The Mountain’s Maw – Part 7: The Nature of Magic

Ortan slept like the dead. Upon waking the next morning, he felt more refreshed than he had in any of the time since setting out from Marecade. He awoke once again in Dem’s tent, although unlike the previous day, this morning, he was not alone on his bedroll. Curled next to him in a large furry ball was the wolf.

Things had moved so fast since their first meeting in that cave he had scarcely had time to think about it all. The strange creature had tracked him as he’d left the cave, and at the last moment, saved him from the Skaradyle attack. Not only that, but it had somehow known to bring him to Dem, who just so happened to be able to remedy the poisoning. Ortan was convinced this was no ordinary wolf. Though why the creature had decided to stick so close to him, he could not say. All he had done was feed it, and now it would not leave his side, not that he wanted it to.

It seemed to Ortan that if the wolf was going to remain his traveling companion than it was proper that it be given a name. He thought for a moment, still lying on his back, not having moved since waking except to glance around. He relished this small period of half-wakefulness before all reality fully took hold for the day. He turned several names over in his head but rejected his initial ideas just as quickly as they came. Nothing he could think of seemed to fit. As he wracked his brain for a suitable name, the wolf’s eyes fluttered open. As soon as it noticed him studying it, it sprang up excitedly and began to lick his face.

“Alright!,” Ortan said, holding up an interposing hand. He got to his feet as soon as he could, the wolf moving excitedly around him, tail wagging. The creature amazed him. Whatever the mysterious creature was, be it magic or fae or something else, acted much the same way as the puppies he’d raised on the family farm when he was younger.

There had been one winter on the farm, Ortan recalled, where they’d had a particularly large litter. He had been just a boy, not yet ten, but he could still remember the flurry of excitement when they were born. There had been one pup that had needed special attention, but the specifics escaped the notice of his young mind. He did remember his mother spending a lot of time caring for it. Sadly, it had not made it, despite her best efforts.

Father dug a grave out by the gnarled fruit tree behind the barn, and Ortan and his mother had cried as they laid the pup to rest. Jesali had been too young to understand the situation, and played peacefully in the grass, unaware of life’s finality. They had placed a board in the ground to mark the spot, into which Ortan’s father had carved the name his mother had given the pup while it fought for life in her arms days earlier. Ortan tried to remember what the board had said…

“Wik,” he said aloud after a moment. The wolf stopped and tilted it’s head at him quizzically. “I’m going to call you Wik, is that alright?” The wolf yipped in apparent affirmation, tail wagging still. Ortan smiled, feeling a small smile cross his lips and a lump in his throat in the afterglow of the memories.

Satisfied that the wolf had been properly dubbed, Ortan finally pulled himself to his feet, though his legs ached in protest. The constant travel had been hard on him, and he felt as if he could sleep for weeks given the chance. He had to press on, he knew, and he quickly did his best to steel himself for the day ahead. Glancing around the tent, he found Dem’s bedroll neatly rolled and the paladin nowhere in sight. Ortan quickly stowed his own bedroll and put on his traveling clothes. Pulling his cloak tightly around him, he opened the flap of the tent and stepped out into the crisp morning air, Wik close behind him.

He made his way up towards the ruins of the temple on the hill, where he suspected the paladin to be, boots crunching on the fresh inches of snow as he did. The sun was just beginning to rise, the sky alight with the pastels of morning’s glory. When he reached the temple grounds, he was surprised when his foot hit soft, warm earth.

He found Dem, armor-clad and ready for travel, sitting on the ground with his head bowed in prayer. That was no surprise to Ortan. What was surprising was that surrounding the paladin was a 30-foot perfect circle melted into the snow. Where the snow had been was vibrant, living grass, as if in the middle of summer. Ortan had no idea what to make of it. He hadn’t noticed anything like this the last time he had been up to the temple grounds.

Dotted among the grass were fairly sizeable stones, all uniform. In addition to their size, their spacing seemed contemplated and orderly.  After a minute recognition swept over Ortan’s face. Grave markers. The reason he hadn’t seen any human remains littered among the rubble is that they had all been painstakingly collected and buried here, and Dem had been the one to do it. He had laid his entire village to rest here in the shadow of the temple’s husk. It was in that moment of revelation that the sun finally crested it’s way over the ridge, bathing the area in the first rays of the direct sunlight.

Suddenly, from the fertile earth above each grave, something emerged from the ground. Thin tendrils of green snaked their way up from the damp earth and into the air, leaves unfolding as they rose. Then all at once, flowering buds burst open on each of the newly formed plants, bathing the field in a wash of color that mirrored the composition the sun had painted across the sky.

Ortan stood in breathless amazement. The magic in this place hung tangibly in the air and just the sight of this sudden burst of life after weeks of traversing the cold, sleeping earth filled him with a bit of renewed hope. “Good morning,” Dem said, looking up, his prayers completed. “Are you ready to be on our way?” As he said this he rose to his feet, and his countenance was solemn and then it slowly slid back into a look of resolute purpose.

“Yes, as soon as we can pack up camp, I am ready to go.”
“Good, we are about half a day from the entrance into the land beneath the mountains.”
Beneath the mountains?” Ortan inquired, not sure what to make of Dem’s comment.
“Yes. Styrheim, The Infernal City, lies deep underground within the mountains. Given the direction you sensed your sister was moving, there is no other likely destination. As such, we should leave as soon as we are able.”

They packed up camp in a matter of minutes and set off before the sun had made it much higher in the sky. Ortan was eager to reach Jesali, but the prospect of traveling alongside Dem filled him with a renewed vigor. He had to resist the urge to pepper the tiefling with an endless barrage of questions. There was so much Ortan felt Dem could teach him about the nature of the world, and he could barely hold back the flood. Unable to resist completely, he chose his first inquiry, trying to remain as nonchalant as possible.

“The ground near the graves on the temple grounds… Why was the snow melted in that circle?” For a minute Dem said nothing, the crunching of the snow the only sound as the three trekked, and Ortan briefly worried if he had overstepped his bounds. Ortan could relate to Dem’s loss, not of an entire village perhaps, but of those closest to him. He wasn’t eager to discuss things closely related to his parents so he could understand if he had struck a nerve.

After a moment, the paladin simply smiled at Ortan and explained, his voice gracious. “It has much to do with the nature of magic. It can cling to the earth in places; the land can be imbued with latent magical essence by events of sacrifice.” Ortan’s face screwed into an expression that looked as if he had just been asked to solve an arithmetic equation. Maybe this line of questioning had been a mistake for a starting point.

“I don’t know much about magic,” Ortan confessed. “Didn’t have much need to know much about it on the farm. Didn’t affect our business, the trinkets and baubles the local artificers sold were mostly too expensive and more luxury than a necessity. My dad would say, ‘why spend half the harvest’s profits on a stick that makes water when we’ve got buckets and a creek and horses?’ He was a practical man.”
“It sounds like he was a wise man,” said Dem, nodding. “Too many run to magic to solve their problems without understanding it’s cost.”

“Like, gold?”
“Well, in the case of the trinkets you describe, yes. But magic as a whole carries with it some more complex costs.” Dem’s voice was calm and fatherly, with no hint of condescension or the slightest bit of annoyance, and Ortan began to feel more comfortable in his questioning. Dem set him at ease and Ortan was able to begin putting the pieces together into something that made a little sense.

“You said that the land was imbued by sacrifice? So, those people dying made the land… magical?” Ortan’s face flushed a little, unsatisfied with his wording but unable to find something more appropriate. “All magic requires a certain degree of sacrifice. Whether tapping into the powers of nature, of the gods, or one’s own latent potential, harnessing those powers has a cost. Death can be that cost sometimes, either through valiant self-sacrifice or with the darker magics, the blood of others… but no, it was not the sacrifice of the people of Grache that imbued the land on its own.”

“Oh?,” Ortan said, puzzled.”
“Magic requires sacrifice, but also purpose. It needs a will to guide it to some end, otherwise, it just fizzles into nothing. The people of Grache were slaughtered, but not by those seeking to purposely harness that power for some evil end. No, I believe I am responsible for the small amount of magic that has attached itself to the land there. In the wake of the tragedy there, I spent months digging through the rubble to ensure that all who met their end that night had a proper burial in the sight of Lathander. Lathander blessed the sacrifice of my time by granting me magic to aid the process, and my will left its mark on the land.”

