Chapter I: The Damned Upon the Shores

    Frigid waters crash into the hull of the ship, sweeping across the deck and grazing the edge of my boots. Manlings scurry around in their furs and flames as they battle the waves of turbulent seas. The ever-circling twin moons pursue one another, leaving little room for the sun to rise in this black, northern brine. The cold air seeps through my blazing veins, not a sensation I like or know. The dense ocean and the icy air erase any form of noticeable life around us.

    After many months of scouring the lands for a good crew and ship, we end up in a seaworthy shit-house. We didn’t have many choices on the matter since we're all just catching moths in our purses; however, ill-fated poverty did not accompany us alone. A stout will, a strong arm, and dexterous digits counter any form of misplaced gold. Always on a never-ending quest of gold or fame; at least, that’s what I’m in this for and for which I created this group. Dwarven leadership and tactical knowledge make me the most obvious and natural leader among the other two.

    Gailyn, a young human woman still budding from adulthood, seems to care less about floating on a stink-heap, but that’s if we get to the other side in one piece. She leans over the gnarled railing from port and stares into the open ocean horizon; oftentimes, she spits off the side with an odd glow in her eyes. Mayhaps it’s ritual of her clan. To her, this whole journey plays as nothing more than a new beginning: a life in a land far from her own. However, I doubt her adolescent human experience will help much in terms of travelling and adventuring. She may be a bit too soft-skinned.

    Still, she seems far more mentally stable than the half-orc holy man, Vahnikopa. He blends into the stiff paneling of the shit-heap with his rigid position and obverses the crew ready to pounce on any evildoers who dare to sneak past a particularly eggy fart; unfortunately for him, I doubt the captain hires scum and villains to man the crew. Despite being the ugly bastard, his demeanor compares to any dead saint. I don't mind his presence—for now—but good, honest companions are rare these days of blind-sided youths and inexperienced cutters.

    I really don't want to outlive another party again: through combat or through time.

    A single year of travels through the slums of Torhaven passes through like a stiff breeze. A good amount for these two, but I’ve been through several of these parties before with me outliving most others. For the lass and greenskin, trust can build easily, yet they hide a vault of secrets of their own. No matter their motivation to desperately get off the lush green lands of Torhaven and the Western World, I find them good in combat and at least witty enough to not die by precarious traps. The past year has grown  nothing more than a sprout as we spent most of our time earning funds for this damnable trip, and despite all the funds, we still need to play guard duty for a bunch of trembling sailors. At least it saves us a few gold pieces here to spend later on the exotic ales that await us.

    “Dwinger! Dwinger, ya fucking dwarf!” The captain, an old, scurvy-ridden human, appears out of nowhere. “There you are. You realize we're about to hit shore, and I don't want to remind you why you're here, got it? I suspect we’re getting close to certain territories.”

    “Understood, manling.” I push him back to get some breathing room. “Getting bored here. Maybe a pirate attack would liven it up around here!”

    “Don't joke about that, dwarf. There's no need to joke about that. I haven’t come into this many years fighting pirates and being reckless.”

    “Who's joking? Don't be worrying about yer precious little dinghy. The group and me, we're ready for any little evil seaman that might be swimming yer way.”

    “You, you shut the fuck up.”

    “Ya a boring one, captain!” I slap him across the back. “Liven up, or else ye be a floating stiff in the waves.”

    “Dwinger, please don't toy with our benefactor.” Gailyn asserts herself between the captain and me. “I do apologize for our brash dwarf making you feel uncomfortable with the situation. Trust us to do our duties, so you shouldn't take the banter personally.”

    “Well,” says the captain, “I suppose that's alright. I just... Well, it's fine. Good day, miss.”

    The captain dismissively nods his head at both of us and walks away.

    “Coward.” Gailyn stomps her right foot. “Dwinger, why did you have to pick this ship and crew out? Being adrift upon a goblin's dung-raft would be more pleasurable than this.”

