The enemy had savaged both sides of the mighty works over the past days. Northward, the followers of the Dark Gods had mounted a furious assault on that griffon-fortress. To the south, the Big Eat was in the midst of a smaller, but still dedicated offensive against their end of the dam. For all this, though, Lord-Celestant Han Shizhong seemed perfectly calm.
“He who abides absolutely in Sigmar need not fear a legion of the faithless.” Tornuri Goldensire couldn’t tell if the Lord-Celestant was smiling or frowning behind his mask. For her part, she wasn’t sure if she could be said to absolutely abide- Sigmar was mighty, but Qarang Sarn’s horde was numerous, and had tried twice now to scale the walls with their bare hands and stubborn fury.
“So long as the walls and the men on them agree with you, sir,” she concluded diplomatically, “I’m sure you’re right.”
“They do. We have sufficient supplies inside the works to last for months, and the enemy has already begun to suffer for their lack of preparation. Besides.” Now she was sure he was smiling. “They didn’t bring any artillery. All they can do is what they’ve been doing- attempt to gain the walls, and suffer for it. In a day, or a week, or a month, the children of Chaos will be forced to withdraw, and Grung Esik will remain secure. But we need not wait so long.”
Turning his back on the besiegers, Shizhong raised a fist in the air, signaling to someone further down the causeway- from deep within the works, there was the sound of mighty engines in motion, and then the constant rushing of waters rose in volume.
“The dam’s mechanisms have been re-enabled. We can control the balance of water on both sides of the dam, both where it flows and in what volume. And look.” Slowly but constantly, the moat around the griffon-fortress was beginning to flood, creeping closer to the siege works of the attacking army. The Bloodbound and the Rotbringers realized this too- as the foaming Ur-River consumed their palisades and earthworks, they were forced to retreat or drown. The elevated stone causeway running to the mouth of the fortress was soon choked, a milling mob unsure of whether to stay or run away. Some were not lucky enough to have either choice- they were forced off, and swept away by the increasingly turbulent current.
“Our faith is sufficient.” Tornuri saw then- packed onto the causeway, the Horde was a perfect target for Delegation artillery. “And our gunpowder is equally so. Open fire.”
In the Age of Myth, it was said that Azyrhol shone like the heavens above, eternal light sparkling off of its cupola and ornamentation, the mirror-polished surface of the plaza glittering and shining like lake water or freshly fallen snow. Today, the glory of the cathedral was much reduced- the dome long collapsed, most of the ornaments cracked or toppled, and the plaza tarnished, covered in mud and littered with bodies and the detritus of battle. For all this, though, Monique von Helminger thought it was still magnificent, a tribute to Sigmar in its own right.
“Bring me up to speed, Phineas.” Her aide looked slightly queasy at the sight of so much carnage, even as the Seneschal-General strode confidently across the square. “Tell me what’s going on here.”
“Um, yes ma’am.” He cleared his throat and checked the sheaf of notes, nearly stumbling over the corpse of a Khornate warrior still sprawled across the flagstones. “Well, there was heavy fighting over the cathedral, and both sides took major losses- but in the end, the Delegation was triumphant. Clean-up is still in progress…”
“Really, Phineas?” Monique snapped. “What happened that I can’t see?”
“Ah. Lord-Celestant Oberon Brightblade coordinated the initial attack on the cathedral, and then oversaw its defense against the Horde’s counterattack.”
“Good. Schedule a meeting with him- I wish to give him Hammerhal’s gratitude.”
“We received word the Moondaughter’s Warrior Chamber was marching to provide reinforcement, but never arrived. Presumably they were bogged down further downstream.”
“Understandable. What else?”
“Jak Vorpal and the Free People of Hogsface were here, but after the tide turned they advanced on Yol Grimnir to establish contact with the Moondaughters.”
“Good initiative. Send a messenger with my commendations.”
Phineas swallowed and flipped through his pad of paper. “That’s all that’s important, ma’am.”
“Right. Everyone!” Their conversation had carried them onto the steps of the Cathedral itself, and the Seneschal-General pitched her voice to draw the attention of the multitude of soldiers swarming about. “You have won a great victory for Hammerhal today- a great victory for Azyr! Three cheers for the Delegation! Huzzah!”
“This army was never meant to face down as much opposition as it faced during these past weeks, but your bravery, ingenuity and sacrifice has managed to secure two of our major objectives. You have done all and more than was asked of you, and you have done it without flinching. Hammerhal is proud of you. Sigmar is proud of you. And I am proud to have been able to command you.”
