Chapter 01 - 14th of Thirdmonth, 9995 DK
The mines were dark and lightless, illuminated only by the glowing eyes of the Fell Humans on shift that evening. Their collected eyes flickered like a flock of fireflies as they all blinked periodically while the prisoners gathered. They milled around in the depths, waiting, and allowing the other denizens of the mine to use their eyes as lights in the darkness. When the explosions ripped through the shafts, it threw men about like rag dolls, blinded them, and turned their insides to gory paste. Those that had been forewarned had taken cover and when the fires burned out and they could see, they passed through the choking clouds of rock dust walking about a carpet of bodies. A shrill cry rang out in the darkness, four words only, and they turned the well organized exit into a mad rush of flailing limbs and screaming men.
"The Beast is free!"
The explosion had torn through the deep mines and drawn wardens with great speed, they knew their job certainly. Small arms could be heard, along with the crack of truncheons as they struck unarmored bodies and skulls. What turned the bowels of the hopeful escapees to water was a sound they knew all too well. The clank of rusty chains as they clattered and snapped against wolf-iron walls. The heavy loping gait of rusted steel limbs filled with lead and wolf-iron. The bellowing snarl that was a horrific amalgamation of tearing metal and a hammer striking an anvil. The noise grew closer to the escapees and soon it was joined by the wet noise of split flesh and the sharp snap of shattered bones. When the screams began, they would not stop and they echoed strongly, following the escapees out of the dozen or so tunnels blown into the deep rock of Beltan.
After the Beast stormed through the section of tunnels slaying as he made his way to freedom, two figures crept through the dark and dusty tunnels. The first was Smiling Jack, master of Kusseth's bardic colleges and mastermind of the escape, the second was Laram of Volungshemle. Jack was slight of build and fairly normal looking for a full blooded hell-kin, dark-haired, pale skinned, with raven black hair and an equally black goatee, well groomed despite the lack of proper razors to be found in Beltan. Laram was a Child of Volung and he hunched forward painfully, his seven foot frame fitting only uncomfortably in the tunnels. He gnashed his pointed teeth and wiped itchy grit from his leather brown skin.
"The Beast was the linchpin of your ploy, Jack. A bold move." growled the Child of Volung.
Jack nodded absentmindedly in the dark, "Indeed. Not as bold as you'd think. At one time he owed me fealty and he has suffered in these mines for over two decades. Freeing him from his chains could result in only one thing though, bloodshed and death for the fodder clustered here in this intersection. That said, I believe he took the eastern escape route, we shall take a more westerly one, unless you object."
In the dark of the shattered mine, Laram grew pensive, his black eyes visualizing a battle with the Soulless known as the Beast. His lips split into a hungry grin and his fists clenched in anticipation.
Jack coughed politely to draw Laram's attention and said, "I would remind you that we are unarmed and unarmored, malnourished and weary from an extra shift in the mines that allowed us to be here when the detonations occurred. The Beast has none of these weaknesses, if you find yourself so bored, find another second, I will not wander into the halls of Volungshemle to speak of your death in pointless battle to your father."
Laram came back to himself and said, "I cannot fault your reluctance, to the west then."
The Child of Volung and his Fell Human companion found their way through the dark and left through a western heading tunnel. They were not the only men leaving the mines though. A few dozen stragglers passed through the many holes blown in the earth hoping to steal their freedom. Screams and yells and small arms fire continued to echo in the depths of the mines as the wardens sought to restore order through violence, but many prisoners escaped their grasp in the confusion, for the Beast had cut a swathe of destruction through guards and inmates alike.
The last group of stragglers was a motley collection of four individuals, a scarred Elduman with his head wrapped in bandages, a Fell Human with eye like glowing chips of ice, a fairly nondescript looking Uncout, and an equally plain looking Fell Human. They were dressed in ratty white linen shirts and cast offs they'd looted from guards and prisoners that had fallen to the Beast. The Uncout bore a battered rifle and the rest bore clubs stolen from guards, save for the ruby eyed Elduman. His blade was curved, almost like a cavalry saber from The New Empire, but more elegant and graceful. It was rusted and crude looking, grey hued like it had been forged of wolf-iron, but so battered and abused it looked like a fragile antique left too long on the shelves. He cradled the blade in his arms, one hand holding the hilt and the other sort of slowly running back and forth across the side of the blade. His fingers and palm bled from tiny cuts and his lips moving silently.
They did not speak to one another, grunts and gestures decided which tunnel they would take, an eastern one. They were not living men to one another yet, still not free, still not men, just prisoners beaten down and abused by Beltan
The tunnels were silent and still, save for the faint echoes of battle. They passed quickly, picking through the rubble strewn passage to freedom. They encountered shattered rocks and great rents in the walls, signs of recent violence. Sometimes silver glinted in the dirt around their feet, illuminated by the cold radiance of the Fell Human's eyes. It was the strange whitish silver of refined beltanizine, a metal that was horrendously explosive when exposed to sorcery. It was a revelation of sorts, and illuminated how this escape had been achieved. The guards monitored the beltanizine ore recovery far closer than any other section of the mine, but someone had been able to secret enough away to cause this devastation, more than that, they'd been able to hide a smelter somewhere within the prison to refine the ore.
They continued their silent journey, not marking the time, they'd each been in the mine for over eight years and had long ago learned to ignore the passage of an hour or two without ticking away the seconds. Sunlight loomed ahead of them, causing them to squint. The Elduman pulled the rags wrapping half his face tighter to shield the gemstones that he saw the world through. Their pace quickened despite their weariness, freedom, at least the freedom to breathe air not perpetually stained by the smells of cold rock and blood, was so close at hand. By the time they reached the surface they were jogging.
