The sound of crying rose again, but it felt different to what she had heard in her flight from the woods. Though it sounded the same, it carried a weight of anguish that illusion could not imitate. It was subtle, but life in Ulglu attuned her to subtleties. They were the difference between life and death.
Kell dared a glance behind, along the alleyway that she had ducked into. With no visual sign of pursuit, she risked a pause and listened for the source of the crying. There were at least two sources: adult and child. Kell recognised the stuttered breathing between sobs. Diella. Her sound was muffled, her voice strained, feigning confidence for another’s benefit. Likely the second source, the infant. Diella must have been looking after the children and become separated from the collective as they fled. Perhaps she was injured and fell behind. That, along with a nightmare of other potential fates, entered Kell’s mind.
The respite allowed her to concentrate through the weird acoustics that made the wails sound like they came from every direction. Calm and mindful, that’s what Orinstar always said they needed to be to survive in these valleys. She had little time for either but through her concentration she picked up the echo that placed Diella somewhere in the columns of the old stadium, the Hippodrome Excelsior.
The silhouette of a winged terror banked across the two visible moons which now shone since the suns had set. Kell ducked into a building, an ancient eating house by the look of the bowls set into a counter, and clambered through a hole in the adjoining wall to the next building. She knew Art Eruditia well enough to avoid unwelcome eyes but the obstacles threatened her ability to reach Diella before something else did.
That was how they got you, the daemons. They separated the vulnerable and trapped them alone, toying with them, letting their imagination conjure images of horrors in forms far worse than even the daemons could assume. They tormented until fear overcame their quarry, and then they killed and fed. That’s why the preferred the vulnerable. Or so the Aelf told her. Whether more wisdom or just something to keep the collective close; Kell knew enough to accept the theory.
She had no intention of letting Diella get caught, not with the children. She had been there. She knew. Vile chattering and glimpses of a horror that should not exist returned to her every time she closed her eyes. The babble of daemons carried through the ruins, echoing in the relative quiet.
But she was close enough.
Kell rounded the wall. It opened into a building with a single room, the front wall destroyed and only a quarter of the roof remaining with the rest on the verge of collapse. In the corner, Diella sat hunched against the stone, bedraggled and weeping while hugging her knees. Two children clung to her tattered cloak. In front of her loomed a vile creature, some amorphous blob, cackling and taunting her. Pink fire crackled from its fingers while it tore at the flesh of the terrified woman. In her spike of fear at, Kell retreated a step. Her foot caught a rock and sent it clattering across the ground.
Then it noticed her too.
‘Push them, Stormcasts!’ Ancanna yelled as he drove his hammer into the fleshy skull of a twisted creature. ‘No break! No respite for the wicked!’ Viscera sprayed from the impact over the Liberator Prime’s shield. His style was not pretty. His regiment fighting in the shield wall acted more like a team of workmen building than warriors killing. Their shields remained high, defending themselves and their brothers, until their hammer swings responded like the cannons of the Ironweld Arsenal.
Crackling energy burst across Ancanna’s shield, hissing as the sigmarite displaced a magical blast. It shook Ancanna’s arm and sent tingling sensations up through his shoulder, distorting his vision and setting his ears abuzz. But Ancanna’s Liberators maintained their advance. A mobile fortress, they pushed on behind the shield wall: defend and strike, defend and strike.
They made for a row of small buildings, probably single-room houses before time and war had ruined them. Two hammers of celestial energy flashed above them and slammed into the last two daemons with bright flashes. The first dropped under the blow while the second only teetered, stunned. Ancanna’s Liberators needed no wider opening. Their hammers pulverised the creature, allowing room for Prosecutor Eurellus to land. The rim of his shoulder plate sported two holes where a daemon’s fangs had punched through but missed the flesh. Claw marks raked his chest plate and almost every inch of his armour was blackened and scorched.
He rested his hand against a pillar and stumbled as it slid. ‘Fleshy,’ he said, inspecting closer, curling his lips in distaste at what looked like a patch of stretched skin, still moist as though living from the stone pillar. More patches of the fleshy substance marred other walls and the few roofs that had not yet caved in.
‘Tainted?’ one of the Liberators asked.
The Prosecutor leaned closer and ran his gauntlet over it once more. At the instant of contact, the flesh rippled and expelled a shimmer of blue haze. As the Stormcasts shielded their eyes, they heard the scream of Eurellus.
