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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salvager’s Shanty

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 3: Descent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 2: Strange Bedfellows

It was early morning and the only sound that rung through the crisp, cold air was the crunching of snow beneath Ortan’s boots. He had been blessed with sunshine and a break in the wind and was glad for both. With his belly still warm from the ample breakfast the kind people at the Waylight had provided for him, he had set off just as the sun began to rise. He was overjoyed that it was bringing a larger share of its warmth than it had the past few days.

It had been about a week since he had left Marecade in search of his sister, and aside from the brief respite of his stay at the Waylight, it had been an arduous journey. Traveling the Kragen mountain path in winter was not a journey many attempted, and one that even fewer survived. But when Ortan had awoken to find his sister gone, he found himself with little choice but to go after her.

After their father had passed a few months ago, they had made the journey to Marecade to see him interred. After that, they had arranged the sale of their small family farm to some ambitious farmers. The sale of the land was surprisingly easy. The men who purchased it had the resources to harvest the fields, and benefit from reaping what they had not had to sow. Since then, Ortan and his sister Jesali had spent their time in a hostel in Marecade, making money off odd jobs and trying to decide what to do next.

They were now the only family each other had left, and so when Jesali disappeared without warning one morning, Ortan had set out immediately to find her. He had spoken to a town watchman who said he had seen a woman matching Jesali’s description leaving the city gates on the north road late the previous night. Armed with a general direction, Ortan had then visited one of the city’s diviners. He’d spent a small fortune on having a strip of cloth from one of Jesali’s left behind garments enchanted to help point the way to her.

Ortan held up his hand and concentrated, that same small strip of cloth wrapped around his palm and tied. He focused on his breath for a moment and then, as the diviner had instructed, reached out with his mind through the cloth, trying to feel where Jesali was. He could feel a small still hum, like an echo of an echo, calling him north further into the mountains.

Ortan fought not to dwell on the worry he felt for his sister and keep his mind focused solely on finding her. He had almost given himself over to complete despair a few days earlier but had found solace in recalling his mother’s prayers to Pelor.

“Our barns are full to bursting with the provision of your hands,” he recited quietly as he trekked, “You feed the deer and sparrow, your bounty sustains through biting frost and famine.”

The sun felt warm on Ortan’s face and it felt like a grace from the gods themselves. The surrounding forested landscape was numb and still; winter had laid its claim like an occupying army, and it held its ground furiously.

“Though mice may steal our grain, this too is Pelor’s care, for the mice require grain to live just as we. What Pelor has bestowed once, he can, again and again, so do not hold tightly to anything.”

A snapping of deadfall broke Ortan from his reverie. He stopped and listened for a moment, then slowly readied the bow from off his back. He nocked an arrow and held the bow low, but not drawn, as he slowly crept forward towards the source of the sound.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of movement and he saw what had made the noise. A rabbit, nose aloft and twitching, moved cautiously through the snowy wood in search of food. It was fat with its winter weight and the site of it set Ortan’s stomach to growling.

Time almost seemed to slow as Ortan lifted and drew his bow, training it on the small woodland creature. He took a slow quiet breath and held it as he took aim, and unleashed the pent up energy of the bow, hurling the arrow true towards his quarry.

In a matter of seconds, it was all over; the arrow had found its mark. The rabbit dropped before it even knew it was in peril; its little life ended swiftly. Ortan thanked Pelor for fresh food and trudged up to collect his kill. He removed the arrow and placed it back in his quiver seeing that it had not been compromised, and tied a small bit of rope around the still warm rabbit to hang it from his pack. Knowing the frigid air would keep his kill fresh so he could dress it later when he stopped for the night, Ortan kept moving.

The next few hours were more of the same snowy thicket. Had it not been for the charm wrapped around Ortan’s palm giving him bearings, he could have easily ended up lost in the homogenous landscape. As the day wore on, the weather that had started out almost pleasant for the region began to grow more inhospitable. As he neared the mountains the trees began to thin and the ground went from soft snow drifts that hid dead plant matter, to snow-covered hard earth penetrated here and there by rocky outcroppings.

Soon, the sun began to tease the western skyline, and the clear sky erupted in vibrant pinks, oranges, and reds. Small wispy clouds intermittently banded the sky. Ortan was breathing heavy as the ground around him grew more and more steep as he passed the timberline; the forest around him giving way to sparse tundra.

