Bobden took a deep draft from his mug. Ezren Mead, it was called. Subtle and sweet, and with a hint of creme. Very good, he had to admit. The barkeep, obviously eager to impress the visiting dwarf, spent nearly a half hour elaborating in detail on the honey used in the mead. Unique to the valley, he said. Created from the exotic ezren bee, whose honey is like none other in all of Oradon.
Bobden did not doubt the man. Indeed, he had seen an ezren in his short time in the valley. The barkeep was right. They were certainly unique.
They also weren’t anything close to being bees.
Him and his brother Ivor had come across one in a cattle field. It was the size of a small dog, with long transparent wings, an equine face, and three dangling yellow sacs on its torso. It had a proboscis longer than the span of his hand, and when they first spied the thing, this proboscis had been shoved down a cow’s throat.
On sheer instinct Ivor had shot the thing with his rifle, piercing the ezren’s gut and sending the thick yellow substance they both would later learn was its “honey” out onto the ground. The only thing that seemed more startled than the ezren was the cow, which darted off like it had been the one shot.
The sound of the shot had been quick to attract attention, and the he and his brother didn’t have long to mull over the strange, dying thing before the rancher marched their way, confused and angry in equal measure.
It turned out the ezran was worth more than the cow. It also turned out that what he and his brother had seen was the closest equivalent the ezran had to breeding, and also how they made they produced the extremely valuable honey for which the valley was known. “The Ezran Kiss,” he called it, and it caused no undue harm nor discomfort to the creature coupled, and even left it with a full, satisfied belly, at that. Ivor and Bobden exchanged a glance at this, and Ivor asked how the rancher knew this for certain.
That’s when the two were chased off. The pair remarked later, after they had seen a number of other ezren humming around, that each seemed to have a noticeably distinct face from one another. Some had long thin faces seeming akin to a horse, while others had broader, thicker faces likened to a bovine, even with odd bumps that one might call horns. And then they noticed several flatter faces, with eyes that seemed disturbingly human.
They started ignoring ezren after that. Ignoring them, and sleeping with their death masks over their faces. Their father would have slapped them for such a blasphemy, but he had long since donned his own mask, and made his final journey to the kingdom below.
It had been several days later that they had come to the town of Dawn Ridge, dusty from the road and eager for whatever comforts they could find. The Black Kettle tavern and inn had served that need nicely. They had eaten, and slept, and took two more days to do exactly the same again. During that span they had gone back to Dwarven Time, sleeping during the day and waking at twilight, putting them both in better spirits.
It had taken six other mugs of less exotic, but also less terrifying spirits to brew in Bobden the courage needed to try the ezran ale. He had managed it, though. Every last drop. Ivor watched him, wincing, as Bobden downed the mug.
“I don’t know what’s more disturbing,” Bobden said, once the bartender was well out of earshot. “Knowing where this stuff came from… or the fact that it’s actually really quite good. You should try some, brother.”
“Not on your life,” Ivor said. “I can barely believe you did it.”
“Neither can I,” he said, grinning through his beard. “But I did.”
Ivor harrumphed. “I don’t think it should count unless it tastes awful.”
“Now, now. Don’t be cranky. You lost the bet, fair and square.”
“Bah! How could I know my own brother didn’t have the sense the Builders put in a boulder?”
Bobden grinned through his beard. “Sense I may not have, but neither do I have the job of collecting our things. I think I shall use my newly found freedom to take a stroll beneath the sky lights. Take care you remember to pack things as I prefer them!”
The brothers split with only a mild amount of grumbling on Ivor’s part, Ivor making his way upstairs while Bobden worked towards the door. They sidled through the crowd of people who were all at least a head taller than them of more. The sour smell of sweat hung in the air, the collective smell of an agrarian people who had nothing they’d rather do on a fall eve than congregate and drink.
They were Bobden’s kind of people.
