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The Bitter Tang of Defeat
Split from the rest of the Strike Chamber and forced into a large, abbey-like structure, Ancanna and a handful of Liberators retreated along a corridor. Their shields raised against the bolts and winds of sorcery that assailed them, they formed a small, defensive circle. Many of other the Stormcasts fought in similar pockets, unable to link with their warrior brethren through either weight of enemies or the sting of magic. The Stormcasts were not just losing, they were being systematically picked apart.
Gouts of pink and blue fire blasted through the doors either side of Ancanna and gibbering voices of daemons followed.
‘Stand firm, Liberators!’ Ancanna called.
As the enemy pressed in on them, a beacon shone through a rend in the ceiling. An avenging angel descended, the light of Azyr blazing from his lantern, searing daemon flesh into charred chunks that flaked away in the wind of his arrival.
‘Sigmar burn you, daemonspawn!’ Knight Azyros Gallus shouted as he plunged his sword through the underbelly of a rearing ray-like daemon. The glowing sigmarite weapon burned through its flesh like a lightning bolt and carved the creature in two.
The other screamers retreated to find easier prey but battle still raged and the sounds of daemon screeches and cackling suggested that numbers were stacked against the Stormcast Eternals.
‘Gallus. Your arrival–’
‘Save your thanks, Prime,’ Gallus interrupted. ‘The Castellant has fallen and the Strike Chamber is surrounded and outnumbered. The situation is irretrievable.’
Ancanna slammed his hammer atop the freshly sprouted head of an amorphous blue and green daemon, spraying a mist of blood. ‘Numbers are never on our side, yet we have always prevailed.’
‘Too many, Ancanna.’ The Knight Azyros shook him and urgency spurred his tone. ‘We are outmanoeuvred and out-thought. They hold every strategic point. We must leave.’
‘The Prosecutors?’ Ancanna asked.
‘Scattered. Sorcerous wind cut us off from you and disrupted our flight. I ordered as many as possible to find a way through and link up with our earthbound brothers.’
Another wave of daemons surged into the corridor, spitting flames from their fingers. Warriors in defiled heavy armour accompanied them while a flight of furies strafed overhead and raked at the Stormcasts’ armour. Something else moved amidst the detritus but the press of attackers snatched Ancanna’s attention. He put his shoulder into his shield to bash a swiping daemon from the warrior to his left and parried a blow from an axe using his hammer. The Liberator to his right raised his shield to fill the gap and cover Ancanna.
Momentum from the enemy’s sudden burst pushed the isolated Stormcasts back. Their armour heated as daemonfire washed over it and constant impacts against their shields jarred their tired muscles.
These warriors of Chaos were not glutted from aeons of victory and domination, they were drilled and fierce. As a coordinated flurry of attacks opened one of the Liberators’ guards, a blue-armoured warrior’s axe already swung in a deadly arc and into the gap under the Liberator’s helm. They even anticipated the lightning strike when Sigmar reclaimed his fighter and retreated a step to position their next attack.
While Ancanna focused on the attacks at his fore, the scrape of metal behind him drew his attention. He called for his Liberators to cover and shields snapped into place the instant he stepped back from the front line. Turning to check behind, the glint of metal from a raised axe caught his eye. Out of position, he could only twist his shield in front, not intercept or pre-empt the attack.
But the blow was not meant for him. The axe hacked into a daemonic form, a slinking creature that had sneaked behind and poised to strike the Knight Azyros. While the axe lifted for another swing, a knife tore a gash into the daemon’s exposed flesh. With the reduced visibility of his helm, it took Ancanna a moment to discern the wielder. A nomad. Kell, the forager and the protector of children, rained blows on the creature. She lacked any technique, more suited to splitting wood than daemons, but her ferocity made the difference. The creature was long dead before she stopped her wild swinging and regarded Ancanna with crazed eyes.
‘You’re trapped, storm warrior,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’
‘You know a way out?’ Ancanna asked.
‘Stop talking and move,’ Gallus said.
He flitted between the hard-pressed Liberators, lending his sword to parry a blow or to land a cut where an opening appeared. The Knight Azyros kept low and Ancanna soon saw why. Swirling winds of immense power tossed Prosecutors around the air and battered them against the rotating inner ring of towers, their wings useless against the sorcery.
Ancanna and another Liberator covered Kell as she scurried from cover to cover along the corridor while the rest secured their retreat. Any hope of riposte was long forgotten and the Liberators and Knight Azyros focused only on block and parry.
The corridor ended in a great hole in the wall. They filed out into a crossroads where Kell halted with a horrified expression. While brave, she was no Stormcast Eternal, and the mass of flame-spouting daemons were enough to give even the Knights of the Aurora pause. Upon seeing new prey, the fiery daemons spewed gouts of flame from their many heads and arms, toying with them before swarming towards them in a tight group.
