The Anvil of Apotheosis
Clang. Clang. The Smiths’ hammers fell again and again, remaking the souls of fallen heroes in the God-King’s image. Andorian Sparkhand would have found the noise deafening as a mortal, but to the Sacrosanct it was like a heartbeat, ever-present and ever-comforting, an audible reminder of Sigmar’s constant preparations for war in the Realms beyond.
One such war had brought Andorian to the Sigmarabulum today, and it was a strange one- for the God-King had sworn to take no part in it. The battle for Amasya was being fought outside of his master’s influence, but that did not mean that Sigmar and the Conclave weren’t hungry for every scrap of information concerning its course- and where better to get it than from the souls of those who had fought and fallen?
“I was Duncan Charles, Sergeant of the Ash-and-Blood. We fought the ghouls at Azyrhol- the Green Man and the Protector were with us, and we made the enemy pay for every step, but there were too many. They sent a beast behind our lines. We were slaughtered, but we never broke. Sigmar would be proud of us…”
“I was Brother Alexius, Anvil of the Heldenhammer, Liberator. We made to stand against Talaha the Butcher, but we were crushed, and the avenue to the cathedral opened. I must return to my comrades in the field…”
“Not today, friend.” Andorian shook his head, and the reforged soul passed on its way.
“I was Sister Carola, Liberator, in the service of Lord-Celestant Vale Lotherine. We held Grung Esik against Talaha the Butcher, and though I died he broke on our shield wall. The dam will not fall while we defend it.”
Andorian smiled at the bit of good news, but then the hammers fell again.
“I was Seymour Nicolus, soldier of Hammerhal. We fought in the cathedral against King Gurloes, and we could have won too- but Usidore was deep in is cups, and began throwing spells around every which way. It was too much… we ran, and the wizard got himself eaten by a plague bat for his troubles.”
“I was Robert Edward, Knight of Lileath and protector of the Realms. I watched as the Enemy entered the Cathedral… we charged, and we cut them down in number, but in the end there were too many.”
If Andorian Sparkhand had blood instead of lightning, he would have said it ran cold- and then the soul spoke again.
“All was lost then. Azyrhol has fallen…”
“Victory.” It tasted both sweet and bitter on his lips. The necropolis was theirs- Felthik the Watcher had proven himself victorious by conquering where others failed, sweeping the Hedonites before him. Too, at the final hour two full ‘courts’ of deluded ghouls had shown up to clinch his victory… it rankled with Mithridates Alti to truckle and parley with one such as the Pale Saint, but he had done worse in his days and would do so again.
And the necropolis was theirs. For the first time in five centuries, he could walk its sacred halls and look upon the graves of all the High Priests before him. It was a homecoming, of a sort… even if Nagaskahip had fallen to the greenskin, he comforted himself with the thought that this was the center of his power, and once he’d done his duties inside he could rend apart all the enemies who sought to stand against them.
“You thought that I was weak, and you were strong.”
A voice echoed faintly through the halls, and Mithridates hurried on, fearing and hoping what it might be. There was an iron door deep within the complex, and he paused at its threshold- it was choked by the corpses of the dead, Stormvermin and Hedonite in equal number, but his forces had not reached this far- indeed, it looked like they had fought the battle amongst themselves.
“You thought that I could be plucked from my eternal rest, and put to your service.”
He stepped carefully onward- there in the hallways lay more of the Slaaneshi marauders, mutilated beyond recognition by an unknown hand- but as he peered closer, it seemed as though the hand was their own. Yes- some had plucked out their own eyes, others seemed to carve off their fingers and hands. Many had died, all, it seemed, of their own devices, but many were still alive- yet even if they could have fought they made no notice of his presence.
“You believed I would live again, bound in service to the Undying King as you are.”
Further down the hall the carnage grew greater- some among the Hedonites looked to have tried to flay themselves alive, and many seemed to have gotten far in the process before succumbing. But still, there was no sign of battle, or even struggle- it was as though the marauders had suddenly fallen into this, as though gripped by a moment’s mad whim.
“You thought I could be swayed by the promise of power, or wealth, or love, to fight alongside you.”
Mithridates paused at the final threshold. It had been five centuries, half a millennia since he had left this place, swearing then to return in a few short days or weeks- he who had before faced down all the horrors of the Realms paused to rally himself.
