“So… an umgi heathen in the heart of the mountain. Tell me, heathen, what you know of this place.”
My mind shook with fear.
“I am told it is the Menagerie, great one.”
The beast snorted.
“Grovelling holds no coin here, umgi. This is not the realm of your master. This is the Fleshforge.” With that, it lifted me roughly to my feet. “Here, only deeds speak.”
The lesser centaurs regarded me with beard-stroking suspicion, having broken into twos and threes across the odeon. The greater beast moved between them as though they were not there. His flesh was the brownish tint of old blood where theirs was the ashen tan typical of these dawi. His size was perhaps half as much again as they, and he had discarded any pretence of cloth or headwear. Indeed, his vast horns were broader than most of their animal bodies. To think the burned Taur’ruk was larger still sent a shiver down my beleaguered spine; as I walked, I held my eyes fixed dead ahead, letting the centaurs regard me as a slave but not a coward. It seemed my life was to be decided here among the beasts, if the Sorcerer-Prophet’s wishes meant much in this place. I would need whatever scraps of their respect I could find.
We crossed through a stone archway into a great sand-covered arena, the high rocky ceiling of which held roosting bird-creatures. To our left as we walked was an iron door, much like the cell doors of my lodging to date. Elsewhere around me were thin iron gates which seemed to bar entry to winding earthen passageways; these, given their regular spacing and minute differences, seemed to be entryways to the lodgings of individual centaurs. Idly, I thought to myself that I had seen no female of any sort as yet.
At last we came to a winding artificial stream of lava, which flowed gently - as gently as molten rock can ever flow - in a thin stone canal. A great golden gate barred our way here. The centaur was regarded with beady eyes by an insect-eyed bat, which flitted away almost immediately.
The gate swung quickly open. A golden serpent, slithering across the ground, reared itself up.
“What,” it hissed, “pray tell, is that?”
“It is not your concern, daemon. A package for your master, nothing more.”
“Oh, I disagree,” the serpent said with relish. “I see this thing and it makes me wonder, who are the truest agents of the Ruinous Powers? Broken dawi with feet of stone… or rampaging men, let loose upon the mysteries of the world?”
The centaur rolled its eyes at this, and stamped a hoof.
The serpent was motionless. Then, as quickly as it stared into my eyes, it almost disappeared into a gossamer-thin silver outline of itself. A quiet whisper came as the centaur walked through it and up the way to the Taur-ruk’s quarters.
“A little knowledge can change a great many things.”
A trail of gore and blood, broad and alarmingly still wet, ran all through the wide stone chambers of the hollow in which the great beast made its home. This was a warrior’s abode, resplendent with the severed heads of monsters from across the world. There were empty spaces that I surmised had once been bookshelves, now hollowed out to contain great weapons the height of a man. Grandiose furnishings abounded, vast cushions and enormous weighted iron bars; I realised that the mat on which we trod was the banner of a Kislevite regiment, and the covering of one of the bizarre reclining couches - sized and shaped for a bull’s use - was stitched together from three Tilean condottiere flags. Yet the entire space was empty. At last we came to the very back of the hollow, in which bare stone was exposed and a great pool had been carved. The water within glowed with a sickly green light, and smelt of tar. It bubbled slowly. The skinless beast, enormous and magnificent even though mutilated, reclined in comfort. It’s great shoulders were spread across the back of the pool as though a merchant in a bathhouse.
It seemed, where the sinister green fluid touched his exposed flesh, skin was slowly growing back in leaf-like webs of vein and hide. The dull, grey-blue colour contrasted sharply with the dark crimson of exposed muscle. I supposed that for all the spectacle, this beast must have freed itself from stony imprisonment many times before.
“Ah, the manling! Bring it here, Anshan, bring it here. I had hoped the Prophet would show his hand soon.”
Once again, I found myself wary of the generous spirit of the leaders in this place. Just as with Enmerkar before him, this one seemed too pleased to see me.
“Manling. Understand that in this place, the Prophet cannot see you. He cannot harm you. Hashut denies him sight in the Fleshforge. I rule this place. Come, speak of your deeds.”
“My deeds, great one?”
Again, Anshan snorted.
“Tell me of the greatest beast you have tamed, beast-tamer.”
Reader, I shall spare you the discourse that followed. It transpired that the Taur-ruk was most learned and knowledgeable in matters of griffons, demigryphs, wyverns and dragons; he was pleased with the tales of birthing griffon-calves, nursing runt demigryphs, breaking wyverns, and the mystical arts of bonding an Emperor to his dragon. At times, the Taur-ruk would burst into tales of his own hunts. Twice he bade Anshan to actually bring out the mounted heads of his prey, on both occasions teaching me of the fearsome creatures of the Chaos Wastes of which I had hitherto heard only the vaguest tales.
“Now, beast-tamer. I have the measure of you. Hashut’s gaze falls heavy on this place. Tell me why you have come.”
“I… come because I was bade to, great one. To serve.”
The beast exhaled heavily.
“If your master cannot trust you with your mission, tell me, why should I?”
I peered at him through the glowing green mist of the pool.
“Anshan. Take him to the chapel.” The great beast loosed a leather strap from around his wrist. “I cannot heal in sufficient time to handle this myself, and Hashut looks well upon you. Bind his eyes with this. Have him inspect the sleeper and then see him to his departure.”
As he said “the sleeper”, a shudder went through my soul. I felt the scratching in my head. The voice felt poised to speak, but it seemed to hold back, a tide of whispers washing it away.
Thick leather cut into the skin around my eyes, and sure enough, I could see little but the glow of light from beneath. Again Anshan led me down the winding way and across the lava canal, but whence we walked after that, I cannot say. Reader I must somehow convey to you the desolation of that place. I heard the cries of beasts that should not be. The pungent smell of rotting shellfish. The clacking of obscene mandibles. The wet slithering of tentacles. The one thing mercifully absent was the screams of man or orc, but in its place were whines and chitters that sound in my heart even now as I write them down.
Eventually, my feet seemed to be stepping on some new surface. It felt to me like the obsidian of the Sorcerer-Prophet’s chamber. Silence reigned. I heard, perhaps on the edge of hearing, perhaps just beyond it - a sort of choral tone, singular, one faint voice but many all at once. Was it in my ears as I first supposed, or simply cutting through to my head, as the whisper for which I took such a beating from my master? The room became deathly cold. With a surprisingly gentle tug, the biting leather slid from my eyes, although it almost took skin with it.
I was right - the chamber was solid obsidian, hollowed out much like that of Enmerkar. But this place chilled me to the core. I cannot relate to you obscene carvings or misshapen statuary for there were none. The room was almost bare. A great slab, as though for autopsy or vivisection, stood in the centre. A bull’s head icon of wrought steel, much like the one that had poured lava over the Taur’ruk, hung from one end. Other than that, the room was empty save for a few recesses on which a dwarf could sit comfortably, perhaps four in all. There were two iron candelabras, on which burned thin green flames that cast little light. And on the slab…
A centaur sat, bull’s legs hugged under him. He appeared to be sleeping. He wore a grand crown.
“Your master bids you inspect him. My master permits this. You have one turn of the glass.” Anshan paused for a moment. “Do not be afraid. He will not awaken. You will see what is to be seen soon enough.”
With that, the shadows seemed to swallow my captor whole, and I was alone.