The Meeting of Two Storms
It starts with artillery, as usual. As the last act begins along with the night, both sides empty their stockpile, convinced no amount of fire can be excessive. Before both lines even see each other, a common deluge of projectiles falls from the sky. Both sides march slowly, to give their cannoneers as much time as possible. At least that is the logic followed by the humans. Those of them who know their enemy harbor the suspicion the invaders follow a different line of thought: systematically marching at slow pace, disregarding the bombs piercing their ranks, is a way as any other to show their contempt.
Do your worse. We have all the time in the world.
In any case, both armies stick to their decision and march against each other as a storm of projectiles flies over their heads. Like a children’s game, or a regicide tactic, both sides will charge at the very last moment, but will try to do it before the other. In the meantime the night belongs to the war machines. On one side, ornate cannons with elegantly shaped muzzles, and multi-barreled guns showering the field with lead pellets the size of a human fist. On the other, magma throwers and earthshakers designed to torture the land as much as the flesh. The only common ground is the rocket cannon. Much favored by both armies, they illuminate the coming night like falling stars with their missiles, blessed with holy oils by one army, with entrails by the other.
The field of battle bears only a passing resemblance to what it was that morning. The road has almost disappeared beneath craters and corpses. The old caravan trade post is a ruin. The tall grass is gone. Passing sounds reveal the battle continues in other places but none of the souls present cares. Both sides know this is where it will all be resolved. Indyans know it with dread, dwarfs with satisfaction.
Only one thing they notice that could trouble their certainty: the indyan line is unusually quiet. Those who have a mind to care wonder where the gurus are. The manlings’ peddlers of delusion have a tendency to mix with the warriors and rant nonsensically even as they are cut down. They have seen them conjure storms of spirits and guide living carpets of snakes, all reasons for the manlings to stick to their method. But the line is silent and the gurus nowhere to be seen.
Kanishka knows where they are. His army knows. From the back of his elephant, the maharajah oversees the battlefield. He needs no mahout. The elephant is older than him and he mounted it for the first time when he was a child. The beast follows his orders, so he rides alone.
On this day, it is particularly important to be alone.
He waits for the rakshasas to be close enough to prevent any retreat, and sounds the sistrum.
It is a clank, a jangle, a hiss, a shrill, a shriek, a rattle, a death rattle. No word can truly describe it. For the dwarfs, it is simply the sound , a discordant music that in an instant enters their minds and wreaks havoc. The sound has no direction; it seems to come from inside their heads, each one its own source of pain. Once the pain has settled, the visions begin: rivers of freezing blood, mountains of skulls, and the choking air of festering jungles. Although dwarfs ignore it, their nightmares evoke the terrible rites of the Naga, the slaughter of forgotten ages when the cold-blooded serpents of Chaos held the World in a stranglehold of terror.
Those nightmares will evolve has the battle progresses, each tailored to his subject. The curse unleashed by the sistrum is a living thing. At least alive enough to ransack the minds it infects for sources of mirages. No two dwarfs will experience this pain in the same way. Each will have his own story to tell about the sound.
But they will never do. Pride will never allow it.
The Dawi-Zharr ranks waver. Some fall to the ground, some bleed from ears and eyes, some go rabid and must be put down. A few flee. Against their judgement, indoctrination and their very nature, they flee, damning their lineages’ names for the rest of time. The artillery barrage stops abruptly. Lost in their personal nightmares, the crews lose control of their machines, with calamitous results.
More calamitous is the indyan reaction. Their barrage ends. A clamor rises from their lines. Dwarfs stop, they charge, trashing any hope this might be an aggression by a third party. The coordination between the sound and the attack tells the dawi-zharr all they need.
No one predicted this. No one knows what to do. Officers demand explanations from their superiors and discipline from their warriors but both are lacking. All instinctively look for their masters in search of answers but the prophets are absent. They are with their own clans, fighting their own battles, chasing their own glory and plunder. Only the acolytes keep the army together. Despite the pain, they start the dirge of blood anew and wave skull censers full of burning embers to fight the influence of whatever is ravaging their ranks.
Only a few favored souls are close enough to Astragoth to see his reaction. They look at him with the confidence that the High Priest will know how to deal with this craven attack.
How could he not? He is unaffected, unsurprised…
He stares at his prey and cannot believe. He observes the manlings and considers what they are doing to his host, noting how even at this point some things can still throw him off balance. For the first time in the campaign the manlings do something unexpected, something not even the most pessimistic warnings predicted. The ruthlessness of the attack, the underhanded stab at his kin’s minds is traitorous enough to send his fury to new heights.
