The purple flame shot from the smith’s hands, and I felt myself wrenched into the air, writhing in phantom pain. I felt as though I had plunged into a pool of ice water, into the same yawning void that I felt beneath me as Mar-tu held me above the lava pool, ready for sacrifice. The breath was forced from my lungs, and I tried to gasp, until I realised that I had no lungs - I twisted in midair, burning in icy flames - I looked down -
I saw a crumpled body lay prone beneath me, looking withered and shrunken, a heap of bones and rags. I saw the broken tools, the cracked anvil, a pile of rags from which thin green limbs spread. I realised I was looking down on my own body. Was this…?
Rest assured, reader, your knowledge that I still live to write these words was not for me to know in that moment. I felt certain that I was dead, and as the purple flames dragged me yet further, I saw a gossamer golden thread trailing from my phantom form, dragging a similarly spectral Ashirk far beneath me. Our souls were still tied.
Great winds blew me through this spectral void, and I was dragged up through the black rock and steel of the abandoned forge, out into a cold night filled with billowing clouds of ash. With astonishing speed, the purple flames pulled me ever upward, until I saw it: the jagged, jutting form of the Mournguard spire, topped by the enormous black gem of the Obsidian Chamber. How fast were we moving? Clouds of volcanic ash and acidic water streamed beneath me, and I saw the flickers and flares of the great forge yard as firefly pinpricks of light through them, first bright then barely visible, receding into the insignificance. Though I soared far above it, the spire remained visible, until we tumbled through a last wall of smog and into the star-scattered night sky. I was bathed in a hideous green glow as Morrslieb waxed heavy in the sky, malevolent, omnipotent.
No sooner had we broken through the ash-clouds than I was thrown into freefall, plummeting back down to an earth that looked - utterly different. Stretching out to the horizon, rolling fields of green lead up into majestic, snow-capped mountains… beneath me, an enormous grey patchwork of roofs and spires - a city - the city - Altdorf!
I closed my eyes, and prepared for the embrace of Morr’s garden. At once I ceased to fall, and instead felt weightless, as though submerged at the bottom of a frozen lake. A moment passed, then another. I opened the ghostly echoes of my eyes.
I was… standing on a cobbled street, in the dim night air, rain-flecked, illuminated by the glow of candles and fireplaces behind the windows and shutters of the - of -
I stood before my journeyman’s lodgings, out behind the Infirmarium. I was… home.
Figures pushed through the rain, carts wheeled past, night watchmen huddled in archways. It seemed none could see me, and when I reached out a hand to a stranger, it passed through her. I was alone.
The great bolt of purple flame that had carried me hence fell from the sky and landed upon me, engulfing me once again, and began dragging me forward, through into the place I had once called home.
“Reinhardt, wait. Reinhardt! Don’t you think this is a little heartless? A little soon? We don’t have a shred of evidence either way, and for all we know he could come through that door at any moment. So soon, as if he were some wayward apprentice?”
“He’s gone. Lose people all the time. Life goes on. Besides, Kaspar’s earned a place of his own. Were you so different, when you took your meister’s chain from old Jorgen?”
By Sigmar, I thought, aghast. At the top of the stairs to my bedroom was the stern, wiry, middle-aged figure of Reinhardt Kessel. He was - dragging something. A trunk. My trunk. My things! And the other voice - Friedrich - good old Friedrich.
“I don’t see what any of that has to do with -”
“The boy left to chase cockatrice eggs, Fried. If there were a silver mark for every guildsman lost on that particular fool’s errand, we’d have enough to buy a breeding pair of dragons. Perhaps I should have made you wipe the blood off Jorgen’s chain yourself. Would have knocked some sense into you. It’s the way of the world. Our profession. Kaspar will make a fine surgeon if you just give him a chance.”
The trunk clattered heavily on each wooden stair. I ached to reach out, to scream at them, but my airless cry would never be heard.
Friedrich sighed heavily, and I could feel his heart give way.
“Aye, friend, and right you are.” He paused for a moment. “I just - I suppose I didn’t want to… to give up on him like this. It feels so final. And - he was my friend.”
“He was two silver marks a month in extra linens and a bugger to get out of bed on a Marktag morning,” replied Kessel tersely, giving the trunk a shove. “Drink some ale and forget about it. Now help me with this before I throw my back out,” he said, crouching at one end.
My phantom’s heart fairly broke as Friedrich knelt to grasp the other handle of the trunk and heave it up, ready to be taken out onto the street. I felt a surge of fury and despair. Had it been so long? Was I worth so little? No search - no funeral?
At once the purple flames pulled me violently forward, through walls and streets and cages and pens and to a stop before the great ledger of the Guild. It lay spread open in front of the Honours Board, on which was written the names of every journeyman, meister and grandmeister serving in the zoo. I thought about my late father’s brimming pride when my name had been slowly painted on in a little spot far to the left, beneath the ornate letterhead of the Infirmarium. I looked to it, my heart longing to see -
It had been scrubbed off.
