Authors: Sandy Mitchell - (ebook by Undead)
This is a dark age, a bloody age, an age of daemons and of
sorcery. It is an age of battle and death, and of the world’s ending. Amidst all
of the fire, flame and fury it is a time, too, of mighty heroes, of bold deeds
and great courage.
At the heart of the Old World sprawls the Empire, the largest
and most powerful of the human realms. Known for its engineers, sorcerers,
traders and soldiers, it is a land of great mountains, mighty rivers, dark
forests and vast cities. And from his throne in Altdorf reigns the Emperor
Karl-Franz, sacred descendant of the founder of these lands, Sigmar, and wielder
of his magical warhammer.
But these are far from civilised times. Across the length and
breadth of the Old World, from the knightly palaces of Bretonnia to ice-bound
Kislev in the far north, come rumblings of war. In the towering World’s Edge
Mountains, the orc tribes are gathering for another assault. Bandits and
renegades harry the wild southern lands of the Border Princes. There are rumours
of rat-things, the skaven, emerging from the sewers and swamps across the land.
And from the northern wildernesses there is the ever-present threat of Chaos, of
daemons and beastmen corrupted by the foul powers of the Dark Gods. As the time
of battle draws ever near, the Empire needs heroes like never before.
Rudi directed his stumbling footsteps away from the blazing
ruins of the shantytown on the mudflats, the leaping flames behind the two
fugitives seeming to turn the snowflakes flurrying around them into wisps of
floating gold. Despite the way they blurred his vision, he found himself
grateful for the presence of the drifting motes of ice. The cold they brought
was intense, all the more so after the almost unbearable heat they’d so recently
been exposed to, and the discomfort helped to keep him focused, and stop his
mind from reeling under the strain of attempting to understand the events of the
last few hours.
He glanced across at Hanna, who was still keeping pace with
him despite the exhaustion that made her sway with every step. The price of the
wild burst of uncontrolled magic, which had consumed the strange settlement of
mutants and renegades, still blazed behind them.
“Are you all right?” he asked, realising how stupid the
question was even as he asked it, but Hanna simply nodded.
“I’ll live,” she said grimly.
“We both will,” Rudi assured her, sweeping his gaze across
the ruins surrounding them, and adjusting his grip on the sword he hadn’t
bothered to sheath. The Doodkanal, he knew from personal experience, was no
place to seem weak. Too many desperate and depraved individuals eked out a
marginal existence there, and human predators lurked in every shadow. To his
unspoken relief, however, he could detect none of the signs of stealthy movement
which might betray the presence of any of the local denizens. No doubt the
conflagration in the distance had them all spooked enough to stay well clear of
the area, or the biting cold had driven them to seek whatever shelter they could
find here, in the most derelict corner of Marienburg.
Rudi grinned, without humour. Anonymous footpads were the
least of their worries. Gerhard and his band of mercenaries were no doubt still
close at hand, although whether the witch hunter and his associates were in any
fit state to fight after the battle they’d just been through was a debatable
point. Rudi shook his head, dismissing the thought. He had too much respect for
their martial abilities to dismiss them as a threat, despite the battering
they’d taken. Besides, Krieger’s sellswords were implacable foes on their own
account, not just out of loyalty to the man who was paying them. At least Alwyn
wouldn’t be using her magic again this soon.
That brought his whirling thoughts back to Greta Reifenstahl.
The witch had vanished again, as abruptly as she’d appeared to save them from
the madman he’d once thought his friend. Despite Hanna’s delight at discovering
that her mother was still alive, Rudi felt a tremor of unease as he considered
the sorceress’ words to him:
“The fool was right about one thing, anyway.
You do have a destiny.”
She clearly knew something of his origins, and the
secret he’d hoped to uncover from Magnus von Blackenburg. Indeed, it now looked
as if she’d been trying to protect him from the merchant, and the bizarre cult
of disease and decay that he’d led, ever since his arrival in Marienburg.
Equally clearly, she’d been touched by Chaos in some way herself; the horns on
her forehead made that all too obvious.
In spite of himself he glanced across at Hanna, still
plodding determinedly on at his shoulder, wondering for a brief, guilty instant
if the taint her mother bore had somehow been passed on to her daughter, but
that was ridiculous. After all they’d been through together, if he couldn’t
trust Hanna, he couldn’t trust anyone.
“Wait,” he whispered, as they reached the mouth of an
alleyway he recognised. Whirling snowflakes flickered against his face, the
cobbles beneath his feet already slick with the first powdering of white. No
footprints were visible apart from his and Hanna’s, but that didn’t mean much.
Torches were flaring in the distance, and thin lines of light were visible
around the shutters of some of the houses surrounding them. They’d already
reached the more habitable margins of the Doodkanal, and a few more steps would
lead them into the bustling streets of the Winkelmarkt.
He hesitated, trying to assess the risks. On the one hand, he
knew almost every inch of that ward, as a result of having patrolled it for
several months while working as a member of the city watch. He knew every
bolthole, and every patch of concealing shadow that might help them to slip
through unobserved. On the other hand, so did his erstwhile colleagues, who
would undoubtedly be searching for both of them since he’d helped Hanna escape
from the watch house earlier that evening.
