- - by Sigmar
Anywhere else, dawn would have broken and the sun spilled its rays across the ground, providing a grand beginning to a new day.
However, the Blasted Lands was not such a place. The only indication that dawn had come was a slight brightening in the sky, which was almost completely masked by the constant flashes of the ever-present felstorm. Morning was as dreary as midnight here.
Sigmar left his quarters in his full battle armor, descending the stairs heavily. Despite the lack of sleep, he was not tired. Indeed, his mind was even more set on accomplishing his mission. The paladin reached the bottom floor, taking a left and turning into a large commons room. Within, only a few people milled about, including the sergeant Sigmar had spoke with yesterday, who sat at a side table, eating a simple breakfast of bread and cheese. Sigmar half-saluted to the man, who returned the motion, and walked to the table, sitting. The man’s red hair was matted, as if he had been sweating, and his features seemed more worn. The stench of work did not emanate from him, but the stench of fear did…
“You are up early,” he spoke rather calmly in between bites of bread.
“Am I? It’s hard to tell in these Light-forsaken lands,” Sigmar responded.
“True, true, but you get used to it after a few months.” He paused, wiping crumbs away with a flick of his hand. “What do you need?”
Sigmar opened his mouth, but before he could continue, Niain proved her skills once again by seemingly appearing from nowhere and quietly sitting. She rested her elbows on the tabletop and her chin on her hands. A few moments of silence passed before she glanced at the two men and asked, “What?”
Sigmar shook his head, masking his suprise, “Nothing.” He turned back to the other man. “Sergeant…” he began.
“Call me Wilhelm,” the sergeant cut off Sigmar with a wave of his hand. “Continue.”
“Alright then, Wilhelm. I was going to ask…” Sigmar’s throat suddenly felt dry as he tried to say the next few words, “What do you know about Scarlet activity in this area?”
Wilhelm stiffened. “The Scarlet Crusade?”
Sigmar’s eyes narrowed and his head dipped only enough to confirm the statement.
Wilhelm slowly settled back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. He glanced up at the paladin, “They’re the ones that killed Commanders Stephenson and Bjarn.” Wilhelm sighed, “Good men, they were.”
“When, and where?”
“Eight days ago, near Dreadmaul Hold, to the west. They were on a routine patrol, with about ten men other than themselves. The Scarlets came from the north, at least twenty of ‘um. Our men were in a bad position, and were easily surrounded. Stephenson and Bjarn were killed first… they had some damn good marksmen up there, and probably singled them out…” the sergeant stopped, reflecting for a few moments.
Sigmar allowed him those moments before asking, “Where did the Scarlets go from there?”
Wilhelm gestured towards the far wall, “South. There was one survivor: he took an arrow to the chest, but didn’t die immediately. He played dead, the Scarlets never bothering to check the bodies, then staggered back to the Keep and told us what happened. He died two days after that.”
“South… towards the Portal?” Sigmar asked intently.
“Aye, towards the Portal.” Wilhelm shot him an odd look, “You’re not thinking of going after them, are you?”
He replied coldly, “I am.”
“Its suicide. They’re probably dead already from the things down there.” He glanced between Sigmar and Niain. “If you go there, you’ll both die.”
The paladin seemed to ponder this before standing, “Regardless, we will go. Or, at least, I will go.” He extended a hand, “Thank you Sergeant Wilhelm, you’ve been a great help. And thank you for the lodging.”
Wilhelm shook the hand, and the three exited the room and the citadel. They passed the stables, retrieving the charger and warsaber, and made their way to the main gates.
“Sir Sigmar, and Miss Niain, I wish you both luck in the coming days. You’ll need it.”
The pair mounted their respective steeds. Sigmar saluted Wilhelm, “And good luck to you and the Keep. With the Light’s blessing, we will see you again.”
The gates were opened, and the two left the Keep’s ominous walls, heading south.
