INTO THE DEEP
“Damn that rotten toothed bastard!” Ürbon cried out into the still sea air. “Two weeks we’ve been sailing, with no sight of land or ship!”
“That’s what happens when you trust an urchin; you never know what you’ll be getting,” answered one of Ürbon’s lieutenants. The veteran sailor was close enough to speak freely in his captain’s presence but far enough to not fear his rage.
“I know what he’ll be getting from me if I ever see him again,” Ürbon retorted. He desperately wanted to punch something but knew that giving in to that urge would be unwise. Very little could withstand a hit from the tall and fearsome Jödmun. They were a people with flesh quite literally made of stone, a condition arising from a calamity known as the Mountain Birth. But that was a long time ago.
The Mountain Birth changed not only the skin of the Jödmun but freed them from the basic survival requirements of mortals. Not only were they able to forgo food and sleep, but they were endowed with superior power and strength. At first, they thought this a blessing, but before long, they came to see it as a curse.
One aspect of this curse was their inability to produce children. And although they lived an unnaturally long life, each death became that much more significant. Nevertheless, the Jödmun lived on, using their strength and endurance to build mighty ships able to bear the weight of the world, if necessary. Ürbon’s own craft, The North Wind, was no exception.
The North Wind had taken him and his crew on countless voyages as they sought out legendary treasures. It was sailing them now to a prize greater than all others. According to a lone urchin, who gave Ürbon and his crew coordinates to an archipelago, it was there they would find what they seek.
That is, if the wind would just pick up, thought Ürbon.
“Ship sighted! Starboard bow!” came a call from further down the ship.
Ürbon grabbed his spyglass and ran to the prow of the ship, the crewmen on the deck following him; they had not seen anything but open water for days.
Looking through his spyglass, Ürbon saw a beautiful ship cutting through the waves like a knife. Its white wood and elegant design could only mean one thing, as no other race crafted with such grace and beauty.
“Elves!” Ürbon shouted. “Double the oars, follow them!” The crew spurred into action, the boat gaining momentum. As if the wind itself heard Ürbon’s command, the sails filled and surged them forward through the water. Though the urchin’s information was not very detailed, he had mentioned elves to be the inhabitants of the island that they sought.
The Jödmun did not tire, and with this fortunate sighting, their morale picked up and spurred them to narrow the gap between the two ships. Ürbon closed his spyglass; he would no longer need it to keep an eye on their quarry.
The elven ship was nowhere near as fast as Ürbon initially thought. By now, the elves were visible on the deck, huffing and puffing in their frantic attempt to outsail The North Wind.
An arrow whizzed through the air and thudded into the prow of the Jödmun vessel. Ürbon clenched his fists as the elves scrambled to grab their elegant weapons. It was not his intention to fight but to follow them and gain some much-needed information. But it seemed as if these elves had no desire to be followed, so he’d resort to violence if he had to.
Ürbon had to react quickly as more arrows hit the ship's wooden frame. While he may not have wanted any bloodshed, he couldn’t risk losing the elves, either. So, fighting it was.
“To arms! Ram them!” Ürbon cried out as the gap between the two ships shortened. The crew grabbed their weapons, ready to board the elven ship.
With an ear-splitting crack, The North Wind crashed into the smaller vessel, dragging the boat sideways and ripping off a large chunk of the elven wood. The impact threw many elves into the water, and the fortunate ones who stayed aboard grabbed hold of whatever they could.
The Jödmun grimly jumped onto the remains of the elven ship. There was no joy in taking on this weaker opponent, but they had their reasons. The elves tried to defend themselves with their slender blades, which screeched and cracked against the stone flesh of the Jödmun.
Their efforts were useless, as Ürbon’s crew picked up the squirming elves with ease and threw them down onto The North Wind’s deck. The fight was over almost as soon as it began. The elven vessel was pulverized to nothing but white splinters floating in the seafoam.
Though one step closer to their much-needed information, the Jödmun met with yet another obstacle. The elves — defeated, quiet, and tied to the mast, refused to answer Ürbon’s questions.
“Where were you headed?” he asked yet again, only to be met with more silence.
