[WHFB/BB] The Fresh Prince of Hell Air parts 1-5 of 15

Sparks splattered on the floor of the diabolical workshop, providing sufficient light for Darbakh Smokestack to watch his nephew soldering the fine edges of a round shield. Cavernous yet cramped, the primary crafting area for that lone obsidian fortress in the Dark Lands’ far west was abuzz with activity, being crisscrossed by Chaos Dwarves and their slaves hauling material and tools while stepping over the corpses of fallen laborers. In their specific corner, however, a crowd of the wicked dwarves had gathered to watch the youngling through judgmental eyes as he completed work on a lightweight steel shield engraved with the resident overlord’s insignia. By the time the younger dwarf had completed the work, he’d begun to sweat - not from the heat, but from the pressure of half a dozen expert observers.

Darbakh held his hand out once his nephew had pulled the welder’s helmet away. “Let me see it, Garth.” He took the shield without the aid of sparks or other light sources, squinting to pick up the contours and curves and running his fingers along the edges. He then passed the shield to each one of his peers, feeling a measure of worry himself; he’d be judged as the elder and trainer were his nephew to produce substandard work. When the last of his fellow longbeards returned the shield to him without comment, he exhaled, for the only reason they would have spoken were to be for criticism. “Not bad. Fit for our slave soldiers to do their jobs.”

He handed the shield back to his nephew, who still sweated too much considering their people’s tolerance for heat. “This is only the beginning, uncle! Every shield I make will be superior to the last.”

A few of Darbakh’s peers paused briefly at the youth’s comments, their silent judgment a signal for the family elder to enforce discipline. “Then put in overtime today. Send for me when the next one is ready.”

“Yes, uncle,” Garth replied in a rhythm which was a little too fast, though thankfully Darbakh’s peers had been satisfied by the craftsmanship enough to pay the youngest man’s chattiness no mind.

The older dwarves began to disperse, leaving Garth to his foreign servants and his workstation, but they were soon interrupted by the clattering of tiny clawed feet. A gaggle of Gnoblars deftly avoided the heavy footsteps of a collared ogre porter stacking steel rods in a container rack to reach the Chaos Dwarves, eliciting a scowl from Darbakh.

“So sorry to intrude, master,” one of the rag-clad Gnoblars said excitedly. “The overlord wants to speak with you in his war room.”

Darbakh’s eyes lit up, and his fellow dwarves excused the intrusion with nods of approval. “How long ago were you told of this?” he asked.

“Less than five minutes, master,” the lead Gnoblar said with a measure of pride. The chid-sized greenskin screeched when Darbakh lifted it by the arm, however.

“Good news!” Darbakh said while hauling the Gnoblar into the air. He tossed the Gnoblar to the ogre porter as casually as he would have tossed a treat to a dog, and the obese monster greedily gobbled up the screaming Gnoblar, tattered rags and all. Blood dripped onto the floor, and the ogre increased his pace of work in moving around materials. “Let’s hope that you’ve relayed the orders accurately,” Darbakh said callously to the surviving Gnoblars, a smile still on his face from the news. “Then I won’t have to feed the rest of you to the ogres.”

The Gnoblar survivors smartly fell silent, bowing and scurrying away while Darbakh took his leave. One of his fellow expert craftsmen, having been walking in the same direction, fell at ease once out of Garth’s earshot. “You spoil your slaves,” the other dwarf said. “Beatings are just as effective in motivation.”

Just before the two of them parted ways on the busy workshop floor, Darbakh turned back. “Beatings also increase the rate of mortality. Return on investment: get more work out of them in the long term.”

The two of them shared a brief laugh before Darbakh exited into a long hall, a winding staircase, and a foyer with a ceiling too low for most foreigners. When he passed by the two Infernal Guardsmen, they allowed him to enter the heavy double doors without comment, proving the Gnoblars’ news correct. Inside, the fortress’ local overlord stood with his back toward Darbakh and looked out a window, watching the local warriors test firearms on live goblins in the training yard below. The double doors closed of their own accord, leaving Darbakh alone to kneel behind his area commander.

“I’ve heard your summons, my lord.”

Barely having noticed him, the overlord murmured to himself about the results of the firearm tests below while squeezing the life out of a Snotling like a living stress ball. His long desk contained various maps and plans for wars, some of them decades in the making, getting Darbakh’s hopes up as to what orders he was about to receive. Eventually, the overlord turned to face him but didn’t approach, instead standing on a dais above the foyer where Darbakh stood.

“That’s good timing, Smokestack; I have an assignment which bears a measure of urgency. It requires swift action from us, and a mission commander familiar with the secret paths to the Border Prince Confederacy.”

Darbakh’s heart rate increased, and he fought to contain his enthusiasm. “I’ve run slave raids there, my lord; I’ll impose your will onto the region once more.”

“Yes, you will. For ours is a new mission, a challenging mission, one which requires both fortitude and tact.” The overlord paused dramatically. “This is a mission for which you were born, Smokestack.”

Though he didn’t rise, Darbakh did raise a fist in celebration. “I’ll begin immediately, my lord. The Border Princes will know to fear us!”

“Yes, they will; they will fear us, bow down to us, and grant us great resources…when you obliterate them in football!”

The overlord’s last words echoed throughout the war room, leading Darbakh to assume the reverberation had distorted the sound of the lead dwarf’s voice. He tugged at one of his hat and yawned, attempting to pop his ears. “Come again, my lord?”

Assured and undaunted, the overlord continued explaining his not-so-diabolical plan. “The entire agreement has been copied on that parchment there,” the elder dwarf said while pointing to a stack of papers at the end of the war planning table. “You must leave to the Border Principality of Ruritania posthaste, wherein you’ll demolish every other team in your way. You’ll be the scourge of the scrum! Your team will terrorize the entire Badlands region, and Novak Breweries will provide us with the largest shipment of shackled laborers our fortress has received in half a century!”

Darbakh scratched his nose while waiting for the overlord to begin laughing and confess to the practical joke, but no such thing occurred. “My lord, are you feeling alright?”

