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 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!”

Malrinn’s Bargain: A Staring Contest With Shadow

Malrinn Tzull was an elf of singular purpose; fueled by one solitary desire that drove his ambitions. He did not desire the touch of a woman, or the love of a family. He did not desire hedonistic pursuits or wealth, excepting for one of the byproducts that wealth could grant… No, Malrinn had but one vice, and it harried him like an erinyes. Malrinn only cared for power.

It is often said that ‘one will seek voraciously what they have been previously denied.’ This could not be more true for Malrinn. He had spent a great deal of his long life without even the smallest semblance of power. Born last into a large family of mostly boys, he struggled. In addition to his station as youngest sibling, he was physically weaker than his brothers, and even a few of his sisters. Malrinn almost did not survive infancy, due to a heart defect, something extremely rare within the eleven race. Though he persisted to adolescence, his growth was stunted. He spent a good majority of his early life indoors, reading rather than learning to hunt or fight alongside his brothers.

His lack of bodily fortitude led to alienation by most of his peers, who preferred carousing and games of sport to bookish studies. Most days, he would become winded just carrying books up the stairs of the family home to his room where he hermited himself away, heart pounding in his chest as he’d dump his new selections beside his bed before collapsing onto it for a few minutes. This perpetual weakness made him bitter. And he vowed that one day he would be free of it, and prove to the world he was worthy to be a part of it and not a useless drain on resources.

He found the key to his pursuit among his constant stream of books. First with stories of magic and adventure, and then with more technical descriptions of the arcane arts. Eventually, he was able to attain books that could actually begin to teach him how to wield magic. They cost him all the money he had at the time, but the information was priceless to him. With a firm resolve, he began to study the arcane arts in secret, and over the years began to amass a portion of the power that he so desperately craved. He gained the ability to bolster his frail physique with magical strength, and he found that he no longer lost his breath simply moving about the house.

He grew in magical prowess and soon there was not much that his peers could do that he could not. As an adult, he had access to as much material wealth as he desired to conjure, and he lived a comfortable life because of it. Even still, he found himself unsatisfied. He wanted more from his life. So when he came upon a tome detailing the methods to contact dark beings, with power not of this world, he could not resist the temptation.

Malrinn’s face scrunched as he concentrated, dragging a piece of charcoal along the cold stone floor. It left a thick, black line in its wake, as he traced circular runes of ornate design on the surface of the stone. In his other hand, he held the tome, open to a page showing the runes he was now copying down. The book was old, ancient even; the pages dark and discolored with age, lit now by only flickering candlelight. The book’s spine was more of a suggestion now rather than any sort of substantial binding, and Malrinn had to keep the book carefully balanced to avoid spilling clumps of pages to the ground.

He finished his drawing and then took a small satchel from his side. Reaching in, he grabbed a copious handful of salt and began sprinkling it around the perimeter of the circle. Once he had completed the ring, he grabbed a bag of candles that had been lying just outside of the circle and began to place them at the intersections of the design, lighting them with another candle that had already been burning on the large wooden table off to the side of the room.

Slowly, methodically, he continued the ritual; as the dozen newly lit candles cast dancing shadows around the room. The dank cellar was lined with many large bookcases, which along with the table, were all piled high with books of every shape and size. The chamber was also littered with various odds and ends; a vial of liquid here, a dagger there, a small strong box, a variety of small and medium sized skulls which appeared to be animal in nature… Malrinn’s lair was his refuge, but it was also his hoard, a life collected in baubles and books.

Malrinn stood once again from his crouched position and surveyed his work. His eyes traced the designs on the floor, then in the book, and then back again. Satisfied, he carefully closed the tome, placing a black quill between the pages as he shut it to keep his place. He then set the book on the table, in an area that wasn’t part of the various piles. Reaching for a different book, he opened it to another marked set of pages and began to read from it.

The language was not his own and it had taken him a considerable amount of time to decipher and learn. But now, with practiced grace he began his recitation, softly at first. The longer he read, the louder he grew, until he was almost shouting. The air in the dark cellar began to stir, unnoticed at first by Malrinn, but as he read on it grew more and more violent. Eventually, it was howling, whipping his black hair wildly; rifling through the pages of books that lay open on the table, sending the odd loose paper pirouetting around the room.

Malrinn smiled an ominous, toothy smile, and could not help but laugh. It was a deep and sinister sound that held more malice than joy. His blood felt as if it was boiling within him and the skin on his face vibrated with flushed anticipation. He felt for a moment like his heart might burst, but the feeling quickly passed, only to be replaced by a sickening, heavy millstone of dread in his gut. This pure feeling of thick, otherworldly malice quelled his laughter even as it heralded the arrival of his intended guest.

The temperature in the room immediately dropped a noticeable degree, and dark black plumes of smoke began to pour from the candles on the floor, swirling in the wind like a dervish. Soon, the cloud began to coalesce; taking the shape of something vaguely elf-like, but not. A being made of entirely of shadow, with glowing red eyes like stoked coals suspended within the fog.

After the creature had taken its form, the wind began to abate. Soon a deathly stillness hung in the room, save for the twitching mass of shadow and smoke. It did not make a sound; it just loomed in the air with an intense and diabolical presence.

“Ehoten!” Malrinn said, breaking the silence. When he evoked the creature’s name, he swore it smiled, if a thing made of smoke could do such a thing.
“Ehoten, I am the one who summoned you. I entreat you! Grant me your power!”
The creature swelled, and spoke, not with audible words, but directly into Malrinn’s mind.

