It was the dead of night, in the twilight hours of autumn. Within moments, it would be Kaldezeit — Chill Month. Indeed, the temperature was below zero, and would stay so well after Mitterfruhl.
In a massive Imperial war camp near the outskirts of Hergig in the province of Hochland, Karl Franz von Holswig-Schliestein — the current elected ruler of the Empire of Man — sat alone in his tent in the middle of camp, his gaze levelled at a letter he had in his hand.
The missive was stamped with the seal of Ostland, and emblazoned with the personal markings of that province's elector count, Valmir von Raukov. Franz had lost count of how many times he had already gone through the letter, but for some reason, he couldn't find it in himself to put it down to focus on more important matters, as if reading it any further would somehow grant him better odds of success against the foes he and his army had no choice but to throw themselves against very soon.
Your Imperial Majesty, it read in von Raukov's atrocious attempt at handwriting in simple Reikspiel. It is as I feared, and more. Tzarina Katarina has failed in her defence of her nation and the Everchosen's forces marches onward virtually unopposed. Though our northern allies fought valiantly, Kislev is no more.
Those simple words still set Franz's mouth grimacing while his gut churned in the most uncomfortable of manners.
As I write this afternoon, hundreds upon thousands of ragged, wild-eyed Kislevites came marching through the villages around Wolfenburg. Some came for refuge, but most just wanted to get out of Ostland as quickly as their tired legs would allow. With them, they brought word of plate-armoured Norscans riding atop daemonic destriers, killing any who stood in their way while defiling the very earth around them with their corrupting magics. They tell of how the tzarina tried to make a stand at Volksgrad, but to no avail. She is presumed dead along with most of her armies.
Franz set the letter back down on his table and reached for a nearby tankard of vintage Grenzstadter wine, stamped fifty Imperial years ago. As the Averlander drink slithered down his throat, the emperor felt his resolve strengthened despite the sudden dimming of his senses. After wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he picked up von Raukov's letter and continued where he left off.
My observers and scouts tell me it is only a matter of time before Archaon and his minions would reach Wolfenburg, and indeed, a large warband led by a sorcerer of Tzeentch was recently spotted heading for the Ostland-Kislev border, accompanied by multiple brayherds. Without assistance, my emperor, the province would surely fall to the Warriors of Chaos. Sigmar willing, I write in hopes that—
"My lord." A low, scratchy voice called out from beyond the emperor's tent, startling him from his groggy state of mind. "There is an urgent matter we need to discuss."
Franz recognised his chief bodyguard's distinctive rasping tenor. He seldom talked, but when he did, those in his vicinity could feel the palpable weight of his words. "Knights," He called out to the Reiksguard sentries watching over the entrance to his tent. "Let the man pass."
When the knights gestured him through, it took Ludwig Schwarzhelm only a moment to cast aside the tent flaps and cross the distance between himself and his charge.
"Your imperial majesty." The man bowed before his emperor — his liege.
Schwarzhelm was Franz's white-bearded, stern-faced servant, the current Emperor's Champion. He sported a plain, spartan-looking suit of full plate armour and wielded to battle an enchanted longsword studded with dwarf runes. He towered over almost every state trooper in the Imperial State Army at the impressive height of six feet and five inches, and it was oft-spoken by the courtiers at Altdorf that the only people who could face Schwarzhelm at eye-level was Elector Count Boris Todbringer, who stood at the same height, Reikmarshal Kurt Helborg, who was only half an inch shorter, and the emperor himself, who stood just three inches short of seven feet outside his suit of gromril plate.
"Rise," Karl Franz, in his usual severe manner, gestured for his champion to stand, and he did so. "Speak, then."
Schwarzhelm knew Franz favoured directness and blunt honesty during conversations. "A lone wood elven archer approached our guards at the camp entrance... evidently one of the infamous waystalkers from the forest of Loren. When questioned, she spoke very little, but she did mention having been sent by the Mage-Queen Ariel herself, and made a request to meet you in person."
At that, Franz couldn't stop raising a brow in curiosity and mild surprise. It was not normal for the forest folk of Athel Loren to send emissaries to emperors, and the fact that Ariel sent a single waystalker instead of a proper diplomatic envoy unnerved him more than he cared to admit. Indeed, it was rumoured that waystalkers double as assassins whenever they weren't standing guard over wood elf territory. While the emperor saw very little reason for the mage-queen to see him as a threat to be removed, one can never truly know with the asrai — the name they called themselves. The fact that he actively tried to cultivate good relations with them over the course of his reign notwithstanding.
"Where is this elf, champion?" Franz dared to ask, looking down at the other man. "I take it she isn't under our soldiers' custody at the moment."
Franz could see Schwarzhelm's jaw shifting in place. "It surprised even me, my lord, when she agreed to cooperate when we asked her to come along with us. As we speak, she waits for you to tend to her in her quarters in the camp."
"Truly?" The emperor frowned. Something was amiss, he could tell it. "Hm, then let us be off. Take me to our... "guest", so I may yet know what the wood elves have in store for the Empire."
Schwarzhelm nodded, and before long, the emperor was led to the waystalker in her supposed location in the camp. When the two men reached the location in question, Franz expressed his surprise to discover that his soldiers apparently took the elf custody inside the noble guest quarters, which was meant to lodge visiting noble-born civilians of the Empire. He then asked his champion why she wasn't taken to one of the barracks around the camp instead, as was appropriate.
"Though our wood elven emissary agreed to come quietly, she did name a few conditions before she did so..." Schwarzhelm supplied, to which the emperor frowned in distaste. "We did not wish to provoke her, your majesty, so we complied."
Franz opened his mouth as if to say something, but quickly closed it as his destination drew ever nearer. With his approach, the knights standing guard outside the highborn quarters stood straight and saluted the emperor as he approached with his champion in tow.
"Unlock the door, knight, I will see to our wood elven visitor now." Franz declared to the most senior of the plate-armoured soldiers. "Remain here and do not interrupt without my word."
"Your majesty?" The knight-captain seemed surprised with the way his shadowed eyes widened beneath his armoured visor. "Are you sure? I do not think—"
"I will not be questioned by a mere knight." Franz spat. His voice was much lower now, dripping with restrained fury. "Count yourself fortunate I find it wasteful to punish my warriors for insolence. Unlock the door and allow me to perform my duties as emperor."
"Yes..." Though he tried to hide it, the knight subtly cowered before his emperor, who loomed ominously over him by nearly an entire foot despite not being encased in armour. "Of c-course, my liege."
"Come, Schwarzhelm." Franz gestured for his chief bodyguard as the knights unlocked the door and he entered the waystalker's quarters. The Emperor's Champion uttered nothing and obeyed, moving along closely behind his charge.
Inside, after a bit of navigating through the unusually spacious interiors of the room, Franz found the elf in front of a mirrored desk, leaning slightly forward with her gloved palms on the desk's wooden surface. She was dressed predominantly in dark grey hues, highlighted with brown and white.
"You wished for my presence, waystalker. Speak, I am here now."
The emperor tried to sound as welcoming as possible. The wood elves had neither been as eager nor cooperative as their more civilised kin from Ulthuan nor the dwarfs under High King Grudgebearer in the war against Chaos, and neither were they the friendliest of people to their imperial neighbours to the north, but Franz figured they at least deserved his respect for the many times they assisted the Empire in eradicating roving beastmen herds, as well as their personal gift to him: the great griffon Deathclaw, as an egg.
The waystalker scoffed as she turned around to face him. "I can see that, short-lifer. Mirrors reflect."
Karl Franz took the typical asrai insult in stride; he had long known it was in their nature to look down on everyone and everything not of the woods. Studying the waystalker more closely, the emperor could immediately tell she was no mere ranger; a camouflaged, hooded outfit made out of white animal furs and hardened leather closely fitted the elf's slender body, hiding very nearly all traces of her skin. A cloth veil decorated with tree bark obscured much of the lower part of her head, and the equipment she carried seemed higher in quality and much more suited to stealth and long-distance bowmanship compared to the ones her kin in the waywatchers took to battle.
Additionally, the elf had her platinum blonde hair tied into a rather elaborate ponytail, restrained by an intricate amber brooch and many ornate bands, and her assoirtment of weapons consisted of a crooked elven shortblade strapped to the small of her back, a matching pair of sheathed swords secured to her sides, a brace of throwing knives strapped to her left upper arm, and finally, a masterfully-crafted, doubtlessly-enchanted longbow with spiked ends slung diagonally across her body.
It was then that the emperor realised this elf did not come to his camp for an assassination... but rather for war. Still, this fact did little to quell his suspicions.
"I do not take kindly to your lingering gaze, human." The elf spoke again, when she ran out of patience for his staring. Her voice was lilting as could be expected from elves, and her Reikspiel was spot-on, if slightly accented. "Look away."
It was Franz's turn to scoff. "I will commit you to memory, elf. Your true intentions here are yet unclear, and I have very little patience for assassins this day."
"Fortunately for you, I did not travel all the way to the misbegotten and foul-smelling lands of Men from the frozen woods of Atylwyth just to kill you." The elf shifted her weight from one foot to another. "That could easily be accomplished half a kilometre away, and as you can see, I am standing here now."
She seemed reluctant to say her next few words. "Ultimately, my intentions can only benefit you and your cause."
The emperor did not believe that for a second, even Schwarzhelm behind him could not resist rolling his eyes. The high elves of Ulthuan were manipulative enough, but the forest folk take subterfuge and misdirection even further. Some would even go on to say that each of the human nations close to Athel Loren existed simply to act as pawns for the wood elven leaders: the mage-queen Ariel and her warrior king, Orion.
"What are your intentions, exactly?" Franz questioned, narrowing his eyes.
The elf crossed her arms across her chest, leaning forward a bit. "The complete opposite of your assassination. For reasons unknown even to me, Queen Ariel has deemed it necessary that you do live... and she has deigned it my sacred duty to keep you from harm by attaching myself to your retinue as your army marches forth to this Ostland of yours."
"You've come to fight Chaos along with us?" Schwarzhelm, who was silent thus far, chose to speak up at that moment. He sounded incredulous.
The waystalker ignored the champion, and looked to Franz instead. "Make no mistake. I care not whether you emerge victorious over the Everchosen's forces in the coming days. My only task is to see to it that you live as the queen demands. Now that my intentions are made clear, will you take me in, human?"
Franz could immediately see the benefits of having a wood elven waystalker in his retinue. Someone like her would be advantageous to have in a heavily forested terrain, and Ostland was infamous for being surrounded by the dense and notoriously unsafe Forest of Shadows. He could have her placed in a high vantage point and use her to eliminate key targets from afar, and while this task could be accomplished easily enough with a sufficiently-skilled marksman with a Hochland long rifle, even a waystalker at her weakest could do it much faster, more accurately, and most importantly, without giving away her position.
Still, Franz did not forget how wood elves operate. The elf was likely to be lying — hiding her true intentions from him and Schwarzhelm with a false one. While it would be tremendously beneficial to accept her help, the emperor reminded himself to keep his guard up at all times while in the company of the enigmatic waystalker.
"Very well, elf." The emperor nodded. He kept his eyes focused on the waystalker, examining her for a reaction. He got none.
"Then we have nothing more to speak about." The elf finally said, after a moment of silence.
Karl Franz and his champion observed as the elf strode past them and disappear as if she was never in the area. When the two of them left the room and Franz questioned the knights standing guard outside, he was not surprised in the least when they reported not having seen the waystalker leave.
"Why were you so quick to accept her aid?" Schwarzhelm had asked of Franz before the emperor could return to his tent. "I do not trust the waystalker, if you don't mind hearing me, sire. Her kind thrives on subtlety and deceit; it is unlike them to assist anyone from outside their realm without any ulterior motives in mind. Surely you see this, my lord."
"Of course I do," Franz snorted in disdain. "She is more insolent than a Marienburger deep in his cups, and that should be more than enough reason to send her back to Athel Loren with a blade through her gullet... or at least without her tongue. However, do not be so quick to forget the times we live in, Schwarzhelm. This is the End Times, and I shan't turn away potential allies in the face of prospects as grave as Archaon's invasion."
He turned around, to make for his tent, when he stopped to look over his shoulder at the champion for one final time.
"While Ariel's ilk have proven themselves time and time again that their interests, allies and enemies shift much like the Eight Winds, surely they must also see that disunity weakens them just as it does us. The dark gods would not be very cordial when the time comes for their champion to burn their damnable forest to the ground after he is finished with us."
"I certainly hope time proves you right, your majesty." Schwarzhelm bowed again as the emperor took his leave.
The rest of the night passed without incident. By the time Franz vacated his tent, refreshed and already equipped in his full battlefield armour, weapons and regalia, the Imperial State Army was already on the move.
Amidst shouts and thousands of voices talking at once, state troops and mounted knights hailing from all over the provinces marched along the paths, carrying their weapons and clad in their plates and chainmail. Carriages loaded to the brim with supplies from the Marienburg, Wissenland, Middenland and Reikland were being hurriedly unpacked by imperial quartermasters and their assistants, their cargo distributed along columns of unequipped soldiers that stretched as far as the eye could see. Battle wizards gathered as they meditated and channelled the winds for one last time, and artillery pieces were in the process of being dismantled for easy transport. Most notably, Altdorf's own steam tank could be seen being repaired of the damages it took while defending Wissenland from greenskin raiders; to the side of its hull, the name Feuerlanze was inscribed in stylised Reikspiel.
"Did you have a pleasant night's rest, your majesty?" One of Franz's Reiksguard escorts ambled up behind his emperor, along with six others from his knightly order.
Karl Franz inhaled a lungful of air. When he let out his breath, it steamed in the cold morning air.
He turned to his side to face the knight. "Well enough, captain. Come, we have a long day ahead of us."
The emperor paused only to adjust his golden lionhead shoulderguard before heading off to confer with his generals and retainers in the meeting hall at the centre of camp, accompanied by his retinue.
"Greetings, short-lifer." To his chagrin, it did not take long for Franz to be accosted by a familiar sight in dark grey leathers.
The emperor sighed to himself as the waystalker from the night before appeared from seemingly nowhere and started walking in step with him and his escorts. Most of Franz's Reiksguard bodyguards seemed wary at first at the elf's presence, but seeing their emperor's apparent apathy was enough to set them at an awkward ease.
"Wolfenburg is near, but there will still be a great deal of marching ahead," Franz spoke up, after a long period of walking in silence. "Might you need to be supplied with one of our warhorses, waystalker?"
Of course, Franz knew she must be hiding her mount somewhere in the camp. Travelling from Athel Loren to Hochland on foot was a feat not meant to be achieved by mortals, what with the sheer amount of dangers present on the roads and the forests in the dark times they were in. Sooner or later, anyone travelling the roads by themselves would end up with a bandit's arrow in their throat... or worse, a beastman's axe through their skull.
The waystalker scoffed at his offer, as Franz expected. "A horse trained by humans can hardly be trusted upon in the battlefield, and as a matter of fact, I already have my own beast to ride on, thank you very much."