Many members of the crew had enough of this dead end and were suggesting torture or execution. Ürbon knew that if none of them would speak, it would have to come to that. Afterall, there was no food onboard the ship and the elven ship was sunk.
“Yes, execute us and rid us of the painful sight of you, foul creatures!” one of the elves retorted.
“I thought elves liked rocks, moss, and other such things,” Ürbon said, turning to the elf.
“There is nothing natural about you. You’re a monster, twisted and warped by magic,” said the prisoner in response, and spat on the deck.
“Watch it, elf!” Ürbon snarled. “I’m the only one keeping you from brutal torture.” He was almost ready to let his crew do things their way. After hearing the elves and their insults, many of them had already decided on the best ways to get them to talk. They even brought up rope and hooks from the lower decks.
But that would have to wait, since for the second time that day, one of the crewmen yelled.
Ürbon looked straight ahead through his spyglass, and there it was, between the hazy mist and sea spray — hints of an island. As the mist parted and The North Wind drew closer, the first thing Ürbon noticed was the enormity of the land. Along the shoreline, he could see a cluster of jetties where various ships were docked. This seemed to be a harbor of quite a large settlement. He could see elven structures stretching far inland. Lush jungles with flowing rivers surrounded the village, but what really caught Ürbon’s attention was a volcano, billowing smoke up to the sky.
Ürbon commanded his crew to prepare to land as they steered The North Wind alongside a port jetty.
So far, there was nobody to be seen, though one could tell this was no deserted city. Fish, spices, and other trading goods could be seen lining the stalls, but as Ürbon and his crew stepped down from the boat, they saw no people behind the stocked counters or walking in the streets.
“This doesn’t seem right,” said one of the crewmen.
“Where are all the people?” asked another as they reached the end of one street and found themselves at a five-pointed plaza. It looked as if amidst the activity of a busy afternoon, all the residents had vanished into thin air, leaving their day half-finished. Amidst the silence, even the weakest winds could be heard, gently pushing empty wicker baskets across the narrow streets.
The silence gave way to the noise of marching feet as all the streets were suddenly blocked by groups of elves. Seeing they were surrounded, Ürbon and his crew turned to go back to the harbor, only to find another group of elves marching forward. They were trapped.
Ürbon looked around at the elves; they were well prepared to ambush him and his crew. Behind every group were mages, each holding staves glowing from magical runes carved into the wood. Not good, he thought, not good at all. The Jödmun had become magical creatures from the Mountain Birth and in turn had become especially vulnerable to all forms of magic.
But this was not all that crushed his hopes, since amongst the last group of elven warriors, four of his guards flowed forth enveloped by a blue, glowing haze.
“I’m sorry, Captain, they appeared out of nowhere, surrounded us,” one of them croaked. Ürbon had left some of his crewmen to take care of the ship and prisoners, though now he saw that the elves had also captured their only means of escape.
“Be gone from our island, savages!” an elf shouted, approaching Ürbon and his crew. He was taller than the rest of the elves and seemed to hold an air of authority as they parted respectfully to give way.
In a sense, Ürbon was relieved; at least he and his men wouldn’t be killed without a moment to explain themselves.
“We did not intend to capture one of your vessels, O noble one. Your elven compatriots were the first to raise their sword and then, by chance, we happened upon this island. We do not wish you any harm!”
“Do not wish us harm?” the elf scoffed, pointing to a group of cut and bruised elves, the prisoners from The North Wind. “You claim to not wish us harm, yet just now you destroyed one of our boats and took our people prisoner?”
Ürbon could not find any words to reply. Clearly, the elves would never believe that their people were the first to take up weapons, that destroying the ship was an act of self-defense, not an unprovoked attack.
The elf saw the doubt and hesitation in Ürbon’s eyes and after a moment shouted, “Mages! Take them to the dungeons!”
With swift movements, the blue glow of the staves shot out and engulfed each one of the Jödmun, lifting them up into the air. With a contingent of guards to protect them, the mages led their prisoners along the path to the volcano.