Beset on both sides, Kell hesitated and the Stormcasts formed up for a fighting stand around her. The first salvo came in a blistering inferno that slammed against sigmarite shields and licked around their edges while the Chaos warriors led another flurry of blows from the corridor against the rearguard. Another sound permeated the roar and crackle of fire and the pounding of metal on sigmarite. It was a prayer to Sigmar and the grunt of Stormcast Eternals wielding heavy weaponry.
Retributors slammed into the back of the flamers, their massive hammers smashing the daemons aside into crushed hulks, their bodies swinging into every blow. Peals of thunder accompanied each strike and crackles of lightning forked from the hammer heads. It opened a path and Kell quickly regained her senses. She darted around the corner from which the Retributors had come and into a room strewn with rubble and the dust of neglect.
‘Protect the woman,’ Gallus called to his allies and they joined formation with the Liberators. Their massive hammers gave the Stormcasts a chance to reduce the Chaos forces’ momentum by hitting back and pushing them into an occasional defensive. When the hammers struck, they sounded a thunderclap and crushed their target.
‘This way! Hurry!’ Kell’s echo reached the Stormcasts through a sliding door in the room that she had entered.
Gallus flashed between the two Retributors and his sword darted out into the helm of one of their armoured foes, staggering the warrior and denting the metal. He snapped an order to which the Retributors responded with sharp nods. The three of them planted their feet in front of their pursuers. The Knight Azyros’ wings spread wide, even behind the massive armoured bulk of the Retributors. Wide arcs of the hammers and Gallus’ darting sword obliterated the front lines of daemons and left one of the armoured warriors of Chaos a crushed and mangled heap of metal on the ground.
‘Gallus!’ Ancanna called back, struggling to keep up with the fleet human.
‘Get out and regroup, Liberator Prime,’ he replied. ‘No arguments or heroics. The Retributors will cover your retreat.’
Gallus took to the air. Light swelled from his lantern, rattling its shutters, straining to burst out. Behind his helm, the Knight Azyros cracked a sardonic grin. ‘Me? Oh, I think I can take them.’
He gained loft and light pulsed from his wings, making himself the largest, brightest target for miles. Flying daemons wheeled and banked to face him, and every grounded enemy turned towards him, the mortals hefting their weapons and the daemons spitting their fire or their magic.
‘Sigmar, hear me!’ Gallus cried. ‘Give me not strength nor salvation, but the light of Azyr. Illuminate me, great Sigmar. Send them to me!’
The clouds overhead roiled grey and blue and black. Silence descended for an endless second like a deep breath before immense thunderbolts hammered down from the sky. Dozens of them exploded through the structures, vaporising enemies and blasting mighty chunks of masonry into the air and crashing into other buildings.
A single angelic figure shone through the plumes of dust. As the winds whipped, the image resolved into Gallus, the Knight Azyros, crackling with forks of energy and surrounded by a halo of divine light. Sword held by his side and lantern aloft, he continued to ascend, unphased by the swirling winds until the flying daemons closed.
Then he sprang into action. His movements were graceful, a masterclass of precision and agility as he cut and thrust his way through enemy after enemy.
‘For Sigmar and the Knights of the Aurora!’ he shouted.
Five more angels on wings of light soared through the break in the storm that Sigmar himself had punched. Two unleashed salvoes of celestial hammers into screaming daemons while the other three impaled furies with their javelins, all summoning fresh weapons from the energy of the storm for their next strikes.
They joined the Knight Azyros, adding their skill to his own lightning assault, harassing the grounded forces of Chaos and duelling with the flyers above the mad, defiled structures. Though for every one they killed, another three soared in and swarmed around the massively outnumbered Angelos Conclave.
‘Retreat and regroup, Knights of the Aurora!’ Gallus’ voice boomed over the battlefield as though assisted by magical means. He turned towards a heavy concentration of flying daemons that sought to strike him from above. Manoeuvring into a V-formation with his Prosecutors, Knight Azyros Gallus streaked at their head, sword in front. His holy lantern erupted with a nova of divine light. ‘For Valescroft and the Third Moon Collective!’
Battered but Never Broken
Ancanna buried his head in his hands. Perched atop a mossy stump under the forest canopy’s dim emerald glow, he replayed the battle in his mind. Again. Three days of flight and skirmishes with their pursuers from the citadel took their toll on his battered armour, notched hammer and exhausted body. His pride was beaten raw. Such a catastrophic defeat. The first defeat for the Knights of the Aurora, but another loss stung more. Brothers, comrades, friends beyond counting had been reclaimed by Sigmar, each taken to be reforged. Each to lose another piece of themselves.
