The golden rays of the morning sun glinted across the water as the griffon broke through the low-lying puffs of clouds, its white-tipped wings trailing faint lines of vapor. The warm southern winds played through Safu's leonine fur. A deep-throated screech burst from the griffon's beak and she craned her feathered neck to look back at her rider.
The armored dwarf leaned forward in his saddle to pat the griffon's muscled side. “We are home.” Even though the words were lost in the wind, Safu seemed comforted.
Finngyr took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. The taste of the salty air only deepened the feeling of home. Far in the distance, across the blue waters of the Innersea, the capital city of Daomount gleamed.
The white washed walls of the uniform buildings reflected the sun and made the mountain city glimmer. The many docks stretched out like fingers into the surrounding waters. The trade barges and fishing vessels spread about like pebbles being scattered before them.
Finngyr banked Safu into a low arcing dive, affording him a better view of his home. The Histories taught that the city of Daomount had been built atop the mountain which the god Daomur cast down upon the god Haurtu, trapping him beneath. The surrounding waters rushed in to fill his tomb, forming the Innersea.
Finngyr looked out over the island city jutting from the water.
He knew most thought this nothing more than a legend. But not him, he knew it to be real. Real as the god he communed with in his prayers. Real as the danger which now threatened both those who thought it legend and those who still held faith in their hearts.
Finngyr relaxed his grip, feeling the reins slide through his leather gloves. Safu knew their destination near the city's summit as well as he did. It only took her a moment to notice. With a screech, the griffon dove, broad powerful wings beating as she adjusted her course.
As one of the three holy orders of Daomur, the Temple of Justice was near the summit of Daomount. It shared the summit with the Temple of Art, where the Artificers praised Daomur through creation, building and enchantments, and the largest of the three, the Temple of Law, where the Ritualists – custodians of the holy book of Hjurl and marshals of government – interpreted dwarven law.
Finngyr's heart swelled with pride as he approached. There was a time when the Temple of Justice was the largest of the sects. During the Great Purge, when the progeny of the Hungering God, Haurtu, had to be eradicated from the face of Allwyn; The Knights of the Temple of Justice numbered in the tens of thousands. Now, only a thousand years later, they numbered in the hundreds. Where once they were armies, now they led the armies of the empire, under the Ritualists' scrutiny and the benign neglect of the Artificers. The Knight Justices were now a relic of a bygone age.
The muscles in his neck and jaw ached from clenching. He could feel his anger rising and worked to fight it down. Like all dwarves, he had been taught to keep his emotions in check from a young age. The Lawgiver's justice was best reflected on with a clear mind, free of emotion. Something Finngyr was finding more and more difficult. Even this view would only calm him for a short time.
Finngyr had found a true vessel of Haurtu the Hungerer. Not just some human whelp who showed the dimmest spark of potential, but one already possessed by a soulstone. He’d found one, then let it escape!
Frustrated, he tightened his knees and felt Safu bank in response. Finngyr forced himself to relax and looked out over the water. Taking deep breathes, he recited one of the many prayers to Daomur.
“Your word is law
I am your vessel.
I deliver your law.
Your word is justice.
I am your vessel.
I deliver your justice.
Your word is truth.
I am your vessel
I deliver your truth.
In Daomur's judgment, we are preserved.”
He rested his hand upon the metal shaft of his hammer, tracing the intricate engravings through rough leather gloves. He wanted nothing more than to feel the comforting weight of the ancient relic in his grip as he intoned the holy prayer. It was through these most sacred and holy weapons of his sect, said to be blessed by Daomur himself, that a knight justice could identify those chosen by the Hungering God. When he felt divine presence emanating from it, he knew, with surety, his god anointed him to enact his divine mandate and Finngyr would sing Daomur's praises as he culled the tainted human from the herd. Never was he more fulfilled than those brief moments when he was the blessed hand of his god on Allwyn.
The hammer's touch and the prayer took him back to the memory of his encounter with the Stonechosen and Finngyr flinched yet again for not being better prepared.
He’d travelled with Safu to the Cradle of the Gods, a backwater human containment on the fringe of the empire. It was his first appointment outside the ever hostile Nordlah Plains. When he received his orders, he thought he was being banished for some unknown transgression. He thought it would be easy.
Finngyr had been more interested in showing the Cradle's Overseer, Magister Obudar, how a loyal citizen of the empire should treat humans than in performing the Rite of Attrition. Even though the rite had been the reason he was sent there.
If he had only placed more focus on his duties: performing the rite, seeking out those abominations whom were potential vessels of the Hungering God's return, and culling them from the human herd; he could have captured the Stonechosen. And once more, the scene played out in his mind, perhaps for the thousandth time.
