Aurora Citadel Chapters 31-33

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Chapter 31

Chambers of Madness

Atop the helical staircases, their entrance into the Aurora Citadel opened up into a hell they did not expect.

Disorientation knocked Ancanna backwards. He crashed into the other Stormcasts feeling the same effects. His vision distorted in a swirl of colours. Clarity soon returned to his eyes, but he preferred not knowing. His ears, however, became overwhelmed with buzzing.

Though they entered the chamber through two staircases, the Knights of the Aurora and nomads emerged from at least six. Ancanna’s stomach churned as, according to his eyes, he stood upright on the wall. He creased a tapestry showing a magical storm under his feet. It overloaded his senses and set his head spinning. His brother Stormcast Eternals and the nomads spread across the walls, floor and ceiling, equally disorientated.

‘What manner of sorcery have you brought us to?’ Castus asked, shaking his head at the dizziness. He held himself steady against a chandelier that, by rights, should have been another wall from Ancanna’s perspective, and by logic should have been on the ceiling.

‘The kind we are forged to cast down, Retributor,’ Ancanna chided.

A mote of magic zipped through the chamber, between the legs of Stormcasts and around Kell’s head before shooting out the way it came.

‘Searching magic,’ the Lord Relictor said. His voice maintained its depth of wisdom, like it was pulled from a time long past, showing no discomfort at their surroundings. ‘Someone knows we’re here.’ He paused, chin lifted as though sniffing the air. ‘And…something rises to defend this place.’

An eruption of emerald fire engulfed Ancanna. He barely lifted his shield in time. When the flames died, the silver atop his battle helm emerged blackened with soot.

‘Relictor,’ he called. ‘What sense do you make of it?’

The Liberator Prime tried moving but his limbs rebelled at the idea of walking along the wall. The buzzing then resolved into a swarm of tiny insects. They flew through the Stormcast’ visors and clouded around the nomads’ bare heads, biting and crawling into their noses, ears and mouths.

‘Illusion,’ the Aelf said, choking on insects as his mouth opened. He grabbed Kell’s hand. ‘Use me as your anchor.’

A searing hot helm felt like no illusion to Ancanna and perspiration dripped down his face and neck. The insects fed on him, irritating his skin, making him itch and flinch at every bite. Orinstar and Kell, though one appeared on the ceiling and the other on the floor, moved together. The impossibility of it dizzied Ancanna further. He staggered and reached out for Kell’s shoulder for balance. It turned his perspective, along with his stomach, but his vision righted itself and he stepped along the floor.

‘Take her hand,’ Ancanna commanded, spitting out insects, when Kell reached out for the Stormcast Eternal behind her.

The Retributor, Castus, grunted. His head rocked between his high gorget and the halo of sigmarite behind, and he steadied himself with his enormous hammer. ‘I am…Stormcast. I will not take…hand of a mortal.’ The big warrior dropped to one knee.

Another blast of flame heated the room. It washed over Castus. One of the fighting nomads escaped only by the reactions of Ancanna hauling him behind his shield. Even then, his garb smouldered and he smothered fires as they caught. The scent of burning hair filled the room as thousands of insects turned into smoke. With the insects gone, the sensation only increased as their venom took effect, not deadly but fiery and painful.

‘You are Stormcast,’ Ancanna snapped. ‘And you will do as commanded, Retributor. We eschewed the help of these people once and we bled for it. Let us not repeat our mistake.’

Grudgingly, Castus took the woman’s offered hand. It looked tiny in his armoured gauntlet but it righted the swaying Retributor. Ridiculous as it looked for such mighty warriors to be led out by the hand of a mortal woman, the others followed suit, at once knowing the citadel would damage more than their pride as they fought through its traps.

As the Aelf left the room, a sea blue fist slammed into his gut and forced him back inside. He coughed and dribbled blood over his clothes. Another gout of flame burst inside the chamber.

Ancanna swung Kell and Orinstar behind him and surged for the exit, shield raised. ‘Get the others down,’ he said to the nomads, then raised his voice for his brother Stormcast Eternals. ‘Master yourselves, Knights of the Aurora! We topple this citadel from the inside.’

He ploughed into the adjoining chamber alone. The instant he passed through the doorway, the venomous itching and burning ceased. The sudden absence of sensation hit him as much as it had distracted and irritated him before. With an enemy nearby, the dizziness and nausea also left him and his senses grew more acute. Too acute. Sounds and smells assaulted him, bells and sirens and sulphur and lavender and ammonia. Lights flashed all around him and smoke filled his mouth and nose bringing a score of flavours and scents that clung to his throat. All of it too fast, too intense to identify individual sensations. With so much movement in the chamber, Ancanna failed to identify his enemy. A blow glanced off his shield. His return hammer strike made the familiar clang of sigmarite on sigmarite.

‘Keep back!’ he shouted, consigning his allies to a chamber which erupted in flames at random.

The Liberator Prime pushed further into the chamber. Keeping his shield up, he searched for the wall with his weapon hand. A second blow smashed against his helm and set his ears ringing along with the countless other noises that hammered his senses. The third blow came soon after. Ancanna took it on his shield, twisting to trap what felt like an arm and cudgel against the wall. It was not just the Angelos Conclave that earned the Swift their name. He couldn’t miss with his hammer. As his enemy fell, the sights, sounds and smells receded to reveal a bare chamber of wooden floorboards and claret wall coverings around a cold, open hearth. With furniture, it might have suited a merchant’s house in the world before Chaos dominion.

Nomads and Stormcast Eternals followed. They stepped over the pale corpse of some warped form of man and daemon, all muscle and mutation, but none saw an exit to the chamber. And the floorboards began to disappear. It wasn’t rot, they just ceased to exist, leaving a starless void below. Kell tested it as an illusion but her foot indeed went straight through where the boards had disappeared from.

They needed no order. Everyone searched for an exit either by vision or through what little talent for magic they had or through the mysterious craft of the Lord Relictor.

