Plain of Dust and Bones

Thirty years ago.

Darbakh reached up with one stone-gauntleted hand to wave the ash, dust, and smoke away from his bloodshot eyes. The war machine’s wheels ground the rubble and detritus on the southeastern edge of the Plain of Bones into a gaseous irritant which was so fine that it stuck to anything holding a static charge. That infuriatingly clinging dust, along with the steady hum of the Iron Daemon’s engine, ensured that the Chaos Dwarf despot entered his twentieth hour without sleep as he sat on the side of the war machine during their southward drive.

While he fiddled with his spyglass on the side of the war machine, however, he projected a much different image to his first-ever retinue of subordinates. To the fifteen or so Hobgoblin wolf riders trailing behind the war machine, and especially to the Dark Elf messenger they’d detained, he did his best to project an image of readiness in a hostile land. And to those subordinates, his ruse succeeded. Not so with his three crewmen, particularly the one shoveling coal into the Iron Daemon’s furnace.

The shoveler reached down and plucked the spyglass from Darbakh’s hands, causing the mission leader to sit up and shake of his drowsiness. “You shouldn’t let your legs dangle off the side like that; it’s a hazard,” said Thrag, an older, shirtless Chaos Dwarf wearing a pair of goggles which had been repaired too many times.

Darbakh sneered until the tusks of his lower jaw protruded from his mouth. “You shouldn’t put your hands on your mission commander’s belongings without permission; it’s a hazard.”

Though the older man handed the spyglass back, he continued to smile as if they were at ease behind the walls of a fort. “I value good advice.” Thrag shoveled another pile of coals into the war machine’s furnace as it chugged along, pretending to focus on his work. “That was a didactic statement.”

“You diminish its impact by saying that so directly,” Darbakh replied, though he did lean against the Iron Daemon’s hull to stand up.

The crushed rubble beneath the war machine’s wheels passed by rather quickly, and he pulled his gaze from the ground to the grey horizon to the south. The flat line lacking mountain ridges disoriented him, and the gradual slope as they approached sea level repeatedly elicited a sense of vertigo; he even imagined the wheels of the war machine sliding down the crushed gravel of the plain. Agitated by his surroundings yet pressured to make a good impression on his superiors, Darbakh tried to distract himself with forced conversation.

“Thrag, ask it why its people are on our shores again.”

Thrag looked over to the disheveled and dehydrated Dark Elf seated among the busy crewmen in the cab of the war machine. The spindly man’s unhealthily pale skin and gaudy purple cloak were stained with soot and marked by the ardor of travel in unfamiliar territory. “We already…oh, alright, just a minute.” Thrag hit the messenger on the shoulder to rouse him from enviable, if intermittent, slumber. “Wake up, lad; explain one more time how your people ended up here,” he said in a low, mercantile form of the Dark Tongue. Darbakh pretended not to understand.

Visibly upset at the rude awakening, the messenger wiped his sullied face with a fold of his cloak. “I already told you.”

Thrag roughly shoved the Dark Elf’s head to the side. “The boss wants to hear about this one more time, so I need to hear about it one more time.”

The messenger looked down and scowled at the unkind treatment, though he wisely controlled his tone. “Our ship washed ashore in a storm, and our supplies are running short.”

“So run long and catch up to them,” another one of Darbakh’s crewmen laughed in the background.

“We require your skills to repair our ship for which you’ll be generously compensated in slaves and our departure from your lands.”

“Pretend to tell me all that,” Darbakh said in Khazalid.

Thrag bit down on a piece of coal to stifle a laugh. “Alright, I’m pretending to tell you all that.”

“Now ask him why we found him beating a dead horse without any official seal or insignia.”

“Alright.” Thrag turned back to the messenger and switched to the Dark Tongue again. “And why don’t you bear any sort of official insignia or diplomatic seal?”

The messenger’s face tightened in frustration. “They were in my saddlebags, like I said.”

