Warhammer - Rise of the Titan
The warm glow of the campfire lit the men’s faces a sight better than the falling sun, and for a long time, it was the only sound that passed between them. The faint crackle and pop, barely overlaid by the babble of voices from the rest of the army camp as they threw down for the night. There was a tenor there of excitement—if it could be called such a thing. Perhaps it was merely anticipation. The thrum of men about to confront that which they set out to do. Or perhaps it was dread.
It was likely the latter that drove the short, stumpy man to speak. To end the pervasive silence. “Anyone been up this far north before?” He inquired, his provincial accent barely noticeable.
“Oh sure. Who hasn’t been into the Troll Wastes a few dozen times?” Replied a taller, more broadly built man. His bowed legs suggested a life on horseback, although his heavy, mismatched mail and spear spoke of a less prestigious profession. “What kind-of bloody question is that, anyway?”
“I was just curious.” The stumpy man lifted his hands defensively. “You never know. Times bein’ what they are.”
“Norsca.” The third man’s voice was quiet, but strong. It carried across the clearing effortlessly, and drew attention to their meager campfire. “We took a thousand heads there last spring, when the frosts thawed.” It was not a boast, and perhaps that was what most disturbed the other men around the fire. The casual recounting of facts.
“Horseshit,” scowled Bow-Legs as he repositioned himself, folding his arms over his chest and glaring at the third man. The glare broke off rather abruptly when he looked up. A trick of the light, surely, made his molten brown eyes seem almost… red. Be it the dying sun or the withering campfire, no man could have such eyes. “Legionnaires haven’t been to Norsca in decades.”
“I am not a Legionnaire.” The third man answered flatly, his eyes returning to the fire. It gave the other men a chance to more accurately gauge their companion. His piecemeal armor had been pried from a dozen fallen bodies, and bore the scars of sword, axe, fang and claw and it was held together with strips of brown and red cloth, on which words could almost be made out. His sun-blasted face was square and stern, lines etched into it as though carved of stone. His brown hair was growing gray at his temples, but his face suggested an age much older, or a life much more troubled. Scars, pale and livid criss-crossed virtually every inch of exposed skin, rendering in combination with his other features an appearance that wholly sold the idea of taking a thousand heads. Perhaps personally.
And then there were the skulls. Warped and misshapen, with the exception of one, they could not be the skulls of men. Oblong jaws, tusks, horns and muzzles—the veterans of other, more mundane battles could identify them without a thought. Orcs. Goblins. Beastmen. The enemies of the Empire.
“So what are you then?” Bow-Legs challenged, daring the quiet man to live up to the expectations of his image.
“A servant of Sigmar.”
“Do you have a name?” Stumpy asked, almost hopeful. Anything would be better than listening to Bow-Legs brag about his ‘conquests’ again.
The man who’s garb included skulls turned to stare at Stumpy, as if the question has been completely unexpected. There was no flash of recognition, no sign that he even understood what had been asked, his face was as blank as those on his belt.
The man had had a name once. Long ago. When the greenskins had jumped the Delving Wall, he had had a name. When the grateful kisses of the rancher’s daughter had lured him into the hay loft, he had had a name. When the first cries of the child had broken the early morning silence, he had had a name.
So too had he had a name when the greenskins took the first child for a meal. And when the vile undead had come north from Sylvania and taken the second, he had still had a name. But whatever name he had, it had been lost when the Beastmen took the rancher’s daughter. The wife. That awful braying, too close to a human’s to truly ignore, mixed with the cacophony of screams had burned the name out of him. He had no name now.
“Call me what you will.” He said at last. “I forsake my name in service to our Lord and Protector Sigmar. I am a tool in his hands, only. Mortal pseudonyms do not concern me.”
“Ugh. You’re one of those zealots. I’ve heard of you.” Bow-Legs spat disgustedly.
“So… We can call you Zealot?” Stumpy suggested.
“It will do.”
“Have you uh… ever fought Chaos before?” Stumpy persisted, curiosity flecked with fear.
“On numerous occasions.” The Zealot answered flatly. “They are horrifying beyond all reason. Perhaps we will be fortunate, and this horde will consist only of Khornate daemons.”
“War daemons.” The Zealot replied. “They are most likely to rip you apart and take your skull. But the least likely to strip you of your sanity. Or dignity.”
Stumpy’s eyes had grown wide, and the blood drained out of his face.
Bow-Legs didn’t look much better, but he covered for it better, venturing more dialogue with his trademark sneer. “So if you’re not a legionnaire, then why are you even here? You just get your rocks off by making uspiss our pants? Think we’ll fight better if we’re scared shitless?”
The Zealot’s answer was emotionless, but his eyes bored into Bow-Legs with a fierce intensity that made the other man inch away. “Wherever men go with evil in their hearts, Chaos is sure to be near.”
Bow-Legs stiffened, “We’re going to fight Chaos. Not join it. How is that evil?”
“Actions do not exist in a void. There is context—emotions, intentions. A man who fights, not because it is the right thing to do, or because he is defending all of humanity against the push of evil, but instead out of greed,” Bow-Legs winced, “Pride,” Bow-Legs glanced away, “Or bloodlust… These things are evil. And Chaos has spawned from far less.”
“How… how did you learn all this?” Stumpy asked, quite clearly in awe.
“The lessons of an old crone.” The Zealot replied softly. She had had a name once as well. Grandmother. Fanatic, savage, she had scourged him a dozen times for the most trivial offenses. So he’d thought. But he’d learned from her—he’d learned so much. More than even he had known, then.
