Uther the unhinged wrote:THE KHURALSHSKI
There have been Dwarves in the Khuralsh peaks for as long as anyone can remember. They were never renowned for their riches or their technological advancement. Instead they were renowned for their stubbornness and alcohol tolerance. Interestingly attributes valued equally or even slightly more than the others by Dwarves. Indeed it was said that only a Khuralshki dwarf would be drunk enough to start a starinrg contest with a statue. And only a Kuralshki Dwarf would be stubborn enough to win it!
As such it was no surprise to anyone that the infernal dwarves made no progress whatsoever in their attempts to move northward through the mountains. Implacable resistance met every attempt. In the end the Infernal Dwarves turned their attention to easier prey.
However all that was before catastrophe that led to the waste. The Infernal Dwarves disastrous meddling with infernal powers devastated the land around, creating the wasteland. Sadly that was not all. The magical energies infused the great roiling dust clouds that formed. Some of these settled on the wastelands. Fine dust particles coated the Khuralsh peaks. Indeed for years afterwards the winds would sweep across the wastelands. The air would climb the the Khuralsh slopes and deposit the dust in the regular rains that watered those high peaks.
The catastrophe and the devastation it caused cut links from the outside world to the Khuralshki dwarf holds. Indeed it was well over two centuries before traders began to tread the old roads into the Khuralsh mountains from the north. What they found shocked them.
When the dust had first started to fall the Khuralshki locked their holds and huddled safe inside. Trusting to the stone and rock to protect them. They were right to. The infernal energies saturating the dust poisoned thousands of creatures, devastating the fauna of the area. Over the following months much of the flora was affected too. The weaker annual plants just died. The hardier ones either failed to thrive or became twisted parodies of their former selves. Safe within their walls the Khuralshki ran down their stores and waited.
Eventually the dust clouds passed and life began to return to a semblance of normal. Still many of the weaker plants would not grow, or grew and died rapidly. Animals from the northern peaks and eastern slopes repopulated the area. The Khuralshki emerged unscathed. At first. Dwarves are a resistant race, but they are long lived. Over the long years that followed the Khuralshki could not avoid the poisons that had sunk into the earth, entered the water and built up in the tissues of the animals of the Khuralsh. Even their precious ‘water of life’ (the terrifyingly strong liquor the drank from childhood) was affected. A less hardy race would have perished. A less stubborn race, left. The Khuralshki did neither. But they did change. Confidence became arrogance. Grudges became hatreds. Independence became rebellion. The great holds were riven first by factions, then by war. Kingdoms split into territories of rival warlords. What had been a disdain for other races became a disregard. The focus of their culture became war and violence. Age was no longer revered, just strength, and alcohol tolerance of course (they were still Khuralshki after all).
Their technological advance halted as civilised society collapsed. Then the mutations began to be noticed. At first small changes, often hidden by parents. Sometimes the child was killed or abandoned in the wilds. Some changes were merely cosmetic. Others not compatible with life. Others were useful! Khuralshki arose who could master magic. Others with abnormal strength, or speed or healing. But always with the mutation came lust for power.
Those Khuralshki cursed with the gift of sorcery refused the daemon binding route taken by theIr infernal cousins. Instead they chose a different path. Soulbinding. The name of the first sorcerer to develop the great runic collars is long lost, but his creation changed the Khuralski forever. These fell collars are placed around a slaves neck. Once in place they bind the poor wretch to the will of the sorcerer, a bond only death can break. The weaker the will of the slave the easier to control. It is probably no surprise then that few if any Khuralski have been collared. Yet those twisted beasts that infested the Khuralsh after the catastrophe became fodder for the Soulbinders. Threats suddenly became weapons. The simplest collars are made by the acolytes to control and train the great bears, trolls and skin wolves. The more complex made by the Soulbinder sorcerors are linked to golden runic bracelets. These are used for the ogres and captured sorcerors of the dark gods. This enables Khuralshki Soulbinder sorcerors to wield great power and avoid the sorcerors curse. Of course only lesser sorcerors can be so controlled and usualy only one per Soulbinder. Though there are rumours of Soulbinders of great power that can bind the souls of two sorcerers at once. Others speak of Soulbinders who have subdued even wild Preytons as steeds These Soul binders rule their clans with a fierce hand. A harsh autocracy, tempered by assassination. Failure or weakness is not tolerated and there is always a younger Soulbinder. However even the death of the Soulbinder does not release the bound souls from their torment. Freed they may be but they are too damaged by their experience and are driven mad lashing out at friend or foe or just sitting stuporose.
