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Return of the Void Wizards (5006)

Omens from the Desert

During the battle at Ekron, General Riddick, the commander of the Kurgan Expeditionary Force, was killed along with most of his staff, leaving the Caliphate army without leadership to organize a retreat. Most of the Kurgan soldiers were killed or captured by pursuing VDF forces as they fled toward the mountains and the Caliphate lands beyond. Demoralized by this stunning defeat upriver, the Kurgan troops threatening Haina likewise staged a hasty withdrawal toward the safety of their earlier conquests in the north.

On 3 February, 5006, as the victorious defenders of the Triumvirate still celebrated their great victory, a new threat emerged from the shifting sands of the central desert. At his field headquarters in Ekron, Duke Alvaro received news of a massive military force moving out of the desert into the Erin River valley above Port Lewellyn. The affiliation of these troops was unknown, but their intent was made clear as they overran the Vargen-held city of Manaan and began to move downriver, ravaging every village in their path.

Alvaro moved his command to Port Lewellyn to help Viscount Michael Hawkwood organize a defense against this new enemy. As reports began to filter in from advance scouts in the field, it became clear that this was no ordinary foe. In their initial skirmishes with the enemy, Hawkwood patrols encountered demon-possessed Vargens, shambling husks raised from the dead, and skittering abominations straight out of their worst nightmares. It was an army of darkness, marching straight out of the depths of Gehenna.

At the head of that horde rode none other than Rees Catalfan, a renegade Imperial Eye agent who had turned from the Light in pursuit of otherworldly power. Long thought dead, Catalfan had returned to exact his vengeance upon those who had foiled his wicked schemes--and crush the Triumvirate while he was at it. Above his head billowed his personal standard, a banner as black as the void itself, and escorting him was an elite guard of grim warriors in midnight armor who called themselves Shadow Knights.

Army of Darkness

In a mocking pronouncement delivered via holodisk, Catalfan boasted that he would raze Port Lewellyn, still licking its wounds from the last invasion attempt, and turn its citizens into husks to fill the ranks of his army. That army, he claimed, was merely the vanguard of the numberless horde of the Children of the Void, servants of a demonic being called the "Lord of Shadows". Their master had decreed that Vargo would serve as his first fiefdom in the Known Worlds, and they were here to fulfill this commandment.

Acting swiftly, Alvaro recalled the already battle-weary VDF forces from Ekron to redeploy in the defense of Port Lewellyn. He also called upon Primate Icarus for Church support in countering the insidious occult powers wielded by Catalfan and his acolytes. The Primate supplied Avesti and Inquisition shock troops, and arranged for Eskatonic and Orthodox theurges to lend their aid, while the Brother Battle sent elite platoons that had recently tested their mettle against Kurgan skirmishers in the pitched defense of Ekron.

The heroic defenders chose to make their stand at a humble tributary of the Erin called Kinder Creek, halfway between Manaan and Port Lewellyn. Catalfan's horde approached the entrenched troops as dusk fell on the 16th of February, sweeping across the land like a dark tide of evil. The Protector waited until the fetid stench of the enemy filled the nostrils of his troops before giving the command to open fire. Artillery and slug weapon fire chewed into the front ranks of the husks, felling hundreds in a matter of seconds.

The army of darkness kept advancing, thousands of possessed and undead marching forward to fill the gaps left by their fallen cohorts as the defenders rained a steady barrage of bullets into their ranks. The horde crashed against the VDF line, and a general melee ensued as soldiers engaged the enemy with cold steel. At first, the VDF line held. Then, as the last light of day departed, slavering horrors straight out of Qlippoth loped out of the darkness to savage the defenders. Slowly, inevitably, the line bent. Then it broke.

The Last Stand

Were it not for the heroic actions of Brother Battle monks who charged forth to engage the demons hand-to-hand, offering prayers to Zakhayelos as they fought and died, the VDF might well have been annihilated that day. As it was, barely two-thirds of the defenders left the battlefield alive, limping back downriver in the direction of Port Lewellyn to lick their wounds. Duke Alvaro met with Viscount Michael and Field Marshal Valencia at the Dail Eireann to assess their losses and prepare a last-ditch defense of the ravaged city.

