Therdon wiped the blood from his eye, keeping his gaze locked on his opponent. The dwarf's lungs pumped to feed his aching muscles; he no longer felt the axe gripped in his rough, scarred hands. Only the weight of it pulling on his exhausted arms assured him it had not fallen to the ground. A knot was forming in his right thigh from a blow that had nearly cost him his life. Therdon was in trouble.
The two dwarves circled each other, their boots kicking up dust on the banks of the Malvinar River, nothing more than a creek this close to the mountains during the late summer days. The air was dry and the heat from the mid-day sun sucked at what strength remained in their battered bodies.
This was not the first time Therdon and Colthrun had met in battle. The two wore the scars of their previous encounters as badges of honor. Mercy and luck had allowed this personal war to continue after many such battles, yet this time both dwarves knew it would end today.
For Therdon, the path to honor lay only through victory. He had never lost and did not know the feeling of defeat. For that very reason, as his leg began to stiffen and blood continued to flow into his eye, he knew he would be the victor.
Therdon watched the look of confidence grow in Colthrun's face as his limp grew more pronounced. Let Colthrun enjoy his confidence, he thought, let him smell victory.
Therdon faked a small stumble to his right. Immediately, Colthrun's mighty hammer came swinging up to catch him under the chin. Using the motion of his stumble, Therdon dipped his shoulder and pushed off his right foot. The hammer rushed past his face, missing its mark, sending it high into the air. Therdon released his axe, letting it fall. It was no longer needed. The momentum of the failed attack left Colthrun's arms high above his head, his midsection exposed.
Therdon's left shoulder slammed into the dwarf's abdomen, driving the breath from his lungs. Therdon wrapped his arms around his opponent, locking his hands together in a death grip as the dwarves crashed to the ground. His arms, hardened by years spent in the forges of Bordinar's Cleft began to crush the life out of the other dwarf.
"I give! I give!" gasped Colthrun, with what little air remained in his lungs.
"Bah! I win again!" Therdon shouted as he released his grip and pushed himself off his battered friend, "You really thought you had me that time!"
Colthrun looked up at his grinning friend and spat a curse under his breath. The two young dwarves had been friends for as long as either of them could remember. Neither had seen actual battle, but blood and bruises from such mock duels were very real. One such encounter had cost Therdon his left eye. Such was the way with the mountain dwarves of Thestra. They had to be strong. There was no tolerance for weakness. The loss of his eye had only made Therdon a more viscous and clever young warrior.
Therdon was collecting their strewn weapons when Colthrun noticed a glint of light in the dirt at his feet.
"Hey Ther, what's this?"
Colthrun pulled out his dagger and began poking at the object buried in the ground. Therdon walked over and watched as his friend began to carefully excavate the dirt at his feet. Prying carefully with his dagger, the object suddenly popped loose and flew into the air.
Therdon picked up their find and gazed at it as it lay in his hand. The other dwarf scrambled to his feet to look at the new treasure.
"It's cold," muttered Therdon distantly.
The object looked like a coin. It was gold in color and had odd markings engraved into its surface. Even though they were young, they were still dwarves and had an eye for works of metal and stone--this was no ordinary coin. Coins were usually stamped out and were often irregular in shape and size, but this was perfectly round, each engraving was precise and flawless. The markings appeared to be letters or numbers of some type, but neither dwarf had seen anything remotely resembling the engravings before. The markings worked their way around the coin, but only completed a little over half the circumference. The remaining portion was smooth, as if the engraver did not have time to finish his work.
Colthrun reached out and picked up the coin, turning it over. He let out a gasp when he saw the engraving on the opposite side. Staring up at them was the face of a creature they had never seen before. The detail was intense and lifelike. The eyes were sunk deep into the face and the nose was flat, almost snout-like. Its teeth were sharp and elongated. This was the face of a creature neither of the young dwarves would ever care to meet.
"Therdon! Git over here before I have to come down there and drag ye back by yer beard!" came a shout.
The two dwarves snapped back into focus.
"Here, take yer coin" said Therdon as he handed it back to Colthrun.
"Keep it." Colthrun quickly replied, "Consider it a 'Going Away' present."
"Move it, lad!" came another shout.
