Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The False Moon War: Chapter 2

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Chapter 2.  The Intruders

Clan Catarrh was ascendant.  Soon it would reach its zenith and eclipse even the great Clan Skryre in terms of power and warp-token wealth.  Its warlord would have a permanent place on the secretive Council of Thirteen, not as first among equals, but as supreme Lord of all Rat-kind.  He would be envied, feared and worshiped in equal measure.

This was the fervent, but irrational, belief of Under Lord Pickit Raw, newly elevated to the position of Under Lord of Clan Catarrh.  At this time in history, the Catarrhi were a minor house, a vagrant clan which wandered like a tinker's cart about the Under Empire performing small acts of service or malice, aligning itself with those houses which seemed to be on the rise, and scuttling back into the shadows if their erstwhile allies were slapped back into their place.

By contrast, the greater houses of the Children of the Horned Rat, or Skaven as they more often known, had eked out vast domains within a network of tunnels and gnawings in the earth which spread like a cancer beneath all continents of the earth.  In their sprawling Under Empire, the bickering rat-men surely outnumbered the surface-things three to one.

The current dominant house, Clan Skryre, were masters of arcane and unreliable warpstone powered weaponry.

Powerful Clan Moulder controlled the northern fastness of Hell Pit and created ever more bizarre warp-mutated monstrosities in great cauldrons of flesh, bile and warpstone.

The masters of silent hand and poison blade, Clan Eshin, received few guests (and farewelled fewer) at their Dojo beneath the mystic orient.

Plague ridden Clan Pestilens retained holdings on both sides of the Great Ocean after expansion from their roots in the Lustrian ruins of Chaqua.

In contrast, Clan Catarrh was but a wretched band of servitors and warp fodder in the thrall of greater clans.

Due to the dynamics of Skaven society it was in some ways preferable to lead a vagrant rabble than a rising house, particularly if one was a gifted leader.  Such a chieftain attracted the jealousy of the schemers below, and the scrutiny of the rulers above.  The great lords retained their seats at council not by great charisma or even competence, but rather due to the dearth of suitable (that is to say, living) candidates in the echelons below.

When a vacancy had tragically and abruptly appeared at the head of Clan Catarrh, Pickit Raw found himself in the happy circumstance of his rivals disqualifying themselves from candidacy by dint of a remarkable run of poor health, nasty accidents and unexpected decapitations.  Within moments of his acceptance of the fabled Sword of Abstinence, symbol of rule of Clan Catarrh, he began to set his house in order with a purge of his most talented lieutenants, followed by an appraisal of his new dominion.

Without access to the benefits of wealth and influence, Clan Catarrh was left with the dregs of rodent kind.  Catarrhi warriors were poorly equipped and ill suited to combat even by Skaven standards, and her war machines were of questionable utility and undeniable risk to their users.

The slaves which made up such a large part of forces available for deployment were particularly pathetic and malnourished, as likely to fall upon their brothers as the enemy if it seemed like a meal was in the offing.

The fevered labour of the Catarrhi Plague Monks appeared to be in vain.  The most virulent contagion they had yet concocted caused no more than a boisterous night of diarrhoea and flatulence for its victims.

The Under Lord's dreams of greater things for himself and his clan could have remained unrealised, but for the fact that he was a rat of great ambition.  He knew that nothing of worth was ever to be achieved in Skaven society without confident action.  Or an envenomed blade.

Pickit Raw's plans were set in motion with a bold tactical withdrawal at what turned out to be an awkward moment for Clan Kanonfodr in its assault of the dwarf bastion of Karak Hirn.  He followed up with a generous relief effort for the remnant of his allies.  He relieved them of the significant burden of guarding their treasury with their sorely depleted ranks.

Subsequently, he led his troops and chattels to establish a holding West of the Great Ocean in tunnels abandoned by the monks of Clan Pestilens.  Soon he would amass prestige and the wealth required to buy influence.  And better thralls.

Lustria seemed like a land of great opportunity.  It was fabled to contain great wealth.  Gold leaf flaked from overgrown ruins, and gems glowered in the eye sockets of reptilian idols which stood vigil under the cathedral like canopy of trees.  The cold blooded inhabitants were known to have little regard for these riches, instead being obsessed with ancient plaques of little material worth.

