No one knew quite what a Dragon was.
Oh, there were the usual answers: a Dragon was one of the sacred beasts of Moloch, along with the Minotaur, but no one had ever seen one of those either. Most of the Dwarves the young, inquisitive Marrog had asked about it seemed to have the dim impression that maybe there used to be Dragons, but now there weren’t any. Were Minotaurs real then? Oh yes, they had nodded with sage expressions, where do you think the Quakes come from? Minotaurs live in the Deeps, in labyrinths carved by Moloch Himself, and when they come out to make war on each other, the impact of their horns clashing shakes the whole Underworld.
Marrog had his own feelings about that. His terrametry was strong, and he had learned at an early age the relationship between the Quakes and the resonance from the distant Molochfyre. His tutors confirmed his youthful suspicions: Minotaurs were just an old story from the long ages before the fall of Vorganash, before the Dwarves came to know the Underworld as they did now.
That still left the question of Dragons unanswered though. His Uncle Vorgen had shown him what most Dwarves immediately thought of when they heard the word though: the weapon called a dragon. It was a heavy metal tube with a flared end, set on a robust stock with a trigger that sparked a flint inside the mechanism. You loaded the barrel with shot, Vorgen explained, like little lead pellets, shards of iron or even rocks and gravel if you were desperate and, when you added some blackpowder and pulled the trigger, the dragon hurled it all through the air in a jet of super-heated death. They sometimes exploded, particularly if you used poor shot, but they were extremely deadly, especially at short range, and gave Dwarves the edge over Goblins. Against other Dwarves, the larger dragon rifles were a better proposition.
Marrog was allowed to hold the dragon, huge in his small hands, though the handle fitted neatly into Vorgen’s armoured fist, and he turned it this way and that, inspecting it. It was well-crafted, gilded around the mechanism, but the best part was the snarling, scaled creature that coiled around the barrel, so it looked as if the end of the dragon was its mouth. “Is that a Dragon, Uncle?” he’d asked with wide eyes.
“Maybe,” the older Dwarf had replied with a non-committal shrug. “It’s an old weapon. Who knows what the Smith who made it had in his head?”
Marrog was fascinated by the strange design, and he ran a finger across the finely cast scales. The strange beast had four ordinary legs, all ending in claws, but an additional set of limbs protruded from its back, ending in long fingers with huge flaps in between each of them. Vorgen was at a loss to explain what they might be for. Marrog supposed that, if it was a Dragon, and Dragons were creatures of Moloch, maybe they were for swimming through magma. Hellwyrms didn’t seem to need anything like that, but there was much variety in nature, as his teachers had told him.
Vorgen showed him other weapons. Most were from very ancient times, when Dwarves still spoke the Ancestor Tongue in everyday life. One was called a crossbow; a complex iron frame, whose joints were rusted with age now and which could fire wickedly barbed bolts. Vorgen wasn’t sure how it did it exactly, as there was no visible mechanism for making the ammunition shoot, but he acknowledged that it was an antique and the Ancestors had perhaps made arrangements that they couldn’t even guess at now, before carefully returning it to the wall.
“Why don’t we use crossbows any more, Uncle?” Marrog had asked.
“Because, my inquisitive nephew, the tunnels are too dark and confined to use such a precise weapon. Perhaps in old Vorgonash, with the light of the Molochfyre nearby, they would have had a use, but not out here. A dragon is a far more useful tool.”
“I like the dragon, but it seems too well-made for war. A cruel thing like an axe or hammer is better suited to killing.”
Vorgen had chuckled. “Perhaps you like the axe better now, young one, but the dragon is the weapon of the second son, they say. It is not so heroic, but it makes for a surer kill, at times. Let Kromlek have his axes and hammers, for one day he shall be Overlord, and you remember that glory does not always go hand in hand with utility.”
That wasn’t what Marrog had meant at all, but when his uncle died in the disaster at Blackvault, he had been humbled to receive the dragon that had been his as remembrance for him.
Strange that that the memory of that distant day would come back to him now, many decades later. He held the dragon in his hands, mailed as Vorgen’s were, and it looked very much smaller than it did all those years ago. Only a few Ebbings ago, he had become a Warrior, and now he had his first command. Such were the obligations of nobility. The other Warriors of House Blackhand looked to him, the Overlord’s second son, for leadership. He had no real experience, but the blood was strong, and he had been raised to lead them. It was what he was for.
The cavern floor was jagged with stalactites, forming a hundred natural strong points, but they were as likely to be a hindrance as a help. The air was clouded with steam and smoke from the hot geysers that bubbled up everywhere, and the ground was loose with mud and shale. Blackfungus crawled up the walls, though they were barely visible by the light of the band’s torches. They were three score men only, a scouting party, but Marrog had no intention of letting them die in this Gods’ forsaken place. It was a low cave complex, near the roof of the great underground lake that the Dwarves of this region called the Blightmere. Its water was choked with sulphur and other toxins, and so foul and brackish as to be undrinkable, but it was fed by thousands of streams, and the whole area was as waterlogged as this cave. It was a dreary, unpleasant place, but good territory for hellmites, whose meat was edible enough when cured, and whose chitin could be ground up into a paste with many uses. It was a poor reason for a battle, Marrog reflected silently.
