The War of the Hell Tide
Logem and Sigun stood on either side of Erith, their militia captain. Sigun Earthenfountain took a long draw from his carved fungiwood pipe, causing the bowl to faintly glow a dull red in the dim cavern. He gripped his steel warhammer, a masterwork of craftdwarfship, created by their own legendary weaponsmith, Koe Degelostar. Most of the rest of Sigun's squad were grabbing equipment or hadn't arrived yet. They were the closest ones ready for battle when the alarm was sounded. A couple of marksdwarves were stationed at the fortifications behind them at that place, the deepest safeguard of the colony of Craftflame. Two tiers of battlements rose into the high chamber, meant to defend against the strange things that were reportedly seen dwelling in the great magma sea during the excavation of the adamantine vein. But they were not prepared for this. These were not magma crabs or fire imps, but something from much deeper. Demons, surging up from Hell itself, eager to exploit the passage into the world above that the colony's mining efforts had unwittingly created.
A hysterical ore hauler had managed to make it out and raise the alarm. Two miners were unaccounted for, as well as Domas, one of the miner's young children, who had been allowed to watch his father work at the excavation. It did not bear thinking of what fate had become of them.
At first, Sigun thought they stood a chance, since the passageway up to the checkpoint was carefully constructed with traps, the floor and walls primed to bristle with serrated steel discs, giant axe blades, and spikes carefully designed by Koe herself. But the demons glided through the air with otherworldly power, their wings and serpentine tentacles flitting them over the pressure plates. The colony had a formidable military, but it would take the bulk of their forces a whole day to make the decent from the Great Hall. The demons were fast. He could see them, eyes ablaze on bodies of searing heat and writhing shadow, rushing up the corridor.
"Armok's mercy," Sigun heard Logem say in dread anticipation. Stating the benevolence of the god of Blood was something a dwarf said when a gruesome death was nigh, and there was no hope of victory or escape. He looked at the drawbridge, welded from thick iron blocks, laying flat against the floor in the corridor. When shut, it would be seamless with the smooth rock, completely unassailable from the outside. But left open as it was, the gears were vulnerable. The demons, by no means devoid of intelligence, would surely cripple it. He spat out his pipe, which clattered to the bedrock floor. It was terribly clear in his mind what had to be done.
He charged forward, running over the iron toward the foul monsters.
"What are you doing?!" Erith blurted.
"Close the gate!" Sigun called over his shoulder as he rushed past the closest traps, his steel armor jostling.
"Sigun, ye fool!" The lady captain called desperately in her high-pitched voice, "We stand together!" There was no turning back now, the demons were upon him. He wanted this. He would have such a death, if it spared the colony.
"Close the gate, blast ye!" He dodged and blurred his hammer as his years of training took over his movements, dancing around snapping tentacles that sparkled with glowing embers. A phantom of cinders squeezed around the massive, rumbling fiend occupying the width and height of the corridor, smoke venting from its ash-dripping maw. "Have a meal of me hammer, ye Hell-fart!" His streaking hammer hit from an underhew, catching the demon under the jaw and dislodging its ugly head. It collapsed into a pile of ash, which gave the larger demon more room to move. In fact, it was enormous.
From a distance, Sigun had supposed it for two demons, but up close it was clear that it was a chimera of a demon, an unnatural hybrid of multiple types of creatures. Its body was glossy black, as if sculpted from obsidian. It stood on sharp spider-like legs, and had a torso twisted into humanoid form with a multitude of bright-flaring arm-like tendrils, and its head was that of a monstrous insect, but with a jaw that looked like it belonged to a predatory creature from the deep sea. Its two sunken eyes swallowed all light.
Erith took a step forward, but thought better of it. The linked gearboxes of mechanisms that closed the gate took time to activate, and if they were going to close the gate at all, they needed to close it immediately. Gritting her teeth, she turned to the battlements and gave a nod.
A civilian was manning the gate lever behind the battlements. One of the marksdwarves was trying to aim at the traffic jam of demons, but he risked hitting Sigun at that range. He looked to Erith.
"Inod's balls!" The marksdwarf cursed under his breath as he lowered the sight of his crossbow and turned his head to the civilian. "Close the gate!"
The civilian, a weaver by profession, had no desire to give a horde of flesh-rending demons a chance to get closer to him. He yanked the lever, and a cascade of gearwork was set in motion with counterweights.
The fearsome demon's tentacles overwhelmed Sigun, his hammer bashing against its chitin-plated chest, causing it to drip burning black flame-blood, but giving no critical wounds. Sigun, with his armor beginning to glow from the heat, was swept to the side and pushed up against the wall as the demon reared its head with a roar.
"I can't hear ye!" Sigun shouted at the demon's furious visage defiantly as his searing flesh struggled to move his hammer against a restraining tentacle. "Scream a wee bit louder ye bug-faced ash bucket!"
An instant later, Erith saw a splatter of blood splash the corridor's ceiling as the drawbridge rose, then locked shut with an echoing clunk that seemed loud against the suddenly muffled sounds beyond.
So it was that Sigun Earthenfountain met his end against Rakustrash the demon prince, sacrificing himself to give Craftflame a fighting chance in the war of the Hell Tide.
* * *
The duchess Imma had nursed the colony from the beginning, from whence it was not more than an open sand pit protected by a wooden palisade. An open sand pit that she and the expedition leader had dug out themselves. Back then, long before their lands were elevated to a duchy, she was just a common-born miner, selected for the settlement expedition from the volunteers at the mountainhomes for her experience with brokering. That was almost thirty years ago, and even the woodlands of the plains around Craftflame had regrown since they logged it. The old sand quarry had become a garden with finely-carved statues, the ground lush with grass and young trees, protected by monolithic granite walls and high crenelated battlements. All sheltered from the weather by a towering step-pyramid made from clear glass blocks, supported by cathedral-like pillars and arches. It allowed the sun to shine down into the park, gently and blissfully filtered through the thick glass.
She sparred with her elite squad, the Furies, in their barracks near the Great Hall carved from the living rock below the pyramid garden. Though it had been only days, the heroic death of Sigun Earthenfountain was already engraved on the back wall of the Hall, flanked by rows of pillars that were adorned with other great deeds out of history. Above, the ceiling of the Hall rose high, ledges holding a myriad of granite statues, while the back wall above the grim image of Sigun hosted glittering aquamarine gem windows from where the duke could look down into the Hall from his throne room.
She instructed the squad in advanced striking techniques. She was a professional teacher, which was why in formal address she was called “Duchess Imma Staffhandle the Influence of Fellowship”. She had become one of the greatest living swordsdwarves in all of Orzuza. But even a dozen of her skill would not last long against all the forces of Hell. The demon onslaught was stopped...for the time being.
After the morning’s lesson was concluded, they stayed in the barracks and talked about Sigun. None of them had really known him very well. He had come with some migrants a few years back.
“His deed is a testament to true dwarfdom,” said Jennavuz Breachedmines, her shaven chin uplifting with pride.
“True words,” affirmed Talin Oddom. “And yet he is deprived a proper burial.” There was bitter shame in his voice.
“He has been memorialized with honor...” offered Zunglar Runetombs.
“Damn it, Tombs,” snapped Jenn, “it’s nay enough!”
The duke, Adalaan the Braided, rested the tip of his sword on the floor and listened to the rest of the circle.
“Aye,” conceded Tombs. “Nay enough for the likes o’ him.”
“What shall we do about it?” Asked Bomrekk Arzes the Cobalt Strength, his voice emerging from hidden lips beneath his blonde beard, large even by dwarf standards. The young duke, his brown beard still without grey, drew a long breath.
“We shall reclaim him,” the duke said. “When word of this reaches the mountainhomes, I’ll not have this fortress known for any lack of courage.”
“Now we’re talking!” Talin exclaimed, vigor returning to his tone.
“I’ll face down any demon,” stated Atheladas Ozon, one of the original settlers that came with Imma and Adalaan. “We’ll get our own back, though fire and brimstone bar the way.”