A wave of nostalgia and pride struck Gram Orkhide as he surveyed Grimnir’s Road. The aftermath of the hundred tiny battles which had swirled around the Unforged Gate lay scattered on the ground like rubies on dust, but the defenses themselves still stood strong, defiant of whatever its enemies could toss at it.
The Duardin felt justifiably proud of how his work had held up in the face of the enemy, even all these centuries after it had been constructed. Today had assuaged a long-held fear of his- that what he had done would not truly last, that the things he had in part wrought would fall to pieces with age instead of truly enduring as great art did. But the gates and the works had held, on both sides of the city, and as a result the Sigmarsmacht Delegation was triumphant.
The Delegation’s victory here had only been by a hair, true. Had their enemies united to present a single front, even with these mighty fortifications at their back the soldiers of Hammerhal could not have prevailed- but the Varanpact, the Horde, and the “Big Eat” hated each other just as much as they hated Sigmar’s people.
True, it had not come easily. As many soldiers of the Delegation lay lifeless on the flagstones as did they of the foe, waiting for their comrades or the crows. Hero and infantryman alike had fallen to the enemy- Gram had watched as Jak Vorpal had been grievously injured by an Exalted Deathbringer, only for a peasant soldier of Hogsface to vanquish the Exalted Deathbringer. Elsewhere, he’d seen an entire column of Stormcast ambushed and shattered by the Arch-Gut, a gluttonous fiend loyal to the Maw that Walks.
Ultimately, though, he had to repeat that these defeats were ultimately insignificant on the grand scale of things. Brightly as they had burned, brightly as the battle had raged, ultimately they were the matters of moments or days- and Yol Grimnir had stood for centuries, and now would stand for centuries more. With both ends of the city secured, and its center firmly held, the Delegation had proven itself dominant- though threats still remained inside, these could be burned, sponged or starved into submission. The soldiers of Hammerhal held the balance, and thus in the end they would hold the totality.
What mattered in the end were not the deeds of a day, but the legacy left behind. And with that comforting thought in mind, Gram faded away to nothingness, another ghost finding its peace.
Isik Kulesi & Karanlik Saray
It had been… a good day.
Two enemy armies in all their glory had been unable to break the Varanpact’s frenetic defense. The Hedonites of the pretender U’latlii and the Cachinnating Claw had proven themselves the masters of every battlefield they had stood upon, shattering first the Orruks styling themselves ‘Da Big Uns’ and then the Choir of Kadroth Neverforged as an encore. Such unbridled zeal as they possessed would make a Devoted of Sigmar green as a Megaboss with envy, and it had given Irkut Thousandeyes time to claim the prize at the Tower of Light’s heart: an Enlightenment Engine of Teclis, untouched by Sigmar’s meddling.
Isik Kulesi held the prize, but in the end it was Karanlik Saray that had been the key to unlocking it. The light-magics that had fueled the Enlightenment Engine’s defenses had stymied his sorcerers again and again, but when exposed to the undiluted shadow they’d brought from the rubble that had been Malerion’s ancient palace, the ancient wards had simply… ceased to be. Sarn would have found a poetic irony to this, that the power of one god overcame the power of another to bring about an end neither would have wanted, but Irkut Thousandeyes was simply pleased with the result.
The task had not been easy. As well-defended as the Tower of Light had been, the Palace of Shadow was even more foreboding, in its way. True, the thoughtless monsters of the so-called Big Eat had cracked it open easily enough, but they had not cared to venture into the fortresses’ innermost chambers. There, the long-dead fleetmasters of Malerion had hidden their greatest prizes and most secret artifacts. It had taken a legion of Godseeker Hedonites to pry them out; many had fallen to the unseen dangers embedded in the chambers, and those that remained were left frothing, driven mad by the scent of their own absent patron. But the result had been worth the losses.
It was beautiful, the ancient device now resting before him, looking just as it had on the day it was crafted by Teclis’ own hand. The Enlightenment Engines had been intended by their maker to fuel humanity’s ascension to a higher level of understanding, and in a way this one would fulfill its purpose- with the knowledge contained inside, Irkut would understand how the Aelves had once bound a god away from the Realms. In time, perhaps, he could accomplish the same against the pitiful usurpers to the Dark Gods’ glory- but first he had to ensure that there would be time at all.
“Summon the Tzaangors.” A Kairic acolyte shuffled away to carry out his command, and Irkut smiled. Moving Teclis’ engine would be difficult, but with the Sigmarites in control of both ends of the city and its center, doing so was necessary to continue his work. It was almost a shame about the Beastmen, though- few could withstand the presence of such a device and its truths for more than a brief span, and moving it would be an exacting task. Given the choice, he would have much sooner set the Horrors themselves to the task- if Daemons could even exist in proximity to these engines of primordial truth to begin with.
