The dark corridors of the fortress coursed with greenskins and dwarfs as I hurried along behind Ashirk. At times I almost lost sight of him despite my best efforts. I could not discern whether he was simply naturally gifted in the arts of the shadows, or whether there was sorcery at work. As the fortress began to take hold of my cowering soul, it started to feel as though there was sorcery to everything in this place. Perhaps it was Ashirk. Perhaps it was some talisman or amulet given by his master. Perhaps, I thought with a shudder, the fortress itself was making efforts to hide him.
As we wound through the corridors I could feel a great rush of hot air; we had arrived at the forge-yard, or rather, the promenade that led to it, in amongst the private workshops that I had supposed belonged to the most skilled artisans. We drew closer to a row of low stone archways leading to recessed chambers. Malevolent glowing light spilled from each one. Shadows of hammers rose and fell. Yet the doorway to which he brought me was dark. Instead of pounding metal and the patter of goblin feet, there was a chilling silence.
As I approached the archway, the darkness of the artisan’s chamber beyond seemed total. The outlines of abandoned craftsman’s tools could just about be seen in the gloom hanging from the wall above a broken workman’s bench. It did not just seem abandoned, but derelict for many decades. Ashirk was nowhere to be seen, but I was used to that by now. I realised with trepidation that I felt the same deathly chill of cold that had washed over me when Mar-tu held me over the lava-pit, ready for sacrifice. An echo of that lethargic sensation began to creep across my limbs. Gathering enough fear of failure to substitute for courage, I passed through the archway and into the gloom.
Immediately as I did so the workshop was flooded with a warm, bright light, and the deathly cold melted away. The derelict equipment was shown to have been some kind of wretched illusion; Ashirk stood illuminated by the flickering furnace that dominated the far wall of the workshop, and at an ornate anvil stood a determined-looking smith, twisting a glowing rod of iron with tongs held fast in a wickedly-strong seeming metal vice.
Then, I saw the harness.
Held as if in a spider’s web of leather bonds was a tightly bound but powerfully built orc, facing downward, his eyes blank but quivering. He hung suspended from the ceiling above the anvil, and - just as I recalled seeing on other bound orcish wretches before in the courtyard - his gut was slit, bleeding steadily on to the glowing metal, each drop unerringly guided towards and then sizzling off it in a flash of steam. Unlike they, this orc was larger, darker of hue, looking as though he had not been half-starved. Those muscles that could be seen through the leather web would visibly strain, and at times a ripple would go through his bonds, as though he were trying in vain to break free.
Behind the smith was another greenskin. Similarly built, bald and stripped to the waist, his arms nailed to a pair of wooden posts that crossed above his head and his legs trapped in black stone manacles that seemed to have grown out of the floor and up around him. His head was held in place by a chain tight around his chin that held his neck up and over a stone basin, filled with blood and into which yet more blood flowed from a long, jagged slit in his throat. He too twitched as if alive, and he too seemed to strain at the bone-dislocatingly elaborate contrivance in which he was held. I wondered how many moments of life this wretch could have left. His blood was down to an intermittent trickle, and the basin was filled to considerable depth. He could not have had much more blood to drain.
The slow, brutal hammering of the smith brought my attention sharply back to him. He had worked the bar into the flat of a blade with a wicked curve at the tip, almost a right angle. He held it up in the pair of tongs and I realised it was not tongs at all - it was a mechanical hand buried deep in his wrist. It seemed to combine intricate artifice with a brutal aspect, like so much in the fortress.
I looked to Ashirk, whose eyes flicked to me. A wave of frustration coursed from him, but in turn he felt my apprehension about what to do next. He shook a little, and knelt, daggers crossed on his chest. I similarly knelt.
The smith seemed to take no notice as he held the hot blade up to inspect it in the glowering forgelight. He ran it close to the hanging orc’s wound, letting a coil of blood and ichor drop slow and thick along the blade, before swiftly holding it flat to the anvil and striking with an immense series of final blows. Then he turned swiftly on one heel and quenched it in the basin filled with orc-blood. The blood hissed as it entered and then bubbled violently, flecks and spatters covering the bound orc’s exposed throat and torso.
Turning again, he hefted the blade, and the weight of the curved tip was evident as it sliced the air. It almost had the balance of a warhammer more than a classical sword. Given the eternal relationship between Dwarfs and hammers, I supposed this was to their liking.
The smith turned his gaze to me.
A gout of purple flame billowed from the forge, tainting the light of the room, and for a moment as it flickered, I saw again I was in an empty room, besides a silent forge, alone before an anvil long since rent asunder.
When his voice came, it was as a chill wind, shaking the body, chaining the soul.
“Speak and be heard.”
“Great lord. The Prophet commands, and I obey. We require an intricate device that only a master smith such as you can provide.”
