Somewhere in the mountains of north Tilea, Winter 2403-4
Fricknar had never in all his cruelty-filled life undertaken a journey as difficult as this. They were in such a hurry that they were not allowed to stop for more than a few moments at a time. So far, six nights and five days of almost perpetual motion, a relentless succession of step, step, step; eating, even excreting, on the move. Every now and again he would have to run ahead to shovel something quickly – filling a hole or flattening a lump. Invariably, just as he completed the labour, the trundling engine caught up he was required to move on again.
In his bones he knew that should he continue at this pace another day then it would also become the most painful time of his life, not just the hardest journey. He had been badly beaten three times as a pup, and on the last occasion, as he lay battered and dazed, another pup from his own litter had eaten one of his fingers! He had been wracked with a burning pain in his lungs for countless days when he took a mouthful of warpstone vapour after an manufactory accident. He had been imprisoned in a near airless cage for more than a week as punishment for an infraction he never understood, starved of food and nauseously dizzied by the swinging motion of the cage every time someone pushed it (which many did and often). Right now, his pain and anguish were building up to rival all those past experiences, and by tomorrow, would surely overtake them.
His last task had been to assess the quality of a warpstone batch being offered by a small clan who had acquired it by (the usual) nefarious means. It had been flawed, but still useful, and a price was offered. Before he learned whether the purchase was successful, however, he been ordered to return with all haste to the workshops. Immediately upon doing so, he was assigned this new task – no time for explanations, no rest nor repast, but straight to work.
By the end of the first day he realised he knew none of the engine’s other attendants. Since then there had been little chance to get to know them, what with the incessant motion. Escorting the engine was an all-encompassing task, leaving little time anything else. The tunnels they had travelled through, despite being large, had been irregularly proportioned, in both width and height, and the ground uneven, scattered with tumbled rocks from crumbling walls. Here and there, roots had penetrated the ceiling, and stalagmites and stalactites had been allowed to form along the dampest stretches. Sometimes there was a way around such obstacles, but often they had to be cleared – lifted, hacked or chipped away – and his shovel was a necessary part of nearly all these tasks.
Their orders were clear, and in no uncertain terms: the engine must not collide or scrape against anything, nor should it jolt more than a little, and it should certainly never be allowed to list or careen. Most importantly, it must never stop.
It was possibly the most demanding assignment ever given to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
For a little while he had occupied his mind with attempting to work out whether the attendant who invariably walked in front of the engine, clutching a staff tipped with what appeared to be a fine shard of warpstone …
… or the engine’s driver were responsible for setting the pace, whilst also taking on board the possibility the engine itself might be most to blame. Before he had come to a decision, however, distraction and exhaustion had shattered such trivial considerations.
Now, here in a mountain valley between two tunnel-stretches, on the widest path yet traversed, with no walls or ceiling to concern him, only the ground itself, Fricknar was able to loosen and lift his mask just a little to allow in a breath or two of fresh air, and at long last, he had the chance to talk.
He had questions to ask.
Turning to the attendant closest to him, a red-hooded fellow carrying a tubular locking tool which could loosen any of several bolts on the engine and in the other hand what appeared to be a small gear wheel (presumably ready to replace some potentially defective part) he said,
“I heard we have gift-given much and more to the lord of Foul Peak. Why give this also? Why more and more?”
“Not gifts, no,” said his companion in a whining voice muffled by his mask. “All and everything will be paid for.”
“That matters not,” said Fricknar.
“It matters a lot,” countered the other.
“Yes, yes, to our masters, to the clan. I know-understand,” said Fricknar. “I mean it matters not to what I ask-enquire. Why give him more? Why this most novel, expensive engine? I heard his army has yet to fight one-single battle. His warriors have neither proved themselves capable nor wanting. Yet we fetch-bring such a reinforcement. Why?”
“You do not know-understand what this can do. You did not slave-work on its construction.”
“No, not I,” Fricknar admitted. “I know the quality-worth of warpstone, and I can keep an engine on the move.” He waved his shovel as if to prove the point.
“You have never moved such a one as this.”
Despite having studied the engine on several occasions over the last days, for want of much else to look at during the few moments he had not needed to watch the road, Fricknar looked again.
“I see only a doomwheel, like many others, with a murdering piece fix-attached,” he said.
“Yes, yes, you see that,” scoffed the other. “But what murder this can do. This kills many and much more than anything we have yet made. This might perhaps kill more than any single weapon has ever-ever killed!”
Fricknar looked at the engine again.
“It throws a bomb, yes?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” said the other. “A bomb. One bomb.”
“A poisoned-wind grenado?”
“It throws poison-death, yes, but not wind-vapours. The bomb inside is a thick shell of perfect-pure warpstone, two half-pieces fastened tight-together, and inside that inside is the finest ground-powdered warpstone, the making of which killed many hundred slaves, admixed with black powder in exact and most potent proportion-measure; precise and finely fused to explode the merest moment before touching the ground, which it must-must do, to release flesh-burning death to wash for a hundred and more chebels in each and every direction.”
“Yes, at first, but then much farther, a pure and poisonous etheric heat, burn-scalding all and only living flesh to a blistered crisp.”
Fricknar fell silent for a while. He had to think this through, for what he had heard did not sit well with his past experiences. Not well at all.
“Precise and finely fused, you spoke-said?” he asked.
“Yes, yes,” said the other. “Most and definitely very necessary.”
“And if, despite your careful care, it explodes too too soon?”
“Think, fool!” said the other, with a snarling hiss Fricknar could sense despite the mask and hood hiding his companion’s face.
He did not need to think. “Too too soon,” said Fricknar, “and we die too.”