“I’m not sure I entirely understand,” Ortan said, brow furrowed. At this, Dem let out a hearty laugh.
“I’m not sure I do either,” he said, his smile wide. “There is much mystery in magic. I may be slightly more well-versed than you, but perhaps only slightly, in the relative sense of things.”

“Interesting,” Ortan said sincerely. All of this was fascinating to him. It was a window into a much larger world that had always existed just beyond the horizon for him, but with the death of his parents and the disappearance of his sister, it was one that he had been thrust headlong into with no primer. He thanked Pelor that he had encountered Dem and that the paladin was so patient and willing to guide him. The few mages he had met in passing during his few years in Marecade seemed to look down their nose at those who lacked knowledge of the mystical; it had seemed to Ortan to be a bit of an exclusive caste.

The morning was bright, and the air crisp, perfect for traveling. Had they been facing a strong wind, or worse, blizzards, the walk would have been far more arduous. If not for the urgency and mission at hand, it would have been, to Ortan, almost pleasant. At the very least, his conversation with Dem helped the time pass and was able to take his mind off of his sister’s peril for a few small spurts of respite. A few more minutes of silence passed before Ortan asked his next question, feeling enough time had passed that it would feel more like a casual conversation than an inquisition. “So, have you been to this Infernal City before?”

“I have, I am less than eager to return, but we must do what we can to find your sister.”
“I appreciate that,” Ortan said. “Infernal City... Doesn’t sound like a fun place.”
“I assure you, it isn’t. I suppose most tieflings would feel right at home there, but I am not most tieflings.” Ortan knew this to be true, though not from personal experience. Dem still remained the only tiefling he had encountered, but he knew from their reputation that Dem was an outlier of his race.

“The city is inhabited by a great deal of my kind, in fact, there are few places in the realm where you will find a larger concentration. This is why we must make haste. There are not many humans in Styrheim, both you and your sister will attract attention… and that could be problematic.”
“Who’s attention is it that we want to avoid?”
“Everyone’s if possible. It’ll be hard to pick out the unsavory types since most wandering the streets of the city have probably had the descriptor applied to them at some point. We should do our utmost to steer clear of the Triarch’s guard in particular if we can help it.”

“Triarch?”
Dem’s expression darkened. “Styrheim is ruled by The Triarch, a group of three who rule absolutely. You will see a large palace when we reach Styrheim; they reside there. Their guard garrison is the city’s marshal force. Attracting the attention of the Triarchy is a good way to end up in a cell… or worse.”
“Noted. Let’s try keeping our distance then,” Ortan chuckled, more from nerves than mirth.
“Agreed.”

Several hours passed. Ortan, like a patch of sun-parched ground, absorbed any bit of information Dem was willing to dispense. He tried not to seem overeager and to give the paladin plenty of chances to just enjoy the silence of travel. Ortan was relieved whenever the paladin would offer up conversation unprompted and it made him feel less like a niggling child. Ortan did not think Dem was that much older than he was, but he couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the tiefling and his father.

Ortan had driven his father to his wit’s end with much less when he was a child. His father wasn’t really a gentle man, and could not suffer his insistent questioning for long. Ultimately, Ortan’s nagging would resolve with a solid “that’s just the way it is,” said as firmly as a door closing. Ortan knew his Father had loved him, but it remained largely unspoken, as did most things the man thought. Dem, on the other hand, seemed willing to answer any question Ortan posed, though he did not have an answer for all of them.

The conversation made the time pass relatively quickly, and there was still a bit of daylight left before Dem brought them up to the opening of a cave.
“This is where we say goodbye to the sun for the remainder of our trip. We will move underground from here forth.” Ortan fished around in his bag for a torch and begin to try to light it when Dem held up a hand. The tiefling removed his shield from where he had it strapped to his back and held it in front of him. It was the same shield Ortan had seen the other day upon waking, emblazoned with the image of the rising sun cresting the horizon. It glittered and gleamed in the sunlight. Wait, no. It was glowing with a light of its own as if the graven image etched into his shield held a portion of the solar flame. Dem ducked inside the cave and at once their path was illuminated.

“Ok, that’s pretty cool,” Ortan said.
“Perks of serving the sun god,” Dem said with a chuckle and a wink as they made their way into the cave and beneath the mountain.

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 6: Den of Sin

The small tiefling boy led the company through the streets of Styrheim for what, to Jesali, seemed like ages. Her eyes had begun to adjust to the relative blackness of the city, but she still feared that were she to lose sight of her party now, she would have no idea how to make her way back to the city gates.

The streets and alleyways of the city twisted and turned all over, some ascending to make elevated walkways between buildings, others tunneling beneath the rock into complete darkness. It was a complete maze to Jesali, with no apparent design or forethought that she could observe. Upon closer inspection of the buildings, it seemed that some were rather new, while others appeared ancient, their stone crumbling and patched in places. It was as if the city had stood for thousands of years, and rather than expanding outward like some surface cities did, it was just constantly being built over.

It was at one such nondescript building that the boy finally stopped. There was nothing that Jesali could see from the outside that identified it as different than any of the dozens of buildings around it, or the hundreds they had passed to get here. Nevertheless, their trek stopped and the boy turned to Malrinn, palm extended.

Malrinn eyed him dryly before flicking his hand to Ingar, who dug out a small copper coin and tossed it to the boy. The boy snatched it up with a look of spurn that communicated he had expected more and it almost seemed he was about to demand it, but then thought better of it, sizing up the barbarous brute Ingar and deciding to let it go. Without a word he took off down one of the alleyways and vanished into the labyrinthine metropolis.

Ingar approached the door and rapped on it three times with his meaty fist. After a minute or two, some shuffling sounds could be heard inside and then a small slit in the door slid open revealing two yellow eyes surrounded by red skin. They peered quizzically out at the three travelers and then said in the common tongue. “What is your business?”

Jesali was surprised to hear the voice speak in the language that she understood. She assumed it must have been because the being had looked out and seen that two of them were human. Whatever the case may be, Jesali was glad to at least have an inkling of what was going on.

Malrinn moved forward, brushing Ingar aside with the back of his hand, and came into the view of the being behind the door. Upon seeing Malrinn, the yellow eyes went wide and the slit quickly slid shut. Then, Jesali could hear the sound of latches being undone on the other side of the door. A moment later the door swung wide, creaking as it did, to reveal a male tiefling standing in the doorway, smiling wide.

“Master Tzull!”, he said joyously, “I apologize for the inquisition. I did not recognize your retinue.” As he said this, he bowed low, and Jesali could see that his horns were decorated with all manner of finery; gold and silver bands encrusted with jewels, a few fine chains hung from them, some pearled, crisscrossing over his short, slicked-back hair. He wore a tunic of fine purple silk which flowed over his frame, masking its exact form in layers of cascading fabric. His tail swished back and forth with excitement, as he smiled rakishly up at them. It was also banded with jewelry, as were his arms, and his fingers held several rings.

He rose from his bow and a wave of warm air from the room behind him rolled out through the doorway and over Jesali. It swirled with aromatic smoke that was thick with the smell of fruit and spices. It was a bit overpowering, though not wholly unpleasant.
“Please, come in,” he said, stepping to the side of the door and holding his hands out in a welcoming gesture, “I’ve been expecting you.”

The building inside opened up into a large room filled with draperies and silks hanging from the ceiling, dividing the room into smaller sections. From where they entered, Jesali could see that there were piles of cushions all over the floor, and all manner and race of people lounged in the smoky air. None of the denizens gave them so much as a sidelong glance, some engaged in low conversation with each other. Others drank wine from garish goblets and drew in smoke from the hoses of large central hookahs that dotted the room. Others still just laid back and stared at the ceiling, their faces screwed into stupid grins.

Moving back and forth through the throng were several serving girls of varied races clad in barely enough cloth to be considered clothing, which made Jesali blush. They poured wine and served food to the patrons as they lounged, and each of them wore a thick brass choker around their next. It did not look comfortable.

