Example Chapters from Tomb of the Fallen


Example Chapters from Tomb of the Fallen, Book Three of the Soulstone Prophecy

(Note: These chapter previews have not gone through final editing and proofing)

Prologue: Soul Searching

The muffled snap of wood beneath Kjar’s knee caused the dwarf to freeze mid-crawl. He didn’t dare breathe for fear the creature he was watching would hear him. In frustration, Kjar started to squeeze his hands into fists, but stopped. There could be another twig hidden within the pine needles.

Kjar had chosen this pine tree for its low hanging boughs and the cover it provided. He hoped the shadows and bed of fallen needles covering the otherwise rocky mountainside would further conceal his approach.

The creature, now only a stone’s throw away, turned its moss-covered head and looked down straight towards Kjar’s hiding place.

The dwarf stared up into those close-set piggish eyes. He could see intelligence within the dull yellow orbs. The creature’s mouth hung half open and Kjar watched as a green tongue slid out and dragged its way over cracked lips, its progress stopped by a lone protruding tusk. The creature blinked twice before it lost interest and turned back to stare up at the cave entrance.

Kjar would have let out a sigh of relief if he wasn’t afraid of drawing the creature’s attention again. He didn’t know how the creature hadn’t seen him, but he silently gave a prayer of thanks.

Kjar had left the cave earlier that brisk morning just after dawn, a brushing of frost still covering the ground. The cave lie just south of a fast moving river which rushed down this side of the Godspine mountains.

Nearby, the river rushed over a waterfall and poured into the Deepwood before slowing its pace and meandering off into the forest’s dark confines. The river provided Kjar much needed water, but he had no luck pulling fish from its cold depths.

Instead, he had used his knowledge of snares and pitfalls to trap game along the upper reaches of the forest. It wasn’t the same as trapping spoil moles in the slag heaps of the far southern city of Orehome as he had in his youth, but it was close enough to put meat in his belly. The carcasses of the two hares hanging from his belt were proof of that.

He happened upon the tracks of the creature he now watched when he started his  return climb to the cave in late afternoon. The tracks had not been hard to spot, each being four hand spans in size and sunk deep into the ground. It also hadn’t taken him long to realize the creature was following the tracks Kjar had left when he set out from the cave that morning.

Kjar looked through the pine boughs to the skies, in hopes of seeing Safu. It was a false hope. He had not seen the griffon since it had deposited him and an unconscious Finngyr on the mountainside those many days before. There would be no help from there.

Nor from Knight Justice Finngyr, for that matter. The Knight Justice had been in constant prayer since awakening from their fight against the stonechosen back in the Fallen City. He had not spoken a word upon awakening, just took in his surroundings with a stoic expression and then picked up his rune hammer to kneel before it in prayer. There the veteran dwarf had remained since.

Kjar had not seen him eat or drink, though all Finngyr’s wounds had healed over time. Kjar knew their god’s healing and restorative powers had cleansed Knight Justice Finngyr of his wounds and had since been flowing through the weapon to keep him alive, but that would not relieve his hunger or thirst. Kjar had lain by the fire late into the night and listened to the Knight Justice’s empty stomach growling in protest, though Finngyr never stirred from his prayers. The young Knight Kjar revered Knight Justice Finngyr too much to disturb him.

Kjar knew the defeat they suffered in the mist covered Fallen City weighed heavily on him. They lost their fellow knight, Horth, during that strange battle. The stonechosen and its minions battled other humans, who were somehow changed into pale feral abominations. The battle made little sense to Kjar, but he and his fellow Knights dove down into its midst.

Knight Horth and his griffon mount hadn’t even reached the ground before the stonechosen flew from the concealing mists and dealt the griffon a heavy blow, sending it and its rider spiraling out of sight. They did not see or hear from Horth again.

No sooner had Kjar and Finngyr landed than the Knight Justice spotted the stonechosen fleeing into the ruins of a nearby tower. The Knight Justice leaped to catch him and Kjar would have followed, but his mount was suddenly attacked by a Nordlah barbarian and slain in one powerful strike. What one of those savage humans was doing in the forbidden city, in the middle of the elven controlled Deepwood, Kjar had no idea. But Kjar was determined to see the human dead regardless. That was until a druid and a flame wielding sorcerer had joined the battle.

Kjar was no coward, but nor was he a fool. He hastily retreated and found Finngyr’s griffon, Safu, blocking the ruined tower’s entrance against a horde of the pale monstrous humans. He considered fleeing from that battle as well, but was not so quick to leave their last mount and only way out of the desolate place to such a fate. That was a fight he could not flee.

He called on Daomur for aid and charged. The creatures had mostly ignored him, seeming intent on getting past the griffon and into the tower, so many fell under the blows of his hammer.

