Pieces on a Map

—by Douglas Seacat

This story serves as an epilogue to the "Witchfire Trilogy," and refers to certain events taking place in The Legion of Lost Souls. Those who plan on playing the "Witchfire Trilogy" or who have not yet completed its adventures may want to wait before reading "Pieces on a Map"

Taking place in Caspia, capital of the Kingdom of Cygnar, —2 weeks following the Battle of Corvis…

King Leto Raelthorne glanced at himself briefly in the mirror, adjusting his royal garments, ensuring his crown was seated properly upon his brow, and allowed his page to strap the sword of his ancestors to his waist. The heavy scepter of rulership was then handed to him, a gaudy symbol King Leto preferred to leave behind except at the most formal of occasions. This war council qualified, barely, as one such occasion.

It had been nearly a decade since Raelthorne the Younger had taken the crown from his corrupt brother, and those years had not been as kind to the king as to the land of Cygnar, which he ruled. The face that stared back at him in the mirror was no longer the youth he expected to find there, but the lined features of a monarch approaching middle age. Yet he had a strong frame, and he was a handsome man, with black hair now showing a hint of grey. They said Leto had more of his mother in his features, who had been an attractive queen, while the cruel Vinter had taken after their father with his sharp angles and piercing eyes. Both brothers had proven able on the battlefield, adept with weapon and horse, but it was Vinter who had become the master swordsman, and Leto who had spent his hours in the library, at study among the treasured ancient Caspian scrolls and tomes.

"Shall we, your Majesty?" It was Captain Renard of the royal guard, a wizened and tough old warrior who had been Leto's weapons master as a young boy. "They'll be waiting."

The king turned from the mirror and nodded, waving to a servant to open the doors of his suite so he could make his way to the map chamber. A small entourage accompanied him, including his personal guard, numerous servants, and several young pages, the sons of important nobles of Cygnar. Although initially uncomfortable with such trappings, King Leto had grown accustomed to their presence and hardly noticed them anymore.

He was happily surprised to see a familiar face standing politely outside his doors. He stopped to embrace the elderly man who waited for him. "Arius! Have you been waiting long? I thought you'd be at the maps already." The men around them shifted somewhat, but stayed quiet, uncomfortable as always at the lack of formality between these two great men.

Primarch Arius answered, his voice rich and deep with both authority and paternal affection, "I thought I would accompany you, if you don't mind." The Primarch was dressed in relatively simple vestments, as was his habit when sneaking off to the royal palace. As the highest authority in the Church of Morrow, he was expected to stay in the Sancteum at all times, guarded by a small army of paladins, monks, and other priests. By protocol he should have sent an exarch to the palace in his place, but Arius was not one to let others speak for him, particularly to King Leto, a favored pupil of his and a good friend.

The king was also concerned about the Primarch's habit of leaving the protection of the Sancteum [1]. But he was reassured to spot the two people who stood at attention nearby, respectfully at a distance but ever alert. One was a knight in mirror-bright plate armor, his surcoat emblazoned with the symbol of Morrow, a long heavy blade strapped to his back. The other in contrast appeared to be an underdressed novice, a woman garbed in simple but pristine white robes, her head shaved in the style of monks, with no apparent weapons on her person. Both were of an age with King Leto, their faces lined but their bodies strong and hale. The armored man was Sir Gordan Mathis, the most acclaimed swordsman of the Primarch Knights [2], a paladin of great renown. The other was Sister Dashell, a monk of the Order of Keeping [3] and sworn defender of the Primarchy. These two accompanied the Primarch wherever he went and would sacrifice their lives to save him from injury. In their company, the great priest was better protected than if he had been watched over by a hundred soldiers. The two bowed deeply to the king and he nodded with a smile.

The Primarch glanced at King Leto with a critical eye as they walked down the hall, followed by their entourage. "It doesn't look like you've been eating well. Nor sleeping much."

The king chuckled grimly. "I've had much on my mind and no time for sleep. Nor food."

"I'm sorry to have brought such troubling news." The two had met privately late the previous evening and spoken at length.

"You did right to come, and this council is necessary. In all their scheming I'm afraid my advisors sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. And yet I had always expected their duty was to council me, not the reverse." As expected the Primarch said nothing, preferring to avoid topics of politics, or at least pretending disinterest. King Leto smiled slyly. "I don't suppose the Exordeum approves of your coming here?"

"If they knew of it, they would not. No, they urged me to keep the full story within the Church, of course. They want investigations, a full interview with the witnessing priest, and so on. They'll be busy for months trying to decide if they should believe it, regardless of the proof brought before them."

"You trust this witness then? Prelate of Corvis [4], was it?"

"Yes, and soon to be High Prelate of Corvis if I have anything to say about it." It was a ridiculous statement, given his authority. But Arius was skilled at putting people at ease, and under his warm smile and friendly manner it was easy to believe the illusion that he was not half as powerful as he actually was. "He's a good man, been through several difficult trials of late…I also have confirmation from a higher source."

King Leto was silent at that, feeling awed in spite of himself; the old priest sometimes had direct contact with Morrow and the god's divine agents. Like the Primarchs before him, Arius had been chosen personally by Morrow, through a manifestation of Archons, and was the god’s greatest mortal servant. The king restrained himself from the impulse of making a gesture of holy respect. A king must be pious, but not superstitious, as Arius himself had instructed Leto as a young prince.

