It was excruciating; my monstrous skeleton was raised from a rocky, fiery bed and slammed onto a cold hard surface. Everything was black, I couldn’t see, couldn’t move. I was just bones and cartilage, yet I was awake. My four legs and tail dangled from the metallic slab I lay upon. Every inch of my skeleton felt as though it were still burning from the pool of fire I had been drawn from. My head was seized and locked to the table, clamps grinding into my skull. I felt their final ratcheting squeeze just before the first hammer blow crashed into my jaw. I felt it grow longer with each agonizing impact. Then my chin was gripped by pairs of unseen tongs and my mandible was torn asunder. I wanted to scream, but I had no control over my body, let alone throat or tongue to shape a sound. Then a leg was clamped. Then the hammer moved on, and the tongs, and other tools I could only guess at, and with them the drawing and the wrenching. Every swing of the hammer altered my physical form. Someone was changing me, annealing my skeletal structure, molding it into a new creation the way a blacksmith would forge a sword.
The reknotting of sinew and joint, the welding of a weighted metal ball to the tip of my tail, and riveting of bony plates to my shins, neck, and spine melded into seamless agony. Then I was picked up and thrust into a pool of foul liquid. The icy fluid tempered my bones. Pulled from the pool, dripping oil and water, I was flung back atop the metallic surface. Relieved of the heat, I felt an almost peaceful moment, but the reprieve didn’t last. Innards were thrust inside my rib-cage, followed by the binding of slabs of muscle and flesh to the bone. All of a sudden, the aroma that filled the room charged into my nostrils, overflowing them with the odor of smoke, charred flesh, and burnt hair. What was happening to me? Why was I conscious through this?
I could now work my aggrandized maw, but every movement was stiff and sore. I ran my new tongue across multiple rows of flesh-rending teeth; when I dropped my lower jaw open, my split mandibles showcased serrated death. I had just begun to wonder what would happen next, when gelatinous orbs were thrust into my eye sockets, and I felt the optic nerves worm into my brain. I had to blink a few times, as the sensations of light and shadow cleared to become normal vision, but I could now observe my surroundings. I was lying on my side atop a massive iron anvil within a dark room, lit by the flickering firelight of a furnace. The sight of tongs, bellows, chains, vises, and other instruments that lay among the wavering shadows confirmed what my body had already told me: I was within the forge of a blacksmith. It seemed so familiar, as if I had been here once before. Or more than once. I searched through my memories, but, like trying to recollect a distant dream, there was nothing. I rolled my head over and peered into the darkness. I strained my eyes to resolve another form glimpsed across the room. At the edge of the shadows, sprawled across another anvil, lay the lifeless, skinless, and bloodless corpse of an unrecognizable creature. Is that what I am going to be, or what I am being created from?
Two hands grabbed my head, twisting it about to face a shadowed figure. Beyond him, my gaze was drawn to a cubed mass of translucent flesh on a short, thick handle, with veins and a beating heart inside. The Forging Hammer. I still could not make out any details of the man before me, but that hardly mattered: I knew now where I was, who my tormenter had to be. As He cupped his hands over my eyes I could feel His fingertips seep into my skin. His fingernails anchored into my skull as He began to drag my eye-sockets into a more centered location upon my face. I struggled to squirm away, but I was still bound to the table. After a guttural, approving grunt, He removed his fingers and my depth perception improved. He picked up the Forging Hammer and began affixing scales to my exposed flesh, beating them into place with titanic blows. I feared my ribs would break under the impact.
The relentless pounding finally ceased. The craftsman lifted his living mallet of flesh above me and began chanting in a language I didn’t understand. A jolt of power arced from the Hammer to me, sparking life within my heart as it began to beat in rhythm with that of the Hammer. Blood and energy pumped through my veins, yet I felt weak—as if I didn’t have the strength to lift my enlarged limbs. He stepped back and repeated his words, louder, and the torrid smithy air grew cold. He slammed the Hammer into the dead creature adjacent to me and an emerald wisp of smoke separated itself from the corpse. As it rose out of the body, it swirled around itself, suspended in the air, emanating an eerie green hue that tinged the shadows untouched by the forge’s dancing orange. I watched as the man directed it with the Hammer, guiding it from that body toward mine; and with one final blow He drove the essence into me. I could feel it possess me, bind itself to me, adjoining its vitality to mine; we became one. I felt a surge of strength and a sense of consummation; I felt powerful. I felt complete.
