“Swiftly, my servants! Your master shan’t tolerate tardiness!” the necromancer bellowed to his entourage.
With no effort to hasten their collective jaunt, it appeared the command had fallen upon deaf ears; or rather, dead ones. Nevertheless, Guiscard pressed forward with the exuberance of a man half his age and twice his importance. A wretch and a cretin most of his life, he delighted in his newfound position of command, and barking his most id-rooted wills was a satisfactory reminder that he, in fact, had power over an underling, even if the undead were hardly in a position to argue.
The procession of zombies and the odd skeleton shambled ever onward as if the Shyish hoisting their desiccated husks was a regimental fife and drum, and the lofty pines of the Grey Mountains sought to mimic their movements. Juxtaposing the scent of death was the rejuvenating warmth of the early evening breeze and the sun defiantly still eking over the trees, both indicating that Sonnstill was not far away. Soon the fledgling Knights Errant of Gisoreux and Bastonne would be flooding the mountain pass, seeking the most fearsome trolls and minotaurs on which to prove their lancing skills to their chapter houses. Guiscard needed to find his prize soon. Another season’s expedition failed would see his sire rather cross, and cross vampires have neither the patience nor shortage of willing acolytes to entertain inept apprentices.
As the band marched on, Guiscard strained more and more to parse his surroundings. He was losing sun, not that it finally conceded to setting, but because his path became increasingly enveloped by a thicket of trunk and branch. Such a dense brush was a rarity this high in the Mountains, but the map needed to the followed, and from what he could tell, the map said this way. His bandaged feet trudged on at a syncopated limp, so now caked in dirt and gravel that they were nearly indiscernible from his putrefied cohorts’. The upcoming incline was enough of a challenge for a caravanning oxen, let alone a belabored old man. Guiscard leaned his protesting frame against the closest tree in order to heave in enough oxygen for the sloped run.
“Keep marching, lackeys!” he sputtered out on a shortage of breath. “Master will now… will now take the rear guard…”
The sinewy legion began to press the incline with their undaunted automaton zeal, much to the envy of their rasping puppeteer. Their slung packs of the necromancer’s tools and provisions clacked and clanged as they tried to find their new centers of gravity. Their uphill trek was about halfway complete as Guiscard shifted his weight from the tree to his staff to carry on. Nevertheless, even the straightest of roads can hold unforeseen detours…
A preluding creak perked the necromancer’s ears, then the forewarning crescendoed into a sonorous crash. The path of the vanguarded undead gave way, and four of his undying soldiers were immediately swallowed up into the earth.
“STOP!” he cried, lifting his befetished staff in a hobbled urgency to halt the procession.
Two more moaning fools continued to shuffle into the pitfall before the remaining half of his retinue took to a standstill. The ridge was once again silent, save the mélange of confused grouses from the zombies who had not yet realized they’d fallen a good eight feet.
Guiscard surveyed the scene. Behind the tattered robes and the befouled idols strung across his frame, he was still an inept, and wasn’t sure how to proceed. A hardy beckoning broke both the silence and his feeble concentration.
Punctuating the call-out was a crossbow bolt that sailed from the ether into Guiscard’s right shoulder: quite the exclamation point to be sure. The necromancer shrieked in shock to the unprecedented agony that was his newly perforated shoulder, now tacked to the tree behind him. He couldn’t move. Worse yet, his staff now laid parallel to the dead branches of the forest floor.
Even remembering the words to his most base incantations was a struggle amidst the biting pain, and the dawi took this as the perfect opportunity to unleash himself from the undergrowth.
