Chapter IV: The Shadow of God’s Hand
An explosion engulfs my feet and sends me flying into the trees behind me. Another fireball flies from the brush ahead and explodes in the treetops. Fire melts the snow away in an instant and begins to leap from leaf to branch. Ash and powdered snow fill the air. Our adversaries still lurk in the shadows.
Vahnikopa and Gailyn jump in different directions, avoiding the blast of flames. Jeth clumsily leaps forward to the avoid the explosion, but now he lays belly down in the cold snow, waiting for the enemy to attack.
In the distance brush, a mage glows in the dark, readying another spell to toss. In the trees to my right, I see a half-elf with a bow eyeing Gailyn. Finally, from our flanks, two humans rush forward with swords.
Jeth reacts first by filling the air with a boisterous song. Of all the time to blow a tune, he chooses the midst of the melee to do so. The melody of his tune dances around in the frozen night air. My fatigue fades, and my senses sharpen. I feel an odd sensation; the feeling of life around me swirls around on my skin. This song goes beyond any mortal song I ever heard before; it’s impossible for any normal person to possess such a musical talent unless he’s able to imbue magic into his music.
Vahnikopa crosses one of the men rushing forward. He holds his sword in his right hand while he mutters a prayer into his left.
“May Bilehwit grant me the power of Her Divine Mercy!” He swings his sword forward.
Vahnikopa’s sword glimmers with divine energy, and a chromatic aberration surrounds its holy edges. Vahnikopa, an exemplar of mercy, only bestows Bilehwit’s will on his sword when fighting against other Eordcynns. He believes beings capable of free will and thought might have an ounce of morality within them, unlike unintelligent monsters.
The half-orc swings his holy blade across the neck of the bandit. The cut slices through without a drop of blood. The bandit’s head falls off like a plucked grape and rolls into the snow. The manling’s head, it smiles wide with a face of ecstasy—a death worth enjoying. I do not understand Bilehwit’s doctrines of Her particular set of mercies but making death a euphoric release makes a mockery of the struggle of life.
I shuffle to the nearby tree where branch-swinging half-elf waits. The half-elf notices an arrow and aims at Gailyn, expecting a perfect killshot. I smash the side of the tree with Karog, shaking the tree and knocking the nimble bandit to the ground. The half-elf struggles on the ground to get back up on her feet; however, her lack of motivation doesn’t stir her legs fast enough. I smash the half-elf’s skull in with Gorak. Her skull, blood, and brain splatter across the pure snow. My hammers know no mercy to those who try to fell me.
The wizard hiding the trees from afar glows in the shadows, beginning an incantation. Gailyn stands to her feet, shaken and distraught. Her eyes glaze over the battlefield as she clumsily grabs her bow. Her stance, her breath, her wavering heart! Her claims of the spectre still haunts her now.
“Gailyn!” I point at the conjurer in the bushes. “Watch out for the spellflinger!”
Near Gailyn, a trunk of the tree glows in a bizarre, hazy pattern. The sudden wisp of the air changes the flow of battle. The tree explodes into a thousand shards, spraying splinters all over Gailyn. She falls on her face and into the snow. Her body limps and struggles against the fresh powder, but she rolls onto her back with harsh breath.
Jeth steps forward with a crossbow in his right hand while he continues to play his flute with the left. His performance and confidence never lull in the moment while he expertly aims the hand crossbow. He shoots down the wizard in the brushes. The spellflinger stumbles out of the brush with the bolt protruding out of the manling’s neck. He collapses and bleeds out on the snow.
The last the rushing bandit closes in on the prone Gailyn. She struggles to get to her feet and fumbles with her bow. Her hand shoots left and right, searching for her quiver and arrows. The bandit stands over her with his sword primed for a coup de grace.
Vahnikopa stands too far for him to react. Jeth loads another bolt into his hand crossbow, yet his reload lacks any speed. I stand a greater distance from the assailant than Vahnikopa. No other time than right now to perform the ritual.
FORGE A NEW TRUTH
“Cover your eyes,” Vahnikopa shouts at Gailyn and Jeth.
I raise Gorak in front of me to signal the world. The hammer swings behind my head, and the head radiates a scarlet spectrum. The intensity grows to a magnificent eye-aching light—stronger than any star in the sky. Crashing gusts of cold air snap back and forth. The sound of it becomes deafening. The center of the swirling, chaotic energy tears through the perception of reality.
