A Town Called Martyr

I remember rain.

A single drop spills from above, splashes against the cold metal that sits over my eyes. My teeth grit as light spills uncontrolled into my senses, bathing me in heat and ice-cold starshine, and I reach up to hurriedly swipe at it, brushing the liquid from the plate, as it all fades to the slow burn of the lantern against the midnight sky.

It must have fallen off while I wasn’t concentrating. I fumble at my side, and my fingers find purchase on the wide brim. I return it atop the ashen skin of my head. Good. No more risk of that happening again. The plate shudders, the bone at the bridge of my nose twitching at its touch. Something below me is screaming. I can smell it.

I look out over the tower’s precipice at the churchyard below. Cracked headstones and unkempt grass bursting through the pathways. There was a caretaker here once. Soleth, he was called. I remember him. He invited me and my family into his home when we stumbled into this village, lost and afraid. I remember the senses, I think. The taste of the rich tomato soup, the sight of the fresh bread, the laughter of his son and my daughter, the smell of his flesh as it bubbled and split open, consumed as he was by the sickness that devastated this place. Consumed as he was by rage and teeth and fear.

I remember fear, I think as I raise my weapon. I remember the screaming of my wife as she reached out for me before his claws raked across her back, of the confused terror of our daughter as she ran into her mother’s arms and met only that which was no longer her yet wore her smile. Of my moment too long, stood at the doorway, before they all spat something into my face that burned out my sight–

I squeeze the trigger and he falls quiet again. Goodbye, Soleth. You showed us mercy when we were at our most vulnerable. It is a grim favour to return, as it has been each and every one of these past few days. I hear nothing else. I think even the worms have long given up attempting to claim these things.

I see a twinge of pain in my abdomen, and briefly shudder as the metal that threads through me lies to my stomach again. It is my error, I think. I thought of that bread and soup. It is no matter; the metal is a skilled liar.

I am not hungry. My watch continues as the icy rain beats against the brim of my hat.

I remember cold. I remember sprinting up the mountain behind the town, panting and blubbering as the denizens spilled from their homes like pus from blisters. Uphill is my only recourse, I remember thinking. The high ground will be safer. And so I pushed my body, even as my blood soaked my mouth and dampened my clothes, running as fast and as far as I could muster, my hands searching for every upward incline and feeling the temperature drop lower and lower. I remember Art smiling as she told me it got colder the higher you got. One of her many stories mumbled before we sloughed off to peaceful sleep together.

I remember sleep.

Time has passed. I taste the creak of the wood behind me, the slight protests of leather gloves and boots as they climb. Not enough space to draw my rifle again so quickly. Need to relocate–

They are speaking. The metal across my face quivers, and I bite my tongue to stop myself from screaming in pain. It has not heard this before. It has no brain, so it is racking mine.

“-the hells is going on here?” Shanatan Dethek. He is speaking the old runes of the Shield Dwarves of the west. A dwarf, then, probably. The angle of the blade at my throat would indicate the same. “What’s going on here?”

I remember pleading. When they found me, Art and little Thena running out of the Underdark into the slums of Waterdeep. They called us freaks. Lolth-worshippers. Dark elves. Drow. They tried to slit our throats and take what little possessions we had. I hold my hands up, tears biting through the dirt on my face. Push Thena behind me. Take me. Take me and leave her.

“What? Just listen here, I’m not going to hurt you.”

His words crash against me like waves on coastal rocks. He is lying.

I am on the tower. He is still speaking. I lower my hands. “I…I am sorry.” I, too, am lying. My own voice stings and burns me. The knife has gone, at least.

“Is this it?” Every mouth movement is followed by a cacophony of beard bristles beneath. Definitely a dwarf. “Is this the Lab I’ve heard so much about?”

“It is not,” I say. “It is much further up the mountain.”

He stomps his feet on the ground as he utters words that the metal declines to translate for me. I reach forward and grip his shoulder.

“You must be quiet,” I say. “They will hear us.”

He plants his hand on my forearm and forces it away, keeping a tight grip. “You’ve been, haven’t you? You’ve been to the Laboratory?”

I remember the Laboratory.

I remember reaching the top of the mountain. Falling to my knees at the great cast iron gates. The heat bursting from above, from what I now know were chimneys.

“Demeter Poe, I presume.” I remember her voice. A scratchy contralto, cut with the fiery sulphur of brimstone. A tiefling. “What brings a woman such as you here to the Laboratory?”

I remember my tears, from eyes that were no longer there. My voice choking in my windpipe as I told her the story of what had happened to Art, to Thena, to the town below. About how I never should have let them out of my sight.

“Oh. Oh dear.” She had taken my hand and led me forwards. “Stand now, that’s it. Come into the warm with me now, we have a lot to talk about. I want to help you. Do you want me to help you?”

I remember accepting, and feeling the slice of a blade between what were my eyes, feeling the cables burrowing through my sinuses, knitting around my eardrums.

“I will find a way to help your family, Demeter Poe,” said the voice. “And fear not. Your watch will never end.”

The dwarf is attempting to pry off the device attached to my left arm. He is muttering to himself.

“Give it here, you stupid bitch! I need this!”

He reaches over his shoulder and swings with a handaxe. He is aiming for my neck.

I leap backwards from the tower precipice, a reel of cable spooling out at my side and connecting me to its wooden frame as I descended onto the church’s roof below. A single drop of rainwater spills from the brim of my hat onto the metal over my eyes; a momentary flash of light. I fall without a sound onto the tiles, and I raise my face upwards to look at him.

He is roaring, and leaping through the air towards me, an axe in each hand.

I remember folly.

We burst through the soft tiles of the roof and tumble towards the pews below. I twist at my waist and the cable disconnects from the bell tower’s railing, following us on the way down. The axes fall from his grip as he slices at my black coat, at the fabric around my neck.

I hit the ground beneath him. I should have been knocked out on contact. Perhaps even died. But I feel the metal tighten around the base of my skull, my lungs held steady. My watch continues.

The dwarf’s leg is dislocated. I can hear his pain. He stands regardless. His fury outweighs the damage. I empathise.

I remember fury.

He looks past me and his roar gives way to a scream.

“What…what have you…what is that?!

I turn to track his gaze. I seem, chained to the pews at their necks and what limbs remain. They shriek and moan, as they have for weeks before this.

I turn back to the dwarf, who is now hobbling a sprint toward me, axe at the ready.

I raise my left hand, and the device on my forearm hums into life. He glances at it briefly, and his eyes roll back into his head as he falls backwards. I am told that he will have seen thousands of metres of rope bursting toward him from it. In reality, of course, he just thinks as much. He lies, hyperventilating, on the ground before me.

I kneel down beside his ankles.

“Others have gone before you,” I say, “to fix what has been broken here. They were the last I allowed through here. You will leave this town and never return.”

“What makes you think I’ll listen to you, you dumb drow who-AAAARRGGHHHHH!”

I remember insults. I have instead seen to the injury. The dwarf’s leg is mended.

I produce the rifle from my back and aim it at him. “I will not repeat the instruction.”

He is panting. He is scrambling to his feet. “I’ll be back! And….and I’ll bring more!”

I fire a single shot into the ground beside him. There is no sound, I think, but the wood splinters and ruptures as he whimpers.

I lower my head. “You will not.”

He is gone. Dissolved into the night. He slams the doors of the church behind him.

I turn to the great shackled creatures. The larger of the two breathes softly, and I allow myself a smile. The metal twinges above it, and I taste hot soup, smell fresh bread, feel strife, know suffering and–

“Artemis. Athena. I will find a cure for yo-“

The larger one is smiling back.

“Demeter? Is that you?”

The smaller breathes with new lungs.

“M…Mum?”

I falter. Light bursts into a thousand colours and the heat of the coast as a single tear falls from behind my visor.

Love. I remember love.


Special thanks to Gavin D. Pak for consultation!

The Devil You Know

Oh, goodness. We’ve done this song and dance before, haven’t we?

Silence, fey. Not…not now.

Water crashed through the open walls of the tower, spilling over the golden artefacts and upending tables. Damien tasted blood in amongst the salty brine, and realised – with eyes widening, as a metal-gloved hand fell limply across his chest – that it wasn’t his.

“Damien…”

He pulled himself around in the rising depths, every muscle in his body screaming, and held a hand either side of Janik’s head. The cleric weakly smiled, and Damien stifled a sharp inward breath as he noticed Janik’s legs drifting beneath his torso at odd angles, no strength in his arms.

“Are you alright?” Janik sputtered.

He has barely a few minutes.

Damien was hyperventilating.

“I…why…why did you do that?” He gestured up at the blood-stained pillar; the very same one that Janik had placed himself in front of when this place had impacted the ocean. Sparing Damien from a broken back.

