Aurora Citadel Chapters 13-15

Missed the first instalments? These will catch you up:

Chapters 1-3

Chapters 4-6

Chapters 7-9

Chapters 10-12

Chapter 13

Endless Horde

Battle with daemons stalled the attack before it gained more than a dozen steps of momentum. The Strike Chamber got within a mile of the mists surrounding their fortress goal before the flyers swooped into them, shrieking, biting and clawing, or burning them with the daemonfire that crackled around their bodies.

With the ground troops so harried, Knight Azyros Gallus abandoned his objective and brought his four wings of Prosecutors into the fight. They found themselves hard pressed into the flood of daemons that came screaming from the aurora their advance halted altogether. Prosecutors reported to Ancanna in his shield wall at regular intervals and carried his orders to reposition where most needed. Much as the Knights of the Aurora could operate with considerable autonomy borne of experience and drilled techniques, the extra direction made the hammerblow land that much harder.

Soon after they formed their defensive formation and gained the upper hand over the daemons, one of the Prosecutors arrived in a flurry of celestial hammers thrown from his hovering position. He reported that the Lord Castellant had been sighted holding his ground alone against a score of daemons. Prosecutors had already been sent to assist but Ancanna judged the ebb and flow of the battle. At his direction, they fought a retreat back to the ruins and linked up with Kimmani.

A trail of vanquished foes marked Kimmani’s path out of the ruins towards the rearguard. When the Strike Chamber arrived, they were met with an ichor-soaked killing machine. Two deformed spawns from the Realm of Chaos that had battered against the rearguard’s shields fell from a single slice of the Lord Castellant’s gleaming halberd.

‘Sigmar strike me down if I see a retreat before me!’ Kimmani yelled his fury not at the daemons but his own Strike Chamber. ‘About turn, you cowards!’

He speared a flying ray-like daemon before grabbing the nearest Liberator by his gorget and hauling him closer. ‘Who ordered the fall back? Speak.’

Ancanna answered for himself after slamming the lip of his shield into the maw of a horror that exploded from the sundered form of a larger daemon and had the advantage on Kimmani. The admission only incensed the Lord Castellant further. Halberd spinning, he plunged into a trio of daemons and sliced them all, his form perfect, his weight transfer between his elliptical parry and thrust impeccable despite his explosive rage.

‘Smash them, Knights of the Aurora!’ he shouted, making his way through to the front of the Strike Chamber. ‘Smash them back to the very walls of the citadel, and then smash down those walls!’

It was never going to happen.

One man’s fury, even at the head of a mighty Strike Chamber, counted for only so much. Constant, unyielding assault bogged the Stormcast Eternals down and reduced their advance to a few steps every minute. Numbers. It always came back to numbers and though warriors as powerful as the Knights of the Aurora counted for many, the enemy always had more.

They pummelled and thwarted the horde through the night and still failed to close on the fortress. When dawn came and the final hammer blow struck, Lord Castellant Kimmani called a halt.

‘Wasteful,’ he growled before barking orders to regroup the Strike Chamber.

Sigmarite clad warriors spread in pockets across the ridge and back down into the valley. Golden crops lay trampled and splattered with viscera, both daemon and Stormcast. Across the battlefield, the scent of ozone and fresh rain mixed with the acrid filth of dying daemonfire. Movement as far back as the ruins showed just how far the unexpected attack had spread the Knights of the Aurora. Just regrouping the Strike Chamber would take hours.

It crossed Ancanna’s mind whether to expect these auroras and daemonic incursions every night, whether they were linked to some form of beacon within these valleys. The Claws of Dracothion, the scouts had called the complex of valleys as from above, they claimed, they looked like the great drake had swiped great furrows in the earth. The Liberator Prime hooked his shield onto his back, looped his warhammer at his waist and sought out Kimmani.

He found the Lord Castellant on the highest point of the ridge and had to step on the corpses of a dozen daemons to reach his side. Without their daemonfire, their shrieks and their malevolent fury, the daemons weren’t much to look at once vanquished. These lay flat and shrivelled like dried fruit, even their once-bright colouring lost its vibrancy.

‘What of the nomads?’ Ancanna asked. ‘Will they join the fight?’

‘I cannot use them.’ Kimmani kept staring out, focused on the black and silver fortress.

It was well placed, high and difficult to reach. While the Knights of the Aurora stood a better chance than most given their air superiority, Prosecutors formed only part of the force. Narrow pathways and steep cliffsides would funnel the ground troops.

‘What did you say?’ The Lord Castellant asked.

Ancanna frowned. ‘Nothing my lord.’

‘Perhaps just the wind,’ Kimmani said absently, hesitantly as though it was a sensation he had experienced before.

The mists lay lower with the breaking of dawn, as though the sunlight permeating the thinner clouds burned them away. While they still covered most of the streets around the fortress, the tops of buildings peeked through. Many lay in ruins though a band of almost untouched structures remained nearer the citadel itself. Arches stood tall attached to colonnades, spherical structures to the arcane arts lay scattered amidst houses and the odd industrial premises built into the often steep hillsides.

