The Coal Black Plate
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Zanbar Gate


'Simply Walk'

"That guy," rumbled Ludolph, tilting his head at Richter, "is going to be a real problem."
"It'd be worse if we refuse him," said Dieter. "Think of the trouble he could create for us upriver. Anyway, he's not the top of our list of worries." Ludolph growled but didn't disagree.

They eyed the menagerie milling around the riverboat berth; mules, dwarves, women, a werewolf, a witch-hunter, a woodland elf.
"No children at least - and no halflings, thank the gods," groused a passing sailor, voicing a widely-held thought. William cleared his throat as the gangplank was lowered. "Alright," he bellowed. "Let's get this circus moving."

Dragging a makeshift sled through the Grauwerk Forest, four rainsoaked figures made for civilisation. They left behind a bloodsoaked ruin and the still-smouldering pyre of what they hoped had been villainous men. They were burdened with private doubts, as well as pelts, weapons, honey, salt and buried beneath it all, a dark and secret relic that consumed light and inspired gruesome thoughts.

Wary of every traveller on the road, they hurried to Ubersreik. Beneath it's gilt cathedral dome, Dieter and Brother William gave a confessional account of the events at Redclaw to their pastor Father Gunther, but neither he nor the Denfather of Ulric could confidently deal with the relic. Even an entreaty to the dwarven Guilds proved fruitless; Surehammer, crafty old Master Engineer, raised a hoary eyebrow when his industrial chipping hammer sparked ineffectually off the artefact and admitted he was out of his depth. He advised the companions to seek the ancient runecraft of his folk in Karag Azgaraz and beneath an unremarkable shopfront eave on Old Smithy Lane, William, Dieter, Malahan and Ludolph agreed to undertake the journey together. This unspoken acknowledgement of responsibility, uncharacteristic of the times, marked a turning point in Reikland lore and the moment they became friends and heroes.

Despite intending secrecy, word of the quest spreads. By the time preparations were complete, their party had added an uninvited Trollslayer, an unwelcome Zealot, an underprepared dwarven guide and an unsuitable teenage Priestess. They were only spared the company of an unbearable Brettonian cavalier by Dieter's forceful insistence and the merry fellowship - rounded out by two affectionate baggage mules - finally departed more or less on schedule. Readying thick mountain-yak furs against the alpine cold, they depart southwest with the Grey Mountains filling their horizon. With winter on their tails they travel through Schluesselschloss, a fortified ait looming over the churning river. Connected to either bank by drawbridges, it marked the boundary of His Imperial Majesty's Empire. As they cross high above the thundering water, the Sigmarites are halted by border guards and separated from their companions. They are petitioned by the garrison commander to escort her daughter to a nearby convent, but the task would take them off their intended course and they decline. The commander is affronted and questions their faith, forcing Dieter to hastily smooth over the angry words and threats exchanged. Rejoining to the windswept caravan, the adventurers wisely forgo their last chance of bed and a hot meal, urging everyone across the causeway and beyond the comfort of the Empire's borders.


'Durak's Way'

Badgered, over-charged and finally robbed by the burghers of Tallerhof, the adventurers were relieved to depart. Having rebuffed a second attempt to leverage their faith into services - this time by a do-gooder priest - the party had hoped to avoid running foul of the local robber-baron, 'the Stoat'. Nevertheless, all feared his highwaymen would not miss their chance to pillage their baggage wholesale, on the unpatrolled road to Karag Azgaraz. To add to their worries, Nordwander was growing ever more secretive about his guidebook, even while showing involuntary signs of uncertainty.

Dreading an ambush, the travellers drew icy lungfuls of air as they plumbed a ravine and scaled rocks over several days. When the elf appeared one morning signalling danger, they eagerly scaled the cliffs to confront their fears. A short way through the wilderness, a group of rough bowmen sat around a camp. Deciding they couldn't kill on suspicion alone, the adventurers greet the men, who claim to be trappers. They commiserate with the adventurer's experience of being burgled in Tallerhof and advise them to reach Zanbar by dusk. Seeing nothing to cement their mistrust, the heroes let the suspects leave unobstructed. They arrive some time after nightfall, checking the ruin for danger by torchlight. They promptly find it, stumbling across a Giant dozing in the brewery. Knowing such creatures can pulverise barded knights with one swing, the party try to back away - but Irontooth arrives at the worst possible moment. Laughing, hurling rocks and laying about with his axe, the Slayer rouses the beast from it's sleep.

