Tales from Forgotten Europa

Shadow and Light

Vasilli’s fate is sealed, nothing can change that now. I have come back to Moskovia for one purpose, and that will be fulfilled tonight. The debt owed to Clan Hardforge will be paid in blood. I go to see that they get every drop they deserve.

The warehouse burns, and all I can do is think of the fight to come. The days of caring for the ebb and flow of commerce and all of the politics and power plays that go with it are long gone for me. Whether this thwarts some larger more sinister plan by Vasilli and his handlers, or whether its just smoking him out of his hiding place is of no consequence.

Sure enough, Kal got word that Vasilli would be meeting with some of his associates, and a small army of sell-swords, after his precious inventory was destroyed. That won’t help him though… tonight his life will end.

The meeting place is easy enough to find, as are the dozens of men surrounding the inn. My comrades come up with a suitable plan of attack… a bit round about if you ask me. I can remember the days in the tunnels with the ‘breakers deep under the karak. A good plan was as important as your axe and your mail. It’s been a long time since any of those tactics seemed useful. Blast through like a vengeful storm and don’t stop until there’s nothing left… this has been the only plan I’ve needed for so long… since the fields of Felkirk.

Eventually everyone is comfortable enough to get underway, and the mage opens a hole in the outside wall. There they are… mercenaries… a dozen or more… most clad in some kind of mail or even plate. I suppose Vassili was willing to break the bank to keep Kal from breaking his neck.

In a split second the internal debate spills out. How to balance the dark and the light? Rage versus righteousness. Can one embody both of these things without betraying one or the other?

The brutality of the fight is abhorred by those around me who don’t understand. It is not ruthlessness for its own sake, it is not the demons that I cage gaining control of my will and feeding on the victims they’re presented. It is passion made fury.

Would the priest call for Thorain’s favor halfheartedly? How would Asgard’s generosity turn if he did? No, he beseeches those blessings with all of his being, why should I do less? Why should Beordun expect less of this child than any other? Why should Kal expect less than total support of his cause? No, every ounce of my spirit is unleashed and those of weaker stock fall broken to the ground. Many try to run, but they are marked as cowards and dispatched as such.

The battle is a blur of silent screams. The Stormhammer blasts apart the bodies of Vasilli’s hirelings. With one vicious stroke the sound of thunder in the distance breaks the imposed quiet of the scene as another body falls to the ground. All of the elements are in concert now, and the wisps of eldritch energy play on the massive stone of the dwarven relic as it claims another. With one final stroke the ring of a breastplate being fractured fills the room… more… but none present themselves… “MORE!”

Let those who cannot recognize cower, let those who dare not comprehend condemn, but let none doubt the fury born of Asgard’s fire!

For a moment the urge to take the fight beyond these walls is almost too much to ignore, then Kal appears at the top of the stairs, covered in sprays of blood most of which are not his own. The look in his eyes says it all… it is done. The look is familiar, justice and vengeance are served, but there is no sense of victory, no satisfaction, only more questions. Too well I have known that feeling and borne the weight of what it represents… I hope he got more from Vasilli than just his worthless life.

Kal’s look snaps me from the wild dream of combat, and all I can do is kneel and let my muscles burn.

As I look around at the aftermath I can only smile to myself as I remember what the wizard told me. There are many eyes watching, hoping to control a bit of Beordun’s power for themselves… I hope they like of what they just saw…

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Unveiling

Room, I need a room. Dwarven tempers are rising, soon judgments will come to their fruition. This apprehension will soon be broken with flesh macabre. More blood will be spilled, but to what effect? Pawns in someone else’s game. Minds of stone see nothing but revenge. Offer to the counter offer. Death for death, an irrevocable blood thirst veiled in honor. But lives here are mere blips, implements of a grander scheme.

Vasiili regurgitates coin so naturally. Full of bile and acid, it is tainted for nothing but his ego, a selfish need to gain more. This is no offering, it is a bribe for weak hands, unable to carry the weight of its meaning. Make an enemy ruin another enemy. Corrupt those who endanger you with their honor and deal a crippling blow. Disappointing that he even thought this would work. He is irrevocably blinded by his success.

Yet to take him out is to be a puppet of an even larger scheme. With him gone, the state would annex his assets, push its own people into his trading routes. Someone is getting ready for this as we speak, I know it. We’re like puppets dangled by a silken string. A force easily redirected to ones benefit.

He knew. Someone knew… like a knife over my flesh, I slowly cut my past out, pieces I know nothing of, yet which are so dear to me. The momentum is against me. Some remnant of my past, that which they already deem with suspicion and disgust is no match to their thirst for blood of this man. They distrust me, yet I bleed for them more hen they will ever know.

The eye says to follow. Careless and cold, my only real connection, my salvation. Yet, it doesn’t know my loss. To it time never skipped. Now it watches me. What is the intent behind that stare?

Thank you for your concern, I am whole and well recovered.

A hard lie to tell, yet this is not my friend. I am empty, disadvantaged. What I say can harm me.

My journey has been quite fruitful. Gods are playing dice. They are involved now. The city of no name is a city of lies, a city of gods and fools. The architect calls it home.
I am much pleased to read your words. I’ve been disconnected as of late. I follow the group per your request and it leads me to a blood feud, which I’m sure you must by now know. Vasiili, a merchant I know little of, who is housed near the queen’s seat of rule, seems to have garnered too much attention for his own good. Coin will flow like blood. Tell me, of what importance is he, what does he know? His network seems to spread far and wide. A hole which will need to be filled. This takes me to another question. Who is gaining from this directly? If I am to do such service for a man, I’d like to at least see him in person. It is not a small favor after all.
[etching of the fallen mage’s signet ring] has made a mistake and played too close to the fire. Hope it was of not much consequence.
I must bade you farewell, time is short. Please let me know as soon as possible.
[no signature]

Khalid stands up, casts protective spells, puts on his cloak of flame, and flies directly to Vasiilis place. Flight is short and forceful. As he nears the compound, arrows start flying. They are no match to Khalid’s wards and most veer off. With an arrow embedded in his shoulder, Khalid lands in the middle of the henchmen, looks at who seems to be in charge, reaches for the arrow, breaks it off with not even a flinch and says, “Take me to him, he is expecting me.” The men stare at the flaming wizard, his eyes quickly stare them down, giving second thought to any further advances.

