Runequest Thursday #100 - Gloranthan Fiction: To Tweak the Nose of the Red Goddess, Part Four!

Clint Staples

Here is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Brightwaters' adventures in  the Clanking Ruin. You can find parts one, two and three, if you want to catch up, or refresh your memory.

In brief, the heroes of Brightwater (Zoe Brightblade, the Orlanthi aspirant; Wyrmhere Blackhand, the demon-ridden sorcerer, Sayyid, Grazelander servant of the White Moon - whatever that is; and Ughari Ghost Eyes, Praxian nomad shaman and outlaw) have traveled to the Clanking Ruin, what is left of the destroyed Machine City that grew up around a cult devoted to incarnating their Machine God - Zistor. The Clanking Ruin is famed as a deadly region filled with enough elder age marvels to tempt the brave or reckless. SInce their arrival, the Brightwaters have antagonized the local Lunar administration, made friends with a small cult of Humakti, and seen some of the local wild-life up close. Wyrmhere and Ughari both have specific reasons to be here, which are becoming apparent. Zoe and Sayyid are here hoping to score big in the Ruin with artifacts or such to help in their fight against the Lunar Empire. Also, Zoe has something of a plan shaping in the back of her mind.To aid them in their explorations, the Brightwaters have engaged the forge-knight Manfred as guide, guard and oarsman.

We take you now to the Rotunda, a large island in Bayside, the ramshackle settlement clustered on the islands overlooking the Clanking Ruin proper. Owned by the Dragonewt Ascendant Avorax, and erstwhile home to the Brightwaters, who stay at a waterside inn called the Wheelhouse for the time being.

 

Part Four

Allaying the suspicions of Andronikos was easier accomplished than Zoe had feared. Perhaps the story of the manchine’s “escape” was more plausible to his ear than when she heard herself say it.  As he and his cohorts filed away, she looked the Dragonewt’s man over again, noted a similarity of feature and coloring he shared with the Humakti they had just left, wondered again from where the lieutenant hailed. Esrolian perhaps, as she suspected the death cultists to be. The mention of the Mirrorsea indicated they hailed from somewhere to the west. But they were clearly not of the Holy Country. Their outlandish names, their accented Sartarite, reinforced her notions. Yet Andronikos’ accent was as different from her own as from the Humakti.

Shrugging, she finished securing River Maiden, lifted Skryek from her perch and followed the others to the Wheelhouse, where the silver from the sale of the manchine extended their stay. They went to their rooms to deposit their gear before asking after a bathhouse or swimming spot, only to find Ughari returned. He sat upon his bed, weariness etched in set of his shoulders, but his face, when it turned at their entrance, was smiling.

“Ah,” the little shaman said, as if the syllable would explain where he had been.

Of course, they were all questions, and over the next quarter hour, they pried Ughari’s story out. Something about the odd stranger who approached the shaman in the Wheelhouse bar being a construct created by several doomed dwarven spirits, that collapsed into shards or body parts on delivering the shaman to those who animated the thing. Then Ughari performed some task that none of the listeners could comprehend, which aided these new dwarves but did nothing for the one who served him – the one that had drawn the shaman from the River of Cradles, across hated waves and sea – to this place.

The shaman, by his own admission, was a poor storyteller, frequently omitting important information, while adding impressions of a world the others could not perceive.  Zoe and Sayyid gave up on the disjointed narrative, but Wyrmhere, ever the inquisitive, stayed with it a little longer before throwing up his hands and chivvying the others downstairs to the comparative cool of the Wheelhouse proper.

Over sea-beer, readily acquired from a passing bar-man, he led the discussion around to their course of action now that the four were reunited, “Manfred told me of a Manuforge that may be accessed via the Canal, and of a cabal of sorcerers who go by the name of Ankeshel. Apparently, they, and the Manuforge, do work for hire.”

“What . . . is a Manuforge?” Sayyid demanded.

“Yet another marvel of the Elder Age, what the locals call Mechamagic, I suppose,” the sorcerer replied, continuing, “What matters is that it might be able to craft what we require.”

Zoe, returned from her own imagining of their intended coup against the Lunars, leaned forward, “An arm for you, and Wyvern Rider harness for all of us?”

