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Two dozen Stormcast Eternals soon tripled in number and kept growing.
Aided by the enhanced scouting abilities provided by the reunited Prosecutors and more disparate mists, the Stormcasts embarked upon a campaign of ambushes and skirmishes, all the while rounding up their errant kin. They bled the enemy at every opportunity. As their numbers grew, Ancanna created numerous smaller strike forces, each working together. A decoy force might lead an enemy warband into the waiting hammers of Retributors, or a flight of Prosecutors smashed their hunters so suddenly and so hard that they buckled and fell to the fury of a ground assault.
When tracking the movements of a warband led them near the Shadesmire, Ancanna relied on his Prosecutors once more. Lighter mists still caused some problems for the Angelos Conclave and so, by necessity, they honed their skills at low-level flying. On many occasions, they used their speed and agility to lure hosts of daemons and Chaos sworn fighters into the dangers of the swampy woodland, right through the territory of the Sylvaneth who defended their land with wrath and fury. Skill only went so far, and the Sylvaneth had prowess of their own, such that a few Prosecutors fell to the woodland protectors, brought down and entangled by shooting vines or crashing into branches that should not have been there. Yet no Knight of the Aurora shied from the task and the Prosecutors’ flights through the trees, changing direction as quickly as winged insects, leaving only a streak of light and fallen enemies in their wake, earned them much renown in the Strike Chamber.
Though Sigmar reclaimed many warriors, this fragment of a Strike Chamber grew in strength until they could no longer escape the notice of the citadel’s many eyes. The Stormcast Eternals themselves grew bolder and sought more open conflict. And therein lay another problem.
‘We still do not have the strength for another strike on the citadel, Castus,’ Ancanna said while dozens of other Stormcasts set about clearing the cobbles of the dead and maintaining their armaments as best they could without the aid of the Six Smiths.
The latest battle took them to an overgrown area of Art Eruditia where grass clumped between cobbles and greenery made great inroads in reclaiming the land from stone construction. The Stormcasts had drawn a hunting pack into the main force that waited in the buildings, alleys and drainage channels. The cover provided them some much needed respite.
‘We have wounded and our armour is battered,’ Ancanna finished.
Since passing through the realm gate into Ulglu, the Realm of Shadows, the Knights of the Aurora had waded through a tide of cultists and daemons. Each Stormcast Eternal had wreaked a bloody toll, accounting for themselves many times over but Ancanna now faced a difficult truth. Their momentum had stalled. The Stormhost known as the Swift had become bogged down, unable to bring their advantages to bear. They fought a different kind of war here in Ulglu, not one they were used to, nor one that played to their strengths of speed and scouting and the lightning assault. It was not one they could make a heroic push through to decapitate a leader. This had turned into attrition. A long, slow campaign.
‘Your talk is defeatist.’ After his beating by the wild Synvaneth of the Shadesmire, Castus’ armour looked the worst of all. Dents, scratches and scrapes covered its surface. Joints widened where the thorns of his attackers had pierced and warped them. But for all that, the Retributor kept his zeal to take the fight to the enemy.
Ancanna let his shield fall and looped his hammer at his waist. He opened his arms. ‘Strike me overhand with your hammer.’
Though the Retributor eyed Ancanna warily at first, he hefted his massive lightning hammer.
‘Sigmar would not look kindly on you returning to his forges in such a way,’ Castus warned.
Ancanna found himself inclined to agree but stepped forward anyway, arms still spread. ‘Humour me. I don’t doubt the thought has crossed your mind.’
‘Can’t deny that,’ he said. The hulking Retributor raised his arms and shifted his weight for the strike, yet the joints of his armour refused the movement.
Ancanna didn’t even flinch under the huge weapon, poised to crush him. ‘You see? Not one of us can move freely.’
‘Then what’s it to be, Prime?’ Castus asked fully recovered and full of fury. ‘Do we linger and get picked off by warbands or wait for the citadel lords to march on us?’ He swept his arm out in a gesture that took in the displaced Stormcasts that they had brought together. ‘This is all of us. In over a week we have failed to find any more. The rest are in Sigmar’s forges.’
He was right but that didn’t stop the Strike Chamber being too few.
‘You speak truth, Retributor, though I would not return the rest of us to Sigmar’s forges unduly.’ Ancanna lamented that the decision had fallen to him. He was the shield, not the sword, and certainly not the commander.
Only, once again, he was the commander.
‘Then what? Do we turn our hammers to sickles and plough blades?’ Irritation grew in Castus’ voice. He had the temperament of an Astral Templar, or perhaps a Celestial Vindicator, but his heart still lay in protection and that’s what drew him to the Knights of the Aurora. That and his ability to smash an opening through an enemy line in the blink of an eye.
