Aurora Citadel Chapters 25-27

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Chapter 25

Reinforced

They had the will, but how to use it; that question plagued Ancanna. Soon, his few would reach fighting strength again, but he commanded far fewer than Kimmani had during their first assault upon the Aurora Citadel. Reports still reached him of warbands moving about the complex of valleys, and of a larger force mustering nearer the citadel. The Stormcast Eternals could not tarry too long. A static army was a dead army, another tenet of the Knights of the Aurora. He set his gaze to the heavens, to golden Azyr and the throne of the God-king, to beseech Sigmar for wisdom.

His answer came not from above, but from the wreckage of a home destroyed in the battle for Valescroft, while the heavenly realm remained silent to his pleas. A shadow moved in the courtyard. From behind the masonry, Kell approached.

Placing his tools down with the care of a craftsman, the Liberator Prime stood to greet her. He stumbled as the left knee joint in his armour caught and it took some manoeuvring to get the bent sigmarite moving freely.

‘You would move better out of all that metal, storm warrior,’ Kell said.

She looked troubled and tired though her paces remained measured and her ever-searching eyes spoke of her unceasing vigilance. The price of staying alive in a life like hers. Casting him a sidelong glance, she paused a few paces from Ancanna. Plenty of distance to bolt should she need to.

‘The people?’ she asked, voice unsteady.

‘Unharmed,’ Ancanna said, catching on to her wariness. So involved with his plans for the Strike Chamber, it took him a moment to appreciate the scene of warriors making for war. He edged closer and gestured to a few of the inhabitants who assisted in the repairs. He kept his voice soft. ‘And helping willingly. I told you we are not here for conquest. Some of the good people of Valescroft have put their trust in us.’

Kell’s words caught in her throat. ‘What are you here for, Ancanna of the Aurora?’

Stalling, he wanted to say. Given their defeat, the rhetoric of liberation and driving out the Chaos taint felt hollow. He had to remember that Kell had seen the might with which they attacked the Aurora Citadel and the beating they took. It didn’t take much to compare the numbers of Stormcast Eternals before that fight and how many spread through Valescroft in their damaged state. He had also seen other hunting packs from the citadel, ones beyond his capability to ambush, seen them chasing other prey which he could only assume was Kell’s nomadic community.

‘Surviving,’ Ancanna settled on.

He thought for a moment on how he might further prove his allegiance to this woman. It mattered to him. She was not just one woman, she was the only nomad willing to talk to them. Thereby, she signified exactly what Sigmar had sent them into Ulglu to find. A thought struck Ancanna–none of the sentries had reported Kell’s approach. His experiences in the Realm of Shadow ensured a healthy dose of suspicion was always in the back of his mind, even for those who had repeatedly saved his life.

‘You move well through the ways of Valescroft, such as it is. My scouts told me that your people avoid it.’

Kell gave him an appraising look. She wore the same clothes from when Ancanna had first met her in the ruins of Art Eruditia, yet her drab garb had been cleaned of much of the grime. Some of the stains, the blood particularly, would only ever fade, their memory permanent. ‘They are both my people,’ she said at last.

She joined Ancanna at his workspace and sat on the rubble by his side. ‘I was young. I’d sneaked off into the woodland, playing hide and find with my brother. He was older. Two cycles. He could never find me in the trees and swamps, especially when the mists were up.’ She gestured to a pile of smouldering debris on the far outskirts of town nearest the Shadesmire, too damaged for the Knights of the Aurora to consider repairing. ‘I lived there.’

‘What happened?’ Ancanna asked, picking up his knife and whittling another dowel. It was thoughtless work for him, enough to keep his hands busy and make himself useful while he paid attention to Kell and let the noise of hammers, saws and clang of the forges fade into the background.

She shuffled in her seat and her frown expressed her discomfort. ‘I’d never seen the aurora before. It was beautiful.’ She gulped and released a heavy breath. ‘Then it was terrible. I was alone. The sky went so dark. I couldn’t see where I was going and the woods seemed to close in all around me. I got lost. I screamed but that was worse. Something screamed back.’

The nomad didn’t stay seated for long. Clutching the hems of her long sleeves, she paced. She became skittish and anxious again, watching all around her. Even surrounded by the protection of Sigmar’s finest warriors, her face paled and her wide eyes betrayed her terror.

‘There were two or three of them, I think,’ she continued with wavering voice. ‘They chased me. Not people. Things. Things I couldn’t describe. They laughed at me, whispered horrible things but wouldn’t show themselves, not until I was cornered and crying.’

Ancanna kept quiet. Still on edge with suspicion, he kept a close watch on her body language and the look in her eyes. Always the eyes. They told you truth and lie.