The map chamber was not far from his quarters, and several well-armed senior royal guards secured the entrance. Upon the arrival of the entourage, these men bowed deeply and opened the chamber doors for their king. Within the large circular assembly room the other members of the war council were already in attendance, gathered around the huge central table and its map of the kingdoms. Other maps decorated the walls between thick bookshelves. The room was well lit from cunningly crafted windows in the ceiling and high up along the walls, designed to focus light down onto the table. A dozen comfortable chairs ringed the central map table—yet few of those present were seated, preferring to stand and argue with each other.

Most of the heated discussion broke off at the entrance of the king, except for Warmaster General Turpin and High Magus Calster, who were too caught up in a dispute to notice. The court wizard was fuming, his hand clenched on the symbol of the Fraternal Order [5] which hung from a fine chain around his neck. "I don't care what Larson of the Strategic Academy [6] told you, we're producing cortexes as fast as we can without sacrificing quality. Enchanting a cortex is a bit more complicated than brewing up blasting powder."

The Warmaster scowled back at him. "So you say, as you increase the prices for the fifth time in ten years! Nevermind it is our army that protects you and allows you to continue to rape our coffers with impunity. We need to produce more ‘jacks, and if you can't convince your peers to do so, and at better rates, we may have to find other solutions."

The high magus grimaced. "Just what is it you are accusing the Fraternal Order of? Treason, or being good businessmen? I serve the throne first, Warmaster. I'd advise you to remember that. As for finding other solutions, good luck. I'm sure Khador's Greylords [7] will give you wonderful prices."

The two men had never gotten along, and King Leto suspected they secretly enjoyed finding excuses to disagree. Finally they noticed the silence and turned abashed to face their sovereign, bowing and apologizing.

King Leto nodded graciously, watching them with sharp eyes. He noted their inadvertent stares directed at the Primarch and his bodyguards. Their shock and indignation was clear even though their expressions quickly changed to smiles of welcome. This was the first time the Primarch had been asked to attend such a meeting, so their surprise was to be expected. Not even Caspia's most influential nobles and trade masters were asked to attend war councils.

Warmaster Turpin seemed particularly uncomfortable, his eyes darting frantically to the map of the kingdoms upon the central table. King Leto was a shrewd judge of men, and he knew the old general wished nothing more than to swipe the markers away from the map before the Primarch could survey them. Upon that map were many chips of expertly carved and painted wood, representing the disposition of Cygnar's army and navy, as well as those of the other kingdoms. Turpin was a religious man, but he knew the Primarch did not swear fealty to Cygnar. Although the Sancteum was protected by Caspia's walls, it was sovereign unto itself, and the Primarch served a church that dominated the kingdoms, even those bloodthirsty warmongers in Khador. This paranoia was one reason the Warmaster was also uncomfortable with the court wizard, whose Fraternal Order was an international organization, albeit with no influence in Khador. Despite his tendency to presume the worst of people, Warmaster Turpin was a great leader and a trusted tactician. He was not known for his ingenuity, but he had kept Cygnar's borders safe for many years and fought personally in several important battles.

To give his council time to settle themselves, King Leto introduced the Primarch, although he suspected the priest already knew their names, and most likely their politics as well. Leto had been told by the Scout General that the Church's intelligence network was three times as large and twice as efficient as his own.

"Primarch Arius, this is Warmaster General Turpin, high commander of our ground forces. I believe you've met."

The Warmaster bowed. "Your Holiness, it is an unexpected pleasure. We have met, just briefly last Ascension Feast [8]."

The king indicated the wizard. "This is High Magus Calster of the Fraternal Order of Wizardry, serving most ably as court wizard and my expert on all things arcane." Their exchange of greetings was perfectly polite, but King Leto sensed tension. Primarch Arius was not terribly fond of wizards, except those who served the Order of Illumination [9]—which had ties to the Church. The Primarch had attempted to persuade the king to take one of their order for his court wizard, but King Leto had declined. Despite a love of gold, the high magus was a brilliant wizard and devoted counselor, perhaps even the smartest man with whom King Leto had ever matched wits. He was also not afraid to voice his opinion regardless of the political consequences, a trait Leto valued.

Next, the king turned to an older man, one of the few who was actually seated. "This is our Navarch, Govan Trent, high admiral of our forces at sea." The Navarch was past his prime, and no longer the sharp-minded veteran he had once been, and if the truth be known, he was past due for succession by his most able subordinate, Admiral Wassal. The Navarch blinked and squinted at the Primarch, rising with difficulty from his chair to execute a pained bow. King Leto would have preferred Admiral Wassal was attending, but there hadn't been time to recall the man from his duties aboard the flagship.

"And I do not believe you've met Scout General Rebald, formerly a Knight of the Highgate Vigil, before I promoted him out of active duty. Notorious for leading particularly long and painful patrols in the southern Wyrmwall Mountains. It is said the rangers of Highgate still speak his name with dread." King Leto winked at the ranger, for whom he had genuine affection. Rebald was dressed in his typical all black, wearing little in the way of jewelry or insignia of rank, a habit that had not endeared him to other members of the war council or the royal court. Officially the Scout General supervised the kingdom's various ranger and scout corps and collected the reports of army and mercenary chroniclers. Unlike the Warmaster and Navarch, no large armies or fleets were under his control. Unofficially, however, he was Cygnar's spymaster, and supervised their information network. It was his job to keep the king apprised of anything important happening in the realm and beyond.

