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Portents of Doom The caravan pulled to a halt in the mid-morning light and took their bearings off the landscape. The two sighted landmarks were proving ideal; the first the tallest mountain they could see, crudely dubbed the Ogre’s Finger, whose shadow was already crawling back to the Mourn as the morning progressed; the second a large forested ruin still a day away and brooding ominously at the caravan. To Adolf Von Wanklin neither seemed to be welcoming and he was at least glad to be out of that shadowy finger for another day, though not looking forward to the ruins. How big they must be if they could already sight it and what could have built them? Not mere men. The Strigany merchant had enjoyed the quiet travelling, all two weeks of it spread through the long days of tense movement, silent watching, tireless guiding and vicious fighting. Hopefully the return trip would be quieter, giving him less time to reflect on the perils and more on the profit of this venture. Fifteen months ago, starting the Von Wanklin’s family business in Talabheim had seemed risky, but with more than ample return, so Adolf had pointed out how much they stood to make if they expanded their base. Adolf had been thinking of Altdorf, Middenheim, Marienburg, maybe even Bretonnia, but his old man had had a light come on in his eyes and thus said “Cathay”, and so Adolf had packed wagons of Von Wanklins’ products that would keep on the long trip, paid for the finest protection they could afford and waved his family goodbye, little knowing the immensity of the task ahead. They had chosen the mildly longer route of the Northern Wastes, keeping to the shadows of the mountains along it’s southern borders, which were supposed to be safer than the snowy plains and taiga that extended north and contained (or were said to) creatures spawned, weaned and wiped by the dark gods far to the north that should have been human or animal, not some macabre mixture of the two. There was a veritable bestiary of creatures who lived and lurked in the shadows and Adolf had kept a journal solely dedicated to descriptions and drawings of them. If he wanted a bad night’s sleep he merely had to thumb through this volume.

Portents of Doom

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Portents of Doom The caravan pulled to a halt in the mid-morning light and took their bearings off the landscape. The two sighted landmarks were proving ideal; the first the tallest mountain they could see, crudely dubbed the Ogre’s Finger, whose shadow was already crawling back to the Mourn as the morning progressed; the second a large forested ruin still a day away and brooding ominously at the caravan.
To Adolf Von Wanklin neither seemed to be welcoming and he was at least glad to be out of that shadowy finger for another day, though not looking forward to the ruins. How big they must be if they could already sight it and what could have built them? Not mere men.
The Strigany merchant had enjoyed the quiet travelling, all two weeks of it spread through the long days of tense movement, silent watching, tireless guiding and vicious fighting. Hopefully the return trip would be quieter, giving him less time to reflect on the perils and more on the profit of this venture.
Fifteen months ago, starting the Von Wanklin’s family business in Talabheim had seemed risky, but with more than ample return, so Adolf had pointed out how much they stood to make if they expanded their base. Adolf had been thinking of Altdorf, Middenheim, Marienburg, maybe even Bretonnia, but his old man had had a light come on in his eyes and thus said “Cathay”, and so Adolf had packed wagons of Von Wanklins’ products that would keep on the long trip, paid for the finest protection they could afford and waved his family goodbye, little knowing the immensity of the task ahead.
They had chosen the mildly longer route of the Northern Wastes, keeping to the shadows of the
mountains along it’s southern borders, which were supposed to be safer than the snowy plains and taiga that extended north and contained (or were said to)
creatures spawned, weaned and wiped by the dark gods far to the north that should have been human or
animal, not some macabre mixture of the two. There was a veritable bestiary of creatures who lived and
lurked in the shadows and Adolf had kept a journal solely dedicated to descriptions and drawings of them.
If he wanted a bad night’s sleep he merely had to thumb through this volume.
The caravan’s mercenary leader, a flame-haired woman, slim in build, long of leg and smarter than the rest of the scum she lead by a factor of a hundred, was scanning the horizon with her greyish blue eyes. They seemed to see through everything and over the horizon and Adolf hated to admit that she scared the hell out of him. He knew she didn’t like him much, too much the merchant, but held her fierce temper back to use on her collective of idiots. He had to admit that Glory Vixan was very, very good at what she did, even if she did put a lot of emphasis on calling him by his surname. As she was doing now.
“Von Wanklin, ho merchant, the weather threatens to turn, we should move as quickly as we can, for as far as we are able, before the rain hits and this grassland becomes mire.”
