The first time Markward Lander saw a Witch Hunter he was only five years old, but he immediately knew he hated the man. It was a grim man with impressive moustaches and a dark cloak. He stood on the square, with a firm grip around the arm of a young girl. The girl was Janrika, the beautiful, orphaned young woman that helped Markward’s mother at the brewery. It was obvious that the adults who looked on, including his mother, disapproved of what the man was doing, but they all kept a furtive distance to the scene. The square was silent except for the Witch Hunter’s hoarse voice.
“I hereby accuse you of heresy and congregation with the forces of Chaos”, he said. Then he calmly drew his pistol and fired it at close range through the girl’s temple.
For years this scene haunted Markward’s dreams. He would wake up in the middle of the night, screaming after a nightmare about the moustachioed man with the hard eyes. He would often tell his mother how horrible and unfair it was that Janrika had died. She always nodded but hushed him.
One late night seven years later, Markward was woken by a strange sound from downstairs. The boy tiptoed out of his room toward the wooden stair. On the other side of the staircase, his mother’s door was shut. So the sounds probably meant that someone was breaking into their brewery. Markward did not want to scare his mother, so he went back into his room, armed himself with his knife and silently descended the stairs. The entrance hall was empty, but strange, muffled sounds escaped beneath the door to the brewing room. An odd light also played under the door planks. The boy forced away his fears. “Good, whatever the burglar is doing in there, he will be preoccupied and I can attack him from behind” he thought.
He slowly and silently pushed the door open and to his surprise beheld the back of a female figure. Someone that looked like his mother was stirring the brewing tun, like a normal day. However, what was in it looked suspiciously like blood and a peculiar reddish light played in the air of the room. He must have gasped, because his mother turned around. It really was her, but she did not look at all like she used to. Her face muscles seemed to flex oddly as if by some other presence. Her eyes were rolled back so that only the whites could be seen. When she spoke the timbre was unknown to Markward and sounded full of discordant echoes. “My son, maybe it was time for you to know, after all.”
Markward dropped the knife. He gave a scared, shrill cry and turned on the spot. Slamming the door, he ran out on the street. He did not look back. He only slowed down when he came to the town gates. There he had to wait a moment while the gates were opened to some farmers in front of him, leaving at the first hint of dawn. The guards gave the boy a strange look as he slipped through, but said nothing. He rushed on, as if the speed would drive the horrible pictures from his head. He left the road and ran into the woods that closed in on the little town. In the bleak morning, he crawled under a pine, curled up and let himself drift away.
He did not know how long he had been lying there when he woke up. The wood around him was filled with gloomy twilight. A chill wind whistled between the trees and made the pines sway reluctantly back and forth. What he did know was that he was not alone. Someone was standing beside the pine. He recognised that dress all too well. “Come out from under there”, his mother said and leaned down to look at him. The strange pulsations were not present in her face, but her eyes still looked all wrong somehow. Even though he did not want to, for some reason he found himself crawling out to her.
“I have come to bring you back and to tell you about what you saw”, she said. “When your father died, I, as a widow, would not have been allowed to continue brewing for more than a year, before our brewery would be taken from me, or I would be forced to marry anew.” Markward stared at her quietly, because even though the subject seemed mundane, his mother’s entire appearance was threatening.
“I did not wish to remarry and one day a stranger came in to buy some ale. For one reason or the other I mentioned my dilemma and he said that he could solve it for me. He said that he could show me secrets that would make petty problems like this fade away. He then disclosed the secrets of the Lord of Change. I embraced it eagerly when the veils of rotten human norms were ripped apart. I gained insight. Chaos pulses within all the veins of the Empire and it will not be long before it reaches the heart. All mankind bears the seed of our Dark Masters.”
She spoke louder and louder and the normality of her appearance decreased gradually. Her facial muscles twisted subtly. “Through the years, I met several others that had seen the naked flesh of truth. I studied frenetically and even took on an apprentice. Yes, that was Janrika. You were still too young then, but I am glad of that, for she was taken from me and I see greater potential in you. So, Markward, my son, let me introduce you to the Lord of Change. It will only hurt a little, at first, but I swear to you that you will never wish to go back.” Markward took a step back, horrified, as the fundament of his childhood was ripped away. His mother stretched out her arms toward him. He wanted to run, but found himself unable to do so.
Suddenly the sound of someone clearing their throat came from the edge of the glade. Markward’s transfixion was broken and he turned his head. There stood the moustachioed Witch Hunter from his nightmares. He looked just as grim as seven years ago, only more worn and with a scar across his forehead.
"Thank you! I am seldom served such a clear confession”, he said, striding forward, drawing his pistol. Markward’s mother made a hissing sound, like a monstrous cat, and thrust out her palm in front of her. Blue flames shot out toward the Witch Hunter. But they could not harm him. Like a ship’s stern cleaves the waves, the flames parted around him and he came through unsinged.
The Witch Hunter raised his pistol, aimed for the heart of the being that Markward had once seen as his mother, and fired. When the bullet hit, her body suddenly burst into white-hot flames. A deafening wail pierced through the silence of the forest. A moment later she was gone. Only a hint of ashes remained in the air.
The man cleaned out his pistol thoroughly, fastened it in his belt and came up close to Markward. He grabbed the boy’s jaw in a hard grip and looked deep into his eyes. The man’s eyes were grey and searching, but lacked emotion; his fingers were dry and coarse against the boy’s cheeks. After what seemed like an eternity, he let go. “You do not have the taint”, he said, turning to walk away. When he had taken a few steps, Markward called out after him. The Witch Hunter turned.