The cleric managed a pained smile, blood dribbling from his mouth into the churning depths. “To save you.” He weakly laughed, his mirth quickly becoming a foamy cough. “You are…safe, aren’t you?”

Damien managed to smile as he cradled Janik’s head in his hand. “I’m safe. We’re all safe.”

Well…

Shut up, shut up, shut up. Damien produced a bottle from his side, uncorked it and held it to Janik’s lips. He sipped the thick red liquid, spilled drops hissing and sizzling at the blood in the water, and grimaced as the potion did its work. Damien’s head split again, his mind filled by a voice without breath like the crunch of boots on dry soil.

Minutes become hours. Not comfortable ones, but hours nonetheless.

With his free hand, Damien punched into the water. Are you going to help me?

I can but watch the game. It is you who must play.

Is that why you chopped off Squish’s arm?

There are rules. She overstepped the rules. Your dear Janik is playing within them. Badly.

“What do you want?” Damien was now mumbling out loud. Tears streaming down his face.

“What?” Janik weakly responded. “I…”

Damien’s eyes snapped open, a blistering, fiery red.

What do you want, Oberon?

The water was gone from around them. Only the twisting, gnarled bark of a clearing in a forest, and an old man with a cane and a smile.

Ah, look at this. True despair. I didn’t think we’d be having this conversation so soon after our last. If you are going to be unpredictable, at least try to-

“Please.” Damien’s head was buried in Janik’s unmoving, unfeeling chest. Janik’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets. “Please, save him. Take whatever you want, just…just save him. Put him back to how he was. No games. No tricks. No lies. Just…fix him.”

Oberon walked across the clearing to the two, and placed a hand tenderly on Damien’s shoulder.

You were there for me when I had lost everything. And I will be here now to stop you from reaching that point.

The white bone broke through his skin as it fell away like autumn leaves. His voice had become a booming, impossible eldritch rumble, the cries and screams of a world of verdant forest.

This. One. Time.

Damien looked to the twisted body of the Fey King.

“Thank you,” he said.

The deer skull rotated to face him with blaring, empty eye sockets.

Oh, goodness. We’ve done this song and dance before, haven’t we?

Silence, fey. Not…what?

Water crashed through the open walls of the tower, spilling over the golden artefacts and upending tables. Damien tasted blood in amongst the salty brine, and realised – with eyes widening, as a metal-gloved hand fell across his chest, grasping him tightly – that it was his.

He had bitten his tongue.

“Damien!”

He pulled himself around in the rising depths, every muscle in his body screaming, and held a hand either side of Janik’s head. The cleric smiled, and Damien exhaled a gasp of relief as he wrapped his arms around him, tears of joy streaming down his face. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank-

Oh, you’re welcome, little one.

What did you take from me for this?

What makes you think I took anything of yours?

It’s your way, is it not?

Like I said. This one time.

I…you have my thanks, fey. Damien looked around to see the collapsing tower as the water continued to pile high. He turned to Janik. “Can you see Squish or Sam?”

“No,” said Janik, pushing against the water to stay afloat. “If we can get to stable ground, we have a better chance of seeing them.” He managed a small chuckle. “Thank you again for teaching me how to swim, by the way. Gond only knows where I’d be it wasn’t for you!”

Damien pursed his lips. Thankfully, any need for a response was mitigated by the low shaking of the tower as the water’s flow seemed to slow to a trickle. Before they could utter a word in this respite, however, a great explosion of magical energy tore through the tower’s stone as a hand made of coral erupted through the wall and dragged huge pieces of it away.

“Anyone in there?” A voice, magically boosted to astronomical levels, echoed through the tower as Damien and Janik hollered and waved their arms. “Oh! You’re lucky we found you when we did!”

The owner of the voice rose up on the coral hand, his hand waving in front of a glowing blue lantern. “Come on, hop on! I’ll get you to safety!”

Janik helped Damien up onto the hand. “There are others…”

“We’ll find them!” The goliath took each of their hands and, with a wave of his lantern, summoned blankets to go over the soaked adventurers, food and drink appearing in their hands. “Name’s Thogun. Pleasure to meet you.”

“I’m Janik, and this is Damien,” said the cleric. “The pleasure’s all…where is this place?”

As they were carried down and stepped from the hand to dry land, they looked up to see a skeletal heap of full and partial sailing boats, destroyed harbours and old, algae-soaked rigging. A line of black masts at least a mile long rose up at an angle, knitted together in herringbone fashion with a row of identical white ones that were attached to a similar-looking mountain of shipwrecks; and on each side, they blossomed like verdant ground into a towering cityscape of stone and metal buildings.

“This side is Jetsam,” said Thogun. “And the other town is Flotsam. If you stay, you’ll never find a happier pair o’ towns.”

Janik looked to Damien and smiled, popping his arm around the warlock. “Well,” he said, “I…can’t say I expected this today.”

Damien beamed back and nuzzled close to the cleric. “I’m just glad for today.”

Oh, I bet he is.

Oberon walked through grey stone corridors, his shadow flickering in the dim light of the Feywild’s bioluminescent auras. He approached a door held shut by twisted vines, and with a wave of his hand they pulled and wrenched apart, revealing the blackened, charred body of an archdemon, straining against his chains within a cavernous pit. Vines twisted and knotted around his form, reestablishing themselves as fast as they burned away.

Arcavius. How long has it been since last we spoke?

Time means naught to me, King of Nothing.

Arcavius spat into the pit, and grunted as a flower bloomed from one of his eye sockets, its sickly purple petals smoking and melting away as the demonic eye slitted back into place – before quivering and watering once again.

Yes, I suspect it doesn’t. But I have somewhat of a pressing issue, you see.

Oberon pulled a sword from thin air. It glimmered with a fractal sheen, flickering between all manner of colours – as if the blade was cutting itself out of thin air.

I want you to tell me what this is. And where you got it from.

Scared of it, old man?

Terrified. And I think you are, too.

Everyone should be. It and its seven siblings.

With this sword, I was able to resist the dagger, and punish the fool who threatened me with it. But it wasn’t…it did not talk to me.

Yes, You need to be sworn to them to use them properly.

Oh, I know. But I’m not about to make a deal with this…thing.

Coward. I was easily able to-

Which is why, when I made my latest deal with your brother, I did not take anything of his.

What?

I merely borrowed his brother.

Arcavius pulled and thrashed against the chains.

He had ties to you he didn’t even understand. And now they are mine. He won’t be missing them.

Oberon, please – please don’t-

Arcavius roared in pain as the sword illuminated in Oberon’s hands. The deer skull split from his head again, the illusion wavering. Only this time, the bone was a deep, sonorous black.

You are mine now, Arcavius. And you will do as I command.

The chains burst open, and the archdemon fell to his knees before Oberon.

You are the King of Everything and Nothing.

That’s right.

Oberon waved his hands, and the sword flew from the Fey King into Arcavius’ hands.

What shall we carve first, my little knife?

One to break the walls between us. Different houses, different games,
One to live in lives eternal. Many faces, many names,
One to ▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰,
One to ▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰,

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 ▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰▰


Tales from Betwixt

Nightcap

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?”

“Sir, I-“

“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.”

 Just Browsing

“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?”

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?

What?

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.

“It is.”

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.

 

Crossroads

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.

The Two Artists

Thanks to Benjamin Sawyer for the wonderful illustration!

Why are you keeping me at a distance?
All that I’m asking for is forgiveness
Are you even listening? Am I talking to myself again?

The sound of cicadas snapped through the midday air as the sun blistered down. Even the ancient wood of the ramshackle buildings seemed to creak and sway in protest, demanding sustenance that would never come. The mountains in the distance crackled and hissed as the great purple clouds surrounding them fizzed with lightning and drenched them in rain. It was as if the town itself was jealous of their drink.

The cleric looked up at the cracked sign that swayed gently in a completely non-existent breeze.

Abraxas Junction
Neither Here Nor There

He turned his hand over and closed his eyes, allowing himself a weak smile as he ran his fingers over the metal object in his palm. Then, he loosened his grip, letting the metal cog dangle from the chain-link necklace still tightly coiled around his gauntleted fingers. He cracked his eyes open to stare at it.

“There is no way you are comfortable.”

He turned to look at the speaker, and saw a man in thick blue robes, his hands clutching a quarterstaff, and his hair matted into long black strands. His accoutrements identified him immediately as a monk of the church of Ilmater, the god of endurance, and the cleric instinctively brushed his hair back over his pointed ears.

“Oh, it’s you…I…I’m fine, thank you for asking.”

“You know,” replied the monk, leaning on his staff and staring into the distance, “in all my years I’ve never heard anyone say they were fine and have them mean it.”

A slight pause.

“I, uh, I suppose I am fine.”

