The Stormforged Axe
In betwixt two titanic mountain ranges in west and east stretches the Dark Lands, unforgiving and cursed grounds of ash and sulphur as well as of fire and darkness. Here, molten rock from the heart of the world glow in the dark and spill forth from scars amidst the polluted wastelands and arid desolation. Feral monsters and barbarous tribes wander the hostile landscapes under stormy skies, eking out a living where softer peoples would have thought it impossible to even find food and water. Here, amid volcanic rocks and thorny vegetation, the beasts and savages clash to survive and conquer, yet no feral rabble or mindless monstrosity can ever truly compete in this arena with the cruel and mysterious empire which occupies the top of the region's food chain.
It is the only mortal realm to have withstood the unrelenting test of time in the Dark Lands, for all others have long since fallen. It is an empire based upon mass slavery, ruthlessness, industrial might and heinous mysticism. To behold its might and splendor is to witness hell on earth. It is the malignant empire of Mingol Zharr-Naggrund the Great and all her holdings. It is the worldly dominion of the dark and fiery Bull God, Hashut, bitterly carved out and ruled by his chosen tribe, the demented yet ingenious Chaos Dwarfs, who have spent millennia of hardship, struggle and toil to trample and enslave in His name.
Given the frequent thunderstorms of the Dark Lands, it is no wonder that the Dawi Zharr asssociate these powerful and fearsome discharges of nature with their Father of Darkness, for they believe that Hashut in His guise of the Great Thunderbull rumbles across the heavens and Realm of Chaos alike, snorting and roaring, for His stampede is thunder and His wrath is lightning. To the Dwarfs of Fire, He is the almighty Cleaver of Skulls, the Lightning Father and He Who Rapes the Earth, among other titles. In other words, He who is Hashut is not only lord of fire, darkness, cruel domination and baleful crafts, but He is also lord of thunder and lightning.
As such, it should come as no surprise that the devoted and pragmatic Dawi Zharr has sought to imitate the Great Thunderbull. Not only do their handguns, artillery barrages and noisy industry carry an echo of the revered thunder in the heavens, but some of their Daemonforged weapons and even warmachines has been wrought by dark and sorcerous arts to capture the strength and essence of lightning. Many artisans of the Chaos Dwarfs have died across the years when trying to master and enslave a wild force of nature powerful enough to fell monsters and melt sand to glass, yet others have persevered and succeeded in crafting feared artefacts imbued with the power of lightning.
These craft objects have all been feared tools of destruction, and many a slave and foe has succumbed to their crackling fury through the centuries. Some such weapons have become legendary, for the bloody exploits of their bearers in this world, or even beyond, mimicked the lethal charge of the Great Thunderbull across heavens and Empyrean alike. These are not tales of salvation or valiant heroism, for they are chronicles of ferocious butchery and merciless cruelty. These are tales of horror and darkness. These are tales of devious crafts and carnage without limit. These are tales of bloodstained warriors gone mad with power, and their grim fates as determined by capricious Dark Gods.
Such are the legends told of stormforged weapons by the Blacksmiths of Chaos.
This is one of these legends.
Birth of a Monster: It was heralded by portentous nightmares and otherworldly whispers from who knew where. It was conceived in the demented mind of a forger of metals and Daemons alike. It was prepared for with frantic hoarding of resources, ranting of mantras and ritual scarification of slaves alike. It was given due acknowledgement in advance by gory sacrifices for high Bull God's dreaded yet divine inspiration. It was prayed for and fasted for. It was begun one dark winter night when a baleful Chaos moon chased the silver orb and glared sickly green through the ashen storm clouds.
It was the forging of the murderous axe of Daemonsmith Drazhnukul Blackeye, and it occured in a cacophony of thunder rolling, metal ringing, slaves screaming and Acolytes chanting. Sparks flew in the darkness. Muscles heaved. Smoke curled. Captive Daemons howled. Blood flowed. Incense burned. Skull-shaped braziers and a forbidden metal alloy melting in the soulfurnace cast everything around in a hellish red glow atop the crenellated ziggurat platform. Yet everything flashed white, for overhead did lightning lash out, time and time again, striking the raw matter being pounded upon the chained and cracked anvil. Every lightning strike upon the red-hot metal empowered the weapon. Yet the repeated lightning strikes did not slay the singed Dawi Zharr blacksmith, who stood working the future tool of death clad from top to toe in an armour suit whose outer layer consisted of obsidian scales.
Begotten in the fury of a thunderstorm, invigorated by both the soul of a possessed Human and the Daemonic essence of the possessor. Forged during a series of heinous rituals to become an unnatural merger of flesh, lightning, metal and spirit. Heated in flames flickering with tormented faces of Daemon imps. Hardened in barrels of Yheti blood. Trampled upon by arcane horseshoes of stolen Gromril nailed onto the cloven hooves of a blessed Bull Centaur, guardian of the Temple. Enchanted and cursed over and over again by Temple Acolytes. Dedicated to the Father of Darkness Himself and polished in the still-living skin of flayed slaves. This was how it came to be.
A potent and hungry weapon like few others, its forging would not be truly completed upon that ziggurat northwest of Mingol Zharr-Naggrund the Great. Indeed, its creation would not even be finalized in the Dark Lands. To be born was not enough for the Stormforged Axe of Drazhnukul Blackeye, for like any living being it would have to grow in power and pass perilous trials in order to reach its full strength and potential.