‘The rest was quick. It’s still hazy. All I remember is crying, and then arms around me. I was on someone’s shoulder, bounding through the woods. We must have gone through the swamps because water splashed my face. There was still the screaming and chattering of the things, the daemons. Then it went black. I woke up in a drainage channel under Art Eruditia. Haunted, my brother said those ruins were, but when I opened my eyes, I saw an Aelf.’

‘Orinstar,’ Ancanna said and she nodded.

‘He doesn’t save many. It’s too dangerous. And if the community grows too large, they’ll find us. It’s harder to hide more people so we keep moving and keep small.’

‘And you’ve never returned?’

Kell shook her head. ‘Wouldn’t work.’ She hesitated and bit her lip and screwed her eyes shut before continuing. ‘All my family died that night looking for me. I gave myself to the community. They fed and clothed me and told me about the auroras and the citadel. They taught me never to come back here. If they knew about us, they’d come to find us, and then the citadel lords would do the same.’

‘Liberator Prime!’ a Prosecutor called from above. Swept along by the soft, heartfelt words of Kell, the rumbling thunder of the Prosecutor’s voice came as a shock.

No, not a Prosecutor. The enlarged crest atop his battle helm, the hawk motif on his shoulder plate and the lantern at his waist gave him away as he landed in a spread of outstretched wings.

‘Gallus!’ Ancanna cried. Elation flooded him. The nomad fled from his thoughts as he crossed the cobbles in two bounds and clasped the Knight Azyros’s forearm. He stepped back and looked him over. ‘Reforged so soon?’

‘You do me too little credit,’ Gallus said.

Ancanna’s jaw dropped as he replayed the moment of Gallus’ departure: the slaughter of brother warriors, the air tangy with Sigmar’s reclamation piercing the sky in thunderbolt after thunderbolt, the magic vortex and swarms of daemons. Nothing the Knights of the Aurora had faced compared to it. ‘Impossible. You drew them all to you. Countless flying daemons…’

‘I told you I could take them,’ Gallus said with a laugh. ‘The difficult part was disposing of the corpses.’

Ancanna shook his head and snorted his mirth. It was good to have Gallus back. Not only did he lighten the decision making burden from Ancanna–which alone brought immeasurable relief–but the knowledge that his closest friend and brother warrior had evaded another reforging warmed him. It also amazed him that the Knight Azyros escaped such pursuit but he knew Gallus would never let on. A dozen different stories of his survival would spread through the Strike Chamber before the suns set.

The Knight Azyros nodded toward Kell. ‘Are we taking in strays?’

‘This is Kell of the Third Moon Collective,’ Ancanna said, motioning her forwards. She remained skittish and wary of the Knight Azyros. Even as she approached, she would not allow the Stormcast Eternals either side of her to block potential escape. ‘She’s one of the nomads we sighted. All of our brothers that you see around you, we could not have rallied so many without her help.’ He made eye contact with Kell. ‘Every one of us owes her our life.’

It was hard to tell whether she appreciated or even understood the sentiment. A lifetime of being hunted by Chaos, living in the shadows of its stranglehold over Ulglu, affected her perspective in ways Ancanna could not even conceive.

‘Then you have my thanks also, Kell.’ Gallus gave an extravagant bow before turning his attention back to Ancanna, urgency creeping into his tone. ‘Listen. I’m not alone. I came to find you first, to warn you.’

Ancanna straightened and glanced to the forges while his gauntlet hovered over the hammer looped around his waist. ‘A warband?’

‘Many, but that is not my warning. Reinforcements are on the way, Prime. I caught up to the Cloudbursts over the Nightbluffs. They’ve seen much the same of this hellish realm as we have–a sea of enemies and little to rally beyond whispers and rumour–but they are in much better shape and have even gained the employ of a couple of Mistweavers. Aelfs. The Lord Celestant has agreed to abandon his campaign strike at the Aurora Citadel with us.’

‘Praise to Sigmar!’ Ancanna crowed. Reinforcements from the Cloudbursts would make them a mighty Strike Chamber again, one capable of defeating the citadel. ‘When can we expect them?’

‘Days, at least. The land is treacherous through the Grasp of the Death Lord and I spotted Arcanites amidst its stone spires as we passed through. He’s going to be fighting every step of the way, but he’s coming. And we’re going to need him, Prime. Warbands are converging on the valley: marauders, cultists, barbarians, tribal war parties. We even sighted a small band of dragon ogors heading this way.’ He gestured to six Prosecutors circling over the Shadesmire. ‘I see the Angelos Conclave is scouting. They must have reported similar.’

True enough, most patrols by Ancanna’s scouts over the last few days had resulted in a skirmish. By the hammers and javelins of the Prosecutors, splinter forces of the more eager warbands had routed.

