If you're looking to read about the crossover itself, and have no interest in reading about a purely Warhammer Fantasy-flavoured prologue, then go ahead and skip to Chapter 2.
Thank you very much.
16th of Sigmarzeit, 2502 IC
It was the dead of a particularly dark night, in the rural countryside of the Imperial province of Stirland. The heavy winds shrieked like some feral beast all around them, while clouds of dead autumn leaves rustled and scattered before the approach of a dozen armed men on horseback, closely followed behind by more than double the amount of footslogging warriors.
Leading this expedition was a Sigmarite templar who went by the name of Hans. He was clad in the typical witch hunter field attire, such as the distinctive wide-brimmed hat over his head, the fortified plate cuirass clasped around his torso, and the heavy, weather-beaten longcoat worn over it. The only thing seperating him from most other witch hunters was that he had a habit of leaving not a single inch of his skin uncovered; he always covered his hands with reinforced gloves, and hid his face behind a beaked plague mask fastened to a brown cowl. The mask itself was black, and was modified to look like a raven's face in an obvious tribute to Morr.
Hans' modifications proved very necessary in his usual line of work, however. "Rotbane", his colleagues and superiors would call him, both in person and in professional correspondences. They knew full well just how indiscriminate and mercilessly efficient he was when it came to eradicating heretic covens dedicated to Nurgle. After all, when fighting the forces of the Lord of Pestilence himself, a single touch to the unprotected skin could mean a slow death in agony... or worse.
The witch hunter did not stop his horse to turn and regard the voice calling after him, nor did he acknowledge it with a call of his own. Those unfamiliar with him would be mistaken to think that he did not listen, however.
"Siegfriedhof is just ahead, mein Herr!" Scribe Bertrand Weidemann had to shout at the top of his old lungs just to be heard above the howling of the wind. His wrinkled hands trembled ever so slightly as they gripped a ragged map of the province. "We can find an inn there to rest and wait for the weather to clear out! Just turn to the right at the next crossroad!"
"I don't think that's a wise idea, sir! We should just keep going!" Sergeant Eckhard Specht, a state trooper from Reikland, interjected. The feather plume atop the soldier's flat cap flailed wildly as he spoke. "Our objective draws near! We can make it there come morning if we hurry!"
"The sergeant is right! It would do us little good if we dither from performing our task!" Adrien-Louis de Salignac, a disgraced Bretonnian lordling-turned-Imperial bounty hunter, clearly had trouble trying to mask his impatience. "Think of the prize waiting for us in Altdorf once we bag this bastard! Luitpold would shower us with riches! He'll make lords out of us!"
"I must object, mercenary! Has greed all but diminished your judgement to nothing? Our steeds need food and rest, and our supplies are running low!" Sieglinde von Pfitzner, an Imperial knight in service to the Knights of the Verdant Field and their patron goddess Myrmidia, pitched in. "We will be better prepared for battle on the morrow should we take the time to consolidate ourselves!"
"Frau Sieglinde, I respectfully disagree; Sigmar has already given us His blessing, we should see to our ultimate task as soon as we can!" Deinhardt Klüger, a newly-minted, overeager warrior priest of Sigmar, shouted in his usual nasally Ostlander accent. "Our men might be becoming weary, but I see that they thirst for battle against the undead — especially the flagellants! Not even an ambush from a host of von Carsteins can slow us down... not when the Heldenhammer is with us!"
"All this incessant chattering is pointless, don't the lot of you know?" Gerhard Feuerbach of Middenheim, a towering mercenary captain, sneered from atop his equally monstrous destrier. "Rotbane decides where his little crusade stays or goes, and chances are, we ain't stopping by an inn tonight. That right, templar?"
Hans did not deign to respond to the men in his retinue, for he already made up his mind long before they even left the city of Nuln.
Ever since he received approval from the Order to take a small army of foolhardy adventurers, deserters, mercenaries, and religious fanatics to Sylvania, Hans made a vow that he would stop at nothing until he had vanquished the unholy source of his nightmares and mental torments. Perhaps he could even redeem the disgraced name of his noble house to its former, untainted glory.
He raised his right hand from his steed's reins to briefly look at the golden signet ring adorning one of his gloved fingers. Emblazoned with the faded symbols of his once-respected bloodline, it was the only piece of jewellery the witch hunter bothered to wear on a regular basis. Looking at it strengthened his resolve and dispelled his doubts.
With a dismissive grunt, Hans took back his steed's reins and cracked them hard against the beast's skin, signalling it to pick up the pace. The vast majority of his men, though obviously dismayed, had no choice but to match his stride lest they be left behind.
The Imperials' journey from the edge of Stirland to the western end of Sylvania lasted all the way until dawn... but under the perpetually gloomy skies of the vampire-infested, former Empire province, one could hardly tell if the night had ever truly gone away.
"There it is!" Sergeant Specht exclaimed, pointing at the distant structure up ahead. "Men, make ready to dismount! Templar, should we—"
All of the sudden, Specht's body jerked backward before he was violently thrown from his saddle. The trooper flailed in the air for all of three seconds before his armored form hit the ground. When he finally stopped tumbling, Specht did not get up.
Hans' reaction was instantaneous. "Halt!" He shouted to his retinue, just as he reined in his overwrought steed. "Everyone, stop!"
The Imperials, in their exhaustion, took much longer than normal to respond. Von Pfitzner and de Salignac dismounted from their horses and drew their weapons, just as the marching flagellants, mercenaries, and state troops began to catch up.
"Klüger, take the Bretonnian and some of the soldiers. Go up and check on the sergeant, over there." Hans ordered, pointing at Specht's unmoving body some distance behind them. "Find out what happened to him. Everyone else, be ready."
"Aye, templar." The warrior priest took up the warhammer from one of the saddle-bags strapped his mount, took up a flickering lantern, and swung himself down, his greaves clanking audibly as they made contact with the blackened earth. "Alright, you lot! Follow me."
"I'm not paid enough crowns for this..." De Salignac griped as he drew a pistol with his free hand and fell in with Kĺüger and six others.
Hans quietly observed his men while they set off on his command. As they drew near to Specht's body, de Salignac bent down and placed both gloved hands over the unresponsive state sergeant. With a grunt, the bounty hunter flipped Specht over on his back.
What happened next was a blur. De Salignac and a few others recoiled at the sight, and Klüger yelped out an oath to Sigmar.