‘Sir,’ Ancanna said. ‘There is–’

Kimmani spun around so suddenly that he stole the words from Ancanna’s tongue. A hard night of fending off daemons spewed from the aurora left him wearied but it was being forced to postpone the attack on the citadel which left the Lord Castellant in poor humour. ‘Don’t think I have forgotten your orders to fall back, Liberator Prime,’ he snapped. ‘You cost us this fight.’

Taken aback by the stretch of logic, Ancanna cocked his head. ‘My lord, the daemons were upon us and swarming you. Even if we had reached the citadel, they would have crushed us from the rear.’

‘Rot and nonsense, Prime. Striking the sorcerous heart of that fortress would have sealed the aurora and made the enemy’s defence falter before it organised. Our banners would be flying atop those towers now.’ He slammed the butt of his halberd into a downed daemon and heaved a breath. ‘I have made my decision. The nomads wield the tools of hunter gatherers, not weapons of war. The first hint of danger and they bolted. They are cowards, not warriors.’

Ancanna hesitated but chose his words with care. ‘There was a time, Kimmani Keepwarden,’ he whispered deliberately omitting the Lord Castellant’s title, ‘when none of us were warriors. My own hammer was used for nails, not skulls. Your mighty halberd was, back then, a lamplighter’s pole. Do you remember?’

The Lord Castellant fixed him a baleful glare through his helmet. ‘Do not second guess me, Liberator Prime. I have made my decision. The time to which you refer is long past. We are warriors now.’

Ancanna gripped his fists as his choler rose. This approach, rejecting help out of hand, sounded nothing like what their Lord Celestant had told them as they passed through the realm gate into Ulglu. Sigmar’s message spoke of unity with whoever stood against Chaos, of the old alliances forged anew. Though mighty, the Stormcast Eternals could not retake the Mortal Realms alone. Wielding such might, one could forget that.

‘Do you forget your own journey, Kimmani? Has reforging stripped you bare? Need we hold another Remembering?’

‘A Remembering?’ Kimmani stiffened at the insult. He closed on Ancanna until their faces were inches apart. ‘We are Stormcast now. Remember that, and remember your place, Liberator Prime. Yes, I remember where I came from. I remember being unable to defend my family and friends, just like you.’

Before they were reforged as Stormcast, every Knight of the Aurora came from humble beginnings, soldiers of circumstance only when war was thrust upon them and they took up arms. Despite their background they were no less heroes, no less fierce, than the Hallowed Knights or Hammers of Sigmar. With the assistance of his brother Stormcast Eternals and a Remembering, Ancanna knew most of his previous life even if some of the images had blurred. He, along with no more than a dozen other craftsmen, held for three weeks against a force of darksworn warriors and their daemon sorcery. They had repurposed their tools for fighting and used every ounce of their ingenuity to defend.

‘And so you defend these people by keeping them out of the fight? We cannot inspire others to join us by showing what we can do. We must show them what they can do. We were forced into it at the edge of a blade. We can arm these people, give them the training they need.’

‘I am keeping them out of our way,’ Kimmani growled. He matched Ancanna’s anger with his own. ‘We are to be an inspiration to these nomads. I called the people of Valescroft to fight and they hid. I tested the mettle of the nomads and they fled. Lifetimes of running and hiding has left them weak. They will watch us smash through the citadel, see our mighty armaments smite its defenders. That is what they need to follow in our wake. They must see our strength. We do not indicate that we are so weak to need other races to bolster us.’ Kimmani spread his arms. He cut an imposing figure in full armour atop the ridge, the remains of his vanquished enemies at his feet. ‘Look at our stature, our armour. We are a symbol of hope!’

‘Just like the hero of Valescroft was?’ Ancanna gestured to the distant town, the damage of their battle still very much evident in the wreckage of buildings and the black smoke still wisping from them. ‘He gave them hope but was no match for what he fought. This,’ he gestured around him, ‘I believe that this was not an isolated event. While searching the ruins, we saw carvings which showed a similar sequence of events over and over again with different heroes. A hero always rises, and the hero always dies. I believe that whatever is in that fortress is linked to these people.’

‘Nonsense. Every culture has its myths and that’s all they are.’ He gestured his halberd towards the fortress. ‘That is definite. Real. Its walls have form that I will tear down. I will not devise a strategy based on stories.’

‘Is it nonsense? How can a town such as that survive in a realm dominated by Chaos, in the shadow of that fortress? How many warbands did we smash between the realm gate and here? If they wanted to wipe out these people, they could have done so at a whim.’

Kimmani shook his head. ‘Show me something convincing and I’ll listen. Until then, my orders stand. We regroup and strike at the citadel.’

The two warriors stared at one another. Ancanna, grudgingly, admitted to himself that he did not know how to integrate these nomads into the Strike Chamber either. He glanced back to the fortress and breathed. The ozone tang brought him comfort and steadied his temper.

‘Very well, but think on this, my lord. If we had warriors available before we became Stormcast, imagine what we might have achieved, how many more we could have saved.’