Therdon pocketed the coin and slapped his friend one last time on the shoulder. Grinning, he picked up his axe and ran up the slope to where the caravan had staged. The lead carts had already started down the road and the dwarves began their march south in search of ore. Looking back, Therdon watched as Colthrun shouldered his hammer and began the trek back to Bordinar's Cleft.
Sitting in his small, empty room within the walls of New Targonor, Therdon looked down at the coin in his hand. It had been many years since Colthrun had found it buried in the ground. That was the last time he had seen his childhood friend. Much had changed in the years since their last encounter. Therdon had received word today that Colthrun had died in battle. He cursed himself for not being at the side of his friend, but such was not possible. Therdon was an outcast of his own people. Much had changed. He ran a hand over his smooth chin where his beard had once grown. Outcast.
He continued to look at the coin. He knew much more about the trinket now. It was not really a coin and the face that he rarely cared to look at was that of an orc. It had also changed over the years. Now there were only enough markings to cover a quarter of the circumference. The remainder was smooth. Therdon could vividly recall each time one of the markings had vanished.
"If only Colthrun had kept the coin, maybe he would be alive today" muttered the dwarf.
Therdon shook the dust from his beard, his feet keeping time with the march of the caravan. They had been marching south for three days, their destination the southern region of the Widow’s Peak Mountains. There was little talking amongst the dwarves in the caravan. With a mind single to the task at hand, they set their efforts on covering as much distance each day as possible. While dwarves did not mind traveling, it was more of a means to an end. They would wake before sunrise each day and would march until the stars blanketed the sky. At this pace they should reach the scouted area in two more days.
Therdon was excited to be part of the mining company. Only when dwarves became of age were they permitted to leave the area of Bordinar’s Cleft. He knew, being the youngest in the company, he would be stuck with the menial tasks; he also knew this was the way of the dwarves. All those older had done the same.
Marching along in the rear of the caravan, Therdon’s thoughts were on the mining operations ahead of them. The scouts reported finding what appeared to be a series of ancient silver mines. The initial investigations suggest that the mines were abandoned suddenly and that there were still rich veins of ore.
His thoughts miles away, Therdon nearly slammed into the wagon in front of him as the caravan came to a sudden and unexpected halt. He looked ahead, through the settling dust, in an effort to see what had caused the dwarves to stop their march when his eyes fell upon the horizon far to the south. Great, dark storm clouds boiled in the distance. Flashes of purple lightning could be seen within its depths. Although the storm was far to the south, its size was so great that it felt as though it would overcome the company at any moment. The dwarves stared at the foreboding clouds as they boiled in the distance. There was something unnatural in the way it would expand and then collapse.
“Back to yer wagons!” came a shout from Glimar, the company captain. “We’ve only a few more hours of light in this day.”
The dwarves snapped back to the task at hand and started down the road at a fast pace. Many of them continued to watch the storm on the horizon. It did not seem right. None of the dwarves had ever seen such a storm. It was unnatural and was moving against the normal flow of weather, casting a troubled shadow over the company.
Glimar chose a small sheltered valley for the evening camp. He knew it was important to the moral of the company to keep the storm out of site as much as possible. It was a bad omen. There had been rumors for strange occurrences far to the south, rumors of the dead walking. Up until now, the dwarves had not placed much stock in such tales, but the site of the storm had caused them to reconsider.
Moods were somber in the camp as the dwarves went about setting up tents and cooking meals. Therdon was out gathering wood for the cooking fires when he found himself at the top of a small hill. Far to the south he could see where the storm lay. A dark void where stars should have been marked its place on horizon. Flashes of light could be seen within the depths of the clouds. Therdon was transfixed by its ominous power.
“Don’t be starin too hard at that storm, lad,” came a voice from in front of Therdon.
Dropping his armload of firewood, Therdon crouched into a fighting stance while pulling his axe from his back. Before him all he could see was darkness.
“And ye best be puttin that axe away before ye hurt yerself!” came the voice again.
Ahead of him strode a stout figure. As it drew closer, Therdon relaxed.
“Ye nearly scared the life outta me, Krogthur!” Therdon said as he returned his axe to its place on his back.
“Aye, ya should be scared. There be many dark things about these days.” Krogthur replied.
Therdon began gathering up the dropped firewood, “I thought you were to meet us at the mining site.”
