Reader, I cannot relate to you the peculiar mixture of confusion, recognition, ridicule and black fear that swept over me. I dragged myself forward into the chamber, a prism of shadows and glimmers cast by the raging fire to my left, the heat from which made my dehydrated carcass sweat all the worse. The furnishings were of beaten, scorched metal, but the chamber itself seemed to be hollowed out from an enormous piece of black volcanic glass; I had seen fragments of such material in museums in Altdorf, but never imagined one could be so large. Every billow of flame from the fire was reflected in the malevolent obsidian, the glimmers seeming to echo somehow through its depths, curling and twisting toward the great iron desk which stood beside –
Before me, I saw the dense form of a dwarf, bareheaded and bald, his back to me. He stared out through a vast window that took up one entire wall of the chamber, hands held behind his back. In this horrific, tainted place, served by a greenskin - a dwarf? In the next instant, I realised that the hunched forms I had seen burning entrails in the cells must have been dwarfs as well. I had taken them for goblins, like the ones I had seen in my travels to secure great forest spider eggs for master Dietrich, Sigmar rest his soul.
What was this place?
I saw the shoulders of the dwarf fall as if deflated, then rise again as he squared himself up and turned on a heel to face me. Reader I can only speculate as to what my face showed as I took in his ornate robes, shining silver bull’s head clasp that held his cloak, the carefully bejewelled curled ringlets of his vast black beard, and - the tusks, jutting from his lower lip, bone-white and ending in brutal points that had clearly been sharpened that day.
I could not interpret the look in his eye, but he did not pause. He raised his hands and stretched them out, forming shapes that began to glow, and a sickly orange light flickered from them towards me. Then, unmoving, he spoke.
“Tell me of your apprenticeship,” he said, but the words were not just so. They were in some guttural debased, guttural, angular language that sounded somewhat like Khazalid but was clearly alien to it. And yet, I understood him perfectly. Not only did I understand, but I found when my lips moved to stammer a reply, they made unfamiliar shapes and sounds in the same vein.
“My… apprenticeship–” the words of the greenskin reverberated in my head. No questions, he had said. Make it count. “…was to Dietrich Stahlheim, a Master Handler of the Imperial Zoo a-at Altdorf. At the time I came into his service he was Master of Kennels, but he soon became Master Trapper. After I - retrieved the eggs of a cockatrice in…”
“You are a journeyman.”
“Yes - good… sir… I became a journeyman zookeeper and took a role in the Victualer’s Vetinarium, where I was responsible for the… feeding of sickened beasts…”
Blind fear carried me through the tale of my short career to date.
“You were well brought, manling. Are you whole? In adequate health?”
I knew not how to answer, and the pause must have been visible.
“Presumably you hunger? Thirst? But you have no bleeding wounds?” He seemed to make towards me, and I almost flinched.
“Yes… my lord. I am starved, but whole. I would do well to eat.”
“Good. My slaves will take you to a new cell. They will feed you. You will be given writer’s materials. Tomorrow you will present to me on the matter of feeding sickened predators, and on the matter of corruptive deformity amongst the manlings of the forests. If you speak of these things to any other soul, I will have your legs flayed and burned an inch at a time.”
Utterly bewildered, I nodded in silence and bowed as low as I could. Tapping his staff twice, the door again ground open, and my greenskin captor returned. He bowed low, arms out in front of him, both daggers crossed against his chest. “Do not turn your back,” he hissed almost silently, “My master will not allow it.”
Despite his low voice, the dwarf laughed sonorously as though he had heard every word.
“Ashirk, you filthy creature!” raising a hand, he clutched a pendant hanging from his beard, and the greenskin writhed in pain. “I will not allow one such as you to show your back! The manling is harmless. He could barely lift a blade if his life depended on it! You have delivered him half starved, against your better judgement… but I will let you live, for once again you have found a rare ingredient for me, and for that, take your reward, you wretch.” From his robes he produced a small bone-coloured shape, about the size of a die, and threw it toward the door. A greedy look in his eyes, Ashirk - for so it seemed my captor was called - backed slowly out of the room, keeping his knives crossed against his chest. I would go on to learn it was no simple sign of respect; Ashirk was not permitted to sheath his daggers, conceal his hands, turn his back or move beyond his master’s line of sight without explicit instruction.
My wits began to gather about me. It was clear I had been abducted not as a simple burgher for ransom, but rather in an operation of great finesse, masterminded by the unfathomable wickedness of my new master. When it first happened, I had assumed it was my own rotten luck to be ambushed in such a way - but now I could see I was lured into the trap with the promise of great wealth. A tale, I supposed, as old as wealth itself. What possible cause could this bizarre, tusked sorcerer have for a journeyman of the Imperial Zoo of Altdorf? It seemed my life depended on an intellectual dissertation - two, indeed - written in a night. As Ashirk and I stalked through the halls back to the prison, I sought mental refuge in the promise of food and the familiar stress of an urgent academic deadline.