This is the first big story I ever created using photographs of my figures. It was based on a wargame I had played, part of an ongoing campaign, but the figures were posed ‘artistically’ after the game to illustrate the story!
The Fall of Bragovo Keep
For days the army of Karak Izor had toiled northwards through the mountainous valleys. For hours on end the only sounds heard were the grinding of their wagons’ and machines’ axles and the constant clatter of their armour. Otherwise the land would have been deathly silent. Hardly anything alive had dwelled there for years, and what little life there was kept very quiet.
Above the marching column, high in the cold mountain air, circled ragged, winged creatures, black as night. The dwarfs knew these flying beasts were monstrous, undead bats, and could see that it was more magic than nature that held them aloft, for the beasts’ wings were riddled with holes. Yet Lord Durnegar would not order his gyrocopters to chase them away. He had other intentions for his flying machines.
Let them watch, he decided. Let the Vampire Queen know fear as my mighty host approaches.
Twice before the dwarfs of Karak Izor had attacked the realm of the Vampire Queen of Bragovo. Once they had advanced up this very same valley and met the Queen’s forces in the field of battle. That struggle they had won, but it cost them so dearly they could not march on, for to assault the keep with what little they had left would surely have lead to failure. The second time they had skirted the mountains to the south and advanced upon the ruined town of Tyravna, where the Queen’s necromantic servants dwelt. But there they had been outmanoeuvred by the foe – a sudden attack from the wooded hillside upon their flank had resulted in the capture of Thane Ergarson, their commander. He was dragged away to face long months of torment in the dungeons of Bragovo. His dwarven soldiers, reeling from this blow against them, and hard pressed to their front as more and more undead spewed from the graveyards surrounding the dilapidated town, retreated to begin the long march home to Karak Izor.
This time, however, their Lord Durnegar led the army, and he had mustered a far greater force than those previously brought hither. More than this, he had fashioned this army for just one purpose, the battering of Bragovo. Four mighty cannons were hauled by long lines of mules and asses, though the dwarf crews were still forced to add their weight heaving and pushing whenever the rocky ground became too uneven (which in this rarely trodden valley was often). This battery of cast-iron pieces would pound the keep’s walls to rubble, an ambition made more likely by the fact each individual engine was accompanied by a skilled engineer to improve its aim. Experts in the sulphurous art of black powder had come from as far as Karak Norn and Karak Hirn to take service in this army, bringing strangely fashioned mathematical instruments the like of which Durnegar had never before seen. Two bolt throwers and an organ gun were also being hauled in the artillery train, ready to gouge through rank upon rank of the enemy’s undead legions should the Queen’s army emerge before the walls. The brace of gyrocopters would fly over the walls to search out the Queen’s necromancers; while the two marching regiments of warriors were burdened with stout ladders as well as their arms and armour, all the better to find access into the keep. As for the rest of the force, another three full regiments, they would wield crossbows and handguns, enough surely to cut down any forces that attempted to sally out against the artillery? More subtly, Durnegar intended that at least one of these regiments would approach the Keep from the southern flank, to confuse the defenders as to his true intentions.
Yes, Lord Durnegar was certain he had fashioned a mighty host. His plan was to move quickly, to batter the walls down even as his regiments marched upon them, to give the enemy little time to summon up more undead warriors or wield infernal magics against his warriors.
Only one light glowed in the entire, mighty keep of Bragovo, a lantern flickering at successive windows as it made its way up the massively tall tower at the heart of the fortress. Its bearer, one Van Gurten, a necromancer so old he had almost forgotten his own name, was straining at the climb. Inside his shrunken chest his withered heart beat furiously to send clotted blood churning through thin veins. But he never slackened his pace. He had to speak to his Queen. He knew she would be angered by the disturbance – she always was – but he had no choice in the matter.
For months now, the Vampire Queen Balsheba had lain silent and motionless upon her hard, stone bed. The tower-top room in which she slumbered had become so cold that icy stalactites hung from the beams. Her last command to Van Gurten, one he had heard many times before, was to keep living things out of her realm. She reviled life, all life, anything with warm blood and vigour. Although by nature she must feed on blood, she had not done so for many moons. Merely the thought of it disgusted her. She would rather dwell on death than un-death. So she slept, for long months, mimicking true death as best she could. The only living creatures for leagues around Bragovo were bats, ghouls and her two necromancers. The first were too small to trouble her (and besides by their blood sucking nature they were, of sorts, her kin). The second were so tainted by death and their hunger for the rotten and putrid that she could not smell life in them. The last were so old, having cheated true death many times, that they barely smelt of anything at all – apart from perhaps dust and mould.