This time the disappearing floor was real and the fireplace the illusion. At Kell’s searching hands, the hearth opened like a door and they all piled through. They made through a dozen more rooms, each bending their perceptions of reality, laden with traps. One robbed them of all senses except touch, and even that lied to them, forcing them to stumble their way through traps and stabbing enemies. Others curved and misdirected them with paths that defied geometry and physics.

Castus growled his displeasure while hefting his lightning hammer. ‘Sorcerer’s tricks! Give us something we can hit!’

He got his wish. A complex of corridors flooded with daemons. Their routes split, rounded, doubled back, repeated patterns on their flagstones and even changed behind them, all meant to disorient them. He was the first to wade in, crushing the creatures three and four at a time with thunder and lightning from his hammer. Castus cleared the first wave of daemons before the rest of them had caught up. Subsequent chambers required a more tactical approach, Liberators defending, nomads, Retributors and the Lord Relictor attacking.

The nomads, despite their meagre armaments and diminutive stature compared to Stormcast Eternals, gave a solid accounting for themselves. Though Ancanna and the Knights of the Aurora took the brunt of the danger, the nomads made their presence known. They made quick progress through the daemon infested corridors and after ceaseless attack, chattering daemons and the stink of burned flesh, a chamber of sand-coloured stone and silence took them aback. Their entrance sealed behind them but it mattered little as Ancanna’s band held no interest in going back. They either broke the citadel or were broken within its confines.

Whispers began sounding in Ancanna’s ears. The twitches and mutters coming from the others shows they experienced much the same. Castus dropped to his knees before a statue, muttering to himself and shaking his head in dismay.

‘Keep your wits, Stormcasts,’ Ancanna said while trying to block out whispers of failure, of weakness, that he would wander these halls forever, or never find his way out of this chamber. He reminded himself that, before Chaos had taken it over, before the daemon spirit had raised its defences, this was a working structure, lived in. The chamber would have an exit.

Unless it was a defence system for those people too, a draught whispered.

He cast around for the source of illusion, triggers, traps or levers, and noticed that not everyone had entered the chamber with him. Kell and Orinstar were missing, along with a couple of Stormcasts. He called out but heard no response. The walls were too thick, he told himself, despite the whispering chamber telling him otherwise.

A flicker of movement came from one of the carvings, a winged warrior holding sword and lantern, fending off insurmountable numbers of men and daemons which surrounded him from above and below..

‘Impossible,’ Ancanna said.

The other Stormcasts, and single remaining nomad, joined him to inspect the bas relief when Ancanna caught a reflection on the silver plate of the Lord Relictor. The wall behind them stretched. A great avian head formed on its surface. As quick as a thunderbolt, its beak snapped over the Liberator beside Ancanna and severed the warrior in two. Ancanna and Castus swiped with their hammers, the nomad threw his hand axe, and the Lord Relictor unleashed a web of lightning from his reliquary. All but the lightning missed their target, and that merely danced across the surface of the head as it disappeared back into the wall.

Their numbers diminishing, their search became ever more difficult and dangerous.

#

Axanthral’s many eyes focused on the battle at Valescroft.

He watched every angle in the smoke-filled Chamber of a Thousand Eyes. Through the apparatus that spun around him, he exerted his influence over shoals of screamers and masses of horrors, guiding their attacks and seeking weakness in his enemy’s force. He drank in the severing of every thread, revelled in dozens of plans created, abandoned, succeeded and foiled on the battlefield. The surge of energy dizzied him if he let it but he kept his wits. In doing so, he picked up on the stirring of a titanic entity. There was only one possibility.

The daemon spirit was agitated. Axanthral opened his mind to the daemon. No. Not agitated. Furious. Another emotion fed through Axanthral’s link with the creature. He concentrated on it. The daemon spirit evoked defensiveness, a sense of violation and territorial anger. Intruders walked the citadel.

The daemon spirit was under attack.

Axanthral slammed his sacrificial dirk down into his daemonic platform and twisted the blade. Though the daemon bucked, Axanthral forced it steady by power of will, a dominance long since established over the creature. They could not have even reached the citadel. The battle was far from them and the defences strewn through the city surrounding the citadel failed to trigger a single warning. Then he noticed the second force of Stormcast Eternals emerge from the smoke and smash into his army.

‘Ulgoloth!’ the sorcerer shrieked. His outrage set his arms shaking. Where was his garrison? He led the combined warbands at Axanthral’s order but the Dreadguard was supposed to have left a garrison.

‘Gone for glory, have you? Swine!’

Motes of magic bloomed around Axanthral and surrounded him in a purple aura. His outburst emanated a magic charge that sped up the turnings of the machinery in the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes and sent sparks crackling along its surface.

He reached out with his mind, through his links with the lesser daemons across the battlefield and through the thousand eyes that littered the valley. The Boon made Ulgoloth easy to find. Already returning to the citadel. Good. Axanthral still cursed the name of the Dreadguard, but took confidence in his return.

A surge of magic spurred his daemonic mount forwards. With the daemon spirit distracted by the intruders, none of Axanthral’s eyes within its walls offered him and insight. He would rouse the garrison himself. A range of spells entered his mind, each a different way to wreak his displeasure upon the garrison, have them wail in agony, and then force them to defend.

Tendrils of magic quested from his fingertips and shot through the citadel. They snaked out of windows and spiralled down towers, shot across walkways and slid under cracks in doorways. Dozens of rooms took time to explore so he send more and more tendrils out. One came back. It revealed a concentration of psyches he recognised as the Eclipse. Below him. Deep below him.

‘Catacombs,’ he hissed. ‘There is nothing for you there. Your former charges are now my slaves.’

Axanthral began the long descent from his sorcerous chamber to the catacombs in which the Dreadguard believed the former rulers of his measly kingdom hidden away. Another tendril of magic shot back to him. His path neared that of the intruders. Powerful as Axanthral was, he always preferred another to die for him and that would be the garrison, so changed his route to avoid the interlopers.

