An End... and A Beginning

 The Wasatch Irregulars have added a new game to our weekly rotation. Frostgrave: Ghost Archipelago. I have picked up a set of Amazon models that will work both for Ghost Archipelago and for Blood Bowl. As is my custom, I have written some fiction.

  In my first match, the leader of my team (the Heritor) was killed. Thus her story ended, and the rest of the saga begins:

  As Laodoke finished her rites, Dorinoe gestured solemnly. Marpe, Iphito, Pisto, and Antandre simultaneously lowered their torches to the funeral bier. Their ship waited silently in the dusk light of the west, nearly empty. The majority of the Sisterhood had come to shore to pay their last respects to their fallen commander. 
  It was now up to Dorinoe to lead her people. She had heard that the Heritors of other nations fought one another in their pursuit of the Crystal Pool. Even now with her leader fallen, allowing her to fully take up the mantle of power and leadership, she felt her duty and love binding her more closely to her sisters. 
  Some of them were also Heritors and Wardens. She felt great pride as they maintained their dignity in spite of the lust growing in each of their hearts. The Crystal Pool's call was strengthening as they grew closer. 
  All stood silent witness until the flame had burned fully to the damp earth. Wiping a single tear from her cheek, Dorinoe stepped forward, breaking the stillness of the ceremony. All eyes turned to her.
  "With Brenna's sacrifice, we have learned much," Dorinoe began, "Not least, the strength of our opponents."
  "Marpe. Celaneo. Choose you companions to accompany me as I continue our search. Laodoke, will you also join me? Your arboreal gifts will be much needed in the days to come."
  The Warden nodded, and the warriors raised an arm of salute to their breasts. Besides these acknowledgements, Dorinoe also noticed the gritting of teeth and tensing of muscles. Clearly, some of her sisters had thought we were to be picked. Dorinoe made a mental note to approach these women and reassure them of her love and commitment to them.
  "We will continue tomorrow. Let us return to the Triton."

The Storm

  Asce ducked behind the corner of a small stone building, cursing under her breath. That was close! 
  "What is going on over there!?" The archer behind her shouted through the howling wind.
  "That's why she's here! There's supposed to be some major necromantic power in that space!" The apprentice shouted back, her voice muffled by her cowl. She rubbed her eyes, trying to erase the yellow-green after-images that obscured her view.
  The overwhelming smell of ozone still permeated the whole area. For just a moment, the black storm overhead had exploded in blue-white light as a massive electrical current ripped through the clouds, striking four ancient pillars in the forest clearing Asce had just left.
  Tirani had charged right into the middle of the pillar formation, among the crowd of bones and dilapidated armor that covered the permafrost. Asce cursed herself for not the first time that day. If she had just kept the grimoir in hand long enough to return home, they wouldn't be out here in this aweful gale.
  "Hey, what's this!?" The archer yelled. Asce couldn't tell what it was. She could barely see the man through the thick snowfall. 
  "Something old and shiny! Probably expensive! I don't care what it is! Get it out of here!" she commanded. Directing these hirelings was becoming easier with every excursion. Maybe spending time with the Summoner had made her more calloused. Asce had come to see these creatures as barely worth their gold wages. One step above the mindless shark-like demon dogs they used. She didn't even know this one's name.
  As she turned back to see whether her master had made any progress, her breath caught in her throat. Just beyond the dark and twisted form of a withered tree, several unnatural shapes loomed out of the storm. Ruined flesh hung from humanoid skeletons that shambled into view, hollowed eye sockets glowing with green malevolence.
  There were seven... no... eight of them. Ghoulish pointed teeth in their slavering maws, led by a figure dressed in a regal purple gown. A queen of festering undeath. Where she commanded, the lesser shamblers obeyed, all of them moving slowly across a blasted hillock towards their prey.
  Tirani gave a sharp whistle and barked a command. The two demon dogs that had been with her quickly changed course, running and howling to engage this new threat. The Summoner continued to wrestle in the arcane space within the pillars. Asce could see that the bones and armor had come to life, assembling skeletal warriors protecting whatever treasures lay nearby.
  A short series of loud yips brought Asce's attention away from her master and towards her own escort. Taking a few steps to peer around the opposite corner of the ruined wall that was her shelter, she spared a breath to shout at the dullard behind her, who was standing and staring at the undead horde approaching. 
  "If you don't get that back home, I'll use your guts for a homunculus!" the apprentice threatened. It was a testament to her growing power that the more experienced man started trecking away in response, finally disappearing into the snowstorm. Asce grinned to her self in satisfaction.
  Finally, she saw her semi-canine protector. It was staring down three more ghastly figures that had approached from the direction opposite the ghoul queen, barking a warning and growling a threat. The remains of another demon dog were strewn about the snow and dripping from undead claws and teeth. 
  Using the butt of her staff, the young summoner drew a quick rune in the snow and channeled her essence through the mark, calling a servant from the abyss. The sigil glowed violet for a moment in response, the snow sizzling and steaming. Suddenly, the demon dog's flesh began to swell. Its muscles and sinews grew massive, stretching the skin to nearly bursting. Its panicked yips became a low and powerful bark that echoed from ruins unseen.  With unholy glee, the possessed beast lept into the fray, pale violet energy trailing from its slavering maw.
  Asce heard hardscrabble steps approaching to her left, and she whipped her staff around, ready to defend herself against this new attacker. With a sigh of relief, she saw Tirani dashing towards her across the stony ground. As she came close, she leaned heavily on her staff, panting in the cold.
  "Got it. Let's go." She commanded, pointing away from the arcane towers and their undead guardians. Asce started to move away, using her staff to avoid the least stable ground ahead.
  Just before the battleground faded into the fury of the storm, Asce could see her master's summoned monster struggling to hold the moving dead at bay. The ghoul queen's guard had almost all fallen, but it was clear the demon would not be able to hold them for long. 
  As the two spellcasters moved further away, Asce could still hear the booming call of her demon dog. She hoped that it survived to return home.
  "Hmm..." she thought to herself. "The dogs are definately better than the men."