Lurching to it's feet, the Giant's shoulders demolish the roof and walls of the structure, burying the Slayer in rubble. Yelling for everyone to run, William stands alone in the face of it's rampage. Huge fists and feet thunder down around him, but he uncannily dives, dodges and rolls between it's legs to escape. Each time the Giant closes in to splatter the warrior-priest, a whistling arrow stings its' neck or underarm, Malahan driving it back once more. Miraculously, it would never lay a bruise on anyone. One by one, the heroes overcame their fear of it and faced the Giant, combining their efforts to finally kill it. In death, it made for an object of pity; confused, in pain and in the final assessment, something of a runt for it's kind. More tragic still, some distance from the fort they find the mortally wounded Reichardt. The bandits had returned, stealing the baggage-laden mules and piercing the Ulrican with a dozen arrows. As he coughed his last bloody breath, he revealed that the artefact had not been among the stolen goods. Looking around, the stunned adventurers accounted one other of their number missing.


'Ogres'

Richter had vanished during the conflict, returning up the shattered road towards Tallerhof. Convinced he had taken the artefact for himself, Dieter and William prepare to enact extreme sanction upon a member of their own church. Back through the rocky ravine, heavily trampled mud and a ransacked bag at their old campsite point to Richter running into trouble. With a stony expression, the elf notes the alarming size of the assailants' bootprints, but following the trail proves no difficulty. Three belching Ogres lounge around a stream, arguing about the best way to cook their captive. Strung up like a hog among their baggage is Richter, carelessly wedged in with the stolen chest and relic. Expecting to be forced to fight, William and Dieter are surprised when the Ogres happily greet them on approach. They are mercenaries, willing to trade the relics - and Richter - in exchange for the dwarven ale and giant meat at Zanbar. Hefting their cargo, the brutes start off immediately at a terrific pace.

The chase is hard-pressed to match their tempo. By the time they straggle into Zanbar, the Ogres have been feasting on Giant for hours. The brutes also brazenly renege on their deal with the Sigmarites, intent on keeping the loot and eating the zealot unless the two men can lead them to Karak Azgaraz for a further meal of dwarf. For a second time, the adventurers stealthily lay the groundwork for an ambush, but the Ogres break camp before the plan is enacted. With an urgent need for haste, the two huntsmen try and fail to convince the others to either leave behind their heavy packs, or wait in relative safety at the fort. Their refusal would prove a deadly hindrance. Despite a fervent pursuit, the Ogres vastly outpace Nordwander and Irma, forcing Ludolph, Malahan and Irontooth to choose between staying together and aiding the Sigmarites. In the end it is no choice at all, the beast-wizard telling them to ask the wilds for mercy. Near exhausted by the march, the adventurers steal a few minutes of hushed conversation in the hours before dawn. Dieter and William have doggedly maintained the ruse, but Richter threatens to blow the operation in his mounting desperation to be set free. Insisting to the Sigmarites that he absconded with the relic to keep it safe in the event of their deaths, he rages to be released from his bindings. Knowing another day and night's pursuit will weary them beyond use, the adventurers resolve that this time, their trap will assuredly be sprung.

What first the Ogres take for morning birdsong proves to be the whistle of arrows, hailing out of the darkness upon their departure. Bellowing their confusion, the brutes storm about in search of attackers, running headlong into Irontooth. Caught between the Slayer's axe, William's hammer and Dieter's sword, the Ogres waver. Battered with arrows and chains of lightning, their leader scales an overgrown mound to confront Ludolph, but baulks at the wizard's bestial visage. In his moment of hesitation, the Ogre is pierced through the throat by Malahan's arrow, thundering to the ground as his fellows dump their weapons and run. But to the victors' frustration, Richter has once again vanished into the hinterland. Reprising their partnership, the two huntsmen track the runaway through icy forest and snowy veldt, following Ludolph's nose in bloodhound form and trusting the elf's woodcraft. After hours of scaling the frosty mountain, they find the zealot's body, clinging to the cursed axe in frostbitten fingers. Believing to the last that he alone could resolve the quest, he died alone, save whatever final comfort he was granted by his god. Having crisscrossed the same stretch of terrain for several days, the companions grimly return down the now-familiar ravine to the dale where they left Irma and Nordwander, determined to try again for Karak Azgaraz by the conventional road. They arrive to find no sign of dwarf or priestess among the mossy stones.


