Aurora Citadel Chapters 4-6

Welcome to chapters 4-6 of my Warhammer: Age of Sigmar fanfiction, following Liberator Prime Ancanna of the Knight of the Aurora on his quest into Ulglu. Chapters 1-3 can be found here.

Constructive feedback is always welcome so feel free to give me a nudge on Twitter.

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Chapter 4

The Futility of Heroism

Axanthral the Cultivator sat cross-legged on his floating platform. The great iron rings of his astrolabe-like occulum spun around him, daemonfire burning blue and pink in the joints and casting moving shadows across the dark, circular chamber. His gaze roved over the plethora of images shimmering in the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes until it settled on that of a mounted warrior clad in blue armour at the head of a small host men.

He paid no heed to the numbers, composition or weaponry of the force. Instead, he inspected their faces, looked into their eyes. He watched as they gazed upon the colourful banners that each block of men carried, and when they looked up at their leader on his charger. In each, he searched for one emotion: hope.

‘The cycle reaches its peak,’ he hissed to the daemon familiar at his side.

The diminutive creature trumpeted in excitement, turning a somersault before sprouting bat wings from its amorphous blue flesh and landing back on the floating disc. More of its central mass stretched out to form arms holding a scythe which it swished about as though reaping corn while cackling. It spoke like the wind, asking of the Anguished Harvest.

‘Soon,’ the sorcerer said, his pallid face cracking into a sardonic grin. ‘Summon the garrison. Have Ulgoloth position a dozen of his warriors on Malefius Tor along with the prisoners and the Quietus Apparatus. When the enemy approaches, pull back to the citadel with the rest of the garrison.’

The familiar flapped away, through the turning rings and out through an archway. Its cackling screech diminished, leaving Axanthral with the whoosh and whisper of his sorcerous chamber.

A wave of Axanthral’s clawed hand swirled the colours of his scrying illusion and the vision of the human host marching towards him vanished. He spread his fingers and ten leagues away an eye opened. Daemonfire in the occulum flared and formed a new image for him inside its rings, that of a town in celebration. Bunting flapped in the rising wind and people drank deeply from pottery mugs. A line of women sat creating a tapestry depicting their saviour’s rise to glory.

Appeased by the prospect of a bountiful harvest and that his gathering storm would peak at the full eclipse, Axanthral made to dismiss the image when a sliver of sunlight glinted from a suit of shining armour. The distant eye refocused and revealed a handful of warriors clad from head to toe in silver plate. His forked tongue licked out and curled around a ram’s horn that curved from his temple to his mouth. He observed the way his crops looked at them, so awestruck. He could use them.

At a thought, his disc-shaped platform hummed into motion, the daemonic face on its surface scowling and pointed teeth gnashing. A host of minor daemons maintained his occulum’s motion as he passed through the arch onto a wide, spiral staircase. He would need its magic later.

He passed through the atrium and out of the citadel’s doorless archway. Two dozen warriors in heavy plate armour stood like an avenue of statues along the causeway, still in the shadow of the complex of high walls, arched bridges and many towers. Gaining a little height atop his daemonic mount, a glance along the ridge revealed a second, smaller group, dressed in more ragged armament, assembling the Quietus Apparatus atop the hill. Dark clouds gathered and broiled overhead and the wind picked up, driving a fine rain onto the sorcerer’s dry, lean flesh.

At the end of the avenue, a large, wide warrior stepped out to meet him. The Dreadguard, Ulgoloth. His armour gleamed silver although Axanthral’s reflection was not his own face. Something even fouler grinned back at him. The overall features of the reflected face recognisably depicted the sorcerer but his horn was longer, his skin blue-grey and his features elongated and mutated with teeth sharpened to obsidian needles. Two weapons peeked over the Dreadguard’s shoulder, strapped to the warrior’s back, a mace and a sword, both blessed of the Realm of Chaos. He bowed his head.

‘Attack when the trap springs and let the Winds of Change take their course in the hero,’ Axanthral said. ‘Let a few escape to their town to sow panic and then follow. We are not servants of excess, Dreadguard. Slay your fill. Feast on their fear and despair but there must be survivors for the next crop. Slay your own if needed; you will share in my punishment if your gluttony causes another Art Eruditia.’

The bulky warrior only nodded. At his upraised palm, the avenue of warriors turned as one and marched in two groups, deploying either side of the ridge. Rocks and sheer drops would funnel their crops into them.

Before the Dreadguard followed his warriors, Axanthral stopped him. ‘A handful of outlandish warriors have arrived in Valescroft, servants of the Lord of Storms. Kill them in sight of the crop. As with the previous harvest, you will be reinforced.’

