The silence was the worst part.
The street was strewn with bodies, lying discarded where they had died. Thick, viscous blood was splashed across the cobbles, gleaming black in the darkness, and severed limbs and heads gleamed wetly in the crimson puddles. And not a sound was to be heard.
Wilhelm pulled the brim of his wide hat down, keeping one hand curled tightly around the hilt of his sword as we walked down the street. He didn't bother trying to avoid the blood, and soon his heavy boots were sodden with the cold stickiness of it, squelching softly with each step.
His long, leather coat billowed out behind him as he walked, his eyes searching the dozens of corpses. They were only commoners, filth dressed in shredded rags. Doubtless every one of them had been hiding something; from simple unhappiness with their lot in life to the heresy of the witch or the mutant. Their deaths were of no importance.
As he stepped over their mutilated bodies, Wilhelm felt something in his heart for them. They had still been human, citizens of the Empire, even in their poverty. They were still people, if only just.
And whatever had killed them was still out there.
He surveyed the building to either side of the street. They were small wooden constructions, cramped together with no space between them. Their roofs - those that still stood - were tall and triangular, tiled in slate. Sections of wall had been splintered and snapped by some unknown force, the thick wooden boards broken like twigs and thrown across the street.
The street ended in a T-shaped split, where it met the village hall. The large, boxy hall had been burned, at least partially, and the front wall was almost gone. What little he could see of its interior had been reduced to ashes and wreckage. The roof was intact, and darkness swallowed everything beyond a few feet from the smashed walls.
Wilhelm peered inside as he approached, trying to see if there was any clue as to what had caused all this destruction within. And then he stopped dead, fingers clenching around his sword hilt. Blood pooled around his feet.
There were eyes in the darkness.
Wilhelm drew his sword slowly, and stalked towards the hall. With his free hand he reached under his coat and brought out his small handbow. The miniature crossbow fit in his palm easily, and could readily be concealed.
"In the name of Sigmar," he whispered as he drew closer and closer to the largest of the holes in the hall's front wall. His eyes were locked to the blackness within, where he had seen the telltale gleam.
And then a shape burst from the hall. Surrounded by whipping rags, it ran straight for Wilhelm, babbling and crying incomprehensibly. The Witch Hunter stopped, raised his handbow, and sighted on the wretch.
A survivor, it seemed. Seeing Wilhelm's handbow aimed at him, the peasant stopped, faltering and falling roughly to his knees. "Please, don't kill me sir!" he pleaded. "I'm not one of- one of them, I swear!"
Wilhelm didn't move. "What is your name, filth?" he said in a harsh voice. Sometimes, he hated this; the harshness, never being able to trust anyone, but tonight, with everything else he had seen in this accursed village, he meant it.
"M- Matthias Fortet, lord," stammered the man. "I've not done anything wrong, I swear! By His holy name, I swear it!"
"How did you survive where these others did not?"
"I… I hid. In the hall. That- that thing that killed the rest, it didn't find me. I don't know why. Please, you have to believe me."
"I am Wilhelm Koenseldt, Imperial Witch Hunter. I do not have to believe anyone." Wilhelm stared the man – Matthias – in the eyes as he spoke. "You hid. You hid while everyone around you was slaughtered. You placed your own worthless life ahead of the deaths of the enemies of the Empire. You are a coward and a traitor."
Matthias' eyes widened, and he scrabbled backwards. "N-no! Please! I didn't-"
Wilhelm pulled the trigger. The small bolt darted from the handbow with a snap and buried itself in Matthias' left eyes socket. His head snapped round with a sickening wet thump-crack, and the peasant fell dead to the cobbles. What remained of his head slowly oozed blood and brain-matter onto the street, mixing with that of the other corpses.
Three hollow claps echoed loudly around the now-silent street. Wilhelm stared around the street, hunting for the source of the sound as he fitted another bolt to his handbow. A tall, robed man materialised from the shadows inside the hall, walking slowly towards Wilhelm. His gnarled hands held a glowing ruby, its depths flaring with swirling ethereal patterns.
"Very well done, Witch Hunter," said the man as he approached. "Really, I couldn't have done it better myself. The way you kill so easily could put even the fiercest cultist to shame."
Wilhelm had the handbow reloaded as soon as the man finished speaking, and aimed it squarely at his heart. "Silence, heretic," he spat. "Prepare to face holy justice for the crimes you have committed here." His finger tightened on the trigger.
"Oh, it wasn't I who did this," said the man, gesturing with one arm at the bloody corpses. He seemed completely ignorant of the weapon trained on him. "Do you honestly think I could kill this many people? I don't even have a sword."
"You have that," said Wilhelm. "That gem. A Chaos-wrought artefact of power."
"This?" said the man, lifting the gem slightly. "Oh, no. I don't deny that it is a powerful artefact, but it is hardly Chaos-wrought. This, I enchanted myself. It serves a very specific purpose, you see."
What purpose?" said Wilhelm, narrowing his eyes.
The man smiled slowly. "To summon a daemon, of course."
Wilhelm sneered. "Daemons cannot manifest outside of the Wastes, heretic. You cannot succeed."
"Oh, not normally they can't, no. That's why I needed this artefact. And you see, unfortunately for you, I have already succeeded. That's why everyone here is dead."
A shadow fell across Wilhelm, somehow darker than the night itself. Adrenaline coursed through him, and he leapt to the side, almost fast enough to avoid the brutal ether-forged blade that hacked down towards him with preternatural speed.
Almost fast enough. The blade smashed into his left ankle as he dove, and severed through muscle and bone with equal ease. Agony smothered Wilhelm, and he crashed to the floor in a heap. Sparking pain seared his ankle as his blood pumped from the ragged wound. His booted left foot lay a yard away from his leg, beside the head of the peasant Wilhelm had shot. Darkness took him.
And then he woke, to flaring, burning pain and paralysing shock. Gritting his teeth, he forced his eyes open. He could feel his lifeblood pumping from his ankle where his foot used to be, and already the pain had started to fade, along with all other sensation.
The man stood above him. "Not fast enough, my dear Witch Hunter. Wilhelm, did you say your name was? No matter. You'll be dead soon." The man looked over his shoulder, at the twisted, hulking shadow that lurked at the edge of Wilhelm's vision. The daemon.
The man turned back to Wilhelm, a small smile on his lips once more. "But do not fear. Death is never the end. And for you, it is only the beginning."
The man thrust the gem at Wilhelm, and then oblivion overcame him.