“Not as right as I’ll be when you return with that shipment of labor,” the overlord said with a self-assured tone. “Prince Novak is awaiting your arrival at Ruritania in one month, and I’ll be awaiting your victorious return with our shipment in two. And of course, victory is the only condition acceptable; isn’t that right, Smokestack?”

As if to make a point, the overlord squeezed extra hard, eliciting a shrill death cry from the Snotling in his hand. Tossing the creature to the floor in front of Darbakh, the overlord didn’t pause dramatically this time, continuing once his point had been made.

“Two months, Smokestack. You’ll smash the Border Prince Confederacy with your war hammer…figuratively. By winning a Blood Ball tournament.”

“You mean…Blood Bowl?” Darbakh asked, incredulous at both the mispronunciation and the entire absurd assignment.

The overlord finally revealed a measure of his temper, stomping on the floor and causing a withered halfling chained to a bench in one corner to mash down the keys of a haunting pipe organ. A single loud note punctuated the stomp. “I know what I said!” the overlord said once the pipe organ had musically impressed his seriousness onto his despotic mission commander. “Take the details of the agreement and go. Begin preparations immediately.”

To emphasize the finality of his statement, the overlord turned back toward the window, watching more firearms being tested on live subjects below. The Snotling continued to leave a nasty stain on the floor, prompting a second withered halfling to break the silence obtusely with the whining sound of a mop and bucket dragged over to the greenskin corpse. When the silence once again fell over the room, Darbakh stood up in a stupor, took the orders, and left the war room. Numb from disbelief, he didn’t even remember how he’d wandered back into the fortress’ main workshop, but sure enough, he found himself taking a seat near his nephew’s workbench. He hadn’t even read the orders.

Garth stopped soldering for a moment and took notice of Darbakh’s dazed demeanor. “Uncle, what did the overlord say? What’s our next assignment?”

Snapping out of his numbness, Darbakh looked to his nephew, then to the orders, then back to his nephew. In a flat tone marked by shock, he summarized the overlord’s command. “We’re going to Ruritania to play rugby football,” he murmured with no emotion.

In quite a different reaction from what he’d expected, his nephew gasped like a child and pulled off the welder’s helmet. “Yeah!” Garth cheered while leaping up into the air, at least as high as a dwarf could. Their reactions couldn’t have been more different.

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Later that night, Darbakh descended into the bowels of the fortress, walking at as brisk a pace as his legs would carry him down the narrow obsidian halls. As he descended toward the living quarters of the local temple guards, he came upon a padlocked door guarded by a disinterested bull centaur on night shift. The centaur briefly glanced at Darbakh before seeing the printed orders bearing the overlord’s official seal. Taking a break from picking the goblin meat from his teeth with a wishbone, the centaur unlocked the door and allowed Darbakh to entire a long, straight hallway with heavy metal doors lining the right side. Three doors down, he turned to one of the bolted doors, took a deep breath, and knocked.

A deep snort echoed inside the chamber on the other side followed by hoof clops and the dragging of a meaty mass across the floor. After a moment, the door opened to reveal Malund, a tired bull centaur retired to his apartment for at least an hour. Though the four-legged dwarf didn’t appear to enjoy disturbance, he spoke without resentment toward an old friend.

“It’s late,” Malund said while fiddling with the heated curlers wrapped up in his beard.

“It’s urgent,” Darbakh replied while fiddling in tandem with the stack of papers in his hands. After a brief pause to steel his nerves for the absurd request he’d prepared, he spoke as directly as he could. “Will you be on my football team?”

In the immediately following second, Malund just snorted as a sort of visceral reaction to the question, but a second later, his long bovine stomach began to rumble. “Bahahaha hahaha!” The centaur threw his head back until his sharp tusks showed, clutching his upper body with his two arms from the unexpected laughter. “Ha! I don’t even mind the disturbance for a joke like that! This was one hell of a long day today.” After laughing a few more times and wiping away a tear, Malund settled down with a big smile on his face and waited for Darbakh to continue. When the Chaos Dwarf despot didn’t, however, Malund’s face pulled into a confused frown. “Wait, you’re serious?”

Rather than speaking, Darbakh held out the stack of papers to his old comrade and let Malund read the orders. The centaur took the papers and looked them over; initially he furrowed his brows in confusion, but then his eyebrows arched downwards as he began to read the orders in earnest.

“What? What is this?” Malund murmured while reading all the details, though he didn’t realize that he’d spoken aloud. He began to shake his head while following all the lines of text, speed reading to the very end. “You have to go to…Ruritania? I’ve never even heard of that principality, and human lands are already dumpsters. This must be a…a…what’s this, Novak Breweries? Your team will be sponsored by a company which brews that piss which humans call ale?” Malund looked up from the paper, dumbstruck. “The overlord really signed this? Nobody played a prank on you?”

“He handed it to me himself. He was less than pleased when I questioned his condition. Look, read further down at what the owner of this man-drink company promised.”

“Nothing they have can be that great, of…” Malund paused while reading the details of the agreement, and then the centaur’s eyes opened wide.

Darbakh recited the details out loud. “Yes, the figures are accurate: trained human farmers who specialize in growing food in soil fertilized by ash. Our fortress hasn’t received such a large shipment of slave labor in a few decades. This Novak family really want their name attached to a winning Blood Bowl team.”

Malund scratched his head. “Why doesn’t he…this prince or whatever, he doesn’t want to trade for weapons? Or jewels? Or, you can’t just invade and kidnap these farmers?”

“I learned not to question the overlord’s decisions back when we turned that Bloodletter into an ass cannon. He was rather insistent that I settle this deal via football rather than a raid.”

“So your orders are to risk the entire mission on a game of cheating and chance, and your position here hinges on the consequences? What a terrible, moronic mission you’ve been cursed with.” Malund frowned deeply at the written orders, as if the paper had offended him personally, and handed them back, causing Darbakh’s heart to sink - at first. Without changing facial expressions, however, Malund changed his tone. “I’ll do it.”