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Episodes in the Abyss

The ride south was uneventful, and if Raethe had not felt reborn over the past few days, boredom might have driven him mad.

The dwarf rode with purpose once again, and though his immediate task was clearly in Moskovia, his eyes were fixed readily southeast toward the once and future seat of the Stormforge Clan.

Jan slept on Raethe’s shoulder much of the day, and soared off into the night after sunset. The bird was a strange source of comfort, even when it wasn’t perched close by, as if Beordin’s blessing was with him always. The dwarf let himself get lost in the enjoyment of the cool Russian air and, of course, the sense of not being doomed to disgrace.

The calm of his thoughts quickly snapped back to reality when an all too familiar feeling washed over him. There was something out there… something loathsome.

Moments later the group was ambushed by a lone mage. Ordinarily not enough to cause the dwarf any anxiety, but this manling was shrouded in chaos magic! Raethe charged alongside Kal, and as they closed the mage tore a rift in space and time. Kal was quick enough to easily avoid it but Raethe was not so agile. The pony stopped short and threw him headlong over the reins and into the unknown.

Raethe crashed through the rift and seemed to hang in space, like he had leapt into a deep lake. Spinning left and right he tried to get his bearings. It took only a moment, and he was able to see and hear, but that wasn’t what struck him. It was his “other” senses that seemed amplified here. He could sense things for miles around. The overwhelming madness that is the Abyss was laid out before of him, and he could feel his markings begin to excite.

He moved swiftly, though he could make out no discernable ground beneath him. There was something close, something big, and it was no happier about the dwarf being there than he was himself.

Although he could sense it coming, the creature still managed to get the drop on him. A massive tentacle struck from out of nowhere and wrapped itself around Raethe’s midsection. The creature pulled him into view and Raethe was stunned at the sight of the thing.

It was massive, many times larger than the giants he had fought, as large perhaps as the dragons of legend. Dragons, however, were always described with a sort of reverence. Great and terrible beings of near god-like power, the dragons’ ancient bloodlines made even the least of them formidable and worthy of respect. This thing was an abomination.

The creature’s massive body defied any form, and it had eyes and what might have been mouths all over it. Dozens of massive tentacles whipped about trying to pulverize the tiny dwarf.

Even as he was being crushed by the creature’s tentacle, Raethe had no trouble tapping the fury in his soul. He lashed out with the Stormhammer, hitting the tentacle and forcing his release. He charged at the body of the creature with a fire in his eyes that was born of his true and utter hatred for its nature. Striking true, his hammer landed blow after meaningless blow. The creature seemed completely impervious to any harm he could do.

Soon Raethe found himself immobilized by several of the creature’s appendages. Each of his limbs was wrapped tightly and his body was constricted. He was being pulled closer to the center of this thing, and soon its massive mouth was in view, along with one large eye which looked at him at once with malevolence and indifference.

Raethe’s rage was useless, no strength he could muster would break him free. With every bit of his will he focused his contempt on the creature, spitting curses in languages no man or dwarf should know, and for an instant he thought he saw fear register in its massive eye. Then he felt its grip begin to weaken and he could breathe again. Then, as the creature’s tentacles trembled trying to keep a hold of him, thin bolts of energy lanced out from Raethe’s flesh tearing through each of the foul limbs.

Black ichor sprayed through the strange environment and Raethe dropped back down at the base of the thing as it wailed in pain. This time Raethe fought the urge to strike with the Stormhammer, keeping it ready only to knock away any errant tentacles that lashed out at him.

Instead, he focused on the essence of the creature. The same blasphemous power that Raethe had hunted for so long and become so familiar with. The same energy he was now able to wield as a tool against its rightful masters. The more he focused on the creature, the more it cried out and thrashed around. Soon it moved less, until it just trembled and jerked, its tentacles limp and lifeless. Then, the great eye turned a milky white, the colossal mass shriveled, and it was no more.

Raethe found himself energized with the death of this chaos lord, and found he could now force his way back through the chaos-mage’s rift that had now all but completely sealed.

As with all things chaos, the rift was unpredictable, and Raethe found himself free falling about 20 feet until he crashed atop his pony. The poor beast was killed by the impact of the dwarf landing on his spine. Raethe himself was seriously hurt to begin with, and was badly concussed from his landing.

Thankfully Khalid was nearby, and as he began to call forth the blessings of a god Raethe knew nothing about, he could already feel other eldritch power at work, snapping his broken leg and ribs into place, and healing his punctured lung.

His head still ached, but as Jan landed gracefully atop the Stormhammer and cawed, Raethe felt the worst effects of his concussion subside. He straightened his goggles and cloak, shook his head at the deceased pony, and took up his pack. The gates of Moskovia awaited.

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Random Meditations

Empty…

I saw a god today. Curious why so simple was this transaction. He was there above the lost dwarf, so pleasured by his own righteousness. Ecstasy of anger filled his capacities. Jacob, the skin he wore stretched with agony. It cracked at the seams trying to contain that which so horrendously forced itself in its place, unnatural, egotistic, and raw. Poor soul I suppose, though I’m sure many would say a deserving one. Perhaps it was, in the terms of the earth such things are as gravity, they weight down on the soul. Was this what he thought of when he dreamt of meeting his creator?

It’s the lost dwarf whose soul seems the heaviest of all though. The ground cracks under his weight. The Dwarven people, who identify themselves so ecstatically with the earth, they too cracked under his footsteps. And they bled rivers, hot rivers, steaming red. His masochistic purification of the disease in his own veins became ritual and unwavering. Did he think he could kill this feeling? Think not, feel not, overwhelmed with rage. When everything he knew was gone it got only worse. In becoming the judge’s hammer he himself became the guilty. It was a chaos driven justification for ridding the world of chaos. The necessary end to such a conviction is death, for the job is not done until he is gone, the last earthly drop of hell.

