In which the bonds of loyalty are tested under the Blood God's gaze
Red skies and orange sun. Fortuitous omens perhaps, on the eve of battle. The army of Halthcar Dreadgaze was camped on the edge of the canyon, guarding the end of the great bridge of Kharathdun. Even above the raucous noise of the warcamp, the bubbling and hissing of the ever-boiling Kharath River could be heard echoing from the canyon, and those closest to the rim constantly felt the roiling heat of what passed for a waterway in the realm of Aqshy. Standing as he was at the edge of the camp overlooking the bridge, Ilarch Bastakas’ skin prickled and stung from the constant steam rising up from the depths. Clad in the heavy lamellar armor of the Brass Legion, Bastakas was already sweating, even with his helmet off and tucked beneath his arm.
“Sweating already, Ilarch? This is barely a winter’s day in the northern mountains!” Bastakas turned, a half-grin breaking out on his scarred, patrician features, and faced the large warrior strolling towards his position.
“We are not all so fortunate to have been born in these… hospitable climes, Bandophoroi Tibes. You should remember that.” Tibes, a hulking, barrel-chested man with a fiery red beard to match his Aqshyan heritage, grunted in reply as he reached his commander’s side.
“Hardly hospitable, sir. I would have been happy to never see the back of this blasted realm again.” Tibes raised a hand to shield his eyes from the setting orange sun, the light glinting off the metallic tattoos that traced their way across his pale, brutish face. “Good ground this. Defensible. Dreadgaze has chosen well.”
Bastakas snorted and sneered, an ugly expression that caused his own facial markings to glitter in the sun. His standard bearer was not wrong, not about the ground at least. The bridge of Kharathdun was a massive edifice crafted from black, volcanic stone that stretched across the canyon. An army could cross its span abreast, if need be. Tomorrow, at least one would try, but there was a significant obstacle. The ruins of a square keep, made of the same obsidian material as the bridge upon which it squatted, stood at the end of the span under Dreadgaze’s control. Even now his forces were garrisoning the defenses, preparing for their enemies across the canyon to advance.
“It’s about time Dreadgaze made a good choice.” Bastakas could not keep the disdain from his voice. Halthcar Dreadgaze was a mighty warrior in his own right, but as a commander he was weak at best. Daily, the Ilarch cursed the Strategos for signing the contract that sent him and his century into the service of such a foolish leader. “I am surprised he figured out this on his own, if I am being honest.”
“Ah well, even a madman is right every once and awhile. With that keep, we’ll see off whatever comes across that bridge, make no mistake.” Tibes spat and scratched at his tattoos. Bastakas sighed.
“Do you know who is coming across that bridge, Bandophoroi?” Tibes shrugged.
“Does it matter?”
“It is Serpa Lenk.” Bastakas' voice was cold, the name he spoke full of weight.
“By the Throne.”
“Serpa Lenk, one of Blood God’s chosen,” Bastakas continued, ignoring his comrade’s interjection, “Serpa Lenk, who slaughtered the Orruk hordes of Rattletooth and shattered the Ogors of the Crimson Peaks. Serpa Lenk, the warrior that humbled even Sigmar’s Stormcast lap dogs. That is who comes across the bridge for us tomorrow.” Now it was Tibes’ turn to sigh.
“Imagine serving under a commander like that, eh? Still, the Blood God guides us where he wills. This army,” he said gesturing back to the camp, “outnumbers that army across the bridge two to one. It’ll be no contest. Serpa Lenk will come and Serpa Lenk will die.”
“You think that is right? That Dreadgaze triumphs and the true hero fails. I do not wish to be part of that.” Bastakas looked away from his standard bearer, back across the bridge to the far side of the chasm, where the distant shapes of Serpa Lenk’s army could be seen mustering.
“The Blood God cares not from whence the blood flows, only that it does,” Tibes said piously, slamming a fist into his chestplate.
“That’s the thing, Bandophoroi. Only that it does. Will Dreadgaze lead this army to more glorious slaughter? Or will he whittle it away piece by piece, trade our lives for nothing, until it dissolves. We cannot offer righteous slaughter to the Lord of Skulls if we are all dead.” Bastakas pointed across the bridge to the camp of their enemies, the anger rising in his voice. Tibes took a step back, almost feeling the rage radiating off his commander. The Ilarch’s brass tattoos seemed to flash in the sunlight, as he continued his rant. “There is a commander that understands that, that will keep the blood flowing, that will not lead us to short-sighted ruination. The Blood God does not favor the stupid and the dead!” The commander spat angrily into the chasm, his spittle sizzling and evaporating in midair.
“Aye, Ilarch, aye,” Tibes nodded, holding up his hands placatingly, “but the Brass Legion is not signed under Serpa Lenk…”
“And so we must serve Dreadgaze. I know.” The Ilarch’s shoulders slumped slightly and his anger bled away. “Not for the first time, I curse the Strategos for signing us to this contract.”
