The Bait, Part 1
I was adrift on waves I could not see. An ocean of dreams, dark and featureless, without rock or shore. My mind was a skiff upon the waves, caught in currents beyond my control. I must find the horizon, I thought, a way to plot a course. A way to awaken, though what I needed to remember I could not say.
My mouth was a dry tomb of unspoken words. The lids of my eyes fixed as stone, sealed by blood and tears. It was no matter, for there was no light and no reflection of my face upon the deep.
Memories formed in the distance of the black sea, grey clouds tensed with fits of lightning. The lightning was my memories, yet the clouds held them back. They barked with thunder far above my skiff, taunting me with what I could not remember. My throbbing skull could scarce contain them, I clutched my head and prayed I would find one to deliver me.
In the distance I spied one memory that escaped the thunderhead, striking the surface of the sea in ribbons of flame. I must reach it, I thought. I guided my skiff and waited for the flash to fall upon me. I waited, shivering in the dark until I could remember who I was; remember what I was before I was cast onto this endless sea.
I saw the sparks gather in the swirling storm, their brightness pressing against the mist like a child inside its mother’s womb. Then I saw a face forming on the skin of the thunderhead. It was terrible and lovely, pushing out from within the clouds. A lavender ball of light gathered in each eye, drawing down from each other to form the mouth below. I knew that face upon the storm, yet I could not recall her name. Her mouth opened as wide as the heavens, brimming with lavender and lightning. She spoke in light that flashed toward me, as it collided with my body I remembered what I was:
I was the bait.
Suddenly I became aware that the sea was gone. I did not know where I was, yet I was aware that everything around my body was shuddering. My arms pointed to the sky and swung to and fro, each limb beyond my control. However, my legs did not move at all. Where are my feet, I wondered? Where is even the feeling of my feet, and what has become of my boots? I must find my boots. Yet, why do I care about such things?
I dimly remember their sound, clinking on stone. I remember taking heavy, reluctant steps as I ascended a wide flight of stairs. The metal of my boot scraped upon itself, layers opening and closing as I climbed alone. The stairs belonged to a great monolith, its walls polished black and tinged with layers of gold. Was I fearful as I walked? No, I was merely uncertain. Uncertain as to why I had been called in the dead of night to the Oldassan Citadel, the great house of my king, Khazas, the Mountain Shaper.
I was one of his Thanes, one of the Three, as was my father before me. Yet I was no great Thane, I was not even a great Dwarf. The title of Thane was bestowed by the king himself, yet it was hereditary, and my right to wear it was of birth and not of deed.
The two other Thanes were great Dwarves, warriors of wisdom as well as war. I was merely the son of their brave friend, nothing more than a child of their ill-fated brother. Thus every time I entered the cavernous halls of the Citadel to meet with them I earned neither laughter nor scorn. I was given little but silence and observation.
My own siblings were spectacular Dwarves in their own right, though each was deemed unfit for a Thane. My brother Vitrius was a wild beast of a dwarf, the hairs of his beard and the mane of his head never taking a braid. His black hair spread in all directions as if charged with sparks, untamed as the boy himself. As a child, he drew the ire of our mother and the concern of our father, yet as a youth he became even more unyoked from tradition. Often he fled Khadassa in the middle of the night, heading for the endless winter of Tenebrous Tundra.
I would follow my father into the Tundra after Vitrius, shouldering our supplies and the great horn of our family. Father would carry only a torch and the great Hammur, the twin-headed weapon of our Thane house. Hammur took the form of the wielder’s need, at times a great axe, at others a large sword or of course a hammer. For many years now it had been such a thing, a hammer with two heads.
I trudged behind him as he hunted down Vitrius in the ever-storm of Tenebrous, sometimes for days or weeks. I watched him blow the great horn and press it to his ears, begging to hear the rebounding echo return to him with revelation. In time, this would uncover the location of Vitrius; shivering in the belly of a cave, nearly frozen on an ice-laden cliff, or the prison of an unlucky foe. Often Vitrius would come close to death, but this mattered not to my brother, for it was a game of fate to him. He wanted to test our father to the utmost, proving that he cared enough to find his forsaking child.