"Lastly we have Lord Treasurer Corumny, whose grip on the kingdom's purse strings make him the most powerful and frightening man present today." Corumny blushed at this compliment and shook his head, greeting the Primarch with a nervous stammer. He was the newest and youngest member of the council, having only been appointed to the post two years earlier after having inherited his father's Barony at the age of twenty-eight. The inclusion of the treasurer in their meetings was another source of contention, but King Leto had found him a shrewd observer and possessed of uncommon sense and foresight. He was a bookish young man who had been pushed into the position when his older brother died to a bandit ambush outside of Point Bourne. King Leto felt some affinity and sympathy for him, having "lost" his own older brother, albeit in a much worse fashion; a brother who had apparently returned like a ghost to haunt Leto's reign and bring him endless trouble.

King Leto shook off his melancholy rumination and looked around the table at those seated there. They were all good men, completely loyal to the throne and to Cygnar's best interests, but Leto had yet to forge them into a cohesive, cooperative unit that worked smoothly to defend the realm. They were too prone to bickering, self-doubt, and complacency—all qualities that would put Cygnar in peril if they could not be turned around.

Also present were a number of assistants to each important man, including several high-ranking members of the army and navy, standing respectfully behind the Warmaster and Navarch. The high magus was attended by one of his most trusted protégés, himself a noted and admired wizard. Yet none of these men and women was part of the council, and they were only present to provide information and answer questions put to them by their superiors. They were sworn to binding oaths of secrecy and knew their lives would be forfeit if any hint of their discussions were breathed outside this chamber.

King Leto cleared his throat. "I'm sure you're wondering why the Primarch has been asked to attend. In truth this meeting is his idea, and he brings news of grave importance." The king nodded to the elderly priest and took his seat, indicating the others to do so as well.

The Primarch addressed the gathered council; "This concerns the recent assault on Corvis, which I'd imagine has weighed heavily upon your discussions here. I bring both good and ill tidings." [10]

Members of the council exchanged worried looks, for indeed the state of the besieged city had been the latest crisis to consume them, particularly as it had taken precious time for word of the invasion to reach so far south to Caspia, and even longer for them to muster aid. Yet all the men present were intelligent and reasonably quick of wit, and they immediately wondered how the Primarch might be bringing them news related to such far-off events. Even the Fraternal Order's best divinations had proven unreliable at best.

"First, to the good. Corvis is liberated and free once again." This prompted several pleased outbursts. Warmaster Turpin was clearly relieved, although suspicious that this news should be brought to them by the Primarch and not his own chain of command. Primarch Arius continued once the noise had settled. "The damage to the city was considerable, but it will recover. I strongly urge you consider increasing the garrisons there, for they were completely inadequate in the assault. The Church will be sending some force of arms and several warjacks to bolster the local clergy, who were attacked directly and apparently a focus of aggression."

Such men weren't used to being lectured on what they should do, but the sense of power and authority from the Primarch was palpable, and each man present found it difficult to remain indignant. It was significant that the Church was reaching so far north with its own military arm, something not lightly done.

The Primarch continued. "Now, to the bad. The rumors that Vinter Raelthorne IV was leading the invasion are true. I am sure your own sources already confirmed this. Although the invasion was driven away, our divinations have revealed he yet lives, likely fled once more into the Bloodstone Marches."

High Magus Calster nodded. "I can confirm he is alive. We've been probing for him every day. Although he is well shielded, we would know if he were slain. This very morning I was able to sense his presence, although not his whereabouts."

The Warmaster cleared his throat. "Well you say he is routed nonetheless, and his army put to the sword, I presume? Such a setback will hopefully neutralize him until he can find other support. We've taken measures such that he won't find any mercenary companies willing to take up his banner, no matter what gold he offers."

The Primarch raised an eyebrow. "He was not served by mercenaries, Warmaster. I had thought you knew his invaders were of a strange and unfamiliar race, called the Skorne." [11]

The Warmaster seemed uncomfortable. "Our initial reports of the Corvis attack were not very detailed and had the ring of panic. Such gossip is usually groundless. Half the attacks on the Black River from the Marches barbarians are described as infernals leaping from the bowels of Urcaen to rend souls and eat their children. Some face paint, primitive weapons, and bloody furs are enough to frighten even seasoned soldiers out of their wits sometimes."

Rebald spoke up. "I suspected they were not idle rumors, Warmaster. These so-called Skorne are real, I'm afraid. Our scouts have seen them recently deep in the Marches, although in small numbers, and quickly disappearing into the dunes. They were believed to be a primitive people, similar to the remaining godless barbarians of the sands. We had no idea they might be gathered in such numbers, nor even successfully communicated with."

The Primarch pulled a scroll case from within his vestments, and unfurled a piece of parchment onto the table, being careful not to upset the markers on the map. It was a skillfully rendered sketch of a strange face, with tight skin stretched across sharp bones, a large bald skull, pointed ears, and a mouth with lips drawn back to show pointed teeth. There was no question the face was inhuman. "They are not primitives, as we have discovered, but likely members of an advanced civilization with unfamiliar magic and weapons at their disposal. They also had the aid of trained beasts of war. Samples of their weapons and armor are being sent, but I have heard they are of excellent workmanship." He placed several other sketches on the table, showing both weapons and several unfamiliar animals.

The Warmaster tapped one of the sketches with a finger, his eyes alarmed. "Where did you get these? And your other information?"

"A letter was dispatched immediately by the local Prelate, who was very actively involved in the defense of the city. He is known to be an able researcher and historian, and worked alongside a noted professor of the University of Corvis in questioning several captured Skorne."

Scout General Rebald looked up. "Professor Pendrake?" [12]

"Indeed, the very same."

Rebald nodded. "A good ranger, tough as old boot leather and fierce as a gorax." He noted the inquiring expressions of the others and shrugged. "He's a professor of zoology at the University of Corvis, but spends most of his time chasing monsters and writing books. He's very good at figuring out what makes a species tick. I'd trust his theories on the Skorne."