“It will be a glorious slaughter tomorrow no matter what, Ilarch, a day worthy of the Blood God’s gaze.” Tibes was trying to be jovial again, but Bastakas paid him little heed, staring back at the bridge and the enemy across it. The standard bearer also fell silent after a moment, drumming his fingers on the hilt of his mace and watching the scene before him. The two men stood in quiet observation for some time, the heat washing around them, before another voice broke their reverie.
“My Ilarch,” the baritone rumble of Presbyter Marcian lent itself well to his path in the Brass Legion. The priest of the Blood God was a small, slender man, rather at odds with the image of Khorne’s chosen warriors, but his lean frame hid whipcord muscles that would put many greater men to shame. Both Bastakas and Tibes turned and bowed to their chaplain. Marcian’s youthful features were hidden behind his brass ritual mask, shaped in the snarling vision of Khorne, leaving only his blood-red eyes visible to the world. His armor, decorated with the pieces of skulls taken from the fallen, rattled as he fell to one knee before his commander.
“Speak, Presbyter, no need to stand on ceremony here.” Marcian nodded, the slight bit of humor completely lost on him, and rose to his feet. Bastakas did his best not to twitch as those blood-red eyes locked with his own. Like all members of the Brass Legion’s holy order, Marcian’s connection to the Lord of Skulls lent him an unnervingly ethereal quality that most men, even those devoted to Khorne, found unsettling. The scent of blood and death hung thick around him, though the priest himself never seemed to notice.
Of course, there was also the fact that any Presbyter was well within their rights to remove an officer of the Legion from command if they felt it was necessary. Bastakas trusted young Marcian, more than he trusted most, but the threat was always there, no matter how respectful the priest was. And, from what he had seen in battle, he knew the holy man was more than capable of following through with that threat if need be.
“I believed I might find you here, observing the field of war to come.” The Presbyter looked away, staring instead at the bridge, and Bastakas resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief. “Dreadgaze wishes you to attend him.” Bastakas frowned.
“Another one of his ridiculous strategy meetings, no doubt, if one could call them that,” Bastakas did nothing to keep the disdain out of his voice. Tibes chuckled darkly behind his commander, but fell silent immediately as Marcian swept his gaze over to him. The standard bearer turned his face, staring at the ground, and the priest continued.
“No, my Ilarch. In truth I would not have bothered you for that. This is more important.”
“Oh? Do tell, Presbyter?”
“Serpa Lenk has sent an emissary,” Marcian’s delivery was clipped.
“An emissary? I had not figured the famed Serpa Lenk as one for negotiating terms.” Marcian shook his head, causing the skull bits woven into his armor to clatter slightly.
“I do not think Serpa Lenk wishes to join Dreadgaze’s horde, my Ilarch. Quite the opposite, in fact. Regardless, our general requests your presence in his delegation.”
“Of course he does,” Bastakas said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I am curious to see how this goes, at the very least. Presbyter, you will attend me.” The Khornate priest nodded wordlessly. “Bandophoroi, return to the camp and send Decarch Azziya to me as well. I will want her present at this.” Tibes slammed his fist into his chest in acknowledgement, and turned on his heels to go. “And Bandophoroi?”
“Have the men armed and ready. I feel that this will end quicker than we think.”
Halthcar Dreadgaze and his chosen commanders stood in a cluster upon the barricades their men had made out of the ruins of the bridge keep. They were looking outward, at a small cadre of figures currently making their way across the obsidian span towards them. Bastakas, with Marcian and Azziya trailing slightly behind him, strode proudly towards the group, one hand upon the hilt of his blade, the other hanging freely at his side. A hot wind blew across the bridge, causing Ilarch’s cloak to flutter in the wind and sending Marcian’s bone charms rattling. Dreadgaze turned at the sound of their approach, as did the men with him.
The warlord was a hulking figure, coated in brutal armor of black iron that was in turn swathed in a cloak made from the ragged skin of a minotaur. The beast’s head decorated Dreadgaze’s helm, adding more height to his already impressive form. His helmet, with its half-face plate, left his namesake feature revealed. Dreadgaze’s right eye was a swollen, horrific thing that bulged out of its enlarged socket in a constant, violent stare. A black slit pupil, like that of a snake, was all that broke the red-orange color of the orb itself. It was a visceral, ever present reminder of how the gods had favored the man who had once been Halthcar Fireaxe. Bastakas had heard Dreadgaze claim the eye could see into men’s souls, though he didn’t believe that was true. Doubtless, it conferred some power upon its bearer, but not enough to let him read minds or slay with a glance as some rumors held.