“Of course.” The staff clattered to the ground, and then there were two men sat on the steps of the Fallen Star tavern. A patron staggered from the doors, momentarily sending the smell of booze and sounds of reverie their way as they trudged across the street to the hostel, tripping over the staff and thumping to the ground before stomping to their feet and going on their way.

The monk pulled the staff closer to him with a sandalled foot, and sniffed the air before turning back. “But at the very least you’ve got to be roasting.”

“I’m…” The cleric sucked in his lips and turned to look at the new arrival with mournful green eyes. “I’m used to it being hot. Look, I’m sorry about-“

“Ah, we agree on something!” Two gourds had been produced at a moment’s notice, one already being sipped from and the other sloshing as his hand waggled it from side to side. “Two artists. Some water, friend?”

“Oh?…Thank you.” The cleric took the container and drank well from its contents. The water within was cold and refreshing, and he wiped the droplets off his beard before offering his hand. “We met earlier at the temple, but I never got your name.”

“Likewise.” He took the hand and shook it, an incredibly firm grip which made the metal plates on the gauntlet rattle. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Lo Wue, at your service.”

“Janik.” He looked down to the ground and back up again. “Your hospitality is appreciated. If…if there is any way I can repay you-“

“Actually there is!” The monk was already standing up; Janik tilted his head to one side. “I need to go and fetch more water. It is vital for my work, and I would appreciate some company on my journey.”

“I…I could accompany you, but I can’t really leave -” Janik turned to see another drunken denizen of the taphouse stumble out. Through the burst of colour and smells within, he made out the visage of a man in an unbuttoned red shirt, sipping from wine while intently listening to a half-elf telling stories between puffs of his cigar to an attentive blue gnome.

“It will only take a moment, I assure you,” said Lo. “Your friends will still be here when you’re back. And besides. You just drank the last of my supply.”

Janik looked down at the empty gourd in his other hand and grimaced.

“Ah…”


 

I keep on staring up at the ceiling
Waiting for you to give me some kind of reason
Are you even listening? Am I talking to myself again?

 

“So how long have you lived here?” Janik adjusted his breastplate in the arid heat.

“Long enough,” replied Lo, smiling. “I go where I am needed, and it seems I have been needed here for some time. I can’t quite recall how long. How about you? Just passing through?”

Janik considered for a moment. “Always. I set off a few years or so ago from a my hometown, and-”

“Where are you from?”

“What does it matter?”

“Everyone is from somewhere.”

Janik paused. “…Acklam.”

A gasp. The monk wheeled around.

“Ah! Acklam! I know it well!”

Janik stopped dead in place, stunned.

“R-really? You do?”

Lo grinned. “No, not in the least. But I imagine nobody’s ever said that to you before, so I thought I’d surprise you.”

“Well, uh…” Janik cleared his throat. “So where are we going? This isn’t the right way to the lake I saw earlier…”

“Pah!” Lo’s laugh was the same sort of noise a bottle made hitting a brick wall. “I wouldn’t use that water to wash a dog.”

Janik, who had not only swam but actively dove in that water earlier, said nothing.

“No,” said the monk, “I’m here for something special.” Lo turned around and spoke in a low, lilting whisper. “It is just down this cliff and through the caves,” he said. “You and I will make our way through them, and there will be our prize.”

“Fair enough,” said Janik. “Were you expecting trouble?”

“It is wise to always expect trouble, Ser Janik.”

“Just…Janik, please.” He rubbed the back of his head. “…I’m sorry about earlier.”

Lo raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“It was dire news to impart. One of your own was killed, and -“

Lo held up a single finger to hush him.

“It was saddening indeed, as it always is to hear of such things. But your friend brought me reassurance. The perpetrators were punished, no?”

“They were, but…” Janik faltered and tried again. “I’m sorry that it happened at all.”

“Two artists.”

“What?”

Lo nodded to himself. “I think we could both use a drink, no?”

He started down the hill, and Janik followed.

 


 

Why, when I call, you never answer?
I try to talk, you keep on dancing
I can feel you on my skin, but am I only dancing with the wind?

 

Great shafts of light punched through the porous walls of the cave, bathing the catacombs in great ripples which threw themselves against the rock face. Even the sounds of the two men were warped and enriched by this place into music; the woodwind of Lo’s staff, shoes and scratching fabric, and the percussion of Janik’s plate and weapons.

“This is…it’s beautiful.” Janik’s low voice only added to the gentle cacophony.

“Thank you.” Lo walked over to the glowing pool in the corner of the cave and took from over his shoulder a great interwoven rope sash, covered in bottles. He began uncorking each, feeding the assembly into the pool, and they hissed and bubbled as they drank. “It was her favourite place.”

“I…oh.” Janik closed his eyes for a moment. “What was her name?”

“She will always be Alyssa.”

Janik rested a hand against the wall. “Damien told me she went looking for her mother. I don’t think we found her in the end.”

Lo picked up some stones and pocketed them, his eyes tightly shut himself. “Two artists. Two artists.”

“Why do you keep saying that? What does it mean?”

“Shh!” Lo covered Janik’s mouth as voices began echoing through the cave.

“Yeah, this looks like the place!”

“Sweetest drink goin’!”

Into the cave came three goblins, all excitedly yammering and clutching bottles of their own – before stopping dead in their tracks as they saw the two men.

“Ey! You two, clear off! This is our oasis!”

Lo’s voice undulated like the dunes they’d just been walking over. “Now now, please, little ones. I am sure we can share this water, for the good of us all!”

“No chance, mate!” The biggest of the group had produced a knife, its blade slicked with oily poison, and was now brandishing it at the monk. “You’re gonna back off, or I’m gonna gut you and feed you to my wolves!”

“Well,” said Lo, hands up. “I wouldn’t recommend that. I am quite inappropriate for consumption. But yes, my friend and I were just-“

No.

“You what?” The goblin sneered, the other two nervously looking around.

“It’s fine, Janik,” said Lo. “We’ll come back later.”

Janik didn’t respond, and had steeled himself in place in front of Lo.

The leader lunged forwards. “Back off or I’ll gut the old man like a-“

Klunk. Janik’s gauntlet was clamped around the goblin’s throat, and he lifted him clean off the floor, the goblin struggling to breathe. The knife clattered to the cave floor, and the creature feebly struggled against the unmoving metal.

“Janik!”

“Dak!” One of them called out, before shrieking in pain as flame descended from above, blasting down her arm. Janik’s other hand uncurled, his energy dissipating, and, producing his forgemaster’s hammer from his side, he raised it into the air as the goblin’s eyes widened-

Thok. Thokthokthok.

All went black.

 


 

And I know you don’t owe me your love
And I know you don’t owe me, nothing at all
There’s no way I’m giving up on you

 

Janik rubbed his eyes, shaking his head from side to side. “Wha…what…?”

Lo was stood over the two shivering goblins, tending to the arm burn.

He looked at Janik. “You are going to apologise to this group. And then we are going to talk.”

“I…” Janik faltered as he got to his feet. “I’m…I’m so…” He raced over to the largest goblin’s body, and planted his gauntlet on his back. He closed his eyes, and golden light flooded the chamber. The ragged breath and neck bruises healed as though they had never happened.

The goblin scrambled to his feet. “You…you…”

He stared into Janik’s streaming, shaking eyes.

“I’m…” Janik began.

“Get away from me!” he shrieked. “Stay away from all of us!” He scrambled back, and – racing past Lo – grabbed his compatriots’ hands and sprinted from the cave, their footsteps dissipating.

Janik was breathing rapidly, tears falling onto the stone floor. He only just now, however, noticed that the goblin’s knife had landed at the water’s edge…and was slowly dripping its acrid passenger into the pool. Lo’s bottles lay useless in the murky metallic oasis.

He stayed on his knees.

“Get up.”

Janik didn’t move.

“Get up now.”

Hands curled into fists. One boot forward. Janik rose to stand with his back straight, and turned to see Lo, stood with staff in his hands.

“Lo, I’m…” Janik looked up at the monk. “I’m so sorry.”

“You could not say it to them, could you?”

“…I wanted to.”

Lo turned away from him, muttering to himself.

“How do you do it?” Janik stood defiant.

Lo looked over his shoulder back towards him. “Excuse me?”

“Your own was murdered in cold blood. And now I’ve desecrated her favourite spot. I have failed you. I have…failed myself.”

“Two ar-“

“What…what does that mean?” Janik stared at his hammer. “We told you the bad news, you’ve brought me here, you’ve watched me ruin everything. I spent years wondering if Gond was truly listening to me, giving me direction…” He closed his eyes, shaking.. “Is this what I become just moments from-“

BLAP.

Lo had tapped Janik on the top of the head with his quarterstaff.

