A dreadful storm unlike anything Morg has ever seen swells on the eastern horizon. For days, a murky bank of gruesome clouds has festered there, squirming and undulating. Steadily, the darkness has worked its way closer and closer toward the Dwarflands.
Now the sun rises into that frothing soup of a storm, and barely any of its light shines through. That’s fine by Morg. Her dwarf eyes prefer the dimness, and yet the darkness falling over the Land makes her shiver. Winter is coming early this year. Too early. Her breath leaves her body in brief snatches of fog as she walks along the banks of the Fallen River.
She should hear birds twittering their morning songs, but only a few insects chirp and buzz. No birds. No muskrats. No swamp rats. The animals all abandoned this unforgiving landscape yestermorn. Surely, this is a bad sign.
At the usual meeting place here in the Grak Valley, she stops and scrutinizes the jumble of boulders and rocks strewn along the river’s edge. She places her palms upon the chilled stones to verify that they are, indeed, solid.
“Hello?” she says. “Are you here?”
Each syllable escapes her mouth in a puff of steam that soon withers. No one responds. She edges further along the rocky shore, looking carefully for the entrance. Behind her, something squishes in the dank soil. Turning, she scans the immediate area to make sure no one has followed her.
If the animals had not all fled, she’d dismiss the noise. Her keen eyes detect motion from the reeds. Something—more likely someone—squelches in the mud.
Damn. She didn’t bring her scythe. This destination is supposed to be cloaked by magic, so she hadn’t counted on trouble. She unties her sickle—the curved blade shaped like a crescent moon—from its spot on her belt. “You’ll find it’s difficult to sneak up on dwarfs, unless you’re merely a fragrant flower,” she calls out. “We may not be able to smell or taste as well as you, but we can see and hear all the better.”
No one responds, save for the few insects that haven’t yet succumbed to the unnatural cold.
She squeezes her sickle’s worn handle. It once belonged to her father, and she hopes to the Core it will grant her some of his strength. Her heart gallops above her belly and she takes a breath to steady herself. When she speaks again, she can’t hide the trembling in her voice. “Come on then. Let’s get this over with.”
A human man charges out of the reeds, a blur of motion she can barely process. She hasn’t the time to remember her training, to keep herself calm, to cry out in fear. He tackles her low, knocking the breath from her body. She slams onto her back with a splat of mud. He straddles her, pinning her arms down with his knees. Before she can call out, he holds up a most unlikely weapon—what appears to be a fiddle bow. Its tip has been sharpened to a wicked point, which he now places at her throat.
“The next noise you make will be a detailed explanation of the Black House’s entrance,” he says with a velvety voice, “or the next thing your blunt stump tongue will taste will be a river of your own blood. Blink those keen eyes twice if you understand.”
She stares upward at her attacker. He has an unkempt beard and wild eyes. An odd hat constructed of rabbit hide is perched upon his head. A wolf pelt is draped over his shoulders. A fox fur scarf is tied around his neck. He must be some kind of scavenger. A mercenary perhaps.
“Who do you work for?” she asks.
The bow’s tip pierces her neck, and she gasps with pain.
He shakes his head. “I won’t ask again.”
A familiar voice—young, female, also human—replies from behind him. “You won’t have to.”
Before her attacker can turn, a blade jabs through his throat. His hot blood rains down on her, spilling between his grasping fingers. Morg pivots her body, knocking the man off of her. He splats into the mud. Morg scrambles to her feet and wipes the blood from her face. A cloaked figure stands before her, sheathing a dagger. Steps behind her rescuer, a tunnel has somehow appeared in the rock where before there was none. Her cloaked savior turns and strides back through the entrance into the darkness.
“How?” Morg says.
“Come,” says the young woman. “Time is short.”
This is the one she knows only as Rose.
Morg examines her fallen attacker. In his pockets, she finds only guilders and rumpels—no indication of who sent him. A fiddle is strapped to this strange musician’s back. She tosses his sharp bow into the thickets. His dead eyes stare upward. Damn him. This was her first chance to prove herself as a warrior.
An utter failure. How will she ever find her son?
Without warning, the musician utters a terrible moan. Its dead hands reach for her. She topples backward. The corpse rolls over onto its hands and knees. She retrieves her sickle. The dead musician lunges at her, and she swings her blade into its head.
Yet again, the musician topples to the ground. By the core, this makes no sense. He was dead, wasn’t he?
As she rises to her feet, the corpse twitches like a sack full of rats. Something lurks inside it, and it wants out. Morg grabs a head-sized rock. A black bone, covered with glistening slime, ejects from her attacker’s chest. Followed by another. And another. As the bones assemble, she slams the rock down. The bones shatter. She doesn’t stop there. Again and again, she smashes the stone into the stubborn corpse. Bones crunch. Guts squish.
When the corpse finally remains still, she rises. Covered in blood and viscera, she staggers toward the secret entrance. Has the world gone mad?
