The theme for our 27th seasonal short story contest provided by the wise @Killer Angel , "Unusual Allegiances" Also, this might make @NIGHTBRINGER happy, this is the 666th thread on the fluff forum. Please read all eight stories before voting. You may vote for up to two pieces. The order of the stories was determined completely randomly. The order has no bearing on which pieces were submitted in what order. If someone wants me to fix a typo or formatting error that slipped through the cracks. Please let me know by private message AND please post the entire story with all changes made. It's lot easier for me to copy and paste a new story rather than for me to dig through the text to find the three or four errant sentences. Spoiler: Story One: "A Question of Profit" A Question of Profit Captain’s Log, Aetherdate 16749.2 The Harvester of Wealth is on schedule to meet your request to set up a trading post, Lord-Magnate. I have made sure of it myself, for the Code decrees that if I fail, I shall be reduced to a mere deckhand, with a beardling raised to my rank in my place. Of course I have failed twice before, but by my sterling interpretation of potential loopholes of Artycle 5, my position has been saved. I would be lucky to escape blame-free a third time. Our next port of call is the city of Garmhold. Riddled with manlings and stormlings, but a business associate of mine says they’ve built up quite a knowledge of the surrounding land, which should be a great help to us in finding a location for our outpost. According to them our best chance of making a lucrative profit from trade and toll would be in the Mercuriam Mountains, some ten leagues away. They already have a contingent of troops deployed there in a small fort over a pass that’s regularly visited by caravans, so a commercial addition to that will be quite satisfactory, I’ll wager. We shall strike it rich, or my name isn’t Jurm Halfbeard. Captain’s Log supplemental Our vessel was attacked by a fleet of Grotbag Scuttlers. That’s the third time this week now this has happened. By Grungni, I despise those grobi pests. I can understand why our ancestors from the Karaks recorded them so many times in their Dammaz-kron. I mean, their rickety ships are no match for our proud Ironclad, there’s no doubt about that, but whenever one of them is blown out of the sky, two more take their place, and when one fleet of them is sent packing, yet another one pops out of the next cluster of stratocumulus. Durlir Sparkfingers is working tirelessly to fix the damage they’ve done, but our Endrinmaster can’t be everywhere at once. Captain’s Log, Aetherdate 16749.5 The crew have managed to fix the ship as best they can until we can reach the next Sky-Port, but we’ve encountered something far worse than Grobi. My old rival, Fafnir Karlsson of Barak-Nar. He is a wazzock. How in the name of the Code he managed to qualify from the Arkanaut Academies I do not know, let alone what could have persuaded the Nav-league to sponsor him. He barely can tell the difference between a barometric eddy and an electro-aesthetic vortex, let alone how strong they are or how favourable they are...huh! That doesn’t stop him from ramming down my throat how profitable Barak Nar’s affairs are these days, or recounting Brokk Grungsson’s latest triumphs down to the last meal he ate. That upstart doesn’t know he’s born. He’s heading in the opposite direction, back toward Garmhold. He garbled something about some Daughters of Cairn...Khan...Cain... something like that, but I don’t waste any of my breath listening to the nonsense he spouts like an aetherfuel leak. Trying to get any sense out him is unguz-throlt. Captains’s Log, Aetherdate 16749.7 Progress has been swift over the past couple of days, the only strangers we’ve met since have been a roving band of Ogors called the Brassguts. They seemed duly impressed with our ship and liked the look of our aethershot weaponry, so I traded them a couple of aethercannons for some of the grub they had with them plus the promise that they would shoot down any grotbag scuttler fleets they’d catch sight of. They had cannons of their own which proved effective against a wandering Chimera that thought they’d make a tasty lunch, but has ended up with some of it becoming our own rations for the next week or so. It’s not bad, but not a patch on Barak-Urbaz megalofin. Captain’s Log, Aetherdate 16750.4 It’s been a long gap, but the past week has been a slog. We arrived at the outpost on schedule, but found it mysteriously deserted when we landed in the courtyard, except for the corpses of umgi. The entire garrison had been wiped out, though with weapons we’d never seen before. Not the crushing weapons of the Greenskins or Ogors or stabbing weapons of grobi or Skaven. The bodies were cleanly sliced, with the wounds cauterised instantly as the weapons cleaved through them. Whoever did this, I had no clue, though we soon found out. As I led the Arkanaut crew into the great hall of the barracks, we were surrounded by shining pillars of blue light, and a moment later the most bizarre-looking reptiles had encircled us. Bright blue, they were, and staring coldly toward us with slotted yellow eyes. Without thinking I ordered the crew to fire a volley of aethershot into them, the creatures bursting into blue flame as we rushed past. I led the retreat back to the ship, and stayed in front of it as the rest of the crew embarked, but more of the reptiles appeared from nowhere and formed a cordon around our vessel. We could have taken off and abandoned the scene immediately, but I wasn’t about to abandon our chance of profit and risk demotion without a fight. There we stayed, and there we fought them, for the past seven days, and here we are still, besieged by these monsters. It’s lucky for us that Sven Steelheart and his Grundstok company had joined us for this mission, for their firepower has blasted down scores of the reptile warriors as they approached our ship. So far, not a single one has been able to get a claw on the ship’s hull, but they keep coming, and any of us who fall will not have the same luxury. Captain’s Log Supplemental Our Endrinmaster is working on yet another one of his inventions, what he calls an ‘aethermatic translator’ to help us try and communicate with these beasts. According to him, it should translate any form of spoken dialect they have into Khazalid, and translate our tongue into theirs. If it does work, it’ll be the first of his creations that isn’t