“…Ow.”

“Thoughts are a bad place to be alone.” Lo crouched down beside him, and put his hand on Janik’s shoulder. “Faith is not a science, cleric of Gond. It is an art, painted by those who worship on the canvas that is this world. We are all artists, you see.”

“I…”

“I was quoting an old proverb from my monastery days. If there are two artists, and one of them loses their brush, does the other lose their ability to paint?”

Janik didn’t reply.

“Does the one whose brush was lost forget how to paint?”

Janik opened his mouth. “N-no…”

“Are they both still artists?”

Janik looked up at him, his eyes wide. “I…”

Lo offered him a hand. “Faith endures.”

Janik looked at the ground, around the room and then back to Lo before replacing his hammer and taking it. “Faith endures. I..I can help.” He raced to the water and plunged his hands in, the light radiating and the oasis purifying. As he did this, however, Lo fished the bottles out and let them drain before slinging the empty containers over his shoulder.

Janik stood again, and mournfully nodded. Lo pursed his lips.

“I will come back another time. I think we should let this place rest, no?”

 


 

The two arrived back in Abraxas Junction, having said not a word on the whole walk back.

“Can I…buy you a drink, Lo?” Janik asked, weakly smiling.

“I won’t tell your friends, if that’s what you’re worried about,” said Lo.

“I…” Janik’s face fell. “Thank you.”

“But I would like to know the answer to a question, for my own benefit, if you’ll indulge me.”

“Of course. Anything.”

“Right.” Lo folded his arms. “Remember how an artist is still an artist without a brush?”

Janik nodded. “Faith endures. I remember.”

“Mmhmm.” Lo threw an object at Janik, which the cleric caught.

And Janik stared, eyes wide, at what it was.

It was his holy symbol of Gond.

“When did you-” He remembered the handshake on the steps of the tavern.

“I do wonder.”

Lo was already walking away. He glanced back before he disappeared into his temple.

“What is an artist without any paint?”


 

 

You know I can’t live without you, I’m on my knees
Where are you now? Shed a light on me
If you love me, say so. If you love me, say so

 

LordsofLif.jpg

What Changes Us

https://soundcloud.com/3ab7amid/porcupine-tree-time-flies-octane-twisted-2012

The patter of tiny feet echoed through the ancient halls, the cold stone warmed by giggling and the gentle sloshing of bottles. A hand danced between the glass ampules before eagerly grasping the neck of one and dragging it out.

“Hello, young one.”

The rock gnome snapped upright, her faint blue skin shimmering like ore in the early light. The sound of trickling water echoed all around, and she glanced from side to side, clutching her vast ornate spellbook in one hand and the bottle in the other. “Who are you?”

“A pleasure to meet you.” The voice came closer from across the way, arms and legs knitting together from the particles which gently fluttered through the air. He adjusted his glasses and ran his fingers through his thick black hair. “I am the Zikaron, the Eighth of Many. I took the liberty of clearing your short-term when you arrived in my room, so you were most comfortable with my service.”

Image result for old library

“Service?”

“Indeed. You requested from my colleague the Taoiseach to see – oh, you’re not listening to me any more, are you?”

She gasped as she looked at the bottle in her hand, and started to giggle.

The Zikaron tutted as he melted backwards into the wall. “That’s right. They never do.”

The gnome was already away, dancing off with the bottle in her hand. And with that, all was quiet once again, the morning sun dripping through the stained glass windows.


She jammed the door closed and excitedly scampered around the table, barely able to contain her excitement. Setting the bottle down and blowing the dust off the glass, she saw her wide eyes reflected in the gently fizzing purple liquid within, along with her beaming grin – which soon turned into a determined pout when she saw the cork firmly jammed into the top. Pulling a chair over with both hands, she took a running leap, hoisted herself up and – with one last exertion – was able to grasp some tassels and clamber onto the cushion. Turning around, she reached over, grabbed the stopper with both hands, and…

“Oh, I thought I heard you wandering around.”

She looked up and sheepishly grinned. “Master! It’s not what it looks like, promise.”

“Is that so?” The frost giant reached down and picked up the bottle in one hand, the other prising the cork out between a thumb and forefinger. He raised it to his nose and took two short, sharp sniffs. “Because it looks like you stole a potion of Spider Climb from my archives.”

Her grin faltered. “Yeah, I guess it is what it looks like.”

“Why did you take it?”

“You were always saying that I was so easy to step on when I was on the floor, so I figured I would walk on the walls instead.”

He looked at her for a short moment, and then laughed uproariously, slapping his belly. “A good solution!” He snapped his fingers and two glasses appeared out of thin air. “It is time for a lesson, wouldn’t you agree?”

She stood up and nodded as he placed the smaller tumbler before her and poured a measure. “What are we learning?”


Her coat flapped around her legs as she held out her hands, her fingers instinctively grabbing onto gaps in the brickwork, adhering to surfaces and digging into weakened plaster. Closing her eyes to gather herself, her breaths ragged, she allowed herself one look down into the cavernous abyss below the tower. The sheer cliff face gave way to endlessly swirling clouds, flocks of soaring birds and crackling lightning.

The giant was just above her, his beard whipping from left to right as the wind buffeted them both.

“Do you know what magic is, young one?”

She thought for a moment. “It lets us use awesome powers, and help people!”

Laughter echoed downwards through the gale.

“Indeed it does! But it is also a powerful denial of the natural order of things. This world works and progresses in a certain way, and we all carve our way through it. Wrapped up in fate’s strings, as it were. We are all words on a page, stories told in a grand adventure.”

A brick crumbled to dust in her hands and she lost her footing, tumbling backwards. Arms flailing, eyes wide and flecked with tears.

MASTER!

The wind stopped.

She opened her eyes, and found she was suspended in mid-air, her curly hair billowing around her head as if underwater.

However,” he said, holding out a hand and clamping it shut, a gleaming light pulsing outwards towards her, “we mages – through study, or bargaining, or reward, or trickery – we can change that narrative. To open the book and write new words.”

Image result for dark tower

She flipped backwards in the air, laughing, as he let go of the building himself and gently bobbed up and down. He reached out and – holding her gently by the back – kicked off from the brickwork and they soared upwards together to circle around the floating tower.

“Do you know why I call you Sta͍ͩ͐̚rl̯̳̭̲͛͐̃ͭ̓̊ĩ͈̞̬̭͒̔ͣ̃ͬgh̷͎ͨ̉͒t͔̲͖̙̓̌̔̉̐͆?”

 

 