He smiles. With an army lost in a sea of madness he doesn’t know how to counter, the Ironhand smiles hideously.
“WE GROW THROUGH CHALLENGE.”
He speaks to no one in particular but the voice carries beyond those who can see him. The tone shows no acknowledgement of the army’s torment; no empathy; suffers no contradiction. Few show surprise. They all know, they learned since birth through harsh punishment and arrogant conviction.
Weakness is failure . This is not Hashut’s wisdom. This is dwarf nature; the only commonality not even betrayal could destroy.
So he marches and they follow despite pain and visions, to kill and die like dwarfs. The dirge follows them, speaking of oppression and supremacy. The Black Hammer oozes shadows and with them come bloody memories of the first grudge, the wrath that never abates. It is a vital anchor for their minds, to loose themselves in wrath rather than madness.
They march in spite of it all, but the indyans march because of it all. Unlike the dwarfs, they have no project beyond this day, beyond this battle. They fight with the confidence of people who no longer expects miracles. No more attempts to flank, no more time for strategy. Heavy infantry followed by heavy cavalry and behind them all, a wall of elephants. One carries a banner of pure silk tied to the howdah: Kanishka the First, the Redeemer, stands in the middle of a sea of undefined enemies. They could be anyone, and they die as anyone who ever stood before him. His naked chest is covered in blood and entrails but Kanishka shows no sign of discomfort, hatred or pleasure. His is the calm satisfaction of a man who knows he is where he must be. To confirm this sensation, over him stands Gilgadresh, engulfed in wings of fire, illuminating the world, guiding his son to the land he has chosen for him while the Thousand watch and approve.
Riding the elephant, his descendant does not share his calm, far from it. The current bearer of the name is the cause and center of a maelstrom of madness that brings pain to his foes and would do the same to his army if it could. On the elephant to his right, an elf, eyes closed, lost in concentration, does all she can to prevent it. On the others, the gurus lend their help to control the effects of the sistrum and direct them in a single direction.
Many will die mid-battle, their minds ravaged by the forces they try to harness. By the time the battle ends, there is no one to take note of their sacrifice.
Ten meters, eight, five, four. Fireglaives and matchlocks shoot at point blank into the mass in front of them. Ogres quickly outpace both armies and identify each other, the Hundred Mouths and the Ironskins bleed for their employers and their next meal. Neither side is short on war cries, invocations, curses and bloody threats. Dawi-Zharr promise eternal torture to manlings and their land for this cowardly attack. Indyans answer in kind, promising a sky burial for every rakshasa, their sons, and their mothers if they know who they are.
One meter. Four thousand weapons rise into the air and clash. Above them, the dirge and the sistrum collide. Like two invisible storms, they mix in a dissonant cyclone and rage across the field. Acolytes and gurus duel by proxy, each opening pockets of control and losing them just as quickly. A pandemonium none can see but all can feel in their souls.
Because every soul has gone berserk from pain or rage. There is no strategy, tactic or plan, only axes, hammers, mattocks, tulwars, spears and whip swords, those last ones chosen deliberately to kill slavers. In the skies, Lamassu and Taurus clash with Simurgh flocks and their rajah handlers. Bloodsteel forgemasters wield deadly relic weapons unknown even to their rulers. Dwarfs had plans to capture some of them to make them confess their secrets, but those priorities are far gone.
Agag considers if this pain is truly greater than the one suffered the day he was scalped, and concludes the question is irrelevant. The Stoneskull has enough to do guiding the Hound toward the manlings. The beast is impervious to the curses that afflict the flesh, but he is susceptible to break his handler’s control, which would make him a danger to the dwarfs in general and to Agag in particular. As long as he maintains control, the Hound is a nightmare given form. The haughty sons of the warrior caste experience it firsthand, a short experience that end in screams of terror and pain. Many will end in the beast’s metal jaws, their souls descending to his furnace belly where vengeful daemons await. Agag keeps tally.
Well away from this display of ingenuity, Zharrbaraz trusts the tools of his own trade. His hammer joins the immortals’ axes and carves a bloody path. The banner of the Ironhand in one hand, the Fire Boar bleeds from the mouth although he has not been wounded. Blood mixes with his crimson beard.
And so, the dwarfs of the land of skulls and fire do something no victim of the sistrum ever managed to do: they keep going. Wrath is a powerful incentive. They look for the source of the attack and cannot find it, so they plunge ahead to end the sound by killing everyone, the last recourse Dawi-Zharr are taught.
