Ziemowit, the brother of the late Emperor of Mankind and technically the heir to the throne, stood in the courtyard of his palace in Czartoria, the capital of the Northern Province of the Empire of Mankind - a wide cobbled area surrounded with short, stout Northern trees, with imperial banners hanging from the outer walls - and looked upon the grand statue of the First Emperor, the founder of the Empire. A towering man in antique, bronze armor, a long spear and a wide shield. Of course, it was purely an artist's impression. Noone knew who that man had been, what his name had been or what he had looked like. All anyone knew were stories of his conquest of the continent, the subjugation of the lesser races and the roar of defiance in face of the ancient tyranny of the night.
Ziemowit, for one, had trouble believing that. Of course, the Empire had had to be founded at some point, and by someone. That someone must have been a charismatic war leader. But a champion of Humanity, sent by the gods? That sounded far-fetched. Of course, such an attitude towards the ideas that the Empire considered truths set in stone were the exact reason he had been sent here, to this frozen hell-hole.
The joke was on them. Some creative thinking might have saved the Empire. Instead, his brother was dead, the colossus' clay legs were shattering to pieces and the North was doomed. If he had been down there in Martendor... maybe something could have been done. Now everything was lost. The Empire of Mankind would fall and the world would plunge into a dark age again, beset by monsters and horrors.
It all seemed so stupid to him. For hundreds of years, humanity had stood like a shining beacon, illuminating the world with civilization, enlightment and prosperity. Now it would all be drowned in blood because the humans were too stupid to hold on to it. The way things had been going, the uprisings were inevitable. The Imperial Palace had turned into a rotten hive of backstabbing, scheming and pointless little wars. The subjugated peoples had been exploited and oppressed beyond reasoning. Ziemowit sighed. It had happened before and it would happen again. History would take its inevitable, bleak course.
Messengers circulated between the barbarian, goblin and dwarven armies. The leaders agreed - Czartoria needed to be taken in a quick, decapitating strike. Prolonging the conflict served noone. It would not be easy, of course - it was a powerful fortress and even with the exhausted forces stationed there, it could still repel attacks with ease. The leaders hoped that their massive advantage of numbers and the defenders' shaky morale would swing the tide in their fervor. They did not fear defeat - it wasn't in the cards at that point. What they feared was a prolonged siege. In the war-ravaged country, it could lead to their armies disintegrating and unrest brewing.
The city of Czartoria was located on a large island created by a river flowing into another, bigger one. The outskirts of the city were spread on the outer sides of the rivers. It was largely empty at that point - most people had realized that to stay there would be to let themselves be trapped. However, some had nowhere to run to, the Imperial territories having been steadily conquered. Some - members of the administration and nobility - were too proud to run, and either believe the city to be invincible even now or pretended to believe it. Now everyone who could flocked to the towers and walls to watch the three approaching armies.
From the west approached a united force of the native clans of humans. They presented a mixed group. The tribes of the North had always been diverse, and it was very visible now that they had gathered together. Most of them were dressed in skins and carried a multitude of weapons including spears, axes, clubs and simple swords. They formed the bulk of the army. However, in the front marched more serious-looking warriors clad in mail and armed in well-made, sharp swords. They came from the tribes futher to the south, who had had more contact with Imperial technology and warfare. Which now they would use to destroy it. Behind the warriors marcher archers. The tribes of the North were still in a good part hunters, so they prided themselves on their skill with bows. It would be put to a good use now - the faces of the short tribesmen with stout bows bore a grim expression. Flanking the massed ranks of foot warriors was cavalry. It was, by far, the least organized formation. It was recruited from the more nomadic tribes, adopting the lifestyle of the halflings and hobgoblins who roamed the tundra beyond the Imperial sphere of influence. While cavalry would be of limited use in the battle, their biggest contribution were four tundra mammoths, driven by silent riders wrapped in linens. Those beasts were rare and not used lightly. Bringing four of them into the fight signified how grave this battle was. Tribal shamans accompanied the army, inspiring the warriors by reassuring them that their ancestral spirits and terrible gods of the North - depending on the tribe - were with them.
