Kyrion Manheim had turned to shadow. The Mudbeast who had devoured his youngest son was dead, torn to pieces, and then to smaller pieces, until there was nothing left but a bloody mush of gore and fur. It wasn’t until he had slashed the stone underneath its carcass several times that the enraged father realized the beast had no more flesh to render asunder.
There was little left of the loving husband and father in his shadowy form. Had he been of sound mind, he would have realized that he had lost all control to the demon by now. He was nothing but a hollow shell, fueled by his violent grief and the demon’s hunger for ever more blood. This was what he had bargained for at Marduk’s makeshift altar; what he had cried and begged for with tears of anger and sorrow in his eyes.
The usually stoic hunter had been hysterical, scrounging around the area of his son’s murder, trying to find and collect every last piece of him. Judah’s tattered body would serve as payment for his vengeance. Kyrion had brought the remains of his little boy to the altar of decrepit bloody branches in the grove behind his hut in the forest.
The eager vines and dry branches around the altar had wrapped around Judah’s bits of flesh and consumed him with great vigour. There were no funeral rites, this was a transaction. The brutality of his death and the anger of his grieving kin would infuse Judah’s blood with a sweetness the demon would not be able to resist. It was a valuable offering - and the price demanded would reflect its worth.
Kyrion knew there was no turning back to his old life after this, but he pushed the thought out of his mind. He would leave a torrent of slaughter in his wake before heading to the afterlife to meet his youngest son - and in so doing, hopefully aid in the chances of his daughter’s survival.
There were distant sounds of fighting all across the woods. He heard the far-off screams of men, shrieking grunts, and the occasional ground-shaking explosion that he could feel deep inside his chest. All that became distorted and muffled to the grieving hunter as he ran.
He had always been a fast runner, but now, aided by Marduk’s possession of his body, he moved at speeds he had never experienced before. He sprinted past many familiar places in the dark woods, each containing numerous memories of exhilarating hunts and long stake-outs with his only daughter. Those days were over. All of his days were over. Now it was just a matter of taking as many Mudbeasts down with him as he could before he faded completely.
The demon had delivered on his promise - in reckless amounts at that. The hunter could feel his infernal presence in every inch of his body like never before. It was clear old Marduk wasn’t going to miss a moment of what was to come. Kyrion couldn’t help noticing his hands and arms as he ran. His weathered body had turned almost ethereal and seemed to generate dark toxic smoke that left a long trail as he sprinted towards the sounds of battle.
He didn’t feel the thick branches break against his body as he ran, nor the smaller ones that seemed to pass right through him. The hunter stopped in his tracks as he came to a large clearing in the forest. A horde of Mudbeasts, as tall as a man-and-a-half, clashed ferociously and repeatedly against a wall of giant blue and green-tinted shields.
The boar-like Mudbeasts stood up high on their hind legs, shrieking at each other and at their heavily armored enemies. They had war paint on their tusks and faces, running down their backs. The hunter’s enhanced senses noticed an unmistakable glint of madness in their eyes. Some were even foaming at the mouth as they threw their massive bodies at the wall of stern tower-shields. Kyrion had never seen them like this. No one had, until now.
They were even wearing crude armor over their thick hides and thicker skins. This wasn’t right. The walking boars had always been primal, but relatively peaceful to those who kept out of their way. They weren’t even carnivores, preferring to eat fruits, berries, and vegetables. He had even seen them eat grass, like cattle, if nothing more interesting was available to them.
As far as Kyrion knew, the Mudbeasts - or the Kaahr, as they had been known before the madness took them - were creatures native to Ingwald’s Island. They had lived alongside the imperial colonists in relative harmony ever since they discovered the remote island region some forty years ago.
Even though the empire was forced to slaughter the somewhat hostile human natives in the initial annexation of the island, the Kaahr were more akin to animals than men. The settlers never found a way to meaningfully interact with them.
