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…