|The work is exhausting and excruciatingly slow.|
Perilous Jack and Colonel Firebrand take turns with the block, wedging their fingers into the gap until they bleed, straining to pull and wiggle the stone until their backs and shoulders cramp and seize. Their Lizardman captors feed them gray paste and dirty water once a day, which they supplement with the rats and cave salamanders they catch. Jack had imagined that he would refuse to eat raw rat meat, but the first time the Colonel offers, he is so exhausted and ravenous he does not complain.
As they work, they share their stories in a hushed whisper. Jack shares his adventures and his hope that this place will prove to be the link he seeks to the castle of the Cloud Giant. Colonel Firebrand shakes his head doubtfully.
“There are Lizardmen aplenty here, my friend, and a Pyrohydra to boot – no doubt about that. Yet I have heard nothing of a Giant. We came here following rumors of the Pyrohydra.”
“There are many Dwarf bones in the hall,” Jack comments, “and I saw their shades upon the road. Was this the home of your clan, then?”
Colonel Firebrand shakes his head. “This was Oakstump land. The Eglantier Crest and I have no clan; we are a free association.”
Jack has heard of such ‘free associations’ – usually outcast Dwarves driven from their clans for committing crimes. If his knowledge of Dwarven culture is correct, only the most serious infractions – murder, kinslaughter, treason, plotting against a Dwarf King, and serious blasphemy against the Dwarf gods, to name a few – are punishable by such banishment. He resolves to move carefully among his new companions.
“What do you know of the Oakstump Clan?” Jack asks, more to keep his mind off the unpleasant surroundings than out of any real interest – yet he cannot deny that his new friend, who speaks with such un-Dwarflike urbanity, is an engaging storyteller.
Firebrand laughs a short bitter chuckle. “Too much, lad. Their king, Thorson, was a Flumerfelt – a Sea Dwarf. That is how we met, sailing the Wyvern Sea together. One summer while trading along the north shore of Suyuti we found an old airship hidden away in a pirate’s cave and learned the workings of it.
“We took to the air together, and over the next few decades, we explored the Cloud Kingdom and built ourselves a whole fleet of airships. Thorson built himself a castle in the sky and lodged his clan there, tried like hell to make it just like any ancestral hall. I think he fancied himself the founder of a new dynasty. However, the cloud he built his castle on was one of the Floating Islands that travel with the winds on a slow spiral over the whole continent. I suppose it was inevitable; his cloud drifted into the territory of a Cloud Giant, and a war ensued. The Giant drove Thorson and his clan to earth and destroyed their castle.
“At least that is what I heard – we had drifted apart by then, Thorson and I. King Thorson changed after he built his cloud castle; he became more distant and withdrawn, spent all his time poring over old books of alchemy. He would drone on for hours about Golems, liquid metals, the purifying influence of the wind, growing a new world inside an egg, the Water of Life, and so on. Frankly, I thought he had lost his mind, become obsessed with some old alchemist’s impossible dreams.
“I left him alone, figured he’d either snap out of it or his clan would depose him in favor of someone more sensible. So when I happened to be on the Plateau here a few months ago and heard that a Pyrohydra had driven Thorson’s people from this castle, I thought I’d have a go, maybe do him a favor for old time’s sake and gain the Hydra’s Furnace for myself. Obviously I underestimated my chances.”
Suddenly a Dwarf across the hall vents a noisy cough and the Colonel abandons his work, wiping his dust-covered fingers in the straw. He crosses to the bars of the cell, and Jack takes up position against the wall, using his slouching body to conceal the stone they have been shifting.
Outside the cell, a pair of Lizardman guards lumbers by, leading a Green Saurian on a chain. The Lizardmen are squat, immensely muscled giants with snake-like heads, brilliant green and orange of skin, armed with huge two-handed broadswords. When the patrol has passed, the Colonel turns back with a weary shake of his head.
“Uncanny business,” he comments. Jack raises an inquisitive eyebrow. “Since we’ve arrived, I have counted seven separate races of Lizardman in this place.” Jack is astonished; this is an unusual arrangement for the normally fiercely tribalistic and xenophobic Lizardmen. The Colonel nods at his expression. “The influence of the Pyrohydra, I’ll wager. I have seen them carry prisoners away, trussed up like a bird on feast-day. I think they are propitiating the beast with sacrifice – and treasure, as well. There is at least one room full of precious things, including our weapons and equipment.”
“How do you know this?” Jack asks. The Colonel cracks a grim smile.
“When my men and I were taken, I saw to what use they put the Green Saurian. When it came my turn, I just fell down as soon as the beast approached and held myself rigid. They must have been so busy hauling prisoners away and stripping their equipment, they did not notice I was still awake. I kept an eye cracked open as they hauled us in. On the other side of this wall is a corridor, which after three hundred yards or so will take us past the room in which our equipment is stored. From there, I can lead us out to the courtyard. We will have to fight our way out, of course, but we will have surprise on our side.”
Jack nods and turns back to the stone to begin working, but the Colonel stops him with a hand on his shoulder and signals to the other Dwarves in the hall. Only when he has gotten the all clear from them does he signal Jack to begin working again.
“You take many precautions,” Jack grunts as he tugs at the stone. “Do you really think they will notice the few inches we’ve managed to shift this stone?”
“Learn from my error, young human. Never underestimate your foe. I have visited the southern realms, where the Lizardmen are common as men are here. I have seen the ruins of the Serpent Kingdom that once ruled the entire continent. The architecture, the artwork, the clever aqueducts and terraces; there was a time when the Serpent Kingdom was as advanced as any dynasty of the First Men. They may have fallen into decadence and decay since, but that does not mean they are stupid.”
Add the following to Jack’s Journal: Blackrock Castle was once the home of the Dwarves of Clan Oakstump. It is now in the clutches of a Pyrohydra, who has united several clans of the usually xenophobic Lizardmen together.