The Hammer of Hu'Mod Part 4
by "Splatter" Joe Solmo
Birell stood on a knee-high rock, her hand across her brow blocking out the midday sun. The land in front of them looked inhospitable. She looked back to the forest behind the group of travelers she had attached herself too. It called to her nature, being an elf, but she knew it would be a while before she stepped foot under the boughs of trees once again.
Her eyes passed over Moose, the largest brother, who when not moving could stand eerily still, like stone. His smallest brother Skrat sat under him, utilizing the shade his monster sized brother cast. Skrat’s nose was buried in an old book in a language Birell didn’t understand. The remaining brothers, Sreg, the nature loving archer and Zeeg, the oldest and leader of the brothers, sat next to the dwarf, Grian.
They talked of strategy to cross the desert-like plains of the Akridlands. The elf was surprised when he opened up to the brothers about his reason to cross such a desolate area. Skrat seemed interested in the artifact the dwarf was looking for more than anything else. Zeeg thought it could lead to a better situation for the brothers, to give them purpose, and that was good enough for Moose and Sreg. Birell wondered if she would ever see home again, and sighed. What was it that drove her to follow that little bearded bundle she stumbled upon in The Wood of The Damned a week ago?
“We will need lots of water, that’s fer sure,” Grian said dusting off his leather trousers as he stood.
“We should fill up before we cross,” Zeeg said pointing back towards the woods. “There was a stream not far from the edge of the forest.”
“Aye, it would be quicker if one of us runs back,” the dwarf said finishing off what was in his wineskin.
“I’ll go,” said Sreg. “I can move fast through the woods.”
“I will also go, to help carry them back,” Birell said with a blush.
“It’s a race then,” Sreg said with one of his smiles and grabbed the pile of empty wineskins laying on the ground.
“Last one there has to cook dinner,” Birell said and grabbed a few wineskins from the archer and took off towards the trees.
“Oh, I like her,” Sreg said to Zeeg and gave chase.
“Sreg has a crush on a pretty girl? Well I am in shock,” came the sarcastic comment from Skrat as he put his book away.
“It seems to be about that time, it’s been weeks since he was in love,” Zeeg said back.
“Yes and last time we were locked in cages in a cavern under the farmer’s barn,” Skrat said.
“True, but it worked it’s self out in the end,” Zeeg said as he patted his younger brother on the back. The youngest brother nearly was knocked over from the affection, but Zeeg didn’t notice.
“How are we on food?” Grian asked.
“We have a few weeks’ worth of rations, they taste like what comes out of the back end of a cow, but they will get us through. Keeping water inside us worries me more, but not as much as what could be lurking out there in those sand dunes. No one goes out there. There has to be a reason behind that,” Zeeg said.
“Folklore, my brother. Superstitious nonsense to keep people away. I wouldn’t blame whomever lives in that castle we are looking for. The best way to defend is to have the enemy stay away,” Skrat said, picking at a loose thread on his linen shirt.
“Let’s hope so, but you have to admit we have seen Folklore in the flesh before,” Zeeg said and started to fish in his pack.
“You don’t have to remind me, brother,” Skrat said. “Grian, do you know why Hu’Mod had chosen you for this mission?”
“No idea, Skrat. I am just pleased that he saw something in me and trusted me with this task. I can’t let him down. Not only is it important to me, but it could mean a lot to my people if I am successful. It could mean the return of magic to the dwarves,” Grian responded as he sharpened a dagger with a whetstone.
“Moose, come here I want to consolidate our packs. The less we have to carry into the desert the better,” Zeeg said to his larger brother. The mountain of a man came to life and approached his brother. He took his pack off his back and dropped it next to Zeeg with a thud. He grabbed the pack and tried to lift it with a grunt.
“What the hell do you have in there?” Zeeg asked. Moose didn’t respond, just stood there watching his brother.
“He doesn’t talk much, does he?” Grian asked.
“My brother has suffered much in his life, and as a result of a traumatic experience his brain stopped working like the rest of ours,” Skrat explained. Moose ruffled the hair on Skrat’s head.
“You’re going to scramble my brains, you ogre,” Skrat said wiggling out of the headlock.
“Moose kill Ogre,” the giant man said lifting his massive weapon from the ground and scanning the horizon for a threat.
“Ok guys, calm down. Let’s get these packs sorted out while we wait for Sreg and Birell to return,” Zeeg said.
Birell’s heart pounded in her chest as she chased the human through the underbrush. He was fast, but she was gaining on him.