This was the forging of the Stormforged Axe.
This was the birth of a monster.
The Dark Gods hailed it with thunder.
Stolen Fate: Daemonsmith Drazhnukul Blackeye recited bale incantations and anointed the newly forged axe in mystic oil of secret origin. Then he fasted for twelve days in a row, praying and thanking the great Father of Darkness for the divine boon visited upon the stormforging. Slaves were whipped, flayed, maimed and burnt in front of His mighty idols, in honour of influential Daemons of myth, and the Temple received a black iron chest filled with precious metals, gemstones, ancient artefacts and treasured tablets. So grateful was the pious man, that Drazhnukul stripped down to his lointcloth and volunteered to clean up a portion of the malodourous yet sacred Taurus stables. All the while, the Stormforged Axe lay inside a lead casket, locked and shackled and oppressed by fell wards and talismans.
Once the period of thanksgiving was over, the Daemonsmith donned his tallest hat, bedecked himself with holy amulets and read the omens in smoke, ash, slave guts, fire and molten metal on the potent day of the Festival of Fiery Revelation. And the voracious Bull God granted cryptic revelations which were in turn interpreted by consulting mystic and forbidden scripture; and these interpretations were then subjected to a holy number of twelve different numerological processes of divination; which in turn were chanted out by apprentices sworn to an oath of silence on the hidden matter, while their master lay lifeless in a trance infused by a heady haze steaming out of Daemonic concoctions.
Out of the conflicting secrets revealed, three predictions were discerned, though no known prophecy made mention of these events to unfold. The first prediction predetermined a blood-soaked career of dark glory and bale renown for whomsoever carried the Stormforged Axe. The second revealed the ascension of the lightning bearer to immortality in the presence of gods and their hallowed servants. The third named him who should become the storm incarnate.
Hearing, seeing, knowing, Drazhnukul Blackeye proceeded to follow the enigmatic signs of the portents, for he hosted a celebratory clan ceremony where Drazhnukul granted the Stormforged Axe to his capable and ambitious nephew, Adad-Zherak, urging the younger man to test the limits of the powers of the axe and revealing that a great fate awaited him who held the axe. Thus it was that the Daemonsmith doomed himself to die in horrific agony at the vengeful hands of his customer, Sorcerer-Prophet Azhrakul Slagfist, for the revered Sorcerer-Prophet had offered up the wealth, slaves and materials required for Drazhnukul to forge a mighty weapon for the high lord.
The covetous Sorcerer-Prophet sent out armed men and Hobgoblin spies to find and seize the Stormforged Axe, and incarcerate its bearer into the dreaded Infernal Guard. The sly Adad-Zherak, however, would not be trapped and deprived of his new and powerful treasure, for he swallowed his deep shame and cut his beard short to appear a mere beardling. He also coloured his curly black beard red with a mix of ochre, egg and pig's grease before donning an eyepatch and antique hat, whereupon he sneaked out of Mingol Zharr-Naggrund the Great, cutting Hobgoblin throats when necessary to evade detection. He did this by descending down the noisy and dark guts of the grand ziggurat, navigating remote, dripping sewers and abandoned mining tunnels to emerge outside of the curtain walls of the vast and foreboding capital city of the Chaos Dwarf empire.
Adad-Zherak had managed to slip past the clutches of the furious Sorcerer-Prophet Azhrakul Slagfist by defiling his own beard and slinking out like a Hobgoblin. The shame was heavy, yet his ruthless determination got the better of him. Adad-Zherak enrolled himself as a guardsman in a mechanized caravan, which headed westward across the Plain of Zharr. There, seated upon the iron platform of a trundling transport cart, the Dawi Zharr stared at the heavens as freak lightning from a sudden thunderstorm erupted above. Behind him, his close kinsmen were beaten down in Zharr-Naggrund and found themselves exiled into the infamous Infernal Guard by the warriors of a wrathful client unable to find his treasured weapon.
The omens were clear, and the choice had been made.
The fate of the Stormforged Axeman now awaited a young man instead of an old.
Into the Unknown: Eventually and after many detours, the caravan of metal wagons pulled by smoke-belching Iron Daemons reached the northwesternmost line of forts clustered atop the cracked crater walls which surrounded the Plain of Zharrduk. Out here, the smog and vapours breathed by slave and master alike were less dense, and the smoke columns rising from chimneys fueled by souls or coal were less numerous. This was the outer edge of the Dawi Zharr heartland, a perilous border zone haunted by savage wolf packs, Greenskin raiders and monsters alike, all ready to fall upon run-away slaves and even armed parties of Chaos Dwarfs if they were tempted enough to risk all for a chance at looting rich pickings. Likewise, this was a staging area for great slaving expeditions heading out into the wild Dark Lands and beyond.
The caravan which Adad-Zherak accompanied made halt at Fort Dhurguz, for a great multitude were amassing outside its sloping obsidian walls, setting up a vast camp of tents, cages and metal wagons. Chaos Dwarf warrior parties from dozens of clans were drawn to the mustering point, haggling and striking contracts with Despots and Daemonsmiths about to head into the untamed wilderness in search of slaves and riches. They were all eager for blood and dark glory earned by trampling the skulls of lesser races into the dust and shackling their throats and limbs for a life of drudgery and misery without neither freedom nor hope.