"Is that... a quarrel sticking out of his neck?" Hans had enough time to hear one of the mercenaries ask out loud before the very earth from under his horse erupted. The next thing he knew, he was knocked into the air and splattered thickly with blood.
"Alarm, ALARM!" The witch hunter could vaguely hear von Pfitzner shout out. "Beware! The dead are upon us!"
Hans was momentarily stunned upon hitting the ground, but he quickly scrambled back up to his feet, drawing his wave-bladed zweihänder from his back as he did so. His weapon, a Morr-blessed family heirloom dating back to Magnus the Pious' crusade against the Warriors of Chaos, gleamed as it was drawn from its scabbard, very subtly writhing in holy energy.
The witch hunter looked back to his mount and found it dead, impaled clean through the neck by an old spear that seemingly burst from the earth. Soon enough, the spear began to stir, and the thing holding it — a skeletal grave guard spearman animated by foul necromantic magic — crawled out from its resting place, menacingly bearing its weapon against the templar before it.
Hans sneered at his undead foe, just as more of its kind emerged from the soil to join it in battle against the other Imperials. The witch hunter held his ground until the grave guard made its move, lunging at him with its rusted spear. Hans easily dashed aside the predictable maneuver, and with one quick slash, parted the skeleton's weapon in two by the haft. Deprived of its weapon, the unliving warrior was easily dispatched with an overhead strike that cleaved it in two.
"Rise up and fight, you spineless halflings! FIGHT!" Hans turned and witnessed Captain Feuerbach, bashing undead skulls left and right with his morningstar and his buckler, often smashing his foes into bone splinters from his sheer strength alone. "For Ulric!"
The mercenary leader, accompanied by his own cadre of state troops and misfits, held their own for an admirable while before a hulking creature of the night came barrelling in out of the corrupted undergrowth, visibly salivating with rage and bloodlust.
It was a varghulf — once a proud noble of the Midnight Aristocracy, now nothing more than a feral, hulking bat-like monstrosity, a slave to its own thirst for the essence that sustains all mortals.
"Oh, by the fucking Grail!" De Salignac cursed upon seeing the beast so close to him. He immediately turned to run away, but the varghulf was deceptively quick for its massive size. It pounced on the bounty hunter's back and smashed him to the ground. De Salignac writhed and tried to escape from the creature's grasp, but his efforts proved in vain. The former lordling could do nothing but scream as the varghulf gruesomely ribboned him to pieces.
Hans planted his enchanted sword on the ground, and with his free hand, drew a pistol from his coat. He took aim on the varghulf's head while it feasted on de Salignac's mangled corpse, and after a second spent lining up a bead, he squeezed the trigger and fired a shot.
The varghulf screeched as Hans' shot pierced the back of its skull and obliterated one of its eyes on its way out through an eye socket. The creature reeled away from de Salignac, but only briefly. It turned back around and glared at the witch hunter with its remaining eye with murderous intent.
Hans knew he was in for the fight of his life. Hastily casting the spent firearm aside, the witch hunter took a step back and adopted a defensive fighting stance. The varghulf was now as silent as could be as it broke into a sprint and loped toward its prey on all fours, claws and bloodied fangs bared. Hans waited for the most opportune moment to swing his greatsword, and when he did so, he was rewarded with continued life as the varghulf hobbled back from the force of his blow, its gushing head very nearly split in two.
Despite the massive gash rent into its twisted face, the varghulf was far from defeated. It quickly recovered and closed the distance between it and Hans once again. The witch hunter, caught unprepared by the monster's unnatural agility and tolerance to pain, could do nothing but put up his sword and brace himself when his foe put all its weight into a crushing tackle against him.
Despite his pre-emptive move, Hans was nonetheless swept off his feet. He let out a pained grunt as his back crashed against a desiccated tree, causing his zweihänder to tumble out from his weakened grasp. Gasping with each breath, he slumped down, dazed and ears ringing.
The varghulf, sensing weakness in its prey, made to finish Hans off. It let out a dissonant roar before surging forth, tongue lolling from its open, razor-toothed maw.
The templar's death drew near, but unlike most men in his dire spot, he did not scream nor cower in fear. He reached inside his coat for a second pistol and held it downrange as the varghulf launched itself from the ground, intending to maul the witch hunter and feast on his corpse.
Hans pulled the trigger. His shot blew a chunk off the beast's jaw and sent it reeling, stunning it. By some stroke of luck, it was then that a humanoid profile encased in a suit of black plates emerged into view, holding a wicked poleaxe wreathed in crow feathers and made out of silver. By the light of the early morning sun, it was clear that this newcomer was one of the famed raven knights of Morr.
The knight took one look at the heavily-wounded varghulf looming over his fellow human before a guttural shout rang from his skull helm. Quivering with rage, he surged up to the varghulf from the side and plunged the spear-like projection on top of his weapon into the beast's left flank. Surprised at the interruption, the varghulf screeched and flapped its vestigial wings as it was pushed forth against a tree, pinned under the weight of the enraged Black Guard forcing it back.
Hans gingerly pulled himself back on his feet as he watched the newcomer retract his weapon and heave it up in the air, over the disoriented form of the varghulf. The monstrosity screeched again, more desperate this time, as its frenzied assailant began to cleave into its corrupted flesh again, and again, and again. Hans almost thought that the stranger in dark plates had the upper hand, but his experiences taught him better.
With a garbled shriek of defiance, the varghulf batted aside the newcomer's weapon, casting it out of sight. The raven knight had enough time to look surprised before the vampiric fiend lashed at him with its rending claws, knocking him away. The varghulf strode over to the Black Guard's prone body and made to finish him off, only to be interrupted again by a series of bright lights streaking quickly toward it.
Hans grit his teeth and shielded his eyes upon realising what was coming. The varghulf remained still and seemingly confused until it was buffetted by a storm of fiery projectiles, covering it in horrible burns.
As the varghulf staggered about and writhed in agony, a tattooed, coppery-haired man in the robes of the pyromancers of the Bright Order sauntered into view, smirking. The varghulf, already weakened by its mutitude of wounds, quickly succumbed to another barrage of flames from the pyromancer's hands. After so much punishment, finally, the beast fell over, dead at last.
"Good work with those flames, wizard!"