“You thought that I was the same as I had always been.”
He knew that voice. The last High Priest of Amasya thrust the door open, and strode inside- and then stopped short, dumbfounded. He had thought to find a body in a casket, or at most a feeble revenant starved by the centuries- but what stood before him was a man, still glowering down at a marauder chieftain splayed against the frescoed wall of the chamber. Alti was well aware that he was old- he had been in his middle age when he had left Amasya behind, and the centuries since had not reversed time’s ravages. And yet the man he found looked in the bloom of youth, as full of life as he might have been when Mithridates was but an infant.
“Father?” At the sound of his voice, the man glanced up, looking upon his son with eyes that flashed full of malice.
“You thought all these things… but you are a fool.”
The final battle had been short, brutal, and utterly victorious. Irkut smiled at the memory- one of Sarn’s followers, Madrax Kane, had thought himself able to challenge the Varanpact for control of the tower ruins, but the Cachinnating Claw had shown him the error of his ways. At the height of the battle, the Keeper of Secrets that led the Claw had torn a Bloodthirster into a dozen equally-sized pieces, putting the followers of Khorne to flight and decisively securing Isik Kulesi against all comers.
Free of distraction, then, Irkut could proceed against the real obstacle here- the ancient defenses built into the tower’s depths, a foe as real and as cunning as any faced on the battlefield. That was what he was doing now, matching wits with a god and trying to break a lock never meant to be opened. It was refreshing, and utterly invigorating.
From a distance, to the dull-witted or the entirely mundane, the wall before Irkut seemed a blank and featureless slab of marble- but those with even a modicum of arcane talent, or a speck of common sense, would realize that it housed a web of magical energy meant to be fatal to any who sought the secrets held behind. They who had a bit more refinement- like him- could almost see the pattern, the warp and weft of power flowing through the stones.
The wall itself seemed to twist and shimmer ever so slightly as a team of sorcerers worked on it, gently persuading the eldritch strands into a newer, more accommodating shape. As he watched, the magic flexed, bent, growled, and then spread apart- and as a hole opened in the web, so too did a dark emptiness appear where there had seemingly been smooth stone.
Irkut nodded. “Send another one.”
A slave, once a soldier of the Delegation, was brought forward before the halberds of Irkut’s minions. Twenty feet before the wall, the guards took a step back- aware of the sudden absence of the steel points, he glanced behind her, then forward towards the door taking shape in front of him. He glanced back again- and then was running, sprinting towards the thin hope of salvation.
Two feet before he reached the door, the web of magic flexed and folded. It seemed to Irkut that a massive arcane hand reached out and seized him, and he vanished with a ‘pop’ into thin air. The room froze for a moment- and then sighed.
“We’re making progress.” However slow it might come, he thought. “We continue.”
There was power on the other side of the barrier, power at the fringes of his wildest dreams. Once, the gods of the Aelves had used the secrets of this place to bind something of awesome power- and when he had broken down the barrier and whatever other defenses lay beyond, he would be master of those same secrets. And with them in hand, he could imprison the so-called gods of the Realms, those creatures who thought themselves the equals of the true Gods.
And then, the Three-Eyed King could remake the Realms as he willed.
“Ichor. Bile. Blood. Blood!” The spite had folded its twiglike hands into fists, saplike tears running down its face.
“Da flames?” The snotling standing next to it was looking down, openmouthed, at the carnage wreaked before them.
Allarielle’s Solace was dying, and something ugly was being born out of its corpse. Nurgle’s rot had spread deep within the trees, and where just a few brief days before stately pines and majestic yews and goldenwoods and all other manner of trees had bloomed and towered, now there were only rotting stumps and a few gnarled, ravaged survivors. Where once spites had swarmed, now clouds of bloatflies covered every surface. Even grand Hyperion was under threat, the amethyst wargrove assailed by the forces of decay unleashed by Baldaflax and his ilk.
“Fire. Ashes. Seeds. Roots.”
“Da flames.” One green finger stretched out, pointing at two figures creeping through the corrupted undergrowth- a woman in an officer’s uniform, and a man with the bearing of a hunter. “Da flames!”