Frostgrave II - A New Home

  Glori stood waiting at the next snowy intersection, her breath steaming through the scarf she wore over her nose and mouth. It had been a chilling trek after the ambush on the bluff, and Asce craved a warm bed. Well... she hoped for a warm bed. That part of the arrangement was still a little unclear.
  "Looks clear all the way back," The ranger captain told her master. She had been scouting ahead for ambushes. She had one of the devil dogs at her heel, and its breath came in great gouts of fog.
  "Good," Tirani replied, making small breath clouds of her own. "Fortune favors us. For a moment at least."
  Asce was anxious to see their final destination. She had imagined Tirani's lair in the top of a cold tower, ancient summoning circles carved into the stone. Or maybe it was in a dark and lonely crypt, with magic patterns laid in bone among the refuse of generations long past away. It might also be an open field with cairn stones marking cardinal points of power for binding demons. Any of these would be suitable for a master summoner, but none of them were likely to provide many creature comforts.
  Glori started off again, through a ruined square. The fountain in the center still burbled weakly below a frosted crust of ice, but neither the ranger nor the wizard paid much attention. They were at ease in a way Asce hadn't seen for the whole trip. This must be a familiar place to them. Did that mean they were close to the end of their journey?
  Catching a hint of some familiar smell in the wind, Asce was suddenly reminded of her hearth in her parents' cottage. She could see in her mind's eye orange embers pop and crackle around a black kettle, and could almost hear her mother humming while repairing an unknown garment.
  Shaking herself from her reverie, she tried to put it out of mind. Asce caught another whiff of woodsmoke in the air, and looked about to find the source. The surrounding buildings were the same ancient and abandoned husks common throughout Frostgrave. Walking for a few more minutes showed no further sign of life.
  "There it is." Tirani said, pointing as they rounded a corner.
  Up ahead, Asce could see a tall square tower dominating the edge of an empty public forum, its crenelations standing like crooked teeth and its windows cold and dark. She shivered at the thought of bunking in such a place. Just beyond the tower, though, she saw a rather dignified manor house with a thin stream of smoke rising from the chimney.
  The base of the house was constructed of solid flagstone, and the upper levels were of wood and plaster. The rooftop was of clay tile. There was evidence of renovation, with plaster and tiles that didn't quite match the overall color of the aging structure. One end of the roof was covered in a large canvas. Sign of further repairs?
  Asce's relief at the sight of a relatively warm and welcoming structure in the dismal city must have been obvious, as Tirani laughed at her apprentice. Captain Glori's eyes betrayed her amusement as well.
  "I'm not a monster, you know." Tirani explained. "I like a cup of tea and warm blanket like any other human. Like I told you at the start, you will be expected to work hard for the knowledge I will impart. But that doesn't mean you necessarily have to suffer for it."
  The wizard took on a regal pose and a superior tone.
  "You are very fortunate to have a tutor such as I. There are necromancers who force their wards to sleep on the bones of their craft, and sigilists who demand their apprentices rest upon their books alone."
  With a small bow of appeasement, Asce replied, "Yes. Thank you, Summoner."
  Tirani smiled in a self-satisfied way and moved towards the manor house, gesturing for Asce to walk beside her. Glori brought up the rear.
  "I found this place many years ago. It has taken quite some time to make it a home. I believe it was a laboratory or a library or an arcanum or some mixture of the three. There are scraps of knowledge and records of experimentation throughout the lower level. The upper levels I have converted into living space for myself and my companions. You shall be assigned your own room, so you may concentrate on your studies when you are not assisting me."

  

Frostgrave

We have started playing a Frostgrave campaign. I hope to have pictures posted soon. In the meantime, here is some fiction I wrote using my first Frostgrave game as a guide.

 

