Mordulon-Fall of the Crimson Throne

Deep Thoughts of Nixie Waywocket
The mark on my chest and the mark on my heart

I fear for the ones around me… I am starting to think that I myself am not in danger but the ones around me shall soon all perish.

 

Maybe there was no assassin that took Nixon’s life all to soon. Maybe it was.. me. If not possessed by some demon, maybe some curse changed the rune that took his life..

 

I touched the mark on my chest the cold made me shiver. I never seemed to get used to it’s touch. It made me uneasy like when you see something out of the corner of your vision but when you turn nothing is there.

 

The body counts are getting higher and higher. Nixon. The town. Acoylte. Ares. Donovan… How many others would fall? How many others would be taken? Mustafa can probably beat death to hell with a drumstick or just keep him away with road bacon.. Dhorn could probably sneak by Death and pick his pocket unnoticed. I did not fear for them but the others… Who would be next?

 

What would I do if Nicoli fell and never rose again? What would be the last string holding this frail mind together? Who will I hurt next?

 

The time is now to solve this. The new library shall be of much use… But first, do I solve the riddle of this cursed mark or research the cursed mark stamped within?

 

 

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The Words of Windegast the Wanderer — 1

Hastily scratched day, approximate location, and date.

I find myself now in the far east. This place is called the Land of Dragonmen. Dragon Men? Dragon-men?

There is a scribbling of notes in regards to reading up on the area before speaking to anyone important.

I was traveling downriver when word that powerful giants, known as Oni, had lain siege to the mercantile city of Kirtholde. The boats stopped coming down river, waiting for the smoke to clear, as they say. I had to walk the rest of the way, to the grave confusion of my escort.

Long before I arrived the beasts were slain by a small group of adventurers. I wanted to get their account of events before it was stale in their minds. I sought to find them. Simple enough, the city was all atwitter with their deeds.

A later date.

I am not impressed with these Onislayers. I was expecting powerful heroes doing powerful things, but they seem on the brink of collapse. Some of them seem outright suspicious of one another, and some have isolated themselves. Two of them are always up late into the night, and I suspect one doesn't sleep.

There is a cheerful looking gnome who told me if I got to know them that I would likely die. I wasn't sure whether that was a veiled threat, but I know how to handle myself.

There is an aloof dwarf who I gleaned was named Troyjorn. I suspect there are more j's in his name, but I'll figure that out later. He was talkative enough once I started speaking his language.

Note to self: learn dwarven.

He told me that they were brought together by external forces. Many of them had met in a small town called Antimor. My rudimentary maps do not this small town, several days south from Kirtholde as the bird flies. Apparently it was outright destroyed by a god. The Goddess of Destruction: Yaarsk. I believed him, even though it sounded outlandish. Not because he was charming, and her certainly doesn't have magic at his disposal.

He showed me a bizarre tattoo. A mark that many of them had. Apparently there were other adventurers who had this mark. One of them was killed, and one of them was taken to the capital to face trial for the destruction of village.

Maybe the gnome was right.

A later date.

Their story is far more interesting than I thought. They had apparently just lost another friend, and that explained a lot of their distance from my questions. I didn't know I was being so rude. This group apparently had been trying to unravel the mystery of murders in town, and how it was connected to Lord and Lady Highwater's son Jogrin.

The Onislayers killed him in what I suppose might be the end of the mystery. The Onislayers allowed me to accompany them to his cave and workshop. We found nothing useful. The scholarly ones—Ilya and Troyjorn—had uncovered clues connecting all of this to the Orders of the Key and a ritual to communicate with the god Stuvenkal.

I recognize the names of the Key Orders from very old texts. Mostly mentioned in passing. I need to find texts that layout all of their relationships.

I think I'll be following this group for a time. It seems that their journey thus far has been a mystery, and I am quite curious.

A later date.

We have traveled to Azarea. On the way we saved a paladin from some bandits. While he seems pious, I am suspicious of him. He didn't seem to need our help, so how was it the group was overpowered?

