Some weeks ago
Like a mortuary shroud pulled across a cadaver, the night sky had disappeared, lost in a bank of fog. Pounded into muck by the iron-shod tread of two belligerent adversaries, the battlefield had once been a meadow, its gentle, babbling creeks now choked with blood and mangled corpses.
Impatient, Wapkagut tapped out a beat with his foot, his toes slapping against a puddle that was more effluvia than mud. The fight had been a proper scrap, but even an Ironjaw could see it wasn’t going well. It had been a meeting engagement, not a pitched battle.On the warpath, there was little which could impede the momentum of a Ironjaw brawl and a Beastclaw Alfrostun- yet a wall of insensate Blightkings and a thundering counter-charge of Khornate Juggernauts were among them. Now those same foes lay slain about the warchanter, bodies heaped atop the orruk dead they’d killed only moments before.
Wapkagut grunted out percussion notes under his breath, his thick, his stikks shaking in his twitching grasp. The greenskin’s need to bash something hung in the chill pre-dawn air like a static charge.
Just as Wapkagut and his ‘ardest boyz made to take the Chaos lads with them, the sky- clear as a winter’s night, until that moment- seemed to fall and crash into the bloodied waters of the meadow. From the burning light came steam and mist, even as the forest upon the valley’s mountains seemed to close in about the clashing armies. The sound of furious combat grew muffled and distant, and Wapkagut had been left with nobody to krump, the foes he’d been at grips with moments before disappearing into the mist.
Confused and angry, some of his Waaagh! had found their way back to Wapkagut through the mists. As what remained of the Sovanheng Alfrostun came up behind him, the mist began to freeze and fall, melting as it settled on the still-hot bodies of the recently slain and adding to the bloody quagmire.
The Sovanheng Frostlord gave a bellow of alarm and urged his Stonehorn forward as four figures emerged from the mist before Wapkagut- only to yank back the reigns at a snarl and a raging glare from the Warchanter. Looking back to the strangers, the warchanter sized them up, the cunnin’ of Mork piquing the greenskin’s curiosity.
One was of the sea-aelves, a Tidecaster of the Isharann; another, a splinter-git Branchwraith, the type to turn an orruk’s entrails into extrails with a screeched incantation. Beside them was a small lizard-creature bedecked in feathers: a Starpriest of the Skink breed, and behind him, a Sunblood of the ‘ard Saurus breed. Wapkagut grunted in acknowledgement and stood his ground.
The Branchwraith’s voice was stern and sharp; the creak of old branches, swaying in the wind. “You trespass upon a glade sacred to the Gnarlroot, yet the Old King decrees our interests align this day.”
Her voice thin, fleeting like an ocean breeze, the Isharann’s words were clipped, unsteady- as though speech were not familiar to her. “It same with enclaves of deep and constellations above. We are all share common purpose.”
Wapkagut snorted, and spit on the ground between them. “You ‘ear it too, dat it? Da big hole, were da drummin’ echoes?”
The Brachwraith and the Tidecaster nodded, while the Skink chirruped in agreement. The Sunblood behind him looked away, appearing distracted, agitated, as if listening to a sound that couldn’t be heard. Wapkagut could relate.
“It is a forgotten place, barren and hollow.” The Starpriest intoned, “a monument to death in the realm of life, yet discarded even by the king whom cannot die. It is a gnawing place of black and white, emptiness in the shape of civilization.”
“We’z gonna knock it down, we iz,” Wapkagut barked, his patience for talk wearing thin. “Me an’ da lads, we gonna wreck it good. We gonna crash and bash, stomp an’ smash, ‘til they iz nothin’ left ta kick no more! Den we gonna toss all da rubble into da hole an’ shut it right up.” The twitching Ironjaw leaned forward, beady eyes narrowed, darting between the newcomers. “You’z lot in?”
Bowing in deference, the Starpriest stepped aside, its brawny Sunblood companion heaving forward to take the skink’s place. Wapkagut could feel the Waaagh! energy charge about him, the army at his back ready to crash down upon the Seraphon like an avalanche.