Yet he lives, his plan cut short by the only power capable of such miracles, forgiveness, redemption. These were not available to this scarred mind until god himself made it so, a furious god that gives no favors, only takes and uses. Arbitrary Dwarven judgment, rules for rules sake, rules carved in stone. To a primed mind even suicide gives a path to salvation. I wonder where this forgiveness will take him.

Empty…

Why do I feel so empty? Any man would tremble to such a sight, yet I am denied this. I am sorry my lord, I have sinned. So hard I try to find my path yet it fails me. I fail me and in this I fail you. I so much aspire to know the truth, yet I am lost in myself. Why did I not tremble?

I have this equation I have been working on. It is to calculate the weight of a soul. It is so perfect, I must be close, yet the numbers don’t make sense at times. The things I seem to feel important have little impact and the things I take for granted can throw the balance to extremes. I have much work left.

Empty… there is nothing.

I met a man who put blood to my hands. He was a fool in the city of fools who knew more of me than I knew myself. Would a lie in a city of lies be a truth or a lie like everything else? He knew me and his words put pain to my ears. If you’re lost and the way out is to hell do you just close your eyes and turn another corner? What he said gave me the first hope of knowing what happened, yet now I’m unsure fulfillment will be what I find. Perhaps that is the path these fools have chosen.

Too many questions, I know. There are more. A merchant named Vasili has taken pleasure to others pain. The lost elf thought he found himself a home, yet he also found its destruction. The merchant took arms to Kal’s Dwarven family and now we’re off to seek revenge. Dwarven laws again. It is a conviction to punish that which spoils the soundness of life. Would I not do the same? I feel no sympathy, yet I am so guilty for this numbness. I should be enraged. All I can do is help, because I should. I want to help, but will I just cause more pain?

He knew me. I have to push forward.

Empty…

This book, I know it. Pages too fine for the words they carry betray the contents as a distraction. The eye, I so much want to see. It’s the eye which matters, so easy to miss, it feels familiar to my fingertips. The longing, the excitement betray it. The printed eye so graceful and inquisitive as if were looking back at me, drawing me in. Look through the eye and know the truth. Is this truth worth it? The words it reveals excite and scare me. The eye knows me. It knows me like the fool knew me. It sees me, beckoning to pursue my path of discovery. Will I see me or someone else, a version of a man seen through someone else’s eyes, incomplete, fragmented, biased? It’s all biased. If I find who I am it won’t be me. It will be a man, forever disjointed, a moment in time filtered through the conscious eyes. If that’s what is to come, why do I yearn to follow this path?

That equation, it says a man’s soul carries little but a few defining moments which might, just might carry on beyond their limited horizons. A depressing conclusion as it would be, would mean a sort of salvation. Past just might be constrained to the past unless… it isn’t.

Empty…

These amateur wizards are a distraction. They make me lose my focus. One plucked me from the sky too easily. My powers grew weak with the lack of concentration in one direction of study. Another summoned power beyond my knowledge, a chaos creature with formidable prowess. I might have bled if it wasn’t for the others. None of this seems to frazzle me. I fell 120 feet, not a trivial distance, yet as I was falling all I could think of was the wizard’s eyes. They betrayed fear. I pitied him, I despised him. He should have not done this. It was a poor choice. I am loosing focus.

Empty…

The lost elf is close to his query. Vengeance froths his words. This focus for a price to repay. He is sure of this deal as any swindle he ever undertook, yet I am unsure things are so clear. All this seems too simple and too odd. Perhaps some things are so. This all seems to be on someone else’s terms. The elf is so sure of everyone, even the queensguard Sir Hans. He practically told him his life story. The eye, the merchant, now the queen, too many are making choices which affect us.

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Of Gods and Monsters
excerpt from the Memoirs of Dorak the Axe Bearer, Thane of Karak Belgrin

The following chronicles a part of one of the more famous quests of a mighty dwarf that once lived in Norska. Though he passed over a millennium ago, his legend lives on…

“9th of Harvestmont, 18,506 Anno Drannorae.”
That Evening

“We have just finished dealing with Vasili’s thugs. Kal is called away on clan business this night, and the rest of us head back to the Inn. There’s a package waiting for Khalid – a few books he had requested back in Odessa. I sense there’s arcane power in them, and when I mention it to Khalid his eyes widen and he quickly excuses himself, leaving me with Raethe alone.”

“I sit at an empty table and call the wench over. Agitated and angry, I give her a piece of eight in cold and ask for a hearty meal, and tell her to keep bringing spirits until I can move no more.”

“The tavern is dim, and though it is late a few locals still linger about finishing the night’s meal. Raethe sits at a table with me and shares the meal, though not touching the spirits.”

“I have my axe laying on the table at my right, still bloody from evening’s events. My shield lays to my left, ready at a moment’s notice, the distant fire’s flames dancing red, yellow and orange on the golden sun. Raethe sits nearby, his hammer, with its scars of desecration on the stone head, propped against the table. I eat in silence for a moment, glancing at my ‘companion’ now and then.”

“Suddenly a large black bird with gold eyes – the Rook that has been following us since Belrael, flies in and sits on the top of Raethe’s hammer. I’m no stranger to omen, and I’ve studied dwarfen religion for a long time. I know what a Rook is… I know what it can mean. Not being able to contain myself any longer, I chug a mug of mead and looking straight at Raethe ask in a steady but deliberate voice: Tell me, dwarfslayer, why are you still here?

“The room goes silent for the moment, as all the patrons freeze and moments later slip out of the tavern, leaving Raethe and me completely alone. They know slayers, and they’ve seen me around, and one way or another they’d rather not be part of this conversation.”

“The Rook flaps its wings once, and an eerie silence surrounded us. I feel more and more there are forces at play here that are beyond my understanding. Raethe looks puzzled for a moment as if not sure why I would ask that question. As I found later, he didn’t realize I did not hear Beordun’s words. I must say I’m puzzled a little as to why everyone BUT me heard the words of my god, but as a priest you learn to accept that gods have their reasons and it isn’t up to me to question them.”

The following section was enciphered with dwarfen runes and did not become legible until a hundred years after Dorak’s passing.

