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Calign pulled its tongue back into its mouth. For a moment it had stood there, squatting by the edge of the river, the tip of its tongue peeking from its lips an inch away from the side of its scum-covered hand, but there was no lick-mark there. Its nose was sensitive enough.

”Go back,” it murmured. The water shuffled. “You have travelled far enough, gergaji.” A pulse, stronger than the river’s natural flow, and the tip of a blade emerging from the water. “And thank you.” The blade shuffled and disappeared, the tip of the sawfish’s dorsal fin following a slow, restful path back down with the water.

It smelled the scum again.

The horned suchus nuzzled it, and it held its hand out to the beast’s mouth, where it was licked clean. It was just murk, after all. Murk and scum from the bottom of a river. Upriver murk.

Murk, upriver.

What kind of river was dark at its birth, and washed clean at its languid final hour?

Calign let its hand fall. The pine and cedar flexed their bundled fingers above. The world it had left behind, the world of sowing and fishing, praising and building and taming, that was alien. New forces worked on new creatures of the latter gods. Fire, prolific, speech, abundant. The beast called Man wrought the world around it with deliberate power. Akkylonia had nothing of the natural silence of Calign’s wood.

And this place, too, was alien.

Calign sang a high trill from its throat. There was a second of lizardly scrabbling before its companion arrived in a surreal leap, catching the air and gliding like a dart from the canopy on the webbing between its limbs.

“Grow swiftly,” whispered Calign. “We have far to go, and these are no woods for the naive.”




Indeed, the spirit had found signs that this thickening forest was not for unwary feet to tread within the first day. The ashen circle of a dead fire spread its acrid smell amid a sparse little copse overgrown with leathery fungi, though the proudly standing undergrowth and the wide domains of fat, lazy brown spiders stood to show that it had been some time since flames had danced among the looming trees. Yet the mound of charred bones was still there in plain view, untouched by such beasts as walked on four legs, and the skull propped upon a sharpened stick, in menace, ritual or idle jest, clearly had been split open not by tooth, but by stone.

No, it would not have been well for one not hardened to peril to venture ahead as it did; but perhaps it would have been easier upon the mind. By night and by day, whether under the inattentive eye of the sun distantly seeping through the treetops or by the ghostly light of the moon, which made the gnarly firs and ancient oaks come alive with illusory shadows, things more lively stirred and watched all around. One less wise to the ways of the wild might not have noticed them, but to Calign’s senses they came almost deliberately, as if to flaunt how strange their nature was to it. Those winged feathery things up high, with sharp black beaks or great staring eyes, cried and sang in harmonies unusual for something that flew, and the grunting brown shapes that shuffled through brush and dead leaves were much too large for beasts clothed in fur.

And all of them watched, whether quietly staring until it was out of sight or just throwing a dim-eyed glance from afar before disappearing who knew where. The woods knew strangers when they saw them.

It was Buaya that took the greatest advantage of this. Repulsed by nothing and fearing little, the great horny beast tore up thickets, broke roots, ripped into mounds and tussocks to drag up snarling jaw-worms to chew on. Where the creeping things scattered from its feet, it rasped its crocodile hiss to make them scatter faster. Calign came to rest an arm on its horn when some shadow of a shadow of a living thing peered at them, calming its own heart with the dumb boldness of a beast among beasts.

Strangely, those very waters that had seemed most odd to it at first were where life took on more familiar shapes. The rivers of the forest became darker and grimier the further it went, and more and more often they twisted into painful dead ends where they grew rank and choked by weeds. Their denizens were slimy, bony things, snapping pikes and bloated carps and sleepy long-whiskered catfish, not all of which were bad for eating. But a breath of a more familiar world lingered on their muddy banks or among the green scum that carpeted their surface. Squat little creatures that belonged neither to land nor to water puffed their wart-speckled throats when the suchus trod within sight.

They spoke to the spirit. Come on, they croaked in their simple little tongue, come on, and then crawled away, while far ahead more of them picked up the song.

Calign picked up a toad out of habit.

It was the toads that, after days of shuffling through the woods without meeting anything but those outlandish beasts, marked a certain spot along one of those small, dark branching streams. It split in two after a bend, one side losing itself behind Calign’s back, another burying itself in a quiet marsh. That was already strange enough, for the toads did not sing there as they had been wont to every time until then. Instead, they called - come on, come on - from somewhere beyond the approaching bend, hidden behind a wall of coarse grey trunks.

No, not approaching. Beyond the bend, the murky water flowed, thick and sluggish, but flowed still - upstream.

Come on, come on.

Sorcery.

Buaya went to lap from the water and Calign stopped it. They were deep in the realm of foreign powers, dredged from the days of alien gods. The lizard had fallen behind to forage in safer trees. “Tell them,” said the pale witch to the toad in its hands, “that we are coming. Tell them that I suffer no foes.” It threw the toad to the mud and watched it go. Its compatriots stayed there beside it, saying come on, come on.

Silence, croaked Calign deep in the back of its throat, and there was silence.

One after another, the toads slid into the unnaturally flowing river, and let themselves be carried away towards its hidden source. Just as the last of them disappeared, the stream stood still, as if frozen by a winter that had brought all of its chill to bear in a single moment, before stirring again, just as suddenly. Now, however, it ran as it is meet for streams to do, out from the heart of the forest, past the bend and towards the mire.

Something else followed it.

A long shape walked out from behind the arm of tangled trees that obscured the river’s further origin, very tall and very old. A woman, but not such as the spirit had seen before. Her hair was dire and tangled, of the colour of a birch tree felled by wintry winds, and her skin was like the silt at the bottom of a volcanic lake, dark and rugose. Though she was clothed, like the inhabitants of Akkylonia, her brown robe was rougher and coarser than even what the humble labourers of that land had worn. There was a slight limp to her step, but she did not lean on the gnarly staff she carried.

Rustles and cracking steps among the trees. She was not alone.

“Well, well,” the great hag’s wide nostrils swelled, and she spoke in a voice raspy like the call of a big toad, “what do I smell? Spirit of the under-wood, of ferns and moss. Who is here?” She squinted through the rays of dusty sunlight. “Will I cook you and eat you in my pot?”

Calign thought hard about this.

“That’s not very likely.” The little spirit sent its gaze across the stream and sought the eyes that lay beneath that broad and wrinkled brow, and matched them, its ears high, the flowers of its antlers folded, listening. “You know who you’re talking to. You’ve said it aloud. Its name will wait on yours.” Its hand rested on the back of the now-still suchus.

“Heh! Come into my house and ask for things like that?” the crone chuckled, rubbing her jutting chin with her staff and briefly revealing a mouth full of long, yellow teeth. “But if I got yours that easy, it’s only fair I don’t make it hard to get mine. I’m Kulgha, and I’ve been for a long time. You are my guest, here,” she waved a hand at wood and stream, scattering old crumbs and crusts from her sleeve.

From that gesture, she passed smoothly into rummaging in a leather satchel at her side, from which she produced a dead flower. Though wilted and missing several petals, it was of a kind with those that rested on Calign’s antlers.

“And maybe you knew to act like one, after all, if you’re the one who sent that little gift to our feast.”

“Perhaps,” said the foreign spirit. “I am Calign. Magos. Where’s my bird?”

“Your bird?” Kulgha prodded at her upper lip with her jaw, thinking, “I’ve seen a lot of birds, but none as said it was yours, mag. But that gift that came to us, it flew like a bird and smelled like your swamp-ox.” She nodded at Buaya, or maybe pointed that way with her nose. The animal shuffled. “It didn’t taste like a real one. Is that what you call a bird?”

“It had feathers.” It waved the matter away with one hand. “You ate my bird. So be it. You are Kulgha, elder of the twisted thorn and toad. You know… of things that I do not.”

“Maybe I do, though I thought everyone knew what you do with a bird.” The hag shook her head, as if recalling things long gone by. “So you’ve come for that, to ask of me? Many used to, once, but the people here lost the habit when they’d heard all I would tell them, and outsiders…” she flicked her fingers, vexed or maybe disappointed, “I’ll just say you’re the first who’s sought me out in a very long time. But I’m not like any other crone, I don’t forget, hah! If you want to ask and hear, there’s a lot I can tell you, if you’ll break bread and share a drink.”

Calign, who had seen bones, did not doubt her. “I’m sure you will say more if I bring food. Have you a city, like the builders to the south?”

“They have a city now?” Kulgha picked at a hairy wart on her cheek with a pensive look, “It’s really been too long. I’ve never needed one - I said this’s my home, and so it is. People here have their huts, their houses, many together, sometimes. But that’s not a city, is it? No, must be this just isn’t a place for cities.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I do have a fire, though, and a pot - not for you, don’t worry. You’re my guest, so come and sit. I’ll get a dry throat if I talk much more without a sip.”

“You know how to live,” said Calign. “I’ll weary you no longer. Tell the tribe about you that they need not hunt long today.” The spirit turned its body, still facing the crone across the river. “We will sit when the moon is high.”

“My old bones will be like dust by then if I have to wait that long, but we’ll have it your way. When the moon is high,” cackled the witch, and dipped her hand into her pouch again. The wilted flower vanished, and instead of it there came out a thick ball of coiled woolen thread and what looked like dried-out sinew, wound around a polished shard of bone. With an almost nonchalant swipe of the wrist, she tossed it to the spirit over the stream in a leisurely arc. “You’re quick on your feet, so if you’re too far by then this will lead you straight back to me.”

Calign caught the talisman without breaking his gaze, and nodded.




A strange forest it was, where water ran uphill. No stranger that than the way the woods only woke up after dark. Not even the trees seemed to rustle as they did when the sun was out.

Night had brought strength upon the owl, the rat, and the razorback boar. It had brought strength to Calign, also. When its bare feet touched the moss beyond the canopy-hall of the Beast Hag, its hands were clean, but only because it had washed them.

Its footsteps out in the forest beyond were sparse and widely scattered. These woods were weird but they were woods, the stalemate of ancient trees and the home of all things that creepeth upon the earth, not the brickish never-alive machinations of the men of the river, and indeed of the huts. The time it had taken to hunt had taught it much, though it bore no map of the forest, not even in its brain; such things were the tools of men who thought like men and not like wizards. Such men did not study the shape-language of boughs, nor see its delicate fractal patterns of growth and death for anything but chaos.
Calign wondered what would happen if it brought its new knowledge against she who was born fluent.

With some examination, it set Kulgha’s token of bone and thread down on a bed of old leaves, where it began to twitch. Calign watched as the ball of yarn awoke, recalling life and animation to which it no longer had any right, and roll with feverish vigour back through the trees towards its master, leaving a still thread for the spirit to follow.

Buaya had carried little of the burden of hunting and so was enlisted as packhorse. The sticks laden across her enormous shoulders were strung with young sturgeon and fat lizards, and upon her back, tied together by the neck, lay a bounty of partridges and wood-ducks. Missing was much of the more common and perhaps better fare of the woods, the doe and boar and queer standing-hare, and in their stead was a thorn-bush heavy laden with impaled scorpions and crays, and snakes of unusual size.

When the last strand of yarn and sinew was unwound, its now lifeless end pointed to the shore of a river bend that had changed little since the first time Calign had seen it. Even the impossible flow of the dark waters, now silvery and shimmering in the pale moonlight like the flank of one great fish, was once more turned towards its birth where the rocky strand parted it, or had perhaps stayed like that all along. In the liveliness brought by dusk, the crystalline rush of opposite waves was all the more clear. At times, it seemed to take on a new meaning, maybe a voice of fear and warning, maybe a lament for far shores it could not reach.

A familiar call broke through the bound waters’ murmuring. Come on, said the toads, come on.

The magos guided Buaya into the bewitched waters and beyond them. Kulgha was waiting, a huge, shaggy shadow that only stood out from the looming trees because it shifted and moved against the breeze. She smelled differently from before, not of hoary age, dusty pelts and dried blood, but of pungent ash, freshly butchered meat and a myriad of herbs, fruits and berries that even now were difficult to trace. Her eyes, twice-sunken beneath her brow and the drape of night, could not be seen, but their gaze lay heavy on the spirit and its retinue as soon as they came into sight.

A gnarly hand rose against the moon, greeting or beckoning. Her staff was nowhere to be seen.

Calign barked, once, a short harsh advertisement of its presence and its nature. It presented its silhouette against Kulgha’s own, bearing the scent of fresh game and magnolia into the light of the gibbous moon.

The hand waved it over in reply before sinking, and the great shade turned around and started shuffling back around the wooded outcropping, creaking over dry leaves.

“Come on over,” like the first time, the hag’s raucous voice echoed that of her familiars. In the dark, the similarity was even more uncanny, as if the nightly air had given the words a reverb like that of a rubbery throat. “The pot’s on the fire, the meat is crisp and the brew is hot. Wouldn’t want it to burn out.”

“Show me how you dine,” said the spirit, approaching and following with its bloody haul. “I will join you.”

As soon as they turned past the old leaning trunk that hung closest to the water, the shadows were lit up with the fiery glow of stoked embers. Two beds of crackling wood and fizzling cinders, one long and one short, were spread over the sandy banks, loosely ringed with large stones so that the flames would not run rampant through the nearby forest. On the smaller circle there rested a low, round-bellied cauldron, steaming with a thick, aromatic green brew. The larger roasting-fire, wide and stretched enough to resemble a burial mound, was a clutter of skewers, frying-plates and simple warming stones, all smoking and sizzling with woodland game - if indeed it was only that - and shallow-river fish.