Even so, there were too many of them and even some he had thought dead, slowly rose, their broken bones snapping into place, their torn flesh mending. It seemed they would win by sheer numbers alone. Then, as one, they all stopped attacking and fell to the ground.

At the time, it reminded Kjar of when he was a young dwarf in Orehome, watching one of the traveling entertainers who used the small puppets controlled by strings. There had been a day when a fellow street urchin snatched the meager coins from the entertainer’s stone bowl and darted away. When the entertainer released the sticks and gave pursuit, the puppets just lost all life and clattered to the flagstone pavement.

All around him and Safu, the creature’s dropped as one, their invisible master gone. Safu continued to peck and slash at the fallen creatures, not understanding the threat had ceased.

It was then that the ruined tower groaned like some great beast and stones clattered down around them. Kjar thought of leaping onto Safu then and there, but only for a moment. He did not know what had become of Horth or where to find him, but he knew Finngyr was in that tower and Kjar could not leave him. He raced into the tunnel.

Kjar found Finngyr alone, badly burned and unconscious, not far from the opening of the tunnel safu had so steadfastly guarded.

By the strength granted to him through Daomur’s grace and sheer determination, Kjar half dragged, half carried Finngyr out and onto Safu’s back. Safu took to the sky just as the tower collapsed behind them. What transpired between Finngyr and the stonechosen within that crumbling tower still remained a mystery.

Kjar knew that was not the first time Knight Justice Finngyr had encountered the stonechosen. He had shared how he previously tried to cull him in the settlement known as the Cradle of the Gods. That had not gone well either.

Kjar had spent these many days waiting for Finngyr to rouse out of his prayers with equal measures of hope and dread.

The creature movement pulled Kjar from his thoughts. It closed on the cave entrance with a few furtive steps and then stopped.

Kjar started to rise in pursuit then froze.

It reached a clawed hand beneath one of the many furs draped over its thick frame,  sniffed the air, considered, then started to scratch.

The morning wind blew down from the distant peaks, carrying with it the cold of the early snows and the creature’s pungent stench. The worst Kjar had expected was those snows would come down and cover the mountainside, trapping them here. He hadn’t seen anything larger than small game in the area until now. Until this moss covered giant appeared, whatever it was. Judging by the numerous skulls hanging from its hide belt and the tree-sized club it carried in its non-scratching hand, Kjar could guess its intent if not its identity.

Kjar waited there beneath the pine until the thing started moving again. Then, he slid out from his hiding place to scramble up hill and a bit closer. He settled with his back up against a large stone. He would have to decide his course of action soon if he wished to save Knight Justice Finngyr.

A part of him considered letting the creature enter the cave unchallenged. Maybe that was what was needed to bring Finngyr out of his prayers and back into the world. Force him to take action and defend himself.

But what if he didn’t? What if the Knight Justice simply knelt there and continued to pray? Then he would be dead and the creature would most likely make a meal of him, might even take over the cave, the only shelter in the area.

No, Kjar told himself. That wouldn’t happen. There was no way they were meant to die in some cave in the Godspine mountains on the edge of the Deepwood.

Kjar chanced another peek over the stone, then scrambled to the thick trunk of a nearby tree. He loosened the straps securing his sacred hammer to his back and slipped it from its bonds.

The weight of it calmed him as he shifted his grip. The many runes covering the sides of its head reminded Kjar that he was a knight of the Temple of Justice and no stranger to battle. The god Daomur was with his devot servants and would not abandon them.

Kjar just wished he had felt the need to don his armor this morning before setting out to check the traps. He had grown complacent and was now about to pay the price for his poor choice in judgement.

He focused on the symbol of his god, the intricately etched hammer over a set of balanced scales taking up the central section of the hammer’s head. He closed his eyes and breathed out steadily, focusing his will and reaching deep within himself, relaxing his muscles. He opened his mind and prayed to Daomur for strength and protection. This was no longer some frivolous prayer offered in vain for Kjar, but a calling to the divine, whose presence was connected to Kjar through the ancient relic he held in his stout dwarvish hands. A connection to Daomur, God of Law and Justice, the creator of the dwarven race.

Kjar reached for that presence within the hammer, beseeched it to help him in his time of need. He focused and just felt it, a tremor of something, the magic. It was there, barely perceptible, like droplets thrown off from some great hidden waterfall that was just out of his reach. Kjar felt Daomur’s gift as it trickled from the hammer and into him. He could feel the magic strengthening his muscles even as it hardened his skin.

Before the rocky outcropping on the Nordlah plains where Kjar had witnessed Knight Justice Finngyr’s battle against the orcs, he had not been able to sense the presence behind the magic that flowed through the holy relics of his order. He knew about the magic, how it was brought forth by the Master Artificers of the Temple of Art. But he had never actually felt Daomur’s presence.