His stomach, which he had momentarily been able to ignore, began to growl ferociously again. He was suddenly very aware of the small amount of extra weight on his pack; the rabbit swinging to and fro with each footfall. Ortan was torn; finding Jesali was the most important thing to him right now, but stopping to find shelter for the night and to eat something would ultimately help him reach that goal. He would be no good to her dead; he just hoped he wasn’t wasting precious time.

It didn’t take Ortan long to find a cave large enough to make camp for the night. He inspected the mouth of the cave carefully for signs of recent habitation. Both the snow and nearby brush all looked undisturbed. He cautiously began to creep inside. There were many large beasts in the mountains that could make a cave like this home, and Ortan did not want to run into any of them.

The interior of the cave was not very deep. It was deep enough to provide plenty of shelter for the night, but not so deep that he had to worry about something lurking further within the cave. After a few minutes of searching, he was satisfied that it was vacant, at least for the time being. He had not stumbled into an active lair or den, and he thanked Pelor for that as well.

After a few minutes of gathering up the driest wood he could find, he started a small cooking fire within the cave. With the rock walls to shield him from the wind, and trap some of the fire’s warmth, he soon felt comfortable enough to remove a few layers of his snow-soaked clothing.

He hung his garments near the fire to help them dry and then began to prepare his meal. Taking a small knife from his waist, he made a small cut across the rabbit’s throat with practiced skill and drained it of blood. Then he skinned it and rigged up a spit over the fire for it to cook.

Soon the smell of the roasting creature permeated the small cave. Ortan was practically drooling in anticipation; the smell of the meat promising a warm and savory meal. Aside from his meals at the Waylight, it had been hardtack and jerky for most of the past week. Ortan’s patience began to wear thin and he wished with all his might that the little beast would cook faster.

Before he could enjoy his meal however, a low growling sound joined in the chorus of the crackling fire. Ortan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Near the mouth of the cave, Ortan could see two eyes reflecting back at him in the firelight. The smell of his meal had attracted a guest.

Ortan got to his feet slowly, hoping not to provoke an attack. He unsheathed his sword and held it at the ready. The creature advanced, teeth bared, maintaining its low growl. As it came forward further into the firelight Ortan could see that it was a wolf.

It was on the leaner side as far as wolves go, but still a large and powerful creature. That actually put Ortan a little more on edge. Creatures fat from ample food supplies will often leave travelers well enough alone. It’s when beasts get hungry that they are all the more dangerous.

The wolf continued its slow advance, hunger in its eyes. Its fur was mostly grey dappled with white and was matted with what looked to be dried blood. Ortan could not tell if it was that of a recent kill or the creature’s own blood that decorated its coat.

Without taking his eyes off the slowly advancing beast, he did his best to check his peripherals for the rest of the pack. He didn’t see any other signs of movement and could hear no more snarling than that of the wolf ahead of him. It seemed to be alone.

It was now about half way between the mouth of the cave and his cooking fire. It sniffed the air and licked its chops but slowed, seemingly hesitant to approach. It eyed him cautiously. Ortan could not tell if it had stopped because of him or maybe the fire, but he was glad to have a moment without it bearing down on him.

The creature began to pace back and forth along the width of the cave, keeping the same distance from Ortan. He was able to get a better look at it now. The red-orange glow of the firelight shown in its eyes and its cold wet nose. It was favoring one of its legs. Every other step its front left paw would just barely touch the ground before it hopped on to its other legs.

Ortan lowered his sword and inched almost imperceptibly forward. The wolf eyed him intensely. Then he raised his hand towards the now cooked rabbit to retrieve it from the spit. At this, the wolf growled and snapped at the air in his direction, its fur prickling up to make itself appear bigger.

“Woah, easy now,” Ortan said, hand still outstretched. The wolf continued to growl but did not advance. Slowly, calmly, Ortan removed the rabbit from the heat. He grabbed his water skin and poured some water over the meat to try and cool it faster, and ripped off a chunk and tossed it in the wolf’s direction.

It hit the ground and skittered until it came to rest about a foot in front of the wolf. The injured beast recoiled slightly at first. It moved closer to investigate, sniffing at the offering and then greedily snatched it up with its sharp teeth.