Adalaan gave a nod to his friend. “Raise the alert and assemble the squads.” He lifted one hand and put it in the middle of the gathering. “For the Banner of Righteousness.” Everyone added a hand over his. “Blood an’ thunder.”
“Blood an’ thunder,” they all echoed.
That evening, after the day’s march down the miles of staircases, almost the entire military might of Craftflame was massed at the checkpoint in the deep. The air was heavy and warm. The ranks were quiet. No sounds could be heard from the raised drawbridge. The duke gave the signal, and the lever was pulled. The drawbridge lowered, the counterweight rising as the gears clanked together. The dark corridor was revealed, empty save for a heap below bloodstains on the scorched wall and ceiling.
Cautiously, two soldiers advanced. Kubuk the speardwarf and Onget the swordsdwarf paled as they beheld the remains of the hero. Sigun lay in half, his beard had been mostly burnt away, and only overcooked flesh remained on his bones, partly covered by his blackened and scraped steel armor. The burned beard was the most disturbing aspect to them. They looked at each other, and steeled their nerves. Kubuk began to signal for a hauler to claim the body, when his gesture was halted by Onget.
“Wait,” Onget whispered urgently. “Listen.” The air was moving, a breeze that grew from the corridor. Something was coming. Onget pulled on Kubuk, and they fell back to rejoin the ranks. There was no need to repeat Sigun’s sacrifice.
The breeze soon became a rushing wind, and a red glow appeared in the distance down the corridor. Quickly, Inferno Phantoms came into range of the marksdwarves.
“Fire!” Cried Amber Zaled, the elite marksdwarf captain. The two crossbow squads let their bolts fly, and the corridor became an artery of streaking iron. One of the Inferno Phantoms was perforated and abruptly exploded, jolting the air. Through the fire and smoke, the demon’s assault continued, resulting in more explosions that threatened to scatter Sigun’s remains.
Then the Salt Brutes came, barreling through the crossbow bolts which stuck to their rocky hides. “Keep firing!” Amber called as she let loose a bolt that cracked open a Salt Brute’s eyeless head. Varied in form, from bipedal to quadruped, the briny demons entered the chamber, and the melee squad stationed outside the iron door in the fortifications attacked. “Friendlies in the fray! Mark yer target!” Amber ordered.
The marksdwarves aimed carefully, and Kubuk and Onget worked with their squad to crack and dismember the elemental monsters. Chunks of salt lay strewn about as they successfully slew the last salt demon to rush in from the corridor.
But then came the Sepia Devils. They were huge insectoid hellspawn that resembled hideous toothy butterflies out of some nightmare, with folded translucent wings that chittered together. They charged into the high chamber and sticky webs immediately spewed from their scaly thoraxes. Kubuk and some other dwarves were rendered immobile in the tangled, silky webbing. Kubuk’s spear was ill-suited to cut himself free, and he let out a cry as a tined insect-like leg pierced his chainmail. The marksdwarves fired their crossbows as fast as they could reload them, but they saw in horror as the demon struck down Kubuk with a barrage of its many weapon-like legs, seemingly oblivious to the grisly wounds being inflicted upon its body segments.
“Furies!” The duke called out, and led his squad through the iron doorway. Duke Adalaan wagged and wheeled Kovestumid, “Pearlfall”, his steel sword, and swiftly severed four legs of the demon closest to him. It sprayed him with webbing, but his keen blade sliced through the mesh and he sprinted under the demon, gutting its thorax. “Welcome te Craftflame, ye screechy pile o’ infernal shit!” He jumped out of the way as the demon collapsed, wailing in pain before Bomrekk planted his axeblade into its head.
Onget hacked off a Sepia Devil’s striking leg, but another leg caught him, and he was thrown like a pebble down the corridor. He flew by an advancing demon and landed on a pressure plate. The traps were constructed so a dwarves’ weight wouldn’t normally activate it, but Onget’s velocity triggered the mechanism, and a menacing steel spike pierced through his chest.
The duke and his squad, aided by volleys of crossbow bolts and what was left of the squad that they had rescued, smote the last demon that charged from the corridor, a wraith of steam that exploded into mist and a puddle of water. They waited. Nothing else emerged from the passage, and for a few moments, all was quiet.
“There’s more of them to come,” said Imma, “no question.”
“Aye,” replied her husband. “Send for the haulers.”
A couple of the civilians were motioned out from the hallway behind the battlements. One was instructed to help a wounded soldier make the ascent to the colony's hospital, and the other was sent to the duke. Adalaan pointed down the corridor. “Collect Sigun. Take great care.” He glanced to Onget’s body. He did not want her to confuse the two. “Not the one on the spike; someone else will fetch him.” He motioned for another hauler.
Raudauna Ilralgisek quickly went to the damaged heap that was Sigun, her heart pounding. She was a mason, a respected profession in its own right, but Raudauna was a highly skilled one. The duke knew this, and thus with his command for her to retrieve Sigun’s body, gave her the honor of being Sigun's amradshomak, Guard of the Dead. It was a duty considered to be of extreme merit, as it was preforming a service for somebody who could never repay the favor.
Raudauna carefully but quickly scooped up Sigun, using his armor to help hold him together, and hurried back to make the hike up the stairs. All of the dead and wounded were carried away, and the soldiers stood at the ready. The duke pondered the corridor.
“There are yet more bodies to reclaim in there, one of them a child’s.”
“The crossbow squads are running low on bolts.” Imma cautioned.
“Aye,” her husband sighed. “Best not press our luck. We will return soon enough.” He turned to the battlements. “Close the gate!”
* * *
Sigun Earthenfountain had no family in Craftflame, but everyone attended his funeral. No one ate, drank, or smoked in the Hall of the Dead. To do so would be considered disrespectful, as the dead could no longer do those things.
Kubuk and Onget were also laid to rest by their respective amradshomaks with high honors during the assembly, placed in their stone coffins with a hole bored in them, so their spirits could escape when they were called by the Architect to receive their ultimate fate.
“Call our departed into yer care, Architect,” recited the duke as he lead a prayer to the three chief gods of their pantheon. “Bless those who mourn, Mistress of Stone. Shield them from the pain, with yer hammer, oh Inod, and guide them to a new day.”
The ceremony was concluded and the assembly dissolved as dwarves returned to their work. Before Adalaan had been elevated into the nobility, he had been elected as the colony’s mayor. Before that, he had been the expedition leader, and Imma’s mining partner. Their romantic relationship developed after many years of working together, and it was several years after that when they decided to get married. But they had no children; there was no time for it. Imma could not abide child-rearing duties taking away from her military ones. She could not train soldiers or spar while nursing. It did not bother Adalaan. In a way, they considered the colony itself to be their child.
“My lord duke,” a messenger said when he approached the couple in the Hall of the Dead, “an elven caravan from Yipadala has been sighted on the road.”
“Elves, eh?” He turned to his wife. “Send the new broker to deal with them.” The duchess snorted at his command.
“Ye ken well they won’t have anything we want.” She retorted.
“Likely not, but the broker could use a wee bit o’ practice, aye?”
“There is that. I better oversee it.”
Imma accompanied Joel Aguzol, the colony’s appointed broker, to the trading depot just outside the main gate by the road. She was unused to the brightness of the surface, and squinted at Joel. He was wearing his silver battleaxe, a token of his position. A fairly young dwarf of fifty-six, he already had eight children, six of which were adults in the colony and very well accomplished in their professions. More accomplished than their father, perhaps. It made Joel anxious and impatient, but also striving for excellence. He had downed a good strong drink of rum when he heard he was to be dealing with elves.
“Greetings,” said the elven merchant as his fellows unloaded their pack animals. “I am Mokathi Mimaleeriya, but I am known in common as Mokathi Riverhail.” He did not bow.
