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The Temple Orina
Ancanna caught up to the Aelf and matched step along the overgrown path, occasionally scuffing his feet when the ancient cobbles broke through the grass and packed earth. Bereft of his armour, his stride was longer and his movements more fluid, and the wind flowed through his white tunic as they covered the ground to Art Eruditia. A couple of Prosecutors caught his eye where they took wing, watching his position. Perhaps with the Lord Celestant and the rest of the Strike Chamber on its way they could afford to be bolder. As they were, they might prevail in the odd skirmish but another assault on the citadel remained a daunting prospect.
‘Where are we going?’ Ancanna asked.
‘To the Temple Orina,’ the Aelf replied when they reached the sparse buildings at the outskirts of the ruined city.
‘Your leader tasked you to learn how to attack the citadel, did he not?’
‘He did. Yet I do not think he had divine intervention in mind.’
Ancanna’s gaze roamed the buildings, the alleys and streets, and their shadows. He had not forgotten the eyes of the enemy, those fleshy growths marring the ruined walls, nor the creature that had dragged one of his brother Stormcasts into the stone itself. Lacking armour made him feel exposed but also heightened his senses. Unrestricted by a visor, his field of vision expanded and every crumble of masonry or clatter of stones sounded clearer.
‘That is your way, is it not, soldier of storms? I see the twin-tailed comet fashioned on the hilt of your knife and heard your battle cries to your thunder god. There are, however, no gods in this place. No benign ones, at least.’
‘Then what do we seek in a temple?’
The column-lined avenue indicated religion, or what remained of one. Though most had fallen into disrepair, some retained arcane symbols etched into the stone. A chipped orb depicting the celestial school of magic crested one such column, while the keys of the bright wizard school stood crossed atop another on a backdrop of carved flame. Each was subtly changed as though the meanings had changed through the ages.
The Aelf looked at him derisively. Your eyes would see more if your mouth was closed, Stormcast. Be silent and observe.’
‘Very well,’ Ancanna said, biting his tongue at the Aelf’s tone. This place, though long ruined, was after all, more home to Orinstar than to him.
They approached a large structure of broken columns and partial floors where the street opened out and formed a rectangle around this central ruin. Other streets joined at the four main compass points, each leading to what once formed an entrance.
By the height of some of the stacked columns, the temple must have been immense, at least seventy feet tall, over numerous floors. Great statues, now faceless and pitted, stood in alcoves. Some depicted warriors or hunters while others displayed scholars writing on slate or parchment. All were Aelfs.
‘Look down,’ the Aelf said.
The floor housed a colourful mosaic in near-pristine condition apart from near the western wall where it faded to grey stone.
‘The rest is sheltered from wind and rain by the partial ceiling,’ Orinstar explained, following Ancanna’s gaze. ‘What do you see?’
Ancanna studied the floor and the ochre and lapis lazuli patterns that framed it. His gaze swept over another hero story depicted as a masterpiece of monsters and magic and great deeds, all glistening as though made of stained glass. It resembled much that he had already seen and studied in Art Eruditia but he assumed that the Aelf expected something more than an answer citing a hero’s journey or comment on decoration so he looked closer.
‘I’ve seen this story before, throughout these ruins,’ Ancanna said, almost to himself as he became engrossed in the patterns and craftsmanship. ‘And before, at Valescroft, people were making a similar tapestry depicting a man that had just ridden out to fight bandits.’ He paused, thinking of the man’s despair when after expecting bandits, he had found daemons.
One thing stood out beyond all the other art. He strained his eyes as he studied the face of the hero rendered in crystalline images on the floor, though he scarcely believed what he saw.
‘This one looks like you.’
The Aelf nodded. ‘My uncle.’
‘This was an Aelf settlement?’ Ancanna asked.
‘It was a settlement for whomsoever wished to settle here,’ Orinstar corrected. He walked about the mosaic floor. ‘But as you can see, that was long ago.’
Under other circumstances, Ancanna may have appreciated the architecture and the history. In his life before being reforged as Stormcast, he would have marvelled at the construction and finish, wondering how it looked at its peak. But he had lost too many brother warriors since passing through the realm gate into Ulglu, and the Lord Castellant’s behaviour had soured his mood and eroded his patience.
‘Is there a weapon here?’ Ancanna asked. ‘An access route to use in a surprise attack, perhaps? How does this place help us take the citadel?’
