Shackled. In the ceaseless darkness, Tom saw images of his family’s faces, drifting in and out, as if they came to say hello and check on how he fared in the severe loneliness that kept him company….
A light burned around the corner. The guards prohibited lights inside the dirt cells, and little light drifted their way. Tom heard a commotion going on down toward the entrance out of the wing, a bustle unusual for the silent nights. Normally, every prisoner lay motionless after work. Sleeping hours were too few to be wasted.
The images disappeared while Tom listened to a rumbling voice that traveled his way, accompanied by jangling keys. Always a guard on duty, but they only made a ruckus when a slave tried something sly. Those nights were sleepless. This was different. A lit torch breached his retina, so he threw up an arm to shield his sensitive eyes from the harshness of the beaming light.
“You’ve been summoned to Dwarflord Tirranus’ main chamber,” a guard informed Tom, “he has a surprise for you.” The meter-and-a-quarter figure was now a common sight. Broad-shouldered, stumpy, and taut nearly to the point of being inflexible: a dwarf. The grubby guard shifted his narrow gaze to Tom’s cellmate. “Both of you.” Holding a mighty key ring with hundreds of keys, the guard unlocked the cell door, and indicated with a firm hand that no margin for delay existed.
Instantly, as always in the presence of a single guard, the paramount notion of escape swarmed Tom’s mind, thoughts of combat, concealment, and navigation that would lead away from his tormented existence. The elimination of the guard would be easy enough, and he bet the odds that all the keys he ever needed hung from the guard’s key ring, but there were no known routes to follow, every area lay shrouded in shadow. A slave never got away from under the mountains. He ascertained the only way for a bound man to see trees and skies again dwelled in the hope to be escorted out by a dwarf, and that concept remained unfathomable.
Tom forgot the ideas of absconding and squinted at the man across from him. “After you, Paragon,” he said. No reply came from his cellmate, just quick obedience. Entering the two-way hall, he peered toward the entrance where eleven more guards waited to walk him to his Master. He sighted the fulvous robes of a mage hiding behind a couple of the guards, the choker around his neck glowed like molten gold, his undeniable presence ensuring no disturbances broke out. Taking down twelve well-armored guards would be a feat, but the security of the mage sealed the deal. Not a chance to fight for freedom and come out living.
The two slaves walked the hundred meters to the entrance, passing about fifty slumbering prisoners. Down the opposite way, more than three hundred meters of cells hid in blackness. The trip elapsed in total quiet. The only noise came from rough footsteps, the shifting of armor, and the clinking of tankards fastened by carabiners at the hips of all the dwarves.
The circumstances of the night remained concealed from Tom, and the guards never spoke, except to each other, but even those seldom occurrences were only laconic teasings. The only opportunities to learn revolved around break time in the mines, but even then you had to talk to the right person, and finding someone reliable varied day by day. The shifts in the mines rotated continuously, never the same, always different faces swapping from the compounds of the four other Dwarflords, which made it hard to keep in contact with anyone.
The tunnel system proved to be complicated, as they traveled through five other blocks owned by his Master, but twenty minutes later, Tom crossed under the archway into the well-lit main chamber; a capacious square room with a boiling pool at its center, surrounded by six stark white columns. Sumptuous decorations littered the ground and plastered the walls; marble sculptures of Dwarflords past dominated the setting. His Master reclined at the back of the room, who clambered to his feet, using a marble cane for support.
Only once had Tom been in the main chamber, when he first arrived, and since then time removed itself, always disregarded, lost, and stolen as a slave in the mines, so he had no clue how long ago his enslavement came. Every day should have been his last, but his body kept on functioning, his veins kept flowing with malign blood.
Tom gazed at his Master, the Dwarflord’s right knee bowed outwards in a painful manner; the man was a gimp. No memory came to him of his Master being lame, which confirmed the freshness of the injury, relatively. Dwarves healed faster than humans, but not by much.
At the foot of his Master knelt six other cuffed humans, stained by soot, dust, and unknown powders from the mines. They made no movement, not with so many eyes upon them. The main hall overflowed with other dwarves, not guards, but Tom did not recognize what the different clothes represented, so they could have been anything from noble to tradesmen. A dwarven woman sat in front of his Master, covered scarcely by a fine gold skirt. She alone composed the female gender in the room, and only the second female dwarf he had seen in his time under the mountains.
No plait clung to her chin like her counterparts; her face remained clean-shaven, and from rumors in the mines, he heard they shaved multiple times a day to keep it that way. Word circulated that a female dwarf’s hair grew faster than grass on the Rhanda Grasslands, which grew a meter a day when fed with enough water. Tom’s eyes fixed on her, not moving even when his Master called attention.