Queen Balsheba had not been sleeping well. Nightmares had wracked her sleep for several days now, growing steadily worse. They began with warmth and light, then turned into singing and feasting. Even unconscious, and only a whisker away from complete death, she could smell the approach of the dwarfs. Worse still, she shared their dreams, which to her were night terrors, and so her sleep had faltered.
Then she awoke with a dry scream so piercing that her chamber’s stalactites shattered and sent showers of ice cascading into the room. The necromancer Van Gurten, who had one moment before dared to touch her shoulder, fell stumbling backwards, shocked by the scream, then bewildered by the myriad, sparkling points of light dancing around him as the falling ice reflected his lantern’s flame.
Now came that dangerously sweet voice, which lulled him every time, seductive in its destruction, somehow both promising and terrible…
“Why do you wake me?”
Knowing full well that his Queen was entirely uninterested in courtly pleasantries, in banter, gossip and such things, he answered as briefly as he could.
“The dwarfs have come again, my queen, this time with an army much stronger than before. They approach the castle now.”
Before he had finished she knew what he had to tell her, for she remembered in that instant her dreams and recognised them for what they were. And she recalled that in her dreams she had even made plans for the defence of her keep.
With a leap she was off her marble bed, and filled with all the vigour her kind could muster. For this was why she slept so long. Disgusted by her need to drink of red blood, she instead death-slept the years away, so that whenever she did act her strength was not sapped, and her last, loathed meal would sustain her still for what she must do.
“Summon every creature I command,” she ordered. “Fill the courtyard with soldiers, line the battlements with my Grave Guard, and have bats await upon the towers. My Black Knights will array themselves to the north of the castle, in the dark shadow of its walls. You will make them so silent that not one sound, not the tiniest jangling of a harness can be heard from them.”
The necromancer bowed low as she strolled regally to the window, then he turned and left the room, leaving only meagre moonlight to provide illumination for the chamber. The Vampire Queen of Bragovo did not need such light. She could see the approaching army well enough. For a moment her sleepiness returned, made her pensive. The sun, nothing more than a scarlet glow, was creeping above the valley, bathing the advancing columns in a blood red light. Was this an omen? she thought.
Just as dawn broke, and as the gyrocopter scouts had promised, the castle came into view. Though not yet more than a sliver above the horizon, the sun gave enough light to reveal the keep’s silhouette.
Durnegar had no need to give orders. His engineers and veterans already knew his plans. They also knew the land and this castle, as it had been built by dwarfs, and ruled by them until the Vampire Queen had captured it through guile. Already Durnegar’s company of Rangers were marching off towards the southern wall where the gate lay, in advance of the main host. And yes, movement could just be discerned upon that wall, the defending forces apparently now expecting the attack from that quarter. Meanwhile the remainder of his army moved slowly, even for dwarfs, for they moved only at the speed at which the cannons could be hauled. The assault was to be timed perfectly. Overhead a gyrocopter swooped down, it’s pilot waving to Durnegar and shouting one word.
“Look!” came the cry, barely audible over the clatter of the steam-powered machine.
The pilot pointed off to the north of the castle. Lord Durnegar leapt onto a rocky outcrop to gain some height. Using his brass perspective glass he peered into the shadowy gloom to see, just before they disappeared, a large body of skeletal horsemen backing slowly away, trying to hide themselves more effectively in the darkness.
“Ha!” cried the Dwarf Lord, “Too late. I know you’re there.”
Then he turned to his second in command, the Dwarf Lord Karthzak, and laughed.
“Do they think us fools?” he asked. “Do they think us so slow witted that we would not notice such tricks? They shall soon learn the truth.”
The great battery was finally in place – a long line of machines the like of which had never before been seen in this remote valley. Two wagons, loaded with budge barrels brimming with black powder, rolled into place behind. The Vampire Queen watched all this, nauseated by the proximity of so much life, her deceptively delicate hands clutching viciously at the window’s sill. With nothing more than a thought she beckoned her swarms of bats and fell bats to gather, and willed ever more warriors to stir themselves into un-life.