Snapping to attention, shields and hammers raised, the Liberators turned back to their brother Prosecutor. All they caught was a glint of light on his greaves as something dragged him into the pillar.
The Liberators cast about, searching for an enemy to meet their hammers, but spied nothing through the haze. No enemies, nothing physical upon which to release their wrath.
‘Shields up, Liberators,’ Ancanna yelled.
They formed a defensive circle, each holding a ready posture. ‘Can you see anything?’ one asked.
‘What took him?’ another added.
Ancanna hushed them and listened. Voices carried on the wind, indistinct and meaningless. Directionless. Though the vile aurora above illuminated the ruins, it also cast dancing shadows all around them. So long had this area of the ruins been abandoned that the woods had encroached upon them. Branches creaked and leaves rustled with the breeze, and not even they escaped the reach of the fleshy substance. Rot blackened the bark around the patches and sap dripped beneath them.
When the blue haze dissipated, the stone pillar showed no sign of being anything other than mineral and quiet veiled the Stormcasts again. Ancanna tapped his hammer against the pillar and it responded with the scratch of stone.
‘This way,’ Ancanna said. ‘Remain vigilant.’
Nothing indicated his choice of direction, just a need to move. Their Prosecutor brother was gone and the street offered no trace of the nomads. As he led his Liberators away, he glimpsed the vague outline of a trapped Stormcast clad within the pillar. A second glance revealed lifeless stone.
Overgrown ruins enveloped them in the complex of streets, alleys and plazas. Closely-built structures and flora denied them vantage or bearing even of the route from which they came. Screeches and cackles from daemonic maws echoed around them, through empty windows and from the gutters of uneven streets.
‘Did you hear that?’ A Liberator gestured at a winding street with his hammer. ‘That way, I think. It sounded closer.’
‘A man can go mad, straining to hear through this,’ another replied which met with murmurs of assent.
With nothing else to go on, Ancanna led them into the winding street indicated by the Liberator’s hammer. Then he heard it too. The daemon’s cackle and gurgling sounded gleeful. He also heard weeping.
A hand signal from Ancanna stopped the Liberators and brought them from their dispersed search pattern back into close quarters. He indicated their route of approach. They edged forwards, shields raised, watching for ambush. Slowly, they skirted around a fleshy patch on another wall where, again, Ancanna caught a flash of the Prosecutor’s face, and reached the corner of a larger building beyond which held the source of the noises.
Ancanna counted down on his fingers for the Liberators to see. When he reached two, a shriek pierced the quiet. It mixed with a human cry and resounded from hollow buildings. The Liberators rushed around the corner, hammers high to smite their foe.
Ancanna cried out.
His outstretched arms held his Liberators back. Before him stood a woman. This malnourished, dirty creature had grime over her arms and face, and angry red grazes where rips turned her tunic to rags. Matted hair covered most of her face and draped half way down her back. Her arms hung limply by her sides, in one hand, an axe, in the other, a knife. At her feet lay the twitching corpse of a daemon.
Her head jerked up and she gasped as she noticed the Stormcasts and she spread her arms wide. Behind her lay another corpse, that of another woman, and two wailing children, one newborn, the other perhaps less than a year old. Her hands shook but she kept her eyes focused on the Stormcasts, their grey depths displaying fear but also the fierce unpredictability of a cornered animal.
Ancanna stowed his hammer in a loop at his belt and handed his shield to the Liberator beside him. He took a step closer to the woman.
‘Prime,’ the shield bearer began, ‘you don’t know whose blood is on that axe. She could have killed the woman too.’ He offered the shield back while others formed a semicircle behind their leader.
‘Careful, sir,’ another warned. ‘This would not be the first time we’ve been tricked by illusion this side of the realm gate.’
Ignoring the protests of his warriors, Ancanna approached the woman, palms raised. ‘It’s okay,’ he said, more to the woman than the Liberators. She did not feel like daemon trickery or the illusory nature of Ulglu. Ancanna remained focused on her, watching her posture for indication that she might strike, but mostly searching her eyes. That depth of fear, and grim determination to protect her loved ones, he had seen many times before. Before Sigmar reforged him as Stormcast. That look was inimitable.
‘It’s okay,’ he repeated, edging closer.
The woman backed away half a step, keeping herself between Stormcasts and children, just as Ancanna had protected the people of Valescroft from the Lord Castellant.
