PROLOGUE: A Prelude to War

Posted 02/10/19

Otr glanced at his battle line. Twenty thousand heavily armored and armed dvergar. All positioned on the rocky outcrops of the slopes of the mountains flanking the secret pass to the main dvergar stronghold in the Western Dvergar Mountains. Tall linked and embedded shields protected the infantry ranks. At their back, dwarven crossbowmen, armed with an improved version of the Zhong repeater crossbow. Further up were ballistae and catapults. Their mages were distributed all along the line.

What a vacation, he thought to himself. You come to visit your father, and you end up in another battle. I should have brought that Dvalin fellow and his lads along, they didn’t seem to have enough fun back in Hedmark.

Otr glanced at the ranks of warriors preparing for battle. Most were rubbing their shields and armor with a mixture of clay and vinegar, magically bonded together. Even spears and pikes got the same treatment. On the vast desolate plain below, the southern edges of the Plain of Fire, Otr could see Sutr’s advance legions moving into position.

We might have a higher tolerance to fire than other races, but it doesn’t mean we’re immune to it. On the bright side, the jotunn’s minions are definitely killable.

The dwarven lord was curious about the big shapes he had seen ponderously proceeding forward. Such huge monsters have never been seen before though the distance was too great for him to pick out details. He walked to the ballistae commander standing a hundred feet away and gave out helpful comments to the preparing dwarves as he walked along the lines of defenders.

“Quickly now, you bunch of lily-livered pansies! At this rate, we should be inviting those blasted offspring of Sutr to dinner instead! You call that preparing? I’ll get better results from dead drunk, half-blind, lame, and witless humans! Move your lazy, fat, and heavy asses! Are you sons of the mountains?” he shouted.

A continuing loud shout from thousands of voices greeted his words. Battle drums sounded.

“Good! For a moment, I thought I was fighting with the svartalfar!”

Noisy laughter greeted his words. Otr reached the dwarven detachment leader.

“How’s it going, Nabbi?” Otr asked.

“We’re still bringing up ammunition, my Prince. Though I see big ones at the rear of our enemies.”

“I saw them too. Don’t mind them. The fire jotnar would be idiots to use them in the coming battle. They’re going to be used when they’ve forced the gate. Right now, those flying snakes are the ones which worry me,” replied Otr.

“Some look familiar, the usual crop of fire drakes. Others are new,” observed the dwarf.

“Nothing that tunneling stones won’t cure,” snorted Otr.

“It does appear they brought a lot of their forces to the coming merriment,” commented Nabbi. “I estimate about forty thousand now on the field, with more coming in.”

“More to kill, brother. Though the scouts did report the land of fire is indeed on the move. The battle won’t be today or even tomorrow. They’ll gather their hosts first before they attack,” grinned Otr. “That gives me time for some drinking tonight.”

Then he thoughtfully looked at the gathering on the field.

“I never thought I’d be happy to see normal enemies, even in those numbers. There’s something abominable about fighting swift undead who fight and think like the living back in Hedmark,” said Otr.

“I did hear about that, my Prince. The warning about the jotunn lords had already been sent to the various dvergar realms. But I heard most are already fighting either Sutr or Ymir’s forces,” mentioned his companion.

Otr grinned. “It’s going to be the worst and biggest crock of draken shit, Nabbi. And I am not talking about that cursed Fafnir either. The good news is we’re in the front seats! Imagine that!”

***

The dokkalfr mage stood among his dead and dying brethren. The attack had been unexpected. They didn’t foresee that the jotnar knew about this particular entrance. The sudden impact of several magical offensive spells laid low most of the guard detachment, and the freezing spell which followed either immobilized the defenders or made it difficult to move.

The quick onslaught of four-legged fanged terrors which ensued left no doubt as to the eventual fate of the dokkalfr outpost. Only the wounded mage remained, his magical barrier reduced almost to its breaking point.  The small space before him quickly filled up with the deadly marauders. The mage raised his staff and grimly smiled.

It’s going to cost them, the thought ran through his mind as he grasped the weapon with two hands and violently slammed it on the ground with all his remaining strength, breaking it in two.

A whirlwind of flames erupted from the broken staff, savagely burning everything in the small space in an instant, reducing everything to piles of ash.

More jotnar streamed into the opening and quickly fanned out, moving deeper into the Dokkalfr Mountains.

***

The mercenary stumbled through the thick jungle undergrowth. A few hours before, he had been with his comrades at the large earthen fort on the borders of the Cahokian Dependency, a vassal state of Kemet.