I felt Him release the bindings around my legs and I stood up atop the anvil. I turned to face my maker, who I now saw to be but a fraction of my monstrous size, only to have a white-hot poker pressed against my forehead. With a loud sizzling, it branded an unknown symbol into my scales. I squeezed my eyes closed, howling and moaning in pain. I tried to scratch it away with my massive, blade-like talons, but then, in a flash, the pain and smell of burnt hair was gone. I opened my eyes to see a lush green forest, abundant ferns littering the floor about the bases of massive redwood trees. The dirt was moist under my paws; drops fell from the leaves above. It had just finished raining. I was ravenous. And I was free to hunt.
The echo of a grievous howl ascended from deep within the forest of the Beknen Valley below. The elkin, a savage race of men with antlers sprouting from their skulls, gathered in the center of the village of Cerebus-Senti. Proud hunter-warriors exchanged anxious glances at a wail unlike that of any beast known to man.
One boorish warrior grimaced as he approached; the stalwart legs distinctive of elkin carried him with confidence. All of Clan Wyndlyn turned their attention to the husky brute as he stepped into the center of the gathering. His broad, ferocious antler rack seemed a tangible echo of his raucous voice. “The Soul Smith has sent us a new devil to add to our trophy collection,” announced Herlidrek.
Another voice echoed his. “Gear up and follow my lead if you want your blade to see this demon’s end!” The woman’s boldness drew a few supporters.
“Shall we make this a competition then, Megna?” Before giving her a chance to take him up on the offer, Herlidrek continued: “Come on. This is what we’re here for. Let’s end this demon before it knows its ass from its head!”
Eager for the taste of battle, the rugged veteran drew his weathered war axe from his belt and strangled its wooden handle in his calloused hand. Muscles flexed as he shifted the weight of a massive wooden shield studded with sharpened antler tines. His dirty brown hair was long and uneven, if combed and straight. Eyes cold as flint well matched a jaw that might have been chiseled from it. His torso was bare, apart from several slender leather straps that encircled his shoulders and chest; teeth and small bones were braided into the straps like little trophies. Damp wool trousers were matted to his brawny legs by air humid with recent rain.
Many more courageous warriors donned shields, slung quivers of javelins, and formed teams to hunt the new demon of the Soul Smith, which continued to howl from the depths of the forest below. As they charged down the stair from the plateau on which their village rested, others took up vantage points along it to ensure nothing escaped the valley… or entered.
Overlooking the mouth of Beknen Valley sat two elkin villages, poised above either side of a narrow pass like sentries guarding a vault. The pass was shaped as if the mountains had been wedged apart the way an axe splits cordwood. It was the only entrance to the inner valley by foot. Unscalable mountain ranges surrounded the valley, jutting near vertically out of the earth in solid curtains of shale and slate, cradling the forest within their walls.
Clan Wyndlyn, along with their neighbors of Clan Hortyr in the village of Remaurus-Senti, regularly turned away fortune-seekers and risk-takers from the valley’s mouth, never granting entry to outsiders, to spare them almost certain death, as well as a fate the elkin regarded as worse than it. Though after being refused passage through the valley’s door, most adventure-minded humans would depart more resentful than gracious, their curiosity only further piqued. Throughout Thornwall the elkin had become wreathed in mystery, and rumors abounded as to what treasures and relics the elkin might guard within the confines of the forest.
Less regularly, Clan Wyndlyn was obliged to deal with what it actually held.
A dozen hunters sped toward the source of the creature’s groans. Even as they ran, these diminished in frequency and volume, trailing off altogether and leaving the forest in foreboding silence long before they could near their prey. They glided along a mudded trail through the undulating terrain of the valley floor with silent precision, slipping past towering ferns and tumbled splinters of the surrounding ridges without so much as a whisper. When the path split, the elkin warriors did as well. Each squadron of six contained equal numbers of men and women, some wielding hand axes and shields, some carrying javelins; a few carried no weapons at all.
Herlidrek raced at the point of his band; only a lifetime of training restrained him from outpacing them altogether. Even this failed when, in the near distance, loud snorts and a heavy rustling became audible over the trickle of a nearby stream.
Hunger drove me to gallop through the forest as fast as my four legs would carry me, toward a scent of cooked meat. The metallic ball anchored to my tail furrowed the moist forest floor behind me, ricocheted from trees as I zigzagged through them. I bounded a small stream and came upon a large scorched area. Small embers still glowed hot on the ground amid ashes of fern and moss; some sort of antlered humanoid lay in the center of the blast. Its skin was riddled with blisters. Its torso was separated from its legs; ribs were exposed, entrails and stomach contents strewn about. Roots had already begun to emerge from the burnt land and entangle the corpse, secreting an enzyme onto its flesh. I was hungry, but I had no appetite for a decomposing corpse.