Meanwhile, with a wave of his arm, Durnegar gave his command. The ensuing boom was so loud that the entire valley seemed to resonate with the blast as the first barrage of cannon balls was thrown at the walls. Each and every one found its target, and immediately cracks spread through the great hewn blocks, while the parapet tumbled down to reveal the ancient warriors standing there. Surely living soldiers would have clutched at their ears, gagged at the dust and debris, or at least flinched? Not these soldiers. They were long dead, their faces nothing more than grinning skulls. With mindless unconcern and a discipline that only they could exhibit in the face of such a barrage, they turned and calmly marched down from the walls to take position in the courtyard behind. It was plain to Balsheba that to leave them upon the walls would result only the entire regiment being buried when the wall collapsed.
“Again!” cried Durnegar, even though no such command was needed. His artillery crews were already loading frantically.
When the second blast came, the ancient wall visibly bent under the force of the blow. As the echoes rebounded down the valley, the smoke cleared and the engineers could see it was still standing. Their chief, an old veteran who had attended many such a siege, turned to a young-beard beside him and winked.
“We could fart on it now and it would fall!” he joked.
The beardling grinned. Then, his ears not yet so old as to have been deafened by the guns, he turned to look towards a new sound. Drums. The advance had begun. Two columns of dwarf warriors marched forwards, their banners unfurled at the front, their drums sounding almost pathetic after the thunderous roar of the guns.
Just as the cannon balls were rolled down the barrels for the third time, ready to be pounded into place with ramrods, something moved from the wall. Silent, and what with the smoke almost invisible, the grey, ghostly form of a banshee issued through the very stone itself and headed straight for the cannons.
“Ignore it,” ordered the chief engineer, “We cannot harm it.”
Then, knowing that the younger warriors may need a little more encouragement, he joked: “See how even the ghosts flee the fall of the castle?”
When it came moments later, the third blast was enough. The entire western wall of Bragovo tumbled down, masonry pouring outwards to create a massive breach. A cheer went up from the advancing warriors, though many of the miners among them were secretly begrudging the fact that black powder and iron ball could do so quickly what would take them many weeks to achieve. Such is the nature of dwarfs, each one jealous of what he knows, and proud of his own deeds more than any others.
As the dust was blown away by the dawn breeze, the dwarfs’ foe once again came into view. The rubble had created a great, ragged heap of stones, still an obstacle big enough to dishearten many a warrior, but not one that would require ladders and a near suicidal urge to overcome. Behind the ruinous pile stood the Queen’s army. The gyrocopter pilots could see that she and her necromantic servants had been busy enough. There were now twice as many undead soldiers arrayed in rank and file than there had been when they spied the castle before the first artillery blast. They held aloft banners sporting awful designs – skulls, skeletal hands and wicked writing in the necromantic tongue. At the top of each, pierced through by a spear tip, was thrust a dwarf skull, no doubt each being one of the garrison which succumbed to the Queen’s attack years before. Horribly, and no doubt due to the magical energies washing over the undead warriors, some of the dwarf skulls were visibly twitching, their teeth grinding.
As the wall before her crashed down, the Vampire Queen loosened her grip on the sill. She knew two things: first she must unleash forces sufficient to halt the advancing tide and attempt to quieten the cannons, and second that she must leave the tower. If the wall could fall so quickly, then the tower behind it, at which the dwarf cannons could now aim directly, was no safe place to be. As she turned to leave the chamber and fly down the stairs she willed her servants, all but those in the courtyard, to attack.
At the head of the Queen’s Black Knights a skeletal hand suddenly clenched at the reins. Another lifted a horn to let out an awful sound, fueled not by air but by the black arts. At this signal, the knights sprang forwards, gaining speed and momentum in an ever-growing clamour of hooves. At the same moment a swarm of fell bats dropped from the towers above like stones, then spread their wings to turn the plummeting fall into a swooping dive. Hundreds of smaller bats also emerged to join them, issuing from every window.
In the killing field before the walls the banshee careened forwards towards the cannons and let loose her deathly wail. Two dwarf crewmen, the beardling one of them, died in that instant. The grin upon his face now was quite different to what had been there before. Perhaps his young ears, which could fully experience the heart-stopping terror of that cry, were his doom?
Furious, the chief engineer unsheathed his sword, something he had not done for many a year.
“Come!” he ordered his old friend, an engineer who commanded the neighbouring machine. “It will pay for that.”