Adolf looked at the bright sky with its single wisp of cloud in the far distance. The woman must be suffering from sunstroke was his first thought, but she had been the first to recognise many of the dangers inflicted on them and not yet been wrong once.
“Agreed. Mayhaps we can make that ruin by rainfall.”
“Nay, we shall detour round the edifice. I like not its look in this desolation. We shall move toward it till rainfall, then veer south tomorrow. With luck and temperate weather, we shall spy Qiong-Ang in five days. Seven if these rains are harsh and stormy.”
The caravan started moving again and as the day turned to afternoon, the clear sky changed to dull and overcast, from blue to a greyish yellow, the wind picking up and the distant sands of the northern deserts speckled the group. “It will be raining in the next two hours I expect,” Glory yelled over the wind. The ruin was now extremely close and some vague feeling of unease stole over them in the dulling atmosphere.
They eventually stopped the caravan as the first splashes of rain fell, turning the wagons into a small circle and setting up the tents in the gaps between each of them, shelter enough for the three dozen men (and single woman). It gave them enough room to stay away from the harsh sandy wind, the thickening raindrops and see in every direction outside of their safety.
“By my reckoning, we maybe only a league from the ruin. I find this storm disquieting and too sudden. We shall keep a wary eye out.” Vixan ordered the men, an eye that quickly proved to be more difficult, for the sudden rainfall turned into a storm that lashed around them. The horses were doubly secured inside the circle, the better to make sure that they wouldn’t escape and run away from the caravan across the prairie.
The thunder was too loud for conversation to be heard and the ground quickly became mud, so each of the small fires spluttered to slow extinguishment and provided little heat and warmth, yet it was the light from them that was most wanted, for the early night pressed in eagerly.
“Magic afoot, daemonry even.” The tall redhead norscan Glory had in the mercenary group, a fellow call Farhad, said in a low rumble. His close colleague, a grey cloaked little man called the Ratter, nodded in quiet agreement.
The shadows did seem to be pressing in on the groups, trying to reach the warmth and light of the fires, and even the many flashes of lightning seemed to be striking points on the ground and then sucked out of the air quicker than normal. It slowly got to the men and more than once large yells from the campfires were raised at something thought glimpsed in the flash drinking in the electricity.
“Shaggoths, I would wager.” A lean albino whispered loudly. Out of all the warriors Glory had, this one spooked Adolf the most, for his aspect was most sinister and his knowledge otherworldly. His blade was rune-encrusted, but not dwarfish ones, and there was an aspect of weird on his shoulders that owed to something more than his albinism.
“We left the mountains behind and that is their lairs to be found. Too many times have I seen them to know this is the wrong place for them to be found,” the red-haired barbarian said. “This is Cathayan magic.”
Adolf shivered even though the storm was baking the air. He disliked the eerie and occult, the irrational. Give him the material, the financial. It had been him whom had laid down all the Von Wanklins’ business plans, what to sell, the price, whereas his family were only good for the actual manufacture and movement. They were always out in that damned barn of theirs, the one they were wasting by not storing any material or livestock in. Their father had declared it sacrosanct and inviolate for some reason and Adolf had lamented that, because it was a waste of their resources and storage, but Father ran the business and had the last word on the subject.
A scream rang out from one of the other campfires and a bright burst of flame could be seen, a burst of flame that turned out to be one of men whose arms were on fire. The wall of rain put it out, but attracted everyone together to see what was going on.
They got the man under one of the makeshift tents and looked at the arm. One of Von Wanklins’ men pulled out a small vial of their oil and smeared it on to the burn, Adolf knowing that it would ease the pain and to dock the price from out of the both men’s wages.
“What happened?” He asked.
The other men around the fire looked around them, as if trying to see something in the outer darkness around them. “Teddy, he, he put his hand in the fire.”
“What?”
“I dunno, he just seemed to reach his hand out and put it in the fire. It weren’t quick or nothing, but we thought he was trying to stoke it, then he plunged his hand right in.”
They all looked at the burnt man, who was shivering in pain. “I di’nt wanna, but somethin’ were ahold o’ me arm, pullin’ me towards it. Couldn’t stop it.”
Glory looked around them “Did any of you see anything unusual?”
The men all shook their heads. Everyone seemed to be staring out into the storm-tossed prairie. What they were actually staring out at was the ruin, but the dark was too black to see through to it. Even the flashes of lightning weren’t illuminating anything, each flash doing little more than blinding them.
“Did you see something move?” The Ratter asked.