“This too is Pelor’s care,” Ortan whispered, “So don’t hold tightly to anything.”

Ortan tossed another piece and this time the wolf did not recoil. It seemed to relax, fur no longer bristling. Ortan took a bit for himself and then another to the wolf. They continued on like this, sharing Ortan’s kill amidst their silent armistice.

Eventually, the wolf laid on its belly in the dust of the cave floor and ate happily. It kept its eyes firmly on Ortan though, giving him a guarded look. Ortan sat as well, lowering himself to the ground right where he stood. All that stood between them was the crackling fire and a tense peace and understanding that this was about the food. And so Ortan and his uninvited guest both ate in the warmth and shelter of that little cave.

After Ortan had picked clean what he could from the rabbit, he tossed the bones and anything else that remained over to the wolf and then sat back.

“What happened to you friend?” He said. The wolf just continued to gnaw on the carcass, but its ear twitched at the sound of Ortan’s voice.
“How’d you get all bloody? Did your pack leave you to die out here?”

The wolf said nothing, as expected, but Ortan found some small bit of comfort in having something else to talk to.

When the wolf had its fill of the rabbit, it let out a contented yawn; its tongue curling up in between its gleaming fangs. It stood and walked in a small circle and then curled up near the fire’s warmth, resting its jaw on the floor, still watching Ortan.

“You can stay here in the warmth tonight, friend, if you promise to leave me be.”
When Ortan spoke, one if the wolf’s ears perked up and its eyes scanned him quizzically. Seemingly content with a meal and a warm place to sleep, it closed its eyes. Before long it was asleep, there by Ortan’s fire.

Ortan rummaged into his bag for something to give him some peace of mind while he slept. He fished a small smooth stone from his pack. On its surface was carved an intricate rune. He had acquired the stone on one of his mercenary jobs a few months back while he and Jesali were working in Marecade.

It was a warding stone. It allowed him to create a small magical barrier around himself while he slept. It wasn’t a particularly powerful enchantment, but it would be enough to deter the injured wolf if it decided he looked too appetizing in the middle of the night. Should the wolf try to move on him and trigger the barrier, it would most likely be stunned pretty well. Should something worse come along, it would give Ortan warning and a chance to defend himself at the very least.

He placed the stone in his palm, closing his fist tightly around it and closed his eyes. This type of magic was new to him, but the diviners of Marecade had said that the items they sold did most of the work. He envisioned a sphere around himself, just as they had instructed, and then he threw it forcefully down into the dirt at his feet. A pale blue sphere erupted from it, surrounding Ortan for a moment. It was wide enough for him the lay down in. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished.

“Ok, they said it would do that,” He said under his breath to himself. He bent down and placed a finger on the warding stone and felt it was slightly warm. The diviners had said that as long as the stone emitted a slight warmth, the ward had succeeded. Satisfied that the ward was in place, he settled in to get some rest.

The minute he laid on the ground his utter exhaustion hit him like a stampede. It was like his constant activity had been holding it at bay and the very moment he allowed himself to relax the dam failed and the wave of his fatigue enveloped him. The past week of travel had taken a lot out of him, and his legs ached from the incline of the day’s hike. He welcomed sleep wholly and unabashedly and it came in mere minutes. He slept like the dead.

Upon waking the next morning, his feral camp-mate was nowhere to be seen. His ward had remained intact and there were no signs that the beast had made any advances against him in the night. It appeared to have risen before the sun and left him in peace. He retrieved the stone from its place in the dirt, and he could feel it rapidly cool as he picked it up out of the earth. He returned it to his pack as he gathered up the rest of his things.

The fire had burned down until it just small glowing embers. Thankfully the cave had retained enough residual heat that Ortan was only slightly uncomfortable as he donned his now dry, but considerably smoke-scented wardrobe. He stirred the dying embers with a stick to expedite their cooling; kicking dust from the cave floor atop the coals for good measure.

Upon exiting the cave, he had to hold up his hand to shield his eyes. The sun shone vividly off of the snow and threatened to blind him. He gave his eyes a minute to adjust and then set about orienting himself. He once again concentrated on the charm on his palm and felt the now familiar pull as it beckoned him still in the direction of the mountains.

