The war for Lake Bykaal coalesces around the corpse of the Ur-Whale
Bay of Bysuud
Hilmar Thunderstruck jogged alone for what felt like an age. The scenery had changed, but he couldn’t remember how. He knew the others were nearby- trusted his Lord Castellant, Brightguard, for certain, and likely the Temple-Wardens of Kroqaqu-Cotiq, too. Caleb the Unskinned claimed the Oldblood had all but demanded they be allowed to protect the Slann, but Zectoka had insisted Hilmar would meet him alone. If he’d had a say, Hilmar would have spoken in favor of Kroqaqu-Cotiq’s caution.
Like every step he took, each shuddering breath was a struggle: fever wracked his body, and he felt as though he was simultaneously still under the icy water of the lake while also boiling in oil. His armor was long gone, and while his warriors had brought him a change of clothes, he’d stripped down to his waist, allowing the biting winter wind to kiss his bare skin. It kept him alert, and under his breath, he focused all his indomitable will on a mantra he’d repeated more times than he could count.
“Never to fail… never to fail… never to fail.”
“There is nothing else.”
Hilmar shook his head. No, that wasn’t right. He’d begun chanting the mantra of his Stormhost to drown out the voice in his head, but he’d soon realized it wasn’t a voice; it was a malice in his mind. Sigmar give him strength, is what Han Shinzong had succumbed to? Had Hilmar been wrong to so fervently condemn the Lord-Celestant’s failings? He felt a chill, and it wasn’t from the fever.
A compelling force commanded him to stop, and he found himself standing still in the silent night air before he’d even registered that he’d done so. He looked about, and in the pre-dawn light of Hysh, he registered his surroundings: a great bay, and flanking the waters, rows upon rows of tombs so old, their crumbling forms were sinking into the hillside. Far and away, the silhouette of a great cathedral contrasted like a black spear tip against the winter sky. The Bay of Bysuud, then.
“Child of man,” words unspoken didn’t break the cold air. “Mortal souls remade upon an anvil, your eternal kinsmen spoke words upon behalf of Hilmar Thunderstruck, and the Slann Zectoka listened. They implored Istay my hand, and I have done so.”
Hilmar blinked, and clenched his jaw in concentration. Where there had been nothing, a crimson toad-creature upon a tusked palanquin floated, silently, before him, its half-lidded eyes focused on him. The air between them snapped invisibly with the static shock of lightning, and some part of Hilmar’s mind perceived a great portcullis being ground away under a relentless assault.
Before he could speak, he realized something else had been there at his feet, half-buried in the snow the whole time. The shape was familiar to Hilmar; large, bulky, its burnished gold glinting in the half-light. A face, the skull behind it bashed open, gazed upon him blindly with a single, milky eye, its flesh seemingly liquified even in the freezing environment.
Lord-Celestant Han Shinzong.
A hundred questions swam into the Lord-Celestant’s mind, and the Slann answered them.
“Han Shinzong fought Mithridates Besh alone, and bore the worst of the malignancy upon his mind, body and soul for his bravery. I was too late to help him. I believed myself too late to help you. Had your compatriots withheld you from us, I certainly would have been, and still, I may yet be.”
“You have a choice before you, Hilmar Thunderstruck. Choose to live again, and I will strike you down. The Anvil of Apotheosis may yet strike the malignancy from your soul. Or, choose to serve, and the Slann Zectoka will attempt to provide you the opportunity to avenge yourself upon Mithridates Besh.”
The Anvil might not strike the malignancy either, Hilmar thought, he cannot allow himself to return into the center of Azyr carrying the malignancy with him.
Hilmar ground his teeth, his shallow breaths sawing in and out with a hiss.
“Of course. Not for yourself. For Han Shinzong. For your Stormhost.”
Hilmar felt his knuckles crack and bleed as he clenched his fists. The Slann raised a webbed hand, and another palanquin appeared, a suit of armor set upon the esoteric patterns in the stone. It was cast in the shape of a Stormcast’s wargear, yet the metal was a dull, flat silver.
“Your decision is made, then. I fear you may yet share Han Shinzong’s fate, but the stars are not so certain. Take this gift; it is not Sigmarite, yet it will offer some temporary measure of protection from the malignancy.”
Hilmar took a step toward the palanquin, and noticed the blade and hammer crossed at the foot of it. Like the armor, they were not sigmarite, but instead appeared to be composed of a near-black mineral. Reaching out to grasp one, Hilmar was distracted by the tread of heavy footfalls and the snap of vast wings emerging from the night’s shadows: his Stardrake, and loyal mount, Batis.
“The part you have to play in the Great Plan is not at an end, Hilmar Thunderstruck. Not yet.”
Hilmar Thunderstruck had been the first malignant the Expedition recovered, but far from the last. In the days that followed, many more found their way back to Tsatraya and Bolyany: soldiers thought lost and warriors given up for dead amid the shifting battlelines, constant near-twilight and ever-present snow squalls. At first, these reunions were greeted with joy, but such revelry soon turned to ash in their compatriot’s mouths at the malignant’s grievous symptoms… and worse, when it began manifesting in those attempting to render aid.
After Hilmar’s departure, the Ebonvaults chapterhouse became a sort of ramshackle hospital; Admiral Bjornssen quarantined the malignant within its walls, and refused any but the apothecaries and chirurgiens access. Having been denied the opportunity to study Hilmar, the sheer number of malignant confined within the Ebonvault soon overcame the medicae, and they found themselves confined with their former patients. The Coins quickly became a district to be avoided, and Bjornssen feared for what they’d brought within their walls. Perhaps the Perpetual’s warnings about the Thunderstruck had been well-founded, after all…
The malignancy outbreak was not confined to the Expedition, however. Coalitions across the lake found themselves reunited with lost comrades. Some were welcomed, such as Pilgrimage stragglers rallying at the Cairn of the Pale Saint; others were ostracized or even cut down, like any shambling mortek guard or dying skink that attempted to approach the Perpetual’s mustering grounds.
The Wretched and Undivided allowed their malignants to walk unhindered among their camps, their symptoms simply overlooked amid the abundent blessings of Grandfather and the Great Horned Rat already present. The Soulmuncherz were forewarned by Dyrnawen Silverfish, who personally took to caring for the afflicted, whether they be aelf, grot, orruk or ogor. Some, he said, might recover given time. Others, however, were simply too far gone.
The worst was yet to come, though. Malignancy soon began to manifest among those who’d had no contact with the afflicted. This was when alarm truly began to spread among the Chaos ranks: although they were no strangers to disease, Grandfather’s blessings did nothing to abate the symptoms, nor dull the agonies that came with them. Maggotkin inured to decades of bodily decay howled in pain for the first time in memory, while Pestilens plague monks gnawed away their own limbs and tails to stave off their suffering for awhile.
A common denominator was soon reached by all parties: the lake’s own water must have been contaminated by the malignancy… which meant anything the water touched was likely also affected. By draining the lake, the Wretched had unwittingly postponed a threat none in this war had truly grasped the extent of.
And yet, the war was not over- and with the world spirit of the godbeast Nyura unbound and unleashed, her spectre hung like a funeral veil over the underworld she’d once made her home…
“This crime cannot go unpunished!” The gilded knight bellowed. His words greeted with a chorus of cheers from Duardin, Aelf, and human alike.
“They plot and skulk about as if we don’t notice their dark works, and this, brothers and sisters, is their folly! We will strike them when they least expect it, and bring the hammer of justice upon our foes!” Another round of roars in furious agreement echoed through the smoke-streaked air. Konrad nodded firmly, preparing to join in the next call to action, to volunteer his forces to spearhead the great enemy that was Chaos.
“Death and ruin to the Pilgrimage!” Boomed the Stormcast. Konrad’s blood ran cold as the corpse-lake his men and he trudged through moments ago. But that ice soon melted, boiling into a churning fury.
“Are you serious!?” Konrad yelled, his breath steaming as he spoke. “The forces of Chaos march to the corpse of the godbeast, intent on doing gods knows what with the magic that bound the damn thing, and you want to march off and menace a load of flagellants and doomseekers?!”
“They have wronged us!” Barked a dispossessed Duardin, his beard flaked with ice.
“And they hold the realmgate!” Added the Stormcast.