The catastrophe that created the wasteland virtually cut off the Khuralsh mountains. As the world reeled from the disaster the Khuralshki dwarves were forgotten. Indeed the younger races even began to leave the mountains off their maps. Soon only the dwarves remembered their kin (there were grudges to settle after all). Even their cousins did not think the Khuralshki could survive. Surrounded by the wasteland. Assailed by daemons. Cut off by the followers of the dark gods. Surely they could not survive. Surely even the Khuralshki would have to leave their homeland or perish. When no Khuralshki came out the worst was assumed. But as Wartrob Iron Tooth (the legendary orc big boss once remarked after a failed Waaaargh against the Khuralshki) “dem stunties is too stoopid to no wen dey is ded”.
The Khuralshki did not flee. They did not die. But they did change.
The fate of the Khuralshki was unknown until fairly recently. Traders seeking a northerly route to the east (avoiding the Infernal dwarves) came across the northernmost Khuralsh peaks. These seemed to be spared from the devastation of the wasteland to the South. Explorers began entering them to see if they could provide a route south and east into Augea. Few came out. Those that did spoke of the change wrought in the Khuralski and shivered at the thought of a return. This was no safe route to Augea and Tsuandan.
Thus it was that their infernal cousins learned of the Khuralskis’ survival. Surely these dwarfs could be cajoled or forced to join the empire. A bastion of infernal dwarfs in the Khuralsh could make the Wasteland passable. The lure of access to the sea of storms and the possibilities that raised were tempting.
Unlike their southerly cousins the Khuralshki did not seek infernal power. They gloried neither in its evil nor the effects it wrought upon them. The hate that seeped into their souls they directed outwards in all directions, elf, man, greenskins or dwarf, it made no difference. Yet a special hatred was reserved for the architects of their downfall. The Infernal Dwarves would find no allies in the Khuralsh mountains. True, they abandoned their old gods, much as they themselves had been abandoned. Yet though their new deities gloried in warfare and bloodshed they were Khuralshki to their core. They would bow to no other. They sought not just the destruction of their traditional enemies. They sought the destruction of all powers and dominions, divine or infernal. All must be brought to glorious ruin. An eternal hate (and alcohol) fuelled storm of violence. A beautiful combat where only the strongest of will would dominate. Where the Kuralshki would stride through the chaos, masters of the revels.
The collapse of order amongst the Khuralshki should have made them weak. It should have left them ripe for conquest by their infernal brethren. Easily beaten or co opted to their cause. Such ran the arguments in Zalaman Tekash. Such was the logic that drove the invasion. Their organisation, their technology, their power would crush the opposition they told their legions. Unfortunately they failed to tell the Khuralshki.
The plan was long in formenting. Access through various Ogre Khans’ territory needed to be negotiated. Favours offered, bribes paid. Similarly deals were struck with various warlords sworn to the dark gods. This did not prevent all skirmishing or indeed daemon assaults. Yet it was enough to allow the army access across the narrow stretch of wasteland and the relative sanctuary of the lower Khuralsh slopes.
Their first objective reached the infernal force paused. Earthwork fortresses were constructed. Their daemonic machines repaired and stores established. All the while the higher peaks overlooked them in inscrutable silence.
The Infernal Dwarf column had skirted the wasteland as much as possible before reaching the foothills of the southern Khuralsh. There they built a series of small forts. Staging posts for the future expansion of their power. Finally by late Spring the Grand Army of Zalaman Tekash was ready to move. In pomp and ceremony the columns rolled out of the forts under the critical eye of their commander Zelayion Hazonart.
