Keen to reinvent the wheel as often as possible, I thought I’d try something a little different for the Beard Bunker’s third battle report. I’ve pretty much written a short story. With a narrative that, er, extends beyond the battle itself. Somewhat. I might’ve gotten carried away. It was fun, but very time consuming, so it won’t be happening again unless people are very vocally in favour of this sort of thing.
Now, since the Beard Bunker is allegedly a hobby blog, as opposed to a place for fiction, there will occasionally be notes about the actual, you know, game in this thing. The notes are in green, and will be anecdotal or talking about the balance of the scenario (as described in my last post). Why are these bits green? Well, if you find yourself getting immersed in the story, you can just skip the green parts and move on to the next bit in black so as not to break rhythm.
A note on the setting/timeline: Oskar Brandt will, as previously mentioned, act as a sort of protagonist for my Hochland army in the Bunker's campaign (even though he isn't actually the general). I’ve taken this as an opportunity to explore the story of his first ever command (aww). Please note, however, that his model represents him later in his career. Hence the slight dissonance between his appearance in the photos and the description in the text.
One final warning: this bad boy is about twice as long as When Dwarfs go Bad or Between a Rok and an 'Ard Place. There are things like a protagonist, a B-movie monster, a story, a dribbling assistant, and... stuff. It's a bit less serious than the sort of epic stabbyness generally published by the Black Library. Get the kettle on, put your feet up, and hit the jump if you’re feeling so inclined...
* * *
Oskar Brandt assumed that his first assignment as a captain would be an easy one. Something to break him in. After all, he had no training, or strategic experience. He hadn’t even asked for the promotion, it was simply heaped on him after his success as the Powderkegs’ sergeant. Now that he was here, though, he wanted to do a good job, or at least, to do a better job than some of the officers he’d served under.
When summoned, he rose from the chair outside Marshal Godric Fallschturm’s office and stepped through the door, one hand resting on the hilt of his longsword. This was only the second time he’d ever seen the marshal, and the first time he’d conversed with him. It was said that Fallschturm, like many nobles, had little time for the common soldiery, much less men who’d been promoted from them. Oskar hoped that whatever his first assignment would be, he'd prove Fallschturm wrong.
‘Ah! Brandt,’ Fallschturm said from behind a grandiose white moustache. ‘How are you? Excellent. Captain’s pay not affording you better cloth?’ he asked, looking disapprovingly at Oskar’s outfit. He was still dressed as he had been as the sergeant of the Powderkegs. ‘Never mind. You’ll sort yourself out in due course, I’m sure. Now, I have something for you.’
‘Yes, sir?’ Oskar asked, ignoring Fallschturm’s complaint about his clothing. Had the old man been a young woman, Oskar might have seen fit to make an effort. As it was, he looked no more shabby than the bulk of Hochland’s common soldiers.
‘We keep on getting letters from the Sheriff of Lüthorst,’ Fallschturm said. ‘Things trying to get into peoples’ homes at night. Naturally, we paid no attention. You know what those superstitious rural types are like. Then we got a message by carrier pigeon from a priest of Sigmar. Something about a vampire near Lüthorst. Whoops, thought I. Can’t be having that. Go and kill it, there’s a good chap.’
Oskar blinked, and hoped the colour wasn’t draining from his face. He’d never seen a vampire, but he’d heard stories. None of them ended well. ‘A vampire, sir?’
‘Indeed,’ Fallschturm said. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll have help.’ Good, thought Oskar. A few regiments of well-trained men might have the situation in hand. ‘You’ll be glad to know that you’ll be working with your old regiment,’ Fallschturm said.
‘The Powderkegs, sir?’ Oskar asked, excited at the prospect of seeing his comrades again.
‘No, no, your old regiment. You served with the Blades of Taal, didn’t you? Before making sergeant? I’ve pulled ten of them off their Reprieve Month. Family time is idle time, after all. I’m sure they’ll be overjoyed to see one of their own doing so well.’
Oskar doubted it.
He would be the face of Fallschturm’s orders, and he suspected it wouldn’t make him popular. Besides, he wasn't quite sure how ten tired and demoralised swordsmen were supposed to kill a vampire.