“Seeds.” The spite’s mouth grew into a malicious, fang-filled smile. “Windfall. Trees. Forests. Growth.”
“Burn it down! Burn it down! Da flames! Da flames!” And the greenskin’s hooting and hollering marked the end of the day.
The deathrattle legionnaire exploded as Wapkagut clubbed it with a stikk bigger around than the dead soldier’s torso. Nearby, Akhelian King Tralnor’s tide-magic swept away a screeching pack of grimghast reapers even as his Ishlaen Guard held their own against an overwhelming Nighthaunt counter-attack.
“DAT ALL YOU GITZ GOT?!” The warchanter shouted, genuinely enraged. The echo was the worst it had ever been here, a pounding, aching sense of emptiness that washed over him in waves. Gorkamorka’s heartbeat was faint here, and he felt the power of his own warchant waning. It was a most uncomfortable sensation- and greenskins don’t like being out of their comfort zone.
“WAAAGH!” Wapkagut attempted, but it came out weak, the timeless warcry faltering in his throat. Fortunately, his brawls and alfrostuns didn’t need Waaagh! Energy to carry them forward; the absence of it had caused a dark mood to settle over the mobs. Even now, two Sovanghen Thundertusks were bellowing at the grim mortuary columns, their breath causing the ancient stone to freeze and crack, collapsing under their own weight within moments.
Wapkagut snarled through clenched teeth as Wight King with a two-headed axe big enough to make a warboss proud squared up against him. He’d promised to knock it all down, and by Gork and Mork, he hadn’t come this far not to.
The branchwraith and the tidecaster walked side by side, deep in the labyrinthe of Nagash’s Graveyard. There were no dead left in these tombs; the petulant child-king Mithridates Alti had seen to that, and thrown them all against Wapkagut at the labyrinthe’s gates. This did not mean there was no danger, however.
“You feel it, Isharann, do you not?” The branchwraith intoned, “the endless emptiness, gnawing at the hole where your kind used to have a soul.”
“I would have you still what passes for a tongue,” the tidecaster spit, “For you cannot know of what you speak.” The branchwraith laughed once more, the harsh bark of the sound grating on the tidecaster’s nerves. “This cancer grows in bones older than even my wargrove, little aelf. It is time; we must see to our task, that the Slann can see to theirs.”
The tidecaster nodded, once, and stood in still concentration, summoning an ocean which would sweep through this place. Around her, she could hear the roots of the ancient trees far above reached deeper than ever before, splitting apart the mortal-made masonry of the tomb.
That it would mean both their deaths, did not matter, and in the mid-day sky beyond, the stars of Azyr grew suddenly close and bright.
Da Maw dat Walkz trod the sacred ground of Gorkamorka’s pits. All around her was the bustle of devout worship, the air thick with the heady incense of the recently deceased, their dismembered and disembowled corpses cooking in the hot Hyshan daylight.
She had made a holy decree: her pilgrims had eaten well on their long journey, and now, it was time for da Maw dat will consume da Wurld to feast. To this end, they would drag every corpse to Gorkoyuk; the long dead, the unburied slain, and the living yet to die. The souls of those whose bodies were lost, the bodies of those whose souls were pledged to the Four. All these and more, da Big Eat would toss into the pits, and in turn her messiah would drink deep and eat hearty.
Nearby, Sibyl screeched commands, her shrill voice directing the mobs of ghouls, bonesplitterz, troggoths and others whom returned with tribute. One such faithful, the Spiderfang scuttleboss Spiderbite the Unoriginal had returned empty-handed, with only scorchmarks about his spider’s head to show for the Lord-Celestant he’d slain. Another hadn’t returned at all, the ghoul king whom fashioned himself a pale saint having been lured to Mithridates Alti’s cause by whatever silver-tongued promises Mannfred’s whipped dog had made him.
The betrayal amused da Maw, for the ghoul king had simply traded one prophet for another. She had met the empty man in the hollow mountain, when first she’d washed ashore in the Rahipmezar’s wharf long ago. She knew he served the same purpose as her, in his own misguided way.
The beast pen before her yawned wide, the spikes that once kept creatures from escaping the pit looking like so many bloody, jagged teeth. Yes, she smiled, her worship was pure.