“For reasons understood by all dwarfs, I hid the following from the prying eyes. In a surprising reaction to my question, Raethe did not explode in anger or let his emotions rule his actions as I expected. Instead, he resolved himself to telling me a story – a tale, of who he is and what brought him to his current state. To make the long story short, he had discovered years ago that his clan had turned to chaos, and in the attempt to do the right thing he went on a rampage to try and punish his own clan for turning to chaos. He spent years hunting his clansmen and wiping them out – ruthlessly, mercilessly, and meticulously.”

“Having completed his quest, he turned to madness, trying to end his life in combat, not sure where to go next. And so he sought the slayer king, hoping to find a worthy death and earn admittance to Asgard.”

“As it turns out however, it was Beordun’s right to bring vengeance on his people, and Raethe, having done so himself, took that right away from Our Father. Fortunately (or unfortunately), a single member of Raethe’s clan survived and is in hiding, and as a punishment for Raethe he has been quested to seek him out and protect him, so that the clan can be restored and brought to light again.”

“I do not know what to think. I cannot say I condemn Raethe for what he did entirely, as chaosdwarfs are an affront to everything I stand for. But I know I would have asked for guidance before going on such rampage. He slew his entire clan, and without divine guidance he certainly killed innocents.”

“In any case, it is a hard tale to spin, and a lot to digest for one night. I looked into a distance lost in thought when I saw another vision – of my father years ago. When it faded I felt it was time to get some sleep.”

“I looked at Raethe with a bit of pity, for it seems that he’s been quested to save his clan at all costs, even if it damns him for eternity. If gods have put me on the path of traveling with this dwarf, then who knows? Maybe, just maybe, my task is that much harder – maybe, just maybe, I’m quested to save… him?!”

“In the morning we head out for Moskovia. In the morning I’ll pray to Thorain. In the morning…”

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The Plot Thickens
Blood on the high seas flow to Archangel

From the journal of Captain Kal Deigo Date: 1039 Seasons on the Third Moon

I’ve often found myself wondering if I was born into a crazy world or if I simply am a weirdness magnet. I’ve been traveling together with my strange quartet for quite sometime now and every day something new and intresting happens…

We we’re sitting at the campfire on our way back from “the lost road” and me overhearing a conversation between a GOD and Reathe. (see yesterday’s journal entry) and I thought it would be a good time for me to take Reathe aside to talk to him about these recent events. As I stand to leave; I see Dorak holding his hammer drifting into the fire, his knuckles turning ivory white with strain and his eyes swimming. I hear him mutter something…

“Sun to a boy is a toy Sun spinning by his bed Not what is seems… Cut off your head..”

Then his head snapped up and he went back to tooling his weapon. Frankly, the only reason why it even stuck out to me was the lilting tune he muttered it in. I’ve always been a fan of music and I seem to have a gift for getting songs stuck in my head.

I spoke to Reathe and questioned him about Byordin’s words, I knew that he had done something to walk the path of the slayer, but when he said he slew his own clan for a sin they had committed… I never realized. Dwarves clans can be hundreds even thousands of members deep. My adopted clan, Hardforge, is relatively small with only 342 members including myself. (I should know… I had to memorize every name and all of the fathers, boy was that a fight! I thought Ashka was going to murder me when she found my cheat notes…)

Anyway… I feel for Reathe, the more I speak to him the more tortured I feel he is. But for once, I see hope. If he can save the last of his clan, then he can be free, I just hope he can save himself. I’ve traveled the seven seas, I’ve seen the black fields of glass in the west and I’ve seen the remains of giant walkers in Afrika, I know men make deals with devils by their actions… and I know a cursed man when I see one. I can cheat at cards like no ones business… maybe I can help him win a bit of himself back…

Enough for now… We’ll be back in Archangel in the morn.

(2nd Journal entry) From the journal of Captain Kal Deigo Date: 1039 Seasons on the Full Moon

I have killed men tonight. I have killed men whose souls I dam to the most unimaginable depths of hell. The Lord, Vicilli, has shed my cousin’s blood these last 3 nights. He has shed this scared ether to bait me out but I wasn’t here…I was in the city of lies.

I apparently have made an enemy by refusing to be extorted on the river. He has made a grievous mistake this day. I offered challenge and like a coward he sends his minions. They were all dispatched but one made the death confession of who his master was and that he resides in Mosko.

I have also made the Warbond between me and my companions real by voicing it aloud to a council of Dwarves elders. This should be clear to the Dwarves, they know honor and they should know that the blood they ALSO split on the rivers flows here from dwarven veins. By speaking the Warbond allowed, we are warrior kin and bound by steel. The human has no sense of things… his reaction was simply “I won’t kill someone for no reason”… since we have been together; his hands are the most stained. He has burned and killed a group of poor press ganged minions, he spilled the most blood on the river when he could have easily made false gold or some other deception instead of hurling spheres of arcane flames and he has been called both deceiver and murderer in the City by the mad painter. It’s amazing how easily people forget that. I have not. Perhaps I judge hard but even without understanding the Warbond, a man should understand other men and know his own sins.

In the plus column, the girls are all right, thank the divine masses (any god good enough to listen), but Ashka has every right to be cross. Killing a dwarf is like killing an ancient oak, the life you snuff has taken hundreds of years to culminate and its roots dig into the very center of the earth. 3 have passed and all due to me coming here.

And I saw the lady in white again… for a split second she sung her tune and haunts me. As I fought Vicilli’s murders, I heard it and made it my own. With every note my blade grew more precise and the din of battle grew silent.

I will ponder this more but for now I need to travel. We head for Mosko in the morn.

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Grudges

Raethe knelt over the mutilated body of some nameless lost soul known only as a Bull. His wounds still pouring blood, and his lungs still burning from the exertion that ended only a few short minutes ago. The moments pass slowly and the tension around him is like an electric charge in the air. Kal approaches cautiously from behind him unsure of how to address everyone’s concerns.

Raethe stays put, hovering over the remains, trying to find some reason that this fight –and these lives- were worth all of this. All the while he can feel his skin crawl as eldritch force begins to weave his shredded flesh back together.

“You were gone there, for a minute.” Whispers Kal, with more than a hint of trepidation in his voice.

Raethe looks around as if he doesn’t know what he means, but Kal’s face told him there was no chance of getting off that easy.