Unlike before, the sensation seemed somehow fuzzier this morning. The pull he felt was somehow not as sure as it had been previously. Ortan did not understand much beyond the basic workings of the charm that was explained to him upon his purchase, and he hoped that this wasn’t a bad sign. He also noticed that, contrary to his expectations, the pull seemed somehow lower than he expected, a lot lower; like his destination lay not at the peak of the mountain but deep in the earth, below the mountain itself.

He hoped that as he drew nearer the sensation might clarify and he set out once again to continue his search for his sister. The snow crunched under his feet as he walked, and the familiar rhythm prompted him to resume his recitations.

“Our barns are full to bursting with the provision of your hands. You feed the deer and sparrow, your bounty sustains through biting frost and famine.”

He trudged on, determined to find Jesali. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing his last remaining family in this world. And as he continued to make his way up the mountain, a pair of canine eyes watched him from the shadows.

The Moutain’s Maw – Part 1: Waylight’s Warmth

In the Waylight Lodge the hearth was always warm. It was an old snow covered log building that sat as a last bastion of peace on the harsh road north to the Great Kragen Mountains. Just outside the village of Frosthollow, the Waylight gave weary travelers one final chance for respite before braving the treacherous range. The thick wood surrounding the lodge provided plenty of trees for firewood; evergreen branches all bent low with winter’s weight.

Though surrounded by frigid winter snowdrifts, the small lodge glowed with warmth; smoke billowing out of the stone chimney, chugging into the dark night sky. The true warmth in the lodge came not from the fireplace but from the stories that always filled the air, wafting as woodsmoke and filling the inn with a familial radiance. While the world outside was oppressive with cold, the countryside clutched tightly in winter’s cruel grip, Gemman Krast regaled his grandson with smoldering tales of awe and wonder.

“The world is old… “, Gemman said as the fire crackled, “older than you can imagine, young one.”

“Older than you grandpa?”

Leko, a young boy of about eight with sandy blonde hair, stared in wide-eyed amazement as he listened to his grandfather’s tale. Story time was the time that he cherished most, and it came often in their little lodge. If grandpa wasn’t spinning a yarn, then Leko was usually adept at drawing a story out from one of the lodgers availing themselves of one of their rooms for rent; though that happened more in the summer months. They hardly saw anyone foolhardy enough to travel the Kragens in the dead of winter.

Gemman chuckled. “Yes Leko, far older than me. Older than my grandpa, or his grandpa before him, or even his grandpa’s grandpa…

Back before there were any humans -or elves or dwarves for that matter- there were the Children of Ima. Back when the world was still young, with no continents or kingdoms dividing the land, the children of Ima played all over the wild and formless realm…”

“Ima?” the boy asked, blinking in that innocently forgetful sort of way that children do when an oft repeated story, or loving correction, hasn’t been retained.

“Child, you know Ima…” Grandpa said in a tone filled with love, but acutely aware that this was a repeated lesson. He gestured towards a small stone statuette sitting on its own table near the window. The idol was about two feet high and resembled a young woman in long flowing robes. Her face was smooth; indistinct, like the artisan who carved her dare not venture a guess at what a goddess might look like. She was surrounded by dried flowers and candles, and a small currently empty bowl sat on the table in front of her.

The child nodded in recognition. Gemman continued his story, “The Children of Ima were mighty warriors… The twin brothers, Chos and Krage, formed the mountains as they wrestled each other. Ugota thought the landscape too plain, so she planted the great forests. Aesitra had her heart broken, and her tears formed the very oceans…”

“Who broke her heart?” Leko interrupted, giving his grandfather a concerned look.
Gemman paused. “Eventually, Ima had more children, and we humans came to live in the land… It was a human man who broke Aesitra’s heart.”

“A human made a goddess cry?”
“Yes boy.”
“Why did he do that?”
Gemman stared wistfully off into the distance. “Sometimes it can’t be helped, boy. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love, even when you don’t want to.”

Leko sat nodding his head for a minute, mimicking understanding. Of course, being eight years old, he had not yet lived enough life to quite grasp the true meaning of his grandfather’s words, but that answer seemed to satisfy him for the moment, though it sparked new and unexpected questions in the boy.

“Was it you grandpa? Did you make her cry?”
At this, Gemman’s eyes went wide, his bushy eyebrows lifting themselves so high on his forehead they threatened to take flight, and he let out a bellowing laugh.
“No, no child. I have done a great many things in my eighty-odd years, but court a goddess twasn’t one of them!” He tousled the boy’s hair, “Besides, your grandmother’s the only woman for me- though I dare say, she’s as beautiful as any goddess ever was!”