Just as he’d prepared to walk away with no support from his peers, Darbakh lifted his head up in confusion. “What? You will? You just finished saying that it’s a terrible and moronic mission.”

“Because it is, and it doesn’t make any sense at all, which is why I’ll join your football team. A bounty like this can’t be risked on sending you to the Border Princes unsupported. I don’t like this one bit, but I don’t think we can allow it to fail.”

“Then there may actually be a chance of winning this thing! The will of Hashut may be done with you there. Listen, one more thing.” Darbakh shuffled the papers and came to the last page. “There are weird requirements for team rosters in this biased game. Blood Bowl officials won’t allow too many of us on one team.”

Malund smiled again. “Of course they won’t. They know a team comprised solely of the Dawi Zharr would win every single match.”

“Naturally. But we need to grab as many as we can here before we start to dabble into the vassal population in three days.”

“Why three days?”

“That’s the amount of time we’ll need to reach a breakaway band of humans who were ejected from their marauder tribe. It’s a good first stop before we conscript the greenskins,” Darbakh said while folding the written orders and stuffing them in his pocket. “I can explain in the morning; for now, you may want to get rest since you’ve agreed to come along. At dawn, we ride to the southwest.”

Malund didn’t need to be told twice, and the centaur readily receded back into his quarters, briefly revealing what remained of a still-living treekin he’d been tossing around like a toy. “Yep, see you then,” Malund said before shutting and locking the door.

Breathing a little easier knowing that at least one dwarf his age would be willing to join him, Darbakh turned to exit the living quarters of the temple guards, crossing one name off his list of at least a dozen he’d have to visit and bargain with before sleeping that night.

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Trailed by his warriors, servants, and a smattering of of camp followers, Darbakh ended the march of the four score souls across the dusty, dark grey soil to mark the end of a three-day march. Footprints of various shapes and sizes marked their trail in the ember-laden ground leading into the primitive, barbarous camp outside which he’d parked his retinue of greenskins, humanoids, and fellow wicked dwarves. Atop a watchtower made from thorny vines and massive bones, a filthy human wearing sodden armor with little else spotted them and raised a call in his uncultured tongue for the nomad camp’s gates, an asymmetrical latticework of thorns, to be rolled open.

As the unkempt humans inside the nomad camp began to stir in their dank tents, Darbakh formed a huddle among a handful of other Chaos Dwarves with him. Raggrund, his most trusted engineer, joined after having spoken with a few humans of similar appearance who’d been a part of their caravan.

“Our humans assure me that they can enter this camp when the…appropriate time comes,” Raggrund said.

“They’d better be right; our plan hinges on the grand entrance,” Darbakh replied while taking his pistol from a Gnoblar slave and tucking it inside his crimson robe. “Humans respond to theatrics. What of the secret weapon?”

“The camp followers are helping him don the suit of armor now. He swears that he’s ready.”

Contemptuous of other peoples as always, Darbakh frowned and shook his head. “He’d better be, for his own sake. For now, just keep him concealed and have his fellows smuggle him inside when I blow the whistle.”

Just then, a decrepit human nomad, hunched and disfigured as their kind often were by the age at which a dwarf would barely be considered an adult, hobbled to the gate and waved for the wicked dwarves to enter. “Welcome to the camp of the Southern Taghai,” the elder human said through a crooked yellow smile. His tattered brown robes flapped as he hobbled on bare feet, briefly revealing the fact that the crusty human wore nothing else. “Our chief welcomes your visit.”

Aside from walking next to the disfigured elder, Darbakh didn’t acknowledge the human’s existence. Raggrund walked with him into the landfill that was a marauder camp, already sullied more than a Chaos Dwarf ammo dump in spite of having been set up mere weeks prior. In between the damp tents, humans of various body types and deformities hustled and bustled in cramped, unsanitary conditions marking a population density which would have made a low-caste Beastman uncomfortable. The members of he tribe, like uneducated dregs everywhere, stared and gawked at the dwarves as they roughly elbowed their way to the largest tent of all, one marked by the crucified bodies of various offenders and stray travelers of their own species. Only when Darbakh reached the entrance to the grand tent did he notice that there was a third member of their guest party.

“This place stinks, uncle.”

“What!” Darbakh turned to the side and realized that his nephew, Garth, had followed them inside. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

“I thought I am! You didn’t give any specific directions,” Garth said in protest.

“What the - didn’t give you directions? Child, you begged me to come on this mission by claiming that you were ready, yet you still have the intellect of a child!”

“I’m sorry uncle, I didn’t know!”

Before Darbakh could further berate the younger dwarf, the decrepit human guide swept aside the tent flap and revealed the tribe’s chief sitting on a throne ahead of them. A large man who’d lost multiple digits and other extremities in tribal infighting, the chief rose to receive them and waved for his guards to bring in an unidentified roast animal on a spit. Wearing rusted human armor in spite of being at rest, and surrounded by cheap decorations and talismans made of animal hair and rocks, the leader of the marauder tribe gave off a decidedly quaint air of opulence by nomadic standards. That the chief didn’t smile, however, spoke of his recalcitrance toward the visit.

“I am Bortei, chief of the Southern Taghai, and I was not expecting any contact this week.” The human wisely waited for the dwarves to sit down before he did the same, though his guards left the tent flap wide open. Only Garth began eating, oblivious to the proper tone of the visit. “Why are you in my camp? Are the levy of troops I provided still in service?”

Darbakh restrained his ire at being questioned by a lesser being, for he didn’t want to spoil the show. “The troops are adequate meat shields and javelin catchers. I don’t need that, or any other reason, to enter any place within the Dark Lands.”

Bortei scowled, letting his mustache hang low over his lip. “Yet no one from your overlord’s fortress ever pays us social calls.”

“Nor will they; I’m merely here for the newest set of instructions for your people.”

“Instructions? For my tribe?” Bortei said incredulously. “We are the Southern Taghai, the true Taghai, the true sons of the north!”