“To Nurgle’s pot with the bloody gate, and to the pot with your feud! Chaos is marching, the wretched have awakened a shaggoth as big as a bloody mountain, and even the Slanns and the Corpses can agree that’s a problem! Why rattle your sabers over a petty feud when every god may be in peril? Alarielle, Grimnir, and yes, even the bloody-handed coward Sigmar!”
“Still your tongue you pagan-” The stormcast began, leveling his hammer.
“Don’t point that thing unless you plan to use it, tin soldier, I’ve sent your kind to your thief-god before. My point stands: Chaos is the greater threat, and our efforts should be pointed at stopping them from getting that power!”
“And you would let the murder of our kindred stand?” Hissed a young, hard-eyed Aelf. “The corsairs do not take such slights lying down, Human.”
“Is your revenge more important than the lives of your wives, your husbands, your partners and your kin back home?” Konrad struck his sword into the earth for emphasis. “Because when the Undivided hordes and their wretched kin pour over that hill armed with god-beasts and ancient ogors to devour this realm’s folk and flood the gates like a tide of death and malignancy, you can stand with your head held high over the bones of your families and say “At least I have my pride.”
Konrad spat, pulling his sword from the earth and sheathing it before he turned his back, before calling over his shoulder. “But if anyone feels like dealing with the actual gods-damned problem, you know where I’ll be.”
The council fell silent, some looked to the fire, feeling the heat seeping through their armor. Others looked to the lone figure walking away, limping from a wound suffered in the battle previous, now ready to ride into the fray once more against an overwhelming foe. Two paths now stood before the council: One of flame and fury, and another of cold, silent surety.
The malformed hordes of Chaos stamped flat the icy earth beneath them. Hordes of blood-streaked Khornate, bloated Nurglite, malleable Tzeenchian and mercurial Slaaneshi moved with a surety in their strides that their machinations would remain unopposed. One such force, a legion of Kairic acolytes clad in brass and silver, praised their master, a towering nightmare of shifting Corvid features and humanoid proportions, which strode with a crane-like grace above the heads of its apostles. It’s name made minds curl inwards like barbed fractals of scintillating agony, thus its followers called it The Codex of Shrieks.
The vast daemon paused, its quicksilver eyes locked on a shape in the vast distance. A winged shadow against the corpse-faced moon, riding ahead of a force of mortals, clutching their iron firearms and muttering their feeble magics. A simple enough force to turn aside, or so the Codex thought. But then, it heard the khornate and their cries for blood miles from here, followed by the flash of sigmarite lightning. Its second head craned at the end of a serpentine neck, watching as distant trees sprang to life, descending on the ecstatically wailing forces of Slaanesh. The throbbing eye at the end of The Codex’s staff whispered in riddles and half-truths that the bloated sons of rot now faced a hail of Kharadron lead.
The Stonewalkers Chamber, the Arcanum Venatores, Bardum Ashpeak’s throng, Ishtar Twice-Sworn’s Golden Eagels and the Soulbound binding of Harbert Hoffman stood beside the Dovesguard on the ice. Konrad knew that the forces levied were not all the Expedition had to offer. That his allies were in the minority, only a handful against a seething army of twisted passions. The fools would seek their revenge against the Sigmarites and their blood-elf kindred. But here, now, some had realized that evil such as this could only win if none stood against it. He leveled his blade and called out to his men.
“For the realms, and the old gods!”
And began his charge.
The creature once called Irkut Thousandeyes floated in a white light. He knew all, saw all, understood all. Pity on those poor fleshbound creatures who believed themselves sapient! And yet he despised them. They didn’t understand, would never understand, were too afraid or too weak or too blind to grasp the world as he saw it. And yet they sought to meddle in his plans regardless. Let them- after today, when he proved himself indispensable, the Gods themselves would anoint him and he would become their champion. Archaon himself would bow before him because only he among all the Four’s worshippers had the power to bind and release their mortal foes.
The lines of fate were laid out clearly for him. Let Sarn laugh and boast and revel in the adulation of his supporters. His plan did not need more bodies than it had. The Knights of the Everking, the Whispered One, a few others- these were all he needed to tip the balance of power at the Breach, at Bykaal, in the Realms. He would look on them kindly when he was ascended, for at least they began to understand.
The Ur-Whale’s soul hung before him like a great golden orb, a paragon of pearls hung in his spider’s web. Struggle as it may, it would never be free- and like that spider he would wrap it up and suspend it beyond the sight of Gods or mortals.
The web shook, and the part of him that was still human frowned. The godbeast should not be able to free itself- and yet the web shook again, and again, strands falling loose and snapping in twain. Like the spider, Irkut frantically wove, trying to repair his decaying masterwork. But the web was torn- the binding was undone- his prize tumbled out of his grasp-
The creature once called Irkut Thousandeyes howled with two agonies- one, that his master plan had come undone, two, that a Sigmarite hammer had just hit him in the face. The Golden Eagles had landed to thwart the workings of Chaos, and the poor fleshbound creatures he despised carried the day again.
Eris Bloodwrath felt few emotions when she saw Irkut the Spineless cowering in his tent. Irritation, that he should hide while the battle for the Ur-Whale’s body was still in flux. Curiosity as to what act had humbled the mighty Thousandeyes like a chastened dog. Trepidation, at what he might do even now.
“You.” He looked almost human still, even more so than the Basalt Lord- the light that had spilled from his body was dimmed, and the aura of arrogant majesty that surrounded him was offset by the angry scar marring his perfect face. “Have you come bearing a message from Sarn? Perhaps I am not worth gloating over in person, so he sends his chain-dog instead?”
She shrugged. “No, Varanguard. I am not here to gloat. He merely sent me.”
Irkut turned and spat, an all too mortal gesture that sparked and hissed where it struck the ground. “Sarn thinks himself the master, but he knows nothing. He sees with the sight of his own pitiful eyes, and calls it good enough- never grasps even the barest truth that lies beyond his tiny bubble of comfort. No, for that, he turns to me. So tell me, what favor does Sarn ask now? How might I enable his pathetic, feeble dreams?”
“He sent me to ask no favor, Varanguard. He merely sent me.”
For a barest moment, his face was marked by confusion- and then he began to tremble. “Then what was his purpose? Why should he send you here to me? Answer me, worm!”
Go to Irkut. Consider what you see a promise, and a warning. “He sent me as a courtesy. To bear witness.”
Irkut opened his mouth to respond- and choked, words abandoning him as his flesh began to melt. His torso heaved, arms and legs spasming and twisting at unnatural angles before splitting in twain and in three. As Eris watched, his eyes multiplied, pupils expanding and splitting, migrating to cover the entirety of his face. A second head erupted from his elongating neck, followed by a third and a fourth and a fifth, each identical to the first, new eyeballs peering in every direction. Finally, his back arched and stretched to half again its former length, arching and twisting with a new fluidity unrestrained by bone or sinew.
When it was finished, the creature that had been Irkut the Spineless lay moaning with pain and new sensation. Eris walked forward, and snapped the iron collar Sarn had given her around his neck. Everyone serves the Gods in the end. “Rejoice, and welcome to the ranks of the Basalt Lord.”
With Irkut the Spineless’s final failure, the Undivided had finally become undivided by process of elimination. Unknown to Konrad Rohtstahl’s Dovesguard and their intrepid allies, the Undivided harbored as little enthusiasm for aiding Irkut Thousandeyes’ quest to bind the gods themselves as the Expedition had enthusiasm to stop him. The quest Irkut had begun months before, the quest that had brought him and Sarn first to Amasya and then Lake Bykaal, was at a ruinous end.
With both the Emissary and Irkut reduced to gibbering spawn, Qarang Sarn was free to lead the Undivided in pursuit of a more promising prize, and one with vastly clearer applications: dragging the Ur-Whale unto Grandfather’s garden by way of Belleck’s Trench, to make a grand vessel out of this Godbeast’s remains.
The Ur-Whale’s Corpse
Da Battle uv da Breech was a proppa scrap and no mistake. Like the twin-headed god they’re descended from (well, most of them), the Soulmuncherz had in mind something kunnin’ and something brutal, and if it came together, they’d have pulled off something both kunnin’ AND brutal. Led by the ghost of da Adm’rul, the Soulmuncherz had planned a grand caper, the type that would make Da Grate Saga the most unforgettable legend in all the Mortal Realms.
