“Ne’er did Lahar see a blacker day than when two foes of equal righteousness and bloodlust did meet upon these scarred lands. Gather round, young ones, for I must tell you of that most dark of hours, and how it was mercy, not bloodshed, that saved all from ruin.”
It was a preemptive attack, or so each side thought. To Admiral Breyla Endrinsdottir, this was mere sense. The necromancer was a foul and twisted creature that sought to steal the hope of her people for the sake of a brood of mindless beasts. To Necromancer Drakenot, there was no other choice. The admiral would endanger the little ones and attack their sanctum for mere fuel, when their city could survive just as well without it. Thus it was, as a glimmering chamonite monsoon lashed over the badlands of Lahar, that the two armies mustered for war.
Admiral Breyla oversaw the evacuation personally, the beleaguered citizenry of Barak-Drak filing out of the crashed city and into the temporary encampment sprawled across the mountainside above. She took a moment to comfort a crying child, telling the girl that it would all be okay, that she’d be able to go home soon. But beneath her confident smile, doubt festered. This camp was the best the Skyguard could do with the time they had, but it was hardly ideal. The best she could do for her people was to end this fight before it began. The arrayed Skyguard waited on her signal, their various skyships and flying machines, from the Kharadron fleet of Admiral Doursworn to the brazen Khornate terror known as the Kingfisher, filling the air with a tumult of sound to rival the roars of a thousand ghurish predators. After making final checks on her armour, Breyla sounded the alert. The Skyguard of Barak-Drak took to the air, hearts filled with bloody vengeance.
In the opposite camp, Necromancer Drakenot desperately fought to keep from losing themself to the complex aetheric web they had been steadily weaving through the Wilds in preparation for their final ritual. Their most trusted dryad, Aradna Willoweep, was coordinating the defensive preparations, while a contingent of their generals led by Vreeche Maggottail prepared for the assault on Barak-Drak, mounting a contingent of soulless zombie dragons, all cloned from the flesh of their hard-won undead Draconith through the skaven’s weird science. Vreeche’s plan was ingenious: he and the other generals would detach the Skyport from its mountain perch and rid the Sepulchre of this threat once and for all. Better, Drakenot’s aetheric connection to the Draconith would allow them to communicate through the undead beasts, allowing Vreeche to coordinate the attack. They could not fail: the fate of the little ones hung in the balance.
The generals of the Overbough Sepulchre prepare for war.
The two groups passed, each invisible to the other in the storm, the dry Lahar dust choking the air as the rain pounded against the desert sands. As Breyla's fleet reached the indistinct shape of the Overbough metalith, her aethermatic communicator began to roar with static, the voices of the skyport's defenders smothering each other in a wall of noise as the Sepulchre strike force soared over the city. The Kingfisher flew in ahead of the rest of the strike force, drawing the attention of the remaining zombie dragons so that the real strike could occur unimpeded. Each of the Kharadron skyships had been retrofitted with specialised launchers carrying squigs, all specially modified to burrow through the metalith and into the network of tunnels at its heart. The strike force entered through a dozen breaches, the charge led by Boomer, the grot endrineer who had innovated the burrower-squigs, encased in an enormous mechanised battlesuit. He was eagerly followed into the breach by his own mechanised grot shock troopers as well as Olg Rumblegut’s mawtribe. The ogors were set on finding the incubation chambers, to steal the precious eggs for the skyport’s benefit, while Boomer was intent on facing Drakenot themself.
The sparse defence left to the Overbough, composed primarily of the warbands of Baron Krogg and Davidius Mappenborough and bolstered by the skeletal constructs of the Sepulchre and the necromancer She-Who-Unearths, had been ordered to prioritise the defence of the incubation chambers. Despite Willoweep’s protestations, Drakenot was undefended, the necromancer insisting that the safety of the eggs came first. To their mind, this would soon be over. Already, the assault on Barak-Drak was in full swing.
Vreeche Maggottail laughed and jeered atop his zombie dragon as he rained destruction down upon the beleaguered city. For the first flyover, Doctor Clovis had prepared specialized zombies to be dropped from modified Mortek crawlers fused to the dragons by the All-Points Legion. These horrors of putrefacted flesh had been fitted with warpstone bombs, set to detonate upon impact, softening the defense and destroying vast swathes of the evacuated residential quarter. As the homes of the people of Barak-Drak burned, the forces of the Overbough joked and bantered about their hideous creations and the destruction they wrought. Back at the Sepulchre, hearing all this through their aetheric connection to the dragons, Drakenot shuddered. Their cause was just, and their methods necessary. They had to believe that.
In the depths of the metalith, a wholly different plan went into effect. Unbeknownst to the leadership of either side of the conflict, She-Who-Unearths had been approached in the days leading up to the assault by one Aengellania Tearworn, the aelf making an offer of mercy. In a desperate endeavour to protect the Skyguard’s honour, her companion, Améline the Anvil, would, with She-Who-Unearths’ help, redirect her allies away from the incubation chambers, sparing the unborn draconith from the danger posed by the invading army. But, as an unintended consequence of this exigent scheme, the forces of the Skyguard were funneled inexorably towards the undefended Drakenot.
Boomer’s grots and Rumblegut’s ogors led the skyguard vanguard, gleefully hacking down skeletal defenders as they swarmed through the warrens, supported by the magical strength of the stonemage Emideri Stonevein. Behind them, Breyla herself entered, flanked by Brachanthyl Ivythicket‘s Sylvaneth and a phalanx of idoneth from Ivasaar, her ears filled with the tinny screams of her home’s defenders. She had to end this now, before all was lost to this monster’s hounds.
