“Everyone to their places. Have your conjurer start to summoning. I’ll go see if we have a viable plan to clear a path to the castle.” Grundoon said, and he began to walk briskly back towards the Judicial Corp side of the horseshoe shaped forest.
As he walked quickly, Grundoon kept looking towards the castle to see if they might reconsider and bring down the flags. They did not. He grumbled as he made his way to where he had left Reskinn and Zerxen. Grundoon loved a fight, but he didn’t enjoy an assault on a fortified enemy. He preferred open combat and was more comfortable with the tactics of battle in a more evenly balanced scenario. Attacks like this had so many variables. He gripped his axe and gritted his teeth. His entire career had been centered on an assault like this. In fact, it was probably more difficult. He knew this could be done. He just didn’t know at what cost.
He spotted Reskinn and Zerxen just beyond the trees, in the open area looking at the defenses of the Romillian renegades. Hilde and Jandle were still with Grundoon, Targul and Werdel were not far behind, still trying to adjust their borrowed armor as they walked. Grundoon paused, took another deep breath, and left the trees to see what the two orcs were up to.
Zerxen looked at Grundoon, and smiled, his jagged, yellowing tusks framing his mouth as he said, “I think our young friend here has a good shot at this, I think you’ll like the result.” He turned to Reskinn. “Go on, show the boss what you can do!”
Reskinn took a staff that he must have carved up in the last hour, held it over his head, and intoned some arcane magick. He then held the staff straight up, and with a loud shout, drove it straight down into the snow-covered earth. Ripples, like those made when a rock is tossed into a still pond, shot out in a triangular fashion away from the staff and towards the castle, which sat roughly a quarter mile away. It almost looked as if something living was swimming below the surface of the ground, and the undulations continued, without slowing or losing strength, and the ripples began to close upon the castle and in a wide enough spread to go around it completely. Everyone watching was shocked, and Grundoon couldn’t help but grin, his jaw wide open in amazement.
Here and there the ripples would dip, and large holes were revealed. Still the waves continued. Next it triggered a series of traps that caused noxious smoke to arise from the ground, probably an attempt to poison or disable attackers. But the third set of traps took everyone by surprise. Very close to the castle, and right where soldiers would be bunched up in an attack, massive explosions were set off, sending geysers of snow, dirt, rocks and debris up into the air and in all directions. The sound was deafening in the deadly calm of the morning. If the enemy wasn’t awake before, they certainly would be now.
As if on cue, the sound of crossbow strings being released could be heard, and even as the debris was still falling from the now triggered explosive traps, bolts began to fall all around the area, the defenders looking for possibly invisible attackers who had set off their most lethal traps. Then the bolts began to trail further out, and Grundoon said “Time to get back to the trees, everyone. The game is on!”
They made it back to the safety of the forest just as the heavy weapons on the towers began to lob projectiles at them. A large number of stones, hurled from a trebuchet, smashed into the trunks of the trees, and shrapnel flew across the edge of the grove. Soldiers hit the dirt and looked around laughing. Their enemy was planning on fighting, all right.
The conjuror that General von Unster-Kol had in his charge had done his work, and while the traps were being triggered and the enemy was shooting wildly into the forest and open ground surrounding the castle, all of the clouds in the sky had been gathered together into one large, angry thunderhead. It had taken several minutes to develop, but more clouds began to join the unnaturally occurring weather phenomenon, and soon it covered the entire area completely. The rising sun was blotted out, and anyone watching would have believed a powerful storm was about to be released.
That was precisely what was happening, but it was doing so just the way the Slothjemians wanted it to. Once conjured, the cloud provided fertile ammunition for the powerful chaplains of the Red Guard, who now called forth lightning from the heavens. Targeting the machinations of war on each tower, the clerics began to hit with deadly accuracy the trebuchets, ballistae, and anyone manning those weapons. Thunder blasted through the winter air as bolt after bolt screamed down on to the castle. Small fires were started, and screams could be heard from the walls.
The great round keep on the western side of the castle began to turn, as if it were a tankard being spun upon a table. Grundoon couldn’t even comprehend what he was seeing. It was a turret; a great, huge turret. They didn’t have a large number of bombards, they only had a few, but they could be aimed anywhere! He called out to the soldiers around him. “STAY DOWN! BOMBARDS INCOMING! GET BEHIND TREES OR INTO HOLES!”
Word spread like wildfire, and soon the soldiers were doing exactly what they had been told. The skirmish line hit the dirt and spread out to lessen the devastation of any inbound missiles.
The dragonriders, however, were already set upon their assigned task. Disabled by the lightning, the big war devices would pose no threat to the airborne marauders, and the dragons dropped out from the supernaturally created cloud like hornets from their nest. Roaring with a mix of aggression and bloodlust, the huge black-winged lizards descended on the castle with ferocity and zeal. The riders on them shot their bows, and cast spells to create even more havoc, and the dragons breathed gushing torrents of bright yellow acid down on everything, and everyone, in their path.