The witch hunter turned his masked head and was mildly surprised to see another of his Order jogging into sight, and this time, it was a fair-haired woman with a face half-shrouded by heavy scarves that obscured her mouth and neck. Her hands clasped an intricately-crafted repeating crossbow of a peculiar, distinctly foreign design, and by her hip hung a gilded rapier, which its owner had obviously spared no expense in its construction.
"Had you been a second late, Sir Cassaro here would've been torn asunder." The witch huntress said.
"Indeed," The pyromancer helped the downed Black Guard of Morr back up to his feet. "Are you alright, Tilean?" He asked the knight.
"Hmph." The raven knight grunted as his way of saying thanks. Drawing the longsword he had for a backup weapon, Sir Cassaro wasted little time charging back into the fray.
Hans bent down and retrieved his family's greatsword from the ground. He was about to return to battle with his men, when he was halted by his fellow witch hunter, whom had brazenly placed herself into his path.
"Whoa there, Herr Rotbane. Don't we deserve a little thanks for our timely arrival?" She asked, pulling down her scarves to reveal an upturned nose and a mouth curved into a confident smirk.
Hans frowned. "Danke, meine Frau," He gruffed in his muffled voice, not bothering to look at his colleague in the eyes. "Your assistance is noted, but I do believe I am able to fight my own battles. Did the Order send you here?"
"You could say that, sir." The witch huntress nodded, before pulling her scarves back up. "Let's talk after we put these things back under the ground, shall we?"
Hans was glad for that. Eyeing a nearby crumbling formation of grave guards and crypt ghouls, he once again took command of his retinue and had them drive the skeletons back, little by little. In the end, the dead had been put back to rest, while the living had lost thirteen men out of forty-two... at least as far as Hans' expeditionary band was concerned.
The witch hunter sighed as he beheld the carnage that laid before him. His retinue had hardly even reached their objective, and it already suffered so many losses. Such a thing did not bode well for the success of their Sylvanian endeavour.
"Now, I believe I owe the lot of you some answers," Hans turned to see his templar colleague approaching, flanked from both sides by silent-as-stone Black Guards of Morr. Behind them, the bright wizard from before dutifuly took to the task of incinerating the corpses of those killed in the skirmish. "I know you're not one for pleasantries and prolonged conversations, sir, so I'll go straight for the point."
She sighed, looking as though she was mustering the strength to say her next words. "Effective immediately, you are to cease all activity in Sylvania and return to our chapterhouse in Nuln. Sadly, you no longer have authorisation to continue on with your quest, Herr Rotbane."
Hans stared down his fellow witch hunter. "On whose authority am I being recalled?"
The witch huntress kept an even face, refusing to be intimidated by the faceless man. "Grandmaster Thaddeus Kre—"
"That snivelling, corrupted toad of a man? His authority? How many times do I have to tell that conniving arse-kisser that I now work in the interests of Emperor Luitpold himself?" Hans could barely restrain his fury from seeping into his muffled tone. He reached inside his coat and produced a neatly-folded letter, which was formerly sealed with wax. "Here, look, I even have His Imperial Majesty's authorisation papers with me. Let this be the last time I tell him that I will not leave this wretched province until—"
"Emperor Luitpold has been assassinated a week ago..." The other templar blurted out, causing Hans to stop mid-sentence and his grip on the letter to slacken. It slowly slipped out of his limp hand and was swept away by the wind. "...along with several high-ranking members of the Order, including most of the Supreme Council."
"What?" Was all Hans could utter, in his shock. "But... h-how?"
"I don't have the answer to that, I'm afraid. With the assistance of the Reiksguard and a few individuals from the Colleges of Magic, the Order is still trying to figure out who caused the explosion at the Great Temple." The witch huntress seemed reluctant to say. "We do, however, have reason to suspect it was a Chaos-aligned infiltrator within the emperor's court."
A heretic was bold enough to attack us at Altdorf? And at the heart of the Order, no less. Hans slowly took hold of himself. "If the emperor's dead, then... who was elected to succeed him? Was it Middenland? Wissenland? Out with it, woman."
She shook her head. "Neither of those two, surprisingly. It's young Prince Franz who ascended to take his slain father's place. Ostland and the Church of Sigmar tipped the scales in his favour."
Hans scoffed. Karl Franz was too young and too inexperienced to lead the Empire. What were the electors thinking? Clearly, Boris Todbringer was the better choice.
He forced himself to return to the present situation once more. "But what does this have to do with my presence here? Why in Sigmar's name am I being ordered to go back to Nuln?"
"So that you can be enlightened of your new duties and responsibilities as witch hunter captain, of course." The witch huntress explained, trying to put some cheer in her voice. "Captain Bertrand von Ludowinger was assigned to fill a certain, administrative gap in the Supreme Council's ranks, and Grandmaster Krebs wants you to take over von Ludowinger's office. Congratulations."
Hans was far from elated. "Hrmh. I've waited all my life for my request to take a militia to Sylvania be approved, and now Krebs wants to shuffle me out of his way by assigning me to take over a pencil-pusher's inconsequential work. Is this what you wanted to tell me?"
"W-what? No! That's... that's not—" The templar hesitated, clearly struggling to make a coherent response. "I'll have you know that Grandmaster Krebs values you tremendously! If not as a friend, or even a comrade, then as an associate!"
Hans snorted in disgust. "Were that the case, meine Frau, I'd be flagellating myself for having sunk so low as to associate myself with that scheming lickspittle." The witch hunter turned around, his fury and indignation beyond words.
"Sir Rotbane?" The witch huntress called out, her surprise obvious. "I... I suppose I'll meet you back at the chapterhouse, then?"
"No." Hans kept walking as he rapidly lost interest in the conversation. "Go back to Krebs and tell him I reject his "promotion", and his authority. The only way I'll leave Sylvania is through Vanhaldenschlosse, either as a changed man... or as a walking corpse."
"What? You can't just..."
"Begone!" Hans paid the other templar no more mind after that. He turned to his retinue and ordered them to keep moving onward. He won't stop now, now that his lifelong goal was within his reach.
The Sylvanian fortress had looked regal and formidable, once. After the arch-necromancer, Frederick van Hal, had the towering edifice constructed using undead labour a thousand years ago, it was said that it was fortified enough — both conventionally and magically — to withstand an invasion from both the emperor's forces to the west, and the dwarfs and greenskins from the south.