‘Peace, Castus,’ Ancanna said, raising his palms.
‘Peace does not suit us, Prime. We are wrath and fury, remember that.’
No, Ancanna thought, we are peace and protection, liberators and defenders. He kept the sentiment internal for there was no sense antagonising the Retributor further. Their guerilla campaign had felt like progress. It felt good to start winning again, returned some of the confidence that the devastating defeat against the citadel had stolen from them, but in reality they were small victories and Stormcast Eternals were not forged for small victories. If the citadel was beyond them, what else for this diminished Strike Chamber? Did they leave to search out their Lord Celestant and rejoin the larger army? He gazed towards the distant fortress. Could they legitimately leave it, even if they intended to return with greater force?
The answer was easy. If they did not topple the citadel, there were none who could. If the Lord Castellant was right, and if the citadel had the makings of a Silver Tower, the sooner it fell, the better. The change would make a siege impossible and their task exponentially more difficult. Retreat was therefore not an option. It couldn’t be. He thought back to the failed attacks from both the Knights of the Aurora and the people of Valescroft, then to the survival of the nomadic community and the victories of the guerilla campaign.
Perhaps another approach. He could not swell their numbers with more Stormcast Eternals–only the God-king could decide whether to reinforce him with another Strike Chamber and no great storm broiled above to indicate it likely–but he could address other issues.
’They come too close,’ Marin said, holding one of the collective’s children close to her drab shirt. She gently rocked the child, soothing it as she vented her disapproval towards the gathering. She was a young woman but the exhaustion showing in her expression aged her another twenty years. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, just like everyone around her. ‘Their presence draws out the citadel’s hunting parties out in greater numbers than ever.’
Dim lamplight flickered and cast dancing shadows through the catacombs of the Sigmarabulum Temple. Dank and musty with age, and deep enough within Art Eruditia, it housed the entirety of the Third Moon Collective with wet, lime-slick room to spare. Kell sat on her haunches in the shadow of a circular column, picking at a stem of sour-tasting fungus, watching and listening. It was not one of her favoured bolt holes; the musty smell masked odours of intruders and strange acoustics made distant scratchings and scuffing seem to come from many directions at once. In addition to the speakers in front of her, she also watched the many ways into the chamber.
One of the community’s rangers, a skinny, middle-aged man, shook his head and scowled at Marin. ‘And these storm warriors have fought each one down. We cannot leave. The warbands beyond the hills are too numerous. Here, we have the luxury of two dozen places at least that can hide us all.’
A nagging doubt struck Kell, a memory and a whisper on the wind. Just how hidden were they? Did the citadel lords know of them? The catacombs always felt cold and draughty, but particularly so this evening. She glanced to the Aelf who had remained quiet through the discussion. He had survived for generations in the shadow of the citadel’s power. He would guide them as he ever did.
‘How long can we remain hidden?’ Marin pressed. ‘We have never had to move so often. Three of our bolt holes were uncovered and desecrated in as many days with them searching for these storm warriors.’
‘The collective has weathered worse.’ The ranger waved her concerns away. In truth, his face wore exhaustion just as much as Marin. His pale eyes lost much of their vibrancy, surrounded by tired, sagging skin.
‘Bury your head then, Jomun, for all the good it will do,’ Marin spat, shaking her head. It upset the child, causing a splutter and gurgle of tears which she hushed away. ‘I can see the fear in your eyes. Your voice shakes. You’re petrified. Whatever happens, it’s going to get worse before it improves.’
A second woman stood, Geristalanni, who had been nominated to stand as chair over the meeting should it descend to disagreements and sniping. As it had twice already. She raised her palms towards Marin. ‘This is not the time for insults, Marin. Jomun has every right to be afraid. Beyond the hills, the warbands would hunt us down within days.’
Marin dipped her head, overwhelmed with shame, and rightly so, Kell thought. There was no shame in avoiding danger. That very tenet kept every one of them alive every day. The problem, however, lay in what to do when danger surrounded them, cut off every bolt hole and snapped at their heels. The wisdom of the collective would let them endure, Kell told herself.
‘Accept my apologies, Jomun, I misspoke.’ Marin licked her lips, much of the fire extinguished from her voice. ‘I merely suggest we do something. We know these storm warriors are the problem. They have roused the evil of the citadel and we are caught between them. If we cannot leave, let us do something about the storm warriors. They brought it the evil here; they can take it with them.’
The comment aroused murmurs and a susurrus of conversation as some questioned her motives and others guessed what she might mean. A few suggested that the evil had shrouded the valleys long before the storm warriors arrived. Theories ranged from asking the storm warriors to leave through manipulating them towards a different path, to the incredulity of suggesting physical confrontation.
