The Dreadkeep

Dreadkeep. A name to inspire fear. Of course, that was obvious – it’s why the name was chosen. Alone, of all the great Underkeeps and -cities, it had no name in the Ancestor Tongue. Oh, you could translate it; say the words in the language of the ancient Dwarves and mash them together, but it sounded wrong, somehow. Bloodkeep’s Master of Letters had told Crannog Bloodfist that the Pyromancers had chosen the name on purpose so that it would sound crude and jarring when spoken in the Ancestor Tongue. There was no way to hide from Dreadkeep – from its name, from its influence, from what it represented. A window into a world forgotten: a passage to a dark chamber best left undisturbed.

Crannog was fifty-one. A man. And a man must have a trade. For most young Dwarves, the only sure path was war. It was simplest and best, or so the Warriors said. You either died with an axe in your hand, your burden to society lifted, or you became one of the few who carved out a name for themselves. Scions of noble houses would found new cadet branches of their own, and even the lowborn could hew a little influence from the cold rock of the Fringes, and maybe their sons and grandsons would think themselves highborn, in time. Dwarves were made for war, his father liked to say; tough and strong as stone, slow to anger, but with a wrath as terrible as the Molochfyre when it was sufficiently stoked. But war had not called to Crannog. He had been bookish – not so bookish as his elder brother Ordokk (now his eldest, since Korkronn fell at Blackvault) – but with a love of knowledge and a respect for history and lore that meant he would never pick up an axe except in direst need. He was not weak or frail, and had even bested Korkronn in the practice chamber a time or two when they were boys, while his father, the elder Korkronn, looked on with pride, but he found training boring. Nor was he a coward, for it had been he who had led the boys, all save little Hokronn who has still been a babe at their mother’s breast, into the lowest levels of Bloodkeep to catch a Fangmole. They did catch one in the end – a pup, really – and their father had laughed and let them cook and eat it for supper that Waning. Crannog was rewarded with the snout, because it had all been his idea, even if Korkronn did throw the stone that killed it.

Simpler times, and simpler decisions. He had wanted to go to Highthrone or Deepdelve with Ordokk one day, to study under the great Epistolaries of the Core. Such plans they had made, and long, drunken talks about the sights they would see: the Glowfungus Gardens of Deepdelve, the fabled Golden Balconies of Highthrone, the Godsglass Gates of Quakeblight and the Shrine of the Great Minotaur in Risegate. They had pored over maps, talked about how they’d find the gold to pay for it all, laughed at the thought of the wives they would find; daughters of great Overlords they would seduce with their wit and wisdom. They would be Warriors, but of knowledge instead of axes. A fine dream for boys, but dreams are soon forgotten in the ruddy light of Waxing.

The dreams came first. His terrametry had always been strong, but even those with the most noble blood usually had to pause and concentrate for a second to feel the earth as anything but a low hum in the back of the mind. Asleep, the earth was silent. Not for Crannog though: as he began to reach maturity, his dreams were all of fire and stone. The garbled half-stories of his youth melted away, to be replaced by visions of surging magma, pulsing through the earth. When he woke screaming just before a Quake, the truth was known. The old blood was strong in him, and he must go to the Dreadkeep when he came of age. His father did what he could for him as he grew older, for Lord Korkronn had strong terrametry, but in the last few years of his childhood, he had well exceeded his father. If he’d had his way, Crannog would have tried to learn all he could of Pyromancy from book, scroll and tablet, but that was not the way of it. One could no more became a Pyromancer with letters than one could a Warrior. He had staved it off for a further year after he became a man, but everyone knew what must be done.

“Stay, and you’ll set fire to us all,” Hokronn had told him with one of his easy smiles. His leather Chirurgeon’s smock was clean for once as he said his farewells at the gates of Bloodkeep.

“I suppose you’ll get to see the Core after all,” Ordokk said sadly. He had wanted to be an Espitolary himself someday, but he was the eldest now, and the heir to Bloodkeep. He would never make the journeys they’d dreamed of as boys.