With the daemon spirit under threat, its defences fired throughout the entire complex of towers and chambers that constituted the fortress and its crowning citadel. Axanthral unleashed a storm of magic on his route through the mad hell unleashed upon him. The illusions, he ignored, but the traps and minor daemons posed as much threat to him as to the intruders. Their allegiance lay with the daemon spirit and no power of Axanthral’s could wrest them from it. And so he destroyed them in gouts of magic. Most, he banished to the Realm of Chaos, but some, those that dared to hurt him, he obliterated from existence.

He needed no ritual or combination to enter the catacombs. The constellations in the chamber prior to it bowed to his will and opened the way for him. Spells of the utmost agony prepared to unleash upon the garrison, Axanthral entered the catacombs.

Before his disc fully passed the doorway, Axanthral’s eyes widened in horror. Stinging tentacles seized him. As they wrapped around him, clamping his arms to his sides, barbs dug into him, tearing his parchment-like flesh and wiping every prepared spell from his mind.

The Quietus Apparatus had him. Half a dozen of the garrison, those that his Dreadguard named the Eclipse, hanged from its daemonic nooses all under the banner of the Lambent Protector. He was next.

Chapter 32

Allegiances Revealed

The silence was overwhelming.

Kell eyed every shadow, corner and idol in a chamber that had the hallmarks of a place of worship. Effigies of old, dead gods lay broken or defaced and replaced with images in many different forms, though all displayed the same symbol of an eye and talon.

Only two of the storm warriors remained with them after the door before them had disappeared before their eyes. No illusion, no way through, it just vanished, replaced with stone. None had seen her do it. Their eyes were slow and she had lived a life where her daily survival relied on evading notice. And, of course, Ulglu rewarded deception.

Orinstar sidled closer to her. His presence gave her comfort and warmth but also a feeling of foreboding. He said it would come to this, for the two of them to make a decision. The Aelf who assumed ultimate responsibility for the Third Moon Collective, and Kell who had spent the most time with these storm warriors.

She observed them, saw how they watched for danger and how they kept herself and Orinstar behind their shields wherever they moved. An exit to the chamber, a trap door set in the ceiling, quickly became apparent to her and Orinstar’s eyes also flicked to it. He also knew but would not let on to the storm warriors.

This was the decision they had talked about.

Leave them, whispered the wind.

#

The fight was glorious.

Enough to make him forget himself. It wasn’t the blood or the death that swept him along, but the challenge and tactical nuances, those subtle changes in formation and approach as orders filtered through. Above all, it was the sheer chaos in which it all happened. Islands of order in the warp of chaos. The thing in his chest writhed and pulsated, thriving on the passion and vehemence of the combatants on either side. And it consumed all thoughts of Geltz Valewarden, leaving the Dreadguard Ulgoloth in his stead.

It exceeded even the battle at the foot of the Aurora Citadel, for this time they had a more even match with the warriors of Sigmar instead of a slaughter of magic. Clashing weapons with a glaive-wielding behemoth of a warrior in the streets of Valescroft, daemons and angels clashing above him and the smell of daemonfire consuming buildings, all invigorated the Dreadguard. The Stormcast Eternal had skill and kept Ulgoloth at distance with his longer weapon. It took a flash of daemonfire from an exploding horror to distract the warrior enough for Ulgoloth to work his way inside the guard. From there, his daemonic blade found its mark between the joints of his foe’s heavy armour. He smashed the warrior aside with his mace after the killing blow landed.

His own distraction cost him. A spear punched his breastplate, and though the metal held, it spun him around. As he turned, the claws of some draconic beast raked his helm, the force of the strike batting him to his knees.

‘See your end, slave to darkness,’ a haughty voice called. ‘You face the wrath of Sigmar.’

His new foe presented himself. A turquoise crest on the warrior’s helm flowed in the swirling winds and his ornate armour gleamed despite scuffs and scorch marks born of the greater battle. Two warriors of the Eclipse closed ranks around him and blocked any chance of a third blow against their leader.

Ulgoloth barked a booming laugh while he regained his footing and readied his weapons. ‘Come then, wrath of Sigmar. Show me the extent of your god’s power.’

The Eclipse knew better than to interfere even though their leader faced a mounted foe. Instead they faced off against the heavily armoured elites that served as an honour guard. Two lords of battle clashed in the central plaza of Valescroft. Daemon weapons fought god-forged sigmarite with each strike of metal ringing out in a resounding bass note. Neither gained advantage, for while the Eclipse avoided interfering in the challenge, they positioned themselves close enough to restrict the movement and advantages of the enemy commander’s mount.

Their battle reverberated through the unstable structures of the town. Not all buildings showed the signs of hasty repairs, and the largest structure in the plaza creaked as daemonfire consumed its wooden frame. The draconian beast opened its maw and Ulgoloth dodged aside to evade the blast of lightning that shot from within. Instead of incinerating the Dreadguard, it destroyed a load-bearing support in the burning structure causing it to collapse in a plume of rubble and smoke.

It separated the Eclipse from the Stormcast elites, both abandoning their combat to strike other parts of their opposing forces which filled the gap. Ulgoloth waded through Stormcast Eternals with the Eclipse at his side. They fought hard, these warriors of Azyr, every one that fell did so with the fight of a hero.

He took a moment of reprieve to ascend the partial staircase of a fallen building. Holes in his force needed plugging and daemons ran amok, attacking almost at random. He cursed Axanthral who was supposed to be guiding the daemons. He sent a flurry of commands through his army using some of the more lucid cultists to deliver them, along with two of the Eclipse where he needed someone trustworthy to ensure his will was done. The Stormcast reinforcements had hit them hard. The suddenness and speed of their attack dealt them a huge blow. The sight of one of his own secondary forces emerging from the woodland to the west gave him a mote of satisfaction though he caught no sign of the flanking force he sent into the swampy woods on the opposite side of Valescroft.

Focusing on the woods, he caught one noise above all others. A primal braying burst from the trees and carried over the battlefield, something that sent a shudder through the writhing Boon inside the Dreadguard. As the pinpoint focus of single combat left him and he took a calmer, strategic view, another figure drew his attention, one of wings and light. It stirred something within him like a memory long buried.