A first encounter
  A chill wind whistled over the the bluff, disturbing the few blades of grass growing through ruined flagstones and the remnants of outbuildings arranged loosely around a pair of grey crypts and a lonely square tower. Asce pulled her hood close and rubbed her hands together before grasping her crook staff in preparation. One could never tell what beings lurked in the towers of Frostgrave.
  Her mentor marched rapidly up the several stone steps leading to the tower door, inspecting it for arcane marks. Asce couldn't see any, but she wasn't at all versed in Sigilism. It didn't seem to be a strong point in Tirani's studies either, but Asce would never make that observation aloud. Only a fool chanced the wrath of a wizard.
  Tirani disappeared through the strong wood door for a few moments and Asce stomped her feet to increase the blood flow. The wizard soon stepped back down the stone approach towards her apprentice, who stood a little straighter in response.
  "There's nothing in there," she bemoaned, gesturing behind her at the building, "but my sources pointed us to this tower."
  She pondered for a moment, pursing her lips and stroking her chin.
  "Demons can be so perverse in their advice... I'm sure he was bound, so he couldn't outright lie to me... The grimoire must be nearby. Let's look near those crypts."
  Asce jumped in surprise as a low voice spoke from behind her.
  "I'll get the band organized, then."
  It was Glori, the ranger captain they had hired. She was a good tracker and seemed to command her men well. At her command, the archers and the lone swordswoman that accompanied them moved to the left flank, and she climbed the rocky hill to the right. Tirani brought three of her demon dogs up next to her, and gave Asce command of the last. It snapped its sharklike jaws and pawed at the ground with its powerful hind legs.
  "Fssssst!" Glori hissed from her viewpoint on the hill. When the two mages looked up to her, she nodded her head to the west and pressed her finger to her lips.
  Tirani looked pointed at Asce and then around the left side of the tower, then gathered her pets and moved quickly around to the right. The beast at Asce's side started to stir anxiously and sniffed the air. Practicing her talent for control, she brought it to heel and peered around her designated corner.
  Just barely visible over the ruined walls and between the two mausoleums, Asce could see a portly man dashing forward through the ruins. Tirani shouted a sharp command and her dogs set off running between ruined walls towards the man. Asce couldn't see anyone else, but suddenly the two archers and the swordswoman dashed off to the left, ducking low between a pair of rocky hills. 
  The devil dog at her heel started whimpering and pawing, sniffing after the soldiers. 
  "Oh, go on then," the apprentice said, gesturing vaguely in their direction.
  With a howl, the beast shot after the humans, overtaking them with ease and snarling at something beyond the rocky hills Asce couldn't see.
  Her attention was drawn back to her master as she heard the words of power she spoke. A circle of green-tipped flames appeard on the frozen earth, and the frost evaporated as a hulking winged brute materialized, flexing his muscles and struggling against the magical bonds controling him. After seeing the futility of his struggle, he marched westward towards the approaching enemy.
  Asce stared awestruck at the power of the wizard for a moment. This was why she followed Tirani. Someday, she would have the talent to bind such demons to her will as well. A rapid snapping of fingers brought her back to attention. 
  "Stare later! The dogs are hunting. Give 'em some help!"
  Knowing what was expected of her, the apprentice began weaving a summoning spell of her own. Rather than conjuring both the body and spirit of an extra-planar ally, she strained to call forth only the incorporeal portion, directing it to cohabitate with the soul of one of the three canines let loose by Tirani. A mist of fluorescent red formed a summoning circle that hovered before her face, framing the view of her target. 
  With a final hand motion, her spell was complete. A glowing sphere burst from the opposite side of her glyph and shot out at the dog. Without pausing for a moment, the beast continued its charge through the ruins. Asce could see its flesh begin to swell and harden before it disappeared, chasing after an enemy she couldn't see.
  "Good!" Tirani master shouted, successfully completing a possession spell of her own. Asce breathed in relief and treasured this rare boon.
  Beyond the hills and ruins, the metal and wooden sounds of combat echoed through the chill air. From her more forward position, she could still see the Tirani's demon making its way around the south side of the central mausoleum. Just beyond it, she could see several rough-looking men with hand axes preparing to meet their dread foe.
  As the demon reached the southmost corner of the mausoleum, Asce felt an unfamiliar static pull in its direction. With an electric snap, the wall next to the demon began glowing a bright blue. The apprentice didn't recognize the spell, but it was obvious there was another wizard nearby.
  For just a moment, Asce pondered the strange and serendipitous timing that frequently occurred in the frozen city. Was it the work of some supreme chronomancer? Was it the perversity of demonic advisors? What was it that caused wizards and their devotees to approach places of power at the same time? No expedition through the ruins went uncontested.
  "Oy! Where's yours!?" Tirani was glaring at her now.
  "Oh... right..."
  Asce framed her summoning circle in the dust at her feet with the butt of her staff, inscribing sigils and the required geometry with practiced speed. She gathered her vital essence and began to fill the design. She spoke several power words as the circle began to glow. As her spell reached completion, she could barely hold the form in place. The summoning threatened to fall out of order and her power dissipate. 
  "No..." she moaned, forcing more of herself into the proscribed forms. Sweat beaded across her forehead, and she panted with the effort. With a final held breath, time seemed to slow. The dust that had been blowing swiftly on the cold breeze now seemed to roll slowly across the turf. The space above her summoning circle began to warm. A sudden explosion of heat, a small form materialized, hovering in the air.
  It was a small thing. Chitinous plates over an insectile body, like a wasp the size of a cat. It buzzed its green wings angrily, pulling against the force binding it to its new master. Asce breathed several times and then tested her control.
  "Go," she croaked, pointing at the much larger demon menacing the thugs to the southwest. Her voice was weak enough she was worried that alone would allow the thing to break free. Fortune was with her, though, and it started drifting off in the direction indicated.
  "And bring back some treasure!" she shouted after it. Steam rose from her shoulders and head in the bitter air.
  There was no word of affirmation from Tirani this time. Not that Asce was expecting one. At least the demon hadn't turned on her. She had read from Melnor's Codex an account of when one of his apprentices failed in binding a demon after it was summoned. The details were gruesome, and Asce did not want to experience such a brutal end.
  A bright light flashed from the hilltop visible on the other side of the graveyard. A slender woman in a dark flowing garment appeared, her eyes squinting at the base of the rocky hill. Her survey complete, she wove a spellform Asce recognized. She hadn't mastered any, but had read accounts of spells allowing demonic power to increase a person's physical capabilities without taking full control of the subject's mind. Like a limited possession. She moved a few steps forward to try and see the spell's target.
  Sure enough, the portly man she had glimpsed at the start of the skirmish suddenly lept ten feet in the air, over the mage, landing behind her on the hill. His legs were bulky and distended when he landed, but they quickly reverted to a more standard human arrangement and form. He was also carrying a large book under an arm, and Asce hoped it wasn't the tome Tirani was here for. She didn't fancy wresting the prize from the man.
  An arrow landed at her feet, bouncing off an old cobble stone with a steely "ping" sound. She looked for its source, bringing her staff up as though to protect herself from another missile.
  Around the south end of the central mausoleum, she could see three men dancing back and forth in mortal combat with Tirani's demon. The were taking great pains to dart in and out of its reach, but it was clear who the victor would be. Her wasp had plucked up a promising looking chest and was trying to hoist it back towards her.
  Just beyond the wasp was her assailant. A mercenary. She darted forward to take cover at the wall of the mausoleum, looking for support from her master. Tirani was nowhere to be found. She had probably moved into the ruined buildings to pursue the magus on the hill.
  With a few quick breaths, she gathered her wits. She knew a spell that would help. Asce stepped around the edge of the crypt. She drew a symbol in the air with her fingertip, leaving a trail of bright orange hanging in space. Satisfied with the mark, she punched through it.
  A burst of hot sparks exploded from her knuckles as ball of fire streaked through the space that separated her from the mercenary. Maybe he was unprepared for such a direct attack, or maybe he overestimated his armor, or maybe he was just stupid. Whatever the cause of his deficiency, the consequence was finite. Only his smoking shoes were left on the heath.
  The howling and snapping of dogs brought her attention to the northwest. She crept around to the other side of her sheltering mausoleum. Peering around the corner, she watched as three devil dogs tore at the mage on the hill. She watched with a certain amount of pity as their demon-enhanced bodies tore at the physically weaker human. She hardly stood a chance against the onslaught, and soon fell out of sight. The dogs immediately loped down off the hill and towards another target.
  A green energy bolt lit the ruins at the base of the hill. The dogs had been pushed back by another mage. Moving closer, Asce could see through the ruins a balding older man dressed in a dark robe and wielding a staff. He was already casting more pushing spells to keep his assailants at bay.
  Hoping to aid whatever friendly forces were left, Asce began an incantation. She summoned a bright yellow ball of light and hurled it at the dark sorcerer, framing him in fairy fire and highlighting his position. Tirani's demon charged at the man, swinging wildly with deadly claws. 
  Surprisingly nimble for an old man, he ducked below the assault, again pushing his foes back with blasts of arcane force. Back and forth, left and right he dodged, giving his companions time to retreat. Asce could see them now, hustling away toward the horizon, loaded with books and scrolls and other treasures.
  Every one of his movements was highlighted by Asce's spell. She could see he was well experienced and powerful. It must have been his apprentice up on the hill. This was a true master. He even stood before the demon, scowling and unfazed by its presence.
  It was an arrow.
  Not a demon-possessed dog. Not a beast summoned from Other Realms. Not a firey bolt from another wizard.
  A simple arrow.
  Guided by Asce's glowing aura, a single arrow arced above all the myriad combatants and found its mark. 
  The wizard fell.