The scrape of armour drew his attention and he stepped to his feet, burying his grief and forcing his muscles to push through the fatigue. He straightened his back and strode to meet his returning warrior with the confidence and presence expected of a Liberator Prime.
Castus, one of the first Retributors that Ancanna had linked up with after escaping the battle, clashed his fist to his chest. ‘Liberator Prime, the nomad has spied a scattered group of our brethren. They are hounded by the enemy.’
Kell again. With sight like hers, the woman would make an exceptional Prosecutor.
‘Then we are called to battle. Show me.’ Ancanna hefted his shield and followed the path of trampled grass from which the Retributor had come.
It disconcerted Ancanna to see this battering ram of a Retributor struggling to walk, and though he tried to hide it, the odd grunt escaped his jagged helm. One of his knee plates was crushed and though it looked hammered crudely back into function, the damage the blow had done to the knee would still remain. Beyond the lattice of scrapes over his armour, a number of punctures dotted the sigmarite. Ancanna did not need to ask the question; the Retributor would reject any suggestion that he was not battle ready, and even if he admitted it, no command from Ancanna would stop him from joining the fight regardless.
They reached an area of forest covered in the tracks of sigmarite boots when Kell hopped from the sturdy branches of a strangleshade tree. She gestured north where the vegetation thinned. ‘Over there.’
Thinking twice about climbing the tree in his armour, Ancanna followed Kell to the tree line near the summit of what the nomad referred to as Shadowslip Hill. When a crescent of sun peeked through the still-roiling clouds, its rays glinted off silver armour in the distance. A small group of Stormcasts performed a fighting retreat against more numerous foes. Though already hard pressed enough, a second force pursued, flying daemons banking over cultists led by a handful of armoured warriors. And something else, a blur at this distance.
‘Do we attack?’ the Retributor asked. ‘What are your orders, Prime?’
Ancanna considered his options. The sight of his warrior brethren retreating sat ill with him. A worse thought surfaced as he surveyed the strength of the enemy pursuing them–he could not save them. The thought was fleeting, brought on by grief, and dispelled by the glint of sun from his own sigmarite plates, battered though they were. The armour served as a reminder that he was also Stormcast, and Sigmar’s greatest would not let their brothers die uncontested.
With tired body, Ancanna raised his hammer onto his shoulder and looped his arm through his shield’s grip. ‘We find a way. Round up our few, Castus–Stormcasts require our aid.’
At least the helm hid his doubt. So outnumbered and exhausted, he needed a plan worthy of Sonos Cloudburst. But the Lord Celestant wasn’t there, Lord Castellant Kimmani had fallen, and Knight Azyros Gallus had doubtless met a similar end with the amount of enemies he drew to himself, so it fell to Ancanna.
When the Retributor left, he turned to Kell. ‘I’m going to need your help.’
‘Yes,’ she said. It wasn’t a question expecting more detail, but an understanding that the Stormcasts would have already died without her. ‘You should have accepted it before. Why do you hesitate?’
Ancanna tried to read her expression but failed. ‘In the ruins, you had children, yet you have been away for days and nights…’
‘Do you not need to return to them?’
She frowned at him. ‘They are with the collective.’
‘But do they not need their mother?’
‘They are with the collective,’ she repeated. ‘The collective is their mother, their father and their guardian. They are looked after. You are not.’ She looked up at the Stormcast in his thick armour, behind a shield of sigmarite, and wielding a hammer taller than her. ‘I must look after you.’
In his beaten state, Ancanna conceded to himself that she may have a point. He gazed again at their intended enemy. The Stormcasts had turned the tide against their immediate foe. Liberators had funnelled them into a narrow passage between two hills, allowing a single Retributor to smash into their backs with his huge hammer while two Prosecutors strafed them from above. The second force should have been on them. Then Ancanna saw why they lingered.
The cultists were coaxing a large beast attached by ropes and chains held by a dozen of the tattooed, crazed men. More prodded it with barbed spears and other crude, hooked polearms while the great creature of mutated flesh reared and gurgled its rage. It snapped and lunged at any of the cultists who came too near, tearing the arm from one by wrapping it in a tentacle covered not in suckers but saw-like teeth. The body, it tossed into the air in front. When the body landed, the other cultists walked over it as though he had not been their ally moments before.
‘At last some luck,’ Ancanna said, remembering something that Kell had said about the nature of Ulglu. It sparked an idea.
Kell looked at him askance. ‘Luck? That is not an omen I would consider lucky.’
‘Lucky that it’s headed our way. They seek to outflank our allies and descend on them from the hill.’ He grabbed her arm and hurried after Castus. ‘Come. Time is against us and we need a signal.’
