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The Malign Portents website includes a set of short stories published over a period of months that give additional background to the events of the Age of Sigmar campaign, in which Nagash reestablishes his dominance over Shyish. The first seven stories (appropriately enough), dating to January 2018, revolve around the spread of Nurgle's pestilence.
Horticulous Slimux frowned, the slick skin of his forehead furrowing like a well-ploughed field. The ancient daemon had been thinking pleasant thoughts about running down the last survivors of Zintalis Old Town, his lolloping Beasts of Nurgle driving the citizens into the open so their corpses could bring Grandfather's fecundity to the meadows and plains beyond. It would be a welcome and hard-earned change from desperate battle against that cursed axewoman Blacktalon and her Rangers, that much was sure. But to his frustration, his quarry was escaping.
'Perhaps runnin' 'em down is a bit of a stretch,' droned Slimux - given the sluggard's pace of his mollusc-steed Mulch, the humans would outpace them for days yet. But there was something to be said for doing things slowly, steadily and properly. 'Run, my little hares,' muttered Horticulous. 'The snail always wins in the end.' But there was something on the wind that made his usual certainty ring hollow.
A scent of death blew from the cracked plains to the north of Zintalis, with another smell cutting through it. Was that the cold, nostril-scouring tang of sterility?
Slimux shuddered at the very thought. Death was all fine and well by him, an integral part of Grandfather's great cycle and a necessary prelude to the birth of glorious new life. He had brought that gift to millions of souls over his long existence, and extensively travelled Shyish, the Realm of Death, in his time. But as he always told his wide-eyed Nurgling helpers in the Plague God's Garden, a creature's demise was always followed by rebirth, whether of body or spirit, and from the tiniest forms of life blossomed vast and malodorous entities that pleased Grandfather with their foulness - until one day they, too, died and the cycle continued.
Wherever the barren scourge of undeath could be found, however, that cycle was broken, replaced with a dreaded stasis that even the boundless energies of Nurgle struggle to overcome. Horticulous vehemently hated those who spread that blasphemous curse.
'Ah well,' said Horticulous, snorting at his own introspection. He could still see the town's survivors ahead, crossing the plain with his Beasts in gleeful pursuit. 'On with the great labour.' He kicked his steed hard in its slime-clotted shell and waggled the Nurgling he had tied to his stick as bait. 'Get 'em, Mulch.' The molluscoid daemon sighed heavily, rolled its eyes and pulled itself forwards as fast as it could, accelerating from the pace of an asthmatic Nurgling to that of a leper at a dangerously fast walk.
By the time the plague daemon had reached the edge of the cracked flatlands, he was in a thoroughly bad mood. He could see his Beasts lurching and bounding back towards him. 'What's wrong with 'em now?' he grumbled. 'Time for the whippin' stick, mayhap.' His rotten heart softened a little when he saw that their tentacles were drooping and their expressions were like that of a kicked hound. They whined and puked as they gathered around him, seeking to hide behind Mulch's shell and then peering back out at the flat plain. Something out there had spooked them, but other than the townspeople stumbling onwards and in some places catching their breath, Horticulous could see nothing at all.
Mulch trundled up to the edge of the flatland, sniffing at it with suspicion. By the smell of it, the land was not a salt plain, thank Grandfather - those were always a problem. So why were his pets so reticent to go after their prey?
On a hunch, Horticulous got out a handful of his most exceptional spore-seeds from one of his mouldering kingleather pouches. Taking a moment to revel in its earthy and putrescent scent, he scattered the seeds across the flatlands with an expansive gesture. Soon the vile and colourful fungi of Nurgle's domain would sprout.
'Any moment now,' he said, 'and we'll bring some lovely life to this place.' He chewed on a splintered bone and peered with an expert's eye at the earth, but it remained cracked and dry. How could it be? His skill as a cultivator was such that even the most arid desert was soon rich compost for the blessings of the garden, and his seeds were the finest in all the lands.
Up ahead, some of the scattered townspeople had noticed that Horticulous and his entourage had halted in their pursuit. One of the humans gave a strange laugh, his tone somewhere between relief and madness.
'Not havin' that,' grumbled Horticulous. 'Mulch! Lead the charge!' The daemon molluscoid shambled forward, but as soon as his front set of legs touched the cracked flatlands, he screeched and recoiled as if stung by a paladin-wasp. 'That ain't right,' said Horticulous. He peered down once more at the spore-seeds. Instead of bursting into glorious life as they should have, they had shrivelled away to black ruin. Nurgle's magic was not taking.
'We made it!' shouted one of the Zintalis humans. 'They're not coming after us!'
Horticulous ground his crumbled molars, his choler souring with every passing moment. He took a greenclay urn from Mulch's shell, the one containing his most prized plague flies, and cracked it open with his lopping shears to release a cloud of fat-bodied insects. 'Swarm 'em, little 'uns!' he cried out, but the insects just buzzed around him, not trespassing so much as a foot onto the cracked lands.
'He can't touch us,' came the call from up ahead. One of them took out a shortbow, and a moment later an arrow struck Horticulous right in the chest. It caused a momentary flicker of pain as it pierced his heart. The daemon plucked out the arrow and snapped it, his anger rising up to consume all reason. He slid off Mulch's shell, took up his shears, and stepped out onto the flatlands, grimacing at the stinging pain he felt in the soles of his feet.
The cracked earth shivered and shook as if revulsed, and a hundred skeletal hands thrust upwards from the earth with a noise like a thousand earthenware jars shattering at once. Those closest were grabbing at Horticulous but could not quite reach him, for they were repelled by the spore-seeds scattered on the ground. 'Huh,' he grunted, slashing one of the hands with a backhand swipe of his shears. It came apart in a scattering of bones.
