The firestone brazier had burned down entirely. There hadn’t been enough fuel left to keep it stoked. Outside the tent Alaric could hear the first sounds of his people breaking down the camp for the next day’s march. In the darkness the new king sat straight on his camp stool with his fist closed around the symbol of Kor Kohn had given to him as the tent flaps flew back and a dwarf stumbled in stiffly, his ironcloth armor crusted in frozen dirt. It looked like winter was coming swiftly in these mountains.
„Your Majesty! An army approaches our rear and seems intent on battle. They look like none we have ever faced and are a mere three leagues away.“ the yet nameless Dwarven scout panted, pounding his weapon hand on his chest in greeting. Alaric thought for a moment, then responded, his every word forming a white cloud before him. „As if we needed more enemies. Alert Gethseme to draw back and take command of the vanguard. Leave enough warriors to guard the train and have my commanders assemble…“ He stepped out of the tent. Looking around his eyes found a ledge overlooking the wide path they were following into the foothills. „… there on that ledge at the crooked tree. And send Kohn and Mentor to me, I will require their assistance.“ Looking up at the pale sky Alaric silently added „They will have us well before the day’s end. I would have much preferred to test their night sight.“
„Do not go, my king! There are warriors aplenty who may go in your stead.“ Amethyst pleaded. Alaric hesitated a moment before he fastenend his gauntlets and let his gaze wander over her, clad solely in a nightgown made of darkweaver silk. The smoothness of her skin, the swell of her breasts, the impossibly narrow waist and the roundness of her hips, he had to admit she had excited him and again he felt a twitch in his loins. She would never be a warrioress, her arms were to soft and her wrists to weak - Brighthall if at all known for anything else but the food and riches they coveted it was for its diplomats and scholars, not its warriors. With Kor’s blessings she would never need to be, he hoped. Amethyst had made her way into his tent the night before, wearing only the black loosely flowing dress under her pelts. It was rare for a dwarf woman to paint her face, but the sparkling ruby dust on her lips and and the charcoal lining of her eyes had not been without effect on him. When they were done, they had both lain on his cot, panting. What troubled him where the images he had had, that had excited him more than everything else. The picture of Amethyst outlined in red lava glow, held fast by spiked iron chains and her gown ripped off of her. Alaric shook his head in deniance, he must not let Ter-Soth gain hold of him after all.
„Fear not, Amethyst. My warriors and I have been through many battles against both the most vile and the most cunning foes. And this time we only have to hold our positions until the main train is through. After that I’ll happily yield the field and show the enemy how a few well-placed rocks on a higher slope can spoil his taste for battle.“ He hesitated. „In truth every battle means more death. We cannot afford more dead and I need to be there to protect as many of my people as I can.“ He looked up, into her eyes who were sparkling beautifully despite the gloom. Amethyst seemed surprised and elated at him confiding in her.
„I understand, my king. In this case take this as a gift of Brighthall. It’s a tube of honed glass that makes a distant place appear much closer. I am sure it will be of good use to you.“ Amethyst kneeled as she offered the mastercrafted spy-glass. The view she presented him would have been enough to keep any dwarf’s mind out of battle and on more pleasant thoughts, but with effort he tore his eyes away and took the optical instrument.
„What do you make of this?“ Alaric asked his followers. They squinted against the sun rising behind a pale veil of mist, trying to make out details in the dust could that hid the oncoming army. „Spears, partial armor and no winter clothes is what I see“ ventured Vex Duntan, one of the most battle savvy of Alaric’s warriors, handing back the spy-glass he had borrowed from his king. „To me it looks like a peasant army, from the way the comport themselves. It should be easy enough to rout them.“
„We shouldn’t slide to conclusions. If these are the conquerors of this land, there might be more to them than we can see. Let’s make sure our flanks are well guarded.“ His eyes surveyed the terrain. To one side of the trail leading into the mountains a craggy cliff formed was topped by the small plateau where they had assembled. To the other side a series series of softly rolling knolls rippled down towards the enemy army.