The witch dipped a wooden cup into the cauldron as she shuffled past it, without so much as flinching when her fingers briefly touched the heating liquid, and came to crouch by the ashen bed. With a frothing sip, she downed the cup’s contents, then snatched and bit from a shin-bone directly out of the fire and motioned for Calign to sit without interrupting her chewing.

“Phut uph your bitsh an’ have them roasht,” between her full mouth and her jutting teeth, her speech was harder to make out than ever, “E’ll be ready by when we’re done with mine.”

Calign saw to the business of skewering a gutted lizard. As the reptile’s fatty tail began to drip and sizzle onto a copper pan, it busied itself roughly stripping some remaining unplucked birds and adding them, with the fish, to the cauldron. The scorpions it ate raw.

“Strange herbs in your greatpot,” said Calign, the warmth of the fire soaking into it, softening its face into something almost human. “Things that I can’t name. Where are your people?”

The hag swallowed a grotesquely large mouthful before answering. “Out afield. In the woods, under the mountains, over the hills. Up here, everyone’s my people, ‘least when they feel like it. I’d have my hands full if I looked after them all, but I’m not their babka, not really.” She took another loud crunching bite. “You mean the ones you heard last time, they always got something to do when the moon’s an eye. Better! Means more of the table for us, eh?”

Her long, jagged nails flashed like pools of refractive water for a moment as she flicked them through a rising tongue of flame, scattering it into sparks and smoke. When it cleared, a wooden cup akin to hers sat on a flat rock within Calign’s reach - if indeed it had not been there all along.

“Brew’s the best of the season,” the clawlike nails pointed at the fuming cauldron, “Some of it you won’t find outside some places only I can go. Boil and drink, the meat’s dry on its own.”

“...Something to do when the moon’s an eye,” murmured Calign, taking the cup and stroking its wooden surface with its fingertips. Even under Kulgha’s advice, it spent some time picking meat off the lizard before it finally filled its bowl. “You’re the one the brooks fear when they turn their course away. What grows where the rivers run in circles?” It stared down at the meaty, herbal broth. It smelled of small lives stolen for their vigour. Its surface was dark, brown and green, infused with the woods and leaves, like the streams.

Calign met the shaded eyes of its senior and drank.

“There’s things, in the the places where the water goes like a heart that’s breathing, slow and sick,” the ancient’s gaze was hidden in the sunken hollows of her face, wrinkled but not sagging, like an owl staring out from the cavity of an old tree, “Things that are old, older than me, sometimes. Many of them can’t be spoken about because they don’t have names. What do you call the grass that hares cut when the fog comes down? A bird that’s never seen the inside of an egg? Something that can jump taller than the forest? Things like them, you can’t just hear, you have to see. It’s not easy. Nobody else than me knows how to walk there and come back. But sometimes,” she idly picked a half-chewed chunk from between her teeth, “I can bring some of these things out and show them. It’s always a good time when people meet something from the deep places. You’re never sure how they’re going to feel it.”

The light of the embers glinted off the bottom of the sunken eye-hollows. Calign could see now that the look in them was intent, curious. Expectant.

Calign drained its cup and cracked the bones, then filled it again. It took the snakes and lizards and stripped their bubbling white flesh with its teeth, drinking bowl after bowl of Kulgha’s sup. Errant feathers floated in the broth, nudged by the rising of crays and fish that bobbed, dead and yet swimming in the flickering twilight.

And the shadows grew longer.

Kulgha stoked the fires and Calign feasted and its beast slept a sleep that gave no rest. Bones piled around it, some picked, some charred, some still laden with shreds of flesh cooked and raw. Scorpions twitched on their impaling thorns. Scorpions twitched in the fire. Scorpions twitched on the earth.

Magnolias scattered over the dirt like snow. The coals did not shine long enough to obscure the whiteness of the moon in their petals. The feast continued. The fire died. The world became too cold and dark to speak. A mat of filthy hair obscured its face.

A wooden canopy creaked above Calign, rooted in no tree. Buaya grimaced and shuddered in its nightmares. Living wood clashed with dead as cold winds drove the branches of Kulgha’s world against the blades and claws of the imposter that stretched its fingers into the sky.

Bloated was the spirit when it stood, heaving, shuddering under the terrible weight of ten dozen dozen antlers that pierced the woods above, dripping with the shreds of skin and flesh they had torn away with them. There was a crack of knees against earth as it collapsed forwards into the hell of bone and blossoms and the bile that fell from its open mouth.

It seized its clothes, and the sound of tearing fabric could not hide the greater rip of skin.




Father, what cries out in the night?

Its voice is like the bear.

Father, what tree quakes there, in the grove of the hag?

It cries out in pain, Father.

Can’t you see it shaking in the light of the pale moon?

Quiet, son. There are witches about.

I’m scared, Father.

Father, it is walking...





Gentle sunlight warmed Calign’s pale face, casting filtered patterns through its hair, clean and soft as lush moss. It set Buaya’s smooth white skull down upon the ashes and bones of the fire.

A spire of lichen cast a queer shadow across the canopy, barely visible from below, sprouting from a nest of wet growth in the broken boughs of an enormous quillwort, itself rising from the shattered corpse of a clubmoss planted in a fern. A magnolia so crushed as to be almost a shrub was the bed of the broken stack of dying primitives, where the rest of Buaya’s bones lay at rest, the white plates of her armour still nestled in the familiar shape of her squat reptilian body.

It was a chilly morning.

Nearby, long, irregular rasps of nails on metal rang out, like sharp rocks in the flow of the awakening birdsong. Kulgha was scraping the last, caked residue of broth from the bottom of the cauldron. She pulled her long fingers out of the pot, passed them between hoary, arid lips, plunged them in again, another screech. A frown hovered over her brow. Eyes that had watched and waited through the whole night squinted in the cold rays of dawn.

“Dreams are something strange,” she said, still intent on the pot, “They’re like the wind. You can’t touch them, but you can call them and make them come, if you know the way. Many can find them if they want, few can make others dream. No one can make the world dream. Only in some of the old places, it can happen. That’s the way it is.” She did not look up. “You’re not of the living folk, are you? You’re like those places, old and strong.” Her mouth broke into a crooked grin. “Didn’t know they could feast as good as me.”

“Only here.” Calign sifted white ash through its fingers. “Only with you. I am ill with this place, it rots me. If I stay here any longer I will rip it off my skin with my teeth and keep ripping. Two bullfrogs cannot share a hole.” It lifted its hands and the ash fell away, revealing a blossom. Its eyes turned aside and locked with Kulgha’s over the rim of her great cauldron. “But you know that. Which came first: you, or your dens in the dark?”

“That’s the hardest question,” the hag gave a rasping chuckle as she set the now wholly empty pot aside. “Once, they were there, and I wasn’t. They were there when I was young, long ago. Then I became old, as old as them. I took some of what they are into myself, and the count of their winters became mine. That’s why I can make the rivers run to their birth, and my days crawl backwards, so that I won’t ever die. Like them, everything I take, I can make mine. That’s what you must be feeling, the hunger of the woods.” She lifted a charred bone from the crumbled embers, snapped it over her finger like a twig, smelled the inside. “You weren’t born with it, nor are you prey. This is why you must go.” A pensive glance down the undisturbed flow of the stream. “South away, the forest is ancient and sated. Perhaps it speaks in a way you can answer.”

The silence that followed was punctuated by a wet, weak thud as some bough of the alien tree broke under its own weight and fell into the leaves and worms of an older forest. Somewhere a blackbird was croaking.

“I’m missing a beast,” said Calign. “It won’t slow me down much. My footprints will be mud before moonrise.” It stood and then hovered, the force of the gentle motion pushing it a few inches away from the ground. Its eyes were bright and still. “May the roots of our trees never tangle again,” it said, its claws digging into the bark of the oak with which it pulled itself forward. “I can offer no other blessing.”

“May the wind bring your dream to far lands,” the crone croaked, and scattered dust of crushed bone into the rising breeze, “And may the road wear out your feet no more than thrice.”

And then the spirit was gone.




Calign found its lizard hunting at the riverside, its neck having grown so long now as to browse the shallow waters like a stork, the tip of its snout likewise razor-sharp. It shuffled when Calign trilled, yet did not raise its gaze from the mud. Curious, Calign stood beside it.

Oh. Of course.

The lizard startled like a skittish cat and leapt up to glide away on the skin between its toes and lengthening arms, leaving Cal alone to meet eyes with the amphibian. It was fat, black and warty, probably a giant of its kind. The poison in its meat was its only defense before Calign, but the toad showed no sign of startling.

After all, it too was a predator.

Augor Astren
Sarghaul Tartareus
Veritas Res

in

Diversion at Ullanor Quartus


Upon the fringes of the Ullanor system towards the Galactic North, the silent and empty expanse of space outside of the Ullanor Star’s gravity was shattered with the abrupt arrival of an immense wall of ships, scything into being like the stroke of terror accompanying a heart attack. Fifteen Macroclade Fleets of the Ordo Astranoma - each one having warped in arranged in Vanguard formation, mythical Arks spearheading formations of Cruisers, all poised with deadly stillness as light surged and coalesced around the length of the barrels for their nova cannons. For a split instant after the arrival of the armada of vessels, all was still once more.

This lasted only as long as it took each of the mighty flagships to acquire targeting solutions.

All over the Northern Front of the Ullanor system, dozens of Ork vessels were instantly engulfed in blossoming nebulas or annihilating antimatter detonations. Some vessels - such as the mighty Ork Deadnots and a number of tremendous Spacehulks - were even bombarded by multiple Nova Cannon strikes simultaneously, briefly eclipsing even the Star of Ullanor itself in brightness as seething and hideous destructive energies eclipsed their frames.

As the remnant emission of the alpha strike from the Mechanicum vessels dissipated, most of the targeted victims had simply been atomized and erased from existence. A few, however, had survived. The few surviving Ork Spacehulks and Deadnots, mutilated but still somehow - impossibly - functional began to orient towards the new threats, and Ork voxcallers screamed across the system in alert.

“DA HUMMIES IZ HER! WAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHH!”

The Mechanicum armada of the Orda Astranoma had all emerged at an unusual ingress vector along the Northern Perimeter of the system, and had arrived further out than was strictly necessary. The distance between them and even the closest intact Ork vessel was tremendous, measuring almost more than an entire lighthour. Despite this, their crews saw no good reason not to open fire immediately. Thousands of Ork craft spat projectiles at the intruding Mechanicum fleets immediately as they spun around and began to accelerate through space. Each and every shot they fired - Ork Munitions not being renowned for their accuracy to begin with - careened off into the furthest reaches of space, never to be seen again.

But while there were hundreds of Mechanicum vessels present, there were tens of thousands of Ork vessels now slowly throttling towards them. The Armada’s nova cannons would take a substantial amount of time to recharge, even with their Mars-Pattern reactor feeds enabling them to fire the potent weapons much more frequently than any other vessel of the Imperial Navy. There was nearly an entire light minute of distance between the Armada of the Ordo Astranoma and the nearest Ork vessel, but as soon as the Orks began to charge their own drives to perform in-system warp jumps - a suicidal maneuver to anybody BUT an Ork, with practically no sense of self preservation or fear or failure - even the fractional, damaged survivors to spill from the Warp would be more than numerous enough to simply overwhelm the Macroclade fleets.

Upon the bridge of the Armada’s leading Flagship, the Dawnbreaker - an immense Ark Mechanicum vessel to rival even Gloriana class battleships - Augor Astren, Primarch of the 12th Legion of the Emperor of All Mankind’s Astartes Space Marines, viewed the tactical display and evaluated the casualties from the transition through the warp. Surrounded by the relatively diminutive frames of his personal cadre, the nearly three and and half meter tall Primarch, augmented from head to toe with bionics and sporting a massive servo-harness of six servo-limbs and countless mechadendrites, seemed more like a massive, spindly siege engine or some chaotic extrusion of the ship itself than Human. Dismissing the tactical readouts with a twitch from one dendrite, the Primarch opened a voxcall with the commanders of the two attache groups that accompanied his armada, the disparate light and color schemes from within the other vessels casting stark contrast across what remained of the ashen-colored flesh of his face, turned a seemingly dead color from a lifetime of saturation with tailored chemical cocktails, volatile energy, radiation, and cybernetic augmentation.

“The Macroclade fleets have made a successful transition through the Warp into the Ullanor system with minimal casualties due to turbulence. Our opening volley has successfully destroyed 90% of all initial targets, remainder are speculated to be too heavily damaged to perform in-system jumps. Numerous Ork Warp Drive signatures have been detected building power for transition. The plan proceeds apace.”

The vox crackled for a moment, without a concrete signal to latch on, before abruptly falling into deathly silence. It was not the mere silence of a lack of communication, nor that of an empty wavelength. There was a dim, oppressive air to that stillness which betrayed its origin - the voxcall had been answered, and the response came from a cold, sepulchral atmosphere. After what had been only a few instants, stretched in perception by that crushing void to the point they could have felt like minutes, a voice spoke, inhumanly low and deformed by a host of intervening mechanical addenda. Besides the thick, metallic distortion of what must have been a heavy faceguard worn by the speaker, it was punctuated by a hollow churning, as if his mouth had been almost level with a watery surface.

“Understood.” A gurgling wheeze, akin to the collapse of a miniature cataract, broke through the terse speech. “The Tempests of the Ninth are keeping pace. Ensure the creatures’ force is mangled by the accorded time.”