‘Weapon.’ The Aelf muttered and shook his head. He raised his voice again. ‘You have tried your weapons, Knight of the Aurora, your weapons and armour of gleaming metal. Now, perhaps, you may consider the advantage of knowledge. That is what your leader commanded you obtain before he threw you to the ground, yes?’
Ancanna bristled. He ground his teeth to control his own temperament. The Lord Castellant would no doubt have already dashed the insolent Aelf’s head against the stone column, but Ancanna held the patience of a craftsman, a perfectionist. Even that had its limits.
‘Make your point, Aelf. I lack the time for your family history.’
The Aelf made no indication of noticing Ancanna’s irritation. ‘The reason you have seen this story depicted many times is because it has happened many times. It is still happening.’
It struck enough of a chord with Ancanna that the pieces of the puzzle he had seen throughout the valley began slotting together, patterns that had caught his attention but he had dismissed them as coincidence. ‘The man that our Prosecutors saw riding out from Valescroft, he is one of these heroes?’
He nodded. ‘A hero doomed to fail and bring about the tortured deaths of anyone he ever knew, though his intentions were as pure as any. Yes, the man you saw from–did you say they call it Valescroft now?–he is of the latest crop.’
‘I have lived through it, that’s how I can know this.’ Orinstar paced over the mosaic floor, his soft footwraps alighting gently over its surface. He moved in such a way that ensured Ancanna took in the room, its columns, carvings and artwork. ‘I have watched generations rise and fall, always the same way. But now you have interrupted the cycle. I was one of the few who escaped when this city fell.’ He swept his arm across the horizon where one of the walls was missing. ‘All of what you see here was a farm. Valescroft is a farm. What grows in the fields merely sustains the real crop: the people.’
‘The people,’ Ancanna repeated flatly. He made to leave.
‘Hope and despair,’ the Aelf said as though it answered everything. It, at least, gave Ancanna pause. ‘The enemy does not wish to eradicate the people here. If it destroys everyone, it consumes itself. It knows this. These ruins were once the feeding ground for the daemons of the citadel, just as Valescroft is now, just as a dozen more settlements scattered around these valleys are.’
Ancanna surveyed the ruins of a city long absent of life. ‘This does not appear to be the work of an enemy that does not wish to eradicate its prey.’
The Aelf shrugged. Still no emotion crossed his delicate features. ‘Daemons are difficult to control, even for one as strong as the lord of the citadel. They will glut themselves given the opportunity. For nine nights, the aurora will light the sky and daemons will come from the citadel, hunting and tormenting. This city fell on the fourth night, three harvests ago. The summoner lost control of his daemons and they feasted until everything was gone.’
‘Except you, I note.’
The Aelf hesitated. ‘I was…absent.’
‘Absent when your city fell.’
‘Not all of us are forged for war, Stormcast. Some are not so lucky in their armourers, others have talents beside courage. Myself, I was what you might call a squire. My uncle was the hero.’ He gazed at the mosaic featuring the heroic Aelf and his voice became wistful. ‘He was magnificent. His magical talents showed slowly at first and then accelerated at an extraordinary rate, far beyond what even Aelfs consider potent. It was he that slew the manticore that had preyed on our people for months before, and he who led hunting parties to cleanse the wilds of the beasts that made our roads impassible. When the aurora came and the enemy revealed itself, he sought to challenge the lord of the citadel itself.
‘We followed him, the greatest warriors of the city and their aides. That’s when we saw our folly. We were so enthralled by his powers we never thought to question their origins or their incredible development. He was our salvation, our hero. We missed the mutations, and thought the headaches, twitches and conversations under his breath brought on by the stress of responsibility.’
‘What happened to him?’ Ancanna asked, already suspecting the answer.
The Aelf shook his bowed head. ‘Horrors. After that thing tore itself from him… I fled before I could see the full extent. Do not look down on me; I told you I am not a warrior. Since then I saved who I could from these fell farms, moving about the wilds, hiding from the daemons and servants of the citadel.’
‘You didn’t leave?’
‘And go where?’ The Aelf spread his arms. ‘Beyond these valleys, the roving warbands would have caught and slaughtered us within days. Here, at least, we can avoid the garrison, and the aurora warns us of the greater danger. We survive.’
Ancanna mulled over the words, his irritations lessened as he related to a life beset and hunted by enemies, doing what he could to keep as many alive as he could. ‘You brought me here to reveal how we counter the threat.’
‘I have told you everything you need, storm warrior. But keep your plans to yourself, for the enemy watches.’ He gestured to one of the statues as an eye, that had not previously been there, twitched.
