With my purpose now clear, I set to work. I was only a journeyman when I left the Imperial Zoo, but I knew well enough what a guildmeister would do in circumstances such as mine. My mind had, in some ways, never been clearer. Ashirk would become a manservant of sorts, bodyguard and footman all in one; I determined that he would tread the corridors of the fortress on my behalf, using the seal of our master and his superior knowledge of the environment - both physical and political - to find the things I sought. I had three days. I would spend the time in my cell, composing as best I could the conditions of the Zoological Infirmary. In the first hours after I returned from Hamazi’s intrigue I had expected to sleep, but my mind was aflame and I was forced to capture the rush of thoughts in clay. It was clear to me now that I would need every minute of the three days if I was to make my vision a reality; nothing would come easily, even with Enmerkar’s seal, and I would need to know exactly what to ask for in this foreign fortress. I was determined to start the moment the fortress awoke the next night.
I should say that time seemed to run strangely in the Dark Lands, for such are they called by those few modern scholars with sufficiency to map them. World’s Edge mountains are deftly named by the noble dawi; thereby, the very idea of what lies beyond them is neatly made irrelevant to human cartographers and merchants alike.
In those few moments I was outside, it was eternally night. Mannslieb was rarely visible, generally clouded by the great gouts of ash spewing from stacks across the fortress, or the volcano, or else thickly overcast natural cloud. Morrslieb would occasionally seem to be present as a pallid green glow, the shape rarely distinct, the light mercifully shaded. But the wicked dawi seemed intent to live nocturnally, their shifts organised around avoidance of whatever passed for daybreak. I had not yet been under what passes for sunlight in the Dark Lands; that moment was fast approaching, under circumstances I could not possibly have imagined.
Eventually I set down to sleep, uncomfortably, but without the torment of nightmares. As soon as I put my head on to the pile of rags that passed for a pillow I did begin to feel a certain unease - strong in the back of my mind, I realised - gently rising, like a tide coming in. No visions appeared to me, but I felt a rush of emotions that I was quite sure were not my own. Pride, obsession, fear, torment, despair - they rolled around as though drops of dye released into water all at once.
You place your ear to the Fortress, and it speaks to you, came the scratching voice. A great chill went down my spine, but within moments I was asleep. I often wonder if it was exhaustion or the will of that voice that sapped my strength so quickly. Perhaps I am being coy; I often think of it, but in my heart, I do not have to wonder.
The next night, Ashirk woke me with a gentle knock on the iron door of the cell. I realised with some amusement that he was trying to avoid the vicarious unpleasant sensation of startling me awake. How deep did the Sorcerer-Prophet’s magic go? Could he hear my thoughts as well as my feelings? Was my mind my own? I resolved to test the limits of this bond as best I could.
“Ashirk. To fulfill the Prophet’s commands I will need many substances and items from across the fortress. I have prepared a list. Do you - can - ”
“I read the Prophet’s script by the same magicks as you,” he said dismissively, seizing the soft clay tablet from my hand. His eyes scanned it rapidly. Perpetually sneering, he seemed lost in whatever passes for thought among the greenskins.
“Some - easy. I go now. Grobi fetch. Some - hard. Maybe masks bring. Maybe smiths make. Step careful, umgi. No coin but words. Secrets told for tools in this place - wind up dead.”
Despite his tone, all I could think was that it was the first time he had called me anything other than manling. Though the tables had turned, this was the creature that had kept me in captivity for months of brutal travel. Every sharp kick and biting knot of my imprisonment was fresh in my mind and many pains still coursed through my body. He felt them too, now. It brought me a dark relief to know it, and I pressed my thumb into a bruise out of quiet spite.
“We have little time. The Prophet commands. The fortress will obey. Start with the simple things. We’ll deal with the hard part when it’s all that’s left.”
He fixed me with a sour, suspicious expression.
“You are starting to sound like him.”
So passed hours of fetch and carry work. I counted in a stream of goblins half my height who brought stacks of the materials I had listed. Long, black hafts of ebon wood cut with mechanical precision. Lengths of tar-soaked rope that seemed woven from sinew more than vines. Bronze nails and chocks with wicked, curving, utterly purposeless spikes; some had ornate inlays, or carefully crafted jutting horns. Absurd though they looked, with these materials I would attack the spiritual coma of the Sleeper in the same manner I had so many mundane maladies in Altdorf; by hoisting the enormous beast up into the air, and inspecting him as if I were a shipwright and he a leaking hulk in drydock.
The flow of goods into my chamber was satisfying and a welcome distraction after the fear and misery of the past few days. I could see the edifice coming together in my mind, but as the hours wore on, the list was down to three remaining items. Ashirk came to me, a sneer of discomfort on his twisted features.
“Costly,” he said, pointing at neat cuneiform script describing the bronze winch and pulley system I would need to make my device function. “Dangerous,” he spat, tapping the line item for a haunch of unspoilt, freshly minced troll-meat. “Forbidden,” he hissed, digging a yellow fingernail into the soft clay to erase the names of a handful of healing herbs and fungi I had thought quite innocuous.
I stared at him blankly, my ego receding. Without those, all I would have to show against my master’s wrath was a pile of useless timbers.
“What… do we do?”
“All can be done. But fear the price, manling. Follow.”