Chamber of a Thousand Eyes
Mist and magic swirled around the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes. Tiny comets of blue and green arced from the disapparating image and back into the turning circular arms of the chamber. Atop his floating disc, Axanthral mused on the intrigues playing out between these newcomer warriors. He extrapolated a dozen potential schemes for each of them, weaving them together, and considering which strings to pull and which served his purpose.
His familiar slithered around him in the form of a miniature hydra, its many heads snapping.
‘It seems your whispering has already taken root with this one they call the Castellant. He is more susceptible than the others. Why?’
The familiar squawked and trumpeted. Its tail curled and two pairs of bat-wings morphed from its body as it took to the air, spiraling around its master. In a voice like the stirring of wind, the familiar’s response formed in Axanthral’s mind.
‘Continue to leverage this leader of theirs,’ the sorcerer said. ‘Draw him in. Show him the open route through our outer defences. And should the opportunity arise, there is another–’
Axanthral’s daemonic platform shrivelled and winked out of existence as the chamber rumbled. Coloured motes of magic whirled and darted around him, screeching and thrumming with ethereal energy. His arms windmilling, he fell backwards while his familiar bolted through the great, arched doorway.
The giant turning rings of his oculum arrested his fall with a crunch of bone. No sooner had his body slumped either side of the ring than the ring itself morphed just like his familiar had. It grew two heads, each larger than his own, on long grey-feathered necks. They bit into each of his shoulders and held him upright, lifting his body from the ring, their curved beaks drawing purple blood from beneath his ashen flesh. Suspended in mid air and feeling as though something was rearranging him from the inside out, Axanthral grunted and winced, his every fibre seeking to prostrate himself before the power that had entered the chamber.
A voice spoke in his mind. It sounded like a hurricane and hit him with such intensity that his eyes slammed open and he gasped his lungs full of air that tasted of burning pine. It spoke of an insufficient harvest, of crippling failure and dire consequences. Words were beneath the creature whose presence dominated the spherical chamber. Instead its meaning entered Axanthral’s mind fully formed and carrying a weight of emotion, like the way his familiar spoke only far more powerful. Disgust, disapproval and wrath dripped and simmered in the psychic message.
So awed by the onslaught, Axanthral could do nothing beyond hang from the cruel beaks and reel from the force of its message. It wasn’t coming. That, at least, gave him some relief. A feeling of amusement emanated from the presence at the lack of mental discipline in letting the thought surface. This operation was one of many and unworthy of the power’s physical intervention, though it intended to send an emissary and relinquish some of Axanthral’s control.
The sorcerer wailed at the threads of his schemes passing to another. Likely it would cut them to spite him, or reshape them to either unravel or hurt him as punishment. All of it paled against the loss of his plans.
As the presence receded from the chamber, the daemon heads that held him snapped their necks around and flung him across the chamber, sending him skidding over the patterned tile floor. He stopped at the armoured boots of the garrison captain, Reaper of the Mortal Crop. The Dreadguard of the Citadel.
Axanthral glared at the outstretched hand and levitated from the ground. A quick incantation summoned his daemonic platform back from the realm of Chaos. The air between the two lords of Chaos twisted and tore as the sorcerer’s disc chewed its way between realms with its fanged maw and rows of pointed teeth. Axanthral raised himself atop the daemon so that he stood higher than his captain and sneered down at him.
‘Wipe the grin from your face, Dreadguard, or you may yet be granted audience with that same power. Then we shall see the depths of your resolve. Prepare for an aerial assault from the woods to the west and a large scale ground offensive through the fallen city. Our new enemies come. Let them. Wait until they are deep within the outer ring of towers.’ His lips curled into a wicked smile. ‘And our associate has provided you a…gift.’
‘I have no interest in gifts from our associate, sorcerer. You will provide me the answers I requested.’
Axanthral bristled. The flesh around his cheeks and temples writhed as though grubs crawled beneath it. Feeding from the sorcerer’s emotion, his daemonic platform turned a deeper red and snarled and snapped towards the Dreadguard. ‘Answers? You were driven back by the whelps of an upstart deity! The harvest is incomplete. You are in no position to make demands after your failure.’
