Chapter 17 Synopsis
The expedition to Khrem-Zikar, as recounted by Grór Stonefoot…
It was a strange morning. There I was, on the second day of a march to the peak of Khrem-Zikar, exploder in tow, primed to cut out the infection of the Master Smiths once and forever. Along for the ride was an Ironfist princeling, his shielder, Attack-lord Bwalin, and nine of his dunderskull war-hearts. Durgan Irongate was there, too, but not just along for the ride; the lad had black murder in his eyes that told me I might not need the exploder, after all.
I didn’t let on, but I knew Durgan. His father, Dargin, hauled him along on every errand, propping him up on his cart like one of his prized tools. Dargin was one of the best artificers I ever met. By Mahal, that grit-spitter worked tool and iron like they talked to him. Made me jealous. I would’ve hated him, but he made it too hard. Didn’t have an air about him except the brimstone smell of the furnace, and he was easy to work with like good steel. Better yet, he rubbed his arse on the pomposity of the Master Smiths, which made me laugh. Sure, back then I sat among the Master Smiths, but I never believed we were better made than anybody. Just richer.
It’d been a goat’s age since I breathed outside air and it made me cough. We’d been plowing through the snow since morning, but the weather held nicely and I hoped we’d reach Khrem-Zikar by nightfall. I knew the Master Smiths – who called themselves the Kíz Mahal now, meaning Great Smiths of the Sun in Westron – were up to foul things in that old watchtower. It didn’t matter either way, though. If Bwalin didn’t want to take them in, I would take them out. I’d packed enough powder in that exploder to bring down half the mountain.
Sometime after lunch, an Elf surprised us. He climbed up the hillside, striding on the snow like he had innards of air. They might, for all I know. He announced himself as Fingon of Lórinand, a friend of the princeling, and they exchanged words. Seems the princeling had petitioned to speak with the Lady of the Golden Vale – Nimrodel, I think she’s called – and it got accepted. Also, they received some message that a friend named Ganoveth hadn’t arrived in Rivendell. This upset them.
What I can’t figure is, why’s a Ironfist princeling running around with all these strange folk? Elves, especially. Shouldn’t he be down in his mountain, fixing to be king? Oh, well. It ain’t my craft to know the mind of royalty, foreign or otherwise.
“Fourteen Dwarves are easier to track than a whole herd of kine.” – Fingon of Lórinand
When the sun set, I must confess it made for a pretty sight after so long underground, gilding the peaks of the Misty Mountains like a crown. Soon, it turned dark, and all the stars were out, with the moon shining on the snow. I was just starting to get used to the peace, when Khrem-Zikar came into view. That’s when we all saw it. The whole mountaintop glowed in a pale green light, which I recognized at once. It was the glow of the strange stone the Master Smiths brought me, demanding I work it into their evil-looking device. In turn, I suggested they go piss uphill. That’s when my sons started dying, and the kinslaying bastards responsible were up there.
Once we got to Khrem-Zikar, everything was like I remembered. They didn’t even change the rune key. They’d taken mine, but I shaped another from memory. When the mountainside cracked and the door slid open into the entrance hall, there came a shout and suddenly we were set upon by warriors. The Master Smiths had shielders of their own! Fearsome battle followed, which I mostly stayed out of while protecting the exploder. I watched, though. Mahal, seeing Durgan throw that big shield and hammer around like they were nothing – that lad’s father was sure on to something special!
“Mahal’s balls!” – Durgan
After the fight, we trussed up the guards still breathing and tried to find a way up the elevator shaft. The elevator rested at the top, so at first we thought maybe the princeling’s shielder had to climb up and send a rope down. Durgan didn’t like that, though. I told him we might be looking for a hidden rune key and he searched high and low, then high again for it, until he found it down in the pit. We brought that elevator down, stuffed all of us inside – exploder included – and rode to the top.
