Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Death and Beasts

They'd been at the inn for all of half an hour when the Witch Hunter turned up.

Bruno was so exhausted, he could barely concentrate on what the man was saying. He pushed his plate of stew away, glad of an excuse not to finish it. He wasn't hungry. He kept seeing the life drain out of that woman's face as his magic gripped her.

"Which is why the city requires your aid," the witch hunter finished.

A jowly man in his late forties, his chainmail hauberk had seen better days. Tattered strands of it hung down past his knees, rattling as he walked. The brace of pistols in his belt were antiques, and he had a clunky-looking peasant's axe strapped at his back. Schorsch Undrache, he'd introduced himself as. Clearly a dangerous man despite his battered appearance. Only dangerous men survived battering in that profession. 

Next to him, his master rolled a tall flute of syrupy liquor back and forth between his hands as he gazed at the ceiling. He seemed to be on another plane entirely, not least because of his ludicrous ubergoth getup. Bruno wasn't entirely convinced he'd even noticed the witch hunter yet. 

"So you want us to deal with this rogue wizard for you, free of charge? Simply because we had the poor luck to enter the city this evening?" Bruno asked. 

"The Empire requires it of you," Undrache said. "It is a part of your licence, within the mandate of the Collegiate system." 

"Isn't the city guard..."

"I explained," Undrache said, resting his mailed fists on the table next to Bruno rather heavily, "that the guard has already attempted to remove this madman from the city. Thirty of them are dead. More wounded or maddened themselves. They are not equipped to deal with wizards."

"You are," Bruno said. "Or am I missing something? We don't work for free. No wizard does."

"I am indeed," Undrache said. "I've dealt with rogue wizards often enough to know the best way to deal with them. By rogue, I mean one who's turned away from the law of Empire and state, ignoring the terms of their mandate. Clear?"

"Clear enough. You'd rather bully others into taking risks for you."

"If you would see a bully, come and see this rogue wizard," the witch hunter said hotly. "Slaughtering guardsmen because he feels insulted. Or are you cowards as well as rogues? You," he said, jabbing Gesper's shoulder, "are you a master wizard? Or have I been duped by a mere fool in robes? Are you going to sit there and let more people die while you sit drinking?"

"You will not talk to us like that," Bruno said angrily. "We are wizards of the Amethyst College..."

"I am an Amethyst Master," Gesper said, quite calmly, rising up. He was taller than the witch hunter even without his tombstone hat. "And I am not rogue. But if you wish an end to the deaths, you have missed your mark indeed, Undrache. I shall go, but death will go with me. For he is my friend and lord, and in serving the Empire, I but serve him."

Gesper swept out of the inn silently. All colour seemed to leech out of the room with him. Bruno realised his mouth was hanging open. Undrache was leaning on a wall, clutching weakly for the handle of his axe. 

Come and see, Gesper's voice echoed in Bruno's mind. See how loyal a servant your master can be.

He hurried along behind. 


Victor crooked his hand into a claw and swiped it at the nearest three guards. 

Two were hurled aside, their steel armour ripped open like rotten leather. The third somehow stayed upright, although his shield crumpled under the impact of the shimmering amber talon. 

"Throw me out?" Victor roared. "I'll go in my own time. If I choose to leave at all!"

"You're mad!" the surviving man shouted. "You have to leave, for the city's sake!"

"You attacked me in the street like a dog," Victor said, laughing. "You and that blue wizard. You Southerners, it's always your way. Think you're better than the North, because we live wild. Think that you can treat me like an animal, chuck me out because I haven't licked your hand hard enough?"

The guard tried to edge closer on his knees, sheltering under what was left of his shield. The wizard scarcely looked human anymore. He was a great thorny mound of a man, swollen with rage. It was impossible to say what was fur cloak and what was thickened hide. His eyes were staring and yellow, like an owl's. He had to be put down. 

Victor pounced on the guard, shook him about for a bit and then threw him through the window of a nearby shop. 

"Hold, lunatic!" he heard from behind him. 

Looking round, he saw a rank of lancers clad in steel. Cat heads peered over the tops of helmets. Claws and fangs embroidered shields. The horses snorted under their armour. A drummer played a military roll. 

"Knights Panther," shouted their commander. "Charge!"

"Knights of the White Wolf!" shouted an entirely different voice from off to his left. "Protect that wizard!" 

Suddenly the street was full of armed men, Altdorf blue and Middenheim white and red. Old scores being settled by halberd, pistol and bolt. A bearded sergeant stepped up next to Victor, eyes bright with bloodshed. 

"We've got your back, Lord Wizard," he shouted. "Middenheim knows the value of a good... aargh!"

Victor snatched the man's attacker up in both hands, broke him apart like bread and then looked around for someone else to kill. 

And through the reeling throng, he saw a pale rider.

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