Dread crept through Ancanna’s spine and into his limbs. Wishing he still wore his armour and had the haft of his hammer to grasp, he shot the Aelf a glare. Instead of his hammer, he grasped his knife. ‘What treachery?’
‘Lower your weapon, warrior, the enemy’s eyes are everywhere. They see every move, hear every word.’
The voice spoke into Ancanna’s mind though it was not the Aelf’s.
We said we could get you into the citadel and that we can.
How? Ancanna thought, not knowing whether the interloper could understand. One thing that Ancanna knew was that if they attempted to take the citadel through the same means, they would be taken apart in the surrounding city before they got near.
Deception plays to the very nature of this realm. It encourages it, rewards it. Did you not wonder why a band of the town around the citadel remained intact amidst the ruined outskirts and blasted fortress? There is another track. When the fortress fell, long ago, it fell from the inside. It can do so again.
Out of sight. Somebody let them in. The Orinstar knows the way, though ask him not to fight. He is a saver of lives, not an ender. He always was.
Ancanna opened his mouth to question but the Aelf responded with a finger to his lips.
‘There are some things that even the eyes of the enemy are blind to.’
And there are some things to which I am not, Ancanna thought as he watched the near-imperceptible shift of colours on the nearest statue. Turning as though to walk away, he suddenly shifted his stance and lunged at the statue. His bare hand grasped not stone but flesh. Had he been wearing his armour, he could never have moved quickly enough. Hauling back, he pulled the creature, extracting it from within the stone.
It was a thing of hard, sharp ridges with insect-like eyes and chamaeleonic in its colour shifts. WIth surprising strength, it thrashed and swung wildly. Its barbed tongue lashed Ancanna’s face, tearing a line of hot, bloody pain.
‘This is for Eurellus, daemon,’ Ancanna growled as the carapace over its neck cracked and collapsed under his iron grip.
He kept up the pressure until the thrashing stopped and then he threw the creature to the ground. Casting about for the Aelf, Ancanna saw nothing but the ruins of a long deserted temple.
‘Reinforcements are coming,’ Ancanna said, pacing the now-cleared central plaza of Valescroft.
By the time he returned, alone, from Art Eruditia, his hammer and armour awaited. Their absence had been liberating for a while but their familiar weight brought a feeling of strength and power. The gleaming sigmarite felt right around him.
After Kell had approached him with a proposition, Gallus and Castus had joined them in the plaza. They gathered around the remains of a fallen statue, now little more than a shattered plinth.
To the untrained eye, the streets resembled those of a farming community, discounting the many buildings that still lay in ruins from battle. Ancanna, however, saw choke points, murder holes and ambushes, all carefully planned and laid out. Further out, fences, rows of sharpened stakes and rubble fields waited to string out the enemy and slow their advance. The Knights of the Aurora lamented the lack of involvement from their Lord Castellant who would have offered a dozen more traps, all more devious and destructive than Ancanna could imagine. But Kimmani’s humours did not stretch to construction or defence during his short return to the Strike Chamber.
‘I am loathe to leave Valescroft with so small a garrison while such a sizeable enemy warband marches upon us,’ Ancanna continued. ‘The Lord Celestant and rest of the Cloudbursts shall reach us within a day. We can hit them at full strength.’
Kell shook her head. ‘The way is open for a short time only and has room for only a few. If you wait for your friends, the path closes and you will be slaughtered in the outer defences again.’
‘What kind of path is open for only a short time?’ Gallus asked, his voice rife with skepticism.
‘The path of the enemy,’ Castus said, growling his irritation and mistrust. ‘A path of daemons and deception.’
‘Yes,’ Kell replied. ‘Daemons and deception, traps and danger. There is only room for a handful. If you want to get in, you need to be stealthy. And I have seen your efforts at stealth.’
Castus loomed over her. ‘And you can guide us through, can you? How do you know its ways? Have you been there? Through this path of the enemy? Why? What business have you on a path of daemons?’
‘No,’ she said quietly, shying from the massive Stormcast. ‘I saw the entrance, once, when I got too close. One night, I was caught out when the aurora burst the sky and…creatures came flying out.’ She winced and shuddered before clearing her throat and searching for Ancanna’s gaze. ‘The Orinstar will guide us.’
