Sunday, 10 August 2014
The False Moon War: Chapter 21
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Chapter 21. The Calm Before the Storm
Several things happened simultaneously.
The sun set in the west. (Not bad).
In the east, Morrslieb rose, bigger and closer than ever before.
The tidal forces of the Chaos Moon irretrievably disrupted the laminar flow of the Winds of Magic in the Great Vortex over Ulthuan. The Vortex collapsed into chaotic eddies. The energies that were previously collected and channelled through the Geomantic Web began to accumulate in the atmosphere. (Bad).
The magical wards at the polar gates, which had for so long barred the essence of Chaos from spilling into the material realm, evaporated. When the resistance disappeared, the Chaotic beings pressed against the wards tumbled over each other and into material existence like a billion evil slap stick comedians (Is there any other kind?). (Bad).
During this lunar cycle the Chaos Moon's orbit would decay catastrophically. It would eventually plunge into the earth in a cataclysmic release of energies which would destroy all life on the globe and tear a vast and permanent rent in the veil between the material universe and that of Chaos. (Very Bad).
The Great Slann Lord, Taistelaikch'ken's eyes opened. (Long overdue).
He opened his mouth and croaked inaudibly. Rodekhil shrugged and looked enquiringly at Caneghem who had trotted up beside him. The slann coughed and cleared his throat.
"The Enemy come. Prepare."
Caneghem bowed quickly and sprinted back toward the temple.
"Which enemy? We've got a few to choose from..." asked the puzzled Rodekhil.
"Daemons!" Caneghem, called over his shoulder, without pausing.
"Everywhere! But we shall make our stand here!"
Rodekhil followed. As he passed his general he said, "Me and the lads will 'andle this." Welhung didn't even hear him over the loud moaning of his wife.
Just as there is a calm before a storm, the winds of magic lulled. Magical pressure began to build. Caneghem could feel that a worldwide storm of magic would break, possibly within the next few hours. When that happened, daemons, who were confined to the polar areas by the relative slowness of their earthbound forms, would be able to ride the wild clouds and take physical form anywhere.
They would be attracted to places of magical power like ants to a picnic. Caneghem knew that they would feel the tendrils of geomantic energy which connected Taisteslaikch'ken to his brethren, half a world away in Lustria. The question was not if they would come here, but how soon.
His head throbbed with the rapidly rising magical pressure. Unnatural clouds were piling up almost everywhere. The exception was the Great Maw. Above that aggregation of earth-power the sky was clear. As the first stars of dusk began to glint coldly, they witnessed an unusual war council through their window in the clouds.
Caneghem, Rychek and Rodekhil planned the defence.
"We could barricade ourselves in the chamber with the dinner gong." Rychek suggested.
"Only as a last resort." Caneghem had not fought daemons himself, but he had studied their kinds, tactics and abilities. "We have no long ranged weaponry to keep them back, and we would be packed in like sardines. If they have Flamers of Tzeentch, we will be toast."
"Sorry. That was a half baked idea." agreed Rychek.
Caneghem surveyed the open area in front of the temple.
"This concourse is as flat as a pancake. If the daemons gather here in numbers, we will be in a pickle. There is enough room at the bottom for them to assemble ranked units or cavalry. If they can get the charge, they will make mincemeat of us."
"Charging downhill is bread and butter for the ogres." Rychek observed. "Any unprepared formations at the bottom of the ramp will be serving themselves up on a platter."
"Don't you think the ogres would be biting off more than they can chew? They will have a lot on their plate."
Rychek shook his head, "Even if they don't cut the mustard, Bessie and that rhinox, Rudolph, can charge into the flanks and save their bacon."
"We've been forgetting Chotec's Engine. Any daemons we can fry will be icing on the cake."
"What about our flanks? Our goose would be cooked if they got behind our lines."
"There is a marsh to the south, and a jumble of Sky Titan ruins to the north. They can't get heavy troops through on either flank."