Shivering Courage

"Huff... huff... huff..."
  Holden's breath created great clouds of condensation in the chilly afternoon air.
"Huff... huff... huff..."
  The days were getting colder as they traveled north, and his striding companions had pushed him to trek faster and further than he considered himself capable. He had stopped trying to calculate the miles they were covering.
  Ameth signalled for a rest. This was the leader of the strider scouts. Oh yeah... the dragon-legged elves call themselves Striders... "Apt name," Holden had thought. Only one of the many lessons the young human had learned during their interminable journey together.
  Ameth, Nolin, and Seldin. The three survivors of the destruction at the Manse. And now they were Holden's best (and maybe only) friends. For some reason, they had allowed the rifleman to continue traveling with them. Even after several of their own kind had joined them on their march.
  He moved to sit down at the base of a pine tree, his feet crunching through brittle frosted grass. His canteen was nearly empty. Hopefully, they would be making camp near a river tonight. As he caught his breath, he surveyed the surrounding forest.
  A chill wind had begun to blow, causing the trees to whisper secrets to one another over the travelers' heads. Ameth and the rest crouched in their strange feline way, always ready for possible ambush, even while resting.
  Holden heard no animal sounds. No birds. No scampering mammal. The air was charged with expectation. Like the whole forest was holding its breath. The boy hoped it was his imagination. 
  It was not long before the familiar song of wingbeats broke through the silence. It wasn't long before he could hear the great crunching footsteps of the walking beast that was now a part of the Queen's retinue.
  Holden sighed at the thought of her. She had caught up with Holden, the Striders, and the surviving four-winged dragon. They were also quickly joined by two more flying dragons and a huge six-limbed wingless monster with a toothed maw like a shark. The teeth seemed to go on forever inside its mouth. 
  Fortunately, the striders kept themselves distant from the warbeasts. Unfortunately, the Queen kept her dragons close like housecats. They practically purred in her presence. 
  "It's not like I have the courage to talk with her, anyway," Holden rebuked himself sullenly.
  The daredevil sorceress and her winged steed also rejoined the troup, and Holden was glad to see her, but some of her wild joy seemed muted since the last encounter. Aniss? Alice? Amass? Dang... forgot her name again... Anyway, she mostly tended to her injured mount and ignored everyone else.
  A quick motion from Ameth, and Holden jumped up. Rest's over. North again.
  The afternoon grew old, and the sky darkened quickly. Too quickly. Holden glanced up as he trotted along behind the line of scouts. The sun was invisible behind a thick layer of dark grey clouds, and the sky continued to glower down at him.
  The whispering trees became louder and louder. Soon, they were swaying heavily under a gail. White pellets begain to pelt Holden's bare cheeks, and he had to blink away flakes of ever increasing size. The crunchy frosted grass gave way to layers of cold buildup, and the trees gave way to a series of open hills, all quickly obscured by layers of white.
  The wind whipped hard around his ears, and Holden wished for the protection of the trees left behind. After a couple of slippery steps, he focused his attention on the ground. He bent forward, relying upon the sounds of the archers to guide him.
  The next time he lifted his head, he could only see a few yards ahead, barely able to make out Nolin and Seldin's forms in the swirling white storm. Seldin blew a signal with his horn, and Holden huddled up with the rest of the elves. A newcomer stood facing Ameth and the rest. 
  She had long strider legs, but her face was obscured by a red mask over her nose and mouth. She couldn't hear her over the wind, and he wished he could at least read her lips. Instead, he had to stand patiently. She gestured fiercely, and Seldin blew rapid sequence of notes back towards the Queen and her entourage.
  Holden had to duck as Alice and her hellion streaked by overhead. Her staff was glowing with an eerie blue light. She immediately disappeared into the storm. Some of Holden's confusion was alleviated as bright blue flares appeard to the north, illuminating the landscape before them.
  The striders stood in an open clearing, devoid of trees. A tall hill loomed far to the right of their huddle, with drifts of snow between them. Beyond the snowdrifts, Holden could see a pile of crates and a row of green metal barrels with some improvised barricades around them.
  Someone was already camped here... Probably not someone friendly... Holden watched Alice... no... Ylyss?... Yes! Ylyss! That's her name! He knew he'd remember it!... Holden watched Ylyss soar over the large distant hill, back into the storm, and out of sight.
  The new strider took position on the left, Seldin in the middle, Ameth on the right. Holden filed in with the other striders and ended up behind the Newcomer and next to Nolin. Together, they took deep breaths and squinted into the storm. It was dark as night. Only the space around Ylyss's flares were visible.
  Holden tried to find his courage, but it seemed to be was lost with the sun behind the storm. He shuddered from head to toe, and he wondered to himself if it was cowardice or cold. He didn't have long to ponder.
  About halfway between his position and the supply crates, the snowy ground began to rise. It bulged up like a bubble, sending snow toppling down in a near-perfect circle. And then, the bubble burst.
  A great roaring sound filled the air, echoing over the din of the storm, and a gout of steam burst from the top of the new hill. A massive chitinous mouth erupted out of the earth into the chill air, followed by a number of long fleshy tentacles, all steaming with moist heat and throwing long shadows from the nearby flare.
  Holden stumbled back away from the violent scene, and the Newcommer strider turned around questioningly. Embarassed, Nolin grabbed at the human's elbow and growled, "It's just the Maw. It's on our side, fool."
  Feeling his tentative friendship weakening, Holden screwed himself tight. He wouldn't let Nolin and Seldin's faith be in vain. This Newcommer was obviously a big deal to them. He set his jaw in a grimace to stop its trembling and nodded back to his companion. With boldness that felt a lie, he stepped back into line, firmly planting himself once again behind the Newcommer.
  She spared him one squinting look and turned to Seldin. She gave him a nod and then ran out into the swirling cacaphony. He let loose a long low blast on his horn, and the whole troop raced forward at a run to follow in her wake. Holden quickly fell behind the archers, but managed to keep them in sight.
  Also in plain sight was the aweful Maw. "If that's a mouth, it surely goes all the way down to hell." Holden thought. Four massive jaws with rows and rows of glinting teeth encircled a long and gruesome tonguelike tentacle tipped with a chitinous barbed hook. Three identacle sinewy appendages were also waving about nearby, sending hellish serpentine shadows dancing in all directions about the arcane flare.
  Just beyond the light of the flare, Holden glimpsed the cadre of dragons passing around the looming hill to the east. He held his breath for a few seconds, but the Queen stayed lost in the frigid darkness. With a sigh, he tromped on through the deepening snow towards his companions.
  As he approached, the silhouette of a massive lone tree dominated the northern view. The striders had all congregated just to the south of this landmark and were prepared to move east. Holden still couldn't fathom how they could be so coordinated with one another and with the rest of their battle group with only a single horn for communication. It seemed he was always just following on their heels as they moved together as one.