These were to be the old veteran’s last words. Neither he nor his companion in battle could harm such a thing. Both charged headlong at the ethereal form, but sword and hammer merely passed through her. She wailed once again and struck out with a ghostly blade – which even the engineers’ gromril armour could not stop – and drew the life from them. Both fell, decades of life-yet-to-be-lived sapped instantly from their bodies. The banshee was encouraged by her own malice. Knowing full well what she had done she cried even louder with terrible glee, and all the living warriors nearby knew the cold touch of fear.
Now nearing the collapsed wall, the two advancing regiments of dwarfs did not slacken their pace one jot. The first and biggest was led by both Lord Durnegar and Lord Karthzak. Gyrocopters hovered by their side and rear, just in case any enemy more nimble than a dwarf should try to outflank them.
It was not to be the dwarfs who delivered the first charge in this battle. The Black Knights now came thundering on in a body. As they smashed into the main regiment of dwarf warriors, the swarm of giant bats fell simultaneously upon the flank, dragging one of the gyrocopters into the fray before it could launch itself high enough to choose its own target. Even with their speed, however, all the undead could was delay the foe. Every dwarf they faced hungered for battle, so much that they were undaunted by the sight of dead men upon fleshless mounts attacking them. The foremost warriors, with their two Lords at the front, hewed through their bony assailants with barely a scratch received upon themselves. And as they hacked and stabbed the necromantic spells animating the riders weakened proportionally, so that even more of the foe collapsed merely for want of sufficient magical power to keep them whole. The monstrous fell bats screeched, their leathery wings flapping maniacally as they tried to tear at their enemy’s flesh, but even they found the sturdy dwarfs’ march was unstoppable.
Above this fight, upon the tower closest to the collapsed wall, Van Gurten watched. Recognising now that the Black Knights’ charge had failed, he began to prepare a spell. He would teach the dwarfs a lesson. His theme would be the true folly of attacking Bragovo.
As the last of the riders collapsed in a bony heap, and the final giant bat thumped to the ground, its undeath becoming merely death, Van Gurten chanted the words for his spell. But at the vital moment he was distracted and so stumbled over the ancient phrases. His attention had suddenly been caught by the sight of two flying machines rising from the carnage, dragged upwards by spinning blades. He realised that the dwarfs commanding these mechanical monsters had spotted him. Considering that each machine bore a tubular weapon much like a smaller version of that which had just shattered the stout walls of Bragovo, he was understandably apprehensive concerning his fate. The furious fluttering of the machines’ rotating wings grew louder, confirming what Van Gurten had feared. They wholeheartedly intended to give him their undivided attention.
With that stumbled phrase the potency of the necromancer’s spell was greatly diminished. What harm it did still cruelly reminded the dwarfs that their foe was not one to be taken lightly. Amongst the regiment led by the two Lords, nigh upon forty warriors all told, there arose an awful cry, cut suddenly short as five of them collapsed. While some of their marching comrades looked left or right to see what enemy had surely loosed arrows at them, others looked instead at the fallen dwarfs. It was these few who understood what had truly happened, for each crumpled warrior had been utterly transformed in death. All were white haired, though only one had started out that way. All had long, grey, untrimmed whiskers tangled about their bodies. Each looked, in fact, more like their own great grandfathers than the doughty warriors they had been moments before. Old age had killed them! Or, more accurately, some wicked magic wrought by the denizens of this accursed place.
The fallen dwarfs were left behind as the marching column moved on, turning not towards the breach, but instead towards the northern wall, where the Black Knights had sheltered before their doomed sally. The order was given, and they hauled the ladders above their heads, passing them to the front, ready for the business at hand.
Meanwhile to their right, the regiment of miners marched straight ahead, aiming for the heart of the breach. With a brave cheer they began their charge. Reaching the rubble they scrambled over, their ranks and files breaking up in the act, their cohesion shattered by nothing more than the ground beneath their feet, so that when they finally scaled the peak and reached the foe, it was every dwarf for himself. What faced them, however, was truly awe inspiring, for the courtyard fair brimmed with undead warriors, and as their first blows fell short of the mark, or were battered aside by rusty shields and blades, their enemy surged forwards. It was immediately too much for this isolated band of dwarfs. They could not stem the tide, and fear overwhelmed them. Falling back, most died amongst the rubble, slipping, tripping, tumbling down, then being pierced through as they struggled to right themselves. As they perished, almost half the undead warriors from the courtyard spilled out beyond the rubble. There, once again with the kind of calm discipline that only those who know no fear can exhibit (for death had already taken them), the skeleton warriors reformed their ranks and files, sent an ensign to the front, and then marched on directly towards the cannons.