"Even light units or flyers could potentially make us the meat in the sandwich. We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket." Rychek chewed over the situation. "The ogres and the monsters wouldn't be worth beans in the marsh or the broken terrain to the north. It's just not their cup of tea. But, it will be a piece of cake for Mahtis and I to upset the apple cart if the daemons cook something up."
"What about the ruins to the north? It would be a fine kettle of fish if the enemy slipped past."
"Bob and Joe are full of beans. They'll give any skulking daemons some food for thought."
Caneghem summarized the rough plan. "Okay. The ogres, monsters and Chotec's engine batter and fry any frontal attackers. You and Mahtis go make the marsh mellow, and the sauri give any other enemy flankers their just desserts. What if the any of our units crumble?"
"No use crying over spilt milk. We all fall back to the temple. If anyone wants to break in there, we will give them the whole enchilada!" Rychek grinned savagely.
Caneghem nodded slowly. They would not be able to hold out indefinitely against the numberless hordes of chaos but, before the end, they would ensure that the four Chaos Gods understood that this world would not be bought cheaply. He turned from Rychek to his other companion. "Rodekhil? What do you think of the plan?"
The ogre jumped as his name was called. "Whatever.... I mean.... I don't care. You can sort out the plan." He shook his head. "It's weird. For some reason I feel really 'ungry all of a sudden."
Rychek and Mahtis explored the marshland they planned to defend. Tussocks of sedge grew between pools of murky water. The pools were connected in places by narrow leads. Footing for land troops would be unreliable. The final approach to the narrow stair leading to the temple gate was reasonably firm, but it was surrounded by deep water.
They made a lucky find of a large clump of black bamboo some hundreds of yards to the south. With a borrowed falchion, the pair harvested many armfuls of the long stems and ferried them back to the temple.
Rychek busied himself cutting the thinner stems into five foot lengths and sharpening them to barbed points. When he had fashioned a large bundle of the improvised javelins, he tested one out on a rotten tree stump standing alone on an island of moss. The sharp stick flew true and stood quivering with its point buried in the wood.
Rychek sighed. Accuracy was fine, but the light javelins would not reliably cause fatal wounds. He missed his pouch of jungle poisons, left behind in his haste to pursue the ogres so many months ago.
This was no Lustrian swamp. It didn't naturally make an effort to kill or maim any visitors. Rychek and Mahtis laboured for another two hours to make it feel more like home.
They covered sucking pools of quicksand with thin mats of moss which looked like dry land. Where paths dipped, they studded the ground with sharpened bamboo stakes which hid beneath the shallow water. Where possible, they undermined the firmest trails. Each of their engineering works served to funnel attackers into a killing zone near the lonely tree stump on its bare island.
Rodekhil and Argsplat gratefully accepted the remaining bamboo staves. The wagon which had carried Welhung and Hellun received a battlefield makeover. The finished product was a heavy, rhinox drawn chariot which bristled with defensive spikes. Rudolph's harness received the same treatment, to make his flanks less vulnerable. His thick skull received no such protection. It had already proven itself to be impervious to harm. There was room atop the battle wagon for four ogres to hurl rocks or swing with their great weapons.
Bessie needed no enhancement of her natural armour. Under Caneghem's direction, Bob and Joe unloaded the sacks and barrels of supplies and stacked them carefully in the gong chamber.
"Why did we bring all this stuff? Food is okay, but why herbs and spices?" Joe whined. "What does this one say?"
It was too dim to read in the gong chamber, so Bob held a flaming torch close to the cask Joe was holding. "It says 'Black Pepper.' Or at least it does now. Someone crossed out the letters 'O W D E R', and then wrote 'E P P E R' in their place."
"Do we really need six casks of it?"
"I think I remember loading them. That Swedian Chef fellow helped out by handing them up to me. Then he said something like 'Gersh gurndy morn-dee burn-dee, burn-dee, boom-boom! Hurdy hur hur hur!' "
Joe put down the cask he was holding and prised off the lid. He scooped up a handful of the black granules and sniffed them. "Its lost its flavour anyway. Useless!"
He tossed the handful at Bob who was still holding the torch.