At the impudent response from his captain, Axanthral willed his disc closer. The sorcerer peered down into the visor of that fearsome plate helm and searched. ‘You still resist the change. Consider the strength it has given you. Such gifts should not be balked at. It is an affront to our patron.’
With viper’s speed, the Dreadguard seized Axanthral by the throat. Frost rimed the steel gauntlet and spread onto Axanthral’s flesh. It froze the blood that welled where the ridged steel had broken the skin.
‘Answers, sorcerer,’ the Dreadguard repeated.
He released his grip to let the sorcerer speak.
‘What use to bite the hand that feeds, Dreadguard?’ Axanthral rasped. He willed his disc back and hovered beyond reach. The daemonic mount flashed a deep, angry crimson. ‘You must dance the jig that I tell you. Results get you answers and you have failed to reap. Our host is not appeased.’
‘The paltry distance between us will not be enough, sorcerer,’ the Dreadguard warned, still glowering through his helm.
‘So it shall be.’ The sorcerer bowed his head. ‘The nature of the change is change itself so I must divine its purpose. To treat its current state will not do. You must treat the state that it is going to be.’
‘And in what state shall it be?’
‘The threads are there for those with the sense to see them.’ He traced a symbol in the air which produced a trail of multi-coloured smoke. Without further warning, a thin violet beam shot from his eyes and transfixed on Ulgoloth, energy pulsing in an arc over the warrior’s breastplate. Convulsions wracked the Dreadguard whose head threw back, ‘Nine cuts and the hands of nine immortals. Nine banners to rise at the fortress base around a pit of glory, the cutting of threads.’
To the Dreadguard’s credit, he kept his footing when the magic dissipated. Without further word, he turned on his heel and stalked from the chamber.
‘Remember to acquaint yourself with your gift from the wall walk of the Sentenimus Battlements,’ Axanthral called after him, amusement in his voice. He paused to grin with further relish. ‘And take care, Dreadguard.’
The clatter of armoured forms moving at pace echoed from ancient stone. Deep within the inner rings of towers, the Eclipse stalked their prey. A complex of walkways joined three of the towers, some of stone, others of coruscating light, each fading in and out of existence or their matter changing from stone to writhing flesh with slick tentacles, or viscous liquid that defied gravity. Warriors of the Eclipse spread through the area, some inside chambers while others navigated the walkways outside in the darkness of swirling winds. This was a hunt; few, or one, against many.
He watched the noose tighten around the hunted warrior caught near the chamber below. An arrow clattered far to the prey’s left. Never intended to hit, the impact sounded more like an armoured warrior jumping down a level, and the prey changed direction away from it. They were herding him. They wanted him cornered in one of the outermost towers where the walkways flickered, indicating an imminent change of state. The alchemical apparatus and storage crates and chests within would offer limited hiding places from the barbaric pursuers who closed in.
He waited for the hunters–six in total–to commit to their attack and he leapt onto the platform behind them. The first spun around, weapon raised, and met an armoured fist squarely in his helm’s noseguard. The second didn’t even see him coming and only appraised the situation from his back two walkways beneath after a sudden tumble and hard landing. He had to scramble to his feet and leap inside a lower chamber as that walkway faded.
The others were ready for him and met him with a coordinated attack: two central while the other two flanked either side. They lasted two and a half seconds. As they groaned, an armoured heap of bruises and, in one case, broken limbs, he discarded the sword that he had taken from one within the pile.
‘I had that under control,’ an irritated voice said from within the chamber’s clutter. Somewhere near the back wall, though the glass jars and alchemical apparatus reflected only a confused mess of colour, repeating shapes across their surfaces before reflecting something else though nothing in the chamber appeared to move.
He stepped inside and saw through the ambush. With a mirthless laugh, he kicked away the leg of a table behind which an armoured form crouched, poised for attack. As books, tools and glassware crashed down atop the form, so too did the floor beneath his feet.