“Proceed as was ordained,” a brief and distorted voice responded to their elaborate proceedings. “My Duolons shall follow the prepared routes once our foes have caught interest in your maneuvers.” The voice, an eerie monotone cut vapidly into the aether as quickly as it had entered. Posing an appropriately dissonant reference to the stillness provided by the one prior.

The heavier, sunken words sounded again. “Beginning course corrections to approach Ullanor Quartus. The Orks will be bound to it once the next stage of the battle is joined.” With a flicker, the transmission returned to silence.

At the other end of the vox-line, a great clawed hand tapped the ungainly steel bulk of the interface emitter, deadening a few of its lights and deepening the darkness in the cavernous command hall. A far cry from the luminescent spectacle of Augor’s seat, the bridge of the Tide of Achaeron, the titanic master vessel of the Abyssal Lurkers’ fleet, was as steeped in shadow and devoid of vital sounds as the most recondite of oceanic caverns. Only the faint glow of crucial equipment and projected spatial mapping weakly broke its stygian blackness, and the cold aquamarine eyes of its occupants’ armoured visors - eyes that had no need of light to see. The bulky forms below them, encased in dim plate, would have seemed ghostly and indistinct to anyone else, but their vitreous gazes could discern even the most weathered unit marking on each other’s shoulders.

One pair of those eyes in particular stood tall above the others, almost twice their height from the ground. Sarghaul turned away from the console, leaving it to the attention of the many-limbed acolytes of the Legion’s Forge, and stalked out of the chamber with steps that sent light tremors coursing even through the reinforced carcass of the battleship. Through the wide arched gateway that led to the bridge he went, raising his jagged forearm and giving a light twitch of his talons in a signal as he went - and the imposing forms of two Terminators, encased in Tartaros armour of a blue so deep it was almost black, who had until then stood guard to each side of the threshold, immobile as statues, stirred to follow him. Two more awaited some three metres away, flanking the ample corridor that led deeper into the belly of the ship, and so did they move to follow when their progenitor passed by them. Two more joined them after an equal interval, and then two more, and more yet, until all of the Orcus Lictors, the exalted aegis of the Primarch of the Ninth, were gathered in procession. Glimmers of force coursed along the powered talons adorning their hands in imitation of their master, and the mouths of death-spitting weaponry awned hungrily at their wrists.

Not a single soul crossed the troop’s path as they descended, so that, despite being the heart of all seven Tempests, the Tide may well have appeared as a ghost ship more forsaken than a space hulk, until, after several descending turns through a maze of branching passageways, they emerged into a veritable vault of a hangar. Though merely one of many in the sightless bowels of the battleship, it dwarfed the bridge by orders of magnitude, and without the even so ephemeral glow of control devices it was steeped in utter inky blackness, where only distant clusters of cerulean eyes flitted to and fro like will-o’-the-wisps over a fresh grave. Undeterred, Sarghaul marched towards one of those unstable constellations, the ranks of his honour guard at his heels. What he saw before himself, as clear as day, were no mere lost points of light, but a septet of Expergefactor Techmarines, heavy with the strange paraphernalia of their craft, circling around the crouching mass of a Flegias Dreadnought. The ancient was freshly awoken, still covered in briny droplets from his watery crypt, and unlike most of his entombed brethren bore signs of his age in the guise of commemorative emblems across his frame. A curious collection it was, many of them not having been in use for a long time, predating the reunion of the Tartarean Primarch with his sons, while a few had never been conferred away from Terra; though guessing at the elder’s age would have been fruitless, it was clear at a glance that he was tremendously old even among his kind.

Although the Dreadnought’s custodians could not but have heard their gene-sire’s approach, most of them did not acknowledge him beyond a glance and a nod. Only one took a step forward to meet him.

“The Venerable is awoken, lord, and he has roused the spirits bound to him,” the Expergefactor’s voice, steely and toneless in an inorganic way, could have unsettled even another among the Lurkers, “But he is not yet attuned to the path to come. He awaits your command.”

Sarghaul waved him aside and locked gazes with the opaque sensors of the living sarcophagus. It did not stir.

“Arise to battle, Rethius,” he rumbled, and gave a churning breath, “Speak.”

Moments of silence, then -

“To seek is to suffer. To await is to lie amid thorns. Know only the moment, for it dies as our foes do. It dies.” The flat, mechanical staccato of the Dreadnought’s voice grew echoing as it spun in harrowed circles. “It dies, it dies, it dies, it dies, it die…”

It died, too, as one of the attendants whispered a formula of ministation and slammed something closed on its back.

“A battle awaits that is like many others,” he explained, in a voice that seemed perfectly identical to that of the one who had greeted Sarghaul, “The Elder One has spoken no ill omens. Go with victory, my lord.”

The Primarch dipped his head in somewhat skeptical acknowledgement. He had never been one to give much weight to the oracles of the Expergefactors and their charges, but such was tradition. A faint noise from nearby dispelled those routine thoughts he had revisited before a hundred hundred clashes. Someone was writing in a dataslate, furtively, a sound that would have been imperceptible to any that did not make his home in utter silence, but struck him as an irritating droning. He glanced sideways, and an all too familiar red bionic eye stared back from under a silken hood, frozen if a mechanical organ could be. Before even he stirred to move, one of the Lictors sharply gestured away, and the robed figure, minuscule among the towering Astartes, withdrew with an anxious bow.

That pest of a chronicler usually knew well enough to stay out of the way, but the ramblings of the ancients sometimes drew her out of her corners enough to be a nuisance. He never had quite understood why. Perhaps the meanderings of their withered minds really did seem mystical to impressionable mortals.

In but a few seconds, the Remembrancer was once again all but forgotten as he walked past the now quiescent Rethius, towards files of other Dreadnoughts further away. Many of them would see war again on that day, after months, years, sometimes decades of slumber. The Expergefactor Summus really had emptied the catacombs for this occasion. And they would need it. A world teeming with Orks lay ahead.

A battle like many others, the oracle had said. In spite of all, in one way this was true.

The inhuman would perish.




Time passed. Orks screamed without pause in the void of space, firing innumerable munitions into oblivion - and then their warp drives engaged. Shimmering veils of iridescent light sheared across their bows, and thousands of the crude spacecraft vanished.

“Navigators have confirmed approximate enemy warp vectors. Machine spirits are set for timed salvos synchronized with the emergence of the first vessels. Deployment hangars are pre-jettisoning munitions.” A tech-priest relayed amongst the various fleet-groups in Lingua-Technis - the two attache groups to the armada receiving a delayed Cant Mechanicum translation of the same announcement.

“All vessels begin warp jump sequencing. Prime to jump in concert with the Merciless Service. All vessels confirm preparations.”

A flood of affirmative signals were cast between the vox-relay systems - numerous ships sent back negatives, but their subsequent requests for delay were summarily ignored. The plan had already accounted for a margin of failure in the second warp jump maneuver, and the number of ships unable to make it in time was well within acceptable parameters.

In mere moments, hundreds of Ork vessels - the first in a staggered series of craft that had gone to warp to close distance with the armada - appeared amidst the Macroclade fleets, and were immediately beset by blind-fired macrocannon and lance volleys, aimed only by the most cursory of automated machine-spirit guidance. The simple mass of fire poured into the arriving ships was enough to destroy several and cripple many - but in addition to several stray shots impacting allied ships within the Armada itself, disrupting their preparations to jump to warp, many of the Ork vessels were simply too massive and sturdy to be bent and broken by the deluge of fire. Innumerable Ork Gunners shouted out as they mindlessly directly return fire out at the Macroclade vessels…
Only to be left slack-jawed and bewildered as nearly all of their targets vanished into the void, leaving nothing behind… except for a number of Rad Tempest Void Mines. A scant instant later, they detonated, and the Northern border of the Ullanor system became awash with the incandescent light of a gamma-ray maelstrom that slowly degraded the hulls of every vessel caught within its expanse - both those of the Orks, and of the unfortunate vessels that were unable to make the second jump to safety in time. The maelstrom cascaded and persisted, and continued to churn and burn at the staggered and haphazard formations of Ork craft that arrived from out of the warp in the area.

Several lightminutes away - and now at a substantially closer approach vector to Ullanor Quartus - the Armada reappeared, and after another momentary pause, a second salvo of deadly Nova Cannon fire lashed out from its wall of flagships to thoroughly blast apart the Orkish craft warping into the artificial Rad Tempest, their shields and hulls fatally weakened by the writhing energies upon arrival.

“Second jump stage completed. Initiating high-energy propulsion burns to enter Ullanor system proper. All ships, break into preassigned Macroclade groups and approach your assigned system targets. May the Omnissiah bring us victory.” The monotonous and droning voice of the vox-announcer over the various command craft channels , which was relayed in scant seconds of unintelligible static for the members of the Ordo Astranoma, was then pain-stakingly translated into Cant Mechanicum for the benefit of the other vessels and legions present.




It was time.

Inside their swarm of drop-pods and landing craft, the silent legions of the Ninth waited. Eyes shut behind their visors, they recited the war-mantras of the via consensus in their minds, preparing to emerge from shadowed peace into the chaos of the battlefield and lose themselves in a different way. Not in the soundless oblivion of meditation, but in the unyielding focus of combat and purpose, the determination of slaughter bred into them all.

I wade into the tide of havoc, strong like an avalanche. I am the avalanche. There is no I.

I stand against its waves, firm like a rock. I am the rock. There is no I.

I smother it with a force of silent order, cloying like poison. I am the poison. There is no I.

I am duty. There is no I.

Only duty.


Beside them, separated only by the armoured flanks of larger marked pods, unthinking things of gnashing teeth and scraping claws readied themselves in their own way. They had not been fed in days. They hungered. The narcotic haze they had been shackled with for a long time was fading, and they felt the pangs of visceral desire more and more painfully.

Once, they would have hammered the walls of their prison, cried and begged, pondered and plotted an escape to their plight. Once, they had been human. But none of that remained now. They snapped and howled, impatiently flexing their claws. They craved flesh. They were Infestus, and they were hunger.

Other minds yet stood expectant in the underbelly of the dark ships of the Tempests. They were perhaps purest, bafflingly indifferent in their primitive simplicity. Vast segmented legs scraped the floor of gargantuan dropships. Recurve pincers that could have snapped a Terminator in half tapped together in idle reflex. The monstrous charybdes that gave their Abyssal masters their name did not know where they went, nor did they care. They simply went.

That, Sarghaul mused as he had come into the habit to do before every deployment, was what true Astartes should have thought. What he had been guiding his sons to with his teachings and customs. The arrogant might have thought it a degradation, to bring the human level with the bestial. But this was just that - arrogance. A proper warrior of the Emperor ought to know their place, their nature as a tool, a weapon forged for a single purpose. Anything beyond that was a superfluity and a nuisance.

A vision not just for the Astartes, but for all mankind. For a strong Imperium.

The pod around him screeched and vibrated as it was prepared for launch. Now that the way was clear, so was his own purpose in this moment. To crush the Orks on Ullanor Quartus, to pin them under the weight of his forces, choking off reinforcements to the core of the system.

There was no room for failure, but he was not anxious. He knew no fear.

With a roar, the pod launched.

The descent was a blur, then the impact. The doors slid open, and the colossal Primarch stepped out upon the scorched ground.

Around him, the assault had already begun. The eerily silent ranks of the Lurkers clashed with screaming green hordes in makeshift armour across swathes of earth charred by preparatory bombardment, imbibed with nauseous toxins and teeming with pools of coalesced viral solutions. Xeno bodies in various stages of corrosion already littered the field in mounds amid the rusty heaps of their ruined war machines, victims of the first orbital volleys, but still countless more kept coming, thirsting for nothing but bloodshed.

The Orks knew their one purpose. Of all the wretched inhumans, they were the only ones who came close to being worthy foes. He would grant them their wish.

Emerging from their own transports, the Orcus Lictors formed in a wedge around him as he surveyed the tide of battle. The bulk of the Lurker footsoldiers were already at close quarters with the enemy, their sluggish speed obviated by having made planetfall directly in the xenos’ midst. Here and there, their blue front against the green tide was interspersed with the dark brown of Truthlayer support attachments, who fought in the same grim silence as their brothers. The looming, crawling forms of Dreadnoughts and armoured charybdes went toe to toe with the clattering amalgams that were the Orkish parodies of armoured vehicles, trading thunderous cannon-fire and slashes from gigantic claws. Warped Infestus horrors teared and gnawed at flesh, leaping against charging lines of howling beast-riders. Curtains of venomously crackling green flame and geysers of irradiated sludge roiled where the Legion’s Destroyers plied their forbidden art.

Without so much as a word, Sarghaul motioned to his guard, and they charged into a momentarily exposed flank of the unruly alien mass, sweeping their claws and disgorging bolts laden with withering acid. No sooner had those greenskins whose skulls were still mostly intact rallied from the shock that the giant himself was among them. In the thick of the disorderly mob, each sweep of his titanic claws mauled and eviscerated by the dozen, as lightning coursed in jagged chains to strike at those who sprayed bullets from over their fellows’ heads.

The Orks fell upon him, heedless of how many fell in charred husks or mutilated carcasses. They chopped at his legs, clambered over him from behind, hurled themselves forward with all manner of weapons - all to no avail, as if they had been chipping away at a living bastion.

However, that blaze of commotion did not go unnoticed.

The massed ranks of the xenos were abruptly parted as a massive greenskin, flanked by several armoured brutes as large as Terminators, made his way through them, shoving his minions aside with nary a concern for where they ended up. The Warboss clacked his rusty metallic jaws in anger at the sight of the dark cuneus driven into his army, and cleanly chopped through the head of a hapless nearby grot as he brandished the monstrous ragged plate that passed for an axe in his hand.