On the one hand, they were gonna use Anruil Althariel’s Katophrane artefact- the “North Star” gem caught in the Orkkuh’s glowy bit- to snag the Ur-Whale’s soul right up out of Nagash’s cold, icy claws like a fish on a hook.
Then, with the other hand, they were gonna kick those grubby Nurgle gits off the Ur-Whale’s body, scrape off the Idoneth souls stuck to it, and then, using both Deepkin beast-magic and soul-magic, stuff the whale’s soul back into its corpse, and sail off into the sunset.
What could possibly go wrong?
Da Loonshine Gitz marching song
We iz da Gitz ya younglings have their worst nightmares of,
we creep up out your latreen at night and drag their mums off,
why thats because wez Gitz ya see of the nastiest breed of all,
we az spitfulness in great abundance like the water in lake Bykaal,
our crooked stabbaz iz sharp as sharp and our shrooms smell of fart,
so it ain’t no fun for you’s to see da results of crossing us,
we outnumber ya all by loads so better not make a fuss,
i’ll ‘ave ya guts for stringing robes and ya horse I’ll ‘ave for tea,
and if ya have some mates wiv ya my troggoths always hungry,
so lets not make no bargins elset I have to break them all,
just to watch you’s cry and harpin on until knees ya fall.
“Come feast you damned spectres!” The tyrant’s voice rumbled across the mud-strewn flats that surrounded the band.
Torgol spat cork onto the ground as he loosened the powder horn with his teeth, refilling his oversized pistol. The week had not gone as planned. Tipping the black powder into the barrel the ogor considered how he had ended up here, trapped with his Sons, backed against a wooden wall protecting a gargantuan corpse.
The wooden wall in question had been the Emerald Kraken, Torgol’s personal flagship that had carried his tribe to Bykaal. Now, it looked as if the vessel would be nothing more than a casket, beached and capsized as it was, torn apart for shelter and barricades by his compatriots. He couldn’t blame them, to be pinned down on a muddy field that had previously been lakebed could catch anyone off guard, but he’d liked that ship all the same.
The flint of his pistol collided with the steel of the housing, producing a shower of sparks, and winging a forest-green lizard skulking its way towards the ship.
Beast or bone, gheist or ghoul, the Sons of Goremaw had been assaulted by all menagerie of foes since arriving. Each had taken their toll and left the coterie depleted, the survivors increasingly desperate for some kind of breakout.
Still, at least he wasn’t the only group trapped here. With the sea gone, all manner of fellow Soulmuncherz seemed to be fighting for their lives, each just too far away to create a united front.
In the distance, Torgol could see the Huntermaster’s crew, clad in yellow and bone cloth that made them stand out, even if they had been dirtied since their arrival. They hadn’t done badly, for humans, the rag-tag nature of their arms and armoured belied the strength and cunning of pack animals, and they had spent their time on the lake picking off patrols and harassing anyone that came too close.
To his right was a whole crowd of grots, although they were Runtstrider’s or that white-cowled fanatic’s, Torgol couldn’t say. They’d done well, looked comfortable in fact. The frequent charges of ravenous red squigs had certainly kept their foes wary, bought them time.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be enough. The ogor looked around his haggard band. Leadblechers, out of powder, gluttons, clubs splintered and eyes ringed black with tiredness. Even the gnoblars were less skittish, their typically hesitant sudden movements replaced with a more lethargic air. They were being worn down by a foe that seemed inexhaustible. Dead men don’t die after all, particularly in this cursed realm.
“Rollon, how are we doing,” The tyrant turned to face his huskarl. Typically clad in bronze armour, the ogor had forgone his helm and plates. The face that looked back was untidy, beard unkempt, flecked in mud and blood, whether it was Rollon’s, who could say.
“Could be better,” the irongut replied. “We’ve stripped the Kraken, but there’s no powder, no grog, no rations.”
“I’m not worried about rations,” said Torgol, gesturing his hand towards the numerous corpses, ogor and otherwise, that littered the wooden hulk. “We’ll make do, we always have.”
The huskarl nodded. “Still can’t see a way out though.”
Torgol sighed, betraying his command for a moment of exasperation. He turned to face the whale corpse the Soulmuncherz had pitched themselves around. Monstrous thing, pockmarked with aelf faces and harbouring an energy that gave all who came near an uneasy air. Kahr had told him coming here was important, but he hadn’t explained why, and he hadn’t predicted this.
“You’d better be worth it,” the tyrant muttered under his breath.
“Torgol,” Rollon’s voice brought him back to the muddy earth. Casting his eyes to the huskard, he saw a lumpen finger pointing behind him. Turning, the Tyrant could see ranks of ornate bone warriors, a skeletal steed and rider carousing between the lines issuing commands.
So this was it. To be stuck upon a lance, and harvested for parts. This was his fate eh? So be it.
The tyrant cast an eye across the impromptu palisade. “Get up you layabouts. This is our time, our chance. Get up, and face these skinless fiends, these fatless devils. Put them to flight and crunch what remains among your teeth.”
The speech was weary. There was no cheer, no call, but across the line, stout figures rose, weapons in hand. A drumbeat began further down, slow and ponderous; it reminded the Torgol of a dirge. Not the cheeriest thing to go to the grave with, but apt.
Perhaps it was the weight of expectation, or exhaustion, but all of a sudden the air felt heavier, damper, as if before an oncoming storm. Some lizard magic, set to soften them, Torgol wagered.
Rollon was distracted, eyes darting in the distance. “Rollon, don’t make me crack your head,” Torgol remarked, tone curt.
“Can you see them?”
Fish, the tyrant considered quizzically. If there were any fish left on the lake, they would have been picked and stripped days ago. There was something there though, shades of blue, not a shadow, but translucent. It looked almost like a gubberbelly, a cumbersome, weighty morsel Torgol remembered. He hadn’t seen one since they left Ghyran.
There was another, and another, and a pinchfish, smaller, skittish, its beak prized as a toothpick among the more seasoned members of the tribe.
A spectral shoal had formed between the ogors and their adversaries, shimmering and shifting in the brightening light. The masked grey beams that had dimly lit the battlefield had been usurped by a sickly-yellow pallor growing in intensity by the second.
The skeletal legion had stopped. Frozen in place, Torgol could see the commanders looking upwards, above the ogors, above the wreck of the Kraken. Before the tyrant could turn, a roar pierced the heavy air, and thickly-scaled midnight green skin sailed across them all, the lantern-like protrusion marking it out as Orrkuh, beast of Bykaal.
In seconds, Gorkamorka’s favoured hunter crashed into undead legions, scattering arms and armour, bones and banners. Sailing through the shattered formation Orrkuh took flight once more, hurling its bulk against another enemy group, and another.
Torgol stood dumbfounded for a moment, caught by the sheer destructive power of a true force of nature. In Orrkuh’s wake, the sky was filled with the iridescent eels of Ambassadress Eola’s enclave, speeding towards the stragglers attempting to reform, horns blowing as the riders spurred on the mounts.
The tyrant turned to his compatriots, now rejuvenated by the spectacle, all focused on Torgol and awaiting the signal.
The ogor threw up his hands, forgoing a grandiose speech for simple instruction.
“Have at ‘em!”
As neither the Soulmuncherz nor the Perpetual possessed any particularly notable diplomatic tact, earlier efforts by each side to mislead the other regarding their intentions had failed entirely, and both committed overwhelming force. The battle for the Godbeast’s soul appeared to be going well for the Soulmuncherz, but the Perpetual were devious indeed.
It was close to sunset, the sky dripped crimson unto the horizon. The heavens twisted as the frigid wind whipped clouds and banners into contorted forms. The Perpetual had arrived at the place of battle and had begun taking position. At the large crevasse Ashavohlk had scouted mere days before, they would make their final assault against the Soulmunchers – a final push against the Coalitions before all would switch their effort towards the Nemesis.
Allies curved through the spiny valley, taking position far across the gorge, beneath large jutting talons of ice. The Midnight City had prepared its Artillery upon the cliffs behind. The Blades of the Blood Queen rallied across a hidden flank. Ogres stood in position to collapse the cliff, sealing the escape. And somewhere over the Horizon, Mattias lead the Bone-fleet into position for bombardment. This Valley would stew with the corpses of the munchers – that is, should anything remain after detonation of the Perpetual’s ‘Soul Bomb.’