‘The Eclipse will crush them,’ he rumbled. ‘But you will remember our agreement, sorcerer.’ With another bow, Ulgoloth loped away and stood at the head of the garrison.

His pieces in position, Axanthral returned to the citadel, took his own place inside the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes and looked through images of sorcerous smoke and fire upon his prepared killing field. The humans had already taken the first bait and left to slay the bandits that had murdered and kidnapped in Valescroft for the past decade. And, of course, the mutated Lord of Chaos that led them. The second bait, the Quietus Apparatus, had caught their attention and the host of men marched upon it.

Without need for a signal, the warriors atop the hill hauled the first prisoners onto the fleshy platform of the apparatus. Nine nooses awaited on the wooden beam above, held up by another beam either side. In sight of the approaching army, nine warriors lifted nine prisoners into their nooses and dropped them. While they struggled and strangled, barbed whips formed from the fleshy platform and lashed at them, forcing strained and gargled screams from their constricted throats.

The eclipse reached totality, deepening the shadows and Axanthral drew from the magic of the occulum to project his own sight onto the dark clouds. There, the whole of his farm of Valescroft could watch their own die through torture, followed by their hero’s demise. He would pluck them from the heights of hope and plunge them into abyssal despair. Only then would his daemons feed.

The huge display of his friends and family dying for all to see incensed the approaching hero and he broke into a charge. The blue-armoured man streaked ahead, followed by his cavalry, separating them from the infantry. He fought like fury incarnate as he barrelled into the garrison. The first fell, trampled under his horse’s hooves. The second dropped to his spear through the neck, and a third from a blast of energy from the spear’s tip as the hero spun it back around.

The remaining garrison formed an organised defence and slowed the hero’s momentum. His spear-work was magnificent, each thrust and circular defence executed to perfection. As the speed of his movements increased, a purple aura spread around him. Two of his horsemen fell to the barbed whips which from the Quietus Apparatus but the hero alone took another four enemies, tearing a fiery line through two at once, impaling the third through the chest and crushing the fourth’s windpipe with a savage arc of the spear’s shaft. He was too focused to notice the purple tendrils spreading across his body and through his bloodstream.

The threshold had been reached and the remaining garrison fled along the ridge. Rain now pounded them, making the ground slippery. A pursuing horse stumbled and broke its leg, sending itself and its rider tumbling over a sheer drop. Another two of the garrison were run down by the hero, the only remaining rider. His infantry rushed to catch up, a few also losing their footing in the crush to fit on the ridge. The fortunate few stopped and remained behind while others were either trampled by their comrades or forced over the edge to fall on jagged rocks.

When the infantry had committed to the attack, Axanthral delved again into his well of power and sprung his trap. The hillside shook, sending more men to their deaths. Cracks tore in the earth either side of the ridge as the barbed ribs of a gargantuan beast forced their way through the ground and formed a cage around the attacking army. On the rocky surface, it blocked many of the escape routes, but its greatest weapon was the chilling terror it inspired within those caught inside.

But the hero had no thought for those behind him. He focused on the single warrior standing before him, wielding mace and sword. The hero dug his heels into his mount and charged, his spear levelled and resplendent with energy as though he wielded a lightning bolt. Ulgloth, however, remained still, his implacable discipline holding until the last second when he stepped aside from the grossly telegraphed attack. He swung his sword around and severed the horse’s hind legs.

Under Axanthral’s influence, the battle still raged across the black clouds, visible for leagues around. It caught the hero’s acrobatic dismount and landing into a ready stance, coiled to lash out with his spear. Two quick strikes scored the Dreadguard’s armour but failed to penetrate. He responded with heavy arcs of his mace that forced the hero onto the defensive and far enough away that he could bring his longer swings to bear. The two titans warred on the clouds, the hero faster but Ulgoloth’s defence near impenetrable.

Drawing on ever more power from a source he did not understand, the hero’s fervour yet increased until his movements blurred. A series of stabs, high then centre, followed by a thrust inside Ulgoloth’s guard opened the massive warrior for the final strike.

Then the hero dropped to his knees.

His scream of agony echoed over the hills and through the valley. Coloured smoke wisped from his eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. He thrashed against his pain but the smoke kept coming. Atop the tower, Axanthral smiled. Daemonic presence sent a thrill through him.

Convulsions wracked the hero until he arched his back suddenly. Bony spines burst through, breaking ribs and piercing flesh. Fingers, long and gnarled and or a light, luminescent blue, grasped at his mouth from the inside. They gripped and pulled until they tore their host open and a nightmare broke free. A lupine creature, though parts of it suggested twisted remnants of humanity, lanky with stringy musculature, crouched over the destroyed body of Valescroft’s hope.