Without another word, Thrag turned away from the vagabond messenger. “The same saddlebags he said were torn from him by a wolf,” he said in Khazalid, “and the wolf killed his horse but then he chased it off…without any weapons, apparently.”

Darbakh leaned on a railing at the right side of the open-air cab. The conversation skipped a beat as he struggled to stay awake, and hearing the messenger’s poor excuse for a story again didn’t provide him with the sort of excitement he’d hoped for. “It’s a poorly planned lie, but there’s no hint of what he’s hiding. Prepare for an extermination job.”

For another hour or so, the war machine and accompanying wolf riders moved south toward the Sea of Dread. At one point, Darbakh suspected that he may have nodded off while leaning against the railing, but he might have simply been daydreaming. When he next opened his eyes, however, he was very much awake given the change in surroundings.

The war machine descended into a ravine lined by disorganized and mismatched bones on either side. The land formation itself crisscrossed as if it were a dried up delta, and the rib cages of oversized beasts mixed in with rocky outcroppings to form the same sort of visual cover as a lifeless forest. When they exited the ravine and entered a graveyard of sorts for dragons, he found the Dark Elf’s fellows far inland and formed into a half circle to receive them.

In the center of a wall formed by over twice as many marines as Darbakh had Hobgoblins, a Black Ark fleet master stood sour-faced. Similarly disheveled, the Dark Elf leader rhythmically clenched and unclenched one fist as if working out stress. His underlings bore the sort of restlessness held by the hungry, and their lack of riding beasts implied that they were likely to feel the full strain of their inland foray. They regarded the supposed messenger with no less scrutiny.

Without seeking permission, the disheveled Dark Elf vagabond stood up atop the Iron Daemon. “Kavrus, look who I found! These dwarves can surely provide the needed repairs!”

The fleet master scowled unhidden. “You were sent to find vegetation and potable water, you imbecile. What possessed you to directly engage with the natives?”

“Natives?” Darbakh asked derisively, granting the messenger the shock of a lifetime at the revelation that the Chaos Dwarf despot could also speak - and understand - the Dark Tongue.

The hum of the war machine even when idle had masked the many footsteps of a third group which emerged from the decaying ivory copse. Numerous ragged bodies ambled among the old drake bones, led by two cloaked figures - one of whom closely resembled the messenger sitting atop the Iron Daemon. Standing next to him was a gnarled humanoid figure riding atop a nightmare. Only when the poorly-dressed and rail-thin troops lined up behind them, their white craniums gleaming, did Darbakh notice the humanoid’s red eyes.

“Kavrus, our contact with the undead warband was a success,” the second Dark Elf messenger said while motioning, behind both himself and the vampire count, almost twice as many skeleton soldiers as there were Dark Elf corsairs, themselves more than twice the number of Hobgoblins. “Count Damian is from the vampire family of-“

“Where are the blood slaves we were promised?” Damian asked bluntly and indignantly. The vampire then gestured vaguely toward all the Chaos Dwarfs. “These don’t appear to be the described payment.”

Kavrus shook with both anger and anxiety. “We promised nothing! What were you telling him?”

“I don’t see any slaves either,” Darbakh added before pointing rudely toward Damian. “And I wouldn’t trust these bags of bones to be of much use in our mines.”

Both messengers began to speak in Druhir before being silenced by Kavrus, who appeared to be losing his temper far more quickly than expected of an elf. The marooned fleet master unsheathed his sword. “Whoever among you remains standing will claim the labor of both of these miserable excuses for messengers,” the Dark Elf leader said in a last ditch effort to avoid being caught in the middle of the misunderstanding.

Such a catastrophe proved inevitable, however, when both Darbakh and the vampire Damian executed their respective messengers right then and there, rejecting the offer as well as any prospects of an amicable resolution.

