Saturday, 22 March 2014

Crying Wolf

Julia tried to shy away towards the back of the crowd as best as she could. She was starting to feel sick inside. She hadn't wanted any of this to happen. It had all gone wrong.

For all of her fourteen years of life Julia had lived in the same place on the same world, named New Heathsfall. It had a few cities and towns that were islands of humanity in a sea of endless plains and fields. Every once and a while a ship would show up in orbit and shuttles and landers would ferry goods between it and the surface all day, and every so often another ship would show up and an enormous number of the world's men would be hauled onto it (and sometimes a few of it's women too). Almost all of them were never seen again, and the few that did never talked about what happened to them after they left. Julia dreaded that ship, because she knew one day it would come for all the boys she knew. She wouldn't mind if some of the mean or irritating ones left and never came back, but there were also ones she was friends with and others she admired, and she'd like them to stay for as long as possible. Julia knew that the world was ruled by a planetary governor, and she knew from her school classes that the world was on the distant edge of the galaxy, and a long, long way from Terra, the home of mankind.

But Julia cared little for that. She was young, a teenager, and her days were still carefree, filled with friends and laughter and parties, in between studying when she had to. She paid homage to the Emperor of humanity just as everyone else did. But her main concerns in life at the moment were good grades, finding a date to the annual dance social, and what her friend Madeline was doing.

Madeline. For almost as long as Julia could remember she had been inseparable from her. Thick as thieves when they were children, best friends when they grew older. They liked the same songs, the same style of clothing, the same books. Whenever one was upset or hurt, the other would be rushing to her side to comfort her. They were like sisters, and Julia had thought she was perfect in every way.

But things had changed in recent times. More and more Julia had started to gain a creeping, growing feeling of neglect. It felt like the spotlight was constantly on Madeline, with her and her actions being constantly praised. Julia had studied just as hard, and earned top marks in her exams, but Madeline had received the academic award that year, amongst others. When Julia had proposed an idea for a class project, she was ignored, but when Madeline proposed an identical one it was chosen. The final straw had been when Julia's crush had asked Madeline to a date, and the two had been in a relationship that seemed to grow ever closer and more romantic ever since.

Julia had started to grow desperate. She knew she was just as deserving of credit and praise and fortune as Madeline was, but no-one seemed to notice her. In her frantic search for something that would shift some of the limelight away from Madeline and back onto her, she had recalled the stories and tales told to her as a child. Tales that were told to every child that she knew, and indeed every child on the world. Strange, frightening tales of evil witches who would gather in the dead of night to spread terror and death, slaughtering beasts and razing fields, and conjuring up horrible monsters to slay and torment townspeople. Julia was certain that they were just simple fables meant to frighten children into obedience, but she also knew that the people of her world were very superstitious. So she did something, something malicious and cruel, but something she did not intend to seriously harm anyone with.

She had said that Madeline was a witch.

She had spread it in secret as a rumour. She had pointed out how people were drawn to her, and said that it was not in fact because of her merits, but because she had cast spells on them. She had even planted some evidence, just a few odd-looking trinkets and an occult book or two, in and around her room and school cabinet. And the word spread like wildfire. Soon all the students in her school were whispering about it, and cold looks were given at Madeline when she went past.

But then things began to spiral out of control. She did not know how, but the story had managed to reach the ears of the planetary governor. And then a few months after Julia had started the slander, a new ship had arrived in the sky. This one carried a tall, brooding man. He wore a long coat and a wide-brimmed hat, and was adorned in seals and I-like emblems. He frightened Julia. He had come with a large number of black and grey armoured soldiers, who carried large weapons that some of the more militarily-interested boys called hellguns (while some others insisted they were lasguns, and others still said they were hotshot lasguns). They had set up a perimeter around an apartment building, cleared out it's tenants, and kept Madeline there for weeks.

Julia's plan had worked. She started getting noticed more. She started getting more praise. In a few days she became the most popular girl in school for exposing the wicked creature in their midst, though they didn't know she had made all that up. Madeline's boyfriend, Julia's crush, had even asked her out. It was everything she had wanted to get, but now she no longer wanted any of it. Especially when she managed to catch a glimpse into Madeline's new prison and saw what was being done to her...

