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‘Well fought, Liberator Prime.’
Dawn cast a glimmer of light upon the Aurora Citadel. Ancanna hadn’t moved from the tower top. He glanced to the Knight Azyros and then back out over the silver-clad warriors reorganising below. Liberator. Who exactly they had been sent to liberate? He saw only Stormcast Eternals. All but one of the nomads had left them in the mad labyrinth of a citadel. Had the others died, betrayed them, or simply fled? His mind’s eye conjured the image of him looking back to see Kell within the citadel twisting something before the doorway turned to stone and cut his strike team in half. Perhaps he imagined it. Likely not.
She thought them slow and dumb, the Stormcasts. But every Stormcast Eternal harked from a life of war and death, and no two warriors experienced the same war. Ancanna’s eyes were faster than she credited him. He knew duplicity when he saw it, and he had watched an intentional action. He drew his attention back to Gallus to avoid incensing himself further.
‘Have we done it?’ Ancanna asked. He brushed some dried earth from his armour and rubbed it between his fingers. ‘Have we gained more than earth and stone? Why take this citadel if those we sought to inspire by its capture fall?’
And who had they captured it for, he wondered. He had put so much hope and trust into Kell and the nomads and yet they fell. All but one. He thought of Sigmar’s crusade to liberate the Mortal Realms. Had they left it too late? Zealots and turncoats were all he had seen during his time in the Realm of Shadow. What was the point of fighting when they liberated lands for traitors and tricksters who could so easily change their allegiance?
He thought of Valescroft and the rebuilding they had done. That work, he knew. Wood and stone did not change sides. Once fashioned for its purpose, it stood. Perhaps some of the repairs they had made to the settlement still remained but he doubted it based on the plumes of smoke rising from it and the size of the armies that had clashed there. Twice those people had suffered in this short campaign. But he could always rebuild it. Wood and stone, he knew. People were different. And rebuilding the Mortal Realms, wresting them from the iron grip of Chaos, was about people and ideals, not wood and stone. He held the concept close as both his motivation and his damnation.
‘We talked about this post-battle reflectiveness of yours, my friend. There are those who stood.’ Gallus cocked his head, the turquoise plume atop his helmet blown flat in the breeze so high on the tower. His left arm hung at his side, pinned where the sorcerer’s attacks had fused his armour together. The hawk-like design of the pauldron had melted.
At the Knight Azyros’ gesture, Ancanna turned to the woman standing behind him. Kell of the Third Moon Collective.
Seeing her set Ancanna’s blood aflame, obliterating his melancholy. He reached for his hammer. ’Betrayer!’ he roared.
Gallus leapt between them and stayed Ancanna’s hand. ‘Prime, no!
Through gritted teeth, Ancanna spoke, his baleful glare levelled at the nomad. ‘She separated us in this hell citadel, Gallus. I saw her activate the device that trapped us. Knights of the Aurora were sent back to the forges from her actions.’
‘Not so. I spoke with Augurun. Her and the Aelf, they dragged him out of the citadel after he almost fell to a daemon from within the walls. She felled it from afar with a throw of her axe; a throw worthy of a Prosecutor, Augurun claimed.’ The Knight Azyros stepped back from Ancanna and softened his voice. ‘She saved his life, Prime. She is not our enemy.’
Ancanna’s ire still raised, he planted his feet, lest his temper get the better of him. He had never recalled a time where he was so volatile. There was something about this place, this citadel of the Change God, that seemed to magnify his every nuance of emotion. After a few breaths, and replaying the words of the Knight Azyros in his mind, he released his hammer. Gallus, he trusted like no other. And Augurun was a Liberator as solid as could be hoped for. The Liberator Prime chose him for their strike on the citadel for good reason. With command of his senses regained, Ancanna looked at the terrified nomad anew. Perhaps his suspicion would never leave but he remembered a time, not long past, that he had resolved to trust in trust.