Those hands bursting out nearest the human survivors experienced no such obstacle. They clawed at Zintalis' survivors in ever-greater numbers, the earth around them crumbling away to reveal an entire layer of juddering skeletons beneath. Bony fingers sank into soft skin and ripped away chunks of pink flesh as the townspeople were dragged screaming into their graves.
Horticulous raised his eyebrow, drinking in the spectacle with a mixture of satisfaction and disquiet. 'Strange times indeed,' he muttered, climbing slowly back into Mulch's saddle-shell. 'But this old dog has plenty of tricks yet. Come on, my fine little lads, back to the garden with you. We have work to do.'
Verric's mouth was dry and his heart hammered like a forge-piston, but his hands were steady. Fear was an old friend. It had kept him alive this long, through two decades in the Freeguilds and another raising a boy alone on the frontier.
He pulled back the curtain and peered out into the lashing rain. Sorrowcreek's makeshift palisade of vine-lashed timbers loomed out of the mist, and beyond that the canopy of Chiltus Forest, writhing beneath a gangrenous sky. Screams and pitiful wails echoed in the distance. They had come again, the depraved tribes of the deep woods. Rotskins. Bringers of disease and ruin, worshippers of an unspeakable god.
He could see an orange glow in the distance, flickering faintly in the downpour. Was that the old Fhendel place aflame? At least the fires would claim no fresh victims – Goodman Fhendel and his wife had passed weeks back. He choked back a bitter laugh. The Rotskin tribes would find naught here but emaciated bodies and maggot-ridden timbers. The able-bodied had long ago abandoned this cursed place, taking their chances upon the long, dangerous road back to Greywater rather than facing the slow decay of the Weeping Ague. Verric would have joined them himself, were Julen well enough to travel. Death had already visited Sorrowcreek, and it had left only the ill-fated and the foolish in its wake.
Another scream cut through the storm, piercing and ragged with terror.
Verric crossed the room and reached for the varnished repeater crossbow that hung above the fireplace of his humble homestead. He hefted the heavy weapon and cranked its lever, then checked its chamber and saw five gleaming bolts of steel stacked and ready. Simply holding the repeater seemed to steady his frayed nerves. A duardin-forged piece, it had been with him since he had donned his first uniform. In all that time, it had never failed him.
'Da?' came a thin voice from the stairs. There stood Julen, wrapped in an old, tattered blanket, his face pale as snow, eyes wide with fear. The ague had robbed the strength from his body, and his skin was blotchy, with the sickly sheen of meat gone bad. Julen had entered his seventeenth year as a strapping lad, well muscled from his work in the timber fields, hacking open goldwood pine in search of priceless amberdew. Verric hated to see his strong, courageous child laid so low. So many had been lost to the plague that had spread like wildfire throughout Sorrowcreek, but still Julen fought on.
'Upstairs, son,' Verric whispered, and the ragged croak of his voice sounded unnatural and repulsive even to himself. 'Find a place to hide. Don't move until I tell you.'
'I can fight with you!' Julen said, shaking his head and stumbling down the stairs towards Verric. Even as he reached the floor his strength left him, and he tripped and sprawled into the hall, landing hard. He coughed up a trail of black phlegm that stained the stone floor. Verric rushed to his son and hauled him to his feet, placing a hand on each side of his face.
'I know you can fight,' he said. 'But there's a time for blades and a time for good sense, my boy. You can hardly stand, much less swing a sword. Look at me, Julen. Look at me now.'
Julen's sunken, bloodshot eyes met his own.
'You go and hide,' he said. 'Whatever's coming, you leave it to me. I've dealt with heretics and savages. A well-aimed bolt or two will send them running, mark my words.'
Julen nodded, lips quivering just a bit. Verric ruffled the youth's sweat-slicked hair, and gave him a gentle shove towards the stairs. With a last, pained look at his father, Julen returned to his room.
Verric turned to face the heavy door of the homestead. Brackish rainwater seeped under its frame, soaking his boots and running between the cobbled stones. Verric grasped the wooden charm that hung at his neck, a simple image of the Everqueen he had whittled himself from a shining sprig of goldwood on a sun-washed afternoon long ago. So long ago it seemed another life entirely.
'Our Lady Alarielle,' he muttered. 'Hear my words. Guide my arm this night. And watch over my boy should I fall.'
Not much of a prayer, but then Verric had never been eloquent in his faith. He snapped the stock of the repeater to his shoulder. Let them come. Let them dare invade his home, these devils. Verric Gheiser had built this place with toil and blood, and he would not yield it. Not to anyone.
He sensed movement at the window again, and snapped off a hail of bolts. The glass shattered, and the curtain whipped and fluttered like an angry spirit as the wind and rain rushed in.
'Get you gone!' he shouted into the darkness. 'This is a house of the faithful, fiends. You will not enter here.'
A beam of light came through the keyhole of the door, growing in intensity with every passing moment. There was a crackling, tearing sound, and Verric felt his skin writhe and tingle as if pricked by a thousand pins. Fingers of forked lightning reached through the aperture to cast a spider's web of flickering light across the ceiling.
As if hit by a cannon ball, the front door exploded in a storm of wooden shards. Verric stumbled backwards, slipped on the rain-slick floor and fell. His head struck the cobbles hard, and he almost lost his grip on the repeater. Ears aching from the blast, vision swimming, Verric stared up at the shattered entranceway. It was no fur-clad savage that loomed over him, but a statue forged from gleaming metal, rain pouring in rivulets down its stark-white armour. Rippling arcs of lightning swirled around both its body and the warhammer it clutched in one enormous fist. The shadowed sockets of its unforgiving war mask seemed to gaze through Verric's very soul.
The living statue took a single stride forward, raising its hammer high, and Verric began to scream.