“What do you offer?” Its voice deep and raspy, seemed to vibrate Malrinn’s very skull. He fought not to wince. Each word was like a knife; like the worst headache he’d ever experienced. With each word Ehoten spoke, a penetrating and bitter cold raced down Malrinn’s spine, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end. He felt like every last bit of warmth in his body was being drained away. His stomach did somersaults as the dark figure continued its dialogue, it’s very presence polluting the area around it like a miasma that Malrinn felt threatened to choke him.
“What is worthy of my power?”

Malrinn pulled a bundle of tattered cloth from his cloak and unwrapped from within it a weapon; a dagger, three blades affixed to an obsidian hilt. It was not ornate, but it had a presence of its own, not too dissimilar from that of the shadow fiend he intended to offer it to. He let the cloth fall to the ground and held the menacing blade aloft.
“An artifact of great power, and that has drunk deep of the blood of countless lives.”

The shadowy creature let out a burbling, disquieting laugh, and it’s eyes began to glow with an even more intense light. Somehow the sound of the creature’s laughter made Malrinn even more uncomfortable than he already was in the thing’s presence, but he held his composure.
“How did one such as you come by this artifact?” Ehoten asked him.
“It was… difficult, but I have my ways.” Malrinn replied dryly, his face iron. He was so close to attaining his goal and had come too far to falter now. He would not be intimidated by Ehoten.

“I reject your offering,” it sneered, “It is not enough. What use do I have for a blade when I can kill hundreds with mere words? If I wished it, I could command you to tear your own heart out, and you would obey! I have broken those more powerful than you, elf-whelp!”
Malrinn stared daggers at Ehoten, and what little shock of his that remained since initially encountering the fiend was brushed aside by a searing anger.
“Don’t play coy!,” he spat, ignoring Ehoten’s threats and posturing, “Your deception is wasted on me, Shadow Demon! You know exactly what this is!”

Ehoten answered in wordless howling rage; his form swelling defiantly as the wind began to swirl in the room again. Malrinn held the blade firm in his hand and began to mutter an incantation under his breath. His pupils disappeared as his eyes began to glow with their own bluish light. The hand that held the blade began to spark with blue, crackling energy, and the strands of his hair began to repel one-another a little. Then, with just the smallest smirk, he released the arcane electricity he had collected directly into the blade.

The demon shuddered and let out a squeal of pain. The attack seemed to lessen the swelling of its form and it was plain to Malrinn that Ehoten had definitely felt the strike. Even still, the demon continued its tirade.
“You dare raise a hand against me!” Malrinn’s head began to pound even harder as the creatures voice grew louder inside his head. Unabated, he let loose another surge of electricity into the blade, and the shadow shrieked as his form continued to dwindle. It was now about the size it had been when he had first summoned it.

“I know you are bound to this blade!,” Malrinn shouted over the wind. “I also know you wish to be free of the link. I can’t imagine you enjoy anyone having sway over you like this…” He did not break his gaze with the demon, the motion of his hair and cloak in the wind a stark contrast to this unmoving demeanor. Again he began to prepare himself for another volley, fingers sparking blue at his whim. Rather than attack however, he held it at the ready for a moment, determined to win this battle of wills.

“Enough!” Ehoten called finally, his voice quieter now, but still raking across Malrinn’s mind. “You will relinquish the blade to me in exchange for a share of my power?”
“I will destroy the blade, and your link to it. And in exchange, you will imbue me with a portion of your power.” The being stayed silent for a moment, flickering. It seemed to weigh Malrinn’s proposal, though it was hard to read any emotion in its vaporous form.

“You have the means of destroying the artifact?” Its tone was skeptical. “Many have tried… And many have failed. Other’s still have been corrupted by its power. Many a noble man with ideas of felling kingdoms and tyrants have tried to keep it for themselves… You are the first I’ve encountered to possess the blade and be unsatisfied with the power it grants…”

Malrinn smiled a devilish smile. “Assassination is not my style… Neither are noble ideals…” He knew that he had won now, but continued with the obligatory question. “Do we have a deal then?”
“I accept,” Ehoten said after a moment. “When you do destroy the blade and free the part of me encased within, it will enter you instead of returning to me. This will grant you the power that you hunger for.”

And with that, the being was gone; instantaneously. As if it had never been there. The candles still burned, and the room looked exactly as it had moments before Malrinn had completed the ritual. He still held the blade in his hand, and for a moment he looked down at it, trying to judge if what had just taken place had actually happened, or had been in his mind.

He shook his head and steeled his expression, and began to make his preparations for the next step of his plan. He carried the blade up the stairway and out of the cellar where he had made his audience with the dark apparition. And made his way into the open living area of his home.

It was bleakly sparse. A single wooden chair next to a small table, which still held a few used silver dishes; bits of dry food caked onto most of them, with one set containing the remains of a more recent meal.

He moved over to the fireplace which was currently unlit but stacked with tinder. Without looking, he lit it magically with a flick of his finger. The fire roared and crackled to life. He sat in the chair, still holding the blade, and turned it over in his hand; deep in thought. As he moved his eyes back and forth over the blade, he considered the bargain he had struck. A difficult road lay ahead of him, he knew, but that had always been his lot. For once, this time, the destination was in sight.