Ürbon watched the city slowly come back to life as the procession made its way out of the city. Elves looked out of their windows in fear; others walked out of their doorways, whispering to each other with nervous glances. It seemed they rarely saw members of other races, let alone a race from so far away, and some, overwhelmed by curiosity, even followed the marching soldiers.
Eventually, the procession reached the end of the city, where the path leading up to the volcano was blocked by an iron gate. Upon reaching this point, those who had followed from their homes retreated back to the town, as if frightened of whatever lay beyond.
The bold elf leader from the plaza now seemed frightened himself, as he conversed in hush tones with something beyond. Ürbon craned his neck to see, but all he could make out was the elf talking to the gate. Abruptly, the gates swung open, and the procession moved on. After a while they entered into some sort of structure and they were led down many hallways, continuously turning left and right. The blue glow covered his vision, and he couldn’t make sense of his surroundings. Without a warning, he was tumbling to the damp stony ground, and an iron door was slammed shut behind him.
The blue glow ebbed away, and he could move freely once more. He looked around and saw that he was left within a circular pit, surrounded by slick and smooth walls he could not climb. Ürbon desperately tried to think of a means to escape. He had been put in a chamber separate from the group, and for all he knew, they wouldn’t have any idea where to find him if they were to make an attempt to escape.
The realization of failure made his blood boil. For weeks, they had sailed with no hint of land. After meeting nothing but dead-ends for months, they finally seemed able to move forward with their plans, only to be met by what appeared to be a conclusive impasse. He paced and stomped around the walls of the chamber, trying to get a grip on his anger, but instead his rage came to a head. He saw only red and a wall in front of him. With a roar that shook the chamber itself, he let his anger loose, hitting the stone with awesome fury. His fists felt no pain as his hand broke through; he ripped his hand out and hit the wall even harder, breaking it to pieces revealing a tunnel of black, glasslike stone.
He punched again only to find air as the wall had crumbled under his blows. He took a step back as his rage subsided. He felt an uneasy stroke of good luck; it seemed as if he would be able to escape, if only this tunnel led to somewhere useful. But what of his crew? It would be impossible to rescue them on his own, what chance would he have against elven magic? His only option would be to make his way back home and muster an army to rescue them.
Having no other option he took a deep breath and leapt into the tunnel. Where he thought to find ground, he found only empty air. This was not a tunnel but an entrance into a chamber, a chamber inside a volcano, illuminated red. And where he expected to find ground, he instead found a pool of lava…
The further submerged in lava he became, the more his head pounded. Groaning, he tried to climb higher. The last time his head felt like this was after drinking a cask of firemead. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, until he woke up in the morning.
Slowly wading out of the hot lava he hauled himself onto a platform of solid granite. Looking around, he saw that the chamber consisted only of a pool of lava, with slabs of granite above the surface. Ürbon looked up to see shards of stalactites on the high ceiling. There was a small hole right above him that showed the tunnel from which he fell. Climbing up there would be impossible; besides, he’d just find himself trapped yet again.
Ürbon looked across the magma; he could see a small tunnel on the other side of the chamber. He stepped down from the granite once again and waded across to the tunnel. Though he could still feel the heat of the magma, after a while it felt more like a hot bath than anything else. Once he made his way across, he stepped into the tunnel and walked along its winding path. He could tell from the rising heat that he was walking towards the volcano’s heart, but to turn back would be pointless. So he continued along the path, across smaller caverns dotted with little lava puddles.
Eventually, he found himself in a truly enormous cavern, illuminated by an icy blue glow that filled the vast space. The source of this light came from an object in the center, and there was some unknown pull that called Ürbon towards it.
Curious about the glowing light, Ürbon made his way through the cavern, moving through the shallow puddles of magma dotting the surface. The eerie darkness of the cavern was nothing compared to the wonder of the blue glow radiating from its center.
As he reached the middle, he found the mysterious object to be a block of ice. How did a block of ice come to be in the heart of a volcano? And how did it not simply melt on the spot? Ürbon could not know. He gazed in wonder at the mysterious thing, marveling at how it kept its form despite the heat. What also gained his attention was a handle sticking out of the block. Upon further inspection, he noticed the transparency of the ice and a curious shape within. He thought he could see a large horned head and rows of teeth bared at him. The edges and hairline cracks of the icy container amplified a certain power within.