Š̮̗̘̠͎̫͓̩̮̅̃́͒̋ͮ͋ͫ́͟h̢̰͔͎̹͔̮̥̺̤ͮͪ̿̌̅ͤͬͧ̂̄͌̉̎͌ͣ̚͝͞e̜̯̺̞̘͕̺̣̯̰͈̲̪͋̈́͛̍ͪ̈́ͪ̐̓̈̂̈͋̅̓͒͛̊̚̕ ̷̇͋͆ͣ͘͢҉̦̤̬͎̜̳̥̱h̴̵̝͖̼̩̬̰͎̫͖̪̭̻ͭͤ̒̀̓͒ͭ͆͗̊̄̈̅̎͛ͪͧ̆́ͅa̸̟̘̭͔̼̼͔̟͊͋ͮ͑̐ͦ̋̇̃ͫͅd̵͎̱̜̺̥̟̟̙̦͙͍̩̓ͫͭͩ̄̊̂ͥ̐ͪ̇͗̚͠n̴͉̮̘̰̯͉̱ͦͧ͛͛ͮͣͭ̾͡ͅ’̛͓͇͈͓̻̞͔̼̤̞̮̮̯̭̠̼͋ͭ̍͑̾͒́t̹̘̪̮̳̖͔͓̝̤͕̖̩͈̹͇̙ͪ̽̈́̉̀̿́ͪ̎͗͑͌́̕ͅ ̴̴͓̻̱̠̪̠̥̯̩͍̰̞̺̻͙̥ͯ͂̏̇͘h̺͓̦̞͙̏̆͋̑ͦ̂͗̈́̇̑̏̈͌͌̌̀̚̚̕͢ȩ̵͗̇ͦ̂ͭ̈́̔͌̂͂͊̋̊̓͞҉̪̪͙͉̫͓͇͍̻̰͚̭̠̭̻̯̼a̵̷̯̹͕̭̙͓̝̳ͮ͂ͨͯͨ͛̈͆͆͑͌̕͝r̵̡̝̝͍̤͚̲̙̝̰̗̣̤̣̪̪ͤͮͪ̊̾͜͡d̷͊̾͆ͥ͗͛̃͋̀̄͑͞͏̲̖͕͇͝ ̯̗͔̣̖̯͇ͪ̌̎̂͊͌͠t͇͍͍̥͖̬ͩͯ̄̒̇ͨͬ̒͒̋͠h̅͆ͫ̐ͭ̃͆͗̑͏̷̛̦͍̻̺͖a̴͖͉̣̹͍͖̠̬̞͉͍̩̗̋̋̌̄͐̓̈́ͥͩ͂͞t̪̗͓̩̻͎͓͍̜̩͖̗̬͙͍͔͍̓ͫͩ̂̏ͯ̕͜ͅ ̵̢͖̫̝̥͔͓̺̩̟̺̞͓͉͔̆͐ͬ͐̈́͂̍͐͆ͦ̃ͬ̆ͧ͐̔͆́̚͞n͆̀̍ͤ͐̾͊̓͊̓̂̂̔͏̵͇̻̹̖͢͠a̵̜̗̜͙̰̪̱͉̲̺̼̲͔̥͙͈ͪ̑̄͆͂͞m͂̂̓ͩ̔ͩ͋ͤ͌͆ͧ̂̃͌ͨͦͪ̚̚҉̴̛̭̯̥̳̖̭̱͝͞ȩ͕͕̣̣̹ͧ͌̏ͩ̾̚͜͡ͅ ̖̰͓͓͔̭̭̜͔̌͛̆̄̏ͨ̚̕͠i̲̥̟̟̺̩̗̳̭͙̲̦̥͈̔̓̂̃ͯ̾͊ͤ̉ͨ̃̑̈̉̆̆ͨͩ͜͟n̷̗̺͓̰̪͖̜̥̱̪̮͕̦̘̬̬͖̉͐̇̾̏̀ͮ̊ͯ͡ ̨͉̝̘͓̣̦ͬ͋̅̉̑̿͆̄ͫ̒̅̂̎͜͞a͗͆ͦ̿̍̿͗͐̾̚͏̛͕͙͓̼͖̤̣̼͉̱̪͇̥̘̩̫̦͢ͅͅ ͌̎̓́҉̷̛̺̝̠͇̩̜̯̯̝̝̞ͅl̓͐͊ͥ̊ͥ̄ͧ͗͏̬̲̥̯̱̳̭̼̥̀o͉̺̤̫͓̮̪͚͈ͦͫ̃̉̊̅̽̈́̀̚n̸̼̲̻̘͎̼̬͚͚̪̟̭ͯ̐̆̓̐͋͐̐̽͜͡͡g̡̈̂ͦ̌҉̴͇͈͙̮̦͓͈͟ͅ ̷̨͚̘̻̖̺̖̺̫ͮ́̊͐̑ͭͩ̇ͅt̓̏́͊̔̇́̅̂̓̃̓͟͜͏̧̥͙̫̘̺̻͍̩į̸̾ͥ͋͆͑ͩ͑̿ͬͧ̌̅̐͑ͥ̑͟͏̖̮̪̼͓͕̖m̃ͥͭͭͨ͋̃̑͊̓ͤ̅͐̃͆́̍̍̄҉̶҉͉̱̘̩͈̣̼̣́e̴̢̺̗͇̹̘̩̭̥̮͓͓̤̹͔̯̦̰̎̂ͧ̑̾͜ͅͅ.̡ͬ̉ͬ̉̎ͥ̇̇҉҉̝̖̠̠̫̦̟̻̼͈̣̙̺̫̬͍

 

“We Frost Giants don’t always get to choose our lives. Most of us are born into brutish isolation, or swept up in vast blizzards of war. I too was almost lost to darkness, but I was able to get my wish to study magic – and when you wandered into my life to become my apprentice, you became a beacon of that dream. My glittering starlight.”

She smiled from ear to ear. “I’m glad I can be that.”

“Think nothing of it, Starlig̫͇̱̟̞̠̅̅̄͠ht. Now. Lunch beckons!”


The plate was stacked high with assorted meats, sweets and drinks, in no particular semblance of order. Starlight dug in with her fork and pulled out a chunk of steak, stared at it for a moment, and then ate it.

“You know, I never fancied myself as a c̞̅͆ͪͣ͆͂̽̀ook,” said her master. “Never did quite get the balances right. But I’ve gotten pretty good, wouldn’t you agree?”

“It’s lovely!” It was indeed tender and succulent – though perhaps a bit too much uncooked cake batter in the aftertaste.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Aha! I wonder who that could̵͍͕̤̙̣̪̩̲̝͉̈͑͋́͘ͅ be,” he said, setting down his spellbook, and walked out of the room to answer.

And for a moment, Starlight was alone. She stood up from her salmon ganache to inspect the book, running her hands over its azure surface, lost in its embossed lightning bolts and fractal stars.

The Zikaron walked in through the wall of cooking utensils as though it wasn’t there, checking his pocket watch before snapping it closed and taking a couple of sharp inward breaths. “Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Argh!” She startled and took a few steps back, attempting to lift the book off the desk only for it to come crashing down on top of her. “Who are you? What are you doing in our castle?”

He grimaced. “What exactly does it take for one of you people to notice me once in a while? Honestly.”

He folded his arms and watched as the frost giant came back into the room, along with the new guest.

“I must say, it’s such a pleasure to see you agai – oh, my goodness, Starlight! Are you all right?” Her master rushed over to her in two bounding steps. “You know that book̇ͥͫ̌҉̫̳̠ is solely for experienced wizards, you can’t lift it-”

“It’s all right, Cerym. Leave her like you left me.”

He faltered and slowly turned to look behind him. Starlight was just able to make out the new arrival; her skin bright red, clad in a cloak as black as her eyes.

“What do you mean, Esteem?” The warmth in her master’s voice was gone.

“Oh, you should know well enough. Magic is a gift only suited for those who deserve to wield it. But you filled my head with lies and told me I was fit to learn it. Blinded me to the truth. But my new master showed me the light. Said I can learn from her lieutenant in Waterdeep if I just perform one little test.”

“Esteem, I” – the frost giant stood slowly – “I did no such thing. Your aptitude for magic was extraordinary, and I taught you everything I knew! You were a prodigy, I named you as such!”

“What do you know, Cerym?” Esteem had produced a small bundle of wrapped cloth, and slowly unfolded it to reveal a glittering crystal dagger – its colours shifting to every hue from reds to golds to deepest black.

“What…is…”

“DON’T LIE TO ME, GIANT!” Esteem bellowed in the confined space of the kitchen. The rock gnome’s eyes welled up, her lip quivering. “You know full well what this is. And you should tell your new student.”

He looked with mournful eyes down at her. “Starlight, this is the metagospel dagger. Legends tell of its power to…to-”

“N̡̩͈͕̝ͧ̍ͭͬ̈́ͧ͜ǫ̲̩̺̦̟̬̜̜̀̐́t̵͇̟̜͚̹̗̮̰̤ͫ̄̉ͪ̊͂ ̜̘͔͖͎͎̙̉̅ͨ̇͐̿̑ͅg̰̞̗͙͈̟̳̳͕̓ͪ͛ͥ̓̋͑̔́ǫ̶̢̲͚̮̪͙̆ͥo̽͐҉̧̮̦͎̀d̡̼̹͍͈̣̬̄́̂ͩ͘ ̟̻̯̠̜̤̪̲̥̏̀ḛ͔̞̳̼̖̔̓ͧ̀ͪ̈ͯ̃nͭͬͬ̓͆͗̇̈́̚͏̫̼̼̭͓͇͕̟̱͢ỡ̖͈̠͕͈̖̭͉ͭ̊̏ͯ̇͘͝ͅụ̸̶̪̺̝͚̭̮̯͇͊ͤ̓ͩ̄̚͜ǧ̓͏̩̟͖̱͈̗h̥̼̻͙̥͂̑̿̓̓̽.” Esteem was across the room in a flash as she stabbed the giant square in the chest. He roared in pain, blood gushing from the wound as Starlight screamed. “Poor Cerym here was s͆͑̊̿͆͏͏̛̘̮̘̞̻̼̘͔̝̱̣̕͜ͅǫ̤̼͕ͯͤͥͭ̐̽͑̋ͥ̽̉͋ͭ̀͘͢͝ͅ upset at being born outside of his pitiful lot in life, so he sought out the mythical weapon that could alter ṙ̴̭̻͍̳̲̼́ͦ͜͡ȩ̼̭͎̖̫͕̙̃̆̂͗ͬ̿͒ͤ́ȁ̢̨̡͈̲̻̹̐̀ļ̘͉̳̣̒̓̎ͅi̱̓̔̇́̽ͪ͆̂͞t̛͇͚̙͈̺̺̤̩ͤ̊͗̅͗̾͝y̢ͮ҉͔̠͍͙̟̼͉͢ ̡̲̜̪͖͚̰́ͯͨ̿͜ị̶̣̻͕ͫͩ̈t̸̡̮̜̻̤̞̥͓̎ͨ̑ͪ̑̀s͖̗͚̖̈́̾e̻̬͔͍̯̋͌l̖̥̿ͣͩ̓͌͐̇́̃̕f̭̪͋̽̂̄͂ͧ́̀͝ ,” she snarled, her eyes flaring and teeth gnarled. “Not like a simple Wish spell, you understand, something far greater in power. Something which could make him a wonderful old wizard respected t h r o u g h o u t   t h e   l a n d . . .”

