This time I’m going to escape!
Ghile shot up in bed, eyes wide, his breath coming in sharp gasps.
The nightmare was already fading. The sensation of being trapped, the desperate need to escape, slipping away. He had been somewhere dark, surrounded by nothingness. Though the dream itself began to fade, the words, along with the voice that spoke them, did not.
“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Dagbar said from across the small room.
“No, you didn’t…it wasn’t...”
Ghile was certain someone else had spoken those words. He had not been alone in that dream. “Give me a moment,” he said. He took in a deep breath and looked about the spartan room as if the answer to his question might be found there.
“More nightmares?” Dagbar asked. The look of concern was plain in the dwarf’s strange eyes, one deep blue, the other stark white. Those divinely altered eyes, a gift from the Goddess Islmur herself, stood out in stark contrast to his red hair and beard, both oiled and immaculately braided. He stood in the doorway, his broad shoulders almost touching both sides of the doorframe.
It wasn’t just another nightmare. Since the Fallen City, Ghile had been tormented with horrific visions; dreams of the day the denizens of the Fallen City fell to Haurtu’s curse. This dream, nightmare, vision, whatever it was, was different than those. While he wished it was just a bad dream, Ghile was no longer so naive as to believe it.
He wanted to tell Dagbar, but the others were already worried about him. He didn’t need to add to their fears.
“Why are you here, Magister?” Ghile said.
Dagbar looked taken aback.
Ghile regretted the harshness of his tone as soon as had he uttered the words. Dagbar had been nothing but gracious and understanding since their meeting in the Deepwood. His rudeness, Ghile supposed, was due to his lack of rest, as what little time he took to sleep was plagued with the deaths of those lost souls. All of his waking time spent pouring over the prophecies.
“Forgive me, Magister Dagbar. What I meant to say is why have you come to wake me and not young Billy?”
Normally Billy, a short human boy, all black curly hair and unbound energy, saw to Ghile’s needs. This was the first time Dagbar had woken him.
“Do you bring important news? Have Daughter Gaidel and Two Elks returned?”
At Dagbar’s request, Gaidel and Two Elks had set out to scout the Deepwood between the Freehold and the Nordlah Plains for any sign of the approach of Growling Bear’s army. Ghile had come to suspect the idea was actually Daughter Gaidel’s, an attempt to keep him from rushing off to face Growling Bear and protect the Cradle.
Ghile had sought out Growling Bear in the Dreaming in an attempt to tell the other stonechosen the truth of Haurtu’s treachery. Their creator intended to destroy the entire human race once he was freed. Growling Bear had not believed him and his response still haunted Ghile.
“Follow the pull of my soulstones. Come to me before I reach your precious Cradle. If you do, I will free your people and allow them to join my army. If not, I will kill them all.”
Daughter Gaidel had gambled he would not leave without them and she’d been right. He learned his lesson on setting off on his own. He knew he needed them if he was to have any chance of success.
Dagbar smiled then and made a shooing gesture with his hands. “No offense taken.” The dwarf shivered. “By the All Mother, it’s cold in here.” Dagbar crossed the sparse room to the open window, his smooth blue robes brushing along the flagstone, a sharp contrast to the slap of his leather thonged sandals. He stood at the window for a moment taking in the Emporium with a look Ghile could only describe as one of disappointment.
The Emporium had emptied of merchants after Ghile and the others arrived at the settlement. Even though Dagbar tried to keep Ghile’s arrival as quiet as possible, there was no way to stop those Ghile had freed from Ashar’s spells from talking of him. Elder Ulbert had suggested detaining them, something the kind-hearted Dagbar just couldn’t bring himself to do.
Dagbar closed the flat stone shutters. They swung with little effort, a testament to their dwarven craftsmanship. The sounds of the early morning slipped away, taking the light with them.
Dagbar started to untie the heavy curtains hanging to each side of the closed window but changed his mind. “It would be warmer with them pulled, but too easy to go back to sleep, I think.” He glanced back at Ghile. “As much as you need it. Though how anyone could sleep in this cold?”
