Mark Belt (Stars)
Barren Realms Mud
Barely a whisper stirred the air that warm summer afternoon. The bright sun hung in a cloudless sky, a golden pearl in an ocean of blue. Peace, was the word that best described that day in the Barren Realms. The atmosphere was pure tranquility, and it seemed as if nothing could have disturbed such calm serenity. It was a time most suited for contented contemplation. And it was with regard to this sentiment that the dwarves of the Mountain City spent the afternoon in a party of cheerful reflection.
It may be true that the underground community could neither see the vast expanse of blue sky nor feel the warmth of the smiling sun; but that gentle relaxing atmosphere pervaded even the darkest shadows of the deepest caverns. So it was that every dwarf was in the hall of his or her clan, happily discussing pleasant matters, such as great wars or monstrous adversaries defeated in battle. If some of the over-enthusiastic warriors got a little too animated (only a few bruises and broken bones), then it could not be held against them; the peaceful sun was hidden far from view after all. Still, all the dwarves, even the injured wrestlers, thoroughly enjoyed that day with friends and kin. Every dwarf, that is, except one.
This small dwarf was not among the members of his own or anyone elses clan. He walked above ground and outside of the Mountain, down deep into the surrounding valley. There, he strolled among the shattered towers of an ancient city, long since destroyed, and long since forgotten. It was considered an evil place, haunted by spirits and demons, and few dared to travel within its jagged remains. So shrouded in mystery, even its name had vanished in the mists of time. Cursed, was the only title used to describe its crumbled buildings now. It was a place of great fear and legend to the Mountain Dwarves.
But to the peacefulness of the day itself, the stones of a broken tower were as beautiful as those of any whole one. Certainly, the sun shone no differently on the ancient city than on the Mountain itself, though to the inhabitants of the dwarven city, such sentiments were, unfortunately, beyond comprehension.
Boldly and unafraid, the young dwarf wandered within the forbidding structures, despite the dread warnings of the Clan Elders. He plodded along the crumbled pathways, whistling a simple tune (or at least he was trying to whistlethe art is not an easy one for dwarves to master). For some unknown reason, this young dwarf felt none of the fear that weakened the knees of the others. Quite the opposite, he felt more at home in that city than he did in his own. It may seem odd that he should be there (every other Mountain Dwarf would consider shaving his beard before entering that place), but this dwarf had few family and even fewer friends, and he was often the subject of ridicule because of it. No, it was not so strange to find him in the city; it was the only refuge that he had from the discomfort of his own home. So, while the other dwarves were lounging among their relations, this lone dwarf was picking his way through the fallen ruins.
His name was Brodgar, and he was searching for answers.
It had been said that he was a peculiar dwarf in his youth, his origins clouded in a most curious (some said dubious) mystery. Indeed, almost everything about the young dwarf seemed odd to the Mountain dwellers. Uncommonly short, Brodgar had been born with coal-black hair, and his piercing blue eyesquite uncommon for a Mountain Dwarfwere known to make even the steadiest warrior shift his feet uncomfortably. But this was a relatively small thing really. Far stranger was his heritage. It was said that his mother was the daughter of a prophetess named Corra, who was rumored to have come from that very same cursed and ruined city at the base of the Mountain.
Not much was known about Brodgars grandmother. For instance, what was a dwarf doing above ground, and in an evil land, no less! She arrived in the middle of a raging storm one treacherous winter day, alone and with child. Where she had come from, she wouldnt say. She only begged to be admitted into the City for the sake of her unborn infant. Because of her desperate situation, she was reluctantly allowed to stay. She ended up living there for several years, and all went well at first. But then she began to exhibit some very disturbing behavior. She became prone to fainting spells and frightening visions. In a near trance-like state she would foretell doom for all who dwelt in the Mountain.
Her prophetic predictions and otherworldly wisdom were more than a little disquieting to the normally superstitious dwarves. Fortunately for the Mountains residents, she didnt stay much longer, and soon disappeared just as mysteriously as she arrived, leaving behind her daughter. Whatever other knowledge that might have been obtained about Corra was lost with her only child.