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The Zikaron stepped in as the room ground slowly to a halt. “Alright, that’s enough. This is clearly too traumatic for-” He stopped. Dust burst from his mouth, which became a dribble of blood.

“I̡̨̲̠͉̫͇͔̱̟̖̮̘̭̦̠ͩ͋ͪ̓̉͛̓ͦͨ̂ͥ̑ͬ͟ ̶͙̜͚͉̞̗̠̠͎̞̬̠̺̒̎̋̓̉̓̍̃ͤͨͭ͑̆̈͝w̡̉ͫ̃̋̽ͬ̆̇͑ͬ̍̈́ͭ̃̄͌̒͛͏̡̬̺͍̟̳̙͖̫̣̞̺͇͎͉͖a̦̺͚͇̲̝̳̭̯̮͔ͭ̎̍̚͠͞s̢͈̩̩͖̞̹̈̌ͪ̊͐̐̈̎ͬ͂͞͡nͬ͗̀͗͆̔͐̓̈́ͦͫ͋ͤ̍̓̓͆͠҉̨̜̫̥̮̻͟͡’̴̎̋ͩ̄̒ͯ́҉͔͙̺̪̞̺̖̞̫̣͕͙̮̤̰̙͠ͅt̲̫̙̾̉ͪ̉͋ͮ̆̉ͤ̑͋̊́̕͢͝ͅ ̄̄͛̒̊̔͊̈͋͋̆̇̓̚҉̴̧̺̥̺̩̼̘̠͠f̫̣̣̝̪̰̼͖͎̙̜̤͚̠ͫ̇ͯͩ̂̐ͨ̆ͧͯͯ͂̊ͦ͗͌͐̌ͧ̀͘ͅȉ̢̗̺̠̘̣ͤͮͨ̔̆̉̽ͧ̌ͥ͑͂̿̓̏̒̒n̈́͋̌̾ͥ̆̐̂͂̊̀̇͑ͤͮ̌̀̀͏̧̰͕̺͕͈̺͘ͅí̬͔̦͍̲̣̟̤̲͓͇͍͒̿̃̈̔̃̎ͭ͛͊ͨ̅̾͊͢͢͠š̡̱̺̫̺̲̰̪͖̣̦̱̫̯̯̈ͬ̂ͫͯ̓̋̈́̃ͫ̓̎́͘ḩ͔̩̼̟̻̬͇͉͖̜͖͇̩̰̟͌ͮ̓̔̃̏̊ͬͦ͒̂̀ͮ͑̊͂ͯ̎̀͢͟e̽̾̿ͫ̈́ͦͭͮͦ͑̐͛̆ͣ͏̶̬̝̰̜̻̺̻̰̟̫̬̯͖̘͔̪͙͡ͅḍ̴̸̶̴̢̭̱͕̲̪̘̖͖̯͓̼̩̹͛ͯ̐̿̎͑̔̒͗̔̓ͣ̈ͣ͆͐. ” Esteem laughed as the mysterious apparition fell to his knees, sputtering. “This tells me all about who you are,” she said. “You’re one of the Hosts of the Nexus, an extraplanar inn that gives its guests whatever they want. Which means…

She knelt down to look at Starlight directly in the face. “You can’t stop reliving this memory of us, can you?” She tapped the dagger’s hilt against Starlight’s forehead, its blade still dripping with blood that fizzed and boiled into shapes and colours she didn’t understand. “Look at me, living rent-free in your stupid little head.”

Starlight’s eyes burned, the tears streaming. “WHY?!” she yelled. “He told me about you, he told me he loved you, he told me he was proud of you! And you KILLED HIM!” She pushed with all her might..and the massive book rose as if lighter than air and slammed Esteem against the wall.

The tiefling coughed as the tome fell to the floor, as both slowly rose to their feet. “i̶̘̪ͭ͋ͭ͑̄̐ͥ̄͂͝ṃ̹̺̯͇͍̞͇ͮpossible. You don’t deserve his power. You were nothing but a street urchin when he found you. Begging for bread and scraps. You’re n͕͇̜̞͓̮͓͙̾̽͋ͯ̋o̮͔̠͇̜̾͠t̑͑̕͠͏̺̤̙̖̹h̦̝̫̹̯̄́̿́̇ͬ̎͝i͈͔̣̣̟̝̥̗̠͐͑̄n͎̟̱͎͒ͬĝ̶̤͍͕̥̑ͧ̍̚̕.

Her hands aglow with power, her tear-ridden eyes bursting with brilliant light, she gritted her teeth. “I guess you were wrong again.”

The dagger dug deep into her stomach. Esteem twisted it. “You m̪ͭ̿͛͊ͪ͊͝i͆͆̌̊̆ͧ̊͏̝̹sͣ͒̌҉͕̟̼u̙̝̦̭͆̇ͬn̘̟̩̮ͬ̃ͮd̩͍͉̙̜̘̑̃̐͂ͨ͢é̪̥̱̽͆̆́r̟̲̠̭̗͉̍͛͐͌ͦs͕͓͓̰ͪt̙ͯͥàǹ͂ͩ̅̔ͮ̚d̺̤̯ͨ͋ͦͭͬ me. My master told me about whelps like you. Those who don’t appreciate gifts. You are nothing. You have no meaning. You are a zero sum.

Star////____—_____||||||| f%%%%ell t[[[[]]]]]]]ound, 888&&&&&&ing.

⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠ looked up from the ground. “It’s so dark here. Wh..who am I?”

She saw the corpse of the frost giant, his blood soaking the kitchen.

“Master! M…aster! Aster!”

Esteem laughed, a mocking tone that cut the air like a knife each time. “That’s right, Aster. His name was Aster, you fucking moron. And you?” She kicked ⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠⊠ in the stomach, the gnome howling in pain.

“Your name is Squish. Because that’s the only thing that deserves to happen to you.”

And with that, she turned around and dissipated into dust, the room with her.


Squish started awake with a gasp, clasped her hands to her stomach. She was okay. She looked over and sprang to her feet, racing over to the still-kneeling Zikaron.

“Oh my days, Mr. Zikaron, are you okay? I didn’t realise you could be hurt, and because of me!”

He stood up, holding up a hand. “It is alright, young one. I…I am sorry. If I had known that memory were so traumatic, and involving such a powerful artefact, I would have never accepted the Taoiseach’s request to take care of you in this way.”

“I’m so, so, so, so sorry!” Squish helped the host to his feet. “But don’t you worry! Me and my friends, we followed Esteem to Waterdeep after this and we sent her packing along with her boss-man Manshoon!”

“Manshoon the Manyfaced,” pondered the Zikaron. “Perhaps he was the lieutenant she mentioned. If there was any power that would let someone split their consciousness across so many bodies and times, it would be that dagger. And to think it a mere gift for the true master to send…”

He stopped himself.

“But that is not for me to ponder any further. Did you…get what you desired from this visit?”

Squish looked up, and smiled weakly.

Not really. I wanted to see Aster again, and I wanted to learn more about my past. Apart from that dagger thing, I guess I’m just the same old same old. Squish, unchanged!”

The Zikaron opened his mouth to say something, but…closed it again.

She raised a hand to her cheek. “Have I been crying? Can I go back to see my friends now, please?”

“As…as you wish, ma’am.”

There was a bright flash of light, and Squish was gone.

Become the Enemy

“Wake up, young one.”

Ralan grumbled and rolled over the other way. “It has got to be barely the stroke of midnight.”

Wulfric smiled, or at least his beard ruffled and folded amongst itself to imply one. “We do our best work by moonlight, do we not?” He was already fully dressed, slotting his ornately polished blade into its scabbard.

“I tend to do my best sleeping, to be honest.” Ralan gingerly pulled the covers around his neck, the ice-cold thin wisps of morning mist nipping at him. He squinted as he looked around the room, seeing the gently snoring forms of his friends. Damien, covers completely off, was sleeping in a position so uncomfortable-looking that it was if he had been stuffed into the corner like a disposed rag. “Could you not have woken me last?”

“In a way I did, old sport!” The covers were whipped away, and Ralan’s teeth clenched. “Just me and you. Two Hunters on a secret mission! Like old times!”