‘What kind of signal?’
Ancanna smiled behind his helm, his melancholy replaced by the task at hand, the plan of attack and chance of salvation. ‘A lure.’
It did not take them long to round up Ancanna’s band of survivors as there were only a handful to find.
‘Stormcast Eternals,’ Ancanna said to his few. ‘Our brothers are beset beyond the borders of this forest. They are pursued and hunted by those who seek to toy with them and devour them, those who believe their greater numbers and mutated daemonspawn the ultimate strength. We will draw them to us and prove to them otherwise.’
One of his Liberators spoke. ‘You seek to assault a warband with our handful? Prime, even joined with our brethren that force is beyond us.’
Though an eternity had passed since his life before reforging, Ancanna still remembered the end times and his role in them as though fresh. He clung to the memory like it defined him, as did many of the other warriors in his Stormhost. This conversation rang like many others in which his collection of craftsmen and refugees faced equally insurmountable foes. And each time they overcame them. All but that final time.
‘We are Knights of the Aurora, Liberator. Each of us called Sigmar’s name to effect the salvation of others. He bestowed us with the strength to do so, and now it is our turn to act. We must fulfill our part of the bargain.’
‘Even so,’ Castus said, stepping forwards but taking some of his weight on the huge hammer he wielded. ‘A pitched battle with that force can have only one outcome. We’ll give a good accounting for ourselves, and my hammer hungers for the chance to crush that daemon’s flesh, but ultimately, weight of numbers will wear us down.’
‘I have no intention of giving them a pitched battle, Castus.’ At the Retributor’s cocked head, Ancanna continued. ‘Perhaps it’s time we learnt something from our friend here.’
Kell shrank back from Ancanna’s gesture and her expression tightened into a frown but she voiced no dissent.
‘Our enemy punished our overconfidence by dividing and outmanoeuvring us. Now they are overconfident, drunk with victory and reckless, and we shall pay them the same honour.’ Ancanna picked up again with a thought that he’d never manage to form before. The dire situation of the Knights of the Aurora, however, moulded the concept into something solid. ‘Sigmar is more than just his Stormcasts. The Realmgate Wars, rallying the free people, are about more than just numbers. They’re about free thinking and perspective. Stormcasts cannot win this alone. We need the free people to temper our thought, overcome our shortcomings, and remind us why we fight. Let the Celestial Vindicators fight for vengeance. We are the Knights of the Aurora and we fight for the salvation of others.’
The Liberator Prime levelled his hammer towards the borders of the forest. ‘Beyond our confines of safety, our own warrior brothers need salvation. Let us fight for them. I will raise hammer and shield to their aid; who will guard my sides?’
‘Until death!’ his warriors called, raising weapons in imitation of his own.
Ancanna had no intention of leading his battered handful to their deaths, not if he knew his enemy. He simplified his task into priorities: to rescue the retreating Stormcasts and to destroy their foe. The first took precedence. For that, he needed to seize their attention and offer them a way out. Pursuit would come as it always did but he would be prepared.
Taking viewpoint from the edge of the trees, Ancanna guessed at the line of retreat the harried Stormcasts might take. Slowed by their heavy armour and weary from a long-fought defeat, they moved only as quickly as their most injured warrior. The Chaos hunting band would catch them before long, and observing the terrain, Ancanna sought to predict where. He would have given his right arm for a Prosecutor’s aid but none had escaped with him, the battle in the skies of the Aurora Citadel having reaped a devastating toll.
In the many possible routes that Ancanna considered for his brethren’s retreat, a momentary glint of sunlight caught his eye. He recognised the path from where the army of humans had marched to their deaths.
‘What is that?’ he asked under his breath.
‘It’s a flag,’ Kell responded, perched on a branch over his shoulder.
She gesticulated as she searched for the words, her balance in the tree unaffected. ‘A symbol? No, a banner. I watched the men carrying them when they left the town.’ She quietened and her expression became sorrowful. ‘I don’t think they helped.’
Ancanna thought on the possibilities. He only needed grab the enemy’s attention for a short while. Soon, the seed of his earlier idea began to flourish. ‘They could help us.’
In short order, Ancanna, Kell, and the meagre few remaining Stormcasts marched. Despite fatigue and injuries they covered the ground well, sticking under the cover of trees as much as possible, only moving across open ground when a dark cloud covered the sun long enough to reduce the chance of reflection from their armour. Later, he knew he would welcome as much reflection as possible, but that remained beyond his control.