Her pale, clean skin seduced Tom, and amounted to be the most alluring figure he had ever witnessed before, nothing compared to her attractiveness; it was a pulchritude that assembled all eyes to focus on her. The Dwarflord straddled the long reclining chair, wearing nothing but the hair that shadowed his body; a great amber beard swayed past his waistline, with four distinguishable gray streaks running down the cascade of bush. With a look from him, she began to gratify her Master, bound by duty.
Pleased, the Dwarflord scratched his stomach; then he held out a rapacious hand that soon clasped a tankard brimming with a sweet wee-heavy ale: a strong malty favorite of the dwarves, aged in bourbon barrels. After he quaffed most of the tankard, he examined the stock before him. Grinning, he said, “My finest Weapon-artists.” He belched, filling the hall. “I have summoned you here for a very special purpose. The first week of Nipha starts tomorrow, which means the Gala of Nipha, welcoming winter’s chill.”
Nipha sparked dates in Tom’s mind. Alexurgia, the last celebration he had witnessed, marked summer’s end on the thirty-sixth of Tirken. A second date rang over and over within his ears since his imprisonment: the twelfth of Idus. Four months. How could it have only been four months since his capture? Maybe it had already been a year and four? Tom slumped, drained enough for it to have been that long, and then some.
Every slave talked about the twelfth, the day of The Battle of Hell, the last day he had breathed free air. All talked about it because all had been there, fighting. Now, the wounded left to die on the battlefield, all lived as property of the Dwarves, salvaged and mended by the Scavengers. Slaves in the mines, combatants in The Mortal Ring: an arena that doomed all who fought in it.
“This means,” his Master continued, “that for the first five days, The Five Houses will be having the annual hunt, a Stalker’s Game: a search and destroy for the highest bidders. On each day, a member of The Five Houses, along with those who buy the five other tickets for the day, will stalk selected stock outside the confines of the halls, and up on the slopes of the mountains. On the sixth, the five winners of each day will meet in a free-for-all for the grand title!” People joined the Dwarflord in applause for the games.
His Master stopped the female dwarf, nudged her back, and walked forward toward his stock. He clutched the grimy chin of the first man. “Ether, two times in The Mortal Ring, very good….” The Dwarflord wobbled on to the next man, whom he slapped around a few times. “Barcus, a survivor as well.” The two wriggled within a hand’s length of each other, chained at the ankles: all slaves came in pairs, better kept tamed and made sure none went running off, for one always ran faster than the other, and limbs were bound to get tangled sometime.
The Dwarflord limped to the next two, slapped, named, congratulated, then went on. “Stevens is the name, yes? A prior Footman in The Conqueramada?” The slave nodded. “Three times and still you live … tomorrow will be your end, boy.” He smiled and patted the man’s head. With a rough hand, he touched the cheek of the next man. “Ruku, a fine warrior you are.”
“Dragonlord Ruku,” the man muttered. Dangerous eyes met. “My name is Dragonlord Ruku, and I demand that you release me. I am an officer in—”
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before. Except that your rank doesn’t matter here, Dragonlord, nothing about your past matters.” Standing before his slave, the Dwarflord released his urine on his stock’s squirming body. Ruku cursed his Master, but the Dwarflord ended the scene with a brutal grip to the man’s throat, held for seconds, only to let go and backhand the slave to the floor.
The Dwarflord pressed on, squinting humorously at Tom and his cellmate. “And you two, six times in The Mortal Ring and by chance you breathe in my house. That’s two times passed the old record,” he groused. No one liked a winner, not even the crowd. The people came only for death, not names; not a soul cared about a name in The Mortal Ring. Pleasing enough to any spectator melded a good bet and a good slaughter. In addition to the annoyed crowd, the other Dwarflords had become bitter and jealous of the champions.
“The Paragon, what a mighty name for hero. A nickname given for being the youngest and finest Dragon-Rider, eh? Well, Paragon, tomorrow, for you and the rest of the lot, is the end. Enjoy your next meal.” A firm grip on the shoulder let Tom’s cellmate know the Dwarflord was somewhat thankful to have the six-time champion, bigger payouts at the bookmakers.
