Chapter Description: A New Land full of familiar faces.
Chapter 7-Power Dynamics
It’s a Revenge Party,
A party that ends with somebody’s head on a spike!
It’s a Revenge Party with your two best friends,
A party with revenge is what it’s like!
The Halls of the Dwarven Kingdom inside Forge Mountain rang out with the sound of falling hammers on hot steel as sheets of metal were folded and refolded onto themselves with the perfect combination of hardy enthusiasm and nigh immortal patience that no other race could hope to harness. It would be more feasible for a gnome to bottle lightning twice than to craft something that rivaled Dwarven Steel. Not even the mightiest of Minotaurs when their bloodlust was fully stoked could shatter a shield forged by one of the dwarves.
Tom Dean knew all of this before walking in. Nox the not-quite-centaur told him much of it, and Tom was able to guess the rest before the magical beast with his Math teacher’s face was able to finish some of his sentences. It was Tom’s dream, so it made sense. Everything his four hooved guide told him was really just a roundabout way of the Tom talking to himself.
He dismounted from the clydesdale half of his Math teacher, and with all the confidence he could muster (a surprising amount, in fact) he pushed through the heavy double doors clad only in his basketball shorts.
The young man had imagined many things, but Forge Mountain surprised even him. One part mead hall, and one part medieval metalworks, the enormousness of the giant hall caused Tom to actually second guess himself. Could he really imagine something this...this...grand?
This wasn’t Broadway, this was the giant blockbuster Hollywood adaptation that threw money for maximum mainstream appeal and all the hipsters online would talk about how the original cast was better...unless the original cast had been invited to reprise their roles.
The air itself vibrated with each pounding of hammer on steel and the heat radiated through the great hall. The heat shot out and engulfed Tom, his sweat evaporating the second it exited his pours; the aroma mixing with the smell of hot goals and alcohol.
Deep rumbling voices sang out in a foreign language that Tom couldn’t possibly understand, the hammers keeping time. Voices joined in and added to the growing multitudes, pausing only to drink from flagons of ale that threatened to burst into flames if things got much hotter.
The idea that never in someone’s wildest dreams could something happen is an overused trope when describing the magnitude or detail of an event. Yet in this case, it was the only thing that could aptly describe Tom’s awe. He considered himself reasonably imaginative, but he would never have thought of the ornate runes carved within the very walls themselves.
The writing wasn’t gibberish, just in a pattern that Tom had no way of decoding. If this was all in his head, though, wouldn’t Tom be able to assign meaning to it? Some of it? A little of it? Any of it?
For the first time, Tom was beginning to wonder if he was actually dreaming.
The noise; the motion; the drinking songs and clacking of giant mugs of ale; the war chants and the hammering of hammers on anvils: All of that stopped within a minute of Tom’s arrival as the inhabitants of this land turned their heads and realized who, or rather what they were looking at.
“A child of Seth.”
“A warrior of prophecy!”
A throng of stout muscular warriors swarmed up on Tom, reaching over each other and muscling past one another to get a closer look. The only thing that kept them at bay was a rather large scorpion tail looming just behind the high schooler. Was this what it was like to be popular?
One of the dwarves, an old one based on his snow white beard shoved his way to the front. The dwarves weren’t as short as Tom thought they’d be. Tom was scrawny for someone his age due to malnutrition, but he thought he’d at least have a foot on these people.
The assembled smiths and warriors were all around the same height as him, however only their proportions were off: they had wider shoulders and bulkier, if not more muscular physiques with fists the size of Tom’s head and Popeye sized arms to hold them up. They were closer to tiny gorillas in armor than jolly craftsmen that sang “Hi-Ho”.
“It is true then,” the old dwarf said. Tom didn’t need to look back to know that his new The hour is at its darkest, then, if someone from the Land of Men” is here.
“They call it Earth Realm, now,” Nox corrected what must be the leader.
A bushy eyebrow cocked. “Really? How times change, then.” Giant fists the size of butcher’s hams played with a beard that tumbled past the creature’s beltline.