Gemman’s boisterous comment elicited a disembodied laugh from the other room that mingled its own sweetness into the warm atmosphere of the room. Grandma had been listening from the kitchen where she was busy making soup and fresh bread, the scent of which also spread itself amply about the lodge.

Gemman winked at his grandson, his leathery face crinkling with lines made by years of similar warm stories and laughter. Leko giggled.

“Boys, dinner’s ready!” Grandma called from the kitchen. Leko leapt to his feet and rushed into the kitchen, eager to fill his belly with warm broth on this cold night. Gemman followed, but slowly, using his cane to pull himself up from his comfortable chair in front of the fire. On his way into the kitchen, he stopped for a moment next to the shrine of Ima.

He grabbed a coal from the fireplace with a pair of metal tongs and placed it in the bowl in front of the statuette. Then, from a small box next to the table he took a handful of incense and sprinkled it over the coal. Small, fragrant wisps of smoke began to dance upward, circling in invisible eddies and hanging in the cabin’s mostly still air. He lingered for a moment, eyes closed and head slightly bowed in reverence. Then, in a motion as familiar as breathing, he kissed his fingers and touched them to the smooth face of the statue before heading the rest of the way into the kitchen for supper.

Not two minutes after they had sat down for their meal, there came a loud knocking at their door.
“Now who could that be in weather like this?” Gemman said. Grandma began to rise to get the door, but Gemman quickly interjected.
“Sit Wissa! Eat. You’ve been working hard. Sit and relax, I’ll get the door.” He used the arm of his chair and his cane to pull himself to his feet and made his way to the door, Leko trailing close behind, excited about their visitor.

Another knock sounded on the heavy wood door, and Gemman called out. “Coming! Saint Lucian’s Flame, I’m coming!” Reaching the door, he undid the thick iron latch and slowly pulled the door open just enough to see out.

The wind howled, buffeting the cracked door with the ferocity of a pack of wild dogs, snow and draft invading the room through the small opening. Gemman squinted against the brisk onslaught. After his eyes adjusted, he could see a young man standing outside, bundled in many layers of thick animal hide, with the look that he had been traveling. He had dark hair and a bit of stubble which had ensnared a great deal of wayward snowflakes like flies in a spider’s web.

“Good ev’nin'” the young man said, “Am I to understand you’ve got rooms?” He couldn’t have been much older than thirty, Gemman surmised, but he had a weary look to him that suggested he’d lived a great deal of life in those thirty years. Hard living aside, there was a pleasantness to him that came across even in that short meeting, which put Gemman at ease.
“Aye,” the older man said, “Here, come in out of the cold.” He pushed the door open further to let the man in and then quickly shut it behind him to keep as much of the cold’s incursion at bay as he could.

Now that he was inside and lit by the firelight, they could see that the man was covered in small cuts. None of them fresh, he wasn’t bleeding, but they did not have the look of old scars either.
“Thank you kindly,” he said as he began to remove his large leather boots. They were soaked to the bone, and he soon removed his wool socks as well, massaging his feet with his hands to warm them.
“We just sat down to dinner. There’s warm soup and bread,” Wissa called from the kitchen.
“That would be lovely,” the stranger said, “It’s been a few days since I’ve had a warm meal.”
“I’m Gemman Krast, I run this lodge with my wife Wissa. And the little one there is our grandchild, Leko.”
The man stuck his hand out to Gemman for a shake. “Name’s Ortan. Ortan Wrensworn.”

“I’m Leko! Are you going to stay here? Where did you come from? Can I touch your beard? I’m eight! How old are you? Is that a real sword!?”
The boy buzzed with excitement, harrying their guest with a barrage of questions far too quickly for him to respond.
“Quiet Leko, let the poor man alone!” Wissa called from the kitchen, with a resolved tone that spoke of how common the boy let his excitement get the better of him.
“It’s alright,” Ortan said chuckling. He knelt down so that he could be eye-level with Leko. “Yes, it is a sword. The roads can be dangerous.”
“Can I see it!”
Ortan looked at Gemman, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“Maybe after dinner Leko,” Gemman said. At this mention of dinner Leko suddenly remembered that he was hungry and went bounding off back to the kitchen.
“Ortan, you can sit by me!” He called excitedly as he went.