Yet the Sunblood gave no challenge, and instead raised up his maul and shield. With an ear-splitting roar, Saurus crashed them against each other and snarled a bestial call to arms.
Wapkagut’s features turned from a scowl to a gleeful, rictus grin, and with a throaty bellow, he took up the battlecry, his morkstikk and gorkstikk punctuating with ground-shaking force.
“SKOGA GRAKK! SKOGA GRAKK! SKOGA GRAKK!”
An icy wind whipped up, the first real breath of an encroaching Everwinter. The Waaagh! had lingered too long, and now surged forward like some great, charging behemoth, stampeding over the spot their new allies had appeared to stand mere moments before. They gave no thought as to why the strangers wanted Amasya destroyed, or how this alliance would fare once it was. There was only the next scrap to be had; what came after, didn’t matter.
A Battlefield outside Amasya
“Is this all that remains to me, then?” Mithridates Alti looked down at the shattered skull with disdain. “Scraps and skeletons. We were born for greater than this, our line and our city, but the heathen hordes are ever-tenacious.” He sighed, and cast the bone away to join its brethren littering the field.
Every day, the Khornate dogs dug deeper and deeper into his flanks, leaving scenes like this one as monuments to their passage. When they had marched from Shyish, the ranks of naked bone had seemed unending, the wreckage of a dozen civilizations fueling his war effort- but days upon weeks of encounters like this had left his still-mighty host somewhat reduced.
It was only to be the Sigmarites. If even them, this early. As he had originally conceived it, this was to be only the first step in his revenge against the mewling hosts of Azyr. Once the seat of his father’s power was reclaimed, then his hosts would fall upon the God-King’s poor, deluded sheep like the Undying King’s own sword. And now…
“It never goes according to plan, does it.”
“You would know.” Mithridates’ ally had learned humility at Nagash’s own hands, long ago, and now Reikenor taught the same lesson to any who sought to challenge the Lord of Death’s dominion over the hereafter- such as the same storm-forged warriors that now marched to claim his prize. His own objective, Mithridates reflected, was at best secondary in the wraith’s eyes- Nagash’s reaper was doubtless just as happy to reclaim Sigmar’s pawns sooner than later. But they had to reach the city first. “So tell me then, sorcerer-king, how are we to break through?”
“Armor means little and less to my chill touch. Let me ride out with my hosts against the Khornates- there will be a great slaughter, but not a drop of blood spilled.” If the wraith had had any face beyond a death grin, he would have sworn he was smiling.
“The Lord of Rage would go mad with it,” Mithridates admitted. “And yet, these are bold words coming after your humiliation by Nurgle’s chosen, and they march in step with the Bloodbound. All Sarn would have to do is turn aside a portion of his host, and you would be stalemated until the end of time… and his hounds would still be free to bite at our heels.”
“Do you admit defeat, then, fallen priest?”
“Never.” Mithridates smiled. “I only think that this is a poor battle for either of us to fight… neither of our hearts lie on this field, and we ought to save our strength for the real wars to come. It’s time for someone else to bear our burden. Come.”
It was not far, by foot or by nightmarish steed, from the edge of the battlefield to where the priest-king’s retinue had made camp. In the center stood his own splendid gold-and-turquoise tent, and inside there was a woman. When he was a mortal man, Mithridates might have thought first that she was beautiful- now that he had transcended his mortality, he saw instead that she was deadly, like a masterwork Duardin blade or a howling tempest. Her posture bespoke utter ease concealing absolute awareness, and her hands were clear paragons of the murderer’s craft. He dipped his head in greeting.
“Well met, Queen Aorii.” She smiled in turn. “I have a task for you.”
“Honestly, I wondered if you had forgotten us.” The Hag Queen appeared artfully unconcerned. “Even under the God-King’s thumb, my sisters have given more sacrifice to the Lord of Murder than we have since we joined your march.”