There was also ample space for many clans in the echoing caverns beneath that land.  This compared favourably with the overcrowded and reeking tunnels of the Old World.  Strangely, Plague priests of Clans Pestilens tended to fall silent and make warding gestures if asked for the reason behind the surplus of accommodation.

Pickit Raw knew that he would need to build his empire gradually, and that a direct assault on the Lustrian interior would be unwise, or fatal, or both.  However, the wise principle of "choosing one's battles" had long been adopted by the Skaven, to the extent that it was almost an unofficial motto.

Given options, a warlord's first preference might be a vigorous tussle with his conscience while cowering in a hole, but the next best thing was surely a swift strike from behind (or beneath) an unsuspecting enemy which had recently acquired great wealth.  An enemy such as the one that Pickit Raw now observed through his cracked warpstone spyglass.

Rodekhil Offaleater reeled at the stinging blow and crumpled to one knee.  He blinked away the blood streaming into his eyes and slowly raised his head, fully expecting another lesson from his chief's gauntleted fist.

Welhung Thunderloin was done with the beating for now.  It was not an effective form of punishment against ogres anyway.  By contrast, when he applied this kind of discipline to his goblin-like gnoblar retinue it virtually guaranteed that any misdeed would not be repeated.  However, a contrite and dead gnoblar was of much less use than a living one, even if rebellious.  They tasted awful.

The Ogre Tyrant heaved a rumbling sigh.  He had held no great affection for the expedition cook, who had been a captive from Grand Cathay.  The food was tasty enough but none among the warband had mastered the use of the little sticks required to eat it.  There had been some nasty injuries as a result.

"Why the 'ell did you eat the flamin' cook?"

Rodekhil glanced up in surprise at the interruption to his beating.

"Well, every time we ett 'is nosh, we was 'ungry again an 'our later."  He cowered again, but the tyrant let his hand fall back to his side.

"You're always 'ungry again and 'our later, you pea brain!  Get out my sight!  You've got latrine duty until you 'ear different from me!"

"Awww, Chief!  Awww, but...awww...."  Rodekhil clambered to his none too graceful feet and shambled away, muttering.

Latrine duty was the worst of punishment details in ogre society.  For a start, the latrines were always situated far from the kitchen tent.  The worst thing was the perpetual nature of the task.  As soon as the detail had dug one "big 'ole" they would need to dig another before the first filled up.  If the next wasn't completed quickly enough there was a risk that the diggers would still be at the bottom of the first hole when it became required for use.

The Ogre Tyrant glowered after his lieutenant.  The punishment was harsh but the fool had created a serious problem.  Since landing on this dreary coastline the diet available to his troops had become more and more tedious, but the cook had somehow managed inject some variety into his meals.  This was despite the ingredients being pretty much limited to lizard and snake.

Now there was no cook, and if ogres don't get foods from the sixteen basic food groups on a regular basis they become restive and may start eating the equipment.  Or the ship.

He turned his regard to the substantial log building in the centre of his camp.  The heavy door was barred, and the enormous brass padlock would only unlock to the key that he now fingered on its chain around the part between his shoulders and head.

The ogre dialect was curiously bereft of some words which were found in other languages.  The word that was missing in this case was "neck".

The strong room contained what little stock of condiments remaining after the long sea journey and enforced sojourn on this beach.  There were cured meats and wines of the Empire, tubs of potatoes from Bretonnia, ripe cheeses and hogsheads of foul warm cask-ales from Albion.

"You!  Argsplat!" he gestured to one of his Irongut shock troopers, "Double the guard on the pantry.  Crack 'eads if you need to!"

His war band was close to mutiny and he knew it.  Best to minimize temptation.

Welhung's party had encountered no signs of habitation around the cove where they had landed.  The little grey gnoblar scouts did not return with reports of any threats.  They did not return at all.

This was not a great cause for concern.  There was no need for reconnaissance in force, because no one is foolish enough to assault an ogre fastness.