He would be the face of Fallschturm’s orders, and he suspected it wouldn’t make him popular. Besides, he wasn't quite sure how ten tired and demoralised swordsmen were supposed to kill a vampire.
‘At any rate,’ Fallschturm continued, ‘we can’t have a vampire lurking about.’
‘Of course not, sir,’ Oskar said. ‘The people of Lüthorst are in great danger.’
‘Yes, yes, absolutely. That’s a very valid concern. Absolutely. That, and we can’t have something like a vampire so close to Fort Denkh. Just not strategically sound, is it?’
‘Um... no sir,’ Oskar replied.
‘Now, off to Lüthorst with you, there’s a good chap. Find Brother Marten when you get there, assuming he’s not been bit.’
‘Yes sir,’ Oskar said. Go and sit on a spear, Oskar thought.
Ten slump-shouldered Blades of Taal stood in the drizzle-flecked courtyard of Fort Denkh, the red feathers of their hats sagging with rainwater. Oskar strode out onto the parade ground, fixed a smile on his face, and said, ‘Remeber me, lads?’
There were a few half-hearted grunts of recognition. Keen not to become one of those officers who commanded respect by shouting loudly, Oskar pushed on. ‘It’s only twenty-five miles. Sigmar willing, we’ll be back tomorrow evening,’ he said, belatedly cursing his failure to name the patron god of the Blades’ regiment instead.
They were already formed into a small column, and he fell in at the gateward end. ‘By the left,’ he said, trying to sound upbeat. The heavy wooden gates of Fort Denkh juddered open before them, and cla-thunked shut behind them.
The drizzle slowly intensified into rain, and wore itself out. By mid-afternoon, the cloud cover broke apart. They were almost dry when they marched into Lüthorst at dusk.
The town was typical of southern Hochland: muddy streets and dilapidated houses in dire need of fresh roofing. As if to emphasise the point, a gust of wind broke a wooden roof tile off its last rusty nail. The tile sailed through the air and narrowly missed a young boy running down the street to gawp at the soldiers.
There were heavy shutters on most of the windows. Unlike everything else, they looked new. Most of them were being closed against the gathering dark, snuffing out the rectangles of firelight spilling onto the street one by one.
A peasant woman’s hands reached out to close the shutters on a window immediately to Oskar’s left, and he turned to ask her, ‘Is there a priest of Sigmar in the village? Brother Marten?
She took in his uniform. The fear in her face appeared un-quelled by the sight of Hochland’s soldiers. ‘In the chapel, I should think,’ she said. Oskar raised an eyebrow enquiringly. She pointed down the street and closed the shutters.
In the outskirts, they found it: a small Sigmarite chapel. Its dark red walls were pitted with age, half-strangled by ivy, and embellished with holy sigils and carvings. A warhorse was tethered outside, shifting its bulk beneath barding belonging to the Order of the Silver Drakes. Oskar knocked and entered. Inside, a young priest with a scarred face was blessing a knight before the altar. They both looked up as Oskar entered, and after they exchanged greatings, the priest – Brother Marten – explained that he and Sir Anselm had given up waiting for reinforcements and were about to head out to meet the vampire alone.
‘Shouldn’t we at least wait until dawn?’ Oskar asked.
‘It’s unlikely that Dragomir has failed to notice your arrival,’ Marten replied. ‘We must go now, before he has time to prepare, or worse, to escape. I’ve hunted this bastard all the way from Burgenhof, and I don’t mean to waste my best opportunity.’
‘Shallya’s oath, that’s—’
‘Hundreds of miles, yes. I’m the only one left. Thought I’d lost his trail after what happened in Estorf, but by Sigmar’s grace—’
‘And my Order’s contacts,’ Anselm interjected.
Marten gave a tired, acknowledging nod. ‘The Silver Drakes have their ears to the ground in these parts, that much has become clear to me. Perhaps, now that we have help, we might prevail.’
‘Or draw more attention to ourselves,’ Anselm said. ‘I liked this plan more when we had a chance of sneaking up on him.’
‘You hoped to sneak atop a barded warhorse?’ Marten asked, sounding amused. Oskar smiled. ‘Were it Sigmar’s way to wager, I’d say you’ve a thirst for glory, Sir Anselm.’