a weapon that blow ups in some dawi’s face when he’s trying to use it. Even so, I’m going to get Ensign Shortbristles try it out first, his limited skills can be replaced if anything happens to him. Captain’s Log, Aetherdate 16750.6 Sparkfingers’ translator is finished, or so he says. To me it looks umgak, with cogs exposed and wires hanging out. However, rations are running low and tempers are running high, particularly among our hot-headed Beardlings. What’s more, our fuel levels are half-full with all the aethershot we’ve been firing, and we had only just refuelled at our home port before starting out on this mission. When it runs out, we’ll be defenceless. Captain’s Log Supplemental Not being from Barak-Thryng, I’m not much of a believer in our old gods, but if they are up there, they certainly favoured us today. The translator works! Ensign Shortbristles emerged from the entry hatch and attempted parley with the lizard-creatures, and they laid down their arms. Sparkfingers and I came out to join him, and we were approached by this tiny little reptile bedecked in feathers and carrying a staff, who spoke to us, initially in a squeaky series of clicks, but gradually his words formed into Khazalid (Sparkfingers had better count his blessings, I was going to have a replacement drafted in from the Endrineers’ Guild if he’d built another failure). The priest, Kiki-taki I think his name was, claimed his people were here to protect the outpost from attack, but surely, I asked, what was the point of killing the manlings to do so? He remained silent on this point, but moved on to describe the reason for their presence being to protect the fort from, of all things, aelves. I could hear other sounds of war coming from beyond the fort walls over the far side even when we were fighting our own battle, and elgi are ever the tricky ones. He then invited us to join forces with them. Perhaps, I thought, in this case an alliance would be the most profitable choice - they seemed to be adamant to defend this place, all the better for helping us to protect the outpost we will come to build, so naturally I was bound to accept. Kiki-taki led me and Steelheart’s Thunderers onto the wall furthest from the gate, and over the parapet was a great rocky plain littered with the corpses of she-Elves, their bodies cleaved in the same manner as the manlings. The priest told us he had lost far more warriors than they and his armies couldn’t hold out much longer, but I reassured him that our skill-at-arms and duardin ingenuity would be all that was necessary to beat those feeble elgi. Captain’s Log, Aetherdate 16750.7 Whatever fickle force of luck blessed us yesterday has now left us for good. At dawn, masses more of the elgi females emerged on the horizon, with ladders fashioned from twisted metal. As one we fired, aiming to cut down those bearing the ladders before they reached the walls. The elf-women screeched as their scrawny bodies were blasted apart with aethershot, but those behind simply took up the ladders and continued forward. Kiki-taki sent a bolt of sorcerous lightning arcing from his staff, electrocuting several more in an instant, and some more of the lizard-creatures, these more his size and with small blowguns, peppered the elgi with small darts. Yet the she-Elves kept coming. There were more of them than we ever could have realised. That, however, was the least of our worries. Next minute another she-Elf, with leathery wings, screamed from the air and slit Steelheart’s throat, and flapping off before we could do anything. Elgi never did fight fairly, they have no honour! Then another Thunderer copped it the same way, and another, and every distraction these she-devils made gave the elgi on the ground a break from our volleys. Soon their ladders were at the walls, and then the tables turned - now we were the ones to fall. With just a single knife to the heart or slice through the gut, each of Barak Mhornar’s finest Grunstok operatives was butchered, until only I remained. I looked to see where Kiki-taki and his warriors had gone, but they had vanished - killed by the she-Elves most likely. But by this time, help was at hand - the Harvester had launched and flown up to the battlements, blasting the elgi with a fusillade and filling them full of holes. I leaped up and grabbed hold of the lowest rung of the port boarding ladder, and my vessel carried me away to take the fight to the elgi-throng beyond the walls. One of them grabbed a foot and was carried off with me, but a trio of holes in her head from my volley pistol ended her fight. Yet ours was not over by any means, for the winged Elgi mobbed our craft with annoying regularity. Our crew fought like Grimnir of old, blasting them apart with the ship’s volley cannon and gunning them down with their aethershot carbines, before dropping a load of detonation drills into the massed horde below. The mess they made wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Barak Mhornar Gallery of Modern Art. The profit would yet be ours! But our triumph was short-lived. One of the flying elf-maids skewed our Navigator upon her scythed limbs, and as his scarred body fell from the drillbill’s nest the ship was wracked with magic of the vilest kind. Ulgu magic, that twisted and wrecked the aether-endrins. It was this spineless attack that saw our proud ship fall through the Chamonic skies and plough into the elgi below. At least we took some of them with us, but in those last seconds our fortunes were dashed with our ship. I awoke in the middle of my wrecked cabin, with Sparkfingers the only other survivor. It is here from which I am now recounting my last log entry, with those elgi scum gradually scratching their way in. We battened down all hatches when the ship began to descend, but it will be only a matter of time before they hack their way through, and we cannot get out. I’ve never liked elgi women. Too bony, thin and spiteful for my liking. Give me a couple of duardin girls and a barrel of Bugmansson’s any day. Hold on, that sounds like they’ve broken in, through the starboard hatch. I wonder if that Kiki-taki really died. Well, I might as well avenge him along with all my duardin brethren whose blood was spilled this day. Death is better than living failure, but it was such a pity that I couldn’t even get a sniff of the profit. Lord-Magnate Gungnir of Barak-Mhornar looked up from the metal-covered ship’s log he was reading at the strange little reptile standing before his