Chapter II: Whispers Beneath the Waters
In the exact moment of approaching danger, instinct tends to kick in, but a good leader knows calculated tactics to keep his dear companions alive. This is not the first nor will it be the last of any ambush while we’re sleeping, but something about this seems off. Normal rouges and rapscallions would at least try to be subtle with their approach like daggers in the dark, but these loud steps climb the stairs like a dinner bell at an orphanage.
“Ambush!” I bellow with strong dwarven lungs; a shout that cracks the window.
As no ordinary wake-up call, Vahnikopa and Gailyn know too well of my robust shouts. Vahnikopa jumps to his feet and readies himself to fight barehanded. Gailyn rolls awake, but her readiness lags. Her eyes refuse to open up as she crawls to her feet, nearly stumbling forward.
Our adversaries dare not to wait for us to play dress up. The door violently flies open. Beyond the doorway, three pairs of eyes creep through the darkness, staring like crouching wolves. The rank smell of bloodlust lingers in the air as hungry eyes stare at us in a single moment. A grotesque hand comes forth, reaching out like a hungry peasant. With its grey skin, black nails, and exposed sinew between the joints, the hand reaches for my beard!
No time for parleys or peaceful negotiations as I take the initiative. I swing Gorak, swatting the hand away. At full force, the hammer disintegrates the arm of one of the attackers, and I mean that: the arm dissipates like ashes in the air. Gorak softly glows with arcane strength and surges with soft power to ready itself for the next attack.
Vahnikopa jumps forward with his raw, orcish brutality, bearing fang and fist. More gnarled hands reach out from beyond the door, grabbing the half-orc’s limbs and neck. Vahnikopa chomps down with his teeth and fangs onto the appendage grabbing onto his neck. He rips the hand away, chewing through the fleshy ash swirling around the in the air. He continues his oral onslaught onto every other otherworldly hand.
Gailyn raises her left hand and a ball of magical light springs forth from her grip, yet the magical light does not penetrate the shadows. This creature, this monstrosity absorbs the light around us: a supernatural force. Its evil reaches out. The air becomes heavy like stones filling the lungs!
I break Vahnikopa free from the monster’s grasp. We retreat back, hoping to stay far from its unnerving reach.
“What do ye want with us?” I point Gorak again at the insatiable hunger.
It does not respond, but it becomes apparent why.
“Dwinger!” Gailyn shouts from the window. “Where are we?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Dwinger...” Vahnikopa puts his hand on my shoulder. “Look.”
I look at the window with great suspicion upon my alleged companions. I’m not one to turn my back against the enemy, but what would enthrall my companions to let go of a fight to gander at some new threat?
The window mimics the doorframe: black and void. No frozen town lies beyond the edges. Gorak slams the window with extreme force, but not a single sound escapes from the impact. In the grip of my hammer, I don’t even feel the feedback from the swing, yet something did make it stop as if compelled.
“Great,” I say, “a pocket dimension?”
“No.” Vahnikopa examines the window with religious observation. “This exceeds any divinity I know!”
Like three rats being scrutinized in a cage, the bleeding eyes of the dark continue to stare at us. Gailyn takes up her bow and quiver for an upcoming battle, but I do the opposite and put Gorak away.
“What are you doing?” Gailyn asks.
I hold Karog in front of me with my left hand and point it at the window.
“Magic, right?” I look at Vahnikopa.
He nods as he calmly dons his armor, prepared for what I’m doing next.
CLOBBER ALL DECEIT
I swing my hammer right at the same spot as before, and the window cracks and shatters in a silent maelstrom. The darkness that surrounded the window oozes out and dribbles down the side of the walls. The shattered egress reveals a desolate town outside with run-down buildings and nary a soul in sight. In the mere hours of the night, the place has transformed into a rural hell where cannibals dine on any unwary traveler.
Cold air creeps into the room and pushes back the miasma around us. The beings hungrily eyeing us from the door take shelter from the real world outside. They did not expect the power of Karog to dispel any magics that may persist in reality.