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The fight was quick and marked by desperation. Draped in sullied clothing and wielding sharpened bones as weapons, the greater mass of skeletons shambled toward the Dark Elves at an alarming pace. Though ever formidable, the Black Ark corsairs were half-starved by the looks of them, and even the first few sweeps of their curved blades were executed only to cover their steady retreat to higher ground among the rocky wasteland. The ivory undead fell in droves at the feet of the Dark Elves, but their number was so great that they still managed to drag down the first rank of their mortal targets with them.

Only a few skeletons shambled toward Darbakh’s crew, but the despot paid them no mind as he jumped from the war machine to the ground. One of his crewmen began to load the steam cannonade, but he waved a hand to stop them. “You’re too close for a clear shot; back up!” He then pointed toward one of the Hobgoblins at random. “You, skirt around and pick off as many of the elves as you can. Ignore the skeletons-“

Before he could complete his orders, the vampire Damian raised a wand and mumbled an incomprehensible phrase, leading to the biggest disaster of the night. The tip of the staff lit up with trails of prismatic light at the same time as the barrels of the steam cannonade, causing the Hobgoblins to cowardly - and smartly - ride away. The iron barrels burned with a prismatic light rather than that of normal heat, and Darbakh began waving for his crewmen to follow him. “Back up, get out of there!”

The explosion shook the very ground beneath their feet. The first barrel exploded, triggering the second to do the same, and the Iron Daemon’s engine overheated to the point where it shut down and belched flames from the furnace. The Dark Elves and Hobgoblins, unprepared for the sound of such an industrial accident, flinched and clasped their ears, and even the vampire appeared pained by the sound. Otherwise nimble elven feet, already fatigued by their journey inland, slipped and stumbled over the limbs of tumbling skeletons, and even a few of the dire wolves lost their footing. Shrapnel flew in every direction, cutting into elf, skeleton, and wolf indiscriminately, and a few shards even bounced against Darbakh’s armor. Only the nightmare ridden by Damian seemed unperturbed.

Anger over the possible harm to his compatriots within the cloud of embers puffed up around the Iron Daemon welled up inside of Darbakh, but his focus on survival helped him to act more rationally. Pulling his pistol from his belt, he took aim and, before anyone had recovered, squeezed the trigger with a low growl. A burning pellet struck true and pierced the nightmare’s cranium from one side to the other, pulling out much of the infernal horse’s brain matter. The nightmare swayed to either side before collapsing, sending Damian to the gravel-laden ground hard enough for the vampire to drop his wand.

The skeletons ironically regained their footing first, rising and turning to face Darbakh with hollow eyes. A sizable portion of them began to shamble toward him, a few even lifting their fallen comrades as makeshift weapons. The Dark Elves proved to retain their mental acuity even if their fabled grace had been diminished, and the remainder of them leapt to their feet and attacked the skeletons, whose attention and numbers had thusly been split.

“Subdue the elves!” Darbakh yelled to his Hobgoblins a second time while reloading his pistol.

What ensued on the part of all mortals was a roulette of massacres enabled by obstinance. The skeletons began to hurl broken pieces of their fellows, or even themselves, at Darbakh, pelting him in a hail of bones which irritated but didn’t hurt him. The corsairs aimed their blades at the necks and backs of the skeleton soldiers, capitalizing on the dwarven distraction to sever the spines of their undead tormentors. The wolf riders then struck at the necks and backs of the corsairs, battering them with heavy wooden sticks and dragging them roughly across the rocky soil. By the time Darbakh had closed the gap between himself and the fallen vampire at his modest pace, only a dozen skeletons were able to reach the despot. Several of the risen minions fell as he trudged by and casually pulled his sword from his scabbard, severing the skeletal legs in a single fluid movement. Ignoring the clamor of the underlings behind him, he turned back toward the vampire and narrowly avoided a surprise attack launched from the ground.