Ancanna paced to release his surge of energy. His mind raced through strategies, for reinforcements opened a host of new possibilities. A dozen attack vectors crowded his thoughts, half he discarded immediately, the others he considered based on their previous assault. Now they knew what to expect. Keep the Prosecutors low. Strike a path through that hellish city. He shook all the thoughts away. First he needed the Lord Celestant.

And the arrival of his superior meant relinquishing command. He welcomed it. With open arms and whole heart, he longed to become an advisor once more and focus on his shield and hammer. Until then he had to keep his guerrilla band together. Defence of Valescroft fell to him, and so did treating with the nomads.

They couldn’t move from Valescroft, not in their state of disrepair, which meant that with the number of warbands roving the valley, battle would come to them. That meant digging in. And that was a job perfectly suited to both Ancanna the warrior and Ancanna the builder. His sense of worth intensified a hundredfold. This was the war he knew. He wanted to avoid remaining static but for a few days he might be able to hold the town.

‘Nothing to say, Prime?’ Gallus asked.

Ancanna smiled to himself. He called to a duo of Liberators carrying a long beam between them. ‘Liberators, stand to arms! Prepare defences. We’re fortifying this town. Give me palisades, pikes and choke points.’ He gestured to a street where buildings remained mostly intact on both sides. ‘Clear the rubble from those habitations and have Firus gather any former Judicators who still have their bow.’

The Stormcasts voiced their assent. They delivered their beam to the others repairing a creaking, unstable structure near the forges and set to reassigning labour to defences. The Knights of the Aurora knew their business and set to work. Some maintained their work on the residential and commercial buildings but only those which might collapse without intervention. The remaining resources, people and Stormcast Eternals, masonry and wood, became repurposed for the building of defences. It would never rival the fortifications of the Gates of Azyr, but they needed hold only until the Lord Celestant returned.

Having no intention of becoming trapped in Valescroft, another flurry of orders from the Liberator Prime secured them two possible routes of retreat into the ruins of Art Eruditia. When complete, each would contain a number of surprises to slow, confuse and bleed any pursuers.

As though the concept of pursuit had summoned them, the screech of winged furies pierced the sounds of building in Valescroft. The humans, still jittery from their trauma, as they would be for some time to come, panicked and fled but the Knights of the Aurora kept their resolve. Drawn to the fear, the furies swooped in, talons extended and shrieking their ululations. When they neared, the Knights of the Aurora sentries sprang to life. Ten Prosecutors took flight on wings of light. Most of them surrounded the furies, causing them to bank and rear, while the remainder strafed them from above. Celestial hammers and stormcall javelins bludgeoned and skewered the daemons, felling them as each impact bursts in heavenly light.

One fury dipped below the Angelos Chamber and streaked towards Kell. Ancanna reacted faster. He sidestepped in its path and scooped his shield from the ground in the same move. He read the creatures intended last-second change of direction and leapt aside, drawing the hammer from his waist and uppercutted the daemon in the same fluid motion. The hammer hit like a thunderbolt and crushed the beast’s chest.

Ancanna addressed the nervous people of Valescroft, raising his voice to a declarative clarion. ‘The Knights of the Aurora, Stormhost of the Stormcast Eternals, stand sentinel over you. While we stand, no harm shall befall you. Any who wish to leave may do so, or you may rebuild your lives under our guard.’

The speech failed to achieve an instant rally, though Ancanna held no illusions that it would. A glimmer of hope or comfort flashed in some of their expressions. That was enough for now. Slowly, and with the coaxing of Stormcast Eternals, the people of Valescroft returned to their work, assisting and guiding the reconstruction and fortification. None who had braved the streets went back into hiding.

‘Response enough?’ Ancanna said to the Knight Azyros.

‘It seemed to work better than our Lord Castellant’s effort,’ Gallus said then lowered his voice. ‘There’s something else I haven’t told you yet. Lord Castellant Kimmani is following with the Lord Relictor.’

Joy, confusion and concern all mixed within Ancanna. The return of his brother Knights of the Aurora made his heart soar, and yet the Lord Castellant fell. The Lord Relictor had been missing since the failed attack on the citadel. None of them should have returned from Azyr in so short a time. Unable to guess the gaps, Ancanna cocked his head and the Knight Azyros continued.

‘Him, I saw fall with my own eyes. How is this possible?

‘The Lord Relictor escaped the battle with a few others. For twelve days they held a fighting retreat before they regrouped with the Cloudbursts. Kimmani, however… We found him at the realm gate. Alone.’

‘Alone?’

Gallus paced. Using the tip of his sword, he drew a circle in a pile of ash to signify a realm gate and traced a number of mounds around it. ‘As far as we can tell, he was sent through the realm gate alone. When we reached him he was wandering confused. Bodies lay piled around him, Prime.’ He shook his head. ‘None of us believed it. Seeing a warrior like Kimmani fall was one thing, but such a rapid reforging, and to be sent back alone… It’s unprecedented.’