The hole in the truth reveals itself, and the space around the hammer's head ceases to exist. The whipping wind crashes against the non-existent head, and it releases a scream more horrifying than any dragon. The feeling of hot numbness writhes in the veins of my left arm. My fingers pulsate with the cosmic nothingness coming through, and I finally swing the hammer down onto the streak of land before me.
The crash of the hammer creates a deafening silencing—a constant ringing in the ears. The ground cracks, molds, and shifts before me, and beneath the feet of the bandit, spikes of rock shoot through the snow and into the legs, groin, and pelvis of the ne’er-do-well. His body agonizes from the protruding earth and goes limp. His skin and muscles rip away from his bones as he falls over.
Stress and gore fill Gailyn’s eyes, and she shrieks in mumbling, incoherent terror. Every bandit here lays dead, but compared to the clean work of Vahnikopa, my kills would turn any stomach.
“Gailyn, are you okay?” I run up to her.
The splinters embed all over Gailyn’s body. Although magical creations, the splinters are rough and jagged, perhaps purposely imperfect. I wave over Vahnikopa, so he may bless Gailyn’s wounds.
Vahnikopa nods and comes over. He scrutinizes the wounds.
“We’ll need to remove all of these.” He points at near three dozen wooden splinters. “She may also need some salve to prevent a possible infection. Bilehwit’s miracles only close the wound but not the fight any disease.”
We pull out every last splinter on her body before Vahnikopa starts praying. I retrieve my backpack and pull out some old herbs I gathered before coming to this forsaken continent. Unfortunately, I have only have enough for her now and no more for later: our last batch. I grind the herbs into a paste in a mortar. With a brush, I dab a bit into each of her multiple wounds. Finally, Vahnikopa finishes his prayers, and his hands glow. He waves them over the wounds. Her blood glows with a soft, blue light.
She wakes in agonizing spasms, writhing and rolling in the snow. Her eyes bulge open. She crawls to her hands and feet. Her eyes bile out an extreme disgust. Her hands claw onto my beard to lift herself up.
“Did you have to do it like that?” She softly speaks.
She vomits into the snow. The smell of fresh blood covering the snow and earth mixes with the supernatural scent from the torn realities. It’s unnatural in all ways, yet Jeth seems unaffected by the smell—I’m impressed by his strong vigor. Vahnikopa seems not to care for the smell, but he’s strong enough to hold his stomach in.
“Ye’ll be fine, lass.” I pick Gailyn up, so she can stand on her feet. “Ye tend to get use to it over time.”
“Are you serious, dwarf?” She covers her speckled mouth. “I don’t know how you can carelessly kill other Eordcynns like they were monsters.”
“Define monster. We were here minding our own time, and they decided we were easy targets.”
I walk over the battlefield. The cleanest kill, decapitation by merciful Vahnikopa, seems to be the most grotesque to me. The head, the face of that bandit contorted to pure bliss. Quickly looking over the bodies, they all have some things in common: tight skin around their bones, sunken bellies, and atrophied muscles.
“They’re not monsters, Dwinger.” Gailyn broadens her shoulders.
“Aye, that may true. These bandits were simply desperate. Hungry wolves going for any kill possible.”
“So? We should’ve done something besides…”
“Done what? They could’ve asked nicely. They could’ve worked in the field picking berries back at Stonewater. Desperation is no excuse to attack the innocent.”
“Whatever, Dwarf. You should patch yourself up before daybreak.”
“What do you mean, lass?”
I look at my body, and it finally appears to me for the first time: I should be dead! My flesh had burnt away with my chest muscles exposed in the cold wind. Speckles of burnt flesh and blood cover my beard. I barely feel anything as my clothes, furs and leathers, recoil away from the impact of the fireball. I’m not cold. I’m not hot.
“Greenskin!” I call. “Get me with your miracles.”
He looks at the wounds and the burnt flesh. I did not feel his fingers rubbing against my bare skin. Numbness seeps through my whole body except in my hands where I continue to hold my hammers. I can feel the leather grips between my fingers—this familiar sensation feels better than my own skin.
Vahnikopa’s hands glow, and he waves them over my wounds. Usually when he does this, my injuries seal up in short time, leaving me with a phantom ache. Yet this time, nothing happens!