‘Who are you?’ she asked, the words stuttering in her throat and quavering past her trembling lips.
‘My name is Ancanna.’
The Liberator Prime outstretched his hand but the woman recoiled, raising her weapons.
‘I won’t let you hurt them!’ she blurted.
‘I’m not here to hurt them. I’m not here to hurt you either.’ He stopped his approach to give her space. ‘What’s your name?’
She stayed defensive, raising her axe an inch. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘We are here to help. My brothers and I fight against that which hunts you.’
‘There’s no help in Ulglu, only tricks and terrors.’
Her eyes kept darting, searching for an escape. Cornered in the building’s remains, Stormcasts blocked the only other exit.
‘I assure you, though long in coming, help has arrived.’ Ancanna offered his hand. ‘Please. While my warriors and I stand, your children, and yourself, are safe. Would you tell me your name?’
‘Kell,’ she said, but raised her knife. ‘No tricks, daemon. I know how you toy with your prey.’
Ancanna kept his voice calm and steady. His voice was a rumble like distant storms at the best of times, and like a thunderbolt when his ire was raised, and his battle helm only amplified it. ‘We are no daemons, Kell. We are the chosen of Sigmar, and we prey only on tyrants and monsters.’
Emboldened by the slight opening of learning the woman’s name, Ancanna decided to offer a little more. He gestured behind to the warriors behind him.
‘These are Liberators, clad in sigmarite and imbued with the strength of the storm. We are but a few of a mighty Stormhost that even now protects the people of Valescroft.’
‘Do you lie to me, daemon? You promise too much. Get away from me!’
‘There is no lie.’ Ancanna inched closer. ‘Our Stormhost is called the Knights of the Aurora, for the wings of our–’
Kell’s expression turned to wide-eyed horror. ‘Aurora,’ she mouthed, and lunged at the Stormcast with her knife. As Ancanna, wrong-footed, reacted, she scooped up the children under her arms. She was viper fast. Before Ancanna regained his balance, she used his chest plate as a springboard, vaulted over the edge of the wall and ducked into the nearest alley.
The Stormcasts pursued. Though the woman carried two children, she pelted away from them. At best, they caught a glimpse of her ragged tunic as it disappeared over a mound of rubble or rounded a corner into another alleyway or the echo of her footsteps bounced off the walls in an empty street.
Concerned that if the woman went to ground, they may never find her again, Ancanna ordered the Liberators to disperse and search separately. It lasted only moments before blue fire erupted through a nearby window, hitting a Liberator square in the face and incinerating his head through the gap of his visor. Sigmar’s reclamation, the arc of blue lightning and resounding peal of thunder, shone as a beacon for miles around. Drawn by the event, a blue-skinned creature followed through the same window, clawing its way over rubble and babbling in some unknown tongue. Another of the winged creatures swooped from the opposite side of the street and raked Ancanna’s vambrace. Growling his frustration, Ancanna ordered his Liberators reform their defensive block and advanced their shields towards the blue creature just as another two crawled over the walls either side of the building.
Ancanna slammed his shield into the horror in front of him, shattering three of its teeth and opening its defence for the Liberator to his left to land a solid blow atop its head. Chattering daemons swarmed throughout the ruins while silhouettes of winged furies over the fell aurora flashed in the corners of the Stormcasts’ eyes.
‘Stand firm and raise shields, Liberators,’ Ancanna said. ‘We’re in for a long night.’
Dawn crept through the ruins, casting its gloomy light over the bodies of dying Stormcast Eternals and the char of lightning strikes where Sigmar had reclaimed his dead. Around them lay six times their number of warp-spawned terrors, pummelled into disfigured flesh and viscera. A single, battered form moved in the carnage. He rose to one knee, his shaking arm pushing down on his hammer for support, the head scraping across the ground in his unsteady grip. A pained grunt and bloody-minded effort forced his leaden limbs into pushing him to his feet and holding him upright. Panting, he swung his hammer into a felled daemon’s twitching head. Ancanna, the last man standing, surveyed his fallen brothers and closed his eyes, naming them all in his mind as sorrow welled in his chest.
He had watched Sigmar’s lightning call them back to Azyr and every bolt lent strength to his hammer blows. One by one, they had fallen, each accounting for themselves by exacting a brutal toll on their oppressors, but trickery, sorcery and weight of numbers had gnawed at them until it fell to Ancanna and his rhythmic hammer work. The Liberator Prime stood back as a final bolt claimed the rest.