The great keep however, continued turning; and stopped when two tall, relatively narrow, wide-open windows faced the area where the Judicial Corp were hiding. Suddenly, two massive explosions erupted, and fire belched from the windows as the bombards inside went off. There was a high-pitched whistle as two flaming orbs arched gracefully, and terrifyingly, towards the grove of trees. They landed just inside the tree line, and the resulting explosion was enough to level a dozen trees. The soldiers yelled, and Grundoon raised his axe. “TO THE WALLS!” he bellowed. “CLOSE THE GAP QUICKLY!”
The same cue was given in the camps of the Red Guards, for they were told to make their move after the dragons had begun their attack. The Judicial Corp ran out from the forest towards the castle, in four-person teams carrying the ladders they had built. Right behind them and from the east and north came the Red Guards to put those ladders to use. Everyone tried to stay in the area that had been cleared of traps, but since Reskinn had set the ripple off closer to the Judicial Corp position, it was they that had the easiest time getting to the castle, although it was a good quarter of a mile away.
The clerics shifted their lightning attack to the dome of the great keep, pounding it with bolt after bolt. It seemed to do nothing, and the turret began to move again to target the eastern portion of the attacking Red Guard. Grundoon, axe in hand, charged across the open ground towards the walls of the castle. Jandle was right behind him with his shield, and Hilde, Kreg, Porger and Cloe were on the Governor-General’s flanks. Next to him on his left was Targul and Werdel, and to his right was Colonel von Gheistler, and what troops he had that were not carrying ladders. The goal was that wall, and while there might be crossbowmen and other defenders to contend with, at least they couldn’t be hit by those damnable bombards. Around him were the archers of the Red Guards, firing arrows at every open window, archery slit, and crenellation. The suppressing fire was withering and must have been devastating to the castle defenders.
There was an eerie pause while the bombards were being reloaded, and two of the dragonriders began to target the keep. The dragons blew two rivers of acid into the open windows, unsure of what they were actually hitting. The riders fired their missile weapons into the windows as well, and offensive spells were unleashed. There was a tremendous explosion within the keep, and the entire structure seemed to quake as if hit with an epic version of Reskinn’s ground rippling magick.
The Red Guard let out a shout as they quickly crossed just over a quarter mile of open ground. Some of them were unfortunate enough to set off the traps that Reskinn had missed, falling into pits and staggering through the gas traps sputtering and gasping for breath. The majority of them, though, crossed the area unscathed, and as von Gheistler’s soldiers got the ladders into place, the Red Guards scurried up them without losing a beat. The larger, more heavily armored soldiers rallied at the front gate, waiting to be let into the fortification, and only after the Red Guards climbing up had cleared the ladders, did the soldiers of the Judicial Corp begin climbing up as well.
Grundoon had his party hold their ground for the time being, and after the first three Red Guards went up the ladder closest to him, he went up. Jandle was next, and then Hilde. Targul and Werdel went up another ladder, and Kreg, Cloe, and Porger went up yet another. At the top of the wall, Grundoon yelled out “BE WARY OF THE ACID! STAY OUT OF PUDDLES!” as he gathered up his family and friends around him. “Form up and stay close!” he told them. Let’s get that gate open!”
Leading the way to a staircase on the wall, Grundoon took a look around at the inside of the castle. He stopped dead in his tracks for a moment, stunned by the carnage. The hissing fizzle of acid was everywhere, and there were puddles of acid, and melted defenders, everywhere. The stench was awful. There were still some defenders around that had been inside various structures and avoided the dragon’s breath weapons, but as the Red Guards swarmed over the walls those defenders were being quickly overwhelmed even as missile weapons, shot from inside the towers and main keep, sporadically appeared in an attempt to lessen the attacker’s effectiveness. Grundoon stepped quickly down the stairs, careful not to touch anything with exposed skin. There wasn’t much skin exposed, but he was mindful of the acid regardless.
Porger was able to fire several arrows at the defenders trying to prevent the Slothjemians from accomplishing their task, and Hilde managed to find herself in a very pitched fight as she brought up the rear of the party. Two defenders, a dwarf and a human, had run out from inside a tower to engage her in battle, and she was backing down the stairs as she fought. Not the ideal situation, but she was more skilled than they were, and after kicking the dwarf off balance, and watching him fall into a large puddle of acid at the base of the wall, she deftly stabbed the human in the chest and watched him drop on top of the screaming dwarf. She regained her poise and continued to cover the rear flank as her father ran to open up the main gate.
