The eerie silence, the absence of sound, sent chills along his spine. The sun was obscured by rain-heavy clouds, yet the day was hot. The mist rose like tendrils of steam from the dense jungle on the opposite side of the river, reaching out across the deceptively calm water. The legion had finally reached the bridge. There had been no oppositon. Whether this could be attributed to the dreaded sight of Thayan banners in the old world or devilry by the natives was unknown. Around him stood the bravest of the brave, the Primus Cohors of his legion. Their faces, as carved in stone, were directed towards the distant shore. A thin coat of moisture covered their bronze-coloured skins and polished armor. Each man's shoulder plates featured a silver eagle. That was what they called him; Aquila. The wide-spread wings that formed the hilt of his sword felt as if they pulled him down. It would be easy to rest. He did not allow himself the weary sigh he felt entitled to. As the gathered men stood in silence, their sandal-clad feet sinking slowly into the soft ground, low noises were heard. The stomping of feet, the clatter of steel against steel, the grinding of leather straps. Cohort after cohort of soldiers formed on the river bank, until armor-clad warriors was all one could see in either direction. They seemed deceptively numerous. The mist cut his vision short. A man cleared his throat, and he turned around. "Avé Nevronis", the newcomer greeted him, and offered a salute. The fist against the breastplate produced an oddly muted thud. The son of Zulkir Nevrons' name hardly travelled outside the formation of soldiers. The quietness in the air was unnerving. He responded in kind to the greeting and saluted in return. "Legate Aquila, General Torturos sends word. Advance under the sigil of victory." Aquila turned away in silence, waiting for the messenger to depart before raising his hand. "Sagitarii!", he commanded at the top of his voice. The sound of commotion in the ranks followed. The silence fell again, for a moment, before arrows fell in black arcs over the stream, burrowing in trees and vegetation, splintering against rocks, or splashing into the water. "Fire!" The bow strings sung again, and another swarm of arrows was launched and swallowed by the black jungle. It seemed even more difficult to discern the features of the wilderness now. It was as if the bombardment had added yet another layer of branches to the ill-grown, twisted trees. Which was not far from the truth. Sagitarii, Thayan archers, advanced ahead of the infantrymen, standing knee deep in water now and aiming squarely ahead. "Fire!" The last volley struck not like the massive, death dealing hammer from above, but as the scythe reaping the grain. Arrows travelled in flat trajectories, cutting deep into the jungle. Anything less than a fully armored warrior would have been ripped to pieces. Yet there was no sound. Aquila had anticipated the anguished screams of the wounded, but was only treated silence. There were no enemies hiding on the other side of their aquatic obstacle. Where the hell were they? The orders had arrived however and he could delay no longer. The signal to attack was made. A deep tone from one of the massive war horns ignited a fire in him, as always. All men who had fought in the legions knew the significance to the signal. Aquila raised his shield, having decided the strategy days before. The two first lines, solid walls of shields and armor five men wide, marched over the bridge. His line was the third, and his sandals made little sound against the wooden bridge as he crossed. Hundreds of Thayans advanced over the bridge into unexplored territory. To their comrades on the home stream bank, it seemed as if the mist swallowed them.
It became more and more difficult to spot any details in the terrain around them. The overbearing, oppressive forest leaned over the thin strip of relatively clear land that had at some point in history been a road. His feet struck roots and ensnaring blades of grass at every other step, and muted curses were heard all along the column of soldiers. The land was still, as if waiting. No savages painted in clay and blood had yet appeared. Aquila marched on with the standard just behind him. The red square of gold-lined cloth worn on a high wooden pole featured the Thayan sigil of victory, a stylized rune. Beneath it, a golden plaque with Torturos' name inscribed. Last and smallest of the symbols, silver eagle wings. It was a mighty battle standard for the men to draw courage from. A runner appeared on the left flank, dodging roots and vines at haphazard speed before he reached Aquila's position in the column. "Legate", the runner said and saluted, out of breath in the damp air. "Report." "Four cohorts of infantry and two auxilia cohorts have crossed without interference sir. Wizard Atropos and his apprentices are also with us." "Good so. Return to your station... at your own pace, soldier", Aquila replied. They kept marching. As they penetrated deeper into unknown land, the mist grew thicker. The moist kept increasing gradually until it was no different than rain. Their cloaks were soaked by now, the plumes that adorned the helmets of the Cohors Primus started to resemble wet rags, and the standard itself had become quite heavy with water, as the occasional tilting back and forth as the standard bearer tried to maintain balance demonstrated. When the vegetation pulled back it did so almost immediatly. The last of the massive trees gave way to what seemed to be a plain. Long, damp grass covered the ground. The mist was still present, clouded his senses as he tried to learn the properties of the terrain. Scouts were sent out, men in light mail armed with spears. The cohorts lauched themselves from the forested path onto the plain enthusiastically as the order to camp was given. Reports returned that spoke of smooth, rolling hills, streams, and some skittish wildlife, mostly deer. They had not, however, found any end of the mist. Many had lost contact with each other and returned, neither able to see nor hear their comrades. Aquila was ordering one of this Architectii begin the digging of a defesive trench when a pale, haunted runner approached him. "Sir! Legate Aquila, sir..." "Breathe, soldier. There. Now, what is it that is so important that you forget to salute?" "Legate, there... the troops, they...", the runner stutterd, "they aren't coming. There are no more men on their way. The forest is empty."