Knight Justice Finngyr had changed all that. Watching the Knight Justice draw on the power of his god to slay dozens and dozens of orcs on that outcropping in the center of the Nordlah plains, seeing the holy power flow through him, Kjar knew Finngyr was Daomur’s instrument on Allwyn, that through him, his god exerted his will. Kjar had left that outcropping converted, a true believer.

Since then, Kjar could sense Daomur’s presence when he held the hammer and prayed. He knew beyond doubt it was Daomur who was aiding them and not some mindless magic trapped in their relics of a bygone age.

The giant had apparently made up its mind and moved to enter the cave.

Kjar was out of time and options. He had to act.

He rolled out from behind the tree and charged, his short legs pumping, pushing him up the incline to close the distance.

“Daomur!” Kjar roared as he swung his hammer two-handed up and into the side of the creature’s knee. His battlecry served a dual purpose; to give him strength and, hopefully, alert Finngyr to his plight.

It was a solid hit, but it only caused the creature to stumble to the side a short step before catching its balance. The tree the creature fell against creaked in protest.

Kjar used that same tree as protection, moving to place the tree between them.

The creature issued its own roar as it turned its body and swung its club with the motion.

The club bounced off the tree with a thud, raining down detritus on both combatants. Kjar charged forward and brought his hammer down in an overhead swing right on top of the creature’s long gnarled toes. Kjar then leaped back to the other side of the tree, dancing from side to side, ready to go either direction.

If he could keep this tree between them as added defense and continue to wound the creature on the same leg, then he might have a chance to bring it down. Then he could focus his attacks on its head.

It was a good plan, Kjar thought.

The creature stumbled back, bellowing in pain and favoring its unwounded leg. It took up its club in both hands, and venting its rage, swung it right toward the trunk of the tree. Bark shattered and burst out violently from the impact.

Kjar fell into a shoulder roll. It was just in time to avoid the club as it passed through the space where his head had been a moment before. He continued his roll and came up just shy of the upper part of the tree as it crashed down before him. He saw limbs everywhere and felt something slash his back and side as the remains of the tree continued down the mountainside.

Well, it had been a good plan, Kjar thought.

Kjar was up and moving in close to the creature’s legs. He knew distance was not his friend in this fight. He had to stay inside the giant’s reach. One solid hit from that club would be the end of Kjar son of Kath.

He scored two quick hits on the creature’s already wounded leg and then dove forward into a roll to avoid a return attack. Kjar just needed to keep moving.

He didn’t see the blow that hit him. He was lifted off his feet and flew a short distance away to land hard on his back. He felt the air deven from his lungs. The mere fact he was still alive registered through the pain and jerking gasps for air that would not come. Some part of his mind reasoned the blow had not come from the club. Had he been kicked or swatted away like some annoying fly?

Kjar felt the reassuring presence of his hammer and pulled it up in some offer of defense. He shook his head to clear the dark tunnels that were even now closing in around the edges of his vision.

Kjar could feel the ground tremble beneath him, felt as much as heard the jerking step of the creature, followed by the dragging of its wounded leg. He had to get up.

A heavy weight settled on his chest, pushing his hammer against him, crushing his fingers. The creature had placed the end of its club on top of Kjar. Kjar was trapped.

A malicious grin appeared on the creature’s flat face as it began to press down, intent on slowly crushing the dwarf.

Kjar struggled for breath. He felt his hammer against him and tried to find the focus to call to Daomur. The crushing pain and his hungering lungs pushed all other thoughts from his mind and Kjar recognized his end was upon him even as his mind roared against it in disbelief.

Kjar heard the name of his god called out,  followed by a distant thump. Something warm splashed against his face. The weight of the club on his chest lessened even as the ground shook beneath him.

Air tore into Kjar’s lungs, burning his throat. He rolled onto his side and coughed, his body fighting against each painful, beautiful breath.

“Finish it!”

Kjar looked up from where he lie on his side to see Finngyr standing before the mouth of the cave.

The knight justice stood tall, his gloved hands balled into fists on his hips.

Kjar tried to call up to him that he knew Daomur would save them, but all his words were lost in a coughing fit.

Finngyr swayed slightly, then steadied himself, his expression a mix of agony and irritation.

“It is not dead, Knight Kjar. Get up! Finish it!” Finngyr said.

The reminder about the creature sent a shock through Kjar’s system and he staggered to his feet, reaching out when his knees started to buckle. He ached everywhere and each raw breath stung deep in his side.

He withdrew his hand quickly when he realized it was the creature’s ankle he used for support. It sprawled face down beside him and was even now trying to get its arms beneath it. The back of its head was oddly misshapen and blood matted its green hair.