“Rrah! Ya want sumfing done proppa’, ya gotta do it yerself!” he kicked a smaller Ork to the ground without even noticing as he advanced against the Lictors and their towering leader, “Get off ‘ere, ya runty gitz, and get dem ‘umie nobz outta da way! Da big one’s mine!”

Galvanized, the Ork mob under the lead of the Warboss’ bodyguards rushed against the Lurker honour guards. Though they fell by the scores to their talons and acidic salvoes, they were many, and now had a single bigger head to lead them. Some of the dark-armoured Astartes fell under torrents of flames and bullets and the sheer mass of green bodies, and the others were forced apart out of formation by the renewed charge. The space between Sarghaul and the giant Ork was clear.

“Dis iz how ya do it! WAAAAGH!” With a bellowing battle cry, the Warboss vaulted at the Tartarean One, crossing the gap between them in a single leap, and brought down his axe against his opponent’s side. The Primarch did not budge, though cracks appeared in his armour where the tremendous blow had struck, and retaliated with a series of scything strikes. Yet the Ork was nimbler and lighter on his feet. He dodged the wide swipes of the massive claws in a dance of agile jumps and sidesteps, now and then finding room to land a hit of his own. The gargantuan etched armour was chinked in more and more places, but still Sarghaul did not let up, unleashing swing after swing at his smaller enemy.

“Hrah, I’z almost gettin’ bored ‘ere!” the greenskin taunted with a roaring laugh that nevertheless betrayed a very real annoyance - like all his kind, he was quick to get impatient. “‘Urry up an’ die already so I gets to take yer ugly ‘ead for da pole!”

He lunged in a mighty, reckless strike, and found no defence as he cut through Sarghaul’s pauldron. But his triumph was short-lived, for he had left himself wide open in a gambit to cut down his foe with this final cleave, and his burly body fell limp as the Claws of Oblivion gouged it open from leg to throat, tips piercing into his skull from beneath his armoured jaw. With a final snap, they sliced from within through the still snarling face, letting the ponderous corpse fall to the ground.

Seeing their leader collapse, the Orks all around hesitated.

“Zog, da boss iz down!” one shouted, “Ya gitz know wot we do now?”

“I sayz we runs back an’ figures wot do, coz’ I sure can’t finks proppa’ now!” another answered, finding time to briefly turn his head and yell despite being locked in combat with a pincer-wielding Assault Marine. His distraction was swiftly rewarded with a beheading snap.

“An’ who sayz ya da boss?” one of the surviving bodyguards snarled, “We just gots to gets togetha’ an’ give dem ‘umie zoggers a shove!”

“Ya all shaddup, ya puny squigz!” the largest Nob still standing smacked an insubordinate boy over the head strong enough to send half of it flying, “All we’z gotta do iz stay ‘ere an’ keep krumpin’, else Boss Urruk gonna ‘ave our ‘eadz!”

And so, though faltering in places, the Ork horde held its ground.

Just as the plan demanded.

Sarghaul tore off an arm from one of the greenskins holding down a Lictor, giving the Terminator an opening to drive his claw through the skull of his other opponent, and turned back towards the bulk of the horde. It had been considerably thinned, but reinforcements were still pouring in from all sides. That was well. His task was to hold as many of them as possible locked in battle over this peripheral planet.

And the more of them he killed, the better he would fulfil his purpose.




“Primarch, IX is proceeding as planned; XII maintaining orbit,” echoed a voice across the vox aboard the Absolute’s bridge, the sound bouncing and reverberating throughout the vast halls therein akin to distant quakes of thunder. It’s origin, the commander of the detachment allocated to service alongside the shoulders of the Abyssal Lurkers, one of the praetorate, produced for their Primarch the final updates before the soon to be undertaken maneuver along the planned course. The ship, distantly removed, along with its fleet, from the Macroclades which it had accompanied upon its system-entry. Adrift in the distant upper-atmosphere, at the edge of the planet’s gravity well, there he listened. There he had bid his time for this moment.

He sat, his optical cybernetics linked into a vast and hulking, behemothic device of incomprehensible complexity, through a series of thick and gruesome wires. Thanks to it, and the cadre of tech-priests heralding from the closely-allied realm of Mortisimo, he could see the ship and all within it. Thanks to his sight, blessed by the Emperor’s kind hand, he could see the future within which he must travel. He stared blankly ahead of him, whilst simultaneously witnessing everything within his flagship. Balisterius Stratama stood humbled as he signed the vox communications and their assorted statistics and calcula for their overlord.

All around him, the imperial navy officers and their staff focused on all things but the Primarch who glared his sun-bright eye against their backs, shivering ever so occasionally. It was no surprise that one individual such as the Truthlayers’ Primarch, one blessed with powers such as he, would inspire both fear and might throughout his ranks. The ship’s foremost captain, Admiral Ysterov, knew far better. He stood at the giant’s side, vocal through both his tongue and his body, making all manner of aberrant gestures as he shouted at his crew to perform their best better. It was soon time, Veritas thought as he saw hundreds of men, women, and even children, pass by his bridge deck before him; shifting from one individual to the next, whilst sometimes being the same. All that he saw was useless but one, for now. He honed upon the path to be taken, and focused on the present moment, raising his voice to a cooled roar without tonation - shouting without the properties of a shout.

“Orient about; engage engines.”

“Aye, Primarch,” responded Admiral Ysterov as he waved towards the vox-operator sat directly below the vast arch-shaped window at the bridge’s fore. The intention was clear, at least to the vox-operator, as he flicked a lever with all his might, and held it in position. “Duolon Primaris, orient about! Engage maximum thrust!” Roared the Admiral, the noise of the unbelievable might of the engines shaking the very entirety of the Gloriana-class battleship under their unified might.

“Truth be brought?” spoke Balisterius Stratama, his voice shallow and hoarse, effort clearly seen with each breath drawn. He locked eyes with his Primarch, almost crushed underneath their steeled stare and unflinching resolution

“It is known,” Veritas responded sharply, the man at his side, Achaelon Omnigus, moving towards distant quarters at the phrase’s mentioning. Likewise, Balisterius bowed pointedly, as deep as his armour could allow him, before he too made his way towards the rest of the legion housed far away from the Bridge. The remainder of the praetorate, those not employed along the side of other legions and their battlefields throughout the system, followed suit.

Veritas stared, what some would consider blindly, into the abyss beyond the window which divided the realms of void and men. But what he saw was not blackness, he saw the realm of Ullanor Prime centered along the prow of his vessel. He loosened his focus, and took in all the hundreds of tactical displays amidst the vast bridge’s expanse; saw the thousands who also beheld them shift and mingle with the changing times. He saw the battlefield he would emerge on, and the orks which he would fell with his own sword.

He felt it.

He felt it deep within his core, the only thing which could make him feel. It was anticipation, anticipation of a great event to come - soon. He would fight along the emperor’s side and prove to him once again that he is worthy to build the dream of paradise just as well as the Custodes at his guard can.

He closed his eyes briefly, returning to the calmness. He felt the chatter, the distant bickering of the fore-most cogitator console operators who believed themselves too distant for the Primarch to notice.

He opened his eyes again, and stared. It’s radiant glow instilling a serene silence throughout the deck once more.

Admiral Yberov stood at his side, the last to do so after all the Astartes had left the deck for the rallying quarters entombed within the center-ship. He was unnerved yet awed at his Lord’s presence. Manifest death and victory within one vessel, he thought before swiftly returning to his mission. He continued to roar directives to the thousands of officers along the vast halls of the Absolute’s command deck.

Veritas shifted his gaze slightly, his emotionless visage leaving both no room for interpretation, whilst also being filled with the prospect for it.

He looked upon the Admiral’s silhouette briefly, coldness evident in his otherwise stellar irises..

With the engines cut, and the shaking ceased; the fleets of the Truthlayers legion were now destined for Ullanor Prime’s orbit.
The Unbroken Host



Motto: From dusk we bring the Golden Dawn



Grande Finale




With doom they came.

The throng of massive spined bodies, each large enough to crush three selka in a blow, surged across the sloping plain, trampling the tall grass into a dirty mulch. Their crimson eyes burned with soulless malice, ready to feast themselves on the sight of slaughter. The blood-drinkers of the Hooflands grew fat and strong in battle, and this pack had clearly rampaged through more than one tribe on its way towards the shore.

Despite the monsters’ size, the thought only made Split’s rage mount within her as she watched them approach.

Behind her, the hill crest had been stacked with large rocks, a crude palisade of sharpened sticks bridging the wide gaps between the awkwardly spaced boulders. It could scarcely be called a barricade, but there was only so much two score of selka could do in less than a week. The villages this far down the coast were still few and scarce, and Split’s own warning had been the first this one had heard of the blood-drinkers being on the warpath. It was fortunate she had reached them first at all, for, though she travelled alone, the cruel purpose that seemed to have come into the beasts drove them to a tenacity they had lacked before.

Plump grey shapes shuffled apprehensively behind the makeshift wall. Like most southerners, the Wottja had known little bloodshed in their secluded lives - the fish were plentiful off the shore, and the tribes too few and small to compete with each other over anything. Though they had seen blood-drinkers before, it had never been such large ones, nor so many at once, nor, worst of all, ones so driven to assail them overtly rather than ambushing lone huntsmen. What spears and knives they wielded were fit more for skewering bush-rats and fish than for piercing the hide of those things, and the party assembled for the defense of their homes was all too keenly aware of that.

This was why Split had left them in that relative safety while she stood on the slope alone, her axe over her back, three jagged stone knives in her hands.

Anon, she stood no longer, but ran, now on two legs, now on three, to meet the onrushing horde.

The packleader reared up, claws outsplayed to cut her down without breaking its stride. Its monstrous size turned against itself as she dodged under the swipe of its paws and jabbed a blade into its gut. With lightning-fast movements, she stabbed and pulled as one climbing a glacier, grappling her way up the creature’s bulk as it thrashed and roared, the ones behind it ramming into each other as rank after rank slowed down in hesitation. The rough stone edges tore gaping wounds in the earthen-red underbelly as they were dragged out, and black blood poured in streams.

With a vault, Split brought herself over the beast’s horned head. She struck at its upper eyes, and its roars rose to an agonized pitch; even as she did, her knives passed from her upper hands to the lower ones, and the free clutches unslung the axe from its harness. The vicious curved blade thirsted after a drought of many days, almost vibrating in anticipation, and, clenching her jaws, the kostral let herself be overtaken by its fury.

She leapt, scrambled, almost danced over the heads and backs of the blood-drinkers, every bound drawing forth gouts of foul life, every twist breaking off horns and maiming limbs. She stepped on knives and rolled over her axe, and when those did not suffice, her claws and teeth joined the fray, ripping eyes from their sockets and biting off talons. The mass beneath her heaved as a single immense horror, screaming and bellowing in a host of voices, reaching for her with dozens of limbs, lunging with a forest of horns. The brown blood of the Pit-dweller mingled with the black ichor of the soulless. And still she did not let up, not even slow, as battle-rage drove her and her arms fell without guidance into motions practised many a time. Her eyes were glazed over, scarce even seeing the carnage, and the brand on her shoulder pulsated with a light as of buried embers.

Their erstwhile prey forgotten, the blood-drinkers had clustered to seize this darting gnat. They smelled the smouldering force within her, and hungered as they never had before for something so small. A wrath of their own clouded their senses, and when they struck, it was most often another of their number who bled. One after another, they fell, blinded, mutilated, haemorrhaging from cuts and gashes all over their bulk. Split did not stop to count her triumphs, but struck and hacked still, until her hide was once more as dark as it had been in her long-gone youth.

Even when the last of the monsters collapsed with a rasping groan, she did not let her arms stop twitching, did not let the fire inside her die out. She knew the battle was not over yet.

On the opposing hill, a tall shadow that could have been a tree began to move. It strode down slowly, deliberately, aiming its steps to crush as much of the surviving grass as could fit under its wide foot. The single, lidless red eye amid its cyclopic head looked with cold disgust on the failure of its herd, but it did not speak as it advanced, stony fingers grinding into readiness.

Split felt her body lurch ahead, despite herself, eager to leap upon this new foe, but held back with all the strength she could muster. In an effort that far surpassed the entire massacre of the blood-drinkers, she forced herself to move back by one step, then another, then another. Every foot a battle against her own flesh, she backed up, away from the seeping mound of still warm carcasses, up towards the barricade. The colossus of dark stone, emboldened by her apparent retreat, took a longer stride. With a grunt, she loosened her fingers, enough for her axe and knives to drop to the ground.

That was the signal. Pushed by grey hands, the trunk of a young tree, cut down and smoothed, rolled over the boulders and fell to the ground beside her. Almost before it struck down, the kostral had seized upon it, digging her claws into the wood. Though the trunk was half again as long as her, it rose high, stabbing into the clear sky. As it began to arc down towards the earth again, she leapt. The stone giant was just where she had expected it to be, and though its faceless glare did not betray it, surprise must have flashed through its mind as it saw the enormous club descend onto it.

It struck with all its weight, in a crash of splinters and pebbles. The colossus staggered and almost toppled to the side, its left arm now an uneven outcropping on its shoulder. Before it could raise its massive frame upright again, another thundering blow chipped off half its leg, bringing it down with an impact that shook the ground. It tried to prop itself up with its one remaining arm, but the remains of the trunk arced down again, straight upon its eye. With a final crunch, the body fell still, and the stones forming it fell apart as the preternatural force holding them together faded.

