The star cracked and fluttered as it collapsed into itself. Oranges and greens and blues and reds folded unto infinity, blacks and whites and greys painting the endless abyss all around, sparks of astral matter fizzing into great nebulae. And from the dying void dropped the massive meteorite chain; still dancing with energies, it slammed against the obsidian walls of the tower before being slowly dragged upwards, clanking and heaving as it rose past a ten-foot gap in the ancient stone.
Running his fingers through his shock of red hair, he adjusted his sunglasses and swirled the dark liquid around the glass in his hands – and only just now perceived the gentle cough behind him. He turned to face them.
“Are you going to speak?”
“Lord Sharo, is everything alright?” His new guest was an air genasi, his effervescent skin and hair wisping from beneath his immaculate blue suit and behind his own clear glasses, the fog dissipating as soon as it formed.
“Which one are you, again?” Sharo turned back to see the end of the chain rise past the vast window, the last remnants of the star dripping into the ethereum in the distance, and downed the rest of his drink – only to find a bottle placed above it and gently refilling it as soon as it was level.
“The Taoiseach, sir,” he said, stepping from the folds of the air itself to now stand between Sharo and the window. “I took the liberty of selecting one of your finest whiskeys.”
“Odd name,” Sharo said, placing a hand over the glass. “I suppose none of you Hosts have proper ones, though. Sight? Stone? Zikaron? Tee-shark?”
“Taoiseach,” corrected the genasi. “Means chieftain or leader.”
Sharo sipped the whiskey. “And yet you serve.”
“If you are happy, sir, I will have led by example.”
Outside, the chain shot out from the tower once again, affixing itself into a spitting orb of light in the ether which soon billowed into a blazing sun like the others. Other chains gently swayed and sang in celestial winds, the grand tower affixed in the middle between two glowing event horizons.
“What did you make of them?” Sharo walked towards the edge of the room, pressing a hand against a pane that wasn’t there. He looked out at the chain as it pulled taut, the star flaring in protest. “The four that passed through?”
“They are broken,” replied the genasi. “Lost to themselves, to each other, and to others still.”
“Trapped in the past. Like so many of us.” Sharo grimaced. “Do you know why I am stuck here, Taoiseach?”
“You live here,” replied the servant, “because you are loved.”
Sharo turned to face him, one blissful feathered wing billowing outwards on one side of his body and a thick, leathery one on the other. “Loved? Me?”
“Your father and mother could not be together. It would not have been allowed-“
Sharo scoffed. His sunglasses slipped down his nose; one eye was a solid white, the other bottomless black. “So they carved out a tower between all that is? And left their baby here to rot with a gaggle of enslaved souls to keep him company? And the occasional entertainment of guests as broken as he is?”
“That is not love, Taoiseach. That is cowardice.”
“I don’t agree with-“
“Aren’t you supposed to just agree with whatever I say, you useless sycophant? You are but a memory of a doomed soul, bound here to amuse me.”
The Taoiseach moved across the room in an instant and slapped Sharo clean across the face, the sound echoing from the marbled walls and cascading fountains. The glass was knocked out of his hands; it flew straight through the window where once Sharo had touched a solid surface and drifted into the void, its contents spilling and bobbing gently in the emptiness beyond.
“And you are a bitter, lonely, sad old orphan who expected me to take that comment in stride.”
A pause. And Sharo smiled.
“Perhaps I misjudged you.”
“Perhaps you did, sir.” The Taoiseach snapped his fingers, and the glass – complete with whiskey – was back in Sharo’s hand. “And I am right. You are here because you cannot be there. But being here, I feel, is better for you than the other places. Your parents loved you enough to take the third option. To let you exist. Just outside of the game.”
Sharo downed his glass, flecked as it now was with stardust and celestial oil. “While others get to play.”
“Indeed,” replied the Taoiseach. “But one does not always have to roll the dice to play.”
Sharo grinned. “That…that I can respect.”
“Hell-oooooooo! Come on in, the door’s just a bit old!”
The gnarled door heaved open and the patron gasped a sharp intake of breath; the harsh sun outside gave way to a popping, tickling cold inside the shop. Sunbeams struck through the stained-glass windows, particles dancing and flitting in the wake of simmering potions and cracked ancient books.
The rock gnome pried her goggles away from her eyes and pressed them up against her tied hair, blue as her skin. She gasped as she took in the sights. “This place is…it’s amazing!”
“Why thank you, I do try.” From behind a stack of tomes sauntered a shock of brilliant pink – great waist-length pigtails bursting from either side of her pale face, masses of flowing, bouncing fabric trapped under an apron, thick leather gloves and boots, and a collection of golden optical tools fastened about her head. “What can I do you for?”
“You’re like me! We’re both gnomes!”
“Stranger things have-“
“I’m so pleased to meet you!” The new arrival pulled the shopkeep into a rabid handshake, grinning ear to ear. “What’s your name?”
