"You lack a purpose," she had said to him when all the others had left. Her blue eyes bore into his. He did not flinch back, nor did he reply. He hated replying when she was right.
"You have always lacked a purpose," she had continued, the steel in her voice matching the iron in her gaze, "So you would always search for one, a purpose, and when you found one, you would take it as your own, lifting the banner as though it belonged to you. But it wasn't. It was always someone else's purpose, someone else's ideals. And when that purpose was completed, done, you would look for another, then another, and another," she leaned back, eyes still upon him, "This quest of yours has no end."
"And yet this quest has brought me here to you," he had finally replied, "Perhaps you should be grateful for that."
"Perhaps," she said. A thin smile had developed across her features, "Do you still work for her? The mercenary princess?"
"She is Queen now," he met her gaze with iron of his own.
"But you do not wear the colors of Llael."
He had frowned at that.
"She has pressed the issue, but I have refused. I will not swear to the colors of any nation."
"It is good that you haven't," she fixed him with another impenetrable gaze, "She is using you, you know that? Once the surviving Khadorans are pushed from Llael's borders, she will have no need of you, and will discard you. You are a hero to Llael, but a queen needs no heroes when she rules. Just subjects."
He had chosen not to reply.
"The respite for Llael will not last long," she muttered, hand cupped around her chin as she thought. He was used to that, her mannerisms, from the times he had stood beside her, "Khador has lost much in these past few months, but they will be back. They will sit on their haunches and lick their wounds, and then they will be back, terrorizing the lesser nations like the beasts they are. Llael must defend herself when that time comes, with or without Cygnaran aid. She must hold, and not fall like a stack of cards like the first time."
He had nodded.
"The Queen understands this. All funds that have not been set aside for rebuilding are being used to maintain and expand Llael's standing armies."
"Llael said that the first time. Then Khador came, and Llael fell."
"That was Llael's politicians speaking," he replied evenly, "They are no longer in a position to say or do anything of value. The Queen says she will rebuild and strengthen the army. So Llael will rebuild and strengthen her army."
"Years ago and she was nothing but royalty without a home," the woman wore a piqued expression, "Wandering from place to place and selling her sword to survive. And now you take orders from her as though her words are law."
"She is Queen," was all he had offered in explanation.
"Quite," she turned to him again, gaze inscrutable. Then her eyes had softened, "I hear there are offers of marriage from the noble houses of Llael. Noblemen's sons asking for her hand.
A flicker of annoyance had crossed his face. He had hoped she wouldn't catch it, but knowing her, she probably did.
"Yes," he grunted, peeved that her words had barbed him so, "The nobles rally to her cause. It is no surprise that there will be families who wish to solidify their positions through marriage to royal blood."
"I did not know that so much of Llael's nobility survived," she confessed, "Khador is usually unmerciful. I would have expected their agents to root out the ruling class and slaughter them like they did to every other nation they conquered."
"When Khador came, the nobility ran," distaste had infiltrated his voice, "And when they couldn't run, they hid. The only blood that was spilt by Khadoran soldiers were that of the common citizenry."
"Llaelen nobility," his disgust seemed to amuse her, for what she said next was accompanied by a half-smile, "Pompous, preening bastards and worth shit fucking nothing."
He had remained silent because he agreed.
"If she has chosen the likes of these as her advisors, and one among them as her consort," she had continued, "then Llael will fall, stronger army or not."
He shot her an annoyed look.
"For an ally of Llael, you do much to disparage her queen."
She let out a small laugh at his irritated tone.
"I have fought besides Ashlynn on a number of occasions. She is a warcaster of exceptional ability. I do not doubt the strength in her blade or the courage in her heart. It is her ability to rule that I doubt," she frowned, "She is a dreamer. An idealist. What Ashlynn seeks is a return of Llael to the days before Khador invaded. She ignores the fact that Khador invaded precisely because Llael was weak. If she returns her country to the status quo before the war, then all that will happen will be a repeat of history. Khador will invade again and Llael will require a second hero," her gaze had switch to him then, eyes filled with hidden meaning, "That, and she disregards what is perhaps her most valuable resource, despite him having served her faithfully for so long."
