A hacking cough threw Savh forward in a violent jolt, almost causing his feet to out from under him. He remained keeled over with his elbows resting on his knees, blood sprinkling onto the ground. The tickle in the back of his throat tempered and the dwarf held before standing up, taking solemn breaths to prevent another spell.
“I suppose you like this?” He spoke directly to death, wiping the excess blood from his lips and bearded chin. “It must be amusing to you. In the end, you get what you want …” He rose slowly. “You always do.”
He wondered if death was ever disappointed. Perhaps the reaper had a schedule, a timetable for all and if they did not adhere, then perhaps he became distressed or irritated. A picture of a Ledger of the Dead came into his mind as he took a step in the direction of the Gordai city—his destination. It would have to be a large tome to fit all the names of every being who ever died, half the size of a schooner and the weight of an anchor. Since life meant so little to the being shrouded in black, Savh figured he wrote in small print to diminish any one’s importance, for kings as well as paupers. There he sat etching name after name in the ancient book while his sycophants delivered the damned to their true final resting place. They’d dream of rotting in a tomb for all eternity after suffering a day in the after-life Savh envisioned for all those besides dwarfs. He hoped they’d have a place like his people, an endless line of thrones for all families to rule together in harmony. Perhaps he was wrong about suffering after death, perhaps the reaper was merely an intermediary to the afterlife that suited their particular race.
A spell of hacking stirred in his chest as his stalwart legs continued at a brisk pace. He dared not turn his head to the north, but the corner of his eye caught the Midnight Mountains and the Cauldron Prairie of the Blacklands a few miles off. Passing the southernmost tip of the mysterious domain meant he was close to halfway to the gordai city, the name of which he still could not recall.
“Some more of your handiwork, I see.” Again, he spoke to death. “I dare say you made a personal appearance to lay waste to that cursed land.”
In reality, there were numerous legends of how the Blacklands came to be, none of which were proven over time. Savh’s father used to spin many a bedtime stories around the abyss of the Blacklands origin, his favorite being a great war between the dragons and the demon knights, two of the primordial races, dating back before the emergence of the dwarf race. Especially in winter, when the caverns of their mountain home grew frigid to the touch and dribbled with condensation, Savh’s images of the legions of fire breathers cascading flames onto the plains, trying to eradicate the near impervious stone façade of the demon knights grew stronger. They wove into epic battles that spanned not days or months, but years, as each of the legendary beasts inched closer to mutual destruction. On those nights, it took his mind hours to settle and surrender to sleep.
The sensation of another hacking spell trickled down his throat, causing the images to dissolve. His chest compressed as if the reaper himself squeezed to expel every last bubble of air. Forced to breathe out of his mouth, Savh took short quick breaths and forced himself to keep walking at his current pace.
“Damn fool. You’ll have to do more than that,” he spoke to the entity. “I told you to wait and wait you shall. I have little time before you can claim me as yours, but until then, I’ll do what I must for my kin.”
He realized, of course, his very mission spat in the face of death, its purpose here on this earth. If Savh succeeded in finding a cure, he would have robbed the reaper of his just deserved—thousands of dwarf souls. Both he and the entity sought their own end, their own ambition, and only one would succeed. A battle of wills with the master of life, for death held dominion over all, was now engaged. Savh sighed as the foes in the battles he waged rose to three; one, the sickness, two, the cure, and three, the reaper and its mission to expel life at its most virgin moment—birth. Savh’s enemy was at full strength, battle tested and experienced in the art of taking life, while the throes of a plague, that wiped out seven tenths of the population of dwarf men, tried to dismantle Savh while on a mission he had no earthly idea how to accomplish. In that moment, he felt the rusted scales of time turn in death’s favor.
“I’ve conquered much in my time, oh master of pestilence. Look back into my history, as I’m sure time is like a book to you, you need only turn the page to see what I have done.” Savh coughed, catching the next spell before it could stall him. “See what I have done,” he said in a raspy, weak voice. “My legs … my arms … my chest … my back do not listen to the mind, to sickness, or to threats. They heed only the burden that has been placed upon them. So, I go against all sense and tempt you oh, scorcher of forests and razer of temples, throw your worst at me. You require no challenge and will do your utmost to get what you desire.”
In that moment, he felt death halt—if but for a moment. Had Savh succeeded in intimidating him? Had he discerned the riddle to cheating the reaper out of an easy collection of his due? Perhaps he confused the poor ghost by testing one far more powerful than he. “Ha!” Savh covered his mouth as he coughed again, this time a spat of blood coated his thumb and index finger. “You scare easily. You looked into the book of my past and saw that I am no liar. Didn’t you? Best be as patient as you can be, I decide when I go and not a minute sooner.”