“The thing about old times,” Ralan stood and draped his shirt over himself, doing the buttons with one hand, eyes half closed while slinging his weapons belt over his shoulder with the other, “is that newer times came along.”

“Don’t be such a wet blanket, brother!” Wulfric picked up one of Ralan’s things, opened it, and passed him one of its contents, a fire snapping into existence on his hand once it had been taken to singe its end gently. “And there’s reward in it for you.”

Ralan took a long puff of the cigar, and grinned. “Fine. Let’s do this.”

Their boots trudged through the night air, their matching coats whipping at their ankles. Moonlight bathed the crumbling architecture of the Abbey before them, shining through the remnants of its stained glass and – though they were mostly shattered and scratched almost to nothing – projected the writhing storms and dashed ships against rocks as though the building still stood proud.

“Why does anyone worship Talos?” Wulfric tutted and kicked one of the shards over the rocks into the ocean. “Destruction and chaos never changed targets because someone pledged their souls to them. Can I have a breath of that cigar?”

“Is it any different for us?” Ralan passed over the cigar with a barely-repressed smirk as the shivering Wulfric eagerly took it. “Become the enemy to understand the enemy. If you know what pleases a chaotic god and do your best to please Him, maybe you can, you know, get into his good graces.”

“There’s a difference” – Wulfric coughed and sputtered, plumes of acrid pink smoke billowing from his nose and mouth – “between learning the dark arts to arm yourself and cowering within them to escape their gaze. What is in those?”

Ralan chuckled and took a deep breath inwards, feeling the calming warmth spread through him. “I think there’s value on both sides of that coin.”

The two descended beneath the folds of the Abbey, Wulfric leading the way.

“So what’s the score?” Ralan brushed some of the cobwebs from the walls around him.

“There’s a great treasure in this place. But I can’t trust any of my Order. I can’t trust these acolytes. I certainly don’t think we can trust those you’re with.”

“I’ve been through much with that lot,” Ralan noted. “You’re the Hunter-Guardian of Waterdeep, you must have seen the fruits of our labour? Dragons flying free above the city? Coins falling like rain for all to see?”

“I’m well aware of the Golden Shower, brother.”

“Please tell me they’re not calling it that.”

“But I had no idea it was you! Trouble really does follow you around.”

Ralan bowed and beamed, his eyes closed. “I prefer to think of it as us following trouble around.”

“What’re you saying?”

“Oh, nothing. But you’re doing yourself no favours dragging me to the basement of a ruined abbey, friend. We’ve already had to fight the undead on this place.”

“It’s a wreck, that’s for sure. After you,” he beckoned.

“So courteous. Do go on.”

“When we were beached on this infernal island, I thought there had to be some sort of reason for it. Some strange design to make our home amongst these idiotic adherents to the Storm God. There was this…itch. At the base of my skull.”

Wulfric closed the stone door behind Ralan, whose eyes snapped open.

“You don’t say?”

“And the devil I’m partnered with, calls himself Danterius, he told me that if I anchored down, and waited, there would be a visitation. An entire boatload of people who would show me the way. And who else would come but you?”

Ralan’s right hand came up to run fingers through his slicked black hair. The left clenched around the hilt of his blade beneath the coat.

“Little Ralan. Messing around with his reprobate friends. Tell me, how long were you going to mess around with that gang of misfits to hide from your duty? Cowering within the walls of compassion is like no Blood Hunter rite I have ever seen.”

Wulfric slammed his fist into the wall, alight with flame, and the pits of oil along it burst into life, drops of burning oil spilling past Ralan, surging around the alcoves and down a spout onto a pile of curious blue rocks arranged in a circle on the floor. They glowed and spat, blue flames soaring towards the top of the chamber.

He turned to Wulfric. “I’m guessing those aren’t sapphires?”

Hello, Ralan. It’s a pleasure to meet you one-on-one.”

He slowly turned back around, and caught the familiar twist of Wulfric’s beard into a smile as he did.

“For goodness’ sake, not you again.”

Me indeed.” Bathed in the centre of the blazing blue fire was a woman, her hair solid black, her eyes a resonant amber. And – on the inside of her cloak – a glittering infinity of twinkling stars that didn’t seem to move with her. A window into the abyss. “My name is-

“Celene Kersk,” Ralan finished. “Or at least that’s the body you’re puppeteering around. I think my friend called you Arc? Archie?”

Her eyes flashed, and two or three of the stars twinkled. “Arcavius. They call me the Lord of the Broken Throne. Prince of the Fractal Plane.

Ralan spat on the ground. “They call me the Viscount of Lif Manor. One day I will be Hunter-Guardian of my own constituency. But I’ve got to ask; none of those names were Danterius.”

Call it a practical joke. Like the drunkard act I induced in your friend there. Did you not think it was strange he was so…unlike himself?

Ralan turned to look at Wulfric, who was now staggering, drool foaming from his lips. “The Order of the Profaned Soul communes with all manner of creatures and filth from outside this plane. I take it he dived too deep?”

The woman held aloft a locket, on which were several lockets. Each held the image of a different person. Screaming and banging silently against the glass. And held at the top between her fingers, Wulfric’s face pleaded for mercy.

The secrets he told me of his Order. So many willing vessels should they suffice. Fools, all.

“So what do you want from me?” Beneath his coat, Ralan pulled his hilt a few inches from the scabbard and dragged his thumb over the blade, feeling the quick sting of steel – and the gentle tickle of an increasing surge of energy.

You’re going to come with Wulfric to Saltmarsh. You have so much to contribute to my glorious work. And I think we’ll see eye to eye on such matters.

“You’re deeply mistaken if you think I’m going to-” Ralan began, but he choked as a sword erupted through his chest, blood dripping from its tip. He just about managed to turn his head to see Wulfric – his eyes glazed over – shove the sword further as he gritted his teeth in pain. Around his head, he felt the pull of rusted metal digging in, and a thousand chanting voices, all beckoning him to surrender.

The woman who was Celene Kersk who was Arcavius who was his master extended her gloved hand from the flames, as real as the walls and the sky and the infinite planes that stretch and drip into eternity. Reach your hands out and understand-

Wait. What’s happening? Why are you laughing?

“Oh, come on.” Ralan’s teeth were sharpening by the second as he bit down hard on the cigar, his pupils collapsing into thin slits, his arms extending as he reached up to pull the iron crown from his ragged hair and pointed ears. “All those secrets, and Wulfric never told you what happens when you cut me?

He grabbed the sword’s blade and shoved it back through himself, the blood dripping from his clawed fingers and cracking with electrical energy. He swung his hand and sent the blue coals spinning, the woman in the flames flickering out of existence. Grabbing Wulfric by the head, he threw him underarmed, sending the bearded Hunter bursting through the stone walls before leaping after him.

“You’re a disgrace to the Orders, little Ralan.” Wulfric tutted mockingly as he wiped the blood and dust from his face. “Master Ward shall hear of this. And what of Master Mercer?”

Ralan’s feet dug into the rock with a screech, and he howled, Wulfric wincing as the sound reverberated from the sundered stone. Ralan’s snout twisted into a grin.

“I don’t see Mercer anywhere. Do you?”

Wulfric’s eyes burned bright blue, and he drew his sword, spinning it about himself in a wide arc. “If I can’t claim you for her plan, then you shall kneel before her throne!”

“I kneel,” Ralan snarled, “for NO ONE!”

He lunged forwards, grasping Wulfric by the head and flinging him against the floor with a sickening crack. The elder staggered to his feet – his head clicking itself back into alignment – before he extended a hand, the armatures of a great crossbow unfolding from either side of his forearm.

Bolt after bolt fired into Ralan as the colossal lynx, draped in torn fabric, stomped towards him – before serrated claws dug straight through Wulfric’s chest, Ralan hoisting him high.

Wulfric’s voice bubbled and distorted. “Dear sweet Ralan. Dancing through life with a cabal of morons in the hopes of achieving the greater good.”

Ralan sniffed at his friend. “Become the enemy…”

“To understand the enemy?”

“To DESTROY the enemy!”

Ralan swung with his free hand, but Wulfric snapped his fingers and the clawed paw merely scratched at his cheek. Ralan began to howl and scream, the bolts buried in his chest sizzling within him, sapping his strength like ice. His bones and muscles cracked and tore as he returned to human form, lightning sparking from his body, the pack of cigars spilling onto the ground with he rest of him.

Wulfric reached down and picked up one of the burning coals, crushing a cigar under his heel. “Dream of brewing that beer of yours in peace, dear Ralan.”

The coal burst into a smaller plume of cerulean fire, Celene or Arcavius smiling within. “Bring him to me.”

Wulfric hoisted the younger Hunter’s body over his shoulder. “At once, my Master.”

