The temple had size and nothing more. In the typical style of the lower races, it lacked anything that would make it resist the millennia. Destroying it would have been the matter of an earthshaker and a modicum of good aim, but the lords of the army wanted it spared for the time being. Now they all dwelled inside its walls and planned the destruction of its architects.
Khuhrak Silvertongue, lorekeeper of the Tower of Zharr, crossed what remained of the walls that once surrounded the complex. Between the ruin of the outer wall and the temple itself, a charnel of burned and petrified human remains, placed there to consecrate what remained of the town to the Father of Darkness. The temple had become a holy shrine, and the town a military encampment.
Twenty clans were spread around the temple, twenty clans represented by their regiments, their artillery, sometimes by their very rulers. In the darkness, Khuhrak heard activity around the fires. The discipline demanded by the commanders was sporadically disturbed by clans fighting to assert their superiority. At all times warriors wrestled, dueled, outdrink each other or tried to surpass their kill tallies in the goblin pens. The overseers rarely bothered to stop them, unless the good running of the camp was disturbed, and as long as they kept well away from the artillery emplacements, where the daemonsmiths kept their weapons dormant for the time being. Away from the main encampments, the infernal guard watched the outer defenses. In keeping with their tradition, they never lit fires that might illuminate their dishonor. All knew the distance between them and the temple was a deliberate slight against their lord, who hadn’t even been summoned for the campaign.
Thousands of dawi-zharr, hundreds of ogre mercenaries, dozens of living guns and too many greenskin vermin to count, the largest army to ever march so far south, so deep into the green hell of a thousand idols. Khuhrak had provided the arguments to the coven, but only his master could make so many clans walk in unison.
Inside the temple, the main chamber provided enough space to wait and argue for thegns, daemonsmiths, commanders and castellans. And above them all, isolated by their might and by the order of things, ten sorcerer-prophets from the coven of Zharr-Naggrund. The army’s ruling body was gathered in this empty shell and the mood was bellicose. Most of the recent decisions taken by their lord and master kept them fuming.
One of those decisions was especially close to Khuhrak, and it involved what was happening under their very eyes. Two dozen acolytes, dressed in the black and bronze robes and armor of the Temple, focused all their attention on the thing at the center of the chamber.
It was a messenger, one of the many roaming spirits slavishly worshipped by the primitive masses of Ind. This one in particular stood four meters tall, a humanoid figure of pure muscle and sinew and claws. Covered in the striped fur of one of the local predators, its head was a fleshless bestial skull, with fangs too big for its mouth to close. It howled and growled and clawed in a vain attempt to escape the invisible bounds keeping it in place.
Khuhrak’s master had defeated this jungle spirit as it defended the temple, and following one of Khuhrak’s hypothesis, commanded his acolytes to break it into its natural state: slavery. They had little to show for their effort. After weeks of ritualistic torment, simply keeping it in check was taking a toll. The beast refused to bow to its masters. For days it had trashed against the dirge of dominion, with no sign of growing tired. From time to time, it managed to briefly pierce the net and one acolyte ended his life reduced to a pile of bloody flesh, much to the amusement of the lamassus, eager to feast on the corpses. No one stopped them. Those acolytes were the most powerful talents the empire could gather. They had learned their trade at the foot of the High Priest, an honor many would have sold their daughters for. By failing, they had spitted on his trust.
Many resented being forced to gather in the presence of a primeval wraith bound to the manlings by enigmatic pacts. Half of them kept away and eyed the messenger worryingly. The other half fiddled with their weapons and swaggered around the beast, daring it to break free and test their mettle.
They would have to wait. Without warning, the doors of the inner chamber opened and out came, preceded by the bull guardians of the Tower of Zharr, Astragoth Ironhand, High Priest of Hashut.
Lords bowed, immortal saluted, even the fickle lammasus paid grudging obeisance. Only the acolytes remained focused on the ritual.
Metallic legs ending in barbed claws cracked the stone ground. The current master of the coven was rarely seen outside the Temple of Hashut but when required, he walked with purpose of mind reinforced by metal and steam. Towering over his fellow dwarfs, he was dressed in the same black and bronze his acolytes were, unassuming colors belittling his status. Fastened to his armor, the Black Hammer of Hashut spoke more eloquently that any rod of office, and his eyes, burning feverishly, seemed the only thing alive in a face grey as rock.
The contraption on his back spewed scalding mist, reminding everyone to keep respectful distance. Encased in metal, surrounded by smoke and the burning embers of his brazier helmet, Astragoth was the embodiment of the hellforge smiths that toiled in Hashut’s realm, building his army for the war against the Four. One day soon, the High Priest would join the ranks of these honored dead and strive for his Father until the end.
Unless the stone curse somehow lasted beyond death.