Ughari spit out a portion of his beer. Sun-browned features comical, his habitual squint forgotten, his eyes were wide and white at the suggestion hidden in the half-blood’s statement.

The sorcerer continued, “I suggest that we make enquiry at Ankeshel, and of this Manuforge, who goes by the name Braner. We must yet investigate the deeper ruin to find what we seek, no?”  Zoe had rarely seen Wyrmhere so keen as he was when engaged in the seeking of his precious secrets.

“Manfred has been a great boon to us,” she added, “He may be able to help you find what you need for your dwarf.” They had let the forge-knight off at the Seaweed, his favored spot, to avoid him being too closely associated with the Brightwaters should they draw too much of the wrong sort of attention locally.

It took some time to bring the Praxian around to their way of thinking. But he was used to giving in to their foolish notions; and even he had to admit that they sometimes gained favorable result. His nomad heart would never allow it to be proclaimed, but he was as much engaged in the prosperity of Brightwater as any of them, and loved the network of river, bog and vale spirits he had begun to develop there. Too, riding a wyvern from this place meant he could avoid the hated boat trip home. Still, he had issues with the plan they put forward.

“You do not know these sorcerers, or this Manuforge. How can you trust them with the making of these ‘harnesses’ when they can sell your secret to the Lunars and doom us all?” The little wastelander took a perverse pleasure at the effect his words had on the others, particularly Wyrmhere.

But this and the sorcerer’s dismay were both short-lived. Wyrmhere took a long pull on his leather tankard, wiped greenish foam from his lips and mustaches, and leaned forward again,, “Let us then, when we ask about your quest, enquire of Manfred for direction to someone more trustworthy, or more remote from our enemies.”

Ughari gave in with a heavy sigh, drained his own mug, and nodded.

 

*****

They found Manfred at the Seaweed, in his accustomed seat, drinking the same oily, smoking concoction. He was willing and eager to act once more as guide, rower, and guard, for another trip inland inexchange for his very high rate of pay, thirty Lunars per day per duty. With the exception of the shaman, who had yet to try Manfred’ capabilities, and who probably would not be swayed by them in any event, they found the cost worthwhile. When asked of the deeper ruins, and of the presence of dwarves in the Clanking Ruin, Manfred professed some trepidation.

“While it is true that I existed here before the Cataclysm, it is a different place since – and it is no longer possible to be sure of things that once were. There are many things there that are very dangerous. I do not mean to dissemble, only to explain that my knowledge becomes less sure the deeper we go into the ruin.”

At Manfred’s admission, Ughari’s smiled. On meeting the forge-knight, he had been deeply disturbed by the lack of spiritual energy emanating from it. Spiritually, it had a disturbing resemblance to mindless undead like walking corpses, utterly lacking in spirit, but still capable of animation. Somehow, he was comforted by the metal thing’s profession of ignorance. His sense of triumph dissolved at its next words, however.

“The Legion of Purification was well known for the sacrifice of dwarves. In my role as a soldier, I had no dealings with the Legion, or with their victims, but slave-chains of Mostali were a common sight there, and none were known to emerge from its walls once they entered.”

Thusly, the Brightwaters determined to engage Manfred’s services for the following day. They would then call at the Ankeshel Archive, as Manfred called the sorcerer cabal, Wyrmhere being much intrigued by a Machine City “archive”. From there, apparently the Braner Manuforge was only a short walk.

River Maiden appeared at the Seaweed to collect Manfred at the agreed-upon hour, and the boat was propelled by the powerful sweep of his long arms, rapidly gaining the entrance to the Canal, passing under the glowing orb of Deathray Bridge with a wave to one of Syr Aelen’s folk, who stood guard on the quay, crossbow in the crook of one arm. They noted no movement along the eastern wall, and wondered if early morning was the best time to pass manchine territory, but were disabused of the notion shortly, as the bank became crowded with the monstrosities, their horrid attentions focussed on the boat’s progress below.

Beyond the broken bridge, where only two days before they had encountered and captured their manchine, Manfred indicated the west bank where, amongst rushes and a riot of shrubs that clung tenaciously to the hard vertical surface of the Canal wall, there was a concealed break and tiny inlet. Zoe leaned into the steering oar to take them in, with Sayyid and Wyrmhere shoving brush clear to make way. Ughari remained on his bench, glumly pondering the oil stained scars in the wood strakes at his feet.