The army wound its’ way into the dark twisted forests that filled the deep valleys of the Khuralsh. Ahead ranged the wolf rider scouts, searching for contact. To the rear the engineers oversaw the vast slave gangs charged with making a usuable road though the passes. Zalaman Tekash was here to stay.
Each day deeper into the forbidding valleys the army advanced. Each day the wolf riders went out, and mostly returned. However it was a week before the first signs of Khuralshki presence were seen. Runic stones denoting the boundaries of a territory. Zelayion ordered a halt. A delegation of ambassadors assembled and sent forward with chests of gold as a peace offering. Much easier if the Khuralshki could be brought onside by a combination of intimidation and bribery than engage in costly battle. For another week the army waited on the borders of the Khuralshki lands. Waited for news of the Khuralski. Waited for the return of the ambassadors. Waited for an answer. On the 8th day they got one. The wolf riders returned with the ambassadors. They had been stripped. Their beards shaved. The gold bribes melted down and poured down their tortured throats. The Khuralski did not seem intimidated.
The failure of the ambassadors had been considered but their treatment by the Khuralshi less so. Yet the Infernal dwarves of Zalaman Tekash do not bemoan insults or set backs, they avenge them. So it was that the scouts were sent out once more and the war machine rumbled into life again, pushing ever forward.
Three days into this advance Zelayion found the valley ahead blocked by a force of Khuralshki. It was he grudgingly admitted a good choice of killing ground. The relatively wide open grasslands of the valley floor narrowed rapidly towards the North. The land rose as it approached the bottle neck, broken, rough and strewn with boulders. The approaches on both sides were guarded by high and virtually sheer rock walls. A frontal assault would be suicidal for his war machines, the broken ground too treacherous even without the ‘surprises’ he was sure had been prepared. Furthermore the heights on both sides provided excellent positions for any artillery batteries. Certainly he could not see any. Equally certainly they were there. The troops that blocked his path were heavily armoured in good if not very uniform plate. There were several thousand warriors. There were many armed with ‘quaint’ old fashioned crossbows others sported axes, hammers, glaives, bill hooks and other motley weapons. The variety of banners and icons hoisted above them spoke of a coalition of several holds.
Undoubtedly he could find a way around but that could take weeks and here were several holds. A chance to crush the famed Khuralski spirit in one blow.
The goblins went first. Massed ragged phalanxes of spears, driven forward by the slavemasters. Flanking them battalions of archers with squadrons of wolf raiders ranging beyond. Up the narrow centre of the valley they advanced watched by the impassive ranks of Zalaman Tekash behind them. Zelayion did not watch them. Who watched vermin? Zelayion watched the steep flanking walls.
200 yards out the first sporadic crossbow bolts began to thud into the phalanxes. Not enough to fell many or even slow the advance. Still Zelayion watched the walls. As the front lines neared the advance of the phalanxes stuttered under the increased crossbow barrage but did not falter. Soon answering volleys of goblin arrows peppered the Khuralshki lines, targeting the crossbows. Still the Khuralshki lines stood immobile. Still Zelayion watched the walls. The last 50 yards was covered in a rush by the goblins in a frenzy of hate and fear. The wave of goblins broke upon the heavy armed Khuralshki in a groan of wood, iron, bone and blood. Still Zelayion watched the walls. Now a grim smile of appreciation touched his face and he gave a small nod to the castellan at his side. Horns rang out across the valley. The wolf riders ceased their flanking and raced to the steep valley walls. Each wolf carried two goblins. One rider and one diminuative spindly creature. At the base of the walls the smaller goblins leapt from the backs of the wolves and began climbing. The wolves raced back to the main body of the army where they picked up more diminutive goblins and headed back to the cliffs. Still nothing. The wolves were on their third trip when Zelayion stirred. He saw the puffs of smoke from the cliff before he heard the sound. Then the low roll of cannon fire. The Kuralshki had realised the danger. True the climbing goblins were no match for the quality of the Khuralski warriors guarding the guns. But, Zelayion smiled, quantity has a quality all of its’ own. He nodded to the subordinate on his right who turned and barked orders at the officers around him.