In the light of a new day, he scrambled over a pile of aged marble blocks and strode through an alleyway. Even in daylight, the place was a maze. The woman that had attacked him the night before–Kell, he reminded himself–could have disappeared anywhere. Most of the tall buildings had at least one wall remaining making a decent vantage from the ground impossible. She still lived, he told himself. Though he replayed their meeting in his mind’s eye countless times, he thought of nothing that could explain why she had turned on him. Perhaps she was just cornered, or saw the opportunity to flee. After all the fighting and fruitless searching, he did not want to consider her an agent of the enemy.
As morning spilled a little more light into the ruins, Stormcast Eternals trickled in from the country. As usual for the Knights of the Aurora, a unit of Prosecutors found him first. Their Prime landed beside him while the rest of the unit guarded above, their stormcall javelins poised, glinting in sunbeams whenever the shifting clouds allowed them through.
‘Liberator Prime,’ the Prosecutor Prime said, dipping his head. Wind rippled through the plume atop his helm as he steadied Ancanna’s shaky stance with a supporting arm. ‘You walk at the brink of death.’
‘My shield remains whole,’ Ancanna replied, clasping his comrade’s forearm, partly in greeting, partly to stop it supporting him. Though his body screamed at him for rest, he would stand strong before his brother warriors, unassisted. ‘The villagers…’ he began.
‘Remain unharmed and free.’ The Prosecutor Prime stared at him before finishing Ancanna’s thought though his tone conveyed nothing of his feelings on the matter. ‘You are alone?’
Ancanna nodded. He coughed up scratching dust. It tasted of dried blood. He could not bring himself to talk of his fallen brothers, and the imperative to find Kell still burned within him. It was all that kept him on his feet. ‘The nomads are within the ruins. I lost one of them over…’ Ancanna cast around but recognised nothing. There were fewer plants here, and dried out buildings obscured his view. ‘I lost her,’ he finished with downcast eyes.
At the Prosecutor’s urging, Ancanna described the night’s events as well as his memory could muster. His story came out in a jumble but the Prosecutor gleaned a description or the woman and vague area in which she had evaded Ancanna. A stadium in the area of the ruins nearer the woodland at least narrowed it down some.
‘Take some rest, Ancanna,’ the Prosecutor Prime said before taking wing and relaying the descriptions to his unit.
From the air, the Prosecutors suffered as much with overhanging structures and rubble offering infinite hiding places. Likely the Stormcasts would have to take the ruins apart stone by stone to find the nomads, assuming they had not already stolen away through the woods.
Unwilling to remain still for long, Ancanna resumed his search and eventually found a break in the high walls where the alley opened into a large courtyard surrounded by a series of ruined arches that once formed a wall. Sunlight gave the arches an ochre hue. As he glanced across the structure, picturing what a sight it would have been in its original form, his gaze rested on carvings in the stone that crowned the archways.
He entered the courtyard, perhaps once a gymnasium or a hall for whoever once lived here, and followed the carvings over the arches. Many were missing or weathered into illegibility. The furthest wall, however, remained intact and Ancanna lifted his head to the humanoid figures carved thereon.
Like the tapestries in the halls of Azyrheim, a pictorial story read from left to right. It depicted a great terror hanging in the clouds over a settlement, people kneeling in despair or tearing at their own flesh in madness. A warrior with shield and polearm followed. The people changed from cowering to worshipping the figure. More images followed in which armoured warriors joined the hero in battle against creatures of strange shapes, all under the malicious eyes of the terror in the clouds. The last image on the wall had fallen to the elements, leaving only the shaft of a broken polearm visible on the crumbled stone.
From what Ancanna could gather, the other walls showed much the same story, but with different heroes. Some looked like wielders of magic, others rode great beasts, but the same terror remained on each story.
Shadows moved beside Ancanna. He ignored them. The shadows could not be trusted in Ulglu, the Realm of Shadow itself, and crippling paranoia lay down the path of explaining their behaviour.
This shadow coughed.
‘Prime? You’ve been here a long time. What are you looking at?’ It was Gallus. He rested his folded arms on top of a broken stone pillar.
‘Who they were.’
Gallus swept his gaze over the carvings. ‘Whoever they were, they’re long dead.’
Ancanna grunted. ‘The people in that town, did the Castellant leave them be?’