'Unđź’€'

The scent of iron and parchment leads the companions through the wilderness and back to Tallerhof. Deciding it would be diplomatic to leave the others behind, the Sigmarites return to the Gypsy House in search of their missing followers. Nordwander and Irma indeed await them, but neither is interested in rejoining the journey. Bitter over their abandonment by the slayer, elf and wildling in favour of the quest, they are deaf to apology and extenuation. Though earnest effort is made by Dieter, the dwarf's influence over Irma cannot be shifted. Disappointment is forgotten when Reichardt's killer is spotted in the market square, providing an opportunity to avenge him. The adventurers seek out word on the bandit's comings and goings, tracing him to an underground taproom and confirming the sad loss of their supplies and mules. They teeter on the point of no return when William menaces one of the bandit's associates; it immediately becomes clear that the town is tributary to the criminals. The heroes regretfully lay vengeance aside.

With a new guide, fresh supplies and a determination to be led no further astray, the party resume travel by the safest road. On the first day, they happen upon the site of a greenskin raid, the lone survivor of which is Margaritte, troublesome daughter of the Schluesselschloss commander. Turning aside for a day, they escort her to the DeGrace convent, where she is to receive schooling from Myrmidian battle-sisters. Despite the Abbess' precautions, Dieter is jumped by a novice. Their moonlit roll-in-the-hay would be clownishly reenacted the next night by William and Irontooth, to the delight and entertainment of a White Wolf chapter house common room. During the raucous evening their fellowship is joined by Sir Specht, who believes the ominous chest contains gifts to the Dwarves from the Church of Sigmar. Under gathering clouds, the depart for the garrison of Tequelles, which they hope will be the second-last milestone to Karak Azgaraz.

Torrential rain begins to pour, forcing a miserable day's march over slippery terrain. As they squint through the downpour at the upcoming fort, they are blindsided by a ripping volley of handgun fire. Yelling from prone positions in the mud, they realise they have arrived mid-siege and taken for enemies in the gloom. Miraculously, noone is hit in the salvo and they scramble behind the palisade before the assault can resume. No more than a barricaded ruin, Tequelles is barely being held by overwhelmed state troops - and scarcely a word is exchanged with the haggard commander before Ludolph smells black magic and grave-rot in the wind.


"We ran against a flow of spearmen in bloody disarray. It was all just outlines in the rain, but defenders were dying, speared into the mud in a clash and tangle of polearms. We knew they were ours, 'cause we could hear the screaming. Barrow-wights make hardly a sound. We saw them moving in the storm, ghastly ranks stalking the field of our dead. A hideous gravelight glowed in their skulls, drawing corpses lurching back to their feet like moths in their wake. The glassy-eyed dead; broken weapons still clutched in hand, wounds still dripping and steaming in the cold. That was always the worst of it, and this time was worst of all. We knew it, and not even a good last stand you'd say, with so many fellows in full retreat.

But a shout went up the line, that lads were holding firm and rallying. There was a light shining and we heard a voice like thunder. Word went round that we'd been reinforced, Greatswords from Carroburg, griffin riders or a knightly order some said. Never rightly heard who they were, but we soon reckoned what; salvation. Put steel right back in our courage that voice, as much as the hammer-work he did. A warrior-priest I judged from the look, formed a beachhead against the tide. A tall knight was with him, smashing a path through the foe with his wolf pelt trailing. A wizard there was too, a wild and unsettling sort who wielded lightning like a sword. A dwarf berserker was marked amidst the enemy, shearing limb from limb, and I swear I saw an elf moving quick and quiet on the rooves. And I know, I know - that'd account for all the heroes of Grau's Faerie Tales bar one. But believe me, he was there too; the sinister witch hunter - hat and all - shows up just as the mother of all monsters is illuminated by the storm. Whatever it was, the beast didn't like the sting of volleygun fire. I've no earthly idea where they came from, or how they produced working artillery in the middle of a hurricane. But I swear, I'll thank Sigmar for it every day of my life".

Unattributed account of "the 9th assault on Tequelles", Garrison Archives, year unrecorded.


'R-E-S-P-E-C-H-T'

Despite providential aid from the Reiklanders, the garrison of Tequelles has been ravaged, with many survivors suffering ghoul-sickness. The commander himself is stricken, forced to call for reinforcements and begging the adventurers to carry the letter. The only forces in reach are stationed at Graumark Schloss, one of the many secluded forts of Grey Lady Pass. There dwells Margrave Aschaffenberg, reputedly in exile from his Duchy for conspiring against the Elector Count. Accessible only from the pit of a dead-end valley, the companions are winched up a mountainside to reach the holdfast. As they peer out across the deserted village below, they hear the distant keen of the Banshee for whom the pass in named.