A gnawfly droned lazily through the Garden of Nurgle. Spores drifted around it on the miasmal airs. Moanwillows sighed and rustgrass creaked below as the fly buzzed along, its simple mind filled with thoughts of filth, food, and where it might find the two combined. The gnawfly settled for a moment upon a stone arch that rose from a shallow lake of bubbling foulness. It ruffled its wings, humming shrilly and tonelessly as it added its own generous offering to the noxious waters.
Emerald light flared, causing the fly to squeak in surprise as the arch filled with flickering energies. A fleshy mound spilled from the portal, something large and slug-like with a slime-slick shell on its back. A gnarled claw reached out and closed around the gnawfly as it tried to take flight. It gave a last squeal of alarm before it was tossed into a daemon's stinking maw.
The gnawfly popped like a zit in Horticulous' mouth, and he pulled a sour face.
'Bloomin' empty, just my luck,' he muttered.
Mulch squelched down into the foetid lake, emitting a sigh of relief as gelid filth washed over him. The snail-beast swiveled one eyestalk and shot Horticulous a questioning look.
'Well I don't know, do I?' said the plague daemon irritably. 'The dead have their place in the cycle, that's well and good. But if they're forgettin' what that place is...'
Mulch blew out a heavy sigh of concern, bubbles of filthy lake-water frothing around his mouth.
'I know, lad, not good at all,' said Horticulous. 'That's the sort of thing that'll get Grandfather all in a latherboil.'
Mulch submerged his head further, until only his eyestalks protruded above the sludge. He burbled morosely.
'Truth, that's what we need, and time to make sense of it,' said Horticulous. He stuck two gnarled fingers into the corners of his mouth and whistled messily. His plague flies swarmed in answer, gathering upon him in a thick carpet, their legs and wings tickling Horticulous' leathery flesh.
'Alright you lot, time to earn your keep,' said the daemon. 'I haven't been around this long without gettin' a nose for when something don't stink right, and after that business outside Zintalis, all I smell is ashes. Get out into the realms and get searchin'. I don't care how or where, just fly as far as you can, then come back and tell me what you seen. Signs, omens, walkin' cadavers, whatever it is, I want to know about it, right?'
His flies gave a resounding buzz, thrumming their wings in answer. They burst from Horticulous' body like a cloud and shot away in all directions, making for the corrupted Realmgates that dotted Nurgle's garden.
The Grand Cultivator nodded to himself, then gave Mulch a firm kick. 'Alright sluggard, enough marinatin'. It'll be a span before them flies start coming back, and in the meantime you can just bet the Plaguebearers won't have pared the rot-blossoms right. Come on lad, cultivatin' to be done.'
Mulch gave another long-suffering sigh before hauling himself off through the slime with Horticulous perched thoughtfully upon his back.
Time had always passed strangely for Horticulous, if he noticed its passage at all, wheeling around him in fluid cycles one moment and flowing turgid as a clotted river the next. All the same, the Grand Cultivator was surprised by how soon the first of his flies returned. Barely had he found time to berate his assistant gardeners, plough the lower festerfields and attend to the wytherblooms before the insects started flitting back.
Most bore a fresh message of alarm, some strange sight or unnatural encounter having left the daemonic insects buzzing with panic. Some of Horticulous' little familiars returned with legs brittle and thoraxes graying with patches of ashen sterility.
Some did not come back at all.
As each fresh tale was told to him, Horticulous' concern deepened. 'Ghasts and haunts, blackenhounds and wailing bogies,' he muttered to Mulch after an especially vivid account from the Jade Kingdom of Verdia. 'Dark omens and darker visions. There's bad business comin', you mark my words. I think it's time I had a word with the Rainfather.'
Mulch belched in agreement and snapped lazily at the giggling Nurgling that dangled from a pole before his face. The mite swung tantalisingly out of reach as it released a string of flatulence and poked out its tongue. Grunting with annoyance, Mulch set off through the garden towards the pestilent pastures, the last known location of the mighty Great Unclean One known as Rotigus.
Horticulous heard the sounds of battle long before he saw Rotigus himself. Clashes, screams, and the wet rush of jetting foulness echoed between the trunks of a withered copse as Mulch dragged himself between the trees. Emerging from the eaves of that noisome wood, Horticulous tapped Mulch's snout, pulling his steed up short atop a ridge of bone that overlooked the pestilent pastures.
Sitting back and chewing on a splinter of bone, Horticulous watched Rotigus work with professional appreciation. Down amongst the muck of the pastures, the ground had been heaved open by great shards of blue crystal that danced with varicoloured flames.
Horticulous recognised a spur of the Crystal Labyrinth, the ever-twisting realm of Tzeentch that sometimes intruded upon Nurgle's bountiful domain. From within that strange maw had spilled a tide of Tzeentchian daemons, no doubt intent upon claiming the Plague God's pastures for their master's realm.
The heaps of rotting ectoplasm and writhing, fungus-covered flesh strewn about the battlefield showed that Rotigus had other ideas. As Horticulous watched, the cowled Great Unclean One led his Plaguebearers in a last, resounding charge against the battered remains of the invading host. Rotigus swatted kaleidoscopic daemons aside with swings of his twisted stave. He crushed them under his huge bulk, and vomited streams of brackish filth from the maw in his gut, drowning Tzeentch's servants and extinguishing their unnatural fires.
At last, the few surviving Horrors turned and capered for the mouth of their tunnel. Rotigus raised his staff and bellowed words that caused the daemons to convulse with the raw power of unstoppable fecundity. One by one they were torn apart by fungal growths that billowed from within their flesh, until at last a new copse of nodding mushrooms the height of trees stood before the entrance to the Crystal Labyrinth.
Satisfied that the show was over, Horticulous urged Mulch forward. Rotigus saw him coming, the beetle-black eyes that stared from beneath his rotted cowl marking the Grand Cultivator's approach. Leaving his daemonic foot soldiers to smother the crystal shards in corpse-compost, Rotigus lumbered to meet Horticulous half way. The Great Unclean One settled on his haunches, looming over Horticulous like a mountain of flyblown flesh.