A number of returning raiding parties would also be found here at Fort Dhurguz, sporting thousands of slaves, chained to each other in long gangs of whipped and humiliated wretches. Though a few Humans, Ogres and other races were to be found amid the masses of captives, most of the thralls were Greenskins, and these brutes and mites were haggled away to crafty merchants hailing from the interior of the Plain of Zharr or from Dawi Zharr outposts in far-flung parts of the Dark Lands. The forges, fields, mines and quarries of the Dwarfs of Fire were ever thirsty for more forced labour, more slaves and more fuel for the furnace. The slaves would toil away in backbreaking tasks amid dry coal dust and smoke, meeting their grisly ends down in dark mines and manufactories, or they would be slain by callous overseers and sacrificers alike.
The groans and cries of suffering creatures were everywhere, as were the kicks, the punches, the lashes and the knife cuts dished out by uncaring captors. Hides were flayed, body parts were maimed and flesh was scorched to suppress riotous wastrels. These capricious punishments were also commited against mere unfortunate slaves who happened to be close by when their masters walked out in a bad temper after some unsuccesful haggling or unexpected expenditure. The spilt blood and guts of those who suffered harsh brutality were eagerly licked up from the filthy ground by fellow slaves who could no longer remember a time without hunger clawing inside their stomachs. Elsewhere, hot irons were picked from flames to brand newly sold slaves, and soon could be heard the ghastly sound of panicked shrieks and of heated metal sizzling upon naked flesh.
Chains and shackles rattled whenever a captured being moved in the slave camp, and the crack of whips was a frequent noise in the cacophony of wretchedness which could never disappear even during sleep. Some slaves slept in their own filth and craved moisture so much as to filter ashen mud water and urine from the puddles through their rags and loinclothes, though few had been left with any semblance of clothes to shelter them from weather and shame. Numerous were those who remained shackled close by to the sick and the dying, feeling the coughs of the diseased upon their scarred skin and finding themselves soiled by vomit or worse. Oftentimes, the Hobgoblins would not even bother to lock open the shackles of a deceased slave, but would just cut off limbs and throat to steal away body parts themselves and throw into the dirt that which they could allow the lowliest slaves to devour raw. The stench of the unwashed slave masses was obscene wherever the drifting smoke blanket failed to dull it down, and flies and vermin plagued the slave pens.
In other words, it was business as usual, and most of the thralls' captors were already loading up on supplies, fuel and munitions to venture out into the wilds yet another time to capture yet more savages, as soon as this lot of living property had been sold off for a decent price. The demand for slaves was high. Out here, stout and cruel menfolk gathered to sate this ravenous hunger of their dark empire, and they did so with a vengeance.
It did not take long for a seemingly red-haired beardling to find his place as warrior and raider in one of the slaving expeditions. As a mere beardling, his payment would be low and his tasks the worst ones assigned to Chaos Dwarfs, yet even so he enjoyed grim privileges of cruelty and punishment to visit upon the slaves, even upon the lackey soldiers, the Hobgoblin cutthroats and wolf raiders. Adad-Zherak had purposefully sought out that warband which would venture farthest away from Mingol Zharr-Naggrund, for he wished to evade the Sorcerer-Prophet whose axe the youth now brandished.
And so, hiding among the war caravans who each day departed the Plain of Zharrduk in hunt of primitives to shackle and subdue, Adad-Zherak boarded a large iron host, heading into the unknown.
Growth of a Monster: Long and harsh were the travails and hardships endured by the Chaos Dwarfs and their Hobgoblin slave warriors. At first, the armed caravan would crisscross stretches of the barren Dark Lands south of Zorn Uzkul, yet these landscapes were deserted by the Greenskin tribes or otherwise exhausted from previous slave raids. The few Greenskin warparties which were encountered were swiftly crushed and dragged along in chains as fresh meat and engine fodder on the arduous journey. With little yield to be had in the northernmost Blasted Wastes, the caravan headed north, up onto the Great Skull Land where Tauri roamed in ancient times. Since the prices on Human slaves were unusually high at the time, the leaders of the warband decided to strike northwest, through the High Pass and all the perils awaiting them from beast, savage and raw force of nature itself, to descend upon the unsuspecting lands of men beyond the western mountain range.
And as was determined, so transpired, and through many skirmishes, ambushes and attacks by Greenskin robbers were the strongly armed Chaos Dwarf slaving expedition to overcome the threats facing them, eventually striking deep into the countryside of Kislev. Walled cities shut their gates and prayed for the incursion to pass them by without inflicting serious harm. The peasants blessed by gods and fortune would flee and often abandon their possessions at the approach of this bale host from hell, and soon even the Boyars and the Ungol riders learnt the bloody lesson of staying well away from the firepower and infernal machinery of the Dawi Zharr warband, unless backed up by the might of the Czar himself.
Unbeknownst to the Chaos Dwarfs, the Czar's armies were at the time occupied in a lenghty campaign against Greenskin tribes striking out from their warrens and dens in the World's Edge Mountains and forests to the south of Kislev, and so it was that the people were left to fend for themselves. Fields and farmsteads were put to the torch in front of the Chaos Dwarf advance, and the hardy woodsmen of Kislev escaped into the wilderness along with their families. Some even staged daring traps and ambushes in the forests, yet most ended miserably for the men of Kislev, who did not know their enemy. The sad fates of these brave men only fuelled rumours of a major Chaos invasion spreading like wildfire, and the Dawi Zharr were quick to impress stark terror upon the populace of Kislev by erecting a dozen bloody spectacles on display at visible locations. There, trembling onlookers could look at decapitated heads piled into pyramids, impaled Kislevites and flayed skins of vanquished foes strung up flat in parody of a man. Such were the tracks left behind by the Chaos Dwarf host.