Grundoon found the portcullis mechanism, and had Targul, Werdel, and Kreg get to work raising it. The barrier had barely begun to rise when the Red Guard poured through like water through a break in a dam. They ran through every doorway, slashing and hacking at everyone they encountered. Hilde joined them and led a squad of soldiers to the great keep. It had stopped turning, and Grundoon surmised that the bombards had been silenced by the two dragonriders. There could still be defenders inside, though, so the Governor-General held his axe aloft and yelled for soldiers to follow him as he ran after his sword-wielding older daughter.
Cloe, meanwhile, had grabbed her brother and led him down a staircase into the basement of a tower. Kreg had followed them, and Targul and Werdel were left wondering what to do next. This was not the kind of fight they were used to. This wasn’t as much “swing a sword” as it was “command the elements and set loose dragons.” They were entirely out of their comfort zone here but decided to follow Kreg and the children. Grundoon had plenty of help for storming that keep.
In front of the keep was the entrance to the gold mine, and it was the focus not only of the castle itself, but of the fury of the dragons. They had spewed hundreds of gallons of acid into the grated gate that covered the entryway. If there had been anyone down there, they were dead now. No dwarf or man could have survived that attack. Even now the wooden parts of the grate were being eaten away by the acid. The fumes coming up through the gate were nauseating.
Several ogres had bunched up outside of the keep door and were swinging huge hammers to knock down the ironclad portals. They were angry, yes, but they were mostly excited to be at war. If there was another way into the keep, nobody had yet found it, and there were prisoners being taken now from elsewhere in the castle. The death knight stood in front of the mine opening and supervised the rounding up of surviving defenders. Most had acid burns, and none of them had any heart to continue this battle. This display of overwhelming force had been more than enough to convince them that resisting Slothjemian rule was a pointless endeavor.
General von Unster-Kol stood next to Baron von Vorkel, and the two men waited for the ogres to batter down the door. Grundoon looked over at the Red Guard commandant and said “Have your conjurer turn this storm cloud into rain. We need to wash the acid off of this place if we are going to get anything done.”
Argrowl laughed and went to carry out the request. After about ten minutes, rain began to fall, increasing in intensity until it became a deluge. The Slothjemians all shouted out in joy, and found the cold water refreshing. The rain lasted for several minutes, and then began to subside into a light drizzle. It had been enough to rinse away the acid though, and the soldiers, while wary of puddles, could more easily go about clearing the castle of defenders and loot.
Hilde went right up to Jandle and said, “Give me my father’s shield.” Jandle looked at Grundoon, but he wasn’t paying attention. He looked back at Hilde, who said impatiently, “Now, you little lizard. He doesn’t need it.”
Jandle took the shield, which was bigger than he was, off of his backpack and handed it up to Hilde. She took it, placed it on her arm, and then turned and went back to where the ogres had nearly broken down the door.
She spoke loudly, but with great authority; “Once those doors go down, everyone stay behind me. We are going in with shields up and expecting a fight. Keep your heads down and stay alert. Romillians love their blunderbusses, so let’s not give them any blood for their powder. Got it?”
The soldiers murmured in agreement and formed a wedge formation behind her. Troops with shields took the front, and those with polearms took the rear. Grundoon felt a soreness in his left forearm as he remembered the last time he engaged the Romillians in battle. Now he watched with admiration as his Sergeant-Major took command of an attack.
Hilde continued giving orders, telling soldiers to form up in groups to go up and down inside the keep. More and more of the soldiers began to gather, eager for their share of glory and bloodshed. There was a fine mix of races present, and all of them were listening to this lady orc outline their plan of attack.
The ogres finally crushed the doors, their mighty hammers sending the battered metal chunks into the keep with a crash. Hilde sprang forward into the breach, followed closely by the Red Guards in perfect formation. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than there was a series of small explosions from dwarven firearms. Small marble-sized bullets flew in all directions from the trumpet-shaped guns of the dwarven grenadiers, and the projectiles bounced off of the shields and thick armor of the charging Slothjemians. Grundoon couldn’t see what was happening, but he could hear well enough the sound of steel on steel. He wanted to be in the thick of it, but that wasn’t the job of the Governor-General. He stood outside as the soldiers poured into the keep, a relentless flood of combativeness. They must be making great progress, thought Grundoon, because nothing seemed to slow them down in the keep. The crossbow bolts and other projectiles ceased coming from the keep as the defenders inside turned their attention to the Slothjemians that had breached the defenses.
Overhead, the dragonriders soared through the cloud that was now beginning to break up. One of the dragons had perched upon the dome of the keep, and a couple others had decided to settle atop large towers. Grundoon smiled and looked at the gathering collection of prisoners. In the background he could hear the fighting inside of the keep continue.