As far as anyone could tell, every part of Astragoth’s body was stone, with the probable exception of his face, although the color and texture betrayed how far the curse was advancing. A curse the High Priest had so far thwarted in the same way the dawi-zharr had always overcome: with craft.
The result of technology any daemonsmith would kill to possess, Astragoth’s armor was a nightmare of pistons and cogs nailed to his arms, legs and torso. An armor to keep him mobile and deadly, a work of art no one had ever come close to understand, not that its owner was forthcoming on the matter. Exoskeletons were common among thegns to multiply their strength, and among prophets to withstand the early symptoms of the curse. None had ever surpassed or even rivaled what Astragoth’s armor could do. Chiefly, to provide mobility to a creature that should not be able to even blink.
In Zharr-Naggrund, Khuhrak had rarely been in the presence of the High Priest. Every time, he was reminded of a grey statue, a tired ancient, fossilized on his throne, long past his days. Since then, he had seen him rout armies.
That was the only constant in the so called Grudge War. Almost every town and fort was destroyed by artillery. Astragoth was deliberately denying war to his army, and killing entire garrisons by himself. He even refused to divide the army and let the clans hunt for their own boon of slaves and blood. Many towns and cities survived because of this whim, and now their troops were most likely gathering somewhere beyond their reach. Slowly, the prophets that followed their elder in search of plunder and prestige understood that greed, that most noble of qualities, was not a priority. The High Priest cared not for those legitimate goals, which would fully justify a campaign of this magnitude. He was tracing a single scar into the face of Ind, slowly and methodically, and forcing the army to watch.
Astragoth’s ambition was inspiring.
All bowed, but the mood wasn’t cordial, or even respectful. Even as the High Priest walked among them, the army lords barely hid their displeasure. They were all sorcerer-prophets and veteran warriors; they wore their arrogance like their armors and their anger needed few excuses to explode. When pride and ambition was involved, even the respect owed to the head of the coven had limits.
Astragoth ignored them all and went directly to Khuhrak, who was starting to think the favor he enjoyed was another way for his master to slight the most powerful lords of the empire. The High Priest pointed to the messenger, and started the conversation as he always did.
“What is it?”
Had Astragoth’s throat mineralized as much as his skin? How could his voice sound like an avalanche echoing through a cavern? How could he even breathe? As far as Khuhrak knew, no prophet could reach such a state and stop the final transformation. But Astragoth had, for decades.
“The answer escapes me, lord. I doubt it is the god the manlings think it is. We might find the key in another temple, another archive, in another mind to flay.”
“A hard thing to confess, lorekeeper. And I fear the answer will escape you for some time. You will focus on your main duties from the time being. The clans are restless and I want an assessment on the army’s mood. More coteries to divide chronicler, they grow as quickly as you break them.”
“I am sure I can find the ans…”
“Do not grow fond of your tools! That answer is not what the Dark Father requires at the moment. He requires an army united in purpose. That is something… I have willingly given to those who will soon challenge our presence…”
The voice seemed to trail off, a strangely common occurrence Khuhrak was starting to discern. Bull centaurs made a circle around them and a small group gathered around the High Priest. Among those allowed inside the circle were thegns from Astragoth’s clan, trusted prophets, and the unquestionably loyal immortal commanders. Those who ruled the army while their master served Hashut. Or stranger still, when he remained quiet.
Khuhrak was new to the inner circle, and the more he served Astragoth, the more he noticed an unsettling phenomenon the rest seemed used to. The High Priest was afflicted by peculiar mood swings. As easily as he preached, commanded and fought, Astragoth could suddenly grow cold and silent, irresponsive, leaving his attendants no choice but to wait. Then the fire would restart and Astragoth would return to them, without noticing his own absence. Compassion was unknown to Khuhrak, but seeing the master of Zharr-Naggrund behave the way some erratic clockwork would was both unsettling and fascinating.
For now, he was there: “There is a fine line between our two purposes. The first involved staying here regardless of the coven’s thoughts on the matter. The second involves moving at the right time. We have reached that line, the army must move. What can we expect?” He turned to Gal-Zhumarhak, immortal of the seventh tier.
“We send a thousand greenskin scouts after we took this hamlet. As of this morning twelve have returned.”
One could easily assess an army’s strength and speed based on how many greenskins it killed, and how quickly. To any veteran, those numbers pointed in one direction: the land around the town was now crowded with foes willing to decimate the cannon fodder. The manlings were finally gathering a response.
Gal-Zhumarhak continued: “The dregs that returned brought a prisoner. He confirmed our assessment. Several armies are converging on us, days or weeks away”.
“There is only one word I want to hear from apes’ lips.”
“He spoke it lord: Kanishka.”
