Stanor, a priest of Aghrad and Chief Merchant of Kaegharm, sniffed the salty wind coming through the large window above his desk and grimaced in distaste. The window overlooked Kaegharm’s harbor, the chief source of the city’s, and by extension Stanor’s, wealth, and had a view that stretched far out to sea. He shivered and quickly looked back down at his papers. Dwarves were not meant for the sea, in his view, although he kept that view private, for the sea was of vast importance in the war, and was also his source of wealth. Aghrad’s chief command was to prosper and prosper his priesthood did. Stanor alone controlled over five hundred thousand raghar¹ in ships, trading goods, and debts that others owed him. Everyone knew that the priests of Aghrad always collected, in one way or another. Stanor, as Chief Merchant of Kaegharm, was roughly the third-ranking priest in Aghrad’s service, an extremely powerful position, given the amount of wealth Aghrad controlled. His priesthood was the second most powerful among the dwarven people, only falling below Keergard’s, whose popularity and control of technology made it impossible to match in power.
1: Raghar are large gold coins stamped with a ship on one side and a crown on the other, worth almost a lifetime of labor for an untrained manual laborer. They are often called “golden sails”. Even a thousand of them is a vast fortune, so five hundred thousand is a simply enormous sum.
Stanor quickly finished the paperwork he was doing, a commission for three new merchant galleys. Kaegharm’s wealth came almost exclusively from trade, and its excellent natural harbor, in addition to its position, which was almost as far from the war as it was possible to be, meant that it was by far the most wealthy port in the entire dwarven nation. Its position as a hub of commerce that could quickly ship large amounts of material to any point on the coastline made it an extremely important city for dwarven commerce and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. And its wealthiest merchant organization, the local priesthood of Aghrad, was controlled almost exclusively by Stanor, although he did have to report to his only official superior, the high priest of Aghrad. The high priest of Aghrad was technically the most wealthy dwarf in the world, although he was unable to use virtually any of his wealth, given that he needed to maintain, and ideally increase, the wealth of the priesthood before he died. Still, the revenues of the vast amount of wealth controlled by Aghrad’s priests made the high priest, and to a lesser extent, the six Chief Merchants who were the next highest ranking priests in Aghrad’s service, very powerful.
Even though he controlled such a vast amount of wealth, Stanor was worried. The elven fleet was growing more powerful with frightening rapidity and was pushing back the weaker, older ships of the dwarves. And, despite all the wealth that Stanor controlled, “golden sails do not win wars”, as the saying went. A single elven warship could easily destroy his entire merchant fleet, which was completely unarmed, and relied on the dwarven fleet to protect it. Until now, the fleet could always be relied upon to do so, but now the amount of sea that the dwarves controlled was rapidly shrinking. The elves were pushing them back quickly in the south, where Stanor was losing trading partners among the humans. Even though they lived in a desolate desert, many of their products, especially the beautiful glasswork they produced, had generated immense revenues. The loss of those products was a devastating blow. And in the north, elves were already making landings to the rear of the dwarven lines, dealing blows to the war effort that could take a lifetime to recover from. The dwarves were being pushed back at sea in all directions, and the consequences could be devastating. And yet, no one cared. The king was still rejoicing over the victories in Harg², so any attempt to appeal to him for aid would be dismissed, and the Hall of Chieftains³ was useless if one wanted swift action, with the ceaseless infighting dragging out any simple request into a power struggle that seemed endless. The other priests of Aghrad would never allow him to spend money to assist the ailing fleet until it was far too late for his efforts to aid anyone. If this continued, he would have to begin building warships so he could send them with his merchants in convoys. The sheer cost of doing so would be a massive drain on his resources, even discounting the amount of merchandise and number of ships he would lose to elven naval attacks. It wouldn’t happen in his lifetime, but if the elves were allowed to control the sea, the dwarves would be slowly forced inland, and, forced to fight on all sides, and surrounded, would be defeated, a disaster that he could never allow to occur. And while the others in the priesthood of Aghrad would never allow him to spend the money of the priesthood, he did have some influence in certain places. He had made his decision at last. He would go to Marhorn, and speak with those he knew could help.
2: Harg is a massive fortress on the dwarven-elven border. Almost a year before this story takes place, the fortress rebuffed a massive elven attack with minimal damage, an enormous victory.
3: The hall of chieftains is a powerful group in dwarven politics. They can overrule the king on many matters, and even choose what member of the royal family will succeed to the throne when the king dies. The council essentially consists of representatives from the various dwarven noble families. However, despite the power it wields, it is not exactly known for swift action in a crisis, mainly due to both its parliamentary nature and the fact that each member is almost constantly attempting to turn every situation to their advantage.
It took less than a day for Stanor to prepare for his journey. He was usually ready to leave the city at a moment’s notice, although his high position meant that it was seldom required anymore. He would go in a small vehicle, with only two guards. That, at least, was necessitated by his position, although he would have preferred to go alone, directing a vehicle himself. He was, however, able to keep the information that he was leaving a secret, a task made significantly easier by the fact that he rarely allowed himself to be seen in public, preferring to direct his trading company by written messages. It would not be at all strange if he was not seen by anyone he could not trust for a few days, and he had subordinates he could rely upon to direct the actions of his ships and other wealth-gathering ventures for at least that long, provided no major crisis arose, an event that was unlikely to occur. The evening of the day he made his decision to seek help in Marhorn, a small mechanical vehicle left the city, unnoticed by anyone but a few city guards. It contained three people, Stanor and two guards he trusted absolutely, both low-ranking priests of Aghrad who he had known since the three were novices. He had offered both of them advancements after his rapid rise through the ranks of Aghrad, but they had declined, content to remain simple, low-ranking priests, without complex duties or responsibilities. Stanor would be willing to entrust his life to either of them in an instant. He would be alone with the two of them for more than a day in each direction, so in a sense, he was entrusting his life to them. Either would have ample opportunity to kill him over the course of the journey, and he knew there were almost certainly those who wished him dead, mostly merchants who would much rather see a less capable dwarf as Chief Merchant of Kaegharm, a dwarf that they could control or take advantage of. Stanor rarely met other merchants, and he knew that most of them disliked him for that, imagining it as an intended slight. He wished they would realize that the reason he rarely met them personally was that he rarely met anyone he hadn’t known since he was still a novice regularly. He almost never left his apartments, and only rarely gave orders directly, preferring to work through intermediaries and messages. He disliked face to face meetings, as he had never mastered the trick of disguising his emotions, thoughts, and intentions, an essential skill in the verbal battles that so characterized the meetings of merchants. As a result, he was unwilling to conduct important business face to face, where the other party would gain a significant advantage.
