There was no fire in the camp. Veritas had decided against it on the odd chance that something wandering through the forest would spot or smell it. He could certainly trust Grognar to defend the small encampment from anything stupid enough to thieve or attack, but less of a mess was almost always a good thing. Veritas watched as Johann shivered and rubbed his arms fitfully in a seated position. His reactions to the rapid transformations were fascinating to Veritas, who was making mental notes of each and every visible effect.
“What exactly are you, son?” Veritas asked.
“Stop calling me that,” Johann demanded with an angry look. “By my count, I’ve played your little game and now it’s your turn. What do you want? What freedom are you looking for?”
“The better part of the details can only be understood later, Johann,” Veritas answered. “I can tell you this much- a very powerful and corrupt individual is making power plays, and it falls to me to stop his agents and foil his plans.”
“So you’re on some crusade then?” Johann asked.
“An accurate description, if simplistic,” Veritas answered. “I don’t do this for ideological reasons. I do it because it has to be done and it seems no one else will.”
“Is there any point in asking who this despot is or are you going to be evasive?” Johann asked.
“Evasiveness is just one of my many talents,” Veritas replied with a smile.
“Well, at least go into further detail about how I’m supposed to help you, and how you think you can help me,” Johann said.
“As to how you can help me,” Veritas began, “your abilities to heal, strengthen yourself, and manipulate magic are of particular interest. You can imagine that my chosen task is fraught with peril. Having such a talented individual upon whom I can rely will be extremely beneficial.”
“So you want a bodyguard?” Johann asked skeptically.
“No, Grognar does that more adequately than you ever could- no offense intended, of course. I need an agent. Someone who can get inside the inner workings of my enemy’s plans and disrupt them when necessary,” Veritas said. “I am known, to some extent, to my enemy, and even if I was not, my nature as a wizard is not so easily concealed. You, on the other hand, haven’t a trace of corruption about you, despite your recent transformation. You can walk in the worlds of the innocent and the damned, and this little quest will take us deep into both. Does that sound like too much trouble for you to handle?”
“No,” Johann answered with a shaking of his head. “Though I find it irritating how everyone sees me as a tool.”
The sudden rustling of brush and whinny of horses drew the attention of both Johann and Veritas. Grognar was pushing his way into the camp and a massive boar in hand. The animal’s head had been beaten to bloody ruin and the ogre had a firm grip on back of the creature’s neck. Grognar was covered in fresh tusk wounds and bites, but the joy of his victory and coming meal seemed to dull his pain considerably. Despite being half its killer’s size, the boar offered little resistance when the ogre tossed it into the center of the camp.
Johann looked disdainfully at the dead animal and said “I suppose this is dinner?”
Grognar’s look snapped towards Johann and filled with suspicion. “Get your own,” the ogre said while grabbing an entire barrel of ale from the back of the wagon. He lumbered over to the carcass and dropped right onto his buttocks, letting the barrel fall to his side before plunging his hand into the boar’s belly and ripping out a sizable chunk of wet meat. A horrendous smell of organs and plant material at various stages of digestion saturated the air, causing the changeling and the wizard to wrinkle and cover their noses. Grognar licked his lips and took a massive bite out of the creature’s liver.
“I wouldn’t challenge the ogre for his food,” Veritas said through the fold of his cloak. “He’s a much better fighter when he gets possessive.”
“Right…” Johan replied.
“But you should learn not to be picky about what you eat. Times like this, where we cannot safely procure the best lodgings, are all too frequent,” Veritas said.
“I can make that boar into the finest meal you’ve heard had, human,” a voice said from outside the camp.
“I did not mean to impugn your culinary skills, Maevel,” Veritas said with a smile.
Two shapes rounded the corner of the wagon just then, each the polar opposite of the other. One was tall, cloaked, and incredibly thin, moving with a delicacy that worried Johann when he realized the individual’s tread made no sound and left no evidence of its passing. The other was squat and broad, with goggles, visibly strong arms, and a myriad of strange devices and weapons within its reach.
The first approached Johann and he felt compelled to stand and give a proper show of himself. The newcomer pulled back its hood, and revealed itself to be the most hauntingly beautiful person or thing Johann had seen since his creation. She was a female elf, with deep green eyes and a warm complexion. Silken brown hair unfurled from within the hood and flowed down her thin shoulders. She locked eyes with Johann and held his gaze as if testing his strength of will.
“Well, hello to you too,” the shorter figure said.
Johann’s gaze tore away from the elf and looked to the first dwarven woman he’d ever seen. She pulled her goggles off and thrust out her stubby hand. Confused at the gesture, Johann leaned his head to the side. The dwarf cocked an eyebrow and turned to Veritas.