“Where are my manners,” the tiefling man said after a moment, turning more to Ingar and Jesali than Malrinn. “I am Rakon Teel.” He flashed another charismatic smile at Jesali and before she could react, took her hand in his and kissed it. “J… Jesali,” she said meekly, her name catching in her throat.

He put his hand out a moment later to shake Ingar’s hand, but the barbarian merely grunted and looked at him. Whether the tiefling was offended or not was not apparent from his smooth demeanor. He lifted his hands and clapped them twice and almost instantly, two more serving girls appeared carrying trays holding goblets of wine. They held the trays out but kept their eyes low in the posture of servants. Rakon took a goblet for himself, and motioned to the tray, offering the drinks to his guests. Malrinn held up a hand in refusal, and Jesali followed suit, but Ingar grabbed one goblet in each hand and drank greedily.

Though he was quite charming at first blush, Jesali felt in her stomach that Rakon was not to be trusted. She could not say for certain what it was about him exactly, she had only really interacted with one other tiefling for any length of time, and though he was also quite charismatic, he was also very different. Unlike Rakon, Jesali had immediately felt comfortable with Dem. But here in this den where things she could only imagine took place, she felt it was best to remain guarded.

Rakon led them further into his establishment until they reached the far side of the large room and a large wooden door. He swung it open wide and gestured for them to enter as he held the door open. Malrinn strolled inside with a lack of concern that put Jesali at ease at least somewhat. If the elf had no suspicions of Rakon, then they were probably safe for the moment. She still did not like him but proceeded into the room at his request. Ingar brought up the rear, now with two newly filled goblets and small rivulets of wine dribbling from the corners of his mouth, leaving droplets to hang in his wiry beard.

This room was much smaller and resembled more of a private lounge. “Take a seat wherever you like,” Rakon said. Malrinn made no move to sit, but his refusal simply rolled off of Rakon. Ingar plopped down on one of the big cushions and waved a now newly emptied goblet at the servant girl that had been shadowing him, and she proceeded to fill it in haste. Jesali chose to stand as well.

Rakon turned to another servant that had been following close behind him and for the first time since they’d arrived, said something in what Jesali was now beginning to recognize as the tiefling tongue. The servant bowed low and backed out of the room hurriedly, off to fetch whatever it was that Rakon had sent her to retrieve. It was not long before the servant returned followed by two guards.

The guards were also tieflings, shirtless and each of their horns was adorned with one silver band a piece. Both of them had large, menacing looking swords strapped to their sides. They were ushering a third figure into the room.

She was a tiefling as well, but different than any that Jesali had seen since entering the city. For one thing, her skin was a pale white rather than the red or grey she’d seen among others of her race. It was so pale it seemed to almost glow like moonlight in the dim interior light. She was not festooned with jewelry as Rakon was, but she did wear the brass choker of the serving girls. One of her two horns was broken off at about the midway point, a scar from some unfortunate past. Her outfit was simple and much less revealing than the rest of the serving girls, just a plain grey tunic. She was bound in chains, a few of them attached to the choker at her neck, by which the guards led her into the center of the room.

She appeared young to Jesali, though how young, she could not say since she was unfamiliar with how those of her race aged. Her face was soft, her expression dour, and her eyes were covered with a thick white veil. It wasn’t sheer and Jesali wondered how she could see through it, but a the same time, it did not seem to be a blindfold placed purposely by the guards. It hung limply from her brow in front of her eyes, not bound tightly as if intended to keep her from seeing where she was.

As she entered the room, the smallest of smirks crept across Malrinn’s face for but an instant but disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. Jesali had seen it though, and it proved that this girl was the reason that they had come to this place. It was such a fleeting expression, but it was enough to send cold shivers down Jesali’s spine. It was a look of hunger, the look a wolf gives an injured lamb.

Malrinn stepped toward her calmly while Rakon stood, hands clasped in front of him expectantly. He looked her at her with intense scrutiny, seemingly searching her for something. Then, he reached up and removed her veil, letting it fall to the floor. Her eyes were open, but they did not look at Malrinn. They were entirely milky white and did not seem to focus on anything. She was blind, Jesali realized. That is why the veil did not seem to impede her vision. The veil was not for her, but a courtesy to others, that they need not look upon her sightless gaze.

Malrinn placed his hand on either side of her face and studied it, reminiscent of the way one might study a horse they wished to purchase. It sickened Jesali. She half expected Malrinn to pinch her jaw open and begin examining her teeth, but thankfully, he released her without any further intrusion. What kind of person had she taken up traveling with? Jesali shivered, regret at her choice of traveling companions swelling in her gut.

Rakon nodded approvingly once Malrinn had finished his physical examination of the poor girl, and then spoke. “Do you wish for a demonstration?” he said. Malrinn nodded coolly, and Rakon barked something to the girl in tiefling language. She looked stricken, blushing and saying nothing. She stood hesitantly for an instant before one of the guards produced a whip from his belt. No sooner had the whip unfurled did the girl let out a barely audible gasp, and straighten, bowing her head low to Rakon. The guard did not move to strike her as she began to acquiesce to her master’s request. Jesali was surprised, she hadn’t heard the guard make any noise as he brandished the whip, though somehow the girl had perceived the threat.

The pale tiefling girl held up her hands in surrender and then closed her eyes and bowed her head. For a moment nothing happened. Then, her head snapped back up violently, her eyes open and glowing with an eerie blue light. The hanging silk around the room began to ruffle as a preternatural breeze manifested from nowhere.

“Malrinn Tzull, approach,” she said in a voice that was at once commanding and gentle. It sounding nothing like what Jesali had imagined the small, timid slave to sound like. She also was fairly certain that no one had said Malrinn’s name in her presence. Rakon had said it earlier upon their arrival, but nowhere near the pallid tiefling. Malrinn, not one to be ordered about, approached her once again with no hint of reluctance. As he stood in front of her, she placed her hand on his forehead. The girl’s sudden, sharp in-draw of breath made Jesali realize that she was holding her own and she forced herself to let it out and take in fresh air. The girl’s eyes closed again and for a moment Malrinn’s eyelids fluttered. Then she spoke.

“To the ends of the earth the scattered four, brought together to unleash the hoard. King of fire, prince of glade, one imprisoned within the grave. And one… One you already possess…” Then she released Malrinn and the glow in her eyes faded. She looked visibly haggard like whatever had just happened had taken some of her vitality from her.

She and Malrinn just stood for a minute, looking into each other’s eyes. Jesali could see tears welling in the young tiefling’s eyes. Then, almost inaudibly, she spoke again. This time her voice matched much more closely to her appearance, frail, delicate, and airy.
“I’m sorry,” she said, cupping Malrinn’s face in one of her hands, “She was beautiful.”

Suddenly, the room exploded with movement. Malrinn struck the girl fiercely with the back of his hand and she crumpled to the floor. “How dare you speak of her!” His voice broke, quivering with rage. His eyes were wild and beginning to fill with tears. “I am not to be pitied by the likes of you!” Jesali stepped back instinctively as Malrinn roiled with unbridled rage. She had seen nothing but the slightest hint of emotion from the elf for the entirety of their travel to the Infernal City. Whatever this clairvoyant young girl had seen within him had allowed her to cut him so deeply to the quick that his normally unflappable facade was rendered inert. He stood at once open, raw and exposed for all in the room to see.

The girl remained in a crumpled heap on the floor as Malrinn turned his back to her, a few stray tears streaming down his cheeks which he quickly wiped away. A small trickle of blood leaked from the girl’s nose and down her face, her mouth parted slightly as shallowed breaths passed in and out.