Behind Zelayion a forest of banners and flags were raised . Trumpets blared and wolf riders raced to distant battalions. Zelayion glanced briefly towards the head of the valley. The hobgoblin infantry was having predictably little effect on the Khuralski warriors. Pleasingly they had not broken yet. The archers were having some effect shooting over the combatants into the Khuralshski lines behind. The Khuralshski cannon were causing problems for the wolf riders. He was impressed , their range (considering their height) was not great but the gunnery was good. There were clearly several Sorcerous artillery pieces as well. As he watched hob goblin infantry broke from the main army and raced toward the front lines, half way there they turned abruptly scattering and running to the walls.
Sixty, no seventy or so guns Zelayion reckoned. Plus bolt throwers and catapaults. Now he could see movement up on the cliffs. Infantry taking position to guard against the diminutive greenskins who were nearly halfway to their positions already.
The fusillade targeting the hobgoblins intensified. Too few were getting through to threaten the guns. Too late they saw the Deathshrieker rockets being dragged into range down at the base of the valley. The crews had had plenty of time to identify the Khuralshski gun positions. The guns went quiet. Zelayion smiled to himself picturing the panicked repositioning of the artillery pieces to meet the new threat. They were not quick enough. No cannon could reach those heights. The Deathshriekers were no cannon. The screams of the daemonic rockets was audible even at this range. The dull thud and concussion as they hit was more felt than heard. By the time the cannon answered there were precious few to threaten the Deathshriekers. Even so , one or two were lost before the guns finally fell silent. Long before this the great mortars had begun to fire. These did not target the cliffs nor yet the Khuralski forces. Even their range was two short for that. Their shells fell behind the hobgoblin infantry, throwing up a wall of smoke sparks and ashes. Trapping the hobgoblins, leaving only the Khuralshski lines as a way out.
Zelayion nodded again to the subordinate on his left. More barked orders, more flags and banners, more scurrying of wolf riders. Behind the obscuring wall of smoke the main army began to move. To the front rank after rank of infantry armed with blunderbusses. Behind them the great mechanical skull crushers moved slowly forward picking a way through large obstacles, obliterating smaller ones. Behind them the magma cannons and those mortars not engaged in maintaining the smoke screen. On the flanks massed more hobgoblin infantry pushed slowly forward by ranks of heavily armed infernal dwarfs.
Zelayions’ attention was suddenly drawn to the smoke screen. Hobgoblins were fleeing through it, finally broken by the Khuralski. No matter, they had served their purpose. He made a gesture to his right and a minute later the mortars fell silent. They were just vermin, but there was no need to waste vermin unnecessarily. They would be corralled and collected later.
Up ahead the smoke slowly cleared to reveal a charnel house of hobgoblins scattered before the relatively untouched Khuralshski. The enemy had not broken ranks to follow the greenskins Zelayion noted with grudging appreciation. Still they were slow to realise the threat. By the time the bolts began to fly the infernal dwarfs were a few paces from range. Zelayion saw the Khuralski lines ripple before he heard the report of the blunderbusses. The first rank knelt and the second rank fired. Again the Khuralshski lines rippled. How much would they take Zelayion wondered. The third rank fired and the Khuralshski charged. Faced with the ferocity of their enemy the infernal dwarfs broke. The front ranks dropping their now useless weapons fled. Behind them with a roar of victory the whole Khuralshski force surged forward intent on its prey. Nearly two thirds of the Khuralshski force had clambered over the barrier of dead and dying hobgoblins when Zelayion spoke.
A flurry of banners and the the narrow gap where the front lines had been exploded in fire and death. The magma cannons spoke and the Khuralshski burned. On that signal the Blunderbussers stopped and turned. The drill practised so many times on the parade grounds of Zalaymon Tekash now showed its use. The troopers turned and raised their weapons, their unarmed comrades in front of them threw themselves to the ground and the blundebusers fired and knelt. The second third and fourth ranks followed. To the flanks the reserve hobgoblins crashed into the Khuralshski lines followed a moment later by the infernal dwarf infantry. To the front the blunderbussers stood and side stepped as the obsidian guard rushed through them to break upon the disorganised dwarfs in front of them. Then the great mortars opened up again. No longer out of range. They targeted the Khuralshski beyond the Great Wall of fire laid down by the magma cannons.