The slave yield was low even after crossing the river Lynsk, and the lumbering behemoth that was a mechanized Dawi Zharr war caravan could only trust in their Hobgoblin outriders to snatch up some of the hiding Manlings. Yet on through rolling landscapes the Chaos Dwarfs ventured, ravaging as they went, for they knew that unprepared and softer pickings lay to the southwest past the bleak domains of the Boyars. And they descended upon the periphery of Ostland like a thunderbolt, smashing all border patrols and town militias opposing them, defeating an army of two thousand men in a battle which ended in a slaughter for the losers before reaping thousands of slaves in the countryside. Men, women and children were chained behind the metal wagons, and the Hobgoblin overseers had a hard time whipping everyone into shape. The warband ran out of shackles, and had to resort to chains and fibres of binding looted from Human cottages. Even the young warrior Adad-Zherak earned a hefty amount of captive thralls, and future prospects looked good for the raiders.
Loading up on fuel and supplies and torching everything left behind of their victims' former possessions, the triumphant raiders made their way back out of Ostland, feared banners raised high to declare high Hashut's dominion over creation and everything and everyone contained therein. The Chaos Dwarf caravan of steel monstrosities and long slave columns stretched out behind the lead Iron Daemon, wreathed in a haze of smoke like dark glory bestowed by the gods of Chaos, yet suddenly their way out was barred.
The worshippers of the Father of Darkness would not escape the wrath of the Manlings they had so cruelly molested, for the Wizard Ignatius Hochenhelmer of the College of Heavens had gathered about himself a host of three and a half thousand men by issuing false decrees adorned by a fake Elector Count's seal. Ignatius' family had succumbed to the bloodshed of the devil Dwarfs from afar, and he would let nothing stand in his way of revenge. And so the Manlings of the borderlands of Ostland amassed to halt the wicked raiders.
The battle which followed was bloody and turbulent, and it is said that the Eye of the Gods rested upon the scene of horror and slaughter for a while, before drifting away to larger spectacles of warfare to be found elsewhere. Imperial Huntsmen had managed to shoot down any Hobgoblin scouts mounted on giant wolves riding in front of the war caravan, and so the Dawi Zharr column approached the hastily-set trap without having received warning of what lay ahead. As the lead Iron Daemon rounded a bend in a muddy and rutted forest road, the war engine was blasted apart by a small battery of Great Cannons, thereby halting the train of wagons tethered one behind another to the great steam vehicle, and forcing the Iron Daemons further back in the column to brake hard. The forest road was covered in thick smoke and fires spread from the gutted machine, setting the trees and undergrowth ablaze as the battle raged on.
Slaves panicked and sent their handlers into disarray as Ostlander militiamen burst from the forest and attacked the exposed flanks of the mechanized column. They managed to free hundreds of slaves bound together in long chain gangs, yet the Manlings could not match the firepower, endurance and elevated positions of the Chaos Dwarfs upon the train wagons. Even when stuck on a narrow forest road did the metal wagon caravan bless its owners with higher ground and meagre fortifications in the middle of hostile territory.
Soon, the militias were sent packing by shredding gunfire from bands of blunderbuss riflemen, yet their assault had nevertheless managed to pin down the Dawi Zharr to their thin column formation of stuck vehicles, thus paving the way for the frontal assault of disciplined State Troopers who entered the forest and swarmed past the lead Iron Daemon, picking off the Chaos Dwarf crews one by one and conquering the caravan wagon for wagon. Captains, Warrior Priests and banner bearers cheered on their comrades, spurring them to deeds of self-sacrificing valour as they clambered up the spiked sides of the iron monsters, defying certain death and overwhelming the foe piecemeal in the forest. A few Ogre mercenaries dressed in coarse Imperial uniforms smashed Hobgoblins and Chaos Dwarfs alike to bits, and began to topple metal wagons. Behind the regimented companies paced the Celestial Wizard Ignatius Hochenhelmer, reading arcane portents in the Winds of Magic and drawing down occasional lightning bolts from the heavens themselves. Thunder rolled overhead.
The initial force of this infantry offensive ebbed out against the dogged resistance of the slave raiders, however. The Dawi Zharr were hard to kill and would never abandon their prized machinery to filthy Human scum, so instead of turning to run away they brandished blades and shields and hewed down enemies until they were stabbed a dozen times by swords, spears and halberds. Soon, the militias on the flanks were entirely routed and ran for their lives as frothing giant wolves and gleeful Hobgoblins did what they did best; cut down those who could not defend themselves. As the militias faltered, the Chaos Dwarfs further back in the war caravan marched forward, forming shieldwalls behind lines of shackled meatshield slaves against which no handguns or crossbows could bite. Among the warriors holding a slave chained in front of his shield was Adad-Zherak, and his weapon of heinous origin tasted blood well and fully in the battle. After a while, Chaos Dwarfs armed with hailshot blunderbuss and Fireglaive formed ranks and fired away in lethal salvoes which scythed down the Manlings among the trees.