Stanor pushed his vehicle to its limits, and he and his two guards arrived in Marhorn, capital of the dwarven nation, home to the royal family and the hall of Chieftains, and the birthplace of the dwarven people, less than a day and a half after he left Kaegharm. The enormous city had originated as a simple village roughly half-way up a mountain, but over its long lifetime, it had grown into a sprawling behemoth, which covered the entire mountain, the valley beneath, and the slopes of the surrounding mountains as well. Vast numbers of tunnels had also been dug into the mountain the city had originally been built on, which increased living space in two ways, both by giving the city additional building materials to supplement those coming in from other places, which were needed in enormous amounts as the city became larger, and living spaces and storehouses inside the mountain itself. The massive artificial caverns and tunnels inside the mountain alone had been estimated to house more than fifty thousand dwarves. With the staggering amount of activity inside the enormous mountain-city, it was easy for Stanor to enter unobtrusively. He left his vehicle in a small cave he knew of a reasonable walk from the city walls and traveled the remaining distance on foot. He and his two guards appeared to be nothing more than travelers, identical to the thousands of others the capital received each day.
Once he and his two guards had entered Marhorn, he quickly navigated his way through the twisting, narrow streets, and it did not take long before the guards could not have found their way out of the city in less than a day. The winding streets all looked identical, every building was made of rough hewn stone blocks and was angular, with sharp corners and a steep roof, and the only landmark that could be seen was the immense bulk of the mountain that rose from the center of the city. It took Stanor almost the rest of the morning to find his way to the house he was looking for. It was nearly identical in appearance to every other one, but he had been there often while still a novice and could have found his way to it blindfolded from nearly any point in the massive city. He knocked softly on the door and waited. It was a long wait until the door opened. An old dwarf with a long, white beard stood on the other side, which led into a plain, low, stone hallway. The bare walls, made of rough-hewn rock, were broken at irregular intervals by thick, oaken doors, and the end was shrouded in darkness. The man nodded slowly, turned, and walked slowly back into the hallway, fading into the darkness.
Stanor waited complacently for a few moments, the door hanging open before him, and then beckoned his guards inside. Both entered, looking around in curiosity at the bare stone walls and the dark hallway. Stanor looked quickly in both directions, as if to ensure that no one was watching, and then darted inside, closing the door quickly but gently behind him. The obviously well-oiled hinges did not make a sound. The only light in the hallway had been the daylight entering through the door, so they were left in total darkness. Both guards tensed, wordlessly moving to block the tunnel so as to prevent anyone from the dark hallway from reaching Stanor. The dwarf they so diligently guarded, however, had turned to face the door, and was skillfully using his four thumbs to manipulate the tiny levers hidden beneath panels in its surface. Stanor flipped a few levers, and a satisfying “thunk” rewarded his efforts. Suddenly, almost immediately after the sound, there was a sudden light, not extremely bright in the absolute sense, but blinding in comparison to the complete darkness that had previously surrounded them. The guards blinked rapidly, their vision clouding with tears at the sudden brightness, and, when their eyesight had cleared, they saw that the light came from two torches, one on either side of the doorway, flickering in sconces that they could have sworn were not present when they entered the hallway. The torches cast flickering, dancing shadows on the walls, but their light did not emanate far enough into the hallway, which seemed more like a tunnel due to its length and slight downwards incline, to reveal its end. Stanor walked quickly down the tunnel, and they turned aside to let him through, before quickly following him, walking almost in lockstep. The guard on the left counted the doors he passed under his breath, “One, two, three, four, five,” and then stopped quickly, almost tripping over Stanor, who had suddenly stopped walking. Stanor had come to a halt in front of the sixth door on the left side of the tunnel. He paused for a moment and then opened the heavy, oaken door slowly and quietly. It came open without a sound, the hinges obviously well-oiled. On the other side was a small room, which contained a small, simple, stone desk, covered with books and paper, and a rough wooden chair, both facing away from the door. Stanor stepped into the room, followed by his guards. The walls of the room had been built so that stone ledges, set at regular heights, protruded from the walls. These ledges held books, a library that probably contained over a thousand volumes. Light was provided by a pair of candles beside the door, perched on rough stone protrusions and fastened in place using dribbles of their own wax. The room contained no ornamentation except the beautiful lettering on the spines of many of the books. In the rough-hewn chair before the desk sat a dwarf. He faced away from them, and was obviously very old. He was small, almost shrunken, and had a long white beard that hung between the legs of the chair, almost reaching the floor. The beard looked enormous, compared to the dwarf’s ancient, wizened legs. His skin looked more like paper than skin.
The ancient slowly stood, with a creaking of labored joints that was painful to the ears. He turned around, very slowly. Stanor smiled, as if seeing an old friend, when the old dwarf’s face was revealed by the light of the candles, but both guards gasped in shock, completely dumbstruck by what they saw.