And now it had come to this. Julia was in the middle of a gigantic crowd, gathered in the town square, jeering and shouting and snarling out at what was before it. The object of their attention was a vast stage that had been erected, and on it was dear, innocent Madeline, Julia's best friend, lashed to an enormous black monolith, emblazoned with skulls and other icons of death, and the same I-like insignia the man in the hat and coat wore. It was late afternoon, and the sun was setting and painting the sky a great, agonising, resplendent triptych of reds, pinks, oranges and yellows. At the fringes of the sunset the sky was turning to deep mournful midnight blues, and New Heathfall's two moons were just starting to show in the haze. An icy, bitter wind was scourging through the square, and it pierced straight through Julia. Amber and ochre leaves chased each other on the breeze. A black cat slinked around the fringes of the square. And Madeline waited, her comely, elegant features gripped in a heart-skewering look of confusion and sorrow, her great sapphire-blue eyes brimming with tears as she tried desperately to search for a reason why all this had happened to her, why she was about to die and her family were cheering for it, and why her friend hadn't tried to help. Her long golden tresses feebly reached out in the winds, and struck out like torchlight against the cold grim obsidian black of the device she was tied to.

The man in the hat and coat was on the stage, with a book in his hand, and he was preaching to the crowd about how the righteous must be ever-vigilant in these dark and terrible times for the unclean and the wicked, and that the people had done a great service to humanity for exposing this heretical fiend. He condemned Madeline for consorting with vile powers and acting out against mankind, and said she was now sentenced to death.

Then a great and terrible whirring whine began to radiate out of the black monolith.

Julia looked down and saw herself in a puddle, her raven coloured hair flanking her face and grape green eyes like curtain drapes. She shut her eyes quickly. She couldn't bear to look at herself. Her head was filled with thoughts of guilt and regret. A small voice whispered out amidst the despair, a strange serpentine purr that she did not recognise, and tried to ignore. A voice that said she had done the right thing.

A burning lump was catching in Julia's throat, and her insides churned. Her veins were on fire. She wanted to go far, far, far away from this place, and curl up in a cave somewhere and never come out. She never wanted this to happen. She never wanted her friend dead. She just wanted a bit more attention.

But what Julia didn't know, what she couldn't know, was that those stories told to her and the other children of their world weren't just tales. There really were witches and monsters out there.

And the people like the planetary governor and the man in the hat and coat had very good reason to do what they were doing.

Upon the stage, Madeline gave a sigh, and made one final look upwards into the heavens, calmly resigned to her demise. The whining reached a crescendo, and at once burst into a brilliant flash of light and fire, and a wave of heat roared over the crowd. In the centre of the firestorm, Madeline was turned to silhouette, then bones, then ashes that were swept upwards into the wind.

And as the sparks and embers swirled upwards with them, a shooting star streaked across the midnight painted sky.

Saturday, 15 March 2014


If you're one of the (very, very, very, very few) people who regularly visits this blog, you'll probably have noticed two things:

1) every weekend a short background story has been posted here, and, 

2) this weekend no such thing happened. 

Some explanation may be wanted. The short stories are the result of an initiative I've begun in response to the new version of White Dwarf now published by Games Workshop. Alas, despite my wishes, the new publication has yielded no new major background pieces I am aware of. Because of this, I have decided to publish a short background story of my own devising, to ensure that hobbyists everywhere can get a regular dose of backgroundey goodness. This will continue every Saturday (the same time that this new White Dwarf is released) until they start publishing short stories of their own again. 

Now for the reason why there wasn't one put up this week. This was because I instead decided to put the time into finishing the second unit of Glade Guard for my Wood Elf army, this one equipped with a Banner of Eternal Flame. Work on this unit is the reason why there have been two short stories before any sort of background on why they're being written, due to me working to what was essentially the tabletop hobbyist equivalent to Stalin's five year plan in an attempt to finish the entire unit before university started back up again. Alas, numerous occurrences in life (not least of which was me coming down with a terrible head cold for about a week), resulted in several delays and eventually caused the endeavour to crash and burn. But now it's finally finished, so you can all have some nice army background instead of a short story. 

Glade Guard: The Warmth of Winter 

Fire is a common danger to any forest, and yet also often tragically inevitable. The great and wondrous forest of Athel Loren is no exception, and over it's long history the forest has suffered many fires, either through unrelenting act of nature or barbaric destruction by the torches of an invader. When such forest fires break out in Athel Loren, Fire Spites are often produced, usually from the transformation of a number of the Spites living in the afflicted area. Born from the burning death of the woodland around them and the destruction of their homes, Fire Spites are consumed by pain and murderous rage at the destruction of the forest, and filled with hatred for those who would instigate it. They are vicious even by the standards of the nature spirits that dwell in Athel Loren, though unlike other Spites they are often brooding and sombre. Fire Spites will often avoid Elves and even other forest spirits, either staying with their own kind or living in isolation. They are driven with an insatiable thirst for revenge upon those who would burn the forest, and the power of fire flows through them. A Fire Spite can unleash blasts of flame, or burn and scorch with a touch, and they vindictively suck all warmth out of the air around them. Should any number of Fire Spites become affiliated with a group of Elven warriors, they will assist them in battle, providing warmth and illumination, as well as magically setting their weapons ablaze to ensure the enemy is burnt just as their woodland home once was. 