‘What’s his disposition?’

‘Unpredictable. He spoke as though he commanded the Strike Chamber at times, always pushing for speed, changing formations and directions. With all the contradictory orders being passed through the units, the Lord Celestant had to censure him. After that, he kept much to himself, brooding and muttering. For a while, at least. Soon enough, his ire rose again, and he was like an animal unleashed on the battlefield in all the wrong ways. He left holes in our formations, leapt in too quickly and struck out at anything that got near, even Stormcast. He punished the enemy like nothing I’ve ever seen but you couldn’t fight alongside him. It’s a matter of time before numbers bring him down. That’s why only the three of us are here, Kimmani, the Lord Relictor and I. Lord Celestant Sonos sent us on ahead. We’re to host a Remembering.’

Ancanna let out a long sigh.

Gallus grabbed Ancanna’s arm and leaned in. ‘Keep your wits around the Lord Castellant. He’s not the same.’ His eyes flicked to Kell. ‘You’re not needed, but perhaps…’

‘Perhaps what?’ Kell asked.

Ancanna took his time before resolving to follow through with Gallus’ hint. ‘I have something to show you.’

 

Chapter 26

The Remembering

In a plaza cleared of rubble, the Stormcasts silenced as a tall, foreboding warrior strode in their midst. He carried a staff of gleaming sigmarite and relics hung from ornate chains around his belt. An avian skull-helm covered his head, angular and beaked like a giant bird of prey animated from death. Where Stormcast Eternals inspired awe from ordinary humans, this figure inspired awe from the Stormcast Eternals. He radiated a depth of power and menace like a dark, monolithic shape moving beneath water, unknown yet instinctively dangerous. Many bowed their heads at his passing while others saluted with fist to chest.

‘Shades of Ulglu!’ Kell hissed, edging back and casting around for an escape, her tenuous trust in the Stormcasts shaken. ‘What daemon is that?’

Ancanna clasped her hand and drew her closer to the cover of a fallen stone statue depicting a robe-clad man wielding sword and staff that had been toppled in their defence of Valescroft.

‘Peace, Kell,’ Ancanna said. ‘He is Varuhen, Lord Relictor of the Knights of the Aurora.’

‘He looks like death.’

‘He is the guardian of our immortal souls, our defence against the enemy and against ourselves,’ Ancanna said, watching the smoking censers sway from the Lord Relictor’s hips. Embers from the forges that still rang through dusk flickered around him and glowed red and orange.

Kell looked at him quizzically. ‘Why are you showing me this?’

‘You need to see us. What we are. Where we came from. Watch.’

As Lord Relictor Varuhel walked between the assembled Stormcasts, he gestured to some, a simple nod of his head or tilt of his staff. The chosen few joined him and formed a circle around a fire pit at the centre of the plaza beside which he jammed his staff into the ground. Six warriors were chosen, the remainder bowed their heads and left.

Ancanna pressed a finger to his lips. ‘This is our most sacred rite. The Lord Relictor is performing a Remembering.’

On reflex, he made to leave, to honour the privacy of the ritual, but catching the interest on Kell’s face stayed him. He considered her perspective. Perhaps she did need to see it. To her, the Stormcasts were armoured giants, abstract and unknowable behind their helms. They had arrived in force, no different from the slaves of Chaos who had hunted her since birth. In the Realm of Shadows, the nomad would no doubt have brushed against illusion and misdirection. She had to see that the Knights of the Aurora were more than soulless fighters, that they fought for her, for her community, and for every other free inhabitant of the Mortal Realms.

They huddled closer to the fallen statue and watched.

The six Stormcast Eternals sat in silence until the Lord Relictor joined them. All but the Relictor removed their helmets revealing a range of features from princely stature to that of a weathered fisherman. Four males and two females comprised the group but only one was chosen by the Lord Relictor: the Lord Castellant himself.

‘Impossible,’ Kell choked. She recoiled and made to flee. ‘He died. I saw him fall, his body shoot up in a thunderbolt. This is devilry!’

Ancanna grabbed her arm. ‘We are chosen of Sigmar, Kell, and recurring life is our gift, or our curse. Watch, and you will get your answers.’

Kell settled somewhat, perhaps more by curiosity than comfort, though remained coiled as if to bolt at any second. ‘You can’t die?’

Ancanna considered the question and attempted to form an answer that someone who was not Stormcast could appreciate. In truth, none but a Stormcast could appreciate it, not without experiencing the reforging, the loss of self, and the quest to piece together who they were and who they are.