    “Oh, I'm so sorry yer fucking majesty. Maybe I should've shat out a golden anvil to pay for a trip on a mithril-clad frigate. Suck it up, princess. It's either this or nothing at all, and we both want out of that damned kingdom anyway. I got me hammers. Ye got yer bow. Vahnikopa over there, he’s making friends as usual.”

    An old man, a pilgrim in drab clothes and odd ropes coiling around his limbs, speaks up storm to Vahnikopa. Vahnikopa entertains the man with his holy wisdom while he stares off into the dark seas.

    “We'll be fine.” I beat my chest. “It's too cold for pirating anyway as these manlings would freeze their scrots off from a misty seabreeze.”

    “Again, with the genitalia.” Gailyn rubs her temples. “Whatever, you're right! It could always be worse. It usually is.”

    “Of course, I'm right, lass! Listen to me as I've lived six times more than ye have. Leaves barely had a chance to turn red since the three of us met. Let me wise and strong dwarven beard guide that inexperienced manling mind of yers. Ye have a lot to learn about this cruel world of ours.”

    “Okay, Dwinger.” Gailyn scoffs at my confidence.

    “Gailyn, no time to be doubting me again.”

    “Oh, no, no doubt here. I was just remembering the time those fat kobolds dressed up as dwarven women, beard and all, and—”

    “Ah! Stop right there. There be no need to be speaking about that not-incident. Mistakes will learn you, lass.”

    “Okay.” She sadistically smiles as she got me riled up again. “I suppose I can catch up on my reading…”

    “Yeah, ye do that. Go stick yer nose in some words.”

    All around the ship, nothing stirs in the water nor on the deck. No land waits beyond the horizon, and I know that I'm not the only one shaken from this blasted ship. Dwarves are not made for the sea; I need stone and earth beneath my feet as it’s the only way a dwarf should stand and walk. The fact the captain has shown himself with panic in his eyes seems to tell me that we might be landing soon, and possibly something might happen for once on this dull cruise.

    The Pilgrim finishes chewing Vahnikopa’s ear and turns his attention to the sea. Vahnikopa circles the deck in contemplative prayer. The manling has greyed, cracked, leathery skin. He wears nothing more than a simple shirt and some plain trousers, not something for this extreme, cold weather. He turns to look at me with darkened eyes. His gnarled teeth protrude out to form a smile.

    “Ah, Greetings Master Dwarf.” His voice comes out as soothing sunlight across my cold ears. “What takes you to the Old Continent?”

    “Adventure, nothing more,” I say.

    “Oh, plenty of that anywhere, my brother. I am here to return to the resting site of Ethusigel.”

    “Ah yes, God of Sun and Stars. I assume He grants you warmth despite the rags.”

    “Oh no, Master Dwarf. I am filled with sins of life, so I take penitence, bearing the merciful cold. I come across the seas to take my last steps upon His holy grave where my sins will melt out of my pores.”

    “Damned fool ye are for trusting the worth of a God. They don’t care much for mortals that scamper in their playground.”

    “That’s where faith comes in, for my faith keeps me warm.”

    “No faith here, manling.” I beat my chest. “Only the strength of a Dwarf.”

    He smiles, bearing his gnarled teeth, and walks away to pester the other passengers. I pity the old manling, turning his life to an invisible being who may not even acknowledge the man in all the cosmos. I suppose blind faith can do that.

    Creaking sounds and constant motion of this turbulent tub are lulling me into a melancholic torpor. Another night's rest makes me feel like another wasted day in this short, damning life. The human girl needs more know-how in her bone-box, yet that knowledge disappears forever through the hands of dwarven chronology. However, there's no need for soft hearts and weak resolve. Gailyn knows her strengths and convictions—a conviction strong as dwarven steel!

    I tuck away into the lower deck to rest alongside my companions. The royalty partitions a stack of damp hay for herself while the half-orc and I have to share a fistful of bedding. Not until my last breath will I share any sleeping space with a half-orc. Vahnikopa might be fine man, but his orc stink radiates like every other greenskin. My blood can't handle that.

    The bombardment of crashing water and the sound of rotting, crying wood finally lulls me into a dark slumber.

