The sun stood high overhead in a sky that was so blue it was breathtaking. Not a single cloud marred the cerulean expanse overhead, only the bright, cold glare of the sun. This far north, even the full light of summer carried a chill with it on the wind, and the breath of both horse and man made clouds in the air as they breathed together in the midday hush. Ahead of them the grassy flats rolled into the sudden ripples and folds of the first high foothills that hugged the Northron Range. In the distance those gray granite monoliths stood with their craggy peaks capped in eternal snows and a dim, never-receding shadow of distance. It was said that even at the foot of the Mother of Mountains, the tallest peak in the entire realm, the peak still looked dim and farther away than the next Age of Man. Though many men had set their feet on her slopes, few had returned to tell their tales, and none had ever come closer than halfway to the peak and lived. Some said it was the home of the gods, but the Lord Captain had a different belief. He'd seen what marched out of the wights and warrens hidden deep in the roots of those eternal monuments to stone extravagance, and it was far from godly. Before him, at the first ridge of those foothills that reared suddenly from the frozen permafrost of the great north tundra, stood a moiling black mass the likes of which no living Lord Captain had ever faced. There were Ettins with their broad, twin faces arguing over scraps of half-roasted mutton and kegs of stale ale; there were the massive horns of towering rock and ice trolls, their rank breath steaming in the cold with great gray puffs. Rank after rank of Orcs stood in relatively neat blocks of roughly twenty, each captained by a single massive beast bedecked with scraps of armor ill-fit to their body, and often wearing a roughly hewn bone helm of some description. Their weapons were rusted and pitted with age and misuse, but they were kept to a keen edge and wielded by war-savvy creatures of brute force and cunning. There were even several ranks worth of Orcish Rangers with their twisted bows carved of some dark and fearsomely strong wood. They mixed and mingled through the ranks with no apparent pattern, choosing vantages that offered both concealment and additional elevation from which to fire down upon the attacking humans. And there was a new breed of beast he'd never seen before. These were Orcs as well, but they steamed and radiated a hot malevolence that was foreign in his experience with the twisted denizens that haunted the caves of the Northron Range. These new Orcs carried with them bulging leather satchels that also steamed, and glowed a faint reddish orange. There were other beasts as well like gargoyles and harpies, packs of dire wolves growling and snapping among the Orcs, some leashed and under command. And there were more that the Lord Captain couldn't name, creatures he'd never seen before, only read about or heard in tales whispered by old warriors in their cups. Monstrous floating heads with snake-like tentacles where hair should have grown, great twisted shapes that looked to be half-woman and half-spider. And then there were the War-Lords, evil Mages with power and darkness swirling about them and through them, their eyes shown with livid red power and rage. The mass of enemy stretched as far as he could see to either side, and there was no end to the standing files behind that front line. As the Lord Captain gazed at that mass of evil and darkness he couldn't help but be awed at the sight of it. The sheer might and force of will it took to call such a force into being, master it and marshal it for war was staggering. How could any mere mortal hope to stand in the face of such bare, naked, vicious power? And yet here he stood. And not alone, either. At his back was gathered the entire force of the Northern Realms. The Paladins of Angorath, the Pikemen of Shulan, the Knights of Devoria with their massive steeds clad in armor as fine as many a king in the lower realms were out of site, but not far. Then there were the Lore-Masters, Wizards, Channelers, Sorcerers, and Seers. They stood huddled in groups and rings, their own arcane powers crackling argent and blue through the air like sheets of living electricity and fire. At the clach held every harvest the Lord Captain had made his call, and he had been answered bravely. Now, facing that endless sea of darkness ahead of them, that bravery began to quaver. "Lord Captain," a voice said from his left elbow. It was Pentash, the elected commander of the Pikemen of Shulan. He was a man of short stature, with a wiry leanness that belied the strength for which he was renowned. It was said that a great Knight of Devoria had challenged him once to a contest of arms where by each man grasped each of the corresponding hands of his opponent and tried to twist their arms so that both hands were pointed fingers down at the same instant. The Knight refused to yield the last inch or so of the game, though his pain and exertion were clear for all to see. Instead of accepting the stalemate, though, Pentash had simply flexed and broken the thick wrists of the Knight with a subtle twist and shift in pressure. When the knight collapsed from the sudden pain, his hands were easier to twist, and Pentash won. No one had since challenged him. "Lord Captain, you must reconsider this. Our enemy has our numbers by at least twenty to one, if not double that. If we