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THE FATE OF THE DWARVES

Prologue

The Outer Lands,

The Black Abyss,

Winter, 6491st Solar Cycle

The air was filled with the smell of bone dust, ice-cold stone and frosty damp. The thin-armed creature stepped cautiously out of the shadow of a rock and blinked. Ten paces ahead the shimmering made everything on the far side appear hazy. The same as always.

The nameless creature sent a long green tongue over the skin of its doglike face, revealing needle-sharp teeth. With two of its sixteen fingers it explored the short dark fur under the dirty armor, scratched itself and yawned. It adjusted the armor that was pressing uncomfortably on its balls.

It gave a sigh of relief and then another yawn.

On the orders of the Strongest One it had to keep watch from dawn to dusk and immediately report any changes to the quivering vibrations in the air. It was a boring task. Thankless and boring.

After a while it picked up and ate a yellow beetle emerging from under a moldering thighbone on the ground. As it chewed it occurred to the creature that not one of the hundreds of its own kind could remember a time when the air had not shimmered.

It grunted and kicked at the black wall of rock, then strolled up to the edge, trailing an over-long sword. As the rusty brown metal blade scraped against the rock floor, it collected yet more dents and notches.

The creature sat down on the ground next to the shimmering. Yawning, it picked up a pebble and idly chucked it. The air hissed and flashed, for a second turning opaque like murky water and stopping the pebble’s flight. The little stone bounced back and landed at the tip of the creature’s boots. Another sigh. This was a ritual that never ever changed. It was obvious why the pebbles were being chucked: They did not disappear straight away when they met the shimmering.

There had been times when the invisible barrier had simply been an indestructible wall. It would hurt if you ran into it, but nothing else happened. Then, all of a sudden, the wall would destroy whatever touched it: There’d be a crackling flash and you’d be drenched in fire and burned to a fine cinder ash that blew away in the wind. But for about seven world-ages now, the wall had been taking quite a long time to actually kill you. If you were quick and tore yourself back off it you’d get away with a burn.

On the other side the creature could pick out a strange vertical structure composed of metal rings. When the sun stood high there’d be a bright light in the center. Every so often a few small chunky two-leggers could be seen going up to the rings, walking around and then disappearing again. You could just see strong high walls with colorful flags atop square towers, but the shimmering made everything indistinct. The towers were quite a way off.

If it tried very hard, the creature could make out two-leggers walking to and fro on the battlements. They looked different from the ones that marched round inspecting the interlocking iron rings. Bet their job was just as boring—and would remain so until some time in the future the air no longer made waves like on a hot summer’s day.

That was the moment the Strongest One had been waiting for, along with so many others, big and small, two-leggers and many-leggers, screech-phantoms and soul-rippers alike—and the kordrion, of course. Even the Strongest One was afraid of the kordrion—the flying horror was obeyed by all.

When the shimmering stopped a new empire would open up, the Strongest One had told them. There’d be delicious fresh meat and rich pickings for all. The Strongest One before the Strongest One had promised that as well. And the one before that, the Strongest Ever, had said the same.

The creature didn’t believe it any longer, but wasn’t going to let on. You died soon enough if you stepped out of line. A single life was nothing—the Strongest One had thousands of nameless foot soldiers at his beck and call.

Another pebble was chucked, half-heartedly. The large brown beetle crawling out of its rocky hiding place was really much more interesting.

Moving swiftly, the creature grabbed the beetle, pulled off the poisonous mandibles and sucked out the entrails, which tasted of rotten wanko berries. There was a lot of satisfied chewing. The empty beetle case was discarded and the creature bent down. Where had the pebble fallen this time?

Long fingers searching the ground found—nothing.

Curiosity now aroused, it lifted its head and saw the small stone lying out in the sunshine.

Snorting in disbelief, the creature got up and stared: The shimmering had stopped.

It hardly dared to move. Its whole body was tingling. Its nostrils widened to catch new scents. For the first time you could smell the land on the other side without the stupid filter: Flesh, iron, dust, stone—the smells of excitingly different things in your nose. Freedom! Booty! Meat! And untold treasure!

Looking back at the entrance to the underground empire of the Strongest One and the kordrion, the creature knew it had to make its report as quickly as anything, but . . . It turned its narrow head again, long pointed ears erect. Why not take another look before anyone else turned up? What was the world out there going to look like without that shimmer effect? Might there be some rich pickings to secure for personal use?

