In weekly updates of three chapters at a time, this tale follows the fortunes of Ancanna, Liberator Prime of the Knights of the Aurora Stormcast Eternals, and his Strike Chamber’s quest into the Realm of Shadow.
Disclaimer! This is a fan fiction set in the Warhammer: Age of Sigmar realms and as such is completely unofficial. Should the nice people at Black Library ask me to write something for them, however, I’d be most willing to oblige!
Lightning struck the cracked, blasted ground as Sigmar reclaimed another fallen warrior. Sent back to the forges of Azyr at the hand of his Prime, a mercy killing for the Liberator too wounded to continue. Only a scattering of dead trees broke up the barren grounds, and under a brooding, overcast sky, the tang of ozone hung around them. The Strike Chamber was failing, a new and distasteful feeling for the Knights of the Aurora. For all their victories, for the hundreds of corrupted cultists strewn around Ancanna’s feet and across the dark, cracked earth, and for the viscera smeared over his hammer’s head, they were still failing.
‘Eyes up, Prime,’ a deep, echoing voice said from above. The dulcet tones marked him as Gallus, the Knight Azyros. ‘Stay your reflectiveness–the day is won.’
The warrior descended from the sky, dropping into a crouch beside Ancanna as he landed, his wings of light folding back and fading to a dim glow. Chips and scuffs scarred his heavy armour plates, the bright silver worn to dullness. As the drizzle beaded and trickled down his hauberk, it left grimy trails.
Ancanna glanced to the Knight Azyros through his own silvery helm, as impassive as a death mask. ‘You can tell through this?’
‘I could feel your despondency while riding the winds, my friend, and you walk with the gait of a man defeated.’
At a gesture from the knight, Ancanna broke step from his Liberators, allowing them to march past while the two conferred under the blackened boughs of a gnarled and twisted tree. The chattering of slinking carrion-feeding beasts that glutted on the dead diminished in the wind clattering through the branches.
Two moons obscured most of the sun in a figure of eight and cast the rolling hills and woodland into gloom. The other three moons remained obfuscated by cloud. Ancanna thought little of it since this place had been in a state of partial or total eclipse since they arrived. A second sun didn’t seem to change position with time of day, always lying to the east and only made its presence known by the golden halo it created on a distant black cloud.
‘This one hit us hard, Gallus,’ Ancanna said in hushed tones. ‘Our Judicators have been annihilated. We cannot bring a single unit to bear. The few survivors have been reassigned to raise shields among the Liberators but we have not the supplies to arm them appropriately.’
The Knight Azyros waved the idea away. ‘They are still Stormcast and even without joining the shield wall, they will account for themselves many times over.’ He cocked his head which fluttered the sea-green crest of horsehair atop his angular helm. ‘Though I grant we shall miss their tactical effectiveness.’
While true, Ancanna remained unconvinced, not at the Judicators’ prowess, but how they arrived at such a situation.
‘He’s pushing too fast.’ He voiced the opinion that had gnawed at him for weeks of slog through battle. ‘That march left us too thin. Our last four skirmishes have been ambushes. Four! Tell me when the Knights of the Aurora have ever been ambushed.’
Gallus stiffened. ‘The Angelos Conclave is serving better than any other Stormhost’s would manage under the circumstances.’
‘You know I don’t mean our scouts, Gallus. I see how the mists here rise at a whim and how quickly they form impenetrable fog. These warbands have hit us harder and at a weaker point each time and we still exercise no caution, strung out across these hills. We have two thirds the number that passed through the realm gate. Attrition is killing us.’ Ancanna became more animated, clenching and unclenching his fists, raising his arms. ‘This rivalry Kimmani has with the Lord Celestant…ah, forget it. We counselled and he ignored it.’
From the marching column, a couple of Retributors glanced towards the outburst but Ancanna glared back at them and they thought better of taking issue with the Liberator Prime.
‘Careful how loud you grumble, my friend,’ Gallus cautioned, ‘for he’s in no humour to hear dissent. The Lord Castellant has his reasons for haste; are you really so angry with him?’