“Let me show you to your room so you can get into some dry clothes before dinner.”
Gemman led Ortan up the stairs to one of the extra rooms they had. It was small but had everything a traveler might need for a restful night of sleep. “I’ll leave you to it,” Gemman said, closing the door gently as he retreated back down the stairs to join the family at the dinner table. Ortan scanned the room and found a place to hang his clothes over the fireplace. He reached deep within the pack he had been carrying on his back and was able to find a tightly rolled wad of sleeping clothes that had managed to remain mostly dry. He quickly changed, even as his stomach began to rumble, and the hunger pangs he’d been successful at ignoring to this point could abide no longer. The smell of the soup permeated his room and made him almost trip over his pants as he tried to hurriedly put them on.

Once dressed, he made his way into the kitchen and took a seat at the table next to little Leko. The fact that the boy didn’t immediately start in on Ortan with his puerile inquisition told Ortan that the boy had probably had a bit of a talking-to while he was in the other room. It was actually Wissa who spoke first.

“We don’t get too many travelers by in the midwinter months. You’re either doing something very important, or you’re crazy, or very stupid. So, which is it?”

Gemman started to make a placating gesture but Ortan smiled. “Well, I’m not about to deny my stupidity… But actually I’m looking for my sister.”
“Your sister?” Leko piped up, not able to contain his curiosity. Wissa looked at the boy sternly but said nothing.

“She went missing a few months ago. I’ve been trying to track her down, heard rumor she may have come through the mountains not too long ago…”
“She ain’t been here, I’m afraid,” said Gemman, “We haven’t had a boarder or even a guest for the night since the big snow started falling. Probably at least a month now where it’s just been the three of us.”
“Well, I thank you for the warm place to sleep. I’ll continue my search in the morning.”

“Why did your sister go away?” Leko asked innocently.
“Leko, leave the man alone.” Wissa chided.
“No, it’s alright,” Ortan said. “I don’t know, little one.”
“Well, I hope you find her,” Leko said sweetly, “I don’t have a sister.”
“She’s the only one I have,” said Ortan. Leko stared into his soup bowl for a minute, not knowing what to say, finally he spoke.
“Grandpa! Can you finish your story?” Leko asked before turning aside to Ortan, “Grandpa’s stories always make me happy when I feel sad.”

“Well, alright,” Gemman said, “Now where was I?”
“The man who made the goddess cry!” Leko almost shouted with excitement.
“Aesitra,” Ortan said thoughtfully.
“Yes, Indeed,” Gemman said.
“She fell in love with a blacksmith’s boy,” Ortan began, “He would make her pretty things out of iron and steel.”
“You know your lore boy,” Gemman chuckled. Ortan might have corrected Gemman’s use of the word ‘boy’ had Gemman not been at least fifty years his senior.
“My father used to tell me that story,” Ortan said with a sad smile.

“But I thought love was a good thing? Why did that make her cry?” Leko asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“It didn’t at first,” Gemman replied, continuing where Ortan had left off, “The blacksmith’s boy returned her love, and they were happy together for a time. He made great statues and works of art in her honor, masterful pieces made from iron, bronze, and even gold. But in the end, he grew old, and his body failed him, while the goddess stayed the same as the day they had met. And then he was gone and all that remained of their love were the sculptures he had made. You see Leko, goddesses live much longer than men do.”

Leko seemed to consider that for a minute. “That’s a sad story Grandpa,” he concluded.
“Life is full of them, little one. In time you’ll learn that…”

“Alright Leko, It’s time for bed,” Wissa said, scooping the boy up into her arms. He only complained a little, and it was evident that the boy was tired, despite his petitions to remain awake with the others.

“Good night, Ortan!” He called from his Grandmother’s arms as she carried him up the stairs to his room, “Goodnight Grandpa!”
“Goodnight,” Ortan replied.
“Go on!” Gemman called, love in his voice, “Sleep tight little one!”

After Leko had made his exit, Gemman turned to Ortan. “So you’ll be after your sister in the morning then?”
“Aye,” Ortan replied, “Just after dawn’s light. I’d leave earlier if I could, but I’ll wait for the sun’s warmth to help me through.”
“Well, Wissa and I will be up early. We’ll make sure to send you on your way with a morning meal in your belly.”

