Fingers of Death—No, Doom!
by Lucien Soulban
Chapter One: A Helping Hand
The ancient mechanisms thundered, the giant gears crushing boulder-sized rocks between their iron teeth and spitting out rubble in disdain. Beyond them, the furnaces set into the stone dwarf mouths glowed with Abyssal fury and spewed rivers of molten rock destined for the deeper bowels beneath Darkmoon Vale.
Darvin couldn't concern himself with that, however. To his left, Fife—halfling, adopted brother, and friend—lay unmoving on the giant conveyor belt that ferried him closer to the hungry gears eager to gnash him into bloody pudding. To Darvin's right, however, the beautiful Princess Miranna dangled from a metal chain, her once stunning gown in tatters and hanging only by the curve of her ample hips and shoulders. Inch by inch, the mad, twisted dwarves from beneath Darkmoon Vale, long forgotten by wind and sunlight, cackled monstrously and lowered Miranna closer to the vat of molten ore.
Darvin couldn't save them both, he realized. Or could he? He glanced left at Fife (still unconscious as the belt carried him doomward), then right at Princess Miranna (screaming his name, the vat warming the pads of her naked feet). Then up at the dwarf king, Madbeard IV, who laughed maniacally at his evil cunning, the Necklace of Fortune's Charms with its dozens of luck rings hanging from his neck. Finally, Darvin looked down at his hands, and at the only thing he hadn't yet spent or broken in their quest to uncover the Vale's secrets: a lockpick.
It would have to be enough.
"Too late!" Madbeard IV cried triumphantly, his half-burned face twisted in a sneer, the rings of his necklace jangling. "You cannot save them both!"
Darvin grit his teeth and steeled his jaw. His voice, low and dangerous, sliced through the clamor.
"I'm thirsty," he said.
"What?" an old man asked, leaning so far forward that he almost spilled from his chair.
"I'm thirsty," Darvin repeated. He smacked his lips as though dismissing a bad taste. "Where's that serving wench?"
Three of the men shouted for another barley stout from the kitchen. Fife pretended to annotate the ledger on his lap, but a sideways glance told him the story. Seven men and two women sat around their table, on the edge of their seats. They eyed the necklace hanging in Darvin's languid grip, a handful of rings all that were left of its charms.
When the black-haired lass appeared from the kitchen carrying a serving tray, they motioned her over impatiently.
She set the drink down, at which point Darvin rolled his eyes. "Damn it all... Fife, old friend, I've forgotten my monies upstairs. Go fetch my purse?"
Fife nodded and jumped down from his large chair.
"This won't take a moment," Darvin said.
"Here," one of the men said, slapping down coin on the serving tray and glancing at the necklace of lucky rings. "Go on with your story. The lockpick?"
Darvin nodded as Fife quietly took his seat again. The halfling tried not to smirk. Darvin had them wrapped around his finger.
It was only when Fife glanced again that he saw the two men seated away from them, in the shadows. Neither appeared to be smiling.
When the evening ended, Fife followed Darvin as he swept into their room. The human collapsed into the hay bed with a groan, his belly distended. "I may have eaten too much," he admitted, draping an arm over his forehead.
"No no," Fife said, closing the door, "you had to eat all that food before it threatened anyone else. You're a hero."
"I am, aren't I?" Darvin said with a chuckle. He jangled the copper necklace, now bereft of its rings. "We need more charms for tomorrow night. I had them eating out of my hand."
"Oh, so you did leave some food?" The halfling sat on the opposite bed and opened a leather-bound book that swallowed his entire lap. "I hadn't noticed."
"Pff. You halflings eat like birds anyway." Darvin glanced over to see if he'd hit a nerve, but Fife pretended to study the page.
"Now... you got the princess's eyes wrong," Fife said. "You called them blue when they're supposed to be sea-green."
"It's the reason why Madbeard IV decides to sacrifice her. Because of his promise to the Mage of Conqueror's Bay."