The chittering of the Goblins, gathering in the shadows, showed they disagreed. The Dwarves of the nearby Underkeep, a rough network of muddy tunnels, said the Goblins worshiped the hellmites after a fashion, and made offerings to their bloated queen whose lair was on the shores of the Blightmere. All that mattered to Marrog was that they were willing to die to defend the colony of giant insects. By their high-pitched shrieks and squeals, they were coming closer, flitting through the darkness. The occasional gleam of a huge, pale eye, gave only the barest hint of their numbers. Impatiently, Marrog fingered the trigger of his dragon. The air was thick and foul, and the Goblins that came closer by the second made it no better. They were adaptable creatures, with a thousand different breeds depending on their habitats. All they had in common with one another was their smooth, slippery hides, their huge saucer-like eyes and their propensity to lay their eggs anywhere they could. Even if the hellmites hadn’t been at stake, slaughtering the Goblins would have been a job worth doing.
“Wait for it,” he growled as one of his men raised his flaming torch a little too soon, “on my mark, and not before. I want them close enough to end this in as short a time as possible, but not so close our guts end up decorating the inside of a Goblin’s hatchery.”
Goblins were intelligent, it was said. They had a language, of a sort, and some tribes even had a crude form of writing. They could be bargained with, threatened and cajoled. They could learn, and they could make things, though anything more complex than a bow made of wyrm sinew and bone simply confused them. Intelligent, yes, but only compared to the wild creatures of the Underworld. To a band of Dwarves sufficiently prepared, they were easy prey.
“Now!” Marrog bellowed, and a dozen torches sailed from his ranks, spinning end over end through the darkness, leaving purple trails across his vision. Each one hit the walls and, almost instantly, the great blankets of blackfungus erupted in green flames. The whole cavern was suddenly plunged into a weird, flickering light – not enough to see by comfortably, but enough to terrify the Goblins. Suddenly exposed, blind in the light of the fire, they all stood motionless as if they’d been caught in the act. Marrog supposed they were, in a way. All of them – over three hundred, at a guess – just waited there, like statues, their eyes huge and terrified, before panicking en masse and fleeing towards the shadows. “Quick! Kill them!”
The Dwarves had a motley collection of weapons, not like the uniform arms and armour of the High Houses. Some ran into the forest of stalactites, hacking with axes and bludgeoning with hammers, a ragged volley of dragon rifle fire rang out across the cavern, audible above even the Goblins’ screams and Marrog and a few others levelled the smaller dragons. Marrog aimed for the largest Goblin he could see – almost as big as a Great Goblin, the foul, black-hided breed that infested the Deeps – and nodded his head grimly as the blast from his weapon took its head clean off. It staggered, headless, for a second, before falling to the ground in a heap. The flickering light from the blackfungus wouldn’t last much longer: fire was not a sure way to kill it, flammable though it was, and the fumes it gave off were highly toxic, but the Goblins were already routing. Across the cavern, a group of Dwarves were butchering a particularly vocal gaggle with workmanlike efficiency, ignoring their screams and their yellow-black blood as they set to with sharp axes. A rifleman reloaded, heedless of the Goblin berserker charging towards him, then levelled his weapon just in time to shred his attacker to pieces. The fighting was carried out without emotion, without song or war cry, without even the beat of a drum. It was mindless, businesslike slaughter.
Marrog walked through the cavern slowly, taking out a Goblin here and there when a target presented itself. Some he blasted with his dragon, others he felled with a sharp blow from his hammer, leaving the runic device of House Blackhand impressed on ruined flesh and bones. The flickering wych light from the blackfungus was almost gone now, and the Dwarves instinctively congregated. Fugen, an experience Warrior who had fought beside his father, was carrying something, and he dumped it at Marrog’s feet. “Looks like the fighting flushed out some of the hellmites, Lord.”
It was a juvenile, dead from an axe-blow to the head, but it was still a fearsome looking thing and almost as large as a Goblin. Its bloated body was encased in a mottled grey shell and an indefinite number of tiny, clawed legs poked out from underneath. Its small head was pocked with black, beady eyes in an asymmetrical pattern. “What kind of creature worships something like this?” someone asked.
“Dead creatures,” Marrog answered.
“Your Lord father will be pleased,” Fugen said, “there’s thousands of these in a nest north and up of here. I reckon each of them will bring in ten drakes. House Blackhand will dine richly on the meat of hellmites this Ebbing, eh?”
Marrog kicked at the carcass. “Did we lose any men?”
“Rungir and Dagh aren’t here,” Urget, a Dwarf with a dragon rifle said, “Kordan got cut by one of their poisoned knives. Likely he won’t survive ’till Waxing.” He was matter of fact because he was a Warrior of long years. He’d seen death on countless battlefields.
“A high price for a few bugs,” Marrog said quietly.
“Your Lord father would probably disagree,” Fugen smiled.
“No doubt.” Marrog took a torch and walked away from the band. As a boy, he’d dreamed of Dragons and fire, but the reality of the Underworld was hellmites and blackfungus. Perhaps this was just the lot of the second son after all. Dismissing such thoughts, he deftly reloaded the dragon while cradling the torch in the crook of one arm. “There may be more Goblins around,” he said, raising his voice so his men could hear him, “so keep your wits about you.”
By Thomas Heasman-Hunt