Zântrôm stomped up to the bow of his hull-destroyer the [i]Varvarfaz[/i] and stared out at the sea and cliff before him. They were returning to port after a successful slaving raid an the hold was bursting with captives taken from the villages of Nordland and even the crew of a Cathayan junk they'd lucked upon leaving Marienburg. The captain smiled, thinking about the price he'd get for them on the slave exchange in Uzkulak, a tidy sum even after the lords of the tower took their customs charges. The better part of the voyage was behind them, but even here, a hundred leagues from Uzkulak it paid to be careful. At this point the Sea of Chaos was narrow enough that dark cliffs loomed either side of the ship; Norsca to the west and the Chaos Wastes to the east. Though they looked desolate, Zântrôm knew very well that all manner of beasts lurked in the shadows, waiting to pray on the unwary; chimera, manticore and wyverns all nested in caves high up in the peaks while sea trolls and leviathans made their homes on the sea bed.
He gripped the rail tightly, half wishing for an attack; humans were all well and good, but such creatures fetched a higher price, both in gold and renown. A screech drew his attention, and he turned just in time to see a manticore take flight. Solemnly he watched as it wheeled in the air and glided southwards, away from the ship. He frowned, frustrated that it was now out of his grasp, but any thoughts querying why it would fly away were answered before they were asked by a low rumble from the north. He turned aft ward to see a dark smudge on the horizon indicating a storm brewing. A vicious storm in his expert opinion. Grinding his teeth he stomped back to the aftcastle and when he arrived at the upper sanctum gave a smile of satisfaction that his seasoned crew had already leapt into action. They'd dragged two slaves from the hold and chained them to the floor before the priest's dais. The captain, bowed his head and tilted his hat in respect to the two graven images that hung on the walls wreathed in shadows.
Chanting in an arcane tongue, the priest stepped forwards and drew a bronze dagger from his robes. Spitting syllables that hurt to listen to, he grabbed the first slave, a seven foot tall Nordlander who'd been captured after splitting the skulls of three Dawi with his smith's hammers, by the chin and cut out his tongue, tossing it into a braiser followed by the man's eyes. The slave tried to struggle, but the heavy iron chains bound him too tightly and a swift steel shod kick to the kidneys doubled him over. Though none of the assembled dwarfs held any sympathy for the mailing wretches they enslaved, all of them nonetheless gave a collective wince as the blade cut low for the next offering to be tossed into the flames. With the slave know longer able to fight back, the priest loosed the chains and dragged him up onto the dais and slit his throat, spilling his life blood onto the coals.
With the sacrifice to Hashut finished, the priest sheathed the dagger and still chanting, turned his attention to the sacrifice to Stromfels, the plump merchant that had owed the Cathayan ship they'd captured. At the priest's gesture, a barrel of salt water was brought forth and hefted by two burly sailors. The priest stepped behind the whimpering slave and yanked his head back, forcing his mouth open. The barrel was tilted and the water poured into the slave's mouth. Zântrôm watched silently as the slave slowly drowned, and when the blubbering mess slumped lifeless lay, the priest released him and gestured for him to be taken and thrown overboard. With a nod, Zântrôm raised his hat to the gods' images again and left the sanctum, heading to the bridge to order full steam ahead, hoping yo outrun the storm.
The next three hours were tense, but eventually the wind picked up and the clouds blew westwards towards the Norscan mountains. Settling in his raised command throne he returned his attention to studying the landscape in front of the ship. Eventually the unbroken cliffs gave way to fjords and he watched tensely, waiting for some foolhardy marauder tribe lurking in one to sail out and try to ambush them. Disappointingly all he saw were a few longships returning home; the lands around Uzkulak were barren and lacking in wood and thus the fortress relied on Norscan traders to ship mountain pines to help fuel the furnaces of its industry and outfit the ragtag hobgoblin fleets under its sway. Normally the Dawi Zharr would take what they wanted and enslave the local populace, but the lords of Uzkulak had long ago decided on the mercantile option as the trinkets traded to the Norscans for the wood cost them less than an occupation force enslaving the Norscans and logging the lumber themselves. He was tempted to attack anyway, but he knew if he did then someone in his crew would rat him out for endangering the trade agreement; if he was lucky he'd be flayed alive and his skin stitched into some hobgoblin's sail. If he was unlucky, then he'd be shipped off to the Black Fortress. He suppressed a shudder at the thought.
The ship steamed on and a few hours later they reached the outermost defence of Uzkulak, seventy or so miles north of the fortress, not that non-Dawi Zharr would know that. From this point on, the cliffs harboured concealed watchtowers and weapons platforms. Any attacking fleet would be spotted long before they reached the fortress and warnings would be relayed along tunnel networks to the city. As the attacking fleet passed, the cliff faces, in actuality doors and hatches indistinguishable from real cliff side to any but keen dwarf eyes, would slide aside or towers would rise from the ground of the cliff tops and rocket batteries and magma cannons would unleash a barrage of fire. These concealed emplacements lined the way all the way to the fortress and after ten miles were joined by hidden doors at sea level that concealed hidden passages from which attack craft would issue to take the attackers midsips or even encircle them and cut off their escape route.