He has a job for us to go search out the workings of a shadowy merchant named Obdiah. This Obdiah is the man who was paying the assassins to protect and serve Jogrin. We are off to investigate several of his warehouses and see what he's hiding. I would personally vote that we ignore this man, but being that Lord and Lady Highwater failed to reward the hard work and sacrifices made by the Onislayers, we don't have many options.

I regret that I did not threaten the Lord and Lady. Failing to protect your city is one thing, failing to raise your heroes up is a blunder that have undone entire wars.

A later date.

We have selected warehouse that we will investigate. Word from the paladin is that trafficked goods hide among the crates in this warehouse, but we will be looking for something far darker. The hardest part about having these questions is that not only do we not know the answer, but we also have no inkling as to what form the answer might take.

I'm not as young as I used to be. Time to dust off my spell book.

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A Letter

Dear Donovan,

 

I hope I am doing this right… I have never written to anyone before because- well there was no one to ever write to. I never knew my parents and my uncle would never have to time to read “such nonsense.”

I hope you aren’t mad but I found a burned paper on the ground and I read it… It must have fallen out of your journal when I was carrying you. It was a letter to your grandmother… Did you not get the time to send it by carrier? I would try to send it for you but it is too badly damaged to make any heads or tails of it. I bet she misses you..

 

I miss you..

 

I wanted to write this to apologize. You rescued me twice and I did nothing but fail you… Just like I failed to save Acoylte.. or failed to stand up and fight for Ares…

I want to be brave like you. I want to never falter and to fight for what’s right. Someday, I hope to strive and be at least part of the hero you were.

 

I want to make a promise to you.

I promise to always fight for the little guy.

I promise to always do my best.

I promise to never give up because you never gave up.

 

Thanks for always being a hero. I will never forget you..

Always your friend,

 

Nixie

 

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You Win Some...You Lose Some
Is the victory worth the loss?

My memory still hasn't returned.. No flashes. No clues.

 

Memories of Acolytes arm on the bridge and going into the forest.. Then only fragments remain. I haven’t told the others.

 

Donovan saved Mustafa and I from a cage.. but how had we gotten there? I couldn't tell you. Large chunks of time are gone and I haven’t been able to grasp the pieces.

 

Nikoli remains ever cheerful despite the bad around us. I wish I were so young and unburdened as he.

 

**

 

Fur pressed back in the wind, I keep my ears perked up listening for that maniac laughter that will bring us closer to our foe.

 

“Come and fight us you scoundrels!” Donovan yells, from my back.

 

My large paws thud softly on the ground as we scrounge the area looking for the Oni. I was terrified of what we might find but Donovan made me feel brave. Even the giant oaf Mustafa, gave me some sort of safe feeling. He was a jerk but he was strong and his ambition for coin kept him motivated to help.

 

Blood. I smell blood! Rounding the corner, dead bodies littered the ground. We found the Oni.. I let out a howl to alert the others.

 

**

 

“Why do you want to go back to the river?”

 

“I think there might be a cave or passage under the water..” I say a bit unsure of myself. “I think I might be able to transform into a shark.. I mean..I know I can transform into a shark.”

 

I tried to sound more confident than I was. I needed to contribute. I needed to prove to or group that I wasn't just dead weight.

 

“Well let’s go! We can do this!” Donovan grinned excitedly, a spark in his eyes.

 

I grinned in return. Maybe this wouldn't be such a bad idea.

 

**

 

This was a bad idea. After checking the river. It was a bust.

 

Ilya, one of the new members that has been hanging around, found a clue and we headed off to the tavern to recollect ourselves and come up with a plan. Our other new recruit, spotted a hooded man in a crowd, and I transformed into cat shape and chased after him. Tail twitching in irritation, I managed to keep up to lose him at the last second. Was it magic or skill to disappear in the crowd? I don't know what happened..

 

Returning to the tavern, I jumped on the counter and tipped over Nikoli’s glass, to feel better. It worked. I head butted his chin good-naturedly and plopped down on the seat beside him in my gnome form.