Rakon, mortified, began to rush to Malrinn’s side, fumbling an apology, as one of the guards pulled the girl to her feet and began to carry her half-limp form from the room. Malrinn raised a hand to silence Rakon. “I will return for later for the whelp. Ingar will settle the account with you now.” Ingar was already standing, the action of the past few minutes enough to rouse him from his drinking. With that, Malrinn left the way they had come, his affected air of disinterest slowly settling back and wrapping him like a cloak. Jesali was unsure whether she should follow, but he left too quickly for her to decide to join him, so she remained with Ingar. The remaining guard stood near the guard, eyes fixed on her and Ingar, hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“As you can see, she is something of a rarity. That makes her quite valuable to me,” Rakon weaseled, started in on his haggling immediately as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Ingar just stood, stone-faced, his bulky arms crossed in front of him. “We have gold,” he said flatly, sending a breath heavy-laden with alcohol washing over Rakon, who managed only to wince slightly and blink a few times.

“Gold is nice. But, as a businessman, I’m interested in… investments,” he said, the last word dripping with predatory meaning. Ingar seemed to consider things for a moment and then clasped one huge hand on to Jesali’s shoulder so tight she almost cried out. He turned to her and said, “Your debt’s square, love.” Then he shoved her toward the guard before she could react, who caught her and restrained her.

“No! What are you doing! Let me go!” Jesali cried, completely blindsided. She began to scream, kicking uselessly against the vice-like grip of the tiefling guard. He wrestled with her, but he was much stronger than her, and it wasn’t long before he had clapped her arms in irons behind her back. Then, he tied a cloth gag around her mouth to drown out her protests. She continued to make muffled noises as the bargaining continued in front of her.

“She’ll do,” Rakon said lecherously, his eyes surveying Jesali from the ground up, “She is definitely the sort more of clients usually go for. Many of them have much more… base desires than your friend Malrinn.” Jesali’s muffled cries transitioned to sobs, tears streaming down her face and soaking the gag around her mouth.

“It’s not an even trade,” he continued, “She’ll have to be broken, and that takes time. My investment won’t be profitable for some time. You’ll need to throw in some more… liquid assets.” Ingar huffed and tossed a bag of gold at Rakon’s feet less than respectfully. The rakish procurer seemed satisfied with that and dismissed Ingar with a wave of his hand as. Without a hint of remorse, Ingar took one last look at Jesali and turned to leave the same way as Malrinn had.

Jesali overwhelmed with emotion, her head swimming with the sudden betrayal, slumped to the floor and began to feel her consciousness slip. Between the constant travel of the last few days, and the shock of the last few moments, the tidal wave of fatigue swept over her with such force that she stood no chance of fighting it. Jesali slipped into unconsciousness, now a prisoner in a strange land, her last thought a prayer to Pelor. She heard no reply.

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 5: Traveling Companions

Styrheim was unlike any city Jesali had ever seen. The buildings were made from the blackest rock; it was impossibly black, seeming to devour the light around it. However, the cavernous city was not devoid of light. It was illuminated by giant braziers of flame dotted throughout its twisting streets and atop taller buildings. The roofs of the buildings were made not of the cedar shakes of the small villages she was used to, but brilliantly gleaming copper.

Looking out over the city, it almost appeared as a field of stars, the black of the buildings blending into a shadowed backdrop while each of the metallic roofs reflected their own pinpoint of light. It was brilliant and beautiful.

Jesali could not tell what fueled the brazier’s flames. Were it wood, they would easily require the contents of a small forest to keep the city lit even a day. Jesali saw no evidence of logging, and they had passed many forests on their way to Styrheim, all intact, so the braziers must have had another source.

Upon entering the city, Jesali’s senses were accosted by a barrage of sight and sound. The streets of the city were bustling with all manner of creatures; elves, dwarves, and many, many tieflings. There were humans among them too, but they were a definite minority; it made Jesali feel out of place and she wondered if this was how these creatures felt when they came to human cities. Many of the small towns she had known growing up were entirely populated by humans and ones that were quite skittish of “other-folk” at that.

Jesali could count on one hand the times she had seen an elf or dwarf passing through the farmlands she called home and until a few years ago, she had never even seen a tiefling. She knew the majority of humanity regarded them as monsters and suspected them to be in league with demons and dark abominations. The tieflings, no doubt aware of their reputation, seemed to think it better to keep to their own kind. The tiefling paladin she had met a few years back had seemed different than what she had heard.

Redemption Ravenhart had not seemed evil at all, in fact far from it. He had saved them, Ortan and her. He had been so strong, so confident. So good. He was every bit the storybook hero knight-in-shining-armor, save for the horns and eyes and color of his skin. He had literally shown with holy light that night as he fought back the hoards of undead.

That one night had left an impression on Jesali. She wanted to be like that. She wanted to be able to fend for herself, and more, to be able to protect people. Dem -he had said to call him- had been so sure of his faith and purpose that he could manifest the power of the gods to drive away evil and suffering. She longed for such a connection to the gods, and the power to stand for good. She longed not to be helpless.

Since that night, she had spent the past few years in Marecade trying to figure out how she could find this mysterious paladin. She had begun serving at an inn for room and board and a little coin and had asked everyone that passed through if they knew anything about the mysterious Lathandrian knight. She had gone to the monasteries and temples around Marecade too, but her search had proved fruitless. No one knew anything. Most would become quite tight-lipped the minute she began to describe his devilish features. It was nothing short of divine providence that she had run into the elf Malrinn on his way through Marecade.

She had overheard him speaking with a mercenary that she now knew as Ingar about venturing into the mountain to the city of the tieflings. Swallowing her fear, she approached them and begged to go with them, offering them a large portion of the money she had left from selling their farm and working at the inn in Marecade. Surely she would be able to find Redemption there, among his kind- or at the very least, someone there would know how to find him.

And that was how she had come to set out for Styrheim with a barbarian and a sorcerer, venturing out into the wild world without her brother or anyone she knew. It had terrified her, but she did not shrink from it as she had things in the past. She did not want to be a mouse anymore. She had to fight every day to keep that resolve. Whenever she dwelled too long on her decision to leave Marecade, she could feel the dread begin to surface, but she would muster every ounce of bravery she had and press on with her singular goal in mind.

Now as she walked the streets of that very city, she could feel a pit growing in her stomach. Crowds packed the streets so full that she had to turn sideways often to make her way through the throngs of people. Ingar’s hulking mass and intimidating aura afforded him a wide berth that the crowds did not give to all. Malrinn was able to remain unmolested by the throng by merely traveling in Ingmar’s wake. She understood a little more about why Malrinn traveled with Ingar as she watched them traverse the crowded streets.

They passed various shops and roadside stands where vendors hawked their wares. In this way, it felt similar to any other city. It was only when Jesali looked at the faces of the people buying and selling and noticed their pointed ears, yellow eyes, swept back horns- only then did it feel odd, this strange city in the belly of the mountain, simultaneously completely normal and incredibly foreign.

After they had been walking through the city for a good hour, they came to a sort of central bazaar in a large clearing surrounded by buildings. Malrinn approached one of the stalls that appeared to be selling leather goods and laid a copper piece on the counter of the stall. Keeping his finger on it, he said a few words to the burly man behind the counter. Jesali could not hear what they were saying.

Then the man barked something in a language she did not understand over his shoulder and a young tiefling boy appeared and came out to Malrinn. Satisfied, the elf lifted his finger to release the coin and the man snapped it up greedily as Malrinn turned from the stall to speak with the boy.

The language they spoke was not one that Jesali recognized. It was deep, but not guttural or harsh. She had heard Malrinn speak elvish once or twice on their journey, and this did not sound at all like that. Elvish was sweet and lilting, and it sounded elegant coming from Malrinn. This was something else, something dark that she almost couldn’t quite hear as if her ears were somehow not attuned to the strange sounds they made. The language had an off-putting quality to it that made Jesali’s skin crawl, but she could not place exactly what it was about it that made her feel the way she did. The boy replied in that same strange language and turned, waving his hand that they should follow.

Malrinn held up a finger to indicate the boy should wait a moment, then turned to Jesali.
“Well I believe this is where we part ways,” he said. “You can settle the rest of your passage remuneration with Ingar.” Jesali’s stomach dropped as panic surged through her, caught off guard by the sudden and abrupt nature of Malrinn’s statement. How would she proceed alone? She had not realized just how lost she would feel when she reached the city. Without being able to speak the language, she had no idea how she would find Dem.