He fell, arms windmilling. The platforms around him changed to coloured smoke and no solid surfaces remained for a hundred feet below. As he felt the lurch of sudden movement, a hand snapped out and caught him by the wrist. The strong, human hand came from beneath a rough white shirt.
‘I told you it was under control,’ the saviour repeated and hauled him up with the aid of two other warriors that had been in the pack of hunters. ‘Evidently there is still something an old man can teach you.’
When all felt solid ground beneath their armoured boots once more, the man in the white shirt and other warriors knelt , heads bowed, before the returned man in his glimmering silver armour, though none of them perceived a reflection of themselves.
He ignored the comment and addressed the other warriors, their training drill completed. ‘Retrieve the prisoners and assemble at the gatehouse.’
In a crash of steel gauntlets to breastplates, all but the he and the white-shirted man left.
‘Another ritual?’ Ven asked with a sidelong glance to the departing warriors. Damp with sweat from the hunt, his shirt clung to his rounded shoulders. Age had done nothing to diminish those muscles, only made them gnarled and stubborn. ‘Dreadguard.’
‘Lambent Protector,’ he corrected, grimacing and suppressing no little shame at the use of the sorcerer’s name for him. Geltz, he corrected himself. Lambent Protector Geltz Dalewarden. Seven houses of noble birth, three cities, the old mantra began in his mind before he shook it away.
‘Is it?’ Ven probed, raising an eyebrow. ‘Protector, Avenger, Dreadguard. It’s a progression. Geltz? Or Ulgoloth?’ He glanced at a talisman shaped like a dirk which hung from Geltz’s armour. ‘I see you still carry the sorcerer’s token.’
Hearing the name Ulgoloth twisted his insides. His armour constricted around him and a vile, tortured face, full of malice, warped across its reflective surface. With titanic will, he battered the feelings down. It left him breathless and on the verge of vomiting.
‘Geltz,’ he panted. ‘I am Lambent Protector Geltz Dalewarden.’ He swallowed and steadied himself as he regained control. ‘And I know what you would say. This discussion is old ground.’ And I would have anyone else’s head for bringing it up.
The thought chilled him. It had surfaced unbidden and he knew exactly from where. Worse, he knew that the Dreadguard was not a foreign entity but a fragment of himself. A wave of malice and anger accompanied his thoughts though he battered that down too as quickly as it came.
‘My goal, our duty, remains unchanged,’ Geltz replied when his composure returned. Ven was his compass, he knew that, it had always been so. Teacher and guide. Through all Geltz had endured, perhaps only Ven exceeded his stoic endeavour. Falling into the old man’s trap should have reminded him of that instead of drinking from the pit of resentment that he had instead tapped into.
‘And yet you proceed.’ With no answer forthcoming, Ven pressed. ‘What tidbit did he offer? More half-truths and promises?’
‘What other option is there?’ Geltz snapped.
‘Axanthral is not the only power we might tap into.’
Geltz shook his head. ‘Whoever our silvered foe was, whoever this Sigmar is that Axanthral claims they fight for, an accord cannot be reached. “Arms raised against the Kingdom of Vales be met with –”’
‘Shield and sword and unyielding vengeance by whatever means,’ Ven finished. ‘I know what we swore.’ The lieutenant tidied some of the detritus from around them while retrieving his armour from his trap and getting himself back into it. Inside the room, their floor was at least stable, unlike the changing walkways outside. ‘Our landscape has somewhat changed since then, however. Perhaps we should adapt.’
‘Adapt? And you berate me for sounding like the sorcerer? An oath is binding. Forever.’
Ven paused while putting on his vambraces and his shoulders sagged. ‘Our charges should have died of old age long ago, and the both of us with them. How many of these Harvests have we reaped? This sorcerer has given nothing but promises and will-o-wisps to chase, and in return?’ Ven bowed his head and screwed his eyes shut before expelling a deep sigh and looking through Geltz’s visor. ‘Are they any better, Lambent Protector? You hide them even from us. Have these rituals and unguents and spells of his devising improved their state at all?’
