Gruldar smashed aside the hammer’s swing with a sweep of his heavy gauntlet and, as he turned, brought up his immense axe – the Imperial Executioner, a weapon heavy with both runic inscription and centuries of Dwarven history – and cleaved the head from his foe’s shoulders with one mighty sweep. It required astonishing strength to wield a weapon so large, and that was one thing that Gruldar Stormblade had in abundance. He moved with little finesse or speed as he cleaved through the ranks of his enemies, seeking his ultimate quarry. They were good fighters; veteran Dwarves in good iron, but his armour was better, forged in Greyhearth, bought with Highthrone gold, and he had won more victories than even the eldest greybeard amongst them. He was a Castellan of the Royal Guard, one of the elite Warriors of the Dwarven Empire, and his stewardship of the awesome Imperial Executioner meant that he was famed even in their exalted company. Another Dwarf came against him now, tired from the fight, battered by running battles with his Royal Guard for the last several days. Gruldar was indefatigable. He cleaved the steel shield in twain, nearly hacking off his victim’s arm in the process and, as he dropped to his knees, face contorted in agony, Gruldar simply charged into him, letting his hulking body, clad in thick, spiked steel, do the hard work.
Around him, his Royal Guard dispatched their opponents in a similarly perfunctory manner. There was little fight left in this foe, and now, his armour and ghastly axe both stained with dark red blood, Gruldar advanced upon the Overlord. Two Royal Guard lay dead beside him, but this feat of arms would cost him his own life, even without the Castellan’s help. He was a proud man, relatively young, his dark beard just turning to grey, but now he was a ruin. His mail was rent and soaked with his own blood. One arm, visibly broken, was crossed across his stomach and Gruldar suspected he was hiding a mortal wound, holding his own innards inside him. His helmet lay on the flagstones beside him, one side badly dented in, and an ugly, matching wound on one side of his face told the story. Blood matted his hair and one eye was bruised and swollen shut.
Gruldar removed his spiked helmet and dropped it to the floor beside him. His gauntleted hands eased the head of the Imperial Executioner down, and it dropped to the ground with an ominous thud. He leaned on the shaft, striking an almost leisurely pose. “It is done,” he said, simply.
“No,” the defeated Overlord rasped, “it only just begins.”
“Not for you,” Gruldar said with a shake of his head. Beneath his helmet, his face was brutal and scarred. His eyes were the most distinctive thing about him though – cold, grey, and almost totally expressionless. His whole life, he had been little more than a killer, and it showed.
“Why did you do this?” the Overlord demanded, propping himself up with one hand and still managing to inject his voice with a modicum of defiance.
“We did nothing. We asked for payment and you refused. We extended our generosity, and still you refused to meet the terms of your contract. Finally, we came here to allow you to make amends and you resisted us with violence.”
“You came here to make slaves of my people!”
“You signed a contract. The debt had not been repaid, and so the Golden Citadel extracts its payment. With your Underkeep and its mines, with your wordly possessions and, yes, with the indentured servitude of your sons. You did not pay, and these were the terms.”
“My children,” the Overlord spat, “slaves in the pits of Highthrone…was I supposed to stand by and let you take them? I told your Lord Warden of our woes, of the wars in the West, of the looting of our allies’ Undercities by savages, of the drying up of all our trading interests. What did he expect us to do?”
“He expected repayment, by whatever means necessary, nothing more. And your sons’ service would be sold to whomever could purchase it to recoup the loss incurred by this contract with your House. Perhaps to Highthrone, but perhaps not.”
“Highthrone,” the Overlord repeated, “always to Highthrone. Highthrone pays its debts, no?”
Gruldar gritted his teeth as he raised the Imperial Executioner above his head and stepped towards the broken Overlord. “Everyone pays their debts,” he said, “just not always in the manner of their choosing.”
The axe fell.
* * *
The throne room of the Golden Citadel was almost entirely dark, the high ceiling vaults thankfully lost in gloom. Gruldar marched silently down the long hall, from one pool of feeble light to another. To either side, great round stone columns alternated with statues of former Lords Warden from down the centuries, their forms frighteningly lifelike. The most ancient tales of the Dwarves spoke of statues brought to life, inhabited by the spirits of their ancestors. Such magical golems had never been encountered in recorded history, but pious or desperate armies had been known to bear some of these statues into war with them, holding them aloft like strange standards, imploring their ancestors to once again march to war beside them and bring to life impervious warriors of stone. If it ever worked, the tales were not told.