With a quick leap into the real world, the three of escape the ravenous horror in the inn. The snow beneath us softens our falls, but the cold sticks to us like crawling vermin. The snow almost felt like a burn against our bare skins, yet it’s no time to rub our hands and kiss our wounds. Up above, the hollow window fills with the same leering eyes from the hallway. Those eyes stare and anticipate as we turn our heels.
The skies above dance in chromatic lights with a shining northern star. I lead the group through the desolation towards the only direction that may seem safe, going north. When we’re running through with our lives on our backs, we pass by a single home that catches the eye: dilapidated like any other, but the walls seem smeared with dried blood like a slaughterhouse. From the doorway of the house, we see foggy humanoid step out with its face obscured, but within its chest cavity seems to be a constant streaming gas of rolling chaos. Standing there, his amorphously shifting body strains our eyes.
Then, the monster chases us with remarkable speed. Its legs break into a biomass that propels him forward, jumping forward like a wound-up spring. The body of this creature does not twitch or move like any living or undead thing I’ve ever seen before! It leaps and hops through the snow faster than jack rabbit.
Dwarven stubbornness allows me to resist any gnawing dread that may seep into my bonebox, but trepidation envelops Gailyn’s eyes as she looks back at our quick pursuer. Her legs fumble as she readies her to bow to take a running shot at the creature; however, she doesn’t bother reaching for an arrow. With a quick leap into the air, she spins in a full circle, and in that single moment where she’s facing her target, she pulls back the string of the bow, and crackling energy conjures into the form of an arrow. She lets loose the string, and a desperate magical bolt flies into the creature’s chest. It stops, paralyzed with pulsating energy flowing throughout it. She lands back on the edge of her heels and falls backward in the snow, but her free hand pushes her back onto her feet.
We finally escape the abomination and the rest of the town, so their bloodlust will have to wait for the next poor sods that may try to knock on their door.
“Are we safe?” Gailyn asks.
“Are we ever safe?” Vahnikopa asks.
“Are ye two going to shut up?” I ask. “We don't know who's listening.”
I point northward for us to go further deeper into the woods. We take our moments and get moving through the woods with myself leading the pack as usual. After trekking a good handful of time, we stop to listen for any possible pursuers. A serene blanket covered the area. Only the frozen breath can be heard.
Around us, a pathway opens before us, a dark trail leading deeper into the woods. The trees tower over in a strange curve like vines consuming archways. Beyond the path calls out to me to follow it. A whisper of some kind?
“Where are we?” Gailyn looks around.
“Safety for now, lass.” I keep my ears perked. “Me thinks no one is following. Unnatural creatures they were! Almost got to me bloody stones.”
I precariously laugh, trying to stray away from the creatures of that village. Gailyn thinks otherwise.
“Again, with the genitals. We’re about to die here, and you’re laughing like a Dwarven, drunken loon.”
“That’s a redundant description.” Vahnikopa looks away from me.
“Oh, look the fucking greenskin throwing banter for once! I knew ye two weren’t deceased yet.”
“Whatever.” Gailyn falls to the ground on her ass. “I’m already sick of this place.”
“Adventure is not all about killing weak monsters and collecting pennies from peasants. Hard times lead to good times in the end—most of the time. No manling follows us now, and it looks like this trail here leads north.”
“How do you know if that trail will lead us to safety?”
“I don’t. If I knew the future, I would not be here, would I?”
I march off into the shadowy canopy of the wintery trail. Gailyn and Vahnikopa, probably feeling they have no choice or no care, follow closely behind. As usual, I distance myself a good pace ahead to scout for any dangers; my eyes have trained for the woods, swamps, and caves, spotting anything dangerous in the way. In the old clan, I am the only Dwarf who could transverse the varied terrain outside the mountains.
The trees surrounding us twist in the non-existent wind. Their gnarled forms and blackened bark inch ever closer as we walk down the path. The trail is desolate: no animal, no insect, or even a living leaf. The ground looks like loose snow and soil, yet they feel like solid, carved stone. The feeling makes me feel back at home, wandering through the stone halls; however, I do not feel pride walking upon these nigh-stone floors; instead, dread emanates from everywhere.