  The storm stalled around them for a moment, and the six-winged dragon hove into view, followed by all the other blighted beasts. The underside of their many appendages illuminated a bright icy blue, and the fire in their mouths glowed red hot. The warmth of these great animals was almost inviting in the midst of the storm. Holden flexed his fingers and stamped his feet to work up the insulation in his extremities.
  They all faced east, like the striders. Holden had not yet seen the enemy, but these fantastic creatures seemed to know what was happening beyond sight. The Queen floated in over the flares, directing her forces wordlessly. The young man stole a look at her. She seemed unaffected by the turbulent weather. She was filled with primal heat, snowflakes evaporating as they came into contact with her. He drank in the sight of her.
  A muted yell and a horn blast brought him from his reverie. He looked about, trying to locate the source of the striders' disquiet. Low to the ground, a handful of armored crab-like monsters clambored across the white ground cover. They charged forward with ugly speed towards the angelic dragon closest. She hovered low over them, roaring a challenge. 
  A bundle of pincers and spines, the claw-monsters lept up and about the angel. She dodged around, sweeping them back and away from her serpentine flesh as they tore her wings and scratched her tail. Small streams of blighted ichor leaked across its pale skin and stained the white snow beneath it.
   Streaking from the grey chaos of the snowstorm, a bright firey red ghost charged at the weakened beast. Like a skeleton of glass, this spectre was irridescent and incorporeal to begin with, but it darkened and became more substantial as it approached. With its bony claws wrapped around the dragon's neck, the fantastic warbeast fell to the earth, its wings limp after a small flutter. With a small flash and an audible, the ghastly form disappeared from above the elegant corpse and reappeared several yards away, licking its horrid skeletal teeth while its form started becoming translucent again.
  The new strider lept over the draconic body, still steaming and warm, and took aim at the retreating ghost. Surprisingly, her arrow struck it before it retreated fully into the aether and it burst into a bright red flame and a thousand sparkling glass bits before disappearing fully. After taking aim and repositioning a few steps back, she fired again. This time, she struck one of the offensive crab beasts. 
  Unfortunately, it was made of much stronger stuff than the ghost. Its armor was hardly marred by the attack. Holden and his squad stood and aimed at the giant crawling bugs. One shot after another struck the small beasts, but they were largely unfazed. Their thick armor shrugged off most hits with ease and they started shuffling back away from the warriors' attack, staying low to the ground.
  His view now unobstructed by both friend and foe, Holden got his first glimpse of the enemy forces. The Queen's guard had all become tied up in a grand melee with a giant scarred beast with great tusks and bladed armguards protecting its large fists. The elephantine figure wore no armor, and his bronze-colored back sported a tall ridge of black hair. It had six limbs, though it only stood on two legs. Its dun flesh was crossed with many silvery scars that shone clearly in the light of a nearby flare.
  The Queen stood nearby, and dropped behind a one of the makeshift barricades for protection as a volley of needle-like projectiles fired in her direction. She remained unscarred from the onslaught. Looking for the source of the attack, Holden could just barely see the sillhouettes of warriors in the snowstorm, arranged in a firing line near a stack of supply crates that were now half-burried in snow. Their weapons were odd, a cone-shaped apparatus held like a rifle with many small holes in concentric circles around the tip of the cone, presumably for firing needles in a burst at a target.
  Holden's jaw started chattering, and he could no longer feel his cheeks or nose. Seldin blew a trio of high notes through his horn, and Holden wondered how his lips remained flexible enough to signal in the cold.
  Looking to Ameth, the command was clear: Destroy the gunmen! Ignoring the scuttling beasts for a moment, strider arrows felled the the enemy warriors one by one, leaving only a duo standing near a standard-bearer. For additional protection, Ylyss dropped from the sky, her staff glowing brightly in the darkness. Her magical command forced the winds into a new order all around them, disrupting the enemy's ranged attacks and giving respite from the chaotic storm for her allies.
  Holden took a moment to steady himself, distracted by the battle of the large warbeasts taking place just beyond the sorceress. It was a mass of flapping wings, basso elephantine cries, and the sounds of tearing flesh. Through the chaos, another tusked opponent had apparently joined the fray, causing the dragons further damage. Splotches of hot red blood and black ichor sprayed the pristine snow, steaming.
  The tide of battle started to turn. The larger tusked beast beat back one of the flying dragons, strike after strike pushing it further and further away from the center of the battle. This onslaught was followed by the second elephant charging forward close behind. The dragons were nearly beaten.
  A bright red flash of arcane power suddenly streaked through the mass of monsterous flesh. It reminded Holden of the spectre that had felled the angel after it was injured by the scarabs. It was bright and incorporeal, but gained solidity as it approached its target. It struck in a straight line like a bullet. Holden watched in horror as it passed straight through the makeshift barricade hiding the Queen like it wasn't even there.
  She let out a cry and held her side, glorious wings drooping and her pale skin stained scarlet. Three more magical shots passed from the space unseen beyond the monsterous melee. Each one found their mark, causing the Queen to stumble and almost fall. She clung to the barricade to keep herself upright, smearing the sandbags with her dark red blood.
  All of the draconic forces felt the blow. Even Holden could feel the pain... The loss... And the rage. As one, every throat opened with an ear-splitting cry. Greatest of all was the roar of the Maw. Several tentacles hooked into the flesh of the largest enemy beast, dragging it across the snowy ground towards the ugly mouth. It clawed at the earth, mixing dark muddy brown in long streaks as it was pulled. In vain, it struggled. Tentacles lifted the great beast high into the air and dropped it into the tooth-ringed maw. Holden glanced away, hoping to not be witness of the end.
  Instead, he caught a glimpse of a crowd of small men weilding whips and wicked knives that had been crowded around behind the elephantine beasts. Behind them was a large and commanding man. Not human. The right side of his face was covered by an ornate metal mask, and he had a crescent banner decoration atop a pole attached to his back. He held a golden staff in one hand, crescent shaped, with a glowing red sphere. The same damnable red that had pierced the Queen.
  The spiked and toothy dragon marched through the lesser men. He picked one up by his ankles and slammed it down onto another with the sound of shattered bone and flesh. It then drove its bony skull down upon the large warlock, knocking it to the earth. As though they needed commanding, the newcommer strider yelled and gestured.
  Another battle cry, and they all charged forward. As the great spiny dragon continued to bite at the fallen warlock, the striders made their attack. Arrows flew forward, most flying high above the melee. Holden dropped to a knee, holding his breath. A sudden calm fell upon him. He could feel the eyes of the Queen upon him as he raised his rifle. 
  Time seemed to slow in that moment. The flurry of thick snowflakes seemed to drift leasurly down through the air. None of the chaos of battle penetrated Holden's ears, only the sound of his breath, the beating of his heart. He blinked slowly as the arrows flew above the warbeast, missing their target. 
  He matched his eye to his scope.
  He let out a long breath through pursed lips.
  A small opening appeared through the mess of men and dragon.
  He squeezed the trigger.
...
  The stranger dropped, unmoving.
...
  Maybe now he would have the courage to meet Her gaze.
  

