A sea of smoke, incense, and forgefumes washed across the grand cavern that was Almighty Armok's temple. Here, atop this living mountain, cradled in His most favorite stone, the faithful of Omristetur came to praise He Beyond All Gods.
That blessed place nigh-shook with the prayer-songs of the Boulder Guard, the finest warriors and most beloved heroes of the Citadel of Permanency. Today was to be a truly holy day for them: at first light of dawn, a sacrifice of precious iridium would be made to the God of Blood, beseeching him a living golem-heart. At last light of eve, the heroes would descend into the mountain's vital depths to the great forges, and one among their number would ascend to that most coveted charge: Eternal Protector of the Citadel.
To be cast into the sacred Golem Forge was, of course, a horrific and painful death and some might even say damnation. Once upon a time, the most hated prisoners of The Angelic Picks were tossed into this forge, their souls bound unwillingly to defend the society's good places. Lore held, however, that a willing and worthy sacrifice a dwarf whose heart truly lay in the undying virtues of his or her people would be treated to a nirvanic eternity of service and duty, far more enviable than any God or Goddess's hereafter.
That promise, that unending charge, was what drew together these heroes. At the dozen's forefront stood their most admired brothers and sisters:
Urist Sarvenshakam, the Furious, whose fortune was furnace-forged and whose keen halberd had slew half a hundred fell beasts;
Egdoth Niltalen, the Scholar, whose successes as an alchemist and scholar were outshined only by his single-handed triumph over a wicked necromancer and his hundred rotting minions;
Shash the Unfaltering, highest heroine of Omristetur, finest of its valiant warriors and leader of the Boulder Guard she who charged the whole of a Goblin warband to slay its wretched leader, who took up her late husband's mantle of General after his final sacrifice in defense of their fortress home.
Before them all, laid prostrate before the altar, was a dwarven woman of perhaps only fifteen years and her even younger son slung at her hip, as was the way of The Angelic Picks. She was Vabok Oboklam, devout of Armok, and the temple's chosen ritual-speaker for this day. Hers was the only mundane voice to join the heroes' song save for the infant boy Deduk's coos of fascination.
Hours seemed to trail on, and the dawn at last crept low through the temple's descending stairs. All at once, the haze gave way and a brilliant shine replaced it, the dull obsidian chamber now awake and dancing in a million colors.
Hold... hold your songs, O' Lords! asked Vabok, her meek voice quieting the Boulder Guard's song as a mouse might shush a lion. The Apostle took to her feet and approach the central altar, her hands cradling a precious silken bundle.
At its heart roiled a pool of the mountain's own fiery blood, kept eternally alive by the will of the God of Blood. Vabok approached in rhythmic step, mouthing her silent prayers of protection from the holy heat and indeed, it was granted, as it was only to the true faithful of Armok.
She sat the bundle beside the crucible, and its fine wrapping burst into flame. No smoke rose from it: only embers, drawn to the magma below by divine power.
The Apostle began her greatest prayer.
O'mighty Lord of all Living and Vital things!
The temple gates slammed shut. The cascade of lights, in spite of the sudden dimness, did not cease.
As our forefathers once did, so do we again beseech you for your blessing, for the seed of bloodless life!
Every torch in the chamber began to glow brighter, and in half a moment burned to ash. Only the light of the crucible remained, though the walls still shimmered.
We lay before you our only fit gift: the threads of enchanted iridium, drawn from hiding within your living earth!
The shimmering about the chamber did not cease, yet the cold and pale obsidian took on a bright red hue.
Bless us, O' Mighty Lord of Blood! Bless us with y-
A voice from beyond struck the Temple with all the force of virgin thunder.
YET AGAIN DO YOU DISTURB ME, LITTLE DWARF, AND YET AGAIN DO YOU ASK FOR MY PERMISSION TO BASTARDIZE YOUR FLESH WITH MY FIRE.
The crucible's burden began to rise from it, nebulously then in a vague humanoid form, and the chamber was filled with a searing glow. A molten hand reached down to the altar's
AND YET AGAIN DO YOU MEET THE PRICE I ASK. BUT, I MUST WONDER, DOES YOUR DEVOTION COMPARE?