Caneghem was polishing the lens of the solar engine when he was surprised by a loud bang, a cloud of smoke and a wailing sound bursting out of the gong chamber.
After Bob and Joe had been stamped out, they showed Rodekhil the remaining casks. He grinned evilly. "Argsplat. Did you know about this?"
"No boss. In fact I 'ad a good serving of the tasteless stuff on my dinner last night."
" 'Mmmm. Best you don't take a torch with you to the latrine."
With the unloading completed, Bob and Joe were sent to reconnoitre the ruins to the north. The stubs of wall and piles of fallen masonry created a labyrinth of false trails and dead ends. However, enough passages connected through to make it a somewhat porous defence. If the defenders were to wait for the enemy to come to them, they risked being attacked from several angles at once. Their best option was to stay mobile and patrol aggressively.
If they could hit suddenly and decisively, they could ghost away back into the maze and choose their next skirmish. The enemy would be left off balance, not knowing from which direction the next attack would come.
At the third watch after sunset Morrslieb slid above the clouds ringing the Great Maw. His baleful green light cast eerie shadows. Caneghem and Rodekhil signalled their fighters to return to the temple. Last to return were Bob and Joe.
"It's a funny thing," said Joe, "but we found a whole lot of these in a cave back there." He held up a large glowing mushroom. It's cap was covered in square mirror-like facets which caught and reflected points of light. "Is this the same kind of mushroom that Rychek ate?"
Caneghem's jaw dropped. "That's a disco-cap! No one eats one of those and survives."
"He didn't eat a whole one. It was more of a nibble."
Caneghem shook his head, "Even in trace amounts the toxin has..... unusual effects. Did you notice any strange symptoms?"
Rychek examined at his toes in embarrassment. "Nothing worth telling a long story about...."
"It is a lucky find anyway, thank the Old Ones. Go get me some more."
Bob and Joe returned soon after. Caneghem got Mahtis to grind the deadly mushrooms into a powder. The skink priest needed some kind of paste as a medium to stick the poison to the barbs of Rychek's javelins. He rummaged through his kitchen supplies and came up with a large sack of root vegetables. Perfect.
He boiled them in a large pot of salted water until soft, then drained off the liquid, which he retained for later use as a soup base. Then he added a generous knob of butter and a splash of milk. He mashed the ingredients together carefully to ensure a smooth creamy consistency, and then added salt and black powder to taste. Last of all he stirred in the powdered mushrooms.
It was to become his most famous dish. Lustrian Mashed Potatoes of Death.
The mash was moulded into sausage shapes on the tip of each bamboo javelin. The deadly payload increased the weight of the point, giving Rychek's projectiles greater range and accuracy. The poison, once delivered, would do the rest.
With the front and flanks as secure as they could be, Caneghem and Rodekhil inspected the rear. Welhung had remained where he was, comforting Hellun. His lieutenant pressed the tyrant's mace into his hands. "Just in case."
Welhung nodded in gratitude.
Caneghem stood at the brink of the deck and bowed low. His master hovered a few yards away staring at the Chaos Moon.
"My Lord Taisteslaikch'ken, we have prepared for a frontal assault on the temple, but we can spare none to guard you. I trust you will be able to defend yourself."
The slann turned his unearthly gaze on the priest. "I commune with my Spawnkin, Tecciztec of Tlaxtlan, and with the great convocation of my brother slann. The moon can be defeated, but it will take all of our powers, and some luck. We... I.... will be vulnerable. I will summon you when you are needed." He returned his contemplation to the green orb which was halfway to its zenith.
Caneghem was buffeted by a sudden gust of the winds of magic, and Taisteslaikch'ken's palanquin wobbled and dipped. A lurid bolt of purple lightning was quickly followed by a peal of thunder. The storm had broken.
From horizon to horizon lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Caneghem could hear a new sound above the din. It was a deep metallic clash, repeated at intervals. He returned to the temple to find Mahtis striking the dinner gong with the huge beater.
The kroxigor lowered the huge beater. "They are here," he declared.