I drew closer, or perhaps the purple flame pulled me there. I peered with my soul’s eyes, and what I saw sounded through it like the tolling of a bell.
My name had already been erased, with the bitter acrid scrub marks of the artisan still visible. In their place, drawn in faint char, was the outline of the elaborate gothic script for Kaspar Metzger, the butcher’s boy. Hot rage spilled down my gullet. He hadn’t even been apprenticed to me! As far as I could recall, he shovelled dung and cut mutton, and to my recollection, spent far too little time washing his hands in between those tasks.
The flame wrenched me once again, this time backward, out through the wall and up, up into the night sky, not as high as before but still up over the zoo and toward the great purple-topped spire of the Amethyst Order. My soul convulsed in agony at the betrayal of all I had achieved. The ignominy of being forgotten, replaced, made nothing. At last, in Morr’s Garden, I could find a bitter kind of peace. I had been a good man, I thought. A good man used for ill ends.
Yet I found myself brought to a halt not in the cold earth, but before the familiar simple stone tomb, barely the size of a marriage-bed and half as high as a man, in which my parents ossuary was laid to rest. With trembling dread, I crept forward, seeing fresh pale grey marks on the heavy-set stone.
Beneath their names, I saw my own had been cut into it, by the looks of it - that very day. The date of my supposed death in the same careful, cheap lettering as I had bought for them. A handful of lilies lay beneath, but as I leaned closer to see if there were a note or such attached, I saw that there were only three. The priests of Morr tended lilies and sold them, five for a penny. If the dead went unmourned, they themselves would lay three.
None had attended my supposed burial.
Whatever hope, whatever vestiges of my former life and purpose had remained - whatever notion of myself I still clung to - was gone. Everything I had feared on arrival at Mournguard had come to pass. I was replaced, forgotten, consigned to eternity. No friend or lover had stopped to even glance upon my supposed grave.
I closed my eyes, and felt the dream that had been my former life dissolve into fine, thin ash. I was no longer the hot blade of rage. I was the cold iron of true despair.
My eyes jerked open. Not the eyes of a ghost - my true eyes, on the dark, dirty ground of an abandoned, derelict forge in a forgotten corner of Mournguard. I was within the bundle of rags I called a body once more, but was struck dumb and insensate, unable to move. The illusion of the daemonsmith’s workshop was gone for good this time, I could feel it. The room was black as pitch and had the cold, still feeling of empty decades.
Yet still I heard his voice, as if he were still standing at the anvil. I could not see him, nor turn to look, as my paralysed eyes stared into the darkness away from him. But I heard his voice in my soul, clear and true.
“A fair price to pay, umgi. I take it as the coin I am owed. You shall owe more soon enough.” There was a great clang of his hammer, and some heavy metal object landed heavily behind my frozen head. Unlike everything else in this otherworldly chamber, I was quite sure it was real.
The smith walked out in the darkness, and came into my paralysed view. I saw the back of him, silhouetted against the doorway, the shape of a dwarf, the shape of a bull, the shape of a great pillar of fire. He was a whip, and a chain, a hammer and a nail. He stopped. I saw the silhouette of his horned head turn to the side, speaking red-hot words that cut through the freezing chill of my despair.
“Remember this, when the time comes. Hashut does not demand power, or souls, or the screams of urks. Those simply… keep the bull from the door, as it were. No, Hashut demands sacrifice. But sacrifice is not about the crude material of the thing itself; true sacrifice is in the value it holds to you. In return for such coin, the Great Bull will bring ruin to your enemies. What you do then… is up to you. Perhaps there are some in this place who would do well to remember such things, would you not agree, umgi?”
He trod heavily from the door and into the night, his footsteps the sound of hooves striking cobblestones, the sound of hammers striking anvils, the sound of whips striking slaves.
Sensation flowed back into my body, and I pushed my benighted form up into a half-crouch. Ashirk moved with similar weight, he too seeming to have been brutalised by - whatever it had been. What had the purple flame shown him, as it dragged me into the pit of despair? I turned to him, and my foot crashed into the metal object, sending a surge of pain.
It was an ornate brass winch-box the size of a man’s chest with a long, thick blackened-steel cable wound tightly within. It looked capable of lifting a steam-tank, never mind an ox.
Ashirk looked at me as I hopped ridiculously on one foot. Without a word, he reached down to pick up the winch, and strode out into the bustling yard. I was left alone in the abandoned forge, and with a sense of mounting horror, felt compelled to look upward.
In the gloom there was a tangle of broken leather straps and bindings, through which a jumble of broad, rotted bones could be seen. I stared at it for a moment, and then a thick, yellowish, stinking droplet fell from it and on to my face.
I ran from the forge as fast as my aching legs could carry.