This story was inspired by this artwork: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/8lwYLE
The Edge of the World
How far can a man go? How far can a man travel?
Those are questions I spend my life asking myself, and for a time I thought I had an answer. Maps and travel diaries gave me my first glimpse into the unknown parts of our world, and from that came the need to see them for myself. The day I read the word Ind for the first time in the Altdorf Bestiary, I thought if I could reach that place I would know what the End means. I dreaded to leave, and I couldn’t wait for the day.
Seventeen years have passed. As I write this, I have lived two years in Ind. And only now I realize I have not reached the end. Indyans have their own end, their own corner of the world they dream of seeing while fearing the day. That place is Chittor Fort.
Rathastan, the land of chariots, stands as an indyan oddity. Poor and remote, most of it is a desert of red stone. People there are nomads; even the court of maharani Sanjana is a city on the march, a miles long caravan of soldiers, servants, artisans, ministers, scribes, poets, tax collectors and zoos. Houses are rare, timber next to nonexistent, and temples, although grand, are austere.
In the northeastern corner of this northeastern corner, stands Chittor. A fortress carved from a stone formation trapped between the desert and the sea. It is the only fortress in all of Rathastan and the largest of all Ind. I have seen it, and I testify it is a marvel of engineering and art. Level after level of red stone walls, towers, pillars, columns domes and archways, the pinnacle of indyan martial science and architectural style.
The fort is a collective endeavor, the last one in this conflicted land. The rulers of Ind finance reconstruction and loan their architects. The garrison comes from all the kingdoms, every man bound to serve for several years, their duty to Chittor overriding their loyalty to their rajahs. It is not like the rulers of this land, or any other, to be this generous, but they all know the cost of being stingy. For Chittor is the vital lock blocking the eastern approach to Ind.
Directly north of Rathastan lies the true powerhouse of the east: Cathay, domain of the Dragon Emperor. In spite of past wars, Cathay is not the reason for Chittor’s existence. The Forever Fortress was built in ancient days by the common efforts of all Ind to preserve itself from depredations from the Hinterlands of Khuresh, a legendary place indyans only speak about with dread.
I had no idea the more I would walk east, the less legendary it would become.
When one arrives to Chittor, one must first tear the eyes away from the grandiose walls to notice there is a town at the foot of the bastion, whose only purpose is to feed and equip the soldiers. In pure Rathastan style, the town is actually a sea of tents of different sizes and colors. The motley population sharing this miserable shanty town is made of merchants, smiths, stonemasons, cooks, butchers, whores and the wardens’ families. It is a surprisingly safe and lively place. Maybe they are devoted to their mission, or maybe they resigned themselves to their lot, trapped between the desert and the discipline enforced by the men ruling from the high walls.
I thought I would have to pay for the right to sleep in a tent, but an hour after my arrival an envoy from Chittor came looking for me. It seems I am quite the novelty in this remote frontier, where a foreigner quickly sticks out. Assuming I was some kind of ambassador, the commanders opened their doors to me. I am willing to bet none of this people have ever heard of the Empire, but better to be generous than risk offending the envoy from some faraway power. So I was allowed the privilege of being escorted inside.
There I was greeted by a castellan, old and mutilated, who gave a greeting speech about the sacredness of hospitality and Chittor’s willingness to defend the “lesser lands” as much as blessed Ind. I thanked him in the name of my countrymen and was left to roam the place at convenience, as much as one can roam a labyrinth. Chittor has been destroyed and rebuild several times. The result is a confusing mess a stranger cannot travel at leisure. I had to limit my curiosity to the main edifices and courtyards, but the furthest reaches of the fort remained a mystery.