His ire subsiding as the marauder chief reacted as expected, Darbakh didn’t rush the conversation. “Yes, I’m sure you could recite an epic poem recounting the history of your great grandfather’s split from the Kul in the north-“

“My great great grandfather!”

“-but that won’t be necessary today. If that poem is recited again, it won’t be by you.”

Scrunching his face up and puffing his chest, Bortei was absolutely livid. “Who are you to come into my camp and disrespect me?” The chief then stood up, causing Raggrund to tense up, but Darbakh stood up calmly.

“I don’t know why you speak of respect. You’re a vassal; if I respected you in the first place, you would have been upgraded to a trading partner. So let me tell you what will happen now.” Darbakh folded his arms behind his back and began pacing the long tent. “The Southern Taghai’s previous duties of scouting this region and providing intelligence for our overlord’s fortress will continue, as will the levy of young men for three years of service in our forces. From now on, you’ll also leave a detachment of your tribe to guard the nearby mineral spring, at all times, and only allow any form of life to drink from it per our instructions.”

“We’re nomads, I can’t guarantee that any branch of the tribe will be available…this is unreasonable!” Bortei said, raising his voice until his guards returned to the tent. Raggrund reached for his sword, but Darbakh shook his head.

“In addition, you also owe me a levy of young women from the tribe to be cheerleaders for my Blood Bowl team.”

His face turning redder than Darbakh’s robe, Bortei stomped his foot and caused his own guards to reach for their swords. “What? You lout, you scoundrel, you’ll go nowhere near the damsels of the Southern Taghai!” he yelled, causing Darbakh to roll his eyes at the notion of lusting after humans. When Bortei finally understood the request, however, he stuttered and scratched his head in confusion. “Wait…you want our women…you be cheerleaders? You came all this way to ask for cheerleaders?”

“Yes, I came all this way to ask for cheerleaders, because I want to win a football match, and I need the crowd on my side.”

The demand sounded silly even to Darbakh, and the marauder chief struggled to understand the demand. “That doesn’t make any sense…how is that even important? You come into my camp, disrespect my people, because of your stupid football match? You’re wasting my time with this joke!”

“I can’t waste time that you don’t even have. Your tribe has proven a decent vassal so far, but I find your manner to be disagreeable. Ironically, so do some of your own relatives. See, troops talk, and even with all the various races comprising our forlorn hope units, soldiers love to vent. They pass things around. And as your own levy of marauders told my black orcs, who told my regular orcs, who told my Beastmen, who told my hobgoblins, who told my nephew, who told me, your people would prefer a leader who works harder to stay in the good graces of the Dawi Zharr.”

“I’m the nephew!” Garth said, interrupting the monologue and even reducing some of the tension.

Darbakh grit his teeth. “Whelp, not now!” Reaching to his neck, he pulled a whistle from a necklace he’d been wearing and blew it.

The obvious signal set the chief and his guards on edge, and Bortei grabbed a crude, human-made sword which functioned as a sign of his lowly, over-glorified office. Commotion outside the tent caused the guards to turn around, gasp at what they saw, and then exit without a word to their leader. An argument in the barely intelligent human tongue they spoke ensued, and Bortei glared at the three Chaos Dwarves as he stomped over to the tent flap. Darbakh walked past him and stood on a wooden platform outside where the chief would normally announce his proclamations.

Flanked by the levy of marauders who formed a part of Darbakh’s cannon fodder regiments stood another member of the tribe. This one had donned full chaos armor, a suit which Raggrund had fashioned personally, along with a matching greatsword. Though the human’s face was concealed by the helmet, his voice was recognized by the remainder of the tribe.

“Bortei, the time has come for a reckoning!”

“Dortei, my second cousin by marriage and third cousin by blood! I knew it would come to this!”

Darbakh stood to the side of the platform, arms still folded, and the two guards moved to the other side. The two humans stared each other down, though not for long, as their species was given to impatience. Old relics and engravings on Bortei’s armor shimmered in distortion as primal, unrefined blessings and curses from their people’s barely-sentient ancestors cracked into existence. The armor of the challenger, however, was Chaos Dwarf material; runes glowed and burned, and when the challenger leapt forward onto the platform with inhuman grace, the difference in levels of technology became apparent.

The two humans crossed swords, swinging their blades aggressively and without precision. Though most of the crowd remained slack-jawed like the yokels they were, one of the guards attempted to intervene. Having been watching them, Darbakh was ready, and he fired his pistol before the humans even noticed that he had it. The errant guard’s head fell in dozens of pieces to the ground seconds before the body followed, and the sight of the smoking barrel spurred the second guard to raise his hands in submission. Even when the gunshot range out across the camp, however, the unwashed rabble of the marauders and their families didn’t cease, for all their attention was focused on their leader and the challenger.

The fight was over just as quickly as Darbakh had expected, though. As the infernal runes of the young challenger’s greatsword burned bright, the weapon became hot while maintaining its molecular integrity. When the two tribal marauders crossed swords again, Bortei’s weapon was cut in half; the severed blade clattered across the wooden platform, clattering into the dusty air as over a thousand humans all gasped. Before the defeated leader could either beg or curse, his head was severed as well; Dortei’s chaos armor imbued him with the strength to swing at full force without fatigue, and Raggrund smiled approvingly as the equipment he’d forged hissed under the heat of the coup de grace. The sword’s blade cut through Bortei’s coif and then neck, severing the former leader’s head and leaving it to tumble next to the severed blade of the rusty sword.

As expected, the unlettered humans responded to the theatrical duel with a round of unsynchronized cheers, even those who’d supported Bortei a moment before. The tribe’s new leader began showboating, strutting around the platform with his new gear and basking in the adulation of the ignorant, barefoot, and partially mutated underlings.

The diseased elder who’d welcomed the dwarves into the camp waved for a group of shirtless, morbidly obese domestic tribesmen toward the poles lining the dirt path in front of the main tent. “A new leader has been crowned! Lower the standard of Bortei!”