Zelayion gazed at the slaughter for a few moments then turned.
‘I’ll be in my tent. Bring me the butchers’ bill when it is over’
The battle at the Smolkhenz pass destroyed the myth of Khuralshski resistance. The Khuralski losses were significant. Thousands of their best warriors dead. Their artillery destroyed. Their pride mortally wounded. Only their Soulbinders, and reserves, kept to the rear, escaped. Melting into the thick forests to escape the hobgoblin wolf raiders that sought them. Zelayion had lost his hobgoblin vanguard and a sizeable number of wolf riders, but their purpose was to die. The losses amongst the infernal dwarfs numbered in the hundreds.
Following the victory Zelayion pushed forward looking for Kharak Mosvk the dominant hold of the Khuralshski. As they army pushed forward hold after hold was discovered. The approaches to each were fiercely contested initially. However the resistance evaporated as the artillery approached. The Khuralshski had learned the folly of bravery in the face of such firepower. The holds themselves were deserted, stripped. Anything of value that could be carried removed. The rest smashed and burned. If the owners could not have it, no one could. Progress was slow. The terrain hard. No hold could be left intact behind the army to block its supply lines. So it was late in the year when Zelayion entered Kharak Mosvk in pomp. The great hold was deserted, as the others had been. Well nearly deserted. An aged group of Khuralshski scribes had been left behind to ‘negotiate’ . Zelayion had chuckled at this. The defeated Khuralski had little to negotiate with. Still a surrender and peace treaty leading to a vassal state in the Khuralsh had been the aim.
The negotiators did their best. Cajoling, explaining, equivocating. It was difficult to promise support from many allied holds.... Zelayion did not understand ........ theirs was was not an empire..... there would be problems if one hold felt demeaned compared to another on the agreement......... there were religious taboos against surrender..... the form of words was important. Still each day progress was made, tithes were agreed the rights and powers of the infernal dwarfs were delineated and grudgingly accepted. One by one the negotiators signed. Finally the Kharak Mosvk negotiator signed. The fabled Khuralski had bowed before the might of Zelamon Tekash. All that was awaited now was for the tribute to be paid and Alizendar the feared, Soulbinder lord of Kharak Mosvk to sign in person and kneel before Zelayion. The message ravens were sent and Zelayion waited. Two weeks later the Soulbinders’ caravan was picked up by Zelayions’ scouts and escorted to Kharak Moskv.
In pomp and oceremony the defeated Soulbinder was escorted to the grand throne room where he once sat. Bourne aloft on a palanquin by four ogres, impassive in his black plate he was escorted to face his humiliation. A hundred grot slaves carried the chests of tribute in and laid them before Zelayion. The infernal dwarf smiled enjoying the humbling of his adversary who stood impassively and unmoving as Zelayion gloated. Any emotion was hidden beneath the full helm but he stood upright even as the palanquin was lowered before the throne. The negotiators bowed their heads in the face of their final defeat. It was they whom Zelayion ordered to open the chests so that he might gaze on the blood price of the Khuralshski.
Yet it was not gold that spilled from the chests. Not yet jewels or silver. Nor anything that had been promised. The chests were filled with pebbles and the heads of those who had counselled peace with their infernal cousins. It is said the negotiators laughed as they poured the contents forth. They laughed as Zelayions’ soldiers seized them. They laughed even as they were flayed and thrown into the pyres. Alizendar did not laugh. He did not move as they seized him. He did not speak as they ripped his helm from his head. He could not. His tongue had been removed. His lips sown shut. His limbs riveted to the fused iron plates of his armour. Truly the Khuralshski do not tolerate failure. As Zelayion stalked from the palace that day the first light snows of winter fell on the ground above Kharak Moskv.