By now, the second phase of the assault on Barak-Drak had begun. While Pyrra Bloodrain continued to rain a bombardment on the city with her skullcannons, a force of Stormcast Eternals from the Guardian Legion and the Retinue of the Fang marched into the lines of the defenders, an inexorable tide of sigmarite threatening to sweep over the Skyguard, their lines barely held together by the brave command of Sir Zigbin the Gallant. The defence became even more desperate when, from the shadows of the rubble-strewn streets, a flanking force of Daughters of Khaine under Melesis Daggerheart struck at the exposed rearguard. The defenders reformed and held, resolved to defend their home, when an awful wailing rose from all around them. The nighthaunt spirit Drazgul Kel had called upon the spirits of those who had perished in the skyport’s crash to attack their own countrymen in a tide of screaming spirit hosts. In desperation, Sir Zigmin called for reinforcement from the force guarding the evacuee camp on the craggy slopes above. This was exactly as the Sepulchre’s forces had planned. With the anchors that held the skyport to the mountain undefended, the Winter Wold Guardians and Zuji’s boisterous orruks rushed in, intent on severing the city from its precarious perch, condemning it to ruin.
Boomer and Drakenot duel in the necromancer’s sanctum.
It was as Drakenot listened to this culmination of their generals’ plan that Boomer finally arrived in the necromancer’s sanctum. The grot immediately turned his weapons upon the leader of the Sepulchre, who cried out and threw up their arms. Boomer hesitated for a fraction of a second before realisation hit him. Drakenot was not surrendering, they were calling upon their fell powers. A wave of amethyst energy and screaming spirits battered the grot as he fired his weapons with abandon. Most of the bullets missed, ricocheting and embedding in the earthen walls of the sanctum, sent wild by the spectral energies cascading about the room. But, as Drakenot’s eyes flared with witchlight and they blasted the mechanised grot back, a single round hit their chest, sending them reeling.
“That’s enough, Boomer.”
Breyla stepped through the smoke-wreathed entryway, laying a gentle hand upon her fallen ally’s metallic exoskeleton. “This monster is mine.” She raised her pistol and stepped towards the reeling necromancer. Drakenot’s head whipped about, eye’s flaring, but it was too late. The bullet was already flying. But it did not hit the necromancer.
Aradna Willoweep, having rushed from the incubation chambers when the expected attack had never arrived, had dived into the shot’s path, the loyal dryad’s ancient heartwood exploding from her back and showering Drakenot in sap and splinters as she died. For a moment, a heavy silence fell over the chamber, time seeming to crawl to a stop. Then the necromancer let out a terrible, earth-shattering howl. Breyla braced herself, expecting to be buffeted with another wave of necromantic force from the decrepit creature, but none came. To her surprise, the necromancer was weeping. They cradled the dead dryad in their wooden arms and sobbed with unrestrained grief. Then, their eyes shot back up to Breyla. “Why? Why do you attack us? I just… We just… want to protect the little ones…”
Breyla was stunned into silence for a moment. The monster was speaking like a person. Then, with her people’s screams over the communicator in her helmet, she once again found her rage. “Attack you? All we’ve done is defend ourselves. You condemn my people for the sake of mindless beasts! Your generals burn my people’s homes and desecrate the memory of our dead and you accuse me of attacking you?”
The fire in the necromancer’s eyes flared again, the air bristling with thaumaturgic static. Then they dimmed, seeming to regain some lost clarity. “What… what are we doing? What am I doing?” they mumbled, glancing around as if seeing their surroundings for the first time. And then, reaching out into the aether, they bellowed a command to the armies rioting through the ruins of Barak-Drak. “Stop! Stop the assault… return to the Sepulchre at once… all of you.”
Then they collapsed back down, vine-fingers gently caressing the dead dryad’s face as they were once again racked with sobs. Breyla was moving before she even knew what she was doing. She laid her hand on the weeping creature’s shoulder, so like the child she had comforted earlier that night. Neither of them needed to say anything. The two stayed like that for a while as their commanders converged uneasily within the metalith, eyeing each other as if violence could break out again at any moment. But it did not. Eventually, Breyla stood and motioned for her captains to follow. As the Skyguard ships disengaged, the storm finally broke. Hyshlight shone over the battered, listing metalith, its rain-slicked surface sparkling in the dawn as the skyfleet returned to what remained of their home.
The Thunder Rangers of Kugok Thunderbeard and Fyreslayers of Stealmead’s Great Lodge rested on the shores of the multi-hued beaches, checking their equipment and preparing for a night’s rest. Working in concert, they had driven off a marauding band of ogors that had taken the nearby inlet as a base of operations to harass the region, yet the foul-smelling smoke from their cauldrons still lingered in the air. They had been searching the shoreline days, looking for crashed endrinn components, and so far had found nothing but old wrecks and hungry ogors. Their rest would be brief that night, however, as unrecognizable lights lit up the sky, then a crash was heard among the scattering of islands just off shore. The duardin leapt into action, working quickly to reach the crash site. It was dangerous going, the shore difficult and uncertain to traverse in the dark of night, and many of the explorers were caught or trapped in hidden tidepools and dangerous riptides. Yet at last they reached their goal - the burning wreck of a skyship, desperately being repaired by a small kharadron crew. The ship’s profile was unlike anything the explorers had previously seen, clearly Kharadon but cobbled together from the hulls and components of several different ships, roughly five times the size of an ironclad and double-hulled like a catamaran. Without hesitation, the duardin explorers leapt to aid the stricken vessel, and in a short time, the blaze was under control once more. Gratefully, the Captain thanked them, and agreed to return with them to Barak-Drak as soon as the ship was skyworthy.