A Queen, a Prince, a Mountain, and a Machine

"Huff... Huff... Huff... Huff..."
  Holden's breath came in ragged gasps as he ran up a grassy slope, feet slipping on the dew.
"Huff... Huff... Huff..."
  In his mind, a mantra cycled in time with his pained breaths and stumbling steps.
"Shit... Shit... Shit... Shit..."
  The ground continued to shudder behind and below him in a deep rhythmic pattern, beating a slow and terrible counterpoint to his fluttering heartbeat. The massive death machine and its royal controller continued their inexorable advance. Squealing pistons and belching steam signaled the beast's readiness to distribute death.
"Shit... Shit... Shit..."
  Then, just a few yards up to the right, a low stone wall appeared out of the early morning mist. Holden had just enough time to take note of a well-manicured lawn with sculpted hills and symmetrical tree patterns in the corners of a low garden wall surrounding a stone tower. Some sort of manor house? 
  "Oh, please let there be no crazed warlock in there, ready to protect his manse with fire and magic and death," he prayed silently.
  The windows of the tower remained dark as the sky continued to lighten behind it to the east. The young gunman fell slumping with his back against the garden wall, gasping for breath. Sweat dripped down his brow, and he realized his panting had created a long line of saliva down his chin. Hurriedly, he swept the moisture from his face with a sleeve as he tried to gain some composure.
  When he looked back up from his sleeve, he found himself surrounded by a dozen tall, thin men ... no ... elves. They were all well-armed with bow and sword, wearing cloaks as black as the night. As Holden felt panic well up inside him again,  one of them stepped forward, placing his finger before his lips in a silencing gesture.
  The sounds of mechanical terror were crashing ever closer. As one, the group of archers dropped to a crouch.  It sounded like the end of the world was about to crash out of the forest and through the wall to the south. Holden held his breath.
  Something about their motion struck Holden as odd, and he quickly spotted why. These elves had monstrously extended legs that ended in bestial claws, scaly and rough. They crouched like lions rather than men, and wore no shoes.
  The frightened boy got up to a crouch and prepared to flee while these monsters were distracted. As he looked over them to ensure his cowardice would not be witnessed, the morning mist cleared and the manor grounds became more clear. These elves were not the worst things within these well-kept garden walls. 
  A line of living armor stood... or... floated?.. or... well... glowed, anyway... Wait, no... There's nothing 'living' about that armor. Holden's mind reeled for a moment, trying to absorb what he was seeing.
  A line of skeletal warriors stood upon the apex of a sculpted hill. The morning mist trailed up, evaporating from the points of their weapons, the sockets of their eyes, and the spikes of their armor. An odd green energy gleamed from the cracks between armor plates.
  Behind these ghastly figures, a tall warmachine stood on four legs, the first rays of light glinting off a crablike claw and the barrel of a massive gun. Holden paused, breath steadying, as the entirety of this newly exposed force moved east away from him. He thanked his lucky stars, and every good god he could think of, that he couldn't see the leader of that damned group. 
  Before he could collect himself fully, it became clear why the undead forces were moving. A sudden rushing of wind and the sound of turbulent air nearly deafened him as a flurry of giant bat-like wings churned the air to the north. Several massive beasts came tearing over the garden wall in organized flight. The young marksman shielded his eyes from the debris being flung in almost every direction from the countless violent wing beats.
  "She's insane!" Holden thought as a long winged beast passed directly overhead, a pale elven woman standing on its back. She let out a high-pitched war-cry and her eyes sparkled with a look of wild joy as she directed a blast of frozen air at the retreating armor. A handful of the undead soldiers stopped moving and dropped to the turf, inert.
  A short horn blast nearby brought Holden's attention to his closer surroundings. One of the elven archers was directing the squad to move forward from the line of the wall. Holden wasn't sure what the plan was, but he took a few stumbling steps forward, following the squad as they spread out towards the mansion tower, directing their gaze to the south where the warmachine was surely about to burst forth into the theater of battle.
  The human wasn't sure about allowing the winged draconic creatures out of his sight, but they seamed to be focused upon the undead to the northeast and the steam powered monster coming from the south. They all had many huge wings and long tails with wicked points. Their roaring maws glowed with internal firelight. As he hesitated, looking about the battlefield, he happened to lock eyes with the fiercest of all the beasts.
  She was lithe and powerful, hovering at the edge of a cultivated garden forest. She was a beautiful creature, elven, but with chitinous growths on her head and arms, and powerful wings kept her aloft with her cadre of warbeasts. All of the many-winged dragons showed obvious deference to this, their queen.   She moved with a power and dangerous grace that both attracted and repelled him. Her elegant body was like that of a panther or a python or a... a... damn... Holden ran out of similes. He longed to be hers alone, but also wished to be free from her forever.
  In that moment, Holden steeled himself. He could not flee from battle while her eyes were upon him. He moved to take position with the elves, determined to stand firm before the iron tempest approaching.
  As though on cue, the southern garden wall crumbled with a deafening cacophony of broken stone, crushed under the foot of a Khadoran colossus. Several storeys tall, with a massive central cannon and bristling with slightly smaller guns on its shoulders, steam-powered desolation was here. Walking calmly over the rubble at the heels of this tank was the Dark Prince himself, cold and scowling, who moved into a copse of trees that mirrored the small arrangement that the dragon queen was hovering near. He quickly slipped into the decorative foliage disappeared from sight.
  Several archers were dropped to the dirt as cannons shattered the air with a deafening series of concussions. The ground all around Holden was lifted into the air, and he was lifted with it. As he came down onto the broken ground, his vision went fuzzy and the wind was knocked out of him. He lay dazed and gasping for a moment and could hear some faint commotion of battle through the ringing of his ears.
  The earth was damp, and the grass was ruined beneath him. The shuddering of the ground felt more and more like the rocking of an easy chair. 