“What’s the matter elf? Not at home in the forest,” Sreg called back mocking her with a smile. He turned back around just in time to avoid running face first into an ancient oak as big around as Moose.
“You better save your breath, you’re going to need it to cry when I bet you there,” Birell called back smiling herself. She leaped over a fallen log and when she landed she was only a few feet behind Sreg.
“Well I am carrying more wineskins than you are, it isn’t fair,” Sreg said dodging around a large stone, nearly cutting Birell off.
“Let me lighten your load then, human,” she said and using her free hand knocked Sreg’s wineskins out of his hand.
“Cheater!” he called after her as he stopped to pick up the skins. Her laughter faded away into the woods.
“Damnit,” Sreg said with a smile, and began to jog in the direction the elf had gone.
Birell heard the archer approach from behind her. She had already finished filling all the wineskins with fresh water from the stream. She even had time to fish and had two trout cooking over a small fire when he came up beside her.
“You cheated,” he said and plopped down next to her to catch his breath.
“I merely used a tactical maneuver to gain the upper hand,” she said and smiled. “I caught us a snack to make up for it,” the elf said pointing to the two fish impaled on a stick above the fire.
“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked as he grabbed the stick and took a bite out of the first fish.
“Yes, that’s why there are two, greedy human,” she said yanking the stick from his hand.
“Relax, I was teasing you,” Sreg said. “How long do you think it took us to get here? Think we should being some back to the other guys?”
“I can try to catch more while you fill your share of wineskins,” Birell said pulling her string and hook back out of a pouch around her waist.
“I am a master fisherman,” Sreg boasted. “Let me catch us dinner tonight. Who knows when we will get fresh fish again, you know.”
Birell rolled her eyes and put her hook away. She grabbed a wineskin from Sreg’s pile and began to fill them where water splashed over a knee high boulder in the stream.
“Is life a joke to you?” Birell asked capping the first of the wineskins.
“Life shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Enjoy every minute. You never know when it will all come to an end. I have seen my share of death, and I know I don’t want to be one of those people who lie there on their death beds full of regrets,” Sreg said. “Besides, we can’t all be elves who live to be hundreds of years old, ya know.”
“Some elves can reach a thousand. Loving life doesn’t give you an excuse to be a jerk,” the elf fired back.
“Am I being a jerk? I most certainly didn’t mean too. I am a very sarcastic person, maybe that’s it?” he asked with a coy half smile on his face.
“That must be it,” Birell said and placed the last wineskin on the bank of the stream. “Are you ready to head back?” she asked.
“Yeah, in a minute,” Sreg said stringing his bow. He knocked an arrow and pointed it at the elf. “There is one thing I need to do first.”
Birell stared down the length of the arrow, slowly moving her hand to her hip, where she kept a dagger. In training she was taught to deflect arrows and even at this small distance she thought she had a chance. She shifted her weight so that she could spring forward to disarm the archer.
Just then she sensed something odd. A growing cold behind her. Goosebumps rose on her arm and the hair on the back or her neck joined them. A void on nothingness behind her reached the far bank of the stream, only a few feet from her. She looked into Sreg’s eyes and noticed he wasn’t looking at her.
“Duck,” he whispered and fired his arrow. It whizzed by Birell’s ear as she dropped to her stomach on the bank. A shriek escaped from somewhere behind her and she spun over onto her back in time to see the horrible thing descend on her, first grabbing her ankle and clawing its way up her. The shade reached out with its bone white hands, grasping Birell’s forearms. Sudden and incredible pain shot from her limbs, like a cross between electric and ice. She tried to scream but nothing came out as the pain made its way towards her heart. The creature’s horrid face looked down at her and it opened its spectral mouth.
Another arrow pierced the undead creature, this time into the roof of its mouth and it let go of Birell. She instantly kicked to her feet, drawing both weapons in her hands while trying to balance with one good ankle.
“Get down, I don’t have a clean shot,” Sreg yelled from behind her.
“I got this one,” she said and charged the shade. She brought her dagger up under the chin of the creature penetrating deep into it, driving its lower jaw up into its face. She kicked its chest at the same time trying to knock it off balance. An arrow passed within inches of her, but missed both her and the creature and disappeared into the forest.
“I said I got it,” Birell said and drove her sword into the chest of the shade, piercing its heart. She heard a crack from within and the body went limp on her weapon. She had to let go of the sword and let the creature drop to the ground. “You have to pierce their icy hearts,” she said in let out the breath she didn’t realize she was holding.