Just beyond the edge of the town of Lakeside, he’d walked into the clearing. His armor was resplendent, engraved with the sigils of his sect. He stood looking out over the herds of humans, their faces flickering with the light from the immense bonfires, holy hammer resting in his hands.
Finngyr was born to deliver Daomur's judgment on these savages, yet even as he exulted in serving his god, he felt the familiar itch which always preceded battle. To him, the search for potential vessels of the Hungering God was a war. Since taking his oaths, he had served in the Nordlah Plains where barbarian warriors fought to a man against Daomur's judgement. Every inch taken was a struggle.
Here, in this so called Cradle of the Gods, the foul humans lined up like lambs for the slaughter, their cow-eyed loved ones clung to each other, helpless and waiting nearby.
Bile rose to Finngyr's mouth as he marched past the line of dwarf guards sent to oversee the rites. He’d made sure their armor gleamed and their weapons held a keen edge. For all the good it had done. Normally, he would have waded into the thick of battle, his brethren knights at his side, ancient hammers meting out Daomur's justice. It was an insult, this line of docile humans, these borderland guards.
Finngyr strode down the line, pausing only to hold his hammer before each human in turn. Most stared at their feet, some watched with bewildered faces and just for a moment, one looked as if it would reach out and touch the hammer.
Make that mistake.
And as he suspected, the hammer remained dormant in his grasp. Humans lacked the capacity to understand what they beheld and while Finngyr held no love for them, he would follow Daomur's law. He would only cull those whom the hammer marked as a vessel, in self-defense or against those who would stop him from performing his holy duty. In Daomur's name he wished one of these humans would try to stop him.
The sensation caught Finngyr off guard at first. He stood before a tall, lanky whelp. The human's shoulders sagged and its thick dark curls partially hid its vacant eyes.
His god's presence flowed into him.
What was happening?
The most Finngyr ever felt was a slight sensation, the tiniest presence of the divine. Some Knight Justices confided they were not always sure when they did feel it and would cull the human just to be safe. But this! Daomur's presence flowed out of the hammer in waves; a hum like a thousand trapped hornets about to burst forth.
The other humans in the line gazed open-mouthed when the hammer trembled in his hands. Finngyr could only stare as white light burst from it, the glare blinding. The human whelp stood staring now, confusion and then dawning horror on his face.
This was no potential vessel of the Hungering God. This was a stonechosen, one already possessed. Finngyr knew what must be done.
“I cull thee!” Finngyr roared, as he brought the hammer around his back and over in a crushing blow, with all of his faith behind it.
He felt the impact, waited for the give of soft flesh and the familiar crunch of bone, but it never came. Instead, it felt as if he struck stone. A blinding flash of light and what felt like hot wind buffeted him, hurling him back, the hammer flying from his grasp.
Finngyr landed hard and tightened his muscles to keep the air from being knocked from him. Curling up as much as his armor would allow, he rolled with the momentum and rose in a crouch, his side axe already in hand.
The sounds of screaming filled his ears and he could just make out indistinct shapes running past him. He couldn't focus his eyes. The residual image of the flash still filled his vision. He had lost his hammer. What had he hit? Surely the blow killed the whelp?
“Dwarves! To me!” Finngyr roared. He made his way forward. Shadows danced before him. Something pushed into him, he removed it with a swipe of his axe and was rewarded with a satisfying scream.
“Do not stand before me! I walk in Daomur's grace and all who oppose me die in his name!”
He heard the rhythmic sounds of plate armor sliding on chainmail. The guards were just reaching him, his vision clearing, when the bonfires exploded.
It was those damned explosions and the resultant ash clouds which helped the stonechosen escape. He'd been sure at the time it was the fat sorcerer from Lakeside who caused those explosions. It was only later he learned there was another sorcerer, Almoriz of Whispering Rock, in the human containment. Not only that, he was training up an apprentice. He didn't understand why the empire suffered those tainted spellcasters to exist. Everything he'd been told about them made it sound like their abilities were benign, barely able to perform the simplest of enchantments, mere shadows of magic compared to the work of the Artificers. He had been led to believe they were little more than tinkerers and entertainers. Obviously a mistake Finngyr would make clear in his report to his superiors.
Others must have been involved. The blow he struck should have wounded the stonechosen. It would have needed help to escape and hide.
Once he discovered the stonechosen was a whelp from an outlying village, what he had to do next was obvious. Razing the human's village not only punished those who helped him, but could have served as the impetus needed to anger the whelp and cause it to show itself and confront Finngyr. That is, until Daomur's hand intervened.