...
  For a moment he was miles away. A sound of frying bacon, the smell of a wood stove, and the gentle rocking of a warm comforting breast at his cheek.
  "Mother?"
 ...


  Holden's vision and hearing slowly cleared and he stood back up. The hell-scape from which he had momentarily been removed came crashing through his senses. He found himself stumbling on uneven ground and choking on black smoke. Most of the elves that had been standing nearby were now laying broken on the ground, unmoving. Only three were left standing; the leader who had shushed him, the obvious lieutenant, and the one with the horn. 
  Their attention simultaneously snapped south. Following their gaze, Holden glimpsed the Prince through the trees. They all shuffled to better position around him and shot into the trees. Holden was slow on the draw, still recovering from the barrage. He cursed as he was only able to get a single shot off before a short horn blast directed the four marksmen to move back from the colossus. They stayed low, trying to force the Khador machine to move closer if it wanted to fire upon them again.
  As they retreated, Holden tried to take stock of the battlefield. A number of Khadoran snipers had appeared at the crest of a hill to the south, and a smaller warjack was standing on the east side of the Prince's temporary hideout. From this angle, the cruel royal was no longer visible through the trees. 
  The dragons moved up behind Holden and the archers, preparing for an assault on the Khadoran forces. Their warm breath was suddenly now a comfort, and the swirling of their wing-beats a reassurance. The Queen had moved into the trees, and Holden selfishly regretted her lack of visibility. 
  Another salvo of booming cannon fire erupted from the looming Khador tank. It had chosen to ignore the quad of stealthy footmen and was targeting the large four-winged dragon on their west flank. The beast absorbed several explosive shots and was pummeled backwards through the air away from the warmachine. She crashed to the ground for a moment, but quickly righted herself and launched back into the air, roaring her defiance and rage.
  Holden ducked as a number of shots from the snipers on the hill hit the dirt. None of his new companions were hit, and he thanked the forces of good luck once again. As he was praying, the four snipers suddenly cried out their own pain, and collapsed in a heap where they stood. Looking east past the manor, Holden was surprised to see five large humanoids with over-sized repeating rifles at their hips.


  The five had blue skin, no noses, prominent chins and strange rocky outgrowths from their knuckles and joints. He had heard of these creatures in his travels... tribal warriors... fast healers... What were they called again?


  "Are they on our side!?" Holden shouted over the din of battle and pointing.
  The elf lieutenant turned to him with a look of pure disgust on his face which Holden took as a "Not during this lifetime" response.
  "Then why are they here!?"
  This inquiry was answered with only a shrug.
  Holden felt confusion fill him. Undead, Khador, Dragons, and ... Tribesmen..? Why were they all here? What was this all about?
  A new boom echoed through the morning air to the east. Holden saw what looked like a moving mountain behind the manor tower. There was a hail of armor plates and bone shards as the moving mountain's roaring blast destroyed what was left of the skeletal armor.


  A huge monster the size of the Khador colossus was laying about itself with reckless abandon. Armor scraps began to litter the north lawn, and the four-legged crab 'jack buckled at the knees under the repeated assault. This new beast looked like an extreme version of the tribesmen. Massive flesh speckled with stony growths, and a mountain of stone jutting from its back.
  Holden's attention was dragged upward as a serpentine six-winged dragon shot overhead, its eyeless face snarling with deadly intent. At incredible speed, it dropped down upon the warjack at the edge of the forest. The winged serpent whipped its spiny tail forward at the last moment and skewered the war machine straight through.


  The warjack went limp, and the fire in its eyes dimmed. It was slumped to the ground, with both arms resting in the once-beautiful turf. It continued to lurch about sporadically like a lame horse, but was totally ineffective.
  Holden and his companions fired several shots at the crippled 'jack. Their attacks did some minor damage to the machine, but failed to fully disable it. It continued to limp about pitifully.
  A familiar battle cry came from above as the beast-riding sorceress dropped into position near the archers. She yelled something unintelligible into the wind, which started whipping up into a frenzy. The air became turbulent all round the draconic forces, stopping the Khadoran monstrosity from making any further shots.
  Under this protection, the Queen emerged from the forest to better command her forces, only remaining behind a brick wall for protection. She looked slightly annoyed that the winged serpent had gone so far from her.
  The beautiful six-winged angel dragon suddenly stabbed into the forest, attacking the unseen royal within. He emerged from the trees opposite the beast and stood behind the colossal warjack. Holden looked between the machine's legs, and could see the Prince holding his side with blood dripping through his fingers and down his elegant armor.


