January 27, TA 3019/AD 1200
Here, in the city that was in many ways the heart and soul of the Kingdom of Hungary, chaos reigned. All semblance of order had completely collapsed: panicked mobs ran through the streets, composed of people that in normal times would have been perfectly respectable farmers, laborers, even nobles, now reduced to little more than cornered animals desperate for an escape. Children and mothers cried out and screamed on every corner, terror ruling their hearts and all across the city the madness of fear and despair turned to violence. Everywhere, it seemed, grudges were being settled, market stalls were being looted, people were being trampled beneath both hoof and foot by those trying to flee. The city was tearing itself apart.
The Shepherd of Esztergom looked on as his flock stampeded. Job, Archbishop of Esztergom, had held the Bishop’s staff for 15 years, but had been shepherding the souls of Hungary long before he had received his Bishop’s ring. Never, in all his years of shepherding the faithful, had he seen such madness. Not two sunrises ago, the city, and indeed the whole nation, had been at peace: in fact, before the events that had transpired the day before, the only recent disruption to the tranquility that Hungary had enjoyed had been the brief succession crisis after the death of Bela III in 1196 (which by now was all-but-settled in the favor of his firstborn, Emeric, with the younger son Andrew being forced to flee to Austria). It would be a lie to say that these lands, or indeed any of the lands of Europe, were completely at peace, but the realm of the Magyars could lay a far better claim to such things than the majority of the other states on the continent.
Or at least, it had been able to. Now, within the passage of a single day, the illusion that Hungary was a safe harbor from the ravages of the world had come crashing down, quite literally. Out to the east, a tall and foreboding range of black mountains that stretched beyond the horizon to both north and south had seemingly fallen out of the sky. The dark peaks had risen a mere stone’s throw away from the walls of the city, the plains that had previously stretched out seemingly without end to Esztergom’s east vanishing beneath their fall.
In response, like in Krakow and in Kiev and in hundreds of other places across Europe, from the smallest villages to the largest cities, King Emeric had called for council. Summoning all the cities priests, learned men and anyone and everyone else that might possibly have an answer, any answer at all, to the question on the minds of all, the grand hall of Esztergom Castle had been filled to the brim with dozens of men from walks of life as different as hunters and fishers to merchants and nobles. Job had answered the summons, and soon afterwards found himself watching and listening as everyone from himself and the other members of the clergy to tradesmen from places as distant as Rome or Constantinople had presented their thoughts on the matter at hand.
Or rather, their lack of thoughts: it quickly became rather apparent that no one among those assembled had any explanation for what on earth had happened. The wise could find no record; the tradesmen no tales from distant lands; the huntsmen no old legends or tales. The only clear thing was that this was an act of God, but none could give satisfactory cause as to why the Lord Almighty would do such a thing. The only idea presented which could be readily believed by all also being the most horrible to contemplate (said idea being that these were the beginnings of the End Times), the King had opted to go out and find his own, hopefully less Apocalyptic, answers.
Much like Rurik of Kiev, Emeric now called up his warriors: every brave man willing to go to into the unknown was to report to the Castle courtyard by first light the next morning. The summons was sent out through the whole city, and soon the scouting force had been assembled, 500 riders in all. As the moved as one towards that eastern gate, the people had come out to them, throwing flowers out into their path and saluting them, like they were crusaders bound for the holy land. Job had watched them go, giving his blessing to the formation as it had passed him by. Then he had returned to his Cathedral. Kneeling before the altar of the Lord, he had called for the Almighty to guard his King and the King’s companion, to light their path with his spirit.
Those prayers went unanswered. In the night, the remains of the company had returned, battered and bloodied and with them far too many wounded and dead. But the maimed and injured were not the worst thing they carried: that honor went to the horror stories that they conveyed, of monsters and demons and hellish beasts that had ambushed them in the twisting hills, destroyed the small camp they had established and scattered the Hungarians to the four winds. The number of their dead and wounded was unknown: the company had been forced to flee in all directions from the assault, leaving well more than half their number unaccounted for. Among the missing was the King himself, last seen trying to lead a breakout against the creatures that had encircled their camp.
These tales spread throughout the whole city, always growing in the telling, and soon the fog of madness and despair had descended, gripping Esztergom like a noose around the neck of a condemned man. With the world seemingly ending around them, the people of the city gave into their darkest desires, doing whatever pleased them in what they imagined to be their final days and hours. After all, who would stop them? The Lord, many thought, was condemning them: these were the End Times, were they not? What could man do against such things?
And so it was that Job, Shepherd of the souls of Hungary, watched his city begin to kill itself. He watched as more and more of his flock turned on each other, more and more resigning themselves to the cold embrace of oblivion. If he was another man, perhaps, he would have joined them, given in to the despair, to the fear and the terror. But no. He was the Archbishop of Esztergom, defender of the people’s souls. And now, with everything crashing down around him, he realized the reason that the Lord had placed him on this earth, the duty that he was to carry out.
