The theme for our 27th seasonal short story contest provided by the wise @Killer Angel , "Unusual Allegiances" We end up with a three-way tie. As much as fun as it would be to make the authors fight to death, I figured packing an arena with specators would be irresponsible given the new out waves of Covid going on right now. So lets have a second round of voting. Voting shall be open for 13 days. Please read or reread all three stories before voting. You may vote for ONE piece. Spoiler: The Enemy Inside" THE ENEMY INSIDE Prelude – the first battle The swarm of daemons was smashing against the ranks of the saurus warriors. From the top of the armored bastiladons, bolts of searing lights were digging scorched grooves through the amassed red horrors, only for the gaps to be filled again by other screeching beasts. Just another battle, another one of the endless incursions by daemons in Lustria, another desperate stand in defense of a temple city, under the black and red sky, torned by the connection to the warp. Then, the Slann threw his hands into the air, in the final gestures of a spells that he was casting since the beginning of the battle. A large vortex of blue energy materialized into the sky, sucking the black and red filaments from the daemonic portal, shrinking it…. closing it. And for the very first time in their life, the children of the Old Ones felt something they never experienced in battling daemon. They smelled fear. ------------------------------------------------------ Krenn-qu was standing, waiting to be acknowledged. The Temple Guards at the entrance were apparently not paying attention to him, but he could sense their innate tension, ready to strike if something could vaguely represent a threat to the master they were assigned to. Despite towering the High Priest K’umk’u, despite being used to roar orders during battles, Krenn-qu knew that here he was powerless. Finally, K’umk’u raised his head from his paperwork. “So, why the commander of the Northern Spawnings regiments insists to speak with me?” “I’ve got a question, your Highness, put lesser priests don’t answer.” K’umk’u sighed “…and once you lot are fixed on one thing, you don’t let it go. Tell me” “After the battle, I’ve heard a priest saying that the daemons will stay dead this time. Don’t understand” “It is not for you to know” “…” “But I see you are unhappy with this answer. I don’t want a uneasy commander. Let’s say this: when a Saurus dies, his spirit goes in the otherside of the stars, and eventually will come back to the spawning pools. For daemons is a similar thing: their spirit goes back into the warp and reincarnates in a new body. This time, thanks to the magic of Lord Nanahua, they were forbid this escape route. With no connection to the warp they just died. Forever.” “I… see”. “Good. You’re dismissed, and stop harassing my priests.” Krenn-qu walked away. The real question was still unanswered of course, but he couldn’t dare to ask it. And he already knew the answer. It was in his head. “See? it was as I told you, you dumb scaly servant.” ------------------------------------------------------ 2nd Prelude – the first battle Krenn-qu unit was closing into the remnants of the bloodletters. It was no more fear they were smelling to… it was pure panic. Slashing with claws against hardened scales, screeching and trying to push through the closing circle of shields. Trying to find a gap and run away. There was only one of them that was still fighting with the will to kill. Bigger than all the other ones, with a crude plaque hooked between its horns and adorned by the symbol of Khorne, wearing a scale mail and iron bracers. Krenn-qu closed in for the kill. Parry, feint, a sword blow deflected by the shield and finally the mace that came down, crushing the head. It had been even too easy. A second later, Krenn-qu felt… that thing. That weird sensation. It was almost like when, a long time ago, he had been “crossed” by a ghostly undead, which almost killed him. But that time it lasted a cold moment, while now Krenn-qu felt something inside him. Something that was clutching into his brain, making room. And then he heard that grasping voice, lacerating his thoughts. “Khorne be praised! I feared I wouldn’t have make it!” ------------------------------------------------------ Krenn-qu was standing on the edge of the cliff, looking down at the raging river Qu’Antly; the sharpened rocks were there, half emerging from the white froth. “Were I you, I wouldn’t do it” “If I die, you die” “Or maybe I will just return to my realm, now that the magic of your tubby frog is no more” Krenn-qu stayed silent. “But Chaos won’t