As the brunt of the Human attack wore out, the Chaos Dwarfs advanced methodically, chanting heinous hymns to high Hashut and His dread court of fire and darkness, threatening their enemy in fell language with the vengeance of Dark Gods and Daemons alike. Then, the State Troopers turned and fled when the Daemonsmith Druzhkul Cinderbrow clambered aboard a reclaimed Deathshrieker wagon and cast dark sorcery of ashen horror and hellfire upon the Manlings. The inferno of the forest fire were only fuelled by this grim deed, and the Ostlanders could not withstand the flames as could the dour and tough sons of darkness in their Blackshard armour suits. The Human host started to rout and its captains were unable to halt the flight.
Seeing his chance at revenge slipping from his fingers, the Celestial Wizard Ignatius drew upon more arcane power than most Manling magicians could ever hope to master, and managed to overcome the otherworldly perils through sheer force of will alone. He jumped up atop the wrecked Iron Daemon, his blue robes swirling among the fires and thick smoke, and he yelled a curse before killing Daemonsmith Druzhkul Cinderbrow outright with a mighty lightning bolt which nearly blinded bystanders. The forest flashed intensely white and lightning whipped out, and both Druzkhul and the Deathshrieker rocket wagon he had been standing atop were no more. The remaining parts lay scattered in heaps of blood and scrap among shocked Chaos Dwarfs.
And then Ignatius Hochenhelmer struck the Chaos Dwarf host and their unwilling slave captives with the fury of the gods.
Lightning rained down, killing trees, slaves and foreign invaders alike. Forked lightning struck from the heavens like hail, slaying Hobgoblins outright and blasting Dawi Zharr dead or unconscious to the ground. In this torrent of celestial wrath, not even the hardy Chaos Dwarf warriors could survive for long. As many muttered protective mantras or offered wicked prayers and promises of future sacrifice to Hashut, Adad-Zherak the youth barged out from the buckling shieldwall and roared a challenge to the Celestial Wizard. From the direction of the destroyed lead Iron Daemon, lightning answered his call with unerring accuracy, striking time and time again into the raider who had dared to challenge Ignatius. Bystanders could scarcely see for the repeated flashes of lightning bolts.
Yet out of the heavenly barrage walked the Dawi Zharr unscathed. The Stormforged Axe in his hand had devoured the lightning bolts akin to how a starved creature would gulp down food. Its appetite had been ravenous, and now its deadly meal was finished off with Manling Blood as Adad-Zherak climbed aboard the gutted machine and set about to maim Ignatius Hochenhelmer, Celestial Wizard of the College of Heavens, into twelve times twelve little pieces. The arcane weapon hissed and sparked in the bearer's hand as it cut asunder the man who had fed it such power, and the remaining soldiery of Osterland turned and fled from the battlefield at the sight of the gory atrocity.
Those Manling warriors who survived the battle and forest fire, were shackled as slaves or had their bones broken, their teeth cracked, their skin flayed and their limbs and manhood mutilated before being offered up as sacrifice to the triumphant Bull God in a great victory pyre erected by His devout tribe of followers. As part of the heinous ritual celebrations, omens were read in both flames, ashes, smoke and Human intestines, and the portents were read to be favourable. The cinders, ashes and burnt bones of the pyre were afterward buried in shallow trenches in the shape of an eight-pointed Chaos star, which was then covered by mud and slave dung before being cursed in blasphemous ways so that no green plant would ever take root there again, and this came to pass by the will of the Dark Gods, and the Children of Chaos would later flock to that hallowed spot.
The next day, Adad-Zherak led a party of Chaos Dwarfs and Hobgoblins into an untouched border village. They killed whoever resisted, seized all precious possessions of the Manlings, stripped them of clothes and jewelry and then herded them into the local temple of Sigmar. There, the Dawi Zharr smashed the relics, tore the holy scripture to pieces, crushed the impure altar and defiled and defaced the idols of the false Man-God. Then, dark curses and dedications to Hashut were read over the captives. The church was set ablaze with due ceremony, and all the villagers succumbed to the flames in horrific agonies. Not a slave was taken, for every Human in the village had been offered up as a bloody offering to the Father of Darkness.
This fell deed was carried out by the Dawi Zharr to honour Chaos in general and their own Dark God and lord in particular. These actions likewise served to humiliate the trampled enemy of the Chaos Dwarfs further still, as was right and proper.
Its hunger sated by lightning and blood in the distant west, the Stormforged Axe remained silent throughout the whole ritual procedure.
It would not stay silent for long.
Such was the growth of a monster.
Maturation of a Monster: The blessing of Dark Gods allowed the surviving Daemonsmith to cover the war caravan in a thick haze of ensorcelled ash and smog, and though the captive slaves suffered horrendously as their lungs were clogged by soot, the unnatural cover of darkness made the Manlings of Kislev stay away from the repaired vehicles and the long columns of shackled slaves. Behind them were left some unsalvagable spare parts, but the Chaos Dwarfs ensured they could carry with them as much of the wrecked wagons as possible , not least to hinder Human artisans from reverse engineering marvels of technology which no savage cretin should ever be allowed to understand.