At the end of the throne room, two flickering lamps illuminated a small figure seated at the foot of an ornate throne of solid gold, raised up on a mighty dais of carved godsdlass. Off to one side, a fabulous suit of golden armour, wrought with runes and other devices, stood to attention, supported by an elaborate stand. Gruldar knew that, unlike the throne, it only appeared to be made of gold – it had a thin veneer of gilt that hid solid black steel, and each elaborately worked minotaur’s head or carved claw hid an unyielding iron rivet. The man at the foot of the throne was no different. He sat on a simple folding chair, at a well-made but small table, laid out for a meal. A battered metal bowl held some mushrooms and a little salted greatmole flesh, while a small beaker was filled with tepid water beside it.
Gruldar dropped down to one knee, resting the Imperial Executioner on the floor. He bowed his head. “Lord Warden.”
Argun, Lord Warden of the Royal Guard, watched the Castellan as he cut a slice of mushroom and placed it in his mouth. He chewed silently, and Gruldar glanced up, watching his commander. He was a lean, spare man, with pale, papery skin that looked like it was stretched across his skull. His sunken cheeks were grey with whiskers, for he wore only a short beard on the tip his narrow chin, tied into just a handful of braids. His eyes were dark and sunken, and his head was completely bald. He wore a jerkin of boiled leather, completely unadorned save for the golden emblem on the left breast that was his only badge of office. This was the iron fist that had smashed Silvermine in the Western Wars. “Rise,” he said after he had swallowed his mouthful.
“Forgive me for interrupting your meal, my lord. I shall return at another time.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Argun said, “eating is a necessary evil and I see no reason not to do business at the same time.” He gestured to the table, where several stacks of vellum were sitting in fastidiously neat piles. Two attendants lurked in the shadows and Argun dismissed them with a wave of his fork. “Report, Castellan.” He didn’t ask Gruldar to take a seat, and even if there had been one, Gruldar knew he wouldn’t have.
“It is done.”
Argun chewed another mouthful of flavourless mushroom thoughtfully. “No matter. The debt will be recouped.”
“Our treasury is calculating the value of the repossessed goods as we speak.”
“Was it necessary to kill many of the people?”
“Only the Warriors. The rest begged for clemency.”
“But they live?”
Gruldar nodded. “They do.”
“Good. Have them marked and sold as soon as the valuation is completed. Now,” he laid aside his knife and fork, “there is another matter.”
“Fyrepit. Are you aware of the situation in the Western Vaults?”
Gruldar thought back to the defiant words of the Overlord he had slaughtered less than three days past. “I have heard some tidings of the west.”
“You need know no more than that Fyrepit is lost, and our Garrison has been ordered to withdraw, lest we lose our investment altogether.”
“That Garrison is under Castellan Dorgrun, is it not?” Gruldar asked.
“Yes, but that is not important. What is important is that they have turned renegade.”
Gruldar’s fists tightened on the haft of the Imperial Executioner. “They have remained to defend the Underkeep?”
“Nothing so reckless,” Argun said dismissively, “but they do escort a ragged band of refugees to Highthrone. Women and children.”
“Yes, I hope that you do.” Argun fixed his lieutenant with a cold, piercing stare. “We cannot allow this. Take a Garrison of your choosing, and find them before they reach the Core. They are renegades, do you understand?”
“Good. You may leave.” Argun picked his fork back up and returned to his meal, but Gruldar hesitated. Argun sawed through a chunk of greatmole, ignoring him and letting the tension build until Gruldar was finally about to speak, but just before he did, Argun looked up sharply. “Was there something else?”
“The refugees, Lord Warden…”
“They are all renegades, Castellan Stormblade. Treat them as such.”
“As you command.”
Gruldar turned, but the Lord Warden was not yet finished. “Let me tell you why you will do this, Gruldar. Some day, you will succeed me and sit upon that throne – it is why I gave you the honour of bearing that weapon – and I would have you know my mind.”
“The Western Vaults burn. Do you know the name of Baggronor the Mighty, the one they call Widowslayer?”
“It is said he leads an army of barbarians and goblins out of the Deeps. It is said he is a monster.”
“He his. A monster of our own making. Once, he laboured in the mines of Highthrone, not a dozen miles below where we now sit, but he was let loose after Blackvault, and now he thirsts for vengeance.”
Gruldar frowned. “Baggronor has taken Fyrepit then?”
“They why do we hunt down those fleeing from him? He is our enemy…”
“No. His forehead bears the mark of Highthrone. He was a slave before, and he shall be a slave again, albeit of a different kind.”