“Did I do it wrong? Don’t humans shake hands like this?” she asked the wizard.
“I think he’s a little aghast at everything that’s happened to him, Mae,” Veritas answered. “After all, who would dare be rude to you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, uh…ma’am,” Johann said as he shook her hand. “Are you working for Veritas as well?”
“Working for?” the dwarf asked with a scoff. “That crazy wizard asked for my help, and I had nothing better to do.”
Veritas silently chuckled and approached the new arrivals from behind, stopping between them.
“This,” the wizard said patting the dwarf on the shoulder, “is Maevel Ranulftochter. She is from the hold of Zhufbar, far to the south of here. She’s a brilliant engineer, weaponsmith, and cook, and if I don’t mentioned that she’s more talented than you with ranged and/or melee weapons, she’ll undoubtedly demonstrate. If she warms to you at all, you can call her ‘Mae’.”
“This,” the wizard said patting the elf on the shoulder, “is Vanya Moriel. She is from the forest of Athel Loren and our resident expert in archery and hand to hand combat, as well as a liaison to those bands of Wood Elves that we occasionally run into.”
“Ladies,” Veritas continued, “this is Johann Hartmann. Formerly of the city-state of Nuln. He’ll be traveling with us.”
“Pleased,” Johann said apprehensively.
“And what do you think you can get out of this one?” Mae asked Veritas, looking Johann up and down.
“That remains to be seen, my dear,” Veritas answered, “but I’ll say this much- He hit Grognar so hard that the ogre vomited, and that was after Grognar broke this one’s back against a tree.”
“So he can take a hit,” Mae said. “I suppose that has its uses. Anyway, I’m getting some sleep.”
The dwarf turned and wandered back to the wagon, removing her weapons and equipment when she got there.
Johann nodded curtly to Vanya, turned to Veritas, and said “I think I can use some sleep myself.”
“Hold it,” Veritas said, placing his hand on Johann’s shoulder. “Time usually isn’t our friend, and while I was thoroughly impressed by your display earlier, I’m afraid you still need work.”
“What are you talking about?” Johann asked, confused.
“What kind of weapon schooling do you have?” Veritas asked, ignoring Johann’s question.
“I spent three years training in Nuln. I was supposed to be inducted as a Knight of the Order of Sigmar Ascendant,” Johann answered.
“As I suspected,” Veritas answered. “Get your weapons, Johann. Vanya, would you mind?”
“Not at all,” the elf answered.
“Take a combat stance and stop staring,” Vanya said as she stalked around Johann in a circle, some twenty meters from the camp. She moved as quietly and delicately as a house cat, but with all the predatory prowess of a lioness. Intricate tattoos coiled around her skin like vines and seemed to become hazy and indistinct when Johann focused on them. She twirled short, leaf-bladed swords in her hands and flexed different parts of her tight, whipcord musculature.
Johann drew his tonfa-blades and lowered into his normal stance.
In an instant, Vanya darted across his body. He stepped to move with her, but she planted her foot, turned, and slapped his thigh with the flat of one of her swords before bounding away.
“Too low,” the elf said. “You are forced to commit. Keep your feet under your shoulders.”
Vanya crossed the distance between them in two long strides and launched a flurry of light attacks. Johann parried them all, but he realized she was testing his defenses. He stabbed out with his right, but she spun low and underneath the attack and kicked his legs out from under him.
“Too angular, too predictable. I saw that attack coming before you thought of it,” Vanya said very matter of factly and with no hint of arrogance.
“I’m not an elf,” Johann answered as he picked himself up. “I can become as fast as you, but you wouldn’t want to fight me.”
“I’ve seen you transform, Johann,” Vanya answered, “and I can tell you right now that it wouldn’t help you last any longer. You rely too much on brute force.”
“Do you have any constructive criticism?” Johann asked, growing frustrated.
“There are two keys to surviving battle,” Vanya said. “The first is observation. Keep your eyes open and pay attention to detail. Look at me.”
“I am,” Johann replied.
“No, you’re looking at my face,” Vanya retorted. “Look at me. Notice my weight and its placement. Notice the length of my limbs and weapons. Notice my separation from you. Notice the aggressiveness, or lack thereof, in my eyes and posture. Notice the angles of approach and your surroundings. These are the details with which you form your plan of attack and defense. Accurate anticipation of your opponents can grant you victory against a superior opponent or a score of lesser opponents.”
“That sounds great, but again, I’m no elf. My eyes aren’t that fast. Not like this,” Johann responded.