‘Not under normal circumstances. Had your knife found its mark on the night we met, I would be going through the same. Sigmar claims us, remakes us, and sends us out to fight once more. Each time we are changed.’

Her expression remained mistrustful and anxious, displaying no change at Ancanna’s personal example. ‘Changed how?’

‘Watch,’ Ancanna said.

At the direction of the Lord Relictor, Kimmani stood astride the fire pit, head bowed and hands open. One by one, the others stood and removed the sigmarite plates of his armour. The Lord Relictor whispered a word of command which caused a cross section to grow from his staff. Without speaking, the five Stormcasts placed the Lord Castellant’s armour upon the staff, dressing it until the warrior’s shell was complete. Kimmani and the armour stared at one another.

‘They’re separating the man from the Stormcast,’ Ancanna whispered, ‘acknowledging the existence of both.’

The scent of sawdust rose from the fire pit, one that Ancanna recognised instantly. It smelled fresh and untouched by the flames. Varnish and oil scents joined the sawdust, and white smoke crept from the fire and curled around the circle of Stormcasts. It coalesced into figures working in a sawmill, treating wood, cutting and stacking. Outside, a man walked into view holding a lamplighter’s pole. The Lord Castellant remained in the centre but reached as though lighting the lamp outside the workshop.

One of the female Stormcasts spoke, describing the scene in the sawmill, Kimmani and the smoky figures matching her words with their actions. Her voice rose and the figures scattered in panic. The smoke darkened and the smell became that of wood and oil fires, not that of homely, open fires, but of destruction. Echoes of screams and shouting drifted on the wind and Kimmani looked up from his invisible work.

The female Stormcast continued weaving her tale of Kimmani dashing across a burning village towards a house surrounded by men with torches. His house. Amidst the dark smoke, a new set of figures formed in a lighter shade. They showed a woman shielding a young boy, trapped in the house. Though pain and determination showed on Kimmani’s face, the female Stormcast told of another burning building. There, the smoke changed into enemies, cruel men with spiked clubs and swords. Kimmani made wild swings at the air, still looking as though he ran forwards towards the house, A dozen smoky enemies fell before him before the storyteller described a man emerging from his own burning house with two charred, lifeless husks and Kimmani’s face turned ashen as he wept.

Another Stormcast took up the story of a man driven from his home who joined a group of bandits. Kimmani’s expression turned shameful until the new storyteller evoked images of a coup inside the organisation. Kimmani roared and swung his arms around while the smoky head of a bandit leader parted from its body.

Each Stormcast took a turn to recount stories from Kimmani’s past while the smoke and the Lord Castellant himself acted them out above the fire pit. The Lord Relictor provided a low, chanting undertone as he paced around the circle. With each story, the dull armour set upon the Relictor’s staff regained some of its gleam. Further stories depicted a path of vengeance and unravelling the powers behind those who destroyed his home. They told of beasts and evil men slain by a man commanding a few, and then a whole host of warriors; a man that rallied others to his cause and struck at their enemies with precision.

Glories heaped upon the vengeful Kimmani until a sombre tale told of his demise hunting down a powerful warlord. Chasing rumour and illusion, Kimmani’s force became spread through his homeland, some strung out in a long marching column, other smaller warbands split off to follow vague leads of the warlord’s whereabouts. The warlord, however, made himself known at the head of one of two great hosts. They crushed Kimmani’s thinly spread army between them.

One of the Stormcasts then stood. He walked to the Lord Castellant’s armour, removed the boots, and then placed Kimmani’s feet inside. His story told of Kimmani’s reforging as a Stormcast and his training in Azyr. The stories that followed, all  focused on Kimmani’s deeds as a Stormcast, from fighting against the plague god in the Realm of Life, to taking the realm gate and falling at the Aurora Citadel in the Realm of Shadows. Each dressed him in another piece of his armour as their stories ended.

When the last Stormcast finished his tale, he placed Kimmani’s helmet on the Lord Castellant’s head and took his place, sitting in the circle in silence.

Lord Castellant Kimmani knelt before his chosen storytellers. ‘I am Kimmastus of Winterdale Hamlet and Kimmani, Lord Castellant of the Knights of the Aurora. I am man and I am Stormcast. May Sigmar light my path and strengthen my blade.’

All present bowed to Kimmani, welcoming both man and Stormcast back to the Strike Chamber. The Lord Relictor then led the Stormcasts away and Ancanna followed suit, guiding Kell with him. They left the Lord Castellant to his meditation. This was his time to reflect and piece together the fragments of his memory and personality. Nobody would know the extent of his change until he returned.

‘I don’t understand,’ Kell said as they left the fallen statue behind which they had hidden.