The panic was suppressed by the iron-fisted officers, and through their superhuman efforts the soldiers remained in a rough rectangle out on the field. When word spread, some had despaired and thrown their swords to the ground. Those who broke formation were beaten with wooden clubs, and silence was harshly enforced. Scout after scout returned with the same unnerving report. The bridge was gone. The path ended in impenetrable jungle. Vines and twisting roots made sturdy barriers, and mist obscured everything beyond it. Whether it was loss of direction, a natural phenomenon or magic Aquila did not know. It was clear, however, that no more reinforcements would reach them. When order had been restored for a moment, and he dared risk leaving his command station, he sought the advise of Atropos. He was met with an unwelcome sight. The Red Wizard was found sitting on a crate rubbing his head, a grimace of pain indicating the state of affairs. A tent had been hastily raised nearby, the temporary quarters of the Red Wizards. "Esteemed Atropos, may I ask what ails you?" "This campaign has taken an unfortunate turn, Legate", replied the wizard, staring up at him with bloodshot eyes. "This predicament is not the product of fate, nature, or poor luck. This mist that seems to suffocate our collective spirit dampens the senses, and the arcane is no exception. Our attempts at divination have been unsuccessful to say the least. My apprentices have lost their willpower for now, they are asleep and exhausted. We have made our efforts, Legate. This forsaken plain seems to lack direction and logic. What have you led us into? Are we to remain here and fumble about blindly?" At the end of his tirade, Atropos fell off the crate towards Aquila, grabbing his armor for support. Pulling himself up, Atropos, somewhat taller than the Legate, pressed against him. His eyes stared into his own as his face started to deform, twitching muscles ripping without control under the skin. "Be very careful, Legate...", he wispered before his voice exploded in a howl, and his arms started flailing around, fingernails leaving bloody marks on Aquila's face. Soldierly instinct took over in an instant, and Aquila's dagger was drawn and entered the Red Wizards' abdomen, unhindered by the coarse robes and thin layer of muscle. The wizard in turn punched him with a strength that seemed impossible for such a slender arm to muster. Falling on his back, Aquila gazed in terror as Atropos, dagger still buried in his abdomen, turned on the closest soldier and twisted his neck with the strength and alacrity of a frenzied berserker. Aquila drew his blade and yelled: "Kill the Red Wizard, he is possessed by sprits!" No man dared strike, but several legionaries closed in with their shields locked in formation, rebuking Atropos' enraged attempts at their lives. The shield wall closed in around him. His fists, now smashed to red masses of bone and flesh against the steel shields, did not cease to swing. Finally a sword entered his back. As if acting on a silent signal the soldiers all attacked, and the frienzied wizard was cut down by a storm of swords. When the men backed away, the badly wounded remains did not resemble the Atropos Aquila had come to know. The features of the once peaceful, philosophically inclined diviner were entirely soulless, twisted beyond recognition and even humanity. A reddish saliva had poured from his mouth during the fight. It dripped from his chin now, befouling the intricately designed collar of his robes. As he was carried away to be buried, Aquila realized that they were alone, cut off, and had lost their farsight. A blind and vulnerable fraction of a legion.
The clamor was sufficiently loud to be heard even in the strange dampened atmosphere Aquila's cohorts had mached into. Backs were bent and steel thrust into the compact ground as hundreds of soldiers slowly dug a trench. They were all fully armed and armored, for while Aquila doubted the necessity of battle-ready men, he firmly believed that the discipline of the Codex must be upheld, especially when nothing else made sense. It was a familiar presence that the common soldier could draw hope from. Progress was slow, and annoyed grunts were heard all across the camp. The dirt beneath the long grass was wet, heavy, and intertwined by a network of roots that seemed near impenetrable. It was not unlike cutting through chainmail, and the task was made no easier by the Legionary armaments. A long woolen garment, a chainmail tunic, breast- and shoulderplates and greaves separated the Thayan Legionary from his environment, as well a heavy woolen cloak and a pair of iron reinforced sandals. To this he carried a dagger, a gladius and a helmet. The only exceptions for the struggling diggers were their shields and javelins, which were lined up orderly a few meters behind the trench area. Before the diggers, surrounding the camp in all directions, stood a single line of fully armed legionaries, visible only as a diffuse wall through the mist. The safety that the battle line implied was a mere illusion. Without clear sight, and with few means to make signals heard, a concentrated attack would overrun the camp in minutes. Still, Aquila was wise to the ways of war. The illusion was good enough for the soldiers to accept, and perhaps, any unknown assailants would be intimidated by the sheer amount of disciplined warriors. The Thayans knew more about their surroundings now. The final location of their camp had been decided by a nearby stream. The muddy, sluggish flow of water ran through the camp and would still their thirst. It seemed, to the best of the knowledge Aquila and his senior officers possessed, as a good location for a permanent encampment. Aquila found the approval of his inferiors welcome, as every day that passed without complaint meant more time. More time to concieve a strategy that would lead them out of the mist-land alive. He had no inspiration so far, all reports indicated that the plains continued for days of travel in all directions, except where flanked by the dense forest. There were no signs of civilization, no intelligent life and most importantly, no route of retreat. With a heavy heart, Aquila made his way towards the Praetorium, the command post of the legion. Curses were heard around him, and occasionally, the overbearing stench of successfully ignited firewood from the lush yet nightmarish jungle they had just recently left. Even warming the rations became an obstacle that needed to be conquered on this mist-accursed plain. Two men from the Cohors Primus, on each side of the Praetorium's entrance, saluted him as he passed them by and entered. The difference from the bleak surroundings was almost miraculous. A thick layer of carpets welcomed his feet as he left the soldier sandals just inside. Oil lamps, burning merrily, cast a warm glow inside the tent and seemed to push the mist away. Low couches and high-backed chairs were arranged in some semblance of practicality around a large table, which was stationed centrally