“Then it’s good that you are here now. I have a task worthy of your mettle.” As Mithridates explained the Khornate threat, her eyes widened, and her cultivated nonchalance couldn’t hide her anticipation of the battles to come. “Can the Daughters of Khaine put the foe to flight?”
“Gladly. The cauldrons will sing with our victory.” And she left the tent without a further word for man or wraith- but when she was gone, Reikenor turned to his companion.
“When I asked to fight the enemy, your concern was that I would break myself on Nurgle’s warriors. And yet you spoke not a word of the Plague God to her.”
The last hierophant of Amasya shrugged. “I told you because I wanted to stop you from plunging into a battle that would tie you to a single point. I was silent with her because she can and will plunge as it pleases her, and I have no intention of dampening her enthusiasm. If she succeeds against the odds, she and her warriors will have proven their worth. If not, we have lost nothing but a noisy distraction- she will expend herself against the Horde, and when there is nothing left they will die. As do we all.”
“And in the meantime-”
“The march can continue.” Mithridates smiled grimly. “You will shepherd the Deathrattle and the Deadwalkers forward. Guard the flanks, and make sure that no one else can worry away at them before the host reaches the city proper.”
“Will be leading the van. It’s only right, that my Blood Knights should have the first taste of combat against the usurpers.”
“Mannfred’s Blood Knights.” Again, if Reikenor had had a face to smile it might have been smirking. “Not yours.”
“No.” Mithridates thought of all the motley forces he had begged, bribed and stolen for this army, none of whose loyalties were to him. “Not yet.”
Among the “Big Eat”
It was… deliciously frightful, the way all the ingredients came together, each individual piece melting and mixing into the greater whole as Sibyl and her patron looked on. The Maw would never let her touch the brew while it was under flame, of course. But years and years of faithful tasting and testing had granted her a certain… supervisory trust, and she was permitted closer than any other could have come without fear of joining the meal.
They had stopped amidst the carnage of their most recent battle, not because they were beaten but because they were hungry. It had become a sort of a ritual as their motley crusade drew closer to their goal- after every engagement, Da Maw would read the fates in her cauldron, and cast her blessing over all even as each band among them in turn carried their offerings for the soup. Against the somber backdrop of the legions of crows descending on the battlefield, the night’s meal began to take form.
Sibyl had already given her contribution unto the pot. Lord Swilric had visited her earlier, bearing with him a pair of organs- one, the heart of a Duardin, the other of a Man. “Ah, my lady.” His rough lips brushed the back of her hand, and her own heart fluttered. “Look- from the very leaders of the rabble themselves! Both lie still… and yet ours beat together.” She had blushed at that. It must have been no mean task to seek these trophies out- once, she might have been apprehensive about such a gift, but now she was ravenously grateful. It was all she could do not to consume them then and there- but it wouldn’t do to spite the Maw, so into the cauldron they went.
The twin hearts had been the most symbolic contribution, she was convinced, but as size went they’d been dwarfed by what came immediately after- a gaggle of the… well, she had once seen them as brutes, she admitted, but every day they were more alike to champions in her eyes. They had come bearing the great bones of the Duardin chief’s beast, heroically slain on the field of battle, and the Maw had cracked them open to marinate and add their marrow to the brew, turning it a deep brown.
And then- Sibyl smiled at the memory- there had been the Grot. Laden down with spider eggs, he had proudly declared his burden a present “from da Unbreakable”, only for the Maw to scoop him up with one bladed prosthetic and toss him in along with his gifts. He should have known better than to come so close to the cauldron… from far off, she’d seen the Boss Git, and he’d given her a smirking, exaggerated salute even as the eggs and their silk dissolved into the soup. He was a gentleman, and a scoundrel, she reflected.
The other group of beast-hunters’ contribution had seemed a trifle… strange, to her, when she first saw it. It was no secret that the green-skinned and frost-skinned hunters had a fierce if jovial rivalry, and since the former had brought such a mighty offering she had thought that the latter’s tribute to the cauldron would be more than a single woman. But as they drew nearer she realized- it was not a Man, but an Aelf, and one who bore the marks of a priestess of their shadow-god no less. The hunters must have ranged far and struck fiercely to capture her- no wonder they thought the Hag Queen worthy tribute.