'Hgh... Horticulous,' he said, nodding. Rotigus' deep voice was a bubbling, liquid horror, the sort of sound a mudslide might make if it could speak. The Great Unclean One sounded as though he were constantly striving to choke back mouthfuls of vomit, with black slop spilling from his lips in noisome spatters. Horticulous nodded in turn, chewing nonchalantly on his bone splinter.
'Rainfather,' he said. 'Fine gamekeeping there. Can't have the Changer's vermin springin' up all over, can we?'
'What do you... ugh... want, Slimux?' asked Rotigus. 'This business has... hgh... taken up too much of my time already. There's ways to wander, and gifts to be given. Always more... urgh... gifts.'
'Where'll your wanderings take you next?' asked Horticulous.
'Ghg... Ghyran, not that it concerns you,' replied Rotigus. 'Why? Would you like to wander with me, little cultivator?'
'Mayhap,' nodded Horticulous. 'But nowhere of as little import as that.'
Rotigus's belly maw heaved and sputtered with sloshing laughter, but his true expression congealed into a heavy frown. Mucus crawled in trails down his flabby chins.
'The War of Life is... hwugh... somehow unimportant to the great Horticulous Slimux, is it?' he asked. 'Too old and wise for Grandfather's war are you, first-spat?'
'The War of Life is a single enterprise, one that Grandfather's interests have branched out from,' said Horticulous. 'Why do you think he sent me out a-sowing? All the realms need to feel his generosity, not just one. Leave the fixed obsessions to the Skull Lord, is what he says now, and I agree.'
Rotigus shifted wetly. He rumbled deep in his chest.
'You know something, don't you? What... hugh... hgh... is it?'
'I've seen things, heard 'em on flies' wings, smelt their charnel stink,' said Horticulous. 'There's somethin' bad coming, Rainfather. The dead are on the rise, and if I'm right, the cycle's under threat.'
'If you are right,' echoed Rotigus. 'And whence do these... ugh... these winds blow? Where do you plan to ride that gastropodal steed of yours in... suhgh... search of answers?'
'Where else?' asked Horticulous. 'Shyish. And I don't look to go alone. Let the other fly-eyed fools scurry through Alarielle's pretty fields. If you and I lead the Tallybands to the lands of the dead, and we put an end to whatever infecund mischief is brewin' up, think how glopsome-glad Grandfather will be.'
'A reward shared is a reward halved,' said Rotigus.
'Hah!' barked the Grand Cultivator. 'Alright, says you, then let's make it a wager, eh? Surely even the barrens of Shyish can't long stay dead with your powers of plenty to coax their generosity?'
'He... ugh... who first discovers the source of your belly-aching and puts paid to it is declared the winner,' said Rotigus, nodding his boulder-like head.
'Aye,' said Horticulous.
'And if your... ghg... your fears prove baseless, little cultivator, and my time is wasted?' asked Rotigus, his voice menacing.
'They shan't, and it won't,' said Horticulous, his eye locked steadily with Rotigus' black orbs.
Eventually, the Great Unclean One gave another rumble deep in his chest and turned away.
'Squamglut, Mulgus,' he bellowed, catching the attention of his subservient Poxbringers. 'Ghugh... gather the Tallybands! We make for the Crackenbone Realmgate! The Deluge has... hgh... business in the lands of the dead!'
Horticulous gestured to his surviving flies, sending them winging away to gather his own followers. He smiled a sly smile to himself and sucked the last marrow from his old chewing bone. Two of Nurgle's mightiest daemons, and all those who would follow them to battle, amounted to a prodigious force indeed. Whatever was stirring in the Realm of Death, he almost felt sorry for it...
The distant call for aid rose above the groaning din in the makeshift pesthouse. Gosma ignored it. She tied off the stitching she was working on and quickly assessed her current patient. The infection had spread into his organs. He probably wouldn't last the night.
'Sister!' cried the voice again, louder and more emphatic. Gosma picked up her few remaining ministration supplies and pushed her way towards the voice, past the pallets, cots and rows of incense braziers. The waft of rot and burning spice filled her nostrils. In all her seasons, she had never seen plague like this before.
Like everyone else in Grovenheim, Gosma thought the festering Daemons had been driven back from the valley, off to ravage some other poor town in the Heaving Peaks. The townsfolk had celebrated and given praise to Sigmar - a banquet had been held in this very hall, and Gosma drunk orchid-bud wine alongside the Freeguild guardsmen who had fought so long and so bravely. She woke up to screaming the next morning as the plague took hold of its first victims, and she'd barely slept or eaten since. Truth be told, she could no longer remember how long it had been. Days and nights blended together into a single nightmare, from which she would give anything to be awoken.
Gosma pushed through a throng of people and saw who was calling out to her. It was a soldier lying on a cot, his left leg missing from the knee and his right shoulder criss-crossed with stitches. She recognised him - she had worked on him several days ago. She remembered sawing his leg and gouging the rot from his shoulder, but she hadn't held much hope that he would survive. Yet here he was - wan and thin, but without the clammy complexion of the morbidly infected.
It took Gosma a moment to notice that he was clutching the rim of a barrow, inside of which lay another man wracked with pain and fever. A woman dressed in black and purple robes was trying to pull the handcart from the soldier's grasp. Though her skin was corpse pale, she was clearly strong and showed no sign of illness.
'Help,' said the soldier through gritted teeth. 'Don't let her take him away.'
'Sister,' said the pale woman, her voice as calm and cold as a glacial lake. 'This man is beyond your help. I will take him from your hands before his illness births more disease.'
'Don't let her do it,' cried the soldier. 'She kills the ones she takes! I hear them screaming as she wheels them away, then they fall silent in an instant.'