‘Lead them away,’ one of the men suggested, another forager like Kell.
He had good ears, that one. Verrel. His early warnings of rustling in the trees had saved her life more than once and always shared what he knew about where to find berries and truffles or where the mushrooms were likely to grow. He couldn’t make a fire if the whole collective’s lives depended on it though.
‘If they are looking for trouble,’ Verrel continued, ‘they can go beyond the hills and fight the warbands there.’
Many murmured their assent and suggested other options like losing them in the swampy woodland and letting the creatures that dwelt there deal with them. The enraged calls of the wild Sylvaneth spoke of what might happen to the storm warriors were they caught unprepared in the Shadesmire. Marin suggested guiding them towards the town of Valescroft but the thought of transferring their danger to other folk sat ill with some.
‘Is this not an opportunity?’ Marin countered. ‘If they truly oppose our enemies, why not assist them? Show them how to enter the citadel.’ She shrugged. ‘At worst, they all die and we are no longer caught in the citadel lords’ hunt for them.’
‘Is that how we do things now?’
The chamber silenced.
The Aelf had spoken. He had remained silent through the debate, showing no expression at the range of arguments, yet his melancholic, musical tones cut through the rising voices.
Kell leaned forwards, a mirror of the rest of the community who hung on his words.
‘Tell me, Marin, what did I teach you of the horrors of the citadel?’
Cowed once more, Marin’s voice wavered and dropped to a whisper, but that was plenty for the acute hearing of the Aelf and for Kell. ‘That they prey on emotions.’ She stammered and panicked under his cerulean gaze and her torrent of words jumbled on her tongue. ‘That fear is the killer–it’s what they want. They feed on the emotions–the good and the bad–the extremes.’
‘Community,’ prompted the Aelf, his tone still calm.
He sat upon a great pipe, long rusted and held together by thick rivets corroded with verdigris. Human-built, but the hallmarks of Duardin design showed through. Art Eruditia must have housed a wonderful community, Kell often thought. A place where cultures and races mixed and shared the wealth of knowledge and thought from across the realms.
‘Community, yes, strength in togetherness.’ Marin waved her hands while searching for the words.
Orinstar often had this effect. Since he spoke little, the collective paid attention, and he had personally saved the life of every one of them so commanded immeasurable respect. They owed their daily survival to him and the structures and life to which he had brought them. His abilities with magic, though small and insignificant compared to the heroes that had ridden from Valescroft and died at the hands of the citadel lords, hid them at times of greatest need. It had taken him, and the little skill he had taught Kell, to mask their retreat into the catacombs. Neither held up well as a Mistweaver, not compared to the tales of old which Orinstar entertained them with, but their little could save a life when applied properly.
‘They delight in loners and deceivers,’ Marin blurted, then glazed over as if speaking from memory. ‘One person is made to feel alone, isolated. Two people are toyed with, tormented until their fear intensifies, each one imagining things the other did not, until they work one another up into terror.’
‘And a community?’ the Aelf asked. His conversations often turned into lessons and the most cocksure of members of the collective found themselves like chastised children.
Marin recited. She found her flow of words after her initial jitters under Orinstar’s attention. ‘Community is life. Responsibility gives you the will to protect and courage beyond yourself.’
Indeed every person in the collective had responsibility for others’ lives, and others were responsible for theirs, whether by providing food or warmth or protection or shelter, the Third Moon Collective was intertwined by responsibility for one another. They all knew it, and, Kell guessed, that was why Orinstar asked her to watch the storm warriors. She had not understood it after their dismissiveness of the community’s help but the stark reminder of these simple principles brought clarity for her.
Was the Aelf thinking to bring the warriors into the community, she wondered. It worried her. They could not move as stealthily as even the community’s infants, nor could they hide from anything but the most arrogant, careless hunters. And they displayed a warlike arrogance of their own that horrified Kell, with only a few showing signs of humility. Perhaps Orinstar’s morals overran his common sense in this. Community came first and these storm warriors were not community. Embracing them could destroy the collective in a host of different ways.
You could end it, whispered the wind. WIthout the storm warriors, you can go back to your life on the move. Collect your food and firewood. Watch your children grow. Trap them. Send them to fight the citadel. You know a route. Through the Eruditian Labyrinth. They will follow you.
While the discussion continued, Kell slipped away through a drainage channel.
The Cutting of Threads
‘So, she will bring the sons of Sigmar to us,’ Axanthral said to his familiar whose ever-changing form writhed with glee. Incensed by the positivity, Axanthral’s daemonic disc snapped at the familiar whose nearest appendage formed an obscene gesture as it flittered behind one of the rotating arms in the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes.