Ancanna ground his teeth and squeezed the grip of his warhammer. ‘I could not reach them.’
He looked down at his shield, the great bulwark of sigmarite, displaying an image of Ghal Maraz, the Hammer of Sigmar, beneath embellished scrollwork. Useless if he could not plant it between his allies and his enemies.
The Liberator Prime maintained a clear picture of his place in the army. He was a defender. The shields and hammers of his Liberators had contained enemies many times their physical size and numbers, holding the line while Prosecutors harried from the skies or Paladins positioned for a devastating counter. Or protecting the bow-wielding Judicators. Powerful as each individual Stormcast was, the Strike Chamber performed at its most devastating when working as a unit. Now it had lost its ranged capabilities and Ancanna had been absent when his shield was needed.
His failure galled him.
While the Strike Chamber regrouped, Prosecutors glowed like fireflies in the distant gloom as they chased down those servants of Chaos that had fled the battle. Occasional flashes marked when a hammer struck home and they summoned another from the energy of the storm. Streamers of light trailed behind their wings and faded with the wind.
Light trails from Prosecutors above always showed their way. Of all the Stormhosts, the Knights of the Aurora housed the largest number of these winged warriors. The enhanced scouting capability this offered allowed them to cover ground quickly by avoiding dangerous terrain and, when used defensively, made them almost impossible to assail unawares. That made the loss of so many Judicators difficult to accept, but the Lord Castellant would be held to account for it in time. Ancanna took little solace from the thought, for recriminations could not heal what the Judicators would lose in the reforging process. Every Stormcast would come back changed, and with it the realms would become a little darker.
‘Beautiful, aren’t they?’ Gallus said. When no response was forthcoming, the Knight Azyros growled as his patience frayed. ‘Gather yourself, Stormcast. Your shield remains whole and another enemy is driven before us. We have brought death once more.’
Ancanna stared back. Had just some of their Prosecutors remained with the ground troops instead of ranging further and further ahead, they would have had warning of the ambushes. Had he been allowed to leave a contingent of Liberators as a rearguard, they might have held long enough for the Strike Chamber to react and the Judicators to bring their bows to bear. But he let that issue lie for a greater problem troubled him.
‘That’s the problem. We brought death when we’re supposed to be bringing hope. Isn’t that what the Lord Celestant ordered before splitting the Strike Chamber? “Seek the people of Ulglu and rally them to the banner of Sigmar”.’ He gestured at the smoking ruin of yet another battlefield where silver-clad warriors marched past the corpses of cultists and mutants. ‘Where are these people? Who are we looking for? Duardin? I see nothing of their structures. Aelfs? The only magic I feel here crawls with trickery. We’ve seen none but the servants of Chaos since stepping through the realm gate.’
‘And we’ve crushed them by the score.’
‘Yet how many have we rallied to our side?’
The Knight Azyros clapped his friend on the shoulder. ‘Take care not to lose your own hope, Prime. Ordinarily I would leave you to your usual bout of post-battle reflectiveness but we’re both required in the vanguard. We’ve caught them.’
‘Caught them?’ Ancanna said. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘The reason Kimmani pushed so hard,’ Gallus explained. ‘He was chasing a small band of people, maybe thirty or so. They call themselves the Ardency of the Storm God. It seems another warband took them captive. Our vanguard smashed them while you fought here.’
‘Truly?’ Ancanna’s disposition brightened and he stood straighter with this hint of their goal dangling before him.
Gallus raised his palms and took half a step back. ‘I wouldn’t hold out much hope; from the reports of our Prosecutors, they’re every bit as misguided and crazed as the warband we just smashed into the ground. They’re facing off against our vanguard now and I’m fairly sure they’re stupid enough to start something they can’t finish.’
Ancanna nodded. It was a start. His attention flicked to a cultist warrior, gangly and filthy in his crimson rags, who twitched near his feet. Eyes and eldritch symbols were inked and etched into the vanquished man’s flesh and he muttered a fell mantra. Though he crawled closer, clutching a knife, murderous zeal in his eyes, his breath formed a red mist from his shattered ribs and lungs. Ancanna arced his hammer around and crushed his skull.