He spread his arms wide and bowed mockingly.
"Though it is good to see that my deeds have not gone unnoticed," he had replied dryly, "I do not think that is the only reason."
"You are right. There is another reason," she said primly, her voice settling into a more business-like tone, "Every battle you fight for Llael is a battle that should have been won for Cygnar. Every town you liberate for Llael is a city that should have been taken for Cygnar. Every day you serve Llael is a day you do not serve Cygnar," her eyes flashed, and the steel within them returned, "And I will see that you serve Cygnar."
"I serve no nation."
She ignored his protest entirely.
"What is it you want? Fame? Your history will be recorded in our annals and your deeds celebrated amongst the common folk. Recognition? I have the authority to grant you a field commission as forward commander right now if you are willing to wear the blue," when he shook his head, she stared only harder, "Then what is it you want? Money? Women? Men?"
He met her gaze stoically.
"I remember a time," he had said slowly, "when a girl would try to persuade me with tenets such as loyalty and honor instead of men's baser desires."
A flicker of emotion had passed across her face. A bare glimmer, but it had been there.
"That girl is dead," she replied quietly, "And in her place is a woman who has witnessed too much bloodshed and seen too many of her comrades die. I am tired of these unending wars," her arm swept towards the empty seats in the tent, "and tired of leading young men and women to their deaths. I want peace, but it has to be a Cygnaran peace. My king dreams of a day when the armies of Cygnar will march into Khador and subjugate the northern steppes. I wish for that dream to become a reality. Then, and only then will there be a lasting peace."
"Peace through war," he said mildly, "That sounds like something only a Khadoran would say."
"Join us," she had made it sound almost like an order, "Wear the blue. Command beside me as a warcaster of Cygnar. You cannot deny that it will be for a noble purpose. Is that not why you are here?"
"I came because I thought an old friend might have needed my help," the woman seemed slightly surprised at those words, "And it turned out I was right."
"Llael did not send you?"
"Her majesty would have preferred me to remain in the capitol city. She requested I stay. I came anyways."
A familiar warmth had appeared in her eyes, and he was reminded of younger and happier days, when the woman in front of him smiled more readily and teased instead of lectured.
"What would your queen say if she knew you left because of a woman?" her tone had grown mischievous.
He offered a small smirk in return.
"If it were any other woman, she might have questioned me. But seeing that it is you, she would not have protested. Even the Queen of Llael respects the name of Victoria Haley."
"I wonder if she will respect me if she learns I tried to recruit her champion."
"Probably not," he admitted.
"And what of my request? Will you not wear the colors of Cygnar?"
It had been a tempting offer. But he knew already that he would refuse. As did she.
"I will dwell on it."
"You always say that," she had sighed, more defeated than angry, "At least think about it."
"I would rather think about the Khadoran force that sleeps just bare miles away from us. I hear they have been gathering strength from all the holds north of Volningrad. Who leads them?"
"Harkevich? Kratikoff?" the woman answered with a grimace, "I don't know. They caught up to us fast. Faster than I expected. Had our forward scouts not reconnoitered the area in advance, they would have ambushed us while we were in marching columns. I didn't have time to scry for information. We barely had time to set up camp and dig in as is."
"Your men are tired. They will need rest before they can fully commit to the fight."
"Rest that the Khadorans will not give us. They will attack tomorrow morning, noon at the latest, and seek to drive us back with their fresher forces."
Their gazes met.
"I will take the vanguard."
Haley smiled grimly.
"I was hoping you would say that. How many jacks have you brought with you?"
"The usual four and whatever light jacks I managed to scrape up. They aren't in the best of conditions."
She had nodded at his reply, and a certain hardness had set on her face.
"Our push into Khadoran territory was not entirely bloodless. We have lost good warcasters. Good men and women. The jacks they commanded I will cede to your control. Use them well."