---

    A sensation in the dark stirs me awake. My companions are still here, but not a single crew member is around. The sound of that lulled into a slumber has now disappeared, and I'm left with an otherworldly dread creeping through my beard. I quietly wake Vahnikopa and Gailyn.

    “What? Are we there?” Vahnikopa springs up like morning wood.

    “No, you stiff.” I help him up. “Something's wrong here. The sound of seas and the chatter of men are gone.”

    “I see.” Vahnikopa grabs his sword and shield and heads above deck without any sort of protection from either blade or frost.

    “Get up.” I pick Gailyn up and stand her up. “Grab your bow.”

    Gailyn and I follow Vahnikopa. Skulking up the deck, the usual sounds of ancient wood beneath our feet is absent. Above deck, the clouds squelch the moon and stars from the sky above, and a thick darkness takes hold of the ship. In a single night, we are upon the shores of land, yet not a single word from our fellow travelers. With not a single twinkle above, I leer around with strong dwarven vision (useful in the dark tunnels of dwarves). If pirates have attacked this ship, they must've also cleaned it with great care and precision as not a single sign of struggle is upon this deck. Gailyn grows restless in the dark and takes out a lantern.

    “Nothing.” Vahnikopa greets us from behind.

    “By the Forge!” I turn on my heel. “Sneaking up on a dwarf like that!? You better well knock that off before I add you to my grievances.”

    “There's no one around. I can't find anyone, but it seems like we crashed ashore.”

    “What!?” Gailyn rushes to the edge of the deck and looks over. “We're finally here! Bless me, Efennes! I'm finally here.”

    “Hold on.” I grab my two hammers. “Why didn't we hear it crash? Don't breathe just yet.”

    “Don't be paranoid—“

    The light of Gailyn's lantern flickers out like a dying wisp. Grotesque shadows slither around Gailyn's neck and mouth. Vahnikopa leaps forward to slice through the pulsating mass around Gailyn's neck. A graceful swing of his radiant longsword cuts through the gloom. Gailyn falls to the floor with an inaudible thud. The obscure attacker engulfs Vahnikopa with another wet, piece of palpitating flesh.

    Before me, the intrinsic black of the night bends around my companions' vitals. Even with keen dwarven vision, the darkness seems to escape through the shadows of the night, and the slithering dangers continue to grow beneath the sandy shores. Sinewless muscles writhe, yet a creeping, pulsating creature continues its unabated attack upon us.

    The sounds of Gailyn's muffled screams are cut out by a low, droning hum piercing my ears. My eyes feel heavy as my darkvision pulls my sight through my cranium. A blacken wall sits right at the rails of the ship. The darkness hides bleeding oculars. Peepers pierce through everything around me and hang over me. Slick, wet tentacles creep from beneath the cracks and orifices of the floor and pop through to grasp at any extremity in range. An orgy of obsidian snakes gathers around my feet to crawl up against my cold, damp skin.

    Vahnikopa sees no despair around him, but only his own brief flicker of waning hope. Holy indignation covets his heart and being as malicious forces try to strangle him, but he holds his sword up high, muttering words of prayer in divine rhetoric. From all that I could see, an aura of radiant faith glows not through him but through the malignant creature surrounding us.

    My vision blurs.

    My heart aches.

    My spirit bolsters.

    I swing Gorak through the treacherous black monster. The creature's gelatinous flesh departs easily from itself through the force of my enchanted bludgeon; however, the meat is durable and malleable, leaving the swing of my hammer landing against the mast. Within the single moment, the sound I hear is the hard splitting of seasoned wood.

    I stumble forward with both my hammers pointing out; although, the reeling, gasping sounds of Gailyn's pain draws me closer. A sudden crack of thunder strikes my head, and I'm blown onto my backside with tremendous violence.

    My vision gains strength through the blur. Gailyn grasps her own neck, but she's alive and breathing. Vahnikopa is slumped over the railing of the deck with no ounce of strength in his body.

    I pull him onto the deck and immediately cover him from the elements.

    “I will... murder that thing's family!” Gailyn stands on her feet.