As they marched, Ancanna desperately tried to think of a better plan. He considered what the Lord Celestant or Lord Castellant might have done in his position. The only conclusion he reached was that neither would have proposed his plan. Lacking further inspiration, he resolved to his course of action and picked a trio of banners from the rotting dead that had once ridden out from their homes to deliver their families from bandits. Ancanna saluted the fallen and whispered a prayer to Sigmar, lamenting that he could not have aided them and requesting the opportunity to deliver others from such a fate.
A ridge covered their foraging from enemy eyes. Kell positioned herself on the other side, closer to the enemy, both to watch how quickly they were catching the other Stormcasts and to give Ancanna a point of reference. When she saw the top of a banner bobbing above the ridge, she shouted out, then called again when the top half of another banner showed further along the ridge. At a response from Ancanna, she rejoined the Stormcasts.
‘This is foolish,’ Kell said.
Inwardly, Ancanna agreed. It was a story he had heard long before, though whether it worked or not was a detail he had forgotten. Regardless, he was committed. ‘It only needs to work from a distance. If either force changes their path towards us, it will be enough.’
‘Do you think they will give up their chase for another foe?’ Castus asked.
‘It depends on how they perceive the foe,’ Ancanna said. ‘They are reckless and bloodthirsty, overconfident of their victory. Sigmar knows this place has deceived us aplenty; the whole realm is rife with it. It’s time we offered some deception of our own.’
‘And what about their winged daemons?’ Castus pressed. ‘From their high vantage, they will uncover us.’
Ancanna smiled and placed his hand on a Liberator’s shoulder. ‘Firus still has his bow from when he left the disbanded Judicator units and raised a shield. I hope his aim remains as steady.’
The Judicator-turned-Liberator gazed down at the shockbolt bow in his hands. ‘Steady as the Gates of Azyr, Liberator Prime,’ he said.
‘They’re closing,’ Kell said.
‘Positions,’ Ancanna commanded, hefting a banner that depicted a partially eclipsed sun over a waving field of corn. ‘Castus, Bortemin, pass along the marked line at thirty-second intervals. Keep your banners steady. I will make the first pass.’
He didn’t need to order Kell to keep her eyes sharp. Her attention was already everywhere.
‘I assume there’s a purpose to this, Prime,’ Bortemin said as Ancanna passed him after finishing his first walk along the line.
‘Illusion,’ Ancanna said. ‘We need to give the impression our numbers are greater than they are. If the enemy sees a series of banners, and only the banners, they’ll assume regiments are carrying them rather than individuals. Castus has almost finished his pass–you should move.’
Three Stormcasts marched with banners while the last watched the skies, fingers on his bow. They performed two passes each before Ancanna turned to Kell. ‘Anything?’
She shook her head. ‘No. They are close. Your friends are fighting the flying creatures. The others are not far behind.’
Ancanna growled to himself and cast around for options. His gaze rested upon a brass bugle in the cold, dead hands of a human fighter. Planting his banner in the ground, he scooped up the bloodstained instrument and filled his lungs. The note blasted and bounced off valley walls. Tall grassy mounds that dotted the valley like goosebumps echoed and amplified the sound as though a dozen other bugles answered the call.
‘Fortunate,’ Castus remarked, his voice heavy with disbelief.
‘Ulglu,’ Ancanna responded with a shrug.
Whether coincidence or good fortune, Ancanna wasn’t about to question it. Anything that helped his cause, that caught the Chaos warband’s attention and convinced them, even momentarily, of a greater threat, he welcomed.
He let out another three powerful notes and made another pass with his banner, angled away to obfuscate the banner’s details in case his enemy noticed the repetition. Just before his banner top dropped back below the ridge line, Castus’ peeked above and started his pass.
‘They’re coming!’ Kell called. She scrambled from her crouch. ‘They are coming!’
The Duplicity of Ulglu
‘Ready, Stormcasts,’ Ancanna ordered and discarded his banner in favour of hammer and shield while the others planted their banners. He looked to Kell. ‘All of them?’
‘Only the flying ones.’
‘Scouts,’ Ancanna said. He turned his attention back to Castus and Bortemin. ‘Keep marching. Draw them in.’
Firus needed no order to take sight along his bow. They would come quickly.
The first covered the ground even faster than expected. The bat-winged fury banked overhead, shrieking down at them before turning back the way it came.
Energy crackled along Firus’ bow, building along the string and his arrow while he waited. He held, still, calm, focused. As the fury dipped below the horizon, Firus loosed.
Ancanna’s heart sank. Both storm-infused arrow and daemon vanished from sight. He waited. It was all he could do. A second shriek sounded, pained and piercing. Firus loosed again. His arrow streaked blue and angry into the gloomy sky and ripped through the wing of a second fury the instant it crossed the horizon. The daemon flapped and flailed, its torn wing no longer able to give stable flight. Its plummet ended in a thud to the ground and roll down the hill not far from the Stormcasts who readied weapons.