She had made that promise to him at night, when the air was chill and men slept fitfully in their tents. In the morning, he had found she had done considerably better than that.
He had brought with him five light jacks, two mercenary and three of Menonite make. The mercenary jacks he had scrounged up from Llael's armories, what little the war torn country had left to offer that were not assigned to the army. The Menonite engines he had been fortunate to salvage, and he was glad that his Berserker had not done enough damage to make the battered war machines beyond repair. In total that brought his force up to nine warjacks, including the heavy ones he always kept by his side. It was a significant force, but it would not be enough to break through the Khadoran lines.
Haley had supplemented his battlegroup of light jacks to a full dozen. Chargers, Lancers, even a rare Firefly, whose cackling lightning field was bane to both man and machine. And unlike the ones he had brought, which displayed wear and tear across their abused hulls, the Cygnaran jacks were near pristine, resplendent in their regal blue colors.
Suddenly the odds didn't look so dire. Just bad.
He watched impassively as the Khadoran field army began its assault. First were the Winter Guard and assorted infantry auxiliaries, marching in dressed ranks, their red and brown uniforms heavy on their frames and giving them a tough, frayed look. In between the lines, field artillery were being pushed, their crew stripped to the waist as they worked the heavy guns. Further back were regiments of Winter Guard clutching rifles in lieu of axe and handcannon, polished bayonets socketed to dull black gun barrels. This would be the first punch of the Khadoran armored fist, a mass assault by well-equipped melee infantry supported by rifle companies and artillery squadrons.
They almost looked like ants, he mused, an army of red ants that consumed everything in their path.
Marching to the rear of the Winter Guard were the heavy infantry, the elite core of Khador's armies, clad in suits of powered armor. The lack of resources in the frozen steppes meant that Khador could produce only a limited number of cortexes in a season. Compared to industrialized Cygnar and her client kingdoms, Khador simply did not have the resources or technology to compete in a jack building race. But the men of the North did not accept defeat easily. They continued to field their heavy jacks but stopped production of the lighter ones, deeming them a waste for the rare supply of cortexes they had. Still, they needed a substitute for the light jack's role, a medium combatant that, while weaker than the behemoth that was a heavy jack, could still hold its own against both man and machine. The solution had presented itself soon enough. What Khador lacked in resources it made up for in manpower, and it did not take long for its mechaniks to begin attaching warjack-grade plate onto human soldiers. Man-o-Wars were the result of this mating, veteran warriors suited in steam-powered armor that were impervious to conventional light weaponry. And there were a great many of them. He could see their bulky, reinforced frames marching in tandem behind the Winter Guard, great two-handed hammers bristling alongside stub-nosed cannon and heavy halberds. Beside them, Iron Fang Pikemen strode in tight ranks, their blasting pikes held high in gauntleted hands. On the flanks were detachments of Uhlans, armored cataphracts that rode on equally armored war steeds.
Here was the second fist, covered in steel and powered by steam. If the infantry could not break the enemy, then infantry clad in power armor surely would. The Man-o-Wars would wade into the Cygnaran force, demolishing everything they touched and the Iron Fangs would support, hunting the warjacks that were the only danger to the hulking suits of armor.
This was not last wave, however. The Khadorans always kept their most valuable and dangerous weapons in reserve. Men were expendable. Cortexes were not. He scowled as he watched the massive, lumbering machines begin to move, treading after the infantry, their mechanized frames swaying with each forward step. They were near uniform in appearance. The Juggernaut chasis had served the northmen well, and little had been done to alternate the design from its conception so many years ago. Each was a three times the height a man was tall, shielded from harm by thick slabs of crimson steel. Bronze plated smoke stacks protruded from their backs, belching coal-fired smoke into the pristine air. Only their weaponry differed, and even then it was not by much. Wide-barreled cannon, enchanted ice axes, piston-driven battering rams, all bristled at the Cygnaran lines, each as menacing as the last.