in the tent. The table was surrounded by men which age, intelligence and decorations revealed to be officers. Slaves were skittering back and forth across the area, supplying scrolls, quills and refreshments to the officers. "Legate present!", announced one of the legionaries who stood guard inside the Praetorium. The officers, seven in total, turned to salute Aquila. He returned the gesture and signaled for one of the slaves to bring him water. As he approached the table he adressed a sullen looking man of mixed origin, the legion's quartermaster. "Has the inventory been completed, Urius?" "Yes sir. We have four months of supplies if the harshest rationing is to be upheld. To that we have a modest amount of iron for repairs and such, a few crates of cured leather and about the same amount of cloth. However, we have very little firewood", Quartermaster Urius explained, indicating numbers on a scroll so recently written that the ink had not dried yet. "Good so. How is the water?" "I think you are about to find out", Urius responded and indicated the slave who had just arrived, presenting a cup of the maroon liquid. Aquila accepted the cup reluctantly and took a sip, just to spit it out with a curse. "Cur! Are you trying to poison me? What the hell is this bile of the earth?", he burst out as he confronted the cowering slave. "Lord Aquila, sir! It's water! From the stream!" For a moment, murderous rage was in his eyes as he raised his gauntlet to strike the slave. All present fell silent, their eyes directed at the exchange between slave and commander. The slave, a female of small stature, fine-limbed and almost feline in appearance, cowered so pathetically that his anger dissipated and he lowered his hand. "Well", be began, and cleared his throat, "if this is how the water tastes, I suppose it is no fault of yours. Clean the cup and return to your duties." The tension in the room was lifted, and the small talk over details continued. "Legate, we have found two locations of particular interest", another man informed him. It was Terminus, the Equestrian Centurion of the Legion. The Equestrians, knights of Thay, were not regular soldiers. The Equestrians Orders were under the direct command of their Zukirs and, as such, authority over them remained a grey area which Aquila did not appreciate. Still Terminus was a hardened veteran who seemed to have no inclination toward disloyalty or personal ambition, and the Equestrians, although only fifty in number, were elite soldiers who could be depended on to hold the line against any enemy. Aquila responded with a nod, and Terminus continued. "The first is a cirle of standing stones. Runes have been chiseled into the surface. The scouts reported no activity or visual signs of magic. Still, the stone circle is marked by the touch of human hands, and we thought it worth investigation. The second is a lake. The water is murky as it is here in our camp. However, I was told our scouts noticed movement under the surface. It could be a source of food." "I understand. Take a detachment of soldiers and what equipment you may require and search the lake area in the morning. Try to catch a fish, if you can", Aquila said with a chuckle. "I will set out to investigate these standing stones." "But Legate, it is highly irregular, not to mention dangerous, to have our commander head out into the wilderness like that," Terminus protested, and a mumbled agreement was heard among the other officers. "It will help morale for the soldiers to know that I take action personally to deliver us from this peril. Unorthodox as it may be, we must make the neccesary adjustments to survive." The officers had no choice but to accept his decision, and the detailed planning and management of their camp continued.
Aquila stood ready at the ambigous hour that separated the black night from the day, which would come and leave in shades of gray. The senior apprentice of the late Atropos, a young woman named Vitella, was by his side. Although now the highest ranking wizard of their force her situation was similar to his regarding importance and security, she had flawlessly put the same points across to him, as he had to his officers the previous day. So there she was, white and green tattoo's forming a complex runic web over her bald head. She was shorter than the soldiers, most taken from the Cohors Primus, but she radiated even more confidence and authority with her robe and staff than they did for all their muscle and weaponry. Presently she conjured a ball of light that took air to hover above the head of a soldier a few places ahead of her in the column; after all, such an obvious target should not remain near its source. Similar to the lamps that Aquila had noticed, the arcane illumination seemed to burn some of the mist out of the air in its immediate vicinity, for he noticed an unusually large aura of clear sight before the wall of mist obscured it. Vitella herself, not wasting a moment to verify the location of the ball, turned to him. Her light brown eyes, full of focus and certainly a fair share of secrets which men of the blade had no will to comprehend, gazed into his. The classical Mulani features were noble and somehow distant to the humble conditions around them. She may as well have at the great Odeum in Eltabbar. Vitella was not soft, Aquila realized. That was good, because timidity could not be afforded. "Shall we march, or are you waiting for the world to align itself to better suit our feet?", she asked him without the ironic tone that one would expect. Her voice was emotionless. Such was the way of the Red Wizards, distant and neutral towards all but their closest friends. He was not yet that. "Excellent suggestion Vitella," Aquila agreed, purposely avoiding the honorific given to master wizards, and gave the order. The column, a hundred legionaries strong, set out. Aquila and Vitella marched in its midst. Ahead of the formation, and spread out along its sides, were the Auxilia. Carrying heavy spears intended for melee, and dressed in chain mail, they were supporting troops intended to spot any threats in their way and move quickly to support either side of the column. Their presence added another twenty men, bringing their numbers up to a respectable one hundred and twenty two. It would take a determined force of savages to stop them, Aquila mused. Then again, there was no evidence suggesting that savages inhibited this land. The group made good speed and at first, Aquila was worried that Vitella would not have the stamina to keep up with the rigidly trained soldiers. However, she appeared to be of strong physique and let no complaints be heard as they laid the miles behind them. The ground seemed to slope up or down constantly, as if the land was opposed to laying flat. As the hours passed, Aquila felt a strain in his calves, though he took care not to show it. Once their leader showed weakness the followers would feel permitted to do the same. As long as he remained strong, so would they, else they would shame themselves in his