I was in the dverg’s chamber again. It is really a chamber he had made for me, a gift of sorts. He had first brought me here when he taught me a healing sleep during a migraine. He calls it my chamber, I call it his chamber.
Laying on the dirt bed, I was shivering in heat. I wasn’t sick in the Waking, I couldn’t understand why I felt feverish here. I felt something like lace on my hands and feet. I tried to shake them off, but they didn’t move. I heard a familiar voice but it sounded from so far away. I tasted the acrid sting of magic in the air.
Panicking I try to kick off the lace from my feet. Pushing against the dirt bed, I manage to bolt upright before a small and cold hand pushes back on my chest. I tried to look around, but something was wrong with my eyes. I couldn’t see.
The lace is strained enough that I have wiggle room for both hands and feet. I start kicking in earnest. I hear the sound of something being cut nearby. My feet are quickly bound in loops of thin cord. The cord is as light as rope, but as strong as steel. My feet are quickly immobilized. The familiar voice shouts something unrecognizable. The lace over my hands suddenly thicken and tighten into the dirt. I realize then, the lace is really the roots of some plant.
“Soft-Skin. I’m not done. Hold still.” Ah, I recognize him now. The chamber’s maker. His hand pats me on my chest as I comply. A part of me is indignant at waking up bound. A part of me is quite curious what he is up to. The rest of me is relieved to be with someone friendly.
“Hold still for what?” I know my eyes are open, but I see nothing with them. I try to sense the chamber around me, but I can only sense as far as the webbing of magic shifting over my skin. I can tell, my eyes have been changed somehow. As if they had become orbs of stone.
“I had been tasked to make something for you. Something to help you along your way. But you woke up before I could complete it.” The webbing of magic was making me twitch. My skin was dancing to a madman’s beat. I tried to remain still. As he manipulated the webbing, it felt like he was pulling on nerves deep in my flesh. My darkened eyes were suddenly illumined in a light brighter than the sun. The stimulation was too much, and I lost control of my body.
He laid a hand on my chest while I bucked and pitched on the dirt bed. When the fit had passed, I lay still as if dead. He muttered something to himself in a dismissive tone. As if a craftsman had forgotten a key tool. He retreated from my vision. A sudden sense of panic overwhelmed me. With great will, I forced my legs and arms to move. The roots still bound my hands tight to the dirt, but the bounds over my feet began to give.
All too soon, he was at my side again. He watched my progress in moving my feet with a slight smile. “You’ve always been hard to keep down.” He has a long thin object in his hand. Whispering in a low drone, he uses it to scratch faint marks onto the soles of my feet. The sudden lack of sensation makes me scream in shock.
He examines the root bindings over my hands and wrists without emotion. “Ask me your questions now, Soft-Skin.”
“Who tasked you?” “You’ll meet her eventually.”
“You don’t seem like one that can be coerced to fill a task.” “I consider this a challenge.”
“What are you making?” “Your death-mask.” The sensation of my heartbeat has never been stronger. The sensation of it skipping a mark punctuates his words. I stare at him in horror and betrayal.
“I never said anything about killing you first.” He smiles at my blanched face. “This is the challenge. To make your death-mask without you dying.”
He sighs deeply. “Soft-Skin, I will not hurt you. If I thought I could not do this, I would not have accepted.” He leans over and stuffs a small hard thing into my left hand. My fingers recognize it to be the stone he has shared with me in the Waking. “If you must leave, use this. It will take you back to your world. But I ask you to stay. To allow me to finish.” I grip the stone tightly, and feel a push back. I know where that stone rests in my room. With a thought, I could leave this underground chamber and wake up in my bed.
“I will stay. But I will hold on to this until you are done.” His dark mica eyes sparkle to match his smile. In a brightened gravel voice he commanded, “Now, I need you to hold still, and trust me.”
My feet were still without sensation. My hands were still tightly bound. The webbing of magic that encased me still made me randomly twitch. This svart-alf is about to make my death-mask. And I do trust him. Damn, I’m crazy.
“I trust you.” Wordlessly he raises the object he had scratched binding runes on my feet with. I see it is a heavily engraved dagger, a ritual blade. My attention focused on the blade in his right hand, I fail to see his left hand scribing glowing runes in mid air above my head until the combined glow catches my attention. The runes completed, they discharge into the magic webbing about me. A sensation of extreme cold chills me thoroughly, shocking me into a soundless fit.
My instinct was to use the stone talisman to leave the chamber. My body locked in a tonic reaction, my mind shook off the cold quickly. I had to fight my instinct to leave, struggle to remain in the chamber. He pointed the blade over my body with his right hand, and with his left hand he covered my eyes. I heard him intone some deep voiced chant and my eyes shifted in my head. I could feel them deaden and solidify. They had again become orbs of stone. I could sense they were now some dark colored crystal. Not quite black, but some deep grey.
At this sensation my panic took over completely. I lost the knowledge to use the stone talisman to leave the chamber. I felt like I was dying, my body cooling and solidifying in this earthen tomb. I knew he was still standing over me. He was waiting for a key moment. He still had that ritual dagger in his hand. I felt as if dying. The dirt under me felt waiting for the moment to receive me. I had to get away. If I could move, I could get away, escape and live. I wanted to live. I didn’t want to die today. Not today. I want to live. Move, body, move!