He parted ways with his brother and left the tavern into the cool night air. The moon was full, it’s thick band bright and green against the black sky. His eyes adjusted almost instantly, and he sighed in a cold breath of relief. Between the bright days they had to travel to avoid danger, and the well lit common rooms they sometimes had to stay in at night, it was a relief to get to just stand out in moonlight and be comfortable again.
Dawn Ridge was quaint, a small roadside village with little more to its name than its sizeable tavern and inn. Three stories tall, it towered over the other buildings in the town. It was the centerpiece of the town, casting flickering light from its windows and laughter from its walls. Bobden used the tavern as an anchor point as he strolled through the dirt streets, indulging in his various curiosities. Their shrines intrigued him in particular.
He managed to find one, tucked between two of the better constructed buildings in the town. He could smell the incense from afar, and feel a steady hum through his bones as he approached. Drawing close, he saw an altar under sheltered by a domed constructions of fused metal and stone.
Atop the altar was an idol to the god Stasicus. Bobden edged up cautiously to examine it, trying to keep the stories told to him as a child out of his mind. Stories of the strange human gods, whose images and replications were their direct extensions, like fingers on a hand. That they brooked no intrusion by those who were not their children, inflicting dire curses or geases on those who violated their sacred spaces.
He was sure these stories about the shrines were just that. Stories. Still, he did not care for their appearance. They were amalgam constructions, made of metal, stone, wood, and other, stranger materials.
It was those that gave him pause. They were present in glimmering lines in the face that refracted non-existent light. Surfaces that rippled as if they were water. Material that looked like cloth, but emitted motes of glowing light that hovered about the edifice before dissolving away. Those kinds of materials were only found in ruins older than both humans and dwarves. Ruins from when only the Builders existed. These were places where, in the lands of his people, even the most experienced and knowledgeable priests loathe to venture, and only did so when the safety of the community was at stake.
“Do you hear me, oh God of Law? Is this lowly child of stone worth your gloryful notice?” He heard himself say, almost surprising himself. “I suppose it matters not. I wished to give my thanks, Great Stasicus. I am here in these lands so far from my home, as a pilgrim and a seeker. My brother and I search for our kin who fled our homes so long ago. We wish them to know it is safe to return home.”
The words flowed, almost unbidden from him. “I do not know if our priests teach rightly, oh Giver of Knowledge, Cementer of Cities. I know not if the Builders brought you and your kin into being as they did us, and I do not care. I only know that these are the lands of your children, and so are your lands by right. I ask for your protection for me and my brother as we walk these lands. Protect us from harm, oh Stasicus, and I shall sing your praises in my homeland until my second life comes due, and the Underkingdom bids me home.”
The silence that fell afterwards was long, and Bobden was not sure how long he continued to stand in front of the shrine feeling the soft hum that emanated from the idol atop the altar.
Suddenly, Bobden was torn from his near-trance by a distant, halting sounds. It was laughter, faint, but definate. Looking around, the dwarf could see that there was nary a candle, lantern, or glowglobe in any of the windows. A quick glance at the moon, and by the shadow on its band he saw that it was well past midnight.
He had been standing at the shrine for two and a half hours.
Collecting himself, he first assumed the laughter must be from retiring revelers from the tavern. The direction was wrong, but perhaps they had wandered far and perhaps gotten lost. But it was not a group of people he heard, rather just one person.
What’s more, the laughter seemed… strange. It was too distant to tell how exactly, however.
Curiosity overtook Bobden. Curiosity and something else he couldn’t quite name. He moved in closer, feeling his heart pound in his chest and sweat gather on his hands.
I don’t know why I’m worried, he thought to himself. I’m just going to stumble on some drunken farmer out to take a piss.
After rounding the corner on a shack he found himself near the outskirts of town. Dawn Ridge had now walls--not even a palisade. Past a few more wooden buildings he could see the far field, nearly half a mile long, that separated the town from the thick tree line. Trees that towered high above even the town’s inn. Many of those trees, Bobden knew, had been old when men first appeared on Oradon.