desk. “Well, I’m naturally disappointed at the failure of our expedition, but Halfbeard’s failures were bound to catch up with him sooner or later. I am indebted to you for returning this log... what did you say your name was?” “Kiki-taki,” the Skink Priest replied a little huffily. “Yes, of course. Good thing this new-fangled Aethermatic Translator we picked up from the wreckage of the Harvester is working properly. She was a fine vessel, the loss of an Ironclad of her stature will be sorely missed for centuries to come. It sounds like that outpost in the Mercuriam Mountains is a spot ripe with lucrative profit - whatever those she-elgi were doing there, it’s clear they wanted the place for some reason. As per Artycle 3 Point 5 of the Code, I will sending new fleets to help your warriors reclaim the border fort at once. Unfortunately our Sky-Port has no available captains right now, but perhaps my old friend Brokk Grungsson could be persuaded to send an expedition there. I’ve heard that he’s taken a young captain under his wing, one who goes by the name Fafnir Karlsson...” Spoiler: Story Two: "Sprouting Flower" Sprouting Flower In the outskirts of Tlaxtlan, Tuhpoka stands underneath a grave site’s entrance. Rough and bumpy dirt stretches across the area with not a blade of grass in sight. The saurus knows that dead lizards who weren’t of legendary or noteworthy status are buried here, destined for their spirits to be released back into the jungle. Tuhpoka yearns for this fate. His entire right arm is missing—chopped off by a rat. Because it was his dominant arm, his ability to fight was severely diminished. Now, without anything to do, his daily life consisted of wandering the streets of Tlaxtlan, watching newly spawned sauri march with their cohorts, watching kroxigors lift stacks of lumber, and watching skinks create pottery. Tuhpoka thinks of the grave site again, for at least the dirt would find him useful. A massive kroxigor picks the saurus up and puts him on its back. Tuhpoka screams as he smashes his other remaining arm against the lizard’s tough scales. “Hey! What in the gods names are you doing? Cease this and put me down!” “Hehehe, you like a skink!” The kroxigor bellows as it takes off. The pair push through various clumps of trees near the outskirts before ascending a steep hill. The kroxigor stops, and the saurus jumps down. All around, Tuhpoka sees various crops and flowers swaying with the wind, each one moving independently from another, and yet forming a coherent display. “Why did you bring me here?” “You sad! I don’t like sad saurus! You now help me grow plants!” Tuhpoka is surprised by the strange request. The dancing colors and relaxing aromas overwhelm him, but he wonders what use is he in a place so vibrant and prosperous. The barren gravesite calls to him more. “I’m a saurus who can’t fight. I’m useless. I’m nothing.” The kroxigor throws its head up and laughs. “So what if you no fight? There so much to life you never even experience! You just need to stop being afraid.” Tuhpoka thought it maddening a saurus could be dominated by fear. But those memories of him watching lizards complete daily tasks in their lives, with not a single ounce of fighting involved, came to him. He always doubted he could live the same way as them, for what is a saurus who doesn’t fight? The kroxigor yanks Tuhpoka’s remaining arm and pulls him along. “Rude! I was busy thinking!” Tuhpoka yells. “You thinking too much! Too much of anything bad for you. Like me eating too much beans before sleeping.” The kroxigor embarrassingly smiles. The pair stop by an empty spot of dirt from which no plants resided. Tuhpoka learns from the kroxigor how to plant seeds. The process was very easy: just dig a small hole, throw some seeds in, cover it with more dirt, and finally, sprinkle water. Except it wasn’t. Far from it. The kroxigor went into extensive detail on which types of soil were the best matches for any plant, the different depths the seeds should be buried in, how far apart each type of seed should be planted, the differing amounts of water each needs to grow, and how much of Chotec’s grace—sunlight every seed needs. Tuhpoka was cross-eyed. He tries burying some squash seeds with his remaining arm, but he tramples a row of bean plants, and his tail overturns a few tomatoes. The kroxigor cringes and shrieks as it watches the clumsy saurus. As Tuhpoka tries his best planting seeds and following the kroxigor’s advice, he finds it funny how both the needs of plants and lizards are largely the same. Plants need adequate spacing, like what a cohort of sauri needs so they can fight effectively. Plants need enough water to survive, just like all lizards. And both need Chotec’s blessing, otherwise everything would wither away and die. Tuhpoka finishes planting his squash plant seeds. The rough and bumpy dirt he buried the seeds in resembled the gravesite he visited earlier. Except here, the dirt shines with the promise of life. The saurus doesn’t know what he is, but as the kroxigor pats him on his back, he finds a new resolve: to sprout, grow, and prosper with his plants, side by side. Spoiler: Story Three: "Giddyup" Giddyup "We go downstream," said skink priest Holotl, on the bank of the small river. He gazed into the trees where the water disappeared around a lazy bend, into the depths of the true jungle. "We were instructed to eliminate the bearded ones. They will be in the mountains," rumbled the voice of his scar-veteran lieutenant at his side. There was a pregnant pause. "Upstream," the saurus finished, pointing to illustrate. Holotl turned, the many feathers of his ceremonial headdress rustling. He looked in the opposite direction, where the river flowed down to meet them from the hills in the west. Hills which rapidly grew to great mountains further off. "The dwarven outpost will be defended," said the priest. "Our party may not be enough. We need to gather greater force before we approach. I intend to ask the Ranger." The scar-veteran's dark blue scales twitched at the name. But he nodded, cautiously. "I will prepare the Engine," he muttered, and gestured to the company of skink and saurus warriors to move out, the scouts swooping ahead on terradons. At the rear came Petl, the lumbering bastiladon, leaving heavy footprints in its wake. As they advanced into the thick foliage, the skink attendants on its magnificent carved shell were fiddling with the mechanism of the Solar Engine that had been bolted onto