He watched the flying warrior streak from combat to combat, intercepting blows that would have killed, striking to interrupt others before they began, each saving one or many lives around him. With each leap into the air, powered by wings of light, he read the battlefield in an instant. Then he reacted, striking where his sword mattered most. Countless fighters owed their lives to him. A halo of heavenly light surrounded him and swelled in the lantern the he wielded in his off-hand. His entire form blazed radiance. A phrase came to mind, something burned into his very being.

Lambent Protector.

His first thought was to bring him down but he recognised it as the work of something else, something that writhed within him where a halberd had put him to the ground. Already, he felt the wound mutate around where he had implanted the Boon. His skin became leathery and always felt like it was moving. He looked down at the blood on his gauntlets. The weight of duty hit him like the fist of a silver-armoured warrior who had once bested him in combat.

It gave his unremembered thought form.

Lambent Protector Geltz Valewarden.

‘Eclipse!’ he boomed. ‘Rally on me. We fall back to the citadel. All other units, press the assault.’

The armoured warriors managed their escape well. They extracted themselves from the fighting at the cost of many of their daemonic and mortal allies. Some waited for a reprieve or killed their current opponent before extracting themselves while others hauled cultists in the path of incoming blades and hammers.

The swell of bodies soon separated Geltz and his inner circle of warriors from the battle. One took a hammer thrown from a swooping Stormcast flyer but it glanced off the curvature of his pauldron with little more effect than a snarl of pain.

Geltz cast his gaze over the battle again. The Stormcast Eternals’ initial assault had smashed a hole right through the daemon host, separating it into three. They pressed their advantage against all three with wedge formations plugging the gaps and strafing runs from above opening up further holes which their shield wall immediately filled. The walkover victory turned into a massacre of his own. Why had the sorcerer not told him of the incoming army?

Another member of the Eclipse turned to Geltz, Shale judging by the reaping wheat insignia on his gorget. ‘Retreat, my lord? We still have them greatly outnumbered. See how the lightning strikes as they die.’

‘Falling back,’ he corrected. He looked upon his warrior. ‘Do you remember what our purpose is here?’

The question took Shale aback. ‘To reap the mortal crop, my lord. We feed the fortress and return glory to the valley.’

Geltz released a long exhalation and nodded. His well of sadness filled a trickle more. He had lost too many. He feared he may have even lost himself. ‘Remain with the army, Shale. Fall back in stages and do not let it rout, no matter how many of our own you need kill to motivate the rest. Give us time to reach the citadel.’

‘My lord.’ Shale took to his orders without question or hesitation.

Geltz spurred the remainder of his warriors on with only an inkling of how many death sentences he had just signed. ‘No more questions. We have more important matters to resolve. Make the best of the respite–we’re not done fighting yet.’

#

Another Stormcast Eternal had fallen to the creature in the walls and worry trickled into those remaining. The one nomad turned pale as paper and the three Stormcasts left, Ancanna, the Lord Relictor and Castus, all cast about the chamber. Every time the creature had taken them unawares despite their vigilance.

Ancanna scoured the walls and there it was, that imperceptible ripple. He slammed his hammer against a shimmering bas relief of a warrior holding shield and spear, and instead of smashing masonry, ichor showered from it.

Castus leaned on his lightning hammer as the creature hit the floor with a crack of carapace. ‘Prime? How did you spot that?’

‘It’s not the first time we’ve met.’ He gestured to the hole that he had created in the wall. A hole that led into another passage. ‘Onwards. Every moment we linger more daemons flood our Lord Celestant and our brothers Stormcasts. Let us put the sorcerer of this citadel to Sigmar’s justice.’

Winding staircases turned to sludge as they stepped on them, ladders of some unknown fleshy substance and a stream of daemons barred their way. Ancanna and his remaining few ploughed through them all, each reaped a fearsome tally of kills.

‘There,’ Ancanna called and pointed with his hammer into a chamber of turning machinery so immense that it filled the entire space in a sphere of moving metal arms. ‘It seems we have found our sorcerer’s lair.’

The Lord Relictor entered first, holding Castus, Ancanna and the nomad back. He touched his reliquary staff against the ground and uttered a prayer to Sigmar. Lightning crackled along the top of the reliquary and the air became thick and tangy with ozone. Then the sound of grinding, tortured metal filled the chamber. Coloured smoke whirled, drawn to a central point. The spinning, mechanical arms followed, twisting and bending.

#

A single mote of magic quested its way down the spiral staircase. It shot out of a window into the space between towers, shining blue and green against the night sky. On it travelled, down, through chambers of blades and rooms composed entirely of daemonfire. Nothing touched it, for pure magic felt no pain nor suffered cuts from metal.

It found its way back to its master and embedded itself in the back of its skull.

Axanthral the Cultivator awoke, gasping, his eyes bulging. His neck constricted by the Quietus Apparatus and barbs digging into his flesh, he managed a smile. A cruel, sardonic thing. The mote gave him the power he needed. He threaded the magic through the tentacle around his neck, withering it from the inside. It loosened. Blood spilled from him but he thought nothing of it. There was always more blood.

Empowered by the mote, and the reprieve it gave him from strangulation, Axanthral channelled power through him and blasted the Quietus Apparatus apart in a cascade of daemonfire and focused magic.

Thrown to the floor by the blast, he peered up at pitiful shreds of flapping tentacles, burned raw. For the first time, he noticed the chamber otherwise empty, the mutated Court of the Vale missing. Ulgoloth would face severe punishment for that but first he had invaders to thwart. Judging from the rage of the daemon spirit, the intruders still remained, though a hint of satisfaction flared in his bond with the spirit, suggesting one or more of them had fallen. It felt predatory. It had them trapped somewhere.

Axanthral used it. He failed to summon his daemonic mount and a quick glance to the Quietus Apparatus and the deflated flap of scorched daemon flesh told him it would not be returning for some time. Growling, the sorcerer used his own legs. With speed that belied his withering limbs, he headed up. A feeling from the daemon spirit told him the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes was compromised. His next best place of power remained.