“I see. I was aiming for the brain, works for zombies,” Sreg said pulling his arrow from the things face and wiping it on his pant leg.
“I will remember that when I find a zombie,” she said and withdrew her sword from the corpse. It had started to smoke and was melting into the earth.
“Was it following us?” she asked. “Grian and I ran into a few of these near that temple.”
“Well if that’s the case lets grab the water and head back to the others,” Sreg said slinging several wineskins over his shoulder. “Race back?”
“You got to be kidding me,” Birell said.
Zeeg was on watch when Sreg and the elf returned with the filled wineskins. The elf was using a makeshift crutch from a branch. “What happened?” Grian called out passing Zeeg to reach his friends side.
“Shade jumped us at the stream. It must have followed us,” Birell said dropping down onto a stone.
“Undead are following you too?” Skrat said as he approached. “Are you hurt, my brother?” he asked Sreg.
“I’m good. You know me, I’m too fast for it,” he bragged with a smile. “Let us see the wounds,” the youngest brother demanded.
Birell pulled her pant leg up to show them her ankle. It looked like a bruise with ice crystals. She had the same marks on her forearms. Skrat reached his hands out to within an inch of the wound.
“I can feel the cold coming off of those,” he said.
“Will I be ok?” she asked.
“You should be, once you get healed,” Skrat said.
“And how am I supposed to do that?” the elf asked.
“That is a question for your dwarf friend, I believe,” Skrat said. All eyes turned to Grian as he stood there looking at his friend. Suddenly he looked up at them.
“Me? I don’t know anything about healing!” he said, running his hand through his beard.
“Why don’t you give it a try? After all you claim to be a paladin of Hu’Mod, do you not?” Skrat said with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“I’m not sure I would use the word paladin…” Grian answered and approached his elven friend. He rubbed his stubby fingers together and closed his eyes. He never was good at knowing which herbs helped with what, but maybe with his god’s help, he could heal his friend.
“Hu’Mod grant me the use of your power to heal these unnatural wounds that plague my friend. I need her strength to accomplish the task you have set before me,” he whispered. He finished rubbing his hands together and placed them on Birell’s ankle. The cold shot into his arm, he could see the wound leave her body and enter through his hands. The pain was intense as both dwarf and elf screamed in pain. He let go of her body and watched as the icy bruise worked its way up through his arm. It crossed into his chest and headed for his heart. Grian took a deep breath and covered Birell’s forearm wounds.
“Are you sure you want to keep going?” Zeeg asked, looking back and forth nervously between elf and dwarf.
“Let it be, brother,” Skrat said.
Once again the wounds left the elf’s body and entered Grian’s. Birell sat up, no longer in pain, and now only felt concerned for her friend.
Grian fell back on the ground clutching his chest and ripping his shirt. The three wounds circled his heart, just under the skin. He arched his back in pain.
“We have to help him,” Birell said dropping to her knees near her friend.
“Stay back, it has to be this way,” Skrat said blocking her.
Grian called out in pain, and slowly rose off the ground. He floated there six inches above the ground. His eyes flung open and they were completely white. A white glow radiated out from around the dwarf and he screamed again. The light grew blindingly bright and a flash rippled out from him. When the light faded enough to see again, Grian was laying on the ground. The three wounds were gone, and he was breathing normally.
“He is fine,” Skrat said. “He will be thirsty when he awakes.”
“What the hell just happened?” Sreg asked.
“Our dwarven friend just learned how to cure an unholy curse. He had to absorb it into his heart, where his compassion for his fellow man, er…elf, in this case resides. That is where a paladin holds the power of his god. It comes from the heart,” Skrat explained.
“Would have been nice if you explained that from the start,” Birell said, concerned for her friend.
“This curse was powerful. It is not something a person should attempt the first time, but he had no choice. It normally wouldn’t be that bad. The hatred that the Shade feels for the living is powerful. Your friend is indeed who he says he is, in case there was any doubt,” Skrat said and looked at the dwarf curiously. With a nod he walked back towards the little fire they had started for cooking dinner.
The next morning Grian awoke with a splitting headache and no recollection of what had happened after he had asked his god for help. When he tried to think about it he grew dizzy.
“Here, this will help,” Skrat said handing the dwarf a cup of steaming tea. “It’s a special blend I came up with. Do you remember what happened?”
“Nothing really, it’s fuzzy,” Grian replied.
“Trying to do something beyond your abilities is hell the next day, I have been there. It will go away after you drink this,” the youngest brother said. Grian sipped the concoction he was handed.
