Prince Haldran's war room was an impressive space. The room was deep within the heart of the castle, and so had no windows. Instead there was a high vaulted ceiling which cradled a number of gently glowing orbs, bright enough to light the room as if it were outside on a warm summer day. It was an interesting concession to magic for a city so heavily invested in it's technology, Noman thought. He wondered if somewhere in the castle there was an otherwise unemployable mage who's sole duty was to keep those globes lit, and whether or not there were other bits of magic hidden behind Redhurst's great geared facade.
Noman had arrived early, having eschewed the dinner that Haldran had put on for his guests. He'd opted instead to simply take food from the kitchens and eat in his room, taking spiteful pleasure in the fact that his escorts had to do the same and eat in the hall. Despite that bit of mean spiritedness he was growing used to having Hatchet around, he had to admit, and now Anara by extension. On the occasions when the two of them were relieved by another pair of Watchmen Noman found himself much less inclined to think of them as escorts and more apt to look on them as keepers. It was an odd and subtle distinction, and being conscious of it made him thoughtful.
He wasn't alone in the war room, early as he was. Prince Haldran himself was there, staring down at the large wooden table that dominated the center of the room. A small number of royal guards made themselves unobtrusive alongside ancient suits of armor in the shadowed corners of the room, and they were the chief means by which Noman identified the man as Haldran. The ruler of Redhurst wore a contemplative look as he regarded the table. A map had been placed upon it, carefully unrolled and it's corners weighted.
Looking around Noman noticed that there was an abundance of such maps in the room, hung upon the walls between the displays of every sort of weapon a man might carry into battle. The weapons ranged from simple knives to the latest rifle designs and included intermediate stages that Noman had never even heard of, such as repeating crossbows. The maps sported a similarly wide variety, detailing Redhurst and it's surrounding terrain to varying degrees of detail. Some of them did the same with other cities, one of which was unmistakably Marsten. It must have taken Haldran's cartographers ages to produce such a collection.
Haldran looked up as Noman approached the table. He was a broad man, heavy but not overmuch with fat. It was hard to judge his age, though Noman had never been particularly good at that sort of thing. Overall he looked young, but there were certain lines on his face and a hairline not as robust as it could be that spoke of him being older than he looked.
"And who might you be?" Haldran asked, fingers idly turning the signet right he wore. It was one of the few pieces of jewelry he wore, all others being subtle and not overly gaudy as men with such wealth might have been tempted to favor. His eyes noted the presence of the two Watchmen with the briefest of glances, their focus returning immediately to Noman.
"Noman," he introduced himself simply.
"Indeed?" Haldran asked him. "Not General Noman? Nor Watchman Noman? Noman the Inventor, perhaps?"
"None of those. Just Noman... of the Iron Order, if you like," he added the last with a bit of pride. If Haldran preferred a title to go with a name it was one he could live with. "And you?" he asked
"Haldran," the Prince replied easily, "Ruler of Redhurst. I learned a little about the orders during my tutoring, Noman. I remember something of an Iron Order. I didn't know it, or any of the others, still survived."
"It doesn't and they don't," Noman told him. "Not in a way that would do us any good."
"Yet you claim loyalty to it, if not membership?"
"Loyalty to their memory, perhaps," Noman said.
"Interesting." Haldran lowered himself into his chair and asked, "Do you intend to remake it?"
Noman pulled a chair from the table and settled into it, using the act as an excuse for thoughtful silence. He hadn't considered doing anything of the sort, yet he couldn't say the world didn't need something like the Iron Order. Airea had proven Incursions were not a thing of the past as people here seemed to believe, and with a malicious goddess involved there would surely be more.
"I hadn't thought about it," Noman admitted.
"You might want to," Haldran told him. "Or somebody should. The orders protected us from things like Marsten. I dare say we still need someone who's attention never wavers."