‘As must any man of substance,’ the knight replied without shame. In Oskar’s experience, a thirst for glory created little more than an inflated body count, but he was disinclined to ruffle feathers before a fight and kept the thought to himself.
Marten took up his warhammer, and a finely-engraved shield bearing the icon of the twin-tailed comet. The three of them stepped outside. Seeing a warrior priest appeared to lift the Blades’ mood, as did the sight of Anselm mounting up into his saddle. Oskar’s sense of impending doom began to dissipate.
A quarter of a mile away, Dragomir awoke. The Sylvanian smiled, his fangs pressing against his lower lip. Times were easy; it had been weeks since he’d last caught wind of the one surviving hunter, and the people of Lüthorst were an easy feed. There was little knowledge left to glean from Van Hel’s Mortis in Abstentia, or the many other books and scrolls strewn about his lair. Learning how to unlock the old tower’s doors had borne incredible fruit, even if the ancient walls lacked the charm of a well-appointed mausoleum.
There was a rustling outside his door; a familiar stench heralded the arrival of Filthy Bogdan, his long-serving assistant. The door swung open, and a wan, scrawny creature loped into the chill air of the room. Its silhouette had changed.
‘Bogdan!’ Dragomir exclaimed, ‘vhot is that new decoration? Is that... you... is that deliberate? The bones I understood, but vhy chain a log to your back? Vhy, Bogdan?’
Bogdan’s wrinkled face emitted a childish giggle, and he bounced from one foot to the other. ‘Doth it pleathe you, mathter?’ he wheezed.
‘You have a creative spirit. Now bring me Gottlieb’s Die Rote Körper.’ Bogdan skittered off across the flagstones, motes of candlelit dust coiling behind his footfalls. ‘We will soon be ready, Bogdan. My hour is at hand. Tomorrow night, I think. Yes. Lüthorst’s dead shall consume the town, and the living will join their ranks.’
‘Yeyth mathter,’ Bogdan said. He scampered back over to Dragomir with an ancient tome in his filth-caked hands, offering it with the adoration a good child might show their father. ‘I’m hungry, mathter,’ he said.
‘Then find food, Bogdan. Dine upon the past!’
‘Yeyth mathter. Thankyou, mathter.’
Bogdan grabbed his favourite spade, and went outside.
The air began to clear of his stench. Dragomir devoured the words on the page in front of him, mouthing some of them, committing them to memory. Just reading the incantations made him thirsty with anticipation.
Suddenly, Bogdan returned, far too quickly to have eaten. ‘Mathter, mathter! Men come!’
Dragomir cursed, and went to the gate. Sure enough, a party of armed men had gathered by the chapel and were now walking out onto the moonlit grass of the commons, their weapons drawn. The priest was with them. Dragomir cursed again. He wasn’t ready to enact the plan, but that didn’t matter now. He wasn’t about to leave his newfound library in the hands of these book-burning mortals.
|The men of the Empire leave the chapel.|
As much as Oskar was grateful to have help, he could sense the Blades were rallying around the scarred warrior priest instead of deferring to him. Moreover, the knight was a law unto his own.
‘Dragomir won’t face us alone,’ Marten was saying. ‘Be ready; he will bend the dead to his will. Have any of you faced the reanimated before?’
There was some hesitant shaking of heads.
‘Amateurs,’ said Anselm.
‘It matters not; trust to the Gods. You are defending Taal’s ground with Sigmar’s strength in your arms and Ulric’s courage in your hearts. Whatever should come your way in the next few moments can be met with faith and the good, honest steel you hold in your hands.’
Then Oskar saw them: a loose crowd of figures shambling through the moonlight. Their movements were stiff, as though an invisible hand moved their limbs. Blank, milky eyes and broken teeth flashed white. The Blades faltered.
‘Form up!’ Oskar commanded. The Blades just stared at the shambling dead.
‘They are unnatural, but they are no match for a soldier,’ Marten said. ‘Do as your officer commands, and you’ll see the night through.’
The Blades formed two loose ranks huddled around Marten. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an improvement. Oskar fell in at the end, alongside Anselm. They advanced cautiously past the watchtower at the end of the road, and upon rounding the corner, more of the creatures were revealed. They shambled towards each other, forming a group, their soft moans drifting through the air. Even from a distance, the smell of rotting corpse-meat went straight to the back of Oskar’s mouth. Now gathered, the zombies turned and stumbled towards the Blades.