Wipe out the vermin and the problem will solve itself.
What they ignore is by this point Kanishka is no longer sounding the sistrum. It has done its purpose. Thousands of souls can hear it, the sound now has a life of its own; it is self-sustaining. The more they will hold on to life the more the curse will endure, until there is no one to hear it.
Indyans know. They were made aware of it. Their protection will last only for so long. Once the gurus fail, and they will, nothing will shield them. The entire plan rests on making the most of the time they have.
Bolt throwers mounted on elephants’ backs empty their load. They shot bolts as tall as the dwarfs they pierce and skewer or nail to the ground through the chest. A swivel gun opens a hole on the castellan’s armor, right next to Khuhrak, staining him with blood. Once the volley is over, Khuhrak raises is head and sees his servants turned into a rabble.
He cannot see their faces sealed behind helmets, but their movements are enough to tell they are suffering. Khuhrak knows. His ears and eyes bleed and he feels a knife slicing through his brain. But beyond the excruciating pain, he feels the sound taking hold of his mind and awakening feelings of terror he never felt: a sense of failure, of dishonor, the heretical yet unshakable certainty that Hashut is dead , and only indyan idols wait for him in the beyond.
This weakness will not be hold against the lorekeeper, mainly because no one is in any position to notice. The same scene repeats a hundred times all over the battlefield. A dawi-zharr army is like a dawi-zharr mind: a machine of clockwork precision. They are unaccustomed to deal with disarray. Everywhere lines fracture, discipline evaporates, order are given and not followed. Eventually pain is too great even for the Stoneskull: Agag’s mind flinches for an instant and the Hound of Karak Oram slips his leash. The consequences are catastrophic.
Indyans break through a dozen points. Riders charge the disorganized dwarfs, ready to exploit the chinks opened by the infantry. Khuhrak sees them clearly, covering is entire line of vision. Heavily armored riders, heavy lances pointing at face level, heavy tulwars and spiked maces, mail and lammel, bloodshot eyes, faces deformed by madness or anger. He sees them and understands these slaves will not be cowed. They will pierce them like naphthawine skins and continue until they are all dead.
The mind aflame with indyan sorcery, he finds no strength to care, and that revelation brings a new wave of shame, and subsequent wrath, to the chronicler.
The warrior caste breaks the dwarfs’ ranks. The infernal guard, monolithic embodiment of endurance, is decimated in the moment it takes the horses to pass by Khuhrak. Now the pain in his head is increased by shrieks in languages he ignores, vicious human faces promising failure and the subversion of the order of things. He fights the vision and goes back to reality in time to see a rider a step from him, raising his sword.
He never lands the blow. Something coming from behind the dawi-zharr rushes by his left and takes two heads with one cut: the horse, then the horseman. Khuhrak hears a gallop behind him growing closer. There is only one kind of warriors who make that kind of tremor, and they need no mount.
The bull-centaurs’ countercharge reaches Khuhrak. The temple guardians take back the lost ground and push beyond the place where the infernal guard was so ignominiously butchered. Indyans stand no chance. Those who evade the blades are gored into the dirt and crushed under bronze hooves. The guardians brandish axes and fiery mattocks, they do not flinch, do not hesitate; the sistrum means nothing to them.
How could it be otherwise? How could the favored Temple Guard be hindered? Their very existence screams of the Father’s glory, and that feeble attempt at corruption by spell weavers does little more than increase their anger.
Their presence does the same for Khuhrak, who feels his mind free of assaults. Blessed Zorgevan leads this hope, he who brandishes the icon of the Temple, a bull’s head he uses more as a mattock than a rallying sign. His brothers need no piece of cloth to follow their champion; he stands above them and above everyone else; swords and arrows break uselessly against his hide, his brazier helmet burns like a beacon guiding the warriors to Hashut’s forges.
Khuhrak intends to follow him, wherever he leads, straight to where the manlings’ lines wait. He licks the blood from his fireglaive and shadows the bull-centaurs rampage. Rag tag regiments follow them.
The indyans finally move, but something disrupts their unity. Something comes from behind them, shoving aside those who fail to respectfully step aside on their own.
They are taller than the humans they accompany, despite a hunched posture that leaves them always ready to pounce. They dress in ragged tunics; carry hatchets, spears and cleavers, but those trappings of civilization ring false, as much as their presence among humans. But what makes no sense to dwarfs is evident for indyans.
