Authors: Andy Remic
Skalg eyed the crossbow. It was a Steir & Moorheim. The best of the best. A
“Kajella! Please, girl! Think of the gods! Think of the church! Think with your head, not your battered quimâ¦”
“You're going to die, Skalg,” she hissed. The crossbow tracked him.
Like a coward, Skalg cringed back, then shuffled left and shuffled right, trying to avoid the swaying eye of the crossbow. Suddenly, there came the terrifying click and whine, and Skalg truly believed he saw events in a flickering of static images. Kajella, face contorted in rage and hate, pulled the trigger. The crossbow kicked. The quarrel sped towards him, and whisked over his shoulder, a thumb's breadth from ripping his left cheek from his skull. Skalg felt the passing of the steel bolt. A hiss ejaculated from his bearded lips. And his face changed slowly from fear toâ¦ something else.
Kajella made a high-pitched sound, more animal than dwarf, and charged at Skalg in a sudden sprint, both hands on the crossbow, hoisting it high to bring it down and crush his religious skull.
Skalg, an expert in avoiding pain, staggered to one side, ducking and twisting. Kajella, carried forward by the weight of the swung crossbow, hit the waist-high barrier and flipped over with a scream. The crossbow sailed into the vast landscape of the mountain interior below, end over end, disappearing into distant black. Skalg imagined he heard a tiny clatter as it disintegrated on stone flags some several hundred levels below.
Skalg checked himself. He breathed.
Donkey shit. Not only does another church burn, a fucking prick-rider thinks she can assassinate the First Cardinal of the Church of Hateâ¦ is there a poison in the mine water?
Skalg realised he was on his knees. He gave a laugh like a dog bark. Damn. How did that happen? Skalg knelt before no dwarf, man, nor god.
Slowly, he grabbed the carved stone rail and hauled himself to his feet. He stood on tiptoe and peered over, expecting to see a vast blank canvas; or at the very best, a distant splatter of Kajella's broken corpse.
Instead, he looked down into the young dwarf's face.
She stared up at him, fingers flexing in agony, blood under her fingernails. She blinked rapidly, breath coming in short bursts, chest heaving.
Skalg sighed, and grinned, and leant both elbows on the stone balustrade. “Well well well,” he said, smiling down at the distraught and desperate dwarf. “I thought you had fallen to your death; I thought your arms and legs had separated from your plump but very sexy little body.”
“Pleaseâ¦” she gasped. “Please help.”
“Didn't you just try to kill me? Didn't you put a bolt in Granda's belly? Look at poor Granda kneeling there. Wheezing and bleeding. How are you doing, Granda?”
“It hurts,” he grunted.
“I'll see to you in a minute.” He returned his gaze. “You see, sweet Kajella? You injured poor old loyal Granda. And that just won't doâ¦”
“I'llâ¦ I'll be good. Anything you ask. Please. I don't want to die.”
Skalg stared at her. Kajella's desperation was palpable. Here was a young dwarf who would happily perform his
whim. No matter how depraved.
“What do I get out of it?”
Cardinal Skalg. I promise. Absolutely
No more complaints. Justâ¦ don't let me fallâ¦” She glanced down, and gave a little shriek of terror.
“Hmmmmm,” he said. Then brightly, “You see? There are worse things than spending time in my bed.”
“If I'm honest, young Kajella, I'm not sure I can trust you any more.”
“I will swear on my blood, on my honour, on my House.”
Skalg stared down at the young dwarf. “You are very beautiful,” he said.
“My father said I was blessed,” she panted.
“Hmm. Yes. Yes of course. That was why you were picked.” He considered, one finger on his lip.
“Yes, yes, yes,” she said.
“But then, of courseâ¦”
Skalg stared at her face. Large, beautiful eyes. Heavily lined with ochre. Fine square jaw. High cheekbones, like the Great Dwarf Lords themselves. Pretty. No.
Beautiful, classically beautiful,
like the princesses from the
Scriptures of the Church of Hate
Kajella yelped, and one hand came free. She was seconds from death.
