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The boar snorted in challenge, hooves scrapping at the dirt as it prepared for another onslaught.
The forest itself seemed to lean in to watch, subjects of the foul creature's corruption. Where dappled leaves had before been glittering in he sun and the grass shone green, here, near its lair, they'd turned brown and sickly, foul growths spreading over the tree-trunks like a rash on the skin. The clearing the beast was making its stand on was covered by a carpet of wilting grass and patches of thorny weeds.
None of it compared to the corrupted beast itself though. Its fur had fallen out except for around its ears and behind its fat neck, the exposed flesh beneath criss-crossed by pale scars, corded muscle and large pulsing sacks of white pus. One of the sacks on its right flank was leaking profusely, a large horn of bone shaped like a rosebush's thorn jutting out of it. One beady eye, bloodshot,stared out from behind a tusk split in two like a fork, the other, the left, covered by a patchwork of pulsing blue veins.
And it was big.
Roland De Ferre pulled at the reins, making Paragon rear up, the black stallion's hooves stomping into the ground with enough force to crush skulls. Around them, the blue and red barding fluttered in the air, making the white sword piercing a black raven emblazoned upon it move like it was alive.
Challenging the beast for another go.
Growling, the boar levelled his tusks and charged.
Grinning, elated, Roland levelled his lance and kicked Paragon's flanks, a cry on his lips. “For Bretonnia! For the Lady!”
His stance was perfect in the saddle, his muscles singing with the need to exert the force they've been born, and later forged, to exert. The shield on his left shoulder and lance in his right seemed to weigh nothing at all, the chainmail hanging from his wide shoulders and slim hips felt more like his real skin than the unscarred flesh beneath it was supposed to protect.
He was invincible.
And so he mimicked the boar, steering right for his quarry, for a head on collision.
Beneath him, the ground heaved, grass pounded flat by weight of horse and rider, two beings merging together as one.
At the last instance Roland tapped Paragon's right flank, making the horse veer off in that direction even before Roland had time to adjust his aim.
The last moment before impact was like a lifetime.
And then not.
Roland was almost lifted off the saddle as the lance glanced off the beast's collar bone and slid on before finally punching into its side, snapping like a twig under the force of the impact halfway along the length, leaving at least two feet of wood and iron in the beast as Paragon and Roland hurtled on.
Yet boars were tenacious creatures, and the corruption gave it unnatural staying power. So Roland gasped more in surprise than horror when the beast swung its head after them, tusks swatting at Paragon's legs, tripping the warhorse. Roland's training kicked in, the manoeuvre was a reflex as he pulled his legs free from the stirrups and let go of the reins. He was airborne a moment later, flying as he curled into a ball as best he could.
Pain, familiar from his training, yet unfamiliar in its brutality and chaotic nature, rolled over him, first his shoulder, then spine and hip.
For a moment, there was nothing but white lights flashing in front of him.
Then there was pieces of grass and dirt.
Grunting, Roland rolled unto his knees, hand coming up to undo the clasp holding his helmet in place, the dirt stuck within chaffing against his face as he with a huff pulled it free and threw it aside, his coif falling off sweaty black curl. He found himself grinning, white teeth flashing as much as his blue eyes and drawn blade as he regarded the pierced boar turning to face him. Its remaining eye narrowed at the sight of him, its head pivoting until it could bite its powerful jaws into the lance stuck in it. Without a flinch, it pulled the wood free from its body, the blood flowing freely from the gap seemingly not bothering it.
“Well aren't you a tough one?” Flourishing his blade to ease the wrist into what was to come, Roland rose.
The boar growled, then turned to face Paragon as the horse rolled onto his hooves, tusks lowered like lances against the horse's belly.
“No, face me!” Panic gripped Roland at the thought of the boar goring his beloved steed, making him smash his blade against his shield with a resounding thump. “Face me, vile beast!” Huffing, the boar turned its head back to look at him. “Paragon, get Henri!” A neigh of frustration, and the horse set off, hurtling off like an arrow into the forest.
The beast was also hurtling forward, straight at Roland.
He charged it and leapt with his shield in front of him, trying to vault the boar.
It was too fast though, head looking up it struck true, tusk punching into Roland's shield until the tip was suddenly poking out the other side. The impact sent Roland backwards, legs pumping to keep him upright as the boar tried to bowl him over. Sensing rather than seeing the tree he was about to hit, Roland raised his legs higher...and suddenly he was standing on the tree-trunk, held up by the pressure from the snorting boar still trying to gore him.
Below, the beast glared at him with its one good eye.
Growling back, gritting his teeth, Roland thrust his sword over his pierced shield and laid it across the beast's face before pulling the blade back up with a slicing cut.
A slicing cut right across that glaring eye, making it disappear in an explosion of blood and mucus.