Something else got there first, however. The huge swarm of bats, each individual one tiny but en masse enough to darken the sky itself, flapped across the field directly towards the dwarven artillery. Soon the crew of three cannons were frantically slashing at the swirling cloud engulfing them. Each swing of their blades felled umpteen of the tiny foe, yet they could not prevail against such numbers and one by one, they themselves began to perish.
Inside the keep all was not well for its denizens. Upon the northern wall, unaware of the dwarfs approaching it from the outside, Van Gurten and his fellow lieutenant cowered before the blast of a gyrocopter’s steam cannon, which sent a hundred leaden balls hurling into the wooden door behind them. Miraculously, neither wizard was pierced. Nor was their pride unharmed, for they cared not for such things as honour or reputation. Both merely cackled with glee and then with a gesture summoned a horde of zombies to appear from the towers and the courtyard below, shambling onto the parapet between them and the gyrocopter.
The flying machine’s pilot, not relishing the thought of being pulled down and clambered over by rotting corpses, immediately lurched ungainly into the air, then headed down into the courtyard to hunt for something more suitable to attack.
He did not get far. The zombies poured after him. Some mangled as they hit the ground, crushed by the weight of the others mindlessly tumbling on. But two were clinging to his machine. With this unbalancing weight pulling at one side, the gyrocopter tipped dangerously. Its blades still managed to pull it, not upwards but sideways – a fatal difference. The machine hit the tower in the centre of the courtyard and exploded, it’s steam boiler rupturing and the spinning blades fragmenting. Half a dozen skeletons standing nearby were torn to pieces by the debris. Yet their comrades stood motionless, ignorant of what had just happened. Moments later they similarly failed to notice when a ripple of dark magic knitted the fallen warriors’ bones together once more and so re-resurrected them. Apart from the debris of the gryocopter, and a dissipating cloud of steam, the courtyard looked exactly as it had before!
Balsheba, Queen of Bragovo, having now abandoned the tower and run into the courtyard, found herself somewhat bewildered. A great horde of her warriors were scrabbling over the rubble to pursue some unseen foe, while a wooden machine flew overhead and smashed spectacularly into the tower doorway she had just left. Another such machine was descending into the courtyard from the other side of the castle, spraying tiny bullets through the regimented skeletons beneath it.
Above her, on the parapet, her two necromantic lieutenants paused long enough to bow to her. Even in the midst of such mayhem they feared her, and knew to show their respect. Behind them the tops of ladders were clattering against the parapet.
Suddenly she knew that her warriors outside were fighting. She could not see them, but as the one who summoned them from death to serve her, and from whom the magic animating them still flowed, she could sense it.
Looking around the courtyard at what remained, she thought it not enough. More was needed if she was to stem the tide of dwarfs about to surmount the northern wall. She needed to bring those warriors outside the castle back into the yard. For that to happen, they would have to defeat whatever it was they currently faced, and quickly. Raising her hands she willed the magic that would invigorate them further, quicken their actions and so speed their return. At that very moment, however, another hissing blast from the surviving dwarf flying machine sent a cloud of missiles into the yard. One, just one, tiny pellet spun between the Queen’s dancing fingers and disrupted her intricate weavings, unbalancing the magical force brewing there. This was too much for her. If she had drunk of blood that day, then maybe she would have been able to master the broiling energies she had summoned, but she was driven almost solely by hate and anger, not by the sustenance she truly required.
Her eyes widened. Her mouth twisted into a frown. The arcane energy she had conjured into being had lost it’s shape. At first it threatened to spill away from her without sufficient form, and she tried to rein it back. But that was her undoing, for now it curled and fell inwards, back upon that which had brought it into being. An ear-piercing sound filled the courtyard, like the sharpest peel of thunder ever heard, and the Vampire Queen was hurled into the air by the force of it, crashing bloodily into the wall beside her.
As she slid down, her body aching, she realised with horror that she was empty. Her sorcerous power had been wrenched from her, so that she was now little more than physical form. Leaping up with a scream, this time a feeble sound, she fled back towards the central tower. At first she was not sure why she did so, but then felt drawn there by the possibility that (somehow) at the heart of her realm her power might return.
