Sickly grey-green corpses, red shreds of gore, and dark charred husks intermingled down the steep slopes and littered the floors of the trenches and larger ravines. The sweet, thick smell of cooking flesh rose from mounds where bodies had been stacked and set ablaze. Purple and pink sparks occasionally accompanied sizzles and pops as unnatural gifts were burnt away. Above on one island of greenery amongst the few remaining that dotted the hellscape, Rungi and his council sat in silence, contemplating the cost of their victory. Though it was long after the adrenaline had stopped coursing through their veins, it had not been long enough for the screams of the dying to fade along with those emitting them. It was those screams that now robbed the victors of their speech.
Loremaster Lunn had been maniacally scratching away with quill and parchment until he felt the weight of the other lords’ stares. He slowly laid his materials to the side and waited for the inevitable reproach from Grogan and Norgrim. The simpletons might be strong of arm and back, but they lacked his foresight. Even the runelords failed to grasp that they had unlocked the magics at the core of the realm, the ability to shape worlds to their will… The long-bearded librarian nearly choked on his breath when instead, old lord Grombrisson called across the fire, “What old secrets are ya bout to pull out fer us tonight, Master Librarian?” To his surprise, bright eyes all round the ring of duardin were fixed on him, reflecting the warm dancer in front of them. There was a soothing nature to the red and orange flickerings, something familiar and comforting, unlike the hissing greens and exploding purples from before. “My good thane,” Rungi interjected between Lunn’s sputterings,” what do your scrolls tell you? Is there anything we can do to comfort the wounded?”
“The ruinous powers don't simply create fire that burns away the flesh,” Lunn slowly explained, “it mutates. That which the flames touch is twisted and changed, often beyond function and recognition.”
“But for those who are strong enough to fight this change…” began the young Stormbeard, his words as much a plea as a question.
Lunn could see the wetness in his eyes. Powerful as the lad was, the aftermath of battling warpfire terrified even him. “Young brother, they would need strength that few possess.”
“ ‘Ave ya looked in ‘ere?” asked Smakki, his voice ringing with an optimism few had heard.
“Is this not your private journalings m’lord?” the loremaster cautioned. “I couldn't…” his mouth said tentatively while his hands eagerly received the heavy tome of leather and gold.
“I’s not jus’ mine. That there is th’last surviving record a’my forefathers’ experiments with th’ancestor runes.” Jaws were agape all around the fire, but none more so than Grimwold, whose face seemed to battle between surprise and embarrassment. After all, even he had thought these secrets lost to the ages. “The master rune you used t’wake th’mountains was torn from this ‘ere tome lad. Maybe you’ll find something else useful if’n ya give’t a read.” And with that, the elder of his clan rose on creaking knees from his seat near the fire and staggered away. In a matter of five sentences the usually isolationist runelord had shared the greatest treasures of one of the few remaining runeguilds in the mortal realms. The survival of the Skaudaziwyr and their secret art was now interwoven with the Karakigrom and their crusading king.
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Clusters of duardin polished away the stains of battle from their shields and armor or changed the bandages on a brother’s wound. A warm hand on the shoulder or solemn acknowledgement of sacrifice was handed out from lord to warrior wherever appropriate, but words were scarce. Most of the throng had been raised in safety and chased to bed as babes with tales of the evils Chaos had waiting for them. The reality had been far more devastating to the psyche of these soldiers. First encounters with warpfire tended to have that effect. Though he’d never admit it, Rungi found himself waking several times each night, shaking and dripping in cold sweat as he relived the battle and imagined himself among the less fortunate. Though inevitably a blade or slavering maw had managed to slip through the novice warrior shield wall to hit home here or there, by and large the blocks of infantry had been successful in blunting the onslaught of their pursuers while the miners, and later runeguild, had etched the beginnings of a path into the mountains capable of carrying their caravan. But a different fate entirely had befell the ironbreakers. Where others had the the shieldwall these professional guardians had been the shieldwall, repeatedly anchoring themselves in the ravines to allow the Skaudaziwyr time to craft their runes. When the earth had rent open and pillars of unnatural flame had stabbed skyward, it was these great defenders of the clan who had been cooked inside their metal suits.