‘Orinstar?’ Castus spat then turned to Ancanna. ‘The Aelf that tricked you out of weapons and armour, Prime? He led you into an ambush! I’d sooner trust the Lord of Shyish to watch over my immortal soul.’ He hefted his enormous hammer. ‘Cast this trickster out and trust in the hammers that Great Sigmar gave us instead of wandering lost in some labyrinth.’
They had tried trusting only in Sigmar’s hammers, Ancanna thought, and returned a much depleted Strike Chamber for it. Sigmar had sent them here to raise allies and that was what they would do.
‘We don’t know it was an ambush,’ Ancanna said, though he did not fully believe it. He reminded himself how many times Kell had saved them, and that if trust was to be found in the mortal realms, this bedraggled nomad was the place to start. By extension, that included the Aelf. In a realm where shadow and deception formed its very nature, how much could he trust anyone?
‘We go with the nomads,’ Ancanna concluded.
He had deliberated much on his return from Art Eruditia. With his options limited to a frontal assault doomed to fail, to wait and eventually be overrun or to leave in disgrace, whatever they did would be a risk. After Kell had sought him out once more, her option of an alternative route gave him the most tempting option. Moreso, it rang true to what Sigmar had intended for them on their quest into Ulglu–to raise arms with the free people they found there.
‘Then this time I’ll be watching your back,’ Castus said.
Ancanna smiled. ‘This time I’ll be wearing my armour but your guard is always welcome.’ He turned to the Knight Azyros. ‘Gallus?’
‘My orders are to return to the Lord Celestant. I will guide the Cloudbursts around our defences in Valescroft. Sonos already knows of the warbands stalking the valley and has given me command of the Angelos Conclave to harry them should they make too quickly for Valescroft. Go ahead with the nomads. Strike from the inside and we will make our attack from without. The Relictor will accompany you. In the meantime, trust your garrison to hold Valescroft and trust our Lord Celestant to bring you the support you require.’
Ancanna gazed across the building work still underway. The Stormcast Eternals worked much as he expected from the warriors of Azyr, but more mortals joined them. They lacked the strength and endurance of Stormcasts, and yet they plumbed a depth of willpower and tenacity that belied their suffering. Mentally, they would never recover from the horrors visited upon them by the Aurora Citadel but even now, these few, reforged themselves into something new. It was a concept that every Stormcast Eternal could relate to.
‘One more condition,’ Ancanna said.
‘I hope your bravery lasts, storm warrior,’ the Aelf said to Ancanna as they peered across a dark lake a few miles from the Aurora Citadel. Mist covered its surface and curled around the shins of the gathered Stormcast Eternals and nomads. The pre-dawn offered minimal light, too dim to glint from the heavy sigmarite armour. ‘But strength and bravery won’t defeat the citadel lords, not without intelligence. You were punished for arrogance when you first attacked the fortress. Through this route, you will have to do as I say. Can you do that?’
‘We are not the same force who rejected your folk in the ruins,’ Ancanna said. He took no offence at the snipe, for he had argued the case of the nomads. Shame welled in him that he could not offer a strong enough argument to sway the Lord Castellant but the grace of Sigmar had provided him a second chance. This time he trusted in trust.
‘For all of us, I hope so.’
‘The people of Valescroft,’ Ancanna said. ‘Did you do as we asked? Unless they have found safety, my shield and hammer remain between them and the enemy.’
Orinstar eyed him. Whatever he thought of the act did not show on his face. ‘They are safe. We led those who wished it deep into the foundations of Art Eruditia.’
‘And the rest.’
‘Others wished to stay.’ Orinstar paused, staring into Ancanna’s war helm. For the first time, his expression changed, became stern, serious. ‘Understand the sacrifice we make here, storm warrior. With so many joined to our community, our hope of secrecy is lost. The citadel lords will find us.’
The Aelf led them. He waded into the lake, sending black ripples across its surface while the Stormcasts stood back, scouring the sky and the twisted buildings surrounding the distant citadel. Those streets held memories of horror for each Stormcast present. Ancanna focused on the sails of a windmill that started rotating. A turquoise, fleshy substance formed half the sails which rippled and writhed before stilling again. There was always something changing in the ruins but little other than the wisps of green and blue mist that quested through empty windows like worms peering from tilled earth. With no immediate threat or sign of alarm, the Liberator Prime brought his attention back to the Aelf.
His advance did not slow. Even as his cheeks dropped below the waterline, he walked on unabated. That was when Ancanna noticed – he walked as though out of water, no slowing or change of gait. Even when submerged, no bubbles rose in the water.
