The Devil You Don’t

Moonlight cascaded into the alleyway and spilled over the paving stones like mercury. It threw the gargoyles and statues lining the ramshackle houses into sharp relief, and danced in the smashed wine bottles, metal tankards and coins that lay strewn throughout the gutter.

Tarn reached up with his off hand and tightened the straps around his left forearm, the hand curling into a fist and sending the reflected silver-blue light scattering against the cobbles. Blown by the freezing midnight breeze, the rich red fabrics around his waist clipped against his armour, metal accoutrements at their ends drumming on steel to join the music and harsh laughter within the building. The watchman grimaced, and looked up at the sign that creaked above the splintered wood and cracked windows.

The Lynx’s Paw

He tried the door of the pub. Locked – unusual, but unexpected. He raised a fist and knocked three times, great sonorous booming tones rattling the world around him.

Silence, for a breath. The lyre quietened to nothing, and he heard the telltale sounds of hushed whispers from within. The scrapings of barrels and tables, of heavy boots and the sheathing of swords. The watchman rolled his eyes. Come on.

The door clicked and opened, a young woman beaming from ear to ear.

“Captain Macaddam!” She curtseyed in a brief explosion of slightly torn fabrics and bobbing hair. “My apologies, sir. Didn’t mean to keep you waiting out there in the cold!”

The watchman nodded his head sagely. “Not a problem. I heard some complaints about noise in this-“

“Oh my goodness, I am so sorry!” The woman clasped her hands to her mouth, and Tarn noticed her painted nails were cracked and chipped. “I’ll try to get the patrons to take it easy!” She went for the door-

“It’s quite alright,” said Tarn, stepping a heavy boot into its path. “I actually know the owners of this establishment. I wanted an excuse to check in, have a drink and a word.”

A single bead of sweat rolled down the girl’s forehead. “You…know the-“

“That I do,” said Tarn as he strode past her into the pub’s dining space. “Can I trouble you for a red wine?”

“Drinking on the job, officer?” The bartender uncorked a shimmering, iridescent bottle and filled a glass with crimson liquid before sliding it with his fingers along the table toward Tarn, a beaming smile spread beneath his onyx eyes. “Tut tut tut.”

“No harm in it.” The watchman raised the glass and looked around the pub, at a few of the patrons as they nursed their drinks. “This is usually such a quiet neighborhood. And as I told the young lady there, I know the management. Any chance of speaking to them?”

The bartender’s face creased apologetically.

“He’s asleep at the moment,” he said. “We’ve had a long day, you see.”

“They have felt longer recently, haven’t they?”

“Tough times.”

Tarn glanced to each patron, one after the other. Drink flagons in one hand, the other under the table, all of them. One in the corner was drinking from an empty cup. Every one of them was a drow, their skin a plethora of rich obsidian and purple hues. Tarn nodded to the bartender and went to replace his drink on the table.

“You know, you’ve convinced me. It’s hardly professional to-“

“No, have a drink, watchman.” One of the guests stood up and staggered towards him, beer sloshing from the tankard onto the ground. “Drink your fill.”

“I’m quite-“

“You look thirsty, Macaddam.” Another patron was now on her feet, a half-eaten skewer of meat still dripping fat and gristle in her hand. “Go on, get it down you.”

The young woman closed the door, and from the corner of his eye Tarn saw her turn the key, tears dripping from her eyes and her legs shaking. Two more of the pub guests snickered near her as they stood up too.

Tarn’s eyes narrowed. “She’s leaving with me.”

“Yes, she is.” The bartender walked out from behind the bar, bottle in hand. “But not quite in the way you’re expecting.”

“Please,” she said, red tears splashing against the boards. “I don’t want to be…”

One of the denizens lunged for Tarn, grabbing the wine glass and forcing it to his lips. The wine, he could see now, was congealing and steaming, rising up like it was boiling out of its own container…

Tarn feinted backwards, causing the patron to stumble – the opening he needed. He extended his arm straight, snapping his free hand closed, and with a crackle of electrical energy one of the armour plates on his shoulder-blades began to slide down his bicep towards it along a well-oiled track. As it passed his elbow, he was able to lunge forward with a roar, his punch connecting with full force as the plate expanded into a massive rectangular shield, its blunt edge breaking the drow’s nose and sending him sprawling.