    “Hold there.” I pick Vahnikopa up. “We need to get off the ship. Let's camp upon the shore with solid earth beneath our weary feet.”

    With careful maneuvers and excellent planning, we all can get to the beach without much hassle. Vahnikopa stirs on his own, but he says nothing when he stands. He follows without a word, but I'm sure we're all tired from these nocturnal escapades.

    Beyond the beach is a dense, frozen forest. In fact, the wood is harder than any stone I know, yet the bark feels like real wood. Not a single tree around the forest has a leaf upon its branches. The woods are quiet. The sound of our breaths clash like swords in the cold air, and the soft crumble of snow beneath our feet angers an avalanche that echoes into the morbid darkness ahead.

    After a short march inward, we decide to make camp in these lonely surroundings. Even in this frozen abyss, I would hope for some nocturnal sign of life: crickets, frogs, squeaking bats, raiding bandits... something! Silent whispers from the trees ensure the oppressive loneliness within our hearts. Burden swells in my chest as I wish something would stalk us, skulk us, or size us for once. This barren silence is broken when Vahnikopa sets up a campfire.

    We are unsure where exactly we are since we are supposed to land in a port within the majestic walls of Eithung. Instead, we are stranded here in these desolate woods, but I guess to some it's at least far from home. Any further encroaching horror may become a blessing. At least, for some... for others.

    The night becomes restless with the three of us. We are cold and abandoned in this strange land. The night sky sits still, hanging above us like a black tapestry. The silence of the night stirs all around us. No matter how hard I peer into the celestial air, I cannot see a single star. None of us could go back to sleep.

    Vahnikopa sits closest to the fire with his head in his chest. He lacks the nefarious aggression that orcs have, and perhaps also an orc's ferocious confidence. Regardless, he should heroically stand for his divine intervention, but I'll leave the half-orc be. He constantly huddles in a forlorn past, blanketing his judgment and actions. Despite whatever skeletons the half-orc may hide, his deity still grants him the divine strength and favors for us. His history is his own as mine is my own, and the Gods judge based on their own sins.

    Gailyn sits further away from the fire than the rest of us. With unraveling thoughts running through her head, she sits only staring at the flames of the fire. Careful perception and close dwarven scrutiny don't distract her from the timeless flames next to us. She seems unaware as I try to peer into her eyes and doesn't look any other way besides the anchor in the blaze.

    The day creeps through the petrified trees as the night left us in a restless murmur amongst ourselves. The unnatural darkness of night slips away, and we are able to see the clear sky above with not a single cloud in sight. I'm not too fond of the atmosphere myself, but this sight brings a humanly intrinsic hope to my voluminous beard, yet an enigmatic dread within my stout heart.

    The three of us steel ourselves and try to find the nearest town. With no clue where we are, we set inland to the east. The previous night's effects seem to be lessening as we march through the cold morning sun. Warmth returns to Gailyn's eyes as she follows five feet behind me. Vahnikopa seems to be the same as ever: lost in his own world.

    The daylight does not serve to enlighten us from the terrible events of last night. The trees are gnarled and grotesque in the full light. The sun in the sky also seems to have no effect on the wildlife around here. No bird has flown above us, nor any vermin has crawled beneath us.

    The snow covers the hard ground, but not a single flake sits upon the trees. The sun on our faces juxtaposes against the unrelenting cold air. Is this place indeed in the Old Continent? Nary a sign of life nor even a sign of normality. An intangible, oppressive force creeps into my bone-box.

    Where is the crew?

    Why are we here?

    If we're dead, why are we still together?

    Time for questions and worry should be beneath my boot-heel as I lead the group into the high noon sun. Looking around the area, I take careful observation of the surrounding woods. I can't find a broken twig (not surprising since it's a stone bludgeon), nor can I even gather traces of animals: no fur, no scat, no tracks...

    I don't know where I'm going, nor do I know what to do next. I have no clue where the city of Eithung is, but I could at least find a plot of civilization, a piece of land to welcome us. Instead, this is horrid landscape with its open skies, stone-wood, and lack of life is bearing down on me. Oftentimes, I think about the days back in the Shimmering Mountains, a place of wondrous ores and rare gems. Here, I'm nothing more than an insect ready to be squashed by these haunting trees.