Kar half staggered, half slid down the incline. He came to a stop near the creature’s shoulder and wobbled to his feet. He knew Daomur would not forsake them. He raised his hammer.

It collapsed with the first blow, but Kjar struck it again and again. He wasn’t sure how many times he struck the creature, but enough time passed that Finngyr was at his side.

“Its dead,” Finngyr said in a pained voice.

“I knew Daomur would not forsake us,” Kjar said. “I knew it.”

Finngyr just stared at the younger dwarf from sunken eyes over protruding cheekbones, his face pained, but unreadable.

Kjar let the head of his hammer fall forward and then followed it down to one knee. “What, what was it?”.

“Mountain troll,” Finngyr said. “Good sized one, too.” He made his way around the mountain troll, his movements stiff. He reached down to retrieve his bloodied hammer.

“Will there be others?” Kjar said as he made to stand back up.

“No.”

“How can you sound so sure?” Kjar said as he hugged his side to try and lessen the pain when he breathed.

Finngyr looked rough. His armor had not been polished since Dagbar’s Freehold. By Daomur, the dwarf had not even moved in several days, for that matter. Finngyr’s unkempt beard flared out in all directions. His stylized helmet, shaped like a screaming dwarf, the open mouth framing the wearer’s face, looked like a dwarf spewing black bile.

Kjar couldn’t help but stare.

Finngyr arched an eyebrow at Kjar. He seemed to consider something, a look on his face like he had just put something in his mouth he didn’t like the taste of. He looked out over the Deepwood before answering. “They are solitary creatures, mountain trolls. They fight with their own kind and everything else for that matter. They only come together to mate.”

Kjar looked down at the body of the mountain troll and grimaced. The idea of this thing mating…

“Be glad it was a male. The females are even bigger,” Finngyr said. With that he turned and began to slowly make his way up the slope.

“Is that water I hear?”

Kjar could just hear the waterfall in the distance. “What, water? Um, yes, yes, Knight Justice. It is.”

“Good. I need to bathe,” Finngyr said, “I stink.”

“Yes, Knight Justice.”

Finngyr turned to level a dour glare at the younger dwarf. Kjar realized his reply could have been misconstrued as an agreement instead of just a reply. He hastily looked to the ground.

“Heal yourself, if Daomur wills it,” Finngyr finally said. “Then get those hares spitted. I’m starving.”

***

The walk to and from the river was painful. Daomur had healed his wounds, but magical healing did little for stiff joints or unused muscles. The magic had also allowed Finngyr to go without food or water, but the lack of these basic necessities had taken their toll.

He drank water from the river until his stomach ached and still he was thirsty. He picked every last bit of meat from the hares Kjar had caught until their bones gleamed, but still he was hungry. He would need a few more days before he would be able to leave.

Finngyr had his undergarments spread out on several of the flatter stones scattered about the cave. His armor lay, spread out, around him. He had his pauldron in hand, working the oiled cloth in small circles. The familiar repetitive action brought a small bit of comfort to his troubled mind.

A shiver ran through him again, but he shook it off. He was hirsute like most dwarves, but the evening mountain air was cold and he was used to having the additional protection his armor offered from the elements. He almost regretted having Kjar sink the fire.

It was in a pit between them with another hole at its side for airflow. The cave sat just above the treeline of the Deepwood, its fall colored canopy stretching out below as far as Finngyr could see. It was no wonder the troll had found them. The foolish young knight had provided a signal fire to announce their presence. Sinking the fire hid the light.

The downside was the heat, like the light, was also confined and rose straight up. He crinkled his nose at the smell as the fat from the hares rendered over the fire. Supplies were low and they were using the last of the seed oil on their armor. Finngyr would need the animal fat for his leather straps and arming doublet. His armor, like him, was in a sorry state, indeed.

The younger dwarf sat across from him, as close to the fire as possible without falling in. He too, was polishing his armor, a younger reflection of the veteran knight.

Knight Kjar was easily half of Finngyr’s age. Half his size as well. Where Finngyr was stocky and muscled, Kjar was thin and tall by dwarven standards. Not as skinny nor as tall as a human, of course. The only thing large about him was his nose. Broken too many times to count and not even Kjar’s ridiculously large mustache could make it appear smaller.

Knight Kjar squinted at his armor as he went about his work, though truth be told, he always had that squint. It was a common trait of the dwarves from the southern lands of the Empire. Finngyr had to admit he was growing fond of the younger dwarf. He had saved Finngyr back at the tower. If not for young Knight Kjar, Finngyr would be dead and having his life weighed before Daomur on his great scales. Knight Kjar had potential.

Finngyr couldn’t help but wonder if, upon his death, his life would meet the weight set by the Lawgiver? The thought that he would come up short tormented him.