Oskar had faced bandits, forest goblins and beastmen since joining the state soldiery, but this was different. His enemies had no wants or desires. No agenda. No heartbeat. They simply existed, and they were coming to kill him.
‘Hold,’ he said, hoping that habit and training would keep the Blades from running. These men were supposed to be in bed with their wives at this moment, sleeping off an over-large dinner. ‘Hold,’ he repeated, not even reassuring himself. The only comforting thing about their enemy was their slowness. Oskar was thoroughly disheartened, then, when the zombies started running towards them. ‘Hold!’ he shouted, cocking one of his pistols and taking aim.
Bogdan offered up the aetheric lens, his head bowed with deference. Dragomir snatched hit from his earth-blackened talons and concentrated. The foci were working, he could tell. The air grew cold; the candles snuffed themselves out. Dragomir felt his reach extend beyond its normal limits. Meat and bones lay inert beneath the ground: buried parents, dead children, forgotten cadavers. Dragomir’s fingers twitched, drawing at the threads. Dead flesh moved.
Oskar lopped the rotten arms off the corpse in front of him and heard a scream to his right. A zombie had bitten into one of the Blades’ necks, and the two of them fell to the ground clawing at each other. Everyone was too busy fending off their own opponents to help him. That was the third man down, now. Cold bodies crowded up against them, reaching out with fingers that ended in exposed bone or torn fingernails. Marten gave a furious cry, and for a split second Oskar feared the worst and looked right again. The warrior priest shoved his foe back with a shield bash, and held his warhammer aloft. Its head began to glow, as though fresh from the forge, and he brought it down on his foes in a broad arc that left twin streaks of flame in its wake. The portent was undeniable: Sigmar was with them.
The men cheered with renewed hope, hacking into the zombies like men possessed. Oskar felt his movements quicken, and his sword grow lighter. The tide turned. To his left, Anselm's hammer connected with a zombie's sternum and sent it flying. To his right, one of the Blades batted a zombie's hands away with his shield before hacking furiously at its head. Ere long, they stood at the end of the road with a heap of bodies in their wake. Marten’s hammer dimmed. Men drew ragged breaths. They had survived.
Oskar looked ahead as he reloaded his pistols. An old tower on the hill loomed above them, blotting out the stars. In front of it, the ground appeared to be breaking. No, rising. Hands and faces appeared in the upturned earth, followed by bodies.
‘Until we find the vampire, their numbers will only grow,’ said Anselm, calmly surveying the scene from his saddle. As he spoke, yet more ground began to shift to their left. Bones shone white amidst the gloom. Before their eyes, the bones drew together to form skeletons. From the earth, they lifted up ancient weapons. Unlike the zombies, the skeletons moved with silent purpose, and formed up into ranks, ready to march. The sight of an organised foe was a demoralising one indeed, for the zombies ahead already outnumbered them. ‘I shall deal with them,’ Anselm said. Oskar looked incredulously from the knight to the eight armoured warriors on the hill. ‘They form up to protect the tower. Go and find the bastard,’ Anselm said, spurring his horse into a charge.
Oskar was about to issue orders to that effect when Marten shouted, ‘They can’t stop us reaching the tower! Have at them!’
The men were so fired up that they started charging before they’d even had time to think about what they were doing. It was all to the good, Oskar conceded; the undead were clearly protecting the tower. He almost managed to make himself believe that it didn’t matter if he or Marten issued the order. Running forwards with everyone else, he fired a shot through the forehead of the nearest zombie. Its head snapped backwards. As he charged, Oskar flipped the pistol in the air, caught it by the barrel, and brought the metal pommel down on the skull of the closest monster. After that, it became a tangle of rushed sword strokes and grasping limbs lit by the orange glow of Marten’s hammer.
In the early stages of the game, Maisey’s casting rolls were great, as were the zombies in the first few rounds of combat. By the end of game turn two, there were three summoned units on the table, and three of the state troops had died to the first of those units. We both worried that the game balance was completely off.