“The cold doesn't bother me,” Ghile said. He no longer felt the cold and he had been too lost in his thoughts since the Fallen City to even notice the sights and sounds of the market. Something that would have kept an earlier Ghile, the one who grew up in the sheltered village of Last Hamlet, in secluded Upper Vale, mesmerized.
“Yes, of course, the soulstones,” Dagbar said. “That will be handy in the nights to come. Autumn is upon us and the nights will continue to grow longer and colder.” He worked his jewel covered hands into the sleeves of his robes, “As to your other questions, Daughter Gaidel and her shieldwarden have yet to return.”
Ghile raised a brow at the dwarf. “So you’re here, because?”
“Well, to speak openly, your appearance unsettles young Billy and many others of the staff,” Dagbar said. “And those who do want to tend to your needs are more interested in falling at your feet and groveling than emptying your night jars.”
Dagbar followed his attempt at humor with a wink.
Ghile was still not accustomed to seeing a dwarf so comfortable with showing emotion or making jokes. Dagbar was definitely not like others of his stoic race. Just as he himself was not like other humans, Ghile reminded himself.
He could not blame young Billy. The soulstones not only granted Ghile incredible powers but also slowly changed his physical appearance. He was taller than a Nordlah barbarian now and even more toned and muscled. He no longer looked his fifteen years, all arms and legs. The tall and once gangly Ghile of Last Hamlet was gone.
The most notable change, and the one that both unsettled and fascinated the others, was the glow. Ghile held up his hand and turned it before him. His skin was perfectly smooth and now had an inner glow, just perceptible within his skin, the color of dwarvish gold.
“I understand,” Ghile said.
He knew it wasn’t just his body or the powers. He had changed. The part of him that had been a boy from a small village was no more. Not more than three seasons passed since he found the first soulstone, but he was profoundly different. He knew things now he had never been taught, saw places in his dreams he had never been, understood so much more than he should, all because of the soulstones.
Well, that was the way of it and there was nothing for it now.
Ghile threw his legs over the edge of the bed and looked for his boots. He ran his hands through his hair and tried to push the dark curls back out of his eyes. His hair was still the same brown color and always in the way; at least that was the same.
He took his worg fang necklace from the bedside table and put it over his head. The newest leather chord was longer and the large yellowed fangs came to rest among the four soulstones embedded in the center of his chest.
Two Elks, Daughter Gaidel’s Shieldwarden, had presented the necklace to him after Ghile defeated the fearsome worgs in that cavern on the Horn. Though not long ago, that battle had been his first. He just barely survived against Muk the goblin and his worg thralls. He had learned much since then, but knew the battles yet to come would make that first pale in comparison.
“We all broke fast hours ago, but there is still food and drink in my meeting room. The others are already there. It is a new day and there is much to discuss” Dagbar said with excitement in his voice.
Ghile nodded absently. Where was Dagbar drawing his enthusiasm from? He had been there with Ghile and the others last night and was just as optimistic then, though they made little to no progress discovering anything more from the prophecies.
He ran his fingers over each of the four soulstones. The four round lumps, just beneath his skin, formed the beginning of a spiral. Four of nine, he knew. How insignificant those four lumps felt.
Five more soulstones were out there. Growling Bear had four. When Ghile visited Growling Bear in the Dreaming, he had seen them, in an identical pattern to his, in the barbarian’s chest. He could feel their pull from the south even now. He could raise a hand and point to Growling Bear and knew the other Stonechosen could do the same.
The final soulstones’ pull was faint and somewhere far to the south. Occasionally, it would pull from a different direction, seem closer, or disappear completely. He couldn’t explain it, though Dagbar and the others postulated the pull of the soulstones might have a range and the final one was somewhere right at its limits.
He was Stonechosen, a vessel of Haurtu, once the God of Wisdom and Learning, but now the Hungering God, as was Growling Bear and whoever possessed that final soulstone.
Haurtu was the creator of the human race. The race Haurtu now sought to destroy. As Stonechosen, Ghile was destined to fulfill the Soulstone Prophecy and free Haurtu, or, like all those before him, be destroyed by it.