“There’s a good little-”

“YOU ARE BEING ENTERED BY SQUISH!

The wall beside them burst into a thousand pieces, a gargantuan golden energy ripping it to shreds, concrete blocks and rebar flying across the room.

Wulfric slowly turned to face the source of the noise, the vast opening in the wall.

From the gently rising smoke strode a cleric, one arm covered in fine silver and gold armour, twirling his mace. A rock gnome, on her back a great tome and between her hands a brilliant orange spark. And – arms behind his back, immaculate black boots and blood-red waistcoat – a man with onyx hair and a green glint to his eyes.

Damien tilted his head to one side.

“Not interrupting, are we?”

Closing Time

Soundtrack:

YOURS TO THE COURT, AND THE COURT BE TO THEE

YOU CRY OUT FOR HER, AND FOUND ONLY ME

Knock knock knock.

The torches’ light danced against rusted goblets and cracked window panes in the dim lull of evening. Sturm plunged a well-worn plate into soapy water, scratching away at the final dregs of food before hefting it – still dripping with suds – onto the drying rack. Outside, the winds howled amidst the gentle hiss and bubble of the woods.

Knock knock knock.

He turned around to grab another plate – only to see the last morsels and scratches fizz and spark from the dozen now immaculate pieces of crockery. He sighed, slapped his damp apron on the worktop, and hoisted himself over it to walk over to the door.

“You know, that doesn’t get you a discount,” he said.

“Will it at least keep you open for a few more minutes?” Leaning against the porch was a man in a pristine red waistcoat, a wry smile nestled within his close-cut beard. “It’s frightfully cold out here; I’m pleasantly surprised such a place could exist in a swamp.”

Sturm gestured over his shoulder and the man whipped past him, his boots – gleaming as though freshly polished the moment before – rapping against the rotting wooden floorboards. “I don’t think it’s surprising at all,” he said, beaming. “No matter how dark the world might be, there’s always a place in it for a hearth and a glass of mead.”

The man turned towards him and smiled more warmly, his eyes a shimmering gold. “I can respect that. Name’s Damien,” he said, taking off his leather glove and holding out a hand, which Sturm took and shook with a calloused surety.

“Yarnok,” he lied, as he hoisted himself over the bar once again. “What can I fix you?”

Image result for fantasy art tankard

“Your choice, I think,” Damien replied. “I didn’t particularly want to inconvenience you, I know it’s late, so whatever you’ve got that’s refined.”

“A discerning fellow indeed.” Sturm grinned as he smacked down a tankard and filled it with a tap ale. Damien’s face tightened, but he accepted and sipped on the liquid nonetheless. It lay somewhere betwixt liquid and solid. “So what brings you to my little establishment?”

YOU SOUGHT COMMUNION, TO WHAT END?

WITHIN THE COURT, YOU HAVE NEW FRIENDS

“I’m travelling in the region with a few of my friends. Fellow adventurers,” he said after a particularly chewy gulp of ale. “Did you hear about the dragons raining gold over the city of Waterdeep?”

“No.”

“Well, it happened,” Damien said, tersely. “And it was all thanks to me and my little…” he paused, “arrangement of colleagues.”

“Yeah? Where’s your party now then?”

“I felt I would step away from them for a moment. I have a personal matter to deal with, you see.”

“You too, eh? There was a young girl who came here earlier too. A cleric of Illmater. Her mother had been captured by sahuagin, and she’d stumbled across this place on her journey back to find their nest. So she took a fully deserved rest.”

Damien’s head tilted back and looked down at the halfling’s crooked nose and warm smile. “A dangerous foe to face alone.”

“Aye, ‘s’what I said to her as well. But you know the sort. Those who risk everything in service of what they believe in.”

Damien considered this; one didn’t get to travel the country with an eccentric gnomish wizard, an iron-willed cleric and a deeply committed were-lynx blood hunter without meeting at least a few of those sorts of people.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he said.

“Too right! You worship the god of endurance and you’re going to have to endure something pretty nasty. Anyway,” he continued, “if you don’t mind, though, I’ll be turning in for the night. Use your little fancy spell to clean up after yourself or whatever-”

Image result for fantasy art orb

Clunk. Finishing the rest of the ‘drink’ off, Damien had produced a small object from his pack and placed it on the bar before the tankard joined it. Within its clearly circular form swirled a strange fractal formation, fizzing and sparking and juxtaposing itself with bizarre shapes and all manner of colours.

The two looked at each other over the bar for a moment.

“Whassat?”

“It’s called a scrying orb, Sturm,” said Damien as the halfling’s face fell. “I acquired it from a friend of mine, pirate by the name of Harkaway. Do you want to guess what it does?”

GOODNESS, YES, HIS TRUE FEAR GROWS

…DO YOU THINK HE EVEN KNOWS?

“I’d…suppose it lets you…spy on people.”

“Mmm. But I wasn’t looking for you, you see, I was searching for an old friend of mine. A woman in a twilight cloak.”

“Esmé-”

Damien clicked his tongue. “I don’t care what name she told you she had. The woman who sought refuge at this tavern. The woman who made you set up a teleportation circle in the back room for her to escape with.”

Sturm looked left and right, and then clapped his hands together.

“Master Damien, Esm-” – he saw Damien’s eyebrow raise – “…whoever she really was, she was seeking an audience with one of her consorts. Someone who’d signed a contract with her in exchange for grand magical gifts. One of those warriors who’d do anything to fight the forces of evil, you know?” The last few words were in a ridiculous posh accent. “Including making deals with the devils themselves.”

He looked at Damien, who beckoned him to keep talking.

“That’s all I’ve got. You’ve got to understand, friend, you don’t know her like I do. She has immense power -”

HAVE YOU NOT ENJOYED MY SPORT?

A DANCE WITH POWER OF ANOTHER SORT

Image result for green glass shards

Damien’s eyes flared a sickly purple, the torches sparking with the same amethyst light. From his outstretched hand, dozens of green tentacles burst forth from ragged portals, stripping the screaming halfling’s arm clean off. He dropped to the ground, howling in pain, as Damien hopped over the bar and knelt down over him.

Do you think me any lesser?

The halfling spat on the floor at his feet. “She-she said you’d come. Said you’d ask all about her contracts and her plans.”

“Well, she was right, wasn’t she? How strange that you seem surprised that it’s all re-ally ha-ppen-ing“, he said, drawing out each of the last words as the halfling tried in vain to pull themselves away along the floor. Damien crushed his boot into his back, reaching behind the bar and pulling out a bottle rimmed with golden accents. “You could have at least tried to poison that utter shit you tried to pour me. Might have given it some character.”

Sturm coughed and wailed. “I did! You should be hacking your guts up by now! Everyone does!”

Damien paused for a moment. He didn’t feel partic-

YOU’RE WELCOME, CHILD, BUT QUITE MOREOVER

MY FUN WITH YOU IS FAR FROM OVER

-and digged his boot harder into the halfling, who squealed like a stuck pig.

“Please! Please stop! If I tell you something more, you’ll-you’ll let me go, right?”

Damien smirked. “I’m waiting.”

“The contract she made, she asked me to put it somewhere no-one would find it. It’s in a secret compartment. In-in the bottom of a chest of gold, which I gave to a mercenary!”

Silence fell – except for Sturm’s whimpers.

“You hid vitally sensitive information,” Damien repeated, slowly, “in a chest full of gold?

Sturm laughed a guffaw that was really more a tortured gurgle. “And a few other surprises. I expect the Emperor of the Waves‘ maiden voyage was not a pleasant one.”

The boot came off the halfling’s back.

“Thank you for your courtesy.” Wine bottle in hand, Damien started to make his way towards the door, leaving the spluttering halfling behind.

“You have to understand, this place is an easy way to eke out a living,” Sturm choked. “This place is like my – like an angler fish, right? People come from all over to stumble into my little haven. What’s wrong with helping one more person on their way?”

Damien stopped dead just short of the door.

“Sturm,” he said. “The girl. The cleric of Illmater. What really became of her?”

“Please-”

“Answer me!”

Silence – save whimpering – once more. Then-

“We ate well.”

Damien turned slowly back towards the halfling, who was desperately trying to crawl to the back of the pub…and snapped his fingers to undo the little courtesy that had granted him entry.

He saw the plates, stacked high from earlier, strewn with weeks of half-eaten viscera. Knives and forks soaked in blood. And, as Damien pushed the great lock on the door shut with a definitive thunk, he saw – nestled amongst several other trinkets in the filthy crimson apron – a necklace of Ilmater.

He snapped his fingers again and the lights flickered to nothing.

And Sturm began to scream.

Image result for tavern at night

JUSTICE DONE, TRUE FAITH’S REWARD

COME, AM I NOT THY ONE TRUE LORD?