Still, she did not know what to make of them. They looked like the citadel lords in their heavy armour and with the avian designs on their armour. They lived for violence and cheated the grave as though they had struck a pact with the dark gods. Yet they had not killed her despite countless opportunities.

Tricksters, whispered the wind. Traitors and daemons. Kell ignored it.

Ancanna nodded. ‘When the God-King reforges us, we are changed, lessened. We return to the fight but lose part of ourselves along the way. Some forget their past or their characters change. The most passionate warrior can become a soulless automaton, or the most ferocious may become feral. By our Rememberings, we ensure that every Stormcast knows who they were, knows their history and in what they believed. With the assistance of the Lord Relictor, the chosen few live that past with the subject and recall it as clearly as if they had lived it themselves. When so many know the same history, it becomes less warped with each retelling, allowing the reforged to retain as much of themselves as possible.’

The wind rustled through Valescroft and scattered a few stones while Kell thought in silence. After a few moments, she nodded her understanding. ‘Community is life.’

Her community kept its members alive physically. The Rememberings performed by the Knights of the Aurora kept its warriors alive mentally and spiritually.

‘Community is life,’ Ancanna agreed, gazing across the deceptive terrain of the valley, its seemingly innocent farmland and woodland fraught with dangers and all under the shadow of Chaos.

By the time he withdrew from his reverie Kell had melted away.

 

Chapter 27

Knight Errant

Ancanna approached the Lord Castellant who stood gazing out atop the balcony from which he had first addressed the people of Valescroft. The Knights of the Aurora had commandeered this building though none of the residents were in it when they entered. Kimmani leaned on his halberd, burnished silver armour framed by the deepest night of Ulglu. A dim orange glow tinged his left pauldron from the forges that rang unceasingly through the streets. Following his gaze, Ancanna realised that the Lord Castellant was not watching the other Stormcasts as they cleared rubble and fortified the town with a palisade fence and created choke points for attackers. Others set to restoring foundations and load-bearing structures of buildings damaged in the battle. Instead, he gazed towards the Aurora Citadel, shrouded in mist though it was that morning. The craftsmen of their former lives never left the Knights of the Aurora. Except, perhaps, one.

‘I saw your Remembering.’

At first, Kimmani gave no indication of hearing. When he replied, he kept his back to Ancanna. ‘I wanted you to watch. The human too.’

Human? Ancanna thought. Despite his sigmarite armour, his enhanced strength and resilience, Ancanna still considered himself both human and Stormcast. Or perhaps one as a progression of the other. Still wary from Gallus’ assessment of the Lord Castellant, Ancanna stepped closer. He harboured no fear of Kimmani, their defeat at the Aurora Citadel had given him a new appreciation of a guarded demeanour.

‘Now I understand why we pushed so hard out of the realm gate.’ Ancanna held his tongue before mentioning that such haste had caused the death of the Judicators, but something about the Lord Castellant’s downcast face told him he already carried the weight of those deaths. In truth, Ancanna had assumed their haste some kind of contest or rivalry with the Lord Celestant or leaders of the other Stormhosts. Reckless as many of his commands had been, Ancanna now appreciated the reasons for them, even if those reasons were undesirable in a strategy.

Kimmani nodded, still staring out. ‘A minute, maybe even seconds, that’s all I needed. Then I wouldn’t have had to watch my family burn alive.’ He gripped his fists around his halberd. ‘I vowed that I would never be too slow again.’ He stopped and released a long sigh. ‘And doing so has bloodied my hands further. Stay where you are, Liberator Prime, I do not require your comfort or your pity.’

The dangerous tone gave Ancanna pause. Comfort had not been on his mind. As Stormcast Eternals, they had to make the brutal decisions and fight through them. They existed to be thrown against the spiked bulwark of Chaos again and again, travelling through death and diminishing self until either the Realm of Chaos fell or reforging shattered their souls. They had to endure this because if those with every gift and advantage of Sigmar’s blessing could not, who could?

‘How about my allegiance?’ Ancanna asked with outstretched hand.

Kimmani turned and regarded him for a moment before clasping his arm as a brother. The Lord Castellant may have lost something in his reforging, the extent of which would become apparent only in time. It did not, however, stop him learning from a string of mistakes. Part of a Stormcast may diminish in reforging but, Ancanna realised, they could also grow. Death was the harshest lesson of all, even for a Stormcast. Perhaps more so for a Stormcast who carried the agony of it through each reforging.

That thought alone gave Ancanna the hope that he could indeed follow Kimmani’s command again, that the Lord Castellant had learned to temper his reckless haste. As a warrior, not even the Lord Celestant had bested him in the Pugilus Eyrie, the heart of the Knights of the Aurora’s training complex in Azyr. Ancanna kept his reservations to himself–he owed Kimmani his bond as a brother warrior, at least, and would trust him to lead again.