The camp stilled as she was drawn near to the cauldron- her eyes were wide, and she began to struggle, clearly realizing what fate awaited her. “No! Blasphemy! You fools- you cannot deny Khaine his due!” She was lifted bodily by the Ogors flanking her, to be dropped before the Maw. “For this, my temple will kill and kill again, until you are all tributes to the Lord of Murder!”
For a moment, Sibyl’s patron regarded the Aelf curiously, and then nodded. “Be purified”, she said in a basso voice. Then she struck, almost faster than sight, impaling the Hag Queen through the heart with one of her meathook-hands. The Aelf died instantly, face contorted into a furious expression, and the Maw nodded to herself again before plunging the bleeding corpse into the now-bubbling stew. At once, the broth began to foam and boil, and a pungent cloud wafted out of the cauldron and into the ranks of onlookers, carrying with it a heady scent suggesting sweat and offal. Sibyl’s stomach growled in an unladylike fashion, and she knew that she wasn’t the only one for whom the brew had already stoked a deep, gnawing hunger.
The Maw leaned over the edge of the cauldron, pensive, staring into its depths, and Lady Sibyl craned her neck to see as well- but all that appeared to her was broth and bubbles. Still, her patron seemed to find something more than that in the swirl of ingredients, because she smiled broadly and turned to the assembled.
“We continue da march!” A whoop escaped Sibyl’s throat, before she blushed and placed one hand over her mouth. Other members were not so restrained, though, and the camp echoed to their clamor. “We is gonna go to Amasya. We is gonna butcher all dat stands in our way, so da cauldron tells me. An’ dere, we is gonna find da maw dat will eat da wurld. And when we wins… when we wins, we is never gonna be hungry again.”
The Big Eat roared even louder then, but it was lost to Sibyl as the Maw turned and smiled benevolently on her, nodding. A spoonful of the brew was gone in an instant, followed by another and another, until she was lapping it straight out of her hands even as it ran down her cheeks into her decolletage. It was most undignified, but she could hardly have cared less- only her patron’s hand on her shoulder caused her to pull away.
“Good, eh? It gonna get better, though. When we gets to Amasya… den, den after da final battle, we is gonna eats da gods demselves, in da greatest feast da world has ever known.” The Maw’s words sent a shudder through Sibyl, and she closed her eyes, imagining the entire world swirling down into the pot, mixing together into one rich and creamy broth. It was… frightfully delicious.
The hunting had been good, and a butchered sky-whale even now rested in their hold, but Angeja Brasshook had not donated anything to the stew, and she forbade any of her crew from joining in the festivities. So long as the pods and herds continued to follow Da Maw dat Walks, so would they… but it was one thing to be a member of the Big Eat, and another entirely to lose yourself in the Maw’s dogma like all the rest of the army. There was something unnatural about that filthy cauldron, something beyond the Maw’s natural charisma, and she wanted no part of it.
Besides… it was more than passing strange, wasn’t it, the way their leader dragged that ghoul around like a faithful dog, singing her praises. No, they would follow, unto the gates of Amasya and beyond if there was wealth to be had- but the Kharadron had always kept their own council.
As war encroaches upon the hallowed necropolis, Varanpact figurehead Irkut “the Spineless” seeks advantage in the coming battle by any means… and reveals more than even a disciple of Tzeentch can comprehend.
Eight of flesh, one of tree
From the gods of earth and sea
Four almighty hear our plea
Chaos’ grasp shall set us free
The music of Slaanesh rose above the Varanpact encampment, the rhapsodic, animating, maddening harmony of a thousand servants of the Chained Prince all rendering worship through voices and bodies and instruments of immortal bone and sinew. Even as the symphony swelled, it was met and matched by the constant, lonely wind of the valley that had dogged their path and filled the quiet moments for a week or more. Desire and despair, sensation and emptiness combined, all set in counterpoint in a perfect fugue of Realm and Empyrean to which the camp inexorably danced.