The creature hissed and snarled as it scrambled to its clawed feet. Though it hobbled and its damaged wing twitched, it advanced like a rabid animal, intent on tearing the Stormcast Eternals apart with its claws. Ancanna took the first swipe on his shield while his allies closed on him. More swipes landed in a mad frenzy, scratching the thick sigmarite bulwark. Ancanna responded with a jab from the top of his hammer. It took the creature in the eyes, disorientating it long enough for Castus to bring down his massive hammer and pulverise it. Ancanna dipped his head behind his shield as daemonic viscera sprayed.
Ancanna let out another blast from the bugle while Kell crept atop the rise. She kept to a bank of loosened dirt beside the grass where her drab clothing kept her hidden.
‘They’ve broken off the attack,’ she hissed. Fear tinged her voice and she fidgeted, uneasy at holding her ground while danger approached. Having survived in lands under the stranglehold of Chaos through cunning, by running and hiding, her discomfort was clear.
‘And the Stormcasts?’ Ancanna asked.
‘I can’t see them.’
Still caught up in their bloodthirsty stupor, many daemons and cultists filed into the gorge where the pursued Stormcasts had looked to make their stand. The majority of the force, however, diverted their course towards Ancanna and his few. Orders barked from the armoured servants of Chaos brought some organisation to their hunting pack, as much as could ever be gained from zealous cultists and frenzied daemons. Furies circled overhead, though a few flew arrow-straight back towards the Aurora Citadel.
‘I hope you have a plan for what to do now we’ve got their attention,’ Castus said.
Ancanna just hoped they had done enough for the other Stormcasts to escape. He let forth a series of short blasts through his bugle, similar to those the Knight Heraldor used to signal a defensive command to the Stormcasts.
Even through Castus’ expressionless face plate, Ancanna knew his unspoken question: we’re all here. Who are you signalling?
‘Plant your banners a little higher,’ Ancanna said while scooping up and ramming his own banner pole into the soft ground.
At his direction, the Stormcasts placed the other banners in better view of the ridge, still keeping themselves hidden from their enemy’s view. With all three planted, he led them them down the hill and into the twisting valley between the grassy mounds.
Castus nodded towards a wider mound ahead of them. ‘An ideal ambush spot, Prime. If we wait behind there, the thinning valley will funnel them for us. We’d only have to fight two or three at a time.’
‘True,’ Ancanna said but he maintained his rapid pace through the mounds. ‘But we’re not ambushing. Not yet, at least.’
‘Prime?’ Firus asked. ‘This is as good a place as we’re going to find. Little else could stack the odds in our favour.’
Ancanna nodded yet continued. ‘Again, all true, Firus. But we’re not fighting if I can help it.’
They all missed a step, all but Kell whose shoulders loosened.
‘It’s our purpose,’ Castus said.
‘Our purpose is to free the mortal realms,’ Ancanna countered. ‘There are many ways we can do that, and we can do it better as a united Strike Chamber than in scattered groups, hunted down by more powerful foes. Today, our goal is to deliver our brother warriors from their battle and bring them back into our fold. Tomorrow, we’ll hit back at the daemons and traitors, and reduce their fortress to rubble, but we’ll hit harder when we have more hammers.’
Castus bowed his head. He grumbled but Ancanna could relate as the same shadow draped over him. Days ago, the Knights of the Aurora were the power in the region, despite it being under the stranglehold of Chaos. They had smashed every warband that opposed them and cut a bloody trail from the realm gate. To see them scattered and struggling, reduced to a pale reflection of their former strength and with wounded pride, wrenched Ancanna’s heart. Humbleness was not something the Stormcast Eternals had experienced since their reforging.
‘Any sight of those flyers, Kell?’ Ancanna asked.
She looked back at him, troubled, but she scrabbled up to higher ground for a better view of their pursuers. ‘They’re circling above the main force.’
‘Still heading towards the banners?’
‘Yes. Moving a lot faster than we are.’
‘Main force?’ Firus asked. He also scoured the skies.
Kell dipped her head and half slid, half ran back down the slope in front of the Stormcasts. ‘Some of them followed your friends, remember? Some went back to the…’
The sky darkened as two moons blocked the sun and clouds blackened. Though the Knights of the Aurora usually felt an affinity with storms, this made their skin crawl. It felt slick with the defilement of Chaos. A piercing shriek shot through the valley and a great ribbon of green and blue light snaked across the sky. They all knew its source.
‘Oh no,’ Kell breathed.
Not a nightly event then, Ancanna noted, but something called upon by their sorcerer.
‘They’re onto us,’ Castus said.
‘Time to pick up the pace.’ Ancanna surveyed their route but the contours of the grassy mounds through the winding valley soon obstructed his view.
