Friday, 4 April 2014

The Rotefalk Crisis

On arriving at the Wyrdfire Club, the soldier handed his hat, gloves and overcoat to the strangely-proportioned flunky at the door. With a gurn and a wink, the flunky handed him his mask before vanishing his official uniform into a backroom. The soldier placed a shilling in the tip jar and donned his ivory mask.

While he was here, his real name and rank were irrelevant.  Here, he was Cash, and he could relax. He made his way through the heavy curtain to the Members' Bar.

It had been a long, hot day at Rotefalk Fortress. Trying to drill a largely rookie regiment into some kind of shape in the face of the crisis was beyond impossible, and the sticky heat wasn't helping. A large cold Genever and Fizz in a peaceful leather armchair was called for. But as he passed through the darkened passageway and into the main lounge, he stopped dead.

The bar was full. It was a small room, to be fair, really only to provide some semblance of a retreat for the officer class and a few select NCOs. For Rotefalk, a relatively tiny outpost on the far south of Blackfire Pass, that meant around twenty regulars or so.

All of them were already here.

There was a distinct buzz to the place as well. The last few days had seen grim figures desperately knocking back brandy before returning to duty. Cash knew, he'd been one. Now, everyone was talking animatedly, waving papers in each others' faces in heated debate.

Something had happened, something good. How had he missed it?

"Cash, you old vagabond!" called a jovial figure in a golden, velvet-lined mask, waving over the throng. "I've saved you a seat! Come join us!"

Cash's heart sank. Croaker, which meant his clique of Lion, Steel and Rose would all be there too. The Wyrdfire was usually quiet, perhaps thanks to its rather ominous name. A place for a quiet, off-the-record chat with other soldiers round the fort. Rumours from other units, a glimpse behind the doors of command or into the barrack room chatter. Cash liked it for the peace and feeling of solidarity.

None of that here today, he could feel it.

Croaker waved again, and Cash sighed to himself. Mask and alibi or no, you got to know some of the regulars. Croaker was a gossiper, fond of his own voice and incapable of using one word when eight would do. Plus he always wanted something, never gave you the lowdown without wanting a favour in return. It wasn't going to be the quiet drink he'd hoped for, but his heels were killing him after a day watching incompetents trying to drill. A seat was a seat.

Huffing, he made his way through a group of argumentative majors, turning half an ear to their jabber.

"It'll never work! The bowmen would shoot it down in a heartbeat!"

"Impossible. Creatures of that size could never be beaten back by footmen! Never, I say, never!"

"No cannon of mine would be allowed to get away with such slipshod fire patterns!"

"Goblins simply don't behave like that!"

Cash shoved past a last pack of yabbering soldiery and all but collapsed in the proferred chair. Sure enough, there they all were - Croaker in his golden raven's mask, Lion with his black cat's face, Steel in featureless, mirrored metal and Rose decorated with filigree compass points. Beneath their masks, they were all grinning.

In the middle of the bar, he could see now, there was a tray of drinks, a sheaf of papers, some quill pens and an ornate slab made of silver, covered in complex-looking magical engravings. Every group of masked soliders in the room had several papers between them, covered in scribbles and notes.

"What's all this hullaballoo?" Cash asked.

"Give this weary old soldier a drink," Croaker said, waving at the tray. "Drilling them to the last, eh, old man? Well, you've certainly outdone yourself in wasted efforts this time! We're saved, and you simply won't believe how. Tell him, chaps, tell him!"

"We've had a lucky break!" Lion said, leaning over and slapping Cash's legs.

"Well, now that's not quite right," Croaker said. "Calling it a lucky break isn't the right turn of phrase, opportune though it is."

"What is?" Croaker said, taking a flask of port and pushing Lion off.

"A wizard! College trained, no less. Arriving out of the blue and claiming to have the answer to all our problems," Croaker said. "Marshall Portrauber is hailing it as a miracle. But given the precise colour of our supposed saviour, I'd say we're looking at an omen somewhat less than cerulean."

"What is he, then?" Cash asked.

"A grey!" Steel said, stroking his thick beard. "His solution is foolproof, he says. Well, I doubt that. Expect we'll be knee-deep in demons any day now. Still better than anything Portrauber had. But worth a try, for sure."

"It's going to save thousands of lives," said Rose. "The Blackfire Crisis is solved!"

Two weeks ago, scouts from Rotefalk Fortress had spotted a vast army marching out of the Badlands, a ragged and mismatched horde. Savage orc tribes, the restless dead, demonic creatures, armoured chaos bands and more. Not the largest army the Empire had ever faced, true. But they were all somehow cooperating, that was the real problem. Their usual rivalries set aside, they could dispatch any army sent against them.

An orc army was disorganised, for example, but had numbers and ferocity. A well-ordered gunline could destroy them before they closed. But such an army could never hope to kill demonic minions with mere missile fire. There, you'd need heavily-armed knights and the priests of Sigmar to hold the line and kill the foe. Exactly the kind of troopers who'd be hopelessly outmatched by the elite knights of a chaos band, or bogged down and eaten by a huge and unbreakable pack of ghouls.

With limited forces to hand, Marshall Portrauber had sent his scouts back on the field. Knowing exactly where his enemies were going to be was crucial if they were to be beaten. At the same time, he'd sent messengers to the rest of Blackfire Pass, asking for emergency reinforcements and recommendations from high command.

Nothing came back. Not even a symbolically empty horse. Nothing.

They were alone, without more than a vague idea of what was coming for them.