A face appeared in his thoughts as he touched each soulstone. The first soulstone he stumbled upon in the ruins at the base of the Horn, not far from his village of Last Hamlet. That was when Adon, his dead brother, appeared in the Dreaming on a forested island the soulstone took him to so he could learn and practice his new powers.
Adon had shown him how to take the power of the soulstone and mold it into a barely visible, but very physical, force. Used for offense or defense, it took any shape Ghile needed. Through this power, he could leap great distances or hurl objects with deadly force.
He touched the next soulstone and thought of Muk the Goblin, and the battle on the Horn. With that soulstone, Ghile gained the ability to reach out and touch the minds of animals. He could see through their eyes, take control of their bodies, and even draw out their very essence to gain their powers for a short time. He could climb like a spider or run with the strength of a stag.
Akira’s face appeared as he touched the third stone. Ghile couldn’t keep a smile from his lips when he thought of her. In the short time he had the soulstone, Akira had shared with him the power to enter others’ dreams and to travel through the dream mists, that grey expanse between dreams.
Finally, Ghile touched the fourth soulstone and the visage of Ba’groot, the wolf-like vargan appeared in his mind. He had yet to truly train with Ba’groot. Since acquiring the last two soulstones, the few times he actually pushed through the nightmares and reached the dreaming, he had spent the time with Akira. She’d been so distraught at the loss of her brother, Ashar. Though, he knew he was lying to himself when he used that as the excuse to forego his training with Ba’Groot.
His face reddened as he thought of his time with Akira, the first time they held hands. She was no longer formed of the gray mists of the dreaming. They could touch now. Ghile’s cheeks reddened further, as an unconscious grin crept onto his face. There was still some of the former Ghile from Last Hamlet still there, it seemed.
He missed her. It had been weeks since he had reached the Dreaming. The nightmares were always there, waiting for him when he tried. The pain of all those souls, lost to Haurtu's curse, was just too much for him to take. The Nightmares had steadily gotten worse with each attempt to enter the Dreaming. The pain had become too much to endure, turning him away.
He dismissed those thoughts and pulled his new boots up over his leggings. Dagbar had been busy, and he hadn’t heard the door close behind him when the dwarf left. The water basin was empty and the pitcher next to it dripped with condensation and smelled of flowers. Ghile washed quickly, then put on one of the new outfits Dagbar had made after their return.
The woolen tunics fit his new frame and each sported intricate embroidery around the hem and along the sleeves. Ghile grabbed the matching cloak from a wall peg and threw it over his shoulders. He fastened it in place with the metal brooch from the bedside table.
These clothes were the nicest he had ever owned, but it was the brooch that made them so extravagant. It was a simple circle with a long central pin, but it was made of metal.
Metal was a rare thing among humans. Only their dwarven overseers knew the secret of coaxing it from the ground; a secret they had guarded closely over the centuries. The working of stone and the creation of metal were both considered sacred acts that honored Daomur, the god of the dwarves, and as such, forbidden to humans and the other races of Haurtu. So, to have something ornamental made of metal was a sign of great wealth and prestige among humans. No one from Last Hamlet could have afforded this brooch. He felt foolish for taking pride in wearing it, but there it was, nonetheless.
Lastly, Ghile set his belt into place and adjusted the fang blade on his hip, secure in its new leather sheath. He’d grown comfortable with its weight and it felt odd when it was not there.
He didn’t truly need the weapon anymore, having the ability to create a blade of force more appropriate to his new size, with a mere thought. The fang blade was more like a large knife in his hand. But, it was a gift from his Uncle Toren, given to him on the evening Ghile left the Cradle. It reminded him of home and the trust his uncle and family placed in him. It was also the only piece of home he had left.
Fang blades, dwarf-made enchanted weapons, were bestowed on warriors known as Fangs, who were chosen by the Druids to protect the Cradle. While Ghile was a protector now, his responsibilities went far beyond the border of the Cradle of the Gods.
Thoughts of Uncle Toren and the Cradle led to those of his parents and his younger sister, Tia. Thoughts of Ast & Cuz. He missed home. He missed his old life. How many nights had he lain awake back home near the hearth fire and dreamed of some great adventure to take him away from what he now longed for?
“You should be more careful what you wish for, sheepherder,” Ghile murmured to himself.