“Yes!” said the other, loudly. “If even only a little too soon, then it will not be where we need-want it to be. It must be at the heart of the city. A moment too late and too much heat will pierce the ground – wasteful, for you cannot kill what is already dead.”
“This kills a city?”
“A city. An army,” said the other, a note of arrogant, easy pride in his voice. “Perhaps more?”
Fricknar’s fearful apprehension was now transforming into admiration. Then something occurred to him.
“Where are the bombs?” he asked.
“Are you deaf? Do you not listen-hear?” mocked the other. “You mean where [i]is[/i] the bomb?”
Fricknar did not understand. Was that not what he had asked? There was just the engine, no carriage, wagon or slaves to bear a limber of any kind. He had absently assumed that the ammunition must already be at their destination, but hearing his companion’s description suggested such a cargo would be too rare and precious to be merely stockpiled elsewhere.
“The bomb,” said the other, emphasising the singularity, “is inside. It broil-brews, always and now, growing more and more potent by the hour. To haul-carry it separately would mean by the time we tried to load it into the engine all who came near-close would die immediate-quickly.”
This made no sense to Fricknar. “But we are nearby, and for days?”
“Yes, yes. The iron barrel enclosing it is thick-strong and inscribed inside with most potent-effectual sigillic wards, perfectly carved.”
Fricknar could imagine the carver squirming inside the barrel to carve such sigils – a suffocating, claustrophobic trial undoubtably far worse than his time in the cage.
“Could not a container-chest be made with such thickness or more?” he asked. “Such sigils? And better sealed tight-secure?”
“Yes, yes it could. No doubt. More easily made. More safely carried. But think, to load the murdering piece we would have to remove the bomb from the chest after it had broil-brewed for the whole journey. Impossibly intolerable.”
“Could slaves not be ordered to do so? Or some monstrous creation of Clan Moulder?”
“No, no, never. They would die the very instant the chest was breached.”
Fricknar glanced back at the engine.
“And dead slaves and ogres cannot load anything,” he said almost to himself. Then, louder, he asked, “So the sigil-wards prevent all harm leak-spilling out?”
“Not all, no,” said the other, as if it were obvious.
Of course, Fricknar should have known this. He pulled his loosened mask tight again, immediately regretting every breath of ‘fresh’ air he had taken. No skaven workshop ever made anything completely safe. The ever-present fear of punishment meant there was always haste as corners were cut, mistakes were inevitably concealed, and tests were deemed a pointless exercise when something was already completed. If it is built, use it! Worse still, most engines were made before the principles were even fully understood, so that the very design had flaws before even the first component part was assembled. None of those who invented or fashioned such engines cared a jot for the fate of those who would be ordered to use them; besides, once one engine was taken, they were immediately busy with the next, then the next.
“It is impossible to prevent it all, for it is far too potent, and grows ever more so,” the other continued. “Why do you think the engine never stops? It cannot be allowed to. If it did then too, too much of its etheric heat would concentrate-congeal in one single place. Then there would be none left to move it.”
Fricknar was confused again. “We have our masks, our waxed robes, our cylinder-filters, yes. But look here, these clanrats, they have guard-escorted us so, so far, even through the long tunnels. Why are they not dead or dying?”
There were two bands of guards, one marching before the engine, which included a weapons team armed with a rattling gun …
… and another lot behind.
“You did not witness-see the changing?” asked the other.
“Yes, the changing. You must have been labour-working, up ahead clearing away the tangle-mass or the shattered shards of dripping rocks. These are not the guards we began the journey with.”
Fricknar knew he was exhausted and distracted, but he had not realised just how much he had failed to notice. Yet, he thought, his point still stood.
“Then I ask, these-here new guards, why are they not dead?”
“Hush! They will be soon enough. If there are no more changings, some perhaps will die before we arrive at Foul Peak. They have only lasted this long because we have not stopped.”
“No, wait,” demanded Fricknar, having spotted a flaw in the other’s arguments. “I know there is little truth-sense in your words. Those two, there, with the rattler, they have been here with us from the start. They have no robes or masks.”
“But they always scuttle-run ahead, as ordered, never behind, never in the engine’s wake-trail. This buys them time. Remember how they were on the first day? Yes? Look close now and you will see how they flag, how they stumble-stall. Look closer and you will see how their skin peels and their fur falls in lumps. Look into their eyes and you will see that death already tugs at their tails.”
Fricknar was getting frustrated by the frantic insanity of his companion’s words. Whatever answers they contained, there were always more questions. Even now, something bugged him.
“You say before we arrive at Foul Peak?” he asked. “How can we arrive if we cannot stop? How can our journey end? Are we to use this weapon against Foul Peak?”
“No, not there. Against the lord of Foul Peak’s enemies. Do you never listen-hear?”
“I will hear your answer,” said Fricknar, his anger momentarily mastering his fear. “How [i]can[/i] we arrive at Foul Peak?”
“We shall arrive soon enough, but this does not mean we shall stop-stay, only pass through, there to be joined by more and others, to learn where we must go next, and so continue, on and on.”
This was impossible, thought Fricknar. He had a day left in him, perhaps another if his fear could dominate his pain to keep him on his feet.
“How can we continue?” he complained. “It is impossible! Our legs will be worn to nothing-nubs if we try.”
“All is prepared and arranged by our masters and the lord of Foul Peak,” said the other. “New attendants await the engine at the mountain. We will be allowed to rest-lie upon litters, to be carried on at some remove.”
“Then we will be command-ordered back to the engine. If we are fortunate-lucky we will be attending when it fires.”
“Lucky?” spat Fricknar. “How is there any good fortune in taking such a risk?”
“To watch it work. To see-witness a whole city killed or an entire army obliterated!”