A great canvas village had been erected to shelter them and provide some semblance of privacy, but the clan knew plenty well the source of the groans and whimpers clawing at their bravery day and night. The king looked around him to make sure he was not followed before stepping through a curtained doorway and into the ward of the burnt. As he strode down the center aisle between two rows of cots, the ground wet with the blood of the afflicted clung to his boots slightly tighter than outside. Wherever they lay, jars of cooling salve and great flasks of hearty spirits accompanied those who hadn't succumbed to their burns. A second partition hung further back, blocking the surgeons grim duties from the view of those trying to recover. Rungi continued on through the tent wards until he reached the back of the hastily erected structure. Here the ceiling opened up to the crisp air once more; billows of steam and smoke rising high into the midmorning sky, only distinguishable from the glittering clouds of the wilds by the fiery orange embers carried with them, every so often.
“Welcome King,” greeted Lunn with his usual, awkward over-cheeriness. Rungi’s jaw tightened with discomfort at the excited nature of one of his trusted advisors in a place as dark and unfortunate as the makeshift burn-ward.
“All around you dawi are having flesh cut from their bodies to prevent the dark gods’ corruptions from burning their identities away,” Rungi slowly questioned, ”Forgive me librarian, but what could possibly be fueling your optimism?”
“Go easy on ‘im lad,” called Smakki from a far corner. “The musty ol’ scroll-keeper is’bout tah save a whole bunch’a dawi.”
Rungi was still looking toward the old runelord, waiting for an elaboration, but the whitebeard had turned back to a fire he was painstakingly growing to just the right temperature. Instead the king turned back to his loremaster to sate his sudden appetite for runelore.
“Lord Smakki is being very generous with his praise,” Lunn blushed undwarfishly. “You have raised a throng of the ages, and many of our kin are protected by ancient runic armor…”
“Yes, the Karakigrom are known for our traditions,” Rungi interrupted impatiently. Behind him a duardin groaned loudly, likely biting into a piece of wood so as not to cry out as a warpfire burn was scraped away. “But I hardly see the connection between honoring our kin with our battle armament and saving our wounded from the corruption of the wicked fires.”
“Ah, but young king where you see armor I see a vessel. Of course you know that runecraft, all but forgotten in Azyr, once allowed duardin to harness the magics around them. What many do not realize is the extent rune craft can be taken to. As we all bore witness, the right combination of runes shaped of the right raw material can move the very mountains.”
The elder librarian, cheeriness aside, had seemingly earned the respect of the rune-guild. All around Rungi, sparks were beginning to fly as armor was rent and reforged. Apprentices scurried about tossing handfuls of kindling into hungry furnaces and dodging the scorching belches that resulted. Alongside them, runesmiths hammered away at glowing characters with everything from massive mallets to precision hammers, sparks launching into the sky with each blow. “Go on…” he mused.
“The Skaudaziwyr have maintained their craft amidst an ever changing landscape, and we are fortunate they have, for through their understanding so too has survived…”
Rungi was growing impatient. It must have shown because Grimwold lifted his head from his labors to interject. “The master librarian is suggesting that we may have rediscovered something of great power, my king. May I show you?” Rungi approached the anvil to see heavy plate with red-glowing runes across the chest-plate. “No doubt you’ve seen plenty of runes of strength and protection, and just the other day witnessed the might of an expertly-crafted master rune. However, here we are adding ancient family runes to channel the strength of the wearer’s predecessors into such common runes. Finally, we’re adding a few forgotten runes of protection and healing, relics of a time thought lost to myth.”
Unable to contain himself, Lunn burst out, “Mind you, my lords, we have never seen this amount of runework successfully balanced before. We are hoping though -”
“Shaddup bookkeeper,” muttered a now attentive Smakki. “Rungi, ye need tah trust in th’old ways. You’ve seen th’powers of the ancestors.” Smakki suddenly whirled himself to face the king, extending forward a layered shoulder plate covered in runes that seemed forged of living fire. “These runes giv’em a map t’their kin in need. D’ya think yer grandpappies are goin’ ta sit round a table when you’re rightin’ a grudge this ‘uge?”
“Our clansmen have never been the type to sit idle,” the king smirked. “You believe you can call all the way to the feasthalls in the underworld?”