‘If we had warriors back then, none of us would have become Stormcast. We would have allowed them to fight for us and remained as craftsmen or merchants or farmers, just as these savages should allow us to fight for them.’ Kimmani’s voice remained steely but he hesitated. ‘I presided over your Remembering, brother Stormcast. I know the distaste you felt when you repurposed your hammer from a tool to a weapon.’

Ancanna frowned at the Lord Castellant’s assessment, for it cut close to the bone. Rememberings forged the Knights of the Aurora close, like the rings of mail armour, all connected. Each knew one another’s history, their triumphs and failures. It allowed them to coordinate and fight together with ruthless efficiency but meant that nothing was hidden from their brother Stormcasts.

Would he have remained a builder if fighting had not been forced upon him? He expected he would. It would have denied him the opportunity, however grisly, to grow into the warrior’s guise that he now occupied. And though much of what the Castellant said rang true, Ancanna disagreed on their proposed action. These nomads wanted their chance to fight, and the Lord Celestant had ordered for people to be rallied to the Stormcasts’ cause. They should be allowed their fight.

At Ancanna’s silence, the Lord Castellant continued. ‘Your defender’s instinct betrays you, Liberator Prime. Would you have our forces split, held back to protect these savages? You are the only Prime I keep in my close counsel, Ancanna, and that is because I need your backbone, but must you fight me at every decision?’

‘It is not my intention to oppose you without reason, Lord Castellant.’ Ancanna considered the phrase of his words before speaking further. No fear stirred in him at another disagreement with Kimmani, but his volatile nature needed careful tempering. Ancanna, however, was not one to hold his tongue or sweeten his words. ‘We have suffered greatly since passing through the Ulglu realm gate.’

Kimmani eyed him. His heavy breath fogged slightly as a black cloud blocked the suns and cast a temperature-plummeting shadow.

‘The loss of our Judicators weighs on me also but I do not regret my orders. The Prosecutors were needed for scouting. This realm has been choked by Chaos for generations which meant that anyone who opposed the ruinous powers must have been stealthy. We needed every resource to find them. And now we have our target. We must smash the walls in a lightning assault, eyes on our target only.’

It was a common tactic for the Knights of the Aurora. Their abundance of Prosecutors gifted the element of surprise. Countless flanks had crumbled against their hammer blow before they could react to the attack. With the enemy forces split and in disarray the Liberators and Retributors would move in to finish the job. From what he had seen of the nomads, Ancanna perceived not the dishevelled remnant of a dying people, but grim determination and fighting spirit. A spirit that lacked the means to fight until now.

‘Sir, our object here in Ulglu is to rally others to our cause. These are the first we’ve met who are willing to fight. Sigmar must have his reasons.’

‘I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to guess Sigmar’s will,’ he snapped. ‘They will rally to us, in time, but our strategy relies on the shock of a lightning assault. We lack the time to train them in our formations, tactics and combat drills. I will not risk this assault on untrained elements disrupting our disciplined manoeuvres. Perhaps another day, when they are properly trained, they may support us.’

Ancanna relented. He had tried a last ditch attempt and failed. The Castellant was entrenched, and whether behind fortifications or resolved in his orders, there would be no shifting him. Instead, Ancanna decided on a different approach.

‘Then if they cannot fight with us, perhaps we can use their knowledge. Our Prosecutors are blinded by the mists of this realm. These nomads move stealthily through the woods. They can gather information without being seen. If they have remained unseen for so long, they must know the land. Let them scout for us. We do not even know with whom we fight.’

That, at least, gave Kimmani pause. Part of the Knights of the Aurora’s success relied on advanced knowledge of the enemy and the battlefield terrain. They rarely needed to change tactics because they knew the variables in the conflict, minimised them, and planned their strategy around them.

‘Then find out what you can,’ Kimmani said. ‘But anything they say is taken under advice only. There may be other reasons how they have survived in Chaos-choked lands. Any strategy will be a Stormcast strategy, not a nomad one. Is that understood, Prime?’

Ancanna acceded with downcast face and a rotten feeling in his gut. He knew he had overstepped by giving more than just voice to his concerns. ‘Yes, sir. The Strike Chamber attacks alone.’

The Lord Castellant nodded and strode away, cloak trailing behind him, leaving Ancanna seething at their exchange. Worse than their disagreement–their repeated disagreements–Ancanna worried about the Castellant. The Knights of the Aurora put great importance on their heritage, taking great pains through their Rememberings never to forget their lives. The alternative was to become fully Stormcast, a soldier that existed only for battle. If that came to pass, what would separate them from the Orruks? Or the fanatics of Chaos? The Stormcasts had to be more than empty suits of armour.

‘At least we get their knowledge, that’s something,’ Ancanna muttered to himself but when he stalked back to the ruins to find them, the nomads had gone, leaving no trail. His own unit of Liberators waited outside the walls while he searched. The scrape of sigmarite armour plates dwindling into the distance marked the departure of the rest of the Strike Chamber and its second muster for battle on the edge of the ruins.