‘Relax, Ancanna, they’re unharmed. No further, at least.’
A wave of relief washed over Ancanna. Much as the Prosecutor had told him as much, Ancanna trusted the word of the Knight Azyros above any other. At least something had gone well, or not exacerbated, that night. ‘Will they join us?’
‘No. They keep to their houses, not rebuilding, not talking to us, or even one another.’ Gallus sighed and opened his palms. ‘It’s like they’ve given up. They’re as broken as the structures that surround them. For the most part they just sit and stare at the ruined walls of what we can only guess were their homes.’
So they had gained little from the battle at Valescroft. Ancanna told himself that the people lived, that they had escaped a tortured, agonising death at the whims of daemons, but it felt like hollow reassurance. He wanted their objective in Ulglu to yield success, but to deliver the remnants of people from under the boot of Chaos, not for Stormcast glory.
‘And the nomads? Have we found any sign of them?’
‘We’d all know about it if we had. Kimmani is looking for anything to rebuild his reputation after the Judicators were massacred, and, of course, Valescroft.’ The Knight Azyros nudged him. ‘Obviously, he’s blaming you for the latter and cursing the day Sigmar forged you anew.’
Ancanna didn’t even shrug. He regretted nothing from his actions in Valescroft, and though he would follow his Lord Castellant into the Realm of Chaos itself, he would always put his shield in the way before Kimmani forced the unwilling in first. He had not yet felt the Strike Chamber leader’s wrath, and he expected more severe consequences than being sent undermanned into hunting packs of daemons.
‘No sign even from the Angelos Conclave? A rubble-strewn building through a series of twisting alleys, not far from the forest, that’s where we lost her. Have they checked there?’
Gallus snorted and shook his head. ‘They’re all rubble-strewn buildings and twisting alleyways. Evidently the nomads know the city better than us and the buildings, such as they are, shield them from the eyes of our Prosecutors. If they leave the ruins, we’ll see them. We still have our new quarry. What does it matter?’
‘It matters. It has to matter, otherwise… Otherwise why are we here?’
‘Again, Ancanna? We’re here because Sigmar willed it, to reclaim the Mortal Realms from the maw of Chaos.’
Ancanna knelt, grasped a handful of earth and let it slip between the fingers of his gauntlets. A grub wriggled between dead roots in the dirt and even that showed mutations; an extra half-maw beneath an oversized eye. ‘For this?’ He grimaced and cast the dirt back to the ground. ‘No. I won’t fight for tainted land. Sigmar would not have clad us such and unleashed us for stone and earth.’
‘And you think the answer is in these carvings? You’re tired, Ancanna. The struggle wears at us all; that’s why Sigmar stole us from the grip of death, clad us like this, because we’re the only ones who will keep fighting. You cannot let it grind you down, Liberator Prime.’ He used the title like a crown and mantle. ‘If it takes the slaughter of a hundred thousand cultists, if a thousand fortresses must fall to free this realm, then it is us that must do it.’
It was not the first time the thought had gnawed at Ancanna. They had found nothing but madness, tainted land and servants of the enemy, depravity and nightmares. Many of his brother Stormcasts had undergone Rememberings after being reforged and sent back out to fight after the enemy had struck them down. Despair welled inside him at the prospect of an endless cycle of dying and reforging, losing a little or a lot more of himself every time, to keep fighting an enemy of endless number. This campaign into Ulglu, the ideal of rallying and uniting other free people to join them resonated. It sparked that glimmer of hope within him, that their actions might tip the balance instead of locking them in an eternity of futile war. He needed that hope. The men and women of Valescroft needed that hope.
‘It means something,’ Ancanna said, approaching the carvings along a low wall. He traced his hands over a stone, spear-wielding man at the head of a host of warriors. At Ancanna’s lead, the two Stormcasts walked by the long wall of what was perhaps a temple. ‘It’s the same story repeated over and over, but with a different lead each time. This one wields a spear, over there, magic, the image above shows a woman with two swords. They’re all in the same cycle. What do you see, Gallus?’
The Knight Azyros surveyed the carvings, taking them in at a glance.
‘I see decoration. Religion or mythology, most likely; same as countless cities across the Mortal Realms, Shake yourself out of this, Ancanna, you’re going to need your wits when the Lord Castellant catches up to you. And we’re going to need your will behind your shield and hammer when we next meet the enemy.’
