Beasts of the Reik

"They say the Reik is the blood of the Empire. They don't know how right 'blood' is".
Gunther Fasse, Riverwarden

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The village of Worlitz

'Rivers and Roads'

With Unterbaum delivered from Morr's wrath, the party continued westward along the River Stir towards Kemperbad. Along the way they came across a small stone home on the river's edge, the sign above the doorway indicating it to belong to a local riverwarden. Inside there were signs of a struggle and ransacking, and before long the cavalier spotted drag marks leading into the forest. Following this trail led to an odd effigy wrapped in fishing wires and twine - a boat, snapped in half and laid ends up to form a makeshift tepee above a bloody pile of rancid flesh. Approaching cautiously the party were alarmed by the presence of diminutive greenskins inhabiting the effigy. "Snotlings…" growled Karl, drawing his sword as the priest drew his hammer. The small creatures put up barely a struggle as they were efficiently mashed into paste by the party, and even the arrival of a pair of goblins did nothing to thwart their wrath. Picking through the refuse, Hanno found scraps of cloth, a brass key and a small ring, likely belonging to the missing riverwarden. The trio took a moment to make a silent prayer in thanks to the man who had so bravely guarded the rivers of the Empire from scoundrels and beasts, before taking once more to the road.

Kemperbad was a marvel to behold for those born and raised in the back-country of Talabecland. A dock-side metropolis of more than 8,000 souls with towering stone walls and bustling ship yards, Kemperbad stood as one of the few "free-cities" of the Empire, a place without ties of fealty to any Elector Count nor the Empire herself. Hanno in particular is stunned into silence by the scale of the place, having never seen even a gathering of more than 100 souls before. Within the city the party set about their errands, with Karl commissioning a fine shirt of mail, William sourcing a holy tome of his god, and Hanno having a letter penned to the Riverwarden Captain of Gostahof informing of the passing of the late riverwarded. While attending mass at the temple of Sigmar, William is approached by a young devotee of no more than 14, begging to be taken on the road so that he might spread Sigmar's majesty by the word and the hammer. Emboldened by the young man's fervour, William agrees to take him under his wing. In short order a boat is organised to take the party up-river to Altdorf. Accompanying the party are a number of others, including a young maiden intent on becoming a lady in waiting and a rakish bard with swift fingers and a bawdy voice. The travellers are warned of the dangers posed by river-bandits, but the Captain of the barge has a stalwart crew of experience rivermen and soothes any worries as soon as they arise.

During the second day of travel, Rose, the young lady in waiting, tells Hanno that during the night before she had spied the midnight lantern bearer flashing his lantern several times, and wondered as to what the meaning behind the curious actions were. Unable to answer, the pair took the story to Captain Althro, who was quick to round up his rivermen and equip them with batons and crossbows. A rapid search of the 'Lady of the Reik' found a bulls-eye lantern in the possession of Milos the bard, and at the dexterous hands of Dieter the witch-hunter the man was swift to confess he had been paid to signal to bandits residing on a small river-island up ahead. Ever keen to pursue the enemies of the Empire, Karl suggested placing an ambush for the would-be bandits, and convinced the Captain to lend the aid of his men towards the endeavour. Later that day the barge approached the island from the leeward side, with the party and four rivermen stalking through the underbrush in pursuit of the bandits. They found the scurrilous men drunk and half asleep and swiftly surrounded them. Words were exchanged, and soon blows were a well. The ill-trained bandits stood little chance against Karl and William backed by crossbowmen, and once a number of theirs had fallen the remainder wisely surrendered.


'Watery Graves'

The bandits were bound and held in the barge's galley until the proper authorities could deal with them. Captain Althro, who had suffered a grievous hand injury in the scuffle, took to his bed to rest and left first mate Graff in charge. A quick discussion between Dieter and the bandits revealed that they would rob the river barges blind and then lock the rudders with nets and ropes, knowing the the crews would take at least an hour to regain control of their boats while the current swept them down-river. "There be some rough eddies and hidden rocks further down the river, mayhaps some of those barges never made it home?" suggested Graff. A decision was swiftly reached - the party and crew would advance down the river slowly, checking the shores and tributaries for any wrecks between here and Worlitz. A scant few hours later they found a partially sunken barge lodged in the mouth of a tributary surrounded by unusual eddies and currents. The party proceeded to take the dinghy in for closer inspection, carefully navigating the strange waters and jutting wrecks of more unfortunate boats. Some of the barges still had trade goods loaded into water-tight chests and oilskin bags, but of any bodies they could find just one - a man locked in his quarters, his skin bluish and his face bulging as if drowned but his clothes and person were as dry as the deserts of Khemri.