My panic fuels one great burst of will. The cold magic webbing that encased me is subsumed into my flesh. My muscles relax all at once as my body internalizes the magic that had bound me. I tense for the jump. I take in a great gasp of air to make my escape with.
Coldly, calmly, having arrived at the moment he was waiting for, he lays the ritual dagger unsheathed upon my chest. The blade tip rests above the top of the sternum. The hilt lays heavy on the diaphragm. I feel its weight as an anchor upon my soul. Colder than anything I have ever encountered, the dagger completes my binding and I am defeated upon the dirt bed. My great intake of air leaks out of slack lungs in a trickle. A few stray muscles twitch in confused directions. My jaw falls open. The stone slips from uncaring fingers. I can feel my skin darkening to the deep color of the loamy soil I am laying on. A few stray thoughts. I can no longer hear or feel my heartbeat. I have no sensation of temperature any more. My soul is bound to this dead flesh.
And then, nothing. Not even the knowing of nothing. A state I am unable to describe adequately. Even attempting with simile creates a paradox. I was in a state of Non-Being. I Was Not. I had not even the knowledge of I. I can only describe it now, because I did not remain in that state.
My first awareness is of sound. A low, barely audible droning that shook bone and stone alike. This was felt more than it was heard. It had two sources. The lower tone came from the dverg that stood above me. It was calling me, pulling at me, forcing and guiding my consciousness back into human shape. The second tone, an octave higher than the dverg’s, was emanating from my mouth. As he shifted his pitch, I would shift mine in turn. It forced me to breathe deeply to sustain an even tone. Each breath restored warmth and feeling to my flesh even as it kept my mind bound.
There were no bindings on my feet or hands. No blade resting on my chest. But a strange covering blanketed over my face. It was not of my skin, but moved as my face moved. As I shifted the form of my mouth to match the dverg’s intonation, the covering shifted to accommodate the movement.
He ceased his intonations. I ceased mine. My body felt at peaceful and warm, with one exception. My eyes were still cold and dead. My full senses were restored, I did not need my eyes to see what was close to me. I was able to see him bring forward two small pots, each about the size of a coffee mug. With one color, he traced a line down my face, from the midpoint of my hairline, down the length of my nose, across my lips, to the point of my chin. He traced this line on the covering over my face, but I felt it as if he was touching bare skin. He dipped his finger again in that pot, and colored my lips completely.
With the second color, he deeply colored my eyelids. From where the bridge of my nose meets the socket of the eye, he colored across the upper eyelid from lash to brow, past the eye, until he was in the hairline. He did not color the lower lid. He did this to both eyes. Again, it felt like he was painting skin, but the color was all applied to the covering over my face.
He sat back, and looked over his handiwork. “That will do. It may be marked further, but that will happen by another hand. I have met the challenge.” He reaches forward with both hands, grasp the covering, and lift the mask cleanly off my face. As he does so, my eyes are restored to living tissue. The sudden influx of light blind me for a moment.
I rub at my eyes furiously with one hand, as I prop myself up on the elbow of the other. He waits for me to complete my restoration. I look up at him, as he holds up the mask to face me. I see the physical features of my face very clearly. Impossibly thin, it appears as if made from molded plastic. I can’t tell what it is made of. The vertical line stands out from the light grey of the mask, as does the lip coloring and the eye coloring. The eye holes are empty, as they should be, but as I stare, I see a faint glimmer in the sockets. This unnerves me and I flinch and look away.
“Normally, I would hand it to you to examine. But this is not yours, not yet.” He lays the mask, face up, on a embedded shelf in the chamber. “I will take it to her shortly.”
I try to consider who amongst the Nine Worlds would be interested in a death mask. One name keeps surfacing and my fear keeps shoving the name back down. He watches my unease and chuckles. He picks up the forgotten stone talisman and places it back in my hand. “You dropped this.” He suddenly sounds sad. “I will understand if you destroy the stone in your world, Soft-Skin. So I can not force you here again.”
I place the stone back in his hands, and wrap them about the stone in the same manner he had presented it to me. “You were spoken for.” He looks up and chuckles. “Kinda. And I do trust the one that spoke for you. I do trust you. I promised not to abuse you, remember you promised the same for me.” I embrace the small cold man in a great hug. I realize I am utterly exhausted and in need of rest.
“You aren’t going to ask my name, Soft-Skin?” “If I ask, would you tell me?” He remains silent.
My turn to chuckle. “When you want me to know your name, or a kenning to call you by, you’ll tell me. It would be rude of me to persist in asking you a question you are not going to answer.” I look over his shoulder at the death-mask. “To be truthful, my friend, I’m afraid to know.”
I will myself to leave the underground chamber and return to the Waking.
I didn’t wake up right away. I did spend some time in nonsensical random dreaming. Upon waking in my room, my eyes hurt for about half an hour. And I am still chilled despite flannels, robe, and warm house.