The large building ended abruptly as though sheared by a giant axe and gave way to a square of open ground. In the centre stood a giant bowl of carved marble. Within the bowl, crumbling but still proud, stood a statue of a man in robes, one hand outstretched, the other cradling an astrolabe. A hole in the outstretched hand formed a spout but the fountain itself was dry.
‘Perhaps you’re right, Gallus. I sincerely hope you are not.’
Ancanna turned and strode away to help reorganise the Liberators into combat ready units. Behind him, the spout on the statue’s hand blinked.
The Aurora Citadel
A Prosecutor of the Boreal unit circled over the large, open structure which the Lord Castellant had commandeered to regroup his Strike Chamber. The winged warrior landed beside a long stone table in the centre of the room and knelt atop a pile of vines that had been cleared from its surface. His wings folded back, their pale green glow subtle in the afternoon light where sporadic clouds veiled the suns rather than the near-perpetual state of partial eclipse.
‘Tell me some good news, Prosecutor,’ Kimmani said while studying a map of the valley provided by the Angelos Chamber after their initial scouting. A worrying amount of it was missing, or had sketchy detail, and little had been filled in since the first pass.
The Prosecutor stood unsteadily. Gouges and dents covered his armour and scorch marks blackened his shield, hiding the hammer and lightning bolt motif. The worst damage showed on his leg where the sigmarite had been punctured and dried blood flaked over the rent metal as though a barb had been torn out.
‘My lord, we have traced the route of the enemy and have sighted a fortress, less than ten leagues away.’
The Lord Castellant paused. He crushed the map in his hand and rounded on him.
‘A fortress? We are the greatest scouting force in all Sigmar’s Stormhosts, and you tell me that we failed to see a fortress within ten leagues?’
His raised voice carried through the structure such that two units of Paladins wielding great stormstrike glaives rushed towards him from their stations around the surrounding columns. When they saw only the Lord Castellant and the Prosecutor, half of them returned to their positions while the remainder kept a closer vigil within the surrounding columns.
The Prosecutor bowed his head. ‘It’s the damnable mist, my lord. One minute there’s clear skies, the next, a thick fog rises from nothing. Our patrols and scouts have crossed that area a dozen times but found no sign of it. Curse my eyes if I didn’t lead a band of Prosecutors there personally.’ He shrugged. ‘We saw only shadows and fog.’
‘Show me,’ Kimmani said and shoved the crumpled map towards the Prosecutor’s face.
Smoothing out the map on the stone table, the Prosecutor took in the contours of the land and gained his bearings. He jabbed his finger onto a hilly area at the far side of the valley.
‘Along the ridge, here, it opens onto wider ground and a higher hilltop. There’s the fortress.’
‘A fortress,’ Kimmani mused, his ire still raised but simmering beneath the surface. ‘This is what we need to draw out the nomads and break that town from its despondency. Where is Liberator Prime Ancanna? Summon him, Prosecutor, along with Knight Azyros Gallus. And give me a watch on that fortress. I want to know defences, composition, curtain walls, towers, war machines, chambers of sorcery, murder holes, escape routes, supply lines, and have detailed maps drawn out by three different patrols. Anything moves, anything changes, I want a report. Are my orders clear?’
With a salute, the Prosecutor spread his wings and green, blue and turquoise light shimmered along their surface. Though with laboured movements, he took to the air, spiraling out of and around the structure.
Lord Castellant Kimmani returned to his map. The ridge would string out the Strike Chamber and funnel them right into the stronghold’s front gate, no doubt the most heavily defended area. One side offered only a steep climb and high walls whereas going around constituted a lengthy march. Though none of the options seemed palatable, even before intel on its defences, Kimmani had the backing of the Knights of the Aurora.
The wind stirred the map under his grip and he looked again. His confidence grew.
From their airborne vantage, difficult terrain was an advantage for his mighty hosts of Prosecutors. And this Strike Chamber was more than just its winged warriors: the light of Sigmar carried by the Lord Castellant and Knight Azyros themselves was anathema to the daemonic defenders, and their Liberators and Paladins formed an implacable defensive wall against enemy archery.
The lengthening shadows of dusk stretched over the open structure by the time Ancanna approached the Lord Castellant. Though engrossed in planning his assault, Kimmani’s acute senses picked up the clashing metal of the Liberator Prime’s salute to the Paladins guarding the structure and the clatter of his footfalls on the stone floor. Just the presence of the man stoked Kimmani’s anger.
