The First and the Last Chapter 1 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * "RUN!", Lutz screamed, his voice already hoarse. Jarel didn't need the reminder. He was already running as fast as he could. He still looked over his shoulder to see how his comrades were doing. Immediately he wished he hadn't looked. Most of them were already dead or dying, while the infernal laughter and singing of the Nurgle daemons reverberated over the battlefield. Jarel hated fighting Nurgle troops. They weren't only disgusting and someone fighting them had to watch out for their vile body juices, but they often were disgustingly chipper to boot, singing songs about how the 'blessings' of Grandfather Nurgle would make everyone as happy as they were. As far as Jarel was concerned, they could take those 'blessings' and go back wherever they had come from. No luck with that today though. Some units were still fighting, but Jarel's own unit was basically gone. The few who still lived, less than a dozen, were running. Jarel did not understand why, in the beginning the battle had gone well. They had mowed through those daemons with very little casualties, and their Warpriest had made sure that the daemons' foul magic did not hit them. Something had happened, and the battle's tide had turned. He was pretty sure that both his Captain and the Warpriest were dead. Eduardo and Lutz were a bit ahead of him, Ponn and Silas were right next to him. His closest friends in the company were still alive. Like Jarel himself they had already dropped their greatswords, with the exception of Lutz who for some reason still had his sword in his hand. But then he had always been the strongest of them, the big sword never seemed to bother him much. Jarel considered to drop his breastplate as well to lose some more weight, but then he wasn't sure whether he could do that while running and didn't want to risk tripping on it. The Plaguebearers and Nurglings were not far behind. They had to keep running until they would reach the rearguard. Speaking of which.... where were they? Jarel looked around but couldn't see them. "Where are the Stormcast?" he managed to shout. "Gone!" answered Eduardo over his shoulder. He was a great runner, so he obviously had some more breath left than Jarel. He barely sounded exhausted, and his slim face with the black goatee showed almost the same expression it always did when he was thinking. "Our only chance is the river" he shouted back, pointing ahead. The river. Jarel did not look forward to the river at all. Its banks were steep, sometimes even vertical, so lots of possibilities to break a leg or neck. His armor was heavy, and he was not exactly the best swimmer. Combined with the strong currents of the river that constituted an uncomfortably high chance of drowning. And this was the Realm of Beasts after all. Lots of creatures swam in the muddy waters of its rivers and lakes. Even Orruks or Daemons didn't like to cross the river here. Taking another look back Jarel realized that the river still was their best chance. More than two dozen daemons were chasing them, and the rest of the Freeguild and Stormcast troops were retreating into the opposite direction, toward the east. He looked around, still hoping that the Palladors would appear any moment and save them. They weren't. He could not believe the Stormcast had retreated. Sure, there had been a few more daemons and mortal followers of Nurgle than they had anticipated, but had they committed all their forces to this battle then Sigmar's golden soldiers would have decided this battle. Probably with heavy losses, but they would have won. Something had scared them off. They had run another minute or so, slowly getting some space between them and the lumbering Plaguebearers. Only the Nurglings were still keeping up with the humans, laughing and shouting in their high voices that were eerily similar to those of children. But then Silas tripped. Jarel could see the horror in his best friend's blue eyes when he fell. "Come on, buddy!" Ponn shouted as he tried to grab Silas' arm and pull him up again. But apparently Silas had hurt himself, because it took him what seemed like ages for Jarel to get up. The Nurglings were cheering and getting closer. Jarel tried to help Ponn, but they were too slow. "That's how we die then." Ponn said, panting. His face was grey. Jarel knew the man long enough to know that when he stopped joking, then things were going really badly. "At least Lutz and Eduardo will make it", Silas said and drew his sidesword. "and you two can make it as well" he added. "Run!" "I'm sorry.", Jarel managed to croak through his tightening throat. Tears filled Silas' eyes, but he laid a hand on Jarel's shoulder and said "Tell my Ma I love her, and that I did well." Jarel could only nod. "Now go!" Silas shouted. He wiped his bald head with his sleeve, took a deep breath, and then limped toward the Daemons, sword in hand. Jarel turned and ran. He was surprised how easy it was. The moment he realized how quickly he had left his best friend since childhood to die a horrible death he felt deeply ashamed. Despite the already near sound of Daemons behind him he turned around again, just in time to see how Silas skewered a Nurgling on his sidesword and kicked another one away like playing football all these years ago, in the Crawling City where they had grown up close to each other. But the other Nurglings quickly swarmed him, and he went down. Jarel could not watch, he just ran. He was glad that he couldn't hear Silas screams. He hoped that his death had been swift. Ponn had obviously waited longer than Jarel to leave Silas behind. The dark skinned man with the long black hair was now running a fair distance behind him. But he was getting closer, and Silas' sacrifice had obviously bought them some time. Several daemons were not following them anymore, and others had been slowed down. Still too many to fight them. When Ponn reached Jarel he