The Darkness Between
Dwarf cleric of Erathis. Turn-ons: long walks on the beach, adventure, elf girls, smashing things with his mordenkrad. Turn-offs: mining, giant spiders, his very large family.
Most dwarves are born well underground, but Berrock Throckledonk was born in a small tent by a river, a misfortune his family blames for his restless behavior. Berrock does not disagree: like the river, he says, he’s been running ever since. That statement is as close as he comes to being poetic or sentimental about anything. His parents were on the way from a human market (his father was then attempting an unsuccessful foray as a merchant) and Berrock, ever impatient, arrived ahead of schedule.
(KORDUN. “Wait. Isn’t that a song?”
BERROCK. “What are you talking about?”
KORDUN. “It is a song! I have heard bards sing it! ‘I was born by the river, in a little tent, and—’ “
BERROCK. “IT IS A FINE SONG. ...and it happens to be true.”)
The fifth of nine brothers in a dwarven family so large he’s given up trying to remember everyone, Berrock will accept some degree of kinship with a stranger if their proposed relationship seems plausible (Insight check). This is not as much of a disadvantage as it seems, because with few exceptions he gets on poorly with his family. He was always the odd one among his siblings: the restless one, the hasty one, the malcontent; like his father, a bit of a dreamer. Everyone else took after Berrock’s ruthlessly practical mother, who never tired of suggesting Berrock go into mining or metalwork or the priesthood of Moradin like any number of his family members had, but Berrock followed his father into one failed venture after another: used weapons (they broke), cart-making (they broke), egg farming (they broke, too, and it turned out that his father was allergic to chickens). Finally, Berrock’s mother had enough, and after the final quarrel Berrock and his father were on their own.
Some years before, Berrock’s cousin Kordun, a fellow restless spirit, had left to seek adventure. His occasional letters home told glorious, thrilling tales, and Berrock and his father had read and reread these letters to each other. Now free of family obligation, they decided that they would seek adventure too. But they would find it on their own; it wouldn’t do to meet up with Kordun and let him boss them around, thinking he was more experienced. A young, impressionable friend of Berrock’s decided to go along, and they equipped themselves and set off for the wilds.
The plan was to prospect at the old fortress of Kroggendurn, built by a dwarven would-be king in ages gone by. When he fell, the fortress, and the mines beneath it, changed hands: it belonged to dwarfs, and ogres, and once to dwarven minions of the giants. Now it sat in a no man’s land; its metals gone, its gold exhausted. But its last possessor had been a mad warlock whose dreams of conquest led him to plumb spells that no man should know. He might have escaped notice, been only a footnote to history, but for one terrible feat: he found a dying dragon, chained it in spells, and ensorcelled it to do his will.
The beast was neither dead nor alive; its ferocity was legendary, and armies fell before the warlock’s might. Finally, a party of heroes led by dwarves from Hammerfast broke into the fortress from below. Desperate, the warlock forced his dragon into the mines to fight them. After a terrifying struggle, the heroes found the weak point in the spells fueling the undead dragon, and attacked those mystic forces rather than the beast itself. The spells twisted, inverted, turned inward on the dragon, which disintegrated.
Into pure residuum.
The residuum, Berrock’s father reasoned, could not all have been collected afterwards. It would have been bound to the rock within the mines. Meaning that even now, wealth untold was waiting to be gathered by some enterprising dwarves who know how to swing a pickaxe. Kroggendurn, now merely a deserted fortress in a wasteland, was seen as cursed, with local powers reluctant to claim it. Wizards proclaimed the degree of magical pollution irreparable, and possibly harmful to life. Berrock, his father, and his friend Terroff were excited by the plan: to them, it seemed, the pickings would be easy, and the greatest threat would come from residuum-warped creatures in the mines. They equipped themselves with prospecting equipment, provisions, and affordable weapons, and set out on the quest, anticipating glorious adventure, some thrills, and a successful return to wealth and glory, after which they could write Kordun a letter and then take him on as a new junior partner.
The reality played out quite differently. The trip to Kroggendurn took place without major incident. On arriving, however, Berrock’s party found they were not alone. The place was crawling with would-be adventurers looking for residuum. The excavations had been ongoing for months, in the worst atmosphere of frontier brutality.