They couldn’t be domesticated, since they would merely eat endlessly and then break out of whatever confinements the colonists built for them. They weren’t good targets for hunting either, since they were advanced enough to return in number and avenge their fallen kin. The colonists had even tried trading with them as a last option of any meaningful interaction, but their low intelligence and inability to read human gestures had made trade cumbersome as well. So, the imperial settlers and the Kaahr had adopted a relatively balanced approach of mutually ignoring each other for the past forty years.
Whenever Kyrion had passed by the Kaahr on his hunts, they were usually just roaming around, looking for dropped fruit and pinecones on the ground or merely gnawing at tree barks. He would often have a small treat ready for them to indicate that he had no hostile intentions, and to keep them quiet so they wouldn’t scare away his prey.
Little did he know that, in time, these docile creatures would become his worst nightmare. Kyrion crouched low and observed the beasts. He peered deep into the throng, their piercing squeals and howling grunts filled the forest. The Kaahr were frothing with rage, carrying weapons of iron and steel. Steel! The Kaahr had no knowledge of metals, how to work or shape them as far as Kyrion knew. He recognized it wasn’t natural, but in his present state of mind he wasn’t bothered by the incongruity of it. His predatory instincts had overtaken him completely, thanks to Marduk's aid.
Despite the demon’s prodding aggression, and his own volatile mental state, Kyrion forced himself to stop and analyze his surroundings. He felt an overwhelming desire to charge into the horde and slash away, drenching himself in the torn flesh and blood of his feral enemies, but he had to be smart. He only had one shot at this, and who knew how long Marduk’s possession could last.
Above the horde of Kaahr warriors stood a shrieking master shaman, held up on an improvised throne of branches and vines, carried by some faceless boars in the crowd. He had a decrepit black staff adorned with tattered feathers and the skulls of small birds which he swung around wildly.
He appeared to be snarling some vile prayers which seemed to enrage his warriors even further, causing them to froth at the mouth and charge even harder once the staff cast its curse on them - the hunter had found his prey.
The armored Knights held their shield wall but were starting to buckle. They were surrounded by the crushed, slashed and burned corpses of lightly-armored militiamen. Few of the local recruits were still alive, but had mostly retreated behind the Knights in fear of the raging horde - instead of covering their vulnerable flanks as they were supposed to. This would end in crushing disaster, Kyrion thought, it was only a matter of time.
Some of the Kaahr had wrapped themselves in barbed wire on top of their armor and were charging unarmed at the line of militiamen - throwing their spiked bodies upon their swords and halberds. The ravenous Mudbeasts were making short work of the small humans, knocking them down and crushing them under hard bellies of rusted spikes.
A more gruesome death would be hard to find than to be crushed by a suicidal Kaahr wrapped in barbed wire, Kyrion thought. The men were suffocating on their backs, shredded by a hundred small cuts back and forth while the beasts writhed on top of them, biting at their head with their blunt herbivore teeth.
“Hold the line, damn it!” a thunderous voice boomed over the chaotic battlefield. A heavily armored man, almost the size of a Kaahr warrior, screamed his orders. His bald head and scarred face was splattered with blood. The disciplined Knights moved as one at his every command, Kyrion noticed. The townsmen, however, did not. Fear and panic had spread through their ranks like wildfire. Most of them cowered behind the line or looked for avenues of retreat. Kyrion didn’t need enhanced senses to hear their collective whimpering and see the terrified expressions on their faces as the corpses of their comrades-at-arms piled up all around them.
“Men, ascend!” The bald man roared. The Knights, under the full force of a Mudbeast charge on their shield-line, made a gap for their commander. It was just wide enough for him to take a single step in front of the line, shoving a few beasts back by a couple of paces. The commander held up his gleaming, bloodsoaked shield and struck it as hard as he could with his armored fist, unleashing a sonic explosion that made the ground tremble.
The frontline of hulking boars who were clashing, clawing, ripping and banging on the shield-line were suddenly, and viciously, knocked onto their backs with piercing shrieks of pain.
In the blink of an eye, the disciplined Shield Knights let fall a rain of bloody bastard swords on the staggered beasts before they could get up on their feet. Some had not even hit the ground before a Knight’s piercing sword had found its soft belly mid-fall.