her thick plates. Opening a hatch at the top of the device, the skinks touched a series of glyphs, and the Engine thrummed to life, a thin beam of bright yellow god-light igniting directly upwards into the sky from the open hatch. The attendants' fingers danced at the control panels, causing the beam to flicker on and off, seemingly ignored by Petl herself. Above the tall canopy, the terradons cawed at the scorching ray intermittently incinerating small patches of the forest roof, its pattern of activations forming a coded message that could be seen for miles. Night fell, and the cold-blooded troops became sluggish. Camp was made among the trees until the new day dawned. The fresh sunlight found Holotl leaning against a large boulder, eyes closed, listening. He began to smile. Soon the whole party felt it: tremors in the earth. "The Ranger comes," murmured some. Others, simply: "nenemtepetl". The walking mountain. Treetops began to sway to the south. They all heard the snap of branches, the creaking of great trunks bent aside. The carnage grew louder - and then it stopped. They stared into the dark undergrowth. A ghostly visage appeared through the bushes: a large floating face, ancient, reptilian, placid and craggy. It watched them, and the lizardmen watched it back, their eyes wide. Some dropped their spears to the floor. Up behind the apparition ran a more familiar creature - a skink festooned with the practical gear of one who spent life in the wild. It leapt down beside the face, which it patted kindly on the cheek; the floating head withdrew backwards and upwards, out of sight. "We saw your summons," said the Ranger. "What do you want from us?" Holotl stepped forward. "Lustria is threatened by the third race. They send their armies from the mountains, seeking gold. We have an urgent need to repel them." "Zata and I have seen the smoke of war," the Ranger nodded. "There is a dwarven fort west of here," the priest continued. "Small but strategically important. We aim to raise it before the moon is full. I do not think we can succeed without you." "Ending the dwarves will protect the jungle?" "With the Old Ones as my witness, it will," said Holotl, eyes glinting. The Ranger considered it, his face as impassive as all lizards. "We will help," he said, and walked away. They left the jungle the same way they came. Everyone was aware that something large was following them - and not just Petl the bastiladon. Tremors were their shadow, broken trees were their wake. Finally they reached the hills, left the treeline and turned back to look. There she came. Leaving her native jungle, her neck reared up, a full hundred feet above the ground where the hooves which capped the tremendous pillars of her legs crushed rocks to dust. Turning herself to the sun, the thunder lizard gave a thin cry, muffled by distance. Its bulk was truly stupendous. Holotl marveled that so much flesh could answer to a single mind. The titanic body tapered at either end along the curve of its spine: back into a long, graceful tail, and forward up to the face they had seen in the jungle, now raised to the clouds above. "We don't like it when you stare," the Ranger called. He was perched on a small platform welded to a saddle of sorts at the base of the neck, already high enough to make him little more than a small silhouette against the sky. He gripped slender reigns made from corded vines, which stretched the rest of the way up to a harness of sorts on the thunder lizard's head. "Zata has the scent. We can lead you to the dwarves." The company watched the creature's advance. It moved indeed like a mountain: slow but completely unstoppable. By the time it had gone past them, the lizards had just about recovered from their awe and were able to follow behind it. After a few hours' march they heard cries of dismay from ahead. The dwarves had seen Zata. Terradons fell upon their cannon redoubts, while the remaining defenders hurried to line up across the route they had chosen to fortify. They formed a short but gruff wall of bristling steel. Normally, such a wall would have been hell to dislodge, but Zata wandered through it without noticing. The dwarves tried to shuffle around her hooves, but many were crushed and smeared into the dirt. Holotl gestured to the scar-veteran, who led the warriors to mop up the disordered lines with tooth and blade. The priest himself summoned Urannon's bolt to strike down the thane who was desperately trying to rally the troops. He thanked the Old Ones for how easy his work had become, but he knew this was only the start. "This is just an outpost," he called. "The fort is still ahead. We won't take it while the walls stand." The Ranger looked back from his saddle. He was grinning. The company could only follow as Zata trudged onwards up the mountain, the narrow pass emerging onto a wide road with a steep drop on one side. Further up, the walls of the fort emerged from the mountain itself: perfectly engineered blocks of mortared stone, as tall as a carnosaur. The thunder lizard plodded up to the gate. Holotl saw the Ranger give a little twitch on the reigns, and Zata raised up a great fore-leg, pressed it to the stone, and toppled the formidable blocks of the wall like they were a children's toy. "Crivens!" someone shouted from behind the ruined fortifications. And then: "Get 'im, laddies!" The fort blossomed with sudden smoke; an instant later, the deafening sound of a dozen cannons detonated across the mountainside, followed by the echoing crack of pistol fire. Holotl saw a ribbon of red at Zata's flank, and the creature reared back onto her hind legs with an awful whinny. Most of the artillery had hit the soil at her feet, throwing up clouds of shrapnel stone. The earth began to slide, tumbling down the abyss below, and on her two feet, Zata's balance gave. "No!" shouted Holotl. There was a sickening moment where she seemed to hang in perfect equipoise, and then with a shriek the giant reptile tumbled over the precipice. 