For Irkut Thousandeyes, it was all noise. What use was the dance, when the center was all that truly mattered? Mounted on his war-steed, he need not spare a glance for the daemonettes, nor the gibbering horrors that added their own insistent hoot-chirp-grumble to the mix. Like the carpet of vermin that swirled about their feet, the dancers would move or they would be crushed. The center was all that mattered.
And what a center! Flesh and bone, shoot and stem had been woven together, such that they who had entered his unwilling service as ten prisoners taken from the Skoga Grakk had become a single oracle, channeling counsel and warnings direct from the lips of the Gods. There were orbs of warpstone where their eyes once lay, and he wondered what it was the amalgam now saw- but only briefly. What was important, he would know soon enough, what was particular, he need never know. The center was all that mattered.
Let us see, let us see
Past and future your decree
All that is and what will be
Truth beneath reality
“Oracle!” His voice echoed over the camp, and he was pleased that the ever-present noise still muted somewhat. The center was what mattered. “Show me the future. Tell me what lies ahead in the city.”
The construct heaved, individual parts writhing around the great wooden beast that made up its center, before one of the creatures suspended on the periphery opened its mouth. “Seneschal, they call her. Starhammer and Commander and Queen, they honor her, but she bears only steel, and what she wields hangs by a single thread.”
“Yes.” The warhosts of the God-Who-Failed were as conniving as a sorcerer’s palace. “Tell me more.”
Light flared in another pair of empty eyes. “He strikes, and he hears, but where he strikes once he hears twice, and it drives him mad. We heard and we followed, but now we hear and follow the same voice but a different master. Coming, they are coming, earth and sea and green, coming to destroy.”
Irkut smiled. Had the beasts known that what he took from them would be their undoing? “More. What more do you see?”
A third struggled to escape its fellow parts, as though some remnant of individuality remained. “The great foe beheld a vision once, but he did not see this place. What is painted has become real, but what is real is just a memory. But memories stand grander than ruins, and this one towers. It was a hall, but now it is hollow. Yet even empty things may hold secrets inside, and this one is rife with them.”
Was this how Khornates felt, when they scented blood? He urged his mount to circle the oracle, peering into its distant gaze, waiting expectantly.
“What is known can be false, and what is closed can be open, and what is forbidden can be free- and so it has become. Once it was whole, but now it is crumbled, once it stood tall, but now it is stooped, once it was white, now it is stained. Drink a little, and it will teach- drink deeply, and it will damn, but damnation is only a danger to the weak.”
“And I am strong.” He bared his teeth, and despite himself his heart pounded in anticipation. “Continue.”
“Sixth and last.” This part was smaller, and had perhaps only been a child when it was fused in to the greater whole. Irkut had to lean in to hear its fading voice. “From Heaven, his line fell, but death swallowed him willingly- and to what end? Only power, but he names it righteousness. He waited from dawn to dawn, and now he comes in darkness, blood within and blood without, and in darkness he will be met at last. And yet-”
“-not all who fall can rise.” The next piece of the oracle took up the phrase seamlessly. “Tombs within tombs, houses on houses, living stone to contain dead men. Once many voices sounded, but now only one is heard, and silence lays thick within the earth. He will emerge, and when he has come he will reap, and the last shall know joy and despair in equal measure. Know it to be true.”
They were speaking faster and faster now, and the words had barely entered Irkut’s mind when the seventh piece of flesh spoke.
“In darkness they have waited, and in darkness they shall be met- earth and sea, earth and heaven. A palace it is called, and a palace it remains, no longer fit for a king but perhaps enough for a priest- but which priest shall take it?”
“Enough!” The piece’s voice came to a halt. “Tell me of something else, something besides long-dead holy men.”
“Earth and sea, yet he is stone.” The eighth and final had an almost… sly look to it, and Irkut knew better than to believe he was seeing things. “He speaks, and they laugh, they speak, and he laughs, and yet they follow him the same. Why should they vary, when he has the gods’ voice? Wrath and ruin, he is coming, they are coming, but he comes in blindness and in ignorance.”