Thus it was that fear of Daemons lurking in the smoke allowed the ravaged but proud Dawi Zharr to march out of Kislev nearly uncontested. It was a well-founded fear, for malicious Daemons did indeed skulk in the arcane smoke cover, and every now and then they would snatch away one or two of those who were not protected by sorcerous wards befitting only masters, not slaves. Thus Humans and even the odd Hobgoblin disappeared in the thick smog, some without leaving a trace behind, others in the form of bare bones or empty skins discarded out of thin air by shadowy hands, tentacles and still stranger body parts. Utter terror gripped the slaves, and this was true even of hardened Orcs and devious Goblins captured by the Dawi Zharr as they neared the World's Edge Mountains again.
Adad-Zherak was hailed by his fellow raiders as a mighty warrior touched by Hashut Himself in His guise as the Great Thunderbull, the Lightning Father, He Who Rapes the Earth; for the young man had withstood the test of lightning and survived, his axe of weird forging stronger than ever before. From now on Adad-Zherak would be known as Thunderskull, and woe betide him who dared stretch out his hand to touch the Stormforged Axe, for only the covetous slayer of Ignatius allowed himself to wear it, and some whispered that the Daemon inside was gaining influence over Adad-Zherak's mind.
The journey back through the High Pass witnessed a Skaven ambush up in the mountains. Two-legged vermin skittered nervously out from their tunnels and warrens, swarming down in great numbers to lay waste to the Chaos Dwarf warparty down in the pass. This time, the distance between those ambushed and the visible ambushers was far greater than in the forests of Ostland, and so the Dawi Zharr artillery train fixed its deadly weaponry upon the vile ratmen and fired away, blasting through ranks in torrents of flames and Daemonic fire, tearing smoking holes in the swarm and searing Clanrats and Skavenslaves alike to death. At closer range, blunderbusses and Fireglaives opened up, sending the attacking waves into disarray and forcing Skaven to trample each other in a panicked stampede as the front ranks sought to escape while the rear ranks still pressed on. Dark sorcery joined the maelstrom of firepower, finally breaking the Skaven horde to a cost of miniscule casualties.
This good fortune did not last, for a small battery of Warplightning Cannons were firing away at the war caravan in bursts of sizzling and erratic energy bolts. Though all but one of the Skaven artillery pieces were destroyed by the heavy Chaos Dwarf response, the surviving Warplightning Cannon still managed to destroy all three remaining Deathshrieker Rocket Launchers while its Warpstone-infused protective aura deflected the Daemonsmith's sorcery. Truly, the mad rats of Clan Skryre were masters of tamed lightning, far surpassing even the ken of Hashut's children. With most of their long-range artillery crippled, the slow Dawi Zharr and their warmachines were sitting ducks for the Clan Skryre engineer directing the last Warplightning Cannon, and soon gaping holes were torn up in the Chaos Dwarfs' ranks. A barrage like it had rarely been seen spitting from a single artillery piece, and nothing could stop it. Whipped into shape again by their overlords, the Skaven infantry scurried out of their holes for yet another attack.
What saved the war caravan from complete devastation was Adad-Zherak Thunderskull's charge uphill, ignoring direct orders from his superiors to stay in formation. Adad-Zherak barged up the mountainside toward the lone Warplightning Cannon, despite hundreds of vermin standing in his way, blocking his path with rusty weapons and yellowed teeth. The Chaos Dwarf's slow advance allowed the nervous Skryre engineer to aim his powerful weapon at the fool who dared to attack the vaunted machine on his own. The giant chunk of Warpstone sizzled as power was forced out of it through cables, and the Skaven engineer fired.
It was a lethal mistake.
The overcharged Warplightning Cannon detonated, killing all nearby Skaven instantly in a halo of rogue Warplightning. Nevertheless, a burst of directed Warplightning escaped through the cannon's barrel, striking Adad-Zherak like a Giant's fist. Once again, the Stormforged Axe absorbed lightning, though hailing from fell powers it did, yet some of the Warplightning went through Adad-Zherak Thunderskull and singed the Chaos Dwarf with forces sufficient to kill a Manling outright. The weapon, however, drank these forces to become absurdly powerful, emitting sorcerous sparks of black, white and green which shielded the bearer from arrows and other missiles, whether arcane or mundane, by incinerating the projectiles. The entrapped Daemon throbbed with increased power from the Warplightning bolt, and the Skaven soiled themselves at the sight of what came next.
Sparks flew from the Dawi Zharr's tusks and curled beard, and with a mad roar he charged into the ranks of fearful Skaven, hewing left and right. He killed dozens with each crackling sweep of the axe regardless of if it struck anything or not, for each swipe of the axe released terrible energies jolting out in lethal bolts of fell lightning. When Warlock Engineers attempted to halt the mass murderer with wicked magic, the arcane energies of the hostile spells were grounded akin to lightning passing into the ground. The power of the Stormforged Axeman was terrible to behold, and the Skaven fled in fear before him, abandoning all equipment and trampling each other as they rushed back inside the tunnels and pits from which they had emerged.
From below in the valley, a triumphant chant which praised high Hashut was heard from the Dawi Zharr war caravan, yet it soon fell silent as they saw what walked down towards them.
It was Adad-Zherak Thunderskull, weapon spitting lightning bolts in his hand, madness in his eyes.
This was the maturation of a monster.
The Dark Gods hailed it with thunder.