What could flesh and blood do in the face of the Apocalypse, the people asked? They could guard the soul that they carried within. If this was indeed the time of Judgement, then it was likely that the bodies of all were about to perish. But the soul would live on. If the time had come for the end of this life, then it was also time to prepare for the next. Job, Archbishop of Esztergom, Shepherd to the Souls of the people of Hungary, do the duty prescribed to him to the Lord: he would lead his flock, until his last and dying breath. If he could not save their bodies, then he would defend their souls. He would not, could not, shirk away from the task at hand: if he did, the Almighty would rightly condemn his soul forever. No, Job would have to bear this cross.
He hoped that he wouldn’t have to bear it alone. Job prayed to the Lord that madness had not yet utterly overtaken the city, that he may still yet find enough good men to help him prepare it for the oncoming storm. Order would have to be restored, of course; that would be the first task, making sure that the city wasn’t burned down. Next would be the summoning of allies, the coordination and planning of the defenses, the levying of all the able bodied men (and possibly the elder boys) as soldiers to defend against the dark. There was much to do, and far too little time to do it.
After all, the world was ending.
Emeric, King of Hungary, cursed many things, including himself, as he and the decimated remains of his company rode away from the slaughter. He cursed his idiocy in bringing a force composed mainly of cavalry into hill country, into terrain where foot soldiers or skirmishers would have been far more effective. He cursed his foolishness in deciding to divide his forces, seeking to cover the most possible ground to gain more intelligence as quickly as possible, valuing expediency over safety. He cursed his failure to keep his men in contact with each other, his messengers becoming lost in the unknown lays of this land, letting his formations become isolated and alone.
Emeric cursed his damnable belief that the people needed a show of force to reassure them that he had the situation under control; he should have just sent out a few scouts and be done with it. Instead, he had decided to take 500 very unsubtle riders into an unknown wilderness, and then, another thing about himself to curse, he had made the indefensible choice to establish a camp in these blasted hills.
When it had become apparent that reconnaissance in these lands was not going to be as simple as riding out and seeing what there was to see, Emeric should have gotten out while he was still ahead and immediately returned to Esztergom and planned out a better method for scouting the terrain. But rather than make what was no clearly the intelligent choice, he had went ahead and decided to stay out here in the wild.
But more than anything, he cursed them. The monsters, the demons, whatever you preferred to call them. They had come out of the darkness, picking off his men as they had wandered all but blindly through these cursed lands, riding what was best described as gigantic wolves and cutting apart the scattered columns of the Hungarians. Whatever these damnable things were, they were more than capable of carrying out ambushes, attacking from the cover of the trees and ravines and encircling their hapless victims before the Hungarians were even aware of their presence.
The first sign of trouble were the scattered and isolated groups that contact was lost with, those at the flanks that simply seemed to disappear. When the camp had been established, the sentries had thought that they had noticed or heard something prowling about just out of sight, but by the time that they realized that they were surrounded by a force that was not only apparently larger than their own, but also extremely hostile, it was too late: the demons and monsters were already pouring out of the woods around the camp.
The results of the attack were devastating. The Hungarians lost all cohesion within minutes of the the beginning of the assault, giant wolves and their twisted riders slicing through their camp and cutting down all in their paths. Those among the force of men that had managed to survive, be it by either skill or luck, now stumbled away in all directions, desperate to escape the creatures. But the lands that they were in were completely alien to the Hungarians, and with the sun setting the men had little-to-no way to find their bearings. They were driven in all directions by the onslaught of the demons, like leaves thrown into the four winds, not caring which way they went as long as the monsters did not follow.
But follow the monsters did, pursuing the lost and confused Hungarians across land that was at least somewhat familiar to them. They followed the men to the death, crying out for blood and manflesh, cackling madly as they hunted down the broken remains of the company. Nightfall would bring no respite: the howling of the wolves and the shouts of the demons echoed throughout the darkness, seeking out the men that cowered from them in terror, in bushes and trees and hollows of the earth.
Emeric, King of Hungary, found himself riding blindly in one direction or another, escorted by the bloodied remnants of his guards. He had a few dozen of his men had broken out of the camp, and no they spurred their mounts ever on, driven by the sounds of the pursuing beasts and their twisted mountains that were ever in pursuit behind them. In the darkness, many were lost, simply becoming separated in the shadows or picked off by their pursuers. Those that continued on were mostly wounded, untended wounds spilling blood behind the desperate riders. Others among them had lost their swords or parts of their armor in the earlier skirmishes. The sounds of pursuit continued unabated-if anything, they were becoming louder.
Emeric, King of Hungary, cursed it all.