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TheHuscarl

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  1. Thanks for the kind words everyone, I really appreciate them! I honestly consider this one of the best pieces I have ever written and it's great to see people enjoying it. More will come!
  2. Thanks, really appreciate it!
  3. A story of a siege The triple walls of Knossus have stood inviolate for centuries. During the long age when Sigmar retreated behind the gates of his realm and plotted his mighty counterstroke against the Dark Gods, Knossus survived, ensconced behind its great barriers. They are permanent fixtures in the landscape of Chamon, as enduring as any mountain. I have been told that the outermost wall has only been breached twice since its construction. The third wall, the highest and mightiest, has never been so much as attacked. It is an impressive feat, both militarily and architecturally. But the Age of Chaos is over. Sigmar returns to the realms, bringing with him the promise of a new dawn and a new era of striking back against the evils that have so long plagued the lands of the free peoples. And so I, Lord-Ordinator Cignirus of the Sigmarite Brotherhood, stand before the mighty defenses of Knossus tasked with their destruction. It is a common misconception that all the free peoples that remain within the realms have welcomed Sigmar’s righteousness back with open arms. Safely tucked away in Azyrheim, the lords and ladies of the Celestial Realm quibble about the foolishness of the Sylvaneth and their mystical queen, or shake their heads at the folly of the Kharadron or the Fyreslayers who turn their backs on open acceptance of Sigmar’s grace. They forget, or perhaps, pointedly ignore, the fact that there are many men who do not march back into the fold of the god that seemingly abandoned them. When they do deign to acknowledge these wayward kingdoms, the powdered courtiers of Azyrheim attribute their reticence to the influence of the Dark Gods, a common enough cause, I will admit, but not always the case. For many, neither the independence of survival nor the bitterness surrounding Sigmar’s withdrawal, no matter how justifiable it was, are easily wiped aside. Thus, it happens that the Stormcast Eternals, crafted to destroy Chaos and pave the way for humanity’s return to glory, are forced to turn against the very beings we are made to protect. Such is the case with the proud Knossians. Knossus in and of itself is not the most prosperous or mightiest of cities. The depredations of long years of survival have done little to enhance its power, though its people are relatively wealthy in comparison to many of its less fortunate neighbors who suffered under the yoke of Chaos. Rather, it is Knossus’ strategic position that makes it worthy of interest. Sitting on the edge of the rolling green dunes of Chamon’s Malachite Desert, the city provides a key, if not absolutely essential, post for supporting any campaigns or trade routes into and around those thankless veridian wastes. In a sense, Knossus is the gateway to the malachite expanse, and with the forces of Chaos still present within this realm, and quite possibly within the desert itself, the city must be part of Sigmar’s empire. There is also the very simple fact that an independent human kingdom refusing to align with the forces of the Azyr presents tangible political and diplomatic problems for the God-King. Not only does it inspire opposition among other local hegemons that our forces may encounter, it leaves a potential vulnerability in our growth. While Knossus has stood strong against Chaos for centuries, who is to say if the Dark Gods will turn the full force of their gaze upon it in their desperation to combat Sigmar’s surging strength? In leaving it to its own device, we risk it one day falling into a corrupted kingdom of Chaos and then remaining poised to strike like a Nurglite’s rusty knife held to our throats. The worthies of Knossus will not make a compact with Sigmar. They rebuffed our ambassadors and rejected any overtures for peace. After so long standing alone against the forces of destruction, they refuse to bend the knee to what they view as yet another would-be conqueror. Their defiance is misguided, but I cannot fault them for it. If I were in a similar situation, cloaked in some of the greatest fortifications of Chamon with generations of experience in the art of siege warfare under my belt, I would most likely feel the same. As blasphemous as it may sound coming from one such as myself, Knossus owes nothing to Sigmar or the forces of the Azyr. All they have built and maintained during the darkest of times is their own. I can respect that, admire it even, but that does not change my purpose here. They have marked themselves as the God-King’s foes and will be dealt with as such. For the last three years, Marshal Henrik Rothgau has laid siege to Knossus with an impressive force of Freeguilders and a sizable detachment from the Ironweld Arsenal. They have not even come close to breaching the first wall of the city. At every turn, the defenders of Knossus stifle Rothgau’s assaults and baffle his siege efforts, thanks in no small part to the genius intellect of the city’s greatest engineer-savant, Hypatia the Wise. With a variety of tricks and traps built up through centuries of experience, the Knossian garrison remains inviolate. Three years is too long for this siege. With the forces of Chaos potentially regrouping in Chamon to push back against the advancing armies of Azyr, control of the Malachite Desert cannot be left uncontested. At the order of Sigmar himself, I have been told to take command of this siege and end it. I will do just that. In truth, I think Rothgau is relieved. This siege is a thankless task for an ambitious man. Master Engineer Orthcoe, leader of the Ironweld detachment, was less thrilled about my arrival at the head of a small cohort of the Sigmarite Brotherhood Stormhost, but he does not have the authority, or the courage, to countermand me. Reluctantly, he turned over control of his precious weaponry to me in all but name, and now I count the Ironweld’s resources alongside my own siege forces brought from Azyrheim. He is foolish to complain. I am a Lord-Ordinator of the Stormcast Eternals. There are no better masters of siege warfare in the entirety of the mortal realms. We are handcrafted for the task. I am even more unique among my brothers. Most Lord-Ordinators are siege-masters, but they do not relish it. They are creators first, concerned with the construction of Stormkeeps and raising new cities for the glory of the God-King. They revel in building up, not tearing down. Not so for Cignirus of the Sigmarite Brotherhood. I am a destroyer. Some of my fellows consider me strange for this, but I care little for their commentary. Many Lord-Ordinators know that they were architects or sculptors or philosophers in their past, before their ascension. I was not that. I was never that. I was a destroyer in a past life as well, but not a barbarian potentate or skilled champion like some of my kind. Among the civilized lands and civilized warfare of the Perugian kingdoms of Chamon, I was Dandolio, also known as the Architect of Death. In a culture obsessed with sieges, my fellows viewed me as the preeminent master of the trade. Why Sigmar chose to elevate me when the realms of Perugia collapsed one by one under the relentless tread of Chaos, I do not know. Dandolio was not a hero, was not even a good man. But he was brilliant and he was ruthless. Maybe Sigmar simply needed more Stormcasts like that in his ranks. Stormcasts who can handle situations like Knossus without qualm or hesitation. I put out one last call for parley with the Knossians. This is the only chance for them to rethink their decision, for even the most stubborn men tend to change their views when faced with the might of a Stormhost. Clad in the stark white and purple armor of the Sigmarite Brotherhood, I march out into no man’s land between our siege lines and the first wall of the city. My chosen second, Liberator-Prime Malthusian, is with me, as is Knight Vexilor Centra, bearing her banner high for all to see. Looking distinctly uncomfortable within bow range of the walls, the portly Marshal Rothgau and a hand-picked honor guard of the Akkadian Janissaries that serve with him follow behind us, their silver breastplate glinting in the harsh light of the Chamonian sun. The worthies of Knossus stand arrayed before us in a tight huddle, attended to by a contingent of the elite of their military, the Cathrapactii. These heavily armored knights remind me somewhat of Stormcast Eternals, though their bronzed scale mail and faceless helms are distinctly unique to their city. A man, who Marshal Rothgau has reliably informed me is War-King Damon, the de facto military leader of Knossus, steps forward out of the huddle to address me. Damon is clad in a more elaborate suit of Cathrapactii armor, his ornate helmet tucked under his arm, revealing an old face, lined with scars and adorned with a magnificent grey beard. Despite the fact that three Stormcasts stand before him, crackling with the power of the Azyr, the general seems undeterred. He reminds me of one of the great plains lions of Ghyran, facing down against the beasts who would threaten his pride. I preempt him before he can speak, my voice booming with the power of thunder. Let it never be said that Lord-Ordinators are more seen than heard. “War-King Damon,” my formal words roll across the churned earth between us, “worthies of Knossus, I am Lord-Ordinator Cignirus of the Sigmarite Brotherhood. By the authority of the God-King, I welcome you back to the fold of the free peoples of the realms. Let us lay down our arms and enter into compact with one another.” Damon stares at me, seemingly unimpressed. “So you are as big as they say. I really do wonder what they feed you in the Azyr,.” The old man smiles at me, his air jaunty and courageous, “I will admit, I had always wanted to see one of your kind in person.” “Ask and you shall receive.” The War-King snorts as I continue, “I did not come to bandy words, War-King. What is your answer?” “Our answer is the same as it has always been,” a clear, calm voice rings out from the huddle before the War-King can reply. An older, stately looking woman dressed in the flowing cream robes of a scholar steps forward. She seems even more formidable than Damon, who gives her a sideways look before bowing his head. The woman’s hair is shaved, another scholarly mark, and her bright blue eyes shimmer, not with fear but with keen interest. For a moment, I feel like one of the Ironweld’s machines under the scrutiny of Master Orthcoe. There is a kinship here with her that I rarely feel with mortals. I smile behind my faceplate, though they cannot see it. “You are Hypatia the Wise.” The woman bows, seemingly uncaring of whether her robes are dirtied in the mud of no man’s land. “My reputation precedes me, Lord-Ordinator Cignirus, as does yours. I have heard some in Knossus say you were once Dandolio of Perugia, the infamous Architect of Death.” “And if I was Dandolio once?” I rumble, amused. “I have read your treatises,” she replies, her eyes glimmering, “I would be most eager to test my siegecraft against yours.” Despite myself, I find I am impressed with this old woman and her defiance. “Bold of you, my lady,” I declare, “but it need not come to that. What is your answer?” “The answer is no, of course.” Hypatia’s voice is firm and unrelenting, like a teacher lecturing a wayward student, “For generations, Knossus has stood against every invader that has thrown themselves at our walls. Orruks, ogors, the dead that walk, even the servants of the slavering gods. We did not fight and die for lifetimes to throw away our independence to your God-King simply because he wields the magic of the skies and demands our fealty.” “It does not have to be this way,” I reply, extending a second chance and feeling a strange bite of regret. These are a proud, capable people. “You can join with us, as many others have. Together, we can fend off all the enemies of humanity.” “Oh, but it does,” Hypatia responds. “We will not yield, not even to you, Lord-Ordinator. You will have to pull down our walls, brick by brick, before the people of Knossus will swear fealty to a tyrant, even a shiny, golden tyrant such as yours.” Liberator-Prime Malthusian tenses at that and War-King Damon’s hand falls to his sword hilt, but I gesture slightly at my second and he relaxes, though he too now has his hand on his hammer. Hypatia seems unphased. “You speak brave words, Hypatia the Wise.” I heft my hammer up onto my shoulder in a casual gesture of strength that draws a few murmurs from the crowd of Knossian dignitaries. “I assume she speaks for all of you?” I direct the question at War-King Damon, who simply nods, his hand still on the hilt of his sword. “She does.” “So be it. There will not be another parley. Prepare yourselves, people of Knossus. The wrath of Sigmar is upon you.” The worthies of the city mutter among themselves at my declaration, but their engineer-savant silences their concern with her words. “We will weather the storm, as we always have.” Hypatia remains unimpressed. For a second, our eyes meet and we reach an unspoken understanding. She is not a fool and knows this is the end for Knossus, I can tell. I would not be surprised if she felt that way from the moment she saw my fellows and striding across the battlefield towards her. Everything that comes after this is merely delaying the inevitable. But the Knossians, who have built themselves around their walls as much as their walls are built around them, will not surrender. This will be the magnum opus of Hypatia and the magnum opus of her people. I will grant them a siege worthy of it. “You have one hour before hostilities resume.” I take one last look over the worthies. They all face me unbowed, though I imagine more than a few have knocking knees. War-King Damon yawns as if bored with it all. I pause and linger on Hypatia for a second longer than the rest. She bows her head slowly as if in acknowledgement, her blue eyes still glimmering, and I respond in kind. Then I turn my back on them and march away. It is time to destroy. ********* One of my few real, clear memories from my time before my first death is from childhood. My father, whose name and face I cannot recall, gave me a gift for my seventh, or perhaps eighth, birthday. It was an ornate, elaborate puzzle box from some Chamonian tinkerer, a beautiful thing with sliding tiles and switches. Each time you moved the wrong tile in the sequence it reset, scrambling part of the pattern again and forcing you to relearn things you already knew. It was infuriating. I remember someone, maybe my mother or a sibling, referring to it as impossible. I think I solved it before I was ten. All sieges ever since have been that box, a complex puzzle that requires precision and careful decision-making, where each misstep is punished with the scrambling of the pattern in new and confusing ways. And so, I begin to test. Under my guidance, the Freeguilders and Ironweld laborers dig salients and saps at the correct angles, getting the trenches ever closer to the wall but denying the deadly fire of the enemy’s ballistas and onagers. Celestar batteries with Stormcast crews are emplaced in forward positions alongside the guns of the Ironweld, and the crackling blast of lightning is added to the percussion of blackpowder and the whump of catapult stones. The wall shudders under the increasingly close impact of our siege weapons, but it does not break. Woven through with metals and soaked in the natural magic of Chamon, the walls are far too solid to collapse under such a generalized barrage. My first true assault takes a week to prepare. Four siege towers, built to my specifications and the exact measurements of the wall, rumble forward across no man’s land. Marshal Rothgau, standing next to me as we watch the engines advance, reminds me for the upteenth time that he has tried such a frontal assault before. I nod but say nothing. In truth, I do not expect it to succeed. The towers are loosely manned with what Rothgau assures me are entirely volunteers from his Freeguild forces, and thought I doubt that I do not challenge him on the point. This is merely the first part of the pattern, the first move on the puzzle box. A scribe next to me marks down the position of each battery of enemy artillery that opens fire on the towers as they advance, so that we can target them later. One tower does not reach the wall. The enemy focuses almost all their batteries on the trundling edifice. I have designed these weapons to be sturdy, but the constant barrage viciously rocks the engine. Holed with onager stones, a ballista bolt tipped with a jar full of Knossian balefire slips through its defenses and impacts inside. Hungry red flames, generated through some sort of chemical compound or alchemy known only to Hypatia the Wise, swarm up the wooden interior of the tower. Men fall screaming to the ground, engulfed in fire, as the tower itself quickly collapses into a crackling pyre that burns for two days straight. The other three engines, however, align along the wall relatively unscathed, the sturdiness of their construction ensuring their path. Before the ramps atop the towers can drop and release the troops within, the defenders reveal one of their secrets to me. Vents, previously unseen to any observer, open halfway up along the wall, allowing gouts of searing steam to blast out across the fronts of the engines. The steam surges through any gaps in the defenses, broiling the men inside and setting the internal structures alight. It is brutal and effective. “Steam cannons,” murmurs Orthcoe alongside me, lowering his telescope shakily as the towers begin to collapse, “by Sigmar…” “Never seen those before,” Rothgau adds with a grunt, “damned shame.” I say nothing, merely making the mental note of the vents locations and capabilities. As the burning towers fall away from the wall, I turn and head back to my command tent. One piece of the puzzle, at least, is known. ******* For the next two days, my artillery batteries smash the locations we noted during the tower assault. I focus the celestars on the hidden vents, and before long they begin to crack, revealing gaps in the walls exterior that my artillerists continue to slam bolt and shell into. For the first time, the possibility of a breach becomes a real threat to the defenders of Knossus. They respond accordingly. The first raid of the flying men takes even me by surprise. A wave of winged shapes swoop down from the third wall, gliding over the other two bastions and straight above the artillery pits. Strapped into mechanical contraptions made from light metals and fabric, lightly-clad men of Knossus fly in a gentle curve over our forward trenches, dropping jars full of balefire and handfuls of small darts that slam down into the earth, often through anyone unfortunate enough to be hit with one. Laborers, engineers, and Freeguilders scatter in panic as blooms of red flames burst seemingly out of the ground, vaporizing cannons and their crews before men even have a chance to react. By the time I have rallied the Judicators among my contingent to return fire with their mighty bows, the raiders have flown back over the first wall and out of range, their deadly cargoes expended. It takes time for us to get the aftermath under control. In order to smother Hypatia’s balefire, we are often forced to simply bury the burning gun pits with dirt, granting the mangled wreckage of both weapons and men hasty graves. The defenders harass