"Oh?" Franz feigned interest. He was more focused on navigating the sea of soldiers before him. "And where could this 'superior' wood elven mount of yours be?"
"Look up." The elf simply replied.
The emperor merely grunted and continued marching. Some members of his retinue, however, were too curious for their own good. Most were shocked and surprised when, upon looking up as the elf instructed, beheld a gigantic bird of prey, its winter plumage a bone-like white, spotted with a peculiar dark brown pattern. It swooped by the oblivious state troopers scurrying below it before disappearing behind the grey clouds.
"Slaanesh's balls." One of the Reiksguards exclaimed, low enough so as to not be heard by a passing group of Sigmarite warrior priests. "What're the knife-ears been feeding those birds? It's huge!"
"Get back in formation and stop gawking, you idiots!" Another shouted, his throaty voice made more intimidating thanks to his plumed helm's reverb. "Sigmar knows what you cowardly lot would do when facing one of those things in battle!"
The emperor grumbled inaudibly. With luck, he thought, his army would reach Wolfenburg soon. Ostland depended on his men and his leadership.
He stirred in his sleep, but otherwise remained out cold on the grass, snoring loudly in a fetal position.
"Wolfhard." She repeated, prodding the brim of his hat with the tip of her rapier.
"...mhrm, go 'way." He mumbled unconsciously.
"Wolfhard!" She lost it, snapping at him. When he still failed to respond, she struck the flat of her blade against his neck.
Wolfhard Richter, a Sigmarite templar from the woodland province of Talabecland, sprang from his sleep and scrambled back on his feet as if the ground was on fire. Richter was a grey-eyed, clean-shaven man in his mid twenties, with curled and messy hair the colour of treebark underneath his tall, wide-brimmed witch hunter hat. His garb was typical of his Order, consisting of a dark brown longcoat, a sturdy pair of travelling boots with twin daggers attached to the side of each boot, steel-tipped leather gloves, and a cuirass breastplate fastened to protect his torso back to front.
A little more uniquely, however, Wolfhard also carried several belts, bandoliers and pouches all over his body and under his coat, which bore colourful alchemical flasks, powder and shot for firearms, a dozen blessed stakes intended for members of the Midnight Aristocracy, a truly dizzying array of identical flintlock pistols, a plain longsword in its sheath, as well as his most preferred weapon: a multi-barrelled, lengthened repeater handgun commissioned from Nuln.
Eloise von Mannstedt, another witch hunter from the heart of Reikland, glared at her colleague in a most unladylike manner. As for Eloise, she had a sun-kissed complexion and striking eyes the colour of sapphire. Underneath her own hat, which resembled a sailor's tricorne emblazoned with the Twin-Tailed Comet, she wore her wavy hair short, and it looked as dark and glossy as a raven's plumage. Her outfit resembled Wolfhard's, but she also possessed a spyglass, several Sigmarite tomes of varying thickness, and considerably more protection in the form of segmented plate shoulderpads and kneeguards, with chainmail padding for her longcoat.
Compared to the other witch hunter, Eloise much preferred to fight her battles more personally. She carried a gilded rapier engraved with the symbols of her noble house in her gloved hand, an arming sword made by an elven blacksmith in Talabheim swayed from its sheath by her side, and across her body hung a brace of flintlock pistols and concussive grenades.
"Volkmar's teeth!" Wolfhard rubbed his bruised neck with one gloved hand and did the same with his eyes with the other. "What—"
"It's konistag, you slothful blighter!" Eloise all but screamed. "Have you gone and lost your bloody mind? Karl Franz's army draws near, and I can't risk you making us both look like incompetent fools in front of the emperor!"
He frowned, looking annoyed and still half-asleep. "You all but worship the emperor, yes, I get it... you already made that abundantly clear while deep in your cups last bezahltag. You do know Franz is married with two children, right?"
She felt her cheeks flush scarlet despite herself. "I'm not in the mood for this, Wolfhard. Don't make me shoot you."
The witch hunter brushed off the threat and leaned forward, studying the witch huntress with a keen eye. "Did you cut your hair while I was asleep?" Before she could answer, he edged closer and heaved a great lungful of her. "That smell... hrm, however did you manage to get your hands on Tilean perfume? One flask is almost worth an entire month's wage this time of the year, I heard."
Eloise let out a groan of frustration and pushed Wolfhard back, to which he laughed in response. "Just shut up and wait for them to arrive. The sooner we can get our mission over with, the sooner I can take my leave of you."
Thus did the two witch hunters stood in place and waited near the beaten path for the emperor's army to pass by. It took half an hour before the first outriders appeared in sight before Eloise's spyglass, and another hour before the army itself arrived. Eloise did not search long before she found the emperor's griffon Deathclaw amongst the throng of state troops and knights, and she quickly presumed Franz would be there, riding atop the noble creature as he often did.
"Ye gods, dear sister. Do try to avoid salivating all over the place." Wolfhard tugged his colleague with his shoulder, smirking.
At this point, the witch huntress had enough. "Alright, just what is the point of all this senseless teasing, Wolfhard?" She put the spyglass away and looked to the man beside her.
"Sigmar help me, yes, I do admit finding Franz most pleasing... and yes, I know I am being extremely foolish and treasonous for thinking so. That is the end of it, and I don't want you bringing it up ever again. I never bring up your drunken ramblings to embarrass you; why can't you do the same for me?"
Wolfhard's smirk slowly faded. There was a look of melancholy to him, but it disappeared within a flash, replaced by the neutral mask of a witch hunter's impassive frown. "As you wish, dear sister."
"Good." Eloise put up a thin, weary smile. Wolfhard's frown deepened, as if he just saw something unnatural.
It was only a few minutes more before the emperor's forces marched close enough. Eloise ran and held up a hand as she hailed the two Reiksguard pointmen riding ahead of the army's main body, while Richter walked close behind her, his arms swaying idly by his side.
"Good day, witch hunters." One of the knights greeted Eloise as she neared in a soft Wissenlander accent. He gently reined in his horse and gestured for his partner to do the same. "If you have information regarding vampires or Chaos cults, you'd best head the way behind us and report your findings to Middenheim. Graf Todbringer, Reikmarshal Helborg or the Ar-Ulric should be eager to receive you."
"We don't have anything noteworthy to report," The witch huntress was quick to respond. "We do, however, have business with Emperor Franz. It is imperative that we are granted an audience with him posthaste. Judgement is coming; our time grows short."
"Yes," The Wissenlander Reiksguard uttered, sadly. "Time grows short indeed. Very well, I ask that you wait here while I inform the emperor of your request."
Emperor Karl Franz von Holswig-Schliestein was quickly informed of the situation and moved ahead of his forces to greet the witch hunters in person, accompanied only by his Reiksguard retinue. Eloise had to hold her breath when she saw his imperial majesty — gallantly riding forth on his great griffon mount with his cape flowing majestically behind, armoured head-to-toe in his baroque, high-collared black gromril plate and beaked greathelm. On his right hand, he wielded Sigmar's own warhammer Ghal Maraz while his symbol of office as the prince elector of Reikland — the zweihander-like Dragon Tooth Runefang — hung in its gilded sheath by his side.
"You stand before your emperor, templars." Franz reined in his mount, causing Deathclaw to halt just in front of the two witch hunters.
Eloise hesitated for a second — more than enough time for Richter to step forward and speak on her behalf. "Your imperial majesty, we bid you Sigmar, Taal and Rhya's blessings during these dark times." He bowed quickly. "I am Wolfhard Richter of Talabecland, and this is my sister, Eloise von Mannstedt of Reikland."
"Half-sister." Eloise tersely corrected, after she recovered herself.
"Very well, witch hunters," The emperor nodded, relaxing on his saddle. He seemed to think on something before speaking, "Hm, I believe I have heard from one of my courtiers of one missing Sigmarite templar whom had gone by the name of Eloise before, of the noble Reikland house von Mannstedt. She was tasked by the Order to seek out and hunt down the sorcerer of Tzeentch, Arnolf Asvaldsson, and was presumed to have been killed along with her entire retinue not long after the fall of Kislev. Tell me, am I looking at her right now?"
"Yes, your imperial majesty. That templar was I." The witch huntress confirmed, nodding. Her face remained impassive, but inwardly, she was saddened he did not recognise her. "I narrowly survived thanks to the intervention of one of the tzarina's hussars, and I continued with my original directives after recovering from the wounds I've sustained while in Kislev. The Order, however, mistakenly believed me dead, and sent Wolfhard here to investigate my trail and finish what I—"
"Enough!" The emperor curtly interrupted, raising a gauntleted hand. "If you are truly the same woman you claim you are, von Mannstedt, you will have no objections to a man of cloth coming to examine you and yours for the taint of Chaos... your half-brother included. Knights, detain these two."
Eloise said nothing and did not resist as the Reiksguard approached and relieved her of her weapons. Wolfhard certainly looked like he was about to protest when it was his turn to be disarmed, but the witch huntress was quick to silence him with another of her glares.
"So, now that I no longer deem you to be a dangerous enough threat," Franz had dismounted Deathclaw earlier, and was now standing right in front of the siblings, towering over both of them in his great height. "Assuming you are truly untainted, what have you to say for me?"
Eloise did not hesitate this time. "We wish to accompany you to Ostland, my lord. We have reason to believe that the same heretic we were tracking down now leads the Chaos warband heading for Wolfenburg after disposing of the previous sorcerer lord in a duel for control. We know much of him who you seek to defend Ostland from; if you would have us, we will be of much use to you and your cause."
Franz seemed to consider the offer, when a ragged call from one of the state troopers behind them rang out. The emperor turned to his side to behold the commotion, giving the two witch hunters a clear view of the silver-haired, grim-faced warrior priest tasked with examining them for signs of the Taint.
"Knights, to your positions!" The emperor called out as he turned back to mount Deathclaw once more. In response, the Reiksguard knights surrounding the siblings took up their arms and held them up in preparation for attack.
Eloise took in a breath of air and armoured herself in her faith, whereupon she waited. The warrior priest circled around them, gauging and staring with his pale green orbs as if he was looking right through them and into their souls. Just when the witch huntress thought she'd have to lean on one of the nearby knights in her impatience, the old man finally drew back and relented.
"I do not sense the dark gods' hold on them, your majesty." He said as he turned back and started walking the way he came. "I believe we have used enough time here. We should return to our journey."
Franz and his knights relaxed in their stance. Above them, Eloise heard a hawk cry out and she instinctively turned to look upward. What she saw made her jaw drop.
It was an elf in dark grey leathers, standing perfectly balanced atop her enormous, bone-white bird of prey while glaring at the witch hunters over the arrow notched in her longbow. The elf and her flying mount lingered in the skies for a brief moment before the former relaxed, placing her drawn arrow back in her quiver. They disappeared behind the clouds within a second then.
"Did everyone just see what I think I just saw?" Wolfhard drawled. "Looks like we have ourselves a leaf-eared tree-lover spying on us."
Karl Franz sighed, looking very weary all the sudden. "The forest folk saw fit to send a waystalker to hound me, witch hunter. She isn't a spy in all likelihood, but I hope we'll be rid of her soon all the same, Sigmar willing."
Elector Count von Raukov was not pleased in the slightest. His outriders report the Chaos warhost approaching his city had just put to torch one of his fiefs; it used to be a wealthy village that dealt in woodcutting, fishing and ironmaking, but now, it was nought but a burning ruin, forever tainted by the foul hold of Chaos.
"Do not despair, my graf." Balthasar Gelt, the current Supreme Patriarch of the Empire, half-heartedly tried to console the count. Gelt, ever since his accident, was covered head-to-toe in shimmering, metallic robes, with a face forever obscured by a face mask completely made out of gold. While the man wasn't as influential nor charismatic as the emperor, Gelt seemed to at least inspire the loyalty of a small retinue of soldiers, mages and retainers, which included a taciturn, purple robed-amethyst wizard, a hulking, broad-shouldered Black Guard of Morr, a veteran Ironside handgunner sergeant, a jaded state trooper captain from Ubersreik, a matronly jade wizard, a knight of the Blazing Sun order, a jovial warrior priest of Ulric, a journeyman bright wizard, and even a long-bearded dwarf giantslayer.
"Franz will soon reach us with an army, and then we can begin cleansing the province of Norscan filth." Gelt had said, confidently. "Once I acquire Asvaldsson's staff, we may yet retake Kislev and bring it back under the tzarina's control... should she still live by the time we do liberate the north, of course."
"Truly?" Von Raukov's foul mood wasn't lifted. He did not trust Gelt. The Gold Order wizard was as unscrupulous as his Marienburger origins suggested, and von Raukov was sure he was in Ostland merely to further his interests and not because he had the province's safety in mind. "I'd be careful with my words if I were you, wizard. A witch hunter might hear you and have you on the pyre for suggesting the use of a heretic's foul weapon."
The supreme patriarch huffed imperiously. "He is certainly welcome to try. I go with Franz's protection, and any slight against me would be considered a slight against the emperor himself. You know what happens to those who slight the emperor, do you, von Raukov? I relieve them of their fleshy forms and make them infinitely less worthless than they were before."
"My patience for this conversation wears thin," The count grumbled, remembering how one light wizard rival of Gelt's met his end — transmuted into a statue made of gold. "The emperor's forces should already be here. I fear something happened to them."
"Patience is rewarded every now and then, my graf." Gelt said, as though lecturing a child. "In fact, I—"
A tremendous profile barged into the room, wielding a silver halberd taller than himself. The Morrite Black Guard knight wore purity seals and weather-beaten human skulls painted grey as part of his jet black obsidian plate and chainmail armour, and his cloak was almost entirely made out of raven feathers and human bones interwoven into one another. Beside him was the state trooper captain, who wielded a zweihander and wore simple chainmail and boiled leather armour with a steel cuirass. Atop his head was an old Empire flat cap with colourful, newer-looking plumes affixed at the upper section.
"My lord," The state trooper began. It took von Raukov a while to realise he was speaking to Gelt, and not him. "Sir Todwunsch and I were patrolling along the southwestern sector beyond Wolfenburg, when we came across outriders belonging to Emperor Franz's force. They said the emperor would arrive within the day, expected to be just after dusk."
"You have my thanks, Captain Kruber." The Supreme Patriarch nodded in the man's direction. "What of our foes, then? Any information about Asvaldsson's forces can prove crucial."
Captain Kruber answered immediately. "Well, I sent Sergeant Kirstein, the warrior priest and the young pyromancer to head over to the Brass Keep to monitor Norscan and beastmen movement in the area. They haven't returned yet, but if their mission went smoothly, they should be back just after the emperor comes. I hope Taal guides them back to Wolfenburg safely."
"All is well, then." Gelt made a dismissive motion with his hand. "You may go and get some rest along with Sir Todwunsch. Find a tavern and tell them I sent you."
"Thank you, sir." Kruber saluted and left, followed by the silent Black Guard.
Count von Raukov sighed. "I hope we have enough men. I'd be a lot more confident if Helborg was here with us instead of out there, killing rat-men in Middenheim with that Valten young fellow."