The dwarven girl grew up to be very beautiful. From the pronounced muscles of her arms to the slightly curled whiskers on her chin, she was the object of great affection among the male dwarves. Many would-be suitors fought relentlessly to win her favor, only to be rebuffed. Finally, after a long time, she made her choice and married the greatest warrior in the Mountain City. Their love was quite passionate, and it was not long before she became pregnant with her own child. But that story ended in tragedy when she died giving birth to a son.
Now Dwarves are Realms-renowned for their ability to withstand great physical strain. Many expectant dwarven mothers are said to stand next to their husbands in the deep underground mines, wielding pick and axe, even during the greatest of labor pains. When the final moment of birth would finally arrive, the mother would take a short break to deliver the child. After the birth, the father would quickly drain a tankard of ale in celebration from the always present barrel, then he, along with the mother, would get back to work. (It is not really known if this is actually true. Only the Dwarves know for sure. Try asking them about their mating practices and thenafter you remove the axe from your skullyou will understand why so little is known.) Because of this rare death, the inhabitants of the Mountain considered Brodgars mother to be weak and feeble, attributes that were passed on to the son.
It was certainly not Brodgars fault that he was born under such abnormal conditions. Nevertheless, with the combination of a witch-woman grandmother, weak mother, and small size, Brodgar had to deal with no small amount of discrimination.
If not for the young dwarfs father, the Great Warrior Khardan, he would have had to endure total shame, possibly even exile. For the Great Khardan, whose deeds salvaged dignity for his son, had been a fighter with no equal. Of enormous stature, he stood at least a full head and a half taller than the average dwarf; and he was said to have wielded two axes the size of small trees as if they were nothing more than sticks. Those who witnessed his prowess in battlebe he enemy or allywould stop for a moment to stare in awe. An aged veteran who remembered the Great One would stroke his beard and regale youngsters with the tales of "Khardan and the Five Ogres", or "Khardan and the Evil Sorcerer." The most popular of all of the stories told of Khardan was "The Fall of the Mountain." It was a tragic tale that included the heros death saving the Mountain City by mortally wounding the Rock Dragon that threatened the whole Mountain. The name of the epic was derived from the moment when Khardan and the Rock Dragon both fell from the edge of a canyon, and an earth-rattling crash resounded through the very foundations of the dwarven home. "Sounded like the ole Mountain fell off," it was often remarked to the youngsters.
It was this legend of legends that Brodgar lived under. It was no wonder that the other dwarves in the mountain would look upon him and tug their beards in dismay at how far the nugget had rolled from the vein.
So young Brodgar found himself wandering in the ruined city, searching his soul in solitude for anything that would alleviate his shame and allow him to live up to his celebrated father. But he had wandered those old paths many times and found nothing that would relieve his burdensome questions. And so, despite his deep yearning for understanding, he became satisfied to merely soak up the warm sunshine, and sing quietly to the small animals that would periodically join him on his journey. He laughed as he sent a few pebbles skittering down the road, playfully frightening a squirrel that was chattering at him. Regardless of his shame and desperate need for acceptance, the dwarf was always happy. This, regrettably, only made him seem even stranger to the other dwarves.
"Surely, me lads," one would say to the others, "the Great Khardans own son shouldna be fancyin bout the curs-ed city, dancin round like a wee girl. es not right in is head, I tell ye."
Those who heard would stroke their beards in agreement. "Sad it is, me brothers," one would answer, "Tis a blessin that the Great One canna see yon puny lad now. His heartd break fer sure."
The words may not always be the same, but the sentiment was always identical. And although these comments were meant to be kept in secret well, Brodgar may have been small, but his ears were as strong as any dwarfs. Besides which, no dwarf in the history of the Realms could be quiet, especially when they wanted to be.
Yes, Brodgar knew what even the members of his own clan secretly thought of him, in spite of the apparent friendliness that the son of Khardan would openly receive. Yet, even these cruel assessments were not enough to bring the young dwarf out of that summer days reverie. He wandered through the ruins, content to add his song to those of the larks and sparrows. But content or not, it was on that peaceful day that Brodgar finally found what he was looking for.
