At a height of forty standard feet the winch began groaning under the pressure, the massive brentwood timbers that composed the frame bending as it inched its way upward. Even the thick rings of dwarven blue-steel seemed ready to snap as they kept the rigging air-bound. The pulleys squealed, and though drenched in grease, a wisp of smoke arose as the axle and bearings ground against one another. Far below a pack of slug-mules pulled the counterweight bucket, occasionally pausing so they could rest or to allow workers to refill the bucket with water in order to maintain its level; just enough so it was slightly under the weight of the giant red stone, but not too much, else it accelerate to the ground at an uncontrollable rate.
"This is madness," Drau'd boomed, watching the stone rise from the bottom of the Red Wall. "Our equipment can't take much more of this. All we need is one failure then we'll be facing months of repairs."
As if in response the pulley's head beam suddenly lurched, causing the stone and the water bucket to wobble mid-air. After much muffled shouting from atop the parapet, the beam settled in a slightly bent position then the weights continued on once more.
"That's enough. Summon Harple. I need his mage-fire before someone dies today," Drau'd said, ordering his boulder dwarf companion, Lobar, who was slightly smaller than himself but thicker in girth. His chest and arms bulged beneath a thick carpet of black fur. Though the winter sun was on its way, the dwarf required no clothing for warmth, sporting only a leather garment to hide his loins and a strap around his back which held a massive, double-edged battle axe, its edges protected with padded leather. This close to the Rift no one worked unarmed, especially since the Keeper no longer guarded the Rift but sent his soldiers inside it instead.
"Yes, Stone Master," the exceptionally hairy dwarf replied, turning to the still gaping fissure in the Red Wall and ambling away.
Layer upon layer of wooden scaffolding covered the hole, the figures of men, dwarves, and occasionally elves could be seen hard at work at that section as well. Until the Destroyer came, there had been no entrance through the Red Wall. The Ancients never meant to go back into the Rift, just defend against it. Now, Drau'd took advantage of the open section to transport supplies and men between sides. Though risky -- should the Plague decide to reenter their world -- it greatly facilitated his task, allowing him to work both sides of the wall simultaneously. Very soon, the gap would be closed at last, making his current task high priority. Though completing the barrier between the city and the Rift was of the utmost importance, Drau'd had chosen to take command of the northern tower’s construction instead. He had but one section of wall left to bulkhead, then secure to the Gorian before the actual framework of the tower could begin. Much of this phase of the tower's formation was only possible from this side, and if he didn't complete it by the time the wall was up, most of the workers would be hard pressed, perhaps unable, to make it to the city side should a problem arise.
His project was almost on schedule with the wall closure, the slightest problem could ruin all that. That's why he decided the apprentice should be pulled from his duties at the wall and relocated to the tower.
As the giant rectangle of red stone reached the apex of the pulley, a team of workers roped it in, guided it to its destination, then signaled to the ground below where the counterweight bucket was uncorked and the slug mules untethered, allowing the stone to settle into its final resting place.
Drau'd's thick shoulders seemed to settle with the stone, and for the moment he could relax.
"Only fifty-four to go," Drau'd said, turning to regard the other project underway at the base of the Rift.
LeCynic too used the hole through Lock Core, sending a near steady stream of unfortunate soldiers on their way to the Dead Worlds. Drau’d hadd seen many go in over the last couple of days, though none had yet to come out. Where LeCynic found so many victims was anyone's guess. There couldn't be that many criminals in all of the Seventh, let alone just Lock Core. The man had to be stopped, but what could Drau'd do when the entire Council had failed to stop him?
Saddened, he turned his wide brow to the Black Door. A new procession of roughly a hundred soldiers had begun. These new recruits seemed different somehow, maybe smaller than regular humans, less armored than the last ones too. Regardless, they were definitely unwilling, eyeing LeCynic's black mailed guards with as much fear as they did the Rift, which hovered before them waiting to swallow them within its pulsing, black maw.
"It's the Cipher Squadron," a small voice said from down low.
"What in the dead?" Drau'd rumbled back, looking down at the speaker who was no taller than his hip. He wasn't shocked that his mind had been read, but baffled by what the mind-reader had said.
No older than fourteen suns, Harple had smooth pinkish flesh that was rather plump, especially at his cheeks, even though much of his excess fat had actually dissipated with his recent work load. He looked every bit the innocent child in his brown apprentice robe, but Drau'd new better, had seen him emotionally and mentally mature as his power grew. If one looked in his blue eyes closely, the man in him was plain to see. As long as the Keeper and his cronies kept their distance, Drau'd was content to let them believe he was just another newbie mage.