Gelt chuckled. It was not a pleasant sound. "I'd be careful with my words if I were you, my graf. This talk of rat-men is liable to get you executed by the witch hunters."
Noon passed with little fanfare, at least in Wolfenburg itself. The Ironside sergeant, the Ulrican warrior priest and the bright wizard were expected to return after the emperor's force arrived, but it appeared that Captain Kruber was wrong. The Ironside sergeant arrived at the gates by afternoon, beaten and bloodied, carrying the maimed body of the bright wizard by his shoulders. While the sergeant was questioned as to what happened to their ill-fated mission, von Raukov's healers did their best to salvage the bright wizard's life.
"We had just arrived and our horses were just being taken to the stables, when the northmen and their goat-men allies were suddenly upon the Keep," The Ironside sergeant, von Raukov realised was named Grimwald Kirstein, recalled his journey.
"The keep garrison gave it everything they've got, but it weren't enough. Meinhard was crippled when one of the bastards ran through his bloody flames and hacked off his arm by the elbow, and Arnulf volunteered to stay back and give us a chance to escape. I saw some of the garrison survivors heading west to the open plains, but I also saw the Norscans running after them. I think we're the only ones left alive."
Count von Raukov thanked the sergeant and reminded himself to put the man up for a battlefield commendation for his brave act of relaying crucial information and carrying his wounded comrade back to safety, even if it was too late to salvage the poor wizard's life. Still, he could not suppress the feeling of dread upon hearing news of the Brass Keep's fall.
He wondered if the emperor's efforts were in vain.
Where march you, men of Riekland, where carry you halberd and sword...
Franz gloomily urged Deathclaw onward the beaten path to Wolfenburg. His generals say it won't be long before his force could take refuge in the city itself, but the endless monotony of marching had taken its toll on the men, making them bored. To pass the time and to prevent them from becoming unruly, Ludwig Schwarzhelm suggested to the men that they sing as they march. Being members of a mostly Reiklander force commanded by a Reiklander emperor, the men naturally chose to sing Reiklander hymns... much to the chagrin of state troopers and knights from other provinces.
We march to war for our emperor, and Sigmar our saviour and lord... tomorrow we go to war, to face the hordes of Chaos... tomorrow we will be buried, in cold graves that await us...
By the time Schwarzhelm and several of his captains and bodyguards started pitching in along with the lower ranks, the emperor considered contributing his own voice to the fray. Still, his father's lessons tugged at his mind and reined him in — a leader must always conduct himself with dignity, grace and restraint, as he always said.
And when the fighting is done, and the sun goes down at night... hear my prayers, save my soul, and take me to Sigmar's light...
"How depressing," One of the witch hunters his army picked up earlier, the bored-looking, easygoing young man from Talabecland, dryly chimed in. "Do you Reiklanders have anything a bit more upbeat, or are you all really Wissenlanders in disguise?" It was not the first time during the journey he made such comments.
"By the gods, that is ENOUGH, Wolfhard!" The man's half-sibling, the raven-haired noblewoman from House von Mannstedt, chided him. "You're giving us templars a bad name, and in sight of the emperor and his troops, no less!" The witch huntress guided her courser next to the witch hunter's own horse and had it march in step with his.
Karl Franz watched in subdued amusement as the two witch hunters started arguing with one another, separated only by a thin space between their mounts. Deathclaw also seemed interested at the scene they were making, the great beast tilting his armoured head to the side in curiosity in the siblings' direction even as he carried his master forth.
"They are not typical for witch hunters, aren't they?" Schwarzhelm observed from his demigryph mount. "Should I separate these two, your majesty?"
"Hm-hmh," Franz let a ghost of a smirk linger on his face for a moment before setting his gaze back to the path ahead. The witch hunters reminded him of Luitpold and Sieghilde when they play-fought. In fact, von Mannstedt looked somewhat familiar... as if he had seen her somewhere before...
The emperor shook his head. "No, Schwarzhelm, leave them to their business. Like children, I'm sure they'll tire themselves soon enough."
The afternoon soon gave way to dusk. The journey thus far remained uneventful, and the men soon ran out of hymns from the Reikland to sing. Instead, acting by the warrior priests' suggestion, they all started doing Sigmarite chants to ward away wandering evil spirits in their way. It was by the time the outriders spotted the familiar red-tinged walls of the Brass Keep, however, that the emperor's force ran into trouble.
Franz gave his head a forceful shake to get rid of drowsiness. He turned to look to his side just as a great wind crashed by him and Deathclaw. It was strong enough to force him to shift in his saddle, but not enough to make him recoil.
"Short-lifer!" The hawk-riding elven waystalker appeared again from the darkened skies. Her flying mount swooped in close to the ground, whereupon its rider hopped off and rolled back to her feet in one elegant motion. Once her balance was restored, the elf jogged up before the emperor and his Reiksguard.
"Hm, guten Abend, elf." Franz greeted her, with some disdain. "You seem distressed."
"Your masterful grasp of the obvious surpasses all, human!" She snapped, sounding far angrier than her usual condescending, aloof self. "You must tell your men to prepare to receive battle this instant! Your corrupted kin and their filthy beastmen thralls approach from the north, weapons drawn! It will not be long before they are upon you!"
The emperor saw little reason the elf would lie. He quickly tugged on Deathclaw's reins and had him turn around to face the expectant looks of the men behind.
"Soldiers of the Empire! Sons of Heldenhammer and defenders of righteousness! Stand your ground and HEAR! ME!" He bellowed for all to hear, the mere sound of his baritone war-voice galvanising his soldiers into gear. He pointed skyward, to the north.
"Over the horizon, the dark gods' Norscan slaves and their filthy goat-men pets dare to challenge us! So long as I reign, we shall not be simply swept away by this corrupted tide! By sword and by sorcery, we shall hold our ground!" He held up a gauntleted hand. "With courage and tenacity, we shall strike," He clenched his hand into a fist. "And drive these heretics back like Magnus did before us! By faith and by zeal we will cleanse the Empire's lands from the foul taint of Chaos!"
Franz's men cheered, and sheer force of it was deafening. The emperor himself grunted in grim satisfaction before lifting Ghal Maraz up in the air and declaring, "Form ranks and prepare for war, men! Let no servant of the dark gods leave this battlefield alive! TO BATTLE!"
Another thundering cheer from the men and the knights was made in acknowledgement of the emperor's orders. State troopers and knights scurried back and forth as they scrambled to get into position. Swordsmen, spearmen and halberders took their places at the front along with the steam tank Feuerlanze. Handgunners fearlessly marched past the halberdiers while the crossbowmen hid themselves behind the swordsmen's shieldwall. Artillery crews moved their guns along an elevated path while battle wizards prepared their tomes and magic artefacts for use. Impetuous nobles from the pistolier corps sallied forth with their guns pointed to the sky, and what few outriders present went along with them to take the lead, long rifles and cavalry sabres bared.
"And where do you think you're going, waystalker!" Franz heard Wolfhard Richter call out to the elf. The emperor craned his head to look at the latter, finding her in the process of remounting her hawk on the ground.
The elf did not even deign to turn the witch hunter's direction. So great was her hurry to get back into the skies and so chaotic was the state of Franz's force at that moment, that she failed to notice Deathclaw ambling by close to her.
"You mean to start skirmishing ahead of the main battle line, do you, elf?" Karl Franz questioned. He did not wait for her to answer, for he was sure she would give him none. "Go, then. Your queen would be sorely disappointed if her Empire emissary were to be killed, so I advise caution."
"Do not waste your time providing me with false concern, for Lileath protects me. I'll be out of their reach before they come at me with their worst." The waystalker said, but Franz swore she did not sound mocking nor annoyed to his ears, as per usual. He watched as the elf's hawk gave a forceful push upward before taking flight and disappearing into the distant northern skies.
"We may also be able to thin the enemy's ranks before they reach our lines, emperor. Wolfhard and I make for excellent shots." Von Mannstedt suggested to the emperor as she ambled close on her warhorse. "The choice is, of course, up to you."
"Perhaps..." Franz looked to his men as he considered the offer. "Or perhaps not. Richter, take charge of one of the handgunner detachments up front. I believe I'll make the best use of your skills there. As for you, von Mannstedt, you are with Schwarzhelm and myself. We'll ride down the Norscan filth along with the knights."
The templar siblings glanced at each other before separating. By the time Wolfhard disappeared within the sea of soldiers, Franz looked behind him to see Schwarzhelm, von Mannstedt and his knights following close.
"Prepare yourself, old friend." He patted and caressed the side of his mount's armoured head, who responded with a content trill. He looked ahead to the distance, where a thick patch of woodland hid everything under it from view. "Perfect," He reached out with his gauntlet-covered hand and pointed to the area. "Take us there, Deathclaw!"
The imperial griffon was all too eager to obey, and the knights and the witch huntress behind the emperor were compelled to follow. Once they were in position, all that was left for them to do was wait under the shadows, their only other company being the sound of distant gunshots from Empire skirmishers.
"Von Mannstedt," Franz, without turning his head, called for the witch huntress behind him. "I would like to hear of the situation in Kislev now, if you'd please."
He heard von Mannstedt's barded courser trot up to him. "It was almost completely desolate the last time I was there, your majesty. The Everchosen had seen it fit to shift Kislev more to his liking, and heretics, mutants and daemons alike now mark the area as their home. I believe nothing short of a crusade can retake the tzarina's lands from Chaos now, but I believe with help from the dwarfs and the high elves, you may yet stop Archaon in his tracks and avert the End Times... like Magnus did before us, as you've said."
"Only time will tell if I am truly suited to the task of leading such a crusade, templar." The emperor wished he shared von Mannstedt's optimism.
Unlike Karl Franz, Magnus the Pious acted and routed the previous Everchosen's forces well before Kislev was destroyed, and to twist the knife further, Magnus was charismatic enough to unite the provinces for the final battle against Chaos. Franz admitted, to his chagrin, that the entire Wasteland region still considered itself independent from his control, and if rumours were to be believed, the Directorate would like to keep it that way for as long as they could.
Silently, Franz closed his eyes and started praying to Sigmar to give him the strength necessary to see the current battle through. He assured himself he'd worry about the Marienburgers and their petty notions of independence later, when the Norscans and the beastmen lie dead.
"You are the greatest statesman the Empire has ever elected into power, your imperial majesty. Certainly greater than the ones who came before you, and perhaps even greater than Magnus." Von Mannstedt said, and by the breathless way she spoke the words, Franz would've known she meant it... were he not too occupied with mental Sigmarite chanting. "Had you been any less suited to your role after you were elected, the realm would have split itself open through civil wars and petty grievances between the elector counts."
Schwarzhelm tilted his head to the side. "You have much faith in the emperor, do you, templar? Even more than the man himself, I should say."
"The Empire would be lost without faith, champion. In the these dark times, there is no room for doubt in one's superiors." Von Mannstedt respectfully replied.
"On that, I agree." The Emperor's Champion nodded. He tugged the reins on his demigryph mount and turned to face his emperor. "When are we going to make our move, your majesty?"
Karl Franz opened his eyes, his prayer delivered. "Soon, Schwarzhelm... soon."
Far ahead of them, the Empire skirmishers reaped a bloody toll on the approaching Norscan ranks. They reloaded their guns and prepared to fire again, when one of the outriders took one good look through the scope of his Hochland long rifle and immediately realised that the first rank of enemy troops were actually wearing Empire uniforms. To their shock and horror, the men came to the realisation that they had just been shooting at allied soldiers fleeing from the Chaos troops behind them. Before they could do anything more, however, the skirmishers were surprised by ungor raiders attacking them from the shadows of the trees they were foolish enough to take cover in. The skirmishers fought back with their guns and their blades and killed many times their number, but soon, the ungors' sheer persistence and numbers eventually forced them out into the open, where they found themselves hunted by relentless swarms of swooping harpies.
"Rückzug! Pull back, you bloody fools! Get out of there!" The lead outrider fired his pistol into the air to call attention from his men, even as several of them were plucked from their horses and quite literally pieced apart in the skies by vicious harpies. "We've lost too damned much! Return to the main battle line!"
Emperor Franz and his fellows observed in silence as the skirmishers began disentangling themselves from their ungor, norsemen and harpy pursuers. What pitiful few survivors remained urged their horses to run for dear life back to their waiting state trooper comrades behind them.
"We can relieve them and easily turn this fight around, your majesty." One of the Reiksguards suggested in a thick Middenlander accent, his gauntlet already clasped around the handle of his lance. "They won't expect us coming at them from this position."
Deathclaw seemed to like the man's idea by making a shrill sound in agreement, but his master did not agree. "Ulric might frown upon deliberating before a battle, sir knight, but He values victory much more. Stay your blade and wait for my command."
Back in the open field, a gorebull minotaur led the charge against the Empire's troops. With great, breathy roars that steamed in the cold evening air, the beast cleaved fleeing state troops and skirmishers alike in two. It was about to claim another victim it snatched away from the saddle of his horse, when a lucky arrow pierced its right eye in a most gruesome manner, forcing it to drop the pistolier it had in its clutches. The gorebull roared half in rage and half in pain as it reached out to pluck the projectile sticking out of its head, when a second arrow came and impaled its remaining eye, completely blinding it.
While his men openly gaped at such an auspicious turn of events, Franz had a feeling luck had nothing to do with the gorebull's miserable state. Indeed, his suspicions were confirmed when a great, bone-white hawk descended from the skies and swooped by the flailing, screaming, eyeless beast, scourging its exposed neck with deep lacerations with the bird's incredibly sharp talons. As the gorebull fell down to its knees choking on the river of corrupted blood flowing from its ravaged throat, it was finished off by a third arrow that impaled the back of its head. Within a minute, two other minotaurs and a bestigor met with a similar fate in quick succession.
"The elf is making our Huntsmarshal look like an amateur in comparison." Schwarzhelm uttered as he watched, sounding mildly impressed.
"Wulfhart merely had his younger years to hone his craft, champion," A female Reiksguard spoke up. She had a noticeable Bretonnian accent. "Our waystalker most likely had thousands of years to better herself in the ways of the bow."
Von Mannstedt scoffed. "A single gunshot in the right place can wipe away all those years spent in practice. Why bother with bows?"
"I actually agree with that, witch hunter." Another of the Reiksguards nodded. This one sounded like an upper-class Reiklander. "Maybe I'll take up a repeater handgun and serve with the outriders one day. Sigmar knows even us knights in full plate die as quick as everyone else when struck by a well-placed shot."
Franz agreed quietly. Should the End Times ever come to pass, he decided he'd have to reform the Imperial State Army to focus less on knights and more on handgunners, artillery pieces and war machines such as steam tanks. He was not so bold as to declare highly-trained knights in full plate obsolete, but he predicted the future of warfare lied with gunpowder. The emperor wondered what such a future would be like, when he was interrupted by the sound of a Norscan warhorn blowing.
"The great cannons and the helstorm batteries are now firing on the enemy," Schwarzhelm reported, though it was unneeded. Franz could see the effects of his artillery crews' work clearly enough. By now, most of the enemy troops had committed to a frontal assault, with only the ungor archers staying back. "Should we move in to engage, Emperor Franz?"