Wide boulder fields glimmered in the fading light, the bands of quartz crystals that ran through them sparkling red and purple. It had been a bloody few days. Evangeline Riftborn and Pyrashi Venomsoul had fought a series of skirmishes with chaotic tribesman on the surface, remnants of a home thought lost. Elsewhere, Anactia Swiftsunder and her stormcast cohort led a ranging hunt for a Shadepod. It was beneath their feet, however, that Lord Vigo and Celtavyr Solas had ventured deep into the hidden catacombs of the plain. Branching vaults held the remains of the long-dead. Ossuary galleries, displaying their macabre splendour, opened out of narrow stone passages. Nowhere, throughout the long miles of corridors and galleries, were any writing to be found, any records of who these people were, what civilization had birthed these halls, or whether they had been filled through long generations or some unremembered cataclysm. And so they might have stayed, unremembered and unrecorded in this history, if not for a solitary stone tablet found deep in the vast catacombs, and the fragment of a map that was carved upon its surface.
The calm waters of the wide estuary bubbled softly, a peaceful mask for the frenzy of activity below its surface. Mere meters down, Balian Stormmantle and his paladins fought for their lives against the swarming schools of vicious, metallic fish. Barely larger than the stormcast’s hand, the vicious creatures were relentless and utterly fearless. The water made it difficult for even the mighty stormcast to land a blow with any force, and when they did it was turned aside with surprising ease by the steely scales of the creatures. Breathing uneasily through their grot-made air systems, the stormcast were just beginning to imagine explaining this death upon their return to the Anvil when the school suddenly broke off and veered away. Further along the shore, Brawen the Bloody Queen stood victoriously over the slain Ghorgon, then watched in fascination as hundreds of the small fish swarmed upon the corpse, stripping its bones clean in minutes. The relief was enough for Balian, however, as his small group emerged into an airy, underground cavern. Strange carvings covered the walls, leering fanged faces peering downwards, and at its far end a statue to some unknown bat-like god stood tall. Carefully leaving a small offering at the shrine, respectful of its ancient presence, the Reavers returned to secure the shore.
The Stormdance Reavers and the Nashwan Cabal were at each other's throats. Thanks to their spies, both had gotten wind of the incoming attacks. Though history forgets who planned to strike first, both factions ended up counter-attacking the other at the same time.
At the Lionthorne Outpost, Prince Maelyn led the attack, followed by his own aelven warriors and a herd of troggoths under Kap’n Toxis’ command. This team was guided by Elaine Ha’vehn, a Chainbreaker who had defected from the Cabal. However, her guidance was of little use; the Reavers were shocked to find that the Lionthorne Outpost had been altered radically since she had last entered. High glass walls surrounded the camp like a labyrinth, unbarred and silent. The whole place was cut through with trenches which were lined with traps. Some were magical but others were mundane, but no less dangerous or brutal for that fact.
As Maelyn led his party through the maze of trenches and walls, using his wanderer’s instincts for finding a safe path as best he could. The few traps that the prince failed to detect had a winnowing effect on the invaders, and their already small force was reduced further still. They had hope though. They had taken a gamble that the Outpost would be manned by a skeleton crew, and were hoping to capitalise surprise and speed in order to win the day.
The Lionthorne outpost was surprisingly quiet, but that did not mean it was empty. As the Reavers rounded a corner, they came across a section of glassy wall that was running like molten wax. Through the glass, they could see a foul shape writhing, clawing to break through the viscous barrier. With a wet tearing noise, a putrescent hands burst forth into the realm. Magic tingled at its fingertips and the party was saved from instant dissolution by Elaine’s magicks, quickly casting a cantrip that severed one of the daemon’s fingers, causing the spell to splutter and die. With a roar, the Great Unclean One began heaving himself through the wall, but Kap’n Toxis’ Hag Troggoth saw the cause of this incursion. Opposite the daemon and on top of the wall stood Prince Skarath, who was chanting quietly in a foul tongue. The magicks that surrounded him made him hard to gaze upon, and so the Hag simply vomited at him. Her acidic bile ate into the intricate runes of the summoning circle below the daemon prince. The effect was immediate. The Great Unclean One was dragged back forcibly into the wall. Simultaneously, Skarath was pulled down into the glass beneath him, and only managed to avoid being completely banished by clawing frantically until molten the wall eventually set. By this point though, the invading Reavers were long gone.
The traps grew ever more fierce as the reavers proceeded, but Maelyn did a heroic job in safeguarding his allies from the worst of the onslaught. Eventually the bedraggled invaders reached the innermost part of the Lionthorne Outpose. They had been right, many of the Cabal had been away. That did not mean that they had left their home unguarded. A firing line of warp lightning cannons stoof before Nashwar’s pavilions, aiming straight at the infiltrators. From behind them, the Reavers could see Vizier Nashwar herself. She turned to a skaven by her side and gave a nod. It was Captain Kreek Scrimgnaw who gave the order to open fire.
Some of the invaders had time to take cover or retreat back into the glassy maze. Many were struck down, but some were saved by the skaven themselves. Their technology is designed for devastation, not safety, and at least one misfired, taking out its entire operating team. This was not enough to prevent the incoming fire from being anything but withering. The Stormdance Reavers were forced into a retreat, Nashwar’s psychic laughter echoing in their minds as they raced back through the trenches, with skaven gunners and Skarath’s curses doggin them every step of the way.
As Nashwar watched the fighting, she was quite distracted from a second line of attack from an unexpected assailant, Stab da Grot. This greenskin’s eyes were wild with grief upon seeing the one who had kidnapped his friend, given him a ball of twine and then murdered him for her own amusement. Stab prepared his poisoned blade, sent a prayer up to whoever was listening and charged.
He was intercepted by an unlikely hero. One whose actions had a disproportionate effect on the fate of the Bleeding Wild. It was Nashwar’s current Yarn-Grot who leapt in the way, taking the fatal blow for his mistress. Perhaps he had been brainwashed too thoroughly to understand his actions, perhaps knew he was doomed and did not care about his fate, perhaps he wanted to die as more than just a plaything. We will never know the motivations of this brave hero, nor even his name. The life and death struggle went unnoticed by Nashwar, even though it happened mere feet behind her. As the Yarn-Grot let out his final whimper, Stab da Grot, his name proving to be ironically prescient, retreated. The poison on his blade was gone, and enough grots had died this day.
