reminder that others of their ilk would see the Outland Legion as an aberration. Had likely seen them that way ever since Lord Annat'corri had not just had a radical idea but then followed through with it.

    The skink removed the rod from the musket and stood, absently shrugged off the woollen coat that was part of his uniform and folded it carefully onto the canvas that was most likely his designated sleeping spot.

    'I am Akro.' The skink introduced himself.

    'Goctu'a,' the saurus returned the favour.

    Akro looked smaller without the coat, though he was still garbed in the grey breeches and waistcoat that were worn beneath the red outerwear. Beneath the waistcoat the skink also wore an off-white linen shirt, the only fabric that wasn't wool. Goctu'a vaguely recalled hearing that the transition for most of the Outland Legion to the redcoat uniform was that to human aesthetics (whatever that word meant) the combination was suitably smart enough that the nobles were impressed, while still managing to have those lower on the human hierarchy find them impressive and professional looking.

    And above all else, to the strange and convoluted standards of the warmbloods, they looked civilised. And civilised meant that they could actually interact with the warmbloods without there being screams and attempts to attack them for being monsters or daemons.

    'Have you ever fired a musket?' Akro asked.

    Goctu'a huffed. 'No. I hear even the redcoat saurus don't use them, just those curved swords... sabres?'

    Likely that was for the same reasons that saurus didn't typically use bolt-spitters or throw javelins even before the Outland Legion decided to alter their methods. So even with the breaks from tradition, saurus were shield and hammer to the finely placed knife that was the skinks.

    The skink gave another human-like nod. 'They don't use them normally. Still occasionally practice. For pleasure.'

    That was a novel concept. Firing those noisy and smelly things... for pleasure? For fun?

    'Would you like to?' Akro asked.

    Goctu'a looked at the musket in Akro's hands, his head tilted in contemplation. Five seconds later, he decided that he would accept the offer. He wasn't scheduled for the night watch that evening, so his night was going to be one of inactivity. Why not get some entertainment while he had an opportunity?

    As he climbed to his feet, Goctu'a noticed Kaiika walking by. The alpha—sergeant, he reminded himself—wasn't wearing his armour, leaving him in only the crimson tunic that the members of Primis Regiment wore beneath their armour.

    'Kaiika,' Goctu'a called out. When the sergeant paused, head turned to look at him inquisitively, Goctu'a gestured the skink beside him. 'Akro is letting me fire his musket. You like to join?'

    Kaiika's eyes scrunched, not in disdain but more a confused bafflement. 'Going to the lake outside of the village to wash the smell away. Not planning to get more smoke on me.'

    That was fair. His words spoken, Kaiika continued to move toward the village's gate.

    'His loss,' Akro said with a verbal shrug.

    'Smell of black powder annoys him. Makes his nose itch.' Goctu'a explained with a twinge of sympathy for the older saurus.

    'Must have hated the exercises.'

    Probably not. Too focused to care until finished. Goctu'a didn't speak his thought, but turned back to Akro. 'Where we firing? Not here?'

    'There's a clearing a small way from the village. Perfect place.' Akro hadn't even finished speaking before he was moving with a gesture to follow behind him.



    *



    For all that Mort pushed back against the conforming, some things were just too useful to ignore. Writing on parchment for example. Not quite so useful for storing words over a long period of time—etching writings upon gold was still the superior choice on that—but for short term, something to remember for a small period, then parchment was the far more convenient choice.

    The quill in his hand lightly scratched at the parchment, wet ink transferred in sharp movements that were still graceful enough that one wouldn't have thought he had only learnt to write in such a manner recently. Then again, recently for a saurus who had seen well over two thousand summers was not the same as recently for a warmblood.

    He scribed his thoughts on the practice with the skinks of Mad Dog Regiment, how practical he considered it would be if used on the field of battle, and anything else that Ingwel'tonl might need to know. He debated within himself whether to say that it would not be viable, but he found that as disdainful as he found the musket weapons. As much as he wanted to keep a distance from them where possible, he could not lie, not for selfish reasons.

    When he was done, he noted that the sun had started to set. Usually, by this time, the villagers would be starting their communal meals, which had been up-scaled the previous day to account for their temporary sentinels. It was a strangely nice gesture, and the food they offered wasn't terrible, so Mort had allowed himself to join the previous night, and had decided he would make an appearance again this night.

    It wasn't conforming, he was being polite and accepting a gift offered. He would do the same if he ever visited a temple-city that wasn't his own.

    In the centre of the village, the bonfire that would cook the communal pot was already alight. Even as he stepped into view, he braced himself for the not-attack of the human spawnlings. Children, they call them children, he reminded himself.

    As he predicted, two of the tiny and defenceless humans, known not as Halflings, but as children, launched themselves at him with squeaky "rar" sounds that he couldn't work out the meaning behind. One wrapped its limbs around his leg just like those pesky creatures that lived outside of Tiamoxec. The tiny warmblood clung to his limb, with a strength and determination that said "No, I'll not move", while the other tried to bat at Mort's tail. Mort inhaled through his nostrils and beseeched the Old Ones, or Sotek, or any that might listen—any that wasn't of a particular pantheon of four—for strength and then slowly marched forward, careful not to accidentally dislodge the limpet at his ankle. He was vaguely reminded of a freshly hatched aggradon that had taken to being a menace back when Mort was only twenty summers, young but still far deadlier than an aggradon that had hatched not even a week prior.

    Spawnlings, children, whatever the race, they all seem to lack both fear and common sense.

    Then again, he mused. Maybe it was because they knew that they had their parent's protection. The aggradon's progenitor had certainly hovered with that aura that warned that any who dared harm her child would regret it. Just as he could see the parents of the two currently harassing him eying the scene with a look that said that the moment that Mort made a misstep, they'd be on him with a righteous fury.

    Mort managed to wade to the bench that he had claimed as his the previous night, back against the wall of somebody's shack, able to see the entirety of the village centre, and even able to see the gate that marked the only way through the palisade surrounding the village. The gate hadn't yet shut for the evening, still some hunters out.

    A bowl of stew was handed to him, full with a generous helping.

    Something trickled at the back of his mind. Something was off, he couldn't place it though.



    *



    Kaiika shed himself of his tunic once he reached the lake, though calling it such was very generous. It was more of a glorified pond than anything else. Still, it had fresh water, and it worked for the purposes that Kaiika planned.

    Out of curiosity, Kaiika took a small sniff of the woollen tunic and flinched as the sharp tang of black powder hit him. He was already planning on scrubbing the tunic, now he was determined not to leave until it was as clean as he himself planned to be. With a grunt, he rested the fabric on a nearby rock and then removed the belt upon which his sword was sheathed. It was laid down beside his tunic, but far enough from the edge of the lake so as to not chance it falling in, and at last he stepped into the water, managed not to flinch at the chilly temperature.

    He kept advancing until he was deep enough that he was nearly submerged even without bending over, and after grabbing a handful of the sand at the bottom of the pool started to rub it against his flesh, scratching away at any dirt that might have gotten between his scales.

    Behind him, something caused the water to bubble, but Kaiika didn't notice, he had closed his eyes and was enjoying the sensation of the grit scratching and massaging at his scales. He didn't notice when a grey, mottled hand emerged from the water.

    What Kaiika did notice was when the hand grabbed him about the neck and pulled him backward, into the water. Against his will, he was submerged completely. Moments later, the water turned red with blood.



    *



    Goctu'a lined his eye down the length of the musket, listening carefully to Akro's instruction. The notches on the barrel of the weapon, something he'd never even noticed before that moment, were carefully aligned so that the one closer to his eye almost fully eclipsed the one further down, almost but for a small spike which he was told was now the indicator of where the bullet should be hitting.

    'It's only an idea,' Akro explained patiently. 'The bullet can be touched by winds, which means it won't hit exactly where you aim, but better to have an idea, to know you are pointing where you want to hit.'

    Goctu'a hummed in acknowledgement.

    'Carefully pull the hammer back,' Akro commanded.

    Goctu'a removed one hand from the underside of the weapon, and slowly lifted it to what he had been told was called the "hammer", though it looked like no hammer that the saurus had ever encountered before. His forefinger wrapped around the small shape of metal and pulled back toward his body, forced the hammer back with it until it gave a click.

    'Now, return that hand to the trigger, but don't pull yet.'

    He did as instructed. He had to be careful, while the weapon was usable for him that didn't change that it was sized for the intended users. That was to say, the musket was made for skinks, who usually stood at around five feet—though they looked closer to four feet when hunched forward—rather than for a saurus where six feet was considered to be the runt of the spawning.

    Could have been worse. Goctu'a doubted any amount of grace would allow even the smallest of kroxigors to use the weapon.

    'If the bullet only goes in the general direction you point, why take time to aim?' Goctu'a asked, even while he rechecked the alignment of the weapon.

    'If winds favour us, bullet hits where we point. If the target is close enough, winds don't get time to mess with the bullet. If the targets a part of a group, at least those next to the target will die.' Akro listed the reasons patiently. 'You have the sight lined?'

    'Yes.'

    'Pull back on the trigger.'

    Goctu'a slowly squeezed his finger around the metal stud that would have the weapon fire. Once it had been pulled back a certain distance, he learnt why the hammer was called such when it swung forward, connected with the metal panel and created a series of sparks which ignited the black powder. There was a loud bang and the musket pushed itself into Goctu'a's shoulder with a jolt whilst a gust of flame seemed to erupt from the end of the barrel.

    The dried log that the saurus had been aiming for exploded in a shower of splinters as the bullet connected with the long-dead and hollowed wood.

    'Now, step back and reload, just like I showed you.'

    At Akro's instruction, Goctu'a took a step back and grabbed a small pouch of black powder, tore the end, and removed the metal ball from the removed end even as he carefully poured the powder where it was supposed to go. Once the powder had been used up, he pulled the ramrod from its place at the underside of the musket's barrel, dropped the metal bullet down the barrel's opening, before then threading the rod into the same opening as the bullet in order to push the bullet further down until it was rested at the base.

    Once that had been done, he checked the hammer, though he didn't pull it back. Akro had been stern about not pulling the hammer back until the weapon was intended to be used. He'd said it was the same as pulling back an arrow before there was any intention to loose that arrow. Goctu'a didn't understand the comparison, simply discerned that there was a danger to it.

    Maybe it was like having a sword unsheathed needlessly.

    'Fire again, when ready.'

    The musket came back up to his shoulder, sights aligned and once Goctu'a felt he had everything right, pulled the trigger again. Another chunk of the log splintered, though this time it wasn't quite where he had intended the shot to hit. And it had taken him longer to go through the motions than he'd seen of the red-coated skinks.

    When he wasn't told to reload, Goctu'a simply lowered the weapon, mindful of the bayonet as he rested it at his side in the way he'd seen the redcoats do when in a calm moment.

    'What did you think?' Akro asked.

    Goctu'a lot out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding back. 'I felt powerful.' He lifted a hand and waved the lingering smoke from the black powder's detonation away from his face. He might not find it to be an irritant, but it still wasn't a pleasant scent.

    His eyes drifted to the splintered log. Power to cause such damage from outside of physical reach. No wonder the warmbloods of the Empire had embraced the use of such weapons. It gave them a power that their bodies lacked.

    Akro accepted the musket when the saurus held it out for him. The skink absently checked over the weapon and carefully reloaded it, even while he spoke.