us the entire time, hurling ballista bolts and stones at work parties desperately fighting to keep the fires from spread. Orthcoe is beside himself, for the Ironweld Arsenal and its machines have suffered the most from the raid, but I ignore his bleatings. More guns will be summoned, the Ironweld will be paid for their losses, and the attack has not done enough to deter our assault. Within hours, many batteries are firing again, and the defenders are back in the same situation they were. I have lost none of my Celestar ballistae, and I have them take over the heavy aspects of the barrage until the Ironweld engineers can repair and refit. At dawn on the next day, the Knossian flying men appear again, just as I expected. As they swoop past the first wall, Brother Venatos and his three fellow Prosecutors tear down from the clouds above on golden wings, hurling their javelins with pinpoint accuracy. So far, I have kept the wrathful sky warriors of Sigmar well-concealed, hoping to use them to destroy siege engines at critical moments, but I cannot deny them this. There is no doubt in my mind that the Knossian fly machines are a marvel, but the Prosecutors cut through the air like star falcons, as if they were born to it. Indeed, it could be argued that they are, all things. The machinery of men, no matter how well-designed, cannot stand before their wrath. Flying men explode in midair as Prosecutor javelins trigger their payloads of balefire. Like a flock of Azyr sparrows with an aetherhawk in their midst, the Knossian fliers panic, scattering and attempting to reach their walls. Some lose control of their frames, tumbling to the ground below in a chaotic jumble of wire, linen, and metal. More drop from the sky as javelins transfix them, splintering their harnesses and smashing their wings. The Prosecutors continue to pursue them until they reach the first wall, where a barrage of darts, arrows, and stones drive the Stormcasts back. It is a good hunt for the Prosecutors, and Brother Venatos is beaming with triumph as he returns to me, a mostly intact flying frame in his hands. “A gift for you, Lord Orindator,” he rumbles cheerfully back at our camp, laying the frame down on a table in my command tent. “Beautiful,” I reply, running a hand carefully over the device, testing wires, probing joints. I have no idea how he managed to get it off of its owner without damaging its intricate mechanisms. I will ask another day. “Thank you, Venatos.” “It was my pleasure,” he chuckles, “We must show them who the true masters of the sky are.” “Indeed,” I remark, my mind already starting to drift from the bluff Prosecutor and focusing almost entirely on the device before me. “Can you cross the walls?” I add absentmindedly, removing a pair of overly sized spectacles from my work apron’s pocket and putting them on. Concentrated as I am on the device, I pretend to ignore Venatos rolling his eyes at the eccentricity. Of course, I do not need the spectacles, but for some reason, it feels right to wear them, so I do. There is nothing more to it. “No, Lord-Ordinator, we cannot” Venatos continues, his smile replaced with a brief flash of annoyance, “I will credit them for that, the amount of projectiles these Knossians can throw at us is truly impressive.” I look up from wiggling the wings of the flying frame, using a brilliant system of cords that seem to tie around the flyer’s individual fingers. “Fear not, Venatos. I will find work for you and your cohort yet. Be ready for the flyers to come again, do not wander far.” My response to his concerns is half-hearted, I know, but as I said, my mind is already on other things. The Prosecutor nods and heads out into the camp to celebrate his victory, leaving me to marvel at the work of Hypatia and the Knossian craftsmen as I dismantle it, piece by piece. ******* With the flying machines grounded, the defenders of Knossus have little choice but to turn to other means to try and silence the weaponry pounding the vulnerabilities in their wall. The raids start to come at night within days of the flyers’ defeat. Small groups of men, sneaking around in the darkness, hurling jars of balefire or simply cutting the throats of sleeping crews or bivouacs full of exhausted aborers. Only once do the raiders attempt to destroy a celestar battery. The resulting bloodbath as the unsleeping Sacristan Engineers manning the ballista turn their short, stabbing blades on the lightly-armed and armored attackers is enough to convince the Knossians not to try such a strike again. They stick to the mortal elements of the force, and at Marshal Rothgau’s request I begin having Liberators patrol the trenches regularly throughout the night, though the solution is tentative at best. It is a group of Freeguilders, the Iban Rangers from Ghyran, who break the monotony of the raids, and in doing so grant me the means to quickly breach the first wall. Scouts and trackers, they quietly follow a group of raiders back into the no-man’s land on their own initiative and discover two carefully hidden sally ports at the base of the wall. It is all the information I need, and I congratulate their beaming chieftain on his men’s skill and success after he delivers the news to a disgruntled Rothgau and myself. Rothgau, no doubt jealous that his Janissaries must share glory with someone else, is angry with the Iban for not consulting with him before going on their hunt. Both the chieftain and I ignore him. The Rangers have just opened up the opportunity to crack the first wall of Knossus for the third time in the city’s history, they do not need the approval of one Freeguild marshal. After discussions with my Stormcast brothers and one brief but victorious skirmish with a screaming Master Engineer Orthcoe, I put my plan into motion. Two batteries of the Ironweld’s most powerful guns are placed as close as possible to the hidden sallyports without exposing them to enemy fire. The cannons relentlessly pound the gap being opened in the wall, slamming shot after shot into the damaged section over the course of two days. A handpicked guard of Liberators under my lieutenant Malthusian sends a nighttime raid attempt fleeing in shambles, closing that option off to the defenders. It is too much for them to bear. At noon on the third day of the bombardment, the sallyports fly open with the wailing of horns and the rolling of drums. The thundering of hooves heralds the emergence of a massed wedge of Cathrapactii, their armor glittering brilliantly in the midday sun, harnesses and weapons jingling in the desert air. It is an impressive sight, those nobles warriors surging forward to defend their city, enough to stir the heart of any warrior. I watch through a spyglass as the wedge forms, spearing straight for the guns. A despondent Orthcoe grinds his teeth next to me, nervously fidgeting with his own telescope as the enemy elite draw closer and closer to his beloved machines. At the last second, I give the signal, and a Stormcast clarion rings out across the siege lines. Three days earlier, when the batteries were dug in the night, Retributor-Prime Borduna and her fellow Paladins were hidden not far in front of the guns, carefully concealed under camouflage coverings and a thin layer of turf to deter detection from the wall. They have waited there ever since, as still as the statues of heroes lining the Worldwall of distant Sigmaron. When the call reaches their ears, they surge up from their hiding place, throwing off dirt and netting, and rumble forward to meet the charging Cathrapactii. To the Knossians, it must seem as though the giant warriors clad in immense white and purple sigmarite simply sprung up from the ground. Their shock is undoubtedly absolute, but they are too close to do anything else but lower their lances and continue the charge. On the field before the first wall, the flower of the Knossian military meets the greatest infantry in the Stormhosts. For a moment, it feels as if the entire battlefield holds its breath, waiting for the clash. Then all is noise as the two sides meet and Borduna’s warriors sheer through the Cathrapactii like the keel of a ship splitting a wave. Men and horses scream between the thundering booms of the Retributors’ lightning hammers, which send the elite of Knossus hurtling through the air with each blow. The scale mail of the Cathrapactii is nothing against the magically empowered strikes of the Stormcast weapons, and their lances snap and shatter against the heavily armored forms of the Paladins. As per my instructions, Borduna and her cohort carry straight on through the broken wedge of Cathrapactii, rolling towards the open sallyports like one of the raging green sandstorms that scour the Malachite Desert. Desperately, the remaining defenders try to seal the portals, but the assault is too sudden and their efforts far too late. Armor coated a deep red with the gore of men and beasts, the Paladins carry on into the exposed sallyports, lightning hammers whirling and booming. Screaming Bashi-Bazouks of the Akkadian Janissaries rise up out of the siege trenches and surge after the Stormcasts, piling their armored bodies in to exploit the gap. Within a matter of hours, the first wall has fallen and the forces of Sigmar are storming through the city’s outermost ward. My army cheers as the wall’s mighty gates swing open and the banner of Azyrheim is raised over the gatehouse. In my mind, I hear the snap-click of the first puzzlebox lock opening. I smile. *********** We find the broken body of War King Damon among the corpses of his Cathrapactii. Marshal Rothgau, Malthusian, and myself converge on the dead general, while a bodyguard of Janissaires keeps watch at a respectful distance. Damon’s magnificent white beard is stained a wine-dark with blood and his eyes, so full of defiance upon our one meeting, stare sightlessly into the sky out of the broken remains of his helmet. For some reason I cannot explain, I bend down and gently close them. There is a moment of silence before Rothgau pipes up. “That’ll set the ****** back a bit, make no mistake.” I sigh, looking up at the first wall, the top of which is now swarming with watchful Freeguilders and note-taking Ironweld personnel. “Indeed, it is almost as damaging for Knossus as losing the first wall. They will fight harder now though.” The marshal spits and grunts in vague agreement. He looks down at the corpse and chuckles darkly. “We should string the old heretic up. Run him around in front of the next wall like a damned marionette. Let them see what becomes of those who defy the will of Sigmar.” Though I say nothing, I feel an unexpected sense of anger rising inside me as Rothgau continues darkly, “I say, we don’t even need the whole body. Just the head would do. We could wire it up even, make it look like it’s talking. See how the Knossians like their War King coming back to say hello, eh? Huh, what do you think, you decrepit bloody traitor?” The marshal punctuates his last words with a kick, flopping Damon’s already broken form over onto its side. “Marshal,” I spit out, my voice lashing like lightning in a summer storm, “may I see your blade?” The portly man stares at me confused, a slightly incredulous look on his porcine features. “Your blade? If you please?” I repeat again, just as firm as last time. Hesitantly, unsure about what is to come, the Marshal draws his sword and hands it to me. I grab it by the middle of the blade, unconcerned with the thought of it cutting through my sigmarite gauntlets. It is a beautiful weapon in the style of an Akkadian scimitar, though Rothgau himself is not from that culture. I study the jewel-encrusted hilt for a moment and note the beautiful patterning of the steel. “A magnificent blade, Marshal. A weapon worthy of great respect.” The Marshal nods, still confused. I smile darkly under my faceplate and snap the blade with a clench of my armored fist. The broken pieces of the scimitar thud into the mud of the battlefield, except for one shard I grind in my fist. I lock eyes with Rothgau, who seems to have turned a lighter shade of pale, from fear or from anger. It is probably a mixture of both. “My apologies, Marshal,” I say, ensuring that my tone conveys anything but, “I appear to have broken your weapon. It is so easy to forget proper respect during trying times such as these, wouldn’t you agree?” Eyes still fixed on the bulging orbs of Rothgau, I open my gauntlet and let the dust that was the center of his sword flutter to the ground. The Marshal nods and swallows, going another shade paler. Behind his bodyguards watch the exchange in stunned silence. “Good, I’m glad you understand,” I continue, “You will grant War King Damon a proper burial with full honors. It is the least he deserves for his bravery. In fact, we shall do so with all these warriors, they have earned that right. Am I understood?” Rothgau nods again, his double-chin wobbling slightly as he swallows once more. “Excellent, I knew you would agree. Let us meet tomorrow to discuss our plans for the second wall.” I turn my back on the Marshal and his men, looking once more at the wall and already turning my mind towards what lays behind it. The Freeguild commander says nothing as he leaves, simply scurrying back to his bodyguard and departing as quickly as he can. He leaves the broken remnants of his sword behind, another addition to the detritus of the battlefield. All is quiet for a long time before Malthusian’ stentorian tones break the silence. “You should not antagonize him, Lord-Ordinator.” “Should I not?” I reply forcefully, turning to face my lieutenant, “He is a fool. In two weeks, we have done what he was unable to achieve for years. A lazy, gutless pig of a man. Now that,” I add, pointing at the dead War King, “is a hero worthy of name, an actual leader of men. Would that we had him with us instead of that useless Marshal.” “But he would not follow Sigmar.” “But he would not follow Sigmar, Liberator-Prime,” I sigh, “and so I destroyed him. As I will destroy all this.” My arms sweep out to encompass the walls of Knossus. “Because that is what I am meant to do, whether I like it or not.” I feel him tense at those last few words, so against my reputation. In truth, I have surprised even myself with that sentiment. The Liberator-Prime chooses not to mention it. “You admire them, these Knossians?” Malthusian’s voice is not judgmental, though I cannot see the look on his face behind the helm. “Do you not, Malthusian? How many men, true men, uncorrupted by the Dark Gods or driven by fear of that vicious bag of bones in Shyish, can actually stand before Stormcasts and defy us? It is an admirable thing.” The Liberator-Prime shrugs noncommittally. “A foolish thing, Lord-Ordinator.” “The two are often intertwined.” My lieutenant chuckles darkly at that. “Please see that the burials are done properly, Malthusian. It is not much to ask. If Damon and his people fought with us, he would number among our heroes.” “As you wish. This will not earn you any favors among the Knossians though.” Shrugging, I turn and begin to walk back towards camp. “That is not the reason for it, Liberator-Prime, as you well know.” ****** Sitting slightly higher than the outermost defenses, the second wall of Knossus is just as impressive of an edifice. The city runs to within a short distance of the bastion, where well-ordered houses and streets give way to an open killing field, pre-sighted for bombardment from the defenders’ artillery. I spend some time alone, wandering the streets of the captured ward of the city, examining architecture, making notes with a stylus, mapping out the grid upon which it all is constructed. In truth, I am impressed with the Knossian buildings. They are mostly simple, yet surprisingly elegant, two story affairs, made often of marble but primarily of green bricks created from the malachite sands of the desert nearby, giving each street a hue that would not be out of place in distant Ghyran. Even ruined as many are from wayward artillery strikes or the depredations of looting Freeguilders, they remain solid, impressive domiciles, laid out on a detailed system of streets that makes it easy to find one’s way almost anywhere in the city. Truth be told, the organization of it all puts Azyrheim to shame, though I do not say it aloud. I am standing in a deserted open market square, admiring a statue of a scholar crafted from some rare mineral compound, when the first rumbles shake the streets. Frankly, I should not be as surprised as I am. The Knossians, canny defenders that they are, have left behind parting gifts for any invader that breaches the first line of defense. Hidden caches of balefire roar into life across the captured districts, sending men screaming through the streets and destroying many wagons and supply carts that have already moved into the city. Worst of all, I witness a handful of lightning bolts crack upwards into the Chamonian sky, signaling the first Stormcast losses of the siege. It takes two days for us to get the raging fires left in the wake of the traps under control. Two days without sleeping, battling the crimson concoctions of Hypatia while the defenders on the second wall hurl a seemingly inexhaustible barrage of artillery fire down on anyone they can spot. At the end, when the last fire is out, Malthusian informs me that almost three hundred men and four Stormcasts died in the initial release of balefire and subsequent burning and bombardment. Significant losses. Many commanders would balk, some would blame themselves or pray for guidance or swear vengeance on their enemies. I do none of that. Under my helmet, free from Malthusian’s appraising gaze, I smile. These detonations are not done from far away. The Knossians lack the ability to achieve that particular feat. That means someone has come from behind the second wall and sprung these horrors upon us manually. That means there is a vulnerability to exploit. That means I will find it. If I need any further proof of my theory, the raids confirm it. The night after the fires are extinguished, as the army prepares to rest, the attacks come hard and fast. The Knossians, experts in their craft, show us just how well they have prepared the interior of their city for defense. Men die as hidden pots of balefire gut the houses they are sleeping in. Entire buildings collapse as carefully built-in mechanisms are triggered to bring them crashing down. Secret passages open in walls, revealing knife-wielding killers that pounce upon unsuspecting men. It is a night of chaos and the next that follows is not much better. Hypatia reveals a new weapon, a throwable clockwork device, the size of a small pot, that spools out thin wire and spins it around at incredibly high speeds until it is exhausted. The whipping strand mangles limbs, breaks bones, and slashes worse than any Azyros Starblade. Freeguilders take to calling them “topac”, which Venatos explains to me is the name of spinning tops all Akkadian children play with. I trust his explanation, for the Prosecutor-Prime has a strange way of knowing such things. Whatever the origin of their nickname, the topac prove to be yet another deadly threat in the Knossian arsenal. A pattern to the raids soon becomes clear. First comes a pot of balefire, hurled near a gunpit or into a house. As men panic to escape and others rush to assist, a handful of topac are thrown nearby, causing carnage among anyone caught in the open. The raiders slip back into the darkness before anyone even knows where they are. It is brutal and efficient. Such an attack costs us the life of Master Engineer Orthcoe. A topac shreds the cautious Ironweld leader as, in a moment of surprising boldness, he rushes to save one of his beloved guns from an