He made for the roof of the highest tower. From there he could open the aurora and unleash his daemons upon the intruders.

Chapter 33

Sigmar’s Justice

Geltz led his elite guard through the traps and winding streets that surrounded the Aurora Citadel. The sounds of his staggered retreat rang behind him but that was not his concern. The Eclipse–no, the Valesguard, he reminded himself–asked no questions of their destination.

As instructed, Lieutenant Ven awaited on the Arable Road at the northern gate of the fortress. It helped to think of the old names. Geltz’s duty lay with the old kingdom and thinking of how things used to be helped keep the Dreadguard down. That writhing, angry part of himself raged against his discipline, straining to regain control. Six carriages bearing the wheat and scythe insignia of days long forgotten awaited, each with horses tethered to the front.

A few of the Valesguard betrayed their surprise at the sight of the caravan. Geltz kept a close watch for treachery. He and Ven had dealt with the obvious traitors, but the masters of the citadel were duplicitous creatures by nature, and hid their intentions well. None wavered.

At a gesture, Ven unfurled the Golden Banner and six of the Valesguard immediately dropped to their knees and began reciting the oaths they took to the banner lifetimes past. The others followed until all bent knee. Geltz and Ven nodded to one another and more figures emerged from behind the carriages. Deformed things, mutated remnants of humanity, though they dressed in the faded fashions of their forgotten age. Once regal vestments bore modifications and stitching to change them to their wearer’s current size, whether that meant a single arm of bloated musculature, an extra limb or other more disturbing mutations. The head of their number bore a crown, a golden laurel fashioned in the shape of ears of corn, the source of the valley kingdom’s former wealth.

‘My brothers,’ Geltz began, ‘I have led you astray. I sought to ensure the survival of our people by playing supplicant to a power beyond my reckoning and I brought this damnation upon us.’ He paced along the kneeling Valesguard and hazarded a glance to the mutant wearing a crown, his king. The king bowed his head and Geltz proceeded. ‘I then beseeched the same power to restore us to our former glory when the change took hold, and yet my actions only worsened the problem. At my command, you have performed heinous acts. I am shamed and chastised, a traitor and deceiver.’ He knelt before his own guard. ‘And yet I request you accept me as your servant. Allow me to lead us from this hell and seek other means to restore the Court of the Vale and regain our honour. Will you follow me once more?’

‘We would leave our ancestral home?’ Ven challenged.

Geltz took a moment to come to terms with the idea in his own mind. He was suggesting abandonment of an ideal they had clung to for generations. ‘First we make for Shyish. We restore our bodies. Only then do we return to reclaim our homeland.’

‘By whatever means,’ the Valesguard replied in chorus.

To Geltz’s further surprise, Ven, the king, and mutated remnants of the court gave their own voices to the declaration.

‘By whatever means,’ Geltz repeated and looked out to the path ahead, a twisting road through the hell they helped create. Somewhere beyond the valleys of their own kingdom, a realm gate awaited but the armies of Sigmar still fought with cultists and daemons, barring their path. The retreat had fallen back too quickly. He sought out the flying warrior that reminded him of his duty and restored his courage. The hero still fought above the heads of warriors and struck daemons from the sky with his flashing blade. It hurt to call such a warrior his enemy.

It took only a glance to pick their quickest route through the fighting and away from the citadel. Silver armour blocked them.

He was right. They were not done fighting this day.

#

A blast of magic withered the fleshy portal atop the final flight of stairs. Axanthral stumbled through it, gaunt of face and gasping for air. At such a height, winds whipped around him and pulled at his flesh. Atop the highest tower of the Aurora Citadel, the sorcerer took only a fleeting glance at the battle that raged ever nearer his position before marking out a complex circle of symbols and sigils over the circular tower top.

As he completed each sigil, smoke wisped from the chalk and burned it into the flagstones. He marked circles within circles and as each one completed, they glowed in white, blue, purple or green, each circle a different colour. Magic of this nature always required sacrifice. The cutting of so many threads now within the outer walls of his fortress drew enough attention from the Realm of Chaos but he needed to complete it. He tore his robes open. Many scars covered his ashen skin, sigils of spells long past but without the assistance of the Chamber of a Thousand Eyes and the focus it provided, he needed something bigger.

Taking his sacrificial dirk, he outlined the symbol of his master, the Changer of Ways, and etched it into his flesh. As with his arcane circle, the sigil first turned to smoke. It burned at his flesh as though every line blazed like a raging inferno. Afterburn gave him only a moment’s reprieve before convulsions wracked his body and he threw his arms wide. His head lolled back so violently that his spine emitted a series of popping sounds. Arcane light poured from the sigil in his chest, an emerald green so powerful that it shone for leagues.

The force of magic slammed Axanthral to the floor and the light wisped in the air. It curled, forming daemonic visages before questing out across the sky in a ribbon, sucking in all light around it to make the rest of the sky dark as pitch. Despite the tortured faces swirling in the light, to those fighting beneath, it would appear almost peaceful.

Until reality itself screamed.

The Realm of Chaos tore a path into the Realm of Shadow. Daemons flooded from the chilling aurora. Shrieking, chattering abominations met the angelic lights of Stormcast Eternals who soared up to meet them head on, each creating a smaller aurora of their own from their wings. Their silver armour reflected the light, creating halos around each of them. Hammer and javelin met fangs and fire in a brutal clash of the heavens.

#

Fighting raged through the streets in the city surrounding the Aurora Citadel, Stormcast against daemon and cultist. Mutants and marauders from the warbands drawn to the citadel joined the battle. Even a cohort of hulking dragon ogors, driving slave warriors before them, brought their arms to bear against the Stormcast Eternals. Percussive thunderclaps of their great hammers mixed with the roar of fire and shriek of daemonic tongue. Lights from the whole spectrum of colour flashed in their conflict.