‘And now?’ Ancanna asked. ‘Do we fight with the mortals?’

Kimmani took his time. He gazed at the town around him and his gaze rested on an unfinished tapestry that stirred in the breeze. The stitching depicted generations of innocents that had been grown, tortured to the peaks and troughs of emotion, and harvested for it.

‘We do,’ he answered eventually, and paused again. ‘We do. Sigmar, he…’ Kimmani twitched and grasped his head in one hand. He used the other to steady himself against a wall, his grasping fingers crumbling the weathered stone of the ancient stadium. Light spilled from his helm’s visor and glowed blue against the dusty ground. Crackles of energy sparked on the sigmarite.

‘Lord Castellant?’ Ancanna asked, steadying the larger warrior.

‘It is nothing. They can help us.’ He repeated the words under his breath as though convincing himself. Or remembering something. ‘I am entrusting the mortals’ command to Knight Azyros Gallus. I understand you have spent considerable time in the mortals’ company, therefore I entrust you with finding out what they know about this fortress and how we break it.’

‘As you wish, sir. And yourself?’

‘I am chastised and rebuked, Liberator Prime. I brought ruin upon my Strike Chamber. Our Lord Celestant was forced to abandon his campaign and not to only finish the task that I started, but to rescue my scattered warriors. The shame is too great.’

‘Lord Castellant, what happened to you at the Aurora Citadel? I saw Sigmar attempt to reclaim you but then the storm seemed to disperse you. It–’

‘Sigmar smite you for a mewling coward!’ Kimmani roared. He threw Ancanna’s arm from him, sending the Liberator Prime cartwheeling over the balcony.

Ancanna crashed to the ground from one floor up with a clatter of armour, the wind knocked out of him. He rolled with the impact, trying to use the momentum to bring him back to his feet but Kimmani leapt over the balcony behind him. Firelight glinted from a halberd’s blade as it flashed down and paused by Ancanna’s throat. Drawn by the commotion, Stormcasts rushed around, shouting for the Lord Castellant to stand down but none dared approach in case Kimmani lashed out at Ancanna.

‘We are but the tip of the spear,’ Kimmani continued in a growl, not noticing the crowd, ‘merely a dagger without its shaft, and useless without the arm that wields it. The mortals, they support us and extend our reach. No. You were right, Liberator Prime. We are not here to deliver the realms to the free people, we are here to lead them. But I,’ the halberd’s edge scraped the skin between Ancanna’s high gorget and the base of his helm, ‘I am disgraced. I am unworthy to be that leader.’

The axe blade shifted and, despite himself, despite his courage and extensive training, Ancanna closed his eyes.

When he opened them, the blade had gone. From the ground, he watched the Lord Castellant stalk away, pushing through the circle of Stormcasts. Dizzied by the unexpected violence, Ancanna berated himself for failing to counter when Kimmani’s grip shifted from companionable to offensive. He never expected his commander to lay hands on him in violence but a Stormcast had to be able to counter threats from both within and without. The God King Sigmar drilled this into them in Azyr for it was treachery and deceit that split his ancient alliance and opened the way for Chaos.

He shook away the afterimage of the blade at his throat and suppressed his anger. It had not been an argument or loss of temper that led to the attack but a sudden outburst. They had no disagreement, which concerned Ancanna most. Their Rememberings, and the ceremony around them, wrought the Knights of the Aurora together. Every Stormcast in the Strike Chamber had lived through the history of many of his brethren, shared in their triumphs and disasters. Because of this bond, Ancanna thought not of further conflict with the Lord Castellant, but greatly increased his worries over his commander’s condition.

While considering whether to pursue Kimmani or allow him time for his choler to lower, an outstretched hand appeared before Ancanna. Not the heavy, silver gauntlet of a Stormcast Eternal, but slender, pale flesh. The Liberator Prime looked up to the lithe, if bedraggled, form of an Aelf.

His first thought was to snub the offer; he was Stormcast, strong and proud. He needed no help to pick himself up. But the Aelfs, they put great stock in symbolism. The Knights of the Aurora had rejected the help of this community once before and they had courted obliteration for it.

Ancanna accepted the hand but took his own weight as he stood, leaving their hands clasped as a gesture–he was a friend and accepted help, but could stand on his own. The thick fingers of his sigmarite gauntlet made the Aelf’s look like twigs.

‘Do you not speak now that your leader has returned?’ the Aelf asked.

Ancanna realised that the Aelf had been speaking to him but his attention had been consumed by the Lord Castellant’s departure. But that was a Stormcast issue, he reminded himself, and Ancanna’s task was set. He composed himself and met the Aelf’s gaze. Depths of sorrow and knowledge dwelt in those light, almond-shaped eyes. Every attempt Ancanna had made ending in disappointment and rejection.