expanding balefire. It is a lamentable loss, but not a significant one. Marshal Rothgau, looking pale, informs me that they had to clean him up in buckets. I’m not sure why he felt the need to share that detail, but it seems important to him, so I do not comment. Orthcoe’s replacement, a stern, one-eyed Duardin named Bardik Grimgok, seems far more amenable to working with me and, unsurprisingly, far more proficient at siege warfare than his predecessor. I explain my theory about the tunnels for access and the squat, grey-bearded Ironwelder agrees almost immediately. His engineers, in particular those drawn from the Dispossessed, begin hunting for the passageways that we assume run beneath our feet. In the meantime, I step up Stormcast patrols and encourage Rothgau to set up a nightly rotation of Iban Rangers to stalk the darkened streets. Raids continue, but their impact begins to lessen as parties of saboteurs are caught out and killed before they reach their targets. Stroke and counterstroke. Slide this tile, push this piece, solve the puzzle. It is as simple as that. I admire the ingenuity that went into the topac, and spend long hours with my spectacles on examining them in my tent, fiddling with the mechanism, analyzing Hypatia’s near flawless craftsmanship. For the first time, I consider what wonders she might have created in times of peace. There is an uncomfortable sensation in my chest as I follow that line of thought. Guilt? Regret? Sadness? I am not sure and try my best not to dwell on it. Sigmar took a destroyer and made a greater one. At night, wandering the shadowy streets of Knossus, I wonder how such a discerning architect could have left room for this weighty sensation in my soul. ********* The second wall falls after almost a month. It is longer than I would have liked, but it takes time for Grimgok and his engineers to map out the subterranean network and launch their counterattack. Beneath the streets, in tunnels far too small for the likes of Stormcast, the Dispossessed and other Ironweld laborers fight a brutal battle for supremacy. Mine and countermine are dug, tunnels are collapsed on pursuers, tapocs and balefire slaughter to match the deadly explosives and grudgeraker blasts of the engineers. As stories of these fearsome battles beneath the surface emerge, I hear Freeguilders speaking thankfully of only having to face the continuous barrage of arrows and artillery fire from the second wall. I smile at that. Unsurprisingly, the Knossians reveal a handful of mining devices that make it far easier for them to counter our efforts. Powerful, hand-cranked drills for close in work, self-propelling clockwork devices that shovel dirt at impressive rates, steam cannons that fill entire tunnels with scalding blasts of moisture, and even automata that dig and pick like laborers. The Duardin encounter all these and more. But Grimgok and his fellows will not be deterred. This is their realm, and the Knossians, no matter how adept, are intruders there. Eventually, they triumph. The Ironwelders reveal their fearsome Drakkthrunds, which spear gouts of liquid flame down tunnels and through even small boreholes, roasting Knossian engineers and warriors by the dozen. Automata are smashed with hammers and steam cannons redirected or simply blasted away with explosive charges. Finally, a dirty, grinning Master Engineer arrives in my tent to give me the good news. The Ironweld have secured enough space for a mine and have started preparing to bring down a section of the wall. I smile back and shake his hand in the traditional Duardin fashion, congratulating him on his work and informing him that I will honor his clan in the records of Sigmaron. I pretend not to notice when he blushes under the grime that coats his face. Above ground, amid a raging artillery duel, my siege trenches finally reach close enough to enable a direct assault on the bastion. When the signal is given, the Duardin light their charges and detonate the mine. The resulting explosion shakes the earth, sending men stumbling, rattling windows, loosening doors, and driving animals into a panic. There is a massive dust cloud, and for a moment, it is as if the entirety of the city is coated in a dirty, clinging shroud of dust. As the detritus starts to settle, the massive gap in the walls is revealed, wide enough for an entire regiment of men to march through twenty abreast. The Duardin have done remarkably well. With a battle cry for Sigmar, the Janissaries pour through the gap once more, but this time the Knossians do not even try to contest it. They fall back to pre-built defense positions in the streets of the city’s middle quarter and fight us for every inch. The full might of Hypatia’s inventiveness is released in that street brawl. Self-propelled battering rams rumble down alleyways, steam cannons blast through open windows, topacs whirl, and even the previously seen mining automata are repurposed for violence, carving into Freeguilder assaults as if they were rockfaces to be smashed asunder. As Rothgau’s men battle through the butchery, a column of Stormcast under Malthusian drives straight through the street defenses towards the main gate of the third wall, like a spear cast from Sigmar’s very hand. Above them, Venatos and his Prosecutors dip and dive, hurling lightning javelins at rooftop snipers and smashing any war machines they see. Columns of lightning occasionally spike into the air as here and there one of my brethren succumbs, but the Knossians can truly do little to stop us. As the formation punches through the last few lines of defense lying between them and the third wall, the defenders begin a rapid withdrawal of their forces into the final stronghold. A rearguard of Cathrapactii, hungry for revenge, hurl themselves suicidally into the Stormcast column, and somewhat miraculously, briefly halt its advance. I arrive to support my brothers with Borduna and her Paladins in tow, but by the time we dig our way through the determined knights, the great gate is shut and barred. Still, the second wall and middle district now rest firmly in the hands of Sigmar. One more lock on the puzzle box clicks open for me and I cannot help but feel accomplished. ******** “I have lost more men in these last two months than I have lost in three years!” Marshal Rothgau is raging at me over the map table in my command tent, even his mustache is quivering with anger. Honestly, I am impressed that he found the courage. Since the death of Orthcoe, the Freeguild commander has looked worse and worse. His skin is paler, he sweats more, he is more temperamental and on edge than ever before. He was not prepared for this. “We have also made far more progress.” My response is quiet. I will allow him this anger. “More progress?” He roars, “More progress? My Janissaries are gutted! The Ironweld have lost men and machines at an almost constant rate!” Grimgok, sitting in the corner of my tent smoking a pipe, says nothing, merely grunts and sucks on his pipestem. Rothgau continues, heating up to his subject, “The second wall cost us a thousand dead! A thousand! The raids, the weapons, the engines, you are destroying my army.” “Sigmar’s army.” I note, and the Marshal flusters, his mustache wiggling and his double chin wobbling. He slams his fist down on the table I am leaning over. “Sigmar’s bloody army then, you pedant. At this rate, you will kill us all! When that last wall falls, there won’t be anyone left to see it except you Stormcasts. They should never have sent you here, you thrice damned butcher!” “Enough,” I rumble, raising my hand to indicate he should stop. He pauses, the anger still smouldering in his eyes. “That is enough. You forget your place, Marshal Rothgau.” “I forget my place?” He spits, “You care more for these ****** Knossians than you do for the true sons of the Azyr! You seem quick to forget who you actually fight for, Stormcast. Some chosen of Sigmar you turned out to be.” All noise in the tent stops. The junior officers of the Freeguild and Ironweld who have been wincing their way through the commander’s tirade gape open-mouthed. Next to me, I can feel the tension rippling through Malthusian’s armored frame. Even the unflappable Grimgok takes out his pipe and raises his eyebrows. Rothgau realizes he has gone too far and starts to gawp like a fish pulled out of water. I stare at him over the rim of my spectacles, letting him squirm. “Lord-Ordinator-” “You are fortunate, Marshal, that you said such things to me. There are those among my Brotherhood that would’ve killed you just now.” Rothgau says nothing and fails to meet my gaze. “I know your men are dying. I know they are at their limit. I know that I have asked much of them, more than has been asked of them since this siege started. But we have done much. “We,” I raise my voice so that everyone in the tent can hear me clearly, “are the first army in history to attack the third wall of Knossus. Not the spawn of Chaos, nor the Greenskins nor the chittering ratmen hordes. No one else could have done this. No other army. I am proud of you all.” I stab a finger down at the map of the third line laid out in front of me. “Will you lose your courage now? The end is in sight. You must stay strong for a little longer. I believe you can.” The Marshal’s face has turned red. In his corner, Grimgok nods thoughtfully, blowing another puff of smoke. The other leaders present in the tent visibly take heart in my words. Such praise from a Stormcast is not easily ignored. “I believe we are done here for the day, gentlemen,” I sigh, “we will continue tomorrow morning.” The dismissal is clear. Rothgau says nothing, merely picks up his shako off the map table and strides out, his officers following silently in his wake. The Iban chieftain winks at me as he leaves, flashing a brief grin before ducking out the tent flap. Only Grimgok and Malthusian are left. The older Duardin eases himself out of a sitting position, grunts in my direction, and tromps out of the tent, pipe still clenched in his teeth, no doubt to go check his gun pits for the umpteenth time that day. “He is not wrong, Lord-Ordinator,” the Liberator-Prime admonishes when the tent is clear. “For Sigmar’s sake, Malthusian, not this again.” I throw up my hands in a gesture of exhaustion. “You’re bleeding them white, I know you realize that.” He stares down at the map table, refusing to meet my gaze. “They are only mortal.” “They are tools in the service of Sigmar, like you and I. You know this.” “So clinical, Lord-Ordinator, so cold. I expect nothing left from the famous Cignirus, master of destruction.” I close my eyes and sigh, taking off my spectacles and placing them back into a pocket into my work apron. Absentmindedly, I rub the bridge of my nose with giant fingers. “We are at the end, Malthusian. The Freeguilders have done enough, more than enough even. This third wall will be the duty of the Brotherhood alone. All I need is for Rothgau and Grimgok and their forces to man the guns and protect them. I will batter a hole in the wall and we Stormcasts will take the breach.” “As simple as that?” “Yes, do you find it acceptable? Or will you call me butcher too? Insult my dedication to Sigmar and his people?” “He should not have said that,” Malthusian notes, unhooking his helm from his belt and placing it back on. “If it is to be the Brotherhood, then let us end it quickly. They all deserve that much.” I bow my head in agreement as the Liberator-Prime makes for the entry of the tent. “Malthusian,” I add, stopping him for a moment, “you did not mention my interest in the Knossians.” “I did not,” he replies over his shoulder, “there is nothing to say.” “Nothing?” “Nothing, Cignirus,” he continues, using my given name for the first time since our arrival in the city, “save that, perhaps, you are not so different from your brother Ordinators as you believe.” He leaves me with those words. They rattle around my mind as I turn back to my map and focus on laying out the siege lines. Malthusian is right. I will end it quickly. They all deserve that. ****** It takes three more months to end the siege of Knossus. Three months of all the artillery I can sight relentlessly pounding the same spot of wall. The Knossians attempt desperate repairs, but they cannot stop the force of so much weaponry. They throw all that they can against our positions. Mobile rams, automata, flying men, raiding parties lowered down the face of the wall, portable steam cannons, devices that fling hundreds of darts at a time in a wall of pointed death, but none of it is enough. Under such a relentless barrage, even the amazingly sturdy walls of Knossus must break, and they do, with a section collapsing wearily but hesitantly one day, like an old prizefighter losing his final bout. Alongside Master Engineer Grimgok, I study the breach that the Sigmarite Brotherhood must take. It is a sharp slope, difficult to ascend, but not impossible. The scree and loose dirt could prove challenging, and the defenders will have time to fortify the gap, but it is not insurmountable. At least, not for Stormcasts. “A fine breach,” Grimgok mutters, lowering his telescope, “still, glad it’s not me going up it.” I chuckle. “I appreciate the sentiment, Master Grimgok. I assure you my brethren and I are actually looking forward to the assault.” The Duardin shakes his head and puts away his telescope. “You’re leading it then?” “I could not do anything else.” I put away my own telescope, and think of the brutal battle to come. No one has ever taken a breach easily. This one, I imagine, would be particularly difficult. “A fine thought, Lord-Ordinator, fine indeed,” the Duardin materializes his customary pipe from some pocket or pouch and lights it, staring out over the defenses. “When will you go?” “Tonight, if Sigmar is willing. Marshal Rothgau is mustering his Janissaries and the Rangers to follow us up. This will end now.” “By Grungi, I hope so. Been a brutal siege, these last few months. I tell you, these Knossians can fight hard, for manlings that is,” The Master Engineer puffs on his pipe contemplatively. “We’ll keep the guns firing right up until you go, slow down their chance of setting up a nasty surprise for you lot. Don’t you worry. Go with Sigmar, Lord-Ordinator.” I nod respectfully and shake his hand in thanks. I am glad to have him managing the guns at my back. ****** Night falls, and as the Sigmarite Brotherhood musters in the forward defensive lines, I stare up at the breach as shot and shell light up the darkness again and again. The Knossians are there, massing on the crest. I see their outlines with each flash. Somewhere behind them in the city, our mortars must have ignited a supply of balefire. Red flames burn hungrily in the middle of Knossus, backlighting the walls with a sinister crimson glow. It looks like a scene out of the apocalypse. For the beleaguered, tired defenders of the city, it truly is. I step out to the top of the trench, looking back over the small force of Stormcasts assembled behind me. They were never a big contingent, less than fifty warriors and a handful of Sacristan Engineers, down to forty-five after the siege. I pray they will be enough as I heft my hammer. “This is the end, my brethren. The last test. We go into the crucible of war, but it shall not melt us.” They nod at that, readying weapons, checking shield straps and bow strings one last time. “We are the Sigmarite Brotherhood! Chamon’s metal is in our very bones! There is not any enemy alive that can stop our advance! What are we?” “Forever unbroken!” The traditional war cry of the Sigmarite Brotherhood rolls up the breach ahead of us. Let the Knossians know what comes for them. “WHAT ARE WE?” “FOREVER UNBROKEN!” Louder now, as the cohort climbs out of the trenches, falling into a familiar formation as we begin to trudge up the breach. Some Freeguilders call it the tortoise, others the snapback, after a particularly aggressive breed of turtle. To me, it is the testudo, an old name I recall from Perugia. The Liberators advance, holding their shields tightly in front and above for cover. Judicators follow along in the center, firing their arrows through small gaps in the shields. The Paladins are here too, waiting for the formation to get close enough before rolling out into the front ranks to bring destruction to our enemies. Above, Venatos spins and whirls with his fellows, dropping down like birds of prey to pepper the defenders standing at the top. The guns fall silent as we begin our climb, but the peace lasts not even a split second before the Knossian defenders set to work. Flaming bales of hay are thrown down the slope, skidding over shields and landing behind us, illuminating the testudo’s advance for the defenders above. Arrows and darts rain down like a Ghyran monsoon, smacking against our formation and occasionally whickering off of the armor underneath. Searing bolts of light lunge outwards, ahead of our advance, as the Judicators slay unfortunate defenders silhouetted too long above us. Soon, the balefire begins to rain, sticking to shields, clinging to tunics, burning fiercely. But the testudo is undaunted. We continue our slow advance, even as topac are added to the avalanche of death crashing down up on us. Wires whip and whirl, slashing through sigmarite plate. Finally, a Stormcast falls, the crack of lightning and blinding flash of a bolt arcing skyward signalling his demise. Another collapses as his shield is split asunder. A ballista bolt, carefully aimed from a device on the ridge line, slams through his , chestsending him tumbling back through the formation before he dissolves. Above, the Knossians begin to cheer. “Forever unbroken!” I cry, pushing the Liberator before me forward, keeping the formation moving. Malthusian takes up the cry, and it becomes a chant as we approach the top. A wall of pike meets us there and the testudo begins to dissolve. Screaming Knossians fling themselves over the lip of the slope, their eyes wild and manic in the sickly light of the hay bales as they hurl balefire pointblank into our faces. Another Liberator collapses, consumed by flames, and his killer screams as he suffers the same fate. I push my way to the front of the shieldwall, Borduna and her Paladins following in my wake. I emerge into a thicket of pikes, one of which pierces through the gap in my shoulder plate. With a grunt, I snap the shaft in my hand, ripping out the offending point and hurling it back like a javelin towards the defenders. Others press forward to take its place, but I batter them aside with my hammer and push on. For a moment, a strange thought strikes me: Dandolio could never have done this. It is knocked out of my mind in an instant as I shove my way forward through the forest of points, cracking shafts and driving their owners backwards. A Cathrapactii pelts out of the enemy spearmen, swinging a large, thin, two-handed blade. The haft of my hammer intercepts the blow, snapping the sword, and I slam the butt of my weapon into the knight’s chest, crushing armor, ribs, and organs. With a cry to Sigmar on my lips, I swing my hammer in a figure eight, knocking aside spearmen in a welter of gore, and the Paladins swarm up into the gap. Hammers rise and fall, exploding with force, pulping Knossian bodies like rotten fruit. The Liberators push in behind our armored wedge, and the battle spills over the top of the escarpment. A group of Cathrapactii charge forward in an attempt to solidify the wavering line, and I surge into them, hammer whirling in a storm of destructive fury. Enough Liberators are over the edge now to form a shield wall. Judicators fire up from below, shooting in between their fellows’ legs, punching arrows into the guts of screaming spearmen