The High Priest growled in response, signaling his satisfaction at the news, or his anger at the mention of that name. For weeks, he had willingly delayed the campaign to give time to the manlings, especially to one of their chieftains. The one Khuhrak had identified. The one who went to war on a mastodon decorated with black beards and cages, cages with living captives.
“Dara Kanishka, - the chronicler announced to the gathering – who calls himself our bane. It is his land we burn. You will find that name inscribed in the cartouches of Gorgoth. The ape that killed Harakh is from a breed dating back to the great revolt.”
“And many of them gave us reason to be here, said Astragoth. There is more than one grudge to be expunged in his flesh, including that title’s empty boast. Is a passable challenge too much to expect from him, or this land?”
“From all lands”, grumbled Zharrbaraz. Thegn Zharrbaraz, the fire boar, carried Astragoth’s personal banner. He was Astragoth’s true kin, although none knew the nature of their parentage, or how many generations removed. “Is the Ironhand expecting something different?”
“Hashut teaches to grow through hardship, hardship so few of the lower races can provide. That is the paradox I intent to resolve by letting the apes round up an appropriate army. Crucify the dregs for cowardice and send another thousand. Kanishka can surround this ruins, I care not. All I want to know is where he is. Until we know, we will demand more patience from our lords”
The circle approved in silence, as per usual. Only sorcerer-prophet Takhmasp raised an objection. As a member of the coven, he knew better than most how high tensions were running: “The prophets will not take this well. If they deem this delay another insult, they might try to force your hand. The coven’s patience is stretched to the limit…”
“Nonetheless, you will make sure the clans are ready to march or deploy as I decide, and inform the coven orders will come as soon as the scouts return. Now.”
The inner circle dissolved. Astragoth grew silent, his gaze suddenly lost in his acolytes’ ritual. After a moment, Khuhrak went back to the only subject that remained.
“We will lack the time to break this thing before the army marches.”
“It will not break. Resign yourself lorekeeper, we will not continue this experiment and I will not lose more acolytes. It will be banished, and we will all turn to matters of war. But first… I have a mind to feed it a sacrifice. There is a debt to be paid…”
“Will it eat its own devotees?”
“Not humans… There is a slave of mine… one who follows willingly… a serf who thinks himself free and will soon know better, albeit… too late to correct his mistake. Send for…”
This time the voice trailed off. He turned away and set his attention on the beast, adding his own voice to the acolytes’ dirge, until he simply stood quiet.
“Lord, who should I send for?”
Astragoth ignored him. He was so still Khurhak could have sworn a statue had gone back to its natural state. Maybe the grave matters burdening his brow forced him into these moments of introspection, matters more important than attending his chronicler. But the lorekeeper was starting to suspect something else entirely.
The stone curse was the prophets’ doom. Hashut gave them the power to channel the breath of the gods the way no dwarf ever could, and the Father’s gift came at a terrible price. From the moment they wield it, they lived on borrowed time, waiting for the day they would… die? Stand vigil until the end of days? How much time every prophet had, depended on strength, skill, devotion and who knew what more.
And Astragoth was a living ancestor, ancient beyond reckoning. No living dawi-zharr remembered a time he had not been there. He was a presence as solid and eternal as Mingol Zharr-Naggrund and the god ruling over it. He had borrowed more than anyone in living memory, and dawi-zharr knew all debts had to be paid.
Maybe he chose to be silent, or maybe he had no choice on the matter. Who could say what the curse entailed for the mind of the prophet, as the final day crept closer? That was a question no lorekeeper would ever answer. No prophet would ever tolerate such an intrusion into the deepest recess of the pact signed between them and the Dark Father. Maybe Astragoth grew silent because the curse called, drowning all voices, until his will reasserted itself, for the time being. The road to Mingol Zharr-Naggrund was lined with the petrified bodies of prophets who had resisted the call until…
“I OWN YOU KHURHAK…”
The words reverberated around the chamber, drawing everyone’s attention. Khuhrak’s thoughts froze, he raised his eyes and once again Astragoth was there, staring at his chronicler as if the dialogue had never stopped.
“You and all our kin. No matter how many freedoms the clans and the coven enjoy, our armies, slaves and resources are mine to spend for the glory of Hashut. It is the prerogative of every High Priest branded by His gaze and burdened by the slow march to supremacy laid out by the true ancestors.”
His voice rose with every sentence, dropping any pretense the lesson was for the lorekeeper’s ear. Every dawi-zharr in the temple was listening, assimilating the message their lord and master wanted them all to settle in the stone of their minds.
“I own you lorekeeper, but I will not own your children, or your children’s children. My time is ending, and that breeds the flame of ambition even in the most devout members of the coven, but the province prophets are worse in a way. Distance gives them the illusion of freedom. Their minds boil with grandiose ambitions and projects. But above all, they grow impatient, and think they can act as if there was no High Priest.”