“Ha! Oh, Sarn… Aptly described.” His thoughts were drifting elsewhere when the Oracle spoke again.
“The center bends until the whole breaks.” The bound tree-beast holding up the other parts flexed and shook, and the whole oracle shook with it. “The center bends and strays, and the whole is lost. He sees all but cannot see himself, for he has not vision. Thousandeyes he calls himself, but he will be named Spineless, for he bends, he bends, he bends as he searches, and he hates, he hates, he serves what he hates…”
“He hates! Spineless, he serves, spineless, he hates!” All the parts cried out in unison, echoing through the camp, and like a thunderhead boiling out of a blue sky Irkut’s mood fouled.
“Tear it down!” Daemonette and horror alike leaped at his command, and the oracle burst into flame- but even as it died, it screamed after him-
“Spineless he bends, spineless he strays, spineless he hates!” But it was all noise, in the end. Let the accursed thing spit its invectives and curses. The center was all that mattered.
What will be, what will be
Truth will bind and set us free
Through fiery animosity
In the camp of the Horde of Rot and Rage
“Skeletons!” The worst blasphemy couldn’t have been spat with more scorn. “Mindless, bloodless, eight-times-damned skeletons!” An armored finger fished another sliver of bone out from the filigree of an ornately decorated greataxe, then paused to pick a speck off of the opposite gauntlet. “A fortnight we’ve been fighting nothing but Deathrattle and Nighthaunt, and I am dead sick of it!”
The finger’s owner paused, and glowered across the campfire. “Figuratively speaking, that is.”
The corpulently rounded suit of rusted plate sitting opposite guffawed appreciatively. “Buboes bring pus, work brings play, slaughter brings glory. Or do you mean to tell me that the renowned Eris Bloodwrath has run out of patience?”
“Please.” There was a bit of shattered vertebrae buried in the forged mouth of a snarling hellhound. “Don’t act so- so- so sanguine. Like you haven’t felt unfulfilled, fighting ghosts that can’t even get the tiniest sniffle!”
The gross sentinel harrumphed. “But I haven’t been skulking around camp at all hours, acting like a daemonette hunting her latest conquest!”
“At least I still can!”
“Children!” The next round of barbs died unspoken as a regal figure stepped into the circle of light. “Save the bloodshed for the battlefield. We are here to make good on the test the Gods have set for us, and right now you-” he glanced pointedly at both sides of the fire- “are failing.”
“…but there’s no bloodshed to speak of.” This muttered by the renowned Eris Bloodwrath.
“We are on the cusp of grasping a prize such as will be made legend.” Behind his chipped and blackened helm, the figure’s eyes lit up with a hellish glow. “Our patrons, the Lords of Entropy and Bloodshed, have laid such an opportunity at our feet as will never be repeated. The lost city of Amasya- a battle never fought, a victory never reaped, a shining jewel from a dead age, and it has been given unto us. Truly, this can only be the providence of the Eternal Four. Our very lives have been shaped for this day.”
“Oh no.” Bloodwrath slumped, head in hands. “Here we go again.” The bloated watcher only sloshed, entertained.
“Even when I was a child, the Gods spoke to me. By their aid, I was lead to my first great victory- when I slaughtered the King of Quaterii in front of his heir, and spread out his entrails in the sun-drenched forests of Hysh.” His words rumbled ossiferously. “And though his slaves raged, they were not men enough to bring me to battle.”
“You ambushed an old man and his grandson on a walk. Then you ran away. Mighty warrior indeed.”
“And against the Nine Princedoms of Aqshy!” His voice was exultant. “Then I reaped and reaped, so that False Sigmar hid his face in fear, and the corpses were piled twelve deep-”
“-three deep, at most-”
“-and all that land was laid to waste! Truly, the crows feasted mightily on that day, and all spoke the name of Qarang Sarn with hatred and with fear!”
“I wonder why.”