Warmaster Turpin had been brooding, staring at the sketch before him. "There has definitely not been time for our army to have reached Corvis. And the forces dispatched from Fort Falk were insufficient and also late."

The Primarch nodded approval at the deduction. "Indeed, Warmaster. Corvis was not saved by your army."

"How then? You just took pains to inform us the city was not adequately defended." The Warmaster was baffled.

The Primarch paused and said with conviction, "It was the hand of Morrow that saved Corvis. Nothing less."

They all sat in shocked silence, absorbing that incredible statement. King Leto watched their faces, as disbelief struggled with amazement. It was for this reason he had asked the Primarch to attend the meeting personally. Had those same words been spoken by any other priest, they would have been met with scorn and dismissed.

Navarch Trent spoke for the first time, blinking at the Primarch in confusion. "You mean symbolically?"

"Quite literally. We have not had time to investigate properly, but it seems very likely Corvis was saved by miraculous intervention. It appears a prophecy three centuries old was fulfilled, and only by Morrow's grace and foresight were the people of Corvis saved from enslavement and slaughter. We live in remarkable times, and none of our priesthood anticipated such an event."

"With all due respect, your holiness,” the high magus spoke slowly, doubt plain in his voice, “that is a remarkable thing to say. Can you elaborate?"

Primarch Arius circled the room slowly as he talked. "Not all details have been gathered yet, and I am sure we will be puzzling this mystery for years to come. But there was a prophecy scribed in the year 295, when an Archon of Morrow manifested. The archon appeared to a survivor of a great slaughter. He commanded that a tomb be created to inter the bodies of a fallen army serving King Maligant. I trust I needn't elaborate upon that piece of history, as the troubles of his reign and eventual demise are well known." The gathered men indicated their ascent, for all present were well versed in Cygnaran history and knew the story of that particularly troubled king and his trials against Queen Cherise of Khador and the Tharn barbarians of the Thornwood. [13]

"We have never understood why those fallen men were interred with special honor,” the Primarch continued. “Nor why they deserved a manifestation of the will of Morrow. But it appears they were put aside for just the events that transpired in Corvis, events that are baffling in their ramifications. For the bodies of this fallen army arose and walked by the strength of an unholy power, yet served the greater good. And so the dead were given a chance at redemption for their past failures, and this seeming horror against the living was brought to Corvis against the invaders and succeeded in destroying the Skorne. A very strange miracle, but a miracle nonetheless, and the fulfillment of a puzzling prophecy." He then answered their other questions briefly, as best he could based upon the report he had been sent about the Witchfire sword and the almost forgotten tomb. The letter from the Prelate in Corvis related how a daring band of heroes had undertaken to solve the prophecy along with the priest's own niece, thereby saving the city after all the efforts of its inhabitants had failed. [14]

"We should reward those individuals for their efforts in assisting the kingdom," King Leto mentioned to general approval. He turned to a clerk of his entourage. "Draft a letter to send north to them. Those willing to swear the oaths will be made honorary Knights of Cygnar."

Rebald nodded at this. "Ah yes, the old ‘honorary Knights of Cygnar.’" He chuckled to himself, until he was silenced by a stern look from King Leto.

"Being a Knight of Cygnar is no small honor, Sir Rebald, nor is the ceremony given out lightly."

"Of course, your majesty." Rebald could sense his liege was in no joking mood today.

Clearing his throat, Warmaster Turpin spoke, "This is a most amazing turn of events. I'll send word to the force we sent north to investigate the city and ensure proper order is restored. I presume there were casualties, and we may need to leave some men to support the city guard. If there are any living Skorne prisoners still in custody I'll request them be sent here. Perhaps the dead as well, if examining them will serve of any use. Thank you for bringing us this news so promptly, Your Holiness."

"Warmaster, you misunderstand the purpose of this meeting and the importance of the Primarch's information,” said King Leto. “Corvis has been saved, but I believe we are now in far greater danger than ever before." He paused and then asked the question that traditionally started a war council meeting. "Warmaster, what is the state of the defense of the realm?"

Warmaster Turpin drew himself up proudly. "The realm is as secure and strong as ever, Your Majesty. Our armies are ready. Our borders are secure. The… insurrection at Corvis was my primary point of concern. But it appears that threat is no more." He consulted some notes in front of him. "We recently retired several dozen older steamjacks, most of which were decommissioned. The bulk of these jacks were purchased for use by Ceryl, which had need of them. We have been in negotiations with the Fraternal Order to produce cortexes to replace the outmoded jacks with new ones." The Warmaster shot an icy look at the high magus, then continued. "We are also proud of the success of our new mechanikally enhanced armor, and are planning to deliver several suits to Fort Falk to see how they work in the field—"

"Warmaster, wait." King Leto held up a hand to forestall the report. "You say the realm is secure, yet you have in front of you sketches of invaders who recently captured one of our most important cities. Invaders led by my brother in an opening salvo to regain his former power. Need I remind you that Vinter remains alive and at large, and no doubt returned to his new allies?"

"But sire, his army was crushed! That threat is over. Whatever the source of these Skorne, they will think twice before believing your brother's lies and promises again. Now that we are aware of them, I expect they will not find it so easy to capture one of our cities. We were caught unaware—"

The king had suddenly lost his patience. "Do you honestly believe Corvis was Vinter Raelthorne's objective? He is neither an idiot nor a fool. He was going to use Corvis as a launching point, I am sure of it. This was the vanguard of a much larger invasion force. He expected to hold the city against us in a siege, meanwhile bringing other forces to bear."