It turns out, nope, my dice were completely off, and were giving a misrepresentative idea of how dangerous zombies are to state troops. For a good few rounds after that, the men of the Empire proceeded to batter the snot out of the undead. This came as something of a relief.
The last of the zombies was skewered into the floor by no less than three sword points. Oskar glanced over to Anselm. The knight’s horse lay dead on the slope, but Anselm still fought on, using his armoured forearms to block the rusty blades. It was only a matter of time before one of the skeletons managed to stab at his exposed head.
‘Brother Marten,’ Oskar said, ‘take the Blades and gain entry to the tower. If we’re going to face a vampire, I’d rather do it with a knight at our side. Well fought, men,’ he added. Oskar realised that it was, effectively, the first order he'd made, and they were already knee-deep in the fight. His earlier hope, that of making a fine commander, now felt hopelessly naive. Commanders were supposed to pit their wits against their enemy, not fight their troops like any other soldier of the rank and file.
‘Sigmar guide you,’ Marten replied. As the men began running uphill, Oskar made a dash for Anselm’s position. Here and there, all over the hill, he could see tussocks of grass and patches of earth starting to shift. He accelerated to a sprint.
Anselm’s hammer splintered a skeleton’s ribcage to his left, and the blow kept going, knocking an incoming sword aside. Oskar closed on them. Another skeleton’s weapon clanged off the back of Anselm’s cuirass. In response, the knight knocked the skeleton’s jaw off its head. Oskar almost tripped when his boot dropped halfway into a burrow, but he kept his footing. Anselm was surrounded; Oskar could see his armour glinting through the empty ribcages of the skeletons. One of them was knocked away from the fight, leaving a trail of bone shards in the air.
Then came a cry of pain, swiftly cut off. Oskar launched into the skeletons, his sword smashing through joints and vertebrae, his pistol pommel caving in skulls. Without men at either side of him, he could fight as he’d done as a duellist: ducking, weaving, rolling. Always moving. The skeletons moved slowly, methodically. It was their downfall. The last skeleton blocked Oskar’s sword, but in so doing exposed its legs. A sharp kick to its knee broke one of its legs and sent it down. Placing a boot on the wrist of its sword arm, Oskar drew his second pistol and shot the skeleton through its empty eye socket. He was dismayed to see that this seemed to have no noticeable effect. The skeleton struggled against his boot, unable to lift its sword. Its shield waved at the young captain in a vague attempt to hit him with the rim. Oskar caught the shield, pushed it to one side, and stamped on its skull. The bullet hole had, at least, weakened the bone.
He looked around. Anselm lay amidst the broken bones, his head almost completely severed from his body. His blood soaked into the grass, appearing black in the silver-blue light. Oskar spat a curse, and looked uphill. Marten and the Blades were nowhere to be seen, but the faint orange glow emanating from the tower’s ground floor suggested they’d gained entry. Oskar started running up the hill, barely noticing that the tussocks and cracks around the hill had stopped moving.
‘The power stone, Bogdan! The power stone!’ Dragomir yelled. That damn priest. It was like pushing against an old wall. If he could find a weak point, he could break through, but at the moment, straining with all his might, he was stuck, held in check by the sheer power of some ignorant mortal’s blind faith. A spectral wind whipped around the room, whipping up scrolls and flicking the pages of open books. The lid of the coffin rattled. The candles suddenly burst into flames and melted completely, covering Bogdan with flying wax as he rummaged through upturned arcane eclectica in his search for the power stone. It was a small object, easily missed in the dark.
‘Now, Bogdan!’ Dragomir yelled. He could sense that the Priest was surging up the tower, seven beating hearts in his wake. All he needed was a little more time. To find the chink in the priest’s shield of faith. He wished he knew the full incantation; he would have been unstoppable. Perhaps the rival of the famous von Carstein, given enough time. But right now, he just needed a boost. Just something; something to push him through this wall. This wall that Nagash would’ve laughed at.
Oskar leapt up the stairs two at a time, but the others were way ahead of him. Why hadn’t they waited for him? He pushed his resentment aside and kept moving.
‘The power stone, you foetid swine!’ Dragomir screamed. His voice cracked. His arms shook. He needed blood.