have one of us. It has never happened, and I won’t let it happen now” “Nurgle’s ass! I could stay here forever, I cannot take over your spirit. You lack a… certain spiritual leverage we need. Your Old Ones were smart Gods. And your duty is to stay alive and fight, isn’t it?” Krenn-qu looked into the canyon again. The daemon was right. He was unable to kill himself, as a warrior is born to fight and is not allowed to waste its life. And to tell the truth to a priest would have meant death. “I will get rid of you. there will be many battles in which I shall have the opportunity to die on duty” “Yes, but for now this will be our little secret.” ------------------------------------------------------ In the end, the battle awaited by Krenn-qu was upon them. The putrid stench of the skaven was overwhelming, as the furry tide was pushing toward the whole defensive line of the saurian forces. The carnage was half clouded by billowing clouds of green smoke. “Let’s go fight!… you lazy, insufferable coward! I need you to smash some bone!” “Our time will come. No wonder you always lose, you lack any discipline” “I cannot wait! I want blood! I want…” “Here they come.” Like the branches of a river, the skavens were swarming through the gaps between the saurian cohorts, encircling them, penetrating further and further into the deployed army. Until every trickle met a pocket with no exit, bordered by a wall of shields. With a roar, Krenn-qu and his regiment closed in, while the trapped incursors realized this was their doom. But this was not the end. The massacre of hundreds of slaves and warriors was merely a distraction… a sacrifice to turn the battle into a chaotic melee. It was at that point, when there was no more a cohesive line of defense, that a dozen of pits opened under the feet of the fighters, releasing a nightmare of claws and teeth: double headed giant rats, bulky beasts tall as a kroxigor with saw-like blades instead of arms, and many more horrors. It was pure chaos. Krenn-qu moved toward the nearest fight, followed by his brothers, struggling to get near the enemy. A towering, massive beast large as a stegadon had emerged… a writhing, hideous mountain of flesh, marked by horrible scars and grafted with mechanical bits and a multitude of heads, randomly sprouting from its body. When Krenn-qu arrived, two squads of warriors had already been decimated. At least two dozens of spears were stuck in the body of the beast, which was screaming in hate and pain. Krenn-qu could only watch when the monster raised one of the last survivors, ripping him apart with the hungry jaws of the main head. He knew his mace would have been no match for that beast… he dropped the shield and the weapon, and took a couple of lances from two dead sauri. Krenn-qu charged. The malicious eyes of the abomination noticed him, and it propelled itself toward that new opponent, rearing up to a towering height… when the mountain of flesh smashed down, to just crush him under its mere weight, Krenn-qu didn’t even tried to dodge the killing blow. He went directly under it, placing the double spears to receive the full impact. Krenn-qu sensed, more than see, the spears penetrating into the chest of the monster. The smashing avalanche of flesh stunned him. Krenn-qu was buried under a putrid mass of withering flesh, trembling in the spasms of agony. The weight was impossible to bear… he could not breath, and he perceived his ribs on the verge of cracking. He felt his strength sapping away. “NO!!!” A burst of energy ran through the entire body of Krenn-qu. “We are not dying here!”. What the saurus warriors saw, was the upper body of the dead beast slowly rising and their commander lifting it, emerging from under the corpse, finally pushing it aside with a final roar. Not even the strongest of the kroxigors could have done it. Krenn-qu was clearly blessed by the Old Ones. Their leader would have taken them to victory. The warriors roared with exaltation.. and if someone noticed the red eyes of the Scar Veteran, surely they were bloodshot due to the immense effort. “Ahahahahahah!!!! yes!!!! this was a real KILL!” “welcome to Lustria. This is how we live and die, daemon”. “I am Gra'rzhal Fireripper, my fellow slayer… and I’m not done with killing. We have a battle to win!” Spoiler: "Only in Death" Only in Death Oxtluc shifted uneasily and tightened his grip on his spear. Rain patterned down from the canopy above, rattling away from the hardened scales of the Lizardmen. And yet an eerie silence had descended upon the forest. No birds called from the trees, no predators stalked the brush, even the insects that would normally swarm the air