Ancanna gripped his hammer and Castus turned to him.
‘Think you can swing that underwater?’
‘Under that water?’ Ancanna shrugged. He thought back to his trick with banners that had deceived a Chaos warband and helped rescue some of the scattered Knights of the Aurora, and what the Aelf had said about their route. ‘Not all the illusions of Ulglu are the doing of the Change God.’
He turned to the Stormcast Eternals behind him and raised his voice enough for them to hear. ‘Fear no illusion, for the strength of Sigmar flows through you. Into the unknown, Knights of the Aurora.’
At the head of a handful of Stormcast Eternals, chosen from his much-diminished Strike Chamber, Ancanna and Castus strode into the black water in search of their guide. Instead of feeling water resistance in his strides, Ancanna ground his teeth at the tingle of magic. When his head submerged, the illusion broke to his eyes and the Liberator Prime surveyed a craggy landscape of dark purple rock forming gorges and rifts through which the nomads navigated ahead.
Beside the Liberator Prime, Castus looked up and drew attention to the mists forming above them, closing around them. Both Orinstar and Kell muttered under their breath, each failing to hide their arcane hand gestures in their sleeves.
‘What trickery is this?’ Castus said. He readied a wide stance to strike with his lightning hammer.
‘Do not distract them, storm warrior,’ another of the nomads said. ‘They are concealing us.’
‘Mistweavers,’ Ancanna whispered. Thinking back to their campaign in the Shadesmire, he suspected this was not the first time that Kell had assisted them in such a manner.
‘Stay close,’ the Aelf hissed, though his usually melodic voice cracked, strained from the effort. ‘The water is the first of many illusions on this path. Focus in front and only in front. Even secret paths are guarded.’
‘In front?’ Ancanna shook his head and ordered a few Liberators to act as rearguard. ‘We’ve been stung by ambush more than once in this realm, Orinstar. That has a way of making one cautious. If it’s all the same, we’ll be keeping eyes on our rear and flanks.’
‘It is not the same,’ he snapped. ‘Do as you will but I too have reason to keep your warriors alive.’
High rocky sides closed around them, enveloping the Knights of the Aurora into labyrinthine ways. Their advance, though it took a twisting route, lasted far longer than the time it should have taken to cover the distance to the citadel as though they had marched many times the miles. They pushed through rockfalls and ever-changing footing, sometimes solid ground, other times they waded up to their knees in what felt like thick soup. Chitinous creatures with spiked limbs assaulted them in these changes of terrain though the hammers of the Stormcasts smashed them aside. Occasionally the movement in the rocks resolved into more nomads, armed for fighting, who joined the Aelf in front. Kell, who walked apart from both the Stormcasts and the Aelf, remained quiet and brooding, often pausing and listening.
Long into their trek, a cry rose from the rearguard. One of the Liberators dropped to his knees, clawing at his bleeding visor and clutching the sides of his helm as blood flowed between the fingers of his gauntlets from his ears. Before the column stopped, a second Liberator coughed blood before collapsing, a thin, blue tentacle flailing from his mouth. The rest of the Stormcasts prepared for attack but nothing came. Weird lights played across the sky and things moved on the edge of sight but no enemies presented themselves.
‘I told them to look ahead only,’ the Aelf said, urging Ancanna for haste. ‘We’re getting closer. The land is in the grip of change.’
Ancanna frowned back, unsure of his strange words, but when he surveyed the path ahead, he made a second take. The craggy landscape evened out, resembling more like the bottom of a dried-out swamp, all silt and dead branches. As they pressed on, leaves sprayed in front of them like a geyser erupting. They returned to the ground not as plant matter but as sand. Other geysers fired in sequence until the swampy ground changed to desert. Quicksand claimed another Stormcast. It hadn’t fully dragged him down before sprouting green shoots and solidifying around him. The lightning strike of Sigmar’s reclamation shimmered, distorted against the mist rising from dewy shoots.
‘Does your courage waver, storm warrior?’ Kell asked. Her demeanour had changed. She was resolved to something and despite her surroundings, less wary than she had ever been around Ancanna, less concerned about danger.
Ancanna glared back at her. ‘We are up to the task, forager. Our courage is solid and we are conditioned to the terrors of Chaos, as much as one can be. Though I confess we are more adept at fighting enemies that we can hit.’