“Ah, Ilarch Bastakos, how nice of the vaunted Brass Legion to join us.” There was derision in Dreadgaze’s tone, and Decarch Azziya growled slightly under her breath, her intricate scrollwork of facial tattoos flashing slightly in time with her anger. Bastakas gestured slightly at the warrior woman as she slid her hand towards her blade, and she ceased the movement immediately. Dreadgaze smiled, a savage, cruel smile made of huge, yellow stained teeth, but said nothing about Azziya. “You have shown up just in time, Ilarch. The fearsome Serpa Lenk is about to ask for surrender. Figured you Brass Legion lot should at least earn your pay, since there will be no battle.” He laughed loudly, a booming noise that set Bastakas’ teeth on edge. Some of the other commanders chuckled along with him. Dexterous Maraam, the androgynous leader of the Dancers of Comorah, smiled wickedly from beneath its silken veils, and nearby, Rotbringer Vexus burbled throatily, the small bells decorating his stag-like horns clinking and chiming with each rumble.
Bastakas said nothing, merely taking his position on the barricade alongside Otto von Frampt. Once an officer in the Freeguilds of Sigmar, von Frampt had turned his back on his distant god and fallen into the worship of the undivided pantheon. Though his once proud features were covered in ritual scars and his brightly colored uniform was now little more than dirty rags, the warrior maintained a keen grasp of tactics, and the small warband that had accompanied him into damnation were almost as well drilled as the Brass Legion’s skoutatoi. He was not laughing. Bastakas knew that the old man disliked service under Dreadgaze as much as anyone else, but when the brutal champion had offered him a choice, service or death, von Frampt had seen which way the wind was blowing.
“Ignore them, son.” The former Freeguilder’s voice was raspy, like sand sliding across marble, “most of them couldn’t whip butter.” Dexterous Maraam hissed at the old man, and von Frampt snarled back, reaching for the massive zweihander strapped to his back. “Silence, you perfumed shite, or I’ll turn those silks into a shroud.” The Slaaneshi champion tittered mockingly at von Frampt’s anger, and licked its lips lasciviously before turning away. Von Frampt grunted and Bastakas smiled. He rather liked the cantankerous old heretic, almost as much as he hated Dexterous Maraam.
If Dreadgaze noticed the exchange, he paid it no mind.
“Now that we are all here,” he boomed, “I think its time we got meet our guest.” In a gesture he no doubt thought was dashing, the warlord hefted his massive axe onto his shoulder and leapt down off the barricade before strolling out across the bridge, with his commanders following. Bastakas and his lieutenants also hopped down, though Bastakas definitely saw Azziya roll her eyes before stepping down. Marcian, on the other hand, made no indication of approval or disapproval. His red eyes took everything in, and Bastakas knew the Presbyter was studying all around him for future reference.
The delegation from Serpa Lenk’s camp was smaller than the gaggle that surrounded Dreadgaze, which did not surprise Bastakas overmuch. Of the dreaded Serpa Lenk, there was no sign. Instead, a tall, broad figure, clad in dark purple armor that constantly glistened with a sheen like oil in water, seemed to be leading the party. Slightly behind the warrior stood a beastkin, a shaman if the robes and profusion of charms and symbols that decorated its horns and staff were anything to judge by. Bastakas sniffed desirously, for he had no love of beasts, but he saw out of the corner of his gaze that his chaplain had seemingly locked eyes with the shaman across the distance. The third figure of note in the delegation of Serpa Lenk was a standard bearer, armored in bronze plate. In his hands he clutched a pole of steel, topped with the eight-pointed star of Chaos. The ragged remains of a corpse, missing its limbs, was lashed to the star, and Bastakas noted with some trepidation that the body squirmed and wriggled, its eyes gouged out and its mouth stitched open in a permanent scream of agony. A trio of armored warriors serving as an honor guard, completed the delegation.
Azziya leaned forward to whisper in her commander’s ear.
“This doesn’t look like a surrender party, Ilarch.”
Bastakas nodded, “That’s because it’s not, Decarch. Watch and wait.”
“I come on behalf of Serpa Lenk, chosen of Khorne, warrior without peer, and would speak to the one who calls himself Dreadgaze.” The voice that bellowed out of the apparent herald’s glistening armor was that of a young boy, completely incongruous with his mighty stature and the savage blade sheathed at his side.
Dreadgaze stepped forward, swinging his axe to point at the man before him.
“I am Halthcar Dreadgaze. What a shame your warlord could not come. To afraid to beg in person aye?” Some of the commanders behind Dreadgaze chortled, but the herald’s armored form gave away no hint of offense.
“I was told that the one who calls himself Dreadgaze was a boorish lout. It seems you live up to your legend.” Dreadgaze snarled at that and swung his axe back up to his shoulder. The herald did not move, but Bastakas felt that he was smiling underneath his helmet.
“Speak your piece, I didn’t come to trade insults with a bloody eunuch.”