seemed to have vanished. The phalanx of Saurus glared at the clicking ranks of skeletal Lizardmen and other walking corpses that marched through the rain to take up position beside them. Several Saurus turned their heads to regard Oxtluc as if willing him to let them loose and attack the undead. The Old Blood shook his head slightly and they continued to watch the arrival of their questionable allies. Sat on a palanquin of bone and gristle was what once had been a Skink Priest, now wizened and dried by the very powers he wielded and yet still impossibly alive. Glowering eyes tinged with witch lights gazed out from the eye sockets of the bleached skull helm covering his face and blackened bony claws idly wove intricate patterns in the air. Oxtluc hissed low at the sight of the traitor, the priest that had turned to forbidden necromancy. These were the monsters Oxtluc had to raise his spear beside to fight worse monsters, a thought that had not settled well in the Old Blood. The Skaven of the disease cult had risen once more in Lustria’s forests and according to the star scryers if unchecked would reach the walls of Itza. Several armies had been swiftly assembled to drive back the ratmen, but they were stretched thin. The tide of Skaven seemed near endless. For Oxtluc’s army news had come of Zikatl, a former Skink Priest exiled for his dark beliefs and magical practice, offering to join tails to fight off the Skaven. Oxtluc had initially dismissed the thought until the Skink Priest Ikylatl had predicted their doom without the traitor’s aid. The palanquin was lowered to the ground by a pair of undead Kroxigors and Zikatl rose. “Hail Oxtluc, mighty Old Blood,” the necromancer spoke in a whispered voice that still cut through the air. “I am glad that we shall fight together to defend the Plans of the Old Ones, and that through our efforts we may further their goals.” Oxtluc stomped forwards and brandished his spear, the glyphs engraved on its surface glittering in the rain. “Your path spits upon the Great Plan,” he hissed, feeling his own army bristle with animosity behind him. The necromancer seemed to smile behind his bone mask. “Oh? You doubt my loyalty to our people to our creators? Listen, mighty Oxtluc. Why should we let death stop us from continuing to protect our cities and the Great Plan? What would you give to serve the Great Plan, Oxtluc?” The Old Blood snarled. “Enough. For now we are allies, tomorrow enemies again. Understood?” Zikatl dipped his head in mock agreement and lashed his tail in amusement. “The Pestilens camp lies to the east, we attack before nightfall,” Oxtluc said at last and began to growl a series of commands to his army. The necromancer said nothing and was lifted back into the air by the undead Kroxigors, his shambling horde beginning the march alongside the living. ------------------------------------------------------- Lifeblood soaked the forest floor and mired there with the constant thrum of rain as the Lustrians clove through the Skaven. And yet the ratmen continued to fight with a rabid fervour, for every three green robed Skaven slain they dragged down one of their own foes. Zikatl’s undead horde ground against the Skaven’s own teeming ranks, again and again dark energy collected around his talons as he drew the dead back to their feet and hurled them back into the fray. Shrieking spirits swirled around the necromancer warding off any attacks from the Skaven. Oxtluc was surrounded by a sea of Plague Monks as he battled to reach the Plague Priest leading the horde. Around him his warriors bought him time as they cut through ragged robes even as they were dragged down. Finally he stood before the bloated disease ridden priest and with a roar lunged towards, rain hissing from his spear as the power of the Old Ones radiated through it in a bright glow. The Skaven gave a burbled shriek as Oxtluc buried his spear deep within it and then grunted in pain. As the Plague Priest fell away from him, Oxtluc looked down to see a blade lodged deep in his chest. He tore it out and tried to move forwards as the Skaven around him started to break and flee. The world span and Oxtluc sank to the ground. He stared up past the forest canopy and into the dark skies lurking above. Done...my...duty... And Oxtluc’s world went dark. ------------------------------------------------------- Oxtluc opened his eyes. The forest was tinged with grey, as if all the colours of the world had been bled out. He felt strange, he could barely feel the rain that rattled from his scales. Around him other Saurus stood, the wounds that killed them visible to even Oxtluc's grey filmed sight. Confused, he