Chapter 9
An Unexpected Trial

Mount Lang, Titan; Anno Titanos 285

"Hate given form, rage incarnate. Fang and claw sharp as knives, tools of thine bloodlust. The flesh of Man thine food, his blood thine drink. Thine purpose is to kill, thine life is to slaughter. Come forth, O dread beast, and ravage mine enemies!"
- Incantation from the Verba Aeterna Ducis Vocatoris

After the previous year's uprising, none of the Marauders dared to openly defy Randwulf. While he did not let up on any of them, the experience taught him the need for incentives to maintain morale and quell discontent in the ranks. He implemented a spoils system and allowed the men plunder when they conquered new groups. He also led raids on merchant caravans and the like, what few traveled in the area.
He told himself he was not a bandit. He was not stealing. He was simply claiming that which was his by right. It all belonged to him because he was strong, because his Marauders were strong.
He told himself that over and over again, trying to purge the last traces of weakness from himself. As time wore on, it became easier and easier. Still, it was not enough. He had to be stronger. His Marauders had to be stronger. He could not stop until he was on top, undisputed as the strongest of all.
He could not stop, but even he needed the occasional break. Seeking a rare moment of peace for himself, Randwulf walked alone well away from the outskirts of camp. Though his goal was simple relaxation, he found himself making logistical calculations, gauging the current troop strength and planning the strategy for the next attack. He decided not to fight the impulse, allowing the figures to work themselves out in his head, though his preoccupation did not hamper his attentiveness to the outside world. Upon hearing the sound of a twig snap nearby, he drew his sword and whirled around to meet whatever was coming at him.
"Who's there?" he shouted to challenge the unseen entity.
The response was a low hiss, almost like that of a snake yet deeper and higher off the ground. The dim moonlight revealed a creature that resembled the dragons of legend. It walked on two feet like a man, yet lurched forward rather than standing upright. Its hands and feet had long, menacing claws and on its head were horns like a ram's.
Creatures of this sort were supposed to be long-since extinct, Randwulf's own ancestor among their chief exterminators. Even so, he knew better than to dismiss it as a figment of his imagination. It was quite real and most certainly dangerous. Randwulf settled into a fighting stance that permitted easy movement. He would let the creature make the first move.
It drew itself up, rising closer to its true height, making it almost a foot taller than the Conqueror. It tilted up its chin and gave a short series of barks. Randwulf wondered why it had done that, but the answer quickly revealed itself. Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw two more approach to flank him on either side.
One looked like a formidable challenge, but three left him with little hope of survival. He kept his cool, refusing to let panic set in. Still he opted to let the creatures make the first move. His eyes darted back and forth to catch the first sign of movement.
The one on his right recoiled slightly, the only hint of its plan to attack. Randwulf swiftly turned, putting all of his weight into an overhead chop that barely managed to cleave into the creature's thick skull, just enough to be a killing blow. The one on his left charged at him with a roar. Randwulf shot his arm toward the creature, raising an earthen spike that impaled the creature through its chest.
The first one did not sit idly by while Randwulf dispatched the other two. It rammed him head-on before he could react, knocking him off his feet. He did not even have a chance to get up when it stomped on his chest. Were it not for his armor, he would have been dead right then. As it stood, he probably had a couple ribs cracked, but in the rush of the fight, he did not pay attention to the pain. He could not afford to.
Before the creature could put its full weight down on him, Randwulf thrust his blade into its belly. The creature howled in pain, but it did not get off of him. Regardless, Randwulf had won.
From the creatures gut wound, stone slowly began to spread. It did not seem to realize at first, but when it did, it backed away, its steps awkward as the petrification spell spread to its legs. It seemed to know it was doomed, and in one last murderous surge, it lunged at him. But the stone was not strong enough for the strain and broke apart, showering Randwulf with chunks of rock. Its still fleshly head bounced off his armor before turning to stone as well.
Randwulf slowly rose to his feet, looking around warily for any more. A gust of wind swirled around him, joined by the raspy laughter of an old man.
"You have gotten stronger," the old man's voice said, "but do not falter! Your destiny still lies on the horizon."
The bodies of the three creatures dissolved into smoke, leaving no trace behind, not even the blood on Randwulf's sword and armor. The only evidence of the attack was the pain in his chest from where the creature rammed him and a mild headache. The wind died down, leaving him alone in silence. Randwulf wondered if the attack was simply a test and if so, by whom?