He reached over, reached down, and grabbed the hand which still held on. Blood had run from under broken fingernails, cracked and split from the pressure; now it ran down her fingers and dripped onto her breasts.
Skalg's throat was dry.
Blood. Breasts. Quim. Screams, long into the night. I will do anything. Anything, First Cardinal. Anything you can fucking imagine in your most depraved fucking heaving sweating dreams
He licked his lips. His eyes gleamed.
Skalg took Kajella's weight, and he held her over the abyss. His head lifted then, catching the scent of fire. His eyes narrowed. The church was burning furiously. Howls of wind drawn into the pumping furnace wailed from the city far below. Smoke billowed, making the whole of this underworld city seemâ¦ hazy.
She caught his gaze.
“Please,” she mouthed. “You said I was one of the most beautiful young dwarves you had ever seen!”
Skalg nodded. And smiled. “However, I see
of the most beautiful young dwarves in the entire Five Havens,” he said. “You are nothing special, other than the fact you tried to kill me.”
He opened his fingers, and enjoyed the look of shock on Kajella's face, as he watched her accelerate quickly into the landscape.
Wearily, Skalg pushed back his shoulders. His hunched, broken back gave a
and he shuddered, but felt a little random relief. He stared down, tilting his head slightly, listening. Finally, there came a distant
There was no scream. Skalg imagined her bloody, pulped carcass, and gave a little shudder. “The Mountain gives, and the Mountain takes away,” he murmured.
Skalg turned, and ran a powerful hand over his face, stroking his dark beard. He fixed his gaze on Granda, who was lying on his side now in a pool of blood. He was groaning softly. Skalg hobbled over to his Chief Educator, and sat the man up from his sticky platter with a grunt.
“How do you feel?”
“Is the little bitch dead?”
“In separated pieces on the ground far below.”
“We'd better get you to the infirmary.”
Granda nodded, face grey and lips quivering. Then he grabbed Skalg's sleeve. Skalg looked down at the grip, eyes narrowing at the lack of formality; but he managed to stay his words at the impropriety.
“There's something else,” Granda managed, through his pain.
“My Educators. They caught one.”
“One of the fire starters,” said Granda, blood speckling his frothing lips.
ith Granda transported
to the Hospital of the Sacred Church, Cardinal Skalg, in full church robes, escorted by twenty of his most trusted Educators, powerful men and women armed with spike-headed maces, clubs (known in the business as Peace Makers), and crossbows painted in church colours, smart of dress, stern of face, descended on the still burning church. This particular treasure was a two thousand year-old edifice on Red Stone Street, and as Skalg led the formation of Educators, their eyes lifted to see the still raging inferno now at the heart of the church, as if some great dragon had broken into the core and was burning the religious building from the inside out.
Skalg stopped. His Educators halted also, boots stamping. They were in a perfect inverted V formation; almost military in its structure, precision and synchronicity. Skalg looked up, and tears ran down his cheeks.
?” he murmured.
A dwarf came running forward. He was soot-blackened, boots caked in slurry, fire protector uniform torn, soot-stained, the polished gold buttons tarnished. “Cardinal Skalg!” He saluted.
“Give me your report.”
“We have the fire under control, Cardinal. Now as you know, a church doesn't burn easy. This act of arson was very well executed by people who know their art. As far as we can ascertain, the culprits covered the lower storey windows with fire blankets to allow the fire time to take hold without discovery. They set barrels of tar at every single timber support strut, and ignited them simultaneously. That is why,” he turned, glancing up at the destroyed church where thick plumes of black smoke poured from the ruined tower, “their fire has caused so much damage.”
Skalg's eyes were hooded. He sniffed. “The Scriptures?”
“Rescued by the bravery of my fire protectors,” said the dwarf, swelling with pride. “Our first act, as instructed, was to breach the fire-damaged structure and rescue that which the Great Dwarf Lords gave with such generosity; the Sacred Chest is now under the guard of church wardens. We only lost eight dwarfs recovering the chest, with another twelve seriously burned and on their way to the infirmary now.”