„Duntan - we’ll put up our main line on that hill ridge yonder. Pitfall - can you give us a few surprises in the gully betwixt it and the next rise?“ The siege engineer only nodded his agreement. „Stonefist, your raiders are the reserve, I’d like to make sure we have a tool to crush any surprise the enemy throws at us. Mentor, have your priests who are not assigned to battle companies watch for signs of magic from the plateau. But maybe we can avoid a fight altogether…“
The diplomat K’evan of the Green had selected had volunteered to meet the enemy in the open field. One of his two guards carried the non-descript almost white banner that in the Accordlands had come to signify the willingness to talk instead of fight.
As the little group advanced into the plain a small group of fighters around a golden chariot broke away from the spear-studded battleline and trotted to meet the dwarven ambassador. Alaric raised the spy-glass and studied the chariot’s single occupant. He looked like a heavily muscled human, wearing no clothing beyond a loin cloth, huge brass pauldrons and a heavy mask also made of brass. The five horns and the huge teeth obviously were meant to scare your enemy on the battlefield. Which would never work on his dwarves, they had seen much worse. But the arrogant poise told Alaric much more and he steeled himself for the inevitable.
Just as the two groups reached shouting distance the charioteer whipped his reins and the cart jumped forward. K’evan’s dwarf never stood a chance, likely didn’t even see the mighty barbed spear before it jutted from his chest and the enemy Warlord thundered past him, tearing down the flag of truce. Knowing they could not run, the dwarven warriors broke into a charge and laid into the panting human spear-carriers. Axe chopping and hammer smashing they quickly dropped them, but then the Mask-bearer returned with his chariot. The first dwarf could parry the spear thrown, but not the heavy mace that descended with unreal speed on his helmet. Before the chariot had raced ahead another dozen paces, the killer had jumped off the chariot and landed with inhuman grace. From there it took but a few grains of sand falling until the second dwarf fell lifelessly to the ground. The Mask-bearer took the dwarf’s axe and moment later he held up the ambassador’s head to show to his advancing army.
„Naram-Sin, Naram-Sin, Naram-Sin!“ Alaric could hear them chant strange words, or possibly a name. His face had turned into a stony mask, his hopes for peace shattered. It took him a moment to swallow his grief, then he raised his voice. It was one of the powers of the Lady, that every warrior in his army could hear him, he knew.
„They died well for our people, to give us a chance to live in peace. It is not to be. But these are the last dwarfs who are going to be slaughtered. We will show them, how we fight. And we will show them how to die. Their deaths.“ An angry battle-cry answered his words and rolled over the small hills into the plain.
From his position on the cliff Alaric was nonplussed. The enemy had his troops run over the field towards the dwarven lines. By the time the were up the small hill, they would be exhausted already. No experienced field commander would ever do that. Unless his men meant nothing to him, or he wanted to distract from something else. Or both.
„Kohn, what is in that dust, that I cannot see?“ The old priest peered intensely at the dust cloud then his eyes glazed over as his lips spoke a silent prayer to his god. His voice was different, like stepping on a mix of gravel and glas, „There are creatures not from this world, they thrive on fear and anger. And on the souls of the living. They lust for our blood.“
Alaric nodded. „Nothing new there.“ His thoughts turned inside while his own eyes stared at the battlefield. He had always had a sense of how a battle flowed, where he had to be at crucial moments, but the magic deep in the earth had given him… something else, something more. Before his eyes the companies of warriors merged into colored lines then his mind … went ahead. The colors mingled and danced, flowed. New colors joined the beautiful dance of death and then he knew. His eyes cleared and blinked again.
„Stonefist, take your raiders to Mentor’s knoll. The enemy will attack with something fierce there. On my command, slay whatever enemy you meet.“ Stonefist nodded and motioned his raiders to follow him, then trotted forward to his assigned post in that even gait that heavily armored warriors adopt.
The enemy charge had slowed down. As they crested the last rise before the dwarven line, the twang of dozens of crossbows sounded and a cloud of bolts ripped into the best runners with the buzz of angry wasps. The second line behind them hesitated, as if waiting for something. The crossbow shooters had retreated through the holes the mace- and axemen had left for them. Alaric slowly shook his head as if listening. Now was the moment the battle should commence for real, but it seemed as if the enemy was afraid, stalling. Then he saw the things bounding out of the dust. Many-eyed and -limbed, barbed and scaly, they rushed over the hill, hesitating for just an instant, perhaps surprised at the dwarves still standing in line, unwavering. Then they plunged down in the last shallow gully that separated them from their goal.