eyes. With the arcane light, he could see further than ever before, and the sights perplexed him. It was as if they had entered a world of myth, a natural paradise. A paradise, but one draped in grey tones, one which's excellence had been crushed by the force of monotony. Where he could easily imagine sparkling streams, clear lakes, peaceful meadows and roaming herds of horses, there was dead maroon water flowing without reflection or life. The trees were ill-grown, twisted and malign, assaulted by parasitic fungi. The animal life was limited to a few sickly looking deer and the odd hare tugging hopelessly on the resistant grass. The call of an auxiliary finally broke his depressed observation of their surroundings. "Legate! The stone circle lies just ahead, up the slope to your right!" "Secure the hill! The rear guard will take up circular position, Auxilia form a battle reserve. The vanguard with me!" Aquila commanded, and set out to conquer the final slope. On both sides, soldiers advanced to surround the hill ahead of them. Others advanced in close battle formation with their shields raised. Aquila and the wizard's apprentice marched on behind them until they had reached the standing stones. They were massive. Rough columns of granite raised in a circle, worn by time and wind but still defiantly standing. The wind was noticeable up here as they had climbed some ten meters above the plain. The mist was thinner, although they still lacked the wide view of the landscape that normal circumstances would allow. In the thick below, the soldiers were barely visible. Aquila rounded the stone formation twice, taking in the peculiar details. Each boulder was decorated by runes cut directly into the stone with tools that must have been remarkably sharp and durable. The symbols meant nothing to him being rather abstract, but some seemed to resemble everyday objects. At a glance he thought himself watching an ox, a tree or a quill, but at closer studies the lines were just out of place enough for the resemblance to be wishful thinking. He lost himself in the studies of the symbols, and was startled when Vitella, who had approached quietly, cleared her throat. He turned to face her, and she spoke in a quiet tone. "Legate. We have been investigating the death of master Atropos. Our analysis reveals that, after the energy of all us apprentices was spent he continued to scry on his own," she said with a hint of futile regret. "The atmosphere here is heavy. I am not sure how to explain it better, Aquila. We utter our incantations and although the spells should function, the environment pushes back. Rather than reveal anything it numbed us when we scryed, to the point where every last apprentice lost consciousness due to sheer physical exhaustion. It seemed to be a battle of wills, except there should be no will out there to resist," she continued, frustrated. "Then why did he die?" Aquila asked. "His body was buried hastily, before we could read his auras. However, what little we know indicates severe mutation. This is usually caused by posession of an alien will. Such as when a demon's spirit enters the body of a human. The results tend to be extravagant." "Who conducted the burial?" "I don't know, I did not recognize the man. Large, Mulan, grim in his countenance and less than generous with words," she described. Aquila knew the man to be Aulus Corvus, a Centurion of the third cohort. He kept the knowledge to himself. The stench of conspiracy filled his nostrils, and he did not give Vitella his full trust yet. Instead he changed the subject, indicating the standing stones. "What are these then? Sometimes I believe I see symbols I recognize, then they shift somehow into nonesense. Is there magic?" In response to his inquiry, Vitella waved her right hand before her eyes and spoke an arcane word. For a moment her light brown eyes took on a blue glow, and then she spoke, betraying a severe fatigue as she did. "These symbols have been enchanted. However, it is strange... one would expect the glow of spellcraft to be precise, but these are very diffuse. Either the arcane works differently here, or these runes are very, very old." "How old?", Aquila asked anxiously, displeased by the insecurity and wonder Vitella displayed. "Ancient. Thousands of years. The magic has lost its form and leaked out of its runic formation. I do not know the purpose they were once meant to fulfill, but with this degeneration this magic is errendous at best. Most probably the symbols can no longer fulfill any purpose." "How about their origins? Is this the design of Rashemi witches?" "No. I will have to consult the manuscripts of my late master to learn the precise origins, but I can definitly tell you this is not the work of Rashemen. None of the tribes or cults inscribe symbols such as these. The pattern is very strange" "I see, what else-," Aquila said, but was interrupted by a loud scream. He loosened his sword and cast a glance downhill, where the mist seemed to boil with movement. The unmistakable thunder of weapons against armor was breaking out on all sides. He grasped the forearm of the perplexed Vitella and started shouting, his sword drawn and aimed at the mist below. "Thayans to me, Thayans to me!" Something came rushing towards him from the mist. The form of a legionary solidified as he came closer, his mouth open to sound a warning. Before he could speak another man rushed him from the right and struck with a terrible ferocity. Blood sprayed over the standing stones, the crimson fliud of life befouling the ancient boulders. The killer, a man in rags, growled in soulless hate as he stared at the Legate and the wizardess. His weapon, a shard of obsidian wrapped in leather where his gnarly fingers held it, glistened with blood. He was deceptively tall, walking with his back bent and his wiry arms hanging from his shoulders without any resemblence of posture. The stranger growled again and sprinted towards them, raising his deadly if primitive weapon with a single jerking motion, as if controlled by a twisted puppeteer. Aquila released Vitella from his grip and stepped forth, squatting slightly and awaiting the attacker. The man struck against his throat with a wide swinging motion, still in full sprint. Aquila's left hand darted up and caught the wrist of his assailant, groaning under the strain of countering the force that drove the obsidian blade towards his throat. A moment later they collided, but the wiry stranger could not move the muscular Aquila and was repelled. The obsidian blade was freed at the impact, as Aquila's grip had been shaken in the collision. Before the man could use it Aquila's sword darted out, driven by the full weight of his triceps. The blade impaled the stranger's throat and exploded out of the neck, muscle and bone giving way to the steel. The stranger's body spasmed a few times and his weapon fell and buried itself in the dirt. As the body collapsed Aquila remembered his duties and surveyed his surroundings, seeking the young wizardess. She was nowhere in sight.