He didn’t voice it but another concern played on his mind. How could they defeat an enemy that thrived from emotion? For people to rise against the foe, something had to drive them, be it hope of victory or a change in circumstances, or a grim determination to fight for what they have. Either way, emotion underpinned their action. Even the Knights of the Aurora’s will to defend drew daemons like magnets. At least the Stormcasts could meet them with hammer in hand and smash them back to the Realm of Chaos. Could the other races, so long under the boot of Chaos, say the same? He glanced at Kell. They had courage, he gave them that. With organisation and the support of Sigmar’s warriors, perhaps they could fight, but he had not seen it yet.
He thought about the Knights of the Aurora that they had lost. Though some returned from reforging little different than before, and others displayed personality shifts, there were those who disappeared within themselves. None he knew had gone so far yet, but was it possible for a Stormcast to become little more than a battle automaton? Soulless. The idea chilled him. That such empty warriors might provide their most effective weapon against the dark gods troubled him further.
‘You will need more strength than that in your arms,’ Kell said. At a signal from the Aelf, she took the axe from her belt and etched a symbol into the ground followed by a wide circle. A helical staircase of crystal unscrewed from the ground and disappeared into the gloom overhead. ‘Our way in. Last chance to turn back.’
‘There is no turning back,’ Ancanna said, steeling himself for battle.
Even without their defences and ambushes, the citadels lords had proved themselves formidable. Considering Kell’s change of attitude, he expected immediate resistance. If her intentions had become nefarious, the Stormcast Eternals would be prepared. A wave of his hammer beckoned the Strike Chamber closer as Kell moved towards the back.
‘Form on me, Knights of the Aurora! Liberators to the fore; join your shields with mine. Whatever awaits us atop this staircase, we face with the strength of Azyr. The citadel lords seek to crush Lord Celestant Sonos Cloudburst just as they bloodied us. Remember your swollen pride, brothers, remember the sky lit with Sigmar reclaiming our fallen. Remember that we strike down the tyrant for neither ego nor vengeance, but for the people of the mortal realms.’
A chorus of clashing sigmarite replied and the Knights of the Aurora scaled the staircase.
Battle for Valescroft
The army numbered beyond anything the Dreadguard Ulgoloth had led. Warbands had flocked to Axanthral’s call to arms, each lured with a promise never to be fulfilled. Arcanites from the floodplains of the Isai Cataracts marched alongside Versigoths who dwelt in the caves at the farthest end of the valley complex. Other minor warbands joined the cause, some wearing only loincloths but with azure tattoos covering their bodies, while other carved symbols of their allegiance into their flesh.
They trampled the crops planted by Valescroft’s people under metal boots and taloned feet, just as they would trample the meagre resistance of Valescroft. Banners of azure and violet depicted Silver Towers and the horn of Axanthral the Cultivator. Another banner flew over the armoured might leading the cultists and daemons, that of the Eclipse. The nightmare banner showed a black sun made of screaming, tortured faces atop the crossed sword and mace of the Dreadguard. Thoughts of another banner, one of light, nagged at him but the potential of his ability to influence at the head of such a host swept Ulgoloth along. Kept the Dreadguard in charge.
Though the daemonic elements of his force railed at a daylight march, they had a Harvest to complete. A depleted force of Azyrite defenders could not hope to resist the earthshaking might at the command of the Aurora Citadel. Over the footfalls of his army, thunder rumbled from another source. Clouds gathered from the west, dark and foreboding, enough to block out the twin suns of Ulglu. Ulgoloth welcomed them. He welcomed the impact they would have on the psyches of his prey, stealing the light from the world and raging about them as they stand impotent against its wrath. More fear for his daemons to feast on.
Atop the second ridge that they climbed since marching from the citadel, Ulgoloth gazed upon the distant town, allowing his army to flow around him. Defences. It seemed that some glimmer of spirit remained in the crop. After watching their hero fall and their hopes crushed, they should have wallowed in the depths of despair, and yet they resisted enough to raise a defence. It irked the Dreadguard. Of course, the pikes and palisade would splinter before the scale of his army. Mist obscured the far horizon but his focus remained on the end of Valescroft. Except a few, of course. He needed to leave a few, living in abject horror, tormented by their memories, to form the root of Axanthral’s next crop.
Putting aside his confidence in victory, Ulgoloth paused to at least consider the defences. Warriors from Azyr took him by surprise during his previous venture and he would not fail this time. For a leader who had not long stepped out of a citadel surrounded by fortress walls and a city of magic and daemonic horrors, the improvised fortifications struck him as pitiful. Yet still he refused to let overconfidence sway his actions despite his thirst to join battle.