Strategically, it was a nightmare. Portrauber was unwilling to commit to a deployment without knowing what they'd be up against. So far, 'behind some big walls' was the only offer he'd made. For all anyone knew, the horde had already passed them and was heading, unopposed, for Empire soil.

"It's all been made simple," Croaker said, "thanks to this gizmo here," and he indicated the ornate silver slab. "A Scrying Pad, according to our grey friend."

"Some kind of magical telescope, is it? So we can see what's coming?" asked Cash.

"Oh yes," Rose said triumphantly. "But also so much more! You can move the enemy armies with it! Drag them about to wherever you want, drop them in the shit! Forced deployment! It's infallible! We can't lose now!"

"Or so the wizard claims," Steel put in.

"This is just a mock-up," Croaker explained. "The real one's in the wizard's care. Jolly suspicious if you ask me, that. Apparently, he can see exactly what our foe will be bringing to the field and then poke their minds around until they redeploy in the fashion we decree. But here's the catch."

He leant forward, adopted a conspiratorial air. "It's a one-shot item, it seems. We only get one chance to plonk them down. And it's not entirely reliable, meaning we can't be a hundred percent sure that what it says we're up against is a factual representation at the end of the day. Every chap who's looked into it sees a different outcome, for one."

"False sense of confidence," said Steel. "Worse than useless in my opinion."

"The wizard is only going to use it once he's been given a plan of enemy deployment. Good old Portrauber, bless him, has put out a general call for advice to the staff."

"Meaning he hasn't got a bloody clue and could someone please take the responsibility for him?" guessed Cash.

"Precisely so," Croaker grinned. "Unofficially, I hear there's to be a reward to anyone who can convince the old worrier he knows how to place our foes to best effect."

"Ten thousand crowns and a promotion!" Lion added.

"Plus the real bait," Croaker said. "Your pick of any posting in the Empire's army, insofar as our portly commander can get it for you. A haven, far from this benighted outpost. My dream come true."

"The crowns for me," Lion said.

"I'd take the lot," Rose said.

"Here's to that," Cash grunted, swigging port. "How do we know the damn thing works, if this is just a toy version?"

"He showed it in action this morning. He waved it at Helschmid's Handgunners."

"And?" Cash asked. Helschmid was a raving alcoholic, his troopers penal scum incapable of taking the commands their leader could barely give.

"Deployed in a perfect staggered triple line in under a minute, straight out of the books. Ah, the look on their faces! They couldn't believe it themselves!" Croaker chortled.

"Honestly, Cash, don't you listen to what's happening round the fort?" said Lion. "This was hours ago!"

"Too busy drilling," Cash said. "Might have to do some fighting someday, you know."

"Not if this tablet works," Rose said. "This army will be a thing of the past!"

"Don't sound so pleased about it," said Steel. "That's us out of a job if it happens."

"We're not all career soldiers," Rose said. "We're not all as happy as you to be risking life and limb for the Empire."

I know I'm not, Crow thought. Death by hanging or join the army, that was the choice they'd given him. A new way to wage war, that he could get behind.

"So we need a plan, then?" Cash said.

"Already got one, my friend," Rose said, grinning from ear to ear.

"Yours?" Lion said. "Useless. We wouldn't last five minutes with that."

"What's wrong with it?" Rose said, bristling.

"I could think of a few points," Lion said. "Like, just over a thousand."

"I'd take mine over yours any day of the year," Rose said.

"Boys, boys," Croaker admonished, waving his podgy hands benignly. "I told you I wanted Cash to join us for a reason. Cash, old soak, you're our tactical veteran, yes?"

"I know my way round a deployment," Cash admitted grudgingly. "And I've seen my share of action. So what?"

"Have a look at our offers," Croaker said. "Just a look. After all, it's only the officers who can submit a plan and, well, without unmasking anyone here, I'd say that might rule you out."

"Might," Cash said, irritated.

"We've talked it over already, and here's our offer. Look over our plans, pick out the best one and talk us through your own amendments. Whoever you give the go-ahead to, we'll take it to the old man, make sure it gets done."

"Why me?" Cash asked.

"Because you've got the experience, the know-how and, bluntly, the balls to make the best of this situation, if anyone in the fort has," Croaker said. "I'd take your advice over anyone else in the Empire, quite frankly. I know you're wanting a clincher for this, and here it is. Whoever you pick out of the four of us, that man is sworn at honour's point to take you with him to their new command, whatever it may be. Isn't that so, fellows?"

The other three nodded solemnly, each holding up a piece of heavily-annotated scrip.

"Of course," Croaker went on, "if you're not interested, and maybe you think someone else here in the Club might be a better horse to back, so to speak, we'd appreciate that. But we'd also take it a little to heart that you didn't think so much of our strategic know-how. And that might mean, well, I wouldn't say repercussions in the future precisely." He leaned forward again and placed a plump hand on Cash's sleeve before continuing.

"I had, however, heard Portrauber contemplating sending a few last minute scouts out. Choice men, brave volunteers, Last Hope types. You know the sort. It would be awful if any of our loyal and valuable sergeants, naming no names, got picked for that particular sortie."

Cash locked eyes with the golden mask.

"Yes, it would," Cash said. "Let me get this straight. You're each going to give me a pitch on how we should make the enemy deploy, right? I pick one, you see it done and if it works and we're not all dead afterwards, I get to ride on one of your coattails all the way to the top?"

"Glad you understand," Croaker said, all grins. "Righto, old boy, shoot! We're all ears!"

Cash gritted his teeth. "Right," he said. "Show me what you've got."


  1. Does this promising piece of FluffBoot require audience participation?

  2. It most certainly will! A little more to come though...