Using driftwood and trees felled from the edge of the jungle he had supervised the construction of a stockade in the traditional style:  A great ring of sharpened tree boles resembling the teeth and ravenous gullet of the ogre deity, the Great Maw.

After the camp was established, his ship was dragged onto the strand.  It simply was not wise to leave a vessel off shore with a skeleton crew.  As the hold was gradually filled with booty, ogre sailors with a better grasp of mathematics would eventually realize that a moderate amount of plunder divided among very few yielded a larger share than a greater prize divided among many.  More than one war leader had found himself with his back to the sea while being approached by a large delegation of the local "recently poor" who wished to discuss wealth redistribution.  Far better to beach the ship.  The task of refloating her required all hands to be present.

Camp life fell into a mostly normal routine.  Gambling, boasting, and brawling proceeded in an orderly fashion.  The only aberration was with the eating.

Gnoblar trappers would normally scour the local area to bring back game to supplement the stores of imperishables.  In this hellhole, trappers that ventured too far into the green vastness were simply swallowed up.  Even when beasts could be heard bellowing quite close to the encampment, ogre hunters who found and followed the wide trampled trails vanished.

The only meats that were in plentiful supply were swarms of venomous snakes and lizards. These didn't need to be hunted or trapped at all because they streamed out of the jungle and into the encampment at all times of the day and night.

For the first weeks, the ogres sickened, some close to death, from eating this poisonous fare.  As they developed immunity to poisons the sickness passed.

For a time all enjoyed crunching down on the tastily prepared reptiles, although most still struggled with the little sticks.

This contentment did not last, and now it seemed that every last warrior had succumbed to another deadly malaise.  Boredom.

Welhung's eyes swivelled under lumpy brows to gaze again at the steaming jungle which seemed to loom over the Ogre stockade.  He sniffed the air, grimacing at the smell of rotting vegetation, then spat on the detestable Lustrian soil.

"Not time yet," he grunted then lurched into his tent.

He had loathed this land from the moment he had come to it with his ship, his war band and his pathological hatred of bees and flowers.

The feeling seemed to be mutual.

"See, hee hee!  The dullard ogre-things labour for the Catarrhee hee hee!"  Under Lord Pickit Raw, could not contain his mirth.  From his vantage on a bluff overlooking the ogre camp he gestured with his warpstone enhanced blade.

"They dig-dig a great big hole within their nest.  We-ee-ee shall burst up and exterminate them! Hee hee!"

Scrumfrey Appalbee, Pickit Raw's not remotely trustworthy Permanent Under Secretary peeked courageously over a low bush and withdrew his silver furred head so quickly that he struck his chin on one of his misshapen knees.  From this low vantage he was well situated to fawn and grovel with effect.

"Yes, Under Lord!  With you to lead-lead the swarm, the ogre-things will cease to be, hee hee!"

Pickit involuntarily sprang into the air and dropped into a ready crouch.

Other races referred to a "fight or flight" reaction.  The skittish rat men only have a "flight" reaction.  Before he had even identified the threat, the proud Under Lord had calculated how quickly he could dive back down the burrow he had emerged from, who he could push behind him as a sacrifice to buy time, and three other routes of escape should the hole become blocked with his craven thralls.

"Lead-lead the swarm?"

The very thought caused a loosening of his bowels, but as the tempo  of his racing heart settled to a relatively calm prestissimo, he considered the merits of the idea.  If he could lead-lead this raid, the renown he gained might pay off a dividend of respect and obedience from his worthless subordinates.

Pickit Raw drew himself to his full height. That is to say his legs extended to a semi crouched position, and his hunched spine unfurled to the extent that his ears were a little above the height of his rounded shoulders.  For a rat, it was remarkably good posture.

This rat also knew how to dress to impress.  He wore black suede boots to the knee and bicoloured tights salvaged from an empire halberdier who seemed to have no further use for them. These were supplemented by a polished steel codpiece which, as it happened, was an unnecessary adornment. His brass buttoned, purple velvet doublet had dramatic puffed and slashed sleeves with contrasting crimson fabric in the recesses.  On his head he wore an ostentatious felt bonnet with a phoenix feather fully three feet long thrust under the band.  A satin cloak cascaded from his shoulders to drag in the filth behind him.  It was all very impractical.