While the attack upon the Lionthorne Outpost was underway, a simultaneous strike was happening upon the Stormdancer. High Saucerer Gigglegrin had been working furiously on a stew, full of rare and exotic ingredients. Necromancer Nyssa had been aiding in bulking out the slop by marching hordes of her minions straight into the maw pot. Meanwhile, Straszyc had resurrected the sunken galleon, the Truth’s End. His was to be an important part of the plan; to transport both the stinking broth and a selection of warriors to the Stormdancer. Sadly the ghostly boat could only contain a few passengers thanks to its semi-ethereal nature, so it was loaded up with the Cabal’s most elite warriors.
It did not take long to find the colossal black ark, and as the ghost ship swept low before its bow, Katarn and the nighthaunt began to pour the stew into the sea. At first, the Reavers were bemused by this, but they soon realised the meaning of the Cabal’s plan when the half-starved sea creature held captive beneath the Stormdancer jolted, eager to eat any food it possibly could. The Truth’s End sped towards the shallows, where a great force of Cabalists waited. When they had reached a place where the water was shallow enough for a gargant to wade unconcerned, Straszyc brought the boat low and Ka’tarn leapt overboard.
The ghost ship looped back and headed straight for the Stormdancer, smashing its keep onto the enormous ship’s main deck. Gigglegrin, Nyssa, Chungus and Straszyc all swarmed overboard, rushing the defenders. Most of the Stormdance reavers had left their home undefended in a last-minute attempt to explore and lay claim to areas within the Bleeding Wild. As such, the only defenders were the warriors of Brawen the Bloody Queen, Lord Vigo The Vexed and Old Man Death, backed up by a handful of orruk sailors. The battle was bloody and fierce. Old Man Death put up a vaillant defence, taking on the necromantic might of Nyssa and Straszyc at once, before scattering them back to the distant bow with a blast of bitingly cold wind.
While this was going on, Captain Palyras had scaled up the side of the Black Ark. She had waited beneath the waves for a few hours, anticipating the ship’s passage here. Though she was still shaken from having seen the leviathan beneath the Black Ark, she had no trouble clambering aboard. Her goal was Captain Castian Storm’s own cabin, in order to steal his stockpile of charts. It was easy to find the room; its ornate decorations stood out from the distinctly Orruk aesthetic that had taken over the rest of the Ark. As she knelt down to begin to pick the lock, she heard a soft click, and the door opened.
‘Can I help you?’ asked Castian Storm.
Beneath the waves, Ka’tarn saw the huge creature swimming towards him, its huge, fanged maw was lined with tentacles which thrashed in a feeding frenzy. The Tzaangor held fast and, as the creature drew nearer, he readied himself for his near-suicidal plan. With a flash of foresight, the Tzaangor twisted, flipped and raised his Gong Shield to wedge between the beast’s crushing jaws. The shield, which emits a peal which matches the violence of the blow that strikes it, let out a deafening crash. The Leviathan was stunned, its tentacles went limp, its jaws slack.
The crash of the Gong shield was Hènnrik the Chronicler’s signal to enter the fray. Used to depicting the events that unfolded, the gargant now took direct action, wading into the sea to wrestle with the beast that belonged to his erstwhile companions. As the Chronicler waded forwards, the beast detected a threat and began to shake itself as if to clear its senses. However, Hènnrik was fuelled by rage at the treachery that the Stormdancers had attempted only a handful of weeks ago. With righteousness coursing through his veins, the normally passive chronicler grasped the creature on either side of its head, placed his feet on its shoulders and, in a great fountain of gore, tore its head free.
Palyras had been driven back by the unstoppable flurry of strikes that Castian Storm had unleashed upon her. His face remained calm, even morose as his arm moved in a blur. She was now standing aside her fellow Cabalists, cornered in the bow of the ship, surrounded by Reavers. The situation looked dire, but a wave of relief washed over them as they heard Hènnrik’s bellows of victory as he held the leviathan’s head aloft. As one, the cabalists leapt over the bow and into the blood-filled water below. Curses, bolts and hurled weapons rained down upon them from the Stormdance Reavers, but the Cabalits were soon out of reach, scooped up by the protective arms of Hènnrik. As they were carried away to the shore, those who looked up at the Stormdancer could see a solitary figure standing stock still on the bow rails, outlined in the clear blue sky. Castian Storm watched the invaders go. His heart was filled with white-hot rage. There were no curses bitter enough to encapsulate his wrath.
The deep chasm that divided the Badlands echoed with the brittle crackle of dried bones. For centuries the remains of the realm’s megafauna had been deposited there like a gutter for the wilds above, and for centuries the slowly moving walls of the chasm had ground them down into dust. No one knew what massive, tectonic force drove the shifting walls, yet the power of it was irrestistable, and as the ancient bones were ground down the deserts beyond grew deeper every year. Yet now a new sound joined the every-present splintering grind; metal and wood hacked into wood as Chungus, Nyssa and Aethador fought desperately against the treelords that grew amidst the bonefield. The mighty treelord held firm to Stabcat’s horns, grappling the bellowing beast and holding it in place, yet as it did so it could do nothing to stop the angry ogor from hacking into its body. With a heavy crack, deeper and more resonant than the brittle bones around it, the treelord toppled backwards. There, in a cliffside arbor the treelord had been guarding, the Cabalists found what they had been searching for, runes of power carved into the living stone.
The vast, grassy plains that had for ages played host to the never-ending cycle of predators and prey were awoken by the roaring of a new apex predator. Beastmaster Tethora, joined by Ryltmyr Ebbharvest and Zola’s Gorgons, had led their newly bonded Dread Saurian across the vast plain, hunting the local megafauna herds with abandon.