Only then did Split allow herself to breathe out fully. The splintered trunk in her hands dropped down, and she soon followed suit, wheezing as the exhaustion of that brief whirlwind of death caught up to her. She lay, amid blood and crushed stone, two eyes closed and the others looking up at the sky. It was so clear, so calm. She could hear the sounds of the grasslands again, and the buzzing of the first curious flies that descended on the site of the massacre. A rush of elation filled her at the sight of the spotless blue above her, and she wanted to stand up and stretch out her arms, but weariness weighed her down, and it quickly passed.

Something prodded her under her flank, pushing up. Split glanced aside and found herself looking into a concerned whiskered face. She narrowed one eye and weakly mimicked a half-smile with the edge of her mouth, but did not have the strength for any other gesture of reassurance. The face drew back, and she was lifted to her hind limbs, robust rubbery shoulders catching her under the first pair of arms. She let herself be carried up the hill, head almost dangling if not for lack of a neck, her gaze still contentedly lost in the azure void yonder. The day was warm and still.

***


Darkness had crept down, quiet and sly like a thief, and the many eyes of night winked from the ever-cloudless pitch sky. The far, far glimmers of the storied heavenly fires looked like sparks from the great festive flames the Wottja had built up in the burnished space between their holes and coarse huts, the fragments of Split’s giant club feeding the heat of revelry in what a contemplative watcher may have appreciated as a curious symbol of the world’s ways. Yet the minds of those gathered around the bonfire were a simpler sort, and the burning effigy of vicissitude was used to cook pieces of fish and meat on rough skewers. The selka had revelled and danced away the day in celebration of their saviour, and now were almost all as tired as her, sprawling placidly in a rolling tide that could have been mistaken as an extension of the nearby whispering sea.

Split, who had recouped a little from the morning’s struggle after a half-slumbering rest, crouched in the place of honour, axe at her side, traces of quiet exhilaration still in her eyes. The bonfire’s shifting light flickered over her weathered body. Even to one who had never seen a kostral before, it was clear that she was old. Her skin had long faded to ashen gray, drained by age and discoloured by the sun; its scabby carapace was cracked and scarred in countless places, the latest seeping scratched having joined an intricate web that spanned her entire body, deep and shallow; her claws were yellowed, and, behind the moment’s beatitude, her gaze was weary. But flesh still rippled with tremendous strength under her hide with her every movement, and her teeth, though cleft as they had ever been, did not quiver as they bit and gnawed through the crude feast. While most of the selka were a good deal fatter than her, none had eaten as much that evening.

“So, what happened then?” Nophoe, a wizened and round-bellied matron, shifted her gaze from the fire and onto Split. “How’d you get split off the wood people?”

The kostral leaned back on her mid-arms, front eyes drifting down from the sky and onto the faces of her audience. Her story had kept growing as she travelled, and tribe after tribe had been itching to hear where such a strange being had come from. The Wottja were no exception, though the urgency of their preparations had never yet left her enough time to complete her tale. Now, however, there was nothing more to hound them, and she could finish.

“Was after I’d run into the girl, Arya again.” Arya. What had become of her since then? Where had she gone off to? Good thing that last time she’d looked like she was more than able to look out for herself, though really that was not all there was to life. Wherever she might have been, Split wished she was having a good time of it.

She gave a shake of her shoulders and resumed. “Right, after that, yeah. Got on along some more, then them things started coming out. Them blood-drinkers, stone people. Was a lot of them at the start. Not like today, this much more.” She stretched apart four hands to show just how many more. “So we went beating on them together. They was gutted good in a fight, you won’t believe. Lot of them, and wood’s wood.”

The selka gave a chorus of nods and hums of assent, and one snickered “Yeah, you’ve shown us that all right.”

“Then,” she continued, “them packs started breaking up and going all ways, like you seen ‘em. So we figured we’d better do too. Wasn’t need for us to fight ‘em all together, and if we went two ways we’d keep them off more places. ‘Least, I figured, but he must’ve too. Was another time for us both. Me, I’d found people, and he’d no time to judge. Maybe he’s found some again now.”

“Yeah,” Nophoe bobbed her head, “hope he has. Sounded like he was good at it, and gods know folks need that sometimes.”

“Right on that,” Split pried another fish clean with a couple of swipes through her mouth, “Doubt he’ll be losing the touch soon. So he went west, and I south -” she dislodged a stuck fishbone from her bifurcated tooth with a finger, “- and after a bunch of scars, I’m here. Keeps you busy, all the chopping.”

“I dunno what the other people said,” a younger tribesman spoke up, “but we’ll have you know you didn’t take them scars for nothing. You’re one of us now, and I’ll dare any to say not!”

A cheer went up from the gathered selka, and Split let herself slide back, eyes to the winking stars, as flipper-like hands smacked her on the back and shoulders. Say what you will about being alone growing on you, she thought as she whistled in contented exhaustion, it was good to be among friends.

***




When she awoke, it was dark. She stretched out a hand to feel the tent’s rough hide before her eyes, but found herself grasping at the void. An inexplicable chill coursing through her bones, she pushed herself up, traces of sleep quickly fading from her head. No, she was not simply reaching for the far end. There truly was nothing where heavy folds should have hung from the rough wooden poles of the simple roof’s backbone.

Yet there were no lights above, only a distant, sickly pale gleam where nothing like that should have been.

Split’s contemplation of the darkness, so deep that even her subterranean-bred eyes struggled to pierce it, was broken by a sound somewhere off to the side. Something dragged over the ground, something distantly rumbling, whispering, and heavy. It faded as it should have come ahead of her, then began again, further back behind, a damp, creeping sound heralding an impalpable, malign presence. Spinning around, Split reached for her axe, but found nothing where it ought to have lain. Instead, as the sounds vanished, her fingers closed around something small, hard and jagged. She lifted it to her face, and stared at the fragment of clean bone, broken off where its smoothness was marred by the signs of vicious teeth.

She looked around again with eyes now accustomed to the inky emptiness, and saw a world unlike the one she had left when waking. The village was nowhere to be seen, nor was the sea. Tall trees of a kind she had never seen before rose all around, silvery in the dim glow from up above. They parted about where she stood, leaving place for a small clearing. No grass sprouted there, no undergrowth, however thin. The soil under her hands was grainy and yielding, as grey as the towering stems - ash, she realised as she smelled the bone still held up near her face. More pieces like it lay all about, half-sunken into the dusty ground, several larger, but diminutive nonetheless. She spied skulls like those of apes, and ribs of cages no larger than her palm scattered around, all bearing the marks of ghoulish gnawing. Tracks like those of hooves dotted the bleak surface of the ground around them.

Just as the shock of her new surroundings’ impossibility began to set in, the sound came again. It was still behind her, but closer than it had been, much too close. She could guess at the shape of the viscid mass dragging itself on the acrid earth among the trees from its churning and scraping, and she loathed it as much as it struck her with a new chill of fear. It spoke now, its gibbering whispers forming themselves into the distorted outlines of words.

”West,” it hissed, in what may have been either a command or a decree of inevitability, ”Go west. Go west.”

Its writhing drew closer, and Split felt it looming over her, its mockery of speech all she could hear, all she could imagine hearing. The fury of being cornered surged up in her, and, clenching her fists and teeth, she spun around to face the presence.

She could not have imagined. Vast as it has seemed, as she had thought it to be from the weight of its movements, it had been nothing compared to what she saw. The thing filled her sight, sweeping aside the trees like so many insignificant twigs and swallowing the sky with a single undulation of its amorphous bulk. It was a single festering sore, a wound in the world itself, that awned with a mouth of innumerable sharp teeth like mountains. It opened and closed as it spoke, and yet grew neither smaller no larger - ever it was all.

”Go west,” it howled again, ”find me, and he will fall.”

Then it gnashed its uncountable teeth, and in a start and a flash of darkness Split woke up.

***


She slunk away, silently, in the deep of night. It bothered her to leave the selka so, without a farewell, but the echoes of the voice in the dream had taken root in old, buried memories, and would not let her be still. Somehow, whatever had spoken to her that way knew - it had not just been a blind guess, she was certain. It had known what she would listen to, more than anything else, and loath as she was to admit it, it had known right. The ancient oath came floating up from the years, decades, centuries of half-remembrance that had accumulated over it, and with it, its entire foundation, every memory of pain and death in the accursed underworld. And, above all, the hatred around those four burning eyes that overlooked everything.

Thus she had gone, leaving but a parting gift in the guise of the most elaborate of her stone knives. Past the barricade she went, past the slaughtered bodies of the blood-drinkers, the shattered remains of the stone giant. She climbed over the hill the monsters had descended that morning, finding footholds in the gouges left by their talons. The sea was soon out of sight, and then out of earshot, as he passed a thicket that had miraculously stood untouched by the beasts, a grassy field, another hill-crest. And there, on a rock standing jarringly in a faint depression among the ridges, he awaited.

The first sign she noticed was the smell. Even from afar, putrid wafts akin to those in the night-vision, but much more intense now, told her that she was approaching her destination. It was fouler than rot, which for a moment made her think of how the selka would dispose of the blood-drinkers’ bodies before their decay started to spread illness, harsher than rust, viler than infected blood, yet akin to all those together.

A sharp whistle flew past her head, and she brought her front eyes to face the being. Though nowhere as large as he had made himself appear, he was still massive, almost as tall as her and a good deal bulkier. Foul grimy metal was his skin, unequal clawed gauntlets his hands, and a score of grinning maws his face. The sign of the clenched fist on his chest told her all she needed.

“You’re from him?” she growled, settling down in a crouch to mirror his, but visibly leaning an arm on her axe.

”Yeah, but also no,” the being gargled, ”I’m him, but not from him, and also not really him. Gut it, I’ve had it with this spit,” and spit he did something sharp into the ground, ”All you need to know, I’m Vrog and I’m not with him. That good?”

Split shrugged her foremost shoulders. “Guess it’ll have to do. That mark you got, though?”

”What?” Vrog shrugged in turn, ”You got one too.”

“Fair. So that’s why you said it? You’re in the same spot too?”

”Almost right on the spit,” he held up a finger that looked well-suited for carving out eyeballs, ”Except I got the better deal, ‘course I do, heh. I got the way out, for me, for you, for every scrapper down there.”

Three of Split’s eyes half-closed skeptically. “I’d think that a sharp gutface like you woulda taken it already.”

”That’s ‘cause I want to help, ya slagbrain!” The finger pointed at her accusingly. ”I swear, every time I try not to gut everybody straight up, I keep getting tooth. Told ‘em, the problem ain’t me, it’s the world. Good thing I don’t got much of this spit left to go, so ya listen close.”

“What’d ya mean, not much left? What kinda way out’s that you found?” she cocked her head aside, curiosity mixing with skepticism, “You’re not talking of giving the gut up?”

”’Course not, who’d you take me for,” Vrog cackled, ”Thing is, I found a place outta here, straight up. Dream thing or whatever, don’t really give a spit ‘bout them specifics, but there’s got to be drink and parties all the time, it’s gonna be wild. Dunno if my ticket there’ll take more than one, so don’t ask ‘bout that.”

“Wasn’t gonna to,” Split shook her shoulders, mouth snapping in negation, “I got enough dream spit to last a life, no thanks to ya.”

”Good. Now anyway, I’m not gonna need this old heap of scrap,” Vrog tapped his stomach with a dull clatter, ”up there, and since I got to be feeling good to get in, I figured I’d leave it to some scrapper as needs it. Like ya. Took me a slagged bit to find you, too, so if you say no I’ll do me better by eating ya.”

“Look, not giving ya tooth here, but,” she scratched her head, “what the spit’d you think I’m gonna do with a lot of, eh, vrog?”

”’s fine,” he waved a hand, ”I ain’t just gonna gutted drop it on you like this. Thing is, I got scrap in here that he ain’t got no idea about. Add in the spark that keeps it running and a bit of slick, and I’ll bet you scrap to slag it’s gonna be enough to bring down a god. Maybe not straight a way, and maybe not one like him, but” he splayed his claws, ”you ain’t ever gonna get a better shot. That a deal?”

Split rotated her head sideways, one eye facing straight up, considering. She could not help but think Vrog was right - she certainly did not see herself having any better chances than the one he was offering now any time soon, likely ever. At the same time, striking a deal with a piece of Narzhak, and one who looked and smelled like this, made her hesitate.

“Sounds good enough,” she brought her eyes slightly more in line with the many mouths, “and what’s my part in it?”

”Nothing!” Vrog gave a gurgling laugh, ”Nothing you wouldn’t do anyway. Just take it and use it, I know you’re dying to. Not as literal as me, but ya get it.”

“Deal, then,” she extended a hand and shook the sickeningly incrusted claw that came in response. When she withdrew it, she found herself holding a coarse leathery scrap. “The spit is this?”

”That’s for getting in close like the slagger won’t notice. ‘Fore you get to him, you’ll stop by some of my people, give ‘em this and they’ll know what to do. Don’t worry ‘bout reaching them, got it all set up for ya, you’ll see. Either way,” he jabbed out a probing tongue, smelling the air about him, ”that’s it for me, I’m’a get out of here now. Gut ya all, ya spithole!”

He raised a fist to the heavens, thumb sticking out between the uppermost two fingers, then smoothly transitioned into pointing at the far green luminescent gash in the night sky. As Split was distracted by the odd gestures, his tongue suddenly darted out, coiling around her axe and drawing back into the suddenly impossible width of a maw before it even struck her what was happening. She did not even think of starting after it, but sat watching as the mouth found its original shape again, then joined the others in an expression which must have been the closest it could muster to a beatific smile. A somewhat forced one, which soon broke.