* * * * *
The sweat seemed to pour in streams down Sigmar’s brow. He felt like he was cooking inside his armor, and the stress of the situation didn’t help things. He also didn’t remember the Dark Portal giving off so much damn heat. His back was especially hot, being between his torso, armor, and a rock.
Sigmar inched around the corner of the rock for the nth time that hour. The Dark Portal still loomed in the crater, but he was concentrated on the clearing before it. The Scarlets were there, all similarly being tortured by the heat. They were close together to preserve a defensive formation, but still far enough apart to avoid as much temperature as possible. Except for one.
A single man stood, out ahead of all the others, closer to the Portal. He wore the traditional mail armor of the Scarlet Crusade, and carried a shield and sword with similar emblems, but there was something arcane about him. Sigmar, with his Light-given powers, could dimly perceive the magical auras of individuals, but not their strength. Unless, of course, they were a practitioner of dark arts…
And that was exactly what the man was. Sigmar could sense that the man had extreme power at his hands, easily enough to summon a blasphemy or conjure a firestorm. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that was also the man Sigmar had to kill. Ackland. Josef Ackland. Somehow, he was warding off the demons that normally scoured the area at all times. It was unnerving that he held that kind of authority over them.
Sigmar turned back and slid to the ground. He looked to Niain. He imagined that she was also cooking under that black leather armor, but the night elf did not show it on her expression. The only things out of the ordinary were the beads of sweat on her forehead and the black mask that hung around her neck instead of her face. She wiped away the sweat. “Da Elune… it’s blazing hot,” she whispered.
Sigmar could only nod. To speak was to expend precious strength, and he would need every bit of it. He grabbed a flask at his side and took a sip, the cool water trickling down his throat, and it felt like pure relief. Thank the Light for cooling enchants he thought. Investing in such an enchant on his flask had undoubtedly been a good idea. The paladin offered it to Niain, who took it and also drank before returning it.
“Go back, Niain. I’m likely to go to my death here.” Sigmar had pleaded with her to do so many times, but she always staunchly refused.
“Your pain is my pain, Sigmar. We go together, although I doubt to our deaths…” Niain grinned.
The words did not change his mind.
He glanced around the rock once more. The Scarlets had not moved. Ackland still stood, reading a black tome to himself. He occasionally made traces in the air with his hands, but did nothing more than that. Whatever he was doing, though, it couldn’t be good.
Dammit, we can’t sit here all day. You will die, Ackland. I promise that.
But no opportunities had presented themselves. Time was wasting, and if they waited any longer, Sigmar had the feeling that something… bad… would happen.
Then, suddenly, Sigmar saw his opportunity. Or, rather, he heard it first.
The footsteps were faint, but they grew louder as time passed. Sigmar and Niain looked to the west of the Portal, where a shape came into view. As it grew closer, the two saw what it was.
A massive grey golem, Light knows what it was doing here, ambled not a hundred yards from the crater. It was constructed from about ten or so large boulders. However, it could not see the Scarlets due to the crater’s edge.
A plan began to form in the paladin’s mind. It was simple, but he viewed it from every angle, regardless. It seemed solid enough, and didn’t rely on luck. Good. He turned again to Niain.
“I have an idea…” he then told the elf of what he had created in his head. She listened, and nodded. Niain stood slowly, edged around her own side of the rock, and seemed to meld into the landscape leaving no trace whatsoever. Now, Sigmar turned back to the wandering golem. It would soon be his own turn.
A minute or so passed before Niain did her part. Off on the opposite side of the crater to the golem, several rocks began to slide down a small hill, snowballing into an avalanche. The resulting sound distracted the Scarlets enough so that Sigmar could stand without being seen. He reached to his belt, grabbed an oddly shaped stick of metal, pulled a pin from it, and hurled it towards the golem’s edge of the crater.