The proprietor eagerly shook back, then pulled away and span into a dizzying twirl, motes of watermelon-scented dust bursting from the floorboards.
“Pippa Esmeralda Caramel Blossom,” she said, finishing with a bow. Her voice was like raindrops on sheet metal. “And you?”
“Squish?” Another figure awkwardly shoved himself through the door, his dark skin illuminated by the soft glow of a cigar. “Don’t just run off like that, you’re-“
“Hey, hey, HEY!” Pippa raced past Squish, jabbing a finger repeatedly into the sternum of the new guest. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Oh, don’t mind him! That’s just big cuddly Ralan!”
Ralan hissed, smoke wisping through his teeth.
“Well he should know better than to come in here with that thing lit up like that, are you trying to kill us all – is that catnip?”
“Uhhh-” began Ralan, before the cigar was popped from his mouth, Pippa running over to one of her many bottles. Before he could protest, she dropped the entire thing into the ampule, the green liquid within bursting into smoke and reforming as a soft purple.
“Just the ingredient I needed!” Pippa swirled the resulting concoction and jammed a stopper over the neck. “This will do perfectly!”
Ralan inspected his cigar case. Fourteen left. “For what?”
“I always have a need for new ink to write in my spellbook with,” Pippa replied. “And I also want to meet more cats! See where I’m going with this?”
Ralan snapped his case shut and rubbed his eyes. “Right.”
“So what do you two want?”
“We’re going up into the mountains!” Squish gestured out of the window at the vast, neon-soaked undulations on the horizon. “We’re going to rescue my friend!”
Ralan spent a few moments picking out potions, tools and oils from the various shelves and placed them in front of Pippa along with a small bag of coins. “Just these, please.”
Pippa took a few short, sharp inward sniffs. “You’re another Blood Hunter, aren’t you?”
Squish beamed. “You know a lot!”
“Yes she does,” said Ralan. “Another?“
“There was one that came through a few days ago. Also headed for the Peaks. A woman in a red dress with a bii-iiiig hat,” said Pippa. spreading her arms wide in her best big hat impression.
Ralan’s eyes widened slightly. “Luna?” He took the items and turned for the door. “My thanks for your service.”
Squish also span around to leave, but Pippa placed a hand on her head from over the table. Squish whirled in place a couple of times before coming to a stop.
“Not many return from the Barrier Peaks,” Pippa said. “Usually people come here to venture up into them, but I’d be wary of hoping you can bring someone back.”
“Esteem is out there, I know it!” Squish grinned and – pulling herself out from Pippa’s hand – ran out of the door into the heat of Abraxas Junction.
Pippa looked out of the window at the hissing mountains.
“Your friend may be as lost as you’ll find yourself.”
Through the Trees
“Do you think they’ll be long in that silly little shop?”
Janik was inspecting the gently spinning golden cog in the centre of his new shield, its shimmering blue surface like deep, pure water. “Squish is…probably a little on edge. Maybe even excited. We should look out for her, but I know I’d be unlike myself if I was maybe going to meet someone so close to me again.”
Damien wafted his crimson shirt to try to get some air across his chest and traced a few lines with his beautifully polished shoes in the sun-baked grit. “At least it looks like it’s raining up there. I don’t think I could bear this any longer.”
“No different from home, is it not?“
The stench of chlorophyll almost made Damien retch, as the voice pierced and dug at his brain like roots breaking through old soil. He steadied himself and glanced to the side, a single bead of sweat running down his forehead.
“Checking in on me so soon?”
“Am I not allowed to call in on an old friend?” The dusty ground was gone, replaced only with moist, verdant grass that blossomed forth from blackened earth. The trees around them seemed to climb to the stars, the great crown shyness of their leaves forging an interweaving glowing vein across the amethyst night above.
Stood beside Damien was an old man with an immaculate white beard, clad in an acid-green three-piece suit covered in intricate designs and runic symbols. A golden lanyard lazily drooped from his chest to his pocket, and a lacquered, oaken cane bridged the gap between his hand and the ground. Between them was an ornate granite throne, carved in the centre of the clearing.
“I wouldn’t call it that, old man.”
“Damien,” said the old man, “Damien, Damien, Danterius, Damien. What is this if not friendship?“
“It’s an arrangement, Oberon,” said Damien, sitting down in the chair and leaning back. “An arrangement that was completed. You scratched my back, I scratched yours. Done. Nice throne, by the way. It suits me. Is there any wine?”
“Ah, I see.” Oberon turned to him and smiled, a slow, cold rise of his mouth. “You are still in need of understanding.“
A voice from the far end of the clearing.
Damien stood stock still.
“Damien, where are you?”
“Janik?! Are-” Damien started to speak but found himself clawing at his throat, vines twisting around his head. Oberon’s smile widened, and he raised a single finger to his lips.
“Hush, now, little one,” said Oberon. “It is as I said. I am here to call in on an old friend.“
Janik burst into the clearing, shield and hammer at the ready. His armour glinted in the otherworldly light of this place. “Oberon? Why have you brought me here? Where’s Damien?”