“I…,” she began, “Can I accompany you for a bit longer… just until I get my bearings?” Ingmar laughed from behind them. “Scared little bird.”
“I’m not scared,” she protested, “just a bit out of my element here.”

Malrinn looked at her without the least bit of compassion and spoke.
“I am no nursemaid, child. If you are to accompany us, you will need to look out for yourself.”
“Also, you pay more,” Ingar chimed in, grinning deviously and tapping his index finger into his upturned palm, “twice the deposit plus what you still owe.”

Jesali tried to do the mental arithmetic quickly, knowing that Malrinn was not a patient elf. She considered what remained in her coin purse, and shoving down her growing internal panic, decided that the continued assistance of Malrinn and protection of the brute Ingar were far more valuable than the gold.

“Alright,” she said. Ingar smiled widely, his hand seeming to caress phantom coins. Malrinn said nothing but his demeanor betrayed that it would not take much for him to end their relationship without warning. He turned back to the boy and gestured for him to lead on, and they followed as he led them through the winding streets of the city, to where, Jesali could only guess.

***

Ortan and Dem sat around a roaring fire outside Dem’s tent; the same tent that Ortan had woken up in a few hours earlier. The waves of warm air that washed over Ortan as they radiated from the fire echoed the waves of relief he felt at the company of another person. He had been mostly alone since leaving Marecade, and he hadn’t noticed how much it had taken it’s toll until he was suddenly not anymore. The only other beings he’d seen in the past month that had not tried to kill him were the kind folks at the Waylight Inn and his mysterious new wolf friend, who currently lay curled at his feet, asleep in the warmth of the fire.

“He isn’t mine,” Dem had said when Ortan had thanked him for sending the wolf, “You seem to have a bit of a guardian angel.” Dem smiled and the irony of his devilish face smiling at the mention of angels was not lost on Ortan; Dem was the very embodiment of juxtaposition. “He found me here, camped in the village,” he continued. “You were poisoned -skaradyle venom, nasty stuff. You were quite fortunate he found me when he did. Had you gone much longer without intervention, I fear you would not be sitting here tonight.”

Ortan looked down at the beast asleep at his feet. After he had discovered Dem here in the ruins of the village Grache, he had assumed the wolf was some sort of magical or holy beast sent by the tiefling. Now he was left with so many questions. Was it just a normal wolf, abandoned by its pack, following him because he had fed it? Had he imagined it’s radiating light? Dem wasn’t as helpful in answering those questions as he would like and was, in Ortan’s opinion, a bit quick to attribute things to the work of the gods.

Ortan was surprised to have crossed paths with the mysterious paladin again. He had disappeared without a trace shortly after saving him and Jesali from a mob of skeletons a few years back. The fact that he was the one to treat Ortan’s poisoning now had left him a bit gob-smacked at the sheer unlikelihood of it all, and he had said as much. “There is no such thing as a coincidence, all is as Lathander wills it,” Dem had said. At this, Ortan could not suppress a scoff.

“All?”, Ortan said incredulously, “My parents are dead. My sister is missing… Is this the will of your Lathander?” After this, the silence was palpable, broken only by the crackling of the fire and the occasional chirping of some unknown nightlife. Ortan’s tone was perhaps more biting than he had intended it to be, and he immediately felt shame for the way he had responded. He hadn’t meant to direct his frustration at Dem, especially after the paladin had saved his life twice now.

Finally, Dem spoke, his voice softly edging the silence aside. “Disaster is an unavoidable aspect of life.” He motioned in a sweeping gesture to the ruins around them, his face a mixture of concern and perhaps guilt. “I learned that at a very young age.” A look of realization flooded Ortan’s face, and the shame he had felt began to boil over. This was no random village to Redemption Ravenhart, this was his village.

Dem gave him a knowing look and a gentle smile and he continued, “I was the only one to survive when the village was raided. I came back to find everyone that I had ever loved gone, and I buried them all.” Dem’s eyes sparkled as they began to fill with tears at the memory, but he blinked them back. “I spent a long time cursing Lathander. Asking him why he did not keep the rectory from burning. Why he had to take my only family from me… It took me a long time to realize I had been given a gift.”

Dem sat back and sighed deeply, releasing the flood of emotion-filled memory into the air around him. “Not a gift in the destruction of the village, but a gift in it being my home at all. Every year I was able to live in that monastery was a gift I easily could never have received…” As he looked into the distance, seemingly caught in a new flood of memory, he trailed off. Ortan could think of nothing to say.

They sat in silence now as the fire crackled, ash floating up to heaven like pixies in flight, darting and sparkling in the darkness. “I may have been too quick to speak earlier,” Dem said, breaking the silence and looking Ortan in the eye. “The truths of the gods are complex, and too often, mortal words fail to convey them well. Brevity can do more harm than good.”

Ortan let out a breath in a heavy sigh. “I’m just frustrated… faith… the gods… putting any real stock in them is new to me. It was always my parents or my sister who were the religious types.” Dem nodded.

“Now, I’ve been trying to feel what they felt. I guess the ritual of it all makes me feel connected to my family, especially my mother -to some sort of a solid past- It’s comforting, but I still have my doubts about how much more it is than that.”

Ortan eyed Dem’s sword hanging at his side. “Though it’s pretty hard to deny there’s something to it when I see you swinging that thing around all lit up with daylight.” At this, Dem chuckled. “The gods make their presence known through their servants, and I have faith that if you are truly looking they will not hide themselves from you. It is a journey we must each take on our own.”

“Have you been traveling alone this whole time?” Dem said, changing the subject. Ortan was glad for the change, discussing his shaky faith with a full-fledged paladin, even such a gentle and charismatic one, was intimidating, to say the least. From someone else, the question would have seemed to Ortan to be chastising; he acknowledged it was not the wisest decision to travel these lands without the strength of an entire party. From Dem though, the question seemed genuine and without a hint of reproach.

“As soon as I found out Jesali was gone, I set out to find her. I should have hired a mercenary or two to go with me, but I felt that there wasn’t time,” Ortan said, a bit of the shame returning, “An unwise mistake I almost paid dearly for.”
“You’ve made progress in your search?”
Ortan held up his hand to show Dem the charm wrapped around his palm. The paladin nodded, seeming to understand.
“Which way from here?” he asked.

Ortan closed his eyes and focused, then held out his arm and pointed. When he opened his eyes, he saw Dem’s expression twist into a frown. “I was afraid of that,” he said, following the direction of Ortan’s pointing with his eyes.
“You know where they are going?” Ortan asked hopeful, though also afraid of whatever it was that had soured Dem’s expression.
“There is only one place that makes sense in that direction. They are bound for the Heart of the Mountain, the Infernal City, Styrheim.” Ortan had heard only vague rumors about the place, but from what he had heard it seemed like a place quite inhospitable towards humans.

We leave in the morning,” Dem said.
“Dem…” Ortan began to protest. He held up his hand to gently quiet Ortan.
“You said it yourself, it’s unwise to travel alone. Besides, it is not a place you will be able to get into on your own. It is the city of demonlings, the people of my birth. Though I have no family among them, I do know their ways and will be quite useful to you there.”
“You’ve done so much for me already,” Ortan said, unsure how to properly convey his gratitude. “I go where Lathander leads, our meeting here is no accident. We will leave at first light, if your sister is truly in Styrheim, then there is no time to waste.”

Experience

A hundred thousand lifetimes have come before, yet we get no better at living.
Each of us has to figure it out for ourselves.

We have no way to pass on the information but crude language, either scrawled with a hand on paper, or pushed from the lungs and shaped by the tongue, teeth, and lips. Ham-fisted, barbaric, we try to draw out the internal and catapult it to others, only to have it look nothing like it did inside now that it has seen the light of day.

We can pass on procedure and meter and rhyme. We can pass on ideas, though less effectively so. Down through the ages we build on broken brick, on the splintered timber of the houses of thought that were erected in the minds of our ancestors.

But experience is something we must each earn for ourselves, and it is not a kind teacher. It does not hold the hand and guide the stance. It slaps the face and burns the field.

Then, the day we perish is the day we have gained as much experience as possible. The minute before death, we are as experienced as we will ever be, save for knowing the experience of death itself, which is impossible to relate.