‘Thorry, mathter!’ Bogdan spluttered. ‘Thorry!’
|Brother Marten and the Blades enter the old tower.|
Oskar passed the first floor. Book shelves, some of them half-empty. The second floor: empty, but for a pair of manacles trailing across the rotten floorboards. The third floor: more books and broken furniture. He clambered up the ladder and burst onto the roof to find Marten standing in the centre, his shaking arms outstretched. Both his hammer and the twin-tailed comet on his shield burned like torches. The Blades were all backing off. There was no vampire in sight.
Dragomir’s eyes shot open. Something cracked.
Marten fell to the ground with a cry.
The upside of having a building with interior detail is being able to storm it like a medieval SWAT team. The downside is finding nothing there. Damn you, Maisey! By positioning units to defend the tower, he had completely suckerpunched me, and given himself loads more time to Raise Dead.
There was one problem, though: in the first version of the scenario, the vampire could only cast each spell once (as per normal WFB), so when I managed to kill all the dead things on the table, Maisey just had to throw six dice at Raise Dead and hope for the best. Inevitably, this eventually resulted in a miscast that summoned a bunch of zombies outside the tower, but also destroyed Dragomir’s wizarding abilities. In many ways, the game was over at the point where Maisey really deserved to win, hence my changing the rules to allow multiple castings of Raise Dead each turn so long as there are no summoned units on the table.
It should also be noted that, of course, models like Warrior Priests don’t specifically dispel magic, but in my head, it’s much cooler if someone’s pitting their will against the enemy caster, and that’s pretty much what used to happen in the previous version of the Empire army book. I enjoyed the image of Marten striding up the tower’s stairs, his burning hammer held in front of him like a torch of righteousy righteousness, although sadly we don’t get to see that in this story as it’s limited to the perspectives of Oskar and Dragomir.
The air grew still. Scrolls fluttered to the floor. Dragomir staggered back until he bumped into a wall. Gone. Completely. He couldn’t even sense the whereabouts of the humans any more, never mind the empyrean. He was null. Inert. But for a little more power, and he would’ve broken through the priest’s will, but instead, he had been rendered impotent.
‘Found it!’ Bogdan shouted, holding aloft a small, intricately-carved pebble.
If the useless little puke had been only ten seconds faster... ‘Come here,’ Dragomir whispered.
‘Ith Bogdan going to get a reward?’
‘You’ve no idea,’ Dragomir said, clenching his fist in the darkness.
Oskar shook the priest’s shoulder. Beads of sweat shone on his shaven head. The Blades gathered nervously around. ‘Brother Marten?’
‘He’s stopped,’ Marten said.
‘Stopped?’ Oskar asked.
Marten said he was unsure as to whether Dragomir was holding back, or had simply scarpered, having fooled them into climbing all the way up the tower. This much was clear: in pitting his will against the vampire’s sorcery, Marten was barely able to stand, much less fight.
‘If we’re going to catch him, we’d best be quick,’ Oskar said. ‘Down the stairs, you lot. Quickly!’ The blades hesitated, clearly hoping that the vampire had fled, and their work over. With Marten’s collapse, their fighting spirit had gone.
‘We let Dragomir go now, and he’ll be back with an army,’ Marten said. The men knew this was true, but it did little to kindle their fighting spirit.
‘If he’s fled, then there’s nothing to be afraid of,’ Oskar said, ‘and if he hasn’t, then you’ll not be sleeping safely tonight, will you?’ he asked, looking through one of the windows at the silvery landscape far below. Over on the small hill to the west was Lüthorst’s graveyard. ‘If he’s not here, Brother Marten, I assume we’ll find him in Morr’s Garden?’
‘A safe bet,’ Marten said, leaning on his hammer.
Hearing noises, Oskar leaned over the windowsill and looked down at the tower’s base. ‘There are more zombies gathered around the tower’s gate. Be ready,’ he said. The men looked about as ready as an Ox in a slaughterhouse. Marten took a few deep breaths, clenched his jaw, and went for the ladders back into the tower. Seeing the most exhausted member of the party staggering towards the fight embarrassed the men into following, and while they all gathered around the two ladders, Oskar took the opportunity to reload his pistols.
