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Regina smelled smoke and heard the muffled thunder of distant cannon fire as she strode through the little village of Grimmenhagen. She walked because she'd left her horse with Dorothea, so she could sell it and bribe the priests of Morr to bury their mother in a proper cemetery, even though she had changed.
The Averland spear company she had marched with on her trip north bustled off to their new billet and left her alone in the town square, looking around and feeling a bit lost. She'd made it to the war. Now what was she supposed to do? Who did she report to?
The village seemed in a state of complete confusion. Half the houses were burnt to the ground, and some on the edge of town were still on fire. Peasants ran by with buckets of water, while others dragged away smoke-crippled victims. Knights and soldiers hurried past in every direction, shouting out to one another. At command posts set up in open yards, captains in the colors of various companies issued orders to runners and squads of men who ran off again immediately. Perhaps she should speak to one of them.
"You there! Sir knight!"
It wasn't until the man grabbed her elbow that she realized he was talking to her. After so many years of being addressed as squire or initiate she still wasn't used to her new title.
She turned. "Uh, yes?"
A mutton-chopped captain in the blue and white of Middenheim was smiling at her. "Captain Riesling, at yer service. Are ye attached to a company, sir? Can ye spare--" The man cut off, blinking. "Yer a girl! Well, then, never mind. I'll ask somebody else..."
Regina caught his shoulder as he turned away. "I am a knight first, sir," she said stiffly. "If you have some noble deed that will allow me to prove my honor, then tell me of it."
Riesling chewed his moustache uncertainly for a moment, then shrugged. "Well, yer big enough anyway, and there don't seem to be anyone else I can ask. Right then, come on."
He started toward the village inn. In the yard, a motley assortment of people was waiting, all surrounding a frail old warrior priest who sat slumped on a empty keg. There were two men in leather coats with the fanatical gleam of the witch hunter in their eyes, a broad-shouldered, black-bearded dwarf who leaned upon the hilt of an enormous axe, and a slim young wizard in red robes with spiky hair the color of flame. They eyed her warily as Captain Riesling led her to them.
"Right, he said. "I've no time to recruit more, so you lot will have to do. Here's what needs doing. The filthy marauders have set up one of their unholy cannons inside the temple of Sigmar in Neues Emskrank, and they're pounding away at our lines with it. General Breuer is planning a push to retake the town, but that cannon will cut our advance to pieces. We've got to put it out of commission."
"It's behind enemy lines?" asked the young wizard, swallowing nervously.
"Of course it is," rasped the dwarf. "Where else would it be?"
Riesling nodded. "Well behind," he said. "But ye won't have to fight to get to it. At least I hope not. One of our elven allies says he's found a way to get through unnoticed. He'll be yer leader. Fiandar his name is."
"An elf?" said the dwarf. "I'd not follow one of those pointy-eared beard cutters to market, let alone--"
"If you want out, dwarf," snapped Riesling. "Go now. But you said you were looking for glory against impossible odds."
The dwarf opened his mouth as if to argue, then shut it again and just grunted.
Riesling smirked, then turned back to the others. "Right. Now Fiandar says the cannon isn't guarded except for its crew. You lot should be able to take them with no trouble. The hard part comes after. Those cursed cannons can't just be smashed. They're daemonic things that feed on the souls of the dead, and the daemon inside 'em has to be banished back to the hell it came from." He turned to the old warrior priest, who raised his head slowly. Regina saw that the old man's right arm ended in a stump. "That's where Grigorius comes in," he said.
"I can quell the cannon," said the old priest in a quavering voice. "But the ceremony takes time. You will have to hold the temple until I complete it. Otherwise another crew could man the gun and we would be no better off than before." He sighed and held up his handless arm. "And unfortunately, I will not be able to help you fight."
"Can you walk my lord?" asked Regina.
The warrior priest nodded. "Slowly."
"Sigmar will give him speed!" declared the younger of the witch hunters.
"Aye," said the elder, who looked like the first's older twin. "Sigmar will not let him fail!"
"Sigmar didn't keep him from losing his hand," muttered the dwarf.