Tom, the last in line, lifted his muddy eyes to meet his Master. The Dwarflord did not touch him, maybe because he respected him, but more than likely out of fear for what Tom wore. Known by the moniker within The Mortal Ring as The Cursed, Tom never took off his crimson armor, not even by the strength of all the guards that could circle his body. Intricate black and bronze swirls and designs were inlaid throughout the entire suit; black roses covered much of the pouldrons, their stems spiraling down to meet the bracers. Three dull, silver spikes protruded from the back edge of the shoulder line, curving outward away from the body. A bronze sai with its blades facing down lay centered on the breastplate while a black rose climbed up the middle prong.
“The Cursed, tomorrow that armor becomes mine after it is pried from your frozen corpse.” Tom gazed at his Master through a narrow opening in his helm. If he leaned just a bit forward, a bullhorn would cut through the Dwarflord, but several guards held him stable, locked where he knelt.
“How is a gimp going to stalk me? Leave me shackled right here, so that you may spear me and call it a hunt?” Tom said sotto voce. He did not laugh, there were no laughs left in him.
Ire rose in the Dwarflord, veins visibly popped throughout his naked body. Yet, he restrained his hand. Between Tom’s inner forearms rested two sai, looped through two holes and attached by a clip, never to be taken from their bindings, except by Tom himself. Cowardice did not ward off the Dwarflord’s hand from action, but rather a keen idea of the games ahead, for no slave had ever escaped with their life, and tomorrow would not be any different. The remark went unheard by the rest of the room, only then would such clever talk be disciplined.
The Dwarflord hobbled back to his chair, turned, waved for his son to take stage. “Since my injury does not permit me to enjoy in the games, my first son, Rogelius, will take my position for the house of Tirranus.” Hands smacked in ovation. Distant family members roared their congratulation to the young dwarf. Rogelius bowed at the honor. The Dwarflord raised his hands, silenced the crowd, and then named the highest bidders to accompany Rogelius.
A gesture from the Dwarflord sent the eight back to their cells for the night, but Tom snuck one last look at the female, yet her allure faded, along with her features, shaping into those of a human friend he had once consoled. He blinked and she vanished. The walk ticked by as quiet as the first, not a sound breached their throats; their dry swallows went unnoticed in the hushed environment.
The hot, humid night wore on, and in the darkness creatures crawled over Tom’s metal body while visions of his dead family played in his mind as though reality. He could not hide from them. So instead, he focused on the only thing he learned that night: the games came annually, which solidified his capture only four long months ago, an agreed four months too many by his cellmate. Maybe tomorrow, though, just maybe he would escape, or at least the armor would let down its presence, and let death swoop in to carry him off to a peaceful land. He clung to a glimmer of hope.
* * *
Tom deduced why the dwarves celebrated the coming of winter: they loved snow. Hundreds of dwarves played long hours in the white flakes, all dressed in thin leather, the cold must have been quite a relief from the furnace that were their underground networks. Always warm under the hollowed out massif.
Three hours after the eight filled their stomachs, dressed, and primed themselves for death, just like any other day, guards and mages led them outside the reinforced marble gates. The meal differed from the previous ones, though. Much heartier, with a wide selection of foods none of the slaves had seen since their arrival, and a few items that none recognized at all.
The smell of pines recalled memories of better times. Before taking in the scenery and all its glory, guards threw Tom down into the powdery snow, along with his cellmate, and the other six. Once he recovered, refreshed by the gelid air, he noticed the actual gates into Lo’Darrow, the home of the dwarves. He had no memory of how he entered the dwarven kingdom, but The Paragon had informed him that they came through a sandy crater top of a mountain. This sight was new for all of their eyes. Tom wondered how many humans before him had the dejected opportunity to gaze upon the dwarven rarity.
On each side of the gates, a towering dwarf, hewn from marble, held up a column that another dwarf stood upon; the two top dwarves held a crossbeam for the fifth and largest dwarf to stand in the center, above the gates. The massive dwarf held the favored Raven’s beak, a two-handed war hammer, protecting the city’s entrance.
The Dwarflord saw Tom’s awe, limped even more in the snow, but nonetheless made his way over to his prized stock. “They come alive when the city is threatened. Simple magic, from the early days, thousands of years ago, but no magic can construct such magnificence, had to be built by our own hands first.” Tom did not know why his Master told him such, but loneliness encased the Dwarflord’s words. Still, others stood around, others of his own kind, so why talk to a slave?
The Dwarflord trudged off, joined a circle of men standing around one of many barrels of ale, immersed himself in conversation for a few minutes, but finally called attention to the group. “By the great Úpok, god of the mountains, welcome to the first day of winter!” he yelled enthusiastically. The heads of The Five Houses attended, all tense with excitement for their own days to stalk. Each head wore a family crest across their left breast, identifying their standing.