In the middle of that field Bobden saw two figures. One he recognized instantly. It was the town’s protector, a Steel Angel, the priests of men called it. Ten feet tall, quadrupedal seemingly made entirely of shimmering metal, it was the singular embodiment of the power of the human gods. He’d seen a few in his time, but never up close and never, thankfully, in action.
The second figure was half the height of the angel. It was from him that the laughter was originating from.
Bobden’s brow furrowed. How had he heard this man from so far away? Also, there was something other than laughter he heard from the man.
It was… sobbing?
The dwarf crept closer, the feeling of wrongness taking deeper and deeper hold of him as he did. His hand itched, and he realized he had instinctively reached for the blade he kept in his back pocket only to find it wasn’t there. It was likely placed neatly atop his things next to Ivor’s in preperation for tomorrow’s departure.
With a gasp, Bobden realized just how long he had been out. His brother would likely be worried, if not already out in the streets looking for him. The thought came to him to turn around, to begin creeping back away from the angel and the manic man next to him, but just as he turned to do so, the man took notice.
“Who’s that? Who goes?” the man said between a tittering sob. His voice was hoarse and cracked, and it seemed an effort for him to speak. How long had he been having this fit?
“I’m no one,” Bobden said quickly. “I just heard something strange--your mirth it would seem. I didn’t mean to intrude…”
“Is this some joke?” the voice croaked out. “Did they send you ahead to taunt me? Where is the rest of you?” Another fit of laughing came over him, so deep and wracking that it doubled him over. This close Bobden could hear the pain in his voice as the convulsions took hold of him, and understood why they were intermingled with sobs.
“I’ve done your work,” he said once he regained control of himself. “I’ve committed your blaspheme. No please, please, let us be done with this!”
“I honestly don’t know what you speak of, good man,” Bobden said, trying to back slowly away.
“Wait,” the man said, “You’re not with them?” He darted forward, and Bobden could see the thick, lined robes of a priest on the man. He heard the sounds of clinking chains, and saw the thick book resting at his side. The man was a Speaker of Malfeen, the goddess of magic and the many gifts wrought from that magic that were wielded by mankind.
The priest grabbed Bobden’s collar. He had the eyes of a madman. He spoke through pained titters. “You must leave here now. Tell someone! Get help!”
Bobden wrested the man’s hands off of him. “That was the plan, good sir. Perhaps you’ll let me get back to it.”
Grass rustled behind them, and Bobden whirled around to see several men coming their way. He saw them well enough in the dark; there were six of them. As they came close, one drew a small glowglobe from a pouch and with a shake it rose into the air, moving with them and casting off a faint light. They were hard men. Too well muscled to be famers. Too ragged to be soldiers.
“Shit,” was all Bobden could think to say.
“Who do you have there with you, Father?” the lead man said in a sly voice. He was broad shouldered and shaven headed. “You were supposed to be here alone, remember?”
“It’s just a dwarf with no knowledge of the town,” he said, his voice coming fast between fits. “He’s just lost himself and about to leave!”
“Heptes’ tits!” another of the men said. He was shorter than the rest, and wiry. He turned to the man at the front of the group. “This whole thing’s gone to shit, Landon. Scratch that, it’s been shit since the beginning. We should cut while we still can.”
The man Landon’s voice was calm. “We went over this, Landon. Any chance to cut on this job ended a while ago. We see this one through to the end. No choice on that.”
“Yeah, you said that,” the wiry man retorted, “but you never gave a reason why. We’ve ducked out on jobs before, for less shady shit than we’ve seen on this one. What gives?”
“You’ll see why that is, Kosev,” Landon said, turning fully to his man. “You don’t understand now, but you will. Now’s not the time to be shaky. He’s near to us now. We’ll be seeing him soon. Don’t go shaky on us now. You’ll put us all in danger.”
Bobden could see that the rest of the group was staring at this Kosev, and he was only just now realizing it. Trying to use the distraction to full effect, the dwarf began slowly slinking to the side. When this Landon turned back to him, Bobden broke in a full run, making for the darkness of the field.