Tom looked back up to Nox. Nox crossed his arms and looked down at the dwarves, expectantly. “And yet they stay the same.”
The old dwarf took a knee and bowed his head. The assembled throng of stout, boxy artificers followed suit. “Child of man. Descendant of Seth. Mortal Savior and Destroyer of Worlds. The fate of all of Malacus is in your hands. What say ye?”
The old dwarf looked up. “I beg your pardon, m’lord?’
“My name is Tom.”
“The fate of all of Malacus is in your hands. What say ye, m’lord Tom?”
Heart rocketing in his chest, Tom breathed deep. This was stupid. This was stupid. This was awesome. He was getting to be the hero. He was getting to be the team captain.
Better than team captain! He was getting picked FIRST! He was wanted! He was valued! Even when he dreamed he couldn’t remember feeling this important. This wasn’t a dream. It was real.
It was very, very real. He didn’t understand it but that didn’t make it any less real.
Tom wasn’t asleep then, he knew. He’d walked through that old clock and into a very-real fantasy world where for some reason he was special. He was special and important and revered.
How could he not help this place? It was everything he ever wanted.
A voice from the crowd called out. “NO!” A single figure stood up from the bowed masses. “THAT IS NOT A MAN!”
Stepping through the masses a single dwarf trudged through. “That is no man! Where is the meat on his bones! Where is the hair on his skin?! This is no man! THIS! THIS IS AN ELF!”
Tom felt his hands curling into fists. It was the asshole dwarf’s voice that triggered him. His face and body were stretched out and distorted, but he’d heard that exact voice not even a day ago when he was crying in the boy’s bathroom. Trevor Macintosh.
“SEE?!” The Trevor dwarf thundered. “He does not even deny it! He is an elf sent to pose as a man and doom us all!” The dwarf’s finger was half the girth of Tom’s wrist. “ELF!”
It was Nox that spoke up first. “Nay,” he spoke. “I saw him swim up from the Mana Pool myself, there on the back of the flying sky turtle.”
“Elves can swim!” Trevor the dwarf argued. “You have been deceived! You have all been deceived!”
Tom’s nose wrinkled. This was his classmate in mythical form, alright. No wit. Just bluster. This might have been a dream, Tom thought, but even if it was, he felt something inside him bubbling to the surface. The confidence for him to speak for himself. “I’m not an elf, dingus. Look at my ears!” Tom pointed. He looked behind him to Nox. “Elves have pointy ears, yeah?” The centaur nodded. “Yeah! See?”
A cruel, stupid laugh bellowed out of the dwarf. “Elves are tricksy things. Ye could have shaved your ears.”
Speaking of shave: “Why don’t you have a beard?” Tom asked. A mixture of groans and chuckles wafted from the crowd of dwarves who had taken a knee. A few, Tom noticed, were even hiding laughter behind their hands.
They weren’t laughing at him, either. Tom could tell. He recognized the look of shame and panic on Trev-dwarf’s face; watched it twist and mutate it anger as a cover up.
A dagger that could have doubled for a meat cleaver was now in the dwarf’s hand. This was new. Not “good new”, either. Trevor Macintosh had never pulled a knife at school. Even he wasn’t that stupid. “The only way to know an elf for what it is is to shed their violet blood!”
There was a murmur among the assembled. Uh-oh. It wasn’t a musical, but Tom was well aware of
Tom held his hands up to his chest, palms out in a non-threatening gesture. “Easy there, Trevor...I don’t wanna…”
“I AM HOLFRED LEADSHOULDER, IMPOSTOR! AND YOU WILL DIE WITH MY NAME ON YOUR ELVEN LIPS!”
“SHOW US YOUR BLOOD, ELF COWARD!”
What happened next Tom couldn’t control. He meant to flinch, to cower as the steel blade flashed through the air and into his gut. But the slightest jerk of panic sent his body twisting and whirling away from the dagger thrust at him. His shove...he couldn’t even call it a shove...it was closer to a pansy slap...wouldn’t have even registered to the real Trevor.