Now, it was a crumbling, long-abandoned ruin. Writhing in vampiric corruption and infested by all manner of malevolent beasts, undead monstrosities and heretical wizards, Vanhaldenschlosse was avoided at all costs by even the most foolish of adventurers mad or desperate enough to try and make their fortune in Sylvania.
Hans was no mere looter, however. He was a man who stood at the very last leg of the longest journey he had ever undertaken; a man who seethed with ill-tempered rage and purpose. At this point onward, Sigmar willing, he'd let nothing stand in his path, be they friend or foe.
"The flagellants, although exhausted, are ready to meet the end they so craved, templar." Deinhardt Klüger approached the witch hunter, shaking him out of his reverie. "Just say the word."
Hans needed little encouragement to send more eager men to their deaths. "Let's see them kill as many abominations as they can, priest. Cut them loose."
Like rabid dogs set upon their prey, the flagellants rushed into the ruins of Vanhaldenschlosse. Shouting war cries and screaming litanies, the fanatics quickly disappeared from sight. Hans was certain the next time he saw them, it would be as corpses.
"Prepare yourselves!" Von Pfitzner declared as she set her extra gear down, followed by her longsword, and her bow and quiver. "Get some rest, sharpen your steel and check your munitions! It will be our turn to enter the fortress soon."
"Unlike those poor bastards, lady knight, we intend to come back out of this place alive... and preferably sane enough to appreciate our new wealth." Captain Feuerbach said, sitting down on the ground with his men. "Though I wonder... now that dear old Luitpold is dead, who will pay us now?"
"You will be paid your crowns in due time, sellsword." Hans remained standing, staring intently into the ruins ahead. "If Prince— Emperor Franz would not agree to honour the deal his father made with the lot of you, then it falls to me to bring you your reward for services rendered."
"Hmph. Better you keep to your word then, Rotbane." Feuerbach took a swig out of his tankard. "Believe me, no one double-crosses the likes of me and gets away with the act, not even a templar."
Hans scoffed. "You are only human. You are frail. Greedy and weak-willed. Easily swayed into corruption and heresy. I doubt you'd stand out against the foes witch hunters regularly face, captain."
Feuerbach just chuckled at that. He opened his mouth and looked as though he was about to say more, when the thundering of warhorses silenced him and sent the rest of Hans' retinue springing into action, swords, spears, and handguns bared.
"Halt! Don't shoot!" A familiar voice was heard from the woods. "We come in peace!"
Hans inwardly groaned. He turned to his men and inclined his head to the side, wordlessly signalling them to stand down.
Within moments, around a half a dozen mounted figures appeared: four Black Guards of Morr, a bright wizard, and the same female templar from earlier. Hans took note of how their numbers dwindled from the last time he saw them.
"Hail, captain!" The witch huntress addressed Hans as her company neared.
"I gave you my answer, haven't I?" He frowned, glaring at his stubborn colleague as she dismounted. "I'm not coming back to Nuln until I'm finished here."
"I know, I know." The witch huntress put her gloved hands up placatingly. "You see, the thing is, I was given explicit orders not to leave Sylvania without you. The full extent of the blow to the Order's leadership was... much more destructive than I originally told you, and as it is, experienced templars such as yourself had just become a commodity to the lord protector."
Hans crossed his arms. The woman seemed dubious. "Am I really that needed back in Nuln? To lead in the stead of our slain superiors?"
He doubted he'd do any sort of leading, however. He figured he'd be lucky if Krebs alleviated his never-ending supply of paperwork to fill in as Captain von Ludowinger's replacement.
"At such tumultuous times as these... yes. Desperately, might I add." The witch huntress nodded. "The Celestial College predicts that Karl Franz's reign would be a trying time for the Empire, and right now, the emperor needs the Order in a capable state, preferably led by competent replacements to those killed alongside his father. But..."
She shrugged. "I already know none of what I just said meant as much to you as your continued presence here. If you truly do insist on carrying on with... with entering that," She gestured at the ruins of Vanhaldenschlosse. "And doing Sigmar-knows-what in there, then you leave me no choice but to ensure that you leave this place alive once you do find what you're looking for."
Hans arched a brow at that. "Well, if you're volunteering to aid me, then I won't refuse extra swords on my side." His voice took a lower, graver tone. "Do be warned that what I'm trying to achieve here will not be easy, by all means. I can guarantee you that death will be the least worrisome of fates should we fail here."
"Right..." She nodded, with some uncertainty. "I'm Ira, by the way. Irina Stanislavovna Koskova. It's a mouthful, I know. May I have the pleasure of knowing who you really are, mein Herr?"
Hans sighed as he reached up to undo the straps to his beaked mask. When he pulled it off and exposed himself to the fetid air of Sylvania, a frowning, partially-bandaged face marred with prominent battle-scars and a crooked, improperly-healed nose was revealed.
"I'm Hans." The witch hunter opened his mouth to say more, then quickly closed it. Gritting his teeth, he mouthed, "Just... it's just Hans."
Silence... then Koskova coughed, trying to mask her unease. With his noticeable cheek-bones, his coarse voice, and overall menacing visage, her colleague had the look of a hardened criminal... or a particularly unfortunate state trooper whom had been sent to fight in one too many wars. Indeed, his stormy grey eyes told tales of countless battles and an equal amount of heretics burnt at the stake by the end of each one.
"Well then, Herr Hauptmann Hans, what would you have us do now?"
"Don't call me that." The witch hunter gruffed and spared a glance at his tired men before turning back to his Order colleague. "Just stand guard for now. My men need rest, and I'd appreciate it if you, the wizard, and your knights kept watch over them for a couple of hours, at the very least."
Koskova shrugged. "Sure thing. I need a break from riding, anyhow."
Two full hours had passed since the flagellants embarked on their suicidal quest into Vanhaldenschlosse. None of the fanatics had ever returned to their comrades outside, and nobody expected them to. The allure of a death most glorious and violent would be too much for them to turn away. As of now, most of the Imperials were in the middle of a nap, with only Koskova and a few others remaining awake, tentatively guarding over their comrades and keeping an eye out for more skeletons and corrupted wildlife.
They would have easily slept through another peaceful hour, when they were suddenly jolted out of their rest by the sharp crack of a handgun discharging, followed by another, and another, and another.
Hans willed himself awake and pushed himself up to stand just in time to see Koskova and her sentries emptying their guns and crossbows into an incoming horde of shambling undead. Alarmingly, the zombies were all dressed in faded Averland colours and livery.