“Serpa Lenk extends this offer to all foes. Our horde is strong. The Blood God himself has reached down and granted the mighty Serpa Lenk his blessing to lead a glorious slaughter across Aqshy in the name of Chaos. You may join us in this holy crusade, if you wish. A dozen dozen champions have fallen before us. Do not be next, when eternal glory-“
“Enough!” Dreadgaze roared, his namesake eye pulsing with its bearer’s rage. “You dare? I am Halthcar Dreadgaze! I slew the Witch of the Silverfire Woods! I ripped the heart out of the Beast of Betanmoor! With this axe, I slew the Minotaur Lord Ghurgol! Even now I bear his hide as my cloak! And you would have me bend my knee?” The herald’s voice was light, almost cheery, when he replied.
“I heard that Ghurgol was quite old, when your army killed him for you.”
Dreadgaze howled with anger and lunged forward, whipping his axe downward in a brutal arc. But the herald slid backwards gracefully, drawing his blade and slapping aside the axe in one smooth, sudden motion. His honor guard stepped forward, weapons raised, and a handful of the leaders behind Dreadgaze drew their blades as well. A handful, not all, Bastakas noted with no surprise. The Ilarch could feel the eagerness of Marcian radiating behind him at the promise of bloodshed, but he made no move to draw his own weapon.
“Temper temper,” the herald said, “careful you don’t lose your head, Dreadgaze.” The warlord grunted in anger, but a glance back over his shoulder at how few of his supporters had stepped forward to aid him brought him up short of another attack. He whipped his head back around, his eye veritably blazing with fury.
“Tell your coward lord that I have twice as many men in my army. If you attack us, you will die. You will weep for mercy before this is done. I will bleed every last man of you dry and stake your corpses for all to see. Come and die, eunuch! Bring them all! I am Halthcar Dreadgaze! I am your end!” To Bastakas, the fury rang hollow. Azziya leaned forward again.
“He is afraid, Ilarch. Did you see how deftly that herald handled his blade? A herald! Serpa Lenk must be a monster, to command warriors such as that.” Bastakas said nothing, merely nodding in agreement.
The herald returned his sword to its sheathe. His armor shimmered and gleamed as he bowed low.
“Your choice is made then. Yours and yours alone. Remember that, when death comes for you.” With those ominous words, he turned his back to Dreadgaze and marched away.
“Death will only come for you, eunuch,” Dreadgaze roared, “You and that mewling weakling that hides behind you. Come and die!” The herald paused for a moment, only a moment, but did not turn back. Dreadgaze himself stalked back towards his warriors, his fury burning off him in waves. “I will see all of you tonight in my tent. We will prepare for tomorrow. And do not forget who rules here! Who you are loyal to!” The commanders said nothing, merely parting to let their warlord pass, before slinking back towards the barricade themselves. Bastakas remained on the bridge a moment longer, watching the back of Serpa Lenk’s delegation. Marcian stepped up to his side.
“None of that was actually for Dreadgaze,” the priest said, his voice stern.
“That offer was for all of us.”
“Dreadgaze is unworthy.”
“And what would you have me do, Presbyter?” Bastakas growled as he faced the priest. “The writ is signed with Dreadgaze. We march under his banner, by order of the Strategos himself. Would you see the Brass Legion forsake its honor? Its oaths?” Marcian said nothing, fixing his blood-red gaze on Bastakas’ own. Azzyria hovered nearby nervously, but kept her peace.
“I would have you remember who you truly serve, Ilarch.”
“I serve the Brass Legion in all things, Presbyter. You know this.”
“No,” Marcian’s voice was firm. “That is not who you serve. You serve the Lord of Skulls. He and he alone is the Brass Legion’s master. All we do, we do in his name.”
“The Blood God cares not from where the blood flows, only that it does.” Bastakas found himself spitting the words of Tibes at the priest. Marcian snorted.
“An interesting sentiment, Ilarch. You should know better than to quote such platitudes at a priest. Even so, I think you know my feelings on that particular saying. The Blood God cares that blood continues to flow, and only one warlord here is truly anointed to slaughter on his behalf.”
“I will not have the Brass Legion be traitors, Presbyter.” There was true vehemence in Bastakas’ voice, and Marcian bristled with anger, his red eyes seeming to grow bloodier. For a moment, Bastakas smelt freshly-spilt blood and heard the distant ringing of battle in his ears, and his hand instinctively dropped to his blade. But the Presbyter sighed, as if releasing tension from his own body, and the scent of battle faded with the gesture. The priest shook his head wearily, and for a moment Bastakas felt more like a disappointing child than a blooded warrior in command of an entire cohort of deadly killers.
“How can we be traitors, my Ilarch, as long as we serve our true master?”
“Enough, Presbyter. I will hear no more of this. Azziya,” he said, turning to his lieutenant, who had backed off even further during the course of the argument.
“Assemble the officers, my tent, nightfall, or what passes for it here. I would discuss preparations with them before Dreadgaze’s council.”