‘This conversation is over, lieutenant. We are committed to this path,’ Geltz growled. Perhaps this was the time. His confidence rose from having forced the truth from Axanthral at last. His mind fogged. Or had he thought this before? No, this time it was different. ‘The sorcerer shows his fear of me. I could have crushed his neck into flakes of parchment and he saw it. He knows there will be a reckoning if this yields no results.’ Geltz did not feel the rising rage until his fists were clenched and tension gripped his arms. ‘We have grisly work to do.’
Realising the lost cause, for the moment, Ven nodded and made for a spiral walkway down towards the ground before heading out to the Arquian Gate. It by no means marked an end to the issue and they both knew it.
The crystalline shards that formed most of the Aurora Citadel’s inner towers loomed behind them, spearing into the sky atop walls which reflected in a quicksilver sheen. It was spreading further, the silver. Much more so since the start of this Harvest. Lights and shapes always played across the surface and within the crystal depths. To stare inside invited a murky reflection of the Realm of Chaos, a realm that looked back at the observer, seduced, corrupted and bound them. Even the Dreadguard of the citadel grunted and turned away before it pulled him in.
Dreadguard. He caught himself slipping into the sorcerer’s pet name. Lambent Protector, he reminded himself.
His lips curled with distaste. He did only what he must. Sacrifice in duty and his duty had not ended. Whatever means necessary. And so he mobilised the villains under his command. Once known as the Lambent Order, these blackguards now referred to themselves as the Eclipse. The radiant sunburst that once adorned their tabards and embossed on their armour plates was now joined by a dark circle.
Clad in steel twisted by daemonic powers, he strode past the high archway, armour clattering against the chitinous ground at the base of the citadel. Bone? Carapace? It didn’t matter; another day and the ground would assume another texture. Such was the way around the citadel. A dozen armoured warriors followed in perfect step, their armament less ornate but still offensive to the eye with its carved symbols and daemonic faces. A disconcerting sight for their leader who remembered a purer garb.
They dragged covered sleds behind them and gathered at the base of one of the towers. Where many of the towers and walls had been enveloped into the growing silver structure, the original stonework of men ages-dead stood starkly against the refracting crystal of other towers. A dozen eyes, each larger than a man’s head, watched from their fleshy growths on the stone tower’s side, snapping their attention to the grim procession. Some resembled human eyes, others cats, wolves and even creatures spawned in the Realm of Chaos.
The sorcerer could watch all he wanted.
Beyond the archway, they marched into the old city once protected by the defences of the Aurora Citadel. Most of the buildings remained intact in this inner section, unlike the blasted remains that crumbled in the outer ring. Defensive towers still rose all around, though all required extensive repair. Or would have if such a force existed that could break the citadel. Nothing had challenged these walls for generations. Geltz glanced at the flickering lights cast from a few of the towers. Nine individual cults populated them, each with their own debased rituals which they performed in isolation from the others. They were waiting for him, their parts in this ritual already underway.
At Geltz’s direction, the warriors rammed nine pikes into the ground, eight in a circle around the largest. That central one sagged under the impaled body of the hero of Valescroft, deformed and fallen yet with enough humanity remaining to show recognisable agony. The remaining pikes held the bodies of his honour guard. In the strange, refracted light of the crystalline towers, the shadows of the pikes formed an eight-pointed star on the ground.
It didn’t take long before the flesh drained from the bodies. Their skin paled and shrivelled until it hung prune-like over empty skeletons. A creeping, wet sound came from the wall as the fleshy matter advanced further over the stonework of the tower and an overwhelming presence of malice swept over Geltz. The citadel’s daemonic custodian, a being so vile that he would have relished the opportunity to run it through, had it a corporeal form.
The remainder of the Eclipse marched through the arched entrance, this time drawing large cages on wheeled contraptions. The living stock. Terrified prisoners taken from Valescroft huddled within, whimpering, sobbing, or staring blankly into oblivion. They were for the moat, the black, abyssal trench that encircled the citadel.
Ven approached while the other warriors busied themselves with the prisoners. ‘Word has it the warband we faced is making for the citadel. Perhaps we should be preparing.’ He glanced at the rough, depraved treatment of the prisoners being hauled from their cages, beaten and defiled, to the gruesome pikes, and then back to Geltz. ‘Or perhaps this is preparation?’