    My proud observant eyes are nothing here in this land of dead whiteness. Hour after hour of traveling, we're getting nowhere important and no place to rest.

    “Dwinger, do you know where you're going?” Gailyn prods me on the back with her bow. “Or how about you use your Ranger skills to hunt us some food? We don't have any rations or anything to live on.”

    “Manling, I haven't seen a sign of life for the past six hours, or hell, ever since we woke up.”

    “Hell...” Vahnikopa pipes up, “maybe we're already there. One of the many infinite voids of dreadful existence in which we spend all eternity, mustering over our sins and embracing damnation. However, maybe it’s a chance to shine with Bilehwit’s glory upon these abandoned sinners.”

    “Shut up.” I slap Vahnikopa on the back. “There's no need to be gloomy and doom-y all the time, greenskin. That attitude doesn't get ye anywhere, and it certainly won't help us in this predicament. Find yer nutsack or grow a pair.”

    “This is a matter of punishment for what we have done.”

    “Now, ye shut up. This ain't got anything to do with our past, got it? We got on a shitty boat that leads us to ends of the world. Us three, we're survivors and adventurers and proud warriors. A chilly nip on yer face shouldn't be puttin ye down nor should an empty belly. Think warm thoughts and continue on. I'm sure we'll find something.”

    “The divine often have strange ways to test the mortals of our world. What if this is simply a test from the above? Or maybe even a test from the many layers of Hell. You see it too, Ranger: the unnatural state of trees, the sadistic calm of the skies above, the absence of life all around us.”

    “What I'm seeing are two whiners who are afeared of the new land they desperately wanted to get onto. Now yer here, and ye gonna start crying? You, manling and half-manling, listen up: This dwarf knows what he's doing. Trust me wisdom, and we'll be fine.”

    “Yeah,” says Gailyn, “like that time you lead us straight into a kobold pit. Or how about that time you said you knew how to spot traps? Huh, you dirty dwarf.”

    “How else yer gonna gain wisdom, lass? Ye gotta learn from yer failures and bolster yerself with good experience. That's how adventuring works!”

    “Ugh, I don't think you understand what I'm trying to say.”

    “I understand plenty well.” I take out my twin hammers. “This dead forest shouldn't be scaring ye, and it ain't no problem.”

    Gorak slams against a dead, petrified tree. A loud thwack echoes through the barren forest, yet the tree remained still. I try again with Karog this time and use all my strength. To my surprise, the tree disintegrated into metallic dust.

    “Oy, lass.” I point at the dust. “Trees are not so tough. Nothing in these woods will get the best of us!”

    “I see.” Gailyn picks up the dust and examines it. “This tree has an aura of conjuration about it.”

    “Eh? Ye doing cantrips now?”

    “I’m just learning. I always had an interest in arcane arts. I'm not just a simple bow-woman.”

    “I'm starting to understand.” I whack another tree with Karog, and the same result happens. “Me hammer Karog is something I made meself. I designed it to bash in spellflingers' skulls.”

    “Yes, yes, we all heard it, Dwinger. You spent many moons crafting your hammers that you're so proud of.”

    “Pride is a good thing, lass! It shows that you're strong, and everybody knows it!”

    “Look, I want to you take pride in your scouting. Find us a village or something.”

    I put away my hammers and nod at the manling. New land with strange trees all about make it hard to expertly navigate the topography. I've tracked through mountains, deserts, and forests, but this frozen land bears its neonatal snow and frozen soil into my bonebox. How would any other ranger be able to find anything out in this forsaken wilderness?

    I lead the party at half-pace for me to gain my bearings. Again with the damned, unnatural trees around me. They encroach ever closer upon us, surrounding us with unscrupulous intentions. Looking through the queer leaves that have settled on the forest floor, the leaves—this is the first I've noticed—are completely organic unlike the trees: soft, pliable, and orange-brown.