A few additional seconds passed before the grenade detonated, sending shockwaves. The explosion diverted the attention of the Scarlets, who were now scared out of their wits. However, it also attracted a more important target…
The golem, probably fascinated by the vibrations more than the noise, twisted its rock of a head slowly, and then did a ninety-degree turn in the direction of the crater. As it caught sight of the Scarlet detachment, it stopped. Both parties stared at one another for a good ten seconds before the golem made an unearthly sound and began its charge down the depression’s edge.
The Scarlets were frozen with fear. Before they could run, however, Ackland yelled to them. “Cowards! Stay where you are! Kill it! Kill it!”
The group looked to each other, as if unsure. But none fled. Instead, they reluctantly steeled themselves for the golem’s approach.
The twelve-foot-tall behemoth smashed into the bulk of the Scarlets. Their swords clanged against its rocky skin, being mostly ineffective. However, that was not what Sigmar was interested in. His eyes bored on Ackland, who continued his chant.
Sigmar yelled no battle cry. Instead, he said a prayer for his dead brother as he charged down the crater, gathering speed, gaining on Ackland’s position. A mere twenty feet from his position, however, the man turned.
He had the look of a warlock. Everything from his disheveled black hair, to his sneer, to his coal-black eyes and their deadly gaze screamed evil. He shouted, bracing himself with his shield.
Sigmar’s enchanted war hammer connected and shattered the shield in a blow that discharged holy energy. Ackland staggered, attempting to stab at Sigmar with his sword, but the paladin blocked the blow, swinging the hammer around. The attack missed as Josef jumped back. He muttered words in a demonic tongue, conjuring a bolt of fel energy that he tossed at Sigmar.
Sigmar stretched out a hand, speaking holy words of his own. The ball rapidly diminished in size before disappearing a few inches from his face.
Ackland was outmatched in both martial and mental skills. Or, at least, that was how Sigmar saw it.
What Sigmar didn’t see was the second bolt.
It hit him square in the chest; he fell to the ground. The dark magic deposited itself inside his body, and he writhed, attempting to fight it. Sigmar knew that he could, and would, eventually remove it, but the problem was time. The spell had given Ackland time to finish off the paladin.
Instead, Ackland grinned evilly and picked up his tome. He continued his chant while facing the Dark Portal. Black strands of energy appeared from the felstorm above and gathered in front of the warlock. The strands melded together, flattening, until a shimmering portal, about ten by fifteen feet, finalized its appearance. Ackland shot Sigmar another glare before stepping into the newly formed doorway.
Sigmar fought his way to his feet just in time to see Ackland disappear into the Twisting Nether. He almost refused to see the sight… to see Ackland get away from him again.
Sigmar tilted his head back and roared his defiance to the heavens. They answered, but not in the way he expected.
From the portal, a shape emerged. It was tall, about the size of the golem that continued to decimate the Scarlet ranks, but far more foreboding. Its head was horned, its skin a blood red, its talons at least six inches long each and razor sharp. The horrid demon glanced about the new world oddly until its flaming eyes settled on Sigmar.
It moved surprisingly quickly for such a monstrous beast. It reached Sigmar in a mere two steps, where it attempted to crush him with one hand. The paladin, too, was quick, and jumped back.
Despite the overwhelming odds against him, he attempted to fight anyway. Sigmar reversed his previous movement, jumped forward, and smashed his hammer into the thing’s leg. When he removed the war hammer, the spot had been burnt slightly. He ran between its legs before it could recover, attacking the other appendage similarly. It roared, again trying to smash the paladin, and again missing.
Sigmar was becoming tired already, drained from the heat, his fight with Ackland, and now this new combat with a blasphemy. His rage kept him going. His rage at Ackland and at himself for allowing the man to slip away. He swung again and again, inflicting more minor injuries on the demon and avoiding its blows. Regardless, Sigmar’s luck didn’t last him forever. One of the claws slashed his left pauldron: it was enough to tear half of it off. The force of the impact shattered the bones of his arm, causing Sigmar to cry out in pain and lose the hammer. The other claw swung about. The demon backhanded Sigmar square in the chest, sending him flying into the crater edge a dozen feet away.
