“These poor bastards never stood a chance.” Kai mused aloud.
He was there, sifting through the remains of this Dwarven outpost, looking for his fallen
brethren. Their armor, blackened and still warm to the touch bore the evidence of the intensity
of the fire that brought upon their ruin. He removed a blackened support beam that had fallen
and crushed the poor fellow at his feet, and attempted to gently pull the body from the rubble.
The armor broke apart easily as he slid the remains free. Additional pieces of armor fell from
the body as he moved it into the street where the other reclaimed dead lay.
The outpost of Dael-Inor, one of many Dwarven outposts south of the Borderlands, lay
in ruins. Small fires still burned from the recent attack, smoldering coals catching fresh wood
aflame as old pieces crumbled into ash. The entire settlement was razed, all buildings knocked
down and burned, and stone watchtowers toppled. Everything, including the stone and
ground, was charred and burned, like a ball of fire had fallen upon this place and scorched it
black. For all the destruction, there were no bodies of any enemy attacker, nor any signs of a
struggle, just the chaos of a settlement engulfed in flames. No signs of survivors, either.
Kai was a young dwarf of 54 years. His beard was full and brown, his eyes blue, and his
build, muscular and stout. Like all dwarves of his clan, he stood around five feet tall and was
built for life in the mountains. He trained as a warrior, preferring two-handed weaponry, to
hammer and shield, like many of his brethren; but today his duties were to help clear this
outpost of the dead, and assist in defending should any trouble arise. So far, no signs of any
trouble had surfaced.
The day proceeded as expected. Bodies were gathered and placed in rows, the dead
were identified if possible and committed to the fire as was their clan’s custom. Any and all
weapons, armor, and other salvageable goods were collected and loaded into wagons for
transportation to be distributed to other outposts. By nightfall, the bodies were all cleared, the
dead were sent on their way, and the supplies were loaded. The outpost now looked like a
charred and vacant husk, a haunting reminder of the threat they faced.
Just what was it they faced here? A fire that came from out of nowhere? A fire magus?
Dragon? Raiders? None of those seem likely given that there appeared to be no struggle. No
looting, no gold or silver taken, nothing. Just death. Kai pondered this while sitting beside his
brethren around the fire that night as they ate and drank and celebrated the lives of their fallen
companions. The dwarves made their encampment a few hundred feet outside the outpost. No
one wanted to spend the night inside that ruined place.
“Rheis Flintspark was a damn fine blacksmith, he was.” Offered Anver Ironbrow, their commander. “Made hammers that cracked skulls better than any I ever wielded. His laugh was loud, his beard was singed, and his heart was big. I’ll miss the bastard. May he drink and feast with his ancestors in the Mountain Below.”
The dwarves all hailed Rheis and raised their ales in the air to salute to their dead comrade. After he
spoke of Rheis, Anver sat back down and yielded his voice to the next dwarf. It was quiet for a while when Kai finally stood.
“Ahh, Kai, my boy, you’ve been quiet today. What’s on your mind?” Anver asked the
young dwarf. Kai remained quiet for a moment, choosing his words carefully.
“I… I’m troubled, Commander…” he began. “The number of outposts we are clearing
have been increasing, and yet we continue to see no signs of an attack, or struggle of any kind.
The fire seems to come from nowhere and then disappears back into nothingness after it
consumes our people.” Kai looked at his commander with fear, but also resolve in his eyes.
Commander Ironbrow met his gaze and nodded. Several other dwarves also nodded, sharing
“Aye, boy. I am troubled too. I’ll be speaking with the Thane upon our return to The
Mountain. Bizarre and troubling things are happening out here. Bizarre and troubling indeed.”
Anver’s gaze drifted to the fire. The flames danced, and wood popped, sending cinders
floating into the air. Kai sat, satisfied that his commander would do as he said. Even so, a deep
unsettled feeling remained in his gut.
Commander Ironbrow stood “Lads, it’s time to turn in. We have an early morn. We leave at
He pointed to two of the dwarves “You two. Cordam, Tristim, you are on first watch.”
The dwarves stood and nodded, grabbing their weapons and walking out to take up positions.
The remaining dwarves settled into their bedrolls, and falling asleep quickly. As the hours
passed, the fire slowly mellowed, keeping the dwarves warm as they slept.
Kai stared up into the sky, the light of the stars twinkled softly. His mind circled around
what he saw this day, and the fears in his own heart. He drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the
fire crackling, and his companions snoring.
* * * * *
Kai woke in the black of the night, shivering from the cold. The fire was out, which
meant that the sentries were off drinking themselves stupid instead of minding their duties.
Typical. The coals were still hot, so Kai rustled up some wood from the pile they had collected,
and stoked the fire once again. After warming himself, he slipped his cloak around his
shoulders, stepped over a few of his sleeping companions, and went off to find the missing
watchmen. He walked into the outpost, passing through the stone archway marking the
He got as far as the first ruined building before he was grabbed and silenced. A hand
reached out, covering his mouth and pulled him into the doorway of a ruined building.
“Shhhh… easy lad.” Anver Ironbrow whispered, glanceing down at his own stomach,
as he felt a sharp poke. “You can put that dagger away, aye?” Kai had slipped out his dagger and
pressed it up to his assailant’s belly instinctively. He relaxed and sheathed the weapon.