It opened up a host of possibilities, new interlocked webs of intrigue and plot. The Stormcasts’ pride was already battered. A little more pressure would strip the rest from them and show them the futility of their little invasion. Then the daemons could feed on Sigmar’s finest. That would appease the fortress’ daemon spirit and make up for their failed harvest. Granting him the Aurora Conduit for the extended period of hunting the Stormcast Eternals had its price and Axanthral felt the loss with every movement. He felt as though he had been cored like an apple, but at the edges of that emptiness, something writhed. It put him in mind of tentacles or crawling insects, ever moving, ever changing.
A few commands whispered on the winds of magic send out a flock of bat-like creatures from their perches in the outermost belfry to summon allies from beyond the complex of valleys. They would round up every warband, cult and brigand from the Claws of Dracothion to the Darkenmoor. He needed more mortals to die for him, and he would not risk another defeat from the Stormcast Eternals.
Of course, not every possibility led to appeasing the daemon spirit. Axanthral’s alliance with the creature served, for the moment, while Stormcast Eternals assailed him. Should both daemon spirit and Stormcast Eternals sufficiently weaken one another in their conflict, however, that provided opportunity to tip the balance of power.
‘Continue advising our unwitting ally, Infergurgle.’ The sorcerer considered a few more options. The girls was useful, after all. ‘And, should the opportunity arise, see if she can be persuaded to bring her talents to bear for our cause.’
Axanthral adjusted his position, cross-legged surrounded by swirling motes of light and magic. A smoky image above him showed Ulgoloth disappearing into a chamber beyond the Starlight Chamber. The sorcerer writhed and chuckled, overcome with glee. The schemes around him, of mortals and Stormcast and immortal, caused arcane power to swell within him.
The warriors of Azyr stumbled, scattered and broken beyond threat, and yet their schemes bloomed before him like the birth of worlds magnified in the aether. The growth at his left shoulder itched and burned as it crawled and grew. A reminder. He had lost. Oh, he had been punished by the daemon spirit of his citadel, his Silver Tower to be. But he had gained.
And he had gained so much more.
Never had he summoned aurora rifts of such magnitude and frequency, nor had he maintained them for so long. Never had daemons of such power and in such numbers come to his call.
And Axanthral the Cultivator was much more than a mere summoner of daemons. Ambition alone did not elevate one so highly under the Change God’s gaze. Bile stirred in the pit of evil that he considered his stomach. And the Dreadguard would deeply regret the day he laid hands on Axanthral. Having pulled the strings of the fallen hero for lifetimes, entangling him further into his schemes, failed to satisfy him. That Ulgoloth no longer knew his cause or why he served, was only a passing amusement, although Axanthral had achieved all that without embedding a daemonic influence within the fallen hero. All the malice and anger had come from within, surfaced at the sorcerer’s command. Ulgoloth would be punished. And he would continue to serve against his will and against his knowledge.
Sat atop his daemonic platform, he watched Ulgoloth drop to his knees. The cry of anguish torn from the Dreadguard as he saw what moved within the catacombs split Axanthral’s face in a wide, sharp-toothed smile and summoned a shrieking, grating squeal of a laugh from within. Such weight of grief powered the scream that the daemon spirit of the citadel even stirred, drinking in the sweet negativity of the emotion.
Such was the power surge that Axanthral plunged into the smoky image, allowing it to envelop him and play out all around him, drinking every ounce of magic he could from it. One by one, dozens of images around him dissipated. The coloured smoke forming them wisped away and joined the larger image of the Dreadguard. And one by one, eyes of a hundred different types, protruding from fleshy growths all through the vales, on the walls of his fortress, in the town of Valescroft and throughout the ruins of Art Eruditia, all blinked shut.
Two images remained in the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes, the smaller of them diminishing and twisting to become part of the larger. Its depiction of the furthest reaches of the valley became smudged as the eye gazing from the outermost arch beyond the settlement of Valescroft glazed over. Amidst rising mists, helms of silver crested the horizon under an Azyrite banner led by a tall warrior of gleaming plate bearing a spear, and trailed by a cloak as turquoise as an ocean cove.
So enthralled by the Dreadguard’s dismay, Axanthral saw none of this.
Instead, he watched the deformed things scuttle about the catacombs in front of the man sworn to protect and restore them. Ruined wrecks of humanity hobbled, some with oversized musculature on single limbs while the rest of their bodies withered, little more than skin and bone. Others remained out of sight, encased in sarcophagi, at rest while the change overcame them. Axanthral sat mesmerised in magical overcharge and cruel excitement as the Dreadguard cast about in a panic, applying tinctures which were little more than coloured and scented water, and reading aloud arcane-sounding words from scrolls given to him by Axanthral over generations that would only hasten the change of his subjects.