Before entering the tunnel, she takes one last look at the eastern horizon. Far out there, her son—known now as Merry—works as part of a mining colony for wayward dwarfs.
It’s been years since the odd dwarf who called himself Bones visited her little hamlet, Suitch, and recruited her son for his strange venture. He described the Collective as a place of healing for dwarf adolescents, ghunlichen in the dwarf tongue, who were troubled by personal afflictions such as uncontrollable anger or phobia of sickness or intolerable shyness. Bones had the hunched and wrinkled body of an elder but the twinkling eyes of youth.
He renamed her son Merry. At first, she took offense, thinking that Bones was making fun of her son’s unending sadness. Bones reassured her that he was only encouraging the dwarfs in his Collective to boldly reclaim their lives by embracing that which made them special.
She hopes Merry is okay, but her gut tells her that he’s in danger. She’d give anything to see his nervous smile one more time.
Swallowing hard, Morg enters the passage. Cold water seeps into the soles of her torn boots. She shivers again. It doesn’t take long before darkness surrounds her. Her dwarf vision can see well enough in the dark, enough to avoid the larger stones that might slam into her knees or gouge her forehead.
After several steps, she enters a cramped alcove. A light flashes in the darkness, nearly blinding her. When she blinks away the fireflies from her vision, she takes in the details of the room. A dim lantern sits upon a rickety square table pushed against the wall with three chairs. Nearby, a box marked by a red flame symbol rests in the corner. A human wearing a dark hooded cloak waits for her at the table. She has to assume this is Rose, because she’s never seen the girl’s face. Her hood has always kept her features in shadow.
Above the table, someone has drawn a crude map of the Land.
The Eastern Kingdom is mostly filled with blue triangles depicting the beautiful mountains that Morg has only ever heard of—never actually seen. To the west, the dreaded Ascendio Kingdom—the former home of the dwarfs now occupied by their sworn enemies—has rolling hills and meadows represented by bright green wavy lines. Continuing west from there, the Western Kingdom sits upon the ocean shore and is filled with yellow squiggles to illustrate its sprawling fields of crops. Tucked below the Western and Ascendio Kingdoms like an armpit sits the wasteland known as the Dwarflands—where the swobs forced the dwarfs to resettle during the Purge. It’s colored brown, possibly to represent its seemingly endless swamps but more likely symbolizing what it smells like and feels like to live here . . .
“Shit,” Morg says as she sits across from Rose.
Rose cocks her head. “An odd greeting.”
“Well, that’s how life feels right now.”
If Rose notices that Morg is now covered in blood and guts, she doesn’t acknowledge it.
“Thanks for saving me,” Morg says. “I’m surprised you used a blade. I would’ve thought . . .”
“An enchantment?” Rose shrugs. “Magic is in short supply.”
“I’m sorry for leading him here. I was careful.”
“You shouldn’t have had to be. My defensive spells are weakening.”
Her host pours each of them a cup of coffee from a carafe on the table. While she does this, Morg glances up again at the map.
Yellow stars represent the three human capital cities—Platessa in the Eastern Kingdom, Aspire in the Ascendio Kingdom, and Carpaldal in the Western Kingdom—all linked together by the roadway known as the Soar. The humans don’t permit the Dwarflands to have a capital, of course. After the Purge, the humans split apart the traditional tribes, imprisoned the chiefs, forced the dwarfs into random hamlets, and established new dwarf leaders—men like her husband Prong who answer only to the swobs.
It wasn’t always like this. After the first two Arks arrived on the western shore, the early swob settlers co-existed peacefully with her people for decades. All that changed when the third ark, the Moncansas, docked off the shore of Carpaldal. This ark brought the deeply religious humans known as the Hopefuls who regarded the dwarfs as a lesser species to be subdued and eventually eradicated. The Hopefuls led the Purge and established the Ascendio Kingdom on the dwarfs’ former land. The Moncansas apparently still floats off the shores of Carpaldal—the yellow star on the western edge of the map.
Although crude, the map isn’t so different from most maps she’s seen, except that this one also has black dots clustered in the capital cities and spread throughout the three kingdoms and the Dwarflands.
These dots, she reckons, represent the many entrances to the Black House, an expansive network of hidden chambers, remote caves, and secret passages spread across the Land. This sanctuary is devoted to protecting those who would be persecuted by the royal swobs and their unjust laws. In short, it is a place of justice, equality, and mercy.
She locates the dot on the map indicating the passage she just entered. As she watches, the dots in the Eastern and Ascendio Kingdom slowly disappear, dissolving inward as if sucked into the wall. She must make a face, because Rose—her back to the map—shakes her head. “We face dark times.”
Morg takes a sip of coffee and winces at its heat and strength. It’s bitter and slightly gritty. A shiver runs through her. She nods in appreciation.
“Tell me what you know,” Rose says. “That’ll save us both some time.”