If the infantry were the fists, then the warjacks were the sledgehammer, designed to smash aside what resistance remained with simple, brutal force. This, he hated to admit, the Khadorans were very effective at. The men of the North did not conquer vast swathes of the Iron Kingdoms through sheer dumb luck. They did it because they possessed the mightiest army in Immoren, and their tactics, though simple and repetitive, worked damned well. Few could stand before the avalanche that was a Khadoran infantry wave. Fewer still when the Man-o-Wars joined the fray. Even fewer when the heavy jacks slogged in to smash and pulverize with their fists. He could count on one hand those who could withstand all three.
And yet, that was exactly what was required of them today. Stand your ground against overwhelming numbers. Fight against all three waves. Win against all odds. The chances were low, he understood that. The Cygnaran soldiers were tired from weeks of campaigning. Some had not had a hot meal for days. Many of their warjacks were in bad condition, almost as bad as the ones he had brought with him. A flash of gratefulness lit up inside him at the thought of that. Haley had made sure the jacks she gave him were the least damaged out of the lot. Their freshness would be needed for what she required of him.
"You will be the vanguard," were her words to him as they met one last time to survey the forming Khadorans, "Strike hard, strike fast, and strike without mercy. Open a hole in their lines. We will follow."
The vanguard. The first into battle. The last to leave. The Khadorans were excellent in attack, but mediocre in defense. He would plunge into their battle lines before the northmen could gather their full momentum, and the Cygnarans would follow the gap in their ranks, driving a wedge between their formations, and shattering it from within. If that did not break them, then he would seek out the enemy commander and slay him in combat. And if that did not work, then he would be dead, and everything else would matter little.
He would have been nervous had he not done this before.
The first wave was nearing artillery range, and he saw the Khadoran crews begin to unlimber their heavy guns and start loading them with shot and shell. The Cygnarans had very little to respond with, most of their own artillery having expended their ammunition in taking the two cities. If he wanted to attack, now would be the best time.
He closed his eyes and concentrated. Magic coursed through his veins, blazing through his blood, forming links of pure energy that he tethered to each cortex. The response was immediate and gratifying. All four warjacks beside him came to life.
The Berserker was the first to wake. Its massive frame shuddered as it rose to its feet, an ice axe clutched in each hand. It saw the advancing ranks of Khadorans and boomed a challenging roar in their direction, daring them to attack. The Cyclone was next to activate, and a series of clicking sounds signified fresh shells being loaded to the chain guns strapped below its wrists. The former Cygnaran jack looked almost regal as it stood amongst his host; the blue on its plate matching with the light jacks Haley had gifted him. The Crusader was third, rising from its kneeling position, and brandishing the inferno mace in its fist. Fierce fire gleamed behind its knightly mask, and a rumbling growl rose from its gullet as it viewed its surroundings. The Reaper was the last. Its hunchbacked body made no sound of acknowledgment as it stood, but beneath the metal hide an unholy hunger lurked, vast and voidless.
He could feel their minds melding with his own, becoming flickers of intelligence in his own conscience. He ignored them and focused on the light jacks, activating each in turn until the flickers became a myriad of twinkling stars, each resembling a connected cortex. Then he gave the order, slamming the word into every engine's mind with all of his considerable power.
Snarling joints and hissing pistons responded to his command, and the war machines began to move. The Crusader and Berserker strode in front of him, their bulky frames looming in a protective manner. The Cyclone and Reaper brought up the rear, where their ranged weaponry could devastate with impunity before combat closed to hand to hand. He moved with them, jogging to keep up with their long strides. The light jacks though, outpaced them all. Loping forward on long, mechanized legs, they were faster and more agile than their heavier brethren, having sacrificed armor and staying power for mobility. However, in a grinding melee they would not last long, and rare were the occasions a light jack would triumph over a heavy one. Nevertheless, he flung them out in a wide arc, ordering them in a skirmishing screen and sent them hurtling towards the Khadoran army. He could not count on them to last, but he could count on them to disrupt the enemy.