Ürbon did not know why he grasped the protruding hilt. It could easily have been either an act of fate or simply the enactment of childish fantasy; the hilt being the arm of a blade of yore, and he, Ürbon, the legendary hero to lay claim to the fable.
But no amount of fable or legend could have prepared him for this.
As his hands gripped the leather, a white flash engulfed his vision. He tightened his grip to keep himself steady. An ear-splitting crack rang through his ears, the white flash growing stronger. He closed his eyes to escape the blinding light, but it was no use. He felt himself engulfed by it, lost in its freezing glare. He shuddered from the icy light, and, for the first time, Ürbon felt fear, gut-wrenching, heart-stopping fear.
The flash dissipated as suddenly as it began, and Ürbon opened his eyes, still dazed from the blinding light, to find himself in darkness once more. The icy blue glow was also gone, and where once was a block of ice now was an empty space. Yet he still held the hilt in his hand, free of its icy lock.
What was now in his hands was an axe of ice and steel, the haft wrapped in soft leather. He recognized the steel of the axe’s pole. It was a metal used by Jödmun craftsmen, a formula of steel and a rock substrate, creating a virtually indestructible material. What was more impressive, however, was the ice sculpted atop the pole, a visage of a wyrm, whereas the wyrm’s fiery breath was of steel, forming the blade.
Ürbon knew this axe but could not believe it to be in his hands. There was only one such weapon in existence. Bjarl, the rune axe of legend, crafted by the greatest blacksmith of the Jödmun, Volstagg the Mad Smith himself.
He looked at the axe in awe. He could not avert his gaze, its wonder and beauty captivating him. This was a true legend within his grasp. How it ever came to be here, so far from home, he could not fathom.
His eyes barely tore away from the legendary weapon as a scorching fire erupted in the darkness. Ürbon saw red and orange flames, coiling and twirling around a great horned head. It rose amidst a rumble of rocks. Two blazing eyes glared at him as its mouth opened in a snarl, the flames burning ever stronger. Sharp black scales peeked out from behind tendrils of flame which flowed out from a large jaw lined with pearlescent teeth.
As if one legend within this cavern was not enough, Ürbon held back a gasp as yet another rose from the darkness. Any Jödmun would know well what creature this was, for only one could breathe flame, and they were revered as the most terrifying yet majestic of all. It's cold-blue eyes stared as Ürbon stood his ground, holding Bjarl firmly in his grip. Fear would only inflame a full-grown dragon.
“You do not cower in my presence, thief?” The dragon’s voice seemed to resonate from the cavern itself. A jet of fire shot from its mouth and streamed past Ürbon, lighting a brazier at the other end of the cavern. Now Ürbon could see the true magnificence of the creature. Covered in scales like shards of obsidian, its wingspan could reach from one end of the cavern to the other.
“I am no thief; I merely seek that which belongs to my people!” Ürbon replied, standing his ground as the dragon stepped closer, peering at him and Bjarl with a keen and intelligent eye.
Bjarl crackled with lighting in his hands, giving Ürbon confidence. “I will go through whatever trial necessary to restore this axe, even if that means to go against you, dragon!”
At this, the chamber erupted. Rocks fell from the ceiling as a growling cackle echoed off the stone walls. The dragon seemed to convulse as fire rhythmically erupted, unchecked with each breath.
“Your naivety amuses me. You cannot know how long it has been since a soul has entered my home, especially one with an ounce of courage. Or perhaps it is simply lunacy that gives you such confidence. Those elves were right; you are odd folk, odd folk indeed!” The cavern shook as the dragon took a step closer to Ürbon. “That axe does not simply belong to the Jödmun, Wanderer. It was forged by the great smith Volstagg and only his descendants may wield it!”
The dragon’s attention shifted from Ürbon to Bjarl. He stared at it as if in contemplation, a gust of smoke drifting from his nose. “I suppose there is only one way to know whether you are worthy to carry such a gift.”