You’d have to inspect it properly, or your report wouldn’t be accurate. There was a big chance they’d call you a liar if your description wasn’t specific enough. Liars got treated the same way as the ones who stepped out of line. A very good reason for not racing off to the Strongest One’s lair in the abyss, quite apart from the rich-pickings possibility.

Carefully, one step at a time. Here’s the edge of the rocks now, and then out into the sunshine.

Any hope of a bit of secret pillaging died a death. Those fortress walls couldn’t possibly be scaled. The Strongest One’s help would be needed there. The kordrion’s, too. Tough . . . Without the distortion caused by the shimmering those square towers appeared even more invulnerable than ever. The creature’s dreams of rich pickings and fresh meat faded fast. The stonemason’s art up there—you wouldn’t get that type of thing back home.

But the creature’s approach had been noted. Vast numbers of weapons were heard rattling. Shouts came from the battlements. Then the dread sound of alarm horns.

This was scary. Best duck down!

Still trying to get a good look at all the colors and the patterns on the banners, the creature turned tail and made for the rocks—but a hefty blow on the back hurled it to the ground. The sword slipped out of its grasp.

It could scarcely breathe. It spat and saw its own green blood! But then the pain flooded through from the wound.

Yowling and whimpering by turns, it clutched at a thin wooden shaft sticking in its back.

From the right-hand side something came hissing, striking the creature in the face, shattering the upper jaw and adding to the torture. The howls grew louder and stopped, suddenly, when a dozen arrows whirred in from all directions.

One arm pierced and anchored to the flank, the creature dragged itself steadfastly on, groaning and spluttering. The Strongest One must get the report and avenge the death. Let the storm break!

Once back in the shadow of the rocks, past the place where the air normally shimmered, everything felt safer. Now the report would be made!

All at once the smell in the air changed.

In spite of all the blood and the mashed nose, you could sense it clearly: It was the smell you got just before a thunderstorm. Invisible energy was gathering, crackling all around.

Shrieking in terror, the creature clutched at the floor of dust and ground-up bones, trying to get a hold to pull itself forward . . .

The magic sphere flared into being once more, cutting the creature in half at the hips.

One last ghastly scream escaped its throat before it died; the legs convulsed for a time before falling still.

***

“Praise and thanks to Vraccas! The shield is up again!” Boïndil Doubleblade, known by friends and enemies alike as Ireheart on account of his ungovernable rage in combat, had observed the fate of the thin-armed creature. Putting the telescope down on the stone parapet, he watched the glittering shield that enclosed the Black Abyss. “The artifact seems to be running out of power.” He turned a quizzical gaze on Goda. “Can you tell me anything about that?”

He was standing with his beloved consort on the north tower of Evildam, which had defended these parts for the past two hundred and twenty-one cycles.

Built by dwarves, undergroundlings, ubariu and humans, the four walls of the fortress formed a square thirty paces high and, at the widest points, over fifteen paces thick round the Black Abyss. The structure was simple in form but masterful in execution. The cooperation of the various participators had ensured the creation of something unique, even if the dwarves’ contribution had been the greatest part. Ireheart was proud of it. The runes on the towers praised Vraccas, Ubar and Palandiell.

Catapults installed on the broad walkways, the towers and the levels beneath the roofed platforms could launch stones, arrows and spears when needed; there were enough missiles in store to contend even with attackers outnumbering them by many hundreds to one. A garrison of two thousand warriors manned the defenses of Evildam, ready to take up arms and fight back dark armies.

But for two hundred and twenty-one cycles this had never been necessary.

The creature that lay there in its own blood was the first ever to leave the prison: A dark cleft half a mile long and a hundred paces wide was a blemish on the surrounding landscape and marked where evil would emerge if the magic barrier and the fortress allowed it.

Goda turned to her warrior husband—a sturdy secondling dwarf with such a reputation and so much combat experience behind him that he had been appointed commander of the fortress. She tilted her head to one side; dark blond hair poked out from under her cap.

“Are you afraid the shield won’t hold, or are you hoping it won’t?” In contrast to Ireheart, who was sporting a chainmail shirt reinforced with iron plates, she wore a long light gray dress, simple and unadorned apart from the gold thread embroidering the belt. Goda wasn’t even carrying a dagger, showing plainly that she eschewed conventional fighting. Her arsenal was a magic one.