Yet, they were not the only visitors to this place. Deep below its surface, in the network of tunnels that ran between the sinkhole hollows, Wight King Tarsus and Drzahul Kel fought desperately against Thrandran’s miners and the massive insect beasts that called the pits home. Many-legged thaumavores, eaters of magic, had proven a serious threat to the undead explorers. Their comrades were similarly pressed on the surface, caught in a heated battle with the Skyguard. Brynja, Serokko and Thrandrangur were locked down by the maddening wood-witchcraft of Branchanthyl Ivythicket, while Dura Forgeheart and Avalinda led a brutal assault against Vreeche and Zuji, forcing the skaven to flee. The charge of the mighty Sir Zigbin broke the remainder of the Underbough’s forces, leading to a full rout. Upon the highland plain, Admiral Ahaz at last found signs of the Great White Skywhale’s passage, suggesting that the beast was close at hand. It was Cecilius, however, that made the most important discovery. Tracking down a solitary juvenile ironscale pangolin, the stormcast uncovered a sunken cavern hiding the wreckage of a crashed endrin turbine. With the pangolin in hand and the survivors in tow, the Skyguard signalled the news back to Barak-Drak.
High above the desert dunes, a falling star had lit the sky like the hammer of a god’s judgement before crashing somewhere in the hot and inhospitable sands. It was the Stormdance Reavers that arrived first in the barren land, searching for celestial visitor. Cap’n Clink Keyholdr was the first to meet resistance, his freeguilders coming under attack in a broken ruin by the forces of an unknown stormhost, their allegiance undeclared and their heraldry carefully blank. The mysterious foes would appear again and again across the dunes, assaulting Ventriss Von Drakken and Skatrik Grimnir’s hosts, as unrelentling and constant as though the Stormcast were being reforged directly from the sands themselves.
At last, the Reavers reached the site of the falling star. A huge sandstone outcropping that had once risen above the desert had been smashed asunder, revealing the entrance to a twisting, natural cave beneath. Torches in hand, Kaptain Mogrum and Murktred journeyed deep into the black depths beneath, their comrades fending off wave after wave of attacks from the surface. Long hours passed, the unknown stormhost extracting a heavy toll, until without a word they turned and disappeared back into the desert night. Moments later, Mogrum and Murktred emerged, carrying with them a heavy stone tablet carved with a map.
Hysh rose in bloody splendour to the morn of battle, anticipating crimson tides watering already bleeding lands.
Two armies stirred from distant, very different strongholds, as the Cult of the Burrowing Fang and the Right and Honourable Acquisitions Company prepared for a decisive trial of strength, cunning and fortune.
A week previously a minor brawl had occurred, two Chaos-tainted duardin attacking a third. The survivor, and target, Zhuzol Zhath of Zharr-Lamast, who happened to rank high among the Shareholders of the Company, claimed that the Cult had arranged an attempt on his life. That the Cult’s jungle domain of Balemoon Weald was said to stand on a vast seam of Dragonmetal was, he assured his eager audience, entirely coincidental.
The Cult for its part had long been preoccupied by the Company’s seemingly indomitable position upon the floating, now unnaturally mechanised Weirdrock. Though the Company had lately been discouraged from pursuing their mining in Bleakwood Grove, its power posed an undiminished and present threat, unless the Weirdrock could soon be permanently crippled.
Nearly the full array of Ghalbakk’s Company took to the field. The Profiteer-General, himself ‘in command’ from the baggage train, delegated questions of specific military expertise to the Shareholders’ war council, chaired by the ogor Prince Crudo.
Meanwhile, according to a master plan dubbed ‘the Fangs of Nagendra’, the majority of the Cult’s armed forces lurked defensively in the opaque and sweltering jungles of the Weald. Here the foremost commanders were the recently Ghur-enhanced ‘King of Broken Earth’, Baamu, Doombull of the Slaughterhorns, and Veithan, Waagh!-Mother of Da Finkers.
Atop the ziggurat’s Zenith, Voice-of-Embers, warrior-prophet of the Cult, held back a proven reserve. Beyond Cult territory, a smaller force by far than the Company’s army marched upon the Weirdrock. Finally, an airborne strike detachment glided through the skies of the Wilds with very particular aims in mind.
Equally surgical, however, were the operations of the Company’s scouts, led by Loremaster Itzal and High Ossiologist Basikon. While the Lumineth aelf interrogated such Cult sentries as his Syari and Iscarneth Bladelords could capture, Basikon and his one-armed Mortisan colleague Xaxius took a riskier road, achieving a greater prize. Following the boundaries of the ever-shifting Bleed, the Ossiarchs discovered, and swiftly took, a lightly armed Cult outpost at the edge of the Weald. This allowed the battleplan devised by Prince Crudo, ever stimulated by his Master Rune of Erudition, to be instantly applied.
The forward-looking Ogor potentate, his vast bulk glistening in enchanted (and enchanting) armour of Hedonite make, held the centre. The Company’s second line was formed by terror-inducing Contracted Ossiarchs under the eager young Iscarneth aelf Prince Daloneth. A gigantic Dragonmetal construct loomed over their disciplined formations of unyielding bone. At the Company flanks were disposed the devastating, Aqshy-furnished might of the Chuglords, the cackling Moon-Splittas under Zigrot the Tyrant, impetuous Ryvarlynder professionals and, crucially, the Khainite Wardancers of Vhaskora, already successful in hunting a Cult-aligned Ice Maw-Krusha.
As Crudo’s vanguard under the Prince’s lieutenant Tharkan was delayed by the Cult Skaven of Quercus, Vhaskora personally led her own upon the Weald, exhorting her followers,
“Sisters! Khaine smiles upon us today. For he has chosen us as the tools for his vengeance!”