The sunlight turned the Fell Human's eyes to discs of silver and the Elduman's to glittering rubies. Then they all cringed and squinted as the light of Kusseth's noonday sun bleached everything white while their eyes grew accustomed to its radiance. Even the Elduman paused from stroking his blade to drink in the sun an the freedom. They had escaped Beltan, a hole they'd been chained to breaking rocks and pushing ore carts, a hole that had stained their fingers with red grit from beltanizine and had scarred their bodies with a permanent reminder of their crimes. Then they heard the noises.
It was the squelch of bloodied meat crushed underfoot. The snap of a bone breaking under a heavy metal boot. It was the rusty, squealing whine of a half ton metal creature shifting its weight. It was a bellow that was akin to a block of wolf-iron being torn in twain by a sheet. When their eyes fully cleared, they were face to face with the Beast. It was crouched over a corpse that had once been a Fell Human.
It began pacing back and forth, using all four limbs to walk. It was mostly wolf-iron, its body scarred by weld marks and the mark of pickaxes. It was wide, half again as wide as any of them. Every time it shifted its weight, rust ground away in its joints and fell like dust from it. It was studded with crude spikes, some looked like they came from within its body, while others were crudely welded or bolted onto its metal carapace. Chains still clattered at its legs. It had no fingers on its hands, only wolf-iron talons easily the length of a soldier's blade. It's head was a crude oval of wolf-iron atop a thick neck like a knight's gorget, and its eyes were shadowed dents that looked like they'd been created by a dozen blows from a ball peen hammer. A plate of steel was welded to its forehead with the number 5990852151 etched across the steel, likely the Beasts Kussethian identification tattoo, each of the prisoners had a similar number somewhere on their bodies. It had a mouth of sorts, just a crude steel-fanged mandible. It growled with a noise like metal being twisted by great force and the metal mandible of its mouth shrieked open in a savage grin. The escaped prisoners froze.
The Beast banged a clenched claw against its chest and the other escapees readied their weapons. The Fell Human with the frost colored irises held up his hands, palms toward the Beast.
"Beast, we've no time for battle, we must flee, even now wardens are marshaling and following the tunnels, likely calling in Greycoats to aid with the chase."
The Beast howled, angry and tortured sounding, its mandibles sparked and its blade talons carved furrows in the earth and the ruined remains beneath its feat.
"Not, Beast," it roared. "Not Beast," it bellowed once more. It seemed confused, as if it didn't know what else to say.
The Soulless paced and for the first time they noticed that it had but one voice, whereas Soulless always spoke in echoes, six voices overlapping. The Beast had one voice that spoke clearly, despite sounding tinny and hollow sounding. It paced, seeming confused, its talons clenching and unclenching, its shoulders rolling and its head swinging back and forth and the spikes on its body retracting and springing back out with shrieks of metal on metal.
D'alton, the Fell Human, stepped closer with his hands still outstretched, "Beast is not your name, I understand, then who, who are you?"
It roared and stood on two legs, now almost seven feet tall. It charged towards a scraggly tree nearby and swung its taloned fists at the trunk, splintering the wood with a crash.
"Not know," it roared as it obliterated two more trees, "hazy, foggy, everything loose."
When it said loose it clenched a clawed fist and smashed it against the side of its head.
D'alton eyed the creature, once it had been well built, but the mines of Beltan had been unkind to it. The talon fingers were crude blades bolted and welded to its fists with screws and torch marks. Most of its body was rusted steel and iron welded to a wolf-iron frame, under the dirt and rust and grease D'alton could see that the Beast's body had once mimicked ornate plate mail still worn by the backward knights of The New Empire in the southeast.
The Beast gripped its head with its talons dragging them down the sides of its face, almost as if it was pulling on hair in turmoil. The screech of metal on metal drew D'alton's attention.
"Beast is the name given to you as a slave by the wardens of Beltan and our fellow inmates. If not Beast, then for now we call you Spineplate."
The Soulless paused in its turmoil and cocked its head to the side, the dark dents of its eyes riveting on the chips of ice that were D'alton's.
Its talons absently tapped against the wolf-iron faux gorget that was its neck while it clicked the spikes across its body in and out. It nodded.
"Spineplate. Spineplate...accurate. Spineplate for now until Spineplate remembers lost bits."
D'alton exhaled, feeling his pulse slow and his chilled blood cease its pounding in his ears.
The other Fell Human, called Xein spoke, "Great, let's move. If we're splitting up, we should do so now."
Spineplate shook his head, "Wardens in the area, can take us alone, strength in numbers, strength in brotherhood. Spineplate think we should stay together, find town and stay low till heat dies down."
More or less collectively, the group shrugged. They were poorly armed and dressed like convicts, it might be prudent to stick together. Spineplate was fully armed and armored and even armed guards had been hesitant to reprimand it in the mines, he might be enough deterrent to keep them out of the mines for at least a little while. As a group they combed the area and found their way to a road, roads inevitably leading to border towns where they could hang low for a while. Kusseth was a dry and flat country, mostly devoid of forests and any sort of cover, so they wandered near the road.
As they walked, Spineplate slowed his untiring gait to match D'alton's.
"Spineplate named Spineplate, name?"
"D'alton, D'alton Braun," spoke the Fell Human.
Spineplate nodded and said, "Friend D'alton. Spineplate owe friend D'alton, Spineplate feel chaos ebbing. Spineplate remember, eventually. Spineplate repay friend D'alton."