I could not meet his eyes. What was so terrible about this smith in particular, this torturer above all torturers? I had no love for the greenskin. Why did my eyes water at the notion of looking upon them? What was this weight, this cold, this silence?
“Rise, umgi. Speak your master’s command.”
“A - winch, my lord. With cable and clasps fast enough to lift - a - to lift…”
What were they? Blessed ones? Beasts? Bull… centaurs?
“To lift the Prophet’s great granite bull,” finished Ashirk, without looking up.
I felt a fool. There I was about to tell the truth, when a simple lie would have sufficed. For all my arrogance, I was still nothing without the greenskin.
“You waste my time, slave. This is a task for a workman out in the yard, not one such as I. And you bring me no payment, no boon. Find another.”
“The winch must be enchanted against the dangers of great daemons and hold fast against the magics of the - of… whereof my master tells me not. Only that it be the finest craftsmanship and immune to all charms, lord.”
“Well,” huffed the smith, an otherworldly sigh snorting forth bullishly from his nostrils. “Perhaps it is worth my time. What does the Prophet offer in return?”
I knew not what to say. There was a lengthy silence.
“It is not for slaves to bargain, lord. I can offer only the favour of the Prophet for a task well done.” I could feel the intense disapproval emanating from Ashirk, but if he had some treasure with which to bargain, he should have spoken.
“Very well. You will give what you have. Look upon my work, umgi. I will teach you, and as payment, you will give what you have.”
“My lord,” I stammered, looking up at him, towering over me from his anvil. “I know not what.” At this, he brandished the sword deftly in his mechanical hand, which clicked and whirred softly. He cut it through the air a few times, then pointed it up at the hanging orc.
“Suffering is contagious, manling. The purpose of my weapon is to cause suffering. So, I draw suffering from the slaves, to infuse the weapon. When it cuts, that anguish spreads. Run a finger across the blade.”
My hands moved of their own accord, as if commanded. I felt Ashirk’s fear rising. This was magical compulsion. My fingertip found the edge ran lightly along, opening a shallow cut that shot a sharp pain through me. My body and mind coursed with waves of fear, of frustration, of anguish. I felt trapped, powerless, weak. If a simple parchment-cut sized wound could convulse the body like this, what would a warrior’s wound cause?
“A keen edge, to be sure. But this is a workman’s blade, little more. Forged with the simplest of cantrips… albeit, fine material,” he grinned, carving a heavy arc upwards and slicing a deep gash on the leg of the bound orc, which struggled. The edges of a thickly muffled bellow could be heard from his head, and the still-visible bloodshot eyes bulged. The smith took the blade and placed it in the mouth of the billowing forge, where it began once again to glow. “But Hashut’s true attention cannot be gotten with the suffering of mere slaves. No… the winds of magic do not blow in such a way. To catch the attention of the Great Bull, sacrifice is needed. Learn this lesson well, umgi; sacrifice means giving up something of true value to you. The simple act of quenching a sword in the blood of a slit urk does wonders for the bite of the blade, to be sure. But to forge true greatness, more is needed. Let me show you.”
The smith produced a wicked pistol. A fluted black barrel, like the one Hamazi had brandished in the odeon of the Menagerie; but this one was yet more ornate, with brass and silver edging and trails of spiralling, miniscule, angry rubies and thin ivory streaks encased in amber.
“See the handle, manling? Those are the bones of my own hand. What you see on the end of my arm is artifice, a smith’s hand fashioned from the plundered bones of my father. I had to defame our family fane to create this. Our ziggurat once stood in pride of place in Zharr Naggrund, but now it lies broken and forgotten, because of my deeds. The hand has worked better artifice than my own ever did, because I sacrificed the honour of my name and the dignity of my father for it.”
I would later learn that by “better” artifice, he meant, “more malevolent”. In fact, in the Eastern Khazalid dialect - of which we were in turn speaking the farthest Eastern accented form - the two concepts are expressed as one word. One does not call a strong crop yield ‘better’ than last year; one calls it ‘more malevolent’.
“As for the bones of my hand - see how they are worked into the handle - Hashut blessed this weapon, oh yes. The Great Bull ordained that she fires not the shot you place into her, but razor-sharp shards of molten bone. They harden instantly on impact with flesh. I’ve tested it extensively. They seem to seek out bone as if they were tiny insects and the flesh around the bone was simple air. For that I gave my hand. I sacrificed for this weapon, and the renown it brought me, when I yet walked the wastes.”
“Your works are mighty, great one,” I stammered, at a loss for what else to say.
“Yes, yes,” said the smith, a purple flame spreading across his stony visage. He put the pistol aside and reached out one hand towards me, the sorcerous fire spreading down his arm and out towards me. “And so you shall have your tools. But at what price?”