felt for the wound that the Plague Priest had dealt him, concern flickering in his dulled mind as his movements seemed sluggish and off. Though he could barely feel, he found his pierced and dead heart. He looked up and found Zikatl gazing upon him from his palanquin. Oxtluc tried to snarl, tried to speak, but all that came was a low moan. The necromancer tilted his skull encased head for a moment and then turned away. Unable to resist, Oxtluc and the others shambled in his wake. Spoiler: "A Skaven, a Dark Elf and a Chaos Dwarf Walk Into the Jungle..." A SKAVEN, DARK ELF AND CHAOS DWARF WALK INTO A JUNGLE... Kharrak dropped to the jungle floor, frothing from the mouth as the virulent poisons overwhelmed even his Chaos Dwarf’s hardy constitution. Gharluk swore under his breath and turned back towards his unseen pursuers, shield held high. Nothing. Even after his ship was boarded there had still been a fairly large amount of survivors. The lizards who had boarded ship had brought larger, flame-belching lizards but these had only killed about half of the crew before they escaped. None of the dwarves had spared a second thought for the slaves, all of whom perished in the flames or drowned as the ship went down. He felt a fresh wave of anger over his burns, Hashut was lord of the furnace and fire! How dare they turn this against him! When they had gotten ashore, they had thought to salvage something from the ship, but the lizards had harassed them immediately. The jungle favoured the creatures and the Chaos Dwarves had been forced inland to search for cover. None had been found and their attempted escape through the jungle had resulted in them being whittled down to two... well, one now. Gharluk snarled and wiped sweat out of his eyes. Still holding the shield high, he pushed his way through the foliage trying to find somewhere defensible. - Kathos leapt over a log and huddled behind it, his keen elven eyes searching for the damned lizards that had been tailing him. What a disaster this had been! Freak winds had driven the Black Ark he was stationed on onto the rocks, just after they had returned from a successful raid in Ulthuan. The last thing the look-out had seen was a small lizard atop a nearby cliff, glowing with power as he doubtless harnessed the elements against them. As far as he knew, he was the only survivor. His thought had been to somehow move north towards his homelands but unseen stalkers dogged his every move and he would have died many times over if not for his keen eyes spotting motion in the undergrowth and elven reflexes. No movement. He must have lost them for now. Keeping low, he spotted the sun through the canopy and set off north again. - Skirrik squirted the musk of fear. Again. That last dart had missed by a whiskersbreadth. He breathed heavily with his back to the large tree. He must have lost them by now. His raiding party had moved up the coast but the ambush had separated him from the main body of troops. He had no idea where he was or where his kin were. Not that he cared. He had already made an agreement to betray his fang-leader in exchange for swearing to Warlord Snik-Snak, who would then promote him in turn to fang-leader himself. He had had such a grand plan to plant damning evidence that his leader was hoarding warpstone without reporting to the Council of Thirteen, resulting in him being cast down into slavery. He would have been the perfect pet, chained to show all the others the extent of Skirrik’s masterful cunning. Panting from the running, he poked his shield slightly around the tree. He flinched as three darts struck the edge, green poison running down the shield. Skirrick threw himself to floor and started crawling on all fours through the waist high undergrowth. He needed somewhere to hide! - The small clearing lay deep in the undergrowth. The tall trees were alive with life. Plants bloomed up and down the trees, birds and lizards of all descriptions scurried up and down and leapt between branches. A vision of balance. Of nature. Viewed from above, three trails of disturbance made their way through the surrounding trees towards the clearing. Not that much could be seen through the canopy, but birds and small flying reptiles flew up from three distinct lines all rapidly approaching the clearing. Branches and smaller trees moved as they were disturbed from below. The clearing exploded into action. A stocky, bearded Dwarf grappled with two larger lizards on one side of the clearing, while a slender, lithe Elf exchanged flurried blows with several smaller creatures. A hunched Skaven burst from one side of the clearing, running straight through the