    The intricate designs upon the leaf scatter through the flesh. The veins make criss-cross patterns that I've never seen before: angular, geometrical, and symmetrical. The seams upon the leaves make them seem like a million pieces of the same parchment.

    Staring into the leaf, faint murmurs echo off in the great distance. Hushed tones and whispers creep into my ears, speaking to me and yet not around me. I look at my companions to see them bored and uninterested of ranger's art. And however, the chatter continues within my head, speaking through me. I hear tales that no mere troubadour would know, and something beyond what simple dwarven ears should hear.

    The rush of stampeding hooves and the sound of steel against itself sweeps over me. The sky above darkens all around me with the blue slinking away into a tantalizing twilight. In the distance, I hear a single cry of a battle horn.

    “Dwinger!” Gailyn yells. “Where are you going?”

    “There,” I respond, “going there.”

    “What the hell, dwarf!” Gailyn grabs me from behind and stops me. “It's nighttime already, and we haven't gotten anywhere. No time to mindlessly wander these awful woods.”

    “Of course, but I feel like there's something nearby.”

    “Feel like?”

    “Yeah, yes! Trust me skills and me beard, for I know there's something over there.” I point off into the distance. “A town, a hamlet, a castle; whatever it is, it's nearby.”

    Gailyn follows close behind us as the only one without any way to see in the dark. I'm confident in my skills and know that when life is nearby. The soft sounds of an active, countryside town are unmistakable with thin silence and strong working hands. Despite the endless stone halls found underneath this cold sun, the woods and forests grow in an organic manner. The trees become wood again, and the soft sounds of vermin crawling in the distance. I found frozen pollen smeared across the bark and a handful of naturally dried fruits. Foragers and hunters have marked this area with sharp instruments and accurate shots.

    Through all the grotesque landscape, we see in the distance a small hamlet with torches beaming and people moving. At last, I never thought I would be happy to see such an inconsequential place: a beacon among this bleak forest. The skies cry above as the winds wax in the distance, and the chill creeps through our bodies. The party strides in with low morale and empty stomachs.

    The area is simple enough with wooden huts and frosted windows. No sign of livestock or stables in the area, not even a plowed field in the darkness. Homes here seem fairly warm enough, and even some with immaculate structures and inviting doors. However, these beacons of civility seem queer as the people tell a different story on their faces.

    Peasants here seem to be all simple, quiet humans, yet their eyes speak through with suspicion and disdain. Pales faces in a pale landscape, the people talk into their chest with hushed tones and may even speak in strange tongues. Roads around here have scarcely seen any hooves or wheels. I suspect that we’re the only travelers they have witnessed in a long time. It isn’t hard to find the local inn near the town's center. The Warm Woods as it declares itself is more of an abandoned barn than any establishment of good repute.

    Inside, a handful of locals gather in huddled suspicion, sipping their tankards. The innkeeper looks straight at us with a piercing stare while the patrons stare at the frost growing on the windows.

    “Finally, a modicum of civilization.” Gailyn walks to the bar and aggressively grabs the innkeeper's attention. “Innkeep, innkeep! I need a room—a private room—with warm water drawn for a bath and a hearty meal. How's a whole gold piece for the affair? That should be plenty enough for the whole package.”

    Gailyn puts down a single gold coin, a too good amount for a run-down place. Before the innkeeper could respond, Gailyn grabs an empty table for the party. The innkeeper inquisitively looks at the gold piece before he stares at us like a rotting fish.

    “Us two, we'll get the same thing.” I climb onto a stool and sit. “How much?”

    Before negotiations could begin, Vahnikopa throws in a single gold coin, blindly following Gailyn's poor example of free market negotiations. Oh, woe is me! What fools do I travel with this time that do not even know how to spend their own gold? I’m sure dwarfs aren’t the only ones with a good sense of gold about them.

    “Oh, Forge take them.” I throw in another gold coin. “Since we've been plenty generous, maybe you can tell us a few things: Where are we?”

    The innkeeper slowly counts the three gleaming coins on the counter, not picking them up. He licks his teeth like he's searching for leftovers, and he finally takes the three coins. He gives me the same look as before as he calculates his next action and speech. The man is not the sharpest blade around here.