The road stretched endlessly ahead of Savh, only emboldening the stubborn dwarf. He fixed his eyes ahead and ignored the sensation of death on his heels. Instead he envisioned the stories his father would weave for he and his siblings when they were young. He started where he left off, with the tales of the Blacklands origins.
After hours passed and the sun dipped low on the horizon, he moved onto legends of the dwarf conquests of the great mountain realms. Unwilling to contend with the remaining elder dragons that ruled the skies and nested at the peaks of the massifs, the first generations of dwarfs burrowed deep into their underbellies and found a labyrinth of crude passage ways and openings. There the real battles began.
The Great Goblin Wars, they became known as. The hideous creatures were banished from the daylight and the realm of elves and men to live in the places that only beings of the night called home. Yet, they forgot or rather ignored the scions’ promise that the dwarfs would inherit the mountains of Prima Earth.
A year of war ensued, with the black blood of the goblins mixing with the red of the dwarfs to form puddles of brown expiry. Savh’s father detailed all the battles that his own father had told him, which was passed down from the previous generation to ensure no one ever forgot the struggle and the loss they endured to secure their promised land. These tales carried Savh until the sun dropped off the edge of the west and the moon failed to replace it.
He needed to focus in the dim starlight if he was going to keep his way toward the gordai city.
In the distance, the faint orange light of lit lanterns called to him. As he got closer, the outline of a stone wall came into focus. It stood well over fifty feet with no guards walking the battlements, still he proceeded with caution. Dipping below the tall grass, he crept toward a large gate, rounded at the top, with an opening seaming down the middle. As Savh got closer, he realized that the right side of the gate was slightly ajar. He scanned the battlements again to make sure this was no trick and that he wasn’t being bated into testing their defenses. Still quiet. On the other hand, he didn’t want to call out in the night when most would be slumbering and draw attention to himself. He figured if the door was truly open he could find a back alley or a heap of refuse to sleep in while waiting for the city’s occupants to wake.
He had no time to waste though, he had to make it in. The fact that the gordai left the city wall unguarded might be a good sign for him. Perhaps they had no reason to and they welcomed folks of all creeds? This and other positive prognostications filled him with hope as he made it to the gate.
The right door remained open slightly, it would be tight for him, but he could still fit through without pushing it open further, potentially causing it to creak and alarming someone nearby. He peaked through the opening and saw nothing but the outlines of dozens of buildings and the occasional lantern inside. He welcomed the luck after going so long without any.
Turning sideways, he moved toward the opening. He drew his foot back too late as the ground disappeared under it and his weight pulled him into a somersault. All light dropped out. Before he could holler, he collided with a stone floor, chest first, then head. His eyes flickered as he fought to remain conscious. A door opened in front of him, letting in a stilt of light. The tears in his eyes and the haze in his head made it impossible for him to discern the person that opened it—all he saw was a dark shadow coming closer. A wave of fatigue rolled over him and his eyelids closed like a portcullis.
“Looks like we have a visitor,” Someone said, as Savh blacked out.
Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. The images scrambled over and over in his head in an endless cycle. Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. No words, no expressions, no eyes. Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. Something gnawed at the inside of his skull. Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. The crunching echoed as whatever it was feasted on it. Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. He slugged the side of his head to break in, to crush it before whatever it was could eat it whole. Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. He hammered harder as he felt it almost finished with its meal. Wife—son—daughter—son—father—mother—mirror. “NO!”
He opened his eyes just in time to see the floor as he collided with it. It hurt, but this time he could tell he only dropped a foot or so. He squinted as the torch light stung. It took minutes of progressively opening his eyes to adjust. His head felt like a piece of coal in the process of turning into a diamond. A blanket draped over half of him, the other half attached to the bed that he had fallen out of.
“Is it true what they say?” Savh shot his head up, startled by a voice coming from in front of him. “That a dwarf can carry four times his own weight?”
Looking through a row of perfectly symmetrical prison bars, he saw what could only be a gordel; he stood slightly taller than Savh himself, half as thick, wearing a perfectly tailored coat, vest, tunic, pants, and polished leather shoes, he had a narrow face with chestnut hair parted down the middle and a pair of circular glasses secured on a slender, pointy nose.