looked as exhausted as Jarel himself felt. Jarel noticed that he had some green goo in his hair and a wound on his face. "Damn Nurgling." he panted, "Hit me." They continued to run, but only a few minutes later Ponn slowed down and started to choke. The wound on his cheek had started to ooze some liquid, and his eyes had begun to bleed. "I don't... no..." he said, then fell to the ground, clawing on the iron collar of his breastplate, fighting to breathe. Jarel stumbled. When he got up only a few seconds later Ponn was not moving anymore. He was almost angry with his feet. It was as if they had minds of their own. Eventually they started to move again: first a few slow steps but then millenia-old instincts kicked in, and he was running again. * * * It was a few more minutes of running, but to Jarel's numb mind it felt like it instantly happened. One moment he was running, and then suddenly Lutz' strong grip around his arm held him back. At first Jarel didn't understand, but he came to his senses when Lutz slapped him in his face, yelling "Hey! Come on! We have to go!" and pointed down. They were right on the edge of a cliff, and around 30 feet below them the river was carving its way through the bedrock of Ghur. On the other side there was a similar cliff, and then a forest of crooked, old looking trees that continued to both sides as far as Jarel could tell. But right now he ignored it. It might as well have been in another Realm, it was so far out of reach. Eduardo was already at the bank of the river, but he looked beat up and held his arm, so obviously climbing down that steep slope had been as problematic as Jarel had imagined. Jarel looked back toward the daemons, and although the men had been faster than the daemons their pursuers were not far behind. "We have to jump" Lutz said. "See that big log drifting down the river? We don't have to swim far, then we can hold on to that thing." Jarel was not even sure if he could jump far enough to reach the river and not break all his bones when hitting the rocks, but he trusted Lutz and he preferred this fate over the one Ponn and Silas had found. He nodded. Lutz signalled to Eduardo that they were going to try and reach the floating tree, and as they walked away a few yards to be able to make their jump Jarel saw the tall man jump into the water already, swimming toward the log. Lutz and Jarel ran toward the cliff and Jarel thought about how, back when he had just joined the Sixth Company, almost in another life now, this would exactly have been the kind of harebrained idea Ponn had come up with all the time. Silas and Lutz had always joined his shenanigans, while Eduardo and Jarel had tried to keep them from killing themselves. They jumped. Suddenly the idea seemed even worse than he had originally thought, but before he could even think about how to dive into the water he already hit it. Everything around him went cold and dark. The river was muddy and for a moment Jarel fought a feeling of panic that he would not find the way up, or his breatsplate that he was still wearing would drag him down, but a current already had grabbed him and brought him to the surface. Like Lutz had predicted he was fairly close to the log, and he swam as well as he could. Lutz and Eduardo were already there, climbing on top of the tree and helping Jarel to do the same. "I knew we would make it!" Lutz shouted, for a moment forgetting what had happened and where they were. He fell silent after he looked at Eduardo's and Jarel's faces and instead helped Jarel to finally get rid of his breastplate and other armor parts he could spare. Jarel regretted letting go of the breastplate, it was good armor and it had served him well. As the log took them down the river they could see the daemons on the cliff above and behind them. They stood there for a few moments, then they turned and left. It seemed they had given up. The spot where they had jumped from the cliff soon vanished behind a river bend, and the river was flowing more calmly here, But the danger was not over. In fact the danger was never over in Ghur, as they quickly were reminded by a crocodile the size of three men that slid into the water as they passed by his hideout in the brushes on the river bank near the next bend. "Swords out!" Eduardo shouted, and the three soldiers took positions on the log that would allow them to stab the water with their sideswords. Jarel knew that as crazy as it sounded, many wild animals were relatively easy to repel, as they didn't risk serious injuries when easier prey was available. This time however slashing the water in front of them didn't work. The crocodile did not hit any of the men, but it hit the log full force, and knocked all three of them off it. Jarel managed to hold on to a branch that stuck out of the tree trunk in just the right spot, and stabbed the crocodile as it went by. The beast roared and lashed out with its tail, and Jarel heard someone scream, but then the crocodile swam away. When Jarel got back onto the tree none of the other two was to be seen. Panic grabbed him, and he shouted their names. A few seconds later he saw Lutz' head appear on the surface again, only a few feet away from the tree. "I got stuck in one of the branches down there." he said while swimming back to Jarel. "Where is Eduardo?" They did not see Eduardo again. * * * They clung to their tree for another hour or two, then they passed a spot at which the river bank got less steep. Green trees were lining the river, now and then interrupted by rocky areas. The currents became stronger though, and the two soldiers decided to leave their tree and hide in the forest. Most of their equipment was gone, either left at the carts before the battle, during their escape, or in the river. They still had some basic equipment with them and Jarel still had his sidesword, but they knew that it would take some effort to set up camp and get something to eat. Staying near the river was something