The shaft deposited us in an ornate chamber with a polished floor and twenty-eight square columns. Large windows were carved into the far wall, allowing moonlight to shine through. The library. I’d spent some time in it when I stood with the Master Smiths. Many hundreds of tomes were stacked on obsidian shelves and telescopes were arranged all along the windows for stargazing. An ornate spiral staircase stood in center of the room, wrought of iron and silver, and wide enough for three to walk up abreast.
We explored a little, but soon six Dwarves traipsed down the staircase and it took every once of strength I had not to explode them right then. They were finely dressed in rich, vibrant linen, and all of them wore forge masks of gold, spotted with diamonds and gems, edged with mithril alloy. On the brow was iron anvil amidst a golden sunburst.
Vidar Warmetal was the leader, and he removed his mask and started shouting his beard off at Bwalin. He was pretty sore about all the bodyguards we cut up, not to mention the king’s warrant Bwalin had to search the place. He couldn’t believe King Bain took my accusations and Durgan’s word seriously. I can’t blame him. I could hardly believe it myself. The princeling orchestrated that minor miracle, Durgan told me.
“King Bain has taken the word of an addlebrained tinsmith and an oathbreaker!? What madness is this?” – Vidar Warmetal
So, we go up those stairs and use Vidar’s rune key to open the secret door. Inside, we find a plush, seven-sided chamber with barrels of ale, a stuffed larder, and couches. And guess what’s sitting on those catches? Women! Not Dwarf women, mind you. The Mannish sort! They screamed and covered themselves, looking terrified. Then, Vidar declared this their big secret. That they traveled to Khrem-Zikar every year to relax and reflect, putting their rivalries aside. Sure, that’s how it used to be, but not since they started getting those outlandish gifts from Mahal knows where.
At this point, I grew awfully angry. I could feel those Kíz Mahal kinslaying sons of whores slipping though my fingers – again! So, I got close to the exploder and warned Durgan to get him and his friends out of there. He told me to wait. He was going to sniff these bastards out. And, by Mahal, he did! Somehow, he found a near-invisible seam in the foyer. It was no wider than an eyelash, but to an artificer it could mean only one thing: The chamber could spin and, probably, lower! There had to be another rune key.
Bwalin ordered Vidar to strip. That indignity was worth the trip alone. When they searched his soft robes, they found another rune key, this one gold. That’s when the Master Smiths started to sweat. We got everybody out of the chamber and I inserted the gold rune key. After some rumbling and shaking the door opened again and there – laid out before us like a good meal – was the meeting chamber and the foul device I’d seen decades earlier.
An anvil and sunburst insignia was etched on the marble floor and embedded in the stone ceiling like an infected pustule was the green stone, which the Ironfist princeling called bilak-khald. It was encased in black steel, but inlaid with coils and metal wires. The entire device was inscribed with Cirth, but the language was Black Speech. Beneath the device were two slabs of stone where bones are laid out, surrounded by a pale green haze. The bones of Durgan’s father and wife!
The princeling grabbed Vidar by the hair, but the bastard ordered one of the other Master Smiths – Oakenheart, I think – to pull a lever on the far side and release the bilak-khald, killing us all with its toxins. Luckily, he didn’t get that far. Dugan struck him with his shield and the princeling’s shielder shot him with a bolt. Bwalin – somewhat dumbstruck by all this, I’m pleased to report – ordered the rest tied up.
That’s when things really got strange.
The haze around the bones thickened into a mist, until finally the stout form of a Dwarf could be seen. His features were blurry, but Durgan discerned his father’s hard-lined face. I could see it, too! Durgan rushed forward, but the shielder stopped him, warning that the energy is deadly.
Dargin spoke, his voice sounding as if it came from somewhere far away. What he had to say disturbed me, I admit. The device was of Sauronic design. One of the many “gifts” he promised the Númenóreans when they held him prisoner. He designed it to grant them the immortality they craved, binding their spirits to Arda through sorcery. It failed, because he could never find a way to power the device, which required immense energy to operate. In fact, it drains the bilak-khald stone within a fortnight.