‘Ardency of the Storm God? Disciples of Sigmar, perhaps?’ He paid the dead cultist no more mind.
The Knight Azyros took a moment before answering. ‘Not as we know him.’
None knew Sigmar as a Stormcast Eternal did. Part of the God-King’s power infused into the very forging of his armies. Ancanna took some heart from the possibilities. A group who worshipped a god so identifiably similar to Sigmar would surely rally to his champions.
Ancanna hooked his shield onto his back but kept his weapon to hand in case any more cultists made last ditch attempts to extend their spite. He glanced over the hill towards the vanguard. ‘Then we had better see what the survivors of this realm have to say. Many of our brothers have paid a high price for this audience.’
Ardency of the Storm God
Ancanna’s first view of the Ardency of the Storm God came over the shields of two ranks of Liberators holding them back.
Their cried accusations of blasphemy reached his ears long before he viewed their banner. The ragged thing, raised by gnarled branches lashed together, depicted something resembling two comets flying from west to east over a boar and a wolf that faced one another as though squaring off. These woven black images sat atop a crimson background. Dirty cord lashed the banner pole to the back of a lanky, wretch of a man, dark with blood where the tight wrappings had broken through flesh. Manacles covered the prisoners’ wrists and rusted iron chains linked them all together. All but one.
A middle-aged man with shaven scalp and comet-like tattoos inked across his forehead, cheeks and neck paced at their fore, riling them up with zealous rhetoric. Spittle flecked his chin and his cheeks reddened from his tirade. Manacles still covered his wrists and chains the length of his forearms dangled from them, swinging with his animated gestures.
‘These are no priests of Sigmar,’ Ancanna whispered to the Knight Azyros by his side.
They lacked the regal, flowing robes worn by Azyrite priests, and instead wore tattered tunics or long shirts and breeches which clung to them, sodden from the lengthy drizzle. The leader strutted in his faded, mustard hues. Perhaps once they had been golden. Those behind him wore clothing of a similar style and condition but a mismatch of colours, many with crude comets, boars and wolves in imitation of their banner. Some sported ragged pelts thrown over their shoulders in the style of barbarian tribes though little skill had gone into the skinning of the animals.
More concerning though were their scars. Layer upon layer of healed and reopened wounds covered the crowns of many. Welts showed on them all, red and angry, in strips that matched the width of the leather whip-like devices at their waists. For their ragged appearance and malnutrition, these three dozen yelled and preached with a fervour that belied their state and levelled improvised weapons at the Stormcast Eternals. Though weapons was a loose term by Stormcast standards, their staves and wooden maces with comet-styled heads could still crack a skull and their knives could still pierce flesh. Blood stained a few of them.
‘I warned you as much,’ Gallus replied. ‘Their leader got out first and distributed weapons around.’
Ancanna could only shake his head. The man had a strange sense of priority having left the others chained while securing weapons. Judging by their state, he wondered whether removing the chains would even improve their effectiveness with the weapons. He admitted he had not known what to expect from people surviving in the Mortal Realms under the boot of Chaos.
‘Who bars our way?’ the bald man shouted, jabbing his mace towards the Liberators. ‘Who dares block the will of the Storm God?’
‘This one is dangerous,’ Ancanna whispered.
Gallus looked at him askance. ‘I think this little rabble is within our capabilities.’
Keeping his voice to a whisper–not that he needed to with the shouting and jeering–Ancanna shook his head. ‘We’ve killed enough without spilling the blood of those we vowed to liberate.’
‘Prime. Azyros,’ a voice called from behind.
The two turned and clashed fists to chests in salute. The Lord Castellant strode towards them, his gait purposeful. Despite a few scuffs to his armour, he appeared fresh and unaffected by the battle.
His sigmarite plate bulked him out more than Ancanna’s and Gallus’ more lithe versions. Comets and lightning bolts festooned the silver armour beneath draped scrollwork which offered praise to Sigmar in the language of Azyr. His halo of sigmarite lightning bolts further protected his helm and depicted recognition of his Stormhost by the word, Aurora. He wielded his halberd one-handed showing no concern at the noisome rabble.