The workings of this device were largely foreign, but the Midnight City had proven its mastery of the mechanical, and if its design was accurate – well, even the Skaven would be impressed. Ashavohlk had volunteered his White Host as bait, as he had proven time and time again, they would serve as the unbreaking anvil of death, anchoring the opposing forces – buying time enough to detonate the blast.
The sky was pierced by the droning of Greenskin warhorns, and the valley once again was filled with the rushing of the tide – although this water was immaterial. The Soulmunchers had arrived, their banners cutting into the horizon as they mounted the decline into the valley. Shouts could be heard above the cliffs as smaller detachments began the skirmish early. The warhead of the brutish coalition proceeded bravely and crashed down the slopes with Boar and Eel at breakneck pace – they spared no moment for intimidation, this twilight would fill with the chorus of battle, post-haste.
Ashavohlk steadied the line, gripping his sword and pressing his will forward. The Grave Guard raised their shields into a fortress of steel, pressing shoulder to shoulder, bracing for first contact. The sky exploded with smoke and steam as the first volleys fired overhead, aimed towards the back ranks of the army to coax them into descending the gorge to break the line of sight. The crash of hoof and mortar melodied the procession of death, and the ice rung out like the tolling of the end.
With the crash of a thousand shields, the battleline was met by the full force of the Soulmunchers cavalry. The dead buckled and collapsed, the White Host tearing like a pond surface disturbed by the crash of a boulder – yet for every corpse thrown skyward, two more stepped in to rebuff the enemy. The White King stood back, raising his hand he clutched the winds of death and beckoned forth the Chaincarin Knights. Bone and Steel echoed the foe, crashing down the slopes into the right flank – tearing into the exposed flesh.
A thought tugged at his mind, a magister of the Midnight City requested he listen: It is prepared, secure yourself, NOW!
The warning had come too late, it was seen before it was heard. A dark ball of steel descended from the sky like a meteor. It’s dusky metals and light glimmering against the stars as it dove towards the deepest recess of the fight. And then, it struck the ice. Everything was white. There was no longer a sky to be seen. In an instant, light had pooled from a new crater and strangled the world.
And then, it receded. Time slowed as perception raced to keep pace. Rising from the pit was a great cloud of smoke – and at its centre was a rapidly emergent orb of light. The Ice tore itself up like dust scattered into the wind. Soldiers, friend and foe, were consumed by the light – contorting and blackening at the event horizon.
And then came the shockwave. Like the crack of all Azyr’s lightning, a great force shattered the valley – the cliffs collapsed like glass, crashing downwards, pulled into the centre mass of the blast making not a sound as hearing ceded to a severe, penetrating ringing in the ears of all who could hear. Before any soul could fathom the scale of destruction unleashed, the light swelled to consume the pit – and all was death.
Realizing they could not defeat the Soulmuncherz by strength of arms alone, the Perpetuals had prepared a unique arcane device of devastation. Dubbed the “soulbomb”, an invention of the engineers of the Midnight City using the souls collected by the All-Points legion of Ossiarchs, and blessed by the Queen-goddess of Midnight herself, the Perpetual’s armies maneuveredwith clockwork precision to maximize the effect of this detonation, using their own battle lines to hem in the enemy and force them into the blast radius. With the help of Anderman’s shambling zombies and a diversion from Lord-Arcanum Everett du Lac, over several hours, the slaan Cueyatl was able to lure the funneled Soulmuncherz to the point of impact.
Still, even with their numbers severely thinned, there seemed to be no end to the energy of the Soulmuncherz, and the battle dragged on. They had Orkkuh, buoyed with the Aethersea beneath it. With the North Star in its lure, the souls of the dead wavered before it, pausing instead of advancing, entranced by the light.
Finally, led by the risen Marie Elaine itself, the arrival of the Bonefleet of Nyura turned the tables back against the Soulmuncherz- although, not without cost. Orkkuh itself counted for three of the primordial vessels, its great jaws snapping them apart or flipping them over with its great bulk, while Belagar-Bel led a ferocious boarding action across the decks of the barges, destroying the Mortek crawlers mounted on them. Scattered and disorganized, the Soulmuncherz had no choice but to withdraw and regroup.
“SPUME!” Broki shouted over the din of battle “YA WAZZOCK! COME AND FACE ME!”.
The dim light of early morning in Shyish was enhanced by the brightly burning remains of warships from both sides. Rot blighted galleons doused in flammable chemicals and set alight, a frigate whose endrins had burst to destructive effect as it was plucked from the sky by one of Spume’s leviathans. Everywhere the waters churned with combat. Aethershot impacting bloated forms, massive cleavers and scythes rising and falling, leaving bloody wakes as they carved through arkanaut forms.
This one had gotten away from Broki a bit. His fleet wasn’t big enough for this fight. But he gambled it all, one decisive strike, cut the head off the hated champion, the author of so much of Broki’s ruination in times past. The seas swarmed with the vile champion’s rotted leviathens, and a full sevenfold of three great galleons. Against that, a handful of skyships. But Broki had one advantage. Mobility. Spume’s fleet was too large and sluggish to support itself quickly. And so Broki struck, hoping, even praying to forsaken Grugni, that this time, THIS time, he’d get the better of Nurgle’s putrescent champion.
It hadn’t gone that well. While Spume’s ship and four others burned merrily from a combination of firepower and ingenuity, Broki hadn’t counted on the reach of Spume’s leviathans. And already he lost one ship to their grasping tentacles as it disgorged arkanauts onto the deck of Spume’s ship. Others were forced to retreat and turn their guns towards to sea beasts to keep them from ripping the rest out of the sky, and lacking the support of the ship guns, Spume’s crew had rallied, gaunt, half naked maniacs, and bloated armored hulks alike surged from under the decks to cross blades with arkanauts. And with the reach of the leviathan’s tentacles, Broki’s ships couldn’t get close enough again to even allow for a retreat.
The thunderers at least created a pocket to really back upon, disciplined volleys scything down diseased marauders, while portable aethercannon turned on the larger plague warriors, even their corrupted bloat couldn’t stand up to the blast of a cannon or two. But more and more of Gutrot’s elite were pouring out from under the decks of the ship, and they were damn resistant. Without the support of the fleet’s guns, the thunderers and arkanauts couldn’t put them down fast enough, and a wedge of them was advancing through the fire, the champion of nurgle, the lord of the plague fleets himself at their head.
It may have all gone wrong, but at least this, this could salvage everything. For every injury, every defeat, every death, every lost profit, Broki could put this monster of plague down, for good.
“COME AND FACE ME!” He howled over the sounds of aethershot as Gutrot’s phalanx smashed into the ranks of thunderers, scattering them, their guns proving suddenly unwieldy in close confines as blightkings cut them down, one after another. Broki surged forward, arkanauts at his back, to engage the plague bloated warriors. Thunderers fell back around him to reform their firing line by the railing of the ship as arkanauts took their place. One bloated beast fell, pierced by two boarding pikes, his form already riddled with oozing wounds from the merciless fusillade he had waded through to get to grips with the Kharadron invaders. Broki smashed another aside with a blow of his hammer, shattering the chaos warrior’s arm and forcing him to stumble to the deck where a trio of arkanauts took at him with axes.
But there were only so many arkanauts, and the momentum of Broki’s countercharge began to die away. For all their valor, Broki’s arkanauts weren’t the warriors Spume’s blight kings were. The bloated champions of Nurgle shrugged off blows from cutters and shots from pistols with contemptuous ease, and every one felled cost three or four arkanauts. Already another surge of chaos warriors erupted from the belly of the half living, rotting, warship that Spume called his flagship.
There was only one chance left. “SPUME!” Broki shouted again, smashing aside another blight king four paces from the lord of the plague fleets. For the first time, Spume’s helmeted head turned Broki’s way, dropping the two arkanauts he had been throttling with the fleshy tendrils that erupted from his side. A gurgling, phlegmy laugh emitted from underneath the Chaos lord’s helm “So eager. Come then admiral, let me welcome you into the grandfather’s embrace.”
Broki rushed forward, his hammer held high to strike a blow against this most hated foe.