Though his beared axe and shield were of modest dwarf craft at best, they scintillated with a righteous ardor in contrast to the walking filth and grime that sought to take the ranger’s head. A brilliant clash! The edge of the ranger’s round shield pummeled the first lunging zombie’s kneecaps, sending its crooked frame sailing over the shield like a broken doll flung from a playful hound’s maw. Mercifully, such variety of foe couldn’t feel pain… or humiliation. In dexterous synchronicity, he crossed his axe to his left to decapitate the face-planted fiend whilst raising his shield arm overhead to meet the cudgel of the skeleton next in line. One in the bone warrior’s ossified feet might be forgiven for assuming they had a chance against the blunter of the dawi’s two instruments, but fixed upon a former Ironbreaker, a shield was just as deadly as any axe or hammer could hope to be. Following the dwarf’s perfect parry was ferocious pounding of the shield rim into the skeleton’s pelvis, with no autopsy necessary to corroborate the strike as “bone-shattering.”
“Uzkular-kruti!” the dwarf spat in dismissal. The most capable of his pathetic adversaries reduced to a spastic pile of fleeting magic, the dwarf made quick work of his final four foes. Zombies don’t think, don’t speak, and certainly don’t block or riposte. One axe blow to the neck or brain was more than enough to finish off those lining up to die a second time.
Each pull at the lodged bolt brought the necromancer a heavier throb of his wound, but no progress on its removal would reward his suffering.
“I wouldn’t fuss with that, bakrazuzkul; the tip is nicely barbed.”
“Stay back, gremlin! Or I’ll see your eyes melted to slurry and your bones turned to-”
“Are you really gonna play that trick, ya skruff? If you had any magicks up that filthy sleeve of yours, I doubt you would have waited for me to kill all your rabble to use them!”
The necromancer could not bite his teeth harder. The pain he felt from his spewing wound and the hatred for this stunted whelp could only fester as he had no means to expel them into a spiteful retribution; he was completely powerless.
“I’m not one for magicks,” the dwarf continued, “but I do know a couple of two things: they’re hardly any use against a dawi, and that you manlings don’t seem to hold with it too well without some of this wutumgak at hand!” he said, picking up the head of the staff with his calloused fist whilst leveraging the bottom half under his iron boot. For a little extra bite, the dwarf pulled the head toward his chest, snapping the shoddy staff and Guiscard’s final hopes before tossing the upper half into the woods.
“I’ve been trackin’ ya a good while now, umgi, since I believe your map’s a bit more up-to-date than mine.”
Guiscard attempted to formulate a final bravado-laced counter. A classic “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” would have done, perhaps even a “then why don’t you come take it from me?” But the dwarf wouldn’t even allow him the moment to overcome his frightful timidness. Reaching into the caster’s cavernous pockets with a cavalierness as if they were his own, the ranger fished out a bundle of parchments pasted together with wax.
“Could have had the courtesy not to bleed all over ‘em!” the dwarf mocked as he fumbled to unfurl the red-soaked pages.
The fuzzy slugs that nested upon his brow rose in a concave amusement at his own wit, but swiftly inverted to a convex furrow after mere seconds of studying the map. It was just haphazard scrawlings. Nonsense words were written beside unheard-of roads that vanished into nothing. Not much unlike-
“No… it can’t be… What if…?” the ol’ grumbler grumbled to himself.
Turning his shield arm horizontal like a server’s platter, the dwarf laid the map upon its surface. His dominant hand, in an uncommon bout of flexibility for his kind, snaked itself into his pack’s back pocket and pulled out the second would-be puzzle piece. For a moment, the only sounds of the mountain were Guiscard’s shallow, terrified breaths, and the crumpling of parchments as the determined dawi sought to find meaning of the two pieces.
After failing to connect them at their borders, the dwarf began to sputter with disappointment and something about “going in the book” toward the rumor-smith who swindled him for his own equally absurd “map” piece. He held the necromancer’s portion to the sky to be shown any further clues. The blunt rays casting through the paper were his answer.
“But of course!” the dwarf realized.
The pieces weren’t to connect at the sides, but as layers: the necromancer’s parchment atop the dwarf’s. As equal parts wit and serendipity would have it, the translucent sheet placed over the other revealed, well, not a damned mention of the karak he sought, but a place the ranger very much heard of before: Ubersreik.
“What? What is it? Louis Cypher’s lost tomes; where are they?!”