    'Scary though. Imagine being on the other side.'

    It was a chilling picture that formed in Goctu'a's mind. So far, Goctu'a hadn't been involved in any conflict where firearms were fielded by the other side, though there had apparently been a number of skirmishes against skaven, in the early days before he had joined the Outland Legion.

    Goctu'a opened his maw to reply, but at that moment a scent managed to pierce the odour of burnt black powder. It was a sickly sweet scent, one that was vaguely familiar, though he couldn't place it at that moment.

    Behind them, a human was lurching toward them with an unsteady gait. Goctu'a recognised him, one of the village's hunters. The hunter's bow was in hand, though the arrow wasn't yet notched back.

    He'd probably heard the gunshots and come to investigate.

    'Greetings, friend.' It was the greeting that all of the Outland Legion were taught to use, neutral in tone but also an indication of being non-hostile, to try and diffuse any potential conflict that might arise from the warmblood stumbling across large reptiles. The other greeting they were taught, the one with a focus on warning away curiosity was a stern "Who goes there?".

    The hunter stared at the pair of lizardmen, eyes half-lidded, mouth open in an expression that almost looked like he was in a perpetual state of dull surprise. He didn't answer.

    Goctu'a met Akro's eyes, both of them conveyed silent wonderings regarding the hunter's state of mind. The non-verbal conversation was interrupted when the hunter let out a low rattling groan and began to pull an arrow back against the string of his bow.

    Akro reacted instantly, musket shouldered and pointed at the hunter's head in a silent promise of death, even while Goctu'a hissed an angry 'Lower your bow, human.'

    The human didn't listen, continued to pull back against the bowstring. Akro didn't wait for the arrow to go any further back, he pulled the trigger.

    The side of the hunter's head exploded in a shower of bone fragments and brain matter. The body jolted, which in turn caused the bow to slip to one side before the arrow was released from suddenly slackened fingers and propelled forth, though fortunately no longer in the direction of the two lizardmen. The hunter's body tilted backwards, and they waited for the downward nature of the gravity of the planet to finishing pulling the body to the ground.

    After a moment of awkwardly tilting backwards, the body tipped forward instead, followed by a large step forward as if to regain balance. The remains of the head focused on the two lizardmen, the remaining eye a shade of white that brought to mind the bovine milk that humans seemed to enjoy drinking. The hunter took another step forward, still unsteady. A rasping breath sounded from the hunter's chapped lips, stuttering as though incapable of simply inhaling normally.

    Goctu'a took a step back, confused. Had the injury been anywhere other than the head, he might have thought this hunter to be one gifted with the "blessings" of Nurgle. The diseased worshippers of the pestilent one tended to have an unnatural resilience to them, to the degree that they ignored crippling wounds as though they were but mere inconveniences. But head wounds, particularly when a third of the head no longer existed, that was typically enough even for Nurgle's followers to be felled.

    Behind the hunter, another lizardman appeared, eyes narrowed in an ill-contained fury. He was soaking wet, and had streaks of blood about his body, but no apparent wound. Goctu'a recognised Kaiika quickly and watched as the alpha stormed up to the hunter and grabbed the head, then pulled, tore it from the body to which it had been attached. The body fell, a puppet with no more strings.

    Kaiika tossed the head aside with a snarl. 'Necromancy!'

    'Necromancy?' Akro repeated, almost incredulously.

    Almost as if the word had been a prompt, Goctu'a finally recognised where he knew the sweet scent from. It was the scent of death, of a body in decay.

    Kaiika hissed. 'You are lucky I heard the gunshots and got here first, we must go.'

    'Go? Why? What is happening?' Goctu'a asked, silently thankful that the wording hadn't triggered the geas. Probably because it hadn't included where to go, just that they needed to go.

    'You think this was the only animated wretch?' Kaiika pointed at a nearby line of trees and overgrowth, his tongue flicking in and out rapidly. 'Look past that and say what you see.'

    Goctu'a instantly moved to look past the thick line of vegetation. On the other side, the scene had his eyes widen.

    'I see at least three score undead.'

    They couldn't be any less than undead. While some looked almost passable as living humans, but for pale flesh, others were mottled with rot, flesh missing in what were clearly the wounds to have felled them in life. And some bodies were just outright skeletons.

    And they were marching—if it could be called marching—toward Daxweiler.

    'We need to warn Mort,' he realised.

    'Agreed,' Kaiika huffed out. 'Move fast, stop for nothing until we get to the village. Go!'

    Nobody questioned, nobody hesitated. All three sprinted back in the direction of Daxweiler.



    *



    Mort had just finished his stew when there was a startled shouting in the direction of the palisade gate. He looked up, his nerves already frazzled from the sense of something wrong. He saw three of his subordinates. He recognised Kaiika instantly, despite the lack of armour on the orange-scaled saurus. He got to his feet and stalked forward.

    Kaiika saw him approaching and turned to him instantly. 'We need to get ready.'

    'For what?'

    'Undead. More than three-score, before I stopped counting. I didn't see the one controlling them.'

    'Undead?' Mort repeated, then shook his head once, not the time to wonder why undead were attacking, leave that for later, and for those who actually had the job of piecing together details into a cohesive whole. His voice raised and he turned his head toward the tent settlement. 'Arm up, gather up and ready.'

    If his voice was normally heard even when he didn't take the time to project, Mort raising his voice was like a carnosaur roaring in volume. Those under his leadership would hear, they couldn't not hear.

    As if a bell had been rung, skinks and saurus emerged from their tents. Those who had been asleep had awoken instantly, and were already fastening their breastplates or coats. Meanwhile, those who had been awake but patrolling the village as per standing orders—Mort took his tasks seriously, and there was no excuse not to have a rotation of sentries throughout the day—had no such reason for delay and were instantly positioning themselves before Mort, ready to be given orders.

    During the pandemonium, Kaiika had disappeared, no doubt to recover his armour. While he waited for his subordinates to muster up, Mort turned to the humans who watched with wide-eyed anticipation.

    'Go to your homes, block the doors and don't come out until we say so,' he called out. 'Go!'

    While the humans ran for cover, Mort grabbed two random saurus and once they had their attention fixed upon him he pointed toward the gate.

    'Get ready to shut that on my say.' His attention then turned to a skink that was moving past. The skink stilled, eyes fixed upon him. 'You, up high, warn when you see anything.'

    'What are we expecting?' the skink asked, even as he scanned the buildings for the one with the best roof for seeing the surrounding terrain.

    'Undead.'

    The skink faltered, eyes briefly flickering to Mort's face as though expecting that last word to have been in jest. It wasn't, Mort didn't do humour, and even if he had any inclination to make such a jest, it wouldn't be at a moment like that.

    The skink trilled in acknowledgement and dashed away. At that moment, Kaiika returned, armour donned and shield in hand.

    'Sergeant, collect thirty from Primus, and forty from Mad Dog. Meet at the gate.'

    Kaiika let out a sound of acknowledgement and disappeared again, stalking toward the gathering members of the legion, already calling out names.

    'What are you planning?' The question came from the skink sergeant in charge of Mad Dog Regiment, Mort couldn't remember his name at that moment, and considering the situation wasn't inclined to take the time to remember.

    'Meet them outside the village,' he spoke aloud. He eyed the palisade and shook his head. It was only a basic barrier, and without an idea of what the approaching undead might be bringing with them, he couldn't picture the palisade holding in a siege. While the village's buildings might create some chokepoints where his saurus's phalanx would reign supreme if the undead got through the palisade, it was still putting those he'd been charged with protecting at undue risk.

    No, he resolved silently, better we meet them outside. Keep them away from the villagers. He wasn't commanding the full number of his Primus Regiment, or the full number of Mad Dog. He had at his command forty saurus and sixty skinks.

    With that in mind, Mort turned back to the sergeant. 'You have charge of those staying this side of the gate, if any get past me, or if more arrive from the other direction, you take them out.'

    The skink gave a nod and moved toward a gathering of his redcoats, already bellowing orders with a volume a kroxigor might find envious. When Mort turned back toward the gate, he found that Kaiika had returned. Behind him were the assembled troops he'd gathered.

    Thanking the Old Ones that they'd blessed their children with such readiness when it came to the transition from still to combat, Mort huffed out a breath and looked upon the saurus among the number.

    'Ten of you use halberds. The other twenty, stick to swords, but separate into two groups of ten.'

    They did as ordered quickly, no argument about who would be using halberds, no argument about who would be grouped with who. Even before the Outland Legion was conceived, that was their way. Mort then turned to the skinks.

    'Two units of twenty.'

    The skinks were equally silent as they sorted themselves. No quipping, no nervousness.

    'Undead approaching!' the skink that Mort had set as lookout yelled out in warning. When Mort looked to the building that the skink had perched himself, the skink pointed in the direction of the oncoming horde.

    'Follow,' Mort bellowed, and led his force through the gate, which was sealed shut once the last of them had passed through.

    He could see the horde of undead wretches emerging from the tree line, slowly shambling forward. It would still take them time to arrive. Fortunately, he couldn't make out anything more dangerous than skeletons and walking corpses. But the numbers that seemed to pour forth from the trees, that was concerning.

    'That's more than three score,' Mort rumbled.

    'Didn't have time to count, Major,' Kaiika retorted.

    Mort looked again at the undead. 'They want to overrun us. Numbers. I see nothing dangerous. But we will be dead if they all hit us as one.'

    He inhaled, took in the gradually increasing scent of decay. Exhaled with a snort, tongue flicking. Eyes turned to one of the units of swords-saurus and pointed with the end of his sword, didn't feel any resistance as the cloak he wore was forced aside by his rising arm. 'You ten, to that side.' His focus shifted to the other unit of swords-saurus, blade now pointed in the opposite direction. 'You, that side. Halberds, stay in position here.'

    The way he envisaged his positioning, the undead horde would have three targets to worry about. They could either split into three, in which case the smaller numbers would be manageable. Or if they tried to pursue either of the swords units as a single massive entity, the ten saurus would have an easier time keeping their distance.

    If the horde ignored the swords-saurus flanking them and focused on the halberdiers, the halberdiers would brace, they would hold and the two units of swords-saurus would move in and flank the undead. Encircled, the horde wouldn't be able to wash over and use their numbers so well. Though there was still an unfortunate chance of it happening, there were a lot of undead. Even with no skill, a lucky blow or a gap in the encircling force and that would be one of Mort's saurus dead. And for every saurus that died, the odds of the circle breaking apart would increase.

    The eternity warden glanced at the two units of redcoats. 'Position yourself between one sword unit and the halberd unit. If you are being targeted, move behind the swords-saurus. Until then, keep firing.'

    If the entire horde chased a single sword unit, that was their backs exposed. If the undead got encircled, bayonet spears would help with the encirclement.

    'Move!'

    They all reacted to his roar, moved into the positions he had ordered them. Mort couldn't decide how he wanted the undead to react, to split apart, to chase a single unit fruitlessly, or to go straight into the snare.

    If the undead split, it was still a case of them having numbers against his troops, just smaller numbers against a smaller group. If they chased as a single mass, it would be a pain to herd them. If they clashed with the halberds and were encircled in the snare, that was still the full weight of their numbers, and depending on how easily a single undead would fall and stay fallen, it was possible that he and his troops would suffer and lose through attrition.