Damian leaped up, having been feigning injury from the fall, and flung himself directly at Darbakh. The Chaos Dwarf held his ground as the vampire grabbed him by the wrists, refusing to budge an inch and shocking Damian when he pushed back with equal force. Gripping Darbakh by the gauntlets, Damian fought to avoid the curved blade of the sword, twisting and pulling against the despot’s attempts for a stab to the neck.

“I’ll drink your blood before theirs,” Damian said in a strained, wavering voice as the two of them struggled.

Exploiting his shorter stature, Darbakh pulled his free hand downward and out of Damian’s reach, compelling the vampire either to let go or fall forward. As soon as Damian did let go, Darbakh reared back with an almost telegraphed haymaker and hit his undead opponent below the navel with such force that the vampire’s feet left the ground. Rolling into a crumpled heap a few feet away, Damian laid prone and didn’t even witness his own end when Darbakh pounced and drove the sword through his heart and spine with a single stab.

A volatile hiss emitted from the skull of every skeleton as their hollow eyes glowed with a similar prismatic color to that of the vampire’s wand. The magical link between their necromantic bonds and their leader severed, the surviving skeletons - far fewer than their original number - collapsed into piles of bones where they’d stood. Darbakh turned around to find at least ten of the unliving minions had been upon him and prepared to strike a second before he’d slayed Damian. Beyond those piles, he spied his Hobgoblins riding in a textbook formation - circling around the surviving Dark Elves and beating them into submission with injurious but non-fatal blows to the joints. Ever the uninspiring leader, the Black Ark Fleetmaster fled past them, running northbound to avoid the thick of the fight.

Contempt drove Darbakh more than pure reason, and he pulled his pistol and fired without consideration. The bullet passed through Kavrus’ ankle, crippling the elf to the extent that the march across the Desolation of Azgorh was likely to be impossible. Despite the value of an elven captive, the Chaos Dwarf trudged over to Kavrus, who was trying in vain to crawl away, and grabbed the fallen leader by the hair.

“Unhand me or you’ll never find our shipment of slaves!” Kavrus said irately, though his words were cut off when Darbakh shoved his face down into the pounded dust and gravel and began dragging him toward the wreckage of the war machine.

“I just did find the shipment of your slaves, and they all have pointy ears.” Darbakh continued walking, pushing Kavrus’s face through the dirt as he did so, but he paused abruptly upon seeing movement from two of his crew members - and a lack of movement from the third.

Embers from the burst cannonades still fell to the ground, and smoke obscured the debris and bodies beside the partially destroyed Iron Daemon, but the figures were still familiar enough for Darbakh to make out. The war machine’s driver and mechanic were shaken by the explosion and fall, but the two of them stood nursing whatever bruises or dislocations they’d incurred in the fall. When the third crewman didn’t stir from the spot where he’d been thrown from the war machine’s cab, however, Darbakh dropped Kavrus and left the Dark Elf leader to crawl away futilely.

As Darbakh approached his fallen compatriot, he fell silent, pursed his lips tightly, and lessened his pace. Ragged, uneven breaths rose and fell in the casualty’s chest, marked by the red pool collecting in the ground. Several pieces of shrapnel from the cannonades laid stuck in the crewman’s neck and chest at such a depth that even his mighty dwarven constitution couldn’t overcome the internal bleeding. Darbakh dropped his sword with a clank and knelt next to Thrag, whose heart beat more and more slowly with a shard of dark iron stuck in it.

Darbakh shook his head. “Damn you, why did you have to get yourself killed?” he asked sincerely and in a slow pace.

Even in his death throes, Thrag was incorrigible, and grinned - just about the most movement possible for him. “I thought I was supposed to do that.” He tried to laugh but coughed up blood on the dirt instead.

“Could you be serious for more than twenty seconds? By the Father of Darkness, you’re in your last moments.”

Though still smiling, Thrag nodded and stifled any further laughter. He reached up and grabbed Darbakh by the sleeve, pulling the younger man closer. “Your sister is pregnant again,” Thrag said in an increasingly faint voice. Darbakh’s eyes shot open wide, both at the news and the obtuse manner of delivery. “You told me to be serious,” Thrag added with another smile.