Just as he hoped he had guessed his beleaguered comrades’ path of retreat correctly, the sounds of battle wound their way through the terrain. The boom of a lightning hammer blasting a daemon into smoking ruin caused a rumble through the ground and gave haste to Ancanna’s steps. The thrill of battle took hold and lent strength to his weary muscles and those of his handful of survivors. Diminutive in comparison to the armoured bulk around her, Kell manoeuvred herself to the back and let the Stormcast Eternals crash in first.
Rounding a wide mound, Ancanna sighted sigmarite armour and took in the dire position of his brothers. The ground smoldered from the attacks of fiery daemons and a wall of fire blocked their only retreat. Frenzied cultists jabbed and swung their kopeshes and sickles on the Stormcasts’ other side while more cultists, chanting and gesticulating, goaded blue and green daemons to attack the front. The Stormcasts were but an island of silver amidst overwhelming numbers. And this was just a fraction of the Chaos warband that hounded them.
‘We need to make this fast,’ Ancanna said to his charging few.
To stand any chance of uniting with the other Stormcasts and leaving before the rest of the warband caught them, it needed to get bloody. Fortunately, the Knights of the Aurora specialised in lightning war. The instant he rounded that mound, he had already chosen his first target: the clamour of cultists, He would drive them back into the daemons’ fires. After a quick command to Kell to remain behind his shield, he raised his hammer aloft. ‘For Sigmar! For the Knights of the Aurora!’
Bortemin brought his shield alongside Ancanna’s right while Firus, too exposed with a bow, locked his own shield to Ancanna’s left. The three barrelled into the nearest cultists, shattering bones with their shields and cracking skulls with their hammers. A peal of thunder, followed by a swathe of broken cultists falling into their allies signalled Castus’ entrance to the battle.
Their impact hit the cultists like cavalry and rolled over them into the first block of daemons that clamoured between themselves to reach their prey. At the sight of aid unlooked for, the defending Stormcasts let a second wind empower their limbs as adrenaline washed the fatigue from them.
‘Push them, Stormcasts!’ Ancanna cried as he slammed his hammer down through a fire-flinging horror and jabbed it into a cultist, making a scorched, bloody ruin of his face. ‘Push them!
Whatever the dark aurora above signified, it could not be good, so Ancanna wanted this done quickly. Strike and escape. At his order, the beset Liberators joined his shield wall. They switched from their usual defensive style to using their shields more like a second weapon, pushing and jabbing. It was risky but they had momentum and needed to keep it. If they got bogged down in a protracted fight, the Chaos reinforcements would be on them and there would be no escape, so Ancanna accepted the risk. Even in the heat of battle, however, the hint of doubt lingered in his mind, for he had denounced Lord Castellant Kimmani’s recklessness not long before. He assured himself that his circumstances were different, yet his doubt remained.
As Ancanna slammed the rim of his shield into a cultist’s neck, he glimpsed dark specks emerging from the aurora, still distant but growing larger. The urge to push harder and further, to break from the Liberators and wreak his destruction, rose in him but he suppressed it. His place was in the shield wall, his effectiveness heightened by his fighting unit. But it did not mean he could not take his unit with him.
‘Crush them!’ the Liberator Prime yelled and the Stormcasts surged to his command, attacking as one.
Overwhelmed by the assault, the daemons and cultists buckled. The cultists attempted to rout but the Stormcasts gave no quarter. It may have been only a fraction of the main Chaos force, but every one met their end at the hands of the Stormcasts and their god-forged weapons.
When the last hammer fell, Ancanna breathed.
One of the Retributors approached him and clasped his arm. Each used the other for stability. ‘I’ve never been so glad to see your shield, Liberator Prime.’
‘We’re not done here, knight,’ Ancanna responded, relieved that so many had survived. Only one Stormcast had fallen since their forces reunited, a Liberator called Ashkanaius. Ancanna knew him well and would miss his shield.
‘There’s more,’ the Retributor pressed, leaning closer. ‘Something drew off the bulk of our pursuit. We only saw banners, but dozens upon dozens of them.’
Ancanna couldn’t help but smile. ‘I don’t think you should worry about those.’
Whether the rumours of Ulglu itself rewarding deception were true, Ancanna didn’t care. Their plan had worked enough to buy the time they needed. It also left them exposed. While the Chaos warband had been drawn away by the banners, they remained a worry as Ancanna’s deception could not have deterred them long. Again, he felt the sting of having no Prosecutors to scout, a luxury which the Knights of the Aurora had come to rely on and what made them such an effective Stormhost. He needed an escape, but first, he needed to know where to escape to and from where the enemy approached.
He dropped his grip on the Retributor as his he realised someone was missing.