“Of course, my lord.” Azziya slammed her fist into her breastplate and set off back down the bridge towards the barricade. Marcian’s gaze was still fixed on Bastakas, and the Ilarch did his best to ignore the creeping sensation of dread washing over him. Instead he looked at the barricade, observing it for weaknesses, thinking already about how best his skoutatoi could hold the ground.
“Do you trust me, Marcian?” The priest was silent for a moment, simply staring at Bastakas’ back before replying.
“I do, Bastakas. But I trust one other even more, and I work for his continued glory.”
“I will not dishonor the Brass Legion. I will not forsake the Lord of Skulls.” Marcian maintained his intense stare as the Ilarch spoke. Bastakas turned and spread his arms wide in a supplicating gesture. “I will do what is right, Marcian. Do not doubt it.” The holy man tensed, and for a moment Bastakas expected him to lunge forward in an attack, but Marcian simply nodded, breaking his stare.
“The Blood God is watching us, always, the Brass Legion more than most. He judges us by our actions, Bastakas, as much as by the skulls we pile at his feet. Act wisely. There are worse punishments than death that he can bestow upon the unworthy.” With those ominous words, the Presbyter turned and marched off towards the barricade, leaving his commander alone on the obsidian span. He looked back briefly from atop the defenses, and Bastakas was still there, a single man astride a mighty edifice, kneeling in prayer. Beneath his mask, Marcian smiled sadly at the sight before gazing up at the red sky and orange sun. A good omen, he thought, on the eve of battle. Khorne was making his presence felt. And that was what worried him. The priest touched the blade at his hip, almost for luck, cast one last look at the kneeling Ilarch, and headed towards the Brass Legion’s camp.
The sun dawned blood red the next day. Another omen. Khorne had arrived to watch this slaughter. Atop the barricades on the front line, Bastakas felt a strange tension in the air, as if a great weight were pushing down upon the battlefield. In truth, he felt it in his soul. The Ilarch wondered if the men around him felt the same pressure on their hearts. Half his cohort was assembled along the barricades. Clad in heavy lamellar armor faced with brass and bearing shields of similar make, the warriors of the Brass Legion were an impressive sight, some of the greatest mortal warriors of Khorne, ready in disciplined ranks to meet the attack of Serpa Lenk’s forces. It was a sight to stir the heart of any commander. Besides Bastakas stood Bandarphoroi Tibes, brass banner of the Legion clutched in one hand and a brutal mace in the other. On his left was Musikos Morgramm, a gaunt man hailing from Shyish who seemed waifish, even in his armor. He proudly bore the cohort’s signal horn, ripped from the skull of a long-dead beastkin and banded with an intricate scrollwork of brass that matched the tattoos of its owner. The rest of the Brass Legion cohort, under the command of Decarch Azziya, was held in reserve behind the battleline, alongside the forces of Otto von Frampt.
If the sight of his arrayed troops gave him confidence, he could not say the same of his commander. Dreadgaze stood slightly behind the barricade, surrounded by a handpicked group of ragged mercenaries that accompanied him into battle. He looked hungover, or worse, still drunk, his famous eye bloodshot and squinting. The strategy session in Dreadgaze’s tent had turned into little more than a drunken mess after only a few minutes of discussion. Arrogant as he was, the warlord was already eager to celebrate the victory to come, and most of the commanders present had been happy to join in his overconfidence. Bastakas had left shortly thereafter, but the revel had lasted long into the night if the noise had been anything to go by. It was hardly the behavior of a competent commander, the Ilarch thought derisively, but then again, what more could he expect from Dreadgaze? The only leader present who seemed to have taken it all in stride was Dextrous Maraam. His Dancers were assembled alongside the Brass Legion on the wall, and Bastakas’ cast a dersivie eye over their loose formation as they burned incense and sang strange, keening songs to work themselves up into a battle frenzy. Their commander, dressed in its ubiquitous silks with the addition of a silvery breastplate to signal its readiness for battle, smiled coyly when it saw Bastakas looking at the dancers and winked suggestively. The Ilarch looked away in annoyance.
Another signal of Dreadgaze’s foolishness. There were few troops the Brass Legion would trust less in this horde than the Slaaneshi warriors alongside them now. A keen commander would have noted that. Bastakas had little doubt that the dancers were deadly warriors in their own right, but their foolish caterwauling and vaunted battle frenzy would do them little good in holding the line. He smiled slightly as he saw Presbyter Marcian nearby, his butcher’s blade drawn and ready, casting a derisive gaze over the warriors of Slaanesh. The priest turned and locked his gaze with Bastakas along the line. His blood-red eyes were almost glowing now through the vision slits in his mask, and the aura of unearthliness surrounding him was all but visibly present. Some of the most devout men of the Legion were gathered around him, muttering prayers to Khorne under his supervision. The Presbyter nodded once at the Ilarch, and Bastakas returned the acknowledgement. Whatever ill will they had yesterday was gone now, on the eve of battle.