they wanted to avoid, in case the Nurgle followers or some other enemy decided to use the river as a means of transportation, so they entered the forest and found a good place to camp near a small cave that provided shelter and fresh water. They worked silently for the rest of the day, both of them trying to deal with the fact that almost everyone else they knew was now dead. Thankfully they found some edible fruits, Lutz made a small fire in a hole, and Jarel caught a snake in the forest. After their meal they set up some traps in front of the cave and went to sleep. They shortly discussed whether they should try and have someone at guard duty, but the reality was that they were both too tired. Lutz spoke a short prayer to Alarielle to protect them from the beasts of the forest. Jarel found it unlikely that she would listen to prayers at all, but there certainly would be no harm in trying. The next morning Jarel woke up and discovered that he was still alive. Wet, sore, still tired, but alive. Lutz had already gathered a good amount of fire wood and some vines that could be used as ropes, and was in the process of building some equipment to survive in the woods a bit longer. Jarel watched him for a few moments. The brawny man's short red hair was dirty and the green eyes in his freckled face were sitting deep in their sockets. He didn't look good at all. His expression was one of determination, but also sadness and a good amount of anger. Jarel joined him, and the two soldiers worked together in silence for some time. They didn't need to talk, both knew what had to be done, and how they would do it. Jarel silently thanked their old drillmaster for it. Even though only two of them were left they worked well together. Surviving the wilderness of Ghur was no easy task, but it was their home, and they were prepared as well as possible. When they were finished with their day's work, and the camp was finished to allow preparing for the journey home, Jarel heard Lutz draw in a long breath behind him. He turned around and saw the other man standing there, the look of determination in his face now stronger than all the other emotions. "What is it, Lutz?" he said in the most optimistic tone he could manage. Again the other man drew in a deep breath. Lutz had never been a man of many words, and Jarel knew that this was the way he delivered his rare long speeches. Jarel put down his tools and listened. "Jarel, we have prepared everything here, right?" "Yes." "We have known each other for a long time now, since Eduardo, Ponn, Silas, you and I joined the Freeguild together, and you know that I love our home and our people, and that I trust you with my life." It wasn't a question, but Jarel still nodded. "I have to tell you something and I need you to do something for me." Now Jarel was concerned. Something was wrong. "What happened?" he asked. Instead of an answer Lutz pulled up his shirt. Below it was a big festering wound, and the flesh around it was already starting to show a sickly green tint. "Lutz, please tell me that the crocodile got you", Jarel begged, but he already knew the answer before his friend shook his head. He had seen Nurgle's Blight a few times before. "No," Lutz said, "it was a Plaguebearer, during the battle." For a moment they just sat there, saying nothing. They both knew that only magic could heal Lutz now. He would live for another day or two, at most. Then he would either die or be taken over by the disease and become a Blightking. Maybe he would burst and give birth to some Nurglings, or something else that a sane person could hardly comprehend, but either way it meant that the person now standing before Jarel would be gone. "I don't want it to end like that" Lutz said. "I don't want to become one of those... things. I want to die as the man I am. But I need your help." Jarel only stared at him. He wasn't able to speak. "Please, Jarel. I cannot stand it much longer. I can feel it eating me up from inside. There is one of those rocky areas nearby. I put some wood there. I don't want to spread the Blight to the river or the forest. You have to... kill me there, and burn it". Burn my corpse. That's what he had meant to say. Jarel noticed that he had kept his breath in, and forced himself to breathe again. He nodded. Almost mechanically he followed Lutz to the spot the other man had just told him about. Jarel realized that Lutz had been working half the night or morning to prepare it, and that he had spent the rest of the day preparing for survival, not for his own but only for Jarel's. His mind raced to find any way to prevent this. Perhaps there was a way to cure Nurgle's Blight with herbs and they would find it, perhaps they only had to wait another day and a wandering wizard or priest would help them. All kinds of such thoughts went through his mind, but Lutz just looked at him and cut them short. "You know there is no other way", he softly said while sitting down on the pile of wood. "It is alright. You can use all my equipment. You know the Blight transfers only by touching the infected stuff. I made sure not to touch you, or anything important. If you are unsure just wait a day." "I will miss you", Jarel said. "Just survive and kick their ugly asses for me." Lutz was smiling now. "I will. Thank you for everything." Jarel drew his sidesword in the most formal way he could. "Farewell." Lutz said and closed his eyes, while Jarel stepped into position. "Farewell." Lutz had perfectly prepared everything. After Jarel had done what had been incomprehensible for him a few days earlier he cleaned his sword with the cloth and water his friend had prepared, lit the perfectly stacked pyre with the body and all infested objects, and gave his friend - and with him all the friends he had lost in the last two days - a proper burial. It was already night when he returned to his camp. He did not know yet what he would do tomorrow. But he knew that he would survive. He was not done yet.