and furious Cathrapactii. The defenders fight with the mad fury of the truly hopeless, but once the Sigmarite Brotherhood sets a shieldwall, it is inviolate. To their credit, the Knossians hold out against us for nearly an hour atop the third wall before it is over. The defenders die to a man and take ten more Stormcasts, including the indomitable Borduna, with them. Venatos informs me much later that it may be the longest recorded stand of truly mortal troops against any Stormcast force. I trust him on that. The corpses are piled knee-deep as I turn to Malthusian. His armor is colored crimson like mine, and somewhere in the melee half his helmet was cracked leaving half of his face exposed. Behind us, there is a dull roar as the Freeguilders below witness Knight-Vexilor Centra raise her banner high. They come charging forward up the scree, ready to pour into the city and finish the siege. “Take them forward,” I yell raspily over the noise of the army’s ascent. “You know what to do.” “Of course Lord-Ordinator,” he bellows to be heard, “and you?” “Leave me,” I reply, hefting my hammer to my shoulder, “There is something I must do.” I make my way through the streets of the inner ward of Knossus. Once I am down from the wall, it is pandemonium. Knossians hurtle through the streets, torn between fighting the balefires consuming their city and engaging the attackers that seek to do the same. While some try desperately to extinguish the fires, others throw themselves into burning buildings. A woman and her child run screaming from me, disappearing into the fire-licked shadows of an alley. As I turn another corner, a charred Cathrapactii crawling along the ground reaches out vainly to me with a gurgle. I bring my hammer down swiftly, fulfilling his unspoken request. All around me is destruction. I feel liquid running down my face and tell myself it is sweat. The puzzle box is finally open, and I am afraid I do not like what I find inside. My route, which Venatos spotted painstakingly from above three days ago, leads me through the chaotic streets to a tower in the center of the city. Two Cathrapactii, wearing elaborate plumes in their helms, stand sentinel in front of the door, unmoving despite all that is occurring around them. They draw their long, thin blades, almost simultaneously, when they see me emerge out of the darkness and smoke. To them, I must look like a monster from nightmares, but they do not hesitate. Their swords whirl and swing and I smack the strikes aside with my hammer. They deflect my return blows with the skill of swordmasters, lashing back with ripostes that scrape across my sigmarite, probing for gaps in my armor. Back and forth in front of the door we fight, before finally my hammer breaks through the first knight’s guard and smashes him into the dirt. His fellow doesn’t hesitate, using the opening my killing blow leaves to slam his own blade through a ****** in my waist armor. I roar in pain, backhanding him with a fist and snapping his neck. Grunting, I pull his blade out of my gut and throw it to the ground. The wound aches, but I do my best to shrug it off as I slam open the door before me. At the top of the tower, I walk down a long hall, with large windows gazing out across Knossus. It is a breathtaking view of the doom that I have wrought. The harsh red light of the balefires is all that illuminates this place, casting rippling shadows on the lofty ceiling. I realize, with some trepidation, that fire has started to spread into the hall itself, licking through a broken window near the stairs and setting curtains alight. I ignore it for now, striding past inventions, models, easels crowned with drawings, and a variety of workbenches that crowd the space. I take care not to damage any of them. A solitary figure stands outside on a balcony, gazing out at the burning city. Hypatia the Wise has changed little since I last saw her, still clad in her simple cream scholar’s robes. “Lord-Ordinator,” she says calmly, turning towards me as I step out of the workshop and into the night air. It is cooler here, above the flames. Her features are haggard in the crimson glow, but her eyes are still bright and sharp. “I must congratulate you on doing what no other has done.” I bow slightly in acknowledgement. “I could say the same of you, my lady. Few in the Mortal Realms could withstand what your city has for so long.” She smiles sadly, her blue eyes echoing the heartbreak in her soul. “We lost though, didn’t we? I knew from the moment I saw you that it would end this way, but even I could not imagine… this.” She gestures back at the city. I say nothing, standing like a statue in the flickering light. The fire inside is starting to catch, burning models and inventions, consuming the parchments and their easels. “What will become of my city?” she says wistfully, looking out at the destruction. “What of my people?” “Those who surrender now will be shown mercy. They may stay and see what is to come, or will be granted passage to wherever they choose in the Realms.” She nods at that, as I continue, “As for your city, I will rebuild it. It will not be the Knossus you fought for, but its spirit will survive. I swear it.” She makes a strange sound, at odds with the horror around us, and I realize that Hypatia is laughing. “ “You will rebuild it? You are a destroyer. A man cannot change his ways so easily.” “I am not a man,” I rumble. “Indeed, you are not, Lord-Ordinator.” The engineer stops laughing and pulls something out of her robes. It is a thick leather tome, filled with parchments, many of them loose. Fire is filling the workshop now, but neither of us pay it any attention. “I have a favor to ask of you, my enemy. This,” she sets the tome on a small table on the balcony, “is everything. The sum total of my life’s work. All that I have done. Will you take it? I know you are a destroyer, Lord-Ordinator, but can you preserve this one thing?” I nod solemnly. “I will, my lady.” “Thank you,” she sighs, as if any immense weight has lifted from her shoulders. “May I ask one more favor of you?” I nod again. “Can I see your face?” I reach up and unclasp my helm, hooking it to the belt at my side. She looks at me for a moment, observing my scars, my beard, staring into the grey flints of my gaze with her own blue eyes. Tentatively, she reaches up and touches my face gently, before withdrawing her hand. “You are such an amazing creation, Lord-Ordinator. Thank you.” Hypatia takes one last look at her burning city, then bows her head before me. She does not kneel to me, even now. “Make it swift,” she says softly, “precise. As all things should be.” I raise my hammer and grant her request. ******** Malthusian finds me in the morning, sitting on the edge of an immense decorative fountain is some dirty, smoky market square. His armor is covered in ash and blood, and at some point in time, he has discarded his broken helm completely. He approaches me calmly, but does not sit. I look up at him over the rim of my spectacles, lowering the material I am reading. “What news, Liberator-Prime?” “It is over, Lord-Ordinator. The Ironwelders have brought the fires under control, and the Paladins have dealt with the last few remaining holdouts.” There is a weariness in his voice, but he remains standing. “Any survivors?” “Some,” he remarks, absentmindedly kicking over a loose green brick with the toe of his sabaton. “Most Knossians are dead, but a handful surrendered. They are in shock now, the Janissaires have them under guard until we can deal with them correctly.” He narrows his eyes and looks at the book in my hand. “Reading something, Lord-Ordinator?” “A gift,” I remark, “of sorts.” He leans on his shield, digging into the dirt and soot that coats the square. “She is dead then?” “Yes,” I look past him, to the still smouldering ruins of Hypatia’s workshop tower. A fitting pyre for her, in truth. “She was quite brilliant.” There is a timbre of sadness in my lieutenant’s normally unruffled voice. “Yes,” I reply, looking down at the drawing of some advanced farming implement on the page in front of me, “a true genius, they are hard to find.” Malthusian says nothing, and the two of us wait in companionable silence for a while. “Rothgau is dead,” Malthusian eventually mentions, “his heart gave out apparently, right at the foot of the escarpment.” I am surprised that I feel an actual twinge of sadness. The Marshal was a disrespectful fool, but to labor so long at this task and not see it completed, that is a tragedy. I say none of that, merely grunting in response. “What will you do now, Lord-Ordinator? Which siege calls us onwards?” I look up at Malthusian and shake my head. “No siege, brother. I think I will stay here, help rebuild this.” I gesture with one hand around the ruined square, “There is much to be done.” The Liberator-Prime says nothing and I pretend not to see a small smile creeping across his normally stony face. “As you say, Cignirus. As you say.” He stretches and slings his shield onto his back, “Do you require anything else?” “No thank you, Malthusian. You are dismissed.” He bows and stalks off into the streets, snapping a few words of command at a group of Janissaries struggling to move a dirty statue across the square. I watch him go, before staring up at the clouds of smoke still forming over the city. Briefly, I think of an old puzzle box and wonder airily what became of it after it was solved. I can’t seem to remember for the life of me. Shaking my head, I push up my spectacles, open the tome, and continue to read.
  4. A tale of the Freeguilds General Thaddeus Carmoggan met his guests in his spacious study, seated behind a thick, mahogany desk, The accoutrements of his former profession in the Freeguilds surrounded him. A shattered choppa, taken from the dead claws of Gorruk Mangletooth, sat alongside an gold-chased, handcrafted pistol gifted to him from the Ironweld Arsenal upon the defeat of the heretic engineer Lugenbrau. Tattered banners from no less than four different regiments adorned the walls, squeezed in between shelves stocked with books on subjects ranging from philosophy to military strategy. Other trophies, souvenirs, and awards were displayed throughout the room, including a seal of recognition from no less impressive personages than the Celestial Vindicators Stormhost. One of the retired commanders most precious treasures, however, sat in an empty inkwell on his desk in full view of both himself and any visitors he happened to see: a single grey griffon feather, the symbol of the elite Azyrite Borderers, also known as the Grey Griffons, Carmoggan’s second regiment and the one that had made his name. The then-lieutenant’s escape from the disastrous ambush at the Birkut Oasis in Chamon and subsequent march for five days across some of that realm’s most blighted desert, wounded and without adequate supplies, to warn the army of Marshal Konnegrieger was the stuff of Freeguild legend. Since that impressive journey, Carmoggan’s star had ever been on the rise, up until he took his rightful leave of the military after a storied career. The general had settled into a peaceful retirement in a quiet quarter of Azyrheim populated by fellow retired officers, where he tended to a vibrant garden and worked on writing his memoirs. His townhouse was simple, but clearly of quality, and the interior was, much like the study, decorated with the hallmarks of his career and noble lineage. He rarely entertained visitors, preferring to keep himself to himself, but he could never reject a social call from his current guests. They were, after all, members of the Grey Griffons, and it did not do for the veterans of that regiment to turn down any opportunity or request from their fellows. “Major Bedoe,” the general said cheerfully as he settled down into his high-backed chair, “such a pleasure to see you again!” “It is, excuse me, was, Lieutenant-Colonel, actually,” Bedoe said, sitting himself down cautiously into a chair across the desk. Bedoe was a slight, elderly man, but the fitness of his days in the Griffons clearly hadn’t left him. It was a contrast to Carmoggan, who had grown paunchy and wrinkly in his old age. Still, Bedoe walked with a cane, which now rested at his side, a testament to the wound in his leg that had ended his career. “Of course, my good man, of course, I had forgotten! Never left the Greys, did you?” “Never did, too much like home I’m afraid,” Bedoe said with a smile, his eyes darting around the room, taking in the bric-a-brac of his host’s collection. His eyes settled on the griffon feather in its ink well and his smile widened. Carmoggan noticed and grinned at his guest. “I left, you know, but I never forgot, how could I?” “Well the regiment certainly never forgot you, sir,” the third man in the room, a young, clerical looking man wearing the off-duty uniform of the Borderers, chimed in, “we still drink to your memory… and the memory of all your company, every anniversary.” The general nodded sagely. “Bravo young man, bravo. Am I to assume you serve with the Borderers?” “General,” interrupted Bedoe, gesturing at the man alongside him, “allow me to introduce Lieutenant Galder of the Grey Griffons.” “Ah,” the general exclaimed, “I should’ve guessed from the uniform alone! Getting a little less sharp in my old age. A pleasure to meet you as well,” he saluted casually, prompting a bit of lighthearted laughter from the three men, “How are things in the Borderers these days, lieutenant?” “Business as usual, sir. No breaks in the service of Sigmar. Most of us are back out in Chamon, plugging away alongside our golden cousins.” Carmoggan sat up a little straighter at that. “Ah, the Golden Griffons! My boy’s in that regiment,” he said, gesturing to a small painted portrait of a handsome young man on his desk. “Have you had the pleasure of meeting him? Osmund’s a striking lad to be sure!” “Indeed sir,” replied Lieutenant Galder, “I’m quite well acquainted with Osmund, he currently serves as our point of contact with his general. He sends his regards and wants you to know his captaincy is going quite well.” “Brilliant, just brilliant! He’ll be a major before he knows it, mark my words! Maybe he’ll join the regiment one day, eh?” Carmoggan beamed with paternal pride, “I look forward to seeing him grow into his own, all my brains but his mother’s charms!” The general paused for a second, a cloud of sadness passing across his face. “I am sorry to hear about your wife, Thaddeus,” Bedoe’s tone was conciliatory and comforting. “Thank you Gilliam, I appreciate the thought. She was a fine woman, my Gilda. I miss her.” The general looked askance, but quickly collected himself. “Ah well, enough talk about family eh! What brings you two fine gentlemen to my door? Lucky for you, I always have time for members of the regiment.” “Oh, you see,” Galder shuffled his feet, “it’s a book you see.” “A book?” “Indeed, sir, a book. A history actually. Just a brief one. Of the regiment’s campaign in Chamon.” The general nodded along to the young man’s words. “And well, sir, I, well-” “For Sigmar’s sake,” exclaimed Bedoe, “the man can stare down a charging gargant if need be but he can’t ask you a question Thaddeus. He wants to know about Birkut Oasis.” Galder nodded shamefaced and squirmed a little in his chair, more like a schoolboy than a trained Freeguild killer. “Of course,” the general chuckled at the lieutenant’s discomfort. “He came to me, since he knew I commanded second company at the time, and I told him I’d set up a little sit down with you if you were amenable.” Bedoe leaned back in his chair and fidgeted with his cane. “I’ve already heard the whole thing of course, Thaddeus, but I figured the best version would come from you.” The general laughed again. “Of course, of course. Well, you’re not the first seeking the tale, young man, but you’re the first who came in with Bedoe, so I think I can make an exception.” “Oh, thank you sir,’ exclaimed Galder, sitting straight up in his chair and looking for a moment as if he was going to leap up and shake the general’s hand. He fidgeted in the pack he carried over his shoulder, withdrawing a small pad of parchment and writing stick. “There we go. For notes, sir,” he said, holding up the pad, “everything confidential I assure you. Whenever you’re ready, sir.” The general nodded and settled back into his chair. He coughed once, then took a deep breath and started into his story. “Well, it was a cold night on the wastes around Birkut…” The study’s one rearward facing window was closed to the chill of the evening. Even if it had been open, it was doubtful that Carmoggan or his two guests would have noticed the three masked men, clad in drab garb, that emerged out of the darkness and slid quietly over the townhouse’s back wall. They unsheathed knives, blades blackened with soot, and slunk through the shadows of the garden towards the rear door of the house. ************** It was a cold night on the wastes around the Birkut Oasis. The Azyrite Borderers had been serving in Chamon alongside Marshal Konnegrieger for the past year, ranging ahead of the main army in company-sized patrols, harrying the forces of Chaos and their allies that remained festering in the desert heart of the Dalghari Emirate. The Emir himself had requested the assistance of the Marshal in clearing out the cancer that had taken root in his kingdom, and the Freeguild had answered with fire and sword, driving the Tzeenchian hordes of Croneus Steeltalon before them until the Chaos warlord and his troops disappeared into the wastes. Konnegrieger, frustrated with his inability to bring Croneus to battle, called on the Grey Griffons to search the desert for their foes, and the regiment had set about the task with the vigor and expertise for which it was known. First Company of the Greys, under the command of Major Morgenstern, had marched to the Birkut Oasis. The locals had fled the bustling village there straight into the arms of the Freeguild forces, reporting the presence of a large force of cultists settling in their homes. So, a few days after the news reached them, the hundred strong company was encamped in hidden bivouacs not far from Birkut. After two days of careful observation and probing patrols, the men had finally dispersed across the dunes around the oasis at night, waiting for the order to move into the town. Young Lieutenant Carmoggan had only recently volunteered for service in the regiment, leaving his posting in the prestigious Golden Griffons, and he was eager to prove himself, both to the veteran Morgenstern and the lower ranking Grays, all of whom were hardened veterans of other Freeguild units, as was the regiment’s tradition. With that need for recognition in mind, and with the blessing of the major, it had been Carmoggan who had performed the first reconnaissance of the town, sliding in alone on the first night of the company’s arrival. He had found Birkut eerily deserted. There was no sign of any cultists, of any living creature. Further patrols, following the concealed path Carmoggan had marked, reached the same conclusion. Finally, Morgenstern was convinced that the way was safe for his force to occupy the town and send word back to the Marshal. At a silent hand signal from the major, the company moved forward down the dunes towards the oasis. Unfortunately, it was a moonlit night, but the rangers of the Grey Griffons eased across the sands with consummate stealth, appearing as little more than shadows as they descended from every side of the town. All of them had darkened their faces with soot and ash, a common practice for such night-time maneuvers, and others still had gone so far as to remove their caps, each decorated with the distinctive grey griffon feather