Those last words dripped with contempt, although their author’s face betrayed no emotion, and Khuhrak almost prayed to Hashut to spare him from ever being the recipient of such malice. But Astragoth’s words were not for him. Behind them, some of the mighty rulers of Zharr-Naggrund averted their gaze.
“I do not begrudge ambition. But impatience… impatience borders on heretical. Hashut taught us the patience of millennia, the long road of ascension, tier after tier on the ziggurat of dominion, until the day we will stand at the summit and no part of this world will hide from our gaze. Why should they be exempted? Because they all think they will succeed me? Hashut will decide, but by the blood of our Father, the High Priest will be obeyed until his heart turns to stone!”
The walls trembled one last time as the voice came to a halt. Pistons hissed and Astragoth, now indifferent to his chronicler, joined the acolytes, who at no point had abandoned their task, leaving Khuhrak free to study the faces around him. Prophets were nervous, thegns divided, immortals and bull centaurs indifferent, as if power games were beyond their duty. He could list those who approved the High Priest’s words, and those who felt alluded. Soon those words would spread to the army and only the densest greenskin will fail to understand.
Greed, that most noble of qualities, was a small word to describe the way Astragoth operated. Who else could drag the mightiest army of the Darklands on campaign, and then force the most powerful lords of the empire to sit on their axes as he hoarded all the glory and praised the Dark Father for the victory, while quietly daring them to voice their anger? None of them took him on that challenge. They might all count the days until the High Priest turned into a statue to his own glory, but they could not go around the fact he had laid bare for all to meditate at leisure.
Astragoth was dying, he was not weakening.
“We are here to correct a mistake, he said looking at the messenger. We are here because Zarkaveh overstepped his boundary and thought himself free of repercussions. As a result, a prophet died. The lower races shamed us in battle. Division was revealed in the Empire of the Father. And Zharr-Naggrund’s hand was forced. But Zarkaveh forgets the High Priest has a will of his own still, and even as he restores the order of things, as is his burden, he can draw his own conclusions as much as his own breath.”
He faced his lords and brandished the Black Hammer over his head. Tendrils of night crept out of the weapon and the chamber grew darker. Immortals and bull centaurs raised their axes and banged the hafts on the ground one and again.
Their drums echoed. Their war chant joined the acolytes’ dirge, both laments mixing unharmoniously into a cacophony that made blood boil. The hammer’s shadows spread throughout the temple, conjuring images none could remember, but that all knew. Visions of horror and death and madness filled the chamber, taking the dawi-zharr to a time before their own, when chaos and the greatest betrayal ever committed threatened to extinguish the forge forever. In those days rose the true ancestors, who sealed the pact with the Dark Father and forged the Black Hammer from the foundations of Zharr-Naggrund, as a living testimony of what they had endured, so that the dawi-zharr never forget.
Millennia later, they hadn’t. The forge was still burning bright, still consuming all around it. That was an image branded on every mind, and one after the other the lords of Zharr-Naggrund joined the song. Soon even the most cynical ones gave into the call to war.
And in the middle of it all, Astragoth, wreathed in flame and shadows, reverting to the only thing he truly was: wrath.
“Rejoice, my kin! - he roared - War is coming! A war to make our Father and ancestors proud! Courage, discipline and cruelty will be tested! Faith and value will be assessed! Worthless jungle will be replaced by the blessed order of metal and cinder! We will trample the lesser races, and by our labor another tier will raise our people farther above the mindless and the slaves!”
By his side, Zharrbaraz unfurled the banner of the Ironhands: the obsidian ziggurat, its mass towering over a broken runic anvil and the shackled bones of slaves. He raised it high and howled Hashut’s name to shake the ceiling. All followed suit with battle cries and oaths of vengeance, promising chains and more to the manlings walking to the hellforges on their own volition. Khuhrak gave himself to the call of the true ancestors, his mind free of rivalries and infights. The crack growing inside the empire vanished beneath an imperfect welding.
They will deliver war for their Father. A thousand ambitions will destroy them. A single one will kept them united, the oldest one: to endure.
As the chamber exploded in chants, his master joined him again, with the feverish look of one who sees things no one else does.
“A grudge to be settled chronicler… but first… a debt to be paid.”
They turned to the beast, the messenger, trashing incessantly against a net made of raw hatred and thirst for dominion, seeking to be free, to sink its claws into its tormentors.
“We will soon do the former. As for the latter…”
The High Priest looked back at Khuhrak, who knew the words that will follow and grinned at the logic behind them. Astragoth saw that he knew, and was satisfied.
“Send for Zarkaveh’s son.”