There was no law. The diggers were organized into loose gangs, which claimed sections of turf that waxed and waned with each group’s social power. Often, social power was determined by the handle of a pickaxe. Sometimes, by the other end. The first thing the competitors did, when Berrock’s company introduced themselves, was try to steal their supplies. Berrock and crew quickly realized they would have to ally with a larger group to survive Kroggendurn. Much less make it home. The best thing for them to do, they realized, was to become a small cog in a larger machine.
The largest machine, it seemed, was run by Thorgren Maul. He had claimed his second name himself; it represented not his clan, but his chosen weapon. Thorgren was a shrewd politician who ran his organization carefully. He welcomed the new arrivals, assigned them to a digging crew (Thorgren and his organization received the majority of anything they found) and promptly forgot about them. The work was brutal. The residuum hadn’t just bonded to the rock; it had dispersed into it. This meant tunnelling. Lots of it. Residuum spread strangely, sometimes in veins, sometimes in isolated pockets; some excavators developed systems for identifying promising locations, others tried their hand at magical sensing, others tried for luck. All these methods were only slightly successful. The only way to find residuum at Kroggendurn was to break up huge amounts of rock, bring it to the surface, and process it to remove the residuum bround up. It was like panning for gold, with less hope but the slight possibility of vast rewards. Little residuum had been found at all, and tempers were short. Occasionally, orcish scouts were seen, and all work ceased while the dwarves hid in the tunnels below. Some of the gangs felt the orc scouts should be killed, to eliminate the risk of Kroggendurn’s activity being reported, but others were fearful of the wrath of the orcs. The intergang squabbles grew more and more fierce as the winter came.
The roughest gang was a group known as the Rowdies. They caused the most trouble, and the most fights. They were most in favor of driving back the orcs. Thorgren, for his part, felt that such a venture would be foolhardy: the orcs would surely fall on Kroggendurn en masse. Even if the defenses held, Kroggendurn’s inhabitants would surely starve to death in a seige. The focus should be on the mining: get the residuum, and be off. But the residuum was not proving up to expectations, and the orcs’ outrages continued. And now Drugg, the Rowdies’ leader, had set his sights on Thorgren’s power base: the less residuum there was, the fewer people should be around share it.
Terroff, initially terrified of the Rowdies, was drawn to them and their dreams of orc-fighting, which seemed more glamorous and worthwhile than digging for a few minute specks of residuum that he’d never see any part of. This drove a wedge between him and Berrock, who only continued to look after Terroff because his father made him promise to do it. Meanwhile, the larger tensions rose, and finally came to a head: when a much-needed supply train was attacked and burned, the Rowdies sent out a raiding party and killed the orcs responsible. The others at Kroggendurn knew nothing of the raid until the Rowdies returned, swaggering and bearing severed orc heads.
Thorgren predicted that the Rowdies had doomed them all. But he was wrong: when the orcs tracked the Rowdies to Kroggendurn and retaliated, they sent only a small company. The orcs represented no great power, no major military force ranging the borderlands; they were merely orcish bandits, easily routed by the greater numbers at Kroggendurn. Thorgren’s stock plummeted, and to stave off the Rowdies’ vengeance he agreed to guide Drugg to his best prospects for residuum, effectively turning them over. He even turned over his best crews to help work them; no great comfort for Berrock, Terroff, and Berrock’s father, who were on those crews and who (but for Terroff, who’d gone from horror to admiration) hated and feared the Rowdies. Thorgren urged caution in the excavation, but the Rowdies again pushed ahead. Finally, residuum was being uncovered. Precious little, yes, but more than before, and spirits were on the rise.
And then the mine collapsed.
They were in the dark for seven days. There was air, and foul-tasting water. There was no food. They heard sounds of digging far above, and were confident a rescue was underway. If nothing else, Drugg still wanted the residuum. After the initial panic, the miners banded together, shifted rocks, worked to survive.
On the second day, the tunnel caved in again. Berrock’s father had been working the recovery. He was partially buried. The rocks were too heavy to move. He was alive, and conscious. Berrock stayed beside him.