of their regiment, and replace them with more utilitarian headdresses akin to those the local Chamonian tribesmen wore. Morgenstern, a refined looking man with distinctive, sandy-colored mutton chops, was one of those who had not forgone his cap and feather. The tall, lithe major had Carmoggan and his other officers with him as he entered Birkut’s outskirts. The Greys slunk cautiously from house to house, checking open windows and doors, and trying hard to ignore the sense of unease that seemed to hang over the entire village. Carmoggan tensed as a loose door banged in the wind, bringing the distinctive double crossbow of the Borderers up to his shoulder in an instant, but the man next to him, a sergeant named Jacques, gestured it down. Jumping at shadows, the lieutenant thought, what am I, a child? Still, it was a strange night in the village. Its sandstone buildings, appearing as pale as marble tombs in the moonlight, were a chaotic jumble, but the major had received a detailed description of Birkut, and a less detailed map, from the local bey and led his group unerringly towards the market square at the center of the town. The company was fully advanced into the oasis and the major’s group were halfway on their cautious, house by house approach to the market when the first crackling of eldritch energy appeared. Major Morgenstern’s first thought as the sickly, multi-colored portals began opening across Birkut was that he should’ve expected exactly this. It was the nature of their foe, after all, to use eldritch trickery to its fullest extent. He had no more time to chastise himself for the oversight as the town came alive with shrieking Tzaangors and screaming cultists, who came pouring out of portals and surging up from undiscovered tunnels dug into the earth. Many units would have collapsed then and there, overwhelmed with surprise and explosive violence, but the Greys were handpicked veterans with centuries of warfighting under their collective belts. In those initial moments, the mettle of the rangers showed in full as the distinct snap-thwap of their double crossbows began to fill the night air. Any foe that looked remotely like a sorcerer or shaman found bolts sprouting from their heads, dropping them to the dirt of the streets before they had the chance to bring their magicks to bear. The Freeguilders cut down cultists and did their best to coalesce, falling back through the twisted streets to the designated rally point at the market square. But their skill, no matter how great, could not avail them entirely against the ambush that swamped them. In narrow lanes and dead-end alleys, isolated rangers fell after killing scores of foes, overwhelmed and torn to pieces through sheer weight of numbers, and scattered battlecries and death screams rang out across Birkut. Near the market square, Morgenstern did what he could to rally the Greys. A knot of about thirty Freeguilders consolidated around him, falling back down the main thoroughfare of the village towards the manor of the local bey. The major knew that finding a solid location to hold up was all that would guarantee his company even a miniscule chance to survive this nightmare. Bellowing orders, Morgenstern silently prayed to Sigmar that the Tzeentchians had not secured the bey’s residence already. Lieutenant Carmoggan was at his side. The young officer buried a crossbow bolt in the beaked face of the first Tzaangor he saw, then sank his second shot into the guts of the tattooed warrior that surged into the beast’s place. Carmoggan let the expended crossbow drop on its sling and drew his blade, a gilded gladius that was a hold-over from his service in the prestigious Golden Griffons. A Tzaangor brought its blade swinging down at the lieutenant’s head, but he stepped into the blow, throwing off the attack before ramming the gladius into the weak point in his opponent’s torso armor. A backhanded slash opened up the neck of the next Tzeentchian to come at him, a sickly looking man with tentacles where eyes should have been, and the mutant fell whining to the dirt. Nearby, Morgenstern laid into the swarming cultists with a long, straight-bladed cavalry sword, more bludgeon than blade, that was a testament to his days as a schwarze reitter. Despite the weight of the weapon, the major swung the blade with a swordmaster’s skill, splitting the skull of an armored warrior that tried to punch a tarnished copper katar into his stomach. Another dagger scraped deep across the major’s forearm, but its wielder collapsed as a crossbow bolt sprouted from its mutated eye. Lieutenant Dargill, Morgenstern’s subaltern, reloaded quickly and hung back behind the commander, driving shots into any other foe that tried to press through the slowly advancing circle of defiance the Greys had formed. The bey’s house was finally in sight, a solid, double storied edifice with slit windows that seemed more fortress than home in the dusty township of Birkut. Carmoggan gutted a tattooed wildman dressed in what appeared to be scraps of human skin and grunted in frustration. Despite the Greys killing all before them, the sheer weight of numbers was beginning to tell and Morgenstern’s dogged push for the manor was beginning to slow. Sergeant Grumlok, a Duardin from Greywater Fastness, chopped down the Tzaangor in front of him with his axe like so much lumber and swung up the grudgeraker he kept at his side. As a rule, none of the Borderers carried firearms on their operations, for fear that a stray shot or misfire might reveal them to their enemies too easily, but no one, not even the formidable Morgenstern, was willing to part the surly Grumlok with the weapon he had carried since his apprenticeship in the Ironweld Arsenal over a century ago. That night in Birkut, the oversight proved invaluable. The Duardin’s grudgeraker bellowed its fury and the press of cultists blocking the remaining street to the bey’s home were scattered like ninepins. With a roar to Grungi, Grumlok hurled himself through the cloud of choking powder smoke and laid into the staggering survivors with his handaxe. Morgenstern hollered to his men, not missing the opportunity before him, and the remaining Greys beelined for the single door of the bey’s manor. All except for Ranger Galuvao, a brawny Ghyran islander who turned and hurled himself back into the oncoming pursuit of Tzeentchians, crushing skulls and breaking bones with a flat bladed club from his homeland. He killed until his grey uniform was soaked red with blood, bringing down at least seven enemies alone before the Tzaangors and cultists ripped him apart. His death bought the additional breathing room needed for his fellow rangers to reach their target, and the remaining men hurried to barricade the door before taking up positions at the various slit windows, double crossbows at the ready. The doughty Sergeant Grumlok, whose illicit weapon had cleared the initial gap, did not live to see the fruits of his labor. His body, still clutching the beloved grudgeraker, lay just outside the doorway, a brittle beastman spear buried deep into his back. The Tzeentchians tried to press the manor, but scything fire from the men inside drove them back into the shadows of the nearby buildings. One bold or ambitious shaman tried to summon some sort of blue ball of fire to hurl at the doorway, but a pair of bolts sent his corpse reeling back down the streets, and the rest of his fellows ducked into cover. The Greys, panting from exertion, stinking of adrenaline, sweat, and blood, had a brief moment to collect themselves and take stock of the situation. In what was once the dining room of the home, Morgenstern and his remaining officers sat on dusty cushions and discussed the situation. “****** ambushed us. How did they know?” Captain Solvang had known Morgenstern the longest of the group, both having served in the brutal fighting to reclaim a foothold in Shyish some years ago. “Reminds me of bloody Caddow.” Morgenstern nodded warily. “It doesn’t really matter how they knew Solv, at least not now.” The major turned to his subaltern, “Dargill, what’s the count?” The lieutenant, one eye swollen shut from a bruise and nasty cut, smiled with bloody teeth. “Pretty damn bad, sir. I count about 28 of us holed up in here, most wounded in some way. The enemy backed off though, I’m not sure why. The pricks have a whole army out there, they could rush us and end it.” “They’re up to something,” added Carmoggan, wiping the sweat and blood from his brow with a dirty hand, “that’s the way with these blue ******.” Captain Solvang grunted noncommittally. “They probably understand that if they press us here, they’re bound to lose Sigmar knows how many men. So they’re waiting for something to end it.” “Magic?” Dargill sounded nervous and dabbed at the wound on his forehead with a scrap of cloth he had ripped from a lounging bench. His crossbow, loaded once again, lay across his lap. “Maybe,” replied Morgenstern, “I imagine we did a number on their sorcerers right at the start, but we’re all that’s left here. I think Dargill’s right, that’s the entire horde out there.” The major spat a wad of dirty phlegm on the floor. “Wouldn’t even surprise me if that cursed ****** Steeltalons was here with them. This is a giant flanking maneuver, and a wholly unexpected one at that.” There was a pause, and all four men heard the distant shrieking and chanting of the forces that surrounded their makeshift stronghold. “We must inform the Marshal,” said the major, finally breaking the relative quiet. “Bedoe’s company might come,” Dargill whispered, but the weariness in his voice betrayed his belief in that sentiment. The major shook his head. As much as he wanted his oldest and dearest friend Gilliam Bedoe and the rest of second company to come charging over the hills like Stormcasts, he knew it was not to be. “We can’t rely on them, they’re too far out. I doubt we have that long anyway,” the major absentmindedly dug a groove in the floor with the point of his sword as he thought. “Someone will have to make the run. There is a passage leading out of the manor, well hidden from prying eyes. The bey himself told me about it,” he added, when he noticed the questioning look of Dargill. “Hopefully the ****** haven’t found it. One man goes, the rest of us stay, provide a distraction. All rather legendary, dare I say it.” Captain Solvang snorted at his commander’s forced bonhomie. Frowning, Carmoggan spoke up. “Who’s the lucky lad that gets that trip then?” Morgenstern grinned and turned to the lieutenant. “I’m afraid that’s you, young Carmie. Your time to be a hero.” “But sir, I w-” “No, this is not negotiable. You’re the only man among us that isn’t wounded.” Dargill nodded in confirmation of the major’s observation. Carmoggan appeared to be the only Grey in the bey’s residence seemingly unscathed from the brawl in the streets. “Furthermore,” Morgenstern continued, “I dare say you’re one of the fittest and youngest of all of us. You have better odds of making the trek across the desert.” “Sir,” the lieutenant affirmed, clearly upset with the decision. Morgenstern stared at the young man for a moment, his face marked by a melancholy smile. “It’s not a reprieve lieutenant, or me trying to shame you. It’s as suicidal as everything else here. Even if the ****** don’t get you coming out of the tunnel, you still have five days good, fast marching across some of the most inhospitable deadlands in Chamon ahead of you.” The major’s grin broke into a full smile, “I know you can do it, lad. You have to.” Then he turned to his other officers. “Solv, Dargill, get the men on alert. I’ll lead the lieutenant to the escape tunnel. When I give the signal, make a racket that would wake a slumbering troggoth. Understood?” “Yes, sir,” the two other officers replied, almost in unison. “Alright then, let’s be off Carmie.” Solvang and Dargill wished the lieutenant luck in hushed tones and set off to prepare the remaining Greys for what was to come. Morgenstern led the young man down into the darkness of the home’s basement, which was more of a glorified wine cellar based on appearances, and directed him down a narrow lane in between two shelves to a rack of dusty bottles. With the help of a hastily-lit torch for illumination, the two officers manhandled the rack aside, revealing a hole big enough for a crouching man to climb through in the back wall. “There we are, just like the bey said,” Morgenstern sounded pleased with himself. “No time to waste. Sigmar go with you, Thaddeus.” The major clapped one hand on Carmoggan’s shoulder then moved aside, allowing him to get to the tunnel entrance. Once he was past, Morgenstern turned and braced himself to push the rack back into place. “Thank you sir,” Carmoggan replied, sadness deep in his voice, “I’m sorry, sir.” “Don’t be,” the major said, turning to face the hunched figure of the young man, that melancholy smile back on his face. “Just do us proud.” The lieutenant thudded a fist into his chest, the traditional salute of the regiment, and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel, and the wine rack shuddered back into place behind him. Carmoggan emerged through a grate in the wall of a small smithy only a minute or so later. He exited cautiously, careful not to let the metal clang as he lowered it softly to the ground. Moving quietly to the door, he peered out, drawing his blade as he did so. The lieutenant could hear the distant sound of fighting and the snap-thwap of crossbows firing. Morgenstern’s distraction appeared to be working. He lifted himself up out of his crouch, slid through the doorway, and moved swiftly down the street, carefully picking his way past the corpses, both cultists and those of the Greys, that littered the dirt. That was when he made a mistake. So preoccupied was he with checking behind him, avoiding the bodies, and listening to the noises of the battle around the bey’s manor, the lieutenant turned the corner of the lane without glancing around it first. He let out a cry of surprise as he ran headlong into a Tzeentchian warrior coming the other direction. The cultist was tall and wiry, with unnaturally long limbs and ornate bronze armor that seemed to be from a thousand years in the past. Only its head was exposed, revealing a man whose eyes were cloudy with inky blackness and whose skin had the disturbing, blueish tinge of a suffocation victim. A toothy grin, filled with sharp, shark-like teeth, broke out across the creature’s face. It lifted up a hand menacingly, fully displaying the long, sharp talons of steel that capped its fingers. “By Sigmar,” Carmoggan hissed, “Steeltalons.” The Chaos warlord chuckled as the young lieutenant spoke its name, and hurled itself forward, eponymous talons flashing in the moonlight. For a moment, Carmoggan froze with fear and shock. It was a natural reaction, but one that nearly cost him his life. At the last moment, something, perhaps as he would always say in the future, the divine providence of Sigmar, drove him to action. He stepped forward under the slash of the claws and slammed the hilt of his gladius straight into Steeltalons’ smiling face. Teeth and cartilage cracked as blueish blood sprayed across the street. Grunting with pain, reeling from the blow, the Chaos chieftain lashed out with his other hand, gouging a line that cut Carmoggan’s cheek to the bone. The Freeguilder barely registered the searing pain, stabbing his gladius down into the knee joint of the monster’s strange armor. Steeltalons shrieked, more like a bird than anything human, and dropped to one knee. Both his claws lashed upwards, trying to eviscerate the lieutenant from below, but the young Grey was already running down the street, leaving the wounded warlord raging blindly behind him. In the distance, a sound like thunder rumbled and light flashed. Carmoggan assumed that the major or one of the other Greys had detonated one of the small blackpowder bombs they carried for sabotage. Regardless, he did not stop to look back. Racing at full tilt, he emerged from the bloody streets of Birkut and set off into the cold desert night. ************** “And the rest, as they say young man, is history.” Carmoggan leaned back in his chair and poured himself a glass of brandy from a bottle he pulled out of his desk. Lieutenant Galder finished scribbling some notes on his pad and looked up reverentially at the old general. “Simply amazing, sir. I can’t believe you actually fought Steeltalons.” “Aye,’ Carmoggan nodded pensively, “I was lucky to escape that with my life.” Bedoe looked thoughtfully at his old comrade. “And that was how it happened, Thaddeus? You left nothing out?” “Of course not,” the general sniffled, “don’t be daft, man.” Bedoe nodded and leaned back in his own chair. “Just checking, that’s all. Just checking.” At that moment, the door to the study burst open with an almighty crash. Three masked figures rushed in, bloody daggers drawn. Carmoggan cried out in surprise and whipped out a pistol he kept in a holster underneath his desk, knocking aside the bottle of brandy. He was surprisingly fast to draw it, all things considered, but not fast enough. Galder was up and moving as soon as the masked men burst through the door. He slammed the writing stick, sharpened at one end, down like a stake, straight into Carmoggan’s forearm. The old man screamed in shock and pain, dropping the pistol which Galder kicked aside with contemptuous ease. Gone was the nervous, fawning junior officer, replaced with a steely killer much more in keeping with the men of the Greys. The masked figures moved to surround the moaning general, who tried vainly to pull the writing tool out of his arm. Major Bedoe had not moved, hands wrapped around his cane, staring at the general with cold, uncaring eyes. “Bind him,” Bedoe said curtly, “and carry him to the dining room.” One the masked men nodded and General Carmoggan tried to cry out again before a blow slammed into the side of his head and all faded to darkness. He awoke, groggy and in pain, tied securely with thick cords to one of the finely carved chairs in his dining room. The writing stick had been removed from his arm and the wound was carefully bound. Bedoe sat across the table from him, his gaze so full of contempt and venom that Carmoggan physically flinched and looked away. Lieutenant Galder, anger clearly writ on his face, sat to the right of the retired major, and another man, who looked to be of Ghyran islander descent, sat to Bedoe’s left. All three wore the distinctive cap and feathers of the Azyrite Borderers. Carmoggan could not see the other two men, but he sensed them behind him, lurking. Something of the old general’s fighting spirit arose, and his pain and disorientation turned quickly into anger. “By Sigmar, Gilliam! I don’t know what the meaning of this is but I’ll see you all swing you miser-” “Silence.” Bedoe’s voice was stern and brooked no interruption. Carmoggan was momentarily taken aback by the vehement hatred that lurked there. “You are in no position to speak the name of Sigmar, nor will you see anyone hanged.” “You traitorous ******,” the general swore, “I’ll have your head! Guards! GUARDS!” Carmoggan roared vainly for his staff, all of them former bully boys from the Freeguilds, who doubled as both servants and bodyguards. “No point, General,” said the dark-skinned Ghyranite, “I assure you, they are dead. So please, stop.” Carmoggan fell silent at that. He opened his mouth to speak again, but Bedoe cut him off. “General Thaddeus Carmoggan, I Lieutenant-Colonel Gilliam Bedoe, in the presence of these witnesses, declare you a traitor in the eyes of Sigmar and the Freeguilds. You have consorted with the enemies of the God-King and, in doing so, brought about the