From under the northern mountains marched a tightly packed mass of dwarves. Their army was even more divided and diverse than the human one. Each of the dwarven families travelling between their towers was supposed to field an appropriate number of warriors. Current inhabitants of the towers had also sent their own forces. Finally, many dwarven mercenaries had joined up. Even though there had been a long period of training to combine those disparate groups into an army, they still gave a highly individualist impression. Each group of warriors bore different colors and markings and used different weaponry. As with the human army, the dwarven one too was divided into infantry corps, archer corps and cavalry corps - the cavalry riding on small, stout mountain horses. Mixed among the troops were dwarven wizards and battlemages - the dwarven race had always been strong in magic, and they intended to bring it to bear now, despite knowing how dangerous it is. Wizards would bring down spells of destruction on the enemy heads while battlemages were unmatched hand-to-hand combatants, capable of breaking iron weapons with their bare fists.
And finally, a look at the east showed the last force to join the struggle - the massive goblin horde. The flat area east of the city was covered in an endless throng of small figures wrapped in black and grey robes, cloaks and cowls. They uttered a loud, monotonous chant in their native language. A vast forest of spears and pikes rose above the army. The massive formations of infantry were flanked by squadrons of wolf riders. The beasts smelled battle in the air and were more ferocious than ever. However, the goblins appeared to have brought many beasts from the underground into battle with them. Away from the conventional forces skittered huge beetles, barely controlled by their drivers. Crude war machines were mounted on the backs of armored lizards. Swarms of rats and spiders waited to be unleashed on the hapless enemy soldiers. The uniformity of the dark-robed fighters and the bizzare beasts made this army perhaps the most terrifying. In the back was a massive armored lizard carrying a platform on which sat the Prophet, surrounded with black-robed priests of his new god. A banner of the crimson eye flew over them.
If anyone in the city had had any doubts about the outcome of the battle, they were dispersed by the sight of the massive forces arrayed against them. The battle was about to begin. The leaders had arranged between themselves that each army was going to try and breach the walls from their side. The first force to get inside would focus on letting the other two in. Ideally, they would charge the Stewardship Palace together and symbolically anihillate the Imperial presence in the North.
The inhabitants of the city watched as the attackers set up their war machines. Of course, they set up their own ballistae and catapults. They did not have nearly as many of them, but they were of much better quality. In the back of the goblin army, Hultznim the Prophet watched his children march towards the city. In the distance he could see his temporary allies do the same. Good. The Imperials stood no chance. He could smell their fear from where he sat, surrounded with priests of the new god of goblinkind.
"Some of the catapults are finished,"
He said to his followers. "Let us give those humans a new reason to hate us."
Everyone understood what he meant. The crude yet effective goblin catapults were loaded with small, seemingly harmless projectiles that were then launched at the city. The humans stared in bewilderment as the objects rained down on them. Their confusion turned into grief and fury when they saw what they were - severed heads of soldiers the goblin army had killed in their march towards the city. Each of them had the symbol of an eye carved into its forehead. Their faces twisted in anger, they shook their fists towards the goblins.
However, they were not allowed to indulge in their ire long. The bombardment proper had begun. Catapults began to rain boulders down at the city from each direction, crushing walls, buildings and people alike. The defenders responded in kind, but their machines were spread too thin and they could not return fire effectively. Each catapult destroyed by the attackers cost them dearly. Needless to say, the rain of missiles did little to improve the morale of the inhabitants of the city. The exchange of fire continued for a while, with neither side gaining the advantage.
It changed when the dwarves used a trick their wizards had prepared for a long time. Their three biggest catapults launcheds boulders at the outer wall. As they flew through the air, the wizards finished a spell they had been weaving for a week. The reality itself rippled, forcibly rewritten by the dwarves' will. The projectiles turned into massive missiles of ice, flying much faster than the laws of nature should allow them. When they smashed into the wall, they exploded into showers of shards, tearing through the soldiers manning it and making a huge gash in the wall itself.
The result of their wizards' magic caused a roar of triumph from the dwarven soldiers. Immediately, they began to push forwards. A great force of infantry charged towards the breach in the wall as ladders and siege towers were pushed against the walls in other spots. The dwarves fell under the hail of arrows from the city, but kept charging. Eventually, they reached the breach and smashed into the Imperial soldiers guarding it.