    A small part of his psyche wanted more numbers, wanted to have brought the full might of Daxweiler's garrison. But he made the right choice, somebody had to be controlling these undead, and if they had that power, surely they were smart enough to have a second force coming from another direction. Right?

    Another part of mind wished instead that it had been the entirety of Primus and Mad Dog Regiments that had stayed behind, not just a small number of both. He understood, there had been no evidence that Daxweiler was actually at risk, those who had stayed behind had been, while not quite a token force, as Ingwel'tonl did not do token gestures even when he felt a job unneeded, but certainly not the full weight that would have come from knowing that there was more than just frightened villagers based on whispers of neighbouring villages being raided.

    Every village the Legion had passed on the way here had not been raided and had heard no such tales. But what if the raiding was approaching from the opposite direction? We just... met in the middle...

    The undead continued to lurch forward. At that point, the first volley of musket fire came from the redcoat skinks. From his position, Mort made out the first rank of skinks step back while the second stepped forward to take their place. The ones to step back began the process of reloading their muskets with a speed borne of hours upon hours of practice.

    After three volleys, the undead finally seemed to register that they were being attacked. The massive horde stilled. Were they living entities, they might have been looking about, heads turning this way and that as they tried to puzzle out the situation. As it was, Mort could see that they just kept staring blankly ahead, milky eyes glazed over, unseeing yet still capable of sight. Mouths hung loose, gaping yawning chasms.

    There was no signal, no indication of any change, but the horde started to move again, only now they split into three, smaller hordes. The majority kept moving straight, headed directly for Mort and the ten halberdiers, five to either side of him. His teeth were barred in anticipation, even while he still kept his eye upon the other units.

    The two smaller hordes ignored the two sword-wielding groups of saurus, instead focused on the skinks. As Mort had ordered, the moment it dawned on them that they were the intended target, the skinks started to move, not a run, but at a brisk pace that would still keep their distance from the undead's staggered and uneven pace. The skinks moved to the nearby saurus, who had repositioned so that they were formed into a phalanx that faced the undead being lured directly to them.

    Despite the fact that he hadn't suggested such, when the skinks reached the saurus, they didn't just stand a ways behind, idling until an opening arose. Ten of the skinks to each unit positioned themselves directly behind the saurus and jabbed their muskets forwards. It wasn't quite the same as the exercises they'd been doing earlier that very day, but it was a rough approximation. Those that weren't contributing to the spiked phalanx were either reloading or had positioned themselves so that their bayonets were ready to stab any of the undead that tried to circle the shield wall.

    Further examination was cut short. The larger undead swarm had reached Mort and the halberdiers. The moment the walking, shambling mockery of death was in range, the halberds were thrust forward, the sharp points puncturing into the rotted flesh of the undead, before the polearms were pulled back and twisted so that the sharp edge on the one side could slice through the decaying bodies.

    Mort, equipped with a sword, waited a little longer, eyes locked upon one wretch that seemed to avoid the long reach of the halberds. The moment it got within the shorter range of Mort's sword, he swung it upward, cleaved through the undead's body and nearly bisected the wretch, but for a small sliver of atrophied muscle that kept the two halves of its torso attached. The body was thrown aside from the force of the swing. The corpse hit another shambling dead with enough power to cause it to stumble and fall prone, though it barely seemed to notice, just began to claw at the ground and pull itself forward. It managed to crawl for two seconds before the head was crushed by a stomp from one of the halberdiers.

    Mort heard the crack of more gunfire. By now, his vision of the other units was completely obscured by the mass of groaning, shambling undead wretches. One undead swung wildly with what looked like a rusted and blunt hatchet. Mort twisted his body, didn't let the hatchet's edge near his body, swung his sword in a shorter swing than the undead had tried, rent the head from shoulders. A clang and a slight pressure told Mort that another undead had just attacked him and managed to connect. When his head turned, he took in the half-rotted body of a human, an axe in hand. It had failed to penetrate Mort's armour, though he did note that his cloak had a new hole in it. Eyes narrowed, Mort lunged forward and slammed his head into the wretch. The hard bone crest that covered his head was more than the wretch's unprotected skull could take, its head was carved in from the blow, and the body stumbled back.

    Probably wasn't enough to kill the undead. If that was the right word, Mort didn't even know what the right term would be in Saurian, never mind Reikspiel, where so many words had two or three different meanings. He adjusted his grip on his sword and swung it in a downward chop, split what remained of the wretch's head in two distinct halves. Kicked the body away from him for good measure.

    Another burst of gunfire from the other groups. He had to trust that they had it in hand. They were his saurus—they were the best of the Outland Legion. And the skinks of Mad Dog had shown that they weren't terrible, they did as told, and had a dogged determination when given a challenge.

    What was a battle but another challenge to overcome?

    A skeleton appeared before Mort, flecks of rotted flesh still clinging to the yellowed bone, while mould painted its ribs a blue-green. Mort thrust his offhand forth, wrapped his fingers around the skull and squeezed, felt a grim satisfaction as the skull popped, fragments of brittle warmblood bone scattering from the pressure.

    Still, there were so many in front of him. It was a sea, a sea of writhing, groaning corpses that should have stayed still and dead. Necromancy was a perversion. While it had never been the threat to the Great Plan that Chaos represented, it was still a blemish, and if left unchecked, had the potential to become such a threat.

    Mort roared with a fury matched only by a feral carnosaur, felt that fury fuel him. His swings were filled with a power borne from that righteous fury. The dead should stay dead.

    Another distant volley of gunfire. Undead piled at Mort's feet, made it harder to move without stumbling. But it also made it harder for the undead to remain upright as they approached him. He could feel his saurus brothers nearby. Could sense the adjusting formation, no longer a line forming a wall, had to form a circle instead, becoming not a wall, but an island to withstand the tide of undead. Couldn't let them around, couldn't let them get behind. Keep them in front.

    Eventually, there was a pause. Something was different. There was a change in the air, a change that had nothing to do with the pungent odour of death and decay.

    'CHARGE!'

    He recognised the voice. But a distant part of his mind knew that he shouldn't be hearing it. Why did he hear it? A horn was being blown, a distinct tone that he knew. It meant ally, it meant friend.

    And then the sea changed as the tide lowered, no longer a perpetual wave, but shallow ripples. And he could hear the chant, the Legion's hymn being hummed, but it came from the undead.

    No. Not the undead. Behind the undead.

    A dismembered chunk of undead sailed the air, missed Mort, but for a brief moment he could see through to the other side of the tide of dead.

    An aggradon leapt through the air, and landed upon an undead that had the misfortune of being in the wrong spot at the wrong moment. The large raptor bared its teeth in a snarl, the sound audible through the chaos of combat. Sharp and intelligent eyes zeroed in on another undead and it lunged forward, jaws clamping down and with a twist of its head the wretch was torn in two. Meanwhile, the saurus that was riding atop the massive raptor swung the sword in hand, cleaved through a trio of undead.

    In the field, multiple other aggradons with their riders charged into the swarming mass of undead, the weight and power of the raptors tossing undead aside like they were the straw dummies used in practice.

    The rider that had led the charge and was even now hacking down undead while his mount ripped limbs from bodies through teeth and claw, locked eyes with Mort, sword briefly lifted in an acknowledging salute.

    Through the momentary calm in the sea of dead, Mort was able to see the other two groups. Of the sixteen aggradon cavalry to arrive on the field, ten had dispersed, and then split into a further two groups of five, and both groups had slammed into the undead pinned them against the two phalanxes, a mace against an overripe fruit. The remaining six had done the same to the horde slammed against Mort and his cohorts.

    The battle, if it could be called thus, was short-lived after the arrival of the cavalry. Behind the cavalry, came those members of the Primus Regiment who had previously left with Ingwel'tonl the prior day.

    Mort learnt later that he had been fending off the horde for a full hour before the arrival of the majority of the Primus Regiment. The skinks behind the phalanxes had run out of bullets half an hour into the fight, had been relying solely on their bayonets turning the muskets into spears.

    Three had been killed, one skink and two of his saurus, and another three were sporting injuries. It only took one lucky blow from the foe, one unlucky moment for the one fighting to take a fatal strike. An hour was a long time in non-stop violence.

    Once the Legion's dead had been taken from the field, Captain Preda'tor of the cavalry took the time to explain.

    It turned out that Mort's musing had been accurate. When the Legion had reached the next village along, it had been empty of all life. There hadn't even been any bodies to mark that any had ever lived there before, had it not been for the signs that the disappearance had been recent: plates of cold food that had yet to go bad, tracks in the ground that were recent.

    Preda'tor had personally taken the cavalry and rushed to the next village in the space of less than three hours, and found it to be in a similar state. Coupled with the fears of Daxweiler, Ingwel'tonl had ordered those of Primus Regiment to make haste back to Mort, at best to warn him that the fears of the village had been based on a truth they might not have been fully aware of and prepare. At worst, he was to determine Mort's fate.

    Arriving in time to reinforce Mort's stand had been somewhere in the middle of the optimism scale.

    Mort watched as Kaiika walked with a heavy limp toward the space where the three dead lizardmen had been laid. 'You didn't know necromancy would be involved?' he asked Preda'tor.

    The scar-veteran shook his head once. 'Two empty villages with smashed gates at both. No sign of anybody. The marshal said that the scouts couldn't find any sign of survivors having fled, the only tracks were moving in this direction before vanishing. We assumed it was Chaos, but didn't understand the lack of destruction.'

    That did tend to be a trait of Chaos marauders, burning the homes after killing and pillaging—and raping if Slaanesh was being revered by a given group. Even normal human brigands had a habit of being petty enough to burn homes down just because they could, like some deranged sense of self-power was granted from the act.

    Mort rubbed at a cut that had managed to be inflicted to his arm, one he hadn't even noticed during the violence. By the time he had noticed, it had already scabbed over and was well on the way to healing.

    'Do we need to stay here longer?' Mort wondered, more to himself than to the cavalry captain.

    Despite not actually being addressed, Preda did give his thoughts. 'Only saw reanimated bodies, nothing powerful. Nothing like the stories we hear about necromancers.' Nothing like the tales they'd been told while the Legion had been in Araby, about the neighbouring Land of the Dead. Nehekhara was one of the few places the Legion had thus far outright avoided. 'The village will send a message to the count. Villages gone, this is the Empire's count's mess now. If he is a good leader, he will fix it.'

    Mort acknowledged the truth of the statement with a snort. 'And if he's not, the village suffers from his inaction.' Mort straightened. 'You are right though. If that horde was his prey from the other villages, he has no strength for a time.'

    'Time enough to be hunted by others.' Preda clearly agreed.

    'And no longer leaves us any need to stay longer.' Mort craned his neck in the direction of the field. 'Make sure the bodies are burnt. I would prefer this necromancer not reuse them, if he can.'

    Preda's huff of bemusement was the answer he got. Mort in the meantime turned to go to the fallen members of the Legion. There were rites to be done, and in the absence of any of the skink majors, those who would have been priests back in Tiamoxec, the duty fell upon him as the oldblood. Maybe those rites weren't exactly as they had been traditionally performed, the Legion had started to build its own traditions, its own culture, but Mort would respect the traditions regardless, whether new or old.

    He had his role, that which he had been tasked with. This was his place, and… he looked away from the three bodies of his subordinates to the humans of the village, who looked upon him and his kin with thankful smiles and trust in return for saving them… even if it was not conventional, maybe it wasn't so bad.