The Warmaster reddened. "This may be so, sire. But listen to the Primarch. Morrow himself favors Cygnar! How can we fear these Skorne with Morrow supporting us directly?"

"Morrow favored us when the Orgoth invaded also,” the high magus spoke quietly. “Do not forget that. We were not spared centuries of their oppression by miracles." [15]

"Now you are equating these Skorne with the Orgoth?" Turpin scoffed.

"And why not? What do we know of them, or their civilization? Before this we had thought there was nothing alive past the Bloodstone Marches. Clearly Vinter found a way to bring a thousand soldiers safely through terrain we—in our arrogance—believed impassable. Why not ten thousand? A hundred thousand? These Skorne were greedy for blood and spoils. Clearly they did not know we existed any more than we knew of them… until Vinter landed in their laps. Now they know we are here."

The Primarch spoke unexpectedly, "I agree that concern is prudent. I am fearful not simply for Cygnar, but all of the people our church has sworn to protect and serve. I did not tell you of the fulfillment of prophecy at Corvis to soothe you into complacency. I have no reason to believe more miracles are prepared to save us. The Prophet expects man to work for himself, to suffer his own trials and the consequences of his choices. By His wisdom we were saved this once, giving us warning. But that is all we can expect. I would not hold my breath waiting for the Archons and Ascendants of Morrow to secure Cygnar's borders."

"Our borders are secure," the Warmaster insisted stubbornly, although with less confidence.

King Leto stood and placed his hands on the map table, his gaze carefully scanning the many tokens placed there. He took in the large cluster of pieces placed at Caspia, the bulk of the Cygnaran army and navy. There was a smaller but similarly impressive number to the west at Highgate, looking to the Scharde Islands. Smaller groups of tokens were placed at Point Bourne and Fort Falk, and at several fortresses along the northern Thornwood. A number of pieces representing token garrisons were in Llael, their ally to the north.

He faced his treasurer, who had not yet spoken. "Lord Treasurer Corumny, ignoring for a moment the unknown Skorne, what are the three primary threats to Cygnar?" This was an old tradition in the war council, using the newest member as a sounding board to prove a point. It also served to educate junior members and encourage their participation.

The young baron knew he was being tested, and cleared his throat, standing to survey the map. He pointed to the north. "First, there is Khador. We have been at peace for years, but they still consider us rivals and resent our interference in their border disputes. Their current queen is just as eager to expand their control as those before her.

"Second, there is the Protectorate of Menoth." He pointed to the small territory east of Cygnar. "Although nominally still part of Cygnar, they grow bolder and more independent each year, and their military strength grows as well. They hate us very much. At the very least they would capture Caspia if they could, and destroy the Sancteum of Morrow to replace it with monuments to the old god." He glanced apologetically at the Primarch, who simply nodded for him to continue. The Primarch was well aware of the intentions of Garrick Voyle, leader of the Protectorate.

"Last, there is the kingdom of Cryx. The dragon Lord Toruk watches us closely and with great patience. Rumor indicates he has been stockpiling weapons and is ready to attack any easy target along the western shores. His pirates have become increasingly aggressive in the last several years."

Navarch Trent mumbled to himself, "I'd like to see him try. Our ships are ready for the snake."

King Leto ignored the Navarch. "Thank you. Now, what is the greatest strength of each of these three potential enemies? And what is preventing them from their goals?"

The treasurer answered readily, his voice gaining confidence. "For Khador, strength is in their numbers and skill at conventional warfare. Their army is nearly as strong as ours, their cavalry superior. We have many more warjacks at our disposal, however, and also cannons and skilled riflemen. We can also count on greater arcane support."

"So it is our advanced weaponry and knowledge which holds them at bay?"

"No…" Corumny hesitated. "They would not seek to attack us directly, it would be too difficult, as past wars have proven. The Thornwood is too great an obstacle and protects our only shared border. Otherwise they would need to invade through Ord or Llael. It seems more likely they would seek to conquer one of those kingdoms first before turning on us. Distance prevents them, and our alliance with Llael. Ord has not formally allied with us, but Khador knows we would not stand by and allow them to be invaded."

King Leto nodded, pleased again at his instinct to have brought the young Baron to the council. "Continue, please."

"The Protectorate of Menoth's greatest strength is their fanaticism. They do not know their limits and are absolutely convinced of their actions. This makes them extremely fierce in battle, and we have found no way to reliably instigate spies or allies among them. Their numbers are, however, relatively few. They lack the force to attempt a serious assault on Caspia, not without grave losses. They are very weak with arcane support but have enough battle-ready clergy to perhaps make up for it. But they cannot rival us in warjacks, nor cannons, nor firearms."

"Perhaps alone.” Rebald could not resist interjecting. “But as we have discussed, we have it on good authority Khador is supplying the Protectorate with guns and steamjacks. Relations between those two are getting uncomfortably warm. There are far too many Menoth-loving fanatics in Khador."

King Leto nodded. "This is true. I'll get back to that. Continue, Lord Treasurer Corumny."

"Cryx we know less about than we would like. Their strength? Lord Toruk himself is a unique military asset, worshiped as a god by his enslaved people. Their armies are quite small, but supported by horrors we cannot pretend to understand. Necromancy on a ghastly scale, perhaps Infernal ties as well. Many thousands of well-armed ogrun and trollkin, plus Lord Toruk's unliving generals, themselves believed to be potent necromancers at the least, perhaps worse. I feel uncomfortable talking about Cryx, half of what we know could be grymkin tales designed to frighten children. Yet for all his terrible forces, Lord Toruk knows he does not have the strength to capture Cygnar, or he would have done it already. He has great patience, and appears to be immortal. He has rested in wait at least a thousand years. For what? No one knows. We have debated many times about keeping such a strong force at Highgate, which is expensive. But the consensus has been that this is necessary as a deterrent."