“What’s wrong?” I look at my unaffected belly. “Don’t go tellin’ me that ye Goddess is sore at me.”
“I don’t know, Dwinger.” He continues in mild confusion. “I never seen anything like this. I feel an unease in your injuries. Maybe the wizard used strange magics to cause something more severe?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I push him away. “Don’t feel a thing anyway. Just need to cover up a bit.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ah, don’t crowd me.”
I wave my concerned allies away while. I search through the backpack and put on some furs to cover myself. Gailyn silently crawls back to her sleeping bag. Vahnikopa looks over the bodies, loots them, and carries them away from the campsite. In all this time, Jeth stares at me with a smile across his young, manling face.
“What ye looking at?” I ask.
“Your hammers, Sir Dwinger.” He points at them.
“Aye, what about them?”
“I never seen anything like that! I never seen such a sight. Oh marvelous! It was beyond anything a thousand lifetimes could see.”
“Dwinger…” Gailyn sits up with resolve in her shoulders. “I never seen that before either. In the few years I travelled with you, I never seen you incant such a powerful spell.”
“Well, let me tell you wee children a tale of me hammers to help ye for bedtime.”
“Don’t be a dick, dwarf.”
“I’m not pointing out ye manling’s mortality. Don’t be bothered by me being at least a century. I’m what ye call a young adult in human time…”
“About the hammers,” Jeth cuts in.
“Right, ye definitely are a bard: eager to hear more stories.”
“Of course, it’s my life’s duty. I travel to hear every tale and learn of every sound. I wish I could live as long as you, for I would adore every second of it, searching for the ultimate song.”
“Ye’ll probably need more than elven years to consume all such knowledge, lad.”
“Maybe. I think it’s possible with a bit more optimism and hard work.”
“Well then! Add this story to yer bonebox.” I scratch my beard. “I made the hammers meself. I was able to imbue magic into the whole of the hammer.”
I finish my tale; however, the young bard seems saddened by the story.
“That’s it?” Jeth frowns.
“Dwarves are usually mush-mouthed when it comes to telling tales, Jeth.” Gailyn rolls onto her side. “Get some sleep.”
“But, but how did it do all of that?”
“Gorak can shift the space and reality around it—to an extent. I can’t transform anything breathing or anything already forged. Also, I can’t do something impossible with it. That rock formation…” I point at the bloodied earth spikes. “…is possible because of pure chaos. It some possibility, the ground could’ve been shaped like that.”
“Wow!” Jeth eyes widen. He holds his flute, fingering the holes like he’s already creating a tune. “I never heard of such a magic before. Is that some form of conjuration?”
“No,” I look at Gailyn. “Get some sleep, lad.”
Gailyn lays on her back, listening in with a good ear on her. She glances at Gorak with weary, tired eyes. She sighs and rolls over. Jeth seeps back to his little spot on the ground. I sit down next to the dead campfire. It’s smoldering embers still breathe beneath the ashes.
The sun comes, and we pack and set out to find the old witch’s hut. Jeth claims to know the area, but only unmarked trails and scarce life lay before the sight. The trees pack tighter together, obscuring the blinding sky. The distant tweet of birds echoes between each branch only leaving a single, forgotten tune behind.
Hours pass of walking through these tight corridors of gnarled wood. In fact, the twigs twist into strange spirals off the branch of the trees. Touching the curled limbs, it emits a strange, pleasant touch, yet the feeling becomes more hostile the longer I hold onto it. I fear the tree may be alive in more ways than I want.
The trees twist and shake in the still air. They struggle in the grounds like worms in the wet earth. Is it hostile intent? Or maybe something else? The smell of smoke lingers in the air, yet it lacks any scent of sap or bark.
“I don’t like this.” Gailyn stops. “I never forget a smell like that.”
The fresh rank of burnt flesh never ceases to be pungent in smell. It’s the smell of a human. It’s fresh, but the source has stopped burning. I signal the others to push forward and find the source.
After several moments going through the dense, strange trees, we find an old hut with a group of men surrounding it. A broad shoulder dwarf sits atop of a white horse. He wears long cloths, silks, and leathers that cover him all over. The colors and manners are most signify a clan dedicated to the faith; however, I don’t recognize the symbol of Geslean, the dwarven God of the Forge, on him. He wears a composite bow on his back and a mace on his side.
