The bloated, tentacle-limbed warrior’s head burst apart under Hyphor’s hammer. A putrid eruption of brain and bone splattered across the Liberator’s breastplate, blemishing its cream-white sheen. He smashed the dead thing aside with his shield and sought his next quarry – a horn-helmed brute wielding a rusted cleaver. That one’s spine was shattered with a backhand swing. Next was a grotesque with a leering, black-toothed grin, battered to bloody pieces, then a capering plague-sprite, crushed to paste beneath Hyphor’s boot. On all sides the wretches were dying too fast to count. Soon, the Stormcast Eternal was wading through a morass of torn and shattered corpses, and the last of the Nurgle-worshipping filth were attempting to flee into the coiling lash-fronds of the deep forest, scuttling back to their putrescent lairs like roaches exposed to sunlight.
Not a single one made the woodland edge. Though several of their own number fell to the heretics’ rusted blades, the Knights Excelsior cut their foes down with merciless efficiency, cleaving heads and shattering bones with every strike. Before long, the sounds of battle ceased, and all that could be heard were the driving rain and low growl of approaching thunderclouds.
‘That is the last of them,’ said Liberator-Prime Rygos, wiping ichor from his warblade. ‘For now, at least. Be on your guard. These forests crawl with the Plague God’s foul vermin.’
In truth, it had hardly been a battle worthy of the Knights Excelsior. The plague-ridden warband was a mere splinter of the great hosts that despoiled these lands. The filthy deviants had not even managed to breach Holmspear’s palisade walls, protected as they were by a sturdy ring of spitebranch trees. Caught between the hammers of the Stormcast Eternals and the foot-long thorns of the settlement’s fearsome natural barrier, the Nurgle worshippers had been swiftly disposed of. Flyblown bodies filled the perimeter trench, bobbing against each in a soupy quagmire of blood and slime. The rain continued to lash down. Soon the moat would overflow, spilling its rancid contents into the town’s streets.
‘The enemy is routed,’ shouted Rygos, striding across a narrow causeway that led over the trench and met the main doors of Holmspear. He slammed the pommel of his sword upon the hardwood. ‘Open the gate.’
They heard a shuffle of movement on the other side of the wall, and the gate yawned open to reveal a group of thin, sallow-looking humans dressed in tattered uniforms. The Stormcast Eternals tramped across the causeway and entered the town, where they were met with the overpowering stench of death and decay, the scent of bodies trapped together for days without food or rest or clean water. Holmspear was home to no more than a hundred souls, and it seemed barely a fraction of that number still lived. Corpses lay piled here and there amidst a tangle of root-carved shacks and modest stone cottages, covered only by a few pitiful rags.
‘God-King bless you, my lords,’ said the apparent leader of the town guard, a stick-thin fellow whose eyes were crusted with yellow grime, and whose hands trembled noticeably as he made the sign of the comet.
Hyphor gazed upon the emaciated creature. So small and weak. So susceptible. Once, such weakness might have inspired pity in him, but Hyphor had fought and died and been reborn in the soul-forges of Azyrheim so many times that he only dimly recalled the concept. The searing crucible of the Reforging process had robbed him of doubt and hesitation, and opened his eyes to a stark truth – in the realms there existed only the savagery of untrammelled chaos and the security of pure order. Justice and anarchy. The righteous and the afflicted.
The man shrank beneath Hyphor’s appraising stare.
The Knights Excelsior formed up in ranks in a cramped clearing that passed for the town square, standing still as statues in the downpour. The storm clouds were so heavy that the land was smothered in shadow, though the hour was not late. Thunder rumbled overhead. From the doors and windows of nearby buildings, a few thin, pale faces peered out at the newcomers.
‘We are too late,’ said Hyphor, taking in the corpse-strewn township and its wretched inhabitants. ‘You sense it, Liberator-Prime? Rot has seeped into the lifeblood of this place.’
In the center of the square stood a statue of a Sigmarite saint, a stern patriarch with hammer held high and a prayer scroll clutched in his other hand. The monument was cloaked in sickly green slime, and Hyphor saw fat-bodied maggots crawling across its surface. More of the revolting things writhed in the window frames and gutters of nearby hovels, and across the bodies of the fallen. Circling the base of the statue was the remnant of what must have once been a wellspring, now choked and clogged with viscous, bubbling fluid. The entire place reeked like an infected wound.
‘We are tasked with scouring the corruption from Holmspear,’ said Liberator-Prime Rygos. ‘It seems our work is not yet done.’
‘The walls may have held the Plague God’s servants at bay,’ said Hyphor, ‘but Holmspear is in his foul grasp nonetheless.’
‘If even one of these mortals bears the taint of impurity, then soon will the rest,’ said Rygos. ‘And it will not stop here. It will spread, village to village, township to township. Eventually, to the very gates of the Living City. That is the way of corruption. It cannot be tolerated or ignored. It must be burned out, root and stem.’
Rygos’ eyes were shards of ice blue, without pupils or irises. They shimmered and flickered softly within the depths of his war mask, like a flame caught in the wind. The endless cycle of death and Reforging had left its mark on their leader, as it had so many of their number.
‘We will earn no prestige or honour this night,’ he said. ‘But a Knight Excelsior craves not such things. He seeks only to excel at the task for which he was forged – to destroy the servants of the Dark Gods, wherever they may be found. Whether they serve willingly or no. For the glory of Sigmar.’
‘For the glory of Sigmar!’ the Liberators chanted as one, clashing their shields against the rain-slick stones.
The ragged remnant of the town guard stared at each other, and their confusion turned slowly to unease as they realised something was dreadfully wrong. Hyphor could smell the bitter reek of their rising fear, which only girded his soul for what must come next – after all, what was fear but the final admission of a guilty soul? Despite his revulsion, he vowed that justice would be swift. The mortals’ stubborn resistance had earned them that, at least.
Liberator-Prime Rygos drew his blade from its scabbard. It shone brightly, even in the gathering darkness.
‘Bar the gates,’ he said.