Geltz gave no answer. Instead, he oversaw the first of the prisoners’ wailing plunge into the depths. Pleading turned into screams as the woman plunged over the edge, not into water but extreme wind that surged within. It buffeted the body against walls, howling as its speed increased and jostling other bodies as they tumbled within, not letting any hit the ground, however far below it was.
He stared down after her, a light wind stirring his midnight blue tabard.
‘Sacrifice in duty,’ he muttered to himself. ‘By whatever means.’
Kicks and squeals caught Geltz’s attention. It was a boy in the throes of adolescence. Geltz sneered. A body and mind undergoing such levels of change was the preferred sustenance for the daemon spirit. Geltz loomed over the boy. He tasted the fear before plunging his sword under the boy’s ribs and twisting the blade. It was not a mercy, though the daemon spirit would have taken its time over killing him. Even if the Lambent Protector could not hurt the daemon spirit itself, he could still extend his cruelty onto it and deny its cravings.
The magic of the Realm of Chaos swirled around him, exciting his skin and making it crawl at the same time. Its power and potential invigorated him. They were the literal Winds of Change and they would help his charges. Somehow. He paused. Did he need to do something, to direct them? The sorcerer had not specified and he had been so swept up by gaining advantage over Axanthral he had not considered further details.
Geltz, Ven and the Eclipse needed no chanting or symbols for the ritual. The cults dealt with that. They were the death dealers, and with the ritual complete a fell aurora bloomed in the sky.
‘Is that what you’re looking for?’ Ven asked. Doubt carried in his voice.
Geltz didn’t know. His confusion over his confrontation with Axanthral made his head swim. Surely it had done something. It must have. Something else stirred upon the battlements, something awful. It called to him, a call that grew ever more insistent the more he ignored it. There was only one way to resolve it but Geltz had a priority that paled all others into insignificance.
‘I must check on them,’ he said and hurried into the citadel.
Aid Unlooked For
A clatter of sigmarite heralded the arrival of a Liberator as he hurried to the front of the arrayed Strike Chamber. The front lines were a gleaming wall of shields, an immovable object that many foes had crashed against and been repelled. Behind those ranks, the Paladins hefted their mighty lightning hammers or long glaives–the hammer that came after the anvil. Above him, Prosecutors circled, trails of light streaming behind them in a spectacular show of the might of the Knights of the Aurora. Their beauty would last only as long as contact with their enemy, for this formed Sigmar’s lightning strike, the fastest of all Stormhosts, and their grace was matched by their brutality.
Through the warriors, he sought the commanders and found Lord Castellant Kimmani in discussion with the Liberator Prime, Knight Azyros and Knight Heraldor. He glanced from Ancanna to Kimmani as though unsure whom to address. He settled on all of them.
‘My lords. Forgive my intrusion.’
Kimmani cut off his conversation and bid the Liberator proceed.
‘It’s the nomads,’ the Liberator said.
‘Another sighting?’ Gallus asked but Kimmani ended that line of questioning.
‘Now is not the time to chase our tails, Liberator.’ Kimmani said. ‘Your vigilance is worthy but our task is set. The counteroffensive must start immediately. Once the fortress falls, and the Aurora Banner flies atop the wreckage, we shall find your nomads.’
The Liberator shook his head. ‘Quite so, my lord, but the nomads are here. They are few but they are dressed for war.’
‘Are they indeed?’ The Lord Castellant gave the messenger his full attention. ‘Show me.’
The Liberator hesitated. ‘They are asking for Ancanna, Lord Castellant.’
Ancanna felt Kimmani’s rage surface over the ten paces between them. The nomads arriving could only mean that Kell had spoken to them, but considering that she had tried to stab him when last they met, he had to wonder what had changed.
‘Liberator Prime Ancanna does not lead this Strike Chamber,’ Kimmani said tersely. ‘They shall speak with the Lord Castellant.’
The messenger stole a glance to Ancanna. ‘Of course, my lord. Their leader, an Aelf, awaits us at the Hippodrome Excelsior.’