“You’ll know soon enough. I must speak with Glimar.” he said heading off toward the dwarf camp.
Gathering the remaining firewood, Therdon quickly followed Krogthur into the camp.
Krogthur was one of the dwarf scouts who had located the ancient mining area. The dwarf scouts were a rare and elite group among a race who tended to prefer more social settings. The scouts spent most of their lives alone and on the road. They traveled light, leaving no trace, and could remain hidden when necessary. Scouts were often employed as couriers of sensitive information and helped to keep the dwarves of Bordinar’s Cleft informed of the happenings in Thestra. While they were not official in the service of the king they were often called upon for tasks requiring stealth and discretion. One of the oldest scouts, Krogthur was well respected and honored by all the dwarves.
They debated the unexpected appearance of the elder scout while they ate their evening meal. He had been in the captain’s tent for nearly an hour. Finally Glimar emerged, followed closely by Krogthur. All the dwarves gathered about to hear the news from their captain.
“Krogthur tells me that the rumors of dead walking are true,”, started Glimar, “but that there haven’t been any seen this far north.
“For the remaining two days of travel no one will be off alone by themselves and we will have armed patrols escort the caravan. This will mean more work for those on the carts and wagons,” he continued, “We do not expect any danger, but it is better to be safe.”
“What of the storm? Has it got something to do with these walking dead?” came a question from the company.
Krogthur stepped up, “The storm appeared some three days ago on the horizon. Its moving slowly northward against the wind, but as to its nature I cannot be sure. For all I know it could just be an odd storm.”
There were a few grunts from the company. They all new this was no odd storm, but at the moment there was nothing to do but keep an eye on its movement.
“Now off to yer tents! I want to be on the road before sunrise!” shouted Glimar.
The next two days of travel were uneventful. The patrols kept watch on the caravan and the storm continued to loom on the horizon. The company arrived at the mining location late on the second day and made camp at the base of a large slope. The dwarves could see the openings of mine shafts up the slope and what appeared to be the remains of rigging.
The next morning Glimar gathered the company to give orders for setting up mining operation. The first matter of business was determining which shafts held the promise of ore. Five groups of two were set to explore shafts on the slope while the remaining dwarves unpacked the wagons and began setting up a permanent camp.
Therdon had been paired with Degmur, one of the younger dwarves in the company. The two of them had been assigned to explore one of the lower shafts on the slope. Its entrance was almost completely blocked with debris. The only indication that a shaft was even there was the twisted rusty cart rails that poked from the rubble. The two dwarves began clearing the rocks and rubble from the entrance and by mid morning had an opening large enough for one of them to squeeze through.
Degmur rummaged around in his pack then produced a small stone jar sealed with wax. He broke the seal and peered at the contents. The jar contained a grayish goo that began to glow almost instantly after the lid was removed. Degmur took a small stick and dipped it into the substance, coating the end. The goo glowed brightly in the clear mountain air. Moving up to the mine opening, Degmur tossed the stick deep into the mine. Both dwarves shielded their eyes from the sun and looked in to where it had fallen. The substance still glowed, although not as brightly as it had outside the mine. The air in the shaft was suitable for breathing. Degmur produced some soft wax from his pack and resealed the jar. After a moment, the glowing began to fade before stopping entirely.
After lighting two torches, the dwarves entered the mine. The temperature dropped dramatically and the air was stale. The mineshaft continued straight into the mountain as far as the dwarves could see. The track rails had rusted and the ties rotted over the years. They would have to be replaced. Most of the rails could be re-forged, but the ties were useless.
Therdon and Degmur surveyed the entrance as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. From the appearance of the mine entrance there was no ore near the opening. It was obvious that these mines had been dug by dwarves. The size of the shaft and the construction of the rails were consistent with dwarf workmanship. The only puzzling thing was there was no memory of mines this far south.
The two dwarves began to follow the rails deep into the mountain. Therdon was glad it was autumn, for the mine was dry and cool. In the spring, water would rain from the ceiling. The mineshaft began to slope slowly downward and to the right. Therdon glanced over his shoulder toward the entrance. A faint glow marked where the dwarves had entered. As they continued down the shaft it suddenly grew wider to the left. Ore had been found here. Therdon raised his torch to gain a better view of the rock. Brushing the dust away with his hand, he noticed some small bright flecks within the stone. Pulling a small pick from his belt, Therdon chipped at the stone to loosen some of the ore.