Instantly, Ronald was dropped back onto the ground, his shield freed from the boar's tusk as it squealed and whinnied, jumping back and tossing its head left and right while jumping and shaking like one of those beasts the Estalians enjoyed taming with their bare hands.
Rising, Ronald chuckled at the sight of the blinded monster.
The boar turned to face him, ears twitching, making Ronald grin.
“Well? Come then!” Ronald bashed his sword against his shield again, the sound enough to make the boar squeal with rage and hurtle towards him.
It was easy to gauge the approach of the blind beast, and so Ronald rolled aside at the last moment and laughed aloud as it crashed right into the tree. Staggering back, the boar shook its head, dazed and confused.
Ronald let loose a cry of elation as he lunged forward, throwing his entire weight behind his sword as he punched it into the beast's thick neck. Gasping in an almost human way, the boar was bowled over onto its side, blade sliding in deep, spitting it to the ground. Whinnying like a wounded horse, the boar kicked with it's small but powerful legs, but found only air as Robert lay atop the monster, worrying his blade back and forth to finish it off.
The boar clung on to life, moving its face left and right, trying to heave its body over to throw off the knight. Yet all it did was aiding him cutting into its vitals, and there was no rolling over with the blade thrust straight through it and into the ground beneath.
With a final gasp for air, the boar stopped moving.
Roland remained atop it for a moment, senses straining to feel or hear any sign of life from the beast, but there was none. Whooping, he leapt off it, grinning widely at the monster. It looked smaller in death, but was still an impressive quarry, more than adequate for an Errantry.
I knew I had it in me! I knew I'd prove myself! I knew glory was within me!
Placing a firm foot on the boar, Ronald gripped his blade anew and pulled it free in a welter of foul blood, grinning at the way his blade was stained by it.
I'm a hero.
Then a crash of breaking under-brush made him raise his shield and blade anew, spinning to face the new threat.
Instead he found a man in dirty and patched gambeson in faded red and blue crashing in, stumbling the last few steps as he hefted a worn falchion with a small buckler in front of him, held more like a religious ward than protection. Behind him, Paragon trotted, eyes wide and taking in the sight. Lowering his sword, Roland chuckled and shook his head. “Henri...”
The man was short, like most commoners, over a head shorter than Roland's six feet and more. Though thin the slight hunchback on his right shoulder made him look wider than he was. His blond hair was cut short and always reminded Roland of straw, rather than the real thing. Bowing his head, Henri's dull grey eyes stared at the marks of combat upon the ground. “M' sorre m'lord, Paragon found me, but I did nah know where m'lord had gone so Paragon had ta lead me m'lord and I had ta...”
“That's fine, Henri.” Roland grunted at the man's bumbling excuses. Henri was a good yeoman, probably the best, but he spoke more than he should. Ignoring the peasant, Roland strode over to Paragon and put a hand over his face, rubbing it down. “Hey, boy, did you worry for me?” Paragon shook his head. “No? My friend, you wound me!” Roland grinned at the answer though, Paragon had always believed in him. “And you? You're okay, right?” This time, Paragon nodded, snorting dismissively at the plummet he'd taken before. “Figures, you're tougher than me.” Roland grinned.
“M'lord!” Henri gasped, the yeoman having held his breath until Roland and Paragon finished. As such Henri's words almost burst out of him like an overflowing dam. “'Tis is a glorious kill! M'lord has outdone even his father's Errantry, surely the finest act of chivalry in Alencion for...for...years, many years!”
“I know, brilliant, isn't it?” Roland smiled, he'd always known he'd been meant for greatness on the field of valour, always, yet the feel of validation...it was euphoria. “The beast never stood a chance against the might of Bretonnia, it was just a question of finding it to deliver justice.”
“Of course, m'lord, of course, want me ta cut it's head off? Before it fouls or the muscles stiffens beyond helpin'?” Henri asked, making Roland and Paragon exchange a smile. The Yeoman was always about the practical things.
“Huh? Oh, yes, of course, get on with it, man.” Roland dismissively waved back, making Henri bow and heft his falchion like a cleaver. Leaning closer to Paragon, Roland grinned, with his Errant finished, a world of opportunities lay open before him. He'd be granted land, of course, a vassal of his father, but that held little interest to Roland, Alencion had not seen fighting for generations, there was no glory in defending lands that were never attacked. But there were other ways for him to find the glory he craved...
Ronald grinned, he knew what he needed to do.
Behind him, Henri huffed as he again and again hacked into the tough flesh of the mutated boar.
8 8 8
John Worringen was running, stumbling, clawing his way forward.