I stared at the bark of the tree in wonder, watching it tinge a darker hue as the roots drank the blood of the corpse. Nearby, there was a strange circular metal object upon the ground; it looked like a metal mouth of pointed teeth, stretched open as wide as possible. I flexed my dual mandible as I roared at it in challenge, grinning at the fact that mine was bigger. I was about to touch the object, but I detected some movement out of the corner of my eye. A third humanoid arm, severed at the shoulder, was being coiled by more snakelike roots. It seems more than one humanoid was killed here. But what caused the fire?
My curiosity ebbed rapidly, however, no match for my hunger. It vanished altogether when, to my surprise, I discovered more antlered humanoids had approached while I was distracted: six of them, running toward me. My mouth salivated as it became apparent that lunch had found me. They began to yell words to each other which were foreign to me, though different from the chant of my maker. My barbed tongue shrilled between my trifurcated jaws as I roared and charged the oncoming morsels. I sideswiped the first and largest out of my way with a foreleg. My sword-like talons rattled against his spiked shield as the strength in my arm sent him flying. If he was their best, this would be simple. I pounced at another, mouth agape, and clenched my jaws around his head. Crunch! His antlers jabbed into my gums before I could close my jaws and sever his head; still, my teeth tore gouges in his flesh as I released him. Furious, I jerked sideways and swung the metal ball on my tail at his unshielded side, imploding the dazed humanoid’s ravaged face before he could turn his defense.
A slender female advanced, weaponless. She stretched out her arm, presenting her palm. Surrender? Pleading? I hardly cared. Then a flash of white light burned my eyes. I backpedaled, shaking my head to try to regain my vision, but then I felt two sticks impale my ribcage. I scuttled backward faster, until I collided with a tree. Some instinct told me to ascend. My vision was still blurry, but I had little need of it for climbing: that, I could do by feel. I turned, stood upright, gripped the girth of the bloodbark tree with my forelegs, and heaved myself upward. I could feel the palms of my feet suction to the bark of the tree. My body was one continuous, pleasant surprise. I ascended with ease.
The hunters set fresh javelins to their atlatls. Their first volley had sunk two into the beast; its formidable armor had turned the rest. Beige bone plating overlapped a thick layer of cobalt scales across its shoulders, spine, and legs, while a crest-of-bone flared about its gullet. The runic emblem of the Soul Smith was branded into the scales above its eyes. Its lower jaw splayed open as the fiend unleashed a throaty wail at its sudden blindness and pain, sending tremors through the muddy earth. The elkin stood undaunted, maneuvered for better angles from which to cast. Then it turned; talons that looked as if they could cleave a man in half grabbed the trunk of a bloodbark. The warriors froze in astonishment as they watched scales and bone shift color to match the bark of the tree. As swift as if on level ground, the beast climbed the bloodbark and disappeared amongst the shadowed canopy.
Emerging from the lush underbrush, the other squadron of elkin arrived and aided Herlidrek to his feet. Only bruised from the beast’s swipe, he pointed at the scorched earth whence the beast had attacked. “Not only can this beast blend in with its surroundings, it can breathe fire too.” The elkin all turned their gazes to the blackened and grisly remains.
Among their number was Erador, a novice by comparison to the rest, a talented hunter at the prime of his youth, awaiting ascension into adulthood. He stood aghast at the unfamiliar sight of the carnage that the Soul Smith’s demon left in its wake. Erador was equipped as most of the Clan Wyndlyn warriors were: fur boots, trousers, axe sheathed on leather belt, linen tunic beneath warm fur cloak, a javelin in one hand and a wooden shield in the other.
Faint strings of smoke ascended from the withering embers and dissipated into the air as if it were the fire’s last breath. Gnarled tentacles of roots had erupted through the soil and entangled the dismembered portions of elkin carcasses. Erador gripped his javelin with nervous hands, his jaw agape at the scene of scorched death. He panned away from the cooked landscape to his clan mate, slain by the whip of the demon’s tail, left unrecognizable with shattered skull. Erador shook his head in sorrow, but there was no time to grieve. There was nothing they could do for their felled companion now, though he knew that they would honor their fallen later. There was no better way for an elkin to perish than in combat with a demon; to have their remains recycled into the earth was as good a burial as any.
Erador returned his gaze to the root-entangled remains upon the forest floor. After a hard swallow, his youthful voice broke the silence. “Are they ours?”
“No,” answered Herlidrek with a cold, short tone. “See the snare on the ground? They belong to Clan Hortyr.”