Twice now he had come face to face with Ghile Stonchosen and twice the wretched human whelp had escaped. Not so much a whelp anymore. In the short time since Finngyr first encountered the human, the changes the soulstones inflicted on him were most dramatic. The human was taller and more muscular. Most noticeable though was the soft glow emanating from its skin. The creature was being transformed into a vessel for its hungering and insane god. A transformation Finngyr’s order was meant to prevent and twice he had the opportunity to stop it and twice now he had failed.

Finngyr had questioned whether he was strong enough. He had to believe Daomur had given his devoted followers, the Knights of the Temple of Justice, the tools they needed to successfully cull these creatures from the human herd.

In that first encounter in the Cradle of the Gods, he had struck a mighty blow with his ancient hammer, relics passed down for generations within his order. The blow had caused a flash of blinding light and thrown both him and the stonechosen back with enormous force, but had not stopped the human.

Was it the fault of the hammer or the fault of the wielder? Finngyr sighed. A part of him was relieved he had not died in that tower for fear he would have found himself before Daomur and had his answer.

Knight Kjar looked up from his work at the sound of the sigh. Finngyr could see the younger knight was anxious to talk with him, but Finngyr’s scowl set him back to task.

That was the true question that ate at him over these last few days; was he worthy? Was it his own weakness that had caused him to fail again and again?

Upon finding himself alive and in this cave, he entered deep meditation and prayed for Daomur to bless him with an answer, to guide him towards the truth. A part of Finngyr didn’t think he deserved to be alive. Yet, another part was thankful, but only for fear, that once before his god, he would be found wanting. His faith was being tested and he refused to leave that state until Daomur revealed something. He had ignored hunger, thirst, and other physical pains as the days passed.

He had felt his god’s presence through the connection bestowed by the hammer. Had felt the sense of righteousness, that he walked the true path of his god and what he did pleased Daomur. There was no question in that, he felt it in the core of his being. But, this time he wanted more. Why had he failed to stop the stonechosen twice? Why were the other primordials so active in the lives of their progeny, yet not Daomur? How could he, a knight of the Temple of Justice, have such blasphemous thoughts! If he had been at Temple, he would have sought out a superior knight and had the thoughts scoured from his mind through the lash. He had stayed in that deep meditation and prayed on.

Finngyr found he wanted to blame it on his own weakness. How could he question  his god? He had been taught that only in complete faith in Daomur could the Knights of the Temple of Law hope to succeed. His temple had shepherded the humans ever since Daomur, leading the surviving gods, defeated Haurtu and imprisoned him. Mighty Daomur had chosen his sect, chosen above all others, to take up the task of keeping Haurtu imprisoned.

But was he about to fail in this holiest of tasks? If so, was it truly his fault? It was known that the Temple of Justice had been systematically reduce in size since the Great Purge. Once the greatest of all temples of Daomur, it had slowly been regulated to the smallest, thought by many to be little more than a nod to the past. Had the dwarves, as a whole,  become complacent in their task? Were they failing as a race? Could that be the reason for his personal failures? Could that be why his blows had not been enough? As much has Finngyr wanted to blame his race from straying from the true light and guidance of Daomur for his own failings in his task, he knew he couldn’t.

Finngyr sat his finished pauldron down and started in on a vambrace. He scrubbed at the small spots of rust that had formed as if removing them from his armor would cleanse his mind of these dark thoughts.

He thought about the battle in the tower once again. The humans had fought against each other. The elves had sided with the Stonechosen against the sorcerer and his army of abominations. What that sorcerer had done to Knight Justice Griff, how he turned him into a monster was the highest sacrilege! It just further proved to Finngyr every last human should be scoured from the face of Allwyn, not just potential vessels, but every last one. Finngyr couldn’t understand why the All Mother had stopped the Great Purge.

He closed his eyes and fought against the next logical step in that line of thought.  He had come to this conclusion again and again during his long meditation and had forced the thought back down each time. Now, the thought he had tried to keep locked away these many days slip past the barricade of his belief. If Allwyn, mother of all the primordials, had made a mistake in letting the progeny of Haurtu survive, then she was fallible. If so, then so was her progeny. Thus, Daomur was fallible.

He let the thought sit there naked and alone in his mind. He realized he had stopped polishing his armor and was holding his breath, waiting. Waiting for Daomur to strike him down. The seconds past.

There, Finngyr told himself. He had said it. He sat his unfinished vambrace down and reached for his hammer.

Knight Kjar watched him in silence, though the curiosity was heavy in his eyes and he even leaned forward a little.

Finngyr rested the large two-sided head on his crossed legs and closed his eyes. The connection to the divine was immediate. The warmth of Daomur flowed into him, permeating his entire being.