"The orders fought on behalf of the Old Gods," Noman reminded him. "They used magic and were granted favor by those gods... gods who have abandoned us and worse."
"Who's to say such orders couldn't fight on behalf of Princes?" Haldran asked. "Or cities? Or the people? The Old Gods are gone, if they were ever here at all. That doesn't mean they never gave us anything of use." He gestured upward, towards the glowing orbs that lit the room.
"I'd noticed that," Noman told him. "I didn't think there was any room for magic here in Redhurst."
"There's always room for something useful," Haldran countered. "It's just a matter of whether or not we have a need it can fulfill. Magic's greatest drawback is that only a few can use it. With a minimum of education anyone can operate a machine in a factory. One in a thousand can cast a spell, and that only after years of training."
Haldran's eyes left Noman, focusing on something past him. He turned in his chair and saw that The Captain had arrived. With him were two army officers, to judge by their uniforms, and two others. Noman recognized Prince Noron from the Red Mannor, but there was a woman with him he hadn't seen before. The quality of her clothing and the authority with which she carried herself told him she must be another of Marsten's rulers, or a high born noble at the least. Her eyes glanced his way and he drew a sharp breath at how vibrantly green they were. He and Haldran both stood to greet the new arrivals. As they did so two of Haldran's generals entered from the other side of the room, staffers following in their wake.
"Ah, we're all here then," Haldran said. "Good. Seat yourselves," he commanded, much as a tutor might. "This is General Drake," he began the introductions, "He commands the city's garrison. General Wellesley here commands the field army. Gentlemen, our guests from Marsten are Her Ladyship Prince Vanora, Prince Noron, the captain of the Marsten Watch, and Noman of the Iron Order. Your counterparts are General Howe and Captain Reynolds. Did I get all that correct?" he asked, turning to Marsten's Princes.
"I believe so," Her Ladyship answered, though she gave Noman a curious glance.
"Good, then let's get to work. General Wellesley?"
"Thank you sir," Wellesley acknowledged. "Before any counterattack is to take place we need to know certain facts about the enemy. What are their numbers? What is their disposition - are they going to fortify, or move to strike quickly at their next target? What do we know about their composition? Any light you can shed on these topics would be helpful in planning our next move."
"Unfortunately most of those are unknowns," General Howe replied. "Their assault caught us off guard. We do know their numbers are growing by the day, so the sooner we can gather a force to counterattack the better. And we do know something of their composition. Captain Reynolds?"
"I led our attack into the Ivory Tower," he told them. "The demons we fought attacked us like a pack of animals. They didn't have weapons or armor, just claws and teeth."
"Demons," Drake scoffed, turning to Haldran. "My lord, are we seriously contemplating a military campaign against fairy tales?"
"Something has obviously happened to Marsten," Haldran told his general evenly. "Had anybody but the Princes of that city come to me and said they were attacked by demons I would have questioned their sanity. As it is we have no reason to disbelieve them, and so we will proceed under the assumption that an Incursion is indeed taking place. I trust I won't have to explain this to you a second time."
"No, of course not," Drake didn't quite apologize.
"Good," Haldran said. "Continue, please."
"These demons," Wellesley asked, without any of the doubt Drake seemed to suffer from, "How difficult are they to fight?"
"They moved fast," Reynolds remembered. "And Noman was right about getting them in the light. Firing at them in the shadows just wasted ammunition. When they got into the torchlight they took a little work to put down, but it was doable. Hand to hand was tough," he added. "Shooting them with a musket was one thing. Hitting them with a sword only made them angry."
"Noman told you they couldn't be hurt in the shadows?" Her Ladyship asked, looking over at him. He met her gaze for only a second, then looked away uneasily.
"Noman is... something of a historian," The Captain explained for Haldran's benefit.
"Is that so?" the Prince of Redhurst mused. "What else can you tell us, Noman?"