Cloe and Porger returned from their exploration of a tower basement with trophies, and a few dead Romillians. Targul and Werdel had found plenty of equipment to claim as their own, and of exquisite quality, and set down their borrowed items near the front gate for the Red Guards to reclaim. Each tower had a basement, and reports were coming in from all over the castle that these basements could be quite extensive, and some connected to each other. None of them, though, connected to the mine complex that ran deep into the mountain on the west side. But there were lots of weapons and armor stashed away in those cellars, enough to equip ten times the men that had been living here. Whatever the Count of Pek-Shtandern had been planning, Grundoon was hopeful that it had been halted.
Curious as to how the fight was going, Grundoon hefted his axe and headed for the keep. Jandle and the others followed along. On the main floor in front of a curving staircase were the bodies of several dwarven grenadiers, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of invaders. A couple of Slothjemians were here as well, killed in the melee. Guessing that Hilde might have headed up, Grundoon went up the stairs too. They were narrow for defensive purposes, but the steps were finely crafted and gave good footing. There were bodies here and there, mostly Romillian, and the party stepped gingerly over them as they ascended.
The second floor was a scene of complete destruction. Bodies were everywhere. The hairs on the back of Grundoon’s neck stood up, his senses sharpening. He glanced about but didn’t see any sign of his daughter. He continued up more stairs.
Floor by floor the party went, finding more corpses in each place. The central room that housed the two great bombards was in utter disarray, with small fires smoldering all throughout the vast hall. How this building managed to swivel about was a mystery to Grundoon, but he was less concerned with that than of his Sergeant-Major. He led his group up the last flight of stairs.
There in the topmost floor of the keep he finally found Hilde, along with the Red Guards that had followed her here. They had cornered a dozen weary dwarves, and about twenty equally exhausted humans. Hilde had a nasty cut on her forehead and had lost her helmet. She still held her father’s shield, and her sword was poised to finish any fight that the cornered enemy wished to begin. The foe still held their weapons, but not boldly; more to give themselves the assurance that they would not die unarmed.
Colonel von Gheistler stepped into the room from behind the Governor-General and his party, and very quickly the entire mood changed. Removing his helm to reveal his skeletal visage, the undead warrior walked slowly forward through the amassed troops, giving them a chance to part and let him through. A feeling of building horror could be felt among everyone, friend and foe alike.
He walked up to the front, next to Hilde, and drew his longsword. The blade was black, as if covered in soot from a fire of unearthly origin. In his hollow, spectral voice he commanded the cornered enemy to lay down their weapons. To illustrate his intent should they not understand his language, he motioned with his left hand, pointing to the ground.
Fighting a goblinoid horde was one thing, but taking on this embodiment of foul, unliving power was too much. The humans dropped their weapons, and the dwarves followed suit. The death knight cackled with horrible delight and said “Restrain them! Take them to the other prisoners!”
The soldiers fell upon their vanquished enemies, and tore off their armor, making sure they were incapable of putting up more of a fight, taking their hidden weapons, and with evil laughter punching them to remind them who had won the day. Grundoon smirked and went back down the stairs to the courtyard.
It was still early in the day when the bodies of the Slothjemian dead were rounded up and hauled out. They would be taken to Castle Linkristle and be cremated there atop proper funeral pyres. The dead bodies of the renegades, however, were tossed unceremoniously into the courtyard. Once they were stripped of valuables, they were then taken out to be laid in the snow around the castle, where scavengers were already beginning to gather. Vultures, ravens, and other devourers of the deceased began to pick away at this ghoulish feast. Over twelve hundred renegades had been killed, and another two hundred captured. Slothjemia had lost almost three hundred soldiers, most when the Red Guard had encountered those untriggered traps. The rest had died encountering the heavily armed defenders, and their ingenious explosive weaponry.
The prisoners were marched out of the castle in makeshift shackles, chained to each other, and goaded along by the Judicial Corp soldiers. They were also headed to Castle Linkristle, to be housed in the dungeons there as guests of the Red Guard. Trangdor was at the gate of the fortified mine, now that the fighting was over, watching the prisoners being taken out. There would be tons of loot hauled out of this place, and a few squads of soldiers would remain here to finish securing the site. It was all over now except for the cleanup. As the prisoners and the Slothjemian dead were being taken off to the southeast, Grundoon came out from the shattered castle and stood silently with Trangdor.
The dwarf whispered to the Governor-General, “Where are their families? These men must have had their families close at hand. These tents and makeshift hovels around the outside of the walls have personal affects, and not all of them would belong to these warriors. Where did they go?”
Grundoon looked around. The dwarf was right. They had not encountered any women or children, and yet evidence led irrefutably to them having been here recently. Trangdor and Grundoon looked at each other, and then back to the iron grill sitting over the mine entrance.
“Oh, dear God.” Muttered the dwarf.
Grundoon clenched his jaw and started walking back to the sleighs in the forest.