“It’s the only way sometimes…” Raethe replied, not sure how else to explain without betraying everything.

The short conversation was interrupted by Khalid’s advance, he spoke words that should invoke a sense of peace and well-being, but it was not so. The powers that granted these requests for aid were anathema to the forces that Raethe had drawn upon to aid in his quest. The feeling of those powers recoiling was curious, and like so many things, just raised more questions for the dwarf. He almost wished Khalid would show the same contempt that Dorak had begun to harbor. At least then he could simply ignore them both. Instead, Raethe simply nodded in appreciation of the battlefield aid that Khalid so easily provided.

The tension was broken by the unmistakable sounds of an ornithopter in the distance. Kal did his best to pinpoint its direction, but in the damnable place that is the Bellona/Belrael he was only able to get a rough bearing. Kal, being the only one of the group who can navigate at all here, brought them through a forest of the odd slender towers that overpopulate this place. Further on, they realized there was another noise that was quickly rising above the steady whumph of the ornithopter.

The rising cacophony of voices eventually broke into full-fledged yelling as we came upon the sight of the Bulls and Scorpions posturing for a fight. The Bulls had the Scorpions outnumbered about twenty-five to ten, and the latter began to fall back toward the group’s position so they decided to hole up in an empty tower and get a better view of the area.

Kal spotted the Scorpions heading straight for them while getting slowly surrounded by the Bulls. They would certainly be obliterated, so Kal and Dorak decided that it was incumbent on the group to intervene. Raethe objected, as did Khalid. For Raethe’s part it seemed utterly without merit to interject themselves into a fight between two gangs of squabbling urchins who, by all accounts, were already dead.

Kal and Dorak would have none of it, and prepared to enter the growing battle just outside the tower walls. Raethe did the only thing a warrior can do in that position; he backed his comrades’ decision.

The fight was going badly for the Scorpions right from the start. Outnumbered, overpowered, and scared, there was little hope for them. Raethe wondered, as he did his part to even the odds, if at least the fallen would find some fulfillment in this “life” that they so obviously did not find in their past lives. Unfortunately, the Slayer quickly concluded that the same failings that landed them all here in the first place persisted. Even after watching them calling for blood and launching threats and vulgarities at the Bulls, the Scorpions began to flee. First one, then another, and soon Raethe saw half of them desperately trying to escape the fate they had wrought for themselves. It was too much. Here they were, risking their lives in a pointless fight with no more reason than it might be a good fight, and the side they were supposedly supporting was leaving their mess for the group to clean up.

Raethe was incensed. First at his comrades for putting him in this position in the first place, at himself for not knocking some sense into them, and at the Scorpions for their cowardice. Soon the battle was a blur, and anything that dared stand within reach of the Stormhammer was fair game. Raethe could feel his fury pouring forth from his heart, and the enemy was routed at the sight of him.

Kal sped into the fray with blinding speed, thanks to being ensorcelled by Khalid. Abagail and Agatha whipped through the air and found their marks with unearthly speed and precision. As Bull after Bull fell before him without even the hope of a defense, Kal quickly lost his taste for the fight. After all, it wasn’t a fight; it was a slaughter, all we did was change the side that would be hopelessly cut down.

Dorak too realized the error of participating in this bloodbath and pleaded with the gangs to end the pointless conflict. Unfortunately for one of the more headstrong Bulls, they didn’t listen, and he met a gruesome end at the edge of Dorak’s waraxe.

The fight eventually wore down, and Raethe found himself in the ever-familiar position of recovering his strength over the broken bodies of his enemies. As his mind cleared he realized that one of the fallen Scorpions was Red, a young man they had met when they first entered Belrael. A waste.

Raethe was shocked by the sudden sound of gunfire from his flank, and after a hurried conversation with Khalid, they rushed to find the source. Raethe had heard the sounds of Kamargian gunners in Deau Vere, but to find them here was somewhat surprising. They crossed the field, and found Kal and Dorak speaking with the owner of the weapon, Octavius Seebeck.

It figured, Raethe thought as they exchanged greetings, that in this backward place the name Seebeck would surface again. Octavius had all the look of a blacksmith turned big game hunter, and with the Kamarg inspired hand cannon he hauled around it’s likely he bagged his fair share of trophies. As much as his surname was enough to anger the slayer, Octavius seemed far less cryptic than his brothers. After some feeling out, Seebeck admitted he was also searching for the ornithopter, as well as its creator, the Slayer Engineer. This peaked Raethe’s interest, since he knew the dwarfs of Ruus had experimented with such machines, but were unsuccessful in creating a functioning airship of that design.

Octavius told what little he knew of the Slayer Engineer and his fate. It seems that one of the most famed engineers and machinists in all the dwarfen karaks. The “cog-golem,” as he was called, had been working on a prototype of an ornithopter. He was presumed dead after a tragic accident, and that was the end of him. Raethe began working on the assumption that the accident claimed more than the life of one engineer, and that perhaps this was the event that turned him to the path of the slayers.

This speculation was enough for Dorak to draw the conclusion he had been looking for. It was plain that Dorak had grown increasingly contemptuous of his slayer comrade, but still lacked the understanding of what a slayer truly was. After hearing the discussion about the Slayer Engineer, he deduced that a slayer was no more than the killer of innocents, and was worthy of nothing but contempt.

The claim made Raethe bristle as he could feel the accusations behind Dorak’s realization, but this slayer had long since lost interest in the judgments of others. The world, he knew, was littered with those of high-minded ideals who crumble when those ideals are tested. True convictions, he had come to learn in the most trying ways, need no outside approval.

As always though, these contemplations would have to wait, as a dozen or so slayers marched into view, and the conversation with Octavius ground to a halt. With no introduction they moved past everyone and a battle scarred and mutilated dwarf approached Raethe and said: “Can you pay?” Raethe responded: “Yes.” With that they were off to the hall of the Slayer King.

Not far from the battlefield they came upon a cul-de-sac that housed the ornithoper that had eluded them thus far. It was a marvel of engineering (and who knows what else) crafted to look like a massive silver falcon. Octavius was mystified and immediately separated from the rest of the group. Raethe and the others pressed on and eventually down to a door that promised the Slayer King and so many answers behind it.