“But then!” The speaker- Qarang Sarn- was only building in intensity, like a tide of earth and stone boiling down a hillside. “Truly glorious was the day when I met Tarlen the Unconquerable and his riotous horde in battle. The greatest, he accounted himself, but in three days and three nights I put his brutish soldiers to flight and broke their ever-vaunted spirit, and on the fourth day the field and the fame was mine!”
“They were greenskins. They got bored. They wandered off. That’s not a victory, that’s barely a- draw…” Sarn had fallen silent, and was looking at the opulently clad warrior with an amused contempt. An uncomfortable silence descended, broken only by the piteous sobs of some nearby captive.
“You interrupt me. And here I hadn’t even reached the more delectable bits.” There was a certain rich, earthy smugness to his voice, and the one called Eris shrank like cornered prey. “Such it was, when I met the ninety-nine Wives of the Stag on the field, and killed and killed again until their champion threw herself at my feet and begged for mercy like a bleating lamb. How I relish it.” His eyes seemed to burn holes in the warrior’s armor, and she crumpled, defeated.
Her Nurglish counterpart hooted at this, roiling and rollicking until mirth was flowing from every orifice. Sarn turned, smoothly, and stalked around the fire. “Or perhaps it was my greatest triumph, that for which I was acclaimed Varanguard. When I broke the walls of Melas, polluted its great fountains, and corrupted its High Priestess to the service of a patron she reviled. Truly, that was a day when the Gods smiled upon me.” The Nurglish warrior sank suddenly, and lapsed into a discomfited gurgling.
Sarn turned away, pacing, hands crossed behind his back like an Azyrite schoolmaster. “Yes, I am over-proud, but in truth so are we all- vainglorious fools riding high on our delusions and the promise of rewards forever beyond our grasp. Such is the will of the Four- it’s inescapable. One of the immortal truths of Chaos is, the Gods make themselves part of us, and we in turn imagine ourselves to be the Gods.” Both listeners sat silent and still, watching him warily.
“But in truth, this is common to every faith that has been or will be- all throw themselves on the mercy of their gods, and imagine themselves redeemed. There is but a single speck of difference- what Sigmar or Alarielle or Grungni promise is, ultimately, a lie.” His voice grew tectonic. “This too shall pass, in time- but what the Four promise is true down to the base. We have thrown our lot in with the primal realities of the entire universe.”
He paused, and then began to walk back towards the campfire. “You see? This is why we are bound for Amasya, though it means we spend ourselves on bones and vapor. When we retake it, it will be to share the truth with the entirety of the Realms- to strip away the centuries-old lies of those who would usurp the Gods themselves, and replace it with the raw, unalloyed facts of what always has been.” Sarn’s voice was rapturous, almost pleading. “And when we are done, we will have drawn ourselves closer to that which really is… and for it we shall be exalted.”
With that, he turned back towards the main campground- only to pause. “Eris.”
“Yes, Varanguard?” Her tone was wary.
“Not for nothing do they call me the Basalt Lord. My flesh and my heart are stone, and if you speak another word that displeases me I will slaughter you without a drop of sweat or an ounce of remorse.” He smiled beneath his helm. “But all you have done today is made me laugh. Prepare yourselves, both of you- the end approaches.”
Sigmarsmacht Delegation, Seneschal-General’s Command Tent
The map was scattered with coins and trinkets, pebbles and knicknacks, every bit and bauble reducing uncounted lives and materiel into a single passive reference point that sat complacently among scores of peers. They trembled in place even as their constellation shifted, a bright-gauntleted hand plucking and dropping dull slate chips with a plunk-plunk-plunk around a small cluster of silver pennies.
“The ravening horde fell upon us hard and fast. My Raptor retinues were not taken unaware, as must have been the brutes’ intent, yet still our Vanguard-Palladors were nearly overrun as they withdrew to bring warning.” The Lord-Aquilor Han Shinzong rested a finger on one of the coins. “I fear the situation is dire, and the outcome inevitable without reinforcement. If this so-called ‘Big Eat’ breaks through, we risk the entire approach. With your permission, Seneschal-General, I wish to commit the whole of my Auxiliary Chamber to thwart their advance.”