‘Orinstar,’ Ancanna said and dipped his head.

It sounded more like a title than his name, but he responded nevertheless. Whether the Aelf appreciated the greeting emulated from those in the community, his face remained passive though it turned sharply to a glare when Gallus shoved past him.

‘Prime! Are you hurt?’

‘Just my pride, Gallus,’ he replied, calming the Knight Azyros with open palms. ‘You did warn me.’

Ancanna then recognised his commander’s direction–he was walking away from the Strike Chamber. Ancanna made to go after him but the Aelf barred his path.

‘Leave him.’

Ancanna’s eyes narrowed to slits and a surge of anger and energy flooded him. ‘Remove yourself from my path, Aelf, or I shall remove you.’

The Aelf stood his ground. ‘Your leaders treat you little different from how the slaves of the dark gods treat their servants,’ he said.

Ancanna took his hand back and stiffened. He locked the Aelf with a hard stare. Despite the behaviour of the Lord Castellant, Ancanna remained proud of the Knights of the Aurora. ‘And what do you know of my enemy’s methods?’

By his side, Gallus stood, hand on the hilt of his sword.

‘More than most,’ the Aelf replied, unperturbed by the two looming Stormcasts.

‘Out of my way,’ Ancanna growled. ‘I shall not ask a third time.’

‘He is leaving and you should let him. He left you orders to make another strike on the citadel, did he not? You are to learn from me and your friend here is to command in his absence. Unless you intend to lead your warriors into another massacre, you should heed him this time.’

The cold logic stopped Ancanna even if the Aelf’s transparent insults set his blood aflame. He wanted to strike out. All his frustration and rage bubbled to the surface. His commander, and the greatest fighter in their Strike Chamber, had fallen to a pit of despair and volatility brought about by his own hand, by the very quality that made him such a passionate defender. Strife within a much-humbled Knights of the Aurora, their bodies and pride both beaten, was a far cry from the proud force that smashed through the realm gate and carved a bloody swathe through the warbands of Ulglu. Anger at his failure to counter the Lord Castellant’s throw still tore at him. Worst of all, the Strike Chamber was in the same position they were weeks before, only with a much diminished army.

But striking the Aelf would only worsen their situation. He did not let go of his anger. Instead, Ancanna buried it and stoked his thirst for vengeance. He stored it all for a more worthy target. A glance in the direction of the Aurora Citadel was all he needed to focus the rage and let it simmer again beneath the surface. The citadel lords were due a reckoning.

The Aelf gave him a knowing nod, his expression gave nothing away though his eyes displayed an understanding. He turned deftly and made for the cleared street out of Valescroft and back towards the ruins. ‘Come, storm warrior.’

Ancanna stumbled as he made to follow. While unhurt from the fall, the impact had further twisted one of the damaged knee joints of his armour. Sigmarite squealed as he dragged his foot in to regain balance.

‘You’ll not get far like that,’ Gallus said. ‘I will go in your stead.’

The Aelf shook his head. ‘Ancanna alone was invited. He will have to leave the armour behind.’

Much as he did not trust the Aelf, Ancanna conceded that his armour would be more hindrance than protection if he found trouble considering how it hamstrung his dexterity. He motioned Gallus closer. ‘We lack the time to wait for repairs. I will accompany him unarmoured.’

Gallus helped remove Ancanna’s armour, plate by plate, leaning in to whisper his dislike of the decision while the Aelf watched with great interest.

‘You know I’m going to advise you against this?’ Gallus said.

‘And you know I’m going to ignore you.’

‘As long as we understand one another.’

When the stifling, heavy plates were removed, the Aelf appraised Ancanna in his padded tunic and breeches. ‘So you are human under all that.’

‘Once,’ Ancanna replied, his enhanced stature towering over the Aelf in both height and width. Dried sweat had clumped his cropped, black hair and stubble darkened his sturdy jawline. A triangular scar topped his right cheek near his eye. The Aelf inspected it.

‘Sword or dagger?’ he asked.

‘Nail,’ Ancanna replied. At the Aelf’s momentarily puzzled expression, he elaborated. ‘I was a builder prior to reforging. This,’ he gestured to the scar, ‘is a souvenir I carried through reforging.’

When removed from his armour, Ancanna rolled his shoulders and handed over his hammer to Gallus. ‘Look after these, my friend. They’re worth more than my life.’

‘I shall guard them with mine,’ the Knight Azyros responded. He looked the Aelf up and down then glanced toward the Aurora Citadel. ‘Make sure you guard your own.’

While Gallus left for the forges with Ancanna’s hammer and armour, the Liberator prime secured a knife at his waist. ‘Lead on, Orinstar.’

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