Descent Into Hell: Adad-Zherak Thunderskull brusquely did away with the correct victory ceremonies and took command over the surviving warband. Even the leaders of it were awestruck by the supernatural powers apparent in the Stormforged Axeman, and all present Chaos Dwarfs viewed these powers as evidence of the Bull God's divine and unholy favour. Thus the rejection of sacred traditions passed by in fearful silence, for would really someone chosen by Hashut Himself need to commune with the dark deity in the manner of mortal worshippers?
Adad-Zherak forced the Chaos Dwarf warriors to swear oaths of fealty to him as their new overlord. This was a stunning demand which the Dawi Zharr, ever unwilling to become oathbreakers, would only accept when the power-mad killer failed to enforce upon them an oath that would break all previous oaths and allegiences of theirs. Yet still they sealed their doom by swearing this oath to Thunderskull, for none of them would die in service of their original lords.
The demented axeman led the war caravan back to Zharr-Naggrund on a drudging trek through the northern Dark Lands. His desire to reach the capital of the dark empire was so fierce that Adad-Zherak would not delay himself by grasping even the most opportune moments to catch Greenskin tribes unaware and shackle some more slaves.
Indeed, the slave columns were thinning out as many died off during the arduous journey, and likewise were the coal bins running empty. Adad-Zherak at first applied his own solution to the problem, by stripping every slave of all clothes to burn, thereby humiliating them greatly. When the clothes and the dead slaves themselves had been burnt along with most of the remaining coal, Adad-Zherak Thunderskull ordered his Hobgoblin lackeys to shave off all hair and beards of the survivors to fuel the steam engines. When this was not enough, he ordered living slaves to be forced into the fires, cut up into pieces if necessary as in the case of the few Ogres, thereby carrying the war caravan into the Plain of Zharr, empty-handed and with a leader unwilling to refuel for reasons unknown and uncaring.
On foot, the surviving war party of Chaos Dwarfs and Hobgoblins wandered over the vast Plain of Zharr, passing through a landscape of nightmare industry, mining and quarrying. They breathed the smog and the smoke. They heard the thunderstorms yet scarcely saw neither sun nor sky. They saw the ruddy infernal glare of the furnaces. They waded through streams of tar, slime and polluted water. They passed by vast slave plantations were hardy grains and other plants were sown and harvested to feed a vast population of slaves and masters. They climbed hillocks of slag and waste gravel from the mines and had to walk around large, gaping wounds in the ashen earth were Dawi Zharr open-pit mining had clawed and carved vast holes down through the rock. They passed by sinkholes and cracked rocks where earthquakes had torn and shifted the landscape violently. They passed by fields of obsidian, smoking fissures and sizzling lava pools. They passed by great monuments and ziggurat mansions of mighty leaders. They passed by fortified clan settlements, fortresses and immense manufactories where tens of thousands of slaves were worn down in backbreaking labour each and every day. They passed by scenes of bloody sacrifice and stark cruelty heinous enough to make a heart of stone bleed. They passed by soulforges where horrendous shrieks emanated from Daemons being broken and dominated just as were the mortal slaves of the masters. They passed by nightmare machinery and ingenious inventions concocted by madmen. They passed by mass graves and rotting carcasses of beasts of burden, foul corpses and the soot-stained bones of dead slaves.
They passed by in this hell on earth, and they knew it to be good, for they were its devils.
A Silent Murder: Upon returning home did Adad-Zherak Thunderskull enter the Gates of Mingol Zharr-Naggrund the Great without uttering a word, for his greatness would speak for itself. The crowds of Chaos Dwarfs and the teeming multitude of slaves stared at the otherworldly sight of the Stormforged Axeman, and no one neither spoke nor tried to stop him. The guards stepped back and bowed low. The crowds parted before him in the street, turning his ascent up the gigantic ziggurat city into a stunned parade of silence. Close to the very top of the mountainous settlement, close to the Temple of Hashut itself, did Adad-Zherak at last enter a dwelling. It was the palace of Sorcerer-Prophet Azhrakul Slagfist, and he entered it unresisted, for the locked and barred gates opened up before him.
All the warriors and all the court of the mighty ruler stood back, quiet and transfixed. They watched as the Stormforged Axeman walked alone through the hall of many pillars and mighty idols. They watched as Adad-Zherak paced unopposed up the richly embroidered carpet laid out over the broad obsidian stairs leading up to the liege's dreaded throne. They watched as the Stormforged Axeman butchered the paralyzed Sorcerer-Prophet Azhrakul Slagfist with a weapon of lightning which the high lord himself had paid for. They watched as he walked out again, without claiming the vanquished foe's harem, possessions or followers as his own.
They watched the death of one of the most powerful rulers of Zharr-Naggrund unfold, and no one uttered a word.
Deeds of a Monster: Adad-Zherak Thunderskull left Mingol Zharr-Naggrund the Great to never return, and his followers followed him wherever he went. The favour of both Dark Gods and fickle Daemons were his to enjoy, for they wished to carry him high, high like few others, and the hand of Khorne was at work.
Thus it was that the Stormforged Axeman trekked the face of the world at random, ever in search of new champions to vanquish. He cut a swathe wherever he went, for he went on a killing spree in which Adad-Zherak slayed Orc Warbosses, Ogre Tyrants, Kurgan Warlords, Indic Rajahs and Kislevite Boyars alike. They were all grizzled and deadly warleaders of great repute, and they all fell before him. Hundreds upon hundreds of lesser warriors, beasts and monsters fell before the Stormforged Axe of Daemonsmith Drazhnukul Blackeye, the fell weapon birthed as a crossbreed between man and Daemon, empowered by celestial thunder and perfected by lightning from the Realm of Chaos.