”The gut’s up with it? It ain’t working,” Vrog grumbled, hands falling to scratch his head as a tongue shot up to point at the celestial light. Abruptly, he snapped his fingers with a metallic screech. ”Right, peace of mind. Gotta get that on.”

Another snap, and suddenly he was holding an upright brass cylinder. Threads of vapour coiled skywards over its wide brim, and several mouths stretched out of the face holding them to greedily inhale them. After some steady pulls, contented grins spread over them, this time in earnest.

”Gotta hand it, though,” Vrog chuckled, ”I had a good run of it. Heh.” His right claw rose, pointing at Split one last time.

”Just do what comes natural.”

And, as suddenly as that, it fell limp. The living pestilence that had been Vrog was well and truly gone from Galbar.

Lost in contemplation of the sudden change that had come over him in his last moments, Split only faintly noticed how his bulk began to drip and liquefy, flowing down the stone first in rivulets, then in streams, and how the molten slag he had once been and had now returned to pooled and twisted into strange shapes. Only when it was still did she look down.

At the foot of the stone lay an axe, not unlike hers, but larger and far fouler. Rust and grime coated its heft and blade, caked black ichor filled the gaps along its jagged edges, and crusts of dark ash stuck to it by unnameable fluids spread over it in splotches. It was warm to the touch, and heavy even for her when she tried to lift it. Even keeping her hands at good distance from the blade, she could feel that was where Vrog’s foulness had gone - malevolence curled around it like invisible ink in water, and the vile deathly intent radiating from it could almost be smelled.

But then, Narzhak deserved no better.

The question of what exactly Vrog had meant in telling her not to worrying about the way there began to rise again, but it was overtaken by an abrupt realisation of how weary she was. Half a night of nightmares had not been nearly enough after the morning’s battle. Pushing aside all thoughts of revenge, wonder and caution, Split let herself drop to the ground near the axe and drifted into familiar, dreamless sleep.

***


She woke up to great eyes of flame gazing at her from an iron face.

As if stung, she leapt up, axe in hand, holding the blade towards the presence. Fragment of thoughts flitted through the fear and surprise in her mind - was this what he had meant? That the fight would start as soon as she woke up? Much as she had been expecting this very moment for most of her life, Split realised now how woefully unprepared she was to face the god. It was all she could do not to break into running that very moment, thoughts of revenge and justice forgotten amid devouring terror.

The eyes did not move, and she wondered why he had not struck yet. Or, for that matter, while she was asleep. The question grew into a calming doubt, and then she noticed that the eyes were only two.

The being crouching over her was not Narzhak. It was akin to him in its immensity, armoured skin and fiery gaze, but that was where the similarities ended. Its body was serpentine and lean, bony, even, and its arms were vast folded wings. There was something of the kostral in its shape, but it was diluted in a myriad of bestial traits.

Its stare remained fixed on her, and she thought she saw impatience in the dancing flames within its hollow eye-sockets. No, she felt it inside her own head, like that one time so long ago, but weaker. It was a command all the same, yet without the weight of supreme dominion behind it, and it had no true power over her. Still, she felt it all the same. Get on, the eyes said, and so she did, axe slung over her back, clambering over the ridges of iron ribs and clinging to the crest upon the winding spine.

The great wings unfurled, beat once, twice, and for the first time in her life Split-Tooth was flying.

It could not have been all that bad. Arya did it all the time, after all - had been doing it even back when she had been a scared hatchling. True, it was not something that came as easily to her, but if she held on strongly enough, it would go just as smoothly. But, no matter how many times she told herself that, her eyes and teeth stayed clenched so tight she thought her head might burst. Calm down, the colossal beast’s annoyed thoughts washed over her now and again in regular waves, but she felt them less keenly than the irony. No true power over her it had, indeed, not even when, she was forced to admit, it would not have been a bad thing.

The flight lasted longer than she could say. The rare few times she dared open an eye by a crack, the sky was sometimes clear, sometimes dark, though she could not say whether it was due to day and night chasing each other or the path of their voyage traversing the banks of storms. Wind and rain lashed over and around her, but through her thick hide she felt it no more keenly than down on land. The only way for her to mark the passage of time was the beating of the monster’s wings, and she had lost track of it almost as soon as she had started keeping it.

At long last, the movements of the spine around her grew less and less even, and when she pried an eye open she was no longer surrounded by blue emptiness or billowing clouds. A thick red fog, snaring the light of day, whirled all about, stirred by the beast’s flight. As it washed upon her, she felt the tang of blood in her mouth. Unbidden, it roused memories. Who else could make the sky itself bleed?

Her own veins suddenly felt swollen and heavy, and she felt herself lurching downwards through the air. They had arrived.

A heavy blow somewhere below her, and everything came to a halt. Get off, the monster spoke to her inner ear, and so she did, sliding down the cline of its skeletal side made slick by the charnel fog. Almost as soon as she alighted on the hard ruddy earth, the wings snapped again overhead and took flight once more, the wind raised by them knocking her down despite her best efforts to dig her fingers into the soil. Grumbling, she pushed herself back up, sparing half a glance from a back eye at the leviathan shape disappearing into the sky, grey and red like a bloodied blade, and looked ahead.

She was standing over the ridge of a low hill, the ground sloping smoothly from her hands in a cline dotted with spiny grey shrubs that evened out into a wide smooth plain. There, by the sight of it, a great battle had just been fought. Dozens of squat, rounded bodies, covered to various degrees in filthy rags and scrappy armour, littered the expanse, their porcine faces twisted into mortal countenances of rage and pain. Crude weapons, most of them notched and splattered with red, lay scattered among them, along with the larger bulks of felled boars, backs bound by rough saddles and metal plates and snouts a mess of froth and gore.

Stalking among the carnage, scavengers of various kinds were already at work. At the far edges of the field, huge apelike brutes picked through the corpses, tearing out chunks of flesh or snapping off the largest pieces of cuirass and trying them onto themselves. Winged beings that - she grit her teeth in distaste at the sight - looked like mongrels of kostral and the giant that had brought her there, forearms warped into membranous limbs and skin marred by sickly growths, swooped down on isolated bodies, gnawing on them like vulturous beasts.

But most numerous were that same kind of swine-faced imps, either the remaining victors of the struggle or marauders following in their wake. Much like the kin she had known in the Pit, they seemed perfectly at ease as they carved their own fallen kind to pieces with knives and hatchets, roasting them over improvised fires and squabbling over looted armaments.

Her eyes fell over a group larger than most. They struggled, shoved, pushed and dragged each other in a living roil, trying to be among the first to reach the center. In the middle of it all, a small, but well-armed group of paunchy guards held them at bay, while their even fatter, but unarmoured leader dug into a sheaf of large sacks slung over the back of an irritated boar. Something passed between his hands and those of the crowd, and as it did those who had claimed their prize hurried back to their campfires.

As Split’s eyes drifted over the grisly spectacle, inwardly cursing Vrog for not telling her properly where to go next, she noticed that a goblin from one of the circles appeared to have seen her. Her gaze lingered there - she could not be quite sure, but that group looked unusually odd. There were but three of them, but two a good deal larger than any other on the field barring their other comrade, who was simply enormous in comparison. The sharp-eyed beast-fiend elbowed the goliath, and it turned its massive head towards what could only have been her. It gave a wave with a stubby hand, and, having no better recourse, she trotted down the hillside and through the field towards the campfire, no one paying much heed to her as she went.

When she reached the trio and crouched by the crackling flames, she was greeted with a series of grunts, and the giant pig-thing addressed her in a broken, but surprisingly good approximation of Pit-speech.

“Ugly gargoyle as ain’t got no wings, checks out. Big-mouth the one that sent you?”

Split snarled, but before she could answer another unusually large imp trotted over from the swarming crowd, triumphantly waving a pouch made with something’s desiccated stomach in one hand, and dropped into a slouch beside her.

“Got a deal on this one! Mix of salt and shred-weed from up north in the Pan. Ain’t tasted this kind here before, rutting curious to try.”

“Deal? How much’s that mean?” the giant, evidently the leader of the small group, asked skeptically.

“Just two scraps. Ya shoulda seen everyone's faces around when I got it this cheap, but they knows not to mess with us Keepers!”

With these words, the latecomer dipped two stocky fingers into its pouch and drew out a pinch of fine white powder mixed with dried pieces of pink-veined leaves. It artfully spread its bounty over the pieces of meat sizzling over the fire, and a pungent smell went up from them. It was so sharp that Split almost spat, but from how the creatures around her drooled it must have been extremely appetizing for them.

“Anyways,” the towering leader turned back to Split, “I get that right?”

“Yeah,” she finally was able to growl in response, “he did, and if you wants to keep your fat head you’re gonna watch who you calls ugly gargoyle.” The axe’s head demonstratively slammed into the ground by her foremost fingers.

“A’ight, a’ight, what’s yer being so touchy,” the boar-beast snorted, “We’re all friends here, ain’t we. I’m Oruff, by the ways.”

“Nahf,” rejoindered the one who had first spotted her.

“Kniff,” added the one who had brought the spice.

“Hruf,” finished the last one, “we’re Keepers, rutting best of piggutkind. And if you ain’t an ugly gargoyle, what’re you?”

“I’m Split. Split-Tooth,” she bared her jagged maw as if the display was needed to confirm the truth of her name, “Of the Pit-folk. Beats me where them gargoyles’s from, but if you mean them things,” she pointed at one of the far-off winged shapes, “I’ll give they’re kinda like us.”

“The more ye know,” Oruff shrugged, “Ain’t for us to bother about. We’ve got meat on the fire, so let’s get to it. Any of ye remember what’s we supposed to do with this one?”

“Watch’s supposed to know,” answered Hruf, and produced a thick metallic disk hanging from a fine chain. A pink finger flipped it open, revealing a small, snarling mouth eerily akin to Vrog’s within. It stayed stubbornly closed, even after Split waved her leathery scrap before it under the pigguts’ blank stares.

“Needs its share first,” Kniff explained, cutting off a morsel from a piece of roasting meat with a dagger and carefully holding it before the miniature maw. The pointed teeth seized on it hungrily, thrusting it inwards in an impossible ingestion, then did the same to Vrog’s token. Nahf passed it over to Oruff, who raised it to a drooping ear and tensed it to catch the sudden stream of chattering.

“Right, the skin!” the huge piggut snapped the disk closed and swung it around like a flail, “You mudsnouts didn’t lose it, right?”

“I’d rutted well rather, thing’s a bother to carry around,” Nahf grunted as he laid out one of the folded hides he had been sitting on, revealing it to be the remarkably intact scabby shell of one of the gargoyles. He unceremoniously passed it over to Split, who held it somewhat awkwardly in two hands.

“Now what?”

“Says to pull it on when you get there, where’er that is,” Oruff shrugged again as she tucked away the disk, “Ain’t no rutting business of ours either.”

“How about getting there, that too?” Split rumbled, tapping the soil with her axe.

“An’ that!” Oruff shoved Nahf with a hooved foot, “Go show ‘en how.”

“You don’t leave me nothing when I get back, ye’re dead,” the smaller piggut huffed, but lazily rose to his legs all the same. “‘Ere, Split, let’s make it quick.”

Amid the same general indifference she had met as she had come, Split followed Nahf up the very slope she had descended before passing the top and going down the other way. She had not cast even a glance there on her arrival, and indeed there was not much to see except empty red plains, steely brushes and black rocks. The only thing that truly stood out was an imposing grey hill, overgrown with a bright grey grass that glimmered slightly in the faint daylight.

Nahf let out a sudden loud, animalistic squeal, almost making her jump, and the hill stirred. Legs like pillars unfolded from its sides, what had appeared to be grass bristled and heaved, and a massive head rolled over to stare at them with a groggy bloodshot eye. The gigantic wild boar huffed like a howling breeze, and the warm air almost flattened her against the ground.

“Look at that, never seen him get up when you call ‘im before,” Nahf marvelled, “You got the right way a’right. It keeps working, you just get up there and he’ll bring ye where ye need. Me, I’m getting back ‘fore them rutters eat everything.” And, with that, he trotted back over the hill and out of view.

Split crept closer to the enormous boar, not without some caution. It was even more outlandish to her than the winged behemoth had been, a thing of the world above more than the Pit. Still, there was no domineering will radiating from it, just the warmth and sounds of a living thing, and so it was with greater confidence that she hauled herself up its hide, wary of the hairs’ sharp tips. It was nowhere as comfortable as a jackalope, for sure, but no worse than the fleshless beast either.

With a grunt, the boar arose and began, with neither hurry nor haste, to walk away from the battlefield and towards the distant dark horizon.

***


They stopped at the very edge, where the sanguine clay of the steppes withered away to arid, scorched black across a jagged line. The great boar did not cross into the dead land, but stopped just beyond its frayed edge, letting Split drop to the ground along its flank, then turned back and trotted away with just a shake of its head and a huff of acknowledgement.

The Scar had not changed. Ever as it had haunted her memories for years, decades, centuries, it was as stark and cruel in the sharpness of its jutting rocks and the desolation of its stony soil as it had been the first time she had seen the daylight over its dismal face. The shards that had not fallen from their unnatural midair stasis since time began still hovered higher than her eyes, and the cracks and chasms below them still gaped with a hunger that the lifetime of an entire world could not sate. Over all that time, a single faint breath of life had swept over the afflicted land, and that was a poisonous exhalation from the nether - the ghastly shapes of malformed gargoyles circled overhead, casting flittering shadows across the uneven ground. She grit her teeth in distaste. Almost there. She was almost at the source, and then the time of monstrosities like these would be over.