“Let’s begin the Gala of Nipha the traditional way, with each Weapon-artist selecting their desired defense,” Dwarflord Tirranus said. He indicated to his men to bring out the weaponry, which rolled about, strewn all over a table. Carried by several guards, the huge tabletop displayed a multifarious selection of killing utensils.
Despite not requiring another weapon, Tom chose a twin-edged longsword. The ancient sword he took when he found the armor vanished long ago, lost at The Battle of Hell, along with many friends. The sheath across his back formed exactly to the size of the sword when placed inside. A nifty advantage of the armor, though the sword could be taken, unlike the sai.
His cellmate decided on a cleaver and a shortsword. The Dragon-Rider, like all of his rank, had a predilection for range weapons, but the dwarves made none available. A game of hand-to-hand, not a specialty of The Paragon, yet he lived after six times in The Mortal Ring.
Only once did The Paragon manage to get his hands on a bow. Tom called it dumb luck mixed with a stupid guard. The other times, one thing kept him alive. Tom. Cellmates till the end, apparently, for after all the dwarves threw at duo, Tom deflected. Or at least his armor did.
While the rest of the stock armed themselves, the six participants unhooked their tankards and their carabiners. Never had Tom witnessed a clothed dwarf without his attached carabiner and tankard. The clink had become normal to his ears, a warning for when a guard, or any dwarf for that matter, drew near. The Stalkers would be unheard, unrecognizable.
Dwarflord Tirranus grunted, cleared his throat. “Now, the rules for the selected stock. This is a Stalker’s Game, you will be given fifteen minutes to travel as fast as you can to escape, after that, my son and the winning bidders will begin the hunt. Dodging aerial weapons is key, so keep that in mind, and after you have survived the air assault, defense with your selected weapons will be your last chance. Good luck to the bidders. With the grace of Úpok, let the games begin!”
No pause. Not a one nerve of the eight hesitated. All sixteen legs moved. Tom and The Paragon sprinted toward the east, followed by four of the others, knowing their best chances to live longer rested around The Cursed.
After two minutes, Tom turned, yelled, “Keep up, will you.” The Paragon wheezed slightly, out of breath. The chain tightened. Tom eyed his cellmate. “What the hell are you doing, Paragon?”
“Please, Tom. Please don’t call me that.”
“Markus, we don’t have time for rest; it’s been only a few minutes and you’re winded, what gives?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know, something works against me, I don’t feel normal.” Markus gulped in air, coughed a fit, then spat thick white mucus on the trunk of a pine. “I can’t—”
“I’m not going to wait around to be scribbled, ” Tom erupted. Before The Mortal Ring, he would have helped. Before the suit of armor he wore, every ounce of ethics would be forefront telling him not to leave an honorable man to his death. He had changed since. Lately, dressed in the ancient armor, he had wicked desires, consumed with malice to strike at the beating heart of the North.
He could not do that locked up, bound by prison manacles. His ability to use magic was blocked while with the dwarves and in their kingdom, but out here…. Without glancing at his cellmate, Tom detached his left sai, pointed it at the edge of his wrist fetter.
“No, Tom. Wait!”
“Pyrosus deo spearsae!” Tom screamed. A stream of yellow shot from his mouth to the tip of his sai, followed by a deep red, then by a bright green. A ball of flame hovered there, at the weapon’s point. He concentrated, forced the sphere forward in an intense flash.
Blinded, they closed their eyes.
Tom opened his lids only to see that he was yet chained. Markus displayed his fear, sweating, sobbing, and piss soaking the leather showing around his kneecaps. Markus stuttered to get words out, but nothing coherent parted from his lips.
“Dammit, that was a waste.” Slightly enervated, Tom pulled on his cellmate, made him stand to his feet. The other prisoners had long since gone. Then, from nowhere, a sense of direction rose in him. “We need to go west.” An image of a sword flashed in his mind’s eye, a sword patterned with markings that matched the armor he wore. A name followed the image: Surge, The Havoc Crier. He grasped that the armor shared its yearning with him, an aspiration to attain its forgotten relic.
Markus shook violently, his face aquiver with horror. Tom tried to leave him, alone to perish. “I thought,” Markus stumbled over his words. “I thought you were a different man.”
“I used to be,” Tom replied in anguish.
“None of it is true , Tom,” Markus said. “I don’t believe your stories. Your family is alive. Our Savior could not do such vile things—”
Tom waved for silence. He had no time for pointless exchanges that had already taken place on several occasions in the cell. He replaced the sai, yanked on the chain, headed west, or what he thought close to it. A nerve inside him said the weapon he needed lay in that direction.