"I shall lead-lead the swarm to victoree-ee-ee!"

Scrumfrey smiled at him slyly, barely believing his luck.  If the fool wanted to put himself in harm's way, then the under secretary would be plucking the warp sword from his master's cold dead hands sooner rather than later.

Real warpstone weaponry was hard to come by, and effective examples more so.  The Sword of Abstinence had a reservoir above the hilts which fed an inflammable gas to the warpstone crystal embedded in the guard.  The crystal could emit bursts of warpfire to scorch and dazzle an opponent in melee, or at need, the reservoir could be expended to create a wall of green flames which would persist long enough for the wielder to escape from unfavourable combat.

All warp-aspected apparatus has unfortunate side effects on the user, but the Sword of Abstinence was unusually benign.  It merely caused sterility and genital shrinkage.  This was preferable to unsightly mutations or spontaneous combustion, and a small price to pay for possessing a weapon of real power.

"Hurry-hurry, Your Resplendence, the warp grinder awaits!"  the silver furred schemer ushered his temporary lord back into the tunnel.

Welhung Thunderloin scowled at the baleful eye of Morrslieb.  Whenever the chaos moon had waxed full in recent months it made his ample stomach churn, and his thoughts turn darker and more violent.  He poked desultorily at the blackened snake on the board in front of him with a pair of bamboo sticks. 
The gnoblar kitchen hands had continued in the style of their late master, but without much inspiration, or indeed ability.

In truth, Welhung had not lamented the passing of the Cathayese cook, but discipline was discipline, and his hand had been forced into imposing latrine duty on his second in command.

Another ogre stumped up to the table and lowered himself onto a creaking stool.  "You'll never guess what 'appened."  It was Rodekhil Offaleater himself, covered with a light dusting of earth.

"Maw Grant Breakfast!  What are you doing 'ere?  You're meant to be digging holes, you muffin!"  Welhung blustered to his feet and balled his rock like fists.

Rodekhil held his hands up, palms outwards, "S'alwright, s'alwright, Chief.  I dug a magic 'ole"

"What?" Welhung could feel that this conversation was spiralling out of his control.

"A magic 'ole, Chief.  It don't fill up!  For two days now it don't fill up.  I stood about with my shovel just in case, but it don't fill up.  It just squeaks sometimes!"

In the tunnels beneath the stockade, Pickit Raw carefully removed his bonnet, spilling a gobbet of ogre dung down his collar.  He had been lucky to escape with his life.  Luckier still that he hadn't had his mouth open when the warp-grinder had broken through the bottom of the latrine trench. That whole gallery of the skaven workings would need to be abandoned and sealed for fear that the malodorous flood would eventually engulf the entire Under Empire.

He and his clanrats had been quick enough to retrieve their precious tunnelling machine, but nothing could salvage the Under Lord's dignity.  Or his hat.  As he slithered back to the chamber he had claimed as his private quarters, he resolved to never again launch an assault without sending a minion to scout first.

"I shall lead-lead from back here!"  Under Lord Pickit Raw declared.  He had replaced his feathered bonnet with a broad brimmed hat.  His surveyors assured him that his warp-grinder team were beneath the floor of the strongroom.

He had noted that the ogres guarding the structure had been reinforced and that each sentry exuded the watchfulness that comes with an expectation of trouble.  Thus, he surmised, the strongroom must contain treasure of some considerable worth.

The whirr of the warp grinder was interrupted by the clatter of falling rubble, then silence.

"We-ee-ee are through!" chirped the slave master supervising the tunnelling team from his position behind his leader.

The wily under secretary, Scrumfrey Appalbee, was still further back.  "Do we-ee-ee procee-ee-eed?" he enquired.

The Under Lord started involuntarily.  He had been unaware of the tension which had built in his body as the tunnel neared completion.

"Slave!"  he squeaked imperiously at a bundle of rags huddled against the tunnel wall.