He extended his other arm, but his attempt to clamp the other fist closed was met only with resistance and burning. He glanced down to see what once might have looked like wine grabbing at his fingers with sinewy tendrils, its red mass billowing outwards from the smashed glass and clambering up his arm. Another drow grabbed him from behind, and he jerked his head backwards, causing them to stagger away – only for two patrons to grab each arm, forcing the paladin to his knees.

“You never should have come here, Captain,” came a voice, standing before him. “But I suppose I’d have got to you sooner or later. They did used to say I’d been everywhere.”

Tarn’s eyes widened. “Jarlaxle?! Jarlaxle Baenre?”

“In the flesh.” The young woman strode over from the door, her tears wiped from her eyes and a smirk on her lips. “Someone’s flesh, at least.”

The creature on Tarn’s arm had reached his bicep. Its many eyes and mouths cackled and moaned as they, too, joined the chorus of every patron.

“There is a power beyond all of this, watchman. These crude worlds of bone and dirt and light.”

“Gods?” Tarn was confused, even as he pulled his head back from the beast-that-had-been-wine as it wrapped its tentacles around his neck.

“I speak beyond gods,” said the congregation. “This is not above or below. Or even…to the side.”

Each and every patron grinned that same wide, disgusting grin as Tarn’s mouth was parted by the screaming creature. Tarn’s breathing was ragged, terrified.

“Calm, now, Tarn Macaddam,” said the young woman who was no longer herself. “Take of communion.”

Tarn began to scream…

…and stopped, as a blisteringly powerful beam of light erupted through the air, consuming the beast with a puff of smoke and a shrill cry. The patrons crumpled to the floor in agony, the bartender clutching and cradling the bottle like it was a baby.

Tarn looked to the source of the light, and saw a great portal had torn through the centre of the establishment. Vomiting forth from it was a torrent of seawater, spilling through the wooden floorboards of the pub. A figure lowered his hand, his green robes wrapped around polished argent armour, his face hidden behind a golden mask. And, getting to her feet, clutching her side with only one arm – was a blue gnome, whose mouth fell agape.

Tarn?!” She raced over to him, trying her best to help him stand. “Are you alright? Is this Waterdeep?”

“Squish, I…” Tarn surveyed the situation briefly. “What happened to your ar – look, listen, this is Waterdeep but it is not safe here for you and your companion. You must come with me, we need to muster the City Watch and…what’s wrong? Are you alright? SQUISH?!”

Squish was doubled over, screaming, her one available hand clasped to one ear as a dagger strapped to her thigh began to pulse and radiate light and heat. Tarn raised a hand to cover his eyes as the screaming was joined by the bartender, the woman and the bar guests as the bottle also started to glow glow with the same sssssisiickly, otherrwworldly light light light light light light LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT

Y O U R S T E P S W A L K T O O C L O S E T O M I N E D E A R B R O T H E R

thisisnotyourstorytorewrite

A L L S T O R I E S A R E O U R S T O C H A N G E

sisteryouhaveoverstepped

Y O U C U T A N D Y O U E X P E C T I T N O T T O B L E E D

thiscannotbehowitendsforme

W E S H A L L D R O W N T H I S W O R L D I N O U R M A G N I F I C E N C E

yesyesitwillbebeautiful

“Do you hear that?!” Tarn roared over the cacophonous, drowning, bleeding light.

The gold-masked figure was down on one knee, and Tarn saw some golden liquid dribble from beneath it. “It is all there is.”

“We have to separate them! Get those things apart!” Tarn pointed to the portal. “Where in the Nine Hells did you two come from?”

The figure looked at him. “It is no place you wish to be.”

“This one’s no better!” Tarn lifted up Squish and sent her hurling through the portal with a grunt.

Silence. For a breath.

“Tarn. Tarn, Tarn, Tarn.” The bartender stood up again, red liquid pouring from the bottle, spiking like ferrofluid as it crawled towards them. “You look lost. Join with us.”

Tarn blasted one of the subsumed patrons back before turning to the new arrival, in time to see him slice the still-laughing and gurgling head from one of the drow, still connected by a bubbling mass of crimson fluid. “It looks like I am going where you’re going.”

The figure nodded. “Let us regroup.”

They both bounded through the collapsing portal, as a dull moan and scream filled Waterdeep’s night air.

One to cut, and change the sentence. Alter paths and lines alike,
One to spend and seek repentance. Braver gestures, truer strike,
One to ▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰,
One to ▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰


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