It left Ancanna in silence, sitting on the stone stage until Knight Azyros Gallus joined him. ‘I believe I warned you about his mood.’

Ancanna looked back at his friend. ‘Have we lost him, Gallus? Is he forgetting? I fear what another reforging would do to him.’

Gallus refrained from his usual quick answer and considered the implications. ‘We are everything we were and everything we have become.’ He gestured back to the regrouping warriors. ‘Come. The Knights of the Aurora need the morals of Ancanna the builder and the shield of Ancanna the Stormcast.’

 

Chapter 14

It Began with Thunder

Akin with the woods, Kell scampered up a rough trunk and into the boughs of an eshanut tree as easily as climbing stairs. The long, curling leaves matching her drab clothes kept her hidden although the warriors’ attention remained ahead. That was the trouble with many predators, she thought, they rarely looked behind. They didn’t think they needed to.

Though all the warriors here were of the winged variety, they remained on the ground, waiting for the dawn. In Ulglu, however, dawn did not always provide much more light, its moons keeping the realm in a near-constant state of partial eclipse and its heavy cloud formations already gathered and broiled. There had been no aurora the previous night, she thanked the gods. With the cycle disrupted, not even Orinstar could predict the actions of the Aurora Citadel and that heightened Kell’s wariness. A dark day approached, a day for laying low, for hiding out the storm. The warriors maintained discipline like Kell had never seen, and surprising quiet given their heavy armour which let out only the odd scrape as a warrior limbered up his muscles in preparation.

The thought of these giants in their burnished armour and wings of light seeking stealth struck her as odd but in spite of their arrogance, at least they had some sense to keep themselves hidden, however futile. The woods might conceal them from without but the enemy also had eyes within, or so the Aelf maintained. Eyes, hidden in walls, trees and beasts, he would say, though Kell had never seen one.

She cocked her head at the hint of a whisper. She strained to hear more but only the susurrus of leaves around her sounded. The word ‘betrayers’ surfaced in her mind though she could not say why. It felt slick and dirty somehow, unbidden, like an interloper. Whether these Stormcasts were betrayers remained to be seen. Perhaps the warrior she met had tried to help, perhaps he was attempting to trick her, more likely the latter for help was rare in Ulglu. The enemy had played elaborate schemes before, and, according to Orinstar, bringing despair from the brink of salvation constituted its grander schemes. Adjusting her position after a shudder, she gazed back out to the horizon.

From her higher vantage point, the first glimmer of dawn cast its light over the valley. It would begin soon.

#

It began with thunder.

Not from the clouds, but from sigmarite boots pounding the ground. Over their rumble, the mighty peal of a trumpet blasted from the ruins of Art Eruditia. The Azyrite host marched in a burnished spectacle of armoured power, banners displaying the sigmarabulum held aloft. They marched in the open, through the valley and into the hills towards the Aurora Citadel. It was an open challenge to the fortress’ inhabitants: your time is over. Face us.

For a large force on foot, they covered the ground with amazing speed. Their steps landed in perfect synchronicity, their formation changed to deal with the varied terrain, switching to a snake-like column in the thinner passes and ridges and back to more defensible blocks as their path widened. Flawless. This was a force used to rapid marches, drilled and experienced. Yet in the gloom of dawn, where the light crept over the hilltop and fell on the partially ruined city at the base of the Aurora Citadel, nothing moved.

Such an open challenge had brought roving warbands upon them ever since they passed through the realm gate into Ulglu, and still only the light breeze and fell, tattered banners stirred in the grim drizzle. Still none answered the Stormcasts’ challenge even when they reached the outer ring of defences, devastated though it already was.

‘Defiled,’ Ancanna said, wrinkling his nose at the sickly odour that overpowered the scent of ozone which often followed the Stormcast Eternals.

He swept his gaze first over the buildings within the outer ring of towers and crumbled curtain wall. Like much of the mortal realms, many stood as ruined shells of their former stature. Others here remained in tact. Built on a hillside, as the town gained height, so too did the buildings gain in stature and grandeur. The architecture resembled much of Art Eruditia from where the Stormcasts had marched. Here, however, the lines of blue stone columns supported roofs or higher levels of buildings, and the closest carved decorations depicted fields and harvests and an effigy of a river god crumbled, moss covered and worn, in a dry fountain. They all, however, stood empty and soulless.

The buildings ended abruptly where a chasm cut through them. At the bottom of a lengthy, rocky drop flowed a river, churning blue-green and spitting froth where large crystals protruded from it like tusks and fangs. A single bridge crossed the span. Its gothic arches and thick stone offered room for entire regiments to cross. Statues lined its sides, but portraying nothing as tame as a river god. On one side these depicted cruel visages of warriors in bulky armour, mutated warlords and sneering sorcerers. On the other side, they assumed a more daemonic nature, growing in stature and gruesomeness from amorphous objects to a mighty bird-headed creature with an all too human–if impossibly muscled and mutated–torso and legs.

They paved the way to the Aurora Citadel itself. Ancanna was not the only Stormcast to gape.