It came in the form of a dwarven woman that appeared suddenly before him. There was no startling flash or blinding explosion that accompanied her arrival; one moment she was simply not there, and the next she was. Long white hair flowed around her shoulders and in her eyes there was wisdom and knowledge.
"Brodgar," the woman had said, her voice as calm as the windless heavens. "It is time for you to know your destiny."
The astonished dwarf could only stare, his eyes two wide mirrors of the azure sky. His black eyebrows twitched and he realized who it was that stood before him. "Grandmother ?" he asked hesitantly.
"It is I," was Corras reply.
There was a moment of silence as Brodgar tried to absorb this strange occurrence.
Then Corra spoke again, and when she did, the tone of her voice changed; it lost the soft gentle quality that it started out with, and was suddenly filled with great authority mixed with an almost magical seeming beauty. "O son of my daughter," the woman intoned, "you will be a great leader in this world. Upon your strong shoulders will rest great power and majesty. For you are the descendant of the ancient ones, and in your veins flows the blood of the gods. And to the gods you will return!"
Brodgar blinked his eyes in confusion. "What does this mean, Grandmother?" he asked. "I dont understand anythin about the ancient ones, or the gods, or even about leadin."
"I will tell you a story, my grandson, about the ancient ones, and of the gods they served," she replied. "The very city you stand in was their city long ago. It was here that the Humans of old used to worship the Goddess of Order, Mota. They had the Dwarves come from the Mountain City to build their beautiful shrines. Such craftsmanship of stone was never before, and never since, duplicated. The ancient dwarves would come to the shrines as much to see the perfection of their skills as to worship Mota herself.
But, the great goddess understood the minds of the dwarves and she loved them for their craft as well as their devotion. Indeed, Mota cared greatly for all of her people. So great did her love grow that she took a drop of her own blood and sealed it in a jewel so that her people might feel her power and be comforted at all times.
"But when the evil God of Chaos, Thanos, saw the affection that Mota had for her children, he struck the city with a great cataclysm, destroying everything but the Jewel and killing everyone but two people, a male dwarf and a female from the Mountain City. Those two chose to remain as guardians of Motas Jewel, giving up their life in the Mountain. The centuries passed and the descendants of those ancient dwarves remained to keep the Jewel safe from those who would use its power for evil.
"Thanos had gloated in his victory over his hated rival, but he feared the wrath of Mota. If the remaining Humans throughout the Realms became allied with the Dwarves, then his own evil armies in the world might face a serious challenge. He cast a spell of forgetfulness upon the Mountain, so that no one would remember the beauty that had been lost. Even the two dwarves that had stayed behind were forgotten.
"Of course it was only a matter of time before Thanos discovered that the destruction of the ancient city was not complete. He saw the descendants of the Guardians of the Jewel and his anger arose once more. He appeared as a black demon and shattered the silver shrine, killing the few who remained. Only one survived, a young girl, and she huddled next to the altar upon which rested the Jewel. When the dark god saw the power in the crystal of Motas blood, he was filled with an evil lust. He stepped forward and reached out his hand completely forgetting about the dwarven lass. That oversight was his mistake.
"For the girl arose with the Jewel in her hand. You, who are filled with hatred, she shouted, will never possess this artifact that was given out of love! And she smashed the Jewel upon the altar. The resulting explosion seared the dark gods demonic flesh, and he disappeared in terrible fear. But that explosion affected the girl as well. Most of the crystal was instantly destroyed, yet one small sliver flew out and buried itself in the young girls breast. This last shard of Motas Jewel fused with the frightened child, and she trembled with the power that coursed through her body. Then Mota herself materialized in front of the broken altar. The girl was instantly filled with a comforting peace.
"My child, the goddess said, you have protected my Jewel from the evil of Thanos. And now you have my blood inside of you. Because of this, you will know many things and from your blood, and mine, will come the savior of the Realms."
"The girl did not understand everything immediately, but she knew enough to accept the goddess blessing. After Mota left, the girl wandered for many years, growing to adulthood in foreign lands. During her travels, she met a strong dwarf from the Hills and she fell in love. They were married and lived in happiness for many years. Their love grew and eventually she became pregnant with a child.
