When Gorvak Stonegrinder was a child, he remembered Pyromancers being figures of awe. He recalled vividly the time when, at little more than five-years of age, barely a year out of the Women’s Quarters, his father, the Overlord of House Stonegrinder, had summoned a Pyromancer to their Underkeep. It was a Goblin infestation. Two generations ago, his family had fought off an invasion by the vile, cowardly creatures. His Greatfather, the first Overlord Gorvak, after whom both he and his father were named, battled them in the black depths of his Underkeep and, with iron and fire, threw them back into the shadows. But evidently they had festered long enough in the deeps to lay eggs and thus gain a foothold. Once Goblins are ensconced, they are almost impossible to be rid of, his father had told him solemnly, but with more irritation than anger. Goblins were a nuisance, not a threat, for in those days House Stonegrinder was still powerful.
The Pyromancer had been summoned from the Dreadkeep, the great fortress of the fiery wizards in the heart of the Dwarven Empire, deep in the Core. There, it was said, the light of the Molochfyre meant there was no need for torches. The Pyomancer was a grim and foreboding figure, towering over the younger Gorvak, who hid behind a stone column to watch him arrive. He came in his full panoply, in robes as red and dark as Dwarf blood, a grey-white beard hanging below his knees. He wore a bronze mask, like a warrior, but much more ornate and terrifying. It seemed he had a skull of ruddy metal in place of a face to Gorvak, cowering in the shadows. The Pyromancer spoke softly, but everyone paid attention to him, even his father, who bowed so low when his honoured guest arrived that his bread brushed the floor. The Pyromancer came with a gaggle of attendants – his apprentices, Holkah, the Captain of the Guard, told him afterwards – who fussed around him and did his bidding. They also translated, for the Pyromancer spoke only in the Ancestor Tongue, and even his father had only a few words of that. He frowned deeply at everything the Pyromancer said and nodded along as if he understood, but then turned to one of the apprentices afterwards like everyone else.
Before the Pyromancer arrived and young Gorvak had been told why he was coming and what he would do, he imagined him as a kind of servant, brought in to do a difficult job. Respected, but a servant nonetheless, like the tunnelman who had dealt with the blackfungus infestation in the upper chambers the previous year. His father had chuckled at that, but had been unable to explain how it was different. Now, Gorvak knew. After the Pyromancer had been welcomed to the Underkeep, he gave a demonstration of his abilities. Holding out his palm, he murmured a few words of the Ancestor Tongue and, from nowhere, a bright burst of fire appeared. It did not sear his flesh, and it burned steadily and brightly in a way that was wondrous to young Gorvak. Here, so far from the Core, light was a precious resource, and each chamber was lit by as few torches as possible to conserve fuel. He had never seen such light and, for the first time, he began to understand why Goblins feared it so.
That was why the Pyromancer was there. Not only could he burn them out of their holes, but he could find their holes in the first place. Gorvak, young as he was, was only just beginning to learn how to hear and feel the earth around him – the ability his father and his tutors called terrametry – but he understood that the Pyromancers were masters of this ability. Old Krakna, his favourite teacher, explained that Pyromancers had a direct link to Moloch, the Furious God, and that made them masters of earth and fire. They could sense everything around them, every passage and chamber, every ventilation shaft and seam of minerals. They could even feel the boreholes where little Goblin grubs secreted themselves. In this way, Old Krakna said, the Pyromancer would search the depths of the Underkeep with his father’s best warriors, root out the Goblins, then burn them like tinderfungus. And so it was.
Two-hundred years later, with Gorvak a man grown, an Overlord in his own right, presiding over House Stonegrinder, albeit one greatly diminished in power since his father’s day, he could look back on his youthful naïveté and chuckle. The long years had not been kind to his House. The Goblins were eradicated, yes, but a rogue Quake had destroyed half their mines a decade later. Attempts to tap new seams had failed, and his father had been forced to turn mercenary. For an Overlord whose wealth and strength had been founded on trade and industry, becoming a hired axe was humiliating. To compound things, a dearth of girl babes for the next century left the House with no marriages to sell, and a surplus of young warriors. It was inevitable that they would become one of the Warrior Houses, Dwarves whose only contribution to the Empire was as fighting men, selling their services to more powerful Underkeeps. A generation of battle took its toll; their numbers dwindled, and their grudges accumulated. Too many strong Houses remembered the axes and hammers of House Stonegrinder falling upon the heads of their sons and, even though they were just mercenaries, they sought retribution against them. Besieged, forced to make reparations, and finally reduced to vassals of Overlord Baggronor of House Widowslayer, the golden age of the Stonegrinders was long gone. Gorvak, like his father, was a mercenary, and though he clung to the title that was his birthright, he had little claim to such a grandiose station.