Of course, that was far from enough punishment for Ulgoloth. Laying hands on Axanthral required direct consequences. Contact begets contact.
He did not know how long he had been there.
Rage fogged Geltz’s vision. Grief-loaded, heart-wrenching rage. He felt the Dreadguard rising within him, empowered by such feral anger, and he slammed the intruder down. Instead of sweeping him away, the anger focused him. Innocents had not only died in his latest endeavour to cleanse the change from his charges, they had been tortured. He, Geltz Valewarden, had damned them to an eternity of torment as the playthings of cruel daemons. The lucky ones were simply devoured by the same daemons in sacrifice to their insatiable hunger.
Geltz wept, kneeling at the base of a sarcophagus though death had not claimed the inhabitant, nothing so gracious. His fingers gripped its lip, stone crumbling under the force exerted from gauntlets that amplified his strength. They crushed part of the inscription that read, Valaru Alablenz, King in the Vale. A hand rested on his shoulder, grossly bloated and mutated, coloured blue like harvest skies, though it lacked the joy of harvest time. The proper harvest of his people, not the vile, bloody things that Axanthral had forced upon him. Discoloured talons grew where once there were fingernails, trimmed and painted to perfection. Slender fingers became overgrown and deformed.
At the thought of the sorcerer’s name, the Dreadguard made another surge within him, drawing upon his rage and directing it to a point of blame. Geltz batted it away again as he might swat an insect. One thing burned brighter within him than the urge for vengeance, and that was his sworn duty. Everything he had done, every atrocity he visited on the people he once protected, had been in following that singular duty. Though his actions had worsened the condition of his charges, life still flowed within them, and he still drew breath. That meant he could change it.
He grasped the hand on his shoulder. ‘Allietta, my love,’ he whispered. ‘I have led you astray.’
The creature only gurgled in response. Dozens of others shuffled around the chamber, confused, many stumbling into walls or tripping on one another. Many were pale, others showed skin the colour of bruised flesh through ragged tunics that once boasted the wealth of the Kingdom Vale.
Footsteps echoed behind him and Geltz went for his sword and mace. Rage and anguish did nothing to diminish his warrior’s instincts. The hand on his shoulder squeezed lightly, imperceptible under his armoured pauldron, but he felt the intention. It wasn’t his mind that picked up on it but the writhing thing that covered his wound. Emotions and intentions around him became magnified and he could read them like facial expressions without the need to even see them. The squeezing gesture signified comfort. Behind him, the man stood there emanated a stoic resolve. Stark disapproval also radiated from the newcomer, but his intentions remained that of an ally. Only one man could have stood with him after his enormous folly.
‘Ven,’ he said. He kept his voice from cracking in his constricted throat. Despite his actions earning him another title, he was still the Lambent Protector and he would show strength. Even with generations of vile endeavour that sullied his spirit and soul now exposed for the ruse it was.
‘You don’t need to say it,’ Ven said.
Geltz nodded. Ven had been right all these long, distasteful years. A few of the creatures in the chamber sparked recognition at the warrior who entered. He even bowed to some of them. Those who still had their minds.
‘Are you ready to try a new path?’ Ven continued.
The Lambent Protector peered into the sarcophagus once more as he rose to his feet. He still gripped his sword but released the mace. His king looked gaunt but remained the most human in appearance of all the nobles hidden away in the catacombs.
‘I should have listened to you a long time ago.’
Ven shook his head. ‘I said you didn’t need to say it. What about the sorcerer?’
Geltz moved like a viper. His dagger flashed across the chamber, past Ven’s ear, and pierced the tiny cat’s eye disguised in the wall. ‘The sorcerer sees only what I want him to. His harvest will be rife with rot, his fields laid fallow.’
With Ven at his side, and the Court of the Vale around him, regardless of their state, Geltz’s resolve returned in full force. He stood tall in his silver plate which glowed in the starlight spilling from the adjoining chamber. This was the Lambent Protector he was supposed to be.
The Boon and the Dreadguard within lay dormant, but waiting.
‘And the warriors of Sigmar?’ Ven asked.
Geltz saw to his armour, tightening, adjusting. The deformed monstrosity he had called Allietta assisted with care and attention that belied her lumbering form. She stepped away and Geltz drew his weapons in a flourish.
‘Arms raised against the Kingdom of Vale,’ Geltz began.
‘Be met with shield and sword and unyielding vengeance. By whatever means,’ Ven finished once more. ‘So be it.’