Galrach Stormsong looked on at the destruction before him from his post. His phalanx had been directed to accompany Admiral Broki Gundrikson’s skyfleet, giving magical support through the ethersea as the great skyvessels raided the dark forces of the plague god, Nurgle. A mundane assignment it was, but the magics of Tor Nadreth were said to rival even those of their Hyshian cousins, the Lumineth, and proved to be a great advantage in battle. Even with this boon, however, Galrach could tell the battle was going poorly as he looked on. As many skyvessels had been dragged down by the tentacles of Spume’s leviathans had been forced to retreat from the fray, leaving few ships in the center of the fight, including Broki’s flagship.
“Sire, we should withdraw. This is hopeless” sneered Ishsarr Brighteyes, Galrach’s head advisor and Soulscryer, “There is no reason we should risk our own-,” he said as he was cut off.
“The day is not lost completely. We will not betray our allies, as they would surely not do the same. Their word is their oath” interjected Galrach, mounting his deepmare, and turning to his retinue, “AKHELIANS! Prepare to charge!” This call was met with hoots and hollers from the mounted warriors, eager to spill corrupted blood.
“But… but sire, you could…” Ishsarr had no time to finish, as the Tidecaster had already made off toward the battlefield with his host. All that could be seen was a multicolored mass of fangmora and allopex with forms of glittering gold armour atop them, with an orange speckled deepmare and a massive leviadon at its head. Dark as it was, the charging swarm of deep-dwelling creatures cast a shadow over the battlefield, and over the remaining skyvessels being held back from the melee. The duardin skyvessels fired a volley of aethershot into the rotting hulks, softening them up for the inevitable charge of aelven fury.
Above the battlefield, Galrach drew his blade, a greatsword carved from the bones of an ancient beast, and held it high. Before him, a mass of aethershot fire and razorshell harpoons pepper their target, the flagship of the corrupted fleet. As a Tidecaster, Galrach had little reason to charge into battle with the akhelian knights of his enclave, but he felt something almost akin to exhilaration as he let out a battle cry, to which his akhelian allies responded in kind. To his left, he saw the eager Morsarr guard lower their voltspears, and to his right the stalwart Ishlaen guard raised their galv-shields and readied their helsabres for the charge. Just in front of him, a massive shelled beast roared in eagerness for combat, and its akhelian riders yelled in affirmation, still firing their razorshell harpoon launchers. Above him, the silhouette of the great allopex, hungry for battle, charges toward their prey. Taking in the bloodlust and fervor of those around him, almost like the beasts they ride, Galrach readies himself for the charge.
Like a lightning strike, they collided with the enemy, and chaos itself broke out. Electricity arced from fangmora to voltspear and galv-shield, and into the mass of fetid bodies before them. Massive bladed fins cut through flesh and armor alike, infected blood seeping through the ethersea like a mist. The colossal leviadon plowed through the lines of plaguebearers, sending rotted bodies flying through the air to be intercepted by the jaws of the allopex. Galrach swung his blade, which lopped a blight king’s head clean off as his deepmare sunk its claws into another while he scanned the battlefield. Finally, his eyes met his quarry. On the deck of an ironclad, a small vanguard of thunderers pelted a swarm of Nurgle warriors with aethershot, with the fallen admiral behind them.
“THERE!” Galrach called out, and he charged toward his ally, flanked by two allopexes. With the mass of three large creatures of the deep, they were able to secure the limping ironclad.
Broki awoke with a groan. Everything hurt. He looked around, he was surrounded by injured and coughing duardin, their suits stripped. A cough wracked him as he turned his head, catching the helmeted eye of his oldest friend “I didn’t get ‘im did I?” Broki asked, another cough wracking his form. Damned Nurgle plagues. “Nay laddie” Rolf responded “He smashed ya what good. Again” Broki looked away in shame. “How’d we make out?”
“We lost the ‘Skalf’s Finest’ along wi’ her entire complement of arkanauts. The ‘Hammer’ and the ‘Brew’ were damaged, but not too badly. Two Gunhaulers went down. Half the lads you took with ya to the ship didn’t get back out, and a third of our skyrigger complement was lost keeping tha pusgoyles from tha fleet. It was a disaster. An expensive one. But not one we can’t afford wi’ what tha elgi are payin’ us.”
Each loss made Broki wince “Did we at leas’ give tha wazzock a black eye?”
“Oh, aye, We burned three ships down ta the waterline, and two more were barely limpin along. An’ two of Spume’s leviathens won’t be grabbin’ any more ships. But, no, Broki, it wasn’ worth tha losses.”
The soft admonishment hurt more than any hurled insults or heated recriminations ever would “How’d ye get me an’ the rest of the lads off the ship?”
“Well” Rolf sat back “Seems like that beardling Thori made a few friends on tha side wit’ the elgi. He let em know what we were doin'” Rolf laughed “An’ would ya know it, but one of ’em came an’ rescued us. One of their magicky type, Galrach. He engaged tha krakens and gave tha ships time ta get in, and tween the thunderers and tha fleet, we drove Spume’s lads back and picked ya right up and got the fleet out of there.”
“Saved by an Elgi. I’ll never live it down” Broki grumbled. Rolf laughed again “Nay, but at least ye’ll live lad!”
Yet again, the Soulmuncherz gave as good as they got. Amari and the Baba Yaga, the Lady of Brass, Iorlus “the Pretty” and his Sons of Decay; all fought in the shadow of Gutrot Spume’s rotkraken, Qarang Sarn atop the mightiest of them bellowing his fiery rhetoric for all to hear. In their wake came the Brazen Fleet of Skaldangyr Bloodclaw, eager for bloodshed.
Ultimately, the battle ground to a standstill, the Soulmuncherz occupying the gargantuan body of the Ur-Whale, now only half submerged by the draining lake, like some vast fortress, while Spume’s fleet mimicked siege towers. Driven back, the Undivided set about the business they’d came to carry out, and teams of slaves ventured into the beast’s rotting carcass and wound great, rotting coils of rope around its bones. Elsewhere, the Soulmuncherz raced against time and tide of battle to break free the Namarti soul-barnacles and carry them away.
The most pivotal moment of the battle came when the Soulmuncherz, seeking to gain advantage against Spume’s Rotkraken, swept the battlefield with aethersea. In theory, this should have given them the upper hand- but the Undivided had expected, nay, counted on the Idoneth’s trademark sorcery. A curse carried upon the words of the Baba Yaga and echoed by witches throughout the attacking Undivided army, the Breach was flooded with aethersea as though from a tap with a broken valve.
With this act, the Wretched’s draining of the lake was undone- in a way. With a groan heard and felt across the lake, the Ur-Whale and the ice around it slowly began to drift upward, rising impossibly against the force of gravity…
They had Ironjawz, and Bonesplittaz. They had grots- more grots than anyone knew what to do with, especially the other grots. They even had aelves, and most of all, a right kunnin’ plan all ready to take the foe by surprise: a “fake Orrkuh” decoy, filled with nasty stuffs.
There was only one problem- they didn’t have an enemy anywhere to be seen. The assembled Greenskins looked at each other awkwardly, alternating between annoyance and boredom, equally lethal alternatives. In the distance, ice sheets ground together. One Grot- to be fair, more than one Grot- picked his nose. Finally someone got the nerve to speak up.
“Doez… does dis mean we winz?”
“Yeah…” A particularly old and warty Orruk rubbed his mis-shapen chin. “Yeah, I fink it does. We winz! Greenz da best!”
“GREENZ DA BEST!” The cry went up from a thousand throats, and within a moment what was to be an instrument of war had war had degenerated- no, had transformed itself into a giant party.
From a distance, Da Adm’rul just grinned and shook his head. They didn’t have a fight, but they did have the ghost ships now, and that promised many more fights to come.
“Bring up da Orkkuh, lads!” the spectre bellowed. “Da toothy git will earn its keep yet!”
The Shadow Council Verminlords deliberate.
Skwikt Twelve Horned: Yes-yes that is the plan. Then Technofire the Warpsmith begins corrupt-sabotage
Technofire: Ahaha YES-YES! I the great inventor bring ruin! AHAHA
Skwikt: Yes-yes…make sure to add the warpstone powder slowly, too quickly
Technofire: You think me fool-fool? I am genius rat! I will tinker-build best corruption engine ever! AHAHA!
