‘You have heard, I assume, about their slaughter at Halfholme.’
Prime Commander Katrik le Guillion leaned forward, looking at Master Patriarch Mench over the rims of her amethyst glasses. Sevastean Mench met her gaze, doing his best to appear unimpressed. Le Guillion had once been the commander of the Bleak Island Sellswords, who had famously broken a greenskin Waaagh! on the rocks of Cliffdiver Coast. She was renowned for having an incisive mind, a sharp sense of style, and friends in very low places.
‘Are we to abide such behaviour, then?’ she said.
Mench wondered if the rumours that she had had her belly cut open by an aelf’s blade had anything to do with her reservations.
‘Are we to tacitly endorse the violation of the fallen by failing to condemn it?’ she went on. ‘That seems to be the case thus far.’
‘And with good reason.’ At the far end of the table was Ambassador Selendti Llyr-Xiss, a pale priestess of the Khainite Cult, standing tall as she glared daggers at le Guillion. The ambassador was the representative of the aelven temples; she had been resident-in-state with her escort ever since the High Oracle of Khaine’s royal visit last Cometsday. Her cold, almost alien presence had changed the complexion of the Stormrift Conclave ever since; the fact she simply refused to sit down was off-putting in itself.
‘Yes, commander,’ replied Mench patiently. ‘I believe everyone in Hammerhal Aqsha has heard about it by now.’
Le Guillion raised a gold-pierced eyebrow. ‘And yet we sit here with one of their kind as if nothing had happened.’
Mench had heard tell the woman held grudges against non-humans, that she wore contact poison on her fingernails, and that she had simply bought her way onto the Stormrift Conclave. He found the latter hard to believe; though in terms of power and influence, the council was but an echo of its celestial counterpart in Heavenhall, the Pantheon’s representatives in Hammerhal were long past simple bribery. She was here precisely because she was the sort of person that had no fear of the aelves.
The imports doyenne Ysmeralde von Leithenstine cooled herself with a spidersilk fan. ‘The reported behaviour is disgusting, if it is true,’ she said. ‘Are these blood rites not the very same barbaric practices that Palos Tzind wrote of in his Treatise on the Brimstone Peninsula?’
‘They stopped short of cannibalism, I believe,’ said Elethrus Vinx casually, toying with her pearlescent prayer beads.
‘Oh, that’s fine then,’ crowed le Guillion. ‘They merely killed everything in sight and bathed in the blood of the dead!’
‘The rites of Khaine are not yours to discuss,’ said Ambassador Llyr-Xiss. ‘We do as we must to defend our territories against the scourge of true evil.’
‘I find that hard to believe,’ said Hennerdorf, the Alumnus Verita of Excelsis. ‘You kill as you wish.’
‘And this from the representative of a metropolis where the Stormcast act as judge, jury and executioner on a daily basis,’ said Llyr-Xiss. ‘How many innocent lives have been lost to the hammer of an overzealous Knight Excelsior, just because they were desperate to feed their family, or walked on the wrong side of the street? Come to that, how many of Sigmar’s warriors are stolen from their people and forced into doing his will?’
‘Reductive at best,’ scoffed Hennerdorf. ‘The God-King knows well the minds of men, and aelves to boot. There is a reason we don’t harbour your kind in our fair city on the coast.’
‘Is that the case?’ said Llyr-Xiss, a slight smile on her lips.
‘Oh, they are there alright,’ said High Castellan Brutar, glassy-eyed with pleasant memories. ‘If you look hard enough. The sacred dancing, the bladesmanship, the… uniforms. Quite spellbinding.’
‘Better the fiend you know well, isn’t that the saying?’ said Mench with a weak laugh. His jest proved poorly judged, and he crossed his arms despite himself as Xiss turned her steel-cold gaze upon him. She gestured at one of her aides, and the aelf made a note on a piece of fine vellum. Mench hoped to high Sigmar it would not prove to be his death writ.
‘We are part of the fabric of this society,’ said Llyr-Xiss. ‘It was our queen who fought at Sigmar’s side to raise up civilisation so many thousands of years ago, just as we fight at your side now. Is it given to you to break with that tradition and deny the will of the God-King?’
‘Of course not,’ huffed Evandelle of the High Artisans. She shared a look with her steam-cherubs, who rolled their eyes with a series of faint mechanical whirrs. ‘But it is “given to us” to decide how best to implement his decisions in the free cities of Aqshy and Ghyran, and reflect them in the corresponding governance. Just as did Almighty Sigmar, we tolerate you as long as you prove useful.’