Riesling stepped to the warrior priest and helped him up. "You've got to go. Fiandar will meet you at Breuer's war camp. The general's advance will begin as soon as he signals that the cannon crew is dead."
"And what do we do once the ceremony is done?" asked the young wizard.
Riesling blinked at him, then turned away. "Pray."
"You certainly took your time," sniffed the elf, as Regina and the others joined him near the towering steam-tank in the center of General Breuer's war camp. "We should have been away an hour ago."
Fiandar was as tall as Regina, but much thinner-boned, with a haughty look in his ice blue eyes, and a regal bearing despite his simple forester's clothes. She almost gasped at his beauty. He was the most handsome man she had ever met, but also the most unnerving. There was no humanity in his gaze. He looked at her as she would look at a sword, sizing up whether it could do the job required of it - nothing more.
The dwarf didn't seem impressed. "Stow it, long ears. We got here as soon as we could."
"It was I who slowed us down," said Grigorius. He was breathing heavily. "My apologies, high one."
"None are necessary," said Fiandar, then turned away. "Come. Follow me, and tell me your names as we go, so that I do not confuse you."
He took Grigorius's arm and led the party through the camp and behind the lookouts who observed the fishing village of Neues Emskrank, the rooftops of which could be seen over the intervening trees. Regina could smell salt on the wind that blew from the beach.
"Curt Werner is my name," said the older of the witch hunters. "From Altdorf, may Sigmar keep it safe from heathen."
"And I am Leopold Werner," said the younger.
Regina nodded to herself. As she suspected, father and son.
"Roki Orrinsson," growled the dwarf. "Of Barak Varr. Not that it's any of your business."
"Osvalt Creutzfeldt," said the young wizard. "Also of Altdorf, and the colleges of magic."
The two witch hunters slanted suspicious glances at him at this, but said nothing.
"Regina Seibolt," said Regina. "Of Carroburg."
"Well met, friends," said Fiandar. "And I am Fiandar Duskborne, late of Naggarythe and the house of Alith Anar."
Regina smiled to herself. Even when he was being polite, the elf sounded like he was looking down his nose at them.
Fiandar came to a guard post and spoke to a sergeant there, then led them on, beyond the Empire lines and down toward a stream that meandered toward the town. As they descended toward it, they passed in front of the earthen ramparts that held General Breuer's cannons.
Young Osvalt looked up at them, frowning. "Why don't they just blast that hellcannon to pieces?" he pointed toward the town. "I can see the temple from here."
Curt and Leopold turned on him, their hands dropping to the hilts of their rapiers.
"You would destroy a temple of Sigmar, warlock?" snarled Curt.
"Only a servant of the dark powers would suggest such a thing!" hissed his son.
"I'm not a warlock!" protested Osvalt. "I am a fully accredited graduate of the Bright College. I just--"
"It would be a blow to morale, my son," said Grigorius, soothingly. "The men would not stand for it."
"Instead we must die to preserve bricks and stones," muttered Osvalt.
"Consecrated bricks and stones, witch," said Leopold.
"Quiet," said Fiandar as they came to the stream. "We must go silently from here." He nodded toward the village, now completely hidden. "This stream goes through the center of Neues Emskrank. The marauders do not guard it, but they are close, and will hear a heavy footfall or splash." He shot a meaningful look at Roki, then continued before the dwarf could respond. "We will follow it under the bridge, then leave it at the back of the forge. The temple is directly across from the forge. Crossing the street will be the most dangerous part of our journey. It is well traveled. We will have to wait until it is clear."
Fiandar turned to Regina. "Madam Seibolt, you and the dwarf will be first through the door, and you will attack immediately, with Curt and Leopold directly behind you." He looked at the witch hunters. "Gentlemen, you will not use your pistols. We must be as silent as possible." He touched his chest. "I and Magus Osvalt will follow, laying covering fire, while Grigorius abides until the battle is done. Do you understand?"
"Just like an elf to lead from the rear," muttered Roki as the others nodded.
Fiandar smiled coolly. "More glory for you, then, dwarf. Now, follow me."
As they set off, Regina looked at Fiandar, impressed. For all his condescending ways, the elf was a good leader. He was calm, gave clear and precise orders, and played to the strengths and character of those under his command. Myrmidia would approve.
