THE SKAVEN ATTACK
Felix watched in abject horror as the dark tide of skaven flowed down the hill towards him. He was unsure how many there were but it looked like hundreds, maybe thousands—it was hard to tell in the darkness. He whirled to investigate as a great clamour arose behind him. Looking up he saw yet more skaven entering the valley from the other side. The jaws of a huge trap were closing.
Felix fought down a surge of panic. Somehow, no matter how many times he had been in situations like this—and he had been in many—it never got any easier. He felt a sick feeling spread in the pit of his stomach, a tenseness in his muscles, and somehow a strange light-headedness too. His mouth was dry and his own heartbeat sounded loud in his ears. Just for once he would have liked to have been calm and relaxed in the face of danger, or filled with furious berserker rage like all those heroes in the storybooks. As always, it didn't happen.
All around him, dwarfs were downing tools and snatching up weapons. Horns sounded, each one with a different tone, their long notes like the wails of souls in torment, adding to the cacophony all around. Felix turned again and was about to make a sprint for the portal of the castle when he realised that no one else was doing that. All around him dwarfs raced through the gloom towards the enemy.
Were they all mad, Felix wondered? Why did they not make a dash for the safety of the castle? Unsound as its walls appeared, they would doubtless have a better chance within them. It would almost certainly be safer inside the keep but these crazy dwarfs paid no attention.
He froze momentarily, overcome with curiosity and apprehension. The thought struck him that perhaps there was some good reason why they weren't going into the keep… and perhaps finding out that reason for himself was not such a good idea.
Slowly it percolated into Felix's panicking brain that the dwarfs were not going to leave their machines in the hands of the skaven. They were prepared to fight and, if need be, die in defence of these monstrous smoke-belching mechanisms. It showed a determination that was either truly impressive or monumentally stupid, Felix could not decide which.
While he was still making up his mind, an ominous clanking sound started up from behind him, followed by the ring of metal on stone. He turned just in time to see the keep's portcullis slam down. From inside he heard the grinding of gears and the whistling of a steam engine's boiler, then the enormous chains which held the drawbridge in place tightened and begin to raise the wooden structure. Suddenly there was a deep ditch between him and the castle. At least someone inside was showing some sense, Felix thought, even if they had trapped him outside in what promised to be a mad melee.
A thunderous roar erupted from the castle above. A huge cloud of smoke belched above his head and the acrid smell of ignited gunpowder filled the air. Felix realised that someone above had wit enough to bring one of the cannons to bear. There was a whistling sound and then an explosion ripped through the darkness. A dozen of the charging skaven were thrown into the air. Limbs flew in one direction, torsos in another. The dwarfs let out a loud cheer; the skaven emitted what sounded like a long hiss of hatred.
All around him dwarfs raced into battle positions. Deep voices bawled out harsh guttural words in the ancient dwarf language. Felix felt lost and alone in the midst of this maelstrom of furious and yet somehow ordered activity. He could see that from the mad whirl of shouting and running dwarfs a coherent pattern was starting to emerge. The engineers and warriors were taking up their places beside their brethren in the line. Felix felt that he was the only one here who did not seem to have some idea where he was supposed to go.
They were all rallying around the horns, Felix suddenly realised, and now the different notes made sense. They were like those individual bells he had seen on the cattle a few days before. They identified their owners, gave his comrades a point to rally to, a nucleus around which a hard armoured shell could form.
Felix could see now that this was a tactic which had long been drilled into the dwarfs, until they had it down perfectly. Where a few moments ago there had been a mass of disorganised souls just begging to be massacred, now there were well-disciplined ranks of dwarf warriors, wheeling to face their foes, marching with a discipline that would have shamed imperial pike-men. Perhaps whoever was in charge here knew what he was doing, Felix thought. Perhaps this was not going to be the utter bloody slaughter he had feared only a few moments ago.
He wasn't sure it would be enough, judging by the size of the skaven force tearing down the hill, picking up speed like a juggernaut, gathering what looked like irresistible momentum for its charge. The seething furry horde was so close now that he could see individual skaven, make out their foam-covered lips, the rabid fanaticism in their eyes. Some of them were larger, more muscular, and better armoured than others. He had fought such beasts in the past and knew that they would be the toughest. He kept his eyes peeled for any of those clumsy, awkward and yet oh-so-deadly field weapons the skaven loved, but mercifully could see none present.
Suddenly Felix felt very alone. He was not part of any of those hastily assembled dwarfish units. There was no one beside him to watch his back. Perhaps in the darkness the dwarfs might even take him for a foe. There was only one place for him here. He looked around for Gotrek but overcome with battle-lust he and Snorri had raced off to get closer to the foe.
Felix spat out a curse and clambered hastily onto the wagon, to get a better view of his surroundings. He noticed that Varek was sitting there, peering interestedly out into the gloom, occasionally laying the bomb he held in his hand down on the seat beside him, and scratching a note in the book before him with what looked like some strange mechanical pen. His eyes glittered feverishly behind his glasses.