As we hunted and trekked in the coldest snows of the southern hemisphere of Terminus, I was thankful to be alone with my father. I never felt so at home as I did far from it, and so long as I was with him I had a warmth that no frostbite could blacken or wither. I learned to love the cold that others would dread because it made the whole of Terminus disappear, leaving only the journey, my father, and me.
We endured colds that would kill most any other mortal, though at times even we were brought to the edge of death. (From one such journey my sense of smell was utterly ruined. Even to this very day I can taste little of the strongest food or drink. No healer has been able to recover this sense for me). Yet every time, father used Hammur to deliver his wayward son. Every time he brought Vitrius home, with the weapon across his back. My father was the king of our house, but Hammur was his throne.
When our father died, Vitrius never again entered the endless winter of Tenebrous. He retired to a tower in our Thane house and I have only rarely spoken with him since, though each time it is behind a wall or door. The last time I saw him in the flesh was as he stood behind the parapet of that tower, watching the pyre of our father as his body turned to ash.
“The storm is within Vitrius now,” my mother said. “He no longer has need to flee Khadassa.”
Our sister charted a similar but distinct path. Rytha loved our mother and father dearly, but also the silence of shadows. She held no desire to carry the mantle of Thane, in truth she hardly had the desire to be a Dwarf at all. Rytha, like Vitrius, often fled Khadassa. But it was for the sea rather than the storm, and she cared not if anyone came to find her. As a child, I never knew where Rytha had gone or from whence she would return. On the day our father was laid to rest my sister boarded a vessel bound for Highbrace and I have not seen her face since.
Thus I, the youngest of the three, became Thane by virtue of my siblings’ chosen exile from tradition. In stature, I was small, even for a Dwarf. In strength, I was adequate, though not for a Thane. In skill, I was improving, though progress was slow. My memory was always keen, more so than my body, yet there was one area in which I excelled above all others, owed to those harrowing, beloved treks with father: I was at home in the coldest of colds.
I remember the night our King Khazas welcomed me into his antechamber in the Citadel, the black stone walls as smooth as an obsidian sky, glimmering with torchlight like a canopy of stars. He wore long, grey robes, humble and undivine, yet unable to mask the tenor of his High Mortal state. My armor made a calamitous sound as I entered his presence.
“Dothane,” his voice rolled across the spacious chamber like water rushing across a bed of dry rocks. Dothane, yes, that was my name, and my king was speaking to me. I did not know I was cold until I drank of his warmth, did not know I was anxious until I felt his serenity. I fell to one knee, yet the change in his breathing told me I ought to arise as quickly as I fell. He rose from his tall hexagonal chair, the soft luminance of his hair and skin going with him, his bare feet bathing the obsidian floor in a golden hue.
“Sit at my table,” he invited. “We must not keep our guest waiting.” Guest? Had I missed someone?
“Dothane,” my lord Khazas spoke as he sat, his very words turning my head to the end of the long, pristine table. “This is Bel-Iris –”
“The Mother Mage,” I cut him off in a reverent whisper. I knew her face, though I had never before seen it. Dark as the Black Sand Sea that bordered Su’Roa, lavender lines of light rolling from her mouth and eyes as if drawn by an artisan. Those bold, crystalline eyes, shimmering as they turned toward me, gripping my throat and refusing to let me breathe. I swear upon Hammur that I would have suffocated before my high mortal king if she did not allow me to inhale.
“It is my honor, Lord Dothane,” Bel-Iris spoke. Her voice carried the distinct Archai twin resonance, an echo within the voice itself. Yet whereas in other Archai I had known the resonance sounded like a simple echo, Bel-Iris’ voice was like two people speaking at once, the second even more composed than the first. I swallowed hard and barked several coughs, drops of spit defiling the air and wetting the braids of my beard. (I have three such braids, though my fourth will be finished within the year).