Just as Gallus had described, disrepair did not come close. Moss and ivy grew wildly, covering much of the blue stone walls though an odd silver sheen covered the rest. It might have proved a formidable bastion a thousand years before. No soldiers manned the battlements, crumbling gaps marked where siege weapons had once defended towers. The curtain wall was already breached.

At the head of the army, the Lord Castellant, turned to the Heraldor and Primes marching nearest him. ‘Disappointing. We need only a handful of men to take this place, not an army of Stormcast Eternals.’

‘My lord,’ the Knight Vexillor said, gesturing towards the citadel with his banner pole. ‘The third tower left of the centre–’

Near the top of the spire, the structure bloated into a sphere like an enormous ball stuck in the throat of the tower. From within, lights flashed and motes of magic in purple and blue and green swirled in and out of the glassless windows.

‘Sorcery,’ Kimmani said, ‘I know. This is a Silver Tower, or the makings of one. I want Prosecutors to hit that first. A well-placed Stormcall Javelin could make this a very quick siege indeed.’

‘And behind,’ Ancanna said. ‘People watch from the hilltops.’

‘Friend or foe?’ the Vexillor asked while Kimmani kept his quiet stare upon on the citadel. ‘The nomads?’

Ancanna shrugged. ‘Could be. A warband would have been down on us by now. Perhaps hope smoulders still in a few from Valescroft.’

‘Then they shall see Sigmar’s banner fly atop the sorcerer’s tower by noon.’ Lord Castellant Kimmani hauled himself up onto the open first floor of a damaged building with dexterity that belied his heavy armour.

At Kimmani’s outstretched hand, the Knight Vexillor handed over his banner. Celestial light spilled from the lantern at the Lord Castellant’s waist, casting a halo around him. He turned to his warriors, halberd raised, the Aurora Banner at his side crackling with energy. Everyone could see him: his foot troops, the Prosecutors waiting in the woods, the people atop the hill and whoever defended the citadel. He stood as a paragon of virtue, an angelic liberator, and as a further challenge to his enemies.

‘Warriors of the God-king Sigmar,’ he called. ‘Sorcery and tyranny reign in this tower, imposing their will on those too weak to resist. No longer! Strength has come. At the behest of Sigmar himself, the Knights of the Aurora bring liberation and retribution. Break the walls and lay low the tyrant, Stormcast Eternals. Consecrate the land. The reign of blood and treachery ends now at the hammer and blade of Sigmar’s wrath. Sound the note, Knight Heraldor, for the eye of the storm strikes Ulglu!’

Lord Castellant Kimmani swiped his halberd low as the note blasted from the Heraldor’s instrument, enough to shake the foundations of the citadel and echo through the valley and into the woods where the Prosecutors waited.

They took to the air in an eruption of light. Dozens of Prosecutors opened their wings with a resounding thrum like regiments of archers letting fly. Glowing streamers of pale green and blue trailed behind them.

From the woods, they caught the winds and soared in a wide arc around the jagged spires of the citadel’s western wall which jutted out like uneven, rotten teeth. Gallus, the Knight Azyros, led them from the fore, flights of Prosecutors wielding shield and stormcall javelins flanking him like an honour guard. At his direction the Prosecutors folded their wings back and dived like hunting falcons, picking up immense speed. When they drew level with the battlements atop the front wall, they unleashed a salvo of celestial hammers and stormcall javelins. Drawn from Sigmar’s storm itself, the magical weapons pummelled the structure which groaned and shook at the impacts. Great chunks of stone cracked and tumbled from the wall, crashing into lower spires and reducing them to rubble.

As the Prosecutors summoned more celestial weapons, so too the storm overhead grew and a great boom of thunder heralded that Sigmar’s attention had been caught. They did not stop to assess the damage but rather angled their wings to regain height and fly in a helix around the sorcerer’s tower.

Still no response surfaced from the citadel’s defence.

‘He means to take the sorcerer,’ one of Ancanna’s Liberators said.

The Lord Castellant heard and, having rejoined his troops on the ground, gestured into the buildings surrounding the citadel with his halberd. ‘The Knight Azyros takes the fight to the heart of the enemy,’ he cried. ‘He is an example to us all. Let him fight with the Knights of the Aurora at his back.’

He led the march and the might of his Strike Chamber followed, focused and resolved behind their sigmarite death masks.

Ahead, Ancanna caught sight of something that caused him to stumble. Pikes formed a circle in an expanse of cleared ground, possibly once a plaza beside a gaping moat. A bridge lay across the gap, inviting them over. Bodies drained of all fluid and life lay impaled on the pikes, skin pulled tight over their faces in eternal screams of terror. Caught in the light of Kimmani’s lantern, sigmarite cast a silver reflection. A cluster of gauntlets formed a strange symbol in the ground. As a Liberator broke ranks to look closer, Ancanna called them back into place with a sharp reprimand. Whatever ritual had taken place here was long done and there was no sense disturbing its residual magic.