‘Part,’ he commanded the Liberators and they stepped aside to let the Lord Castellant through while keeping the zealots at bay.
Ancanna and Gallus trailed him through the shield wall. They cast wary glances to the shaven-headed man and kept a solid grip on their weapons. The man’s wide eyes and feral grin told them he could snap at any moment. He did, however, quiet at the Lord Castellant’s approach though his breathing remained heavy.
Kimmani towered over the rabble. The tallest of them reached only to his chest and he had the width of two of them. He looked them over, his gaze lingering on their leader.
‘I am Lord Castellant Kimmani of the Knights of the Aurora Stormcast Eternals, Devoted of the God-King Sigmar. I lead this Strike Chamber. To whom do I address?’
The bald zealot paced in front of him, his crazy eyes fixed upon the Lord Castellant’s mask. His breathing intensified before he licked the spittle from around his mouth. While the grimy men and women behind him shrank back at the giant, he became only more incensed.
‘Sigmar?’ His voice sounded raspy, hoarse from shouting. His right eye twitched violently and he shook his head. ‘Sigmar? What Sigmar?’
Kimmani said nothing and stood watching the man as he increased the tempo of his pacing. Suddenly he stopped and thrust a metal talisman secured around his neck by leather cord under the Lord Castellant’s nose. Kimmani didn’t flinch.
‘This!’ the zealot shouted. He tore open his robes to reveal deeply scarred flesh beneath and thrust his chest forward. Though crude, the scars formed a comet over each withered pectoral muscle and a sledgehammer over his abdomen. ‘See the comets and great hammer, Ghormirotz! This is the sign of the Storm God himself. I am marked! Erwhal Vormust, I was, but now I am marked a god. By blocking my path, you block the avatar of the Storm God!’
In his fervent shouting, the man bit his tongue and a drop of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth.
‘You are mistaken,’ Kimmani said flatly, the tip of his halberd resting on the ground.
‘You deny me?’ Erwhal yelled. He staggered back and howled before deadly seriousness returned to his expression and he pointed a finger into the Lord Castellant’s face. ‘I see these effigies and idols across your armour. You are pretenders! Charlatans! Your blasphemy provokes vengeful wrath.’
Kimmani spread his arms as if to invite said wrath. ‘Your Storm God will not strike me down, Erwhal Vormust, for I am his champion.’
Erwhal’s mace clanged against Kimmani’s breastplate. As the shock went back up the man’s arm, he dropped the weapon and looked down upon its snapped shaft.
Kimmani gave no indication of retaliation. When Ancanna and Gallus went for their weapons, the Lord Castellant held them back with an open palm.
‘What are you within there?’ Vormust asked, rolling his shoulder as he turned back to Kimmani. He dipped his head and leaned in as though sniffing the Stormcast. ‘Daemon? Sorcery from the farms beyond the vale?’
Ancanna snapped a glance to Gallus who nodded. Without a word passing between them, Gallus quietly stepped back. As a Prime of the Angelos Conclave, he sent orders back through the ranks. Soon after, five flights of Prosecutors took wing and the Knight Azyros rejoined Ancanna just as the zealot worked up his fervour again. The Lord Castellant stood and watched, confident in his sigmarite plate. He preferred to let a man speak when it seemed words wanted to burst out of them, claiming the jumble of words showed more of their character and intentions than the words themselves.
‘Farms?’ Kimmani asked but the man was beyond listening.
‘The Storm God loathes duplicity. We shall cut you out of there and see for ourselves!’
His hands darted. In a flash of movement, he drew a knife and thrust it under the Lord Castellant’s breastplate. But the Lord Castellant moved faster. He seized the zealot’s wrist in an unshakeable grip.
‘Blasphemy!’ the man cried. ‘The daemon lays hands on the avatar of the Storm God! Strike them down!’
‘Shield wall!’ Ancanna bellowed.
He surged forwards and raised his shield. Twenty Liberators joined him with drilled efficiency. The opening slammed shut with Kimmani and Vormust behind a bastion of sigmarite that the Ardency of the Storm God crashed against. Nothing broke that defence. Improvised weapons failed to even scuff the hardened shields.