"In due course, champion." It was almost time. Franz could feel Deathclaw squirm from under him in excitement.
Far ahead in the main Empire battle line, the handgunners faced down the advancing Chaos horde. Some men seemed hesitant and even fewer obviously displayed fear in the face of battle, but none dared to desert their brothers in the heat of battle. When the first of the foes moved past their guns' effective firing range, at the prompting of their sergeants, each handgunner detachment simultaneously unleashed a devastating fusillade of shots, tearing apart the majority of the first mutant and norsemen wave. After quickly refilling their guns with shot and powder, the handgunners once again turned their guns on the enemy, only for a hail of ungor arrows to descend upon them.
Dozens upon dozens of handgunners were riddled with a rain of arrows before they could even fire their guns. Those who survived found that their next barrage of shots only managed to put down a quarter of the second Chaos wave. While disappointed at the damage they dealt, the men did not stay to linger. They packed their guns and did what they can for the wounded before running back, positioning themselves behind the halberdiers.
When the first gors, warhounds and Norscan raiders clashed with the braced Empire halberdier and spearmen line, a great, resounding crash of steel against steel was heard all across the field. A fleeing handgunner died screaming when beastmen warhounds surrounded and knocked him down, took him by each limb and pulled. A Norscan raider plunged his axe against a spearman's shield, only to have his throat impaled by a crossbow bolt before he could retract his weapon. A detachment of halberdiers held back and killed many times their number in gors before being overwhelmed in sheer numbers, and an isolated group of battle-weary harpies were quickly blasted to bits by a fresh squad of handgunners before they could swoop down to attack.
All around the battlefield, blood was spilled from both sides by the gallons. The imperial battle line held with the halberdiers and spearmen keeping the foes at bay while the handgunners and crossbowmen picked their targets from behind the relative safety of their comrades' bodies and shields. Seeing that their forces were not making too much progress at the front, the ungor archers at the back of the enemy line finally put away their bows, drew their axes and clubs, and charged right into the fray.
Franz looked behind his shoulder. Schwarzhelm nodded at him ever so slightly, one mailed hand enclosed on the shaft of the emperor's battle standard, with the other at the reins of his demigryph. Von Mannstedt regarded him with a thin-lipped smile. His Reiksguard gave their salutes, while the others simply looked on to the battlefield ahead.
"Our wait is over!" The emperor cried out, after turning his gaze back to the battlefield. "To me, men! At the walk!"
As one, Karl Franz and his knights and soldiers revealed themselves from the cover of their hiding place... right behind the enemy formation. With a great cry of alarm from one of their leaders, the Norscans and their mutant allies moved to shift their positions to cover their exposed rear flank, only to be quickly bogged down when the swordsmen, whom had spent most of the battle staying back and shielding the crossbowmen from archer fire, suddenly dropped their defensive stance and charged forward, blades drawn.
With his targets occupied and unable to counter his charge, Emperor Franz pulled down his beaked visor over his face and finally issued to order to take the fight to the enemy. "In memory of Empress Kunigunde! TO ARMS, MEN!"
"Myrmidia! Sigmar and Verena! TO GLORY!" Franz heard Schwarzhelm roar as he hoisted the emperor's battle standard in the air.
"Burn the heretic! Kill the mutant!" Von Mannstedt shouted after him, pistol in hand. "Purge the unclean, for judgement is coming!"
"FOR THE EMPEROR!" In unison with one another, the Reiksguard cried out, couching their lances. "AND FOR EMPRESS KUNIGUNDE!"
Enemy archers and crossbowmen scrambled to shoot the charging, emperor-led knights behind them. Their volleys came out sporadically and without precision. Some of Franz's Reiksguards were unfortunate enough to be struck by arrows that pierced their armour or shields, but none were killed. Many other battle-cries were made as the emperor's knights and companions boldly galloped to battle, but as they all reached the point of no return, only one name left their collective mouths.
It was brutal. Droves of unfortunate Norscans and beastmen alike found themselves on the receiving end of Reiksguard lances and were impaled in the most horrific of manners, while those who were a bit more fortunate were merely trampled underfoot by the warhorses and demigryphs. Such was the sheer amount of bloody carnage and wanton death wrought by Emperor Franz's cavalry force on the enemy, that tiny chunks of Norscan warriors lost heart and made to abandon the field, crying out how the dark gods had abandoned their faithful. The emperor reached out from his saddle and bashed beastmen and Norscan heads left and right with Ghal Maraz, while Deathclaw maimed and slashed apart scores of enemy troops with his rending beak and razor-sharp claws, roaring and screeching all the while. Black blood splattered across his armour and some even spilled inside the slit of his greathelm, but Franz carried on killing regardless, having been completely overtaken by his zeal to kill as many of the Empire's foes as Sigmar allowed him, as well as his desire to avenge the fallen.
When the enemy wisely decided to break ranks and disperse to avoid taking the full brunt of the emperor's righteous wrath, Franz merely freed himself from his saddle and leaped down from his mount in response. With a guttural, incoherent battle-cry on his lips, Karl Franz charged right back into the fray while Deathclaw did much the same in another direction.
A musclebound Norscan Khornate champion charged the emperor and brought down his battle-axe against him in hopes of splitting him from shoulder to navel. "Khorne demands blood!" He bellowed out a cruel, unhinged bout of laughter. "Hahahaha, BLOOD!"
Franz easily parried the crude blow mid-strike with Ghal Maraz's gromril haft and in response, he reared his head back and smashed his opponent's nose flat with a crushing thrust of his beaked greathelm, sending the raider hobbling back, but still chuckling in glee. The Norscan dug in his heel and swung his axe several times to strike back against the emperor, but Franz saw each slow-moving blow coming and avoided them. The Norscan still seemed amused despite this, but he did not look as jolly as before when a stray crossbow bolt shafted him from behind. Franz did not pause, and as his foe reeled forward, he swung Ghal Maraz and smashed it against the man's abdomen, utterly obliterating several of his ribs and sundering his armour. The emperor then pulled back his weapon, turned it around, and impaled the Norscan through the vulnerable area of his plates with the warhammer's curved, spiked end. The northman gasped in surprise, then screamed with unholy laughter when the emperor violently wrenched back his weapon, causing the Norscan's blood to seep out of the new gap in his armour. With a contemptuous scowl, the emperor hoisted his warhammer up in the air and smashed it over the Khornate champion's laughing head, finally silencing him for good.
Franz coldly spared no further thought on his vanquished foe as he wiped the blood splattering his helmet and marched off to seek out the nearest, most important enemy he could find, which did not take overlong. After finding another gorebull snorting and scuffing the grass beneath it in preparation for a charge against a group of battered spearmen, the emperor moved to intercept the creature's path. When he neared his now-charging target, Karl Franz held Ghal Maraz to level with his midsection, and when the time came to strike the unwary foe, he used his gathered momentum and lunged with his entire body, swinging his blessed instrument of death with all the strength his arms could muster.
Ghal Maraz caught the charging gorebull by its side with a great crunch of metal and bone. The towering beastman howled in agony as it went down on the grass with Franz on top of it. The emperor pulled himself up and wrenched his hammer free from the downed creature's horridly-deformed ribcage, kicked aside its axe before it could reach it, and with one vicious downward blow, scattered bits of the gorebull's head all around the nearby grass. Franz pivoted to check on the spearmen detachment he just saved, but all his eyes came across was a massive hulk of dark minotaur muscle much larger than the gorebull he just killed charging straight toward him.
It was one of the infamous beastmen doombulls. This one, judging from its horns, size and equipment, seemed to be in charge of all the other mutants in the field.
The emperor clenched his teeth at the sight and tried to reposition, but he acted too late. The doombull walloped the emperor with an exceedingly powerful head-butt that would have outright snapped the neck of lesser men and knocked the rest unconscious thanks to its horns, but Franz was different; he was protected by the dark Sigmarite cross necklace that hung around his neck.
Created by Frederick von Tarnus for use by Magnus the Pious himself, the Silver Seal saved many emperors before Franz from fatal blows and even sorcerous attacks.
The doombull seemed briefly surprised when the emperor stood up from the ground, with only a finger of blood trailing from his mouth as his only sign of being hurt. Surprise quickly turned to fury, however. The mutant howled and charged again, and this time, it seemed to learn from this experience by the way it threateningly hefted its bearded greataxe. Franz stood his ground and clenched his armoured hands around his hammer's haft to meet the doombull's charge, but just as the two adversaries could clash, a bone-white mass of feathers and claws crashed against the beastman from above.
The doombull struggled with the warhawk tearing and pecking clumps out of its skin and flesh for a moment — a brief one, but certainly long enough for Franz to reposition. After having one of its eyes pecked out and its long face very nearly torn off, the hulking beastman reached out and siezed the warhawk's throat with its free hand. With a single, crushing twist from the mutant, the bird ceased its struggles and went limp. The doombull rumbled with laughter in its triumph; it opened its mouth to tear out the lifeless warhawk's head with its teeth, when Franz struck.
"HELDENHAMMER!" Franz lunged and smashed his warhammer against the minotaur's spine, knocking it away in a drunken stagger, nearly causing it to lose its footing. The doombull swiveled around to fight back, and as it did, twin arrows with bodkin points flew and buried themselves into both the mutant's knees, causing it to drop to the ground. It tried to regain its footing, when more arrows kept coming one after another, pinning themselves into the creature's hide and keeping it down.
Wordlessly, the wood elf waystalker appeared beside the emperor, longbow drawn and quiver almost empty. Franz deigned to look her way; he could tell she was furious, more than ever before. Still, it did not take a wizard to see her white-irised eyes contained repressed sorrow and grief at her loss. He could almost sympathise with her, should Deathclaw ever fall in battle.
The beastman in front of them roared, bringing Franz's attention back to it. The creature reached down and snapped the arrows sticking from its knees and with visible effort, stood up to fight once again. The elf had almost emptied her entire supply of bodkin arrows on the doombull at this point, but for every shot, it seemed to grow much more furious and more resistant to such attacks. In her anger, Franz could see the elf did not notice this.
"No more," With a voice made even deeper by his helm, the emperor reached out and seized the waystalker by the arm before she could notch another arrow. Franz very nearly flinched when the elf turned to glare at him with those white eyes full of hatred and bloodlust. He retracted his grip. "This vile thing will not allow itself to be brought low by your arrows, elf. I suggest—"
She put away her bow and drew her twin elven blades, carrying them in each hand. "It will die nonetheless."
The emperor did not grace the elf with a response beyond a nod of his helmed head. He brought his warhammer up and started advancing to face the doombull, but despite his head-start, the elf ran past him and reached the creature first.
With one arm that resembled a veined, hairy tree-trunk, the doombull swung its axe downward as the waystalker sprinted toward it. Deftly, the elf shimmied away from the blow and slashed twice against the creature's arm, inflicting an identical pair of wounds that cut almost to the bone. The doombull recoiled and hissed in pain, leaving its axe stuck on the ground. While most of the Empire's soldiers pose no significant threat when disarmed, beastmen were infamous all over the Old World for their prowess on the battlefield even without weapons.
The doombull roared as it lunged at the elf with both arms bared, intending to overpower her in its crushing embrace, but the woman was swift as a shot, and her lethality seemed only amplified by her desire for vengeance. The doombull roared in anger and annoyance when the waystalker ducked under its arms and out of its reach. Still in her primal stance, the elf used her agility along with her reduced height to pass between the towering creature's legs, where she used her blades to once again inflict bleeding gashes on both limbs as she advanced past them.
Franz saw the beastman stumble, very nearly brought to its knees once again, just as his wood elven ally stood up behind it. He thought the fight was over by the time the waystalker reared back and plunged both her wicked blades deep in the doombull's back, but the creature was remarkably tough, as befitting beastmen leaders. The emperor could only watch when the mutant swiftly whipped around and knocked the surprised elf flat on the ground with a vicious backhand, tearing the veil from her face and drawing blood from her mouth.
The doombull ambled up and raised its hoof to stomp on its downed foe. The elf would have been killed for certain had the emperor not chosen at that moment to strike the minotaur's exposed back once again, and with more force this time.
The mutant screeched, arching its deformed, misshapen back. The emperor moved up and struck his opponent by the head once with his warhammer, messily knocking off several of its teeth and dazing it slightly. Before the beastman could recover, Franz struck at the same spot again with much more force, flattening the side of the creature's head in gruesome fashion. After rearing back to gather momentum, Franz swung Ghal Maraz upward and struck the doombull square under the jaw, causing its head to arch backward in a twisted angle with its flat tongue lolling out.
The mutant, suffering from dozens of internal and external injuries plus a broken neck, crouched with its battered head hung low, seemingly close to collapsing on its back.
Franz advanced on the kneeling beastman, hammer raised. It defiantly raised its arm in an effort to block further blows from its foe, but Franz merely swatted the limb aside with contemptuous ease. He then reared back, turned his warhammer around, and swiftly gored his weapon's cruel, hooked end straight through the doombull's good eye. The unholy noise the vile thing howled out was nothing short of gratifying, after all the trouble it caused. Pressing his advantage, Franz twisted and yanked Ghal Maraz, dragging the mutant kicking and screaming to the ground.
By the time the emperor pulled his weapon loose, all of the doombull's prodigious strength had left it. The beastman laid still on the ground on its back, snorting and braying with obvious difficulty. It was clear the creature would die on its own very soon.
Franz, however, was not the kind of man to leave his foes at the mercy of their wounds. He clutched the handle of his warhammer and with a grunt, hoisted it up in the air and above his head, where it started to snap and crackle in tangible Sigmarite energy. Righteous fury sang in Franz's veins as he brought the weapon down on the doombull's mortally wounded form. The violent crunch that accompanied his strike against the mutant's bared chest was clearly audible despite the other sounds of battle raging around him, Franz could practically hear the beastman's internal organs bursting from the sheer kinetic force expended unto them, along with each of its ribs shattering, its chest yielding and deforming before Ghal Maraz's death-blow.
After executing the foul beastman chief, Franz took a moment to catch his breath before his next battle, but it was unneeded. The mutants took one mere look at their leader lying dead under the blood-caked sabatons of the emperor before losing heart and turning tail, withdrawing from the battle like the defeated cravens they were.
"Come back! Nurgle take you, spineless, flea-ridden worms! COME BACK!" The norseman leader cried upon seeing his goat-men allies fleeing the field. His forces, demoralised as they were, did not take overlong to start running after them, desperate to escape the Empire's wrath.
"Forward, men! No mercy for heretics!" Franz cried out as the tides of battle shifted all around him. He stepped down from the doombull's battered corpse to return to the fight, when his eyes came across the elf's veil on the ground near him, looking as pristine as could be. The emperor hesitated for a second before reaching down and taking it. He looked around once more in search of the cloth's owner, which did not take overlong.
Emperor Franz found the waystalker in the process of regaining consciousness, hidden from plain sight among the bloodied corpses all around her. He sauntered over to her and reached out with his unoccupied hand, intending to help his ally up to her feet.