With a deep breath, he exhaled a stream of fire, giving Ürbon barely a second to react. He ducked his head under his elbow, ready for the fire to kill him, for dragon fire was one of the few things that could. Yet he didn’t feel the burning touch of fire, and after a moment, he raised his head to see a barrier surrounding him. An icy blue shield stemmed from between Bjarl’s two pointed horns. The dragon, seeing his fire was obstructed, closed his jaws, extinguishing the flames.
“I suppose you do have a right to the axe after all, Jödmun,” The dragon snorted, once again looking at Ürbon with an amused glint in his eyes. “Go, take the axe. I have no right to keep it from Volstagg’s kin.”
With a single glance, the brazier burned out, leaving Ürbon once more in darkness.
Not knowing whether to trust that the dragon would truly let him go, Ürbon stood there with no light to guide him except for Bjarl’s icy glow. For only a moment, the dragon’s massive head was visible once more, as a great fireball shot out towards the wall, revealing a new pathway.
“Will this suffice for you to leave, now? Or would you like me to carry you out?” the dragon roared.
Without wanting to anger the dragon further, Ürbon walked towards the opened path. But his curiosity took hold of him, and he could not help but ask.
“Why are you letting me leave with such a valuable piece of your hoard? Or is this some kind of a trick?” Ürbon asked into the darkness.
“Perhaps there is a bit of foolishness to you after all. How quick you are to assume I have a need for tricks. You mortal races are all the same; elves, dwarves, humans…Jödmun,” the dragon spat with contempt. “You all think yourselves so powerful, when you have no knowledge of the true sources of power in this world. You’re all little more than ants crawling on a round table, oblivious to those sitting around it. If I let you leave with this valuable piece of my hoard it is simply because I choose to…Now leave!” The dragon’s grumble reverberated through the dark cavern.
For some time Ürbon trudged through the mountain path, pondering the dragon’s last words. Then his thoughts turned to his captured crew again. Bjarl, still firmly in his grip, was a formidable weapon, but, even with it, he himself didn’t stand a chance against the elven mages.
Eventually he made his way out of the volcano and found himself in a dense forest. It was only just sundown, and the sky illuminated his surroundings in a deep blue glow. He walked through the undergrowth, the moonlight barely lighting his way. Still engulfed with thinking up a rescue plan, he knew he couldn’t risk getting trapped again, for then they would all be lost forever. He would have to make his way off the island, find some way he could get back home and recruit an army powerful enough to withstand the elven magic. Engrossed in thought, he didn’t notice when the path gave way to loose rocks. Before Ürbon realized what was happening, he found himself falling.
He tumbled down a steep cliff, crashing into rocks and foliage, desperately trying to grasp whatever he could reach, but nothing would hold. When he finally reached the ground, he was once again dazed. Finding himself in another series of caves, he clenched his fists, growling in frustration. But at least Bjarl was still with him. Looking around the series of caves and tunnels, Ürbon could swear he saw a flash of eyes peering through the darkness. He blinked to make sense of it, but at that same moment it disappeared. He dismissed the thought, assuming the fall had simply dazed him.
Taking a moment to gather himself and clear his head, he looked up the sheer wall to the night sky far above him; there was no hope of climbing back up. The only possible trail was a cavern to the right, though obscured by shadows. With a determined sigh he gripped Bjarl and walked down the path. The axes glow lit the way and he took care not to misstep this time.
As he continued to walk, curious markings began to dot the rock walls. The further he walked the more densely they appeared. Most of them he couldn’t understand, but some of them he recognized. On his travels, he had learnt bits and pieces of various tongues, and he knew at least some of these glyphs belonged to the ancient Gataran language. He had stopped to take a closer look at a portion of glyphs when a flash of movement caught his eye, and he heard a scrabble of loose rock. He turned to see the source and had just missed it, save for a white reptilian tail, scurrying around a corner.