Noble but fickle, feared and revered, worshipped and distrusted, prone to corruption but also to stand with men: the Kin of Man, the progeny of Baghakal. Dawi-Zharr lore will call them tigermen.
In a few strides they leave the manlings behind and cover the ground between them and the temple guards. In as many seconds they gather enough speed and plunge at their chosen victims.
The bull centaurs welcome the attack. They plant their hooves on the ground and the tigermens’ charge barely moves them. The beasts fall back, repulsed or cleaved by axes. That would be enough for most, but the men-kin are not deterred. Too aware of their strength, or far too bestial to control their savagery, they recover immediately. Masses of flesh and armor break one and again against each other. The guardians’ assurance is tested when the first of them falls, but that death only increases the list of grudges they recite as they kill. Both sides quickly drop their weapons. The battle devolves into a brawl. Claws and hooves tear chunks of the ground around them in their fury. Their most bestial side comes to the fore; the veneer of civilization vanishes, replaced by fists, claws, fangs and tusks. Dwarfs and men join the battle but they are meaningless to the lords of the field, who kill indiscriminately as they tear each other apart. Soon both sides have to flee, to escape being crushed to death by their uncaring champions.
Then Khuhrak sees something he never thought possible. Zorgevan falls, brought down by half a dozen beasts. The icon, he loses after crushing a skull; he caves faces in with his fists, breaks jaws, gouges eyes, fights his way out of the melee several times, and the tigermen keep coming. They know a champion when they see one. He matters; he is a trophy, much glory to the one who takes it. So they keep coming until the blessed guardian, bleeding from wounds even his hide cannot prevent, falls to the ground. He never stops killing but his foes overwhelm him like a pack or mastiffs and rip him to pieces even as he keeps roaring his defiance.
Although the lorekeeper doesn’t know it, this is the last thing he will ever see. The rest will only be illusions. As the number of guardians decreases, the sound hits him like an Iron Engine and takes hold of him again. And once again he his certain the sound rejoices and taunts him; he feels it knows what to show him.
It must know, because suddenly Khuhrak is no longer in Ind. He no longer is anywhere. He floats in an infinite black void, where immensity crushes all sense of value and arrogance. Colossal in this emptiness, a black bull of fire and shadows charges and the lorekeeper thinks for a single blessed moment that he died in battle and the Father of Darkness comes to collect his soul.
But Hashut is charging and his enemy rises to face him. The Eight-Armed Tiger God, a golden sword in one hand, a glittering black mace in other, a strange barbed fan and a black-headed spear, a face that speaks of cruelty and bloodlust, and a horrible intelligence: Baghakal, feral, homicidal, eternal lord of the Wildlands.
Khuhrak doesn’t know him; he has never heard of him, the plundered knowledge of Ind did not include him. How then does he know the name? How does he see this unknown idol? Who shows him this?
His mind unravels. Hashut and Baghakal retreat and the void fills with other images, other realities. He sees the legendary corruption of Khuresh, lakes of blood, the cold skin of serpents, fetid jungles when the air of industry never blows. Scaly hands hard at work, a mind filled with malice giving form to a primitive instrument and sounding it for the first time; birthing a curse that spreads in ripples until it reaches Khuhrak’s mind to tear it down. Far above him, the gods of Ind rip the veil of reality and stare. Gilgadresh, the bearded three headed man; his son the white Bull of Heaven, mocking Hashut’s holy form; the Devourer, thirsting for blood, with Harakh’s head tied to her belt; the repulsive Weevil, bringer of calamities… and others, always more.
They are not there, they cannot. Hashut toils in his forges, building his army for the last war. The indyan idols are illusions to taunt him and bring him to despair.
“I bow to none but the Father of Darkness! I spit on idols fit for slaves and beasts!”
But Khuhrak is no longer capable of harvesting evidence. Knowledge is a tool that like all tools can be blunted. Gears will succumb to acid in time . He shudders at how well this image fits. But even this realization does nothing to bring him back to sanity. All he can think of is that the sistrum will take him to the hellforges, or to the indyan’s hell.
“Hashut! Kill me! Kill me or let me kill!”
By this point, Khuhrak Silvertongue cannot see the thing in front of him. In a corner of the battlefield cleared by the onslaught of men-kin and temple guardians, comes a grey-white mastodon shaking the ground with every step, sounding the call to slaughter for anyone who can still hear. The elephant’s trunk hits him in the chest like a cannonball. The chronicler of the Grudge War ends his life in the dirt, his ribcage crushed. He dies without seeing the man guiding the elephant, the man he tracked in sacked archives and tortured slaves’ minds.