Knight Azyros Gallus Swiftwing fought at the heart of it. His sword flashed from ray-like daemon to fury, then down to plunge through the neck of an unsuspecting cultist below. His lantern shone as a rallying point to the Angelos Conclave who hunted in packs at his command, and as a beacon to the Stormcast Eternals on the ground who fought a bloody war. No matter how many of Sigmar’s lightning bolts crashed to reclaim his fallen warriors, the beacon of the Knight Azyros shone. It told them that the Knights of the Aurora still fought. It told them to drink deep from their well of Sigmar’s power and fight on.

Their enemy’s retreat had given the Cloudbursts the advantage and they pressed it hard. Lord Celestant Sonos Cloudburst gave the slaves to Chaos no reprieve, leading from the fore and smashing them over and over with lightning fast sorties, splitting the enemy force into fragments and then destroying them.

Gallus caught his first sign of the enemy commander since the retreat began. He gained height, weaving between flights of Prosecutors and scoring cuts into the flesh of daemons as he weaved between them. Sight of the commander brought a taste of bile up from his gut. He longed to put down the traitor and wreak vengeance for his Lord Castellant.

‘On me!’ he called, catching up to a wing of six Prosecutors. Together they rode the winds amidst the storm of lightning and daemonfire, bolting towards the commander and his guard. They had distance to cover and the enemy already moved. But something struck him as off. Much as he sought to strike his target down, Gallus maintained enough discipline to assess the situation.

The commander and his armoured warriors guarded a train of carriages. Deformed monstrosities moved with them, warped by the taint of Chaos. The sight of them filled him with revulsion. They flew a different banner, one of gold instead of the dread eclipse banner under which they had fought at Valescroft. Still far beyond the reach of the Knight Azyros and his flight of Prosecutors, the enemy commander and his guard formed a wedge, their intent obvious. He was going to smash it into the Stormcasts army’s flank.

He sped at the fore of a wedge of his own, he and his Prosecutors shooting like an arrow of light across the sky. Daemons barred their way and the swirling winds of the storm, now booming its fury, made for difficult flying. But the Angelos Conclave was forged for such tasks. At Gallus’ lead, daemons did little more than slow them, casting them down with sword and javelin and the explosive boom of celestial hammers.

Still they were too slow. The knight had just too much ground to cover and too many daemons spewed from the aurora intercepted his path. He could do little beyond roar his frustration at the Dreadguard and his elite guard when they crashed into the Stormcast Eternals’ extreme flank. Liberators buckled under the sudden strength of arms that hit them. Gallus spat a curse as the hulking blue monstrosities that accompanied the enemy commander tossed aside a Liberator and a second knocked three from the shield wall off their feet.

The Lord Celestant’s voice sounded below. ‘Extremis Chamber, form at my side!’

Half a dozen Stormcast Eternals atop dracoths fought themselves clear and joined their Lord Celestant as he drew the attention of the threat at their flank. Gallus took it all in from his elevated position. Having punched their hole, the enemy changed formation with the drilled precision of Stormcasts. Having seen the opening, a shoal of screamers and regiment of bipedal daemons with avian heads and wielding barbed axes made to join the enemy commander.

Something was still amiss.

‘Wait!’ Gallus called out to the Lord Celestant who drew rein, causing his dracoth mount to rear and snarl.

‘Speak your piece, Azyros,’ Sonos Cloudburst replied. ‘Time is short and Sigmar’s justice waits for none.’

Gallus glanced back to the flank to confirm his suspicions. ‘Leave him, my lord. They are leaving.’

‘Leaving?’ The Lord Celestant hesitated.

Just as the enemy commander and his guard trampled the Stormcast flank, so too they crushed the daemonic force that swung around and sought to join with them.

‘What in Sigmar’s name?’ Sonos said. ‘What are they leaving with? If it’s important to the enemy, I want it stopped.’

‘I think we have problems enough, my lord,’ Gallus countered.

The Knight Azyros gestured with his sword to the inner defences of the citadel. Defenders had taken to the ancient battlements. Arrows and magic rained upon the Stormcast Eternals and Sigmar’s reclamation struck the ground with too high a frequency. Atop the highest tower, motes of magic swirled. A single figure glowed with emerald light and conjured a withering bombardment of magic that hammered at the Stormcast Eternals below.

Lord Celestant and Knight Azyros shared immediate understanding.

‘Strike him down, Gallus,’ Sonos Cloudburst said. ‘By whatever means, get this rift closed.’

He made to add something but a titanic roar erupted above. All gazes shifted to the aurora. A second roar, higher pitched, answered, followed by the snout of a great, black-scaled head. Deamonfire spewed from within the aurora, two jet-like infernos of yellow and green flame that vapourised two flights of Prosecutors who fought too near. The aurora widened around the head as a long, scaled neck followed. Giant claws seemed to be tearing it open further to make room for a second serpentine head, lithe and more angular than the first. Both heads emitted roars and shrieks, followed by another gout of fire. Both long, snaking necks joined to the same, massive torso, one with an underbelly that glowed crimson and green before the heads bellowed their daemonfire.

The Lord Celestant  raised his glaive to the elite warriors of the Extremis Chamber. ‘Ride with me, Knights of the Aurora. Let us separate those heads from that body!’

The Extremis Chamber responded in chorus, their dracoths joining with roars of their own. With the Lord Celestant at their head, the dracoths thundered through the servants of Chaos barring their way, trampling them underfoot and striking them down with the thunderous peal of their weapons. Such foes were beneath the notice of the Extremis Chamber who had larger prey in mind.

Gallus turned to the five remaining Prosecutors with him. ‘Jurus, give word for the Angelos Conclave to support the Lord Celestant. The rest of you are with me.’

#

The Stormcast Eternal, Kell’s last remaining protector, dropped to one knee by his fallen brother, both hands fending of the creature from the wall. It had killed the other Stormcast by emerging unseen when his back was turned and plunging long claws under his breastplate. Kell and Orinstar had watched the warrior fall, both knowing their exit, knowing they could have prevented it.