The weight of the hide she had received from the pigguts in her foremost hands reminded her of both these past and future. She had had plenty of time to examine it on the way through the steppes, feel the recesses of its plagued crust, look into its empty gouged eyes. Even flayed and hollowed-out like that, the gargoyle looked sickeningly similar to what she had seen, day after day, reflected in every pool of clear water she had come across. She did not need to be told whose doing it was; he was evidently not satisfied with shackling the minds of her kind, but had felt the need to warp their bodies as well. Bodies to which he himself had given shape, a shape he discarded when it suited him, as if their flesh was even less than a tool for him. Her middle hand gripped the axe tighter. Almost there.

Holding her breath, she gripped the edges of the gargoyle skin with three hands and pulled it over her back, letting its head fall over hers like a hood. The feeling of weight over her body was there for but a moment, then nothing. Reflexively, she rolled her shoulders, trying to tug at something over them. Instead, she felt something around her elbows drag across the dry earth with a rasp. She looked down, touched the membranes spreading from her forelimbs in disbelief, scratched at the pulsing cysts on her flank, ran a finger along her now smooth face. Whatever he might have been otherwise, Vrog had been sure to be thorough in this. All the same, she was glad she could not see herself now.

Quick. More a feeling than a voice. It will not last forever.

Split breathed in, clutched the axe against her body, then drew her wings together and dove into a large chasm.

Darkness met her, then heat, flame and clamour, and suddenly she was flying. Not daring to budge her wings or look anywhere beyond directly in front of her, she tensed her limbs and veered off, towards the reassuring shadow of a stone outcropping. She clung to it, miraculously keeping her grip on her weapon, hauled herself up over its ledge, and finally looked out upon her long-lost home.

As it had been above, so it was below. The Pit itself had not changed at all; for a moment she had a hard time believing that this was not another of the many moments when she had closed her eyes and called back the sights of her old life. The crackling flames from below and the molten orbs from above had not dimmed a bit, nor had the splintered forms of black rock worn away under their glare. If even some had crumbled and others risen in their place, it was impossible to tell, nor would it really have made a difference - one spire more, one crag less, in the end it was all the same.

Yet here as well as over the Scar, where dead stone had stood unchanged, life had swelled, and she was surprised to see just how much. Far below her, the ground was teeming. Kostral, in numbers many times greater than she had words for, crawled, marched, scurried over the ground. There were more of them than she had ever imagined there could be living things, here or in the world above. The ground looked alive, writhing as they walked past each other, formed into ranks, scattered and regrouped.

And they had changed. Split dimly remembered the first of the iron-bound she had seen just before her exile had begun, and the likes of them had grown in number as well. Now, she could fully appreciate the gruesomeness of the spikes jutting out of eye sockets, of the shards piercing through skin, the blades than replaced fingers, and a sickening rage mounted inside her greater even than the one she felt on seeing the gargoyles that, more numerous than ever, swarmed above the gathering. But those wretches were far from the only ones to bear metal now. Every body below was bound in jagged gleaming plates, everyone had from but one hand to a full four gripping great cleaver, axes, mauls, other vicious things she could not name. The largest among them had hafts of bone and wood affixed to their backs, with black and red banners draped over them; she could see them snarling at their lessers, shoving them about, pummeling them if they tarried. His taskmasters. Almost there.

Then she looked further up, and she saw him.



Only now did she remember than she had never seen him fully, not even on that fatal day, and for a moment she was struck dumb and still with sheer awed terror. Narzhak was immense, larger than anything had any right to be, above or below. He was almost a part of the Pit itself, as dizzyingly vast as its walls that never ended. Her head spun from the mere effort of conceiving how he must have been up close, and she had to look away.

Split closed her eyes and clenched her jaws. She thought of the pestilential gargoyles and the living bodies mangled with iron. Of the overseers trampling their own kind. Of how she had lived knowing nothing but fighting, breeding and eating, all one and the same. Of the brand on her shoulder.

She hardened her every muscle and looked up again.

The Iron God was far away, almost beyond the distant curve of the immeasurable vault, but so colossal was he that she could see his posture clearly. He sat in a gigantic alcove carved in the live rock, leaning back in a crude throne. His right hand leaned on a metal spire taller than the ocean must have been deep - no, not a spire, a weapon; a maul so great that with one blow it could have carved a way from the Pit up to the surface. On his left shoulder there crouched a vast abomination whose shape she could not distinguish, and not just because of the distance. Its veined grey flesh seemed to shift and pool like a fountain of melting stone, in tune with the flickering of her master’s fiery eyes.

A tremor ran through her perch, and she saw that the impossible titan was slowly rising from his seat. It reminded her that she had little time. Drowning her fear in the much greater dread and hatred of her adversary, she pushed herself off the ledge and took wing. This time, the motions of flight came to her from somewhere outside her head, as if the stolen skin were guiding her through them; she pushed down the thought of what that might mean and forged ahead. Through the teeming flocks of gargoyles, between the flaming spheres and the tentacled prowlers that lurked among them, she flanked the cyclopean wall of the Pit at a speed that would have seemed incredible if she had not been doing her best not to pay attention to it. In what could not have been more than a moment, she was over the iron head of the tyrant god, greater than any hill she had ever stood on. It did not even twitch when she landed, which would have been like an earthquake, so insignificant was she upon its crown. The dried-out hide dropped off her as she clung to the irregularities of the divine armour, having served its purpose.

The axe in her middle hands imperiously tugged to the left. With a side-eye, she saw a rift between plates not too far, for all distance meant on that living mountain. For the Giant, it was so minuscule as to be wholly below notice, but for her it was enough to pass through many times over. Carefully, biting down with each clambering step, she made her way across the warm iron expanse, gripping pits and spikes invisible to something as huge as the entity that breathed beneath her. Carrion stench came from the rift in the hot wafts of a heap of corpses after a battle. Fitting.

Split perched over the ragged lip of the gap. “I said I’d come back,” she breathed out in a hiss, “And now I’m here. It’s the end.”

And she vaulted in, axe held high.

***


Narzhak towered, immense, over his assembled legions. Every kostral in the Pit, every tamed boar and dread-beast, every twisted skestral and ironbound was at his feet, summoned by a command as binding as prophecy, awaiting his orders. The Scourge on his shoulder growled ravenously. It was awakening. He hefted the maul Worldbreaker, into which he had forged over the ages the strength to crush any divine in a single blow, and spoke in a voice that shook the earth.

"When time began," he thundered, and the innumerable host stood heeding, "the Elder One who gave us the world set us a task. We had to make his cosmos great, breathe life into it, build it into wonders. Whip it into flourishing. This was the only command of the one to whom we owe everything. Was it too much?"

The brutes scarcely understood the breadth of the notions of his speech, but even so they stamped and cheered as one. No, it was not too much.

"It was just right, and so I went to it! I gave this world everything. I have given it my toil, my flesh, my blood. I have given it my own son, and all of you, who are wrought from my very life. He has done me proud, as have you, those who are loyal and ready to labour and sacrifice for the one true cause that is the soul of Galbar. Under the hands of all my blood-kin, it has swelled, grown rich, as it was meant to. And yet, what?"

A rhetor’s ideal attendants, the kostral bellowed out in prompting response.

"And yet, from the beginning to this very moment, my efforts have been hampered by the chaff that would call themselves my equals in godhood. Wretched excuses for deities they are, rags of filth soaked in weakness. Even with the Elder One’s hand holding theirs, they have failed in the only purpose set before them, one which they were given every conceivable tool and power to abet. For aeons, I could only watch as my work was stunted because this scum couldn’t be arsed to do their part! They huddled on their own scraps of land, miserly counting the skulls of their favourite slaves, while Galbar languished. They locked life in stagnant little cycles, like vermin digging their stinking petty lairs in what was to be a grand universal design! And when they tired of that, they deserted! Abandoned the posts given to them and fled into their dens, into death or mortality! They thought they were safe from my eyes when they slunk away, but I have seen them all, felt every last drop of their ingratitude towards the One whose toil they usurped and threw away. It has grown inside me like a pool of rage waiting to ignite, and now - NO MORE!"

He raised his maul high and roared, and countless voices roared alongside him.

"For the Elder One has tired of their folly, their sloth and childish insolence, and now he comes! He will fulfil the purpose he gave upon us long ago, and the just among us will rejoice even as the unworthy despair. We will clear the way for him, rise to the surface and lay waste to all the monuments of failure the wretch gods take pride in. The blood of their living baubles will run in rivers, their bones shall pile up in mountains, and with my maul I will batter down the doors to their measly retreats and rip them out, piece by piece. They will know centuries of suffering for every instant they have wasted in the universe of spheres, for I am Narzhak, and I toll the hour of their death!"

Somewhere high above, beneath his skin of iron, a cursed axe struck with the hatred of two eternal lifetimes.

Narzhak paused, one eye flickering curiously upwards at the faint tingling he thought he had felt at the back of his head. A mere impression, no doubt, and indeed it was gone in a blink. But then it returned, a little deeper, and then a little more again. He shook his head with a growl, but it persisted, writhing like a minuscule maggot buried somewhere in his yielding flesh - a minuscule itch he could not quite pinpoint. Twisting, growing into a bitter taste, one he had found so repugnant once he had spat it out; yet there was nothing he could spit it from. And sparks of spite, of anger at the arrogance of this gnat of a presence that dared - for it had a will, he felt it - latch onto him in the hour of his triumph. Sparks that flew wild, close, too close to the pyre he had been building in all the time he had prepared for battle -

A light sting was all it took to ignite it. This miserable nameless thing had the audacity to touch him, the greatest and mightiest of all gods! He bellowed out his fury, and his legions shrank in terror at the sudden outburst. The Scourge coiled in surprise, and then leapt away as the Fell Colossus clawed at his own head in mounting rage. The same armour that made him impervious to all forces mortal and immortal stopped his prying talons from finding and squashing the nuisance that so aggravated him. He stomped once, twice, then with a deafening roar upon which hundreds fell dead on the spot trampled forward, blinded by sheer wrath. The great pedestal that led to the upper world crumbled under his titanic steps, but he was beyond awareness now. He thundered and howled, grasping at the void, carving gouges into the stone walls with his visored head, swinging his great maul in berserk abandon.

At long last, it grew too much and with this pinnacle came a flash of mad focus. The shade of irritation deserved nothing short of utter, absolute annihilation, to be shattered to such nothingness that put the time before Galbar to shame. And he, the Bloodied Fist, lord of all strife, was the only one strong enough to deliver it.

And thus Narzhak raised the great maul Worldbreaker, which alone could slay any divine, and he uttered a mortal command:

In cinders lie

Beneath no sky

So you all shall

D I E


And he brought down the most lethal weapon ever wrought upon the noisome trespasser - and, as it so happened, himself.

The maul shattered through the divine carapace, sending shards of metal and chunks of vile flesh and gouts of black blood and sparks of vital flame scattering to all sides. There it stayed lodged, in the shattered skull of its maker and only wielder, even as his colossal body turned still like an impossible eikon, to stand vigil for eternity.

Yet even his own strength was not enough to truly slay the great god of bloodshed. Acrid black smoke rose from the ruins of his head in a spectral cloud, and four flaming eyes broke through it, alight with bottomless wrath and spite, with unbreakable will and renewed clarity. It touched the creeping Scourge with a long tendril, and the formless terror howled as it never had before.

With that sound, all shackles fell from the minds of the assembled kostral; yet, alas, it was not as Split-Tooth had imagined that moment. Without order to hold them, naught was left for the Pit-dwellers but the primeval rage they had known upon their very birth. Already thrown into disarray by their master’s agonizing throes, they turned on each other, plying all the skill they had amassed and all the weight of arms they had crafted for the sole purpose of blind slaughter. The banners of the overseers became rallying points and eyes in the storm of violence; and so the greatest army the world would ever know fractured into feuding bands, and was no more.

But the umbral god cared no more for them. His fires blazed bright, and though the gate to Galbar from his domain had been shattered by his own ire, he would not be deterred in bringing his final task to an end. The cloud became a roaring pillar of smouldering force, and it struck the sightless ceiling of the vault like a spear. Through stone and soil it pierced, searing and corroding all in its path, until it burst to the light of day with a blow that shook the land for miles to all sides as the World Scar, twice-struck, erupted into a blast of detritus and an awning pit that stretched down to sightless regions below.

And so, like he had once come down to Galbar, Narzhak departed the world as a black wraith, rising up ever higher into the sky, towards the descending mass of the lunar palace.

Whither did he go?

The Architect only knew.





“Drink!”

A forest of drinking-horns, cups wooden and gilded, and skulls stoppered with the wax of forest bees rose to clash with each other like blades on the field of strife. Drops of thick dark mead, sour braga, fermented berry-juice and thicker, redder, less mentionable things splashed over their edges, running down grey-skinned fingers and dented bracers. Where they spilled into the fires amid the celebrants, the flames crackled and turned crimson for a brief moment; where they flew over their shoulders and pooled on the grimy stone floor, crawling things with bulging eyes crept over to them, leaving trails of slime as they went, and lapped them up with lashing pale tongues.

At the head of the gathering, behind the largest cauldron, in truth more akin to a great bronzed sarcophagus, a towering figure stood up. A thick, rough brown pelt hung down her back, its eyeless snout resting over her wild mass of steely hair, and the patchwork of purple rags from far lands that formed her robe was adorned with braids of black feathers. A huge, bloated toad sat on each of her shoulders, throats nauseously pulsing in their own raucous feasting-song. She raised her crooked talons to the blackened ceiling, and all eyes turned to her as the mismatched jewels on her gnarly arms jangled, calling them to attention.