"Wake up! Take up a sword and stand to attention!" The witch huntress loaded a fresh quarrel into her weapon and speared another zombie's head with it. Beside her, the bright wizard let loose a stream of flames onto a clustered group of flanking undead. "We've got company!"
"Shallya's mercy, we're surrounded!" Scribe Weidemann exclaimed upon seeing just how many zombies were slowly encroaching on their position. The old man clutched some of his tomes to his chest, while his other, trembling hand gripped the hilt of an arming sword.
Hans strapped his mask back on. His finely-tuned senses could recognise vampiric sorceries at work. "Pack your gear up, men! We have to fall back into the ruins!"
"What? The ruins — have you gone mad?" Feuerbach bashed aside a zombie with his buckler, then crushed another's head with his morningstar. "Out of the frying pan and into the fire, don't you think, templar?!"
"Feel free to stay here and stave them off, sellsword!" Von Pfitzner picked up the essentials among her travelling gear before falling in with Hans and the others. "Between you and your men, you've enough flesh to keep these bastards feasting for an hour, at least!"
The retreat into Vanhaldenschlosse was a slow and exhausting endeavour, but thanks to Hans and Koskova's leadership, only two of their soldiers were dragged into the horde and eaten. Upon making their way to the fortress' fallen gates, Koskova's bright wizard companion directed his flames to the ground between the Imperials and the decaying tide of living dead, immolating those zombies caught in the area and providing a temporary barrier of magical fire to fend off the rest.
"You can't keep those flames burning forever, wizard." Koskova slumped against a wall, hands clutching her crossbow and breathing heavily. "We should keep moving. The sooner we find what we're looking for here, the sooner we can find an exit and leave Sylvania for good."
"Agreed." Hans nodded, turning to face the darkened interiors of the fortress ahead. "Be wary. Restless horrors and malicious contraptions lie in abundance here, in these ruins. Every step could mean death."
"Sigmar guides his flock, even in places where corruption is at its strongest," Klüger, ever the overzealous warrior priest, confidently strode up to the front of the group after lighting his latern.
"Eager to die today, aren't you, Sigmarite?" Feuerbach arched a brow as Klüger pushed past him.
The warrior priest turned around to face the mercenary, but kept walking. "Faith sustains where darkness congregates, Ulrican. I will lead the—"
There was a tiny click, and suddenly, Klüger was whisked away from sight, leaving behind the still-burning lantern he was carrying on the floor.
Most of the Imperials stood frozen on their spots, locked in fear and uncertainty. They could only watch as Hans carefully walked over to where Klüger had vanished, bent down and picked up his lantern, then used it to light the path ahead.
The sight that awaited them was enough to terrify one of the mercenaries into dropping her weapon in sheer shock. Up ahead, Klüger's lifeless body hung from the wall, along with three of the flagellants. Close inspection revealed that each of the unfortunate men were pinned up there by massive pikes through the chest.
"Volkmar's breath." Hans muttered an oath upon finding out that one of the dead flagellants above still twitched impotently, even as his entrails slowly slid downward. He will not forget the horrid sight any time soon.
Without taking a single step, the templar moved his lantern to the side, and sure enough, obscured by centuries of accumulating moss and dust and barely visible by lantern-light, was an ancient Imperial bolt thrower. From the looks of things, the siege engine was rigged to shoot anyone who'd be careless enough to step on the rusted pressure plate just a few metres in front of it.
"I'm getting too old for this..." Weidemann griped, hand still clutched to his chest.
Hans grimaced and turned to regard his unnerved men behind him. "Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer... as is blind faith. Unless someone else would like to step forward, I suggest you all follow my lead from now on."
"No objections from me, templar." Von Pfitzner shook her head.
"Go on ahead and lead the way for us, mate." Feuerbach tried to feign indifference and mask his fear.
Koskova remained silent, looking like she was still in shock at the warrior priest's abrupt end.
The rest of the men did not appear to object to Hans' command, despite all that happened. Nodding in grim satisfaction, without another word, the witch hunter turned and began to move further into the ruins.
Navigating the darkened interiors of Vanhaldenschlosse by torchlight was much more nerve-wracking than Hans originally figured. Despite all his years hunting monsters, putting Chaos-worshipping covens to the torch, and rooting out vampires disguised as Imperial citizenry, Hans still could not help but tense up at every little noise he heard, and the hairs on his body stood on their ends whenever it seemed to him that danger was inevitable. When monsters came running out of their hiding places and traps sprung against his company, Hans felt himself hesitate once or twice, costing the group more than a few lives.
The witch hunter was silently appalled at how badly this place seemed to affect him. It appeared as though the closer he was to his lifelong goal, the more he began to lose his grip. He was at the cusp of fulfilling his purpose... but did he truly aspire to be rid of the most important reason why he even bothered waking up every morning?
Koskova's shout from behind brought Hans back to the land of reality. Under his breath, he chided himself for thinking such things. Of course it was what he wanted; Hans would want nothing more than to put an end to the nightmares at long last, and live his life as a free man should.
"We should rest a while, for Herr Weidemann's sake, at least!" Koskova continued to shout. "Please. I don't think he can walk another step! His heart!"
In any other situation, Hans would not hesitate to care for the well-being of each of his soldiers. Scribe Weidemann served him faithfully ever since he joined the templar's retinue, and Hans would have seen to the old man's needs if he can. Now that his objective was within his grasp, however, Hans was a markedly different man from before, and it was only until much internal debate did he come to a decision.
"Mercenary, leave some of your men behind here." Hans ordered Captain Feuerbach. "Scribe Weidemann is not in a condition to keep up with us, and he needs protection while he waits for us to return. I trust you do not have any objections to that?"
Feuerbach did not try to hide his displeasure. "In case you haven't figured it out yet from the amount of bloody skeletons in the previous room that ambushed us, we're going to need all the men we can get by the end of this trip. Just leave this old bastard behind; he's done nothing but read his thrice-damned books, eat our rations, and slow us down all week long."
"Hold it right there, hireling!" Von Pfitzner stepped forth, bearing down on Feuerbach. "I always thought you were heartless, but I never figured you're not above leaving a frail old man behind to be killed... or worse!"