combat and disappearing into the other side of the clearing, it’s pursuers running into the other combats already ongoing in the center. - Skirrik offered up prayers to the Horned Rat. He had escaped his pursuers only to run headlong into several smaller lizards but, thankfully, his god hadn't abandoned him and they had all been aiming blowpipes at something else in the clearing he had run from. Dispatching them from behind, the true Skaven way, had been easy and his sword dripped with lizard blood as the last of them twitched in death throes before him. Turning, Skirrik saw two of the lizard creatures with their backs towards him. Seeing that he was truly blessed, he scurried forwards for the proffered backs. He could strike them before they came for him again! As he leaped forwards with his poisoned blades, he remembered the old Skaven adage: If at first you don’t succeed, wait until their back is turned... - Gharluk swore, he was being flanked by the smaller lizards! He needed to make some space in the combat! Shoving the large lizard in front of him sideways into his fellow with his shield, Gharluk rushed as fast as his stunted legs would carry him into the mustered lizards. In the whirlwind of combat, he didn’t notice that they were not attacking him but the Elf beyond. - Kathos cursed the gods. Three of these small lizards he could deal with, but another four were charging towards him. His mind raced to come up with some tactic as he blocked the blows from the three before him, but before he could do anything a Dwarf crashed into the approaching lizards from the side. Focusing again on the three before him, Kathos plunged his blade into the throat of one lizards while the other’s attention was drawn away by the new arrivals. Down to two, they lasted only seconds faced by the Corsair’s superior swordsmanship and twin blades. Spinning to confront any new threats, Kathos saw a large lizard with his back to him. Taking advantage of the element of surprise, he darted forwards and plunged his blades deep into the back of the lizard. The creature roared in pain and slumped forwards to the ground, revealing a Skaven standing over the body of another lizard. Kathos’ surprise stopped him for a moment. Hold on, a Dwarf? Skaven? What was going on here? In Kathos’ peripheral vision, he spotted one of the smaller lizards darting forwards. Dragging his blades from the body, he realized his moment of hesitation had been a fatal error and his back muscles tightened as they awaited the blow landing. It never landed. Kathos turned to see the Dwarf crushing the life out of the little lizard. - The clearing was quiet again, but now without the rushing life of small creatures. Indeed, the clearing was deathly silent, first from the bodies lying dead and broken around the clearing and second from the three figures warily eyeing each other. - Skirrik spoke up first. Knowing he was the weakest of three, he defaulted to nervous grovelling. “Good-good, many thanks for slay-slay the hairless ones.” Yes-yes, make them think you offer no threat-threat. Then wait for the backs to turn. Strike-strike, quick-quick. Kathos, his eyes slightly narrowed, responded. “Yes, it seems that we find ourselves as allies.” The dwarf will have to go, there’s no way to subjugate him. The rat however... The rat will make a fine slave. Gharluk spoke up. “Yes, perhaps we can assist each other to escape this mess. Eternal Hashut, why have you saddled me with two weaklings? I’ll need to break the elf and rat will fall into line. The elf spoke again, “Let us leave this place before more of their ilk arrive. Lead the way, Skaven. I will cover the rear.” The dwarf suspects me, he must be dealt with immediately. Gharluk’s eyes were narrowed now as well. “Your elven senses will do best in further forward.” The rat is of no consequence, but the Elf... The Elf must die... Skirrik squirmed as sweat formed on his forehead. In his best grovelly voice, “Sorry-sorry, nose hurt during the fight. Cannot smell-smell. Best to have Elf-thing at front.” Wait-wait. Their backs... Their backs must be turned... “It’s decided then.” Dwarven eyes narrowed even further. “Yes, follow me.” Elven eyes narrowed more. “Yes-yes, I follow-follow.” A bead of sweat ran down the Skaven nose. Kathos checked the sun and strode towards the edge of the clearing. I’ll double-back in the undergrowth, once the Dwarf is gone the rat will be mine. Gharluk followed as fast as his legs would carry him. As he passed the rat, he grabbed it by the scruff of it’s neck and threw him towards the Elf. Preternaturally alert, the Elf spun as it drew both it’s blades and slashed