And it was in this reduced state that he now encountered a Pyromancer for the first time in two centuries. He no longer seemed a fearsome thing now. It was a dredging, much as had been performed for his own Underkeep so long before, though this time for wild stonewyrms. The slithering creatures ate thrice their bodyweight in coal and gems every day, but were thankfully rare so close to the Core. Not rare enough for House Goldhelm though, whose fat, wealthy Overlord had wrung his ring-encrusted hands and bemoaned his fate should his investors come to believe his seams were about to dry up. He was paying handsomely for Gorvak and his men to flush the wyrms out. It was not dangerous work, but it was dirty and hard, following the slimy things through their foetid holes, choked with their rancid filth. All Dwarves hated stonewyrms, because they ate precious minerals and shat out rank-smelling mud that wouldn’t even burn. Even though it was little more than pest control, good axes were needed to finish off a stonewyrm, and they could be fast and bitey if caught in an open cavern. Few had ever been killed in such jobs, but a bite from a stonewyrm was painful and could lead to the loss of an arm if not treated soon. Good axes, yes, and good armour and shields. Work for warriors, not tunnelmen.
Work for Pyromancers too, apparently. Such extravagances were not strictly necessary, but Overlord Goldhelm could afford it, and so they were joined by an envoy from the Dreadkeep. Gorvak was grown now, and the Pyromancer did not seem nearly so large or intimidating. Quite the opposite in fact. The robed wizard was a huddled and stooped thing, his beard unkempt and unbraided. His mask was rusted iron, not bronze, and his filthy fingers fidgeted on the black length of his staff. When Gorvak spoke to him, he barely seemed to hear what was said, and mumbled something unintelligible by way of reply.
“Honoured Master Turkemnak thanks you for your suggestion,” his timid apprentice explained, “but he believes the western passage would be the best place to start.”
Gorvak exchanged a glance with Varku, his second in command, then turned back to the apprentice. “He said that?”
“Yes, Overlord.” The apprentice was tugging at the Pyromancer’s arm insistently, leading him towards the entrance to the western passage.
“Because I know some of the Ancestor Tongue, and I know the word for ‘west’ is…”
The Pyromancer – Turkemnak – interrupted him with more gabbling, and the apprentice’s tone grew more insistent. “Honoured Master Turkemnak reminds you that the longer we dally, the more the stonewyrms may consume. Even an hour’s delay may cost his client a thousand drake’s worth of minerals – almost as much as it cost to hire his services.”
Varku whistled between his teeth. “A thousand drakes, eh? We must be in the wrong trade, Gorvak.”
Gorvak was in no mood for jokes. He was fairly sure the Pyromancer had said no such thing, but he wasn’t about to debate the issue. “I’m fine with the western passage. He hears the rocks better than any of us ever will, so I trust him. Lead on.”
“Ah, I think you should lead, Overlord.”
“Of course,” Gorvak sighed, “just make sure he has a fireball ready if we need it. I don’t plan to get my face bitten off by a stonewyrm today. This helm won’t last more than a few seconds against their acid. Torch, Varku.”
They descended a narrow mineshaft – significantly less resplendent than the passages in the upper levels of Goldhelm’s Underkeep – their way lit only by the flickering torches that Varku and the rearguard held above their heads. He had only a dozen warriors with him, and the Pyromancer was in the middle of the group so he would be protected, Gorvak supposed. Who would protect them from the Pyromancer though? It was said they sometimes lost control of their magic and exploded. That made sense. A torch could be dangerous too, and what was a Pyromancer but a living torch, doddering around on ancient legs, mumbling snatches of Ancestor Tongue mixed with gibberish? Everyone gave him a wide berth, leaving him in a little pool of darkness of his own between their two torches.