"He knew the risks when he volunteered to tag along instead of keeping to his library in Nuln where he belongs, ranger." Feuerbach scoffed. "We gave him every opportunity to back out, and he didn't. Whatever happens to him here is because of his own damned fau—"
The mercenary captain was cut short by a rough shove from the lady knight. The force of von Pfitzner's push combined with its unexpectedness proved enough to make Feuerbach lose his balance. He would have had fallen on his back had it not hit a wall.
Hans turned to von Pfitzner, a scolding, condescending mouthful already at the tip of his tongue, when something strange happened.
Feuerbach, clearly too furious for words judging by his snarling expression, moved his gauntleted hand to draw his morningstar, when the wall behind him suddenly gave way. Hans heard another clicking sound, followed by the distinctive snapping hiss of ancient magical seals powering up.
The witch hunter blanched, and his eyes widened in fear.
"TAKE COVER!" He had enough time to shout, just before a massive explosion bathed Feuerbach's area in flames. When the smoke cleared and his lungs could taste clean air again, Hans was met with the macabre sight of seven of his remaining men on the floor as charred corpses, with a few others suffering injuries. As for Feuerbach... bits and pieces of him lay strewn all around the place.
The worst had yet to come, however. The Imperials were still in the process of regrouping, when a dreadful howl echoed along the corridor. The ungodly noise continued for a disturbingly long moment, and indeed, it never seemed to stop completely. The message was clear: a horde of the unliving would soon come to throw themselves against their unwanted guests.
"We need to get out of here." Hans gruffed, adjusting his hat and brushing the ashes from his coat. He briefly looked down at Scribe Weidemann's untouched body and took note of how the old man clutched at his chest, even in death.
"Come on! This way!" He wasted no more time as he took off, deeper into the ruins.
Koskova, her black knights, and what little remained of his retinue had no choice but to follow after Hans. The Imperials braved more hidden traps and undead lying in wait, and many more lost their lives in the hours that followed. In the end, they were whittled down to nine men: von Pfitzner, Koskova, her bright wizard companion, two Black Guards of Morr, two mercenaries, one state trooper, and Hans himself.
"You've brought us deep into hell itself, Hauptmann," Koskova spoke up as they carefully strode through the haunted corridors. "I've lost a lot of good men..."
Von Pfitzner remained silent, clearly haunted by what had transpired thus far, and remorseful of her rash action earlier.
"As have I." Hans muttered back to Koskova in a dispassionate monotone. "But it is to be expected."
Koskova wrinkled her nose in poorly-concealed disgust. "You seem... strangely untroubled by this."
"The road we tread is paved with the blood of comrades and innocents, Koskova." Hans kept walking, his eyes searching for hidden dangers. "How you managed to reach your station without realising this fact is beyond me."
Koskova did not respond to that. Hans did not know whether she did so because she agreed with him or not, nor did he wish to. Nothing more was said until they reached a corridor containing dusty crates, broken vases, several suits of ancient ringmail and plate armour on display, and a rusty plate gauntlet sitting atop a pedestal. Further inspection of the corridor, however, revealed that it seemingly led to another wall.
"There's nothing here, mein Herr." Koskova examined her surroundings. "Yet another dead end. Best we turn back before we draw more attention."
Koskova signalled for her men to turn around, but stopped upon seeing Hans rooted in place, staring at the pedestal at the centre of the room. "Sir? What troubles you?"
"I can feel it, Koskova." Hans said, as though in a trance. "He's near... and he beckons us closer. Can't you hear him speak?"
"I... no, I can't." The witch huntress frowned. "Who... who are you talking about?"
Slowly, gently, Hans lifted his gloved hand and removed the golden signet ring from his finger. "Him." The witch hunter strode over to the pedestal, eyes fixed on the gauntlet on top of it. "The one behind it all."
After putting his ring around one of the fingers on the gauntlet, an audible hum started to emanate from the wall at the end of the corner. Hans stood back, and his company observed as the wall shifted this way and that, before being swallowed by the floor. Behind it, the hidden entrance to a secret corner of Vanhaldenschlosse was revealed. Somewhat unusually, it seemed that the entrance remained lined with empty suits of armour standing guard.
Koskova checked the bolts she had left in her quiver, eyeing the mock-knights with some suspicion. Her charge's mission draws to a close, but she had a feeling that this nightmare was yet to end. "What do you think lies beyond that hallway, Hauptmann?"
"Our tomb, if we're not careful." Hans brandished his zweihänder over his shoulder, steely determination adorning his grimacing countenance. "Follow me. The end awaits."
Thus did the Imperials march off to follow their leader once more, relieved that their journey would soon end, but still wary of threats. Their readiness would have been enough to save their lives had they been facing mundane foes that day, but alas, there was nothing mundane about the entity that made its lair deep within that concealed room they had to enter.
"Hm. I'm starting to feel cold, all the sudden." Von Pfitzner said out loud as the party marched onward. With her platemailed bulk, she tried not to knock over the suits of armour just to her sides.
"Yes... I feel as though I'm on a journey back to the old country." Koskova mused idly, her gaze becoming unfocused. "It's been a long time since I've been to Kislev."
"Quiet. This is not the time for foolish reminiscing." Hans chided his colleague. "You will learn to fear the cold; this means our quarry is near... and all too likely to be watching us right no—"
An absurdly strong gust of bone-chilling wind suddenly blew over the Imperials from behind, instantly extinguishing their torches and lanterns, consuming them in pitch-blackness.
"Aaah! Fucking bollocks!" One of the mercenaries exclaimed at the sudden darkness.
"Quiet! You'll draw the undead to us!" Koskova's voice hissed.
Hans was more concerned about the noisy shuffling of metal and chains he started hearing as soon as the lights went out. He fumbled for a matchbox in his coat. It was a pain trying to strike a match in total darkness, but he managed it, after a while.
With a flaming match between his fingers, Hans waved it around. He was greeted by the sight of one of his men being run through by a rusty bastard sword, held by one of the many previously-inanimate suits of armour now assailing his company.
Cursing an oath, the witch hunter tossed the match aside and inverted his greatsword, holding it by the blade with both gloved hands. When another of the hostile suits of armour approached him, spiked mace drawn and decaying shield held up, he took a swing at it, smashing his weapon's crossguard into the thing's shield. His blow was much more devastating than he envisioned it; the rotten shield had splintered at the force of his strike, and the animated suit holding it lost its gauntlet in the process.