‘Gorecleaver,’ he rumbled. Something sparked in his mind at that name, perhaps he had another task in mind for the warrior, but the truth eluded him. He ignored it.
But Erik Gorecleaver failed to acknowledge his lord’s summons. Instead, he called for Andros.
A rune-clad warrior in heavy armour broke ranks and bowed head before the Dreadguard. A horn mimicking that of Axanthral’s own adorned his midnight blue helm amidst etched and painted symbols. The enlarged eye of a leopard stared out from his breastplate, flicking its gaze around.
‘Your command, Dreadguard.’
Ulgoloth pointed to an area near Valescroft, and another between the ruins of Art Eruditia and Valescroft. ‘I want you and Koss to take a battalion each and attack from the woods. One battalion in each; I don’t care which.’
The warrior grunted. ‘Excessive caution. We need not–’
Ulgoloth backhanded the warrior so hard that he spun around before hitting the ground. ‘I neither asked for nor wanted your opinion. Press the attack and then withdraw to the citadel and rejoin the Eclipse there.’
Six pairs of taloned feet stepped on the downed warrior before he rolled to his feet and decapitated the last daemon to do so. ‘By your command, Dreadguard.’
Andros loped off, barging his way through daemons and cultists, sparing none that crossed his path a dig from the haft of his axe. He took his rage out on Koss and the two exchanged oaths of vengeance before leading their chosen fighters away to the separate woods.
Defences, thought Ulgoloth, but no sign of defenders yet.
Knight Azyros Gallus Swiftwing waited out of sight. Everything in place, they watched the vanguard approach. Untrained, overeager mortals ranged ahead of the army, their religious fervour, screaming barely intelligible praises to the Changer of Ways, causing them to break ranks and surge forward as a disorganised rabble. They paid little attention to their surroundings, and many fell as they reached the first rubble field. Piles of uneven rocks made for uneven footing, the shifted under the weight of the cultists, trapping and breaking ankles. Whether the cultists behind saw the others fall or didn’t care, they kept going, trampling the fallen.
The rabble had no plan once they reached the palisade, resorting to hammering against the fence with their bare hands, ignoring the pain and ineffectiveness as blood slicked their wrists and down their forearms. The scattered rabble compressed like a concertina, crushing some bodies. Momentum killed many others. The tide of cultists pushed those at the front on. Unable to change direction in the press of bodies, they ran headlong into sharpened stakes. The wooden defences bowed under the weight of up to three cultists skewered by the same stake.
Firus’ shockbolt bow fired a hail of arrows into the head on attack. With so many targets, he couldn’t miss. Lightning crackled on impact, scorching those nearby as it killed its target. Only a couple more bows joined Firus’ as they felt the loss of their Judicators keenly. For all the damage they caused, against the scale of attackers, they merely blew against the wind.
They could last only so long against such a force. At least the defences slowed them for the time being, though the palisade shuddered. Being a structure of wood, raised in haste, it had already lasted longer than expected. The ranks of enemy waded through their dead to get near which slowed the frontal attack a little. Gallus glanced to the flanks and the woodland both sides. He saw what entered there. Once they emerged from the trees, Valescroft would be overrun.
With the second wave of cultists crashing into the back of the first came the first of the magic. Groups of cultists formed circles and joined together in fell chants, arms raised to beseech their gods. At the chants’ crescendos, a cultist charged to the centre of each circle where another opened them up from neck to navel with a sacrificial knife. Magic exploded from them. One sent a hail of magical energy which bombarded the palisade, killing half a dozen cultists as it passed. Daemonfire consumed another. From the blaze, a gibbering mass of pink flesh leapt. Fire crackled at its fingertips and a maw that covered most of its torso jabbered in a daemonic tongue. The thing capered and jumped atop the shoulders of cultists, leapt from head to head while unleashing its fires towards Valescroft. Lightning from Firus’ shockbolt bow blasted that one apart though he had only one bow and the enemy threw many circles of cultists forwards.
A creak and crash signalled the first palisade wall falling. Cheers ripped through the enemy. As the celebrating cultists and daemons charged forwards, thunder met them. Smoke clouded along a line and solid shot tore the front line apart. A small group of men and women from Valescroft shouldered rifles and blunderbusses, and gripped their flintlock pistols before falling back to the next palisade at the direction of a unit of Liberators who immediately formed a shield wall between their allies and their enemies. Six Retributors hit the enemy in a tempest of lightning hammers, each blow releasing a peal of thunder and bludgeoning a handful of enemies. As quickly as they struck, the Retributors fell back with the Liberators and mortals, having cleared the wave of foes.