45 tons of reptile vanished from sight. A pair of terradons hurtled after her, diving downwards and away. From the great rent in the wall where the gate had been, dwarves began to surge forward in their ill-tempered hundreds, boiling onto the mountain like ants from a colony unwisely poked by a stick. Holotl's intelligence had been bad. This wasn't a garrison. This was an entire army. "Back!" the priest cried to his company, when his wits had returned. "Back to the trees! Go!" It was a bad night. The dwarves were not fast, and the lizardmen had suffered few casualties in the retreat. But their hopes had taken a terrible blow. The dwarves had burned the edge of the forest just to make a point, and Holotl's company only escaped the flames by letting the river carry them away. When they finally made camp, they were joined by the returning terradons and the Ranger, who had been plucked safely from Zata's back in mid-fall. He wouldn't talk to anyone, curling himself into a foetal ball under a bush away from the others. He hadn't moved by noon the next day. Holotl crouched beside him. "We're moving east. We'll report to Itza and return with a full cohort. Lustria will be avenged." There was a strange clicking sound from the Ranger's chest. The priest leaned forward to peer over his shoulder. He was slotting darts into a clip for his blowpipe. "We're - I'm going back for her," the Ranger said, slowly. "Don't be crazy," said Holotl. "She can't have survived. Even if she did, the dwarves are swarming the valley. Our scouts confirmed it. You'd never reach her." The Ranger stood, like a fern unfurling itself. "I'm going back," he repeated. And he started walking into the jungle, heading west. Holotl sighed. The Ranger knew how to stay hidden. But he was distracted, and not as careful as normal. The bearded warmbloods noticed him creeping among the rocks on the floor of the deep gorge half a mile from where the thunder lizard had landed, and lay stricken on her flank. She had since been pinned to the ground under lengths of enormous iron chains, the kind the dwarves used to haul massive slabs of stone up the mountain, each link the size of an entire dwarf. At either end, the chains had been hammered into the earth with tremendous gromril spikes. The Ranger dodged a hail of crossbow bolts, scurrying from cover to cover, judiciously using his blowpipe to remove the dwarves who came directly into his path. He was just yards away from Zata's lolling head when he ran out of darts and they grabbed him. "Let me pass!" he cried, bucking violently against his captors. "She needs me!" But secretly he was elated, for he saw the huge chest still rose and fell, if shallowly. The gentle eyelids still fluttered. Just as they brought the chains to bind him, the dwarves were flung back. A great beam of Chotec's holy light speared across the valley, igniting a collection of nearby powder barrels. Everyone was flung into confusion, smoke and debris obscuring their vision. A ways off, there came cries as the lizardmen charged into the temporary dwarven camp, blowpipes outflanking crossbows, obsidian blades rending through steel armour. The Ranger could see none of it. He leapt up and embraced Zata on the snout. "Stand back, we don't have time!" cried a familiar voice. The Ranger looked up. Holotl clung to the back of a terradon gliding low over Zata's body. "We need her to wake up! There's no way out of this without her!" "She's too weak!" said the Ranger, placing a hand to the thunder lizard's throat. "Her pulse is slowing." "So stand back!" shouted Holotl again, feathers whirling about him in the wind. The Ranger stepped away. The flying priest raised an arm crackling with power. "Contact!" he roared, and a thunderbolt leapt forward, striking Zata full in the chest. The creature convulsed with the shock, but remained pinned to the ground by the dwarven chains. "You're hurting her!" wailed the Ranger. Behind him came the grim sound of disciplined footfalls. The main bulk of the dwarven force had arrived, in long gleaming ranks, singing songs of war. The lizardmen were falling back, reforming. But there was no way out of the ravine except through the enemy, who outnumbered them five to one. The priest eyed the scene from his airborne mount. "Stay clear! We have to go again! Contact, by the Old Ones!" A second blast of lightning arced into Zata. This time, she reared up, eyes flying open, muscles straining all along her leviathan frame. The chains snapped apart like peanut shells. The sound of Zata's bellowing echoed through the valley. Nimble as a lizard, the Ranger scurried up her flank and leapt into the saddle, exultant. He twitched the reigns, and Zata lumbered around to face the dwarven lines. "Giddyup!" he said. Spoiler: Story Four: "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: Story Five: "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: Story Six: "Common Ground" Common ground "Slowly!" Quenop hissed for about the thirtieth time. The Saurus Warriors were no archeologists and the Starpriest should have known that. Instead he complained all the time. Leletoca grunted. The only thing he as the Saurus unit's Alpha could do was to try and prevent his warriors from causing too much damage to the old structure they were working their way through. But they did not want to be here all day, so they tried to work quickly. Leletoca would have preferred to wait outside, even in the smoldering heat of the desert, and let some Skinks or Kroxigor do the work inside the half-buried old temple that some warmbloods had given up hundreds of years ago. But it had been decided to only bring a small force, so they would not draw too much attention, even if that meant that the Saurus had to do the work. Leletoca did not understand the reasoning, but he was not the one making the decisions. His twenty Saurus had been pushing and dragging around blocks of stone, old columns and stone plates for some hours now, and between that it was either shoveling sand or searching for the next way that would lead them deeper into the structure. Parts of the place had even been trapped, and now and then hand-sized venomous scorpions emerged from the sand or skittered around between the blocks of old stone. The Starpriest estimated that they were already more than two stories deep under the sand, and the Saurus did not like it. It felt like being buried alive. When they finally opened an old stone door that was in a surprisingly good condition they entered a series of corridors and rooms that looked a lot better, conserved below hundreds of tons of sand and apparently untouched. The Starseer had mentioned who their enemy had been, but Leletoca did not remember most of it, only the tactically valuable information. Cautiously and in a loose formation that allowed them to provide mutual support despite being in a building complex the Saurus advanced, keeping the Starpriest in the middle. Sometimes they had to break down a door but most of the