‘Your failure shames us all, Liberator Prime,’ Kimmani said without looking up. Annotations and arrows indicating attack vectors now adorned the map, many crossed out and inked again after his Prosecutor scouts drip-fed him details of the fortress and its defenses through the day and he refined his plans.
‘My lord.’ Ancanna stood to attention.
He knew this was coming, though he expected a more public dressing down for defying his commander in front of so many. Neither defiance nor subservience would avail him so he stood and he stared. He was just going to have to take it.
‘You were entrusted,’ Kimmani continued, ‘to secure the nomads, using the best opportunity we have seen since passing through the realm gate. Not only did you allow them to escape from under your nose, but a Prosecutor and five Liberators under your command were reclaimed by Sigmar. Your entire unit, Prime.’ He looked up from his map and glared through his visor at Ancanna. ‘Five stalwart warriors lose a piece of themselves and the other,’ he paused to glance at the statue of a Prosecutor atop the central column at the far side of the structure. Its back was hyperextended, limbs flung wide behind and wings furled, everything contorted and tortured. They both knew it was the Prosecutor that had supported Ancanna’s foray into the ruins yet this was not where he had died.
‘You have nothing to show for it,’ Kimmani finished.
The Lord Castellant paced around Ancanna who only stared at the all-too-real statue. ‘Nothing to say, Liberator Prime? You were not so silent yesterday when those people needed to see a strong, unified Strike Chamber.’
‘Those people,’ Ancanna said, his fingers shaking as anger rose in him. He had watched every one of those Liberators die, unable to save them. He had seen the Prosecutor disappear into solid masonry before he could react. Every one of those deaths tore at him and his inability to defend them, but it was the mention of the people of Valescroft that opened the floodgates of his rage. His vision narrowed as he returned Kimmani’s glare and his voice became a growl. ‘Those people had had their fill of subjugation and desperation. Strength inspires only the strong, Lord Castellant. It doesn’t matter that you spoke with the force of a Stormhost, you offered them only more war.’
‘Pretty words. You think they make you sound noble? Well, here’s a truth for you, Liberator Prime–they don’t have a choice. The fight will rage around them whether they like it or not. Many of them will die whether they raise arms or not. They were beaten and leaderless and I gave them strength and leadership. And they need it, Ancanna. They need someone to take control for them because they are in no state to do so themselves.’ He paced closer. ‘Out of his mighty armies where every soldier is a hero in his own right, do you know why Sigmar chose me as a Lord Castellant? Your moral standing gives you the will to defend, Liberator Prime, but I can make the sacrifices we need to defeat the enemy.’
‘Nonsense,’ Ancanna said. ‘You mistake your standing–’
‘Silence and be seated!’ Kimmani roared, shoving Ancanna down onto the bench. His feet kicked up and crashed into the table, taking a chunk from the corner and toppling it onto its side. As the stone slab crashed to the ground, the Paladins around the structure rushed in again.
Kimmani raised a palm in warding but remained focused on the seated Liberator Prime. ‘Keep your distance, Paladins. The Liberator Prime is learning his place.’
At a hand signal from Kimmani, the Paladins halted. This time, all of them remained inside the structure instead of returning to their posts though their postures spoke of unease, a few closing some distance between the Lord Castellant and Liberator Prime. He wanted them to see it. The Lord Castellant dashed closer to Ancanna and loomed over him.
‘This ends now, Liberator Prime. I will not allow dissent and insubordination to fester in my Strike Chamber. When I command, you obey.’ His voice lowered to a hiss, too quiet to carry to the Paladins. ‘We are here for unity, Prime. How can we inspire others to join our union if they see our leaders ignored? That town’s unwillingness to join us is on you, Ancanna. I showed them war, you say? Good. They will see more of it. You showed them division when they needed strength. We have our orders–those people will join us. Get up.’
Ancanna stared at Kimmani’s outstretched hand, feeling his commander’s anger, before taking it. The surrounding Paladins relaxed their postures and stood down as a winged figure alighted atop a stone column. The Knight Azyros looked every bit the avenging angel of Sigmar.
He hopped down, falling like a feather. In the instant that his gaze swept across the structure, Gallus took in the scene and made straight for the Lord Castellant. ‘I see our target is set, my lord,’ he said, reaching Kimmani’s side and guiding him back to the table where their battle plans lay. He kept Ancanna on the other side. ‘Tell me our strategy. The Strike Chamber stands primed for battle and my sword hungers for daemon flesh.’