The Queen’s two necromantic servants burst through the door at the base of the north-eastern tower, having fled the parapet as soon as they realised that dwarfen warriors were climbing ladders. Moment’s before, Van Gurten had voiced a spell as he hurtled down the steps, attempting once again to age the approaching dwarfs artificially, rapidly and thus fatally. He felt brutal energy flow successfully from him, and the ranks of dwarfs were again dwindled by the horrible effects of the curse. But now he grinned broadly, for this time the magic held fast and the curse clung to them more stubbornly.
Hurtling out into the castle yard they found their mistress gone. Something was wrong. Working frantically, they mustered the forces there: zombies, skeletons and Grave Guard. Now mustered into neatly serried ranks and files, the undead turned to face the northern wall, ready to meet whatever came over it. While the bodies turned and wheeled, both lieutenants heard something that gave them hope. Above the din of battle could be heard awful screams. Beyond the wall Van Gurten’s curse washed once more over the dwarfs amassed at the base of the ladders, folding a wave of magical energy twice as strong as before onto them. Nigh upon half the dwarfs now succumbed to the curse, their bones growing brittle and breaking, their hearts failing with the strain of the sudden onslaught of decades!
Cackling wickedly, the necromancers employed every ounce of magical energy they could summon to supplement the ranks of undead soldiers mustered around them.
Lord Durnegar could not believe what he saw. The best of his warriors were being annihilated by evil magics. Noble dwarfs, the heirs to generations of heroes, were being twisted, bent and broken by an unseen foe, at the end unable even to clutch their swords and axes. This was surely the worst of ends for a fighting dwarf, for there was no honour at all in such a death.
Already half way up the first ladder to be placed, he turned to the fearful warriors beneath him and shouted.
“We must avenge this curse, all those of us left alive. For Karak Izor! For these fallen heroes. Follow me!”
It was all the surviving dwarfs needed. They grabbed at the rungs and tore up the ladders as fast as they could. As they reached the undefended parapet and poured onto it, the spell was finally broken, as if their newly resurgent strength of will had finally shattered its hold.
The dwarfs’ ascent was witnessed by many empty, black eyes. One particular pair, however, blazed red with hatred. From a window half way up the tower, Queen Balsheba glared. Rendered unable to harm her enemies with magic, she instead hefted her bow, an ancient relic from a long forgotten desert kingdom, and notched an arrow. With an ease gifted by great skill she shot straight and true at the Dwarf Lord Durnegar’s heart. Then she scowled, for the dwarf’s armour had saved him. The arrow simply hung at his chest. He hadn’t even noticed it, being too busy arraying his men upon the parapet.
Hissing with rage, the Queen flung away the useless bow, and though still without magic, she began her return to the courtyard. She would have to kill this dwarf with blade, nails and teeth. As she descended, vigour returned to her body. Once more sheer hatred alone would provide sustenance enough to drive her on.
Upon the wall, the brave dwarfs halted and surveyed what stood beneath them. They knew if they charged into the courtyard they would surely be surrounded, attacked upon both flanks. Only where the wall was to their rear would they be safe from counter-attack.
For a moment, Durnegar hesitated. Would the undead come to him? If they were to charge, then it would be better for him and his warriors – to fight to their front, against a foe forced to climb steps to reach them. Yet the undead horde simply stood there, with only the tiniest of movements in mockery of the motions of life. Then Durnegar saw why. The Queen herself emerged from the central tower, and ran to take her place in the front rank of the largest of the skeleton bands.
Seeing his foe within reach he could not hold back. He had promised his men revenge for the dwarfs so cruelly killed by magic, and they would have it. With the loudest voice he had in him he cried one word:
When the first clash came, it was not what Durnegar wanted. The first undead they faced were zombies, a crowd of the stinking creatures so large that the dwarfs could not reach the band led by the queen herself. And though the mindless walking corpses presented no threat at all to such mighty warriors as the best of Karak Izor, they halted the Durnegar’s charge, so that Balsheba’s band, and the Grave Guard off to the right, could counter-charge.
Then came the hardest of combats that day. The dwarfs faced their severest test yet as their foes poured into them on all sides. Panic threatened to break them, and fear might have finally driven them back. But they held firm against the tide. Perhaps they would all die there in that courtyard? They no longer cared what fate held in store for them. They knew only that they must fight, that they could now do nothing else but fight.