Axanthral then lifted the veil that hid his fortress. A series of lightning bolts forked across the sky and illuminated the structure for the remains of the army to see. They cowered when they saw what they were up against: not bandits but nightmares and power. They could not take a fortress. They quailed at the gruesome death of their leader, and those that could, fled.

Ulgoloth waited. He watched those that could fit through the giant ribcage scatter across the hill, and then ordered his assault on those trapped. With nowhere to run, their fear intensified. Instead of facing the daemon and the citadel’s warriors, many leapt over the ridge to their deaths. Others were cut down in short order.

Then came the chase. Axanthral drank in the power of the feral, intense emotions around him and used it to open his rift. This was the level of fear and despair that he had cultivated for decades, and now was the time to reap. The stones forming the front of the castle wall stretched. They morphed and shifted until they formed an enormous face, almost avian in its features. It let out a scream, the doorway forming its open maw, and a flood of daemons surged through. Three men on the ridge stared into the shifting light of that maw and screamed uncontrollably, tearing at their own flesh. One fell upon his own sword, another knelt and wept, while the third followed the terrified into a sheer drop.

The light burst forth from the citadel, green and pink and blue. It shot into the air, obliterating Axanthral’s conjured image of the ridge, and formed a ribbon that danced across the sky. The fell aurora heralded ray-like creatures that shrieked and swam upon the wind, while nightmares in a score of changing forms raced along the ground. They all headed in the same direction: to Valescroft.

 

Chapter 5

A Night for Running

A flash of light caught Kell’s eye. She spun to face the ribbons of ethereal green and blue light snaking in the twilight sky. Even through the trees she knew it came from the distant hilltop. Panic shooting through her, she dropped her bundle of firewood and ran.

She no longer needed firewood. This was a night for running, not warmth. If she ran fast enough, she might survive until dawn.

She pelted back along the path she’d made, leaping gnarled roots and dodging the draping branches of luma trees and their sharp thorns. As a rule, she stayed close to her clan, not ranging as far as the other foragers. It was far enough. The wails started behind her, shrill and piercing like a banshee, and carrying a chill, not of the grave but of horror. Distinct voices were discernible in the screaming, of people she knew long dead, others she still believed alive. The sound of her brother’s scream troubled her, but the sound of her daughter’s terror near-crippled her. Dancing lights, will-o-wisps, beckoned between the trees, looking at first glance like one of the collective’s lanterns. But even in her panicked flight, Kell knew better. This was Ulgu, the Realm of Shadows, and its lies would kill the unwary in a heartbeat.

Chattering joined the wails. They were getting closer. She ignored the aurora reflected on the swampy pools either side. She ignored the cries—human cries—sounding behind her. They called for help, for mercy. One voice stood out, calling Kell by name, pleading that she turn back and save him. It was Greeth’s voice, another forager covering the same patch. She ignored it too.

Keep running, she thought and broke into a sprint. Just keep running. Don’t be caught alone. Never be caught alone.

There was safety in numbers, of a sort. The things liked easy prey. They liked to toy with it, to frighten it, always remaining out of sight, letting its prey’s imagination conjure to most horrific of ends. It tormented until fear overwhelmed its prey. Kell knew. She had been trapped before, separated from help. She would not be so again. Definitely not within the Shadesmire where daemons of the aurora constituted only half of her problems.

Mist rose from the swampy woodland and, though an aurora played above the canopy of trees, darkness began to close in. The tops of trees clattered as they caught one another in the rising wind, sounding the illusion of horses cantering or wooden swords clashing. Leaves rustled above and below where beasts either sought cover or sought prey and the fetid gases bubbling up through stagnant water wafted to her.

Kell burst from the Shadesmire to the clearing around a tall oak where her community were waiting. Should have been waiting. Scattered ash and disturbed ground spoke of a hastily covered fire where usually the collective passed without trace. Otherwise, the knee-high remains of a wall covered in moss and vines, and the uneven spread of roots from the tree sat undisturbed. She cast around as a wave of fear enveloped her. They hadn’t waited. Screeches closed in behind her. She berated herself for her lapse of vigilance.

Courage, Kell, she thought. She knew their bolt holes.

Light up ahead caught her eyes. The ruins. They would have headed into the ruins, hoping to lose themselves and hide from the horrors of the citadel. Few of her community lived to old age but they had children amongst them, her own included, and that made them slow. Kicking herself back into a hard run, Kell entered Art Eruditia, the Barren City.