The large marauders went to one of the crucifixes, lowering it to the ground and removing a faded brown flag which had been draping the errant Imperial human nailed to it. “Praise the gods!” the victim cried out toward the sky as he was lowered.

“And now raise the standard of Dortei!” the elder added.

The portly tribesmen then draped the crucified victim with a flag of a slightly different shade of brown and raised it all over again to the applause of the crowd. “Screw the gods!” the victim cried out a second time as he was put right back into the place he’d been in before.

Knowing that the puppet leader’s authority had to be solidified if the tribe was to be kept under control, Darbakh walked back into the chief’s tent with Raggrund, leaving Dortei to begin issuing pointless edicts with all the bluster of an over-important Bretonnian judge. Inside, a few of the chaos marauders serving their assigned years under Darbakh stood at the ready, rather self-assured once their favored champion was the new de jure leader. Darbakh allowed them that delusion and refrained from impressing his authority on them, at least for the time being.

“We have no reason to stay, and we need to get back on the path across the World’s Edge Mountains. Round up half a dozen of your women who aren’t caring for children; we need to be economic about this.”

“Yes, master,” one of the marauder troops replied before bowing and leaving along with his colleague.

Once they’d taken their leave, Darbakh rubbed his hands together. “Now we’ll show all of the Old World, Border Princes and all, the might of the Chaos Dwarves. By having really awesome cheerleaders.”

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Weeks later, after a journey which might have deserved its own story, Darbakh’s full caravan - warriors, servants, followers, and all - edged further north into the Border Principalities. On one particular afternoon in the region’s sparse woodland, he’d called for camp to be set up early on the side of a gravel road lined with various signposts and even the occasional track of log fence. Tents had been formed into a circle around a watering hole dug up by the Gnoblar laborers. Off to one side, Darbakh sat on a rock and poured through the stack of papers given to him by the overlord, not entirely attentive toward his fellow Chaos Dwarves as they ran passing drills in the grass.

He turned his head back and forth while looking over the NAF rules. “What in tarnations…what is this?” Darbakh muttered in a low voice, trying to comprehend the myriad of regulations involved with the sport. He didn’t even notice his nephew standing next to him and peeking at the pages.

“Hi.”

Though Darbakh heard Garth’s greeting, he didn’t return it, hoping that the young dwarf would take the hint and leave. Every bit as impetuous as his mere thirty years would imply, however, Garth didn’t give up. “Hi, uncle.”

This time, Darbakh curled his upper lip in irritation, giving a subtle signal that he wasn’t pleased by the interruption. “Hi,” Garth repeated, missing the slight hint entirely. “I didn’t know that we’re allowed to have a Minotaur on our-“

“Whelp, one more irrelevant word, and you’ll be cleaning everyone else’s jock straps with the Bretonnian slaves.”

Without skipping a beat, Garth continued talking. “There are some Bretonnians approaching us on the road.”

Finally looking up, Darbakh noticed that the rest of the team had stopped their drills to look north along the road. A horse-drawn carriage flanked by half a dozen mounted bodyguards approached, all of them colorful humans dressed rather well and warily eying the camp of wicked dwarves and their motley thralls of various beastman, greenskin, and human extractions.

“Humans, uncle! We can take them!” Garth whispered.

Darbakh waved a hand for the younger dwarf to keep quiet. “We don’t attack strangers on the road without cause; these wretches could always be more beneficial to us as customers or vendors for all we know. You,” he then said while waving for one of the Kurgan marauders serving him. “Do you speak any languages other than ours and yours?”

The unkempt, sweaty marauder shook his head and averted his gaze but pointed toward another one of his kind among the slave soldiers. “He can, master. Fodrauk speaks many of the soft languages used by traders.”

“Good enough. Tell him to approach those riders unarmed and exchange news; they’re coming from where we’re going. And accompany Fodrauk, too.”

The marauder bowed. “Your will be done,“ the human said before walking back toward his compatriots. He conversed with them briefly before leaving with the one named Fodrauk to intercept the travelers, whose own caravan came to a halt while the lead horseman rode forward to intercept the two barbarous nomads.

While the humans translated between various dialects in sharing news, Raggrund jogged over toward Darbakh as quickly as his dwarfish legs would carry him. “The colors of their clothing offends my eyes,” Raggrund said. “My guess is that they’re Tilean. And they look like they have money.”

Darbakh stroked his curly beard in thought, and his eyes drifted to their baggage near the tents. “We do have some extra tools and ironware equipment we could unload. That would be strategic if they’ll spread the word.”

“Uncle, I thought we’re not supposed to help inferior beings,” Garth said, his oblivious manner catching a sideways glance from Raggrund.

“We wouldn’t be helping them; their pitiful lives would be too short to fully exploit the potential of our handicrafts. They’d still pay us full price, though, so such a sale would be helping us in the end.” He turned toward his nephew and pointed toward his temple. “Think long term; think strategically. Think-“

His words were cut off when the group of humans, both the marauders and the colorful travelers, raised their voices. Both parties appeared upset over some slight, jabbing their fingers and shouting, and causing the riders near the carriage to twitch and jitter. “Look at them. The Goblins would’ve been less fractious,” Raggrund said with disapproval in his voice.

Darbakh said nothing, instead observing the body language more than the voices. Although the other dwarves were also watching, he acted first when he noticed a sudden tension in the shoulders of the lead horseman. Without a word, he pulled his pistol out and took aim.

“Uncle, I thought you didn’t want to attack strangers!” Garth whispered, nearly interrupting the shot.

Both sides struck simultaneously. The lead horseman, who’d been arguing with the two marauders, struck the one named Fodrauk with his spear from horseback, puncturing the nomad’s bare chest. Fodrauk grabbed the shaft and attempted to pull the weapon away, but another horseman threw a spear to Fodrauk’s neck, killing the marauder on impact. At the same time, Darbakh took aim at the furthest horseman from their camp, positioned behind the carriage, and squeezed the trigger on his pyrelock pistol. The perfectly aimed shot skipped the rider and instead struck the horse in the ear canal. The beast of burden collapsed, bringing its rider down hard and blocked the carriage from an easy escape. The surviving marauder fled back toward the camp, as expected, and called for help from his fellows.