Quintus Flavius laughed. The goblet danced in his hand as he did, spilling the precious red wine over his coarse knuckles. He was the senior Military Tribune of the legion. His grey hair was cut short but a beard had started to shadow his face and a hue of sweat covered his skin, ruining the appearance of a genteman officer. For long, tedious but comfortable years he had been administrating details in the military organization of Delhumide. Ambitious generals and thrachions had come and gone during his time. When the legions were marshalled and everyone spoke with great excitement of the new campaign, Flavius despaired. Over the years his relaxed and somewhat luxous lifestyle had added weight to his once powerful frame. He was comfortable in the legionary quarters, and he had a lovely home from which he could wander out and pick fresh grapes in the evenings and watch the sun go down, sharing a cup of tea with his wife. The march had been a nightmare. His feet had ached, his knees had refused to bend after a few days on the road. His shoulders were sore from bearing up the weight of his armor for mile after mile. The pain had not ceased either. No, for Flavius' belief that the harsh physical exercise would quickly resture his vigor was dispelled over the weeks. He was old and obese, and now he was left in command of six lost cohorts. Presently he was avoiding this reality by listening to the humorous monologue of one of the slaves, who in the past had served an artistic function. "Ku, tell me the one about the whore from Skuld again", Flavius demanded, still amused by the former tale of a priate's adventures in Calimshan. The barbarians had such strange names, he thought. The slave named Ku had just begun her recitation when voices were heard outside the Praetorium, and a soldier marched in and saluted. The loud intrusion broke the jovial mood in the tent, and Flavuis sighed. "What can I do for you son?", he inquired. "Sir! There have been no signs of Legate Aquila. Shall we muster a search party?" The soldier said, taking no visible offense to the familiar tone. "No, no... gods, no. We haven't the auxiliaries to spare," Flavius objected, and tried to forge a chain of clear thoughs through the warm shroud of wine that enveloped his mind. A force without supporting arms would be a dog with no bite, so he must conserve them. Sending legionaries on a search in the wilderness was also unwise. He would wait for the return of the Equestrians from their journey and fortify the camp meanwhile. Should Aquila be lost they would need barricades. To keep beasts out and men in. "Assign the second cohort to gather lumber when the bleak sun rises again," Flavius ordered thoughtfully. "The first Auxilia cohort will assist them and secure the surrounding woodlands. The remaining legionary cohorts will be on sentry duty, and the remaining Auxilia will establish a dense permimiter outside the encampment so that we will recieve advance warning of any assault... or, gods willing, the return of our expeditions," he continued. He presented the orders quoted directly from the text from the Codex, which he knew in great detail. The Codex was a textbook of war, which every Thayan soldier was required to read and understand. It provided guidance for all imaginable situations, and included a long chapter on permanent encampments. The preparations would allow them to resist assaults with minimal casualties, and the risk of lumber gathering was proportional to the benefits. "Sir, the... axes are with the third cohort," the other soldier reminded him, his eyes fixed somewhere above Flavius' head, struggling to maintain a professional tone. "Then have them do it, by Horus! Show some initiative, I can not be expected to feed you solutions as a man would throw meat to a dog. Use your brain, soldier," Flavius demanded. The soldier saluted and turned to leave. As he did, Flavius angrily tossed his wine goblet aside. He was not prepared for the task laid upon him by rank and tradition. It was not so much that he had made a fool of himself in front of the young soldier that brought his spirit down, but that it was a sign of things to come. He was expected to act as a general now. Gods willing it would be a short term peril, yet he had a pessimistic sense that things would not be so convenient. His mistakes would cost lives. "Ku, I need you to massage my neck," he said and loosened his cloak. "Have some tea made as well... no more wine. No more wine," he said and shook his head.
Tent after tent made up the core of the encampment. The Praetorium, with the standard proudly raised outside, was the central point. From it, tents spread out to form a large square, with clear strips of land serving as roads. There was a large gap of clear land between the tents and the surrounding trench also, so that fighting formations could assemble without the added difficulty of moving their sleeping quarters out of the way under fire. At this chilly morning the camp seemed nearly abanoned. Flavius marched towards the eastern wall, accompanied by an officer that insisted to inform him of one irrelevant detail after another. He had chosen the eastern side of the encampment to make his appearance simply because the stench of the latrines was least prevalent here. His sandals sunk into the mud beneath him with every footstep, and he let out a weary sigh. In days, the concentrated efforts of thousands of soldiers practicing, building and resting had transformed the tough, resilient grass into a field of trampled dirt. With the constant moist, the hint of rain in the air, it would only become worse. As Flavius reached the eastern trench, he climbed a boulder that had not yet been moved with the help of the officer. Before him a single line of legionaries was assembled facing the wilderness, man after man to both left and right as far as one could see before the mist concealed them. The Primus Cohors had the sentry duty for the eastern side of the encampment, the one most probable to face an attack. The silver wings on their shoulder guards glistened in the damp air. Standing there, watching the line of legionaries standing in silent vigilance, he felt the need to speak. "Soldiers!, he called out, demanding their attention. "Our great Legate Aquila has been swallowed by the mist. He ventured out in person to deliver us from peril. I do not know if he has reached success. But I am confident, no, I am certain that he will return to us!" Flavius said, and as he did, he nurtured his own hope. Inspired by the confidence his own words lent him when spoken aloud, he continued. "We are now an army without a heart. But we still have arms, legs, blood, steel, strength! We have that, and we have our honor. We must all rise to the expectations he would place upon us. Aquila will return, and when he does he will gaze upon a fortress worthy of a Thayan army. The eagle's valor will lead us back to our homes, our families and friends. To do so he must have the support and strength that a mighty nest provides. We must not bring shame upon ourselves in failing to provide him this, or it may spell the doom of us all! I wish you all to pledge to me your dedication so that together, we may achieve our objectives. I will leave no man behind!" Flavius' voice was thick with emotion and resolve by the time he finished, and the legionaries cheered. He did as best he could to maintain his dignified pose as he was helped down from the boulder. "Very good sir," the officer who had helped him said, while stretching his back. "We must set out to the northern trench," Flavius said. "They must all hear what I have to say. They need hope. Gods spare us, we all need hope. That is our shield against depair."