The fury of the Khainites put paid to Cult ratmen untold at the boundaries of the Weald. But it was, unexpectedly, the Wardancers’ kin who turned their blades’ points. Khinerai soared from the treetops letting grenades of black-flamed napthta cascade beneath them; trebuchets and catapults, crewed by Ulgu-hidden leathanam of the Sons of Khaine, followed. Vhaskora herself was challenged by the Khainite Cultists’ leader, Dendaelien, though, enraged and enraptured by their mutual deity and her own Basilisk Ring, she pushed him so sore he was reluctantly forced to draw his own Star Sword even to hold her.
The battle under the Weald was widely and variously joined. Company Gorgons and Cult Shepherds actually wearied of combat and began to feast together. Green Legion Company Kruleboys fought Da Finkers to a standstill, both warparties claiming victory. It was the Legion’s Krumpsman, however, who appeared to have achieved a signally symbolic feat with the slaying of an obscenely vast Cultic jungle serpent.
This was, however, a false portent. The Cult’s counter-attack was withering, notably upon the mercenary infantry of Fairwater and the Ryvarlynd. These unfortunates now faced the Grandfather’s oozing infections, the tailor-crafted horrors of the Betrayed Torment Nighthaunt, and the unrestrained hunger of a saurian herd not unlike the one that had lately threatened the Zenith, now clawing and maiming in defence of its habitat.
Faced with the rout of his regiment, Thleto Thespasian, County of the Ryvarlynd, aimed both to fulfill a yearned after hunt and himself retrieve the situation, leading his allied Idoneth cavalry atop his own ‘Sea Unicorn’ straight for the enormous Baamu. Undismayed by the Doombull single-handedly rending an Allopex asunder, Thespasian duelled the all but invincible minotaur till a long, melancholy roar re-echoed from the heights of the Zenith. Voice-of-Embers was reluctantly calling back his forces to defend their inner sanctum.
The Saurus prophet could call upon fresh and notable champions, such as Foehew of the Shepherds and Jahin the Bladed. But above all the ancient renegade Oldblood was confident in his own unmatched ferocity and tactical thoroughness. Assault after assault fell upon the Zenith in vain, as the faithful to Sotek and the Cult both delivered Seraphon charges, Realmshaper lightning, and the shocking rampage of a huge, half-berserk Snapodon.
Yet the Company were many, well-equipped, and superbly motivated by lust to line their pockets. It is possible they would have prevailed completely, had not their own, half-forgotten supreme commander flapped over on the Corpse-Rippa Vulcha he kept back for genuine transport emergencies.
‘Lads! Good job, well enough done, you gotta turn round and see what’s become of our ‘Rock!’
The Company had left the Weirdrock lightly held, with some reason. Very much a stone turned, it hovered denuded of life, bolstered by the harsh rigour of industry. Where vegetation had once sprouted, now shone metal welded in bulk and glittering glaciers of eerie crystal. Macabre structures of fortified bone stood fast, the whole sustained by an inhospitable and unquenchable heat.
The first Cultist infantry assault, newborn Seraphon stiffened by Tzaangor allies, was cast back easily, and cruelly, enough by torrents of mechanically released lava. Company Skaven under Kankerfire, himself wielding the mighty relic staff of Ekkish Scrimshaw, cut off the newspawned’s supply lines and harassed them as they retired.
Then the Cult’s forces by air materialised. They were, it seemed to horror-struck Company onlookers, led by one of the Cult’s blasphemous sinuous pantheon, the winged serpent Nagendra, in person, at the head of a squadron of Terradons. But the Contracted Mortisan Atropheks had somehow provided for even such an apparition. The Avatar of Nagendra was confronted and wrapped in a nightmarish replica of itself, recently crafted of unliving bone and blended bestial souls, while Lumineth Sentinels under Thalia of Tor Hortast set about turning reptilian wingleather into tattered netting.
None of the ‘Rock’s garrison noticed the light burdens dropped by the flyers as they retired.
A lull seemed to settle then, though not a comfortable one. Vile smelling insects writhed all over the ‘Rock in plague-like proportions, and a weird, dark coloured scrub began to take root even upon iron or crystal’s surface.
But it was in the Chugforge, now more than ever the Weirdrock’s heart, that the true struggle would be decided. Here the Company Tyrant Glottul and his Coldcutter Ogors guarded and exploited the Aqshy Incarnate they had mastered, and here came the Cult’s infiltrators, Igniteous’s Scions of the Flame.
The skirmish in the Chugforge was, in every sense, chaotic. Infighting broke out among the Scions’ ranks, hampering their ambition to claim the Incarnate’s power for themselves, but nor was Glottul able to defend the forge as it had been entrusted to him. Driven by desperation, the Ogor smashed his Iceheart Master Rune into the core of the Aqshyan being, banishing it at least for the present, and letting the all-important engine fall unavoidably still.
It was at this moment that, far away upon the Zenith, the Cult activated its Eye of Tlanxa. Over the wilds, above awestruck Company ranks, blazed a strict, straight line of concentrated horizontal light to glare upon the ‘Rock. And all over the Weirdrock, the innocuous looking Wickroot now erupted. Where it burned out, in the apparently barren ashes, Realmshaped jungles as lush as any the Weald had – before its recent invasion – boasted bloomed unstoppably all over the Company’s floating headquarters.
It was this unanticipated inconvenience that Acquisitor Ghalbakk had hurried to address, and that caused the wholesale Company retreat from the Zenith, though not from the ravaged Weald.
The Chuglords were especially prominent in the devastation that followed. At length, the jungle was scorched back, the ‘Rock malformed but reclaimed, its underforges restored to something like utility, though the Incarnate remained lost for the time. Meanwhile the Zenith, though itself saved, overlooked a scene of despair: a maimed rainforest and exposed earth ripe for despoilment, by an army not just victorious, but vengeful.