They crossed the bridge with caution, keeping to small groups. Such blatant lack of basic defence perturbed the Stormcast Eternals to a man. They had faced experienced warriors in Valescroft. It didn’t feel so much like overconfidence as a trap. Still the Lord Castellant rushed them on into the streets beyond the windy moat.

The streets forced the Stormcast Eternals to split into smaller units though their objective remained clear and imposing at the highest point of the long-deserted town. Still, the streets remained deathly quiet though the buildings housed more corruption than the ruins from whence the Stormcasts’ attack began. Fleshy growths like those in Art Eruditia occasionally spread, boiled, stretched and pockmarked across entire walls. Ancanna passed a house in which every wall, floor and ceiling was covered in profane symbols and fell prayers to dark gods. Whether trick of the breeze stirring the bone and bronze fetishes dangling from empty windows, a low voice whispered those scrawled prayers.

‘Where are they?’ a Liberator said, peering into the whispering house.

Ancanna adjusted his grip on his hammer. Clad in sigmarite with a host of Azyr around him, he marched tall, ready to meet any threat. The voices were disconcerting but he knew he had vanquished what they represented time and again.

‘Eyes sharp, Liberators,’ he said to his unit.

The house was soon lost in the distance behind them as Kimmani pushed a rapid pace through the twisting streets, higher and deeper into the town, ever gaining on the citadel. Flashes of celestial hammers finding their mark still lit the gloomy dawn though their source became obscured by taller buildings. It remained quiet until the rearguard passed through the ruined area of the town and into the band of larger, fuller structures.

A chill passed through Ancanna as he watched the path ahead. Something was amiss. His Liberators hesitated a step and though they would not need it, Ancanna spoke to bolster their courage. Yet no words sounded. He spoke again but heard only silence, not even the scrape of armour or clatter of boots on cobbled streets, steps which became unstable stumbles. Complete silence. A couple of Liberators near him clashed their gauntlets to their chests but they raised no sound. It dizzied Ancanna. His head swimming, he signalled a halt and stopped to shake the disorientation away.

Then all the screams of hell tore through the street.

Shoals of flying ray-like creatures burst from wells, shrieking their piercing din. After their pocket of silence, it hit the Liberators as a physical force, slamming the nearest into a wall, blood dripping from his ears and out of the slits in his helm. The others ducked and grabbed their heads.

One of the rays wrapped the falling Liberator in its rippling tail and tossed him through the air into the savage jaws of another. Three fought over the body, their teeth crushing and eventually puncturing the sigmarite shell around the Stormcast’s body. A hammer blow from a Liberator that recovered the quickest spun one of the daemons around and it responded with a lash of its tail. It merely scuffed the armour but bought enough time to right itself and rejoin the other daemons as they circled for another pass.

‘Shields together, Stormcasts!’ Ancanna cried.

For the good it did him, he realised what had been bothering him beyond the absence of sound. The layout of the buildings. A spire rose from each, not made of their original material, all connected by blackened lines along the ground. They formed the eight-pointed star. A place of power, a link to the Realm of Chaos. Glancing to another two units that had split to find their way through the streets, Ancanna saw that they had also stumbled into a place of power and fought creatures wreathed in fire for it.

The Angelos Conclave had reported these places but the Lord Castellant convinced them that they were dormant. He had claimed that their lay lines had been interrupted. He had been very wrong.

The daemons’ next pass met a wall of sigmarite and rebounded from the tower shields. As the last one passed, Ancanna used his hammer as a hook and wedged the head under one of the spikes on the daemon’s back. A sharp twist at his waist and dropping his weight disrupted the screamer’s flight. WIth a hiss and a shriek, it flared its rippling wings to display its full, horrific width, the barbs and tentacles under the twisted flesh. But Liberators were forged in battle and not to be intimidated by such a display. They responded with a pounding of hammers. The impacts squelched into daemon flesh, turning the beast into squealing, thrashing mush. No sooner had their hammers fallen than the shield wall reformed and tilted upwards ready for the next attack.

The attack came from below.

Tentacles erupted from churning, shimmering ground. They wrapped around the Stormcasts’ legs, suckers clinging and barbs seeking to puncture sigmarite greaves.

The calls of Stormcasts carried through the streets; the enemy had beset more than just Ancanna’s Liberators.

 

Chapter 15

Defender’s Bane

The chattering of daemons diminished and a great shadow fell over the Lord Castellant. Flicking the blood from his halberd’s blade, he looked up to the towering beast that had entered his arena. Its thick hide shimmered midnight blue, speckled with brighter spots. When it moved, the spots rippled, subtly glowing like constellations. Behind its left shoulder, a ragged wing bobbed, its membrane ripped and bones disfigured. Only a stump remained of its right wing.

Two long necks writhed around one another, one ending in a dragon’s head, the other avian, and burn scars spattered them both. They snapped at one another and a razor beak opened to reveal a forked purple tongue as it shrieked at the snarling dragon head through a wisp of acrid, black smoke. Where a third head once grew, mutated flesh and scar tissue supported a saddle upon which sat a warrior in heavy, ornate armour.

‘You should cover your light, axe bearer, for it makes you easy to find,’ the warrior said and reared his mount. ‘Is this more like the challenge you crave?’