It was nearly sun-set by the time Regina crouched with the others in a patch of tall reeds, knee-deep in the freezing water of the stream. They had made it to the center of Neues Emskrank without incident, though there had been some tense moments along the way, and now they were ready to make their final approach. The ruined forge smoked on the bank above them, and just visible beyond its blackened timbers, the south wall of the temple of Sigmar.
What she saw there made her stomach turn. One of the high clerestory windows had been smashed out, and through it stuck the wide snout of the hellcannon. And snout was the right word, for the thing seemed as much animal as machine. As she watched, a fanged mouth of bone, red flesh and iron gaped open and a shrieking blast of purple fire shot from it and arched toward the Empire lines.
"Myrmidia's Spear," she choked. "What does it fire?"
"Souls," wheezed Grigorius beside her.
The old warrior priest looked ready to drop after their journey, and was breathing so heavily she feared the whole village would hear. She hoped he would be able to run when the time came.
Fiandar put a finger to his lips and motioned them forward. Regina drew her shield off her back, then crept up the bank with the others to the back of the forge, then waited as the elf scouted the corner. After a moment, he beckoned to them again, and they followed him along the charred side wall.
As they neared the street, Fiandar suddenly drew back. Regina craned her neck and saw why. Four filthy paint-daubed marauders were pulling bodies off a slave-drawn cart in front of the shattered temple door and dragging them inside. Regina grimaced as she saw that the bodies all wore Imperial uniforms.
"What are they doing with them?" asked Osvalt.
"I told you," rasped Grigorius. "The cannon feeds on souls."
The two witch hunters swore, and Roki spat, disgusted. Osvalt shivered.
Fiandar slipped back to them. "I fear we haven't time to let them move on. We will have to fight through them into the temple, though it loses us our surprise." He looked at the weary priest, concerned. "Magus Osvalt, you and I will assist Grigorius when the others charge. Yes?"
Osvalt nodded, though he looked as nervous as a rabbit.
"Good," said Fiandar. "On my signal, then."
They readied their weapons as the elf crept again to the front of the forge and looked left and right. Regina swallowed, suddenly certain that she was going to die. At least it would be in battle, and not from the plague, and she would be fighting the foul fiends that had killed her mother and likely Chapter Master Veicht as well.
She kissed the insignia of the blazing sun on the hilt of her longsword and offered up a brief prayer to Myrmidia that she wouldn't embarrass herself.
Fiandar raised his hand, then dropped it. "Now! Swift and silent!"
As one, Regina and Roki surged from their crouches and charged across the street toward the temple with the others following behind. The high sides of the slave-cart hid them from the marauders for a few crucial seconds, but then one heard Roki's heavy steps and looked up.
The savage shouted just as Regina was rounding the tailgate. She hacked him down instantly, but the others heard and turned, drawing weapons. Roki barreled into them, slashing left and right with his double-headed axe. The first went down in a shower of blood, still fumbling for his sword, but the second dodged and swung at the dwarf with a rusty mace.
Regina bounded past them at the last man. She bashed his sword aside with her shield and ran him through. He clutched at her arm in his death throes. She shook him off and turned.
The Marauder with the mace was toppling, impaled by the Witch Hunters' rapiers, while Roki staggered aside, a dent creasing his helmet.
"In!" whispered Fiandar, as he and Osvalt helped Grigorius around the cart. "Hurry!"
Roki recovered, and he and Regina shouldered into the temple together. It was dark inside, for though there were tall clerestory windows set high on both side walls, the twilight sky cast only a weak light through them. The massive bulk of the hellcannon squatted in the gloom at the back of the nave like some huge daemonic toad. A hellish red glow from what appeared to be a furnace at its nether end cast looming shadows on the stone walls as three Marauders charged toward them, howling for their blood. It seemed Fiandar's prediction had been correct. They had lost the element of surprise.
Regina choked in horror as the men ran into the light, for their bodies were mutating as they came, their left arms stretching and twisting into weird serrated appendages of bone and gristle. One grew pincers, like a crab. Another extruded a fleshy whip with barbs at the end. And behind them rose another nightmare - a mad-eyed Magus in blue and gold robes, floating on a rippling purple disk and shrieking some arcane incantation.