Aquila cursed intensely, his eyes forming hateful slits that stared down the hill. In all directions men were fighting and dying just out of sight. The enemy had shattered their formation and turned the engagement into a bloody, savage skirmish where every man fought alone against overwhelming fear and deadly blades. The stench of death was present; blood and excrement. Aquila dried the blood off his sword on the rags of the man he had killed. The blood stain seemed natural to the garment, originally of grey and brown color. For years he had possessed the sword he now held in his hand. The golden eagle wings that formed the hilt were beautiful, crafted with truly inspired artisanship. The blade however featured no decoration. The cold steel, ingrained with the magic of Master Wizards of Thay, was an instrument of death. The blade had an outerworldly gleam to it as he stood high on the hill, watching the struggle from above. Perhaps the spellcraft in the sword reacted to the environment. Perhaps it simply thirsted for the blood of the enemy. Aquila knew that no armor would stand against it. To his left a man made it up the hill slowly. The legionary backed away from a swinging obsidian shard, his sandals seeking solid ground as he parried desperately. The opponent was yet another man without identity; it was as if Osiris had shaped clay into human form and given it life. The obsidian blade hacked with furious intensity against the Thayan scutum. The stranger suffered from several wounds and was bleeding from his torso and his left thigh, yet showed no sign of slowing down. Aquila hurried to the legionary's aid, striking when the stranger lifted his blade for another assault. Aquila's blade met the forearm of the stranger on its way down and severed the limb in an explosion of blood and bone. The obsidian blade buried itself in the ground, driven by the force that had sent it towards the shield of the legionary, with only the part that was held in a death grip by the dismembered hand remaining above ground. The stranger looked at Aquila in what seemed to be faint suprise even as the legionary, liberated from the constant assault, let his blade slip into his rib cage. The grey, soulless eyes stared unblinkingly at Aquila, but the body twitched and spasmed as it lost its strength and fell to its knees. The stranger let sound a wordless groan as he did. The inhuman sound of apathetic suffering sent chills along Aquila's spine. The legionary simultaneously kicked the stranger's chest and pulled at his sword, sending the disfigured corpse downhill at high velocity with a trail of blood marking its passing. "Legate, your orders?" the legionary asked. Aquila, who felt the cold hand of terror grasp him when faced with these familiar yet inhumane enemies, blinked to clear his head and think. The legionary's hardened features revealed no fear, and Aquila hoped his own were of the same uncompromising determination as he spoke. "Hold the standing stones, soldier. More will come. They have no hope of victory when we stand together." "And you sir?" "I will rally more men", Aquila stated. As he turned his head to seek the nearest skirmish, noticing in passing how the legionary set off to the top of the hill, he was startled by the roaring sound of an explosion.The ground shook beneath his feet as he stumbled. Two more explosions lent a crimson hue to the grey mist somewhere ahead of him, accompanied by a wave of heat and the stench of fire consuming flesh. Throwing caution to the wind he started sprinting. His lost wizardess was somewhere ahead of him, and she was still alive. The sweat poured down his face as he ran, his hair which was unusually long for a Thayan was dirty from the struggle and exortion and hung in and interwined mess from his head. His feet slipped on the stony ground, damp from the constant mist and wet from blood. He held the sword out to the right as he ran to not impale himself on it should he fall. His armor pressed against his chest as he drew breath after breath of damp air down his lungs, ignoring the noise of suffering and death on both sides of him. For a while a legionary joined him. One of the strangers standing in their way parried Aquila's blade as it struck out from his throat, only to suffer an arterial wound to his thigh from that of the legionary. They left the stranger to die alone, bleeding helplessly, and kept running. The man kept up with his speed, following him as he ran across the battlefield, but was pulled into another melee. Aquila simply left him behind. A desperate leap took him over the remains of a fallen legionary with one of the shards stuck in his chest, the black glass having pierced his armor with alarming ease. Another explosion sent a wave of heat through the air and Aquila pushed his struggling body harder. He noticed a stranger moving to intercept, a dark shape advancing quickly on his left side, him but failed to react in time. The impact when Aquila's shoulder collided with the stranger's body sent them both crashing to the ground, tumbling downhill while struggling fiercely to gain the advantage. Aquila felt the strong hands of the stranger tearing at his armor. The stranger held him close by the strength of the hand tearing at his breastplate while using the other to hold on to his blade. The obsidian blade cut into the man as they tumbled, woulding him severely as the momentum of their struggle forced it into contact with his skin again and again. Aquila desperately prayed the obsidian would not hit him, else he would be crippled even if he lived. Ffor a moment he gained an advantageous position rolling on top of the stranger, and drove his forehead to slam into the face of his opponent. The gnarly fingers lost their grip just as the two finally stopped, the pain of his back making contact with a small, sickly tree fueling Aquila's rage to new heights. His opponent, who's mouth was moving in a strange, soundless rant, struck quickly. His black blade, tainted by the blood already, screeched as it made contact with his breastplate and glanced off, leaving a trail in the steel plate. Aquila's left fist hammered into the opponent's face twice, stunning the stranger to the point where he lost the grip of the blade and let out a wordless groan. A moment later Aquila freed his sword arm which he had landed on. The Thayan blade sliced savagely over the throat of the stranger, leaving a bloody smirk below his chin. Aquila, disoriented from the melee, started running uphill again while listening for more explosions. If the spells had been silenced, hope