Perhaps it was the delirium of my near death, of magical voices and daemonic rituals, or simple fatigue - but I had high hopes of sleep without torment that night. Having feasted and perhaps properly hydrated for the first time in months, my body was ready to shut down.
Sadly, reader, there was no such thing as peace in Mourngard. A firm, metallic rap at the door of my cell made me jump with alarm.
Of all people, it was Hamazi, although this time clad in the simple rust-coloured robes that had been beneath his armour earlier. My mind ran with fearful suppositions, so I let him in. He looked warily around, as though inspecting the corners of the cell.
“Come with me. I am ordered to show you the apothecarium on the morrow, but now is as good a time as any.”
We walked in silence through the sleeping fortress, along the same winding passages. We came at last to one of the great, life-size stone statues that dotted the place. It stood proudly at the foot of a pair of great stairwells, leading to what looked to be an armoury of sorts.
The thing was stunningly lifelike. Every hair on the beard had been picked out flawlessly. I supposed that these wicked creatures had some aesthetic tendency, just as their forebears in the West. They also seemed to have a penchant for unflinching realism. Not a wart had been omitted from this intimidating, square-built dwarf. He wore ornate battle armour, and seemed to be lifting aloft a clenched fist. The look on his face was of utmost concentration, and I supposed he had been a wizard of sorts - amidst the casting of some terrible work of sorcery, no doubt.
“The apothecarium looks to be well protected,” I mused as we passed two of his silent guards standing sentry. They too had something of the statue about them. I had not tested Ashirk’s rule about questions with Hamazi, but it seemed safer not to. I would later learn it was an intractable part of their culture.
“This is the armoury of my guard,” he replied dismissively. “Follow and be silent.”
We descended a sunken stairway into a dank cellar. There seemed to be shelves stretching out into the utter darkness, many empty, some holding small wooden boxes or thin linen bags. The whole place smelt of the kind of poultice a hedge-wizard sells to peasants to remove warts. If this was the apothecarium, I would have my work cut out.
Hamazi turned to me. We were more alone than ever down here. He seemed uncomfortable.
“Manling. You have given me something, and I must give something in return. We may serve the same master, but you are not my slave. Hashut frowns upon a bargain scorned.”
I had thought Hashut was a daemon from the realms beyond, who twisted the dwarfs to his will. But it seemed in some ways that the Great Bull had been party to a two-way exchange. Often in my captivity, I heard the Dawi Zharr explaining some aspect of principle of dawi culture that was well known to me from my frequent dealings with them in the West. They would say “Hashut frowns upon…” or “Hashut honours those who…” or “Hashut cannot abide…”, but in my heart I would know that dwarfs were simply dwarfs, daemon or no.
“Given?” I asked plainly. Hamazi winced and hushed me. He spoke with great softness, such that I could barely hear him.
“Listen in silence, imbecile. I will tell you only once. With the Prophet’s license, Mourngard is open to you now, but you know not where you tread.
“Stop to consider our master’s ways. Rare are the times you will see him cast a true enchantment or call upon the Winds. Even binding a daemon is something he only does under great duress. Ask yourself, why does he carpet his beard with trinkets? Why does he reach for pendants and charms rather than simply casting his spells himself?
“Enmerkar is blessed with great power and foresight, but in return he suffers the Stone Curse, as do all of his ilk.” I dimly recalled the phrase from Mar-tu speaking off-hand. I had assumed it was a colourful ethnic term for impotence or some kind of whorepox.
“Long ago, our people swore to serve Hashut, but the Great Bull is a thing of magic - a thing of the Beyond. To cast a spell is a work of great pain to a dwarf, for our bones sing against it. The great statues you have seen about this place… they are all that remains of his fathers, his predecessors. Our forebears. Slowly, from the inside out, Enmerkar turns to stone with every spell he casts. He weaves little magic these days, preferring to pour it into amulets and trinkets which he can use without danger to himself. But to keep the Great Bull’s favour, he cannot truly stop. Those moments when he does weave a spell now are mighty and taxing indeed. Yet should he fail to do so, not only will the Great Bull disregard him - but he will fall behind in the great power struggle between the Sorcerer-Prophets. He keeps a grip on this place only by his own cunning and fury. Have you wondered why, if he is the lord of this demesne, he keeps you so secret? Why he has me move you betwixt places under cover of darkness or amid a great throng? Always there are agents and plots against him. Aspiring sorcerers seek to wrest the lordship of this fortress from him. Rival lords seek to install their minions in his stead. And those whose lives and legacies he destroyed want only revenge.
“Know this. Serve our master, but read the signs. Know his artefacts, his cantrips, his tricks and sleights of hand. And always remember, no matter what the circumstance, no matter what others may try to tell you, you hold no leverage over him. At least, none that could be used to bargain with him directly.”
I reeled at this. Enmerkar’s power had hitherto seemed absolute. Now I saw he lived with just as much fear as the rest of us. More, perhaps. With this knowledge…
“Good sir… you have done me a great kindness.”
Hamazi stared at me for a moment, and seemed to slowly blink away a thought that flickered in his heavy-lidded, amber eyes.
“Understand it holds fair value against the favour you have done for me, manling. Your lies have gifted me a private audience to spar with Mar-tu. The Blessed Ones are powerful allies. To be held in their esteem - without Enmerkar’s knowledge - this changes my path. Perhaps utterly. So, in turn, I give you the first step upon your own. Use it wisely, for it may equally be the death of you.
“Now, our debt is even. When next we bargain, it will be as strangers, with no debt upon the table. Tread carefully, manling. You made your first move down there. You are a player in the game now.”
With that, Hamazi turned from the cellar doorway out into the black passageways, and I was left alone.
I slowly retraced our steps, until I came to the great stairways and the statue beneath it. I searched everywhere for an inscription, be it in runic or the strange triangular script their magics had taught me, but I found none.
I cannot tell you how long I stood there, considering the basalt corpse of this once-terrible potentate. How could Enmerkar - how could any of them - persist in this twisted fortress, surrounded by such stark evidence of their misdeeds?