time they could just walk. Now and then they stopped and the Starpriest determined where to go next. Then they saw the markings. "Mahrlect!" Leletoca growled and readied his Macuahuitl. Something - or rather someone - had broken through a door from the opposite side of the temple and made their way here. Splotches of red paint on the walls marked their passage. The Saurus looked at the Starpriest and Quenop looked worried. He sniffed on one of the markings and touched it. "Still fresh! They must be still in here!" he exclaimed. A command was not needed, the Saurus started following the markings as quickly as they could without risking to run into a trap. The direction the markings were leading them was exactly the one the Starpriest had taken, the sanctum and with it the artefact had to be very close now. And indeed it only took a few more rooms until as they entered a huge hall. It was there that they ran into the Orruks. But right as they entered a large richly ornamented hall, they saw the Orruks. "Mahrlect!" Leletoca growled once more. The hulking Greenskins stood around the old stone altar that marked the temple's center in a loose group. Like most of the time they were almost naked and wearing war paint. The weapons in their hands were mostly wooden and stone, but a few of them were decorated with feathers or skulls. Their leader was obviously a shaman. His face was covered by a painted wooden mask with feathers attached to it, and in his right hand he carried a crude wooden staff with what looked like a goat's skull attached to it. He was dancing around the altar, the bone ornaments on his body rattling. But more important than that was what he was holding in his left hand. It was a shiny golden orb, the artefact the Lizardmen had come for. Leletoca looked at Quenop and the Starpriest nodded. There was no way they would let the Orruks take the artefact. They formed up as quickly and silently as possible and advanced. An Orruk grunted and turned around when he heard the Saurus approach, and a second later the whole horde was running at the Saurus in an unorderly way, waving their weapons and screaming their wordless battlecry. The "Waaagggh!" reverberated from the old stone walls, but it took more than screaming to make a Saurus warrior flinch. The two groups clashed together, and the Greenskins were superior in numbers, but Saurus were used to that. There was hardly an enemy a Saurus Warrior could not take one on one, and as expected the Orruks quickly took some casualties. Just as Leletoca was preparing to deal the final blow to a wounded Orruk, he saw the enemy shaman look around frantically, then look at the orb. Eventually he screamed something in his primitive language and raised the orb over his head. Quickly it began to glow, and red lines appeared on its surface. The Greenskins retreated, howling and laughing. They clearly expected their leader to use the artefact for a devastating spell. The Saurus followed them, but Quenop raised his hand and pointed a silver painted claw at the shaman with a strained expression on his face. "GOORK" the shaman howled, and the orb glowed more intensely. A series of what looked like red lightning bolts discharged from it into the walls of the temple, and the Starpriest raised a second hand. Then Quenop slumped, and Leletoca looked back toward the shaman, expecting the worst. But the shaman only stared at the orb which was now completely red like a burning piece of coal, and a blink of an eye later he was torn into bits by a magical explosion. Blood and parts of his flesh and bones splattered all over the room, and only a wet red spot remained where he had been standing a moment earlier. Amidst that spot sat the orb, now completely golden again. The Orruks were visibly shaken by the sudden demise of their shaman, and they retreated more quickly. Their way back out of the temple was blocked by the Saurus though, so they gathered into a corner of the large room to continue the fight. The Saurus had the situation under control and took their time surrounding them. But Leletoca took the chance to sprint to the altar, take up the artefact, and run back to the Starpriest who was just trying to get up with the help of a Saurus Warrior. Leletoca stowed the orb in the pouch the Starpriest carried for that purpose, but a quick look at the Skink revealed that he was in no position to lead the First anytime soon. He could barely stand or speak. The Orruk shaman's failed attempt at magic had done something else that required Leletoca's attention though: the temple's walls were shaking, sand trickled from the ceiling, and when the Saurus looked through the arch through which they had entered the room, he saw eyes glowing in the darkness, beyond counting. Red lights shining in empty eye sockets. The adjacent room filled with human skeletons from all sides. They carried sickle swords and apparently formed up to prevent the intruders from escaping. Quenop had fallen unconscious again so Leletoca took command. He directed the Saurus to face that second threat now as well, and raised a fist to give the order to quickly kill the remaining Greenskins. "Hol' up!" a voice bellowed in the common tongue of this realm. It belonged to an enormous Orruk with a dark scar across his chest. Leletoca was surprised to hear a wild Orruk speak that language, but he nodded at him to continue while the Saurus reorganized. "You win here, but you lose there" the Greenskin explained, pointing at the skeletons. "We not fight, yes? Fight them! You need us! You keep hexball, we go!" Leletoca considered his options. Those were a lot of skeletons, his Starpriest was down, and the Orruks were good fighters. The sound of marching forced him to act quickly, there was no time to dispatch the Greenskins and then face the skeletons as the first of those were already marching through the arch and toward the thin line of warriors that were facing them. "You fight in front" Leletoca told the Orruks. "Is there other way?" the big Orruk laughed and shook his huge stone cleaver. Leletoca ordered his warriors to step aside and the Orruks charged the skeletons, their flanks protected by Saurus warriors. After the first few dozen skeletons Leletoca's battle plan was quickly abandoned. Side by side the unequal fighters mowed through the undead, and Leletoca found himself fighting right next to the big Orruk that the other Greenskins called Boss Kurr. Bones were shattering under their weapons' blows and a few times