was all but lost for Vitella. As a Thayan his loyalty to the Red Wizards was ingrained in his soul. His logic and sense of tactics told him that he should join the soldiers who where gathering at the standing stones, that one should be sacrificed for the survival of the group. Despite this he desperately held his breath, listening for any sound of arcane fire. Atropos had already succumbed to madness, and had been put down like a sick animal. It had disturbed his sleep every night since it happened. A Master Wizard and friend, dead with Aquila's own dagger buried to the hilt in his belly. Aquila's heart would break if they lost another Red Wizard. Dread once again took hold of him as no signs of spellcasting were seen. Where had she gone? Had the savages kill her, or worse? His eyes narrowed, his voice let hear a growl. The animalistic fury was building up inside him, the red hot rage obliterating his cold discipline. He spotted another enemy hunched over a fallen comrade. No single thought entered Aquila's mind as he charged the man and cut him down so savagely that he could muster no defense. Finally, cutting through the enraged madness of battle, there was a flash and in the blink of an eye, a thunderous force shook the ground. Aquila set off again towards the source of the blinding lightning. Finally he saw her, a majestic figure enveloped by billowing crimson robes. A dozen charred corpses were spread out around her, but more of the enemies came from the mist to surround her. She chanted the words of the arcane tounge and sparks flew from her fingers, igniting the closest enemy. The dull sound of his voice as he groaned and complained, patted his face as the flames spread over his body, once again led Aquila to once again question the humanity of the strangers. Pushing aside his introspection he called out, near breathless from his sprint. "Vitella! To me!" The wizardess looked his way and responded with a shout that did not suit her calm, worthy countenance. "Aquila, behind you!" He had but time to graps his sword in an iron grip before he was hit. He felt his body strain to the outmost as something crashed into him from behind. Held up more by his rigid armor than muscle, he turned to see a stranger on the ground before him, quickly regaining his senses such as they were for a second attack. Aquila raised his sword, but another man, climbing the hill at haphazard speed, slammed into him from the side. He fell towards the first assailant. On his way down, a bony knee came up to meet him, and his world turned black.
The harvest had begun without interruptions, but proved to be a test of patience and strength. Fully armored legionaries worked efficiently under the cover of leaves, bringing axes to bear against the trees. Many of the mighty trees were twisted, ill-grown or even rotten to the core beneath the hard surface. Parasitic mushrooms and curious growths fed upon the solid wood, and seemed to have been doing so since time immemorial. Many legionaries suffered from coughing and aches in throat and chest. As the work progressed and the few useful logs started their journey back to the nearby encampment, a clever Princeps recommended rags dipped in water to be swept over mouth and nose while working. Although it prevented symptoms of illness, the harvest slowed down and complaints were instead heard about the bitter taste of the plain's water. Flavius watched the pallisade start to take form. The logs were buried deep in the earth just behind the trench, forming a formidable obstacle to any attacker. He was seated in his command chair, a lightweight yet well decorated piece of wood and cloth that had been carried to the western trench in the morning. The standard was with him, and one of the lesser Tribunes. They observed in silence as legionaries dug pits and lowered logs into them with the concentrated effort of professional solders. As the day progressed towards noon, and quite a few meters of pallisade were finished, the support structure was being added. Thick boards were nailed to the logs horizonally, and strong logs put in place diagonally between the boards and the ground behind the pallisade. Flavius quietly doubted the need for it. The thought was to give the pallisade the strength to stand against artillery fire, essentially making it more difficult for the logs to tip over. The horizontal boards also connected the logs in a way that distibuted the impact of missile weapons over several logs, not unlike how chainmail absorbed the force of a sword swing. Still, who would construct catapults here? The reason Flavius had decided in favor of the strong fortification instead of a weaker arrangement that would be quicker to build was familiarity. The guidelines in the Codex demanded a certain standard, and by following it he legitimized his status as a commander. As the day approached noon, the temperature started to rise. He yawned and stretched his arms out. It was tiring to watch the manual labor, no matter how necessary it may be. The Tribune was appearently of the same mind, as he spoke. "Flavius, sir. Perhaps it would bolster the morale if we travelled out to the harvets location. Not that the cohorts out there lack support, but the encampment is secure as it is." "You speak sense. I agree, a visit would not hurt. Besides, I would like to see the place with my own eyes," he replied. Soon they were on their way, marching out over a makeshift bridge over the western trench. The forest was close, and the journey there was without interruptions, aside from Flavius' quiet complaints about his aching knees. The lumber site was a symbol of destruction. Useless wood, vines, undergrowth and dead branches were piled up on the ground. The stench of rot and dying wood was everywhere. Their arrival had not gone without notice, and soon a grizzled veteran came to meet them. "Tribunes," he greeted them and saluted. "Maulus, how is the work?" Flavius inquired. "Slow but steady, Tribune. We are coming to learn which trees are useful, which makes discarding the useless ones quicker." "Good. I want to see the actual work. Have you cut deep into the forest?" "Somewhat deep, Tribune," Maulus answered, rather displeased as he did. "What is the problem?" Flavius asked. "The terrain is bad for transporting the logs, which has forced us to make a narrow incision in the treeline. Still, we do well. There has been no problems. It is just... the Codex does not recommend it," Mulus said. "Your judgement is sound Maulus, and I have no complaints. Now, will someone take me where I need to go?"