#

Beacons flared across the hills. Prosecutors stationed around the town responded in groups to the Knight Azyros’ signal. The focused beam of holy light shot from his lantern and burned through a pair of flying daemons which had swooped from the growing aurora. They took to the skies and relayed the command to the ground troops. The Knights of the Aurora responded with their own light show, trails of light streaming behind the wings of the Angelos Conclave, resplendent against the dark sky. This night their mission changed. They no longer hunted damned men and searched for survivors, they defended those beset by the ruinous powers.

The wind whipped up by the wings of Prosecutors stirred Ancanna’s soul. It was not something he had known until becoming Stormcast. A rising wind was no longer a prompt to take cover, but to raise hammer and shield, and to bring his own thunder to the storm.

Clattering armour signified Paladins and the few remaining Judicators hurrying behind their shield wall of Liberators. A tide of warriors in silver sigmarite descended upon Valescroft. At the command of their Primes, the Strike Chamber split into packs, filtering through the streets to defend people and to put daemons to the hammer.

While some Prosecutors guided their ground-based brothers from above, others fought an aerial battle with snapping, shrieking daemons, while the remainder rushed to the defence of the few fleeing human troops. With hammers and javelins conjured from the storm, they ran sorties over daemonic pursuers.

The Knight Azyros shot from battle to battle. Wherever daemons gained sway against Stormcasts, he smashed into them from the sky, turning isolated fights with the light of his lantern and blur of his sword. No sooner did his blade pierce a daemon’s heart than he took to the skies once more, searching for another defence to bolster or weak point to exploit.

As he streaked over the rooftops, his attention caught three bloodstained men fleeing their battle. Their pursuers, two armoured men and a nebulous creature of blue flesh, crashed through a burning wooden pillar supporting the upper floor of a tannery where it hung over the street. Fire spat from the daemon’s fingertips. It shot a burning jet to the thatched roof of a house as it passed and cackled at the sudden inferno.

Spotting Ancanna and his Liberators, Gallus called out. ‘Liberator Prime! Your shield is needed.’

Ancanna saw them. ‘Liberators! Form up,’ he snarled, and surged towards them.

His vision narrowed, blocking out all but the pursuit. Blood and adrenaline surged white hot through him and he clashed his hammer against his shield, positioning to meet the challenge. His Liberators formed either side of him, blocking the width of the street. When the retreating men neared, they shifted aside to let them through the centre. As the daemons followed, Ancanna yelled, ‘Reform!’ and the open jaws of their shield wall slammed shut on the pursuers, dazing the daemon that had bounded ahead.

Pink and blue fire sizzled off their shields, though the heat flowed right through Ancanna’s armour. Perspiration beaded on his face, yet he brought his hammer down atop the daemon’s great maw. His regiment followed suit and pummelled the creature under a hail of strikes. Gouts of fire exploded from it as it gurgled and shrieked. Its accompanying warriors used the flash to manoeuvre aside. One great axe blade bit into a Liberator’s shield, while the other warrior thrust his sword into the faceplate of a sigmarite helm to Ancanna’s right. The Stormcast dropped with a cry of pain. The other Liberators reformed their wall, curving around at the ends to limit the flanking enemies’ movements.

Ancanna ducked and angled his shield as a flying ray-like daemon screamed for him. Its teeth scraped the lip of his shield, rebounding it upwards and staggering Ancanna. Two spear-wielding Prosecutors pursued, flying either side of the Liberators, marginally above head height. Ancanna put them from his mind for his melee was not isolated and enemy reinforcements kept flooding in. Another armoured warrior joined their fight though what concerned Ancanna most were the creatures that ignored his Liberators and hunted townsfolk. Locked in his fight, he could not reach them. Their wails and screams resounded in his helm.

A solid blow on his shield punished his lapse of concentration with a shockwave through his arm. He dug his feet in and called for his Liberators to push forwards. The warriors facing them had the full range of their long axes. They needed to close the gap and bring their hammers to bear. In a flash of steel, two of the enemy attacked left. First, an axe smashed into a Liberator’s shield, its force enough to snap the shield straps and send it clattering across the cobbles. The second axe hit through the gap and hacked deep into the Stormcast’s collar. Ancanna’s counterblow glanced from the attacker’s pauldron and, though it brought a grunt of pain and crumpled the Chaos warrior’s stance leaving it open, his ally covered with a savage swing forcing Ancanna to raise his defence once more.

After both sides reformed, two of the Chaos warriors attempted the same move on Ancanna that had felled his brother Stormcast. The first strike hit his shield, but wise to the tactic, Ancanna changed the angle of his grip and kept hold. The second, however, paused before his axe raised. He couldn’t lift it. Ancanna’s hammer blow had mangled the joint, restricting his enemy’s movement. In the second of confusion, a spear thrust between the line of Liberators. It punched through the armour plates around the debilitated warrior’s groin and dropped him.