The hall of the Slayer King was suitably impressive for any royalty, but surprisingly so given the nature of this particular sovereign. Dwarven tapestries depicting any number of clans, and the arms and armor those clans had crafted. Perhaps these were monuments to the slayers pledged to the king of this realm, but truly it mattered very little to Raethe. The history would have to wait… now he would have answers.

Sitting at a lavish and well stocked table was Willem the artist/engineer. Raethe sat, and his comrades each did in their own time. There was some conversation, but all Raethe could think about was the Slayer King’s arrival. After several agonizing minutes, a door at the head of the room opened, and a dwarf dressed in gilded and embellished banded armor walked to the table and sat down. He took Raethe’s coin with no ceremony or explanation, and began to eat.

All was well for the time being, and though Raethe was anxious at being so close to the focus of his search, he felt assured that the answers would not elude him this time. As dinner moved along, Willem excused himself expressing a dislike for “this part” that seemed to make him a bit queasy. With that, the air in the room changed, and all those at the table of the Slayer King knew something beyond words was about to happen.

Each of them experienced the next few minutes in their own, very different, ways. For Dorak the experience was a magnificent reverie that could only be achieved while basking in the glory of Asgard itself. Khalid was quite detached, and save for the fact that he was attuned to the otherworldly aspects of what was transpiring, took little else from the incident. Kal remained fully aware, if spellbound, for the duration of the event, and except for the moment of concern afterward, said nothing.

Raethe, however, was at the heart of this revelation. The Slayer King began to change right before his eyes. Growing larger and larger all the while an unearthly light filled the room blinding all who were caught in it.

Raethe squinted to protect his eyes, but despite the pain he could not bring himself to look away. Then, the once Slayer King stepped into view, filling the massive hall from wall to wall, and hunching down even under the vaulted ceiling.

The being was perfect. As perfect as any dwarf could ever be. It was as if he was crafted by a smith of impossible talents. Every hair, every feature, every aspect… divine.

Raethe fell to his knees at the word of the dwarf lord. The sound seemed to reverberate in his very soul, and Raethe wept as he knew he was truly in the presence of the almighty Beordin.

The anger of Beordin was like an irresistible wave that even the god himself could not ignore. Cursing Raethe for exacting a vengeance only he had the right to take, Beordin slammed the diminutive dwarf against the wall. Then he made his will clear: There was one Stormforge left. One who escaped the reckoning Raethe visited on his clan. Raethe would seek him out… and save him. Just as Raethe took it on himself to end the disgraceful clan, so now would he have to rebuild it.

Finally, Beordin turned his eyes toward the Stormhammer, and with a word, forged an unbreakable bond. No more could it be brought to bear against Beordin’s children, and the Stormhammer shook on the floor, and for just a moment, it blazed with the power of Asgard.

Again his gaze fell on Raethe, still prostrated on the floor, and he spoke. Beordin bequeathed Munin, one of his ravens to be Raethe’s companion on this quest. Raethe was confused, but far to overcome to do anything but accept in silence.

Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, Beordin strode from the hall, leaving through a door far too small for his massive frame. Raethe took this a small reminder that the limits of Midgard had no hold on the divine. Raethe could hear the finality of the Divine Book of Grudges documenting the price demanded to settle his account.

The rift vanished, and the light of Asgard no longer flooded the hall. As his companions collected themselves, Raethe stood up on shaky legs and wiped the tears from his face. With unsteady hands he clutched at the Stormhammer, and whispered the axiom that had spurred the great dwarfs of his clan to victory “Honor is the Bedrock of Glory.”

The party made a hasty exit from the hall, and found themselves emerging outside of Bellona/Belrael and not far at all from the gates of Arkangyl. Even so, the toll taken by this experience was more exhausting than any battle Raethe had ever engaged in, and the decision to camp for the night was easy, though he doubted there would be any sleep for him this night.

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An excerpt from "The Dance of Gods and Men" by the scholar Vladmir Grôber

From Chapter 2: Through a Mirror Darkly

”... it can be truly said for all cultures, all peoples, that the deities worshiped are in fact archetypes, are in fact the very model of stereotype, for that culture. And this is in by no means restricted to the race of Men.

Elves worship gods that represent the best and worst in their culture. Their gods embody worship, knowledge, persistence, honor, and exclusivity. Halfling gods are all renown for their ability to consume, their peacefulness, and their stature is somehow less while still being more grandiose than any mere mortal of their church.

The virtues that drive Men can be found in the spirit and story of each of their deities, and every devil and demon bears the countenance of Men’s own failings. Wrathfulness, infidelity, tyranny are all well-represented. In fact, the argument can be extended to Chaos itself, and in that regard Men stand alone, for to Men chaos can be either devil or god, depending on one’s background and view of life. The Empire and Norsca teach us this is so.

And perhaps it is in the oldest of races that the hypothesis is truly borne out. For amongst the Stout Folk, their Gods walk bravely but only just before where their mortal worshipers tread. Truly, the Dwarf Gods are not omniscient, are not all-powerful, but merely better and more evolved than the folk themselves. A dwarf god bears all the strengths and failings of his people, is in fact doomed to his own role in life and his own inevitable, inescapable conclusion, in their myths of Chaosdawn, the Räkenskap. Traits which be found in a dwarf (from their infamous greediness to their impeccable memory and their sense of honor and history), will be found to unapproachable extremes in his god, this has always been a hallmark of their myths and legends….”

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Through the smoke...

Willem feels better with his mask on, it is the simple truth. Such an interesting pathology, that. He muses as to when that actually became the way of things with him, but like so much else, it is lost in the labyrinth of his mind forever now. The maze peopled by slender, beautiful towers and precious little else.

Willem is painting again, here in his studio, the largest room in his white cathedral-turned-home. Gifted with an eye for architecture, and an engineer’s precision, as well as a mathematician’s sensibilities, Willem Murrel has instead always felt most at home, most himself with a brush in his hand and a canvas before him. He paints Amy again, his favorite. She sits posed near him, quiet and still.