YOUR ANCESTORS, LITTLE DWARF, LAID THIS TEMPLE WITH PICK AND SWEAT AND BLESSED BLOOD. ALL THE STONE OF THREE GENERATIONS WENT INTO THEIR OFFERING.
YOUR FOREFATHERS SPENT AWAY THEIR NASCENT RICHES FOR THE SAME, AND WITH MY PRECIOUS HEART OF LIFE, THEY CHOSE TO PUNISH THEIR WICKED.
NOW, YOU STAND BEFORE ME CHILD, YOUR PEOPLE POWERFUL AND RICH. YOU WOULD USE THIS BLESSING TO HONOR YOUR HEROES, OF WHICH YOU SEEM IN NO SHORT SUPPLY.
The Blood God's own Avatar took to the air, rushing past the Boulder Guard, shimmering against polished steel, singing eyebrow and beard alike. It at last settled again before Vadok, fallen upon her knees.
YOUR MOTHER'S FATHERS THREW INTO THEIR FORGE THE UNWILLING, THE CRIMINAL, THE VOLUNTEER YET, NEVER HAVE I TASTED THEIR OWN BLOOD IN THIS EXCHANGE.
If... Vabok choked on awe and smoke alike. If my Lord... wishes this servant's blood, then-
NO, MORTAL. ANY WEAK FOOL MAY THROW HIS LIFE AWAY. I DEMAND A FAR MORE WORTHY GIFT!
The avatar's burning arms reached out to Vabok, and took from her very hip the most precious thing in her short life. By his bond to her own sanctified blood, young Deduk was not burned by the flame, yet he cried hell as the avatar turned toward its crucible.
No..! My lord, you ask what I cannot give!
WHAT YOU CANNOT GIVE, LITTLE EARTH-DWELLER? YOU MEAN TO SAY, YOU WOULD CALL MY MIGHT TO THIS UNDESERVING PLANE, ONLY TO RETRACT YOUR OFFER?
I cannot. I cannot part with...
The teared from Vabok's eyes burst into steam as they fell. The honor of her family for ten dozen generations bid her meet her almighty Lord's wishes, yet all that made her mortal and dwarven, all that made her a mother, had defeated her totally.
I cannot part with my son! I will not!
CANNOT? WILL NOT?!
The avatar turned and for the briefest moment, it laughed, with the warmth of a bosom friend and the vicious cacophony of crumbling stone.
YOU FORGET YOUR PLACE, MORTAL. BUT YOU AMUSE ME. SO BE IT YOU WILL NOT PART WITH YOUR BLOOD.
The cavern shook, and living stone rose from all about Vabok. It lifted her to the grasp of the Avatar, and receded just as deftly.
YOU HAVE MY BLESSING, MORTAL AND EVEN MY FAVOR! I WILL SPARE YOU THE PETTY RITUAL OF YOUR FORGES.
YOU EARTH-DWELLERS WHO BEAR WITNESS TO THIS DAY, GO FORTH! TELL ALL YOUR FLEETING WORLD OF MY INFINITE MERCY!
All at once, the Avatar's molten form flowed about Vabok and her son. The divine power which shielded them from its heat was stripped away; where once there was thunder and the roaring of flame, there came only a hideous scream of agony, and the wretched scent of incinerated flesh. Mother and son fell to the temple floor, the molten fury wrapping about them.
The stone rapidly cooled, and began to crack and chip. After a brief eternity, it shattered, and the chamber echoed with a taunting ring of metal.
Two figures walked forth from the shells. One, three meters high, made of metal brighter than any steel the heroes of the Boulder Guard had ever known. Another came beside it, its eyes level with that of any dwarf. The arms of both were shaped into wicked blades, catching every slight flicker of the dim and returning light.
Both came, step by step, before the Boulder Guard and saluted. Their cold and empty eyes fixed on Shash the Unfaltering, who had fallen to her bottom quite indignantly, and their blade-arms lifted in salute.
Orders, demanded the Golems of Armok.