“Shysh ain’t as far away as ye might think lad,” replied Smakki in a hushed tone. “ I’s more a matter of givin’m a smooth road t’travel, withou’ too many critters gnawing at’em along th’way.”
Not slowed by the veteran’s words, Rungi was about to give further praise as he walked out of the tent. As he turned though, his words froze in his throat as melt on an icicle. Steel helms were lined on a cooling rack, some with red runes ablaze, others only radiating the heat of their neighbors. Each had a tempered-steel faceplate, expressionless and cruel. They were shaped without emotion, many in imitation of skulls, and served as a reminder that the wearer walked amongst the living in defiance of death itself. The king had grounded his life’s work in the traditions and wisdom his clan had gathered over the ages. From the deepest part of his stomach, he felt a slight rumble as he wondered if Lunn understood the full power of the forces at play here. Only time would tell.
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Enlag Har-Runkal, The Fire Thrasher
Champion of the Har-Smakazi, the Flame-Tested Karakigrom Survivors of the Battle for the Road
Each time a hot steel boot lifted from the earth it left small whisps of smoke rising from a scorched print. Though few connected where it came from, many noses wrinkled at the odd odor of burnt metal emanating from the enriched earth. Enlag Har-Runkal (fire thrasher) strode forward from the ranks of his Har-Smakazi (flame-tested). Even in the bright midday sun, the runes adorning his armor swam with molten heat. Every so often a small flame would flicker to life and dance across the rune-script.
The gathered, whispering crowd parted to allow the fearsome warrior passage. Lunn met him in front of the spent campfire where the king’s council was reviewing the latest headcount of able-bodies. He paced around the figure, ostentatiously admiring the finished masterpiece, even though he likely had seen the resurgent warrior more recently than the other onlookers. “My king, you remember Enlag, champion of the fallen Deep-Guard,” interrupted Lunn as he turned back towards the company. “He now leads the Smakazi, the unburnt from the Battle for the Road.” The elders of the council stared in shock, some muttering vexes against the dark gods while others thanked Grungni by name. For his part, Enlag returned their stares unflinchingly. Whereas every eye in the crowd was pulled wide and wet with tears at the miracle before them, Enlag’s were as stone, unblinking and set directly ahead. If the steel covering him from head to toe was hot from the flaming runes, he showed no sign of it.
Rungi approached the heavily armored figure, noticing the scarring visible on the rare openings of exposed flesh. The young leader’s brow grew several more creases that afternoon. For despite his knowledge of the magnitude of runic magics being harnessed in the tent-forges, and even having seen the extent of Smakki and his kin’s abilities when they had literally awoken the mountains themselves, he could not fathom anyone recovering from the kiss of warpfire. “How do you stand here champion? I have walked through the tents every day and every night for a month. I have seen the extent of the burns. No mortal could withstand the corrosive effects of such an inferno, and yet here your so-called Smakazi stand.”
“Revenger,” began Enlag in a tone so guttural as to cause discomfort to all those who listened, “you have given all of your kin the opportunity to confront those who have stolen our lands, our heritage, and our honor. Alone, the flames of the damned would have been our ruin.” His eyes locked on the young king’s, a white-hot light suddenly projecting more forcefully outward from the already violet glow. “But we are not alone. Our brother runecrafters have enveloped us in runes of fortitude, endurance, and healing, while Loremaster Lunn has helped them find even more rare creations with which to call on our lost ancestors, warriors of renown who are honored by our settling of their grudges against the wicked enemy. My king, it is the assembled brethren of your throng and those who came before who have carried us back from Shysh itself…”
From beard barely long enough for a basic fork to those woven into great styling so that wrapped round their owners, each shined a bit more resplendent that afternoon. The Vengeful Throng had survived the first great test of those who would twist this realm, but the test had only increased as they tallied the cost. And ever since, the hamstrung throng had spent day and night trying to repell advances while nursing themselves back to health. Today, heroes who had given the most stood ready to sacrifice even more, and their fervor had spread to the others who had gathered from throughout the camp.
“When you are ready to lead us into the mountains, we stand ready to repay this debt my lord. ”
Har-Smakazi, the Flame-Tested Karakigrom Survivors of the Battle for the Road