“Some of it, maybe,” Crannog had said with a nonchalance he did not feel, “the Dreadkeep is a long way from the Glowfungus Gardens though.”

“At least you’ll see Risegate first. Would you write me a letter describing the Shrine of the Great Minotaur if you find the time, brother?”

He promised that he would, though he was a better reader than a writer. His father had been as gruff and formal as ever, and his mother could barely look at him for weeping. Only little Grulka, with her pale round face framed in dense black curls, had been able to see to the heart of the matter. She’d walked up to him solemnly, and placed a little white hand in his big brownish one. “The Dreadkeep is very scary,” she’d said, “but you shouldn’t be afraid: most like you’ll die on the way instead. A Goblin will eat your brains and use your skull for a chamber pot.”

He’d ruffled her hair.”I shall miss you most of all, little Coalhead.”

“Come back soon, Squint. And not too crazy.”

Small chance of that, he knew, but the memory of that parting made him smile now. Grulka wanted to be a Warrior. Now that his brother Korkronn was dead, someone would need to defend House Bloodfist and its territories, especially in times like these. If Grulka got her wish, he feared for their enemies.

He did see Risegate, and he had the chance to jot down a few insufficient words about the Shrine for his brother back home, entrusting it to a Greatmole caravan heading down to Blightmere. It had been an arresting sight for certain: an altar with two vast sweeping horns enclosing a huge, multi-faceted crystal, threaded within by glowing magma in thousands of tiny pipes, took up the wall opposite the massive golden doors. The whole chamber – which was large enough to seat two thousand Dwarves – glowed with orange light. Crannog had never seen such brightness. He had not liked Risegate though. At home, the Shrine was a quiet place for calm reflection. They rarely even used it, and their small store of magma, pumped up at great expense through a tiny tributary of the Molochfyre far Down of Bloodkeep, was only used to light it on High Days. Faith was a private thing in the Western Vaults, but here they sang and chanted about the Deep Ones at every hour. There were even Shrines dedicated wholly to Mammon, though they were frequented far less than the glowing Shrines of Moloch. They called it the Undercity where Waning never came, and that did not just apply to the way they worshipped: every chamber and passage was constantly suffused with light, and Crannog had found it impossible to sleep. After a few days, he was quite ready to leave.

He hadn’t left alone though. In Risegate, he had stayed with a family called the Redfists, distant relatives of his own House. They were noble in name only, but Risegate was a realm of plenty, and they lived comfortably and well. One of their sons, a pale young man his parents had optimistically called Gundfyre, also showed some potential as a Pyromancer. He had strong terrametry, though it was a feeble thing compared to Crannog’s, and even Hokronn, who was the weakest of his whole House at earth-reading, would not have been too impressed, but the dreams had come to him too. Though not that often. It was enough for the upwardly mobile Redfists though. “It is so fortunate one of our wealthy, noble relations visited just now,” Krigga Redfist had gushed, “you and Gundfyre must go to the Dreadkeep together, of course, to take the fiery vows and serve Moloch as Pyromancers. Oh, you shall be such friends! More like brothers than cousins, I just know it.” Later, she had brought out the youngest of her brood from the Women’s Quarters, a girl of fifteen years, barely off the breast, called Ordenhild. She was a little wisp of a thing, as pale as her brother, and was clearly scared to be outside. “Just think,” Krigga had smiled, pushing her tottering daughter forward “when you and Gundfyre are back from the Dreadkeep, she will have nearly come of age…”

Pyromancers don’t marry, Crannog had wanted to tell her, but instead he just gave her a feeble sounding, “Quite so, my lady.”