    It felt strangely pleasant.


    -TBC
     
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  7. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    Before anybody comments, I am aware that Aggradons are supposed to be a different species from the Old World's Cold Ones... but quite frankly I always hated calling them Cold Ones. It felt like I was constantly a single typo away from implying that the lizardmen charge into battle riding upon their own gods as steeds. :joyful:

    As for the sake of this tale; since "Aggradon" is actually a name and not a description, that is just what the lizardmen call Cold Ones. :p
     
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2024
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  8. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    Plugging the Pass

    The Old World - Unnamed Pass through the World's Edge



    Marshal Ingwel'tonl held the spyglass close to his eye, observed for himself just what he was looking forward to enduring. He had been told, multiple times even, but sometimes one needed to see for oneself to truly take in the scene. It was as the villagers of Daxweiler had said: the pass which had supposedly been blocked off for longer than any human had been alive, was now open.

    It was not a wide, vast pass that would allow an army to pass through in rank-and-file formations, quite the opposite. Maybe once upon a time, it would have been large enough, but it was very obvious that the rock and dirt that had once blocked and filled the passage had only recently been dug through.

    It must have been quite the landslide, Ingwel mused privately, redirecting the spyglass toward the entrance of the pass, at the old fortress which blocked passage, for the Empire to see that old fort as unnecessary to man any longer.

    Visible atop the fort, above the heads of the occupants who had chosen to stand among the battlements, was a dark standard, upon which a splash of colour formed the symbol of the so-called "Architect of Fate". But, strangely enough, it wasn't the obvious symbol of one of the wretched pantheon that captured Ingwel's attention. There was another object, slightly further back and almost hidden from sight, and constantly obscured by somebody moving in front of it. It looked to be an icon, but it didn't bring to mind any of the Chaos gods.

    'Does that icon at the back of the fort mean anything to you?' Ingwel asked as he lowered the spyglass and handed it to the skink at his side.

    The brightly coloured skink accepted the item and lifted it to his eye, absently pushing aside the flatcap atop his head. Colonel Iycan'ceya spent a full minute staring down the spyglass, a hum escaping his throat. He ignored the sharp retorts of gunfire from down the hill.

    'The Bull of Hashut,' he finally said. 'I do not believe we have had the pleasure of meeting the Chaos dwarfs thus far.'

    'Chaos Dawi?' Ingwel asked in bemusement.

    'Dawi-Zharr,' Iycan corrected with an absent-minded tone, still staring down the tube in his hand. 'Working alongside some Tzeentch cultists. That isn't a pleasant combination, Ingwel.'

    'Am I to assume,' Ingwel began, crossing his arms across his chest as he spoke, 'that worshipping Chaos hasn't stopped them from having the same talent as their non-Chaos afflicted kin?'

    'Dwarf ingenuity paired with daemonic craftsmanship, if the tales are true.' Iycan nodded, finally lowering the spyglass. 'We haven't heard much about them, what little we know came from one of the Irregulars, and the drunken ramblings of that dwarf that followed us around two winters ago, so I don't know how much of that is accurate.'

    'Anything that didn't involve bragging is probably safe to assume as accurate.' Ingwel's eyes narrowed in an amused grin.

    There was a loud cracking sound as heat and light shot forth from the Legion's formations. The golden beam flew straight and true toward the fort, wherein the solar engine's blast slammed into the wall, scorched and battered. Unfortunately, the manmade structure managed to endure.

    'Do we know that this fort is actually manmade?' Ingwel wondered aloud. 'That it wasn't originally Dawi?'

    'The dwarfs are less inclined to abandoning their own bastions than the Empire is,' Iycan reminded the oldblood. 'And I'd be advising we leave it be if it were, lest we incur about fifty grudges for them to hold over us for our breaking anything that used to be theirs.'

    Ingwel chuckled softly, silently conceded that point. So far the Legion had managed to avoid upsetting any dwarfs, and he would very much like to keep it that way. Dawi memory was long, going through one generation to the next. Even if Ingwel lived a thousand more summers, if he was the recipient of a grudge, the dwarfs would pay him in full, whether not he even remembered the reason why their ancestor might have been upset with him.

    There were those who claimed the Slann were clinging to a past long gone. Ingwel would very much like to point out the dwarfs, who would cling to upsets for so long as to have their descendants punish the descendants of the originator. Had to feel sorry for the random human who was suddenly ambushed by a mob of angry dwarfs over being short-changed in a business transaction four hundred-odd summers ago.

    Iycan pointed past the fort, back to the pass itself. 'If the Old Ones have any mercy, they won't yet have widened the gap enough to bring their war machines through.'

    'With Tzeentchian cultists involved, we'll have to worry about sorcery,' Ingwel mused aloud. 'They won't need war machines to be a threat.'

    As if to emphasize the point, a storm of unnatural purple fire erupted from the ground, beneath a small troop of saurus. Even the typically stoic saurus screamed as they were incinerated within the ruinous flames. Ingwel let out a breath of air which escaped with a loud hiss, the only sign he gave that he was anything other than coldly detached regarding his subordinates' lives being snatched away so abruptly. He refused to look away as the pink ashes that used to be living saurus were scattered by the winds and formed into deformed pink entities. The horrors weren't given much of a chance to enjoy their new existence, nearby saurus leapt forth with sabres swinging in powerful cleaving swipes that destroyed the abominations, and then the smaller bluer forms that tried to form from the dissolving bodies of the Pink Horrors.

    'It'll still be one less thing to worry about.' Iycan's voice was filled with resignation. 'We still have two uses of the----'

    Ingwel cut Iycan off with a mild 'Let us avoid using anything that might chance upsetting the local Elector now, shall we.' It wasn't a question, the weapon that Iycan was referring to was something that none of the Legion had yet worked out just how the Empire would react to their having. 'We have an enemy in a superior position, with unknown weapons and at least one sorcerer.'

    Something was launched from the top of the fort. It flew, mostly straight and true, with an unearthly shrieking sound that had Ingwel flinch back as though it would protect his hearing from whatever the infernal sound was. The flying projectile connected with the armoured shell of a bastiladon and exploded in a fiery display of violence.

    The large thundersaur roared in pain, its shell charred and cracked, and one leg very clearly injured. The skink charged with guiding the beast, on giving it direction, had managed to escape the blast unscathed. When the skink saw the state of his charge, he had it turn and start to lumber away for relative safety.

    'There is that Dawi innovation at work.' Iycan adopted the tone typically used by humans for sarcasm.

    'So I can see.' Ingwel snorted in irritation and then looked at Iycan. 'I want that pass sealed. We need the pass unusable, or else the fort will keep getting supplies and reinforcements from the other side. You work on that, while I keep this siege going.'

    Iycan nodded thoughtfully. 'I have an idea, but it will need the artillery unless you're willing to sacrifice a solar engine.'

    Ingwel gave Iycan a steely gaze in silently contemplation, internally weighed pros and cons. 'Would this dispose of it afterwards?'

    'I can guarantee that afterwards it'll never be seen again.'

    Ingwel snorted in amusement. 'You just want to play around with it. Fine. Tell me what you are thinking.'

    Iycan couldn't grin, not as humans did. He certainly managed to give the air of doing such as he leaned closer to share his idea.



    *



    Sergeant Yeucan'dewit watched the ground beneath him move at a speed that the ground should never move, and he unconsciously clutched tighter at the harness which was holding the cart over the air.

    'If skinks were meant to fly,' he shouted—had to shout, the sound of the air was a roar that was trying to snuff out his voice as much as it was his ability to keep his dinner down, 'then the Old Ones would have given us wings!'

    Above him, the terradon's rider very clearly laughed at him. 'They did give us wings, they're called terradons.'

    Yeucan swallowed down the bile that fought its way up. Against his better judgement, he looked over the edge of the cart again, at the distant grounds below. He could make out the siege, where occasional flashes of light marked musket fire, artillery, or fell sorcery at work. They weren't flying directly over the fort, that would likely be suicide, as it was if they were noticed then it was hoped that by keeping a distance they could avoid being shot down.

    After far too long spent dangling in the air inside a cart held aloft by a terradon, Yeucan felt a change and was relieved to finally see that he and his cohort were being lowered to the ground. Around him, the other terradons with their own cargos were also descending down toward the closest thing that the World's Edge had to level ground outside of the well-known passes and karaks.

    Once the wheel-less cart was touching rocky mountain, Yuecan wasted no time clambering out of the wooden structure and all but hugging the ground.

    'Never again.' It was a promise he knew would be broken, he would have to repeat the experience if he wanted to get back to the rest of the Legion after all was said and done.

    Around him, the rest of his force disembarked the baskets, all with varying levels of discomfort. After a few deep breaths, Yeucan straightened himself, hands grabbing at the lapels of his coat and tugging downward in order to straighten the garment. Another deep breath and he managed to shove aside the still all-too-recent experience for another time, even if that time were to be at late night in the form of nightmares.

    Colonel Iycan'ceya vaulted from his own basket, one hand securing his woollen cap to his head, but otherwise looked so completely at ease that Yeucan wondered if the other skink had experienced such a method of transportation before. Wouldn't surprise me, how else would he have thought to have terradons ferry us through the sky?

    The terradons moved aside once their cargo'd passengers had removed themselves from the wagons they'd been carrying, to make room for another trio of the flying creatures, these all tethered to a single object and their handlers were making certain that they were moving with care regarding the large object in question. It was lowered, slowly, carefully, and then once it was on the ground, a handful of skinks moved to undo the harness which had been fashioned for the purpose of moving that very cargo.

    Despite his misgivings, Yeucan did eye the freshly delivered cargo with an appreciation that had little to do with the job at hand and everything to do with the fact that they were going to get to use that.

    'It is a beautiful thing, isn't it?' Iycan asked, absently fidgeting with the cravat he wore around his neck. 'An Empire Helstorm Battery. Fiery death from above.'

    Indeed, that was the cargo. The Legion had been lugging the artillery piece for about six months at that point, a lucky find when an orcish camp had been wiped clean only to find that at some point the green-skins had looted the artillery battery and had yet to smash it for whatever purpose they had. The Legion had been reluctant to use it while within the Empire's provinces because none had any idea how protective the Empire was regarding such equipment. Were they valuable to the point that any seen to have one would be marked for death? Or were they common enough that a misplaced Helstorm was simply written off?

    The answer would have been easy if it had been a steam tank that the Legion stumbled upon, which it had been noted that the Empire, if they had the ability to make more, either weren't doing so or they were making new steam tanks so slowly that every last one was valuable enough that they would not tolerate a legion of mercenaries taking one for their own use. But Helstorm batteries were more commonly seen, which could have meant that the Empire would not be so protective. However, until the Legion had a definite idea, it had mostly been relegated to that place of "one day there will be a use". That day had apparently finally arrived.

    The two kroxigors who were accompanying them approached the Helstorm and positioned themselves such that they were able to cart it around. Both kroxigors had a large crate each strapped to their backs. The kroxigor closest to Yeucan shook his head and rumbled quietly. 'I not like flying.'

    'Nor do I, Toxte'zec,' Yeucan answered. 'We were meant to keep our feet firmly on the ground.'

    'Are you still whinging?' Another skink asked.

    'Yes. Yes I am. And I will until this is over with.' Yeucan was nothing if not honest, and the flight had cemented itself firmly in his mind as something to make his displeasure about well known.

