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Verric's mouth was dry and his heart hammered like a forge-piston, but his hands were steady. Fear was an old friend. It had kept him alive this long, through two decades in the Freeguilds and another raising a boy alone on the frontier.
He pulled back the curtain and peered out into the lashing rain. Sorrowcreek's makeshift palisade of vine-lashed timbers loomed out of the mist, and beyond that the canopy of Chiltus Forest, writhing beneath a gangrenous sky. Screams and pitiful wails echoed in the distance. They had come again, the depraved tribes of the deep woods. Rotskins. Bringers of disease and ruin, worshippers of an unspeakable god.
He could see an orange glow in the distance, flickering faintly in the downpour. Was that the old Fhendel place aflame? At least the fires would claim no fresh victims – Goodman Fhendel and his wife had passed weeks back. He choked back a bitter laugh. The Rotskin tribes would find naught here but emaciated bodies and maggot-ridden timbers. The able-bodied had long ago abandoned this cursed place, taking their chances upon the long, dangerous road back to Greywater rather than facing the slow decay of the Weeping Ague. Verric would have joined them himself, were Julen well enough to travel. Death had already visited Sorrowcreek, and it had left only the ill-fated and the foolish in its wake.
Another scream cut through the storm, piercing and ragged with terror.
Verric crossed the room and reached for the varnished repeater crossbow that hung above the fireplace of his humble homestead. He hefted the heavy weapon and cranked its lever, then checked its chamber and saw five gleaming bolts of steel stacked and ready. Simply holding the repeater seemed to steady his frayed nerves. A duardin-forged piece, it had been with him since he had donned his first uniform. In all that time, it had never failed him.
'Da?' came a thin voice from the stairs. There stood Julen, wrapped in an old, tattered blanket, his face pale as snow, eyes wide with fear. The ague had robbed the strength from his body, and his skin was blotchy, with the sickly sheen of meat gone bad. Julen had entered his seventeenth year as a strapping lad, well muscled from his work in the timber fields, hacking open goldwood pine in search of priceless amberdew. Verric hated to see his strong, courageous child laid so low. So many had been lost to the plague that had spread like wildfire throughout Sorrowcreek, but still Julen fought on.
'Upstairs, son,' Verric whispered, and the ragged croak of his voice sounded unnatural and repulsive even to himself. 'Find a place to hide. Don't move until I tell you.'
'I can fight with you!' Julen said, shaking his head and stumbling down the stairs towards Verric. Even as he reached the floor his strength left him, and he tripped and sprawled into the hall, landing hard. He coughed up a trail of black phlegm that stained the stone floor. Verric rushed to his son and hauled him to his feet, placing a hand on each side of his face.
'I know you can fight,' he said. 'But there's a time for blades and a time for good sense, my boy. You can hardly stand, much less swing a sword. Look at me, Julen. Look at me now.'
Julen's sunken, bloodshot eyes met his own.
'You go and hide,' he said. 'Whatever's coming, you leave it to me. I've dealt with heretics and savages. A well-aimed bolt or two will send them running, mark my words.'
Julen nodded, lips quivering just a bit. Verric ruffled the youth's sweat-slicked hair, and gave him a gentle shove towards the stairs. With a last, pained look at his father, Julen returned to his room.
Verric turned to face the heavy door of the homestead. Brackish rainwater seeped under its frame, soaking his boots and running between the cobbled stones. Verric grasped the wooden charm that hung at his neck, a simple image of the Everqueen he had whittled himself from a shining sprig of goldwood on a sun-washed afternoon long ago. So long ago it seemed another life entirely.
'Our Lady Alarielle,' he muttered. 'Hear my words. Guide my arm this night. And watch over my boy should I fall.'
Not much of a prayer, but then Verric had never been eloquent in his faith. He snapped the stock of the repeater to his shoulder. Let them come. Let them dare invade his home, these devils. Verric Gheiser had built this place with toil and blood, and he would not yield it. Not to anyone.
He sensed movement at the window again, and snapped off a hail of bolts. The glass shattered, and the curtain whipped and fluttered like an angry spirit as the wind and rain rushed in.
'Get you gone!' he shouted into the darkness. 'This is a house of the faithful, fiends. You will not enter here.'
A beam of light came through the keyhole of the door, growing in intensity with every passing moment. There was a crackling, tearing sound, and Verric felt his skin writhe and tingle as if pricked by a thousand pins. Fingers of forked lightning reached through the aperture to cast a spider's web of flickering light across the ceiling.
As if hit by a cannon ball, the front door exploded in a storm of wooden shards. Verric stumbled backwards, slipped on the rain-slick floor and fell. His head struck the cobbles hard, and he almost lost his grip on the repeater. Ears aching from the blast, vision swimming, Verric stared up at the shattered entranceway. It was no fur-clad savage that loomed over him, but a statue forged from gleaming metal, rain pouring in rivulets down its stark-white armour. Rippling arcs of lightning swirled around both its body and the warhammer it clutched in one enormous fist. The shadowed sockets of its unforgiving war mask seemed to gaze through Verric's very soul.
The living statue took a single stride forward, raising its hammer high, and Verric began to scream.
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