They left in the company of another merchant caravan, carrying crates filled with wrought crystals from the workshops of the famed Cutters of Risegate, godsglass from the shores of the Molochfyre and innumerable charms and ju-jus inscribed with runes and symbols of Moloch. They caravan was making for Stonedeep, but would call in on every Undercity and large Underkeep along the way. They would turn off for their destination at Shattersteel, leaving them to make the last leg of the long trek alone – or with another caravan if they could find one. The merchants were an amiable lot, for the most part, though their leader, a lowborn Dwarf from Horngate named Fregg, had a surly temper and always wanted to make better time, whipping the poor Greatmoles who hauled the wains fiercely. He insisted that they would make more from their goods in Stonedeep than on all the stops along the way, and so he was keen to get there as fast as possible. “This trash will sell better in an Undercity,” he had growled over his fiery red beard, “we waste our time in these little pisspot Underkeeps.”

And trash it was. The crystals and the godsglass were good enough, but the trinkets were worth less than the materials used in their construction. On the first day, Fregg’s cousin Gref had conned Crannog into buying a little Minotaur made out of fired clay, painted all in red lacquer. “To remind you of the wonders of Risegate,” the merchant had grinned. He had parted with half a drake for that, but the stupid thing broke into a dozen pieces on their first rough descent, and its clay was revealed to have been almost as thin as paper. Crannog was too embarrassed to try asking for his money back – and knew he wasn’t like to get it anyway.

The caravan was guarded by two quiet Warriors who, perhaps not coincidentally, were from Stonedeep. The Stoneaxes, as the others called them, were dour men in unadorned steel, marked with the stamp of Greyhearth. Their axes were made of sharpened flint though, albeit fastened to good hafts: these were no primitives. Their weapons were symbolic of who and what they were, and no few suspicious-looking travellers whose paths they crossed perhaps thought better of attacking them at the sight of the two seasoned veterans with their blades of stone. Gundfyre, who seemed bolder away from his cloistering parents, made mock of the Stoneaxes behind their backs, deriding them as godsless savages. “Stonedeep has no Shrines,” he spat one Waning as the two would-be Pyromancers ate, apart from the rest, “they say they have no time for faith. And their daughters marry lowborn scum to satisfy their carnal lusts as often as they take true noble husbands. I don’t see why we need those two brutes to protect us. What Dwarf would attack a caravan laden with holy relics anyway?” Gundfyre had bought a clay minotaur too, and stuffed it into its pack to keep it whole when he saw what happened to Crannog’s. He had also bought a ridiculous set of onyx Minotaur horns and a bracelet bedecked in Moloch’s runes.

Crannog had eyed the Stoneaxes across the floor of the cavern where they made their camp. “The tunnels can be dangerous,” he said, diplomatically.

“We are in the Core now, noble coz,” Gundfyre explained, as if talking to a child.

“Bad things happen to people in the Core too. Since Blackvault, Goblins are not so uncommon as they were. We might meet a band of them, or stumble upon one of their nests. Even the grubs can be dangerous when they’re large enough.”

“Blackvault is far away, coz.”

“Goblins move quickly, and Blackvault is not so far away as you think. My brother Korkronn  died there. He hadn’t even come of age – he was just a boy squiring for one of our uncles, who sold his axe to the Firestokes.”

Gundfyre claimed Goblins did not scare him, but Crannog doubted he’d ever met any. Alone, a Goblin was a pitiful thing, gangly and pathetic, with overlarge feet and hands, but if they came in numbers, as they were wont to, it could easily mean a horrible death in the darkness, just as his sister had predicted.

“There are other dangers,” Crannog shrugged over a mouthful of hardcake. The taste was plain, but it filled him. “Slavers and outlaws.”

“Slavers? There’s been no slavery in the Empire since before the Fall of Vorgonash.”

“Don’t you ever read anything besides The Word of Moloch? Everyone knows Highthrone is built on the backs of slaves. Oh, they might call themindentured or serfs or what have you, but I’ve seen men with the rune of the Greytusks branded onto their cheeks or foreheads – broken men, fleeing from Blackvault and the other wars in the Deeps. Highthrone used whole legions of slaves, and now they’re on the run, looking for safety. Or revenge. They say an outlaw warlord is gathering power in the shadows, and he wears broken fetters of Highthrone make.”