“Is it silver?” asked Degmur.
“Do ya see that!” exclaimed Therdon, “This is no silver I have ever seen. It is much too hard.”
The two dwarves began surveying the area. There had once been a rich vein of this ore here, but now all that remained were some flecks surrounding the area where the precious material had lain. The mine continued on and so did the prospect of more ore. Excited, the two continued down the shaft.
At regular intervals, the dwarves encountered small test shafts jutting off from the main tunnel. These had been used to check for the presence of ore and the mine progressed. Suddenly Therdon came to a stop and reaching out he grabbed Degmur’s belt dragging him to a halt.
“Do ya smell that?” Therdon asked.
Breathing deeply, “I don’t smell anything ‘cept stale air.” replied Degmur.
“Give it a minute.” said Therdon.
Degmur closed his eyes and slowly took in the stale air. There! It was faint, but he could smell it. There was no mistaking the sour odor of death and decay.
“Aye… I do smell it.”
More cautiously, they continued their decent. The foul stench grew stronger as the two moved deeper into the mine. Although they were still surveying for ore, their attention was divided. Both had come to the realization that there had to be another way into the mine. The entrance they used had been closed for years and this smell was that of decaying flesh…flesh that until recently had been living.
Both dwarves stopped. There was a faint clicking sound. It was erratic and seemed to come in bursts. Therdon cursed under his breath. His axe lay back in camp. His only weapons, if they could be called that, were the mining tools on his belt. Glancing at Degmur, he could see the other dwarf was equally concerned. Therdon pointed down the shaft and the Degmur nodded.
Thoughts of ore no longer on their minds, the two crept forward in the darkness. The stench grew stronger. It was all Therdon could do to keep from retching. Ahead of them the walls of the mine began to glisten in the torch light. Degmur drew up short.
“Ther! Stop!” he cried.
It was too late. Therdon looked down at the silvery cord on his boot. The alarm had been tripped. Tiny vibrations from the silk cord on Therdon’s boot sent signals to the monster below. The two only paused for a moment and their blood ran cold as a shriek rose from the depths of the mine.
Turning on their heels, the dwarves began to run back the way they had come. Without weapons, they knew their only hope was to exit the mine before the beast below reached them. Behind them, furious clicking announced the spider’s approach. Fueled by terror, their legs pumped and lungs burned as they raced for the surface. They knew they could not out run a giant spider, but hoped they had enough of a lead to make it to the entrance of the mine.
Therdon could hear the advance of the spider as he raced behind Degmur. Searing pain ran though his lungs and spots formed before his eyes, his body starving for air. Fatigued, he could feel himself slowing. As the mine floor began to level out, Degmur let out a cry. The entrance was in sight. Digging deep, Therdon pressed on.
The spider screeched again and without looking Therdon knew the beast was almost upon them. Reaching the entrance, Degmur dove through the small opening and onto the rocky slope. Close behind, Therdon dove also. Instead of clearing the mine, he was brought up short. Fiery pain tore through his back. The spider’s large fangs sank deep into the dwarf’s body. Falling to the ground, he could feel the searing venom begin to flow into his body. Rolling to his back, Therdon looked into the face of death. The spider pinned him to the ground with a mighty leg and raised itself for another strike. With all the remaining strength in his exhausted body, he threw his mining pick into the maw of the descending beast. He heard a sickening crunch and was only vaguely aware as a hot burst of liquid sprayed over his face. No longer able to feel his body, Therdon closed his good eye, and then slowly faded into the darkness.
"He will not make it through the night." said Glimar, watching the labored breathing of the young dwarf.
"Aye… but it is better to die then to be so disfigured." replied Krogthur.
Therdon lay on the floor of his tent fighting for his life. His last act of throwing his pick into the face of the giant spider had given Degmur the chance to pull the fallen dwarf's body from the mine. The beast could not follow through the small opening.
The venom that sprayed over Therdon had badly burned him. His beard, along with most of his hair, was now gone and his exposed skin was red and blistered. Degmur had also been burned, but was expected to recover.
"Poor lad… at least he will not be supper for that monster!" growled Glimar.