Past the screen, they found the promised inlet, its waters quite high now with the tide forcing its way up the Canal.  They disembarked and Zoe collected Skryek after tying off River Maiden, hidden from all but the most inquisitive of passers-by.

The short march to the Ankeshel Archive, though uneventful, hinted at the devastation they could expect to find in the deeper ruins. Few buildings were more than shells, or fragmented corners and half walls. Dust lay like a pall on the ground, raised by nearly any tread, to hover or swirl in an errant breeze, which currently were not in evidence. Zoe found this particularly disconcerting. It was like the unseen followers of the Orlanth had deserted this place. Fascinating as it was, she felt alone here, abandoned by the god of wind and storm.

The edifice claimed by the mysterious cabal of sorcerers, when it came into view above the shattered walls around them, was impressive. A high wall of seamless rock appeared sufficient to repel a horde of manchines. But in places the physical barrier was augmented by a shimmering bluish pattern of many glowing hexagons, which Manfred warned them away from, referred to it as a mage-wall. These, the forge-knight claimed, were rare now, but not unknown, the remnants of much more extensive structures built during the ten year assault on the Machine City.

Wyrmhere, unsurprisingly, was all questions at this. , “How were they wrought? Or controlled? Do you know of more elsewhere that might be . . . investigated?”

Alas their guide could answer only rather vaguely, “I know little of such matters, having been a soldier during the siege. I know that they are stronger than any wall of stone or brick,. Some were also dangerous to touch, or even approach.

Other mage-walls exist, but such things are no more easily found than many another location from those days.”

When the sorcerer pressed this point, the forge-knight was uncharacteristically silent.

They were admitted to the compound of Ankeshel, which appeared more than adequately stocked with tough-looking mercenaries. Wyrmhere noted that most had swords that seemed to have been made to a standard pattern, unadorned, workmanlike, somewhat ugly, but glowing with magic to his sorcerer senses. There were also a number of magical crossbows to augment larger engines atop the battlements, these much like their own manticore bolt-thrower back in Brightwater. No one asked to peace-bind their weapons, but they were not left to wander, or even peer about, as a functionary in a sleeveless robe of tan cotton approached, a businesslike smile on his plain but pleasant features.

His Sartarite held the smooth sibilance of the Holy Country, and he ignored the others to address Wyrmhere, “I am to inquire as to your business at the Archive. We offer research, guided or solitary, but also buy and sell supplies, items of interest, and recovered artifacts from the Machine City.”

From this promising beginning, matter quickly devolved. All the services offered by their host were available, but at a price so ruinous as to be beyond the means even of the comparatively well-heeled Wyrmhere, who desperately wished to engage the expertise of Ankeshel, but found himself unable to muster much in the way of funds for research that, apparently would require considerable time as well as money. Grumbling, he satisfied himself with the purchase of one of the “machine-grade” longswords that had been so in evidence among the guards here. His own sword had not been the same since he had conjured his salamander into it twhile fighting the manchines, so he parted with it, at extreme disadvantage, so that he was not burdened by two blades.

Hefting the new sword, he found little to appreciate in the workmanlike furnishings or finish, the lack of adornments so common on any sword worthy of the word in Sartar. But the weapon felt very good in the hand – light and responsive, the blade was entirely rust-free and very, very sharp.

They took a desultory tour of the public portion of the research facility, a massive warehouse crammed with scriptoria, bookshelves and tables piled with artifacts they were not allowed even to approach. Scholars and sorcerers, many younger than their guide, Garan, who had yet to sprout even the hint of the luxurious beards famous in the Holy Country, poured over texts or object of unknown function and design. According to Garan, to be allowed beyond the ropes, and among the work there, required an oath of secrecy or service, and a fee of 200 Lunars. An even greater fee was required for any form of research to be undertaken by Ankeshel scholars. When Zoe asked as to the time required for an “average” research project, Garan smiled patronizingly in her direction, and said, “Five or more days is not uncommon’.