The prospects appeared very grim indeed. Demoralized and battered, the VDF was an army on the verge of collapse. After his meeting with the Viscount, Duke Alvaro boarded a flitter and returned to Vargo City on some mysterious errand. Some claimed that he had lost his nerve and abandoned the VDF in its hour of need. As Amaltheans tended to the troops billeted in Mael Plaza, the Viscount appeared before them to deliver a stirring speech, calling upon them to hold out hope. The Light would triumph, he promised them.

Meanwhile, back at Kinder Creek, Catalfan and his acolytes wielded antinomy most foul to raise the fallen VDF soldiers as husks to serve in his army, and summoned demons to possess the prisoners they had taken, after torturing them into submission. His ranks thus restored to full strength, Catalfan resumed the march toward the prize waiting at the mouth of the Erin River. The horde swept over the villages around Gaddeau and Dres like a plague, swallowing up all that lived and leaving devastation in its wake.

Across the river from Port Lewellyn, at a place of ancient power called Prophet's Crossing, the city's defenders deployed to make their last stand against the army of darkness. This time the soldiers knew exactly what sort of enemy they would be facing, but that knowledge held little comfort. Their resolve was bolstered by the presence of Brother Battle and Orthodox chaplains moving among their ranks, offering the solace that should they die, their souls, at least, would be safely beyond the reach of Rees Catalfan.

An Unexpected Ally

At noon on the first of March, 5006, with swamp on their left flank and low hills on their right, the defenders of Port Lewellyn met Rees Catalfan's horde. Withering fire scythed through the ranks of the undead, felling hundreds like overripe wheat with the first volley, hundreds more with the second. Yet onward they came. As before, the battle devolved into a vicious melee. Hour after hour the two sides fought on, sweat and blood flowing freely to soak the ground underfoot. As twilight descended, Catalfan again worked his summoning.

As before, demons walked Vargo's soil, hurling themselves at the human soldiers to rend soft flesh with razor sharp claws and teeth. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, Lewellyn's defenders were on the brink of defeat. Then, just as all seemed lost, shadows stirred out in the darkness at the edge of the battlefield. Pale figures emerged from the night to fall upon the unholy host, slashing at demon and husk alike with keen, alien blades as inhuman battle cries ululated above the grunts and moans of the combatants.

The newcomers were Ukari. Where they came from, and what compelled them to fight alongside humans, no one knew, then or now. Yet none can deny that the Ukari staved off certain defeat with their timely arrival that night. The Ukar warriors moved among the demons with uncanny grace, almost dancing as they dodged their claws and teeth to strike back with gleaming Kraxi, their accuracy deadly. Still, the Ukari were mere flesh and blood, as mortal as the humans they saved, and when the demons found their mark, the Ukari also died.

As the dark horde staggered under the assault of this unexpected foe, fear of defeat apparently struck Catalfan’s heart for the first time. Gathering his acolytes, he undertook one last summoning, the most powerful of them all. Uttering incantations in a gutteral tongue older than the Annunaki, Catalfan called forth Yaglayelos the Render, Servant of Focused Pain. Once a lesser demon, the power of this beast had been enhanced by the dark magicks of the Children of the Void during the ritual of the eclipse six years earlier.

A Beacon in the Night

With a deep-throated roar, the demon Yaglayelos took form from the night itself, a writhing, vaguely reptilian shape cloaked in shifting darkness. Fear swept anew through the ranks of the defenders as this roar echoed up and down the valley, turning the blood to icewater in their veins. Viscount Michael watched in helpless horror as the great beast reached forth to fell a dozen of his soldiers with one sweep of its clawed hand. What hope did the city's defenders have of standing against the likes of this?

Calling upon the Pancreator's name, a platoon of Brother Battle hurled themselves at Yaglayelos, hewing at the beast with mighty swings of their broadswords. For a few moments they kept the demon occupied, driving it back with the sheer ferocity of their assault, but one by one the Brothers fell before its claws, martyrs to what now seemed a lost cause. The Ukari, those that were still alive, charged at Yaglayelos in the Brother Battles’ wake, singing their death chants as they fought and died, their blood mingling with that of the fallen monks.