Herlidrek turned slowly, holding his rectangular, antler-spiked shield in the air as if to ward off the heavens as he tried to locate the beast within the towering canopy. The sky was still overcast from the recent rainfall, leaving the treetops shrouded in gloom.
The rejoined squads followed Herlidrek’s orders and gathered in two groups of four, all with backs to one other, each monitoring a quarter of the canopy. The remaining three spread slightly apart from the others, to lure the creature with easier targets.
No more words were spoken.
They all abided with patient determination, the hunter’s vigil second nature for them. Feet shifted imperceptibly to avoid becoming mired in the mud; eyes darted about seeking movement. Droplets of water plashed upon waiting blades. The peaceful sound of the unconcerned stream imposed a timeless serenity upon their mortal tension.
The respite was broken by two bloodied javelins clattering upon nearby rocks.
Hidden in the shadows of the canopy, I pulled the two sticks from my side. The pain was trivial compared to my forging. I tossed the sticks away from me as a distraction. I watched in mounting anticipation as the hunters took the bait, forming a semi-circle around the fallen sticks, scouring the canopy in the wrong direction. My mouth drooled at the thought of tearing into all those juicy morsels.
I descended head-first down the far side of the bloodbark to remain concealed, but I became too impatient to continue in stealth. I rounded the bole and leaped down behind them, landing upon the soft earth with an authoritative thump. They spun in surprise and threw more of their sticks at me, which merely glanced off my bone plating as I bounded toward them. I slavered in satisfaction as I stomped one face-first into the earth while I wrapped my jaws around his meaty leg. The mud and his cries swallowed one another as my jaws sawed into flesh and sinew. The taste of blood drove me into frenzy. I tore his leg loose and began to gnaw meat from bone. I planted myself atop my catch and whipped my tail low across the ground, tripping two would-be rescuers.
They were more cautious of me now. Their communication became less boisterous, more urgent. They repositioned to surround me with slow, deliberate steps, watching as I finished consuming the meat on the leg. Some had even begun to back away to keep their distance. About time they started showing the sense to fear me. Unless… my gaze was drawn to one particular female. Her arms were hanging at her side, palms open outward toward me; her hands were glimmering with white light. That one. Not fear, then: trickery. I didn’t care to be blinded again, even if it meant delaying my next tidbit. I crouched, readying a leap.
She clenched her hands into fists; for one moment, her delicate bones and veins were appetizingly backlit. Then she knelt and punched the ground with both fists. Sparks pulsed from the contact, racing along the ground to conjure two large, glowing circles beneath the feet of the two warriors adjacent to her. Brimming with energy, the circles surged upward—lifting the warriors off their feet and propelling them toward me through the air.
I spat the leg from my mouth in preparation to snatch them out of the sky. The flying warriors swung back their axes with a fearless war cry as beaming trails of light arched them through the air. I sat back onto my hind legs and opened my forearms to welcome them both when another searing flash of light sent my vision into a burning blur.
The creature was blinded once again as both warriors landed their axes in its neck behind the hulking beast’s shield-like bone plating. The two warriors clung onto the creature’s back and hacked in a merciless frenzy at any exposed areas of the creature’s flesh they could reach. It roared its pain and its frustration at having been blinded again. “Watch out for its fire breath!” shouted Herlidrek as he charged, prepared to deflect any flames with his shield.
A coordinated volley of javelins sunk into the demon’s exposed chest just above Herlidrek’s head as he gored his sharpened antlers into the gut of the monstrosity that towered above him. The creature fell forward onto all fours and whipped around, bucking both warriors from its back. It lashed its lethal tail randomly in desperation, but to no effect.
Herlidrek, antlers dislodged by the demon’s writhing, rolled from under it and to his feet, planting himself face to face with the beast. It twisted its head from side to side, as if trying to decide which of him to deal with first. The veteran warrior wasted no time. He whirled his axe over his head in a broad circular motion, culminating in a backhand that cleaved into the temple of the creature, embedding the entire axe-head into its skull.
The beast fell dead, and the elkin stood there, victorious.
“What is it?” one asked as they all stared at the lifeless carcass.
“You know what it is. A devil, born from the fire of the Soul Smith’s furnace. One we haven’t seen before. Collect the equipment of our fallen. Be sure to get their antlers so the Soul Smith can’t collect their souls. We will remember them in song, that they fought valiantly in today’s triumph over this… this demon,” intoned Herlidrek, hesitating as to what to call the beast.