Tom stopped a few hundred meters later. “You hear that?” Markus nodded. A whizzing noise in the sky above focused their attention. A blue burst of light lit up the firmament. “A mage’s flare … fifteen minutes already up. That was not a head start, but a reassured death sentence.” Tom jerked harder on the chain.
Two men ran past them ten meters to their left. How is that possible? Tom had seen them run on, far on to the east. Another pair kept at the heels of the first. He gazed at his companion. Were they that slow that others could catch up? No. Was Markus that slow? He deliberated over the possibilities that would separate the chain. He decided on none, for none would work with what was at his disposal. He possessed no other spells that would break the bindings.
“Let’s move.” Tom felt a yank of resistance from Markus. The armor did not care. A desire not his own flooded his mind. An attraction compelled him onward, toward the west. Surge lay hidden out there, lost and in need of recovery by the armor.
A moment later, another whizzing sound went by, close. Tom’s reaction came too late. Much too late. Shorter than a second passed when a dart hit the chain, an explosion followed, sending the two apart. Tom hit a tree to his right and Markus thudded against a pine to his left.
Tom recovered, raised his left hand, the chained dangled, severed. Freedom. To a certain degree anyway, the armor still clung to his body, and dwarves hunted him like a hare. He bent low, scooped up the snow where the tip of the dart remained intact. “Not possible.”
Another dart zipped by, stuck into a tree.
KABOOM. Tom flew back a few meters.
The armor recovered more than Tom did, propping itself up against a nearby bush. For a while, his vision blurred severely, but with effort, he regained focus. A few steps away, Markus cried like a bleating sheep, wounded in too many places to count. Tom trudged through the snow, felt the man’s pulse. Pretty strong, even through the thick gloves, but he did not boast any skill of a physician; he had no idea if that meant his cellmate would live. He would not, not with the dwarves still afoot, hunting for stock.
The armor’s compulsion took hold, gripped his body. Such a strong force. He turned back to the west. An unwanted foot faltered forward. His cellmate’s inexorable annihilation uncloaked itself with such uninterruptible screams, nothing he could do for him. But still … with the armor, the man would not be an onerous burden to carry.
With a face like flint, Tom stared down at his cellmate. In four months they had been through a lifetime of agony, double over, if not triple. Ties lingered, ones always meant for cutting. The armor sensed his hesitation, the doubt of purpose in his mind, the confrontation arising. His volition wavered, overwritten by the armor’s involuntary control.
The armor plowed through the heavy powder, westward mattered most to it. A hundred meters later Tom stopped. No. No, he could not leave the man behind. He twisted his torso in the deep snow, spotted another slave, also free from his bonds.
Stevens stared with timorous eyes. “What do we do?” he sputtered, violently twitching.
Tom lifted up his hand, lofted the tip in the air, and watched it land in Stevens’ cupped palms. “They are using elven technology,” he replied, ignoring Stevens’ question.
“Examine it yourself,” Tom encouraged. Stevens had been a decent Footman, now his flesh shriveled like a dry potato, a man all but bone, with little brain activity beyond motor functions. The mines eroded whatever tactical intelligence Stevens once supported, and The Mortal Ring beat out anything else that persisted.
Stevens’ eyes dribbled with tears.
Tom guessed the man identified the peril. Only elves believed in technology, only elves used proper technology. They did not share; they did not barter. But here on high, in The Sepris Mountains, two thousand kilos away from the heartland of the elves, dwarves, of all races, possessed elfish weaponry.
Stevens wobbled, keeled over. “Can’t be.” With a weak hand, he balanced himself on his knees. A possibility to survive existed if the dwarves fought fair, with their own steel weapons, but now the certainty of the outcome disclosed itself.
An unfamiliar sound hit their ears, too quick for reaction. Tom’s eyes darted all around; finally, they fell upon Stevens again. Two large circular holes visible in the man’s chest, a third shot right through his dirt-covered head, bringing his full weight forward to the snow.
Tom froze in thought; he recalled little of elfish weapons, mainly because there was little to recall. No one knew of their secrets, hiding behind their all-encompassing wall.
Fear of the unknown rattled his senses.
A bloodcurdling roar rushed Tom’s ears.
From out of the trees, a dwarf leapt toward him like a spinning barrel. An ax clashed with his shoulder as he fell, sliced into the metal, but did not penetrate to his skin. He twirled until he met the blood of Stevens. He rolled away with a heavy push, stood, and about-faced his recovered opponent, who snarled like a canine.