Dragomir slumped against the wall, his fury momentarily spent. Whimpering, Bogdan retreated into the corner to nurse his new dents. What was left of the vampire’s humanity conceded that it hadn’t been Bogdan’s fault that they were unprepared. It was just misfortune, plain and simple, and it should be that damn priest, not Bogdan, who suffered the consequences. What few zombies remained outside the tower would provide no real resistance, but perhaps they would afford enough time for him to... no, he couldn’t leave all this lore behind. What if his abilities returned in time? What if he wished to buy his way into Drakenhof? The mortals were hubristic enough to believe themselves his equal in combat, and he would prove them wrong. Dragomir rose, strode across the floor of the mausoleum, and took up his swords.
He paused. The priest had shown remarkable resilience, and he’d heard gunfire. Perhaps it would not be such an easy thing to dispatch them. Looking back, he saw Bogdan still snivelling in the corner. The wretch was a mortal, but a faithful one. They had journeyed a long, long way together, but for the first time since the Blood Kiss, he wondered if this place, this pitiful human settlement, might be his final resting place.
‘Do you remember the songs, Bogdan?’
‘The songs, Bogdan. The songs we used to sing... in the mother country.’
‘Yeyth, mathter,’ Bogdan said hopefully.
‘Sing me a song, Bogdan. Sing me a song... from the mother country.’
‘Yeyth, mathter,’ Bogdan wheezed, gingerly picking himself up off the floor. His voice was an aberration, but he so loved to sing, and Dragomir knew that the words would stir something in his chest, even if the delivery lacked charm.
In life, they begged for thcraps from our table,
In death, they gnaw on our boneth, now able,
To shrug off their fearth,
And shed no more tearth,
All immortalth, now. Thith ith their fable.
The sound of fighting told Dragomir that the men of the Empire had emerged from the bottom of the tower, and were dispatching the last of his minions. He felt the familiar weight of weapons; felt the need for blood to slide warmly down his throat. With gusto, Bogdan launched into the second verse, stamping rhythmically on the ground as he got into his stride. The sound was awful, but an idiotic grin was broadening the cut on Bogdan’s bruised lip. Dragomir felt a strange, fatherly pride.
‘Such artistic passion,’ Dragomir said. ‘Such innocence.’
‘Thank you, mathter,’ Bogdan said, his wounds forgotten.
‘Come Bogdan, let us teach these men the songs of the mother country.’
‘And the danthe, mathter? I like the red danthe, mathter.’
‘Yes, Bogdan. The red dance also. Come.’
Pistols raised and cocked, Oskar walked cautiously up the path to the gates of Morr’s Garden, expecting the vampire to leap from the trees on either side at any moment. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, when a heavily armoured figure and a scampering wretch came running through the rusty gates and made straight for them. The vampire and his last minion moved with surprising speed. There wasn’t even have enough time to form ranks. Oskar levelled his pistol, aimed, and fired at the vampire.
With a shriek, the scampering creature dived in front of the bullet. It hit him full in the chest. When he landed, he was still. The vampire emitted a howl of such despair and fury that even Marten took a step back. Oskar wasted no time in firing his second pistol. Judging by the way the vampire stumbled briefly, Oskar knew he’d hit him, but the vampire kept on coming, apparently able to ignore bullets.
The pain in Dragomir’s gut only served to amplify his rage and his thirst. He broke into a sprint, seeing nothing but terror on the faces of the men in front of him. They were like ripe apples waiting to be picked from a low-hanging branch.
With movements too fast to follow, the vampire was among them. Before Oskar had even thought about where to stab the monster, it had skewered two of the Blades on its swords. One of them, stabbed in the neck, slumped to the ground. The other was impaled through the chest. Dragomir lifted the sword up as though the burly Hochlander weighed nothing, and smiled as he slid down the blade. Just as the vampire made to bite the screaming man’s neck, Oskar made his first strike. It winged off the vampire’s ridged armour, but it got his attention. With a furious shout, Dragomir hurled the impaled swordsman at Oskar, who ducked down and sprang back up into a lunge as the swordsman passed overhead. The tip of his longsword hit Dragomir at the top of the throat, and thrust up straight through its head. To Oskar’s disbelief, this didn’t seem to kill him.
‘Cut it off!’ Marten shouted. ‘You have to cut the head off!’