‘On command,’ Ancanna called, waiting for his opportunity, reading the line of his shield wall for the most effective timing. ‘Push!’
They slammed their shields out as one, knocking the whole front line of zealots to the ground. Shackled together so, they pulled the rest down with them. The Liberators kept them pinned with their shields. When the warrior to Ancanna’s left made to raise his hammer, the Liberator Prime bid him cease. His target was not the enemy. Misguided and fanatical, but much as Ancanna disliked the reality of who Sigmar had sent them to liberate, they were not an enemy.
‘Cease your raving and answer me, fanatic,’ Kimmani growled, twisting Vormust’s wrist with infinitesimal effort. ‘Many of my brother warriors fell in our haste to deliver you from daemon warbands and you will answer my questions.’
Light flashed from the zealot, staggering Kimmani, and slick with rainwater, the man broke free of his grip. The talisman around his neck glowed faintly as its weak enchantment faded. He slipped around the Liberators and began pulling his followers free from under shields.
Ancanna allowed it, signalling down the line with a nod to the Liberators, and each shield raised enough for the people to wrest themselves free.
The shield wall parted again to let Kimmani through. He levelled his halberd at Vormust’s chest. ‘Begone from my sight, rabble. Your lives are your own, courtesy of the God-King Sigmar. Consider this boon and look to your own banners.’ He unhooked a sigmarabulum from his waist, a small, metal token of Sigmar’s twin-tailed comet, and tossed it to the zealot. ‘The Stormlord has worn many guises through the ages.’
At a signal from the Lord Castellant, a dozen Liberators broke the chains that held the Ardency of the Storm God Together. He strode away, his anger palpable, back to the bulk of his force just as a Prosecutor swooped in and hovered above the Knight Azyros. The two spoke for a moment before Gallus took flight without a word. He shot, arrow straight, over the crest of the hill to their flank.
Ancanna and the Liberators watched over the Ardency of the Storm God while the Stormcast Eternals regrouped behind them and the zealots looked to their leader. Vormust restarted his invective, though, Ancanna noticed, he pocketed the sigmarabulum. The Liberator Prime wondered whether to even consider this a success. So many Knights of the Aurora returned to the forges of Azyr and not a single person rallied to their banner. At best, he decided, they bought the zealots some time before the next warband found and killed them. Perhaps the Stormcasts might have approached them differently but even he had expected to be welcomed with open arms and joined by whomsoever they freed from Chaos dominion.
Part way through whipping up his followers, Vormust stopped dead. His jaw dropped and he stared to the heavens, his eyes cascading. His followers looked on him in wonder while the Liberators readied their shields. Likely they didn’t need it against any attack from the zealots, but Ancanna drilled his Liberators better than to allow complacency. Complacency killed.
Another light flashed from the talisman around Vormust’s neck. To the quick witted, it projected a shaft of light upwards. Had someone been distracted, however, they would see a man basking in a beam of light from the heavens.
‘So it shall be!’ Vormust declared, raising his arms. ‘As your manifested will, I shall lead them thus!’
As suddenly as his ordeal began, Vormust dropped to the ground. He curled into a shaking ball while his followers crowded around him and raised a cacophony of cries of worship and fealty.
‘Very dangerous,’ Ancanna muttered.
As though possessed of divine will, the Ardency of the Storm God hurried away from the Stormcast Eternals. They whipped one another as they went, using the leather whips that each carried. Ancanna watched after them in disappointment and wonder at how such an overt group managed to avoid the yoke of Chaos in a part of a realm so dominated.
So focused on the departing zealots, Ancanna missed the Knight Azyros returning.
‘Look sharp, Prime,’ Gallus said. ‘New orders. We’re heading over the ridge.’
‘Why do you sound so pleased?’ Ancanna said.
‘They may have been lost to all reason, but they spoke truth about one thing.’
When Ancanna failed to respond, the Knight Azyros continued.