The Khuralshski had timed it well. Winter in the Khuralsh comes hard and fast. Zelayion had tarried to long in Kharak Moskv. With the temperature dropping, stores running low and none of the promised tithes likely to come he had to withdraw. The grand army was readied and left within a week. By then the snow was a foot deep.
The machines of the infernal dwarves are things of wonder. Things of power. Things of dread. They were built to bring the enemy to heel. To crush their spirit. To burn their lands. They were not built for a Khuralsh winter. Wheels stuck in snow drifts. Joints froze overnight as temperatures dropped to 30 below zero. The fires which terrified the enemy died in the cold. One by one they were abandoned as the pace of retreat slowed to a crawl.
The roads painstakingly built that summer now lay under thick snow. Snow that often hid the great logs and trees that the Khuralski had blocked them with. Each day fewer wolf scouts returned. Then one day none. Killed or deserted none knew. None cared.
They ate their meagre supplies first. Then the pack animals brought by the goblin slaves. Then the goblins themselves. Then each morning some legionaires would begin to be found overcome by the cold and hunger. Others would fall behind on the marches, struggling through the snow. Still there was no sign of the Khuralshski. Only the outline of great flying beasts in the distance. Cockatrices and preytons by the look .They fled whenever the great taurus’s approached. Yet they were always there the next day shadowing the army.
Only when the cold and hunger had truly begun to take its toll did the Khuralshski show their had. At first their were just crossbow bolts from the woods. The few firearms that still worked never seemed to hit anything in return. Then the attacks came. Great armoured bears would crash out of the forests crushing legionaires like twigs till they were brought down. The only sign of their origin the collars on their necks. The howling of skin wolves began to follow the army day and night. Few returned from forays into the forests. Stragglers did not have the luxury of hyperthermia.
As the army pushed its way slowly through the drifts of snow the attacks intensified. Trolls joined the attacks. Oblivious to their wounds, driven by their Soulbinder masters out of sight in the forests, they would kill with abandon till overwhelmed. And always the specks in the distant skies, watching, watching and waiting.
The Khuralshski have a saying. Their three greatest generals are snow, ice and hunger. Which of these took the greater toll on Zelayions’ grand army is debatable. Thot they did undeniable. Only the bull centaurs seemed relatively unaffected. They led the vanguard, breaching the great drifts for the infantry. Purposely slowing their pace to that of the army, the lesser troops struggling in their wake.
Still the pace was too slow. Zelayion knew it. All the sorcerors knew it. The army could not be saved. The castellans knew it too. Any lingering hopes they had died the day the centaurs left. They had left in the night. Their tracks half covered with fresh snow by the time the army woke. There was no one to report this too. The Sorcerors had left that night, carried to safety on the backs of great Taurus’s and Lammasu. Yet the army moved on. Crawling even slower now through the snow.
Zelayion watched from the walls of the supply fort in the foothills of the Khuralsh. The centaurs had arrived starved and weakened, but alive, 10 days after he had flown in. Now he watched the northern approaches. Day after day he watched. He saw the distant specks in the sky first. The great flying beasts of the Soulbinders. Each day they were closer, marking the progress of his beloved army. There were more of them now. Like vultures they circled over the frozen dwarves below. On the third day they stopped circling. Now he would watch the tiny specks wheel and dive to the forest below. All day he watched. In the morning they were gone. All winter Zelayion waited in the supply fort. In the spring the infernal dwarves returned to Zalamon Tekash. But it was not the grand army that had marched in pomp and ceremony out through those dark gates the year before.
The infernal dwarf invasion of the Khuralsh was a military disaster. Yet Zalamon Tekash did not fall. True for decades after its neighbours slept more soundly. Yet this was just a brief respite for he hunger of those fell creatures cannot be sated. The Khuralsh might be beyond their grasp, but their are always other lands.
As for the Khuralshski. They have disappeared back into obscurity for now. But they are not unchanged. The Great War brought down Alizendar but raised Khivaan the Terror. This great Soulbinder now claims overlordship of all the Khuralshski. What he will do with it remains to be seen.