The clash was brutal. Both sides fought with incredible tenacity, neither asking nor giving quarter. The humans had the higher ground and cover, but the dwarves outnumbered them. Little by little, they pushed the Imperial soldiers deeper into the breach.
Eventually, a dwarf dressed in a thick fur adorned with yellow thread, grasping a bloodied short sword jumped off the last piece of the wall onto the street running along it. With a shout of triumph, he skewered an Imperial Soldier who was raising his own sword at him. This was the last thing he would ever do, as an arrow pierced his chest immediately after. However, his kinsmen were pouring through the breach in the wall quickly now, and the Imperials knew they could not push them back again. Even though they knew they had nowhere to run, they broke ranks and fled. Laughing and shouting, the dwarves gave chase. The first line of defense was broken, if only at this point.
The rest of the length of the walls attacked by dwarves had been holding on well until that point, but breakthrough down in the hole in the wall changed that. The morale of the defenders suffered quite a blow when they saw the enemy enter the city. What was more, forces that were supposed to be their reinforcements were now engaged in fighting the dwarves that kept pouring through the breach. Soon enough, the fighters manning the walls were overwhelmed.
The fighting was equally fierce on the other two segments of the walls. The goblins and the humans had not managed to damage the walls significantly enough to launch massive attacks, so they resorted to ladders and siege towers. It resulted in tightly-packed, intense combat on top of the walls, with Imperial soldiers trying to fend off great numbers of goblins and barbarians. The mammoths, beetles and other aces in the attackers' sleeves had not yet been used, as they were of limited utility when scaling walls. Eventually the defenders were forced to fall back due to the attackers' sheer numbers and tenacity as well as their own growing desperation upon hearing the news of the dwarves' victory. The walls had been breached on all fronts and the second phase of the battle for the city had begun.
After getting into the city proper and capturing a few streets, all three attacking armies stopped for a while, to catch their breath, regroup and plan their attack. The Imperial defense would only get stronger and more desperate as they went deeper inside the city. As much as the troops wanted to charge and slaughter the enemy, the situation called for a slow and methodical approach and capturing street after street. The leaders of all three armies could see it.
Ziemowit stood in his palace and gazed on the city that used to be his. The balcony he stood on looked to the north, where he could see the dwarves massing under the walls. So they had broken in. It had taken them shorter than he had expected. He did not feel any fear or despair, however. He only felt tired and wished it would be over with quickly. Sitting there and waiting for the three armies to march up to his gates howling for his blood was slowly becoming torturous. Then he saw that the dwarves had begun to move again, squads of warriors running through the streets. Cavalry had entered through the open gates as well. He ran up to other windows and balconies and saw that goblins and barbarians had started to push through the city as well, breaking the Imperial resistance easily.
Decurion Granciszek saw the last of the civilians flee towards the keep. It was a futile gesture, of course, but it would give them some time. And of course, it was human nature to run as long as there was somewhere to run to.
He turned around and saw the tight formation of the dwarves advance down the main street of the city, towards his own meagre force, cobbled together from the remnants of the regiments assigned to his part of the city. It was composed of tired, wounded and despairing soldiers. They had no hope of victory... but no option other than to fight. Granciszek spat on the ground. What could he tell them?
"Men, we're going to die soon. But by the gods, we will show them how humans die."
That seemed to have worked. The soldiers nodded grimly and formed a shield wall to face the advancing dwarves. Behind them, archers nocked their remaining arrows to meet the enemy.
Granciszek stood in the second row of the formation, barking orders. He quickly had to raise his sword in his defense, as the first row of his haphazard regiment broke under the fierce attack by the battle-hungry dwarves. He saw one of his soldiers fall to the ground, struck dead by a bare fist of a dwarf. A battlemage, then. Battlemages were veteran warriors who mixed martial skill with magic ability. He narrowed his eyes and attacked. It would be a good death, to fall against an elite enemy soldier.