“What’s the matter?” Hanna asked, her face pinched in the
diffuse illumination, huddling deeper inside the overlarge travelling cloak that
she’d taken from the captain of the soldiers on the moors. She was shivering and
not just from the cold. She’d been severely debilitated by the effects of
Gerhard’s magic-nullifying talisman, which had been slowly sucking the life out
of her ever since the fugitives had arrived in Marienburg, and the torrent of
mystical energy that had flooded through her following its removal had taken its
own toll. Clearly she couldn’t stand much more of this strength-sapping chill.
“Just trying to work out the best route to the Suiddock,”
Rudi told her, shading the truth a little. Dawn couldn’t be far off, and the
was due to sail at first light. If they missed her, and he
couldn’t envisage Shenk delaying the departure of his vessel on their account,
their last hope of escaping Marienburg would be gone. There simply wasn’t time
to take a more circuitous route.
“Don’t take too long,” Hanna said, her teeth chattering,
clearly having come to the same conclusion.
There was nothing else for it. Putting away the sword, which
would have attracted too much attention in the populated streets, he offered the
girl his other arm. He half expected her to spurn it, but Hanna was too far gone
to stand on her dignity and took it gratefully, leaning against him for support.
Once again, Rudi was astonished at how light she felt, but concealed his concern
as best he could, angling his body to shield her from the wind as much as
Luck seemed to be with them at first. As they slipped into
the streets of the Winkelmarkt, Rudi’s ears were assailed by the familiar sounds
of the early risers going about their business, mingling with those of the last
die-hard revellers lurching back to their beds. Shopkeepers were stirring,
preparing their wares, and a few enterprising peddlers were firing up braziers
in anticipation of doing good business with hot snacks to help keep out the
cold. Though the streets were still comparatively empty, they were crowded
enough to hold out the hope of concealment, as they blended into the throng of
bustling people going about their everyday concerns.
Spotting a discarded wine bottle in the gutter, Rudi scooped
it up, hoping that anyone noticing their dishevelled appearance, and Hanna’s
unsteady gait, would draw the obvious conclusion and dismiss them from their
minds without looking too closely.
“Rudi?” someone called. He tensed, and kept moving, hoping
that the hail was meant for someone else. He had a common enough name after all.
Then the voice came again, familiar and insistent, accompanied by the
unmistakable sound of running feet. “Rudi, wait!” Cursing their luck, he turned,
seeing the floppy black cap of a member of the city watch forging through the
intervening citizens, its owner waving frantically in their direction.
“Gerrit,” Rudi said, half in greeting, half as a warning to
Hanna. The two of them had met briefly, he remembered, when Hanna had visited
him at the watch barracks. Gerrit was his best friend among the Caps, and had
been unable to resist teasing him a little about the relationship he pretended
to assume had existed between him and the girl. “What are you doing up at this
ungodly hour?” The two of them had rotated to the day shift the morning before,
and weren’t due on duty for some hours yet.
“Everyone’s been called in,” Gerrit said slowly, his hand
hovering near the hilt of his sword, but to Rudi’s unspoken relief making no
attempt to draw it yet. Despite trying to pretend he was simply engaged in a
casual conversation, Rudi couldn’t help glancing around as unobtrusively as he
could, his old forester’s instincts searching for the rest of Gerrit’s patrol,
but for some reason the young Cap seemed to be alone. Perhaps he hadn’t heard
the news of Rudi’s treachery yet. “But then you must have expected that.” The
tone of voice in which this last comment was added put paid to that slender hope
almost as soon as it had flared. Still, if anyone among the watch would be
prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, it would be Gerrit. Anyone else,
he was sure, would have drawn steel and arrested them both by now. Perhaps he
could still bluff it out.
“I’ve been a bit busy,” Rudi said, flourishing the bottle and
blessing the gently falling snow for concealing Hanna’s features even more
effectively. She huddled deeper inside the enveloping cloak, the hood falling
forward to conceal her features. The last time he’d seen Gerrit, on his way out
of the barracks to rescue the girl, he’d contrived to give his friend the
impression that he was meeting another young woman; maybe he could convince him
that he’d been otherwise engaged all night, and that whatever he’d heard was
some kind of mistake. “That evening out lasted a bit longer than I expected.”
Picking up the unspoken cue Hanna giggled, as if drunk, and leaned into him as
if suddenly losing her footing.
“I remember.” Gerrit nodded. “You said you were meeting Rauke
van Stolke.” Of course he knew her too, slightly. She was a Cap herself, in the
neighbouring Suiddock ward. He nodded affably to Hanna. “Morning, Rauke.”
“Morning,” Hanna said, slurring her voice in an attempt to
disguise it. She had no idea what the woman she was impersonating normally
sounded like, but under the circumstances that probably wasn’t important. Gerrit
nodded again, as if something had just been confirmed, and drew his sword.
“Do you mind explaining how you got here from the Draainbrug
watch house so fast?” he asked her. “I only left you half an hour ago.” That at
least explained why he was on his own, Rudi thought. He must have been on his
way back from delivering a message to the Suiddock watch, warning them to be on
the lookout for the pair of fugitives.