    “Yeah, this is good.” The innkeeper tightly grips the three coins. “Are you three people visitors?”

    “What do you think, lad? Tell me where we are.”

    “Yes, you are in Orwenes, a small village.” The innkeeper talks in hushed tones and his breath stinks like rotting, purulent flesh.

    “Yeah, I gathered that. Do you know where Eithung is? It’s a huge metropolis on the coast with the five grand towers. Ye might have heard of it.”

    “Eithung?”

    The question perplexes the manling as he enters a deep meditative state. I dare not to waste time on him and go back to find the rest of my party. Gailyn and Vahnikopa are sitting at the table nearby without a pebble’s worth of strength left in them. Manlings and half-manlings don't have the stout heart us dwarves have! We could forge and bend metal to our will through a solid week with enough strength left over to punch open the kegs. Oh, those days of mine are many lives ago.

    “Dwarf, what's the plan?” Vahnikopa lifts his head. “I heard you asking about Eithung.”

    “The folks around here don't have a lot going up in the old bonebox. I'm sure someone around here who hasn't been sniffing cow dung could help us out, but how you lot rest up first.”

    “Yes!” Gailyn shouts, drawing attention to herself. “But I want some mutton. I want some meat. I want a cake too!” She turns to the dead-from-the-neck-up innkeeper. “Innkeep! I'll give you another gold piece if you also get me something sweet.”

    “Lady Gailyn, you should be more courteous to people in different cultures. You tend to boss people around too much.”

    “Oh, hush, Vahn. We're all starving, and I think a gold piece in a place like this would go far.”

    “You misunderstand me, my lady.”

    “Yeah, Gailyn.” I take out my two hammers lay them perfectly parallel on the table. “Pay ye respects to the customs. No point in making enemies quite yet over decorum and all that bollocks.”

    “You surprise me, dwarf.”

    “Aye, ye thinking because I'm a dwarf that I got no manners. I'm well-traveled, much more than you, and we dwarves also have traditions that must be upheld! We don't take these traditions and customs too lightly as the Old Grumblers tell tales of old faiths and gods. They're still around, and you shouldn't go around upsetting the old traditions.”

    “Old gods and old traditions have their place in history, and their motives and machinations are a mystery to us mortals. In that sense, why should we obey these gods if they gain followers through deceit or enigmatic miracles?”

    “Gods are not mortals, for their logic is beyond our comprehension. Don't ye be pondering over it, or else ye will go mad. Ancient gods are not to be trifled with as they be something more than the simple miracles we may see today.”

    “And the gods are mad as well. Godhood may be accomplished through insanity.”

    “What? Gonna try to become a god? I don't think yer deity would like that. Unless ye figured how to bless yerself.”

    “Bilehwit still grants me miracles today. Indeed, she still does with her infinite, pure mercy.”

    “Then I doubt she'd be happy with ye getting godhood. No need for the competition.”

    “Where's the food!” Gailyn repeatedly slaps the table. “Innkeep! How's the food coming along? Is it ready?”

    The innkeeper stands behind the bar and hasn't budged a single step. The empty-headed manling licks his teeth like a wolf staring down a frostbitten rabbit.

    “Innkeeper,” I yell, “ye got any food at all?”

    “Huh? I'm not sure. Cold around these areas and the hunt hasn't been so good.”

    “Then,” I jump out of my seat and stomp to the bar, “why didn't ye tell us? Instead, ye sitting here like a bug-eyed fool. Gonna say something?”

    The innkeeper stares at me as if there's nothing wrong here. In fact, the locals here all seem to be ignorant of the situation. I jump onto the bar to get a good eye level on the innkeeper.

    “Say something!” I raise my fist.

    The man doesn't flinch. He only continues to stare at me with his eyes, and I stare back for the first time: glossy-grey eyes with blood-red pupils bursting out. Sweat beads around the back of my neck while my beard quivers.

    “Do you still want the room upstairs?” He smacks his lips.

    “Yeah,” I look out the window to see signs of strife to come, “we'll take the rooms.”