Outside the gates of Ankeshel, Manfred spoke, “I apologize. Although I have been to the Archive numerous times, never have I sought to purchase anything. I was unfamiliar with their policy or prices. It is my hope that the Braner Estate is more to your liking.” With this he led the Brightwaters uphill and deeper into the ruin.

Before they did more than sight the high walls of the Braner Estate, however, they were met by half a dozen warriors wearing a motley of heavy armor. Zoe noted the lunar-supplied crossbows, spanned and held at the ready by three of the toughs. Wyrmhere recognized the swords that all bore, twins to his own in terms of manufacture, if not type, noted the magic on the blades and the crossbows.  The apparent leader, an unshaven Tarshite with a naked broadsword in his fist, spoke from partial concealment behind a pile of rubble – concealment that suggested hidden compatriots to a suspicious mind.

“I greet you, explorers,” he called across the rubble-strewn square, “I applaud your courage. Seeking your fortune in the Clanking Ruin is not for the timid. We ourselves are in the employ of the sorcerers of Ankeshel, and in their name keep this portion of the ruin safe for travelers such as yourselves.”

After a pause, he went on, “We are empowered by Ankeshel to collect a toll from those who pass. This toll helps to pay for the valuable patrol service we provide, and goes directly to the coffers of the Archive, where it is put to great use in furthering their researches, and in taming these ruins.”

Wyrmhere could sense sorcery nearby, but could not locate the mage responsible. Zoe had the multimissile charm on the tip of her tongue, guaging whether she should take out the speaker, or one of the crossbows. Before she raised the weapon from her side, Wyrmhere whispered to his companions, “There is sorcery near.”

To the swordsman, he called, “Have you proof of your claim?”

The threat was well practiced, “You head on back to the Archive and ask if Enkili’s band is legitimate if you want. But we will have the toll before you go, forward or back.”  The three crossbowmen raised their weapons, but did not loose. Zoe took a step to one side to make sure she could target the one who was clear of nearby cover.

Sayyid, her voice cold as the White Moon, spoke low enough that only her companions could hear, “If we fight, we can never go back to Ankeshel. And we make potent enemies there.”

Zoe’s spittle hissed on the hot stones of the square as she cursed, “Which we will fight each time we pass to and fro. I Know! I could look forward to it.” To Enkili, she shouted, “Name your toll.”

Two hundred and fifty Lunars poorer, they left Enkili’s band behind, approached the walls of the Braner Estate. Though they were not sorcerously wrought, the defenses were impressive. Higher than four tall men, they were crowned by black iron war-engines that could date from the time of the Machine City. When asked, Manfred identified them as steam carronades, whatever those were. Patrolling plate-armored figures, these identified by Manfred as forge-knights of Braner’s design, bearing tower shields and heavy swords, stopped them before the walls. One forge-knight, indistinguishable from his brethren, interrogated them before allowing them entrance. Within, a dozen more shield-knights stood in ordered rows as one of the black engines overhead tracked the progress of the newcomers.

The courtyard shadowed within the walls was empty but for two structures. One, a large building reminiscent of the research warehouse in Ankeshel, was featureless from without, except for a single very large door. The other, partially ruined, was smaller, also windowless, with a partially collapsed shed leaning against one flank. Directed by another shield-knight, the Brightwaters entered the large building.

Wyrmhere eagerly strode from the sunlit doorway, into an equally bright interior, illuminated by a series of glowing yellow squares lining the highest reaches of the walls. Beneath the light panes were rack upon rack of raw materials in the form of rods, sheets or blocks of diverse metals, but also pieces obviously salvaged from other items or constructions – some of them very big.  Against the back wall, tables, shelves, and more racks held what were obviously complete items, ranging from simple weapons or tools like swords or hammers, to articulated metal hands, whole limbs, even complete harnesses of armor or possibly alternate forge-knights, awaiting command.

Those were the things that Wyrmhere easily recognized. Other items, smaller or larger, defied his understanding. The central space was taken up by a large pit, the walls of which were studded by a multitude of panels, bulges, knobs, rods, shelves, and more lighted panes. Oddly shaped platforms that might function as shelves, work surfaces, even anvils, protruded from the floor a dozen feet below. Some of these had rectangular recesses of varying sizes on their surfaces. Others bore hammers, and other tools one might see in a blacksmith’s forge – but of varying sizes, including some far too large for a man to even lift. In one corner, a set of very large stairs connected the bottom of the pit with the floor of the warehouse.