‘Now,’ Ancanna’s brother Liberator called to his left, covering the Liberator Prime with his shield.

Ancanna used the opportunity to land repeated hammer blows on the helm of his opponent. They snapped the curved horns on the helm and clanged against the metal, each blow denting deeper until the warrior’s skull caved and he fell. With only two more of his Liberators beside him, Ancanna reformed his defensive position and stole a glance back at the spear-wielder. It was a human, one of the three that they had saved. Though his grip on the spear shook, and his eyes strained wide with fear and shock, the man stood.

‘For Valescroft!’ Ancanna boomed, partly to thank the brave man whose spear never should have been able to penetrate plate like that, partly to signal a push against the remaining two warriors in their melee.

They did not remain isolated for long.

A screech pierced the air overhead, followed by a pained gurgle as a Prosecutor crashed to the ground. It collided with a Chaos warrior, knocking him off his feet, and barrelled into Ancanna’s shield. The flash of lightning as Sigmar reclaimed his warrior saturated Ancanna’s vision while the force of the blast staggered both sides and sent their melee into disarray.

The Prosecutor’s slayer shrieked its descent, a winged creature with many eyes like a spider and long claws like the ghouls of the death god. A fury of Chaos. Ancanna recovered first and placed himself between the fury and its target, the unarmoured human. Taloned feet swiped at him but shield work and agility kept him safe.

While others still recovered, wheels rumbles over cobbled streets, accompanied by fell screams. Harried from above, Ancanna faced the new terror heading his way. A great chariot rumbled through the town’s central plaza, scythes on its wheels sending sigmarite-clad limbs flying as it rolled over a Retributor too focused on his own fight to see the danger. Four flying daemons pulled it and two imposing forms stood atop its spiked and bladed surface, one a large warrior in silver armour, the other a bluish amalgamation of man, wolf and Chaos-twisted mutation. Heads of both men and Stormcasts decorated spears around them. This was the only street wide enough for such a contraption meaning it had only one way to go and it was not slowing.

The fury regained Ancanna’s attention by scoring his chest plate and kicking his helm. Ancanna tried manoeuvring to a doorway to avoid being run down by the chariot but the fury kept blocking his path, each failed step bringing the screaming daemons and rattling wheels closer and louder.

Salvation came in a bolt of silver lightning. A sword burst through the fury’s chest and ripped out of its side. Resplendent light flared from the Knight Azyros as he landed in the street. Such divine wrath intensified that light that the screamers pulling the chariot disintegrated, flipping the chariot as it careened out of control. The scythed wheels severed the head of a Chaos warrior and the chariot crushed both the other warrior and the Liberator whom he fought before it crashed through a wall.

The Knight Azyros closed the front shutter of his celestial lantern and bowed his head to Ancanna. ‘Brave to face so many at once. I didn’t mean to steal your glory, my friend.’

The Liberator Prime could not help but smile at the relief and hope buoyed in him at the knight’s arrival. ‘I don’t mind who lands the final blow, as long as the enemy falls and we stand.’

‘Then stand with me,’ Gallus said and gestured to the gaping wall that the chariot had crashed through as the leaders of their enemy stalked from the wreckage.

Daemon and Chaos lord circled Ancanna and Gallus, at first not committing to anything more than short flurries, testing their defences. Every blow against Ancanna’s shield felt like a battering ram and uprooted his footing. Gallus matched the daemon for speed but each strike also brought gnashing teeth from its limbs which cut at his armour.

Another figure strode into the street. Cloak trailing behind. Halberd extended towards the Chaos lord, he spoke in the deep, echoing tones of the Lord Castellant. ‘Face me, slave of a falling god. Your reign has ended.’

Unable to ignore the direct challenge, the Chaos lord broke off his attack and, with a tip of his weapon to the Liberator Prime, he strode towards Kimmani, leaving Ancanna and Gallus to face the daemon.

The thing glared back at them, its eyes a maelstrom of purple and black. The merest hint of humanity remained in those eyes, though no human could exude malice. It stood on thick, wolf-like legs but almost doubled over, its arms looking more like a dog’s, ending in sickly-green claws. On its chest, and around its shoulders, an eldritch symbol pulsed with purple and blue light while its back hosted stumps of deformed wings as though they had failed to grow properly. The reprieve lasted no more than an instant before its wild swipes resumed.