Franz could see the defiance and untamed pride in the waystalker's eyes as she glared up at him, her frown now visible. Her veil was gone, and he could now see her face clearly. As a keen-eyed patron of the arts, Franz immediately saw she possessed an almost otherworldly fairness to her, like most elven women. With a pair of upturned, silver-irised eyes, a snub-shaped nose, thin lips and unnaturally pale skin, the elf would certainly be considered beautiful and exotic in the courts of Altdorf at the very least.
"You're staring again, human."
The emperor coughed, feeling awkward all the sudden. "Good to hear that beastman hasn't knocked your jaw from its hinges." He was glad his voice masked his embarrassment. "Or perhaps I am wrong. Have you need of healer?"
"I am of the asrai, tempered by the unending blizzards of Atylwyth the Winterheart. Blessed by Isha, watched over by Morai-heg, and safeguarded by Lileath." The elf proclaimed as she reached out and grasped Franz's armoured forearm. Using him as leverage, she pulled herself up and wiped the blood trailing from her mouth.
When she caught sight of her crumpled veil in Franz's still-outstretched hand, she was quick to snatch it from him. "I am not as fragile as you might think." She said to him, though for the first time, she sounded uncertain to his ears.
Franz retracted his arm and turned to his side. He looked ahead, surveying the battlefield that still raged on. "So you say, daughter of Atylwyth."
It was midnight upon Wolfenburg. Honest folk had departed the streets to wait out the darkness and patrols of halberdiers replaced them, on alert and wary for signs of Chaos infiltrators. In the city keep at the centre of the settlement, two figures and their bodyguards and retainers kept awake.
"I grow tired of waiting." Count von Raukov said. There were dark, shadowy rings around his weary eyes. "Your adjutant said the emperor would arrive just after dusk. Tomorrow starts in an hour, and my outriders still report no signs of his imperial majesty's army. Asvaldsson's warhost is running rampant across my little realm, slaughtering the armies I've sent with impunity while we sit here, languishing. I wonder, did Franz change his mind and left us to the hounds of Chaos?"
Supreme Patriarch Gelt shook his head. "As you well know, my graf, Captain Markus Kruber is one of the only survivors of a failed expedition to a necromancer's tomb here in this very province. More recently, he also survived a skaven incursion in Ubersreik, where he was decorated several times by the emperor himself for performing heroic actions crucial to the survival of the city. If he hadn't learned to be precise and astute under duress during those trying times, he would not be present here, providing leadership for my retinue."
He paused for a second, letting the weight of his words sink in. "It is not typical for him to make mistakes, my graf."
Von Raukov gave the gold wizard an incredulous look in response.
"I believe the emperor is merely delayed, my lord." Captain Kruber himself chimed in, putting down his tobacco pipe for the moment. "I don't think it's in his nature to leave his men to fend for themselves after promising to help. Surely they must have run across another band of Chaos warriors or beastmen, and were forced to defend themselves." He placed his pipe back in his mouth.
"This Karl Franz of yours is really taking his time..." Khoril Rudriksson, Gelt's token dwarf giantslayer companion, grumbled from his corner in the room. Like all slayers, he wore very little, only a cloak made out of bear pelts, a pair of hard leather pants coupled with weathered travelling boots covered his short, yet extremely-muscular form. His only weapon was a gigantic war axe that looked more suited for an orc to wield.
The gold wizard chuckled. "Eager to meet your end tonight, are you, dwarf?"
"Aye. I'd sooner face it now rather than later." The giantslayer nodded and wiped his mouth. From the unimpressed look on his flat-nosed, orange-bearded face, Khoril did not like the taste of von Raukov's weak Ostlander beer. "Don't know what I'd do if I survive all this..."
"You slayers sure are a morbid folk," Kruber said, his slight frown hidden from sight behind his black, meticulously-trimmed moustache and beard. "Not at all like your ranger cousins."
Khoril laughed at that. "That's 'cause we slayers ain't touched in the head from being under the sun and breathing too much fresh air, captain manling." He paused briefly. "Of course, we slayers also run around exposed to the elements while looking for something big and angry enough to kill us. Whatever."
"Your doom will have to wait, then." Frau Konstanze Lichtenfels, the amethyst wizard in Gelt's retinue, chimed in. Turning to look at her, Gelt saw voluminous robes of dark purple covering her body head-to-toe, and a grisly, jewel-encrusted headress made out of bones and the remnants of a wyvern's skull resting upon her completely hairless head. The only weapon she carried seemed to be her wizard's scythe, with an edge that looked sharp enough to cut and slice.
"Death comes to us all... but I suspect you won't come to meet the one fated to take your life and your shame this night, or the day that comes next, dwarf." When Gelt first heard it, he was mildly surprised and even a little amused at how high and girlish Lichtenfels' Averlander-accented voice was, in stark contrast to her pale complexion, gloomy robes and austere demeanour.
"And what makes you say that, wizard?" Khoril turned to the death mage.
"Call it a hunch." She said with a shrug, trying to sound vague.
Sir Siegmund Todwunsch the Morrite Black Guard uttered a dismissive grunt, his dark obsidian plates clinking against one another as his chest moved.
Before anyone else could speak their mind, two of Count von Raukov's knights entered the room, along with a haggard-looking man in dented platemail armour and robes. From his shaved head and the wolf pelts he also donned over his plates in lieu of a cloak, the man was evidently a warrior priest of Ulric.
Kruber immediately stood up at the sight of the man, dropping his pipe. "Taal's breath... we thought you were dead, Arnulf."
Even Gelt was surprised, though his golden mask helped veil his expression. "You... survived your ordeal in the Brass Keep? Come and sit; you must tell us all about your journey, priest."
Arnulf Hoffstetter, the warrior priest of Ulric, said nothing. He pushed aside the knights escorting him and walked into the room. He helped himself to one of Khoril's beers, wiped his mouth and flopped down on a stone chair.
"Where's Meinhard and Kirstein?" He spoke, after taking another draught of his beer.
"The sergeant's being tended to in the infirmary downstairs," Kruber replied on Gelt's behalf. "But Meinhard..." He looked to his boots, his voice now solemn. "Meinhard didn't make it. He's lost too much blood... it's a miracle in itself he even made it to Wolfenburg alive."
Arnulf stared at the bottle of beer in his gauntleted hand. "He told me how happy he was to visit his family here in Ostland after finishing part of his studies in that wizard college of his in Altdorf..." He sighed. "Chances are, his folks're probably already dead. Poor lad."
There was silence after that, only broken by Gelt clearing his throat.
"While the deaths of our comrades and the fall of the Brass Keep are... regrettable, we still have yet to know what exactly happened to you while out there, Hoffstetter." He said. "However did you make it out and reach Wolfenburg intact? Did reinforcements from Graf Todbringer relieve you?"
"Aye, reinforcements did come, alright." The warrior priest nodded, reclining on his seat. "We did not last long trying to hold the Brass Keep, and we were forced to withdraw. We tried to reach Middenheim on foot, but the Norscans and the beastmen were relentless in their pursuit of us. I didn't think we'd make it before they dash us all to pieces and send us all to Morr, but our prayers were answered when the emperor himself came from the south and smashed the enemy. After tending to our wounded and taking care of the dead, his imperial majesty told me to take a horse and ride ahead, to warn you of his approach."
The supreme patriarch smirked. "Do you see now, my graf? Do you recall what I told you about patience? Had we simply used our time to wait and plan, we might have done something productive with our time instead of pointlessly bickering whether or not Franz would dare abandon the province."
"Do not use that impertinent tone with me, wizard." Von Raukov replied indignantly. "But I suppose you have the right of it. Come, then. We should prepare to receive the emperor's arrival. Perhaps then we can discuss how we will go about ridding Ostland of Chaos."
It was a new day when the gates of Wolfenburg parted to make way for Emperor Franz and his army. While his men immediately retreated to the barracks to get some rest, the emperor himself took some of his bodyguards and marched straight for Count von Raukov's castle, where the elector count, the supreme patriarch and a few others waited patiently for his presence.
At the sight of Franz, von Raukov and all of his knights and soldiers bowed, along with most of Gelt's retinue. The gold wizard himself merely waited for the pettiness and tiring pleasantries his compatriots had indulged in to finally come to a halt, in order to discuss the most urgent matter at hand. He was about to turn and find a seat, when Franz approached, looking somewhat surprised and a little battle-weary.
"Gelt? Last I've heard, you were hunting for those relics of yours near the Red Eye Mountain, along with the ragged band of mismatched treasure-hunters, magic-wielders and death-seekers." The emperor said. "Pray tell, what brings you to Wolfenburg?"
The supreme patriarch shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "I cannot say I found exactly what I was looking for on that wretched, goblin-infested mountain, your majesty, but I did find information as to where it should be now. I was just about to return to Altdorf to resume my duties in your court for the time being, when news of Kislev's fall reached my little group. Needless to say, I turned and changed my course to assist you and yours with whatever I can."
He let out an easygoing chuckle. "I do enjoy harvesting the fruits of my studies immensely, but the fate of the world takes priority over such petty things, I say."
Emperor Franz was infamous among the Empire's nobility for his uncanny ability to find hints and untruths just by a person's facial expressions and tone-of-voice. Luckily for Gelt, he no longer had a face, and however good Franz was in detecting falsehoods and subtle suggestions within words, the gold wizard was much, much better at telling lies.
"Hm," His imperial majesty looked down at him, eyeing him in a suspicious manner. The moment lasted very briefly, however. "If that's truly the case, wizard, then let us do what we can for Ostland together. Sigmar knows the province needs all the manpower and assistance it can get."
"My abilities are ever at your disposal, my liege." Gelt gracefully bowed. He smirked behind the mask. "Ever at your disposal indeed..."
Come morning, and Emperor Franz's newly-strengthened force was once again on the move. Reinforced by fresh regiments from Reikland and Middenland, the emperor's army now included esteemed troops from the Carroburg Greatswords, members of the Knights Panther, and even veteran demigryph riders from the feared Royal Altdorf Gryphites.
Moving alongside the emperor's troops was Count Valmir von Raukov's own force, which consisted chiefly of hardened greatsword regiments, artillery units such as mortars and helstorm batteries, bow-wielding levies, and legions upon legions of rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth flagellants. The centrepiece of his army was Ostland's solitary steam tank, the Starklanze.
Since he had a sudden urge to stretch his legs, the templar Wolfhard Richter, much unlike his half-sister who insisted upon riding with Franz's Reiksguard, decided to forgo his horse and march alongside the flagellants. Upon seeing his witch hunter garb, many of them offered to become his followers should they survive the battle, but while he admired these people for their dedication to Sigmar and the Empire, Wolfhard declined them. Unlike most templars, he found himself most often assigned to do investigative work instead of field work, and as a result he started valuing stealth, intelligence and discretion better than skill and strength in arms. Flagellants were most often zealous-but-illiterate peasants with no love for subtlety. They would be more at home in Eloise's new retinue.
"Look at that, witch hunter..."
Wolfhard looked to his side, expecting another flagellant. Instead, he found a man in a state trooper's livery, dyed the distinctive red and black colours of Nuln. An Ironside sergeant, the witch hunter thought. Moreover, the man had bloodied bandages covering his forehead and his right sleeve.
"Look at what, sergeant?" Wolfhard answered evenly, to which the man raised an arm and pointed near where Emperor Franz rode on his elephant-sized griffon.
Wolfhard did an exaggerated eye-roll. "That's Deathclaw, sergeant." He snarked.
The Wissenlander gave him a sour look. "I wasn't talking about the bloody griffon. I was talking about that... that thing with the longbow, walking in stride so close to the emperor." He frowned, his voice coming out a contemptuous rasp. "Why in Sigmar's name is no one batting an eye to it? What business does it have with the Empire, walking alongside the emperor like one of his Reiksguards, no less?"
While he could not see just who exactly was the man pointing at thanks to Deathclaw blocking the view, the witch hunter already knew who it was he was talking about.
"Haven't you heard? Emperor Franz has started accepting wood elves into the Reiksguard. Desperate times, and all that." He replied, keeping up the sarcasm out of boredom and disinterest at the conversation he was having. "Apparently, this one was sent by the wood elven mage-queen herself to watch over his imperial majesty... to make sure he doesn't get himself killed or assassinated."
"What a load of fucking bollocks," The man spat. "I'd sooner trust a von Carstein to keep his word over one of those knife-eared deer-fuckers telling me it's here to make friends. Did you know those things hunt men for sport once in a while?"
"Well, I don't trust her either. Not with the way she glares at everyone." Wolfhard looked to the man and shrugged.
He'd heard stories speaking of wood elven "Wild Hunts", but he scarcely believed them, chiefly because such stories probably originated from drunken Bretonnian peasants. He looked back to the road, but kept talking. "His imperial majesty walks easy when near the elf, however. He did not look like he trusted her with his back yesterday, but after we smashed that Chaos host last night, I've noticed he does not seem too guarded around her now. He might just feel responsible for the elf losing her bird, I don't know."
"Bird? What bird?" The Ironside sergeant asked, narrowing his eyes.
Wolfhard grimaced, remembering the great, feathery thing that used to soar the skies above him. "The elf bestrode a white hawk, one of the giant specimens that frequent the Forest of Loren. Some say it was feathered down by arrows. Ripped apart by a swarm of harpies, some other men would say. Volkmar's teeth, I even heard from some of the pistoliers saying it was killed defending the emperor himself from a doombull. Gods, can you believe it? How ridiculous."
The man wiped his nose and seemed indifferent, but Wolfhard kept on talking. It was one of the ways he used to stave off boredom. "Anyway, if you're wondering why the elf is on foot while the rest of the emperor's retinue rides, when the Reiksguard offered her a spare horse, the arrogant wench refused. She insists on keeping close to watch over Franz, but she's just too bloody proud to take charities from the Empire."
The man grunted, his dark brown eyes sparkling with disapproval and contempt for the wood elf. He appeared as if he was about to speak once more, when all the marching quickly came to a stop at the sound of Ludwig Schwarzhelm's voice.
"HOLD!" The Emperor's Champion bellowed. Wolfhard pushed aside a flagellant and looked to the man, finding him close to the emperor, in the process of turning his demigryph to face the side of the road. "Who goes there! Show yourself!" He seemed to be shouting at the shadowed woods in the distance.
"State troops, halt!" Karl Franz had Deathclaw rear up on his hind legs for a second to catch everyone's attention. "I want handguns, bows and crossbows facing those woods! Form ranks and prepare to fire! Shields up, swordsmen! Schwarzhelm, what do you see?"
The champion did not seem at all alarmed, however. "It's Wulfhart's Hunters."
"Hoi!" Wolfhard heard a man cry out from the depths of the woods. A moment passed, and a large group of bow-wielding men wearing camouflaged leathers appeared, fast approaching the halted Imperial column. Doing a cursory count in his mind, Wolfhard figured the men numbered at more than two hundred and fifty.
"Men, stand down!" Emperor Franz ordered at once the moment he saw the new arrivals. "At ease!"