The reason for the large implements, and the equally large stairs, became evident as something moved from behind one of the racks of material. A massive humanoid, ten or more feet in height, composed entirely of black iron and brass, rounded the rack and strode toward them. Ughari could feel the tread of the monster through the soles of his feet, but he perceived nothing of spirit about it. Though it looked less martial, despite its great size, it was undoubtedly the same class of thing as the metal man-things outside. He looked away, lest the disgust on his face be too apparent.

The metal man approached, looming over them, yellow light gleaming from its armored skin. Its features were heavy, square and flat, devoid of emotion. But its eyes glowed with the same yellow light as did the panes on the walls. Though it bore no weapons, its massive iron form clearly contained greater power by far than Manfred, the strength of whose arms the travellers had come to appreciate. Yet it made no threatening gesture, only peered, eyes shining with painful brightness, upon them.

The others deferred to Wyrmhere, whose agenda they currently served. The sorcerer hesitated in the circle of light, then swept his satchel from his shoulder, extracting a copper tube as long as his arm. Stepping forward, he looked up into the glaring gaze as he removed a brass cap from one of the tube ends, and shook out a roll of parchment.

As he unfurled it, he spoke, “I take it that you are the Braner Manuforge.” Cursing inwardly at the quaver in his voice, he demanded calm of himself and continued, voice once again sure, “I have a commission for you.”

“I am Braner,” the deep voice seemed to come from all about them, deep and resonant as hammer on anvil. A thick-fingered hand the size of a shield extended.

“The scroll,” the voice intoned. Wyrmhere took a half step forward, placed the parchment in the palm of the great hand. He noticed that the black iron of Braner’s forearm was marked by a grid of round apertures. From two of them, delicate pincers emerged on long brass arms. These gently took the scroll, held it before Braner’s lighted gaze.

After only an instant of study, the arms returned the roll to the sorcerer. Braner’s sourceless voice said, “This is not a manufacturing scroll, only a rubbing taken from one. It is incomplete. I do not possess this pattern and cannot reproduce it from that.”

The behemoth turned, strode to the back wall to take up a gleaming arm of articulated iron, “I have a number of other patterns, and the capacity to combine many of their features. Here is the simplest form of such a prosthesis, which I state to be of better manufacture than the one on your scroll. But I can augment it with more potence, greater durability, integral weapons or other features. All, at an increase in cost, of course.”

Wyrmhere did not immediately respond, but stood, head down as his demon arm writhed under its bindings. He heard nothing of the manuforge’s speech. The howls of his demon drove away the sounds, even his own thoughts. His knees shook and he staggered as pain coursed from his hand through his shoulder, to every extremity. Braner appeared unmoved by this display, but Sayyid stepped forward, steadied the sorcerer with her free hand on his good shoulder. Though fearful of the obvious agony of her friend passing somehow to her, she felt nothing.

Chest heaving, Wyrmhere straightened, looked up again at their host. Gasping, he said, “The cost . . . I take it . . . would be higher than . . . Ankeshel.” Regaining his breath as the tremors left him, he added, “I will return. From what I can see, you obviously take trade.”

Braner nodded, faintly creaking.

 

*****

“If Braner exists, there might be other manuforges,” Sayyid quipped lightly. The others remained unmoved by her attempt at levity. Ughari seemed particularly glum, peering at Manfred’s gleaming back as he stalked silently at the back of the troupe, considering these soulless things inhabiting metal skins, aping emotion, thought, acting to some purpose that they profess to be there own. He resolved never to allow this forge-knight, or any other, behind him.

Wyrmhere had been relieved to be clear of the manuforge. His demon arm had never pained him so much before. Could it know of his intent? Would it kill him to prevent him acting against it? Still, for the demon was quiescent.,he asked, “Manfred, do you know of any that other manuforges that are . . . extant?”

The forge-knight replied quickly, as if to make up for the Brightwaters’ misfortunes, “Many of the Greater Houses maintained something like a manuforge. They were never built to any single pattern, but in accord with each House’s needs and wants.”