Irkut allowed himself a chuckle, looking on the wondrous machine before him, the key to so many future victories. Ultimately, the sacrifice of a few pawns meant little next to a chance to alter the tempo of the conflict so dramatically. Besides… the Tzaangors and their leaders were absolutely gluttonous for knowledge of the arcane. Really, all he was giving anyone was what they really wanted.
“Azyrfire!” The daemon sword flew from Qarang Sarn’s hand to embed itself in a massive Nurglish fungal bloom. “Misbegotten sons of a false god! Blind wretches, faithless scum, children of dust…”
“Are you done?” Eris Bloodwrath cocked an amused eye in the Basalt Lord’s direction. The growth the daemonblade had landed in was slowly smoldering, unable to absorb the weapon’s intense heat. After a moment more, it burst into flames, and Sarn retrieved the sword with a sigh.
“Not hardly. I will make those deluded saplings pay for the champions they killed and maimed. The Hamadreth will rue the day she crossed the mind of a Knight of Ruin!”
“I expect they’ve already come to. I mean…” Eris gestured at her surroundings. Even the greatest of the trees had been utterly consumed, and in their place diseased constructions of mold and mildew like the one the Basalt Lord had just injured had taken root. “You’ve successfully destroyed a place sacred to their patron goddess, slaughtered successive armies, and put one of their greatest champions to shame. I would call that vengeance enough for Ranaker Wrath-Bringer and Harrgorath Korr.”
Now it was Sarn’s turn to give a funny look. “Quite the pacifistic words, for a Khornate.”
Eris shrugged, the motion exaggerated by her heavy armor. “Call me rational. We maim, we kill, we burn, and we do not easily dismiss each day we are given to do so. Mighty Khrone cares not from whence the blood flows… but I certainly do.”
“Hmmmph.” Sarn was silent for a long minute, considering. “The tree-folk do not shed true blood. More’s the pity.” Eris had to laugh at this, and after a moment Sarn laughed too.
“Would you be this upset if I had fallen instead of your pet Priestess of Melas?” Eris’ tone was searching.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because, not scant weeks ago you threatened to kill me if I displeased you.”
“Eris.” Sarn smiled the smile of a parent speaking to a favored child. “What I said then is still true today. I would gladly offer your skull to Khorne here and now if I thought it the most worthy course- but only I, and Archaon above me, have the right to put you to the sword. For another to do it- that’s an insult, and I think you know I cannot stand to be insulted.”
“It was becoming evident, yes.”
The Basalt Lord drew himself up to his full, towering height, and sighed again with contentment. “You are right, as it stands. True, two worthy skulls rest at the foot of the Blood God’s throne, and I will split the Hamadreth in twain for their untimely deaths. True, the High Priestess fell to a cowardly assassin, and I will make her murderer suffer at least a dozenfold for what he has wrought. But we have taken the victory all the same. We have shown the pathetic offspring of Alarielle what the servants of the True Gods are capable of… and even when we leave this place, our work will remain as a promise of what is yet to come.”
The battle had lost all shape. The Skoga Grakk grappled with their enemy high and low, from the stony shallows at the river’s edge to deep within the tombs behind the towering cliff faces. Where first the Waaagh! and their mysterious allies had only fought pawns of the Reclamation, others had joined the scrap. Warbands loyal to the Varanpact hunted champions of the Horde amidst the fray whilst scavengers of the Big Eat stole away corpses from every side for their own nefarious ends.
Despite his headache, Wapkagut was having a grand time of it.
By this point, the Reclamation’s defense had all but crumbled, yet the warchanter felt they’d gained little ground- no matter how fun it had been bashing the interlopers. Nagaskahip still stood, despite the appalling violence echoing through its halls and chambers. Worst of all, Wapkagut could still hear that damnable echo.
Well, perhaps not worst of all, the greenskin noted.
Despite his own siege of the Rahipmezar, the Skoga Grakk’s assault had not gone unnoticed by Mithridates Alti. Rising from the river as though it were overflowing its banks had come a great spectral host, a scythe-wielding horror of howling bale-magic atop a corpse-pegasus at their fore. They crashed against one and all, none among the living spared their ghastly attention.
The wave of terror crashed over Wapkagut, and he was in the thick of it, fighting not to win now, but simply to keep from joining the growing number of dead. For a moment- and to his pleasant surprise- his stikks did wonders breaking apart the ghostly apparitions, yet were dashed from his grip by a fearsome axe.