The Elves of the Meadows of Heaven make frequent use of Fire Spites, primarily for defensive purposes in siege warfare, where packs of them contained in special mystically-protected baskets fulfil a similar role to the cauldrons of boiling oil employed by other races. Of all the various kinbands in the Meadows of Heaven however, the one with the closest affinity with Fire Spites is the Glade Guard kinband known as The Warmth of Winter. Unlike other Glade Guard kinbands, those in The Warmth of Winter no longer have a hall in which to call home. Instead, it is a nomadic group formed of Asrai who have had their homes destroyed, most often in warfare. While they may visit other halls within the Meadows of Heaven, those of The Warmth of Winter will most often be found roaming the forest, frequently making use of the large number of secret camps scattered throughout the Meadows of Heaven as part of the Invisible Fortress. Their experiences have made them hardened and merciless fighters, who will slay any enemies they come across with neither relent nor remorse unless explicitly instructed to do otherwise by an Elf of higher authority. Their shared painful backgrounds inevitably means that those of The Warmth of Winter become extremely tight-knit, and are very protective of one another and mistrustful of outsiders, even other Asrai. Once their trust has been earned however, they will be staunchly loyal to the end. The Warmth of Winter's close affinity with Fire Spites stems from the nature of the origin of it's members, which invariably causes both the kinband and the Fire Spites that accompany it to find mutual sympathy and kindred spirits within each other. 

For much of the history of The Meadows of Heaven, The Warmth of Winter has been an extremely small kinband, though their connection with Fire Spites and the potent flaming attacks resulting from it made them much sought-after in times of war. The destruction wrought on The Meadows of Heaven during Cyanathair's first assault on Athel Loren at the onset of the Secret War however resulted in large numbers of Asrai loosing their homes, friends and loved ones and consequently The Warmth of Winter grew in size until by the time of Cyanathair's defeat at the Battle of Anguish, it had become one of the largest Glade Guard kinbands in The Meadows of Heaven, and ever since then armies from there will almost always include at least one unit of Glade Guard from The Warmth of Winter. 

So there you have it. Don't worry, there will be another short story next Saturday and in the ones after that. In fact that may very likely be the only updates to this blog for some time as I take a break from tabletop hobby to focus on university work and a terrible new insidious threat to my free time: Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Baptism of Fire

Shas'la'Kel'shan'Mont'yr'Ta Darted across the alleyway and lunged into the shadow of a nearby building, pressing close to the towering wall and ensuring there was as little chance of him being targeted as possible. Snipers were known to be operating in the area, and he did not intend to be one of their kills today. Despite this supposedly being a relatively calm sector, Mont'yr'Ta could nonetheless dimly hear the sound of heavy automatic weapons fire, making it's way across the dusty air over the buildings from some other block of the city.

A series of ominously deep bass explosions echoed from distant artillery fire as the young Tau paused to take stock of the situation. He was deep within an enormous city, a key strategic location on the planet his hunter cadre was currently deployed on, and all around him were colossal towers and spires, titanic peaks of alloys and concrete that lanced upwards into the sky. It was late in the afternoon, and the world's setting sun cast long finger-like rays of light through the buildings while they stood as defiant silhouettes in it's amber  radiance, casting grim foreboding shadows across the urban forest. Motes of dust and the occasional bright ember drifted through the air. Behind La'Mont'yr'Ta, the main street was illuminated with a flickering glow emanating from the burning wreckage of his team's Devilfish troop carrier, downed by a Gue'la lascannon nest further up ahead. Cycling through the vision modes on his helmet display showed no nearby enemies. Mont'yr'Ta checked his communications channels, and found they were still being jammed. He checked the power cell in his pulse carbine - it was at 75% capacity from the bursts of fire he'd laid down at the Gue'la position while running to the alleyway- and quickly moved up to where the rest of his team were.

There were seven other Firewarriors active at the team's position, including the Shas'ui team leader, who was pondering on a piece of debris. Another four were propped against a wall, they'd been injured when the Devilfish crashed. The Shas'ui looked up as Mont'yr'Ta stopped next to him.

"Good, you made it. We'll need as many of the team as possible if we're going to press onward to the objective. Did you see the others?" he inquired.

"No Shas'ui. I think they must be on the other side of the street. Are the drones from the Devilfish still available? Perhaps we could use them to cover them while they link up with us?"

"According to my tactical display the Drones are still functional, and have taken shelter behind the Devilfish wreckage. If they move past it they'll be easy pickings for the Gue'la's heavy weapons. We're going to clear them off the road before regrouping with the Drones and the other Shas'la, assuming of course they're still alive."