My companions follow a good distance behind; they know the formation after all. Paranoia seeps through the dark forest floor, and the dead leaves rattle above, mocking the living. Gailyn keeps her eyes to the floor, unusual for her, as if she’s seeing something I’m not, but I doubt that. Vahnikopa, a pinnacle of a Paladin as ever, strides through like nothing is wrong, despite the previous attacks. I can’t stop thinking about how those villagers have come upon us like horrors from the many layers of hell. What are they thinking? Do they sense something amiss from my leadership after this past year? Previous adventurers I’ve worked with were far more simple-minded than these two.
Can you hear me?
At the moment, I couldn’t ask for better party members. Despite everything that’s happening so far, they still follow me through until we get what we want; although I’m not even sure what those two want in the first place. Goals are the sole motivation of any dwarf, man, orc, or whatever in the realms, yet they do not simply seek the treasures of others, the spirit of exploration, or the title of heroes; in place of a goal, they seek to only follow me in my quest.
After two hours of marching through the dreaded forest, we finally see some sort of optimism, a single house near a lake. As we approach, the dual moons light up the dark skies, clearing any sort of nebulous obstruction. This is not a moment of respite, but rather a haunting image of hopeful melancholy bleeding into our heads. The moons reveal the house in more detail: shattered walls, broken windows, and only a single room revealed. Whatever the case, we may have found a solid place to rest for the night in this uncaring, icy environment.
The little shack stood there next to the damning lake. Getting a full view from the dual moonlight, the lake has a single pier or path stretching toward the middle. A lone tree with ashen bark and stripped branches waits on an island no bigger than a horse carriage. Despite the glowing moons, the water absorbs any form of light. My darkvision works well enough, but I cannot pierce through the surface of the water. I cannot even see a reflection of the moons.
“Lass, get over here.” I keep my eyes on the water.
“What? There’s no here, so we can finally get some rest.” Gailyn walks over.
“What do ye see?”
“I mean… Since ye can cast cantrips, fling a light into the water.”
“Dwinger, there’s no point. Water is dark at night. You dwarves should know-“
“Shut the fuck up, Gailyn. Cast the damn spell.”
I point into at the water. Gailyn steps back and gasps. She raises her hand not to cast a spell, but rather to ready a slap across my bearded face. She knows better than to question my authority. Her hand drops down and away from my face, and Gailyn conjures a speck of light onto a pebble. Tossing the pebble into the black water, the light disappears. It never existed, and now, Gailyn understands the situation.
“I don’t want to be here.” Gailyn steps away from the lake. “That’s Arcane Darkness. No mere light spell nor the sun itself shall penetrate that.”
“I hear ye, but it’s not trying to kill us.”
“I feel an unease.” Vahnikopa steps up from behind. “Blasphemous intent stir in these waters, a cry of the lost and damned, yet an unyielding anger reaches through the chasm of the misguided.”
“What are ye on about? Ye saying this spooky looking lake is going to drown us in our sleep?”
“No, it’s not a living thing. It’s simply unhallowed waters.”
“I’ll keep first watch then to make sure no monsters from the deep come crawling to shore.”
“Is that wise?”
“No, but I don’t want to go back in the woods and wake up missing a piece of me meat.”
“Are you talking about your groin again?” says Gailyn.
“No, lass. Not everything is about me dwarf bludgeon. What’s with you and dicks?”
“What? What’s with me!?”
“Yeah, you. Got phalli squirming around ye head?”
“Shut up!” Gailyn slaps me across my leathery face.
She storms off into the little shack, yet I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. Vahnikopa shakes his head and resigns back to the cabin as well. These two can’t take a good dwarven bant. These situations require some levity or else the average adventurer would succumb the stress of the harsh reality that is survival. The world contains many different strange phenomena; being open-minded to the worst and being above the waters of insanity is the best way to deal with these situations.
I’ve outlived their lifetimes several fold; dwarven folks grow long beards as they experience the world. We see human kingdoms grow and fall in the time it takes us to recover from a hangover, but we’re no immortal beings like some tribes of elves or the sleeping, ancient dragons. I’ve lived long enough to know how to handle the stress of this life of absolute survival: to fight, to falter, and to recover.