“Miz tnam bi...” Joel cleared his throat as he remembered not to speak dwarvish, but the common tongue used for trading. “Joel Aguzol speaks to ye, and this be duchess Imma Nomalshab dey Skilam Meri.” Again, the elf did not bow.
“We are enchanted by your more ethical works. Let us trade!”
During the negotiations and displays of trade goods, it was clear that the elves did not have much that the dwarves considered useful. There were baubles and trinkets, but no self-respecting dwarf would wear elven jewelry or don elven armor. The elf-made weapons were too long, and their bundles of arrows would not work with crossbows. The things they had that Joel did consider useful were sacks of dried berries, pots of elvish wine, and bolts of cloth. Imma expressed interest in a cart-pulled cage containing a panther that the elves had tamed. She thought her husband might like a new war pet, since his war-trained grizzly bear had died in battle some years before during a goblin invasion.
Haulers came from the fortress with goods listed in Joel’s trade requisition. They included two strong iron cages of exceptional quality, barrels of mushroom wine, sweet-pod rum, and other alcohol brewed from their subterranean crops.
“So, do we have an accord?” Joel asked. Mokathi examined the goods the dwarves had brought for trade. His hand hovered over a wooden barrel, and his expression soured.
“The trees used to make these barrels. Were they already dead when you harvested them?”
“Uhhh...” Joel hesitated in confusion. Imma jabbed him with her elbow. “They are masterfully carved and fitted barrels, Mokathi Riverhail. With yer trade goods such as they are, these will fetch you a fine profit, I ween.”
“Once a beautiful tree with much to tell and yet more to live...now a rude construct, fit only for your kind!”
“Don’t ye be insultin’ our craftdwarfship, ye penny-licking tree-hugger!”
“Impetuous one. You do not understand the sanctity of the friends of elves.”
“The-” Joel blinked, “the friends o’ elves? Ye mean the blasted trees?”
“By the sea and stars! Your head is empty. I will have no dealings with the likes of you.” Mokathi gestured for the other elves to pack up their goods.
“Ack, go on home and pose in front o’ the mirror some more, ye smooth-faced wussy-footed twig on legs!”
“Wind pours from your face,” said Mokathi calmly from a side-long glance. “I will not heed some rat-common dwarf who has such disregard for life.”
“What?!” Joel’s eyes widened with rage. “Rat-combing?! Are ye implying something about me beard?!”
“Certainly not," the elf rolled his eyes. "Clearly your grasp of common is lacking.”
“Why ye...Let’s see how tall ye are stretched out on the ground!” Joel placed his hand on his silver axe, which while ceremonial, could still be used as an axe. Imma placed a heavy hand on his shoulder, and he looked to her. She shook her head sternly.
“Perhaps you should drink more ale. I know dwarves get irritable when they haven’t had enough drink.” He turned and began tying up bolts of cloth onto a pack horse.
“Bah, yer lucky me duchess won’t let me teach ye a lesson. Asmel curse ye, elf!” Joel tromped into the fortress, fuming. Imma regarded the elves coldly, then followed after Joel. Hot-headed as Joel was, she thought invoking a curse from the dwarven deity of trade and wealth was a fitting end to the negotiations.
Imma had not made it far down the wide, ramped passage into the fortress when she heard panicked shouting coming from the surface. For a moment, she dreaded. Had the demons found another way up? No, she realized that was impossible.
The trade depot was ambushed. The goblins had used the distraction of the negotiations to creep in close without being detected. The elves bolted in two directions, but their laden pack animals were slow. They started dropping merchandise to get away faster. A dwarf from the pyramid garden came running down the ramp, shouting to raise the alarm.
Imma took her time back up the ramp. After all, she wanted to give her squad time to join her. The elves would distract the goblins for a little while. The Furies together with the Fortress Guard made quick work of the specialized goblin ambush squad. In fact, a great swath of the land around the pyramid was littered with the bones and poorly-made armor of goblins from past assaults. There was a goblin stronghold in a mountain range not far to the south of Craftflame, and word of the colony’s wealth attracted repeated sieges by the greedy, malicious creatures. The ground was stained red with their blood. Not even the frequent rains could wash it all away.
The two elite squads stood near the trade depot as the elven merchants hastily disappeared into the distance. Imma looked at some of the abandoned merchandise. The panther cage was one, with the panther in it. She smiled and gave silent thanks to Asmel.
“Right then!” Adalaan stated. “I’ll bet my beard there’s another gobbo squad nearby. Let’s see who can find it first! Split up!”
The two squads went on patrol. The Furies had searched halfway around the perimeter when Kib Udos, hammerdwarf, barked an alarm when she nearly tripped over a goblin hiding in the bunchgrass. At once, the goblin ambush squad leapt up and attacked. Imma and the rest rushed to engage them. Kib had sixty-three kills to her name, until she broke the skull of a pike-wielding goblin.
“Sixty-four!” She called out, taking joy in the slaughter.
“Eighty-four!” Imma exclaimed as she deftly sliced off a goblin’s arm, then proceeded to slice off his other arm for the fun of it. The goblin looked at one arm on the ground, then the other, and looked profoundly annoyed at such an insulting death. He rushed at Imma, bleeding on her as he tried to attack by biting. She shoved him back with her buckler and plunged her blade into his heart.
With the goblins slain, they returned to the fortress, and haulers were sent to pick up the larger chunks of goblin to be tossed down the garbage shoot. Too much flesh left to rot outside would foul the air and invite disease. The garbage shoot was wide enough for two bodies to be thrown down at once, because it was used constantly for all manner of refuse, which fell straight down for many minutes on end until it splashed into the great magma sea, providing an endless incineration service.
Neither the duke or duchess had slept in days, and their bodies began to feel heavy with weariness. They retired to their spacious bedchamber. While the common laborers of the fortress were content with simple private quarters hosting a bed, a table and chair, a cabinet, and maybe a chest, the noble’s accommodations had pillars and ample space for furnishings that they commissioned to be crafted for them specifically. Such was the privilege of their social station.
“I presume ye intend to call a meeting tomorrow?” Imma asked as she lay beside Adalaan.
“There always be meetings, whether I call for ‘em or nay.”
“About the demons, my dear. We need a plan.”
“I nay be daft, woman. Aye, it’s been in my mind.”
“Might we ask for reinforcements from the mountainhomes?”
“Ye ken well the outpost liaison isn’t due for months, and if we sent a messenger, the queen would likely command me to evacuate the whole bloody colony. I would be forced to endure the shame of leaving the vessels of the dead down there to rot, and their spirits would haunt the empty fortress forever.”
“I will stay by yer side, come what may.” She held his hand. He turned and stroked her long sideburns.
“Aye, chilly-cheeks. We’ll forge our own destiny, together.”
* * *
Word was sent for the private meeting to assemble, but before Adalaan had finished his morning ale, a tall figure almost had to duck to step through the Great Hall doorway. A human.
“Balls,” Adalaan muttered to Atheladas beside him at the table. Athel, as Adalaan fondly called him, turned his head to see the human near the entrance of the Hall, who was asking a passing dwarf where the duke might be. The man was Getak Dirluthine, a human diplomat from the neighboring lands to the northeast.
“Ah,” Athel remarked, “that new roguesy softie has sprat timing, eh, old lad?” Getak was pointed in their direction and approached with a smile.
“Greetings, noble dwarf!” Getak announced. “I hope I am not intruding.”
“Nay,” Adalaan replied, switching to the common tongue, “not intruding, thank ye.”
“I bring tidings. There is much to discuss.”
“O’ course.” He glanced nervously to the engraving of Sigun at the back of the Hall. He did not want news of their terrible discovery to spread prematurely and hurt trade. “Let us adjourn to my office. Prithee, follow.”
Athel clasped Adalaan on the shoulder and focused his attention back to his breakfast.
Departing from the Great Hall, they ascended a busy winding ramp that took them past the Hall again, looking down at it from a higher level, past a line of statues, their stern stone forms holding runed carvings of relics. They walked on past a row of offices.