Thanos, who was sorely embarrassed of his defeat by a single girl, saw her happiness. But because of the blood of Mota, he could not directly harm her. So he laid a curse on her husband and child. The womans dwarven mate grew feeble and died within the year. Grief-stricken, the woman set out on the road again, still pregnant with her child. Somehow, after a long and harrowing journey, she found herself back at the Mountain City. There she stayed until she gave birth to a beautiful girl."
Brodgar could stay silent no longer. "That was me own mother!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," was the answer, "and my daughter. After she had been born, I was afraid that Thanos would find me, thus endangering all of the lives of the Mountain. The decision to leave was a terrible one, but after your mothers sixteenth birthday, I saw a vision of the evil that would come. I had no choice. I left my only child in the safety of the Mountain City and headed out to confront the God of Chaos.
"Perhaps it was vanity on my part, but I thought that the blood of Mota would grant me the power to destroy Thanos. I should have known that killing a god was no easy task, even for another god. Alas, I was only a mortal, no matter what powers I was granted. My story ends there.
"The story of your mother continues only a little while longer. She was, of course, still under the curse of Thanos just as her father was. She lived much longer than he did, and perhaps it was Motas Blood that she received from me that protected her somewhat, but eventually she too could fight no longer "
Brodgar finished the story, "And she died givin birth to me."
Corra nodded her head sadly.
The young dwarf bowed his own head. But through the sorrow that he felt, a hopeful thought entered into his mind. "Ye be here now, Grandmother," he said, excitement growing in his voice. "Ye can come back with me to the Mountain City and tell them all what has happened. They will finally know the truth!"
"Nay, my grandson," the woman said as a sad smile crossed her face. "I have long since passed beyond these Barren Realms. It is not for me to do these things."
"I dont understand "
"Be at ease, Brodgar. All things will be known to you in time."
Then a huge powerfully-built dwarf appeared next to the woman. Brodgar knew who the newcomer was immediately, for his likeness had been carved into all the halls of the Mountain City.
"Father!" Brodgar cried.
"Remember the blood from which ye were born, me son," Khardan said in his Mountain accent, his smile warm and fatherly. "Great strength lies within you, and you must be helpin those who need you. Such is your lot in life now." He lifted his hand and gently laid it on his sons head. "Your grandmother has not told ye the whole story yet. For even as we be speaking, Thanos is preparin an attack on the Mountain. He fears the Blood of Mota and he be itchin to destroy the Mountain from which sprung the source of his most humiliatin defeat. He be hating all the dwarves like he hates no one else. Aye, me son, he has been plannin his evil for many a year. It was he who sent the Rock Dragon which laid me low, but I was stronger than even Thanos expected!" The old warriors eyes glowed briefly with the thrill of remembered battle. It was a moment only; soon he brought a somber expression back to his son. "But his next attack will be much the worse, Im afeared."
"But, father, now that ye be here, ye can lead our warriors to protect the Mountain !"
"Nay, me lad," Khardan said, "I too have passed beyond. It be up to ye now."
And then both old woman and great warrior faded and disappeared. Brodgar was left standing alone, a solemn figure in a broken city. A peal of thunder suddenly ripped through an unexpectedly cloud-filled sky, and the heavens opened up to pour heavy rain on mountain and ruined city alike.
"How can I do anythin?" he asked the suddenly darkened heavens, "I be so small and weak."
He trembled, alone and afraid, as the long years of prejudice and shame fell about his shoulders like the rain itself, drenching him and soaking through his clothes.
But then a fierce light entered his deep blue eyes, a light not unlike that which blazed only a moment ago in his fathers.
"How could anyone hurt so many people?" he asked out loud. "How could a god, who has so much power, kill so ruthlessly?" He stood up as tall as his short frame would allow, and screamed into the strength of the storm, shaking his fists in rage. "I dont care if he be a god or not! I will avenge those who have been destroyed by his evil." Then he brought his focus back down and stared at the Mountain for a while. He would not, could not, let anyone else be hurt. He turned back to the storm and he shouted, "Do ye hear me, Thanos! I will not let you touch my Mountain!"
Somewhere deep in the Great Void lurked the God of Chaos, and though he could not hear the words of Brodgar that day, his black heart was nevertheless suddenly very troubled