The second cave-in had opened a hole. It wasn’t a tunnel. Just a hole. It went down, down, seemingly forever, into a vast crevasse in the earth. One of the Rowdies tied a rope around his waist and was lowered into the hole. He went down for two hundred feet. Then he screamed and the rope was pulled out of the miners’ hands. It raced across the floor and out of sight, and it didn’t fall straight down. The Rowdy kept screaming. His screams were high and piercing, and he wasn’t falling. He was coming back up.
The miners forced a boulder across the hole, and guarded the opening with their picks. Nothing happened for a while. Then, finally, the Rowdy on the other side, who had fallen silent, started talking. He sounded perfectly reasonable. He knew everyone’s names. He said he didn’t know what had happened. He said he was scared. He said he was thirsty. He said he wanted water. He asked them to please move the boulder and let him in. He said he was on a ledge just below the opening. The miners had seen the hole when they lowered him. There wasn’t a ledge.
They didn’t move rocks any more, for fear a new cave-in would open another hole.
On the third day, Terroff panicked and screamed for two hours. A Rowdy beat him until he stopped.
The Rowdy in the hole begged for water, and for them to move the boulder, and then he started to cry, and then he made a choked sound, and then he didn’t say anything any more.
On the fourth day, Berrock’s father died.
On the fifth day, the sounds of digging above stopped.
On the sixth day, the miners turned on each other.
Berrock stayed out of it as best he could. He and Terroff hid against the wall while the others fought among themselves. There was no telling who was winning, whether they were working as factions or not; there was only yelling, and the sounds of blows, and every so often a groping hand that Berrock smashed with his pickaxe. Finally, the fighting was done. Berrock didn’t know how many were left alive. Only that there were fewer of them than of the dead.
On the seventh day, Berrock moved the boulder. Terroff pleaded with him not to do it. Berrock pointed out they were going to die anyway, and maybe there would be a way out. The surviving Rowdies agreed and helped him move it. Terroff fought them, fought Berrock. Berrock tried to hold him off while the Rowdies worked. Terroff choked Berrock, who pushed him away. Through the hole. Terroff fell. Berrock didn’t hear him land.
Then they shoved the boulder back over the hole, for fear that whatever had happened before might again.
His last hope gone, Berrock sat beside the body of his father. He didn’t know what to do: he had nothing left. His father was gone. Terroff was gone. They’d been abandoned by those up above, and Berrock suspected he knew why. Thorgren had taken advantage of the collapse to stage a countercoup. The Rowdies might well be all dead, in which case nobody would be coming for them. Nobody in their right mind would dig down here now. He prayed, to each of the gods in turn, that they would save him, let him live, but he honestly didn’t see why they’d do it. If only they would, he prayed, he’d give anything, make any sacrifice.
And then he heard the scraping. He expected a shout from the others, but none of them said anything. They were arguing among themselves. A stone behind him shifted, and he turned and crawled toward it. Someone was on the other side.
In a whispered conversation, Berrock’s suspicions were confirmed. Thorgren had rounded up a small number of loyalists and launched a decapitating strike against the Rowdies. Drugg was dead, along with his lieutenants. Other Rowdies had been driven off. The move was still controversial, though, more so than Thorgren had anticipated when he’d presented the other gangs with this fait accompli. He didn’t dare to let the surviving Rowdies out. Which meant he couldn’t let Berrock out. Not if the Rowdies were still alive. Did Berrock understand?
It was pitch black, and a man could do a lot with a pickaxe. He’d said he’d make any sacrifice to live; it turned out he had to make six of them.
When he was free, he went straight for the well and drank fresh water until he thought he would burst, then ate until he was sick, then ate again. Then he packed his things and left. He didn’t tell anyone he was going, and stayed well clear of the known trails. He didn’t speak to Thorgren before leaving. He didn’t go back to Hammerfast. He didn’t think anyone was following him, but he wanted to be sure. He didn’t know if Thorgren had allies. He was cautious, but not afraid. He had no fear left. He’d left that in the cave, beside his father’s body and the pickaxe. He followed the god who had answered his prayer: not entirely dwarven, perhaps, but fitting, and he wrote a farewell letter to his mother on his way to the monastery where he’d take his first steps to becoming a cleric of Erathis.
Berrock took, and takes, his devotion and his god’s cause very seriously. He’s seen what the lack of civilization can do.