In the dancing shadows it was just possible to discern a pair of glittering eyes under a fold of filthy cloth.  The creature he had addressed was gnawing on the emaciated leg of some hapless wretch.

"Slave!"  Pickit Raw tugged on a length of chain which led to an iron collar about the neck of the skaven slave, for that is what the creature was.  The slave carefully lowered the tasty limb to the ground and stood upon it and its scrawny twin.

"Slave! Cree-ee-eep up the hole and see-ee-ee if there are riches!"

The slave sullenly stood his ground.

"You will ee-ee-eat food aplenty."  That was all the motivation the wretched chattel required.  He sauntered to the head of the tunnel as his lord paid out the chain.

Like a rat up a pipe, for that is what he was, the slave disappeared from view.  An initial squeak of surprise was followed by the occasional metallic clatter and scrabble of paws.

Eventually, Pickit Raw tired of waiting for a report.  He yanked on the chain.  This produced a choking cough but failed to retrieve the spy.  In the end, Under Lord and Under-Secretary, together, had to drag him bodily from the strong room above.

"Were there sentrie-ee-ees?" demanded the Scrumfrey.

The slave shook his head mutely, eyes bulging.

Pickit Raw shouldered his courtier out of the way and grabbed the slave by his bony shoulders, "Were there ri-i-i-iches? Treasures?"  The slave nodded vigorously with his jaws firmly clamped shut.

"Hee-hee!  Follow me-ee-ee!" warbled the Under Lord, as he cast the cadaverous urchin to one side and swarmed up the tunnel.  He was followed by a stampede of his avaricious retainers.

The slave watched after them.  When they had departed he made a guttural sound at the back of his throat and spat a large chunk of golden cheese onto his hand.  It had been squirreled away in his cheek.

"My precioussss...." he crooned at his prize as he stroked it with a skeletal finger.

According to Argsplat, things were getting very ugly.  And as leader of Welhung Thunderloin's Irongut "Xtra 'Eavy Infantry" he was an authority on ugly.

The tyrant had been observed to leave the camp to inspect his ship's mooring.

Without the direct threat of an iron bound boot up the clacker, discipline among the ogre bulls had collapsed entirely and a ravenous mob had gathered around the pantry brandishing their Cathayese eating sticks.  
Argsplat glanced down at the hand-and-a-half meat axe that he held in his sweaty mitts and calculated his chances of successfully defending his charge.  His doughty sluggers shifted uneasily by his side.  He knew that they looked to him for inspiration when the odds were against. 

"Don't worry, lads!" he reassured them, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em!"

With that he whirled and began a frenzied meat axe attack on the bar on the pantry door.  With a roar, every last ogre rushed forward to smash the log building into matchwood.

Pickit Raw raised his glowing warp sword aloft to illuminate the interior of the ogres' treasury.  There was evidence of the slave's frantic supper, but no sign of jewellery, gems or coin.  There were some excellent cheeses and a brace of smoked hams, but nothing of lasting worth.

Scrumfrey approached the log wall and peeked through a gap between the massive timbers.  What he saw illuminated by the fitful torchlight outside caused him to blanch all the way to the roots of his silver fur.

"Sti-i-i-icks!" he hissed, "Ogre-things with Sti-i-i-icks!"

As the Under Lord wrinkled his brow in puzzlement, the walls suddenly shuddered as if they were being smitten on all sides by iron hammers.

The following daybreak, Welhung Thunderloin surveyed the wreckage at the centre of his camp.  He noted that the few ogres that had bothered to rise that morning seemed to be plump and content. 

"What 'appened?" he demanded of his Lieutenant, Rodekhil Offaleater.

" 'Aven't got a clue, Chief.  I was asleep."  Rodekhil picked a scrap of silver fur from his teeth with a little stick.  The tyrant regarded him in silence for an uncomfortable interval, then sniffed deeply.

The dawn air had a distinct chill to it.  The constant tang of vegetable decomposition had lessened, as if the steaming jungle surrounding the stockade had paused in its mission of corruption and decay.

"It's time."  He declared.  "Break camp."

to Chapter 3

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