The senior warcaster silenced her with a raised hand. ?We must not forsake any tools in our fight for the Creator. Orrik served us well, if some of his men did not. That makes him useful. Now, I want you to take one hundred hand-picked women north from Tower Judgment. You will launch precision attacks at Corvis and Fort Falk, but you will not take either city. You must strike and fall back immediately. The timing of these assaults must be flawless, Thyra. I am counting on you.?
?Priestess, I do not understand. Why are we provoking Cygnar to war as we face civil war ourselves??
Here a slow grin crept across the Protector?s face. ?Because we will not be provoking the Usurper to attack the Protectorate itself, rather the returning forces of the Northern Crusade. My message to the Grand Exemplar suggested that he devote his forces to protecting against threats to the east, leaving Vindictus? main army vulnerable to the Cygnaran retaliation. Do you see now, Flame of Sorrow??
?Yes, Priestess. I think we can accomplish this task. I will take Nicia and a small bodyguard to Sul and enlist the aid of the Umber Guard. Laili Emonhofa is a friend of mine and a great commanding officer; her Daughters are the finest force we can muster. Nicia will lead the assault on Fort Falk, while I make the more difficult attack on Corvis myself. Are we going to have warjacks to support us??
?I can release Blood of Martyrs and a handful of Dervishes and Devouts, but the bulk of our strength will have to remain here to confront what remains of Vindictus? forces when he arrives. Go, prepare your soldiers. Menoth?s blessings upon your blades.?
?And upon you, Protector.?
Seat of the Northern Crusade, Leryn
Your Holiness, a message from Vice Scrutator Bodalin in Imer.? Vindictus, praying in his command tent, sighed. ?Bring it in.? After the messenger departed, he studied the letter: Official parchment, stamped with the visgoth?s personal sigil and the menofix signifying an official document, both of which were intact, and a black ribbon signifying an intelligence report. Breaking the seals, he unfolded the parchment to see a block of coded text. He spent twenty minutes decoding the document, after which he read with growing concern:
To the Commander of the Northern Crusade, in the name of Menoth, Vice Scrutator Vindictus:
The Protector has acted as you predicted. As soon as word of the passing of Hierarch Severius, peace be upon him, reached her office, she summoned her Flameguard commanders to her headquarters. Also in attendance were the Visgoths Lars Elimon, Ark Razek, and Morgimer Jasrun. Of these I most fear Elimon ? for one of our own priestly order to ally himself with the Flameguard sends a dangerous signal to the others in the Synod.
What was said in the meeting, I can only speculate, but immediately afterwards the Protector sent messages to Tower Judgment ? I can only assume to Visgoth Sollers ? and to Visgoth Nestore. A third was sent to your headquarters, though I know not to whom. I believe these messages are calls for further support in her plans. All indications point to a plan for her to be elected Hierarch, and she is arming the Flameguard to support that move.
She did not approach me or Visgoth Vesher for support, and there is no indication from Sul that she approached Visgoth Rhoven either. We stand firm in our support of you for to ascend to the Hierarchy. My suggestion would be to pay a personal visit to Visgoths Nestore, Sollers, and Jasrun before the Synod is assembled, to shore up your own support and weaken hers. I fear she intends to widen this confrontation to include the martial orders, so conversations with the Grand Exemplar, Grand Paladin, and Testament of Menoth would also be advised. I do not claim to know the circumstances of your relationship with the High Executioner, but Servath Reznik?s list is known and feared by all, even the visgoths, and you might be able to use that to your advantage.
May Menoth guide your hand and strengthen your heart. I remain, as always,
Your servant and Menoth?s,
Vice Scrutator Var Bodalin
First Visgoth of Imer
Prime Curate of the Scrutator Initiation
?Pah. Damnable fool can?t resist reminding me of his titles even as he claims to support my ascension. Still, he has been the most loyal of my supporters in the Synod aside from Severius himself?? The Vice Scrutator contemplated his options as the night wore on. As morning came, he reached a decision. Calling a servant to his tent, he said, ?Prepare my vestments for a full ceremony, and summon the Grand Exemplar after its completion.? The solemnity of Menoth?s worship should put the former Khadoran in the right mindset of loyalty and fervor for their discussion. As an afterthought, he added, ?And summon the High Exemplar for an audience on the march immediately after. We move when I am finished with the Grand Exemplar.?