For a few moments, Darbakh knelt dumbstruck. His mouth opened and closed a few times as he tried and failed to form a coherent reaction. He shook his head again and looked over the pool of blood. “You rat, you miserable fink…you get yourself killed on my mission, leave my sister as a widow, and now you drop this on me? What a selfish way to go!”

Thrag’s eyelids closed, and the back of his head rested in the dirt. “You know what you have to do,” he said, though the sound of his voice was a mere whisper. “At least this is one way…you could actually make your family proud.”

He didn’t speak again. The sounds of the Hobgoblins beating the Dark Elves with wooden rods echoed in the background, but they may as well been a mile away. Darbakh continued kneeling on the gravel for a long time, feeling a new weight added to his shoulders as embers covered Thrag like a shroud.

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Two weeks later, Darbakh paced around an undecorated antechamber beneath the Tower of Gorgoth, his hands folded behind his back and his mind deep in thought. Aside from his purposeful footsteps on the evenly carved tile floor, the only sound reverberating on the dark granite walls was the constricted breathing of Kavrus. Blinded, shaven, and bearing clipped ears, the former fleetmaster sat calmly on a stone bench, his status reduced to that of an unwilling jester in rags. For a very long time, Darbakh had no other company in the antechamber.

After an amount of time which he couldn’t even gauge, Darbakh’s thoughts were interrupted by approaching footsteps with a faster yet uneven pace. He stopped pacing and stood in front of the door leading out into an absurdly long corridor which, like the antechamber, was lined with sconces only a few of which were actually lit. The rotund silhouette of his driver, a part of the original crew near the Plain of Bones, hurried nervously. Wiping sweat from his brow with a kerchief, the war machine driver saluted Darbakh, though informally, as the two of them met in secret.

“It’s done,” his crewman said in a voice marked by exhaustion. “The new cannonades passed inspection; nobody suspects that the Iron Daemon ever had a problem.”

Darbakh’s heart rate decreased considerably. “Then it’s past us. Our mission was a resounding success.”

“We’re over this first hazardous spot, but what comes next? What if our error is discovered?”

“Not an error; a mishap.” Darbakh lowered an eyebrow ever so slightly to feign a wink. “A mishap which resulted in one casualty in exchange for nearly a score of elven captives. And no damage to any machinery whatsoever.”

Though the driver understood the point, he frowned, and his face pulled into a knot of worry. “Very well…so what if our mishap is discovered?”

“It won’t be.” Darbakh sneered until his tusks protruded. “The corsairs have already been delivered to the hellsmiths of the tower for disassembly. I ensured that their tongues were removed first.”

The driver leaned to one side and looked past Darbakh’s shoulder to Kavrus, who hadn’t stirred or reacted. “And that one?”

“Ignore that. It will end soon.”

The driver nodded warily, worriedly, but he nodded all the same. “As you say…it’s over. Permission to take my leave and pass out over a long drink?”

“Granted. Go cool off, forget about all this, and prepare for standard work on the forge tomorrow.”

This time when the driver saluted, there was more firmness in his demeanor, and he walked a little more energetically as he left down the long corridor. Darbakh watched the other man leave, as did Kavrus, whose ears still heard well even if they’d been cut halfway.

“Your casualty was kin to you, wasn’t he?”

Though there was no mockery in Kavrus’ tone of voice, the casual manner in which he questioned his new master grated on Darbakh’s nerves like a perfect shot to the center of a target. Grimacing at the reminder, the Chaos Dwarf despot reentered the antechamber and shut the door behind him. Kavrus wasn’t smiling, but the indirect taunt was clear in the mutilated elf’s irritating confidence and upright posture.