 

“Oh! Its you!” Nikoli exclaimed, dabbing at the mess.

 

I grinned in return.

 

**

 

“There is no way we should fight that.” Ilya said dryly.

 

“Lets kill it.” Mustafa said excitedly.

 

“Lets sleep first and then attack it!”

 

I listened quietly as the group discussed the fate of the giant metal bull in the small cave ahead. Part of me agreed with the tall dark figure but part of me also agreed with Mustafa. We went back to the edge of the cave to make camp. This was probably best.. This way I could change form twice, if push came to shove, in this battle against the bull. After the fight from earlier… My insides still felt cold from fear left over from the ghosts that ambushed us. I felt like their cold grip of horror they grasped me with, striped time from me… I quickly fell asleep.

 

**

 

RRRAAAAAAH!”

 

A shout awoke me, and startled, I quickly sat up to Ilya and Djorn fighting the metal bull. He came for us! Without even hesitating, hair still sticking up in everyway, I poofed into a dire wolf and jumped into battle immediately. Im sure my fur stuck out in odd angles from sleep, but I hardly noticed, as I jumped into the fray.

 

**

 

Donovan ran behind me he looked bloodied but fire shown in his eyes. He shouted about the bull’s mother, but his words were lost, as I stared into battle preparing my next move. I curved my tail protectively around the small frame of Donovan.

 

**

 

I released my grip, my teeth aching as I sprang again upon the bull. As Mustafa recoiled back from a hit, I took the opportunity to grab ahold of the bull’s horn and used my momentum, to flip over him and drag him down with me. Knocked off balance Mustafa jumped down and brought his literal blood red sword down on the bulls head. Suddenly fire exploded and I got knocked to the ground. Some of my fur was burned in patches.. How did I survive? The bull was dead..

 

I ran over to the small huddle in the grass. Jogran tossed a limp Donovan to the ground and Nikoli was grasping at a gushing wound to his neck. Blood stained his robes.. I lunged.

 

**

 

I spat Jograns leg onto the ground, Mustafa made the final blow, and ran to Donovan. He wasn't moving.. We needed to get him to the city! A make ship “sled” was fashioned and a crude harness was thrown over me to drag Donovan and a stone Magnus (the knight) to help.

 

**

 

“Here is gold! I don't have much but it is all I have! Take it!” I held out the bag of coin in both hands and begged the man for help. He had previously saved Nikoli and Hugh from death and he could save our friends now!

 

“He is not Halfling… He is not undead.. I do not understand the magic here. I do not know how he was alive.”

 

“If you do not know then there is hope! You say you do not have the answers for his condition! Then you know not that you cannot save him!”

 

“Even if I said yes, I do not have the materials! It would make much diamond dust to perform-“

 

I ignored the rest of his sentence and ran to Djorn.

 

“You are a thief, are you not? You have read many books as well. You know many things!”

 

“I wouldn't say thief… but I AM very skilled-“

 

“What are our options?” I stared up at Djorn with large expectant eyes. He would have an answer.. He would be the answer to save Donovan.

 

“I –I could get what is required but I have read nothing of this.. He might come back a monster. He is blackened and burned… From what this man is saying he should not have been alive..”

 

I left.

 

**

 

Outside, I ran. I ran until I was breathless and my legs shook.. I spotted a blackened piece of parchment and picked up the scrap piece. Few words could be made out, the rest was smudged, black, or missing all together.

 

“Dear Grandma,”

 

I squinted and tried to wiped some of the dirt away..

 

“friendship is deeper than knowing someone by name…I’m friends with Nixie..Djorn is trustworthy…”

 

The rest of the paper disintegrated to the touch. Flowing out into the breeze, little ashen words never to be read or uttered again.. I clutched the small piece I had remaining and tears spilled over. I could barely see as I made my way back to the tavern. Normally in grief I would go to the forest but I was exhausted. I just wanted to sleep.. Once in the tavern, my pain refused me to rest. I tossed and turned to no avail.