The thing let out an odd sound… perhaps a laugh… as it walked to the broken human’s position. It stood over Sigmar about to deal a final blow when a soft “schlk” sound originated from its feet.
Niain removed a foot-long dagger from the tendon of the demon and jumped to the other leg. She cut the tendon there as well, causing it to fall to its knees, and roar loud enough to shake the ground. Another jump landed the elf on its back where both knives plunged deep into the base of its neck. Niain was unwillingly removed when the monstrosity thrashed violently.
Sigmar took the opportunity to sit half-upright. He muttered words and allowed them to grow louder and stronger as he chanted. Light played about his right hand. The light grew larger and larger, until the paladin let loose a cry and sent a bolt of holy energy right for the demon’s chest. It’s screamed, swayed, and then began a slow-motion descent towards the ground. The crash caused the ground to tremble before the thing dissolved into nothingness.
Sigmar slumped, his body broken in a dozen places. He could not move from lack of energy. The heat didn’t bother him anymore, nor his injuries, nor the pain. There was only rage.
He had lost his chance to kill Josef Ackland. He had lost his chance to avenge Alaric. Tears pooled at the corner of Sigmar’s eyes for the first time in years.
Niain stood. She made her way to Sigmar’s position, sporting at least a sprained, if not broken, ankle. She knelt, looking at the human’s face, then left arm, then to the rest of his limbs. She poked at him a couple times before giving a quick and serious assessment, “You need a priest. Can you walk?”
Sigmar shrugged and craned his neck to look at the Dark Portal. He didn’t have the will to try, after losing Ackland. Niain bent over his body and looked straight into his eyes. “Sigmar, don’t give up, you’re still alive. Can you walk?”
He found it difficult, but yes, he could at least stand. Niain helped him as much as she could, his 203 lb. frame plus his armor weighing down on her. They stumbled passed the dead bodies of the Scarlets; the golem was nowhere in sight. The two managed to make it to the steeds, and mount them.
The journey to the Keep was nearly twice as long as it had been to get to the Portal, but they did reach it. Both were taken to the infirmary. Niain’s ankle was indeed broken, but Sigmar suffered more numerous injuries. His left arm and shoulder were severely damaged, as were most of the bones in his left leg. It would be weeks before he was healed properly.
* * * * *
Hours passed as Sigmar lay in the medical cot, gazing out the window. Somewhere out there, Ackland was a free man.
He finally looked away, to see Niain sitting in a chair to his right.
“You always manage to sneak up on me,” he attempted to say it with some humor, but failed.
Niain shrugged. “How are you feeling?”
He did his best to return the movement. “It hurts, but nothing I haven’t felt before. You?”
“Believe me, I’ve been through worse,” she laughed quietly, gesturing to her wrapped ankle, “This is nothing.”
Sigmar turned away again, but Niain continued, “You’re angry, obviously. At yourself. You blame yourself for letting him get away.”
He remained silent.
“You can’t do that forever, regardless if it was your fault or not. It’s done. Move on, or try again. Don’t think on the past.”
Sigmar continued to gaze away from her.
Niain sighed and let a minute or so pass before talking once more, “By the way, Wilhelm sent out a scout to retrieve this…” she reached behind the chair, heaving Sigmar’s silver war hammer from its place. She set the weapon on the ground and leaned the handle against the cot. Sigmar looked back, and when he saw the weapon, his eyes widened slightly. Gingerly, as if he were in a dream, he reached his good hand out and touched the handle end.
The touch sent a surge of confidence through his body. Voices of old flooded his head, reminding him of the paladin’s ideals. He suddenly felt higher, more buoyant, and willful once again.
Then, he hardened his expression. “Ackland…”
“What about him?”
The paladin stared at the sacred hammer. “I will find him. I swear it, and retribution will be dealt."