Chittor is a microcosm of all that Ind can bring to battle: Before even seeing the fort, I met patrols of heavy cavalry from the warrior caste, and riders on agni rams trained to smash the enemy’s ranks like a ton of bricks. Inside, I saw lancers, swordsmen, archers, matchlockmen, ogres and holy warriors by the thousands. Venomous lizards the size of dogs crawl on the outer walls and dark furred felines prowl the corridors. I saw two dozen armored elephants, carrying warriors and bolt throwers, drilling incessantly. On the upper levels, cannons and batteries of rockets, similar to those one can see in the Old World. It seems knowledge and necessity yield similar results. Some sections belong to the gurus, and the wardens avoid them. Hidden from sight, the mystics do whatever their call is. The wardens whisper they know how to confuse the enemies into attacking each other, how to summon giant cobras from the earth, and how to call the “kin of man”.
This I learned, and more. But nothing as worthy of being remembered as what follows.
In the Hall of Testimony, I was accosted by a group of raucous wardens who after forcing me to toast with them for reasons I did not get, proudly took it upon them to teach me the history of Chittor. The lesson was somewhat lost. They kept interrupting each other, arguing about obscure points, jumped from one dialect to another and talked too fast for me to understand much. Luckily, the bas-reliefs covering every wall were quite clear. They all depict an endless tale of endless victories: cathayans, rogue rajahs, raiders, greenskins and elves, beautifully rendered, attempting to storm the stronghold, then cowardly fleeing from triumphant indyan armies, followed by the aftermath: survivors crushed under elephant’s feet and the gods blessing legendary commanders.
I was contemplating the carvings, when I realized my hosts had ended their debate and were looking at me. They clearly noticed I had lost track and was barely listening to them. I prepared for an angry sermon, but their reaction was odd. They exchanged a few words, and then pointed to a corridor I had not seen. They were suddenly quite grim, so I complied with their silent injunction and headed for the corridor. They did not follow me.
At the end of that corridor is a chamber, empty and poorly lit. Unlike the other halls on the fort, it has six walls, each representing the same scene, with slight differences: scenes of violence and defeat, not the conventional triumphs carved in other walls. Six defeats at the hands of enemies I had not seen in the previous hall. The same pattern repeated six times. On one side of the bas-relief, the armies of Khuresh, nightmarish figures stepping out of jungles and black storms. Facing them, the wardens, dressed in their best battle gear, their tallest turbans, their beards saffron-red, charging down the causeway in a doomed last stand. On the battlements, their women killing theirs sons and themselves after setting fire to the stronghold to deny it to the invaders. Blood and scorpions rain on both armies.
The overall sensation is completely removed from anything close to glory. The artists did nothing to hide the horror of the scene, giving an almost sickly realism to the madness. The armies of Khuresh climb the walls and tear them apart, as they do with the indyans. Colossal snakes erupt from the ground at the foot of the battlements and strike at creatures the size of giants. Elephants impale champions with heads of boars and goats; disembodied heads trailing their organs behind them strangle wardens with tentacle-like intestines. Some of the things emerging from the storms I cannot identify. Others are painfully familiar: humans bearing the stigma of corruption. In one case, the battle is dominated by a humanoid figure with the fur of a tiger and a fleshless predator skull, grappling with a dragon covered in boils and worms. Strangely, both sides boast the presence of the revered “kin of man”: men with heads of tigers, women with bodies of snakes. For some reason, the artists made a point of having them butchering each other in every battle.
I do not know for how long I stood there, contemplating defeats rendered in their most intricate, horrifying details. I was afraid of breaking the silence. Under the flickering light of the braziers, I could see the beasts slither on the walls, the flames rising over Chittor, the bloodsteel gleam in the hands of indyans sentenced to be swallowed by hell. The mood was palpably different. The Hall of Testimony is a place of loud pride and celebration. This cul-de-sac memorial to the times Chittor fell is devoted to bleak remembrance. Even the statues are dressed in skulls and hands. Real skulls. Real dried hands. Real bloody handprints on the walls to honor the ancient dead, and those yet to come.