Dimly, he could hear the Cygnarans cheering. It was an easy sound to ignore. Instead, he turned his attention to the sea of red before him, and was glad that he did.
Already the Winter Guard were forming up in defensive positions, reacting to his unexpected charge by breaking their assault formations and gathering in thick lines. There was an uncertainty to them now, and even at a distance he could see the sudden doubt that had swept through their ranks. The reason was simple. The Khadorans were the masters of aggression. They wore their enemies down with continuous waves of brutal attacks until nothing was left. On defense, however, they fared poorly. Their soldiers hesitated when they were forced to defend, and their officers floundered when the initiative was seized from them.
A fist could readily punch but poorly could it be used to parry.
He watched as the Khadoran field guns began to swivel towards his light jacks, their crews working double-time in response to this new threat. He heard the first cannon fire, a loud, thunderous discharge and seconds later a plume of dirt rose into the air, showering his advancing machines with debris. It had missed, but that did not surprise him. Artillery was better suited for targeting city walls and the slow-moving forms of heavy jacks. His heavies were being screened by his lighter engines, forcing the artillery to target them in fear of being overrun, and it was proving to be a futile affair. Trying to hit a light jack in full stride with a stationary field gun was near impossible, and it didn't help that he was forcing them to jink and change direction randomly to offset the gunners' aim. The field full of smoking craters behind him and not a single one of his jacks touched was proof that the tactic was working.
They were closing the distance now. He could see the Winter Guard riflemen leveling their stocky guns at his warjacks, aiming for the joints and exposed areas where a heavy caliber bullet could potentially severe vital tubing or lodge itself in vulnerable machinery. He frowned. The northmen were good marksmen, but even this was a long shot. The volley came, thick and buzzing like a swarm of stinging insects. They connected, and pattered off foundry-tempered plate like rain. A few rounds crashed into his cluster of personal jacks, bouncing off chests and off heads. The Berserker growled in annoyance.
A second volley leapt out, accompanied by hissing streaks of fire. Winter Guard Rocketeers, handling man-portable launchers, barraged him with explosives, lighting the ground on fire, sending shrapnel ricocheting off armor, punching holes into the earth where they landed. A rocket struck one of his light jacks, more by chance than by aim, tearing off a pauldron in a flash of shredded metal and hissing sparks. The engine staggered, righted itself, and continued the charge, missing half its shoulder.
They were close enough now for him to see the rising panic amongst the enemy. There were no more synchronized volleys. The riflemen were shooting wildly, reloading and firing as fast as they could, not even bothering to aim. Predictably, their shots went wide or grazed off impenetrable metal. The artillery had gone quiet. At this range the shells risked catching their own men in their explosive radius. All along the line Khadorans were unsheathing their war-axes, bracing for the inevitable clash.
Not that it would have mattered. The soldiers of Khador were said to be the finest infantry in all of Immoren. Tough. Brave. Disciplined. The soldiers of Khador were all of that and more. But they were still men. And against five tons of tempered steel and coal-fueled fire that was a warjack, they might as well not have existed.
Blood fountained into the air, accompanied by hideous screams as the light jacks rammed the charge home. The front rows of Winter Guard simply ceased to be. Entire platoons were erased in an instant, reduced to gore stained streaks under mechanical feet. Whole squads were cut down by sword, mace, and axe, their sundered bodies all but unrecognizable. Like water from an unleashed dam, the war machines broke through the Khadoran ranks, scattering fur clad men and women like ninepins, trampling over their panicking forms and into the ranks further back.