‘Calm yourself, Knight Azyros,’ Kimmani said. The dangerous edge left his voice, replaced with a more companionable tone. ‘Your blade shall have its fill. Had I more who shared your eagerness, our foray into Ulglu might yet have yielded more success.’
‘A rapid strike, Lord Castellant,’ Gallus said, tracing over a series of arrows on the map, diverting the attention from Ancanna who took the opportunity to right himself.
Though most of the Paladins guarding the structure maintained their composure, still and expressionless in their death-mask helms, one offered an almost imperceptible nod to Ancanna. The Liberator Prime returned it and joined the two commanders at the map. Despite a glance from Gallus, Ancanna stood tall beside the Lord Castellant. Though his respect for him had dropped again, he would not display wariness. The Lord Castellant had command over Ancanna, and this was not a challenge to his leadership, only his morals.
Casting his eyes over the plan, Ancanna held back the desire to immediately pick fault. The Lord Castellant was a sound tactician and a superlative warrior, and though a first glance of the plan highlighted room for improvement, Ancanna remained silent while he considered the thought process that translated to symbols and arrows on the map. Kimmani always found a weakness. For all his faults, his methodical approach always exploited that weakness.
‘Have you something to say about my plan, Liberator Prime?’ Kimmani asked.
Ancanna looked again at the attack directions and the spread of troops. Despite the disagreements between them, Ancanna’s duty came first. And he never could hold his tongue. ‘Not without further knowledge of the citadel’s defences, Lord Castellant. We appear heavily reliant on our Prosecutors. If they meet more than expected resistance, our ground troops will be exposed and trapped in those ruins.’
‘Knight Azyros,’ Kimmani said. ‘Have the Prosecutors scout the citadel for our easiest breaching point.’
Gallus shook his head. ‘Forgive me, Lord Castellant, but that is the reason for my tardiness. I received their scouting report before entering this chamber. No system of hill forts, no ramparts. The curtain wall is more rubble than masonry. There are many towers but in such disrepair that they could never house siege weaponry. This is nothing to us. My lord, we need to hit them fast while their forces are in disarray from how we punished them yesterday. We should not allow them time to regroup or call in reinforcements, or before any of the roving warbands catch wind of our intent. We are the Knights of the Aurora, shock troops of the celestial realm–a mantle we must keep earning.’
‘And so we shall,’ Kimmani said. ‘Does this allay your fears, Liberator Prime?’
Ancanna gazed at the distant fortress, a dark smudge on the landscape now he knew what to look for. He hesitated to disagree with the Knight Azyros who had been his greatest friend among their host of brother warriors, but while Gallus had courage for a dozen warriors, he could be impetuous, particularly when planning an offensive.
He considered the way the Chaos warriors had retreated, the unseen dangers and warpcraft at play in the ruins. ‘I believe we may be rushing into unknown danger, my lord.’
‘Lost your nerve, Prime?’ Gallus asked.
‘Do not mistake my caution for cowardice, Knight.’
‘Have faith,’ Gallus replied, taking no slight, ‘unknown danger is what we do best. Our Prosecutors will harry them from above while our ground troops splinter the gates. We are too fast, too manoeuvrable, even for their magic. We shall breach their defences before they know they are under attack.’
Though he maintained his doubts, Ancanna couldn’t help but be swept along by Gallus’ confidence. The Knight Azyros spoke true; they were the Knights of the Aurora, Stormcast, mighty warriors with strength, weapons and armour greater than anything the realms had seen before. They had smashed all resistance and slaughtered their enemies in droves. No fortress could stall them, certainly not one with as many ruined walls as fortified ones.
The Lord Castellant gave a sharp nod. ‘Then we strike with the dawn. Positions, Stormcasts. When the night ends, Azyros, light the way.’
‘What of the nomads?’ Ancanna asked.
‘I suspect they will not be found unless they wish it,’ Kimmani said. ‘Last night’s daemonic incursion will have them spooked. They need to see someone stand up to the tyrant, to inspire them. That’s what will draw them to our banner.’
‘And we shall topple this fortress with our lightning assault.’ Gallus toyed with his blade and his wings twitched. ‘I shall lead our Prosecutors through the woods into position for the dawn. They will not see us coming.’
A marble head, carved into the wall, closed its eyes.