The Chaos lord’s absence allowed Ancanna and Gallus to fight together. Every raking claw met the Liberator Prime’s sigmarite shield. While Ancanna faced the onslaught, Gallus darted around the creature, thrusting and slicing with his sword. Each time the daemon went for the agile Knight, Ancanna intercepted and took the hits. The creature whirled and snarled. With a savage swipe, it batted Ancanna’s shield aside and snapped. Its stinking breath made the Liberator Prime gag while its teeth carved the edge of his war mask. Before it could bite again, Gallus’ darting sword scored another cut on the beast’s neck.

In the instant bought by the strike, Ancanna spun around to see the Lord Castellant beset by daemons. Two bogged him down in a brutal melee while a third crawled over the wreckage of the chariot and set to join. The silver-armoured warrior that had been facing him stood back and observed Kimmani’s defence.

‘They’re swarming him,’ Ancanna said, taking in the host of daemons descending on their fight as though to a beacon. ‘Go!’ he cried to the Knight Azyros. ‘The beast is slowing. Help the Castellant.’

Gallus broke away from him and streaked into the sky to assist his Lord Castellant. He covered half the distance before one of the flying ray-like daemons crashed into him, knocking him into the path of another winged creature. Its great maw snapped closed around the sigmarite armour but failed to cause more than a couple of dents where its fangs displaced over the armour’s curvature. The Knight Azyros responded with a flash of lantern light which bought him enough time to raise his sword and regain stable flight.

The light trailing behind Gallus was still fading when Ancanna burst through the wreckage to his lord’s aid. His upward hammer swing lifted a blue daemon clean off its feet and slammed it against the building’s back wall. Masonry and timber frames collapsed onto the creature, extinguishing any spark of life it clung to after the hammer blow. His second crushed the shoulder of another, the crunch of bone lost under Ancanna roaring his fury. The rim of his upthrust shield shattered the jaw of a third daemon, its head then severed by a sword. He then fought beside Kimmani, hammer and shield, sword and lantern, against claws and magic.

Through the afterimage of daemonfire that scorched Kimmani’s greaves, they caught the image of the Chaos lord walking away, and them unable to break free of their melee.

‘The daemon?’ grunted Kimmani as his axe whirled.

Ancanna smashed his shield into flailing blue limbs before responding. ‘We have our choice of daemons.’

‘Do not test me, Prime.’

‘I crushed its skull, my lord. Not even a Khorgorath could have…’

The Liberator Prime trailed off as a flicker of pale blue flesh caught his eye. Wreathed in daemonfire, the lupine creature jerked into view, its body convulsing as barbed, spidery legs burst from its body. While they still grew, stinking liquid wept from where they emerged and the daemon skittered up the wall of the tallest building that still stood. It coiled, ready to pounce on the Stormcast Eternals.

Gallus swooped past and scored a cut on one of the new legs’ joints, narrowly dodging a rake from its sharp claws as he changed direction with the agility of a hornet. The cut stole the force from the daemon’s jump and bought Ancanna a chance to tuck his shoulder behind his shield to meet it. Pushing from his legs, Ancanna’s solid stance caused the daemon to rebound and sprawl over the cobbled ground where Kimmani struck. The halberd severed the beast’s head and a second thrust from the long weapon pierced its chest.

Stormcasts encircled the remaining daemons, putting them to the hammer between the now-regrouped Strike Chamber and its leaders. A group of Prosecutors flew overhead in formation and cast hammers of lightning into the fight, dropping a bulbous, fiery daemon in impacts of sparks and crackling energy. As the last daemon fell, a second Prosecutor unit landed on the ruined street. Two took positions on buildings with roofs remaining while a third stepped forward to the Ancanna and the Lord Castellant.

‘The enemy flee the field,’ the Prosecutor said. Claw and teeth marks scored his armour, including a deep gash across the faceplate where blood glistened.

‘Harry them, Prosecutor, and find out where they came from.’ Lord Castellant Kimmani dismissed the Prosecutor. He stared out at the fleeing enemies and quickly picked out the reflective armour of the Chaos lord. The blackguard had walked away from battle with the him and his simmering rage was tangible. Holding his halberd in a death grip, and counting a score unsettled, he addressed the Knight Azyros. ‘Fetch me the Aurora Banner; it’s time we introduced ourselves to these people.’

 

Chapter 6

Liberators

The Knight Castellant headed for the largest building in the main square. Bodies; human, daemon and Stormcast littered the ground amidst burning timbers and the detritus of houses and shops damaged in the battle. It reeked of death and ash and lightning, and the groans of the injured carried over the clatter of Kimmani’s armour. Though many buildings smoldered or had collapsed in the fighting, he found one with an upper floor balcony.