    Iycan chuckled even as he unrolled a large parchment and examined the map which had been inscribed to its surface. 'Now now, let's save the arguing for when we're back home and safe, hmm?'

    'One question.' A turquoise-scaled skink lifted a hand, another one of those humanisms that had begun spreading throughout the Legion. 'Why us and not Major Sharpe and his chosen?'

    It was a valid question. Skirmishers had a better time with the sort of task that Yeucan and his cohorts had been tasked with. Fighting on uneven terrain, sneaking by the bulk of a force in order to achieve a goal only tangibly related to fighting. It had skirmisher written all over it.

    'Sharpe's Chosen are in the mountains also, but they have gone another way from us and are trying to draw attention so we can hopefully go unnoticed,' Iycan explained, while still staring at the map. 'As much as we'd like to think otherwise, we have to assume that our enemy isn't so blind as to not notice a dozen terradons flying by and landing in the mountains. So, Sharpe and his skirmishers are to do what they do best: harass and annoy.'

    'Well, they are good at that,' another skink commented with a wry tone.

    'Where to then, boss?' Yeucan asked.

    'We need to get closer to the pass.' Iycan finally rolled the map back up and tucked it into a pouch at his thigh. He pointed a finger. 'That way.'

    The terrain looked treacherous, and safe pathways were not a given. The World's Edge was not supposed to be traversed as they were doing, and carting around a Helstorm battery was only going to make it slower. Still, Yuecan unslung his musket and motioned for his cohort to follow his lead.

    Unfortunately, despite the idea that Sharpe's Chosen were in the mountains to draw attention away from Yeucan's cohort, they quickly learnt that there were still threats within the mountains. At a glance, it appeared to be a patrol.

    They looked like dwarfs, but a mockery of the Dawi that the Legion had encountered in the past. Burnished armour of heavy plates adorned with bright and bloody livery. It was the faces though—those that could be seen—that really drove in the difference. Bestial sneering with a hatred that had nothing to do with righteous fury at a grudge unresolved, and tusks that looked so horrifically out of place and yet seemed quite natural upon these twisted distortions of what dwarfs should be.

    They hadn't yet seen the skink regiment. The path—if it could really be called such—that the skinks had been traversing had come to a slope which lowered to another "path" where the small cluster of twisted dwarfs were slowly moving. It left Yuecan with a small issue, a choice.

    On the one claw, he and his cohort could fire down upon the Chaos dwarfs from the superior position and with the element of surprise. Short of massively ill luck, the black armoured figures would be killed swiftly and that would be the end of them. However, in doing so, they might attract more attention, encourage any other nearby patrol to investigate the noise or the fate of their comrades.

    On the other claw: let them pass, there won't be any noise, no reason to attract unwanted attention. But then there would be a threat behind them and nothing to say that at no point they wouldn't turn and come back the way they came. Going forward, Yeucan would have to divide his force's attention two ways to ensure that there would be no sneak attack from the ones spared previously.

    Yeucan lifted a hand, a silent signal to those under him. As one, muskets at the front of the formation were shouldered and aimed. There were quiet clicks to accompany the hammers all being pulled back, the signal that the firearms were now ready to fire. Yeucan waited several seconds, allowed the dwarfs below to move a little more, made certain that all were within sight. His hand came down swiftly.

    There was the sound of thunder, the scent of burnt powder and smoke. The muskets were fired as one. Then those at the front rank dropped to their knees and allowed those behind to aim over their heads. Yuecan shouldered his musket and aimed for one of the still-living dwarfs, lined the barrel with his hateful face at the same moment that that same dwarf looked up and met his eyes. There was nothing in his eyes other than utter hatred and scorn. Despite standing amidst dozens of dead and injured, this dwarf seemingly cared so little that he violently kicked aside a body that had knocked into him and was preventing him from raising his own weapon. Once freed, the dwarf lifted his firearm, a queer thing with the end of the barrel expanding out and into the shape of an Empire buisine.

    Yeucan pulled the trigger of his musket before the dwarf could finish lifting the oversized muzzle. The dwarf stumbled back, blood exploding out through the back of his chest as the small metal bullet of Yeucan's musket punctured through first the armour, then the flesh, before repeating itself in the opposite order out through the other side. For five seconds, the dwarf stayed upright despite the injury, but then he collapsed, and the strange firearm fell from his now lax fingers.

    There was another boom of thunderous sound when the dropped weapon discharged in spite of the lack of anybody pulling the trigger back. The result of the discharge wasn't a single accidental case of (un)friendly fire, instead not one but two of the dwarfs fell to the ground, with large scores of flesh shorn away by whatever it was which had been fired from the weapon. It wasn't a bullet, for no single bullet was capable of that.

    The second rank of skinks fired at their chosen targets, which finished off the patrol. If any were still alive, they weren't in any condition to get up.

    'What was that?' Yeucan asked aloud, still staring at the bodies that were caught by the dwarf weapon's discharge.

    Iycan had a disturbed look to him, eyes both widened and narrowed in a strange paradoxical display. 'Dawi-Zharr blunderbuss. What a crude and horrifying weapon. I suppose it shan't surprise any that it would be a Chaos blighted people to use such a thing.'

    Yeucan distantly recalled, back before the Legion had adopted the muskets as their go-to for skinks, those who had disagreed with the idea. Those like Major Mort. It had been argued that the black powder-driven weapons were too violent, that they did far more damage than was agreeable, and as such was borderline cruelty to those they fought and by using such weapons they'd be little better than Khornate blood spillers.

    Just because they fought and killed, didn't mean they had to resort to causing more pain than was needed. It wasn't until it was proven by Major Sharpe'tus that when used properly by those who had trained with them, muskets could actually be less painful for the target than a javelin or bolt-spitter, and at a range that was often safer for the skinks in question. "Besides", Sharpe'tus had argued angrily, "who are we to talk about cruelty, when we coat our bolt-spitters in poison and when we use our teeth, which often causes infection to those that survive the fight? We used clubs that broke bones, that turned flesh into putty. And we wonder why we had to change to fit the young races' definition of civilised?"

    It had been the argument which had seen Sharpe'tus promoted to head of the skirmishers, seen him placed as an equal to the likes of Major Mort and Major Zak.

    However, if muskets had done damage in the same way as these "blunderbuss", then Yeucan got the feeling that those arguments against the black powder weapons would have won out, and instead of a musket, he'd have been using a bolt-spitter or javelins at that moment.

    With a shake of his head to dispel the thoughts of what-if, he quickly gave a command to his cohort and watched as the red-coated skinks slid down the slope to the fallen Chaos dwarfs, whereupon they immediately set about stabbing each body with their bayonets, made absolutely certain that they were all dead and nobody was playing a part with the intention to arise and attack them from behind. While they did that, Yeucan cast the Helstorm an appraising look.

    'Will we be able to get this down?' he wondered aloud.

    Iycan eyed the slope. It was steep enough that climbing up would have been difficult even without dragging a heavy artillery battery behind. Going down, that could potentially be dangerous, as the force that kept pulling everything down to the ground would be trying to pull the artillery into the backs of whoever was trying to move it down. Or it would be trying to force the artillery out of the grips of those same if they tried to lower the helstorm from in front of them instead.

    'I think our kroxigors can manage,' Iycan said, though he did turn a questioning gaze to the pair of kroxigors.

    Toxte'zec huffed out a breath and leaned forward, examined the incline for himself. 'We can do it. It will be slow.'

    As if to prove that they could indeed do it, he kicked the claws at the end of one foot at the rocky surface. His claws managed to gauge deeply into the rock, enough so that he was able to steady himself on the incline. It wouldn't be enough to also brace against the weight of the Helstorm, but his companion had, while Iycan and Yeucan were watching Toxte'zec, unravelled a length of rope and secured it to the Helstorm. Then, he pushed the Helstorm so that the front end—or whichever the firing end was meant to be—tipped over the edge that marked the end of level ground in favour of the slope. Toxte'zec braced himself against the Helstorm that now pushed against him, while at the level ground his fellow kroxigor pulled against the rope and helped ease the weight pushing against Texte'zec with a grunt.

    'Able but slow.' Toxte'zec reaffirmed, and slowly took a step backward.

    'Indeed,' Iycan agreed with eyes wide in surprise. 'You know, I am constantly taken by surprise when it comes to our kroxigor friends. I know they aren't stupid, but that was impressive problem-solving before I'd even started to think of how to solve it.'

    Yeucan silently agreed. In combat, their strength was pretty well known—they swung whatever weapon was in hand with power enough that even a full-grown carnosaur would think twice. But as Yeucan had no interaction with them outside of battle, he wouldn't know just how smart they were. He supposed, privately, that the artisans and the builders would be more acquainted with that intellect and problem-solving ability as they often worked side-by-side with kroxigors. The partnership had to be for more than just the strength.

    As Toxte'zec had predicted, lowering the Helstorm battery was slow. While they waited, the skinks all pushed the dwarf bodies aside and found a ledge nearby that dropped who knew how far down. It was an ignoble end fitting for any who willingly embraced the ruinous powers. Distantly, the odd barks of musket fire could be heard, echoing through the mountains.

    No doubt Sharpe's Chosen were trying to cause mischief. Hopefully, their efforts had prevented anybody from hearing Yeucan's brief barely-skirmish.

    Once the Helstorm was back upon level ground, everybody formed back up into the same formation which they had previously adopted while escorting the artillery battery and began to march anew.



    *



    Zihton hadn't been fighting as a member of the Outland Legion for much of his existence. It wasn't something he usually thought about: that he would come to spend more of his life away from the temple-city from which he had been spawned than within it. It was entirely possible he would never again see the bastion from which he came. He had been from one of the spawnings which had feathered crests in place of the fin normal to skinks, a trait which had instantly marked the spawning as destined to be shipped off to the Legion as soon as they were educated on the minimum requirements one needed to function within the alien lands so far from what should have been home.

    Some days were easier than others. Getting used to wearing the clothing of the young races, that had been difficult. Those days had felt long and tiring. He was still ignorant as to just why all of the young races covered themselves so thoroughly. But he had gotten used to it, had now even reached the point where he prided himself on keeping his uniform looking clean and proper. Something about the red coat he wore gave a feeling of unity with the rest of the Legion. Well, with two-thirds of the Legion, because there were the older regiments who had stuck to older styles. And not just Major Mort's three regiments, those were the oldest three but not exclusive in their stubborn desire to cling to their past.

    Today was a hard day. When Sergeant Yeucan'dewit had told Zihton and his squad that they, along with another squad of the regiment, were being tasked with an important mission, Zihton had just known that it was going to be one of those days. He had felt some sympathy for Yeucan, who had not taken well to the method of travel that had them safely deposited in the World's Edge Mountains. The ambush on the corrupted dwarfs had been swift and lethal, and the effects of the discharged blunderbuss had been an eye-opener.

    That might have marked the first time that Zihton had been involved in a fight where the other side was using black powder weapons. The Legion had battled against such weapons in the past—Zihton did not doubt that. But it was the first time that Zihton had personally been involved in a battle where the other side used muskets or similar types of weapons.

    It was equal measures exhilarating and terrifying. The Children of the Gods were resilient, even skinks were hardier than most young races. But that blunderbuss shot had been a warning that just because the lizardmen were hardy didn't mean they were invincible. Zihton didn't want to be shot by one of those things.