Zântrôm passed the time trying to spot them all, but knew even his keen eyes missed some. Eventually the ship reached the next set of defences. At fifty miles from Uzkulak, on either side of the route stood two towering statues of stoic dwarf warriors. The two statues each held aloft a mighty axe and their axes crossed above the gap between them. To an attacker, they looked like mere grandiose statues, erected by a vain and proud race, but in reality they were weapons themselves. If an attacker reached this far, then the statues eyes and mouths would open, revealing cannons; anyone getting closer would find that many of the scales in the statues' armour were actually hatches which would open to allow blunderbusses to open fire; finally, any ship that managed to pass between them would be shocked to find that the arms holding the axes were hinged, and the giant blades would be brought down upon them.
In the past three millennia, only once had an attacker gotten beyond this point, and even then it was largely due to the bulk of Uzkulak's forces being tied up trying to repel a landward attack by a horde of Khornate warriors during the last great Chaos incursion. Since then, the lords of Uzkulak had spent much effort on improving the defences, adding more of the concealed watchtowers and entrances and pouring fortunes into updating the navy. Zântrôm scowled as his ship was forced to let an example of this modernisation pass through the statues. The ship was a low, sleek, wedge shaped prow destroyer and in his opinion didn't have the soul of a four century old girl like his [i]Varvarfaz[/i].
Beyond the statues, the solid cliffs once more gave way to fjords, although these were all under the control of Uzkulak. Many were abandoned, but most contained either a dockyard, dry dock or hobgoblin village, and many of them contained more concealed passages back to the main dockyard at the fortress. From here the going was slower as strict laws governed the movement of ships along the main waterway to avoid collisions, but before long the ship rounded a bend, revealing Uzkulak in all its glory.
The waterway widened out into a large cove, and high atop the rear cliff stood the tower of Uzkulak. During the last great Chaos incursion, the tower had been overrun, it's walls shattered and cast down. When the forces of Chaos had retreated at the end of the war, the displaced clan's of Uzkulak had returned in force and retaken the ruins. Since then they had raised the tower up higher and stronger. It's walls had been built from black granite and then clad in sheets of ivory magically transformed from the bones of mighty beast long dead collected from all over the Zorn Uzkul. At its peek the twelve sided tower widened out, shaped into a four-faced skull, each face gazing in one of the cardinal points and atop them sat the colonnaded rotunda of the Temple of Hashut. Around the tower, hidden from the vie workhorse down in the bay, the tower was shielded by layers of curtain walls and trenches to the south and west and by a river to the east.
The river cascaded down from the tower into the cove in a mighty waterfall which concealed the entrance to the docks of the tunnel that connected Uzkulak to the River Ruin, and from there to Zharr-Naggrund. Either side of the waterfall the cliffs were hollowed out into immense caverns where the main fleet sat at port. The roof of each cavern was supported by many mighty pillars carved from the parts of the cliffs that hadn't been dug out, and each cavern extended back for miles via a network of tunnels.
In front of the port caverns, a stout bulwark stretched from the middle of the eastern cliffs to the centre of the bay where the Thunderblast tower stood. The tower had been one of the earliest defences built at Uzkulak and had served the fortress's inhabitants well in the early centuries after the coming of Hashut. It was an ingenious design, a round tower of six levels, with each level having twelve cannon at evenly spaced points, and each level being built such that it could rotate independently of the others; not only did this allow the defenders to attack multiple directions, but fresh cannon could be brought to bare as the one just fired was reloaded or in the event one were to be destroyed, either by misfire or enemy action. Such was its efficiency that the design had soon been adopted for the tower's landward defences and had even spread to other parts of the Empire.
West of the tower the cove s open, or so it appeared. A second bulwark stretched from the tower to the west cliff, but it was kept lowered. When under attack, it could be raised creating an almost impenetrable barrier to all ships. Zântrôm glanced west to where the hidden bulwark met the cliff and sneered. There stood a small ziggurat, half buried in the cliff side at the mouth of another fjord. Looking down the fjord between the ziggurat and its twin which sat at the other side of the opening he could spy the ships of the lesser races. The fjord housed the Outsiders Quarter, a port where Sartosan buccaneers, Norscan marauders, Arabayan raiders and even Naggarothi corsairs could come to trade slaves and captured goods. Zântrôm didn't trust any of them, but begrudgingly he had to admit they had their uses. Like the lumber traders they could be palmed off with worthless trinkets in exchange for valuable slaves and goods such as Indish spices or Cathayan silks without the risk to Dawi lives and it was said more than a few were spies for the lords of Uzkulak, paid to provide information invaluable to Dawi Zharr raiding parties seeking to attack the various manling lands to the west and south. Still, that cut both ways; anyone willing to sell out their kin for gold would easily take coin from them to return the favour and Zântrôm was sure they were all secretly trying to figure out the fortress's defences for the Dawi Zharr's many enemies.
Shaking his head he turned to his crew and started bellowing orders for them to prepare to dock - they had a valuable haul to unload and he was itching to get them on the sales block as soon as possible; after all, the sooner they sold, the sooner he could set off for a fresh batch.