Guiscard’s safety meant nothing compared to his raw intrigue. He had been taken in circles for years by that map, and this uncouth brute managed to uncover its secrets in minutes.
“Louis who-now? Bah, never you mind that, wazzock! You’ve given me an invaluable lead. And for that…”
The dwarf interrupted himself to pivot around and make a giddy junket back to his original hiding place, repeating the words “and for that, and for that, and for that!” over some bastardized choral melody.
He emerged from the bush with pine needles in beard, and new bolt fully cocked in crossbow.
“And for that, I think you’d do with a reward! Instead of leavin’ ya for the wolves, I’ll grant ya the quick death you and all of your zanguanz pals deserve!”
There were no final utterances from the necromancer as lifelong failure culminated in a pathetic end. His attempted cry of “SPARE ME!” was truncated to barely the first consonant, the only sound escaping his jaws being the crunch of skull, and the faint squish of brain matter.
~ ~ ~
A venture some miles east saw the Grey Mountain pines coming together again in a dense canopy, soon to reunite with their oak cousins of the Reikland. Perhaps they were just huddling together for warmth, as the nagging chill of the night breeze saw them shivering in the cold. Conversely, the skewered hare being rotisseried over the dwarf’s fire burned all too hot, starting to char black around its ears before the startled dawi remembered to turn his dinner.
“Fickle thing!” he cursed. “If it were up to me, a good keg or three would be all we need to keep our bellies full.”
Not a minute into the browning of the improperly skinned varmint did the ranger once again lose himself in the map. He began to recline onto his bedroll, still holding his journey’s new guide in clear view of his wistful eyes. A product of nearly a decade’s worth of search, the thanes of Karak Norn would have once again laughed him out of their guild halls for such an insignificant yield. But to the ranger, even the next breadcrumb on the hunt for Karak Zorn meant the world to him. His obsession began and fired on in full inferno ever since he went back… when he visited the scene of his greatest dishonor.
The dead in the Ziflin Deeps were innumerable. Raki and dawi bodies rivaled the stalagmites in size, their piles making the incommodious tunnels near unnavigable. The ranger needed to see his comrades one final time before taking the Slayer Oath. They could be found at their post: for only one dwarf in the entire regiment of Zulazbakki was craven enough to abandon it.
Hundreds of Skaven corpses paved the way to the breach. The dwarf allowed one corner of his mouth to curl into a bittersweet smile of pride at his friends’ efforts, only for it to be immediately wrenched back down in a gut-punching melancholy once he saw them. Their still gromril husks lined the floor, some too stubborn even in death to let go of their axes. Pushing past tears and raki remains, he sought to collect their tags, for their widows needed closure as well, and deserved it much more than he.
One by one, he placed his hand upon their pauldrons to fish the steel tags from their necks. Grum. Gorin. Haakon. Dwimbarg. They all died with honor. Surely they were toasting tankards with Grimnir for their long lives of service to their hold. There was one dawi, however, whose life of service merely began.
The ranger looked about in his anguish for the body, bracing himself for the tide of sadness that would take him once he found it. But he couldn’t find Mordin’s remains; just his journal, bookmarked with a quill.
The father nearly collapsed in his fervor to retrieve the son’s last possession, his hands and knees not leaving the ground whilst he opened its final entry. Amidst the blood and dirt read two hastily scratched words:
Bardin pulled himself from the map once again, the rabbit’s body now emitting choking billows of black smoke. The pangs of bitter remembrances claiming what was left of his appetite anyway, he doused the critter in the remainder of his watery ale before yanking the cookware from the fire. He hoped the release of sleep would help him escape his own mind.
His pack served as comforting a pillow, and the snug crossing of his arms would have to be his blanket. After placing his axe at his side, Goreksson fixed his back to the moribund fire in order to conclude the day’s transpirings. He closed his eyes, squeezing out a final tear as he did so.
“Valaya protect you, Mordrin. If you’re out there, then I will go to the ends of this world to find you, my son…”
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