'I am ending their suffering,' said the pale woman. 'It is a kindness for those beyond salvation.'
Gosma didn't know what to make of the scene unfolding before her. She was exhausted, her mind clouded by the endless gruesome work she had been performing. Perhaps it was better if this patient was taken. From the look of him, he didn't have much longer to live anyway.
Just then the man in the barrow let out a gurgling moan. Gosma looked down and saw a fist-sized cyst protruding from his thigh. The skin on the cyst was undulating, the pressure within causing it bulge outwards. Gosma had seen this before - it was ready to burst, and she had only moments left to act.
Gosma lunged over to the nearest brazier and pulled the poker from the embers. She spun back to the man in the barrow and plunged the red-hot metal into the heart of the cyst. The reek of burning flesh and evaporated pus hit Gosma like a battering ram, taking the air out of her lungs in an instant. The man screamed in anguish as the poker seared into his leg, and as he arched his back in pain, his muck-encrusted jerkin split down the middle. Gosma's heart sank as she saw his exposed abdomen, swollen to hemispherical proportions by another, far-larger cyst.
The man's belly burst open with a wet pop, sending a shower of maggot-filled pus flying outwards. The putrid eruption blasted Gosma to the floor. As she hit the ground, she saw the soldier she had saved - he had been covered in plump maggots, each the size of a swollen finger, and they were burrowing through the stitching on his shoulder and into the saw wound at the end of his leg. He was screaming. Gosma saw the pale woman moving towards the soldier, her black and purple robes untouched by the contents of the cyst, and her fingers glowing with amethyst light...
Jagged teeth sunk into Gosma's skin and she cried out in pain. Her heart raced as she realised she too was covered in slime-coated maggots, and they were tearing at her by the score with their rows of razor fangs. She grabbed at the maggots and tried to pull them from her body, but they were already too far embedded in her flesh. Her hands burned when she touched the grotesque pupae, and she could feel the infections carried by them spreading through her palms and fingers.
A purple light washed over Gosma. The maggots recoiled and began to shrivel, each letting out a screeching wail. The cystic filth that covered Gosma started to evaporate, and her racing heart slowed to a crawl before - for a brief moment - stopping completely. The pale woman was looming over Gosma, her fingers splayed and her eyes glassed over. Gosma sat up, and the desiccated husks of the maggots fell harmlessly to the floor. She looked over at the soldier. He too had been saved from the carnivorous worms. He lay dead on his cot, still and peaceful, the grimace of pain gone from his face.
'By Sigmar,' said Gosma under her breath.
'No,' said the pale woman. 'Not by Sigmar.'
Gosma looked up at her saviour. There was an endless well of strength in the woman's cold and piercing stare.
'Sigmar has forsaken this place,' the woman continued. 'But Nagash sees your struggles.'
Nagash. Gosma had heard that name as a child, in the bedtime stories that had been told to frighten her.
'Nagash can end the torments of these people,' said the pale woman. 'Nagash can end your own nightmare. He offers his help to you freely.'
The woman extended her hand down to Gosma. Gosma took a deep breath and looked around her. No one in the packed hall had noticed her ordeal; they were all too busy enduring their own woes and maladies.
'Will you accept Nagash's help?' asked the pale woman, her hand still outstretched. Gosma took hold of the woman's hand and allowed herself to be pulled up from the ground.
'Yes,' she said. 'Just tell me what I need to do.'
Gosma felt a grave chill spreading throughout her body.
'There is nothing you need do,' said the pale woman, her lips curving into a thin smile. 'Be still, sister, and your end will come.'
Lord Slougous leant on his bubotic hammer and breathed a bubbling sigh of satisfaction. The battle had been magnificent, the corpse-harvest bountiful. All around him lay fallen Freeguild soldiery, their uniforms torn and filth-spattered, their flesh swelling and rotting at an accelerated rate. His surviving warriors picked their way between the carrion heaps, selecting the finest specimens and hefting them onto creaking wooden carts.
Above the mud and ruins of the battlefield, thunder rumbled through yellow-brown clouds. They opened like seeping wounds, drizzling rain as thick and clotted as gruel.
'Grandfather drools with delight at our deeds,' Slougous bellowed. His sonorous voice rolled across the carrion field, and his Rotbringers raised their weapons and roared back at him in triumph. 'Now hurry swift, my pretty lads, and bring in the crop. There are bodies to plant and nooses to sow, eh?'
The hulking Blightkings redoubled their efforts, tossing bodies into their carts with rambunctious cheer until the mouldering wagons groaned under the weight. At last, Slougous judged that the harvest was done. Turning his rusted helm up to the rain, he chanted a prayer to Nurgle in the old tongue of fallen Ghokoria. Foul waters drizzled into his mouth, and he gladly swallowed them down as the blessing they were. Then he turned, beckoning for his warriors to follow, and began the long trudge back to the Leper's Wood. Slougous left his own dead where they had fallen; their putrescent corpses would seep Nurgle's bounty into the soil, a last gift of fecundity to turn this barren plain into a garden of fungal delights.
The march back to Slougous' stronghold took the best part of two days, but never did he nor any of his warriors slow their relentless pace. Nurgle's blessings gave them endless succour, and Slougous reflected that they had not toppled Ghokoria by taking their ease. They passed fallen duardin statues furred with muttermoss and crawling with gholb-slugs the size of cattle. They marched through the cadaverous ruins of cities that he remembered sacking so long ago, their streets now drowning in bubbling swamps, their murals obscured by waving fronds and clouds of thrumming flies. Lord Slougous led his Rotbringers in song as they travelled, a droning dirge that echoed across the lands they had despoiled for Nurgle.
Throughout the journey their crop of bodies ripened, and Lord Slougous' anticipation grew. With a connoisseur's eye, he selected those that would yield the finest thrice-ripened death's heads, already mentally mixing the rotmulch and alchemical plagues he would add to perfect their foulness.