Kimmani regarded his commanders. ‘Begin the march onto the citadel. Gallus, take the Boreal, Solarus, Corona and Gale Prosecutor units to the west. Make haste but do not take wing until the Liberators reach their staging area. I will rejoin you shortly.’ He crashed his gauntlet to his chest in salute and gestured for the Liberator to lead on. He stared Ancanna down as he passed but neither spoke. The Liberator Prime stood to attention, stoic and unflinching as the death-mask of his battle helm.
Under the Liberator’s lead, Kimmani weaved through fallen pillars and over uneven cobbles until they reached the oval expanse of the Hippodrome Excelsior. There was no Aelf.
‘You put a watch on him?’ the Lord Castellant asked, impatience clear in his clipped tones.
‘A watch?’ Melodious words chimed as though from a dozen different columns at once. ‘Do you consider me your prisoner, Storm Warrior? Have a care, for you have not caught your quarry just yet.’
‘I have no time and even less patience for games.’ The Lord Castellant dismissed the Liberator back to the ranks where his shield would be most needed. He wielded his halberd one-handed near the blade while scouring the ruins for movement. But of course, this was Ulglu, and not a moment passed without something moving in the periphery. Real or otherwise. ‘My charge informed me of warriors here, arrayed for war. Show yourself and state your intentions.’
‘You do not sound like Kell told me, though your attire matches her description.’ The Aelf paused, allowing his soft words to echo between columns. ‘I wonder, is this Ancanna whom I address?’
‘Liberator Prime Ancanna stands at the head of my army. It is his shield that shall take the brunt of the enemy’s malice. My name is Kimmani Keepwarden, Lord Castellant of the Knights of the Aurora. I speak for the warriors assembled here, including Ancanna, and carry the will of the God-king Sigmar.’
Silence fell between them. Kimmani used it. He was a defender by nature. A glance at a building and he could find every entrance, every exit, every defendable position. Every hiding place. He stalked between the columns and onto the packed dirt of the arena away from the cobbles of the streets. Something looked out of place by the stage in the centre of the hippodrome but the voice could not have come from there. Keeping an eye on the stage, he narrowed the Aelf’s location down to three possibilities.
‘Our collective is based on trust,’ the Aelf continued, narrowing it to two hiding places. ‘We have elected to extend our trust to Ancanna of the Storm.’
Kimmani extended his axe head around another column and traced a line in the dirt. That left one hiding place. The Aelf stepped from behind it.
He wore none of the resplendent colours and fabrics that the Aelfs in Azyrheim clad themselves in. His garb matched the aged marble and drab cobbles of the ruins with intricate folds holding the cloth in place.
‘My Liberator informed me that you bring warriors clad for war.’
At a call from the Aelf, a handful of men and women emerged around the great stadium. Some from the stepped seating which surrounded a raised stone stage in the centre of the elliptical track. Others slid out from trap doors in the ground or spidered down columns. The last rose from a crouch in front of one of the large letters embossed onto the stage which spelled, Hippodrome Excelsior. Invisible against the stone until he moved.
The Lord Castellant inspected the line of rag-tag nomads. His gaze passed over their ragged clothes in hues of dirty green and brown, grey and blue, and onto the dull, notched blades of their hand axes and spears. They were fed enough, not malnourished, he credited them that but when he compared them to the gleaming sigmarite armour and hammers of his Stormhost, he shook his head.
‘We can get you into the citadel, Lord Castellant,’ the Aelf said. Even without the acoustic effect of the hippodrome which he had lost since stepping into the open, his voice formed musial notes like wind chimes.
Kimmani shot him a hard stare. ‘We are fully capable of getting ourselves into the citadel, Aelf. Our hammers strike with god-forged fury and crush stone as easily as they crush skulls. But tell me why you show yourself now? Why do you offer your help instead of staying in hiding?’
‘Because the cycle is broken,’ the Aelf explained. ‘We could have avoided them indefinitely, by watching and following the Harvests. Your defence of Valescroft has interrupted that. Now the agents of the Aurora Citadel scour their territory. The blood and souls of their crops kept us from notice, but now they are searching.’