“I always look forward to my annual journey to your city. Rigoth’keshan, do you call it?”
“Aye, ‘Craftflame’, by yer ken.”
“Tell me, what do you call your own race? I do not wish to rely on customary vernacular, since we are friends.”
“Eh? We’ve always been dwarves.”
“Really?” He gave a dubious expression. “You’ve always called yourselves ‘short people’?”
“By my blood, boy...” he shook his head, “Our ancestors called us ‘the Dwarv’, which simply means ‘the People’. Yer kind took it and started using the word ‘dwarf’ to describe anybody shorter then yerselves. Blazes.”
“Applogies. I had no idea.”
They turned into the duke’s pillared throne room with gemmed windows that gave a view of the bustling dwarves drinking and socializing below.
“A bit more than just an office, I’d say. You’ve made some improvements since my last visit. I am always amazed at the industriousness of your people.”
“A dwarf grows discontented if he nay can work, master Getak.”
“Tell me, is it true that your people are paid no wages for their labor?”
“They nay be slaves, if that what ye be inferring.”
“Not at all!” Getak hastened, afraid that he had given offense. “I merely wish to learn more of dwarven society. In our towns, currency is used for worker compensation, and the people pay taxes so the Law-giver can retain soldiers for the protection of the realm and make improvements. I understand that is not your way.”
“A truth. Our people are nay paid in coin for their work, but rather receive customary rewards in kind, like good quality food an’ drink, decent livin’ quarters, time off, an’ above all, respect for their achievements.”
“And what grand achievements they are, duke. The glint of your glass pyramid is visible for miles, and to think it only took two decades to build, if what my predecessor said was correct.”
“He was indeed. I thank the gods the elves were not aware of how many trees we had to cut down to make the glass, or there would surely have been a war.”
“You’d think the elves regard trees as people, the way they go on about them!” Getak laughed. Adalaan chuckled, and thought the assessment of elven sentiment was exactly correct.
“Do they take offense to yer people making houses an’ such out of wood?” He arched a bushy eyebrow.
“Very much so. They say we live in corpses.” Adalaan laughed heartily at this.
“The whole world be a corpse of a giant, if the myths be true!”
“Exactly. You see the irony. But so long as we don’t clear-cut our lands, they do not threaten us. It boggles my mind to think that they would be so concerned about the treatment of land that is not even their own.”
“Ye said ye had news from yer lands?”
Getak rambled on about lord this and that from here and there, feuding with some clan or other. Adalaan half-listened and stroked his chin braids, his mind preoccupied. He knew the others were waiting for him in the mayor’s office.
“...but it will shortly be resolved,” Getak concluded, “so there is no reason to worry. The Law-Giver hopes he will have the time to pay your colony a visit, some day.”
“Hmm? Oh, aye, that would be a fine thing, to be sure.”
“It really is such a pleasant place you’ve carved out for yourselves.”
“Ye have no idea.” Adalaan muttered.
“It has been an honor, duke Adalaan the Braided! I look forward to my visit next year.” Getak offered his hand, and Adalaan shook it with a strong grip.
“Aye, aye, always a pleasure. Feel free to stop by anytime and have a drink with me, eh?” He began leading Getak toward the door with a firm pressing palm on his back.
“Well now, if you’re offering...”
“Uh, yer next visit, for certain,” he pressed a little harder. “Much I need to see to, at the moment.”
“I understand. Till next time!” Getak’s stride took him away from Adalaan and carried him on his way to the road.
Adalaan found the meeting attendees waiting for him in the mayor’s office, all women, all looking irked at his tardiness. Imma was there, as well as Shawnna Rul, the Captain of the Guard, and three other militia captains; They were Erith Azmolenshal, Dorena Diamondclinches, and Delia Sapphire-Shale. There also was Keiana Rightring, the incumbent mayor for the past twenty years.
“Where the blazes have ye been?” Imma scolded.
“Dignitary came. A sun-loving stretched dwarf wannabe.”
“That human diplomat again?” mayor Keiana asked.
“Aye, I had te be rid of him without making him concerned or suspicious. Ye know how they are.”
“Ambitious tallfolk, aren’t they?”
“And yet their buildings are as shoddy as their beards,” remarked Dorena, “when they can grow them!”
“Those short-lived rabbit-folk breed outside their own kind,” Imma stated with a churlish expression, “making half-elves and who knows what other abominations. But enough talk of the slutos. We have our own problems.”
“Dread-true,” affirmed Shawnna, rubbing her shaven scalp. She had filled the role of Captain of the Guard ever since her husband, Dani, had died in battle against the goblin menace. She was known to be fanatical in battle, perhaps driven by the memory of her lost love, and had exactly one hundred kills to her name, which was not counting the wild beasts she slew in the expansive underground caverns, before they were cultivated.
“So,” ventured Keiana, “what’s to be done? The situation is wearing on the citizen’s nerves, not to mention my own.”
“I imagine so,” said Adalaan. “I intend to keep essential functions going in upper Craftflame, but everyone that can be spared will be sent down with us...” He pointed to a large leather map spread out on the table, his finger sweeping across a vertical depiction of the colony. “We will have conscript squads as well as civilian support for engineering teams and a supply chain.”
“Rust and ruin,” exclaimed Keiana, “ye want to just storm the whole lower mines?”
“Perhaps we can flank them,” offered Dorena, and she flipped through a stack of leather maps, each showing a certain level of the colony. “There be a ventilation shaft and a spillway that goes all the way down from the reservoir. Ye designed it, lord duke, to flood channels and quench the magma around the ore vein so we could dig it out, but it also has a narrow staircase. It be sealed now, but we could open it, send down troops that way, and attack from above the adamantine excavation.”
“That canno’ work, lass,” Adalaan shook his beard. “Erith told me some o’ the damned things can fly.”
“They can at that,” Erith nodded, “an’ they have grabbing whatsits to toss whatever troops down the shaft from the perilous stairs, which are but zagging notches in the rock.”
“Bugger,” Delia cursed. “Yer sayin’ we have to do an all-out frontal assault?”
“If we can rush to the open excavation,” Adalaan tapped the corresponding area of the map, “the top has a staging platform from which we can fire down from. Ye can unload on the infernals as they emerge from the breach, and hold the quarry until we can seal it on the bottom.”
Imma planted her fists on her sturdy hips. “And how exactly will we seal the breach,” she asked, “while firing down at it, and keep the demons from tearing it open before it’s even finished, lord Has-all-the-answers?”
“With a door that cannot be broken.” He stated seriously.
“Ye mean-” Keiana began.
“Aye. Rinal’od. Forged of adamantine by the mad blacksmith.”
“He worked the forge without cease for twenty days,” Delia stated with a tone of awe at the invocation of the feat.
“He used almost our entire store of what we had managed to refine,” added Shawnna, “the crazy buffoon, bless his soul.”
“Any kingdom would go broke trying to buy it from us,” nodded Erith. “Might as well use it to dull some demon claws, aye?” They all nodded in agreement, save Imma.
“This is a fool-hardy plan, husband,” Imma stated dourly. “Have ye any idea how many demons we’ll find in that quarry?” Adalaan put his hands on the table, leaning forward and remaining stubbornly quiet. “How many lives are ye prepared to sacrifice in a glorious charge?”
“Death and damnation, woman,” Adalaan blurted, “yer insolent tongue will burn me blasted before any demon-fire!”
“If only because my tongue puts some sense into ye.”
“What’s yer sense, then? We must reclaim that mine!”
“Sure as our steel we will. But we can outsmart them to keen our edge. We can open that spillway,” she made a shearing gesture with her hands, “and then break the reservoir dam. Can ye imagine how much pressure all that water will have with miles of its own weight against it?” Adalaan straightened and tugged at his chin braids thoughtfully.
“I see the shine o’ yer thoughts. A distraction. They’ll see it as a way up, after the water has drained through.”
“Won’t that flood the quarry?” Delia asked.
“It will all drain down through the breach,” Imma explained, “and I bet Hell could use a lake that isn’t made of fire.”