He never sees the end. Not many see it. By this point not many on either side are rational enough to see the moment the Vicar of Hashut clashes with the Vicar of Gilgadresh. A dwarf from a cursed lineage, changed by ancestral pacts and implacable purpose into an avatar of wrath that will burn the world until nothing is left to shackle. A man who by blood, inheritance and labor finds himself for a short moment in time carrying the fate of his land on his shoulders and curses himself rather than lay down the burden. All over the battlefield and farther away, mystics, prophets, gurus and sorcerers feel their minds drawn to that point where two threads of destiny unravel themselves at last. Two souls who know nothing of each other and share nothing but an abysmal hatred that is the sum of every generation since the day Gilgadresh spoke to the first slaves and cheated Hashut of his chattel.
And even in a world where the End of Times grows closer, where the Ancestors Gods’ traitorous sons still live and breathe under their mountains, such things matter.
No grudge is too small .
Elephants swing chains with their trunks. Following them comes the core of what remains of the indyan army: the warrior caste from Taxila, kin and companions of the maharajah. In front of them, immortals and acolytes brandish bloody axes with their own curses waiting inside the blades. Those who do not fall to the mastodons swing at their tree-like legs or shoot them point blank. Dead elephants turn into hills both sides must climb to continue the killing. Others choose to throw naphtha bombs and alchemical explosives over the corpses. Elephant guts and bones quickly cover combatants and mix with their own.
From the sky, Takhmasp plunges. The lamassu lands on an elephant, crushing the howdah into splinters along with the manlings inside. The elephant collapses, his back broken. The prophet raises his hand and indyan weapons melt, crippling them and adding screams of agony to the disharmony. They are fortunate. The unlucky ones are the warrior caste, dressed in armor and helmets.
A javelin thrown with the strength of a ballista pierces the lamassu’s eye. The creature falls from the elephant’s corpse, dragging his master with him. Before he can drag himself from beneath his mount’s body, Takhmasp his surrounded by indyans and turned into bloody pulp.
His killer rides an elephant decorated with cages. The immortals quickly identify the prisoners inside them. It will add to the general nightmare of the day. They had months to learn the man’s identity. They thought they will capture him running for his life; they see him surrounded by dwarfs’ corpses, killing a prophet, dishonoring them regardless of the outcome.
The elephant, a scarred veteran with grievances of his own, carries a body impaled on his tusk. The immortal is strong; it will take time to die. His killer crushes, kicks, gores, and throws aside with his trunk, without any order being needed. On his back, the maharajah shoots with his bow until he runs out of arrows. He searches something he has never seen but will recognize nonetheless: Astragoth, wreath in flames and scalding mist, killing a prey that does not fear him but cannot kill him either.
They find each other. They roar their last orders. The elephant takes a step forward. Kanishka aims a javelin of pure bloodsteel. Astragoth raises the Black Hammer.
The rest will remain between them and the gods.
Tens of thousands of indyans fight that day, and most of them do not know what is happening in the center. Isolated in their own pockets of conflict, they fight the enemy they can see and do not have the privilege to worry about much else.
For them, the ends come abruptly. As the sun is setting, those closer to the Ivory Road feel a sudden rush of terror that has nothing to do with the battle. Many will describe it as remembering a long forgotten nightmare; they mention visions of snakes and blood. The sensation vanishes as soon as it comes, but some will not recover. The nightmare will never truly leave them.
Later, virtually every warrior on the field will see, although they will all have their own words to describe it, a sudden massive flash of light, a rumble or explosion followed by a dust storm, a blinding source of heat that leaves burning marks on those closest to the center and temporarily blinds some farther away. For some, it is like a second sun. Others remember thinking that a volcano raised beneath the road. More practical ones will describe it as an entire cache of gunpowder and alchemical salts exploding at the same time. They all remember the deafening sound, the heat, the smell of burning pyres.
Those stepped in the winds of magic know better: it is the breaking of a dam, the sudden unleash of a massive amount of aethyr energy.
That explosion, if explosion it is, is one sided, discriminating. Just like the sistrum curse it has one purpose, one kind of victim deliberately chosen by the source. But this indyans ignore, and that question will hound them from then on.
All they know with certainty is that it marks the end of the Battle on the Ivory Road.
In the epicenter, only the Dawi-Zharr see the end of the Grudge War.