I walked Mourngard’s passageways with tentative caution. The sounds of screams were less present on the long promenade where I found myself, replaced by the dull thuds and clangs of industry. Tusked, ringed, bejewelled beards set them apart, but the dawi habit of industry was clearly strong among these twisted kin of the Karaz Ankor. I saw no shortage of diminutive goblins scurrying up and down, carrying ingots of inky metal or haphazardly rolling enormous steel wheels as wide across as two goblin’s armspans. Slinking through the shadows around them, always solitary, were the Hobgoblins. These seemed an indolent sort, isolated, lazy, resentful. At times if they saw a common goblin not carrying an object, they might beat or trip him, or even simply jump out to scare him. Such sadism against the weak is common among greenskins, but the Hobgoblins seemed vindictive beyond the ordinary limits.
The sounds of hammers resounded from each doorway as I passed, but I knew better than to look in. These were artisan’s workshops, each manned by a dwarf or two at most. The slaves trickling in and out would occasionally do so at a frantic run, fleeing the rage of their masters. It reminded me of the Engineer’s District in Altdorf. Their apprentices sometimes ran with the same look of fear, albeit a mere beating propelled them on their way. Engineers, I supposed, were much the same the world over.
I came at last to the end of the promenade, and what waited before me was the first of many truly astonishing sights. I would call it a courtyard, for it was open to the night air. But it was as much foundry and workhouse as any manufactory I had ever seen. On and on the furnaces and anvils stretched, positioned in uniform rows, the rhythmic pounding of beaten blades sounding out into the sky. Many anvils were manned by the massive forms of ogres, some of whom hammered great lengths of steel for vast blades. Others held framed casts of sand or obsidian, into which the shapes of great cannon were poured out into the moulds by the sweating labour of teams of greenskins pulling immense cauldrons of molten metal. Often a slave or as many as half a dozen were lying in the moulds, screaming horribly as they were immersed in bubbling bronze. Here, at last, I saw what I had not yet seen; actual orcs.
It seemed that Enmerkar’s fortress ran a vast population of greenskin slaves in a caste system of sorts, with common orcs at the bottom of the pile. Where goblins scuttled about as fetchers or carriers, a handful of ogres performed the most brutally effortful manual tasks, and hobgoblins seemed to be overseers - the common orc was everywhere muzzled and in restrictive chains. They formed work gangs tied to great wooden rafters or pulling great stone sleds. They lay in suspensions of hooks and chains over dwarven smiths, guts slit, blood dripping on to blades steadily. In a corner, I saw a gaggle of ogres gently tearing apart an orc and slowly eating its limbs, while a dwarf in a large steel perambulator of some kind watched them with contempt. One seemed to be eating too fast, or else messily; a jolt of green lightning shot through him, and his pace slowed.
Some of the orcs looked malnourished to the point where their physiques almost resembled hobgoblins, but the prominent brow and sunken neck were enough to make the distinction clear even from a distance. I realised, regarding a gang moving close by, that their muzzles were nailed on. Any orc whose life was not otherwise spent in torture, accident, discipline or sacrifice would starve to death. A thousand urks burn in my forges nightly, I thought, Enmerkar’s voice reverberating in my mind as though he stood at my shoulder repeating it. I knew not whether he had a tendency for exaggeration, but what I knew of the Dwarfs in the Empire suggested it was unlikely. Then, my recollection of his voice went on, seemingly of its own accord. Was my mind my own, anymore? Their suffering fuelling engines that will one day…
With a shiver of fear, I looked up at the shapes that loomed over even the ogres, towards which many of the orcish work-gangs pulled their lodes. A row of spiny, skeletal metal frames squatted beneath boxy scaffolds. I realised some of the casting was not for cannons but for the hulls of these monstrosities; over the scaffolds crawled dwarven artisans, some stripped almost bare in loincloths and leather aprons, others draped in ornate silken robes, others still with grim metal caps and plates fastened around their heads.
“The shift ends soon, umgi,” said Hamazi, silently appearing at my elbow. I started in shock. His voice, quiet as ever, cut through the impossible din of metal on metal. “Yet many will remain. The life of an artisan is all-consuming. Once I lived in this place, longing only to return every night when I awoke. I often come here when I sense Hashut’s eye drawn to this place. Today I felt… something. Perhaps the Great Bull. Perhaps not. And here you are.”
Once again, no words came to me in reply.
“This place is a temple of sorts. There are many different kinds. We go to one now, at the sound of the horn. For now, take it in. By my tusks, I tell you - you’ll not see any sight as glorious as this in all the Howling Wastes,” he said wistfully. “You could live a lifetime of craft in this place in just one night. Many slaves do,” he grinned. He was speaking half to himself at this point, I think. I never truly understood Hamazi. Taciturn around others, he would wax lyrical when left alone with me, leaving me wondering - which was his true self?
Ask him about your dream.
The whisper struck fear into me like the tolling of a great bell, but unlike his master, Hamazi showed no sign of having heard or noticed anything. I grit my teeth and began to sweat, though with fear or with the exertion of not obeying the whisper I could not say.
A great, deep, all-consuming sound spread outward from the darkness at the far end of the forges. I saw an ivory shape, lit by baleful green flames which flared out and upward from the raised stone dais on which it sat; an enormous horn, bellowing out. Behind us, I heard the clatter of tools. Some dwarfs sidled out from their private workshops, while others in the forges began to hang their tools or quench them, raising great gouts of steam. As Hamazi had said, a few continued to toil. From all around the shadows, Hobgoblins slinked out to herd greenskins or else lead ogres tentatively by the hand. All the goblins seemed to be heading towards a single portcullis on the far side; a much larger escort of Hobgoblins supervised the return of the orcs’ equipment and sleds, and then took them off to a great winding pathway. I let my eyes follow the line all the way up the path, which meandered up towards the flattened peak. A shiver ran through me as my nightmare returned; the feeling of being set aflame by the brutal lava surged through my aching limbs, and I knew the fate awaiting the orcs. A thousand urks…
“Come,” said Hamazi, his voice almost a whisper. “In the din of the night’s end, none will mark our passage. We go to the Menagerie. Say nothing. Follow my every step and word.”
We walked on through the throngs of dawi and greenskins, out through the forgeyard and towards a small stone stair that led downward. Where the winding path of the orcs led up the mountain, this stairway seemed to lead down towards its base. The heat of the forges was tempered with the blasted cold of the night air, but as we sank beneath the stone, the temperature became steadily more and more oppressive. What disturbed me the most was the sound; down beneath the ground, the constant sound of clanging hammers and screaming slaves was gone. At first, nothing replaced it. We were simply alone in silent stone stairways, lit by harsh orange flames.
Then, as we descended stairway after stairway, the profane smell of livestock began to assault my nostrils. It was almost nostalgic, transporting my mind back to my earliest days as a stablehand. In the echoing distance, faint but profound, I could hear the rhythmic thunder of hooves…