A warning horn blown from the barge brought short the inspection of the wrecks, and the party quickly paddled back to their companions. The Lady of the Reik was under attack by greyish creatures, small of stature like goblins but with webbed feet and gilled necks. The party and crew put up a tremendous fight against the seemingly endless numbers of the watery interlopers, and soon the decks were slick with oily blood and thick with bodies. A foul water-witch cast the spells of its drowned god upon the crewmen, filling their lungs with water until a thunderous hammer-blow from William sent it reeling back into the murky river. Their sorcerer felled the remaining creatures leapt into the river as well, no doubt to lick their wounds and wait for easier prey. While many were wounded only a single riverman had fallen in battle, a victory nonetheless.

A day later the party arrived in Worlitz - a small river-side village of barely 50 souls. The wounded Captain Althro warned that many who lived in or travelled to Worlitz did so in an attempt to escape some past misdeed, an irony not lost on the party as the Captain sought out the services of a "doctor" who apparently had decided that the key to success was to live in a tiny mud-village in the middle of nowhere. The trade goods recovered from the sunken barges fetched a decent price from the merchants who asked few questions as to their providence, leaving the party with heavy purses and equally heavy consciences. Meanwhile the first mate Graff had delivered the bandits to a passing roadwarden who immediately prepared a gibbet with which the hang the criminals. The leader of the bandits cleverly produced a signet ring he had secreted about his person, signifying his family's ability to simply pay the appropriate fine to have the charges ignored. Karl argued that the remaining bandits might find salvation in joining a militia caravan to the north, for the Empire always needed men of violence to wage the war against the northern raiders. The roadwarden acquiesced, simply dealing each of the bandits five lashings before chaining them together and setting off overland.

The next sunrise saw the party take to the water once again. With the barge Captain's hand bandaged in a foul-smelling poultice and a pocket-full of weirdroot, the first mate once again took the helm. The journey to Castle Reiksguard was uneventful given the previous day's excitements, and before long the imposing stone battlements of the grand fortress peaked out from above the treelines along the river's edge. The castle was a monument to the Empire's power - a bastion which had stood for more than a thousand years against every threat imaginable. The small village on the southern side of the castle held few inhabitants, mostly itinerants or serfs to the knights inside. Karl, Dieter and William tried their utmost to warn the knights of the dangers travelling south from Talabecland - goblins, beastmen, and worse, but it fell upon deaf ears and sneers. "Let Talabecland ride out against such dangers, assuming they have any knights of valour" jeered one Sir Matthias atop his barded destrier. Frustrated with the disunity on display the party quickly arranged a new barge, the Golden Goose, to take them further inland to Altdorf, hoping that there they might find someone with the chivalry to care for the common folk of the land. The young priest who William had taken under his wing had decided to forgo his vows to Sigmar and instead take up a life of husbandship with the young maiden on the barge. Despite his disappointment in the boy's lack of conviction William had these parting words for the couple to be: "Live a good life in faith, and raise many sons for the Empire. They shall be sorely needed in the years to come".


'Rolling Thunder'

The Golden Goose, a stately barge of three decks, was to be their chariot into the fabled canals of Atldorf. The rough banks gave way to shored stonework, the sparsely dotted homesteads replaced with densely packed houses of multiple stories, and in place of rough-shod villagers stood the red and white uniformed Reikland soldiers. The barge was halted at a low bridge to allow a pilot to leap aboard, the first of many 'taxes' the party would suffer while in Altdorf. After a quick discussion and the greasing of palms the bridge was raised by an incomprehensible system of brass cogs and wire pulleys under the strict supervision of a coterie of muttering engineers and students. At the docks awaited a tithesman clad in deep black robes bearing the sigil of a griffon clasping a coin in its talons to whom more coin was deposited. With a flourish Dieter presented a writ of passage allowing freedom from tithes and taxes on his person, a insight he had gained from growing up in the great city. "Any Sergeant of the Watch can write you a writ for a few silver" the witchhunter proudly boasted. "Sounds an awful lot like a bribe if you ask me" muttered William as he forked over his hard-earned coins.