With a snarl, Hans thrust out with his weapon, striking the construct by the helmet with his blade's pommel. The templar's blow was enough to shatter the rusty helm and neutralise his target, sending it crumbling down on the floor in a heap of discarded plates... but there stood another three to take its place.
"Form a circle! Don't let these tin cans reach you!" Koskova shouted to her men. To her side, her bright wizard retainer channelled a spell for a second before unleashing a wave of heat above everyone's heads, igniting the torch sconces mounted to the wall in the process and providing more than enough illumination.
Unfortunately, this also revealed the sheer immensity of the animated steel phalanx slowly encroaching upon the Imperials.
A mercenary bashed aside a walking suit with his buckler and neutralised another with one well-timed swing of his warhammer, only to catch a thrown axe to the head. One of Koskova's Black Guards shielded his comrade with his armoured body, but even Morrite obsidian platemail could not hold out against a dozen attacks from the front at once; the brave knight and his charge died together as they were systematically stabbed and hewn apart.
"We can't hold out against this tide!" Von Pfitzner let loose an arrow into a suit, reached for her quiver for another, but her hand came up empty. Throwing aside her bow, the knight unsheathed her longsword and hacked aside her attacker. "Go! Get away from here! I'll hold them off!"
Koskova kicked back a shambling suit of armour, then turned aside and riddled another with a quick repeater crossbow volley. "But to where?!"
"Hrgh!" Hans parried a crushing blow from a suit's longsword, visibly straining his arms as he did so. With one quick movement, however, he dislodged his blade and smashed its crossguard into his foe's helm, battering it. Turning to his side, he pointed deeper into the illuminated path. "Through here! Quickly!"
Koskova moved over to von Pfitzner and clasped her pauldron for a brief second before she turned to what's left of her men and Hans'. "Follow the captain! Move, move, move!"
The rush to supposed safety was paved with many more horrors awaiting those who passed them. Each step they took was paid for in blood and death, metre by bloody metre took its toll on the already depleted Imperial ranks, and by the time they reached a laboratory of some sort, only Hans, Koskova, her bright wizard companion, Sir Cassaro the Tilean raven knight, and the single state trooper remained alive.
"Seal the corridor with flames!" Koskova exclaimed. "Do it, magister!"
The bright wizard conjured up flaming glyphs in the air and channelled another spell, but a crossbow bolt to the chest interrupted him. The mage gasped, coughed up some blood, then started casting again, but another quarrel to the throat knocked him to the floor and silenced him for good.
"Guntram!" Koskova shouldered her crossbow and made to run to her retainer's body, but her path was suddenly blocked by more of the numberless suits of animated armour. "No..."
"Make a stand! Here, and now!" Hans shouted, grim and undaunted. He evaded a greatsword thrust and swiftly decapitated his attacker. "Make the end memorable! For the emperor! For Sigmar!"
Koskova shook her head forcefully. When she looked back up, a look of intense fury overtook her previously delicate features. "For Franz! For Sigmar!" The witch huntress echoed as she unleashed another barrage of steel-tipped quarrels on the enemy.
Breathing heavily through his helm, Sir Cassaro pulled out the rusty broadsword sticking out of a gap between his plates with one swift motion. Summoning his last reserves of strength and rage for the unholy, the Black Guard broke his oath of silence and bellowed a guttural cry of, "MORR!" before hefting his poleaxe and barrelling into a nearby phalanx of animated armour.
The lone state trooper, the only man in Hans' retinue still accounted for, wiped the sweat and blood from his face and held his spear downrange, teeth bared into a snarl. More of the suits came for him... but he was ready.
The four of them continued to fight despite the odds, their final stand managing to last much longer than it should have, were it not for their utter dedication to taking down as many of their unnatural foes as they could.
Still, in the end, not even their zeal and sheer desperation could grant them victory from the jaws of defeat, as more and more of the animated suits of armour marched forth to replace the ones vanquished by the Imperials.
Hans could only watch from the side as Sir Cassaro was impaled and slashed at several times in quick succession by spears and halberds, the battered raven knight crumbling to the floor soon after.
Behind Cassaro, the state trooper took one last thrust of his spear at his foe before dropping to a knee, gasping and utterly exhausted. All it took was a single hit to the helmet with a mace to drop him.
As for Koskova, she had run out of bolts long ago, and had been forced to resort to her rapier. Unfortunately for her, a duelist's weapon was not the optimal tool against multiple foes, and she was easily disarmed and subdued in short order.
Scowling, the witch hunter sidestepped yet another strike from one of his attackers and dropped down to the floor just in time to avoid a hail of crossbow bolts heading his way. He lashed out with his zweihänder as he quickly rose up, cleaving the suit in front of him in half. With a contemptuous snarl, he kicked the disabled suit back, knocking both halves of it down.
"Come!" Severely wounded and exhausted but unwilling to surrender to his fate, Hans raised his fist toward the advancing phalanx of walking armour. "COME! Vanquish me! Strike me down! I haven't all morning!"
A wave of cold passed right through Hans, chilling him to his very core. Hissing through clenched teeth, he dropped to his knees, feeling as though his own soul had just left his body.
"Cease thy struggling. Hast thou not endured enough punishment? Witnessed enough pointless death?" The disembodied voice continued, in a voice that's all too familiar to Hans. "Thee wouldst've been dead long before thou hast breached this estate's inner sanctum, were it mine own will."
"Frederick..." Fighting through the cold, Hans reached to undo the straps on his mask. "...Frederick van Hal, is it?"
The instant his mask slipped from his face, Hans saw him. An apparition of an old, morose-looking man dressed in dark flowing robes stood before the witch hunter, holding a gnarled shepherd's crook in one hand, and tucking a spectral tome inscribed with the words, "LIBER MORTIS" in the other.
"Hmmh." The spirit seemed to nod, the barest hint of a smile gracing his lips. "Now mine eyes doth see the truth — mine own blood courses within thy veins, kinsman. Pray tell, then, dost thou know of the reason why I have sought to guide ye here, within the ancestral halls of Vanhaldenschlosse, the Fortress of the Damned?"
"Guide?" Hans let out a derisive bark of laughter. "You haunted my dreams with visions of this evil place ever since I was a child, necromancer!" The witch hunter bared his teeth in his rage, glaring daggers at his ancestor's ghost. "You shamed and dishonoured your lineage by cavorting with that vampiric wretch — von Carstein! And even now, after a thousand years following your well-deserved demise, the family you left behind had to dedicate itself to redeeming the name of the House you've so callously tainted with your heresies!"