Within the windswept tower, the message-bearers run afoul of the haughty chamberlain. William's temper is kindled when the pompous nobleman bars their access the Margrave, and they conspire to find a way to sidestep him. They soon hear of the Margrave's penchant for public feasts. Refreshing their appearance, the Sigmarites attend that evenings' festivities to reprise their comedic reenactments; the uproar soon draws the attention of the high table. Idly amused, the Margrave proposes further livening up the feast with a duel. Dieter accepts, betting his swords against a horse from the nobleman's stable. Stripped to their shirtsleeves, the duellist are announced with flourish and spark off with a whirring cut and thrust. But momentum soon gathers for the nobleman, an opponent with little to do but hone his swordcraft in exile. Impaled, staunching bloodloss and gloomily surrendering his swords, Dieter is accounted a good sport and awarded the steed anyway.

Having delivered the letter and brightened considerably, the adventurers return to the mountain road for one last day. A golden dusk falls as they crest the summit, setting clouds and cliff-faces agleam. Inspired by the soaring view of mountain, valley, and far green distance, Ludolph assumes the form of an eagle, glimpsing the watchtower of Zak Urbaz and the forested lands of Bretonnia beyond. Stoked by dwarven rangers, the tower's signal fires mark the end of another long march - but not the day's work. The companions are roused by shouts of alarm, startled into action by sharp and sudden bites. They are surrounded by giant vermin, swarmed and savaged as they struggle to find their feet and weapons. Blades are little use against the seething tide of rats, the unavoidable sting of their fangs undoing all attempt at swordplay. Only the pulverising greathammer of Sir Specht clears ground enough for the heroes to regroup, culling a path into the courtyard. There they confront the broodmother, a milk-eyed creature the size of a wagon, erupting from the earth and crashing through the adventurers. But Trollslayer Irontooth brings down his thunderous great-axe, shearing the monster in two in a fountain of gore. Before they can much congratulate their followers on their heroism, William shouts in outrage; a wide-mouthed burrow and distinctive marks in the churned earth mark another successful theft of the accursed chest by their enemies.


'Tunnel Rats'

Sliding down the burrow after the thieving creatures, the adventurers claw and scrape, arm-over-arm. They are swallowed by darkness, filth and lack of air, staggering for hours through a labyrinth of tunnels. Though looking barely less foul than the mud-caked ratmen they pursued, each nursed a candle-flame of courage and duty, continuing the chase beyond reason and expectation. Hope faded as signs of their quarry dwindled. At last, they faced only endless miles of blindness and danger in all directions. Disoriented by echoing sounds in the deep, the encompassing stink, sudden pitfalls and poisonous smog, they allow themselves to be thoughtlessly separated; ambushed by grotesque rat-men, Irontooth holds a tunnel against the tide as Dieter defends his back. William bars a crevice with his shield while Malohan stabs at things half-seen in the gloom. But when the rat-things’ leader is skewered by Ludolph's lightning spear, a sinking realisation of their fellowship's sundering takes hold.

Hours pass without count, until the miraculous echo of picks against stone comes like sunlight breaking through clouds. The ragged company emerge into the lamplight of a dwarven rescue party, taking grateful gulps of fresh air when led to the surface. Expecting the worst for their companions, they arrive at Dalnab Mine to find both witch-hunter and Trollslayer nursing deep wounds, but alive. Hailing their survival, lamenting their separation and despairing at the loss of the chest, the companions earnestly debate their next move. The Sigmarites are prepared to martyr themselves against the rat-men, while the trappers are ready to call off the hunt; meeting in the middle, they begin looking for allies, supplies and information at Zak Urbaz. Instead, they discover Sir Specht, bearing mortal wounds and a warning of oncoming rat-man hordes and their leader, now bearing the Coal Black Plate.


'The Battle of Frugelhorn River'

Overlooking the charred ruins of the rangers lodge, the companions know they have no choice but to split up. Sure that the ratmen are marching unseen towards Dalnab Camp, Irontooth insists on returning to warn his kinsfolk, and bound by their unlikely friendship, the wizard goes with him. Dieter believes the exiled Margrave can be persuaded to send riders to aid them, while William sets out alone to entreat the stronghold of Karak Azgaraz for reinforcements. Aware they may be parting ways for the last time, the heroes wish each other good fortune.