The others are all on foot, all humans. They wear simple robes over strong leather armor, most likely acolytes beneath the dwarf. All of them lightly armed with hand crossbows and short swords. Their eyes cross ours. They form around their leader, the dwarf.
“Who are you?” The dwarf speaks up and trots forward on his horse. “Speak up!”
“Ain’t that rude of ye?” I step forward, looking up at him in the eyes. “Asking us who we are without introducing ye self first. Who are ye?”
“Did your clan not teach you to answer a question with a question!? I’ve no time for foolish pleasantries. We’re here in the banner of the inquisition.”
“And does this improper, ill-mannered inquisition have a name? Or even a God?”
“Dwarf,” Gailyn whispers. “What are you doing? Why are you picking a fight—”
“Gailyn,” Vahnikopa interrupts. “Don’t intervene in the talk of dwarves. Trust me.”
“What was that?” The dwarf on the high horse moves closer. “What conspiracy are the four of you cooking up?”
“Don’t ye mind them, I’m right here!” I get in front of the horse. “Why don’t you get off that damn horse and talk to me face-to-face?”
“I don’t talk to little pissants wasting my time.”
“And I ain’t telling you two carts-worth of shit about anything until you get on the ground, dysig!”
“I’ll see it that you’ll open your mouth after I smash it open.”
The inquisitorial dwarf reaches for his mace, but I am faster on the take. I grab Karog with my right hand and swing it straight into his horse. The horse dissipates into a flurry of celestial, diminishing dust. The creature has spent its life as a complete illusion, summoned forth by a celestial call; this dwarf speaks truth as the hand of an inquisition. He falls into an empty mount but easily lands on his feet. The fight is over.
“Fine.” He puts away his mace with a sigh. “I am Gronus Hexsplitter. We are part of the inquisition of Gedwol sent from Eithung.”
“Was that so hard? I’m Dwinger and these is me party: Gailyn, Vahnikopa—the half-orc there—and Jeth.”
“Yeah, now we got the lovey-dovey crap out of the way, mind telling us what happened here?”
“Under the Edict of Heretical Morality, any land under the grand jurisdiction of Eithung is subject to scrutiny by the people of Eithung to ensure the safety of the general populace. The hearby witch was a threat to the safety of the people as the surrounding towns have fears of her harmful witchcraft. You can even see her hex upon the land.”
“We eliminated any harm that can be done by this renegade, Oathless.”
“What was that?”
“Oathless. What’s your clan, dwarf? Where did you get those hammers?”
“I don’t have to tell ye that.”
“I tire of this foolish conversation. Dwinger Oathless, I’ll remember you. When we meet again, hope that it’s not under Gedwol’s scrutiny.”
Gronus huffs through his thin, manicured beard and waves his left hand. A collection of celestial dust forms into a steed, and a quick flash of light reveals the white horse again. He mounts the heavenly creature and commands his underlings to follow. He disappears into the woods heading north, presumably back toward Eithung. We’ll be arriving at the grand metropolis of Tungol soon enough.
“Oh, wow!” Jeth shakes in his pantaloons with some strange manling excitement. “I never seen such intensity! Seeing two rivaling dwarves is something to behold.”
“I swear we had another fight.” Gailyn sighs.
“It is the way of these stout fellows,” Vahnikopa smiles. “Imagine a race of Eordcynns so stubborn, they go to war over simple decorum.”
“Aye, greenskin,” I say. “It’s all about showing yer pride and honor. We don’t take no knee or bow to no one. Every mortal on Tungol is equal, and that means me boot up any arse that talks down to me.”
“I think you’re just an anarchist,” Gailyn retorts.
“I’d give ye the boot up that pretty peach of yers if ye keep acting smarmy. Regardless, we should look to see what happened around here.”
“Well,” Jeth says. “It seems like the acting hand of Gedwol has reigned in on this place. What can we do?”
“They only know how to accuse. As proper adventurers, we do a proper investigation. Nothing as it seems. Look at those trees.”
“The ones with the spiral twigs?”
“Yeah, strange isn’t it? Yet there’s no malevolent force or strange hex. Evil witches curse their lands to expel intruders. Some may shape the land to other desires. Let’s take a look at least, so we may tell the elder back in Stonewater what really happened.”