 

Giving up, I wandered the tavern searching. I soon found what I was looking for.. I went back to my room and sat on the floor… and started a letter…

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter 6 & 7: Good and Evil

Grandma,

We still haven't found the killer, and each step forward seems to be two steps back. The murders in the city have stopped, and it seems as though the last murder was done by the pair of Onis we've been dealing with.

The oni tried to get into the city last night, and I figured this time we would get them and I'd lead the charge. The Bronze had us locked in the safe house. There was a commotion outside and it looked like one oni was distracting some of the men, and the other oni was coming for us.

I thought we were strong enough to do it, so I convinced Mustafa and Nixie to help me chase it. Nixie can turn into animals! So she turned into a wolf and I rode her and we chased the oni into the forest. Mustafa wasn't far behind.

Once we were in the woods we lost it, but I was trying to be brave. Nixie was with me and Mustafa was coming. We heard a nearby search party come under attack. I figured we'd show up just in the nick (Nixie?) of time, but when we arrived they were all dead. The smell of blood is one I'll never forget.

Then the oni struck, and the three of us had to deal with it. It was terrible. I was far weaker than I thought. Finally help arrived and we slayed the oni, but the other one had found us. We were all beaten and bruised. I thought I was going to die.

Worse, I thought everyone else would. Since you died I've never really cared for anyone else. Not really. Yohan was my friend, but I'm beginning to realize friendship is deeper than knowing someone by name and having lunch with them. I'm friends with Ares and Nixie. Dorn is trustworthy but he treats me like a child. 

What if I had gotten them killed? What if they came to help me, but they died? Died because of me?

The second battle was hard. I was struck down over and over. The massive looming oni would appear out of thin air and stabbing people. But we killed it. And no one died. Everyone was muttering to themselves about how bad that could have been and all I could think is that it was my fault.

I thought back to the bridge with Ares, and how he said I was pretty heroic. Standing there covered in blood, surrounded by people covered in blood, I couldn't help but feel it was luck. We looked as terrible as the slaughtered men and women around us. The only difference was luck.

I slipped away without anyone noticing. I went to the bridge to calm my nerves. Usually I want to write after a battle. I want to remember it. But all I want is to forget it. I don't want to hear the screams. I don't want to smell the blood. I don't want to feel cold steel bite into my body.

There were people waiting for me on the bridge. They told me to stop investigating the murders and absolve Jogrin of suspicion. They were wearing those accursed masks. My scars hurt looking at them. I wanted to fight, but then they threatened my friends. They threatened Ares.

I'm not strong enough.

Should I have fought? Should I have raised my flag and died upon that bridge? They offered me gold. And I took it.

Good and evil is so much harder than I thought it would be. This is why James is always alone. This is why no story ever had repeating characters. I wonder what he was doing in between stories. Was he abandoning everyone he met and sailing away? Was he running? Was James Highwind a bad guy in the end? Just not as bad as the rest?

Am I a bad guy for thinking about doing the same thing?

I miss you, grandma.

Donovan

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Chapter 5: The Captain and the Oni.

Grandma,

I had a talk with Ares yesterday, and he made me wonder about the stories you told to me.  James Highwind is just a character.  Characters can't die, their story ends until you tell it again.  I don't know if I can be a hero, because I don't know how my story ends.

But Ares makes me feel better.  He told me he thought I was pretty heroic, but I think he's just being nice.  But it makes me smile right before I fall asleep.  He's in my dreams a lot now.

I'm starting to wonder if Captain Tavish is a bad man.  I always saw him as a lawful upstanding captain, and when I found out he was a member of the Bronze I was sure of his stance, but more and more I'm beginning to question him.  He seems angrier now, and his choices and actions are making less and less sense.

Well I suppose I need to tell you about the ogre mage we saw.  There was a bounty on ogres (huge, fat creatures) and we went to go thin their numbers because they are a danger to the city?  I'm not sure, but they hurt and kill people so it can't be too bad.  We didn't see any ogres at first (we fought an owlbear) but then we came across a dead ogre.  Kind of strange, but then Dorn seem to realize all at once what we were dealing with: a magical ogre.  An oni?

