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. Mucous 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…