"Isn't this exciting, Felix?" he asked. "A real battle! This is the first one I've ever been in."
"Pray it isn't your last…" Felix muttered, taking a few practice sweeps with his sword, hoping to loosen his tense muscles before the horde smashed into the dwarf line. He took a quick glance around hoping that he would be able to pick out Gotrek.
The Slayer was nowhere in sight.
From his perch on the hill high above the battle, Grey Seer Thanquol peered down at his seeing stone. It lay blank and dormant before him. Within its depths there was perhaps a tiny flicker of warpfire, undetectable save to an eye as keen and all-seeing as Thanquol's.
Indeed, to the untrained skaven eye it looked merely like a large multi-faceted piece of coloured glass inscribed with the Thirteen Most Sacred Symbols. Thanquol knew enough about the race of man to know that to a human eye, it would look like some tawdry gewgaw used by a sideshow fakir. He was also wise enough to know that the human eye would be mightily deceived, for this was a most potent artefact indeed.
At least, he hoped so. The raw moon-crystal had cost Thanquol many warptokens. The carving of those runes, each one inscribed on a different moonless night, had cost Thanquol much lost sleep. The embedding of potent spells within the crystal had been paid for in blood and pain, some of it the grey seer's.
Now was the moment to find out whether it had all been worth it. It was time, thought Thanquol, to begin to use his new toy. Hastily he scratched runes in the hard earth around him, making the Thirteen Sacred Signs of the Horned Rat with practised ease. Next he put his thumb into his muzzle and bit hard. His sharp teeth drew blood, though he hardly felt a thing through the haze of powdered warpstone snuff and the seething sorcerous energies which filled his brain.
Black blood dripped from the wound. He held his thumb out over the first rune. A droplet impacted in the centre of the symbol and as it did so Thanquol spoke a word of power, a secret name of the Horned Rat. Immediately the fluid vaporised into a puff of acrid smoke, forming a small skull-like mushroom cloud over the rune. The symbol flared to life, lines of green fire illuminating its outline brilliantly before fading down into a less lurid yet still visible glow.
Quickly and expertly Thanquol repeated the procedure with every rune and, once that was completed, he carefully dribbled three final droplets of his own precious blood onto the seeing stone itself. Instantly a dim picture flickered into life. He could make out the scene of chaos and imminent carnage in the valley below as if looking down on it from a great height, then the picture flickered and a cloud of static filled the stone. Thanquol administered an irritated thump to the side of the crystal and the picture cleared and settled. The sight of the battle came into view as clear as day. Well almost -there was a faint greenish tinge to the picture that would not go away, no matter how many gentle taps and thumps of adjustment Thanquol administered.
No matter! Thanquol felt like the master of some vast and secret game. All those skaven below were now but pieces for him to command. Pawns to be moved by his mighty paw. Tokens to be placed on the board and guided by his titanic intelligence. He took another pinch of warpstone snuff and almost howled with glee. He felt his power to be infinite. There was nothing like it, this sensation of control, of mastery. Best of all, he could exercise his power from well out of sight and personal danger. Not that he feared danger, of course, it was merely sensible to keep himself out of the way of unnecessary risks. It was every grey seer's greatest dream come true!
Thanquol allowed himself to gloat for a long moment, then gave his attention to the battle, trying to decide in exactly which spectacular way he would seize victory and immortal fame among skavenkind.
Felix splayed his feet wider, trying to find his balance on the back of the wagon. The vehicle rocked slightly on its suspension and he wondered whether it was wise to stand here. On the one hand, the footing was unsure and he was a conspicuous target standing upright on the wagon's back. On the other hand, at least up here he had the advantage of being on somewhat higher ground and having partial cover from the wagon's sides. He decided to remain where he was for the moment—and to jump to the ground at the first sign of missile fire. That was the logical thing to do. Besides, it looked like someone would have to stay here and look after Varek.
The unworldly young dwarf was scribbling away for all he was worth in his book. Felix was amazed that he could see to write. He knew from his long association with Gotrek that dwarfs could see in the dark better than humans, but here was astonishing proof of the fart. By the flickering furnace light, which showed Felix only the barest of outlines of objects, the young dwarf was writing for all the world like a scribe copying a manuscript by candlelight If nothing else, it was an amazing feat of concentration.
To tell the truth Felix would have been happier if Varek paid more attention to the mules. The animals were showing distinct signs of distress as the skaven raced ever closer.
Felix glanced nervously about them, wondering if any of those nasty skaven assassins with poison blades were skulking around. It was unlike the rat-men to go for a simple frontal assault without springing some nasty, sneaky surprises. He knew from bitter experience what they were capable of. He nudged Varek gently with the tip of his boot.
"Best pay attention to the mules," he said. They look restless."
Varek nodded amiably, put his pen back in his capacious pockets, snapped his book shut and picked up his bomb.
Somehow Felix was not reassured.