Suddenly, Durnegar saw the ranks in front of him part, as if a door fashioned of bones had opened. On the threshold stood his enemy, the Queen herself, within reach of his sword arm. But he found he could not lift it, for Balsheba looked him in the eyes, and he knew her terrible beauty. How could he harm such a thing? She was a delicate treasure, worth more than gold, dressed in the finest of silks, bejewelled. Her form was fashioned so finely that his hand could only tremble. Such thoughts still entranced him, even as her blows rained down upon him. Even as her perfectly sharp nails stroked his cheek and opened four neat gashes upon his face. Blood poured liberally from each cut, streaming down his neck and staining his beard red.
Then, as he saw her revulsion at the sight of his blood, her visage became foul in his eyes. Using that moment’s distraction from the beauty, almost without thinking, his hand lashed back, employing his sword in a technique long since perfected in battle (though what exactly he had done even Durnegar could not say). The Queen’s blade lifted the first blow away from her, but she could not stop the next two. She too was torn now, though from her body no blood flowed.
Once more her eyes caught Durnegar’s. What had he done? To damage a thing of such perfection? Durnegar, Dwarf Lord of Karak Izor, in a moment of madness, felt pity for his foe, grief at his actions. Of course, this is what Balsheba intended. This time her blows came in quick succession, a thrust, a slash, then a cut so well aimed that it pierced between the plates of his gromril and deep into his body. With this new pain, Durnegar’s insane sorrow lifted, and with a strength she could not parry, he thrust his blade into the Queen so hard that it stuck right through her. Then, with a strength somehow boosted by the pain wracking him, he tore his sword free, hewing the vampire’s torso in two. Mangled horribly, she fell at his feet.
For an instant, time stopped in its tracks. A tremor was felt. Something rushed out from where the Queen had fallen. As it passed through the dwarfs they felt their fear diminish. That dark emotion which had penetrated their being since ever they marched into this valley simply vanished. As the same force rolled over the undead, however, it was their undoing. Across the entire field of battle, they began to crumble.
In the courtyard the collapsing piles of bones all seemed to clatter to the stony ground at once. Outside the ruined western wall, the huge regiment of skeleton warriors still fighting there suddenly halved in number, as those most weakly bound succumbed first to the lessening of the magical forces binding them. The ghouls who had run from the southern gate to keep the dwarf Rangers busy throughout the entire battle knew also that their mistress was gone. They broke and fled, only to be hacked down in the pursuit.
Even the Banshee, still wailing and screaming, recognised that her duty here was ended. Slowly, with none daring to stop her, she drifted from the field and into the mountains.
There was, however, one final cruel act to be performed in the courtyard. The two necromancers glanced at each other. Both knew instantly that they intended to exact a cruel price for what Durnegar had done. They summoned what they could to replace those undead warriors lost at the passing of their mistress, then they pushed forwards to join the fray. Once at the front, Van Gurten, knowing full well it had to be him, confronted Lord Durnegar. Meanwhile, his fellow necromancer faced and perished at the hand of the Durnegar’s second in command, Lord Karthzak, doing so gleefully for he knew that the distraction he thus created was necessary.
Durnegar, despite the pain wracking him, laughed aloud as he saw this new foe. A wizened old man, barely able to heft the blade he carried, dressed only in rotting robes and with the knowledge of his own death writ plain upon his own face.
Well, if the fool wants to die, he thought, I shall oblige him.
With that he arced his sword in a practised motion and cut the wizard’s head clean off.
‘Too easy!’ he was about to shout. But the words did not come. Instead he let out a wracking groan. His blade clattered to the ground as he grabbed at his throat. Those warriors closest to him turned to watch in despair.
There was a glow, blood red in hue, emanating from the hand of the wizard Durnegar had just slain. There, on a ring, was mounted an accursed gem of blood. It had been gifted to him when he became vassal to his Queen. He had learned what it was through his studies. This was why he had gladly died at Durnegar’s hand. Any wound inflicted upon him would reflect its full force upon the attacker who delivered the blow. This was the curse the gem bore.
Durnegar staggered, held up by two of his warriors. Then as the very last of the undead collapsed, life finally fled his body.
Victory was finally theirs. The Dwarfs of Karak Izor possessed Bragovo Keep. The way to the Black Mountain mines east of Hirnig was now open. Great wealth would be added to their coffers. All this they had yearned for, and worked for with years of fighting and sacrifice. But was the final sacrifice too much? Lord Durnegar, even in victory, was dead.