The Lord Castellant spread his arms. ‘We are here. We make no effort to hide ourselves. If they seek battle, they need look no further than these ruins. Yet you cannot avoid them?’
‘Open battle is not their way, Stormcast. We are not of their scheme. If they knew of us, they did not care, for they had a far more bountiful Harvest in Valescroft. Now, they would snuff us out like a candle.’
‘And suddenly you have the backbone to fight them?’ Kimmani leaned closer, looming over the Aelf. His shoulder pad alone was half again the size of the Aelf’s head.
The nomad wrinkled his nose, a gesture that looked out of place on his fair, delicate features. Unintimidated by the Lord Castellant’s bulk and proximity, he held his ground. ‘We have little choice. Now they have had their noses bloodied, there will be a reckoning and they will scour the valley until they get it. Unless they are destroyed, they will destroy us. Unless you accept our aid, they will destroy you.’
Kimmani stiffened. He stepped back from the Aelf and drew himself to his full height. Sunlight from the only visible crescent glinted from his armour plates, showing the terrible glory of the Lord Castellant.
‘We are Stormcast Eternals, Aelf. We have faced daemons and thrice-dead abominations. Ghost stories do not scare us, nor can any fortress stay our wrath.’
The Aelf looked solemn and shook his head. ‘Your storm-forged armaments are not enough, nor is your posturing or your arrogance. You will be taken apart in the city surrounding the citadel before you even reach the gates. Your servant, Ancanna, he has tasted a little of the horrors in the walls. Nearer the citadel you can expect much worse. The lords of the citadel see much, Storm Warrior, but they do not see everything.’
The sky darkened. A whisper of wind brushed through the hippodrome. Failure, it said. Replaceable. Liberator.
‘What is that?’ Kimmani said, looking up to where the night had arrived long before its due.
The nomads were gone.
The Knights of the Aurora reached their staging area with no sign of the Lord Castellant returning to lead them. The constant twilight made the time of day and duration of their march difficult to discern but the Stormcast Eternals remained fresh and prepared for their task. Ranks of Liberators showed their discipline with precision lines of shields, all sturdy, not a single weary arm. Behind them, the Paladins continued their relentless advance, unphased by their massive armour and weaponry until they reached the ridge where their paths would part. Without need of a signal, four flights of Prosecutors landed behind the bulk of the force while the remainder circled above. With the enemy’s eyes on the larger force, their crippling blow could hit them unawares.
A flock of gloomlarches sawed and banked overhead, drawing the Stormcasts’ attention to the Aurora Citadel which dominated the horizon. Their target loomed ahead of them, a once-mighty structure of towers and walls constructed on many levels as it covered a hillside. How the Prosecutors could have missed such a monstrosity was a subject of much debate within the Strike Chamber. Thick fog obscured its base, enough that the tops of damaged towers stuck out from it like rotten teeth. No two fortresses of the dark gods were alike. While slaves conquered in the wars of ages past built many, most that the Knights of the Aurora had seen had been repurposed after they fell. While the Duardin or Free Peoples, or even Sigmar’s own to a degree, built their fortresses to a similar plan for speed and efficiency, Chaos-built structures often relied on armies of slaves sacrificed in their construction.
It appeared, however, that little effort had gone into re-fortifying this one with most of it in disrepair. The central spires and the citadel itself told a different story. Situated so high, above the mists, the base of the citadel gleamed silver in a mirror-like sheen, mostly on its lower half, but patches shone through across its whole surface.
As with most battles fought by the Knights of the Aurora, their scouting had reduced the number of variables they had to react to. Dealing with the agents of Chaos always meant something unexpected, but knowing their flanks were covered, knowing the terrain and what could come, allowed the Knights of the Aurora to focus.
Ancanna signalled the halt and left the front rank to confer with the Knight Azyros.
‘Our goal lies ahead, and yet our leader remains absent,’ he said. ‘It seems we have a choice, Knight.’
‘To strike now or wait for the Lord Castellant,’ Gallus agreed. He rolled the shoulder of his sword arm. ‘I have never relished the wait before battle and our orders were clear.’
