The great bulwark stretched out beneath the Delegation’s van, at this distance forming a shining slate ribbon stretching across the placid blue river. There was no sound save the gentle susurrus of the water, but for all this Han Shizhong was wracked with nerves- his commander’s eye saw a hundred different places along the dam’s length where enemies could wait in concealment, and properly manned the works could hold until the end of time with a suitably determined defender.
A single figure rose on shining wings in the distance, waving excitedly at the Lord-Celestant. Tornuri Goldensire beat her way over to land hastily before him, eyes shining through her helm.
“Empty, sir- the entire length, I flew it twice, not a single soul. We’re first!”
“It worked.” Monique’s face had the vicious look of a predator, enough to set Shizhong at unease thinking of all the lives they’d spent to make the march so quickly. “Open the gates and begin rebuilding the walls- we’ve no time to lose.”
“A proverb, Dame Goldensire.” They walked through the dam’s depths. “Haste will earn back double, but care always reaps tenfold.” At the sight of her downcast face Shizhong could not help but smile. “Fear not, though. This place might not have been entirely empty… but Troggoths are no great foe, and it was high time Santi and his men earned their way.”
“What do you think they found, Lord Han?” But the Lord-Celestant only shook his head.
“Santi knows that, the Marshal will find it out from him, and until then Oberon Brightblade will keep the information from spreading.” But he’d heard the rumors. That the sellsword had uncovered the control mechanisms for the ancient works, that could even now be ready to come back online. If that was true, the reservoir and the sheer power it held was the Delegation’s to command, and the city was far closer to their grasp than it had seemed mere hours before.
There is a path through the caverns and cliffs on the hubward side of the Ur-River, leading from a place outside the city’s defenses into its heart, deep in Amasya’s primeval tombs. It was through here that Mithridates Alti had come, never breaking stride until he stood at the tomb’s mouth and gazed out at the city of his birth.
“So close.” If he had tears to shed, he had no doubt they would have come then, with his birthright laid out before him once again.
“And yet so far. There is still a river to cross.” The Grimhailer dogged his steps even now, and Alti cursed his moment of sentimentality. Of weakness.
“Reikenor. Take your host and search the caverns. Leave the deadwalkers to fortify the entrances, muster whatever strength lies within, and convince any who imagine themselves beyond Nagash’s reach.”
“And what of your own goal, fallen priest?” The Grimhailer’s words stung, but only a trifle- the palace of the dead was close, so close, the Rahipmezar sitting just across the mirrored waters.
“Send me Felthik the Watcher.” The Guardian of Souls would do the job if any could. “I have a task for him.”
“Has this city made you a fool, or just careless?” For all that mortal emotion was centuries behind the Grimhailer, Mithridates reflected, he seemed gripped by a bitter rage.
“How was I to know the Arcanites and Hedonists would be here too?” He had thought himself to have left the servants of the Dark Gods behind in the hinterlands, and yet Felthik had still broken his teeth on their divine sorceries and blades. Not that any could have carried the day alone, against those odds.
“If you are going to name yourself our leader, everything is yours to know and prepare for. Now you’ve thrown away a tithe of our strength on a forlorn hope… for what, exactly?”
He was silent for a long moment, weighing secrecy against the Grimhailer’s rising impatience before sighing. “My father.”
“What?” He smiled, as his companion seemed genuinely taken aback.
“I entombed him, still alive, before the city fell. I swore I would return to him… and now I have.” Again, Mithridates turned to the perfect lifeless garden across the waters. “Rally our forces. We strike again, and this time I will take back what is rightfully mine.”
The one-sidedness of the carnage only barely began to assuage Irkut Thousandeye’s foul mood. The day’s disasters had been twofold, and nearly three- first, his ravens espied the Prince of Azyr’s host already dug in at Grung Esik, only to be spotted themselves and driven off in a hail of shot and star-fated arrow. Second, when they entered the city proper it was to find that brute Sarn’s mob already occupying the Tower of Light, with the first clashes leaving none in doubt as to who held its grounds.
If they had been in a little worse order, they might have been taken by surprise by the spirit-host that then boiled from across the water, smashing against his serried ranks- but they were not surprised, and so they had carried the day there in that strange lifeless garden, destroying or scattering the unquiet dead.
Not for the first time, he almost wished that he hadn’t burned the Oracle- maddening and even insulting as its prophecies might have been, it was still better than this… this blindness. He wondered how it was that someone like Sarn could live in it every day, and marveled that he should be so stupid as to not know what he was missing.
He was saved from further rumination by a chittering noise by his side, and glanced down to see a rat-man in what looked like hasty supplication. “What is it, vermin?”
“News from the scouts, oh master-sage! Grim-terrible tidings and strange report-squeakings, yes-yes!” At the Varanguard’s silent gesture, the Skaven bowed even deeper. “Yes-yes, many twistings and turnings there were- and much kill-slayings and fear-tremblings, but good-good Zuaqzelk is returning-victorious with news *urk*”
He held the giant rat’s throat in one armored gauntlet. “You are a coward and a fool, do you understand?” Irkut held on until he smelled the musk of fear rising off the creature. “Now, what did you find?”
