In the cold darkness of the empty forge-yard above, I heaved great gulps of air. Tormented by spirits, manhandled almost to my death, the flesh of my legs half-cooked through, the relief I felt in that black sky was total. There was heavy moisture in the air.
Ashirk appeared to have been waiting, with a scattered posse of scowling hobgoblins leaning against the quiet forges. He looked pale and wasted, drenched in sweat. Wordlessly, he approached me, fixing me with wild eyes.
“We must take him to the cells,” he said at once to Hamazi, who cuffed the greenskin in turn. I flinched, feeling as though I had been slapped. The Prophet had spoken true - what the filthy goblin endured, I felt some measure of. The ugly sensation of his heartbeat had seemed to fade beyond my notice for the past hours, until I realised by a slight jarring sensation that in reality his had almost exactly synchronised with mine. In an intense moment - such as being punched in the face by an armoured fist - they would be driven out of step a little, but soon enough, they would match.
I realised this must be why he looked so haggard. The other hobgoblins were eyeing him warily, half-disgusted, like predators regarding rotted carrion. He had endured all my fear, all my exhaustion, and my impending death - all while powerless here on the surface.
“Silence, wretch. I will return him to your tender mercy only when the Prophet commands. For now, the Prophet commands him to the tower. Await him in the cells…” hissed Hamazi disdainfully. He looked around at the other hobgoblins. “If you live that long.”
The dwarf gestured to his Infernal Guard, which they understood to be dismissal. They turned in silence and trooped off to a sunken archway that seemed to lead towards the bowels of the outer fortress. Left alone, the Castellan prodded me on the familiar route to the tower.
The obsidian chamber seemed empty upon our arrival, and I realised that somewhere along our journey through the fortress halls it must have begun to rain. That rain would come in a black, volcanic land like this had never crossed my mind. It seemed to be steady, almost a downpour; it fell with a loud patter against the great window, before which I finally saw the imposing silhouette of Enmerkar stood. He seemed completely still, and in the flickering shadows of the dim, low fire I could have mistaken him for one of the great granite statues of fearsome-looking dwarves that stood sinisterly in alcoves across Mourngard.
“Hamazi,” he said, his voice distant. “You will leave us shortly. First. Tell me.”
“A tense moment, Prophet, but… navigable. The manling is whole.”
I suppressed a laugh. A tense moment? The burns on my leg stung. What would have happened, had I not lied with such brazen abandon?
And why, I paused to consider, had I spoken at all? The words of the scratching whisper Enmerkar hated with such ferocity came to me again. Speak and be heard. I resolved not to mention either my gambit, or what provoked it. The first secret I had kept from my master… but more stood before me. How much would I tell him? How much was I supposed to know?
“The beast grows overmighty. In the fullness of time he must be brought to heel. It is Hashut’s will. You have succeeded where your predecessor would have failed, Hamazi. The manling owes you his limbs at the very least. Go from here. Your penance will be reduced.”
The idol, I thought. It hangs over the Castellan like a hangman’s noose. Was this how their entire society functioned - on pain of death?
Hamazi bowed deeply and turned on his heels. The stiff discipline of his men - or rather dwarfs - reminded me more of the clockwork cuckoos of Averheim than the ironsides of Nuln.
The Prophet did not turn to me. He remained motionless, arms tucked neatly behind his back like a drill sergeant. I had a moment of solitary clarity, and realised I was shaking.
“Tell me of the sleeper’s… condition.”
I rattled off everything I had seen. The chamber, the chill touch. His healthy, youthful countenance. The wounds that seemed to be wings. My concerns for his nutrition, my conjecture that the coma was magical in nature. There was something reassuring about speaking on the subject. I was careful not to betray any sign that I was aware of their relationship.
“My lord… the Taur’ruk. He told me --” I stopped short. I felt certain that Enmerkar would interject. We were in almost pitch darkness, with only the sound of the rain. I had never seen the flames in the fireplace so dim. They seemed almost distant. Yet, the prophet did not move or speak. “He told me that he knew what would happen next. That the sleeper is mutating. If he is correct then…”
The rumble of distant thunder punctuated the silence.
“Then, great lord, what would you have a layman such as me… do?”
“Manling. The sleeper is at the very start of his journey. It will be long and arduous, and as the beast saw fit to tell you, it has many cliff edges. We will see him to the top of the mountain, you and I. That is why I had you brought here. That is why the greatest of my servants risk their lives for one such as you. I will handle the mysteries. But you… you will ensure he is kept. The body must endure this trial just as the mind or soul.”
At last he turned, and in the pale darkness his features were indistinct, greyish in the half-light of overcast moon and flickering fireplace. His eyes were consumed with a kind of swirling ashy mist. It made what little of his face I could see all the more terrible to know that his soul walked in the smoke even as I stood before him.
“Know me. I am Enmerkar, Sorcerer-Lord of Mourngard, beloved of Hashut. A thousand castles have fallen by my hand, and no beast - be he blessed by the beyond or no - can stay it. The Great Bull commands me to ensure the Sleeper ascends, and none will stand in my way.”
His voice slowly twisted, distorted, filled with a deep sorcerous fire.
“Go from this place. Rest and be healed. For now you will compose a regimen of care as if he were your Emperor’s dragon. Take an inventory of every tool and herb you will need. Three nights hence, you and I go to the Menagerie, and there our work begins.”
Ashirk stood alone without the obsidian chamber. I looked at him with soul’s fear in my eyes. He stared back grimly. Every moment of our forced bond was agony to him, but in truth, I wondered whether the real fear was of something greater. It had seemed beneath the earth that Enmerkar and Mar-tu had almost come to blows. In the midst of such turbulence, the odds of my survival were admittedly slim. If it looked like I could tip the scales in one direction or the other, Mar-tu would spare the ceremony next time, I felt sure of it. If Ashirk’s countenance seemed grim, I could hardly blame him.
“I am told that in three nights, my work begins. I suppose, until then, I am to rest and heal. How would I go about that in this place?”
The Hobgoblin sighed, continuing apace before me with torch in hand. He did not turn back as he spoke.
“I bring food, bandages for legs. Water. You tell me where we go. I take you.”
With that, he pulled open the iron door of my cell, and waited for me to enter. I could smell within was more of the same roasted meat, and an enormous jug of water. My body sang in gratitude. He knew my every need because he felt them himself. The perfect manservant, I mused, although I could perhaps do without the scowl.
“Manling,” he said, his arm briefly barring my way. “I keep you safe now, I bring you food, water. But we are cursed together. You keep me safe also, or we both die. Remember this. Past is done. Both slaves. Always were,” he said with simple bitterness, “always will be.”