Ürbon gave chase to the mysterious creature, following the flash of white and scrabble of claws. Turning left and right, he ran through the caverns when at last he caught up to the creature, barely glimpsing it before it disappeared through a tiny gap in the rock walls. No use even thinking of getting through that tiny gap, so he did all he could do and hit the wall with his axe. Bjarl made quick work of the solid rock. With just a few hits, he had opened a gap in the wall, wide enough for even him to get through, and found that he had created an opening to another cavern.
Ürbon stepped through the entrance and found himself surrounded by carved hieroglyphs, and the reptilian creature cowering in a corner, holding its shaking tail with thin, spindly fingers. Its white scales and ridged spine, along with its thin and wiry features made it look sickly, like its strength had long since seeped away. It did not meet Ürbon’s gaze, instead looking at the fragments lying at the Jödmun’s feet, hieroglyphs carved into the wall he had just knocked down.
Ürbon looked at the shattered rock shards. He could still make out the images — a black-winged shape much like a dragon surrounded by flowing lava. Another shard was dotted with white and icy blue specks like a blizzard, an axe in its center. Yet another fragment showed a bolt of lightning, or something similar. There appeared to be more to the image, but it was too shattered and broken to decipher.
He turned around only to find himself surrounded by reptilian creatures. They stared at him inquisitively; most of them were smaller than the one he had followed. Three significantly larger figures stepped forward on webbed feet, they towered over their smaller brethren, who bowed and parted respectfully to give them way.
They stood there simply staring at Ürbon as if waiting for something. But the Jödmun’s patience had grown thin, and he didn’t have time to stand around all day. Judging from the language of the hieroglyphs earlier on, he was sure these creatures would speak some sort of Gataran, and he knew a bit of the language himself.
“What?” Ürbon said to the crowd of curious reptiles, who jumped back in surprise. Only the three larger ones held their gaze, though their eyes seemed to light up in excitement.
“At last, he has come!” one of them answered, raising its spindly arms. Ürbon knelt to be level with the old wrinkled reptile; clearly it was not in its right mind.
“Show me the way out of these caves,” he said as gently as he could.
“Long have we waited for the savior from above! Long have we Geck'teks hidden in these dark burrows, waiting for the day he shall break down this wall, its painted image turned into reality! And now he has appeared and shall raise us out to walk free upon the land once more. At last he has come to help us take back our rightful place as rulers of all the Gatarans!” it cried, its arms still raised as more of the Geck'teks joined the crowd.
Ürbon tried to comment that he was definitely not interested in anything but getting out of these caves, but it was of no use; the frail elder kept to its long and drawn out speech.
“The time has come for those inferior Gatarans to regret the day they turned on their masters! They shall pay tenfold for their insolence! Their homes shall burn and they shall all live in chains! For the savior from above has come, and the Geck'teks shall rise up…”
Ürbon was done paying attention. His thoughts wandering back to his purpose, getting out of the cave and off the island.
Finally the elder stopped talking, and beckoned sharply to a distant Geck'tek, who hurriedly scurried over. This one was much larger than the rest, and carried two spears crossed between his shoulders. A vast array of small jars were strapped across his chest, and a tiny dagger of jagged black stone upon his waist. The Geck'tek leaned in to listen as the elder whispered into his ear, but his gaze never left Ürbon, who looked back at the reptilian creature with a cold, implacable stare.
The elder whispered a final word and turned back to Ürbon. “Behold, Tlupic! One of our most prized warriors; he will be your guide! Now go back to the surface and fulfill your destiny!” The elder spoke as the cavern erupted with the noise of scrabbling feet. Small Geck'teks scurried away, disappearing through tiny holes, emptying the cavern. Tlupic gave a final nod to the elders, walked past Ürbon and beckoned him to follow. Ürbon followed the Geck'tek warrior, only wishing to get back to the surface, even if it meant playing into the frail elder’s mad fantasies.
After a long walk through the winding caves, they made it to the surface. The sky was brightening as dawn broke; the air was filled with the sounds of the lush and humid forest. It almost felt like they were in a jungle. Ürbon looked at the awe-struck Geck'tek, frantically moving to a fro, observing everything from the trees to the grass. Its stupefied gaze looking up at the sky covered in hues of purple and blue.