Despair seized the hearts of the surviving defenders as they beheld the countenance of death incarnate. Just then, a rumble like thunder sounded in the dark heavens overhead, and the flare of dropthrusters lit the night. A Republic dropship descended from the sky to land hard, crushing dozens of undead warriors beneath it. It bore the crimson markings of the Red Talon Fleet. Its boarding hatch opened to disgorge a platoon of knights into the fray. They were the Companions of the Lantern, and Duke Alvaro was at their head.

The Companions charged into the enemy's ranks, blades swinging as they fought their way toward Rees Catalfan himself. In their midst was a slight figure wearing the pale robes of an Amalthean, clutching a bundle tightly to her chest. To this day her name is not known. The Companions shielded the priestess and her precious cargo with their own bodies as they drove on through the husks toward their goal. Their advance only slowed as they met Catalfan's personal guard, the dreaded Shadow Knights wielding their cruel black blades.

The Light Triumphant

A dozen Companions fell as they hacked their way through the Shadow Knights, but they succeeded in breaking through the circle and reaching Rees Catalfan with their Amalthean charge. Duke Alvaro jerked his saber from the corpse of a fallen Shadow Knight and stepped forward to call Catalfan out, his blade dripping blood. Recoiling in fear from the prospect of death on that blade, the antinomist called to Yaglayelos for aid. Heeding the call of he who summoned it, the demon turned and strode toward the confrontation.

At that point, according to witnesses close enough to see, the Amalthean stepped forward and removed the wrappings from the object she carried, then raised it overhead. In her hands she held the Lantern of Sainte Vargo, glowing steadily in the night. For the first time since his summoning, Yaglayelos seemed to hesitate. Catalfan lifted his hands and began to chant again. Tendrils of darkness extended from his fingertips, reaching for the priestess. Duke Alvaro raised his saber and charged into their path.

Just then, in a firm voice that echoed across the battlefield, the priestess called out these words: "Dixitque Pancreator 'fiat lux' et facta est lux!" Suddenly there was a flash of light, as if the sun had risen again, so intense it briefly blinded all who were watching. Yaglayelos was heard to scream in rage and agony, a piercing cry of ageless hate denied once again. There was a massive thunderclap that threatened to leave everyone deaf as well as blind, and the very earth shook underfoot as if the world itself was tearing apart.

As the spots slowly cleared from everyone's vision, they beheld what could only be described as a miracle. The demon Yaglayelos, Rees Catalfan, the Shadow Knights, and several hundred undead troops were all gone. They had simply disappeared as if swallowed up by the earth. The ground they had occupied was now empty, unblemished. Unfortunately, Duke Alvaro of the Hazat, the unnamed Amalthean Priestess who had carried the Holy Lantern, and the surviving Companions of the Lantern had vanished with them.

Grim Victory

The remains of the dark horde were left in disarray, deprived of leadership with the removal of Catalfan and his acolytes, and the occult power they had wielded to hold the army of darkness together. The husks, bereft of guidance, shambled around aimlessly, attacking any of the living who came near. As for the demons, they had all been banished back to Gehenna, including those that had possessed Vargens--who were now left confused and frightened, uncertain of where they were or how they had arrived there.

Port Lewellyn's defenders were likewise stunned by this sudden turn of events, but Viscount Michael had enough presence of mind to order them to put down the husks before they got out of hand. It was a gruesome task, lasting throughout the night. By the time that dawn blushed the horizon, the battlefield was littered with rotting corpses. Yet only the living were left walking. The dispossessed Vargens were gathered together and provided with blankets and food from among the soldiers’ own rations.

The wounded and the refugees alike were transported across the river into Port Lewellyn as the army began the grim task of burying the dead where they had fallen. A thorough search was made of the place where the Lantern was last seen, but there was no sign of it, the Companions who had safeguarded the priestess who carried it, or Duke Alvaro. Curiously, the bare patch of grass where the miracle occurred was vibrant and green, and spring wildflowers were blooming--even as winter still gripped the land.

As Viscount Michael Hawkwood surveyed the battlefield, watching his battered troops make their way toward Queen Maeve’s Bridge, he could not help but ponder the costly victory they had just won. Port Lewellyn had been saved, and the Darkness had been defeated, for now. Yet the VDF had suffered hundreds of casualties, many of its tanks were wrecked, and the Protector had fallen in battle. What's more, the Lantern of Sainte Vargo, missing for centuries until rediscovered a few years ago, had apparently been lost once again.

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