Skwikt: Yes-yes but…(a knock interrupts)
(The door creaks open, a messenger rat scurries in. It is blasted to bits to the amusement of the Verminlords- the letter it carries falls to the floor forgotten)
North of the devastation of Mt. Nagas’ua
Boom… boom… boom… boom.
The Soulbound binding had withdrawn back behind Pilgrimage lines with their ill-gotten, so-called “mana grail”. Even now, the Oracles of Peace and Humility could see their Knight-Venator flying above the advancing Fyreslayers, snapping off shots of opportunity. They’d made a good accounting of themselves, and left a wake of dead gutter runners and rat ogors.
It wouldn’t matter.
Badoom… badoom… badoom… badoom.
“See-see how the mighty flee-flee before us! They believe us downtrodden! Filth! Nothing! Dirt on their boots-boots! But they forget! The wretched will inherit the Realms!” Humility shrieked.
“Do not bend, brrrothers! Do not brrreak! They arrre week. We… ARRRE THE STORRRM!” Peace brayed.
Badum! Badum! Badum! Badum!
The ground shook now as the Fyreslayers came into range, levelling their magmapikes and preparing to burn the onrushing horde in searing fire.
The fist of an angry god swept out from the heavy, sleeting stormclouds and collided with the Fyreslayer line, gouging a flaming trough where they’d been standing as their magmapikes broke and snapped, bent around their crushed bodies. For a moment, the great shape of a humanoid torso loomed through the clouds, and a clawed reptilian foot thrice the size of a herdstone threw up a plume of muck and mud not fifty yards from the Oracles, obliterating some unfortunate beasts caught in its path.
With that, the hammering tread of the Stormking swept past the Oracles and thundered into the retreating Pilgrimage column. The Oracles looked upon what their flock had wrought, and knew that it was good.
The Bolyany Parallel
The Excelsior Warpriestess Ellendorus would have told him Sigmar works in mysterious ways, Valeo Valencia had mused. Although their diplomatic ruse had allowed the Pilgrimage to enact a perfect betrayal, the recent buildup of forces around the “turnip town” of Bolyany had built an impenetrable barricade the Pilgrimage now had to pass through to deliver their prize to Amasya. Thinking of naught but vengeance, the Expedition had drawn a line in the mud and dared the Pilgrimage to cross it.
And cross it they had. Encircled around the realmshaper engine at the heart of “New Bolyany”, the town itself was nigh-impregnable, so the Pilgrimage’s forces sought to circumvent it. The roar of Gustav’s artillery down by the river was the first sign of their attack, yet was silenced all too quickly, as a Fyreslayer vanguard had tunnelled under the watercourse and taken the Stormcast shield wall on the far shore by surprise, soon overrunning them, scattering the gun crews and spiking the artillery.
Battle was met in earnest north of the city. Harried by the native Dogmeat tribesmen, the Pilgrimage hit the Expedition line with their customary fury, but this time, the soldiers of Hammerhal were ready for it. Led by the remnants of the 7th Legion of Syar and backed up by the Stormcast of Hercules Tenzo and Lord-Arcanum Morian’s Hammers of Sigmar, the screaming warriors of Udamone Clapthirst and undead minions of Runya Lichborne fought hard to force a wedge. Valeo had cursed; the Waldeinsamkeit Grove were meant to reinforce the flank, but were nowhere to be found.
Finally, amid the mud, blood, bodies and pleading screams of the wounded, an opportunity appeared in the chill mist. His Knight-Questor bodyguard Brecht dan Helvar bashing a path through Runya’s deathrattlers and the Light of Eltharion burning away the fog like the morning sun, a plan long in the making began to fall into the place: the battlefield assassination of Arali Heartsbane.
“I have a preference but I thought I’d offer you one… last… chance… at diplomacy,” Valeo finished his overblown monologue with a flourish of spreading arms and upturned hands, with the most condescending smile he could possibly muster.
Serpent bodied warriors slithered and coiled from the woods as darting aelved bodies daubed in blood and chalk sprang from the forest line. Arali herself didn’t say a word but drew the most incredibly wicked looking blades as she bounded from a rock and onto the battlefield.
And into Hell. The treeline exploded with muzzle flash and black powder smoke from the housegunners and the Salutations. Arrows, bolts and bullets rained down into the pilgrimage as they charged at the ragtag team of survivors lead by a coward and a fool. The ground erupted in scattershot, in explosions, in gouts of dust as pits collapses. The honourguard was annihilated by the steady fire of the Salutations. Arali herself took a number of bullets,but was entirely unphased. She had blades of horrifying sharpness to bless with blood- Valencia Blood.
Vaddur began to channel the powers of Ghur and imbued the greatfangs with bestial fervor. They charged out around Valeo and Brecht to Arali and the remains of her honour guard. Ignoring the couple of greatswords that laced into her flesh she flipped over them to Valeo and Brecht making a flurry of blows. The blades shrieked through the air as she whirled them about her, chanting slightly under her breath- for each and every attack was a prayer to her barbarous god.
Three! Four! Five! Six! Attacks clanged off of the sigmarite of Brecht’s blade and shield woodpecker fast. Valeo’s ears rang as the Hag ducked around the Questor and slashedfor his neck, but not before he bowled his shield around into her, knocking her off balance. Valeo pulled his heirloom repeater pistol and, shakily priming the charges, fired wide of Arali.
She was death. She was incredible. She… landed on her hands then sprung back at the pair of them in a drop kick that drove Brecht a few strides back and off balance. Death was here now, grinning at him not a foot from his gun, and Valeo stood shaking.
The blood aelf priestess slashed down with both of her blades and a grin. Valeo dropped his pistol in fright, trying in vain to shield himself while the wicked curved knife drove through his palm and deep into the meat of his shoulder and chest, blood welling instantly. Valeo threw himself to the ground in a panic, gritting his teeth to stifle a squeal as the knife pressed just a bit deeper into his flesh. Dont. Hunting. Move.He screamed to himself in his mind, steadying his breathing. He could feel her predatory grace above him as she drew another weapon to finish him off. And yet a second later she was gone, Brecht sent her flying with a two handed swat of his shield.
The battle raged around Valeo as he lay on the ground, blood aelf blade sticking his left hand to his shoulder but no longer bleeding. He played dead. He played dead and hoped that no one came around to clean up the dead. Or eat the dead. Waves of heat, ripples of magic, shards of metal, dirt, dung, the dead and all manner of things once whole but no more swirled and flew and rained all around him. Valeo was a coward he knew. This was fools work and he was the fool everyone knew him for. It’s not brave to fight above your abilities, it’s reckless. Words he’d quoted himself a dozen times.
“Let me stop you right there” General Gustov said. Valeo’s eyes shot open and scanned the dirt and boots he could see. She was here. He was here. They were here. Arras was coming… sometime.
Valeo winced again, rolling onto one knee and smiled a hard clenched grin. He tore at his stiletto and launched himself upwards at her, driving the stiletto deep into her kidney and up into her lung. The hag growling and gasping and jerking slightly as the knife slid into her.
“I cast aside that which impedes me. We could have saved lives together but you’re only ruin. May your blood thi-”
Blood and sunfire erupted out of Arali’s back as Lord Arras Danathan drove his ancient sun lance through her stomach and out her back. Valeo lept away with a manly shriek and scoured the ground for his pistol while the blood elf was taken away on the lance. He found and cocked it and walked steadily after them, all fear awash. Ready to put a bullet between her eyes to end this if she was still alive, somehow. But he knew she was no more. “I can make sure anyways tho. I know just where to put her when we’re done.”
There would be no need for a bullet: the witch aelf’s life was clearly forfeit. The lance had separated her spine from her hips, and her still legs lay twisted at an awkward angle where only the flesh of her abdomen kept her from being torn clean in half.
Laughing, blood bubbling from her lips, the dying woman offered up a small scroll in her blood-slick fingers, the type carried upon the leg of a messenger raven. Confused, Valeo took and unfurled it as the aelf’s arm dropped limply, the woman expiring from the massive blood loss.
The Valencia man read it once, then twice, his mouth silently forming the words “Udamone Claspthirst”. Teeth clenched, the note crushed in a balled, white-knuckled fist, Valeo leveled his heirloom pistol again and unloaded it in the corpse’s face. “Doppelganger,” he spat. “Decoy!”
“Arali Heartsbane was never really here!”