"Good to see you, old man." The witch hunter spied one of them, a middle-aged man with a black beard on his face and a flat cap with a blue plume on his head. He had a state sergeant's light slashing sabre and a dirk hanging by side-by-side in their scabbards from his belt, and carried a amber-encrusted longbow inscribed with gothic Reikspiel runes, at least from a distance.
"Huntsmarshal Wulfhart." Schwarzhelm curtly nodded in response to the younger man. "You've word for the emperor?"
"Something like that." Markus Wulfhart smiled, tipping his cap. He turned to look behind his shoulder. "Starke? You're the one good with words. Why don't you speak to Emperor Franz on our behalf?"
Another of Wulfhart's trappers stepped forward. Examining him, Wolfhard found the man rather unremarkable. He was tall and gaunt and looked just as ragged as his comrades, with a shaggy, lice-ridden brown beard that reached up to his chest. He carried a shortbow, and the way he held it suggested he was an expert with the weapon. Furthermore, his way of walking was extremely collected; with long, deliberate strides that seemed almost elf-like.
When the sun's rays shone down upon him and dispelled the shadows generated by his cap that hid his eyes from view, however, Wolfhard figured out the man was no ordinary archer. He's a grey wizard, the witch hunter's thoughts resounded. Wolfhard had seen those stormy grey eyes on some of the wizards he associated with in the past. More often than not, they were shadowmancers sent to assist the Order on particularly gruelling cloak-and-dagger cases.
"Emperor Franz," The disguised grey wizard began. "It's certainly been a while since we last met."
"Indeed," The emperor seemed like he wanted to smile, but settled only for a nod. "And what brings you and my Huntsmarshal to me, Magister Lord Reiner Starke?"
"We've both heard of the plight Ostland is facing in these dark times, your imperial majesty. We've come to join forces with you in your crusade against Asvaldsson, the sorcerer lord of Tzeentch." Magister Lord Starke said.
Gradually, the illusory spells the grey wizard previously casted on himself faded away, revealing his true form of an old, but remarkably muscular man with a short, well-trimmed silver beard, bedecked in long grey robes with a matching hedge wizard's hat. His shortbow also disappeared, and in its place was a weathered, plain-looking staff ornamented with the skull and wings of a raven. "If you would have us, of course."
"I won't refuse your aid, grey wizard, and neither would I Wulfhart's." Franz said. "But first, I would have you tell me what happened in the eleventh of Nachgeheim, in the year 2488."
The cryptic question sent waves of confused sounds and mumbling among Karl Franz's army, but Starke himself only smiled knowingly. Wolfhard combed his vast knowledge of dates and events covered up by his Order, but he knew nothing significant happened to the Empire during the 11th of Nachgeheim, 2488 IC. The only event worthy of note during that year was the end of the third Bretonnian Errantry War, during which the backwoods, technologically-inept nation was left vulnerable to greenskin attacks due to the severity of the military losses it sustained. While it was certainly brave and noble of them to do so, Wolfhard thought it the Bretons were being much more foolish than usual to even consider starting an impossible quest to cleanse the entire Old World of greenskins.
Thus, after a period of silence, Starke sighed and shook his head, still smiling that easygoing smile of his. "I forgot, my emperor." He said, rather simply.
"As you should." For some, unknown reason, the emperor seemed pleased at that. "Come, then. Take your place next to Gelt. As for you, Wulfhart, fall in line with the archers. Perhaps you could impart a bit of your monster-hunting knowledge to them as we march. Advance, men! Forward march!"
While Starke and Wulfhart departed to their positions in Franz's army, the men started moving along the path once more. Wolfhard couldn't keep himself from thinking on Franz and Starke's nebulous "conversation", but he soon had to pick up the pace, so as to not be left behind. Once he was back in formation, Wolfhard spared a glance at his half-sister, who was gazing up at the emperor on his griffon admiringly.
The witch hunter sighed. Eloise and Wolfhard, along with their father Lord Tristan von Mannstedt, were members of the late Emperor Luitpold von Holswig-Schliesten's royal court in Altdorf nearly five and ten years ago. Lord von Mannstedt was held in high regard among the Holy Order of the Templars of Sigmar for his noble house's traditional, centuries-long role of providing excellent witch hunter recruits, and as such, he was Emperor Luitpold's intermediary for the Order. Wolfhard was no trueborn like Eloise, but he also had a place in the emperor's court as a disobedient, smart-mouthed squire to an old, somewhat unstable knight from Averland.
He remembered those days when Eloise would swoon and giggle with other girls in court whenever the young Prince Franz would pass them by, looking all serious and grim as though someone just told him his entire family was being held hostage by Marienburgers. Even as a lad, Wolfhard knew his half-sister was being foolish in her attraction; Franz always was studying state politics and warcraft, and he only ever looked at one girl in court: the fair and gregarious, but vain and airheaded Emmanuelle von Liebwitz, who grew up to be the current Wissenlander elector countess. He also remembered laughing at the crushed look on Eloise's face when news of Prince Franz's betrothal to Saskia Steinhäusser, a Nordlander from a minor noble house, broke out.
Wolfhard had thought Eloise had forgotten about Prince Franz after being made a witch huntress and persecuting heretics very nearly all the time. The dark nature of her line of work and the harrowing deeds she carried out during her career had hardened her heart and chilled her emotions, but it seemed with every grand victory in battle and astonishing diplomatic success for the newly-crowned Emperor Franz, Eloise's admiration for him strengthened. Not even the fact that the emperor appeared content in his marriage seemed to put her off.
Still, Wolfhard thought it good to see Eloise's demeanour shift back to her younger, more expressive self while around Franz. He only hoped she would not be so bold as to act on her feelings.
After a short while his thoughts then drifted to other things, mostly about his work in the Order, as well as the new arrivals in Wulhart and Starke. Not a moment too soon, he started thinking about the supple curves the comely celestial wizard marching in front of him had sported. Out of sheer boredom, Wolfhard let his thoughts as well as his gaze stay fixated on the mage's well-proportioned rear and lustrous blonde hair, imagining running his hands on both.
Out, foul daemon! Return to Slaanesh! The witch hunter shook his head. If the Order found out about the heretical line of thinking going on in his head just then, they'd have him thrown out. Had they also learned the momentary subject of his desire was also a magister, he'd simply disappear. Before long, Wolfhard started focusing on the road again, but the accursed hours would not quicken. He worried the march would soon reduce him to sleep due to the unchanging environment and the monotony of it all, but after only another hour did the first sign of Chaos activity appear for all to see.
"Cursed heretics!" Count Valmir von Raukov fumed. He was staring ahead to the horizon, where one of his sacked villages still burned, sending thick stacks of acrid black smoke into the heavens above. "I swear, I'll not rest until the Everchosen meets his end on my lance!"
"Easier said than done, my graf." Supreme Patriarch Gelt chimed in from atop his magnificent white pegasus mount.
Soon, more signs of Chaos corruption started to make themselves apparent. Large tracts of once-fertile land were scourged with dark sorceries, rendering them black, sterile, and reeking of decay. Clumps of terrible spikes made of fell, obsidian-like matter jutted from the ground, towering over the men and their mounts. Even the skies seemed to shift around them, turning from a pleasant blue into malevolent shades of murky crimson.
"He is here! Be wary, Asvaldsson is near!" Magister Lord Starke called out. Indeed, the air around them seemed to take a hostile, foreboding atmosphere. "Steel your hearts and prepare yourselves, men of the Empire! Tzeentchian trickery is afoot!"
Wolfhard had seen such an environment in Kislev before, and he was not afraid. His faith in his gods saw him through that hellish, Chaos-infested fallen nation, and he was sure They won't fail him now. With faith in Sigmar, honest steel, and purifying gunpowder, the Empire endured as it always had, the End Times and the Everchosen be damned.
Soon, they left the open plains and entered the Forest of Shadows. Tall, moss-covered trees sprinkled with the first drops of snow loomed over the men, wreathing them in shadows. The day was already poorly-lit to begin with thanks to the roiling skies that blocked the sun and writhed with Chaotic energy, but the act of entering the woods had cut visibility so much, the men started throwing questions around as to the time of the day, with some being convinced that night had descended upon them early.
"Torches! I want those torches lit, now!" The witch hunter heard Emperor Franz's booming voice, though he could not see where he was. "Make ready, soldiers! Though he eludes our eyes, our foe draws close, no doubt!"
Wolfhard stuck close with the flagellants as the men ignited their field torches and shifted to a more defensive formation. He drew his repeater handgun from its strap and held it close, grateful for the new orange light and warmth that came from the lit torches all around him. He looked around the heavily-forested area with his gun held downrange, staring down its iron sights as everyone waited for the unseen foe to come around.
"This is folly." The witch hunter heard one of the knights in Count von Raukov's retinue blurt out after a long while. "We should clear out of this forest. We shan't find the heretics waiting here for us to— hagh!"
Those standing close to the knight looked to him in surprise when he stiffened on his saddle, clutching his chest and looking as if he was in pain. Before anyone could react, he keeled over from his horse and landed on the blackened ground with a thud, whereupon he dragged himself up to his knees, closed his hands around his throat and started violently convulsing.
The knight's comrades were quick to rush over to his side, likely thinking he was having a stroke. Wolfhard, being a witch hunter, knew better.
"No! STOP!" He all but screamed as he pushed and shoved his way to the knight. "Sigmar's teeth, get away from him RIGHT NOW! He's—"
All hell broke loose when the knight reared his head back, unhinged his jaw and let loose a chilling, bloodcurdling scream so terrifying, Wolfhard felt as if the bones in his body was aflame and the flesh seared from within him. An insect's talon-tipped leg burst from each of the knight's legs and arms, his platemailed chest exploded and parted aside to reveal a mouth lined with crooked, bone-like teeth and a trio of exceptionally long, prehensile tongues slick with fluids emerged from his throat. More tentacles, mouths, tongues, eyes and other mutations rapidly sprang up from the knight's broken form, and by the time Wolfhard and a few others had emptied their guns on the rapidly-mutating creature, it was too late to stop it from turning its sights on the succulent, fleshy creatures futilely trying to attack it.
The Chaos spawn swatted aside a spearman's weapon with one of its tentacles before using another to grasp the spearman himself around the waist. The unfortunate state trooper could do nothing but scream as he was jammed inside the churning mouth where the knight's chest cavity once was. Teeth clenched, Wolfhard finished reloading his handgun and turned it against the creature. He held the firearm at an angle and used his other hand to spin its multiple barrels as he held the trigger, causing his shots to come out of his gun in extremely rapid fashion. The Chaos spawn was in the process of consuming another knight and his horse when each one of the tentacles holding its prey were blasted to pieces by a fusillade of repeater shots, narrowly saving the knight from his mount's grisly fate.
The fleshy mutant, apparently recognising Wolfhard as the most major threat to it, shuffled its way to the witch hunter, tentacles flailing in the air. Handgunners and crossbowmen emptied their weapons into the Chaos spawn, to very little effect. Wolfhard saw several tentacles coming his way, and he avoided each clumsy, uncoordinated attack by ducking, rolling, and shifting to the side. After barely evading being snatched by another appendage, the witch hunter unhooked one of the alchemical flasks from his belt and flung it at the creature, where it promptly shattered and released the yellow fluid contained within.
The Chaos spawn let out a terrible screech as the chemical agent sizzled on its corrupted skin, burning it away like acid. It flailed around wildly, heedless of the soldiers shooting and stabbing around it. It was only until one courageous knight braved the spawn's tongues and tentacles to get close enough to skewer its bulbous head with his lance did the creature stop flailing, allowing a nearby pyromancer to engulf it in the fires of Aqshy, roasting the mutant alive.
So many thoughts crossed Wolfhard's mind after the mindless beast was killed. No man who opposed the dark gods was in risk of being suddenly turned into a Chaos spawn. The witch hunter expected silence to promptly descend upon Emperor Franz's army, but the sounds of battle and men screaming still pervaded. He pivoted around and was shocked to see the men engaged in battle with daemonic horrors of Tzeentch. He was just about to wonder where the fiends came from, when a portal suddenly opened in the sky above the trees, and from its churning depths did scores of flying daemons known as screamers emerged, swooping down and tearing on the unfortunate state troops below them.
"Shallya's heaving teats! HERE THEY COME!"
The witch hunter heard a state sergeant shout, then turned his head to where the man pointed his sword. Ahead, under the supernatural light of the entropic fires that blazed from their armour and eye-sockets, a massive force of Norscan barbarians and black-plated Chaos warriors appeared from deeper into the shadowy woods, brandishing axes, swords, flails and maces that oozed with the Taint. The warband's ranks seemed to be supplemented by more daemons, warlocks, corrupted knights atop daemonic steeds and even more Chaos spawn.
As the sense of mounting dread welled up within him, Wolfhard took aim with his repeater handgun and fired on a nearby horror engaging an Ostlander swordsman, banishing it after a couple of precise shots. The man lived long enough to nod and mutter a word of thanks to him before a screamer swooped down, snatched him from the ground and started taking pieces out of him mid-air. Grimacing, the witch hunter dashed against the nearby corpse of a destrier and propped his firearm over the saddle. After compensating for distance and wind speed, Wolfhard steadied his breath, took aim, and fired a quick burst. Such was his skill with the gun, two of his three shots brushed past the trees, sailed the open air, and tore open the fleshy joint between the daemonic flyer's body and right wing, which proved enough to drop it out of the sky.
"Hold fast! Maintain your positions!"
Wolfhard turned his gaze to another part of the skies and saw Karl Franz and Deathclaw, the latter of which appeared to be busily tearing apart the eviscerated corpse of an unfortunate screamer. They were alone for a while, when Balthasar Gelt and his pegasus mare flew up from the ground and took their place beside the emperor.
"Have faith! We will prevail!" The supreme patriarch bellowed.
He stretched his hands to an incoming flock of screamers, and in an instant, a molten wave of red liquid metal burst from the gold wizard's fingers, incinerating outright several of the daemons before they could come close. Those fortunate enough to avoid the molten wave soon faced Deathclaw's talons and Franz's warhammer.
The men cheered at Gelt's scintillating display of his sorcerous might. Wolfhard thanked Sigmar and Taal the wizard did not turn the screamers into gold; doubtless many would die when it started raining golden daemons upon their heads. The witch hunter picked himself up from his prone position to a crouched one. Taking aim and firing once again, he banished another horror. Standing up, he adjusted his sights, took aim and shot down a distant screamer before it could swoop down and impale a halberdier with its mouth-spikes.
There was a frightening screech coming from his side. Wolfhard whipped to the source of the sound and found one of the pink-skinned horrors bearing down on him, its hand glowing and writhing with corrupting energies, illuminating the area around it with a sickly blue light. At that moment, he knew shooting the creature would be out of the question; it already had too much of a head-start priming a doombolt. Instead, he tensed up and waited for the daemon to act, so he may evade its attack.
The horror's gaping mouth seemed to twist into a grin as it let loose with an energy attack. The witch hunter moved in time and avoided the shimmering projectile, but only barely. The ends of his coat was burned severely as a consequence.