Only when he and his warriors crested Fester Crag and began their winding descent into the Valley of Biles did Slougous begin to feel an edge of disquiet. The sensation was wholly unfamiliar to him, and he could not place its source. Yet as the turgid mists above the valley parted and his stronghold was revealed, Slougous felt shock race through him.
Last he had seen it, the Valley of Biles had seethed with life, carpeted end to end by the fecund putrescence of the Leper's Wood. Now it was silent and still in a way he had never seen. Not a single fly droned through the air. Neither daemon mite, lolloping Beast nor hunched and crooked gor-kin moved amongst the trees. Even the festering boughs were as unmoving as stone, with not a drip nor creak nor squelch to disturb the sepulchral silence.
At the forest's heart lay the Hangman's Orchard, the centre of Lord Slougous' power and the place where he ripened his beloved death's heads. Only there did the mist still cling, yet as he strained his eyes, Slougous could swear that he saw spectral shapes drifting amidst it. Fleeting impressions of skulls and screaming faces swam through the vapours, there and gone in a heartbeat. Slougous felt outrage replace his surprise.
'What manner of interlopers are these, that have slipped wilesome into my wood and stilled its lively squirm,' he growled angrily. 'Onward to the Hangman's Orchard. There shall be a reckoning they will not relish.'
The Blightkings made haste down the rocky path, hauling their carts of corpses behind them as they moved beneath the forest's eaves. Here they found fresh cause for fury. Every rotted leaf and coiling liana, swollen tuber and fatted fungus had dried out until it was little more than brittle dust. Those plants the Blightkings disturbed simply crumbled away, forming drifts over time that looked for all the world like trickling black sand.
The closer Lord Slougous and his warriors came to the forest's heart, the more pronounced the desiccation became. At last they waded through sand and dust that piled up to their waists. By the time the Hangman's Orchard loomed ahead, Slougous' wrath filled him up like boiling bile. The Leper's Forest was his garden to tend. It had stood for generations, always swelling and growing, always burgeoning with fresh foulness. Some baleful force had sucked its vitality dry in a matter of days, destroying the labours of centuries.
Bubotic hammer clutched firmly in both hands, Lord Slougous strode purposefully into the mist. Instantly he was alone, cut off from his surroundings by a soft and muffling blanket of icy vapours. Half-seen shapes whirled around him. Twitching things flickered into sight and were gone again, all tattered rags and waving hair. Slougous' warriors had vanished behind him as though they had never been, yet still he pressed on.
'Great Nurgle watch over me,' he muttered, his words falling dead amidst the smothering fog. If Slougous' patron heard his prayer, he gave no sign.
Suddenly the orchard loomed up, its thorned boughs emerging from the mist like a skeletal claw closing around him. This was where the Rotbringers had planted the dead with nooses strung around their necks, that the gallows trees might hoist them high and ripen their crania into death's heads. It was his inner sanctum, his lovingly tended garden. Now it seemed strange and alien, and Slougous' wrath turned to doubt as he saw the dangling cadavers amidst the fog.
It took him a moment to recognise what was wrong; the bodies were writhing, kicking and clawing as though deep underwater. Their bloated faces turned towards him as one. Stitches popped and tore as their eyes opened, empty sockets weeping viscous green tears. Their mouths yawned wide, disgorging dead maggots and ropey plague-fluids. The cadavers' jaws worked, but whatever words they meant him to hear emerged as nothing more than a dusty croak.
'Sacrilege!' roared Lord Slougous. He swung his hammer with all his might, smashing it into the nearest corpse. The body crumpled beneath the thunderous blow, its noose tearing free from the bough that bore it. The cadaver flew across the clearing and vanished amidst the mist.
Slougous turned and swung again, and again. Anger and disgust consumed him, drowning rational thought.
'This is a place of blessed life, not sterile undeath!' he bellowed. 'You have no right!'
Slougous' rampage continued, but now he realised that the bodies were clawing at their nooses with mindless, mechanical strength. Some managed to tear through the hemp, dropping from the trees like flyblown fruit. Others dangled lower as muscle and flesh tore, vertebrae popped loose, and heads messily parted company with bodies. Corpses thumped down amidst the tree roots, only to stir and stagger upright again.
Lord Slougous wheeled at the heart of his orchard, seeing corpses stumbling towards him from all around. Their clawing hands reached for him as though beseeching. Their torn flesh leaked waxy slime. Even those he had smashed out of sight came staggering back through the mists.
'Rotbringers, to me!' he shouted, but his words echoed back to him, distorted into ghastly screams. Still there was no sign of his warriors, just more dead men, and more, more than could possibly have hung from the gallows trees. Some wore Freeguild uniforms. Some wore the garb of old Ghokoria. Planting his feet, swinging his hammer in tight arcs, Lord Slougous prepared to meet them.
'Come then, corpses,' he snarled. 'Let me show you your proper place in Grandfather's endless cycle.' As one, the dead lunged for him, and he swung his hammer with a fearsome roar.
Grulgoch had fought under Lord Slougous' banner for many years. Always he had been loyal. Yet in this battle, he had been unable to serve his master. Grulgoch had plunged into the mists right behind Slougous, only to find himself wandering lost and alone amongst its vapours. Now, at last, the unnatural fog parted, melting away like ice before a flame. As it did, he saw his comrades, stumbling in confusion around the orchard.
Whatever sorcery had misdirected them and held them at bay, it was dissipating at last. But as it did, Grulgoch's eyes alighted upon his lord and a groan of denial bubbled from his lips.