If only one could live forever, constantly accumulating experience; knowing all that could be known and able to endlessly cross-reference the ocean with the sky.

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 4: Intervention

The sun was high in the sky now and, still, Ortan traveled deeper into the mountains in search of Jesali. The longer he traveled, the more the terrain continued to grow difficult and inhospitable. The enchantment on his palm had led him to a narrow mountainside path. He walked as if balanced on a blade’s edge; hard stone wall rising ever upward on to his left, deep chasm to his right. The thin band of earth that lay between was his only way forward.

He would occasionally pass small caves as he trod on; inlets in the cliff face where he might take a small respite, but they did not allow his mind the same rest as his body. He was wary, for any one of them could contain all manner of hidden horrors.

He felt exposed. With such a restrictive path, he felt vulnerable. Soon his worry became flesh. Signaled first by pebbles cascading down the mountainside to his left, something was moving quickly along the rock above him. Then, with a flash of grey-green, it came scurrying down the cavern wall towards him, cutting off any chance of retreating back the way he had come.

It landed on the path behind him as he whirled around the face it. It was a lanky, lizard-like creature and it stalked slowly towards him now, hissing as it did. Its long sinewy body was held aloft by four muscular legs built for running and jumping. Each leg ended in three large scythe-like claws.

Ortan had heard tale of dragons and other large reptilian beasts, but he did not recognize the beast standing before him now. As it menaced its way towards him, he prayed to Pelor for strength. He had come a long way to find his sister, and he would not let some wild animal bring his journey to an end.

It stared him down with ravenous intensity. Its eyes were hunter’s eyes, like his own in some respects, but yellow with diamond-shaped pupils. It crept toward him now; forked tongue flicking out from between its long needle-like teeth. He could sense the creature’s hunger. Its jaws snapped and its hissing grew louder, tail twitching with anticipation.

Ortan calmly and methodically moved his arms towards the bow strapped to his back, being careful not to move fast enough to provoke the animal to pounce. He felt the smooth leather grip of his recurved bow with one hand, and his other hand soon made contact with the fletching of an arrow. Before he could draw them, however, the creature stirred.

It reared itself up onto its hide legs and threw its head back, letting out three screeching cries. It landed back on all fours, tilting its head to the side and licking at the air. Ortan’s heart sank a moment later when from two distinct directions he heard similar cries. Amid the slowly-loudening sounds of skittering approach, Ortan tried his best to formulate a plan. He dared to steal a glance over his shoulder, in the direction he had been heading before the ambush. The narrow path seemed to open up ahead. As the other lizards closed on him, he had no choice now but to act.

Quick as a whip he pulled his bow, nocking the arrow as he did. Time seemed to slow as the lizard that had been stalking him seemed ready to explode with movement. The tension in its powerful legs mimicked that of his taut bow, and they both released the pent up energy at the same time.

The creature flew toward him as he let his arrow fly. It took no longer than a second before it crashed into him. It hit him in the shoulder; its thick skull battering him hard, almost sending him to the ground. The claws and teeth Ortan expected never came though, as the creature landed with a thud. The arrow had hit its mark, right into one of the creature’s eyes.

Ortan barely had time to register what had happened, adrenaline vibrating through his veins. He turned and ran as fast as he could up the path, as black ichor began to spill from the lizard’s limp corpse. He darted up the path to where it widened out into a shelf as more lizard-howls reverberated off the crags around him.

It wasn’t long before Ortan realized his mistake. He came skidding to a stop, his boots sliding a bit on the loose gravel of the path. What he could not see before was that the path came to an abrupt end. From the looks of things, it had collapsed and there was no longer a fast way through.

If he weren’t being chased, he might have been able to scale the cliff face down to another ledge that ran along the cliff, but if he attempted that now he would have no way to defend himself and the beasts would surely overtake him. He briefly considered trying to jump, but he did not like his odds of survival. So he pivoted on his heel and drew his sword just as the first two lizards reached him.

He rolled out of the way as the first dove at him, catching the second midair with his blade. It barely made a scratch in the creatures thick hide, a small line of black appearing on its chest. The creature hissed its disapproval and still managed to land on its feet, its momentum carrying it skidding backward towards the cliff edge.

Thinking quickly, Ortan rushed it, giving it a swift kick and sending the off-balance lizard rolling off the edge. It screeched as it fell. Before Ortan could tell whether or not it had managed to survive, the other lizard was on him. There was a bright burst of pain as the lizard sank its long teeth into Ortan’s shoulder and didn’t let go. The weight of the beast dragged him to the ground; the force of the bite holding him fast. His vision began to darken at the edges as he felt a new kind of pain radiate from the wound.

His insides burned like a blacksmith’s mold being filled with liquid metal; the white-hot pain slithering through his veins, seeping into every vein and capillary. His muscles began to seize and it became difficult to keep a grip on his sword.

Fear gripped Ortan as the realization hit him that this could die here as some beast’s prey. In the chaos, he thought he could make out two lizards surrounding him, the one that had bitten him, and one other. He tried to scramble to his feet in vain as the second lizard closed the distance. It was almost upon him when another flash of movement slammed into it from behind, sending it up and over Ortan and over the side of the ridge.

The one still clamped to Ortan released him and spun to address the new arrival. Ortan recognized the new arrival. Standing tall wreathed in light, was the wolf he had spent the last evening with. He could not tell if he was imagining it, but the creature seemed no longer to be limping and to be rippling with some strange power. The beast, whatever it was, had followed him here. It bared its fangs at the lizard, growling. The final lizard, startled, gave a little ground and seemed to be sizing up this new threat.

The wolf moved around to interpose itself in front of Ortan. As the wolf and lizard stared each other down Ortan felt his consciousness slipping. The venom in his veins was tightening its hellish grip. As the two powerful creatures sqaured off, Ortan’s eyes closed. The last thought he had before the darkness took him was a hope that the wolf was indeed defending him and not just claiming him as its rightful kill.

***

Ortan awoke hours later groggy and disoriented. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in a small tent lit by flickering lantern light. He sat up and took a deep breath. His head throbbed but his arm and shoulder no longer burned. He pulled back his shirt to see that his wound had been dressed and bandaged.

Looking around the tent, it was fairly empty. A small pack and a stack of a few books lay off to one side. Other than the few lanterns and some cooking supplies, the only other thing of note in the tent was a shield. It was fairly ornate, with the image of a brilliant sun cresting the horizon engraved into the front of it. Even though the shield was decorated, it did not look like a mere display piece; in pits and scratches, it told the story of many an onslaught.

Ortan pulled himself to his feet and all of his muscles ached. He had no idea how long he had been asleep and where he was now, but he did not feel to be in immediate danger. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword at his side. Whoever had helped him had left him with all his belongings and weapons. He moved to the entrance of the tent and out into the crisp night air.

Before he could take even two steps from the tent, he was tackled to the ground. Something warm and wet caressed his face and for a moment he was stunned. The large wolf stood over him, repeatedly licking his face, it’s weight pressing down on him painfully, if unintentionally so.

“Alright, easy…” he said, bringing his hands up to guard his face. After a minute the wolf abated and Ortan stood to his feet. The wolf stood staring at him, its tail wagging excitedly.

“Thank you,” Ortan said, “You came along at just the right time.” It let out a little yip; its almost playful sound contrasting the beast’s size. Then it turned and started to head off up the road, stopping after a few feet and turning to Ortan, beckoning him to follow with its eyes. Ortan did.

It led him away from the tent and up the winding road through what appeared to have at one time been a small village. It now lay in ruin. Long burnt-out husks of buildings and unrecognizable piles of rubble lined the streets. Ortan couldn’t help but picture the town as it had once been. He could almost see ghosts of children running and playing in the streets, lined with the apparitions of fruit and vegetable vendors hawking their ethereal wares. But the streets were full of neither life nor un-life, and they seemed to have been that way for years.

He passed what looked to at one time been the local blacksmith. Worked bits of wrought-iron littered the ground; pieces from the ordinary to the ornate, but all useless now. Only one of the four walls still stood, though what was left of it was only a few feet tall. The forge looked to be intact but was currently surrounded by a few small shrubs, growing up and out of what had at one time been the quenching barrel.