death of many good, dedicated men. Most importantly, you forsook your oaths to the Azyrite Borderers and betrayed the regiment. And the regiment, Thaddeus, never forgets its own.” “Preposterous,” Carmoggan roared, struggling and squirming against his bonds, “absolute filth and lies! I will have you shot for just making such accusations.” “They are not lies, General,” Galder said calmly, “Lieutenant-Colonel Bedoe knows the truth. He knows what really happened at Birkut.” “The hell he does!” The old general snarled, “He wasn’t bloody there, you soft-headed imbecile. He doesn’t know what happened any more than I know what Sigmar ate for bloody breakfast.” “Oh, but I do know Thaddeus, I do know,” said Bedoe calmly, his eyes scrutinizing the blubbery figure tied up before him like an owl scouring its prey. “I spoke to a witness.” “A witness,” exclaimed Carmoggan, “a damned witness? Who? Did you dig up old Steeltalons’ bones from where Konnegrieger left them to rot? Or did you summon up the ghost of Solvang or Dargill or Morgenstern?” “Enough,” roared Bedoe, slamming his cane down onto the floor, “you are not fit to speak their names, you snake.” Lieutenant Galder laid a calming hand on the old man’s shoulder, and Bedoe coughed loudly before continuing. “My source for this information is unimpugnable. I know it, with all certainty, to be the truth. You trafficked with Croneus Steeltalons to betray the First Company of the Grey Griffons at Birkut and secure your own escape. Then you propagated a lie to earn yourself undeserved acclimation and built all this,” Bedoe gestured at the building around him, “out of that base treachery.” “Tzeentchian tricks, Gilliam! That’s all this is! Can’t you see that? I’m innocent! Someone is manipulating you with these… these fantasies! Look at my face, at the scar that ****** Steeltalons gave me! Would he have done that, if I had been in league with him?” Carmoggan’s voice was hurt and desperate, but Bedoe paid him no heed. He just stared at the general. Alongside him, the Ghyran islander absentmindedly cleaned his knife, looking up at the General every once and a while with the disturbing gaze of a predatory beast. Carmoggan’s eyes flicked desperately from man to man, but none of them said anything, simple observing the old general as he squirmed against his bonds. “Your claims ring hollow, Thaddeus,” Bedoe finally said, “I know what really happened at Birkut. Shall I tell you?” The old man leaned forward on his cane and began. ************** Morgenstern led the young man down into the darkness of the home’s basement, which was more of a glorified wine cellar based on appearances, and directed him down a narrow lane in between two shelves to a rack of dusty bottles. With the help of a hastily-lit torch for illumination, the two officers manhandled the rack aside, revealing a hole big enough for a crouching man to climb through in the back wall. “There we are, just like the bey said,” Morgenstern sounded pleased with himself. “No time to waste. Sigmar go with you, Thaddeus.” The major clapped one hand on Carmoggan’s shoulder then moved aside, allowing him to get to the tunnel entrance. Once he was past, Morgenstern turned and braced himself to push the rack back into place. “Thank you sir,” Carmoggan replied, his voice cold, “I’m sorry, sir.” Perhaps noticing the sudden change in tone, Morgenstern turned back swiftly to face the young officer, but he was not fast enough. Carmoggan’s gladius came up, stabbing deep into the major’s stomach, and the man collapsed with a grunt against the nearby wine racks, one hand clutching desperately to his gut as blood seeped down the front of his uniform. “Why?” He croaked up at the lieutenant, who stood over him in the torchlight, looking up towards the stairs and then back at the escape hole in the wall. Morgenstern wanted to scream out for help, but the words wouldn’t come. He could raise his voice above a whisper. “In Sigmar’s name, Thaddeus, why?” “Why?” The young lieutenant seemed genuinely perplexed by the question. He crouched down, whispering to the wounded officer, “Because I had to survive, major. That very first night, the very first foray into Birkut, they caught me. They were going to kill me, right then and there, torture me for information and sacrifice me to their dark god, but I cut a deal, and Steeltalons seemed to like it far more. So I marked the wrong path and reported back that the village was empty and waited. I knew you would fall back here, when push came to shove, and I knew you would have a plan to get out. Now I’m going to go down that tunnel and find Steeltalons, and then his men will swarm up into this house from below and end this sorry business.” “******” the major wheezed, “****** traitor.” “No, major,” said Carmoggan, rising to his feet, “Not a traitor. A survivor. Fear not, your sacrifice will not be in vain, I will slay many enemies in the service of Sigmar to make amends for what happened here. You should, if anything, be pleased to have helped a talent such as mine escape this disaster. I will make them pay on your behalf. Goodbye, major.” Morgenstern grunted in anger and tried to rise against the wine rack, grasping vainly for his blade, but the young lieutenant was already disappearing into the dark entrance to the tunnel. Carmoggan emerged through a grate in the wall of a small smithy only a minute or so later. He strolled out onto the street and was not surprised to find the tall, unnatural figure of Coreus Steeltalons waiting for him in the midst of a well-armored huddle of Tzaangors and cultists. “Hello, lieutenant,” Steeltalons’ voice was a deep hiss, like some sort of giant snake, “what a pleasure to see you again.” “Back there in the smithy is the tunnel,” Carmoggan snarled, “Morgenstern is dead, I saw to that.” “Good good.” Steeltalons gestured to his men, and they hustled into the smithy. “You have done so well, lieutenant. This comes naturally to you. Perhaps you should join me, yes?” Carmoggan sneered. “I would never, you heretic. My reasons are my own.” The warlord tittered at that. “Oh such delicious hypocrisy, I really should kill you.” Steeltalons raised his finger blades as if to strike and the lieutenant tensed, his hand reaching for the hilt of his gladius. “No need to do that, heretic. We had a deal, one good turn deserves another.” The Chaos warlord tittered especially loudly at Carmoggan’s words. Then he struck fast, faster than the lieutenant could even see, and carved a bone-deep cut into the young man’s cheek. “By Sigmar,” Carmoggan roared in pain as he drew his gladius, but the Tzeentchian slapped the blade out of the lieutenant’s hands with almost contemptuous ease. “Fear not, lieutenant. I will not kill you. This is far too enjoyable for that. The cut was just a reminder, and some credibility. Who would imagine that you had faced the great Steeltalons and escaped unscarred?” The beast chuckled and Carmoggan grunted in anger, holding a hand up to the bleeding slash on his cheek. “Now go, lieutenant, before I change my mind.” The young man spat at Steeltalons feet before collecting his gladius. In the distance, the noise of desperate battle was raised, and a thunderous boom and flash of light implied that one of the Greys had detonated a blackpowder bomb they occasionally carried. Steeltalons laughed maniacally at that, and it was still chortling as Lieutenant Carmoggan snarled and slunk off into the cold desert night. ************** Bedoe stared coldly at the old general tied up before him as he finished his story. Carmoggan sat quiet, his head slumped. The former major grunted. “I filled in some little details, but it’s all true, isn’t it Thaddeus?” “Who told you?” The general’s voice was drawn, full of resignation. Bedoe said nothing, but Galder spoke up. “Does it matter?” The young man remarked, staring at the general. Carmoggan shook his head. “You don’t understand, Bedoe,” the old man pleaded, bringing his head up to gaze pitifully at his former friend, “it was necessary to survive. Look around you, see all the good that I have done since? The enemies slain, the armies vanquished! None of that would have happened if I had not done what I did!” Bedoe remained silent. The Ghyran islander next him stopped cleaning his dagger and stared at the old general. “My mother’s brother died at Birkut. He was hero. It would be better you had died there too, but you are traitor.” “You cannot judge me!” Carmoggan snarled at the man, once more straining against his bonds, “you weren’t there.” “No, he wasn’t. But we will still judge you. I believe the verdict is unanimous.” Bedoe looked to his left and to his right and both the men nodded to him. “Thaddeus Carmoggan, by the authority invested in me from the Azyrite Borderers, before these witnesses and the eyes of Sigmar himself, I find you guilty of treason. The regiment never forgets its own” “What will you do to me?” The general sunk into his chair as Bedoe spoke, looking despondent, “you can’t just murder me, people will ask questions.” “They will,” Bedoe agreed, “they most certainly will. And they will find that Thaddeus Carmoggan was secretly a cultist of the Dark Gods, and had been so for some years. It will appear that he went mad, perhaps was possessed or summoned something beyond his control, and slaughtered his staff before whatever foul entity he called up ripped him asunder. A messy, undignified end for a hero, but fitting for a traitor.” “What?” Carmoggan shouted, “I have never followed the Dark Gods, what madness is this?” “No, that much is true, but after we are done here, it will certainly seem like you had.” Bedoe shrugged, “I don’t think anyone will look too carefully.” “The Order of the Azyr will investigate this, they are thorough! They will see through whatever cheap parlor tricks you use to disguise your tracks, you miserable wretch.” “I’m afraid not.” Finally, Bedoe smiled. “The witch hunter who will be assigned to this particular situation is one Leonid Fallow, a former captain in the Borderers. He’s aware of the situation and will undoubtedly, as you said, find the truth of the matter.” Carmoggan finally gave up and hung his head. “My son?” He whispered quietly, “what about my son?” It was Galder who spoke up in answer. “Well, as you can imagine, the rot in your family will have to be investigated. Your son might not be a worshipper of Chaos, but your entire estate will be forfeit, as will his commission in the Golden Griffons. That is, of course, assuming that they find no taint in him during questioning. No doubt, as you yourself said, the Order of the Azyr will be thorough.” Carmoggan began to cry. It was a pitiful sight, but there was no mercy or empathy in the hearts of the men in the room. “Goodbye, Thaddeus.” Bedoe said formally, “I hope you rot in whatever hell you find yourself in.” The old man gestured to one of the masked figures standing behind the sobbing general. The man reached forward with a set of bladed claws, meant to resemble the talons of some sort of beast, and ripped out Carmoggan’s throat with one sharp movement. The body slumped in its chair, and the men in the room set to work. ************** Bedoe’s cane tapped along the cobbles as he walked into the quiet square. It was a small place, set aside in a sleepy neighborhood of Azyrheim. There was barely any traffic here, especially in the heat of midday. The retired Borderer sat down on a bench, looking at the small fountain that churned away in the center of it all. It depicted a brave Freeguilder, clad in a uniform familiar to Bedoe, hefting a double crossbow from which water flowed. The old man had only been sitting for a few moments when a large figure strode out of a side street and into the square. Bedoe rose to his feet, wobbling a bit even with his cane, and nodded to the figure. Despite being dressed in robes instead of the armor more often associated with his kind, there was no mistaking the build and features of a Stormcast Eternal. Bedoe smiled wanly as the Stormcast approached and resisted the urge to salute. There was so little in the warrior’s broad face that the old man remembered, but it was enough. He still wore the same sideburns, Bedoe noted. “Brother Morghens.” “Lieutenant-Colonel Bedoe. It is done?” The voice was a deep-rumble, like thunder before a storm. “It is done, brother. Thank you for bringing it to us. We would never have known, if you hadn’t remembered.” The Stormcast smiled, a strange look on the face of Sigmar’s chosen, but it brought a smile to Bedoe’s face as well. “It is I who should be thanking you. You served justice that was long overdue. I only wish I had remembered earlier, but… so much is lost to me now.” The Stormcast shrugged apologetically, “It is hard to explain. What will become of his daughter?” “Son, he had a son.” “Of course, forgive me.” “His son will be fine, as you requested. The witch hunters will find no ties between his father’s crimes and him. No doubt his career will suffer, but he is a bright young man, by all accounts, and will recover. I will admit, that is not what we told Carmoggan at the end.” The Stormcast grunted and brought a large hand down gently on the retired Freeguilder’s shoulder. “You are a good man, Bedoe. I wish…” “Say no more of it, brother. I understand why it had to be done this way. The regiment never forgets its own, in this life, or the next.” “Of course.” The Stormcast lifted his hand off Bedoe’s shoulder. The two figures, one hulking, the other wizened, stood awkwardly for a few moments, as the fountain gurgled away. “This is goodbye then, Lieutenant-Colonel.” The old man nodded. “I guess it is.” He paused for a second, “I brought you a gift, brother. A memento, really.” Bedoe held out a single grey griffon feather. Morghens, exhibiting a gentleness at odds with his warlike frame, lifted it from the man’s fingers and held it up to the sunlight. For a moment, there was a lack of recognition, but then Morghens’ face broke into a grin. “It’s the regiment’s tradition for a man to carry something of his past with him,” Bedoe continued, “perhaps you might do the same.” “Thank you, Gilliam. I will wear it proudly.” The warrior tucked the feather into the broach clasped to his robes and smiled. “Go with Sigmar, brother.” The old man nodded, then stood up straight and slammed his fist into his chest. After a moment’s hesitation, the Stormcast did the same. Without a second glance, Bedoe turned his back on Morghest and made his way swiftly towards the exit of the square. He did not want Sigmar’s chosen to see him cry.
  5. 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?” “Yes, Ilarch?” “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. “I know.” “That offer was for all of us.” “I know.” “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. “Yes, Ilarch?” “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. “Serpa! Lenk!” “Brass and blood!” “Serpa! Lenk!” 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.
  6. A Warcry Story The sky is different here. It is, perhaps, the most notable aspect of this blighted place, something that immediately sets it apart from all the other realms. It shifts constantly, often like a kaleidoscope of mingled colors, other times just solid red or a sickly orange. Storms come swiftly, rolling in seemingly out of nowhere, bringing rain that may be soft and cool or vicious enough to flense the flesh off a man’s bones. Foul winds blow across this wasteland as well, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and they carry strange scents. Blood, rot, lust, even betrayal, if that could have an odor. The winds whistle through the rocks, swirling the dust of ages across what always seems to be arid ground. It is inhospitable. It is awful. It is the antithesis of everything that is right and good in this universe and I hate it. And over it all this foulness looms the great Varanspire. That dark edifice is always visible, no matter which direction you look. Once, you may catch it in the heat-haze, shivering and wavering, another time it may seem so present and close that you can reach out and touch it. The only constant is that it is there. I occasionally wonder just how much the dark master of that forsaken tower knows of what goes on within his chosen demesne. Is he aware of me? Does he sense my presence, the tiny blight of purity in this hellscape? Would he even care? I doubt that he would. The Everchosen’s horrific intellect is all wrapped up in the battles of gods and demi-gods now. What would one who has cloven the skull of the God of Death and driven Sigmar himself from the field care for my intrusion? Still, every once and again, the skin crawls on the back of my neck, and I feel the prickle of distant observation, and I wonder. I stand on a ridge of volcanic rock, looking down at a plain covered in long, dying grass. The two things seem incongruous, for there is no volcano nearby, nor is there any way such grass really grew and died here, but it matters little. Wind, cold this time, like the chill gusts of northern Ghur, whips around me, snatching at my cloak and causing the grass of the plain to shimmer like a sea. Some would find something strangely beautiful about that, I imagine, but none of it feels clean or natural to me. Chaos seeps through all things here. Indeed, even Sigmar’s vaunted Shadowblades would struggle in this benighted realm, which was why they sent me. It is odd for a Stormcast to operate alone, but not unprecedented. We are, after all, built for brotherhood, even Vanguard hunters such as myself, but they did not send a whole team for this. This is assassin’s work, the task of a lone killer. Plus, why shoot six bolts and risk wasting them all when one will do? As if on cue, a shriek from above reminds me that I am not wholly alone here. From the sky, a blue figure hurtles downwards before alighting on my outstretched arm. Ahti caws softly at me, chiding me for my negative thoughts, and preens her lustrous plumage. Here, where I cannot see the stars, I appreciate the presence of my aetherwing companion, if only for the reminder of the Azyr she poses. Of course, she’s as reliable of a combatant and partner as you’re liable to find, and, truth be told, I’d trust her before I trust a fair few of my Stormcast brothers. Not that I would ever tell them that. Ahti squawks as I begin to stride down the hill towards the plain, encouraging me onwards before lifting off into the air once again with a final shriek. I smile beneath my mask. She is a majestic creature, cutting through the foul sky like a bolt of blue lightning. She senses the presence of a trail, much like I do, and is eager. It’s funny, in a way. In my life before… before my apotheosis, let us say, I believe I hated birds. I was not a friend of nature either, from what I can recall. Nor was I a hunter. In half glimpses and shattered memories, I sometimes think that my hatred stemmed from envy, from the desire for freedom. I was a prisoner, of one kind or another, a gilded bird trapped in a gilded cage. Maybe that was why Sigmar saw fit to bring me back as part of his Vanguard, for I am a hunter now, that much is sure, and I revel in it. Of course, the God-King knows just how well I have taken to that role, that’s why he sent me here. Even if I were not one of his devoted, I would say that it’s hard to criticize his judgment. For the last three weeks, at least as far as I can tell from how time travels here, I have been on the trail of Rusa Veel, Shadow Piercer of the Corvus Cabal. The Corvus Cabal, for those of you blessedly uninitiated in the ways of the Dark Gods and their myriad servants, are a mysterious murder cult famed for their ability to assassinate targets across the realms. Their organization is large and the