“Oh, I’m not afraid of what’s out there in the Black Abyss! It can’t be any worse than what’s abroad in Girdlegard,” he growled, pretending to be offended as he stroked his thick black beard, now exhibiting its fair share of silvery gray. It was a sign of his advanced age. But really he was in the prime of life. Ireheart gave his wife a sad little smile. “And I’ve never given up hope from the day he went to the other side.” He turned his head back to gaze at the entrance to the Black Abyss, over behind the shield. “That’s why I’m waiting here. By Vraccas, if I could only glimpse him behind that shield, I’d be off like a shot to help! With all the strength at my disposal.” He slammed both fists down on the top of the wall.

Goda looked over at the artifact with its impenetrable sphere enclosing the abyss. The artifact stood at the entrance to the Black Abyss and was composed of four interlocking vertical iron rings which formed a kind of ball with a diameter of twenty paces. The metal circles showed runes, signs, notches and marks; horizontal reinforcements connected to the central point where there was a fixture decorated with symbols. And it was there that its power was to be found: It drew its strength from a diamond in which enormous amounts of magic energy were stored.

But the stone was developing defects; each orbit would bring yet another fissure. When that happened you could hear the cracking sound echo from the fortress walls. All the soldiers were aware of it.

“I can’t say how much more it can take,” Goda told him quietly, her brows knitted in concern. “It could give at any moment or it could last for many cycles yet.”

Ireheart sighed and nodded to the guards passing on their rounds. “How do you mean?” he growled, rubbing the shaved sides of his head. Then he adjusted the plait of dark hair that hung down the length of his back. It was showing just as much silver now as the beard. “Can’t you be more specific?”

“I can only repeat what I always say when you ask that, husband: I don’t know.” She didn’t take his unfriendly tone amiss because she knew it stemmed from worry. Over two hundred and fifty cycles of worry. “Perhaps Lot-Ionan could have given you a better answer.”

Ireheart’s laugh was short, humorless and harsh. “I know what he’d give me if we met now. I expect it would be an extermination spell right between the eyes.” He picked up and shouldered his crow’s beak, the one his twin brother Boëndal Hookhand had once carried into battle. He made his way along the walkway. He used his twin’s long-handled weapon in honor of his memory: It had a heavy flat hammer head on the one side and a curved spike on the other, the length of your arm. No armor could withstand a crow’s beak wielded by a dwarf.

Goda followed him. Time to do the rounds.

“Did you ever think we would spend so long here in the Outer Lands?” he asked her pensively.

“No more than I ever thought things in Girdlegard could change like they have,” she replied. Goda was surprised by her companion’s thoughtful mood. The two of them had forged the iron band together many cycles before.

Their love had provided them with seven children: Two girls and five sons. The artifact had not objected to its keeper no longer being a virgin, as long as her soul was still pure. Goda had retained this innocence of spirit. Nothing dark had entered her mind. She had remained free of deceit, trickery and power lust.

The fact that she had abandoned Lot-Ionan made this very clear. Many others had remained with him. She had gained herself a powerful enemy by leaving him. “Don’t you think it’s time to go back and support them? You know they’ve been waiting for you. Waiting for the last great dwarf-hero from the glorious cycles.”

“Go back and leave you alone, when the artifact may burst at any moment? Give up command of the fortress?” Ireheart shook his head violently. “Never! If monsters and fiends come pouring out of the Black Abyss I’ve got to be here to hold them back, together with you and our children and my warriors.” He put his arm round her shoulder. “If this evil were to flood over into Girdlegard there would be no hope at all anymore. For no one, whatever race they belong to.”

“Why stop Boëndalin going back to our people? He could go in your place,” she urged him gently. “At least it would give the children of the Smith a signal . . .”

“Boëndalin is too good a fighter to be spared,” he interrupted her. “I need him to train the troops.” Ireheart’s eyes grew hard. “None of my sons and daughters shall leave my side until we’ve closed up the Black Abyss for all time and filled it up with molten steel.”

Goda sighed. “Today’s not one of your best orbits, Ireheart.”