“He is quite safe. It is but you and I here. I wanted to talk, Janik,” the old man replied. “It’s been quite a while since last we saw each other.“
“When we saved you and the rest of the Fey from Arcavius.” Janik looked around. “This place is healing again,” he said. “Putting Damien’s Infernal Spark to good use?”
“A beating heart for a new Feywild,” said Oberon. “Danterius’ compensation is most generous.“
Janik stowed his weapons away. “…Damien is a good man.”
Oberon laughed, the wood cracking and the moons screaming, the roots of the trees all around them gnarling and digging into the dirt. “Do you really believe that?“
“He is my friend.”
“He is an archdevil. A beast of the Nine Hells.“
“I know he is, but-“
“He and his kin bled like sores from a world of jagged glass and pain. They crawled into waiting flesh to walk among you. My court was sundered. Me, my wife, my brothers and sisters, brought to the brink of death because of what he allowed to happen.“
Janik swallowed as the blossoms fell around him like tiny knives.
“But we came to your aid. He gave you his Infernal Spark to stay with us. And you’re rebuilding what was stolen.”
“What judgement would you have him befall?“
Oberon took a step towards him and placed a hand on Janik’s shoulder.
“Well, I expect Asmodeus and the Lords of the Nine would have much to say to an archdevil who prevented such a…” The light above them flickered and Oberon’s hand curled into a fist, the trees bursting with sap and rotten cores. “Victory. And what has your god told you of what he thinks?“
Janik thought for a moment.
“He…thinks I need to stay with this group. To be there for them in thick and thin.”
“Is that so?“
A long, pregnant pause.
Oberon turned to glance at what to Janik was the clearing behind the pair, but to Damien was directly into his eyes.
“He’ll burn you, you know. He’ll burn the heart out of all of you.“
“He hasn’t yet.” Janik stood defiant. “But even if he does…we’re happy to stand in the fire.”
Oberon waved his hand, and a torrent of green flame descended, warping Janik away. Sylvan runes flashed in the grass before being knitted and consumed by the verdant growths once again.
Damien gasped for air as Oberon walked towards him, his sneer splitting his mouth.
“You thought our deal completed?“
His eyes flared green and sank inwards.
“I hold your Infernal essence in my court. Your brother still lies screaming and trapped within my domain. Your continued existence – and your standing with the Nine – is because I allow it.“
The flesh sloughed off, the hair and skin giving way to the porcelain white of a deer’s skull, antlers cracking and rising upwards. The trees hissed and moaned.
“And look! If push comes to shove, your friends will die for you.“
Damien stared up at the visage of the Fey King, his grip tightening on the arms of the stone chair as he was drowned in virulent green light.
“Know this, Danterius. You may one day sit in a throne, but never forget who you owe for it.“
Damien spluttered, gasping for air.
“Are you alright?” Janik had placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m…” Damien patted the hand and then brushed the gauntlet away with a clank. “Yeah. All’s well.”
“You look like shit, Damien!” Ralan had emerged from the shop, finishing up strapping the last of his purchases to his armour and popping a mock punch on the warlock’s shoulder. “Need some water?”
“I’ll be fine, blood hunter. Just worry about yourself.”
Ralan popped another of his cigars into his mouth and took a deep inward breath before blowing a refreshing blast of pink smoke. “Yeah, I think I’ll do that.”
“Are we all ready to go?” Squish slammed the door shut and ran up to the group. “I can’t wait to see what’s in those mountains!”
“Perhaps a little longer in Abraxas,” said Janik. “I could maybe do with some supplies. Or a conversation with some of the residents.”
“I hear that,” said Ralan. “Apparently Luna is here, too. Or has already left.”
“Luna?!” Squish cooed. “The woman who taught you how to play the lute on your late-night date in Waterdeep? Your…lute-night date?”
“What’s she doing here?” Damien asked, ignoring Squish who was screaming with laughter.
“No idea.” Ralan tapped some of the embers from his cigar onto the ground. “But I’m sure we’ll find out.”
“Excuse me?” A voice called over from near the group.
Janik wheeled around. “Yes?”
The shop next door was formed from immaculate bricks, the table outside piled high with interesting items and trinkets.
On the table was a watermelon, and – perched above it – a cat. An angry cat.
“Would you mind having that conversation elsewhere? That cigar is extremely distracting. I’m a businesswoman!”
The group looked at each other.
Damien sighed and smiled. “Never a dull moment.”
Sharo sniffed his whiskey, taking in the aromas. Freshly fused particles, smoking gently in the crystal confines of his glass. “Another adventure, then?”
“It’s what they do, sir.”
“To the Barrier Peaks? What’s up there?”
“Please,” said the Taoiseach. “Don’t you want to watch and discover for yourself?”
Sharo laughed. “Waiting is so torturous. And yet so sweet.”
The Taoiseach smiled, his teeth a gleaming, splitting white. “Yes. Yes it is.“