Strange whispers filled Regina's mind as she crossed swords with a Marauder and blocked its crab claw with her shield. Swirls of blue and gold danced in the corners of her vision and her limbs felt heavy. The whispers were telling her to lower her shield, to drop her sword, to submit. The Marauder's claw grabbed her shield as she tried to force the voices from her mind. She staggered back, as weak as a babe, as his sword smashed into her vambrace.
"Sigmar's Light and Glory, banish these corrupting shadows!" roared a powerful voice from behind her.
With a crash like a hammer striking an anvil, an explosion of golden light filled the room and the Magus toppled, screaming and clutching his eyes.
Immediately Regina's strength returned and she twisted her shield from the Marauder's claw, then chopped through the chitonous carapace with her sword. As the mutant retreated, she cast a quick glance around. Roki was toe-to-toe with another Marauder, while Werner father and son fenced with the third. Behind them, Osvalt and Fiandar were lowering Father Grigorius to the floor. Had it truly been the old priest who had cried out, she wondered, as she returned her attention to her fight. It had to have been, but where had he found the strength?
Then, in the space of two breaths, the combat was over. As she was raising her sword for another slash at her opponent, a white arrow sprouted from his forehead and he went down on one knee. She killed him with a decapitating strike, then turned to help Roki, but his Marauder was stumbling too, an arrow in his neck, and the same had happened to the mutant Curt and Leopold faced.
Regina turned as the Dwarf and the Witch Hunters finished off their wounded foes, to find Fiandar returning his long bow to its place on his back.
"Well fought, friends," the Elf said. "Now guard the door while Grigorius attends to the cannon. I shall signal General Breuer."
The Elf walked the old priest to the monstrous weapon, and Grigorius lifted the heavy Book of Sigmar that he wore chained to his belt, rested it on his handless arm, and began flipping through its pages.
The hellcannon roared and shook, and Regina gasped. It was alive, just as Captain Riesling had said it was! It was only then that she noticed that the thing was chained down to the flagstones - huge iron fetters that it strained against like a mad dog, trying to break free. She could feel the waves of alien hate pulsing from it like the heat from a forge.
Fiandar stepped fastidiously around the cannon to the shattered window as it lurched toward him, then drew his bow again and pulled a gauze-tipped arrow from his quiver. He held the cloth tip to a torch, then set the flaming arrow on his string and aimed his bow out and up toward the sky. He let fly.
"Now Riesling knows we have taken the gun," he said as he turned from the window. "Now the advance may--"
With a shriek and a squealing of tortured metal, the hellcannon snapped one of its chains and lunged forward, crushing Fiandar's skull like an egg. The elf dropped like a stringless marionette, dead before he hit the ground. Grigorius staggered back from the daemon gun, raising his left hand and shouting a prayer of Sigmar, before charging at the Daemon engine. The gun wailed and shivered.
Regina and the others stared in shock. But before they could speak, there was a cry from the temple door.
Regina turned. A Marauder was backing from the entrance, his eyes wide. Then he turned and fled, crying out in his foreign tongue.
Roki cursed and trundled to the door. Regina and the others followed. The Marauder was halfway down the street, pointing behind him and calling to a big mob of his comrades who were just setting up camp in the village square.
"We're doomed!" whimpered Osvalt. "We've got to run!"
"And leave the possessed cannon?" snarled Curt.
"Never!" cried his son.
"But we'll never hold out long enough for the priest to quell the gun!" said Osvalt. He pointed to the heavy temple doors, which lay shattered and torn from their hinges outside the entrance. "We can't even lock them out! We'll die here!"
"Aye," said Roki, grinning and slapping the haft of his axe into his palm. "But it will be a great death."
"Aye," said the Witch Hunters in unison. "A grand and glorious death."
Regina looked around, thinking hard.
"No," she said quietly. "There is a way we can win."
Chapter Three - Honed ► ◄ Chapter One - Beaten
2008 Nov 25 11:05 GMT