The massive stone carving of a bird of prey looked down over the small ritual center below. For generations, local hunter cults had gathered here, bringing bones of their prey to place before the statue and pray for good hunting. Now, new and colourful figures stood in the holy places. Prince Dendaelian Vipertongue and Lord Carnagros spoke with the holy men and women, their antler headdresses rattling with bone beads, of their faith and religion, attempting to sway them to support the Burrowing Fang. Crow-Bear, in turn, spoke to the hunters directly, comparing techniques and prey with those from the shores of distant Lake Bykaal. After several long days of negotiation, the hunters agreed to assist the Cult, daubing them with potent runes from the magical wellspring at the center of the ritual grounds.
Mooneye the Troggoth grunted happily in the dank, chill darkness of the cavern. He could feel the skin-crawling itch of necromantic magic that suffused the underground darkness, but it did not bother him the way it seemed to bother all the little, fragile creatures that sometimes fought beside his troggherd. If anything, it was a bonus. The zombie dracoths that had attacked them had been a good bit of fun, and took a lot of killing to finally put down. The segmapedes and gangle-legged git grabbers had not been as tough, but they made excellent meals. This whole place was shaping up to be an excellent troggden. The only problem, he reflected, was the strange alchemical smell suffused the place. Up ahead, one of his troggoths was prodding at one of the strange glass mushrooms that lined the walls. The weird runoffs from the Realm of Metal that tricked through these tunnels had transformed it, turning it almost glasslike and giving it a pleasing, toxic green glow. The troggoth tried to pluck it from the wall, then bellowed out in pain. A laugh died on Mooneye’s lips as the troggoth turn, its hand pierced through by glass shards, yet instead of knitting together the flesh sizzled and peeled away wherever the juices of the mushroom touched. The troggoth beside Mooneye stumbled back in surprise, its feet slipping and dumping it into a pool water. Then the screaming began in earnest. Mooneye watched as the water frothed and bubbled, dissolving the troggoth splashing helplessly within. Acid, Mooneye thought. The whole cavern was filled with it, the alchemical waste of the realm above pooling and running together. The herd turned, and lumbered back the way they had come. This was no troggden after all.
The whole cursed expedition had been Havard Erkansson’s fault. Success, he had claimed, lay in preparedness, and so the Admiral had carefully chosen his team and fleet, enlisting those among the Skyguard who would follow him to what many others called a Doom. He had gathered the endrinroom cultists of Gazul from aboard the Frosty Mug, clever navigators borrowed from Admiral Ahaz, young runesmiths and old longbeard midshipmen alike, and set out towards the ominous stone ring known as the Shadowfane. They had been warned by the hunters in the mountains that the place was cursed, yet that would not deter the headstrong Admiral. Even as the skies darkened with umbral clouds, and the expedition was ambushed by Inquisitor Vollastor and the forces of the Underbough Sepulchre, they would not sway their course. Marius the Gilded and Ishothea Cometcalld fought a running battle against She-Who-Unearths, Tarascon, and Melesis Daggerheart, all to buy time for the duardin to breach the magical doorways of the metalith. They had barely made it, sealing the breach behind them as reinforcements from Ahr-gausse and Ert Glimmerwyld joined the assault. For the moment, they had gotten the better of their Underbough rivals.
The interior of the stone ring stretched before them, black glassy walls reflecting the torchlight in strange and disturbing shadows. Corridors stretched in either direction, perfectly carved, and runes unrecognizable even to the expert explorers lined the floors. The shadows swam as they moved deeper. Coalescing daemonic faces peered at them from the obsidian walls. When at last they found the heart of the structure, the heavily warded door loomed before them, angry runes of an unknown language covering it. Havard prepared the abnegation rune taken from the foundation stones of an ancient duardin anvil, and with a crack, the gateway shattered. Black mists swept outwards from the breach, covering the expedition, and with a howl the shadow daemons that had leered at them throughout their exploration leapt out. Spectral talons passed through flesh and armour alike, scouring at the souls of the explorers. Inside the chamber, something stirred. Eyes long sealed opened, the hate and malevolence within seething. The explorers ran, dodging shadowy hands as they raced for the breach. The metalith had begun to shake as they emerged once more into the Ghurish sunlight, signalling down their waiting airships for pickup. Great slabs of stone rained from its sides, revealing the pure black obsidian structure beneath. The ships had barely cleared their landing as the last of the stone fell away, and with a tearing sound, a realmtear black as night opened and swallowed the entire structure, sealing it away and vanishing in black mist. Havard’s expedition were left to sail away, many with their spirits badly damaged by the shadows’ touch, from the ominously empty skies.
The Observatory sat, serene and peaceful, high atop the mountains’ reach. No sound disturbed its vaulted halls, though armies fought in the Wilds just beyond its doors. Snow drifted softly from the high, open windows, though there had been none in the clashing skies of Ghur and Chamon. No dust clung to the floor. The lines of the stone building were clean and sharp, as though they had been carved that morning. The air felt curiously light and brittle, unworn by the weight of ages.
Tk’ya’pyk was beginning to suspect he was not in the Bleeding Wilds any longer.
The fighting around the Observatory had been bitter and closely contested. Many found themselves facing allies and friends across the battlelines, comrades-at-arms over the long months of campaigning suddenly at odds. For a time, peace even seemed to have a chance to win out. The two factions, those who fought for Ghur and those for Chamon, had formed themselves into two camps marching up the mountainside. That hope had been shattered when a shot rang out from the crew of the Sea Spear, striking dead an orruk under Krunt’s banner, and with an earsplitting WAAAAGH the battle was joined.