Leletoca heard the Orruk laugh when either of them landed an especially impressive hit. "Why there so many?" Kurr asked during a pause in the fighting. So far they were holding up well, and had only lost three Orruks and one Saurus. "Maybe they buried their dead warriors here as well" Leletoca speculated, "We have to get out of here." Making their way back to their entrance proved as difficult. Some walls had collapsed and the skeletons as well as a large number of big beetles and scorpions made every room and corridor a challenge. Another Orruk died when he triggered a trap door and fell into the hidden spikes at the pit's bottom. "Our way better! No more traps and open!" Kurr suggested after they had reached a dead end for the second time and a Saurus was almost killed by a blade swinging out of a wall. Again a quick decision was made and they turned back to try it. They met further resistance, but it seemed that the Greenskin had been right. A hundred destroyed skeletons and countless of smashed critters later the members of the mixed fighting unit saw daylight ahead. But the fight did not end there. More Skeletons were coming at them from behind as they ran out of the temple, and as they were just re-forming there was a rumbling sound caused by a hole forming in the sand outside the temple. First Leletoca took it as a sign that more structures below the sand were caving in, but then a carnosaur-sized metal scorpion covered by glowing hieroglyphs crawled out of the hole, making creaking sounds as it freed its legs, tail and pincers from the sand. "Big 'un!" Kurr shouted excitedly, and ran toward it. A few of the other Orruks followed him, while the Saurus defended their backs against the skeletons. Without hesitation the scorpion answered their charge, snapping two of them between its pincers and skewering one with its stinger. Kurr leaped on its back and tried to hold on as it rampaged through the Orruks. Some of the Saurus joined the fight, and their shields protected them to a certain degree from the scorpion's attacks. But the scorpion still caught one of them between its pincers and crushed another one below its belly. Leletoca himself rushed in, trying to attack its head, but he was swept aside by a leg and only his shield prevented him from getting killed by the stinger a moment later. But it almost went through and ripped the shield out of his hands, leaving him only a second to jump out of striking distance. Two more Greenskins were killed as they tried to cut the construct's tail off, but at least they managed to jam their weapons into a joint of the tail, limiting its movements. Kurr still held on to the scorpion's back but the Orruk Boss had lost his weapon. The situation looked dire, but then a bright light coming from behind made Leletoca turn around. Quenop still lay on the ground between the two fronts, but he was conscious again and had taken the golden orb out of his pouch, now holding it in an outstretched hand. It was glowing red again and Leletoca could see how the Starpriest was trying to control it. Another bright flash made the Saurus blink, and he feared that the Skink would share the Orruk shaman's fate, but instead a bright white magical net appeared above the scorpion and enclosed it. The construct was now much more limited in its movements, which allowed Kurr to climb near its head. "Spear!" the Orruk shouted. Leletoca took up one of the spears of his fallen warriors and tossed it toward the Orruk, who snagged it out of the air and rammed it into the scorpion's neck. The construct stopped moving and collapsed. Moments later Quenop made the temple entrance collapse with a spell and thus stopped the skeletons from pursuing them further. The surviving Saurus and Orruks hurried to get away from the temple. "You fight well, reptile!" Kurr thundered as he climbed off the scorpion's back, spitting blood onto the desert sand but grinning. He had attached a part of the scorpion's head armor to his shoulder using a leather strap, and he still had the Saurus' Celestite spear in his hands. "You too", Leletoca gave the compliment back. "You are stronger, muscle and magic" the Orruk continued. "Much respect by Gorkamorka. We go now. Maybe fight another day." With that he handed the Saurus Alpha a simple stone knife, not much more than a sharpened piece of stone partly wrapped in leather. "When the Great Plan calls for it, maybe one day." Leletoca answered. He took the crude weapon, nodded respectfully and gathered his warriors. With that the two groups split, and the First started their long march back to their main army, watching the Orruks disappear over the dunes into the opposite direction. Leletoca exchanged a look with Quenop, who had not said a word since he had woken up, but clearly was intrigued by the Saurus' decisions of the day. Leletoca realized that there was some explaining to do. He sighed. Fighting was so much easier. Spoiler: Story Seven: "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. Spoiler: Story Eight: "Saved by a Sacrifice" Saved by a Sacrifice It was early, at the point of daybreak. During the night the penetrating smells of the city where swept away. The streets and alleys where still calm and quiet at this moment. The old Gromglut wanted to arrive at the temple pyramid before the streets came alive with everybody starting up their daily activities. He walked leaning forward, heavily supporting his staff. He was, like all Weirdnobs, going barefoot and wearing a worn down leather cloak, made out of skin from captured pray and slain enemies. Alongside him walked his apprentice, Dolgrok. Since a couple of years he appreciated the company on his travels. Both Orukks had traveled a long way from where their camp was set up. At this moment the camp probably had moved several times again. Every five days or so the camp moved on to a new spot. The last few days they had found the Primeval Jungle and struggled through it to find the entrance to Mekitopsar. The Weirdnob stopped briefly to catch his breath, since they had reached the city the road kept climbing towards the temple pyramid. He looked at the sky. From the colors of the heavens he could see that the sun was rising behind the Carcass Dones. In the distance they heard the Cold Ones awake. In no more than an hour this street will be swarming with Skinks, Sauruses and Kroxigors. They’d better hurry if they wanted to reach the pyramid unnoticed. The cloaking spell, that he had casted, had taken them past