Every tree in the Hangman's Orchard was empty, corpses vanished, nooses dangling like intestines from a ruptured corpse. Every tree, that is, bar one, the greatest of them all, whose branches had twisted and deformed until they wove the shape of a leering skull fifty feet across. From that towering gallows tree hung Lord Slougous, helm torn away, nooses looped around his neck in profusion. His body was rent and torn, nameless fluids soaking into the dry soil below. His head was desiccated and shrunken, its flesh papery, eyes white and dead.
His jaw hung open, and from within spilled a slow, steady stream of night-black sand...
The bloated, tentacle-limbed warrior's head burst apart under Hyphor's hammer. A putrid eruption of brain and bone splattered across the Liberator's breastplate, blemishing its cream-white sheen. He smashed the dead thing aside with his shield and sought his next quarry - a horn-helmed brute wielding a rusted cleaver. That one's spine was shattered with a backhand swing. Next was a grotesque with a leering, black-toothed grin, battered to bloody pieces, then a capering plague-sprite, crushed to paste beneath Hyphor's boot. On all sides the wretches were dying too fast to count. Soon, the Stormcast Eternal was wading through a morass of torn and shattered corpses, and the last of the Nurgle-worshipping filth were attempting to flee into the coiling lash-fronds of the deep forest, scuttling back to their putrescent lairs like roaches exposed to sunlight.
Not a single one made the woodland edge. Though several of their own number fell to the heretics' rusted blades, the Knights Excelsior cut their foes down with merciless efficiency, cleaving heads and shattering bones with every strike. Before long, the sounds of battle ceased, and all that could be heard were the driving rain and low growl of approaching thunderclouds.
'That is the last of them,' said Liberator-Prime Rygos, wiping ichor from his warblade. 'For now, at least. Be on your guard. These forests crawl with the Plague God's foul vermin.'
In truth, it had hardly been a battle worthy of the Knights Excelsior. The plague-ridden warband was a mere splinter of the great hosts that despoiled these lands. The filthy deviants had not even managed to breach Holmspear's palisade walls, protected as they were by a sturdy ring of spitebranch trees. Caught between the hammers of the Stormcast Eternals and the foot-long thorns of the settlement's fearsome natural barrier, the Nurgle worshippers had been swiftly disposed of. Flyblown bodies filled the perimeter trench, bobbing against each in a soupy quagmire of blood and slime. The rain continued to lash down. Soon the moat would overflow, spilling its rancid contents into the town's streets.
'The enemy is routed,' shouted Rygos, striding across a narrow causeway that led over the trench and met the main doors of Holmspear. He slammed the pommel of his sword upon the hardwood. 'Open the gate.'
They heard a shuffle of movement on the other side of the wall, and the gate yawned open to reveal a group of thin, sallow-looking humans dressed in tattered uniforms. The Stormcast Eternals tramped across the causeway and entered the town, where they were met with the overpowering stench of death and decay, the scent of bodies trapped together for days without food or rest or clean water. Holmspear was home to no more than a hundred souls, and it seemed barely a fraction of that number still lived. Corpses lay piled here and there amidst a tangle of root-carved shacks and modest stone cottages, covered only by a few pitiful rags.
'God-King bless you, my lords,' said the apparent leader of the town guard, a stick-thin fellow whose eyes were crusted with yellow grime, and whose hands trembled noticeably as he made the sign of the comet.
Hyphor gazed upon the emaciated creature. So small and weak. So susceptible. Once, such weakness might have inspired pity in him, but Hyphor had fought and died and been reborn in the soul-forges of Azyrheim so many times that he only dimly recalled the concept. The searing crucible of the Reforging process had robbed him of doubt and hesitation, and opened his eyes to a stark truth - in the realms there existed only the savagery of untrammelled chaos and the security of pure order. Justice and anarchy. The righteous and the afflicted.
The man shrank beneath Hyphor's appraising stare.
The Knights Excelsior formed up in ranks in a cramped clearing that passed for the town square, standing still as statues in the downpour. The storm clouds were so heavy that the land was smothered in shadow, though the hour was not late. Thunder rumbled overhead. From the doors and windows of nearby buildings, a few thin, pale faces peered out at the newcomers.
'We are too late,' said Hyphor, taking in the corpse-strewn township and its wretched inhabitants. 'You sense it, Liberator-Prime? Rot has seeped into the lifeblood of this place.'
In the center of the square stood a statue of a Sigmarite saint, a stern patriarch with hammer held high and a prayer scroll clutched in his other hand. The monument was cloaked in sickly green slime, and Hyphor saw fat-bodied maggots crawling across its surface. More of the revolting things writhed in the window frames and gutters of nearby hovels, and across the bodies of the fallen. Circling the base of the statue was the remnant of what must have once been a wellspring, now choked and clogged with viscous, bubbling fluid. The entire place reeked like an infected wound.
'We are tasked with scouring the corruption from Holmspear,' said Liberator-Prime Rygos. 'It seems our work is not yet done.'
'The walls may have held the Plague God's servants at bay,' said Hyphor, 'but Holmspear is in his foul grasp nonetheless.'
'If even one of these mortals bears the taint of impurity, then soon will the rest,' said Rygos. 'And it will not stop here. It will spread, village to village, township to township. Eventually, to the very gates of the Living City. That is the way of corruption. It cannot be tolerated or ignored. It must be burned out, root and stem.'
Rygos' eyes were shards of ice blue, without pupils or irises. They shimmered and flickered softly within the depths of his war mask, like a flame caught in the wind. The endless cycle of death and Reforging had left its mark on their leader, as it had so many of their number.
'We will earn no prestige or honour this night,' he said. 'But a Knight Excelsior craves not such things. He seeks only to excel at the task for which he was forged - to destroy the servants of the Dark Gods, wherever they may be found. Whether they serve willingly or no. For the glory of Sigmar.'
'For the glory of Sigmar!' the Liberators chanted as one, clashing their shields against the rain-slick stones.