Alaric heard the unearthly shrieks even where he stood as the first creatures impaled themselves on the sharpened tent poles pitfall had planted in hastily dug pits hidden beneath tent tarp. Other daemons just jumped over the pits and launched themselves at the patient dwarves.
Humans tended to think that dwarves were slow, and even a human woman would usually outrun a dwarf. But a dwarf’s physique was much more muscled, especially in the shoulders and arms, allowing him to lift heavier weapons and swing them much swifter than an ordinary human. The first wave of creatures didn’t have the time to learn. They ran into a wall of swiftly descending steel that crushed teeth and skulls, limbs and shoulders. Where the creatures’ otherworldliness turned a strike away, a patiently aimed second one would usually complete the task. Only in very few places would the line falter and give the priests and warriors behind it some work. Then the spear wielders had found some courage and advanced towards the melee, but before they joined the battle in earnest, a large shadow fell over the field. Rising out of the dust a huge creature shambled towards the dwarves, it’s body a nightmare of barbs and icycles and easily a score dwarves high. Where it tread the ground frosted over and men stiffened in the cold, only to be plucked up by a gigantic owl’s beak and swallowed whole. Around it more of the smaller daemons rushed forward, unaffected by the crippling cold. Even dwarves would not hold long against this assault. Alaric circled the King’s Lady over his head and was immediately mimicked by Stonefist. When Alaric let his weapon arm fall forward smartly, the Blackstone raiders launched themselves forward.
For any human army this maneuver would have been a recipe for disaster. But when Stonefist called out the pocket, the dwarf warriors in front of his company wheeled open like well-oiled gates in a fortress and the enemy host rushed through, only to be surrounded by the raiders. The din of battle reached and started to excite Alaric. His mind pictured bodies being crushed under mace and hammer, limbs sheared away by axe and sword. A red haze started to color his view and flames started dancing in the corners of his vision. „Kor help me!“ he gasped as he noticed he had stumbled forward a few paces towards the battle line and he fought back the dark thoughts. It was not easy.
In the meantime the gate made of dwarfs had wheeled shut and the Blackstone Raiders had commenced their bloody work. Under the relentless heaving of the blades the enemy succumbed and Alaric thought he even heard some daemons squeal in fear. The pocket was cleaned in a matter of mere ticks of time while the frontline tried to hold against the approaching gargantuan threat.
Alaric saw his lines waver, moving slowly, as if their boots were mired. „Kohn! Can you stop that abomination?“, the king called out. As Kohn raced down the slope towards the front, Alaric saw how a dwarf knelt in the path of the beast, unmoving as if he was frozen to the spot. One snap of razor-sharp beak and the dwarf was torn in two, hot red blood spraying through the air and turning the frosted ground pink. One heave and the half-corpse had disappeared in a gorge large enough to be a dwarven kingdom’s gate.
Time seemed to slow down as axes slowly raised and bounded off the creatures thick hide harmlessly. A Dwarf not giving way fast enough was crushed by a huge paw stepping on him, another cut in half by the sharp beak, then flung into the air with his entrails trailing, to be snapped out of his flight and swallowed.
Then Alaric heard singing. As one the battle clerics chanted their praise to Kor, asking for his patience and deliverance. A swirling blue light started to form, taking the rough form of a hammer, Kor’s holy symbol. The beast, still intent on his rampage now faced dwarfs making their stand, hacking at paw and sinew, without effect. It did not pay the huge hammer any heed until the glowing weapon smashed into its head with great velocity. Dazed it sat back on his haunches, the hammer dissolving into a mesmerizing display of light before its eyes. It never saw Stonefist and his raiders carrying one of Pitfall’s spears like a battering ram, never heard the priest trying to keep up and bless the makeshift lance with Kor’s power. Perhaps it didn’t even feel the pain as the lance pierced what served as the creature’s heart and it certainly did not notice its own body crashing to the ground, exploding into icy shards that showered down a hundred paces away.