A sound behind me made me shiver. I turned around and saw the wardens had joined me. Their boastfulness was gone. They had knelt in front of the bas-reliefs, with their foreheads on the wall. They did not make a movement when I left.
The visit ended on the battlement. The walkway is large enough for ten horses to walk side by side but I only noticed that later. The first thing I saw was the black storms, rumbling on the horizon. Somewhere in the east is the sea, and beyond the sea, Khuresh, where things powerful enough to raze Chittor dwell. The townspeople say the gurus stand on their balconies for days on end, their eyes fixed on the hinterlands, seeking to discern patterns on the dark clouds. It is said a wise man can read future events in the storms, but it is a dangerous activity. Some go blind, others mad
Then I understood that room and those wardens. I understood why below me, the outer walls are covered in the likeness of Brahmir, guardian of the threshold, looking to the east. A god whose calm demeanor, signs of aversion and even perfect architectural proportions, are the antithesis of the madness waiting across the water.
Chittor is not a fortress. Chittor is a place of martyrdom.
Night has fallen.
The wardens have been the most considerate hosts I could hope for. They gave me a chamber and let me dine with the men. I ate with them, listened to songs in a dozen languages and answered a hundred questions about the Empire. I answered truthfully, exaggerating just enough to make it interesting. I was even offered the most splendid woman for the night, trained in arts you will not find in books.
After dinner, the wardens gathered for the night prayers, so I followed them to the most protected part of the structure: the temple. A room, carved from polished stone adorned with dozens of statues representing the baffling pantheon of Ind. After an hour of liturgy and ecstatic trances, I was falling asleep, thinking of the company waiting in my chamber, when the priest did something unexpected. He asked me to pray to my gods, to ask them to bless Chittor.
I was too puzzled to answer, but could not refuse. With hundreds of eyes staring at me, I step in front of the altar and tried to remember the prayers my parents whispered every night. I had not many alternatives, so I took my medallion and brandished it, showing the hammer of Sigmar to the wardens. Then I prayed to the God-King, asking him to bless the men in front of me, to give them his strength when the enemy comes. Father Lebrecht would have sent me back to school had he heard me, but the indyans were politely attentive and even bowed to the hammer, a gesture I am thankful for.
The prayers are over, but that charming girl is still waiting for me. I write this on the walls of Chittor. It is late, I cannot see the clouds over Khuresh, but I sense them in the dark. My medallion now belongs to the temple, an offering in gratitude for being alive after so many travels. It reassures me to know that when war crashes on these walls again, Sigmar will be here. And I need reassurance tonight. Food, bed and companionship can no longer make me forget I stand at the edge of the world. One step to the east and the land of men ends, again.
East of the Old World stand the World Edge Mountains. The name says it all. For our ancestors, it was the end of the world, the idea of crossing such a wall was inconceivable. Then Sigmar came and taught us not to fear. He climbed the peaks and when he came back, the dwarfs marched with him, and then we knew the mountains were our allies. We lost our fear, until one day a man stood at the top of the range and saw the Darklands. Another frontier, a burning wasteland ruled by the most implacable and resilient race in the world. But even dwarfs could not live in hell without seeing a part of them burn in the furnace, the best part.
Greed made what prudence would discourage. Legends of the east’s wealth drew caravans across the Darklands. They drew me. One of every ten survived long enough to see the Mountains of Mourn, another wall, vast enough to dwarf them all. We starved, freeze and bled, but we crossed it, and glimpsed at another Old World, one mind-bogglingly different, but human, and therefore similar. For a time, Ind and Cathay seemed to be the end of our road.
But now I have reached the end of Ind, and I found men armed to the teeth watching over another frontier, guarding the world of man from another hell.
Every time man conquers his fear and crosses the edge of the world, he finds another one waiting for him. There is no safety beyond the edge, there are only more edges, isolating us from each other, making islands out of civilization. Islands lost in a sea of nothing.
Sigmar of the Hammer, gods of my land and this one…
Is there no end to world ends?