Instead, Dwarf Trevor Macintosh...Holfred Leadshoulder...whatever...went sailing through the air like he was being shot out of a canon. The walls shook as the beardless gorilla man collided with the far end of the main chamber.
“Ye need not see his blood to know he is a man,” Nox said. “The air of Malacus itself empowers him; strengthens him.”
Dream? Fantasy? Nightmare? Tom didn’t know; didn’t want to know. He just knew that he had finally knocked someone’s block off. And he locked it. “I’ve never hit anybody before. I’m not that strong in real life.” The dwarves grumbled in confusion. “I mean in um...Earth Realm. I’m barely a man; just a kid.”
The old dwarf rose and put a hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Here, m’lord, in Malacus, you are a god.”
Tom jumped; not even jump-jumped, just put a slight spring in his step and sent himself flying over the dwarves’ collective heads. It was easy. With just a little bit of effort, the other side of the great chamber was a literal hop away.
There amongst the heat of still burning forges, Tom saw the crumpled form of Holfred Leadshoulder: Beardless dwarf and disproportionate asshole with the face and voice of one of Tom’s bullies. A low groan came out of him.
Every dark fantasy that Tom had of getting even rose to the front of his mind. He could destroy this weak warped little man with a flick. Cave his skull in. Tom considered it. Really thought about it.
From everything he’d heard, he was supposed to be the hero. So he reached out, just as Nox had, grabbed the dwarf by the arm and hoisted him to his feat. “Are you okay?”
“Aye...aye lad...I...I…” Leadshoulder’s vision seemed to clear and he realized. A look of pure terror flashed in the boxy little man’s eyes and he took a knee, averting his gaze. “Forgive me, m’lord. I did not know.”
“It’s fine,” Tom said. “Just...just shot up before I punch you.” Tom took a little sadistic glee at the look of pure horror in the dwarf’s face. It was only a little bit of glee, but still... “Now stand up,” he ordered He turned around and shouted at the dwarves. “Everybody, stand up! I’m a man-god-thing-hero; not a king! Quit kneeling and shit!” Reluctantly, the dwarves stood, reflexively. “Now will you answer my question?”
The dwarf didn’t answer. “Oh come on! I didn’t mean what I said about punching…” Leadshoulder or whatever his name was, just continued averting his eyes.
“What question is that, m’lord?” the old dwarf asked, having closed the distances again.
“Why doesn’t he have a beard? Everybody else does.”
“He has neither slain a foe in battle, nor forged his masterwork. He has not yet earned his beard.”
It was said as if Tom should have already known it. Fortunately, Tom had faked enough book reports. “Ah. I see.” They stood in great hall, doing nothing. No one seeming to know what to do next. This is why Superman flew off after he rescued people. “So Nox,” Tom asked the centaur, “didn’t you say something about getting me more suitable um...vestments?”
The dwarves snapped to attention. “The armor!” the elder dwarf said. “Of course! How could I forget the armor? Stations! Stations!” Tom was left to wait and watch as the dwarves scattered to their anvils and began hammering, a scattered discordant noise that quickly reached a steady tempo. Only the unbearded dwarf was left out.
Low and hearty voices rang out between the hammer blows, each voice joining in with the others. They were harmonizing. They were tuning. What was going on. The world around Tom went dark as the fires of each black smith’s forge glowed hot red.
Tom looked at a nearby forge. There was nothing on it. No steel or casing or hot metal at all. He was far from an expert, but shouldn’t these boxy bearded men be hitting something besides the anvils? Tom looked up to Nox, the only person not standing by a medieval forge. “Why are they singing?”
“How else would they craft your armor?” A magical realm of people who crafted badass weaponry through song. Tom really was home.
They sang out pounding the anvils, singing in their deep and alien language. This time though, Tom could understand it. It was a kind of knowing without knowing.
We craft this for him who comes
Unfortunate son of a wayward land
A shield to ward off battle scars
An iron gauntlet for a gentle hand.
A hardened helm for purest mind
Unbroken plate for a mighty heart
And sturdy boots to encase his feet
When feats accomplished must he depart.