“The Legion will draw blades!” Bastakas’ voice boomed down the line. A hundred swords left their sheathes almost simultaneously as the Brass Legion stepped up to address the barricade. The legionnaires had forsaken their spears for the fight on the barricade, favoring instead their spathas. Those long, heavy blades were ideal for the bloody hacking and slashing to come along the defensive line.
“It is a good day for battle! A red sun rises! The Lord of Skulls sees us all,” Bastakas’ roared, sweeping his own blade across the front of the barricade, “We are his chosen, a legion clad in brass, bathed in blood. Show him our might! Blood for the Blood God, skulls for the throne!” Marcian took up the yell and the rest of the legionnaires echoed his cheer. The dancers of Comorah halted their weaving and singing for a moment as the cry to the Blood God rang out, looking askance at the interruption. Behind the line, Dreadgaze snarled in annoyance, for the cheer did little to comfort the pounding in his skull.
“They’re advancing!” The cry rang out along the barricade, though Bastakas could not tell from where it originated. Certainly not from the dancers, who seemed to take the warning as a challenge to shriek louder.
“Stand to, you dogs,” shouted Dreadgaze, his voice echoing across the bridge, “send these ****** to their graves, and a thousand talents to whoever brings me the head of Serpa Lenk!”
The army roared in response, though the Brass Legion stayed silent, for they saw no reason to cheer. Bastakas had realized early on that the bridge itself curtailed the army’s key advantage, manpower, forcing them to stack their forces up, sending only a margin of their force to hold the barricades instead of swamping their foes. Looking down the span, the Ilarch could see a spearhead of black armored warriors approaching the line, with a ragged gaggle of half-naked, frothing fanatics following not far behind them. Interesting, that Serpa Lenk would send elites in the first push instead of unleashing the most blood-crazed warriors as many commanders loyal to the Blood God were wont to do. Clearly, the chosen of Khorne was trying to punch a hole in the barricade before letting loose the berserkers to exploit the gap. As they grew closer, the black armored warriors began to shout their commander’s name.
“Serpa! Lenk! Serpa! Lenk!” The rest of the enemies behind them began to take up the dolorus chant as the wedge of warriors crawled towards the defenses. Some of the warriors in Dreadgaze’s battleline fell silent at that, their spirits flagging in the face of their foes.
“Brass and blood!” Tibes yelled in response beside Bastakas, “Brass and blood!” The rest of legionnaires were quick to take up the cry, pounding the backs of their shields with the hilt of their spathas to set the rhythm. Alongside them, the Dancers carried on with their wailing, increasing in pitch as they began to gyrate their bodies into the battle dance that would see them through the fight. Dreadgaze’s horde only had a handful of archers, and their arrows started to whicker overhead into the oncoming enemy. Here and there, an armored figure collapsed as a shaft found some gap in their defenses, but the wedge pressed forward, raising their shields to protect themselves from the drizzle of shots.
“Brass and blood!”
The battlecries rattled the stones of the bridge and Bastakas smiled wolfishly at the cacophony of sound. Even if the Brass Legion considered themselves the most disciplined of Khorne’s servants, the Ilarch knew that no warrior devoted to the Blood God could resist taking pleasure in the thrill of war. Of course, that was not the only reason he was smiling. As the enemy vanguard nearly reached the distance to charge the barricade, he turned to Musikos Morgramm and shouted to be heard over the din.
“Musikos, sound the call.”
Morgramm nodded and raised the horn to his lips. Three sharp notes in a staccato succession rang out across the battleline. It was not a battlefield call of the Legion, but rather the traditional signal for morning rally. If anyone else on the bridge noticed the difference, they did not react.
“Brass and blood!” Bastakas screamed, and, with one final yell, the skoutatoi turned and fell upon the Dancers of Comorah.
Facing forward, still working into their trance, the Dancers were wholly unprepared for the phalanx of heavy infantry that smashed into their side. Slaaneshi warriors’ wailing songs turned into plaintive shrieks and gurgling death rattles as the spathas of the Brass Legion rose and fell, hacking and slashing through veils and silver armor. In the reserves, the remainder of the Brass Legion took up the cry and surged forward, slamming into the back of the beastkin of Brughalos. Leading the charge, Decarch Azziya drove her spatha through the back of Brughalos himself, washing herself in a spray of black, arterial blood. Alongside them, Otto von Frampt, who prided himself on always knowing how the wind was blowing, started laughing, and signaled his own warband forward to attack with the legionnaires. Together the two forces ripped through the beasts before them, and panic began to ripple through the backlines of Dreadgaze’s forces.
For a moment, there was nothing but confusion among the ranks of Dreadgaze’s forces. With his head pounding like a battle drum, Dreadgaze himself did not immediately realize what was happening. At first, he thought some hidden element of his enemy had surged across the barricade. Then, he realized with dawning horror that the Brass Legion had turned against him. The warlord howled in anger.