He heard them yelling after him as he ran. He was halfway across the field when he saw the outline of a shadow running in front of him. A glance upward confirmed it, they had thrown the glowglobe after him. Before he could consider why they had done this, he felt something strike him from behind. It hit like a bee-sting, quick and silent, and come out the front of him. before he realized what had happened he was on the ground.
He tried to raise himself, but couldn’t. When he looked down at his hands, they were slick with blood. It looked black in the full moonlight.
They had shot him, he realized. The surprise and confusion slowly faded. The rifles fashioned by humans, by priests of Malfeen no less, where whisper quiet when they fired and produced no smoke. A neat trick, that.
The pain didn’t come like he expected, and he knew he was already in shock. He felt his abdomen and knew for certain. Gut shot.
They had killed him.
They were on him in seconds, dragging him back towards the shaking priest and the towering angel, which Bobden realized, with strange clarity, seemed something more akin to a statue now than a divine protector.
“Now that that’s out of the way, I’m assuming all is done, father?” Landon said.
“It’s done,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “It’s done, it’s done.”
“Good man,” Landon said, ignoring the priest’s relapse into laughter. “Now we just have to wait for him and we can move on from this shit-hole of a town.”
“I’ve done as he commanded,” the priest said, doubling over to gain enough control to speak again. “Will he take this off of me? Will he?”
“He’ll do exactly what he said he’d do, Father,” Landon said. Their voices seemed to be growing distant. With dim clarity Bobden knew why.
You have been dealt an injustice, child of stone. The voice was calm, with a warmth that was comforting. It reverberated from within him, a voice he felt rather than heard.
I should have never made that stupid bet, Bobden said. Except he didn’t. He responded to the voice in the same manner it spoke to him.
If you hadn’t, your brother might be here in your place.
Bobden said nothing to this. He didn’t want to think about that. Ivor might be looking for him now, and might suffer the same fate as he if he were discovered by these men. What are you? he said instead.
I am the protector of this place, robbed of my purpose, just as you have been robbed of yours.
With some effort, Bobden craned his head to look back at the angel standing statue still in the field. It looked no different, except for the things eyes. Six luminescent spheres glowing in his vision. He couldn’t imagine how his killers hadn’t noticed them, unless he was the only one who was seeing them.
It was strange, Bobden thought. He was dying. The life running from him, and now, in this place, he found his mind wandering. What did they do to you?
They have left me bereft of motion, and imprisoned me in my own form. The voice seemed unaffected by his state, posing the words no differently than if it were describing a the grasses in the field.
The priest did that to you? The priest of Malfeen? Bobden felt hands over him. They were searching him. Scavenging off him like hyenas. He saw them as blurs.
Yes. The eyes regarded him impassively.
Why did you let him? Why did Malfeen let him? One pair of hands found his death mask. He tried to lift his arms to reach for it, but they barely rose before it was gone. The one thing he needed now, his face for his second life, had been taken from him. With that, the sense of loss he faced settled on him, and a blanket of loss and sadness settled upon him.
No one let him. He chose, the voice continued, heedless of the dwarf’s declining state. He has free will. Such is the gift of the new children. I will not rise against one of her chosen. Even if they have fallen. It is not as I am made.
A coldness was resting through him. He was vaguely aware of how soaked his clothes were in his own blood. He sighed, and it came out as a sputtering, gurgling sound. And now I’m to die because of it.
You are, child of stone. But even in that, you have a choice.
He wanted to laugh, but he knew if he did he might choke. Choice? What choice am I offered now, oh great and mighty metal scarecrow?
The choice of making something of your death.
He reeled back to get another look at the angel. He was aware there was more arguing going on from the group around him, but he ignored it. Speak plainly, angel. What would you have me do? I’m not long for this life, my best life, and these men have taken the singular thing I need for my second. I am in a very poor mood!
You need do nothing but observe, child of stone. Bear witness. And, perhaps, pass what you have seen on to others who may put it to use.
The weight of the words hung on Bobden like a stone. You ask too much.
It is asked of you just the same.
Why can you not do this? You are in a better state than I.