And that’s when the molten steel began to flow, out of the forge onto the anvils, liquid metal made animate and flowing out into the air. It did not stay on the anvils long, though. As the dwarves repeated their chorus, the lava-like stuff flowed off of the anvils and onto the great feasting table in the middle of the room.
It formed and shaped itself into helm and plate and gauntlet and boots, with the runes from the walls leaping off the inside of the mountain and re-engraving themselves onto the armor as it cooled. When the song came to an end and the last of the smoke had cleared leaving the armor gleaming like silver, the dwarves gathered round the feasting table and Tom climbed up to marvel at the miracle that had unfolded before his very eyes.
There was just one problem: “That’s not gonna fit me.”
“M’lord,” the elder dwarf said, “we made it to the exact specifications handed down through generations of dwarven song crafters.”
The shoulders were too wide and the chest piece was the size of a hobo barrel. The helm was too big. He wouldn’t be able to bend his knees if he slipped his feet into the metal boots. Unless he gained a couple feet and a hundred pounds of pure muscle, he wasn’t filling this thing out. “This isn’t armor,” Tom said. “It’s bad cosplay. It’s a five year old putting on his dad’s shoes...”
“But...but…” the head dwarf stammered. “It’s tradition. It’s prophesized…”
“Let me try.” The dwarf with Trevor’s face called out and climbed on the table with Tom. “I can fix it.” His eyes were hopeful. Apologetic. Desperate. A kind of depth of emotions that the real Trevor had never shown Tom. “Please...”
The elder dwarf was scrambling up after him. “M’lord Tom, don’t!” he cried out. “He tried to shed your blood! Don’t let his treacherous voice be added to your song!”
Tom looked down at the other smiths from his perch on the table. Then he looked to the elder. “Yeah?” he said. “And I kicked his ass. I say that makes us even. Let him try. Give him a chance.”
The old bearded gorilla nodded and stepped down, leaving Tom and Trevor’s not exactly doppelganger alone on the makeshift stage. “Thank you, m’lord,” whispered the distorted bully.
“Yeah...well..um…just...I dunno...do something good with it, I guess.”
One giant palm went on the chestplate of the armor. The other one was on Tom’s chest. Even though he’d just knocked this guy across the room with the flick of his wrist, a tiny part of Tom was still intimidated. Apparently he had super strength, but what if that dagger had connected? Was he invulnerable?
Probably not. Ceremonial or not, invulnerable people didn’t need armor.
The phrase from out the lone dwarf’s throat was low, quiet and drawn out. Tom couldn’t understand it as easily as he he had the old dwarven hymn for some reason, but from the tone and the tears in his eyes, the meaning was clear:
“I’m sorry. I misjudged you. Forgive me.”
The armor reverted back to a quicksilver consistency, flowing and slithering over the dwarf’s stocky frame before sliding over to Tom’s scrawny frame. He closed his eyes and felt it crawl over him, oozing and dripping into place; like being dunked in pig fat. (Though he preferred not to remember that terrible afternoon in the 4H club a few years ago.)
“Let me protect you. Let me help. I can be better.”
He didn’t feel the armor harden and take shape as much as he felt it stop moving, the warmth draining out of it into a kind of icy cold. The single low and quiet song ended, and Tom opened his eyes.
He looked over himself. It fit perfectly. Damnit. He looked slender now, not scrawny, and his armor fit him like a second skin. “Well Leadshoulder,” Tom said. “I think you just earned your beard.”
The look of relief and gratitude on not-Trevors face was immense. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Tom unlocked an old memory of second grade, when he’d helped Trevor study for a spelling test. Little, Trevor had had the same look when he had spelled all the silent e’s correctly.
“So,” Tom said. “I’m a badass. I’ve got badass armor. When do we rumble?”
The assembled fantasy creatures frowned in confusion. “M’lord?” It was Leadshoulder who’d voiced their thoughts. “We don’t understand your strange tongue.”
“Um...let’s save your world…?”
Every axe, hammer, and mug was raised to that.