Just as he whispered that, it got real cold.  And then we heard an otherworldly shriek.  We opted to run and it gave chase.  I'm too slow because of my short legs.  Nikolai tried to pick me up but he dropped me.  It sounded like it was right behind us- I could feel its icy breath on my neck.  So I ran and hid.  I should have kept running but all I could do was hide.

Suddenly everyone else was hiding and all I could think was that they needed to keep running.  But then Ares was next to me.  I was so scared, grandma, that I was going to get Ares hurt.

Then we saw it.  I was chilled to the bone.  It was blue, grandma.  It had massive, saucer like yellow eyes.  And then it vanished.  I tried to get up to run but Ares stopped me.  It must've still been nearby?  I figured I'd draw its attention while they ran, but Dorn- ever the smart one, distracted it.  It chased after an arrow he fired.  Then we ran.  This time Nikolai successfully picked me up and we ran.

We escaped, and several members of the Bronze were there.  They saw it and I figured, "This is it!  Now we fight."  But we didn't.  And this is why I think Tavish is a bad man now.  The oni came into the city that night and killed an innocent.  Now surely we go hunt it!  But no.  Tavish told us explicitly not to engage it, and we'll deal with it in a couple days.  He wanted to keep us safe because it had found our rooms in the night.  But what can he possibly do against an invisible shapeshifter.  But if we go fight it- we are kicked out.  Why? 

Come to think of it, his Bronze members are always the ones that find us when it comes to the murders and the assassins.  He seems to know about things before they happen, and he responds to them as if he knew it was happening.

I think there is something going on.  But I'll write when I know more.

I love you grandma,

Donovan

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When I Fall Asleep Your Eyes Close

"My grandma used to tell me stories when I was young," Donovan began, pausing in his writing. "Every day before bed. All about the hero James Highwind. He would go on adventures and save pretty maidens. He was tall and strong and brave."

Ares looked down from where he sat on the low wall that ran along the side of the bridge, his feet dangling over the side above the gently flowing river. "He wasn't a halfling?"

"N-no," Donovan stammered. "There aren't many stories about halfling heroes."

"You should write some of your own. You're pretty heroic when you want to be."

"Not like you. You're a real hero. You wield fire and stare down monsters." Donovan sighed. "I'm just a halfling nobody."

Ares shook his head. "Give yourself some credit, Donovan. You fought an assassin one-on-one and lived. An assassin that was after me." He smiled broadly. "Sounds to me like I was saved by a hero."

Donovan blew out a breath and pulled himself up next to Ares on the ledge. "I can't be a real hero until I know what I'm fighting for."

Ares raised an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.

"I thought it would be fun," Donovan continued, "to go on adventures. To fight evil. To save pretty—" he paused, his face turning red, "—maidens. I'm not as brave as I thought."

He stared down at the water, blush still strong on his cheeks. Ares rested his hand on Donovan's. Waiting.

"I was writing a story," Donovan said in a rush. "My grandma told me it once. It was 'James Highwind and the Lost City'. It goes that there was a great war and some coastal towns were being attacked by pirates. In the end there is one last city—the Lost City—and the lord's daughter meets James Highwind and begs him for help.

"James convinces the capital to send help to the city, but the fleet won't arrive for a week. He finds clever ways to stall the pirates and sabotage their ships, but the pirates still arrive one day before the fleet from the capital. That last night, the city is bombarded by cannon fire. James instructs everyone to stand their ground and fight off the pirates because he knows that help is near. The lord had a clifftop castle, so James stood on the highest wall and held a flag aloft through the night. He stood there as the towers collapsed and the port was destroyed, holding the flag emblazoned with the crest of the Lost City. He stood there until dawn when the fleet arrived and defeated the pirates."

Ares still remained silent. He squeezed Donovan's hand, remembering how terrified the halfling had been in the crypt the day before. He glanced back at the river and the run-down cathedral beyond that seemed to hold Donovan's attention more than it should.