“You killed it, you name it,” reminded Erador. He produced a set of shears from his belt pouch and went about the task of severing the antler racks from each of the fallen elkin. Another hunter used a similar tool to prize forth a dozen of the demon’s teeth for trophies, one per hunter, including the slain. Theirs would feature in the memorials later.
Herlidrek thought on that for a moment, while one of his clan mates attended his bruised ribs. “Then it shall be known as Thorbryx,” he decided.
As the elkin were concluding their cleanup, a single leaf, detached from the canopy above, drifted to the ground among them. It was not one loosened by the encounter.
“The first sign of autumn,” murmured one.
“It comes early this year.”
“And winter will too soon follow. We must alert Warlord Brynn.”
The Thorbryx’s blood pooled wide around its lifeless corpse; as if the trees were starving, the roots emerged from the soil to entangle the slain demon. The elkin watched in pleasure, knowing that there would be no bodily remains left for the Soul Smith to collect.
Erador carried the antlers of the fallen and followed the nine other remaining elkin as they marched back to their village perched above the mouth of the valley, where they were greeted with praise. Herlidrek raised his hands to quiet the crowd as he told the story of their victory over the fire-breathing Thorbryx to a captivated audience. As the story came to a close, he added, “Let us all remember our fallen clansmen this day in defeating another of the Soul Smith’s demons. One day soon, the Soul Smith will learn his place when dealing with Clan Wyndlyn!” Cheers erupted throughout the crowd.
Amidst the cheer, Erador looked at Herlidrek with envy. He got the kill so he gets the glory, he thought. Erador did not join in with the applause. Instead, he wandered further into the village, dragging his feet as he walked. He gave a longing stare at the antlers within his hands. I wish I could have done more to have spared your lives. Then he lifted his head and saw movement in the distance, upon the tundra that spread about the valley’s enclosing walls. A dust cloud, trailing an approaching band. An unusually large one.
“Look!” he shouted over his shoulder to his gathered clan mates, pointing. So much for vigilance, he thought. Victorious, we take our eyes from our charge to celebrate. That group should not have come half so near without being spotted. And I’m supposed to be the one too young to know what he’s doing? The fact that he only spotted them because he was sulking had no impact on affronted youthful self-esteem.
The celebration ceased as, one by one, Clan Wyndlyn saw the oncoming threat nearing the mouth of the valley. The troop seemed to number near as many as the clan, mostly warriors with spears pointing to the heavens, though no few were far smaller. Children?
“Are we under attack?”
“Is it the Brenzwik Tribe again?”
“No. I see antlers!”
“Another clan of elkin? From where?”
It wasn’t long before both Clan Wyndlyn warlords joined Erador to look upon the visiting clan. Each Warlord had donned a distinctive suit of armor that had been forged by the Blacksmiths themselves and bore the markings of their divine inscriptions upon its surface. Warlord Frodden wore a suit of plate-and-scale produced in the forge of the Sky Smith, while Warlord Brynn wore the heavy full plate armor of the Onyx Smith. The holy runes of the Blacksmiths were believed to contain god-like power locked deep within their cryptic runes—a forgotten language lost by the passage of time. Each set was a most rare and prized possession.
They were a sight to behold. Standing adjacent to his father, Erador looked ill-equipped by comparison. Erador eyed with awe the heavy sword sheathed at his father’s side, then studied the golden runes etched into the armor’s rugged jet surface. His eyes were drawn from one to the next, roving across helm, breastplate, bracers and greaves, as if each symbol beckoned for his attention.
Warlord Frodden’s armor appeared to be crafted of cloudy glass, yet it was a match for any steel. Rows of fine scales cascaded from each shoulder and around his waist, over sleeves and leggings of even finer chain, connecting the plates covering chest, forearms and shins. Runes of royal blue, small and delicate compared to those of the Onyx armor, seemed to dance upon its faces. Unlike Warlord Brynn, Warlord Frodden lacked weapon and helm to match.
Clan Wyndlyn was not alone in having noticed the newcomers. From the far side of the valley, a party from Clan Hortyr was descending. At least they weren’t ahead of us, thought Erador. He’d spared his clan that embarrassment.
Below, the approaching group had neared enough that details could be picked out. Yes, there were youths and children scattered amongst the adults. Though the most surprising detail was the elkin who strode at their head. For he, too, was dressed in armor of the Sky Smith.
“Shall I sound the call for battle, father?” asked Erador, even as he wondered: What clan would bring its children to a battle?
“No, wait here,” commanded Warlord Brynn to the crowd. “We’re going to hold a Meeting of the Warlords.”
Excerpt of The Soul Smith, Copyright © 2011-2015 by Adrian V. Diglio. All rights reserved.