* * *
The quarry in the deep was hazy with smoke, illuminated by dozens of red-glowing demons floating aimlessly like drifting squid; searching, waiting. A rush of wind began blowing from the hole in the ceiling, then white water burst from it, instantly becoming a column waterfall that crashed onto the bottom of the quarry. The mud-tinted water swirled down the staircase descending farther into the adamantine vein.
The myriad of Hellspawn turned to the waterfall, chittering. They advanced toward the source. The demons of flame shrieked and burned brighter, vaporizing the water into steam, and rose into the spillway. The building steam pressure fought against the weight of the descending water. Above, the dwarves waited. The water continued to pour forth from the break in the dam, the reservoir almost spent. Suddenly the whirlpool was interrupted by a geyser of steam.
“Now!” Called the team’s chief engineer. Another dwarf yanked a lever, activating gear-linked cables, which pulled a release pin. A huge artificial stalactite that had been fitted together from locking cast iron pieces started a free-fall from the top of the cavern. The gapping maw of an inferno demon emerged from the rushing steam, only to be crushed by the upside-down obelisk. Its tremendous weight carried it down the spillway, edges shedding sheaves of sparks as it scraped the stone. The demons crowding the shaft were collected, twisting and screeching, getting rent apart by the sheer force. A few demons were lucky enough to escape in the space the staircase provided, but most were smote as the iron construction finished its long decent through the shaft, sped through the open air of the quarry, and pierced through the obsidian at the bottom, disappearing into the semi-molten rock at the bottom of the magma sea.
An iron hatch was quickly locked down over the spillway entrance on the top, and the reservoir cavern was evacuated in case the remaining demons came knocking. Meanwhile, Imma and Adalaan led Craftflame’s armed forces down the corridor from the checkpoint, pausing to peer around corners before resuming the dash to the quarry. A couple flights of stairs later, and they had made it to the excavation. The flat staging platform by the stairs hosted partial dwarf bodies in burnt remnants of miner’s clothes.
“Crossbows!” Imma shouted. A couple insectoid demons that survived were descending from the spillway. Erith’s squad clamored down the stairs and spread out in a firing formation. The demons chittered angrily and darted for them, but were intercepted by flying bolts from the marksdwarves. They fell and writhed on the quarry slopes while a squad of conscripts, overzealous and eager to make names for themselves, rushed down to land the killing blows.
“Keep formation!” Adalaan bellowed, but the dwarves on the slopes were too busy hacking a doomed demon to oozing chunks.
“Can you hear that?” Imma asked him. A crackling, buzzing sound, like the sound of beehives on fire, grew louder in the hot, humid, smoky air.
“Load an’ hold!” Adalaan commanded, and pointed his sword to indicate the stairwell at the bottom of the quarry. Rows of marksdwarves assembled themselves at the edge of the staging platform, crossbows loaded. “Get out o’ there, ye fools!” he shouted to the conscript squad below. The formerly optimistic squad scrambled up the tiered slope, but they did not get far.
Monsters began to squeeze up through the stairway. They looked like they had tried to copy the forms of regular animals, but with no care for correct anatomy or proportions. They had too many arms, or misplaced faces, or shark’s teeth. Their roars made sounds horrible to hear, like lobsters screaming as they boiled.
The first one quickly became a pincushion of bolts and fell, but the swarming demons outpaced the rate of fire and caught the fleeing conscript squad. One dwarf’s leg was ripped from his body, and he was chewed on by rows of teeth even while he cried out in pain and maddening terror. The others in his squad flailed their weapons, but their untrained reflexes and poor skill made them fodder for their bloodthirsty foes.
“Damn it!” Adalaan cursed. “Furies! Advance!” He started down the stairs in the side of the quarry, then leap from them onto the obsidian slope, his hobnailed boots scraping the glass-rock as he slid down to the next level. Imma and the others were right behind him. An inferno demon spat a ball of flame at Adalaan, and he swatted the projectile with his steel buckler; it was deflected and burst against the slope, sending a plume of black up to thicken the air. He leapt at the fiend from on high and cleaved its twisted face. The gash in its head seethed with fire from within, bleeding flaming blood as it screeched and thrashed. Imma dismembered its snapping tendrils, allowing Adalaan to easily thrust his sword into its body and give the blade a twist. He shielded himself with his buckler as the monster erupted into crumbling smoke and melting fire.
Two ugly insectiod beasts broke from a group headed toward the staging platform and descended toward them. “Come at me, ye soulless bastards! I’ll give ye a black passage!” The demons veered from a volley of bolts and swooped at the duke and duchess from two sides.
“Back to back!” Imma exclaimed. Adalaan turned to face one demon while Imma faced the other, when the flying sepia devils spewed webbing. The webs netted and caught one another, sticking to the noble couple despite their slashing blades. The demons landed and tried to strike their victims with kicking, tined legs. Snared together, Imma and Adalaan blocked with their shields and warded with their blades, damaging the demon’s barbed appendages.
Some of the Furies were busy with their own opponents, but Jenn and Tombs leapt down into the webbing beside them, dragging it around their stout legs and getting stuck in it, but close enough to help.
Up on the platform, Shawnna and her squad tried to keep the flying Hellspawn off the marksdwarves. When the demons got too close, the dwarves tried to bludgeon them back with their crossbows until the melee soldiers could get to them. The demons drew blood. A few dwarves were struck down. The choking smoke stung Shawnna’s eyes, but she could hear Amber Smithmark exclaim she had killed her eighth demon. Suddenly, Amber was hurled by a Sepia Devil to tumble down the slopes of the excavation.
“Take courage!” Shawnna shouted. “Slay them all!”
On the slopes, a third demon had come to prey on the webbed warriors; it was a monster of cinders, with a multitude of shifting faces on its crackling, bloated body. Tombs knocked chunks out of it with his warhammer while he struggled to break out of the tangled web. Imma bent her knees, taking a lower stance, which pulled Adalaan, who was trying to dodge his head out of the way of striking spear-legs, and letting his armor get gashed or dented from the flurry of strikes.
“Double-crystal feint!” Imma shouted, referencing a practiced technique.
“Aye!” Adalaan affirmed, using his shield more and drawing lower with Imma. The demons drew closer, gnashing their mandibles and preparing to strike their shrinking prey.
“Now!” Imma and Adalaan pushed against one another, wrenching the webs apart and thrusting their blades out. The demons were stabbed through their mouths. Their mandibles skittered against the steel in a panic as they recoiled. Imma and her husband yanked the swords free, then propelled themselves forward, slicing across two body sections. The demons crumpled, twitching.
“Ten thousand curses on yer bug-ugly husk, and all that crawled out o' the same sulfur stink hole.” He spat at its head. Tombs seemed to admire the gesture, because he spat at the heap of glowing cinders that had been his foe, his spittle causing a brief sizzle. Adalaan looked up, and saw crossbow soldiers beginning to line up at the edge again. “Alright my lusty friends,” he called to his squad, “down we go! We must secure the quarry bottom!”
At the bottom of the quarry, the mud deposited from the reservoir water was already beginning to dry and crack from the warmth of the rock. A glowing red hole lay off to the side where the obelisk had punched through to magma. A small, twisted corpse lay at the far end of the quarry, and they knew it had to belong to the child Domas. The black obsidian all around turned sky-blue closer to the stairwell, the root-like pattern of the deposit weaving together into dense cords that themselves joined together into thick tangles, but the largest had already been extracted from the quarry. The miners had gone deeper for more.
The Furies gathered near the way down. Atheladas tried to peek down the stairs. A horn caught him under the helm and impaled his head, lifting him as the red, slug-like demon launched up from below. The battleaxe fell from his hands.
“Athelll!” Adalaan cried out. He hacked and slashed wildly between the horn-like spikes protruding from the writhing monster, Imma and the others joining in. Glowing ooze poured out of the pierced and sliced mass, and it slumped. Adalaan shouted as he brought down his blade again and again on the demon’s head, severing it after a few hacks. He stared down at his friend’s unmoving body, his helm hiding his final expression.