They continued along the winding path as it climbed a small hill that overlooked the remains of the village. Soon, a building that seemed to be much more intact than the rest began to come into view. Unlike the mostly wood buildings of the rest of the village, this was built of stone. As such, it had remained a little more together over the years, but it appeared it had not escaped the fate of the city below.

The stained glass windows were shattered; small bits of them clung still to the window frames in one of two of the least destroyed walls. Ortan imagined that they had been beautiful once. He could see in his mind’s eye the sun cresting the hill and filling them with vibrant first dawn’s light; the escapades of gods and holy men vibrating with an energy that proclaimed of their deeds across the barrier of time. As they neared, Ortan could see that the stone was covered in soot, and the doors and any other wood had been burned away.

This village was familiar to Ortan. He hadn’t been here, but he felt a connection to it. It reminded him of Mercade, though it appeared a bit smaller. It reminded him of Smard; the closest village to his childhood family farm. There were probably thousands of small towns like this one scattered all over the continent. This was the type of town that held his people; regular folks just trying to make a living. It hurt him to see this.

The wolf came to a stop in front of the arch where the church’s large wooden doors would have been; the threshold between the outside that was the town and the inside of the church that was now just additional outside. It stared at Ortan as if telling him to enter. Reverently, he stepped through the arch and continued down what would have been the center aisle of the sanctuary at one time.

He could tell, for one, because many of these small temples were laid out the same way. The place where he and Jesali had buried their parents was the same thing; a large main sanctuary with a few small adjoining rooms in the wings. The aisle was lined with piles of ash and half burned out pews.

In all this destruction, Ortan was surprised not to see a single bit of human remains; not a single skeleton. For a minute he thought of the Shadowood, of fighting off the hordes of skeletal warriors, and it sent a chill down his spine. He hoped there was a better reason behind it than something like that.

He reached the front of the sanctuary. There in the center was a large stone statue of a god. He looked to be a man, with a featureless face as these idols often had. Something sculpted into the stone stood out to Ortan though; he had what looked like rays of light coming from behind his head, making his head appear wreathed in sunlight.

“Lathander,” Ortan whispered under his breath. At the base of the statue was a large basin full of ash. Ortan almost paid it no mind- the entire village was full of ash- but suddenly a whiff of something he had not sensed before hit his nose. It was a pungently sweet aroma that reminded him of his parents funeral: incense. He pushed his fingers into the ash and to his surprise, they were warm.

He pulled his hand back instinctively. It wasn’t warm enough to burn him, but it startled him all the same. From what he could tell, the village had been abandoned for some time, but it seemed that someone had been here recently. He stared up at the statue and whispered again.

“Why am I here?”

His question hung in the still air for a moment and mixed with the lingering scent of holy herbs. Ortan stood respectfully and bowed his head, not really knowing why. He felt like the place he was in was once a very good place, and he wanted to honor what it had been, even if its god had left long ago.

To his surprise, the darkness answered him.

“You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

He opened his eyes wide and stared at the statue, and the voice continued, “Welcome to the Temple of Lathander at Grache.” Ortan recognized the voice, and that it was coming from behind him. “It’s looked better,” it said.

He turned to see a familiar face. A grey-skinned tiefling stood behind him, clad in shining armor. His black hair moved lightly in the wind. Redemption Ravenhart, Paladin of Lathander flashed Ortan a charismatic smile. “You’re awake. That’s good!”

Salvager’s Shanty

Afloat in black and inky seas,
pocked with distant plasmic beams,
I limp.

Through graveyards of abandoned junk,
salvage work is never done,
I hunt.

The decompression klaxon sounds,
should’ve put this old bird down,
I spit.

Rustle up replacement parts,
hunk of junk, my work of art,
I fix.

Unruly, wild, and lawless place,
skin of teeth, another day,
I live.

Hurling-metal-comet-home,
small and utterly alone,
I limp.

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 3: Descent

Jesali’s feet ached more than they ever had before. She was not used to traveling at such a pace for so many days in a row. Now, each pained footfall punctuated just how far they had traveled in such a short time. She’d been uncomfortable on horseback, but under the current circumstances, she’d give anything to go back to the luxury of saddle sores.

The rough-hewn rock walls that surrounded her encroached too closely on the path for mounted passage to be possible, so she and her company had left the horses behind. The air around them in the cavern had been slowly warming for hours as they descended. Now, dripping with sweat, her exhaustion was beginning to set in. Her dark hair stuck to her forehead, and her once light colored pants were stained with weeks of dirt and sweat.

She removed the thick furry coat that she was still wearing and looked around for a minute, not sure what to do with it.
“Jus’ toss it,” came a gruff voice from behind her, “you won’ need that where we’re go’in.”

The source of the voice was a gigantic, barrel-chested lug of a man; one of her new traveling companions by the name of Ingar. He was covered in dense muscle and one might swear he was a lycanthrope from the sheer amount of thick black body hair that carpeted every exposed bit of his flesh. Only on his face, in the spaces around his eyes and on his forehead, did his bare skin show through. The bottom half of his face was obscured by a bushy black beard that looked course enough to take the skin off of your fingers, should you choose to stroke it.

Ingar grunted and spat on the cave wall as he lumbered just ahead of Jesali. He was dressed in the same traveling gear as he had worn through the snowy tundra: boots, shorts, and pauldrons -all fur covered- and a cowl made from the head of a bear. The cowl was constructed in such a way so that it appeared as if he was looking out of the bear’s roaring mouth. He seemed unphased by the change in temperature, though his exposed skin glistened with sweat. He smelled as if the outfit he wore was the only one he owned, and that he was often just as sweaty, or more so.

As they had traveled, he had not spoken often, but when he did it was short and to the point. He had not proven himself the brightest example of the human race but he made up for his lack of mental acuity with an ample supply of brawn. His physicality had made him a worthy travel companion many times over; Jesali had not had to worry about being assaulted during the night in any of the cities they had passed through. She had slept better at night knowing Ingar would come to her aid if something sinister happened upon their camp in the middle of the night.

Jesali complied with his suggestion and tossed the coat to the side of the corridor, and wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. She had lost track by now of just how long they had been inside the mountain. It was a strange sensation; without a view of the sky, there was no real way for her to guess the time of day or night. She thought about perhaps asking Ingar, but thought better of it, so she instead turned to her other companion.
“How long until we reach our destination?”
He did not respond. He seemed to be deep in thought or purposely ignoring her.

He was an elf, possibly noble-born, but he had not detailed his upbringing to Jesali. He held himself with a regality that spoke of much finer environs than Jesali was used to. She could not tell how old he was, or if he was particularly old at all as far as elves go, but she did guess from his appearance that he was probably older than she was. His long dark grey hair was pulled back behind his head and tied with a blue ribbon; a style which did nothing to hide his large pointed ears. His face seemed permanently affixed into a half-scowl.

He was dressed in long flowing robes that almost trailed the cavern floor as he walked, though Jesali could not see a speck of dirt on them, even after days of travel through the mud and snow. As they walked he held a book out in front of him and he seemed to be reading from it rather than paying attention much to where they were going. He would very occasionally look up to bark something to Ingar in a language Jesali did not understand and then return to his reading.

Finally, he surfaced long enough from the pages to take notice of her studying him.
“Did you need something?” he asked dryly, his eyes now reading her instead of the tome he held.
“I just wanted to know how much longer.” His gaze was harsh and discerning. It seemed to penetrate her; to look straight into her heart. Despite the intensity of his gaze, he did not seem angry at her question; his demeanor exuded something much more akin to boredom, mixed with the most minimal amount of curiosity, as he analyzed this woman now questioning him.
“We should be to The Infernal City within a day,” he answered with an air of disinterest before switching his attention back to his book. She got the feeling that would be all the information she’d glean from him for a while.

What followed was probably close to an hour of silence, save for the occasional uncouth body-sound from Ingar and the shuffling of their six boots on the stone. The deeper into the mountain they traveled the more the temperature in the cavern rose. Jesali, now shed of a few more layers of clothing, was beginning to feel as if they would never reach the city.

