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.