Kimmani recognised him, remembered the bruises of their previous encounter. Fixing his gaze on the Chaos lord he resolved that there would not be a third.

‘It is I who sought you, doomed one, and before my work is through the light of Sigmar will shine from your towers over the corpses of you and your followers.’

The chimaera snapped towards Kimmani and whipped its tail while its heads growled and screeched. Presenting its weaponry, Kimmani thought, taking in the huge claws and sharp end to its tail. The muscled bulk of its body tossed the Chaos lord around. The rider responded by twisting a sword that had been jammed into the beast’s neck up to the hilt. The daemonic face on the pommel matched those on the lord’s armour. With a pained jerk, the chimaera snarled louder but controlled its behaviour.

‘His name is Kareanthros Ulgoloth,’ the Chaos lord said edging the beast closer. ‘After the one who subdued him, Ulgoloth Skyreaper, Dreadguard of the Aurora Citadel. I would have your name, stormlord, that I might create a plaque for your severed head and display it in my collection.’

The Lord Castellant kept his stare. ‘I have only death for you.’

‘Then I bid you fight well, warrior,’ Ulgoloth said and clashed his fist against his chest in imitation of the Stormcasts’ salute.

His attack began before the words had left his mouth. A billow of smoke from the chimaera’s dragon head masked his charge, stinging Kimmani’s eyes and stifling his breath. The chimaera burst from the smoke, snapping with both heads. Kimmani met the dragon’s head with a brutal crack from the haft of his halberd. The turn of his shoulder saved his neck from a savage snap of the other head’s beak which instead glanced off his pauldron. With the Lord Castellant so focused on the writhing necks and snapping heads, Ulgoloth twisted the sword in his beast’s back again and ran it straight over Kimmani.

The weight of the chimaera spun Kimmani around and sent him tumbling over the ground. He kept rolling to avoid being trampled by heavy paws though the beast’s whipping tail caught his vambrace. The crab’s claw at the end of the tail clamped on and scored sigmarite before Kimmani slammed his other elbow down on it, creating forked cracks in the carapace.

Scooping up his halberd, Kimmani rolled back to his feet. The wide street gave the Chaos lord and his beast room to manoeuvre, to turn and gather momentum before slamming into Kimmani again. A jab and arc from his halberd kept the heads at bay and deft footwork earned him only a scratch from the chimaera’s front claws instead of it barrelling into him again.

Light swelled inside the Lord Castellant’s lantern though he kept it covered. The knowledge that Sigmar’s eyes were on him lent him strength and focus. He faced the beast as it reared for another pass. It shook its bird-like head and with a screech, spittle showered from its beak. Though the rider fought for stability atop the jerking beast’s back, he emitted a slow, deep laugh. But Kimmani maintained his calm. His halberd poised by his side in a solid grip, he waited.

‘Come for me,’ he whispered.

The chimaera took a high route, springing from walls, seeking to overwhelm Kimmani with its size. The Lord Castellant held his ground and let a little more light spill from his lantern, focused in a beam at the beast’s chest. The celestial ray burned into its flesh like a branding iron, stealing the momentum from its approach and forcing it to rear. Belying his heavy armour, Kimmani shot forwards and tore a gash into the chimaera’s underbelly. Twisting his hips into the strike, the halberd bit deeply. Both of the mutated heads screamed and in their flailing, tossed Ulgoloth from the throne and into a chunk of masonry.

Kimmani used the opening. He landed a series of cuts and thrusts into the thick hide, systematically disabling the creature’s thrashing weapons, first severing the muscle and tendons around its fore-paws, then slicing its tail and finishing it by decapitating the avian head and impaling the dragon head.

The beast collapsed in a bleeding lump and fell still.

‘Now face me without allies and sorcery, fallen one,’ Kimmani said as Ulgoloth pushed himself upright.

One of his weapons still driven into the chimaera, he drew the other sword from his hip. The dark metal glimmered and exuded a sense of wrongness. He spared little more than a glance to his fallen mount before casually walking towards Kimmani.

‘Commendable,’ he said. ‘You bested Kareanthros almost as quickly as I did. Of course, he was a more complete beast then. He reached to his back and unhooked a shield covered in stretched flesh of midnight blue, the remains of a large boar’s head forming the top rim, its eyes replaced with firestones.

Kimmani kept a firm gaze on his enemy’s approach and rolled his shoulder that had deflected the chimaera’s bite, working it loose. ‘There is nobody to cover your retreat this time.’

‘Then we fight to the death, stormlord.’ He clashed his sword against the side of his shield which caused a burst of purple sparks and a fell screech.

The Chaos lord’s almost civil demeanour disconcerted Kimmani. He reminded himself that he was not facing a warrior of the blood god, but one who revelled in plots and schemes. Everything he did was calculated, meant to perturb and unhinge his foes, to affect their behaviour until he pulled their strings.