"I can tell you that you're lucky," Noman said. "There are demons powerful enough that just one could have wiped out Reynold's men all on it's own. Those that swarmed the Tower are just shadows... expendable vermin. Now that they have the city and a portal, though... they'll be bringing more through. But that takes time."
"How much time?" Wellesley asked.
"It depends," Noman told them. "No Incursion is ever the same. The size of the portal, the power of the Summoner, the strength and number of demons coming through all play a part."
"And do we have any idea of what might be coming through?" Wellesley asked.
"If we're very lucky most of it will be the shadows, but there's no way to know until they start to move, or we somehow manage to get a look."
"And their disposition?" Wellesley asked, directing the question at the room in general. "Do we have any idea what their next move will be?"
"We can only assume that their next move will be to attack," Noron spoke at last. "Whether they start by raiding the countryside or by striking at the nearest city, they'll come here eventually."
"Noman," The Captain asked, "Can you offer any insight?"
"Incursions take two forms," Noman explained. "One is a chaotic, uncontrolled hoard. The other is a controlled, focused army. If it's a hoard there will be a mix of lesser demons with a handful of more powerful and intelligent ones. They'll start leaving the city as it fills with other demons, spreading out in all directions, raiding the countryside. If it's an army we're in a lot more trouble. The demons will be more dangerous, more intelligent. They'll have a general, or warlord. Whatever you want to call it, there will be a leader in charge. It will have a plan in mind, some sort of strategy. You may not see any leave until they're ready to march, or unless they send raiding parties ahead."
Another thought occurred to Noman, though he didn't voice it - that the leader of the Incursion would be no demon, but a goddess. And what if it was Airea? Was it even possible to outmaneuver a deity?
"The bottom line is we need to send scouts to see what they're doing," Howe said. "My men know the terrain around Marsten. I can send a group out in the morning. If they travel on horseback they can get there in good time."
"They can use some of the Watch's communication crystals to relay information," The Captain added. "We've never used them over such long distances before, but it's certainly worth a try."
"Of course," Wellesley agreed. "I am tempted to order an immediate attack, especially if the enemy's numbers are going to grow by the day. On the other hand, I would much rather know what I'm marching my men into. If we can wait until the other cities send aid we'll be in a much better position."
"There are options, should we have to move before aid arrives," Drake told them. "If we can draw the bulk of the enemy away from the city with a diversionary force we'll be free to use the main body of our own army to execute a decapitating strike. Kill those demons in the city, close the portal, and we'll have a lot more time to deal with the rest of them."
"What about the aid from other cities?" Noron asked. "Are they sending help?"
"It's too early to know," Haldran said. "I sent messengers to the nearest cities as soon as the situation in Marsten became clear, but we won't hear back for several days."
"Whatever we do," Noman spoke up again, "We'll need to do it during the day. The demons are more vulnerable then. You'll also need to get your hands on as much iron as possible. Iron and magic are the two things demons are most vulnerable to. Any weapons you can make out of it will be useful. The Iron Order used swords made from iron, or arrows and crossbow bolts shod in it."
"Luckily iron is something we have in abundance here, thanks to the factories," Haldran said. "The factory masters won't be happy about having it appropriated for military use, but then they don't really have a choice. From now on the city will be on a war footing, all industry will go towards that goal."
"Until we know more about the enemy force," Wellesley suggested to Drake, "It probably wouldn't hurt to start bolstering our city's defenses." Drake nodded in agreement.
"There's also Laptum," Howe said. "Until you need them for something else, my men can help fortify the town. If the demons make for Redhurst they'll have to go through the town, and anything we can do to slow them down and hurt them on the way here can only help."
"Agreed," Wellesley said. They meeting went on for a little while after that as details were hammered out and argued about. Noman gradually stopped paying attention, eyes wandering up towards the glowing orbs on the ceiling. He wondered where Esme was. Surely her god wasn't going to sit idly by and watch an Incursion take place. The question was, what was Saliea going to do about it, and what happened when two gods went to war?