“It was quick,” Imma offered sympathetically. Adalaan frowned and turned toward the stairs. The dead demon’s body was taking up a lot of space. It would have to be moved before the door could be placed. “Send for haulers! Get those teams down here! We need to work quickly!”
Haulers brought materials and stacked them in a temporary stockpile on the staging platform. Haulers were interrupted by another demon that emerged, but it was slain as soon as it came into the open. The unearthly bodies were dragged aside to make room, while those belonging to fallen dwarves were carried away like wounded soldiers, as if they might still feel pain or discomfort.
Metalsmiths and masons worked together to affix iron to the floor around the stairwell. They did not need to drill or carve the bolts deep, for the rock was thick with raw adamantine, and in fact ruined a number of their tools. Quickly, the mass-produced locking iron blocks were knocked together and reinforced with bolted steel straps for good measure. Numerous times, salt brutes lumbered up the stairway, and one smashed a soldier's legs against the rock with its fist. The dwarf’s armor helped, but he had to be carried away, no longer able to stand on the broken bones. At last, the cap over the stairwell was complete, and the metal doorframe was ready.
“Bring forth Rinal’od!” Adalaan bellowed. He was getting worn-out, and he wasn’t the only one. As well, he hadn’t had anything but water from his canteen for nigh two days.
The blue, metallic door was carried down the quarry, its glossy surface reflecting colors like mother of pearl. It was studded with gold, and menaced with spikes of copper. Diamond geometric designs had been wrought all around the central image of a flame within a ring, the symbol of the city.
“Speed there, lads!” Adalaan called, sweat on his brow. They helped hoist the door up, and prepared to fit it onto the full wrap-around hinges. Imma turned her ear to the gap. A buzzing sound emanated from below.
“Break yer backs, ye boozy clods!” She cried. “Heave!”
Rinal’od was moved into the tight-fitting frame, then dropped. The adamantine hinge-rods slid into their steel cups. Adalaan immediately threw himself against the locking bar, but before he could throw it down, the door jarred open, rammed by a sepia devil. It tucked its thorax underneath it, pointing it to spew webbing, but Bomrekk brought down his axe, gashing open the bloated body segment. Viscid silky goop sputtered at the end of its damaged thorax.
“Armok's teeth!” Adalaan cursed. They chopped the demon to bits while a few crossbow bolts streaked into its head from elite marksdwarves. The buzzing sound was very loud. They pushed against the door, but the fallen demon’s thorax was caught in the doorframe.
“Inod help us!” Jenn cried, pushing with the others against the door. Their combined effort was no match against the strength of the red-glowing demon on the other side. The door swung open again, and they found themselves fighting another wave of Hellspawn. Black smoke spewed from fireballs and exploding demons. Imma could barely see what lay in front of her, and she heard Azalea, one of her best students and friends, yelp in pain. A din of other cries mixed with roars, screeches, fire, and the sound of steel meeting chitin. After a bloody round of battle, dismembered flaming demon heads, piles of ash, iron bolts, and monstrous body segments with twitching legs littered the bottom of the quarry. Azalea was dead, as was another elite soldier, and more were injured. Imma and the rest of the squad were fatigued, their strength sapped.
Finally, with a break in the fighting, haulers ran down into the quarry and pulled the debris away from the door. Adalaan threw down the locking bar as they pushed the door closed, and it fell into place, just as the buzzing sound was growing again. The iron of the construction thrummed with reverberations as the things thrashed and pounded against it, trying to break out, but the dwarves’ work held.
* * *
Some soldiers were so tired they decided to sleep on the floor at the fortified checkpoint, rather than make the climb up to their beds. Adalaan and Imma did not give in to such an indignity, and marched up the miles of stairs to collapse in their bed, though they did not bother to shed their armor.
Days were a way to measure the passage of time, but there was little concept of “night” for a people who spent most of their lives deep underground. They slept for a very long time, though not without nightmares from what they had seen. When he awoke, Adalaan visited the hospital. He drew up a bucket of water from the hospital’s well and washed the dried blood from himself with a bar of tallow soap, a necessity which the hospital was overstocked with. Jora, the chief medical dwarf, approached him solemnly.
“I’m surprised there are not more in these beds,” she said, “or in the crypt. Inod has surely blessed us, I lay my oath. The fact that any o’ us are still alive is testament to it.”
“To be sure, for all the world. Inod favors us.” He paused, glancing down at the pool of watered-down blood around the well. Or Armok, he thought, but stopped himself from saying it aloud, and banished it from his mind. He cast his eyes about the hospital, looking at the patients. “How is Amber?”
“She had a nasty tumble. Broken arm and shoulder on her right side. Barring infection, she’ll recover.”
“Aye, I know her strength. Even if she lost the arm, she would insist to remain on her squad.”
“No doubt.” Jora made a faint smile. “I remember treating Toren Windfist, before he was called ‘Windfist’, o’ course. Got his hand chopped off by a gobbo blade, but he learned to operate his crossbow one-handed...”
Jora continued to talk, but Adalaan couldn’t recall afterward the details of what she had said. His mind brooded in contemplation. He spent the next couple weeks sparring in the barracks. He barely did anything else, least of all sleep. The nightmares came when he fell asleep. One day, he told Imma he was going for a walk in the natural caverns to clear his head, and not to expect him back for a day or two. The caverns were vast but safe, for all the passages to unexplored regions had been walled up.
The echoing drip of water from stalactites was so pervasive that it sounded like a gentle rain. The cave moss was dense and the bioluminescent floor fungus lit the fungiwood trees from below, yet Adalaan felt discontented even there. His attention felt pulled downward, like the inverse of a bird’s inclination to go into the sky. It just seemed natural to him. When his wander came to an end, he found himself standing once more in front of Rinal’od.
He stood in front of it for a long time. He ran his fingers over the surface between the gold and copper studs. The elaborate, imposing door felt like liquid aquamarine that had solidified into precisely-shaped ceramic, with none of the brittleness. The dwarves of old had called adamantine “godsteel.”
“I have a door...” Adalaan thought to himself, “a door to the netherworld that I control. I have a way into the deepest depths that cannot be used against me. I can come and go, while the enemy is trapped.”
There he stood alone in the muggy quarry, miles underground, where it was quiet as a grave. He could hear his own rhythmic heartbeat. He began to voice his thoughts out loud.
“Inod has favored us for a purpose. By my deathless soul, we will do what no one has ever dared! This is a proper war, and we will make conquest! I’ll build a temple fortress in His glory, in the very depths of Hell!”
* * *
“Ye want to WHAT!?” Imma shrieked.
“Think o’ it, Imma! A bastion for holiness in the very place that begat evil.”
“Listen to yerself! Ye sound like a baptized Oreborn who’s bent on finding his ‘glorious destiny’. Brimstone and gall, Adalaan, we just shed all that sweat an’ blood to seal the Hellspawn away, an’ now ye want to go down there into the thick o’ them? Ye’ve no more brains than cave-slime!”
“We have Rinal’od, Imma! They nay can advance any more. We have been shown divine favor, don’t ye see? We have a chance to undertake a venture worthy of our skill, worthy of Craftflame, worthy of the gods!”
“You’ve lost all sense an’ memory! ‘Ave ye forgotten the lives lost just to recover our own tunnels and our own dead? Next you’ll be sending us down into Hell, then again to recover our fallen until there is no one left! What a fine fortress that will be, populated with restless ghosts.”
“For the love of the Architect, listen to me...if we verily believe that righteousness can triumph over evil, then can we not lay siege to the foul forces that give strength to goblins and other fell foes? If we press on and build this temple, we will show true worship to the Triumvirate! To the Pick Lord, who expects us, his children, to discover the mysteries of the underlands, to record and understand them...”
Imma maintained a heavy-bent brow, her fists planted on her hips as she glared at him.