King Leto smiled to himself at the phrasing. The baron was one of the main members of his court—along with many powerful merchant guilds and nobles—who believed they wasted money on Highgate, and that the threat of Cryx was overstated.

"An excellent summation. Thank you. We are in a very precarious position right now, and I did not mean to insult you, Warmaster Turpin, by saying the realm is in danger. You have done an excellent job balancing our resources against these three threats." He paused before continuing. "Yet we are juggling here, and we cannot manage another ball thrown into the mix. We are already spread quite thin. Every week I hear nobles and merchants complaining about taxation, demanding that we reduce our armies since we are at peace. Our northern border is already weaker than we would like."

He indicated with a pass of his hands the scattered pieces along the Thornwood, and even fewer near the borders of Ord and Llael, most of them centered at Point Bourne. "We know quite well if Khador pressed for Llael we could not prevent them easily. They would likely capture the kingdom before we could rally a force sufficient to defend them." King Leto grabbed a handful of markers from Khador and piled them into Llael.

"What would we do? Send our armies from Caspia to confront Khador?" He moved the swan tokens out of the capital, rushing them north. "Leaving our capital open to invasion from the Protectorate?" His hand pushed the sigils with the holy symbol of Menoth a short distance to squat atop Caspia. Then he moved them back. "Or we could simply do nothing, and let Llael fall, cutting off our trade with Rhul, but how long before Khador decides to swallow Ord? Why do you think they are providing arms to the Protectorate? They want us threatened at our back door. They want our armies afraid to leave the capital. Each day it gets worse. We've heard Rebald's reports on the steamjacks being produced a few short miles from here across the river in Sul."

He grabbed the tokens from Highgate and moved them north. "Or perhaps we can send this army to engage Khador once they make their move." He followed this with the black serpent markers of Cryx, landing them at Highgate. "Shall we tempt Lord Toruk to conquer our western fortress? Once Highgate falls, so do the passes through the Wyrmwall, and his black army can flood through the mountains to our heartland."

Warmaster Turpin grumbled. "We've been through all this before. We know the threats, your majesty!"

King Leto replaced the markers. "True. And you have done an admirable job juggling with what you have. But tell me, if the Skorne decide to invade, with my brother—a man who knows all of these things—leading the way, how will we stop them? Which army will we use to watch our eastern border? Fort Falk has a tiny garrison, designed to protect the river trade from a few scattered desert barbarians. Which army will you move to watch the east, or to garrison Corvis? Which enemy do we taunt to attack us first? Is it preferable to request our capital be burned by fanatics, or do we want a dragon's army obliterating our western defenses? Do you think we can survive a war on four fronts, Warmaster?"

The old warrior had gone pale. "It would not come to that."

King Leto let the implications sink in, watching those he had gathered together, all of them looking intently upon the map with a new perspective, seeing vulnerability instead of strength. After a sufficient pause, he spoke again, this time more gently. "Now that we properly understand our position, I want to hear what we can do about it. We need to discuss options and actions. Now. Before there is a crisis. Before another of our cities is taken over by our enemies. Before my brother makes his next move. We cannot count on miracles again. I want to hear all ideas, however radical."

Warmaster Turpin eyed the Primarch uneasily, then spoke in a low tone. "Your majesty, given the sensitivity of these discussions to our interests—"

"The Primarch is our ally here, and there is no need to be concerned about his presence." He didn't add that even if he sent the Primarch away, it was likely the Church could discover the nature of their deliberations. Rebald had informed the king that he suspected one of the Warmaster's own subordinates was an informant for Exarch Sebastian, one of the Primarch's most trusted friends.

"If I could, your majesty?" The Primarch asked politely. The king nodded, and the priest spoke soothingly to those gathered, "The Church of Morrow does not serve Cygnar. Yet this potential Skorne invasion is of grave concern to us. We do not wish for a repeat of the Orgoth occupation, and will do everything in our power to prevent that. However, even without the Skorne, our interests lie with Cygnar. The threats to your kingdom are also threats to the Church. Even regarding Khador, which supports the Church, most of the troubles are rooted in the strong minority of Menoth worshipers there. It is they who are pressing for military support of the Protectorate. We in the Sancteum are keenly aware of the protection afforded us by Cygnar's well-being." These words seemed to reassure the old soldier.

Navarch Trent spoke first. "Your majesty, I feel we must press Ord into a formal alliance. They are as reliant on our support as Llael, yet refuse to acknowledge us. They continue to turn a blind eye to the piracy of Cryx, and even allow those smugglers free trade in their harbors! This is unacceptable. Their illusion of independence weakens us all."

The Warmaster responded, "Ord is too weak to help us, although I admit they are cowards and Cryx is getting fatter by their leniency. I feel our only option to secure our capital is an immediate invasion of the Protectorate of Menoth. We must subdue them and teach them the lesson we failed to provide at the end of the civil war. Once they are subdued we can strengthen our eastern border."

Rebald shook his head. "The Protectorate is far too strongly entrenched, Warmaster. Could we win? Yes. But at what cost? The loss in life would be enormous on both sides. It would also take forever. We'd have declawed ourselves and left ourselves ripe for the plucking. Do not think Lord Toruk or Khador will fail to act once we have committed ourselves against Sul and Imer." The scout turned to the king. "Sir, I realize it is a controversial notion, but I believe we must consider the offer made to us by the Cults of Cyriss. It could buy us time at the very least."