A few Knights fell as well, under crude jagged crossbow bolts that had waited patiently for the chance to fly free and tear into human flesh. It was clear that this was not the Kaahr’s first skirmish with the stubborn ironmen, nor with the deafening thunder of the bald human’s foul magic.
The “bolt-boars,” the more agile Kaahr who wielded the crude crossbows, had seemingly come to learn when to shoot and when not to, after expending hundreds of spiked bolts into the shield wall to no avail.
This had been going on for quite a while, Kyrion observed. The townsmen were mostly broken or routed, and the exhausted and bloody Knights seemed merely too stubborn to die. The Kaahr had taken heavy losses as well. About three boars lay skewered in the vale for every bloodsoaked lifeless Knight. That wasn’t including the boars who seemed all-too-happy to light themselves on fire and suicide-charge into the shield wall or smash into the crumbling line of the militia with their flesh ablaze.
Not that it mattered immensely for the horde of Mudbeasts, for they were legion - their numbers extending far into the dark forest. It seemed to Kyrion that their corrupted black shaman, held aloft on his platform of tangled vines and branches, was key in driving the beasts mad. The curses from that decrepit staff of his were giving them both the strength and will to fight on, enraged beyond all reason.
He took a deep breath, looking down at his darkened shadowy form, one last time. He knew what he had to do and how it must end. The deal was made. Judah’s blood demanded vengeance at all cost. He wouldn’t face St. Myrkwald with clean hands.
His wife and stepson were already gone, and no matter how much that hurt him, at least they left of their own volition before all the madness. They were presumably safe back in the Arinfeld homestead on the mainland by now. And little Shay, what of her?
Kyrion had taught and trained his only daughter relentlessly how to survive in the harsh wilderness, ever since she was a toddler. How to hunt, to track, make improvised shelter and construct elaborate traps. To live off the wild in every sense of the word. She wasn't merely a frightened little girl, despite her appearance - she was an apex predator in the making. She would endure, with or without him. She had to.
He, however, would bring justice to her little brother, Judah, by leaving her forever and hopefully aiding her chance of survival by doing so. Kyrion comforted himself with the thought that if anyone had a chance to survive this, it was her. He felt Marduk’s guidance in his every move, and that steeled his resolve.
A shrieking boar-master grunted over the throng and pointed to the wall of shields. The chaotic ranks of the beasts shoved and pushed as a few hulking Kaahr made their way through, with large tree trunks roughly filed to a point held above their heads. The shaman grimaced as he blessed them with a waft of his staff, and immediately their pace quickened as their frothing rage near-ripped their psyche apart.
The improvised battering rams clashed with great force on the wall of shields, knocking the defenders considerably backwards with each devastating blow. The other boars didn’t relent either, only stepping aside for a second while the slammers made their charge, ramming the Knights and backing away for the next assault.
The Saints themselves couldn’t hold this assault at bay for long - even though the bloody and battered Knights seemed all too willing to fight to the last man proving that wrong. This was Kyrion’s chance. Everyone was distracted and Marduk had honed in on his prey.
He desired the dark blood of the corrupted shaman. Kyrion knew it wasn’t only about the blood itself. The demon feasted on the emotions that fueled the spilling of it just as greedily. That was why he’d kept a tight lid on his emotions in years past - wanting to keep the demon’s influence on his mind minimal. A luxury he could no longer afford.
Kyrion charged without delay, behind the front line of the Mudbeasts at ravishing speed - never taking his eyes off the jugular of the elevated cursemaster in black. A few Kaahr in the back rows who were watching the battle intently, fell limp as a flash of shadow and smoke whizzed by them, separating their burly bodies from their thick necks.
The hunter slashed wildly at the unsuspecting boar-men as he sprinted his way to the throne of vines and branches, leaving a terrified bloody mess in his wake. The shaman himself was too fixated on the battle in front of him to notice, as he cast his curses - seemingly loving the bloody spectacle before him.