His portrait-Amy sits facing away from his painter’s eye, brushing her long brunette hair before a mirror. She sits in a red room with a window over her shoulder. Her coloring favors red, after all. Amy is a young-enough girl, a human and simple, if austere, with a reserved beauty. She is vaguely reminiscent of someone else, in fact.

The portrait-Amy however resembles only one thing. Her face, seen only in the reflection of the mirror, is only bone. A skull with long flowing brown hair, portrait-Amy stares at what could be anything with her deep, dark, and empty sockets. The bone structure is a perfect match for our real-Amy. Willem might be insane, but he is also insanely gifted.

He whistles as he works, his oils staining over older and deeper stains already unmistakable on his apron and gloves. Willem paints often here in Belrael. He is chuckling, remembering some long-ago joke, his slender boar mask bobbing slightly with his amusement. His masked visage somehow conveying a world-weariness and some sardonic humor. His mind’s eye flits from portrait-Amy to the courtyards which give on Fleet Street. Afternoons beyond counting spent just off the shore of the blood-red river Thames. A glorious if dark place.

He slashes more color onto the walls of portrait-Amy’s red room and thinks on the Arabian, the devil in silken robes. He wishes for a moment that he could truly remember how he came here to Belrael, and whether the wizard is the cause. Should he be angered or thankful? What is the difference?

His off-hand moves in a delicate and precise pattern, and a small, grey winged man zips across the room, a goblet clutched in its claws. Willem grasps the offered cup and sips it, ignoring the imp, which immediately resolves itself back into the shadows of the quiet study. Willem sips and sighs and leans back to better see his newest creation, the skeletal damsel primping for her lover.

He decides to pity the Arab. Belrael is no place for one of his mindset. Too focused, too determined. Too sane. No logic can be trusted, no equation relied upon here.

In the very corner of portrait-Amy’s red room, Willem sketches the posts and bottom rung of a ladder. The ladder always seems to find its way into his art, of late. His ladder. Him.

Jakob the liar, descending Jakob’s ladder. Willem adds it into his composition with resignation. Jakob will not be denied. One would do well to heed him, respect him, avoid him.

The dwarf and the fancy robber-baron. They would soon see precisely what that means.

Willem giggles to think of the Arab shaking hands with Jakob and sips ever more of his yellow wine. Welcome to Belrael. Think of it as home.

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The City With No Name
excerpt from the Memoirs of Dorak the Axe Bearer, Thane of Karak Belgrin

The following chronicles a part of one of the more famous quests of a mighty dwarf that once lived in Norska. Though he passed over a millennium ago, his legend lives on…

“3rd of Harvestmont, 18,506 Anno Drannorae.”

“Finally our journey has a clear purpose. Finally, the tall, thin towers of The City With No Name sit on the horizon. Finally, I find my heart beat faster with every step we take. We’ve traveled hard the last few days, and the rains that come at night may finally put out the fires behind us. Though I can still see the smoke to the south, I pray to Lofrún that she may protect this land, however cursed it may be, and to Aègnar, for guiding his righteous flame.”

“Today’s march is done, and we make camp for the night. I sit with my back against a mighty old oak, finding solace in its shadow and a cushion in its leaves. Kal sits nearby, lost in thought and somewhat subdued, fiddling with his sextant and gazing far to the horizon. Again I get that queasy just looking at the instrument. It feels… unnatural somehow. My angst only strengthens when Kal asks Raethe for Durnrik’s now-inert coin and puts it in the sextant. He’s convinced that a dead man’s coin will reveal secrets and cannot resist looking through it. I do not doubt that Durnrik’s coin holds silent power, or that it will divulge hidden things. I know of the horrors that lie beyond the realm of man. I try to warn him that some things are better left unseen, but he does not heed my words. So he puts the sextant to his eye and for a moment stares through the brilliant ruby, turning frantically left and right, as if gazing at something not quite there. I do not ask what he sees – I do not wish to know. Yet when Khalid asks to look through it too, for some reason their light-hearted frivolity angers me. I feel a rush of frustration, fury, and irritation just thinking about it, but soon Khalid is done with it, and the feeling goes away. Kal offers me a peak too, as if mocking my reservations… but it disgusts me, and I tell him to put his toy away.”

“I stare at the fire for a while, pondering why Kal’s sextant infuriates me so. I’m not sure if I dozed off or not, but the fire seemed to transform, and before I knew what was happening I found myself in a new vision, though what it meant eludes me so far.”

“When the fire faded and my eyes refocused, I slowly realized I was looking down at fine golden sand, as if standing on a very large beach, with nothing but more sand and tall dunes reaching far to the horizon. A fierce sun shone high above my head, though I did not feel its warmth, and I noticed an outlandish lizard sitting on a limestone rock nearby. The lizard was beautiful, and at once I recognized various motifs of many armors made by man. Nature is amazing, and often enough we imitate it, trying to improve on the original design. Ha! The audacity! Still, the lizard sat there, its golden scales reflecting in the sun, shifting many hues of green, red, and purple, basking in its brilliance.”

“Minutes passed, and the creature lazily jumped off the rock, and slowly walked towards a large, calm body of water, perhaps a sea. There was no wind. There were no waves. The water stood still, motionless – a perfect mirror for the sun. I followed the creature, naturally, and it seemed to be unaware of my presence. It stopped by the edge of the water, taking quick gulps with its elongated tongue. Its reflection, clear as day and undisturbed by water ripples, mimicked the real counterpart. But then the lizard spooked, as if its senses finally detected something, and scurried off back towards the rock. Its reflection stayed, however, and it was staring at me with its piercing black eyes! Moments later it too ran away and I found myself looking into the fire once again…”


“8th of Harvestmont”

“We’ve just made a short stop after a somewhat unique battle, and I take a moment to scribble down the events of the last few days. I would normally wait until nightfall to write in my journal but I do not know if we’ll have a chance to make camp, and I don’t want to forget anything (hehehe, like a dwarf would ever forget something!)”

“Three days ago we finally encountered the first signs of the city. We came across a maintained, though seemingly empty watchtower, with a very old and almost altogether washed-out road sign pointing towards the still-distant city. After some deciphering, Kal figured the puzzle out: The sign pointed to a legendary city of Bellona, or City of Truth. Could that be the city we’ve sighted days ago and now head towards? Could that be the City that lost its name to annals of time… or something else? It is quite a discovery, however, and it lightens our mood.”