Harple had been the High Mage's gift. A boy of vast potential and power who could masquerade as an apprentice. Nicola kept him in brown robes when he could be wearing red -- maybe even white. The charade served dual purposes. For one, the boy was a powerful builder, using the Oneness to help their efforts in ways undreamed of by even the Ancients. Meanwhile the only apprentices the Keeper authorized were all but useless. Secondly, he could hide out in the work pits where the Keeper rarely tread, for according to Nicola, LeCynic had lately been taking any child with potential from the High Tower, keeping them for his own.
"Cipher Squadron! What's next, the Death Guard?" Drua'd boomed, his thunderous voice causing several nearby workers to pause their tasks.
True enough, as Drau'd looked closer many of the new soldiers were indeed small. Children. These weren't criminals but mere orphans, innocent beings. Even if LeCynic's so-called war through the Black Door somehow had merit, this couldn't be allowed. Drau'd's blood boiled as it had only once before, and at that time many fell before him, crushed by his ancient war hammer -- the unbreakable Hell's Bane.
Boasting a column of steel as tall as a human, the handle was fixed to a giant, transparent stone, rumored to have fallen from the heavens. Hell's Bane took two hands to wield, even for Drau'd, and therefore he only carried it when in battle. But this close to the Rift, Hell's Bane was never far from his reach.
The wolf helmed soldiers began corralling the children toward the door, marching them up the stairway of stacked circular stones. Drua'd wrapped his meaty hands on Hell's Bane's handle and went to halt their march.
Rollinthor and twenty of his finest guards returned to the mines to find empty carts lining the pathway to the tunnel's main entry. There was no sound. No clanging of steel against rock, or grunting of miners hard at task. Even the birds in the trees refused to sing. Alongside the carts, the carcasses of slug-mules sat and festered. Their flesh too foul for even maggots to eat.
Simultaneously twenty-one axes were slung from twenty-one backs, and together the dwarves crept toward the gaping mouth of their caverns. They walked in stealth, masking the sound of every footfall their forty-two feet made. As they walked within the entry they halted, waiting for their eyes to blacken, allowing them to see through the darkness. Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves, was the first who could see . . .
"The Plague!" he cried, digging his heels into the dirt as a wall of undead began falling on their twenty-one heads.
"Raaaaaaaa!" Rollinthor bellowed while swinging his axe in an arc from his shoulder down to his feet, cleaving through the dead flesh of all those who stumbled into his reach.
Silver and fire. His dismembered attackers fell to the ground, their hewn body parts bursting into flames from where Rollinthor's axe once passed. Their hunger for flesh fed with silver and quenched for all eternity by fire. But as far into the depths of the mines as his eyes could see there was nothing but shadows of half-eaten kin, an endless line of faces that were but vaguely recognizable. With his axe in hand, Rollinthor began to deliver his people from hunger.
Mountains, solid stone. Rollinthor and his companions were born, carving their way through mountains and solid stone. What they did now was no different. They saw the obstacle before them and they struck it. Again and again and again. Their arms immune to fatigue, their minds focused on one purpose . . . tearing apart that which was in their way.
With blades empowered by silver and the strength of their rage, they did what came naturally, and together, their twenty-one axes reduced hundreds to ash.
They uttered no words, all the while they merely gritted their teeth at the obstacle before them and struck, one after the other. And for a time it seemed their line of axes could not falter, and that they would stay in the mouth of the cavern, forever swinging until the pile of ash before them became a mountain. But then it happened . . .
A moment of hesitation.
The sight of a familiar face.
An axe held for but a moment too long.
Midlan, nephew of Rollinthor, had longed to return home, to once more cast his eyes upon his bride-to-be. Her plump cheeks speckled with tiny drops of orange. Her hair . . . the color of the sun just moments before it is swallowed by the night. Midlan, nephew of Rollinthor, had returned home. And at the mouth of the dwarven tunnels he had at last found his love.
One . . .
Two . . .
His axe lingered on his shoulder.
By the time he realized his error the dead hands were on him, dragging him into the depths of the horde where the name of his bride-to-be sprayed from his lips in a gout of blood.
He was consumed.
Midlan's death was all it took and the line of dwarves was broken, divided in two. And through the gap in their ranks the army of undead surged, surrounding the twenty remaining dwarves. One by one they were plucked by the undead, their axes useless as the undead continued to close in on them, making it impossible to strike in close quarters.
Rollinthor, and the last of the dwarven line fought the undead to the end. Fought them, not with axe, sword or dagger, but with their bare hands. Snapping the necks of their undead kin until the time came when all twenty-one of them had rejoined their ranks.
Buried to his shoulders in the broken bodies of his people, Rollinthor, Lord of the Rock Dwarves, was the last to be consumed. The last to be reunited with the dwarven race.
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