Kell gripped the hand axe at her side, her knuckles white with strain. So much depended on her. With the flood of refugees from Valescroft having joined the Third Moon Collective, staying hidden would prove ever more difficult. She cursed the moment that Orinstar had left this decision to her.

‘Above you,’ the Stormcast grunted. ‘I see the way out. Go! Get yourselves out and I’ll hold this.’

Kill him, the wind whispered. Be free. Return to your life on the move.

#

Ancanna, Castus, the Lord Relictor and single remaining nomad burst through the door and into a courtyard beset by fighting. Their location took them by surprise. Glancing up, they saw the chamber of magic that they had destroyed, yet they had only gone up and up since leaving it. Somehow they emerged two floors below it.

‘A curse on this forsaken place,’ Ancanna growled. And a curse upon the shifting allegiances of traitorous nomads, he added to himself. Had Kell and the Aelf led them astray inside the citadel? The moment of the door closing that split his strike team remained fresh in his mind. Might the battle be won already without having to fight through so much of the hellish madness of the citadel? He buried the thoughts where they belonged – with the bile in the pit of his stomach.

Fighting raged all around them. Stormcast Eternals bearing the stormcloud insignia of the Cloudbursts clashed with daemons of all sizes around them, both on the ground and in brutal melees in the skies around the many towers of the fortress. Before him, the Knight Vexillor died to the fires of a horror before a group of other daemons tore him apart with wicked claws. Castus roared his fury and smashed them apart. His lightning hammer growled the Stormlord’s anger with every strike.

Ancanna, the Lord Relictor and the one remaining nomad also joined the fray, fighting together, an island of order in a sea of chaos. Though terror showed on the nomad’s face, he fought with the bravery of a Stormcast Eternal. Hand axe and knife brought to bear, he fought defensively, covering Ancanna’s flank and striking only when opportunity arose.

From their vantage, high on the battlements of the inner defenses, Ancanna’s group commanded a view of the full, terrible battle. The number of Stormcast Eternals present meant the Cloudbursts had arrived. They had pushed warbands back from Valescroft and took the fight across levels of battlements, through the damned city that surrounded the tower and across the valley. He sought his Lord Celestant, Sonos Cloudburst. Unlike many generals of the Stormcast Eternals, Sonos would not be where the fighting was thickest, he and his warriors of the Extremis Chamber worked as line breakers. They would find a weak point and smash through it. If there was no weak point, they would create one with the lightning breath of their dracoths and the tips of their spears.

But Ancanna did not find his Lord Celestant crashing through enemy lines. He sighted him amidst a maelstrom of fire and lightning. Only three of his Fulminators remained and they did battle with a gargantuan beast from the Realm of Chaos, a two-headed dragon.

An instant of silence covered the battlefield when the Lord Celestant fell.

Crushed beneath the jaws of one of those great, draconic heads, Sonos Cloudburst’s body gave out. The shock of it pierced Ancanna like an arrow, drew a wordless cry of anguish from within him. Sigmar’s reclamation bolt exploded beside the great beast, burning its underbelly and causing it to rear. Unphased by their leader’s demise, the three Fulminators swung around and charged the beast. All three of their spears pierced it at once and caused it a grievous wound. It flailed and knocked two from their mounts while a gout of uncontrolled flame blasted into the sky. One of its heads fell limp but the creature fought on, swiping its rending claws through a cluster of Paladin Protectors.

As if watching his Lord Celestant fall was not enough, a sound so chilling pierced Ancanna’s ears and set his blood to ice. The avian shriek came from the aurora where a titanic amount of daemonic energy gathered. Where the lesser daemons coalesced quickly, either flying through the aurora or shooting through like comets of energy before assuming their form on the ground, this one gathered and gathered.

With so many bolts of lightning striking as Stormcast Eternals died, the defending Chaos forces began pushing them back. The flood of reinforcements from the aurora proved too many for a finite force of Stormcasts.

Blasts of magic from above scorched the earth beside Ancanna. He smashed two avian-headed daemons down with his hammer and looked up to the source of the magic. Atop the highest tower, he caught sight of the Knight Azyros doing battle with something of monstrous magical power. A beam of purple energy lanced from the creature’s hands and evaporated one of the Prosecutors fighting alongside Gallus. The magic then jumped to two others, leaving the Knight Azyros to fight alone.

‘Relictor!’ Ancanna called, smashing a fury aside as it dived from above and tried to rake him.

‘I see it,’ the Lord Relictor responded. Blasting himself clear of enemies with a storm of lightning, he waved two Prosecutors down and said something to them that was lost to Ancanna in the din of battle. He then brought his attention back to the Liberator Prime while another wave of enemies charged for him. ‘Reinforcements await in Azyr but they are few. Plant the standard. You have my support.’

Ancanna knew already that the reinforcements were a last chance and far too few to turn the tide. The aurora had to close. Whatever was forming in the immense swell of daemonic energy above could not be allowed to enter the Realm of Shadow. The Lord Castellant was dead. The Lord Celestant had fallen. The Lord Relictor was swamped with daemons and fighting to the limits of his abilities.

Blood trickled down the face of the one nomad who had followed Ancanna into the courtyard, the one who had stayed true. The man bled from a dozen wounds and the swings of his axe became laboured and slow. But he fought.

Not just earth and stone, Ancanna thought, taking heart from the nomad.

‘Sigmar,’ he muttered, turning his gaze skywards to where the Knight Azyros battled the sorcerer. ‘I place my shield between innocent and tyrant. Grant me strength to weather the blows.’

Hooking his shield to his back, Ancanna barrelled through daemons to scoop up the Vexillor’s banner which still burned with daemonfire. At direction from the Lord Relictor, two Prosecutors hooked him under his arms and leapt into the air. Wind rushed past them, daemons wreathed in fire made for them but died to the bows of Judicators below. The silver, stone and flesh that made the Aurora Citadel blurred in front of his eyes at their speed of ascent. He glanced below and caught sight of a warrior in silver fighting alone against a swarm of enemies. The figure laid about him with a halberd, a whirl of perfect form and destruction, celestial light glowing from something at his waist. Another flight of Prosecutors swooped past and blocked his view. When his vision resolved again, he saw nothing of the lone warrior.