"So!" Darvin said.
Fife sighed. "The waters of Conqueror's Bay are green!"
"Fife," Darvin said, "nobody here's been to Nidal. We haven't been to Nidal—or Darkmoon Vale, or anywhere else for that matter. Nobody's going to notice."
"Authenticity is key. Speaking of which, it's getting harder to keep track of your... embellishments."
"I go with the moment," Darvin said, closing his eyes.
"For example, I never described the princess as a ‘plump sausage.'"
"Some moments are better than others," Darvin said, grinning. "Besides, I grow bored. Have you written something new?"
"I'm working on it," Fife said, flipping through pages. The comment rankled him. Like it was that easy to create something worthwhile.
"You worry too much," Darvin said. He sounded like he couldn't fight the iron weights of sleep any longer.
"Darv... did you notice those two men seated away from everyone else?" Fife asked.
But Darvin was already asleep, and soon Fife was fast dreaming as well.
It wasn't the two new men in the room that awoke Fife that morning. It was Darvin's deep snort that did the trick. For a moment, the halfling had forgotten where they'd taken shelter, then it slowly bubbled to the surface... the Andoren inn, the food and drink, another community entertained and bilked.
"Hello," Fife said to the seated man. The intruder wore a grey tunic with a thick peppered mustache, and had shoulders wider than Fife was tall.
"Mmm... ‘ello," Darvin muttered back and then turned over. He snored almost immediately.
The human who stood behind the seated one was black haired and balding, his arms thick with equal measures of muscle and fat, his face knotted in a disapproving scowl. Neither man appeared armed; Fife remembered them both from last night as the pair who had watched them from the shadows.
"Darvin, we have guests," Fife said.
"Mmm... are they pretty?" Darvin muttered.
"Give him a moment," Fife said, smiling nervously at the visitors. "His instincts are slow to start, but you'll find none sharper."
"I hope so," the seated man said in a deep voice.
Darvin cheered softly. "Huzzah! Fife's voice has finally broken."
"For an ordinary merchant, Cullins is exceptionally persuasive."
"You don't look like much," the standing man said. He'd introduced himself as Harvander, Master-at-Arms for the Merchant Cullins. Cullins remained seated, his arms crossed as though daring someone to entertain him and certain they'd fail.
"It helps if people underestimate us," Darvin said, splashing his face with cold water from the rinse bowl. The shock jolted him awake. Fife handed him the washcloth. "Lulls them into a false sense of security."
"I assure you, it's working," Cullins replied.
"Good," Darvin said, deciding to smile at the insult. "How may we be of service?" He already knew these two would be tough to charm or crack.
Harvander paused and stage-whispered in Cullins ear, "I don't think this is a good idea."
Cullins shrugged. "They die, we don't pay them."
"Die?" Fife said.
"Pay?" Darvin said at the same time.
"The village is cursed," Cullins said. "For five years, we suffered under the rule of Malificar—"
"Who names their child Malificar?" Darvin whispered to Fife, but Fife shushed him with a motion.
"He blighted our crops," Cullins continued. "He raised the dead and conducted foul, perverse experiments on our livestock."
Fife elbow-jabbed Darvin in the ribs just as a snarky comment rose to the human's lips.
"We killed him for it," Harvander said flatly. "A year ago, in fact. And we destroyed his manse."
"But the killings didn't stop?" Fife asked.
Darvin noticed the halfling squirming eagerly in his seat, and realized he was in trouble.
"Foolish locals," Harvander replied. "They looted his stead and awoke... something."
"There's been a death every week or two since," Cullins said. "Their throats opened."
Fife smiled up at Darvin. This is fantastic! his expression read, but Darvin tried to look indifferent.
"Over thirty deaths in total," Harvander replied. "All farmers or travelers, their throats slit cleanly."
"We've searched the ruins during the daytime, but at night, nobody dares approach the property." Cullins studied them both and then tossed a leather pouch to Darvin. The pouch clinked when he caught it, and the weight felt solid. "Silver—not a copper piece among them. Yours if you help us."