Despite being pinned in place, Dragomir was still using one of his sword arms to fend off the attacks of both Marten and the remaining Blades with apparent ease. Oskar feinted with the pommel of a pistol, drawing Dragomir’s other sword into a parry, before yanking his longsword out of the vampire's head and taking a fast swing for his neck. The blade’s edge passed straight through. Dragomir’s eyes widened in disbelief for a moment, before his skin cracked and peeled like burning paper. His body collapsed and crumbled to ash, leaving nothing but an empty suit of armour and two blood-stained swords lying on the path.
Marten asked them to stay put while he fetched blessed water and purifying salts. The ground on which Dragomir’s ashes fell was cleansed, after which the dead troops were bound in the proper manner and taken back to Lüthorst. Come the morning, they would find someone with a cart to help them return the bodies to Fort Denkh, and from there, to their families. Five dead; fully half the men under Oskar’s command. Having not even issued more than one actual command during the battle, he'd failed to measure up even to the worst officers he'd served under. He imagined that he would be relieved of his captaincy. The prospect was not an unappealing one; he hadn’t asked to lead. He hadn’t even asked to be a sergeant. People seemed to think that just because he could fight, he ought to be in charge. The entire point of his joining the state soldiery – achieving a wage and anonymity – was backfiring.
Thoroughly exhausted, Oskar and the Blades accepted Marten’s offer to sleep in the chapel that night. When morning came, they trudged back to Fort Denkh with a rickety corpse-laden cart in tow.
It has to be said that Dragomir rolled poorly in his one and only round of close combat. It wasn’t his fault that Oskar managed to take a wound off him with stand and shoot, but five Strength 5 attacks could easily have killed more than two state troops. Really, though, more of the Empire troops should’ve died before they even got to Dragomir; they made up for their earlier misfortunes with ridiculous good fortune, either thanks to the sheer incompetence of the zombies, or an uncanny ability to use their shields like a boss.
That, and the fact that the vampire de-magicked himself so spectacularly. Any other miscast result, with the exception of a Dimensional Cascade, would’ve been better – losing a wound is fine when you regenerate one every time you cast something from the Lore of Necromancy/Vampires/Whatever it’s called.
Oskar stood in Marshal Fallschturm’s office, one hand on the hilt of his longsword. Two days’ stubble graced his jawline, and he stank of the road. Having finished recounting the mission to the Marshal, he awaited the reprimand. So far as he was concerned, he deserved whatever punishment he got; it had been his responsibility, and his failure.
‘Dead? You’re quite certain?’ the Marshal was saying. ‘And only five casualties? Damn fine show. Good man. All in a day’s work.’ If the marshal was employing sarcasm, it wasn't obvious. All Oskar could think about was the scenes that would no doubt be unfolding that evening in five previously peaceful households. That Fallschturm could reduce the events of the night before down to favourable numbers summed up all the reasons why Oskar had no business being in charge.
This was it, he realised: if he was going to resign his commission, this was the moment. He opened his mouth to speak, but something half-remembered stopped him. Instead, he smiled politely and hoped that his next day’s work would consist of nothing but three hot meals and a long, uninterrupted night.
As he walked out onto the mud of the parade ground, the memory grew clearer. It was something Marten had said as they made ready for bed the night before. “I know that look - the look of a man about to give up at the first obstacle. You’ll regret it if you do,’ he said. ‘When you were just a soldier, how many times did you wish for an officer who understood the men under his command?”
At the time, he'd been unable to take the priest's words in - the rush of the fight was still too near - and sleep had not come easily. He didn't yet know how to command, but for the men who'd died, and the ones he could still save, he was determined to learn. Smiling in resignation, he headed for the smithy’s whetstone. The secrets of command might still be a mystery to him, but he knew exactly what twenty-odd walking corpses and a vampire’s armour would've done to his longsword.
* * *
And there you have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, and if you’ve made it this far, give yourself a biscuit. Please. I just ate an entire packet of Fox’s Crunch Creams, and now I feel kinda funny. My professional pride also demands that I apologise for any lack of literary quality or off-kilter tone; I'd normally write about three drafts of a story before putting it in front of someone's face, but this was just a bit of fun, and was treated only to the one draft and a few tidying edits. Sorry about that. If you have questions about the scenario, comments on the story, or anything else to say, I’d love to hear it.