reach of their talons is long. Many among the Order of the Azyr and my own Stormcasts would love nothing more than to find their vile citadel hidden in the swirling mists of Urdu and raze it to the ground, but so far it has proven elusive to all that hunt it. Individual members and warbands, however, are easier to find, especially here in the Eight Points. For whatever reason, Sigmar wants one of those particular individuals, Rusa Veel, dead. Whether prognosticators have seen some dark destiny that she will play a part in or there is some demonic patron that has taken notice of her talents, I do not know. In truth, I don’t rightly care. I have been placed on Veel’s trail, and her death is merely a matter of time. I will admit that, despite my own skills, this particular Cabal warband has been hard to follow. They move with consummate stealth and leave little trace of their passing, as one would expect from murderers famed for their ambushes and sudden strikes. Of course, the Eight Points don’t lend themselves well to tracking anything, for reasons that should be apparent to any sane individual, but fortune has finally favored me. In front of me lies the detritus of a battle. More accurately, a skirmish. Between a crofter’s cottage that would not look out of place in the wilderness of Ghyran and the rusted remains of an iron guard tower bearing the architectural hallmarks of some ancient civilization in Chamon lie a smattering of corpses. Many are beastkin, the mutated children of Chaos that plague this land, but a fair few wear the dark, scruffy leather armor and tattered robes of Cabalites, all bearing the black dagger tattoo of Rusa Veel on their pale faces. Ahti alights upon the top of the crofter’s cottage and squawks. I nod in agreement. The battle had not gone well for the Cabal. Though there are less cultist corpses among the dead, it is clear that they fought a desperate action, coalescing around the watchtower before breaking over the nearby hills. Maybe an ambush gone wrong? It is hard to tell, but I suspect that is the case. I check each Cabalite body in turn, flipping over corpses and kicking slaughtered beastkin aside, but none of them are Veel herself. I sigh in relief. The honor of that particular kill is mine and mine alone. The next body I turn onto its front is that of Cul, a so-called Shrike Talon, a master killer who also happens to be Veel’s right hand man and chief enforcer. His spiked stilts, meant to imitate the legs of a bird, are still attached to him, though one is snapped in half. A beastman’s axe has rent Cul’s chest wide open. Losing him is a major blow to Veel’s power. Alongside the other losses, Cul’s vacant eyes staring from behind his bird-faced mask speak to nothing less than a significant defeat. His leader will be desperate now, desperate to consolidate power and desperate to lick her wounds and rebuild what she can. Ahti caws in alarm and the rumbling growl of a beast brings me up short. I look up and realize I am not the only scavenger among the dead. A razortryx is like some sort of cross between a Ghuran jungle cat and a vulture that has then spent hundreds of years marinating in the harsh glow of Chaos. Its fleshy crest flaps and wobbles at me and it snaps its vicious beak angrily between growls. Large black wings flap briefly, stirring the dust off the ground, and it rears up on its legs and attempts to make itself look bigger than it really is. I have killed a few razortryx since my arrival in the Eight Points and I have no particular desire to tangle with one again if I can avoid it. I bring my stormbolt pistol up, clacking the firing mechanism loudly. We stand silently for a moment, sizing one another up. Ahti, thankfully, does nothing. My grip on the pistol tightens as I slide my other hand down towards the axe at my waist, but still neither the creature or I move. After another few heartbeats, the razortryx drops down and slinks off around the edge of the tower. I lower my weapon and ease the tension out of my form. The beast is a creature of Chaos and I do hate it. But I have a bigger beast clad in feathers to hunt, as it were. Ashti squawks and flaps down to my shoulder, but I ignore her disdainful commentary. A hunter knows when to strike and when to move on. The leftovers of this battlefield have provided me with a breakthrough and I mean to follow that, rather than brawling with vermin. Last week, Veel and her warband found an abandoned set of canyons about a day’s march from where I currently stand. In the midst of that tangle, they hid supplies and weapons. I know this because I watched them do so. It was the first time they had stopped shifting around since I picked up their scent, but it was no camp. They operate in the area, roaming nomadically, and their cache in the canyons was clearly meant as a fallback point, a refuge should things turn out poorly, as they have now. It is a not uncommon tactic among Vanguard warbands to distribute similar supply pools in the wake of their movements and I recognized the plan immediately. The fact that the Cabal hid its supplies well and left no guards further cemented the conclusion in my mind. I knew how to make my way back to that maze of shallow canyons, but in the terrain of the Eight Points, nothing is ever certain. Nonetheless, I set out. Veel is cornered and I am eager to finish this. Two days of marching, though I know it only took me one day the first time, from the battle site leads me back to the canyonlands. A darkness has fallen over the Eight Points as I slink towards the location of the cache, and though there are no stars in the sky outside the foul green orb of the Chaos moon, I am thankful nonetheless for the added benefit to my stealthy approach. Though my prey hearkens from the Urdu and doubtless possess the capability to see through the shadows of the night, I am certain I see far better than them. As I stalk along the rims of the canyons, I sight the monolithic form of the Varanspire in the distance, glowing with unholy energy even in what passes for night here. Another glow, closer at hand, draws my true attention though. The Cabal have made a mistake and lit a fire. Another sign Veel is slipping. Two weeks ago, such a decision would’ve been an anathema to the stealthy assassin, but here, in this place where she apparently feels comfortable, she has given in to the temptation of warmth. I see the first sentry long before he would take notice of me. More accurately, I smell him. I have forgone my helm this night, preferring instead to hide my features behind dirt and dust, and there is nothing to inhibit my full senses. The Cabalite smells of damp leather and polluted blood, with the faintest taint of cloying, musty fog still clinging to his frame. I see his form perched above the glow of the campfire on the canyon’s rim, sitting swathed in shadows like some reclusive vulture. He has made a mistake to mirror that of his mistress. His back is to the darkness, his face towards the fire. It is the kind of foolishness that would earn a sentry in the Freeguilds a lashing or two. It will earn this Cabalite his death. Using the moaning of the wind to cover any sounds my soft movements might make, I slide up behind the unsuspecting killer. I reach a gauntleted hand around his face, smothering his mouth and lifting him up slightly. My other hand punches, fingers extended like a blade, up underneath the back of the man’s rib cage and straight into his heart. The Cabalite convulses once before I withdraw my hand and lower him to the ground. It is a bloody, messy kill, but that is exactly what I want. With no hesitation, I daub the man’s blood on my face, streak it across my other gauntlet and wipe it on my chestplate. While the Corvus Cabal may be a darkling murder cult, but they are not immune to shock and even horror. That is what I intend to deliver. The dead Cabalite at my feet appears to be the only sentry. Another mistake. Desperate animals are often forgetful of details, and looking down at the ragged remnants of Veel’s once proud warband, I can see that she is desperate indeed. Only a handful of Cabalites and none of her veterans remain in attendance. The target herself is huddled up in robes near the fire, the totem she wears as a personal standard drooping low over her head. I smile, savoring the cool wind that blows across the top of the canyons, the firm grip of my boltstorm pistol, the weight of the axe at my hip. For a moment, I wish I was not in the Eight Points, so that I could at least admire a view that was not Archaon’s monument to his own vanity, but I push the thought from my mind. I am the aetherwing. I have found my prey and now I must strike. Without a sound, I hurl myself off the rim and into the canyon below. The first victim, wounded and sitting with his back against the wall, dies under the weight of my armored form as I thunder down on top of him. Gore spatters across the campsite, some of it landing with a sizzling hiss in the fire, and the members of the Corvus Cabal look at me for a moment in stunned silence. Covered in blood, wearing the blue and white armor of the Tempest Lords, one of Sigmar’s avenging Stormhosts, I am undoubtedly the most surprising thing they have seen since they arrived in the Eight Points, which is truly saying something. To their credit, their stunned silence only lasts for a second, before Veel screeches and the remaining Cabalites charge at me, their vicious warpicks held high. The first two to close fall easily, each taking a stormbolt in the face, and I use my free hand to slap aside the blow of the next attacker with contemptuous ease before shooting him point-blank in his wiry gut. A fourth Cabalite drops as I piston my fist into her face, shattering bone and cracking cartilage in a gory explosion of violence. Four dead warriors and I have not even drawn my axe yet. Veel herself has fallen back and is shrieking unintelligibly into the darkness, even as more of her cultists head towards me from their resting places around the bonfire. My pistol cracks again and another Cabalite falls with a smoking hole in their chest. I begin to laugh, a harsh, predatory sound. The next blow catches me out of nowhere. I once had the misfortune of receiving a strike from Retributor-Prime Wolan’s lightning hammer directly to my chest. This hit is actually worse than that particular experience. For a brief moment, the entirety of my armor clad form is lifted off the ground and I am flying before slamming hard into the canyon wall. Sigmarite cracks and I can sense some ribs snap from the shock of the impact. Indeed, it feels as though my whole skeleton is rattled from the blow. My vision is blurred and I taste blood in my mouth from where a tooth was knocked loose. I rise painfully, but immediately, to my feet as something roars loudly at me from across the fire. I realize then that I’ve forgotten a basic tenet of any hunting expedition. A cornered animal is always the most dangerous type of game. The Fomoroid roars at me again and I can smell the foetid stink of its breath from here. Clad in crude, half-armor made of rudimentary iron plates, the vaguely humanoid monstrosity stands almost twice as tall as I do, built like an ogor but even bulkier, if you can imagine that. Its one beady red eye stares at me, full of bestial hate, and it pounds a meaty fists into its chest as an apelike challenge. In all honesty, it is the last thing I expected to see in the company of a warband dedicated to stealth and skill, but desperate times… I was foolish not to check the side canyons, where it must have been sleeping in the darkness. For a moment, I am almost tempted to laugh at the irony of the shadowy killers hiring one of the biggest, loudest beasts in the Eight Points to serve as added muscle, but laughing would undoubtedly hurt, so I resist. Instead, I roar back, ignoring the pain in my body, and unsling my axe from my waist. It is a simple, heavy thing, made for butchery, and I am glad for its presence now. Somehow, I retained the hold on my boltstorm pistol, so I heft that as well and prepare to charge. The Cabalites, Veel included, have all backed off to the shadows, ready to let their newest member crush me into dirt. They are sorely mistaken if they think that will happen. I have been reforged twice and I do not care to repeat that process a third time. With another bellowing roar, the Fomoroid lumbers towards me, coming on like an avalanche in the mountains of Ghur. I scream my own warcry and charge to meet it, axe raised, sinking stormbolts into its chest to little effect. Another hit like that last one and I doubt I will be rising up again. Even as the beast and I close, a shriek pierces the air. Remember, I am never alone, not even here. Ahti descends like a stormbolt in her own right, her talons raking at the Fomoroid’s cyclopean eye, her wings buffeting its bulky head. It grunts in anger, pawing at the aetherwing, and its grunt rises into a howl of pain as Ahti’s talons strike true and dig into its eye. The distraction is all I need. Up close now, I carve my axe into the monster’s side like a climbing pick, and haul myself up onto its back. It roars and lashes about, knocking Ahti aside and eliciting a pained squawk, but I slam my axe into its back and will not be dislodged. With a grunt, I jam my pistol up to the back of its skull and fire once, twice, thrice. Each stormbolt gives a meaty thunk as it drives deep into the creature’s brain cavity. The Fomoroid grabs onto me, finally ripping me off its back, and hurls me across the campsite. Once more I am flying, but it is the last act of a dead beast. Even as I slam into the canyon wall again I hear it collapse with a pained grunt and a monumental thud. Yet again, sigmarite cracks, and I feel a throbbing pain in my head where it impacted against the rocks. This time, the remaining Cabalites are on me in a flash. The loss of the Fomoroid has driven new desperate energy into their limbs, and they come at me like a pack of rats attacking a terrier. I lash out with a kick as I rise, pulverizing the leg of the nearest enemy, who immediately goes down in a wailing heap. The next cultist leaps onto my chest as I struggle upwards, trying to jam a dagger into my eye. I headbutt him in the chest and feel his ribcage crumble as he drops away. Another enemy manages to drop towards me from above. Perhaps he clambered up the canyon wall to get above me, I do not know. My axe, still in my hand, catches him in midair, and I use the momentum to swing him bodily into another Cabalite, both of them hurtling into the fire and scattering it across the camp. They scream as they burn, desperately trying to extinguish the flames that begin to engulf them and thus they spread the fire further. In the whirling mess of leaping shadows that result, Veel finally comes for me, her warpick held low. Her first strike catches me unaware, ripping up into my warplate from below. It would almost certainly have pierced a normal man’s heart, but I am not that. I feel pain flare up inside my gut, but I shrug it off. My axe comes down, knocking Veel’s blade away, and my reverse stroke is perfectly aimed to rip out her lungs. She fades into a mist of shadows, leaving my blade passing through nothingness, and coalesces again to my left. A clever trick. I catch her next strike on the haft of my axe, even as one of the few remaining Cabalites jams a dagger into my back. I cry out, more in annoyance than pain, but before I need to turn, Ahti is there again, and the cultist screams as the aetherwing's talons shred the meat of his face to the bone. Once more, Veel lands a vicious hit that stabs through my plate, but I am undeterred. We exchange a series of rapid strikes and deflections. The Shadow-Piercer does an admirable job of keeping pace with one of the God-King’s chosen, but it is a short-lived affair. After a particularly vicious parry, I land a blow that would take the head off the most bull-necked of Duardin. I am not shocked when she disappears into a fog again and reappears a few seconds later, once more to my left. I smile and spit blood as she comes at me, screaming in rage, warpick held high like a hawk’s beak, ready to slam down onto my head. Once more, our weapons clash, but even as I catch her blade on the haft of my axe and shove it backwards, I continue to smile. Chaos, despite its name, can be surprisingly predictable. My blade chops low, another killing blow, and Veel avoids it again, whatever dark magic she has protected herself with allowing her to escape another death. This time however, when she coalesces to my left, she finds the barrel of my boltstorm pistol leveled point-blank at her face. “Azyrite bitc-!” is all she has time to shriek before the pistol roars and her face explodes. Headless, she topples backwards into the dirt. No saving shadows this time. As I surmised, the enchantment had a short delay before it became active again. I chuckle though it hurts, mostly at my own cleverness, and turn to survey the carnage around me. The dead Formoroid’s carcass looms over a plethora of shattered Cabalite corpses. Some of their tattered robes have started to catch alight from the embers of the scattered bonfire. The smell is less than pleasant. None appear to be left standing. Sigmar’s will be done. I crack another stormbolt into the headless corpse of Veel, just to be sure, and whistle for Ahti. She comes to me, apparently no worse the wear for the smack the Formoroid gave her, and alights on my shoulder plate. She lets out what may be a soft chuff of approval, surveying the carnage with me, and the two of us slink back into the shadows of the canyon. Blood and fire have a way of attracting attention in the Eight Points, and in my current state, I don’t feel like tangling with whatever comes to investigate this carnage. A day later and I am resting my wounds in the ruins of what was once a hut made from the hollowed out shell of some large beast of Ghur. Another lost object, washed up in the wasteland. I almost know the feeling. My wounds are already starting to heal, though it is a slow process here. Ahti sleeps, perched on a shelf in the ruins, though I know she would awake in an instant should I need her. I reach into my satchel and withdraw a small, leather wrapped container. Inside are three needles made of Sigmarite, each held in a small loop. All are infused with impressive magical powers focused on divination and prognostication, and two of them still glow with faint light. The third, resting in a loop labeled Rusa Veel, lies inert. I reach for the next one and draw it out, placing it into a specially made compass that sits at my waist. The needle begins to spin frantically, before finally settling on a direction. It will lead me close to my next target. I close my eyes for a moment and exhale. I think of Azyr, and for the first time in three weeks, I miss the halls of the Stormhosts and the comforting scents and sights of Azyrheim and its peaceful forests. Most of all, I miss the stars. But then, I think of a gilded bird trapped in a gilded cage, and I smile. It may be the Eight Points, with all that entails, but I am a hunter and I am free and I will hunt. Sigmar be praised, I will hunt.
  7. Hey thanks for reading and the feedback, much appreciated! For reference, Onholt the Drinker is a veiled reference to Ahalt the Drinker, an obscure (and quite wicked) lesser god from the original Warhammer Fantasy setting. I kind of like the idea that Josh Reynolds puts forwards in Dark Harvest, that there are petty godlings still in the realms able to exercise some power but in a very limited space, so that's where the idea originated. Maybe Onholt that was Ahalt will crop up again sometime in the future!
