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  1. THE SALVO AT DRUSCO Patriarch Josef closed his eyes. With his vision dark, his mind receded into a void where his other senses were muted. In that void, far from the chaos of war, there was calm. He was only vaguely aware of the vibrations of the earth beneath him as his thoughts rang out across the emptiness of that void, concise and clear. He inhaled through his nose, oblivious to the acrid stench of smoke and sulfur. Instead, that breath was like a cool wind. Just a moment. He only needed a moment of that void to settle his mind, and steel his resolve. Slowly, the darkness paled as he began to open his eyes, and reality flooded back into being around him like being plunged into ice water. “CANNON FOUR IS HIT!” “ADJUST TWO DEGREES FOR THE TOWER!” “DIRECT STRIKE ON THE ENEMY EASTERNMOST CANNON!” Josef could only make out the loudest shouts in the ceaseless tide of noise. All around him, men and women yelled with hoarse voices during the momentary lapses when the cannons did not sing and fire their projectiles in smoky plumes. Bowstrings creaked and fletchling whistled as archers fired and the mages of Hokhmat launched their arcane spells from the Covenant encampment, which faced across a valley towards the clifftop keep of Drusco. “INCOMI -” That roar was cut short as a Veletzian cannonball slammed into the hillside, spraying smoke, dirt, shrapnel, and the blood of the fallen Covenant cannoneers. Josef felt something wet - mud, he naively hoped - splash onto his voice as the plugs in his ears quivered from the vibration, but he forced himself not to look at the struck cannon crew. He could not afford to. As panicked cries briefly swept the Covenant bunker at the sight of their fellow siege engineers' grizzly fate, Josef raised a mailed hand. “ALL EYES FORWARD.” His own gaze was firmly narrowed on the smokestacks rising from Drusco, across the valley. “UNTIL DRUSCO HAS FALLEN, THIS SALVO DOES NOT END.” “ALL EYES FORWARD!” echoed the shout of Deia from his own cannon crew some dozen feet away from Josef. Wiping soot from his face, he rammed his ladle into the barrel to set the gunpowder charge. With clenched jaws and steely eyes, the rest of his crew followed suit, and so did the rest of the bunker. And the salvo resumed. Josef was not sure how long it went on like that as he stood observing the enemy cannons, ordering readjustments of the bombardment when necessary, and watching holes pock the Drusco cliffside, and the keep itself peeling apart. Soon. The time will be soon. The hours passed like minutes, and the minutes like hours. Two more of his cannon crews perished; one from another direct shot, and the other from a landslide caused by a Veletzian shot lower down the hill. Wylein Alpyne had worked with the dwarves of Urguan and the mages of Hokhmat to construct their cannon bunkers into the mountain itself, but even mountains have their limits, and their bunkers had taken a beating in the ongoing artillery duel. Despite that, Josef’s resolve was stronger than the splintering stones of Drusco. He had been raised in the clergy as a teacher and scholar of the Scrolls, but now here he stood as commander of the Covenant’s artillery banner -- Northern Thunder, which had been the lynchpin in the Covenant’s victories at Breakwater, Brasca, and Stassion. He had read and preached all of his life of God’s infinite power, but never had that power been more apparent to him in that moment as blow after blow of cannonfire gradually reduced another stronghold of the Anathema to rubble. And then, finally, the time came. “Patriarch,” called out Viktor var Ruthern at Josef’s side, with binoculars pressed to his eyes. “The last round has opened up a breach into the main keep, right behind the curtain wall!” Josef raised his own binoculars, and saw as much for himself. Though the air was hazed with smoke and loose dirt, he could see the gaping hole in the castle’s curtain wall, and a breach some twenty-feet wide in the keep beyond. It’s time. One last time, he closed his eyes, and drew strength from that void of calm. There would not be another opportunity after this. His eyes snapped open, and he raised his hand. “SIR GAREN! SIGNAL KING ALEKSANDR AND THE MITHRIL BANNER! THE TIME IS NOW!” “YES, PATRIARCH!” Garen Baruch hollered back as, from atop the hill, there came a heavy flap of canvas as he brandished a flag of pure yellow cloth. “NORTHERN THUNDER, CEASE FIRE!” As the cannons halted, the silence that followed was almost unsettling. It did not, however, last long; for while the salvo subsided, it was replaced by a deep rumble that rose up from lower down the hill. It was not the rumble of artillery, nor crumbling stone; instead, it was a rumbling of soldiers. Josef watched as - on the road below the artillery - banners appeared above a charging cavalcade. Columns of horsemen galloped astride a knot of infantry, their cloaks and tabards and shields sporting the colours of all the nations of the Covenant. Under the grey-orange of Urguan, Grand King Sigrun led the riders through the shallow of the river and up the hill beneath the ruined bridge as the Covenant’s infantry - the Mithril Banner - charged in the horse’s dust-trails, with King Aleksandr of Haense at their helm. Through smoke streaked faces, the cannoneers before Josef watched their comrades charge beneath them in awe, though no doubt their broad grins came from the relief that they had once again bested their foes in a duel of artillery. Josef, though, afforded them no time to rest. “NORTHERN THUNDER! WE TRADE OUR CANNONS FOR OUR SPEARS, AND WE FOLLOW SUIT!” The leather of his gloves creaked as he raised his own polearm skywards. “WE HAVE CARVED OUR SCULPTURE; NOW, LET US PAINT IT RED!” From the cannon bunkers, the Northern Thunder banner advanced in the wake of the main army, their own standards thrust stirring proudly in the smoke-choked wind. Beneath the destroyed bridge they waded, and up the trodden hills they trekked, and they crossed the corpses that the Mithril Banner had left strewn on the main road. By the time they reached the top of the adjacent cliff, where a ceaseless din of voices and clanging steel marked the fighting, Josef was well out of breath, but far from out of spirit. The standards of the Northern Thunder joined the tide of Covenant attackers as their formations bit and bit again into the outnumbered Veletzian defenders among the rubble of Drusco, just as the cannons of Northern Thunder had bit and bit again at the keep to create that rubble. Josef lost himself in a different type of void in that melee -- in a timeless blur of instinct and chaos, he fought. He was barely aware of which foes his spear skewered - be they Orc or Veletzian - except for a Dark Elf officer who wore Ferryman colours. When it was all finally done - when Drusco was reduced to the same pile of smoke-charred stones as Breakwater, Brasca, and Stassion - Josef half-collapsed onto a fallen roofbeam with heaving breaths. The cry of victory still echoed in the air as bands of roving Covenant soldiers scoured the conquered fort, searching for surviving enemies or plunder, but the exhausted Patriarch paid no further heed to any of it. His job was done. Closing his eyes, he sought that void of calm again, and numbened his senses to soothe his thrumming heart and scratching lungs. He found solace in the idea that he would find peace by bringing peace to the Heartlands through war, and that his cannons could achieve what his croziers could not. As the chants of triumph continued to resonate throughout Drusco’s shattered hall, the Patriarch smiled softly. They had, after all, promised to bring their peace.
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