  Directed by royal command, the great Khadoran death machine stepped back out of the windstorm. It focused all its firepower upon the newly sighted draconic commander. Pounding beat after pounding beat struck the brick wall and the soil all around. Holden suppressed a cry as the beautiful winged woman disappeared from view. When the earth and smoke settled, he was relieved to see her proudly hovering above the destruction created around her, coolly surveying the battlefield.
  The great mountainous beast stepped forward, his massive feet crunching the ruined armor and skeletons littered about. He took a great breath and then howled with more force then Holden had ever heard come from a living being. The sonic wrath of the Mountain knocked the dragon-rider down to the ground, and Holden didn't see her or her mount get up again.
  Holden's attention was drawn back to the crippled warjack as it crumpled down under the metal onslaught of the tribal riflemen, finally defeated. The blue men's attack continued, putting mark after bloody mark into the angelic dragon's wings and flesh. One last tribal woman stepped forward, two pistols in her hands. She took aim and with those two final shots, the serpentine dragon dropped to the earth.
  The surviving dragonspawn moved past its Queen, distorting the air as she passed. The Queen was moved several feet in its wake, turning to face the moving mountain. With a vicious cry, her sinewy muscles bulged, and her arms and legs lengthened to monstrous size. She launched herself into the air, coming down upon the mountain.


  She slashed again and again at the massive beast's flesh. Great ribbons of muscle and flesh came flying off the tribal monster, and Holden was shocked to see these gobbets of flesh start writhing of their own volition upon the earth. A few of them even grew arms and legs and started to jump around like little lawn gnomes.
  As the Queen struck her gargantuan foe with her piercing tail, he seemed to become drained of the will to fight. The Rage in his eyes dimmed, and the beautiful Queen seemed to use this sapped strength to empower her continued assault upon him. 


  The ground shook again as the Khador Colossus stepped forward, unleashing its explosive ordinance again. The cannon-fire struck the Mountain and the Queen, obscuring both behind smoke and debris. This time, Holden had greater confidence in the supreme woman's vitality, and was gratified as his faith was rewarded with a fresh view of her healthy frame.
  But his mood soured as the Mountain picked up all the little dancing flesh creatures around him and shoved them in his gaping maw. As he chewed sickeningly, Holden could see the Mountain's shredded flesh knit itself back together and the rivers of blood pouring from the its wounds dry up. 


  Obviously satisfied with its snack, the lumbering beast focused its beady little eyes on the lovely morsel before him. He bellowed at her, flecks of spittle flying about her in the air. More swiftly than seems possible, the Mountain then brought both of his fists down upon the much smaller woman, knocking her from the air. She struck the ground with a muted thud, leaving a dent in the soil of the sculpted garden hill. 


  This time, Holden did cry out. A wordless yell of sudden loss. Before any of the enemy forces could react to his outburst, his three companions grabbed him by his arms and began loping off the battlefield as fast as their distended legs could carry them.
...
  They stopped within the surrounding forest, just out of sight. After he got his breath, Holden used his rifle scope to watch the final maneuvers around the manor. For some reason, the Khadoran forces ignored the Mountain. The Colossal warjack was instead focused on one tribal warrior to the south of the manor, and the Prince stayed far back out of the scrum.


  Suddenly, one brave tribal warrior charged through the forest that had once protected the Prince, engaging him in single combat. With a few glancing blows, it was clear that the warrior was no match for the skill of the royal swordsman. He was soon bloodied up and down, looking ready to keel over. Just as his collapse was imminent, the warrior took one last swing, meeting the face of the Prince with one stony fist.


  He went down... 


  The Hunter. 


  The Prince. 


  Holden breathed a sigh of relief and quickly scanned the garden. There was no sign of his Queen. One last grateful prayer to the forces of good luck, and he signaled to the others that he was ready to go.

We started the Crossroads of Courage Season 1 with a bang! 

A four-player 35pt rumble game. Cryx, Legion, Khador, Trollbloods.

  Super fun! My Holden proxy is the sniper woman with the long brown hair and white backpack standing with the Striders.

 Special thanks to all those who played with me. You guys are the best!

Caught Dallas in the background while trying for a battleground shot.

Journeyman League Week 4 (part 1)

   We had a fantastic week, with obvious growth from all players. I created a little video from the pictures I took.

 https://www.facebook.com/michael.t.dearden/videos/10154470065008619/

  Our journeyman league allows replacement of all forces except the battle box battle group, with war caster replacement on week 4. I swapped for Absylonia2. The rest of my list included Angelius, Blight Wasps, Bolt Thrower, Neraph, Seraph, Shredder x2, and Forsaken x2. 

  My first match was versus Dallas, our press ganger, good sport, and host of the scrumcast podcast. He brought his trolls, lead by Jarl Skuld. His list included the Mountain King, Axer, Bouncer, Impaler, three Scattergunners, and Braylen wanderheart. 

  I won the first roll and chose table edge, as our terrain included a river that partially obstructed one side while there were forests on the other. I wanted to use the forests to my advantage and force the trolls to deal with the river. He chose to deploy/play first with the gunners on one side of the river to his right, the mountain King in the river with Jarl in the middle of the board and the rest of his battle group to his left. He put Quickness on Braylen, who spent all game on my right flank, plinking damage off my beasts and using one of my forests against me.

   My bolt thrower and wasps were to my left, using the other forest for cover. Absylonia, the shredders, and the forsaken were in the middle. My winged heavies started on my eighth and side.

  We both pressed forward into the central zone. Our week four scenario has a twelve inch round zone in the middle of the board, and you can score a point a turn if only your models are in the zone. I had a bit more shooting, so stayed back and toed the zone, while he used his feat to stave off my charge. He was really worried about my forsaken, who were getting well stocked in fury. He charged the Mountain King right up into my face, using a spray to destroy one of them. Unfortunately, his dice failed as he whiffed three attacks against my Seraph.

   My next turn was the real breaking point. I started with my surviving forsaken, who walked forward and ravaged the troll beasts that were up in my grill. I followed that with a feat. Absylonia used her siphoning strike tail attack to leach all the fury off the mountain King and bought extra attacks with each one. Wow, she is a beast. I cleaned up most of the board, but wasn't able to get any points because the King had dropped wells all over it. Gross.

  The endgame was a duel. Absylonia and the bolt thrower in the zone, Jarl outside the zone to my left, and Braylen still pestering me on my right flank. I was winning on points, so Jarl threw himself into the zone, where Absylonia finished him off. 

  Fantastic game! I might be in love with Absylonia2.  

More next time.

Painting and Demo Day

Tomorrow is the start of our local Journeyman League!

Our first event will be an assembly/painting/demo day. So far, about twelve people have signed up.

Once I've got the new models in my hot little hands, I'll be posting a bunch of painting videos, and hopefully running a twitch stream... if I can figure that whole thing out... :P