backwards, narrowly missing the squealing rat as it recoiled from the blades. A dwarven axe flashed towards his side and he barely parried the blow as he span towards the new threat. Swords and axe clashed, as the two exchanged blows. The Corsair’s blows were faster and after the element of surprise was gone he had the measure of his opponent and soon wounds dripped blood from the Dwarf’s arm and right leg. - Skirrik raised himself up from the ground as the dwarf and elf clashed in the center. He was no fool, whichever one of these prevailed would be too much for him to handle and he would end up dead or enslaved. Drawing his blade, he crept closer. He would need a moment where both of them somehow had their backs turned. He needed an idea... Glancing down at his shield, it came to him. Perfect. - Kathos closed in, a cruel smile on his face. He could see the dwarf’s expression now was haggard and he was close to tiring him out. He had never tortured one of Hashut’s chosen. His smile widened, he would actually enjoy this. Pain exploded from his shoulder as he was knocked forwards by a weight hitting his back. He tried to reach round with his right hand, but it was no longer responding and hung loosely at his side. He tried to shake off the Skaven clutching his back but to no avail. He dropped his sword and with his left hand grasped the Skaven’s leg and threw him from his back. Now he could deal with- - The elf’s expression was almost comical as Gharluk swung his axe down. As he was splattered with brain matter, he felt a moment of loss that he wouldn’t be able to work this one slowly to the bone in one of his mines and shatter his very will to live. Gharluk was not surprised that the Skaven had chosen this moment to strike. Sneaky, backstabbing little creatures. Almost as bad as a Hobgoblin. Pulling his axe free from the corpse, he spotted the rat getting to it’s feet. He was no fool. He knew that this thing would turn on him just as quickly when his back was turned. He limped forwards. - Skirrik staggered to his feet, his ankle twisted and pained. His original plan to strike one and then attack the other while they were still fighting was ruined now and escape was no option. He put on his most ingratiating expression. “You see-see, dwarf-thing. I help in fight-fight. I am useful, yes-yes?” The dwarf came closer. Skirrik squirted the musk of fear. Again. - Gharluk saw the Skaven had twisted it’s foot. A cruel smile came onto his face. Good. No running. He would have to somehow hide and tend his wounds before the lizards came back, but first... His smile broadened. First to have some pleasure. As he came closer, the Skaven bared it’s teeth and brandished it’s sword, but several heavy blows smashed the weapon from it’s grip. Gharluk dropped his own axe to the floor and gripped the rat by its neck. The Skaven’s eyes bulged as its oxygen was cut off and Gharluk leaned forwards as he throttled the mangy creature. It’s flailing arms cut at his back and shoulders causing a burning pain which he ignored as he concentrated on the joyful feeling of power. Slowly the scrabbling became less and less, until the rat’s eyes rolled up in its head and the arms dropped limply to it’s sides. Gharluk chuckled to himself. Even after all these years it still gave him savage pleasure to extinguish the life from one of the lesser races. He dropped the body to the floor and gathered his axe. He needed to leave. He was already feeling the effects of the sun beating down on him. He turned towards the edge of the jungle. The burning pain from the rat’s blows grew rapidly, spreading down his arm and over his shoulders. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted some things sticking out of his shoulder and yanked them free. Darts from the lizards. His mind raced, had he not felt the impact due to his other injuries? As the burning feeling spread further, his legs wobbled and he fell to his knees and had to steady himself on the ground with his hands. His gaze fell upon the Skaven’s hands, which clutched several more darts. He coughed, feeling foam gathering at the corners of his mouth as the burning sensation continued to spread, now like hot magma being poured over him. As his vision faded, the irony of the situation was not lost on him. - Itchi’qa watched as the last of the three figures toppled over. He looked over at Xctahi. The other Chameleon Skink shrugged and turned to slowly walk back into the jungle. Itchi’qa shook his head. Who knew what the lesser races thought. Maybe this had some kind of logic for them? He turned also and followed his spawn-brother into the jungle, leaving the scene of carnage behind.