“Blinded.” Farhad replied.
“Squint, you oaf, the eyes don’t take in the light then. I swear I saw something moving around the point the flash hit the ground.”
The whole group started doing it and still weren’t exactly sure what they were looking for.
“There’s nothing, Rat.”
“No, I can see something.”
The albino nodded, “a black smoke. Like a mist hovering around the ground.”
This elicited a few seconds worth of silence, before Glory broke it. “Alcir, are you certain?”
The albino nodded. “Very much so. I have never seen the like, but whenever the lightning connects with the grass, the brief spark is snuffed out, instead of sparking into fire, the power absorbed by the mist. It stems out across the plains in all directions. I believe that our fires are halting it from entering the camp.”
The men all looked at each other, judging the albino’s words, but Glory moved into action. “Make a big fire in the centre of the camp, near the horses. We must keep them all stoked.”
“Why did Teddy put his hand in the fire?”
“We don’t have enough wood.”
The questions came thick and fast, but Glory ignored them, whilst Adolf just stared out of the camp trying to see exactly what they said they were seeing. A flash of lightning seemed to hit quite close by, yet still he couldn’t see anything.
A large pile of wood was quickly stacked up and trying to be set alight, but between the rain and the haste, wasn’t catching quickly. Brands from the smaller fires were being run over, but they seemed to be going out with unnatural quenching, even when shielded against the elements.
“The smoke, it moves in the camp. We must act quickly. Grab as many brands from the fires and run here as fast as you are able.” The albino ordered, rendering a scene that would have been called comical if the situation were less dangerous, with men running from fire to centre bearing fire and occasionally sliding to the ground in the mud. In quiet desperation, the air took a thick turn as smoke from the brands (and what else was now mixed therein) filled it and there was much coughing. The albino grabbed Glory’s arm and whispered something into it, before she turned to the other men.
“Return to your fires, Alcir believes he has a method that will help.” The men moved quickly, leaving the albino in darkness and all they could do was stay close to their fires and try to listen to
what the mercenary was going to do. Indeed the fierceness of the storm precluded any chance of understanding and several times Adolf could swear that he heard yelling or chanting, but the words were drowned by a sudden increase in the story ferocity, until he could have sworn that it intended for them to drown on those grassy plains. Even the lightning had stopped, but the feeling that something was at their throats persisted, whither it be fear or some alien other.
Then from the sky fell a bolt that seemed to fill the camp centre and a crack that deafened all there for some minutes and knocked many off their feet in intensity. Only Glory seemed to stay still and, when Adolf later asked what she had seen, the flame-haired warrior would only say the albino and his fire, for the bolt ignited the stack of wood to bright flame, and the immenseness of the bolt seemed to have blasted the smoke clear away from the camp. The rain certainly could not diminish the power of the pyre and even seemed to be turning to steam as it impacted.
What seemed to also counter-act the weather was a lessening of the storm and within an hour the rain halted, the storm moved away (or dispersed), the sandy wind died with them and all around was still and quiet.
The albino could be found sitting cross-legged in the mud by his fire, smiling gently to himself, though many assumed that the strike had destroyed him or his mind. The night terrors on them all slowly slunk back into the night, the darkness of the storm clearing and the moon of Mannslieb clear in the sky. This made the men more thankful, for it was a good omen after fearing that the storm had been in part due to Morrslieb rising.
There were many questions about what had happened and it took many hours for the men to settle themselves before catching even a little sleep that night. The horses, whom had been struck with the same fear and mightily restless, were refreshed as best as they could be, but as the first ray of dawn in the east rose (a little more menacing than it should have been, for it came from over the forested ruins and hung with the fear of the night, or even some alien or daemon presence trying to suck it dry), the camp moved into action and got as swiftly underway as they could manage, reining the horses and digging the wheels from the mud that had set around them.
Von Wanklin stared at the ruins, then in the opposite direction, back towards the Mountains of Mourn and the lone peak they had been using as a guide. It seemed to have toppled down overnight and Adolf was even more surprised to realise that the sun warmed those far slopes in the morning, rather than casting their shadow over the plain. He pointed it out to Vixan.
“Aye, a daemon’s magic has brought us here, into range of who knows what dread powers. I for one did not like that lone peak pointing towards our destiny, but who can truly tell what we faced.” Yet as she spoke these last words, her eyes were turned towards the albino, who alone had fallen asleep for most of the night and now was sitting atop the lead wagon alert.