*kaff kaff* “Ancient-terrible danger-fear, most glorious master! Power that rent Zuaqzelk’s company-host to shreds. Power that could be yours to possess-control.” Irkut nodded thoughtfully, setting the rat down gently at his feet. Power his for the grasping- even if only a tenth of what was said can be believed (and that was generous) it still meant that a gods-given prize was in sight.
“Changers and Despoilers! We have a new target!” A third objective to take, and the possibility of great might when they succeeded.
The released rat watched Irkut carefully, until he had gone out of sight. He had not mentioned the worst of it- power was there, true-true, but it was just as easy that he would encounter the evil-bad monster-thing he had felt deep within the tomb… a tomb-horror that was now soon to be released into the world…
It had been a very good day, up until now. The Yensk River had lead the Horde of Rot and Ruin march almost unobstructed to the city proper- the only thing that could have made it better would be if they had come sooner. As it was, much of the field was filled with enemies… which Sarn and the Horde had encountered no sooner than entering.
First it had been a mere spite and the creature’s horde of followers, fighting tenaciously to hold Gorkoyuk from the Horde. That had been a worthy fight, though, and much blood and sap was spilled before he called his vanguard back. Then they had come across this place- the ancient ruins, already picked over, doubtless held enough trinkets and knowledge to be worth their while, if only to spite his fellow Varanguard.
Yet staring at the eldritch citadel, Qarang Sarn was now feeling a twinge of apprehension- not least at what was coming out of the citadel. He’d sent some of the proud retinues of Talaha the Butcher and Madrax Kane in to destroy the ruined tower- only for what looked less like warriors of the Gods and more like gibbering madmen (not that there was much difference, sometimes) to come stumbling out again.
“Varanguard?” His disciple’s voice was suitably deferent, and the Varanguard smiled.
“Round up these… creatures.” He gestured dismissively. “Find out what has become of them. The ones that you judge still of use, put to a task. The rest go to the sword.”
“Yes, Varanguard.” Eris paused. “Are we to depart, then?”
Sarn fixed her with an amused glance. “I am the Basalt Lord, child. Not the Spineless. I do not bend so easily. I will not give Irkut his pleasure. No, we will learn what we can, and then…” He cast a bemused glance at the collapsed Aelf tower- “Then we will try again.”
“WE’Z GOT DEM ON DA RUN, LADZ!!” Wapkagut bellowed, his stikks flinging mud as the warchanter pounded a rythm in the soft ground. The fat, soft Gutbusters and their makeshift rafts had never stood a chance. He knew they’d come for this place- they were children of Gorkamorka too, after all, but Gorkoyuk wasn’t theirs, not really. Might makes right- that’s the way of it- and they don’t come any stronger than an Ironjaw.
Wapkagut was kunnin’, and no doubt about it. At first warning of da Big Eat’s approach, the warchanter had withdrawn his brawls and alfrostuns from the shore where they’d been watering, and gathered them within the half-collapsed, half-submerged beast pits the Ur-River had been eroding for the last five centuries. The gambit worked, and lulled into false confidence, Wapkagut’s horde struck the disembarking ghouls and gutbusters like a mailed fist to the face.
Still, they wouldn’t have won the battle without their strange allies. Even as the greenskins tossed their wayward cousins back into the river, the Idoneth Deepkin had risen from it, herding them back against the choppas of Waaagh! Wapkagut. A number of flying corpse-beasts had attempted to break out, but found themselves driven into the freezing bellows of Thundertusks by Akhelian Allopexes instead. In the end, it was numbers which saved them; there were simply too many in da Maw’s congregation to kill, and those still making their way up-river slipped the noose.
The Ionrach Tidecaster scowled as the primitive greenskin chanted and shouted, his brute fellows hacking apart fellow offspring of Gorkamorka without a second thought. Life was cheap to their kind, and the Isharann wished she could drown them all for it.
“How do you know they will not despoil the Everqueen’s precious Solace?” The Tidecaster asked, and the gnarled water-level growth beside her twisted with newly-spring life in response. “It is known, for we shall never allow them to tread within it,” the Gnarlroot branchwraith answered.
“Your kind’s rage did little to impede the Plague God’s grandchildren, while your goddess hid away in forgotten places.” The Tidecaster felt the branchwraith bristle with anger at the insult, its blood-sap burning hot. “And you are not one to lecture another on cowardice and forgotten places, withered soul,” it snapped, “and our lady is no longer of a waning season, but a red dawn, promising violence. In this, we are not unlike those spawned of the green beast with two heads.”
“Yet still, trusting their loyalty is a desperate measure, is it not?” The Tidecaster finally turned to her counterpart. “This is a task we should have undertaken ourselves, no matter the Starmaster’s counsel.” At this, the branchwraith gave a sharp, rattling noise, which the Tidecaster soon realized was laughter. “Misbegotten child of Teclis, you carry your conciever’s hubris. If the constellation of Zectoka cannot complete this task alone, then all of us are already in mortal peril, no matter the greenskin.”
As if in answer, the stars above- unusually bright for this time of evening- twisted and writhed, as if a great serpent were uncoiling to strike…