He stopped, placed his crow’s beak on the ground and took her hands in his. “Forgive me, wife. But seeing the shield collapse like that, and then seeing how long it took to repair itself, it’s really got me worried. I can easily be unfair when I’m troubled.” He gave a faint smile to ask for forgiveness. She smiled in her turn.

They marched to the tower and went down in the lift, which worked with a system of counterweights and winches.

One hundred heavily armed ubariu warriors were waiting for them at the fortress gates.

Ireheart scanned their faces. Even after all those cycles they were still foreign to him. It had never felt right to forge friendships with a people who looked for all the world like orcs. Only bigger.

Their eyes shone bright red like little suns. In contrast to Tion’s creatures, the ubariu kept themselves very clean and their character was different too, because they had turned their back on evil and on random cruelty to others—at least that was what the undergroundlings claimed. The undergroundlings were the dwarves of the Outer Lands . . .

And even if there had never been cause for doubt, Ireheart’s nature would never allow him to lay aside his scruples and accept them as equals, as friends. For himself, in contrast to how his wife and children felt, they would never be more than military allies.

Goda gave him a little push and he pulled himself together. He knew his reservations were unjustified, but he couldn’t help it. Vraccas had hammered a hatred of orcs and all of Tion’s creatures into the Girdlegard dwarves. The ubariu had the misfortune to look like evil—and yet there was no way round it: They had to work together to guard the Black Abyss. Ireheart gave the gatekeeper a signal.

Shouts were heard, strong arms moved chains and pulley ropes to set the heavy cogs in motion to open the main door. With a screech of iron the massive gate, eleven paces by seven, rose up to make a gap through which the column of soldiers could march out toward the artifact.

“We’ll check the edges of the shield today,” Ireheart told Pfalgur, the ubari standing next to him. “I wouldn’t put it past these beasts to have dug an escape tunnel. You go one way, we’ll take the other. I’ll start at the artifact. You get along.”

“Understood, general,” the ubari’s deep voice responded, passing on the orders.

They traversed the basin that held the Black Abyss. The sides were smooth and black as colored glass, and steep paths led off to the right and left, ending at the protective sphere.

Ireheart turned right toward the artifact; the ubari led his troops in the other direction.

While Goda used her telescope to inspect in minute detail both the diamond and the structure, which was enclosed in the same kind of energy dome as the abyss itself, Ireheart went over to the corpse of the abyss creature. On this side of the barrier lay the ugly thin legs that didn’t look capable of ever having walked properly in those heavy boots. On the other side Ireheart could vaguely make out its upper body, pierced with arrows. Greenish blood had formed puddles and little rivulets.

“Stupid freak,” he said under his breath, kicking the creature’s left leg. “Your moment of freedom only brought you death.” Ireheart looked up and stared into the chasm. “Did you come on your own when you saw the shield was failing?” he asked quietly, as if the creature could hear him.

“Boïndil!” he heard Goda call, her voice excited.

Something wrong with the diamond? He was just about to turn round to speak to her when he thought he noticed a movement in the darkness.

Ireheart stopped and stared fixedly.

The strength of the magic barrier was making his mustache hairs stand on end. Or was it that feeling of unease?

“Boïndil, come on!” his wife called, attempting to get his attention again. “I’ve got something to . . .”

Ireheart raised his right hand to show he had heard her but that he needed quiet. His brown eyes searched the twilight for vague figures.

Once more he noticed a slight scurrying movement—something going from one rock to the next. There it came again. And yet another!

There was no doubt in his mind that more monsters were creeping up. Had they sensed the poor state of the barrier? Did they have the advantage here with their animal instincts?

“I want . . .” he called over his shoulder. Surprise cut off his words. Wasn’t that a dwarf helmet?

“This confounded distortion!” he yelled, taking a step forward. Standing dangerously close to the sphere, such that he could hear the humming sound it made, its pitch varying, he called out in a mix of hope and expectation. “Tungdil?” He nearly laid his hand on the energy screen; then gulped in distress. His throat had never felt so constricted before. “Vraccas, don’t let my eyes be deceiving me,” he prayed.

Then a huge pale claw, as broad as three castle gates, appeared out of the shadows, and gave a thundering blow to the sphere, producing a dull echo. The ground shook.