He stepped forward and made a jab with his short sword. The dwarf deflected it with his wrist - his battle magic made his bare arms capable of blocking iron and even steel. Granciszek backed away and blocked a punch with his shield, then pushed the dwarf's arm away and made a short slash. It too was deflected and the battlemage responded with a more dangerous attack - his fist became wrapped in electricity and only a timely dodge saved Granciszek from death. This elemental attack tired the dwarf out, which the decurion decisively used - pressing his advantage, he attacked and ran the battlemage through. Immediately after, the dwarven attack broke his soldiers' defense and he was killed by advancing enemy. But he died with a proud smile on his face.
In the eastern part of the city, which in times of piece was a crowded district where the poor lived, confusion spread among the Imperial soldiers of one of the regiments. They had been fighting a brutal, close-quarters battle with the goblin warriors, but suddenly they started to back away and flee, rather quickly, despite the fact that they had been winning. They used the time to regroup and form ranks again, but their confusion didn't last long.
A massive giant underground beetle smashed through a wooden building in front of them. It had no rider on it - the smell of blood, dead bodies and wounds got the beast into a murderous frenzy, causing the goblin beast drivers to lose the tenuous control they'd had over it. So the goblin infantry ran away to let the Imperials deal with it, in a very goblin fashion. The beetle clacked its mandibles and charged at the nearest targets... which meant the soldiers, who could only raise their spears and hope for the best.
The impact was gruesome for both sides. The beetle was strong and its mandibles were razor-sharp, but it was quite vulnerable in places unprotected by its carapace. It made no attempt to defend itself and took no notice of its wounds, focused entirely on attacking everything that moved. It cut a soldier in two by its first bite and skewered another one in a heartbeat, but in that time the soldiers managed to stick several spears into it and pepper it with arrows. This slowed it down considerably, but it still killed or wounded a soldier almost each time it swung its head. That was until a daring soldier rushed, praying loudly to the thunder-god Perun and war-god Jarowit and drove a spear between its mandibles, piercing the monster's vulnerable brain. It thrashed violently, tearing the spear out of the soldier's hand - miraculously enough, he survived - before falling over on its back and dying.
The soldiers had no strength left in them to gloat or rejoice. The streets in front of them disgorged a throng of little figures in dark robes. The goblins had resumed their attack, eager to finish off a weakened enemy. They swarmed the Imperials and killed them to the last man in grim silence. Without stopping they rushed forward, scurrying between buildings, ever closer to the keep and the Sterwarship Palace.
"Forward, men! Let's show these imperial milk-drinkers what the fury of the men of the North feels like!"
roared a chieftain of a powerful tribe of Northeners, clad in mail and brandishing a broad sword.
Indeed, the tribal warriors of the North tore into the ranks of their Southern former oppressors mercilessly. The mammoths had died, pierced with arrows and ballista bolts, but the endless ranks of tribal infantry kept charging, drunk with bloodlust. The shamans chanted behind them, praising the gods and ancestral spirits for their victories and driving the barbarians deeper into fighting frenzy.
Their fierce attack was met by an ambush. Just as it seemed that their fury had opened them a wide path to the keep, Imperial soldiers made a last, desperate effort to slow them down. From each side, they leaped from out of the buildings and windows suddenly started firing arrows. Northeners began to fall, quickly. The Imperials actually gained an advantage.
Their triumphant grins were soon wiped from their faces. The advance of the tribal warriors had been stopped, but fresh ones were charging from the direction of the outer walls. Their faces were alight with fury. The brief fictory of their opponents seemed to enrage them even futher. Soon, the ambushers were stomped into the blood-soaked cobbles.
Eventually, the Imperial ranks had been broken on all fronts. The invaders had an open way to the inner walls, the keep and the palace.
Ziemowit kissed the cold foreheads of his wife and daughter. They had swallowed poison minutes before. It tore his heart apart to see them pass away quietly, but it spared him the fate that awaited him.
He sighed. He'd really considered poisoning himself as well. But in the end, he could not bring himself to do it. He was the Steward of the Northern Provinces. The brother to the Emperor of Mankind. The last of the unbroken Imperial line. To die a coward's death... even for him, pragmatic as he was, it seemed like a dishonor to entire humanity. A final humiliation. He would have to face his death at the hands of a howling mob.