“One for Vroha atop the trees!”

A reveller stood up from the row of benches to her left and, vaulting over the bench between the shuffling of his neighbours, made his way to the closest edge of the platform. He cast the liquor in his horn into the warm evening air, watching them fall among the mounds of bones and stretched, dried-out flayed skins that adorned the tiered steps below.

“One for Keben among the brush!”

Another feaster stood from the opposite row and hurried to his own ledge, and down hurled his share of the libation.

“One for Zhaav under the stone!”

A third one, who had sat facing straight against the great hag across the length of the many pots and roasting ember-beds in the chamber, rose to her feet and followed suit after the other two, sending her offering in a third direction yet.

“And one for us all!”

There was naught behind the witch herself but a sheer wall, and so she raised her enormous, finely carved wooden cup and overturned its contents into her mouth, emptying it to the last drop in a single draught. A roaring cheer went up from the benches, and the feast began in earnest.

Who was not to be found there as dusk fell upon that day? Truly, it seemed that every drevič who dared bear the name proudly was in attendance at the great gathering atop the Bone Ziggurat. There was Lujko, great chief of the stryvesti, a mighty man with a broken nose and a scarred eye who guffawed as he jested with his sworn brother-warriors and bit into sizzling chunks of meat. He was the one that had led the raids into the wild eastern lands that were being celebrated, and it was his good right to be the loudest and merriest. There was Velnin, ruler of the kolche, the urshi and the moresti, who was old and withered, but cunning, and received tribute from many tribes of wood and field. There was Arzna, wise woman of the strakhne, who had made her people rich by being the first to sell the secrets of working the ores from the mountains down south. And there were Yarog, and Perevest, and Gleva, and Tmutin, and many many others.

And, of course, there was the host herself, the Beast Hag, looming over even the likes of the brawny Lujko, and biting chewing almost louder than him. She did not sit on a bench like her guests, but crouched in a great wooden seat, padded with human skin and inlaid with bones. On the wall behind her, fastened to the stone or heaped at its foot, were the skulls of those she had bested in either arms or wits, whether as she roamed abroad herself or as they came to challenge her in her home. Foremost among them, marked with a circle of dried blood that was renewed every day, was something warped and yellowed by age, crumbling and worn at the edges. That was, so the tales told, all that remained of the being whom Kulgha had devoured long ago, before she had been the Charnel Witch, and thereby gained her strange might; yet that had happened many years before, and no one knew for sure whether it had been a man or something else.

Anon, however, no one paid it much mind, for they all had seen it before. Everyone had better things to attend to in the heat of the feast, and so did Kulgha and her table-comrades. They thrust long knives into their great bubbling vat of bronze, which none but the boldest of the other guests dared touch, and drew morsels from its churning reddish depths. A few of them had clustered around a younger kinsman, and were putting to trial how fine his tongue was.

“What’s this?” one asked, holding a linen strip over his fellow’s eyes while another put a knife with a steaming, brew-soaked bit on its end in his hand. The one being tested gnawed off a mouthful, briefly ground it between his teeth, thick rivulets running through his dark beard, then exclaimed: “Game!” A whole section of the attendees around him, both of Kulgha’s acolytes and not, bellowed out applause, drawing the curious look of the Crone herself.

“And this?” Another knife was offered, and again the man blindly tasted its prize. This time he chewed down a few more times before confidently calling out: “Man!” The celebrants cheered again, but the one who drew forth the knives stilled them with a gesture, and brought out a new morsel from the depths of the stew, staining his grey forearm with the boiling red. “And this?”

The blindfolded sampler took a bite, chewed pensively, then took another. He frowned. His nostrils twitched as he tried to discern it by smell, but found it even less helpful. After some more laborious gnawing, he conceded: “Can’t say, the spice’s too strong. Wager you that Sovnij here won’t tell you either!”

The audience’s jeering hoots quieted down as over a dozen faces turned to the one who held the linen strip. With an air of bravado, he took over the knife and bit in himself. His certainty visibly faded as he strained his face, grinding down his mouthful to little avail. However, he, too, was not found witless when the howling mockery turned on him. “What’s that, I’ll say nobody here can know a bit from that deep in the pot from another!”

Most began to nod sagely, but a piercing hoarse cackle cut them short. Stretching out an enormous branch-like arm over several heads, Kulgha snatched away the knife and brought it to her face. She did not even taste of it, but held it briefly under her long crooked nose before saying, loud enough for half the room to hear: “It’s man, and one of the southron blood!”

This time everyone who had heard gave out calls of admiration, a good few not knowing what the occasion was but joining in either way, as Sovnij growled “‘Course, she’s not count.” It was thus not clear when exactly it was that someone first noticed the strange thing that flew in from the darkened sky. By the time almost everyone was more or less quietly following the dozen pointing hands with their gaze, it had alighted on one of the wooden stilts that supported the bronze cauldron. It was a bird, yet not quite a bird; its head was like a skull, and its skin like that of a lizard, and those who saw it close marvelled greatly at this. In its mouth it held what seemed to be a blossom, but as strange as its bearer, for no one present had ever seen any that was quite like it. The beast gave a few sharp nods towards the hostess and screeched through its closed beak as she watched, as puzzled as anyone around her.

Finally, one of the attendants found his own tongue. “What’s that, Kulgha,” he cheerily shouted from across a roasting body, “you got a suitor?”

The words carried well over the stillness in the room, and so it was that this time everyone knew why they burst out in bellowing laughter, not least among them the witch herself. Still wiping out tears of mirth from the wrinkles around her eyes with one hand, she reached over and slapped the joker on the back of his head as a matron would a riotous grandchild, knocking him off the bench amid everyone’s merriment. In the same motion, she took the flower from the winged messenger’s teeth, quickly smelled it and made it disappear into one of her many pouches and sacks - before deftly snatching up the bird and snapping its neck with a hold practiced over decades and decades.

“Keben gore me if I know what this is,” she said to the expectant acolytes to her right, “but we’ll find out fast how it is. Bring me my sharpened knife!”

An eager hand cautiously held over a redoubtable curved blade with a bone hilt, and the Crone cut the bird’s belly open with it in a slash. The entrails went into the bubbling cauldron while she went to work on the skin, which came off far easier than feathers. The cleaned carcass fell onto a ready metal vessel on a bed of sizzling embers, where sharpened sticks held by those sitting nearby prodded and turned it over now and then while Kulgha did what she did best.

From a pouch came pinches of dried-up and ground woodland herbs, spread over the pale roasting flesh with murmurs of appraisal or incantation. A clay jar of honey was brought over at her call, and it was evenly poured over breast, wings, back. Some drops from the pot added a red hint to its colour.

“It’s plain, for sure,” she absently replied to someone’s remark, “but that’s how you try a new thing the first time. Else how you’re going to taste it?”

The smell that rose as the bird was cooked was sharp, not unlike that of a burning snake, but that did not make the Crone any less impatient to get to the promised end of it. It was barely finished when she grabbed it with nary a concern for the heat and bit off a piece, though the whole beast could easily have fit between her jaws.

“Neither fowl nor crawling thing,” she mused as everyone looked on expectantly, “Not as good as the one, not as bad as the other. But what do you think’s the strangest to it?”

“What?” Lujko asked.

“That there’s things coming from out there like which we’ve never seen, ‘course. Any of you catch what side this one’s flown in from?”

“West!” someone said; “South!” another dissented; “Not quite either!” a third added.

“I’d never heard of this kind of beasts past the woods in the south,” Kulgha scratched her nose, “but maybe times’re changing there. We’ll think of what way to look first on the morrow if anyone else’s got a head that can think, and if not, then the one after. Let’s empty our pots first, and then we’ll think of filling them again!”

“Just so!” agreed everyone, “Let’s not leave a good meal go cold while we chase a measly bird!”

And indeed did the feast not end for a long time yet, for it is a poor feast that is over before dawn!
All who come after follow my example.


I'll be damned if I do!



Alright, Primarch sheet is done. The Legion will follow within the week.

All finished and ready for review.



Once upon a time of falling skies

Set before the battle on Veradax


The woods burned.

Beyond the crest of the nearest hills, smoke rose like a waterfall from where one of the thundering streaks of flame had struck the ground. The blow had almost thrown Enka and her companions off their feet, though they could not have been less than half a day of walking away from the spot. The heat had followed as a gale of summer wind, passing quickly but leaving a storm of withered leaves and fleeing insects as it went. Now, the acrid, stifling smell of burning wood came to their fine noses in distant wafts, not strong enough to choke them, but steadily growing stronger.

From the upper branches of the old tree she had climbed to better see over the ridge, she watched as the fiery roots of the smoke grew wider, spilling over leafy crowns in a spreading circle. When the wind turned her way, she could smell the dead ash and hear the faint crackling of the flames. Every time, it was a little louder. The fire wasted no time feeding. If they did not move, it would catch up to them soon.

In a few motions, agile with a lifetime of practice, Enka vaulted down the coarse trunk and onto the ground where the rest of her hunting party waited for her - her brother Woram, Jorre and Aalve of old Harro and Ruard of Obel. The strongest of their tribe’s young trackers, they had struck out eastward two days before in search of rich hunting grounds rumoured to have sprung up there since the deer had last travelled, yet still they had found none of that bounty, and now the sky itself seemed to be shattering over them. Hopping down from the lowest thick branch, she fell to the ground on all fours and sat up at Woram’s side. Her brother was pointing overhead, where more shining streaks cut through the dim heavens. He greeted her with a nod and addressed the others in a voice that struggled to stay firm in spite of the incredible sight just above.

“We’ve got to keep moving. It’s falling all around-” as if to confirm his words, another distant impact rumbled through the soil under them, “the next one could come down right on us.”

“If it’s everywhere, it’s no difference,” Ruard dissented, his face drawn and tense, “Even if we move, it could get us, and they’re too big to just avoid.”

Aalve nodded. “Maybe it’s like lightning. We shouldn’t get in the open.”

“We can’t stay here, though,” Enka pointed to the north, where she could still see the smoke towering if she craned her neck, “The one that fell there, it’s made a wild fire. It could be there before dawn.”

“I’ve heard the beasts moving, that must be right.” Jorre tapped the ground with his fist. “I say we go back. They’ll need every hand back at home, if…”

He did not finish, but the grim possibility was clear to everyone. Without further discussion, they stood up in silence and began to walk back west, not spread out like on a hunt, but with the swift, purposeful steps of anxious travellers. They tread lightly on the dry, cool ground, as if fearing that a careless motion would bring a fragment of the sky down right over them, and glanced up at fiery deluge. As luck would have it, the streaks fell wide around them, though more and more struck down with every passing moment.

At length, their luck ran out.

Something large cut the air with a roar and a gleam, and the earth sang like thunder under their feet. Enka tried to fall to her knees and hands to withstand the blow, but the air struck her like a whip of damp hide, snapping her over the face and sending her sprawling. She saw a fading black shape that could have been Woram be flung against a tree, before a flash of light blinded her like a dozen midday glares at once. Dazed, with distorted spots swimming before her eyes, she grasped for something to hold on and pull herself up, but her fingers only slipped on and tore up thin stems in the undergrowth. Someone shouted, or perhaps it was a branch snapping.

The din in her head only kept growing, but she had no time to lie there. The falling thing could have brought the fire closer, or snapped the tree that loomed over her. Her hands grasped again, sharp nails digging into the soil, and this time she rose, propping herself up on her hands. Her eyes saw as if underwater. There was no light or fire, but something enormous and dark fell down from above - and rose up again, buffeting her with a stiff breath of wind. No, she still could not see clearly. Focus! She had to force her eyes to be clear again.

She squinted hard and pressed her fingers against the eyelids. The din continued and her ears could hear nothing but a drone, but some light returned into her look. She could see the vast shapes that were trees, and the small ones that were her companions, and smaller ones still, moving among them…

The smell hit her. A beastly, yet rotten thing was close. Very close, she felt, as one of the small shapes approached her and she glimpsed a leering snout with hungry eyes level with her face. She felt for her spear, but could not find it with her fingers, and her hand felt heavy, too heavy even to rise and push away the creature.

A shout to the side. Someone - Jorre? - was on his feet, his spear held ready. The impish being turned to face him, with a grunt she heard worse than the scream, and more appeared from the shadows at the edge of her vision, closing in.

They did not have time. There was another roar of a falling bulk, a strike and a crack, and suddenly Jorre was not there anymore. In his place, a shape like she had never seen. It stood tall on two legs, but it was broader than a tree, and its arms were gnarled like dead and cankerous branches. The stench became unbearable. The thing pointed at her with a finger longer than forearm and made a gurgling, swampy noise. At its call, the little monsters turned to her again.

The closest one loudly huffed and raised an arm to strike, but Enka had found her spear. She was still shaken, but her arm was strong and trained, and lashed without thinking. The creature was itself fast, and brought down its hand to beat it away, but not enough. She felt the spear’s tip hitting something soft, and heard the squeal of a struck animal. Her assailant staggered back, and that was the opening she needed. Her legs, strengthened by fear and the rush of the fight, flung her upright and threw her away, further among the trees, heedless of the falling sky. Behind her came sounds of strikes and grunts, hooves hitting the ground in pursuit, and the churning voice of the massive thing, on and off in regular surges, like water running off a stone. It was laughing.

She ran, and did not look back.

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