He hesitated, as if about to say more but unsure as to what to say, or how perhaps, how to say it.

The five explorers were traversing a rubble-strewn lane between two mountains of brick, stone and corroded metal that once might have been buildings. The footing was only moderately precarious, and offered them the opportunity to talk as they advanced slowly over it. Zoe, however, paid little heed to the conversation, unable to shake a growing sense of dread. Her eyes search the hollows and corners of buildings for ambushers.

 Manfred continued, “Most have not survived. Many were destroyed during the Siege. More fell into ruin afterward. I did know of one until recently, but it has not been there for some time.”

Wrymhere noted the odd emphasis Manfred has placed on the word “there”, which stood out particularly because of his rather monotonous mode of speech. About to inquire of the forge-knight, he misstepped on a brick and fell to one knee. The pain was sharp, yet simultaneously remote, as he was nearly overwhelmed by an upwelling of sorcerous energy.

His gasp was echoed more loudly by his companions as each was shaken, as if by a quake, but one that originated within as well as without. Ughari cursed, Manfred staggered, Zoe swayed as she attempted to keep her balance.

Sayyid caught with one foot in the air as she stepped, tumbled from her perch atop the small mound of debris . . .

. . . which vanished under her feet as the pile fell away in a great crash as it struck something below.

Sayyid dropped to a tilted slab of cracked tile floor. She saw others fall nearby – the Shaman, the Sorcerer – as she began to slide down the tile. She lost hold of her hewing spear, reached for it and instead grasped a projecting chunk of floor. Arresting her descent, with her other hand she gripped Ughari by the only part of him she could reach – the horn of his aurochs headress. The nomad’s slide continued as his headgear came off, but his fingers closed on the armored forearm of the Grazelander. Scraping heels caught on the roughness of the tilted surface and he rolled from back to front, grabbed the edge of the slab, and retrieved his headdress from his rescuer with a lopsided grin. The clattering passage of the errant spear halted several feet below.  Sayyid could just see its haft jutting out of a cloud of dust rising from the fallen rubble.

Wyrmhere had not fared better for his instant of warning. He fell a dozen feet, missing the slab upon which Sayyid and the Shaman lay, and, flailing his arms, struck badly. His cry was cut short by the pain in his side, which felt as though it had been pierced by a lance. Rolling over, every ragged breath a white-hot stab, he could see nothing but a tawny cloud billowing in every direction. Words wound not come to him, the arm on his wounded side was sluggish as he attempted to rise.

It was dark, shadowed more than the dust could account for. He focussed on his art – sent it questing through the cloud. There was the familiar light of Brightblade, down and to his right. The strange magic of Manfred was easy to note –  not far from Zoe, or at least from her sword. Sayyid and Ughari were calling from above.

Wyrmhere tried to yell, a gasp of pain was his reward. He stilled his ragged breath with the meditation cantrip his first master had taught him, focussed on his healing charm, sent energy to his side, and his breathing smoothed as the pain receded. This time, when he called to Sayyid, he was heard.

“Where are you,” she cried?

“Below you, I think,” he replied, before calling out again, “Zoe? Ughari?” He would, for the moment, let the forge-knight see to himself.

The Shaman’s barking laugh became a cough, but Wyrmhere smiled to hear the irascible plainsman. A tense moment and Zoe too answered, amid the clatter of settling rocks. Brightblade flared, a beacon to both his sights, one occluded by dust, the other clear and strong.

A metallic scraping over stone heralded the appearance of Manfred, nearer than Wyrmhere would have thought, covered in dust, his plates much battered, and one arm bent oddly. The sorcerer smiled at the forge-knight, offered a hand up, which was gripped by the forge-knight’s good hand. Demons and gods, he was heavy, Wyrmhere cursed inwardly, feeling the pain from his ribs anew.

Something troubled him, beyond their current circumstance, battered and possibly trapped wherever they were. Then it came to him – the beacon he had taken to be Manfred was still out there, yet the forge-knight stood beside him. “Beware,” He cried, sorcery alert now, to the movement of three such false beacons moving among the debris, hidden by the dust cloud.

Lightning crackled to life along his good arm as the lean iron shapes swept into view, accompanied by a trifold reverberating roar.

 

End of Part Four

Go to Part Five.