Guided by a dark, sullen Auxiliary named Torus they entered the forest, following the route the logs took back to the camp. While the land had been kept clear it was by no means a road. Mud and stones covered in slippery moss made the two Tribunes lose their footing now and then. By the time they arrived the two officers were bruised and dirty. Groups of eight legionaries were spread out in a rough line ahead of them, cooperating to bring down the mighty trees. The noise of steel meeting resilent wood and the crashes of trees falling seemed to he all around him. Axes took deep bites, swung by powerful arms. Ropes were thrown around the thickest branches so that the trees could be steered in the right direction when they fell. Other groups worked just behind the harvest line, chopping off branches from the fallen trees. Others still attached their ropes with hooks to the fallen logs and started pulling them towards their final destination. As in the camp, Flavius found his fears calmed by the efficient, disciplined action of the legionaries. As he observed the efforts of the soldiers, a man garbed in the red robes of a Red Wizard apprentice approached him. The apprentice cast a hateful glare at the terrain around him that made him stumble as he walked, ruining his ceremonial posture. "Tribune," he said, making no effort to conceal his resentment. "Good day to you apprentice Crexis," Flavius replied neutrally, careful to mask his amusement at this man and his misplaced royal demeanor. "Yes, a very good day to you too. My presence here is an insult to the laws of the universe, Tribune. It would be a challenge to find anyone in your little army less suitable for drudging around in this pit of dirt, festering vegetation and menial labor than I. Might you be up for it?" Crexis challenged him. "So the location does not fit your sensibilities. Be that as it may, you are ranked as the second apprentice-" "Imbecile! I should be the first!" Crexis interrupted irritably. "Need I remind you that I am in command here?" Flavius raged, his patience for arrogance expired. "You will be digging latrines for the rest of this campaign, which may well mean the rest of your life, if you do not follow orders! My orders!" The veteran officer and the apprentice wizard started at each other. Crexis' hands trembled and his eyes portrayed the blackest of hate as they started into Flavius'. Flavius forced himself to stand tall. He knew that Crexis was the most capable spellcaster in the army, beyond Vitella and closest of all apprentices to their late Master Atropos in arcane ability. He had been disfavored because of near sociopathic arrogance and refusal to cooperate with those outside the wizardly class. Crexis knew his own power all too well. He could crush Flavius' soul with a word. Despite all this the aging Tribune stared back into his eyes. The moment became a minute, then two. Finally Crexis spoke, his words little more than the hiss of a serpent. "I have solved your trobles with water. There is a particular moss that cleanses the bitter taste and binds the unhealthy mud. I have sent soldiers to gather it." Flavius was relieved, although he had hoped their savior from dehydration and death would have been someone else. Anyone but this delusional apprentice. His expression broke into an uneasy smile as he congratulated Crexis. "That is wonderful news, apprentice Crexis. Your ingenuity brings us hope. As that was your appointed task, I do not mind if you return to the camp to your own studies."
The two Tribunes, now in the uneasy company of the apprentice Crexis, watched as several baskets of red, unassuming moss was harvested from the boulders lining a stream. They had set out from the lumberjackers and gone northwest. Where there should be a wide river, there was but this minor stream flowing gracefully through the forest. Both sides of the stream were almost entirely clear, low bushes and grass being the only vegetation. The water was wonderfully clear, Flavius thought. A jar full of dirt-brown water from the plains and red moss was placed on one of the boulders. The liquid became clearer by the minute was the moss seemed to absorb and neutralize the foul substances. Crexis groaned somewhere behind him. Flavius ignored him and continued to watch the moss do its work. His mind was busy somehow circumventing the fact that the advance had come from Crexis' efforts, taking delight in the purifying process. The soldiers of Thay were destined to live, of that was was assured now. The smile that rested upon his lips faded as their guide, Torus, demanded his attention. "Excuse me Tribune, but Esteemed Crexis says it is important." Flavius turned and faced the apprentice once more. He was suprised to see the arrogant expression turned into a mask of agony. "Tribune... something is wrong. An unseen force, numbing and cold," the apprentice uttered, his speech being hindered it seemed by pain. Flavius was not too proud to ignore the warning. "Gather, legionaries! We are retreating to the harvest site, bring what moss you have!" The legionaries immediatly picked up their baskets. The lumber harvesters were close, and the trek would not take long. Armored men gathered and distributed moss baskets among themselves. Crexis, pale and sweaty, was escorted by two auxiliaries to the midst of the group. They were soon assembled in formation, and ready to leave. Flavius cast a last glance across the area. His eyes swept over the edge of the forest on the far side of the stream, taking in the vines and undergrowth clinging to the powerful trees. His gaze halted at something that seemed unnatural, a group of shadows moving in the wind. He squinted, trying to determine the type of plant that would be disturbed by such a light breeze. The shape almost seemed human. His eyes lingered on it, and he imagined the undergrowth forming the legs and torso of a man. The odd shadow that that must fall from a brach extending from the nearest tree could be the left arm, he tought. There was also a head-like shape, slightly oval. It takes an impressive trick of shadows and light to make it seem so humanoid, he concluded as he stared at the shape. As he looked two glints of pale grey bright as diamonds in a coal box appeared. Two eyes staring into his. Flavius felt stark terror overcome him. The impulse to scream was repressed by a cold, numb feeling possessing him like a vengeful spirit. His shoulders sunk, and his mouth fell open as he found himself locked in a stare with those strange spots of grey on the other side of the stream that had seemed such a blessing. Flavius felt his knees, aching from the march through the forest, were about to give up. A plate-armored shoulder bumped into him following a muttered apology as the others started to march, and the moment passed. Flavius was swept away by the soldiers, too shocked to mention the sensation.