“Do you not speak?” The gordel asked. “I could get you a pen and paper. Although if you can’t speak, I doubt you could write either.”
“I can speak.” Savh said, standing up and tossing the blanket onto the bed.
“Splendid. Then we can forgo the pen and paper. My name is Azzel, architect and keeper of the fine quarters you presently occupy.”
“What happened to me?”
“First answer my question.” Azzel pushed his glasses above the bridge of his nose. “Is it true that a full grown male dwarf can carry four times his own weight?”
“Why is that important?”
“It is for academic purposes. Please … an answer.”
Savh sighed as he looked around at the impressive cage around him and realized that he was at the mercy of his captors now. “Yes. In some cases even more.”
Azzel’s eyes grew wide. “My goodness, I was right. Good thing for us then.”
“What do you mean?”
“Years ago, we built this particular cage for dwarves, in the event we would ever come across one trying to break into our city, with a thicker gage steel based on my calculations of your race’s strength.”
Savh laid both hands on the bars and tested their rigidity—not the slightest hint of budging. “looks like you did well.”
“Indeed. Enough of that though. To answer your question, dwarf, you fell, quite literally, for one of our city’s defenses, knocked yourself out on mortared stone and we placed you here in your unconscious state.” The gordel removed his glasses and cocked his head. “Does that answer your question?”
Savh hesitated as he couldn’t tell whether the gordel was being serious or trying to mock him.
“I don’t understand. One second I was going through the door and then the next … falling.”
Azzel nodded his head repeatedly. “Yes. Yes. I’m afraid what you saw was an illusion. Not created by any magic or potion, which are complete nonsense, yet by perfectly placed firelight, mirrors, and a myriad of colored lenses to give you the illusion of a wall.”
“How does one create a wall without stone or lumber?”
“I don’t expect you to understand because no one ever does. We alter the defenses every five days or whenever someone encounters it, like yourself. I’ve watched entire armies march right on by because they saw endless heaps of dung. I’ve laughed as men rowed in boats for hours on end because they saw a two-hundred-foot moat around our walls.”
Savh squeezed the prison bars tight to see if they were indeed still real.
“No illusion there, I’m afraid.”
He removed his hands, feeling somewhat foolish. “My name is Savh. I’m a dwarf of the great city of Shorie, some seventy miles west, beyond the Blacklands. I have come at the behest of my people, most of whom are suffering at this very moment. Please let me go so that I may continue to search for a cure to the illness that plagues us. I—”
“Did you say illness?”
“Yes, I did.”
“You should not have come here!” Azzen lost his look of amused curiosity. “There’s no telling how many you could have infected by now. You fool of a dwarf! Did you not consider that remaining quarantined in your mountain might have been the best course of action for all?”
Taken aback at Azzen’s outburst, Savh had to compose himself and not fire back in anger. “It had not occurred to me that this could affect others.”
“That is not surprising for one so simple-minded.”
Savh let the insult go and came back. “Please, Azzen, our men are dying every day. If something is not done soon, we’ll all be gone and then the race of dwarfs will vanish from this earth.” The desperation he felt poured out in his words.
“Is that supposed to move me?” The gordel shook his head and his lip snarled. “Am I supposed to feel sympathy or whatever you foolish people call it. Not all life is precious as not all life is meant to carry on forever. Some rise and fall while others carry on, it is the only fact of life. Perhaps your time has come to make way for something greater than a fat pygmy who can lift heavy things and one who is inspired by only that which glistens. Do not use pity on me, it will not work. Not you or any other race can goad us into helping you.” Azzen glowered down on him, his pointed nose aimed like a dagger.
“I’m not trying to coax you by using false or embellished claims. I am not trying to manipulate you with a dire fable. I am only giving you the truth so that you might lend your gifts, which I have now seen, to help us in our dreadful times.”
The gordel’s face remained fuming as he hesitated in his response. The silence boxed Savh’s ears in as he waited for anything from his captor.
“If what you say is true … then I must leave and seek a physician, for I do not wish for my end to come from some dwarf flu.” Azzen whipped around and stormed down the only passageway.
Savh slid to the ground as the vision and sound of the gordel’s footsteps disappeared.
All he could think about was his home.
For hours, the faces of his friends and family passed by his mind’s eye. He tried to stop them but the guilt was far too powerful. He wondered if death had something to do with it. If he did, Savh didn’t want to let on that it bothered him.