You are still with me, then, Finngyr thought. He could feel tears brimming at the corners of his eyes and he took a steadying breath to push them down. He had never felt so unworthy as he did just then, sitting on the floor of that cave high in the Godspine mountains.

“Knight Justice Finngyr?”

“If I might-” Kjar began.

Finngyr sighed again. “I have no answers for you, Knight Kjar.”

He slowly opened his eyes and stared across the sunken fire at the other Knight. He couldn’t have seen the hope and faith on Kjar’s face any better than if it had been written there. The sight of it wounded him. “I have no answers,” Finngyr repeated.

“But, Knight Justice…these past days…your communion with mighty Daomur?”

“Has only revealed to me my inadequacies and Daomur’s benevolence to suffer an old fool as myself.”

Kjar’s mouth fell open. “No, Knight Justice.”

Finngyr held up a hand.

You should have left me in that tower, Finngyr thought.

He felt the weight of that thought push down on him. Emotions warred inside him and he felt as if the world was falling down around him. A part of Finngyr wanted it to. For then, it all would be over. But, at the same time, he felt as if finally letting himself feel this way, so open and honest to himself, was lifting a great weight from his soul.

A part of him wished he had died in that tower. Yet, Daomur was still there, filling him with his sublime power, believing in him, despite his obvious weakness.

“I am a fool,” Finngyr said.

“Knight Justice, if I may? From the moment I saw you in battle against the orcs on that outcrop, I knew you walked in Daomur’s light. Since that day, because of you, I have been reborn in service. I have felt his strength grow in me, felt his grace fill me. That day, I saw the Knight I wanted to be. Now you sit here and question if you are deserving to serve him? If you are worthy?”

Finngyr could only stare at the younger dwarf.

“You are worthy because you must be, Knight Justice. I have seen this Stonechosen and its followers. The Time of the Stonechosen is upon us.”

Finngyr could only nod at Knight Kjar’s words. His mission, no their mission, was not done. For he knew Knight Kjar’s fate was just as entwined in this as his was.”

Finngyr fixed his eyes on Knight Kjar. “Never speak of the weakness you have seen here, Knight Kjar. Do you understand?

Knight Kjar nodded and bowed his head.

Finngyr noted the slight upturn at the corners of Knight Kjar’s lips. It was if those words had snapped reality back into place for the two Knights. As if the order of things was once again righted and both of them could feel it settle into place and were glad for it.

“Our mission is not yet done,” Finngyr said.

“What is next?”

“Once I have rested and healed properly, we return to the Fallen City to reclaim Horth’s hammer. And Knight Griff’s, if it is recoverable.”

Finngyr knew the hammers would be there. None but a knight of the Temple of Justice could move one of the sacred relics. But it would mean little if the hammer was buried under tons of stone.

Knight Kjar set back to the task of polishing his armor. “If the stonechosen is there?”

“Then we will face him.”

“And the others?”

Finngyr could hear the uncertainty in the younger knight’s voice. Knight Kjar had fled before the stonechosen’s followers once already. “We will not shy from our course.”

Knight Kjar nodded, visibly taking strength from Finngyr’s conviction. “And if they are gone?”

Finngyr considered for a moment. “That will most likely be the case. The creature’s are driven to seek out the soulstones. From there, we return to that traitor Dagbar’s freehold.”

“We will not be welcomed,” Kjar said.

“Bah!” was Finngyr response.

As mush as he liked the idea of bringing justice down on the heads of every dwarf and human in that settlement, he knew they would not be able to accomplish it alone and there would be no support from his order. At least, not yet.

“We will will not enter, but I would know if the Stonechosen is there.”

“Then to Daomount?”

Finngyr, recovered the vambrace and had just started to polish it again, but stopped and exhaled. He couldn’t return to Daomount and face Lord Knight Justice Gyldoon. Not only had he failed the Lord Knight Justice, yet again, he was sure his actions in Dagbar’s Freehold would not go unnoticed in Daomount. Nothing he wanted to face was waiting for him in Daomount.

“We scout both the Fallen City and Dagbar’s Freehold. Then we turn south towards the Nordlah Plains. Captain Danuk and most of the order has been dispatched there to hunt down the barbarians. He will have established his base camp at the Nordlah Crossroads. They will be the closest. I would have others know what we have witnessed. The actions of the Allwynians and the elves must be known.”

“If the stonechosen is in the Freehold”

“Then we will have all the help and authority we will need to deal with him and his followers.”

 

Chapter One: The Emporium

 

This time I’m going to escape!

Ghile shot up in bed, eyes wide, his breath coming in sharp gasps.

“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Dagbar said from across the room.

The dream was already fading. The sensation of being trapped, the desperate need to escape slipping away. Ghile had been somewhere dark, surrounded by infinite nothingness. Though, those final words, along with the voice that said them, refused to fade. It had not been his voice.