“To the Mistress o’ Stone,” he continued, “who has blessed us with luck in the deep earth, her favored realm, and rewards those who delve where few have dared. Most o’ all, to the Soul Forger, Inod the Hammer, our Lord o’ War an’ patron o’ craft. Our temple in the deepest realm will be an offering to the gods an’ a symbol to the histories o’ our unbreakable will.” He smacked his fist into an open palm for emphasis.
“Inod also leads the rash an’ foolish into disasters o’ their own making.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose, looking defeated.
“By all what’s holy, I swear, I will plan well and act cautiously in this. It will nay be speedy, but masterful in its execution. If the danger proves too great, we’ll pull out an’ leave Rinal’od locked forever. Did ye nay say ye would stand with me, come what may?”
“I did, husband,” she sighed. “I did. Ye were chosen to yer station, an’ ye can command. Ye have strong faith, but I pray, do not throw away lives...not to the horrors we ‘ave glimpsed from that place.”
Later that day, Adalaan announced his intention to a gathering in the Great Hall. His speech was zealous, but it did not rouse a show of enthusiasm. Mothers, fathers, and family of Craftflame’s soldiers worried for the safety of their kin that would be put in harm’s way. Still, the goal was noble, in service to their gods, and they could not openly disobey the duke, despite their misgivings. They were bound by law, and to dissent would risk exile from the community. Even so, there were some who, at whispering tables, questioned Adalaan’s sanity, and brought up hushed talk of the possibility of the duke meeting an “unfortunate accident”, if the colony was put in danger by his mandates.
The checkpoint in the deep saw the addition of a barracks for the soldiers and a dormitory for the civilian workers, as well as food stores and an expanded materials depot. Multiple plans were drawn up for the proposed temple, and Adalaan selected the one he found most suitable. Sacrifices of steel and gold were burned in the forge to ensure a blessing from the gods, and a few weeks later, when all was ready, Rinal’od was opened. Squads of marksdwarves knelt ready to fire...but there was nothing. They waited in silence, but there was no buzzing sound. Adalaan gave a nod to Imma.
“Fourth squad,” Imma called, “yer go.”
The fourth melee squad captain lead her team down the quarry and into the adamantine mine below. Imma tensed her jaw in the stillness, expecting to hear screeching or cries of terror, but a few minutes later, the squad returned.
“All clear down to the breech, commander! Ye will wish to see below fer yerself.”
Imma and Adalaan exchanged a curious glance to one another, then followed the squad down through multiple half-mined raw adamantine chambers, until they came to a break in the floor. A reddish light emanated from the void below.
Peeking down through the breach, they had a bird’s eye view of a strange landscape. The cavern below them sprawled out toward the horizons farther than they could see from their vantage point. There were hills and cliffs of dark stone, the air was alive with wandering vortices of faint purple light, and dark, boiling clouds roiled with crackling magical power. The flood of reddish light, which was very unlike the familiar glow of magma, emanated from seemingly bottomless pits scarring the terrain.
“By thunder...” Imma stated in awe.
“Not a demon to be seen, aye?” Adalaan asked. “The Mistress o’ Stone has given us luck, alright, as I’m a soul.”
“It’s too much luck, if ye ask me. We should leave this place to the powers that made it.”
“Nonsense. It’s nay far down. Send for the masons!”
* * *
A hanging spiral staircase was constructed from the breach by a line of workers, walled all around as they went in the hopes to conceal their presence, or at least diminish the hazard of being knocked off the stairs. Occasionally a demon was sighted floating by in the distance, but the monsters did not seem to notice the new structure descending from the raw adamantine intrusion in the semi-molten ceiling. How the ceiling and miles of weight above it was supported over the blasted landscape was anybody’s guess.
On the second day of the project, the staircase touched down to the warped stone floor on a small hill directly below the breech. Quickly, the Furies and two marksdwarf squads descended. Adalaan was the first to set foot on the foreign stone. No demons greeted them, and masons were called down with their loads to begin assembling the temple walls. Adalaan knelt down and felt the dark rock underfoot.
“Never seen stone like this before,” he commented to himself. He rose and called to a mason. “Thonyr! Take a wee sample of this stone for study!” Thonyr gave a nod and unslung his steel pick. With a skilled swing at a textbook angle, he tried to chip off a bulging portion from the floor. The axe sparked, but not the slightest mark was made in the stone. Thonyr frowned and tried again with a grunt of effort. As far as he was concerned, no stone would deny his expertise. No matter how hard he tried, however, the rock remained unscathed, and his pick was dulled.
“It can’t be done, my lord.” Thonyr conceded. “Not even raw adamantine is this stubborn!”
“Bless my beard. Right then, keep building, and evacuate if anyone sees a demon heading this way. We’ll hold the area till it’s safe.”
The stone arches of the building made a dark skeletal structure as they built. The work was interrupted by an inferno demon, who spit fireballs at the stationed dwarves. Bomrekk Arzes the Cobalt Strength charged it as the marksdwarves pelted it with iron bolts, and he carved its ruin with his axe. It grabbed him as he landed the killing bow, and partially melted the armor on his right upper leg as it flared into a charred husk. He returned to the building site with a limp, his leg running blood and dripping a red trail behind him.
“Yer a true demon-killer,” Adalaan complimented, “but you’ll be need’n to go up for treatment at the hands o’ Jora.”
“Ack, it’s but a wee scratch.”
“Get on with ye, Bomrekk, that’s an order.”
“By cock,” he grumbled, sulking up the stairs. “Wretched flaming bastard...”
“We best get some food an’ rest at the checkpoint barracks. Rotate squads!”
Three squads were kept stationed at all times, rotating out to prevent exhaustion. While Shawnna Rul was in command of the site, a pack of cinder phantoms attacked, but they were easily dispatched with the aid of the marksdwarves firing from the second level of the temple.
The temple itself was compact, but well-made. It completed the bottom of the long staircase like a fat teardrop, with two chambers, one stacked above the other. The upper level was girded with iron arrow slits, and even the walled staircase above received some of the same. The floor on the bottom level could not be smoothed by conventional means, so it was glassed, and a polished altar carved from a huge chunk of gold ore was placed in the center, symbolizing The Craft Lord. A hole in the ceiling opened up to the chamber directly above it, and a masterful golden throne was situated beside the opening, symbolizing The Architect. A small section on the floor was left unglassed, where Thonyr had tried and failed to shear off a piece. The mystery of the rock itself was left as an altar to the Mistress of Stone.
Only the iron drawbridge to the outside needed to be completed, which required a plethora of engineering. While work was progressing on it, Adalaan and the Furies replaced Shawnna’s squad outside the temple. The squad had a new addition, Belig, the trained war panther. He had been calm until he descended the spiral staircase with the squad. His dark mane bristled and his ears slanted back, growling softly at the unfamiliar environment. Adalaan patted Belig’s side reassuringly.
“First panther in Hell,” Adalaan stated, “ye can bet on that.”
“We’ve seen remarkably little resistance,” Tombs said with a tint of worry.
“Meaning what by that last?”
“I expected more than a handful o’ demons to take an interest in our project.”
“Are they not mindless beasts?” Ventured Talin Oddom.
“Some o’ them, aye...” Adalaan replied, “but I’d wager even demons have rulers in Hell. That spoken, Hell is a big place, or so it would seem.”
“So, perhaps the ‘rulers’, as it were, ‘ave not yet gotten word o’ us being here?”
“They ken we are here,” said Imma.
“Do ye say so?” Adalaan asked.
“I’m dead certain.”
“Do ye have to put it like that?” Adalaan joked.
“Perhaps they are afraid,” Talin postulated, “an’ keep their distance?”
Some time passed while work continued, but then a voice shouted from the marksdwarf squads.
“Alarm!” A voice called from an arrow slit on the second level of the temple. “To the north!”
“Formation!” Adalaan commanded. “We must protect this gate!”