South of Bolyany
The Prosecutor-Prime saluted Arali as she landed, her wings beating to a halt. “Compliments from Lady Cria, Slaughterqueen. She confirms that the Engine is on the other side of the blockade. It’s being carried to the gate as we speak.”
Arali Heartsbane felt a wave of relief. She had never really doubted that the Pilgrimage would go through the Expedition dogs like a knife through a throat- but there was always the chance for something to go wrong.
“My compliments to her in turn. She’s to maintain her forward momentum at all costs- we must break through. Tell her I look forward to meeting when all this is over.” The Prime saluted again, and then jumped back into the air, speeding north.
And something had gone wrong. The fight with the Expedition was planned as a set-piece battle, an organized assault against prepared defenses. They were ready for that, and with overwhelming force and a solid battle-plan had managed to sweep Bjornssen’s chaff back into Bolyany, there to stay penned at their leisure. What she hadn’t adequately prepared for- what none of the Pilgrimage had- was the tide of vermin, boiling out of the forests at their rear.
Torag Tome-Eater had found them first, on his journey to attack her faithless sire’s blockade- seemingly an isolated Skaven warren, what had looked to the Brain Biters to be a day’s simple diversion had rapidly spiraled into a rapid withdrawal. Prince Yllethras confirmed this- thousands of the rat-men spilled out of their holes, and though the Sylvaneth made a brave stand in the end the Wretched proved overwhelming. But their warning kept the battle from dissolving into a rout- had the beasts (and then the Nurglites, and the Frostsworn) fallen on them by surprise while they were committed to the assault… Arali shuddered to think of the consequences. As it was they’d barely prevented an attempt to sabotage the Engine itself. If there had only been a handful fewer guards…
She was drawn back to the present by a lone Hearthguard puffing out of the forest as fast as his legs could carry him.
“Lady… Lady Arali, I bring word from Runeson Drakefist. Lady Arali, th’ mountain… it’s lost…”
“Which mountain?” Her mind cast about, trying to picture the terrain to the south and where the Gryndrn lodge might have been forced back. But the messenger shook his head, still panting.
“Nae a mountain… Th’ Mountain. Th’ bloody great Shaggoth, ‘e’s smashin’ everything ‘e touches… breakin’ th’ lines… we can’t ‘old ‘im off much longer.”
She felt a scowl come over her face. So they would take the Ghyrplunge but lose the lake itself? No matter. The tides of war had changed before, and they could change again.
“You’ve done well. Bring my thanks to the Runeson, and tell him to sound the retreat. Send word to Duke Gibbetmaw as well. But…” Her frown turned into a sly smile. “Leave the Ashfyrd behind.” Zharn Bronson and his lodge had proven fickle allies at best throughout the war, and it was only fitting that they should die usefully.
“Aye.” The Heartguard grinned toothily and ran off, back to his compatriots.
So. The advance would also be a retreat- no matter. The Expedition’s lines were well and truly broken, and once their full army was at the Ghyrplunge, with Amasya at their rear? The Blood God himself couldn’t force a breach. Let them come.
It had been a good day. Qwaark Rustwater had killed many foes and eaten much flesh. Yellow-crested and stony-skinned Duardin, mostly- he’d chipped a tooth on one of the latter, to his dismay- but also a savory cut of an Ogor he’d helped Verminlord Technofire carve up. But now? Now they were going to eat Aelf.
True, there were Aelves scattered all along the battlefront- like the sentry that lay at his feet- but Qwaark and his friends had decided they wanted one Aelf in particular. It had taken a lot of screaming at dead Aelves, and more screaming at live ones, before Qwaark had learned where she was going to be, but it had all been worth it. He licked his lips. Bazak’s plan would go forward, but he’d be the one to decide how she ended up. As good as if she’d been on a plate already.
The thunder crackling to the south marked the rampage of the Mountain, putting the Duardin and the Ogors and their allies to flight wherever he appeared. It meant that their foes were running. It meant that there were only a few of them left guarding their Queen. It meant that there was Aelf to be eaten. One of his neighbors gave a snort of excitement, and heads turned in their direction. Qwaark rolled his eyes and then bleated out his battle cry-
The knives were in Arali’s hands almost before the noise of the ambush reached her ears. Her companions and guards might cry with alarm or fumble for their weapons, but not her. Not a Slaughterqueen, not one of Khaine’s chosen. She met the foe midway through their charge, ready to skewer whoever she met first-
Their leader plowed into her without ceremony, beak and horns tearing into flesh. She sailed backwards, somersaulting to land on her feet, a prayer on her lips.
Khaine grant me victory.
Qwaark howled as the very blood inside his veins seemed to boil, flesh reddening and burning, waves of agony wracking his body. In that moment, the Aelf-queen was back, long blades seeking and finding, one carving deep into his belly. He was losing blood quickly, but he roared in a mix of rage and anguish all the same.
The beast howled, and for one pathetic instant Arali froze- and then he was back, grappling with her, trying to pin her down. She struggled, but the Gor had greater strength- he swung his fist, and her head rang with the blow. He swung again, and she twitched aside at the last second, strike passing uselessly by. He drew his arm back- her knife was in her hand-
It was ironic, Qwaark decided. He’d come to this battle with a very specific purpose in mind. But after the wound he’d taken… he might not be eating Aelf today after all.
Even with the death of Arali Heartsbane at the Wretched blade of Qwaark Rustwater, the Pilgrimage had won a victory… of sorts. Despite the presence of the Light of Eltharion and an attempt by Sardona Swift and the wizard Vallash Kall on the Enlightenment Engine directly, the Stormcast of Balthnor Rosewolf and their newfound Sylvaneth allies were able to safely usher the device through the Ghyrplunge, securing the Pilgrimage’s claim to Lake Bykaal by right of conquest. Even the Expedition’s end-run to reclaim the Realmgate had fallen short, as the forces of the Emerald Canticle and the Stormshadow Crusaders were forced to withdraw before the overwhelming numbers of the regrouping Pilgrimage.
With Arali’s dream secure and her martyrdom foremost in the minds of her followers, they would nevertheless need to move quickly and tactfully to make good on the promise of their new lands. The Dreadfleet of Arali’s father was lost to Soulmuncher hands, and after their defeats by Gutrot Spume’s Rotkrakens at Nyuranka and the Wretched south of Bolyany, the Pilgrimage controlled no land below the Strait of Lauchon and the Cairn of the Pale Saint…
The ship looked like the thin edge of a blade, cutting through the frigid water like scissors through cheap cloth. It was clearly built for speed and maneuverability, to cross the Realms quickly and efficiently and without any unnecessary encounters or entanglements. The cleanness of its design, the efficiency of its crew and its course, the subdued menace it projected all marked it out as a deftly wielded instrument of the highest quality- this more than any ostentation signaled the significance of its cargo.
Udamone Claspthirst did not shiver from the cold, and she would not shiver from trepidation. The note had just said to meet someone here- it had not said who, or why. She was confused, because she knew not what the summons were for- and afraid, because she had an inkling she actually did.
There was a figure standing at the prow, a woman, and as the ship drew almost to the shore Udamone studied her. She was tall, with a bearing that radiated pride of place and almost demanded obedience. She was beautiful, almost ethereally so, and looked young- younger almost than Udamone herself, though age and appearance were deceptive for any inhabitant of Ulgu and the servants of Khaine especially. And she was calculating- as the ship drew to a halt and the visitor walked down the gangplank she didn’t even bother to hide how her eyes vivisected Udamone like a sacrifice on the altar of the Lord of Murder. She nodded, apparently satisfied with what she saw. Then she smiled.
“Greetings in the name of the Shadow Queen. I am Hellendra Fayscorn, High Priestess of the Khelt Nar. You sent a letter to the High Oracle, did you not?”
Stones settled in Udamone’s gut. So that was what it was about. “I did.” Weeks ago- she’d almost forgotten about it by now.
“And where is the Slaughterqueen now?”
“Dead.” Fayscorn’s eyes widened a hair, and then she nodded with the air of an artist appreciating another’s masterwork. She thinks I killed the Slaughterqueen! Udamone’s mind flashed back to the letter’s hidden postscript.
If the Engine is to be retrieved for our cause, and Chaos properly confronted, I must obey Arali’s interests for the present. But I have beheld her long enough already to perceive that, perchance in her very hour of victory, she will serve Khaine best as a sacrifice to His Godhood.