    It was hard, but Zihton didn't complain as he followed behind Sergeant Yeucan. The ground didn't get any easier to traverse after that initial path. Calling it level would have been generous—it was bumpy and uneven and caused Zihton's ankles to ache in a way that had never happened even after hours of non-stop marching on a level plain. And the whole time, they had to keep their eyes open, keep a constant vigil because the mountains were not, and had never been the favoured domain of the Children of the Gods. Meanwhile, these Chaos dwarfs that had made themselves the enemy of the day, assuming that there was any similarity to their non-Chaos afflicted cousins, would be perfectly at home with such terrain.

    Fortune seemed to favour them as they didn't encounter any more patrols. That or Sharpe's Chosen were doing a magnificent job of drawing the ire of their enemy. Maybe both.

    Iycan eventually had them stop for a brief reprieve while he double-checked his map. 'It looks like we're almost there. Just another wegstunde.'

    It took Zihton a couple of seconds to translate the Riekspiel measurement into a rough Saurian equivalent. Once he did so, his eyes rolled heavenward to silently beseech Sotek to deliver some form of mercy from one who apparently considered three and a half thousand metres to be minor enough to label as just another! Maybe on even ground he'd be right, but on the rugged mountains, those three and a half thousand metres would feel like twice that number.

    'Colonel, that's definitely not a distance we can call "just another",' Yeucan said with a tone that Zihton could best describe as politely rude. It reminded Zihton of why Yeucan was the sergeant: he had certainly mastered diplomacy in tone of voice, to an extent that the rank and file had yet to manage.

    Iycan huffed out an openly amused breath. 'Sergeant, it's about keeping positive. Just think to yourself, it's only three thousand metres, and not nine thousand.'

    Behind Zihton, Toxte'zec rumbled a quiet 'Speaks truth.'

    It wasn't so quiet that Iycan didn't hear. 'Would I speak anything but?'

    'Isn't that your job?' Zihton asked before he could stop himself.

    There were a fair few rumours about the exact nature of Colonel Iycan'ceya's purpose in the Legion. That he was the right hand of Marshal Ingwel'tonl was not in doubt. He was one of only two who had the power to openly disagree with the oldblood and have a hope of changing his mind from whichever path he had previously decided. But other than that, Iycan didn't seem to have a proper role within the Legion, which just meant that his role was one of secrecy. It was a source of much debate around the fire at night.

    Iycan's eyes narrowed in silent laughter. 'Would you believe me if I said not?'

    Zihton opened his mouth to reply, registered the question, and realised that no, he wouldn't. An answer would need to come from a source other than the root of the fire-gossip. Iycan's eyes narrowed further, now just barely open in the vaguest sense, the non-verbal laugh not letting up in the slightest.

    Yeucan shook his head, for what reason Zihton couldn't quite discern. 'All right, all of you form up. Let's finish this.' He turned his head to peer at the Helstorm battery, still being hauled by the two kroxigors. 'While we march, colonel, do you mind sharing what we're hoping to do?'

    Iycan sounded an affirmation and started to walk, leading the redcoats who had all formed up into a tight formation at the stern order.

    Iycan started speaking, holding up the map he had been examining so intently. 'We had one of our scribes look at the fort and the pass from above'—from the back of a terradon no doubt, Zihton thought privately—'and he managed to spy an overlook with a view of the pass below.'

    Zihton shared a look with the orange-scaled skink marching at his side. There was a moment of confusion that both felt deeply, but it was the orange-hued one who finally twisted his head to look at the colonel.

    'We only have enough for two uses.'

    It was hardly news, wasn't even an open secret as that would suggest that nobody was supposed to know even if everybody did know, it was something that the entire Legion had become aware of whilst lugging the battery along with them. When they had secured the Helstorm from the orcish camp, it had had enough munitions scavenged up for five uses. Three of those uses had been used up whilst the Legion had been traversing the Border Princes Peninsula, where the Empire's grip wasn't so keenly felt, and therefore they had felt less concern about firing off the Helstorm than they had since crossing north of the Black Mountains those two months ago.

    Two barrages, even from a superior position, would not change the tide of this battle.

    'Well,' Iycan began with a cheerful tone. 'We'll be making those two barrages count rather than wasting them. Which is why I'm here.'

    Which was a roundabout way of saying that that the Right Hand of Ingwel'tonl had a plan—a plan that was not so simple as to simply launch rockets down at the fortress below. A plan that he was not going to share.

    Not that it mattered as they were nearing their apparent destination. They would see what he had schemed soon enough. They just had to traverse three and a half thousand metres of rocky, uneven and less than direct mountainous terrain. Those three and a half thousand metres, unfortunately, still felt more akin to twice that number.

    The monotony of the cumbersome march that wasn't quite a march was broken up after one thousand and seven hundred metres—give or take, Zihton was hardly counting. It was another patrol of those tainted dwarfs. Regrettably, this time it wasn't an encounter where the dwarfs were ignorant and had been spotted from a location of strategic superiority.

    Quite the opposite. This time the only warning they had that the patrol was nearby was the first gunshot.

    Zihton dove to the ground at the sound of black powder igniting, his musket hugged close and his eyes already scanning for the source of the gunshot. He was interrupted from that task when his eyes came to a rest upon two of his cohort, bodies mangled and torn through, unblinking eyes looking up at the noon sun.

    Without thinking, Zihton dragged himself to the nearest of those two bodies and pressed his hand down upon one of those horrifying disfiguring wounds as though he would be able to stem the blood's flow and preserve a life that was already taken.

    Another crack of a weapon echoed through the air. There was a scream. Zihton ignored that, pressed his forehead against the body of the fellow skink, silently uttering words that weren't truly words. Gave the last rite, because deep down, even though the timing was off, he knew the bodies couldn't be taken back for the proper rites. His body functioned without his mind's input because his mind was functioning almost on the will of another entity. His eyes shut. The air tasted foul, tangy, an almost coppery taste, but missing something that truly defined such a simple description. Exhaled, the outgoing air felt cold, chilly. His eyes opened at another gunshot, and his mind finally stopped its waking dream, to him to bring reality back to his sight.

    There was a dark armoured figure on a ledge above the path that they had been traversing. The Chaos dwarf must have just fired, for he wasn't even aiming the blunderbuss in his hands, just waving it around like some deranged fanatic. Zihton hissed angrily and pulled his musket from where it had been pinned between his body and the ground. The hammer was pulled back, locking into the firing position with a satisfying click, and he lifted the muzzle of the weapon, pointed it at the dwarf and pulled back on the trigger.

    The musket kicked into his shoulder, hadn't been braced properly and as a consequence, the edge of the stock stabbed into him. But he didn't care, just watched with grim satisfaction as the dwarf fell back with a stream of blood gushing from a newly opened hole in his neck.

    A shout from the side had Zihton look, watch with panic as another of the corrupted dwarfs charged with a blade in hand toward where he lay. The blade was a nasty-looking thing, crafted not to kill but to inflict pain. No time to reload, and from his position on the floor Zihton couldn't move fast enough to avoid the fate coming toward him.

    There was a crack from black powder igniting. The charging dwarf stumbled and fell to the ground. If he was dead or not, Zihton didn't know. When he craned his head around to find the source of the gunshot, he found Colonel Iycan'ceya, a pistol in one hand, a sabre in the other. The usual look of muted amusement was no longer in the purple-scaled skink's eyes. Instead, he now bore a steely glower.

    Behind Iycan, another of the Chaos dwarfs charged, roaring a battle cry as he lifted a spiked maul ready to swing the instant he was within striking range. If the roar was supposed to be intimidating, it failed to have such an effect on Iycan, who twirled around and reposted the maul's heavy swing with a flick of the wrist, sabre dancing in his hand. The dwarf stumbled at the redirection of his blow but managed to correct his course and straighten himself. He sneered at Iycan, who gave an unimpressed snort and very deliberately returned the pistol to the holster at the small of his back, just above his tail. Even as he did so, his sabre was flicked into a guarded stance.

    The dwarf seemed to be annoyed by the skink's apparent lack of respect. He roared again, but a gunshot sounded and the armoured figure fell with a strangled yelp, maul dropped in favour of clutching at his leg. He didn't have long to wallow in pain, Iycan lunged forward, sabre thrust forth so that the tip pierced through the gap between the dwarf's helmet and his breastplate. There was a gagging sound from behind the facially concealing helmet, and then stillness.

    Sergeant Yeucan stepped into Zihton's view, already jabbing his ramrod into his musket while scanning the sight of the skirmish. There was a silence in the air, the kind that always came after the violence was over and done with. Still, Zihton warily scanned about him as he sat upright and began the process of reloading his weapon. Once upright, he was hit by the realisation of just how lethal that small skirmish had been. Of the thirty-one skinks to arrive on the mountain, seven had just had their lives violently torn away before they'd even truly had a chance to fight back.

    'We can't linger too long.' Iycan's voice was void of his usual good-natured cheer, eyes were still steeled over. 'We're close enough to the fort that another patrol will have heard the gunfire.'

    Iycan's eyes darted to Zihton, and he started to move toward him, sword finally returned to its sheath and his now freed hands were tugging at his silk cravat.

    'You're hurt,' he murmured.

    As if the observation had been a trigger, Zihton felt a sharp flare of pain in his leg. He bent his head to look, observed the grey wool of his breaches turn dark as his blood stained them. He must have just barely caught the edge of the blunderbuss blast. Iycan made a low, soothing sound and carefully wrapped his cravat around Zihton's thigh, binding the wound tightly.

    'That'll do you until we get back to camp, hmm?' A ghost of the normal good nature leaked into Iycan's voice as he asked the rhetorical question. He held out a hand in silent offer, an offer Zihton accepted, grasped at the proffered grip and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet.

    It hurt to put any weight on the leg. The exhilaration that Zihton had felt before? That was gone. Now the fear was starting to dominate with nothing to balance out the feeling. Any exhilaration was torn from him in the same way that his spawn-brother's skull fragments had been torn away from the rest of his body. He wondered, if his leg wasn't injured, would he be trying to break away from everybody else in the hopes of finding safety? It happened on occasion in battle that the stress would have some on either side just break and try to flee, would Zihton be one of those?

    Sergeant Yeucan lunged forward abruptly, grabbed onto another skink's forearm with what was very visibly a tight, bruising grip. 'Hey, calm down. Relax, focus on me.'

    The skink in question was unable to focus his eyes, was constantly looking everywhere and nowhere at once. But at the stern tone and order, the skink's shoulders slumped and he faced the sergeant with a shamed look to his eyes.

    'Calm,' Yeucan reiterated. 'Listen to my voice and don't think about anything other than the words you hear.'

    'Battle shock,' Iycan explained to Zihton with a sympathetic tone. 'First time?'

    Zhiton nodded. It came out more frantically than he had intended, and he was distantly aware that his breathing was off, unsteady and coming out in short gasps.

    Iycan continued to speak. 'Even we Children of the Gods aren't immune to such battle shock. Seeing kin die violently? It isn't something we should ever have to bear witness to. Especially not when so young.'

    The comment at his age managed to momentarily startle Zihton from his mental prison of doubt and fear. His eyes narrowed at the colonel, who looked unimpressed with the dour look. Just because Zihton was only twenty summers did not make him too young to be a member of the Legion!

    'I never said that.'

    Oh, I spoke aloud, Zhiton felt his face scales darken.

