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.”

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!”

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!”

Permanent Objects

We spend eight hours a night, on average, practicing for death.
Letting go of the consciousness we fight so hard for in the end.
We slip into the unknown, night after night, with no promise of waking.
Am I not the only one who thinks that should be terrifying?

Have we developed such overwhelming object permanence that we believe not only that everything will still be there when we open our eyes in the morning,
but that we are, ourselves, permanent objects?

We wear the evidence of our impermanence on our faces, first in laugh lines and freckles, then in wrinkles and liver spots. We slowly gain experience and wisdom and lose days…

But I digress, of course the typical mind would not dwell on these questions,
lest it be robbed of the very desire to continue chasing continuity.
We crave infinity. We cannot grasp immortality, but we all run towards it.
Some have resolved themselves to the reality that it is not truly attainable,
but most are still quietly dowsing, at least internally, for the fountain of youth.

That practice of divination points us instead towards other more immediate pleasures, and as the drink and the lust make us forget, they draw us nearer still to that which we are running from.

So what are we to conclude? I am no sage or guru, but I will tell you this:

I think an awareness of the end is important for the journey. Knowing something is temporary allows us to pay attention while it is present.

So keep a hand on the wheel, watch the stars at night, gauge the wind, and keep the figurehead pointed toward the mark, lest you wind up adrift and find you are no longer practicing.

A Liturgy of Ash and Dust

Brazen spires and steeple fires

and ash Wednesday

and ash Thursday

and ash Friday

and ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Saturday is a smoldering coal and on Sunday we bathe in the bonfire glow, and then heap Monday and Tuesday upon the pyre.

Remember the sabbath day and keep it smoldering.

Fan the flame.

Prime the ignition.

Stoke the coals.

Fill the bellows with holy oxygen, breathed from the very tree of life, the air aware of the heir up there, hissing like a leaky balloon, like the hissing breath of the forked-tongue-one who licks the dust, and bites the heal and rears his ugly head to strike…

That poison-pocked-viper-bite breaks the apple-skin of Granny Smith, the grandmother of original sin, as sweet juices dribble from the first-mother’s chin, and overflow in the knowledge of the things below, because she will be like God!

God!

She’ll be like God!

She’ll be like, “God damn you for lying to me! God damn you for bringing deceit, for lying through your hollow teeth, for dangling tricks disguised as treats, and tarnishing the golden streets.”