They grabbed the bones of Durgan’s wife, Esselan, by accident after Dargin initially refused to cooperate with the Kíz Mahal. The idiot tomb-robber thought she was Durgan’s mother. Regardless, the Kíz Mahal threatened that if he did not comply with their demands they would keep her trapped in the world forever. Only then did Dargin begin work on his weapon design, for he loved Esselan as a daughter.
Durgan asked his father how to destroy the device, but Dargin stated that now that the Kíz Mahal were exposed, he wished to continue working. It is slow going. Communication is very difficult and he could only speak for minutes at a time. With the right smiths, though, he may have passed along the technique of duplicating his device within a century.
That was when Esselan materialized and begged Durgan to destroy the device. I must admit, I had tears in my eyes. The poor lass sounded absolutely heartbroken. She claimed she couldn’t endure the endless cold and dark any longer. She was very lonely, and if she remained in this state, she feared madness. She would never find her way to the Halls of Mahal to see their son.
Dargin could only hear Esselan faintly, but he contends that she’s far stronger than she believes. Dargin was convinced his weapon design was critical to the survival of Khazad-dûm. Durgan, however, could not condemn his beloved wife with such torment, despite the boon such a breakthrough would be to Khazad-dûm. Though I am a lover of crafts, I cannot blame him. The poor woman’s pleading would’ve moved any heart that wasn’t solid stone.
Dargin understood, and agreed instead to fine-tune the weapon design while in the Halls of Mahal.
“It’s written that in the End, the Dwarves will ride into battle with their maker against the forces of Melkor. When they do, they will be wielding Irongate axes!” – Dargin Irongate
As the image of his loved ones began to fade, Durgan demanded to know how he might approach the bones to remove them. Vidar revealed that until the bilak-khald is exhausted in a few days, it cannot be done. Durgan resolved to wait with me in the chamber with the exploder until that happened. Bwalin ordered a few guards to remain, also. They gathered up the women and the prisoners, and set off for home. I suppose the Ironfist princeling will report to the King what we found.
I must admit, I’m not really sure what happens to me next. I’ve been pursuing vengeance against the Kíz Mahal for so long that I’ve forgotten how to do anything else.
Ganoveth’s awakening, as told by him…
For a long time there was only darkness before me. No sounds, no tastes, no sensations. Just the abyss of death where I floated waiting for whatever was next. Judgement never came though, and time lost all meaning. I had failed and my sister was suffering for it. But for all the rage and determination I felt I could do nothing. My awareness came and went. Sometimes my fugue would be startled into focus by a sound… or was I simply imagining it? I don’t know. I don’t know how long I felt the dryness in my mouth before realizing it. It was almost agonizing and I could not ignore it. I could feel my tongue in my mouth swollen and dry. The feeling worsened and the discomfort finally grew so great that it pulled me from my slumber. I was not dead.
There was a sliver of light far from me and the walls of the cave I was in were dimly lit by the flickering light of a torch upon the wall. There was a figure there moving around. Elwen? I tried to call out to her but my throat was so dry I could not even croak. The figure took notice of me and approached. I could not move and it was to dark to define who it was. A clay jug was brought to my lips and warm water poured into my mouth. I have never know such relief as the feeling of that liquid rushing over the desert of my mouth and throat extinguishing the burning dryness.
The female figure moved over to the wall and took the torch. As she approached me the light revealed her face. The Speaker! For a moment I was back in the Nacker lair. I could feel the pain in my gut and abject helplessness as the Speaker ordered that Dwarf to take Ebonrath. But it wasn’t the Nacker cave, and the torchlight reflected in the Speaker’s eyes…
Ari? It was her! She explained to me that she could take control back from the Speaker from time to time with great effort. Somehow she had commanded a Troll to bring my body here and she had been looking after me ever since. I asked about Elwen but she did not know what became of the Elf-maid or perhaps she did not want to tell me. I hope she truly does not know… at least there would be a chance. Ari took my hand and placed it on the hilt of my sword. She told me when I was strong enough to swing it that I must take her life. That it was the only way to stop the Speaker. She then left.
Clutching the hilt in my hands I could feel my strength returning. I would recover, and I would defeat the Speaker. But above all else, I would save my sister.