With no small amount of effort, Hans clawed his way back to his feet, blessed greatsword in his quivering grasp. "I couldn't care less as to why you wanted me here, blasphemer. I journeyed here and sacrificed my entire retinue with the express purpose of vanquishing you once and for all, and by Sigmar, I'll see you sent straight to Morr himself!"
Van Hal's spirit appeared displeased, slowly shaking his head. "Very well, then. Thou hast given me no other course of action..."
"Begone, fiend!" Consumed by fury and righteous zeal, Hans took a swipe at van Hal, only for the spectre to dissipate before his blade. The suits immediately took up their arms and began to advance threateningly against the witch hunter once more, but he did not falter in the face of death.
Hans fought on, to the best of his considerable, yet strained abilities. Many of the suits lay in unmoving pieces before his feet after a while, but exhaustion and his multitude of wounds eventually took their toll on him. Sent reeling by a shield bash, Hans couldn't muster the strength to defend himself from a spear thrust that came from behind, impaling him clean through his body.
"Gah! Ugh..." Even a seasoned witch hunter such as himself couldn't withstand the pain he was experiencing. Gasping, Hans was forced to his knees again with a single downward tug of the spear lodged into his body, his blade all but forgotten on the floor next to him.
"Do know that I doth not wish to inflict undue suffering upon thee, mine kinsman." Van Hal's spirit appeared again, leisurely sauntering into Hans' sight. "I only need thine cooperation... for what cometh next."
Two of the suits marched up next to Hans and held him down, preventing him from trying to move. In response, Hans spat at his ancestor in a final, defiant gesture. Van Hal scowled, and wasted no time surging up to his fleshbound descendant, his spectral form dissipating into the witch hunter's covered head.
Before he could even feel its effects take hold, Hans' templar training already made him aware of what was about to happen. It started faint at first, but van Hal's attempt at dominating his mind immediately increased in intensity, forcefully seeking to overwhelm his mental defences. The world around him began to lose colour, and before long, all he could hear was van Hal's voice, chanting incantations in a daemonic tongue.
"You... c-cannot... do this..." Hans clutched at his temples, even as his unliving captors tried to hold him down.
Thine master compels thee, child, the necromancer's voice rang, a mere whisper compared to the crushing strain he was inflicting. Submit. Cease thine fruitless resistance. I shall live and breathe once more... the glory of House van Hal commandeth it."
Hans felt his will slowly crumble. In moments, he knew his own consciousness would be snuffed out, replaced by an arch-necromancer bent on commiting more unspeakable acts of heresy.
"The Empire... endures..." He croaked out, slowly reaching for his mask on the floor nearby. "You will not... find us wanting..." Against all odds, he succeeded in reclaiming it.
The Empire? Van Hal's cruel laughter echoed in Hans' fading mind. Ye delude thyself, kinsman. I no longer possess any interest in Sigmar's petty realm... not after I found a way... to pierce the veil of reality itself...
"What is it..." Hans felt compelled to rise up to his feet, and after a bried internal struggle, he did so. It won't be long before van Hal could begin taking total control of his movements. "...that you intend?"
To start anew elsewhere, Van Hal answered. To finish what I failed to accomplish in the Old World. In a way, it is a pity — thine hands shall be the instruments I will use to carve an empire, and thine eyes shall soon witness the fruits of mine labour... but alas, I shan't say the same for thine immortal soul.
Hans bit his lip, sinking his teeth into the tender flesh until it began to bleed.
The incantation is well-nigh finished, child, Van Hal's soothing, paternal voice whispered. Thine end draws near for thee. Rejoice... thy duty to Sigmar shall soon be over, and thy suffering will be soon rewarded with blessed oblivion. Speak these words... and bring us to our salvation...
For the first time, Hans could see the damned souls inhabiting the empty suits of armour before him, their faces twisted in eternal agony. The end approaches... and no matter how much he struggled, van Hal's grip on his mind remained ironclad. "Do... what you must..."
It was over. There was nothing that can be done. Hans could feel van Hal's mounting elation as his soul withered away. In moments, the witch hunter was repeating after every heretical word the wraith possessing him had whispered into his mind, his voice growing louder and less hesitant as van Hal gained more and more control.
The walls around Hans began to shift, and the floor beneath him quaked and vibrated as he chanted words of power. The air itself seemed to thicken, almost enough to suffocate.
A dagger flew through the air and lodged itself into Hans' flesh, staggering him. As blood spilled from his new wound and soaked his slashed doublet undershirt, a fresh wave of pain jolted Hans from his stupor. In his mind, he could feel van Hal's grip on him slacken, momentarily distracted.
The witch hunter quickly chose to seize this opportunity. Before his ancestor's ghost could regain complete control of him again, Hans pushed his mask into his own face and tilted his head back, letting the myriad of powerful-smelling herbs and chemicals stored at the tip of the mask's beak wash over him.
The strong odours mixed together and almost instantly overwhelmed his senses. The last thing he saw before losing consciousness was the floor rapidly approaching.
Author's Notes: Oh, boy. Here we go.
This story began life around a year ago as (obviously) a Darkest Dungeon story, and is actually one of my first attempts at writing fanfiction. As I was proofreading a story for another writer in this site and mucking about aimlessly on my computer, I accidentally stumbled upon the Word document containing this story. I remember abandoning it because of my studies, and eventually, my curiosity got the better of me. I opened the document and read a most unsettling passage...
Just kidding. Well, mostly kidding. The story was rife with grammatical errors and overly flowery sentences that made little sense. After reading an article on WHFRP's upcoming fourth edition, I was inspired to write this story you just read. I just modifed the original Darkest Dungeon story's paragraphs a little, cleaned it a lot, added a newer, slightly more grimdark setting, wrote in new fodder (characters), gave everything a fantasy Holy Roman Empire flavour, and voila! New story.
Expect updates to be a bit sporadic, however. My schedule is always busy, and I have other stories to mind. Not to worry, three or four other chapters are already written down, but I'll wait a few days before releasing them one by one, just to keep an eye out for errors and other issues.
Well, there you have it. I'm off to continue writing where I left off for the other story I'm writing. Thanks for hearing me out, and have a good day/night.