go through with your mad plan, we will be destroyed. And the Realms, none of them, will survive the coming destruction, not with our strength spent here so uselessly. They have the high ground, the numbers, and their lines of resupply are short while ours are so long as to be nonexistent. Sir, Lord, whatever title you wish, you must reconsider. Our enemy has every advantage." "They always do," the Lord Captain whispered softly. He turned in his saddle and regarded Pentash. The man was no coward, and he had gauged the situation right, except for one thing. One thing that the Lord Captain had told no one until this very moment. "Pentash, old friend, how many times have we marched into battle together? How many times have we stood back to back, bodies all around, blood and gore up to our ankles, and faced death with only our blades and our wits to purchase our lives?" "More times than I care to count," Pentash answered warily, rubbing an old scar just below his left ear where an Orcish arrow had nearly taken him in the throat in the days of their youth many years ago. The Lord Captain had heard the bowstring snap and had acted more out of instinct than thought, but his quick jerk on Pentash's cloak had been enough to save the man's life. It was one of dozens of scars each men bore with similar stories of how the other had saved them from a near death. They were the kinds of stories old allied soldiers accumulated if they were lucky enough to live to see their twilight years on their feet. "And how many of those times have I led you into folly and defeat?" The Lord Captain let the question hang unanswered for a few moments until his friend briefly dropped his eyes in recognition. "Then trust that this will not be the first time. You have judged this situation correctly with what you see, but there is more than our eyes can behold in this world, Pentash. We have more allies in this deep and long war than you know, perhaps more than any of us know, though that remains to be seen. At the clach I spoke of a higher purpose that had driven me to call for this march to war, and I speak of it again now. Fate, or Destiny, or whatever you want to call it, I've seen her, Pentash. And it was her words that pushed me into the light at the Great Council Fire of the clach, demanded this action. For she gave me a vision of a sure and swift destruction of all life, beauty, and truth in this world and all others should we fail to stand here, on this day, at this moment, to meet this foe." By now and eerie silence had settled over the ranks of soldiers within earshot, for the Lord Captain had done little to hold down his voice. He wanted his men to hear this now, they needed to be reminded why they had marched a thousand leagues from their homes and their hearths, their women and children. They needed to be reminded what it was they fought for, what they had come to stand in defense of, no matter the cost. "And so, here we stand," the Lord Captain bellowed, turning his mount to face the rank after rank of Pikemen and Karls behind him. "We stand against the Armies of Darkness so that LIGHT and LIFE may have a chance to prevail, slim as that chance may be. And if the price we must pay to purchase that victory is the last breath of life then I, for one, will gladly pay it that our kith and kin may see another day and know peace at last!" With that a great cheer erupted from his men, rising as a growing wave as it spread out and back through the ranks. Slowly, rhythmically, the pikemen and Karls began drumming their spears and axes against their tall, broad heater shields. The sound of the drumming shook the very air and brought a brief blur of tears to the Lord Captain's eyes. Then he wheeled his mount to face the seething mass of the enemy, whose face and timbre suddenly seemed far less certain than it had moments ago. Behind him two hundred thousand pikemen and half that many Karls stood in tight ranks. The Karls formed blocks around the pikemen, and in those mixed formations they held, waiting. In the very center of the entire army stood the cluster of Lore Masters, working their own strategy and art. The Lord Captain felt the entire army rock forward on the balls of its feet, a breath half indrawn and held in anticipation. He said a quick and silent prayer to Fate, whom he had long believed was an illusion at best, and he hoped she deigned to be listening. Then he drew his valorite sword and held it high overhead as its ring seemed to hang longer than natural in the suddenly still, cold air. "SUFLARE VITALE!" He roared at the top of his lungs and he lowered his sword as he dug his heels into the flanks of his massive black destrier. The horse sprang forward, its powerful legs churning across the brief flat expanse, and then up towards the waiting enemy. Behind him he heard the thunder of his army as it charged like a breaking wave up the slope of the foothills. The charge caught the enemy completely by surprise. The front ranks of Orcs stood stock still for a moment in shock, gaping and uncertain. It seemed ludicrous that such a relatively small force would charge an elevated position and attack rather than entrench. Then their commanders barked a few harsh orders, and the wall of twisted Orcs surged down the slope, gathering speed and force as they ran. I hope you know what you're doing, Wizard, the Lord Captain thought to himself, and then the two armies met with a sound like the bones of the earth crumbling.