Gallus laughed, his irritation at Ancanna’s despondency passed. ‘I didn’t believe it either. After the Prosecutors reported an expanse of farmland to the south, I checked it myself. True enough, there is a valley ripe with golden crops. Livestock graze on green pastures, and on the other side of the river, a settlement stands on the hillside. Crops grow, people work.’
‘In plain sight? That’s impossible.’
In a land so overrun with cultists and daemon worshippers, so choked by the iron gauntlet of Chaos, what culture could survive? The Liberator Prime considered the warrior he finished. He could not envision daemon worshippers like that taking to farming. The Stormcasts’ exposure to their enemy had been at the end of a hammer so they had seen only their warlike nature, manning defiled fortresses or swarming battlefields. The settlements of whoever lived here before Chaos domination were devastated and spoiled.
‘There’s more,’ Gallus added. ‘The Prosecutors have reported signs of a nomadic culture. Whenever they pursue, however, they melt away. It might be nothing, it might be what we’ve been searching for.’
That, at least, sounded more likely. Reports from Stormhosts taking the fight to other realms suggested that most of the people they had met, who had not fallen to Chaos, lived like scavengers or savages, hounded by warbands. But just as likely, the treacherous nature of Ulglu had them chasing shadows. Nothing but cultists, daemons and battle-hungry warbands beset them since they passed the realmgate, and suddenly the valley ahead promised farms and nomads. He kept a healthy dose of skepticism for abundant good news.
‘Tainted?’ Ancanna asked.
The Knight Azyros shrugged with a grinding of armour plates. ‘If so, we crush them with hammer and sword. If not…’
‘If not, we have our example,’ Ancanna finished.
‘Something like that. Lord Castellant Kimmani has given the order. Follow the march to the stone cairn at the foot of the next hill then turn your Liberators south. Since these nomads are so slippery, we’re heading to the settlement first.’
‘Unbelievable,’ Ancanna breathed.
The Prosecutors were right.
They stopped atop a hill looking down into the valley. A few cobbles poked through the grass where once a road must have led, though it had long fallen to disrepair. It followed the contours of the valley into the settlement ahead, passing through a marbled archway whose sheen had weathered away. The arch stood alone without a hint of walls either side.
No other roads led out of the valley, nothing beyond the earthy-brown spider’s web of trodden paths that quested out through the farmland and to a ford in the river. Though patches of fog still spotted the other hills and woodland around them, the valley ahead remained clear. Whoever lived here never left the valley, nor did others come here with any regularity.
People, humans they looked like from this distance, tended livestock on one hillside, along with the stepped rice paddies on the other. Between them, a water wheel attached to a small building turned in the river that ambled through the valley. The word Valescroft appeared on multiple signs either painted onto or planted outside wood and plaster buildings.
‘It’s like the realms never fell,’ Gallus agreed.
Ancanna looked back to the warped forests and blasted plains that they had crossed to reach this valley. Every settlement in their wake lay in ruins long overgrown and not an acre of land survived without the mark of Chaos. Towers of sacrifice made from the bones of humans and Aelfs and Duardin along with crystalline pits oozing dark sorcery were scattered throughout that landscape, but this valley, this lone valley, existed like an oasis in its centre.
They all thought the same and it gave even the mighty Knights of the Aurora pause.
‘Lord Relictor,’ Lord Castellant Kimmani called. At the Relictor’s arrival he gestured across the lush landscape with its seemingly civilised inhabitants. ‘Is this illusion?’
‘And is it us or Chaos who have been deceived?’ Gallus added, hand on his sword. His wings twitched and his posture remained coiled ready to leap into the skies at the sign of danger. ‘Do we look upon a trap to lure us closer or has some canny sorcery kept these folk hidden from the enemy’s eye?’
The Lord Relictor remained silent while he surveyed the landscape, followed by the Knight Azyros, Liberator Prime and Lord Castellant. His gaze disquieted them. It was as though he searched as much for meaning in them as the land that they had indicated.
‘Illusion? No. No more than anywhere else in this realm, yet the tang of Chaos persists. This place is not as untainted as it appears.’
Kimmani nodded. ‘Knight Azyros, you dwelt in the Realm of Shadow before Sigmar claimed you, What do you know of this place?’