The churning of his gut troubled him. The Boon of Tzeentch showed little of its effects or what it was going to do to him. Likely what it was already doing to him from the inside out. For the moment, it kept him alive. That was enough. In time, he could find a way to remove its influence altogether.
At the thought, his wound blazed in agony as though salt and burning oil had been poured on it. But Geltz refused to bend knee to the pain. He was done as a supplicant of the Change God.
‘Lambent Protector?’ Ven asked.
It felt good to hear that again from his lieutenant. Geltz gritted his teeth through the pain. ‘Muster the Valesguard. They are no longer to be known as the Eclipse. Have them unfurl the Golden Banner and prepare the court for travel.’
Ven raised his arm in salute. ‘Be prepared, Lambent Protector, for some many not wish to shed the armour of the Eclipse so easily. I fear they are too far gone, having drank too deeply of the powers in which we dabbled.’
The same issue concerned Geltz about himself. ‘Do you know who?’
‘Quin, Ferion and Charion for certain. Given that Erik has started calling himself the Gorecleaver, I’ll say that’s a strong indication of his allegiance.’ Ven thought on it. ‘Possibly the brothers, Andros and Koss. Their allegiance is probably to one another first and foremost.’
‘Then it seems our share of grisly work is not over.’
Hope is Forged
Ancanna had deliberated enough. Too much for a leader of Stormcast Eternals. His guerilla war was over no matter how much he wanted to cling to it. He knew how to fight–to lead–in a guerilla war. Unfortunately, with the command structure obliterated, the Strike Chamber, such as it was, still looked to his leadership.
Sense told him not to fight a battle he could not win. His sigmarite cladding told him he was a coward for considering other options. His gauntlet-covered hands had never felt so powerless. He needed help. If nothing else, he needed to do what he could to improve the state of the warriors around him, and by his reckoning, such facilities were more likely to exist in Valescroft than anywhere else in the valleys.
The Strike Chamber remained quiet as they reached the outlying homesteads of Valescroft. Their first battle against the citadel lords had wreaked a path of ruin through many of the buildings, leaving them little more than charred husks or piles of rubble. Every in-tact house had its shutters closed though smoke wisped from a few chimneys. Hardly a welcome for liberating heroes, Ancanna thought grimly, thinking back to Kimmani’s victory speech.
‘Gone to ground,’ a returning Prosecutor said as he returned from the closed doors and lifeless streets.
‘You found noone?’ Ancanna asked.
‘Not quite. We entered a few of the houses. Most are deserted or collapsed. In one of the larger ones, we found maybe twenty or so people huddled in the cellar. Likely there are more in the other buildings and there are signs that someone has been moving around outside.’
Ancanna perked up and closed on the Prosecutor. ‘Would they speak to you? How are they faring?’
The Prosecutor shrugged. ‘Terrified, mostly. Some looked vacant as though they cared no more for life. We couldn’t get any sense out of them. They either cowered from us or barely noticed us. With how you spoke to the Lord Castellant, we assumed you’d rather we didn’t turf them out.’
It did nothing for Ancanna’s guilt over how the Knights of the Aurora had treated them after first driving back the Chaos force. ‘Rightly so. Leave them be for the moment. We have our own situation to deal with.’
A glance to the skies revealed another of the Prosecutor scouts who soon swooped back down to the ground. Despite their recent victories, they had won little more than a skirmish and thought it best to avoid notice as much as possible. While exceptional scouts, wings of light in such a dark, gloomy realm made Prosecutors a beacon visible for miles. And so, at the head of a solemn, battered host, Ancanna led the Knights of the Aurora into Valescroft once more.
‘Uriel,’ Ancanna called when they reached an area of debris strewn with broken tools. He didn’t know whether to be elated or disappointed by the state of it. As he took it in, a Retributor filed through the column of Stormcasts to join him. ‘This is the best we have. Can you use it?’
The Retributor looked over two piles of masonry that once stood as walls, and across the mess of burnt beams and shattered stone under a precarious external canopy. He clambered through and hauled a wooden joist from atop a circular stone forge. Another three similar forges lay buried nearby.
‘It’s a lot of forges for a farming town,’ Uriel rumbled. ‘How did you know they’d have so much?’
‘Those men who rode out from here were armoured.’ Ancanna shrugged. ‘Someone had to make it.’
Uriel extracted a rough smith’s hammer from under a pile of rocks. He glanced over the work areas again. ‘They’re close enough for repairs but I’m going to need help clearing this lot, a few to work the bellows and I’m damned if I’m doing it all on my own so a couple more who can use a hammer for more than killing.’
Ancanna smiled for the first time in days. ‘We’re the Knights of the Aurora, remember? Builders, blacksmiths, carpenters and tanners turned soldiers. Take your pick.’
