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For eighteen days and nights, the Wyrmstar hung above Tallowreach. It bathed the mountaintop citadel in its wan light, lending its people a sickly pallor and making metal and wood look rusted and rotten.
At first, the writhing celestial orb had been branded an ill omen, for it resembled a vast mass of squirming worms formed from pale green light. Though it was foul in aspect, it was at least distant and intangible, something not to be looked directly upon.
Then the sickness started. An omen became a curse. A terrible wasting fever shot like wildfire through the settlers and soldiers that dwelt in Tallowreach. Though their mountaintop fastness had long protected them, all the high walls in the realms could not ward away the illness that soon became known as Wyrmblight, for it stemmed from the Wyrmstar's glow.
The apothecaries could do little.
The prayers of priests had no effect.
Worse followed. Those who died of the sickness did not stay dead. Within minutes of its demise, the corpse rose as a revenant, and set about the living with biting jaws and choking fingers. The elders of Tallowreach froze in horrified indecision, and by the time they took measures, it was too late. Day by day, Tallowreach consumed itself in a frenzy of sickness, undeath and terror, and the mountaintop isolation that had so long protected its people instead trapped them within a prison of their own making.
Yet even as the city collapsed into anarchy, and the dead came to outnumber the living, there were those with the cynicism to see opportunity amidst the horror, and to turn a profit from it.
— Extract from 'Accounts of the Darkening Hour', by Augustus Vambedulin
Arkanaut Admiral Khurngrim stood on the deck of his Ironclad, Gilded Oath, and watched the sallow-faced humans file aboard. They came up the gangplanks in single file, having been relieved of their weapons and anything of value by his Arkanaut crewmen.
The sky-dock upon which the people thronged in their dozens jutted out from the eastern edge of the city over the ten-thousand-foot drop to the valley below. Beyond, the city burned.
The Arkanauts were holding the people at gunpoint. Skywardens hung in the air around the airship, keeping watch with their harpoon launchers in case anyone showed signs of undeath.
Khurngrim ignored the hate-filled stares and hurled insults of those who couldn't pay. He was holding to the Code, after all. To his mind, the only senseless tragedy was an unexploited one. In Tallowreach, sanctuary had become the singular commodity, and the crew of the Gilded Oath were the only ones still selling.
'Soldiers... mercenaries... where's the civilians?' asked Endrinmaster Borrik.
'Chewing on the living most likely,' said Khurngrim. 'If folk have survived in Tallowreach this long, they've done so by steel.'
'Dugren's heard talk among this lot, that the last barricades are about to fall. Maybe already have,' said Borrik. 'I'd venture we've enough aboard to turn a fine profit, Admiral. We're already overloaded.'
'We go when I say we go, Borrik,' said Khurngrim. 'Have I steered you wrong yet?'
'That you've not, Admiral. But the sooner we're away from that cursed star, the better,' said Borrik.
'Can't argue that,' replied Khurngrim. 'We'll sift this last pan of gold, then cast off.'
He glanced around. Under the guns of the Grundstok guards, human refugees were filing into the airship's holds, or finding themselves spaces to huddle amongst the packed masses on the main deck. They avoided one another's eyes and pointedly looked away from those left behind. Khurngrim shook his head in incomprehension; he would never understand the strange sentimentality of humans.
Back on the docks, things were turning ugly as desperation began to fuel recklessness. One man rushed the Arkanauts, brandishing a sword and buckler. Guns roared and he was flung back into the crowd. Those nearest him screamed and yelled. It wouldn't be long before they tried to rush the gangplanks, thought Khurngrim. And who could blame them? He wouldn't wish this place upon his worst enemies.
The Admiral began to order the gangplanks raised and his crew back aboard. He was interrupted by a cry from above. Looking up, Khurngrim saw that gigantic bats had swooped out of the half-light, soaring on silent wings to launch themselves at his Skywardens. Harpoon launchers hissed. Arkanauts clubbed their way through the refugees with gun butts and fists as they hastened to take shots at the monsters.