“That’s very kind of you- How much do I owe you for the room and the meals?”
Gemman put his hand out in a polite refusal. “I’m sorry about your sister, consider your stay as our way of aiding in her safe return.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I insist you let me pay you.”
“If you really feel that strongly about it, then whatever you decide is fine. Wissa and I have everything we need, and not much life left to squirrel things away for. It’s all for Leko these days.”

Early the next morning, Gemman and Wissa prepared a meal while Leko slept, and then shared what they had with Ortan before he departed for the mountains. Their visitor was all Leko could talk about all through breakfast and most of the morning. He would get this way about a lot of the guests, but a man with a sword who had been nice to Leko- this encounter seemed to have particularly excited the young boy.

After breakfast, Wissa went to tidy up the room that Ortan had stayed in, only to find it spotless. The bed had been made and nothing seemed out of place, save for a small bag on the bed and bundle of cloth. She brought the items downstairs without opening them and called for Gemman.

They opened them together. The bag held five whole gold pieces, much more than they ever charged for a single night’s stay. Inside the cloth was a small silver dagger and leather scabbard. Gemman recognized the dagger to be of very good craftsmanship and was easily worth a hundred times what had been left in gold pieces. A small slip of parchment was tucked next to the dagger, it read, For Leko, the roads can be dangerous.

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.

The Wraithsclaw


The following is an excerpt from an entry in the Armourie Fantasticum by Archmage Gailluogh Granscen, a tome detailing information on many legendary arms and armor.

The Wraithsclaw

The Wraithsclaw is a relic of immense power with nefarious origins. Though not as ancient as some of the other items mentioned in this book, its power is enough to rival most of them, though a brutal hand is required to wield it effectively.

This unique dagger has not one, but three curved blades, each about eight inches in length. The 3 blades run parallel to each other, affixed to one thick, obsidian hilt. The space between each blade is less than an inch. Wounds inflicted by this dagger are claw-like cuts, three gashes very near each other, which have a very low likelihood of naturally healing well. The intent of the weapon is to kill, either immediately or indirectly from blood-loss or infection; though usually the wielder prefers the former because of the blade’s magical properties.

Once sated with blood from a mortal wound, the dagger grants its user temporary invisibility, making it a very useful tool for covert escape after the dark deed has been done. Conversely, it has often been documented that the blade was used as a tool of infiltration by those who had no objections to murdering an innocent to activate the weapon’s power.

It was commissioned for the legendary assassin Kazal Gra’uum who was as vindictive as he was skilled. Kazal was cruel, with allegiances only to gold and his own lust for blood. This, along with his magic blade, earned him the nickname, “The Dragon’s Ghost.” Though there were many cleaner and more efficient ways of dispatching a mark, Kazal preferred to make a spectacle and took pleasure in the kill as much as he did the compensation.

His dealings were most secretive, and the carnage in his wake, while very public, was difficult to trace. He took great pleasure in taunting those who would enforce the laws or attempt to protect those he targeted. If you were unfortunate enough to find yourself on Gra’uum’s hit list, it typically was not something you had to worry about for long- most never even knew he stalked them and were ushered into the realm beyond still unaware of having encountered him.

It was Kazal himself, and this very blade, that was instrumental in the removal of Emperor Jasaat of Emuria. It is rumored that the rival kingdom of Shalestrow sold almost half its assets to contract Kazal and aim him and his instrument of death against Jasaat. Though the rumor has never been confirmed, Shalestrow did benefit greatly from the emperor’s fall.

Eventually, Kazal was captured by The Emurian Remnant and condemned to spend eternity in The Gravemouth, a prison fortress of Emuria where the incarcerated are kept living indefinitely, through arcane means, to pay for their crimes. Even for one such as Gra’uum, the use of such an extreme facility is considered unduly cruel and barbaric by the majority of the continent, and many fight in the senate over its operation. Still it is believed Kazal remains there to this day, though The Gravemouth will not release a prisoner manifest.

Upon Gra’uum’s seizure, The Wraithsclaw seems to have disappeared and its current whereabouts are unknown to this day. There have been many unsubstantiated rumors concerning the blade’s current location, but likely, if it was found, it has enabled its new owner to remain as hidden as Kazal.