"We're going to storm them? They have a prepared position, that does not seem like a wise course of action to me Shas'ui."

"We're not charging straight in. From the quick look I had as I was getting out of the street I noticed they don't seem to have any troops inside the buildings around their heavy weapons. We can slip in through the back door on one of them, get to a higher level and rain fire down on the Gue'la from there."

"What about the injured?"

The Shas'ui looked down for a moment, as if thinking. "We'll leave two here to guard them while a six-strong fire team makes the attack. Do I have any volunteers to stay here?" He asked the team. Three Firewarriors promptly raised their hands. The Shas'ui pointed at two of them. "You, and you. Everyone else is with me."

A string of mortar rounds impacted just a few dozen metres away from the them. "Right then. Let's move," said the Shas'ui.

Mont'yr'Ta was given point. The Gue'la position was not far, though between the slinking from cover to cover, and moving slowly and carefully to make sure they remained undetected, it seemed to take an unnerving amount of time. Eventually they reached their intended destination, a tall building adjacent to where the humans had set up. It had had several large holes blown in it, but was intact enough that the Tau would be able to move around in it without being seen if they kept away from the lower windows. Mont'yr'Ta felt giddy and on-edge. Although he'd been well trained in the Kel'shan battledome, and had performed admirably in the exercises there, this was his first combat deployment, and all at once he felt that the stakes were much, much higher. These were alien soldiers shooting at him, with lethal force, not training drones and mockups armed with stun-weaponry. In addition, the exercises had been just that - exercises, simulations. They had definitely played a big part in his own life, as well as his Team's, but in the greater scheme of things they had little real impact. Here, an entire world hung in the balance. And perhaps more; Mont'ry'Ta had studied the history of the Fire Caste. He had learnt about the Damocles Crusade, and how the Gue'la had waged near genocide against his people. He'd learnt of the Gue'la assaults on his homeworld of Kel'shan, and how the Gue'la there had only stopped their relentless attack when faced with an even greater alien threat, and he knew they'd almost certainly try again if they weren't stopped.

But that wasn't the main thing motivating Mont'yr'Ta. No, he was driven by the fact that they'd just tried to kill his team. His friends. And if there was one thing that Mony'yr'Ta did not abide, it was those who tried to hurt his friends.

The six Firewarriors slipped into the building and made their way up to the upper floors. Once they reached the desired elevation, the Shas'ui halted them. As one, they crept up to the building's windows that faced towards the street, taking care to keep out of sight. Mont'yr'Ta looked out and down through the window from the side. Below, the Gue'la were still looking towards the Devilfish, likely waiting for the gun drones or the other two Tau to show themselves. Or perhaps they were just ordered to concentrate on that approach.

"Alright Shas," The Shas'ui said as quietly as he could, "On three. One.... two.... "

Mont'yr'Ta moved his finger over the trigger of his pulse carbine.


In unison, the Firewarriors levelled their weapons out and downwards towards, aimed, and fired. The Gue'la were taken by complete surprise, and most were quickly struck down in the storm of plasma pulse bursts. The Tau made sure to target the small-arms equipped infantry first, those manning the lascannons were not as much of an immediate threat. A few searing beams of lasgun fire shot out in response, most hitting the building's walls. One hit a Shas'la, but did little more than scorch their armour. One of the Gue'la took off up the road. Mont'yr'Ta trained his pulse carbine on the human and dropped them in a single burst. The Gue'la command post and it's jamming equipment, which the team had been sent to neutralise, could not be informed of an imminent attack. They would have doubtless been contacted by these troops, but was likely that the Tau had been reported as eliminated. It was best kept that way.

"Good shooting Shas'la," Said the Shas'ui, "I'm setting a waypoint path for the Drones now. Let's get back to the others, if they're still there to get back to."

As they were making their way back out of the building, one of the Shas'la approached Mont'yr'Ta. All of the team were in full combat armour, including the standard Firewarrior helmet, and as such all looked almost identical besides the Shas'ui and his coloured helmet, but by the way this one approached Mont'yr'Ta he knew it had to be her. Of all his team, Mont'yr'Ta was closest to her. "Nice work with the runner back there," she said, "I'm glad to see you made it out of the ambush."

"I appreciate it," Mont'yr'Ta replied, "I'm just as gladdened to see you made it out uninjured."

"It'll take more than some hot light to keep me down." Mont'yr'Ta liked hearing that. He did not want to loose her just yet. "You and me shas'la, we're going a long way together."

"Perhaps one day I'll be your close protection officer when you're a commander." she said.

Beneath his helmet, Mont'yr'Ta smiled at this.