Appearing to relish a near-hopeless defence, the dwarves of Dalnab redouble the walls, collapse the mineshaft and lay clever traps in advance of the enemy. By nightfall, the long-awaited rumbling underfoot begins and scabby ratmen erupt from below. At first they are driven off, as rockfalls and dwarven steel carve into them. The adventurers prove their worth, with Irontooth felling Rat Ogres, Ludolph raising fountains of earth and flesh with his lightning, and the returned William shoring up the weary defenders hour upon hour. But as larger and fouler creatures are brought to bear, many succumb to injury and exhaustion. For two days, the sturdy dwarf storehouses are held against increasingly feral waves of ratmen; at dawn on the third, their full forces are revealed aboveground, a shrieking horde of thousands.

Singing their own funeral dirge, the defenders go grimly out for a final effort - but screeches of dismay break out among the foe and the boom of cannon-fire is heard. A rough chant reaches the survivors’ ears, disbelievingly taken up by the few remaining dwarves as the war-throng of Clan Hammerback marches into view. To the east, the shining knights of House Aschaffenberg thunder onto the field, with Dieter and the Margrave riding in the van. Barred from escape by the Frugelhorn River, the skaven are caught between hammer and anvil; a glorious Imperial cavalry charge on one flank, and immovable clansmen on the other. The heroes are reunited on the battlefield as the fiercest rat-men rally to their black-armoured chieftain. In William’s fist, Sir Specht’s greathammer shines like a beacon, setting fire to the foremost stormvermin. He is hit by a crippling spell, as a horned sorcerer appears wielding a bone staff. Though defending valiantly, William is bloodied by the wall of enemy spears. Seeing his stolen staff, Ludolph breaks formation, wild-shaping and crashing towards the sorcerer. Stormvermin press through the gap, threatening Irontooth and William, but Dieter fires a marksman’s shot from the saddle and cuts the sorcerer from his high position. Redirecting his rampage towards the chieftain, Ludolph is climbed and frenziedly stabbed by an assassin. Suffering a blow from the Chaos Axe as he pulverises the chieftain, he collapses bleeding, his great paw nearly severed. The assassin raises it’s blade a final time, but splatters apart, smote by a resurgent William. Dragging in a bewildered company medic, everyone works frantically to save the wizard’s life until at last, William shoves him aside and staunches the wounds personally. Sitting exhausted in the great lake of blood, the heroes see that Irontooth has given his life to defend them while they worked.

Sunlight broke upon reaping axe and silver spear, and the music of drum and warhorn was drowned out in a storm of threshing hooves. The rat-host howled and broke as the darkness lifted, swept away in terror and dying as wrathful stones smote among them and rich voices sang their victory to the mountains.


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Dieter: Witch-Hunter
William: Warrior-Priest
Ludolph: Beast-Wizard
Malahan: Elf Archer

Reichardt: Brash werewolf [Killed by bandits]
Irontooth: Trollslayer [Died with honour against the Skaven hordes]
Richter: Zealot Witch-Hunter [Death by exposure]
Sir Specht: White Wolf Knight/human panzer [Gutted by Stormvermin]
Freya: Chestnut steed

Ocram: Unseemly Dwarf Miner [Dalnab camp]
Stormbrow: Leader of the Karak Azgaraz retaliation force.
Stefan: Cowardly guide [Vanished]
Irma: Timid teenage priestess [Tallerhof]
Nordwander: Bookish Dwarf [Tallerhof]
Margrave Tobias Aschaffenberg: Exiled nobleman [Graumark Schloss]
Ludwig Commander of Tequelles garrison [Bitten by ghouls]
Margaritte: Bratty spearmaiden [Myrmidian convent]
Hungry Jacques & Omega: Pack mules [Vanished]
Denfather Holst: Priest of Ulric [Ubersreik]
Father Gunther: High Priest of Sigmar [Ubersreik]
Greatmane: Crafty Dwarf Barman [The Hammer and Tongs, Ubersreik]
Surehammer: Head Engineer [Dwarf Engineers Guild, Ubersreik]
Thunderstone Clan: Secretive runesmiths [Karak Azgaraz]
Hammerback Clan: Mining family of Karak Azgaraz
Sir Pierre: Entitled Errant Knight [Location unknown]
Wendel: River Bargeman [The River Reik]
'The Stoat': Robber Baron [The Gypsy House, Tallerhof]

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