“What’s happening?” Kai whispered. “Where are the sentries?” His eyes searched the
moonlit area before them. Even with the moon and stars alight, the outpost was almost
“There.” Anver nodded in the wayward dwarves’ direction.
Standing in the middle of the outpost’s main square were the two sentries. They were
beside each other about a foot apart, their arms at their sides. The pair stood motionless and
naked, their clothing, armor, and weapons lay scattered about. While the pair stood unmoving,
the darkness came alive. Kai’s eyes widened in horror as the shadows and the blackness
seemed to stretch like a skin or membrane.
Something was being pressed through from another plane of existence, some nightmare being birthed into the fabric of reality. There was a release of tension in the air, almost as if the outpost itself had been holding its breath and then finally exhaled.
Then they saw it, the living darkness. Whatever it was, it was an abomination, a
hideous mockery of life itself. It crawled from the shadows and into the clearing, its entire body an inky
blackness. Its limbs were too long and thin, its torso stretched and sinewy, and its legs bent in
horrific places. Its head was truly a thing of madness, ever shifting its appearance and never
settling on any one, bubbling and reforming; an endlessly chaotic visage.
“We have to…” Kai started, but Anver silenced him again. The living blackness now
stood in front of the motionless watchmen. It stood there, motionless itself, until suddenly its
eyes lit up with fire. The flame grew in intensity as the creature stood there, but it never
diminished the darkness around it, seeming to make the surrounding darkness deeper. Kai
stood still, not hearing his commander’s words. That’s when he understood. These were the
things that attacked the outpost. They burned it down. They brought the fire.
Without warning, the creature lunged at Cordam. It pulled his mouth open, unnaturally
stretching his jaw and face, twisting and re-shaping it as it forced its way inside. The dwarf’s
chest and abdomen bulged and rippled as if a thousand rats were attempting to chew through
him and out into the streets. All the while, the darkness was pierced by an unearthly wailing. Kai and
Anver covered their ears, the sound raising gooseflesh on their arms. Anver knew he had to stop this no matter how afraid he was.
“Go,” Anver told Kai. “Wake the others. We must leave here while we can.” He grabbed
his warhammer. Kai did as he was told, running back towards their encampment. Anver
stepped out of the shadows and ran at the abomination, hammer raised, bellowing his war cry.
Anver moved upon the creature, the blood pounding in his veins. He channeled all of his
fear and rage into the hammer, becoming a living weapon to smash his foe. He readied his
swing, every drop of adrenaline he had coursing through him.
Suddenly he felt the overwhelming urge to stop. He slowed his charge until he stood there
in front of his enemy. He felt strange, like the world had changed around him. The darkness
that seconds ago was destroying his companion was gone as if it never existed. Anver blinked
several times in disbelief. The air was cool. The sky, cloudless and calm. Anver stepped back,
confused but alert, when the watchman turned around. He looked bewildered and sick. Anver,
covered in sweat, his heart pounding in his chest, tensed.
“Commander? Commander Ironbrow…?” Cordam asked. “I don’t feel so good…”
Anver was taken aback. “Cordam? Is it you, lad?” Anver lowered his hammer, confused.
The other sentry, Tristim, turned around and unleashed an unholy howl. The flesh of his
face was torn off, revealing a gruesome display of muscle, bone, and teeth; his jaw misshapen and grotesque. The hapless dwarf reached for Anver, who backed up and swung his hammer,
connecting with Tristim’s savaged jaw, smashing it to oblivion. Tristim fell, but still moved. Cordam’s
eyes went black and he too let out a wail, a black tar-like tentacle erupting from his chest
which struck Anver, hurling him back twenty feet. Anver slammed into the ground, the wind
leaving his lungs. He pushed through the inability to breathe and got back on his feet.
Kai returned just as he was able to catch his breath. “Commander, the others are all
missing. I can’t find any of them!” He said, seeing the horrors that had become of Cordam and
Anver nodded, never taking his eyes off the creatures in front of them. “They’re gone,
boy. The darkness has taken them.” Anver changed his posture to an offensive stance. “Take
the wagon and leave. Head straight to The Mountain. Tell Thane Blackforge that the darkness
took us. The fire and the darkness are the same. Do this, boy. Go now.”
Kai stood and matched Anver’s stance, drawing his own two handed hammer. Cordam
charged, but Anver was ready. His hammer swung and connected with Cordam’s face, spraying blood and splintering bone. Cordam fell to the ground, his body seizing and convulsing, bones
cracking and twisting in sickening ways.
Kai looked down at his friend. “Commander…”
“Go. I’ll buy you time.” Anver wiped blood from his face with his sleeve. Muffled wails and gargling sounds issued from Cordam’s crumpled form. Anver looked again at Kai. “GO, BOY! NOW!”
Kai nodded knowingly, grief in his eyes. He turned and ran back to the wagon. Looking back as he ran, he saw Anver burying his hammer in the back of what was once his friend Cordam. Tristim, now back on his feet, charged his former commander, but Anver had anticipated this. As Kai got the wagon going, he could hear the wailing from the darkness outside the outpost. He heard the sound of Anver’s war cry. He heard these things until he could no longer hear them, far away from the outpost.
As the hours passed, Kai continued to hear the words of his commander echoing in his mind:
They’re gone, boy.
The Darkness has taken them.
artwork copyright Mikey Hope
story copyright Caleb King