"I want to be like that," Donovan said quietly. "I don't think I'll ever be the bravest or the strongest, but I want to hold that flag and bring hope to people. I just don't know what's on my flag."

The visions from Ares's dreams come back to him then. He is always too late to save him, never sees the battle where Donovan faces down his enemies with a determined gaze and shaky hand, always arrives to find the halfling sprawled in the mud of the battlefield with the hilt of his broken sword still clenched in his fist and his green eyes clouded with death mist. And silence. A silence so complete that Ares can see the sound of his own breathing.

This is no place for you, and yet I cannot let you out of my sight.

"Why didn't he fight?"

Donovan jumped. "What?"

"James Highwind. Why didn't he fight with the people in the Lost City? He just stood there as the city was destroyed around him and people died in the streets."

Donovan shifted uncomfortably, moving his hand out from under Ares's.

"Flying your cause on a banner is fine, but if you're not willing to fight and die for it then it's just a picture on a piece of cloth."

"That's—"

Ares smiled suddenly. "Of course, I know that the narrative demands that James survive because there has to be another adventure. But a man who is willing to die for something is far more inspirational than one who stands above the hell of battle to inspire 'hope'.

"That's just what I think. But stories are far different from reality. They have to be."

Donovan grabbed his journal up again and stared at it for a long time. "I don't know what I'd die for," he murmured, his voice hitching. "I don't want to die."

Ares leaned back on his hands, eyes fixed on the horizon. Perhaps he had been too harsh. "No one wants to die, Donovan. I don't, but I would be willing to if it meant fulfilling my purpose."

Donovan's eyes were on him now. "What is your purpose?"

"To keep you safe." Ares answered without hesitation. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs. "To be honest, I was feeling lost before I met you. I didn't know who I was or what I was meant to do. But you've fought at my side even though you were afraid. You bring this sense of wonder to everything you do—"

He inhaled to say more, but breathed a shaky sigh instead, looking at his hands. "I don't want to lose you."

You are weak, Ares Lumen.

"I don't want you to get hurt any more," Donovan said, then paused for a moment, the blush returning to his face. "You make me brave. I can only do these things because you showed me how. I don't want to—lose you either." He twisted his hands in his lap, clearly embarrassed.

Gods, I'm pathetic.

Ares sat up and looped his arm around Donovan's shoulders, resting his forehead on Donovan's temple, lips inches from his ear.

"You're every bit the hero that James Highwind was," he whispered. "You've given me something to fight for, and there is nothing in this world that I won't do to keep you by my side. Remember that."

He pulled away all at once, hoping that Donovan didn't notice his own face turning red, and leaped off the wall in one fluid motion. "I think the others will begin to wonder if we've fallen in the river," he declared, bowing low and offering his hand to Donovan.

Donovan remained frozen in place for a moment more, then grasped Ares's hand and hopped to the ground, turning only to collect his journal.

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Chapter 4: Unwitnessed

Grandma,

I got bit by a vampire.  It bit the Djorn, too.  He pushed me out of the way when it tried to surprise us by jumping down.  It grasped onto Djorn, and when he finally broke free I was dumb enough to get grabbed next.  I stabbed it twice and it just glared at me.  

Nikolai says I won't turn into a vampire.  I was relieved.  I had to sit down for a while to rest.  The worst parts of getting into these fights was the beginning and end.  When you know the fight is coming you worry about whats gonna happen, who's gonna get hurt, who might die.  Afterwards you worry that you are alive because of sheer, dumb luck.  But at least I won't turn into a vampire.

It's getting easier though.  The actual fighting comes easier and easier.  You don't really have time to think, you just act.  Djorn is hurt, so we fight to help him.  Nikolai is being surrounded, so we work to free him.  Gesh is under a spell, so we break him out of it.  Its easy.  I can give myself over to the adrenaline.

Everyone is always so level headed.  We just fought against a wave of undead people (and ogres).  And afterwards I just want to sit down, but everyone else is onto the next challenge.  Gesh found a really cool rapier that he gave me, and I had to wonder which one of these dead people that it belonged to.