Ancanna considered the possibilities. Perhaps the nomads brought information that changed their plans. Perhaps their Lord Castellant walked into a trap. Or perhaps he was simply delayed.
‘There’s no way of telling,’ Ancanna decided. ‘If we delay, we lose our advantage. We are Stormcast. Any one of us could lead this army.’
‘It’s talk like that which has Kimmani suspicious of you.’
‘Suspicious?’ Ancanna led Gallus a little distance from the other Stormcast Eternals, trudging up the rocky ground as if to observe their paths from higher ground. ‘Every one of us is a veteran of countless battles. Even before the God-king claimed us, we had all led campaigns, however large or small. However unsuccessful,’ he added.
Ultimately, they had all failed. Ancanna had died along with every man, woman and child he had attempted to save. Gallus’ own story followed a similar, tragic theme where his sacrifice delayed the slaughter of his guild and their families by only a matter of moments. Similar themes played throughout the Knights of the Aurora. True, many who these warriors had defended in their previous existence had lived out their lives, survived the dominance of Chaos by fleeing or hiding. Ancanna hoped their descendants lived on.
‘Well, there’s no shortage of heroes then,’ Gallus said, amused. ‘Have a care with Kimmani though, when he returns. He thinks you want command of the Strike Chamber.’
‘Nonsense,’ Ancanna said with a frown. ‘I have made no such claim. Nor would I.’
It put him in mind of the first time he emerged from the reforging chambers. Whe refused the God-king himself. But now wasn’t the time for his reverie. He returned his focus to the battle ahead. It was too late to send a Prosecutor back with the force so committed; their waiting would only alert the enemy to their approach. Without further information, he would stick to orders.
And he would see them carried out by the Strike Chamber. The Lord Castellant could think what he may. The Knights of the Aurora had a job to do and if it required Ancanna to take up the mantle to achieve that goal, so be it.
‘Even so, he’s taken your insubordination at Valescroft and your link with the nomads as a challenge to his leadership. After you met with him yesterday, he believed the issue resolved when he offered you his hand. He’s taking it as a slight.’
The audacity of the implications took Ancanna aback. ‘You believe me wrong? You would have allowed the Lord Castellant to force the people of Valescroft into submission?’
‘He wouldn’t have gone that far.’
‘Wouldn’t he? I saw your reaction when he gave the order and saw him shrug you away too.’
‘Like I say, he’s treating it as a bid for leadership and not an isolated incident.’
‘You were present at my Remembering, Gallus. You know I’ve never had designs on command.’
‘Not then.’ Gallus held his silence for a moment. ‘But reforging changes us in ways we haven’t even discovered yet.’
The words pierced him. ‘You doubt me? Even you?’
‘I don’t doubt your intent, Ancanna, but whether by design or circumstance, you fall into leadership time and again.’
‘Only by necessity, I assure you.’ Tired of the discussion, he cast his attention back to the citadel. ‘We attack. You are needed to strike the first blows so cannot stay with the bulk of the force. Who else is going to give the order?’
Gallus smiled. Though obscured by his death-mask faceplate, it shone through in his voice. ‘Who else indeed? May your shield remain whole, commander.’
‘May we all remain whole,’ Ancanna muttered before clashing his warhammer against his shield and calling to the army. ‘Knights of the Aurora! Raise hammers with me.’ As the Strike Chamber did so, he pointed his hammer towards the citadel. ‘It appears that yonder fortress did not fall hard enough the first time. We shall do a better job of it. Brother Stormcasts, we face sorcery and daemoncraft. Stand firm and lay low the tyrant! Breach their walls before they know we are upon them! Show them why they call us the Swift!’
No sooner had the Strike Chamber responded in a thunderous clash of sigmarite when the sky turned dark and a fell aurora bloomed across it. Within its lights, twisted faces with elongated maws and empty sockets cried enormous, silent screams while dark specks moved across its surface. Lightning crackled but not of Sigmar’s doing. This spread in unnatural forks, glowing purple around a midnight core.
And then the daemons came.