Suddenly, a warm sensation slashed across the cursemaster’s throat that soon became excruciatingly cold as the boar in black choked on his last hex. His skin hardened and desperately tried to clamp back together as his occult defenses mandated, but the cut was too deep, too… vile. Blood gushed out of his open throat as he saw the dark ethereal outlines of a human standing silently in front of him, his hateful brown eyes piercing through the black smoke that engulfed his form. The shocked and horrified cursemaster couldn’t utter a word or grab his mortal wound before the shadowy figure launched at his throat with a feral hiss, and drank deeply.
Panic ensued all around them as the Kaahr warriors witnessed their sacred shaman slaughtered and defiled by the unknown demonic specter. The hysterical shrieks and grunts led to shoving and worse as the hunter drained the black one in front of his horrified warriors. Ripped bolts of crude jagged steel shot right through the shadowy figure, some accidentally landing in shaman-flesh. Marduk would not be denied his prize, he bit down harder.
Before long, the panic had spread through their ranks to the Mudbeasts on the frontlines. It hadn’t gone unnoticed by the Knights either, even though they had no more clarity than the Mudbeasts of what it was they were witnessing. It didn’t matter. The Kaahr were suddenly frightened, confused, and distracted by the horrifying display.
Commander Elrich Martel wasn’t going to wait for another such opportunity. “Knights of the Shield, charge!” he screamed through the river of blood streaming down his face. He slammed his fist against his shield as hard as he could muster, unleashing a devastating sonic explosion.
The distracted frontline of Mudbeasts crumbled as the wave hit their backs. The Knights wasted no time and unleashed a torrent of slaughter from their sweeping line of bastard swords. “Advance!” Another wave, another step forward, another rain of swords. “Advance!” The rhythmic beat of explosion and death overwhelmed the hysterical beasts and broke them into a panicked rout. The boars trampled each other down in their mad stampede back into the deep woods. Away from the thunder, piercing swords, and infernal ghosts.
The exhausted paladins pursued in a bloody charge, cutting down as many fleeing Kaahr warriors as they could muster. Soon the battlefield was empty of all living beasts, but their dead stacked up high, the rest, routed.
Left standing was the hunter, his pale bloodless prey clutched in his arms and a small host of broken and battered Shield Knights. They eyed the demonic shadow cautiously for a moment, and his brown eyes gazed right back at them, neither saying a word.
“I...” the commander hesitantly addressed the dark apparition, but was stopped in his tracks. The man’s shadowy form suddenly lifted off him as if in a gentle breeze, and dissipated like black smoke into the air. The hunter’s eyes rolled up into his head as he crashed down to the ground like a lifeless ragdoll.
Elrich ran to him and held him up in his giant arms. “Who are you!?” He demanded of the seemingly lifeless man. “What have you done here!?” Elrich shook his savior, trying to get any life-signs out of the possessed man.
“Careful, my lord, he might still be a danger to us,” a dark female Knight warned.
“Shay…” the man groaned, “you must... find my Shay, keep her safe. Keep her... away from him.”
Blood gurgled from his mouth; he would speak no more.
“... Shay?” Elrich Martel muttered quietly to himself.
“Sir, is he... Is he dead?”
The commander nodded and lowered the lifeless man gently on the ground. He got up and looked over his tattered and bloody battalion. He sighed and gritted his teeth after a moment’s thought.
“Knights of the Shield! There is no rest for us after this battle. We must find this man’s ‘Shay’ immediately, before she is devoured by the routed horde,” Elrich commanded.
“But, sir, we should gather our wounded and fallen and head back to Hammerstone, surely this can wait?” the dark lieutenant objected, followed by the silent nods of a few Knights.
“This was not a request!” the commander replied harshly. “All of you owe this man your lives, for without him we would not have prevailed this day. And if our new and improved Order is to have any chance of earning God’s blessing then the Shield Knights must pay their debts in full and on time. Is that clear?”
“Sir, yes sir!” they shouted as one.
“Take the gravely wounded to town; the rest of you, be you battered, bloody or broken, if you can walk, you come with me. We are going to find his Shay before the pigs do.”