    Seeing that Yeucan had managed to calm the skink in his grip and taken place at the front of the group, Iycan grabbed onto Zihton, threw an arm over his shoulder and held him close. It took the younger skink a moment to realise that the purple skink was helping him to walk with his injured leg. As they walked, Iycan continued to speak.

    'I was thirteen summers older than you when I first experienced a fight like this. I still wonder whether that was too young. There is a reason skink cohorts, even from our more traditional kin, are led by a skink with at least fifty summers and winters worth of experience.' Iycan shrugged. 'It's harder for us, we skinks aren't spawned with the same mind for violence that our saurus kin are, and even they can be victim to battle shock. They're resilient but not immune.'

    'But you seem fine.' Zihton hated how weak his voice sounded, so quiet and pathetic.

    'I've a lifetime spent learning how to be "fine" during and after a fight.' Iycan let a hollow chuckle escape. 'You would have joined the Legion last summer? Only recently earned your coat?'

    Zihton nodded a shallow nod. 'I have fought, but this was… different.'

    'This was the first time you were at the front, able to see what it is really like. Actually see kin that you know the name of, had shared meals with, be torn from this life. It is no longer distant, it is right there.' There was no judgement in Iycan's tone. 'Tell you what, when this is finished, you will talk to me, and you will tell me about them, who they were, what they liked.'

    'You can get your neck-cloth back while at it.'

    Iycan chuckled, eyes momentarily lowered to look at the silk cloth that had been turned into an improvised bandage. 'You can keep it. I have spares.'

    Iycan looked up from the injured leg and scanned the way ahead of Yeucan, who had clearly made sure to set the marching speed with any injured in mind, as even supported by the colonel as Zihton was, they were still slower than the usual pace set and yet were keeping up with no problem. He must have recognised something, as he motioned at another skink, one who was uninjured and had them take his place in supporting Zihton. With one last reassuring look at Zihton, Iycan then jogged toward the front of the group.



    *



    Yeucan was glad when they finally reached their destination. It was a level plateau that had an impressive view down at the pass below. They even had a very clear view of the fort and its walls which were supposed to block passage from that same pass.

    It was just too bad that the Elector Count of Stirland had never maintained a garrison in that fort's keep, if for no other reason than so that what was once a pass could be watched to ensure that its status as a former pass never transitioned back into being a usable pass. But again, it came back to the question of exactly how long ago this pass had gotten blocked up by landslides. Long enough ago that the nearby villagers had worded the history as "my old grand-papi used to say". If it pre-dated living human memory, then the sense of urgency would likely be gone from the distant ruler of this land.

    Yeucan believed they were in Stirland, but it was close enough to the border with Sylvania that the only reason he wasn't assuming them to be there was the lack of superstitious and backwards thinking from the nearby villages. Sylvania was a miserable experience the last time the Legion had traversed those lands. Something in the air had been cloying and there was a constant feeling of decay to the land. And yes, Yeucan recalled the concerning number of pitchforks and lit torches being brandied about, even before the humans noticed lizardmen nearby. So, he was firmly of the belief that this pass was in Stirland and not Sylvania.

    Iycan heaved a deep breath on seeing that they were finally there. 'Perfect, better than I had anticipated.' He twisted around and pointed to the edge that overlooked a sheer drop to the grounds far below. 'Set the Helstorm up there. Quickly now.'

    Yeucan crossed his arms, and gave the colonel a pointed look. 'Are you going to finally share your great plan with us?'

    Even as the words left his maw, Yeucan closed his eyes to brace himself for the retort his wording would earn him.

    'I'm not that old,' Iycan huffed with offence. 'Nor do I have divine percipience. All I have is an educated guess and faith.'

    'Faith just got seven of my cohort killed, colonel, forgive me my lack.' The words were dry, and not an apology.

    'You are forgiven.' Thankfully, the older skink didn't have any sarcasm in his tone, as Yeucan wasn't certain how he would have reacted. No, Iycan instead sounded fully understanding, even if he was distracted by the two kroxigors setting up the Helstorm battery. 'The plan is that we are going to plug this pass again.'

    Yeucan tilted his head, tried to discern the colonel's meaning. Iycan must have translated the silence accurately because he turned to look at the sergeant once again.

    'As was pointed out earlier, we only have enough rockets for two uses of the Helstorm, so we are not going to be firing at the ruinous forces below. Instead…' He paused in his speaking to move to the now positioned but not yet armed Helstorm and pointed at the mountainous terrain on the opposite side of the pass. 'We force another landslide.'

    Yeucan followed Iycan's finger. The mountain where he was gesturing didn't look stable. In fact it was probably a miracle that a strong gust of wind hadn't caused a landslide at any point over the past week. His eyes then turned to the Helstorm and finally, it dawned on Yeucan just what the purpose of this exercise was.

    'You want to shoot the explosive rockets at the mountain itself.'

    Iycan hummed in affirmation, finger lowered along with his gaze. 'And we need to do it soon.'

    Almost against his better judgement, Yeucan leaned forward to look down at the pass below. They were high enough that he wasn't able to make out the detail of individuals, just large blobs as they moved in thick crowds. There were a lot of them, that much he could tell.

    But it wasn't the warriors that drew his attention. It was the large contraption that wasn't quite able to squeeze past the gap in the stone wall that should have marked the end of what would have been a canyon but for the efforts to dig through. It wasn't yet able to fit, but it wasn't so drastically oversized compared to the opening that Yeucan would have said it wasn't going to happen sooner rather than later.

    'That is a hellcannon.' Iycan grunted. 'And I would dearly like it crushed beneath the mountain before it fires at us, or at those of us still keeping them that side of the fort.'

    Yeucan nodded in silent agreement. He faced the kroxigors, took note that they'd placed upon the ground the large crates they'd been carrying the entire time and opened them to reveal the stock of rockets that the Legion had for the Helstorm.

    'Start loading the artillery,' he ordered and then looked again at Iycan. 'How are we leaving?'

    'We have two barrages.' Iycan started, seemingly ignoring the question. 'One for that side of the pass, and another for this side. After the first, they will know not just that we're here, but that we are here. But, it will also be a signal to our terradons. They'll come to pick us up and while we wait, we turn the Helstorm and aim up.'

    If there is mercy to be had in the world, Yeucan thought to himself, then these Chaos-twisted dwarfs don't have any gyrocopters.

    The two kroxigors were fast at loading nine rockets onto the firing tubes. Yeucan briefly wondered if they'd been the ones to arm and use the artillery battery the previous three uses it had gotten. It was only a brief thought as he quickly dismissed it as unimportant.

    'Weapon ready,' Toxte'zec rumbled.

    Iycan released a breath and moved to the artillery battery, pressed himself close to Toxte'zec where he quietly relayed instructions which had the two kroxigor shifting the weapon in small inch-by-inch movements as the colonel tried to get the weapon as accurate as it was going to be.

    It was probably a good thing they weren't looking to hit a small target but a chunk of mountain, experience warned that the Helstorm was… not… the most accurate weapon that the Empire had ever devised. But when hitting a large area through nine explosive rockets? Yeucan had a feeling that the mountain would come out the loser of that match-up.

    'Firing in ten.' Iycan shouted out in warning.

    Yeucan counted down in his head, and once he hit zero, Iycan slammed down on the primer.

    The rocket battery released the nine rockets, which shot forth with a loud screeching sound, trailing smoke behind them as if a taunt to any foes that yes, they came from there, dare anybody try to stop a repeat performance?

    It was not a pleasant sound. But the explosions as the rockets hit the mountainside? Music to Yeucan's ears. Especially so when coupled with the rumbling as the weakened rock and stone began to crack and fragments slid and fell, and with each bit of rock that fell, the support for the targeted overhang weakened, more cracks, more discarded rock, until eventually the downward force of the world finally had a firm enough grip to forcefully yank, and with that, it became an avalanche but without snow.

    There were screams from the pass below. The Chaos dwarfs were clearly not so far removed from reality by the ruinous touch as to not feel fear. Or else they were screaming in impotent rage.

    Iycan gave a whoop. 'Let's turn this around. Texte'zec, start loading the last of our rockets.'

    Yeucan wondered whether it was overkill at that point. They'd already just buried the ruinous forces beneath rock and debris. Then his eyes rested upon those of his cohort who had been injured in the previous attack and he decided that no, it was not overkill to cause a second landslide.

    There was a shout and the retort of a gun. Yeucan felt pain as a large chunk of his left shoulder was torn away by whatever it was that those Chaos dwarfs were firing. He would have clutched at the injury, but his right hand was still occupied with holding his musket.

    But he wasn't the only one hit. In fact, he wasn't the target.

    Toxte'zec roared the kind of roar that only came from serious injury and he slumped, one arm hanging limply, shoulder missing two-thirds of what made it a shoulder. By some miracle, the rockets weren't damaged, or if they were it wasn't enough to set them off.

    Yeucan spotted the source of the gunshot. A dozen angry Chaos dwarfs were charging toward them. One had discarded his blunderbuss. Another was in the process of lifting his own blunderbuss so that the muzzle was pointed toward the Helstorm and the still uninjured kroxigor behind it. He was interrupted when the more familiar bark of the Legion's muskets beat him to the act. The dwarf stumbled, three bloodied holes now punctured into his armour while on either side of him, his comrades fell, blood slowly pooling out under their prone bodies.

    Yeucan grunted, found that despite his efforts he was unable to move his left arm to steady his musket. With a grimace as the pain in his shoulder flared, he adjusted his grip on his weapon, held it closer to its middle and tucked the rear end beneath his armpit. The first of the surviving dwarfs reached him, so Yeucan twisted his torso while dropping to one knee. The bayonet punctured into the breast of the deformed dwarf, possibly where his heart lay if Chaos-mutated dwarfs even had hearts.

    He yanked the weapon back, readjusted his grip and was immediately forced to lift it in an attempt to block, or parry, a maul coming for his head. The maul connected with the musket and shattered the wood while bending the metal barrel beyond repair. On the upside, Yeucan's head was spared.

    The maul-waving dwarf sneered, or at least Yeucan assumed the sound which came from behind the helmet was a sneer—it was more likely than what he thought the sound actually reminded him of, which was that of a cattle beast with sniffles. The dwarf lifted his maul, and without a means to protect himself, Yeucan had a feeling that he might not survive.

    Another musket gunshot was heard. The dwarf didn't flinch or give any sign that he had been shot, but he did pause and twist his head to peer off to one side. Maybe he had noticed who had been the victim of the gunshot. It didn't matter though, it gave Yeucan the opening he needed to leap back to his feet and then throw himself forward, body-checking the armoured dwarf with enough force to knock him prone. There was a barrage of filthy language from behind the helmet, along with a surprising number of statements regarding Yeucan's non-existent mother and her profession in the entertainment industry.

    Ignoring the vulgarity, Yeucan dove for the remains of his musket and grabbed at the bayonet, twisting it around and then tugging it free of the muzzle. It wasn't much, but he was armed again. No longer felt helpless, even if with his injured arm he probably still was.

    The dwarf started to pick himself up, and Yeucan did not want him getting back to his feet. The skink lunged forward and stabbed his bayonet at the dwarf. The blade didn't manage to puncture the armour but instead slid across the black metal until it finally slipped into a seam between thigh and pelvis. The dwarf screamed and wrapped his hands around Yeucan's throat and then squeezed.