At Kimmani’s order, terrified people filed into the square at the urging of victorious Stormcast Eternals. Their homes burned around them and their friends and family lay dead or wounded at their feet. Those survivors who held weapons either dropped them of clutched them with trembling hands.

Kimmani hung his lantern behind him, letting a trickle of light through. When he reached the balcony railing the light formed a halo around him. It silenced the crowd.

‘A new power is here,’ the Lord Castellant boomed. ‘We arrive this day to deliver you from the yoke of tyrants. You have witnessed the strength of our arms, the breadth of our shields and the fury of our wrath. We take the fight back to the enemy. Our enemy.’

Kimmani clashed his fist to his chest in salute and paused to cast his gaze over the crowd. ‘So take up axe and knife and sword. Fight under our banner, under the wings of angels.’

He raised his arms, expecting applause. He expected raised weapons and a muster to war.

He received silence.

Broken, tearful people huddled together, corralled into the wreckage of their town square. In a sea of the dead, they looked up at the unholy aurora and the shadows of skulls, faces and beasts that played across it as it rippled across the sky in blue and green. They saw the armoured giants wielding great hammers and swords that barred the streets with their ranks of shields.

‘What is the matter with them?’ Kimmani asked the Knight Azyros who stood behind him on the balcony. ‘Have they no gratitude? Have they not waited generations for deliverance from Chaos?’

‘Likely they are in shock, my lord. They are not as attuned to battle as us.’

‘But we faced their foe, and we have delivered them victorious. Their fear is now redundant.’

Gallus clashed gauntlet against his cuirass. ‘Sigmarite has a way of instilling confidence against the servants of the enemy. I doubt their cloth has the same effect. Perhaps they have gone so long without hope that they cannot recognise it when it arrives.’

Movement stirred in the square below them. A man stood, blood drying over his face and encrusting his beard. In silence, he walked towards one of the streets blocked by Stormcasts. With hesitant steps, a few others followed his lead until they reached the wall of sigmarite.

They stopped.

‘What is this nonsense?’ Lord Castellant Kimmani sputtered. He raised his voice again. ‘We are your rally point!’

‘Let them go, my lord,’ Gallus said.

‘Let them go?’ Kimmani’s anger gave his voice an edge. ‘This is our purpose! We have not spilled the blood of Stormcasts to free these people from Chaos just for them to walk away. They are to join our crusade.’

‘Give them time,’ Gallus pressed. He grasped the Lord Castellant’s shoulder and leaned in closer, softening his voice. ‘Kimmani, this is not the way.’

‘No!’ Kimmani shrugged him off. ‘We have no time. The next town or village or community could be awaiting our aid and our dallying here may spell their end. No. They must be made to understand.’

He called down to the regiment of Liberators where the first of the humans had paused. The armoured warriors looked to one another, some edging back, others adjusting their grips on their hammers, unsure of their task as more humans joined those trying to leave. ‘Close your shield wall!’

A commotion rose behind the Liberators. Over their heads, the red plume of a Liberator Prime jostled as Ancanna shoved his way through Stormcast Eternals. ‘We are liberators not conquerors!’ he roared. ‘Part your shields immediately!’

The Liberator in front of him hesitated but Ancanna didn’t give him a second chance. He seized the lip of his warrior’s shield and snatched it from his grip. In the same movement, he hurled it across the street away from the crowd and slammed his shoulder into another Liberator, parting the way.

‘The way is open,’ he called. ‘Sigmar curse me, I will strike down any who block their way!’ His armour shimmered and energy crackled from the head of his hammer he wielded aloft as though Sigmar’s glory manifested in his words.

Though caught between the will of their Lord Castellant and their Prime, the Liberators kept their position and let the humans filter through.

Prime!’ Kimmani yelled. ‘Stand down your weapon.’

Ancanna stood his ground. ‘I shall stand down when these people are free from tyrants: Chaos or Stormcast.’

He knew there would be a reckoning with the Lord Castellant but it didn’t matter. These were the first humans they had found in Ulglu that had not fallen thrall to Chaos or madness. His cause felt righteous, it energised him, lent strength to his limbs otherwise weary from fighting. These were not stones and earth, these were people. These were something to fight for, and for them he would face any foe, whatever its guise.

The people did not thank him for it. They walked past with downcast eyes and slow gait. Many still trembled from the terror. Every face wore the haunted expression of shattered hopes and lives in ruins. Every person wavered at the mangled body of the lupine daemon that had burst from their hero. That was their rally point and symbol of hope, not the Stormcasts. They had seen the folly of hope.

Lord Castellant Kimmani stormed from the balcony and out of the building towards Ancanna. His outstretched finger pointed in accusation. ‘You go too far, Liberator Prime.’