He watched as a Devout class plough through a rifle company, its white armor singed black from the Khadorans' desperate volleys. The former Menonite jack wielded its halberd in a two-handed grip, sweeping left and right, cleaving through dozens of soldiers at a time like a scythe through wheat. He saw a Charger maul a retreating squad of Assault Kommandos, dual cannons stuttering with fire, blasting men from their feet. Those that lagged behind were battered aside by the light jack's battle hammer, flung through the air to land in jumbled, unmoving heaps. To his left, a Vigilant upended a Khadoran field gun, smashing the heavy cannon into the ground and rendering the artillery piece into scrap. Then it tore into the crew, butchering them with its bare fists. A Renegade lifted a struggling Winter Guard officer into the air, feet kicking wildly, and then bisected the man into two screaming halves. Lightning danced where the Firefly walked. Garlands of electricity crisscrossed the jack's metal hull, and every now and then it would stop to expel its volatile payload. Those that remained in its killing field jerked and spasmed as lightning forked into their bodies, bursting organs, cooking flesh, frying men into blackened crisp.
He could feel the blood thirst welling up within each jack as they killed, flooding the cortexes with primal emotion. He allowed it. The lighter jacks were there as a distraction. Letting them rampage through the lines was part of the plan. It was the heavier jacks that were meant to be the main threat, and he kept those tightly chained to his psyche, preventing them from slipping the leash of discipline.
An anguished howl tore his attention away. The Charger had been too zealous in its pursuit. The Cygnaran jack had chased the fleeing Kommandos into a braced formation of Iron Fang Pikemen and transfixed itself on to their blasting pikes. The Khadorans surrounded the flailing war machine, thrusting their polearms into the gaps in its armor where the explosive spear heads would prove most fatal. The Charger roared as an Iron Fang ducked beneath its lanky frame and stabbed his pike into the armature that connected shoulder with arm, igniting the spear's blasting charge in a detonation of fire and molten metal. The battle hammer fell limply to the ground, arm still attached.
He turned away. There would be no saving this one. Instead, he pooled his magic and poured it into the dying jack's core, saturating the machine's frame with his own power. The warjack shuddered as he overloaded its cortex, turning the control sphere into an improvised time bomb. He counted to three, and when another squad of Khadorans joined the fray, charging into the immobile jack from behind, he detonated it, feeling the sudden pull as both the Charger's weakening conscience and the magic that he had stored within it vanished from his mind.
The resulting explosion cremated everything within a hundred yard radius.
The light jacks were expendable, but he still disliked losing one, especially one that had been loaned to him by Haley. He frowned when he saw more Iron Fangs emerging from the smoke, their shields locked tightly together in a solid wall, spears bristling outward like the armored hide of a hedgehog. Beyond the advancing pikemen he could see the Winter Guard reforming, addressing their savaged ranks behind the protection of their heavier armored brethren.
With time they would reinforce the Iron Fangs, and behind the refuge of power armor they would make the Cygnarans pay with blood for every inch of ground they gained with volleys of lead.
He would not give them that chance.
He sent a mental command to the light jacks that still roamed, calling for them to fall back before they shared the Charger's fate. They had protested that. They wanted more blood. More violence. Their machine spirits burned with rage, and their rudimentary brains filled his mind with angry feedback. He clamped down on them, flooding their cortexes with his magic, dominating the neural command nodes that were the anchor for each warjack's intelligence. They halted, some bare meters away from the Iron Fangs' pikes, and then retreated, loping back to form a defensive half-circle in front of him.
At the same time, he sent out another mental command, this time stronger and purer than the first. In response, one of the four broke ranks from beside him and strode forward, shoving aside a Revenger as the lighter jack returned to its warcaster's side.
Its massive frame was colored in Menoth white, but the symbols that adorned its body had long ago been worn away by battle. Golden studs trailed down its shoulders and sides, running down its arms and ending in brutal, spiked fists. Twin smoke stacks towered above its arched back, each an outlet for the hungry furnace that burned within. A knightly helm jutted from its torso, low-slung and menacing. And behind the visor of burnished bronze, two orange eyes burned, alight with righteous fury.
He smiled as the Crusader stalked towards the Khadoran ranks, its armored body shaking with barely contained wrath.
Had the Crusader been human, then the sound that emitted from its throat would have sounded like laughter.