Gundfyre went quiet at that, but only for a moment. “Such dregs need not trouble faithful men like us,” he said, all affected indifference, “we have Moloch on our side. Moloch says slavery is an abomination. If they dare to put us in fetters like the ones they wore, Moloch will strike them down.”

At Blackvault Moloch struck down the ones still wearing fetters mostly, Crannog thought, and let their masters escape and run back to their Undercities. But he said nothing.

It took close to an Ebbing for them to cross the Core, going through passages narrow and wide, stopping in a comfortable Underkeep one night, sleeping beneath uncut stone another. They saw little of the wonders Crannog had discussed with Ordokk, for they spent most Waxings on the march, and by the time they reached any place of note, it always seemed to be deep into Waning. Few places had the wealth to light their halls like Risegate at all hours. At Shattersteel, as promised, they parted ways with their caravan. Dreadkeep was still some days’ travel away, but their passage now took them down close to the Molochfyre, and the tunnels were often lit by tributaries of the great river. It was a region few Dwarves would enter willingly, and which Goblins would never visit unless driven. They were as safe as they could be, surrounded by earth that trembled with constant minor Quakes.

This close to the deepest Core, both Crannog and Gundfyre found themselves assailed by constant headaches. They slept badly, constantly troubled by the magma dreams, and it seemed to Crannog that he couldn’t walk a step without feeling as if the whole Underworld was churning through his skull. Finally, they managed the last few miles, and came to the entrance of the Dreadkeep. The first gate was humble enough, a roughly carved door to their left, off the passage, with a dull red glow coming from within. They almost missed it, for there were no signs. Crannog led the way, which had become their custom, and stepped from a firm, if uneven passage, to a narrow ledge of rock built across the edge of hell. He shied back automatically, nearly knocking Gundfyre off his feet.

“Are you all right, coz? I almost…oh…”

The two men – who had never felt more like boys – quailed on the edge of a narrow shelf of rock that clung to the side a high wall of unfinished stone, while less than twelve feet below them surged all the fury of the Molochfyre. The brightness of it hurt Crannog’s eyes, and the toxic vapours rising off the river of fire made his nose itch. All across the surface, ghosts of fire writhed and twisted, coming together and breaking apart. It wasn’t until one erupted less than fifty yards from them that Crannog realised how vast those plumes of flame were – one could swallow them both up a hundred times, leaving them nothing but a few shreds of charred bone in an instant. Above them must be a ceiling, but it was hidden by black smoke. The sight of an uncertain expanse above his head made Crannog dizzy.

“Come on,” he said, surprised at how steady his voice sounded, “we’ve come this far.”

They inched along the ledge. In places, it had collapsed into the Molochfyre, and they had to edge their way around yawning gaps. Sometimes, there was no ledge at all, and they had to dare to make a leap. Gundfyre nearly slipped and fell making one jump, but Crannog just managed to grab his hand, and steadied his distant cousin with a forced laugh to hide the terror he felt. The ledge was never wide enough for them to walk abreast, and Crannog continued to lead the way. It was him, therefore, who first laid eyes on the true gates of the Dreadkeep.

He had never imagined such a fearsome sight. The ledge gave way to a rough plaza, little wider than the narrow shelf itself, and brooding above it was a pair of huge doors. They were massive, all of blackened bronze, and inscribed with countless runes. Crannog could only read a little of the Ancestor Tongue, but nothing he saw made any sense to him. He supposed they were the words of prayers. Or spells. As he looked up at the gates, he realised they were set in a carving of some kind, though it was crude and craggy. He took a tentative step backwards, watching where he put his feet, and craned his neck up. The doors must be a hundred feet tall he thought, and in the gloom he could see the rough shapes of stony tusks and teeth, a great boulder of a nose, and shadowy caves for eyes. From the giant’s brow sprouted a pair of vast, vast horns – or at least the impression of horns hacked into the cliff – so it seemed as if an impossibly massive face was built into the living rock, with the great gates of the Dreadkeep as its mouth.