“Traitors! Gods damned traitors!” He swung his axe wide, petuously cleaving into the back of one of his own bodyguards and screaming at the rest of his forces, “into them you dogs! Slay the traitors! Kill them all!” But it was too late. As Serpa Lenk’s armored spearhead saw the Brass Legion turn on the Dancers, they let out a great cheer and surged forward into the gap left in the barricade. The elite warriors of the enemy army began pouring across the defenses. Already soaked in gore, Bastakas raised the severed head of Dexterous Maraam in salute as the first of Serpa Lenk’s veterans slammed down over the barricade next to him.
“Blood for the Blood God brother!”
“Skulls for the throne!” The hulking warrior echoed, before piling into the melee alongside the ranks of the Brass Legion. Like a hammer, the legionnaires relentlessly drove along the flank of Dreadgaze’s army, spathas rising and falling in a brutal rhythm as their reeling once-allies collapsed before them. In the front of his cohort, Bastakas slammed his shield forward, smashing the face of a screaming marauder before bringing his blade down in swift, killing stroke. Alongside him, Tibes roared the battlecries of his people in a strange, Aqyshan tongue, crushing skulls and shattering rib cages with his gore-caked mace.
When the last of the marauders was cut down, Bastakas stepped back, letting the ranks press forward as he scanned the melee. Serpa Lenk’s fanatics had joined the fray, and were currently ripping into the warbands trying to hold the far end of the line in the face of disaster.
“Bastakas! You ****** traitor!” The Ilarch smiled. There he was. Dreadgaze was screaming insults as he slaughtered his way through the Brass Legion phalanx towards where Bastakas stood. Already, his ragged bodyguard was dead, but the warlord himself was undeterred. As Bastakas began to push towards him, Dreadgaze whirled his axe around, driving back legionnaires and roaring like a bear caught in a trap. “Come and die, Bastakas! Your precious Blood God will hear your pitiful screams!” The champion slammed his blade down, breaking a legionnaire’s shield and the arm holding it in one blow. Another legionnaire lunged forward to exploit the opening, but Dreadgaze reversed his axe with unexpected deftness and split the warrior from groin to sternum. Another two Brass Legion warriors fell to the raging warlord before Bastakas finally shoved his way into the circle that Dreadgaze had cleared for himself.
“Honorless dog!” Dreadgaze roared as he swung about to face the Ilarch, “weak, pathetic fool! Liar, scum!”
“Silence,” Bastakas yelled, bringing his shield and blade up, “cease your endless ranting for once in your miserable life. The Brass Legion serves the Blood God in all things. That is our true master, not some foolish drunkard with a mutated eye.” Dreadgaze did not wait to hear more, surging forward and swinging his axe with a wordless shout of rage. Bastakas caught the blow on his shield and rocked backwards as the force of the blow splintered the wood. His spatha swung round low, but Dreadgaze caught the blade on the haft of his axe and shoved it aside. The butt of the weapon spun up, cracking the Ilarch across the side of his helmet. Head ringing from the blow, Bastakas drove forward with his shield, knocking Dreadgaze backwards. Seeing the opening through the haze, the Ilarch thrust his sword forward in a killing blow. However, the big man was faster than he seemed. Dreadgaze rotate to the side, allowing the lunge to sweep past him before delivering a brutal, overhead blow with his battleaxe. Again, Bastakas got his shield in the way of the strike, but this time it shattered completely, sending the Ilarch tumbling across the obsidian bricks of the bridge. A legionnaire attempted to step forward to protect his fallen officer, but Dreadgaze barreled him aside with his shoulder, coming to stand above the reeling Ilarch.
“Live like a cur, die like a cur. I expected so much more from you, you arrogant ars-”
The warlord never finished his insult. Marcian, eyes glowing with rage, charged out of the melee like a spear hurled from the hand of the Blood God himself. In the fury of battle, his aura of blood and death was even stronger, distorting the very air around him. The Presbyter swung his falchion, more a cleaver than a sword, in a brutal arc. Dreadgaze managed to catch the blow on the haft of his axe, but the weapon snapped under the force of the strike. The return stroke laid open the champion’s chest in a welter of gore. Staggering, Dreadgaze screamed and brought the head half of his weapon around, but Marcian was already moving again. Caught in the motion of the swing, the warlord could do nothing as the priest’s blade hammered down on the top of his knee. Mail rings popped and cartilage and bone cracked as Dreadgaze’s roar turned into a scream of pain. Unable to support his weight, the champion’s leg collapsed and sent him falling to the floor. Marcian was on his prone form in a flash, slamming the hilt of his falchion into the exposed half of Dreadgaze’s face again and again until his bronze mask was smattered with gore and the warlord had stopped moving.
“Alive, Marcian! Keep him alive! His skull is not ours to claim!” Bastakas gasped from the ground. After one more thudding blow, the priest rose to his feet. A small knot of legionnaires had formed up around the prone forms of Dreadgaze and Bastakas, giving Marcian the opportunity to haul the Ilarch to his feet. The officer winced at the pain in his arm, but nodded at the priest.
