The forest was rotten, and so too were its children. The forest had been alive once long ago: vibrant and green and healthy. Its children had been alive once: they had laughed and loved.
The rot spread from the slough and the swamp to the tangled mangrove roots, and it spread in brutish thoughts and shrivelled hearts. The rot crept into the roots of the ancient trees until the wood was swollen, black and bloated. The fetid water soaked into everything: into the simple houses they had built; into the wells and the crops and into the clothes and skin of the people. And as they drank it they too became swollen, black and bloated: they cast off their rotten clothes and pulled down their ruined hovels and rutted in the mud and filth, and they forgot what it meant to be men and women.
The moon-eyes were strangely dim: clouded and grey. It was as if they were blinded, the world was in darkness so absolute that it was near impossible to see the man beside you, nevermind whatever else was hiding amongst the trees. The wild tangle of branches and roots made hunting treacherous, the Dogs of the Hateful God would stumble, feet snared by a mangrove root, and we would curse silently as hooked branches snagged on hair and clothes.
I missed the hunter’s moon, we hunted best as a pack beneath the cold, stark glare of the moon-eyes. With ash-blackened weapons and pale skin daubed in the grey river clay we moved like shadows, like ghosts. On the grasslands we would run under moonlight while our victims slept, invisible, silent and unceasing.
But this was a different sort of darkness, it was impenetrable, thick and cloying. It clung to us, we pushed through it and fought against it. It was beginning to tire us, we who could run for days on end and still make bloody murder at the end. Watching every step, fighting against the tangle, ducking and cutting through briar and wading through the dark mud of sudden, treacherous quagmires. The mud had almost taken some of us – men would try to wade through it, strong men would push and pull against the suck of the swamp until it overwhelmed them and they could no longer free their legs to take the next step. Those we saw, we helped – wary that it could be any one of us needing help next time – we throw dead vines or branches to them so they could pull themselves free. But in the darkness we would not have seen all. And the Dogs knew not to call for help, no man among them would break the silence of the hunt, and no man would call out in fear even if they slowly drowned in the thick, fetid mud. To cry in fear would bring the contempt of the Hateful God, and to break the silence of the hunt would bring the wrath of our lord. Both were fates worse than death. Death was nothing to be feared.
We had walked all night, progress was slow and any hope of finding a trail, or a camp, had faded long ago. The forest seemed long dead, it was as if we were the first men to set foot here since time immemorial. Yet it was also as if we were unwelcome. There would be no rest until we had found our prey, we never stopped a hunt without food, the strength from the meat became desperation as hunger gripped us and desperation was a powerful motivator. We would kill or we would starve.
When I had first joined the Dogs I was unprepared for the demands of the hunt, I was strong from my life before – surviving in the woods and wilds, tracking animals and living from the land. I was strong enough to resist the rot that had set in the hearts and bodies of the other people that lived here on the edges of the forest. I depended on no other, and I had been alone for a long time and when the Realmwaster – daemon prince of the Hateful God – came he saw this strength and offered me the choice, the choice to join or die. A choice that was no choice at all.
The first few days – with the raw meat roiling in my stomach – had been an ordeal I did not think I would survive. I was sick but not with guilt, for I owed my neighbours nothing and they had died a swift death. We ran for all the hours of daylight without pause, and when night fell and the moon was bright enough to see by we continued to run, tracking survivors through the night until they collapsed from exhaustion. We were stronger, more determined. We did not stop, and that was how we survived.
The rain was almost like mist, a light but constant drizzle that soaked us to the bone, the wet forest seemed endless and unchanging. I had lived on the outskirts for years, never daring to venture in this far: each step we took seemed the same as the one before, there were no landmarks, there were no changes in the scenery. It was as if we were caught in a single timeless moment. There were no signs of life, no animals cries when we disturbed a nest, no hares fleeing us in the undergrowth. I was so used to hunting hares I still kept my short bow strung and ready, an arrow never far from my reach. The other Dogs looked at this with disdain, to them a bow was a coward’s weapon.
We persevered. The Hateful God had set us on this course and none of us would admit defeat. Besides, there was no alternative except for turning on each other, turning on the weakest among us. The fear of being the weakest, of showing weakness in the eyes of the others, or of becoming injured or lame: this was the great fear now. Showing weakness could mean death, it could mean that one bad hunt, one hunt where we had nothing to bring back for the Chosen, let alone ourselves would end with them turning on me.
When we ate that night, it was in silence. The smoke from the fires stung my eyes as the meat was cooked. We tore at it with our fingers and our teeth. There was little sound, each man intent on eating. Each man too exhausted to speak or to argue, and each man too alone with tortured thoughts to joke or laugh with the others.
When the Realmwaster spoke, every head snapped around in unison to watch him. Wide-eyed, wild-eyed, holding our breath to hear. He spoke seldom but when he did all men would listen. It was impossible to get used to the sight of the daemon that was once a man: massive, black furred and wrapped in leather wings. The Realmwaster, daemon prince of the Hateful God. A giant, half hidden in the darkness like an imagined nightmare from childhood.
His mouth slowly opened and closed in a crude imitation of speech, but he did not give breath to the words that appeared in our heads. His words – in our mind’s eye – sounded and looked deformed as they took shape. He called us hounds and it was a thought that echoed inside my skull, rattling my teeth. I had seen the daemon talk to men and his words could make their eyes and ears bleed. I listened with the others and I no longer thought I was anything but a beast and I bared my throat in submission to the horror that sat with us at our fire.
He spoke of the lands that we swept across, lands that had been ravaged before before by the Four, but they had not yet been picked clean of all they had to offer. The Realmwaster was thorough, there would be nothing left once his army had passed through. There would be no survivors hiding in the woods, as I once did. There would be no house or hall left standing. And there would be those that remembered the Four, the gods of Chaos that had abandoned us and we had declared war on them in return. And those followers we found and that we judged worthy would be given the same choice, the choice that is no choice at all.
Soundtrack of Chaos
I am sometimes asked where I get my inspiration from. Music is probably one of the biggest influences; I try to match a particular band or genre. This warband was particularly heavy and doom-laden.
I started building this warband when the Age of Sigmar starter set came out and shortly after completing my Stormcast – so long ago it feels like they would never be finished, and after becoming extremely bored of making greenstuff dreadlocks they almost never were. They have sat on my desk in various states of repair for so long I am quite sick of them, although unfortunately I realised I need to add another unit or two if I want to make a legal army. Originally they were going to be Khorne, then they were going to be Chaos Undivided, but ultimately the decision to do Malal was because I only really enjoy painting black and white. Every model is converted, even if only with a headswap and a hairdo. Some of them are a little rough around the edges, but like I say, they began to drive me nuts. Next time, a smaller scale project. Oh, and I have used very reflective metallics and gloss finishes which have a bit of glare in the photos, sorry about that.