Ürbon stomped past the reptile; he didn’t have time for this…
Tlupic wallowed in his freedom, taking in the fresh air, the sounds of life and the beautiful colors of the world. Leaving the burrows was a punishable offense for the Geck'tek, only allowed when a sacrifice was needed for the gods. And even then, only for a short period of time. But sometimes he would sneak out of the caverns to catch a glimpse of the world’s beauty. There was a time when all of the Geck'teks lived out in the open, under the eternal sky. They used to be the elite, ruling over the lesser clans. Everything changed when a sacrifice was made of an important Gataran. Despite being ruled over by the Geck'teks, the lesser clans had leaders of their own. And upon seeing one of their leaders sacrificed the Gatarans and lesser clans rebelled against the Geck'teks, driving them into exile. Now Tlupic and his people lived underground, hunted and killed whenever they ventured out.
He did not know much of the surface and the races who lived there. The elders only spoke of such things when a sacrifice was needed, or when a raid would be organized to strike against wielders of magic. Magic belongs to the gods and any mortal who used magic was a thief. For magic did not belong to them, and only by sacrificing them would that magic be restored to its rightful owners. Tlupic would occasionally be a part of these raids, capturing a user of magic and taking them to the altar. Like a sixth sense, the Geck'teks could feel the presence of magic from miles away, and their basest instinct was to return this gift back to the gods, an instinct devoid of hesitation.
It was this sense that had drawn him to the cavern. Others of his brethren had already made it there and stood staring at the stone monstrosity standing in front of the elders. The strange creature had a truly impressive stature. Taller than any Gataran he had ever seen, it had no scales or tail and was armed with an impressive axe. Resembling a roaring dragon, it seemed to be made entirely out of ice, yet it showed no signs of melting. The elders called the giant Azmekui, the “savior from above.” A sacred figure, shrouded by myth, but this creature of stone would only be a half of the prophecy, for the Azmekui was not a single entity but a pair linked by fate itself.
The elders saw Tlupic approach and beckoned him forward.
“Tlupic, guide him on his journey, for he will need your aid,” the elder said in hushed tones.
“But an Azmekui is not one, but a pair! What of our own bringer of light from among our people?”
The elder silenced him with a gesture, “You are the second Azmekui, young Tlupic, together you will guide our people out of these caves, but for now, your journey begins on the surface.”
With no room to argue and a duty to obey his elders, Tlupic walked over to the stone creature. “Fellow Azmekui, I am Tlupic the Sky Seeker. I will be your guide and companion.”
But it only scoffed and moved quickly, in a hurry to move things along.
The unlikely pair made their way through the lush forest, carrying the supplies the elder’s provided. At first, Ürbon had been going his own way. Since this was an island, logic dictated that if he kept walking in one direction he would eventually end up at a shore. But he was stopped by Tlupic multiple times. Though he hadn’t spent much time on the surface, Tlupic knew the territory better than Ürbon, and steered him onto better trails. Heading east was their wisest option, as to the north and west lay Gataran territory and to the south were the orcs. All that mattered to Ürbon was getting to a shore as quickly as possible, avoiding all confrontation, and though he was initially too stubborn to take the Geck'tek’s advice, eventually he gave in.
Ürbon walked through the forest with long strides, eager to get to the shore. Though the Geck'tek had trouble keeping up with the taller and faster Jödmun, Ürbon did not seem to care, unwilling to slow down their progress. Indeed, he barely noticed that Tlupic had fallen behind, or that he was utterly alone when a group of Gatarans surrounded him.
The creatures were taller than the Geck'teks and looked far more vicious, with a long, scaly, crocodilian snout that had long sharp teeth protruding from their jaws. They stood on two legs and brandished various weapons of crude metal, their upper bodies supported by their strong tails.
Ürbon looked around to find Tlupic but the Geck'tek was nowhere to be seen, and so he turned to meet the Gatarans’ vicious glare as the circle tightened. The Gatarans were talking to each other in what sounded like snarls and hisses. It was much more guttural than the Geck'teks more refined tongue; Ürbon couldn’t understand a word.
