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, p14-15 — Hunter and Prey

Horticulous travelled by strange paths. He and his followers slipped through forgotten Realmgates and squirmed like slugs beneath the shifting skin of reality. However, with the keen senses of their Knight-Zephyros to guide them, the Shadowhammers could not be evaded forever.

It was amidst the endless tracts of the Howling Forest that the Shadowhammers picked up Horticulous' trail. They had been stalking through the tangled woodland for days, searching for any sign of Horticulous' Tallyband. The trail of rot and trampled slime they found was impossible to miss. Trees had sagged and twisted at the daemons' passing, their sap turning putrid and their bark bursting out in obscene fungal growths. Foul insects buzzed and scurried through the infectious filth, and pools of clotted slime bubbled and popped.

Emerging from a deep cleft in a carved rock face, the trail led away north, cutting a befouled line through the trees. It was clear to the Rangers' practised eyes that Horticulous was many days ahead of them. Worse, he could have only one target in this region of Ghur; he was making directly for the city of Excelsis.

Excelsis was famed for its prophetic riches, which allowed the city's leaders to foresee dangers long before they materialised. Yet this was by no means foolproof, and Lord Danastus feared that the threat posed by Horticulous' sowing was so esoteric that it would defy easy detection. If the Grand Cultivator successfully corrupted one of the trio of Realmgates that existed near to Excelsis, the resultant spread of corruption could overrun the entire city. This must not come to pass, and so Danastus urged his warriors into swift pursuit.

Utilising their wind-shifting speed, the Rangers raced through the Howling Forest and out onto the rain-soaked savannahs beyond. For days they followed the daemons' trail, drawing ever closer to their quarry. There could be no doubt now that the trail of foulness led straight towards the Coast of Tusks. However, as the Shadowhammers closed in they found Horticulous' trail splitting into several slime-slick strands.

The Grand Cultivator had divided his forces and sent them towards all three of the Realmgates that stood within a hundred-mile radius of Excelsis. Horticulous would have to be present in person for a sowing to occur, but in this way he cleverly confounded the Rangers' pursuit.

Thinking quickly, Danastus split his own forces into three, each including retinues of Hunters, Palladors and Raptors. Once force he led in person towards Fortress Abraxicon and the Heavenstride Realmgate over which it stood watch. Another was given to Knight-Azyros Kilteron, who swept away towards the Echosteel Realmgate. Finally, the swiftest and most deadly of the Shadowhammers were given over to the command of Neave Blacktalon. She led this force away at a blistering pace towards the Bone Heights, and the Emberwash Realmgate that was nested amidst their peaks.

As her force swept across the grasslands through curtains of falling rain, Neave's wolf-sharp senses detected the taint of Chaos corruption on the breeze. The stench of Nurgle daemons became stronger by the hour, but to the Knight-Zephyros one stench stood out from amongst the rest. It was a putrid reek that she knew all too well from her months of hunting and battle - the spoor of Horticulous Slimux himself.

Blacktalon knew then that she was on the right track. The Bone Heights loomed ahead, a dark line on the horizon that grew into towering hills. Sheer cliffs of dark stone rose high into the stormy skies, gallowshrikes wheeling and shrieking above them.

Huge osseous protusions jutted from the crests of the tallest hills, vast ribs and fangs and talons stretching towards the clouds. Up there, Neave knew, lay the Emberwash Realmgate that must surely be Horticulous' target. Yet closer, amongst the foothills, her keen eyes picked out foul figures marching en masse. Horticulous' daemonic rearguard was directly ahead, and Neave did not mean to let them slow her down.