Contempt marked Darbakh’s features as he advanced on the colorful travelers before even reloading his pistol. “To arms! Take as many alive as possible!”

In a single wave, his retinue of slave soldiers and even some of the unwanted camp followers descended upon the colorful caravan of travelers. Chaos marauders, steppe nomads, bovigors, orc boyz, Snotlings, and a lot of hobgoblins surrounded the riders and pulled them down to the ground wherein one of the half dozen horsemen were accidentally killed in the rabble which followed. The carriage doors were pulled off and a group of unrelated nobles were dragged out and robbed as quickly as they were beaten to a pulp.

A single horseman led his mount to leap over the hobgoblins, landing on the side of the ravening horde opposite the camp and facing a clear path of escape into the woods. Before the horse could gain any ground, a mass of fur and horns broke out from the gang of rabble and slammed into the riding beast. A minotaur, the only one which Darbakh owned, rushed the horse and wrapped both arms around the mighty mount’s thick neck. Twisting and leveraging like a professional, the minotaur forced the horse onto its side while still avoiding the rider’s spear, pinning both mount and rider into prone positions. Snotlings and hobgoblins soon joined in to help the minotaur drag its quarry back toward the remainder of the captives, wherein the hobgoblins were strenuously warning the other troops not to kill any more of the errant travelers.

“Horsemeat for everyone - a fitting reward for your march, maggots,” Darbakh said in a raised voice. His soldiers, laborers, and camp followers then descended upon the injured equines, eliciting shrill screams from the horses as they were butchered alive by hungry ruffians who’d just marched across the World’s Edge Mountains. He raised a palm to the minotaur, however. “Not you. Not yet. Come here.”

Blinking and snorting resentfully, the minotaur looked rather incensed that its meal was being delayed. The muzzle and harness adorning it, however, made their mark felt, and the beastman resisted his own bloodgreed to follow the order. Darbakh then waved down one of the goblins who he knew to speak a few human languages, and the three of them stood alongside the rest of the Chaos Dwarves to form a circle around the prone humans.

“And you, goblin. Ask these Tileans why they just destroyed my property,” he said while pointing toward Fodrauk’s corpse.

“Yeah, boss!” the goblin said with gusto, happy to be spoken to directly. The small greenskin jabbered at one of the colorful travelers, battered and brought to his knees, pointing and laughing at the human a few times throughout. “He says that the two marauders were accosting them to argue about football.”

“Our entire purpose on this trip is for football. Tell him that he’s now destroyed my property because of his pettiness.”

“That’s not all, boss,” the goblin translator said through a nasally voice. “He says the argument was about the dwarf team. Apparently, Fodrauk and the Tilean caravan leader were arguing about the presence of that team.”

Until then, only Darbakh had been listening carefully, though his fellow Chaos Dwarves had been standing nearby while the group’s common rabble pulled apart the horses and prepared campfires. At the mention of the hated western cousins, however, all of the Dawi-Zharr in attendance took heed, turning their heads to the side or stepping closer to listen.

“Oh? A dwarf team, you say?” Darbakh asked rhetorically, though such linguistic devices were lost on the goblin.

“Yeah, boss!” the goblin repeated a little louder as if he hadn’t been heard. The small greenskin began to bob up and down with excitement. “The lead human on the horse, this one here, told Fodrauk that the regular dwarves is gonna smash you in the test championship. Then Fodrauk told him that you lot is gonna smash the dwarves and they moms.”

Garth smiled excitedly. “Test championship? I thought this was a test match. Can a whole tourney be made of test matches?”

Darbakh just waved for his nephew to keep quiet and turned to Raggrund while the goblin bickered with the Tileans. “The betrayers are involved,” he murmured with gravel in his voice speaking of a few millennia of grudges. “The overlord said nothing of this.”

“This is more than just a football match,” Raggrund added, equally unhappy at the mention of their ancient enemies.

All of the older Chaos Dwarves remained silent for a spell, mulling over the implications of facing the non-chaotic dwarves on the field. When the goblin translator began poking the Tilean captives with a stick, Darbakh made a decision which his peers considered swift. “You, icon of Hashut,” he said while pointing toward the minotaur.

The large beastman didn’t realized he was being addressed at first and began looking around for whoever the team’s captain was speaking to. When no one else stepped forward, the minotaur pointed to his own chest.

“Yes, you. Icon of Hashut, shaped in the father of darkness’s image.” Even Garth looked confused at the way Darbakh was speaking, but the despotic dwarf continued. Darbakh then pulled a key from the folds of his crimson robe and tossed it to the minotaur, who held it gingerly as if it were a holy relic. “Take off your muzzle.”

Uncertain and with shaky hands, the minotaur did as he was told, disbelief marking his features as much as Garth’s; the remaining wicked dwarves stood still yet ready in case the beastman rebelled. Once free of the restraint on its jaws, the minotaur opened and closed its snout a few times. Darbakh then pointed toward the bodies on the ground in between them, both the survivors and the fallen.

“Use the strips of leather from that harness and bind the jaws and ankles of them,” Darbakh said while pointing toward the Tileans, “and make sure that they can’t escape; they’ll be working with the goblin cleanup crew. Return Fodrauk’s belongings to the other marauders, and then the corpses are yours alone; nobody else may eat from them. Welcome to the team.”

Garth was visibly taken aback, and the minotaur’s long jaw dropped open. Even Raggrund shot Darbakh a sideways glance, subtly questioning the decision, but the team captain held firm. “Go on; stop standing there like a moron before I change my mind.”

The usual recalcitrance which marked the beastman’s features melted away, and the minotaur bowed deeply toward all the Chaos Dwarves. “Yes, master,” he said in slow, almost slurred Khazalid.