A wall of demons emerged from behind the next hill, and advanced fast. Volleys of iron streaked past bolts of flame, and explosions left scorch marks on the strong walls of the temple. Salt brutes and nightmarish skinless elk-demons twisted into humanoid bodies thundered up the temple hill, their muscles rippling, and the Furies engaged them. A fireball came from behind the temple, and burst on the ground near Ragar Hailwind, a fill-in for Bomrekk.
“We’re being flanked!” Ragar cried, and broke from the squad to meet the new threat.
“Ragar, no!” Adalaan called, but his protest went unheeded. With the rest of the squad occupied with dismantling the demons in their midst, he ran after Ragar. He rounded the corner of the temple just in time to see Ragar engulfed by a roaring fountain of flame erupting from the toothy maw of a massive, chimera-like, black demon.
Adalaan felt a pang of despair, knowing he was too late to save Ragar, and a chill came to his blood as he stared at the monstrosity. Rakustrash lifted his head from the smoldering corpse, and looked toward Adalaan, his jaw dripping liquid fire left over from the murderous deed.
Adalaan felt frozen in place under the demon’s gaze, but lifted his shield.
A rumbling sound emanated from the chest of the fiend, then gurgled into something that sounded like speech.
“'Ai-ahh'ya...” Rakustrash said, “n'ghftnog gebyar, c’fhtagn'nafl fm'latgh ebumna.”
“Spare me yer envenomed blatherin’, ye false-tongued monster.” Adalaan smacked the flat of Pearlfall against his shield, ready to fight. The rumbling in the demon’s chest altered, and the deep, strange voice produced speech again.
“I give thanks to the dwarv for giving us a temple to corrupt,” the demon spoke in dwarvish with a strange accent, somewhat like the kind humans have when they learn the dwarven language. Adalaan frowned.
“Ye will never corrupt that which is protected by Inod! His hammer wards all evil. We have taken a bit o’ Hell from ye, and ye nay have power to take it back.”
A deeply disturbing sound emanated from Rakustrash, like laughter turned inside-out and combusted in flame.
“Foolish meat. You are blind to your own nature. All you have done is given homage to Armok.”
“Lies! I’ll trounce that deceitful spirit out of ye when I crack that fork-tongued face o’ yours like a rum cask!”
“Oh, I speak truth, Adalaan the Braided.”
Adalaan’s eyes widened as the demon addressed him by name.
“Yes,” the demon continued, “I know much about you, ruler of Craftflame. I know what is in your heart. I see through your false motivations. Without understanding, you have worshiped the God of Blood.”
Adalaan gritted his teeth and stood his ground. He told himself he would not let the demon vex him into a rash attack.
“You are adamant it is not so,” Rakustrash lectured, “but look at how you have come. How many have died for your whims? Does blood not enrich the earth from your struggles? Does your heart not quicken with power when you slay your foes? Do you not feel the rush of satisfaction when flesh yields to your blade? Oh yes, I know you do. We are a part of you. All of you.” There was a smugness in his tone that was as bitter as desert brine. Adalaan felt a gnawing fear in the very core of his being unlike he had ever felt before, as if a monster from the darkest, most secret corner of his own mind were threatening to show itself.
“Yer...yer wrong. You’ll not unhinge me, damn it! Yer mind is made of falsehood, and yer master is madness! I’ll choke those words down yer vile throat!”
“Come then. Give me your pathetic life.” Rakustrash glided toward him, spider-legs sweeping over the ground, glowing tentacles primed to strike. Adalaan moved his body faster than he had ever thought possible. He spun to the side of a whipping tendril and flashed his sword. His blade caught a tentacle, the keen blade slicing it shorter, causing the appendage to drip black ooze. Rakustrash chittered a growl, then spat a stream of flame. Adalaan leapt forward into a roll, dodging the fire and coming beside the demon’s front legs. He swept his blade across, cracking the chitin of a leg, which reflexively retracted. Adalaan kept his momentum and charged the next leg, but the demon skittered and lashed him with snapping tendrils, his armor warping from the flashes of intense heat.
Adalaan shielded his head with his buckler and rolled under the demon, breaking a spider-leg with his blade. A frenzied swarm of tentacles grabbed at him and lifted him up, but he cut at them with Fallpearl, and they lost their grip. With a shout as he fell, he brought down his blade on the junction of a leg where it connected to the demon’s body, splitting the chitin plating. Rakustrash screeched and lost his balance, but his flailing legs caught Adalaan, carrying him into the tumble down the hill. Adalaan continued to hack at Rakustrash as they rolled and wrangled the descent down the slope, but he jumped free near the bottom close to the edge of an eerie glowing pit, his armor scraping on the dark stone.
Rakustrash reared upright and snapped a front leg down onto Adalaan, piercing his greaves. The duke yelped at the sudden pain, his meaty calf punctured straight through by the sharp spider-like leg. Gritting his teeth with an angry frown, he cracked the demon’s offending leg with his sword, but it did not withdraw.
“Insolent mortal!” Rakustrash rumbled, and prepared to lash at him with his remaining undamaged tentacles. Suddenly, a black silhouette leapt from the slope of the hill onto the demon’s back. The war panther roared and closed its jaw over the back of the fiend’s neck, its teeth tearing at the overlapping chitin plates.
Rakustrash screeched and flailed about, trying to shake off Belig. Adalaan pushed up and used his good leg to launch himself at the demon. He hewed at the demon’s exposed underside, splitting the chitin and thrusting his blade up into the oozing black innards.
The demon writhed in pain, but its tentacles wrapped around Belig’s front paw and threw him down, burning the cat’s flesh and injuring him with the impact. Instantly, Rakustrash shot a leg out, piercing through Adalaan’s right shoulder. With a cry, Adalaan struggled to strike with his sword, but his arm would not respond. Belig tried to get up, but could not manage with his broken bones.
His maw venting smoke, Rakustrash wrapped a tentacle around Adalaan’s shield, and lifted him up by it and his pierced shoulder, the spear-leg twisting to cause him pain. Adalaan tried not to let the pain overwhelm him, but he cried out in agony. Rakustrash brought another tendril to whip Fallpearl out of Adalaan’s hand vengefully, and the weapon clattered uselessly to the stone below. The demon’s chest rumbled speech once more.
“The Red Midnight permeates and binds all worlds, and I shall take my rightful place in yours. You are nothing. I cannot be defeated by the likes of you!”
“How about by the likes o’ me?!” Imma called from behind him. Before Rakustrash could turn to face her, she leapt from the slope onto his back and ran her blade through the damaged chitin on the back of his neck. The blade pierced through to the other side, sticking out of his throat.
Rakustrash let out a horrible, sputtering roar, flickering black flame-blood pouring from the wound. His legs caved, and he knelt forward, clinging to life. He looked up to Adalaan still in his grasp, and with a final spiteful act, he threw the duke with all his remaining might. Adalaan arced up, then came down over the edge of the glowing pit. Rakustrash collapsed to the ground, all vestige of power leaving his body. Imma leapt off, leaving her sword stuck in the demon, and sprinted a couple paces toward the edge. She reached out with a hand as if to catch her husband, but it was only a futile gesture. He was too far away, and there was nothing she could do. Adalaan extended his hand, mirroring her own, then fell out of sight into the strange red light below.
Wordless, Imma stood at the edge of the pit. Then she fell to her knees, and she wept.
* * *
Imma inherited command of the colony, and in honor of her husband, finished the temple and kept it maintained. Citizens and pilgrims from the mountainhomes ventured down to the temple to pray at a holy place conquered from a most unholy land. To them, it was a symbol of hope and achievement in the face of all that was ugly and wrong with the world. Adalaan was memorialized on a masterfully engraved granite slab, and a golden statue of him was placed in a corner of the temple. Imma journeyed down to talk to it annually.
“This is it, Adalaan,” she said to the statue. “This was your dream. We did it.”
No one knew where the glowing pit had taken Adalaan. No one, that is, save for Adalaan himself.Back