The warlord’s court lay amidst the ruins of a crescent-shaped colonnade, its marble columns cracked and splintered by time and smeared with brownish trails of dried blood. Corpses were impaled upon these columns, lit torches stuffed into their mouths, forming a ring of flickering light. Yellowed skulls and shattered bones were stacked in great piles around a throne of beaten iron, spiked and hunching in the centre of the arena like a metal spider. It smelled of ashes and the sickening, copper-sweet tang of spilled gore. The court was open to the skies above, where ragged streaks of cloud hunted each other beneath the ravenous gaze of a blood-red moon.
The woman stood before the throne, one hand resting upon a wicked war axe, the other bearing a rune-marked targe. She wore a horned helm, and her leather and scale armour was bedecked with skulls and hard-won trophies.
‘The deathly winds rise, and the corpse-moon waxes high,’ she said, her dark eyes shimmering in the light of the corpse-braziers. ‘The dark pantheon calls us to the lands of the dead. You must answer this summons. You will march to Shyish beneath the banners of the Bloody Sky.’
The warrior woman was tall and broad-shouldered, but even she was dwarfed by the man upon the throne. His body was grotesquely swollen with power. Even seated, he loomed over her, his arms rippling with muscle, his bull-like head sat upon a thick, corded neck. Tattoos and ritual scarring covered every inch of his flesh, and his mouth was split into a gruesome leer by two deep, crusted gouges that ran from the corners of his mouth to his eyes. Even sat still, the savage king radiated a terrifyingly intense energy. His fingers twitched and caressed the haft of his spiked greatsword – a weapon that had tasted the blood of thousands of challengers in a long and gore-splattered reign.
Tarvak the Flayer. A name feared across the Plains of the Bleeding Sky. A name synonymous with death, pillage and suffering. His Gorechosen, the most feared and deadly of his killers, lurked in the shadows around the throne, hounds waiting to be thrown fresh meat.
The warlord rose from his throne, his head throbbing with pumping blood, hands quivering with the need to bury his blade in this arrogant wretch’s throat.
‘You think to come here and make demands of me?’ he roared, red-flecked spittle flying from his mouth. ‘Of Tarvak the Flayer, Scourge of the Plains, Butcher of the Iron Forest?’
‘Your dreams have been troubled of late,’ she said.
His sunken eyes twitched in surprise. He had indeed been visited by unsettling visions in recent nights, not at all like the vibrant memories of slaughter and conquest that usually found him in the twilight hours.
‘I know what you saw,’ she continued. ‘A desert of the grave spread across the Eight Realms. A wasteland, empty of life. Empty of blood and passion and honest battle.’
‘How do you know this?’
‘It must not come to pass,’ she continued, ignoring his interruption. ‘The Blood God sent you those visions to warn you of what is coming, and the pantheon sends me to see its will done. Fight for me, and I will bring you the glory you seek. Khorne’s raging eye will be drawn to you, Tarvak, and you shall be the instrument of his wrath.’
Tarvak bent his enormous head, mouth locked in that ugly leer.
‘I bend my knee to no one,’ he said. ‘Neither man nor woman is worthy of my fealty, for none have ever defeated me in battle. I care not for your soothsaying, witch. Serpent lies and trickery hold no sway over the Blood God’s faithful.’
The woman was unmoved. ‘The Dark Gods demand your fealty,’ she said. ‘I am merely the servant of their immortal will. The Flayed Legion will follow me to Shyish, whether you march at their head or not.’
Tarvak’s Gorechosen laughed in amused disbelief at this provocation. They had seen foolish warlords make similar threats before, and the bloody dismembering that always followed made for good sport. The warrior met their gaze with supreme indifference, her war axe held steady in her hands. Tarvak snarled in outrage. The reaver lord leapt down from his dais, landing on the dry-cracked earth with his immense blade in hand.
‘You dare?’ he growled.
The woman did not move. She eyed the oncoming warlord with something approaching contempt, her long hair sweeping from beneath the crown of her helm, a blazing halo lit by the fiery moon.
‘No more talk, then,’ she said. ‘We settle this with steel.’
With a roar Tarvak leapt at the woman, his blade sweeping across at chest height to bisect her. There was a reason why Tarvak had ruled the Flayed Legion with an iron hand for so many years. Despite his huge size, the warlord moved with blinding speed.
The woman was faster still. Her shield flashed up to intercept the blade, and instead of folding under the monstrous blow, it stopped Tarvak’s greatsword still. The reaver king stumbled, wrong-footed by the sudden halt in his momentum, and the woman lashed her axe into his knee. There was a sickening crunch of bone, and the Flayer staggered, growling with pain and outrage. He whirled and came at her again, his blade singing as it carved through the air. She ducked, swayed, stepped aside from every thrust, her every move perfectly judged, her expression passive, almost serene. It was as if she was enacting a dance she had performed a thousand times before.
The warlord tried to catch her with a backhand swing, but she swayed back and let the blade whistle past an inch from her stomach. Her axe scythed out, and dark blood sprayed across the floor. Tarvak staggered forward several steps, blood spraying in a wide arc from an opened throat. His eyes rolled over white, and his head toppled free from his shoulders and rolled in the dirt.
The woman stopped it with her foot, reached down and grasped a handful of the dead man’s lank hair. She raised Tarvak’s bloodied head high, letting the dripping gore wet her fingers before smearing a bloody handprint upon her shield. The blood-red skies thundered in approval, like the rapturous applause of watching gods.
‘I am Marakarr Blood-Sky,’ she roared. ‘Warqueen of the Reaver Wastes. You fight for me now. The Flayed Legion is mine. Anyone who would challenge my rule, step forward.’
There was a long silence, broken only by the spattering of blood upon the sand.
By nightfall the Flayed Legion was on the march. Ravening hordes of Bloodreavers loped ahead of the main advance, chanting and howling their battle-hymns of praise to mighty Khorne. Behind them marched rank after rank of ebon-armoured Blood Warriors, their armour caked in days-old gore, their relentless stride filled with eager malice. Warqueen Marakarr had addressed them mere hours ago, and her promises of what awaited them in Shyish had filled every warrior’s soul with unholy fervour. They now made with all haste for the Abyssal Fires, where they would begin the long, dangerous trek to the Realm of Death.
The Warqueen observed her new allies depart from the crest of a nearby ash-ridge, watching as the snaking column of torches passed beyond the horizon. The Flayed Legion would be a formidable weapon in the war to come, but she had seen the enormity of the coming battle under night-black skies, and she knew her work was not yet done. She would travel to the far marshes next, and seek the blight-spreaders who dwelt within. The Plague God’s faithful would prove less truculent than Khorne’s worshippers, she believed, though in truth it made no odds. Her axe would speak eloquently enough, if words proved unproductive.
Her eyes narrowed as she felt a rising sense of unease. The hairs upon her arms stood up, and she felt as if a thousand eyes had suddenly turned upon her. The air grew still, and for a moment the swirling clouds above converged to form the image of a skull, its jaws hanging open in mocking glee. Thunder rolled in the distance.
Marakarr Blood-Sky laughed, a harsh and cruel sound that echoed like a whip-crack across the empty plains.
‘Save your omens for frightened whelps,’ she roared, though there was nobody nearby to hear her words. ‘I am coming. And I bring the fury of the Dark Gods with me.’