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Another roar of laughter came from the crowd like muted thunder as the mock Knight Panther, bedecked in armour of tin and wielding a wooden sword, slipped upon some entrails. It was a battlefield scene; pig's blood, uncoiled rope and animal intestine were strewn about the stage as mock carnage.
"A horse, a horse, the Emperor is a horse!" the Knight wailed as his mind succumbed to Chaos.
The travelling players had arrived in the village without word or prior arrangement, replete with ramshackle cart that doubled as dressing room and makeshift theatre. A host of colourful characters, loped and cavorted alongside, with mesmerising wit and charm, announcing to all and sundry they would be performing a rendition of the play, 'The Emperor's True Face.'
Crowds had gathered quickly, initially children, then women and finally the men, and soon the entire village was under the players' spell. Demitri was one of the last to join the eager and enraptured throng, sceptical at first but in moments he too was utterly engrossed.
The play reached the 'Northern Wastes' scene, a rotted wooden placard carried across the stage describing as much by a robed daemon with a seemingly permanent grin. Demitri marvelled as other daemonic characters, whose costumes where uncannily realistic, danced and skipped amongst the appreciative crowd. Chicken feathers thrown by the daemons drifted down like snow. A wonderfully macabre jester performed acrobatics, tapping the village children's foreheads who sat transfixed in the front row as he sprang past with his tickle stick.
A foul and repugnant odour filled Demitri's nostrils as an uncomfortable burning sensation grew upon his chest but he couldn't take his eyes off the play, utterly lost in the unfolding drama. His wife and child, sitting at the front of the stage, were a distant memory. Now only he and the bizarrely macabre players existed. The Knight Panther slipped again and Demitri laughed out loud. A plague daemon bore down upon the play's unlikely hero and the enraptured farmer marvelled at its realism. Eyes widening, Demitri stared with incredulity as the plague creature swelled, stomach bloating as if filling with stagnant air. A shape with what looked like arms and legs pawed within, stretching the flesh thin like clinging mucous.
Something was wrong. The plague creature's mouth distended to agonising proportions but Demitri couldn't look away. It belched forth a tiny daemon creature that sat wallowing amidst a foul miasma of vomit and pooling slime from the creature's stomach.
The charade was revealed for what it was; a conjuration of Chaos. Slime trails left by the actors spat and bubbled. Human eyeballs, heads; real corpses diseased and rotting were strewn about the stage. These things wore no masks but were daemons themselves!
A weight like a heavy millstone fell about his neck and shoulders as Demitri made to rise. He turned; panic welling in his heart. The ruinous powers were roaming free and unchecked in the Empire! He looked to his brothers for aid, trying to raise the alarm. But they were all dead, horribly swollen with some unseen pestilence, pustules and boils on their flesh spilling over with all the fervour of a grotesque epidemic. Horrified, Demitri looked down to the burning at his chest, he ripped away his shirt in pain and saw an icon resting there, inscribed with the sigil of Sigmar.
Abruptly, a foul, filth-encrusted dagger came into view, lifting the amulet from Demitri's chest and leaving behind a red weal.
"Is this an icon of Sigmar I see before me?" a voice reminiscent of bubbling flesh, asked. It was the head player, his moon-shaped face was covered in warts and boils and he was dressed in thick gaudy robes.
Demitri was terrified. "What have you done?" he stammered, recoiling.
The head player moved forward a step, keeping pace as Demitri lurched back.
"Foul worshippers of Chaos!" he cried defiantly, suddenly aware that he was surrounded.
"Yes, alas, that is true my noble lord," a voice from Demitri's left confirmed; a thin and short character, hunched over, face like some grim theatrical mask, split down the forehead. An infestation of flies buzzed around him as he fanned a set of tarot cards. "But your words wound me sir," he continued with mock offence, slicing open a cut in his wrist with one of the tarot cards. "We are but flesh like you," he said, drawing closer, "if you prick us, do we not bleed?" With sniggering contempt, the tarot daemon squeezed the blood from his wound, which dripped down upon the Sigmarite talisman, dissolving it like acid.
Instantly, Demitri could feel the effects of whatever malady had overtaken his kinsmen. He was defenceless. Head swimming, he whirled around drunkenly a myriad of grinning faces surrounding him; a brutish-looking clown, with daubed on face paint hideously joined with physical mutation, a dark grinning jester with a daemonic hand-puppet that chattered in sync with its bearer, a host of grinning, sneering faces awash with colour that was bright and dirty at the same time.
Demitri felt the sickness overtake him and sank to his knees in the dirt. The dark jester lifted his chin up to face him as his hand-puppet spoke for him.
"Why then," it said, the talisman's resistance ebbing, "Your stomach is mine oyster," he continued as a sudden silver flash from a dagger caught Demitri's eye, "Which I, with sword, shall open," the jester himself concluded darkly.
As the blade slipped in and the Carnival players began their grisly work one last thought occurred to Demitri.
"Helena!" he cried, with the last of his dying breath, "My wife..."
The head player loomed into view, his moon-like visage blotting out Demitri's sun for the last time.
"She's my wife now Demitri..."
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