A nod set Liberators and Retributors into action, clearing the other forges and collecting as many tools as they could find. At Uriel’s direction, others searched the wreckage for coals while he lit the first of the forges. The rest tended to the wounded, cleaning and redressing where required. Hours later, with Ancanna deep in the task of reorganising the remnants of the warrior chamber, Uriel approached.
‘I’m sorry, Prime,’ he said. Standing helmless, sweat matted Uriel’s brow and streaked down his face. His dark eyes looked down. ‘The sigmarite will not yield. We cannot repair and rearm here.’
Stifling a sigh and pushing the despair down as it welled in him again, he gave Uriel his attention. ‘Are the forges damaged?’
‘No. The problem is that we’re trying to work god-forged metal with mortal equipment. The forges are intact but insufficient.’
Ancanna knew Uriel better than to question his technique or suggest a change to his approach for Uriel was a determined man and a master smith. He would not have given up without exploring every alternative. In the midst of the knews, Ancanna’s pragmatic mind set to changing their plans. In their current state, the Strike Chamber could not attack. The option to retreat back to the realm gate and return to either the Lord Celestant or even Azyr in failure and disgrace surfaced again.
That thought was obliterated by a voice he did not recognise.
‘There’s nothing wrong with the forges.’
Both Ancanna and Uriel snapped to face the newcomer, a middle-aged human, heavy set and nervous. By his stance and the horror in his eyes, he looked like he might flee at the blink of an eye. Ancanna released the grip on his hammer and calmed Uriel’s retort with an open palm before it started.
‘What do you know of the forges?’ Ancanna asked.
The man breathed as if steeling himself. ‘I know that I built them and worked them for twenty years. I outfitted every man in our lord Philean Demnis’ army including the blue rider himself, for what good it did. I know that you can’t make the forges hot enough for that metal you’re using.’
‘And I suppose you also know how to make them hot enough?’ Uriel asked, sharply enough for the man to flinch and step back.
‘Easy, Uriel.’ Ancanna turned back to the man. ‘Do you?’
‘Yes. I do.’
‘And you are willing to help us, even after…’ Ancanna paused to sweep a gesture across the wreckage around him. ‘Even after this?’
A spark of respect fired in the Liberator Prime, that, though nervous and at potentially great risk, the man defied his fear and stood among these mighty warriors. Warriors that spoke the words of tyrants when first they met after the battle in Valescroft.
‘The forges are my life. I built them, I toiled at them, and I would see them lit.’ He glanced at the activity around him. ‘And you’ve not killed me yet. Something tells me the…things…that attacked us wouldn’t have much interest in rebuilding. I suppose that makes you better than them.’
He led them to a storage facility across the chipped cobble street from the forges and directed a couple of Stormcasts to clear the rubble from within. They obeyed at Ancanna’s curious behest. Whether the man could help with a Stormcast master smith failed remained to be seen but Ancanna, in his stressed and harassed disposition, welcomed whatever help came his way. When they broke through the fallen beams and stones, they uncovered a pile of bricks wrapped in leather and carefully stacked against a thick, stone wall. Though no larger than a hand each, Uriel strained to lift just one and carry it back to the forge. The blacksmith used a poker to shift the hot coals aside and made a conical space in the centre of the forge, into which Uriel placed the brick and covered it with glowing coals.
‘Bellows!’ the blacksmith shouted and, after a brief moment of surprise at the tone, Uriel took to them with fervour.
For a moment, nothing happened. As Uriel paused, ready to question the blacksmith, the forge whooshed with expelled air and the coals burned almost white with heat.
‘By Sigmar,’ Uriel breathed. ‘Where did you come by this fuel? Forging steel requires nothing so powerful.’
‘But it enhances the steel,’ the smith said, ‘makes it stronger. I never found out why exactly but it’s not the extra heat. It’s made from sediment collected in the stream that runs through the valley. The nomads dry it out and use it as fire lighters but, as you can see, we refine and pack it together into these bricks for use in the forge. Living under constant bandit attack and with monsters harrying us, we found it prudent to be well armed.’ A haunted look passed his face and he looked solemnly to the ground. ‘Even if it wasn’t enough for Juthian the Blue and his Hundred Blades. They say he changed… I didn’t know. We thought him blessed, blessed by the hammer god the wanderers talked about.’
Ancanna saw the smith teetering back over his pit of despair. This Juthien must have been the hero they saw leading against the Chaos force, and perhaps the wanderers were another of the mad bands of flagellants that roamed the realms, as much a danger to themselves and the forces of Sigmar as their enemy. Certainly the ones that the Knights of the Aurora thought they had saved from warbands of cultists had been far from reasonable. He tucked the thoughts away and focused back on the smith. This was tangible help, and the first positive interaction with the people they had supposedly liberated, and Ancanna was not about to lose him. The forges had drawn him out so perhaps the forges would keep him there.