"Go get some sleep." said Krogthur "I can watch over him. You have work to do in the morning."
Glimar left the tent in a rush. He doubted he would sleep much this night, watching the young dwarf die only fueled his anger. Two of the other parties also reported odd smells within the mines. Further exploration would be postponed until they were safe and free of the venomous threat.
Back in the tent, the scout continued to watch over the dying dwarf. His breathing was fast and shallow. Even in the cool night air, sweat covered Therdon's body, soaking his clothes. His body trembled as the poison tightened its hold.
Some time after midnight Therdon's breathing changed. It began to slow and become less labored. The scout knew this was the end. Therdon had lost the fight. Slowly the breaths grew further apart until he exhaled one last time.
As Krogthur rose to cover the body, there was a loud explosion and a blinding flash of green light knocked him back onto the ground. Through the spots before his eyes, he thought he saw a ghostly green figure hovering over the corpse. Krogthur jumped to his feet, and pulled his small axe from his hip. He rubbed his eyes and looked about. The tent was empty save for the body.
Krogthur rushed outside in a daze. Others were emerging from their tents. He was glad they had heard the noise as well. Turning back towards the tent, the scout's blood ran cold. Standing in the opened flap was the disfigured form of Therdon. The scout backed away from the tent, his eyes locked on the dead dwarf.
Therdon tried to speak, but could only cough out a rough sputter.
"What's going on, Krogth…" Glimar asked urgently, rushing up beside the scout. He stopped mid sentence.
"He was dead," muttered Krogthur "I watched him die… now he walks."
The two watched as the dwarf, who was once Therdon, stood at the entrance to the tent trying to speak. Many of the others from the camp began to gather behind them.
"Wahht… essss… haaahp…" Therdon stuttered.
"He is one of the walking dead!" rose a shout from the group "Kill him!"
A rock flew from the group and hit the corpse on the side of the head. Therdon grabbed at his forehead in pain. What was going on? Why was everyone acting so strange? Why couldn't he talk? The last thing he remembered was the spider looming over him back in the mine. Then he woke, finding himself in his tent.
Another rock sailed from the group of dwarves and hit him in the jaw, knocking him back. Then another. This was not right, thought Therdon. Though he knew if he stayed standing there he would not have the chance to figure it out. Quickly, he ducked back into the tent. He could hear more rocks hitting the sides' rough fabric, with shouts from the crowd.
Ducking under the rear part of the tent, he was once again outside. He glanced quickly at the sky to gain his bearings. Turning south, he began to run through the brush and trees. He could hear the shouts behind him begin to fade into the distance, but he continued to run.
Lungs burning, Therdon slowed and then fell to the grass, rolling over onto his back. Catching his breath, he stared at the stars above. His mind began to go over the recent events. He remembered running with Degmur from the giant spider in the mine. He recalled the fangs piercing his back, throwing the mining pick, then blackness. His next memory was awakening in his tent… and that voice. Strange and guttural.
Therdon sat up. Why couldn't he speak?
"Hhellllo… hellllo… hello" he said to the night air. He raised his hand to his throat then froze. His beard! It was gone! Touching his face, he could feel the scarred and melted skin, but no beard. A dwarf without a beard was not a dwarf! The venom… he must have gotten some in his throat. That could be why he was having trouble speaking.
He ran his hand over his chin. There was no pain. There was no pain in his back where the fangs had pierced him. His throat did not hurt either, but it felt different, perhaps scarred as well. How long did I lay there, he thought. Why was he not dead?
Therdon got to his feet and took inventory of his possessions. He was still wearing the clothes he had been in the mine, although they were now tattered and burned from the spider's venom. His tool belt had been removed, but he was glad to still have his boots. Checking his pockets he pulled out the coin he and Colthrun had found buried in the dirt. Other than the clothes on his back, this was his only possession.
Rolling the coin over in his hand something seemed different. Holding it up high to catch the light of the moon, he looked closely at the markings that circled the coin. Therdon had not examined it very closely, but he was sure there had been more markings before. Had they changed?He put the coin back into his pocket. It was only a few hours until dawn. In the light of day he would make his way back to the dwarf camp and try to find out what had happened. He hoped the sun would drive away whatever madness had possessed the company the night before. There were many questions to be answered.