The men sat in silence for a little while in contemplation. But when the camp follower – so skinny her ribs could be seen, still covered in the dirt of the day’s travels and a light sheen of sweat from the last campfire – arrived, the Zealot rose to take his leave.
“Oh honey,” She cooed, making her missing teeth visible, “You don’t have to go. There’s enough to go around if you’ve got the brass.”
The Zealot’s eyes, seemingly more red now than they had been before the sun set, found Stumpy only. “You take your life into your own hands when you indulge in sin so close to Chaos. Sigmar bless and protect you on the morrow.”
Stumpy rose as well, his terrified eyes finding Bow-Legs already handing over the brass to the giggling woman. “And you, Zealot. Find what you’re looking for.” He moved away from the pair with haste, looking for another campsite.
- ** ** ** **
Bless the old crone, the Zealot repeated to himself for the third time that day. Bless Sigmar! He reiterated, the fire burning in his eyes.
All around him, the moans of the dead and dying rose piteously. The line had already broken here, falling back to regroup a hundred paces back, but there were still scattered pockets of fighting, of men hanging on for dear life against the breaking swell of the Daemonettes.
The Zealot was drenched in blood. Some of it his, much of it from slain daemons. The victor of more than a dozen duels already that day, he hadn’t fought as part of the shield wall or the press of the legions, nor charged with the cavalry. No, he had circled around, plugging holes as they grew, slaying the creatures that had threatened the very integrity of the army.
He knelt then, to close Bow-Leg’s eyes. The wave of nausea passing quickly. After all, it had not been the first time he’d seen a man flayed alive, although the removal of his genitals as a prize was somewhat horrific. Not unexpected, however. The daemons of Slaanesh could almost certainly taste his taint.
Rising again, his eyes found the monster who had driven the line back. She – or it – was lounging on a small pile of bodies, licking the blood from its claws. All sleek lines and pale purple flesh, a man with death on his mind would almost certainly have found her form irresistible until it found the extra arms and male pieces between its legs.
The Zealot found it irresistible too, although in a different way. There was no way this abomination could go on living. He stalked towards it, over the fields of the fallen and slain, his lips forming a small, silent prayer. Grant me your arm, Mighty Sigmar. Let me deliver your justice against this foe of all mankind. Let me be your tool in one final, glorious act.
“Another manling has come to play.” The creature spoke with more than one voice, but they all sounded absolutely delighted. It rose from the pile and moved towards him in equal measure, long legs moving with a dancer’s grace.
The Zealot felt a brief pang of fear – there was no way a man such as he stood a chance against such a beast. He flagellated himself in the safety of his own mind. Sigmar will give me strength. This once.
Abruptly, the daemon was moving, sprinting. She leaped, hit a clearing, pivoted and leapt again. Up close, the Zealot realized she must be almost ten feet tall. His shield and sword came up in defense. Too slow! The impact sheered steel from his breastplate and sent him spinning through the air. His flight ended with a sickening crunch as Bow-Legs broke his fall.
The Zealot scrambled up, looking for his sword. It was lost amidst the bloody tangle of corpses. She was on him again, but this time he managed a block. Her claws rending the shield and breaking the arm beneath it. He gritted his teeth in pain as he was again flung through the air. The impact knocked the wind from him, and he tasted blood on his breath.
She stalked towards him slowly, almost seductively, her maleness waving in vulgarity with each step. She laughed as a whole room. “What did you think to do all by yourself, manling?”
Somewhere, distantly, the Zealot could hear the cry of a battle horn. They were charging. He had to finish this abomination before they reached her, or they would die. He had to…
The Zealot’s eyes found Stumpy, his eyes cold and lifeless. But in his hands, was a warhammer. Aged, scarred hands wrapped around it and took them from the fallen warrior’s as the Zealot got to his feet. He took a shuddering breath.
“You will not survive this day.” The Zealot assured the daemon. Most of his words had been lost.
The daemon laughed again, shaking her head, and then lunged.
The Zealot slid sideways in the bloody muck, and the daemon’s swing went wild. As she pivoted to try and rebalance herself, the warrior was clambering up her arm, using his own broken one as though nothing were wrong—pushing past the pain as the Crone had taught him. He was on her shoulders now, and she reached behind her with a hideous scream.
In a moment he would be dead, but that was to be expected. He had lived a long time. Too long. And if he was judged worthy, tonight, he would rejoin the battle with Chaos, only at Sigmar’s side.
The hammer came up. Sunlight caught it and the glow of the twin-tailed comet on it’s head burned as brightly as it must have on the day Sigmar was born.
“Here. Is. Your. JUSTICE!”
The hammer came down with all the force, all the fury of a man with nothing left to lose. The flare of sunlight seemed to linger on the hammer longer than reason would dictate, but fled as a burst of light – and orange blood – escaped the shattered skull of the daemonette. The hammer came down again, and again, the Zealot rode the crumpling corpse into the mud as the spray of her blood drenched him. His blood burned where it met her’s, and the taste of it was in his mouth. He spat.
The abomination stopped twitching. He hit it again for good measure.
The legionnaires rushed past him—charging towards the now destabilized lines of the daemon horde. Maybe they would win this day after all.
The Zealot looked up at the sky, tears cutting lines in the blood and filth of his face. “Was I not worthy, Great Emperor? Was I not…?”
The hammer fell from his hand and he stared at it for a long time. And then he looked at the pulp of the daemonette’s skull.
Perhaps I was. Just once.