Ancanna stood. He turned his shield to further position himself between his commander and the people still filtering out of the street. Liberators covering other streets also followed suit and let the people of Valescroft leave.

‘It is not I who forces his will on innocents, Lord Castellant.’

Kimmani paused before the Liberator Prime with fists gripped around his halberd. He surveyed his Strike Chamber, all watching for his reaction to such public insubordination and brought his attention back to Ancanna. Even Stormcast Eternals relied on a command structure and obedience, especially for the distasteful orders. At the site of their battle with the Chaos lord and the wolf daemon, the wreckage of a chariot shifted under weight of a falling stone and drew his attention. It was quiet, and away from an audience, so Kimmani pointed to it. ‘In there. Now.’

‘Not until these people have gone free, my lord.’ Ancanna’s stance remained wide and tension ran through his limbs. The Lord Castellant inspired no fear in him but his nerves jumped at confronting one of his own. Worse were the implications of having to.

‘You’re testing my patience, Prime,’ Kimmani hissed. ‘You have this last chance–’

A Prosecutor rapidly descended and skidded to a halt between the two. He paid the tension between Liberator Prime and Lord Castellant no mind and reported directly to Kimmani. ‘Sir, we have sighted the nomads.’

Kimmani paused, his heavy breath misting through his faceplate. ‘Report,’ he said, though his glare remained fixed on Ancanna.

The Prosecutor glanced between the two Stormcasts, picking up on their conflict. ‘It’s an organised retreat, not a rout. Though the armoured ones make for the higher land across the far side of the valley, many of the daemons have headed to the woods and the ruins.’ He hurried to head off the Lord Castellant’s interruption. ‘Prosecutor units Glaive and Exodus gave chase. That’s where we sighted the nomads.’

‘The ruins,’ Ancanna filled in and the Prosecutor nodded.

‘It was only a fleeting glance, but there was no mistake. We believe the daemons that split from covering the retreat are hunting them.’

‘And the retreat; what is their destination?’ the Lord Castellant asked.

‘Unknown, my lord. We’re hard pressed just to follow. Sorcery and daemons protect the armoured ones and daemonfire has grounded a number of our brothers.’

Kimmani saluted, fist to chest. ‘Then you should lend your strength to your brothers who do remain.’

As the Prosecutor coiled ready to spring back into the sky, Ancanna stopped him with an iron grip on his arm. ‘Lord Castellant,’ he said, ‘we cannot leave the nomads to the whims of daemons.’

‘And I cannot spare any Prosecutors to chase shadows. Every hammer and spear could mean another Stormcast lives to carry on the fight.’ He leaned closer to Ancanna and dropped his voice to a low growl. ‘Unless you believe you can reach them. Prosecutor Eurellus, can you show our Liberator Prime where you last saw these nomads?’

‘Of course.’

‘Then do so.’ Kimmani turned back to Ancanna. ‘Five Liberators. Find them, Liberator Prime. Find them and perhaps I shall meet your insubordination with leniency.’

The Prosecutor hesitated but spoke up. ‘Sir, we observed more than a handful of daemons headed to those ruins. Five Liberators… Perhaps a larger force would be prudent.’

Lord Castellant Kimmani rounded on him. His armour battered and scraped from battle, he leaned on his halberd for support. ‘We pursue the enemy in front of us, save the people around us, those that we can see. These nomads have eluded us enough already and I am not committing resources to another fruitless chase.’ He paused and a trickle of Sigmar’s light spilled from his lantern. ‘I just saw Liberator Prime Ancanna’s shield hold against a lord of daemons. I believe he has the mettle for this task. Have I the measure of you, Liberator Prime?’

Whether being sent to his doom or praised for his courage, Ancanna could not tell. His duty as a defender, however, told him all he needed. ‘I am the shield of order, my lord.’

‘Then make haste. The Strike Chamber shall regroup with you in the ruins before first light.’

Ancanna gestured the Liberators in the street nearest him closer. At the Prosecutor’s almost nervous posture, he cocked his head. ‘Are you with us, Eurellus?’

‘To the end of the Mortal Realms, Prime.’ He straightened his spine. ‘I just hope your shield arm is as strong as the Lord Castellant says.’

As the five Liberators joined them, Ancanna clasped the top of the nearest warrior’s shield. ‘I’ll give you six shield arms that live up to the Lord Castellant’s words. Light the way.’

Prosecutor Eurellus saluted and streaked into the air over the smouldering Valescroft and towards the ruins. Below him followed six Liberators, battered and scorched, but forcing a punishing march.

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