“Stop making excuses,” Vanya snapped. “A human’s eyes and mind are fast enough to do as I’ve described. Your kind simply lacks the patience to put in the effort. Now hit me.”
Johann charged as soon as the words left her lips. He stabbed toward her neck and stomach, but she side-stepped each strike easily. Vanya reversed her grip on her left sword and jabbed, connecting solidly with the human’s nose and mouth. He staggered, his momentum immediately arrested, and she slammed a surprisingly strong fist into his chest.
“Are you trying to make this easy on me? Are you afraid to hit a female?” she asked as Johann spat a gob of saliva and blood. “Stop being so predictable.”
Vanya started toward Johann slowly and purposefully. Johann swung downward hard, but hit nothing. Vanya slapped his ribs with her sword, ducked underneath the return strike, and planted another fist in his stomach. She pushed back just in time to avoid his knee, and Johann barely restrained himself in time to stop the tip of Vanya’s sword from impaling his throat.
“Has my point cut through your stubbornness or do I need to start cutting though your skin?” Vanya asked. “I know you can heal, so I won’t exactly feel guilty.”
Johann backed away and let his guard sag.
“I’ve been fighting this way all my life, and obviously it hasn’t failed me yet,” he said. “Granted, I’ve never fought an elf before, but do you expect me to relearn basic technique?”
“No,” Vanya answered, much to Johann’s surprise. “Your human teachers were not entirely clueless, and you are not a lost cause- I would not bother with you otherwise. You can use what you know, but you are like a scholarly student trying to outwit his venerable elders. Open your mind to new schools of thought…to new possibilities.”
“How?” Johann asked after a long pause.
“You can start by relaxing your muscles,” she answered. “Be lighter on your feet and more ready to move. Have more faith in the quality of your weapons. Maximize your accuracy and minimize the energy you invest in each attack.”
“How do I practice this? In combat, my body is trained to react a certain way,” Johann said.
“Alright,” Vanya said. “Come with me.”
The changeling and the elf headed deeper into the forest. After about fifteen minutes of walking, they came to a short cliff and a river below. The moonlight illuminated the scene beautifully, casting a silver glow off of the gentle current and revealing the waterfall a half kilometer south of where they stood.
“Relax your body. Think of the water,” she said. “What is water like?”
“Wet,” Johann said.
“Answer the question,” Vanya said.
“Flexible,” Johann replied.
“And yet, unyielding,” Vanya finished. “Look at the mighty boulder in the middle of that river. Two-hundred of your years ago, that plinth was a third again as broad. When calm water meets a boulder, it flows around it. It erodes the rock precisely, breaking down what is otherwise indomitable.”
Vanya walked over to a nearby, sizeable rock on the cliff’s edge, placed her foot on it and shoved. The rock fell quickly and splashed into the river below.
“When a boulder strikes calm water,” Vanya began, “the water absorbs and deflects the strength of the intrusion until the boulder is beholden to the power of the current.”
Johann looked at Vanya as the precursors to comprehension crept into his brain.
“You are beginning to see it now, yes?” Vanya asked. “You will always come across opponents stronger, faster, smarter, or more resilient than you. The key to victory is remembering that no attack is unstoppable, no defense is impenetrable, and no opponent is invincible. Understand the flow around you and use it to your advantage.”
“Well said,” Veritas said as he stepped from the shadows.
Johann and Vanya turned at the sound of his voice. With no small amount of interest, Johann realized that not even the hyper-alert elf had sensed the wizard’s approach.
“There are only a few hours until sunrise, my dear Vanya,” Veritas said. “I think it would be best if Johann gets a few hours rest now and absorbs your lessons for the day.”
A wave of exhaustion hit Johann then, catching him off guard.
“Sounds pretty good, actually” Johann said.
“The camp is back that way,” Veritas said, indicating toward the northwest. “Get what sleep you can. Tomorrow, we have a long trek ahead of us.”
After a few moments, the shape of Johann disappeared into the gloom.
“Well?” Veritas asked.
“He’s easily frustrated and inexperienced,” Vanya observed. “He doesn’t like taking orders. There’s no telling how long his control will last when he transforms again.”
“And yet he seemed to take your lessons to heart and agree to my request for assistance rather easily,” Veritas said.
“He had no direction,” Vanya replied. “For the moment, we’ve supplied him with one.”
“ ‘For the moment,’ you say?” Veritas asked.
“I need not lecture you on your own personality, Veritas,” Vanya said. “Don’t play too many of your games with him. If he develops a distaste for them, the repercussions could be dire.”