After a while, the hypnotic rhythm of their boots began to lull Jesali into an almost trance-like state. She stopped paying much attention to the tunnel around her and just followed Ingar while her mind drifted towards other things. She let herself get lost in thought for the first time since they had set off from Marecade, though not before having the thought that she could probably follow Ingar blindfolded, purely by smell alone.

She thought back to the time she had spent in Marecade with Ortan. As she thought about her brother, her chest grew tight; she had purposely been avoiding letting her mind traverse the alleys occupied by such thoughts. She knew he was probably worried sick about her, or even grieving her death by now. Had she made the right decision in leaving him behind? She regretted not telling him goodbye, not explaining to him what she needed to do. But time had been of the essence, and there was nothing she could do about it now. She hoped that, if the day ever came that she saw him again, he would forgive her.

Once she had made the decision to venture out on her own, things had happened so fast. She booked passage with these men because she could not make the journey alone. She could have asked Ortan to come, and he would have in a heartbeat, but she could not be her brother’s burden anymore. She was ashamed of how weak she had been. She thought back to that night in the Shadowood when they had almost been overtaken by the undead. She had felt so helpless; paralyzed by her own fear as those bony fingers gripped her wrists and dragged her through the dirt. Ortan had almost been overwhelmed by the hoard trying to save her. She had been weak, and she would have been responsible for both of their deaths had that strange paladin not arrived and come to their aid. She was sick of being saved.

In her reverie, she came close to a collision with Ingar, who had come to a stop in the middle of the corridor. She stopped herself just in time, but she got close enough to experience the full bouquet of his unwashed aura. She put her hand to her mouth and almost choked herself to keep from dry heaving. Just beyond him, the cavern appeared to come to an abrupt end.

“Malrinn!” Ingar called. The elf called Malrinn, who still had his nose buried in the book, held his finger up. His eyes did not leave the page as he stood this way, finishing the page he was on. After what seemed like a slightly spiteful amount of time, he closed the book, keeping his page marked with his other thumb.

“Git it open!” Ingar barked. Malrinn looked at Ingar, eyes cold, as he walked past the oaf and up to the cavern wall ahead of them. The alliance between the two of them seemed, to Jesali, to be tenuous at best. It was clear by the way they interacted that if each of them did not possess traits the other lacked, they would have dissolved their partnership long ago.

When Malrinn reached the wall he pressed his free hand against it, brushing his fingers along the rough surface seemingly feeling for something. After a moment, he settled on a spot about two feet up the wall and pressed his palm flat against it. He closed his eyes and muttered under his breath in yet another language that Jesali did not recognize. In an instant, a fist-sized hole appeared in the wall where Malrinn’s hand was touching it. He did not puncture the wall with force, the surface of the stone was simply unmade; one minute there, and the next gone. It happened in the blink of an eye, and Jesali felt slightly sick as her brain tried to process what had just taken place.

“Is ‘at it?” Ingar said mockingly, “Your goin’ta hafta make a bigger hole ‘an ‘at.”
Malrinn did not even bother with a response. He simply backed up from the hole he created and whistled. As the shrill sound filled the air Malrinn’s robes suddenly began to billow in the windless cavern. Then, seemingly from nowhere, something began moving within his robes. The strange bulge of fabric crawled across his chest, over his shoulder, and wriggled down the length of his arm, finally emerging from his sleeve. It was a long, serpent-like creature, covered in bright feathers. Its four clawed feet gripped Malrinn’s arm as it crawled along it and came to a sort of coiling perch on his hand.

The creature looked at Malrinn expectantly, coiling with potential energy like an overwound spring. He whistled again, two short blasts of varying timbre, and the creature took off in a flash of motion. It darted from Malrinn’s hand straight through the hole. Ingar yawned, seemingly unimpressed, but Jesali was rapt in utter amazement. She had never seen any creature like it before. Had Malrinn been hiding the thing under his robes this entire journey?

About a minute after the creature had disappeared into the cavern wall came a large audible click, and then the sound of scraping stone as the wall blocking their advance began to lift up revealing the way forward. Where once a blank wall stood, in its place now was an archway large enough for the three of them to pass through. The border of the arch was intricately carved stone, depicting flames and dancing imps.

Malrinn whistled again and the feathered serpent came bounding back up to him, leaping up to perch on his hand again. Malrinn scratched it under the chin and it let out a happy croak. With another whistle and a windless billow of Malrinn’s cloak and the thing disappeared to wherever it had come from.

Ingar just let out an indignant grunt and trudged forward. Jesali couldn’t help but stare at Malrinn in amazement. Up until this point, the elf had remained mostly engrossed in his reading material. This was the first time he had displayed the skills she had heard he possessed. Ingar had singlehandedly been able to drive off any bandits or beasts they had encountered on the trek. Malrinn hadn’t had to lift a finger yet, but puzzles and illusions were beyond the scope of Ingar’s capabilities. Jesali was thankful she had found such skilled traveling companions; she would not have been able to reach The Infernal City without them.

“Was that thing… in your cloak the whole time?” The words left Jesali’s lips before she even realized she was asking the question. Malrinn raised his eyebrow, and she swore he almost smiled, but again he did not look up from his book.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” he said oozing condescension.
“Explain it to me,” Jesali prodded, a new boldness beginning to emerge.

Malrinn let out a heavy sigh and closed his book, tucking it into his robe somewhere. At this, Jesali was honestly surprised. Not much had broken through his solitary disposition on their journey. She guessed that the appeal to his ego was why she had earned a response; the chance to brag about his arcane prowess seemingly enough for her to indulge her.

“My robe is enchanted with a very powerful spell of my own devising. It took me months to get it correct. The enchantment allows me to open a door to a private pocket dimension whenever I desire.”
“And that thing came from that dimension?”
“That thing is a Quetzi, and she is my pet. She guards my collection and is also particularly handy for situations like this.”
“A Quetzi?” Jesali said in awe. She had heard many stories as a child of strange and magical creatures but had not encountered them until very recently. There was so much that fascinated her these days as she traveled the wide world outside of the small farming community where she’d been born. When she thought about that, she blushed a bit; embarrassed by her naïveté.

Malrinn didn’t answer her last question; it seemed that zoological explanations did not do enough for his ego to elicit a response, and he quickly returned to his book. Jesali wondered, for just a moment, if he stowed even the book in his pocket dimension.

Not long after they had passed through the arch, the corridor ahead of them began to widen and soon there was room for the three of them to walk side-by-side with ample clearance of both cavern walls. The once still air of the cavern was now filled with a warm breeze which carried with it a smell that Jesali could not identify. It reminded her of rotting fruit with a hint of sulfur. Small flakes, almost like snow, floated and twirled through the air around them. Jesali held up and hand, catching one of the flakes, and then smeared the flake across her palm with her finger: ash.

As they advanced the air grew more and more saturated with ash. It coated the walls and floor of the cavern in this area, giving the already dark stone and even darker appearance. The hem of Jesali’s garment, which had already been ruined by the mud and snow, was now collecting the black soot and ash from the ground. She glanced at Malrinn’s robes and again: still spotless. Even the falling ash particles seemed to magically avoid landing on him. She thought about the word “repulsive” in connection to him and it made her giggle. It had been quite some time since she had done that and it felt almost strange.

And then, finally, there it was. The cavern ahead dropped suddenly, a sheer cliff-face in front of them as the walls opened up around them into an enormous underground cavity. They stood on a precipice now overlooking a vast city of obsidian buildings. The streets were paved in dark cobblestone, covered in the same soot and ash they walked through now. Surrounding the city was a blistering trough of molten rock; it surged and flowed with a strange thickness, undulating back and forth across the threshold from liquid to solid.

Even though it was still a ways off, Jesali could see that the city was bustling with activity. Beings, some she didn’t recognize, moved up and down the streets in every direction. Jesali could scarcely take in the site, the city was several times larger than Marecade and completely underground.

Ingar stopped at the edge of the cliff and, chuckling, turned to her.
“Welcome, to Styrheim, m’lady. The Infernal City awaits!”