Ares always checks on me.  I don't want him to feel like he has to watch me like a kid, but I'm still really stupid.  Djorn is a good leader and Gesh is an excellent fighter.  Ares is a magical hero.  And me?  I get massive holes burned in me and fall into pits of burning, green acid.

We cleared the crypt though.  It felt good to reemerge into the sunlight.  James Highwind always had people who saw his heroics, but I don't think thats how the world works.  We stepped out one at a time, and then we just split up to run errands.  The adventurers life for me!

Ares and I are on the bridge where I met all these people.  He is really nice to me and I think he watches over me.  I feel better when he's around.  Sometimes I wish I was magic like Nikolai so that I could help him more.  I tried learning some magic but its hard and I'm not sure its for me.

We need to go meet Lord and Lady Highwater.  Sounds exciting.  Meeting Lords and Ladies is what heroes do.  

I love you grandma,

Donovan

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Where the Sun Beats, and the Dead Tree Gives No Shelter

"A storm is coming."

It is the same line I hear every night, nearly every time I close my eyes for longer than a few seconds. Sometimes my subconscious embellishes the situation: the storm is already here, howling, and all I can see is the outstretched hand of the cloaked figure in front of me. Sometimes it is just the words over and over, a constant chant in darkness.

That day had been wonderfully cool. An eastern wind was blowing, rustling the trees in full autumnal brilliance, and red leaves had fallen like soft rain.

This is different. It is blistering hot, and the trees are blazing like enormous torches against the blackness of the approaching storm clouds. The wind is harsh and filled with ashes and billowing smoke that smells like tar and flesh.

The man still stands a dozen paces away, motionless save for the dark cloak whipping around him.

"I decided to keep you conscious for it this time," he rasps, his voice almost drowned out by the roaring fires. I can hear screaming now. Dark figures run back and forth in a panic, flitting between flaming buildings like shadows.

"You should be proud—"

"What is this?" I cut him off. He pulls his hood back then, revealing something distinctly inhuman. His skin is rust red, one eye like bright amber, the other sunken into his skull and jet black. A grin stretches across his face, and he gestures to the devastation around us.

"This? This is your handiwork. What really happened after I tugged your power out of you. You're welcome for that, by the way." He winks.

"Who are you? Why are you showing me this now?" I think I am going to be sick.

"I have a proposal of sorts," he says, spreading his arms. "And timing is everything with this sort of thing, I've found."

The scene abruptly shifts, and we are standing in the middle of a battlefield. Bodies litter the grass, stained red, and the air is thick with the smell of blood.

"This is probably what your not-too-distant future looks like," the creature continues, and I begin to recognize some of the dead: Nikolai, curled in on himself, clutching his Kitmoor brooch, knuckles white even in death; Donovan, sword broken and eyes wide and unseeing. I find myself on my knees, and I close my eyes to keep from vomiting.

"You are weak, Ares Lumen." The voice is suddenly low, growling, and right in front of me. "And this will be the result of your weakness. But—"

I open my eyes to find him also kneeling in front of me. "But I can grant you power. Power enough to save them." He jerks his head behind him at my companions.

"Who are you?" My voice comes out in a quiet rasp.

He sighs. "I'm called Nichil, although you probably won't ever come across the name in any mortal literature. I hail from the Nine Hells, and fire," he holds his hand up and flames dance across his fingers, "is my speciality."

"You're a demon."

"Devil," he corrects, holding up a finger. "Don't lump me in with those cretins in the Abyss." Another wink. "So, what'll it be, 'mighty hero'?"

My eyes unconsciously find Donovan's lifeless ones, no longer sparkling with that relentless, contagious wonder that drew me in from the beginning and refuses to let go. I swallow, and turn back toward Nichil. "I accept."