Khurngrim heard more shooting and felt a sinking feeling. Back on the docks he saw bodies and blood, gunsmoke drifting. With the Arkanauts distracted, the crowd had surged, and the nearest refugees were now locked in a vicious melee with the armoured duardin on the docks.
'Deadwalkers!' shouted lookout Hengist from the for'ard dome. 'Deadwalkers coming down Dock Street by the hundred, Admiral!'
Khurngrim spat a choice oath. The stink of death reached him, and the moans of countless revenants came soon after. He could see them now, a mass of staring eyes and yawning jaws, sallow flesh and clawing hands advancing down the street like a tide. The Wyrmstar's light bathed the scene, making the buildings lining the street seem to rot visibly before Khurngrim's eyes.
'Cast off!' he yelled. 'All hands to stations, pull in the planks, cut the damn cables and cast off!'
'Admiral!' Borrik's voice came from behind, full of alarm. Khurngrim span and saw men and women boiling up from the hold hatches, wild eyed and scrambling over one another in their terror.
'Ah you jest against me,' growled Khurngrim as he saw Deadwalkers clambering out of the hold behind them. 'How in the name o' Grungni's arse did those things get on my ship?'
'The portholes, Admiral,' gasped a bloodied Arkanaut as he fought his way through the mayhem. 'Like prisms... they concentrated the Wyrmstar's light... saturated the cargo... they started to turn.'
Khurngrim swore again. His crew fought for their lives as Deadwalkers fell upon them and refugees punched and surged and fought anything that came near. Humans screamed as they pitched over the railings. Guns boomed again and again. Still the cursed star shone down and the ship appeared to rust and rot beneath its luminescence.
Khurngrim saw one chance. Setting his jaw, he made for the helm, swinging his double-handed hammer. A zombie came at him, clad in Freeguild colours. He smashed it aside. A moment later, a screaming mercenary barrelled into him and Khurngrim drove the man back with a savage blow to the midriff.
Reaching the helm, Khurngrim pulped the zombies that were feasting on steersman Khadrik, then shoved the duardin's corpse out of the way. No time for niceties now. One gang plank had been dislodged, but the other was pinned under fallen bodies; the dead were spilling up it, some toppling off the sides, others clawing their way onto the overladen airship.
'Bloody pandemonium,' he cursed, then threw the engines to full for'ard. Aetheric motors roared below decks and the Gilded Oath started to move. She lumbered away from the docks, but Khurngrim could already tell the craft was too heavily weighed down. The engines laboured and the prow came about sluggishly. Too late, he realised that the ship wasn't going to build sufficient momentum to snap her mooring cables.
Instead, the lengths of metal cable slammed taut and wrenched the Gilded Oath sideways. Khurngrim was flung from his feet and began to slide. The sky docks shuddered and cracked, zombies and refugees alike hurled from them to fall and fall.
Khurngrim hit the railing with a loud clang and sailed over it. For a horrible moment he was plummeting, before his reaching gauntlet snatched hold of an edge. Adrenaline surging, muscle and sinew screaming with effort, Khurngrim hauled himself up, away from the hungry gulf below.
Onto a flat, hard surface.
No, he realised. Not safety. The docks.
Khurngrim reached for his hammer, but it was gone. He looked to his ship, but there was no sanctuary there; the decks were a blizzard of flesh and gore, the hull churning with spectral rot. The dead had taken the listing craft, and it would hang there until its aether-gold ran dry and it fell from the skies. The Gilded Oath had made her last voyage.
And so, thought Khurngrim, had he. Moaning zombies closed in on all sides, glowing sickly green beneath the Wyrmstar's baleful glare. The Admiral took a deep breath, clenched his metal gauntlets, and rolled his neck with an audible crunch.
'Alright you shambling wretches,' he said as they came for him. 'Who's first?'
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