The Boar & Badger would house the party, a modest establishment located on one of the many great bridges of Altdorf which allowed access for both commoner and burgher alike. William took to his prayers while Hanno slummed it in the basement with the tradesmen of the town, a discontent lot given the recent 'Summer Tax' to provide shadecloth for the nobles' gardens. Karl caught the eye of a young lass on the eve of her nuptial vows, and swiftly escorted the damsel to his private chambers for one last 'adventure'. The new morning both William and Hanno attended the Temple of Sigmar and passed on the concerns of the land, namely the loss of the Respite of Sigmar Ascendant in the north-east. The bishop was greatly concerned by the loss of such a vaunted monastery, and vowed to enshrine the names of those lost to the wicked claws of chaos in the temple's sepulchre. In reward for his service William is granted a round shield bearing the twin tailed comet in brass relief. "May Sigmar guide your hammer and protect your spirit" intoned the bishop as he presented the artefact to the faithful sigmarite. Karl would spend his day researching the knightly orders of the city, finding several which would take up the young man as a squire and many more which would not for reasons ranging from birthright to his preference for shielded combat.

The overwhelming nature of the city soon pressed the party into their beds for the night, though any rest was short-lived as a raucous chorus of shouts and jeers awoke them. The streets were packed with the common-folk bearing torches and make-shift clubs, and a section of the markplatz was ablaze in brilliant orange. The bridge upon which their establishment lay was swiftly consumed in battle as a small squad of town watch tried in vain to hold back the rioters. Donning their armour, the party decided to help the watch make their retreat, but to hold short of killing any common folk if possible. Hanno and William soon stood atop an abandoned cart beating back rioters with the hafts of their weapons as the heavily armoured Karl fended off a dozen men at once with a skillful display of shieldsmanship. It was not long before the clubbing blows and sharp knives of the rioters found purchase in Karl's flesh, and with a roar he unleashed his sword upon them, the blade darting like a snake into bellies and thighs filling the cobblestones with crimson blood. A surge of rioters sent Hanno and William tumbling to the ground as their cart was overturned, and soon the stomping feet and lashing fists would find them. Over the din of battle came a staccato rhythm, followed by the tromp of boots in timely order. A veteran of the Empire's ways, Karl was the first to recognise the danger. "HANDGUNNERS!" shouted the cavalryman, throwing himself at the ground. The bewildered pair of Hanno and William dove behind the Boar & Badger as their attackers stood dumbfounded by the approaching soldiers. What followed next would scar the party for months to come as rank after rank of the Empire's finest soldiers unleashed a storm of lead and fire into the packed rioters. Flesh, bone, and clothing all was torn asunder in an explosion of red mist as bullets ripped through everything in their path. Hanno clamped his hands over his ear and wailed in terror as the rounds ricocheted off the cobblestones around he and William, the priest's shouted prayers going unheard by Sigmar over the cacophonous din. Exposed in the centre of the bridge Karl made what cover he could from his shield and the bodies of the fallen rioters, every crack of thunder spinning certain death his way. As the smoke cleared the halberdiers marched forward, performing the grim work of executing whoever still grasped to life as the handgunners silently reloaded their guns. Doused head to toe in gore Karl made for a fearsome sight as he rose from the charnel, but a quick word from the cavalryman was enough to stay the halberds pointing his way. Likewise William stood in front of the terror-struck Hanno, holding his sigmarite shield firm. "Point your blades elsewhere - this one is no rioter" commanded the grave-faced William.

The morning after the word slowly reached the city of what had transpired. A union of tradesmen calling themselves the Winter Bloc had organised the mass riot to protest the recent 'Summer Tax', but as with all things it ended in bloodshed and madness. As the party prepared to leave the strange city of Altdorf they heard the criers speak of a new 'Bloc Tax' to fund the repairs needed due to the rioter's actions, and aboard their barge they passed under a high bridge with freshly hung corpses dangling above, each with a pinned board on their chests reading 'Tax-Thief'. Little did they realise that the madness which simmers beneath the surface of the Empire would only grow as they travelled south towards the mad-city of Ubersreik…


Appendices

Map of the State of Reikland

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