I go inside the hut while my companions check around the outside. Inside, dead leaves and perpetually frozen snow decorate the walls of the hut. The snow emanates a strange warm sensation into the air, but it’s cold to the touch. Nothing else catches the eye besides a bag full of dried snowberries and herbs, some of which may come in handy for later. Outside, I can hear the clumsy whispers of my companions, but I wouldn’t be a good ranger without keen listening.
“What’s with that whole thing about dwarf…?” Gailyn mutters under her breathe.
“Clans,” Jeth cheerfully murmurs. “Dwarves are separated into clans, which is like a huge family that’s actually a group of little families agreeing to be one big family. And each clan—from what I hear—swears to an oath. When a dwarf swears the oath, they become fully part of the clan—a common goal you might say.”
“Weird, it’s like a collective.”
“One shared by heart, blood, and oath. Clans may differ on details, but each clan has around 300 dwarves, a central homeland, and the oath that they’re known for. That Gronus Hexsplitter is from the Hexsplitter clan—you can only guess what they are sworn to do.”
The little walking grimoire can be both useful and annoying.
Behind the building, the smoldering remains of a female human lay on the ground. By the looks of it, the witch has her arms behind her back tied up. Her feet have been tied as well. Bone fragments embed into the ground beneath the body. The smell of blood is prominent as well, and miniscule stains spread across the snow. She has been tortured, battered, and set ablaze.
“What cruelty,” Vahnikopa holds his hands together. “Gedwol is not a god of mercy I see. I only wish that Her Divine Mercy will touch this poor one along the way.”
“Yea, what a shame.” I shake my head. “But no use crying over it. We should move on. As far as I can tell, this…”
The air suddenly spiked to a heart-aching freeze. It pierced all forms of my fabric. My blood slows down, and my veins contract, suffocating my movements. I swerve around on my feet, yet my companions stare at me with boggled-eye amazement.
“Dwinger,” Gailyn cried. “What’s wrong?”
I stumble forward in a mass of blurred vision. I stare down the blackened skull of the former witch. The ashes crawl around on the earth, pulsating with a strange, obscure life that creeps through the pores of the skull. The jaws of the poor thing articulate before my eyes, and I hear an insufferable litany. A strange, esoteric incantation drones between my ears. Each syllable uttered by the skull throbs in my head worse than any hangover.
My vision deteriorates, and only abstract shapes form around me. The movement of light strangles my eyes. The murmurs of Gailyn, Vahnikopa, and Jeth fade in the distant background while the screeching of the skull continues in my head. I cannot hear the message, but my heart and soul understand it well.
The all too familiar feeling of home engulfs me. The feeling of the earth-born soil beneath me feels me pleasant nostalgia. Where the air smells of fresh rock and mined metals. The long distant feeling calls to me, calls through my veins. Where does this sensation come from? My chest tightens when I try to grab soil beneath my feet. That melancholy memory slips through the cracks of my fingers. The fingertips pulsate and beat right beneath the skin. A strange numbness circulates through my body, and my body refuses to get back on its feet.
I exhale, yet my lungs inflate. I breathe strangling air, and my chest burdens me more than any weight on my back. Blurred yelling and silent motions bombard my shattered senses. Something grabs me. The light smell of orc sweat carries me away from the damning skull, yet the constant brain-aching repose grabs onto me. Behind the half-orc, the hill rises from the snowy ground and touches the tip-top of the trees.
The ill-fated witch may have one last hex before her departure from this world. The hut, her home, sprouts enormous, fowl-like legs, and it tramples upon my companions. The habitable abomination rampages across the clearing, releasing an otherworldly cry. The thing stands tall as any tree, and I doubt any one of us now can take it down.
The constant sounds of my companions shouting and yelling stir through my confused mind. I cannot understand or even listen to what’s going through my ears. The hateful screech of the house reverberates within my head. I try to think on how to drown it out, how to clear my head. All I have left are my anonymous oaths:
Hallowed halls far beneath the lonely grain
Where Truth is forged in obsidian steel
Magic proliferates with cosmic zeal
Absolveth the pain that corrupts my veins
I repeat what I know over and over in my head. To drown out the wailing cries of the malicious, I need to concentrate on what I cannot do now, and what I can do if I survive this.
I wish I could help, but now I can only hope that my companions can help me.