‘At least this one is honest,’ said Llyr-Xiss, inclining her head.
Mench couldn’t help but feel he was losing any semblance of control over the situation. ‘The hour is grave, this we all know. The Daughters have shown themselves to be… highly committed to the battle against the forces of darkness. They are very effective allies in the ongoing fight against the tyrannical hordes. It has been said we cannot do without them.’
‘I for one echo that sentiment,’ said Brutar, folding his hands across his pseudo-military cummerbund. ‘I have seen them fight in earnest. Bloody massacre. I’d rather have them at our side than across the field. Fight fire with fire, I say.’
‘I, too,’ said Gharralan, the Lord Audacious.
‘And I,’ said Hexedentia Vimm, newly-appointed mistress of the Hammerhal Cog-forts.
‘Is no-one concerned about the message this sends?’ said le Guillion. ‘That the end justifies the means? What does this tell the next generation, and the next, even if we somehow win peace enough to raise them?’
‘You take the coin, do you not?’ said Llyr-Xiss. ‘Like the duardin, you fight for the highest bidder, yet you still talk of morality.’
At this Drobjorn, the High Artillerist of the Dispossessed, harrumphed and bristled in his stout throne. Just as he was about to speak, there was a scream in the distance. It was abruptly cut short. The delegates looked at one another, and a few made as if to stand, but none left their seat.
Such instances were not uncommon, these days. Lately there had been talk of riots in the lower city, and a wave of bloody strife in the Cinderfall District. Mench waved two fingers at the guards standing by the main doors. As they moved to investigate, he refocused on the hall once more.
‘We have no choice but to ally,’ said Llyr-Xiss. ‘You do not like it. We do not like it. Drobjorn here has his hand on his axe as I speak. But we face a rising tide of undeath, and if we do not find a way to conquer it, then aelf, man and duardin alike, our ways of life will end forever. We will be reduced to dry bone, and forced to march to the beat of a mad god’s drum. Don’t you see that? Can’t you read the signs? We may not be the same creed, race, or anatomy, but we are the living. And that is enough!’
‘Fine words,’ said Mench, surprised to find he truly meant it. ‘We have a common enemy, and for now, at least, I believe that is enough.’
‘The High Oracle must obey the same strictures as the rest of us, if she is to truly share our cities,’ said le Guillion. ‘There was never a vote.’
‘Then let us put it to the show of blades,’ said Mench.
‘I concur,’ said Aventis Firestrike, Magister of Hammerhal and judiciary representative of the Stormcast Eternals. Since Mench’s inception as Chair, Aventis attended the council rarely and spoke even less, but when he did, it was always well. ‘We must come to a consensus for the people to accept the decision in their hearts.’
‘Progress at last,’ said Mench. ‘So then. On the matter of the alliance with the Temple of Khaine, to be made permanent and official in Azyrheim and beyond, raise or stay your weapon.’
One by one, blades were raised around the grand table, ranging from thin stilettos to fluted kris knives to ancestral broadswords that took two hands to lift. Mench let time tick by until a full ten seconds had passed, and then made his count. It was not a swift process, and many sighs of impatience and shifting of aching arms came with each passing minute, just as they always did. But it was necessary.
Mench double-checked, frowning, and then counted once more to be sure.
‘One hundred and twenty-three in favour,’ he said eventually, ‘one hundred and twenty one against. Do any dispute it?’
He let another ten seconds pass, but none gainsaid him.
‘Right then.’ He brought the antique hammer of his office down hard. ‘Let that be an end to it. Ambassador Lyr-Xiss–’
‘Llyr-Xiss,’ the aelf corrected, her voice a sibilant burr.
‘Right, yes. The ambassador here represents tens of thousands of warrior aelves, each ready to fight in the name of Sigmar to–’
‘Of Khaine,’ said Llyr-Xiss.
Mench looked at the ceiling, counted to three, and continued. ‘Each ready to fight in the name of Order and progress, that we all may live without the shadows of Chaos and Death cast over our lives. Let that be an end to it.’ He slammed his antique hammer down once more for good measure.
‘Now,’ he said, taking a longscroll from his adjutant and carefully smoothing it across the wyrmwood of the majestic debating table. ‘To matters of force disposition over the coming invasions…’