Witch Hunter Markward walked across the little square of the village Garmhaft, heading for the young man by the well. His pistol was already in his hand. The hatred in the villagers’ eyes was of the sort he had often faced before. Some men simply had to sacrifice their compassion and the company of their fellow man. Without them, the Empire would already have perished screaming, as dark cults infiltrated all parts of the realm. “She was at least right about that”, Markward thought, smirking joylessly.
“I haven’t done anything!” the man by the well shouted, when he saw who was approaching him. He played it well, the fear almost sounded genuine. At this, three large men ran up behind Markward. He knew they did, without looking. He had already anticipated it.
“You’re not touching him, murderer!” one of the men bawled and tried to grab the back of Markward’s cloak. The Witch Hunter turned, quicker than the man could react. He whacked him across the face with the butt of the pistol, breaking the nose. He then turned again, without waiting for the reaction and kept walking toward his quarry. When the next pursuer jumped at him, he drew the second pistol with his left hand and fired into the man’s chest. The attacker collapsed, gurgling on the ground.
Once again, Markward turned his attention to the Chaos worshipper in front of him. “I am innocent”, the man cried, cowering. “Good, then I suspect your death will be clean”, Markward said and raised the pistol in his right hand.
Just when he pulled the trigger, the third man behind him pulled at his arm, so that the shot went awry. This was unexpected. Markward had been sure that he would back off after the death of his friend. The disturbance gave the sorcerer in front of him time. He rose up with a guttural laugh and started chanting in a strange tongue. The very air around them turned dark and seemed to form into claw-like shapes. The man hanging onto Markward’s right shoulder gave a frightened whimper and crawled away. “So, he did not know whom he aided”, Markward thought as the man tried to hide behind him. The black claws made no distinction and the villager screamed as his flesh was rent.
The claws swung down in frantic cutting motions at the Witch Hunter. Even though he held the comet-shaped bronze ward firmly in his hand, Markward could feel the black blades scratching at his skin, as if they were on the verge of tearing apart the talisman’s defences. This was powerful magic. He would have to act quickly. He threw one of his pistols at his enemy. There was no time to reload anyway. It missed the man’s face and slammed into the wall behind him. It did however create enough of a distraction for Markward to draw the two-handed sword from the sheath on his back. The blade gleamed dully.
His foe had regained his concentration. “You cannot win, Witch Hunter. I am too strong for your wards.” Markward clutched even tighter at the bronze shape. He could feel the eldritch sorcery clawing through the barrier. Soon the protection would be torn. But he could not swing his sword if he held onto the ward. “I have worn these garments long enough”, Markward thought as he cast down the talisman and threw himself forward in one motion. As the spell ripped him open, he thrust at his enemy with all his reach. The long blade slid into the sorcerer’s chest and Markward felt a moment’s satisfaction as he saw the disbelief on the man’s face.
When the convulsions and screams had finally ended, Markward heaved himself up to a sitting position. He pushed away the stiff bodies lying around him and rummaged in his pack. He found needle and thread and began the tiring work of stitching up all the deep wounds on the right side of his rib cage.
At last he was done. His fingers were almost black with coagulated blood. Blood was also smeared all over his torso and had stuck in his chest hair. All the stitches made him look like a tunic patched far too many times. It was not pretty, but it would be enough to stem the blood. He groaned and looked around. People glared at him from a distance. He scanned them and their houses. “I should probably burn the village, just to be on the safe side”, he thought.
Markward led the Greatswords forward. The two hosts already clashed on both sides. Maniacal flagellants swung their flails wildly to the right of them, while Arch Lector Sigward led the haggard swordsmen on the left flank. Roaring, mutated abominations ridden by crimson demons were closing in fast on his own unit. In a loud voice, Markward pointed at their leader and announced in the general direction of the enemies “I declare you a heretic and an Enemy of Man!” Turning to his men, he continued in a lighter voice. “A principle that generally holds: if it has tentacles, it is a heretic.” The veterans laughed but seemed eager for the Witch Hunter to turn back toward the approaching foes. But he knew what he was doing. “Look out for those extra arms. That is how I lost my eye. It is hard to parry four stabs at once, so my advice is to kill them quickly”, he said with a wry smile.
All the while he had kept his attention on the sorcerer behind the enemy battle line. He obviously prepared a spell and Markward was sure it would be directed at the Greatswords. All he could do was to trust that the seals on his talisman would hold. The hourglass had been prepared with amber, ashes, earth, gold, smoke, bone, water and light. And then a drop of Daemon blood to bind it all. Despite this, the dark cloud conjured by the Chaos sorcerer descended unnaturally fast from the heavens and seemed to bode ill.
Lightning bolts leapt from the blackness, but just as they were to strike the Greatswords, most of them were deflected, like arrows against a well-forged plate armour. A few of the men were scorched to charred shreds of armour, cloth and skin, but the majority took heart from the protection of the Witch Hunter’s charms. They let out a defiant war cry and charged the oncoming wave of thundering behemoths.
Captain Wulfstan Sturmhof walked up to Markward just as the latter managed to pull his sword free. It had been buried deep inside a gigantic beast with horns as long as swords, whose twisted rider also lay severed beside it. A brief look of astonishment passed over the Battle Standard Bearer’s face when he saw the Witch Hunter’s most recent prey. Markward greeted him by touching his hat with two fingers, then looked down and started cleaning his blade with a rag. “Busy days, these, don’t you think?” he remarked.