He brandished Bjarl and prepared to meet a charging Gataran. The creature moved faster than anticipated, and he barely met the blow of its halberd in time. Occupied with parrying and dodging the attacks, Ürbon hadn’t noticed the other Gatarans behind him slowly closing in. Feeling a weight upon his shoulder, he realized his mistake. Moving fast he caught his current opponent off guard and killed it with one mighty blow. He then turned to meet the Gataran who was bearing him down.
When he turned, expecting to find a Gataran on his back, he found one crying out in pain as a spear was dug deep into its chest. This weight upon his back was no Gataran, but Tlupic, who had killed the Gataran before it could strike at the unsuspecting Ürbon.
It was then that Ürbon realized the value of Tlupic’s aid. He watched as the Geck'tek jumped swiftly around with agile movements, ducking and dodging every blow against him. Tlupic dispatched yet another Gataran before jumping back onto Ürbon’s shoulder, a spear in each hand.
The two of them continued to fight the Gatarans, Tlupic lunging with his spear and Ürbon’s Bjarl, trailing its ethereal glow, wreaking havoc upon their enemies. The crude metal of the Gatarans’ weapons often broke during a parry or shattered against Ürbon’s stone skin. Gatarans sprawled upon the ground, either dead or heavily wounded. Both allies were consumed by rage as arrows whizzed past, narrowly missing Tlupic and bouncing off Ürbon. With long strides, the Jödmun caught up with the Gataran archers. Tlupic’s spear pierced their chests with powerful jabs, knocking them back. Ürbon caught up with two others and with quick blows finished them off.
Seeing Ürbon and Tlupic fight with such ferocity, the remaining Gatarans gave up the fight and disappeared into the woods as quickly as they had appeared. Alive and unscathed, Tlupic and Ürbon continued towards the shore with a newfound sense of camaraderie.
Ürbon no longer let Tlupic fall behind; from now on, the Geck'tek was always welcome on his shoulder. He sprawled there day in and day out, discussing his culture and traditions as the Jödmun repaid in kind by teaching Tlupic the Common Tongue.
It was during one of these conversations that Ürbon asked what Tlupic could sense between Bjarl and himself.
“We are both warped by magic, of course, my people are under the power of a spell, which made my flesh the way it is,” Ürbon asked.
“With you, yes, the gods have given your people their gift. You have not stolen their power. The axe, well, the axe is strange, strong magic, much power. Too strong for Tlupic, it gives me a headache. But I can tell that this is not its true power. No, the axe is asleep!” the Geck'tek replied.
“The dragon spoke of the axe as if it was a living thing. Like it chooses where it goes or with whom.”
“The dragon speaks true, the axe appears to have chosen you.” Tlupic uncurled on Ürbon’s shoulder and looked up to the sky where there were large white birds with black-tipped wings flying across. “Once we reach the sea, what’s next?” Tlupic realized he hadn’t asked before.
“To a port, to catch a ship headed to Maldora, from there we’ll sail further north to my home. There, I can get more men to rescue my crew from the elves,” he replied.
“Elves!” Tlupic said “Magic wielders! Let’s go kill them!”
“Their magic is too strong even for you, Tlupic.” Ürbon smirked. Though he was wary of the dangers ahead, the readiness of the Geck'tek amused him. “We cannot do it alone. We will need more men.”
Eventually, they reached the shore and luckily had to look no further for a port. They had reached the renowned port city of Servialdes, a major trading center in the area. There were ships harbored on the jetties and many traders stopped to stare at the ten-foot tall Jödmun and the Geck'tek upon his shoulder.
Scraping together whatever gold they could find, Ürbon and Tlupic had just enough to bargain for passage over the sea. Though most of the ships were too small to carry Ürbon or too large to be discreet, one in particular caught the Jödmun’s eye. The Swift Eel was written on its bow, and a woman called Amuliea was its captain. She was a keen-eyed woman, and clearly a good haggler judging from the large sum she was able to get for giving them room on the ship.
And so the Jödmun and Geck'tek boarded, bade farewell to that fateful island, and sailed off into the horizon.