“No, you didn’t…it wasn’t…” Ghile took a moment to clear his thoughts. Someone else had spoken those words. He had not been alone in the dream?

“Give me a moment,” Ghile said. He took in a deep breath and looked about the spartan room. He searched its bare walls as if the answer to his question might be found somewhere upon them.

“More nightmares?” Dagbar asked.

The dwarf stood in the doorway, a look of concern plain in his eyes, one deep blue, the other pure white. Those magically altered eyes stood out in stark contrast to his well flame-colored hair and beard, both oiled and braided.

It had not been another nightmare. Since acquiring the two additional soulstones in the Fallen City, Ghile had been tormented with horrific dreams of the day the denizens of the human city fell to Haurtu’s curse. This one was different. He hoped it had been just a bad dream, but Ghile was no longer so gullible as to think that. They were already worried enough about him, he didn’t need to add to it by sharing this.

“Why are you here, Dagbar?” Ghile said.

He regretted it as soon as he said it. Dagbar had been nothing but gracious and understanding since their meeting in the Deepwood.  He had not been getting enough rest, what little time he took to sleep was plagued with those nightmares. All of his waking time was spent pouring over the prophecies.

“Forgive me, Magister Dagbar. I mean, why have you come to wake me and not young Billy? Do you bring important news? Have Daughter Gaidel and Two Elks returned?”

At Dagbar’s request, Gaidel and Two Elks had gone out to scout the small swath of the Deepwood between the Freehold and the Nordlah Plains for any sign of the approach of Growling Bear’s army. Ghile suspected the idea had been Daughter Gaidel’s all along. An attempt to keep him from rushing off to protect the Cradle. She knew he would not leave without them. She was right, he had learned his lesson on trying to protect others by setting off on his own.

Dagbar smiled at him and made a shooing gesture with his hands. “No offense taken.”  The dwarf shivered. “By the All Mother I believe it is colder in here than out in the morning air.”

Dagbar crossed the spartan room to the open window, his smooth blue robes slid along the flagstone, a sharp contrast to the slap of his sandals. He stood at the window for a moment taking in the Emporium with a look on his face Ghile could only describe as disappointment.

The dwarf leaned out and pulled in the flat stone shutters. They swung with little effort, a testament to their dwarven craftsmanship. The sounds of early morning in the Freehold slipped away, taking the early morning light with them.

Dagbar started to untie the heavy curtains that hung on each side of the window but changed his mind. “It would be warmer with them pulled, but too easy to go back to sleep, I think. Though how you sleep with the noise and the cold…”

“The cold doesn’t bother me,” Ghile said. He had been too lost in his thoughts since the Fallen City to even notice the sights and sounds of the market below. Something that would have kept an earlier Ghile enthralled for days.

“Yes, of course. The soulstones,” Dagbar said. “That will be handy in the nights to come. Autumn is upon us and the nights grow longer and colder.” He worked his jewel covered hands into the sleeves of his robes, “As to your other questions, Daughter Gaidel and her shieldwarden have not yet returned.”

Ghile raised a brow at the dwarf. “So you’re here, because?”

“Well, to speak openly, your appearance unsettles young Billy and many others of the staff more than a little,” Dagbar said. “And those who do want to see you are more interested in falling at your feet and groveling for salvation than turning out your bedpan.”

Dagbar followed his attempt at humor with a wink.

Ghile was still not used to seeing a dwarf so comfortable with showing emotion or making jokes. Dagbar was definitely not like others of his race. Just as he himself was not like other humans. Not anymore, Ghile thought.

He couldn’t blame young Billy. The soulstones had not only granted Ghile incredible powers, but had also slowly changed his physical appearance. He was taller than a Nordlah barbarian now and even more toned and muscled. He no longer looked his fifteen years, all arms and legs. The tall and gangly Ghile of Last Hamlet was gone.

The most notable change, and the one that both unsettled and fascinated the others most, was the glow. Ghile held up his hand and turned it before him. His skin was perfectly smooth and now had an inner glow, just perceptible within his skin, the color of dwarvish gold.

“I understand,” Ghile said.

He knew it wasn’t just his body or the powers. He had changed. The part of him that had been the fifteen year old boy of a small human village was gone. Not more than three seasons had past since he found the first soulstone, but he was profoundly different. He knew things now that he had never been taught. Saw places in his dreams he had never been. All because of the soulstones.

There was nothing for it now, he thought.

Ghile through his legs over the edge of the bed and looked for his boots. He ran his hands through his hair and tried to push the dark curls back out of his eyes. His hair was still the same brown color and always in the way. At least that was the same.

