“You’re not the man you were. What have they done to you in that temple of ghouls?”
Set in the cold heights of Middenheim in winter, James Wallis’ short story The Dead Among Us is a bleak tale of death and dark magic in the Warhammer Old World. When the murder of an anonymous woman draws his attention, the man who was Dieter Brossmann – once a wealthy man, now a black-clad priest of Morr – sets out to discover her identity but finds himself facing something dark and insidious. Troubled by his past and determined to walk a grim, lonely path, he’s well placed to uncover the truth behind what’s happening in the City of the White Wolf.
Told in the dour first person voice of our protagonist priest this is dark right from the off, as befits a servant of the god of death. He’s a cold, driven character, but is instantly interesting by virtue of his matter of fact manner and an intriguingly bleak backstory. Wallis paints a frosty, shadowed picture of Middenheim’s fringes and the life of a priest of Morr, a tone that perfectly conveys the suitable chill for this cold story, right up until our priest’s blood is fired in the heat of the finale. It’s pretty grim stuff, but powerful and enjoyable.
In comparison with the first Warhammer story I covered for Forgotten Texts, Andy Jones’ Grunsonn’s Marauders, this is definitely the other end of the spectrum – there’s no light sense of humour here, just a grim sense of duty to the god of death. That’s not to say it’s a drag, not at all – just don’t expect a cheerful story! James Wallis may not be a familiar name to Black Library fans these days, but on the basis of this he definitely had a handle on how to write a Warhammer story. As you’ll see by the end of this article, he was once in good company, Black Library-wise.
As always, the question now is: how does this story fit in with Warhammer today? Very well, is the answer…at least, very well with old Warhammer.
The bleak, dark tone, the description of Middenheim, the conflict between two powers of death, it’s all as appropriate to the setting now as it was when it was written twenty years ago. The Old World’s pantheon of deities was always a strong point, and Morr fits the grim tone of Warhammer perfectly. While we’ve mostly seen his servants as ancillary characters in other stories, this story proves that a priest of Morr makes an excellent protagonist, with an intriguing mixture of brains, magic and grit.
The only thing a little less contemporary is the investigative style of the story, as over the years Warhammer fiction has veered away from this sort of small-scale story to focus more on big battles, named characters and epic quests. Age of Sigmar (so far) has continued, arguably even extended that move, focusing on huge hosts of warriors and grand, sweeping actions, so we’ve not seen much in the way of low key, human stories.
That being said, we’re now starting to see some deeper exploration of the Mortal Realms, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see further stories featuring inquisitive priests or similar characters. Swap the setting of Middenheim for the back streets of one of the new human cities, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine this in the Age of Sigmar world below the veneer of high fantasy inhabited by the Stormcast Eternals and their ilk.
So overall, I’d say this story holds up remarkably well considering how long ago it was written. There’s nothing obvious that gives it away – if the Old World hadn’t bitten the dust then this would have fitted in nicely, barring the smaller than usual scale. Once we’ve seen a bit more of the Mortal Realms, then I think there’s a good chance we’ll see stories that feel similar in style and tone to this one.
If you want to get hold of this and check it out for yourself though, how should you go about finding it? Well like many of the other stories I’m covering here, this was first published in Inferno! Magazine – in this case issue 5 back in 1998. It was then republished in the classic Hammers of Ulric in 2000, which for those who haven’t read it is an unusual novel-slash-anthology in which various short stories by Dan Abnett, Nik Vincent and James Wallis combine to form an overall narrative arc. Happily, while physical copies of this book are firmly in the realm of online marketplaces or second hand shops, it’s still available as an ebook from either Black Library direct or from iBooks. A trifling £6.99 will get you 300+ pages of nostalgic Warhammer fiction…it’s worth it if you fancy some classic Old World stories!
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of Forgotten Texts. If there are any classic Black Library stories that you would like to put forward for a review, please do let me know, and likewise if you’ve got any comments or feedback. Next week it’s going to be back to the grim darkness of the far future…