Morg clears her throat. “We, that is, the dwarfs, learned from the malunjians that those dastardly bastards in the Ascendio Kingdom have obtained a new weapon—a massive iron dragon that could shoot fireballs. They planned to use it to destroy us once and for all—and likely bend the will of the Western and Eastern Kingdoms to their own foul religious doctrine of hate.
“So the vast majority of our men formed an army and marched to meet the malunjians—to make one final stand together against the Ascendio Kingdom before it’s too late. The last word I received was that our most fearsome general, Kiel, was waiting for the malunjians to arrive. They were days late. We haven’t heard anything from our army since. Our official leaders have learned of our army’s plan.”
“You mean men like your husband?” Rose says.
Morg nods. “I gathered a posse of women. We have . . . detained men like my husband for their own good. But we’re stuck in limbo. For all we know, the Ascendio Kingdom may be poised to invade. And the sky in the east . . . I’ve never seen anything like it. Yestermorn, all the birds and animals fled. We don’t know where or why. Our elders are panicking. Our children grow anxious. My women are on edge. We fear the Ascendio soldiers will show up at any moment. Oh, and also, the strange musician who attacked me just now came back from the dead. I don’t know what that’s about.”
Rose pats Morg’s hand. The girl’s face remains shrouded in the shadow of her cloak’s hood. She places a small leather pouch on the table, whispers into it, and scatters its contents onto the table—a hodge podge of bones, chipped seashells, pearls, and polished fish scales. She studies the odd array before looking up at Morg.
“What do you want first—the good news or the bad news?”
Morg sighs. “Good news.”
“The Ascendio Kingdom has fallen. Aspire lies in smoldering rubble. King Roderique is dead, and his terrible army is decimated.”
For one blissful moment, Morg allows herself to smile. The Ascendio Kingdom—those foolish believers of the Ascension that forced the dwarfs out of their blessed homeland—is now gone.
“Oh thank the Core. Then our armies were successful?”
Rose shakes her head and gestures at the mural behind her—where a dot in the eastern region of the Western Kingdom now disappears. “This brings me to the bad news. The same evil force that destroyed the Ascendio Kingdom has also laid waste to the Eastern Kingdom.”
“But my son, he lives with a small group of dwarfs in the East-East. What has become of him?”
Rose pokes at a few seashells. “I wish I could say. All I see is that a terrible curse has razed the kingdom. This same evil storm has also infected your dwarf army and the malunjian clans.”
Morg’s stomach tightens. She grips the table, and her coffee sloshes over the side of her mug. She takes a breath. “Wait . . . you said infected? What exactly is this evil?”
Rose pauses a moment to wipe the spilled coffee before answering. “I can only tell you what I know. Someone or something has conjured a terrible curse. For years, I have sensed a gathering darkness in the Land. I tried warning the malunjians, but they were too preoccupied with their clans and squabbles. They couldn’t see the big picture. And now, we all suffer for it. The curse—whatever it is—started in the Eastern Kingdom, in the East-East.”
Morg bites back a gasp. She prays silently for her son’s survival.
“The evil spread over the Eastern Kingdom, engulfing first the hidden malunjian army, then the capital city of Platessa, and then onward to the Ascendio Kingdom. See, this curse has the power to infect both the living and the dead—to turn normal people into raving lunatics and peaceful corpses into rampaging monsters. And while it all may seem brutally random and chaotic, I sense that a sharp mind is at the center of it. That twisted storm you see in the sky is part of the curse, and it’s coming this way.”
“You see all of that in those scraps?” Morg says.
Rose shakes her hooded head. “No, I learned most of this from a migrant songbird. The scraps merely help fill in the details.”
“How long do we have? What happens to those who are cursed? Is there any way to stop it?”
Red shrugs. “I don’t know for sure, but I have sent a friend to investigate. He should return soon.”
“He won’t. I’ve sent multiple scouts, and none have returned.”
If Rose is taken aback by this news, she doesn’t show it. “This is no ordinary scout—no kind of man you’ve ever met. He’ll be fine.”
“But what of us?”
“You’re the leader of your people now, Morg. You must gather what fighters you have. Evacuate while there’s still time.”
Morg’s head whirls. Her stomach clenches, turning her core into a jagged diamond that tears apart her insides. She rests her elbows on the table and clenches her face, trying not to lose what’s left of her composure in front of this human girl whom she barely knows.
“Evacuate? Where could we find safety in such times?”
“Bring your people here. The Black House will offer sanctuary. Take this.” She slides across the table a clear vial filled with pink cream. “It’s a charmed salve that can heal most any injury. I wish I had more to offer, but it’s all I have left. My powers are fading—another effect of this curse.”
“Thank you, Rose. Tell me. Is there anyone else left? Is anyone trying to stop this terrible curse?”
Rose taps her fingertip on a broken bone. “I believe there just might be . . .”
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