Kimmani narrowed his focus to his enemy. On the off chance that some modicum of sincerity underpinned Ulgoloth’s words, the Lord Castellant graced him with a sharp nod of respect, but only while the warrior remained at a distance. They had fought before, and though it galled Kimmani to admit it, his foe had outfought him. He shook the moisture from his halberd’s blade. It would not happen a second time.

He had already tested his foe, and Kimmani jumped straight to the offensive sweeping high and low with his halberd. Even with a larger, heavier weapon, the Lord Castellant’s arcing style struck with speed and only Ulgoloth’s measured stances and footwork let him get away with only scratched armour.

After their first exchange, their blades clashed with celestial aura flaring and purple sparks sputtering. The Chaos lord attacked tentatively, testing Kimmani, luring him with deliberate openings of his guard and slamming them shut whenever Kimmani positioned to strike them.

Neither gained any ground after minutes of fighting and Kimmani began to feel the strain of a battle hard pressed. Still the challenge of the powerful opponent exhilarated him. Making minimal gain with his halberd, he slammed a low kick into Ulgoloth’s leg, seeking to take it from under him. Sigmarite clanged against daemon steel, knocking the Chaos lord’s balance, but he quickly recovered and drove his shield down onto Kimmani’s ankle. The Lord Castellant grunted and changed his stance, responding with a halberd thrust towards Ulgoloth’s helm.

That broke them apart and they resumed a more tentative dance. As a daemon charged into their arena, wielding a knife in each of its three hands, Ulgoloth snapped his sword around and split the creature in two.

‘I will not allow the sanctity of our combat to be defiled, stormlord,’ he said.

Kimmani rushed him. The initial attack crashed against his enemy’s immovable defence but the arcs of the sigmarite halberd tested that defence to its limit. A dozen rends and scratches scored Ulgoloth’s shield and armour. A backhand strike knocked the shield aside and Kimmani roared, driving the spear tip of his halberd in. It punched through the daemonforged armour and into the flesh beneath. Daemonic faces across the metal plates screamed as the Chaos lord staggered.

‘Speak not of sanctity,’ Kimmani said and wheeled his halberd behind him. He leaned over his enemy as the Dreadguard fell. ‘This place will only know sanctity when the light of Sigmar shines over these hills and through the valleys, when the priests of the God-king have consecrated the land and removed your taint. Your downfall begins here, and in a hundred other places in the realms, and the people will know liberation by whatever means.’

The Chaos lord coughed a red mist. In his convulsions, he snatched the talisman from around his neck. His hands shook as he poised the dirk-bladed object above him. The cat’s eye or swirling blue and purple that formed the hilt flicked its gaze either side before focusing on the Chaos lord’s wound.

‘By whatever means,’ he croaked and slammed the talisman into his wound. Black energy whirled around it like a maelstrom with the talisman its centre. Rotating around the outside was the whisper of a man’s face, there like a wisp of smoke or trick of the light. It was not a man that Kimmani recognised by face but someone he knew by instinct, by combat, someone that fought with daemonforged sword and shield. The maelstrom sucked the image in and compacted.

Blood trickled down the Dreadguard’s helm from the visor as he looked up.

Kimmani glanced between the blood and the dark maelstrom still turning beneath the puncture he had made in the cuirass. He edged away and tried to bring his halberd back into a guard but something held him, like gravity dragging him back down and closer to his enemy.

No matter how the Lord Castellant struggled and raged, the force was too strong. In a flash of motion, Ulgoloth clasped Kimmani’s neck in his gauntlet.

‘By whatever means, stormlord.’

The blade entered him like molten metal. Beyond the searing pain, Kimmani felt like he was being stretched, pulled into the sword, before rapidly expanding again. The Chaos lord rose to his feet, pushing Kimmani back, the sword still buried in his gut having entered below his cuirass. A slow push removed Kimmani from the blade and he dropped to the ground.

The air stilled. Then a palpable build up of energy formed around the fallen Lord Castellant. It started beneath the ground, at first a hum, then growing into a rhythmic thwum, thwum, thwum. A bolt of blue-white light speared from the body but instead of lancing directly to Azyr, the citadel obstructed it. Kimmani hadn’t noticed the rotating ring of crystalline inner towers. The bolt hit one of the prisms that moved outside the structure and the enormous store of energy in the bolt crackled out into the Winds of Change. Smaller forks of lightning set flying daemons alight as they crossed their path. With a resounding rumble of thunder that boomed in every direction, the fragmented bolt flashed and disappeared. None saw where.

The Dreadguard of the Aurora Citadel knelt beside the blackened ground by which Kimmani had fallen. He bowed his head and rested the tip on his sword on the ground.

‘Worthy,’ he said. ‘Until next time, stormlord.’

Shock and disgust entered Ulgoloth’s mind as he considered what he had done to himself. The Boon of Tzeentch took many forms and he had carried the talisman long. But now everything would change.

Geltz! he corrected, and staggered at the force of nausea that flooded him. Lambent Protector Geltz! Lambent…

He stood and etched an eight-pointed star into the blackened ground atop an Eye of Tzeentch and left to rejoin his forces. The act left no mark on his sword’s edge.

 

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