“Felthik the Watcher names me Keldrek,” the vision of a dead man had intoned, a mockery of flapping cloth where his legs ought to have been, “Felthik passes judgement, and Keldrek carries out the sentence.” Far from being fearful, Wapkagut simply looked puzzled. Then he grinned, and leaned in toward the Lord-Executioner before bellowing, “SKOGA GRAKK!”
The Constellation of Zectoka had arrived.
The Nighthaunt legion was consumed by an inferno of white-hot starfire, great scaled beasts roaming the blinding hellscape with impunity. It seemed to Wapkagut as though the sky itself was falling, and after-images danced across squinted vision as star after blazing star slammed into Nagaskahip. Masterwork carvings, which had stood guard over the sacred dead for millenia, were blasted to superheated dust in moments. In minutes, the mountain itself had begun to give way to the bombardment, the Deepkin and Sylvaneth’s efforts to undermine the tombs finally coming to fruition.
With the grinding groan of a hundred million tonnes of stone breaking apart all at once, the mountain gave way- and the hallowed necropolis was no more, seeming to simply vanish as it fell into the footprint of its own ruin. To Wapkagut, it seemed as though some great emptiness pulled itself free of the mountain’s cadaver, drifting with the dust on the wind toward the Rahipmezar- but perhaps that was simply a trick of the fading starlight.
The warchanter tapped the toes of one foot on the blood-slick ground; then he stomped, fashioning a crude, stamping beat. The echo was gone. Satisfied- and grinning like a right maniac- Wapkagut moved off, eager to rejoin his Megaboss and his old brawl for the next proper scrap. After all, they’d came, they’d seen, they’d bashed… what more could an Ironjaw want?
Mithridates Alti watched the ruin of Nagaskhaip with impotent fury from the grand plaza of Rahipmezar. Since his earliest memory- a babe, sat on his father’s knee- all he’d wanted was his birthright. To rule Amasya as Basrahip, and rest alongside his forebears until the pantheon saw fight to return them unto new life to wage war against the Dark Gods once more.
“I did this all for you, father,” Mithridates Alti said, his voice strained, torn between panic and madness. “You asked that I bury you living with my buyukbaba and yours. You witnessed my oath to return to your side, and thereby return you to mine. Everything I have done, I have done for you.”
The blood-witches of Morathi had abandoned him, he knew. Perhaps they’d betrayed him when they saw Sigmar’s lapdogs tightening their stranglehold on the city, or perhaps their pledges had meant nothing to begin with. It didn’t matter; the result was the same. He’d made a promise- to return to their kind the Palace of Shadow, that a new Temple might be raised in this holy place- and they’d turned their backs on him without a second thought.
“This was your desire, and now it is turned to ash in your mouth,” Mithridates Besh intoned, stepping forward to stand beside his son as the first clouds of dust washed over them.
Reikenor the Grimhaler had failed him, too, the counter-attack proving to be too little, too late. It gave Mithridates Alti some grim satisfaction that the many lesser soulblight, the wight kings and the necromancers, all of whom had had agreed to fight for him only to further their own ambitions, were now trapped alongside him within the Rahipmezar. It would take a Stormhost to successfully besiege the tomb now- but far less, Mithridates Alti knew, should he attempt to retake the city without reinforcement… and such aid was unlikely to arrive.
For better or for worse, Mithridates Alti had come home. The vampire lord rounded on his father.
“You claim to know my past, and my purpose. I buried you a vampire! You were to return a Soulblight, as I’ve become! Never did I abandon you, not after five hundred years. You cannot abandon me now.”
“What will be, will be,” Mithridates Besh quietly answered, stepping forward and breaking into a stride, walking away from his son and toward the enveloping cloud of dust and disaster. “Truth will bind, and set us free…”
And then he was gone, leaving his son with no choice but to reap that which, by his own hand, he’d sown.
The Skoga Grakk had been single-minded, mused da Maw dat Walkz, but perhaps that was to be expected from the puppets of a Slann Starmaster. The puppets had accomplished what the puppet-master wanted. They had destroyed Nagaskahip, and the emptiness which had resided there was no more. Yet this was nothing, no matter, not relevant, immaterial and of no concern. Da Maw dat wud Eat da Wurld was no longer there; she and the empty man of Rahipmezar had seen to that.
For the puppets of a Slann weren’t the only servants with single-minded purpose. The pawn-kings of the bloated grandfather and the farce they named everchosen had sought to claim Gorkoyuk as their own, and scatter da Big Eat back into the forest. All who paid tribute stood equal before the Maw, and thus she had sent Groinbiter-Boss Slogg and da Grey Tide to unmake them. They cast down two of the three Varanguard sent against them, and worse still, allowed the third to withdraw in dishonor.