“Understand?” Argun almost smiled, his cheek twitching upwards slightly, but Gruldar had never known him to display any emotion besides cold anger. “Of course you don’t. Let me explain it to you, my loyal Castellan. Once Baggronor brings the Westen Vaults to heel, he will have amassed a force larger than any seen in over a millennium. Then, he will march upon Highthrone, seeking his revenge. When that happens, the Royal Guard will open the gates of the Undercity from within and welcome him home with open arms. He will sit upon the recently vacated throne of Overlord Biteaxe – so recently that the cushion may still be warm – and we shall all bend knee to him.”
Gruldar was shocked. “To a former slave? To one who calls himself the Widowslayer?”
“Yes indeed, Castellan. And we will recall our Garrisons from across the Empire and give unto this Baggronor an army the like of which has never been assembled in all the long history of the Dwarves. Highthrone will ring to the sound of weapons and armour being forged, and all the Underworld will tremble.”
“Because, Castellan, for a hundred thousand years, the Royal Guard have waited to fulfil their destiny. Long, long ago, our order defended the lives of the ancient Dwarf Kings and, when the first Emperor arose from their number, we pledged ourselves to serve him. His champion wielded the very axe that you now bear and, in the name of the Emperor, he executed oathbreakers and traitors with it. But when Vorganash fell and the old Empire was lost, we endured. Since that time, the Royal Guard have fulfilled their ancient oath of fealty as best they could, by serving the Dwarven Empire as a whole. For a thousand centuries, we have fought for the best interests of the Empire and maintained the status quo, fighting for those Undercities and Underkeeps who invested wisely, who paid their debts, who were loyal and true. We have stayed aloof from the great wars that have torn apart the Empire down the long years by always staying true to our charter, by always, without fail, following the gold. We are incorruptible. We are eternal.”
“What does this have to do with Baggronor though, lord?”
Argun looked down at his half-finished meal, then pushed it aside dismissively. “The Molochfyre grows wild and dangerous. Quakes are more frequent. Even those Undercities on the edges of the Core have experienced cave-ins and magma flooding. The turbulence of recent centuries is no coincidence. The Western Wars, Blackvault, and now the rise of the Widowslayer: they are all but symptoms of an instability that threatens the entire Underworld. Goblins and worse surge up from the Deeps, and the Fringes grow boggy and foetid. More and more mines grow exhausted, and new seams are harder to find and more dangerous to delve. If this course continues, the Empire will tear itself apart. This must not happen.”
“But how can we stop any of that, lord?” Gruldar asked.
“By uniting the Empire for the first time since Vorganash was lost.”
Gruldar stared. “But the only way to do that…”
“Would be to place the Horned Crown upon the brow of Baggronor Widowslayer and proclaim him the Emperor of the Dwarves, with Highthrone as his seat.”
The Imperial Executioner almost fell from Gruldar’s grip, but he managed to grab it before it crashed to the floor. “Emperor…” he breathed.
“Yes. And the Royal Guard shall be his loyal servants. Or, at least, this is how it shall appear. In fact, we shall control this ‘Emperor’. He will not fight, he will not pass judgement, he will not even shit without our say-so. And thus will the Empire be saved.”
“Why must we install a puppet? Simple: the power of the Royal Guard extends wholly from our incorruptibility. If I were to declare myself Emperor – and make no mistake, it would be well within my power to do so – every other Undercity, and perhaps even Highthrone too, would rise against me. My own Castellans would decry me and perhaps you, loyal Gruldar, would eventually use that axe to strike off my head. No, it must be another.”
“No, lord,” Gruldar said, “I meant, why are you telling me this?”
Argun gave another one of those almost-smiles. “Do you think I fear that you will betray my plans? That you will go running to Biteaxe to tell him what I mean to do? No. Even if I believed you were an oathbreaker, I know whence comes your power. You are a Royal Guard, nothing more. Your House is nothing – a cadet branch of a rustic clan with lordship over a handful of poor mines in the Eastern Reaches – and without the support of this order, you are merely a renegade, to be hunted down just as Dorgrun shall be. I made you what you are. Betray me, and you betray yourself. But do you even wish to?”
Gruldar thought, staring silently at the Lord Warden for what seemed like a long time. “I will find the renegades and the refugees, and I will kill them all,” he finally said.
“I know. Go.”
The Castellan bowed his head again, and turned to leave without a further word.
By Thomas Heasman-Hunt