  8. In which a storm in Ghur drives a traveler off his path and into the sanctuary of a far-flung church of Sigmar... The sound of thunder rattled the windows of the small church. Outside, rain relentlessly lashed its exterior, spattering off the old stones like bullets from a Freeguilder’s musket. Kneeling in prayer at the altar, the priest did his best to shut out the noise of the storm. He muttered his catcheisms as flashes of lightning illuminated the interior of the sacred space. As far as temples to Sigmar went, it was hardly the largest or the most illustrious, but its robust stonework had kept it standing out here in the wilds for long enough, and its simple construction and lack of adornment belied the faith it nurtured among the few who passed through its doors. A loud banging, different from the raging noise of the storm, shook the priest from his faithful reverie. The old man narrowed his eyes as the thumping on the front door of the chapel paused for a moment then continued again. He rose wearily to his feet, trying to ignore the pain in his back and the popping in his knees. In truth, he was probably too old for a role like this, a missionary priest in the hinterlands tending to the few faithful, but where else was he to go? With a grunt, he stood fully and began moving cautiously down the aisle, stalking past the rough-hewn wooden pews to the door. It did not do to rush. Even here, in the areas of Ghur purportedly under the control of Sigmar and his mortal allies, there were untold dangers that abounded on the lonely roads, and not all of them were beasts. The banging continued incessentantly as the priest finally reached the door. He paused for a moment, breathing deeply, and listened, trying to ignore the raging storm without. “Open up! In the name of Sigmar open the door please,” a muffled voice rang through the wood, “I’m fit to drown out here!” The priest paused for a second. It sounded human enough. That was no clear indicator of intention, mind. He hesitated a moment more then shook his head. Was he not a priest? Was this not his duty? To tend to the needy and tired that walked these roads. He could not turn his back on that through simple fear. With a weary sigh, he unlatched the bar that held the heavy door shut and swung it open. The rain and wind surged in, driving the priest back a step. A flash of lightning and once more the rumble of thunder quickly followed, and, as if urged on by the noise, a man tumbled through, sodden and panting. His long leather coat was soaked from the rain and the hat he wore was drooped low, though not enough to hide a narrow, weather-beaten face and a pair of piercing green eyes. “My thanks, father.” The stranger’s voice, while undoubtedly that of a Ghurite, was cultured and lacked the more guttural tone so common among the denizens of this realm. “The storms of Ghur are no laughing matter I must say.” The old priest struggled the door back close, shutting out the wrath of the weather and bringing a modicum of peace back to the chapel. He turned then and cast an appraising eye over the newcomer soaking the rough stone floor of his chapel. The stranger was a tall, handsome man, with noble, dark-skinned features bearing the telltale cast of a native of Ghur. Though his coat and clothes were worn, it was clear, even in the soft candlelight illuminating the chapel, that they were well-made, expensive even. An unadorned sword hilt emerged from the fold of the coat, matching in general the well-made yet functional attire of the man. The priest narrowed his eyes a bit at the sight of the weapon, but he made no move one way or another. In truth, if the storm-tossed stranger had wanted to hurt him, he would’ve been dead the moment he opened the door. Few thieves and murderers in Ghur were subtle creatures. The man looked at him, noticing the appraisal. “I’m sorry father, my apologies. Pieter van Detler, at your service.” The well-dressed man doffed his hat, spilling some water on the floor and he grimaced, “Again, my apologies. In truth, you are a lifesaver this fine night.” The priest smiled. “It is no problem, my friend. What is any church of Sigmar for, if not to provide succor for those in need?” The priest’s voice was thin and weary, though there was an undercurrent of steel there, the will of the faithful, that was impossible to avoid. It was easy for Pieter to imagine the old man, despite his wrinkled appearance and rough-spun robes, extolling the praises of Sigmar in some sermon. “A fine attitude father and one I wished more of us faithful shared. It was a stroke of good fortune that I stumbled upon your chapel. I had not realized there was much call for the word of Sigmar in these parts.” “Oh,” the priest replied, almost bashfully, “it’s about what you would expect these days. But there is a need. The light of Sigmar shines where it will.” He began to move back down the aisle towards the altar as he talked, exposing his back to Pieter for a moment. The old man waited to feel the shock of the blade driven into his back, but it did not come. He smiled. A decent man then, that was lucky. The newcomer cast his eye across the chapel. Simple pews, carved from thick, dark wood, stood in neat rows down the length of the building, leading up to the altar stone at the front. Iron sconces held a plethora of lit candles that brought their dim illumination to the room. Pieter looked at the priest, who had a simple, rugged air that matched the building itself. He was an observant man and he noted, rather offhandedly, that the priest moved with a strength and poise that his old frame hid well. A warrior-priest then. At least once. “What brings you to “these parts” then, my friend? Surely you have a good reason to be abroad on a night like this.” The priest settled into a pew, gazing forward at the altar in front of him. “Of course, father. Of course.” Pieter sidled down the aisle after the priest, still dripping water. With a quiet squelch, he lowered himself into the opposite pew, taking a moment to make the sign of the hammer as he looked at the altar as well. Much like the rest of the temple, it was a relatively rough thing, as would be expected, with a hammer and lightning bolt made of fine wood sitting atop a rough block of stone. Candles were lit around it, casting everything in a soft light. There was an undoubtable rustic charm to it all that Pieter could appreciate, even drenched and cold from the still raging storm. Could do without the shadows though, he thought idly, always better for these temples to be lit, especially on a lonely, weather-beaten road such as this. Still, any port in a storm. He looked over at the wizened features of the chapel’s attendant. “I am on a mission from Sigmar, as it were.” “Is that so, my friend?” The priest said, turning his head to face his guest. “A mighty claim, if ever there was one. It is good to know that I am not the only servant of Sigmar at work in this region.” He chuckled softly. Pieter smiled in return and flipped back one of the folds of his coat, revealing a small gold pin that gleamed in the candle glow. Lightning flashed, briefly casting the priest’s concerned face in stark light. “The Order of the Azyr?” The old man’s voice was hushed. The truly mortal templars of Sigmar were a rare breed and, even though they worked for the God-King, their presence rarely boded well, for it meant great evil was afoot. “Indeed,” said Pieter, almost wearily, “the Order of the Azyr.” He saw the concern in the priest’s face and raised a gloved hand in a calming gesture. “Nothing to worry you, father, or any of the faithful of Sigmar.” “That is good, my friend,” the priest said, though the tension was not completely gone from his voice, “though undoubtedly your purpose in this region is a dark one.” “I’m afraid so,” Pieter said, frowning for the first time since he entered the chapel. Nothing more was forthcoming as he looked back to the altar. Thunder rumbled and lightning flared once more, illuminating the altar. The candles in the church flickered for a second, as if caught in a draft. The priest looked back at the door, but it was firmly sealed. A draft. Unsurprising. As old as it was, the temple itself wasn’t completely weatherproof. He turned to face the templar again. The younger man was still staring at the altar contemplatively. Silence filled the church, broken only by the noise of the storm continuing to batter at the walls. “Father,” said Pieter softly, breaking the relative quiet, “do you ever have doubts?” “Doubts?” “Yes, doubts. In Sigmar. In his purpose, the mission, the ability to actually reunite the disparate peoples of the mortal realms.” “No, I do not,” the priest smiled wanly. “I served in the armies of Sigmar’s faithful, many years ago. I saw the passion there. The hope. I saw the Stormcasts. You cannot doubt Sigmar’s purpose when those warriors fight alongside you.” “That’s fair, father,” Pieter straightened up, “it’s just so much sometimes. How can one man, one god as it were, handle all of this?” He swept his hand out and though he only gestured around the temple, the meaning was clear. “His reach is far, friend. You know that as well as I do. Even here his light shines upon us.” It was a bland turn of phrase, but a common and comforting one. The priest smiled, evidently pleased with his ministrations, and leaned back into the pew. “Indeed,” Pieter replied, “after all, you are here are you not? It’s a bold posting, though perhaps not surprising for a man of your years and experience, Father Reichenbold.” The priest tensed a little, but did not move much. “You know my name?” Reichenbold’s voice was slightly softer now, more cautious. “Father, please,” Pieter shrugged, “did you honestly expect that the Order of the Azyr would send one of its own abroad without letting them know the name of a potential ally in the area? That being said, it was fortune that led me to your door, I was completely lost in that storm.” “Ah well, that does make sense, my friend.” Reichenbold rolled his shoulders and looked up at the altar. “It is a rough place, to be sure, but I find it fulfilling. In many ways, it feels simpler out here, easier to connect with the people than it does back in Azyr.” “I can only imagine,” the witch hunter said cheerfully, “I’ve never stayed overlong in Azyr, though I dearly wished to. Loved the stars.” He sighed before continuing, “Native of Ghur myself, that’s why the Order sent me here for this.” There was another pause, letting the noise of the storm filter in. “And what is this, my friend?” the priest inquired after a moment. The younger man said nothing for a moment, fixing his gaze on the altar. “Murders, father, foul murders. A large number too,” Pieter’s voice was free of any levity, cold and severe. Gone was the more salubrious behavior of only a few moments before. “Travelers missing and some pilgrims gone. They’re what got the eye of my superiors. Protecting Sigmar’s faithful is always our priority, even out here.” “I’ve heard of no murders?” There was genuine concern in Reichenbold’s voice. “Ah, that is the problem. They’ve been quiet, subtle, extremely dangerous. We would never have known were it not for the fact that one of those pilgrims happened to be an old friend of the Grand Theogonist herself. When she failed to arrive in the Azyr two weeks ago, higher powers took notice. I’ve been on the hunt ever since.” “Terrible,” Reichenbold said, “It’s hard enough out here without some foul cult at work. If I had only known, I would’ve tried to do something.” “A cult, yes,” the templar said absentmindedly. He shook his head and continued, “Not surprising you would want to help, father, considering your service. One of the heroes of Mountenbach Ford, are you not? The Astral Templars themselves honored your fellows and you after that battle, if I don’t miss my mark. High praise, the Stormcast give it to us regular mortals so rarely.” “That was a long time ago, my friend.” “A long time ago, but I bet you could still swing your hammer with skill if need be? Pity that these murderers only have to face me, rather than your wrath, even in your retirement.” The priest chuckled. “You’re too kind. Though I could still swing the hammer, I will admit. A necessary skill in Ghur, even in... retirement.” “Of course,” said Peiter, sitting up. “Tell me father, what were they like? The Astral Templars, that is. I’ve not had the chance to meet one yet.” The priest nodded. His eyes lit up and he gestured excitedly with his hands. “Amazing, my friend. Stunning. The God-King’s will made manifest, clad in gold and full of the storm’s fury.” The thunder rumbled outside and lightning flared again, as if in acknowledgement. Pieter whistled, easing back in the pew and staring up at the ceiling of the chapel. “Imagine that.” The two men sat in silence for a while longer, Pieter looking up at the rafters, Father Reichenbold looking ahead at the altar, occasionally casting furtive glances at his guest. “The Astral Templars are clad in purple.” The witch hunter’s voice was cold and severe again. The priest grunted in response. “Ah, of course they are. My old mind forgets these things. They were indeed giants in purple armor.” “And the battle where they honored Father Reichenbold was Turtleshell Ford. There is no such place as Mountenbach.” The priest was silent. Thunder rumbled. “Are you going to lie about forgetting that too?” “Father Reichenbold” rose to his feet, his knees popping, though the look on his face betrayed little pain. Pieter rose as well and the two men faced one another in front of the altar. “No, I think there’s no point in that petty indulgence.” Gone was any genial tone in the priest’s voice, replaced instead by that underlying steel. “Good. I dislike pretences, despite my profession.” Pieter’s hand drifted to his sword. “And where is the real Father Reichenbold?” The priest chuckled darkly, shifting his hands within the flow of his rough robes. “Dead for months. I drained his body of blood and buried him behind the chapel.” The priest gestured lazily past the altar. “If it makes you feel any better, he was a fighter to the end. I appreciated that. So did my god.” “Did you honestly think no one would notice?” Pieter’s voice was calm, his hand now firmly upon the hilt of his sword, though he did not draw the blade. “Honestly?” The priest responded, “I really did not. Your Sigmar is weak, templar. He betrayed these realms, cast them aside and sealed himself away and let the darkness take us all. Even now, even with his vaunted heroes and his “devoted” servants, his light falters. It has no place here, that much is for sure.” “And yet here I am, a Ghurite, fighting for Sigmar.” “You are twice a traitor then,” the old man shrieked, “to serve the coward-god that betrayed your people!” “Sigmar saved my people, murderer.” The priest snorted derisively. “Saved them? By tying them to his yoke? Placing them under the lash of his pampered Azyrites that rode out the hell of Chaos invasions in luxury? Some salvation. This is what you sacrifice your heritage for?” Pieter said nothing and the priest continued, filling the void with words, his voice becoming more and more zealous with each venomous utterance. “I serve an older master, one that did not abandon these lands like your foolish God-King. One that nurtured the people of these hinterlands, protected them from the foulness that threatened them all. What has Sigmar done here that equals that? Where was he, when the servants of the Dark Gods were baying at our borders? Your Father Reichenbold, the hero! The fool more like! He thought he could push Sigmar on us, as your priests always do. He was wrong. His blood was like wine on the lips of Onholt. Each of those travelers died screaming. All of their blood nourished my god, renewed our pacts, guaranteed our continued safety from all that would threaten us.” The priest smiled, drawing a wicked looking sickle with a jagged edge from the folds of his robes. There was madness in his eyes as he stalked towards the witch-hunter. “And the best part, lackey of the coward-god? Onholt is always thirsty.” The priest lunged forward with a yell, swinging his sickle downwards. Pieter’s thin blade, thrice blessed by the Grand Theogonist herself, emerged from its scabbard in the blink of an eye to intercept the vicious weapon. The templar lunged into a riposte, but, as he suspected, the priest was far from the frail old man he appeared, rolling backwards on his heels and smacking the thrust aside. His robes fluttered and flapped like the wings of some ragged vulture as he struck again and again, and Pieter was hard-pressed to knock the brutal slashes askew. As the priest’s robes fluttered, Pieter glimpsed the sinuous tattoos that decorated the old man’s arms, drawn in what appeared to be long-dried blood. Undoubtedly they were responsible for the unnatural strength and vigor the fanatic displayed. It was supernatural, the unsavory gift of whatever petty godling had chosen this man as its champion. In the abstract part of his mind that was not immediately occupied with fighting for his life, Pieter pitied Father Reichenbold for having to face an opponent like this. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled once more as the two figures danced back and forth in front of the altar. Their blades skittered and clanged off one another, each man showing superb skill in the duel, but it was the priest of Onholt that seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Each strong blow drove Pieter back towards the wall of the small chapel, rattling the steel of his sword and threatening the sturdiness of his guard. Every couple of strikes, the sickle’s jagged blade nicked the witch hunter’s body, drawing small amounts of blood, sapping his strength with each slice. “I will offer up every last drop of your blood to Onholt,” the old man shrieked, cutting low with his sickle and forcing Pieter back once more, “He will drink it all!” Like a great cat of the Ghurlands, the priest pounced forward, throwing himself bodily into the templar, his weapon hooking the blessed blade out of the way. Pieter stumbled backwards and fell, cracking his head against the wall even as the sickle opened up a wide gash across his front. On his back, groggy from the blow, the templar struggled as a wrinkled foot in a grimy sandal slammed down on his chest to pin him in place with that same, unnatural strength. He grunted as the priest pressed down on the wound. “You were foolish to come here alone, lackey of the coward-god,” the old man drew back his sickle for a killing blow, and a flash of lightning backlit his hideous silhouette in Pieter’s eyes. Defiant despite the pounding in his head, the witch hunter spat his words up at the fanatic poised to execute him. “The servants of Sigmar are never alone, heretic.” There was a loud snap crack followed by a flash, like that of lightning, and the tang of ozone filled the room. The priest of Onholt wheezed violently as a bolt of light plucked him off his feet and sent his wizened form smashing with bone-crushing force into the stonework of the temple’s back wall. With the pressure lifted off his chest, Pieter rose unsteadily to his feet, just in time to see the large form sliding out of the shadows by the door of the chapel. The mighty figure cast back his cloak of woven black beast-fur as he strolled down the aisle towards the witch hunter, revealing the purple armor of the Astral Templars underneath. “Brother Tarkus, I was beginning to wonder if you were here at all.” Pieter said, touching the swelling bump on the back of his head gingerly before bending to retrieve his sword. “That took you long enough.” “I could say the same to you, van Detler.” Tarkus’ voice echoed from within his helm, and though it was well-spoken, it bound the roiling power of the storm in its words. “I had to be sure,” the witch hunter said, walking over to the corpse of the zealot. A look of surprise was still plastered on the old man’s face, though the appearance of shock hardly detracted from the spectacle of the dinner plate sized hole in the fanatic’s chest where the bolt had impacted. “Again,” Tarkus rumbled, “I could say the same.” Pieter looked up at the Stormcast, struggling to keep the vague sense of annoyance off his face. “You almost sound disappointed, Brother Tarkus.” “I am, van Detler. I expected him to be a demon. Or a magus of the Dark Gods at the very least.” “No,” Pieter said, kneeling down next to the corpse and lifting up an icon on a chain around the man’s neck. It depicted a sickle and a drop of liquid, undoubtedly blood. “It is sad to say, my noble hunter, but the evils of the mortal realms are just as likely to be rooted in mere men as they are to be the work of the Dark Gods and their ilk.” “But he was ensorcelled in some way?” “Oh yes,” Pieter said, holding the icon up to the light and examining it closer. Crude characters in the tongue of Ghur decorated its outside. “A follower of Onholt, an old god obsessed with sacrifice and blood. Perfect for Ghur, in so many ways. The Order thought his followers had long died out, but clearly that is not the case.” The witch hunter stashed the icon away inside a pouch at his waist. “They call Onholt “The Drinker”. Pleasant title, seems fitting.” “Not the Blood God then?” Tarkus seemed doubtful. “No, not the Blood God. Similar perhaps, but not the same.” The Stormcast shrugged slightly in response. “One evil seems much like another.” “If only that were the case, it would make the Order’s job much easier.” The cuts Pieter had suffered were not deep, even the one on his chest, but he winced in pain as he stood. “I’ll need to investigate his quarters. There may be more of his cult hereabouts, helping him commit his sacrifices. We might also give Father Reichenbold a proper funeral, if we can find him. He deserves far better than a shallow grave in the hinterlands of this realm. Probably need to tend to my wounds too, we don’t all bleed starlight.” The man began to move towards the door at the side of the chapel leading to the priest’s personal abode. “I don’t bleed starlight,” Tarkus said almost petulantly, calmly reloading the crossbow in his hands as he looked down at the crumpled form of the zealot. “Was it true what you said, van Detler? About the doubts?” Pieter paused and turned back to the Stormcast. The armored giant, veritably charged with the power of the Azyr now that his presence was revealed, was intimidating, especially when it came to questions of faith. Wild as they were, the Astral Templars were no less devoted to the God-King than any other Stormhost. “Yes, Brother Tarkus. It is true,” Pieter sighed, “Was that what stayed your hand for so long?” “No,” the Stormcast replied firmly, “I told you I was waiting.” “It is natural for men to doubt, Brother Tarkus. To fear. I feel that this man,” he gestured towards the ragged form of the zealot, “was driven towards Onholt by his doubts more than anything else. The difference between him and I though, is that my doubts give me purpose. For what is doubt if not the trappings of hope? One does not exist without the other. I believe in Sigmar, in his will, and his mission. That I worry it can be achieved at times only drives me harder to assure that those doubts do not become a reality.” The Stormcast said nothing, but nodded slowly. Thunder rumbled again outside, rattling the church’s windows, as if in affirmation of the witch hunter’s statement. “Now, I think that’s enough matters of the spirit for the day, don’t you?” Pieter said, continuing his walk towards the quarter’s door. “We have work to do.”
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