Gallus shook his head. ‘I lived much further south in the Deepwave Archipelago. A kingdom spanned the valleys here, one that fell to turncoats. I can tell you little of the details.’
What about the mists?’ Ancanna asked.
‘Normal, but they were never so thick or so frequent in the isles. We used mistweavers on some of our ships when we fought the Blood Fleet. They let us ambush the interlopers–it’s the only reason we lasted as long as we did.’ The Knight Azyros looked out across the valley. ‘One thing I can tell you about Ulglu is that from the island chains to its darkest woodland, it is a deceptive place. Expect tricks of the light, moving shadows, and above all, it rewards deception itself.’
‘What do you mean, “rewards”?’ the Lord Castellant asked.
‘Nothing definitive.’ Gallus sounded amused. ‘That’s the point. Those who wish to remain hidden may find the conditions suddenly advantageous to that.’ He shrugged. ‘Or they may find their hiding place illuminated at just the wrong time. The Realm of Shadow always has the last laugh.’
‘Pah!’ The Lord Castellant turned away. ‘Too imprecise. I cannot use that.’
‘Is it possible?’ Ancanna asked as he returned his attention to the settlement in the valley. ‘Could people have survived like this, beyond the reach of Chaos? In a settlement so prominent on the landscape?’
The Lord Relictor fixed him with a stare. His avian skull helm reminded Ancanna of the Soothsayer of Avos, the volcanic island off the coast of his homeland. The one that had warned him of the encroachment of enemies into his own lands many lifetimes past. The fetishes and talismans hanging from hooks around his bulky sigmarite plates only added to the comparison. Hurik Stormsworn the Lord Relictor, however, exerted a force of will that the soothsayer could never have achieved. When that empty gaze locked upon Ancanna, it felt like judgement and a weighing of his possible futures.
‘The taint runs deep here. We should exercise caution,’ Hurik said.
‘Caution,’ Kimmani repeated. He gripped his fists and cursed under his breath.
They did not have time for caution. The Lord Castellant didn’t need to say it; he had intimated such before. It was an argument the officers had fought repeatedly since the Lord Celestant had split the Strike Chamber, giving Kimmani command of half. Other Stormhosts referred to the Knights of the Aurora as The Swift, mainly due to their favour of winged Prosecutors and rapid assault tactics. A Strike Chamber, however, could only move as quickly as its slowest part which was where the Prosecutors skill as scouts came into its own. Such a commanding view allowed them to choose the fastest terrain, avoid ambushes and avoid dead ends altogether. In preparation for battle, the knew the enemy positions and where to hit them, making altercations quick and efficient. The ever-changing mists of Ulglu, however, often robbed them of this advantage.
In the Lord Castellant’s frustration, they had constantly pushed for haste. Sometimes their lightning assault smashed through an enemy before it had chance to react. Most recently it had cost them the Judicators. Whatever contest or rivalry the Lord Castellant had with the Lord Celestant wore at both the officers’ patience and their Strike Chamber’s numbers.
‘I can range ahead with a few Prosecutors and prepare then for our coming,’ Gallus offered, gesturing to the settlement.
Kimmani paced his agitation away, surveying the hillsides and the river running through the valley before turning to his commanders.
‘No. They will speak to me. Station our warriors on vantage points across the hills outside the town. Build a beacon at each point. If these people are friendly, I’ll not have them spooked by marching an army on their homes. If not, I want Prosecutors patrolling the skies. Any trouble from outside, I want to know about it. Lord Relictor, Liberator Prime, Knight Azyros, you will accompany me.’
Breathing a sigh of relief at avoiding the recurring argument and pleased to hear a little more caution from his leader, Ancanna saluted. This was more the tactical mind upon which the Lord Castellant had built his reputation, why the Lord Celestant had entrusted him with command. Whatever they found in this settlement, the Strike Chamber would be prepared.
The Strike Chamber dispersed after the Heraldor passed orders through its ranks while the commanders kept to the old road, keeping only a small retinue of Liberators and Paladins with them. Naturally for the Knights of the Aurora, Prosecutors circled overhead and ranged all around in complex patrol patterns.