‘Hot enough?’ Ancanna asked the Stormcast beside him.
Uriel already had the first cuirass in the forge. ‘Keep the weapons and armour coming and you’ll have your repairs. We’re hardly the Six Smiths here so there are limits to what we can do but we’ll all move more freely with the joints repaired and we can patch up some minor rents. I need half a dozen of our brothers to work under order from this man. If anyone even thinks to speak down to him, they’ll still be wearing their armour when it goes in the forge.’
Soon, the sounds of clanging sigmarite rang through the streets. Forge fires cast a warm glow over the pale stone of the buildings and embers flittered on the wind. But even with repairs underway, the Knights of the Aurora had problems. Too many stripped their armour, not just to prepare it for the attention of the smiths but to dress wounds. Without supply, they resorted to tearing strips from the sashes at their waists. Washed in the waters of irrigation channels that ran on the outskirts of the town and wrung dry, they redressed wounds with fabric that bore prayers to Sigmar.
It was not like the Knights of the Aurora to stand idle, and they did not. Those not tending to their injured brothers or assisting at the forges formed work parties. Without need of command, they cleared rubble and dug out a grave for the dead that still decomposed in the streets after the citadel had unleashed its attack. Maggots crawled in their open wounds and the stink of gases leaving their bodies hung over them like the mists so prevalent in this realm.
As any of the Knights of the Aurora had once turned their tools of trade into weapons of war, so too did they turn their weapons of war into tools of craft. Knives and hand axes made for effective implements in shaping wood.
Ancanna joined the nearest work party. They cleared down the frame of a collapsed building, one that could have been anything as the extent of detritus made its function indistinguishable. Three Liberators held the beam upright while others measured and compared it to the other materials they had remaining. They lay it down as Firus joined them and set to chopping one end so they could refit it. Another smoothed the other end with his knife. Ancanna scooped up a piece of wood and whittled it into a dowel for the beam.
Something resembling peace trickled into him at the simple act of shaping wood, of using his hands for something other than killing. The piece was ideal, strong yet easy to work. He didn’t recognise it, though its dark colouring implied a genus native to Ulglu. The sounds of axes on wood and smells of sawdust reminded him of his workshop in ages past. He passed the completed dowel to Firus who then hammered it in. It slid into place perfectly and Ancanna smiled at having retained the skill of his profession. The clonk of hammers on dowel sounded infinitely more calming than the crack of warhammer on skull.
Engrossed in his work, Ancanna reached out for the material to shape another dowel. He found it waiting in the outstretched hands of a human woman, filthy, hair bedraggled and shaking in fear. The Liberator Prime smiled at her. He bowed his head and took the wood. She flinched at his touch.
Dried blood caked her hands, her own judging by the raw tips of her fingers. Her dark eyes revealed the full depth of her horror and suffering but that tiniest glimmer of hope still remained, shown in the simple act of passing material to Ancanna. His respect, and affinity for, the people of Valescroft multiplied. They had suffered. And yet they displayed the tenacity to return from the brink. Not even Ancanna’s own decision to fight came from such hardship. When the warbands had come for his home, and nobody remained to protect them, he and his fellows took up arms. They had not the lifetime of conditioned suffering that had plagued the folk of Valescroft.
Curtains twitched in the windows of buildings fortunate enough to still have windows. Hesitant at first, a few more terrified men and women braved the streets.
Ancanna realised at once why Sigmar had chosen the Knights of the Aurora for this mission. He had believed it down to their speed, their aerial and scouting supremacy and their ability to react with lightning speed to calls for aid. Perhaps they played a part in the God-king’s decision but another explanation struck the Liberator Prime. At their core, the Knights of the Aurora were people. Not kings, not warlords, not career soldiers. Each one relinquished the tools of their craft and took up arms against an enemy of unfathomable power. They were builders and craftsmen. At the sight of a conquering hero, the people of Valescroft went to ground. The sight of warrior craftsmen rebuilding a place that belonged to another inspired the courage of a blacksmith, drawing him out of hiding. The courage of the blacksmith then cascaded to many.
The Knights of the Aurora could learn something from their example, Ancanna thought, especially himself. Just as he forced Castus to relinquish his pride in the face of the Sylvaneth, so too did Ancanna need to bring his leadership to bear and make the difficult decisions that Kimmani had told him of. Whether it sat comfortable with him or not, the Strike Chamber looked to his leadership and followed his command. Sigmar had given them a mission. All looked to him.
He would lead them because he had to.