Someone other than Azzen came and dropped off his breakfast, a younger gordel, who looked timid and afraid to make a mistake. Still, Savh begged him for help or to get someone that could do something about his predicament. The young gordel ran away the first time, almost spilling the platter of food. When he came for lunch, Savh persisted but with a gentler, less invasive approach. It still didn’t work, the gordel averted his eyes and backed off slowly, never saying a word. As dinnertime came, Savh remained seated on his bed and hardly noticed the boy dropping off his food and drink. He let it sit there until the soup congealed and a few mice inched their way to the bowl. Savh could only sigh as his hunger never came and the visions never ceased.
It felt like early morning, but without a window or a clock, he couldn’t be certain. Savh wrapped the blanket over him to quell his body’s shivering, but it did no good. The palled fingers of death combed over his hair, only making the chill intensify.
“It looks like you can claim your prize.” Savh spoke to the reaper. “Don’t let me stay here only to die in a months’ time, all the while suffering the fact my son will have died … as well as all my kin.”
The Reaper’s hand continued to brush through his hair. “Close your eyes now, Savh.” A voice spoke inside of his head. He obeyed.
“Let the cares of this cruel world drift away.”
He obeyed again and felt the weight of his task, his loss, evaporate.
“It will all be over soon, you brave soul.”
Tears drizzled out of Savh’s clamped eyes as levity and happiness returned … it had been so long.
“I’m ready,” he whispered to the reaper.
He felt both of death’s hands settle on his chest. Levity and contentment streamed through his entire body, causing him to smile. A white light, purer than the sun, cast out in front of him, soothing and warming like nothing he had ever dreamed possible.
“The light is for you, my Savh. Proceed … and all will be well.”
“Yes … Yes … well.” He went toward the light, with each step his ailments ceased and it felt like his body floated.
“A little further to freedom,” said the Reaper as Savh crossed the halfway point.
The crunch of a lock being turned echoed, followed by the sliding and slamming of a metal door.
“Wake up, dwarf.” A familiar yet unknown voice commanded.
Savh stopped steps before the origin of the light. “Who is that?”
“No one!” Death snapped. “I mean, it is no one that means you well.” He finished in calm voice.
“Dwarf, wake up now. Don’t make me regret helping you.” The voice called out again.
Savh craned his neck and smiled. “It says it wants to help me. Should I let it?”
“No … it only means to trick you. To cause you more pain.” The reaper persisted.
“I have something you want. Something to take back to your homeland.”
The blood in Savh’s veins chilled as he recalled the person the voice belonged to and all his memories came back in burst of consciousness. “It Azzel! The gordel has a cure for my kin!” He turned and ran away from the light.
The hands of death latched onto his shoulders and wrenched him back. “You’re mine now!”
Savh wrestled free of the reaper’s grip and rushed back to the dark of his cell. “It is not my time!”
“Come back here!” Death commanded as Savh thrust back into his body, the ailments of sickness returning with it.
He gasped like he had just sprung from the bottom of the ocean. Light returned, but not a harmonious one, a dim one, fitting for a prison cell. The gaunt gordel, Azzel, stood over him with a look of confusion.
“My, my, dwarf, you were in a deep sleep, weren’t you?”
Savh sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Suppose I was.”
Azzel studied him for a moment, his gordel eyes seeming to learn something from each point he analyzed. “It is with great regret that I must send you on your way.”
“I thought you said you had something for me.”
Azzel feigned a smile. “So, it appears you did hear me.” The gordel muttered something under his breath about dwarfs that Savh couldn’t decipher. “As I returned home, immediately after our encounter last night, I told my wife about your intrusion as well as the purpose for your visit to our city and she kindly reminded me that I was breaking one of our laws by keeping you locked up.” He cleared his throat. “It turns out it is not a law, but rather a matter of manners. You see, us gordels can be rather rigid when it comes these things.”
The thought had crossed Savh’s mind, but kept the opinion to himself.
“In her wisdom, she informed me that I must let you go and as retribution for my brutish behavior, provide the very thing you sought—if we were capable of such.” Azzen’s brow furrowed. “Which, unfortunately, we are.” The gordel lifted a small leather pouch and opened it. “Inside you will find one vial of serum that will assuredly cure this dwarf plague of yours.” He sighed. “Also, you will find directions on how to recreate said serum for all others infected. That is, if you have anyone trained in the apothecarial arts.” He looked Savh straight in the eyes. “Please tell me that you do and that it’s not you.”
All Savh could do was smile, as certainly fortune had smiled on him and his kin. It wasn’t the way he had envisioned securing a cure, but nothing in life occurred as it should. “We’ll manage.”