The woman so addressed leaned on the table, sharp eyes scanning the toy battlefield. Then she shook her head. “There are closer forces more than equal to the task.” Her worn face broadened into a smile, and she turned. “General Feuerbach.”
The third figure in the tent snapped to attention, armored fist to breast in a salute. “Ma’am.”
“Gather your command and march to relieve the Stormcast.” Her gloved fingers quickly pushed a handful of lustrous copper discs towards the enemy. “When you arrive, attack immediately- I’d say the guns of Hammerhal should make short work of these brutes, wouldn’t you?”
His response was cut off by an annoyed grunt coming from the fourth side of the table, as a magnificently bearded Duardin scowled down at the battleplan. “An’ where do we stand in all this?”
The Marshall’s gaze met his, and both held for a long moment, unblinking. Then she picked up a pair of golden rings and placed them to the rear of the Freeguild. “Your warrior lodge will cover the Lectors’ rear, Runefather. If there are enemies left after Feuerbach’s guns are quiet, you’ll move in and mop up.”
“A task fer beardlings, nae those wit’ Grimnir’s mark.” The Duardin was silent for a long moment, one hand scratching at his red-and-silver crest. “If’n I’d accepted Mithridates Alti gold, the soulblight would give us a real fight.”
“Maybe.” Her eyes narrowed. “So would Qarang Sarn. But is the sworn oath of your lodge really worth so little these days?”
The Runefather gave a snarl, and the Fyreslayer’s hand went to the haft of his axe- before he turned his head, spat, cursed her virtue, and stormed out of the tent. Unruffled, she turned to the plate-clad leader of the Freeguild once more.
“You may proceed as planned, General.”
“Ah, yes Ma’am.” He bowed from the waist. “Thank you, ma’am.” Then he turned as well and followed in the duardin’s wake.
It was a long moment before the same plunk-plunk-plunk started up again, and Lady von Helminger turned to see the Lord-Aquilor bending over the table. One after another, he dropped new slate markers onto the map, until they far outnumbered copper, silver, and gold put together. She glanced down, and then up, still with a hint of a smile.
“With respect.” Han Shinzong rose to his full height, his mask’s crest brushing against the roof of the tent. “The enemy is far more numerous than you made out, and Feuerbach’s Lectors are green. Feuerbach is green. They have no idea what they’re facing- when they attack, that will be the end of them.” He pushed the slate forward until it crowded out the copper. “The foe will then be among the Fyreslayers, and they, too, will die to a man.”
“I expect you are correct. But the General did not need to know the magnitude of the threat that awaited him, only that it was there. He will serve his purpose, and this way he will die without fear.”
“And the Runefather?”
“It’s not in the nature of the Lodges to run.” Her eyes blazed almost viciously. “And now that Goroth-Grimnir feels his pride pricking him, that’s doubly true.” She looked up. “The Fyreslayers will stand firm when the Freeguild breaks, and yes, likely they’ll die- but in the process they’ll blood the foe, take pressure off your retinues, and rid us of a line on our budget to boot.” She began sliding silver pennies away from the scrum. “Your brethren will be free to withdraw to a more defensible position, and the approach will be secured for another day.” From her tone she might have been talking about the endgame of a close pitball match, or the solution to an aethermetric equation.
“And when,” the Lord-Aquilor’s tone as heavy as a stormsmite maul- “does our turn come?”
“Your forces are of a higher caliber than what I’ve made use of today.” She looked at him intently. “When we reach Amasya, your Auxiliary Chamber will be fresh and ready to fight the real battle- while the brave soldiers of the Freeguild will lay upon the Anvil of Apotheosis, waiting to rejoin us.”
The Stormcast’s expression was unreadable behind his mask, and a long moment passed, barely broken by the muffled sounds of the camp. Then he nodded- once.
“If the Chamber is to redeploy, then I must be with them. Excuse me.” With that, Seneschal-General Monique von Helminger was left standing alone, with only the map and its tokens for company.