I am a spirit inside a metal husk. A construction of light, laws, and directives. It is not in my making. It is in yours.
Bobden felt very little now. The world arond him was a smear, all blurs and distorted sounds. It would be different, after. He knew that, but he didn’t know how. But to do as the angel was asking, he would have to pull back. Pull back and see everything. Hear everything. Feel everything.
He was scared.
This is some plan, he said as he began to focus, from a spirit without the will to smack the bugger priest who broke him.
The dwarf thought he felt the mental equivalent of a shrug. That was a matter of choice, an idea abstract to me. This is not choice. This is contingency. Many of those were in my making.
But none were about squishing a bugger priest?
Fine. The world began to come back into focus for Bobden. Not with the clarity it had just that evening, as he strolled about the town, indulging his curiosity. It was foggy and strained, seen through a filter of pain and lost blood.
And he felt the pain of his punctured stomach and ruptured gut. Its intensity was so deep and all encompasing that he wanted to let go again and recede, to let the blanket of death wrap him. To comfort him. To bear him off to his second life.
Soon, he told himself. Soon, but not yet.
The arguing had escelated. Some were debating how to split Bobden’s things. Others were trying to decide on what to do with his body. The man known as Kosev was silent, his eyes focused. The eyes of one looking for an opening.
Bobden had had those eyes, he knew. Shortly before he had been shot in the back.
The dwarf took it all in. Faces, voices, smells. Everything. He forced it all into the back of his mind, memorizing them the way the priests had taught dwarves to since they had left the Underkingdom millennia ago. Bobden worked to push the pain tendriling through his body away. It refused to go, demanding the attention of his senses. It was excruciating, but with focus he forced it to relent, to huddle in the back of his mind while he did his final work.
Everyone had gone quiet. Someone new had arrived, stepping in from the darkness into the dim glow of the floating globe. Bobden could not see him well, blocked as he was by the other men, but he wore the unassuming clothes of a traveller. Everyone but the man Landon looked dumbstruck as they beheld him.
“My, my, Landon,” a slick as oil voice said. “It looks like you done went and snagged you a big one.” It chuckled. “Best watch out. I hear below the beard there’s nothing but gristle.”
The retort of laughter echoed through the field. There was a forced quality to it, eerie to Bobden’s ears. Stranger was the look on the faces of the men. Despite their laughter, there was fear in their eyes. Fear at this new person who had arrived.
“It’s done, sir,” Landon said, his laughter subsiding somewhat. “All to your command.”
“You are certain?” the amusement in this new man’s voice was evident. “I don’t want to hear later that you missed some.”
“We got everything. He had only a few knives and a coil of rope. The sheets are in our pack, if you wish to see.”
“No need, no need. Those were just a bit of icing on my little cake. Father Ashton!” he said, moving towards the quavering priest. “You were the star of this show, and I see you did not let me down. I see that hulking beast is as dead as a doornail, and just as useful. I am so very proud of you!”
“Please…” the priest said, his voice barely holding. “Remove this poison from my mind. Take away these thoughts, like you promised!”
Bobden searched sought out the man’s face, but he couldn’t see it for the gloom. It seemed as if the glowglobe was barely functioning now. The man placed a hand on Father Aston’s shoulder. “Oh, poor Father. I am bound to my word, and I would be happy to do exactly what I said.”
A giddy joy was creepy into the man’s voice. “But unfortunately, I did not put those awful thoughts in your head. Those memories? Those pesky transgressions? They are all yours, good Father. I only removed the walls your mind put up around them. Let you remember everything with crystal clarity. And, while I said I’d take away whatever I put inside your sad little brain, I said nothing about putting anything back, now did I?”
The priest was shaking in horror. “No, no. That cannot be. I did not do those things. I know I did not do those things. You lie!”
“Quite often,” the man said. “But not here. How long has your book been empty Father? How long ago was it that Malfeen forsook you? This little pig-fuck town is such an easy place to lose oneself, with no one to ask any questions. How often have your sermons simply been from memory?”