Without noticing it Alaric had already made his way halfway towards the front line’s right flank.“ The battle din to him was like water on the shore, natural to the ear. But this time it was deliberate, he knew the time was now. The enemy would commit or retreat. „Duntan!“, he called out, a bit breathlessly. „We need your second line to roll up their flank. You are to hold your own at all cost and then join us.“ Vex Duntan only nodded, an assignment like this hardly being rare to him.
Several lightly armored dwarves and some priests joined Alaric’s motley crew and together the pushed out beyond the next low knoll. Instead of flank protection they only found a few spearwielders, who appeared to be stragglers or even deserters. They were quickly cut down. Sprinting down the gully made between two rises, Alaric soon made a sign to stop and cautiously climbed up the slop towards the thick of the battle. What he saw let even his blood freeze in his veins. On a hilltop overlooking the battle, the enemy Warlord had set up a makeshift altar. With him stood a group of strangly masked human-sized creatures, some chanting and casting spells down hill, some intent on their Warlord’s doing. As Alaric watched, warriors looking much more powerful than the average spear wielder brought a meak peasant girl to the altar. Without much ceremony it was lain upon the altar, the clothes casually torn away. The Warlord raised his arms holding a wicked-looking dagger and let them fall. Moments later he held a still beating heart in his hand and devoured it. As he did so, his muscular frame ripped and expanded, already strong muscles grew and corded, teeth and claws grew and hardened. The transformed monster turned and bounded towards the battle and even his own followers shied away from him.
„Attack the flank!“, the Dwarven King shouted to his men, pointing at the battle where Vex Duntan was holding the line. „Guards, with me! We need to stop this now.“ With this Alaric hastened towards the altar. Over the din of battle nobody heard the Dwarves approach or suspected their maneuver.
Alaric stood wearily on the knoll where the final battle had taken place. Even transformed into a mighty beast, with the support of his casters gone, the enemy Warlord had not withstood the might of Alaric’s fury for long. Suffering from several wounds he had loped off into the plains, leaving the meager remainder of his army behind, who did not take long to surrender.
„A mighty battle and a clear victory, my king“, Stonefist offered, his questioning eyes trying to judge the strength of his blood-spattered lord. Alaric looked at him, eyes hard. „Yes, a clear victory. But the price is still too high.“ Alaric pointed at the battlefield, where priests of Kor and Svanna’s battle maidens tending to those Dwarves still laying maimed and wounded. „We don’t know the enemy’s strength, but he has already seen almost all of ours. None of the warriors who has fallen today we can replace. But what do we know of them? In the end we sought a place of peace and only found a new enemy.“, he added bitterly.
„My King! My King!“ Kohn called out as he ascended the small hill, clearly worn out. Another dwarf Alaric had never seen before accompanied him. The dwarf was bald and his skin disfigured, as if burned, yet his long white beard was bound proudly in a double braid. „This is Thekk and he has a message for you. And I believe you should listen to it now.“
Irritated Alaric turned to Thekk. The priest announced „My king I greet you. But it is not I who has a message for you.“, and closed his eyes. Then a wave of heat carressed Alaric’s cheeks and deep voice rumbled out from Thekk.
„The Dwarves of the Accord have another king worthy the name yet. My form is no more, but the pact between the folk of the deep and the people of stone still stands. I am happy to send you mine to command. This dwarf is my voice for he has found me and offered his life for the pact. Honor him for it.“
A deep rumble shook the earth and the patch of molten rock that had appeared only a few paces away erupted. Two gargoyles glowing red-hot emerged from it and bowed to Alaric, who stood stunned before them. All over the battlefield the Dwarves had seized what they were doing and were watching in awe. Then a whisper started, „Magma Gargoyles! The gargoyle king’s guard is here! The Gargoyles are with us!“, until the whispers broke out into open cheers.
Alaric’s tears were quickly dried in the furnace of the gargoyle’s presence and his voice was firm again, as he answered Thekk „Sjonegaard, I am deeply moved and I thank you. Your gift is a kingly one indeed.
High up on the slope, a squat hooded figure watched in disgust from the shadow of an overhang. „In battle he is strong, the young one.“, he murmured. „And now the blasted gargoyles have made nice with him, too. We need to find another way to rid ourselves of him. There should be dangers aplenty in this world. In the end for him there can only be Death.“ With these words the ghostly figure turned around and disappeared in the rocks.