the gates of the city without a problem. But step by step his concentration, to keep the spell up, was fading. At this point climbing the streets took all the attention he had. Dolgork took the Weirdnob by the arm and they continued their way. *** Yuq'al-takuil was walking circles in his chamber for some time now. During the night his sleep was disturbed by a vision. Flashes of green had lighted the sky and the silhouette of a giant worm that rampaged the earth below. Spawning forth warriors and spawns of chaos. He lost count of how many circles he had walked by now and still he had made no progress in unraveling the message within the images that had overwhelmed him last night. After another circle he stopped to look out of the window in the east wall of his chamber. The Sun was hanging a couple of feet above the horizon like an orange that just bounced back from the floor. It bathed the top of the pyramid in a warm yellowy glow. A sigh escaped from Yuq'al-takuil’s mouth as he figured out that time was running out. Loud stumbling and muffed screaming brought his attention back to the present. Outside his chamber was the Platform of Prayers, usually a serene place where the Priests conducted their prayers and meditations. On the platform Yuq'al-takuil discovered four temple guards surrounding two lifeforms handcuffed and with a linen bag over their heads. Next to them was a bag with their possessions. Most prominently of them the crooked staff with a big skull on top. Yuq'al-takuil motioned the eldest of the guards to follow him. They stepped in to his chamber. Once inside he addressed the guard: “Qu’y Rokdi, tell me what happened.” “Yes Sir,” he replied, “we found them at the foot of the pyramid, sir. They are Orruks, Sir” Yuq'al-takuil scratched his chin. “So it has begun?” “Sir, if I may, Sir.” Yuq'al-takuil motioned him to proceed. “They entered the city unnoticed and were headed here. To you, Sir. It is alarming to say the least, Sir.” Qu’y Rokdi took protection very seriously and any lack thereof he found disturbing, what is more unforgivable. Ever since he had been let into the ranks of temple guard he had been keen on protecting the elite class of Mekitopsar. Scar veterans, Oldbloods, Priests and Starpriest it didn’t matter as long as he could provide optimal and wholesome protection. The last few months Yuq'al-takuil had been the security detail of Qu’y and without any errors. “What do you want us to do with them, Sir? Yuq'al-takuil looked at him and was visibly waying the options. Eventually he said: “Take them to the Square of Sacrifice. Bring along the cauldron.” Qu’y Rokdi nodded and walked out to the platform again. At the heart of Mekitopsar stood a large flattop pyramid. The top of it formed a perfect square with in the center of it a stone altar. It was a single piece of stone around the sides it was carefully hand carved, showing different pivotal moments in Seraphon history. The small company, led by Yuq'al-takuil , moved swiftly. As daybreak was fully upon them they didn’t want to attract to much attention. Moving from shadow to shadow they reached the Square of Sacrifice. Qu’y Rokdi placed the cauldron and the captives next to the altar. Yuq'al-takuil took place behind the altar: “Unbind them and remove the bags.” Qu’y Rokdi did as commanded, but with visible reluctance. Both Orruks acted relieved to be free again. Yuq'al-takuil mentioned to the chauldron and Gromglut walked over to inspect it and turned to the skink: “Ya have seen us kom’n, ya know uv our goal?” “I was made aware of the things that are happening and the aid that you seek” “Gud,” said Gromglut with a smile, “lets get ta it den!” He pointed at his bag of supplies and Dolgrok handed him his staff. After that various ingredients traveled from the bag to the cauldron. Gromglut banged his staff three times on the floor and then pointed the skull, on top of his staff, just below the cauldron and green flames appeared all around it. All this time Yuq'al-takuil did not move a muscle, but once the flames climbed aside the cauldron he pointed at Dolgrok. The Temple Guards immediately came in action and grabbed him, each by a limb. Dolgrok screamed, first out of surprise and next out of fear as the guards carried him to the altar. Any cries for help directed to his master were in vain. The guards pressed him on top of the cold block of stone. Yuq'al-takuil had closed his eyes and raised both hand holding a sacramental blade. The blade did not struck, but was brought down slowly whilst the starpriest mumbled incantations, with his eyes now open without a pupil showing. Dolgrok’s cries for help had transferred to cursing, cursing both the Seraphon and his master. The blade pierced the skin on his chest and dark blood started to run down his sides. Cursing turned to screams of pain. Yuq'al-takuil, still in trance, worked with precision. Cutting flesh, muscle, sinew and bone. The screaming rose to near unbearable to suddenly stop. The only sound left was of the sacrificed coughing up blood and choking in it. At the same time Yuq'al-takuil raised his blooded hand holding Dolgrok’s heart and shouting out: “I call upon thy, Savior of Seraphon, Slayer of Chaos!! Sotek arise and save us once more!” After the incantation he turned to Gromglut and put the bleeding heart in the cauldron. After a couple of seconds a green pillar of smoke erupted into the sky blocking out the sun. *** Not far from the Gnarlwood along the Bloodgullet Mawpath thick clouds drove together. Below it on the ground a battle raged. Warclans of Orruks surrounded and heavily outnumbered by hordes of Chaos spawns and warriors. Just a mile away from the frontline a giant bulking black worm, Fangathrak, was tied down by massive chains with at either end a greater deamon of Chaos to hold it down. Whilst more and more creatures came forth out of the gullet of the beast. The dark clouds started to swirl and pour down at the center. Flashes of green ran through it as the tip of the vortex turned into the head of a snake. With a smattering force it came down engulfing Fangathrak and the surrounding dominions of chaos. After the clouds cleared all that was left were the Greenskins on their knees staring in awe at the sky. Meanwhile in Mekitopsar another Greenskin fell on his knees. Gromglut was alone on the Square of Sacrifice looking out over the city, his face warmed by the sun. His body fell forward on the floor, the sacrificial blade stuck right between his shoulder blades.