A surprising smile came across Azzen’s face, looking awkward and rare. “I’m so pleased. I loathed the thought of traveling to your city and showing you fools how.”
Savh ignored the jibe because it didn’t matter—he’d found what he sought. After a few more jibes from the gordel, they made their way out of the cell, out of the underground prison, and to the front gate of the city. The daylight and warm air felt good. The city gleamed as if every inch of it had a personal attendant. Brick and stone buildings lined the street with the occasional statue sitting in the middle of a roundabout. Every gordel they saw was dressed in similar clothes to Azzen—freshly pressed and expertly tailored.
As they arrived at the entrance, Azzen pointed down to what looked like no less than ten thousand lenses and mirrors set in a deep stone bunker that wrapped around the entire city. No doubt this way the very same bunker he’d fallen into the day before.
Several more gordels met them there and gave Savh a water pouch along with some fresh food in his pack. He went to hug all of them, including Azzen, but stopped as they all took a step back with petrified looks. Savh settled for a head nod and firm hand shake, of which they seemed only slightly more comfortable with.
Turning to catch the road home, Azzen stopped him. “Aren’t you going to take the vial now? You know … before the exhausting seventy mile journey home.”
Savh shook his head. “I’m sure someone back home needs it more than I do.”
“Who on earth could need it more than you? Have you seen yourself? You’re not exactly a beacon of health.”
Still unable to tell if the insults were meant in jest, to offend or were simply their way of communicating, Savh chuckled and took to the road.
The weather and the wind at his back allowed for a quick pace. He kept on his torrid stride with death by his side, who waited eagerly for a slip, a fall, or for the blood to run. Unlike the journey to the gordai, he kept his mind solely on the mission and thought of nothing else. He gathered that he was missing some lovely scenery on the way, but it would have to wait for, if he was lucky, another time.
A moonless night greeted him as he arrived at Holder’s Mountain, under which Shorie was carved. He made his way through the tunnels, ignoring all that crossed his path. The thought to go straight to the city’s lone apothecary came up, but something pulled him home first.
Opening his front door, he went straight back to this children’s bedroom. A weak moan came from the domicile. He rushed inside and saw his wife and daughter huddled around his son, lying in bed. Etta turned, her face pudgy and red, coated with tears, brightened slightly as he came to them.
He slid to the side of the bed. “Give him this,” said Savh as he removed the vile.
Etta grabbed it out of his hands and emptied the contents into their son’s mouth. The young boy shivered as he swallowed the purple liquid and his eyes drooped and closed a few seconds later.
Etta wrapped him in a strong hug, the ones he had come accustomed to. “You sweet man. You found it. I can’t believe you found it.” She whispered into his ear.
He felt like an infant in her arms as the weight of the journey bore down on him.
“Evri dear. Take this to the apothecary. Tell them to make one for every male.”
“Yes, papa.” Her face glowed as she accepted the pouch and ran out of the house.
Savh went to stand up and his legs wobbled. He reached out for support and Etta came to his rescue. “You need to rest, old dwarf.” She smiled, tears still clinging to her face.
She set him down in their bed and pulled the sheets over. Dipping down, she kissed him on the cheek. “Sleep as long as you need, my dear. When you wake, you’ll have a hero’s breakfast waiting for you.” She shut the door as she left.
He took in a deep breath that seemed to touch every inch of his body. His legs, his stomach, his lungs, even his ears felt haggard. Closing his eyes, the light, the pure light, returned.
“It is time now, my Savh.” Death’s voice spoke to him once again. “You have nothing left to save … you have nothing left within you.”
Savh sighed and let go. “You’re right … I am finished.” He stared into the peerless light, the cure-all for the plague of existence. The warmth made his heart ache for the reprieve, to rest eternally with is kin. “You have waited patiently and allowed me to rescue my son and for that … I am grateful.”
“Let go now. Let me write your name in my ledger and you will bask in the glory that is death.”
Savh shuddered as he felt the alleviation of the living condition roll through him. The last image of his wife’s face came across his vision uninvited, then his daughter’s, and then his son’s. His resolve to end it all weakened with their beautiful faces. It did not matter that he had suffered, it did not matter that he should have died on the road somewhere far from home, all that mattered was that he had them and with that all the majesty and pleasure of life eternal diminished to something that could wait a century.
He turned from the light. “Yet you forget, reaper.” He couldn’t contain his smile. “Old dwarfs die hard … and I still have much to do before I let you take me.”