Ireheart jumped back with a curse, hitting out with his weapon as a reflex. The steel head of the crow’s beak crashed against the barrier, but ineffectually. “The kordrion is back!” he bellowed, noting with grim satisfaction that the alarm trumpets on the battlements immediately sounded a warning to the soldiers to man the catapults. All those drills he made them do were paying off.

The pale claw curled, its long talons scraping along the inner side of the shield, creating bright yellow sparks. Then the kordrion retreated and a wall of white fire rolled in, slapping up against the barrier like a wave and washing all around.

Ireheart retreated, dazzled, stumbling backwards to the artifact. “It won’t hold for long,” he shouted to Goda. “The beasts know it and they’re gathering.”

“The diamond!” she called back. “It’s crumbling!”

“What? Not now, in Vraccas’s name!” At last he could see again: Behind the force wall stood a range of monsters brandishing weapons! “Oh, you fiendish . . .”

Most were like that creature that had been cut in half; but there were others, significantly broader in the beam, much stronger and terrifying in appearance. No nightmare could have come up with better.

“By Vraccas,” Ireheart breathed, bereft that his friend, Tungdil, had not come, after all. He issued brisk orders to the ubariu, telling them to spread out in front of the artifact to protect Goda. The warriors formed a wall of bodies, iron and shields, their lances pointing forward like so many defensive tentacles. Ireheart turned to Goda and saw that she was touching the shimmering sphere. “What’s happening?” he called.

She was deathly pale. “A piece . . . of the diamond has come away,” she stammered. “I can’t hold it . . .”

There was a loud crack, like the noise of ice breaking. They all stared at the jewel. It had suddenly gone a darker color and there was a distinct fissure on its surface. The barrier fizzed and flickered. Layer upon layer was flaking off the edges of the diamond and falling to the ground. It was nearing the end.

“Get back!” commanded Ireheart. “Get back to the fort! We stand no chance here.” He took Goda’s hand and ran with her. In recent cycles he had grown to know the difference between courage and the insanity that used to overtake him in battle. His sons, too, had needed to learn the same lesson. The madness wasn’t something he was proud of handing on to them.

The ubariu warriors kept pace with them, even though they could easily have covered the distance much more swiftly than the dwarves. Goda found it well-nigh impossible to tear herself away from the artifact, but was dragged along by her colleagues.

With a brilliant flash and an ear-splitting detonation the diamond burst apart, the force of the explosion bringing the whole structure down. Parts of the vertical iron circles broke off and flew through the air to bury themselves in the ground several paces off. The ends were glowing. There must have been incredible heat involved.

At the same time—the barrier at the Black Abyss fell!

The maga could clearly see the army of beasts—there was no immovable power to hold them back now. The wind carried an unbelievable stink over to her, a mixture of excrement, stale blood and sour milk. Grayish white clouds of dust and bone meal flurried up like mist in front of the somber rock face. Figures appeared out of the fog.

Behind the army the pale dragon-like head of the kordrion reared up out of the chasm, horns and spikes erect. The four gray upper eyes were assessing the walls of the fortress as if to judge what weaponry might be used against it and its followers. The two lower blue eyes beneath the long bony muzzle were fixed on the ubariu and the fleeing dwarves.

“Vraccas!” exclaimed Goda, who was gathering her magic powers ready for defense. She had spotted a helmet among the first row of smaller monsters—a helmet as worn by children of the Smith.

Then a dwarf stepped forward, head to foot in dark armor made of tionium; glimmering inlay patterns glowed in turn. The creatures all drew back in respect.

In his right hand he held a weapon that was a legend in Girdlegard and the Outer Lands alike, black as the blackest shadow and longer than a human arm. On one side the blade was thicker and had long thin teeth like a comb, and on the other side it thinned out like a sword.

“Bloodthirster,” breathed Goda and stopped in her tracks.

Ireheart was brought to a halt. He turned—and froze. Words failed him.

The dwarf in the night-colored armor raised his left hand to lift his visor. A familiar face with a golden eye patch could be seen, but the features were hard and marked with bitterness. His cold, cruel smile promised death. Then he held his weapon aloft and looked to the right and to the left. The creatures responded with shouts.

“Vraccas defend us: He has returned!” whispered Goda in horror. “Returned as the Commander of Evil!”

At that moment discordant trumpets blared out from the abyss, echoing off the bare rock. The kordrion opened its muzzle to utter a furious roar.