Moving carefully, quietly, Commander Coleman Stryker of the Royal Cygnaran Army walked through the rows of tents, settling his bulky Warcaster?s armor on his strong frame. There was mist this morning, clinging to the ground at knee-height, but it would burn off soon enough. Stryker could hear the regular, deep breathing of his boys as they slept, rolled in their blankets. He smiled softly. Boys, he thought ruefully, as though I?m one to talk about youth.
At thirty years of age, Stryker himself was hardly an old man. Indeed, with his crimson hair, ready grin, and boisterous humor, he was frequently mistaken for someone ten years younger than his years, and twenty or more less than his rank pins suggested.
Shaking off his reverie, Stryker moved toward the edge of the camp, arriving presently at the sentry post, where the Trenchers were still awake. Stryker lowered himself into the neatly dug foxhole, sitting calmly on the rim of the fighting position, and nodded to the lieutenant there. The man was a squat bear, not over six feet in height, but nearly as wide as he was tall, a grinning, hard-fighting, tougher than boot leather lifer who had earned his lieutenant?s stripe in the field.
The lieutenant, Blake MacBain, nodded to Stryker with a slight smile and handed a battered metal cup to the Warcaster. Stryker nodded his thanks and drank. The liquid, heated on the boiler of the Grenadier light Warjack assigned to MacBain, was hot, tasting of coal, mud, and gunpowder, but it was coffee. Stryker drank again, and the world sharpened, focused. Even here, on the southern border of Cygnar, the mornings were cold in the winter.
It would get hot, though. And all too soon, like always. ?Anything moving out there this morning, lieutenant?? Stryker asked. He noticed that the Chain Gun crew, set up in a slit trench just forward of the main hole, twitched slightly. They had been so intent on the field in front of them; they hadn?t noticed that the man who had joined them was their commander. Stryker smiled again, taking another deep drink of the potent, vile-tasting coffee. A right Trench Brew, sure enough.
MacBain shook his head and sipped some of his own coffee, free hand resting absently on the lock of his breech-loader. ?No, sir. Not a peep all night. But I keep gettin? the feeling that we?re bein? watched, but by someone who?s sly. They ain?t in the neighborhood, if you catch my drift, sir.?
Stryker nodded slowly, knocked back the last of the Trench Brew, and handed the cup back to
MacBain. ?I know exactly what you mean, sergeant. I?m worried about the same thing. We had reports of enemy movement all over this area not two weeks ago, and now we haven?t seen hide nor hair of any of them.? Stryker paused a moment, thinking. The lieutenant?s words had struck a chord with his own unease. ?I?ll be leading a patrol in force out into the hills to see what kind of trouble I can stir up.?
The lieutenant nodded slowly. ?You be careful, sir. I don?t want to be the one to explain to certain folks how and why I let you get killed out here.?
Coleman nodded and stood. ?I wholeheartedly agree with you, Drake. Keep an eye on things while I?m gone.?
It took two hours to put together the column. The mix was one that had served Stryker well for years, a troop of Sword Knights, a dozen Long Gunners, with their Lieutenant and Company Standard, as well as a pair of Stormsmiths, the Trencher Captain Maxwell Finn, hauling his huge mini-slugger who came along ?to keep an eye on the Commander?, as well as his Journeyman, Lieutenant Walker. In support came the Warjacks, a Charger and a Defender.
Left behind in the camp were the bulk of the Trenchers, the Mechaniks, a squad of Precursor Knights, and the second squad of Long Gunners, new men out on campaign for the first time. Plenty enough to hold the enemy should they decide to try and crush Stryker?s base camp while he was gone.
Moving out in formation, Stryker leading the way, the Cygnaran troops began the patrol circuit. The area around Caspia was a wild hodge-podge, flat plains to the north, rolling hills to the south, and blasted desert between. Stryker and his men were patrolling through the area south of Caspia, an area which rose and fell unpredictably.
Soon enough, after about two hours of marching, Stryker felt something tickle the back of his mind. It was primal, this sense, something buried deep in the recesses of his mind. It made his breath quicken, and his heart race. He halted his men, spreading them out in a combat formation. The area was not a good one to fight in, with a dense thicket of desert trees and scrub on his left, and a low, steep hill on his right. Another hill rose over the thicket, and a small wall, last stubborn remnants of an ancient homestead, narrowed his approach options to the second thicket on the far side.
Stryker himself trotted along the right flank of his line lieutenant Walker at his side, dispatching his Warjacks to anchor the line there. The heavy Defender chugged up the hill, where its Heavy Barrel would have greatest advantage. Captain Finn moved up next to it, swiftly digging a fighting position and setting up his mini-slugger to protect the huge machine from marauding infantry while the light, lithe form of the Charger churned ahead to scout out whatever might lay behind the stone wall.
Captain Cathmore, commanding the Sword Knight detachment present, urged his Knights forward, having them stay in loose pairs so as to benefit from each other?s shields while staying far enough away from one another to avoid being caught in blasts of artillery.
Lieutenant Hammond moved his Long Gunners in behind the Sword Knights. It wasn?t an optimal deployment, by any means, as they could not shoot past their armored brethren without risking the lives of the Knights, but once the Knights deployed, the Gunners would be able to fire for effect. The two Stormsmiths, Darkmantle on the right and Ridden on the left, moved to flank the force, and the ominous growl of thunder assured Stryker that the Forces of the Cygnus would fight with the aid of Mother Nature herself.
With his own units deployed, Stryker could finally see his enemy begin to emerge from behind the woods and hills on the opposite end of the field. They were not the Menite zealots he had been expecting, but rather were the horrifying and evil spawn of the Cryx. On the left there were Bane Thralls, odious creations whose heavy axes could rend men to dog meat and whose constantly shifting shadows could render the keenest eye blind. In the center strode Wrongeye and Snapjaw, immoral Gatormen mercenaries who would work for the highest bidder. As Stryker watched, they slid into suddenly murky sections of swamp and disappeared.
On the right, answering the question of where the enemy had disappeared came Mechanithralls. These wretched constructs were reanimated bodies augmented with Mechanikal parts, and mounted small furnaces glowing a hellish green from the necrotite which fueled the war engine of Cryx. They shambled forward, the rotting robes of Protectorate Zealots still hanging from their tattered bodies.
And there, in the center of the undead line, streamed a figure out of nightmare and legend.