The deaths of his fellow slaves did not drive Tom into a rage. No, truly he did not care for them, not anymore at least. But now, as his eyes locked with the dwarf, a murderous wrath swelled within his boiling blood. Imprisoned against all control, now released with the liberty to strike his adversary, he fueled the armor with his rage, the suit’s very life force.
The dwarf carried two single-edged axes, rotated them in the air and grinned joyously. “Looks like I’ll be the one to conquer The Cursed, and not that wretched son of Tirranus.” The dwarf did not dawdle with more words; he lunged forth, striking up with his right, and ready to block with his left.
Tom stepped rearward, shoulder curved back, out of harm’s way. He reached for his opponent’s down wrist, seized, then squeezed with crippling force. The dwarf brought his other hand down, but Tom expected such a maneuver, grabbed the exposed wrist and repeated. The dwarf knelt in Tom’s clutches, and used his head as though a battering ram on Tom’s lower abdomen and crotch.
Nothing. The armor, a shell of destruction, cracked the dwarf’s head. Even so, the dwarf raised himself from his knees once Tom released his grip.
Westward drew the armor’s focus, more important than dragging out the duel, though from the battles in The Mortal Ring, Tom discovered it loved long, drawn out scenes of death. Something he did not normally have the stomach for, and showed a couple of times with vomit on the bloody sand in the coliseum. Everyday he descended further into the abyss of absoluteness, filled with an aversion to all things. In every kill, he capitulated to the desires of the armor, losing the affections that once emanated from his heart.
The dwarf charged with primed fists. Tom stepped away, let the dwarf run his course, then as the shorter figure passed, he took hold of the dwarf’s neck. The gauntlet twisted, snapped, a few distinct pops sounded in the quick movement.
Tom left the dwarf on the ground, sprinting toward a call he could not hear.
His weighty footsteps did not make it ten meters before another dwarf launched an assault of blows on the armor with a Raven’s beak, each connecting mid-back and below. He fell to his knees by the force. Without pain, he somersaulted away, unsheathing the longsword in the process. The armor lifted the weapon in defense, awaiting the attack.
The dwarf unclipped his leather helmet, threw it to the ground, revealing a bushy clump of red hair. Sweat cooled on the snow, raining from his face; a heart full of hatred gushed with heat. With steady legs, the dwarf advanced, well practiced in combat.
Tom received the onslaught in kind, parrying the war hammer with grace. Through his elevating fury, the armor worked toward the same end, giving skill where he lacked in training. Ultimately, the armor grew bored with the engagement. He noticed that the dwarves were not built for the cold, not for fighting in anyway. Without their heavy armor that he saw regularly, their second skin demonstrated its insufficiency, though none of the dwarves planned for a sincere fight to the death. Not with elfish technology.
The sword pierced a knee. Tom withdrew, stabbed a shoulder, then, at a forty-five degree angle, the neck.
The armor marched on.
Cold did not penetrate the suit, but rather kept him at a comfortable temperature in the bleak environment. Air flowed through the small opening in the helm and gave his skin breathing room; the armor absorbed the sweat and exuded a cloud of steam. Despite the armor’s efforts to sustain him, confinement gnawed at him, forever trapped in a world of bloodshed.
The whizzing returned. Tom retreated behind two thick trees, scanned the surrounding. Nothing. From behind, a sharp warm pain shot up his leg. He glanced down at his calves. In his right protruded another dart, dissimilar from the others, with a thick body marked with tiny holes. Gas emitted from the openings with an unusual pressurized sound.
Seconds later, the capsule began to spin, whining. Shocked, Tom found himself thrown another four meters or more. The explosion buried him in snow. The armor dug its way out only to be hit again. Another three meters west and two south, suffocating in powder.
A gauntlet reached out to grab a thick branch. Using the sturdy pine, Tom pulled himself to the open air.
All around him, scads of trees fell, burst into fire, and threw limbs wildly. The tree-inhabited slopes provided minute cover from the bombardment, even with small smoke clouds rising about, so he ran up the mountain, jumping on fallen logs, then crossed over to find his hunter.
Without their tankards, the dwarves became undetectable, lost in the enormous snowscape. The elfish weapons left no traces to follow either. Tom sat, covered himself with snow in a tree well, waited for signs with extreme patience, ready to strike. Shooting pains attacked his leg and up to his mid-back. Silence was hard to maintain.
Two minutes later, a dwarf ambled cautiously across the slope, focusing on the west, but scanning all angles for safety. A few meters down the slope, another dwarf surveyed the scene.