He took his worg fang necklace from the bedside table and put it over his head. That battle on the Horn when Two Elks had presented him with the necklace seemed a lifetime ago, as well. He centered the fangs right above the four soulstones that were now embedded there, in the center of his chest.

“We all broke fast hours ago, but I’ll have food and drink brought up to my meeting room. The others are already there. It is a new day and there is much for us to discover,” Dagbar said.

Ghile nodded absently and didn’t hear the door close behind the departing dwarf. Where was Dagbar drawing his endless enthusiasm from? He had been there with Ghile and the others last night as well and was just as optimistic then. Even though, they had learned little more than they already knew about the prophecy and the soulstones.

He ran his fingers over each of the soulstones in turn. How unimportant they felt. Four round lumps, just beneath his skin, forming the beginning of a spiral in the center of his chest. Four of nine, he now knew. Four more resided in Growling Bear’s chest and one was still out there somewhere. He could just sense its pull from somewhere far to the south.

He was Stonechosen. A vessel of Haurtu, once the God of Wisdom and Learning, but now the Hungering God. Haurtu was the creator of the human race. The race he now sought to destroy. As stonechosen, Ghile was destined to fulfill the Soulstone Prophecy or, like all those stonechosen before him, be consumed by it.

A face appeared in his thoughts as he touched each soulstone. The first soulstone he stumbled upon in the ruins at the base of the Horn, not far from his village of Last Hamlet. That was when Adon, his dead brother, appeared in his dreams. Or should he say the Dreaming? That forested island the soulstones took him to so he could learn and practice his new powers.

Adon had shown him how to create and use the force shields. They took any shape he needed. He used them as both armor and weapon. They were how he leaped great distances or hurled objects with deadly force.

He touched the next soulstone and thought of Muk the goblin and the battle on the Horn. With that soulstone, Ghile gained the ability to reach out and touch the minds of animals. He could see through their eyes, take over their bodies, and even draw upon their very essence to gain their powers for a short time. He could climb like a spider or run with the strength of a stag.

Akira’s face appeared as he touched the third stone. Ghile couldn’t keep a smile from his lips when he thought of her. In the short time he had the soulstone, Akira had shared with him the power to enter others’ dreams and to travel through the dream mists, that place between dreams.

Finally, Ghile touched the fourth soulstone and the visage of Ba’groot, the vargan appeared in his mind. He had yet to truly train with the vargan. What little time he had spent in the dreaming since acquiring the last two soulstones he mostly spent with Akira. She had been so distraught at the loss of her brother, Ashar. Though, he knew he was lying to himself when he used that as the excuse to forego his training and spend time with her.

His face reddened as he thought of their time together and the first time they held hands. She was no longer formed of the gray mists of the dreaming. They could touch. Ghile’s cheeks reddened further.

He shook the thoughts away and pulled his boots up over his leggings. Dagbar had been busy. The water basin was empty and the pitcher next to it full of scented herbs and water. Ghile washed quickly and then slipped on one of the new outfits Dagbar had made and delivered to him after their arrival. The woollen tunics fit his new frame and each sported intricate embroidery around the hem and sleeves. Ghile grabbed the woollen cloak from the wall peg and threw it over his shoulders. He didn’t really need its warmth, he admitted, but it allowed him an indulgence. Ghile picked up the metal brooch and fastened it in place.

The clothes were the nicest he had ever owned, but it was the act of securing the brooch in place that seemed so unreal. It was a simple circle with a long central pin, but it was made of metal.

Metal was a rare thing among humans. Only their dwarven overseers knew the secret of coaxing it from the ground; a secret they guarded closely. The working of stone and the creation of metal were both considered sacred acts that honored Daomur, the god of the dwarves and as such, forbidden to humans and the other races of Haurtu. So, to have something ornamental made of metal was a great show of wealth and prestige among humans. No one from Last Hamlet could have afforded this brooch.

Lastly, Ghile secured his belt into place and adjusted the fang blade on his hip, secure in its new leather sheath. He’d grown use to its weight, it felt odd when it was not there. He didn’t truly need the weapon anymore, having the ability to create a blade of force with a mere thought. But, it was a gift from his Uncle Toren on the evening Ghile left the Cradle. It reminded him of home and the trust his uncle and family placed in him. Fang Blades were dwarf made and enchanted weapons bestowed on those warriors, known as Fangs, chosen by the Druids to protect the Cradle. He was a protector now, but his responsibilities went far beyond the border of the Cradle of the Gods.

Thoughts of Uncle Toren and the Cradle of the Gods led to thoughts of his parents and his young sister, Tia. He missed home. He missed his old life. How many nights had he lain awake back home near the hearth fire and dreamed of some great adventure to take him away from what he now longed for?

“You should be more careful what you wish for, sheepherder,” Ghile said to himself as he went to join Dagbar and the others.

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