“My lady,” I replied between huffs. “The honor is mine alone.” She studied me until I gained composure, not unlike observing a small animal struggle in the water and picking it up just before it drowned.
King Khazas did not seem to notice the exchange. “You are the Hammur of my Three Thanes,” he continued. “I have chosen you to begin a great journey.”
This was the first time I laughed at a god. Or rather, at one who was once a god, but chose to forsake his immortal life to rule his people in the flesh. (The flesh and also the fat, as my body often reminded me when I bathed.)
“My apologies, lord king,” I began. “I am not accustomed to such an offer. Perhaps it is one of the other two Thanes the Mother Mage is seeking. Olthane has many victories under his banner, Adothane has unrivaled wits. No dwarf can match her knowledge of riddles or runes. Or one of the Jothamites, Fjordu or Jhaegyr –”
“You will accompany Bel-Iris on her journey to find the Dhaun.” His eyes were upon the Archai as she nodded with slow and deliberate poise. “Yes, of course, my King,” I stammered out, thinking only of my insolence at discarding his initial command. “And where shall we await the coming sunrise?”
The Mother Mage and Khazas, King of the Dwarves, turned to me as one, their faces kissed by amusement.
“We speak of the Dhaun, not the sunrise” Bel-Iris emphasized, “Arak’amel. The Ogre Dire Lord.” I choked on breath once more.
“Arak’amel?” I gasped. My exasperated words must have seemed to hang upside-down from the roof of my mouth. “The Dhaun? The ‘clanless Ogre’, the ‘scourge of the Black Moon’… w-why should we seek to find him?” The torches of the great antechamber flickered as I finished my objection. Suddenly the luminance of Khazas was gone, and with him all the fires of his Citadel went out in one long breath.
My vision darkened and the memory of this night faded to nothing. I was alone on my skiff once more, the storm waters are raging and my own voice shouted at me from the endless horizon. “Where is that monster,” I muttered in a stupor. “Where is that homeless.. horror!?” The head of Bel-Iris’ face angled down at me from the clouds, snaking toward the skiff like a serpent.
“Ka’Kelhar,” Bel-Iris’ echoing voice whispered as her lavender eyes approached me in the void. “Arak’amel dwells in the petrified forest of Ka’Kelhar.”
I was snapped awake by pain.
My armor had been stripped from my body, showing bruises and lacerations only just beginning to clot. My muscles tensed and bound up at the slightest movement, not at all helped by my body’s constant drift. The armor was strewn about the moist ceiling above me, pieces pulled off with enough care to preserve them, yet not enough to clean them. How do they sit so easily upon the ceiling, I wondered. My feet still could not move and I seemed to be trapped within a cave with walls that trembled every few moments.
There was a stench in the air more violent than the tremors. If my sense of smell had been that of a normal mortal’s, I should think I would have lost consciousness as soon as I returned to it. There must be a mass grave nearby, I thought, somewhere beyond the corner of this corridor. I struggled to see farther ahead, my vision slow to return. The cave walls must surely open into some great pit of rotting flesh or a bog of acid that slowly digested the unfortunate. The toxic air of this pit was burning the braids of my beard, which floated curiously, despite many weights woven within them.
Yet somehow I knew this stench would greet me when I awoke. I knew the tremors would shake the walls of this cave, even that my beard would float in the air, despite the metal weights bearing the names and titles of my forefathers. I knew this all too well, did I not? Yet why was I so lost by seeing it all given flesh?
What was missing in my mind, I wondered. What could I no longer recall? Perhaps in the corridor of my memories there waited an answer, lurking like the beast that no doubt dwelt within those tremorous walls.
Even with my reduced sense of smell, the stench was too powerful. I needed to return to the dark sea and the waves I could not see. I needed to sit beneath the thunderhead and wait for a memory to strike once more. And on the dark sea, one memory reached out to me, even stronger than the first:
The day we found the Dhaun.