“The next day we came across another watchtower, and again it seemed maintained, and again it stood empty. Though this time there were no road signs, we instead came across a body of a dead human with strange steel springs and coils covering parts of his body. Kal thought they might belong to the metalspinners (mythical spiders), but I remain skeptical – I think this metal was crafted by man.”

“On the third day, today, we finally came across a much larger watchtower, and less than an hour later we reached the ‘gates’ of the long-lost city. The sign at the entrance read Belrael, or City of Lies. Odd, since we expected just the opposite. I think back to my ‘vision’ and the reflection of the lizard, but quickly the thought fades away.”

“The city is large and strange in many ways, though it is hard to see it all through the thick, throat-scratching smoke of the many fires burning within its walls. The defense walls are… lacking, if not altogether missing. The tall, thin towers of pale blue, pink and green defy logic and one wanders if they serve any purpose other than as a monument of some crazed architect. Still, it remains impressive, and old.”

“At first we see no sign of life, moving slowly through the streets, not sure of what to expect or of what we may find. The streets look unkempt. The buildings look abandoned, once undoubtedly inhabited by those who deeply cared about them, but now boarded up, with crumbling exterior and cracked walls. They all look very old, though it is hard to gauge their age. This entire place seems to be ageless yet clearly man-made – located to the north of The Winter Gate yet mostly unheard of – with a straight road yet one easily lost upon. Initially I thought it was chaos but now… I’m not so sure. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels almost like sorcery of the worst kind.”

“Finally we hear ‘clicking’ sounds up ahead. Not sure what to make of it we move cautiously, and before us we find a group of bantering scorpions, larger than any of us in size. Observing them for a moment there is an obvious flair of adolescence and foolishness, and soon we notice that these scorpions are an arcane illusion used by young hooligans playing in the streets. These have the same kind of steel coils around their arms and torso as we encountered a day before, but the coils end with a metal claw at the hand. Each boy carries an amulet around his neck, and it appears this amulet has the ability to create the illusion of the scorpion. I find it intriguing and disturbing that such powerful Craft found itself into the hands of simple farm boys. Perhaps there’s more to them than meets the eye?”

“We finally approach these boys, and a courteous, though cautious conversation resulted in more questions than it answered. These boys obviously know much more than they let on, and hinted about many dangers within the city, but seemed as confused about its state and purpose as we were on the way here. I started to get the feeling that this place is some weird prison, but for whom and to what end I have yet to figure out. It briefly reminded me of what I’ve read of Nilhelm – a place where the unworthy roam aimlessly with no purpose or reason. But we’ll see – we’ve only scratched the surface of this place, and I know this is just a stop on my journey, not its final destination.”

“We parted ways with the scorpions, a self-identified gang of many rivaling forces in this city. There are others, apparently, like the ‘Bulls’, and perhaps more. Caution is advised, and weapons at the ready. But we continue on, looking for something to tell us where we need to go, or why we are here. I’m certain our path will reveal itself in due time. Ehem… hopefully soon.”

“We slowly move deeper into the city, hoping we’ll find something there. A tall white building – a bleached cathedral once upon a time – sits at the center, and it seems as good a ‘target’ as any. When we reach its walls, we encounter a flamboyant, though clearly crazy man, who identifies himself as Willem the Architect. He claims to be the brains behind the many odd-shaped towers, and that by itself set the stage for his mental health. I would have dismissed him right there and then but in an odd twist of fate he recognized Khalid, our wizard from Araby.”

“Now, this architect has been in the city for quite some time, having built all those towers. And mental state puts in question anything he says or does, but, he accused Khalid of murdering someone, and seemed to realize that it was Khalid that ‘sent’ him here – however a person, or soul, is sent here. That gives me pause – for in a possible moment of clarity he could have told the truth. Or not. We are, after all, in the City of Lies. But it is worth remembering. Next time we have some time, it might be prudent to ask Khalid questions that should have been asked weeks ago. But for now we move forward, leaving behind this wreck of a man to keep wallowing in self-pity and ignorance.”

“We walk around for a little while, seeking something to give us direction. We weren’t looking for trouble, but as it often happens, it found us instead. After passing one of the large multi-building fires that no one seems to do anything about, we finally came across the ‘Bulls’ that the scorpion boys mentioned when we first entered the city. It seems a little misnomer, for they are in fact another group of thugs masquerading as Minotaurs. Clearly they are no such thing, for I have seen a real Minotaur, and these are simply too short and not bestial enough. We have a brief discussion, trying to avoid the inevitable, but alas, Raethe’s patience runs out quickly, and soon any further diplomatic resolution is unfeasible.”

“With blades drawn, we have a violent scuffle with these thugs. It would be a lie to say it was easy, and even Khalid found his match in one of the bulls, who too seemed to have mastered the Craft. But these thugs are no match for warriors of our stature, and soon enough the remaining few fled from the scene.”

“I am once again troubled by the escalating fury that governs Raethe’s actions. I do not know if it is due to the proximity of his ultimate goal, or if the demons within him are gaining control, but it surely worries me. I am beginning to get a sense that he might not know whom he strikes next, and pulverizing a boy into a paste was completely unnecessary and brutal. It is one thing to defeat your enemy – it is completely another to hate him with such passion so as to pound his head with a sledgehammer long after he’s dead. I will give Kal one more opportunity to address his friend – and then I’ll step in. This must be addressed before something horrible happens. What if he turns against us next? What if he kills one of us?”

“We collect a few of the ‘minotaur’ pendants similar to the ones the scorpion boys had. I find the mechanism of the locket simple enough and ‘turning’ into a Minotaur does not appear to have any side effects. Still, I disable it for now… maybe it will come in useful later. And so I’m sitting on a stone bandaging my wounds, scribbling in my journal. I have not cast any blessings on Raethe yet… I wonder if I should. He sits there, exhausted, trying to garner control, and I watch him out of the corner of my eye. But for now it is time to close the book – the journey isn’t over…

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