The ragged remnant of the town guard stared at each other, and their confusion turned slowly to unease as they realised something was dreadfully wrong. Hyphor could smell the bitter reek of their rising fear, which only girded his soul for what must come next - after all, what was fear but the final admission of a guilty soul? Despite his revulsion, he vowed that justice would be swift. The mortals' stubborn resistance had earned them that, at least.
Liberator-Prime Rygos drew his blade from its scabbard. It shone brightly, even in the gathering darkness.
'Bar the gates,' he said.
Rotigus Rainfather waded through the lake of infected waters that, only three days before, had been a bone-dry plain. Stretching to the horizon was a vast patchwork tapestry of pitched battles, brawls, skirmishes and last stands fought between his blessed minions and the skeletal creatures of the Great Necromancer. Rotigus' Plaguebearer attendants surrounded him, with tentacled Beasts splashing in the waters alongside.
The Rainfather glanced from under furrowed brows at the skies above. They were still grumbling like unquiet bowels. The dank green clouds of Nurgle's Deluge veiled an evil, skull-like moon that had glowered down upon the invading daemons since the moment they had come through the Portal of Thorns.
Those grim clouds were mustering yet another squall to soak this desiccated land in fecund filth. The Innerlands of Shyish had not proved so barren they were immune to Rotigus' magic, as that old dotard Horticulous Slimux had claimed. As far as Rotigus was concerned, his coming had heralded the salvation of this life-forsaken domain. So why were its denizens resisting him so?
Suddenly a clutch of skeletons burst from the water, their little claws grabbing at his blubbery hide. He swept them away with his gnarlrod, sending bones plopping and scattering everywhere. 'You breakers of the great cycle,' he rumbled. 'Foul and wrong. But still you need a... urgh... burial of sorts, that the worms may grow fat.'
As if summoned by the words, a skeletal serpent burst from the water. It rose up high, giant skull dripping and bony jaws agape. An impressive specimen, thought Rotigus as he heaved up a river of bile from his guts. He vomited out a vast stream, the geyser of watery slurry hitting the bone serpent with unremitting force. The skeletal creature fought hard for a moment, then came apart altogether. 'You'll have... ghrurp... to try harder... brahrp... than that,' dribbled Rotigus, swallowing a mouthful of clotted puke.
Rainwater swilled around Rotigus' immense thighs as he made for the hill in the middle distance. It was one of the many cairns that marked the borders of Nagashizzar - Rotigus could clearly see that vast black citadel protruding from the horizon like a blackened, jagged nail. There were people up there on the border-cairn, and living ones to boot. He couldn't wait to hear their screams of joy, their little faces twisted in animalistic gratitude as he showed them who had brought them a chance to live again.
'Come on, you... blurgh... slubberdegullions,' called out Rotigus to the army of Plaguebearers slouching through the waters behind him. 'To the hill!'
As Rotigus grew close, the people on the crest of the rise lit torches with amethyst flame, transferred the fires to cloth-bound arrows and opened fire, the projectiles arcing through the air to plop and hiss around him. One struck him in the torso, eliciting a sizzle of burning fat and a flash of pain.
'Ho!' he rumbled, 'Is that any way to treat your saviour?'
Another two arrows shot in, slamming into his flabby gut. One landed right in his belly maw, crackling on his nether-tongue.
'Right!' shouted Rotigus, bristling with indignation as his gut spat out the steaming arrow. 'You're... baruugh... in for it now, my pretties!'
High on the hill, Rotigus could see a robed human - one of Nagashizzar's cursed necromancers, by his ghastly aura and the wisps of amethyst light flying from his mouth as he cast his spells. A wedge of skeletal knights burst from the waters in response, their fleshless steeds screaming as they bore down upon Rotigus. The greater daemon swept aside their lances and barrelled through them like a battering ram through a wicker gate. He had to save the people up on the hill before the necromancer got them, too. Already he could see armoured skeletons clambering out of the barrow holes that gaped around the hill's periphery.
'Not this day,' shouted Rotigus, yanking out a length of his lower intestine and hurling it like a giant, wet bolas at the necromancer atop the hill. The tube-like length of putrid gut sailed through the air to slam into the gaunt human with a satisfying splat. It coiled around his stunned form, crushing the life out of him.
Rotigus was at the base of the hill now, a pack of lolloping Beasts of Nurgle at his side. He stamped a wight into the dirt, the glowing balefires in its eyes snuffed out in an instant. Part of the hill fell away in a landslide, a usually pleasing sight for Rotigus - but not this time. Instead of unearthing writhing worms or corpse-eater termites, the crumbling cairn was lousy with animated skeletons.
Rotigus felt more flaming arrows pierce his blubbery hide as the barrow skeletons clawed and stabbed at his legs, gut, backside and spine. 'What are you... hurggh... doing?' he bellowed. 'I have come to save you... haruggh... from dryness and sterility! Don't you realise what these things are?'
As if in answer, the rain of arrows intensified. He saw two of his Beasts riddled with arrows, mewling pitifully as they discorporated in puffs of stinking, green-brown mist. Rotigus felt more blades and arrows dig into his hide, and a cold, hollowing sensation as the ichor-slop of his blood flowed away to join the floodwaters lapping at the base of the hill. 'No!' he roared, sweeping a dozen skeletal warriors away with one swing of his staff. 'You cannot stop the Deluge!'
The Rainfather saw a clutch of human marksmen gain the crest of the hill, resting their crossbows on the shoulders of the skeleton shieldsmen that protected them from the Plaguebearers gaining the hill. The order to fire went up, and they levelled another volley even as a rain of flaming arrows struck Rotigus in the face and chest.
The last thing the Rainfather saw before he lost cohesion altogether was a baleful skull leering down from the pallid, fat moon, with the spires of Nagashizzar reaching up to clutch at it like a skeletal hand.
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