This was met with shocked silence, and even the king was surprised. The contact with supposed leaders of the relatively new religious cult was still something most of them were uncomfortable about. All eyes went to the Primarch, who appeared curious but not angry or alarmed. King Leto had not told his old friend about this, and had no idea if Arius knew already.

High Magus Calster was the first to speak into the silence. "And what help will they be? They are a tiny religious faction. Most are already loyal citizens of Cygnar, some of our best engineers are suspected to worship that goddess. I believe their resources have been exaggerated."

Rebald chuckled. "Are you sure you aren't speaking in defense of the Fraternal Order and your cortex monopoly?"

The wizard scowled. "It is true I would seek to protect our contracts, but I am here to help the throne. My loyalty to King Leto comes first. I am highly skeptical of these cultists and their intentions."

"We have been contacted by agents of the Cult of Cyriss,” King Leto explained to Arius. “They are offering to help us with technology in exchange for certain concessions and recognition. It seems very likely they have the means to greatly increase our cortex production, and possibly provide other useful weapons." King Leto did not mention that the cultists promised they could assassinate several key figures in both Khador and the Protectorate. "Their numbers are not so small as we were led to believe, if Sir Rebald is correct. And it appears their understanding of the mechanikal is considerably advanced."

"That would be logical." The Primarch agreed neutrally. "What type of concessions?"

"Primarily recognition as an accepted religion, and permission to construct churches in Caspia and Ceryl. Also the rights to a certain piece of land east of Orven, which is currently uninhabited. We have not yet taken their offer seriously. I know the Exordeum would strongly oppose this." Inwardly the king was annoyed with his Scout General. The man did not divulge secrets unintentionally, it was clear he had broached the topic in front of the Primarch as a deliberate gambit. "Right now most who worship that goddess do so very secretly, although we have passed no laws limiting their freedom to venerate whatever god they wish. All the same, there is a stigma associated with that religion. They are not trusted or liked, particularly by your own priests."

"This is true," the Primarch spoke carefully. "We preach tolerance. Yet the tenants of the so-called 'Maiden of Gears' disturb many of our priests, particularly among the Righteous Path. The cult has many secrets, and they are not interested in the improvement of mankind. Science is a useful tool, but taken to an extreme, it is dangerous. I would advise you to be cautious with them, Your Majesty. They must seek more than they have told you, and they always have hidden agendas. Nor do you know if they would honor their agreements."

The king sighed. "I do not trust them either. But I did ask for all ideas here. The thought of deals with that cult frankly makes my skin crawl. But perhaps we should arrange a meeting and hear the details of their offer." He nodded to the scout, but gave him a look promising they would speak in private on this. "By themselves I do not believe they can bolster our defenses significantly, but an increase in warjack production is worth considering." Warmaster Turpin reluctantly nodded, while the high magus brooded silently.

The Primarch was clearly more troubled than his calm expression indicated. He spoke again, "Your Majesty, if it would be at all possible, I would ask to be allowed to attend such a meeting, or perhaps Exarch Sebastian in my stead. We could be of service in gauging their sincerity."

King Leto stared at the Primarch silently for a moment, as tensions mounted. Such a request was certainly stepping beyond the bounds generally given for priestly involvement in political matters. "Perhaps," King Leto allowed grudgingly, "we can speak on that when details of the meeting are arranged. I wouldn't want to put either you nor the good exarch at risk."

The Primarch nodded graciously, and there was an uncomfortable silence. Lord Treasurer Corumny opened his mouth, but hesitated to speak until the king stared at him. "Your Majesty, it would only be a short term consideration, but don't forget the mercenary companies in the north. Their numbers as a collective are considerable. I have been frequently visited by their various representatives, and all major companies are eager for action."

"Eager for blood and coin," Warmaster Turpin grumbled, his face once again red. "Damned vultures, they're nothing but bandits. No good has ever come of dealing with them."

The treasurer continued, hesitantly, "Our coffers could afford a considerable number of mercenaries to supplement the army if we had need, although not for a protracted period. And if war breaks out, they will serve someone. They will fight for us, or against us. Khador has never been reluctant to hire their services, particularly the ones within our borders."

"Treasonous villains!" The Warmaster erupted.

King Leto held up a hand to silence the man, and nodded. "Mercenaries are likely necessary, if it comes down to battle. I hope it does not. Keep them interested, Baron Corumny. I want them to stay receptive to us. It may be prudent to hire one or two of the more reliable companies to help us patrol the eastern border, and perhaps garrison Corvis. Expensive, but it would prevent us from reducing our armies in Highgate or Caspia." He was struck by an idea.

"We may want to spend the coin to encourage some excursions into the deep Marches by those foolhardy and greedy enough to consider it. I think the Warmaster would agree we should not risk our own soldiers to that end?"

At this notion the Warmaster smiled slightly, apparently liking the thought of sending mercenaries into the deadly wasteland. "It would certainly be helpful if we could find this route Vinter is using."

The king turned to Rebald. "See if we can get some more people in the companies, to listen for rumors about offers from Khador or the Protectorate." He stood still for some time, tapping a finger on the table, eyes scanning the map before him. "Also it may be time to see just how far our friendship with Rhul can be pushed. And I wonder if any of these matters will be of interest to Ios."

"Not bloody likely," the high magus snorted to himself.