As though at some unheard signal, the people working the farmland, still far from the Strike Chamber, hurried into their village. Some discarded their scythes and shovels where they stood while others held sickles close, the curved blades glinting as their arms swung in haste. A few cast glances towards the warriors in silver plate who approached in force.
‘It seems they are unaccustomed to visitors,’ Gallus remarked.
‘Wouldn’t you be?’ Ancanna said.
‘Faster,’ Kimmani muttered and they pressed on in the wake of his lengthening stride.
After their gross disappointment with the Ardency of the Storm God, and the toll levied upon the Strike Chamber to reach them, an air of eagerness hung over the Knights of the Aurora’s advance. Each one of them hungered for a measure of success in this campaign of attrition. Despite the Lord Relictor’s warnings, Ancanna let a sliver of hope into his heart. A settlement! Somehow he could not imagine the servants of dark gods taking the time to plough, sow and reap a crop.
‘What about that place?’ Ancanna asked, gesturing towards an extensive area of ruined buildings at the edge of woodland within a couple of leagues of the settlement. Mist covered great portions of it with the odd damaged bluestone spire piercing through. Some areas looked overgrown with green vines while others stood bare and dead, unclaimed, or abandoned, by nature.
‘The townsfolk don’t go near it,’ Gallus responded. ‘We’ve patrolled from above since we arrived. Whatever happened there, whatever that place was, those living here now give it a wide berth. Naturally, we’ve a couple of patrols of Prosecutors keeping a close eye on it. As close an eye as they can given the mists. They seem attracted to that place.’
When they arrived at the marble archway, the commanders cast their gazes over deep carvings in the stone. Though wind and rain had taken their toll and blurred many of the images, some elaborate artwork remained. Ancanna marvelled at how magnificent it must have been in its original glory, perhaps attached to walls and towers. The Mortal Realms were littered with similar remnants of extinct cultures, but they always fascinated the Liberator Prime. The craftsmanship, he appreciated from a professional level in a only remembered, but the stories they often told gripped him more, left him wondering about the people who created them and why.
Ever sharp-eyed, the Knight Azyros spotted a passage chiselled into the stone. The overhanging wings of a stone eagle sheltered it from much of the weather, leaving is in considerably better condition than the other images.
The writing read: ‘For years we kept him, hid him, trained him. In the time of the moons and the marshes, on the eighth day of the eighth cycle he strode forth, he marked as the sight stealer, to ride the clouds and fell the terror in the skies and topple its bastion of stone.’
‘What do you make of it?’ Kimmani asked.
Gallus shrugged. ‘Typical “chosen one” myth. We’ve seen similar across the ruins of countless cultures. Probably a sorcerer of some kind, someone with a spark of arcane about him.’
‘Who’s he fighting?’ Ancanna asked, tracing his hand over the stone, yet keeping it a hair’s breadth from touching lest he damage the piece further. The craftsmanship was beautiful. He viewed the landscape again, looking for any terrain or structures that he might tie back to the carved story, but saw nothing beyond farmland and hills over the river. ‘It refers to a bastion but we’ve heard nothing of it. Gallus?’
He shook his head. ‘The Angelos Conclave has sighted nothing more than this settlement, a few outlying farms, ruins and woodland. We have covered the ground for two dozen leagues. Of course, there’s no saying what lies within the mists.’
As the Knight Azyros finished speaking, a Prosecutor landed beside them and dropped straight into a kneeling position. He spoke in hurried tones, addressing the commanders as one. ‘My lords, we have sighted a small force to the west.’
Warn the Strike Chamber and prepare for battle,’ the Castellant said and turned back to the Prosecutor. ‘More Sightless? Zealots?’
The winged warrior shook his head. ‘They’re not like any warband we’ve seen; too organised and the banners are unfamiliar.’
‘Ranked infantry and a small group of cavalry which looks like an honour guard for a large warrior in blue armour. And sir, they are heading away from us.’
The Lord Castellant gazed to the horizon and thought about it. Without turning back, he said, ‘Send a unit of Prosecutors and see where they go. Do not engage.’