That pompous Magister Obudar, more interested in lining his pockets than helping the empire, quoted a verse from the Book of Hjurl to him. How else could it be explained than direct intervention by Daomur himself?
“Now marked, his chosen must gather
Where once his progeny thrived
His hunger compels them to journey
In his cities they survive.”
The stonechosen would be compelled to journey to one of the ancient human cities. Which one and for what purpose was exactly what Finngyr intended to find out. It was why he had given up the chase and set out for Daomount.
A screech from Safu shook Finngyr from his thoughts as the city of Daomount rose up before him. While he had been lost in thought, Safu had descended and skimmed along, just above the waves of the Innersea. The sound of their impact on the protective seawalls was deafening.
He took up Safu's reins and pressed in with his knees. The griffon's muscles bunched as she strengthened the beats of her wings to begin the long climb to the summit.
Many of the dwarven fishermen and tradesmen along the stone docks stopped mending their nets or their haggling over the morning's catch to look up and mark the flight of the Knight Justice. It was only they, devoted servants of the Temple of Justice, who flew the majestic griffons.
Finngyr and Safu soared above cobbled streets, filled with citizens going about their morning business. The griffon's shadow slid over the cobblestones and rooftops of the chaotic wharf and market districts, above the residential districts with their manicured gardens and libraries. Scattered throughout the cityscape, like so many black dots, were the entrances to Undercity, where Finngyr had spent much of his youth. Only a quarter of all Daomount covered the surface of the peak, Overcity was reserved for trade and those who could afford the view. The rest was Undercity.
Apprentice and journeymen priests from the Temple of Artificers labored away on the statues and wall carvings which were so plentiful in Daomount. Most of his race paid homage to the Lawgiver through stonecraft or commerce. Finngyr's was a different calling.
He passed one of the open markets, surrounding a Bastion, gatehouse to the Underways. Other than by ship, they were the only other way to leave the city. Unless, you could fly.
Safu's shadow glided over the Bastion and the caravan assembling at its entrance; the caravan's laden wagons preparing for the underground journey to some far off place in the empire.
Finngyr thought of the caravan as blood, the Underways veins and Daomount, the empire's beating heart.
Finally, he reached the summit, home to the judicial and temple districts. Safu descended in slow circles, setting down on a long precipice of stone, jutting out from the side of the Temple of Justice like a waiting hand. She cantered along the expanse and into the griffon paddock proper, her still-beating wings kicking up dust and straw.
Challenging screeches came from a scattering of stalls on the stable's many levels. Safu raised her head and straightened her feathers, answering in turn with her own challenge. If it were not for the powerful enchantments placed on the griffon tack and harness by the Artificers, the griffons' natural territorial instincts would have them shredding each other with beak and claw.
From a third floor stable door, two pages scrambled out and descended a series of wooden ladders with practiced ease. Finngyr didn't recognize either of them. But, as pages, they were the lowest members of the temple, so it was not surprising.
Reaching down from his saddle Finngyr patted Safu behind the wing, where her golden tinged feathers gave way to sleek hair. The muscles controlling her wings went taut beneath his riding glove as she stretched.
“His word is law,” Finngyr called to the pages. He disengaged the riding harness with a practiced slam of his fist. Safu lowered her head at the sound and in one movement Finngyr swung his leg over the saddle and slid down.
He was already removing his pack and hammer when the two pages, both barely old enough to be called beardlings, raced up behind him and bowed deeply at the waist.
“His word his law, Knight Justice,” they intoned in unison.
“See to Safu. Her nest is at the top.” Finngyr pointed to the fourth level. He heard a groan at his announcement. The exercise pages received from climbing up and down the numerous ladders in the stable was just as much a part of their training as learning to handle the order's steeds. That sort of dissension would never have been tolerated when he was a page.
Finngyr turned and stared at them, but could not determine which one had made his disappointment known.
“She will need to have her talons cut as well,” he added, eyeing each of them for any further signs of discontent.
The pages bowed in unison.
Satisfied, he walked past them. One of the most difficult and dangerous jobs involving the griffons was cutting back the talons on their front claws.
Behind him, Finngyr heard a satisfying thump as the innocent page repaid his partner, who stifled the resulting moan.
It was good to be home. Finngyr needed to pray, to give thanks for his safe arrival. Then, he would report to Lord Captain Danuk and consult the Book of Hjurl, particularly the Prophecies of the Vessels. They needed to know he encountered a true stonechosen and not just a potential vessel. He needed to discover which forbidden city the stonechosen now journeyed towards.
Then he would know where to hunt.
He would find Ghile of Last Hamlet. And this time, he would not escape.