She stood, scraped and bloody, her eyes wide in fear as she shrank away from Ancanna’s wrath, but, like Gallus had said, she stood. And she had stood with them since, despite Kimmani rejecting her help in the ruins. The sight of her tempered his doubts. Ancanna owed his life to her many times over. Likely the whole Strike Chamber did, for their scattered warriors would have been picked off by the citadel’s defenders without her community’s help in uniting them.
Ancanna knelt before the woman. He removed his helm to reveal his thick, wavy hair, dark eyes and sturdy chin. ‘Forgive my outburst,’ he said. ‘With duplicity and treachery so rife across the realms, it is easy to assume the worst.’
‘You look…’ Kell began, hesitantly reaching towards him, but failed to articulate.
‘Just like any one of your community,’ the Liberator Prime finished, his mood stabilising.
He would have given any under his command a severe dressing down for letting their anger overtake him as he had. With a settled temper came clarity.
‘We are not your masters. We need your help as much as you need ours. This fortress, this victory, is a speck in the vastness of this realm, and we have many realms to free. The Stormcast Eternals are your shield and they are your sword, as they are for every free person of the realms. The banner atop this tower is not a conqueror’s symbol but a beacon for any who wish to rally to it.’
Kell paused, taken aback. Her eyes still darted, mostly back to the single safe exit from the tower top. It shamed Ancanna that it had come to this, that the realms had been so dominated that ordinary people had to remain so guarded. It shamed him that in wading through so much deceit and evil had damaged his trust so much.
‘And those who don’t?’ Kell asked.
‘They are free to live as they may. If what the Knight Azyros says is true, I would welcome your axe. Your wits and your skill I have seen for myself, Kell of the Third Moon Collective.’
She nodded slowly and shuffled back a step. She looked down to her axe and then back to Ancanna. A grin split her face. ‘I’d welcome one of those hammers.’
‘We’ll teach you how to forge hammers of your own.’
Kell gave an awkward imitation of the Stormcasts’ salute and dashed away from the warriors into the citadel. Whether she would come back, with or without her community, was anyone’s guess. They had suffered under Chaos and the Stormcasts’ initial dismissiveness could not have helped. They had been hunted while Ancanna fought his guerrilla campaign across the valley. Whatever she decided, her life, and that of her community, were changed forever by what they had done here. They no longer needed to hide or run.
Ancanna frowned at the flights of Prosecutors over Valescroft and the ruins of Art Eruditia, and another group soaring over the valley. ‘What are they doing?’
Gallus laughed. ‘I decided to let it be known what that banner stands for. The Angelos Conclave is carrying our message throughout the valley. I fear Lord Castellant Kimmani misjudged his speech. May he return soon and whole.’
Sigmarite clashed as both warriors saluted with fist to chest.
Ancanna thought of the Lord Castellant. Had he been there in the fray? Were those glimpses of a flashing halberd really Kimmani or another of Ulglu’s tricks?
‘It was that talk of glory and taking the fight to Chaos,’ the Knight Azyros continued. ‘You were right, Prime. Those people in Valescroft, they thought they were exchanging one tyrant for another. It wasn’t the warrior that drew the people of Valescroft from hiding, it was the builder. It was when you started repairing their homes and workshops. Lifetimes spent preparing beyond the Gates of Azyr can give you a certain perspective on things. When you live for war, and all around you live for war, you can lose sight of why you’re fighting. Kimmani didn’t realise he was talking to weavers, farmers, potters… They don’t want to hear about battlefield glory.’ He gestured around to the warriors of the Strike Chamber. ‘The Knights of the Aurora should know that better than any.’
Ancanna nodded solemnly. ‘Kimmani. Have we lost him?’
‘He’s not with the Strike Chamber. Whether he’s around or not, the Angelos Conclave have reported no sightings of him.’ Gallus shrugged. ‘He has his moments, but I share your fears. Two reforgings in such a short time. We don’t know what that’s going to do to him.’
It wasn’t the reforging that worried Ancanna. Seeing the reclamation of the Lord Castellant dispersing across the sky still haunted him. Seeing his outline trapped in crystals within the chambers of the citadel, his form carved into walls, it all weighed on the Liberator Prime. He fidgeted in the silence that followed.