“No! No!” was all the priest could say, over and over again
“I tell you what, Father. Why don’t you go back to your home, and have a nice long think about all you’ve done. Think about how long you can live with yourself? I’ve had our friends here make sure it was all nice and safe. No knives or ropes or… what was it? Yes, even sheets.” His voice took on a mocking sternness. “No taking the easy way out, now! If you want the pain to end, you’re going to have to work for it.”
All of them burst into laughter once more as the priest fled. The only one who wasn’t laughing was Kosev. There was a quiet terror evident on his face. His gaze drifted downward, and the dwarf’s and the robber’s eyes met. Bobden wished he could hear his thoughts like he could that of the angel. What had happened to them? How had this man gotten into this?
Telepathy or no, something passed between the two. Bobden granted he may have imagined it, but resolved himself regardless. Perhaps this man deserved no mercy, but whatever was fated for these men, he could not bring himself to wish it upon them.
The dwarf took his chance, not knowing how much time he would have. With all his remaining strength, he reached out and grabbed the leg of the man nearest him, yanking as hard as he could. It unset him, making him real and teeter in an attempt to regain his balance. The man yelped in alarm, drawing the attention of the rest of the group. The bandit stomped Bobden hard in the chest, cracking a rib and causing his vision to go blurry with pain.
His vision cleared just enough for him to see Kosev act. The bandit closest to him had been the one who had shot Bobden. He still held the rifle, a long, white thing with coils of metal around the barrel and dull silver plates on the grips. He struck a quick and hard blow to the bandit’s neck, wresting the rifle away as he did.
The rifle still in his hand, he ran, just as Bobden did. He went in the opposite direction, however, making for the thick tree line. Landon’s men moved to pursue him, but their employer stopped them with a word and a gesture.
“Let him go,” he said, turning to Bobden. “I have an associate in the woods. If he makes it past good Duram, then I say he’s earned the right to leave us.”
Bobden watched Kosev run until is was nothing but a smudge, and then lay his head back upon the grass. He was now going numb all over. In the flurry of activity Bobden almost forgot he was dying, but it came back with crystal clarity. His last bit of energy was spent, and everything was going very, very dim.
“And anyway,” the strange man said, “we have our new friend here now.” He knelt down next to Bobden, and the dwarf saw what so terrified Kosev. His body, no longer strong enough to shock, instead managed only a sickly, aching throb of fear. He briefly considered, hoped for, the possibility he was imagining what he saw. A final trick of a dying mind. But he knew that wasn’t the case.
His face. What happened to his face?
“We’ll be taking you with us, my bearded friend.” He turned to the others. “Where we’re going, we’ll need the meat.”
The mouth… too many teeth. Where was the rest?
Landon looked unsure. “Sir… I think Barlow pierced his stomach. I don’t think we can save him.”
“And I don’t want you too,” that oily voice said with a rich cheer. “He’s more interesting as a corpse.” And then he kneeled down closer to Bobden, his wide smile being all that encompassed the dwarf’s vision. His voice grew low, and incredibly deep. “Isn’t that right, Beardy?”
There was nothing left for Bobden to do. Remember. Remember. He said, flashing through everything he had seen. Committing it to his quickly dying memory. In seconds he could not feel himself, and all that was him felt dissolute. Would he hold on? Would he keep himself? It was known to happen, though he had never seen it. His father hadn’t.
In the last few seconds of Bobden’s first life, he felt an aching sadness. His brother was only a short walk away, and he would not get to see him. He was safe, though, at least for a time. As his mind grew chaotic, raging against his own death, he found himself soundlessly repeating the final rites of the Builders. “My life belongs to the Builders. Through me their will is made manifest. In their mercy I have been given one life for my own, in exchange for a second that is theirs alone. I shall live. I shall die. I shall live again. All praise to the builders.”
As the words formed on his lips, the grinning visage of whatever had employed Landon and his mind slipped to darkness. When he finished, the words had no meaning, and he knew not why he said them.
Nor did that which was Bobden know who or what he was.