Soon, however, there would be nothing for their enemies to retake. The beast pits, once meant for the holding and breeding of exotic animals, had become ravenous creatures of their own, an untold number of great gaping maws in the muck of the swamp. They would consume each other, she knew, until only the greatest of them remained- da Maw dat wuld Eat da Wurld.
The irony pleased her; in victory, she would once more walk the realms an exile, and too everyone who followed her. Thus, she had made a grand decree, every word hung upon by Sibyl and all those of devout faith. Only hunger is a constant, she told them, and where once they had devoured in search of this place, now they would starve, so pure was their worship of the Maw. They would do again as their kind had once done, long ago; they would hunt and they would pillage, and bring their prizes back here to Gorkoyuk to feed da Maw- so that someday, it might devour all Amasya, and then, the whole of the Mortal Realms and their silly, petty gods, too…
The Varangaurd masters of the Horde and the Varanpact did not long rest on their laurels. In the shallows of the River Yensk, that ancient tributary which splits Isik Kulesi from Teselli Alari, their armies did meet for the last time. Once again Madrax Kane did meet the pretender U’latlii in battle, and each exacted a tithe of blood and depravity from the other.
Irkut sent a champion of Tzeentch against the Horde then, a creature whose name could not be pronounced by mortal tongues, yet it too was cast back across the river by King Gurloes the Good and Talaha, the Butcher of Galaza. Finally, Grey Seer Snihrgrin attempted to circumvent the Horde’s line entirely by way of treacherous gnawholes, yet he, too, was repulsed by a Great Unclean One bound in service to Splatchlos Carrionclot, leprous plagueweaver of the Effluvient Mire.
So it was that both Irkut “the Spineless” Thousandeyes and the Bastalt Lord Qarang Sarn knew there would be only one deciding factor between them: the death of one, or the other. The next day, they mustered their armies, and each prepared to cross the Yensk, eager to finally slay the other. Yet, as they made to charge, they discovered a visage standing between them; another Varanguard, dressed in black, sat upon a pale steed.
“The Everchosen has passed judgement upon you,” the newcomer intoned, its voice a whisper heard by all, “and I am to serve as its deliverance.”
Zectoka stirred, restless, the Slann’s dreams troubled. Those he’d tasked had done as they were bidden, and the Skoga Grakk had ensured the hollow place was no more. Yet, the dream was never certain, and even a Starmaster could not weave every thread of fate at once. The old nemesis had escaped its doom by the virtue of a dutiful son, and now grew in strength by the exhortation of a true zealot.
Zectoka shifted again, and opened its eyes, abandoning slumber in favor of action. If the consequences were to be undone, the Slann knew it must find common ground with an undying king…
While the dust had soon settled, the mist and roar of a great waterfall which had not existed but a day before had seemingly replaced it. With a gaping hole where the mountain which once held Nagaskahip had stood, the Ur-River had bifurcated, pouring down into the depression- yet never filling, which had predisposed the Seneschal-General to a terrible suspicion.
A suspicion Lord-Celestant Han Shizhong had been tasked with confirming. He picked his way through the imposing towers of rubble from the back of his Dracoth, Xinglong. Not for the first time did he wish his command included a Vanguard-Hunters, or perhaps that Xinglong would simply transform into a Stardrake by some whim of Dracothian so that they might simply fly.
Finally, they could descend no more, and Han Shizhong was taken aback by the smell of death- not of fresh death, nor the long dead; he knew well the stench of both. No, this was the smell of decay on a terrible scale, as if the air had been swept up from the earth of a freshly-dug grave…
The Lord-Celestant caught himself. As if the wind had blown up from Shyish, the Realm of Death.
The lake is still as glass; indeed, much of its surface is frozen over. For an age, its headwaters have been little more than a trickle. The air itself is stiff with chill, Hysh’s light closer to that of a distant moon on a clear winter’s night. Impossibly large, the bones of some vast, aquatic megafauna stand sentinel over the water, the shadows they cast long and foreboding.
Suddenly, the waters churn, steaming; a shock of vitality ripples through the lake. Ice cracks and buckles, snapping and hissing with a malevolence that seems more than natural occurrence. Fish desperately attempt to navigate between the shards, only to quickly die regardless- for these waters were never meant for the living.
Mithridates Besh is smiling as he pulls himself from the water, seemingly unaffected by its clawing grasp, and beholds a land undisturbed for centuries, yet which he knows will soon be ravaged by war.
“Through fiery animosity, Nemesis’ sovereignty,” he murmurs to himself, and sets off. Had any been there to see him, they might have noticed his passing left no mark, nor did his body cast any shadow…