Soon, multiple breaches occurred at once. Where momentum at first punished the army of Chaos, now it drove them through defences too quickly for the defenders to organise. Gallus leapt from his position, his wings of light bursting to life, his sword darting to intercept blows meant for Stormcasts and mortals falling back to their next line of defence. Three quick thrusts took as many cultists down, followed by a wing-assisted jump to remove him from harm’s way before he swooped atop a blue, fiery daemon and sent it screaming to the Realm of Chaos with a single plunge of his blade. Slings pelted his armour while he dodged magical discharge and gouts of daemonfire.
With the outer defences gone, they reached the buildings. The Valescroft militia and former Judicators stationed themselves within buildings while Liberators and Retributors performed snap ambushes. It amazed Gallus just how skilled Ancanna’s guerilla force had become at those. They waited like a saurian beast with its jaws agape before snapping on the enemy and melting away.
On the streets of Valescroft, they bled the armies of the citadel lords for the second time though the defence was not without its casualties. The lightning of Sigmar’s reclamation speared down while an enormous storm brewed overhead.
Time of day lost all relevance under that sky. The tang of ozone hung thick, full of potential. Gallus would have given his wings for the Lord Relictor to fight alongside him and release the power of that storm. Instead, he used his wings to cover defence and exploit openings in the enemy’s surge.
They were running out of traps. Cultists overran their outer defences and packs of daemons charged through the streets in whirlwinds of destruction and fire. Gallus put away thought of how long they might hold out and focused on the flow of battle, striking where his instincts told him.
The Dreadguard watched from atop the ridge. The pitiful defence failed even to hold back his sacrificial vanguard. His blade thirsted. His mace urged him to join the fray and embed it into the skulls of his enemies. His armour longed to bathe in the viscera thrown back by both weapons. Scents of sweat and magic and the sulphurous tang of daemonfire drew him into the feel of battle. More potent still, the writhing mass from the Boon of Tzeentch demanded his personal involvement, severing the threads of the enemy leaders. Only his commander’s will kept him atop that ridge directing his forces.
A regiment of marauders from some wretched warband circled around the back of Valescroft to the most likely escape route into the ruins. They would ensure none survived should the mortals and Stormcasts break cover. Given how his army swarmed the streets, they would either break soon or every one of them would die.
Movement in the woodland to his right caught his eye. At least one of his flanking forces made reasonable time. They had the place surrounded in rows upon rows of Chaos sworn warbands and daemons. With a grunt of satisfaction in his victory, Ulgoloth, Dreadguard of the Aurora Citadel, pushed through his host towards the streets of Valescroft. He would ensure the resistance suffered in their last moments.
As he took his first step, a fog rose on the old road into the valley. It formed too quickly for mist. Perhaps low-lying cloud pushed by a strong wind. It moved fast and headed for Valescroft.
Angels burst from the cloud. Great, silver-clad warrior angels that flew like lightning left streamers of coloured light behind them. They emerged in two columns and unleashed divine wrath atop his army. They plucked hammers and spears from the air itself as though new bolts of lightning coalesced in their hands every time they hurled them into his ranks. The two columns dissected the Dreadguard’s army, cutting it into three. When the front of each column reached the rear of Ulgoloth’s force, they circled around for another pass, raining death as they did.
Before his cultists and daemons plugged the furrows rent by the angels, a cacophony of roars rumbled over the din of battle. The cloud erupted with scaled creatures, the kin of Dracothion itself, bearing riders of silver with long spears. Lightning burst from the beasts, forming a spider’s web of supercharged energy that set ranks of his force ablaze. Then the riders levelled their spears and charged.
Behind them, organised ranks of shields followed. More warriors wielding great weapons: hammers, glaives and axes. A volley of lightning charged arrows soared over their heads and hailed onto his army where a block of armoured archers emerged from the cloud.
‘Eclipse!’ Ulgoloth called and his warrior elite rallied to him. ‘Draw blades with me. Something worthy of our attention has arrived.
The dread unit pushed their way through a sea of cultists and daemons to meet the newcomers head on. This battle was far from over. They outnumbered this warriors of Sigmar many times over, the town’s defences lay in ruins, and the Eclipse had yet to enter the fray.