The pink daemon howled in anger. Wolfhard stopped running, crouched down and took aim. But before he could pull the trigger, a surge of blue lightning arced across the field and struck the horror square by its side, disintegrating its physical form and banishing it back to the Realm of Chaos. The witch hunter tore his gaze from where the daemon once was and to the source of the lightning, the same blonde-haired celestial wizard he was ogling just hours ago.
"Pay more attention, templar!" She shouted at him before departing, her focus already on another horror in the distance.
The witch hunter quickly counted his munitions, then he looked up to survey the battlefield. While many lives were lost in the daemon attack, the horrors of Tzeentch took much more damage besieging their hunkered down foes. Soon enough, after another minute of concentrated fighting, the last of the daemons were repulsed and banished back to the nether planes, leaving the Empire's men bloodied and winded, but mostly alive and with sufficient strength and vigour to face the steadily-advancing, increasingly-rowdy Chaos warband ahead of them.
"Faithless Imperial scum!" One of the heretics was heard shouting across the field.
"I'll drink my mead from a cup of your weakling emperor's skull, pathetic Sigmarites!" Another exclaimed.
"All glory to Chaos! Death to the Empire!" And yet another shouted.
Wolfhard's grip on his handgun threatened to snap it in two. Judgement is coming, heretics.
"Look at them! Look at the foul, ever-consuming tide of darkness sweeping across the forest towards us, brothers and sisters!"
Deathclaw glided toward the front of the Empire formation, and on him rode Karl Franz, looking resplendent in his armour despite the fresh coat of daemon blood staining it.
"Do you hear the fell hounds of Chaos braying and howling as they march forth, brave men of the Empire? Stand, listen, and behold as they jeer and taunt, and make obscene gestures at us much like witless greenskins would! They think us weak, and scarce worth fighting after their daemonic pets had already bloodied us in such a dishonourable, underhanded manner! Tell me, noble sons of Sigmar, Ulric, Taal, or what have you! Tell me! Shall we let this slight against our honour, our prowess in battle as warriors, stand unavenged?"
Thousands of angry voices exploded at once.
"We'll show those faithless bastards!"
"Fuck what the barbarians think! Fuck them!"
"Kill the heretics! KILL THEM ALL!"
Franz's mere action of holding up his hand was enough to silence the entire army. Without further ado, his imperial majesty alone began to speak once more.
"The heretics draw near, and we wait for them to come to us, hoping that they would impale themselves on our spears before they breach our shields! I'll have NONE of that now! Our gods demand the blood of our foes, and I DO NOT intend to keep them waiting! Steel yourselves, men... prepare your swords and look to your guns! This day, we will soak this forest red with Norscan blood! This day, we will write ourselves into songs and legends, and BATHE ourselves in GLORY!"
Emperor Franz raised Ghal Maraz in the air, where it started to glow and shine in holy light.
"This day, let it be known that we DEFIED the gods of darkness themselves! Let it be sung by all those safely at home that we, brave servants of Sigmar, had BANISHED the corruption of Chaos from Ostland this day, and FOREVERMORE!"
The men promptly erupted into wild, almost rabid shouting and cheering. They raised their weapons high and roared like animals driven into a frenzy.
Deathclaw let out a triumphant bloodroar and spread his magnificent wings. Emperor Franz was shouting now. "FOR THE COMET! FOR THE WARHAMMER! FOR THE EMPIRE! FOR SIGMAR!"
Back on the ground, Wolfhard knew he shouldn't be cheering with the rest of the men at the top of his lungs. A good templar of the Order conducted himself with discipline and the utmost decorum, but somehow, the way Franz spoke his words banished all his fears and made his blood boil in righteous fury. He was filled with an unquenchable desire to follow the emperor and burn all the foes that threatened his beloved nation. At that moment, he became almost as fervent as the half-naked flagellants next to him.
"FOR THE COMET! FOR THE WARHAMMER!" United in one voice, all men of the Empire shouted. "FOR THE EMPIRE! FOR SIGMAR!"
The emperor's griffon screeched and swooped in, toward the direction of the approaching Chaos horde. Wolfhard was one of the first to advance, following Franz and Deathclaw to battle screaming the name of his gods from his lips. Aside from Sigmar, Ulric and Taal, he heard the soldiers and knights beside and behind him calling out for Rhya, Myrmidia and Verena, and he even heard a few of them invoking the Lady of the Lake, but Wolfhard was too focused on the enemy in front of him to care about them all.
"Handgunners, form ranks!" He bellowed to his comrades, who did so immediately. "Steady... take aim!" He raised a hand, closed it into a fist and pulled it down. "OPEN FIRE!"
Wolfhard unleashed a volley from his repeater handgun on the first rank of Chaos troops. His shots, along with the rest of the handgunners acting on his command, ripped apart norsemen, banished daemons, unhorsed corrupted knights, destroyed trees and made enemy sorcerers cower behind the shields of their allies.
"Again! One more shot!" The witch hunter announced. "Make ready... take aim!" He timed his next command with the roar of the helblaster volley guns behind him. "ALL RANKS, FIRE!"
The second volley had a more pronounced effect: most of the first rank of Chaos warriors were swept away by a hail of shots, some had body parts blown off and even a few were outright decapitated, their bodies nought but chaff before the combined might of the handgunners and the helblasters. Still, the forces of the dark gods did not relent; they shoved aside the corpses of their dead comrades and continued advancing forth, their eyes seething with rage and bloodlust.
"Handgunners, withdraw behind the main battle line! Sergeants, take charge!" The witch hunter commanded, and the men quickly obeyed. He, on the other hand, stood behind, still reloading his weapon. By the time the halberdiers, spearmen and swordsmen passed by him, he charged forth along with them, repeater handgun raised and the hymn of battle singing in his veins.
"FOR THE EMPEROR!" He roared along with the loud blast his handgun generated.
The shot tore across a helmet-less Chaos warrior's face, but he still kept going. Wolfhard's second shot ripped a bloody trench across his scalp, making him clench his teeth in pain. The witch hunter's third and final shot landed on the warrior's closed mouth, obliterating his front teeth and tearing a hole at the back of his head. The heretic's lifeless body, spurred on by its gathered momentum, tumbled forward like a ragdoll before being trampled underfoot by its still-living comrades.
Acrid powder emitted by his repeater handgun stung Wolfhard's eyes, but he paid his pain no mind. The Empire and Chaos lines finally crossed steel, but the templar was unafraid. Another Norscan approached and raised his mace at Wolfhard, but he was unfazed. He merely spun his handgun's barrels with his free hand, pointed it at the foe, and held the trigger.
The Norscan howled as Wolfhard blasted him with five point-blank shots to the torso. When his gun clicked empty, the witch hunter slung it behind his shoulder, drew a pair of pistols from his coat and quickly unloaded them on a pair of nearby enemy warriors, killing both of them with precise shots to the head. Knowing that reloading in the middle of a hectic battle was to court an easily avoidable death, Wolfhard simply discarded his spent pistols, drew another pair, and used both guns to banish a charging pink horror.
When more foes marched forth to put an end to him, the witch hunter was quick to put them down with lightning-quick pistol shots to their vitals, and should they lack vitals, he simply emptied bullet after bullet on his foes until they dropped dead. For several minutes in the tempest of battle, state troopers and knights gaped in awe at the amount of bodies Wolfhard had dropped; he was a zeal-driven whirlwind of steel and unforgiving fire, ruthless and unrelenting in destroying heretics and daemons alike.
"BEWARE THE WIZARD!"
Wolfhard had just discarded a pistol when he heard one of his comrades shout. He turned his head and regarded an enemy warlock channelling the winds of Shyish. "By the Winds of Death, and by Morrslieb's wrathful gaze!" The warlock chanted, his Norscan-accented voice grating and harsh to the ears. "Your lives are mine to snuff out, Sigmarites! In the name of the Eagle!"
Volkmar's breath! Wolfhard frantically put his unused pistol back inside his coat and hurriedly drew his repeater handgun. He went down on a knee and stared down the gun's iron sights as the tried to draw a bead on the Tzeentchian warlock. Alas, by the time he found the time to unleash a couple of shots and riddle the death mage full of holes, the heretic had already casted a spell.
A black rupture in the fabric of reality materialised upon the battlefield, right in the middle of an Empire handgunner formation. The rupture emitted a horrid screeching sound before rapidly expanding into a giant orb and turning purple as it did so. Recognising the threat the orb posed, state troopers quickly tried to retreat to a safe distance. The orb, however, acted faster than most. Many of Franz's men silently died as their bodies touched the orb's edges; they could not even utter a sound before their whole forms were turned into hard, unsightly crystal formations, freezing them in place in the process of performing their last, panicked actions.
The battle continued with neither side gaining an advantage over the other. Halberdiers and spearmen kept Chaos warriors back while the handgunners and crossbowmen behind them took potshots on the enemy. Swordsmen charged in and filled gaps in the battle line whenever they opened, while skirmishers in the pistoliers and outriders harassed and poked the enemy's line. Heavy cavalry such as Franz's Reiksguard as well as demigryph-riding knights charged in whenever the skirmishers managed to open breaches in the enemy's defences, while Imperial battle mages tested their mettle against their corrupted counterparts, engulfing huge swathes of the battlefield in baleful sorcery. Meanwhile, flagellants and greatsword regiments recklessly waded into the fray, swinging their flails and giant blades, crushing heads and severing limbs and heroically killing scores upon scores of Chaos warriors while taking tremendous casualties in return.
"Hold fast!" Even from afar, Emperor Franz still could be heard shouting. "Prepare yourselves! A warherd approaches!"
Wolfhard was already running low on munitions, and the thought that he would have to face beastmen now made his heart sink.
"Do not despair!" It was Gelt shouting this time. Wolfhard could see him soaring above him on his pegasus, pointing his staff toward the distance. "I see the banners of Middenland over there! Graf Todbringer is coming to intercept the beastmen!"
The witch hunter's eyes widened. Elector Count Boris Todbringer's arrival would certainly tip the scales in the Empire's favour. Nevertheless, he cleared his thoughts and looked to his nearest foe. The Norscan berserker could be seen foaming at the mouth as he took a swing at Wolfhard, who shifted to the side and avoided the blow. The witch hunter surged forward and struck the side of the heretic's head with the stock of his gun, sending him hobbling back. Wolfhard then slung his weapon, drew a pair of pistols from his coat, and emptied both on the Norscan's chest and throat.
"AKASH SUR AKASH TARRH!" The mutant beastlord chief howled as the beastmen horde charged Franz's force.
"FOR MIDDENHEIM! FOR ULRIC!" Graf Todbringer bellowed in response as his own force moved to reinforce the emperor's men.
Just as the two new armies could clash, a large, ear-splitting explosion coming from the main Chaos force's rear flank obliterated a sizeable chunk of the forest and sent bits of charred wood flying everywhere. When the black powder smoke cleared, to everyone's surprise, a small force of heavily-armed dwarfs appeared. From the look of their sun-kissed complexions and surface-wandering equipment, they appeared to be rangers.
The leader of the unknown dwarfen force — a great-bearded, brown-maned ranger wielding a grudge-raker scattergun with a pair of ornate axes strapped to his back — smirked, raised his firearm to point in the air, and uttered a guttural battle cry as he blasted a round into the sky.
To Wolfhard's relief, the dwarfs quickly utilised the surprise and uncertainty they caused to attack the Chaos force's vulnerable rear flank, killing several of them with precise crossbow and handgun shots. The heretics, wedged between two attacking forces and cut off from their reinforcements by Graf Todbringer's force, started to waver and lose heart.
"Asvaldsson's staff! I must have it!" Wolfhard saw Supreme Patriarch Gelt swoop by with his pegasus, deeper into the guarded ranks of the enemy. He thought nothing of it since there were more pressing matters at hand, when Emperor Franz and Deathclaw suddenly surged past after the gold wizard.
The witch hunter parried an overhead blow from his Norscan foe with his longsword and used the loaded pistol in his free hand to shoot the heretic's chest. Wolfhard then brought his knee crashing against the Norscan's new gunshot wound, shoved him down on the ground, and plunged his steel into the man's heart. After prying his sword loose, Wolfhard made to intercept Franz and Gelt, when he heard a woman's voice calling for him.
"Hey!" Eloise moved up next to him on a battered destrier. The witch hunter grimaced at the state of his half-sister; her armour was dented, she sported new gashes on her face and arms, and her coat was slick with viscous, corrupted blood. "The supreme patriarch has gone mad! He disobeyed the emperor and went off to pursue Asvaldsson himself! Jump on, we must do what we can to help!" She offered him a hand.
Wolfhard was too tired to argue. He sheathed his sword, discarded the spent pistol and climbed on his sister's horse. After her brother had secured himself behind her, the witch huntress wasted no time pursuing the supreme patriarch's trail.
"Where in Sigmar's realm did these bloody dwarfs come from?" Eloise asked him as her warhorse cast aside or trampled over any heretics in the way. "I've half a mind to interrogate one after all this!"
"Just be grateful they're on our side, sister!" He responded with grit teeth.
After making their way through an entire battlefield, fighting their way through if necessary, the half-siblings eventually made it through a clearing in the woods, where the mangled and charred bodies of Chaos warriors lay by the dozens. Wolfhard and Eloise dismounted, drawing their weapons to bear. Wary of their grisly surroundings, the templars silently made their way across the bodies. Just when they were about to leave the area, Wolfhard heard the subtle shifting of armoured plates. Without warning Eloise, he whipped around, handgun on the foe.
Indeed, the hulking mountain of a man in black plates and chainmail seemed like a Chaos warrior at first glance, but the red wax seals and Morrite symbols pockmarking his armour and his cloak made out of bones and raven feathers betrayed his allegiance to the Empire as a Black Guard of Morr.
"Eloise, look. There's someone with us." Wolfhard tapped his half-sibling's arm before she could walk any further. Eloise seemed annoyed at first, but when she turned and saw the knight, a look of surprise and confusion crossed her face.
"Have you come to assist us, raven knight?" She asked, after some hesitation.
Of course he's come to assist us! What sort of inane question is that? Wolfhard had to put a hand over his mouth to keep himself from blurting out.
The Black Guard uttered nothing as expected of his kind, but he nodded nonetheless.
Eloise sighed and turned around. "Let's go, then. Before all is lost."
Wolfhard did not trust the Black Guard just yet, however. "You go, sir knight. I'll watch our backs."
The Black Guard uttered a muffled grunt and moved after Eloise. Wolfhard waited for a bit before following after the two of them, his gun pointed at the newcomer's back.
"You smell that?" Eloise, who led the way deeper into the woods, said.
"The corpses? Yes, I smell them." Wolfhard carefully walked over a tree's exposed root. He then skirted around the bisected body of a corrupted destrier.
The witch huntress turned to her shoulder to glare at him. "I wasn't talking about the damned corpses all around us, you idiot! It smells like bloody ozone around—"
There was a snap and the crackle of energy, then a stray bolt of blue lightning arced across the air and struck a tree near Eloise. The charred wood creaked and shuddered and tilted to its side, dangerously close to falling right on top of the witch huntress.
