My new lodging was remarkably similar to the old one, but with a painful wrought iron chair and low steel writing desk, clearly sized for a dwarf. In a moment of bizarrely helpful care, Ashirk brought eight even-height stone bricks on which we propped the legs of the desk and the chair such that they were appropriate to my height. A vast, oozing candle was brought, made of what I hoped was beef tallow, which burned an outsize flame that shone a light of many alternating colours and stank of sorcery. Strangest was my writing implement. In place of ink or paper, I was brought a broad tablet of wet clay, framed in iron, and a triangular-tipped, quill-sized implement made of ornately carved bone. Whatever charm the dwarf had worked on me still lingered, and I took to the tablet writing my thoughts as fluently as had it been my own tongue.
After I had set down the introduction to my treatise on sickened beasts - by far the more confident topic - Ashirk appeared, opening the door in a grinding squeal of anguished metal. He carried an enormous roasted joint of meat, as big as my own thigh, unseasoned, scorched, running with liquid fat. Reader I must confess. My mouth ached at the scent. I was badly malnourished. In urgent moments of danger, the body stokes the fires of appetite ever higher if a source of sustenance approaches. I must tell you plainly that I did not ask the provenance of this haunch. I shall leave it to you to interpret my words when I say: it tasted like swineflesh and mushroom at once. I attacked it with care, aware that to gorge myself would dull my mind, and jealously guarded the rest, placing it as far from the door as I could in the hopes it would be forgotten.
I wrote long into what I assumed was the night, free of the need to reference, waxing lyrical to turn my own direct experiences into the kind of grand language I had read during my own studies. I wrote of the treatment of festering wounds in mature Griffons, and of fattening demigryph runts; the precious value of each tame demigryph to the Empire meant nature must be opposed, and by a strict regimen of victuals, I had achieved such redemptions on a handful of occasions. I wrote of portion sizes and composition, the mixing of grains I could not imagine were to be found in a hundred miles of this filthy spire. Then, when my stories were spent, I turned my mind to the less… rigorous treatise.
Reader I shall be honest with you. What I wrote of the beastkin of the forest was half folklore. The other half… little more than rumour and conjecture. I cleaned up the language of the tales I had heard as best I could. I wrote a fulsome account of the debates in the Zoo as to whether a Minotaur enclosure - and the study of beast-men more generally - would be beneficial either to the public or as a confidential pen for study. I wrote of the physical inconsistencies found in autopsy across the years, and of the many tales of how beastmen come to be; from the predation of hapless victims in their raids, to the corrupt offspring of unfaithful but otherwise human peasants, to the vile turnskins born under the Morrslieb’s gaze.
I slept that night in a blackened haze, for the longest time in months.
In those moments just as I began to drift off, it came to me.
I was in an ornate study, my master’s library in the towers above the Imperial Zoo. Then, I was in the cell - not my cell, but the one where the man’s entrails had been burned. Then, I was in an Estalian bullfighter’s arena, gaily clad, the crowd chanting. Facing me was an enormous bull with leathery wings, eyes blazing with inner fire, thin clouds of ash rising from steaming nostrils. It stroked the ground with a steely hoof, and bared wolf-like teeth, and I panicked. The crowd cheered ever louder, and as I looked around me I saw they were a teeming mass of black beards and monstrous tusks. They cheered not for me, but for the bull, which charged, and I turned - piercing pain severed my spine with the force of a thousand lances -
My arms were held by the brutally thick corded muscles of an enormous, scarred ogre. I was pinned to a cold iron table, which froze the sweat to my skin. Before me came my new master, younger-looking, grinning wickedly, bearing in his thickly gloved hands… an iron helmet, smooth-fronted, glowing with oppressive heat. In a fluid movement he pressed it down over my head, and my face seared, the acrid smell of burning flesh overwhelming me as scorching agony pressed deeper into my visage -
Slicing rope bit into my wrists as I felt a sharp jab between the shoulders. I hissed, a bitter stinging sound, and was cuffed by a larger figure in the shadows in front of me. Needle-sharp teeth broke from the blow, and I felt that same oppressive heat, the heat of the volcano’s lip on which I trudged, prodded up to the edge as one in a long line of brutish greenskins. At the front of the line, a larger figure - I saw that it was Ashirk - struck the ankles of each prisoner with the base of a scorched trident, tripping them over into a screaming plummet, each one ending with the crackling hiss of combustion as the molten rock consumed them -
I was utterly alone in deep, craggy darkness. I felt my severed spine, my scorching helmet, my combusting limbs. Blinding pain upon blinding pain, each fate in the triptych burning through my soul all at once, and in the darkness a deformed dwarven face, as tall as man from chin to brow, came forth toward me out of the gloom, regarding me with curiosity, an insect, a wayward child, an exotic bauble. I felt cold, chilling breath still the pain wracking my broken body. I felt gentle warmth heal my wounds. I felt every muscle of my body contract and then - I exploded out into a writhing mass of limbs, my ribs sprouting forth into squelching tentacles, an enormous eye opening up out of my exposed heart, teeth growing from teeth growing from teeth, burning, twisting into a great spire of arcane flame –
I lay drenched in cold sweat, staring up at the cavernous ceiling of my new cell, the burning eyes of the great bull staring back at me from the darkness, my body paralysed, my breathing ragged.
There I lay for hours, unable to move a quivering muscle, as those eyes looked into every inch of my soul.