“Gah, herb water. Did Birell put you up to this?” he asked holding his head and wincing.
“I know better. How are you feeling,” the elf asked as she approached.
“Like I got run over by the Elf King’s carriage, but I will survive. More importantly, how are you?” he asked.
“I feel great. I felt better the second those things left my body. I owe you, Sir Dwarf,” Birell said.
“I told you to call me Grian,” he said with a smile and took another sip of tea.
“I am trying to find something to mask that taste,” Skrat said knowingly. “We are ready when you are to head out across the Akridlands.”
“Just give me a few minutes to wake up,” Grian said pouring the rest of the tea down his throat. “This way I don’t have to taste it a little at a time.” He said to Skrat.
“A clever solution, indeed,” Skrat said taking the cup from the dwarf. The rest of the group packed up the camp and put the fire out. Within a few minutes all were ready to head out into the unknown desert.
“Lead the way, Paladin,” Skrat said pointing towards the dungeon.
“I’m still not comfortable with you calling me that,” he replied.
“You may call me Wizard, if it makes you feel better,” Skrat said.
Grian set the pace as they left the comfort of the tree line for the barren wastes and miles of sand dunes that made up the Akridlands. Occasional stone monuments jutted their way up through the sand sea creating islands of red stone. The hot sun beat down on them relentlessly with no shade in sight. Within a few hours the group were covered in sweat. Zeeg followed wordlessly behind Grian, hand on the hilt of his sword, and eyes scanning the land for danger.
Every time Grian turned around he noticed the brothers all staring at him, well with the exception of Sreg, who had eyes on Birell. Even Moose was watching him. He didn’t feel like it was because they didn’t trust him, but nonetheless it made him feel awkward. He tried to put that out of his mind and concentrate on what had happened the night before.
He remembered asking Hu’Mod for help healing his friend. He remembered the feeling of being filled with power. Like when he fought those shades in the clearing with Birell before. After that everything was a blur. Vague glimpses of pain and an unnatural cold emptiness filled his memories. He remembered feeling the cold in his chest, like an icicle had pierced his heart, and he shuddered. That’s the farthest he could remember, every time he thought of that particular moment his brain ran up a tree and flung poo in primal fear.
The entire morning Grian was aiming for a rock formation that looked vaguely like three pillars with a stone across the top. Here it was almost midday and it didn’t look any closer than it was when they left. The desert had that effect on objects. Grian wondered how many days away the Red Rock Castle. What if they didn’t bring enough provisions? What if they run into trouble on the way there? What if the Keystone wasn’t there when they got there?
All these doubts crept their way into Grian’s head as he looked back at the line of people that followed him. What if I was leading all these people to their deaths? He shook his head. I can’t think that way, he thought. I have to trust in Hu’Mod. He wouldn’t send me on this quest if he didn’t know I could come through. Now wasn’t the time to doubt, now was the time to free his god with the Keystone and bring Hu’Mod’s glory back to the dwarves.
Grian wondered if heroes from the old stories had doubts when they were doing the great deeds they still sing about to this day. He didn’t think so. In the stories the hero is always so confident and knew exactly what to do. He surely didn’t feel like a hero. He was happy that he could help cure Birell, but that wasn’t him, that was Hu’Mod’s doing. He was just a conduit for his god to use.
They stopped midafternoon near a house sized boulder that offered a little shade. They ate their dried beef meal in silence just glad to be out of the sun for a short time. Thirty minutes later they left the shade to continue the journey.
As the late afternoon rays pelted their backs the group moved in single file wordlessly, more concerned with putting one foot in front of the other instead of conversation. It wasn’t oppressively hot, but it was very warm.
Grian still aimed for that three pillar stone on the horizon. He hoped it was getting closer, but it was so hard to tell. Just then a shadow covered them for just a few seconds, just long enough to make them crave the relief from the sun. Grian placed his hand on his brow trying to look to the sky but whatever it was it was staying near the sun and they couldn’t make out what it was. Some kind of large bird? Grian thought. The rest of the group looked as well, but no one could get a good look at it.
“Whatever it is, it’s circling up there in front of the sun, it’s like it knows we are looking for it.” Zeeg said.
“Some kind of predatory bird, maybe,” Sreg said.
“I got a bad feeling about this, someone keep an eye on it,” Grian said.
“I got it,” Sreg said.
“That would mean you would have to take your eyes off the elf, brother,” Skrat said, pushing his sweat damp hair from his face.