King Leto folded his arms. "That is all for now. Thank you for your time." He bowed to the Primarch. "And for your counsel as well, Your Holiness. We will meet again, once we have some additional information. I want no idea unspoken, no corner left unexplored. When we decide to act we'll need to convene the full court, of course. It is possible we have heard the last of the Skorne, but even without them we are confronted on three sides by hostile faces. The balance must change, and in our favor, or we are doomed." The others stood to leave, and the king added casually as an aside, "Navarch Trent, Warmaster Turpin, I also ask you indulge me in drawing up a theoretical invasion plan of Cryx."

They all froze and stared at the king as if he were stark raving mad. The Warmaster sputtered, "Are you serious, your majesty?"

"Quite serious. Just as an option, do not be alarmed. I want to see it. It does not mean we will put it into action. As I say, all possibilities must be considered. I'll expect to hear from you both within the week. Please get Admiral Wassal involved, and also ex-Commander Gollan of Highgate, if you can find him. And thank you for your continued loyalty and service in the name of the crown."

King Leto bowed deeply to them, and turned to go, falling into step beside Primarch Arius and winking at the old priest with a slight grin. Without quite knowing why, the king felt young again, and filled with excitement he had not felt since the crown had been placed upon his brow nine years ago. He did not relish battle, for he was a man of peace, but it was time for action. It was time to earn the right to sit upon the throne of the greatest kingdom of Immoren.

Footnotes

  1. The Sancteum is a sizeable area in the city of Caspia which is considered a sovereign nation unto itself, owned by the Church of Morrow. The Archcourt Cathedral is located there, and it serves as the home of the Primarch and the Exordeum. The Exordeum is composed of the 36 exarchs who work with the Primarch to oversee the entire Church of Morrow.[return]
  2. The Primarch Knights are part of the Knights of the Prophet—the paladins of the Church of Morrow. Primarch Knights are those which serve in the Sancteum directly.[return]
  3. The Order of Keeping is a monastic order of monks which serves the Church of Morrow. Their primary function is protecting the sacred relics of Morrow and the Ascendants, but they also occasionally serve as bodyguards for high ranking priests.[return]
  4. This refers to Father Pander Dumas, who is a major character in the Witchfire Trilogy of adventures. He is the leader of the clergy in the city of Corvis. More information on him and many of the events mentioned in this story can be found in the Witchfire Trilogy.[return]
  5. The Fraternal Order of Wizardry is the most influential wizard organization in the Iron Kingdoms, with headquarters in Ceryl but strong branch houses in most major cities of Cygnar, Ord and Llael. [return]
  6. The Strategic Academy is a state run university providing education on a variety of topics to certain military specialists. All Cygnaran officers are required to attend in order to learn topics such as history, tactics, and military applications of mechanika. In addition, the Academy trains those wizards which serve the army and navy of Cygnar, and educates them in the production of blasting powder for military use. All firearm ammunition used by the military in Cygnar is produced using blasting powder made by wizards of the Strategic Academy.[return]
  7. Greylords—Short for the Greylords Covenant, the only major order of wizardry in Khador. These were former members of the Fraternal Order which split with the FOW 300 years ago out of patriotic loyalty. There is a large rivalry between these two orders, since the Greylords broke the steamjack cortex monopoly formerly held by the FOW. Women are allowed to join the Greylords Covenant. [return]
  8. The Ascension Feast is a festive celebration traditionally held each year after the Ascension Mass, which celebrates the divine ascension of Morrow. All those who worship Morrow are expected to attend the Ascension Mass, even if not ordinarily diligent about attending church services. In Caspia there is a huge Ascension Feast sponsored by the Sancteum where all notables serving the Cygnaran government in the capital are invited to attend.[return]
  9. The Order of Illumination is a smaller wizard order, another rival of the Fraternal Order. This organization has its headquarters in Caspia and has close ties to the Church of Morrow. They are considered the most trustworthy of the major orders for they regularly screen their wizards for corruption. Unlike the Fraternal Order, this group does not discriminate by gender and female wizards are welcome.[return]
  10. The attack on Corvis mentioned here is a major element of the second and third books in the Witchfire Trilogy (Shadow of the Exile and The Legion of Lost Souls). After being weakened in the first book of the trilogy (The Longest Night), Corvis was left ripe for invasion.[return]
  11. The Skorne are a previously unfamiliar race of humanoids which dwells out in the deep areas of the Bloodstone Marches, previously unexplored by humanity. Vinter Raelthorne IV was the first human to ever successfully cross the Marches and was able to contact this civilization and band them together to lend him aid. He used their support to launch an attack on Corvis in The Legion of Lost Souls (WF3). Much is still unknown about both the Skorne and Raelthorne's crossing of the extremely inhospitable Marches.[return]
  12. Professor Pendrake is an esteemed specialist on the ecology and habits of numerous monsters and other creatures, a professor at Corvis University working in the Department of Extraordinary Zoology. He will be detailed in the upcoming Monsternomicon and was also shown in the Monsternomicon preview in Asgard Magazine #3.[return]
  13. The historical tragedy of King Maligant and his struggle with Queen Cherise are detailed in the introduction to The Legion of Lost Souls (WF3).[return]
  14. The events alluded to here all transpire in the course of the adventure of The Legion of Lost Souls (WF3).[return]
  15. The 800 year period of the invasion, occupation, and rebellion against the Orgoth make up the single most significant historical events prior the founding of the Iron Kingdoms. The Orgoth had their own strange and dark gods but allowed their conquered people to continue to worship, having nothing but disdain for these faiths. Many horrors and atrocities were committed by the Orgoth during this period, and neither the Temple of Menoth nor the Church of Morrow had the power to prevent them.[return]