"Shallya's tears! ELOISE!" Wolfhard screamed. "GET CLEAR! NOW!"
Alas, the witch huntress was rendered blind and too dazed to notice her surroundings thanks to the lightning bolt exploding so close to her. The tree buckled again and finally fell.
Wolfhard grit his teeth and averted his eyes. After several seconds, his ears failed to hear the tree's impact on the ground. Mentally praying to Sigmar for his half-sister's life, the witch hunter snapped his eyes open and looked upon the scene in front of him.
"Grrgh!" The Black Guard of Morr was standing over Eloise, keeping the fallen tree from crushing the witch huntress by holding it up through sheer brute strength. The knight was shaking in his plates and seemed close to collapsing when he turned his helmed head to Wolfhard, wordlessly telling him to get moving.
Wolfhard quickly thanked Sigmar before rushing forth. He snatched Eloise by her shoulders and dragged her off to the side, letting her lean on a mossy boulder. After the templars had cleared off, the raven knight tossed the tree away, visibly grateful for having lost the weight on his shoulders. He then picked up his halberd from the ground and stood guard over the half-siblings.
"Eloise, can you hear me? Eloise!" The witch hunter shook the other templar. "Damn it, sister, wake up! We still have a job to do! Come on!"
"Urgh, stop shouting, for Sigmar's sake!" The witch huntress dazedly responded, though she seemed to be strong and cognisant enough to appear annoyed. "What just happened?"
Wolfhard scowled. He pointed to the fallen tree behind him with his thumb. "That bloody thing would've flattened you, if it weren't for our knight of Morr here."
All the annoyance seemed to go out of Eloise. She craned her head to better look up at the Black Guard standing over them. "I suppose... you have my thanks, sir knight."
The Black Guard nodded silently again. Unexpectedly, he reached out with his gauntleted hand, offering the witch huntress help to stand. Eloise, after a moment, took the hand.
"How very amusing." A disembodied voice declared, sending the three humans scrambling for their weapons. "Unfortunately, this mummer's play must soon come to an end! Slaanesh will be displeased, but I care little for the god of hedonists!"
Suddenly, a large group of Norscans appeared right in their midst, surrounding them from all sides. The three humans stood their ground as a minor sorcerer of Tzeentch appeared as the leader of this host, brandishing a staff that crackled in corrupted energies. Most notably, there were little feathery wings sprouting from his back.
"I'm giving you one chance to lay down your weapons and embrace my master, the true Everchosen of Chaos!" The sorcerer had a harsh, warbling voice. "My warriors surround you. One word from me, and they'll have you flayed and hung over these trees as a reminder to—"
"DEATH TO HERETICS!" Wolfhard spun the barrel, held the trigger, and emptied several shots on the heretic mage before anyone could make a move. The warriors of Chaos immediately charged the braced Imperials as their leader slowly succumbed to his gunshot wounds.
The emperor soared above the trees on his griffon, looking for signs as to where Gelt had flown off to. At last, when a bolt of blue lightning pierced the treeline and very nearly struck Deathclaw, Franz made the decision to land and search for the supreme patriarch on foot. After finding a clearing large enough to house a griffon, Franz disembarked and ordered Deathclaw to continue the search from the air.
"We will cover more ground that way, old friend," He said, stroking the griffon's head. "Be sure to come to me when you find something of note. Do you understand, Deathclaw?"
The great griffon screeched and bobbed his head up and down. He spread his wings and took flight immediately after, leaving the emperor by himself.
"Where are you, Gelt?" Franz muttered as his armoured feet took one step after another, deeper into the forest. He searched for more signs of fighting such as stray lightning bolts or streams of molten metal, and soon enough, a whinnying, riderless pegasus trotted past him before taking off into the air. Clutching Ghal Maraz tightly, Franz took off into a sprint, further and further into the shadowed woods.
Finally, after a few minutes of running, Franz came upon a grim sight. Trees singed with vile warpfire were everywhere, along with the stench of blood and ozone. A foreboding atmosphere pervaded the area, threatening to suffocate the emperor. With caution and a healthy amount of faith in Sigmar's protection, Franz advanced into the area.
"Wizard! Reveal yourself!" He called out. He cared not whether Gelt or Asvaldsson appeared. "I tire of this! Must I bring the entire Imperial State Army here?"
"That will not be necessary, Sigmarite." An ethereal voice responded from out of nowhere. Franz held up Ghal Maraz and scanned the area, looking for the voice's source. "You did not choose your strongest to be your supreme patriarch, I have noticed. The gold wizard is pathetic; weak-willed, predictable, greedy... most unworthy."
Franz had no patience for Asvaldsson's games. "Where is Gelt?" He shouted. "Show yourself, monster! Face me if you dare! Have I unmanned you enough to send you scurrying to the shadows before my approach?"
No response. Franz was prepared to go searching for the wizard, when footsteps from behind alerted him to a presence. He whirled around and stared down the foe... only to come upon Supreme Patriarch Gelt walking toward him... with his own golden sword poking out of his chest.
"Malefic..." He gasped. "...blasphemy..." The gold wizard collapsed on his knees.
Within an instant, Franz was near Gelt. He slung the supreme patriarch's arm over his shoulder and helped up him to sit, leaning on a tree behind him.
"I will not lie. This will hurt," The emperor warned as his hands closed around the hilt of the sword impaling Gelt. "Are you ready?"
"Go on," The gold wizard wheezed out. "Get it done with..."
Without further ado, Franz quickly pulled out the blade and tossed it away. Gelt audibly had to stifle a scream, but he did not react in any other way.
"You're not well enough to walk," The emperor said. He reached down his belt and unhooked a few flasks containing red fluids. "Here, use these to stop the blood from flowing too much. Stay here while I find and put an end to Asvaldsson."
"I'm well enough to fight," Gelt weakly protested. "I can..."
The wizard let his words trail off when the two men both heard shouting and explosions. Franz stood up and looked for threats all around the woods, but he did not find a single Chaos warrior. Bright muzzle flashes could be seen in the distance, however, signifying an Imperial or dwarf force engaged with a Norscan or mutant host.
Franz slowly turned around. Just a few paces in front of him lied Arnolf Asvaldsson, the sorcerer lord of Tzeentch. He used to be a man, but now, the trickster god of Chaos had mutated him in ways so grotesque, it was a wonder he still possessed the ability to speak and articulate. The closest thing he resembled was a man-shaped bird of prey in dark blue plate armour, carrying a jagged sword in one hand, and a Tzeentchian staff in the other.
"I have had a look at the battlefield we left behind, and I must say, I am most astonished at the boldness and tenacity of your troops. How unusual it must be that common soldiers impress me more than this piteous supreme patriarch of yours." Asvaldsson screeched, his beak twitching with every word out of his mouth. "Should I take no action, in a few moments, I am sure my host will be wiped out."
"In a few moments, you'd be dead by my hands, heretic." Franz snarled.
"Perhaps." The sorcerer lord bobbed his head up and down, much like a bird would. "However, should I succeed in obliterating you and your pet gold wizard this day, victory in the field will belong to me. I can feel that your subjects admire you, Sigmarite. They will not accept your death with grace. They will die with their hopes crushed and despair in their hearts. They will know the Empire is lost, and the Old World will be next."
The emperor looked down at Gelt. The supreme patriarch had gone out cold, but he was still clutching an empty health flask. Scowling, he looked back to the heretic.
"Then what are we waiting for?" He asked. "Come, wizard. Come and meet your end."
Asvaldsson let out a breathless, birdlike chuckle. "Yes. Let us begin." Without shifting from his neutral stance, he lifted his sword and pointed it at Franz.
With a cry of "For the Empire!", Karl Franz charged the sorcerer lord. He was halfway to his foe, when a bolt of lightning erupted from the tip of Asvaldsson's blade and struck the emperor by the breastplate, knocking him down on his knee. Asvaldsson lifted his staff and channelled another spell, and by the time Franz got back up on his feet, he found himself assailed by an entire six-daemon group of Tzeentchian pink horrors that emerged from a portal Asvaldsson had conjured next to him.
Confident in his abilities, Franz continued to charge. As he neared a horror, he smashed the daemon across the face with his warhammer, banishing it. He then evaded a doombolt heading his way before striking the vile thing with Ghal Maraz's pommel, causing it to whirl around, dazed. The four other daemons unleashed a hail of doombolts at the emperor, and he was quick to react by grabbing hold of the disoriented horror and holding it up as an impromptu shield to block the projectiles flung by its comrades. By the time his captive daemon exploded from too much punishment, Franz was already on the other horrors. With four crushing strikes, he banished each one back into Tzeentch's domain.
"Very impressive." Asvaldsson crooned after the emperor had purged the last of his daemons. "Such a skilled warrior deserves rewards. On your knees."
Franz had just enough time to look Asvaldsson's way before he was struck by another bolt of lightning. He managed to maintain his footing this time, but a third bolt managed to overpower the Silver Seal, preventing the artifact from fully protecting the emperor. Franz could not help but scream in pain as raw Tzeentchian energy coursed through him. He dropped to his knees as Ghal Maraz slipped from his spasming fingers.
The sorcerer lord of Tzeentch casually walked to the emperor's kneeling form. He looked down on his foe. "Astounding. You should not be able to sustain such power forcing itself into your body without mutating at the very least." He said, his voice remaining a monotone. "No matter. A bolt of change should soon rectify that."
Franz tried to reach for Ghal Maraz on the ground beside him, but his convulsing body would not respond the way he wanted it. Looming above him, Asvaldsson started to channel one final spell to put him down. The emperor silently called out to Sigmar, to give him the strength necessary to destroy this heretic and finally rid Ostland of Chaos once and for all. He called out to his god the same way he did as he lay wounded before the greenskin warlord, Vorbad Ironjaw. His prayers were sincere, and he hoped they would not be ignored.
Just as the Third Battle of Blackfire Pass, deliverance came to Franz at the very final moment, only not in the way he expected it. An arrow sailed from the shadows of the woods and impaled Alvarsson by the back of his neck, causing him to abruptly drop his spell and his weapons. Black, corrupted blood gushed out from the sorcerer lord's skewered throat, and his pathetic attempts to keep the fluids in by clutching at his neck did not help.
Figuring that Sigmar had just given him the opportunity to strike, Franz banished his weakness through sheer willpower alone. He reached down the Reikland Runefang's beautiful gromril hilt, and with one great tug, unsheathed the mastercrafted zweihander from its sheath. No longer hindered by the foul sorceries still clogging his bloodstream, Franz stood up. He towered over the sorcerer lord in his great height, he now realised. With hands that trembled with fury he reserved for heretics like Asvaldsson, Franz kicked the sorcerer lord's leg from under him, causing him to fall down and drop to his knees. Still, the sorcerer lord looked up at the emperor, defiance in his beady, black-irised eyes.
Emperor Franz roared as he brought the Runefang down and plunged it deep into Asvaldsson's shoulder, in a twisted mockery of a knighting. The sorcerer lord's feathery hands immediately went from his bleeding neck to the blade stuck into his flesh, the arrow lodged in his throat all but forgotten. Clenching his teeth together, Franz then pulled his blade away and once again, held it above his head, in preparation for the most decisive blow of all.
"FOR HELDENHAMMER!" The emperor swung the Reikland Runefang and struck Asvaldsson by the neck. Such was his strength and such was the sharpness of his dwarfen zweihander, the heavy-handed blow effortlessly swept the sorcerer lord's thick, mutated head clean off his shoulders. The fountain of tainted blood spurting from the grotesque stump he created splattered all over Emperor Franz, painting his armour in more shades of black and crimson than it already had.
Time seemed to slow down after that. A feeling of lightheadedness descended upon the emperor, making him weary all the sudden, as if all the adrenaline and bloodlust had just left him. Indeed, the colours of the forest seemed to drain away, leaving everything in shades of black and grey. Franz tried to move his arms, but they would not move. He tried to shift his entire body to survey his strange surroundings, but it would not respond to his commands.
Far ahead, into the distance, he could finally see the one who delivered the arrow to Asvaldsson's throat, now that the shadows acting as her veil had been dispelled. It was the wood elven waystalker — she who vowed to keep him safe come what may.
What is happening? he could only ask himself. Everything stood still; even Asvaldsson's head was still in the air, completely frozen in place. Nothing in his sight moved in any way, except for a faint shimmering at the edge of his vision. Soon, that shimmering grew closer and shone brighter and brighter, so much that his eyes stung at the sight of it. Not a moment too soon, Franz finally saw the source of the light that threatened to blind him when it quite literally sauntered into his line of sight.
It was the most beautiful maiden Franz had ever the ill-deserved pleasure of looking upon. She wore a white, hooded dress that did a poor job at concealing her sultry, curvaceous form. Her skin was the colour of cream, her eyes were as green as iridescent emeralds and her hair was long and silvery. There was an ornate horn hanging from a strap by her side, and she seemed to carry a glass filled with a clear, sparkling red fluid, presumably wine.
None of all this, however, interested Franz more than the long and pointed ears the maiden possessed.
"It is cold this time of the year, Karl Franz von Holswig-Schliesten." The elven creature declared with a warm, though quite mischievous smile. "Winter is coming, don't you think?"
With those ominous words and a wink, Emperor Franz found himself suddenly blinded by a bright flash of light. For what seemed like an eternity, he saw nothing but whiteness.
End of Prologue
Author's notes: Hello, everybody! My name is Georgiy, but you can call me by my name on other sites: Jora! To those who don't know, I'm not actually the guy who created this account I'm using to submit this story (I proofread his stuff! His English isn't very good, unfortunately). He's pretty busy with his work, and I know he is having technical problems due to not having access to a reliable typing device at the moment. Why am I using this account and not my own, you ask? Well, I don't have one as a matter of fact, and I'm too lazy. Besides, I think it's better to publish works under the name of an already established author. It will attract more readers that way!
Anyway, as for the story itself, I actually had plans for making something like this several years ago, but I did not feel too enthusiastic about Warhammer Fantasy back then, so I stuck with run-of-the-mill ASoIAF fanfiction (sorry, GRRM). However, when the End Times came and went, destroying the WHFB universe with it, I felt kinda bad. That was part of my childhood GW just destroyed, y'know? When games like Vermintide and Total War: WARHAMMER came out, I felt inspired to make something out of the Old World, then quickly have it transplanted smack-dab into a land with less war and a lot more politics and backstabbing. One could argue that Franz already had to deal with Game of Thrones-level courtroom intrigue while he was still consolidating his hold on the Imperial crown (not to mention the Tileans might have it worse), we can't really know for sure, what with the little lore released about how backroom politics worked in the Empire (I might be wrong about this, though. I haven't had a look at the lore in a long while).
Okay, that should be enough for today. Can you guess where Emperor Franz and his men would appear in the Known World? Most would probably like them to be in the Stark lands like what most crossovers do, but I think I'll go for something a bit different.
Here's the disclaimer: Warhammer is the property of Games Workshop. A Song of Ice and Fire is the property of George R. R. Martin.