"If not," Harvander continued. "Well, there's no telling what the hard-working people of this town would do to the liars who sold them cheap trinkets as luck charms."
Harvander escorted them through the gray drizzle to the ruins of a manse outside of town, then left them to their business.
Only a shell remained of the main building, the wings of the manse upright except for a collapsed roof, the middle of the home burnt and in rubble. A mess of blackened timbers and shattered bricks reached plaintively for the dismal skies.
"We should run," Darvin said.
"They need our help," Fife replied. The halfling poked about with his walking stick, deftly jumping across patches of floor that would have collapsed under a human's weight. Darvin envied him that grace.
"This isn't one of your stories," Darvin warned. He paused near a hole and peered down. Here, a fire-eaten grid of floor beams separated the main floor from the dark pit of the basement.
"This is better!" Fife replied. Grinning madly, he pulled his cloak over his head to ward off the rain, opened a small ledger, and began jotting something down.
"What do you think you're doing?" Darvin asked. He tested one of the beams, but it groaned; Darvin backed away.
"Recording every detail," Fife replied, and then read aloud, "The heroes stood over the black gulf, staring intently into the abyss."
"All the while" Darvin continued, "Fife unaware that his partner was about to kick him over the edge."
"Not in character," Fife responded absently. "Let's go down."
Darvin peered over the edge. "How?"
The halfling looked around, and Darvin followed his gaze over to a debris slope of collapsed bricks, timber, and furniture mounded up on the floor below.
"Follow me," Fife said, slapping the book shut and jumping from beam to beam, seemingly oblivious to their poor state. He reached a broken ledge, the remnant of the floor abutting an exterior wall, and from there jumped down to the slope. From beam to tabletop to broken wall, he reached the plank-floored basement in a series of deft hops, barely disturbing the slope.
"Not on your life, you malnourished hummingbird!" Darvin called down, then quietly cursed the easy grace of halflings. Darvin took looped rope from his bag and secured it to an exposed foundation stone. "You know," he said, "I bought this rope strictly for show." He swung his legs over the side and, inhaling, lowered himself into the darkness. His heart beat harder.
"Hey," Fife chirped, peering at a hole in the floor. "There's a level below this."
Darvin concentrated on his descent. He spun gently and dropped in fits and jerks. He flailed his legs trying to steady himself and quickly found his world spinning even faster around the axle of the rope.
"Darv," Fife said, with concern in his tone.
"I've got this," Darvin said, but the taste of breakfast in his mouth told him perhaps not.
"Darv!" Fife shouted. "Above you! Spider!"
Darvin jerked his head up and saw it: a fist-sized spider descended down the rope.
No, he realized. Not a fist-sized spider, but—
"It's a hand!" Darvin shrieked. "A fist-sized hand!"
Runes marked the amputated hand, the skin gray, wrist terminating at a bronze band. The knuckles were exposed to the bone, and the fingers sheathed in steel blades.
A rock careened through the air, missing the hand. Darvin swung around to find Fife aiming again.
"Don't make it mad!" Darvin screamed.
"How do you make a hand mad?" Fife screamed back.
The hand twirled around the rope once, and then the line creaked. Darvin realized too late that the creature had just cut halfway through the rope with its fingers. Braiding frayed with a snapping sound, and before Darvin could drop down, the rope broke completely.
Darvin fell ten feet, the planks of the basement floor shattering under his weight. Then both he and Fife were falling once more, down into the darkness that yawned below the basement.
Coming Next Week: The further misadventures of Fife and Darvin in Chapter Two of Lucien Soulban's "Fingers of Death—No, Doom!"
Lucien Soulban is an accomplished fantasy and science fiction author who's written shared world fiction for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Black Library, and more, including the novels Blood In, Blood Out and The Alien Sea. For more information, visit his website at www.luciensoulban.com.
Illustration by Daniel Masso.