The Knight Azyros chuckled. ‘You’re stoic as that shield you carry, my friend, but you could heed Sigmar’s talk of hope yourself. Although you’d never make it in the Angelos Conclave.’ At Ancanna’s frown, he gestured to the road leading towards the citadel where humans trickled towards them. Some pointed to the high walls, others began tending to wounded Stormcasts while more still began work to restore the citadel.
‘And there,’ Gallus nodded towards the Valescroft where even more humans withdrew from hiding. ‘And in the ruins. I believe that’s what we’re fighting for.’
Ancanna took heart but doubt still gnawed at him. ‘And the taint? After such vile occupation, how can anyone live here without becoming tainted themselves?’
‘Trust in Sigmar.’
Twenty men and women formed a chain in front of one of the fleshy walls. Behind the bald man who led them, a banner stood. The Ardency of the Storm God. At their chanting, the daemon flesh covering the wall bubbled and writhed. Ancanna made for his hammer but paused at Gullus’ relaxed posture. The flesh sloughed down the wall, leaving bare stone.
‘What in Sigmar’s name?’ Ancanna breathed.
‘Did you see anything while staring out from the battlements?’ The Knight Azyros shook his head. ‘Notice the little victories, my friend. We have a long undertaking before us. They arrived not long after the battle. In fact, they bloodied their weapons on a few fleeing cultists. Apparently the image of Sigmar himself wielding Ghal Maraz appeared to them in a bolt of lightning atop this very tower. You wouldn’t, perhaps, know anything about that?’
Much as he harboured little respect for the zealots, and their sudden acceptance of the Knights of the Aurora, Ancanna began to understand Kimmani’s words and those of Sigmar himself, along with a thought that he had never managed to fully form. All three of them were right in their own way. The Stormcast Eternals were Sigmar’s hammer. They struck hard and took the fight to the enemy. They needed the other races as much as the other races needed the foothold, that opening, that glimmer of hope that only the Stormcast Eternals had the strength and the glimmering spectacle, to create. With the guidance and help of Sigmar’s warriors, the mortals would garrison the citadel. They would grow and flourish, even support the armies of Sigmar in battle. They had their place in every aspect of the Realmgate Wars. This war was not just about gods and daemons, it was about the ordinary person, the woman out foraging for her people who raised axe and helped beleaguered Stormcasts, the priests who, though misguided, remained faithful to Sigmar. All were needed to stand against Chaos.
Though this Strike Chamber of the Knights of the Aurora paid dearly for their victory and stood as a depleted force, they had their foothold. Sigmar would reinforce them in time, or call them back to Azyr. Until then, they would lead the liberated people of this valley and teach them of their new place in the Mortal Realms. They would hunt down the servants of Chaos that fled the battle and drive out the warbands and bandits that lurked nearby. From what they learned of the previous masters of the citadel, Axanthral the Cultivator had more of these human farms. The Knights of the Aurora would spread their message to every person amongst them.
There was one who fled the battle that stood in Ancanna’s mind, the leader of the fell armies, the Dreadguard. What he had fled with, Ancanna could not begin to guess, but for striking down his Lord Castellant, he would feel the wrath of the Knights of the Aurora.
The Liberator Prime surveyed the blasted valley, the tang of ozone still rich in the air. One boot atop the crenelated wall, he gazed at an enslaved realm stretched before him, ground under the boots of Chaos, and he himself dared to hope. A fortress thought impregnable had fallen. The enemy had its nose bloodied. More importantly, free people in the ruins below no longer had to run.
Thunder rolled in the storm clouds above. The Aurora Banner still shone from its lightning charge, illuminating the silhouette of the Liberator Prime. Energy crackled through the pole and cast a halo of coruscating green and blue around the banner. Ghal Maraz, the Hammer of Sigmar, blazed on the fabric, not just untouched by the energy but highlighted by it, a message to the Mortal Realms from Sigmar himself: hope had returned and it was cast in the storm.