“Good, good,” said Skalg. “The church will look after them and their families for their sacrifice.” Skalg's eyes narrowed slightly. “I was told one of the, ah, culprits, was captured?” The gentility of his voice should have been a warning. Skalg was so far beyond anger he had entered a new realm of emotion.
“Yes, he is under close guard by church wardens until the Educators arrive; it took six of them with clubs to pacify him. He has been taken to the closest firehouse.”
Skalg nodded, and walked forward towards the great arched doors â or the charred, blackened remains of what
incredibly rich and decorated arched doors. His boots crunched on shattered glass shards, on chunks of charred charcoal, and he kicked something, a blackened coin of church gold, which rolled away and chimed as it performed a sad, lonely series of jumps down five stone steps before rolling in a circle and singing itself to a halt.
Skalg glanced at the two lead Educators, a great hulking dwarf called Blagger, and a slender female with a scarred face and one eye, notorious for her ferocity and lack of mercy. Her nickname was Razor, a nickname which had stuck, and not for pleasant reasons.
“Blagger, Razor, come with me. The rest of you, I want house-to-house searches. I want more information about who committed this sacrilege; you are allowed to use maximum persuasion.” His eyes swept out over the dark city. Flames flickered in fire-bowls and curve-burners, and the cobbled streets were damp. He looked up, at the towers and the arched bridges high above, glowing softly like gold, and he felt completely part of this damp mountain underworld. He felt like he was part of the rock; part of the mountain's soul; an integral cog in the machine, in the engine that powered the dwarves and their society.
“Yes, First Cardinal!”
“We will get to the bottom of this,” he said, turning, purple and black robes sweeping behind him as he marched, somewhat crookedly, down the damp stone street with Blagger and Razor in close proximity behind.
before the huge doors of the firehouse. He adjusted his robes, and reaching out, pounded a complex rhythm of knocks. Fires burned in iron brackets to either side of the great studded door.
Behind, Blagger rolled his huge head on thick neck muscles, and there were a series of cracks. He glanced at Razor, and she was stood, cool, relaxed, and almost nonchalant. Her face was expressionless, her one good eye impassive, her milky, ruined eye like a glass bauble in a dead doll.
Razor looked at him, a quick movement, like an insect. She caught his stare and grinned, showing blackened teeth. Blagger looked away, looked back at the door and the patiently waiting twisted figure of Skalg, feeling himself redden a little. Razor wasn't somebody you wanted to upset, and she'd made it plain, on many occasions, often backed up by violence, that she didn't like to be looked at. She'd slit throats with her “razor knife” for much less.
Skalg glanced back at the two Educators, but his face was unreadable. Blagger gave a single nod, as if to say,
we're here, Cardinal Skalg, we have your back.
Razor offered no such securities, simply stared ahead, face impassive.
“When we go in,” he said, words so soft they were barely audible, “you follow my instructions, instantly, and to the letter. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Cardinal,” rumbled Blagger.
Razor gave a curt nod. A simple acquiescence.
Skalg felt himself being inspected through the spy hole, and slowly, the door creaked open. Three wardens stood with crossbows levelled, and Skalg gave a nod, then hobbled inside. The Educators followed, and the church wardens backed away a step, licking dry lips, fingers suddenly slippery on crossbow stocks. To be a church warden was to have an unprecedented level of power throughout the Five Havens, but to be an Educator was something else.
“Who's in charge here?” snapped Skalg, as the heavy door boomed shut.
A portly dwarf in smart uniform stepped forward. His buttons were polished gold. His boots gleamed. A long moustache had been waxed to perfection, and despite his age, he had a military bearing and utmost seriousness.
“Cardinal Skalg. Thank the Great Dwarf Lords you have arrived! I am Fire Sergeant Takos.”
“You have a prisoner for me?”
“We do. He is causing us some concern.”
“Why is this?” Skalg's eyes were iron.
“He has threatened that all of us, and all our families, will be exterminated within the next twenty-four hours. He is a frightening individual to behold!”
Skalg nodded. “Take me to him.”
Takos led the way down a complex set of corridors, all gleaming with military cleanliness. Everything was sterile and white. Even the polished stone floors gleamed.