The Tileans protested as the minotaur roughly flung them to the ground and bound their ankles together, but their shrieks only caused the goblin to laugh and poke them with a stick even more. Darbakh’s peers all formed a circle, much as they might prior to an actual match.

“This is serious,” Raggrund said in the huddle, causing Garth’s eyes to light up.

“How serious is it?”

“Quiet down whelp; read the room.”

“We need to double up on our training; they’ll throw everything they have at us,” Darbakh said.

“Even the kitchen sink?”

“Garth, I swear, not another word. Raggrund, we need to bring every concealable weapon we can. We’ll need security wherever we plan on sleeping, too.”

“I’ll inform the hobgoblins,” Raggrund replied readily.

“Good. This won’t be a football match anymore, or even a simple brawl.” Darbakh stood up straight again, signaling an end to the huddle and the beginning of round-the-clock training. He clenched one fist without even realizing it. “This means war.”

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At just over three weeks of travel, the group finally reached the urban area of Ruritania, a principality covered mostly in either forests or farms. Greatly disoriented by all the greenery, the various beastmen, greenskins, humans, and even the Chaos Dwarves themselves were all happy to end their march for the time being. Just outside of the city limits of Ruritania’s only proper town, Darbakh raised his fist for his caravan to halt. He walked out to the side, off the gravel road and against the treeline obscuring all but the top of a sudden monadnock.

Without addressing the various troops and servants as a whole, he pulled aside his most experienced hobgoblin, an overseer who’d held the position for almost half a year without being assassinated. “Send the troops and baggage over to that rock formation and have them start digging; I don’t trust any inn at this place. We’ll bunk and store our belongings underground.”

The hobgoblin overseer knew the language of suspicion and distrust very well. “Your will be done, boss,” the mounted greenskin said before pulling his dire wolf in the direction of the caravan.

By the time the overbearing hobgoblin had begun doling out assignments, Darbakh had already returned to the primary members of his team, an assortment of dwarf warriors and bull centaurs, standing at the edge of the gravel road. A rickety cart drawn by a mule passed them by ferrying multiple filthy human laborers too exhausted from latrine-digging to even notice the outsiders.

“This place stinks, uncle,” Garth said, though by that point, most of the older dwarves had stopped paying attention to him.

Malund backed away on his four legs, subconsciously putting space between himself and the primarily human city. “This place is made of wooden boxes…if they drop one candle, the whole place will burn down.”

Darbakh shook his head, though not in disagreement. “The presence of you all may be better used in the event of runaway from the dig site. Only a few of us need to enter this dumpster they call a settlement. Raggrund, you and I can go inside and meet this sponsor, this Novak person. Garth, go find that goblin who speaks all the human languages.”

“We’ll be back in a jiffy!” Garth said, his younger eyes lighting up. His uncle dimmed those swiftly.

“No, there is no ‘we.’ Just send the goblin back to us. Malund, you and the others can ensure that nobody enters or leaves our campsite without a reason.”

The bull centaur held a fist to his chest and led the others away, including one pouting nephew. A few minutes later, the same goblin who’d translated for the Tileans crept out of the woods and joined the two dwarves by the side of the road. “I’m ready to do your talking for you, boss!” the goblin said with a sincere glint of enthusiasm in his eye. The small greenskin received no reply, however, as the two dwarves led the way into the capital of Ruritania.

Inside the city, the group passed by a stark contrast of poverty and tacky glamor along every street. A street urchin no bigger than the goblin offered to lead them to the Novak estate. “Look at this. Not a single cobblestone in the street is symmetrical. Despicable,” Raggrund muttered as they elbowed their way through throngs of impoverished peasants among various disorganized intersections of foot paths. “Three-storey mansions built next to slums…these people have no concept of residential zoning.”

Just then, a human noblewoman opened a third storey glass window in her estate and dumped a bucket of refuse out. The filth narrowly missed her own small garden at ground level and instead poured into the street below, whereby local human children wearing shirts with no pants began skipping stones across the surface of the nasty puddle. The street urchin who’d been their guide promptly abandoned his task to join them.

“You derelict dung shoveler!” Raggrund shouted while shaking a fist at the oblivious child, though Darbakh waved a hand for his attention.

“Look! We’re already far enough. Across the street, between the bakery and that exorcist’s office. It’s Novak Breweries.”

Both dwarves gazed upon the high wooden warehouse which ran for three city blocks, with the top section of Zenda Stadium barely visible in the distance. A pony carrying a sick halfling passed in between them and the brewery, stopped to defecate, and then continued on its way.

“Come on, Raggrund, let’s get this over with. I just want to confirm that we’re present, get the date for our match, and get out of this toilet town.”

The two dwarves, one goblin entered the brewery and found a sparkling, immaculately clean reception area free of the offensive odors typical of human and Skaven settlements. A smiling halfling receptionist with ironed clothing heard the ring of a bell nailed to the door as they entered and then climbed upon a polished mahogany counter to get a better look at them. The cheery little man sputtered while he uttered a greeting to them in one of the various human languages, prompting Darbakh to nudge their goblin translator.

“Tell him that we’re here to see Al Novak, the owner of this place. We have an agreement between him and our overlord.”

“Sure thing, boss!” The goblin then began to chat with halfling with no animosity between them; the cheer began to sicken both Chaos Dwarves until the halfling leapt from the counter, slipped and fell ungracefully, and then pretended as if he’d meant to do that. “He says he’s taking us to the owner’s waiting area,” the goblin said after a rough tug on the collar of his cloak.

“Good. The sooner we can meet him and leave, the better.”

Down a long wooden hallway marked with paintings of various non-notable petty princes, the annoyingly happy halfling led the trio toward an anteroom with benches against opposite ends of the wall and, at the very end of the walk, an oak door. The halfling and the goblin began jabbering again on terms far too cordial for a goblinoid and a humanoid. In fact, the pair carried on for quite a while until Darbakh lost patience and snorted, causing the goblin translator to visibly flinch.