“The weak must be weeded out, in order to safeguard the strong. Tell me, how did she fall?”
“It was a Gor. A pack of them.” Those who showed their emotions too openly did not rise high or last long in the Cult of the Bloody-Handed God, and Udamone was glad of it. If the High Priestess knew how her stomach was churning…
“It always is something like that, isn’t it? Much better than a poisoned cup or a knife in the dark. And it makes things very easy for me.”
Udamone was silent for a long moment, and then understanding blossomed like blood from a chest wound. “You are taking control.”
“Is there any with the authority to oppose me? Are there any with the desire? Arali was a tool who served her purpose. All of Bykaal that matters belongs to the Queen of Shadow now… what remains is the task of finishing the war, and winning the peace that lies ahead.”
“It has been moved and seconded that we stop debate and vote on the pending question, which is whether Hammerhal should withdraw its writ of annexation over the Lake Bykaal area. All in favor of stopping debate and voting now, raise your right hand.” Aventis Firestrike’s masked gaze swept the forest of arms, silently counting. “Thank you. All opposed, same sign? Thank you. The ayes have it and the matter will come to a vote.”
Noyathar Sterntalon gave a sigh of relief. The Council of Hammerhal had debated the matter going on two solid days now, and if he had to listen to another overfed, overbred dandy rehash the same points he would scream. Everything down to the identity of the apparently renegade Stormcast they named Balthnor had been picked apart like vultures atop an old corpse. Regardless of the vote- at least they could stop talking about the motives, and start talking about the consequences.
“All in favor of withdrawing the writ of annexation over Bykaal, raise your right hand.” Noyathar looked around curiously at the motion’s supporters. How many of them honestly believed the lake was better off under the Pilgrimage? More than had a week before, undoubtedly, considering the tectonic impact of the Enlightenment Engine’s recapture. How many had been swayed by the dark rumors circling around Hammerhal’s own Expedition? He didn’t believe that Anruil Brighteyes or his cronies were really consorting with Chaos worshippers… but not everyone had the same faith as he. How many were afraid of the consequences of defying the Daughters of Khaine? And how many were simply in it for the money?
“Thank you. All opposed, same sign?” Noyathar put his hand in the air, and glanced around again. He couldn’t tell if there were more or fewer arms up for or against, but the Magister of Hammerhal clearly could.
“Thank you. The final tally is five hundred and twelve for, four hundred and eighty seven against. Motion carries- Hammerhal’s claim to Bykaal is withdrawn.”
“You voted in favor.” Noyathar glanced at his partner, who smiled enigmatically.
“Of course I did.” Kersaala Anemara sipped at the glass of wine held between two of her fingers. “It was the right thing to do.”
“Why?” His brow furrowed. “What could possibly come right from that?”
“Bykaal is at war.” Kersaala swirled her drink. “It needs strong leadership, which won’t come from Althariel’s whelp or the people he chose to surround himself with. The Pilgrimage has the iron hand needed to keep control.”
“But their control is not our control. Hammerhal has lost a territory.”
“Oh Noyathar. I love your simple take on things. It’s refreshing.” She took another sip of her drink. “But not always correct. Yes, we’ve lost direct control over what we didn’t own to begin with… but the Ghyrplunge has Hammerhal on either side of it. Tell me, will Fayscorn or her court cut deals with Nagash?”
“No.” Noyathar chuckled. “Not in a thousand years.”
“Then any supplies need to come through Amasya… which is our territory. That gives us influence. And what of Bolyany? Tsatraya?”
He nodded, seeing Kersaala’s logic. “They’re full of soldiers loyal to Hammerhal still. Soldiers, citizens, officers. And if the Pilgrims want to move into the south of the lake…”
“They’ll have to cut deals. Make accommodations with those who still look to our city to lead them.” She drained the rest of her glass. “They’ll find that Hammerhal’s hand still weighs heavy on Bykaal.”
“So you weren’t voting to surrender Bykaal, so much as for… a more stable way of ruling it.”
“That. And the mountain of gold and favors the Daughters promised me for my influence.” Noyathar spluttered, and she smiled impishly. “Enough talk of frozen wastes, though. Come here- there are more pleasant things to think about…”
“It’s one of my favorite things in the world, watching the snowfall on the lake.” It had been diminished of late, as the Realms beyond rushed into what had been his bubble of solemnity, but in moments like this he could almost leave the war behind.
Almost. He glanced over at where his daughter stood, a short ways off. She hadn’t forgiven him, he knew, and who was to blame her? A meeting, an attempt at rapprochement, a few days spent together hardly made up for centuries of neglect. What reigned now was a brittle sort of peace, born of exhaustion as much as anything. Arali had tried to kill him at first, raging for hours before realizing the sheer futility of one ghost’s quest for vengeance against another. It was a start, and he had more than enough time to do the rest… if.
“What’s left to us now?” It was the first she’d spoken to him that wasn’t a scream or a bitter threat. He nodded.
“Eternity.” Anruil Althariel looked out at the waters on the horizon, churning with poison, and the uncertain future they held. “Provided we win.”
Across Lake Bykaal
The mysterious affliction borne by the malignant would take a macabre turn for the worst in the closing days of the war. Seemingly all at once, those with symptoms appeared to lose their minds, their bodies jerked to their feet like puppets on taut strings. Those worst affected were reduced to howling and thrashing, clawing at their comrades to escape, while those better off wailed of what felt like a searing heat in their minds, drawing them out and away. Some were contained, physically locked away, but many, many more broke free and ran, lunging, stumbling, into the gathering winter storm taking hold of the lake…
What Remains of the Breach
Hilmar felt it like a knife behind his eyes; a white, blinding pain, replacing sensation, replacing thought, obliterating all perception of the world around him. Somewhere, in another world, another life, he felt Batis buck and heave beneath him, nearly tumbling from the sky. His steed felt it, too. It was pulling him, pulling them, like the irresistible riptide of a roaring ocean, pulling them down, pulling them in…
Then, the beast righted itself, and the Thunderstruck shook off the worst of the haze. No, he- they- were more than this. They would not succumb to that which took Han Shinzong and his steed. He ran his hand along the scales of Batis’ neck reassuringly. They were in this together now, and they would make it through, somehow.
As the malice in his mind twisted and turned, inspiration struck Hilmar. Grinning like a cheshire cat behind his muted gray war mask, he realize the key to ending this was in his grasp.
Mithridates Besh was calling them back, and by Sigmar, Hilmar Thunderstruck would go.
There was nothing else.
The Ur-Whale’s Floating Corpse
It was the most beautiful sight Mithridates Besh had seen in an aeon.
No, that wasn’t right. Mithridates Besh wasn’t that old. An age, perhaps? Or maybe two, for it was true, the mortal man Besh had been was born at the dawn of the Age of Chaos, and the God-King Sigmar had brought that era to an end over a century before this war.
It was the most beautiful sight the Nemesis had seen in an aeon.
The titanic body of the ur-whale hung suspended above the lake, its furthest extremities nothing more than implied shapes in the winter mists. Great cables of disgusting, rotting rope looped down like spilled intestines where the bloated grandchildren had attached them to their tentacled beasts of burden. Around it, great chunks of ice had been thrust upward and hung like a great broken staircases built for gargants of a bygone age, each icy landing a battlefield in its own right.
It was time to call the children home. The thing that was once Mithridates Besh held up its arms. It grinned a rictus grin, its cheeks splitting open to reveal molars slipping free of liquefying gums. The skin fell from its fingers and arms like torn bedsheets, the ligaments beneath splitting apart like worn yarn. It was possible that somewhere deep inside, the Priest-King of Amasya bore witness even now, but that screaming voice had gone hoarse and given out centuries earlier… and now, his body was coming to its end, too. Fitting, the Nemesis thought, for a pathetic Nagash worshipper to meet his destruction in the Realm of Death.
The Nemesis felt minds beyond counting turn and face him, splinters drawn back to rejoin the sundered whole. The body of Besh let his arms fall to his sides, the putrid, burnt flesh of his chest drawn against his ribs, and returned his gaze to the Ur-Whale. This puppet’s use was at an end, yes, but soon, it would possess a far mightier one…
“What will be, what will be, truth will bind and set us free, through fiery animosity, Nemesis’ sovereignty…”