    “Room.”

    People continue their ignorance of us. I grab Karog and Gorak off the table. I signal the others to follow.

    “C'mon. We're resting for the night.”

    “What?” Gailyn protests.

    “Let's go.” Vahnikopa helps Gailyn up.

    We head up single file through the stairs and find ourselves a small little hallway with only two rooms available. Perking my ears, I hear something stirring in the room to my right, so we take the room on the left instead. Inside, the place is nothing more than a moldy mattress, a bucket, and single, rotting wardrobe.

    “We can't stay in here!” Again, the pampered girl protests.

    “Shut up.” I close the door behind us. “We're not staying here long. I'd rather be out there freezing me plums than stay here the night.”

    “You feel it too?” Vahnikopa raises his head.

    “Feel what? The suspicion? The dread in their eyes?”

    “No, they reek of spiritual death, a miasma of tortured souls dwell in this town... or nearby.”

    “Is that... metaphorical? Look here, half-manling, the innkeeper's breath stinks like no other, and these folks are hungry. Ye putting two and two together like I am?”

    Vahnikopa nods.

    “Let's try to hole up here for a bit. Ye two can get some rest. I'll keep watch.”

    “Don't, don't be absurd, Dwinger.” Gailyn's eyes fill with shattered hope.

    “Get some rest. We head out before morning's dawn. Believe in me dwarven spirit, for it'll keep ye safe throughout the night. Hardy and steeled-soul we are!”

    I lay down my two hammers on the floor parallel to each other. Sitting in front of them, I face the doorway and keep a keen eye on it.

    Gailyn claims the floor with a bedroll as the mattress is far beyond any sort of habitable state. Vahnikopa removes his armor and plants himself against the adjacent wall, nodding his head into his chest. I'm left here awake, staring at the door and listening for any sort of trouble.

    Harsh winds knock against the window, yet the roof and building do not sway. Outside, only deep darkness with the flicker of violent snow lay across the land. Staring out into the night, I can make out the forms of people walking around. They shamble out of my vision as if they know that I'm watching.

    My two hammers are in dire need of polishing from these last few awful days. They are made from the same fires and forges of the grand halls of my home. Every surface of these hammers is etched with precision. Runes of my old clan mark each shaft, strengthening them with powers beyond my own comprehension. As twins, they are the same shape and as long as any good sword.

    Perfect hammers need a precise ritual of cleansing. A few drops of Gram's Oil smear across the heads of the two hammers. Karog, made from the dark depths of my mountains, gets first treatment with the oil as its obsidian steel absorbs the light in the room. Gorak, the twin hammer, polishes up well with its steel mirror sheen. Beneath my breath, I chant:

        Bloodied shadows deep within earthen halls

        Where Truth is forged in obsidian steel

        Magic proliferates with cosmic zeal

        Forgiveth my fall fighting through dire thralls

    Karog and Gorak hum alongside my chanting, and the heads of both hammers resonate in harmony. Careful time and effort must be put forward to correctly and perfectly polish these hammers. The harmonious sound calms my nerves and sends me into a feeling of peace. Oftentimes, I can hear the faint murmurs and clatters of the grand drinking halls of my home or the soothing sounds of twisting iron.

    Upon each pass of the cloth, the runes carved into the mithril shaft of Gorak radiate a soft, enlightening glow. The solid dwarven steel head reflects back the smallest flicker of light. On the other hand, the obsidian steel shaft of Karog seems invisible in the dark, yet the runes glow the same—like the twins that they are. Exotic metals are great for building a mighty hammer, but sturdy dwarven steel sits at the heads, commanding power and using imbued strength.

    The night turns silent when the hum of the hammers stops, and the hairs of my beard twitch on end. The tug of hostility covers my face, and the twins are ready to resonate against any danger. Outside the door, the creeping sound of muddled steps echoes, and the merciless thirst of hunger fills the room. The air grows thick as my breathing ceases, for the taste of unholy blood slinks into my mouth. My companions absently sleep for the imminent jeopardy, and I'm left with a single moment.

    I grab my hammers.