“Thank you, Presbyter.”
“Yesterday, I thought I might have to kill you, my Ilarch.” Bastakas chuckled darkly, driving a kick into the side of the prone form of Dreadgaze.
“Funny enough, Presbyter, I thought you were going to as well. Restrain him,” Bastakas ordered one of the nearby legionnaires, who stepped into the circle and set about binding the unconscious Dreadgaze’s arms behind his back. Caught in between the two blocks of the Brass Legion, with their commander down and more and more of Serpa Lenk’s troops pouring across the barricades, much of Dreadgaze’s horde was either dead or throwing down their weapons in surrender. The cacophony of battle was beginning to die down around them as Bastakas clapped a hand on his shoulder plate. “I, for one, am glad you did not.” Marcian’s red eyes gave nothing away, but Bastakas would have sworn he was smiling under his mask.
“As am I.”
“Blood for the Blood God, Presbyter.”
“Blood for the Blood God, my Ilarch.”
Battered and bloodied, the Brass Legion stood in serried ranks on the obsidian bridge. Around them, Serpa Lenk’s warriors set about purging those members of Dreadgaze’s horde who were too wounded or too unworthy to be absorbed into the crusading host. Bastakas stood proudly at the front of his cohort, his arm in a sling. Marcian and Azziya, who sported a fresh new gash across her dark features, waited slightly behind him. In front of the Ilarch, trussed up like a wild beast, was the writhing, gagged form of Halthcar Dreadgaze. An ominous figure strode towards the Brass Legion’s ranks across the detritus of the battlefield.
Serpa Lenk was tall and lean, with black hair bound tightly into a scalp lock revealing her cold, pale features. She moved with a natural poise that reminded Bastakas of a she-wolf stalking prey, stepping gracefully over corpses and pools of gore. An aura surrounded her that put Marcian’s ethereal presence to shame. The very air seemed to ripple as she passed and a faint red mist drifted about her in an ever present haze that smelled of freshly spilt blood. As she neared him, Bastakas felt a vague pain in his head and a ringing in his ears that set his teeth on edge. He blinked as nausea and awe warred within him. The Blood God had truly touched Serpa Lenk. She was radiant, like a veritable saint of battle. Here was true power that put the bullish thuggery of Dreadgaze to shame.
“Ilarch Bastakas of the Brass Legion,” Serpa Lenk’s voice was soft and pleasant, more like that of a noblewoman or nursemaid than a blood-soaked champion of Khorne, “my lieutenants tell me I have your legionnaires and you to thank for my victory.” She smiled and Bastakas resisted the urge to both kneel and vomit at the same time.
“You know my name, my lady?” He managed to choke out the words, holding off on bending his knee before the Blood God’s chosen.
“I make it a habit of knowing the names of all those I fight against, Ilarch. Names are power, after all. And this,” she said, gesturing at the struggling form in front of Bastakas, “must be Halthcar Dreadgaze.” At the mention of his name, the bound warlord roared dully into his gag and wriggled harder.
“A gift for you, my lady. His skull was not ours to claim.” Serpa Lenk nodded in acknowledgement and squatted down next to the prisoner. She stroked a milky-white hand gently across Dreadgaze’s swollen and bruised face. The humiliated warlord seemed to still at that.
“Oh Halthcar, you simple fool. You could have joined me. I am not without mercy.”
“What will you do with him?”
“Oh, a stray arrow slew the wretch that adorns my standard. I feel that Haltchar here will make an adequate replacement, don’t you?” Serpa Lenl’s tone was still light and pleasant, despite what she discussed. She paused for a moment and rose to her feet. “As for you, Ilarch. I should really kill you. Once a traitor… well, you know what they say.”
The Ilarch bristled, one hand inadvertently falling to the spatha at his hip. Behind him, his legionnaires tensed, raising their shields slightly. Serpa Lenk grinned, her own hand drifting towards the rapier sheathed at her side.
“I cannot betray the Blood God. All I did today, I did in his service.” Bastakas’ voice was firm. “The Brass Legion is beyond rebuke here, even from one such as you, my lady.” The woman laughed at that.
“Spoken like a true believer! I admire your conviction, Ilarch. I will not kill you, I think. After all, you have done a great service to me this day.” She looked about her. “Such slaughter, the Lord of Skulls has drunk well, though I find myself in need of some new blood to fill my ranks. I can think of few warriors I would rather have at my side than the devout and disciplined warriors of the Brass Legion. What do you say, Ilarch? Though I think we may skip the formalities of the writ, all things considered.” The Ilarch nodded in agreement.
“We would be honored to join your crusading host, my lady.” Serpa Lenk bowed to the ranks of the Brass Legion.
“Brass and blood, Ilarch.”
“Brass and blood, my lady.” Behind him, under the blood red sun, the Legion took up the cry. Bastakas smiled.