Looking through his balcony again, he saw fires and enemy soldiers swarming into the inner city. The civilians who had hidden there were being massacred. He could hear their screams even from where he stood. But... he squinted. It looked like his Praetorian guard were actually forming on the steps of the palace. An attempt to go down in a blaze of glory? He envied them...
A priest of Perun stood in front of the mail-clad soldiers of Ziemowit's guard. He himself was armored and armed in an axe, the sacred weapon of Perun. His eyes were ablaze. He knew
what he had to do. He saw a new era arising, like a phoenix from the ashes.
"Listen to me, men! The gods had abandoned us! All but one god! Perun! He who is the Thunderlord and the light in the darkness! The guiding light of humanity! We die today, so let us die in Perun's name! Our death will show others the way!
He motioned with is axe to the approaching enemy force. It was mixed, now. At this point, the divisions between the armies had melted away. It was a mob now, intent on destroying everything in their path. The hour they had long awaited had come. But there was one more line of defense waiting for them. Humanity would not go down so easily. The Praetorians, knowing they would die, shared the priest's zeal. Unknowingly, they had become the first Paladins, holy knights of the god that would become the sole god of what would be left of the Empire.
"After me, men! To Glory! Our deaths WILL BE MAGNIFICENT!"
They were. The Praetorians smashed into the advancing enemies, pushing them back, fighting like men possessed. Each of them felled several attackers before being brought down. Those of them that survived the initial charge were surrounded with an empty circle, filled with bodies. The enemy actually retreated, stopped short by their fury. When they closed in again, it still took a long while for the last Praetorian to fall.
Ziemowit watched the last stand of his Praetorians with bated breath. Gods, it was magnificent. At the darkest hour, those men showed the barbarians what it truly meant to be human
. In them, the heroism that had led the human race to rise up had been reborn. It actually made it easier for him to accept the inevitability of his death. He took a deep breath as he heard a crack of wood from downstairs. The attackers were breaking down the gates of the palace with a battering ram. It would not take them long.
"This is it, then. It ends."
He would not hide like a rat in his chambers. Slowly, he walked downstairs. Something in his sure, calm stride made the few soldiers and courtiers left in the palace, going mad with terror, join him. To face the end with dignity. They all stood on the stairs which over looked the main door to the palace, which was bending inside as the battering ram smashed at it. They remained silent as the door broke and the darkness from the outside poured in.
A howling mob made up of humans, dwarves and goblins barged in through the broken door. It headed straight for the Emperor's brother and his small group. They were ripped to shreds in a manner of seconds, which was accompanied by triumphant shouts.
Two Steps from Hell - After the Fall
As the three armies camped in and around the ruins of the city - it had been sacked clean and burnt to the ground - the goblins gathered around a massive stage built out of the ruins. The other two armies watched it with some apprehension.
Despite the serious losses they had taken, the goblins were jubilant. They knew that on that day, the fate of their race had taken an unprecedented turn. They were free
. Finally, they were strong, free and united. And their Prophet was about to tell them what they would do next.
Hultznim stood on the stage and gazed upon his followers... his children. They had followed the word of his god through fire and blood, and it led them there. To victory. But he knew that for the goblin people, it was just the beginning. He could feel the will of the Lord Below behind him.
he said, raising his voice. "Today we made history. The North is free of the Imperial shackles. And we, the goblins had our part in it. The one people that had always been held in contempt. Vermin, they called us. They took our land, our children and our lives. Today, we returned to them a hundredfold everything they had inflicted on us."
This caused the throng of goblins to roar in triumph. Hultznim waited for them to silence themselves.
"This day will be forever remembered as the beginning of a new era for the goblin race. We will now return to our mountains to rebuild our homes. Yes, our mountains. By the decree of the Lord Below and by the strength of our unity, the deep places will forever belong to the goblinkind."
When he said that, he looked towards the humans and the dwarves, as if daring them to object.
"I have seen, when my soul was taken to the unfathomable depths of the realm of the Lord Below, a proud and free goblin people ruling over their own realms in the ancient roots of the mountains, the bones of the earth. It will be so."