“Well?”

“He says that Mr. Novak will meet us as soon as he has an opening in his schedule,” the goblin said casually, leaving him unprepared for the nasty glare he received.

“An opening in his schedule? We’re here because he wants to sponsor us,” Darbakh said in a tone laced with resentment.

“Ok, ok boss, let me check.” The goblin spoke to the halfling briefly again, though the happy humanoid hurried away at the end of the exchange. “He has another meeting with a Bretonnian investor first. We’ll have to wait-“

Darbakh grabbed the goblin by a loose fold of the little greenskin’s cloak and carried him like an accessory. “First of all: there is no ‘we,’ runt, and second of all: I’ll be damned if I’m going to wait for a bunch of snooty Bretonnians!”

In a single short stride, Darbakh kicked the oak door hard enough to sent it flying inward, revealing an elegant (by human standards) office lined by bookshelves, potted plants, and an extra couch against one wall. Two very surprised humans stood near a shiny polished desk opposite the door, both of them dressed in foppish hosiery and breeches. Both Chaos Dwarves were surprised as well when their rough entrance elicited, rather than fear, a level of excitement at seeing their door kicked in.

The older of the two rotund humans, a balding man with mutton chop sideburns, began to speak in whatever language the people of Ruritania blabbered in. Lacking the patience for waiting - especially for any Bretonnians or other humans who were expected to see the sponsor first - Darbakh lifted the goblin translator, shoved the little green man forward, and shook him like a disobedient housecat until he began to converse with the older human.

“Ask this Novak who in the hell he thinks he is, making the children of darkness wait like common rabble!”

The humans seemed rather entertained by the two stone faced dwarves shaking a greenskin. “Mr. Novak says you must have impressive punting skills to kick down the door like that!” the goblin said, partially babbling while being shaken.

“Tell him I’m going to punt him right out the window if-“ Darbakh stopped talking when the younger of the two humans, a similarly shaped man with a red nose, began flipping through a stack of papers, bills, and bank notes on the edge of the polished desk. Both dwarves instinctively lost their concentration at the sight of so much money being handled so casually, and Darbakh shook his head as if he’d been dazed. “What’s he doing?”

“I’ll ask him.” The goblin, himself far more dazed from being shaken, held his temples and closed his eyes while speaking and dangling in Darbakh’s grip. The older, balder human laughed heartily while sweeping his hand across the various paper stacks on the desk. “He says he’s prepared all emigration documents for the farmers. I don’t know what farmers he’s talking about, but he seems to be assuming-“

“I already know, runt. Give him this and ask him if this deal is still valid. I need to know that this is all legitimate.” Darbakh then put the goblin down and handed over his copy of the agreement he’d received from their overlord.

Twirling his arms in a gracious manner which made Darbakh want to punch him, Mr. Novak took the copy of the agreement and read it aloud before handing it back, along with a few more papers. He then motioned toward the younger man and continued speaking without pause, along with more flowery gestures and rambling.

“Wait, what’s he saying? Slow down!”

“He’s saying…he’s saying…” The goblin paused a few times to continue listening, causing Raggrund to sigh deeply and fold his arms. “Ok, he says the agreement is still on, so long as you win. He’s especially excited to see you smash the non-chaotic dwarves. Apparently they have a long running business dispute.”

“Excited is only the start of it. The betrayers will meet their end at this stadium!”

The goblin didn’t understand what Darbakh was referring to, but he nodded and continued. “Also, Mr. Novak wants to introduce you to Buddy Novak here, his son who’ll also be the team’s coach.”

Both dwarves fell silent and eyed the younger human suspiciously. Buddy gave off the sort of winning smile with shiny teeth which made the Dawi-Zharr want to knock them out, but they both restrained themselves knowing that they had to maintain a business relation. “I’ve been preparing to coach the team myself,” Darbakh said cautiously, with every word chosen for a purpose, even if the humans couldn’t understand him.

The goblin noticed the change in tone and looked up at Darbakh nervously. Half expecting a beating, the cloaked greenskin translated the words and then exchanged a back and forth with the elder Novak, who shook his head in a sign of disagreement which would have earned him a swift death in any other context. “He says that’s not possible; coaches must be citizens of Ruritania. Assistant coaches can be from anywhere, but the head coach must be a local, and the head coach for all teams sponsored by Novak Breweries must be the owner’s son.”

“Teams? As in plural?” Darbakh asked. “Is he playing us against another team?”

“No, boss; not anymore. They lost their team because of the business deal that fell through. The dwarven team, the non-chaotic one, they used to be sponsored by Novak too. Now they’re sponsored by some other brewery with a human name I can’t pronounce. It looks like this will be a grudge match for the both of yous.”

For a long moment, Darbakh examined Buddy’s chubby babyface. The doughy young man didn’t look like he could even pick up a football much less coach a team to play it. “So this man once worked directly as the coach of the betrayers?”

“I think that’s what they’re saying, boss. I can ask-“

“There’s no need to ask, runt; it was a rhetorical question.” Darbakh hesitated, discomforted by his need of a lesser being. Knowing better than to voice that sentiment, however, he extended his hand to Buddy Novak. “At least he has something to offer; our team will need to know every secret he has about those betraying bastards. Tell him we’ll be glad to start working with him tomorrow.”

“We’d better be ready, boss. The first match of the tourney is tomorrow.”

“There is no…wait, what?”

Darbakh’s jaw dropped open, and when he turned to look at Raggrund, he found his peer’s jaw dropped open too. “Yeah boss, this guy talks a lot. There are sixteen teams total, and every match is gonna be played here at Zenda Stadium over the next couple a weeks. You’re facing the Underworld Denizens in…” The goblin stopped to ask Mr. Novak a few questions before continuing. “Your match starts in less than eighteen hours.”

The two dwarves switched between staring slack-jawed at each other, then the Novaks, then the goblin, and back again. Breaking the silence, the team’s roly-poly coach raised a soft, dainty fist in the air. “Yay!”

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