Far to the south-east of Rund lay a solitary peak. It had many names in the tongues of the outlanders, Elves, or Dwarves. Among the Mearcians, it was known of old as Niðheim, though none of their tribes had ever beheld this mountain with their own eyes. To them, it was a name of legends, long since faded from memory. To the outlanders, it was the dwelling of their living god.
Because of this, the mountain was sacred and forbidden. This did not mean the dwelling was empty; only that few were allowed into the presence of the Godking. The Servants of the Flame, many slaves to serve the god, and guards chosen among the strongest and most devout could be found in Niðheim. All others had to be content with seeing the summit on the horizon.
From afar, the mountain might seem ordinary; upon approach, the work of mortal hands could be seen. Towers rose from plateaus, flying banners with the red-golden fire of the Godking on black. Beside those, only a gate revealed that the mountain had been delved. It seemed wrought by giants, made with steel and cunning. It rose to the height of many men and looked impervious to anything, whether the beating of rams or the fire of dragons. The surface was decorated with carvings, showing the Godking’s victory over warriors tall and short.
On most days, the gate was shut. On the plains outside, caravans and the like would gather, erecting a city of tents. Every other week, the earth would tremble as the giant doors opened by some method unseen. All those outside would hurry to bring their goods past the gate, leaving the plain desolate until the next caravans arrived, beginning the cycle anew.
Immediately beyond the entrance, the commoners would find themselves in a great, natural cave, which hammer and chisel had expanded over the centuries. Along the cavern walls ran streams of luminous material found inside the rock, illuminating the place. Here, the wagon trains were emptied. Provisions of many sorts, fabric, glassware, tools, and much else were taken by slaves and distributed further into the mountain. The wagon drivers were not allowed beyond; as soon as their carts had been emptied, they were made to turn and leave under the watchful gaze of the guards. Only those summoned by the Godking could proceed, such as the commander of his armies, Jenaab Sikandar. This did not mean he was immediately allowed further in; in the halls of the Godking, even the mightiest among the outlanders had to wait.
Meanwhile, a stream of slaves hurried to move barrels and crates in every direction. Precious metals and gems were brought to the treasury; all such valuables in the realm of the Godking belonged to him personally. Most food went to the lower levels along with coal for great furnaces; day and night, iron was mined, smelted, and hammered into weapons for the Godking’s army by a great number of thralls, both Men and Dwarves.
Most of the fabrics and sundries went to the other areas of the mountain, populated by the Servants of the Flame and privileged slaves. Some went to the upper levels that gave access to the outer towers, commanded by the guards. The most costly materials – silk, candles made of beeswax, pearls, and such – were sent to the heart of the mountain. This was the Godking’s residence, where few ever went.
It contained several rooms; between them and the rest of the mountain lay another hall used to grant audience. Like its counterpart near the entrance, it had once been a natural cave. The key difference was that nothing of natural rock remained in sight; in the audience hall, every inch was covered by marble and precious stones, reflecting the eerie light that spread through the mountain.
At the far end stood a throne, elevated many steps. It was constructed entirely from gold and silver, the metals weaving together and spreading out to climb up the wall like a spider’s web. Upon the throne itself on those rare days of audience, such as today, sat the Godking.
Even in his great seat, it was clear that he was taller than all others. His garments flowed with the finest cut and cloth, sewn with gems and silver thread. He carried no weapons, no guards stood near him; the Godking required neither for protection. In this hall, he could not be touched. He carried no crown but instead a mask upon his face, showing a beautiful face. Slits allowed him to gaze at the world beyond; his eyes were entirely uniform, having only the colour grey.
The hall was of such size, it seemed built to house a great court, but the Godking was alone save for a few personal slaves, hiding behind pillars until they were needed. When he felt inclined, he gave a small nod, and the doors opposite opened.
First to enter came a whole procession of Servants; behind them walked Sikandar. The Servants moved to the first set of pillars and prostrated while chanting. “Hail to you, god and king!” At the next pillars, they repeated the gesture. “You who raised the sun and brought low the moon!” Sikandar followed, throwing himself on the ground each time they did. “Eternity lies in your palm. The stars rest upon your brow!”
When they had finally progressed to stand before the throne, they threw themselves down one last time, remaining on the ground. The Godking’s mask stared upon them, letting the moments pass. “Rise, Sikandar,” he commanded. His voice was deeper than his thin body frame suggested; it seemed to reverberate through the hall. While the Servants stayed down, Sikandar rose, keeping his head bowed. “Have you fulfilled your task?”
“Yes, Divine Majesty. The faithless scum has been eradicated and peace restored to your cities.”
“That is well. I commend you for your loyal service.”
“Thank you, Divine Majesty.” Even as he spoke, Sikandar kept his eyes down, staring at the lowest steps of the throne.
“I have another task for you. Renew the assault upon the godless horde beyond the great stone. Assemble all my armies and crush them. Prepare the way to their city upon the hill.”
“I live to serve, Divine Majesty.”
“Rise, my Servants.” All the priests and priestesses of the Flame did as commanded. “Let this message be spread among the faithful. When the city upon the hill is within sight of our devoted warriors, the one, true god shall awaken.” The Servants gasped. “Yes. I shall walk amongst them and lead them forth to final victory. All shall be as I command.”
“All for the Godking!” shouted the men and women in fire-red robes. They fell back onto the ground, prostrating themselves once more. “All for the Godking!”
Behind them, Sikandar mumbled the words as well, keeping his eyes upon the floor. Upon the throne, the Godking sat silent, letting their adoration wash over him.
Once the audience was finished and his subjects dismissed, the Godking returned to his chambers. Walking through the atrium, he took a glass on a platter extended by a slave with bowed head. A flicker of his hand sent them all from the room, leaving him alone to remove his mask. He emptied the glass with its concoction of wine and vinegar, in which a pearl had been dissolved.
“Enter. What do you have to report?”
A shadow warrior crept inside from the corridor. “Master, the dragonborn escaped along with the Blade of Ruin.”
The Godking’s hand slowly squeezed the glass until it broke into pieces. As he unclenched his fist, the shards fell to the ground without a trace of blood. “Was nothing gained?”
“Master, he was wounded. We have tasted his blood and strengthened the scent. We will continue the search.”
The shadow bowed his head and walked backwards out of the room, ensuring that his masked face was turned towards the Godking at all times. Paying the shadow no further heed, the ruler of the outlanders ventured further into his chambers.
Most of his rooms were luxurious beyond measure. Thick carpets made the floors soft and the walls warm; every piece of furniture was carved with utmost skill from wood imported from the eastern realms. Silk was the predominant choice of fabric, found in such quantity that it would make for a king’s ransom. But one chamber had none of these luxuries.
The walls and floor were bare, showing stonework. It held neither soft beds nor chairs, only tables and shelves. As the Godking entered, his naked face surveyed the room. The shelves held many jars and flacons, containing unmarked powders and liquids; some had books written in mystical script as the last remnant of otherwise long-forgotten lore. On the table stood peculiar instruments and objects, and knives of strange design lay upon it. The floor in the middle was free of furniture, having strange runes written upon the stone; in between were metal rings and shackles. Currently, they held a boy, no more than fifteen years old. His torso was stripped naked, and his eyes were blindfolded; enough of his face remained visible to reveal an expression of abject terror.
Ignoring the boy, the Godking walked over to a shelf hanging over a table. From the former, he picked out several flasks, placing them on the table. From the latter, he picked up a curved dagger and turned around to face his prisoner.