“Very funny, Rat,” Sreg said.
“That’s Skrat,” the youngest brother replied.
“Oh I am so, Skorry!” Sreg joked. Zeeg punched his archer brother’s arm.
“Keep an eye on the sky,” he said.
“Birell, can you watch behind,” Zeeg said.
“Yes. Nothing will sneak up on us,” the elf said. Grian notices that she wasn’t as sweaty as the rest of them. It must be the thin elf blood, he thought. Dwarves don’t belong in the sun, they belonged in the cool, carved halls under the earth. Someday maybe, he thought, I will return to a dwarven hall a hero, and I can sit with my kin and celebrate life. He sighed as the vision faded.
“It’s still circling,” Sreg said a few minutes later.
“Thank you for the progress report, you only have to tell us if something changes,” Zeeg said to his brother.
“Got it,” Sreg said.
“We have movement,” Birell said. The party stopped and turned back towards the forest. It was almost impossible to see from this point. The distant mountains that surrounded the woods looked like small foothills.
“Where?” Zeeg asked. “Don’t take your eyes off the flying thing, Sreg.”
“I swear I saw something. Looked like a group of people on horses,” Birell said.
Grian reached out with his mind, searching for the people Birell saw, but he couldn’t find any trace of them.
“Keep looking, the sun will be down in a few hours,” Zeeg said as the group started moving once again. Two more times Birell said she saw the people on horses, but both times there were no trace of them. The mystery beast circled above them in the sun’s path, until the sun set behind the horizon, disappearing into the night.
They travelled a few hours in the darkness, guided by the light from the moon above, but soon needed rest. The temperature had dropped significantly since the sun set, and they began to shiver.
Moose dropped his pack and pulled several logs from it. The group started a fire and huddled around it for warmth. “I hate starting a fire, it’s like a beacon out here, but without it I fear we will freeze,” Zeeg said poking a log into position.
“If those people were following us, then they already know we are here,” Grian said, once again trying to reach out with his mind to scan the area.
Skrat stood and walked out of camp without saying a word. The darkness swallowed him as he passed into the desert night. The sound of his boots crunching on the sand faded.
“Where is he going?” Grian asked Zeeg.
“He is setting a perimeter. A magical barrier around our camp. If anything comes within a mile we will know about it,” the eldest brother explained.
“Ah, it’s similar to what I can do, but a mile out is too far for me,” Grian said.
“For one so young, he is very powerful. He would never admit it, but the teachers at the academy were scared of his power. You should have seen the looks on their faces when he opened a portal to another dimension his first week there. Some of the Elder’s still can’t open portals and he did it, no sweat,” Zeeg said with pride. It was clear he really cared for his brother.
“How about the look on their faces when he accidently set the tower on fire?” Sreg said fixing a feather on one of his arrows.
“That was an accident,” Zeeg said.
“I have returned, you may stop talking about me now,” Skrat said and sat down next to Grian. “Has your memory of last night returned?”
“Not yet,” Grian responded.
“It will come,” Skrat said.
A screech came from above. Somewhere in the night sky something was calling out.
“I think our flying friend is back!” Sreg said, stringing his bow.
“Does your perimeter work straight up into the sky?” asked Zeeg.
“It does not,” Skrat said, grabbing his staff. Another, closer screech came from above and the sounds of flapping leathery wings buffeting the air came with it.
“It was hunting us, but not for food. It was a scout for them,” Sreg said pointing in the distance. On the ground several small fires could be seen bouncing. Torches. A sound like a thunderclap rang out.
“That’s my alarm. Something else has tripped it,” Skrat said scrambling to his feet.
“Sreg, keep an eye on the sky, try to look where the stars aren’t. Birell, Grian. Keep an eye on those torches. Skrat, can you tell which direction the perimeter breach is?” Zeeg barked.
“Towards the Red Rock Castle,” the youngest brother said and pulled his hands apart before suddenly clapping them together. A wave of green light rippled out like waves in a pond formed from throwing a rock. It illuminated out to the range of the perimeter before fading back in darkness.
Farther out in the desert just before where the light would disappear, black shapes close to the ground made their way towards the group. “We got company,” Zeeg said unsheathing his sword and grabbing his breastplate.
“Moose, wake up. Its play time,” Sreg said kicking his brother to wake him. The giant of a man opened his eyes and didn’t miss a beat. He was standing with his giant weapon ready in under five seconds. Everyone put their backs to each other as another screech came from above.
“Did I ever tell you I hate the desert?” Sreg asked Birell.
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