‘That’s as far as we can get you,’ one of the Prosecutors said and dropped Ancanna on a ledge just one floor from the tower roof. ‘Help the Azyros. We’ll cover your ascent.’

Ancanna clashed his fist to his chest. Never had he felt so proud to fight for the Cloudbursts. A flurry of celestial hammers smashed his way into the citadel and cleared the first wave of daemons that rushed at him from within. One staircase was all he needed to climb. He surged forwards into the daemons barring his way and lay about him with hammer and shield, both as weapons. Charged with the thought of his Knight Azyros fighting alone against such sorcerous might, Ancanna hammered his way through and emerged on the windy tower top as a bolt of purple magic spun Gallus around. The Knight Azyros dropped out of sight.

Crying out in rage, Ancanna smashed the enemy banner from its place atop the tower and rammed the Aurora Banner, that of his Stormhost and depiction of Ghal Maraz, in its place. A single lightning bolt struck the banner and charged it, sending crackles of lightning spitting from it.

‘Sigmar’s wrath upon you!’ the Lord Relictor bellowed from below, a sound that carried to the tops of the towers, and slammed his reliquary staff down.

The swirling storm exploded in a torrent of lightning strikes. They fell with unfathomable power and frequency. The noise shook the foundations of the citadel while the power of the bolts blasted apart fortifications and incinerated servants of the dark gods. They rained down in a sustained flurry of destruction and earth-shattering intensity that gave even some of the Stormcast Eternals pause. Screamers of the Change God and furies crashed to ground, blazing like meteors and setting light to the cultists upon whom they landed.

Bolts hammered down in the courtyard around the Lord Relictor, thick and blue with white-hot cores. As the afterimage faded, they revealed Knights of the Aurora fresh from the forges of Azyr, sigmarite clad and ready for war.

‘Finish it!’ the Lord Relictor shouted. ‘Lay low the tyrant!’

Ancanna raised shield and faced the sorcerer.

‘That will not help you,’ Axathral the Cultivator said, surrounded by an aura of malevolence, energy building around his gnarled hands.

Ancanna bashed the lip of his shield into the sorcerer’s chin, the image of Gallus falling replaying in his mind’s eye. ‘Defend yourself.’

#

The combatants circled atop the tallest tower. Obscene runes to dark powers glowed at their feet while the banner that stood in their centre sparked with lightning and glowed in a halo of heavenly light. Above them, angels and daemons fought amidst a swirling storm pierced by an aurora from which the Realm of Chaos spewed forth. Fights and fires raged on the battlements and in the ruined city below them while lightning speared from the sky.

Ancanna rained blows on the sorcerer, each hitting an invisible barrier around the hellish creature. It responded with lashes of pure magic which displaced across Ancanna’s shield in coruscating colours like ripples of fire. Neither gained ground on the other.

As their fight drew on, the killing continued throughout the citadel beneath them and in the skies around them. With the aurora flying, time did not favour the Stormcast Eternals. Ancanna knew this and exploded in a flurry of hammer blows that, though all hit the invisible barrier, batted the sorcerer about the tower top. With neither gaining a telling blow, the sorcerer changed approach. He muttered foul words and projected his energy downwards. He levitated while the floor turned to a sludgy substance that sprouted arms which reached for Ancanna’s legs, burning at his armour like acid.

With the Liberator Prime stuck in place, the sorcerer unleashed an almighty bolt of magic that blasted the sigmarite shield apart. A second bolt shot from his fingers which Ancanna blocked by thrusting his warhammer in the way. Energy rippled around the weapon as Chaos magic met celestial magic and shockwaves shuddered up Ancanna’s arm and through his torso.

The sorcerer rained more blows upon him, all the while the ground pulled at him, the burning sensation now passing through his armour and searing his feet and legs.

#

Kell made her decision. Her axe spun end over end and found its mark. From its hiding place behind a mirror, two halves of a blue-fleshed creature slapped to the floor. ‘Begone, whisperer in the wind,’ Kell said.

‘You’re certain?’ Orinstar asked.

Flustered and drained of energy, Kell nodded. ‘The wind whispered to me thoughts only of deception and fear. The warriors of the storm showed only honour.’

The Aelf nodded and plunged his short sword into the creature held fast by the Stormcast Eternal.

#

Pain lanced through Axanthral’s skull. He clasped his hands to the sides of his head and screamed. It felt like someone had reached into his brain and yanked part of it out. His eyes rolled back. The place in his mind that Infergurgle had filled left a gaping chasm of fiery pain.

#

Ancanna brought his hammer down. Celestial light flashed as it crushed the sorcerer’s skull, the crunch of bone sounding like a crack in the earth. As the sorcerer dropped to the floor, the aurora emitted a tortured screech that pierced the air for leagues around. It closed like a vacuum, tearing daemons that had partially passed through it asunder, before folding in on itself. The titanic entity forcing its way through emitted a shriek of rage and anguish as it stretched and twisted, hauled back to the Realm of Chaos. The Azyrite storm remained, still grumbling and roaring its fury, still emitting bolts of lightning where Sigmar reclaimed his warriors who still fought for the battlements or in the streets and courtyards of the citadel’s influence.

Lightning struck the Aurora Banner beside Ancanna once more and lit it as a beacon. Ancanna lifted his hammer to the warriors below, his message clear: the blow was struck, the fortress taken.

It spurred the Stormcast Eternals. Though leaderless, they isolated the defenders and crushed them. Without their numbers replenished by the daemons of the aurora, the battlements soon belonged to the warriors of Azyr. Cultists lost their nerve and fled through the streets around the citadel, many picked off by the hammers and arrows of Stormcasts but others slipped through, as was always the case with servants of the dark gods. Duplicity and escapism were their ways.

Breathless and tired atop the highest tower, Ancanna watched his brother warriors finish the battle.

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