I walk into the cabin and see Gailyn cleaning a small patch on the floor with her limited supplies while Vahnikopa meditates in the corner like usual. Gailyn reeks of exhaustion, and I can that through her quivering form. Human women are prone to tiredness and fatigue.
I step back outside to get another good look at the surroundings. It’s cold as the deepest layers of hell, yet a forlorn serenity shapes the shores of the lake and the lone tree in the middle. Curious that thing is. Its ashen bark seems to swim around into the wood; the limbs quiver in the windless night; and the roots pulsate beneath the shallow ground. Is it living?
I step closer to the shores to examine the waters again. Absurd! Faces float to the surface, silently whispering into my ears. I hear the murmurs, yet not the language. I see the mouths move, and the silent words pierce through me. The ghastly faces haunt the ripples in the water. They angrily yell; softly whimper; and desperately plea. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them as they try to lure me into the water. A hypnotic spell compels me closer to the water as if it’s reaching out to me. With my face fingers away from the water, I finally hear the whispers:
“Why did you live?”
What do they mean? Do they know of me? Before I could even respond, I look up to see the gnarled limbs of the ashen tree creeping closer to me. I’m in the middle of the lake! The little walkway to the shore is gone, and I’m surrounded by the black waters. The tree grows bigger around me, and white forest of a single tree appears. Odd, esoteric forms appear around me, hatred and betrayal clawing at me.
“Do you regret?”
A voice in my head? I do not see anything around me, but the voice is different from before.
“Do you know of profanities of heaven?”
Again, it speaks through me; it feels like my own blood is throbbing through my veins every time.
“What do you want of me?” I ask. “I have no quarrel against you, spirit.”
“Do you desire more?”
“I desire nothing from you. Stay away.”
I reach for my hammers, but they’re gone! I feel all around me. The weight of the hammers feels real, but I do not have them on me. What do I do? My equipment phases into intangibility. Where are my hammers!?
The void around me shrinks, yet the branches of the tree grows bigger, consuming me like a cage. Shadowy forms genuflect to the ashen tree, and I’m lifted into a non-existent sky. My heart constricts and pulls me down into the floor of the wooden cage. The branches turn black, and everything slithers away like sand in the wind. A hot forge surges through my throat, and I’m grappled with an unusual, bleak sensation. My heart! It falls out of my mouth and onto the black hole before me. It lays there, pulsating with black ichor oozing out.
“What’s going on? What are ye doing me? I never asked for it!”
“You were betrayed, Dwinger. Betrayed by the one who should never betray. Betrayed by the one who gives absolute promises.”
“What do you mean?”
“Revenge against the holy c̴̗̲̣̗̥̥̟͕̪̞̩͙̤̳͈̺̔͛́̏̽́̀͒̀̈́͝͝͠ų̸̝̼̺͋̑̊͒͊̽͑͆̿͑̒̚͘͝r̴̛͓̙͔͖̰̐͒͊̀̽̈́̿͊́̂̈̃͐͠͠ş̷̛̠̫̠͚͚̗̱̱̙̲̭͋͜͝e̶̬̗̤̅̒̊̀̎͑͠? I offer you supreme Truth.”
“No, I don’t want anything from ye, spirit. Go back to the dead and suck the celestials’ collective cocks.”
My heart flattens into the ground and disappears. My arms begin to freeze, and the flow of my blood stops.
“We want the same thing, Dwinger. Revenge.”
My saliva burns the inside of my mouth, and my tongue grows stiff like bark.
“Might as well kill me then!” I say as my jaws begin to lock.
“You're nothing more than a vessel.”
A shock slithers through my bones. My stomach burns and my blood freezes. I fall to the ground, and the faces from the black waters surround me. They open their mouths like beckoning fish, but a final serene calmness penetrates through all the pain. I hear a faint, familiar chant that fills my head:
Lording evil within the spring of gold
With dripping crimson upon glittering ores
Dark venal ichor from the Gods of yore
Taketh the bold within our banished hold
The world fades, and I slip into the darkness.