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.
‘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.
‘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.’