Lives were lost and homes lay in smoking ruins wherever the Stormforged Axeman went, and mortals trembled at his coming while the Eye of the Gods savoured every act of savage bloodshed.
These were the deeds of a monster.
Alone But Chosen: After several years of combat, not one of Adad-Zherak Thunderskull's followers remained alive, for they all died in his service, receiving neither scorn nor gratitude. They simply followed him, and died.
The Stormforged Axeman was gripped by such hubris that he no longer were interested in recruiting lesser warriors. Why have others to wage his war for him? Thus he wandered alone, killing and maiming as he went, until finally, Adad-Zherak came by chance upon a cracked, chipped and weathered stele in the southwestern Dark Lands. The stele was ancient, and described the forgotten prophecy of Harzhakulnippar the Lost, written in interchangable Khaozalid and Dark Tounge script. The prophecy spoke of the bearer of lightning climbing the Thundertusk mountain far to the north to challenge the Dragon Ogres, akin to how Bhaal the Bull Centaur had climbed Blizzardpeak in ancient times, and there the bearer of lightning would ascend into the Realm of Chaos, borne upon Daemonic wings into eternal immortality.
Adad-Zherak Thunderskull read this, and knew it to be true.
The Stormforged Axeman had been bestowed with a higher purpose.
Death of a Monster: Far to the north did the lone Dwarf of Fire travel, into the Chaos Wastes and hardships untold. Mortal men and beasts all fell before him, and his mortal might was never greater than up there, close to the Gate of the Dark Gods in the frigid north. His clothes and armour were reduced to rags, yet the Stormforged Axe was neither corroded nor chipped nor dulled. He became a living legend, a chosen champion hailing from the tribe of the Blacksmiths of Chaos yet fighting only for himself with lightning in hand and knowing neither god nor fear. Warriors uncounted sought him out to duel, only to die, for each and every one of them were hewed down with neither mercy nor pity.
Yet even as Adad-Zherak's infamy grew did the prize he sought for foil him, for the ever-shifting landscapes of madness would never host the Thundertusk in the same position twice. It would appear and disappear at random in unpredictable locations about eighty leagues south of the northern Polar Gate. Thus it was that the killer stalked this mountain like a beast of prey, threatening and torturing Daemons, hags and migrating tribes alike for clues as to its whereabouts. Blood was spilled everywhere and unbelievable secrets were told, yet the task remained an elusive one.
Adad-Zherak searched far and wide for years on end, his eyes gleaming with gross madness from the baleful energies of Chaos saturating the very landscape. He saw Thundertusk mountain in the distance eleven times, and each time did he travel for hours and even days with his goal in sight, yet he failed to reach it whenever a thunderstorm enveloped the mountain, robbing him of it like a mirage would a desert wanderer.
Eventually, after long years of hardship and plunging insanity, the Stormforged Axeman caught sight of the Thundertusk for the twelfth time, and this time he managed to reach the nomad mountain during a terrible storm. Adad-Zherak Thunderskull climbed the steep mountain even as the thunderstorm grew worse, fighting off harpies, vultures and Forsaken Warriors of Chaos hiding among the crags and crevices. The Stormforged Axe flashed in tandem with the roiling, mad heavens, and anyone who barred his way fell dead down the precipice.
Adad-Zherak at last reached the top of the rocky mountain, and there he found a clan of Dragon Ogres, for they were vigorously rejoicing in a dark feast and were all bathing in lightning atop the Thundertusk, arrayed around their mighty Shaggoth ancestor in a primal ritual of enormous force. In the hail of lightning did the celebrating Dragon Ogres not even notice the savage Chaos Dwarf before he marched into their midst to bellow and declare his superiority. Adad-Zherak Thunderskull claimed himself, with a strong voice, to be the lord of lightning, and he had come there to prove it.
The lesser Dragon Ogres made way and kept their distance out of respect for the apparent raw power of the Stormforged Axe, yet the Shaggoth was unmoved by the mortal's display. Indeed, the Shaggoth insulted the puny Dawi Zharr for a fool and a weakling not even fit to lord it over sparks in animal fur.
Thus it was, that the Stormforged Axeman charged the Shaggoth with a heinous curse upon his lips, yet no cut with the arcane weapon could even scrape the scales of the ancient monster. In response, the Shaggoth raised his brightly glowing mace to the skies, and with it he cast down the father of all lightning bolts into the Stormforged Axe of Daemonsmith Drazhnukul Blackeye. The mighty weapon that had been the bane of countless lives were there and then sundered into a thousand shards, each containing a shred of the Human soul and an echo of the former power of the Stormforged Axe. There they were left on the Thundertusk, to become treasured artefacts hunted for by Human Sorcerors and Aspiring Champions of the far north, all possessed by a ravenous hunger for power.
Yet upon the destruction of the Stormforged Axe, the imprisoned Daemon escaped and carried the panicked Adad-Zherak Thunderskull screaming and clawing into the Realm of Chaos upon Daemonic wings to an eternal immortality of suffering.
Thus was the ancient prophecy of Harzhakulnippar the Lost fulfilled.
This was the death of a monster.
The Dark Gods hailed it with thunder.