The worship service did as Vindictus had expected, and when the Exemplar commander stepped into the Vice Scrutator?s tent his face was reverent and obedient, clear of any sign of doubt. ?I am sure you have guessed the reason for our return to Protectorate lands, Grand Exemplar.?
Mikael Kreoss nodded shortly. ?I have. We return so that you can be present for the Meeting of the Synod, and to reinforce our homeland from the growing Cryxian threat. Our outpost here in Leryn is untenable at best, and the number of incursions grows daily. We are losing soldiers faster than we could ever hope to recruit them, much less train them.?
Deciding upon one of several options he had developed, the Vice Scrutator agreed. ?Your loyalty to our men is your greatest asset, Mikael. Would that all of our commanders were as concerned for the state of their forces as you. You are right, of course; our position here is no different than Severius? was when Hierarch Voyle was struck down in Caspia. We must regroup and rebuild, and then under a strong, unified leadership we can resume the task of growing the faith.?
?You must know that reclaiming these lands will be doubly difficult should we relinquish them now. These hills are already soaked in Menite blood.?
?I know, Mikael. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten. When next we march north, it will be in a far more supportable position, and by the time we reclaim Leryn our enemies will have been defeated elsewhere. Menoth?s might will prevail.?
?Yes, your holiness. This is good to hear.?
Now that he was sure of Kreoss? devotion to Menoth, the interview began in earnest. ?Have you maintained contact with our forces at home, Mikael??
If the Grand Exemplar suspected his predicament, his face did not show it. ?I have received several reports from the Exemplar Order in Sul and Imer, and have sent reports to each. This you know. I have also received regular updates from the other orders, as is tradition.?
?And I would assume you received these ?regular updates? from the Temple as well? From Feora herself??
There was the faintest glimmer of recognition in Kreoss? eyes. Good, he knew the grounds he trod. ?Yes, your holiness. Her most recent report came to me yesterday. It was? troubling, to be honest.?
?Go on. Why was her message troubling to you??
?She asked the Order?s support in quelling any unrest that came as a result of the Meeting of the Synod. She seemed certain that the vote would be unpopular with many, and that her Flameguard would not suffice to maintain order among the citizenry.? A masterful answer, keeping to the truth while not revealing the full extent of Feora?s certain requests.
?Surely the Order would be able to support the Flameguard should it come to that.?
?To be sure. What concerns me is not our readiness or our devotion. The possibility of a divided Synod concerns me, especially if the Harbinger endorses another for the Hierarchy as she did with Severius, peace be upon him.? Again, a well-crafted response. Kreoss knew more than he was letting on, but the Scrutator had nothing more than suspicion to charge him with. In other circumstances that would be enough, but now more than ever Vindictus needed the Exemplars at his back.
?That is indeed troubling. But that is my concern, and the visgoths?. Your focus should be on preparing your men to maintain order. I feel that many of them will be too conditioned for battle to restrain themselves at home, and I urge you to see that discipline is maintained.? The test of loyalty was finished. Vindictus always had his doubts, but he was as sure as he could be that Kreoss had not yet committed to Feora?s side. Turning to more mundane matters, he asked, ?As we continue home, what threats should I be aware of? Are we ready to protect our forces if we are attacked on the road??
Kreoss? face shifted slightly as he recognized that he was back on safer ground. ?Obviously as we start out we face roving bands of Retribution scouts, and occasional Khadoran patrols. Our route takes us well beyond their known settlements and routes, but there are always outliers. In either case I expect small forces, mostly infantry with a few light warjacks or myrmidons. We are well prepared to meet those should they attack, but I do not think that they will.
?The border south of Merywyn concerns me somewhat, as we cross the no-man?s land between Khadoran, Iosan, and Cygnaran territories. We again will avoid the known outposts, but should we meet a new position it will most assuredly be fortified and have several heavy warjacks along with large numbers of infantry. I expect to have to fight at least one pitched battle in this area, and would not be surprised if we are faced with several in short succession. I have ordered my commanders to prepare for the latter case, and to move as quickly as possible through there.