As a trained Scout, Tom had acquired very few real fighting techniques; his job of observation and report involved little engagement. But the armor bested every blow, plotting in his mind, unconsciously. An urge overcame him.
The first dwarf hit the snow, a sai rested through his hair-infested head. His comrade noticed right away, spotted the distinct, indelible weapon, and faded behind a group of pines. Tom waited for the false move, the inevitable mistake that the dwarf would make. The armor’s capacity for restraint astounded him.
A bushy chestnut beard arrived from out of the trees next to the corpse, not the companion of the departed dwarf, but an addition to the group. He examined the body and studied the area. The companion did not make an appearance. Dwarves, well known for their greed, became even more avaricious in a contest, for a shared title meant little. Tom doubted they would extinguish one another, though. Most dwarves were not enemies with each other, but they would put themselves over competition, making sure an opponent ended up under someone else’s axe.
The dwarf hustled away, vigilant.
The companion dwarf trotted up the slope, from tree to tree, eyeing the other Stalker.
The armor saw the opening, broke loose from the snow, rushed over several logs, drew the longsword, and brought it down with great speed.
The dwarf wore a face full of surprise, but quickly compensated for his lack of awareness, deflecting the sword with the long barrel of the dart-launcher. Tom tried again, this time breaking the dwarf’s hold on the weapon. The third strike ripped through the leather armor, splitting the dwarf’s skull.
Tom reclaimed his sai, then retrieved and inspected the dart-launcher. A single, sleek black tube connected to a silver mechanical contraption, fused with pieces of weightless wood. Never before had he seen such a weapon, nor did he have an idea how to operate the machine, so he buried it in a tree well, out of sight from more capable hands.
Remorse ate at his stomach, something the armor could not attenuate. Every kill worsened the feeling without sign of relief. Tremors judged his actions, condemning him. He shook and shook, bile accumulated in his mouth until forced to spit, which lingered, slowly dripping down his chin and neck underneath his helm.
A boot stamped his back. In a tumble, Tom rolled into the tree well, felt the warmth of metal in his shoulder, and then its absence. The clever Stalker eyed Tom as he climbed out of small pit, charged again, but was deflected.
The knife flung from the dwarf’s grasp.
Tom swung at the seemingly unarmed Stalker.
With a grunt, the dwarf stopped the sword with the shaft of a heavy two-handed war hammer. The Stalker forced Tom back a step, recovered, swung low and caught Tom’s left foot.
Tom saw the shivering clouds that passed overhead; he tried putting his feet under him, but the hammer met his helm and knocked him facedown.
The dwarf raised the giant weapon, sighted his target.
“Stop peasant!” a voice demanded. The dwarf hesitated, but eventually complied.
“Peasant!” the Stalker yelled, riled. “I am no peasant.” He primed himself for the worse.
“To me you are.” Rogelius appeared from behind thick, snow-drenched branches. “This one is mine, peasant.” He gripped the hafts of two sound maces, twirled them with malevolence, and grinned superciliously.
“You overstep your station, child.” The Stalker’s long plaited beard tripled the length of Rogelius’ puny, almost stubble growth. “Even your father wouldn’t dare.”
Full of temerity, Rogelius ignored the older dwarf’s words, lunged, stabbing the honed tip at the top of the mace into a shin. The Stalker wobbled, jumped around until he latched onto branches for stabilization, but by the time the Stalker claimed his footing, two maces sought his demise.
The assault sounded brutal and unforgiving, with dreadful cries loosed into the freezing wind.
Rogelius turned to locate Tom, yet through the shuffle of snow and blood, not a trace of his body endured.
Tom aimed for surprise, but the crunch of older snow gave away his position. Rogelius whirled around, parried the longsword, countered with an onslaught of his own until the blade went flying from Tom’s intense grip.
“I’ve never seen such a fierce warrior,” Rogelius admitted. “How did you fall at The Battle of Hell?” Distracted, the dwarf allowed Tom to recover, leaping back, drawing his sai. The dwarf grunted, laughed with felicity, raised the hafts of his weapons and twirled them.
Tom struck first, but the dwarf repelled with equal ferocity. “That is compared to me of course.” The dwarf beamed a great smile, boasting his confidence. Rogelius advanced quicker than Tom anticipated for the dwarf’s bulk, swung for his torso and made contact with the armor.
A subdued pressure was all Tom noticed, at least for the first meeting. The second and third contacts caused much more pain.