After almost an hour of creeping into the blackness, Gorvak was aware of some commotion behind him. He turned, and realised the Pyromancer had stopped. He was looking this way and that, waving his staff around and mumbling again. The apprentice hovered nearby, looking worried. The young Dwarf’s beard was a straggly thing, and his dark robes fitted his spare frame loosely. His warriors edged back, and Gorvak could make out concern etched on the faces of those not wearing helms.
“What is it?” he hissed. The apprentice glanced in his direction. “Honoured Master Turkemnak is…uh…taking the opportunity to…uh…that is…he believes he might possibly have found evidence of…uh…”
“You don’t know what he’s doing, do you?”
“I know better than you do,” the apprentice snapped, suddenly finding some spine, “I’m the first in my cabal at terrametry. I can probably sense things you’d never even understand.”
“So that’s what he’s doing, is it?” Varku grunted. “Reading the earth?” Varku was not nobly born, so his terrametry was rudimentary at best. He barely even knew he was using it half the time, and to him the whole business was highborn magic, not for his sort.
Gorvak narrowed his eyes. “I feel only solid rock here, apprentice. If there were any seams this high, the Goldhelms would have dug them out years ago. You think this is the first Pyromancer they’ve had down here?”
“Tell your Honoured Master to make himself clear. If there’s a seam there, or a borehole, tell me so I can do what I came here to do. No seam means no stonewyrm and there’s definitely no seam around here.” Contemptuously, he tapped the head of his axe against the rough-hewn wall…
…Then stepped back sharply as he received an answering rumble from the rock.
“Warriors!” he bellowed. Immediately, axes and hammers were out and shields raised. Gorvak drew his dragon pistol from his belt and checked the barrel was plugged with shot. All of them knew this was no Quake, not in such an old, rich Underkeep. The apprentice shot him a triumphant look, but it was short-lived because, at that moment, the wall exploded in a shower of fist-sized lumps of stone, and their flickering torches illuminated the smooth, wet shape of a stonewyrm. It heaved itself out of its hole and its maw opened up, revealing row upon row of jagged teeth, each tipped with the translucent gleam of corrosive acid. It gave an unnatural screech, like stones being ground together, a sound that ought to make Gorvak Stonegrinder feel at home, but of course did nothing of the sort, and began to thrash around blindly. Outside of its element, a stonewyrm looked more fierce than it was, but its flailing could easily catch a Dwarf unawares. They were eyeless, and Gorvak had heard they used a kind of terrametry of their own to sense their surroundings as they burrowed through the earth, rather than relying on sight which would be useless in the darkness.
The stonewyrm continued to flow from its hole. It was huge – bigger than any Gorvak had seen before – and its roaring and screeching continued as its body flopped to the floor and its length began to coil around it. It was most dangerous like this, because it had the strength to rear up and bite, and once it could stretch to its full length, it could strike at someone standing twenty feet away, though actually hitting its target would be more luck than judgement. With a workmanlike sigh, Gorvak raised his axe and prepared to lop the beast’s head off, but it was quicker than he expected: it jerked suddenly, somehow sensing his presence despite its eyeless head and its bristling maw surged towards him, threatening to envelop his entire head in one gulp. He stumbled backwards with a cry of fear and tried to take aim with his dragon pistol.
As he fell back into Varku’s surprised arms, he saw the Pyromancer behind the stonewyrm raising his arms. He couldn’t see his expression beneath his rusted mask, but something about his stance suggested it was a satisfied smirk.
Two-hundred years ago, when he’d seen that flame in the first Pyromancer’s palm, he thought he’d never see anything so bright again. He’d since been to the shores of the Molochfyre and seen the great river of glowing magma carve its way through the Underworld, and laughed at the inexperience of youth when he’d beheld its radiance, but now he was forced to reassess things for a second time. A blast of flame roiled from the tip of the Pyromancer’s staff and the stonewyrm screamed even louder as it caught on its combustible ichor, instantly engulfing it in fire. It collapsed to the ground a few feet short of Gorvak, writhing as its vile, thick body was consumed, and within less than ten seconds all that remained was a black, charred skeleton.
The apprentice gave Gorvak a flat look. “There will probably be more,” he said calmly, “we may actually need your axes if we encounter a whole nest of them. Try not to fall over next time.”
by Thomas Heasman-Hunt