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!”