“Ankles never heal entirely,” Darbakh said while walking to the other side of the antechamber and opening a second door, one leading into an uncarved cave tunnel. “They’re not like other joints. You’ll never walk the same way you once did.”

“Neither will the man you lost.”

Biting his lip to avoid yelling, Darbakh paused and felt the burn of rage suppressed. Defiant to the bitter end, Kavrus continued sitting on the bench, not even raising his hands to defend himself. Upset beyond the point of words, the dwarf avoided a battle of insults, preferring instead to focus on a fight he could win. Pounding his fist on the door to the cavern, he sent a signal and waited until a handful of Gnoblars wearing properly stitched clothing approached from the darkness. They eyed the Dark Elf captive curiously.

“This is your secret mission,” Darbakh said while pulling a small burlap bag full of copper coins and handing it over to the biggest Gnoblar. “This one isn’t to be used and discarded by the craftsmen above; this one will be saved for later. Take him to one of the sit-down toilets, strip him, and chain him to it. Ensure that his arms have enough slack to feed himself, but not enough to reach his own throat. I’ll check on him again after a decade.”

Positively tickled by the spiteful sentence, the Gnoblars all grinned, and the smaller of them took Kavrus by the hands and led the blind elf to his living tomb in the latrines. The biggest among them stopped counting out the copper coins long enough to bow to Darbakh before following the others and closing the door behind them. Kavrus didn’t react whatsoever, and though Darbakh would never respect an outsider, the elf did earn a measure of his envy.

Folding his arms behind his back again, Darbakh took a deep breath and attempted to bask in the solitude of the antechamber. Much to his chagrin, however, yet another set of footsteps interrupted his thoughts, echoing from down the main corridor. Though his secret had now been hidden away, the presence of another person in that isolated chamber alarmed him, and he opened the main door and peered out. His war machine driver was coming back, the man’s sense of worry returned to him.

Darbakh steeled his nerves and tried to resist the infectious nature of fear. “What?! You said you’d go have a drink!”

The driver had started to sweat again, but he didn’t even bother wiping it away. “Your sister knows you’re here. She wants to meet you and…Thrag.”

“Nobody told her?”

The driver shook his head. “Nobody wants to deliver bad news to a lady. Especially your sister. And especially…well, the bump is visible now.”

His face turning blank to conceal his even greater sense of panic, the despot paused for a long time. His driver didn’t rescue the conversation by speaking up, however, and the two of them stood there for a long time. “When?” Darbakh asked after a heavy silence. “When did you see her?”

“I didn’t, but another workman on the floor told me she’d ordered the Humans to prepare an entire roast sheep. The food will be ready in twenty minutes. Maybe less.”

Feigning calmness, Darbakh nodded and waved for his driver to leave. When the other man looked confused by the outwardly cool reaction, Darbakh waved again. “Thank you. Goodbye.”

“Well…alright.”

The driver took his leave, but this time, Darbakh didn’t watch the man go. He closed the main door right away and ambled back into the antechamber, as aimless as the skeleton soldiers they’d fought. With every other living soul gone, the true silence settled in; the numerous levels of stone floors above and below muffled out even the sounds of the factories on the surface. There weren’t even insects or dust motes in that chamber, and the single candle on the wall was silent.

He walked over to the stone bench and sat down, for he knew not what else he could do. Even to sigh would have felt redundant and patronizingly obtuse, and Darbakh made nary a sound - nor a movement - as he sat with his back to the granite wall. The weight of responsibility he felt pressing down on him was a mighty load even for a dwarf, and he sat immobilized as the minutes ticked by. With his brother-in-law gone and his sister unaware, Darbakh was left with the ominous conversation rapidly approaching. His mind spun, and he failed to think of the words, or even to think at all, as he sat alone in the chamber. His head hung low as he basked in the silence, finally, as even the mosquito buzz in his ears faded away.

The end.

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Very cool story, I like it a lot! :beer:

But the part that takes place in the present is still missing! :wink:

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