******************

I awoke gasping, as if I had been holding in my breath all night. The room was deserted. Nikolai's bed was neatly made and Nixie's looked as though she had not slept in it at all. Pale sunlight filtered in through the thin curtains, bathing the room in a cheerful yellow glow. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and sat with my face in my hands, waiting for my heart to stop pounding in my ears.

******************

I found the others eating in the greatroom. Nikolai was chatting with Nixie, and Dorn had his nose buried in Master Liam's ciphered journal, as if they had not been lying cold and unmoving on a temple altar not a day before. I sat down across from Donovan, who made a show of pretending that he was not avoiding meeting my eyes. I watched Mustafa take a bite from his plate that looked as though it held every egg available in Kirtholde, then sat back and eyed Donovan again.

"So," I began, and he flinched, "you fought the other assassin and lived to tell the tale, then?"

Donovan grimaced like a child caught. "Well, yes, I suppose I did." He was still not looking at me.

I gave him a smirk. "Seems pretty heroic, if you ask me."

He sighed, shook his head. "This isn't how I thought it would be."

"It never is." Is all I could think to say then.

The stories never talk about pain, never mention the blood, the fear, the long nights lying awake and wondering if this is even worth it. No one wants to hear about it. All they care about is the happy ending, the mighty hero emerging victorious against all odds. They do not want to know how much the hero had to give up, how empty his victory seems after he has sacrificed everything for a cause that he is not even sure he believes in anymore. They do not care. All too keen to celebrate another crisis averted by an intrepid individual who slowly fades into obscurity as their attention drifts back to Why couldn't you have done more?

It is never enough.

I know now my power is not my own. I know now the extent of my insignificance. I know now my place in this world, groveling at the feet of apathetic gods—please help me, please bring them back, please grant me strength, please, please, please.

I cannot shield Donovan from the evils of this world. But I can keep him alive. I can keep all of them alive. I have sacrificed my soul for it, and I will sacrifice my life as well, if the gods will it so.

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Chapter 3: Life and Death

Grandma,

I was able to get the gnome and the human out of jail.  The pain was subsiding in my face and shoulder, and I was kind of ashamed to have them see it.  I lost my weapons, my armor was in tatters, my clothes were ruined, and I wasn't able to subdue the assassin.  I figured I'd do ask the Captain to outfit me again.  I think he could help me out, although I have been asking a lot of him.

We were walking there when there was a loud thunderclap.  The sky was clear, and I thought that was strange.  But I just wanted to talk to Captain and go to sleep.  The Captain wasn't home and we headed back to the inn.  There was another thunderclap, which seemed to be centered over the Temple to Ornkai.

I didn't want to go to the church.  Just looking at the building made my cut ache.  But I have to be brave.  As brave as I can be.  I'm still alive aren't I?  We knock on the front door and this old priest answered and said they were busy.  Something was happening inside and he ended up running back.  When I looked inside I could see that the adventurers within.  The young boy and the dwarf were on a table, gasping for breath.  Ares was within as well.

I couldn't breath all of a sudden.  Had they been killed?  Nixie and Mustafa walked inside but I just couldn't do it.  I didn't want him to see me like this.

I sat on the stairs and started reading the stories you had told me about James Highwind.  I wondered why he was never scared.  He was tall and strong and brave.  He went into dark caves and churches to fight the villains and save the maidens.  No one around him died.  His friends weren't murdered.  He was always there when his friends needed him.  He always showed up at the final moment.

What did James have that I didn't?  I think I know the answer.  He's not real.  You always told me that James was a man you met once, but I think even as a kid I knew you were making it all up.  Its real easy to be brave when you aren't real.

All of the adventurers came out.  Nikolai looked upset but relieved.  The dwarf looked tired but determined.  Ares walked out and saw me.  I saw him look relieved and then concerned.  I forgot that my face was a bloody mess, and I lied to Ares about it, but I know that he knew I was lying.

I don't want to die and I don't want any of them to die.  I don't want anyone to die ever again.  I can't stop shaking when I think about it.  But I'll be like James Highwind.  Its real easy to be brave when you don't tell them how scared you are.

I love you grandma,

Donovan

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