The dwarf, who thirsted for recognition, had a chance at the grand title to bear for an entire year. He pressed his attack even more, pummeling the armor, and Tom underneath. A flurry of swings flattened Tom, who collided with the snow, creating a massive indent around him.
Powder danced in the air, disturbing their eyesight.
Tom tracked down the wide figure, observed that the snow did the dwarf no favors, nestled in his moderate bristly beard and eyebrows, clumping together. Tom no longer intended silence, but speed; he dashed from Rogelius’ side, standing well over the dwarf’s height. The sai penetrated the thick wrists from above, and immediately the dwarf dropped his weapons.
Withdrawing, Tom impelled the dwarf to his knees, clutching the massive head between his forearm, bicep, and chest. A sai hovered near the dwarf’s neck, grazing the pale skin from time to time.
“Please, I have a family.” Rogelius’ plea startled Tom. Dwarves were not known to grant or accept clemency.
Tom looked on ahead, distant. He saw his own family, his wife and two little girls. The faces without names that endured in memories of times and places that existed, even when they did not. False characters implanted in his mind to give him a sense of fidelity and love. Something to cling to while away from home, and stir a goal within him, a goal to support without fail or question.
“My children need me.”
Without hearing, Tom gazed on longingly. They were not dead; they never existed at all. Yet, he remembered their imprinted warmth. His golden-haired daughters bundled up in his arms while out in his frosty yard. Pale-green and cobalt orbs gazed lovingly into his own, yearning to be comforted by their father’s presence. Their exuberant smiles, filled with cheerful creases that went from ear to ear, showing off all of their bleached teeth, sparkling in the sunlight. His wife’s cozy cuddling, wrapped up in dense blankets; her rich chestnut hair flowed down the crest of her back in windy locks while her bouffant bangs styled up and back in a small lump, as the sides of her curls clung to her face, lightly grazing her sunbathed skin.
All nothing but visions that interminably haunted him.
His stomach rebelled, weakened by his memories. His muscles switched from stable to trembling. His nerves skipped all over his body.
“Please,” Rogelius stammered, terror-struck, knowing the armor’s previous incapability to free a victim from death.
Through pink, puffy eyes, Tom watched his family transform into stubby figures of dwarves, retaining the same faces.
“I can’t,” Tom mumbled. His words were feeble, almost inaudible.
The implacable impulse to travel west returned. Tom’s dithering ceased. The hand threatening the dwarf’s life plunged forward; the prongs perforated the tough skin, all aligned with precision of the weapon. From the three holes, the dwarf’s blood drained onto the canvas of snow, soaking the area in deep crimson.
Tom added the contents from his breakfast. Another casualty added to his conscience
The armor did not allow him to regain his focus, but resumed its course to a destination unknown.
* * *
A faint, sparse trail of blood led up to his body from the east. Tom lay in soft snow, facing the sky. He discerned clouds shifting, reshaping into various monsters, and periodically, his family. The cold weather and damage from the mines did nothing for his respiration. His breaths were shallow. His body idled, exhausted with a tingling spreading throughout his cooling blood.
“I think I’ve got something over here,” a sonorous voice shouted. Soon, a large round face stared into Tom’s eyes, with a shaggy red beard suspended from a stone chin, its owner proud of its length. “It’s him alright.”
More faces surrounded him and blocked out the sun and sky. After a moment, recognizable features moved the rest of the faces aside. “Thought you could get away?” Tirranus spoke in a harsh, withered voice. “How you made it this far west and survived two nights out here is beyond me; how you killed my pluperfect heir is an even bigger question.”
Tom opened his mouth to talk, but coughed instead. “What …” he trailed off, but found his voice again. “What’s happening to me?”
“Did you really think we would let loose our stock without assurances? We’ve bound you with food from day one. Everything you eat has The Spice in it, you can’t live more than three days without it.”
“Not possible,” Tom exclaimed; then he burst into a coughing fit.
The other dwarves laughed, the surprise in Tom’s voice gave them great amusement.
“Take him away, lads,” the Dwarflord commanded. “I’ll put him in The Mortal Ring until he fails to draw breath, and I get a satisfaction that money simply can’t give.” His Master displayed a gleeful expression, in high spirits that he found his stock before Tom’s ineluctable expiration.
Tom shuddered as the guards lifted him. “I can’t….” He tried to finish, but bit his lip unintentionally. With blood filling his mouth, he spoke softly, “Kill again.” Heavy eyes closed. Darkness no light dared to enter found him, and only one thought lingered in his mind that made him wish his life were at an end, one designation that plagued his restless body with a driving feeling that suppressed all others … westward.