‘Kell!’ he yelled, casting about the survivors, but saw only Stormcasts and corpses, usually a cause for celebration. Instead, fear and guilt welled in him. After their charge, he had been so focused on pushing to win the battle quickly. In the block, parry and hammerfall, his charge had slipped his mind.
He berated himself for taking his eyes from her. That was the problem with leadership–it split his focus, distracted him from his duty as a defender. Even, prior to his reforging, when leading refugees away from invaders, he had never sought command. First he saved a few people, simply because he was there and he could. But then more sought his protection. He never intended to lead so many, to organise their retreats, ambushes and defences. Even on the glittering steps of Azyr, when mighty Sigmar himself bestowed a position of command upon him, he refused and took up the shield of a Liberator. It was the one thing he kept from the Knights of the Aurora, the one event that never entered his Remembering.
And this was why. Another needed his protection and he was too focused on the immediate picture to notice such an important detail.
‘Kell!’ he called again before forcing himself to check the corpse-strewn ground. ‘Kell?’
She called back to him from higher ground. His eyes had passed over her against the patch of heather in which she crouched.
‘Hush,’ she said and pointed beyond the hill. She skidded down the hill muddied by sigmarite boots and daemons’ blood to rejoin them. Blood also soaked into her clothes and her axe had gained a couple more notches. ‘Enemies have found us.’
Ancanna should have expected it. His diversion already gave him longer than expected, but the lightning strike of Sigmar reclaiming a warrior in the skirmish would have shone as a beacon to all eyes.
The chanting of cultists and screams of rage reached them. They were much closer, and the winged silhouettes against the aurora grew in size.
The other Stormcasts heard and began to dig in but Ancanna shook his head.
‘We can’t stay.’ He looked once more to Kell who looked as gaunt and exhausted as every Stormcast felt. And she did not have their enhanced constitution to help combat the fatigue. She was, however, their best chance to evade the warband and, though it wore further at his pride, Ancanna knew it. ‘Kell of the Third Moon Collective, I must impress upon you to find us another escape.’
‘You may find, warrior, that you need to escape less when you don’t go looking for fights.’
A corner of her mouth twitched. Whether she was attempting a joke or just an effect of the fatigue, Ancanna couldn’t tell. Though humour was not on his mind, he had to respect her endurance and the help she had given them already.
‘I fear that is not in our nature,’ Ancanna said.
‘That’s right, Prime,’ Argus, one of the Retributors they had linked up with, said as he shoved through the regrouping Stormcasts. He stopped between Ancanna and Kell, glancing down at the nomad before confronting the Liberator Prime. ‘Why then do you order our retreat?’
‘You were retreating before we found you, Retributor.’
‘And now we have regrouped. You would have the pride of Sigmar, the Knights of the Aurora, turn tail and hide like beaten dogs? I will not.’
‘The enemy comes,’ Kell began but the Retributor crowded her out.
‘Quiet! This is Stormcast business. I say let the enemy come. Let them see that we are not so easily beaten.’
Ancanna waited while he said his piece. The imperative to move gnawed at him but the warrior chamber was scattered and beaten enough already. He needed his few to be united. He needed them to be alive. He railed at the idea of avoiding combat, like all Stormcasts, but the Knights of the Aurora had an uncomfortable truth to face. They could not win this fight, not now, not weakened and scattered.
‘We are beaten, Argus,’ Ancanna said. ‘We are scattered and weak, and so few, even Stormcast Eternals, cannot prevail against our hunters. Not openly.’
‘Defeatist talk. Lord Castellant Kimmani would not have spoken that way. He led with strength. Had you not intervened, the people of Valescroft would be behind us already.’
‘Lord Castellant Kimmani thought us invincible and led us to ruin. Do not make the same mistake.’ Ancanna looped his hammer into his belt and attached his shield to his back. He felt the worst kind of traitor for speaking that way about his commander but his repeated warnings had gone unheeded. ‘We have tarried far too long. Do not misunderstand me, Retributor. I mean to punish these daemon worshippers. We shall topple their seat of power and grind every one into the ground, but for that we need more than our paltry dozen. We find every Stormcast who escaped the battle and bring them back to us. Once we have the strength, we strike, but first we need to survive and following our ally here is our best chance of that.’
Ancanna gave the Retributor no chance to respond. Instead he turned back to Kell. ‘Can you get us out.’
She needed no further prompting before ducking under a Retributor’s lightning hammer and slipping between a couple of Liberators. ‘You are slow and you talk too much. We should have left long before. We should not be here at all. I will try to get you out but you will not like it.’ She glanced back to the Shadesmire and addressed Ancanna with a troubled look. ‘But don’t count on it being any safer than here.’