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.