His company was left to reinforce the fort’s complement because of disturbing news about a rebellion in the kingdom. But they didn’t worry too much about it. They were stationed on the border, far from any conflict. Even if the rumors were true, it was but an internal matter for the Dependency. The winner will bow to Kemet after the dust had settled.

The dawn assault came suddenly. Frightening man-spiders came out of the ground inside the fort and swiftly silenced the guards. What followed was a massacre in some of the barracks. Sleepy men were torn apart as they came out of the fort’s structures.

Then the gates of the fort were opened and the horse-mounted rebels swooped in, with the distinctive Cahokian cavalry method of a rider and a javelin-armed warrior in medium armor. It gave the combination unparalleled mobility and attack power – the shield of the passenger protected the bow-armed rider and gave the option for the warrior to either dismount and engage a weakened enemy or continue with the harassing attacks. The horse itself was protected by cloth-and-metal armor designed to absorb or deflect arrows.

This time, the co-riders dismounted and continued what the loathsome man-spiders started. The mercenary was lucky enough to have his bunk at the end of their quarters and after he saw what was happening, opted to use the window instead. Clambering down the wooden palisade, he was spotted by a rider. He ran, ditching whatever armor he was able to put on. Speed was key, and his sword was enough.

He thankfully reached the forest and continued running, the torrent of sweat now with accompanied by tired breathing. Long minutes passed. He looked back, sword tightly gripped in his right hand. No sign of pursuit. He slumped his weary body back against a large tree. A few minutes to rest, his mind and exhausted muscles insisted.

High above him, thick cobwebs were dropping on the weary warrior.

***

The small pass facing north was one of the Dual Monarchy’s openings towards the mountains bordering Muspelheim, the land of fire. Dwarven realms could be found under the vast mountain range and trading parties would sometimes venture forth to visit designated points earmarked for such profitable expeditions.

Lately, two such trading caravans had returned empty-handed, to the disappointment of the border guards who had become accustomed to generous largesse from the happy merchants. Dwarven guards had told the traders that the realms are closed for now because of some disturbance coming from the Plain of Fire.

The night shift was already doing the rounds, lighting the torches around the small outpost. For a small fortification, one would have thought the garrison to be commensurate with its size. But the stone wall enclosing the compound hid the better part of a thousand fighting men, two hundred cavalry, and twenty war chariots. The Empire knew well the benefits of trade with the dwarven realm and the peaceful co-existence that came with it. The army was more to protect the merchants than the border. And the Dual Monarchy had assiduously avoided establishing larger forts on the lands facing the Western Dvergar Mountains lest the action be interpreted as a prelude to war. That was the last thing those ruling the Empire wanted. The dwarven realms had provided a much-needed buffer against the incursions from Sutr’s domain.

One of the two guards on top of one of the towers idly noticed that only half of the torches of the fort had been lit. He nudged his companion and pointed out the strange occurrence. As they watched, they saw a warrior come out from one of the rooms and walk towards the parapet. In the growing gloom, the pair saw clouds of mist appear at the back of the unsuspecting man, solidify, and pounce on him. One of the forms clearly had a scrawny hand over the warrior’s mouth. The stupefied duo looked at each other. Then one rushed to the large gong and started furiously beating it, ringing its alarm throughout the fort. Men on the enclosed field halted and looked up at the source of the loud noise.

“Edimmu! Edimmu! Edimmu!” shouted the other guard at the warriors gathered below. The listeners exploded into action. Officers shouted orders and men hurried to grab their weapons and armor from the tents arranged on the field.

On top of the largest building in the compound, a figure smiled.

***

Deep in the bowels of Hades, separating it from the accursed plane of Tartarus, sat a massive bronze round mirror half a mile in diameter. Secured by chains of adamantine to the floor of a vast cavern, the artifact’s surface glowed with eldritch sparks amidst a swirling vortex of blue energy. Flickers of power ran up the metal cables, powering the giant magical orb.

Around it stood rows of gleaming humanoid constructs, each a hundred feet tall and armed with giant versions of metal weapons. They all bore the mark of Hephaestus, the sign being a horizontal hammer above an anvil. The Greek deity of forging had learned a valuable lesson from his experiment with Talos, the huge bronze warrior who had protected Crete back in the First World – colossal forms also make for oversized targets.

Suddenly, a huge flaming hand came out of the mirror’s surface roiling with immense power. The mirror and its chains brightly glowed in response to the intrusion, and flashes of massively powerful energies attacked the unwelcome appendage. The hand became an arm, and the arm revealed a gigantic shoulder. A fiery face contorted by agonizing pain emerged and a great cry shook the vast cavern. The metal constructs started to move.