    Yeucan gagged but refused to release his grip on his blade, pulled it partway out of the dwarf's flesh and then slammed it back. The clamped fingers about his throat twitched but didn't ease up. Yeucan repeated the effort twice, feeling desperate as his air-starved lungs cried for a breath to be taken.

    The dwarf was finally forced to release his grip when another skink thrust his musket into him, stabbing the bayonet through the armour thanks to the extra power afforded by the running thrust. The dwarf seemed to forget about Yeucan, chose to focus instead on the new skink, who in turn twisted the musket—twisted the bayonet blade pierced into flesh—and then pulled the trigger.

    The dwarf fell, gargling sounds emitting from his helmet, but otherwise still and silent. Yeucan's saviour grabbed onto his forearm and pulled him to his feet. Yeucan managed to avoid the shout of pain, despite the arm in question being his injured arm.

    'We need to go, sergeant.' Zihton's voice was just barely heard through the shrill ringing that seemed to have overtaken Yeucan's hearing.

    Yeucan allowed the younger skink to guide him, and didn't complain that Zihton was leaning against him heavily, vaguely recalled that he was the one with the injured leg. That he'd managed to fight the pain to rush forth and save Yeucan was worthy of any compliments that Yeucan would be able to give, once the ringing in his ears finally faded.

    At some point, the terradons and their carried carts had arrived and were waiting for their passengers to board. Iycan was still by the Helstorm which was now pointed to the mountain above them. The look in Iycan's eyes said that the only reason he hadn't fired was because he was waiting for everybody to be ready to go as soon as he had started to run for one of the carts.

    Toxte'zec, one arm hanging useless, used his good arm to help lift Yeucan and Zihton into the cart. 'All in,' the kroxigor shouted.

    Iycan shouted something in return. Yeucan didn't hear what the exact words were, but a moment later, the Helstorm unleashed its barrage. Iycan didn't wait for them to reach their intended destination—he charged to the nearest terradon-powered cart and leapt in.

    The terradon's riders likewise didn't wait. Once Iycan was safely in the cart, the winged reptiles were set to fly up and away from the rapidly forming landslide.



    *



    Three hours later, Ingwel'tonl listened to Iycan'ceya's report, even as he eyed the usually impeccable-looking skink with vague amusement. Iycan was missing his cravat, his silk waistcoat was dirty, and one of the sleeves of his shirt was torn.

    It wouldn't have been nearly so amusing to behold if Iycan had actually been injured, unlike a third of the skinks and one of the kroxigors that had accompanied him. The healers had mentioned that the kroxigor Toxte'zec had lost all use in his arm and it had been removed to spare both pain and possible infection. Lizardmen had a good resilience to disease and infection, but the nature of the injury that had torn so much of the crocodilian's flesh from his shoulder? It had been better safe than sorry.

    'And as you can see,' Iycan waved a hand toward the fort, or what had once been a fort, before the majority of its walls were crushed and smashed by the twin rockslides. 'We even managed to sort out your siege for you.'

    'Oh yes, quite thoroughly.' Ingwel chuckled. 'But now if the Empire wants to repopulate the keep, they'll need to first rebuild it.'

    'They can improve it,' Iycan waved a hand dismissively. 'And if they don't take care of their property, being broken is probably the safer fate to befall their discarded waste.'

    Around them, the camp was being packed, wagons and carts hitched to whichever beasts were designated for the purposes. Ingwel's own wagon had been latched to the back of a stegadon, which seemed to sense his attentions and huffed at him.

    'Incoming.' The shout came from a green uniformed member of the skirmishers. 'Empire, Stirland colours.'

    'Ah, it seems the locals finally caught up.' Ingwel crossed his arms and turned to face the approaching human force and on seeing how far out they still were, walked forward to meet them part way.

    It was hardly a quick stroll, the skink who had been on watch duty had alerted them the moment he had spotted them, which meant they were still a fair ways away. But Ingwel didn't complain about that, it gave his Legion time to finish packing everything away. Behind him, Iycan had fallen into his usual place at Ingwel's side, but just far enough behind to make sure it was understood that Ingwel was the one in charge.

    The Stirland force slowed as they neared, and eventually came to a stop within yards of the two lizardmen. There was a quiet that lasted a full minute as the humans all examined the pair, as well as the remains of the camp. Finally, a moustached human with a feathered helmet dismounted his horse and approached Ingwel.

    The oldblood noted that the human's hand did not leave the grip of the pistol at his hip.

    'I am Leopold Ganzfried, captain of Stirland and acting on the authority of Count Haupt-Anddersen. Who are you, and what is your business?' The human's tone made it clear that he wasn't certain that he should actually be speaking, that he was humouring somebody.

    'Captain Ganzfried, I am Marshal Ingwel'tonl of the Outland Legion.' Ingwel raised a hand in a respectful salute. 'Our business was warding off a war band that had opened up that pass through the World's Edge.'

    'There is no pass around these parts.' Ganzfried snorted, though his brow creased in thought. 'Though I do recall tales, and that fort must have had a purpose at some point.'

    'If your Sigmar has any mercy, there won't be a pass again for a lifetime or two after what we've done,' Iycan spoke softly.

    Ganzfried huffed, clearly having heard the skink's words. 'You say a war band tried to enter Stirland?'

    'Mostly Dawi-Zharr.' Iycan nodded, and started to speak in place of Ingwel. 'But there was at least one Tzeenchian sorcerer, so you might want to keep a vigil on the area. They should all be dead and buried, but some dwarfs were moving on the mountain itself, so there might be a few to have escaped the rockslide.'

    The human captain examined the pair with a continued suspicious look. 'What is your purpose here, Lustrians? I am aware of your kind killing Empire citizens on the shores of Lustria.'

    Ingwel and Iycan shared a look, silent communication passing through small movements of their eyes alone, and then Iycan looked again at the human captain. 'We don't know much about what is happening on Lustria and certainly can't speak for those involved. We aren't our cousins any more than you happen to be Brettonian.'

    Something about the comment had Captain Ganzfried taken aback. Another minute passed and finally, his hand lowered from the pistol. 'You called yourself the "Outland Legion"?'

    Ingwel nodded. 'That is what we are known as.' The name that they had adopted, that had become their cultural identity more so than the temple-city which had spawned them, or the isle of Madrigal from which they hailed.

    'I've heard of you before. And I'm not referring to the villagers in Daxweiler singing your praise. You were in the peninsula of the Border Princes four months back, were you not?'

    Ingwel nodded. It was true and he had no reason to hide it.

    'So, you're mercenaries. Ones paid in rumours, and materials.'

    Iycan's eyes narrowed in a smile. 'More useful to us than your coin, most shops don't react well to an eight-foot-tall reptile asking for goods and wares.'

    A huff that could have been an aborted chuckle escaped the human. 'So, what are you charging for this effort to stop a Chaos dwarf invasion into the Empire?'

    'Nothing. This one was on us,' Ingwel rumbled.

    The human tilted his head, conveyed his disbelieving confusion. 'Really now?'

    'It is done. If you approached first, then we would talk about pay. For now, consider this one to be an act of goodwill to our hosts in this land.'

    There was another silence, wherein the captain was clearly trying to decide how he should be reacting. If he had originally intended to go the route of violence then he was wisely reluctant now that he could see the size of the Legion behind Ingwel. He was now in a position where he had to decide how to react, what stance he should be taking with a large mercenary band within the lands he was sworn to protect. He was acting with authority from his count, so he certainly didn't want to make a wrong choice.

    'Where are you headed next?'

    Ingwel hummed, made a show of thinking. Had to make a show of it, he had learnt long ago that the young races couldn't read his expressions at all, so any time he interacted with them he had to exaggerate. If it also made the human think him duller of mind and therefore more likely to relax from a misplaced sense of superiority, then so much the better. Ingwel could work with being underestimated.

    'We'd prefer to avoid entering Sylvania, so west and north to either Middenland or Hochland.' Again it was honesty, even if the captain might have preferred to hear that they were not headed deeper into Stirland's territory.

    Ganzfried absently ran a thumb along the length of his moustache. 'I see.' Another pause where he no doubt silently cursed his current position. He was ranked as captain, not general, so he must have felt a little overwhelmed at a mass number of mercenaries all of a foreign race. 'You may go about your business then. But we will have eyes watching you.'

    Ingwel raised his hand in a respectful gesture toward the captain. No need to offend, the man was confused at the Legion's presence, so a respectful nod and a salute always seemed to go a long way toward easing any of the hostility borne of not knowing.

    'Legion,' he bellowed, projected his voice so that all would hear. 'Fall in.'

    The reaction was instantaneous. All regiments moved seamlessly into their formations, ranked and filed in an orderly manner that any empire officer would weep in joy to have been responsible for. Ingwel had them stand like that for a moment, his eyes roving back and forth and then turned to look at the wagons and carts, all hitched to either stegadons or aggradons. In the hour since Iycan and the skinks and kroxigors that he had taken to the mountains had returned, everything had been packed away and was ready to go.

    'Captain Ganzfried, happy hunting with any lingering Chaos dwarfs,' Ingwel called out to the human, before he then looked back to his command. 'Outland Legion, move out.'

    At his order, the Legion began to march, eyes forward. Unlike the formation, the march wasn't quite so perfect to human standards. It was not with each footfall perfectly in sync with those in the same row. But they all managed to keep their pace close enough that the general shape of the formation wasn't broken, and for Ingwel, that was good enough.

    There was only so far he needed to conform. Formations: they had importance, even in the field of battle. Parade marching: that didn't do any real favours for his saurus and skinks. So long as the general shape of the formation remained, that was all he asked.

    By his side, Iycan waited for Ingwel to start moving, and once he did, the skink matched his pace with the ease of familiarity. 'That went better than well. Nobody even fired a shot in a panic this time.'

    Ingwel chuffed in amusement. 'I wonder whether the tales of us are starting to become widespread. He actually recognised the name Outland Legion.'

    Iycan hummed, though whether in agreement or not, Ingwel didn't know. After a minute, the skink turned his head to the nearest column of saurus. 'Hey, drummers, let's have a marching beat.'

    The saurus within the formation who carried the drums started to drum out a rhythm which had started to become the default whilst the Legion was on the march. Unbidden, drummers from the other columns joined in. Ingwel glanced back at the human army and saw that General Ganzfried was still watching.

    'Come on—let's show these humans that we aren't uncivilised brutes. Put some words to the music.'

    He didn't have to wait long. There was a momentary pause, but Ingwel had a feeling it was more about waiting to match the beat of the drums than any reluctance. After that five-second pause, a voice rose up, one that Ingwel recognised as Major Sharpe'tus. By the time Sharpe had finished the first line, the rest of the Legion was joining with the unofficial anthem.

    'When shadows creep across the land,

    I'll neither falter nor stay my hand.

    To battle, I'll stride, come what may,

    Over the hills and far away.

    O'er the hills and o'er the main,

    Past Bretton, Karak, and Reik's domain.

    Annat'corri's word, our guiding ray,

    Over the hills and far away.
    '



    -TBC
     
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  9. Killer Angel
    Slann

    Killer Angel Prophet of the Stars Staff Member

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    I see you are a fan of Richard Sharpe... :D
     
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  10. J.Logan
    Skink

    J.Logan Member

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    Naturally. Who wouldn't be a fan of the one character who can survive being played by Sean Bean? And not just in one film but an entire series of them? :p
     
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