“Moloch,” Gundfyre breathed, taking in the monstrous vision of the Furious God. This effigy had horns ten times the size of the ones in the Shrine of the Great Minotaur.

“Maybe,” Crannog said doubtfully. Moloch was not a loving god, but Crannog had never imagined him quite so dark and fearsome as this. The black walls seemed to repel the light from the Molochfyre rather than reflect it, so the terrible face was constantly wreathed in shadow.

“What happens now?” Gundfyre asked.

“We wait, I suppose.” Somehow, he knew he shouldn’t try knocking on the big bronze doors.

They made a humble meal of the last of their hardcake as they crouched near the gates, on the widest part of the ledge. Crannog hoped the Pyromancers would come to them before sleep stole over them – he knew he would roll into the magma if he tried to bed down here. He was starting to feel sleepy, though most likely that was the vapours from the molten rock beneath them. His eyes stung.

“Should I sing a dirge to raise our spirits?” Gundfyre asked. “Moloch’s Steely Wrath is a good one to lift the heart. Do you know it?”

“No dirges,” Crannog answered softly, “this is no place for songs.”

It was three days before they came for them. They had not allowed themselves to sleep, and were half-mad with hunger and thirst. Crannog was the first to his feet as the bronze doors began to open, and he helped Gundfyre up beside him.

“Thank the Deep Ones,” his cousin croaked, “I couldn’t stand another hour breathing in this air.”

“Be quiet,” Crannog told him, his voice thick with exhaustion.

Three shambling figures emerged from the darkness of the Dreadkeep. All wore bronze masks, stained with green patina, and they were dressed in colourless, threadbare robes. The one who led them was unarmed, but the others carried tall glaives, tipped with bronze blades. Their beards were all ragged and unbraided. Instinctively, Crannog shied away, but Gundfyre began staggering towards them.

“Thank the Deep Ones,” he said again, “we thought we were forgotten. I am ready, my brothers! I am ready to learn all there is to know of Moloch! Teach me the secrets of the fire!” He reached the leader of the three strange Dwarves, and pawed out with his pale hands. Crannog tried to shout a warning as he saw the other Dwarf’s head turn suddenly and caught a glimpse of shining gimlet eyes behind his dark mask, but it was too late: he had seized Gundfyre with an iron grip and was already propelling him towards the edge of the precipice.

“Brother!” Gundfyre squealed.

“It has been less than ten seconds, and already I grow tired of this one’s prattling. If you love your fiery god so much, swim in his blood,” the masked Dwarf said, in a voice as dry as sandstone and twice as passionless. Gundfyre only had time to scream once before the magma filled his lungs and the flesh was melted from his bones. The river of magma swallowed him without another sound.

“What about you?” the Dreadkeep Dwarf asked Crannog, “Are you another fool in horns?”

“No. Just the normal kind.”

“Good. This is no place for faith, despite what you may have heard. Here we are at the heart of the Dwarven realm, and in here you will witness the truth of that realm’s ruin. In us, you will see the truth of Dwarvenkind made flesh, and through us, you will know the truth of your ancestors’ folly. Is it truth that you seek?”

“Yes,” Crannog answered straight away.

“Then enter with us. Or not. It scarcely matters. All come here, and all find the same thing: out here, choked by the fumes or consumed by the magma, or in there, your mind eaten by the truth, it all comes to the same thing.”

“Death,” Crannog guessed.

“Nothing so clean.” He thought he saw a grim smile in those shining eyes behind the mask. “Come, learn, understand and be. Learn the truth of Dwarves, the truth of the Underworld and the truth of what lies above it. Understand what we have lost and what we have become. Then you shallbe like us.”

“And what are you?”

“Damned. Damned and lost,” the stranger answered, turning his back and walking back into the Dreadkeep, followed by his two companions with their long glaives. After a few seconds, Crannog followed.

By Thomas Heasman-Hunt