The grass of the hill was wet and slippery, the hill itself steep, exhausting John who had little experience with the world outside the cities of the Empire. His robes slowed him, his fine boots, bereft of proper grip, tripped him, the thick tome in his right arm, clutched close to a thin chest, weighted him down. Yet on he went, there was no other way.
Behind him, the bells of Bechafen's chapels tolled in earnest, in alarm.
His home was in uproar, over him.
It was terrifying. It was exciting. It was so wrong. Yet so right.
For so many years, Bechafen had been his home, he'd worked for the Elector Count, just another clerk in the machinery that was the state of Ostermark. Administration mixed with library duties, one melding into the other in a dreary drudgery of numbers and words, the search for truths among many scholars lost in the needs of the moment.
Yet there was no truth to be found there, not any more. For there was only one truth there, and that was clutched to John's chest like a talisman, the reassuring presence of it the only thing that kept him going where he'd otherwise would have been frozen in terror.
It had unlocked his potential, told him what needed to be done. The rituals, the covenants, the blessings that were now promised him.
Trembling in fear of retribution from them, John none the less sneered in contempt of the lesser men he left behind, they would learn, they would all learn, and sooner than they might think.
Yet for now, he fled, all too aware of how frail and easily snuffed out his life was.
Above, the ever-present forests of the Empire loomed. Dark, foreboding, they had always been something to fear for John, and he knew it hadn't been unfounded, even the soldiers of Bechafen he'd known shivered in fear when talk of patrolling them came up, and with good reason.
Yet now he ran for those dark shadows as a hunted man seeking the sanctuary of sacred ground. For what had once been corrupted was now the holy ground, and what had been holy, was an insult, a joke, a mirage.
He reached the top and, more dragging than climbing, forced himself over a fallen tree-trunk and into the shadows of the forest. Merely a few feet into the forest was not good enough, not nearly enough to lose any pursuers. Yet John collapsed none the less, resting his back on the reassuring trunk as he breathed a sigh of relief, his chest heaving with exertion.
He felt, after months of fright after finding out the truth, free. The shadows around him, once dark and brooding, were now welcoming, hiding him from the sight of the false light Sigmar once had cast over the Empire and still did with the flickering embers that were his champions. Hidden, he was safe, hidden, he was welcome, hidden he was free.
Then the shadows began to move, turning solid.
John had known they'd been there, prepared for their arrival, welcomed it since it meant he'd be protected. Yet despite this a part deep within him still made his hairs stand on edge and made him lurch to his feet, the instinct to flight or fight pushing at him until he could taste bile in his mouth.
The shadows were unnatural, some would say, and John would still say. They were not the perfection desired, not the promises made. They were refuse, accidents of powers beyond mortal comprehension. But they did know the truth, and so were useful tools.
Still, John felt more like the tool than the master of the situation as he watched them becoming real.
The one closest to John was a man's body, but the neck and head was that of a swan, making the creature tower over John as it gazed down on him. The beak of the monster opened, revealing fangs that were licked by a serpent's tongue as it fixed a spear upon him. Behind it, a lizard in all but feet chuckled in a raspy hiss, curved blade of stone pointing at John as it spoke to the others in a guttural language more grunts than words, making more of them chuckle.
John, eyes wide, set aside his tome and drew his dagger.
For a moment, the shapes stopped. Then the swan laughed, followed by the others.
A beefy fist landed upon the swan's shoulder, hurling it back into another monster with a brutality foreign to a man of John's background, or any human, really. The beast responsible was almost as tall as the swan, but far wider of shoulders and gut, its bull-like head covered in flabs of flesh that almost made the beady red eyes within disappear under the folds of fat. The axe it hefted was larger than any John had seen though, and raised as it without a hint of humour looked at John's dagger.
His hands trembled as he moved his palm to the blade, making his cut sloppy and far deeper than intended. Wincing, John squeezed his palm even as the fat bull of a Beastman raised what might be considered his eyebrows by a generous interpreter.
The blood fell...and then stopped.
The droplets merged together, forming a larger orb of crimson, hovering in the air, then rising, coming level with the bull's eyes. Glittering, then shining, the globe spoke, John's master and teacher spoke.
John had not yet learnt the specific words of the language, wasn't sure if there was any. The language was deep, dark, cold. It pushed into John's mind like a cold blade, making him shiver and gasp in pain even as he eagerly tried to understand. He didn't understand the words, but those were not the important thing, the concepts conveyed within were though.
Protect, reward. Fail, die. Kill, suffer.
The fat bull hefted his axe higher, then let lose a lone bray, angry, but submissive.
Lowering his axe, the beast gestured to John, for him to follow.
Between them, the orb of blood fell back unto the ground, smoke rising from where it struck.
Swallowing, throwing a last look back at Bechafen, at civilisation, John took his tome and moved to follow the beasts into the forest.