The Battle of the Observatory was in truth a long series of stretched out skirmishes, playing out across the mountains passes and narrow routes to the summit. Glottul Coldcutter, who had been so successful for Ghalbakk’s cause throughout the Wilds, was set upon on either side by the companies of Kugok Thunderbeard and Eldoran, and though the ogor fought valiantly he was ultimately driven from the field. Zola’s Gorgons charged down a sloping mountainside, green WAAAGH energy streaming around them, the hulking butcher Hulk and Gofboth’s Goldpaunch Mawtribe hot on their heels.
The fighting was fiercest atop the windswept ridge that the Observatory rested upon. The Templars of Our Burning Saviour had formed a wall of steel and magic around Lady Nashwar, and were slowly making their way towards the Observatory itself. Countless assaults broke against their shields. Saint Lothar’s Knights shattered their lances against the enchanted bulwarks, and though they could not stop them their pace was slowed to a crawl. Creek-walker Shoku and his mystical allies bent their wills to suppressing the magics of the Templars. Even the Knights Numinous had assembled in their path, determined to fulfill the mysterious directive they had been given by their serephon allies.
Where massed armies had failed, individuals tried their hand to steal entry into the building. Lord Sumvinos Inksinger attempted to pass through the battlefield as an insubstantial spectre, yet was flung from the threshold by the sorcerous might of Azock Doomscourge. As he attempted to bend the magics of the Observatory to his will, however, even the Verminlord was unable to contain their power, and he and his gaggle of Gray Seer supplicants were blasted back across the snowy slopes. Through it all rode Tk’ya’pyk, the skink priest clutching to the Cold One for dear life. All around him, his cohort had been cut down in the mad scramble for the Observatory. Even Inxi-Huinxi, the veteran rider, had been knocked from his Horned One by a rampaging ogor, but the priest could not stop to check on his friend. He dodged past the flailing skaven, feeling the magical backlash of their spell searing the scales from his back. A bullet took down his mount, flinging him up into the air, then down onto the hard, smooth stones of a threshold. Stumbling forward, he pressed against the heavy stone doors. A cry of rage and indignation arose from the armoured ranks of the Cabal, yet as soon as the skink passed through the doorway, it was gone. He had made it.
Tyk’ya’pyk looked around the chamber. His injuries were gone, the memory of the burning already fading, like waking from a dream. He stood in a circular chamber in the center of an eight-sided structure, each with a blackened and shadowy door leading outwards. At the center of the chamber stood a simple pedestal of stone, eight sided as well. He could barely see the top. It was made for a much larger creature, he suspected, than even the ogors and kroxigors he had fought beside. Two indentations marked its face - hand prints, he realized. He stared down at his own four-digited, clawed hands. Handprints very different to his own.
The skink priest became away of another presence in the room. Looking about, he could see no one else, yet the feeling was unmistakable. Almost like slann, when they had deigned to make contact to his mind, yet totally different. As different as the earth on your feet from the rain on your head, he thought. The feeling was like the breath of a forest, instead of a thunderbolt. Softer, yet much much deeper, from the depths of the earth. The presence seemed to weigh the skink, judging him. He was not, Tk’ya’pyk knew in an instant, who the presence had been expecting. He was not the one that had been given the knowledge to use this place. Not the one with the key to its secrets.
He was the one, however, that held the fate of the Bleeding Wilds in his hands.
Placing his hands upon the pedestal, Tk’ya’pyk reached out to the realms.
Ghur and Chamon struggled against each other, their discordant notes striking against the fabric of the realm. Tk’ya’pyk saw them as he never had before. The realms were formed of magic, concentrated and spun into physical worlds, yet looking through the Observatory he felt he could see the weave that tied them together. The Wilds were a tapestry, pulling threads of different magics into its whole, and at the end of each a mortal soul tied them together. The fabric was fraying now; holes had appeared throughout it, worn from the collapsing shuttle. He could see the tears forming. He needed to secure the lines.
Along one thread, a mortal who wore her past like a ragged cloak tugged at a Rift between worlds, pulling a plane of memory into the world. Along another, a trogghag and her nighthaunt companion chanted prayers and magics designed to fray the bindings of one realm and draw in another. Each prayer pulled at the threads themselves, weaving the world they wanted to create. Subtle changes at first, yet together they grew into the image of the realm itself. On one small thread, a flesh-eater ghoul prayed only to save the ironscale pangolins.
Tk’ya’pyk smiled. Even a small wish, yet here it was, woven into the fabric of the realm itself.
He did not know how to use the Observatory, or understand its secrets. Yet, he knew the realm he wanted to create, and he set to weaving.
In the distant wilds, the bleeding had at last been staunched. Realm-tears no longer split the sky. Rollicking winds of wild change had been stilled. A new stability was being found.
The lands were Ghur, there could be no mistaking that. The realm of beasts tugged at the wild hearts of those they touched. Yet here and there, the echoes of the past year could be seen. Copses of iron-barked trees and shining bismuth petals stood tall in the Ghurish jungles. Ruins of alchemical symmetry jutted from desert dunes that had long been empty. Ironscale pangolins carved new burrows in the rugged hillsides. Silverside was gone, yet it was not destroyed. The realms had merged, and though they now rested in Ghur all those places tied to lines of mortal hope and prayer had been worked into its fabric.
And deep, deep below, the Maudra Rua had been made whole once more.
The Battle for the Dragon would soon begin. The Wars of the Bleeding Wilds had left only a few with the strength left for this final confrontation. Ghalbakk’s Company had spent themselves wisely, and now stood poised to reap the vast fortune below, yet only so long as they could prevent either of their last rivals from awakening its mind. The Underbough Sepulchre were prepared to begin their great ritual, slaying and raising the dragon as their eternal guardian. The Nashwan Cabal too had gathered their strength, their own mastery of the geomantic web in place, ready to steal the mind and body of the beast. One last battle remained to decide its fate. Yet, that was not the only legacy to be determined...
War of the Bleeding Wilds had entered its final hours.